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"You said urgent. Here we are," Gavin Jarrod said as he preceded his oldest brother Blake into Christian Hanford's office Monday morning. Not a great way to start the week.
The attorney handling their late father's estate indicated the chairs in front of his desk and waited until Gavin and Blake sat. "I appreciate your coming in. Unfortunately, the news is not good."
Gavin shot a what now? look at his brother. "Not surprising since none of the news since our father's death five months ago has been good, beginning with him requiring each of us to put our lives and careers on hold and spend a year at Jarrod Ridge or we all forfeit our inheritance."
"This regards your project and the permits needed to build the new bungalow you've designed on the resort property."
Gavin tried not to let his frustration and resentment show. Leave it to their father to try to control their lives from his grave with posthumous demands.
"What's the holdup? It's November first. We need to get the foundations dug and poured before the ground freezes solid."
"You can't get the permits because the land isn't part of your father's estate."
"What?" Gavin and his brother exclaimed simultaneously.
Blake leaned forward in his chair. "The site is in the middle of Jarrod property. How can the family not own it?"
Christian pulled an aerial map of Jarrod Ridge from the file in front of him and slid it across his desk. He indicated an X on a five-acre tract outlined in red.
"This is where you wanted to build. When we researched the deed we discovered your grandfather transferred ownership of this plot to Henry Caldwell fifty years ago."
Gavin searched his brain for Caldwells and came up empty. He'd spent the first eighteen years of his life in Aspen, but he had no reason to know any of the locals anymore. He'd escaped the town and his domineering father when he'd left for college a decade agohe only returned when he absolutely couldn't avoid it. To say he and his father hadn't gotten along would be a gross understatement. "Who in the hell is Caldwell?"
"He owns the Snowberry Inn, a bed-and-breakfast here in Aspen that's been around as long as Jarrod Ridge."
"Why would our grandfather sell him a defunct mine?" The old mine had been Gavin's favorite hideout as a kid. He and his brothers had spent countless hours wandering through the tunnels, and in high school Gavin had taken girls there to make out.
"The real question is why would anyone want to buy it?" Blake countered. "There's not enough silver on the site to make extraction cost-effective."
"That's the interesting part. In my digging, I discovered
your grandfather didn't sell the acreage. He wagered it in a poker game. And lost it."
Surprise pushed the air from Gavin's lungs. "We'll buy it back."
Christian eyed him across the map. "Good luck with that. There are numerous letters in our files indicating that your father tried and failed to repurchase the land more than a dozen times over the years. Caldwell refused to sell."
Blake sat back in his chair looking more relaxed than he should given the revelation that had just blown their plans to hell and back. "The plans are already drawn for a high-security bungalow for the resort's A-list guests. The construction crews have been contracted and the materials ordered because we had no reason to expect a glitch like this. We'll have to choose another site."
"No," Gavin insisted. "If I'm condemned to waste another seven months here I'm not giving up on the only place on the estate that holds good memories for me. I'll convince Caldwell to sell."
One corner of Blake's mouth lifted. "You just want to do what Dad couldn't."
A smile tugged Gavin's lips. His brother knew him and his competitive streak too well. Gavin never had been good at passing up a challenge. "I wouldn't mind besting the old man. He'll probably roll over in his grave when I succeed."
"If you succeed," his brother cautioned.
"I will." Having older twin brothers who'd often teamed up against him had given Gavin a persistent streak that some called stubborn, but that same trait had taken him to the top of his field.
Blake pulled his wallet from his pocket and flashed a Ben Franklin, then laid it on the desk. Gavin caught a gleam of gold on his brother's finger. What in the hell was that? It couldn't be what he thought it was. But first things first. The mine. He'd deal with the new jewelry after they left Christian's.
"A hundred bucks says you won't," Blake challenged. "Dad might have been an uptight pain in the ass, but he was a shrewd businessman. If there was a way to get that land back, he would have found it."
Gavin shook his head and withdrew a matching bill. "You're on. If there's one thing engineering has taught me, it's that there's a solution to every problem. It's a matter of whether you're willing to pay the price. All I have to do is find Caldwell's price and that land will be ours."
"Hey," Gavin called out before Blake could climb into his car outside Christian's office. "What in the hell is that thing on your finger?"
