October 28, 2013
October 28, 2014
Maybe This Christmas
O'Neil Brothers Book #3
RT Book Reviews Reviewer’s Choice Award Nominee 2014
"Sharp humor, snappy dialog, and memorable characters are pluses in this engaging contemporary romance.” Library Journal
" Morgan’s friends-to-lovers romance is intense and insightful with a healthy dose of heartbreak between her rakish hero and always sidelined heroine. Her expressive narrative deliciously delivers the Christmas in Vermont delights, while her emotional character chats and teen angst-filled co-star rocks." 4.5 Stars Top Pick! RT Book Reviews
"the perfect book to curl up with and get lost in.” Heat Magazine
TYLER O’NEIL STOMPED the snow off his boots, pushed open the door of his lakeside home and tripped over a pair of boots and a jacket abandoned in the hallway.
Slamming his hand against the wall, he regained his balance and turned the air blue. “Jess?” There was no response from his daughter, but Ash and Luna, his two Siberian huskies, bounded out of the living room. Cursing under his breath, he watched in exasperation as both dogs cannoned toward him. “Jess? You left the door to the living room open again. The dogs aren’t supposed to be in there. Come down here right now and pick up your coat and boots! Do not jump up—I’m warning you—” He braced himself as Ash sprang. “Why does no one listen to me around here?”
Luna, the more gentle of the two dogs, put her paws on his chest and tried to lick his face.
“Nice to know my word is law.” But Tyler rubbed her ears gently, burying his fingers in her thick fur as Jess emerged from the kitchen, a piece of toast in one hand and her phone in the other, head nodding in time to music as she pushed headphones away from her ears. She was wearing one of his sweaters, and the gold medal he’d won for the downhill dangled round her neck.
“Hi, Dad. How was your day?”
“I made it through alive until I stepped through my own front door. I’ve skied off cliffs safer than our hallway.” Glowering at her, Tyler pushed the ecstatic dogs away and nudged the abandoned snow boots to one side with his foot. “Pick those up. And leave your boots on the porch from now on. You shouldn’t be wearing them indoors.”
Still chewing, Jess stared at his feet. “You’re wearing your boots indoors.”
Not for the first time, Tyler reflected on the challenges of parenting. “New rule. I’ll leave mine outside, too. That way we don’t get snow in the house. And hang your coat up instead of dropping it over any convenient surface.”
“You drop yours.”
Holy hell. “I’m hanging it up. Watch me.” He shrugged out of his jacket and hung it up with exaggerated purpose. “And turn the music down. That way you’ll be able to hear me when I’m yelling at you.”
She grinned, unabashed. “I turn it up so I can’t hear you yelling at me. Grandma just sent me a text all in capitals. You need to teach her how to use her phone.”
“You’re the teenager. You teach her.”
“She texted me in capitals all last week, and the week before that she kept dialing Uncle Jackson by accident.”
Tyler, entertained by the thought of his business-focused brother being driven insane by calls from their mother in the middle of his working day, grinned back. “I bet he loved that. So what did she want?”
“She was inviting me to come over when you’re at the team meeting at the Outdoor Center. I’m going to help her cook.” She took another bite of toast. “It’s family night tonight. Everyone is coming, even Uncle Sean. Had you forgotten?”
Tyler groaned. “Team meeting and Fright Night? Whose idea was that?”
“Grandma’s. She worries about me, because I live with you, and the only thing that never runs out in our fridge is beer. And you’re not supposed to call it Fright Night. Can I come to the team meeting?”
“You would hate every moment.”
“I wouldn’t! I love being part of a family business. The way you feel about meetings is the way I feel about school. Being trapped indoors is a waste of time when there’s all that snow out there. But at least you get to ski all day. I’m stuck to a hard chair trying to understand math. Pity me.” She finished the toast, and Tyler frowned as crumbs fell on the floor.
Ash pounced on them with enthusiasm.
“You’re the reason the fridge is empty. You’re always eating. If I’d known you were going to eat this much, I never would have let you live with me. You’re costing me a fortune.”
The fact his joke made her laugh told him how far they’d come in the year they’d been living together.
“Grandma says if I wasn’t living with you, you’d drown in your own mess.”
“You’re the one dropping the crumbs. You should use a plate.”
“You never use a plate. You’re always dropping crumbs on the floor.”
“You don’t have to do everything I do.”
“You’re the grown-up. I’m following your example.”
The thought was enough to bring him out in a cold sweat. “Don’t. You should do the opposite of everything I have ever done.” He watched as Jess bent to make a fuss of Luna, and the medal around her neck swung forward, almost hitting the dog on the nose. “Why are you wearing that?”
“It motivates me. And I like the example you set. You’re the coolest dad on the planet. And you’re fun to live with. Especially when you’re trying to behave.”
“Trying to—” Tyler dragged his gaze from the medal that was a painful reminder of his old life. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I mean I like living here. You don’t worry about the same stuff as most grown-ups.”
“I’m probably supposed to.” Tyler ran his hand over the back of his neck. “I have a new respect for your grandmother. How did Mom raise three boys without strangling us?”
“Grandma would never strangle anyone. She’s patient and kind.”
“Yeah, right. Unfortunately for you, I’m not, and I’m the one raising you now.” The reality of that still terrified him more than anything he’d faced on the downhill ski circuit. If he messed this up, the consequences would be worse than a damaged leg and a shattered career. “So have you finished your assignment?”
