Jase cracked his eyes and peered through the narrow line where the Stetson didn’t quite meet his upturned face. A woman in a dark blazer and skirt stood just inside the front door of his saloon.
Hell. Russ must have left the front door unlocked.
Russ could just deal with it, then, because Jase wasn’t getting up for anything. He’d celebrated the hell out of his thirty-third birthday last night, and he needed to catch a few z’s before the Rusty Wire Saloon opened for business again. The wooden chair he slouched in and the one propping up his feet made a hard bed, but they’d do.
The woman’s heels clicked across the dance floor, prompting him to take another peek. Shapely legs with enough feminine sway to put some swing in the skirt moved briskly across his line of vision. Curious despite himself, he lifted a finger to the brim of his hat.
The blazer hid a lot with its generic-uniform look, but he had a feeling the body beneath it was as shapely as the legs. His gaze lingered on a pretty profile, and reddish-blond hair that would have looked great falling to her shoulders, but was inexplicably bound into some kind of grandmotherly bun thing. A waste of good sex appeal.
He concentrated on dozing again as the woman made a beeline for Billy where he was scrubbing down the bar. “We’re not open,” he heard Billy say before she could dive into her sales spiel. Good man.
“I know.” Her voice already said it didn’t matter, which didn’t sound good for Billy. “I’m Zoe Larkin, from the Alpine Sky. I’d like to speak to the owner, please.”
Too bad, Jase thought. Billy said it for him. “He doesn’t like to be disturbed this time of day. What can I do for you?”
“I’m afraid I can only speak to the owner.”
Billy must have hesitated at that, because he heard a glass hit the bar as Russ downed his Alka-Seltzer and cleared his throat. “Can I help you?” Jase silently thanked him. With Russ and Jennifer sitting at the end of the bar and Billy nearby, his nap had a triple line of defense.
Sharp heels clicked closer as she crossed to the end of the bar. “I’m Zoe Larkin, assistant manager of the Alpine Sky. Are you the owner?”
“Next thing to it. Name’s Russ Holbrook. I’m the manager, and I’m probably the one you want to talk to if you’re from that fancy resort up the road.”
Good point. Russ had handled enough past tiffs with the Alpine Sky to head her off at the pass.
“You people got a problem with the Rusty Wire again? Sorry about last night’s crowd, but I already told you, I can’t keep my customers from moving on to your bar for more partying after they leave here. Long as they leave reasonably sober, we ain’t responsible for what they do.”
Right. Now show her to the door.
“I’m not here to complain about rowdy customers, Mr. Holbrook.”
Undaunted, Russ replied, “Well, if it’s the overflow parking, we already put up new signs so’s they’d stay off your precious driveway.”
“It’s not the parking, either. I’m here to propose a business deal, and only the owner can tell me if he’s interested.”
“What kind of deal?” Russ sounded suspicious.
“The private kind,” she said, polite but firm.
“You suing us for something?”
“Mr. Holbrook . . .”
“’Cause if you are, we got lawyers, too, and we don’t take to letting the big resorts tell us what we can and can’t do.”
Jase heard her blow out an impatient breath. “The Alpine Sky is not suing you, Mr. Holbrook. But we are interested in talking with the owner. I would appreciate it if one of you would contact him and let him know I’m here.”
“One of you” probably included Jennifer, sitting beside Russ at the bar. Jase’s mouth twitched with a repressed smile; Jennifer didn’t take well to being told what to do.
Zoe Larkin from the Alpine Sky must have seen it, because her voice took on an irritated edge. “Look, it’s a simple request. What’s so hard about placing a phone call to the owner? Is he out of the country?”
Jase prayed someone would say yes, but they missed their big opportunity and met her question with stubborn silence. Damn, this nap wasn’t going to happen.
He heard an impatient toe tap. “Is he in prison?”
Most times he might have found that sassy attitude amusing. Not today.
“Perhaps I should just take a seat and wait.”
Oh, for Christ’s sake. “Don’t bother,” he said, scraping his footrest out of the way and forcing his tired body into a sitting position. He tipped the hat back to meet the lady’s surprised brown eyes. Huh, he’d imagined blue, but he liked what he saw. Leaning his forearms on the table, he looked her over with reluctant appreciation. Giving up sleep had some compensations. “I’m the owner, lady. What do you want?”