Blake smiled, looking as satisfied as if he'd just finished a five-course gourmet dinner. "Samantha and I got married in Vegas."
Shock popped Gavin in the gut. "I thought you were there for work on your hotel."
"Not this time. We were there for our wedding and honeymoon. We're going to tell the family tonight."
"Are you out of your mind?"
Blake looked him dead in the eye. "Yes. With happiness."
"Samantha's been around for years and you never noticed her in that way before. In fact, you always said never mix business with pleasure unless you want pleasure to bite you in the ass."
Blake's skin reddened. "What can I say? I was a little slow on the uptake."
"You did this because you didn't want to lose her as your assistant, right?"
"Our romance started that way, but it's more than that now. I love her."
Gavin laughed. And then he realized Blake wasn't joking. His brother's expression was serious and more than a little sappy. "You're kidding, right?"
"No. Love is the only reason to take that step."
Not in Gavin's world. In his world love was something to avoid, like standing in front of moving trains or jumping off a bridge. "You're saying you love Samanthathe 'til death do you part kind of thing?"
"Yes, I am."
Blake looked happy instead of miserable. How had that happened? It didn't matter how, the euphoria wouldn't last long. His brother was as much of a workaholic as Gavin. Women hated that. And when they'd had enough solitude they packed up and left. "Is she pregnant?"
"Not that I know of, but I wouldn't mind if she were."
"Did you get a prenup?"
"I'm not worried about a prenup."
"Blake, I've never known you to be blind or stupid."
"And I'm not now. In fact, I'm seeing clearly for the first time. Samantha is the only woman I want and I trust her implicitly."
Poor deluded sucker.
"You'd risk it even knowing how crazy losing Mom made Dad?"
"I'd be just as crazy, maybe more so, if I were too much of a coward to try to make this work."
"I can't talk you into an annulment?"
"No." Blake wore his stubborn, don't-mess-with-me face. "And I'd suggest you back off. Remember, you like Samantha."
"As your assistant, yes, she's damned good at her job,
probably the best assistant you've ever had. But marriage?" He faked a shudder.
"Yes, marriage. You should try it."
No way. He and Trevor were the only ones who'd eluded pairing up in the past few months. Good thing he knew he wasn't susceptible. Otherwise he'd be worried. "I guess all I can do is wish you luck and tell you I'll be here when you need me."
"To pick up the pieces? I won't be needing those services."
"I know. Samantha is the one for me. The only one."
Gavin opened his mouth to continue the argument then swallowed the words. Blake was infatuated and probably brain-dead from getting laid well and often. Gavin wasn't going to be able to change his mind. The best he could do is hope like hell that when the marriage ended, Samantha wouldn't take a chunk of Jarrod Ridge with her.
The Snowberry Inn looked as homey as Jarrod Ridge was opulent, Gavin decided as he ran an assessing eye over the large Victorian after circling the block to appraise his opponent's property. Located in the heart of downtown, the B and B had a homey charm reminiscent of Aspen's silver mining boom in the 1880s, whereas his family's resort catered to affluent guests who demanded modern amenities and world-class service.
He pushed open the door of one of The Ridge's fleet of luxurious black Cadillac SUVs, and the irregular beat of an unskilled carpenter's hammer striking wood greeted him as he slid from behind the wheel. Glancing up and down the street, he surveyed the area, his breath fogging the chilly autumn air. The location couldn't be faulted. Guests could easily stroll to the shopping district's art galleries and designer boutiques
or to the upscale restaurants overlooking the Roaring Fork River.
A prime piece of valuable real estate and a relatively large parcel if the barns beyond the main structure were included.
He followed the winding walk through bare Aspen trees and leafy snowberry shrubs with their white fruits glistening in the afternoon sunlight. It seemed like a lifetime ago that he and his brothers had used clusters of the small berries as ammunition for their homemade slingshots whenever they'd stolen a few moments away from their father's eagle eye.
Though the B and B appeared structurally sound, the clapboards could use a fresh coat of forest-green paint. The butter-yellow railing wobbled slightly in his grip as he climbed the brick steps leading to the front porch. His offer would give Caldwell an influx of cash that would more than cover the cosmetic work.
