As he followed the snow plow down Highway 160, Kyle was glad Hidden Springs was along the heavily traveled road because it meant he had cleared roads to drive. Three AM was too early or rather late to be dealing with any kind of drama after the day he had but his foreman would have cleared the mile long dirt and gravel driveway up to the dude ranch.
The road would have to be paved, parking lots properly built, just more things that added to his work list to turn this location from a 1950s vacation hot spot to a modern millennial resort. It had taken him fifteen years get to this point where he could realize Kent’s last dream and it was a project his father never would have approved of. As he turned off the highway, he noted the driveway would have to be widened to a proper two lanes with shoulder easement.
A quarter of a mile up the incline, he saw a sedan in ditch and edged around it. Cursing the foolishness of some people to venture out in such bad weather under his breath, he navigated the road carefully.
He parked his Hummer in front of the main house and went in, his property managed had left a note on the old desk, ‘Your guest is in room 3. The axle on her car is damaged, the soonest it can be towed is Tuesday.’
He scowled and went to his room, locking the door behind him. He did not trust sleeping under the same with roof with a woman like Antonia Ballad. She reminded him too much of Sophia.
Kyle was up at 7AM, waiting 20 minutes before opening his door cautiously the smell of bacon and eggs wafted from the kitchen. Cautiously, he walked into the large kitchen, and saw the back of a woman making breakfast.
Antonia turned and smiled brightly at him, “Good morning, Kyle. I didn’t hear you get back. Where you trapped somewhere unpleasant in this dreadful storm?”
“No.” He hoped his one word answer and tone should have dissuaded her from more but she just smiled.
“Oh well, that’s good. Have some breakfast, I am sure you’re hungry,” She smiled as she placed a plate in front of him, resting her hand on his bicep with a little squeeze. “I just love to cook in the morning, makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something before the day has even begun.”
“Thank you, Ms Ballad. It looks tasty but you really shouldn’t have.” Last thing he wanted was her to tell others about how she made him breakfast with the obvious implications she would leave to be assumed by others’ imaginations. He didn’t start to eat, but instead asked, “Why are you here?”
“Oh, please call me Tonia. I came over yesterday to see if I could get another donation to the Bluewings team for new uniforms to wear to Nationals, but the weather got so bad so quickly. Then I got stuck and had to walk all the way up here in that dreadful wind. I looked an absolute fright and your dear employees did their best but then said my car would have to be towed.”
“Yes, Kramer said the axle was damaged when you slid off, we have a tow truck coming tomorrow and of course, Blue Water resorts will pay for any repairs. I am sorry for the inconvenience,” He said smoothly. “And I will, of course, make a donation of whatever amount Coach Wallace determines for the uniforms.”
A slight scowl passed her face but was instantly gone, “Oh, aren’t you a darling? Thank you.” She looked between the plate and him expectantly but when he made no move to eat or drink anything, she frowned, “Aren’t you going to eat? I have been told I make and excellent omelet.”
He glanced down at the plate, but could not make himself eat food prepared by someone he did not trust, so he half lied to her. “Forgive me. I got some tainted food once and don’t eat breakfast anymore. But again thank you so much for the effort. I am going to town today, can I take you home or perhaps...”
“Can you drop me at the civic offices? I know school will be closed but I like to help out when I can and with weather like this, the whole community will be pulling together to help stranded travelers,” Tonia asked sweetly, fluttering her eyelashes at him.
Kyle smiled and nodded, thinking she wanted dropped there because it was in the center of the town next to the cafe and across from the local grocery and town hall. The place the most people would be likely to see them together. He did not want to be linked to this woman in the local gossip, not when he was trying to mend his fences with Camille. His mind sought a way out and found none. So he smiled and offered, “Whenever you are ready, Tonia.” He placed the plate in the fridge, and thinking of his foreman’s dog, “I’m sure it will get eaten later. Thank you again for cooking.”
She blushed and smiled at him coyly, “I like to take care of the men in my life.”
“That’s very considerate of you,” Kyle couldn’t think of anything else to say. “I’ll get the car warmed up for you.” And he fled the kitchen.
Kyle held out his arm to Tonia as she tottered through the snow in her stilettos, opening the door and placing her inside. He stopped at her car and chivalrously retrieved several items she claimed she needed to take home including a large Victoria’s Secret bag. He tried not to flinch away as she constantly patted and touched his arm and shoulder while he was driving.
