In this Cattaneos' Christmas Miracles story, Anissa Lang was going for gold when an accident ended her skiing dream. Now she's cleaning mountain chalets - until she meets brooding millionaire Leo Baxter. He can't resist whisking her to New York for a date, and under the twinkling Manhattan lights these kindred spirits glimpse a new future. But they must confront their pasts before their Christmas wishes can come true!
Our Dearest Leo,
You have no idea how much joy it gives us to write this letter. We have hoped and prayed for this moment for so long. We hope you are well, we hope you are healthy, and we want you to know that we’ve spent every day thinking about you, and the last thirty-five years looking for you. You have always been in our hearts, Leo, always. Please believe that.
Thirty-eight years ago we were young, foolish teenagers who fell in love. Neither of our parents approved and when we fell pregnant with you, we were forced to give you up for adoption. We want you to know that was never what we wanted. From the very first moment we knew you existed we wanted to keep you. But times were different then, our parents bullied us, refused to support our relationship, and were ashamed of their illegitimate grandchild. It broke our hearts but we were penniless and had to agree to give you up for adoption, or we would have both been flung out of our homes.
Every day we talked about you and imagined where you were. We prayed you had parents who loved you as much as we did, and who nurtured and supported you. Despite what our families thought, we stayed together and eventually married. As soon as we had some money we started our search for you. But the world was full of paper records then, people who kept secrets and those who told lies. It took years for us to learn you’d gone to the US, and then our trail went dead. It broke our hearts all over again.
You have a brother, Sebastian, and a sister, Noemi. We always found it too difficult to talk about your adoption to your siblings, but, now that we’ve found you, we would love it if our family could be reunited.
It has always been our dream that one day we could have all our children sitting around our table for Christmas dinner, like the true family we always wanted to be. We would love ifr this could come true this year and wish that you could join us at Mont Coeur, Switzerland – the place where we have always loved to spend Christmas.
We’ve missed you every day, Leo.
Knowing that you are alive and well has brought us so much joy. We know you may be settled in your life. We know that you may well think of your adoptive parents as your only parents, and we will always respect your decisions and your wishes, but please, please consider our request to meet.
There is nothing we want more than to throw our arms around our firstborn son and tell you how much we love you.
With our hearts,
Mamma e papà
Salvo and Nicole Cattaneo.
He should never have opened that letter.
His insides curled uncomfortably as he took the final few steps up to the veranda around the luxury chalet. Even though it was the beginning of November it seemed the Mont Coeur ski resort in Switzerland had moved into full Christmas mode. Maybe it was the cold weather and snow that made the whole population think it was normal to have Christmas trees up at the beginning of November. But as his car had weaved its way through the resort it seemed that every business and shop in Mont Coeur was fully on board for the festive season.
Everywhere he looked were garlands, twinkling lights and piped music.
On any other day he’d think the whole place was picture perfect – like a scene on one of those Christmas cards. But today wasn’t like any other day.
His parent’s luxury chalet seemed to be a leader in the festive decorations. Through the glass panelled doors he could see the Christmas tree decorated in reds and gold as a focal point in the spacious living area; boughs of holly had been wound around the banisters and across the mantelpiece where a fire was roaring beneath. And above him, against night sky, gold twinkling fairy lights adorned the outside of the chalet. The quintessential idyllic Christmas scene.
This should be different. This should be so different.
He should be coming here today to meet the parents that gave him up for adoption thirty-eight years ago. He should be coming here to learn more about the people who said they’d thought about him every day since. Instead he was here, at the insistence of a family lawyer he didn’t know and a sister, Noemi that he’d never met, for the reading of his parents’ will.
The warmth and the family feel of the chalet felt totally alien to him. He’d never experienced this lifestyle. He’d never experienced the true joy of a happy, family Christmas. And he couldn’t shake the guilty feeling that if he hadn’t been found, hadn’t answered their letter, then his parents would never have died in a helicopter crash on their way to meet him.
Now, he was here at their bequest for the will reading – and to meet his two siblings.
Everything about this felt awkward and wrong.
His stomach churned again as he knocked on the glass door. Maybe no one was home? Maybe his siblings had changed their mind? It would be so much easier to turn on his heel, go back and find the alternative luxury chalet his PA had booked for him.
There was a flicker behind the glass. A woman rushed towards him. She was tall and slim with a short brown angled bob. Behind her, walking much more warily was an also tall, muscular man. Even from here Leo could see the creases along his brow.
The woman flung the door open. “Leo?”
Her brown eyes were hopeful. He could see her hands twitching at her sides. She was barely able to contain herself.
“Yes,” he replied hoarsely. It was all it took.
She let out a squeal and flung her arms around his neck. “Oh, Leo, I’m so glad to finally meet you.”
