Chapter One

Vacations were supposed to be about discovery.

Some people jaunted off to discover fun. Some people were whisked away to discover themselves.

Apparently, I flitted off so I could forget.

Literally.

I frowned at the empty drawers of the armoire, unable to fathom what in the world had possessed Past Cassidy when she’d packed for her stay at the Green Huntress Lodge.

My effects? One pair of yoga pants. A single blue hoodie. A green jacket and black sweatpants that were in dire need of a wash, the most hideous Elmo-red sweatsuit I’d ever had the misfortune of laying eyes on, and the pajamas I was currently wearing were all issued by the lodge. Besides those garments and two pairs of socks and underwear, I had zilch. No suitcase anywhere, and only the bare minimum of hotel-issued toiletries. My cell phone was MIA too. And when I probed my pothole-riddled memory for the reasons behind the poor decision-making in the packing department, I drew a complete blank.

I turned too quickly toward the four-poster bed, caught the toe of my boot on the rug, and tripped. Hot pain erupted in my left ankle. “Son of a biscuit!”

I glared at the black walking boot on my foot. The injury pointed out yet another hole in my shoddy memory.

I recalled driving out to Silvery Pines, Colorado, to pack up my birth mother’s belongings after she died in a hiking accident, and I remembered staying on to compete in the Winterfest Games.

Lodge? Check. Mountain adventure? Check. Screams and thundering sheets of falling snow carrying me down in a natural disaster of death-inducing doom, which was how I’d supposedly acquired the ankle fracture?

Nope.

Apparently I was lucky to escape the avalanche with only an ankle fracture and a memory-wiping head injury. Tragedy had stricken several others who’d been on that mountain. Not everyone had survived.

As I attempted to rack my brain for details, a pleasant haze swept the worst of my worries away. I was on vacation, staying in a beautiful suite for free. Everything was fine. Better than fine. While the lodge staff worked to ensure the surrounding areas were safe to restart the games, all of us contestants were getting the royal treatment. Barring another freak encounter with an avalanche, what could I possibly have to worry about?

Climbing into the four-poster bed, I sank onto the down comforter and admired my surroundings. The roomy, swanky suite featured a crackling fireplace, glossy cherrywood furniture, and stunning, floor-to-ceiling views of the same snow-topped mountains I supposedly almost ate it on.

I was okay. I’d survived. And this bed was really, really soft. Marshmallow soft. And, oh, that fireplace. The flames frolicked, happy and fed.

I yawned, and as if someone had injected me with a hit of liquid Xanax, any lingering anxiety puddled away. A warm, dreamy peace bathed my insides instead.

What was I thinking about again? Oh, right. Resting up. If I wanted to be ready to compete in the next round of games, I needed my ankle to heal. I had Winterfest to thank for the upgraded luxury suite, complete with the white, goose-down comforter I’d cocooned myself in while sleeping.

As I zoned out, the gentle pops and flickers of the fire’s light held me in a hypnotic trance. My eyelids drooped and my body went full-on wet noodle against the pillows and the still-mussed blankets.

Vacation, Cassidy. Go back to sleep.

I snuggled into the pillow-top mattress and Egyptian cotton sheets with a moan. “Ahh, that’s it. You know what I like.”

I froze when a double knock sounded against my door. A soft, uncertain, maybe even frightened knock. Like whoever stood on the other side had overheard my dirty talk with the bedclothes.

Housekeeping? Doubtful. I had the Do Not Disturb door hanger on.

A sinfully seductive, masculine voice called my name. “Cassidy?”

Oh. My. God.

I rolled onto my back, fixing my horrified gaze on the ceiling. I opened my mouth in a silent scream of abject mortification.

Because that voice? It belonged to the hottest bartender this side of the Rockies.

And that face, that man. Well, he was someone I could never forget.

Roman.

Chapter Two

I combat-rolled out of bed with a thump. Thankfully, the carpeted floor cushioned my fall and prevented me from breaking any more bones.

“Cassidy?” came that deep, velvety voice again. “Are you all right?”

“I’m fine!” I raised a hand he couldn’t see before slamming it against the bed. “Hold on.”

“Do…you have company? Should I come back la—?”

“No!”

God no, I don’t have company. Just a pillow. And we aren’t serious, I swear.

“Wait right there!” Somehow, by some miracle, I found my way to my feet. “I’m coming.”

I started to lurch in that direction but then I remembered my hair. It probably looked like I’d had a run in with a woodchipper and lost.

