EIGHTEEN MONTHS LATER
ETERNITY SPRINGS, COLORADO
In her second-floor apartment above her shop, Forever Christmas, Claire eyed the express delivery envelope lying on her kitchen table as if it were a snake. A six-foot-long rattlesnake. Or, maybe a python. Pythons squeezed the life out of their prey, didn’t they? The contents of that envelope were sure to wring the peace right out of her day.
She could see it now. She’d tear open the envelope and a snake with blue eyes and a forked tongue would slither out and wind its way along her arm, climbing up to twine around her neck and—Clang!
She jumped at the sound of a wrench hitting a metal pipe.
“Earth to Claire,” came a male voice from beneath her sink. “You still there? You zoned out again, didn’t you?”
“Sorry.” She had a tendency to let her mind wander, especially when she was nervous. “Do you need something?”
“Try the water again.”
She leaned over the long jeans-clad legs and twisted on the cold water. A moment later, Brick Callahan said, “That’s got it. You’re good to go.”
Claire switched off the water and stepped backward as the man dressed in worn jeans, a Stardance Ranch T-shirt, and hiking boots scooted out from beneath the sink. “Thank you, Brick. I just didn’t have the hand strength to get it tight enough.”
“Hey, no problem.” A teasing glint entered his forest-green eyes as he flexed his muscles and grinned. “I’m always happy to show off my guns.”
Claire gave an exaggerated huff. “Do you ever not flirt?”
Innocence echoed in his voice. “Hey, you’re a gorgeous single woman about my age, and a redhead to boot. I’ve always had a thing for redheads. Why wouldn’t I flirt with you?”
“I saw you flirt with Elaine Hanks at the Trading Post last week,” Claire challenged. “She’s seventy if she’s a day.”
He shrugged. “I like women. What can I say?”
“And women like you, too, don’t they?”
“It’s my cross to bear.” He rolled to his feet and studied her. “One of these days when you’re ready, I’d like to hear about the jerk who hurt you.”
Claire shook her head at him in bemusement. He’d asked her on a date after they’d met at the Chamber of Commerce last spring. She’d thanked him, then explained that she had no desire to date in the wake of a recent bad breakup. “Why would you want to listen to my sorry tale of woe?”
“Because I like you. We’re friends. And sometimes you get a Bambi look going on that makes me want to find the SOB and knock him on his ass.“
“You’re a knight in shining armor,” she said, her heart warming. He’d make someone a great catch. Just not her.
Never her. Never again.
Had she not been watching him closely, she’d have missed the shadow that flitted across his face. “Not always, sweetheart. Not always.”
The note of regret in his voice intrigued Claire. She wasn’t the only one with baggage and regrets, apparently. Brick Callahan was a mystery. Handsome, witty, nice, and a hard worker—why hadn’t someone snapped him up already?
As it was wont to do, her imagination took flight. There was a woman in Brick’s past. Who was she? A driven city girl who didn’t like the slow pace of mountain life? Or maybe she was an entertainer, a country music singer. A girl who dreamed of stadiums filled with adoring fans. Perhaps she—
“So,” Brick said. “Anything else I need to fix while I’m here?”
Claire crashed back to reality and her gaze shifted to the envelope on the kitchen table. If only. “No. That takes care of it. Thanks a million, Brick. I really appreciate the help.”
“Not a problem. It’s the least I could do after you kept the shop open late so I could get a last-minute birthday present for my aunt Maddie.”
She glanced at the clock. “Speaking of last minutes, this took longer than I expected. You’d better get moving or you’ll miss the party.”
“Not a Callahan party.” Brick set the wrench down on her countertop. “We start early and finish late. Sure I can’t talk you into going with me?” He held up a hand to ward off her immediate refusal and added, “Friends, Claire. Just friends.”
Claire hesitated. She sensed that he meant it. Not all men were liars, cheats, and thieves. Brick Callahan wasn’t just saying what he thought she wanted to hear.
But she couldn’t be sure. She’d learned the hard way that she dare not trust her instincts where men were concerned. She wasn’t about to trust, period. “Thanks, but not tonight. I’m exhausted. It’s been a long week.”
He washed his hands in the kitchen sink, and she handed him a dishtowel so he could dry them. “If you change your mind, come on out. You know where our place is on Hummingbird Lake?”
“I do.” She handed him the gift box she’d wrapped while he worked on her leaky faucet, then led him downstairs and through the shop. She flipped the lock on the front door. Jingle bells on the wreath chimed as she opened it. “Enjoy your evening, Brick. I hope Maddie likes the tree topper.”
“I know she will. Uncle Luke might have been deaf to her hints, but not me.”
“Tell her I said happy birthday.”