“No. I started, but I got distracted watching the recording of your downhill in Beaver Creek. Come and watch it with me.”
He’d rather poke himself in the eye with a ski pole.
“Maybe later. I had a call from your teacher.” Casually, he changed the subject. “You didn’t hand in your assignment on Monday.”
“Luna ate it.”
“Sure she did. You are allowed one late assignment in each trimester. You’ve already had two.”
“Weren’t you ever late handing in assignments?”
All the time.
Wondering why anyone would choose to have more than one kid when being a parent was this hard, Tyler tried a different approach. “If you have five late assignments, you’ll be staying late at homework club. That cuts into your skiing time.”
That wiped the smile from her face. “I’ll get it done.”
“Good decision. And next time, finish your homework before you watch TV.”
“I wasn’t watching TV. I was watching you. I want to understand your technique. You were the best. I’m going to ski every spare minute this winter.” She closed her hand around the medal, making it sound like a vow. “Will you be at race training tomorrow? You said you’d try to be there.”
Floored by that undiluted adoration, Tyler looked into his daughter’s eyes and saw the same passion that burned in his own.
He thought of all the jobs that were piling up at Snow Crystal. Jobs that needed his attention. Then he thought about the years he’d missed out on being with his daughter. “I’ll be there.” He strolled through to his recently renovated kitchen, cursing under his breath as cold seeped through his socks. “Jess, you’ve been dripping snow through the whole house. It’s like wading through a river.”
“That was Luna. She rolled in a snowdrift and then shook herself.”
“Next time she can shake herself outside our house.”
“I didn’t want her to get cold.” Watching him, Jess pushed her hair behind her ear. “You called it our house.”
“She’s a dog, Jess! She has thick fur. She doesn’t get cold. And of course I called it our house. What else would I call it? We both live here, and right now there’s no chance of me forgetting that!” He stepped over another patch of water. “I’ve spent the last couple of years renovating this place, and I still feel as if I need to wear my boots indoors.”
“I love Ash and Luna. They’re family. I never had a dog in Chicago. Mom hated mess. We never had a real Christmas tree, either. She hated those because she had to pick up the needles.”
Tension and irritation fled. The mention of Jess’s mother made Tyler feel as if someone had stuffed snow down his neck. Suddenly, it wasn’t only his feet that were cold.
He clamped his mouth down on the comment that wanted to leave his lips. The truth was that Janet Carpenter had hated just about everything. She’d hated Vermont, she’d hated living so far from a city, she’d hated skiing. Most of all, she’d hated him. But his family had made it a rule not to say a bad word about Janet in front of Jess, and he stuck to that rule even when the strain of it brought him close to bursting. “We’ll have a real tree this year. We’ll take a trip into the forest and choose one together.” Aware that he might be overcompensating, he reverted back to his normal self. “And I’m glad you love the dogs, but that doesn’t change the fact you should keep the damn living room door closed when they’re in the house. This place is no longer a construction site. The new rule is no dogs on sofas or on beds.”
“I think Luna prefers the old rules.” Her eyes sparkled with mischief. “And you’re not supposed to say damn. Grams hates it when you swear.”
Tyler kept his jaw tightened. “Well, Grams isn’t here, is she?” His grandmother and grandfather still lived at the resort, in the converted sugar house that had once been the hub of Snow Crystal’s maple syrup production. “And if you tell her, I’ll throw you on your butt in the snow, and you’ll be wetter than Luna. Now go and finish your assignment or I’ll get the bad parent award, and I’m not prepared to climb onto the podium to collect that one.”
Jess beamed. “If I promise to hand in my assignment and not tell anyone you swear, can we watch skiing together in your den later?”
“You should ask Brenna. She’s a gifted teacher.” He was about to reach for a beer when he remembered he was supposed to be setting an example, so poured himself a glass of milk instead. Since Jess had moved in, he’d disciplined himself not to drink from the carton. “She’ll tell you what everyone is doing wrong.”
“She’s already promised to help me now I’ve made the school ski team. Have you seen her in the gym? She has sick abs.”
“Yeah, I’ve seen her.” And he didn’t let himself think about her abs.
He didn’t let himself think about any part of her.
She was his best friend, and she was staying that way.
To take his mind off the thought of Brenna’s abs, he stuck his head back in the fridge. “This fridge is empty.”
“Kayla’s giving me a lift into the village later so I’ll pick something up.” Her phone beeped, and she dug it out of her pocket. “Oh—”
Tyler pushed the door shut with his shoulder and then caught sight of her expression. “What’s wrong?”
“Kayla texted to say she’s tied up with work, that’s all.”
“Sounds painful. Never mind. I’ll go to the store tomorrow.”
Jess stared at her phone. “I need to go now.”
“Why? We both hate shopping. It can wait.”
“This can’t wait.” Her head was down, but he saw color streak across her cheekbones.
“Is this about Christmas? Because it’s not for another couple of weeks. We still have plenty of time. Most of my shopping gets done at three o’clock on Christmas Eve.”
“It’s not about Christmas! Dad, I need—” she broke off, her face scarlet “—some things from the store, that’s all.”
“What can you possibly need that can’t wait until tomorrow?”
“Girl stuff, okay? I need girl stuff!” Snapping at him, she spun on her heel and stalked out of the room leaving Tyler staring after her, trying to understand the reason for the sudden mood explosion.
