Kiss Me

Kiss Me

New York Times bestselling author, CHERYL HOLT, dazzles readers once again as she delivers another irresistible story of love, lust, betrayal, and redemption.

Dustin Merriweather is the ultimate bad boy. He’s rich, spoiled, and too handsome for his own good. He thrives on pleasure, but with his father’s death, he’s been forced to work, helping to manage the family’s vast global empire. Nothing irks him more than having to leave his perfect life in sunny Los Angeles, especially when it’s business that drags him up into the snowy, cold Colorado Rockies.

Amy Dane focuses on what matters: work and family. Living in the isolated mountain community of Gold Creek, she’s raising her two young sisters while struggling to cope with her crazy mother. She’s the only reporter at the weekly, rural newspaper, and she barely earns enough to get by. But when Dustin decides to sell a large portion of her beloved town to a real estate developer, she’s in the perfect position to fight him. She just doesn’t understand how difficult the battle will turn out to be. Vain, arrogant Dustin would never let himself be bested by a female.

They’re on a collision course, and Dustin is quickly intrigued by Amy. But why would he be? She’s a pert, sassy, irritating pest and nothing like the slender, extraordinary beauties that typically catch his eye. As attraction flares and lust sizzles, he can’t help but be drawn into her world — even if it’s against his will. Dustin is an adamant bachelor, while Amy is… Amy.

Dustin may have finally found precisely what he’s always needed.

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“Edgy, tense, and sexy with characters who take circumstances and emotions to the edge. KISS ME is bound to keep you glued.” — Manic Readers.com

CHAPTER ONE

“Kiss me.”

“What?”

Dustin Merriweather stumbled to a halt as a short, voluptuous brunette threw herself into his arms.

She was all lush curves and smooth, soft skin, her head a tangle of riotous curls that tickled his chin.  Her petite frame fit perfectly against his tall, lanky one, and wretch that he was, he was in no hurry to push her away.

When he bothered to date, he chose actresses and models.  He had the money and renown to surround himself with some of the world’s most beautiful women.  But they were the types who starved themselves to the point of emaciation, so her shapely body was a nice change.

He could feel it through the puffy goose down of her unflattering parka.  It looked like a garment her younger brother probably wore in the sixth grade.

“Don’t just stand there,” she said.  “Kiss me or hug me or something.”

“I don’t think I know you well enough to kiss you.”

“Then be a brick wall and hide me.”

He chuckled at her vehemence, as she moved closer and burrowed inside his leather jacket.  Her cheek was pressed directly over his heart, her slender hands sliding around his waist to clasp the small of his back.  She angled them so that his shoulders faced the street, and she was cradled against the wall of the building next to them.

“What are we doing?” he asked.

“Ssh,” she warned.  “Not so loud.”

“What are we doing?” he repeated, whispering.

“There is a woman on the sidewalk behind you, and she’ll pass by in a minute.  You can’t let her see me.”

“All right.”

He stood in the quiet, enjoying the feminine feel of her as he breathed deep of the cold autumn air.  The stark scenery washed over him.  It was a crisp October afternoon, the jagged peaks of the Rocky Mountains towering to the sky.  Up on the steep slopes, a few patches of color were still visible as the last leaves on the aspen trees clung tenaciously to the branches.

Soon they’d all be gone, and the frigid gray of winter would set in.

Earlier in the morning, he’d driven up from Denver.  Business had dragged him to the isolated town of Gold Creek.  Though his family had made the bulk of their fortune in the prior century, emptying the abandoned mines that dotted the narrow canyon, he’d never previously visited.

With the elevation above eight-thousand feet, it wasn’t the most hospitable place.  Only the hardiest souls could manage to thrive in such an unwelcoming environment.  His shrewd, industrious great, great grandfather—a pioneer and prospector—had been one of them, but Dustin had no interest in following in the man’s footsteps.

He preferred the warmth of Los Angeles and the sandy beaches of the Caribbean, and at age twenty-eight, his constant goal was to work as little as possible and play as much as he was able.

The town’s main street, with its old shops and dilapidated houses, looked as if everybody was barely holding on.  The area hadn’t generated any of the modern economic prosperity achieved by other mountain communities.

It was too far out of the way to attract tourists, and there were no gentle slopes that might have allowed for a ski resort or summer hiking.  The mines had been boarded for decades so employment was sporadic and intermittent.

Who would live in such a godforsaken spot?  Who could bear it?

He tamped down a shudder, imagining a windy, January day.  It wasn’t unusual to have four-hundred inches of snow in the winter, and his contemplation of that pile of white stuff ignited a wave of claustrophobia.

On the trip up from Denver, he’d considered staying over, maybe checking out grainy photos at the historical society’s museum, but he wouldn’t.

He had no abiding loyalty to his name or reputation, felt no connection to his ancestors and couldn’t stand to reminisce.  Their past actions and acclaim were dubious to say the least.  Who could be proud of a legacy of gold mines and the poisonous devastation they left in their wake?

No.  He’d finish with his meetings, then hit the road and be in Denver by supper.  He’d brought Chantal with him.  She was the latest New York model to catch his fancy.  He’d told her to pack for a week, that they’d stop to dine and loaf in Aspen, so she’d be irritated at his change of plans.  But her wishes were irrelevant.

Behind him, footsteps approached.  The nymph in his arms stiffened and snuggled herself even closer.  He pulled the lapels of his jacket around her torso, trying his best to keep her concealed.

