Gold Fire -- Nov. 27, 2012
Jase cracked his eyes and peered through the narrow line where the Stetson didn’t quite meet his upturned face. A woman in a dark blazer and skirt stood just inside the front door of his saloon.
Hell. Russ must have left the front door unlocked.
Russ could just deal with it, then, because Jase wasn’t getting up for anything. He’d celebrated the hell out of his thirty-first birthday last night, and he needed to catch a few zees before the Rusty Wire Saloon opened for business again. The wooden chair he slouched in and the one propping up his feet made a hard bed, but they’d do.
The woman’s heels clicked across the dance floor, prompting him to take another peek. Shapely legs moved briskly across his line of vision with enough feminine sway to put some swing in the skirt. Curious despite himself, he lifted a finger to the brim of his hat.
The blazer hid a lot with its generic uniform look, but he had a feeling the body beneath it was as shapely as the legs. His gaze lingered on a pretty profile, and reddish-blond hair that would have looked great falling to her shoulders, but was inexplicably bound into some kind of grandmotherly bun-thing. A waste of good sex appeal.
He concentrated on dozing again as the woman made a straight line for Billy where he was scrubbing down the bar. “We’re not open,” he heard Billy say before she could dive into her sales spiel. Good man.
“I know.” Her voice already said it didn’t matter, which didn’t sound
good for Billy. “I’m Zoe Larkin from the Alpine Sky. I’d like to speak to the owner, please.”
Too bad, Jase thought. Billy said it for him. “He doesn’t like to be disturbed this time of day. What can I do for you?”
“I’m afraid I can only speak to the owner.”
Billy must have hesitated at that, because he heard a glass hit the bar as Russ downed his Alka-Seltzer and cleared his throat. “Can I help you?” Jase silently thanked him. With Russ and Jennifer sitting at the end of the bar, and Billy nearby, his nap had a triple line of defense.
Sharp heels clicked closer as she crossed to the end of the bar. “I’m Zoe Larkin, assistant manager of the Alpine Sky. Are you the owner?”
“Next thing to it. Name’s Russ Holbrook. I’m the manager, and I’m probably the one you want to talk to if you’re from that fancy resort up the road.”
Good point. Russ had handled enough past tiffs with the Alpine Sky to head her off at the pass.
“You people got a problem with the Rusty Wire again? Sorry about last night’s crowd, but I already told you, I can’t keep my customers from moving on to your bar for more partying after they leave here. Long as they leave reasonably sober, we ain’t responsible for what they do.”
Good. Now show her to the door.
“I’m not here to complain about rowdy customers, Mr. Holbrook.”
Undaunted, Russ replied, “Well, if it’s the overflow parking, we already put up new signs so’s they’d stay off your precious driveway.”
“It’s not the parking, either. I’m here to propose a business deal, and only the owner can tell me if he’s interested.”
“What kind of deal?” Russ sounded suspicious.
“The private kind,” she said, polite but firm.
“You suing us for something?”
“Mr. Holbrook . . .”
“’Cause if you are, we got lawyers, too, and we don’t take to letting the big resorts tell us what we can and can’t do.”
Jase heard her blow out an impatient breath. “The Alpine Sky is not suing you, Mr. Holbrook. But we are interested in talking with the owner. I would appreciate it if one of you would contact him, and let him know I’m here.”
“One of you” probably included Jennifer, sitting beside Russ at the bar. Jase’s mouth twitched with a repressed smile; Jennifer didn’t take well to being told what to do.
Zoe from the Alpine Sky must have seen it, because her voice took on an irritated edge. “Look, it’s a simple request. What’s so hard about placing a phone call to the owner? Is he out of the country?”
Jase prayed someone would say yes, but they missed their big opportunity and met her question with stubborn silence. Damn, this nap wasn’t going to happen.
He heard an impatient toe tap. “Is he in prison?”
Most times he might have found that sassy attitude amusing. Not today.
“Perhaps I should just take a seat and wait.”
Oh, for Christ’s sake. “Don’t bother,” he said, scraping his footrest out of the way and forced his tired body into a sitting position. He tipped the hat back to meet the lady’s surprised brown eyes. Huh, he’d imagined blue, but he liked what he saw. Leaning his forearms on the table, he looked her over with reluctant appreciation. Giving up sleep had some compensation. “I’m the owner, lady. What do you want?”
Zoe shot an irritated glance at the man she’d taken to be a drunk sleeping off an early buzz. With the hat no longer hiding his features, she could see the hard lines of a strong face beneath at least a day’s worth of stubble. His clear gaze caused her to do a mental stumble; the lazy sexuality in his eyes belonged more to a bedroom than a bar. Not that it mattered. His good looks were off-set by a put-upon frown that said forcing his body into an erect posture was more work than he’d intended to do all day.
