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Authors: Colette Auclair

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BOOK: Jumped
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He leaned the hotel door open, took a few steps to the side, and scanned the floor for glass. She prepared for landing.

Except . . . Finn kept her exactly where she was, one steely arm under her thighs and the other around her back, their bodies pressed together. Worse, he was staring at her. His eyes were mere inches away. His gaze was a tractor beam, hoovering up her willpower so that she was seriously considering kissing him.
Kissing him!
There was something else, though. His expression was so somber and sad, she felt her chest tighten. She had to get down before she tried to fix things. With her lips.

“Finn—”

“Yeah, I know,” he said softly, and looked away. “I know.” He set her down. She stood there for a moment too long. Tiny Cupids zipped and darted in her brain like lovesick hummingbirds.
They must've gotten into the gin and tonics, too.

Shooing the degenerate Cupids aside, she took a step back and said, “Thanks for the, uh, lift.”

He pulled on his earlobe, another endearing Finn-ism. “No problem.”

They avoided each other's eyes for several meandering seconds.

Finally, he said, “You'd better get back” at the exact moment she said, “I'd better get back.”

They grinned, then laughed. This broke one spell, but cast another. They were, Beth realized with a certain dread, as attuned as they'd ever been. Like riding a bike. That you wanted to sleep with.

Finn took Beth's empty glass and said, “I'll tell someone about the glass outside.”

“Yeah. I should go see if they left without me.”

“Would that be so bad?” Finn raised one eyebrow.

He was serious.
No, it wouldn't be. . . .
But she said, “You remember how bitchy I get when I'm tired? Right now I'm exhausted.”

“My room has two beds. You're welcome to bunk there if you want. I'll drive you back first thing in the morning.”

“No way! You're just hoping to get lucky.”

“Can you blame me?” He grinned.

Finn enjoyed the vista
as Bethany serpentined her way around the lobby's richly hued, boxy furniture.

He hadn't known how things were going to go with Bethany at this wedding. He couldn't have known she'd sit next to him, that they'd flirt and dance, or that he'd end up carrying her. Most of all, he couldn't have predicted the tsunami of emotions that had engulfed him while he'd held her.

He scanned the room and found Melissa on the dance floor, her hair escaping from its updo. The new bride beamed at him.

“Finn!”

He said his good-byes and wished her and Nick well. He hugged her, then considered whether he needed to say good-bye to anyone else. No one except Bethany. And of course he'd be polite to her posse, the Cronettes. He scanned the ballroom. Table twenty-seven was empty. Mild panic surged in his solar plexus. He badly wanted to say good-bye, even though he'd probably see her the next day. He jogged out of the ballroom to the lobby in time to see Harris's tux-clad back disappear through the door and into the Aspen night.

He ran out, almost tackling the personal chef. “Sorry!” he said.

“Don't apologize,” Harris said. “That's the most action I've had in days.”

The group stopped and laughed. Bethany beamed, or that's how he interpreted her smile.

“I wanted to say good night,” Finn said to the foursome. “It was nice to see you all.”

They chatted good-naturedly. Finn had passed inspection in his treatment of the Cronut. Her self-appointed, Doberman-like protectors were backing down. Finn started to walk with them toward their car. Grady had shunned valet parking—he said he liked the walk, so he'd dropped Harris and Amanda at the door so she wouldn't have to walk far in heels, then parked on the street. Now Amanda insisted on walking to the car even though Grady had offered to pick her up at the door. Bethany and Finn ended up in conversation behind the celebrity couple and their chef friend.

Finn said, “You fly fishing tomorrow?”

“No. Brunch with the girls.”

“Golf?”

“No. Still hate golf.”

“Tell me you'll be at the cocktail party.”

This made her smile, which he liked. “If I can manage to make it to that end of the house. It's huge. You'll see. I assume you'll be there?”

“Yeah. You are coming. Don't make me beg, Bethany.”

“But you're so cute when you do,” she cooed.

Good. He'd see her in less than twenty-four hours. He stopped and so did she. He said, “Tonight was fun. See you tomorrow.” He almost kissed her, but instead squeezed her warm, bare shoulder and smiled.

She returned his smile. “Yeah. It was fun. G'night.”

She caught up with the group at Grady's black BMW SUV. Finn watched them for a few seconds but thought he might look creepy, so he shoved his hands in his pockets and returned to the hotel, shoes clicking on the pavement in the still night.

He smiled. It had been one of the most surprising and genuinely fun evenings he'd had in a long time. He would go to his room, get in bed, watch some ESPN, and replay the evening's more interesting moments until he fell asleep.

As he pressed the button to call the elevator, Kristen the geologist materialized at his side.

“Calling it a night?” she asked. She was looking up at him with
that look
, as though he was a new Harley and she was a biker. Yep, she wanted to ride him. It was a good thing he was in such a good mood—it would be easier to deal with this.

