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Big Sky Mavericks

MontanaRebel-MEDIUM

             Montana Rebel 

Don’t look down and never give up.

Justin Oberman’s credo for living his adventurous–some might say death-defying–life to the max served him well until the unfortunate outcome to a climb in New Zealand made him walk away from the sport he loved. A lucrative new job offer could pave the way to a more traditional life in Marietta, Montana, where his two best friends have fallen in love with the women of their dreams. But settling down always seemed more daunting than Everest and not worth considering until a mysterious lady in red walks into his life on New Year’s Eve. Suddenly, that happily-ever-after stuff Flynn and Tucker have been raving about looks within reach. But will he feel the same when their masks come off?

The first fall is always the hardest.

Nikki Magnesson Richards has loved Justin Oberman most of her life. First, from the safety of her brothers’ old tree house. Later, with unrequited teen-age angst. Her poorly thought out attempt to get him to notice her cost them both dearly. Now, a dozen years later, her fairy godfather boss has orchestrated the most romantic meeting possible–the Big Sky Mavericks Masked Ball for Charity. A kiss at midnight with her very own Prince Charming isn’t too much to ask, is it? But what are two star-crossed lovers supposed to do when one kiss isn’t enough?

Let the countdown begin...available 1/26/16

Let the countdown begin…available 1/26/16

 

Please enjoy this un-edited excerpt from © MONTANA ROGUE:

Prologue

Nicole Richards pressed her forehead to the porthole-size round window, straining to catch a hint of sunrise beginning to lighten the edges of clouds miles below the small but luxurious jet. They’d left Paris later than they’d wanted. Meetings that ran long. Traffic every bit as dense and congested as L.A.’s. She was bone tired but sleep eluded her.

“Your mind won’t turn off, huh?” her travel mate and boss asked from the fully reclined seat across from hers. “Mine, either.”

She turned her head to look at J. Angus Hooper, a man some called genius, some “a crackpot economist who got lucky.” Nikki knew he was a little of both. At 81, Angus resembled a Hobbit more than a captain of industry, and yet his diverse holdings circled the earth, his wealth routinely placing his name on the Forbes’s wealthiest Americans list. He was also one of the kindest, shrewdest and most unpredictable men she’d ever met. He often admitted he lived to keep her on her toes.

A reference, she believed, to their initial meeting a dozen years earlier. When half the doctors on staff at the rehab hospital where they both were residing–for different reasons–told Nikki she’d never walk again, J. Angus said, “Baloney.” With a contagious air of optimism and zeal, Angus almost single-handedly bullied her into getting out of her wheelchair and pushing through the pain to the point where she could walk without help.

She liked to say their friendship was forged in mutual anguish. J. Angus had been recovering from his second stroke at the time, and shouting orders at Nikki had, remarkably, given him back his power of speech.

“I’ve been lying here thinking about missed opportunities and all the what-ifs that go with that sort of thing. Do you ever wonder where you’d be if you’d kissed that one person who got away but took a piece of your heart with her.” His chin turned. “Or him, in your case.”

A name sprang to mind. A face. Her first crush. “Not as often as did I in my late teens,” she admitted truthfully. “I like to think I’ve grown up a bit since then.”

“Pah. Maturity only counts in horseshoes.”

Her lips curved despite the energy the effort took. His silly miss-sayings usually hid a much deeper meaning, but she was too tired to probe. Instead, she gave him what he wanted. A name. The boy she’d secretly pined for her entire teenage years, until she acted on her desire and ruined both their lives.

“Justin Oberman. The boy next door. Cliché, huh?”

“Clichés are shared human experience that everyone can relate to. What happened?”

“He was two years older than me and barely knew I existed…until my freshman year of college. I crashed his climbing party and fell off the side of a cliff.”

The old man’s eyes went wide. “He’s that boy.”

She stared at the ceiling, remembering the image imprinted on her mind. “Justin Oh. That’s what all the girls called him. A true rebel with a style all his own. Not Goth or Grunge. He made Patagonia cool.”

“He’s the boy who carried you to the helicopter after you fell.”

A statement of fact. An act of heroic selflessness that made him Superman in her eyes. Sadly, his act of kindness cost him so much she could barely bring herself to think about that shameful period of her life.

Instead, she closed her eyes and remembered how safe she’d felt in his arms. The reality of the moments after she fell–the blood, the pain, the panic in the eyes of her friends–had become dim and slightly out of focus over the years. Instead, she remembered with crisp intensity the look of compassion in Justin’s beautiful, gray-green eyes.

His chest had been heaving from the exertion of carrying her across a minefield of shale and bowling ball-size boulders. Rivulets of sweat had trickled down the side of his face. She’d wanted to reach up and brush away the drops but the line of communication between her brain and her extremities hadn’t been working. Her first inkling of what was to come.

“You’re going to be okay,” he’d told her. “Don’t you let anyone tell you otherwise.”

