Mountain Man

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Chapter One

I yank up the bustier that shows more boob than I’ve ever revealed in my life. “This uniform sucks.”

My best friend Cali peers innocently from across the aisle of the Blue Casino locker room. “You look good in that uniform. You should be thanking me.”

The plan after college is to work at Blue Casino and save up as much money as possible before graduate school in the fall. Cali says she didn’t know what the uniforms looked like, but she knew.

Cali grew up near the Lake Tahoe casinos. She could have warned me and I’d have chosen a different position, like, say, dealer. Instead, I became a cocktail waitress, convinced it would be less center-of-attention.

Given that my nipples are an inch from greeting the world, I’m thinking, not so incognito.

Cali’s been trying to get me back out there since I broke up with my cheating ex-boyfriend. I thought she meant emotionally, but Jesus, this is out there.

Waitresses and female dealers swarm the lockers, stripping and pulling on fresh uniforms allocated by the casino at the start of every shift. Some prepare to take to the casino floor; others are finished for the day and dressing for home.

The woman next to me shimmies into a gold lamé skinny dress and stilettos.

Clearly, some people have bigger plans than me tonight. I tug on my jeans and slip on black flats.

“Heads up,” Cali calls.

The Milestone Pod that tracks running distance flies through the air.

Cali had a two-second hankering for exercise this week. She ran a quarter of a mile and gave up. Apparently, she decided now was a good time to use her nonathletic skills to return my device.

The Milestone Pod veers several feet to the right. I lunge and flatten my stomach to the bench, catching it with my fingertips before it crashes to the ground.

I look up, exasperated. “Jesus, you’re like two feet away. Were you even aiming for me?”

“What? I’m making sure your reflexes are in working order.” She shuts her locker and swings a low-slung purse over her shoulder. “How was your night?”

I grab a few more items and close my locker as well. “They started calling me Snow White.”

No need to elaborate on who “they” are. While Cali lives the high life of a dealer in cushy training sessions, I’ve been slaving away, slinging drinks in three-inch heels and trying to keep up with the veteran waitresses. For some reason, they’ve chosen to haze me out of the dozen new seasonal waitresses.

Cali gazes up, her mouth twisting as if she’s actually considering the nickname.

I drop my voice as we pass workers on our way out of the casino’s basement. “I do not look like a princess.”

She pinches her thumb and forefinger together. “A little. But with a huge rack.”

I open the door to the casino floor and raise my voice to be heard above the clanging and buzzing of slots. The sound is only slightly below deafening levels at this time of night. “They’re not that big. I’m sporty. Athletes can’t have big boobs.”

She looks at me skeptically. “You need to be proud of those babies. Like me.” She grins and sticks out her Victoria’s Secret-enhanced breasts.

There’s a chance I inherited my rack, as Cali puts it, from my mother, who does have impressive boobs. I might also have inherited her looks, only her hair is a few shades lighter than my nearly black locks and she has true green eyes. Mine are hazel, less obvious. I like my eyes.

I’m sure the Snow White nickname has something to do with my dark hair and pale coloring. I’m equally certain the veteran waitresses think I’m young and naïve and not tough enough.

I deliver ten drinks to their twenty, because I can’t freakin’ find my customers. The crazy patrons move around the casino floor like they’re pollinating slot machines. I’m spatially oriented; if people aren’t where I left them, I can’t find them. So yes, some of the hazing is warranted. But if the other waitresses think I’m naïve, they don’t know me very well.

No one raised by Chantell Dubois could remain innocent. The woman changed her name to something that sounds like a French bordello, for Christ’s sake. I’m Genevieve, or Gen as my friends call me, but in spite of my mom’s fetish for anything French, I’ve kept her maiden name of Tierney—a hundred-percent Irish surname.

As much as my mom wishes it, there are no Frenchmen in our bloodline.

Technically, I could be French on my father’s side, but since I have no idea who he is, the point is moot.

What I haven’t mentioned to Cali, because it seems like a shitty thing to say to someone who’s struggling with money, is that my mother offered to pay my way through graduate school. I don’t technically need this job. I just refuse to take any more of my mother’s money.

My mom doesn’t work, nor do we have rich relatives. I assume she gets by with the help of the wealthy men that have flitted in and out of our lives for as far back as I can remember. Which is why I’m determined to earn my way through graduate school and create a healthy distance from it all.

Cali takes in the look on my face. “That sucks they’re calling you names, even if you do look like Snow White.” I frown, which she ignores. “Tell them to back the eff off. Better yet, I’ll do it for you.” She cranes her head and glances around. “Which waitress started it?”