“I'm beat,” he said, and tried to look tired. “Partied a little too hard tonight.”

“Oh, yeah, me, too.”

“Yeah, going straight to bed,” He yawned, then wished he'd phrased it differently.

“I was thinking of doing the same thing.” She lowered her voice. “Care for some company?”

Oh, Kristen. Wrong guy. Wrong night. Bad timing.
Under different circumstances he would have welcomed the opportunity to lose himself in a night of mindless sex. She was pretty, pleasant, and sexy. But he was as interested in sleeping with her as he was in shooting his foot with a nail gun.

“That's a tempting offer, but I wouldn't be very good company.”

“You look like you'd be perfect company,” Kristen said with feline sexuality.

“An illusion. I'm done in.” The elevator opened. They got in and he said, “You golfing tomorrow?” He pressed the button for the third floor. She didn't press any buttons. She was on his floor. Wasn't that just his luck.

“Yeah. I'll be there. Will you?”

The elevator doors closed. “Probably.”

“It'll be fun,” she said. Like a porn star. He liked golf, but really now.

“Should be.” The elevator doors opened and he followed her out. He hoped they would get to her room first so she wouldn't know his room number. Lucky for him, she stopped at the third door from the elevator bank.

“You should come by,” she repeated, in a sultry tone. “You're hot, and I'm in the mood for a weekend fling with lots of dirty sex. If you're interested.”

Whoa.
This wasn't his life. This was something out of a movie. Women didn't come on to him like
Tyrannosaurus rex
. He tried to keep his face impassive, but he wasn't sure he did.

She slid her card key into the lock slowly, as if to tempt him with the physical metaphor of her proposition. The woman was ballsy, he'd give her that. “You do like sex, right, Finn?”

He didn't say anything; he was momentarily speechless, which she probably took as a good sign. She opened her door and added, “Oh, and-uh, I'm good. I'll take you places you've never been.” Then she touched her top lip with the pointed tip of her tongue, and closed the door.

He stood there a moment longer, processing. So Kristen was a bold little sex kitten, and his for the taking. Right now, though, he just wanted to sleep. Alone.

Beth didn't say much
in the car on the way home, which was a feat, because Harris was a relentless interrogator. After repeatedly dodging his questions about Finn, she finally said, “Do you work for the CIA? Because if not, you should.”

“They can't afford me, and their suits look like leftovers from the Soviet era. C'mon, girlfriend. You know I won't stop until I get the deets. Why not save us all some time and tell us what happened between you and Finn-Rhymes-with-Sin?”

“Nothing happened. As I've told you.”

“Something happened. You were all glowy when you got back to the table.”

“That was sweat.”

“I hate to side with Harris,” Amanda said, “but Finn raced out of the hotel to say good-bye.”

“He was being polite.”

Amanda said, “
Polite
would have been a brief apology tomorrow when he saw you, or an email tonight. The man was on a mission. Did he kiss you?”

“No. I told you, nothing happened.”

“Bethy-boo. Tell Uncle Harris what happened. Did he touch you in a way that made you feel funny?”

“I'll touch Uncle Harris in a way that will make him feel excruciating pain,” Beth said.

“Leave her alone,” Grady said. “You're like a dog with a bone.”

“You're not the boss of me,” Harris said. Petulantly.

“Yeah, he is,” said Beth.

“Only in theory,” Grady said.

“See?” Harris said. “Okay, I'll temporarily quit. But don't you realize, the only way you'll feel better is if you tell us. I'm only doing this for your sake.”

Grady laughed.

“You guys, nothing happened. We danced.” She looked at Harris. “Nothing slow. And I'm a little wasted and tired and my feet hurt. All I want to do is go to bed.”

“Done,” Grady said. “We'll leave you in peace. Even if I have to tie Harris to a chair.”

“Promises, promises,” Harris said.

Saturday dawned with
a stunning summer morning and empty sky that was the exact color of Finn's eyes. It was made-to-order weather for a wedding brunch. The women convened at a town favorite, bb's, with its red booths and bright, silvery sleek decor. The meal was superb, accompanied by the expected chatter about the wedding. Beth participated here and there, but her mind kept wandering off to Finnville. It was a nice day there, too. Full of smiles, laughter, dancing, and some saucy memories of their marriage.

After brunch, as Amanda and Beth drove to Aspen Creek, Amanda “suggested” a trail ride. “I hope you don't have plans, because we're taking a trail ride as soon as we get back. We need to talk.”

“Let me guess. The topic of conversation sounds a lot like
Finn
.”

“Maybe,” Amanda said, smiling.

