Grenier had returned yet again. I’d noticed him last night during sets but had pointedly ignored him. No eye contact. No chin nod to acknowledge his existence.
But tonight, my gaze had wandered over to him during a song, and I’d almost lost the phrase. My voice had caught, I’d added an extra breath, and I’d had to immediately look away. Because the man was devastating.
He sat in one of the fancy chairs that filled the whole bar. Normally, his posture was pin-straight, but tonight, he’d slumped in his seat just enough to look relaxed. His long legs were spread, his arms resting on either side of him, a glass of something dark in his glass—scotch, if I had to guess, because that was usually what billionaire supervillains drank, right?
And maybe that wouldn’t have given me pause, though he made a downright pretty picture there, but his hair… Normally perfectly coiffed and controlled, tonight, his dark salt-and-pepper locks looked like he’d run his hands through them. Not something I could imagine him doing—touching his hair.
Until that moment, it wasn’t something I’d ever imagined doing, but faced with the evidence that it could be done, I wanted to be the one to do it. And that’s how I knew I shouldn’t have had the beer before my set.
It was the only explanation for my body’s response to him. Yes, he was an irritatingly attractive man, but on every other front, he was purely irritating. And his assistant, Kelly, had done her best to seem kind, but she’d hunted me down and nailed me to the wall so I couldn’t escape setting a meeting with him.
Not that I thought I could avoid the discussion, but I didn’t want to do it right now. I had a hundred other things to worry about—most importantly, paying for material for Cara’s dress, making sure my mom wasn’t too burnt out, and confirming Chuck understood that no matter how many times he texted or called, he wasn’t going to bully me into letting him break my daughter’s heart.
Sometimes, I wondered how we’d gotten into this mess with my grandparents and me working my butt off in my midthirties to make ends meet for all of us. But that’s the thing about medical debt—it usually comes after an unforeseen disaster. And ours sure had. Grandpa had a heart episode—not officially an attack, but because of a snowstorm, the canyon had been impassible and they’d life-flighted him to the hospital. The procedures, including an open-heart surgery and rehab care, piled up fast. That would’ve been enough to create a challenge, but then Grandma got sick, and almost the same thing happened except sub the helicopter for an ambulance and a different malady that knocked her on her butt for months.
My mom quit her job to care for them because it was legitimately a full-time job, and we couldn’t afford a home health nurse. They’d saved for retirement but had some issues along the way with their investments and ended up with very little to pad things. Amidst it all, the only break came through me. And I was not about to let my family struggle so I could have my weekends off or some other BS.
The stress overwhelmed me often enough, but we were making it. We would make it. And for two nights a week, I had this small, bright outlet to help me cope.
The final notes of the last song played. I thanked the remaining guests, likely all people staying at the hotel, and clicked the microphone back into its stand. Without actually looking, I could tell Grenier had stood. Good riddance, grumpy weirdo.
I helped Chase, the guitarist and my long-time friend, and our percussionist, Angel, tidy up the stage. At the bar, Brandon handed me my purse. I thanked him, and he snuck a peck to my cheek. This kid.
“Thanks. Good night?” I asked.
He shot me a sly look and nodded, evidently pleased with his tips. “Did you see the little bachelorette group? Only four of them, but yeah, they liked me.”
The kid was adorable, but he was just that—a twenty-three-year-old kid. And don’t get me wrong, I was all for people dating who they wanted, but I was not about to date a man closer in age to my daughter than me.
I patted his shoulder. “Good for you. See you soon.”
Thank God I wouldn’t be back here again until next weekend.
I jumped at Grenier’s voice behind me as I exited the bar. “What the hell, man! You don’t sneak up on a woman at eleven o’clock at night. Are you kidding me?”
He held out a hand. “I didn’t realize I was sneaking by standing here in a well-lit hallway.”
Not cute. Not funny. “What did you need?”
“I only wanted to tell you that your musicality is astounding. Your voice is magnificent, and hearing you sing is the highlight of any week I manage to do it.”
My mouth dropped open.
Of all the things to come out of his mouth, something like that… What?