She couldn’t remember falling, but she’d fallen completely, utterly in love during Justin’s–some said misguided and dangerous–rescue attempt. Unfortunately, everything went downhill from there and she never saw him again.

She wondered if she ever would.

Probably not, she thought.

But when she closed her eyes, she pictured Justin’s strong arms wrapping her in the sort of hug that shut out all the trials and turmoil of the world. A girl could dream. And the man of her dreams was a fantasy, nothing more. Because the real Justin Oberman had every reason in the world to hate her.

Chapter One

“I won’t wear it and you can’t make me.”

Arms crossed, shoulders braced for a fight, Justin Oberman eyed the ridiculous object Flynn Bensen held out for Justin and fellow friend Tucker Montgomery to see. All three stood just inside the entrance of the gloriously festive ballroom of the Graff Hotel in Marietta, Montana.

Despite his serious tone, Justin hoped they wouldn’t have to resort to a firefighter method for solving disputes. They’d look pretty silly wrestling around in tuxedos as well-dressed New Year’s Eve revelers filed past.

“Quit being such a baby,” Flynn chided. “My wife-to-be worked her butt off to make the Big Sky Mavericks’ New Year’s Eve Masked Ball happen. I promised Kat we’d all three show up in tuxes and masks. Are you going to make a liar out of me?”

Guilt–a surefire pipeline to Justin’s gut. As his best friend no doubt banked on. Not to mention the fact Justin liked and respected Flynn’s fiancée, Kat Robinson. Kat had been through a lot and somehow managed to land on her feet–sense of humor intact. Plus, she had a bright–if challenging–kid to show for it. More than loner, ever-the-rebel Justin could claim.

“What’s the big deal?” Tucker asked, adjusting the French cuffs of the pearl white shirt he’d had made in Italy during his American Male glory days. The damn thing still fit like he’d just walked out of filming a James Bond movie, Justin noticed. “It’s not like anyone will recognize you in a tux, anyway. Hell, I’ve known you for ten years and I’ve never seen you this dressed up.”

He glanced Justin’s way. “Lookin’ good, by the way. Don’t go anywhere near my girlfriend.”

Justin exchanged a what’s-he-talking-about look with Flynn. As if the glorious Amanda Heller had eyes for anyone but Tucker. Since moving back to Marietta earlier in the month, the two had been practically inseparable.

Love does that to a person, Justin guessed. Watching his two best friends fall in love and go through the challenges of establishing a solid, lasting relationship had made him take serious stock of his life. Could he ever expect to find a partner willing to embrace his seasonal gypsy climber/wildfire hotshot life? The climber part meant eschewing life’s traditional hearth and home comforts to risk said life on months-long climbs to some of the world’s highest peaks.

Doubtful. And despite his friends’ apparent success in recent matters of the heart, Justin could point out just as many epic failures. Marybeth, his eldest sister, was on her second marriage, and Georgia, two years her junior, divorced her husband after a couple of years of constant drama. Her current live-in boyfriend was not allowed to use the M-word.

Justin liked to say a good climber never fell–and the same rule applied to a good lover.

“A tuxedo is one thing. This ridiculous piece of crap is something else.” He gingerly examined the dramatic black satin half-mask, which sport a hawkish proboscis and faux sapphire eyebrows. It was expertly made, he conceded. And the red satin lining was a nice touch–very high end, but it belonged in one of those period romance novels his sisters used to read at loud at the dinner table.

“Who decided overt flamboyance was a good idea?”

“I did,” a woman’s voice said from behind them. “Are you questioning my artistry?”

Justin pivoted, his face burning. He nearly put on the mask to cover his blush. He hated when his rusty social skills came across as being less than chivalrous. Especially in front of his two best friends, whose grins proved how much they enjoyed seeing him squirm in the face of Bailey Jenkins-Zabrinski’s puzzled expression.

“My crafters and I made most of the masks, including the one in your hand. We called that one Hawk of the Town. We were going for a Romeo and Juliet sort of charm with a hint of whimsy. Do you really hate it?” She sounded more curious than hurt.

“Hate? No,” he lied. “It’s beautifully made. The mask is great. Very clever name. It’s me, Bailey. I’m not a big party guy.”

“Understatement.” Tucker tried to mask the word with a fake cough.

Justin ignored him, still searching for a diplomatic way out of his embarrassment. “And I’m definitely more of a minimalist. Jewels? Me? Umm…not my style. But, you definitely have an air of Juliet about you.”

Her floor-length aquamarine gown matched an even more exotic, over-the-top mask of silver sequins and feathers, which she held loosely in her hand.

“Thank you. But isn’t that what this night is all about? Extreme generosity. Over-the-top fun. Unexpected possibilities. Maybe, just this once, you could play along and pretend you’re not Justin Oberman. Tonight, you’ll be a nameless, faceless stranger in a beautifully ostentatious mask.”