When they arrived back in Pagosa Cliffs the area in front of the Civic Offices was blocked off so Kyle parked on the far side, nearest the Sheriff’s dispatch center. Tank Tanner watched from his office as the developer carried Antonia Ballard’s many bags like a valet over to her daughter’s car. After several amusing minutes watching Hightower trying to politely escape, Tank decided to rescue the poor man from the county’s most predatory female.
“Hightower, glad you made it. I have to take your statement about the search and rescue yesterday. Antonia, I heard about your accident, glad you got help so quickly,” he smiled his most charming at her.
“Why Sheriff Tanner, how nice of you to be concerned with little young me,” Tonia fluttered.
“Just doing my duty to keep tabs on one of our most beautiful ladies.” Tank tipped his hat at her, “Excuse us, Ma’am. Good to see you Tiana, drive careful.”
“Yes, Sheriff,” the teen grinned and Tank realized she looked more like her father and late grandmother than her mother.
They watch from his office as the mother fussed at the daughter before they walked toward the front entrance where the stranded travelers were being offered shelter and refreshments. Kyle breathed a sigh of relief that only Tank saw him and Ms. Ballard together in the side parking lot.
“So what did you need to know about yesterday?” Kyle asked, accepting a cup of coffee.
“Nothing, but it was obvious you needed rescuing,” Tank chuckled. “What did Tonia want besides attention?”
“She claimed she drove out in the middle of the blizzard and got stranded at the ranch because the Bluewings need new uniforms for Nationals. But I did sleep with my door locked last night and woke to someone trying the knob this morning. When I came out, she had cooked breakfast.” Kyle fidgeted nervously with his cup, “Is she always so forward... so touchy?”
“Yep, and the longer you’re around the more she feels it is okay to touch you. Just keep more than arms length between you and her, and you’ll be fine. I haven’t seen her as interested in anyone as you since number two.” Tank grinned at Kyle’s discomfort.
“Number two?” Kyle looked at him oddly.
“Husband number two, poor man didn’t make it three weeks before she had him bagged and tagged. Be careful, Hightower looks like she wants you for number four,” Tanks chuckled as Kyle squirmed.
“Um, not happening.” Kyle shook his head, sipping his coffee and thinking about how persistent Sophia had been to seduce his affections when in truth, she wanted to capture his father’s fortune. He was so glad he had never let himself fall for her wiles again, even though she sought him out every time her latest romance went down the drain. A few times he had indulged her just for the bedroom company, but most of the time he got away from her as quickly as possible. There had also been a few others over the years where the attraction had been purely physical and completely emotionally empty. His relationships never lasted more than a month, he just couldn’t talk to them the way he had with Camille. He knew he could have something so much better with Camille if he could salvage even a fraction of what could have been.
“I am headed to the hospital. I’ll see you around, Tanner.”
“Take care, Hightower. And be careful around Antonia, or she’ll make you wish the bear had gotten ya.” Tank grinned while Kyle groaned.
Kyle walked across the parking lot into Mountain Medical Center. He had a two Caramel Mochas, one each for Willow and Camille, and a dark and sweet double espresso for himself. He had wracked his brain trying to remember how Camille took her coffee, only to remember they had blended frappes the afternoon before the rehearsal when she drove him and Kris to get their tuxedos from the cleaners. Gramma Dorine had shown him an entire shelf of syrups and coffee creamer flavorings when all he wanted was a single spoon of sugar. He had lost his taste for sweet things after the fallout of that night. The door was open so he went in without knocking. Camille was asleep in a chair, Willow was watching TV.
The teen eyed him critically; it was unnerving to have Kent’s eyes looking back at him so sharply. Then she noticed the coffees and smiled brightly.
“You’re my hero.”
“I brought you a Caramel Mocha. Gracie said they were your favorite. How are you feeling?” He held out the warm travel cup to Willow and she sniffed it before sipping the hot beverage.
“I have a hole in my leg, but I didn’t lose any toes and the bear didn’t eat me,” she quipped softly, and then she looked at her drink before looking back to him. “Is it true you climbed up the tree after me and kept me warm all the way home?”
Kyle sighed heavily, he wasn’t sure exactly what to say so he just said what he felt, “Because you are Kent’s daughter, and I want to take care of you the way he would have.”
Willow looked back down at the cup and a tear ran down her cheek. “Would... would he really have taken care of me? I mean if he and mother hadn’t, you know, died?”
“I am sure of it. Kent loved your mother very much, so much so he couldn’t bear to live without her. But now is not the time to talk about that. You need to focus on getting better and not having a repeat of yesterday.” He smiled to soften the scolding tone of his words.
“Sorry, Mr. Hightower, ” She responded sheepishly, sipping her caramel mocha.
Camille began to stir and sat up suddenly, “Oh Kyle, when did you get here?”
