“PHONE CALL FOR YOU, Dr. O’Neil. She says it’s an emergency.”
Sean rolled his shoulders to ease the tension, his mind still in the operating room.
His patient was a promising soccer player. He’d torn the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, a common enough injury that had ended plenty of sports careers. Sean was determined it wasn’t going to end this one. The procedure had gone well, although surgery was only the beginning. What followed would be a lengthy rehabilitation that would require dedication and determination from all involved.
Still thinking about how to manage expectations, he took the phone from the nurse. “Sean O’Neil.”
“Sean? Where the hell were you last night?”
Braced for a different conversation, Sean frowned with irritation. “Veronica? You shouldn’t be calling me here. I was told this was an emergency.”
“It is an emergency!” Her voice rose along with her temper. “Next time you invite me to dinner, have the decency to show up.”
A nurse came out of the operating room and handed him a form.
“Veronica, I’m sorry.” He tucked the phone between his cheek and his shoulder and gestured for a pen. “I was called back to the hospital. A colleague had problems with a patient. I was operating.”
“And you couldn’t have called me? I waited in that restaurant for an hour. An hour, Sean! A man tried to pick me up.”
Sean signed the form. “Was he nice?”
“Do not joke about it. It was the most embarrassing hour of my life. Don’t ever, ever do that to me again.”
He handed the form back to the nurse with a brief smile. “You’d rather I left a patient to bleed to death?”
“I’d rather you honored your commitments.”
“I’m a surgeon. My first commitment is to my patients.”
“So what you’re saying is that if you had to choose between me and work, you’d pick work?”
“Yes.” The fact that she’d asked that question showed how little she knew him. “That is what I’m saying.”
“Damn you, Sean. I hate you.” But there was a wobble in her voice. “Tell me honestly, is it just me or is it all women?”
“It’s me. I’m bad at relationships, you know that. Right now my focus is my career.”
“One of these days you’re going to wake up alone in that fancy apartment of yours and regret all the time you spent working.”
He decided not to point out that he woke up alone through choice. He never invited women back to his apartment. He was barely ever there himself. “My work is important to me. You knew that when you met me.”
“No, important is being dedicated to what you do but still having a personal life. What work is to you, Sean O’Neil, is an obsession. You are single-minded and focused to the exclusion of everything else. That might make you a brilliant doctor but it makes you a lousy date. And here’s a news flash—being charming and good in bed doesn’t stop you being a selfish, workaholic bastard.”
“Sean?” Another nurse appeared at his elbow, her pink cheeks and awkward demeanor suggesting she’d overheard that last sentence. “The team coach is waiting outside for news along with the boy’s parents. Will you talk to them?”
“Are you even listening to me?” Veronica’s voice came down the phone, shrill and irritated. “Are you having another conversation while you’re talking to me?”
Sean closed his eyes. “I’ve just come out of the operating room.” He rubbed his fingers over his forehead. “I need to speak to the relatives.”
“They can wait five minutes!”
“They’re worried. If that was your kid in recovery, you’d want to know what was going on. I have to go. Goodbye, Veronica. I really am sorry about last night.”
“No, wait! Don’t go!” Her voice was urgent. “I love you, Sean. I really love you. Despite everything, I think we have something special. We can make this work. You just need to flex a little bit more.”
Sweat pricked at the back of his neck. He saw the nurse’s eyes widen.
How had he got himself in this situation?
For the first time in years he’d made a misjudgment. He’d thought Veronica was the sort of woman who was happy to live in the moment. Turned out he was wrong about that.
“I have to go, Veronica.”
“All right, I’ll flex. I’m sorry, I’m being a shrew. Let me cook you dinner tonight, I promise I won’t complain if you’re late. You can show up whenever. I’ll—”
“Veronica—” he cut across her “—do not apologize to me when I’m the one who should be apologizing to you. You need to find a guy who will give you the attention you deserve.”
There was a tense silence. “Are you saying it’s over?”
As far as Sean was concerned it had never started. “Yeah, that’s what I’m saying. There are hundreds of guys out there only too willing to flex. Go and find one of them.” He hung up, aware that the nurse was still watching him.
He was so tired he couldn’t even remember her name.
Ann? No, that wasn’t right.