He gave the mask a second look. He had to admit, he liked the idea of being anonymous–especially after the past few months of having his name dragged through the mud within the international climbing community. Even given the fact a New Zealand court had exonerated him in the death of five climbers, the phone wasn’t exactly ringing off the wall with new sponsorship offers.

“Maybe I can.”

Her smile told him all was forgiven. “Nobody I know has ever been to a masked ball,” she said, touching his upper arm. “Tonight, you can be anyone you want.”

“I like the sound of that.”

At the very least, he’d be adding a warm body to the headcount, which would make everyone involved in the Big Sky Mavericks Philanthropic Group happy. He’d eat, drink and make merry for a few hours then slip away before midnight so he didn’t have to worry about not having anyone to kiss.

“You’re right, Bailey. Maybe your mask will make me less of a curmudgeon.”

She dropped a quick, friendly kiss on his cheek. “My work here is done.” She blew kisses to the other men then hurried away to check on another group poised to enter the ballroom.

“I have a feeling this is going to be an outstanding year for each of us,” Tucker said, his eyes lighting up. “And there’s my reason why.”

Justin and Flynn turned to watch a woman in a white floor-length sheath that shimmered when she moved pick her way through the crowd toward them. She might not have been model, but she definitely carried herself with runaway style and grace. “Amanda went back for the masks Ona sent from ‘Nawlins. We got a little distracted at the last minute.” His roguish grin made it clear what distracted them–sex.

Ona, Tucker’s grandmother, had sent Flynn and Justin chicory coffee and bottles of Love Potion #9 cologne for Christmas. On a whim, Justin had given the scent a try tonight. I wonder if it will work.

“Gentlemen,” Tucker said, starting away. “I’ll see you later. I believe we’re at Mia and Ryker’s table.”

“Speaking of Ryker,” Justin said, watching Tucker wrap Amanda in a loving hug. “How’s your baby brother doing? Does parenthood agree with him?” he asked Flynn.

The two Bensen brothers had relocated to Montana separately–Ryker, first, then his older brother–but they’d both found Marietta to be a perfect fit. If Justin were the type to be envious of a friend, Flynn’s current situation checked every box. He’d fallen into a great job that he loved and excelled at. He claimed to have found his soul mate in Kat. And nine-year-old Brady provided the perfect way to ease into fatherhood–unlike the trial-by-twins his brother was experiencing.

Justin hadn’t belonged anywhere for a very long time. By choice, he had to remind himself. Why he’d started to question those choices over the past few months, he couldn’t say.

“Absolutely,” Flynn said. “Ryker’s great. Exhausted. Deliriously in love with Mia and the babies. Tonight’s their first outing as a couple since the twins were born.” Justin thought he detected a hint of something cryptic in Flynn’s voice, but instead of divulging any secrets, his friend added, “Love works wonders.”

Typical Flynn. Private. Introspective. Eyes on the bigger picture.

“That’s certainly the case where Tucker is concerned,” Justin said as Tucker and Amanda passed by completely lost in each other. Justin had suspected for a long time their mutual friend had a secret depth hidden beneath his loud, boisterous American Male dancer persona. Finding Amanda had been the catalyst to bring that other aspect of his personality to the foreground, and, honestly, Justin liked this less frenetic, happy, and confident Tucker better.

“So, I have a few minutes while Kat’s doing some last minute fine-tuning,” Flynn said, donning his simple, black, Lone Ranger-type mask. “Shall we sample the champagne while we’re waiting for this thing to kick off?”

Justin tested his mask’s elastic band to see how much give it had before he slipped the thing over his head. Surprisingly, the molded shape rested easily against his cheekbones and the large eye openings didn’t impede his vision in any way. “Okay. I can handle this for a couple of hours. At least, it’s only on the top half of my face,” he added, seeing a few newcomers sporting elaborate, Freddy Kruger-type masks.

They gave their names to the attendant at the door and stepped inside the ballroom. Subdued lighting couldn’t hide the glitter and wow-factor the decorating committee had created. “Fancy-dancy,” Justin said, looking around. “This is really something. I’m starting to get what Tucker meant when he said the place resembled a Pinterest page on steroids.”

Not that Justin had a Pinterest page, but Kat had shown him a few of the ones she’d used to grab ideas for tonight’s gala.

“Wait till midnight.” Flynn pointed upward. Lightweight netting held huge bags of gold, silver and white balloons against the thirty-foot ceiling. “Kat says there are two thousand and sixteen.”

He snagged two champagne flutes from a tray sitting on the bar and handed one to Justin. “The balloons are going to be released at the stroke of midnight to cascade over the kissing revelers.”

“Impressive.”

“I agree. But that’s nothing compared to the menu. Wild boar, bison steaks, duck breast, ostrich fillets, two kinds of fish and I can’t remember what else. Austen calls it: late Montana Robber Baron.”