3

T
he Aspen Creek barn
was delicious. Beth had fallen in love with it at first sight the previous summer. Beautiful and functional, it was a log structure that mimicked the design of the main house. It sported window boxes bursting with red geraniums, a film clapboard weather vane, and ten roomy box stalls with runs, so the horses could go outside if they wanted. Rustic wrought-iron fixtures hung from the ceiling and lit the aisle, which had rubber-brick flooring Amanda had insisted upon after a nasty fall on the original slippery floor. It had a wash stall, tack room, feed room, bathroom, and an upstairs apartment for the horse caretaker. Amanda still did a lot of the work because she loved it, but Ellis, a local college student, helped out and was delighted to take lessons with Amanda and take care of the famous Edelweiss.

Currently there were seven residents: Amanda's gray jumper, Edelweiss; Grady's black Friesian gelding, Titanium; Solstice Brunswick's chestnut mare, Rainy; Wave Brunswick's big dun gelding, Bramble; two ultragentle trail horses, a paint named Vern and the palomino Smooch; and Beth's bay mare, Brooke.

The talented bay thoroughbred, whose show name was Finishing Touch, used to belong to one of Amanda's clients, but the owner had switched trainers from Amanda to Beth, and then switched from riding to yachting. The woman thought of Beth as the daughter she never had, wanted the horse to have a good home, and gave Brooke to Beth.

Beth was slipping Brooke's halter on when she heard an unfamiliar voice.

“Amanda, would you like me to tack up?”

Beth looked into the aisle to see a young woman of around twenty, blond and lithe, with delicate features. She was the picture of eagerness. It had to be Ellis, who was helping Amanda take care of the horses for the summer and lived in the apartment above the barn.

“No thanks, Ellis,” Amanda said. “Beth, come meet Ellis.”

Beth threw the lead rope over Brooke's neck, stepped into the aisle, and slid the stall door closed. “Hi, Ellis.” Beth shook the girl's hand and smiled at her. “Nice to meet you.”

Ellis beamed at her. “It's very nice to meet you, Miss Fanelli.”

Beth laughed. “Please, it's Beth. I hear you've been a godsend for Amanda, especially when she's off showing.”

“Oh, I don't know about that.”

Amanda spoke up. “I do, and she totally is.”

The trio of horse-loving women talked about their horses and riding for a few more minutes, and then Ellis excused herself and left the barn.

Beth and Amanda groomed and tacked up quickly, as they always had. Years of getting horses ready for trainers had made them efficient. Amanda rode Vern to exercise him and because he'd calm Brooke, who was as relaxed on a trail as a caffeinated chipmunk. “It's not her fault,” Beth said, defending her mare. “She's such a show hound, and there aren't many trails nearby.” Brooke skittered at shadows, but Beth welcomed the distraction. It was fun because she knew what to expect, and Brooke never spooked big. Besides, dealing with her lively horse interrupted Amanda's lively questioning.

The rocky trail had few spots for galloping, which is what Beth yearned to do, but being on the narrow path that meandered through the aspen and pine forest calmed her. Even Brooke settled down. The mare would never be as easygoing as Vern, but Beth could confidently give her more rein.

Amanda took advantage of the slow pace and relative peace. “Come on. It's just you and me. What happened with you and Finn?”

Beth took a moment to inhale the sage-and-pine-spiced air. “We talked and we danced a little.”

“Yeah, I know that. And?”

“And I'm still a better dancer than he is. Good to know some things never change.”

“Don't think I didn't notice you two disappeared for a while.”

“Mom, we necked under the bleachers, okay? You gonna ground me?”

“All I know is, you went pale when you first saw him. Next thing I know he's touching your shoulder—don't think I didn't see that—and fetching you water.”

“You didn't have anything better to do than watch Finn?”

“Hey, I'll be the proud owner of a teenage daughter in a year. I have to hone my skills.”

“All right,” Beth said. “I was worried. But then it was like, ‘Hey, this is just Finn,' you know? It was nothing. It was civil. I think he realizes we're going to have to see each other all weekend and he wanted it to be tolerable.”

“Tolerable? Seems to me he was a dozen clicks past tolerable.” Amanda raised her eyebrows.

“He made a big effort.”

“No kidding. That's what concerns me.”

“Why? It's just Finn.”

“Where'd you go?”

Beth told her about the sidewalk and the broken glass.

Amanda said, “He
carried
you? As in picked you up?”

“Yeah,” Beth said, trying to make it sound exceedingly casual.

Amanda laughed. “Wasn't that kind of extreme?”

“I swear, the glass really was all over the sidewalk. It wasn't extreme; it was . . . practical.” Beth paused, listening to the horses' hooves crunching on the path and Brooke softly snorting. “And hot.”

“Oh, boy. What's that mean?”

“Let's just say he's been working out. And let's just say he didn't put me down right away. And let's also just say that I almost kissed him.”

“Oh my God, you're like a bad straight-to-DVD movie!”

“Um, hello, if that were true I would've spent the night with him. Which I thought about doing. When he invited me to stay in his room.”

