I held up my hand, shielding my eyes from the bright sun. “That looks great.”
Mike, the man from the sign shop, stood on a ladder holding up the wrought iron sign over the door, my business name, Smoke & Mirrors, written inside the silhouette of a bearded man.
The fresh paint on the sign shone in the light, filling me with pride. It represented starting over, a new life in Telluride where no one knew who I was. After dying my hair from the platinum blonde, the producers had insisted upon, to my natural black, I’d shortened my name from Giselle to Elle. Gone was my LA wardrobe, replaced with what I hoped passed for mountain girl chic.
In contrast to the shiny new sign, the large shop windows were grimy; the old deli counter and shelves remained, covered in a thick layer of dust. When I closed my eyes, I saw plush leather chairs, gold framed mirrors, and brick walls. I imagined the smell of shaving cream.
“Hello!” A female voice called.
I startled, covering my racing heart with a hand. I turned in the direction of the bubbly voice, expecting to find a camera-toting paparazzo or a crazed fan. Either possibility set me on edge.
A blonde woman stopped in front of me, gesturing at the sign. “Are you the new owner?”
“I am.” I shifted on my feet, wondering if hanging the sign before the shop was renovated was a bad idea. It would draw attention, raising expectations before I was ready.
Telluride is a small town, where new businesses and new residents wouldn’t go unnoticed. I’d hoped to stay under the radar.
“I haven’t started renovations yet.”
“If the inside looks anything like your sign, I’m sure it will be amazing.” Her voice was filled with warmth, easing the tightness in my chest.
“Thank you.” I didn’t offer any details, unsure if I could trust this woman. Was she genuinely curious about a new business opening or did she want something from me?
“I’m a stylist at Bliss and Bang.” She gestured behind her at the sign on the other corner of the block, an image of a pair of scissors replaced the word and. When I scouted locations, I’d searched for any other barber shops or salons. Bliss and Bang had a spa-like atmosphere with wood floors, paneling, muted colors, and modern decor. I was confident I would draw different clientele with my shop.
Folding my arms over my chest, I asked, “Are you scoping out the competition?”
Her eyes widened in surprise before her face smoothed over. “No. I was heading to get some coffee at The Coffee Cowboy when I saw your sign. When do you think you’ll be open?”
She hasn’t given me any indication she was being anything other than friendly, despite my wariness. I softened my tone. “I’m meeting with the contractor this morning. Hopefully, it’ll be done by fall.”
“Are you hiring Fletcher & Sons Construction?” she asked excitedly.
I hoped she could tell me something about them. “That’s the one I’m meeting with this morning.”
She smiled easily. “They’re trustworthy. I went to high school with the sons.”
“That’s good to know. I’m not from here, so—”
She shot me a knowing look. “It’s hard to know who to trust.”
I swallowed, hoping she has forgiven me for my initial distrust. I could use a friend here. “Exactly.”
“Sorry to interrupt. If everything looks good, I’m going to head out,” Mike said.
I glanced up at the sign. “It looks great. Thank you so much.”
“Good luck. I’d like to check the shop out when you’re open.” He smiled one last time before gathering up his tools, folding his ladder onto his truck.
“Do you have time for coffee?” Piper’s blue eyes were friendly, her shoulders relaxed. Her energy was impossible to resist.
“Sure. I’d love some.” When was the last time I’d met someone outside of the show who didn’t already know who I was? Or even had a conversation revolving around something other than the show?
We walked side by side for a few seconds before Piper asked, “Where are you from?”
Worried she’d have an opinion about someone from LA, I settled for, “California.”
“A beach girl, huh? What brings you to our ski town?”
“I came here as a kid and loved it.” I carefully considered my answers, not wanting to reveal anything personal about myself. My life may have played out on TV, but most of it wasn’t real. In Telluride, I am living off-camera for the first time as an adult.
“That’s so nice to hear. I grew up here.” Her smile was wistful.
