A Cowboy’s Midnight Kiss: Romancing Griffin Stone
She lost her drawl and traded her 501s for Roberto Cavalli, but she’s still a simple Carolina country girl at heart.
Cassidy Cantrell sacrificed her own dreams to become the wife of a world renowned heart surgeon. But eight years later, she knows it’s over. Divorced from the man of her mother's dreams - Cass has to face up to the fact it's time to move on. Looking to get away to a place where she can reclaim herself, she accepts an invitation to spend the holidays at a posh ski resort. But almost the minute Cassidy lands in Jackson Hole, she breaks a boot heel, sprains her ankle, and gets swept off her feet by a smoking-hot, blue-eyed Rancher.
He never could have imagined his soul mate walking into his life in stiletto heeled boots...
Jilted by his fiancée a couple years ago, Wyoming rancher Griffin Stone splits his time between a family ranch and managing investment properties in the ski resort town of Jackson. But something is missing. After placing his own desires on hold to look after his military brother's family, Griff longs for happiness of his own. But a rich, city girl from Florida who sprains her ankle after her heel breaks? He thinks he has the city girl all figured out, but the more he learns about her past, the more he believes she just might be the woman of his dreams.
Dubois, Wyoming – December 22
“THAT ONE, Uncle Griff!” Kaden shouted, pointing to a twenty-foot Douglas fir. “That’s our tree!”
“Sorry, Kaden,” Griffin shook his head. “Even if we could fit it through the door, the ceiling’s not high enough.” He chuckled at his nephew’s obvious disappointment. “You’re gonna have to pick a smaller one.”
“But I don’t want a smaller one,” Kaden protested with a scowl. “Santa won’t be able to fit as many presents under it.”
“Ah! I see the problem now. It’s not so much the height but girth that’s needed, so let’s look for the fattest damned tree in this whole forest.” A few minutes later Griff circled the ATV around a particularly paunchy blue spruce. He put on the brake and turned to Kaden. “This guy looks like a likely candidate. What do you think?”
Kaden flashed a grin that displayed two missing front teeth. “Can I start the chainsaw?”
“You aren’t strong enough yet,” Griff replied. “Eat more meat and maybe you’ll have enough muscle on your bones next year.”
“I’ve got muscles now.” Kaden leapt off the ATV and flexed his arms. “See?”
Griff threw a leg over the seat and gave the six year old’s biceps a squeeze. “I stand corrected,” he said. He pulled the chainsaw from the utility card and held out the pull starter. “Go ahead and give it whirl.”
Kaden grunted as he gave a yank. The starter cord barely gave an inch in response. Knitting his tawny brows, he tried again without success. On the third attempt, his hand slipped, landing him on his ass. Griff stifled a laugh.
“It’s not funny, Uncle Griff!” The little boy glowered. “You just wait. I’m gonna be as big and strong as my daddy one day.” He squinted at Griff. “He’s even bigger than you, isn’t he, Uncle Griff?”
“Yeah. He’s bigger.”
“I bet he’s stronger too.”
“I s’pose so,” Griff confessed reluctantly. “He’s meaner too. Eats nails for breakfast. All Marines do.”
“Really?” Kaden asked wide-eyed. “I don’t bemember that.”
“Nah.” Griff ruffled his hair with a laugh. “I was just pulling your leg, but he really is a tough sonofa—gun.”
“I wish Daddy was here,” Kaden remarked. “Is he gonna be home in time for Christmas this year?”
“We don’t know yet, but your Mom sure hopes so.”
They still hadn’t heard for certain. It’s why Griff had waited so long to get the tree, in hope that his brother would be there too. Derrick’s deployment had been hard on everyone. Denise had been pregnant and delivered Kelsey while he was away. Griff had promised Derrick to look after Kaden, Denise, and the baby, and he’d kept that promise, though it meant, putting all of his own plans on hold.