I recovered quickly though, uninterested in him seeing how shocked his compliment made me. “Oh. Thanks.”
He nodded. “See you Tuesday.”
Then he walked off, that purposeful gait so upright that it looked like he carried a stack of invisible books on his head.
And I went home with an odd flutter in my chest, and a warring sense of anticipation and dread for Tuesday.
* * *
“Cara, honey, are you ready? If you want me to drive you, I need to go now.”
My beloved daughter usually walked to school, but she planned to wear new shoes and didn’t want to get them dirty, plus it looked like we might get rain. I had no problem dropping her at school, but she needed to kick it into gear or the girl would get left.
The first time I’d left her—exactly like I’d warned her no fewer than seven times leading up to my departure, mind you—she’d stomped into Pluck in a fit. I’d had to take her to school, sign her in with a tardy, and we’d both learned our lesson. She wouldn’t call my bluff… and I wouldn’t call hers.
It was a delicate détente, as were most things having to do with fourteen-year-old girls.
A minute later, she came run-stomping down the stairs. “You don’t have to yell. I know how to tell time.”
Oh. Good. One of those mornings.
I’d started my period, which meant she probably had, too. If I’d thought I hated my menstrual cycle as a teen girl, I had no idea how much I’d hate my daughter’s. Mostly because she went from occasionally moody and emotional girl-child to an edgy, frequently snarling beast of a person for several days each month. And because it hit at the time when I felt most calm, collected, and full of grace, our interactions during these days were naturally those I wanted captured by a documentary film crew and sent forth to the Mom of the Year Awards committee.
“You do know how to tell time. I affirm that.” See me not pointing out that if she can tell time so well, she needed to be downstairs five minutes ago? I’d like to thank my morning coffee…
She shuffled to get her backpack, and I sucked in a breath. Calm. Calming thoughts. This is not a problem. She is in the worst years of her life as a ninth grader.
“Did you get the stuff for my dress yet?”
I dumped the dregs of my coffee into the sink and flicked on the tap to rinse it down. “It should be arriving this week. We’ll measure you this weekend and—what the hell?”
Water dribbled out from under the sink and dripped onto my shoe. I turned off the water and dropped to peek into the cabinet and yep. Of course.
“What? What’s wrong?” Cara bent down next to me. “Oh, that’s not good.”
Because I was an idiot, apparently, I turned the water back on and bent to watch to see where the leak originated and got shot in the face with a spray that wet the entire front of my shirt.
I smacked the lever of the faucet and straightened, panic rising steadily. I did not have time for this. I didn’t know what Grenier would do if I missed this meeting, but I couldn’t risk finding out. The man had a notoriously militant approach to timeliness, and I didn’t want to be at any more of a disadvantage than I already was.
Cara handed me a towel. “This is bad.”
I dabbed my face, inhaling slowly. “Yeah. It’s bad. But I have to go to this meeting. So load up, and I’m going to grab another shirt and be right there.”
She hesitated, like she wanted to argue, but then turned and made for the garage. I sprinted to the laundry room, thankful I’d finally done a load last night. Darks were in the dryer, so I could pull on the long-sleeved black T-shirt I owned. It wouldn’t look particularly professional or stylish, but it wasn’t sopping.
I pulled open the dryer door, and instead of a dry tumble of clothes, I found a wet little jumble.
“No. Come on, you jerk.” I’d spent three hours trying to DIY a fix on this thing weeks ago, and it’d held. It’d been working! “Why now, you wretched beast?”
No help for it, I ran up the stairs two at a time and yanked open my closet door. The options were slim pickings. I stripped off my wet shirt, then grabbed for the nearest and only remaining non-sweater shirt option—a plain white T-shirt. Not ideal, but again, better than soaking wet
I snatched the cardigan I liked to wear around the house at night—because I was an old lady like that—from the bed and shrugged into it on my way back down the stairs. I grabbed my purse, keys, blessed travel mug full of coffee, and ran for the door.
Twenty minutes later, I’d dropped off Cara, poured steaming hot coffee down my shirt to my stomach, and realized the shirt I’d grabbed was a half-shirt thing I’d worn as part of a costume and didn’t cover my navel. Neat.