“That sounds like an ideal childhood. Historic town, skiing, hiking.”
“It’s not as perfect as it seems. We’re far from large stores, malls, and airports. It can be isolating. You grow up with the same people, never seeing anything outside of your town.” She shook her head. “Enough about me. You thought you’d move here and start a business?”
For the first time, I wanted to hear what someone thought of my business. Not as an opportunity for a show, but on its own. “I had this vision for a man cave barber shop. A classic barber shop experience, no women allowed.”
Piper threw her head back and laughed. “I love that. Except for the hot women working there, right?”
“I hadn’t thought about it like that. I guess it’s an interesting contrast.” I’d never thought of myself, with my natural hair and style, as beautiful. I’d always been told I needed to change my look to appeal to others.
What I didn’t say was that when I worked in a salon, women recognized me. They called me names, thinking I was the villain I portrayed on TV. That’s when I came up with the idea to cater to men. They didn’t tend to watch reality shows or care about my infamy, or at least, I hoped they didn’t. My entire business model and success depends on me being welcomed here.
Maybe Piper was the first step to ingratiate myself with the locals.
We stopped at the end of the short line at The Coffee Cowboy, sunlight filtering through the trees, warming me. The shop was a small camper parked on the brick-lined sidewalk with several tables, chairs, and bright yellow umbrellas surrounding it. A green and white canopy hung over the order window, the menu displayed on a small chalk board.
“Are you looking for stylists?” Her question was careful, as if she were interested in the answer for herself.
“I am. I won’t be able to hire too many in the beginning, maybe just one.”
Piper chewed her lip thoughtfully. “I might be interested.”
“Can I help you?” The woman at the window asked us as we moved to the front of the line.
We placed our orders, stepping to the side to wait for them.
I tucked a strand of hair behind my ear. “I’m not prepared to hire anyone until closer to opening.”
Piper tilted her head. “Can I get your number so we can stay in touch?”
“Sure.” I pulled out my phone, exchanging numbers with her.
When the woman called out our names, we grabbed our coffees.
Piper started walking in the direction of my place. “I think your barber shop will be a nice addition to the town. It fits.”
I fell in step next to her, looking around the quaint, historic town.
“Plus, the fall colors here are beautiful. We get plenty of tourists year-round. We’re not just a ski resort. There’s hiking in the summer. It’s beautiful.”
I paused in front of my shop. “Have you ever thought about leaving Telluride?”
“In high school, I thought I’d leave and never come back. Instead, my brother Henry went to college. I stayed. Henry plans to open a hotel of sorts on our parent’s ranch. A place where people can stay, ride horses, or hike.”
“It sounds amazing. What happened that you didn’t leave?” I shouldn’t have asked. I knew better than anyone how awful invasive questions were, but I wanted to know her better.
A shadow passed over her face before she shrugged. “Let’s just say, it wasn’t in the cards for me. I didn’t need to go to college. I got my cosmetology license and worked here ever since.”
“It’s a beautiful town.” I changed the subject, not wanting to dig any deeper when my questions were unsettling her.
“It is. Sometimes, I wonder how different my life would have been, had I left. Moved someplace where I hadn’t known everyone since kindergarten.”
The longing in her voice was similar to how I felt. The desire to reinvent ourselves. The only difference between us was that everyone already knew who I was, or thought they did. My past was readily available online. “I guess that’s what I’m doing here, starting over somewhere new.”
“Adventurous. I like that. I always thought I’d be the one to get out.” She smiled sadly.
The look on her face was a contrast to her bubbly personality.
“You still can.”
“You can’t go far with a hair stylist’s salary.”
She wasn’t wrong. I had money from the show, or I wouldn’t be doing what I was, but I couldn’t tell her that. My dreams came with a terrible cost, my reputation.
She turned as if to leave. “I didn’t mean to get personal. I just stopped by because I was curious about your shop. Let me know when you’re ready to hire.”