It took him a moment, and then he closed his eyes briefly and swore under his breath.
Comprehension came along with a moment of pure panic. Nothing in his past life had prepared him to raise a teenager. Especially not a teenage girl.
When had she—?
He glanced toward the door, knowing he had to say something, but clueless as to the most sensitive way to broach a topic that embarrassed the hell out of both of them.
Could he ignore it?
Tell her to search the internet?
He ran his hand over his face and cursed under his breath, knowing he couldn’t ignore it or leave something that important to a search engine.
It wasn’t as if she had her mother to ask. He was the only parent in her life. And right now she was probably thinking that was a raw deal.
“Jess!” He yelled after her, and when there was no response, he strode out of the kitchen and found her tugging her boots on in the hall. “Get in the car. I’ll take you to the store.”
“Forget it.” Her voice was muffled, her hair falling forward over her face. “I’m going to walk over to the house and ask Grandma to drive me.”
“Grandma hates driving in the snow and the dark. I’ll take you.” His voice was rougher than he intended, and he stretched out a hand to touch her shoulder and then pulled it back. To hug or not to hug? He had no idea. “I was going to the store anyway.”
“You were going tomorrow, not today.”
“Well, now I’m going today.” He grabbed his coat. “Come on. We’ll pick up some of that chocolate you like.”
Still not looking at him, she fiddled with her boots, and he sighed, wishing for the hundredth time that teenage girls came with an operating manual.
“Jess, it’s all good.”
“It’s not good,” she muttered in a strangled tone, “it’s like a massive avalanche of awkward! You’re thinking this is your worst nightmare.”
“I’m not thinking that.” He gripped the door handle. “I’m thinking I’m messing it up. I’m saying the wrong things and making you feel uncomfortable, which is not my intention.”
She peeped at him through her hair. “You’re wishing I’d never come to live here.”
He’d thought they’d got past that. The insecurity. Those creeping, confidence-eroding doubts that had eaten away at her happiness. “I’m not wishing that.”
“Mom told me she wished I’d never been born.”
Tyler zipped up his jacket viciously, almost removing a finger in the process. “She didn’t mean that.” He dragged open the door, grateful for the blast of freezing air to cool his temper.
“Yes, she did.” Jess mumbled the words. “She told me I was the worst thing that ever happened to her.”
“Well, I’ve never thought that. Not once. Not even when my socks are wet because you’ve let the dogs drag snow into the house.”
“You didn’t sign up for any of this.” Her voice faltered, and the uncertainty in her eyes made him want to punch a hole through something.
“I tried to. I asked your mom to marry me.”
“I know. She said no because she thought you’d be a useless father. I heard her telling my stepdad. She said you were irresponsible.”
Tyler felt the emotion rush at him. “Yeah, well, that may be true, but it doesn’t change the fact I wanted you, Jess, right from the start. And when your mother wouldn’t agree to marry me, I tried other ways of having you live here with us. Why the hell are we talking about this now?”
“Because it’s the truth. I was a mistake.” Jess gave a tiny shrug as if it didn’t matter, and because he knew how much it mattered, he hesitated, knowing that the way he responded was vitally important to the way she felt about this whole situation.
“We didn’t exactly plan to have you, that’s true. I’m not going to lie about that, but you can’t plan every single thing that happens in life. People think they can. They think they can control things and then whoosh—something happens that proves you’re not as in control as you think. And sometimes it’s the things you don’t plan that turn out best.”
“I wasn’t one of those things. Mom told me I was the biggest mistake of her life.”
His hands clenched into fists and he had to force himself to stay calm. “She was probably upset or tired.”
“It was the time I snowboarded down the stairs.”
Tyler managed a smile. “Right, well, there you go. That’s why.” He dragged her against him and hugged her, feeling her skinny body and the familiar scent of her hair. His daughter. His child. “You’re the best thing that happened to me. You’re an O’Neil all the way, and sometimes that drives your mom a little crazy, that’s all. She doesn’t have that much love for us O’Neils. But she loves you. I know she does.” He didn’t know that, but he reined in his natural urge to speak the truth.
“Her family isn’t close like ours, and that makes her jealous.” Her voice was muffled against his chest, and he felt her arms tighten around him.
“You may skip classes, but you’re not stupid.”
Jess pulled away, her cheeks streaked pink. “Is that why you don’t want to ever get married? Because of what happened with Mom?”
How was he supposed to answer that?
He’d learned that with Jess, the questions came with no warning. She bottled stuff up and held it inside until she burst with trying to contain it.
“Some people aren’t the marrying type, and I’m one of those.”
Tyler decided he’d rather ski a vertical slope in the dark with his eyes closed than have this conversation. “All people are good at some things and bad at others. I’m bad at relationships. I don’t make women happy.” Just ask your mother. “Women who care about me often end up being hurt.”
“So you’re never going to get involved with anyone again? Dad, that’s really dumb.”
“You’re telling me I’m dumb? What happened to respect?”
“All I’m saying is it’s okay to make mistakes when you’re young. Everyone messes up sometimes. It shouldn’t stop you trying again when you’re older.”
“Maybe you’ll be better at it now you’ve got me. If you want to know how the female mind works, you can ask,” she said generously, and Tyler opened his mouth and closed it again.