They touched glasses and nodded an unspoken toast before taking a drink. The crisp, dry but surprisingly smooth liquid slid down Justin’s throat with ease. Normally, he wasn’t a big drinker. Most people probably considered him an ascetic with a tendency toward abstinence. In truth, he was simply very picky. When he did imbibe, he preferred aged, single-malt scotch. And when he learned the case against him in New Zealand had been dismissed, he’d arranged to have the bar stock his favorite, Islay Lagavulin.

A climber friend had warned him that the family of one of the American victims was threatening to file a civil suit of some sort in the States, but Justin couldn’t imagine what they thought they could hope to win from it. He wasn’t rich or famous. He planned to carry on life as normal until the other climbing shoe fell.

He took another sip. “This isn’t bad, considering I don’t usually drink champagne.”

Flynn polished off his glass. “The other day Kat told me champagne is supposed to ward off memory loss.”

Justin tried to give Flynn a droll look but realized lifting one’s eyebrow was a wasted effort when you were wearing a mask. “Does that include the night you imbibe it?”

Flynn chuckled. “Maybe not.” He picked up another glass, which seemed very unlike Flynn.

“Is everything okay with you, buddy?”

“Yeah. Fine. Christmas was good. Work is plugging along. We still have an opening if you’re looking for something well below your pay grade.”

They’d had this discussion a few weeks ago when Justin received a crazy, over-the-top job offer from an eccentric billionaire named J. Angus Hooper. After vetting the man as thoroughly as possible to determine whether or not the offer was legit, Justin had called his pals for a powwow.

Tucker’s reaction? “Go for it. Take the money and don’t look back, man.”

Typically, Flynn had been less enthused. “It looks like a short-term gig. Yes, it appears to pay well, but that will mean putting off the Park Service for another season. Are you ready to give up firefighting completely?”

Justin had asked himself the same question, until the day a check for ten thousand dollars appeared in the mail. A “signing bonus,” according to the cover letter signed by someone named Nicole Richards.

“I appreciate the offer, Flynn, but I went ahead and accepted the job with The Masters Group. I’m not completely clear on what I’ll be doing, but the money was just too good to pass up.”

Flynn nodded. “I get it. Believe me. Tucker said you splurged on a room in the hotel.”

“Yep. What about you and Kat? Are staying here, too?”

“Naw. We have the whole house to ourselves because Roger took Brady to Bozeman for the night.”

After going her whole life not knowing the name of her biological father, Kat had finally pieced together enough clues to approach Roger Zabrinski, the black sheep of the Zabrinski family. A DNA swab proved their biological connection. Both felt their lives markedly improved by this reunion, and Roger, who lived in California, appeared determined to be a hands-on grandpa to Brady.

Justin couldn’t help but feel a tiny stab of envy. His firefighter father had perished in the line of duty the very night Justin was born. While most blamed bad luck for Bart Oberman’s two-story stumble into the heart of an inferno, a few insensitive souls had theorized that Bart had been distracted by his wife’s labor. Had Justin’s dad taken shortcuts that cost him his life? If he hadn’t been rushing to get to the hospital before his son was born, would he still be alive?

Naturally, a small part of Justin’s subconscious had glommed onto the idea and wouldn’t let go. For years, he’d debated whether or not his birthday had caused his father’s death.

Justin adjusted his mask. How Shakespearian!

He shook off the thought and told Flynn, “I’ve got a room on the second floor. One with a jetted tub. After six months of living in a tent, I decided I’d earned a few creature comforts.”

“Are you planning to bid on any of the raffle prizes?”

“Do I look like a raffle kind of guy?”

Flynn’s snicker conceded the point. “Probably not, but Tucker’s basket includes four season passes to Mountie’s Marvelous Montana Zip Line and Enduro course. I thought that might be right up your alley.”

Justin nudged him slightly with his shoulder as he set the empty glass on the end of the bar. The gala included a five-star meal, an orchestra and other silliness he had no intention of partaking in. “I plan to dine in style, get pleasantly smashed, take a long soak, and then watch Cliffhanger.”

“Again?” Flynn cried, nearly spewing champagne down the front of his older but still-stylish tux. A gift from his future father-in-law if Tucker was to be believed. “How many times will that make?”

“Six. Ten. What does it matter? That movie changed my life when I was twelve. Watching Stallone dangle from a rock overhang was the coolest thing ever. I thought my heart was going to jump out of my chest.” Who wouldn’t want to climb above and beyond Justin’s loud, hormonal, chaotic existence in their middle class suburban L.A. home? The three women in his life loved him, but they drove him crazy, too.

So, he learned to climb. First, at the YMCA and then with a group from a nearby junior college. He truly felt he’d found his calling until the day that changed his life forever. An accident in Yosemite. A young climber fell. Justin did his best to help, carrying her bleeding, broken body to meet a helicopter.