Angela. Yes, it was Angela.
Fatigue descended like a gray fog, slowing his thinking. He needed sleep.
He’d been called to an emergency in the night and had been on his feet operating since dawn. Soon the adrenaline would fade and when it did he knew he was going to crash big-time. Sean wanted to be somewhere near his bed when that happened. He had the use of a room at the hospital but he preferred to make it back to his waterside apartment where he could nurse a beer and watch life on the water.
“Dr. O’Neil? Sean? I’m so sorry. I wouldn’t have put the call through if I’d known it was personal. She said she was a doctor.” The look in her eyes told him she’d have no objection to being Veronica’s replacement. Sean didn’t think she’d be flattered to know he’d temporarily forgotten her existence.
“Not your fault. I’ll talk to the relatives—” He was tempted to take a shower first, but then he remembered the white face of the boy’s mother when she’d arrived at the hospital and decided the shower could wait. “I’ll go and see them now.”
“You’ve had a really long day. If you want to come by my place after work, I make a mac and cheese that is wicked good.”
She was sweet, caring and pretty. Angela would come close to most men’s idea of a perfect woman.
His idea of a perfect woman was one who didn’t want anything from him.
Relationships meant sacrifice and compromise. He wasn’t prepared to do either of those things, which was why he had remained resolutely single.
“As you just witnessed, I am an appalling date.” He managed what he hoped was a disarming smile. “I’d either be working and not show up at all, or so tired I’d fall asleep on your sofa. You can definitely do better.”
“I think you’re amazing, Dr. O’Neil. I work with loads of doctors, and you’re easily the best. If I ever needed a surgeon, I’d want you to look after me. And I wouldn’t care if you fell asleep on my sofa.”
“Yes, you would.” Eventually they always did. “I’ll go and talk to the family now.”
“That’s kind of you. His mother is worried.”
* * *
HE SAW THE worry the moment he laid eyes on the woman.
She sat without moving, her hands gripping her skirt as she tried to contain anxiety made worse by waiting. Her husband was on his feet, hands thrust in his pockets, shoulders hunched as he talked to the coach. Sean knew the coach vaguely. He’d found him to be ruthless and relentlessly pushy and it seemed that surgery on his star player hadn’t softened his approach.
The guy wanted miracles and he wanted them yesterday. Sean knew this particular coach’s priority wasn’t the long-term welfare of the kid lying in the OR, but the future of his team. As a sports injury specialist he dealt with players and coaches all the time. Some were great. Others made him wish he’d chosen law instead of medicine.
The moment the boy’s father saw Sean he sprang forward like a Rottweiler pouncing on an intruder.
The coach was drinking water from a plastic cup. “You fixed it?”
He made it sound like a hole in a roof, Sean thought. Slap a new shingle on and it will be as good as new. Change the tire and get the car back on the road.
“Surgery is only the beginning. It’s going to be a long process.”
“Maybe you should have got him into surgery sooner instead of waiting.”
Maybe you should stop practicing armchair medicine.
Noticing the boy’s mother digging her nails into her legs, Sean decided not to lock horns. “All the research shows that the outcome is better when surgery is carried out on a pain-free mobile joint.” He’d told them the same thing a week before but neither the coach nor the father had wanted to listen then and they didn’t want to listen now.
“How soon can he play again?”
Sean wondered what it must be like for the boy, growing up with these two on his back.
“It’s too early to set a timetable for return. If you push too hard, he won’t be playing at all. The focus now is on rehab. He has to take that seriously. So do you.” This time his tone was as blunt as his words. He’d seen promising careers ruined by coaches who pushed too hard too soon, and by players without the patience to understand that the body didn’t heal according to a sporting schedule.
“It’s a competitive world, Dr. O’Neil. Staying at the top takes determination.”
Sean wondered if the coach was talking about his player or himself. “It also takes a healthy body.”
The boy’s mother, silent until now, stood up. “Is he all right?” The question earned her a scowl from her husband.
“Hell, woman, I just asked him that! Try listening.”
“You didn’t ask.” Her voice shook. “You asked if he’d play again. That’s all you care about. He’s a person, Jim, not a machine. He’s our son.”
