Highlander for the Holidays (7 page)

BOOK: Highlander for the Holidays
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She pulled her chin free, saying nothing, and Ian softly closed the door and walked around the snowcat and got in. But he stopped from reaching for the throttle when he saw Jessie holding Toby’s snout facing her as she frowned at the dog.
“What?” he asked.
“I just realized Toby didn’t even react when you picked me up. But he should have, because part of his job is to protect me.”
Ian arched a brow. “I guess he’s one of
those males
, and understands when something’s being done for a woman’s own good.”
That certainly made her stricken look disappear.
Ian pushed on the throttle when she opened her mouth to protest, and then hit the lever to lift the hydraulic drag on the back of the groomer. “Animals react to the smell of fear,” he continued over the rev of the engine as he headed the snowcat up the mountain. “And because Toby sensed anger coming from you but not fear, I believe he decided to let me save you this time.” He answered her thunderous glare with a grin. “Then again, maybe he was just paying you back for dressing him in pink.”
“It’s
salmon
.” Her chin lifted. “And
real
men can wear any color. Hey, the hotel is that way,” she said, pointing past his shoulder.
“But the only way for us to get there is to go up, then over, then down. Are ye thawing out?” he asked, adjusting the heater vent on her side to blow down on her feet.
“Yes. Thank you.”
Ian dropped the grooming drag again, figuring he might as well make one last pass before he called it quits. He saw Jessie finally start to relax, and smiled when she started looking around the interior of the snowcat at all the knobs and dials.
“Have you been grooming trails all night?” she asked, craning to look out the back window—though he noticed she made sure to hold her robe closed at her neck.
Ian turned off the interior lights. “That’ll help you see outside better. And to answer your question, I’ve been working with the rest of our crew making snow, and we only started grooming an hour ago.” He pointed at the lights to their right, farther up the mountain. “Everyone else is working on the tube run, but I wanted to make a couple of passes over the beginners’ trail before the sun comes out and packs down the snow.” He sighed tiredly. “We could use more help from Mother Nature, though, as we only have two weeks to build up a good base before the campers arrive.”
“What’s a tube run?” she asked, wiping the fog off her side window to see out.
“Are you saying you’ve never snow-tubed? Aw, lass,” he said when she shook her head, “ye haven’t lived until you’ve shot down a mountain on an inner tube. It’s way more exciting than a roller coaster, as the speed and trajectory and bumps are different on every trip.”
She smiled. “I’ve sledded down small hills in Central Park when I was a kid, but are you saying you actually have a trail dedicated to just sliding?”
He nodded, finding her smile as beautiful as her anger, even or maybe especially because she looked as if she’d just gotten out of bed. “If you’d like, I’ll take you up the mountain later today, and you can help us test out the tube run.”
“I, um, I don’t know if I should be doing that sort of thing,” she said, glancing back at her dog before suddenly giving Ian a cocky grin. “Toby would probably smell my
fear
and chase after me and bite the tube.”
Oh, but he liked her sassiness. “Then we’ll bring him on the tube with us.” He chuckled at her surprise. “There’s a less steep section for toddlers and chickens, Jessie. And if you don’t have the physical strength to hold on, I’ll do the holding on so you can enjoy the ride.” He shrugged when the dial lights showed her blush. “That’s what we do with a good many of the campers.”
“You mentioned campers before and that you only have two weeks to get the trails ready. Is that why TarStone is closed for the middle week of December? You rent out the entire resort to some sort of camp?”
Ian lifted the hydraulic drag to turn onto the cutting that ran between trails and nodded. “In the summer my parents run a camp on the other side of the mountain for disabled and disfigured children, and every year they invite the kids and their families to TarStone for a snow vacation. They’ve had the camp going for nearly thirty years now, but only started the December session . . . oh, about fifteen years ago, I believe.”
“Dis-disfigured . . . how?” she asked, having gone perfectly still.
He shrugged again. “They have physical impairments or disabling diseases, mostly; some have lost a limb, others are badly scarred.” He smiled over at her. “But all that disappears for a week, because they’re so busy having fun that they forget to be self-conscious.” He leaned closer and lowered his voice. “Don’t tell anyone, but each year a bunch of us sneak the more daring boys down to the pool to go skinny-dipping. And the next night our female cousins do the same with the girls.”