“Thanks, sweetheart. I appreciate that.” Deciding that the conversation was getting more awkward, not less, he dug out his car keys. “Now get in the car before both of us freeze in the doorway. We need to get to the store before it closes.”
“It would have been easier for you if I’d been a boy. Then we wouldn’t have had to have embarrassing conversations.”
“Don’t you believe it. Teenage boys are the worst. I know. I was one. And I’m not embarrassed.” Tyler’s tongue felt thick in his mouth. “Why would I be embarrassed by something that’s a normal part of growing up? If there’s anything you want to ask—” Please, God, don’t let there be anything she wanted to ask “—you come straight out and say it.”
She tugged on her boots. “I’m good. But I need to get to the store.”
He grabbed her coat and thrust it at her. “Wrap up. It’s freezing out there.”
“Can Ash and Luna come?”
“On a trip to the store?” He was about to ask why he would want to take two hyperactive dogs on a trip to the village, but then saw her hopeful expression and decided the dogs might be the best cure for awkward. And hopefully, they’d take her mind off her mom and the complexity of human relationships. “Sure. Great idea. Nothing I love more than two panting animals while I’m driving. But you’ll have to keep them under control.”
Jess whistled for Ash and Luna, who came bounding out, ecstatic at the promise of a trip.
Tyler drove out of Snow Crystal, slowing down for the guests who were returning from a day on the slopes.
The resort was half-empty, but it was still early in the season, and he knew visitor numbers would double once the Christmas break arrived.
And across the Atlantic in Europe, the Alpine Ski World Cup was underway.
He tightened his grip on the wheel, grateful that Jess was chattering away. Grateful for the distraction.
“Uncle Jackson told me the snowmaking is going really well. Loads of runs are open. Do you think we might have a big fall of snow? Uncle Sean is here.” She talked nonstop as she stroked Luna. “I saw his car earlier. Gramps said he was here for the meeting, but I don’t get why. He’s a surgeon. He doesn’t get involved in running the business. Or is he going to be here to fix broken legs?”
“Uncle Sean is working up a preconditioning program with Christy at the spa. They’re trying to reduce skiing injuries. It was Brenna’s idea.” Tyler slowed as they reached the main highway and turned toward the village. The snow was falling steadily, coating the windshield and the road ahead.
“How come Brenna is the one in charge of the outdoor program when you’re the one with the gold medal ?”
“Because Uncle Jackson had already given her the job before I came home, and because I hate organization almost as much as I hate shopping and cooking. I’m only interested in the skiing part. And Brenna is a brilliant teacher. She’s patient and kind, whereas I want to dump people in a snowdrift if they don’t get it right the first time.” He glanced briefly in his rearview mirror. “Are you going to sleep over with Grandma tonight?”
“Do you want me to? Are you planning on having sex or something?”
Tyler almost swerved into the ditch. “Jess—”
“What? You said I could talk to you about anything.”
He steadied the car. Focused on the road. “You can’t ask me if I’m planning on having sex.”
“Why? I don’t want to get in the way, that’s all.”
“You don’t get in the way.” He wondered why this conversation had to come up while he was driving in difficult conditions. “You never get in the way.”
“Dad, I’m not stupid. You used to have a lot of sex. I know. I read about it on the internet. This one article said you could get a woman in bed faster than you could make it to the bottom of the slope in the downhill.”
Feeling as if he’d been hit by another avalanche of awkward, Tyler slowed right down as he approached the village. Lights twinkled in store windows, and a large Christmas tree stood proudly at the end of Main Street. “You don’t want to believe everything you read on the internet.”
“All I’m saying is, you don’t have to give up sex just because I’m living with you. You need to get out there again.”
Speechless, he pulled into a parking space by the village store. “I’m not having this conversation with my thirteen-year-old daughter.”
“I’m nearly fourteen. You need to keep up.”
“Whatever. My sex life is off limits.”
“Did you ever have sex with Brenna? Was she one of the ones you had a relationship with?”
How was it possible to sweat when the air temperature was below freezing? “That is personal, Jess.”
“So you did have sex with her?”
“No! I never had sex with Brenna.” Sex with Brenna was something he didn’t allow himself to think about. Ever. He didn’t think about those abs. He didn’t think about those legs. “And this conversation is over and done.”
“Because it would be fine with me. I think she really likes you. Do you like her?”
Realizing he’d just been given permission to have sex by his teenage daughter, Tyler raked his fingers through his hair. “Yeah, of course I do. I’ve known her since we were kids. We’ve hung around together for most of our lives. She’s a good friend.”
And he wasn’t going to do anything to damage that. Nothing. Not a damn thing.
He’d messed up every relationship he’d ever had. His friendship with Brenna was the one thing that was still intact, and he intended to keep it that way.
Jess unclipped her seat belt. “I like Brenna. She’s not all gooey eyed about you like some women are. And she talks to me like a grown-up. If you could give me some money, I’ll go and buy what I need. I’ll buy some stuff for the fridge, too, so if Grandma drops by she’ll be impressed by your housekeeping.”
“Gooey eyed?” Tyler pulled his wallet out of his pocket. “What is that supposed to mean?”
Jess shrugged. “Like some of the moms at school. They all wear makeup and tight clothes, in case you’re picking me up. The other day when Kayla picked me up, there was almost a riot. Sometimes the other girls want to know if you’re coming or not. I guess their moms don’t want to bother with the whole lipstick thing if you’re not going to show up.”