“I will.” It wasn’t a trite statement. I liked her.
“It was nice meeting you.” She took a few steps in the direction of the salon. Then she paused, turning back to me. “Want to go out tonight? We usually meet up at the Last Dollar Saloon.”
I shouldn’t. I should keep my distance but the desire to have a real friend took over. My lips curved into a smile. “Sure.”
“Great. I’ll text you the address. Good luck with the contractors.” She gestured at the work truck that pulled up to the curb.
I hoped this meeting would go better than the discussions with the other two contractors I’d met with. One had his own visions for what the shop would look like, the other thought it was ridiculous that a woman was opening a barber shop.
I sipped my coffee, hopeful for the first time that things in Telluride would work out, that my business would be successful, and that I might even have friends here. Not like the ones who wanted to be my friend on TV, but real ones that lifted me up and supported me.
A man stepped out of the red truck and rounded the hood. With a clipboard in hand, and a pencil behind his ear, he smiled, a dimple appearing on his cheek. “Elle Carmichael?”
Everything in his demeanor screamed laid back and easy-going, immediately putting me at ease. He was attractive, with sandy brown hair and blue eyes, filling out his faded Fletcher & Sons T-shirt, faded jeans, and construction boots. “That’s me.”
He held his hand out to me. “Malcolm Fletcher. Friends call me Mac.”
“Nice to meet you, Mac.” His calloused hand embraced mine.
“You’re opening a barber shop?” He tipped his head toward the new sign.
“That’s the plan.” Excitement nipped at me. I was really doing this. This felt more real than telling the producers no―regarding a spin-off―or buying this building, packing my stuff, and moving into the apartment upstairs.
“Want to show me around?”
“Absolutely.” I unlocked the door, pushing it open. Stale air greeted me.
Stepping inside, I said, “It looks like it hasn’t been touched since the deli closed.”
I left the door open to allow some fresh air inside.
“You’d be right about that.” He did a quick pass of the room, walking into the back, then pointed upstairs. “Any plans for the second floor?”
“No. The apartment is in good shape. I just need to turn this,” I gestured at the shop, “into a classic barber shop.”
He chuckled. “I can help you do that. What are you thinking?”
A memory of going with my dad to the local barber shop in Huntington Beach came to mind. The smell of leather and shaving cream invaded my nose as easily as the feeling of sitting in his lap while he got his hair cut. It was one of the things we did together before he got a job outside of town and was gone all the time.
“I was thinking over-sized, traditional, maroon leather chairs for the clients, gold details, gold-framed mirrors on the wall, rich brown wooden floors, cleaning up the exposed brick on the walls. New windows for the store front.”
“How many stations are you setting up?”
“Four.” Four chairs, four mirrors. I wouldn’t fill them right away, but I was hoping with time, I’d be able to.
“You want something small.”
“Right. A classic, traditional feel. I want it to feel clean and welcoming. A place that men can escape to.”
He smiled boyishly. “Where men can get haircuts from beautiful women.”
Flushing, I realized what I was selling was the classic man cave, except there wouldn’t be seasoned, male barbers. I’d been in the business long enough to know what men liked, women who were blonde and bubbly. Piper would be a perfect fit for the salon. “How long do you think it will take?”
“That depends. Do you have the wood floor, chairs, mirrors, and whatever other décor you want, ordered?”
“I have the decor picked out. I was waiting until I secured a contractor to order windows and floors.”
“You’ll need to pick them out so we can get them ordered right away. Do you want a breakroom with a small kitchen in the back?”
“Yes.” We went over every inch of the first floor in excruciating detail. By the end of our conversation, I knew he was the guy for the job. He was detail-oriented and respectful of the vision I wanted. Hopefully, his estimate was reasonable.
Saying our goodbyes, he gave me the name of a local business where I could check out the wood floors in person before I picked anything. He promised to get the estimate to me by the end of the week.