A woman marched by.  From the back, she appeared to be wealthy, and he suspected she was beautiful.  She had long, blond hair that was professionally streaked with the appropriate highlights, and she was wrapped in an expensive wool coat that hung to her knees.  Her boots were shiny leather, the spiky heels clicking on the pavement.

“Don’t move yet,” his sprite murmured.

“I won’t.”

“I don’t want her to glance over her shoulder.”

“She didn’t even notice we were here.”

“Of course, she didn’t.”

The woman continued down the block, then turned the corner and vanished from view.  Silence fell as her strides faded.

“Is she gone?” his elf asked.

“Yes.”

“You’re sure?  You can’t see her?”

“Nope.”

She drew away, and as she grinned up at him, he was temporarily spellbound.  His heart actually did a little flip-flop.

She was just so pretty.  Plump, rosy cheeks.  Pouty lips.  A pert nose red from the cold.  A mass of dark curls that framed a perfect face.  And her eyes!  They were big and green and full of mischief, and he was certain she’d caused no end of trouble to the people in her life.

“You were a great wall,” she said.

“Glad I could help.”

“Thank you.  You were terrific.”

She patted her palm on the center of his chest, then strolled off.

He stood for a moment, shaking his head at her quirky personality, at their odd encounter, when it dawned on him that she was leaving and he didn’t want her to go.  The dreary, decrepit town had him that morose and unsettled.

“Hey,” he called after her.

She spun around.  “What?”

“What was that about?”

“Nothing.”

“No, really.  Who was she?”

“I don’t have any idea.”

She was the worst liar.  It would be easy to date or gamble with her.  You’d never have to wonder what she was thinking or feeling.  Her entire emotional condition was written on her face.

“You can tell me,” he urged.  “It’s not like I’ll run out and alert the media.”

“You never know how someone might act.”

She walked on again, and he hurried over and fell in beside her.

“Do you make it a habit,” he asked, “to accost strange men on the street?”

“Are you admitting to being strange?”

He snorted with amusement.  He was a Merriweather sibling, a descendant of a clan of driven, hardscrabble frontiersmen who’d built Merriweather Industries into one of the world’s most profitable businesses.  They had staked out their claims in the West and earned their fortunes by extracting minerals, then glomming onto the surrounding land.

The mines and foundries and railroads were long gone, but the riches they’d generated were never-ending.  He, with his brother and sister, Lucas and Brittney, wallowed in the money, but they didn’t have to dirty their hands at commerce like their forebears.  They had financial managers who made the cash grow and grow and grow so that he, Lucas, and Brittney could spend and spend and spend.

None of them even resided in Colorado, although Lucas was moving back now that he was marrying his beloved Faith Benjamin.  Brittney fancied herself an artist so she rattled around in Santa Fe with their widowed mother, Jacqueline,  Jacqueline was the only one who maintained any enduring Colorado ties.

Dustin couldn’t stand the wide open spaces, the inclement weather, and he couldn’t wait to return to his beach house in LA.

Did that history make him strange?  Absolutely.

They arrived at the corner, and a gust of wind barreled down the canyon.  He hadn’t brought a warm enough coat, and he shivered.  Down on the valley floor in Denver, it had been a pleasant autumn morning, with temperatures predicted to rise into the seventies.  Up here at eight-thousand feet, angry clouds whipped by and a few snow flakes whirled to the ground.

“Do you live in Gold Creek?” he asked her.

“All my life.”

He shivered again.  They were next to a diner, and he motioned to it.  “Let me buy you a cup of coffee.”

“I probably shouldn’t.”

“I can be extremely charming,” he told her.  “If you get to know me, you’ll really like me.”

“I doubt it.  You look just like my last boyfriend, so I’m sure you’ll turn out to be just like him, too.”

“And how is that?”

“Vain and domineering.”

He huffed with mock outrage.  “I believe I’ve been insulted.”

“You’ll survive.”

She was grinning again, her green eyes sparking with merriment, drawing him in with her sass and brash attitude.

She was so different from the women who occupied his universe.  He couldn’t remember when a female had refused him anything, and he was incensed by her disregard.  His competitive instincts surged to the fore, and he was determined to convince her to have coffee—merely to prove that he could.

Apparently, she didn’t realize that she couldn’t decline his invitation.  Women drooled over him.  Women begged him for favors and attention.  Women adored him and fought to attach themselves, but he wouldn’t allow himself to be caught.

He was a confirmed bachelor who enjoyed seduction and passion, but the notion of settling down, of forming bonds or pledging monogamy was beyond him.  His lonely childhood had been spent at pricey boarding schools because his frosty, bitter mother couldn’t be bothered to raise her own kids.  The forlorn, isolated years had drummed out any desire for permanent relationships.

He’d always been on his own, and he liked it that way.

“You’re not from around here, are you?” she said.

“How can you tell?”

“You’re tan and you’re rich.”  She pointed to his wrist.  “Nice watch.”

It was gaudy and ostentatious and could provide the time or weather in twenty countries and languages.  Her noting it underscored how out of place he looked and felt.  He had to get going.  Why was he even talking to her?

He was bored out of his mind.  That had to be the answer.

With their father’s recent death, the company’s leadership had fallen on his and Lucas’s shoulders.  Neither of them had ever been interested in how the interwoven threads churned out capital, but somebody had to be in charge.