“You take them skinny-dipping? Of all the things to—Why?”
He turned the snowcat down the lift path. “For the simple pleasure of swimming in their birthday suits, little miss Goody Two-shoes,” he said, laughing at her scandalized expression. But then he sobered. “Those children spend every day of their young lives hiding their scars and imperfections from the world, Jessie. But when they’re here, none of it matters, because every one of them has learned that it’s what’s
inside
a person that counts.” He leaned closer again. “And there’s nothing as liberating as splashing around naked in a pool with your friends.”
“But are you telling me you’re doing this without the parents knowing?”
“No, they know.”
“And they don’t care?” she asked, incredulous. “It doesn’t worry them that not only are their children sneaking behind their backs, but that they’re skinny-dipping? With adults?”
“Of course they care, Jessie. That’s why the parents then sneak down to watch their children being
children
.” He blew out a sigh. “Skinny-dipping in a moonlit solarium or lake with a bunch of your friends isn’t a crime, lass; it’s a childhood memory in the making—which, I might add, nicely sums up Camp Come-As-You-Are’s mission statement.”
The radio on the dash suddenly beeped, followed by static. “Hey, out there, especially anyone near the hotel,” a female voice said over the speaker. “Keep an eye out for a woman guest and her dog. They left the hotel half an hour ago, and according to the roommate, the woman wasn’t dressed for outside. Um . . . the dog was, though.”
Jessie buried her face in her hands with a groan, and Ian picked up the mike. “I’ve got her, Rachel. I found Miss Pringle trying to get a jump start on the season on the beginners’ slope, and I’m bringing her in now. Tell Merissa that she can meet Jessie in the lobby in five minutes.”
“No!” Jessie yelped, grabbing his arm. “Not the lobby. Just drop me off at one of the side doors. I have my key card,” she said, reaching in her pocket, only to reach in the other pocket and come up empty-handed. She grabbed his arm again. “Then at least take me to the employee entrance and let me in that door.”
Ian clipped the mike back on the dash. “Sorry, city girl,” he said with a shake of his head, “but the best way I know for someone not to repeat a foolish mistake is to live with the consequences. And this morning that means going through the lobby in your pajamas.” Ignoring her glare, he idled through the parking lot, stopped under the portico, and shut off the snowcat, then grinned at her. “Now, Jessie, you know I’m only doing this for your own good.”
She started groping at the door looking for the handle, and Ian reached down and snatched her slippers off her feet.
“Hey!” she yelped, trying to grab them back as he straightened and quickly climbed out of his side.
He strode around the front of the snowcat and opened her door. “What, you want to get me fired for negligence if you slip and fall? You can have your slippers back once I get you inside,” he offered, shoving them in the bib of his ski pants.
“I’m too heavy, remember?” she snapped, swatting at him as she leaned away, which actually made it easier to slide his hands behind her back and under her knees.
“I’ve gotten my second wind and feel much stronger now,” he said, picking her up. “But thank you for caring.” And then he suffered through her wiggling and squirming all over again as she tried to keep her decidedly full right breast from bumping his chest while holding her bathrobe closed at her neck. “Come on, Toby,” he said over his shoulder. “You need to face the consequences, too, as you’re likely the reason Jessie got into this mess in the first place,” he continued when Toby jumped out and trotted to catch up. “You don’t run into the woods to hide just because you think someone might see you in a silly sweater.”
“Now you’re scolding
my dog
?”
“Jessie!” Merissa cried, pushing through the outside set of lobby doors. “What happened? Are you hurt? Why aren’t you walking? Is she hurt?” she asked Ian, grabbing his arm to stop him as her eyes roamed over Jessie.
“She’s okay, Merissa,” Ian said, stepping past her to go inside.
Merissa shot around him to open the inner door and grabbed his arm to stop him again. “Then put her down,” she said, darting a quick glance around the empty lobby.
“I intend to, in her room.”
“No. You will put her down right here,
right now
,” Merissa said with such lethal authority that Ian stopped in midstep. “Now,” she quietly repeated.
He took two strides and set Jessie down in one of the lobby chairs, then turned and silently walked toward the front desk.
