“Toddye Connors! It’s been too long!” The SweetHart Lodge’s bartender’s bright smile of recognition warmed her heart. He winked and scanned the crowd, looking for her husband. “Darryl keeping you waiting?”
A tiny band squeezed her heart. “No, Sam. We––we divorced three years ago.”
“Oh, God, I’m sorry. Raw subject.” The bartender busied himself with placing a bowl of chocolates in front of her. Regaining his aplomb, he asked “What can I get you to drink?”
Her next words trailed off as a spray of water shot straight up into the air behind the bar. Toddye squealed, jumping nimbly off the sturdy leather stool.
“Whoa, sorry,” came a muffled voice from under the counter. The water slowly fizzled from a geyser to a light spray of water.
Toddye giggled as she shook her hands and fingers to fling off the tiny, wet beads that had splashed onto her. Not much but as if by magic, the front desk clerk appeared with a fluffy, blue towel.
More clanging and sloshing sounded from beneath the beautifully wrought stone bar. “Just a messy plumber trying to stop this leak. I apologize––ugghhhh. Must. Tighten. This. Joint.” His voice strained with each word. A beautiful bass voice, so low-pitched its resonance reverberated up and down Toddye’s spine. She shivered.
“Have a drink on the house.”
The words came from under the counter, not the bartender.
She tried to hoist herself far enough over the bar to see the man, but it was too wide. The tinkering and clanging of tools hitting the floor told her he wasn’t finished.
“What will you have?” Sam brought her attention back to him. “On the house.”
She raised her brows. “A hot toddy?” A devilish sparkle lit her eyes.
“For a hot Toddye,” a rumble of laughter echoed from under the bartender’s feet. So she made him laugh. Score. The Josh Turner voice melted her insides.
Even in the low light, Sam’s blush burnished his brown cheeks. “Whatever the lady wants.” Mischief played in his eyes as he comically kicked at the man beneath his feet.
A slight whoosh of air sounded, as if the kick connected and then came a chuckle. “Couldn’t help it,” the voice said.
Toddye took her drink, wrapping her hands indulgently around the thick mug. “Thanks, Sam.” She gazed past the tables of lovers and friends intimately engaged in conversation or staring into each others’ eyes.
She wanted a cozy spot near the fire where she could watch the snow fall and not be disturbed. Finding an overstuffed, double-wide chair in a corner, she curled up against one side, pulling a crocheted afgan over her legs. One similar chair backed up to hers.
She’d shoved her phone deep in her pocket, trying to ignore the outside world. But one caller was persistent. This was the third time she’d heard Elvis and Kentucky Rain. She snorted and sighed before answering.
“Hello, Mom.” She sipped the hot drink and let the fire of the rum spread through her anxious bones. “I’m okay. You were right. This is soothing, and a great place for a celebration.”
“Of course, it is. Screw that asshole and mingle. Take ski lessons. Shop. Go cross country. You’re in great shape. Hell, try snowboarding. Anything.” She could hear the worry in her mother’s voice.
“I will. I promise. Anything special you’d like me to pick up for you while I’m here in snow country?”
“A man the opposite of him would please me immensely.” Her mother believed if she refrained from using Darryl’s name, her daughter would move on easier. Not working so far.
“Mom, how long did it take you to get over losing Dad?”
Silence. “Well. Ours is a totally different story than yours. You might never get over it completely, dear, but life must go on.” Pragmatic to a fault, her psychiatrist mother had moved on three times in twenty years. Toddye wanted to avoid that at all costs.
In fact, she’d decided men were a bother. But she couldn’t tell her dear mother that. “Right. Ok, blocking all thoughts of the past, I’m going to carve out a new tradition all my own.”
“Atta girl, take your pick of the gorgeous, sweatered men swarming the slopes.”
Toddye couldn’t contain a laugh. “Yes, Doctor. Now let me go and enjoy.”
She gazed around the immense room. The Lodge bustled with energy during Valentine’s week. Every table boasted vases overflowing with red roses. Bowls of candied hearts and wrapped chocolate sparkled in Waterford dishes.
