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Lisa Gibbs wiped a smear of blue finger paint off her cheek and then, before the little girl who sat at the miniature table across from her could squirm away, used the cloth to clean most of the paint off her smiling face. She couldn’t do anything about the paint that had found its way into her hair, but it would wash out. Besides, a messy child after arts and crafts was almost always a happy child. And if her parents didn’t like it when they came to pick her up from the Cub Club, well, that was too bad.
“Why don’t you go play, Emily?” Lisa suggested. “I’ll put your painting on the rack to dry and you can take it with you when you leave.”
The little girl nodded. “It’s for my mommy. I love her the mostest.”
Lisa felt the familiar pinch of jealousy. Which was ridiculous because she didn’t even know the little girl’s mother. But it didn’t matter. She didn’t need to know the woman to envy her. Whoever she was, she had a beautiful little girl, and Lisa could guess she also had a husband who doted on her. The perfect family. Just like all the families who visited Castle Mountain Lodge.
Lisa watched Emily join a group of children building Lego before she cleaned up the painting supplies and returned them to the supply cupboard. She loved her job. Loved working with the children. It was their parents she had trouble with. They were all so damn perfect and happy and…the complete opposite from anything she’d ever had, or likely ever would.
The bells on the door chimed, alerting her to the arrival of a new guest. Instinctively, Lisa looked for Morgan. Her boss—and friend—was in the middle of reading a story to a small group who hung off her every word. Morgan waved at Lisa to handle the visitor and she nodded her response. Lisa grabbed the registration clipboard and turned around.
When she saw the man in front of her, tall and filling out his T-shirt with muscles that looked to be earned by many hard hours in the gym, Lisa momentarily forgot what to say. She’d certainly never seen him before. But that wasn’t unusual at the Lodge. Guests were always coming and going, bringing their kids in and out of the child care center.
“Welcome to the Cub Club,” she said. She gave him a bright friendly smile. “What can I help you with?” He didn’t have a child with him, which was unusual. “Are you picking up your child?” She scanned the list, trying to figure out who he might be picking up. “Because I’ll have to see some ID before we release them to you.”
“Oh no. I’m not here to pick anyone up.” She raised her eyebrows at his choice of words; he tipped his head briefly and gave her a strange look before he added, “I’m just wondering how this works here.” He gestured around the room.
“Well, usually you have a child to register in the program.” If he was some creeper who was just trying to figure out a way to be close to the kids, there was no way he’d be getting past her. The fact that he looked as if he could pick her up and throw her over his shoulder hardly seemed like an important detail. She forced a smile and tried to be as friendly as possible until she could figure out what he was after. “This is a club for kids, but if you’re looking for something to do at the Lodge, I could direct you in the right direction. We have a wide variety of activities for our older guests as well, sir.” She put her clipboard down and looked at him pointedly.
“Oh no.” A smile crossed his face and he laughed as he realized what she was implying. “It’s not like that at all.”
Lisa’s instincts were to believe him. Despite his broad chest and thick arms, he didn’t look like the threatening type. In fact, he looked like the type of guy she would normally be attracted to. Very attracted. But that was before. Things were different now and a man, even one as attractive as the one who stood in front of her, was not on her agenda. “Well, how is it then, sir?”
“Jason,” he said. “My name’s Jason. And I actually am wondering about the Cub Club. Not for myself obviously,” he added quickly.
The man crossed his arms over his chest, which drew more attention to them as far as Lisa was concerned. She tried not to stare at his defined muscles.
“Obviously.” She looked directly into his big green eyes. “That would be weird.”
He chuckled and nodded. “That it would. But don’t worry, I’m not some kind of crazy. I actually need to register Kayden .”
“Kayden? That’s a nice name.”
“Yeah. His mom named him after his grandfather.” There was a time, not too long ago, when Lisa would’ve inquired further about Kayden, his mom, and whether his extremely good-looking and charismatic father was a single father and potentially in need of a date. But that was before she almost lost everything she’d worked for at the Lodge because of her tendency to flirt, and well, more than flirt, with guests. After the Gage Mitchell incident, when she took her attraction to the movie star who was staying at the Lodge a little too far, she was lucky she still had a job at all. And there was no way she was going to make that mistake again. Things had changed. She had changed.
