Shay Walker watched the twenty-something man slap a cardboard coaster on the polished wooden surface in front of her. His long, sun-streaked hair hung about his shoulders in the careless style of a guy who snowboarded on the nearby peaks in winter and kayaked on the deep lakes in summer. “What can I get you?” he asked.
“A change in the calendar?” she murmured, looping the strap of her purse over the convenient hook on the underside of the bar. The small leather bag brushed her knees, bared by the new summer dress she wore. Though the late May evenings might still be cool in the Southern California mountains, Shay had opted for the filmy floral garment anyway. It was sleeveless, and the hemline was asymmetrical, nearly mini in the front and then flowing to midcalf in the back. It also revealed a minor amount of cleavage, which even in its relative modesty seemed to be captivating the bartender.
“Um, what?” he asked, his gaze slowly lifting from her chest to her face. “I don’t think I know that drink.”
“I was kidding,” she said. “How about a martini? Vodka. Straight up.” Though chardonnay was more often her order, tonight she needed a stronger beverage.
Birthdays didn’t bring out the best in her.
In no time, the boarder-slash-bartender slid the requested drink onto the coaster then watched as she picked it up and sipped. Tiny slivers of ice melted on her tongue and the alcohol pleasantly heated the back of her throat. Okay, she thought, as she took another swallow. Maybe this celebration wouldn’t turn out so bad after all.
“You here alone?” the guy on the other side of the bar asked.
“For the moment. I’m meeting a friend.” She glanced at the TV mounted above the glass shelves of liquor bottles, pretending a fascination with the news program playing.
Whether Boarder Dude would have taken the hint or not, she didn’t know. A waitress approached and fired off a long order that claimed his attention, allowing Shay to give up her pseudo-fascination with the consumer reporter’s fight to get a pothole filled in a city thousands of feet below the mountains.
She glanced around, taking in the adjacent restaurant. Exposed wood, an enormous chandelier made of antlers, warm lighting. People were dressed in peaks-and-pines chic, meaning they wore everything from denim to silk. A meal at the Deerpoint Inn’s grill had been her old friend Melinda’s idea. She’d recently moved to a tiny cabin a couple of miles from it and said she’d heard good things about the food.
Since the place was fifteen miles of winding mountain road from where Shay was currently living, in Blue Arrow Lake, she’d decided to book one of the inn’s six rooms in case the birthday blues triggered some over-imbibing. Thinking of the key already tucked away in her purse, she took a hefty swallow of her drink. No reason not to get all warm and fuzzy as soon as possible.
It beat the heck out of what she could have been doing tonight—sitting alone in a massive lakefront mansion. And didn’t that just sound whiny and pitiful? But it wasn’t her massive lakefront mansion—she’d always lived in much humbler abodes—and the house would seem much too empty without the presence of the teenager Shay was charged with looking after until the end of summer. For the previous three months, she’d been a governess of sorts for a girl who colored her hair inky black, who exclusively draped herself in dark, shapeless garments, and who walked around with the jaded air of a thousand-year-old vampire. It made for interesting times.
But the teen was otherwise occupied for the night. In a show of rare enthusiasm, she’d opted to attend the Hollywood premiere of a much-anticipated animated movie with Shay’s sister, her sister’s young son, and her sister’s fiancé. They would spend the night down the mountain, too.
So when Melinda called, suggesting a get-together, Shay had agreed.
The bartender strolled by and glanced at her glass, and she gave him the nod. Yes, sir, I’ll have another. She wanted more warm and fuzzy.
Birthdays were her bane not because her age upped a digit, but because the occasion reminded her of the circumstances of her conception. She wasn’t a Walker, really—not by blood. When strained finances had put a rift in Dell and Lorna Walker’s marriage, Dell had headed for a mining job in South America. Lorna’s subsequent affair with a wealthy visitor to the mountain resort area had ended when she found herself pregnant. But not long after Shay was born, Lorna’s husband returned to the States, reconciled with his wife, and accepted another daughter into the family as if Shay were his own. There were adoption papers somewhere to prove it.
Still, she’d always felt a step or two outside the family circle, even though her older brother, Brett, and her big sisters, Mackenzie and Poppy, had never once made her feel like only half their sibling.