“At his age I was—”
“I know what you were doing at his age and I tell you if you carry on like this you will destroy your relationship with him. He will hate you forever.”
“He should be thanking me for pushing him. He has talent. Ambition. It needs to be nurtured.”
“It’s your ambition, Jim. This was your ambition and now you’re trying to live all your dreams through your son. And what you’re doing isn’t nurturing. You put pressure on him and then layer more and more on until the boy is crushed under the weight of it.” The words burst out of her and she paused for a moment as if she’d shocked herself. “I apologize, Dr. O’Neil.”
“No need to apologize. I understand your concern.”
Tension snapped his muscles tight. No one understood the pressures of family expectation better than he did. He’d been raised with it.
Do you know how it feels to be crushed by the weight of someone else’s dreams? Do you know how that feels, Sean?
The voice in his head was so real he rocked on his feet and had to stop himself glancing over his shoulder to check his father wasn’t standing there. He’d been dead two years, but sometimes it felt like yesterday.
He thrust the sudden wash of grief aside, uncomfortable with the sudden intrusion of the personal into his professional life.
He was more in need of sleep than he’d thought.
“Scott’s doing fine, Mrs. Turner. Everything went smoothly. You’ll be able to see him soon.”
The tension left the woman’s body. “Thank you, Doctor. I— You’ve been so good to him right from the start. And to me. When he starts playing—” she shot her husband a look “—how do we know the same thing won’t happen again? He wasn’t even near another player. He just crumpled.”
“Eighty percent of ACL tears are non-contact.” Sean ignored both the woman’s husband and the coach and focused on her. He felt sorry for her, the referee in a game of ambition. “The anterior cruciate ligament connects your thigh to your shin. It doesn’t do a whole lot if you’re just going about your normal day, but it’s an essential part of controlling the rotation forces developed during twisting actions.”
She gave him a blank look. “Twisting actions?”
“Jumping, pivoting and abrupt changes of direction. It’s an injury common among soccer players, basketball players and skiers.”
“Your brother Tyler had the same, didn’t he?” The coach butted in. “And it was all over for him. It killed his career as a ski racer. Hell of a blow for such a gifted athlete.”
His brother’s injury had been far more complicated than that, but Sean never talked about his famous brother. “Our aim with surgery is to return the knee joint to near-normal stability and function but it’s a team effort and rehabilitation is a big part of that effort. Scott is young, fit and motivated. I’m confident he’ll make a full recovery and be as strong as he was before the injury, providing you encourage him to attack rehab with the same degree of dedication he shows to the game.” He hardened his tone because he needed them to pay attention. “Push too hard or too soon and that won’t be the case.”
The coach nodded. “So can we start rehabilitation right away?”
Sure, just throw him a ball while he’s still unconscious.
“We generally find it helps for a patient to have come around from the anesthetic.”
The man’s cheeks turned dusky-red. “You think I’m pushy, but this kid just wants to play and it’s my job to make sure he gets whatever he needs. Which is why we’re here,” he said gruffly. “People say you’re the best. Everyone I talked to gave me the same response. If it’s a knee injury, you want Sean O’Neil. ACL reconstruction and sports injuries are your specialty. Didn’t realize you were Tyler O’Neil’s brother until a few weeks ago. How’s he coping now he can’t compete? That must be hard.”
“He’s doing just fine.” The response was automatic. At the height of Tyler’s skiing success the whole family had been bombarded by the media and they’d learned to deflect the intrusive questions, some about Tyler’s breathtaking talent, others about his colorful personal life.
“I read somewhere he can only ski for recreation now.” The coach pulled a face. “Must be hard for a guy like Tyler. I met him once.”
Making a note to commiserate with his brother, Sean steered the conversation back on topic. “Let’s focus on Scott.” He went through it again, repeating words he’d already spoken.
Drumming the message home took another twenty minutes. By the time he’d showered, checked on a few of his patients and climbed into his car, two hours had passed.
Sean sat for a moment, summoning the energy to drive the distance to his waterfront home.
The weekend lay ahead, a stretch of time filled with infinite possibilities.
For the next forty-eight hours his time was his own and he was ready to savor every moment. But first he was going to sleep.