Ah, shit, now I’ve done it.

“Cali, do not say anything.” She would too; Cali’s great like that. But sometimes her eagerness to help gets me in trouble. “The person who started it is my supervisor. You’ll make it worse.”

She shrugs. “Suit yourself.”

We pass the last bank of slots before the sports bar, and a waitress I chitchatted with throughout my shift sees me and smiles this large, wide smile I’m beginning to associate with her.

Nessa is petite at about five foot three inches—the extra three courtesy of black pumps to match our cocktail uniform’s midnight satin hot pants and electric-blue sequined bustier. Compared to her, I’m like an Amazon at five foot ten—over six feet in my work heels.

I wave as we make our way past.

“Who’s that?” Cali asks.

“Nessa. She invited us to the dinner party tonight. Tacos. Yummy.”

I’m not entirely comfortable around strangers, but it would be nice to have another friend in town.

Cali shakes her head. “I can’t go, remember? I have a Skype date with Eric. But you should go. It would be good for you to get out.”

Oh God, I forgot about the Skype call. Cali’s right about me going, but not for the reason she’s thinking.

The cottage we rented for the summer has thin walls. I’d rather not be around for the sex-Skyping. And Cali’s boyfriend is on my shit list. He hit on me a couple of weeks ago, which transferred him from absentminded, annoying-boyfriend-of-my-best-friend to a creeper.

If I go to this dinner party with Nessa, it’ll kill two birds with one stone. Cali will think I’m getting out and recovering from my ex, dubbed the A-hole, and I won’t have to plug my ears at the moans vibrating through the walls. Win-win.

And there’s no reason to worry about guys bugging me the way they do when I’m at work in my skimpy uniform. This is a small, casual get-together—not to mention I’ve got blinders on to the male sex. I’m all good.

* * *

Pulling up to the Al Tahoe neighborhood in my dented sedan, I take in the houses with rounded eaves and shutters with pine tree cutouts.

The knockoff Swiss Alps look, I decide. Nessa’s friend’s place even has an A-frame porch roof that extends all the way to the ground, giving it the Swiss chalet effect.

I walk up to the front and lift my hand to knock, claustrophobically aware of the roof inches from my face, when the door swings open.

The scent of chiles and grease smacks me in the face, and Nessa is standing there grinning, her straight black hair draped over one shoulder. “I saw you pull up.”

Shouts erupt from behind her and I peer over her head, because she’s short and I can. My gaze lands on a guy with a baseball hat turned backward pounding his fist on a table.

Nessa ushers me through the door, taking my coat and purse and walking them down a hallway. I fidget for a moment and stare down the hall where she disappeared, glancing every few seconds at the two people across the room.

Nessa returns a minute later. “What can I get you to drink?” she says. “Zach has Coronas in the fridge and I made a batch of margaritas.” She waggles her eyebrows.

Margaritas sound awesome, but I’m driving. “Water would be great.”

We enter the kitchen and Nessa fills me a glass from the sink near the food simmering on the stove that has my mouth salivating. She hands me the cup and we make our way over to the others.

The guy with the baseball hat lifts his hands in exasperation at the attractive brunette sitting beside him. “You call that a gulp? Come on, Mira. That’s a baby bird sip. Quit being a girl and drink it like a man.”

A few coins glimmer on the table and a shallow glass sits in the center.

My heart gives a little flutter in my chest. Quarters is one of my favorite drinking games.

I’ve been drinking since I was twelve. My mom thought it would make me worldlier to have wine with dinner—something to do with her French fetish. As a result, my tolerance for alcohol is high. Add good hand-eye coordination that did not come from her—her precision is as good as Cali’s, which is to say nonexistent—and I pretty much dominate at Quarters.

“Zach,” Nessa says. The guy with the baseball hat looks up and smiles at her. Wow, kind of an adoring smile if I’m reading it correctly, though Nessa never mentioned a boyfriend. “This is the friend I told you about. Gen is a cocktail waitress at Blue for the summer.”

I recognize Zach as one of the dealers in the blackjack pit. “The food smells amazing,” I say.

He grins. “Glad you could make it. This is Mira.”

The girl beside him gives me a weak smile and takes a sip of her drink.

“They’re Washoe,” Nessa adds, elbowing me in the side. “Mira and Zach go way back. Their families have known each other for, like, a hundred generations.”

Zach adjusts his hat and scratches his forehead, his thick brown hair peeking through the hole of his backward ball cap. “Why do you always refer to us as Washoe?”

