By Darien Cox
Darcy James' life blew up in her face after her husband disappeared with her newly acquired inheritance. All she has left in the world is the White Birch Inn, formerly run by her grandmother, so she takes over operations in the mountain ski village.
Still damaged from her husband's betrayal, she has trouble connecting with men. But while her emotions are damaged, her libido is not, and she begins spying on a gorgeous tenant who's moved into one of her suites at the inn.
But things become complicated when she discovers her tenant is not what he seems, possibly not even human. And that she's not the only one stalking him...
Darcy wiped condensation from the binoculars and settled back into the crop of shrubs. She frowned, examining the dewy lenses. The box they’d come in boasted water and fog proofing. What a crock. But she had gotten the cheapest pair in the store, so couldn’t really complain, and they served her purpose. Perfect for sporting events or nature viewing. Smiling, she lifted them to her eyes, sights set on the lighted window across the driveway.
Baxter walked shirtless past the window, jeans low on his hips, head tilted over the book he read. He sipped something blue in a martini glass while Darcy’s eyes drank in the lines of his lean, muscled body. The fireplace danced with flames, Baxter’s exposed skin flickering amber in the warming light. The sight of fire through the windows made her more aware of the October chill. After pausing to zip up her black windbreaker, she brought the binoculars back to her eyes.
Good God, but he was stunning. He’d plunked his perfect body down in the leather recliner, sipping his drink as he read, firelight glinting his streaky blond hair. She couldn’t see the finer details from this distance, but knew his eyes were extraordinarily wide, and a green so deep they looked black in dim lighting.
Her friend Vince had said Baxter’s large eyes gave him a freaky owl quality, but she suspected he was just taunting her about this latest crush, a practice that started when they were kids. It’d carried over into adulthood mostly for fun, and perhaps a bit of male rivalry. Her relationship with Vince was strictly platonic, almost brotherly, but he was highly scrutinous of any man that caught her interest these days, likely because the last man in her life almost destroyed her. But she could hardly get into trouble for only looking...
Darcy didn’t agree with Vince’s owl assessment. She found Baxter’s eyes captivating, almost hypnotic, and had been mesmerized by them since the day he knocked on her door, looking for a room at the inn. The heavy eyelids, the puffy lips, that messy blond hair, it all gave him a post-coital air, like he’d just climbed out of bed after a vigorous night of romantic romping.
At first she had him pegged as a snowboarder with a trust fund, one of those young guys that flocked to the mountain early to catch the first trail openings. But her initial impression had been wrong. His green eyes twinkled with intelligence and experience, and his moppish sexiness seemed genuine, not decided. Plus he’d not made a single trip up to the ski area yet. Or to the lake, hiking trails, or any of the local attractions. He hadn’t even ventured out to the pubs. It baffled her that a guy who looked so good would want to hide himself indoors. Though he’d only been in town a month, she knew the vast boring wilderness of his social calendar—because she’d spent much of that time following him.
Not that she’d learned much, quickly hitting a redundancy loop in terms of his daily activities. It was hard to discover anything new or personal, when he never varied his routine. For all her efforts, all she knew about Baxter Smith was that he had smoking hot looks, read books faster than seemed possible, and never, ever smiled. Other than that, well, she was his landlord, he paid in cash, and his private life was none of her business.
But it’s your business to follow him around and spy on him?
“Shut up, conscience,” she muttered, her breath making white cloud puffs in the cool evening air. She wondered if her therapist would be glad to know she’d added talking to herself to her list of quirks. He’d probably be happy for the distraction. Dr. Steinberg tried to feign objectiveness, but she could see the disdain beneath his thinly veiled professional mask. Her recent hobby made him uncomfortable. No matter how many psychiatry degrees he had framed on the wall, his old school patriarchy didn’t think women should be among the stalkers and voyeurs of the emotionally damaged world.
