Crew, a yellow lab mix puppy—with feet larger than his body—sniffed the sidewalk, grass, and the potted plant by the door of the vet’s office.
The vet’s office was located on the outskirts of the historic town in a valley surrounded by mountains.
Glancing around quickly to see if cameras were following me, I opened the door. Crew preceded me inside. No one would follow me here. No one even knew who I was.
Crew’s feet scrambled for purchase on the tile as he whined, pulling against the leash to get into every corner to explore. The room was vast―a reception counter positioned directly in front of the door with shelves to the right, and an open space in front of large windows with spectacular views of the Rocky Mountains.
“That’s where we hold training classes if the weather doesn’t cooperate,” said the young woman seated at the counter.
I smiled, stepping closer. So far, people seemed friendlier, more welcoming here.
“I’m Anne. Is this Crew?” Wearing scrubs, with her hair in a perky ponytail, she stood and came around the counter to pet him.
He sat, his fluffy tail wagging as she peppered him with love.
“He’s adorable. Where did you get him?”
“Second Chance Animal Rescue.”
“I love getting to meet all the puppies.” Her smile widened as she sat back down at her desk, placing a file in front of her, inputting information into the computer.
I couldn’t imagine being happy where I worked, but I’d never worked a traditional job. Not for long, anyway. The show, the cameras, made it impossible.
“Ready to go back?” She gestured to the exam rooms.
“Sure.” I followed her into a square, white room—the exam table the focal point, a counter with supplies against the wall. I took a seat in one of the chairs.
“Dr. Stanton will be in soon.” Anne closed the door softly, leaving us alone.
I dropped the leash, allowing Crew to explore, sniffing under the doors, probably searching for crumbs.
I startled when the other door opened, grabbing the slack leash just as Crew lunged at the man, and his assistant, who entered. Crew was only twenty-five pounds but strong, pulling me with him.
When the vet crouched in front of him, Crew sat, sniffing his hand as if he’d met a new friend. The doctor wore a long white coat and khakis with boots, his dark hair falling over his forehead in a messy disarray. The desire to touch his hair, to push it back from his face and see if it was as soft as it looked, struck me hard in the gut.
I hadn’t felt an attraction to anyone in a long time. While the show was filming, I’d been surrounded by kids―boys I went to high school with.
The vet stood; his name, Dr. Gray Stanton, was printed in blue script above the pocket on his jacket. He was tall, towering over me. The jacket stretched taut over his shoulders. His face was chiseled, the kind of face you’d see on an actor or a model, not in a small town in Colorado. His face was familiar.
A sense of déjà vu shot through me. This was the man I’d run into at the bar when I was in town to renovate the shop. His hands had steadied me, not moving as his eyes darkened, his head lowered. Thinking he was going to kiss me, I’d slipped out of his grip, apologizing, then stepped to the side to escape. Everything about him―his scent, the intensity of his gaze―drew me in.
When I moved here, I promised myself I’d focus on the business. I hadn’t had the best track record with the guys in my past. With one touch, this man had my body tingling.
I held out my hand to shake his.
“You got a puppy.” It was a statement, his tone lightly tinged with irritation, bringing me back to the present.
Confused at his reaction, I glanced at his assistant who smiled in apology. Was he judging me for getting a puppy? The idea he thought I was impulsive, and clearly didn’t remember me, struck at my most vulnerable parts.
“Yeah. I got him from a rescue.” Just as I was going to lower my hand, Dr. Stanton’s fingers, firm and calloused, like he was used to working hard all day, engulfed mine.
He let go of my hand, turning to open the file on the counter. “That’s something, at least. You know anything about dogs?”
“No. I’ve never owned one before. I always wanted one.” I sounded young and naive, exactly how I felt. I was new at making decisions in my life, but I’d researched, thinking I was prepared for the responsibility.
He grunted as he nodded toward his assistant, whose name tag said Sheila, to put Crew on the table that doubled as a scale. Dr. Stanton pushed the button to raise the table to hip height.
I was grateful to have something between us besides his animosity.
Dr. Stanton kept his gaze on the rising table. “I operated on a dog this morning who was given as a gift. She darted out of the house and was hit by a car. She needed surgery and the owners can’t, or won’t, pay for it. They asked me to put her down, but I refused.”
My heart squeezed at the thought of a dog being struck by a car. I covered my chest with a hand. “I’m so sorry. That’s awful.”
“I wish people would think twice before getting a dog. They aren’t toys you can return when they no longer suit your lifestyle.”