The phone he kept for his personal use rang and he cursed for a moment, assuming it was Veronica, and then frowned when the screen told him it was his twin brother, Jackson. Along with the name came the guilt. It festered inside him, buried deep but always there.
He wondered why his brother would be calling him late on a Friday.
A crisis at home?
Snow Crystal Resort had been in their family for four generations. It hadn’t occurred to any of them that it might not be in the family for another four. The sudden death of his father had revealed the truth. The business had been in trouble for years. The discovery that their home was under threat had sent a ripple of shock through the whole family.
It was Jackson who had left a thriving business in Europe to return home to Vermont and save Snow Crystal from a disaster none of the three brothers had even known existed.
Sean stared at the phone in his hand.
Guilt crawled over his skin because he knew it wasn’t the pressures of his job that kept him away.
Breathing deeply, he settled back in his seat, ready to catch up on news from home and promising himself that next time he was going to be the one who made the call. He was going to do better at staying in touch.
“Hey—” he answered the call with a smile “—you fell over, smashed your knee and now you need a decent surgeon?”
There was no answering banter and no small talk. “You need to get yourself back here. It’s Gramps.”
Running Snow Crystal Resort was a never-ending tug of war between Jackson and their grandfather. “What’s he done this time? He wants you to knock down the lodges? Close the spa?”
“He collapsed. He’s in the hospital and you need to come.”
It took a moment for the words to sink in and when they did it was as if someone had sucked all the oxygen from the air.
Like all of them, he considered Walter O’Neil invincible. He was as strong as the mountains that had been home for all his life.
And he was eighty years of age.
“Collapsed?” Sean tightened his grip on the phone, remembering the number of times he’d said that the only way his grandfather would leave his beloved Snow Crystal would be if he was carried out in an ambulance. “What does that mean? Cardiac or neurological? Stroke or heart attack? Tell me in medical terms.”
“I don’t know the medical terms! It’s his heart, they think. He had that pain last winter, remember? They’re doing tests. He’s alive, that’s what counts. They didn’t say much and I was focusing on Mom and Grams. You’re the doctor, which is why I’m telling you to get your butt back here now so you can translate doctor-speak. I can handle the business but this is your domain. You need to come home, Sean.”
Home was his apartment in Boston with his state-of-the-art sound system, not a lake set against a backdrop of mountains and surrounded by a forest that had their family history carved into the trees.
Sean leaned his head back and stared up at the perfect blue sky that formed a contrast to the dark emotions swirling inside him.
He imagined his grandfather, pale and helpless, trapped in the sterile environment of a hospital, away from his precious Snow Crystal.
“Sean?” Jackson’s voice came through the speaker. “Are you still there?”
“Yeah, I’m here.” His other hand gripped the wheel of his car, knuckles white because there were things his brother didn’t know. Things they hadn’t talked about.
“Mom and Grams need you. You’re the doctor in the family. I can handle the business but I can’t handle this.”
“Was someone with him when it happened? Grams?”
“Not Grams. He was with Élise. She acted very quickly. If she hadn’t, we’d be having a different conversation.”
Élise, the head chef at Snow Crystal.
Sean stared straight ahead, thinking about that single night the summer before. For a brief moment he was back there, breathing in her scent, remembering the wildness of it.
That was something else his brother knew nothing about.
He swore under his breath and then realized Jackson was still talking.
“How soon can you get here?”
Sean thought about his grandfather, lying pale and still in a hospital bed while their mother, the family glue, struggled to hold everything together and Jackson did more than could be expected of one man.
He was sure his grandfather wouldn’t want him there, but the rest of his family needed him.
And as for Élise—it had been a single night, that was all. They weren’t in a relationship and never would be so there was no reason to mention it to his brother.
He made some rapid mental calculations.
The journey would take him three and a half hours, and that was without counting the time it would take to drive home and pack a bag.
“I’ll be with you as soon as I can. I’ll call his doctors now and find out what’s going on.”
“Come straight to the hospital. And drive carefully. One member of the family in the hospital is enough.” There was a brief pause. “It will be good to have you back at Snow Crystal, Sean.”
The reply wedged itself in his throat.