She lifted the fresh martini and took a swallow. Maybe her throat was numb now, because the burn there was gone. Instead, the drink sparked a bright idea in her brain. She should locate those adoption papers! Frame and display them as a daily reminder that she was actually one of the Walkers. Legally, anyway.
With her parents deceased, however, she didn’t know how to find the documents. Maybe Brett would have a clue where to look, she thought, digging her phone from her purse. When he didn’t answer, she sent him a text, realizing her fingers were a little clumsy.
Another swallow of mostly vodka eliminated her concern over it.
She’d nearly drained the second martini when the phone buzzed in her hand. The display read Mel.
“Where are you?” Shay demanded through the device. “It’s my birthday and I’m all alone.”
“Your birthday’s tomorrow,” Melinda pointed out.
“Oh, yeah.” Shay had been going glum a whole day early. But that was okay, she decided, tilting back her head to shake the last drops of her drink into her mouth, because there was enough glum to spread across the calendar. Not all of her sibs could do cake and ice cream—their usual tradition—tomorrow so that was being postponed to yet another time.
Poor Shay. Poor Shay, who was not really a Walker.
“Uh-oh,” she said to Melinda, signaling the ’boarding bartender that she needed a refill. “You better speed over here, stat. I’m drinking martinis and getting morose.”
“Noooo.” Shay began to shake her head, then quit, because the movement made her dizzy. When had she eaten last?
“I’m sorry, but—”
“This was your idea, Mel. I need an un-no, a mun-mo…an un-moroser!” She finally spit out the made-up word with a note of triumph.
The bartender replaced her glass with a fresh one. She pointed at him with her free hand. “I bet you really tear it up when you’re shreddin’ the gnar,” she said, to express her appreciation of how he’d anticipated her need. “And you never biff, do you?”
“Are you talking to me?” Mel said in her ear.
“Nope.” Probably her friend didn’t understand snowboard lingo any better than Shay, but that didn’t stop her tonight. “That was to BB—Boarder Bartender.”
“Oh, dear.” Mel sighed. “You are drunk. And alone in a bar, where I can’t get to you.”
“Which I’m still waiting to hear what for.” Shay frowned. “How. I mean, why.”
“A wildfire has caused local road closures,” her friend said. “They’re diverting cars from the highway, too.”
Shay blinked, somewhat sobered by the news. Fire was a constant danger in their mountains. “Structures threatened?”
“Not so far. But the closed roads mean I can’t reach the inn…and you can’t get home, either.”
“I booked a room here.” She drew the martini closer, and, thinking of fire, took it up for a hefty swallow. “So’s all’s good.”
“You’re slurring,” Melinda said.
“I’ll order food. What goes with martinis?”
“Olives?” Mel suggested.
“Oh.” Shay inspected her glass. “Mine came with those twisty lemon peels.”
“I was kidding,” the other woman said. “Get something with protein. And order bread. That’s good to absorb the alcohol.”
“But I’m enjoying the alcohol,” Shay protested. Her gaze shifted to the TV screen as the bartender upped the volume. The picture was from a helicopter and showed the dark mountains and a glowing orange snake of flames. A shiver rolled down her back. Fire had taken a lot from the Walkers and she didn’t appreciate the reminder of it.
Again, she brought her glass to her lips, hoping to drown her discomfort.
“Shay?” her friend called.
“Oh.” She’d forgotten about Mel. “I wish you were here.”
“Me, too.” The other woman’s voice went stern. “Now promise me no more martinis.”
“Um…” Shay closed one eye to better inspect the clear liquid left in her glass. The yellow curl of peel was so delicate and pretty. Who needed olives? “No more martinis.” Maybe.
“And try to have some fun tonight,” her friend said. “That’s an order.”
Fun? All alone, and with no more martinis? That wasn’t the way to make Melinda’s command come true.
The volume of noise from the patrons of the Deerpoint Inn amplified as more of them became aware of the fire and tuned into the coverage on the TV over the bar. The manager struck a glass with a fork and when the voices around him died down, he announced which roads were blocked. New people trickled in, having been rerouted from the now closed highway. The long-haired bartender got busy filling drink orders as many guests figured out they likely wouldn’t be driving anywhere that night.
Trying to tamp down her nerves, Shay sipped at the last of the third martini, ordered a plate of chicken quesadilla appetizers, then threw caution to the wind and asked for another alcohol concoction.