Dustin had deftly absented himself, dumping the entire burden on Lucas, which had caused even more friction between them.  But Lucas’s wedding was approaching, and Dustin could hardly fault him for being busy with his new wife and family.

When he’d asked Dustin to travel to Gold Creek, to quickly and quietly arrange a sale of their property—it included most of the town—his initial inclination had been to refuse.  Yet if he didn’t handle it, who would?

The buildings comprised the courthouse and library, the livery stables and mine offices.  And of course, there was the pair of extravagant mansions, standing side by side, with their grand porches, carriage porticos, and arched windows.  They’d been constructed for the first Mr. Merriweather’s wife and his mistress.  The wife wouldn’t agree to a divorce, and the mistress wouldn’t give him up.

So he’d kept them both and made them both miserable.

It was a problem with Merriweather men.  Fidelity did not rest easily on their shoulders.  His own father had been the worst, his forty-year marriage rife with notorious girlfriends and illegitimate children.  Their family tree had a lot of twisted branches.

Lucas had found a real estate developer who planned to earn a pretty penny by turning the decrepit structures into upscale lofts and condos.  The idea had some merit and would supply the depressed locale with an economic shot in the arm, but there was a pesky reporter at the newspaper who was haranguing against the sale and urging people to fight it.

The articles were gaining traction, and Dustin had had enough nonsense.  He had bought the paper, and he was about to shut it down.  Then he’d meet with the developer, sign the contracts, and head for Denver.  He supposed some might view it as ruthless behavior, but that was another facet of being a Merriweather male.

They were descended from cutthroats and pirates, and they would do whatever was necessary to get their own way.  It was in their blood.  It ran in their DNA.

“No, I’m not from around here,” he said.

“Why are you in town?  No one is just passing through; the road doesn’t go anywhere.  Are you lost?”

He chuckled.  “No, I’m not lost.”

“You’re not a real estate developer, are you?  We already have too many of those lurking in the bushes.”

“No,” he could truthfully claim, “I’m not a real estate developer.”

“Good.  I hate those guys.”

“Why are they lurking?” he asked, feigning curiosity.

“Have you ever heard of the Merriweather family?”

He kept his expression carefully blank.  “I can’t say that I have.  Why?”

“A bazillion centuries ago, their great grandfather started a gold mine here in Gold Creek.  They’re obscenely rich, and they still own most of the canyon.”

“Really…”

“Yes, and the buttheads are trying to sell these beautiful old buildings and have them remodeled into expensive condos.”

He bit down on any retort, and instead, frowned up at the walls of fractured brick, chipped paint, cracked concrete, and drooping eaves.

“That would be a shame,” he contended.

“Don’t I know it.  They have no sense of history.  After they’re through with us, none of the locals will be able to afford to live here anymore.  It ought to be a crime.”

“But it’s not.”

“No.  It should be though.  It would be, if I had my way.”

She was so zealous, she was practically quivering with indignation, and he found her intensity to be humorous and fascinating.

In his world, bored detachment was the norm.  No one cared about anything, and it was refreshing to stumble on someone who was so concerned about an issue.  It was refreshing, but irritating, too.  What would it be like to be friends with such a passionate, fervent individual?

He’d die of exhaustion within a week.

“What’s your name?” he asked.

“Amy.  What’s yours?”  Before he could answer, she gazed down the block, then blanched and muttered, “Crap!”

“What is it?”

He peered over to see a woman approaching, and from the flowing blond hair, wool coat, and spiky heels, it had to be the person she was trying to avoid.

“Look’s like she caught up with you,” he murmured.

“Crap!” she said again, and she glanced around as if she’d like to run but couldn’t decide the best direction.

“Amy!” the woman sternly called from down the block.

“Hey, Pamela.”

“Where have you been?  I’ve been searching everywhere.”

“I’ve been waiting here since two o’clock,” Amy lied, and she peeked up at him, daring him to disagree.  “You must have walked right by me.”

“A likely story,” the other woman, Pamela, grumbled as she staggered forward on her high heels.  The town was a maze of steep, up-and-down hills.  There wasn’t a single inch of level ground, and she was finding it difficult to keep her balance.

Amy peeked up at him and mumbled, “We’ll tell her that your name is Rick.”

“Rick…”  He nodded.  “Okay.”

“You’re my boyfriend.  We met on June second.  June second!” she hissed.  “Got it?”

“Yes.”

“You’re crazy about me.”

“I most definitely am.”

“We fell in love the moment we were introduced.”

“Let’s not get carried away.”

“Pretend.  You’re a man; I’m sure you won’t have any trouble faking it.”

“She’ll never believe we’re in love.”

“She will.  She’s too self-absorbed.  She won’t notice that you barely know me.”

“Who is she?” he inquired, but Pamela had huffed up to them, so Amy didn’t have time to reply.

“I hate this town,” Pamela complained as a particularly vicious gust of wind rippled down the canyon.  “Let’s have coffee in the diner so my toes can thaw.”

“She doesn’t want any coffee,” Dustin said.  “I already asked.”

“Why would you listen to her?  She never had the sense God gave a gnat.”

Pamela spun and stormed inside, while Amy stood, biting her lip and fuming.  She was like a boiling pot and the lid was about to blow.

“You don’t have to go in,” Dustin whispered.

“Yes, I do.  She’ll pester me until I break down and talk to her.”

She looked so young and forlorn, and he wondered how old she was.  Twenty-three?  Twenty-four?

