Excerpt from READY, SET, I DO!
Hailey Randall sat alone at a table for two in the Hill of Beans coffee shop and brooded about what an idiot she'd been. Discovering her boyfriend had been using her had tumbled her usual sunny mood into stormy, overcast and dark. Hailey pressed her lips together and savagely broke off a piece of scone.
"You're going to have to tone down that dazzling smile."
Hailey glanced up and saw Cassidy Kaye, owner of Jackson Hole's popular Clippety Do Dah Salon, stagger back with one hand shielding her eyes. "It's, it's blinding me."
"Har, har." Even as she spoke, Hailey's lips twitched. "Shouldn't you be hacking off somebody's hair?"
"Your effusive welcome warms my heart. Why, yes, I'd love to join you." Cassidy, dressed in skintight leopard-print leggings and a frilly purple shirt, dropped into the empty seat at the table. Today her bright gold hair was tipped in fuchsia.
"Have a seat," Hailey said, even though her friend was already sitting, stretching one long leg over the other, a diamond ankle chain winking in the light.
"My ten o'clock canceled. Told me she came down with the stomach flu during the night." The hairstylist shuddered. "Gave me all the gory details."
"Details," Hailey said pointedly, "you will keep to yourself."
Cassidy grinned as she reached over and took a piece of Hailey's cinnamon-chip scone. "I'm thrilled she didn't come in. I can't afford to get sick. Not with Daffy and me doing hair and makeup for the Finster wedding this weekend."
Hailey lifted the latte to her lips. Cass was great with hair, but Hailey had a hard time seeing Daffodil, her waiflike assistant who moved like a closemouthed ghost, doing makeup. "Does Daff even wear makeup?"
"She doesn't need beauty enhancements," Cassidy said matter-of-factly then snagged another piece of scone. She lifted it to her mouth as her eyes narrowed on Hailey's cup. "What kind of latte is that?"
Cassidy gave an exaggerated roll of her eyes. "Cinnamon latte. Cinnamon-chip scone. You've got to shake things up a bit, kiddo. Be bold. Not quite so…predictable."
Though Hailey couldn't exactly see how ordering two favorite items qualified as predictable, she simply smiled. "Trust me. I have my moments."
Cassidy nodded approvingly. "Like giving Josh the boot."
Hailey's smile vanished. She should have realized word would have gotten around by now.
"All I have to say is, about damn time." Cassidy punctuated the announcement with a decisive nod.
Hailey had the feeling that would be most of her friends' response. The few she'd already told about the split had seen Josh for what he was long before she had, which only made her feel even more foolish.
Until two days ago, Hailey had believed Joshua Gratzke had fallen for her and fallen hard. When she bumped into Josh—a former high school classmate—several months ago at the market, he'd made his interest clear. Though they'd never dated way back when, she'd always thought he was cute.
Those days at Jackson Hole High had been almost ten years ago. His face was leaner now, his dark hair shorter, but his smile seemed even more charming. He told her he'd returned to Jackson Hole after law school to consider his options.
With her only working PRN—as needed—at the hospital as a speech therapist, they'd had plenty of time to get reacquainted.
Plenty of time for him to take advantage.
"I didn't see it, Cass." She met the hairstylist's vivid blue eyes. "I foolishly believed he'd fallen head over heels. The fact that he wanted to hang out with my fam was a point in his favor. Sure, we spent extra time with Tripp. He's my brother and we're close. I never thought Josh was angling for a job in Tripp's office."
It still boggled Hailey's mind that her big brother, the one who used to give her noogies, was now the mayor of Jackson, Wyoming.
Cassidy's eyes darkened, as if reliving old memories. "People disappoint us. Even those we think we know well."
"I should have seen the signs," Hailey murmured, almost to herself. "I must have had blinders on."
"Don't be hard on yourself. Josh was smooth." Cassidy reached over and squeezed Hailey's hand. "He almost fooled me."
"Almost being the key word."
"Trust me when I say I've had much more experience with slimy men than you." Cassidy's lips lifted in a wry smile. "My internal radar is primed to spot `em at a hundred paces."