I locked the shop’s door, heading upstairs to my apartment to take a shower before going out. Opening the door to my apartment, I let out a breath. The apartment was small, just a kitchen, living room, bedroom, and bath. Everything I’d brought with me was stacked in boxes in the corner. Not for the first time, I wished I had someone to come home to. Even in LA, I’d lived with my sister, Alice. Now, I was alone.
I needed something to fill the space. Someone who’d greet me at the end of the day. Maybe a cat, or even a puppy. Walking a dog would give me an excuse to explore the town, force me to meet new people. A puppy might even fill the cracks in my heart with unconditional love. Something I hadn’t felt since I was a kid, sitting on my dad’s lap in the barber shop he frequented.
My vision was almost complete. In a few months, Smoke and Mirrors would be open. I’d created it without anyone else’s assistance or interference. It was something I could be proud of. I didn’t need producers telling me I was successful.
I wouldn’t be known as the bad girl on TV. Unfortunately, with everything memorialized online, I’d never escape my past.
Written in maroon and gold lettering, Last Dollar Saloon’s sign hung over the door. I took a deep breath before pushing open the heavy wooden door, stepping into the narrow space. Scanning the room, I wondered if it was a mistake coming here. Would people recognize me from the show? It had been off the air for months. My face was devoid of make-up. I wore a flannel shirt tied at my waist, skinny jeans tucked into knee-high boots, looking nothing like my on-TV persona. In LA, I would never be seen without a skirt or dress and in sky-high heels. Without that costume, I felt bare.
The bar itself was rustic with scuffed wooden floors, a stone fireplace, and old-fashioned chandeliers. Liquor was stacked to the ceiling behind the bar top on backlit shelves.
“Hey,” Piper approached me, enveloping me in a hug. “I’m so glad you could make it.”
Relieved to know someone here, I admitted, “It’s my first time out.”
Piper’s smile was infectious as she grabbed my hand, pulling me toward the bar. “Perfect. We come here for their five-dollar margaritas.”
“Made with agave tequila.” The female bartender smiled at us, her dark hair pulled back into a slick ponytail.
Sliding onto a bar stool, Piper said, “Marlowe, this is Elle Carmichael. She bought the old deli building.”
She glanced up at me briefly before continuing to make drinks. “Ah. I heard there’s a new sign up. A barber shop, huh?”
“Yeah.” I braced myself for any sign she recognized me, but she didn’t even do a double take.
“A female-owned barber shop. It’s different. I like it.” She braced her hands on the bar, focusing entirely on us. “So, what’ll it be?”
Pride filled me at her words. The producers loved the idea, but only if they could shoot it as a spin-off show in LA. I was done with a life in front of the cameras. “A margarita is fine.”
Piper nodded. “One for me too.”
“Two margaritas coming up.” Marlowe slid further down the bar, handing off the drinks she’d made to a group of women at the far end.
My shoulders relaxed slightly.
Piper shifted on the stool to face me. “Are you nervous people won’t like the shop?”
“A little. It is a bit of a novel idea.” I shrugged. “I’m an outsider.”
“It’s the perfect spot for it. Telluride is a year-round tourist town, it seems. We get a lot of high-powered businessmen, visiting with their families. They don’t have time for a cut when they’re working, but on vacation—” She raised her brows.
Hope bloomed in my chest, warm and comforting. “I hope you’re right about that. What about the locals?”
Her brow furrowed. “They might take a bit more persuasion. Some don’t like to spend money on things they can do themselves.”
I chewed my lip. That was something I hadn’t thought about. I didn’t like admitting I was from LA, but I didn’t think Piper would judge me. “In LA, guys got cuts, manicures, and pedicures.”
Piper stilled next to me. “You’re kidding.”
My stomach dropped. I hadn’t considered the possibility that men were so different in Colorado, but I should have. The people here don’t have that fake sheen LA people do. It is more relaxed―the people friendlier, more welcoming.
