Poppy Walker pushed open the door of Johnson’s Grocery, wiped the soles of her scruffy boots on the non-skid mat, and mentally reviewed the list of ingredients she needed to lift the family curse.
Someone hailed her from the back of the store, where a butcher’s case held fancy cuts of grass-fed beef, stuffed breasts of duck and free-range chicken, as well as fillets of salmon preprepared for grilling. The store was small—real estate in this Southern California mountain resort area went at princely rates—but the narrow aisles were packed with gourmet foods, expensive liquor, and fancy wines. Everything and anything a filthy rich Los Angeleno couldn’t do without during a getaway to what was known as “Hollywood on High.”
One end cap displayed a selection of expensive children’s toys, everything from miniature fishing rods to expansive LEGO sets for snowbound weekends. Looking at them, Poppy’s heart squeezed, sending a rush of tender longing through her veins. Mason, she thought, picturing her five-year-old, who soon would be squealing with delight under the Florida sun, whirling in teacups or flying with Dumbo. Mason, I miss you so much.
The only man she’d ever love was going to be gone for ten more interminable days.
It was why she’d decided to keep herself busy by eradicating the family curse.
She grabbed a plastic shopping basket the color of her son’s favorite—no, don’t think of Mason, she reminded herself as her chest once more constricted. He’s having the time of his life and you need to learn to let go a little. Kindergarten in just six months!
At the sound of her name, she glanced over, grateful for the distraction. “Hey, Bill.” Bill Anders was a scarecrow of a man, and wore a bibbed, crisp cotton apron with the store’s name stitched on the front, most likely by his wife. She had an embroidery business in addition to the daycare she ran. Like many people who lived in the mountains year-round, the Anderses cobbled together a living out of more than one line of work.
“Heard Mason went to Walt Disney World with your cousin James.”
“That’s right. James and Deanne wanted company for their own little guy on a visit to Deanne’s parents. When Mason heard the magic words ‘Mickey Mouse,’ I could hardly say no.”
“Heard too that you got laid off from the inn. Sorry for it.”
“Thanks,” she said, hiding her grimace by stepping past the shopkeeper on her way to the fresh fruits and vegetables. Of course news traveled fast when you lived in a tight community like Blue Arrow Lake. She knew how this worked, didn’t she? People had been in the Walkers’ business—and they in everyone else’s, she supposed—since the logging family’s arrival in the mountains over one hundred and fifty years before.
But Poppy had felt her friends’ and neighbors’ interest in a more up-close and personal fashion. Collective eyebrows had lifted and noses had twitched when she’d found herself pregnant by a summer visitor who’d skedaddled back to his moneyed family in Beverly Hills the minute she’d informed him of the test results. Though the truth was, Poppy minded less people gossiping about her sex life than them knowing she’d been dumb enough to fall for a rich and careless man.
Her mother had made a similar mistake before Poppy. Though she couldn’t wish her half-sister Shay had never been born.
Nor did Poppy regret one moment with Mason.
She mouthed his name, her heart hurting all over again.
Then she straightened her shoulders. Think of something else, she commanded herself, as she stepped up to the tiered rows of produce, glistening from a recent misting. Think of getting rid of that damn curse.
“Sage,” she murmured to herself, inspecting the selection of fresh herbs. Pulling a bunch of the gray-green leaves from the stack, she frowned at the price. There wouldn’t be a paycheck from Inn Klein until it reopened July 4th after the big remodel, and the aromatic was expensive. As a rational woman, Poppy didn’t, of course, completely buy into the idea she could eradicate any negative energy at the cabins. But—
She was desperate.
Wincing at the mental admission, she dumped the herb into her basket and started her hunt for rock salt. The family’s last original tract of timberland now hosted a dozen cabins that had been abandoned for too many years. One she’d been living in with Mason. The others—over the dire predictions of her brother Brett, her older sister Mackenzie, and her younger sister Shay—Poppy was going to rehab. By summer, she planned they’d be available as weekly vacation rentals. Already a second cabin was in decent shape and with a fingers-crossed kind of optimism, she’d put up notices on the community bulletin boards around town, including the one here at Johnson’s.