He’d graduated with a business degree and had aspirations of bigger and better things than ranching, but his family’s needs had come first. Although Derrick’s discharge would allow him to reclaim his own life, Griff no longer wanted the same things he’d wanted before. The past five years had changed him. Now he wasn’t sure what he wanted after his brother returned home to take over the ranch. He’d become so accustomed to his surrogate father role that he didn’t know what he’d do without the kids in his life. That wasn’t to say he wouldn’t enjoy some freedom from responsibility. He was looking forward to cutting loose, but with a population of fewer than one thousand, the entertainment options were slim in Dubois. He always thought he’d leave one day for greener pastures, but now that he had business interests outside of the ranch, staying didn’t seem so bad. Not that he minded getting away for a while.
He was thankful to be spending the bulk of this winter in Jackson. It was a bitch to have to work during the holidays, but it was peak ski season and the resort town would be filled with droves of tourists. The property management gig helped to carry him through the long, harsh Wyoming winters, but it was his own rentals that were starting to pay off. He’d bought three condos over the past few years and was in the midst of remodeling another. He rolled back his sleeve to check his watch. It was almost noon. The Lovetts were scheduled to arrive at four, which gave him only two hours get the tree back home, shower, and pack up his things.
“How ‘bout we try starting that saw together?” Griff suggested.
With nothing bruised but his pride, Kaden brushed the snow off with a nod. Fifteen minutes later, they had the tree felled, secured, and ready to drag back to the ranch behind the ATV. “C’mon,” Griff said, patting his lap. “I’ll let you drive us back.”
St John’s Medical Center, Jackson, Wyoming
“I AM SO SORRY for this,” Cassidy lamented as she hobbled out of the emergency room on her new crutches. “We’re barely off the airplane and I’ve already managed to ruin our entire holiday!”
“It’s all right, Cass,” Liz replied. “It could have been any one of us.”
“But tripping at the airport? How ridiculous is that!” She’d been so awestruck by the magnificence of the Tetons that she’d tripped stepping off of the curb. “If I had to sprain my ankle, why couldn’t it at least have happened while zipping down Corbet’s Couloir? At least then I could have had bragging rights.”
“Have you done it before?” Mandy asked. “My legs turn to jelly just looking at that ski run.”
“No,” Cassidy laughed. “I’ve never skied anything even close to a black diamond. I’m a novice at best, but I did see someone do that run on YouTube. Pretty terrifying.”
“There’s an even scarier one called S&S,” Mandy said. “You have to get special permission from ski patrol to try it. They even have a special waver. Brad wanted to come up and try it with his snow board but Mom,” she slanted Liz the evil eye, “wouldn’t let me invite him.”
“Because this is girl time,” Liz replied.
“So you mean you won’t be trolling for a new man this time?” Mandy asked.
“My love life is none of your business, young lady,” Liz replied testily.
“I could say the same,” Mandy snapped back. “Why don’t you like Brad?”
“I don’t dislike him, Mandy. I hardly know him,” Liz said.
“And whose fault is that? You should have let me invite him.”
“Look. There’s a world of difference between knowing your daughter is having sex and actually hearing it. I’d rather not, thank you very much. Wait here,” Liz said with a wave. “I’ll bring the car around.”
“Can you believe what a total hypocrite she is?” Mandy lamented as soon as her mother’s back was turned. “She always hooks up with someone when we’re on vacay, but I can’t bring my boyfriend? I’m half tempted to buy him a ticket. Or maybe I’ll just go back and spend Christmas with him. How would she like that?”
“Be reasonable, Mandy,” Cassidy cajoled. “Your mom thought it would be fun to have some time together. She misses you, you know.”
“She smothers me,” Mandy grumbled.
Cassidy stifled a groan. As if her injury wasn’t bad enough, was she going to have to endure this constant squabbling between Liz and Mandy for the next two weeks? It seemed about to become the holiday from hell. She’d be tempted to take the next flight home—if she had a home to go to. She hadn’t even signed a lease on a place yet. There didn’t seem to be any point when she was going away two weeks after she sold the penthouse. Liz had already started looking for a suitable apartment for her, but Cassidy wasn’t so sure she wanted to stay in Florida.
