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Conor Kavanagh had been antsy ever since he heard Ellie Porter was back in town. In spite of the many celebrities and moguls who vacationed here, Silver Glen, North Carolina, wasn't all that big a place. Chances were he'd bump into her sooner or later.
The notion gave him goose bumps. But not the good kind. Ellie Porter was part of his past. A fantasy. A regret. A deep hurt he'd buried beneath layers of indifference. He didn't need the ghost of girlfriends past to tell him he'd messed up.
Hell, he'd made more mistakes in his almost-thirty years than a lot of people made in a lifetime. But he liked to think he'd learned from them. Besides, Ellie wasn't an old girlfriend. At least not in reality. He'd kissed her once, but that was it.
In the privacy of his imagination, however, he'd done a lot more. Ellie had featured in his adolescent fantasies on a nightly basis. He'd been head over heels, hormone driven, wildly in lust with her. Everything about her reduced him to shivering need.
The smell of her hair. The dimple in her cheek when she smiled. The way her breasts filled out a sweater. Even the tiny gap between her two front teeth had charmed him. He would have given his family's entire fortune for the chance to spend one night with her. To lose himself in her soft, beautiful body and show her how much he cared.
But Ellie Porter and her twin brother, Kirby, had been his two best friends in the whole wide world. So Conor had kept his daydreams to himself, and never once had he let on to Kirby that he thought of Ellie as far more than a pal, even after he'd finally kissed his buddy's sister.
She'd been popular in high school. A long list of guys had panted after her. Probably even entertained the same fantasies that kept Conor awake and hard at night. Each time she went out with a new date, Conor suffered. He wanted to be the one to hold doors for her and put an arm around her in the movie theater and walk her home on warm, scented summer nights.
But though he and Ellie had shared an undefinable something that went beyond mere friendship, Ellie had disapproved of Conor's risk-taking. Her rejection of an integral part of his personality had ended anything romantic almost before it began.
He'd often wondered what might have happened if the Porters had stayed in Silver Glen. Would Conor ever have persuaded Ellie to give him another chance? It was a question with no answer. And now they had both moved on. Ellie was married. Conor was still the guy who pitted himself against danger to prove he was alive.
Loud laughter at the table behind him startled him out of his reverie. The Silver Dollar Saloon was a rowdy place on the weekends. His brother Dylan owned the upscale honky-tonk. It wasn't unusual to see the second-born Kavanagh behind the bar dispensing drinks and advice and jokes along with the pretzels and booze.
Dylan was an extrovert and a people person. He'd settled down a lot since marrying Mia and adopting little Cora. You might even call him a family man. But he still loved the Silver Dollar.
Conor couldn't blame him. It was the kind of place where everybody knew your name. Locals and tourists alike were drawn to its atmosphere of camaraderie and fun. The music was good, the service above par and the burgers legendary.
Dylan made his way down to the end of the bar and stood in front of Conor, raising an eyebrow at the half-empty bottle of beer Conor had been nursing for the better part of an hour. "I'm losing money on you," he said. "You're not eating, you're not drinking. If I didn't know better, I'd think you were in love."
Conor finished off his beer and grimaced. "God forbid. Just because you're all gaga over marital bliss doesn't mean the rest of us have to follow suit. I'm perfectly happy as a single man. I like my freedom."
"You don't know what you're missing."
Dylan's smug assurance was designed to get a rise out of Conor, but it didn't work. Because deep down, Conor knew it was the truth. He'd seen his older brothers, one by one, succumb to Cupid's mischief, and the reality of the situation was, they were all happier than Conor had ever seen them.
Liam and Zoe, Dylan and Mia, Aidan and Emma. Even Gavin, who was a hermit and a curmudgeon at times, had been tripped up by the gorgeous and bubbly Cass.
it was hard to overlook the self-satisfied arrogance of his siblings, who were getting laid on a nightly basis. They practically oozed testosterone and caveman triumph.
But what really got to Conor was the look in their eyes when they were with their wives. When they thought no one was watching. Those moments when the alpha males softened and Conor could see the wealth of love that bonded each man with his spouse. That kind of connection was rare and wonderful and Conor would be lying if he said he wasn't the tiniest bit envious.