He’d grown up by the lake, surrounded by lush forests and mountains. He couldn’t identify the exact time he’d known it wasn’t where he wanted to be. When the place had started to irritate and chafe everything from his skin to his ambitions. It wasn’t something he’d been able to voice because to admit that there might be a place more perfect than Snow Crystal would have been heresy in the O’Neil family. Except to his father. Michael O’Neil had shared his conflicted emotions about the place. His father was the one person who would have understood.
Guilt dug deep, twisting in his ribs like a knife, because apart from the row with his grandfather and his wild fling with Élise, there was something else he’d never told his brother.
He’d never told him how much he hated coming home.
* * *
“I ’AVE KILLED WALTER! This is all my fault! I was so desperate to have the old boathouse finished in time for the party, I let an eighty-year-old man work on the deck.” Élise paced across the deck of her pretty lakeside lodge, out of her mind with worry. “Merde, I am a bad person. Jackson should fire me.”
“Snow Crystal is in enough trouble without Jackson firing his head chef. The restaurant is the one part of this business that is profitable. Oh, good news—” Kayla leaned on the railing next to the water, scanning a text “—according to the doctors, Walter is stable.”
“Comment? What does this mean, ‘stable’? You put a horse in a stable.”
“It means you haven’t killed him,” Kayla said as she texted back swiftly. “You need to calm down or we’ll be calling an ambulance for you next. Are all French people as dramatic as you?”
“I don’t know. I cannot help it.” Élise dragged her hand through her hair. “I am not good at ’iding my feelings. For a while I manage it, but then everything bursts out and I explode.”
“I know. I’ve cleared up the mess after a few of your explosions. Fortunately your staff adore you. Go and make pizza dough or whatever it is you do when you want to reduce your stress levels. You’re dropping your h’s and that is never a good sign.” Kayla sent the text and read another one. “Jackson wants me to drive over to the hospital.”
“I will come with you!”
“Only if you promise not to explode in my car.”
“I want to see with my own eyes that Walter is alive.”
“You think we’re all lying to you?”
Her legs were shaking so Élise plopped onto the chair she’d placed by the water. “He is very important to me. I love him like a grandfather. Not like my real grandfather because he was a horrible person who refused to speak to my mother after she had me so I never actually met him, but how I think a grandfather should be in my dreams. I know you understand because your family, they were also rubbish.”
Kayla gave a faint smile, but didn’t argue. “I know how close you are to Walter. You don’t have to explain to me.”
“He is the nearest thing I have to family. And Jackson, of course. It makes me very happy to think he will marry you soon. And Elizabeth and dear Alice. And Tyler is like a brother to me, even though sometimes I want to punch him. It is normal for siblings to sometimes want to punch each other, I think. I love you all with every bone in my body.” The dark side of Élise’s life was carefully locked away in the past. Loneliness, fear and deep humiliation were a distant memory. She was safe here. Safe and loved.
“And Sean?” Kayla lifted an eyebrow. “Where does he fit into your adopted family? Presumably not as another brother.”
“No.” Just thinking about him made her heart race a little faster. “Not a brother.”
“So you won’t be telling him you love him? Aren’t you worried he might feel a little left out?”
Élise frowned. “You are not funny.”
“Is this a good time to warn you he’s coming home?”
“Of course he is coming home. He is an O’Neil. The O’Neils always stick together when there is trouble and Sean hasn’t been home for a while.”
And she was worried that was her fault.
Was it because of what had happened between them?
“So it isn’t going to feel awkward when he shows up?”
“Why would it feel awkward? Because of last summer? It was just one night. It’s not so hard to understand, is it? Sean is un beau mec.”
“He’s a what?”
“Un beau mec. A hot guy. Sean is very sexy. We are two adults who chose to spend a night together. We are both single. Why would it feel awkward?” It had been her idea of the perfect night. No ties. No complications. A decision she’d made with her head, not her heart. Never again would she allow her heart to be engaged.
No risks. No mistakes.
“So seeing him isn’t going to bother you?”
“Not at all. And it isn’t the first time. I saw him at Christmas.”
“And neither of you exchanged a single look or word.”
“Christmas is the busiest time of year for me. Do you know how many people I fed in the restaurant? I had more important things to worry about than Sean. And it is the same now. We probably won’t even have time to say hello. All he thinks about is work and I am the same. It is only a week until the Boathouse Café opens and at the moment it doesn’t have a deck.”
