It wasn’t in Caleb McGregor’s
bag of reporter’s tricks to go after a story by drinking himself
under anyone’s table, but here he was, at the Inn at Snow Falls’ Club
Crimson, in the lovers’ resort of Mistletoe, Colorado, looking
for clarity in the bottom of a glass.
A several times empty one at that.
He knew better. Of course he knew better. But knowing better hadn’t
kept him from recently making the biggest mistake of his life. Neither
did it negate the fact that he’d found many an answer to an intriguing
question when his nose — or his blood alcohol level — was
where it didn’t belong.
Even when he was sober, his intuition rivaled that of the female population
of Baltimore – the city he called his base of operations rather
than home, home being a word with too much emotional resonance and Caleb
not being a feelings kind of guy.
And that sixth sense had shifted into high gear the minute the lounge
singer had taken the stage.
Unfortunately, the Scotch he’d downed had left him with a slippery
grip on the hunch insisting he was sitting on top of a big fat scoop – one
that might be as big and as fat as the exclusive he’d come here
at Ravyn Black’s invitation to get.
Whether or not that was the case, one thing was certain.
Club Crimson lived up to its vivid name.
The Inn At Snow Falls’ nightclub was a kaleidoscope of reds, from
the carpet splashed with sherry, claret and port wine hues, to the padded
bar and stools of scarlet, to the plush sofas and matching wing chairs
in patterns of ruby and rose.
The decorative color scheme was not what Caleb found objectionable.
After all, he’d yet to meet an Italian or Chinese restaurant he
didn’t like. Hell, his favorite baseball team had red in its name
and wore the color proudly when taking the field at Fenway.
But when the design of a club was calculated to evoke a romantic, sexy
mood, and that evocation lacked even a hint of the subtle finesse that
made sexy sexy, and the entire set-up was set up in a town called Mistletoe,
well . . .
Never let it be said that Caleb McGregor didn’t embrace his cynicism
And then, as if the ornamental blood bath wasn’t enough, Club
Crimson had gone so over the top in their efforts to promote true romance
as to hire a red-haired chanteuse and call her Candy Cane.
A textbook case of adding insult to injury. Or it would’ve been
had she not manipulated the schmaltzy lyrics with the skill of Scheherazade – and
done so with a husky R&B style, and in a voice he swore he’d
heard before but couldn’t for the drunken life of him place.
He was falling for it all – the words that seduced him, the costume
that tempted him, the act as a whole that had him mentally panting like
a randy teen. Or a full-grown man with more alcohol than reasoning skills
at his disposal.
Considering the number of drinks he’d downed, the only part of
this that came as a surprise was the fact that he was able to recognize
the folly of his ways.
At least he’d had the good sense at the beginning of the evening
to claim a back corner booth. He was out of the way, and in the perfect
position to watch. And watch he did, closely, enjoying himself more than
She was a looker, Ms. Cane, though allowing for the pretense of the
rest of this place, he doubted her assets were genuine. That didn’t
stop him from having a good time ogling the plunging front of her cherry-colored
He wasn’t sure how women did it, kept their tits from falling
out of flesh-bearing tops cut from their throats to their navels. Some,
he knew, had little to fear, but not in this case. Whether Mother Nature
or manufactured, she had a lot.
She was curvy, too, where her cinched-in waist flared into real hips
instead of not flaring at all. He liked hips. He liked a woman with an
ass. If he ran the world, women would be required by law to be more than
a pair of breasts on an androgynous body.
He’d amend the Constitution if he had to, put a picture of Candy
Cane next to one of Ravyn Black, the hermaphroditic singer for the emo
band Evermore he’d come to Mistletoe to see, to illustrate the
difference between ass and no ass.
Yeah, that would be the perfect way to make his point. His point being
. . . did he have a point?
Had he ever had a point? Was that a point his crossed eyes were seeing
at the end of his nose? Or had his point become all soft and squishy
and not pointy at all when he’d upended his glass and swallowed
the last of his drink?
O . . . kay.
It was quitting time, heading to bed time. Time to just say no.
Or it would be if he wasn’t stuck.