Rather than ring the bell by the front door Gavin followed the banging sound around the wide covered porch spanning the front and side of the building, hoping to find Caldwell or someone who could direct him to the man. He found a red-coated, hammer-wielding female, kneeling with her back to him. A matching red toboggan capped long, dark curls winding down her back. Definitely not Henry Caldwell.
"Ow. Oh. Dammit," a feminine voice cried out. The hammer clattered on the floorboards.
The handywoman shot to her feet and spun around, clutching her left thumb in her right hand. Wide, bright blue eyes found his.
"Who are you?" Pain tightened her voice.
"Gavin Jarrod. Need some help?"
"Are you looking for a room?" She ignored his question.
"No. I'm here to see Henry Caldwell."
He automatically catalogued her assets. Early- to mid-twenties. Smooth, clear skin. Above average height and probably slender beneath the parka if her long, jeans-clad legs were any indication. In short, beautiful and worth getting to know better.
Then he appraised the problem, a half hammered-in nail, toenailing the railing to the column. Not an easy angle for an amateur. "Let me get that for you."
He bent and scooped up the hammerone too heavy for herand slammed in the nail with one swing. "There you go."
"Thanks," she offered grudgingly. Still holding her injured hand close to her body, she accepted the tool he offered with her other.
"Let me look at that." He grabbed her wrist and inspected her reddened thumb. The unpainted nail plate remained intact with no blood pooling beneath it.
The warmth of her soft skin heated his and did something wacky to his pulse rate. Single? Her ring finger was bare. He dragged his thumb over her palm.
With a quick hiss of her breath, she jerked away.
Too bad. He hadn't reacted that instantly to a woman's touch in a long time. "You've probably just bruised it. Work gloves would have offered a little protection."
Her eyes narrowed, drawing his attention to a thick fringe of black lashes that looked real. In fact, if she wore any makeup, it was the kind a straight guy couldn't see. "I couldn't hold the nail with gloves on. Is Henry expecting you? He didn't mention an appointment."
"I didn't make one." He'd wanted to catch the man off guard and perhaps get him to agree to sell on impulse.
"Are you selling something?"
"No. I didn't catch your name."
"I didn't throw it." She gathered the box of galvanized nails, her discarded gloves and the hammer. "Follow me."
She headed toward a back entrance and led him into a warm kitchen. The combined scents of pot roast and freshly baked bread made his mouth water and his stomach growl as he followed her down the center hall to the front parlor. "Wait here. May I tell him what this is about?"
"An old poker bet."
Her dark eyebrows dipped. "He owes you money?"
"No." And that was all she'd get out of him. No matter how attractive she might be he wasn't sharing personal business with herunless it was over dinner.
Her curious gaze slid over him, making him overheat under his ski jacket. "You don't look like one of his poker buddies."
"Then you are ?"
"Here on personal business."
She stood straighter, her chin snapping up. "I'll see if PoHenry's available."
Gavin hadn't dated since arriving in town, and watching her peel the knit cap off those thick, gleaming curls and then unzip her coat reminded his libido of the long dry spell. He visually tracked her until she turned a corner out of sight.
He'd definitely have to take this one to dinner. And then maybe to bed. His heart pumped faster in approval of the plan.
Unzipping his coat, he surveyed the room. Antiques. But not the kind a man would be afraid to sit on. Lace, velvet and flowery fabrics predominated. But not enough of the girly stuff to threaten his manhood. The inn wasn't bad. But it definitely wasn't competition for The Ridge.
"Are you related to the Jarrods of Jarrod Ridge?" she asked from behind him.
He hadn't heard her return. She'd shed her outerwear, revealing a purple turtleneck sweater clinging to a long, lean torso with curves in all the right places. Nice. And definitely worth pursuing. "Yes."
Her lips mashed together as if his reply displeased herdrawing attention to the fact that she'd added some gloss to her wide, red mouth. An encouraging sign. If she wasn't interested she wouldn't have bothered.
"My grandfather will be with you in a moment."
His plans sputtered and stalled like a faulty airplane engine. "Your grandfather?"
The revelation killed any chance he had of taking her on a date or to bed. With his relationship track record, he couldn't risk souring the sale with another romance wreck. Business came firstespecially family business. But perhaps after the deed had been transferred
He couldn't imagine going a year without sex, but he'd ended his last relationship two months before his father's death, and thus far none of the women he'd met at the lodge had tempted him like this one did.