“Look, I know how much this project means to you—to all of us—but it is no one’s fault that Zach crashed his dirt bike.”
Élise scowled. “He is their cousin. Family. He should have shown more responsibility.”
“So what? He should have finished my deck before he crashed!”
“I’m sure that’s what he told the boulder that jumped into his path.” Kayla gave a fatalistic shrug. “He has O’Neil DNA. Of coure he is going to indulge in dangerous sports and have accidents. Tyler says he’s lethal on a snowboard.”
“He should not have been indulging in anything lethal until my deck was finished!”
“So does that mean Zach has been struck off the list of people you love?”
“You make fun of me but it is important to tell people you love them.” It wasn’t just important to her, it was vital. Sadness seeped into her veins and she breathed deeply, trying to block the spread. Over the years she’d learned to control it. To keep it locked away so it didn’t interfere with her life. “I should never have let Walter step in. It is because of me he is lying there all full of tubes and needles and—”
“Stop!” Kayla pulled a face. “Enough.”
“It’s just that I keep imagining—”
“Well, don’t! Talk about something else?”
“We can talk about how I have ruined everything. The Boathouse Café is important for Snow Crystal. We have included the projected revenue in our forecasts. We have a party planned! And now it cannot happen.”
Frustrated with herself, Élise stood up and gazed across the lake, searching for calm. The evening sun sent flashes of gold and silver over the still surface of the lake. It was rare that she saw the place at this time of day. Usually she was in the restaurant preparing for the evening. The only time she sat on her own deck was in the dark when she returned in the early hours, or immediately on rising when she made herself a cup of freshly brewed coffee and sipped it in the dawn silence.
Morning was her favorite time of day in the summer, when the forest was still bathed by early morning mist and the sleepy sun had yet to burn off the fine cobweb of white shrouding the trees. It made her think of the curtain in the theatre, hiding the thrill of the main event from an excited audience.
Heron Lodge was small, just one bedroom and an open plan living area, but the size didn’t worry her. She’d grown up in Paris, in a tiny apartment on the Left Bank with a view over the rooftops and barely room to pirouette. At Snow Crystal she lived right on the lakeshore, her lodge sheltered by trees. At night in the summer she slept with the windows open. Even when it was too dark to see the view, there was beauty in the sounds. Water slapping gently against her deck, the whisper of a bird’s wing as it flew overhead, the low hoot of an owl. On nights when she was unable to sleep she lay for hours breathing in the sweet scents of summer and listening to the call of the hermit thrush and the chattering of the black-capped chickadees.
If she’d slept with her window open in Paris she would have been constantly disturbed by a discordant symphony of car horns punctuated by Gallic swearing as drivers stopped in the street to yell abuse at each other. Paris was loud and busy. A city with the volume fixed on maximum while everyone rushed around trying to be somewhere yesterday.
Snow Crystal was muted and peaceful. Never, in the turmoil of her past, had she imagined one day living in a place like this.
She knew how close the O’Neil family had come to losing it. She knew things were still far from secure and that losing it was still a very real possibility. She was determined to do everything she could to make sure that didn’t happen.
“Can you find me another carpenter? Are you sure you’ve tried everyone?”
“There is no one. Sorry.” Looking tired, Kayla shook her head. “I already made some calls.”
“In that case we are all doomed.”
“No one is doomed, Élise!”
“We will have to delay the opening and cancel the party. You have invited so many important people. People who could spread the word and help grow the business. Je suis désolée. The Boathouse is my responsibility. Jackson asked me for an opening date and I gave him one. I anticipated a busy summer. Now if Snow Crystal has to close we will all lose our jobs and our home and it will be my fault.”
“Don’t worry, with your talent for drama you could easily get a job on Broadway.” Kayla paced the deck, obviously thinking. “We could hold the party in the restaurant?”
“No. It was supposed to be a magical, outdoor evening that will showcase the charm of our new café. I have it all arranged—food, lights, dancing on the deck—the deck that isn’t finished!” Frustrated and miserable, Élise walked into her little kitchen and picked up the bag of food she’d packed for the family. “Let’s go. They’ve been at the hospital for hours. They will be hungry.”