She glanced up from her clipboard where she’d started writing. “Okay.” She returned her attention to the clipboard with the professional detachment she’d perfected since the incident. “We can get your son registered without a problem. How many days will you be visiting us at Castle Mountain?”
She held the pen poised in her hand and waited for his response. When he didn’t say anything, she looked up. “Sir? How many days?”
“It’s Jason,” he said finally. Amusement laced his voice. “Remember?”
“I remember.” She returned his smile. He was so disarming, she couldn’t help how her body responded to him. “How many days would you like to register for, Jason?” She emphasized his name this time. “Basically, how it works is every day we plan different activities for the children so they can enjoy some fun, kid time, and you and um…Kayden’s mom…”She tilted her head with the implied question that she knew she had no business asking and tried to tell herself that she didn’t care what the answer was. When Jason only shrugged in response, she continued. “Well, then the two of you are free to enjoy some of the activities at the Lodge that aren’t quite so child friendly, and everyone has a good time.”
“Sounds good,” Jason said. “I’ll sign him up for the day after tomorrow.”
“Great. You said your son’s name was Kayden?” Lisa scribbled down the date next to his name.
“Oh, he’s not my son.”
His words caught her and she looked up and took a deep breath. “Okay,” she said. “Your stepson then?”
Jason chuckled. Apparently he found her funny. “I never said he belonged to me. Kayden’s actually my nephew. My sister’s still checking in so I thought I’d come down and take care of things for her.”
A flush passed over Lisa’s face. She really shouldn’t jump to conclusions. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I just assumed. But we generally only get parents coming into the Cub Club. It was an easy mistake.”
“And do you flirt with all the parents?”
“I wasn’t flirting.” Lisa thrust her shoulders back and crossed her arms, because the last thing she was doing or intended to do was flirt.
“Oh, really?” He grinned.
She wanted to be irritated by his grin, but it only made him more attractive and that was way too dangerous. “Absolutely not.” She shook her head and narrowed her eyes into a glare.
“Well,” he said with an easy smile, “if you were, I’d be flattered.”
Damn it. He flirted with her.
She bit her bottom lip a little and forced any and all thoughts that were even remotely inappropriate from her head. She wasn’t going to go down that road again. Not even for a man who looked like Jason. She shook her head firmly. “Sorry to disappoint, but I was just doing my job. I am definitely not interested.” She emphasized the words so there’d be no further misunderstanding. And by the transformation on his face, Lisa was pretty sure he got the point. A part of her, especially the part that thought he was a nice guy, felt bad.
“If you say so.”
“It’s not that—”
“Hey, whatever you say.” He tucked his hand in his back pocket, a move so effortlessly casual, it made Lisa’s stomach flip in a way that both annoyed and excited her. “So, what else do we need to get Kayden registered?”
Lisa swallowed hard; for some unknown reason, she felt the need to explain. “Look, it’s not you; it’s just that I kind of make it a point not to date guests.” She searched his face for an indication that he wasn’t still upset with her, and she couldn’t help but wonder why she cared at all. He was just a guest. He’d be gone in a few days, and as long as she behaved, she’d still have her job. It wasn’t like her to care about what anyone thought, let alone some random guy she’d just met. But there was something about Jason. “Seriously. If it wasn’t for that, I would totally be flirting with you.” Why on earth did she just say that? Lisa bit the end of her pen to keep from talking any more.
His eyes flashed, and the corner of his mouth turned up in a wicked grin. “And what makes you think it was a date I was interested in? I had something much different in mind.”
He emphasized the word date and his eyes flashed with a look Lisa had become all too familiar with when it came to men. She took an automatic step back and shook her head. Anger flooded through her. Did he really just proposition her? Clearly her read on men was slipping. It was just her luck that the most gorgeous man she’d laid eyes on in months was also a complete ass.
It took her a moment to recover, and then with a renewed determination for professionalism, she picked up her clipboard and tried to resume the check-in. Anything to get Jason, and everything he suddenly represented, away from her as quickly as possible.
“What room are you in?”
“I thought you weren’t interested?” His eyes were hard, but she detected an edge of amusement in his voice. “But if you insist—”
A hot blush shot across her face. “I need it for the form.”
“If I knew it, I’d tell you. But I don’t have it yet.” His grin got wider. “Just put it under Porter.”