• • •
Zoe shot an irritated glance at the man she’d taken to be a drunk sleeping off an early buzz. With the hat no longer hiding his features, she could see the hard lines of a strong face beneath at least a day’s worth of stubble. His clear gaze caused her to do a mental stumble; the lazy sexuality in his eyes belonged more to a bedroom than a bar. Not that it mattered. His good looks were offset by a put-upon frown that said forcing his body into an erect posture was more work than he’d intended to do all day.
She approached slowly, taking in the wrinkled shirt, faded jeans, and worn boots. The man was as shabby as his saloon, which helped squelch her brief twinge of interest. “You’re Jason Garrett?”
“It’s just Jase.”
She stuck out her hand. “Hello, Mr. Garrett. I’m Zoe—”
“I heard. Zoe Larkin, assistant manager from the Alpine Sky.” His interested gaze drank her in again, lingering in a couple of places and setting off a squirmy feeling deep inside her that she dismissed with irritation. “You wanted the owner, you got him. What do you need?”
She took a deep breath, forcing herself not to glare. It didn’t matter that he was rude, only that he accept her offer. She was fairly certain that hearing it would wipe that smug look right off his face.
“I’m here to make you an offer on behalf of Ruth Ann Flemming, the owner of the Alpine Sky.” She paused a couple of seconds for dramatic effect. “Mrs. Flemming would like to buy the Rusty Wire Saloon.”
Behind her, a glass thunked onto the bar. The rhythmic sound of the scrub brush stopped. Jase Garrett didn’t move, not even the flicker of an eyelid. His gaze was steady on hers for several long seconds, while she tried not to fidget. “Is that so,” he finally said.
Since he hadn’t made it a question, she didn’t answer. She wished he’d ask one, though, because his thoughtful stare made her nervous.
“What does the exalted Alpine Sky want with my saloon?”
“We would like to expand our business.”
His gaze took a slow trip up and down her suit. “A honky-tonk doesn’t seem like your style, Miss Larkin.”
“Thank you, it isn’t. But the Alpine Sky doesn’t actually want your saloon, Mr. Garrett. We want your land. As you know, our resort is a popular winter destination for skiers. We would like to offer summer activities, too, which means building a golf course. For that we need more land. A semiflat piece, like the one your saloon sits on.”
The stillness at the bar behind her was palpable, as if all three people were holding their breath. Jase’s shadowed eyes gave nothing away. “You want to tear down the Rusty Wire?”
“I imagine if the building is in good condition, it might be used for something else.” She gave the room a quick glance, deciding not to tell him the chances of that were next to zero. “The town’s records show that the lot size, including parking, is two acres. You also own the fifty behind it. Those acres adjoin the Alpine Sky, and they would be ideal for an eighteen-hole course.”
“That land is untouched wilderness.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Mr. Garrett, the Rocky Mountains are full of untouched wilderness. You can buy as much as you want. The only thing special about your piece of wilderness is that it adjoins our resort.”
“And it’s flat.”
His expressionless gaze held hers for a long time. A bar stool squeaked behind her, but she didn’t turn.
“The Rusty Wire’s not for sale.”
She smiled. “You haven’t heard our offer yet, Mr. Garrett. It’s more than generous.”
“Two point five million.”
Zoe heard the woman suck in her breath. She tried not to look smug as she waited for Jase Garrett’s eyes to widen and his mouth to drop open in shock. It didn’t happen. Nothing happened.
“No thanks.” He all but yawned.
No thanks, that was it? It wasn’t a deal breaker, but she would have bet everything she had that he’d snap it up, and probably order a beer to celebrate. Irritation prickled just under her skin, making it hard to keep up an appearance of calm. “Mr. Garrett, perhaps you should take some time to explore the price of real estate around Barringer’s Pass. Two and a half million is an incredibly high price for fifty-two acres of mostly undeveloped land.”
Finally, his expression changed. His eyebrows drew together and a muscle clenched along his firm jaw. “I said no, Miss Larkin. That’s my answer. Go make your pitch to whoever owns the land on the other side of the Alpine Sky.”
It was wordier than his other responses, but just as negative. It also revealed their weakest bargaining point. She pressed her mouth together, reluctant to admit what she had to say. “The other side is federal land. They aren’t open to an offer.”
“Neither am I.”
She closed her eyes and sighed, making a big deal out of her reluctance to give in. Let him think he’d made a crafty bargain. She dropped her voice. “I’m not authorized to offer more money, Mr. Garrett, but just between the two of us, if you gave me a counteroffer of three million, I might be able to convince Mrs. Flemming to pay it.”
