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Authors: Kate Hoffmann

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The Drifter

BOOK: The Drifter
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Praise for Kate Hoffmann from
RT Book Reviews

“Sexy and wildly romantic.”

—on
Doing Ireland!

“Fully developed characters and perfect pacing make this story feel completely right.”

—on
Your Bed or Mine?

“A very hot story mixes with great characters to make every page a delight.”

—on
The Mighty Quinns: Ian

“Romantic, sexy and heartwarming.”

—on
Who Needs Mistletoe?

“Sexy, heartwarming and romantic…a story to settle down with and enjoy—and then reread.”

—on
The Mighty Quinns: Teague

Dear Reader,

 

When I began the SMOOTH OPERATORS trilogy, I was looking forward to writing three books set in three different seasons—winter, spring and summer. But with my writing schedule, I never seem to be writing the books in the right season.

 

The first book of this trilogy, set in a snowbound cabin, was written during the heat of August. This book takes place in the Colorado springtime and was written as the leaves were turning. And the next book, set in Chicago in the summer, will no doubt be written while the snow is flying. I guess you could say I’m seasonally challenged.

 

Whatever the season, I find the escape of writing just as much fun as a vacation. So enjoy this trip to Boulder, Colorado. I’ve been there only once, but it was a great place to visit.

 

Happy reading,

 

Kate Hoffmann

Kate Hoffmann
THE DRIFTER

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kate Hoffmann began writing for Harlequin Books in 1993. Since then she’s published sixty novels, primarily in the Harlequin Temptation and Harlequin Blaze lines. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys music, theater and musical theater. She is active working with high school students in the performing arts. She lives in southeastern Wisconsin with her two cats, Chloe and Tally.

Books by Kate Hoffmann

HARLEQUIN BLAZE

340—DOING IRELAND!

356—FOR LUST OR MONEY

379—YOUR BED OR MINE?

406—INCOGNITO

438—WHO NEEDS MISTLETOE?

476—THE MIGHTY QUINNS: BRODY

482—THE MIGHTY QUINNS: TEAGUE

488—THE MIGHTY QUINNS: CALLUM

520—THE CHARMER

HARLEQUIN TEMPTATION

933—THE MIGHTY QUINNS: LIAM

937—THE MIGHTY QUINNS: BRIAN

941—THE MIGHTY QUINNS: SEAN

963—LEGALLY MINE

988—HOT & BOTHERED

1017—WARM & WILLING

HARLEQUIN SINGLE TITLES
(The Quinns)

REUNITED

THE PROMISE

THE LEGACY

For my ever-patient editor, Brenda Chin.

Prologue

“I
T’S GOT TO BE SIMPLE
and concise,” Angela Weatherby said as she slowly twirled around in her desk chair. “The name has to encompass all the traits that make up this guy. He’s a wanderer, he can’t settle down. He’s always searching for the next big thrill, whether it’s climbing a mountain or seducing a beautiful woman. He freely admits that he doesn’t want to commit, yet women fall for him again and again and again.”

Now that her SmoothOperators Web site was such a success, Angela had found it much easier to work on the book she was writing. She’d chosen a title—Spotting the Smooth Operator: A Woman’s Guide to Avoiding Dating Disasters. She’d developed ten solid archetypes of the smooth operator. But, according to her editor, she needed to come up with clever names for each. The chapter on the Charmer had already
been written and she’d moved on to the next in line, then become stuck on the header.

“So he’s a wanderer,” said Celia Peralto, Angie’s business partner and webmaster. “A…nomad?”

“That makes him sound like he’s tending sheep instead of seducing women. How about the Traveler?”

Celia shook her head. “Sounds like some stuffy businessman.”

A long silence grew between them. Ceci had been an invaluable help on the book and was always happy to brainstorm ideas. But this one had them both stumped. “It’s on the tip of my tongue,” Angela said. “He’s a…a…” She groaned and closed her eyes, clearing her mind. “He’s a—drifter!”

She opened her eyes to find Ceci grinning at her. “That’s it,” Ceci said. “He’s a drifter. I like it. He can’t settle down, he moves from one woman to the next, he’s footloose and irresponsible and every woman thinks she’ll be the one to change him.”

