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Shaw Chamberlin was laughing; something Haley Walters had rarely heard the Lake Serene resort manager do. In fact the tall man with broad shoulders and deep-set brown eyes looked downright carefree. Maybe there was another side to her serious boss. She hoped so, not that his demeanor was her concern.
He and a girl who looked to be four or five stood at the side of the road that led to the resort while snowflakes drifted down around them. Thanks to the snow mound she was standing on, the girl, dressed hood to boots in purple, was nearly as tall as Shaw.
If it had been what Haley could call a snowball fight, the girl was clearly winning. However, Shaw was laughing too hard to be able to hold up his end of the battle. One small, irregularly shaped snowball after another pelted his bare head and coat-protected chest. He could have moved out of the child’s reach or thrown her over his shoulder. Instead, he continued to present himself as the perfect target. Haley couldn’t hear what they were saying, but she guessed Shaw was joking with the girl because he wasn’t the only one laughing.
Haley kept as much distance as she safely could between herself and the battling pair ahead of her and inched closer. A pickup traveling in the other direction kicked up slush. Fortunately right now she and the pickup were the only vehicles on the access road. Hardly for the first time, the surrounding Rocky Mountains made their presence known. Montana’s trees seemed to be watching her. More than that, the wintery setting was claiming her. Taking over. In control. Inescapable.
Whatever Shaw and the girl were up to was none of her business but that didn’t stop her from winding down her windows. Childish laughter reached the interior, making Haley smile. She’d been like that once, full of joy, before her world had been torn apart.
Pushing her past in to the corner where she usually kept it, she continued. The SUV’s interior was getting cold, but she kept the windows down. She’d wind them up once she could see the pair in her rear view mirror.
“Not fair!” The little girl announced. “You’re making me laugh too hard.”
“You’re making me laugh too hard.” Shaw countered.
“Am not.” The child pointed a gloved finger at Haley who had reached them. “Tell him to stop being so silly.”
Haley put on her brakes and leaned toward the passenger’s side window. “I don’t think I can do that.”
“I bet you could if you tried. Tell him something sad.”
“But that would make you and me sad and we don’t want that.”
“No, we don’t.” She frowned. “Make him hold still.”
“Hey,” Shaw said. “I am holding still.” He acknowledged Haley with a nod and lingering eye contact. “What are you doing here?”
His eyes! Dark and digging. Sexy. “You asked me to meet you at the lodge.”
“That’s right. Sorry.” After looking at her longer than her nerves were used to, he planted his hands on his hips and glared at the girl. “It’s your fault for making me forget what I’m doing.”
“Is not. Lady, he’s too far away. I can’t throw that far. Make him come closer.”
Before Haley could ask how she was supposed to accomplish that, a horn behind her sounded. She motioned for the driver to go around. “I’m in the way,” she said.
Shaw took in his surroundings, frowning as he did. “And we’re too close to the road. I know better than to let that happen. Go to the turnout. We’ll join you.”
The turnout was a little more than a hundred feet away. By the time she’d parked and gotten out, Shaw and the girl, walking hand in hand, had reached her. Instead of keeping distance between herself and her boss, she came so close she could have touched him. Even with snow still clinging to his coat and hair, his heat was undeniable. They’d spent little time together. Once she’d gotten over how physical he was up close, she’d stop reacting but for now—
“This is good,” the girl said as Shaw lifted her onto the mounded snow. “I can make lots of snowballs here.”
“Hey, that’s not why I put you there. You’re safer where you are.”
“Daddy says I’ll always be safe when I’m with you.”
“Does he? Well, there’s nothing that’s more important to me.”
As Shaw continued gazing up at the girl, Haley felt an ache all through her. It didn’t matter how many times she’d been a witness to pure love between a man and a child, she longed to experience it. She suspected she always would.
“I love your outfit,” she told the girl when she could speak.
“Purple is the best color in the whole wide world.”
“What about pink?” Shaw winked at Haley. “I thought all girls liked pink the most.”
“No.” The girl stuck out her tongue. “No way.”
“What about you?” Shaw asked Haley. “I’m taking a poll. Was pink your thing when you were Missy’s age?”
Shaw Chamberlin had never asked her a personal question. That and the affection between him and Missy had to be the reason for the flutter in her stomach. He was the resort’s business-oriented manager, not this smiling, snow-covered man who was trying to make sense of little girls’ color preferences.
“No pink for me either,” she admitted. “I was crazy about red.”
