Need You Now: Mile High #1
Need You Now
Mile High #1
May 30, 2017
He’s mountain-tough. She’s city-smart. The sparks are about to fly…
Only the most resilient of souls could breathe new life into an all-but-forgotten town nestled in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains—but what they get in return might be worth the heartache it takes to make it happen…
Gracely, Colorado, was once a booming mining town. No one knows that better than Brandon Evans. His father’s company kept the town thriving for years—until Brandon threatened to expose his illegal practices and drove him away. Everyone blames Brandon and his brother for turning Gracely into a ghost town—but the tenacious residents cling to a long-held legend about the land’s healing powers. And Brandon has a plan to spin that legend into reality…
Lilly Preston took a leap of faith and moved to Gracely a year ago to save her nephew from an abusive situation. She would do anything for him, even sacrifice her glamorous job. Reluctantly, the former PR hot shot takes a job at the ruggedly handsome Evans brothers’ Mile High Adventures, a company offering restorative Rocky Mountain vacations.
Brandon thinks PR is pointless, and Lilly knows less than nothing about the outdoors. Which is exactly why they need each other—in ways neither ever imagined…
Other Books in the Series:
Praise for NEED YOU NOW
“The protagonists are refreshingly willing to be up front about their feelings and listen to each other, and readers will want to revisit their story often.” –Publishers Weekly Starred Review
Brandon Evans stood on the porch of his office and stared at the world below him, a kaleidoscope of browns and greens and grays, all the way down the mountain until the rooftops of Gracely, Colorado, dotted into view.
Across the valley, up the other side of jagged stone, the deserted Evans Mining Corporation buildings stood, like ghosts—haunting him and his name. A glaring reminder of the destruction he’d wrought while trying to do the right thing.
He wished it were a cloudy day so he couldn’t see the damn things, but he’d built the headquarters of his company in view simply so he could remind himself what he was fighting for. What was right.
“Are you over there being broody?”
Brandon looked down at his mug of coffee balanced on the porch railing, not bothering to glance at his brother. He was brooding. They were outvoting him and he didn’t like it. He took a sip of coffee, now cool from the chilled spring air.
He leveled a gaze at his brother, Will, and their business partner, Sam. This was his best I’m a leader look, and it usually worked.
Why the hell wasn’t it working today?
“Hiring a PR consultant goes against everything we’re trying to do.” Of course, he’d already explained that and he’d still been outvoted.
“We need help. The town isn’t going to grow to forgive us. We can do all the good in the world, but without someone actually making inroads—we’re not getting anywhere. We can’t even find a receptionist from Gracely. No one will acknowledge we exist.”
“We have Skeet.”
“Skeet is not a receptionist. He’s a . . . a . . . Help me out here, Sam?”
“His name is Skeet,” Sam replied, as if that explained everything.
The grizzled old man who answered their phones for their outdoor adventure excursion company and refused to use a computer was a bit of a problem, but he worked for cheap and he was a local. Brandon had been adamant about hiring only locals.
Of course, Skeet was a local that everyone shunned, and he seemed to only speak in grunts, but they’d yet to lose an interested customer.
That they knew of, Will liked to point out.
Brandon set the offensive cold coffee down on the railing of the deck. He needed to do something with his hands. He couldn’t sit still—he was too frustrated that they were standing around arguing instead of Sam and Will jumping to do his bidding.
Why had he thought to make them all equal partners?
“She’s local. Great experience with a firm in Denver. She can be the bridge we need to turn the tide.” Will ticked off the points they’d already been over, patient as ever.
“She’s recently local—not native—and she can’t change our last name.”
“Well, even lifer townies working every second at Mile High can’t do that.”
“Can we cut the circuitous bullshit?” Sam interrupted with a mutter. “You were outvoted, Brandon. She’s hired. Now, I’ve got to go.”
“You don’t have a group to guide until two.”
Sam was already inside the cabin that acted as their office, the words probably never reaching him. Apparently his time-around-other-humans allotment was up for the morning. Not that shocking. The fact they’d lured him from his hermit mountain cabin before a guided hike was unusual.