“Hold it right there!” Amanda stopped Vern, and Beth followed suit. They were next to each other on the trail. “Funny, you didn't appear to be wasted. Or suffering from exceedingly severe stupidity. But I could be wrong.”

“Stop overreacting. We were having fun. It was like the old days, when we were one of
those
couples. We were just flirting. Harmlessly. Harmless flirting.
Mom
.”

Beth's best friend glared at her.

“Stop squinting at me, Vogel.”

“You know how you are. You fall in love as often as you put batteries in a smoke detector.”

“For a minute I thought you were going to say another battery-operated device.”

Amanda laughed. “TMI. But all joking aside, I am concerned.”

“I'm fine,” Beth said. “Come on.” She squeezed Brooke's sides and the mare started walking. Amanda kept up.

“Promise me you'll be careful.”

“It's one weekend. You have nothing to worry about.”

“I saw how you were last night, and I'm afraid you'll only remember the good parts and forget why you split up. I'm not saying Finn's bad or mean or would deliberately hurt you, I'm just saying you both might be . . . susceptible to what's only a temporary feeling. You were so unhappy with him at the end. I still remember those phone calls. You were miserable. Promise me you'll keep that in mind.”

“I promise. You worry too much, but I promise. I can't promise I won't sleep with him, but I promise I won't fall for him again. I remember how bad it got and I remember why we weren't meant to be together for the long run. This will just be for fun. Okay, Vogel? Have I reassured you adequately?”

“Oh God, please don't sleep with him.” Amanda dropped her forehead to Vern's black-and-white mane.

“As you would say, ‘No promises.' But I promise it won't be the start of anything. It'll be the end. I've got bigger fish to fry than Finn. I've got my clothes to do.”

Brooke's active brown ears swiveled back at the sound of Beth's voice. “I'm here for Melissa and Nick this weekend, and to hang with you. I'll be fine. Finn and I are both adults.” She looked at Brooke's head. “Which is something you might want to consider, Brooker—you don't have to be a slave to your instincts. You could act like Vern and chill, enjoy this walk in the woods instead of reacting to every aspen leaf.” At that, Brooke startled, stopping and dropping out from under Beth as though trying to make herself smaller, ready to dash away from danger.

Beth said, “You have no interest in self-improvement, do you?”

Amanda laughed. “She's got perfect timing.”

“Everyone's a comedian.”

Evening came. After the
trail ride, Beth groomed Brooke lavishly, rinsed her, then washed her mane and tail and put conditioner on her hooves. She then indulged in what she considered to be her girliest habit, a pedicure. She did them herself to save money, and she had come to appreciate how they made her stop and sit for an hour. She chose a color that would make her feel confident, a sparkly concord-grape purple. She showered in the bathroom of her room in what she jokingly called Stately Wayne Manor, Grady's log home, where all six guest rooms had their own full bathrooms. It was better than any hotel in town, and in Aspen, that was saying something. She applied more makeup than usual—another nod to girliness—but she needed the boost. She pulled on her favorite black cocktail dress, which she'd bought after the divorce, so it had no memories of Finn clinging to it like stale cigarette smoke. Checking her reflection in the mirror, she smiled. She looked damn good.

“Get over here, darling,” Harris said when he saw her. He was in the large, chef's wet-dream kitchen, arranging fresh blossoms on a tray of foie gras. He studied her, squinting. “Turn, please,” he said, miming a circle with one hand. She obliged. “Very nice. I have nothing to add.”

“Wow,” Beth said. “I must look great.”

“You do.” He smiled and raised his eyebrows. “Finn's a goner.”

“I didn't—”

He cut her off. “Yes, you did, at least a little. You thought about what he'd think. And he will rue the day he divorced you. The cad is going to be miserable tonight, as all sorts of fantasies run through his head and he can't do a thing about any of them.”

“I don't care what he thinks.”

“Whatever you say, princess.” His face, always quick to smirk, was sober. He met Beth's eyes with his astounding light-blue ones. “You're going to be fine. You're better off without him.”

“Well,
duh
. I know that.”

“Have fun tonight . . .”

“I will. I appreciate the pep talks, but you don't need to.”

Harris, undaunted, added, “I know you're fine. But sometimes a girl needs a little support, and I'm not talking push-up.”

Beth smiled and then laughed. “Harris, you're Victoria's Secret for my emotions.”

“Just one of my many talents—but I prefer Agent Provocateur,” he said, and resumed arranging the flowers.

Finn fingered a tie
he had draped over one of the hotel hangers, and then let it go. Too formal. He'd go tieless. A good white shirt, jeans, and a black jacket. Good enough. He palmed some product and ran his fingers through his damp hair. Best to look cosmopolitan with this crowd. He'd try to look like he belonged, play the game, and spend time with Bethany.

BOOK: Jumped
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