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Old Man Winter huffed and puffed, rattling the doors of the Greene Summit Resort. Kara Jameson turned her back on the dark, blustery night. She didn't relish heading out into the declining weather to navigate her way home after a very long day at work.
She took a moment to admire the massive evergreen standing in the lobby of what had once been one of Pennsylvania's premier ski destinations. The twinkling white lights combined with the sparkling green and red decorations would normally fill her with holiday cheer, but not tonight. Not even the rendition of "Jingle Bells" playing softly in the background could tempt her to hum along.
The resort had been sold. The somber thought weighed heavily on her shoulders. It didn't help that rumors were running rampant that all the management positions were being replaced.
Why did it have to happen with Christmas only a few weeks away?
Everything will work out. Everything will work out. She repeated the mantra over and over in her mind, anxious to believe the old adage. But something in her gut said nothing would ever be the same again.
The deep baritone voice came from behind her. She froze. Her gaze remained locked on a red bell-shaped ornament as her mind processed the sound. Even in the two syllables of her name, she knew that voice, knew the way her name rolled off his tongue as sweet as candy.
It couldn't be. He'd sworn he would never come back.
"Kara, won't you even look at me?"
Her gaze shifted to the glass doors that led to the parking lot. Her feet refused to cooperate, remaining cemented to the swirled golden pattern on the hotel carpet. Seven years ago, she'd bolted out those exact doors after Jason had broken their engagement. Back then she'd been unsure and confused by the depth of her emotions. Since then life had given her a crash course in growing up. Running was no longer her style.
She sucked in a deep breath, leveled her shoulders and turned.
Clear blue eyes stared back at her. A slow, easy grin lifted the tired lines around Jason's eyes. She blinked, but he was still there.
This couldn't be happening. The overtime and lack of sleep must be catching up with her.
"Are you okay?" He reached out to her.
She jumped back before he could touch her. Words rushed up her throat, but clogged in her mouth. She pressed her lips together and willed her heart to slow. Her pulse pounded in her ears as her fists clenched at her sides. A breath in. A breath out.
"You're so pale. Sit down." He gestured to one of the overstuffed couches surrounding the stone fireplace. "You look like you've seen a ghost."
She didn't move. This surreal moment struck her as a clip from a moviea visit from the ghost of Christmas past. Only, this wasn't a Hollywood soundstage and he wasn't an actor.
She studied the man before her, trying to make sense of things. The dark scruff obscuring his boyish features was a new addition, as was the two-inch scar trailing up the right side of his jaw. His hardened appearance was a visual reminder of the military life he'd chosen over her. Her fingers longed to reach out and trace the uneven skin of his jaw, but instead she gripped the strap of her tote even tighter. A bit older and a little scuffed up, but it was most definitely Jason.
Just pretend he's a mere acquaintance from years ago, not the man who threw your love back in your face and walked away without any explanation.
"Jason Smith. I can't believe you're here," she said, trying her best to sound casual.
"Actually, I go by Jason Greene these days
The fact he now used his mother's maiden name came as a surprise, but Kara supposed she shouldn't find it too shocking, knowing the stormy relationship between him and his father. The name change had presumably contributed to her inability to track him down and notify him of his father's failing health. A question teetered on her tongue, but she clamped her lips shut. Playing catch-up with Jason was akin to striking a match near fireworks. One wrong move and it'd blow up in her face. Best to stick to safe topics.
His gaze implored her for an answer, but to what? She'd lost track of the strained conversation. "What did you say?"
"How are you?"
He wanted to exchange pleasantries as though they'd parted on good terms? She didn't have time to beat around the bush. She should already be home, getting dinner for her daughter before they went over her homework.
"When you left Pleasant Valley, you swore you'd never return. So what happened? What finally changed your mind?"
His expression hardened. If he'd been expecting a warm welcome, he'd been sadly mistaken.
He shrugged. "Things change."
Well, most things did, and generally not for the better, but not in Jason's case. He hadn't gained so much as a beer gut or a receding hairline. Even the jagged scar on his face added to his sexiness.