Brandon turned his stare to his brother. They were twins. Born five minutes apart, but the five minutes had always felt like years. He’d been George Bailey born-older, and any time Sam sided with Will, Brandon couldn’t help but get his nose a little out of joint.
He was the responsible, business-minded one, not the in-for-a-good-time playboy. They should listen to him regardless, not Will. Brandon had spearheaded Mile High. It was his baby, his penance, his hope of offering Gracely some healing in the wake of his father’s mess of an impact. The fact that Will and Sam sometimes disagreed with him about the best way to do that filled him with a dark energy, and he’d need to do something physical to burn it off.
“Go chop some wood. Build a birdhouse. Climb a mountain for all I care. She’ll be here at ten. Be back by then,” Will ordered.
“You know I’d as soon throat punch you as do what you tell me to do.”
Will grinned. “Oh, brother, if I kept my mouth shut every time you wanted to throat punch me, I’d never speak.”
Will’s expression went grave, which was always a bad sign. They both dealt with weighty things and emotion differently—Brandon acted like a dick and Will acted like nothing mattered. If Will was acting like something was important . . .
“Don’t think we don’t take it seriously,” Will said, far too quietly for Brandon’s comfort. “Trust, every once in a while, we know as well or better than you.”
“My ass,” Brandon grumbled, feeling at least a little shamed.
“She’ll be here at ten. I have that spring break group at ten-thirty, and you, lucky man, don’t have anything on your plate today. Which means, you get to be in charge of paper—”
“Don’t say it.”
“—work and orientation!” Will concluded all too jovially.
“I could probably throw you off the mountain and no one would ask any questions.”
“Ah, but then who would take the bachelorette party guides since you and Sam refuse?” Will clapped him on the shoulder. “You’ll like her. She’s got that business-tunnel-vision thing down that you do so well.”
Brandon took a page out of Skeet’s book and merely grunted, which Will—thank Christ—took as a cue to leave.
Regardless of whether he’d like this Lilly Preston, Brandon didn’t see the usefulness or point in hiring a PR consultant. What was that going to accomplish when the town already hated them?
If even Will’s personality couldn’t win people over, they were toast in that department. The only thing that was going to sway people’s minds was an economically booming town. Mile High had a long way to go to make Gracely that. And they needed Gracely’s help.
Hiring someone who had only cursory knowledge of Gracely lore, who couldn’t possibly understand what they were trying to do, wasn’t the answer. Worse, it reeked of something his father would have done when he was trying to hide all the shady business practices he’d instituted at Evans Mining.
Brandon glanced back over at the empty buildings. If he wanted to, he could will away the memories, the images in his mind. The pristine hallways, the steady buzz of phones and conversation. How much he’d wanted that to be his one day.
But then he’d told his father he knew what was going on, and if Dad didn’t change, Brandon would have no choice but to go to the authorities.
The fallout had been the Evans Mining headquarters leaving Gracely after over a century of being the heart of the town, his father’s subsequent heart attack and death, Mom shutting them out, and everything about his life as the golden child and heir apparent to the corporation imploding before his very eyes.
A lot of consequences for one tiny little domino he’d flicked when his conscience couldn’t take the possible outcomes of his father’s shady practices.
So much work to do to make it right. He forced his gaze away from those buildings into the mountains all around him. He took a deep breath of the thin air scented with heavy pine. He rubbed his palms over the rough wood of the porch railing.
It was the center—these mountains, this place. He believed he could bring this town back to life not just because he owed it to the residents who’d treated him like a king growing up, but because there was something . . . elemental about these mountains, this sky, the river tributaries, and the animals that lived within it all.
Untouched, ethereal, and while he didn’t exactly believe in magic and ghostly legends of Gracely’s healing power, he did believe in these mountains and this air. He was going to give his all to fix the damage he’d caused, and he was going to give his all to making Mile High Adventures everything it could be.
So, he’d put up with this unwanted PR woman for the few weeks it would take to prove that Will and Sam were wrong. Once they admitted he was right, they could move on to the next thing, and the next thing, until they got exactly what they wanted.