Tyler stared at her. “Are you serious?”
“Yeah, but it’s okay.” Jess tugged her coat around her skinny frame. “I’m cool with the fact my dad is a national sex symbol. But if you’re going to pick someone I have to live with and call Mom, I’d like you to pick someone like Brenna, that’s all. She doesn’t flick her hair all the time and look at you with a dopey smile.”
“No one is coming to live with us, you won’t be calling anyone Mom and, for the final time, I’m not going to have sex with Brenna.” Tyler spoke through clenched teeth. “Now go buy whatever it is you need.”
Jess slid down in her seat. “I can’t.” Her voice was strangled. “Mr Turner has just gone in there with his son, who is in my class. I want to die.”
Tyler breathed deeply and then rummaged in the mess in his car until he found an old restaurant bill and a pen. “Make me a list.”
“I’ll wait until they’ve gone.” It was dark in the car, but he could see she was scarlet again.
“Jess, we need to do this before we both die of hypothermia.”
She hesitated and then snatched the pen and scribbled.
“Wait here.” Tyler took the bill from her and walked into the store. If he could ski Austria’s notorious Hahnenkamm at a speed of 90mph, he could buy girl stuff.
TEN MINUTES LATER, Brenna Daniels walked into the store, relieved to be out of the bitter cold.
Ellen Kelly came out from the room behind the counter, carrying three large boxes. “Brenna! Your mother was in here earlier today. Told me she hadn’t seen you for a month.”
“I’ve been busy. Can I help you with those, Ellen?” Brenna took the boxes from her and stacked them on the floor. “You shouldn’t carry so many at once. The doctor told you to be careful lifting.”
“I’m careful. Storm’s coming, and people like to stock up in case they’re snowed in for a month. We’re all hoping it’s not going to be as bad as 2007. Remember Valentine’s Day?”
“I was in Europe, Ellen.”
“That’s right, you were. I forgot. No snow at all in January, and then three feet in twenty-four hours. Ned Morris lost some of his cows when the barn roof fell in.” Ellen rubbed her back. “By the way, you just missed him.”
“Tyler.” Ellen bent and opened one of the boxes. “And he had Jess with him. I swear she’s grown a foot over the summer.”
“Tyler was here?” Brenna’s heart pounded a little harder. “We have a meeting back at the resort in an hour.”
“I’m guessing they had an emergency. Jess stayed in the car, and he came in and bought everything she needed. And I do mean everything.” Ellen Kelly winked knowingly and started unpacking the boxes and transferring the contents to the shelves. “I never thought I’d see Tyler O’Neil in here shopping for a teenage girl. I remember people had nothing but bad to say about him when Janet Carpenter announced she was pregnant, but he’s proved them all wrong. That Janet is as cold as a Vermont winter, but Tyler—” she arranged cans on the shelf “—he may be a bad boy with the women, but no one can say he hasn’t done right by that child.”
“She’s almost fourteen.”
“And looking like a different person from the one who arrived here last winter, all skinny and pale. Can you imagine? What sort of mother sends a child away like that.” Ellen clucked her disapproval and bent to open another box, this one packed with Christmas decorations. “Disgraceful.”
Brenna was careful to keep her opinion on that to herself. “Janet had a new baby.”
“So she gave up the old one? All the more reason to keep Jess close, in my opinion.” Ellen hung long garlands of tinsel on hooks. “She could have been scarred for life. Lucky she has Tyler and the rest of the O’Neils. Would you like decorations, honey? I have a big selection this year.”
“No thanks, Ellen. I don’t decorate. And Jess isn’t scarred. She’s a lovely girl.” Loyal and discreet, Brenna tried to steer the conversation in a different direction. She didn’t mention the insecurities or any of the problems she knew Jess had suffered settling in. “Did you know she made the school ski team? She has real talent.”
“She’s her father’s daughter all right. I still remember that winter when Tyler skied down old Mitch Sommerville’s roof.” Smiling, Ellen sat an oversize smiling Santa on a shelf. “He was arrested of course, but my George always said he’d never seen a person so fearless on the mountain. Except you, perhaps. The two of you were inseparable. Used to watch you sneaking out when you should have been in class.”
“Me? You’ve got the wrong person, Ellen.” Brenna grinned at her. “I never sneaked out of school in my life.”
“Must be a real blow for Tyler, losing his career like that. Especially when he was right at the top.”
Brenna, who would rather jump naked into a freezing lake than talk about another person’s private business, made a desperate attempt to change the subject. “There’s plenty to keep him busy up at Snow Crystal. Bookings are up. Looks like it might be a busy winter.”
“That’s good to hear. That family deserves it. No one was more shocked than me to hear the place was in trouble. The O’Neils have lived at Snow Crystal since before I was born. Still, Jackson seems to have turned it around. There were people round here who thought he’d made a mistake when he spent all that money building fancy log cabins with hot tubs, but turns out he knew what he was doing.”
“Yes.” Brenna picked up the few things she needed, wondering if there was such a thing as private business living in a small town. “He’s a clever businessman.”
“He’s always known his own mind. And that girl of his—”
“Her heart is in the right place even if she does walk in here with those shiny shoes looking all New York City.”
Brenna added milk to her basket. “She’s British.”
“You wouldn’t know it until she opens her mouth. Take some of those chocolate cookies while you’re there. They’re delicious. Not that you’re short of good things to eat at Snow Crystal, with Élise in charge of the kitchen. Now that Jackson and Sean are settled, it will be Tyler’s turn next.”
