Graham Whittaker gazed at the Tetons, wishing just the tops of the mountains were snow-covered. Unfortunately, it hadn’t stopped snowing for a few days, and the white stuff covered everything from the mountaintops to the grass outside the lodge he’d just bought and moved into over Christmas.
He liked to think heaven was weeping for the loss of his father, the same way the Whittaker family had been for the past nine days. With the funeral and burial two days past now, everyone had gone back to their normal lives—except Graham.
“This is your normal life now,” he told himself as he turned away from what some probably considered a picturesque view of the country, the snow, the mountains.
Whiskey Mountain Lodge was a beautiful spot, nestled right up against the mountains on the west and the Teton National park on the north. It had a dozen guest rooms and boasted all the amenities needed to keep them fed, entertained, and happy for days on end.
Not that it mattered. Graham wasn’t planning on running the lodge as the quaint bed and breakfast in the mountains that it had previously been.
No, Whiskey Mountain Lodge was his new home.
His father had left behind an entire business that needed running, and Graham had nothing left for him in Seattle anyway. So he’d come to help his mother after the sudden death of her husband, and he’d had enough time to find somewhere to live and operate Springside Energy Operations as the CEO.
It was a step up, really. He’d only been the lead developer at Qualetics Robotics in Seattle, but the itch to develop technology and robotics to make people’s lives easier had died when his father had.
Graham hoped it would come back; Springside could definitely benefit from having the first fracking robot to identify the natural gases under the surface of the Earth before they drilled. But they were years away from that.
Just like Graham felt years away from anyone else out here.
A dog barked, reminding him that he’d inherited his father’s dog as well as his company, and he went over to the back door to let Bear back in. The big black lab seemed to move quite slowly, though he still wore his usual smile on his face.
“Hey, Bear.” He scrubbed the dog to wipe off the snowflakes that had settled on his back. “Guess I better go check on the horses.”
Whiskey Mountain had come with a riding stable, something tourists apparently liked to do in the summer months in Wyoming. Graham had grown up in Coral Canyon, Wyoming, but his parents lived in town, in a normal house, without any horses.
Of course, every man in Wyoming learned to ride, and Graham and his three brothers were no exception. But it had been a very, very long time since he’d saddled up in any sense of the word.
But today, though the lodge was a huge building, with dozens of places to which he could escape, he felt trapped. So he plucked his hat from the peg by the door and positioned it on his head. He didn’t get many opportunities to wear a cowboy hat in Seattle, but here, he’d worn it every day. And he liked it.
The brim kept the snow off his face as he trudged down the path he’d shoveled every day since moving in and toward the stables.
The stables were named DJ Riders, and Graham had no idea where it had come from. There were only three horses that had come with the property, and thankfully, the loft held enough hay to keep them fed for a while.
Graham went through the motions of feeding them, cleaning out their stalls, and making sure they had fresh water that hadn’t frozen over. January in Wyoming wasn’t for the weak-hearted, that was for sure, horse or human.
The chores done, Graham closed up the stables but turned away from the lodge up the lane. He had plenty of unpacking to do and no inclination to do it. Besides, it would keep, as he’d been living in the lodge for three days without the family pictures, all the dishes, or more than one towel. He’d survived so far, thanks to a four-wheel-drive vehicle and a pocketful of cash.
He wandered away from the stables, the barn, the rest of the outbuildings of the lodge. He passed a gazebo he hadn’t even known existed until that very moment, and he wondered what else he’d find on this parcel of land he’d put his name on. And who knew what spring would bring?
Probably pollen and allergies, he thought, still not entirely happy to be back in Coral Canyon though he’d made the decision to leave his job in Seattle and settle back in his hometown.
The snow muted his footsteps and made it difficult to go very far very fast. Didn’t matter. He had the whole day to do whatever he wanted. Tomorrow too. It wasn’t until Monday that he’d have to put on a suit and start figuring out how to manage an energy company with over two hundred employees.
He approached another building, this one a bit different than the ones he’d seen before. He wasn’t sure what it was, though it looked like a small cabin, with a stovepipe sticking out of the shingles on the roof. Did the lodge have a smaller place to live? Was this another guest area he could rent out?
