Read Rockies Retreat: Destination: Desire, Book 5 Online

Authors: Crystal Jordan

Tags: #contemporary romance;vacation romance;Colorado;artist retreat;outdoor

Rockies Retreat: Destination: Desire, Book 5 (9 page)

BOOK: Rockies Retreat: Destination: Desire, Book 5
6.15Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

She picked up her purse. “Ready?”

He slung his backpack over his shoulder, and moved to peek out the door. “Coast is clear. Let’s make a run for it.”

Amusement lilted in her voice. “Should we stagger our exits so people don’t know we were in here together? We can synchronize our watches.”

“Let’s not get too complicated.” He grabbed her hand and pulled her along with him.

They made it out of the store without some irate shopkeeper chasing them, so he figured they’d made a clean getaway. Nice. It was always fun to indulge in prurient behavior with zero consequences.

Violet stuck her head out of the window when they approached the van. “Dad, I found another cool rock behind the store. It’s got, like, red stripes in it.” But then her eyes narrowed in suspicion. “Hey, where did you guys go? You were gone for a while.”

Laurel checked her watch. “We’re right on time, Vi. Don’t let your need to be early freak you out.”

It wasn’t an answer to her question, but Mimi rushed up just then and interrupted. “All right, campers. The stock boy loaded everything in the van for me, and Gloria wants some of these supplies pronto. Let’s get back on the road. Did you guys get everything you needed?”

“Definitely.” Neil gave her a mild smile, and Laurel elbowed him subtly as she climbed into the van before him.

Mimi turned on the radio and got Vi and Laurel to sing bad country music with her. Off-key. Neil tried not to wince, but the noise was good cover. He leaned over to Laurel and commented quietly, “It’s going to be hard to hide what we’re up to. At best, it’ll soon be an open secret.”

“I was thinking the same thing earlier.” She let her head fall back against the seat, then rolled it to face him. “Are you concerned about Violet knowing?”

“She’s known when I was with other women before. I don’t hide things from her. You’d be the first who had a relationship with her, so that would be new.” He tapped his fingertips on his thigh. “I don’t have a problem with her knowing we’re…dating…if you don’t.”

“Are we calling this dating?” Her wide eyes gave nothing away, so he had no way of guessing what she thought.

“Not that I get to take you out to dinner or bring you flowers while we’re here, but I’d say yes. We’re dating.” He swallowed hard, suddenly nervous and sure he was going to get dumped by someone who wasn’t yet his girlfriend. “That’s my opinion. You might have a different take on things.”

She ran her fingers down his forearm, the caress lighter than a whisper. “I’m okay with the dating label. For the summer. I can’t commit to anything beyond that.”

“And you’re all right with people knowing we’re using the dating label?” he prompted. “Just for the summer.”

While he hadn’t expected to deal with a relationship during this program, now that he was confronted with the possibility, he wanted the details nailed down. Not his usual MO, but nothing about his reaction to Laurel had been usual so far.

“Yes, people can know. Including Violet.” Her gaze went dead serious. “But you need to actually talk to her about it, find out if she’s really okay with it.”

It had never occurred to him not to talk to Vi. This wasn’t something he wanted his kid hearing about through the grapevine. As he’d said, it would be an open secret if they didn’t go public. Vi deserved to hear about it from him. “And if she’s not okay with this?”

Laurel shrugged. “We keep this to the very occasional booty call, and try very hard not to get caught, so we don’t become fodder for the gossip mill. Which would mean no more of what we just did. It’d be too big a risk.”

“Fair enough. I’ll speak to her.” His respect for her notched up a little more, liking that she understood his daughter’s feelings would have to take precedence over a short-term relationship that hadn’t even fully formed yet. Luckily, he was about ninety-eight percent certain Vi would be ecstatic to have Laurel around even more often.

“Hey, you stopped singing!” Mimi glanced in the rearview mirror.

Laurel waved back. “I didn’t like that song.”

She rejoined the choir of caterwauling, and he tried not to whimper all the way back to the lodge.

Thank God she was a better painter than singer.

Chapter Six

They were starting to become experts in the quickie.