Brenna dropped the jar she was holding, and it smashed, spreading the contents across the floor. Crap. “Oh, Ellen, I’m so sorry. I’ll clean it up. Do you have a mop?” Annoyed with herself, she stooped to pick up the pieces, but Ellen waved her aside.
“Leave it. I don’t want you cutting your fingers. There was a time when I thought the two of you might end up together. You couldn’t be separated.”
“We were friends, Ellen.” This conversation was the last thing she needed. “And we’re still friends.”
By the time she left the store, she was exhausted from dodging gossip and thinking about Tyler.
She drove straight back to Snow Crystal and parked outside the Outdoor Center next to Sean’s flashy red sports car. The snow was falling steadily, the path already covered with half a foot of white powder. The temperature had dropped, and there was the promise of more snow in the air, which was good news for Snow Crystal because snow cover was directly related to the number of Christmas bookings.
And they needed those bookings.
Despite what she’d said to Ellen, she knew the resort was still struggling to stay afloat. The log cabins, each with its own hot tub and private view of the lake and forest, had been expensive to build. For the past two years they’d had more cabins empty than occupied. Things were slowly improving, but they still had too many vacancies.
Brenna stamped the snow off her boots, pushed open the door and was enveloped by a welcome rush of warm air. She walked through to the peace and tranquility of the spa. The lighting was muted, the walls a soothing shade of ocean blue. Soft music played in the background, and the air was filled with the scent of aromatherapy oils. It tickled her nose, but then she’d never been one to lie around and let someone she didn’t know rub oil into her skin. It seemed intimate to her. Something a lover might do, not a stranger.
Not that lovers played much of a part in her life.
Christy, who had joined them in the summer to run the spa, glanced up from behind the desk. A mini Christmas tree twinkled from the corner of her desk. “Still snowing out there?” She was a cool blonde, a qualified physiotherapist who had added massage and aromatherapy to her already impressive list of qualifications. “You’ve had a long day. Is it always as crazy as this at the beginning of a winter season?”
“There’s a lot of planning and preparation, that’s for sure.” Brenna pulled her hat off her head, sending another flurry of snowflakes to the floor. “Is everyone here already?”
“We’re still waiting for Élise, and—”
“Merde, I am late.” Élise, the head chef, sped past her like a whirlwind. “We are full in the restaurant tonight and also there is a party of thirty who booked out the Boathouse for an anniversary dinner. I don’t have time for this. And I know already my plan for the winter season, which is to give people the best food they ‘ave ever tasted. I will see you in the gym first thing tomorrow, Brenna. I’m sorry I missed this morning. It is the first time for months but we were crazy in the kitchen.”
“It’s Christmas, and your restaurant is the one part of this resort that has never been in trouble.” Brenna pushed her hat into her pocket. “You’re stressed. You only ever drop the h when you’re stressed.”
“Of course I am stressed. I am doing the work of eight people, and now I am expected to sit in a meeting.” Disgusted, Élise strode off, as light on her feet as a dancer, her shiny cap of dark hair swinging around her jaw.
Christy raised her eyebrows. “Is she caffeinated?”
“No, she’s French.” Brenna glanced out the window. “I saw Sean’s car, so I guess that means everyone is here?”
“Everyone but Tyler. He’s late. I texted him but he hasn’t replied.”
“He’s probably turned the ringer off on his phone. He does that a lot. He used to have to change his number once a month because women kept calling him.”
“I’m not surprised. The man is so insanely hot, I disconnect the smoke alarm whenever he walks through that door. I saw him in the gym this morning, which was a special treat given he usually uses the one in his house. The guy can bench press the weight of a car.” Christy fanned herself with her fingers. “I’m thinking of adding his name to the list of attractions at Snow Crystal.”
“He’s already on the list. Kayla has talked him into doing a few motivational talks, and he occasionally acts as a guide for experienced skiers who are willing to pay a price to ski with Tyler O’Neil.” And she knew he hated it. He wasn’t interested in fame or adulation, just in skiing down a mountain as fast as possible. He didn’t want to talk about what he did; he just wanted to do it. Other people didn’t seem to understand that, but she did. She understood the love of the snow and the speed. “He’ll turn up when he’s ready, as he always does. He operates in his own way, in his own time.”
“I love that about him. It’s a very sexy trait. I guess you don’t notice. You’ve known the O’Neils your whole life. They’re probably like brothers to you.”
How was she supposed to answer that? Two out of the three O’Neils were like brothers, that was true. As for the third—she’d long since reconciled herself to the fact Tyler O’Neil didn’t return her feelings, and she’d learned the hard way that dreaming made things worse. As children they’d been inseparable. As adults—well, things hadn’t turned out the way she’d once hoped they might, but she’d learned to live with it. She knew better than to wish for something that was never going to happen. She had her feet firmly on the ground, and if her brain ever wandered in that direction then she pulled it back fast.
“You’re lucky—” Christy fed a fresh stack of paper into the printer “—you get to work with the guy every day.”
And that probably should have been hard. When she’d accepted Jackson’s offer of a job running the outdoor program for Snow Crystal Resort, she hadn’t known she’d be working with Tyler.
But it wasn’t hard.
Working with Tyler was one of the things she loved most about her job. She got to spend most days with the man of her dreams.
