Authors: Sarah Morgan
later Élise stood on the deck of the café and wondered why it hadn’t occurred to her that accepting Sean’s offer of help would mean he’d be working here, under her nose.
Why was she so impulsive?
Why did she never think anything through?
After her daily run around the lake, she’d spent the morning in the restaurant, working lunchtime service, discussing menus, meeting with her team. She’d met with two new local suppliers and interviewed a kitchen assistant. And if all that conspired to keep her away from the Boathouse, she told herself it was coincidence, nothing more. It was everything to do with pressure of work and nothing to do with the fact that Sean was working on her deck. And she told herself that pressure of work was also the reason she hadn’t responded to frequent text updates from her new sous-chef, Poppy.
Hi boss, the view from the Boathouse is better than ever today.
And five minutes later.
It’s scorchin’ hot over here J
And now she was back at the Boathouse and could see it for herself.
Concentrating was impossible.
“What is it about a guy using power tools?” Poppy grinned as she balanced a stack of boxes in her arms on the way to the kitchen. “I just look at him and want him to nail me to the deck. He is insanely good-looking. I’m taking my lunch break outside today, Chef.”
Élise gritted her teeth. “Did everything arrive?”
“One chair was damaged but they’re replacing it. Oh, dear God, he’s taken his shirt off. How does a man with an indoor job get muscles like that?” Eyeing Sean, Poppy almost dropped the boxes. “Sorry, but honestly you just have to look.”
“I don’t have time to look! We are snowed under with things to do before the party next weekend. Poppy—” Sensing she was losing her audience again, Élise sharpened her voice. “Focus!”
“Yes, Chef. Sorry.” Poppy dragged her gaze from the deck to Élise. “I’m going to get these unpacked. I’m on it.”
“Good!” Exasperated, she watched as Poppy wound her way through the newly arranged tables, bumping into at least two as she stole a final look at Sean.
Teeth clenched, Élise walked to the kitchen, grabbed a glass and jug of lemonade from the fridge and strode out onto the deck to see for herself what all the fuss was about.
Sean was doing something to a plank of wood. Something that required him to stretch forward, displaying his torso. Glancing over her shoulder, she saw all the female staff lined up in the doorway.
Catching her eye, they grinned and slunk back to their jobs.
“Sean!” Torn between exasperation and irritation, Élise thumped the jug of lemonade down on the table next to him.
He glanced up and rocked back on his heels, his smile slow and sure. “Is that for me? You’re a lifesaver.” Putting down the plank of wood, he stood up and took the glass from her.
She watched as he drank. Sweat glistened on his forehead and his wide shoulders. It reminded her of that night in the forest. She’d ripped at his clothes. He’d ripped at hers.
Thinking about it raised her temperature another notch and she gritted her teeth. “You need to put your shirt back on.”
Raising his eyebrows, he lowered the glass slowly. “I beg your pardon?”
“Your shirt. You need to put it back on.”
Blue eyes held hers.
Heat built inside her. Her insides melted.
“Care to tell me why?” His voice was soft and suddenly she wished she’d just let her staff carry on falling over tables. What were a few bruises compared to the effects of standing this close to Sean?
“You are distracting my workforce.”
He glanced over her shoulder. “They seem to be working pretty hard to me.”
“Now. But two minutes ago they were all staring at you. They can’t concentrate while you’re working out here half-naked.”
“It’s a hot day and I’m doing manual labor.” He drained the glass and ran his hand over his mouth.
“That’s why I brought you a cold drink. Are you done?” Everything about him was physical. Sexual.
“Why? Are you having trouble concentrating, too?”
“No.” Why hadn’t she sent Poppy out with the iced lemonade? “I couldn’t care less if you’re totally naked on my deck, but I have a deadline to meet and I can’t have my staff distracted. Let me know if you need anything else.” She took the glass from him and was about to walk away when his fingers closed around her wrist and he pulled her back to him.
Caught off guard, she lost her balance and fell against him. She put her free hand on his chest to steady herself, met his eyes and almost drowned in a flash of intense blue, heat and raw desire.
“You asked me to let you know if there’s anything else I need.”
“I didn’t mean—” She couldn’t breathe properly. The attraction was so shockingly powerful it almost knocked her off her feet. “You promised you’d finish the deck.”
“You’ll get your damn deck.” His voice was rough. “You think about it, don’t you?”
“You know what.” His eyes were on her mouth. “Last summer. Us.”
All the time.
He smiled. “Yeah, right.”
“Arrogance isn’t attractive.”
“Neither is pigheadedness. Want me to remind you what happened? Who cracked first last time?”
Her heart was pounding. “I didn’t crack.”
“Honey, half of that shirt I was wearing is still lying somewhere in the forest. We never did find it. Maybe next time we shouldn’t let it build up.”
“It’s not building up. I make that sort of decision with my head, not my hormones.”
“Really?” His eyes were back on her mouth. “In that case your head was in one hell of a hurry to get me naked.”