As they walked along the lake path to the car, Élise thought again what a good thing it was that Jackson had employed Kayla. She’d arrived at Snow Crystal only six months earlier, the week before Christmas, to put together a public relations campaign that would boost the resort’s flagging fortunes. The intention had been that she would stay a week and then return to her high-powered job in New York, but that had been before she’d fallen in love with Jackson O’Neil.
Élise felt a rush of emotion.
Calm, strong Jackson. He was the reason she was here, living this wonderful life. He’d saved her. Rescued her from the ruins of her own life. He’d given her a way out from a problem of her own making, and she’d taken it. He was the only one who knew the truth about her. She owed him everything.
The Boathouse Café was a way of repaying him.
Élise had always known that Snow Crystal needed something more than the formal restaurant and the small, cramped coffee shop that had been part of the resort since it was built.
On her first stroll down to the lakeshore she’d seen the derelict boathouse and envisaged a café right on the water’s edge. Now her dream was almost reality. She’d worked with a local architect and together they’d created something that matched her vision and satisfied the planners.
The new café had glass on three sides so that no part of the view was lost to those dining indoors. During the winter the doors would be kept closed, but in the summer months when the weather allowed, the glass walls could be pulled back to allow guests to take maximum advantage of the breathtaking position.
In the summer most of the tables would be set on the wide deck, a sun-trap that stretched across the water. The building should have been finished in June, but bad weather had delayed essential work and then Zach had crashed the bike.
Kayla slid behind the wheel and drove carefully out of the resort. “How long do you think Sean will stay?”
And that suited her perfectly.
They probably wouldn’t even have any time alone together and she wasn’t going to worry about something that didn’t represent a threat.
Sean was entertaining company, charming and yes, insanely sexy, but her emotions weren’t engaged. And they never would be. Never again.
Memories slid into her, dark and oppressive and she gave a little shiver and stared hard at the forest, reminding herself that she was in Vermont, not Paris. This was her home now.
And it wasn’t as if she was living without love.
She had the O’Neils. They were her family.
That thought stayed in her head as they arrived at the hospital and it was still in her head as Kayla walked into Jackson’s arms.
She saw Kayla reach out her hand and curl her fingers into Jackson’s. Saw her friend rise up on the balls of her feet and brush her lips over his in a kiss that somehow managed to be both discreet and intimate. In that moment she’d ceased to exist for either of them. Their emotions were definitely engaged.
Witnessing it robbed her of breath.
She felt a pang and looked away quickly.
She didn’t want that.
“I will go and see Walter and drop off this food while you two catch up. Give me the keys, Kayla.” She held out her hand. “You can go home with Jackson later. I will try to persuade Alice to come back with me now.”
She didn’t succeed. Walter looked pale and fragile and when she eventually left the room it was with the image of Alice, his wife of sixty years, sitting by his side with her hand on his, her knitting abandoned in her lap as if by holding hands they might prevent their life together from unraveling.
All Alice had talked about was Sean. Her belief in her grandson’s ability to perform miracles was as touching as it was worrying.
Élise was on her way out of the hospital when she saw him.
He walked with confidence and authority, comfortable in the sterile atmosphere of the high-tech medical facility. The well-cut suit and pristine white shirt couldn’t conceal the width of his shoulders or the leashed power of his body, and her heart gave a little dance in her chest.
Despite the air-conditioning, her skin heated.
It had been just one night, but it wasn’t a night she was likely to forget and she doubted he would, either.
Like her, Sean had no interest in forming deep romantic relationships. His job demanded control and emotional detachment. The fact that he applied the same rules to his personal life had made everything simple.
She walked briskly across the foyer toward him, determined to prove to herself and anyone who happened to be watching that this meeting wasn’t awkward. “Sean—” she rose on tiptoe, placed her hand on his shoulder and kissed him on both cheeks. “Ça va? I’m so sorry about Walter. You must be out of your mind worried.”
It was fine. Not awkward at all. Maybe her English wasn’t as fluent as usual, but that sometimes happened when she was tired or stressed.
As her cheek brushed against the roughness of his jaw she was almost knocked flat by a rush of sexual chemistry. Rocked off-balance, she tightened her fingers on his shoulder, feeling the thickness of muscle through the fabric of his suit. If she moved slightly to the left she’d be kissing his mouth and it shocked her just how much she wanted to do that.