He stood frozen to the spot, not sure of whether he should lift his arms to hug this woman back. After what seemed like the longest time she finally pulled back, wiping a tear from her eye. “I’m Noemi. You know that, don’t you?” She wiped another tear and gestured to the man behind her. “And this is Sebastian, your brother.”
It had to be the most awkward meeting in history. Animosity was rolling off Sebastian in waves. He didn’t even step forward, just gave the barest nod of his head.
Leo steadied himself for a second. This was his brother and sister. When he’d been growing up he’d always wished he was part of a large family. He would have loved to have a brother and sister. But his adoptive parents had already decided one child was too much. He was never quite sure why they’d adopted him as they’d shown so little interest in him.
All he wanted to do right now was turn and walk out the door. It made him feel pathetic. He was a businessman, a CEO. He spent his life in difficult business dealings. This should be nothing to him. But everything about this was unravelling a whole pile of emotions that he’d never acknowledged.
It was obvious that everyone in Mont Coeur was rich, even by his standards, his brother and sister included. Maybe they were worried he was here for money? Money that he didn’t need or want.
Noemi grabbed his hand. “Come in, Leo, come in. I want to hear all about you. I want to know how you are.” She bit her bottom lip as a few more tears escaped. Was his sister always this tearful? He wasn’t big on emotion at the best of times and he was already feeling the overload.
Her hands were warm against his chilly skin and she pulled him inside. She drew him straight into the heart of the house, between the Christmas tree and the fireplace. “Give me your jacket,” she said enthusiastically, tugging his dark wool coat from his shoulders.
Sebastian had barely moved. The muscles around the bottom of his neck tense. He glanced at Leo as he shrugged his way out of his coat. His words were stiff. “My wife Maria and son Frankie hoped to be here but...” his voice tailed as if he were trying to decide what to say, “they’ve been unavoidably detained.”
Something in his gut told Leo that Sebastian hadn’t been exactly truthful when he’d spoken. He looked like a coil about to burst from its spring. Either his wife and son didn’t want to meet the ‘new’ brother, or Sebastian was hiding something else completely. Leo had done enough business dealings to know when someone was being economical with the truth.
Noemi patted the sofa next to her. “Please, sit. Giovanni will be here soon, but I want a chance to chat first.”
Giovanni. The family lawyer who’d persuaded him to attend the reading of the will. Giovanni, who right now he wanted to email and tell him that he’d changed his mind.
He sat down on the sofa and was almost swallowed up by it. Leo wanted to laugh out loud, because that’s how he was feeling in general about the visit here.
His eyes caught sight of family pictures on the wall. There was a whole array, obviously taken place over years, starting with a young smiling couple with a baby and toddler, going up to four adults all standing with their arms around each other. Love was plainly visible in every picture.
Something gripped in his chest. The family that he should have had. The family he should have been part of.
It was like a million little caterpillars creeping up his spine. He actually thought he might be sick.
He wanted to go over and grab the photos, hold them up to his nose and study his parents. He wanted to see the last thirty-eight years. What they’d been like, how they’d grown, how they’d aged. All things he’d been cheated out of.
He pushed himself up from the impossible sofa. “This was a mistake…”
“What? No.” Noemi looked instantly stricken.
Something twisted in his chest. He really couldn’t handle this. He wasn’t equipped to deal with this. He’d spent a lifetime devoid of any love. Forming relationships wasn’t his forte. The last woman he’d dated had described him as ‘cold’ and ‘hard’ – two things he couldn’t really deny.
Getting that initial letter from his parents had been like a bolt out of the blue. It had taken him two weeks to reply. When he had, he’d been hit by the overload that was his mother, who’d emailed every day, making plans to visit.
Getting the call from Noemi – the sister he’d never met – to tell him that their parents had been killed in a helicopter crash while on their way to visit him in New York had almost taken the air from his lungs.
He so wasn’t ready for any of the emotions attached to having a family. Guilt. Expectation. Judgement.
He’d wanted to see them. Curiosity had made him fly to Switzerland to stand in the same room as his brother and sister and talk to them in the flesh. But now, he‘d done it.
He had to get out of here. He had to get some air.
A hand came down firmly on his arm. “Don’t go.”
Sebastian. His brother.
He could see Sebastian was struggling with this too. “Not yet.” It was almost like he couldn’t quite get the words out.
Sebastian shook his head. “You just got here.” He wasn’t really meeting Leo’s gaze. “Take a breath. Take a moment.”
Leo looked to his left. Noemi’s chin was trembling. He couldn’t watch her cry again.
Leo couldn’t work out if Sebastian was doing this for him, or for his sister. Their sister. Noemi was their sister. Not just Sebastian’s.