He felt very sorry for her, which was unusual.  He never felt sorry for others, because he never grew close enough so that another person’s feelings would matter.

Why was he bothering with her?  He should have simply strolled on down the sidewalk, but he was bored, and she amused him.  He was happy to waste part of the afternoon, playing the role of the hapless boyfriend, Rick.

As she headed into the diner, he followed.  Pamela was seated at a booth and shucking off her coat.  He and Amy slid in across from her.

She was a few years older than Amy, and very beautiful, but in an icy way.  They had a facial resemblance, with the same pouty lips and big green eyes, so he supposed they were related.  But Amy had a girl-next-door wholesomeness and was wearing clunky snow boots and bulging parka.  Pamela was attired in a form-fitting black sheath, chains of gold around her neck, diamonds in her ears.  She was all stark cheekbones and plucked brows, an exact copy of the females he typically dated.

She thoroughly assessed Dustin, checking out his expensive clothes and watch as she tried to calculate how much he was worth.

On deciding he was probably loaded, she smiled a sexy, flirtatious smile.

“Have we met?” she purred.

“No.”

“This is my boyfriend,” Amy offered.  “Rick.”

“Your…boyfriend?”  Pamela smirked.  “How cute.”

“Rick,” Amy started, “this is my—“

“—sister,” Pamela finished for her.

The two women exchanged a heated glare, then Pamela extended a slender, manicured hand.

“Hello.”  Dustin gave her fingers a light squeeze, then sat back to enjoy the show.

“Amy,” Pamela said, “I hadn’t realized you were seeing anyone.”

“I’m not a teenager.  I don’t have to tell you everything.”

“But a new boyfriend.  My goodness.”

“We met on June second,” Dustin fibbed.

“June second?” Pamela simpered and laughed.  “You’re not serious.”

“We’ve been madly in love ever since,” he added.

Her cell phone rang, and she rummaged in her purse, then yanked it out.  “Hello?  Hello?  Chad?” Apparently, she couldn’t hear an answer, and she tossed it into her bag.  “I repeat:  I hate this town.”

“Cell phones don’t work up here,” Amy said.  “I don’t know why you can’t remember.”

“I was just talking to him a minute ago.”

Her phone rang again, and she scrambled to retrieve it.  She tipped the screen back and forth, trying to read the name and number of whoever was calling.

“Yes, it’s Chad,” she ultimately mumbled.  “I’ve got to see if there’s better reception outside.”

She threw a few bills on the table to pay for coffee that hadn’t been ordered.  Then she jumped out of the booth and grabbed her coat and purse.

“We’re having supper tomorrow night.”  She hurled it like a threat as she hurried out.  “At seven.  Don’t forget.”

“I told you I’m busy,” Amy replied.  “I’m not coming.”

“You’re coming,” Pamela insisted.  “Bring Rick.”

“He’s busy, too.”

“Stop being such a baby,” Pamela chided.

“I hate Chad, and I’m not eating supper with him.”

“It was four months ago, Amy.  Grow up.  Get over it.”

And she was gone.

Dustin felt as if a hurricane had blown through.  Amy sighed, took a deep breath and let it out.

“I don’t like her,” Dustin said.

“I don’t, either.”

“We have something in common.”

“Good thing—considering that we’re madly in love.”

“Who’s Chad?”

“Her boyfriend.”

“He’s an asshole?”

“Yes.”

“Sounds like a match made in heaven.”

“They deserve each other.”

“What happened on June second?”

“Actually, it happened on the first.  I had been dating Chad, and I caught him in bed with her.”

“You…what?”

“Don’t make me discuss it.  It’s too humiliating.”  Her cheeks flushed bright red.  “She’s hoping they get engaged.”

“Wow.”

“Yes, wow, but now, I’m having a little revenge.  She’ll tattle to Chad that I began dating you the day after he hooked up with her.  He’s so vain; it will drive him nuts to think that I didn’t care about what he did.”

“You must have some very interesting family dinners.”

“We try not to get together too often.”

“I’ll bet you don’t.”

They stared out the window where they could see Pamela twisting and turning on her heels as she struggled with the reception.

“Give her another minute,” Amy advised.  “She’ll leave, then we can go without having to speak to her again.”

They watched in silence, and evidently, Amy knew Pamela well.  Precisely a minute later, she stomped off, alternating between punching buttons and jamming the phone to her ear.

Even after she disappeared, Amy gazed at the spot where she’d been, as if an old movie was playing in her head.

“Wanna tell me about it?” he gently inquired, and to his astonishment, he was genuinely curious.

She peered at him with those poignant emerald eyes of hers.  They were so expressive, and he could read every emotion lingering there:  hurt, exasperation, rage.

She seemed to be perched on the edge of a grand confession, as if a lifetime of sorrow was about to spill out, but the moment passed.  She smiled, but sadly.

“No, I don’t want to talk about it.”  She stood, abruptly eager to leave, too.  “Thank you for letting me accost you.  Thank you for letting me drag you into my wacky family drama.”

“I enjoyed it.”

“You’re a nice man.”

“I try to be,” he lied.  He never tried to be nice.  It simply wasn’t in his nature.

“Goodbye.”

She hustled out, and she had on sensible, flat-soled boots, so she was quicker than her sister had been.  She was at the corner and across the street before he could scramble out onto the sidewalk.

“Amy!” he called.

She paused and glanced back.