It wasn't in the cards for Conor, though. The one female who had ever inspired such a depth of feeling in him had dealt him a rejection that was very personal. Ellie had disapproved of his love for courting danger. In spite of his attempt to be honest with her and to explain why skiing was so important to him, he'd lost her, anyway.
Ellie had wanted Conor to change who he was. She'd begged him to be more careful. And in the end, she had stood by his hospital bed with sorrow in her eyes and told him they didn't have a future, because he loved the rush of adrenaline more than he cared about her.
Even then he had seen the truth in her words. As a child, he'd suffered from a respiratory ailment that kept him confined indoors. Once he finally outgrew the problem, he'd been determined to prove himself. He was driven to be the fastest and best at everything he did.
That blind determination to be number one had cost him.
Life was full of regrets. He should know. A man had to move forward or be forever cemented in the past. Personally and professionally, he'd had plenty of opportunities to learn that lesson the hard way.
Dylan handed him a menu. "Buy something. Flirt with someone. You're giving the place a bad vibe."
With a reluctant grin, Conor shook his head. "God forbid that you should let your brother hang out undisturbed. Bring me a Coke and a cheeseburger, damn it."
Dylan nodded, his attention drawn to the two men arguing heatedly at table six. "That's more like it."
When Dylan strode away to break up the potentially violent situation, Conor watched the interaction with admiration. Somehow his brother managed to steer both men to the front door and outside without causing a fuss. The Silver Dollar didn't tolerate brawls.
While Conor waited for his food, he flipped through messages on his cell phone and frowned, not really seeing any of them. What would happen if he simply showed up at Ellie's front door and said hello? Would she look the same? Would he like her as much?
They hadn't seen each other in thirteen years, or was it fourteen by now? She wouldn't be sixteen anymore. So why did he still see her that way? It made no sense. All he was doing was torturing himself with one of those weird good-old-days memories that never held up under scrutiny.
Like the octogenarian who goes back to his childhood home only to find a strip mall where he used to play, Conor was keeping alive something that wasn't even real. Memories were not bad things. As long as you realized that the only truth was the moment you were living right now.
His accident years ago had cost him a skiing career. And had erased any possibility of having Ellie Porter in his life. Those two facts were irrefutable.
And what about Kirby? Conor and Kirby had been closer than brothers. They had studied together and played sports together and dreamed dreams together. Both of them had had big plans for the future. But their bond had been broken by something as mundane as Kirby's parents taking him to another hemisphere.
Could a friendship like that be resurrected? Only time would tell
but Conor hoped so.
He finished his meal and yawned despite the fact that it was not even ten o'clock yet. He'd been up at dawn. Had worked his ass off all day. He was the boss. He owned the Silver Mountain Ski Resort. But idle living had never suited him. Maeve Kavanagh had raised seven sons, mostly unassisted, and in spite of the Kavanagh fortune and the family's influence and reach in the town of Silver Glen, she had drilled into her boys the value of hard work.
According to Conor's mother, the size of a man's bank balance was no excuse for laziness. Her boys heeded the message. Liam ran the Silver Beeches Lodge with his mother. Dylan owned and managed the Silver Dollar Saloon. Aidan was some kind of banking genius up in New York. Gavin's baby was the Silver Eye, his cyber security operation.
On Conor's twenty-third birthday, he had officially taken over the ski resort. The move seemed obvious since he had spent a large portion of his childhood and adolescence gliding down those slopes. At one time he had dreamed of medals and podiums and national anthems being played in his honor.
But life had a way of smacking you in the face occasionally. His plans had changed.
Conor had a good life. And a great family. He was a lucky man.
So why did he still think about Ellie Porter?
The two blondes at table six were giving him the eye. They were both cute and looked athletic. No doubt, exactly his type. But tonight he couldn't summon up enough interest to play their game, even with a threesome in the realm of possibility. What in the hell was wrong with him?
"Conor?" He felt a hand on his shoulder.
Summoning a smile, he turned on his stool, prepared to make an excuse
to say he was leaving. But dark blue eyes stopped him in his tracks. "Ellie?"
She nodded, her expression guarded. "Yes. It's me. I need to talk to you."
Ellie found herself at a distinct disadvantage when Conor stood up. She had always been barely five foot five, and Conor Kavanagh was a long, tall drink of water, several inches over six feet. The pale gold highlights in his dark blond hair were the result of many hours spent outdoors. Women paid a lot of money to get that look in a salon.