Mel had told her to have fun, hadn’t she? When the front door of the restaurant opened once again, bringing with it the disconcerting scent of smoke, Shay didn’t hesitate to reach for her new glass.
She needed to block the fire from her mind.
A body slid onto the bar stool beside her. Shay looked over, the glance automatic, but her response was anything but.
As she took in the man on her right, it was as if a cold pail of water had been dumped on top of her head—an icy surprise. Following that, a rush of heat crept up from her toes all the way to the roots of her hair.
He was gorgeous.
And no boy, she thought, with a mental apology to BB, the boarder-bartender who had, after all, been so ably supplying her with vodka and a splash of vermouth. The newcomer was tall, his build rugged, with heavy shoulders and muscled arms, a broad chest, lean waist and strong thighs, all signaling a more than passing familiarity with manual labor. Linking his fingers on the bar, he ordered a beer, and Shay directed her gaze to his hands. They were big, too, and wide-palmed. She could see tiny white scars scattered on the tan skin.
Then, under the cover of her lashes, she took a second look at his face. At the same time, she tilted her head, just a little, as if trying to get a better view of the television and not his fine, fine features.
His hair was near-black, and looked like he didn’t care much for regular stylist appointments—or a comb for that matter. Someone had run their hands through it recently, Shay decided, and she could imagine a woman sinking her fingers into the thick stuff while giving him a soulful goodbye kiss. The man’s cheekbones were high, he had a straight blade of a masculine nose, and his lips were full.
Yes, definitely kissable, those lips.
His strong jaw was edged with just a hint of sexy, dark stubble.
She stifled the urge to fan herself, afraid to draw his attention. What would she say to someone like him?
And then, before she could redirect her eyes, his head turned. His gaze cut straight to her face.
Like a lion’s, his irises were golden. Also like a lion’s, they seemed preternaturally aware of the weaker creature—Shay—in the vicinity. The tiny hairs on her body lifted, her senses warning he was supremely aware of her tripping heartbeat and all the delicious warm blood rushing below her skin.
Though her belly fluttered, she remained as she was—frozen, and feeling like an impala just now singled out by the biggest predator on the savannah. One of his dark eyebrows winged up.
And Shay blurted out the first thing that came into her head. “I’m supposed to be celebrating my birthday tonight but my friend couldn’t get here.”
The corner of his mouth twitched as the second eyebrow joined the first. “Okay.”
“This is my third martini.” She gestured toward her current glass, then frowned. “Or my fourth.”
“I’ve had nothing to eat yet.” At that, she ran out of things to say. None of what she’d already shared, she realized, gave any rational explanation for why she’d been staring at him. Damn.
“Is it a four-martini birthday, then?” he inquired conversationally. He murmured thanks as his beer was placed before him. His gaze turned assessing. “I can’t imagine it’s one of the more painful ones.”
“Oh, um, well.” She shifted her attention to her drink and drew it closer. “Maybe it’s the fire.”
“Aren’t we safe?” He sipped from his beer. “The highway patrol seemed to know what they were doing when they shuttled me in this direction. They said I might be stuck here for as little as a few hours, though possibly longer.”
“We’ll be fine.” There was no need to pass along her skittishness. “The fire protection people and the other authorities have a lot of experience.”
Her quesadillas arrived and the smell of them tickled her taste buds. She could feel the man at her side eyeing them with interest. Enough interest that she felt compelled to offer, “Help yourself. There’s too much for me to eat all by myself.”
“Go on,” she said. “We’re fellow refugees of a sort, after all.”
There was another moment’s hesitation, then she saw his hand reach toward the platter. She pushed half the tall stack of paper napkins that had been delivered with the food toward him.
What she didn’t do was look him in the face again. Just his hands were stirring her up.
Never before had she found a man so attractive, Shay thought. She wasn’t a nun; she’d dated and had been in a couple of longish relationships. But one-night stands were on her Not Ever list.
Living in a small, tight-knit community meant that everyone knew everyone’s else’s business. Since Shay was the product of an extramarital affair and the father of her sister Poppy’s son had hightailed it at the words positive pregnancy test, there was more than enough Walker tattle for people to tittle over. Shay had never been tempted to add to it with a casual hookup.