“I want to see you again,” he shouted.

The wind was howling, and she made a motion as if she couldn’t hear him.  He didn’t know if she really couldn’t or if she was pretending.  She shrugged and waved, then whipped away and ran up the hill.  In an instant, she was at the crest, then she vanished down the other side.

He nearly chased after her, and he just caught himself so he didn’t race off like a crazy person.  Who was she?  Why had he wasted any energy on her ridiculous intrigues?

He had business to attend.  He had gorgeous, glamorous Chantal waiting for him at the hotel.  The autumn days were very short, the sun dropping behind the mountain peaks, and he was anxious to get on the road to Denver.

He turned the other way from where she’d gone and headed to the newspaper office.

+ Reviews

“Edgy, tense, and sexy with characters who take circumstances and emotions to the edge. KISS ME is bound to keep you glued.” — Manic Readers.com

+ Sample Chapter

CHAPTER ONE

“Kiss me.”

“What?”

Dustin Merriweather stumbled to a halt as a short, voluptuous brunette threw herself into his arms.

She was all lush curves and smooth, soft skin, her head a tangle of riotous curls that tickled his chin.  Her petite frame fit perfectly against his tall, lanky one, and wretch that he was, he was in no hurry to push her away.

When he bothered to date, he chose actresses and models.  He had the money and renown to surround himself with some of the world’s most beautiful women.  But they were the types who starved themselves to the point of emaciation, so her shapely body was a nice change.

He could feel it through the puffy goose down of her unflattering parka.  It looked like a garment her younger brother probably wore in the sixth grade.

“Don’t just stand there,” she said.  “Kiss me or hug me or something.”

“I don’t think I know you well enough to kiss you.”

“Then be a brick wall and hide me.”

He chuckled at her vehemence, as she moved closer and burrowed inside his leather jacket.  Her cheek was pressed directly over his heart, her slender hands sliding around his waist to clasp the small of his back.  She angled them so that his shoulders faced the street, and she was cradled against the wall of the building next to them.

“What are we doing?” he asked.

“Ssh,” she warned.  “Not so loud.”

“What are we doing?” he repeated, whispering.

“There is a woman on the sidewalk behind you, and she’ll pass by in a minute.  You can’t let her see me.”

“All right.”

He stood in the quiet, enjoying the feminine feel of her as he breathed deep of the cold autumn air.  The stark scenery washed over him.  It was a crisp October afternoon, the jagged peaks of the Rocky Mountains towering to the sky.  Up on the steep slopes, a few patches of color were still visible as the last leaves on the aspen trees clung tenaciously to the branches.

Soon they’d all be gone, and the frigid gray of winter would set in.

Earlier in the morning, he’d driven up from Denver.  Business had dragged him to the isolated town of Gold Creek.  Though his family had made the bulk of their fortune in the prior century, emptying the abandoned mines that dotted the narrow canyon, he’d never previously visited.

With the elevation above eight-thousand feet, it wasn’t the most hospitable place.  Only the hardiest souls could manage to thrive in such an unwelcoming environment.  His shrewd, industrious great, great grandfather—a pioneer and prospector—had been one of them, but Dustin had no interest in following in the man’s footsteps.

He preferred the warmth of Los Angeles and the sandy beaches of the Caribbean, and at age twenty-eight, his constant goal was to work as little as possible and play as much as he was able.

The town’s main street, with its old shops and dilapidated houses, looked as if everybody was barely holding on.  The area hadn’t generated any of the modern economic prosperity achieved by other mountain communities.

It was too far out of the way to attract tourists, and there were no gentle slopes that might have allowed for a ski resort or summer hiking.  The mines had been boarded for decades so employment was sporadic and intermittent.

Who would live in such a godforsaken spot?  Who could bear it?

He tamped down a shudder, imagining a windy, January day.  It wasn’t unusual to have four-hundred inches of snow in the winter, and his contemplation of that pile of white stuff ignited a wave of claustrophobia.

On the trip up from Denver, he’d considered staying over, maybe checking out grainy photos at the historical society’s museum, but he wouldn’t.

He had no abiding loyalty to his name or reputation, felt no connection to his ancestors and couldn’t stand to reminisce.  Their past actions and acclaim were dubious to say the least.  Who could be proud of a legacy of gold mines and the poisonous devastation they left in their wake?

No.  He’d finish with his meetings, then hit the road and be in Denver by supper.  He’d brought Chantal with him.  She was the latest New York model to catch his fancy.  He’d told her to pack for a week, that they’d stop to dine and loaf in Aspen, so she’d be irritated at his change of plans.  But her wishes were irrelevant.

Behind him, footsteps approached.  The nymph in his arms stiffened and snuggled herself even closer.  He pulled the lapels of his jacket around her torso, trying his best to keep her concealed.

A woman marched by.  From the back, she appeared to be wealthy, and he suspected she was beautiful.  She had long, blond hair that was professionally streaked with the appropriate highlights, and she was wrapped in an expensive wool coat that hung to her knees.  Her boots were shiny leather, the spiky heels clicking on the pavement.

“Don’t move yet,” his sprite murmured.

“I won’t.”

“I don’t want her to glance over her shoulder.”

“She didn’t even notice we were here.”

“Of course, she didn’t.”

The woman continued down the block, then turned the corner and vanished from view.  Silence fell as her strides faded.

“Is she gone?” his elf asked.

“Yes.”

“You’re sure?  You can’t see her?”

