As the only daughter of the wealthy Harrison clan, Tess Harrison has everything—except the baby she longs for. With no husband in sight, she escapes to her family’s retreat in Aspen, Colorado, with visions of sperm donors dancing in her head. When ruggedly handsome ski house manager Logan Carter accepts the job in exchange for her playing his girlfriend, Tess is breathless to begin the charade. After all, what could go wrong? The brokenhearted heiress knows better than to fall in love . . .
Tess would be Logan’s dream girl, if his dark past had left him with any dreams. After a painful divorce in New Orleans, all he wants is to satisfy his mother’s dying wish to see him happily paired off—and give lovely Tess the baby she longs for. But when he and Tess opt to make a baby the old-fashioned way, their playful charade gets seriously real in ways neither of them can deny.
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Tess Harrison surveyed the festive scene around her. It was Christmas Day, and over sixty relatives were celebrating at her father's enormous estate. The mansion, set atop a hill on hundreds of acres beside the Long Island Sound, was filled with the sights and sounds of a picturesque holiday gathering. The grand main living room was decorated elegantly, beautifully, as the staff did every year. No lights — that would be gauche — but red ribbons, garland, holly, and faux white candles made the whole ground floor look like something straight out of a Christmas movie. Bright flames crackled and popped in the enormous stone fireplace, and the eight-foot-tall tree stood majestically in the corner. That did have white lights, and decorative ornaments that went back four generations. Tess suppressed a yawn. She was officially over the holidays.
She cradled her china cup of eggnog and watched her eldest brother, Charles, and his wife, Lisette, sit together on one of the longer sofas as they played with their infant daughter, Charlotte. Tess adored her newest niece, and had spent a lot of time with her. Bonding with that baby had wakened things in Tess she hadn't known existed. Now five months old, the dark-haired cherub squealed as Charles's strong arms raised Charlotte up, then back down to kiss her sweet face, over and over, as Lisette smiled brightly at his side. They'd married in May, and the love they shared was tangible. Tess was so glad for them. But oh, how she adored that little girl. Every time Charlotte squeaked, she felt it in her core. Such pure love, such pure joy.
Across from them, Tess's middle brother, Dane, and his wife, Julia, sat together leisurely and smiled along as they watched too. The baby's giggles were infectious, and everyone around Charlotte was under her spell. Tess relaxed against the lush cushions of the armchair and sipped her drink. She loved all four of Charles's kids deeply; they'd brought the kind of light to her life that only children could.
She longed for that kind of light in her life, the kind that children brought.
Charles's three older children from his first marriage sat huddled in the far corner of the room, playing hand-held video games with some other cousins close to their age. The youngest Harrison, Pierce, and his wife, Abby, were absent, and Tess felt it keenly. But Pierce would rather die than spend a family holiday with their father, and gladly went to Abby's family for every major holiday. Tess couldn't fault him for that, given the tumultuous history, but she still missed her baby brother.
At least Pierce and Abby had been at Charles's house the night before. Charles always hosted Christmas Eve, and it had been a lovely gathering. Only twenty people, only closest family, with the exception of the Harrison patriarch ... which was why it was a lovely gathering. No vitriol, no stress, no walking on eggshells waiting to see who'd fire the first verbal shot that would kick off a horrible fight. Last night had been even more special, though, as Pierce and Abby — who'd just been married in a lavish ceremony in August — shared their surprise news: Abby was pregnant. They'd only found out a few days before and were bursting with it. It was a lot sooner than they'd planned, but they were excited and their joy was palpable. Tess was thrilled for them.
She sipped her eggnog again and gazed at the Christmas tree. The lights blurred as she zoned out and slipped deeper into her thoughts. More than anything, she wanted a baby of her own. There was no reason that she couldn't make it happen. She was thirty-seven, healthy, wealthy ... but she lacked a candidate for the father. She had always believed in love, and been deeply in love twice in her life. The second time, she'd come close ... and then had to break her engagement after being betrayed. In the years since then, she'd hoped to find someone else, but she knew the truth of it: she didn't trust enough to open her heart that completely again. She dated perfectly nice men, and some not so nice ... none were a father-to-her-future-children candidate.
And over the last few months, spending time with Charlotte had driven it home more than ever: she wanted children of her own, and time was ticking away.
By Thanksgiving, she'd decided to take matters into her own hands. She had the means, so why not? This was one of the times that being born into a ridiculously wealthy family, along with making her own strong and vital career, gave her benefits and options that other single mothers didn't have. And while a part of her wanted to talk about it with her brothers ... most of her wanted to keep it to herself until she was actually pregnant. They'd all have something to say, and for once, she didn't want to hear it if it was negative. Not from any of them.
"Hey, Tesstastic." Dane's jovial voice interrupted her thoughts. "You sure Julia and I can't convince you to spend a few days with us in Cancun?"
Tess smiled but shook her head. "You're both sweet to ask, but I don't need to be a third wheel during your three-week jaunt in paradise."