She approached slowly, taking in the wrinkled shirt, faded jeans, and worn boots. The man was as shabby as his saloon, which helped squelch her brief twinge of interest. “You’re Jason Garrett?”
“It’s just Jase.”
She stuck out her hand. “Hello, Mr. Garrett. I’m Zoe—”
“I heard. Zoe Larkin, assistant manager from the Alpine Sky.” His interested gaze drank her in again, lingering in a couple places and setting off a squirmy feeling deep inside her that she dismissed with irritation. “You wanted the owner, you got him. What do you need?”
She took a deep breath, forcing herself not to glare. It didn’t matter if he was rude, only that he accept her offer. She was fairly certain that hearing it would wipe that smug look right off his face.
“I’m here to make you an offer on behalf of Ruth Ann Flemming, the owner of the Alpine Sky.” She paused a couple seconds for dramatic effect. “Mrs. Flemming would like to buy the Rusty Wire saloon.”
Behind her, a glass thunked onto the bar. The rhythmic sound of the scrub brush stopped. Jase Garrett didn’t move, not even the flicker of an eyelid. His gaze was steady on hers for several long seconds, while she tried not to fidget. “Is that so,” he finally said.
Since he hadn’t made it a question, she didn’t answer. She wished he’d ask one though, because his thoughtful stare made her nervous.
“What does the exalted Alpine Sky want with my saloon?”
“We would like to expand our business.”
His gaze took a slow trip up and down her suit. “A honky-tonk doesn’t seem like your style, Miss Larkin.”
“Thank you, it isn’t. But The Alpine Sky doesn’t actually want your saloon, Mr. Garrett. We want your land. As you know, our resort is a popular winter destination for skiers. We would like to offer summer activities, too, which means building a golf course. For that we need more land. A semi-flat piece, like the one your saloon sits on.”
The stillness at the bar behind her was palpable, as if all three people were holding their breath. Jase’s shadowed eyes gave nothing away. “You want to tear down the Rusty Wire?”
“I imagine if the building is in good condition, it might be used for something else.” She gave the room a quick glance, deciding not tell him the chances of that were next to zero. “The town’s records show that the lot size, including parking, is two acres. You also own the fifty behind it. Those acres adjoin The Alpine Sky, and they would be ideal for an eighteen-hole course.”
“That land is untouched wilderness.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Mr. Garrett, the Rocky Mountains are full of untouched wilderness. You can buy as much as you want. The only thing special about your piece of wilderness is that it adjoins our resort.”
“And it’s flat.”
His expressionless gaze held hers for a long time. A barstool squeaked behind her, but she didn’t turn.
“The Rusty Wire’s not for sale.”
She smiled. “You haven’t heard our offer yet, Mr. Garrett. It’s more than generous.”
“Two point five million.”
Zoe heard the woman suck in her breath. She tried not to look smug as she waited for Jase Garrett’s eyes to widen and his mouth to drop open in shock. It didn’t happen. Nothing happened.
“No, thanks.” He all but yawned.
No thanks, that was it? It wasn’t a deal-breaker, but she would have bet everything she had that he’d snap it up, and probably order a beer to celebrate. Irritation prickled just under her skin, making it hard to keep up an appearance of calm. “Mr. Garrett, perhaps you should take some time to explore the price of real estate around Barringer’s Pass. Two and a half million is an incredibly high price for fifty-two acres of mostly undeveloped land.”
Finally, his expression changed. His eyebrows drew together and a muscle clenched along his firm jaw. “I said no, Miss Larkin. That’s my answer. Go make your pitch to whoever owns land on the other side of The Alpine Sky.”
It was more wordy than his other responses, but just as negative. It also revealed their weakest bargaining point. She pressed her mouth together, reluctant to admit what she had to say. “The other side is Federal land. They aren’t open to an offer.”
“Neither am I.”
She closed her eyes and sighed, making a big deal out of her reluctance to give in. Let him think he’d made a crafty bargain. She dropped her voice. “I’m not authorized to offer more money, Mr. Garrett, but just between the two of us, if you gave me a counter-offer of three million, I might be able to convince Mrs. Flemming to pay it.”
He actually scowled. “Miss Larkin, I appreciate your dedication to your job, but I’ve given my answer. Now run along.” Tugging a chair closer, he propped his feet up, slouched down, and dropped the hat back over his eyes.
She stared. A show of resistance wouldn’t have surprised her, but she hadn’t been prepared for a flat rejection. Who turned down three million dollars for a crappy saloon and a few acres of trees? She was missing something here, and she wasn’t leaving until she figured out what it was.
Jase waited for the click of heels across the dance floor, interested enough to take one more look at the resort lady’s legs as she left. For one of the infamous Larkin girls, she wasn’t what he expected. But then, rumors were often wrong.