“Red’s okay.” Missy allowed. “Not as pretty as purple.” She crossed her little arms and glared at Shaw. “And my name’s Alexa, not Missy.”
Shaw frowned. “Really? I thought it was Gertrude Mergatroid.”
So this delightful child was Shaw’s niece. Until now, the only personal thing she’d known about the six-foot-two-inch, dark-haired, and athletic man in his late thirties was that Robert Chamberlin, Shaw’s uncle, had bought the resort. Shaw’s role was to oversee the extensive remodeling. She had been curious about him from the day he’d interviewed her for her job, an interest she hadn’t expected and still didn’t know what to do with.
“You’re visiting the resort?” she asked Alexa in an attempt to distract herself from the man. “What have you and Uncle Shaw been doing?”
“Not much. He has to work all the time.”
“Not true. I’ve been at your disposal all morning. Tell Haley what I showed you how to make.”
Alexa spread her arms and moved them up and down. “A snow angel.”
“He did?” She couldn’t help but look at Shaw again. He again appeared lighthearted. “It’s fun isn’t it?”
“I got snow all over my back.”
“Which I brushed off,” Shaw said. “You have to give me credit for that.”
Alexa’s smile broadened. “I love you.”
“And I adore you, you little character. You’re my favorite little girl in the whole world.”
Watching Shaw retrieve Alexa, hug her, and then toss her over his shoulder, Haley struggled against the lump in her throat. No matter what he wanted to talk to her about, it wouldn’t lessen the impact of seeing him and his niece together. Judging by what little she’d seen and heard, he’d make a wonderful father, but gossip was he wasn’t married and didn’t have children.
In other words, Shaw was like her, alone.
It doesn’t matter. He’s my boss.
He turned and watched as a large RV neared. It was far enough away that it didn’t present a danger, but he didn’t take his attention off it until it was beyond them.
“Not the best place for us to be,” he muttered. “My fault. I let her talk me into walking to the snowplow so she could see how tall it is.”
“Did he let you climb up into the cab?” she asked Alexa.
“No. It was locked.”
“I bet it was still impressive.”
“It was huge.”
Shaw smiled. “I believe her exact words were it was the biggest piece of machinery she’d ever seen. Look, I need to get this munchkin back to her parents. Then you and I can talk. Oh, how did your trip go?”
“To the dentist.”
Surprised he remembered, she tapped the lower right side of her mouth. “Fine. I have a new crown.”
He repositioned Alexa so the girl was straddling the back of his neck and holding onto his hair. Looking delighted, she surveyed her world. How pure Alexa’s joy was, how clean and good. In time that would change as life’s ups and downs impacted her, but hopefully she’d always be an optimist.
“You were in pain.” He observed. “I heard it in your voice.”
She hadn’t approached her boss until fellow resort employee Terron Sax had agreed to cover for her. In fact, she wouldn’t have asked Terron if his girlfriend Kolina Childs hadn’t suggested it. Hampered by her throbbing tooth, she’d told Kolina she couldn’t join her and their mutual friend Echo Rose for dinner after all. That was when Kolina had insisted she talk to Terron.
When she’d called and told Shaw about the arrangement she’d made with Terron, she’d thought Shaw might object since she hadn’t first involved him. Instead, and to her relief, Shaw had told her to take off early since a storm was on its way. Now she understood why he’d given his approval—he’d sensed how much discomfort she was in.
“I’m relieved the dentist was able to do everything in one visit,” she said to Shaw.
She still wasn’t entirely comfortable in his presence, but he didn’t need to know how dependent she was on his approval of her job performance.
“There’s Daddy.” Alexa bounced up and down on Shaw’s shoulders. “Uncle Shaw, tell him I can stay here with you. I don’t need to go to school for a long, long time.”
Instead of looking for who or what had caught the girl’s attention, Haley continued to study Shaw. Alexa leaned down and around and planted a kiss on his nose followed by nibbling on it. Laughter rolled out of the man. Then he drew Alexa off his neck, deposited her on the ground, and pulled back her hood, revealing long, light blonde hair no dye could duplicate.
“I can’t do that, pumpkin.” Using both hands, Shaw ruffled the girl’s hair until it was no longer plastered to her head. “Someone would have to look after you while I’m working.”
“No they don’t. I’m five and two months.”
Shaw shook his head. “Which, according to the tooth fairy, is thirty-three months too young for being left alone for more than five seconds.”
“Is not either.”
Alexa pointed at Haley. “I can stay with her while you’re working.”
“Oh, you can, can you?” Shaw waved at a tall man making his way to them via the snow that had been pushed to the side of the road. “What if she’s working?”