Although she’d lost her southern drawl and traded her faded 501 Levis for Roberto Cavelli, at heart she was still a simple Carolina country girl. But returning to Rocky Slope wasn’t an option. Her parents were still there but no one she’d grown up with had hung around. Although picturesque, the township of five hundred provided little opportunity to make a living.
Liz’s rented SUV pulled up to the curb. Cassidy took a tentative step toward the vehicle and almost cried out at the jolt of pain.
“Are you all right?” Mandy asked, her concern momentarily diverted from her own woes.
“I will be as soon as the pain pills kick in,” Cassidy said dryly.
“This really sucks,” Mandy said, opening the passenger door for Cassidy. “You aren’t going to be able to do any of the stuff Mom planned—skiing is definitely out. So is the horseback ride and the trip to Mammoth Hot Springs.”
“You can still go ahead without me,” Cassidy said. “I’m perfectly content to entertain myself.” She was glad she’d packed her iPod as well as her Kindle. Reading and music would have to fill her hours now. “I have over a hundred bestselling novels on my kindle. I’ll justify my one-click addiction by curling up by the fire for a two week reading binge.”
Mandy rolled her eyes. “Sounds thrilling.”
“We’ll think of something better to entertain you,” Liz chimed in as Cassidy climbed into the car.
“Honestly, I love to read,” Cassidy insisted. “It’s a guilty pleasure I haven’t indulged in ages. I also brought my hi-def camera. I hope to be mobile enough at least to take a few shots of the mountains.”
She’d also hoped to borrow the rental car to drive herself into Grand Teton National Park to take pictures, but once more she’d had shitty luck. If only it had been her left ankle instead of her right, she might still have been able to satisfy that desire, but now driving herself was out of the question. She didn’t want to ask Mandy or Liz. They’d be bored stiff. Maybe she could hire a private guide to drive her? It was something she’d definitely have to explore once they got settled.
“I didn’t know you liked photography,” Liz said.
“I do. In college I wanted to be a photojournalist.”
“So why didn’t you?” Liz asked, putting the car into gear.
“Doug nixed it because a job like that requires constant travel, sometimes to dangerous places. He said it would take me away too much and urged me to set up a home photo studio instead. I tried it for a while early in our marriage, but I despised doing portraits and shooting weddings. It bored me to death.”
“What’s to stop you from pursuing photojournalism now?” Liz asked.
“Nothing,” Cassidy answered. “It’s one of the things I’m considering. I’ve also thought about opening a small gallery somewhere, maybe even back in North Carolina.”
Although the county of Brevard was no booming metropolis, she wondered if its tourism trade would support a small gallery. Photography had once been her dream, until Doug came along. He was everything she could have imagined—incredibly good looking, super intelligent, and charming—at least when he wanted to be. But the rest of the time Doug was all about Doug—his interests, his desires, his career. She’d known he was ambitious. He had to be in his field, but she never could have guessed how much his ambition would take over their lives.
“So you’re leaving Florida for good?” Liz asked.
“I think so, Cassidy said. “It’s never felt like home to me. But there’s no way to make a living where I came from so I am hoping to strike a compromise. Maybe Brevard or Asheville? I love the mountains and the change of seasons. It would be nice to go back if I can find a way to support myself. I have a lot of decisions to make while I’m here—what to do and where to live and one decision is very dependent on the other.”
“You know I don’t want you to leave, but I do want you to be happy,” Liz said. “You deserve it. I hope you get it all figured out. I’ll help you in any way I can.”
“Thanks, Liz,” Cassidy replied.
The drive from St. John’s Medical Center to the condo complex at the base of Snow King Mountain took less than ten minutes. Cassidy gazed up at the rugged peaks, carpeted in white and casting a great shadow over Jackson Town Square. “Wow. It really is gorgeous here. And the sky is so much bluer and clearer than back home. It’s almost always hazy in the Smokies.”
“You’re gonna love it here, Cass,” Liz said, “Even with the sprained ankle.”
Liz dropped Cassidy and Mandy at the front of the building. The condo unit was on the second floor and the twenty some steps were a bitch to manage on crutches even with Mandy’s help. Throwing the crutches over the guardrail with a curse, Cassidy grabbed the banister with both hands and tried unsuccessfully to hop up the steps.