Sean’s head turned slightly. His gaze met hers and for a moment she was mesmerized.
His eyes were the same startling blue as his twin brother’s but she’d never felt anything this dangerously potent when dealing with Jackson. Some people might have waxed lyrical about blue skies or sapphires but for her those eyes were all about sex. For a moment she forgot the people around them, forgot everything except the sexual energy and memories of that one night. She hadn’t closed her eyes and neither had he. Through the whole breath-stealing madness of it, they’d held that connection and it was all she could think of as she lowered her heels to the floor and stepped back.
Her heart was racing. Her mouth was dry. It took all her willpower to let go of his shoulder. “How was your journey?”
“I’ve had worse.”
“Have you eaten? I brought food. Alice has the bag.”
“I don’t suppose that bag contains a good Pinot Noir?”
It was a typically Sean response.
Even in a crisis he projected calm. It washed over her, as welcoming as cool air in a heat wave and for the first time since that awful moment when Walter had collapsed at her feet she felt her mood lift slightly. It was as if someone had taken off some of the weight she’d been carrying.
“No Pinot Noir. But there is homemade lemonade.”
“Oh, well, a guy can’t have everything. If you made it, I’m sure it’s good.” He loosened his tie with long, strong fingers, cool and composed, and she wondered if he remembered it had been Pinot Noir they’d drunk that night. “Where is the rest of my family?”
“They’re with your grandfather.”
“How is he?” His voice was gruff, those thick dark lashes failing to conceal the concern in his eyes. “Any change?”
“He looks frail. I hope the doctors know what they’re doing.”
“It’s a good hospital. And how are you?” He caught her chin in his fingers and turned her face to him. “You look like hell.”
“Is that your medical opinion?”
“It’s the opinion of a friend. If you’re asking me as a doctor I’ll have to bill you—” his hand dropped and he tilted his head as he calculated “—let’s say, six hundred dollars. You’re welcome.”
Her heart rate slowly returned to normal. “You trained all those years to tell people they look like hell?”
“It’s a vocation.” He was smiling, too, and that smile made her heart kick hard against her ribs.
“And there I was congratulating myself on looking good in a crisis.” She’d forgotten how easy it was to relax with him. He was easy to talk to and charming. And dangerously attractive.
“I have to go. I need to see Grams.”
“She won’t leave his side and she’s exhausted. She thinks you’re going to be able to perform a miracle.”
“I’ll go to her right now.” His hard features softened fractionally as he spoke of his grandmother. “You’re driving back to Snow Crystal?”
“I just wanted to see him for a few minutes, keep Kayla company and bring food.”
“You still haven’t told me how you are.” Sean’s gaze didn’t shift from her face. “You’re very close to Gramps.”
How was she?
The person she loved most in the world was in the hospital and the Boathouse still wasn’t finished and wasn’t going to open on time.
There would be no opening party. She’d let Jackson down.
She’d had bad days before, but this had been the king of bad days.
But Sean didn’t need to hear that. Their relationship didn’t involve cozy confidences.
“I’m fine,” she lied. “It’s different for me. I am not family. Although I’d also like you to perform a miracle if you have time.”
“I think my grandfather would be the first to dispute that you’re not family.”
“Walter would dispute anything. You know how he loves to argue. He is my perfect man. I love him so much.”
“Now you’ve broken my heart.”
She knew he was joking. Sean was too busy with his career to be interested in a relationship, and that suited her just fine.
“I will see you soon.”
“Are you safe to drive home?” He caught her wrist and pulled her back to him and just for a moment, standing toe-to-toe with him, she forgot the people around her.
“Of course.” She was torn between being touched that he’d noticed how badly affected she was and appalled that she was so easy to read. Why couldn’t she be cool and enigmatic like Kayla? “It has been a long day, that’s all.”
He gave her a long, searching look and then let go of her wrist. “Drive carefully.”
As she walked to the car, she congratulated herself on how well she’d handled that encounter. No one watching would have guessed that they’d once generated enough heat to melt a frozen ice cap.
They had their feelings under control.
There was nothing about Sean O’Neil that threatened her life here.
When it came to love, she was invulnerable.