He’d recognized her, of course. Nikki Magnesson. His sisters had babysat her for years. As a child, the little girl had toddled after Justin like the puppy dog his busy, single, working mother wouldn’t let him have. But from junior high on, he’d only seen her from a distance…when she spied on him from her brothers’ rickety old tree house.

He’d been too busy showing off for his climbing peers to realize she’d lied about her abilities. His hubris had cost them both. Did it matter whether her fall or Justin’s decision to carry her to the rescue helicopter caused her paralysis? Not really. What mattered was Nikki’s hothead father’s reaction to the news. His angry diatribe sent Justin’s mother to the hospital in cardiac arrest. Unfortunately, she died before Justin could get back to L.A.

“Things happen for a reason, son,” Mom would say when Justin asked why his daddy had to die. And, while he hadn’t appreciated any of the changes that happened during the turbulent years that followed his mother’s death, Justin could look back now with some clarity.

If not for one foolish young woman’s attempt to do something she was woefully unprepared for, Justin might never have met Flynn and Tucker–his bothers-in-arms. The men who proved families weren’t limited to birth or biology.

Looking around for a place to set his empty glass, Justin stepped closer to the bar. Even the wait staff was dressed to impress. “The Zabrinskis pulled out all the stops, didn’t they?”

“They’re Big Sky Mavericks,” Flynn said, a hint of irony in his tone. “When they’re all in, mountains move, doors open and good things happen for a lot of people.”

Justin agreed. Although he had his National Park Service job waiting for him, who turned down the kind of private sector money he’d been offered through Austen Zabrinski?

As if reading the direction of his thoughts, Flynn asked, “Are you excited about your new job? That was one helluva signing bonus they gave you.”

A grand surprise. More than enough to make him splurge on a room at the Graff. Not that money had ever been a big motivator in Justin’s life. Except for making sure he bought the best climbing gear on the market and First Class tickets to his far-flung adventures, Justin was the most frugal person he knew.

“Damn right. I was a little thrown by the non-disclosure agreement, though. Austen gave it the once over. Apparently, it’s okay to tell people how much they’re paying me, but I can’t talk about the job itself.”

“Do you even know what you’re going to be doing for them?”

“Not a clue.” He forced a grin. “Apparently, the non-disclosure part applies to me, too.”

As Austen had explained, the philanthropic arm of The Masters Group wanted to branch into a high-end, Outward-Bound-for-adults-with-impairments sort of operation. The exact nature of the endeavor would remain shrouded in mystery until it’s launch date later this spring.

“In addition to your reputation as a climber, they heard about how well you ramrodded Tucker’s Zip Line project and how creative you got making the zips ADA-compliant,” Austen told him. “You can thank Amanda Heller’s impressive PR campaign for bringing your name into the conversation.”

Justin had thanked Amanda by making a large donation in her name to the Big Sky Mavericks endowment fund for young women entrepreneurs. He just hoped his new job, which started January 4, would live up the expectations of the company’s founder and CEO, J. Angus Hooper.

A shadow figure with an understated public profile, Hooper’s initial email espoused a very simple philosophy: make outdoor adventuring–including climbing–open to everyone. “Too many people put their dreams of outdoor adventures off until they’ve reached an age and place in their lives where physical challenges make that dream appear beyond reach. With your help, Climb Beyond–the name of the project you’ll be heading–will bring hiking, camping and mountaineering back within reach of even the most physically challenged among us.”

Altruism wasn’t Justin’s strong suit. Thanks to his family dynamics and circumstance, he’d grown up a self-reliant loner with a bit of a chip on his shoulder. Climbing had been his escape. Firefighting had been his way of giving back–and honoring his late father. Both professions made a “normal” life unlikely. He hated to admit how many times lately he wondered about that road he’d turned his back on after his mother died. College. A degree in engineering. Tinkering had been his second love.

Tucker’s insistence that Justin figure out a way to make the entire zip line operation handicap accessible had rekindled that interest. He’d spent interminable nights experimenting with rigging to make the zips safe for riders who had limited or no use of their hands and legs. He’d had every inch of harness checked and triple-checked before setting out to train his young zip line employees.

The busy male bartender placed two flutes in front of them without asking what they preferred. Justin and Flynn exchanged a look but picked up the glasses filled all the same.

“To new beginnings,” Flynn said, tapping the rim of his delicate crystal glass against Justin’s. “I’m really glad you’re sticking around Marietta. It’s starting to feel like home, isn’t it?”

“Whatever that means. You know me–wandering from peak to peak is who I am.”

“Unless you’re going from fire-to-fire. But you’ve been in Montana for what? Six months? That’s practically a new record, right? Tucker and I were hoping you’d decided it was time to settle down for good. Marietta would make as good a home as any, right?”