Brain overload. This wasn’t him. Nothing about this was him. All of his life he’d been cool, calm and collected. Those three words were synonymous with how most of his work colleagues described him.
He pulled his arm away from Sebastian’s. He turned to face him. “I know I was asked to listen to the reading of the will. But now I’m here, I can see this isn’t appropriate. I don’t want anything from you both. I don’t need anything. I’m not here to take what you think is actually yours.”
A flicker of anger flashed across Sebastian’s eyes. But before he had a chance to respond there was another voice.
“Ah, Leo, I see you made it. Perfect timing.”
Leo turned to face the figure standing at the now open door. “Giovanni Paliotta,” said the grey-haired, designer suited man as he closed the door behind him and walked over with his hand out-stretched. He tilted his head to the side as he got closer. “It’s a pleasure to meet you. You’re so like your father.”
It was like a kick in the guts.
Giovanni didn’t seem to notice, he waved his hand towards a large table in the corner of the room. “Shall we sit?”
Noemi looked at the table, then glanced around the rest of the room, as if she were trying to find another place to sit, but Sebastian moved behind her, putting his arm at her waist and leading her over.
Leo’s gaze flickered. Twelve chairs. Enough for a large family gathering. Was this the table that his mother and father had traditionally sat around at Christmas time? Was this the table that his mother and father had intended for him to sit around with his brother and sister?
Leo had never wanted to bolt from a place so much in his life. He steadied his breathing.
Giovanni settled in one of the chairs and spread his papers in front of him.
Sebastian and Noemi sat down with only a glance at each other, Leo took a few seconds then dragged out one of the heavy chairs too.
Giovanni waited until everyone was settled then gave them all a nod.
“We all know why we are here.” He nodded again in particular to Leo. “I was your parents’ lawyer for the last thirty years, and I loved them, and miss them, and everything I do today is in accordance with their wishes.”
There was an edge of anxiety in Giovanni’s voice that Leo picked up on. He cast his eyes over his brother and sister again as he shifted in his seat.
Giovanni started reading from the paper in front of him. “This is the last will and testament of Salvo and Nicole Cattaneo. Salvo and Nicole were the sole owners of Cattaneo Jewels, currently valued at around 70 billion euros.”
Leo blinked. He knew the jewellery line was famous and international, but he hadn’t realised his parents’ fortune rivalled even his own.
Giovanni kept talking, “It is the wishes of Salvo and Nicole that in the event of their death, the business should remain with the family.” Giovanni pressed his lips together for a second, looking decidedly nervous. “As such, the controlling stake in Cattaneo’s Jewels will pass to Leo Baxter, their eldest biological child.”
“What?” Sebastian’s chair landed on the floor as he stood up and thumped his hands on the table.
Noemi’s mouth opened, then closed again.
Giovanni cleared his throat, refusing to fix on Sebastian’s red face.
“No,” said Leo, shaking his head. “I have no interest in the family business. I don’t even know anything about jewels.” He stood up too. All he wanted was to get out of here.
“I’ve trained for this my whole life,” raged Sebastian. “Who is he to inherit the business over me?”
“Your brother,” snapped Giovanni. For the briefest second Leo realised why Salvo and Nicole had worked with this lawyer for thirty years.
Giovanni held up his hands. “Sit down, both of you.”
Leo met his brother’s angry gaze. He got it. He did. And he had absolutely no interest in this business, but his brother’s reaction annoyed him. It didn’t matter that he partially understood it. He couldn’t hide his flare of anger. Sebastian had got to spend a lifetime with his parents – Leo hadn’t even got to meet them.
Giovanni gave a shake of his head and Leo settled back into his chair, staring pointedly at Sebastian until he did the same.
Giovanni continued slowly. “There are conditions attached.”
“What conditions?” Leo couldn’t help it. He’d been in business too long to get caught out.
“Leo must hold the controlling stake in the business for a minimum of six months. The shares can’t be sold, or transferred, to any alternative controlling company, or family member.”
“What happens if he does?” Noemi’s voice was shaky.
Giovanni looked at all three of them. “Any attempt to violate the terms of the will mean that the company shall cease trading and will be liquidated with its assets distributed amongst the other existing four hundred shareholders.”
“What?” Sebastian’s voice sounded wheezy. His eyes were wide.
Leo sat frozen in his chair. He was a businessman. He had a head for business. He knew exactly what this was.
“This is blackmail,” he said coldly.
“No,” said Noemi quietly.
She turned to face him and gave a slow nod. “You could be right.”
“But why?” Leo leaned across the table towards Giovanni. “Why on earth would—” he couldn’t even bring himself to say the words ‘parents’ – “Salvo and Nicole do this?”