“She isn’t. She’s talking about her tooth.”
Chuckling, Haley locked gazes with Shaw. Their relationship shifted a little, a subtle change that took it from one hundred percent professional to something she wasn’t sure she should or could explore but spoke to her on a deep level. She’d become part of Shaw’s personal life, at least briefly.
“Sorry,” Haley told Alexa. She wanted time to stop; to be given the opportunity to try to make sense of what had just happened between her and her employer and why it mattered as much as it did. “I have to go back to work in the morning. It wouldn’t be safe to have you around then.”
“What do you do?”
“Haley Walters is in charge of the snowmobiles.” Shaw supplied. “She’s right. It could be dangerous.”
“I love snowmobiles! Do yours go really fast?”
Alexa’s high laugh again joined with Shaw’s deeper one and warmed Haley’s heart. She shared yet another look with Shaw. This one said a great deal about loving a child’s view of the world.
“Not all the time,” Haley said. “And you can only be on one if you’re with an adult.”
Alexa scraped at the snow with her purple boot. “That’s not fair.”
“There’s a lot in life that isn’t fair, princess,” a different male voice said. “Look at you. If you get any more snow on your coat no one will know what color it is.”
That obviously made an impact on the girl, prompting her to try to brush it off. The snowfall had picked up a bit since Haley had gotten out of her car and the wind felt stronger. Dark clouds like heavy blankets added to the environment’s impact on her senses. She was glad she hadn’t waited until evening to return to Lake Serene. The last thing she needed was to be hit by some idiot who didn’t know how to drive in a storm.
Today had been only her fourth trip away from Lake Serene since she’d come to work here. Once her tooth had been dealt with and she’d gone grocery shopping, she’d debated spending a few hours reconnecting with civilization, but the worsening weather report had made up her mind for her. That and knowing Shaw wanted to see her. She wasn’t sure how she felt about again being surrounded by a wilderness anchored by a frozen lake.
A little isolated. Not sure she belonged here or wanted to.
Having nowhere else to go.
“I figured that daughter of mine would con you into playing in the snow with her,” Alexa’s father said to Shaw. “She can be pretty persuasive.”
Shaw smiled and again ruffled Alexa’s hair. “You know I love it.”
“Yeah.” Alexa’s father drew out the word. “I know you do. You need to get yourself one or more of these con artists.”
Shaw’s lack of a response might not mean anything, but Haley thought she detected longing in his expression. What was the saying, something about it being lonely at the top? The resort’s buck stopped at Shaw’s doorstep which made it a 24/7 job, but she wasn’t convinced it was that simple. Shaw was handsome, responsible, decisive, and intelligent. He managed the staff in a professional and even-handed way. He must have been like that for a long time to prompt his uncle to hire him. In the years before coming to Lake Serene, he must have met women who’d been drawn to his strong personality, women with the kind of strength and independence Shaw admired.
Shaking off the question of why she was contemplating Shaw’s qualifications as a husband and father and why those things hadn’t happened, she turned her attention to what he was saying to his brother. From what she gathered, the brother, his wife, Alexa, and a younger child had been here for several days. Although Shaw wanted them to stay longer, his brother and sister-in-law had a flight to catch and jobs to return to. Also they wanted to get to a lower altitude before dark.
“Thanks so much for coming,” Shaw said as he hugged his brother who was maybe an inch shorter with a bit of a paunch. “It means the world to me.”
Shaw’s brother grabbed his shoulders. “I’ll call before our flight takes off. Next time I’ll bring the folks. I’m sorry they couldn’t come.”
Sober, Shaw nodded. “So am I.”
“I just wish you lived closer. Hasn’t enough time passed that—”
“This is my life now. It’s better this way.”
Haley was still trying to process the nuances of what the two men had said when she realized Shaw would have to walk back to the main resort complex unless she offered him a ride. When she did, she half expected him to turn her down since it was only about an eighth of a mile. Instead, after saying thanks, he climbed into the passenger’s seat. He didn’t take up much more room than the few other people she’d had in her vehicle, but she was more aware of his presence. It was just the two of them, the world no longer mattering. Nothing being said. His hands on his knees, he studied the interior while she turned on the engine. If he was taking note of how close they were to each other, he gave no indication. Maybe he was planning to tell her she wasn’t handling her job as well as he’d expected her to. She couldn’t think what she might have done wrong, didn’t want to think about their official relationship.