“Can I help you, ma’am?” The rumbling baritone struck her senses like warm brandy and sourwood honey. Cassidy turned her head to face a pair of riveting blue eyes shaded by a wool Stetson hat.
“Thanks for the offer,” she replied. “But I’ll manage.” She gingerly shifted her weight onto her right foot with a gasp of pain. The next thing she knew both her feet were off the ground as he swept her up into his arms. “What are you doing?” she protested.
“Carrying you,” he replied.
“I don’t need to be carried!”
“If Griff wants to play Sir Galahad,” Mandy chimed, “you should just let him.”
“So you know this guy?” Cassidy asked Mandy over his broad shoulder.
“Yeah.” Mandy grinned. “He takes care of the place for us.”
“Oh. You could have told me,” Cassidy said, feeling embarrassed.
“Which apartment are you staying in?” he asked.
“Number? I don’t know. Mandy?” she called over her shoulder. “Which one are we in?”
“Two twelve. She’s staying with us, Griff,” Mandy answered.
“This really isn’t necessary,” Cassidy protested. “I can manage on the crutches now.”
“What crutches? The ones you threw over the rail?”
“They’re awkward as hell,” Cassidy grumbled. “But you really can put me down now.”
“I could at that,” he answered and kept walking. “But I’m more inclined to take you inside.”
“Are you always so autocratic?” she asked.
The cowboy flashed a dimpled grin that made her pulse skip a beat. “Usually only with my six-year-old nephew.”
Cassidy glowered. “Are you comparing me to a child?”
“If the shoe fits… He cocked a brow. “Speaking of which…” He glanced down at her single remaining stiletto-heeled boot. “You might want to reconsider your footwear.”
“I already threw the other one away,” Cassidy replied. “The damned heel broke off. That’s what landed me in the E.R. I paid a fortune for those boots too,” she lamented.
“Sweetheart, heels like that are only good for one thing…and it sure ain’t walkin’.”
Cassidy gaped. Was he hitting on her? Who did he think he was?
“Got the key?” Griff asked Mandy before Cassidy could formulate a suitable retort.
“Oops.” Mandy grimaced. “My mom has it. Hang on. I’ll be right back. I’ll grab the crutches too on my way back.”
“You really can put me down,” Cassidy said stiffly. “Your arms have to be getting tired by now.”
His brows met in a frown. “Now I’m gonna have to hold you just on principle.” Only his obvious sense of humor saved him from coming off as outright arrogant.
“C’mon,” she chided. “You’re just being r-ridiculous now.” Her teeth were beginning to chatter.
His frown deepened. “You cold?”
“Well y-yeah,” she replied with a convulsive shiver. “Wh-what is it about m-minus f-forty here?”
“Twenty three when I last checked,” he answered with a chuckle. “But it’s always colder standing in the shade. Now that I think of it, I have the spare key to this place in my right pocket. S’pose you can get it out for me?”
Cassidy’s head snapped back. “Wait a minute. We just met thirty seconds ago and you expect me to go fishing around in your jeans? I don’t think so, cowboy!”
“Um. I was talking about my jacket pocket,” he corrected her. “It’s right below your hip. If you could just pull out the keys, we’ll be in business.”
Cassidy’s face flooded with heat. “Oh. Yeah. I think I can get it.” She reached into his Carhartt jacket and plucked out a key ring. “Got it.” She jingled it triumphantly.
“Great, now can you unlock the door?” He turned sideways to give her better access.
Cassidy fumbled a moment to find the right key but managed to turn it in the lock. The door gave. A moment later he plopped her unceremoniously onto the sofa.
“Thank you…er…Griff, was it?”
“Yeah. Short for Griffin. Griffin Stone.”
He had an unusual name, but she liked the sound of it. Being honest, she didn’t really mind the guy attached to it either. He was tall and lean and quite good looking in a roughhewn way. Not to mention she had a secret weakness for a man in a cowboy hat. She’d always preferred boots and jeans to custom tailored power suits.