I limped to the bathroom, where the toiletries matched the rest of my meager belongings. A travel-sized tube of toothpaste and hotel-issued toothbrush. A plastic, hotel-issued hairbrush, which I used to quicky tame my rat’s nest.

“I can come back.” Even through the door, the hesitancy in Roman’s voice was obvious. “If you’re…indisposed.”

I winced and wasted a few seconds casting an evil glare at the bed. Stupid fancy sheets. I’d never once accidentally given off sex vibes while snuggling with my synthetic discount-store bedding. “No, hang on, I’ll be right there!” I tossed the brush onto the bathroom counter and gallop-limped to the door.

When I opened it, I had to catch my breath.

Because the view? Well, it gave the one outside my window a run for its money.

A breathtaking man with broad shoulders, long, dark hair, and the chiseled bone structure of a Greek statue stood at my threshold, regarding me with gray eyes possessing enough sheen to pass for silver. The air around his entire body seemed to shimmer, like he just gave off that much heat.

Or maybe I hadn’t fully awoken yet.

As the seconds ticked by without me saying a word, his expression pinched with growing concern. “Cassidy?” He lifted a hand as if to touch my cheek but dropped it to his side before making contact.

“Yes, that’s me. I’m awake.” I opened my door wide, so he’d see I’d only been talking to myself.

“Are you sure everything’s okay?” A concerned note entered that seductive voice, calling my attention to his utterly kissable lips.

A flash of memory surfaced. One that placed me in Roman’s arms, cradled against his chest. The memory slipped away in a blink. Had that happened or was my imagination running wild like it had during my sleep last night, when I’d dreamed about Roman and me out in the snow, lip-locked in a passionate kiss?

Not that it would come as any big shock if Roman had infiltrated more of my sleeping fantasies. He’d made my pulse race from the very first moment I’d laid eyes on him when I’d stumbled into the Green Huntress’s lounge and spotted him fixing drinks behind the bar.

He gazed down at me, his dark hair framing his face in waves. Staring back at him triggered an ache deep in my chest. I couldn’t put it into words, but his eyes seemed to bore straight into my soul. It almost seemed as if he were waiting on something. Like a kiss…

…Or a response. Right. He’d asked me a question. Ankle. How was I? Wakey, wakey, Cassidy. “Fine. I’m fine.”

And so are you.

“May I come in?”

I stepped to one side and swept my arm in invitation, immediately regretting the action when I felt like the world’s lamest doorman. “Sure.”

As he stepped past me into the room, I caught his scent. Deep and earthy, like the forest with notes of cedar and pine.

Suddenly feeling warm, I flapped my hand in front of my face to fan myself. “You’re so hot.”

Oh, crap. Did I just say that out loud?

He froze. “Excuse me?”

Heat rose to my cheeks. “I mean, me. I’m hot. It’s so hot in here. Um. The thermostat is stuck, I think. Do you speak thermostat?”

The corner of his mouth twitched up, like he was biting back a smile, but thankfully, he ignored my mortifying stream of babble. “I’ll let the front desk know. They can send someone up to check.” Roman held out an ornate glass bottle. “For now, I’ve brought you something to help with your ankle.”

“Something from the bar?” I uncorked the bottle, sniffed the contents, and recoiled. “Holy… What is that, licorice marinated in lighter fluid?”

My eyes watered as the alcohol burned my nose. The pungent smell had surely cured me of all sinus issues for life.

“It’s a special medicinal concoction. To speed your healing.”

“How? By redirecting all the inflammation in other parts of my body straight to my stomach?”

I waited for Roman to laugh or at least crack a smile, but he did neither of those things. In fact, as I studied him more closely, something seemed a little off about him. His broad shoulders remained stiff with tension, and his silver gaze would only meet mine for a second or two before focusing at some point near my shoulder. Almost as if he were afraid to look at me for too long.

“I promise it’ll help.” When I hesitated, a soft, beseeching note entered his voice. “Please, try it.”

Had anyone else offered this tar to me, I might’ve told them to kick rocks, especially after taking a whiff. Roman’s pleading was difficult to refuse, for reasons I couldn’t put into words. If drinking his nasty concoction would make him feel better, what harm could it do? Beyond maybe burning a hole in my esophagus.

“Cheers.” I toasted him before limping to the dresser where the ice bucket and glasses waited, sharp pains shooting through my ankle with each step.

“Drink some now. Just a shot will do.”

“You want to share?” I cautiously poured some into a glass, praying the drink wouldn’t taste as putrid as it smelled.

“No, thank you. I don’t need healing.”