Giovanni sighed and leaned back in his chair.
“Did this just happen?” interjected Sebastian angrily. “Did they just do this because they found Leo?”
Leo drummed his fingers on the table. He couldn’t get his head around this at all. “Were they sick?”
Leo’s brain was struggling to make any sense of this at all. He asked again, “Were they sick?” He shook his head. “This doesn’t make any sense. I don't imagine for a second that they could have predicted the accident they were in, so the only other thing I can think of was, that they were sick. They were trying to find a way that we,” he paused for a second at that word, “would all have to work together. Nothing else makes sense.”
Sebastian looked pale. His eyes found Noemi. “We would have known. They would have told us.”
She gave a bewildered shrug. “They didn’t tell us about Leo until a month ago. And only then because I found his letter.”
Giovanni cleared his throat. “Their will has always said this.”
“What?” This time it was three voices in unison.
Giovanni gave a slow shake of his head. “They always believed they would find Leo. Initially, the will just named him as ‘the eldest biological child’. They never stopped searching. Even if they died before they found him, they still wanted him to know he was always part of the family, and to give him the opportunity to know the family business.” Giovanni took a deep breath. “They believed in family. You know that.” He shook his head. “They changed the will to include his name as soon as they found him. But the truth is, he was always included. In their eyes, he was always part of the family – whether they knew his new name or not.”
Noemi blinked and looked between Leo and Sebastian. “This isn’t about the business,” she said quietly.
Leo could tell Sebastian was still angry. There was a tiny tic in his jaw. But he met his sister’s gaze and gave her the slightest nod. “I know that.” It was the most conciliatory thing he’d said since Leo got there.
Leo felt blindsided and he hated that. Every business meeting, every potential deal, he always went in prepared. He would know the background, the finances, the personalities and their quirks before he even set foot in the room.
But here? For the first time since he’d been a child he felt totally out of his depth.
It felt as if the room was closing in around him, suffocating him with the heat from the fire, the love from the pictures on the wall, and that horrible feeling of emptiness inside.
Sebastian’s voice was tight. “Mamma and papa spent their lives growing this family business. It’s gone from a few tiny shops in Italy, to a billion euro company with worldwide acclaim. You might know business, Leo, but you don’t know this business. And I’m damned if I’m going to let their pride and joy fall apart around you for the next six months because you don’t know what you’re doing.”
He’d had enough. Leo had reached breaking point. He pulled back every emotion that he’d been struggling to keep in check. Business. Sebastian was talking business to him and no one was better at business than him.
“I might not know anything about the jewellery business, Sebastian, but one business is the same as another. Don’t make any mistake, I don’t want to do this, and I’m not interested in doing this. I don’t need your mamma and papa’s business, and I certainly don’t need their money. I could walk away right now quite happily, but where would that leave you?”
He let the words hang in the air. Noemi’s face was pale, she stood up and reached out and took Leo’s hand, stumbling. Leo caught her elbow but Sebastian was at her side in an instant. “Are you okay?” He slid his arm around her waist, helping to prop her up. It was like she was caught between two brothers.
She gave a shake of her head as she steadied herself for a few seconds, one hand still holding Leo’s. “Just a bit dizzy,” she pressed her other hand against her stomach as she took some slow breaths and the colour in her cheeks started to return.
When she lifted her chin, her eyes were filled with tears. “Don’t do this. Don’t be like this,” her head went from one brother to the other. “I hate this too. But mamma and papa want us to work together. They want us to be a family.” She turned to face Giovanni. “You’ve read the will, but I think we should have a little time to consider what it all means.” She let go of Leo’s hand and reached for his shoulders, turning him to face her. “Leo, I want to know you. I want to know my brother. I’ve already missed out on so much of your life, I don’t want to miss out on anymore. I’m not asking you to be my best friend. But family is important to me – now, more than ever.” She squeezed his shoulders. “Why don’t you both take a bit of time? This is a lot, I know that – for all of us. We all need to think – to process – and,” she glanced at Sebastian again, “probably to cool off. How about we agree to meet again later?”
Her eyes were pleading as she looked between the two men. Giovanni nodded. “Sounds reasonable. Nothing will happen quickly in terms of the will. It will take around six to eight weeks for things to be legally tied up back in Italy, and I can string things out as long as you all need.”
“Fine.” Sebastian’s answer was short.
“We can meet again around Christmas time?” Noemi said her voice breaking with distress. “Back here?” She pressed her lips together. “It’s what mamma and papa always wanted.”
There was an edge to her words. A hint of desperation. It brought it home to him again. She’d just lost her parents. They all had.
He moved from her grasp and collected his coat. The swell of emotion in the room too much for him. He gave the briefest of nods. “I’ll get back to you both,” he said as he walked swiftly towards the glass doors and out into the dark night.