“It’s interesting.” Nessa shoves him playfully and walks back into the kitchen.

He shakes his head at her retreating figure, but there’s appreciation in his eyes.

Zach empties the Quarters glass. “Join us, Gen. Have you played before?”

“I have, but I’m driving. You mind that I’m not drinking?”

“Nope,” he says. “You can help me get Mira toasted. She isn’t nice until she’s had a few.”

His comment receives a scowl from Mira that resembles a runway pout, because the girl’s face is stunning. Her dark-chocolate hair hits mid-back and tapers around a face that’s not quite heart-shaped, not quite oval. It’s symmetrical and interesting, and I’m seriously jealous of her defined cheekbones.

I sit in one of the granny-style wooden dining chairs, and Zach slides a quarter my way. Holding it between my thumb and forefinger, I glance at the cup in the center. I line up my shot, and slam the side of my palm onto the high-gloss wooden surface.

The quarter bounces off the table and sinks into the empty juice glass.

“Nice!” Zach smirks in Mira’s direction. “We have a ringer.”

In college, we used a wide-rimmed cup to catch as many quarters as possible—hence, getting people drunk quickly. The small, respectable glass in the center of Zach’s table is so sophisticated. I feel very grown up.

He hands me another coin, and I prepare my next shot. “So, Washoe? You’re Native American?” The next quarter lands in the cup as well, and I gesture for Mira to take a drink.

She shoots me a look that burns my corneas. For someone so pretty, she has a hell of an evil eye. I hope Zach is right about her demeanor improving with liquor.

He nods. “We’re all part Washoe, the local tribe, including Lewis, who’s running late. Mira’s the only true blood. Both her parents came from the Dresslerville reservation. Though I’m sure somewhere along the line one of Mira’s relatives hooked up with an outsider.” He winks at Mira and she rolls her eyes.

“Whatever,” she says. “You wish you were full-blooded.”

Zach looks at me and shakes his head as if to say, You see what I’m dealing with?

He frowns at the full margarita on ice in Mira’s hand. “If Gen lands the next three in a row, you drain your girly drink.”

Her eyes narrow. “Make it five.”

Five? Child’s play.

Mira is stunningly beautiful. Guys wouldn’t notice other girls with Mira in the room. She’d be the perfect buffer at parties, and since I’m all about hiding from the opposite sex after my last boyfriend, that sounds excellent. But crap, the girl needs to smile a little.

Mira huffs out a sigh. “Lewis is such a workaholic.” The first of my five quarters sinks in the glass. Yes. “I can’t believe he’s not here yet,” she says.

Zach glances at the time on his phone. “He’ll come.” Ping. Quarter number two goes down. Three more left. “He doesn’t leave the office until now.”

My highest sequential quarter dunking was seventeen—and I was half drunk that night. I slam my fist on the table, and the third coin lands in the cup. I’m just getting warmed up.

Mira frowns at Zach. “That’s not funny. He said he’d be here.”

Is she pouting? Lewis must be Mira’s boyfriend—and number four drops in the empty glass.

“His dad’s gotta be happy.” Zach looks at me, and I pause before tossing in the ringer. “Lewis works for his dad’s construction business. Practically runs it for him now that he’s back in town.”

I raise my hand for my final shot, but the sound of the front door creaking draws my attention. A guy nearly as tall as the doorjamb enters the house.

“Speak of the devil,” Zach says. “Gen, this is Lewis.”

For a split second my mind scatters.

Lewis closes the front door, broad shoulders filling out a plaid shirt, the sleeves rolled and shoved above his elbows. His shirt hem gapes on one side, as if he tucked it in the front in haste. He has high cheekbones, a square jaw, and dark brown hair that looks like it’s been fingered back.

He’s more than handsome. He’s striking. As in, strikes you dumb and mute.

My eyebrows pinch together, my mouth pulling down into a frown. What am I doing? I stopped noticing men months ago. After I decided it’s best to avoid them.

Mira beams as Lewis walks into the room, and I give myself a swift mental shake. I grip the last quarter and slam it on the table, watching it fly toward the target.

The coin rims the edge of the juice glass and falls on the table.

I stare at it in disbelief. Shit.

When I glance up, Lewis is watching me, his brow furrowed infinitesimally. He scans down, and my breath catches. I’m sitting and he can’t see much, considering I’m wearing a white button-down, open at the throat, but my heartbeat increases.

Which is weird. My normal instinct is to curl my shoulders and hide when I’m being checked out.

Lewis’s eyes return to mine, and they are dark—black—deep like the lake this area is known for. My face heats and suddenly my rapid heartbeat flutters and bobs in my chest.