He actually scowled. “Miss Larkin, I appreciate your dedication to your job, but I’ve given my answer. Now run along.” Tugging a chair closer, he propped his feet up, slouched down, and dropped the hat back over his eyes.
She stared. A show of resistance wouldn’t have surprised her, but she hadn’t been prepared for a flat rejection. Who turned down three million dollars for a crappy saloon and a few acres of trees? She was missing something here, and she wasn’t leaving until she figured out what it was.
• • •
Jase waited for the click of heels across the dance floor, interested enough to take one more look at the resort lady’s legs as she left. For one of the infamous Larkin girls, she wasn’t what he’d expected. But then, rumors were often wrong.
He didn’t hear retreating footsteps. He poked a cautious finger at his hat brim and lifted it an inch. She was still standing there, her pretty lips pulled into a tight line and her irritated gaze boring into him. A no-nonsense look that went well with her severe hairstyle.
Her body language intrigued him, but he had no interest in her offer. He pushed the hat up a couple more inches. “Miss Larkin, I can’t help but notice you’re still here.”
“Nothing gets past you, does it, Mr. Garrett?”
“What else do you want?”
“I want an explanation. I offered you far more than this old place and that undeveloped land are worth. In fact, my guess is that the Rusty Wire is aptly named, and that rust isn’t even the worst of your problems in a building this old.” She looked around the saloon, taking in the century-old bar along with the new light fixtures and new windows. “You’ve probably had to dump a ton of cash into plumbing and electrical updates, just to mention the obvious. I think it’s safe to assume it takes most of your profits to keep this place up to code.”
That was accurate enough to raise her a notch in his estimation; she wasn’t just some corporate lackey delivering a message. Assistant manager, she’d said. She probably knew a lot about running an establishment that served the public. Not that it would help her argument any. “What’s your point?”
“My point is that I just offered you the equivalent of a winning lottery ticket, and you turned it down without a thought.”
“I thought about it. Maybe I just think faster than you.”
She ignored the jab. “Why would you turn down a small fortune when keeping the Rusty Wire open will eventually cost you a small fortune?”
He flashed a cocky smile to go with his bluff so she wouldn’t guess how little he knew about his own saloon’s finances.
“Keeping the Rusty Wire open doesn’t cost me a small fortune, Miss Larkin. If you work up the hill, I’m sure you’ve seen how busy this place is on a Friday or Saturday night. We turn a nice profit. But thanks for your concern.”
Her frown said she wasn’t buying it, and he didn’t want to argue the details, since he didn’t know them. He kicked the chair aside again and got to his feet, walking around the table to place a guiding hand on her elbow. It would have been a nice bonus if his six-foot-three height intimidated her, but she looked to be at least five six, and her high heels narrowed the difference even more. Besides, he doubted assistant manager Zoe Larkin was easily intimidated, even in bare feet.
“Not that it’s any of your business, Miss Larkin, but you might say I’ve already won the lottery. I don’t need your three million.”
Her gaze narrowed as she tried to figure it out. While she thought, he opened the door and escorted her through the small entry space and out the second door.
She stopped dead in the parking lot as soon as he took his hand off her elbow. “What does that mean? Are you saying you have so much money you can afford to throw some away on a run-down saloon?”
“I’m saying you can’t buy me, Miss Larkin. You run back up to that fancy palace on the hill and tell that to the lady who sent you here. Have a nice day now, you hear?” Before she could argue that with him, too, he turned and walked back inside, locking the door behind him.
They were all watching him. Russ and Jennifer had swiveled their stools toward the door, and Billy seemed to have forgotten the scrub brush in his hand. They waited for him to say something.
“Leave it locked until we open.” He walked back to his chair and settled in again. With luck, he’d get a couple hours’ sleep before they opened at three.
Billy’s yell would have knocked him off his chair if he hadn’t been half expecting it. With a sigh, he sat up and faced the three people at the bar. “What?”
“Didn’t you hear what she said? Three million dollars!” His eyes nearly popped out.
“Yeah, I heard.”
“Are you crazy? Who turns down three million dollars?”
“Someone who doesn’t want to sell.”
Billy’s mouth opened, but he simply stared. Russ took up the slack. “You think this place is really worth that much?”
“Nah, not even with the land.”
“Might be worth more than you think,” he insisted.
“Trust me, it’s not. They must be in a hurry to turn it into a golf course and pull in more business. They’d make up the cost in no time.”
“So why’d you say no?”
“Because I don’t want to sell, simple as that. I like it here. And I prefer looking at the trees on Two Bears Mountain instead of a golf course. The resorts have already swallowed up enough of B-Pass.” He looked at Jennifer. As usual, he couldn’t read her calm gaze. “You think I’m crazy, too?”