“But no one can,” Angela said.

“Well, there’s always an exception to the rule,” Ceci said. “If there wasn’t, there would be a bunch of eighty-year old guys hopping from bed to bed, seducing any woman they could find.” She paused. “There was a post on the Web site this morning. Alex Stamos has officially stepped out of the dating pool. His sister added a note to his profile saying that he’s getting married.”

“Well, it’s good I never got to interview him, then,”

Angela said.

When she’d decided to do anonymous and anecdotal interviews with each of her “types,” Alex had been first on her list. He’d been the perfect example of a “Charmer.” Unfortunately, she’d never been able to talk to him and had to settle for a car salesman from Arlington Heights and a bartender from DePaul.

“You don’t believe men can change, do you?” Ceci asked.

“I used to think they could,” Angela admitted.

“But how many profiles do we have on the site? Tens of thousands and yet, only a few men make the transformation from smooth operator to devoted husband.

I’ve had just enough bad experiences to make me cynical.”

“Don’t you hope that someday you’ll find a great guy, someone who won’t treat you like a commodity?”

Angela sighed. In her heart of hearts, she still wanted to believe there was someone out there for her. But she was slowly creeping toward thirty and she knew the odds. The older she got, the smaller the bachelor pool became, until all that was left in the water were the bottom feeders and leeches and poisonous snakes. She was a practical girl who had let go of her fairy-tale dreams a long time ago.

“Of course I do,” Angela murmured. “But I’m not going to hold my breath.”

“A more optimistic attitude might help,” Celia said. She crawled out of her chair and pulled Angela to her feet. “Go ahead. Close your eyes, click your heels together and say it three times. I will fall in love with a great man, I will fall in love with a great man, I will fall in love with a great man.”

Angela laughed and pulled her hands out of Ceci’s grip. “You’re a hopeless romantic. How can you do your job and not see that finding a good guy is like looking for diamond in a pile of dipsticks?”

Ceci sighed. “All right. Maybe it’s better you hate men, at least until this book is done.”

“I don’t hate men.”

Reaching across her desk, Ceci snatched up a magazine and tossed it at Angela. “You wanted to interview a drifter?” She pointed to the picture on the cover of
Outdoor Adventure
magazine. “Charlie Templeton. He has a huge profile on our site. And he is a classic example. He’s doing a couple lectures at the university in Boulder, Colorado. I figure you could fly out there, corner him and get him to talk.”

Angela peered at the photo. “God, he is gorgeous.”

“He is,” Ceci said. “Of course, if you’d rather, I could fly out there and interview him.”

“No. I’ll do it. If I surprise him, maybe he’ll agree to talk.”

Angela set the magazine down, then went back to scanning the newest profiles created on the Web site. Who would have known that a silly little blog chronicling her dating woes would have turned into a thriving business? She ought to be grateful to every guy who ever dumped her for giving her the opportunity of a lifetime.

There was one chapter she wasn’t ready to write, though. One that brought up all sorts of memories. She needed time to prepare for her memories of Max Morgan, the Sexy Devil. Time to work up the courage to call him for an interview. Would he even remember her?

All through high school, she’d had a secret crush on him and he’d never once noticed her. He’d been the most popular guy, the star athlete, the boy every girl dreamed of kissing. She’d followed him to college at Northwestern, attending all his football and baseball games, taking every opportunity to put herself in his path. Looking back on it, her behavior probably could have been considered stalking.

“Do you want me to make reservations?” Ceci asked.

“What? Oh, for Boulder? Yes. And do the hotel, too. Do that thing you do when you get the really good rates. If Charlie Templeton won’t talk, I don’t want to regret wasting money on a nice hotel room.”

She hadn’t been able to snag Alex Stamos, but she’d learned from her mistakes. The best way to
catch a smooth operator was to eliminate any means of escape. They called it ambush journalism, but Angela preferred to think of it as just a way to get the job done.

1

C
HARLIE
T
EMPLETON STOOD
at the top of the world. Literally. He sucked in a deep breath from the oxygen mask covering his face. The air was thin at 28,740 feet and after climbing for nearly twelve hours, all he really wanted to do was lie down and sleep. But he knew the risks of taking just a moment or two of relaxation. Many climbers had died ascending Mount Everest, but the descent was even trickier.