Despite the opinion of her pessimistic sibs, Poppy was determined to prove to them that the Walker albatross could be turned into an eagle after all.
The cowbell tied to the store’s front door clattered, jogging Poppy’s memory. The guide to the cleansing ritual she’d read on the internet suggested using some kind of sound instrument. Could she maybe borrow Walt’s bell?
She glanced toward the door.
Her guard instantly jerked up. From twenty paces she recognized the man standing on the mat. She didn’t know his identity—that was well-hidden by a watch cap pulled low on his forehead, the fancy Wayfarers that covered his eyes, and the dark scarf wrapped around his neck that almost completely obscured his mouth—but she knew his type.
She’d bet the scarf was cashmere and that those sun specs retailed for five-hundred bucks or more. The waterproof jacket and boots came from a high-end store that catered to “outdoorsmen” who spent their summer days sipping martinis on the terraces of their lakeside mansions while watching their fancy boats bob up and down at their private docks. They whiled away winter nights beside fires built by other hands, eating meals prepared by personal chefs brought up from L.A. The wine in their glasses would cost more than Poppy’s monthly paycheck from running the front desk at Inn Klein.
“Can I help you, sir?” A round-faced teen, all perky ponytail and freckled nose appeared at his elbow.
“Just stopping in for a few things,” the man said. His voice was low, but it carried easily. Poppy noticed the accent—Eastern European perhaps?
Maybe one of the new moguls that had taken up residence at what was now known as “Silicon Beach,” L.A.’s own hotbed of industry that was rivaling the famed valley in northern California as the place to do tech. While she stared, his head turned her way. His hand lifted, tipping up his sunglasses.
Their gazes met. Poppy’s heart jolted. His eyes were a scorching shade of blue, the color that edged the blades of magical swords in fantasy novels or that you could find at the innermost core of fire. Her temperature climbed, heat radiating from the center of her chest and reaching upward to warm her face. It was embarrassment, she thought, still unable to look away. Because it probably appeared to him she was ogling instead of…instead of passing judgment.
Sue her, she didn’t trust men like this. Didn’t want to be around them more than she could help in a region that catered to the over-the-top affluent.
That thought got her feet moving again. She gave her back to the stranger, only half-listening as the clerk chattered to him about the store specials—veal cutlets and cheesecake baked by the teen’s own talented mother—and the big March storm the weather service was predicting.
Poppy smirked at that as she added the rock salt and a small bunch of daisies to her basket. The only thing predictable about spring weather in the mountains is that it was changeable. Her brother said it was like a cranky woman deprived of chocolate but since he’d been short-tempered himself since returning from his service with the 10th Mountain Infantry Division, she and her sisters just rolled their eyes at him.
Behind his back.
Looking for candles, she turned a corner, almost plowing into the stranger. She drew back to avoid contact, swaying on her feet. He reached to steady her, but she took a staggering step to the rear, instantly sure to her bones she shouldn’t be touched by him.
His hand dropped and he muttered something foreign-sounding under his breath. Ducking her head, Poppy scooted past him, then glanced over her shoulder. She couldn’t help it.
He was a big man, six-two, maybe, to her five foot four inches. When she’d whipped by, she’d caught his scent. That was expensive too, but not cologne, no. This was a clean, not cloying smell. Handmade soap, she guessed, triple-milled, and with a mild but lingering note of sandalwood. As she continued to watch him peruse the contents of the shelves, a knot gathered in her belly. Her nerve endings seem to lift to the surface of her skin, tickling the nape of her neck and sending prickling goose bumps cascading down her spine and racing across her ribs.
Startled by her visceral response, she stood another moment, rooted to the floor. Then she saw him stiffen and knew, just knew, he could feel her regard and was an eyelash away from catching her staring again.
Don’t let him catch you at anything! her instincts warned.