He stepped closer and peered in the window, not seeing a door anywhere. The place was simply furnished and appeared to be one room with a door leading out of it on his right and into what he assumed was a bedroom.
A woman came out of the bedroom, buttoning her coat.
Graham yelped and backed up at the same time a dog put his front paws on the windowsill inside the house and started barking. And barking. And barking.
With his heart pounding and his adrenaline spiking out of control, Graham’s brain didn’t seem to be working properly. Therefore, he couldn’t move. Didn’t even think to move.
So he was still standing there like a peeping Tom when the woman lifted the window and said, “What are you doing here?” in a tone of voice that could’ve frozen the water into snow if the temperature hadn’t already done it.
“I—I—” Graham stammered. “Who are you?”
She cocked her hip, and Graham noticed the long, honey-blonde hair as she threw it over her shoulder before folding her arms. She possessed a pretty face, with a sprinkling of freckles across her cheeks and nose. Her eyes could’ve been any color, as he was looking from the outside in and the light wasn’t the same.
If he’d had to, he’d categorize them as dangerous, especially when they flashed lightning at him.
“I am the owner of this property,” she said. “And you’re trespassing.”
Graham frowned, but at least his brain had started operating normally again. It was his pulse that was galloping now, wondering what he had to do to get invited in to find out what color those eyes were.
“Oh,” he said. “I’m sorry. I thought this was my place. I just bought Whiskey Mountain Lodge.” He waved in the general direction of the lodge, hoping it was the right way.
“The border is back there about a hundred yards,” she said, still positioned like he might come at her through the window screen. “There’s a fence.”
“Maybe it’s buried in all the snow.” Because he had definitely not crossed a fence line. He might have become a city slicker but he still knew what a fence meant. “I’m Graham Whittaker.”
A noise halfway between a squeak and a meow came from her mouth. Those eyes rounded, but he still couldn’t tell what color they were. “Graham Whittaker?”
He tilted his head now, studying her. Because she knew him. No one spoke with that much surprise in their voice if they didn’t know a person.
“Yes,” he said slowly. “I’m….” He didn’t know how to finish. Everyone in Coral Canyon knew his father had died. Everyone knew the Whittakers had come to mourn. He supposed everyone though they’d all left again, except for his mother and his youngest brother, Beau, who lived in town and worked as a lawyer.
But he didn’t know what he was still doing in Coral Canyon, or why he felt the urge to explain it to this woman.
“Just a second.” She slammed the window shut and moved away. Feeling stupid, Graham stood there in the snow, wondering what she was going to do. Half a minute later, the dog that had tried to rip his face off through the glass came bounding through the snow from the front of the house.
“Clearwater,” the woman called after him, but the dog was either disobedient or didn’t care. The blue heeler came right up to Graham and started sniffing him.
Graham chuckled and scratched the dog behind his ears. “Yeah, I’ve got a lab. You can probably smell ‘im. Bear? His name’s Bear.”
The blonde woman came around the corner of the cabin, and she stopped much further away than her dog had. “Graham Whittaker.” This time she didn’t phrase it as a question, and a hint of a smile touched her lips. “You don’t remember me, do you?”
Graham abandoned his administrations to the dog and took a step toward her, trying to place her. He thought he’d definitely remember someone as shapely as her, what with those long legs that curved into hips and narrowed to a waist, even in the black jacket she’d buttoned around herself.
He was about to apologize when the answer hit him full in the chest. “Laney Boyd?” He tore his eyes from hers to glance around the land, not that he could tell anything with the piles and piles of snow.
“Is this Echo Ridge Ranch?” he asked. He hadn’t realized the lodge property butted up against the ranch where he’d spent time as a teenager. And without looking back at Laney, he knew he’d find a pair of light green eyes. Eyes that came to life when she was atop a horse. Eyes that had always called to him. Eyes that saw more than he’d ever wanted her to. Beautiful, light green eyes he wanted to get to experience again.
When he looked at her again, her grin had filled her whole face. “It’s Laney McAllister now,” she said, dashing every hope he had of rekindling an old friendship—and maybe making it into something more.
Which is stupid, he told himself as he chuckled and walked through the snow to give her a hug hello. You just got your heart broken. No need to do it again.