"I won't make the same mistake again." Her appetite gone, Hailey shoved the plate containing the scone in front of Cassidy. She refused to waste one more second on Josh. "Tell me all about Susan Finster's wedding."
"She, or rather her mommy-dearest, insisted on the works." Cassidy leaned back in her chair. "Made it clear if I couldn't do all, she'd take her business elsewhere."
"If you end up needing help, let me know." Hailey forced a casual tone, not wanting to put her friend on the spot but determined to make her interest clear. "I used to work as a cosmetics consultant in college and really enjoyed it."
Cassidy dropped the scone to the plate, leaned forward. The gaze that pinned Hailey had a predatory gleam. "Seriously?"
"Everyone said I had the knack."
"No, I mean, are you serious about helping?"
"Totally." Hailey found herself pleased by Cassidy's reaction. "I'd love to help."
"I cannot friggin' believe it." Cassidy bopped herself in the head with the heel of one hand. "I've been beating my brains out for weeks trying to think of someone and here, you've been right under my nose."
"Glad to know I'm not the only one who misses the obvious."
Hailey's dry tone brought a smile to Cassidy's lips. The hairstylist straightened in her seat and leaned forward. "I want us to work together, Hailey."
"Talk about ordering a cake before you know if the flavor suits you." Hailey kept her tone light even as her heart started to rev. "You don't know if I have talent."
"One look at you tells me you're great with makeup." Cassidy waved away Hailey's concern using a hand tipped with royal-blue nails. Those who didn't know her well often dismissed the salon owner as the crazy artistic type. But ten minutes with her was all it took to know this was a savvy businesswoman, determined to grow her already thriving business. "I've had clients come in with suggestions you've given them about their hair and you've been spot on, especially with color."
Hailey flushed with pleasure. It was true her friends often asked her opinion on what they should do with their hair. "You really want me to work for you?"
"No, not really." Cassidy studied her thoughtfully. Tapped a long fingernail against her bright pink lips.
"With me," Cassidy clarified. "A partnership."
Blood coursed through Hailey's veins. She saw herself working with clients, offering advice and instruction on makeup and hair-styling changes that would enhance a woman's natural beauty. She wanted to seize this opportunity and run with it. But she made herself slow down. Josh had taught her that if something seemed too good to be true, it was best to take a step back. "Why a partnership?"
"You need to think of this venture as yours. I want you to use your social connections to help this new business fly."
The chill that swept through Hailey cut deep, all the way to the bone. "I thought you wanted my expertise, but all—"
"Don't get on your high horse." Cassidy gave a dismissive wave. "This is a new venture. I'll be bringing my years in business, my license and my connections to the table. You'd be providing a keen eye, your experience with cosmetics and your connections."
Hailey tamped down her anger and focused on the facts. After a couple of seconds, she let out a breath and nodded. "I guess that makes sense."
"Certainly does." Cassidy pushed back her chair. She stood there for a moment, a curvaceous woman who commanded attention. "We can discuss particulars when you've decided you're interested."
"Don't you mean if I decide I'm interested?"
"We're both champing at the bit to get this thing rolling." Cassidy grinned. "It's just I already know it. You have to think it through before you realize I've dropped a sweet deal right in your lap."
The bell over the door jingled and Winston Ferris strolled into the shop, cell phone to his ear. Hailey's heart skipped a beat at the sight of her good-looking neighbor.
Tall, with an athletic build, Winn had the confident demeanor of a person used to giving orders. His dark hair was cut stylishly short and though his handsome face would draw any woman's attention, it was his steely hazel eyes that defined him.
"I need to get back to the salon." Cassidy gestured with her head toward Winn. "I'll leave you to canoodle with your new boyfriend."
Hailey pulled her brows together. "Winn is my neighbor not my boyfriend."
Cassidy merely gave a wink and strolled away, a broad smile on her pouty pink lips.