Exhausted, his body depleted of energy reserves, cold, hungry and mentally numb, Charlie knew all the dangers. The thought of dying on the face of the world’s tallest mountain had haunted his nightmares. But now that he was here, it didn’t seem all that frightening. He closed his eyes and let his thoughts drift. Just a moment was all he needed.

Everest was the last on his list of seven summits. He’d attempted the climb twice in the past, but had been forced to stop because of weather. But when
he’d stepped out his tent at midnight, ready for the final push to the top, he’d known today would be the day.

For an adventurer, there was no higher goal than bagging the seven summits—the tallest peak on each continent. He’d written about his quest for the adventure Web site Adrenaline and had done numerous speaking engagements at college campuses all over the U.S., all to fund his trips. He had a pair of lectures scheduled in just a few weeks at the university in his hometown of Boulder and he was banking on the fact that he’d arrive fresh off the top of Everest, ready to tell of his adventure.

But now that he’d accomplished his goal, Charlie was left to wonder what it all meant. He didn’t feel the way he’d expected—elated, awestruck, satisfied, humbled. In truth, Charlie didn’t feel anything.

He unsnapped his oxygen mask and pushed it aside, then shoved his goggles to the top of his head, taking in the view and waiting for the impact of the moment to hit him. It was all there, more stunning than he’d ever imagined it. Below him was the Rong-buck glacier and the North Col, and to the north horizon, the vast Tibetan plateau. He slowly turned, to the west and then the south, finishing with the most breathtaking view of all—the highest peaks of the Himalayas, jagged and snow-covered, jutting into the thin atmosphere to the east.

He closed his eyes and drew a deep breath. An
image flashed in his brain and he gasped. A face from the past. Charlie brushed it aside. God, he must really be oxygen-deprived to think of her at a time like this. He hadn’t spoken to Eve Keller in more than five years, not since the night before he departed for his first attempt at Everest.

Maybe that was it. He’d completed the circle and he was back to where he’d begun. Or was it something more? Charlie had learned to live his life without regrets. It wasn’t easy, but he’d had to put aside relationships in order to focus on his ambitions. It hadn’t seemed like a sacrifice at the time, but now that he’d come to the end of his quest, he had to wonder if it had all been worth it.

“Evie,” he murmured. She’d been the one person who’d tempted him, the one relationship that might have changed the course of his life. Hell, if he’d stayed with her, he’d probably be married with two or three kids by now.

“Charlie!” He opened his eyes to find his Sherpa guide waving at him. “Come. Up here long enough. We start down.”

“Just give me a few more minutes,” Charlie replied.

“Put mask back on,” Pemba Ang said, his heavily accented words muffled by his oxygen mask.

“No. It gets in the way. I’m all right. I am. Don’t worry. Just a few more minutes.”

The guide studied him for a long moment, then
nodded. “Few minutes. Stay up here for half hour already. We must go.”

Had it been that long? Time seemed to be slipping through his fingers at an alarming rate. It seemed like just days ago that he’d graduated college and now he was fast approaching thirty.

Charlie turned again, slowly, taking in more of the view. It was over. He was finally finished. He had the rest of his life in front of him and no plans for how he’d spend it. Why hadn’t he thought of this sooner? What would he do with his time? There was always the “Second Seven,” the second-highest peaks on each continent. But was he willing to invest another five years of his life?

“Charlie!”

The words echoed in his ears. But in the thin air, it didn’t sound like Ang at all. It sounded sweet and soft, tantalizing. Funny how he still remembered her voice. There’d been so many other women since Eve, women he’d easily forgotten. Yet she was still there, indelibly imprinted into his brain.

Charlie stared down the route of their descent, his footprints still visible in the snow. He still had to get down the mountain and he knew the dangers. Fatigue, the weather, cerebral edema, snow blindness, avalanches, crevices that could swallow a man in the blink of an eye. A successful ascent didn’t guarantee a safe descent. But what was waiting for him at the
bottom? Would anyone really care that he’d made it up to the top and back again?

