Isabelle Lawson loves her job. Driven, dedicated, there’s no room in her high-pressure life to look for love outside the pages of the books she edits. Can a fun-loving, handsome stranger change her mind?
A novelette of approximately 10k words.
“Meet cute” is a term used to describe a situation in which a future romantic couple meets for the first time. Meet Cute Romance is a series of romantic shorts celebrating the possibilities of that first meeting.
“Don’t answer that,” warned Brandon as muffled banjos rang out from Travis’ coat pocket.
Travis ignored him and checked the caller ID. “It’s work. I have to answer it.”
“Even more reason not to answer.”
Brandon rolled his eyes and headed for the refreshment pavilion. If he was going to have to wait while Travis talked whoever through whatever, he was going to do it with coffee. Standing at the back of the line, he scanned the slopes. It was a beautiful day, perfect weather, fresh powder. And, being a weekday, the mountain wouldn’t be over-crowded.
Travis had stopped halfway from the parking lot. He was pacing a short loop, his free hand scooping irritably through his hair. The expression on his face didn’t bode well.
I should never have let him have the phone back, Brandon thought. Clearly there was no saving him from the job without completely disconnecting him from civilization and technology.
Travis wasn’t the only one, he noted. A dozen feet away, a woman at one of the picnic tables was also hunched over her phone, stylus tapping at the screen. Glossy, dark brown hair spilled out from the fur-lined hood pulled up over her head. As he watched, she looked up toward the slopes and the parking lot. He had a brief, tantalizing view of delicate features and long-lidded eyes before she looked down again and went back to whatever she was doing.
With those jeans and hiking boots, she clearly wasn’t dressed for skiing, so what was she doing here? Waiting for someone? Brandon wondered. Not enjoying the views, that was for sure. And that was a damned shame. At least he’d saved himself from that kind of technological suck. If he had his way, he’d eventually manage to do the same for Travis.
At the crunch of snow, he turned to see the man in question, an apologetic expression on his face. Today was clearly not going to be the day he got saved.
“No,” said Brandon, pointing at him. “No, you are not about to back out on me now. We’re already here.”
“I’m sorry, man,” said Travis. “But that was one of the senior partners. He wants to pull me in as co-council on a huge corporate case. I have to go in.”
“You are full of suck,” declared Brandon. “Abandoning me in my hour of need.”
“Hour of need my ass.”
“Okay, fine, your hour of need. The system’s gonna kill you.”
Travis began backing away, lifting his hands in a gesture of acknowledgment. “We’ll reschedule. I’ll plan a day off in a few weeks, and we’ll come back.”
How many times had he heard that since Travis had joined Rigel, Williams, and Stone?
“You don’t plan for perfect powder,” Brandon insisted. “You embrace it when it happens.”
On a whim, Brandon bent and scooped up a palmful of snow.
“Hey now,” said Travis. “There’s no call for that.”
He felt a slow smile spread over his face as he packed his ammo. “There’s every call for this. I won this snow day and now you’re bailing. You gotta pay the penalty.”
He let the snowball fly with all the momentum of an outfielder aiming to cut off a base runner, feeling the sing of muscle as it left his hand. Travis darted to the side, just out of the line of fire, and Brandon watched with horror as the snowball hurtled by him and slammed against the head of the brunette at the picnic table.
She squeaked in surprise and dropped the phone.
“Oh, shit,” he muttered.
Slowly, oh so slowly, her shoulders dropped from the defensive hunch and she turned her head—hoodless now—to look at Travis. His eyes were round as saucers and he was already pointing back toward Brandon. She shifted her attention, and Brandon found himself snared by a pair of gorgeous brown eyes, slitted with temper.
Wow. For a moment, that was all he could think. Now there’s a face a man could get lost in. Then his brain re-engaged and he was striding across to her, spewing apology. “I am so sorry. I wasn’t aiming at you. I was aiming for him, and the coward moved, and I—”
“Stop right there,” she said, lifting a hand like a traffic cop.
The woman brushed the snow from the long fall of her hair. She flicked a glance at Travis, who’d retrieved her phone and now held it out like a peace offering. Ignoring him, she bent. At first, Brandon thought she was picking up the stylus, but instead she began to gather together snow. His lips twitched, but he held his ground. He’d totally earned whatever payback she was about to dish out.
She dug deep, clearing away the light, fresh powder for the wetter snow beneath. When she had a mass approximately the size of a small cantaloupe, she took two steps forward and hurled it. From a mere six feet away, the ball splattered against the fleece beneath Brandon’s open parka. Cold, wet shrapnel struck him in the face but did nothing to erase the smile. He had to appreciate a woman with a finely-tuned sense of revenge.
Retaliation delivered, his inadvertent victim briskly knocked snow off her mittens and turned back to Travis to collect her phone. “Thank you,” she said politely.
Travis, face as sober as a judge, sketched a slight bow. “I do apologize. Under normal circumstances, I’d never choose self-preservation over a lady, but I just didn’t see you.”
“Accidents happen,” she said equably. “You weren’t the one pretending you were ten.” She slanted a glance back at Brandon.