He hadn’t even bothered to fasten his coat again and the Swiss Alp air bit around him. He could barely register the cold, his body was so flushed with heat.
New York. That's where Leo wanted to be right now. That was where he called home. He’d left Indiana and his adoptive parents behind a long time ago.
As he tramped along the snow-covered path he quickly realised he had no idea where he was going. The car from the airport had dropped his luggage at the luxury chalet booked by his PA. Trouble was, he didn’t know where that was. He pulled out his phone to search on a map. Around him people were crowding out of bars and hotels. It only took a few glances to realise that the Mont Coeur ski resort was filled with the rich, the very rich and the very, very rich.
He knew how ironic that thought was. He was in that category – as was his newfound family. But Leo didn’t usually willingly mix in these circles. He’d always been picky about who he surrounded himself with. Preferring people with their feet firmly on the ground to those who worried about climbing the social ladder.
He could go into a bar – find somewhere to have a drink. But he wasn’t really in the mood for a drink. Distraction maybe – but not a drink.
He checked out the map on his phone and headed down another street, this one a little quieter and leading him away from the main thoroughfare.
He probably should have hired a car, or tried to find a taxi, as he realised the road towards his luxury chalet was mainly uphill. But the truth was he didn’t really mind. It gave him a little time to think about what had just happened.
Several things burned in his mind. Giovanni said the will had always included him. That made him feel…odd. His adoptive parents had always maintained that his real parents couldn’t wait to be rid of him. The harsh words had felt as if they’d burned their way into his soul, wounding him in a way he’d never spoken about. He’d spent years resenting both his real and his adoptive parents, feeling as if he wasn’t really wanted anywhere. Finding out now, that was all untrue was more unsettling than he could have ever imagined.
He let out a long, slow breath sending warm air out into the icy night, clouding around him.
Leo reached the end of the street and looked up from the map on his phone. His chalet should be off to the right, but to his left he saw Mount Coeur’s practice slopes. Even though it was nine o’clock at night, there were still a few people getting in that last run.
They were illuminated with bright white lights, reflecting off the glossy snow, smoothed down hard by the constant traffic on the slopes. In most other ski resorts, the slopes were high above the actual towns. Mount Couer was different. It was built half way up the mountain, almost right in the middle of the slopes, which made them much more accessible.
He stopped for a minute, leaning on a fence as he watched a single figure head down towards him. Dressed completely in black the figure zig-zagged down the practically empty slope at an alarming rate of speed. Skiing was something he’d loved to do over the years and he could appreciate the skill and expertise. He frowned. Wasn’t the figure coming down just a little too fast?
There was a loud bang to his right. His head flicked to the side, just in time to see a car with a black cloud of smoke coming from under its bonnet.
He flicked back to the skier. Oh no.
They’d turned to check out the noise too, and now it was too late. In the blink of an eye he realised they hadn’t slowed their descent enough. That split second distraction had been too much.
They desperately tried to slow, but it was too little, too late and they hurtled into the tyres at the bottom of the practice slope with a sickening crash.
Leo didn’t think twice. He leapt over the fence and scrambled over the thick tyres. There was hardly anyone around, and it was clear he was the closest.
The figure was lying crumpled on the ground, skis askew and one of their legs in an awkward position. Leo slipped and slid on the snow. “Are you okay? Can I do something to help you?”
He knelt down next to the figure in black. Now he was closer he could see it was obviously a woman. The black salopettes and padded ski jacket couldn't hide the slim curves underneath. She still hadn’t responded. He touched her arm, “Hi, I’m Leo. Can I help you?”
There was a groan underneath him. The twisted leg moved and she gave a yelp. “Foitrotti!”[ED1]
He smiled. He might not have understood the language – was it Swiss? German? – but he understood the sentiment. Not quite as ladylike as he might have imagined. “Well, at least I know you’re conscious,” he said.
Her arms shot upwards and she snapped the fastener on her ski helmet and pushed her ski goggles upwards revealing a mass of ice blonde hair.
“What on earth was that noise?” she said, switching to English. She was mad. She was more than mad.
Leo couldn’t help but smile, again. As well as the avalanche of blonde hair, this lady had the clearest blue eyes he’d ever seen. She pretty much looked like some kind of ice princess but he could already guess how she would take that kind of comparison.
“It sounded like a combination of a car back-firing and an engine blowing up. Either way, it was loud.”
She was digging her elbows into the snow and struggling to push herself up. “Can I give you hand?”
He stood up and reached out towards her.
For a second he thought she might refuse, but after the briefest pause she pulled one hand from her glove and grasped his fingers tightly.