Home. Where was that? Justin had been on his own–rootless–since the day his sisters sold the house he’d grown up in. He’d supported their decision one hundred percent. He wanted no reminder of the family living next door. He’d moved from National Park to the next great peak without feeling the least bit homeless.

But Flynn was right. This interlude in Marietta had been the longest break from climbing he’d ever taken. And, honestly, ever since the debacle in New Zealand, Justin hadn’t felt the call of the mountains. New sponsors hadn’t been calling him, either.

“May I join you gentlemen?”

Justin turned to find a shapely blonde in a strapless, floor-length gown of scarlet sequins standing a foot away. Her mask was similar in size to Justin’s yet far most elaborate. Against a white satin background swirls and intricate patterns faintly reminiscent of India created a mosaic adorned with sparkling, multifaceted diamonds. Painted on eyelashes made the blue of her irises the deepest, darkest hue he’d ever seen.

“Of course. Please do. Would you like a glass of champagne?”

“Actually, I’m more of an Islay Lagavulin sort of girl. Is scotch terribly gauche at this sort of event?”

Flynn’s jaw dropped. He looked from the stranger to Justin and back. “Seriously? You’re the first person besides this guy I’ve ever heard order that.”

Her shimmery red lips curved into a sexy smile. “Once you go peat, you never go back.”

And odd sense of deja vu made a shiver whip down Justin’s spine. He’d said those words himself somewhere, sometime.

He caught the bartender’s attention, gave the order and held up two fingers. “Flynn’s right. Most people haven’t even heard of Lagavulin, and very few bars carry it. The Graff only started stocking it at my request.”

“Then what fortunate timing on my part since I just arrived in Montana a few hours ago and didn’t have time to stock the bar.”

Her tone held a carefree pleasantness that seemed at odds to her stiff, posture-perfect carriage. Her bare shoulders were well developed, as if she was no stranger to a gym. The dress that hugged her generous curves in a provocative, yet classy, way cried “designer”–not that Justin would know couture if it bit him on the ass, but his sisters had been fashionistas before the word was invented.

With her dark golden hair in a dramatic upsweep, he could only guess at its length. When his gaze dropped to her left hand–no wedding ring, he was happy to see, he noticed her bling-encrusted walking stick. An odd accouterment for one so young.

“Sir.”

Justin took both of the expensively weighted highball glasses from the bartender and handed one to her. “Flynn? Another champagne?”

Flynn set his mostly full flute on the bar. “No, thanks. I see Kat is done speaking with the head of catering. I should go.” He nodded politely to the lady in red. “Nice to not-quite-meet-you. I get the feeling introductions are besides the point when you’re wearing a mask, but I hope to see you later.”

Justin watched him march across the empty dance floor and pull Kat into an embrace that included lifting her off her feet and spinning about so her wide, sparkly peach, Cinderella skirt floated about impressively. He noticed the woman was watching, too.

“A lovely couple,” she said.

“In real life, too.” Nodding toward her cane, he asked, “Would you prefer to sit?”

“Perhaps. Recent surgery on an old injury. It’s mostly healed, but every so often, my knee will give out. Very embarrassing in Versace.”

Versace. A name he vaguely recognized. A name that sounded like money.

He led the way to one of the many bar-height bistro tables ringing the dance floor.

“A good friend of mine screwed up the ligaments in his foot this past summer and was on crutches for weeks. He didn’t handle the impediment with nearly as much grace as you appear to,” he said, offering her a chair.

She set her glass on the table and used the arms of the chair to lift and pivot gracefully into a seated position. She leaned over to rest her cane against the leg of her chair. The movement afforded him a glimpse between the V of sculpted pink flesh. His throat closed so abruptly, he nearly swallowed his tongue.

“Thank you. I’ve had a lot of practice.”

He sat across from her, following her gaze as she looked around. He noticed for the first time the area on the far side of the hall where several dozen round tables had been set up and decorated with white, silver and gold. “I believe there’s an appetizer buffet. May I get you anything?”

She lifted her glass. “Just this at the moment. Thank you.”

He touched the rim of his glass to hers. “Happy New Year.”

“To you also.”

Something in her tone sounded forced. Maybe she’d hoped for a more interesting toast. Lagavulin seemed to call for a bit of a brogue at the very least. He took a sip, closing his eyes to savor the complicated flavor of peat aged in sherry barrels to soften the burn as it inched down his gullet. “Ah, I do believe I taste a word of praise from each of its seventeen years in the cask.”

His taste buds happy-danced until the last echo of symphonic bliss quieted in his belly and the empty space between them compelled Justin to introduce himself. “My name is…”

“Mercutio, I presume. As your friend said, at a masked ball, identities are hidden for a reason.”

Her tone seemed grave.

“Why?”

“So the people behind the mask can let go of the restrictions and expectations their name demands of them.”

He hadn’t expected anyone to take the whole masked ball thing seriously. “Then…you would be…?”