“Is there a reason Toby didn’t rip out his throat?” he heard Merissa say in a heated whisper. “Or better yet, why you didn’t?”
“Apparently Toby only reacts to my fear, not my anger. And . . . and I must have been too numb with cold to freak out this time.”
Watching the mirror on the wall beside the front desk, Ian saw Merissa smooth down Jessie’s hair. “He didn’t know better, Jess, and was only trying to help. You’re okay now, I’ve got you,” she said, helping Jessie stand and then guiding her toward the elevator. “What happened? Did you get locked out? I heard Ian say over the radio that he found you on one of the ski slopes. Did you have a flashback?”
“No. Honestly, I didn’t. Toby ran into the woods, and when I heard equipment running, I went chasing after him.”
Feeling about two inches tall to learn that Jessie apparently had a problem with being carried, Ian pulled her slippers out of his bib. “Toby, come here, boy,” he said, patting his leg. “Take these to your lady,” he instructed, placing the slippers in the dog’s mouth. He immediately turned to the front desk when he saw Jessie stop. “Rachel, you wouldn’t have any doughnuts hidden out back, would you?” he asked, sensing Jessie walking up to him.
Jessie touched his arm. “Thank you for rescuing me,” she said softly. “And for explaining how dangerous Toby’s sweater is.”
Ian looked into her sincere eyes and smiled. “You’re welcome, Jessie.”
“And . . . and I think I’d like to try speeding down a mountain on an inner tube. That is, if you really do need someone to test the trail before the campers arrive.”
“Just leave a message here at the desk,” he said, nodding toward Rachel, “saying when you’d like to go, and someone will get ahold of me.”
She started to pat his arm, then suddenly thought better of it. “I’ll do that. Thanks again,” she said, turning back to Merissa—who was still wearing the clothes she’d had on last night, Ian noticed—her hands fisted on her hips as she glared at Jessie.
“What’s this about speeding down a mountain on an inner tube?” she hissed in a whisper, taking Jessie by the arm again. “Are you friggin’ nuts? You can’t—”
Jessie shrugged free. “I can’t believe you panicked and came looking for me. They broadcast it over the radio to everyone.”
Ian heard Merissa blow out a heavy sigh just as they stepped into the elevator. “I’m sorry. You know I panic easily when I’m sleep-deprived.”
“I forgive you, but only if you teach me how to make that nurse’s voice when you want someone to do something, because I swear I—”
Ian lost the rest of their conversation when the elevator door closed, the last thing he saw being Toby still holding Jessie’s slippers in his mouth.
“It’s a good thing you were grooming the beginners’ slope,” Rachel said, sliding a box of doughnuts across the counter toward him. “Miss Pringle could have gotten hypothermia or even frostbite.”
“Oh, I don’t know, Rachel. I believe hedgehogs are a lot tougher than they look,” he said, grabbing three of the doughnuts and heading for the door. He waved over his shoulder. “Tell Dad I said hi when he comes in later.” He stopped and looked back. “Oh, and have another key card sent to Jessie’s room, would you, along with an employee card that will work on the parking lot door. A good part of this morning’s mess could have been avoided if we’d thought to make accommodations for her to take her dog out. You might want to have Dad look into making that a policy for guests with service dogs.”
Rachel lifted one of her matronly brows. “Any reason why
you
can’t tell him?”
“Now you know I don’t want to encourage him to think I might be interested in what goes on inside this resort. I’ve just spent the better part of this last year convincing him I’m barely interested in what happens outside.”
Rachel made a
tsk
sound as she snatched up a key card and used it to wave him away. “You have him convinced about as well as you’ve got any of us believing that you don’t care about TarStone.”
“I care about the
outside
,” he said, taking a bite of doughnut as he pushed through the door. Ian climbed in the snowcat and set his two remaining doughnuts on the dash, but stopped from starting the engine when he spotted Toby’s sweater. He plucked it off the floor to toss it onto the passenger seat, but held it up to his nose when he caught a whiff of something familiar. And sure enough, instead of smelling like dog, the sweater smelled feminine and flowery—exactly like Jessie.
BOOK: Highlander for the Holidays
10.06Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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