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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 cursed. "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 upI'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 around 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 past 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 sugarhouse 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, confidenceeroding 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 whooshsomething 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."