“Just a few minutes ago, I brought you a coffee,” he held out the cup but she frowned at him.
“I hate coffee,” she said flatly.
His jaw dropped, but Willow laughed and leaned over to take the offending cup.
“Yay, more for me.” She grinned popping off the lid and smelling it. “Mmmmm, Millicent’s Caramel Mocha, she makes the best cappuccinos and espresso drinks in town.”
“You didn’t hate coffee before,” Kyle insisted to Camille.
“No, I have always hated coffee. I can’t stand the taste or the smell or the film it leaves on my teeth,” she explained.
“But we went for iced coffee the day of the rehearsal.” Too late he realized he should not have brought up that day.
Camille’s eyes hardened and she got up slowly, coolly she announced, “I’m going to go find a cup of tea.” She stalked out of the room almost angrily.
Kyle just sighed heavily as Willow started giggling. She watched him over the lip of her two mochas, giggling and sipping. From the glaze in her eyes, he assumed it was the pain medication making her giddy, but after a few minutes he asked in a disgruntled voice.
“Uncle Beau was right, you really don’t know Mom at all,” Willow grinned malevolently. “Mom hates coffee and only likes blended Frappacinos because they taste like milkshakes. She always has tea in the morning or hot chocolate at night.” She poured the two cups together and tossed the empty cup across the room, missing the trash. “And it’s off the rim; the Nuggets are out of the playoffs again.”
She laughed at her own joke as Kyle watched her dismayed. What she said next was shocking. “So, was Mom really such good a lay that after only five days together you asked her to be exclusive before you ran off to fuck those Vegas whores?”
“Uhh, I... First of all, that isn’t what happened. Camille and I spent months talking and becoming friends. She was... is the most amazing woman I have ever known. I loved her and I deeply regret what happened in Vegas. Secondly, there are...”
Willow snorted in derision, “Loved her? Riiiight. You didn’t even know she hated coffee.” Her eyes narrowed viciously, “Do you really regret what happened or just regret that you got caught? My dad regretted it enough to kill himself. How much did you regret it?”
He was reminded of Camille the day of the wedding as his niece gazed at him in angry judgment, and knew he needed to diffuse the situation if he was ever going to have a chance with her. She wasn’t at all like Gracie.
“Willow, I regretted it every day since. I also regretted that I didn’t realize how serious Kent was about killing himself.”
“Yeah, right. Whatev.”
He could feel the anger and hatred in her unspoken accusation. Part of him wanted to snap in his defense at her snarky tone, but he reminded himself she was an emotional teenager who had just gone through a pretty rough trauma.
“I will tell you the same thing I told Gracie. My youngest brother Kris had a gambling problem. He drugged your father and I, and hired two women to impersonate your mother and Camille. He was going to blackmail us with the pictures to pay his bookie. Your father believed it was your mother, or he never would have touched that woman. He never remembered what happened, but trust me, those pictures destroyed him. He thought your mother died in the accident. When he killed himself, it was after she was declared brain dead and still wasn’t stable. He thought you were dead too. Your mother was his life, he loved her with everything he was, and he couldn’t bear to live without her. Don’t ever think you weren’t loved, or weren’t wanted, because even before you were conceived, Kyle and Mina were trying to decide where to live to raise a family. There is a lot you don’t know, a lot your mom didn’t know until yesterday. But like I said, this is neither the time nor the place to discuss it. Just know that you came from love, you were always loved, and you always will be, nothing will change that.”
Willow stared at him, tears running down her face, her coffee forgotten. “He loved me?”
“I am sure he still loves you. I... I think he brought me here to find you and Gracie. Building a wilderness adventure and ski resort with a hot springs was one of his crazy dream projects. It was the first one in his design book, but our father thought the venture too risky. I am sorry it took me so long to get started on it,” Kyle apologized softly.
Camille came in carrying a disposable cup and tea bag, her concern rushing out in her words. “Willow, why are you crying? Are you in pain? Do I need to call the nurse?”
“No... No...” Willow sobbed as Camille held her.
“It’s my fault,” Kyle admitted softly and Camille’s eyes flashed protectively.
“What did you say to her?” Her voice sounded octaves deeper, threatening, and he remembered what Tank had said about her being mama grizzly protective.
“Mom, calm down,” Willow sniffed, “He just said my dad and mother would have loved me if they didn’t die.”
Camille turned her head and looked down at Willow. Everything about her looks was a reflection of Willamina except Kent’s eyes and hair color.
“It’s true, sweetie. We all love you very much. You were the greatest gift Mina could have ever given us.”