He didn’t hear retreating footsteps. He poked a cautious finger at his hat brim and lifted it an inch. She was still standing there, her pretty lips pulled into a tight line and her irritated gaze boring into him. A no-nonsense look that went well with her severe hair style.
Her body language intrigued him, but he had no interest in her offer. He pushed the hat up a couple more inches. “Miss Larkin, I can’t help but notice you’re still here.”
“Nothing gets past you, does it, Mr. Garrett?”
“What else do you want?”
“I want an explanation. I offered you far more than this old place and that undeveloped land is worth. In fact, my guess is that the Rusty Wire is aptly named, and that rust isn’t even the worst of your problems in a building this old.” She looked around the saloon, taking in the century-old bar along with the new light fixtures and new windows. “You’ve probably had to dump a ton of cash into plumbing and electrical updates, just to mention the obvious. I think it’s safe to assume it takes most of your profits to keep this place up to code.”
That was accurate enough to raise her a notch in his estimation; she wasn’t just some corporate lackey delivering a message. Assistant manager, she’d said. She probably knew a lot about running an establishment that served the public. Not that it would help her argument any. “What’s your point?”
“My point is that I just offered you the equivalent of a winning lottery ticket, and you turned it down without a thought.”
“I thought about it. Maybe I just think faster than you.”
She ignored the jab. “Why would you turn down a small fortune, when keeping the Rusty Wire open will eventually cost you a small fortune?”
He flashed a cocky smile to go with his bluff so she wouldn’t guess how little he knew about his own saloon’s finances.
“Keeping the Rusty Wire open doesn’t cost me a small fortune, Miss Larkin. If you work up the hill, I’m sure you’ve seen how busy this place is on a Friday or Saturday night. We turn a nice profit. But thanks for your concern.”
Her frown said she wasn’t buying it, and he didn’t want to argue the details, since he didn’t know them. He kicked the chair aside again and got to his feet, walking around the table to place a guiding hand on her elbow. It would have been a nice bonus if his six-foot-three height intimidated her, but she looked to be at least five-six, and her high heels narrowed the difference even more. Besides, he doubted assistant manager Zoe Larkin was easily intimidated, even in bare feet.
“Not that it’s any of your business, Miss Larkin, but you might say I already won the lottery. I don’t need your three million.”
Her gaze narrowed as she tried to figure it out. While she thought, he opened the door and escorted her through the small entry space and out the second door.
She stopped dead in the parking lot as soon as he took his hand off her elbow. “What does that mean? Are you saying you have so much money you can afford to throw some away on a run-down saloon?”
“I’m saying you can’t buy me, Miss Larkin. You run back up to that fancy palace on the hill and tell that to the lady who sent you here. Have a nice day now, you hear?” Before she could argue that with him, too, he turned and walked back inside, locking the door behind him.
They were all watching him. Russ and Jennifer had swiveled their stools toward the door, and Billy seemed to have forgotten the scrub brush in his hand. They waited for him to say something.
“Leave it locked until we open.” He walked back to his chair and settled in again. With luck, he’d get a couple hour’s sleep before they opened at three.
Billy’s yell would have knocked him off his chair if he hadn’t been half expecting it. With a sigh, he sat up and faced the three people at the bar. “What?”
“Didn’t you hear what she said? Three million dollars!” His eyes nearly popped out.
“Yeah, I heard.”
“Are you crazy? Who turns down three million dollars?”
“Someone who doesn’t want to sell.”
His mouth opened, but he simply stared. Russ took up the slack. “You think this place is really worth that much?”
“Nah, not even with the land.”
“Might be worth more than you think,” he insisted.
“Trust me, it’s not. They must be in a hurry to turn it into a golf course and pull in more business. They’d make up the cost in no time.”
“So why’d you say no?”
“Because I don’t want to sell, simple as that. I like it here. And I prefer looking at Two Bears Mountain with trees instead of a golf course. The resorts have already swallowed up enough of B-Pass.” He looked at Jennifer. As usual, he couldn’t read her calm gaze. “You think I’m crazy, too?”
“No. I think owning the Rusty Wire suits you. What else would you do?”
“Exactly. Thank you. Now, if you all don’t mind, I’m going to take a nap.”
No one said anything, so he settled back, propped his boots on a chair, and put the hat over his face. Sleep wasn’t going to be possible – he could still feel their stares on him. But as long as he faked it he wouldn’t have to answer more questions.
Dodging the truth wasn’t easy. Telling it would have been even harder, requiring that he face the unsettling suspicion that the Rusty Wire was the only thing that held him together these days. If he didn’t say it aloud, he could pretend it wasn’t true.
Maybe Jennifer knew him better than he’d thought.