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Five Gold Rings: A Winter Romance (Vale Valley Book 5) by Xander Collins (1)

Chapter 1


“How much farther?” I craned my neck to see the GPS of my boyfriend’s phone, the glare coming in through the car windows and making it almost impossible to see the screen.

“I don’t know.” Chris took the phone off the dashboard holder. “I don’t think this can be right. It says we’re fifteen minutes away from our destination.” Chris handed me the device while he kept his eyes on the road. “Check out the route and see how many more miles there are until the lodge.”

I tapped the screen a few times and brought up the directions. “We stay on this highway for another five miles then turn right onto Old Dusk Road. We’re only eight miles away. But that doesn’t make any sense at all. There’s no snow on the ground.” I caught a glimpse of the rolling green hills in the distance through a break in the tall, evergreen trees lining the sides of the highway.

“This is crazy. How can there be no snow in December?”

“Global warming?” I laughed. But it wasn’t funny. We’d saved for this vacation for months. Chris and I were both poor college students living in the most expensive city in the United States, which left almost no money for things like dates and recreational activities. We’d both pretty much been surviving on potatoes and rice the entire semester to afford books and supplies.

I didn’t want to think about what was going to happen once our loan payback kicked in. It wouldn’t be for a little while after we graduated, but it was looming in the distance. I was especially nervous since employers weren’t necessarily clamoring to hire someone with a general liberal arts degree. Chris might have it easier than I did, though. He was studying economics with a specialty in market analysis. I didn’t understand a single thing he told me when he excitedly tried to explain things happening in the market. I would roll my eyes and call him Captain Brainiac then get back to watching Game of Thrones.

“I mean, I checked the route before we left to make sure we wouldn’t hit ice or a big snowstorm,” Chris said. “But I didn’t think to check to make sure there was actually going to be snow on the ground.”

“Wouldn’t the lodge have called us if they knew we wouldn’t be able to ski?”

“Well, maybe not everyone goes up there to ski.”

“What else would they do at a ski lodge?” I asked as the car slowed down.

“Looks like this is the turn off,” Chris said. “Still no snow.”

I stared out the passenger side window as the dark, forested scenery whizzed by. “Maybe we’re at too low an elevation.”

“We’re in the mountains now. We’ve been climbing steadily for the last hour. If there was enough snow for skiing, we’d definitely be seeing it here.”

I sank down into my seat and rested my head against the back. I’d been looking forward to this. I didn’t really care so much about the skiing. That was really Chris’s favorite pastime. At least it had been when he was growing up. His family used to go on ski trips regularly until his alpha dad lost his job and they had to sell their house a year before Chris started college. And thankfully his dad’s financial records showed the family was living below the poverty line, otherwise Chris wouldn’t have gotten any financial aid.

But I felt terrible for him. For both of us. He wanted to spend the next few days on the slopes, and I fantasized about the two of us spending the evenings curled up on a big fluffy couch next to a roaring fire with cocoa or hot buttered rum warming our hands. I guess we could do that with no snow on the ground, but it didn’t seem like it would be as special.

Neither one of us spoke as we pulled up to the lodge. It was a beautiful building with massive walls of glass that looked out over the mountains. Mountains barely sprinkled with a coating of snow. As we approached the building, I glanced up at the strings of lights running along the eaves, following the sharp peaks of the roof, and wound up the huge logs holding everything up. This place would’ve been magical if there’d been snow on the ground, or even a crisp breeze. I almost started to cry when I got out of the car. It was so warm I didn’t need a jacket.

“Wow,” Chris said as we stepped into the lobby. “When my family came here in the beginning of December a few years ago, that whole front room was full.” We stood near the reception desk which bordered a large lounge with a vaulted ceiling and one of those massive walls of glass. The view was stunning. “I remember thinking it was so fancy and sophisticated the way everyone had a drink in their hand while they stood around that fireplace. There’s not a single person here. This sucks.”

The fireplace was gorgeous. It was a round stone structure in the center of the room. I could feel the heat of the roaring fire from where I was standing, halfway across the room. Chris was right, this did suck. But maybe that meant Chris and I would have this whole place to ourselves. We could sit by the fire and have drinks, but a hot mug in my hands didn’t sound so nice all of a sudden.

I was so immersed in my fireside fantasy I jumped when a woman showed up behind the counter and welcomed us.

“How are you this evening?” she asked. “Do you have a reservation?”