He tugged - maybe a little firmer than he needed to and pulled her straight up into him. His other arm caught around her waist just as her weight hit her feet and she yelped again as her leg buckled beneath her.
He tightened his grip and pulled her against his hip. “Do you think something’s broken? Do you want me to call an ambulance for you?”
She was breathing hard and fast but her skin was pale. “Just give me a second,” she gasped.
So he did. And even though it was freezing after a few seconds he was struck by the heat emanating from her slight frame. She was taller than most women he met, but still at least six inches shorter than him. He stood silently, watching a little colour appear in her pale cheeks and her breathing eventually starting to slow. She was holding her left foot off the ground and tentatively put it back down, wincing almost immediately.
“Want me to carry you?”
Her frown was fierce but she didn’t bite his head off. Instead she leaned a little into him. “Nope, definitely not. Sorry to be a pest, but I’ve got a bit of an old injury. Would you mind just helping me limp back to the ski hut? There’s a buggy I can use there to get back to my chalet.”
“Can you stand for a second?” She nodded and he bent to retrieve her skis and poles before sliding his arm back around her waist and taking some of her weight. “Okay then. What were you doing practicing so late? Most people are in the town by now.”
She gripped on to his arm with her other hand as she limped alongside him, being careful not to put too much weight on her foot.
Leo couldn’t help but ask again. “You’re sure that’s not broken?”
She shook her head. “I’m sure. Believe me. I’ve broken a few bones in my time.”
It was just the way she said it. He couldn’t help himself, “What – yours – or other peoples?”
She threw back her head and laughed, then obviously put too much weight on her bad foot. “Ouch.”
Leo actions were instinctual. He dropped the skis, bent down and swept her up into his arms.
“What are you doing?” Her eyes were wide. She glanced around but, it was late, the slopes were quiet, and there wasn’t really anyone else watching.
“I’m carrying you,” he said simply. He strode towards the large ski hut. “No point hurting yourself when you don’t need to. I’ll come back for those in a second,” he said, noticing as she craned over his shoulder to look for her abandoned equipment. He looked down at her curiously. He could tell she was just about to object again. “So, have you broken a lot of bones? What are you – a ski instructor?”
There was a flash of something on her face as they approached the ski hut. She sighed. “Yes, I guess I am.”
He moved around the side of the building. Just like she’d said, there was a large SUV with snow tyres. “Want me to drive?” he asked as he set her gently down next to the passenger door.
“Will you carry me round to the other side if I say no?” she quipped.
Leo smiled. Whatever else had happened today, things were definitely looking up. He winked at her. “Your wish is my command, ice princess.”
Ice Princess? Had he actually just called her ice princess?
If she was feeling herself she’d toss her head and stomp off. Trouble was, she wasn’t feeling herself. She actually felt as if she might be sick all over her ski boots.
As her rescuer disappeared to retrieve her skis and poles, she wondered if maybe it was the shock of the noise of the backfiring car. Maybe it was the current feeling of stupidity for allowing herself to be distracted when she really should know better. Or maybe it was that whole host of memories that had come flooding back as she tumbled down the slope, too quickly, and completely out of control.
She dug into her ski jacket and pulled out her key. As he returned, leaning her equipment against the SUV, she steeled herself to say words she never thought she would. “Actually, would you mind? I promise I only live a five minute drive from here.”
The guy – Leo, he’d said he was called – gave a quick nod as she pressed the button to open the doors. “Not at all,” he said graciously.
He was being a gentleman. There was obviously a cheeky demeanour hiding under there, but for now, she’d take the gentleman. Anything to get home as soon as possible.
She slid into her seat, suddenly aware she’d been a little rude. “And it’s Anissa – not ice princess.”
He smiled as he slid into the driver’s seat and pressed the button to start the engine. “Anissa,” he gave a nod of approval. “Sounds like a kind of ice princess name to me.”
“Do you know many ice princesses, Leo?”
He laughed and held out his hand. “Leo Baxter. From New York. Just here for a few days on,” his face gave a little twist, “…family business.”
She shook his hand. “Anissa Lang. And this ice princess has the illustrious other titles of part-time ski instructor, part-time chalet maid.” He smiled. He had a nice smile, dark, curly hair a little longer than average and bright blue eyes that could stop a girl in her tracks. Just as well she was sitting down. She held his gaze just a few seconds longer than she meant to.
He didn’t look away. His grin just got wider and she felt colour rush into her cheeks. What on earth was she doing? She took a deep breath and focused on the view through the windscreen instead. It was safer.
He pulled the car out of the parking lot and stopped at the road junction.
“Right,” she pointed.
“Were you doing a lesson?” he queried. “I didn’t notice any students on the slopes with you.”