“Nope.”

She drew away, and as she grinned up at him, he was temporarily spellbound.  His heart actually did a little flip-flop.

She was just so pretty.  Plump, rosy cheeks.  Pouty lips.  A pert nose red from the cold.  A mass of dark curls that framed a perfect face.  And her eyes!  They were big and green and full of mischief, and he was certain she’d caused no end of trouble to the people in her life.

“You were a great wall,” she said.

“Glad I could help.”

“Thank you.  You were terrific.”

She patted her palm on the center of his chest, then strolled off.

He stood for a moment, shaking his head at her quirky personality, at their odd encounter, when it dawned on him that she was leaving and he didn’t want her to go.  The dreary, decrepit town had him that morose and unsettled.

“Hey,” he called after her.

She spun around.  “What?”

“What was that about?”

“Nothing.”

“No, really.  Who was she?”

“I don’t have any idea.”

She was the worst liar.  It would be easy to date or gamble with her.  You’d never have to wonder what she was thinking or feeling.  Her entire emotional condition was written on her face.

“You can tell me,” he urged.  “It’s not like I’ll run out and alert the media.”

“You never know how someone might act.”

She walked on again, and he hurried over and fell in beside her.

“Do you make it a habit,” he asked, “to accost strange men on the street?”

“Are you admitting to being strange?”

He snorted with amusement.  He was a Merriweather sibling, a descendant of a clan of driven, hardscrabble frontiersmen who’d built Merriweather Industries into one of the world’s most profitable businesses.  They had staked out their claims in the West and earned their fortunes by extracting minerals, then glomming onto the surrounding land.

The mines and foundries and railroads were long gone, but the riches they’d generated were never-ending.  He, with his brother and sister, Lucas and Brittney, wallowed in the money, but they didn’t have to dirty their hands at commerce like their forebears.  They had financial managers who made the cash grow and grow and grow so that he, Lucas, and Brittney could spend and spend and spend.

None of them even resided in Colorado, although Lucas was moving back now that he was marrying his beloved Faith Benjamin.  Brittney fancied herself an artist so she rattled around in Santa Fe with their widowed mother, Jacqueline,  Jacqueline was the only one who maintained any enduring Colorado ties.

Dustin couldn’t stand the wide open spaces, the inclement weather, and he couldn’t wait to return to his beach house in LA.

Did that history make him strange?  Absolutely.

They arrived at the corner, and a gust of wind barreled down the canyon.  He hadn’t brought a warm enough coat, and he shivered.  Down on the valley floor in Denver, it had been a pleasant autumn morning, with temperatures predicted to rise into the seventies.  Up here at eight-thousand feet, angry clouds whipped by and a few snow flakes whirled to the ground.

“Do you live in Gold Creek?” he asked her.

“All my life.”

He shivered again.  They were next to a diner, and he motioned to it.  “Let me buy you a cup of coffee.”

“I probably shouldn’t.”

“I can be extremely charming,” he told her.  “If you get to know me, you’ll really like me.”

“I doubt it.  You look just like my last boyfriend, so I’m sure you’ll turn out to be just like him, too.”

“And how is that?”

“Vain and domineering.”

He huffed with mock outrage.  “I believe I’ve been insulted.”

“You’ll survive.”

She was grinning again, her green eyes sparking with merriment, drawing him in with her sass and brash attitude.

She was so different from the women who occupied his universe.  He couldn’t remember when a female had refused him anything, and he was incensed by her disregard.  His competitive instincts surged to the fore, and he was determined to convince her to have coffee—merely to prove that he could.

Apparently, she didn’t realize that she couldn’t decline his invitation.  Women drooled over him.  Women begged him for favors and attention.  Women adored him and fought to attach themselves, but he wouldn’t allow himself to be caught.

He was a confirmed bachelor who enjoyed seduction and passion, but the notion of settling down, of forming bonds or pledging monogamy was beyond him.  His lonely childhood had been spent at pricey boarding schools because his frosty, bitter mother couldn’t be bothered to raise her own kids.  The forlorn, isolated years had drummed out any desire for permanent relationships.

He’d always been on his own, and he liked it that way.

“You’re not from around here, are you?” she said.

“How can you tell?”

“You’re tan and you’re rich.”  She pointed to his wrist.  “Nice watch.”

It was gaudy and ostentatious and could provide the time or weather in twenty countries and languages.  Her noting it underscored how out of place he looked and felt.  He had to get going.  Why was he even talking to her?

He was bored out of his mind.  That had to be the answer.

With their father’s recent death, the company’s leadership had fallen on his and Lucas’s shoulders.  Neither of them had ever been interested in how the interwoven threads churned out capital, but somebody had to be in charge.

Dustin had deftly absented himself, dumping the entire burden on Lucas, which had caused even more friction between them.  But Lucas’s wedding was approaching, and Dustin could hardly fault him for being busy with his new wife and family.

When he’d asked Dustin to travel to Gold Creek, to quickly and quietly arrange a sale of their property—it included most of the town—his initial inclination had been to refuse.  Yet if he didn’t handle it, who would?

The buildings comprised the courthouse and library, the livery stables and mine offices.  And of course, there was the pair of extravagant mansions, standing side by side, with their grand porches, carriage porticos, and arched windows.  They’d been constructed for the first Mr. Merriweather’s wife and his mistress.  The wife wouldn’t agree to a divorce, and the mistress wouldn’t give him up.