Toddye sighed and basked in contentment. She felt a small tug from Cupid’s arrow, but she diverted the winged angel to the back of her mind, focusing instead on the massive fireplace and the movie of twinkling snowflakes falling heavily.
The hot toddy was doing its job. A blaze of relaxation cascaded smoothly down her throat. The fire and the snow enveloped Toddye in a much-needed cocoon of anonymity. She might never leave. This could be heaven.
Thirty minutes later, Brian Benjamin shouted, “All done! No more drip,” as he jumped to his feet. Wiping his hands on a towel, he searched the bar, the lobby, scanned the subdued great room. Where had that woman gone? “My turn for a hot toddy, Sam,” Brian said, thoroughly distracted by his quest. He’d recognized her voice and his blood was roaring in his ears. He’d waited three long years to see her again. She’d been another man’s wife at the time, but he hadn’t been able to get her out of his mind.
As Elvis began to croon Only Fools Rush In, he spotted her in the great room, sitting alone. He wanted to whistle at his good luck. Her head lay languidly against one chair arm, legs tucked underneath a deep purple and yellow afghan. In the crackling light, waves of red hair, streaming nearly to the floor, reflected the colors of the fire. Hypnotized, he merely sipped his drink and marveled at his good fortune. He needed to get home, but she was here, right in front of him. Too good to be true.
An aura of magic reached out to him and he sat in the seat behind her. He hesitated to break the spell, but he had to talk to her.
“I don’t usually lose control like that,” he said.
She neither jumped nor answered. Maybe she’d fallen asleep. Sitting straighter in the chair he looked down on her. When she raised an eyebrow, he smiled unapologetically.
“I’m certainly glad to hear you don’t make a habit of dousing guests with water. They might get the idea you were trying to run them off,” she remarked cryptically.
“Ahh, just the reverse. I believe this is a little piece of heaven. Everyone should live in a storybook land like this.” He spread his arms out to include the outdoors as well as the luxurious surroundings of the SweetHart Lodge. “Don’t you think?”
His phone began to play softly then louder. He slipped it out of his pocket and answered.
“Yep. All done. I’ll be home shortly.” He popped the phone back in his pocket.
The man was gorgeous. More masculine and buff than his voice had indicated. His dark hair touched his shoulders and those dimples. She’d always been a sucker for dimples. No. She wasn’t going to be sucked in to a complete stranger’s spell.
Besides, he had a family waiting on him. What was he doing flirting with her? Deflated, Toddye sipped her drink, to the last drop.
“Here, let me get you a refill.”
“Oh, but I––”
“I insist. To repay you for the splashing.”
He disappeared before she could say another word. Drat. Married and attentive. Her life had been filled with unattainable men since Darryl’s defection, and somehow they all had the same affliction. Wives. Children.
Oh, well. Such was life. She nuzzled against the soft animal skin that covered her chair. She could sleep here watching the snow fall.
“Hot toddy delivered to one hot––ahem, to Toddye.” He smiled sheepishly and had the decency to blush. Hard to see behind his dark snow tan.
“You’ll be sledding your way home through this.” Her cold voice dismissive, he ignored it like water off a duck.
His eyes grew huge and excited, a child’s excitement. She found it contagious. But she tamped the feeling down. Married. Remember. Unattainable.
“This is the perfect snow for the slopes. Will you be skiing tomorrow?” He turned exuberance onto her which shot arrows of anticipation bolting down her spine.
“Such passion. You love skiing that much?”
“Yeah, it’s definitely a passion. You? What are your passions, Toddye?”
Should she lead a married man on? Nothing in it for her and he should be ashamed––
Then he jumped, grabbed a jacket and started for the door. “Ok, gotta fly. I’ll be on the slopes tomorrow. Hope you come out. Anything can happen here, anything at all. G‘night.”
Vanishing into the blizzard, he left a chill in her heart.
Anything. Anything is possible.
Finishing that second toddy, she floated to her room. She’d forgotten the luxury of the soft carpet, the dark, inviting colors of the furniture on the second floor. Her door had a red heart with Cupid and his arrow dangling that possibility at her again. His knowing smile kind of creeped her out. Slipping into her room, #222, she performed the most rudimentary ablutions for bed––she’d declared a moratorium on make up for the entire trip, only lotion. Lots of lotion with plenty of SPF.