Lilly took a deep, cleansing breath of the mountain air. The altitude was much higher up here than in the little valley Gracely was nestled into, but even aside from that, the office of Mile High Adventures was breathtaking.
It was like something out of a brochure—which would make her job rather easy. A cabin nestled into the side of a mountain. All dark logs and green trimmed roof, with a snow-peaked top of a mountain settled right behind to complete the look of cozy mountain getaway. The porches were almost as big as the cabin itself. She’d suggest some colorful deck chairs, a few fire pits to complete the look, but it took no imagination at all to picture groups of people and mugs of hot chocolate and colorful plaid blankets.
The sign next to the door that read Mile High Adventures was carved into a wood plank that matched the logs of the cabin.
If it weren’t for the men who ran this company, she’d be crying with relief and excitement. She needed a job that would allow her to stay in Gracely, and this one would pay enough that she could still support her sister and nephew even with Cora’s dwindling waitress hours and low tips.
Cora and Micah were doing so well, finally moving on from the abusive nightmare that had been Stephen. Lilly couldn’t uproot them, and she couldn’t leave them. They needed her, but her Denver-based PR company had refused to let her continue to work remotely when they’d merged with another company and kept only those willing to relocate to Denver.
So, here she was, about to agree to work for the kind of men she couldn’t stand. Rich, entitled, charming. The kind of men who’d hurt her mother, her sister, her nephew.
Lilly forced her feet forward. This was work, not romance, so it didn’t matter. She’d do her job, take their money, do her best to improve the light in which their business was seen in Gracely, and not let any of these rich and powerful men touch her.
Shoulders back, she walked up the stairs of the porch. There was a sign on the door, hung from a nail and string. It read Come On In! in flowing script. She imagined if she flipped the sign there’d be some kind of We’re Closed phrase on the back.
Impressive detail for a group of three, from what she could tell, burly mountain men hated by the town at large.
Her stomach jittered, cramped. She really didn’t want to do this. She loved Gracely. Even for all its problems, it was charming and . . . calming. She felt cozy and comfortable here. More than she’d ever felt in Denver, where she’d grown up.
Working for Mile High would keep her here, but would it still be cozy and comfortable if the town looked at her with contempt? If they considered her tainted by association with these men she’d never heard a good word about?
Well, as long as Cora and Micah still needed her, it didn’t matter. Couldn’t.
She blew out a breath and lifted a steady hand. She opened the door. Will had instructed her to come on in, and the sign said as much.
Upon stepping into what was an open area that seemed designed as both lobby and living room, she wasn’t surprised to find more wood, a crackling fire in the fireplace, warm and worn brown leather couches pushed around the hearth. The walls were mostly bare, but there was a deer head over the mantle, a few framed graphics with quotes about going to the mountains and the wilderness.
A grunt caused Lilly to jerk her attention to the big desk opposite the entryway. She wasn’t sure what she’d expected of the other employees of Mile High, but she’d assumed they’d all be like Will. Young, athletic, charming, and handsome.
The man sitting behind the desk was none of those things. He was small and old with a white beard and a white ponytail. A bit of a Willie Nelson/Dirty Santa-looking character in a stained Marine Corps sweatshirt.
Not what she expected of a receptionist . . . anywhere.
“Hello. My name is Lilly Preston. I’m supposed to be meeting Will Evans and his broth—”
The man grunted again, a sound that was a gravelly huff and seemed to shake his entire small frame.
What on earth was happening?
“Ah, Lilly!” Will appeared from some hallway in the back. “Skeet, you’re not scaring off our newest employee, are you?”
The man—Skeet, good lord—grunted again. Maybe he was their . . . grandfather or something.
She returned her attention and polite business smile to Will and the man behind him. It wasn’t any stretch to realize this was Will’s brother, Brandon Evans. There were a lot of similarities in their height, the dark brown hair—though Brandon’s was short and Will’s was long enough to have a bit of a wave to it. They both sported varying levels of beard, hazel eyes, and the kind of angular, masculine face one would definitely associate with men who climbed mountains and kayaked rivers.