It had been two weeks, and any time Vi was busy with something else, Laurel found herself in Neil’s arms. His daughter had definitely been okay with them dating, but Laurel wasn’t quite ready to stay the night with Vi there. So, they specialized in afternoon delights. And it was delightful. It was hot and amazing and got better every time. How was that even possible? Shouldn’t the passion be fizzling? It usually did. Annoying little habits usually became more noticeable, fights over nothing tended to crop up, and they no longer ended in make-up sex.

But none of that happened with Neil.

The only thing that scared her was his workaholic tendencies. It reminded her far too much of her father, and anything that smacked of Robert Patton made her more than a little leery. She’d always made damn sure she never, never dated a man like Dad.

Except…she had the horrible suspicion that outside of the disconnected oasis that was The Enclave, Neil was the same kind of man. Always too busy, always on call, never really relaxing, never really giving all his attention to a woman, even when she was right in front of him.

The last thing Laurel needed was a man who put her last on his priority list. That path had almost led her brother to divorce, and had led to her parents’ detached, chilly partnership. She should know better than to even consider wanting more than hot sex from a guy like Neil.

But she wanted. She couldn’t help it, and that scared her to death.

“Ugh.” She let her head fall back and closed her eyes. She’d been staring at her unfinished painting for several minutes, lost in thought instead of her creative process.

The problem was, she’d become more emotionally involved than she’d expected to. Neil was busy all the time, so she’d figured it would be no more than an indulgence now and then. But it wasn’t. There were meals together, there were kitchen shifts with Neil, there was helping Violet with her book, trying to make sure Neil had quiet time to get his writing done, but also getting him to unwind a little too. She felt like she was part of something important when she was with them—a valued, needed member of a family. Something she’d never felt with her own family. Well…Tate had always done his best, but her parents? Yeah, she was unessential.

Stop it, Laurel.
She blew out a breath. She needed to work. The hours were ticking down until she had a meeting with her apprentice. The man was an odd little duck, but his work had promise. She wasn’t exactly going to have the friendly relationship Neil had with Helen, though. Laurel could barely get her mentee to speak or even look up from his canvas, and thus far, she’d never seen him leave his cabin. She met with him there, period. It was weird.

Sitting back on her stool, she surveyed her work so far. Not bad. Her style was identifiable not by her subject matter, but by her unique use of color and her refusal to paint anything exactly as it appeared in reality. Everything was just a little exaggerated, a little larger than life. Right now, she was toying with macro-painting, her riff on macrophotography. She wasn’t sure how long she’d stick with this phase, but it was fun while it lasted.

In this piece, a single tree dominated the mountains around it, eclipsing the entire forest. She dipped her brush into green paint and added details to the leaves. Pushing everything else from her mind, she forced herself to settle and focus on the task at hand. She had years of discipline to draw on—there was always something else competing for attention, always something or someone that seemed more pressing than a single day of painting. But those days added up, and she had had to learn to set boundaries with herself and others.

This was her priority right now. No one was maimed or dying, and the world wouldn’t end if she ignored it for a while.

So she lost herself in the movement of her arm, the flicks of her wrist, the layers and texture she added to her canvas. All those other problems—real or imagined—would have to wait.

She didn’t know how much later it was when her screen door creaked open. It wasn’t yet time to meet with her apprentice, because she’d set an alarm on her phone—the only real use for the thing out here in the reception-free boondocks.

“Oh, she’s painting,” Violet whispered, and the door
as she backed out and let it close. “We should leave her alone.”

A soft rumble came from Neil, though he pitched his voice low enough that Laurel couldn’t make out the words.

She grinned, dropped her brush in a can of turpentine, and swung around. “Did you guys need something?”

“Nope.” Vi came in again, shrugged out of a backpack and dropped it against the nearest wall. “We just wanted to say hi.”

“Hi, there. How’s your day going?” Checking her cell phone, Laurel decided it was a good time to clean up her brushes and workspace. Her meeting was about an hour away.

“Not bad.” Violet tipped her head and eyed Laurel’s canvas. “Dad’s been super busy though. I’m pretty sure a whole herd of elephants could show up and he wouldn’t notice unless they, like, stepped on his laptop and stole his pad of paper.”