Dr. Stanton’s words rang with a hint of warning for me. The difference was, I’d wanted a dog for as long as I could remember, someone to cuddle with when the house was empty, someone to love. I chewed my lip. “A dog getting loose sounds like something that could happen to anyone.”
I stepped closer to Crew, scratching under his chin, determined it wouldn’t happen to him if I could help it.
“Does Crew have any issues with eating?”
Dr. Stanton’s question jarred me from thoughts. “He has a big appetite.”
“You’re feeding him puppy food, no more than two cups a day?” His tone softened, less gruff than when he came in.
“Yeah. I read up on dogs before I got one.” I was eager to disavow Dr. Stanton of his low opinion of me. The desire to prove myself ran deep.
“That’s good.” From his tone, I couldn’t tell if it was. Was there something about me specifically he didn’t like, or was I merely the unlucky person who walked in after he performed surgery on a dog whose owners abandoned her?
Did he somehow remember who I was? I curled one lock of hair around my finger, wondering if it was a bad idea to think I could move to a new town to start over without anyone recognizing me. I let the strand go, the curl popping back into place, and exhaled slowly.
There was no way this man watched reality TV. While my every teenage move was followed by cameras and producers, he was studying to be a veterinarian.
I blinked away the memories, the ever-present pit from those days, burning in my gut as Dr. Stanton probed Crew’s stomach. He opened his mouth, checking his teeth, before looking at his eyes and ears.
“You’re new in town.” It wasn’t a question.
I nodded eagerly, hoping for common ground. I wanted to get along with people here. “I just opened the new barbershop, Smoke & Mirrors.”
Dr. Stanton stilled, one hand stroking Crew’s head. “You opened it?”
“It’s a barbershop.”
“It’s a dream of mine.” I smiled, proud of my idea and filled with hope that I’d make it on my own so I wouldn’t have to resort to signing on to yet another reality show spin-off. The producers loved my idea to open a traditional barbershop complete with wood floors, traditional old-time seats, mirrors, and man-cave signs. They wanted to offer me a show of my own, but only if I opened it in Los Angeles. I wanted nothing to do with that city, or that life, anymore.
“I never thought about a woman running a barbershop. Don’t you prefer salons or spas?”
I bristled slightly. “I’d be catering to men. They prefer barbershops.”
Sheila’s phone buzzed. “I’ll just be a minute. They can’t find gloves in room two.”
Dr. Stanton nodded without breaking eye contact with me.
He seemed interested in my response. Maybe he wanted to understand me. I couldn’t remember anyone ever scrutinizing my reasoning for anything. I was usually the one following directions, not making decisions.
I licked my lips, stepping closer to the table under the guise of comforting Crew when I was the one thrown off balance.
The small space between us crackled with tension. His gaze paused on my mouth before he looked away.
My plan to open a barbershop catering to men was purposeful. It was unlikely men watched the show or entertainment news. If they did, hopefully they wouldn’t care.
Gray turned, writing something in a folder. “Make sure you get Crew into obedience classes. I’ll have Sheila give you a list of training programs in the area. We offer one here, outside when the weather’s nice, inside when it’s not.”
It was a relief he wasn’t focused on me. At the same time, I felt strangely let down.
“I do need to get him into training.” He pulled when I walked, ate everything in sight―including furniture and shoes―but he was so cute. He was exactly what I needed. I just hoped this town was what I needed too.
“Where are you from?”
I’d vowed to be vague about my history. I’d grown up in an affluent beach town on the coast, then moved to LA for the show. It detailed our high school years until we became young twenty-somethings, trying to find our way―with too much money and no purpose or guidance. I settled for, “California.”
He nodded as if my answer told him all he needed to know. “Sheila will administer his vaccines. Make sure you get him on heartworm, flea, and tick medications as soon as possible. We have those here if you want them, or I can print a prescription.”
“Oh, whatever you have here is fine.”
“It was good to meet you, Ms. Carmichael.” His tone was brisk, professional.
“It’s Elle.” My voice was soft. It was still weird to go by my sister’s nickname for me, and not the name I’d gone by my entire life, Giselle. Giselle was a part I played on TV. She didn’t exist anymore. I could reinvent myself in this town. I could be someone else, someone people counted on, someone to be proud of.
Dr. Stanton gathered his paperwork. “Why Telluride? We may be a tourist town, but the locals are loyal to each other. We don’t get many outsiders.”
I stiffened. For once in my life, I wanted to belong. I wanted the locals to accept me. “I used to vacation here with my family when I was a child.”
I’d always loved it here, the cold and snow versus the heat and beach.