So he’d kept them both and made them both miserable.

It was a problem with Merriweather men.  Fidelity did not rest easily on their shoulders.  His own father had been the worst, his forty-year marriage rife with notorious girlfriends and illegitimate children.  Their family tree had a lot of twisted branches.

Lucas had found a real estate developer who planned to earn a pretty penny by turning the decrepit structures into upscale lofts and condos.  The idea had some merit and would supply the depressed locale with an economic shot in the arm, but there was a pesky reporter at the newspaper who was haranguing against the sale and urging people to fight it.

The articles were gaining traction, and Dustin had had enough nonsense.  He had bought the paper, and he was about to shut it down.  Then he’d meet with the developer, sign the contracts, and head for Denver.  He supposed some might view it as ruthless behavior, but that was another facet of being a Merriweather male.

They were descended from cutthroats and pirates, and they would do whatever was necessary to get their own way.  It was in their blood.  It ran in their DNA.

“No, I’m not from around here,” he said.

“Why are you in town?  No one is just passing through; the road doesn’t go anywhere.  Are you lost?”

He chuckled.  “No, I’m not lost.”

“You’re not a real estate developer, are you?  We already have too many of those lurking in the bushes.”

“No,” he could truthfully claim, “I’m not a real estate developer.”

“Good.  I hate those guys.”

“Why are they lurking?” he asked, feigning curiosity.

“Have you ever heard of the Merriweather family?”

He kept his expression carefully blank.  “I can’t say that I have.  Why?”

“A bazillion centuries ago, their great grandfather started a gold mine here in Gold Creek.  They’re obscenely rich, and they still own most of the canyon.”

“Really…”

“Yes, and the buttheads are trying to sell these beautiful old buildings and have them remodeled into expensive condos.”

He bit down on any retort, and instead, frowned up at the walls of fractured brick, chipped paint, cracked concrete, and drooping eaves.

“That would be a shame,” he contended.

“Don’t I know it.  They have no sense of history.  After they’re through with us, none of the locals will be able to afford to live here anymore.  It ought to be a crime.”

“But it’s not.”

“No.  It should be though.  It would be, if I had my way.”

She was so zealous, she was practically quivering with indignation, and he found her intensity to be humorous and fascinating.

In his world, bored detachment was the norm.  No one cared about anything, and it was refreshing to stumble on someone who was so concerned about an issue.  It was refreshing, but irritating, too.  What would it be like to be friends with such a passionate, fervent individual?

He’d die of exhaustion within a week.

“What’s your name?” he asked.

“Amy.  What’s yours?”  Before he could answer, she gazed down the block, then blanched and muttered, “Crap!”

“What is it?”

He peered over to see a woman approaching, and from the flowing blond hair, wool coat, and spiky heels, it had to be the person she was trying to avoid.

“Look’s like she caught up with you,” he murmured.

“Crap!” she said again, and she glanced around as if she’d like to run but couldn’t decide the best direction.

“Amy!” the woman sternly called from down the block.

“Hey, Pamela.”

“Where have you been?  I’ve been searching everywhere.”

“I’ve been waiting here since two o’clock,” Amy lied, and she peeked up at him, daring him to disagree.  “You must have walked right by me.”

“A likely story,” the other woman, Pamela, grumbled as she staggered forward on her high heels.  The town was a maze of steep, up-and-down hills.  There wasn’t a single inch of level ground, and she was finding it difficult to keep her balance.

Amy peeked up at him and mumbled, “We’ll tell her that your name is Rick.”

“Rick…”  He nodded.  “Okay.”

“You’re my boyfriend.  We met on June second.  June second!” she hissed.  “Got it?”

“Yes.”

“You’re crazy about me.”

“I most definitely am.”

“We fell in love the moment we were introduced.”

“Let’s not get carried away.”

“Pretend.  You’re a man; I’m sure you won’t have any trouble faking it.”

“She’ll never believe we’re in love.”

“She will.  She’s too self-absorbed.  She won’t notice that you barely know me.”

“Who is she?” he inquired, but Pamela had huffed up to them, so Amy didn’t have time to reply.

“I hate this town,” Pamela complained as a particularly vicious gust of wind rippled down the canyon.  “Let’s have coffee in the diner so my toes can thaw.”

“She doesn’t want any coffee,” Dustin said.  “I already asked.”

“Why would you listen to her?  She never had the sense God gave a gnat.”

Pamela spun and stormed inside, while Amy stood, biting her lip and fuming.  She was like a boiling pot and the lid was about to blow.

“You don’t have to go in,” Dustin whispered.

“Yes, I do.  She’ll pester me until I break down and talk to her.”

She looked so young and forlorn, and he wondered how old she was.  Twenty-three?  Twenty-four?

He felt very sorry for her, which was unusual.  He never felt sorry for others, because he never grew close enough so that another person’s feelings would matter.

Why was he bothering with her?  He should have simply strolled on down the sidewalk, but he was bored, and she amused him.  He was happy to waste part of the afternoon, playing the role of the hapless boyfriend, Rick.

As she headed into the diner, he followed.  Pamela was seated at a booth and shucking off her coat.  He and Amy slid in across from her.

She was a few years older than Amy, and very beautiful, but in an icy way.  They had a facial resemblance, with the same pouty lips and big green eyes, so he supposed they were related.  But Amy had a girl-next-door wholesomeness and was wearing clunky snow boots and bulging parka.  Pamela was attired in a form-fitting black sheath, chains of gold around her neck, diamonds in her ears.  She was all stark cheekbones and plucked brows, an exact copy of the females he typically dated.