"It's a setback, nothing more." Winn absolutely refused to let his emotions show on his face as he listened to his boss's rant. He prided himself on his self-control, even if it wasn't always easy. He gave a short nod of acknowledgment to Cassidy Kaye as the business owner strolled past him on her way out the door, a flamboyant leopard with pink hair and a hot body.
His boss finally ran out of air and abruptly disconnected. Winn pocketed the phone. It was never easy telling a man accustomed to getting his way that the golf course development they'd spent months trying to get approved had hit another snag. The final vote on the project was delayed. Again.
Forget the coffee, Winn thought. A stiff shot of whiskey would better suit his mood.
But when he saw Cole Lassiter standing behind the counter, Winn changed his mind. Cole was a driving force in Jackson Hole and walking out of his shop once he'd been seen wouldn't be a smart move. Winn was all about smart moves.
"Cole." Winn offered a smile to the man behind the Hill of Beans coffee shop empire. "What's the head honcho doing working the counter?"
"Learning the challenges my people face," Cole said easily. "I work each position periodically. Since this store is in the town where I live, it's easy to do here."
Anyone seeing Cole, with his shaggy dark hair and green apron over casual shirt and jeans, would never peg him for a successful entrepreneur. Unless they looked in his eyes and saw the sharp gleam of intelligence and a hint of a take-no-prisoners brawler beneath the civilized facade.
"Makes sense." Winn lifted the briefcase. "I thought I'd grab a cup of caffeine and look over some reports."
"Just coffee then?"
"Black and strong."
"Coming right up." Cole turned toward the stainless-steel machine.
Winn used the moment to glance around the shop. To his way of thinking, networking was a 24/7 thing. Unfortunately, with ten o'clock being right between the morning crowd and lunch rush, the place was fairly quiet.
His gaze had almost made it around the dining area when it locked on the petite blue-eyed blonde dressed casually in jeans and a hot-pink hoodie. The sight of her made him smile.
Hailey Randall. His next-door neighbor. Alone.
Winn had been hoping to speak with her for days. Though he told himself—again—that her personal life was none of his concern, once he got his coffee, he headed straight across the dining area to her table.
She looked up from her phone as he approached, her welcoming smile bringing an unexpected shot of light to his day.
"May I join you?" he asked politely.
She gestured to the empty chair. "Please do."
"I didn't expect to see you here this morning."
"Ditto," she said with an impish grin, relaxing against the back of her chair. "I haven't seen you around lately. Were you out of town again?"
Winn took a sip of his coffee before answering, and was impressed by the rich, robust flavor. No wonder Hill of Beans was so successful.
"I was helping put up hay at my dad's ranch." Winn took another long drink and felt some of his tension ease.
"That's hard work." A doubtful look crossed Hailey's pretty face. "You don't seem like the physical-labor type to me."
"I don't know whether I should be insulted or flattered." Winn chuckled. "The truth is, I enjoy getting hot and sweaty as much as the next guy."
There'd been no intent to be suggestive, but for a second there was…something in the air. A spark, an awareness that he'd experienced before but had ignored. After all, Hailey was not only eight years younger than he, she was his neighbor. More importantly, he considered her a friend. One of the few he had in Jackson Hole.
That was why he had to be honest with her. Though he realized Hailey and Josh had only been dating steadily a couple of months, the guy was another Vanessa.
He'd tried to tell himself her jerk of a boyfriend was none of his business and to just let it go. Then he would think of Vanessa, a woman he'd dated for almost a year. A woman he thought he might love. A woman he trusted, who'd slept with another man when they were supposedly in a monogamous relationship.
Winn wished someone had told him the score. Hard as it would have been to hear, it would have saved him a lot of grief.
"I have something to tell you."
"If you're going to say you're quitting the business world to be a rodeo clown, give me a sec to order a double shot of espresso," she said with a teasing smile. "After the putting-up-hay revelation, I can't take another shock. Not without a hefty dose of caffeine."
Winn laughed and shook his head. From day one, Hailey had enchanted him. How could anyone not be charmed by this woman with her winning smile and sunny personality? That was why he'd put off the task he now faced. The last thing he wanted was to bring her pain. "It's not about me. It's about Josh."