And Poppy, suddenly, intensely spooked, broke free of the paralytic force shrouding her. She raced away from the stranger, finished her shopping, and rushed to the check stand.
With her selections paid for and bagged, she paused outside the store, breathing in the cold, piney air. She lifted her gaze to the snow-covered peaks and felt her pulse settle. Inhaling more calming breaths, she picked her way toward her beat-up four-wheeler, avoiding potholes and patches of icy-looking pavement.
As she neared her car, something made her glance around.
And there he was, the foreign stranger, emerging from the grocery. Now, even from behind those dark glasses, she knew he was staring at her.
That primal alarm inside of her went off again. Her nerves leaped, her feet tangled on themselves, her arms windmilled and her goods scattered as she fell on her butt into a deep, cold puddle.
Damn! Mortified, and aware that color was rising from her neck to her face, she scrambled for her fallen purchases and crammed them into their plastic bag. Then she gathered her feet underneath her, preparing to rise with as much grace as possible.
“Here,” that deep, accented voice said.
She allowed her gaze to lift. It snagged on his hand, its wide palm and long fingers outstretched to help her up.
Eyeing it like a dangerous viper, Poppy shook her head and placed a palm on the cold, gritty pavement, pushing off to a stand in one quick move. She relied on herself.
And the only hand she intended to ever reach for, to ever hold, belonged to the little man who also had sole claim to her heart. Mason, who was at this moment on a plane, probably daydreaming about riding the carousel or chasing down Goofy.
Without a word to the stranger she jumped into her car and drove off, sighing with relief when the grocery store was no longer in her rear view mirror.
Thank God, Poppy thought on another sigh. Though she might still feel the smothering weight of that family curse, right now she had the distinct sense she’d just dodged a bullet.
Ninety minutes later, Poppy was in an even better mood. She turned in a circle, taking in her own cabin and then the other four surrounding the small clearing that would be green grass in summer and a perfect space for children to turn cartwheels and summersaults. Now it was carpeted with snow that bore her own footprints and those of Grimm, her Lab/German shepherd mix. He pranced beside her, unsure of the game but a willing participant in any case.
“With you around I never have to do anything alone,” she said to him over the New Age whale moans pouring into her head from the earbuds connected to her phone. She’d chosen the music as accompaniment to her energy-cleansing exercise during which she’d scattered rock salt near the entrances to the cabins—the five surrounding the clearing as well as the seven located deeper in the trees. At each door, she’d clapped loudly, startling Grimm and hopefully any negative energy that resided there.
Now she bent over the makeshift altar she’d established. With Grimm at her side, of course, she’d carried a flat-topped rock to the center of the clearing. Upon it she’d strewn petals from the daisies she’d bought. A white, fat pillar candle was already flickering and beside it lay the bunch of sage she’d selected at Johnson’s. She’d turned it into a smudge stick by wrapping the leaves around a brittle handful of slender pine twigs and tying them in place with twine. The whole thing was supposed to be dried for week, but she figured if she waited that long she’d feel too silly to go through with the ritual. Though she was considered the whimsical Walker by her sibs, as a single mother she had developed a decidedly sensible side.
She picked up the aromatic bundle. Her final cleansing act was to light the stick and wave the smoke around, all the while thinking positive thoughts. The dry pieces of pine caught easily on the candle’s flame and she held it away from her body as the fire licked down toward the first of the sage leaves. Smoke curled up and she moved her arm slowly. “I now release old stuck energy,” she said, over the whale’s moaning in her ears. “I now attract new beginnings and new opportunity to these cabins.”
Grimm stayed close to her side as she turned, leaving her back to the steep drive that led up to the cabins from the road below. “I now release old stuck energy,” she said again. “I now attract new beginnings and new opportunity to my life.“
The scent of pine and sage rose and a sense of peace settled over her. Poppy closed her eyes, inhaling deeply. Wow, she thought. It works. For good measure, she repeated her last words, even louder this time. “I now attract new beginnings and new opportunity to my life.”