Marlowe set the colorful margarita glasses in front of us, the rim lined with salt. “Here you go, ladies. Enjoy.”
I stirred the margarita with the tiny straw Marlowe added to the glass, practically tasting the salt without taking a sip. “I’m not kidding. The men in LA were high maintenance.”
It was something I was used to, assuming all men were like that. Spending money on expensive gel so their hair laid just right, trendy clothes, the fanciest car they could afford. The pressure to impress was intense.
Piper furrowed her brow. “How did you date men like that?”
“I wouldn’t call the guys I dated men.” I’d dated hangers-on, guys I thought were my friends, or at least in my friend circle. I realized too late, the kids on the show I’d grown up with, weren’t my friends. The boys who hung around the show weren’t interested in me, only whether I could get them on the show.
“I don’t blame you. I don’t have patience for men who need manicures. I like my men rugged.”
I giggled, surprising myself. “I guess you live in the right place. There has to be a lot of mountain men―skiers, snowboarders―outdoorsy types.”
She laughed with me. “That’s true.”
“Are you dating anyone?”
Her face serious, she took a long sip of her margarita, as if fortifying herself for the conversation. “No one serious.”
Her lips pressed into a tight line, the look telling me she didn’t want to answer any more questions. Then she brightened. “So, what’s the plan for the shop?”
I didn’t blame her for wanting to divert my attention. “I’ll hire the contractor, pick out everything, then head back to California for a bit. I have some things to take care of there. I’ll be back and forth for a while.”
I felt guilty leaving my sister, Alice, by herself in LA. Still living in our old apartment, she seemed adrift with no plans for the future. I worried she enjoyed the party atmosphere surrounding the show too much. That she was hanging around, waiting for the spin-off show to get picked up. Without me on board as the villain, or Lillian as the popular girl, I doubted it would.
We talked more about the town. How the locals hated the increased traffic yet loved the business tourists brought. Telluride has a healthy tourist business even though it isn’t as popular as Breckinridge or Aspen.
“There’s just something about this place I love coming back to.” Coming here was a comfort when I was a child. We were dropped in ski school during the day so my parents could socialize with the other friends they’d traveled with. Riding the lift and snowboarding down the mountains was solitary, peaceful. The snow was quiet. There were no expectations or cameras.
My voice trailed, my gaze snagging on a man walking by with dark hair, a scruff-lined jaw, and broad shoulders. When his eyes met mine, my breath caught. My heart thudded in my chest. Then he passed by. He was gone. I couldn’t turn my head to follow him without attracting Piper’s attention.
“Did you hear me?” Piper asked, drawing me back to her.
“No. I’m sorry. What did you say?” I hoped she wouldn’t ask what caught my attention.
What if she knew him? The thought excited me as much as it terrified me.
Piper’s phone buzzed. Lowering her head to the screen, she said, “My brother was supposed to meet us here but he’s going to be late.”
“Are you close to him?” I asked, grateful for the reprieve.
I was hyper-aware of the man’s presence. I half-expected him to approach me, touch the small of my back, and whisper into my ear. A tingle shot down my spine at the thought.
“I am.” She tucked her phone into her purse. “I think my parents wish I could be more like him.”
“Why’s that?” I tried to focus on her and not the brief connection with the hot guy. Piper seemed like a good person. I couldn’t imagine her parents being disappointed in her.
Piper waved me off as if it wasn’t a big deal. “They want us to stay and work the ranch.
Henry is. I’m not.”
“Hey!” A woman approached Piper, hugging her.
“It’s so good to see you,” Piper said.
Giving her a chance to visit with her friend, I slid off the stool, touching her shoulder briefly. “I’m going to the restroom.”
She nodded, indicating she heard me.
Winding my way through the crowd, which had thickened during my conversation with Piper, I wondered if I’d run into the man again. If I did, what would I do? I hadn’t flirted with anyone in so long and I’d never approached anyone in a bar.