Did she even remember him? Did she think of him at all or had the passion they’d shared been replaced by the love she felt for…hell, what was his name? Dave? Dan? Odd that he couldn’t remember. She’d married him, chosen security and dependability over uncertainty. He hadn’t blamed her for making the safe choice. She deserved better than a man who warmed her bed every six months in between adventures.

“Charlie! Move. We head down.”

“I’m thinking I might stay here,” he said, sitting down in the snow.

“Get ass up!” Ang shouted, grabbing his arm and tugging. “I not leave you here. You walk down or I carry. Kill us both.”

“Who’s waiting for you?” Charlie asked.

Ang reached for Charlie’s oxygen bottle and turned up the flow, then held the mask over his face. “Breathe. Clear head.”

“I’m perfectly clear,” Charlie said, waving him off. “Do you have a wife, kids?”

“Wife,” Ang muttered. “We marry last year.”

“And she’s all right with this? She doesn’t mind that you tramp up and down Mount Everest.”

“This my last trip. We have baby. I tell wife, no more. I save money from many climbs, we open laundry in Namche. We have happy life. Grow old together.” He held out his arm and pointed to his
watch, strapped over his sleeve. “See? We leave now. You move or I roll you down to base camp.”

“No one would care if I didn’t make it down,” Charlie said.

“I would,” Ang said. “I never lose client.” He helped Charlie to his feet. “Maybe, you need wife. Someone who care. Maybe kids. Can’t do that frozen to mountain. You go find happy. Find girl you love.”

“No,” Charlie said. “I think I had her once, but I let her go.”

“Two years back, I love my girl. Another man love her, too. I make her see we have happy life together. All is well.”

For an instant, Charlie’s mind cleared. What
was
to stop him? Maybe that’s what he needed to do. Go back and figure out if he had made the wrong choice that night five years ago. And if he had, try to fix it. Suddenly, he had a reason to get down the mountain. He’d go see Eve. He’d figure out why it was her face he’d seen.

“All right,” Charlie said, clapping Ang’s shoulder. “Let’s get off this damn mountain.” He snapped his oxygen mask back in place and pulled his goggles down over his eyes.

In a week’s time, he could be back in Boulder, Colorado. Back where it all began. Then maybe he’d figure out what he was supposed to do with the rest of his life.

 

“L
ONELY GUY AT TABLE SEVEN
. And he’s a hottie!”

Eve Keller glanced over her shoulder at her best friend and business partner, Lily Winston, then shook her head. “In case you haven’t heard, the Garden Gate is one of the best restaurants in Boulder according to a recent article in the Denver Post.”

“Oh, yes,” Lily teased. “But I hear the chef at the Garden Gate is turning into a bit of diva. Television appearances, interviews in foodie magazines, a new cookbook and a possible television series for the Food Channel. Her partner has been having trouble finding toques that fit her ever-expanding head. Of course, she can’t be bothered with something as mundane as a handsome man.”

“One of the reasons we’ve been successful is that we focus on outstanding food and impeccable service. Not hitting on the customers,” Eve said.

“I’m not looking to date him,” Lily said. “I’m perfectly happy with Will. I’m just looking to…look. God, he’s gorgeous. You should go out there and ask him if he likes his curried carrot soup.”

Eve groaned. Since her divorce three years ago, she hadn’t put much effort into dating. In truth, she’d put more thought into becoming a NASA astronaut than she had searching for a new man. Not that she didn’t have a perfectly valid excuse for living like a nun. Her restaurant was growing in popularity. She’d already published one vegetarian cookbook and was working on another. Add to that the seminars she
taught at three different cooking schools on the West Coast and there wasn’t much time for a social life. She was even in preliminary talks with an investment group about opening a new restaurant in Seattle and hosting a cable show on the Food Channel.

Men had simply drifted to the bottom of the list of important things on her agenda. After the mess that had been her marriage and the bigger mess that had been her divorce, Eve wasn’t sure she ever wanted to allow a man into her life again.