“Will do.” Then, because Brick liked to kiss women as much as he liked to flirt, he leaned down and kissed her cheek. “G’night, Claire. I’m glad you moved to Eternity Springs.”
She beamed a smile at him. “That’s nice of you to say. Thank you. I love it here.”
It was true, she thought as she locked the door behind him and gazed around her shop. Her Christmas shop. She would admit that her spur-of-the-moment decision to open a Christmas shop in the middle of Nowhere, Colorado, based on the recommendation of a twinkling-eyed stranger riding a motorcycle could make a decent case study for a psych professor.
However, the town suited her. She was making friends. She was operating her business in the black. Sure, she had issues, but she was working on them, wasn’t she? She didn’t want to hate Christmas. She was tackling one of her biggest demons. And she got points for creating an Angel Room in Forever Christmas, didn’t she?
Her gaze drifted toward said Angel Room, where the tree central to the entire display stood with a naked top. A flurry of sales in the past two days had depleted her inventory and she’d been forced to use her sample to fill Brick’s request. “Bonus points if you go ahead and put a different angel on top of that tree tonight,” she challenged herself.
If she faced the Angel Room and that envelope in the same day, she’d deserve more than just bonus points. She’d deserve ice cream. Two scoops.
Because Claire and Christmas weren’t exactly on the best terms. She associated Bad Things with Christmas. Things like illness and death, and more recently, betrayal. She couldn’t help it. All of it had happened. Before the Lying Lizard Louse, the holiday season had depressed her. Made her sad. Made her heart ache. Since him, she’d connected Christmas with the molten anger boiling inside her.
And dang it, she was going to change that. Despite the larcenous liar, she was going to learn to love Christmas again. Love the scents and the tastes and the sounds and the colors of Christmas. Love the snowmen and ornaments and peppermints. Love the angels.
The angels. She’d love every freaking sparkling feathery angel. Even if it killed her.
Well, except for Starlina. That was asking too much. Claire still had her pride.
She blew out a breath, mentally reviewed her inventory, and decided on a new angel to crown the centerpiece tree. She carried her ladder from the supply room and positioned it. As she removed a simple white porcelain topper from the box, her gaze stole toward an angel with a tattered dress and a broken wing sitting mostly hidden behind a trio of bright, shiny, beautiful angels. Gardenia.
Emotion roiled within her. With her gaze focused on the bedraggled angel, she thought of the envelope upstairs. Almost against her will, she glanced down at the empty third finger of her left hand. The tears that stung the back of her eyes annoyed her, so she stomped her feet just a little bit as she climbed the ladder.
Claire’s petite form came with short arms. Ordinarily when she trimmed a tall tree, she used an extension tool to help her place decorations. She’d already climbed the ladder when she realized she’d forgotten it. Impatient with herself on many levels, she wanted the task over and done with. She climbed another rung of the ladder, extended her arm, and reached for the tip of the tree with the angel topper. And reached. Leaned a little farther. Stretched …
“Ow!” Pain sliced through her shoulder as she slid the angel on the treetop. She’d tweaked an old rotator-cuff injury. “This day just keeps getting better and better.”
She couldn’t even dull the ache with nice glass of cabernet since she still had two days of antibiotics to take after having an emergency root canal on Monday. As she descended the ladder, she grumbled aloud, “A great day in a spectacular week.”
Root canal. Flat tire. Shattered phone screen.
Contact from the past she’d run from but could never escape.
Claire exhaled a heavy sigh, put away her ladder, then turned off the shop lights and climbed the stairs to her apartment. Unfortunately, the envelope hadn’t slithered off her kitchen table in her absence.
She pulled a bottle of ibuprofen from a cabinet and tossed two into her mouth, chasing the pills with a full glass of water. She set down the empty glass and focused on the delivery envelope. Focused on her name and address. Did her best to ignore the name of the law firm in the upper left-hand corner of the label.
“Do it,” she muttered to herself. “Just do it. Get it over with.”
Heart pounding, her mouth sandpaper dry, she picked up the envelope, pulled the tab, and looked inside. A black binder clip secured a stack of papers over an inch thick. She took a deep breath and yanked the paperwork from the envelope.
The check fell onto her table printed side down. Claire flipped it over and read the amount. She stumbled back against the wall. “Sweet baby Jesus in a manger.”
Her knees buckled and she melted onto her kitchen floor.
* * *
As the sun began to dip below a craggy mountain peak to the west, Jax Lancaster pushed open the gate to the hot springs pools at Angel’s Rest Healing Center and Spa. He turned away from a section of the small park where families congregated and chose an isolated pool that offered a great view of the spectacular orange and gold rays framing a purple mountain. Jax appreciated sunrises and sunsets in a way that only a man who’d gone months at a time for years in a row without seeing them could do. He pulled his U.S. Navy T-shirt over his head and tossed it aside before easing his aching body into the steaming waters of the mineral springs.