My intuition screamed that his statement was a big fat lie. That he was broken on some hidden level, and despite his protest, he did need healing. Maybe even more than I did. “If you say so.”

I wrinkled my nose. What was up with me lately? This was so unlike me. My ex and I hadn’t managed to work through our issues in therapy enough to save our marriage, so why on earth was I dwelling on the hidden emotional injuries of a man I barely knew?

I swallowed the shot, grimacing as the spicy-hot, licorice-flavored elixir sent a brush fire down my throat and an inferno into my stomach. The lava liquid cooled to a simmer and seemed to take the sharpest of my pain away, leaving behind a dull throb instead.

“It’s best to have a shot with each meal.”

“Yeah,” I wheezed. “Could’ve warned me first. I think I’ll order some room service now.”

“You’d do better to head downstairs. Breakfast is being served in the café, and I believe I saw your friends heading toward the waffle bar when I passed by a few minutes ago.”

I put my full weight on my bad ankle to find the dull ache had further downgraded to a twinge. Could it be I’d misjudged Roman’s home brew? I tried a flamingo stance, impressed even more by the drop in my pain levels, from an eight to a two. Wow.

“Good thinking. Maybe I will head down while I’m feeling so good.”

He glanced at the door. On impulse, I grabbed his hand. “Wait.”

I licked my dry lips, and his mercury eyes fixed on my mouth. Heat spread through my limbs like warm butter across toast as he stepped closer, and my pulse pounded like a herd of stampeding elephants.

When he spoke, his voice was huskier than usual. “Yes?”

Tension built between us as a delicious tremor slid along my skin. “I, um…just wanted to say thank you. Apparently you were the one who carried me to the lodge after the avalanche.”

He flinched and freed his hand from mine, as if my words had pained him in some way. But that was silly. How could a thank you be hurtful?

“I’ll let them know you’re on your way.” He offered me a stiff nod and turned to the door, giving me a gorgeous parting view of his luxurious dark hair that practically begged for fingers to run through it. And maybe I peeked at his butt too. Sorry, not sorry.

After Roman’s departure, I hurried to get dressed in the yoga pants and hoodie combo. Once presentable, I ventured into the hall. I took a deep breath, hoping to catch a lingering whiff of that that earthier essence that was so signature Roman. I tracked only traces of coffee.

A man wearing a Green Huntress security badge greeted me with a nod as I headed toward the elevators.

A strange aura surrounded him too. As I passed by, he seemed to glow, his pale skin almost shimmering. How was that possible? Trick of the light.

But in the back of my mind, a tiny alarm bell went off. It was silenced in another spill of hazy warmth.

I hadn’t bothered to ask Roman what was in his special home brew. Alcohol, for sure, but what else? Maybe he’d slipped psychedelics into the mix. Pain reliever with a hallucinogenic kick.

Wouldn’t have pegged him for a hippy, but then again, he did have that luscious long hair…

Downstairs, the main lobby gave off ghost town vibes. Hardly anyone sat around the great stacked stone fireplace. I didn’t much care for the deer head mounted above, but as I crossed the room, I couldn’t help noticing how lonely Bambi’s father seemed up there all by himself. Even the chairs by the large picture windows sat empty, and there was almost always someone snuggled up in the cushy wingback chairs, reading or watching the snow falling outside.

Beyond the lounge, however, the café buzzed with activity. People lined the booths along the edges of the room and packed the dark wooden tables in the center.

The lit-up and loaded-down breakfast buffet beamed like a beacon, its serving bins and surfaces overflowing with waffles, omelets, bacon, croissants, fresh fruits, and juices.

Across the room, my lips tipped into an inadvertent smile when I spotted a familiar strawberry blond wearing a cozy sweater that hung off one shoulder with skinny jeans. Bobbi Burke possessed an effortlessly chic fashion sense all her own. Her slender figure always dripped with style, starting with the first time we’d met at the lodge bar on my inaugural night in Silvery Pines. We’d bonded over cocktails and our mutual appreciation of the gorgeous bartender who’d crafted them. Roman, of course. Even though we hadn’t known each other long, the younger woman’s bubbly personality made it seem like we’d been friends forever.

Gliding through the crowd, Bobbi carried a plate overflowing with fruit and waffles toward her table. Cleo Dawes followed, her tawny hair a wild mane around her face as two plates of fluffy Belgian waffles weighed down her strong arms.

I grinned at the sight of her. I’d met Cleo my first night in Silvery Pines too. My bio mother used to let Cleo crash at the cabin I’d inherited whenever she was in town, so we’d been roommates for a short while. Funny how I could remember those details just fine, but other memories of my stay in Silvery Pines had gaps the size of the Grand Canyon. Brains were weird.