As if to illustrate the teen’s point, Neil had already sunk down on Laurel’s small loveseat and was scribbling away in his notebook. Yep, he was definitely in the zone.

“I can hear you,” he said, but didn’t look up, just kept writing.

Laurel slid a glance at Vi. “How did you even get him out of the house?”

“I’m not sure he even knows he’s out of the house.”

“Still not deaf, ladies, but thanks for the vote of confidence.” Again, no break in work, and no eye contact.

Something about that didn’t sit well with Laurel. Too many years of her own father ignoring his children in favor of some important court case or other. She pushed the unpleasant memories away and finished cleaning the oil paint from her brushes.

Violet hoisted herself onto Laurel’s stool, but faced away from the canvas. “Hey, Dad, since you’re listening and all… Can we go into Denver? Pretty please?”

“Why?” He frowned at his paper, jotting down a few more words.

“It’s Ruth birthday soon.” Vi swung her legs, thumping her heels against the stool’s bottom rung. “I want to get her something she mentioned she wanted, but it’s at a little store that doesn’t sell its stuff online, so I need to go there to buy it.”

“Denver’s a pretty long drive, and we don’t have a car.” He sighed, sat back on the sofa, and met his daughter’s gaze. “You can’t find anything she’d like at the general store or online and have it delivered?”

Violet looked crestfallen, and Laurel’s heart clenched so tight she could barely breathe. Christ, how many times had that same expression crossed her face when her father picked work over her? How many times had she been overlooked by everyone in her family except her brother? She just…couldn’t let Violet feel that way, like no one cared, like she didn’t matter.

The teen tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. “But…I really, really, really wanted to get this gift. It’s the perfect one. Why would I look for something less perfect?”

Neil sighed again, the sound resigned, and opened his mouth to speak, but Laurel jumped in first.

“I’ll go with you.” She added hastily, “I’m sure we can work something out with Mimi about the car thing.”

Neil’s brows snapped together, and he stated emphatically, “I was about to say I’ll go.”

He would? She blinked. And there was that awkward moment where her past came roaring in to pee all over her present. The way he stared at her told her she was in trouble.
Well, shit.

“We can all go,” Violet enthused, quickly over her dejection and oblivious to the undercurrent of tension running between the two adults. “It’ll be awesome. Saturday?”

“Let me talk to Mimi,” Neil replied. “Why don’t you grab your Kindle and go read outside under the tree? You said you wanted to finish the how-to book about writing mysteries.”

“Mmm. I’m feeling more fiction today.” She hopped off the stool, dug around in her backpack, and came out with her e-reader. “I could totally do an old Nancy Drew. Those stories are awesome-awful.”

“Have fun.” Neil swept a hand toward the miniscule closet. “Maybe see if Laurel’s okay with you borrowing an extra blanket or towel to lay on?”

“Sure, that’s fine.” Laurel tried to smile, but failed.

“KK.” The teen grabbed a folded square of terrycloth from the closet and pushed out the screen door.

The moment she was gone, Neil turned to Laurel. “So, what was that about?”

Double shit.
She winced. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have assumed.”

“It’s fine—I’m not mad, just confused.” He dropped his notebook on the loveseat and rose to his feet. “It was obvious this was important to Vi—for whatever teenage reason I may never understand, but important, nonetheless. Why would you think I don’t care about my daughter’s feelings? What gave you that impression?”

“Nothing you did,” she rushed to assure him. “It’s personal baggage I’m carrying around from my childhood.”

That incisive gaze speared her, and she suddenly wished that he was the light and fluffy kind of guy she normally dated. The ones who were a little too self-involved to dig into her motivations, who were only too happy to attribute everything to artistic angst. Not Neil. Nope, he was going to ask questions.

“You’ve mentioned your dad is a jerk. He ignored you, even when things were important to you?”

“More or less.” She focused on arranging her brushes, cursing herself for jumping to conclusions when she knew Neil was a great father—one of the many reasons she adored him—and putting herself in a situation where she had to justify her actions.

“And your mom?” Neil prodded. “Bad parental relations all around?”

She let out a long, weary breath and met his gaze. “My relationship with my parents is…complicated. We love each other—or they love me as much as they’re capable of loving anyone—but we really don’t like each other.”

