I stared at the phone clutched in my hand. It nearly cut into my palm from my tight grip as ice-cold fury pumped through me and pooled at my feet like lead. I’d never hated someone, like, really hated them, and yet lately, the bodies were piling up.
He’d continued speaking and I’d stopped listening, so I shoved the phone back to my ear and grit my teeth so hard, I knew I’d hear about it from my dentist. Danielle was super nice, but she wouldn’t stop badgering about my teeth grinding habit.
“…you’ll see I’ve changed. But you’re too stubborn and selfish. You refuse to give on anything. You’re determined to think the worst of me because you can’t stand the idea of me being the good guy, that I’ve grown as a person.”
Rage crawled up my throat, and I wanted nothing more than the satisfaction of destroying this man with my words. How had I ever found him attractive and charming? How had I fallen so freaking fast and gotten myself tangled up with him?
Actually, I knew exactly how. He was gorgeous, I was twenty-one, and he spent all night telling me how much he loved my voice. We slept together, and he offered me an insane amount of money to essentially be his mistress, but he didn’t want a relationship. I turned him down, then realized I’d gotten knocked up and let him know. At which point, he offered me that same amount of cash to get rid of the baby, which I refused, so he bailed completely. All of that would’ve been a regretful memory, but it turned out to be the greatest mistake-that-worked of my life because it gave me the best person on earth, my daughter, Cara.
“I’ll say this again, Chuck. I can’t have you blazing in here trying to become a dad because you finally decided to feel guilty. It doesn’t work like that.”
How was that not clear?
“I get that I’ve been an idiot—far worse than an idiot. But I want to try now. Shouldn’t you let her decide? She’s old enough.”
Oh, this man was just asking for trouble, wasn’t he?
“Hmm, and let’s remember why she’s old enough to make this choice. Oh, that’s right, because you essentially didn’t exist for the last fourteen years. Which means you don’t have rights. You even signed those away. If that happened in a cocaine-induced stupor, I can’t help you.”
A string of expletives trailed through the speaker, so I held the phone away and let my eyes wander from the conversation.
My shift here at work started soon, and I did not have time for this. “Listen, as creative as your swearing is, I’ve got to go. You can have your lawyers contact mine, but please don’t call again.”
And thank goodness my lawyer was actually my friend John Wallace, who wouldn’t charge me for taking my call.
Chuck hung up—after another lovely line or two about where I could go and what I could kiss, et cetera. I slammed my phone facedown on the counter and slumped over it, an elbow on either side of its unbreakable black case, and held my head in my hands. I had approximately seven minutes to get my crap together and gear up for a Friday night at the lounge, which meant I needed to lock all this rage and disappointment and horrifyingly, heartbreak, down.
Not heartbreak for me, or my heart, but for my daughter’s. Her biological father was an utter idiot, and I hated it. That said, she was wonderful. As much as I disliked him, I wouldn’t have her without that small part he’d played, so I couldn’t hate him completely.
“Ms. Darling, are you unwell?”
I exhaled slowly, willing my last shred of self-control to do its job in the face of this new complication. That voice. I knew the low, clear tenor of it well by now, and it could fairly be categorized as belonging to another person on my as-close-to-hate-as-I-get list.
With a deep, calming inhale, I straightened, a customer service smile pasted on my lips. “No. Everything’s fine.”
“You don’t seem fine.”
I didn’t meet his eye in order to respond. Instead, I did my usual blurring out of his face, looking vaguely in his direction. He was too hawkishly good-looking, and I couldn’t stand the way my stomach dipped when I saw him, like it was tipping a cap to the physical gloriousness of this man. Light brown eyes, salt-and-pepper hair always immaculate, that curated stubble on his face, and a suit so sharp it could slice you open, in either coal black or slate gray.
“I assure you, I am.” I’d gritted the words out, but who could blame me?
That man? Julian Grenier. Billionaire. Part-time Silverton resident since a few years back, when he and Jamie Morris, one of my best friends, began developing land east of the city. Sincerely odd duck.
Oh, and bane of my existence.
“If you’re unwell, you should call a replacement.”
How could a voice be devoid of tone? Of any inflection, really. Not even a hint of an accent. So unnerving. And those actual words…
Lord, help me not murder this presumptuous know-it-all.