I started in their direction but paused when another hint of a shimmer—like the one I’d glimpsed haloing Roman and the guard—flared around Cleo. For some reason, the sight prompted a barrage of sorrow, and an invisible knife stabbed my heart.

I rubbed my chest until the feeling subsided. What was going on with me? Were the early throes of perimenopause striking again?

Here’s hoping a good meal fixes it.

My stomach growled as the scent of coffee and bacon teased my nose. I made a beeline to the table where Bobbi and Cleo were taking their seats.

“It’s the Boot Babe.” Cleo pulled out the chair next to her and patted the seat. “Finally, she makes an appearance. How’s the ankle, by the way? Come take a load off and I’ll get you a plate.”

“You’re a gem, thank you.” I eased into the chair with a grateful sigh as Cleo rushed off to make good on her offer.

Bobbi spread her napkin on her lap. “You sleep okay last night?”

I wiggled my hand back and forth. “So so. I’d nod off just fine, but every time I tried to roll over, I’d catch my boot in the sheet and wake up.” I motioned to her plate. “Hey, go ahead and dig in. Don’t let those waffles get cold on my account.”

Bobbi flashed me a grin and picked up the bottle of syrup. “Well, if you insist.”

My stomach rumbled as she poured the syrup and used her knife to spread it evenly over each square before taking a bite. “How are they?”

She held up a finger while she finished chewing. After she swallowed, she released a happy sigh. “Delicious.”

Cleo raced up to the table, pushing a plate of waffles in front of me before sliding back into the seat by Bobbi. “So, how’s the ankle?”

I reached for the syrup. “The good news is I will not be having a peg leg installed. I’m healing and the pain’s much better.”

Bobbi’s fork clinked against her plate as she cut another piece of waffle. “Do you think you’ll be ready for the games when they start back up?”

“With any luck.” At the mention of the games, dread pulsed through my stomach. It vanished a moment later.

“Good.” Cleo sawed her knife through her double stack of waffles. “We should try to stick together. That avalanche during the race down the mountain was a close call.”

Reaching into the depths of my mind, I struggled to recall the games we’d played so far as I cut into my own waffles. I remembered vague flashes of skating on a frozen lake for the first ice derby challenge. A game of dodgeball in the snow. Trekking down the mountain. The memories kept fizzling to a white screen like an old VHS home video on the fritz. Images of throwing snowballs and sliding down the mountain were interrupted by flickers of blank, staticky nothingness.

Bobbi dabbed her napkin against her mouth. “They made an announcement this morning, before you came downstairs.”

I popped my first bite of waffle into my mouth and almost moaned my happiness over the fluffy, syrupy goodness. “What did I miss?”

Bobbi’s eyes lit with excitement. “The lodge, in an effort to offer us a big incentive to stay, and to ramp up the competition, decided to make the grand prize a stake in the lodge’s new sister property.”

“There’s another lodge like this one?” I blinked as my mind processed the new information.

Cleo nodded. “Apparently. It’s not fully open yet, but they showed us a model and some maps. In a word? Swanky.”

“Being part owner of a ski resort in Colorado. Could be lucrative.” I’d rather win money, but the earning potential might make for a little extra retirement security.

“Can you imagine?” Bobbi nibbled on a piece of cantaloupe. “Ski vacations for life.”

Her enthusiasm was adorable. Then again, she was already wealthy. For her, it would be a vacation haven.

Now that I had a few bites of food in my stomach, my cells were clamoring for caffeine. “Just remember us if you’re the one who wins it in the end. That goes for you, too, Cleo.”

Her mouth full, Cleo gave me a thumbs-up as I stood and headed for the coffee station.

It all sounded exciting, if not a little too good to be true. Still, I couldn’t shake the uneasiness slithering across the back of my neck. The avalanche meant these games were dangerous. My injuries were proof of that. And the holes in my memory only made the situation worse. Part of me wanted to play the games and be the one to win the grand prize, but that part of me also felt…hollow.

Maybe that odd emptiness in my chest was because other Winterfest participants had died in the avalanche. Maybe I was grieving on a subconscious level, even if I couldn’t summon a single image of a face or name.

My memories were like slippery fish. Every time I thought I was about to latch on, the stupid things wriggled out of reach. But why did I feel so conflicted while everyone else seemed excited?

What hid in those dark spots that my memory refused to let me see?

 

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Winterhunt by Donna Berdel