Not that the man on the next stool was in the market for a hookup with her. He could have anyone. Though he didn’t wear a ring, for all she knew he was married to the most beautiful woman on the planet. The one who had disordered his hair during that juicy farewell kiss.
“Hey, birthday girl,” the man at her side said. “You really are down in the dumps, aren’t you?”
She risked a look at him. Whoa. Still unbelievably handsome. His golden gaze swept her face, dropped just briefly, then came back up to meet her eyes.
That was good, because her nipples were tingling as they tightened into hard buds just from that quick glance. With masterful effort, she resisted squirming on her seat.
He was still staring at her expectantly and she couldn’t help but notice the faint white lines radiating from the corners of his eyes. Clearly he spent a lot of time outdoors squinting into the sun. They could be laugh lines, she supposed, but he didn’t look like the type who succumbed to hilarity on a habitual basis.
A question, she remembered now, as he continued staring. He’d asked a question. “Um…” Clever or charming was really beyond her at this point, whether it was due to the martinis or his rampant masculinity. “I really don’t like my birthday,” she confessed.
“That’s too bad. No good memories about it whatsoever? Not one?”
Shay’s brow furrowed as she thought back. “I had a pony party when I was eight. We went out on a trail ride and at the end my dad barbecued and my mom served a cake in the shape of a horseshoe.”
“Sounds like fun.”
“It was.” She smiled a little. “When I was thirteen I had a pajama party. My older sisters treated me and my friends to facials, manicures, and cosmetic makeovers. That year, the cake was shaped like a tiara.” Also fun.
“So, when did the day go from tiaras to tragedy?”
The very next year, when she was fourteen. It was the year her father died and at her birthday party one of the guests had whispered loudly to another that Shay was a bastard and her mother a whore. Though that mean girl had been summarily sent home, in that moment Shay had become very self-conscious of who she was and who she wasn’t.
Not that she would tell the stranger all that. So she shrugged instead and turned the tables on him. “What about your birthdays? Pizza and laser tag? Cakes shaped like footballs or Super Mario?”
“We didn’t celebrate birthdays in my house.”
Shay’s eyes rounded. “What?”
“My mom was gone early…I don’t remember her. My father, a former Marine, was a hard man. At my house, the showers were cold, Christmas was just another day, and the date of your birth was only something to put on a medical form or a job application.” He said it all matter-of-factly, no shred of self-pity in his tone.
Shay stared at him a moment. Then she swiped up her martini glass and swiveled forward in her seat, unsure how to respond.
“I’m sorry.” He sounded genuinely apologetic, not to mention a trifle embarrassed. “Too much information, right?”
His discomfort eased hers. She threw him a little pretend glare as she took another sip of vodka. The look was ruined by the hiccup that bounced up her throat. As she swallowed it back down, she caught sight of the corner of his mouth kicking up in that small, amused, and very attractive smile of his.
She tossed another brief glare in his direction.
“Okay, Birthday Girl, what’s wrong now?”
“What’s wrong, he asks?” she said, shifting to face him while rolling her eyes. “I was into my four-martini, poor-me birthday routine, though still sharing my appetizer, you’ll recall, when you released the air from my gloom balloon by telling me about cold showers, no Christmas, and a complete lack of birthday cake.”
“Gloom balloon?” He started laughing, husky and low, showing a wealth of even white teeth. The sound of it rolled over her like honey.
She was so over being intimidated by his good looks, she told herself as she sucked down the rest of the vodka in her glass. You could be gorgeous and built and have the world’s most powerful-looking hands and the warmest surprise of a laugh, but if you’d never had birthday cake…well.
That had to be fixed immediately, she decided with half-drunken logic.
‘Boarder Bartender—in his own immortal words—was “down with that.” Mere minutes after her whispered aside, a server came from the kitchen bearing a big hunk of chocolate cake topped with a lighted birthday candle. As the room erupted in song, Shay realized she didn’t know his first name.
“Jay,” he said over the loud singing. There was a bemused grin on his face. “You’re crazy, you know that?”
And maybe she was. Or maybe it was the vodka. Whatever the reason, she felt reckless and carefree as they both cozied up to the bar around the piece of multilayered cake. He tried to tell her he didn’t like sweets, which caused her to roll her eyes again, and him to let loose another round of that rough-warm laughter.
They dueled forks for the last bite of cake.