I stepped around the corner of the bar and flipped on the tap, pumping soap into my hands as I spoke. “Due respect, Mr. Grenier, I—”
“Mr. Grenier. I am perfectly fine. Thank you for your concern.” Although, no thank you, because you can just butt out.
When no response came, I heaved a silent sigh and looked up. Guh. Just like always, the very sight of him sent a flash of awareness through me. Awareness of what, I had no interest in pinning down. The fact that he looked like the cover model of a billionaire romance novel? Awareness of myself as a woman who hadn’t been touched or kissed by a man in way too long?
Or was it awareness of the fact that he’d ruined my master plan but didn’t know I knew it was him? Could it be that little fact stuck like a splinter in my thumb?
His gaze, with its piercing intensity, felt like he could eventually peel my layers and get to my core if he stood there long enough. How it unnerved me, yet also at the same time sent a sizzle up my spine. My body and mind had gone to war over their opinion of him.
My body crooned “Hey, boy!” while my mind yelled, “You are the actual worst.” This left me functioning on an uneven keel, walking around like the boat had been tipped on its side, but I still had to walk from one end to the other.
“You are upset.”
No change of expression. No pinched brow. Also no clear explanation as to why he’d gotten stuck on this subject when normally, he had very little time for anything or anyone beyond whatever he needed them for.
I didn’t try to hide my exasperation. “Mr. Grenier, I—”
Over my dead body. “Mr. Grenier. I took a personal phone call before my shift began, but as you can see, there’s still one minute until my time on the clock begins. So please, if you don’t mind, would you allow me to finish my prep?”
Hands behind his back, he offered only a curt nod. “Of course.”
But he went nowhere.
And because I couldn’t exactly shoo the man away, I focused on my job, washing a strainer of limes, eager to get the fruit and veg prep done. Brandon, my co-bartender for tonight, would typically be here already, but he had an appointment that ran late or something like that. I was on my own for prep and the first forty-five minutes tonight.
Grenier’s eyes still lasered in on me. I could feel his gaze, piercing again, and shifted from foot to foot as I sliced the first lime. I wouldn’t be the one to speak next—I’d said all I had to say to him. If I sounded like a petulant kindergartner, so sue me. The man had bought my building out from under me, and I couldn’t soon forget that.
The knife slipped and thunked against the cutting board, making me wince.
“Did you cut yourself?”
“Those knives need to be sharpened.”
Yes. Thank you, Captain Obvious. “They don’t sharpen any more than this. They’re the cheap set we had when we first opened.”
Theo, the sous chef at the restaurant across the lobby of the hotel, popped his head in the entrance. “Quinney, you need dinner tonight?”
“I’d love it. Thanks.” I smiled and winked at him, and he returned the gesture.
“Oh, hi, Mr. Grenier.”
Grenier only nodded, then glanced at the phone in his hand. Theo’s eyes widened at me, then he slipped out the door again.
At least I had that going for me. Cara was with my mom and grandparents—one of her favorite places in the world. I got to sing later, a definite bright spot to the day. I had lunch plans with friends tomorrow.
And at some point, Grenier would have to unglue his feet from the floor directly in front of my station and leave me in peace.
In fact, why was he still here? From my understanding, he had about eight thousand projects and businesses going on. He moved from one thing to the next in a straight line—no greetings, nothing to distract or delay him. Why would he stand here when he could sit literally anywhere in this bar—his bar—and do whatever it was he had going on?
“Did you need anything else?” I asked, not even attempting to mask the irritation in my voice at this point. Seriously, did he have zero social awareness?
He blinked up at me, as though he’d entirely forgotten I was there in the sixty seconds he’d had his head in his phone.
“No. I’m fine.” And he went back to his device, fingers flying in precise little taps.
“Super,” I said, more than ready to be left alone.
“Oh, but I did have one issue I need to bring to your attention.” He continued typing, not looking up to say this.
Tap, tap, tap. The next moment dragged out so long, I thought I might scream, but finally, several limes later, he tucked his phone into his inside breast pocket and spoke.
“I’m raising rent in your building when leases renew in the next few months. I believe your store’s lease is up end of October. I’ll have my assistant set up a meeting to discuss the way forward.”
Somewhere, a clock tick-ticked as his words tipped into place and registered.
Crap. And also, seriously?