Grimm’s sudden bark scared the smudge stick out of her hand and shot her heart to her throat. It was his “stranger’s coming” bark, and Poppy yanked out the earbuds as she whirled to see a monster SUV with tinted windows climbing the drive, crunching over the slushy snow.
Her dog barked again, the hair on his neck bristling. He was a very effective, although faux, bodyguard. The fact was, Grimm wouldn’t hurt a fly, but he had a deep voice and a brawny chest that gave him a belligerent demeanor. So, curious rather than alarmed, Poppy curled her fingers around his collar and watched the vehicle come to a stop.
Her jaw dropped when the door opened and a long leg in a familiar expensive boot emerged, followed by the rest of the rich stranger from Johnson’s Grocery.
Once again, her skin rippled in fear-response and her stomach knotted. Grimm let out another bark, the harsh sound more welcoming than Poppy felt. To disguise her trepidation, she buried her hands in the pockets of the jacket she was wearing—her older brother’s cast-off—and leaned back on her heels. “What do you want?”
She couldn’t see his expression, as he was swathed in that scarf, sunglasses, and brow-skimming cap. Shutting the driver’s door, he waved a flyer in his other hand. “A cabin to rent.”
Her mouth fell open again. Narrowing her eyes, she recognized one of the half sheets of paper she’d pinned around town in hopes to entice summer visitors. Summer being the operative word, she realized now…and the exact one she’d neglected to include on the advertising. Knucklehead!
“Sorry,” Poppy said, commanding herself to stand her ground as the stranger moved from his vehicle and across the snow-covered clearing. “We’re not accepting guests right now.”
“Is that right?” He glanced around. “The coven using all the cabins?”
“The cov—” She broke off as he nodded toward the small altar and the smudge stick at her feet. Though it had extinguished upon landing in the snow, the pungent scent still lingered in the air. She inhaled a deep breath of it, trying to regain her earlier peaceful feeling.
For whatever reason, this man rattled her.
Deciding to ignore the coven remark, she took her hands from her pockets and crossed her arms over her chest. “Look, we’re not ready, okay?”
He glanced around again. Smoke rose from her cabin’s chimney, but three of the others ringing the clearing were obviously vacant, not to mention inhospitable-looking with their peeling doors and dirty windows. The fifth, the one nearest hers that she’d decided to work on first, looked much better with its new paint and sparkling glass. Though it didn’t show at first glance, Poppy suspected the state of the roof was iffy, but there wasn’t any money to make further repairs.
“I’ll pay you twice the going rate,” the man said, as if he’d read her mind. His gaze shifted to the flyer grasped in his left hand. “I’ll take the two-bedroom ‘nestled in the woods’.”
“Sorry, not available.” Squirrels had made a home in the chimney and it smelled like something had died in the second bedroom. It was the farthest from the clearing and the last on her list to refurbish, though she’d foolishly—she realized now—advertised it anyway. As her father’s daughter, she should have realized that unchecked optimism could come back to bite her on the butt.
Speaking of bites, she glanced down at Grimm, who stood relaxed at her side. Usually he took cues about strangers from her reaction and body language. Odd that he wasn’t picking up on that now…in which case he would be showing a lot of teeth and emitting one of his best back-off growls.
The long-legged man followed her gaze. “Nice dog.”
“If you like death-by-canine,” she said. “We call him Grimm, as in the Grim Reaper.” A little white lie. Her brother had chosen the name after some famous NFL player he admired.
The stranger patted his thigh. “Hey, Grimm.”
Her dog raced forward, his jaw stretched in a toothy grin.
The man ran his hand over her pet’s head. “Like I said, nice dog. And I’ll pay you triple for whatever place you have available.”
Triple? Triple? Poppy thought of her recent lay-off, the cost of Mason’s plane tickets to Florida and back, the extra dollars she’d given James to dole out on her son’s behalf.