He doffed his hat and ran his gloved hand through his sandy colored hair. For the first time she got a close look at his face. His eyes were an arresting shade of blue made more vivid against his tanned face. It wasn’t just the color that she found attractive, but the hint of humor that lingered in them. The faint lines in the corners said he liked to laugh and the shadow of beard growth along his jaw only added to his rugged outdoorsman appeal. She realized she was staring and quickly diverted her gaze and shrugged out of her coat.
“I’m Cassidy Cantrell,” she replied. “But I go by Cas or Cassidy.”
“Pleasure to meet you, Cassidy,” he said. “You’re a friend of Ms. Lovett’s?”
“Yeah. Liz and I have been acquainted for a number of years.”
“You’re also up from Florida then?” he asked.
She laughed. “I guess my shivering gave me away. I’ve not been above the Mason-Dixon line in over five years.”
“Are you a Florida native?” he asked.
“No one is a native of Florida,” she replied dryly. “At least not in the southern part. What about you?”
“I’m not a Florida native either,” he deadpanned.
“You’re a real wiseacre, aren’t you cowboy?”
“Certain people tend to bring it out,” he confessed with a smirk.
“Are you suggesting I rub you the wrong way?”
He didn’t answer for a long moment. Then his lips twitched at the corners. “I have a real smart ass answer to that one too, but I think I’d best hold my tongue—least until we get to know each other better.”
She stared at him puzzled. Did he really mean that the way she thought or had she imagined the innuendo? She just wasn’t sure enough to call him out on it. She’d already embarrassed herself once. “I won’t be here long enough for us to get to know each other,” she answered back.
“That’s too bad,” he replied.
Cassidy wasn’t sure how to respond to that one either. Thankfully, Liz and Mandy’s entrance ended the exchange that was getting a little too personal.
“I’m so sorry I forgot to give you the key!” Liz gushed in apology. “Good thing Griff had his. How are you, Griff?” she asked with a particularly brilliant smile. His cowboy charm obviously wasn’t lost on Liz.
“Well enough, Miz Lovett,” he said.
“Liz, please,” she insisted. “Miz Lovett makes me feel so old!”
“Beg pardon,” he replied. “That’s the last thing I intended.”
Mollified by the apology, Liz’s smile returned. “I’m glad you were here to help Cassidy. I’m not sure how we’re going to manage all those stairs for the next two weeks.”
“I’ll be fine, Liz,” Cassidy insisted. “It’s not like I’m going to do any skiing now. I told you I can entertain myself inside.”
“With your nose stuck in a book? What kind of holiday is that?” Liz asked.
“I’ll be around a good bit the next couple of weeks,” Griff said. “I’d be happy to come by and help out if you need to go somewhere.”
“No, really—” Cassidy began, “We couldn’t—”
Liz flashed Cassidy a pointed look. “That’s very sweet of you, Griff. If you’re certain it’s not too much trouble…”
“My time is mostly my own,” he said. “I’m here to look after a few rentals and to do some work on a place just a few doors down. You have my cell number with you, right?”
“Yes, I do,” Liz replied.
“Then just give me a ring if you need me to run an errand or to help Cassidy with the stairs. The fridge is stocked and there’s plenty of wood for the fire. If you wanna give me the key to the car, I’ll be happy to carry your bags up for you.”
“Thank you so much.It’s the white Chevy Tahoe.” Liz handed him the key.
“Is there anything else you need?” he asked as he laid his hat back on his head.
“Nothing comes to mind,” Liz said.
“Then I’ll be back in just a few with the bags.”
“I’ll help,” Mandy offered, a little too eagerly. Did he have this effect on all women?
Cassidy noticed Liz’ eyes followed the cowboy’s backside as he swaggered to the door. The minute it closed behind him, Liz released a long sigh. “If only I were ten years younger.” Her gaze then riveted to Cassidy. “I’m too old for him and Mandy’s way too young, but you, my dear, are just right.”
“What!” Cassidy laughed. “You want to hook me up with your maintenance guy?”
“I never took you for a snob, Cass,” Liz reproached.
“That’s not how I meant it,” Cassidy said. “It just seems inappropriate to get personally involved with someone who works for you.”