She shook her head. “Too late for lessons. And students wouldn’t be allowed on that slope. Too dangerous.”
He gave a nod of his head as he continued down the dark road. “You don’t say.”
A wave of nausea rushed over her and she put a hand to her mouth. “You okay?” he asked quickly, his cheeky quips instantly replaced by concern.
She swallowed and pointed to a little further down the road. “Take the next left please. I’m just at the end of that road.”
She leaned back against the seat and gave a sigh. “Maybe I hit my head. I’m feeling a bit queasy.”
His eyes were laced with concern, but he didn't say anything else until he pulled up outside her staff chalet. A few seconds later he’d stopped the car, jumped out, rounded the car and opened her door. “Let’s get you inside. Maybe if you sit down for a few minutes and get some water, you’ll feel a little better. If you don’t, I’m sure I can find a doctor in the resort to check you over.”
She really wanted to argue with him, but getting inside her chalet seemed like the priority right now, so she let him help her out and up the steps to the chalet, not even objecting when he took the key from her slightly shaking hand and opened the door for her. He flicked on her lights and slid his arm around her waist, helping her inside.
She sagged down onto her sofa in relief, unzipping her ski jacket and taking a few deep breaths. When she opened her eyes a few seconds later, Leo had already started the fire.
“Well, if I’m the ice princess, you must be Prince Charming,” she smiled.
It was odd. She didn’t feel threatened by the complete stranger that was currently inside her temporary home and finding his way around. She was actually feeling relieved there was someone else with her right now.
“Oh,” she said in surprise as he sat down on the coffee table opposite her and lifted up her ski boot.
Those blue eyes twinkled. “Prince Charming? Isn’t that the guy obsessed with shoes? Let’s get these ski boots off and you can see if you’ve done any damage.” He really was too handsome for his own good.
He undid the clips, loosened the boot then gave it a gentle tug, pulling it off. She clenched her jaw, waiting for wave of pain she’d normally feel if she’d done some damage. There were a few twinges, but nothing severe.
He pulled off the other boot, holding her foot for a little longer than necessary. “Okay?” his question seemed sincere, so she nodded as he moved so her feet could rest on the table in front of her. “You still look really pale.” He glanced around the room. “How about something medicinal? I think you’re in a bit of a shock. Do you have any brandy?”
Her brain really couldn’t think straight. Brandy. Yes. She had some of that. She waved her hand. “Cabinet behind you.”
Two minutes later she heard the clink of glasses. She leaned forward and peeled down her socks. No obvious swelling. Thank goodness. She gave both of her feet a cautious circle round. Whilst one was definitely sore, it wasn’t as bad as she’d initially feared.
A glass was pressed into her hand and Leo lowered himself into the seat next to her.
She took a sip of the brandy and pulled a face. “I’m not sure if giving someone alcohol for shock is really the official treatment.” She gave her head a shake. “You know, St Bernard’s don’t really have brandy around their necks.”
He smiled and raised his glass. “What can I say? I’ve always been one for old wives tales.”
She looked at him curiously. His face was tiny bit flushed in her rapidly warming chalet, but there was no question that this was one of the most handsome guys she’d seen in a while. Mont Coeur was no stranger to numerous jet set playboy millionaires, but he didn’t seem quite the type. She took another sip of her brandy that warmed on the way down.
“I’m not sure I believe you – you don’t look like an old-wives-tales kind of guy.” She sighed, “But then again, I’m not the type of girl to let a stranger drive her car - or into her chalet, so I guess it’s just a night of firsts.”
There was a definite twinkle in his eye. She nudged him.
At any other time alarm bells would be going off in her head. But the one thing she instantly felt around this guy was safe. That was it. He had a safe kind of smile. She liked that – that and those bright blue eyes. “Want to take that wool coat off before you die from heat exhaustion?”
Her heart skipped a few beats. Had she really just said that? More or less invited him to stay a bit longer?
Deep down something was flickering inside her – and it was nothing to do with the fire. Everything about this was so out of character for her. Under normal circumstances she would probably have tried to hound her rescuer back outside the door. But Leo just seemed…different.
There was something in his eyes that she couldn’t quite figure. He had the tiniest air of mystery around him – that and a whole load of sex appeal. A lethal combination.
He laughed, unfastened the coat and shrugged it off. “A night of firsts,” he repeated. There was a strange kind of look on his face. “I guess it’s certainly been one of those.”
There it was – the air of mystery that just seemed to reel her in. She turned a little towards him. “What do you mean?”
He shook his head. “Let’s just say I’m glad of the distraction.”
Now she was definitely curious. “Well, from my experience, most people come to Mount Coeur to either ski, or,” she raised her eyebrows, “to show off how rich they are. Which category are you in?”