She thoroughly assessed Dustin, checking out his expensive clothes and watch as she tried to calculate how much he was worth.

On deciding he was probably loaded, she smiled a sexy, flirtatious smile.

“Have we met?” she purred.

“No.”

“This is my boyfriend,” Amy offered.  “Rick.”

“Your…boyfriend?”  Pamela smirked.  “How cute.”

“Rick,” Amy started, “this is my—“

“—sister,” Pamela finished for her.

The two women exchanged a heated glare, then Pamela extended a slender, manicured hand.

“Hello.”  Dustin gave her fingers a light squeeze, then sat back to enjoy the show.

“Amy,” Pamela said, “I hadn’t realized you were seeing anyone.”

“I’m not a teenager.  I don’t have to tell you everything.”

“But a new boyfriend.  My goodness.”

“We met on June second,” Dustin fibbed.

“June second?” Pamela simpered and laughed.  “You’re not serious.”

“We’ve been madly in love ever since,” he added.

Her cell phone rang, and she rummaged in her purse, then yanked it out.  “Hello?  Hello?  Chad?” Apparently, she couldn’t hear an answer, and she tossed it into her bag.  “I repeat:  I hate this town.”

“Cell phones don’t work up here,” Amy said.  “I don’t know why you can’t remember.”

“I was just talking to him a minute ago.”

Her phone rang again, and she scrambled to retrieve it.  She tipped the screen back and forth, trying to read the name and number of whoever was calling.

“Yes, it’s Chad,” she ultimately mumbled.  “I’ve got to see if there’s better reception outside.”

She threw a few bills on the table to pay for coffee that hadn’t been ordered.  Then she jumped out of the booth and grabbed her coat and purse.

“We’re having supper tomorrow night.”  She hurled it like a threat as she hurried out.  “At seven.  Don’t forget.”

“I told you I’m busy,” Amy replied.  “I’m not coming.”

“You’re coming,” Pamela insisted.  “Bring Rick.”

“He’s busy, too.”

“Stop being such a baby,” Pamela chided.

“I hate Chad, and I’m not eating supper with him.”

“It was four months ago, Amy.  Grow up.  Get over it.”

And she was gone.

Dustin felt as if a hurricane had blown through.  Amy sighed, took a deep breath and let it out.

“I don’t like her,” Dustin said.

“I don’t, either.”

“We have something in common.”

“Good thing—considering that we’re madly in love.”

“Who’s Chad?”

“Her boyfriend.”

“He’s an asshole?”

“Yes.”

“Sounds like a match made in heaven.”

“They deserve each other.”

“What happened on June second?”

“Actually, it happened on the first.  I had been dating Chad, and I caught him in bed with her.”

“You…what?”

“Don’t make me discuss it.  It’s too humiliating.”  Her cheeks flushed bright red.  “She’s hoping they get engaged.”

“Wow.”

“Yes, wow, but now, I’m having a little revenge.  She’ll tattle to Chad that I began dating you the day after he hooked up with her.  He’s so vain; it will drive him nuts to think that I didn’t care about what he did.”

“You must have some very interesting family dinners.”

“We try not to get together too often.”

“I’ll bet you don’t.”

They stared out the window where they could see Pamela twisting and turning on her heels as she struggled with the reception.

“Give her another minute,” Amy advised.  “She’ll leave, then we can go without having to speak to her again.”

They watched in silence, and evidently, Amy knew Pamela well.  Precisely a minute later, she stomped off, alternating between punching buttons and jamming the phone to her ear.

Even after she disappeared, Amy gazed at the spot where she’d been, as if an old movie was playing in her head.

“Wanna tell me about it?” he gently inquired, and to his astonishment, he was genuinely curious.

She peered at him with those poignant emerald eyes of hers.  They were so expressive, and he could read every emotion lingering there:  hurt, exasperation, rage.

She seemed to be perched on the edge of a grand confession, as if a lifetime of sorrow was about to spill out, but the moment passed.  She smiled, but sadly.

“No, I don’t want to talk about it.”  She stood, abruptly eager to leave, too.  “Thank you for letting me accost you.  Thank you for letting me drag you into my wacky family drama.”

“I enjoyed it.”

“You’re a nice man.”

“I try to be,” he lied.  He never tried to be nice.  It simply wasn’t in his nature.

“Goodbye.”

She hustled out, and she had on sensible, flat-soled boots, so she was quicker than her sister had been.  She was at the corner and across the street before he could scramble out onto the sidewalk.

“Amy!” he called.

She paused and glanced back.

“I want to see you again,” he shouted.

The wind was howling, and she made a motion as if she couldn’t hear him.  He didn’t know if she really couldn’t or if she was pretending.  She shrugged and waved, then whipped away and ran up the hill.  In an instant, she was at the crest, then she vanished down the other side.

He nearly chased after her, and he just caught himself so he didn’t race off like a crazy person.  Who was she?  Why had he wasted any energy on her ridiculous intrigues?

He had business to attend.  He had gorgeous, glamorous Chantal waiting for him at the hotel.  The autumn days were very short, the sun dropping behind the mountain peaks, and he was anxious to get on the road to Denver.

He turned the other way from where she’d gone and headed to the newspaper office.