There were some key differences—mainly, Will was smiling, all straight white teeth. Brandon’s mouth was formed in something a half inch away from a scowl.
Well. She forced her smile to go wider and more pleasant. She wasn’t a novice at dealing with cranky or difficult men. About seventy-five percent of her career thus far had included dealing with obstinate and opinionated business owners. The Evans brothers might be different, but they weren’t unique.
“You have an absolutely lovely office. I’m so impressed.”
Will gestured her toward the couches around the fireplace. There were rugs over the hardwood floor, patterns of dark red and green and brown. It was no lie, she was impressed.
“Have a seat, Lilly. I have a group to guide rock climbing shortly, so Brandon will conduct most of your orientation. We’ve got the necessary paperwork.” He placed a stack of papers on the rough-hewn wood coffee table. It looked like it had probably come from Annie’s—the furniture shop in Gracely. Furnishing and decorating from local vendors would be smart.
Smart, rich men with charming smiles and handsome scowls. It didn’t get much more dangerous than that, but Lilly never let her smile falter.
“Once we’ve done that, Brandon will show you around, show you your desk, and you can ask any questions.”
“Of course.” She leaned forward to take the paperwork, but Brandon’s hand all but slapped on top of the stack.
“One thing first.”
Will muttered something that sounded like an expletive.
The stomach jittering/cramping combo was back, but she refused to let it show on her face. Nerves were normal, and the way she always dealt was to ignore them through the pleasantest smiles and friendliest chitchat she could manage until they went away.
“I’m at your disposal, Mr. Evans,” she said, letting her hand fall away from the papers as she settled comfortably into the couch. At least she hoped she was exuding the appearance of comfort.
His expression, which hadn’t been all that friendly or welcoming, darkened even further. “You will call me Brandon. You will call him Will. There are no misters here.”
Ah, so he was one of those. Determined to be an everyman. She resisted an eye roll.
He leaned forward, hazel eyes blazing into hers. “Do you believe in the legend, Ms. Preston?”
“The . . . legend?” This was not what she’d expected. At all. She quickly glanced at the door in her periphery. Maybe she should bolt.
“You’ve lived here how long? Surely you’ve heard the legend of Gracely.”
“You mean . . .” She hesitated because she didn’t know where he was trying to lead her, and she didn’t like going into unchartered territory. But, he seemed adamant, so she continued. “The one about those who choose Gracely as their home will find the healing their heart desires?”
“Are there others?”
Lilly had to tense to keep the pleasant smile on her face. She didn’t like the way this Evans brother spoke to her. Like he was an interrogating detective. Like she’d done something wrong, when Will had been the one to convince her to take this job.
Because working with the Evanses was going to put a big red X on her back in town, and she didn’t trust men like them with their centuries of good name and money.
But she needed a job. She needed to stay in Gracely. So, she had to ignore the way his tone put her back up and smile pleasantly and pretend he wasn’t a giant asshat.
“So, Ms. Preston.” Oh she hated the way he drawled her name. “The question is: do you believe in the legend?”
This was a test, a blatant one at that, and yet . . . she didn’t know the right answer. Would he ridicule her for believing in fairy tales if she said she believed the first settlers of Gracely were magically healed when they settled here and all the stories that had been built up into legend since? Would he take issue with her being cynical and hard if she said there was no way?
The biggest problem was her answer existed somewhere in between the two. Half of her thought it was foolishness. Losing her job and having to take this one hardly seemed like healing or good luck, but her sister and nephew had flourished here in the past year and, well, healing was possible. Magic? Maybe—maybe not. But possible.
So, maybe it was best to focus on the good, the possibility. “Yes.” She met his penetrating hazel gaze, keeping her expression the picture-perfect blank slate of professional politeness.
“And what do you think is the source of that legend? What makes it true?”
“True?” She looked at Will, tried to catch his gaze, but he looked at the ceiling. She might not trust Will, but at least he was polite. Apparently also a giant coward.