“Viola.”

He tried to picture a Viola in Romeo and Juliet–a movie he’d seen many years before with some forgotten date. “My Shakespeare is a little rusty. Is that the maid’s name?”

Her smile did something magical and a little unnerving to his equilibrium. “No, silly. She’s the heroine of Shakespeare in Love. Did you see that movie?”

“Doubtful. Unless it was playing on a flight somewhere, I don’t watch a lot of movies.”

She made a soft “hmmm”–as if what he said confirmed something she’d already guessed. “Well, you should check it out sometime. I found it charming. Gwyneth Paltrow plays Viola, who is a strong, adventuresome female lead. And, as we all know, aside from Juliet, her mother, and the nurse–who usually is portrayed by a buxom older woman–, the cast of Romeo and Juliet was male-centric.” Her bare shoulders lifted and fell. “No surprise, I suppose given Shakespeare’s base of actors to draw upon.”

“True.” Her ready wit intrigued him. Normally, he didn’t play games when it came to flirting, but she did it so well, he had to ask, “So, Viola, what do you do when you’re not reading Shakespeare?”

“I tilt with windmills.”

A crafty, intriguing dodge. “I’ve never met a professional windmill tilter. How’s business?”

He brought the cocktail glass to his lips, inhaling deeply before taking a sip. As the flavor exploded in his mouth a second time, he closed his eyes to savor the taste before opening them to find Viola’s staring at him intently.

“Challenging,” she quipped. “You have to watch for their left jabs. Tricky bastards.”

He realized he was grinning like a complete dork. “I bet. Must pay well. Considering the hazards and all.”

She made a languid, so-so motion. A beautiful diamond tennis bracelet caught Justin’s eye. His mother had worn a much smaller, less sparkly version until her death. A gift from his father Justin had assumed. His eldest sister had inherited it.

“That’s my side job. It’s far more interesting than what I really do, which involves looking out windows while listening to people talk in circles and figure out the most politically expedient way to lie.”

Her words painted a picture he had no trouble seeing. A businesswoman opposite a boardroom table framed against a backdrop of skyscrapers. “Wow. You’ve got this mystery woman thing down to a science.”

“I’ve had years of practice. When I heard about the Big Sky Mavericks’ Masked Charity Ball, I knew I had to come. I’ve always wanted to be someone else, and this seemed like a golden opportunity.”

Justin didn’t buy her explanation. Why would anyone with such obvious wealth, wit and intelligence want to hide behind a mask? She didn’t lack for confidence in the way she carried herself. Her desire for anonymity hinted at something nefarious or not quite kosher. Better to ask now then wind up with an irate husband looking for a fight later.

“Are you married?”

“Not any more. I was. Briefly. For the wrong reasons. I don’t recommend it.”

A telling comment that begged an explanation. “So, you’re divorced.”

Why did that word leave an unpleasant taste in his mouth, he wondered? He took another drink of scotch to wash it away.

“My husband and I had split up when he took his own life, but the paperwork wasn’t final.”

Her stark tone made him regret asking. “I’m sorry.”

She took another sip from her glass. He had the feeling she rarely discussed such personal matters in a social setting with strangers and was questioning her decision to do so now, but she added, almost apologetically, “It was eight years ago. He suffered from PTSD and clinical depression.”

PTSD. Justin remembered all too vividly his fear that Flynn’s mental health might spiral downward a year ago after a close call on the fire line that resulted in a civilian’s death. “He must have been pretty young.”

“Chronologically? Yes. But his poor body had been through more living and more pain, than anyone should see in thirty-seven years.”

Thirty-seven? Justin was thirty-four, and she seemed a few years younger. But the damn mask made it impossible to know for certain.

Drop it, damn it. But he had to say something or risk looking like an insensitive brute. “Death happens.” Brilliant. “I lost a colleague to depression.”

She crossed on knee over the other and sat forward slightly to ask, “Are you a mortician?”

“No. Why? Do I look like a mortician?”

Her grin made his fingers itch to take off her mask. “No. But it seems like a depressing field. A doctor, then?”

He shook his head.

“Ambulance driver? EMT? Homicide detective?”

His laugh felt rusty but good. “I climb mountains and fight fires.”

She put one hand to her chest–a mock gesture of shock. “Dear me. Not at the same time, I trust.”

It was Justin’s turn to make a so-so gesture. “Generally, not. But it can feel like mountain climbing when you jump out of a plane and find yourself ten miles and five thousand feet in elevation away from the action.”

“Ten miles? And you have to walk that? With full packs?”

He nodded.

Although he couldn’t see her eyebrows beneath the mask, he could sense them lifting to give him a droll look. “Forget suicide. That would kill me.”

Although he assumed asking personal questions flew in the face of the whole masquerade thing, he found his curiosity piqued. Besides, he’d never been very good at playing games–just ask his sisters. “What did your late husband do that caused the post-traumatic stress issues?”