She scribbled down the name. “And anyone who will be picking up or dropping Kayden off? I need their names. His mother, perhaps a girlfriend or—”
“My sister’s name is Jennifer. I don’t have a girlfriend.”
Despite how obnoxious he was, the piece of information caused an annoying flutter in her chest. “Okay, and how many days are you staying with us?”
Five days? That was long enough to get to know him. The idea popped into her head before she could stop it. What was she even thinking? He was clearly a player and even if she hadn’t sworn off men, Jason should be the last guy she’d consider. She did not need that type of drama in her life.
“Five days is a long time,” she said with as much detachment as she could muster. “I’m sure you’ll be able to take in a lot of what the Lodge has to offer.”
“Doubtful.” He rolled his eyes. “I’m here for a family reunion.”
“Well, that sounds fun, too.” She raised her eyebrows.
“I don’t know about that.” He shoved his hands in his back pockets, and in an instant, the arrogant man he’d been melted away to reveal the friendly, approachable man she’d met originally. “But it’s been awhile since I’ve been up to the mountains. I forgot how pretty it is up here. I’m looking forward to exploring, maybe a hike or a—”
“Doesn’t sound much like a reunion.”
“Honestly?” Jason leaned in and whispered. “That was just an excuse to get up to the Lodge.”
“Well, now that you’re here,” Lisa swallowed hard, a chill going down her spine at his closeness, “I hope you find what you’re looking for.”
He was so close his scent filled her senses. It was a spicy, manly scent, almost like cinnamon, but richer. Almost like chocolate. She fought the urge to pull away even though it was exactly what she should be doing. What was it about this man? She should have been running in the opposite direction, yet something about him drew her in at the very same time it pushed her away. Confusion roiled through her.
“I’m sure I’ll find exactly what I’m looking for,” he said after a moment.
His words were loaded with expectation and innuendo. But despite the draw, she had to stay strong and stick to her rules. Especially with a man who so obviously was only in it for the short term. It was probably part of his game to find a holiday fling and she was definitely not in the mood to be anyone’s game. No thank you.
Lisa was just about to step back and put a safe distance between them when she heard a voice behind her.
She froze and then spun around to see Morgan stood behind her, a frown on her face.
“Is everything okay here?” Morgan asked.
“Of course, I—”
“He was just—”
Morgan looked at both of them in turn. Her eyes narrowed. Eventually she turned to Lisa. “Why don’t you take a break?”
Lisa looked back at Jason before she turned to Morgan again. She did not look impressed and no doubt she thought Lisa was hitting on the guests again despite all of Lisa’s promises to the contrary. She flicked a look at Jason. Damn him. It was all his fault. He’d done this and he was probably going to go away and have a good laugh with his buddies or his family or whatever, at her expense. She narrowed her eyes and opened her mouth to protest again, but there was no point. Morgan was going to be pissed. That was for sure. Without bothering to look at Jason again, she nodded and walked away.
There was no doubt that Morgan would want to talk about it as soon as she was done with Jason, but she might as well save her breath. Lisa wasn’t a fool: despite all of her best efforts since the Gage Mitchell incident, her reputation was a hard one to shake. It’s not as if she meant to go over the line—it just happened. Things probably would have been different if her attraction with Gage Mitchell had panned out exactly how she’d planned. But that definitely hadn’t worked out, and looking back, it was probably for the best.
No, it was definitely for the best. Lisa smoothed her hair back into a ponytail, and tried to rid herself of the memory. She’d decided then that she really needed to stop acting so loose with men. And she had, too. She spared a quick glance to where Morgan still talked to Jason. For the most part.
“Lisa?” A little voice provided her with the distraction she needed. She looked down at the little girl she’d been painting with earlier.
Lisa crouched so she was at eye level. “What’s up, kiddo? Do you need something?”
“Will you play with me? I wanna build blocks, but they keep falling.”
Lisa smiled and tucked a strand of Emily’s hair behind her ear. “I would love to.” She took the little girl by the hand and let her lead the way to the corner where the blocks were kept.
Something caused her to glance in Jason’s direction one more time as she handed Emily the first block. He took a piece of paper from Morgan, likely his reminder slip, and turned to leave. But before he did, he looked in her direction and their eyes locked. He opened his mouth as if he wanted to say something, but Lisa shook her head and focused on Emily. Kids were easier.