“My rig isn’t fancy,” she said to keep the silence from continuing. “I was more interested in a workhorse than looks.”
“All-wheel drive’s essential around here.” He reached behind his neck and pulled a chunk of snow out of his collar. He rolled down the window enough to toss it out. “Too bad I can’t package this up and send it back to her. She has me wrapped around her little finger and knows it.”
“I kind of got that impression. I hope I didn’t interrupt—”
“You didn’t. She pulled you in.” His features soft, he looked at her for the first time since getting into the vehicle. She wished she knew what he was seeing and thinking. “I’m glad you and I are able to get together today,” he said. “I’ve been wanting to talk to you, just couldn’t find the time.”
What did you expect? For him to touch you?
She swallowed. “I’m glad it worked out.”
She’d expected him to keep a close eye on her. In fact, she was still surprised he’d hired her for a job she knew she could do but he didn’t. The basic issue was that she was a woman in what most people considered a masculine endeavor. She’d never weighed more than a hundred and twenty pounds and was shy of five foot four inches tall. She’d been prepared to be given a conditional position or handed a lame excuse for not being hired. Instead, he’d offered her the head of snowmobile operations job at the end of the face-to-face interview that had taken place here in late September. He’d been all business and she’d taken care to be equally professional. No way, hopefully, could he know she’d been aware of him as a male from the moment they’d shaken hands.
“What did you want to talk about?” she asked.
Another bulky RV was heading their way in the middle of the snow-narrowed road, but she was already as far to the right as she could get.
“That was stupid of me,” he muttered. “I should have never let Alexa talk me into walking where we did.”
“It worked out all right.”
“No thanks to me. If something happened to her…”
Knowing he’d never forgive himself, she waited for him to bring up the official reason for their conversation.
He sighed and shook his head. “As much snow as we’re getting, I’m thinking we should have a wrecker up here.”
“It might not be a bad idea,” she said even though he didn’t need her opinion. “Kolina used to drive big rigs. She could probably handle a wrecker.”
The RV splashed slush against the side of her rig. She cranked up her windshield wipers to deal with the increasing snowfall. Come dark she’d feel trapped—and protected.
“So now that you’ve checked out all of the snowmobiles, what’s your assessment of them?”
Believing he had no complaints about her performance, she relaxed. There was still the matter of their close proximity, but if it had no impact on him, she could do the same. Hopefully.
“They’re all operational, but three are marginal. I changed the spark plugs, replaced the filters and fluids, and put on new drive belts. However, they’re all at least nine years old and some more than twice that.” She paused, thinking. “They’ve had a lot of hard use. That’s understandable given that they’re rentals, but whoever used to be responsible for their upkeep didn’t do the kind of maintenance I’d recommend.”
“What do you mean by marginal?”
They’d reached the parking lot. He hadn’t said anything about where he intended to go once he was done talking to her, not that she should care. But she did.
“Two have carburetor issues. Pulling out the cylinders and taking them to a place in Kalispell so they could be rebored didn’t make enough of a difference. I was able to adjust the V-belt clutch settings but haven’t been able to resolve the piston problems in the three oldest machines.”
“You did all that?”
She slipped into the only vacant parking space in the lot, turned off the engine, and faced Shaw. He barely fit in his seat, his shoulders infringing on her space in a way that kicked up her heart rate. She wanted him gone, wanted him to remain where he was. Wanted to hear him laugh again.
“I’m glad I’m getting the chance to prove I can handle the job, but some issues are pretty serious.”
“I’m not surprised.” He opened the passenger’s door but made no move to get out. “You don’t have to go back to work, do you?”
She shook her head. “I wasn’t sure how long our meeting would take so I called Terron. He has things covered.”
Shaw studied the front windshield which was rapidly being covered by snow. “And I cleared my desk as much as possible while Boone and his family were here.” When he rubbed his hands together, she noted how red they were. He hadn’t worn gloves during the snowball fight with Alexa.
“I’m going to get some hot chocolate in the cafe,” he said. “We can talk there about what you believe needs to be done.”
Unexpectedly nervous, she swallowed. “We might not have the same priorities.”
“Don’t worry about my priorities. I really want your opinion.”
“I appreciate you saying that, but my focus is on minimizing the amount of time a machine’s out of service. I’m sure you’re primarily concerned with the bottom line.”
His frown was so slight she nearly missed it. She would have if she hadn’t been studying him. “I have more concerns than I want to think about and could possibly interest you.”
Did I say that? “Everything you have on your plate.”
“I signed up for it. Had to do—something.”
End of Excerpt