“He doesn’t work for me. He just does work for me. There’s a big difference,” Liz said.
“How do you mean?”
“Griff manages properties for several people and also owns a few of his own. He runs a family ranch too. He’s a pretty sharp guy. And not too bad on the eyes if you ask me. He seems to like you, so why not have a little fun?”
“I’m not interested in a hook-up, Liz. I’ve never been comfortable with that kind of thing.”
“Maybe it’s time you got comfortable,” Liz replied. “And I’ve just given you the perfect opportunity.”
“I’m not about to play the helpless invalid to seduce that cowboy.”
“Why not? I sure as hell would! But who says you have to do the seducing? I noticed the way he was looking at you. All you need to do is give him a little encouragement and I promise he’d be more than happy to take the lead.”
“Forget it, Liz.” It wasn’t so much that Cassidy didn’t want to move on, she and Doug had been divorced for ten months, and it had been over long before that. She couldn’t even remember the last time she’d had sex. Maybe Liz was right about moving on but the thought of dating terrified her, let alone sleeping with someone new. She’d only been with two men, and both had been long-term relationships.
“Just think about it, okay?” Liz said. “Want to see your room now?”
“Yeah, I would. I wouldn’t mind a nap either. I think the pain pills are finally kicking in.”
Liz handed her the crutches. Cassidy hobbled behind Liz to a spacious bedroom with gorgeous heart of pine floors, a hand-stitched quilt on a canopied queen bed, and a breathtaking view of the mountains.
“There’s an ensuite bath through that door,” Liz said. “I hope you’ll be comfortable.”
Cassidy propped the crutches against the wall and sank into the pillow top mattress with a deep sigh. “It’s perfect. Thank you again for inviting me, Liz, but I feel awful about ruining your holiday. Please don’t cancel any of your plans because of me.”
“We’ll talk about it later, sweets,” Liz replied with a sympathetic smile. “Can I get you anything?”
“Nothing thanks,” Cassidy yawned. “I’ll shower later after I take a nap.”
“Griff should be in with your bags in just a minute.” The words had barely left Liz’s mouth before a knock sounded on the half open door. “Okay if I bring these in?” Griff asked.
“Sure,” Cassidy said. Liz opened the closet for him to stow the bags.
“Anything else you ladies need, just call me.” He looked in Cassidy’s direction, holding her gaze just a second longer than necessary. “I really mean that.”
“Thanks,” she answered softly.
With a tip of his hat, the cowboy departed.
Griff left the Lovett’s place with a grin stretching his mouth. He didn’t know what had made him goad a woman he’d only just met, but something had sparked between them from almost the moment he’d lifted her into his arms. He’d carried her up the stairs because it was the gentlemanly thing to do, but he hadn’t put her down right away because he hadn’t wanted to. It had been too long since he’d felt a woman’s soft curves in his arms. She smelled damned good too—good enough to eat. Cassidy Cantrell was the first woman who’d kindled his interest since his split with Jessica, the one he’d always thought he’d marry.
Although he still wasn’t quite over her, he’d resolved to start fresh with the New Year. He wasn’t expecting to find the love of his life, but it was past time to get back on the horse. He had no doubt Liz would jump his bones with little more than a tip of his hat and a smile, but he wasn’t about to chance his business relationship or his reputation on a meaningless fling. He’d been real careful to walk the line—to keep things on a friendly but professional footing.
Cassidy, however, was another story, and he wondered what hers was. He’d hardly been able to take his eyes off her from the moment he’d seen her, but it wasn’t just her pretty hazel eyes, the silky soft blond hair that had brushed against his chin, or her delectable curves, there was just something different about her. Mandy had been mighty chatty when she’d helped with the luggage. He didn’t learn a whole lot, but she did volunteer the answer to the most important question—Cassidy Cantrell was single. Recently divorced from “a real tool” in Mandy’s words.
He wasn’t looking for anything serious. He was still too raw from his break up, but maybe Cassidy was too. If that was the case, and she was still hurting, he could think of lots of creative ways to sooth her pain.