He wore his hair shorter than he had as a kid. But it was still far too gorgeous for a guy. Not fair at all. The only thing that saved his face from being classically handsome was the silvery scar that ran up the side of his chin and along his jawline. When he was twelve, he'd fallen off the ski lift and cut his face open on a rock.
She and Kirby had been in the seat behind him and had watched in horror as the snow below turned red with Conor's blood. But Conor had jumped up and waved at them, his typical devil-may-care attitude in full view. Even now, the memory made her queasy.
Conor had definitely grown into his looks.
His rangy frame was much the same as she remembered, though with more muscles, a few more pounds and a posture that said he was at ease in his own skin. The extra weight suited him. Back in high school he'd been on the thin side.
His passion for sports, skiing in particular, and his highspeed metabolism had made it difficult for him to take in enough calories. For Ellie, who had always battled her weight, his problem was one she would have gladly handled.
He stared at her without smiling, the expression in his gray eyes inscrutable. "I heard you and Kirby were back in town."
She nodded, feeling vaguely guilty. Should she have called Conor instead of simply showing up? "Grandpa isn't doing well. Kirby and I came home to look after him until my parents retire in nine months. They've opened their last clinic in Bolivia, so once it's up and running to their satisfaction, they'll move back to Silver Glen."
Conor's reticence bothered her. At one time, she and Kirby and Conor had been thick as thieves, their friendship unbreakable. But then her parents had done the unthinkable. They'd become medical missionaries and had moved their family to the jungles of South America to dispense health care to the people there.
"We missed you," she said quietly. Even before the move, she and Conor had parted ways.
Conor shrugged. "Yeah. But it's a hell of a long way from Silver Glen to Bolivia. It's not surprising that we lost touch."
She nodded. For several months emails had winged back and forth between Kirby and Conor. The occasional snail-mail letter. But in the end, she and Kirby had been too far removed from their old life to maintain that thread. And Ellie had been too hurt by Conor's pigheadedness to write.
"We were furious, you know," she said. "In the beginning. We begged my parents to let us stay here with Grandpa and enjoy our senior year."
"But they insisted that the four of us were a family. And that we needed to stick together."
Conor shifted his weight, looking beyond her. "Let's grab a table," he said. "Have you had dinner?"
"Yes." She followed him and took the chair he held out for her.
"Then how about a piece of lemon pie? Dylan swears it's the best in the state."
"That sounds great." She rarely ate desserts, but tonight she needed something to occupy her hands and some activity to fill the awkward silences. In her head, she had imagined this meeting going far differently.
Conor's lack of enthusiasm for their reunion threw her. When they had placed their order, he leaned his chair back on two legs and eyed her unsmiling. "You've turned into a beautiful woman, Ellie. And that's saying something, because back in high school you were the prettiest thing I'd ever seen."
She gaped, totally taken off guard. Heat flooded her cheeks. "You're being kind."
merely truthful," he said, his expression guarded. "I was a guy, not a eunuch. Being your friend wasn't always easy."
Still that undercurrent of something.
"Are you angry with me?" she asked, not at all sure what was going on.
"No. Not now."
"But once upon a time?"
"Yeah. I guess I thought both you and Kirby could have argued harder to stay."
She bit her lip. "You don't know the half of it," she said softly, regret giving her an inward twinge. "We were typical sullen teenagers when we didn't get our own way. We yelled and pleaded and sulked. But Mom and Dad insisted we were a family and that we would be leaving the nest soon enough
that we needed to stick together. The thing is, they were right. Kirby and I had the most amazing experiences that year."
"What about your studies?"
"They homeschooled us. And we worked in the clinic. I wish you could have been there, Conor. The jungle is an incredible place. Dangerous, of course, but so beautiful."
"I'm glad things worked out." When he glanced at his watch, she sensed he was impatient.
Sadness filled her chest. At one time this man had known all her secrets. Had been at her side for most of the important moments of her life. "How about a dance?" she said impulsively. "For old times' sake."
His body language was one big negative, but he nodded. "If you want to."
The small dance floor was crowded with other couples. Conor held her close and moved them across the scarred hardwood with ease. Gone was the slightly gawky boy she had known. In his place was a powerful, confident man. Not that the young Conor had ever lacked confidence, but still
this Conor was different.