As she slid under the down-filled blankets, she thought of the plumber’s sun-bronzed face, dark curls in total disarray framing huge green eyes, eyes the color of the pine trees covering the mountains, full of expectation, full of joy, full of contentment.
She had to quit thinking about him. He was off limits. Have your own fun, Toddye. Tomorrow she would take ski lessons. Start from scratch as if she’d never been here. Life could be new. It could be washed clean in powdery-white snow. Then the next day she would ski all day before she tackled cross country.
Through the heavy snow, the ski instructor demonstrated snowplowing and then progressed to hockey stops, swirling walls of snow over the heads of his class as he came down the bunny slope right at them. Toddye chuckled at the screams and flying arms of the novices. Only a small number, like herself, stood perfectly still knowing he’d stop in time. Gracefully.
She itched to get on the slopes. Taking the class had been silly, but she had two weeks, so why not indulge? Good way to meet ski instructors. This one impressed her particularly with his strong legs and fluid movements.
He’d introduced himself as Benjamin, but squinting through her goggles something familiar about his stance tugged at her. He wore jeans. Nice, tight jeans. A parka, goggles and a colorful ski cap. Hard to see much of anything except his form through all the snow. If nothing else, observing his muscled derriere and eye-popping thighs made the lessons worthwhile
After two hours and several trips down the bunny slope, he directed them to take off on their own. Most of the class trekked back to the bunny slope, but a few skimmed across the powdery field toward more advanced trails.
Sliding close beside Toddye, the instructor motioned toward the bunny slope and she shook her head.
She pointed toward a blue trail sign, mouthed thanks and took off in the direction of the more difficult run.
When it was her turn to get on the doubles chair lift, Toddye moved onto her side, turned and saw her instructor get on beside her. She smiled and took an invigoratingly deep breath of the chilled air, turning her face into the brilliant snow still falling.
At the top of the run, she jumped onto the snow and for the first time in years, let herself go. Though the slope challenged, she’d spent plenty of time on these very trails, slightly different now, but not so much.
At the bottom she raced back to the lift. So did her instructor. They spent the day racing, laughing and challenging each other.
Heavy, beautiful snow continued to fall. Toward mid afternoon, he pointed toward the lodge entry. Toddye’s stomach growled in appreciation as they glided in.
Propping skis on the racks, they faced each other and removed ski caps and goggles.
Toddye stared in wide-eyed amazement. “You. I––what? How could you?”
“How could I what?” Brian asked.
“First of all, you called yourself Benjamin this morning at class.”
“My last name. It’s how I’m known around here.”
“What are you doing? You follow me all morning, flirt, play, entice. But––but...you’re not free.”
“What makes you think that?”
They made it to the cafe counter and ordered sandwiches. He followed her to a table, but didn’t sit.
Their eyes locked, held and she bristled. “I heard you on the phone last night.”
At first, a frown wrinkled his forehead as he looked up and to his left. That was a good sign. Toddye’s mother would interpret that as merely retrieving memory, not making up stories.
Then his face lit up with understanding.“My call was from home, you’re right about that. Came to vacation one winter and fell in love with the beauty of this mountain. My––”
“And so now you make a practice of preying on single females to––to––lead on?” She felt heat fill her cheeks. What a conniving lowlife.
“No, you’ve got it all wrong.” He raised his hands in surrender. Then he did sit. “Come over for dinner tonight. I’m an amateur chef. I’ll cook for you.” He lay a warmed hand on hers.
She yanked it away. “No. Did you not hear what I said?”
“I heard you. I’ve got nothing to hide. I swear. I don’t invite just anyone home.”
Leery, she studied his body language. Even though her writing was for travel magazines, she liked to observe peoples’ reactions, body language, see if they jibed with their words. His body was alight with excitement. She knew what her mother would tell her to do. She sighed in defeat. Her warring conscious was getting beat up. She wanted to see him again. But did she dare?