"Don't be ridiculous," Dane scoffed. "You're no such thing."
"Colin is coming for the whole second week," Julia pointed out. Her grown son from her first marriage was a quiet, kind young man. "We won't be alone. He's not worried about being a third wheel."
"He's twenty-four," Tess reminded them. "He's not worried because he'll be at the bars and clubs every night trying to pick up women, I'm sure."
"God, I hope so," Julia said. "But it's not a good reason for you not to come too. Come on, who wants to be in New York in January? It's miserable. Come down for a week."
"Again, I thank you both," Tess said. "But I ... have plans of my own. They would overlap."
"You do?" Dane arched a brow. "Why didn't you just say so?"
"I tried, brother dear." A grin tugged at the corners of Tess's lips. "You keep asking anyway. Which is sweet, but ..."
"I think I smell a deflection tactic," Dane said.
"I think you should leave her be," Charles piped in. Lisette bit down on her lip.
"It's so wrong that I want my sister to have some fun?" Dane asked him.
"Of course not," Tess said.
"You just finished months of hard work, pulling off another massively successful Harrison Foundation Holiday Ball," Dane said to her. "You need a real vacation. To go somewhere and be pampered. I offered to make that happen, since you don't do it enough for yourself. Sue me."
Tess rolled her eyes at her big brother. "I love you too, you big nag."
"I'm a nag now?" Dane put his hand to his chest. "You wound me!" They all snorted out laughter.
Tess had had enough of this conversation. She rose to her feet and swept her long curtain of curls back over her shoulders. "I'm getting more eggnog," she said. "Anyone want some?"
The four of them murmured various forms of "no thanks," and she crossed the room to the cavernous crystal bowl that held enough lightly spiked eggnog for a small village.
Tess couldn't help but smile to herself as she refilled her mug. Charles, Dane, and Pierce weren't just her brothers, they were some of her closest friends. They were incredibly devoted to and protective of her, and she counted on them as much as they all counted on her. After all, she'd spent years watching over the three of them. When their parents split up and their mother left home over two decades before, as the only female left in the family, Tess had slowly but surely slipped into the role of mother hen. Some of it was a conscious decision, some of it wasn't. She never minded — her brothers needed her, even when they didn't realize it, and she was all too happy to provide crucial emotional support. She was a caring person, with so much love to give — who better to lavish it on than her own siblings, who needed it so desperately?
But they were all fine now. Grown men, they'd all eventually found their place in the world, especially now that they had the help of good women who loved them and believed in them. Tess was grateful beyond words that she genuinely liked her three sisters-in-law. Charles, Dane, and Pierce were strong men, but pairing with women like Lisette, Julia, and Abby had truly completed them. They had all built, or were building, their own families, and didn't need Tess's pseudo-mothering like they had before.
And Tess found herself feeling like something was missing. Despite that she had adoring siblings and family, good friends, a fulfilling career running the Harrison Foundation, the family's massive nonprofit organization ... maybe it was the holidays and the slight melancholy that could sometimes accompany the season, but for months she hadn't been able to deny the basic facts: She was creeping up on forty, she wanted a baby, and she'd somehow have to get that done on her own.
She considered herself to be a positive, upbeat person. A woman who accomplished things, took the lead, and knew how to get things done — she didn't wait around and let life happen to her. Why should having a baby be any different than her other goals and successes? That thought had churned in her head for too long. It was time to take her future into her own hands. She was ready.
"How's my best girl?" Her father's confident baritone sounded behind her.
She turned to him with a fake smile. "Great, Dad. Hope you're having a nice Christmas?"
"I am," he said. "Thank you again for the painting. What a special gift."
"I'm glad you like it," she said as he kissed her cheek. She'd been able to find a small Picasso piece that she knew he'd love to add to his impressive collection, and called in a favor from an acquaintance in Paris to make it happen.
"You're very thoughtful, as always." There was the tiniest shift in his gaze, but Tess knew him so well, she steeled herself. "So. Charles tells me that Pierce got Abby pregnant already. I guess expecting my youngest son to call me himself with that kind of news is too much to hope for, eh?"
"Dad." Tess touched his arm with her free hand. "He only told us last night. They only found out last week."
"So? He told you all last night. He could've called to tell me, or to say 'Merry Christmas,' anytime since then. He hasn't. Yet another intentional snub."
"Did you call him to say 'Merry Christmas'?" Tess asked.
Caught, Charles II scowled and sipped his drink.
"I thought not." She gentled her voice to soften the blow, but looked her father right in the eye as she said, "You blew that relationship sky-high two years ago. You attacked him and Abby both. You did that."
"There were two of us in that fight," Charles II reminded her, an angry edge to his voice. "But everyone always holds only me responsible."
"And they had their big, elaborate wedding," Charles II barreled on, "and I was shunned! Not even invited to my own son's wedding, purposely kept away, unwelcome. That was disgraceful."
She was tired of this argument that always remained unresolved. "I'm not going to get into all this with you now," Tess said. Her tone was mild, but her words were firm. "I refuse. It's Christmas."