She sighed and lowered the binoculars, staring up at the angled peaks of the sizeable mountain inn. Like most of the touristy ski lodgings in the area, it was done Tudor style, decorative half-timbering and sloping gables giving it the quaint air of a forest gingerbread house. Nature’s paintbrush had spread colorful autumn leaves and dry yellow pine needles over the property, a mosaic carpet. She’d loved this house so much as a child, when it belonged to her grandmother; a sprawling, magical dwelling full of forbidden rooms and surrounding woods that begged to be explored.
When she was little, she didn’t understand why her grandmother kept her out of certain locked rooms. Of course it was because they were occupied by or reserved for tenants, skiers driving up from the cities for a restful retreat in a medieval looking getaway. Seven-year-old Darcy had assumed there must be some exciting secret behind those doors, not just a well-made bed and dusted furniture old Nan didn’t want her mussing up.
But despite her childhood love of the inn, she never dreamed she’d be the owner one day. Nor was she thrilled with this particular turn of events. The place was a lot less magical as an adult, the person in charge of the upkeep. But fate had been a bugger to her lately, especially when it came to unexpected life turns. For instance, she also never dreamed she’d marry a conman who’d trick her into giving him access to her inheritance, right before he disappeared without a trace.
Her therapist blamed all her current problems on that one betrayal. Granted, it was a big one. What her husband did to her was super-villain caliber bad, but it was over now. It happened almost two years ago, so she wasn’t convinced her little spying fetish could be blamed on marital scorn. But all roads had somehow led to this; Darcy James, a grown woman who once stood before halls of students and pontificated about literature, crouched in a shrub spying on a tenant. Which reminded her: she had an appointment with Dr. Steinberg.
She checked her watch, cursed the time, then took one more peek through the binoculars. Baxter had gotten up and chosen another book, and now moved back to the recliner, stretching an arm behind his neck. His dark blond hair curled around his ears, just brushing the start of his jawline, glinting with sun-kissed streaks. She sighed, stuffing the binoculars back in their case. While her body throbbed with desire, she was also freezing. Even though it was still October, winter temperatures came early in the mountains once the sun went down, and she needed to grab a better coat before heading down to the village to see Dr. Steinberg.
She sauntered around the back of the inn, kicking up dried leaves and watching the trees bend in the wind, silhouetted against the pink of the falling sun. Stopping for a moment, she took a deep breath. It had been a year since she’d left the city, but she still wasn’t used to the difference in the air up here, and relished the fresh pine scent of everything, the cleanness of it. She turned and headed toward the rear courtyard then up to her section of the house, taking the back way to eliminate the chance of Baxter spotting her walk by his window...dressed in black with a pair of binoculars slung over one shoulder.
When she rounded the gazebo and took a right onto the cobblestone throughway, she slammed into someone coming the other way. They both cried out; hers a high pitched shriek, his a guttural curse.
“I’m sorry,” Baxter said. He held one hand up, palm out, as though Darcy had pulled a weapon on him. The other hand held a tied off green trash bag. She stared at him, wide-eyed. He was still shirtless in jeans, dark blond hair blowing back from his face in the evening breeze. “I was just taking my trash out,” he said. “Didn’t mean to scare you.”
Darcy let out a whisper of air, patting her chest. “Hoo! It’s okay, it was better than coffee. I’m awake now, right?” She laughed, but his face remained blank, and her smile wilted. She coughed, feeling awkward as Baxter’s big green eyes fixed on her.
“Well, have a good night,” he said, turning toward the trash bin.
Darcy urged herself to speak. Dr. Steinberg’s advice about needing more interaction pushed against her better judgment, bullying her shyness. “So how are you doing, Baxter? Everything okay in your end of the house? No problems?”
He paused, lowered the trash bag and frowned at her, the expression curving his lower lip alluringly. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Do I know you?”
Darcy cocked her head, stunned. “Do you know me? I’m Darcy. The innkeeper. I rented you the suite.”
Realization lit his expression, and though he didn’t quite smile, a tiny laugh escaped his lips. “Oh, right.” He slapped his fingers to his forehead, big green eyes finally focusing on her, looking her up and down. Standing this close to him, she noticed his eyes had little points at the corners, making him look vaguely sleepy, and even sexier than she remembered.