Kara's gaze rose to meet his. At first glance, she thought his intense blue eyes were the same as she remembered, but a closer inspection revealed a hard glint in them. He no longer resembled the warm, lighthearted guy she'd dated for nearly four years. Or had he been that way all along? Had those rose-colored glasses she'd been wearing back then obscured his real character? Had she ever truly known him at all?
Jason hitched his thumbs in his jeans pockets. "I'm sorry about what happened between us. I handled it poorly."
"You certainly did."
"If I could explain, I would, but I can't"
"Don't." She held up a hand, stalling his too little, too late explanation. "Nothing you say will change what happened."
Her pride refused to let on that his presence affected her, that even after all this time she longed to know what had changed his mind about marrying her. She reconciled herself to the fact that she was better off not knowingnot prying open that door to her past.
Jason shifted his weight from one foot to the other. "I guess it was too much to hope that you'd be willing to put the past behind us."
She lifted her chin, drawing on the strength she'd used to manage this place in the recent absence of her boss, who also happened to be Jason's father. "I've moved on."
It'd taken timelots of timebut she'd gotten over him and the way her life had unraveled after he'd dumped her. She refused to let him get under her skin again. Besides, she had enough on her plate already.
After working her way up through the ranks, to now be dismissed from her hard-earned position would be utterly demoralizing. She'd like to think she was needlessly worrying, but the rumors said the new owners wanted their own people running the showpeople with more education and experience.
She went to step around Jason, but he snagged hold of her arm. "Wait. I need to apologize."
Even through her coat she could feel his warmth radiating into her body. She yanked at her arm, to no avail.
"Let go," she said with a hard edge. He couldn't just worm his way past her defenses with an empty apology. She refused to let him off the hook that easily. "If you were truly sorry, you'd have said something before now. You wouldn't have ignored me all these years or returned your father's letters unopened."
His hand slipped from her arm. "You know about that?"
She tightened her hold on the strap of the tote bag slung over her shoulder, which held the red scarf she was knitting for Jason's father for Christmas. "Yes. He told me. After you left, he was never quite the same. Not knowing if you were dead or alive seemed to age him overnight."
Jason's body visibly stiffened. "I think you've mixed my father up with someone who cares."
"He's sick, Jason. Real sick. I've done what I can to help him, but he needs you."
"I don't want to discuss him."
She should turn away and walk out the door before the snow grew any deeper, but her feet wouldn't cooperate. There was one thing she needed to knowone nagging question that demanded an answer.
She licked her dry lips. "If it isn't because of your father, then why have you suddenly returned home?"
"Do you really care?" His gaze never left hers.
"No. Never mind. I shouldn't have asked."
Her pulse quickened. Heat scorched her cheeks. Even though it was a lie, she refused to let him think that she cared anything about what he said or did. He was part of her past
"I have to go." She needed space to make sense of things.
"Kara, I know we can't go back to the way things used to be, but it doesn't have to be this awkward. We were friends for years before we dated."
They had been the best of friends. She'd told him everything about her life, but apparently that openness had been one-sided. She wouldn't make the mistake of trusting him again.
"Does this plea of friendship mean you're planning to stay in Pleasant Valley?"
The blunt response lacked any telling details of what had prompted his unexpected return. Her errant gaze strayed to his bare ring finger. Still single. Still available. Been there, done that. She glanced away.
"Welcome home." She buttoned her black peacoat. "I really do need to go."
"Be careful. The snow's picking up." His gaze moved to the glass doors. "It looks bad out. You should spend the night at the hotel."
She shook her head. "The resort's closed for renovations. You shouldn't even be here. Who's been showing you around?"
They weren't the only ones there late. With the new owner, GSR Inc., arriving on Monday, a number of people were working late even though it was a Friday evening. Everyone had gone above and beyond their duties, hoping to make a good impression on the new owner. Though Jason had been away for years, a number of employees knew him and would have volunteered to give him a last look around the place.
She glanced up at him, waiting for a response. His lips were pursed as though he was about to say something, but had refrained.
"I don't have all night," she stated.