As welcome warmth seeped into his bones, Jax exhaled a heavy sigh and tried to relax and enjoy the view. Ten days of nonstop travel had taken its toll on his body. Eighteen months of constant worry about his son had worn upon his soul.
The fact that he was dead broke and out of work didn’t help matters. Divorce and a custody battle had eaten up his savings, and then ten days ago, he’d walked away from a career he’d loved. He didn’t regret the decision. He’d had no choice. Bottom line was Nicholas needed his father.
Whether the boy recognized it or not.
The gate hinges squeaked again and Jax glanced toward the sound. He gave the redheaded woman with a short but sexy pair of legs a quick once-over as she stepped into the pool area. Very nice, he thought. He’d always had a thing for redheads. She wore a black swimsuit cover-up and carried a long beach towel in shades of red and green draped over her left shoulder. In her right hand, she carried a large tote bag with a cartoon character on the side. Rudolph? In July?
When she turned toward the families, he returned his attention to the sunset and his troubles. He’d checked his e-mail after arriving at the resort, but the good news he’d hoped to find waiting for him had not materialized. Jax tried not to brood about the goose egg in his job-offer in-box. He needed to give it some time. Seattle was a big, fast-growing city with a hot economy. Something would come along. Hadn’t he been told by more than one potential employer to reach out to them again after his discharge was official? In the meantime, well, he had an offer on the table that would pay the basic bills, didn’t he?
Never mind that he’d almost rather panhandle on the streets than work for his ex-father-in-law’s chain of independent bookstores.
Jax sank farther into the water and rolled his shoulders. If he had to work for Lara’s dad in order to put a roof over Nicholas’s head, keep Cheerios in his breakfast bowl, and ensure that the checks to the child psychologist didn’t bounce, then that’s what he’d do. The boy came first.
An explosion of laughter erupted from the other side of the park. Jax tried to remember the last time he’d laughed like that. Before the accident, certainly.
The accident. What a mild term for such a life-altering event.
Spying movement in his peripheral vision, he turned his head to see the redhead approach. She stepped into a beam of sunshine and the fire in her hair glistened. It was as if the sunset walked right out of the sky and up to the edge of the mineral springs pool where he sat. “Excuse me,” she said. “There’s a water world war going on in the other pools. Mind if I share your little Switzerland?”
He smiled. “Not at all. Mi Switzerland es tu Switzerland.”
“Thanks.” She kicked off her sandals, then swiftly unbuttoned her cover-up—no wedding ring on her left hand, he noticed—and pulled it off to reveal a modest black swimsuit. Since her curves were as appealing as her legs, Jax had to force himself to look away.
He heard the splash and then a feminine cough. “Mercy. This is my first time to visit the mineral springs. I hadn’t realized exactly how bad they smell.”
“You’ll get accustomed to it after a couple of minutes. Now, you might not smell anything else for two days afterward, but your sense of smell will return.”
“I’ll take your word for it. Soaking in a mineral spring is supposed to have health benefits, right? Like soothing sore muscles?”
Jax nodded. “Yes, although I don’t know how effective it is. Still, mineral springs have attracted people all across the world throughout history, so on that basis alone, I think there must be something to it. Personally, I like it here because I find this relaxing.”
“And I’m interrupting your peace with my chatter. I apologize.”
“No need. I’m always happy to…” Jax bit back the words “share my tub with a beautiful lady” and settled for something that sounded less like a come-on. “Meet new people. I’m Jax Lancaster.”
“Claire Branham. I’ve recently moved to Eternity Springs and opened a business, which is keeping me busy and is why I haven’t visited these pools before tonight. Are you a guest at Angel’s Rest, Jax?”
“I am. I’m here for a couple of days to pick up my son from the Rocking L summer camp.”
“Oh.” The note of sympathy and understanding she managed to insert into the tone of that one short word revealed that she knew the Rocking L wasn’t an ordinary camp. “The Rocking L program is fabulous. I know the children who get to attend are thrilled with the experience. How old is your son?”
“Nicholas is eight.” Jax hesitated, then because he was curious to get another perspective on the Rocking L program, he added, “He’s been having a rough time of it. He was with his mother when she died a year and a half ago, and it damaged him. I’m hoping the weeks he’s spent at camp will kick-start his recovery.”
“I’m so sorry for your loss.”
“His loss, not mine,” Jax clarified. Then he winced. “That sounds terrible, doesn’t it? That’s not what I intended. We were divorced. His mother and I were divorced. Acrimoniously. Ugly custody battle. I’ve been in the navy and they don’t always just let you quit when you want, so Nicholas has been living with her parents and I’m babbling. Sorry. Too much traveling through too many time zones and I’m punch-drunk and nervous about picking him up tomorrow.”