“I guess I made quite an impression on you,” she joked, hoping it didn’t come out sounding as bothered as she felt.
“Sorry, I didn’t recognize you in...well you’re pretty covered up.” He gestured to her outfit: black jogging pants, black windbreaker, with a navy knit cap pulled low, a few loops of her chestnut curls escaping out the bottom. She slid the binoculars inside her windbreaker, out of sight.
“Oh, this?” She laughed, pulling her hat off and shaking out her chin-length curls. “See? It’s me.” She did a little twirl, then immediately regretted it. She was acting like a dork, and Baxter still hadn’t cracked a smile. Desperate to save her dignity, she straightened her stance, and said, “Well then, have yourself a good evening, Baxter. Be sure to let me know if you need anything. My door’s always open.” She made her tone indifferent and casual, just a landlord making small talk with a tenant.
Before she could pass by, Baxter leaned in, and she thought he was going to kiss her. Shocked, she gasped. He was roughly six feet, and when he came close she had to tilt her head up to look into his eyes. But he didn’t kiss her, he sniffed her hair, then stepped back, eyeing her with a frown.
She let out the breath she’d been holding. “Um, you just sniffed me.”
“You smell familiar,” he said.
She shook her head. “I smell familiar?”
He moved in a step and reached for her hat. She handed it to him reluctantly. He sniffed the hat, a pinch of scowl between his brows. “Yes, your scent. I recognize it.”
She took the hat back, hands awkwardly wringing it as she spoke. “Well, I do live here.” She giggled, nervousness forcing a maniacal twitter out without her consent. “I mean, you know. We both live here. Hey, we probably smell the same at this point! That White Birch Inn bouquet, right?” What? Just stop talking, Darcy, please. She bit her lip to make it so.
“No.” He shook his head. “It’s not just here, I smell you all the time. Especially in the library.” He leaned over and sniffed her neck, just below her jawline. Arousal flooded her body, then retreated like a frightened lamb when he straightened up and said, “You haven’t been following me, have you?”
Darcy looked up into his beautiful eyes, and they seemed to see right into her, searching for truths and lies. She looked at the ground and forced out a laugh. “Following you? Uh, no. Why would I be following you?”
She met his eyes again, trying to appear honest. He remained still, head tilted back as he regarded her. She tried not to focus on his bare chest and stomach, but her eyes flicked to his body against her will. “You must be freezing,” she said to cover her tracks, forcing her eyes back to his face.
An expression that was either suspicion or amusement made one side of his lip curve, and Darcy thought it was the closest thing to a smile she’d ever get from this guy. Then his shoulders sagged and he shook his head. “I’m sorry,” he said. “You probably think I’m a nut for asking that. It just...must be your perfume. Someone else must wear it, someone around town. Sorry.” He gave her his back as he tossed the trash bag in the bin, letting the heavy metal lid clang closed.
Humiliation burned her face. She was caught, busted. Baxter knew. Somehow, he knew what she’d been doing. Or did he? She had been in the library while he was there. But there was no way it had anything to do with her scent; no one had nostrils that discerning unless they walked on four legs and ate from a bowl on the floor. Should she confess? Should she run, hide in her house for a week to avoid him?
Then Baxter turned to her and smiled. A real smile. Her anxiety, her embarrassment, it all melted away in warm drips around her feet, until she was devoid of anything but lust. The smile lit his face, crinkling the pointy corners of his eyes, adding life and mischief to his usually somber expression. It was so appealing she forgot to breathe for a moment.
“I see from the way you’re looking at me that you think I’m a nut,” he said. “I’m going to go back inside now, Darcy the innkeeper, but I promise you: I am not a paranoid who thinks his phones are tapped and people are following him.” He clasped his hands to his chest, a begging gesture. “So please don’t kick me out, okay?” He grinned wider and she lost herself.
“I-I’m not kicking you out. You stay as long as you want. Stay forever if you feel like it.” Oh crap, she thought. Did I just say that? And in that breathy, Marilyn Monroe voice?
Baxter glanced back as he walked away. “See you around, innkeeper.”
“You bet,” she whispered in the cool night air.