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Christmas had all but exploded in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Wreaths adorned with big red bows and holly berries hung from doors and windows, lampposts and storefronts were strung with sparkling white lights. Holiday music played inside and out, and everywhere Cole Foster looked, peopleresidents and tourists alikewere literally glowing with cheer.
There were a few, he noted, who walked quickly, either because they were used to the frenetic pace of a larger city or because they were intent on reaching their destinations after a full day of shopping, skiing, or both. Still others chugged along the sidewalks slowly, enjoying the sight of Steamboat Springs dressed in its Christmas best.
The locals, on the other hand, fell somewhere in between, neither rushing nor dawdling, yet obviously focused on going home or getting to work. Typically, Cole fell into this group, especially after a long, busy day dealing with the ins and outs of managing the sporting goods store his family owned. Today, however, he wasn't going home.
He stopped and shoved his hands into his coat pockets, breathed in a deep lungful of fresh, cold December air and took a moment to gather his bearings. Thick, fat snowflakes dropped lazily from the sky, enhancing the appearance of the perfect Christmas village. It was, he admitted, a beautiful night.
The weight didn't lift from his shoulders, though. Nor did the anxious adrenaline pummeling through his blood abate. Hell, this year, he had more in common with the Grinch than he did with jolly ole St. Nickand he had no one to blame but himself.
He'd waited too long to act on his feelings, and while there were reasons for his slow-footed approachvalid reasons, dammittoo long was, at the end of the day, still too long. And now, Rachel Merriday might have gone and fallen in love with someone else.
So yup, the merry had been sucked clean out of Cole's Christmas.
Ironic, really, at the timing. For months, he'd thought about Rachel's visit, about how he was finally going to broach the "taboo" topic and put their past behind them. So maybe, just maybe, they could return to what they were beginning to share before the accident that had changed everything.
Four years agohad it really been that long?his entire future looked bright. His career in downhill skiing was speeding along, his relationship with Rachel was starting to turn the corner from the friendship they'd always had to something moresomething deeper. One fallone disastrous fallhad ended not only his career, but the aftereffects had sent Rachel running.
Shouldn't have been a surprise. Rachel's first instinct when anything skewed off-balance was to get the hell out of Dodge. Hadn't he seen her bolt time and time again throughout the years? Yep, he sure as hell had. Just not with him. So when she had, that bit in hard. Real hard.
Unfair, perhaps. He still didn't know exactly why Rachel hadn't stayed, hadn't stuck with him when his world shredded apart. Oh, she'd called. Sent care packages and notes of encouragement, but she hadn't been physically present throughout his year of rehab, or for the time it took to get his head screwed on straight again.
In fact, she hadn't returned to Steamboat Springs until last Christmas, when they'd somehow managed to breach the gap and reestablish their friendship in person. It had been too soon to dredge up the pasttheir one and only kiss and the words they'd each said the night before the accidentso he'd waited until this year. Until this Christmas.
Except, a little over a week ago, Rachel had called to inform him that she wasn't coming to Steamboat Springs alone for the holidays. Nope. She was bringing a man with her. A man she deemed might be "the one." Just that fast, all of Cole's plans had disintegrated into dust.
He inhaled another breath and walked on, nodding at and greeting those on his path to the coffee shop. When he arrived at the Beanery, he paused again and glanced inside the windows, in search of a woman with long blond hair and bright blue eyes.
Nope. She wasn't here yet.
Cole pushed open the door and was hit by a blast of heat, the scent of fresh brewed coffee, cinnamon rollsthe Beanery's specialtyand the sound of voices mixed with more freaking Christmas music. What he wouldn't give to hear Mick belting out "Satisfaction" or "Start Me Up" instead of yet another rendition of "Jingle Bells."
A few of the regulars called out to him as he took his place in line. Again, he responded to each with a nod and a smile but didn't initiate further conversation. Rachel would be here soon, and Cole needed every minute between now and then to prepare himself.
The line moved slowly, as Lolathe owner of the Beanerychatted with each and every customer as if they were her best friend. Beyond the cinnamon rolls, the warmth and camaraderie Lola offered was a large reason why the Beanery was always chockfull of people, even during the few months of the year the town wasn't overrun by tourists.
Usually, Cole enjoyed talking with Lola as much as he enjoyed her cinnamon rolls, but today all he wanted was to get his coffee and escape to an empty table. Preferably one with an unobstructed view of Lincoln Avenue, where he could wait in relative peace for Rachel and "the one," and catch a quick glimpse of them before they saw him.