The man's name tasted foul on his tongue.
Her smile wavered, just a little. When she picked up her cup and took a sip, her hand trembled as well. "What about him?"
"He's not the man you think he is—"
"Oh, Winn." Her laugh sounded brittle, like a fragile egg ready to shatter into a million pieces. "I think I know him pretty well by now."
It only figured she wasn't going to make this easy. He'd start with the basics and save the best—or rather the worst—for the finale.
"The man can't be trusted, Hailey. He's out for himself."
To his surprise, Hailey looked slightly amused. "Is the pot calling the kettle black?"
Winn blinked. "What?"
"You and your father are masters at looking out for number one." There wasn't an ounce of censure in Hailey's matter-of-fact tone. "It only figures you'd recognize those characteristics in Josh."
What was he supposed to say to that? Did she even expect a response?
"You're aware of Josh's duplicity?" Winn spoke slowly, cautiously, feeling like a soldier making his way through a minefield.
"I am." Though her tone gave nothing away, her eyes took on a sheen.
Winn's gut clenched. Josh was a rotten little weasel for putting that look in her eyes. "How did you find out?"
Her strangled laugh told him she was close to letting those tears fall. "You mean, how did I finally wise up to the fact he was using me to get close to my brother?"
Now Winn was thoroughly confused. "I was talking about the woman he's been dating in Idaho Falls."
Hailey dropped her cup to the table with a clatter. But when she spoke, her voice was deadly calm. "What woman?"
"An attorney named Kelly. That's all I know." He paused as her earlier words sank in. "He was using you to get close to Tripp? Why?"
Before answering, she scrubbed her hands across her face. When she met his gaze, her eyes were dry.
"Apparently, Josh has political aspirations. Tripp is considering hiring a mayoral assistant." She lifted the latte to her lips but only held it there. "What better way to get a leg up on the competition than to become personally acquainted with the man himself through his beloved little sister?"
Winn heard the pain beneath the sarcasm. Though he might admire Josh's ability to think outside the box in pursuit of a goal, he decried his ethics. "How did you find out?"
"A friend of a friend." Hailey raised one shoulder in a slight shrug. "He'd done some bragging. It got back to me."
"He's a fool."
"I was the fool." Hailey's chuckle held no humor. "Up to now, I consoled myself with the fact that he liked me, at least a little. Now it appears I was truly only a means to an end. Tell me how you found out about the attorney."
Winn hated the sadness that darkened her eyes. "She doesn't matter."
"I want to know." Hailey reached across the table, clamped her fingers around his wrist. "Tell me."
He looked into those baby blues and his heart wrenched. What he told her would only add to her pain and he was sorry for it.
"Last week I had a lunch meeting in Idaho Falls," he began.
With a metro population well over a hundred thousand, Winn hadn't expected to run into anyone he knew. Then, across the dining room at a trendy eatery on A Street, he'd spotted Josh with a pretty brunette.
He assumed it was strictly business between the two…until he saw them kiss. It wasn't a little peck, either. Winn's associate had noticed him staring and mentioned Kelly was an attorney at his wife's legal firm. The guy with her was her boyfriend, Josh.
By the time Winn finished, Hailey's face had gone stony.
She pressed her lips together. "A cheat as well as an opportunist."
Winn took a sip of coffee and nodded.
"I don't appreciate being played for a fool."
"Who does?" Winn understood the sense of shock, betrayal and embarrassment. Even after almost eight years, the fact that he'd been played so completely still stuck in his craw.
"Thanks for telling me. I appreciate it." Hailey's lips lifted in a tremulous smile. "Some wouldn't have said a word."
"The way I see it, if you can't trust your friends to have your back, what good are they?" Winn said casually.
But when he met her gaze, he had to fight back the sudden urge to take her in his arms, to kiss her until the sadness had vanished from her eyes and the sunny smile was back on her lips.
Friends, he thought with a rueful smile. Yeah, right.