“Military explosives. Ironically, he was injured when his truck ran over an IED on his night off.” She looked over his shoulder where Justin could hear the orchestra warming up. “We met in rehab.”

She made an offhand gesture toward her back, as if her injury wasn’t worth mentioning. And, yet, it had been bad enough to require a stay in a rehabilitation facility, he thought. Brave girl.

“I’d never met anybody so glad to be alive. He inspired me–and everyone else–to work harder. Unfortunately, he set the bar for his own recovery a little too high.”

Justin got it. He’d had a climbing friend who was told he’d never walk again, let alone climb. A handful of pills and a hot tub did the trick. “How long did he stick around?”

“Until I was back on my feet.” She looked at him, her beautiful blue eyes sparkling with unshed tears. “Although by then, he resented me so much for being able to walk again, the last sound I heard was an empty gin bottle hitting the door after I closed it behind me.”

Crap, he thought, regretting his questions. No wonder people wear masks to these things.

Justin didn’t have any magical words to ease her pain. What could he say that she wouldn’t have heard a thousand times before? So, he said nothing. They sipped silently as the cello player warmed up with a hauntingly beautiful rift.

He looked over his shoulder to confirm his guess. Sure enough, Tucker’s mother, Caroline Mayhue, was seated in the front row with her gleaming instrument braced between her knees. Her distinctive white-blond hair and dramatic black gown made her whimsical red mask completely ineffectual. Marietta’s community orchestra must have done collective black flips of joy when a celebrated cellist from the New York Symphony joined their ranks.

He quickly scanned the area behind the stage, looking for Philip–Caro’s friend/lover/pilot. Sure enough, the man stood watch-sans mask–beside the rear door. Justin didn’t know him well, but Tucker had a great deal of respect for the man who was far more than the chauffeur most people took him to be.

“A full orchestra,” the lady in red murmured. “Such extravagance usually speaks to deep pockets.”

“Not mine, alas.”

Her attention turned his way again. “Well, we’ve heard my sad–“

“But anonymous,” he inserted.

Her grin set of a chain reaction of inner explosions he hadn’t felt in a long time. “My sad, but anonymous, story. Now, it’s your turn. Only fair.”

He looked at the amber liquid still remaining in his glass. Had the alcohol loosened his lips so much he was about to tell his past to a stranger with eyes that had seen too much? Maybe he could blame the mask for providing the safe illusion of camouflage she’d ducked behind.

“My father was a highly decorated firefighter in Los Angeles. He was knocking out a three-alarm apartment house fire when my mother went into labor with me. This was pre-cellphone days, of course. She called the station and left messages with everyone she could reach. We don’t know for sure if Dad got the message or not, but some of his buddies speculated that Dad–who was a by-the-book safety fanatic–failed to double-check a spot on the floor because he was in a hurry to get to the hospital. When it gave way, he fell straight into the flames below. Mom said he hung on long enough for her to tell him about me, although the nurses wouldn’t let her take me to the burn unit. She never forgave them for that.”

“I wouldn’t have, either.” She touched her glass to his. “To your mother.”

She tossed back the rest of her drink and stood, wobbling a tiny bit. She grabbed the edge of the table before Justin would reach out. “Ah,” she said, laughing. “Nothing like that first little buzz that comes from truly fine alcohol.”

She picked up her cane and started away, pausing to make a follow-me motion. “Let’s dance before the sad mojo settles in for a stay. That’s how my ex explained his various lapses. It was never his fault. Just sad mojo.”

For a woman with a cane, she moves pretty damn adroitly, Justin thought, trotting at her heels like a retainer or puppy dog. He couldn’t decide which.

Horny puppy dog, maybe. The slight catch in her step made the line of red shimmy from hip to floor. He couldn’t wait to settle one hand at the small of her back.

Since the orchestra was playing an old-fashioned waltz, she rested the walking stick against the back of a chair at one of the low tables ringing the dance floor and offered him her hand. Her fine bones felt fragile to the touch, but when they started to move as his mother had taught him so many years ago, her grip solidified. “You’re stronger than you look.”

Her beautiful eyes met his without apology. “I’ve had to be.”

Her answer intrigued him in a way that made his juices flow. The sort of feeling he got when he stumbled across a challenging boulder to free climb or a peak he’d never tackled before. Suddenly his plans for the evening seemed like a ridiculous waste of time. Who in his right mind would spend the night alone when he could get to know someone as beautiful and intriguing as this woman?

“Ah, Viola, I think we’re in for an amazing evening.”

He brought her hand to his lips and kissed the peachy skin, his gaze never leaving hers. Her step faltered for a second before she smiled and relaxed against him, as if he’d passed the first level competition and was free to move on to the next.

Challenges were part of Justin’s DNA. He couldn’t wait to see what other tests the mysterious lady in red had in store for him.

 






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