“Don’t worry about it. I’ve been known to babble, myself. Frequently. So where did you begin your travels?”
The specific information was classified. Jax picked a point in the middle. “Seventy-two hours ago I was in Dubai.”
“Whoa. I’ll bet the jet lag is brutal.”
His mouth twisted in a rueful grin. “I don’t ordinarily spill my guts to strangers. I’ve embarrassed myself. I’ll shut up now.”
“Oh, don’t be embarrassed. Sometimes sharing a burden makes it easier to carry. And doing so with a stranger instead of a friend protects against potential blowback.”
“Haven’t you ever been a little too honest with friends or family and it comes back to haunt you?”
He thought of the conversation with Lara right before he left on the deployment that doomed his marriage. Oh, yeah. He understood the risk of too much honesty. Been there, done that, got the divorce. However, not even his jet-lagged tongue was loose enough to go there, so he stuck with something lighter. “You mean like telling my ex that those yellow slacks did indeed make her butt look big?”
Claire snorted. “You didn’t.”
“We started dating our freshman year in college. I was very young and stupid at the time, but I did learn.” Just not fast enough. Wanting to direct the conversation away from himself, Jax asked, “How about you, Claire? Has honesty come back to haunt you with a significant other?”
“I’m not married. I ended a relationship not long ago, but it wasn’t due to too much honesty.” Her tone turned bitter as she added, “Just the opposite, in fact.”
“Sounds like you have a burden to unload, yourself. Go for it. You won’t get any blowback from me.”
“Hmm…” She shot him a narrow-eyed look. “You said you’re only in town for a couple of days?”
“We leave the day after tomorrow for San Diego. I’ll pack up my place there, and then it’s on to Seattle where Nicholas has been living.”
Claire shifted her position in the pool so that she faced the sunset rather than Jax. A full minute of silence ticked by before she spoke again. “I should be celebrating tonight. I should be drinking champagne and having wild sex with a ski instructor named Stamina Sven. Instead I’m soaking an old softball injury in a stinky, steamy pool while drinking sparkling water and spilling my secrets to a stranger.”
Jax’s brows arched. Stamina Sven? “It’s obvious you have a shoulder injury when you throw a hanging curve ball like that one.”
“Let me guess,” she drawled. “Your middle name is Sven.”
He waggled his brows. “You can call me Stamina for short. And I understand that room service delivers out here. I’m happy to order a bottle of bubbly.”
“Thanks, but no.”
“So what are we not celebrating?”
She sighed heavily. “Lawyers.”
Jax lifted an imaginary champagne goblet in toast. “I can definitely drink to that.”
“Christmas? Well, it is July.”
“Forever Christmas. My shop. It’s doing great. It’s on the corner of Cottonwood and Third. I opened it this spring and this month I’m going to finish in the black. By a kitten’s whisker, but black is black, right?”
“Right.” A Christmas store. Guess that accounted for the Rudolph tote bag.
“I’m trying hard to take pleasure in my shop. I’m giving myself a pass on the angels, although I’m trying very hard to hold on to the rest of my joy, but it’s hanging by a strand of tinsel. See, I’d lost it, then I found it, but I discovered it was a lie. Well, he was a lie. What I felt wasn’t a lie.”
“You loved him.”
“Yes, I loved him. I loved the thought of making a life with him, of having Christmas with him. After all those years of missing it, hating it, wishing I could go to a deserted island from Black Friday to January second, I put up a tree in my house and even bought silly holiday towels! He ruined it with his lies, but I’m not letting him ruin anything else. No way. That’s what I’m trying to hold on to. I won’t let him steal it from me. It’s bad enough that I was stupid enough to be fooled by a dirty rotten lying lawyer, that I let him break my heart. I won’t allow him to steal my joy.”
Jax wondered what sort of problem she had with angels, but he didn’t interrupt to ask. She was on a roll.
“I tell everyone that the reason I moved to Eternity Springs was because I saw a business opportunity, but that’s not really true. I was running away. From him. From reminders of him. From reality. Eternity Springs was my place to hide and to heal. I thought I was doing a pretty decent job of it. I’m making friends. I’m becoming involved in town life. Forever Christmas is an in-your-face declaration that he’s not going to win. It’s good. I’m tooling along, getting along, thinking maybe I’ve got this thing whipped, when today … boom!” She clapped her hands. “The lousy lawyer and his great big lie followed me home.”
Jax sat up straight. Every protective instinct he possessed went into full alert. “This jerk is stalking you?”
Copyright © 2016 by Emily March