She’d tried curing herself. She’d tried dating other men; she’d even worked abroad, but Tyler was wedged in her heart, and she’d long since accepted that wasn’t going to change.
And if over the years it had hurt her to see him with women, she consoled herself with the fact that the women in his life came and went, whereas their friendship had lasted forever.
“How is the spa doing? Are you going to be busy over Christmas?”
“It’s looking that way.” Christy keyed something into the computer, her perfectly manicured nails tapping the keyboard, her shiny blond hair curving around her smooth cheeks. “I’m fully booked for the Christmas week.”
“You’re doing a good job, Christy.” Brenna wondered how many hours it took to look as polished as Christy. As a child, she’d barely sat still long enough for her mother to drag a brush through her hair. She’d hated ribbons and bows and shiny shoes, which had come as a disappointment to a woman who had longed for a little girl who would wear pink and play quietly with dolls. All Brenna had wanted to do was climb trees and play in the dirt along with the three O’Neil boys. She’d envied them the freedom of their lives and envied their close family, so accepting and supportive.
The O’Neil boys weren’t expected to be a certain way or satisfy a set of rules before they were loved.
She’d wanted to do everything they did, whether it was climbing trees or skiing steep slopes. She didn’t care how messy or dirty she was; she didn’t care if she came home with scraped knees and torn clothes. With them, she’d felt accepted in a way she never was at home or at school.
“So is Tyler seeing anyone at the moment?” Christy’s voice was casual. “I guess there’s a line.”
“He’s not known for long-term relationships.”
“Sounds like my type of guy.” Christy inputted some figures into the spreadsheet. “I love them wild. All the more fun when you tame them.”
“I’m not sure Tyler can be tamed.” And she didn’t want Tyler tamed. She didn’t want a different version of him. She wanted him the way he was.
“So what’s a guy like him doing here? I mean, Snow Crystal is lovely, but it’s more of a family resort than a hive for the rich and famous.”
“Tyler loves Snow Crystal. He grew up here. And this is a family business. He does what he can to help.” And she knew it half killed him to no longer be competing. “If we get another fall of snow in the next few days, it might tempt a few more people to book. I know Kayla is putting together some packages.”
“Yes, I’ve been working on a nonskier program with her. And talking of Kayla—” Christy rummaged in the drawer of her desk “—can you give this to her? It came in this morning, and I forgot to tell her. It’s nail polish. The shade is Ice Crystal. She’s going to use it in a promotion she’s doing. Has she mentioned her plans for an ice party to you?”
“She’s planning a pre-Christmas event here for locals as well as guests. An ice party. Fire pit, ice sculpture, sled dogs, hot food, fireworks—it sounds fabulous.”
“I can’t wait to hear more. Aren’t you joining us for the meeting?”
“No. There are only two of us in today. Angie has the flu so I’m covering the phones, and anyway I’m not sure I can cope with all that O’Neil testosterone in one room. What do you think of the nail polish? It’s pretty, don’t you think? Perfect for the holiday party season.”
Brenna turned the bottle over in her hand, watching it sparkle in the light. “I spend most of my day with my hands in thick mittens, or else I’m chipping my nails hauling skis all over the resort, so I can’t honestly say Ice Crystal is going to have much of a place in my life, but yes, it’s very sparkly.”
It was the sort of thing her mother would have liked her to wear.
“You should come in and have a spa morning before we get busy. My treat. I could massage away all those skiing aches. And you must tell me what you do to your hair. It’s so shiny. I want a bottle of whatever you’re using.” Christy’s expression changed from friendly to feline as the door opened, letting in a blast of cold air. She smoothed her already smooth sheet of blond hair and smiled. “Hi!”
Brenna didn’t need to turn her head to see who had walked in. Any one of the three O’Neil brothers might have caused a woman to sit up straighter and moisten her lips, but given that two out of the three were already in the meeting room, she knew exactly who was standing behind her.
Her heart lifted along with her mood as it always did when Tyler walked into a room.
“Hi, Bren.” Tyler slapped her on the shoulders with the same casual affection he showed his brothers, his attention focused on Christy, whose eyelashes were working overtime.
“You’re late, Tyler. Everyone else is here.”
“Saving the best until last.” He winked at her. “So how’s it going here in Beauty Central?”
Brenna watched as Christy’s cheeks turned a little pinker. The same thing happened every time Tyler O’Neil smiled at a woman. He radiated energy, and the combination of dark good looks, masculine vitality and casual charm proved an irresistible combination.
“It’s going great.” Christy leaned forward, giving him the full benefit of her green eyes and cleavage. “We’re busier than last year, and Kayla and I have been working out some great ski/spa promotions. Any time you fancy a massage, let me know.” She flirted easily, naturally, as most women did when they were around Tyler.
Brenna was hopeless at flirting. She didn’t have that way of looking, that way of smiling—but most of all, she didn’t have the clever words.
Christy used words like a rope, throwing them out, using them to draw him in like a wild horse being broken.
Watching the show, Brenna felt as if her heart were being squeezed in someone’s hands.
She was about to melt away quietly to the meeting room when Tyler caught her arm.
“Did you hear the forecast?” His eyes gleamed with anticipation and she nodded, reading his mind.
“Heavy snow. Good for business.”
“Powder day. Good for us. What about it? Deep snow, backcountry and just the two of us making tracks the way we used to when we were kids.” His voice was a soft, sexy purr and she felt her knees weaken as they always did when she was this close to him.