So earnest. So honest. Such an exhilarating day with him, she couldn’t say no.
That evening, not far from the Valentine Lodge, Toddye knocked on the rough-hewn door of the cedar log cabin. When it opened, she was greeted by a young boy with a devastating smile just like his father’s. Dimples and bright eyes.
“Hi. I’m Jason. My father’s in the kitchen. Come on, I’ll show you.”
She let out a breath she didn’t know she’d been holding. A son. He had a son.
He took her by the hand and pulled her through the opulent home. Bear rugs, sturdy, hand-crafted furniture, a large wagon-wheel chandelier captured her attention. Then the aroma of grilling steak wafted around her head. The young boy offered her a seat at the bar. He disappeared, while she watched Brian fork and flip two thick steaks.
“He’s gone to his room to pack. Spending the night with his best friend,” Brian told her with his back to her. “I took the liberty of pouring us wine.”
Alone. They would be alone.Why did that jangle her nerves? She needed the glass of cabernet at her fingertips. She brought the thin crystal to her lips and sipped. Delightful. “Uuummm, fantastic.”
“I’m hoping to get you drunk, you know.”
Her nervous laughter filled the kitchen and echoed off the rafters. “I’m an easy drunk, I’m afraid.” She sucked in her lower lip. “I––I haven’t done this in a long time.”
A devilishly dangerous smile laced his lips. “Good.” His eyes twinkled with desire and yearning. “You don’t remember me, do you?”
A frown creased her brow. “Should I?”
“I’ve been a ski instructor here for seven years. I noticed you and your skiing adventures before today.”
Pouring them more wine, he sat beside her, their shoulders touching.
“I’m afraid you have me at a disadvantage.” She clinked their glasses in a toast. “To memories.”
“You’re a hard woman to forget.” He ran fingers lightly over her knuckles. “My wife left us when Jason was two, before we found Valentine and skiing. Plumbing is my profession, but skiing is my passion.”
Her cheeks heated as she thought of what she’d accused him of. “Jason’s had no mother all these years?”
“Tina’s taken him under her wing, but yeah, I’ve been mother and father to him.”
Jason skidded into the kitchen with a back pack slung haphazardly over a shoulder.
“Whoa, Buddy, come here.” Jason dropped the bag, hugged his dad tight, then grabbed his hand.
“The Olsens are waiting, Dad,” he said, tugging Brian’s arm, effectively making his point.
“Okay, okay. Say good bye to our guest.”
“Bye, it was nice meeting you.”
Brian followed his boisterous son out the door.
When he returned, he chuckled. “So much energy.”
Her heart fluttered. “Like his father.” Alone in this gorgeous cabin in the snow. With a man so handsome, so broad-shouldered, so athletic. Suddenly the air evaporated, lights dimmed. Things were going black.
Brian had her elbow, a hand on her back. “Do you need to lie down?” he asked her from far away.
She felt herself melt to the floor.
Next she knew, Brian’s concerned face was close to hers, a cool cloth rubbing her brow. “What––” her breath failed, panic suffused her veins. She tried to sit up. “W––Wh…”
Gently Brian lay a warm hand on a shoulder, pushed her back against the sofa. “Probably the air. You’re not used to it and we did ski hard today.” He grinned. “Less wine, more water.”
“You’re a decent doctor on top of ski instructor and plumber.”
Their eyes locked. His darkened to the shade of the firs plentifully populating Valentine Mountain.
He leaned toward her, his lips hovered above hers, only long enough for her to stop him. But she wanted him to kiss her. In a whisper against her mouth, he said, “I’ve wanted to do that for so long.”
“You have?” How could she not have known?
As if he could read her mind, he said, “You were married.”
Oh, there was that. She’d clearly forgotten about her cheating husband.
Brian took her hand and led her to a room, clearly an office. He’d strewn the floor with rose petals and handed her a long, white box filled with red roses.
“I know you recently published your first book. Congratulations.”
How could this be happening? She wanted to pinch herself.
“Happy Valentine’s Day, Toddye. I’m so happy you came back to my mountain.”
“Kiss me again, please.”