For a second he was silent, then he took a long, slow swig from the brandy glass. “I can just about hold my own on a ski slope. But, I’ve never skied at Mount Coeur before. I came here at kind of short notice. I didn’t bring any equipment with me.”
“So you didn’t come here for the skiing?”
He shook his head. He really wasn’t giving much away. But the way that he looked at her through those heavy-lidded eyes, it was making her stomach do a whole lot of flip flops. Never mind skiing. Right now her stomach thought she was a gymnast.
“But you were watching tonight?”
He nodded. “I’ve only been here a few hours. I haven’t even reached my,” he put his fingers in the air, “luxury cabin yet.”
Anissa’s stomach gave a little twist. Please don’t let him be staying in one of the cabin’s I'm cleaning.
“So, is it business, or pleasure?” She licked her lips, a little nervous at asking the question. For all she knew he could actually be here with a wife, or fiancée, and really only was being gentlemanly by helping her home. She unintentionally held her breath as she waited for the answer.
“I imagine some people would expect me to say a bit of both.” He gave another sigh. “But the honest answer is neither. In a lot of ways, I wish I’d never come. There’s nothing I’d like more than to jump back on the nearest flight to New York.”
Her stomach gave a little pang. The first interesting guy she’d met in a long time couldn’t wait to get out of dodge. Typical.
But it was the way he said the words that mattered. As if they made him sad. “Then, why don’t you?” she asked quietly.
He met her gaze with his blue eyes. “Because I’m a bit in limbo. What I do next could affect other people – whether I like it or not.”
Empathy swelled within her. Connection. Because those words were so familiar to her. What she did wouldn’t affect anyone other than herself. But being in limbo? She raised her glass to him. “Limbo. I see your few days’ worth of limbo and raise you a whole years’ worth.”
He turned closer towards her, leaning in and letting her see the shadow on his jaw line and the tiny lines around his eyes. That tiny little movement made her catch her breath at what might lie ahead. The woody scent of his aftershave filled her senses. She liked it. It had a hint of spice mixed with earthy tones.
He leaned his head on one hand and gave her a sexy kind of smile. “How did a gorgeous girl like you end up in limbo in Mont Coeur? Have you always lived here?”
Gorgeous. He’d just called her gorgeous. She could almost hear the echoing voices of approval of her fellow chalet maids at her rapidly rising heart rate. For months they’d been telling her to pay more attention to the guys around her. For months she’d told them she had other priorities and that no one had captured her attention. And they hadn’t. Until now.
She shook her head and tried her best to play it cool. “I’m Austrian. But I’ve spent most of my life on skis no matter where I’ve lived.” She lifted one hand. “This last year? Let’s just say it hasn’t been my best – hasn’t been my favourite. Limbo is exactly the right word to describe the last twelve months of my life.”
It hurt. Every memory about it still hurt. From the physical pain of crashing down a mountainside. To the psychological pain of realising her hopes of winning an international skiing championship gold medal had just been ripped from her grasp. Then there was the emotional trauma of her fiancé and coach, Alain, dumping her.
Leo reached out and grabbed her hand, his warm skin shooting an instant tingle up her arm. His voice was deep. His other hand reached over and tucked a wayward strand of hair behind her ear. It was a personal touch – an intimate touch and the skin on her face was on fire with it. “How about, for one night only, we try and forget about the stuff that’s dragging us down.”
She blinked. Had he actually just said that?
The fire was flickering behind him, sending a warm glow around the room. Her heart missed a few beats.
No way. She wouldn’t. Not ever. She wasn’t that kind of girl.
Somehow, tonight, she wanted to be.
She really, really wanted to be.
She prayed her voice wouldn’t shake as she uttered the words. “I could live with forgetting about everything dragging me down.”
He moved closer, his mouth only a few inches from hers and she licked her lips in anticipation.
She paused for the briefest second. “Promise me you have no wife, no fiancée, no girlfriend.”
He gave a flicker of smile. “Promise. What about you?”
She smiled too as she leaned in. “Oh, I don’t have a wife, a fiancée or a girlfriend.” This was reaching the teasing stage. Her favourite part.
He smiled back as he reached up and slid his fingers through her hair, anchoring his hand at the back of her head. “No significant other?”
She shook her head. “No significant other.”
His lips brushed against her ear. “Then how about we get ourselves distracted?”
She must be crazy. She must be losing her mind. But for the first time in a year all she could think about was how good it felt to be in the arms of this man she found wildly attractive and how in control she felt. She was making this decision. No one was doing it for her. Leo Baxter was hot.
And he was all hers.
This was one night. Everything else she could worry about tomorrow.
She smiled as she brushed her lips against his. “So….distract me.”
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