“No. I think owning the Rusty Wire suits you. What else would you do?”
“Exactly. Thank you. Now, if you all don’t mind, I’m going to take a nap.”
No one said anything, so he settled back, propped his boots on a chair, and put the hat over his face. Sleep wasn’t going to be possible—he could still feel their stares on him. But as long as he faked it, he wouldn’t have to answer more questions.
Dodging the truth wasn’t easy. Telling it would have been even harder, requiring him to face the unsettling suspicion that the Rusty Wire was the only thing that held him together these days. If he didn’t say it aloud, he could pretend it wasn’t true.
Maybe Jennifer knew him better than he’d thought.
• • •
Zoe fumed as she drove the half mile up the mountain to the Alpine Sky Village. She was a professional, presenting a major business deal. Or trying to. He might as well have patted her on the head and told her to run along. He had told her to run along, the patronizing jerk.
He was a lazy slob, too, if he could sit there and nap while his saloon needed cleaning. She’d spent some time hanging out with people like him and recognized the type. Party all night, sleep all day, and never do a bit of work you don’t have to. She’d narrowly escaped getting sucked into that mire herself, and would prefer to stay away from it. People in Barringer’s Pass had long memories.
Jase Garrett obviously didn’t know her—she wasn’t a quitter. She was going to do some homework on him, and hope like hell he was too lazy to do any on her. Next time she went to the Rusty Wire, she’d know everything there was to know about both Jase and his saloon, including what might tempt him to sell.
Reaching the landscaped streets of the luxury resort community eased her irritation. In contrast to the Rusty Wire, everything about the Alpine Sky screamed class and dignity—the stone-and-timber theme of the main lodge and its related condos, the cute gift shops and ski stores across from the lodge, even the quaint stone bridge over the rushing gorge of Elkhorn Creek. Their narrow valley didn’t allow them to spread out like Aspen or Vail, but they had the best ski slopes around, and their little community was charming as all get-out.
For service, accommodations, and grandeur, the place was perfection. All except for the manager, her boss. If she was lucky, she could slip inside without encountering him.
It wasn’t going to happen. Crossing the marble floor of the lobby, she saw David behind the admissions desk. Their new clerk appeared to be hanging on his every instruction, already captivated by her boss’s handsome face and air of authority. It didn’t matter that David was twenty years older than the desk clerk, with hair gone prematurely silver-gray. It never did. They always fell for his sophisticated look and charm, and the cool way he passed all the problems on to Zoe, as if they were no more than minor blips on his radar screen. If James Bond had gone into hotel management and been merely passably good at his job, he would have been David Brand.
Zoe seemed to be the only one who found him condescending and arrogant. His feelings for her weren’t any warmer.
They both knew she’d be a better manager than David. Buck Flemming, the original owner of the Alpine Sky, preferred keeping women where he insisted they belonged—beneath men—so David had skated by while she did all the work. Then Buck had died. Ruth Ann took a couple of minutes to play the grieving widow before freeing up her social calendar by making her son, Matt, the new general manager. Zoe hadn’t met him, but David had. He didn’t give her the details of the meeting, but his irritation made it obvious; finally, someone else had not been charmed by David Brand.
Matt had given her the golf course deal without even meeting her. She and David both knew her success might result in a shake-up in management.
Gloves off, game on. David wanted nothing more than for her to fail. Hearing him gloat had zero appeal, so she tried to sneak past the front desk. He looked up and caught her eye with a cool smile. “Excuse me, Victoria,” he told the starry-eyed clerk. “I need to talk to Zoe, but I’m confident you can handle things on your own. You’re doing beautifully.” She beamed, but he didn’t see it as he intercepted Zoe at the back hallway.
“I’m just here to pick up my laptop,” she told him.
His smile almost looked sincere. “Let’s take a minute to chat in my office, shall we?”
She tried not to roll her eyes. “Let’s chat” meant Let me find something to criticize about the way you handled things so I can enjoy how bad you’ll look when Mrs. Flemming hears about it. It killed her that she was about to make his day.
He closed his office door and sat behind the desk before giving her an expectant look. “I heard your car was at the Rusty Wire.”
Crap, he had snitches. “I stopped by to meet the owner.”
“Oh, let’s not be coy. We both know why you were there. So how good are you at high-level negotiations? Did he go for your lowball price?”