I was all for fashion and trends, and I could admit I had the stomach to show off because I worked damn hard for it—those FitCross-style workouts three times a week with Warrick yelling at us destroyed me every time—but would I ever walk into a meeting with a man I considered as close to an enemy as I had on this earth looking like that? No. I’d like my skin fully covered, thanks.
Moody daughter. Burst pipe. Broken dryer. Weird shirt. Coffee stain. Lunch forgotten on the counter. None of this would faze me on a normal day. I’d grown used to feeling like a walking three-ring circus most days, and I had long since made peace with the fact that Murphy—yes, him of the “If it can go wrong, it will go wrong” law—had come to live with me.
What I wasn’t sure I could handle was everything else stacked atop my already teetering pile. The bigger problems that didn’t just irritate—they dragged at me, cuffs at my ankles and wrists, because I had no way to solve them.
Pulling into the Silver Ridge Resort’s parking lot, I ground my teeth. I’d planned to park in town by my shop and walk up here so I could take a minute to enjoy the glorious fall morning and calm my nerves. But the ten-car pile-up making up my morning meant I had no time for a stroll and therefore had to drive here and park. I found a spot in employee parking because I damn well could.
I entered the lodge through the west employee entrance closest to the bar—figured familiar territory would help me feel a little less off-balance. I liked working at the fancy hotel, and I enjoyed most of the clientele. But I never forgot about the disparities between us. I was there to sling drinks and entertain. They were there to enjoy a luxury mountain experience with their high-end lifestyle.
I had plenty of wealthy friends. Somehow, I’d recently collected two more fancy friends—Calla Rice, who was just as famous as Jamie, if not more so, and Sadie Miller. Her status was more unobtrusive, but she came from one of the wealthiest families in the state, and she was dating a former NFL player. The fact that I’d known said NFL player my whole life and called him my friend too mattered not.
Because the man I was about to go head-to-head with over my measly rent payments put all of those people to shame. He could take all their money, lose it, and be no more affected than if he’d lost pocket change in a couch cushion.
In the last few weeks, whenever I thought about him, anger, righteous indignation, and a determination to fight for myself rose in me. But just now? After this morning? I felt shaky and weak. I didn’t feel like conquering, name-taking Quinn. I felt like small, unsure, barely-holding-it-together Quinn.
Crap, did I hate feeling like that little snot.
“Hi, Ms. Darling. Go right ahead in.”
Kelly, the woman who’d ceaselessly tracked me until I gave in to this meeting, waved me through giant polished wood doors to what was presumably Grenier’s office. He didn’t own the hotel outright—from what I’d heard, he and Jonas Bauer had both invested in the project. But for all I knew, and based on what I’d noticed in the last few years, he’d probably bought it out from under Jonas to have for himself.
Behind a large desk at the far end of the large room sat Grenier, head bowed over a tablet. I stood just inside the doors, both hands holding the straps of my purse in front of me, both because I suddenly felt the need to shrink and be even smaller in this giant room, and to cover the gap in my cardigan that showed my bare stomach. Curse the thing for not having buttons or zippers or something to hold the edges together.
After about a minute without being acknowledged, irritation surged past the nerves. “Are you ready to meet, or should I come back another time?”
His head jerked up like I’d truly startled him. He shot to his feet and leveled me with that serious, focused look that sent my stomach to my toes. “You’re two minutes early, but I am ready.”
Rounding the desk, he buttoned the top button on one of his probably-costs-more-than-my-car suits and held out a hand to a leather chair situated in front of a low coffee table. An identical chair sat just a foot or two away, next to it a couch and a fireplace that currently had nothing burning in it.
Paired with the rich carpeting, the wall of windows, and a chilly winter’s day, this would be the perfect place to curl up with a book and just be.
“Would you care for some coffee? Water?”
Hmm. Did not expect that. Somehow, I’d imagined walking into his office, plunking down in a seat across from an even-larger-than-his-real-one desk, and having him doom me to doubled rent before I got a word out.