What the hell? I’ve avoided guys for weeks. This one is good looking, but so are a lot of men.

“Hey, Lewis,” Zach calls. “Quarters on deck. Gen, here, is kicking our asses. Almost made your girl pound her drink.”

Lewis’s eyes flicker to Mira, then back to me.

Zach referred to Mira as Lewis’s girl. Obviously, they’re together. No way am I going near Lewis, even if I were considering it, which I am not.

I roll a fresh quarter between my fingers, thumb a nick on the table, glance at Nessa in the kitchen—distract myself with anything but Lewis’s approach. And I’m doing a good job too—until he lifts his arm and tugs his fingers through his hair.

My gaze snags on the ridges of muscles showing below the rolled-up sleeve of his shirt.

I blink. I’m checking out the guy’s arms now?

I must have looked too long, because when I glance at his face he’s staring at me staring at him.

My heart’s an irritating pulse in my ears, blocking out sound, cheeks warming to flaming. I cough into my elbow to hide my face.

Hot, edgy; I don’t like this sensation, like my skin’s about to jump away—or toward something. I should leave. I’m not feeling well. But I can’t bail this early. We haven’t even eaten.

Mira springs from her seat and catches Lewis around the waist before he makes it to the table. She hugs him, and he returns it with one arm while gazing at me.

That’s his girlfriend in his arms. Why is he looking at me? Damn men.

“Zach,” Nessa says, and shifts a pot on the stove in the kitchen. “I don’t know what to do with this chicken.”

“To be continued later.” Zach smiles and sweeps the quarters into his hand. He walks into the kitchen and takes over for Nessa.

Zach’s grin is friendly. Not hot, or lecherous, just uncomplicated. Kind. Not that Lewis’s gaze was lecherous. It was… curious.

I don’t like curious. Curiosity leads to interest, which leads to things I’m staying away from.

It’s disturbing that my radar pings around this guy. He has a girlfriend, and unfortunately, that seems to be the only kind of men I attract.

Being in a relationship back home—which he failed to mention—never stopped my ex from pursuing me, or Cali’s boyfriend from making a pass, or any of the men my mom brought home from flirting and letting their hands wander when they hugged me.

“Clear the table, peeps,” Nessa calls. “Dinner is on.”

She delivers homemade tortillas, along with a bowl of spiced, shredded chicken.

Zach reaches for a beer from the fridge and Lewis walks up behind him. He slaps Zach on the back and looks at me expectantly.

Zach glances between Lewis and me, then reaches for a bottle opener. “Gen is Nessa’s friend from work,” I hear him say while popping the top off his Corona.

Lewis studies my face as if he’s searching for something.

What is his problem? He can’t stare at me like that. His girlfriend is in the room.

So I ogled his arms. They were out there! And kind of hot. Sue me. I don’t recall checking out a guy’s body like that before—apparently, lusty thoughts can come on later in life. But women check out men all the time. Considering Lewis’s looks, he should be used to it by now.

“Sit next to me, Gen.” Nessa sets a bowl of Spanish rice on the table and pulls out a chair at her side.

I follow her lead and carry over a bowl of salad, then sit beside her.

“Food looks great,” Lewis says.

His voice, like a silky blade, cuts through my better sense, snaring my attention.

He’s shoveling half a taco in his mouth in praise of the food, or because he eats like a horse. I follow the flex of his square jaw, the thick muscles along his throat, which suddenly still.

I look up. He’s watching me stare—and he looks intense.

What am I doing? I’m making it worse.

Mira’s gaze darts to mine, and the look on her face is more than angry. She swallows, and I’d swear there’s anxiety in her eyes.

I take a small bite of rice, willing saliva into my dry mouth. I’ve never wanted to escape a situation more than I want to escape this dinner party. My heart’s jumpy and my face won’t drop below a thousand degrees. My fingers, which have never failed me in skill or coordination, can’t keep the stupid rice on the fork.

“So you’re here for the summer?” Zach says, his muscular leg brushing my calf as he aggressively loads food onto his plate. His narrow grandma table, which matches his thrift-store velvet couch and eighties parquet coffee table, makes dinner unintentionally intimate.

I take a sip of water and clear my throat. “I’m returning to Dawson in the fall for a graduate program in psychology.”

Mira’s upper lip curls at Zach, as if she’s annoyed that he dares draw attention to me. Considering I’d like to hide, I agree.