Oh, so he wasn’t ever going to directly acknowledge he’d bought the building I’d been trying to get loans to buy? He was just going to barrel in here and tell me he might be elbowing me out altogether. I loved Jamie, but the fact that he’d brought this pushy, greedy man into the town I loved made me want to strangle my old friend. Grenier had his hands in everything, and it made my skin crawl just waiting for the other shoe to drop. That familiar simmering rage hit the boiling point, the pot containing all that bursting black energy tipping right on over. My throat burned as the words rose to my tongue.
“Listen, Grenier. I don’t know who you think you are coming into this town, buying up all the property, and getting rid of every good thing we have going here, but I’m done with it. Tell your assistant she can shove your meeting up her—”
“That wouldn’t be particularly wise, as you’ll need—”
“Honestly, can you just leave me alone? Let me do my prep in peace and you go do… whatever it is rude billionaires do on a Friday night. Plot the demise of a small country? Buy up some local businesses and bulldoze them down before the owners find out? Shop at a Restoration Hardware?”
His only reaction was to slow blink before saying, “My assistant will contact you.”
And then, he walked out and left me to cut the last limes with a dull knife and stew over how infuriating he was. Oh, and worry over how on earth I was going to make ends meet for everything on my plate and pay for Cara’s winter formal dress and face a rent hike.
The jet landed in a bumpy swoop onto the small runway. I’d accepted that the pilot could do nothing about the turbulence when landing this high in the mountains. And while I loathed the uncontrolled ruckus of every approach and finalization of a flight into Silverton, it hadn’t yet stopped me from coming back.
Despite the inelegance of the landing, we were precisely on time. A little push of adrenaline knocked through me as I confirmed the fact on my wristwatch. Yes. Good. Still on track for the day.
Smith quickly moved through the process of opening the doors, and the ground crew assisted in lowering the small stairway. I tucked my tablet under my arm and shot off a handful of texts that’d been dependent on landing on time here. As soon as my shoes hit the pavement with a satisfying pat, Kelly launched into her usual updates.
“Your conference call is waiting. I told them ten minutes—”
“Why are they waiting? The meeting isn’t for another twenty.” Irritation slithered up my spine. Why did people insist on wasting their time waiting on other people? Did they have no self-respect?
“They are overeager, sir.” Her eyes widened before she ever saw my face. “Sorry, er, Julian.”
Kelly was new, and so far, had done an excellent job, save for her tendency to treat me like lord and master rather than boss. I’d made very clear she wasn’t to call me sir. I had no desire to treat my staff, who made my plans possible, like they were beneath me. We were a team, each person valuable.
“What saccharine, do-gooder posturing.”
I shook my mother’s voice away, even as unease tapped at me. Normally, I was far better at keeping her and all other distractions at bay.
Normally. Small distortion of the truth, wasn’t it? Because lately, I’d been highly distractable. Especially when here in Silverton. And when I was away from the small town I’d come to think of as home. But all of that thinking proved to be even more of a distraction, so I pushed it into a deposit box, mentally locked it, and slid it into place among the myriad other things I compartmentalized at any given moment in order to be as productive as I was.
“I got confirmation of signatures from the legal team on the Southwark project. The Haitian donations arrived safely in country and the organizational leadership has obtained them.” She listed three or four more updates by the time we reached my car.
“Are you sure you don’t need Scott? He said he’d be very happy for a week in the mountains during the leaf change.” Kelly clutched her portfolio to her chest, talking through the driver’s side window.
“I know I’m an uptight jerk sometimes, but I really do love driving here. But if Scott needs a week in the woods, fly him out.” I pressed the button to start the car.
She nodded. “Sounds good. And should I bring up Thanksgiving plans? Do you want me to RSVP to your mother?”
“No. Thank you. I’ll take care of it.” It’d be the last visit of the year with her, and I’d do my best to avoid being set up with any of her vulturelike friends’ daughters. Plus, she’d complain about my bad manners if I had Kelly RSVP instead of doing it myself.
“All right then. See you Monday.”
She made a soft salute, one that any decent soldier would be mildly embarrassed by, but she meant well.
And fortunately, she performed well. Because I could not abide people who meant well but couldn’t execute their given tasks. Intentions are well and good, but depending on the situation, good intentions and bad execution can get people killed. I’d seen it in my factory, I’d seen it in design work, and I’d even seen it as we’d developed the neighborhood here with different contracting crews.