She consoled herself with the fact that this was something she shared with him that Christy couldn’t. She might not be able to flirt, but she could ski. And she skied well. She was one of the few people who could almost keep up with him.
Ellen was right that they’d skipped classes.
On one occasion, her mother had been called down to the school, but the tense atmosphere at home in the aftermath of that confrontation had been worth it for those few blissful hours spent alone with Tyler doing what they both loved best.
But there was no skipping anything now.
They both had responsibilities. “I’ll have to get in line. We have a waiting list of people willing to pay good money to ski powder with you.”
His smile faded. “Lucky me.” He let his hand drop and turned back to Christy, who had somehow managed to apply another layer of gloss to her lips in the short time Tyler’s head had been turned.
She smiled, giving him the full effect. “I expect you’re looking forward to skiing the hell out of those slopes. I watched a replay of your medal-winning run the other day on TV. You were unbelievably fast.”
Knowing it was a sensitive subject, Brenna glanced quickly at Tyler, but his expression didn’t change. There was nothing in that wickedly handsome face to suggest this situation was difficult for him.
But she knew it was. It had to be, because Tyler O’Neil had lived to race.
From the moment he’d strapped on his first set of skis, he’d been addicted to the speed and adrenaline of downhill. It had been a passion. Some might have said an addiction.
And then he’d fallen.
Thinking about that day made her stomach turn. She could still remember the gut-wrenching terror of waiting to hear if he was dead or alive.
The whole family had been there to support him while he raced, and because she’d been working for Jackson in Europe, she’d been there, too. They’d stood in the grandstand, watching skiers hurtle down at brutal speeds, waiting for Tyler. Instead of beating them all and ending the season triumphant, he’d fallen and ended his downhill career for good. He’d spun, twisted and crashed heavily before sliding down the near vertical run and slamming into the netting. Like all skiers, he’d had falls before, but this one was different.
There had been screams from the crowd and then the murmur of anticipation followed by the dreaded stillness and the breathless agony of waiting.
Trapped in the crowd, Brenna had been unable to do anything but watch helplessly as he’d been lifted, seriously injured, into the helicopter. There had been blood on the snow, and she’d closed her eyes, breathed in the freezing air and begged whoever might be listening, please let him live. And she’d promised herself that as long as he survived, she’d stop wanting the impossible.
She’d stop wanting what she couldn’t have.
She’d stop hoping he’d return her feelings.
She’d stop hoping he’d fall in love with her.
She’d never complain about anything ever again.
As she’d waited for news along with the rest of his family, she’d told herself she didn’t care who he was with, as long as he was alive.
But of course that promise, made in the scalding heat of fear, hadn’t been easy to keep. Even less so now, when they worked alongside each other every day.
She’d witnessed his frustration at being forced to give up the racing career he loved. He hid his feelings under layers of bad-boy attitude, but she knew it hurt him. She knew he ached to be back racing.
He was a gifted athlete, and it made her sad to see him standing on the sidelines or coaching a group of kids. It was like watching an injured racehorse trapped in a riding school when the only place he wanted to be was on the track, winning.
She hadn’t made a sound, but he turned his head and looked at her.
He had the O’Neil eyes, that vivid, intense blue that reminded her of the sky on the most perfect skiing day. A knot of tension formed in her stomach. A dangerous lethargy spread through her body. Neither Jackson nor Sean had this effect on her. Only Tyler. For a moment she thought she saw something flicker in those blue depths, and then he gave her a slow, lazy smile.
“You ready, Bren? If I’m going to die of boredom, I don’t want to do it alone.”
No matter how bad the day, Tyler always made her laugh. She loved his wicked sense of humor and his indifference to authority. If he did something, then it was because it made sense to him, because he believed in it, not because it was laid out in a rulebook.
As someone who had grown up with the rulebook stuck in her face, she envied his cool determination to live life on his terms. He had a wild streak, but his downhill skiing career had fed his desire to duel with danger and provided an outlet for that excess energy. How he would have used that wild streak had he not been a skier had been the subject of endless speculation both in the village and on the world-cup circuit.
He threw a final smile in Christy’s direction and strolled toward the meeting room, six foot three inches of raw sex appeal and lethal charm.
Brenna followed more slowly, giving herself a lecture.
It was the beginning of the season. She had to start as she meant to go on—being realistic about her relationship with Tyler.
He saw her as “one of the boys”. A ski buddy. Even on the rare occasion she dressed up and wore heels and a tight dress, he didn’t look in her direction. Which might not have been quite so galling had it not been for the fact he looked at almost every other female who crossed his path.
She had the distinction of being the one girl in Vermont Tyler O’Neil hadn’t kissed.
In the background she heard the phone ring. Heard Christy pick it up and answer in her pitch-perfect professional voice. “Snow Crystal Spa, Christy speaking, how may I help you?”
You can’t, Brenna thought miserably. No one can help me.
She’d been in love with Tyler her whole life, and nothing she did, or he did, had ever changed that. Not even when he’d got Janet Carpenter pregnant, and she’d felt as if her heart had been sliced in two.
She’d taken a job on another continent in the hope of curing herself. She’d dated other men in the hope that one of them would do the job, before coming to the conclusion there was no cure. Her feelings were deep and permanent.
She was doomed to love Tyler O’Neil forever.