Body language often told the truth about the state of a couple's relationship. Cole was hoping to see a mile-wide distance that would negate the possibility that "the one"otherwise known as Andrew Redgravemight be raring up to propose.
Frankly, the thought made Cole sick to his stomach. Yeah, he'd waited too long to speak his peace, and nowwell, now he might lose Rachel before hetheyever really had a chance.
"What will it be today, Cole? Your normal black coffee and a cinnamon roll?" Lola's chipper, somewhat twangy voice interrupted his thoughts. "Or are you in the mood for something fancier for once? Maybe a peppermint mocha or an eggnog latte?"
"Coffee is supposed to taste like coffee, not peppermint or eggnog," he pointed out, taking in the snowmen dangling from her earlobes, the oversize Santa hat pinned to her bottled-red hair and the blinking, multicolored necklace of lights she wore. He grinned. Lola was a character, no doubt about it. "Just the coffee today, I think. Had a late lunch."
Squinting in surprise, Lola grabbed one of the Beanery's bright orange mugs. "Never known you to say no to one of my cinnamon rolls, late lunch or not. You feeling okay?"
"Yup, just not hungry," Cole said quickly. "You know how it is this time of year."
Curiosity lit Lola's gaze, but she nodded and poured his coffee. Cole bit his lip to stop himself from over-explaining. Lola was one of his mother's best friends, and if she suspected anything was amiss, she'd be on the phone to Margaret Foster in the blink of an eye. In another blink, his mother, father, brothers and sister would descendeach determined to discover what the problem was so they could go about rectifying it. Whether Cole wanted their help or not.
"Here you go." Lola slid his coffee across the counter, along with a wrapped-to-go cinnamon roll. "For later, when you're hungry again. My treat."
"Thanks." Arguing, Cole knew, would be pointless. He handed her a few bills to cover the cost of the coffee. "I'll save it for breakfast."
"Your mom was in earlier today," Lola said as she rang up the purchase. "She's ordered several dozen of these for Christmas Eve. I hear you have family coming in for the holidays?"
"Yup. The entire Oregon side of the family, babies included." All three of his Foster cousins were now settled down and, from what his mother had said, blissfully happy. Good for them. "Thanks again, Lola."
After dropping a handful of change into the tip jar. Cole made his wayfinallyto a table. Ten minutes, more or less, until he saw Rachel. And Andrew, of course. He couldn't forget about Andrew, though he'd tried his damnedest to do just that.
Rachel had sent him a text when her plane had landed. That had been a little after noon, so she and Andrew had been in Steamboat Springs for about six hours. Her parents weren't in town at the moment, which meant that Rachel and "the one" had spent an entire afternoon ensconced in her family's vacation home. Probably cuddled together in front of a blazing fire with wine and
Cole rubbed his temple and tried to remove the forthcoming image.
He swallowed a gulp of coffee, tuned out the blasted Christmas music and stared out the window. In the time it had taken him to get his coffee, the snow had grown heavier, the light sheen of fluff now covering the streets and sidewalks getting thicker by the minute.
The sight combined with his melancholy state-of-mind took him back in time, to the day he'd first met Rachel. He was eleven, she was ten, and a bunch of the local kids were messing around over at the school playground. Cole and his two older brothers, Reid and Dylan, were involved in one of their massive snowball fights when the mother of all snowballs crashed into the back of Cole's head, sending him sprawling face-first in the snow.
His brothers stood there like statues, their mouths hanging open in shock. Cole pulled himself up with a snowball ready to go, pivoted and saw
her. Pink cheeks, huge sky-blue eyes and short, wispy blond hair that stuck out around her face like a newborn chick's feathers.
A rich kid, based on the fancy boots, coat and car parked behind her. Scowling, Cole lowered his snowball. His family owned businesses that catered to the tourists. Ticking off this girl's parents wouldn't please his folks, and he'd learned that rich-kid tourists didn't take well to being one-upped by the local kids.
It irked him that he couldn't retaliate. Being laid out by a girl wasn't cool, and Reid and Dylan would be merciless in their teasing later. Their sister, Haley, upon hearing the story, would go on and on about how much better girls were than boys, and wowwouldn't that suck?
Still, he followed his common sense and shrugged it off, as if the dumb girl and her snowball meant less than nothing. His eyes had locked with hers, and she'd given him this spunky, I-win sort of grin that made him even madder, so he turned his back to her.
Seconds later, Cole was kissing the snow again. This time, his brothers broke into laughter. That alone was enough to force Cole into action. Sputtering, he flew to his feet and let his snowball fly. She staggered backward when it smacked her on the chin, but stayed upright. He expected her to stomp her feet and throw a hissy fit, to run to the safety of her car and burst into tears to whomever sat inside.