The second he was out of the Kids Club, Cub Corner or whatever it was called, Jason Porter slammed his hand against the wall and cursed. Seconds later, he looked around to make sure no one had seen him. It was a bad habit, gleaned from too many months up North working in the oil patch, but he knew his twin sister, Jennifer, would rip up one side and down the other if she heard him swear like that.
But sometimes there were no other appropriate words for a situation. Like the way he’d just royally screwed things up with the prettiest girl he’d seen in months. And it wasn’t just that she was pretty, although with her blond hair, and womanly curves that just begged for him to—no. He wasn’t going to go there. It didn’t matter anyway, after the way he’d just behaved. He’d more or less offered her a one-night stand. Regardless whether that was the only type of relationship he cared to have these days, it hadn’t been appropriate. And he’d offended her. Any idiot could see that.
But why did it bother him so much? He’d never let it affect him before.
He knew why. Even if he didn’t want to admit it. The truth was, Lisa was the first woman he’d been even remotely interested in since Nikki, and that was a long time ago. Not that it mattered, because she wasn’t likely to even speak to him again, never mind go out with him. Which was probably a good thing, because dating wasn’t an option for him. Not anymore.
He wasn’t interested. Not really. At least that’s what he could—and probably should—keep telling himself. A date wasn’t going to happen, not even if it was just a super casual drink at a hotel where he’d never see the woman again. No. Especially not that. Maybe in a different time, or a different…it didn’t matter.
There was no point giving the situation anymore time and energy. Not when he could be out enjoying the mountains or the Lodge itself, which might as well have been the royal palace compared to the basic camps he was used to up North. And he should definitely be enjoying his little nephew, Kayden. It was after all, the only reason he’d agreed to his sister’s incessant nagging to go to the stupid family reunion. The last thing he really wanted was to have to make small talk with cousins he hadn’t seen since…well, it had been awhile, and he certainly hadn’t missed any of them. There was a reason it’d been so long.
But he was here, and he’d play nice, mostly because it would make Jennifer happy and after all, that’s what he did. Made his sister happy. He made his way down the corridor to the lobby, where she was hopefully done checking them in. He’d offered to look into the kids club thing for Kayden, mostly to get away from the crush of people, most of whom were relatives who all clambered for a position at the front desk. Details really weren’t his thing. He’d let Jen take care of that.
“Hey, buddy.” Jason ruffled Kayden’s hair and plopped down next to him on one of the plush leather couches in the main reception area. “Where’s your mom?”
Kayden pointed to the desk. “She told me to wait here.”
“Probably for the best. This is the worst part of staying in a hotel.” His nephew nodded his head in agreement. “But do you know what the best part is?”
They looked at each other and said in unison, “The pool!”
“Can we go, Uncle Jason?”
“Of course.” He glanced toward his sister who finally, mercifully, made her way toward them. “But let’s wait and get settled in our rooms, okay?”
“What are you waiting to do?” Jennifer raised her eyebrow in question. “I’m sure it has something to do with the schedule of events, right?” She smiled and Jason didn’t even bother to stifle his groan.
With their dark hair and green eyes, there was no doubt they were siblings, but that’s where the similarities ended. Where Jason was always quiet, and preferred to hang out with a few close friends or spend his free time outside, Jennifer had always been the more wild, impulsive twin. She thrived on large groups of people, parties and being the center of attention. A trait that had meant Jason spent most of their high school years playing the role of the protective big brother, making sure the boys who were clamoring for his beautiful sister’s attention were worthy. They often weren’t. And unfortunately, Jason hadn’t been able to prevent his sister from choosing the wrong man to marry and ultimately divorce.
Although, the one good thing that came from that union was his nephew. And that was a pretty damn good thing. Plus, now that she was a mother, Jennifer had completely changed, except when it came to wanting be around lots of people. Hence, the reunion.
“Come on, Jason.” She shoved an envelope at him. “That’s why we’re here.”
“What’s this?” He eyed the envelope somewhat suspiciously but didn’t open it.
“Your itinerary for the weekend.”
With one last look at the envelope, Jason stood and shoved it in his back pocket. “Right.” He grabbed the bags. “Why don’t we go find our rooms?”