She felt her whole body tighten, and told herself he’d find out soon, anyway, being her supervisor. “No.”
“That’s too bad.” He clicked his tongue in mock disappointment. “It would have looked good if you could have brought this deal in under budget. But I suppose Ruth Ann and Matt won’t be too disappointed with three.”
They wouldn’t have had she managed it. She clenched her teeth and made herself say it. “He didn’t go for three, either.”
“Really?” He savored it, a smile playing at the side of his mouth as he tried to look concerned. “How disappointing for you. How much does he want?”
“He says he won’t sell at any price.” David nearly lit up, and she rushed to squash his hopes. “I haven’t given up. I’ll get to him, I just haven’t found his weak spot yet.”
David’s smile was serene. “Maybe he doesn’t have one. It would be awful to disappoint the Flemmings, though. I heard Ruth Ann put Matt in charge of the whole expansion project, and you know how she is about her baby boy. He’s not the person you want to piss off.” He looked positively thrilled that she might.
“He won’t be disappointed.”
He punched the air like a cheerleader. “That’s the spirit.”
She looked around, wondering if there was anything she could accidentally bash his teeth in with. Her gaze fell on a large box in the corner. Beneath packing labels and tape, the box bore the distinctive double-E logo of Everton Equipment.
She frowned. As far as she knew, Everton didn’t make ski equipment. But they did make an exclusive line of clothing and equipment for golf. She gave David a puzzled look. “Are we already ordering for a golf line? They don’t even know if the project is a go.”
“More pressure on you, huh?” He enjoyed it for a moment before nodding at the box. “Those are sample shirts direct from the factory. Naturally, if the Alpine Sky builds the golf course, we’ll carry only the best brand in our pro shop. I imagine Everton heard rumors and decided to do some early lobbying for their brand.”
Really early; she was surprised they even knew about it. That meant Ruth Ann and Matt must be operating on the assumption that buying the Rusty Wire was a done deal. Zoe had to convince Jase Garrett to sell—and fast.
David went to the box and lifted the flaps. “Here, take one.” He pulled out a dark blue polo shirt and tossed it to her. “Wear it to the Rusty Wire; maybe it’ll help.” For some reason that made him grin.
She’d had enough of David’s encouragement. Clutching the shirt, she stood. “I’m not giving up, you know. I’ll find a way to convince him to sell.”
He smirked. “Good luck.”
She wasn’t stupid enough to count on luck. This required research. She had several hours before her shift started to find out everything she could about Jase Garrett.
• • •
It didn’t take long. Not many people lit up a Google search like Jase did.
At first she thought she had the wrong Jase Garrett as she scanned all sorts of hits on downhill skiing events and websites. Then she saw the photos. A younger version, but unmistakably the chiseled face of the man she’d talked to at the Rusty Wire.
And the accolades. She lost count of the titles and trophies.
And, oh my God, the medals. She’d hit on them right away and nearly fell off her chair. Olympic medals, flashing in the winter sunlight—three gold and one silver. Jase grinned in the picture like the winner he was, holding them up for the camera.
On the cover of Time magazine.
Zoe stared at the picture for a long time. The red, white, and blue parka, the confidence in his squared shoulders and raised chin, the glint of victory in his eyes. And the words beside the picture: “Jase Garrett Shines for America.”
He’d been famous. Probably had endorsement deals with major companies, which explained why her offer hadn’t tempted him. She was not the first person to offer him millions of dollars.
Why hadn’t she known? Her eyes strayed to the date—ten years ago. She’d been in her first year of college. Well, that explained it; she’d barely noticed the world beyond campus during those years, being much too busy trashing her future. But he was only a few years older than she was, which meant he would still have been young and strong enough to compete in the next winter Olympics. She quickly searched the U.S. ski team four years later, but couldn’t find his name. An injury could have kept him out; it happened all the time. No matter, nothing could take away from the four medals he’d earned that one year. And if he’d ever been injured, he seemed fine now. She hadn’t noticed so much as a limp.
He might no longer compete, but Jase hadn’t retired to a tropical island or gone off to mingle with the jet set. He lived in tiny Barringer’s Pass, where he had access to the best ski slopes this side of the Alps. She’d bet anything he still skied. That sort of dedication to a sport didn’t just fade away.
A slow smile crossed her face as she realized how she could use that.
Closing the laptop, her eyes fell on the polo shirt she’d tossed on her desk. Size large. On impulse, she folded it and tucked it into her shoulder bag. A little reminder of the marketing powerhouse backing up her idea might be the perfect way to make her point.