But she didn't. She smiled broadly, and in almost slow motion, pulled another snowball from behind her back and whipped it through the air, hitting not him, but his brother Dylan square on the chest. That had been the start of their friendship.
For the next many years, Rachel and her parents spent the holidays and the occasional summer in Steamboat Springs, and their friendship grew stronger as they grew older. During their teenage years, they began to stay in touch throughout the months in between her visits, and once they were in collegeand afterthey found ways to spend time together on a more consistent basis.
Always as friends, though. Until that last year. Until the kiss, the accident and the hell that followed. Cole's gut tightened at the memory. Hell, had he turned into a sixteen-year-old girl? The past was the past, and dwelling on what had happened, versus what might or might not have happened, did him absolutely no good in the present.
A tingling sense of awareness snapped into place. Cole shifted to the right to get a better view and, yep, there she was, crossing the well-lit street with her arm linked in a man's. For a millisecond, he forgot everything else as he watched her long-legged, slender body in motion. Her middle-of-the-back-length blond hair blew around her face, the strands merging with the swirling snow, creating the image of a mythical snow princess.
His heart did the galloping lurch to his throat, and his blood seemed to warm beneath his skin. God, he'd missed her. Even more than he'd realized. He gave himself another few seconds to enjoy the simple pleasure of just seeing Rachel again. She was as beautiful as always.
The manAndrewtipped his head to her level and whispered in her ear. Her lips opened in a silent laugh, and she bestowed a light kiss on his cheek. Something primal roared to life inside of Cole, reminding him of what was at stake, and it was all he could do to stay seated.
Narrowing his eyes, he now focused all of his attention on Andrew.
He was tall, but not as tall as Cole. Stupid and meaningless, for sure, but that pleased him. He walked in a smooth, polished gait that spoke of authority, and his black Burberry trench screamed style and wealth. Not a surprise. Rachel came from style and wealth and everything that lifestyle granted, so why wouldn't the man she decreed might be the one?
That didn't bother Cole. What did was how good they looked together. He supposed he could hope there was something wrong with Andrew
some ulterior motive buried behind his interest in Rachel. She'd been involved with men before who were more interested in her family's wealth and her father's business connections than they were in her.
Somehow, though, Cole's intuition told him that wasn't the case here, even though he hadn't yet spoken one word to Andrew. If there was somethinganythinggoing on that could potentially hurt Rachel, Cole would ferret it out. More for her sake than his. Not that he wouldn't use any such information to his advantage, because he would. Without doubt or hesitation.
He supposed he could also hope that Rachel would bolt, as she had with him and other relationships over the years, but wishing for that felt wrong. Cole wanted her to be happy, and that wouldn't happen until she'd figured out that running away never solved a damn thing.
The couple stopped outside the window. Andrew pulled Rachel close for a kiss that reignited Cole's mental images of how they might have spent their afternoon. Cole swallowed, squeezed his hand tight around his coffee cup and waited the interminable seconds until they separated. Rachel said something, laughed again and tugged Andrew toward the door.
It took every bit of willpower that Cole could muster, but he had his smile warm and welcoming when they entered the coffee shop. Rachel squealed, dropped Andrew's handwhich, yeah, also pleased Cole to no endand flew toward him for a hug.
Standing, he opened his arms and caught her when she landed. Pulled her in tight to him and squeezed. Her scent, a delicious mix of spice and fruit and winter, wrapped around him, securing the knowledge that Rachel belonged in his arms.
Soft hair, damp from the snow, brushed his jaw as she whispered. "I'm so happy to see you. It's been too long."
"Good to see you, too," he said. "And it's always too long."
She stepped out of his arms and turned toward Andrew to introduce them. Her pretty blue eyes softened and a glow entered them that Cole had only seen once beforein the seconds before their solitary kiss. Well, hell. So far, nothing was adding up the way he'd hoped.
Widening his smile, as fake as it might be. Cole reached out to shake Andrew's hand. A faint smirk colored Andrew's expression, but he met Cole's hand with his own andsurprising Colesqueezed a tad harder than required. And then, harder still, as if out to prove his machismo.
Immature, possibly, but Cole wasn't about to ignore the challenge. He tightened his hold incrementally, smiling all the while, knowing he could outlast just about anyone in the handshake wars. It took all of fifteen seconds, maybe twenty, before Andrew gave up and released his grip.
Score one for the home team.