Jay ordered another round of quesadillas, so she had more to eat to counteract the effect of the martinis. The night wore on, the crowd around them drinking freely while Shay switched to sparkling water. From somewhere, the management dredged up a motley collection of games. It didn’t surprise Shay that the king of the jungle snagged the only deck of cards for the two of them.
It was useful to have a predator at her back.
“You would have been good on the Titanic,” she mused.
Lifting those golden eyes from the cards he was shuffling, he glanced around. “Is that what this feels like?”
Shay looked, too. In one corner, some men were playing dominoes with ruthless concentration. In another, a group of middle-aged women, with a bouquet of now empty wine bottles working as the centerpiece for their table, launched into a rendition of Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies.”
“Hmm, maybe Rick’s Café from Casablanca?” Shay suggested.
“I guess I’d rather be Bogie than the kid who turns into an ice cube.” Then Jay dropped his hand to her bare knee and gave it a brief squeeze. “So…what should we play?”
Shay stared down. The large palm and long fingers covered her skin like a warm and slightly raspy blanket. The calluses were a workingman’s, just as she’d guessed. Though she supposed she might still register fairly high on the tipsy scale, the alcohol hadn’t desensitized her flesh. It prickled in reaction to his touch, hot chills rushing from the point of contact northward. Involuntarily, her thighs pressed together, prolonging the small thrilling ache she felt between them.
“Birthday Girl?” he called again.
Her gaze moved up to his. His golden eyes studied her face. She felt it like another touch, a fingertip, maybe, following the arch of her eyebrows and the profile of her nose. He looked lower, and her lips started to tingle, her mouth going dry inside.
Her tongue snaked out to her lower lip.
Jay jerked, his attention jumping from her face to the cards. His hand moved from her and he began dealing them out.
The sexual hum in her body did nothing to help her brain. It only muddled her thinking, which meant while she should have been edging away from him or sliding off the stool altogether and making tracks for her room, instead she leaned closer, her shoulder bumping his.
She intended it in a friendly way, but the tap became kind of a rub, and when he glanced at her there was another charged moment of energy passing between them. An exchange.
A sexual exchange.
Wow, she thought again. He was the most beautiful, masculine man she’d ever met. Her sister’s fiancé, Ryan, was classic-cinema-star handsome—when you looked at him you thought you should have some popcorn on hand. Watching him breathe was pure entertainment.
With Jay, it was different. Shay wanted to watch him move. Or better yet, move things. Do things. He was a man made to operate a forklift or lay railroad ties or rig a suspension bridge.
He’d separated the cards into two piles, one of which he slid toward her. When she gathered them closer, their fingers touched. Again, Jay flinched.
The sexual spark stung her, too.
“What are we going to play?” she asked.
He gave her a grim look. “War.”
Shay sighed. She could have told him it wasn’t going to work. It was completely clear to her, even after chocolate cake, quesadillas, and martinis.
There was no way to battle this pull between them.
And at this point, she didn’t want to.
With another forbidding glance, he slapped down the first card. A deuce.
Hers was a king.
Several minutes later, when the game was over and all the cards were piled in front of Shay, she began to stack them neatly.
“Round two?” he asked. There was a tense note to his voice.
Likely because he thought they’d have to sit here all night playing cards instead of having another kind of round two…around dawn.
In her room at the inn.
They could do that, though, couldn’t they?
Her heart started beating faster and she could feel her pulse thudding in her throat and at her wrists. She’d never propositioned a man before…but now she wanted to. Really wanted to, and hadn’t she promised Mel she’d have fun? Glancing at the clock on the wall, she noted it was after midnight.
It truly was her birthday now. “You know, there are rooms here…” she began.
His gaze was trained on her face. She had the impression he was counting each and every one of her eyelashes. “I was told there’s no vacancy,” he said.
Shay’s hand crept toward her purse, still hanging on the hook. From it, she pulled out the plastic key card, which she placed on the bar’s surface and then slid toward the man at her right. He was turned toward her on his stool, his elbow on the bar. “I reserved the last one,” she whispered.
Hesitating, she ran her gaze over his rugged shoulders, his wide chest, his powerful thighs. If she scooted closer, she’d be between his legs, surrounded by him. Closer to the clean scent that she’d been aware of for hours.
Shay cleared her throat and reminded herself she was due a present. “The bed’s big enough for two.”