In the bathroom, I reminded myself why I was in Telluride. It wasn’t to pick up a hot guy in a bar, as much as I wanted to talk to him, to see if something was there.
Resolved to head home, I pushed open the restroom door, prepared to tell Piper I was ready to go, when I slammed into a hard chest.
Hands cupped my shoulders, steading me. My heart thudded painfully in my ribcage as my gaze moved from his chest, to the scruff of his chin, to his familiar brown eyes that turned from amusement to heat.
“It’s you.” His voice rumbled through my body, making me forget my resolve to go home and focus on my shop.
I swallowed, my throat unbearably dry, my thoughts jumbled. “I don’t know you.”
“I saw you at the bar.” His smooth voice flowed through my veins, heating me. My skin prickled with awareness. Every cell in my body aching to move closer to him; my nipples pebbled in my bra.
Unsure how to respond, I said, “I’m with a friend.”
Someone brushed past us, forcing me to move closer to the sexy stranger, the scent of his cologne surrounding me. I wanted to press my body against his, to feel the hard planes of muscle I knew would be under his thin shirt.
“I’m meeting a friend too.” His voice was gravelly, as if he rarely used it.
I couldn’t look away and unconsciously leaned into him.
He lowered his head slightly, his gaze dropping to my mouth.
Was he going to kiss me? I licked my lips.
With the warmth of his hands on my shoulders, the intensity of his gaze kept me anchored in place.
My heart pounded in my ears. I was going to let this man kiss me in the hallway of a bar.
No. That was something the producers would have urged me to do during filming. I didn’t do those things anymore.
Of course, I’d never reacted to someone like this before either. As if every part of my body ached to be near him. I didn’t even know his name.
His brown eyes darkened. “I want to kiss you.”
“That’s a terrible idea.” My body leaned closer, forcing my head back to maintain eye contact.
“I think it’s the best idea I’ve ever had.” His eyes held a promise of what he wanted.
I felt light-headed, an involuntary shudder ran through my body. I could imagine him lifting me in his arms, wrapping my legs around his waist, and turning me to press my back against the wall. The ridge of his cock creating delicious friction along the seam of my pants, covering my core. The vision was so real, I drew in a sharp breath, trying to clear my head.
I’d only had a few sips of my margarita, so it wasn’t alcohol propelling us closer. It was chemistry. Something I’d never experienced before.
My mind warred with my body. I needed space. I needed to wrench myself from the situation. I wasn’t the girl I was forced to be in front of the cameras. I wasn’t impulsive. I didn’t do things on a dare or because viewers would tune in to watch what crazy thing I’d do next.
Without a doubt, I knew I’d enjoy his lips on mine, his arms pulling me closer, but as soon as he discovered who I was, he’d be disgusted. He’d want nothing to do with me.
I stepped back, his hands dropping from my shoulders, the chill from the room hitting me. “I’m so sorry.”
Shivering, I stepped around him, my stomach dropping with each step I took away from him. I wasn’t sure what I was apologizing for―running into him, not kissing him, or walking away when my heart was beating a rhythm just for him.
My throat clogged up. I’d never experienced anything close to that before. Was it him? Was he the one person in the world my soul was fated to connect with, or was it merely lust I’d forget about in the morning?
Every step away from him meant I was being the person I wanted to be, smart and responsible. The unsettled feeling in my body hinted that I’d made a huge mistake, that it was possible I’d never meet someone I had an instant connection with again.
Piper was talking and laughing with a group of friends. She introduced me. I stayed for a few more minutes before saying my goodbyes. Piper asked me to keep in touch. I promised I’d call her when the shop was ready to open.
I’d keep my head down, open my barber shop, and prove the producers wrong. I could be successful without cameras on me. I could earn money for something other than selling myself out on TV.
Men like the one I ran into, weren’t for me. He was temptation, one I didn’t need in my life. I didn’t need him stepping in between my dreams, distracting me from my goal, and convincing me there was more to life than what I had.