Kayden leapt up and led the way across the large timber framed lobby to the bank of elevators. Jason smiled and gathered up the bags. As they made their way across the room, Jason was careful not to make eye contact with any of his cousins. He knew he couldn’t avoid talking to them forever, but he did plan to put it off for as long as possible. Instead he focused on the large picture windows that covered the entire back wall of the lobby, and the magnificent view they afforded. It had been a long time since he’d been in the mountains, too long, and he couldn’t wait to get out there.
“You know you’re going to have to hang out with them a little bit.” Jennifer read his mind, the way she always did, but Jason only shrugged and shook his head.
“Not if I can help it.”
“Jason.” She turned to look at him as they waited for the elevator. “That’s why you’re here. It’s a family reunion.”
“No.” He stabbed his finger at the button again. “That’s why you’re here. I’m here to be with you. And Kayden.” He smiled at his nephew. “And that’s exactly what I plan on doing. And you know, I checked out that kids club thing.” The face of the beautiful blond, with her fiery eyes glaring at him, flashed through his mind. “But I don’t know if that’s the right thing for Kayden.”
“Why not? The lady at the desk said they did lots of fun things, like crafts and hikes and even scavenger hunts.”
“Scavenger hunts?” Kayden was always listening, and had twigged onto the one thing that he’d liked the sound of. “I wanna do that.”
“I’m sure we can sign you up—”
“I don’t think it’s—”
Kayden looked between them and shook his head. He was used to his mom and his uncle disagreeing. He also knew his mom made the final decision.
“We’ll sign you up.” She shot Jason a look.
“He already is,” Jason mumbled and thankfully, the elevator arrived and without another word, he picked up the bags. “The day after tomorrow.” There was no point arguing with his sister. She’d win. She always did. Besides, Jennifer was right: Kayden would have fun in the kids group, and there weren’t very many little cousins his age. The whole family reunion would be even more excruciatingly boring for his nephew than it would be for him.
And more than boring, and dealing with his extended family, it would be the constant reminder of what Jason had once, and had lost.
Their rooms were next to each other, down a long hall, and after Jason dropped the bags in Jennifer and Kayden’s room, he looked forward to a bit of time alone. Of course, his sister had other plans. Before he even had time to cross the room and open the curtains, there was a knock on the door that attached their two rooms. He could ignore it. Pretend he hadn’t heard it. But that would only buy him a few minutes. When his sister wanted something, there was no way she gave up.
With a flick, he unlatched the deadbolt and seconds later, the door opened, and his sister stepped inside. “Kayden’s jumping on the beds, trying to decide which one he wants to sleep in, so I thought I’d come and see how you’re doing.”
“Why wouldn’t I be doing okay?” Jason tugged the cord that opened the thick curtains and let the sunlight spill into the room. It was a beautiful fall day, and although he knew the weather could change in an instant up in the mountains, for the moment it was beautiful.
“Come on, Jason. I know you. I know this can’t be easy.”
Without turning away from the view, he said, “What? Being around all these people who share our name, but not our lives? Who pretend to care about us, but really just want a good story to talk about around their dinner table at Sunday night dinner? You think that’s hard? I don’t understand.”
“That’s not fair.” He turned to see his twin, with her arms crossed over her chest. “You know that’s not fair. They’re not all like that.”
“But most are.”
Jennifer started to shake her head in protest, but turned it into a shrug instead. “Okay, I admit, our family wasn’t totally supportive after…well, when Nikki died, I know they weren’t the best.” The mention of her name prompted the familiar pain in his chest, although admittedly, it wasn’t as sharp as it had been.
“No, Jen. Our family. Mom, Dad, you and Kayden. You guys were great. Everyone else, well they can go to—”
“Uncle Jason!” Kayden’s head appeared in the doorway, promoting a warning look from Jennifer. Not that he needed it—Jason would never swear in front of his nephew. Not intentionally anyway. “Isn’t it cool? Our rooms are totally attached.”
Jason grinned. How could he not? His real family was right here in the room with him. With the exception of his parents, who had to take a last-minute business trip instead of joining them. It was probably for the best anyway, considering his dad mostly shared Jason’s feelings regarding his own family, despite the fact that most of them worked for the family business, Porter Properties. Jason had somehow managed to avoid taking a position there, despite his father’s constant asking. Nikki’s death had changed a lot of things. Too many.