"I don't need an escort."
Kara squared her shoulders. "Since I'm in charge around here, I'm telling you that either you have an escort or you must leave. Now."
This close to the new owner's arrival, she wasn't taking any chances. The last thing she needed was for anyone to get hurt on her watch.
Jason's brows arched. "You like being the boss, don't you?"
"I do whatever needs to be done to keep this place going."
"Good. I hope all my employees are so devoted."
?" Alarm tightened her throat, smothering her next words. Surely she hadn't heard him correctly. Or she'd misunderstood.
"Yes, my employees."
This nightmare couldn't be unfolding right before her eyes. "You
"I've gone in with a couple of investors. This place needs to be reorganized. A lot of cutting needs to be done, but I think it's possible to turn the business around with the right management."
A lot of cutting? Right management? The implication of his words shattered her dream of keeping her job. Fragments of her hopes scattered over the freshly laid carpet. Finding an equivalent job would not be easy without a college degree. She inwardly groaned.
She might even have to move. Her thoughts turned to her parents, who had been involved in their only grandchild's life since the day she was born. To tear her daughter away from them now would devastate not only them but her little girl, as well. But Kara wouldn't have a choice. She would have to move wherever she could find reasonable employment.
"Time to start job hunting," she muttered under her breath.
"Nothing. I have to go before the snow gets too deep to drive in." She yanked on her gloves.
Kara forced herself to take measured steps, training her gaze on the glass door. She hadn't run away when the locals had clucked their tongues and shaken their heads at her youthful mistake. Now she wouldn't give Jason the satisfaction of witnessing how he could still shake her to the core.
Jason Greene clenched his hands. He'd heard enough of her mumbled comment to know she had no intention of working for him. He couldn't leave things like this. Her assistance and knowledge over these next several weeks were essential to the resort's success. He'd risked everything he owned on restoring the Greene Summit. And he couldn't afford to lose it all now.
He started for the door. Large snowflakes fell, adding to the several inches of accumulation on the ground. He'd forgotten how fast the weather could deteriorate in the Laurel Highlands. An overwhelming urge settled in his chest to stop her and convince her to stay over in one of the hotel rooms, where she'd be safe and warm during this stormy night.
His steps grew quicker. Damn, he still cared about her. This was bigger than when they'd grown up togetherback when Kara was 100 percent tomboy and he'd protected her from the school bully. The emotions brewing inside him now had an adult edge.
He lingered at the glass doors, staring out into the stormy night. He couldn't tear his gaze from Kara's petite figure as she braved fierce winds while crossing the snowy parking lot. Her appearance had changed, from jeans and snug T-shirts that nestled against her soft curves, to casual business attire. A short haircut replaced her ponytail. Everything combined to give her a mature, polished persona. He certainly wasn't the only one who'd changed.
Was she worried about her trip home? Or was she doing the same as him and reliving the past? He still had time to stop her. He pushed the door open. The bitter wind stung his face as he followed her footsteps. She would demand once more to know the sordid details behind his seven-year absence. His pace slowed. Could he bring himself to explain that dreadful night?
He stopped. No. No way. If he knew the words to make everything right between them, he'd have said them years ago. As the cold cut through his coat and over his exposed skin, he realized he'd played out all the scenarios in his mind thousands of times. Each ended with her looking at him with repulsion. No way could he put either of them through that experience.
Jason rubbed the back of his neck, trying to ease the stiff muscles. His return to the Summit was going to be just as rough and bumpy as he'd imagined, but he'd get through it. He turned and limped back to the lobby. Only one day on his feet, with the cold seeping into his bones, and already the wound in his thigh throbbed.
He exhaled a weary sigh. The last time he'd worked at the resort, Kara had been his priority. Now, with no significant other in his life, he could sink his dreams into restoring this place without all the emotional entanglements of a relationship and raging teenage hormones. His experience in the military had forced him to grow up. He now realized what was important and why.
He shoved his fingers through his hair, hating the selfish boy he'd once been. This time he'd prove himself worthy of the trust others placed in him. He wouldn't repeat the mistakes of his past.