He nodded curtly, lips pursed, but grunted, "Fine."
Tess knew he wouldn't push it with her then, not with the room filled with extended family on such a major holiday. Since the heart attack last year, at least he'd softened that much. "I'm sorry you're upset. Just be happy for them. Send a nice gift when the baby's born. Who, by the way, will be your fifth grandchild."
Charles scowled. "Pierce will likely keep me away from that child, you know."
Tess sighed. He was right, of course. But she said, "Maybe by then, if you try and are truly invested, you can attempt to make things better with Pierce somehow."
Her father snorted derisively. "That stubborn ass will never have it. He holds grudges; it's one of the few things we have in common. And now he's going to be a father?" Charles II huffed out a laugh. "Good luck to that baby."
A split second of ire made her stomach twist. Her younger brother was a good man, in spite of what her father had said, done, or still thought. "Merry Christmas," she said, and turned her back on her father to cross the room, back to the safe haven of her older brothers.
She shook off the irritation as she walked. Starting his usual crap on Christmas? His problem, not hers. Pierce had completely shunned him, as he'd said. Charles and Dane still talked to him, showed up at family occasions and the like, but both had withdrawn considerably. She was the only one of the four siblings who still tried to maintain a good relationship with their difficult father. Times like this, she wondered why. Why was she still being the dutiful daughter after all these years? She did love her father, but she didn't like him. It'd been a habit she hadn't been able to break, borne from a sense of duty, even though it led to frustration more often than satisfaction.
As she retook her seat with her brothers and sisters-in-law, someone turned on Christmas music, likely a member of her father's household staff. A classical arrangement of "Silent Night" played softly, Charlotte let out a high-pitched peal of delight as her father lifted her over his head once again, the adults around them smiled and laughed, voices of others rose in a low but merry cacophony. Charles smiled broadly and dropped tiny kisses all over his baby's face, and she squealed and wiggled in delight. A pang hit Tess's heart, and she suddenly felt tears sting the backs of her eyes. She looked around at the heartwarming scene ... she thought of her own dreams for a family ... God, she wanted that. She didn't want to spend another Christmas aching and wishing for a child of her own.
Something clicked inside her, soft but sure. Now. Do it now. Go for it. What are you waiting for?
Adrenaline and excitement and a deep sense of knowing all whooshed through her, almost leaving her breathless.
"I'm leaving," she blurted out.
Charles and Lisette hadn't heard her, but Dane and Julia's heads swiveled to look at her. "What?" Dane asked, as if he hadn't heard her correctly.
"Why?" Julia asked, her hazel eyes narrowing to study Tess. "Are you feeling okay?" "I'm fine. But I'm leaving. As in, leaving New York," Tess said, only formulating the plan as the words poured from her mouth. She'd been thinking of it for weeks, but something now prodded at her, pushed up from inside, and flooded out. "I'm going away for a while. I need to go. So I am."
All eyes were on her now, rounded with shock. Dane gaped, his mouth an O of surprise. Charles stared hard at his sister as Lisette gently took their baby from his hands. "What's going on, Tess?" he asked softly, as if talking to a wounded animal.
Tess set her cup on the nearby end table before turning back to them. Again she swept the heavy mass of her long curls over her shoulders. Her heart rate was climbing, but now that she'd said the words, they made more sense than anything had in a long time. "I need to be by myself for a little while. To change things up. So I'm going to go to Aspen, and stay at the house there. You'll be in Cancun for most of January," she said to Dane, "and you'll be at the Palm Beach house for two weeks," she said to Charles. "So neither of you will be using the ski house. I am. I'm just letting you all know."
Dane made a sound that sounded like sputtering.
"Why is this the first we're hearing of it?" Charles asked.
"Umm, because I don't have to report to anyone," Tess replied evenly.
"I didn't mean to insinuate that, and you know it," Charles said, shifting forward in his seat. His eyes, the bright marine blue they'd all inherited from their mother, were now focused like lasers on Tess. "If you need to take a break, of course you should. I'm just surprised."
"Ten minutes ago, we were talking about Cancun, and you didn't even mention it." Dane was equally focused on her, studying her as if sensing something was off. "So yeah, this seems like it's coming out of nowhere."
"And if it is?" Tess inquired sharply. "So what?"
"You guys are acting like her parents," Julia remarked. "Might want to take it down a notch."
"She's right," Lisette said, bouncing Charlotte on her knees.
"We are not," Charles said, but it came out weak with recognition.
Dane kept staring at his sister. "How long will you be gone?"
"I'm not sure," Tess admitted. But she knew what she really wanted to do, so why not do it? Throw herself into researching sperm donors, in vitro, whatever it would take to help her have the baby she so desperately wanted. Be away from stress and prying eyes, cleanse her body and mind ... "At least two months, I think. Until the end of February, probably? Maybe more. I'll see."
Excerpted from "Between You and Me"
Copyright © 2017 Jennifer Gracen.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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