Chris and I looked at each other, then back at the woman. It didn’t appear we needed a reservation. Neither one of us had said it out loud, but we didn’t need to. I’d been able to read his face since the day I met him. He came off as somewhat distant and emotionless to most people, but I always knew from his eyes what he was thinking. He didn’t want to stay.

“We were a little surprised on the drive up here …” Chris started.

He was much better at this sort of thing than I was. He didn’t seem remotely bothered by expressing his dissatisfaction to a salesperson or someone who worked at a business. They’re here to serve us. To make sure we’re happy, he would always say. And while I understood the concept, I could never bring myself to complain or stand up for myself when I felt I was being treated unfairly. Whether it was someone cutting in line in front of me or a cashier giving me the wrong change, I would always accept the hand I’d been dealt and walk away.

“Yes, I’m sure the traffic is very light. I can imagine the two of you made good time,” the receptionist said with a brusk but friendly tone.

“Yeah, especially since there’s no snow on the ground.”

“Unfortunately, we haven’t built up a base yet. Every time it does snow, the next day we get sun, and everything melts. The lodge is functioning the same as in previous years, though. The restaurant and bar are open, and our full menu is available for room service or to enjoy in the front lounge near the fire pit.”

“But there’s no snow,” Chris repeated. “We came here to ski.”

“Yes, I understand, sir. And I apologize. But we have no control over the weather, and we do require at least forty-eight-hours’ notice for cancellations.”

Clearly, this wasn’t her first time having this conversation. She had her responses down pat.

“I understand your policy,” Chris said in his most official-sounding tone. The one he used whenever he was on the phone with someone he wasn’t very interested in talking to. “But this is our vacation. We booked this lodge expecting to spend the next few days skiing.”

“I completely understand,” the woman said, the look in her eyes finishing the sentence for her … but I really don’t care. “If you had concerns about whether or not there was snow on the ground, you could have checked online. We do have a twenty-four-hour video camera pointed to our main ski lift. That would’ve given you information about the slopes and skiing conditions.”

“I suppose I should have checked, but it didn’t cross my mind. You must have had some cancellations. This place is completely empty.” I could tell Chris was past agitated and verging on angry.

“Yes, we have had some cancellations, but as I said, we do require at least forty-eight-hours’ notice. You have a cabin booked for five nights. I can credit your card for the last three nights of your booking if you’d like to cancel now.”

Between the woman’s cold tone and the edge in Chris’s voice, I started to regret that we’d come on this trip at all. I stepped back away from the counter and shifted my eyes around the lobby, avoiding the conversation between Chris and the receptionist, and wishing I was anywhere but there in the middle of what was turning out to be a very uncomfortable moment.

“What the hell happened to the customer is always right,” Chris said as he pushed his way through one side of the glass entry doors. When we got to the car, he slammed the door so hard it almost made my heart jump into my throat. I felt terrible that Chris was so angry, and I understood why he canceled the whole reservation, including the first two nights, which wouldn’t be refunded. But that meant we had nowhere to go. I was pretty sure I would’ve done the same thing if I were him. But if it were me having to deal with that lady, I would probably just have accepted the sad, snowless conditions and sulked in the lounge for the next five days.

“What are we gonna do?” I asked. Chris started the car but sat there with it in neutral. He had his eyes closed and was taking deep breaths, something he’d been practicing for a while now when he felt his temper getting the better of him.

“I don’t want to drive all the way back to the city tonight,” I continued.

“I’m not sure if we are going to have much choice,” he said, dropping his head back against the seat and sighing. I could tell he felt horrible, which made me feel even worse. This wasn’t his fault. “It’s Friday night, and the woman said it could take a couple of business days before I see the credit on my debit card. I think I have … maybe fifty bucks in my account. It was a special deal here. All the meals were included in the room rate, so I didn’t think we need much extra money. I feel like a total idiot now.”

“I have about fifty bucks in my account too. We can find something, can’t we?”

“I don’t know. This is a pretty expensive area. It’s all lodges and resorts. And if we do find a room under one-hundred dollars, including tax, how are we gonna eat? Jesus, this sucks so bad.” Chris slouched down into his seat. “I’m so sorry, Jason. I really wanted this to be special for you.”

“It’s not your fault. And I don’t want you to worry about me,” I said. “I’m okay. Really. We’ll figure something out. Everything’s gonna be fine.” But as the words came out of my mouth, and I heard the slight trembling in my voice, even I didn’t believe them.