His face softened before he said, “The locals can sniff out someone who’s not genuine a mile away. So, if you’re not here for the right reasons, don’t even bother.”
I wanted to ask him what the right reasons were, why I’d bother to open a business only to pack up and leave, but I didn’t. When I turned down the offer to star in a spin-off reality show, the producers said I was impulsive, immature. I thought I could come to a town where I didn’t know anyone, open a business, and make it a success. I hoped I was right.
Dr. Stanton turned to leave.
The thought of this man thinking I was less than, hurt when it shouldn’t. He didn’t know me.
“You don’t like outsiders?” I asked before I could re-think my question or the vulnerability evident in my tone.
He paused his hand on the door. “I’m an outsider myself.”
He left before I could ask any follow-up questions. Was that why he’d warned me? Did he still not fit in? Had he moved here for an escape too?
After Sheila returned to administer the vaccinations, she gathered the medications into a plastic bag and gave me a list of suggested food brands as well as obedience training classes.
I went to the front desk to check out, scanning the list of classes. I didn’t know the area, so it made sense to sign up for the ones offered here.
I handed my credit card to Anne at the desk to pay the bill. “Can I sign up for obedience classes?”
“It starts next Sunday, the only day we’re officially closed.”
“That’s perfect.” The barbershop was closed too.
I signed up for the class, refraining from asking who the instructor was. If it was Gray, I might not sign up, and Crew needed training. There was no way Dr. Stanton taught obedience training in his spare time. I chewed the inside of my cheek, thinking it would be an opportunity to see him. I was intrigued by him, our encounter in the bar, and now, his instant dislike of me.
I wasn’t sure who I was without producers prodding me to do or say something. Before, I was judged when my actions had never really been mine. Now, I was being judged for my choices. It was unsettling.
Leaving the vet clinic, I walked Crew outside so he’d do his business, then picked him up to place him in the Range Rover my parents gifted me―with a large red bow while cameras rolled―on my sixteenth birthday. It should have been a special moment. Instead, it felt staged.
As I drove towards Smoke & Mirrors, I marveled that this quaint, ski resort town, located at the base of a mountain, was now my home. I parked behind the barbershop, pride filling my chest as I walked around to the front. The shop represented a fresh start, a chance to be a good person, someone worthy.
The shop was in a corner brick building with two large windows―I couldn’t wait to decorate for the holidays―facing the street. A wrought-iron sign hung over the door with my business name, Smoke & Mirrors, written inside the silhouette of a bearded man.
I unlocked the glass door, the bell signaling my arrival as I stepped inside, the smell of new leather combined with shaving cream greeting me. I’d carefully chosen higher quality items that were professional and inviting. I wanted the barbershop to be a unique experience, whether that was from a comfortable leather chair, a scent that brought back memories of a father’s shaving cream, or the experience of a boy’s first haircut.
I unhooked Crew from his leash so he could explore, knowing I’d need to keep an eye on him. Chew toys were strewn across the floor, but he preferred to gnaw on whatever he could find.
Everything was ready to go for the grand opening on Saturday except for employees. I needed to hire Piper, who was coming in today for an interview, or someone else soon. Hiring a native to the town might help me connect with other locals. I could ask her advice on attracting tourists too. The list of things I needed to accomplish before the grand opening filtered through my head, overwhelming my confidence.
The words of my producer replayed in my head, “No one will care about your barbershop if cameras aren’t following you.” Everyone thought I was going to fail. The prospect scared me, but I was determined to prove them wrong.
Today, I was supposed to be interviewing the one person who applied, Piper Rigby. I’d met her when I was setting up the shop. She’d stopped by to inquire about whether I was hiring. I was impressed with her tenacity, making me want to become friends with her.
I hoped hiring a local would help. I was nervous; this endeavor felt like the first adult thing I’d ever done. Working on a reality show, or as a stylist in a swanky salon in Los Angeles, was child’s play compared to being a boss.
I’d put all my savings into this building, and the business. If it didn’t succeed, I’d have to move back home. I didn’t want to be in a position where I’d have to take the contract for the spin-off reality show.
The door opened, the bell sounding again.
“Sorry I’m early. I was so excited to see everything finished.”
I turned to find Piper, a petite woman with blonde hair, standing just inside the door, looking around in amazement. “It looks spectacular.”
In Los Angeles, I wouldn’t have trusted a statement like that. I would assume a jealous, snide comment was coming next. Everything about this woman’s expression, from her wide eyes to her parted lips, was genuine. It was refreshing.
“I’m so glad you could come.”