The pianist was playing the introductory notes to the singer’s
final song, and the crowd that had quieted when she walked onstage, that
had done no more than whisper as she sang Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald
and Harry Connick Jr., grew deathly still, pin-droppingly silent.
If Caleb got up now, he was likely to be shot.
Candy pulled the microphone from the stand she’d made love to
during her previous song, and began to croon the opening lines of her
last. Her hips swaying, she crossed the small corner stage and descended
the steps into the mesmerized crowd drunk on whisky, wine, and love.
Her hair that he was sure was a wig – long wavy, strawberry blonde – picked
up and reflected the flashes of red thrown by the spinning disco ball,
as did the sequins in the dress molded to her curves. So molded, in fact,
that if not for the peekaboo slit running up the inside of her thigh,
he doubted she’d be able to walk.
He watched her wind her way through the gathered listeners, smiling,
fingering one man’s tie, brushing another’s hair from his
forehead, cupping the shoulder or stroking her finger along the forearm
of their female companions. An equal opportunity seductress, Caleb mused,
finding his eyelids drifting lazily as he, too, fell prey to her spell.
A siren, she moved from table to table, the sultry sweep of her lashes,
the alluring touch of her tongue to her lips making men’s knees
weak, their palms sweaty, their blood run hot, the front of their pants – once
flat against their abdomens – rise like pitched tents. He knew
that’s what was happening around the room because it was happening
It didn’t matter that he was the only person in the room sitting
by himself. His reaction would’ve been the same had he been in
the company of his mother, a date, or a priest. He wasn’t hard
because he was alone, or because he was lonely. He was hard because Candy
Cane had made him that way.
But the fact that this was a group erection cheapened what he felt – or
so he tried to convince himself since he didn’t want to feel anything.
And then something else happened. She turned just so, moved to the perfect
spot, leaned against the back of a sofa at the ideal angle with the lights
exactly right. The moment didn’t last longer than a blink before
it was gone, and she’d bowed her body toward another sap in the
But it stuck with him, wouldn’t let him go, and he studied her
instead of looking away, stared at her instead of chalking up what he
thought he was seeing to too much Scotch on a stomach empty of anything
What he thought he was seeing was a familiar face. A familiar face to
go with the voice he could’ve sworn he recognized at the beginning
of her set. A recognition he’d then dismissed because of how many
times the server had replaced the single malt in his snifter.
Now he really did need a drink, and he needed it to be hot, black and
fully caffeinated so he could make sense of the psychedelic swirls and
splatters of reds Club Crimson had painted in his mind.
His job depended on rumors. He listened, he verified, he discarded.
He’d been doing it for ten years, writing a celebrity gossip column
that had started out small and gone into national syndication twenty-four
months after launch. It was so popular, it was featured during what one
TV network called their “celebrity beat,” and had its own
website to boot.
Caleb McGregor was Max Savage, the notorious “Snoop with the Scoop” loved,
hated, feared and lauded far and wide by politicians, society players
and celebrities alike for his sarcastic riffs on what his audience demanded
and deemed newsworthy about those in the public eye.
Not that anyone at the inn knew who he was, or that he was here by invitation
for an exclusive – the very private wedding of Ravyn Black and
Teddy Eagleton. Over the next few days, he’d be covering the preparations
leading up to the big event. But as always, he was posing as a member
of Max Savage’s street team. Not even Ravyn knew he was Max.
The only people who knew his identity, who would ever know or have need
to, were his agent, his attorney and his editor. When he’d set
off down tabloid road ten years ago, he’d made sure his only connection
was to the Max Savage machine, not to the alter ego.
It was a decision that had turned out to be a sanity-saver, keeping
his personal business out of the limelight. And it was going to make
it a whole lot easier to transition to life after Max – a retirement
that would have him hanging up his gear as soon as he finished this gig.
Yes, he found the energy of chasing down non-stop leads more intoxicating
than the boredom of waiting for a big story to break. But he never thought
he’d end up stooping to the level he had, reporting on celebutantes
flashing their bare crotches or finding fame through night-vision sex
Neither had he thought himself capable of betraying a confidence, so
wrapped up in the thrill that he hadn’t realized he’d gone
too far until it was too late. Until he’d ruined a career by telling
the truth. Until he’d lost a lifelong friend because he’d
been drunk on the rush of the scoop.