“Yes, if you believe Gracely can heal, what do you believe causes that ability?”
She flicked her gaze back to his. It had never wavered. There was a fierceness to his expression that made her nervous. He was a big man. Tall, broad. Though he wore a thick sweater and heavy work pants and boots, it was fairly obvious beneath all those layers was the type of man who could probably crush her with one arm.
She suddenly felt very small and very vulnerable. Weak and at a disadvantage.
Which was just the kind of thing she wouldn’t show them. Powerful men got off on causing fear and vulnerability. She’d seen her nephew’s father do that enough to have built a mask against it, and she’d worked with and for plenty of men who’d wanted to intimidate her for a variety of reasons.
She could handle whatever this was. Chin up. Spine straight. A practiced down-the-nose look. “Do legends need a cause? A scientific explanation? Or are they simply . . . magic? Do I need to analyze why I believe in it, or can I simply believe it happened and continues to? And, more, what on earth does it have to do with my work here?”
“If you’re going to work here,” he said, his voice low and . . . fierce to match his face, “you will need to understand what we believe about the legend. Because it has everything to do with why we built Mile High Adventures.”
“That’s not what I heard,” she muttered before she could stop herself. Okay, maybe remote consulting had dulled some of her instincts if she let things like that slip.
“Oh, and what did you hear, Ms. Preston? That we’re the evil spawn of Satan setting out to crush Gracely even deeper into the earth? That we’re bringing in an influx of out-of-towners, not to help the businesses of Gracely, but to piss off the natives? Because if you think we don’t know what this town thinks of us, you don’t understand why you’re here.”
“I know what the town thinks of you and I know why I’m here.” She took a deep breath, masked with a smile, of course. “I’m here because I think this is an excellent opportunity.” To sell my soul briefly so I can stay where I want. “I do believe in the legend, and I think it would be imperative you do too if you expect to sell the town on you being part of its salvation.”
His eyes narrowed and she knew she was skating on thin ice. He was one of those control freaks who didn’t like to be told what to do, only unlike most of the men she’d worked with like that, he wasn’t placated by sweet smiles or politeness.
She’d have to find a new tactic.
“I believe, Ms. Preston”—that damn conceited drawl again—“in these mountains. In this air. I believe that, if people choose to look, they can find themselves here. I believe in this town, and that it can be more than what it’s become. You’ll need to believe that too if you want to work here.”
“We’ve already hired her, Brandon,” Will said, finally inserting something into the conversation. After letting this man act as though she were . . . well, unwelcome, unwanted.
“You hired her.”
“Did I walk into the middle of something, gentlemen? I can just as soon come back at another time when you’re ready and willing to be in agreement.” She even stood, picking up her bag to slide over her shoulder. Because she might be desperate, but she wasn’t going to sell half her soul and be treated poorly.
That was not what she’d signed up for. She’d as soon move back to Denver. It would kill her to leave Cora and Micah, but she had some pride she couldn’t swallow.
“Have a seat, Ms. Preston.”
When she raised an eyebrow at Brandon the Bastard, he pressed his lips together, then released a sigh. “If you would, please.” All said through gritted teeth.
She took a seat. One more chance. He had one more chance.
“I apologize if I’ve come off . . .”
“Harsh. Douchey. Asshole spectacular.”
Brandon glared at his brother, who was grinning. She didn’t want to find it humorous. They were both being asshole spectaculars as far as she was concerned, just in different ways.
“This business and what it stands for is everything to me, so I don’t take it lightly.”
She met his gaze. Just as she didn’t want to find them amusing, she didn’t want to soften, but she realized in that simple, gravely uttered sentence, that he wasn’t fierce so much as . . .
She met his gaze with that realization and her stomach did something other than the alternating jittery cramps. Her chest seemed to expand—something flipped, like when Cora drove them too fast down a mountain road.
She couldn’t put her finger on that. The cause, what it was, and more, she didn’t think she wanted to. If she was going to survive working for the Evans brothers, it was probably best to keep her polite smile in place and ignore any and all feelings.