A fool and his money… Poppy mused, tempted despite her jittery nerves and knotted stomach. Mountain people were wary of everything about the rich flatlanders who came up the hill for alpine delights—everything except the money they flung about so freely. It was hard for average Joes and Joannas to make do in a place where real estate and gasoline and foodstuffs were sold at luxury resort prices. But people like the Walkers and the Anders were stubborn about staying amongst their beloved peaks and pines. Maybe Poppy had once dreamed of oceans and palms and big city streets, but then Mason had come along and sticking to what was familiar had made more sense.
The stranger crossed his arms over the chest of his posh squall jacket, mimicking Poppy’s own pose. She couldn’t see his eyes behind the dark lenses of his glasses, but she felt them narrow. “Quintuple,” he said. “Final offer.”
And greed overrode caution. “Done,” she answered.
Second thoughts popped up the instant the word left her mouth. “Wait—you realize we’re pretty far from civilization. The entrance to the highway is four miles from here.”
“I realize. I got lost looking for the turn-off.”
Poppy had the sense he was pleased by the fact.
Taking a step back, he tilted his head toward the steep slopes to the north of the cabins and woods. Snow covered the surface that was dotted with few of the pines that grew densely on the other surrounding hillsides. “What is this place? Can you ski up there?”
“If you want to hike up carrying your equipment. The elevation of the nearest town—Blue Arrow Lake—is a little over five thousand feet but here we’re at seventy-two hundred, which means plenty of snow in a good winter. My family had a nice ski business on the mountain, but a wildfire took down the lodge, the rope tow and the chair lifts thirteen years ago.”
“You didn’t rebuild?”
Poppy shrugged. “Not enough insurance money. And a bad financial deal with a certain arch-villain.”
He looked back at her then. “Arch-villain?” The accent she’d noticed in the store seemed to have vanished. Weird. “Like Lex Luthor or Two-Face?”
“Like Victor Fremont.” Without thinking, she spat in the snow, ground the spot with the toe of her boot, then crossed her heart with the tip of her forefinger.
Only when she felt his stare did she realize what she’d done. “Uh, sorry. Walker family habit.” The physical manifestation of their vow to never forget or forgive how the old man had ruined their father’s livelihood and health. “But, uh, let me show you the cabin.”
Maybe he wouldn’t like it, she thought, almost hoping that would be true, despite quintuple the going rate. Something was off about him. Or her. Or her around him.
As she dug the keys from her coat pocket, she walked toward the one-bedroom. There were three wooden steps leading to the narrow porch. Inside, it was cold, but warmer than the outside temperature. He walked past her through the small living area to peer into the room that held a queen-sized bed and a Shaker-style dresser.
“The bathroom only has a shower,” she warned, “and the kitchen…”
With his back to her, he scraped off his hat. His hair was glossy, nearly black, and when he rubbed his palm over it, the strands settled into lines that screamed “This cut cost a mint!” She saw him finger off the sunglasses. As he stuck them into his coat pocket, she wondered if she’d imagined the surreal shade of his irises back at the grocery store. Perhaps they’d be ordinary on second take. Duller, like the color of a faded cotton patio umbrella. Or with gray overtones, like shadows cast on snow.
Poppy nearly staggered back. Her mind hadn’t oversold them. His eyes were a hot, electric blue that seemed lit from within. They were compelling. Mesmerizing. The eyes of a magician or a mystic or some supernatural being. Again, primal alarm shot through her.
Grimm whined and she quickly shifted her attention to the dog, needing to look away before she confessed her sins or offered up her life savings. God. Her pulse was racing and there was a queasy feeling in her stomach.
“And the kitchen…?” he prompted, in that deep voice that carried to the corners of the cabin and maybe to the corners of her heart.
“The kitchen.” She focused on the velvety golden hair between Grimm’s floppy ears and made a vague gesture. “It’s over there.”
His footsteps sounded against the hardwood floor before finding the living room’s braided area rug. From the corner of her eye, she saw his big hand and those lean fingers curled around the scarf he’d had at his neck. If you look now, you’ll see his whole face, Poppy thought. Then she heard a rustle of sound that indicated he was removing his coat. If you look now, you’ll see his whole body, too.