Mira leans against Lewis as he digs into his second taco, her own food untouched. I take a huge bite of my taco just to be contrary. Eating like a rabbit to stay ridiculously skinny is lame—and I eat more than the average girl anyway, so she’s just making me look bad. “How’s your mom these days?” she asks Zach.

Zach’s hand pauses above the salad, his chest deflating. “Fine.” His tone is flat, devoid of emotion.

I inch forward in my seat. Mira hit some kind of a nerve. Zach seems like such a nice guy. What is she doing?

Mira sips her drink, her caramel eyes cold. “What’s she up to?”

Zach’s gaze turns cagey. “Still at the care facility, and you know it.” He glances at the untouched food on his plate and nudges a taco with his knuckle.

Why would Mira bring that up? Is she trying to hurt him…because he asked about me?

Nessa squeezes her fork and studies Zach, concern in her eyes.

Lewis peers at Mira with a frown. To Zach he says, “Broken in the new paddleboard?”

“A little.” Zach’s face relaxes.

“Work’s slow. Mind if I join you sometime?”

“Sure. Anytime.”

And just like that, the tension defuses.

To keep things light throughout the rest of the meal, I take the opportunity to pepper Nessa and Zach with questions about hiking and jogging trails. Mira doesn’t piss off anyone else at the table, mostly because she’s too busy nipping at Lewis in a heated conversation the rest of us pretend to ignore. I’m catching most of it, and I imagine the others do too. Things like what are you doing and private and that girl rise above our Tahoe trails discussion.

After the meal, I help Nessa clean up. “I should get going,” I tell her when we finish.

“Really? So soon?”

“I’m still adjusting to late work hours.”

“Yeah, that takes time. What are you doing tomorrow? Zach and I are barbecuing at Zephyr Cove. You and your roommate should totally come.”

“That sounds like fun.” I get the details from her and thank Zach for dinner.

Mira and Lewis are speaking in hushed whispers in the corner as I make my way to the bedroom down the hall for my purse and coat. I feel like I’m sneaking off, but I really don’t want to get in the middle of that.

I collect my things and round the bedroom door, head bent, digging for my keys in the pit that is my purse—and bounce off a wall.

I’m going down, and not in a pretty way. My body falls to the side, head at an odd angle, arms tangled in my purse. I’m going to break my neck.

Strong hands haul me up, and I scramble to get my legs vertical.

Heat and the scents of soap and fresh-cut wood hit me. Lightly tanned skin over a thick, muscular neck with a pulse pounding at the base is the first thing in my line of vision, Lewis’s intense, enigmatic gaze the next.

My heartbeat shifts from a startled gallop to the throbbing, fluttery mess it was when he first walked into the house.

Lewis’s eyes study my face, concerned at first, then they soften and relax. He slowly tracks more than just my eyes, as if he’s using the opportunity to take me in without censure from Mira or anyone else. His gaze drifts to my hair, my forehead, down the side of my face and chin, and back up to my mouth, where it snags.

His breaths grow shallow. What was perplexing in his expression all night becomes clear. When he looks at me, it’s not with curiosity—though that could be a part of it—but something else entirely. Something I can’t say I’ve seen to this degree but I recognize—or my body does, because my chest tightens, my heart continues its fluttering dance, and heat spirals down my spine, sending shivers to all the wrong places.

His head drops a fraction toward me.

What the…? He wouldn’t…

“It was nice to meet you,” I say in a panicked rush, and step out of his arms, which I realize I’m still holding onto. But that’s as far as I get. For some stupid reason, I can’t get my feet to walk away.

The hand that embraced me slips into his front pocket. Other than that, he doesn’t move. His gaze dips to my mouth again.

My breath hitches and I lick my lips, which suddenly seems like an invitation. What am I doing?

Instead of reacting appropriately and looking away, my eyes dart to his mouth as if on autopilot, not listening to my thorough instructions for all body parts to get the hell out of here.

A diagonal scar mars the corner of his lower, nicely shaped lip, a score in an otherwise perfect landscape. I can’t look away from that scar, feathering at one end into a slight hook. How did he get it? Did it hurt? Would I feel the scar if I pressed my mouth to his?

His lips part beneath my stare and he shifts his feet, closing the space I created.

My heart pumps so fast that dots form in my vision. He has a girlfriend.

I stumble around Lewis, my shoulder slamming into the wall as I make it down the hallway, years of athleticism disappearing with the speed of my heartbeat.

I glance back once before opening the front door. Lewis is staring after me, stunned.

He shuts his eyes and turns away.

My hands shake as I close the front door behind me. What was that? That’s not attraction, that’s just crazy.

Crazy attraction.