As I pulled onto the scenic little road leading from the Silverton airport into town, I breathed in the fresh air tunneling through my open window. I’d allotted eight minutes for this ten-minute drive. Eight minutes to relish the changing leaves crunching under my tires, the last slow dribbles of the waterfall that slipped between rocks where the road curved past the canyon, and the general splendor of Silver Ridge Peak and her sisters.
This was why I came back. I’d failed to notice my surroundings on too many occasions. When Jamie Morris, world-renowned rock star and Silverton native, had approached me about the project to develop a high-end neighborhood up here, I’d initially scoffed. On the map, the town was a blip in the middle of a difficult-to-navigate mountain range, too far from the airport to become the next luxury destination.
Or was it? Upon arrival, after a harrowing trip through the Salt Lake City Airport and what felt like a year of my life spent in the car, I’d seen what drew him here. Why he wanted to make something lasting in this little town that had more charm than most places in LA ever dreamed of. But it needed infrastructure—airport, more roads, pressure on the state’s department of transportation to review the closure of a strategic route that would cut the commute here in half.
Now, it had all of those things, and my house had been finished for over two years. I spent every third week of the month here, sometimes more, depending on my other travel obligations. And while I wouldn’t say I belonged here, really, people had become used to me. Not so much that they felt comfortable coming to beg for sponsorships or donations, but enough that they didn’t stare at me like I’d gotten lost on the way to the resort.
Pulling into my driveway, I smiled at the mountain home. I’d started building it more than three years ago, but it’d taken time to furnish it. My LA home was largely clean lines and sleek grays. I’d wanted something more rustic here and, though I rarely used the word in speech or thought, something cozy.
“Nice to have you back, Julian.”
Donald, my butler if one needed to call him something, greeted me by opening my door, accepting the key fob, and trailing me into the house. He peppered in small updates on the goings-on of the house, though he knew I trusted him with everything.
He followed as I padded through the hallway, up the main staircase, and stopped at my bedroom door. “Carol has the call to patch through when you’re ready.”
With a small thanks, I entered my room. On the far side, huge windows showcased an unbeatable view of the mountain and the changing foliage. I took a moment to freshen up, drank eight ounces of water, and straightened my tie again. Normally, this was when adrenaline would hit, a little nudge toward the success that would come from this call. But something about arriving here made that sluggish to activate.
Maybe it was the deal itself—a kind of business I had no interest in anymore. Or maybe it was that most of these things didn’t capture my full mind the way they used to. Before Silverton. Before I’d had a glimpse of something else.
Yet, here I stood, shooting off a text to Carol that I was ready to start the meeting, nineteen minutes from landing at the airport. And though I didn’t look forward to the call now lighting up my phone, I highly anticipated what came after.
It was Friday. And on Fridays, I allotted two hours for one very specific activity I only did here in Silverton. And I never double-booked.
* * *
Quinn Darling sang like it might be her last song. Every time.
I wasn’t someone who was awed by things. The natural beauty of Silverton couldn’t be denied, but it wasn’t what had drawn me in about the place. The investment had, and the opportunity to partner with Jamie Morris, as I found him one of the more agreeable people I’d met, and a loyal one at that. But music turned my head. It was how I’d come to know Jamie, and what’d started our friendship.
Quinn Darling most certainly turned my head. The first time I’d heard her, it’d felt like the part of my brain that held all sense of urgency had melted. I’d become transfixed by her voice, the inflection of her phrasing, and the way I could hear her smile in certain words without looking at her. The way her lips formed words, and even how skillfully she used the microphone.
That was when she sang.
Any other time?
The woman was needlessly stubborn. To date, Kelly had contacted her in three different formats—phone, e-mail, and a visit to her place of business—not the bar, but her daytime workplace, Pluck. When Kelly approached her at her store, Quinn had reportedly reluctantly agreed to meet with me next week.
As I sat in a high-backed leather club chair in the far corner of the bar where she sang each weekend night, pleasure simmered in my gut. I’d have her undivided attention in the meeting, which would likely prove challenging since her presence was notably charismatic and appealing. I had a hard time keeping my eyes from taking their fill, which was rarely a problem for me.
But tonight? Tonight, I’d sit here with my scotch and I’d watch her sing. I’d feel my heart swell when her voice did. I’d experience every manner of emotion when she imbued the music with raw, untamed feeling I instinctually knew she’d felt in real life. I’d revel in her, and I’d envy her.
Then tomorrow, I’d show up and do it all over again.