“Ouch.” Sympathy shone in his midnight blue eyes.

“Yeah. They hate that I’m an artist and not a high-priced lawyer like my dad. Or at least a lawyer’s wife, like my mom. They want me in the country club set. I couldn’t think of a life I’d want less.”

A dark eyebrow quirked upward. “Homeless bum?”

“Okay, yes.” She rolled her eyes. “I’d want that less. Though I’m fairly sure the parental units thought that’s what I was aiming for when I decided to be a painter.”

“It’s not easy making a living in the arts.” He strolled up to look at her half-finished painting, then glanced at her. “I admit I’d feel better if Vi wanted to be a lawyer. I can understand your parents’ concern.”

The smile she gave him was tight, her tone defensive. “You’d get along with them well, then.”

She tugged off the paint-splattered smock that protected her tank top, set her brushes aside, and avoided his gaze.

“I’m not saying they’re right, or that they shouldn’t have supported your choices. Or that they should still nag you to try to marry one of your dad’s lawyer buddies. I’m just saying that, as a parent, I want my daughter to have an easier time of it than I did. Cara and I had one of the quickest trips to success I’ve ever seen for writers, and I know how much we struggled to pay the rent at first. It was fucking hard, and I don’t wish that on my child. That’s all I’m saying.” He threw up his hands. “The money I’ve made will make it easier on Vi—and Cara left behind a very decent inheritance for her—but that’ll pay bills. It’s not her achievement. My little girl’s not going to be happy unless she’s successful in her own right. That’s something no one can guarantee. So, yeah, I worry. I support her choices and will do everything I can to give her a hand up, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have concerns. That’s the only way I sympathize with your parents’ point of view. Don’t put me in the same category as them.”

“Why would you care what category I put you in?” She went to the sink to wash her hands, then smoothed back a few wisps on her braided hair.

He followed her and set his hands on her shoulders. “Because I like you, and I want you to like me. You just said you don’t like your parental units.”

“Nope, not much.”

“I’m sorry if I brought up bad memories for you.” He kissed the nape of her neck and his warm breath rushed against her skin, making her shiver.

“Not all the memories of my parents are bad. Just most of them.” She tried to conjure up some great ones. Nothing came to mind. Most of the good ones were closely intermixed with not so good ones. Sad, but true. “Thank God I had my older brother.”

“Tate, right.” Neil rested his head against the back of hers, slipping his arms around her waist. “He’s a lawyer like your dad. So he fulfilled what they wanted in a child.”

“He did, for a while. Until he couldn’t. He left the family firm for a much lower key situation.” She let herself relax back against him, enjoying the feel of being held. “If he hadn’t, he’d have lost his wife. He definitely made the right choice on that one.”

“I’m glad for him.” He stroked his fingertips over the bare strip of skin between the bottom of her shirt and the top of her pants. “I try hard not to put my work above my daughter.”

“I know.” And she did. She’d seen evidence of it many times since they’d arrived. The fact that he was here at all was proof in and of itself. Robert Patton would never, ever have done that for his daughter. Neil Graves hadn’t hesitated. “You’re a great dad, Neil. I’m sorry if I made you think that I think otherwise. It was a stupid, kneejerk reaction.”

He hugged her tighter. “I’m sorry you have a history that makes that kind of reaction normal.”

“Me too.”

For some reason, his words made tears well in her eyes. Workaholics scared her, and the fact that he was one made her want to run like hell. Her emotions were clearly involved with him and with his daughter. Her heart said
stick around
, her mind said

But it hit her that the one area in her life where she’d never managed to take a real risk was in the romance department. The men she’d dated before hadn’t been true contenders for her heart—and they’d all deliberately been the antithesis of her father: flaky, artistic, maybe a little too clingy. Men whose attention was nice for a little while, but would drive her batty in the long run, men who she could never really fall for, men who didn’t challenge her to grow as a person. She’d never gone out with anyone who made her take him seriously, because she’d been too afraid to commit to someone who took life and work so seriously she’d get stuck in her mother’s world of being dead last on the priority list.

BOOK: Rockies Retreat: Destination: Desire, Book 5
6.15Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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