But starting with coffee was smooth, I had to give it to him.
“Yes, please. Both, if you don’t mind.” I’d left my water bottle sitting right next to my lunch, so might as well.
He tapped out a message on his phone—presumably to request the beverages—then seated himself in the chair next to mine. It put us at odd angles—we weren’t directly opposing each other; we weren’t on different sides of a table or desk. The lack of separation made me restless because I hadn’t anticipated this comfortable, almost warm approach to a meeting I’d been dreading.
He looked at me, eyes narrowing the barest bit like he’d noticed something.
“What? Lipstick on my teeth?” I said this because I knew for a fact I didn’t have lipstick on my teeth since I’d forgotten to put any on. One more thing to make me feel naked in front of him.
“You look tired.”
A small, disbelieving laugh jumped out. “W-what?”
“I said, you look tired. Are you all right?”
Oh no. No no no no no. This was not what I’d been expecting, and I felt those words pierce through my hard shell right into my gooey, very-close-to-breaking-down middle. Crap.
“Me? Sure. I’m fine.”
“That sounds like an evasion.”
He shook his head, as if disappointed. With me? Himself? With how weird this damn conversation is going, because what is happening right now?!
“Fine is always covering something else up.”
I grit my teeth, and mercifully, Kelly arrived with a tray.
Oh, hello. A tray with a coffee service, small plates, fresh grapes, several kinds of cheese, and what looked like scones.
When I glanced at Grenier, he simply nodded as if to say help yourself. So I did. Because food would help stave off this verge-of-tears zone I’d been skirting since waking up twenty-three minutes late this morning.
“While you eat, let me tell you about the impending changes.”
Half a scone stuffed into my mouth prevented me from speaking, so I simply nodded. And he launched into the new lease, the new guidelines for tenants he’d be enacting, and set a new rental contract in front of me on the table.
“I’m sure you’ll want your lawyer to review this. Take your time. When you’re ready, simply return it and we’ll proceed.”
I glanced from him to the printed and neatly stapled packet of papers. John would do me a solid and review it just in case Grenier was trying to pull one over on me, but I had to know. After a swig of coffee, I flipped to the final page and found the new monthly rent fee.
My heart sank. Three hundred dollars more than it had been. And really, in my gut, I’d been expecting a lot more. With the way Silverton had grown and all the wealthy new residents, he very well could’ve increased rent by far more than that. I’d feared it’d be a thousand more a month, especially after Kelly had mentioned replacing windows and a few other improvement projects that would be taking place in the next few months.
But three hundred might as well have been a thousand for me right now. I already worked six days a week at the shop and Friday and Saturday nights at the hotel. I’d cut back on seeing friends so I didn’t spend money eating out. I ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches most lunches and sometimes dinner, too. My only luxury expense was Warrick’s gym, Grit, because without it, I’d lose my ever-loving mind, and I was fairly sure he’d already given me a discount, though I hadn’t wanted to know for sure.
I felt it coming. I sniffed, scratched next to my eye, shifted in my seat. I crushed my teeth together and clenched my stomach muscles. But no luck. Because there they were—tears.
Why did he need another three hundred dollars a month from each tenant? What on earth would that do for someone whose net worth sat in the actual billions according to article after article that popped up when I searched his name online? And how dare he ply me with coffee and scones to make it more palatable?
“Are you crying?”
Grenier’s curt, almost sharp voice cut through my little mental spiral and the tears popped out and tracked down my cheeks.
I steeled myself. “For the record, I am not crying because I’m sad or trying for pity. I’m crying because I’m angry and this is just the liquid overflow of rage.”
Something flickered across his face that I might’ve taken as surprise or even a little humor, but that couldn’t be right because this soulless, humorless, impenetrable man wouldn’t have that kind of reaction to me crying, would he?
No. He wouldn’t.
He didn’t. In fact, his reaction threw me far more than I ever would’ve imagined. In my wildest dreams, I wouldn’t have guessed what he said next.
He leaned forward, that serious brow furrowed with what looked like concern. His brown eyes tracked back and forth between mine, and then he said, “How can I help?”