It shocked her how much she wanted to check out both, despite how anxious the man made her.
She was a mother for God’s sake! A Walker, focused on creating something of the family legacy.
A woman who had proven herself an idiot when it came to romance, so had sworn off it altogether.
None of which meant it would hurt to take a peek.
That was the inner optimist in her, always trying to find sunshine on a cloudy day.
It might even be good for you!
Ignoring that little voice, she worked the cabin’s key off the ring. “If you’re still interested—”
“I want the cabin. Until the end of the month.”
Quintuple the rate until the end of the month! Poppy focused on that, and only that, as she slid the key onto the small table next to the sofa. “You’ll need to plug in the fridge. The heater should keep you warm enough, but there’s wood for the fireplace. I’ll make sure to keep some piled on the porch. Oh—and I should warn you. There’s no internet and there’s no TV.”
“No TV?” he asked.
“Don’t plan to put ’em in the cabins. We Walkers grew up without television—our mom’s idea—and I’ve never picked up the habit.”
“So what do you do for entertainment?”
“I read, and I—” She almost said she played with her little boy, but for some reason she didn’t want Mason’s name in this room, where she was responding so strongly and strangely to this man’s masculine charisma. Those blue eyes had done something to her internal wiring, heating her blood and making it buzz as it raced through her system. “I have a good imagination.”
Oh, jeez. Why had she said that? Yet another time, embarrassed heat crawled up her neck.
“We have something in common then. I have an active fantasy life, too.” The sudden note of humor in his voice made her chin jerk up.
Their gazes met.
But there wasn’t a sign of laughter on his face. There were just planes and angles—strong cheekbones, a clean jawline—that made her instantly think of elegant European men stepping into low-slung sports coupes and spectacular parties where people in evening clothes end up jumping into swimming pools while a band dressed in white dinner jackets play Cole Porter tunes. He was classically, memorably handsome and his features, coupled with those spectacular eyes, put him at the absolute top of her list of the most beautiful—yet still so male—men she’d ever seen.
Her skin was tingling, her stomach was pitching, and her palms were probably sweating, but she couldn’t tell because her fingers were curled into tight fists. Everything inside her was reacting to him, but in confusing ways. While some of her was going soft and languid, a sense of melting low in her belly, at the same time her defenses were rushing into place and she felt hyper-alert and poised to fight her way out of…out of…
Ridiculous, she told herself. Stop being so ridiculous.
Still, she backed up, keeping her gaze on him as she retreated toward the door. He remained where he was, though she thought she detected tension in the lean muscles revealed by the thermal Henley clinging to his powerful torso.
Those magnetic eyes didn’t blink. “I don’t know your name,” he said, his voice soft now, the near-whisper of that seductive snake in the Garden of Eden.
She shook her head to dispel the image. “Poppy,” she replied, trying to sound businesslike and brisk. “Poppy Walker.”
He was strolling toward her now and she retreated farther, until her shoulder blades met the wood of the door. Before she could find her way through it, the man had her hand in his. Heat ran like fire ants up her arm. “Ryan Harris,” he said, his gaze fixed on her face.
The words barely registered as the burning touch overwhelmed all her other senses. His palm was warm and strong, its size enveloping hers—making her feel small and feminine. That’s when she understood. That’s when she could finally put a name to what he’d been able to do to her from that first glimpse.
After more than five years, Ryan Harris reminded her of what it was to feel like a woman.
Ugh. And he had her thinking in Shania Twain songs, too, though he’d have to share the blame for that with her brother and his worship of all things country music.
“I have to go,” she said, ordering herself to step away.
“You do,” he agreed, nodding. Then he replaced the warmth of his skin with a bundle of bills. “Rent.”
Squeezing her fingers around it, she hustled out the door and into the cold sunlight.
The scent of sage lingered in the air. She thought perhaps her ritual had worked. Maybe the negative energy was gone. That would be good.
And bad. Because it had apparently left a vacuum in its place, allowing in an entirely different sort of energy that Poppy was much too uneasy to name.