“Quite right. I’m the grown up, who is—” he checked his watch, “going to be very late for work.”
“You and me both,” she said.
Travis paused, his desire to reassert his chivalry apparently over-riding his internal clock. “Oh, can I give you a ride or something?”
“No, you go,” said Brandon stepping up to make his own effort at chivalry. “You’re already late. If the lady needs a lift, I’ll do it. I’m the one not on a time clock.” He offered the woman a smile. “It’s the least I can do.”
“I can vouch that he’s not a lunatic,” Travis told her. “And he’s had all his shots.”
“I’m even housebroken,” Brandon added.
The corner of her mouth quirked at that, but she shook her head. “I’ll provide my own lift, thanks, just as soon as my friend gets back with the keys.”
With a silent wave, Travis trudged toward the parking lot. Brandon’s attention was solidly on Miss Brown Eyes. “Then at least let me buy you a cup of coffee or cocoa while you wait.”
“Now that I’ll take you up on.”
He made an after you gesture toward the refreshment pavilion. As she walked, her attention immediately zeroed in on the phone.
“It’s not damaged, is it?” he asked, falling into step beside her.
“No. Battery’s nearly zapped, though.” A thread of anxiety laced her voice.
Tech addict on the verge of losing her fix? he wondered. “They don’t last as well in the cold.”
“Neither do I.” A shiver underscored the statement. He realized she looked half-frozen, a state of affairs certainly not improved by snowball assault.
“Well, I can do something about that, at least.” Brandon shrugged out of his parka and draped it around her shoulders.
She jolted. “I can’t take your coat.”
“One of us dressed for this weather,” he said, stepping up to the window. “Coffee or cocoa?”
“Cocoa,” she said, her face still fixed in a puzzled frown.
Brandon just smiled and ordered. After a moment, she shifted to slip her arms through the sleeves and zipped it closed. The lower half of her face disappeared behind the collar. As soon as she lowered her arms, her hands disappeared inside the sleeves. Damn, that was cute.
“I gather you didn’t expect to be out here today,” he said, carrying the drinks back to one of the picnic tables.
“Not for long.” She tugged off her mittens and wrapped slim fingers around the cup. “I came with a friend to meet her date and verify he wasn’t an axe murderer. But I forgot to get the keys before they hit the lift, so I’m waiting for her to get back to the bottom.”
“How long have you been waiting?”
“Going on two hours now.” She took a sip of her cocoa and hissed a little.
He lifted a brow as he tested his own drink and felt his taste buds die a fiery death. “I think you may have to consider the possibility that your friend didn’t get the message.”
Resigned, she sighed. “I’m afraid you may be right. She probably turned her phone off and didn’t get my texts.”
“Not much of a signal up top either. Either way, that leaves you late for work. I seriously don’t mind driving you in. There’s no sense in your boss being ticked at you for something that isn’t your fault.”
“The only boss that’ll be irritated is me. I don’t have a traditional eight to five job, so nobody’s waiting at an office for me to show up.”
“Really? Me either. I’m a graphic designer. What do you do?”
“I’m a book editor,” she said.
“Here? I thought all that took place in New York.”
“The lion’s share does,” she explained, “and I did my time in the trenches there. But with the rise of digital publishing houses, that’s less a necessity. My company’s parent office is actually in Denver, but I spend most of my time telecommuting from here. All of the fun, none of the traffic.”
With another scan of the slopes behind them, Isabelle tugged out her phone and checked the display. She gave a low curse.
“Dead?” he asked.
“As a doornail.”
“Look, my offer to drive you to wherever still stands.”
“You really don’t have to do that. I already exacted payback—which you were a really good sport about, by the way. The hot chocolate and loan of coat already put me in your debt.”
Brandon smirked, liking the sound of that.
“You look entirely too pleased by that idea,” she said, expression wary.
“Let’s just say I consider it a stroke of good fortune.”
“Oh yeah? How’s that?”
“You’re a helluva lot prettier than Travis.”
Her cheeks pinked from more than the cold, which completely undermined the stern look she shot him. “I get the feeling you’re a helluva lot more incorrigible.”
“Guilty,” he said, unrepentant. “Look, if you’re gonna be stuck here incommunicado and unable to keep working, you might as well have some fun. Take a snow day. With me.”
“You sound like Leah.”
“Leah sounds like a sensible woman. How about it? You said you owe me.”
“I don’t ski,” she said.
“There’s more to do in snow than ski,” said Brandon.
“You don’t even know me.”
“I’m Brandon. And you’re…?”
“There. You’re Isabelle, the workaholic book editor. Now we’ve been properly introduced.”
Her exasperated sigh was punctuated by a half laugh. “You’re persistent, aren’t you?”
“Competition junkie and ex-lawyer,” he confirmed.
“Why would you want to spend the day with me?” She seemed well and truly baffled by the idea.
“Well, apart from the fact that you’re interesting, intelligent, and quite willing to dish out as good as you get—which I appreciate, by the way—you remind me of how I used to be, and I consider it a personal mission in life to save workaholics from themselves. Travis is a lost cause today, but you’re not. So, how ’bout it?”