“Oh my gosh. Look at this cutie.” She knelt on the floor as Crew licked her face.
“Sorry. I was going to put him upstairs before our interview.” Having a dog in the shop for the interview was probably unprofessional, though she didn’t seem to mind.
She stood, brushing his yellow fur off her black pants. “Like I said, I’m early. He’s adorable.”
Piper was so easygoing, the tension I’d held in my shoulders eased. “Do you want to head over to the coffee shop for the interview?”
“Do we need to? We can talk here.” She sat in one of the maroon leather chairs meant for clients, spinning until she faced me.
“That’s fine.” I leaned a hip against the counter, appreciating her confidence. “Are you still working at Bliss and Bang?”
"I’ve been working there for five years. I’m ready for something new, something different.”
The sign for the shop had scissors in place of the and. Curious, I’d stopped inside Bliss and Bang when I first scouted locations for the barbershop. It had a spa-like atmosphere with wood floors, paneling, fresh paint, and modern decor. The salon wasn’t competition. Its clientele was different. I was confident there were enough customers for both businesses.
I wanted to be sure she understood we wouldn’t have any female clientele. “Do you have experience with men’s cuts? That’s all you’ll be doing here. If highlights are your thing—”
Her eyes held a gleam of excitement as she stroked the soft leather of the chair. “I do have experience with men’s cuts. I like what you’re doing here. I think this barbershop is unique. I want to be part of something new and exciting.”
My gut feeling was Piper would be good for the shop, and good for me. I cleared my throat, hoping she was right. “Do you have your list of references?”
“Right here.” She stood, pulling a piece of paper out of her bag, smoothing it out before placing it on the countertop.
She listed her cosmetology school, her licenses, then her job at the salon. I hoped the salon owner didn’t get upset that I was taking one of their stylists.
“The owners of the salon won’t mind you leaving to work here?” I tilted my head, considering her. She was confident, had the experience, and would be personable with the clientele.
Her smile was easy. “No. The owners know I’ve been looking for a change.”
“Do you have any questions for me?”
“I remember you saying you’re from LA. Do you plan to run the shop, or will you hire a manager down the road?”
The thought of going back to LA made my stomach uneasy. “No. I plan to manage it. If you’re sure about working here, I’d like to offer the position to you.”
Piper covered her chest with her hand. “Are you serious?”
“Yeah, I think you’ll fit in here just fine. I’m hoping you can help me with the locals.”
Piper seemed surprised I’d offered her the job on the spot. Maybe she wasn’t used to people taking chances on her. I had a feeling we could be good friends, and that she’d be a great employee. I didn’t get many opportunities to test my instincts. I wanted to take that leap with her.
She clasped her hands together. “Thank you so much! You’ve made me so happy.”
“Are you ready for that coffee now? We can discuss the details.”
She smiled, her expression friendly.
A warmth spread through me. Piper was someone who wanted to get a coffee, chat, and possibly be a friend. It was something I hadn’t had since before the show was filmed. Producers advised us only to hang out with the other kids on the show. My friends in school, then later my castmates on the show, were merely acquaintances paid to spend time with me.
“Sure. I’d like that. Let me put Crew upstairs.” Calling Crew, he followed me up the steps to my apartment above the shop. I grabbed his favorite bacon-flavored treats to entice him into his crate. Locking up, I headed back down to the shop where Piper was admiring the photographs of the renovations on one of the walls. I’d taken the before and after pictures in black and white, giving it a cool feel.
“I love what you’ve done with the place. It’s classy.” She preceded me out the door.
“Thank you. I’m happy with it too.” Her easy compliment eased my earlier doubts.
I’d been worried people wouldn’t accept me here. Even though it was a tourist town, with the ski resort, I’d be living here year-round. I needed to fit in as a local to bring in business during the off-season. Like Dr. Stanton said, I needed them to trust I was here for the long haul, or they wouldn’t invest in my business. I didn’t want to sell my soul to be on TV again.
Or grab the brand new box set on sale for the first time!
What happens in Vegas might go viral!
The first time I met Caspian Spearman, we had the perfect night.
The second time, I was on the arm of his biggest rival.
The third night… was a string of mistakes.
There’s nothing I can’t do on skates…
One night home and I’m obsessed. She’s the most compelling woman I’ve ever seen, and I can’t take my eyes off her. I watch her fight, battling head to head for everything she believes in. And when the odds turn against her, I’m the unlikely key to her salvation. Getting too close could cost me everything. But there’s no chance in hell I’ll stay away. Maisy Flynn is mine, even if neither one of us wants it.