He’d give anything to take back the last month, to think before
revealing what his best friend Del, a music star in his own right, had
shared in confidence about his Christian pop star fiancé’s
drug problem . . . but life didn’t work that way.
Caleb couldn’t change what he’d done, but he could damn
well make sure it never happened again. Right now, however, it was vital
that he get his act together. Candy had finished her tour of the rest
of the club and was making her way toward him.
Drinking alone and slumped in his seat made him an easy target. Being
male made him vulnerable – even knowing her act was a ruse. Last
he checked, knowledge didn’t necessarily work as an inoculation.
Especially with his susceptibility to her charms camped out in his pants.
Except for her spotlight, the bar light, and the patterns of color thrown
off by the disco ball’s spin, the club was dark. His corner was
darker, giving him the privacy he needed to adjust his crotch before
she reached him.
And then she was there, singing to him, seducing him, the pull in her
gaze mesmerizing as she perched her hip against the edge of his table
and stretched, draping herself toward him strategically as if she’d
done this hundreds of times and for hundreds of other men.
Her neckline plunged to tease him. The slope of her shoulder as she
leaned close, the movement of her neck, chin, and mouth as she sang,
teased him more. But what teased him most of all was knowing he should
know her, being unable to place her, and sitting here too inebriated
to do anything about finding out.
He told himself to remember everything about her, to store the sound
of her voice in the memory banks he could access most quickly the moment
his wits returned. He didn’t hold out much hope for success. She
had him stupid, bewitched.
Fluidly, the red-headed chanteuse rolled herself up and off the table,
pivoting with an elegance that left him breathless – and therefore,
thankfully, unable to groan and give himself away – as she slid
to sit in his lap.
It wasn’t his lap as much as one leg, but the move put the swell
of her bottom against the swell of his fly, and he could only hope the
two parts of them making intimate contact weren’t as apparent to
her as to him.
She seemed comfortable, in her element, looping her arm around his neck,
looking into his eyes, drawing the song to a close with a breathy, bluesy,
brush of words against his cheek as the pianist wrapped up his accompaniment,
holding the final notes.
That was when the applause began.
And that was when she kissed him.
He hadn’t seen it coming.
He knew the soft teasing press of her mouth to his was part of the act,
but he hadn’t expected it, and he wasn’t thinking straight,
and he was running way low on resistance, so he did what any healthy
red-blooded male would do with a healthy red-blooded female wanting to
He kissed her back.
He caught her off guard. She was bargaining on compliance, thinking
he would accept her doing her thing without interfering, interrupting,
or doing his back. But Caleb wasn’t cut from a compliant cloth.
And kissing Candy Cane was fun. Or it was until he realized he was the
one who was stirred.
Lips on lips was one thing, but this was more. Way more, and his blood
heated and rushed. He opened his mouth to taste her. She gave in, letting
his tongue inside to flirt and slick over hers.
He had a vague sense of people around them clapping and whistling, cheering
them on, of the pianist’s fingers lingering over his instrument’s
keys, drawing out the moment that had already gone on too long.
But mostly he was aware of Candy’s scent like a field of sweet
flowers around him, and the touch of her fingers against his nape, the
tiny massaging circles she made there too personal for a public display.
He had to let her go before things got any further out of hand, he realized,
realizing, too, that he had sobered. He pulled his mouth away, tilted
his head back to get the best look that he could into her eyes.
He saw her surprise, then her fear. The first he anticipated; he felt
it himself. The second emotion shocked the pump on his snoop-and-scoop
machine to maximum. Fear? What the hell did she have to be afraid of?
“Who are you?” he asked as she got to her feet, the smile
she gave him reaching no further than her mouth and as much for the crowd
as for him.
“I’m the woman you’ll never forget,” she told
him, blowing him a parting kiss before returning to the stage.
Once there, she took her final bow with a flourish, gave props to the
pianist, then vanished behind the curtain that came down to swallow the
She had it right. He wouldn’t forget. But what she had no way
of knowing was that, impending retirement or not, big time screw up or
not, he planned to dig up a whole lot more stuff to remember. Stuff he
was pretty damn sure Ms. Candy Cane didn’t want anyone to find