“Just take a look,” Lily said, pulling Eve away from the prep table. “You’ve been living in my guest room for three years. I see your social life first hand and it’s pathetic. Last week you alphabetized the spices on my spice rack. The week before, you cleaned the grease trap on the kitchen sink. You need to get a life, Eve.”

“I have a life. Here. In this restaurant.”

“This isn’t life. It’s work.” Lily gently took the knife from her hand and set it next to the red peppers Eve had been chopping. Then she reached up and snatched the colorful bandanna off Eve’s head. “Go ahead,” she said, ruffling Eve’s short-cropped auburn hair. “Just wander on out there, smile at the customers, and ask him how his soup is.” Lily shoved a basket of quick breads into her hand. “Offer him some three-grain nut loaf.”

Eve knew she ought to spend more time in the dining room. All the best chefs interacted with their
clientele. But life inside the confines of the kitchen was so much easier than life in the outside world. She peeked though the window of the swinging door, searching for the object of Lily’s attention.

When her gaze finally found the lonely guy at table seven, her breath caught in her throat. “Oh, God,” she muttered, turning away from the door.

“You don’t think he’s cute?” Lily asked. “Oh, good grief, Eve, if you’re that picky you’re never going to have sex again for the rest of your life.”

“Yes, he’s cute,” Eve snapped. “But I’m not going out there.”

“Why?” Lily asked, taking a peek through the window. “Too cute?”

“Too…everything,” Eve said, shoving the basket back into Lily’s hands. “Been there, done that.”

Lily gasped. “You know him?”

Eve nodded. “Unfortunately, yes. In every sense of the word. I have seen him naked and trust me, the body matches the face. Utterly and unbelievably gorgeous.” A shiver skittered down her spine at the memory. There’d been a time when she’d had that body in her bed, lying on her sofa, standing in front of his refrigerator looking for something to eat at three in the morning.

“But…I don’t understand.”

Eve took Lily’s arm and led her over to the walk-in fridge, then pulled open the door. “Go ahead. I’m not going to spill my secrets unless we have complete
privacy.” They stepped inside and Eve closed the door behind her.

Lily rubbed her bare arms. “If this is going to be a long story, I’m going to need a jacket.”

“Remember that night, after we got the good review in
Food and Wine,
and we drank those two bottles of Mendocino Monastery Reserve Cabernet? And I told you about that guy, the one right before I married Matt?”

“The ‘one last fling’ guy?” Lily asked. “That’s him?”

Eve nodded. “Charlie Templeton.”

“You dumped
him
for Matt?” Lily stared at her as if she’d just admitted to serving puppy fritters with kitten aioli to the customers. “Dweeby, whiny, needy Matt?”

“I didn’t know he was like that when I married him. He seemed—dependable. It was only after the wedding I realized he was looking for a mother, not a wife. And Charlie was everything a girl is supposed to be afraid of. After a month of nonstop sex, he told me he was going to be gone for six months. At the time, I needed a man who’d be there for more than a bi-annual sexfest.”

“Semi-annual,” Lily corrected. “And now he’s back.”

“Five years later.
Five
years and not a word. No phone call, no postcard. Now can you understand my decision?”

“Why do you think he came back?” Eve had a niggling suspicion. In truth, she wasn’t proud of what she’d done. And it had come after an other very expensive bottle of wine and an evening of feeling sorry for herself. She’d happened upon a Web site called SmoothOperators.com, a place where women could off-load all their dating horror stories. She’d been so fed up with men that night, she’d created a profile for every bad date she’d ever been on, full of all the tiny details describing the men who’d done her wrong. And Charlie Templeton had been at the top of the list. In many ways, she blamed him for her bad marriage and painful divorce.

Had he stayed, maybe just a few days more, even a week, she might have realized that marrying Matt was the wrong choice. She would have come to understand that passion was much more important than security.

“It could just be coincidence,” Eve murmured. “The last time he was here, I was just head chef. He doesn’t know I own the restaurant now.”

“Or maybe he does and he’s come to see you. You won’t know unless you go out there and talk to him.”

A knock sounded on the walk-in door. Lily grabbed the handle and opened the door. “We’re almost done,” she called.

Eve saw Sarah, their best waitress, standing out
side and she stepped around Lily. “We are done,” she said. “What do you need?”

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