“Having made the decision, I didn’t see the point in hanging around.”
“A decision I supported wholeheartedly. And would again.”
The heat was intense. Suffocating.
There were people working around her, members of her team, no doubt trying to lip-read and probably reading too much into the fact that their boss was currently up close and very personal with the dangerously attractive Sean O’Neil.
“More than one night with the same woman, Sean? That doesn’t sound like you. You should be running.”
“Normally I would be.” His mouth curved into a sinfully sexy smile. “But you don’t want a relationship any more than I do, which makes you my perfect woman.”
The words managed to snap the spell in a way that her fading willpower hadn’t.
“I’m not anyone’s perfect woman, Sean.”
She wasn’t the person he thought she was. She was deeply damaged, with secrets even Jackson didn’t know. She’d put herself back together, piece by piece, and now she protected herself carefully.
Aware that her staff were probably watching and speculating, she extracted her wrist from his grip.
“Put the shirt on. That way there will be something to rip off should I ever decide to go down that route again.”
* * *
, Sean drove Walter home from the hospital. His grandfather clutched the car seat and stared straight ahead.
“This car should be on a racetrack.”
Sean drove gently, nursing the Porsche around the bends so that his grandfather didn’t even shift in his seat. The car purred like a tame lion. “It’s engineering perfection. There is no such thing as a bad day when you’re driving this.”
His grandfather grunted. “You could have bought a Corvette.”
“I didn’t want a Corvette.”
“It doesn’t even have cupholders.”
Sean tried to imagine what would happen to a cup of coffee as he accelerated away and waltzed around corners. “But it does have a super sharp throttle response. You can’t drive this car and not smile. If you ever want to give it a try, let me know.”
“If I want to kill myself I’ll just stand in the middle of the road.”
Sean slowed down as he took a right and drove past the sign for Snow Crystal Resort and Spa.
Everyone was gathered, waiting to greet him, faces pressed to the kitchen window.
“Why is everyone in the kitchen?” Pale and shaking, his grandfather struggled to undo his seat belt. “Don’t they have work to do?”
“They wanted to welcome you home. Élise and Mom have been cooking. Wait there—I’ll help you out of the car.”
“I’m not an invalid! I’m capable of getting myself out of a car.”
As his grandfather faltered in the doorway, Sean took his arm. “Let’s get you inside so you can sit down, Gramps.”
His grandfather shook him off. “I don’t need to sit down and I can walk perfectly well. I don’t need babying. And I don’t need a doctor, either, so you can go back to the city now.”
Sean held his temper. He didn’t know whether to be relieved his grandfather sounded so much like himself, or concerned that he was getting upset when he’d promised himself he was going to stay calm.
“Walter O’Neil, that is no way to speak to your grandson!” His grandmother was by his side, coaxing him into his chair at the head of the table while Maple, Jackson’s miniature poodle, sprang up and down with excitement. “He isn’t a taxi service and he isn’t going anywhere until you’re well enough to be left.”
“Well enough to be left? Of course I’m well enough to be left! Do I look as if I need a babysitter?” Walter’s scowl was terrifying. “I’m out of the hospital, aren’t I? We all know my grandson can’t bear to be away from the city for more than ten minutes, so he can leave now as far as I’m concerned and get back to those bright lights he can’t live without.”
Five minutes together and they were on a collision course, Sean thought. He saw his mother’s worried look as she placed two roasted chickens in the center of the table ready to be carved.
“How are you feeling, Walter?”
“Perfectly well,” Walter snapped, “so people don’t need to be hovering over me.”
“Having Sean here makes me feel better. He drove all the way over here to be with you and he’s not going back until you’re well.”
“I’m well now.” But Walter’s hand shook slightly as he held the edge of the table. “And you can all stop looking at me as if you’re waiting for me to drop dead at any moment. And what use would Sean be, anyway? He’s an orthopedic surgeon. I haven’t broken my leg, have I?”
Tyler rolled his eyes to heaven and Élise calmly placed a bowl of potato salad next to the chicken.
“It’s good to have you home, Walter.”
Walter finally noticed her, but instead of smiling his scowl deepened. “You here, too? You should be running the restaurant, not standing in the kitchen fussing over me. What’s happening to the Boathouse while you’re in here? This is the reason Snow Crystal is in trouble. No one does their job when I’m not here to keep an eye on things. This whole place would fall apart without me.”
His irritation mounting, Sean was about to spring to Élise’s defense when she placed her hand on his grandfather’s shoulder, her touch soothing and calming. If she was upset by the attack, she didn’t show it.
“It is true we certainly need you here. We have missed you.”
Jackson carved chicken onto a plate. “When you’re feeling better I’ll tell you what’s been going on, but you should take it easy for a few days.” His tone was mild and his grandmother sent him a grateful look.
“That’s right, you are. You’re spending tomorrow in bed, Walter O’Neil,” Alice said firmly as she picked up her knitting. “No arguments.”
“Bed?” Walter’s jaw was rigid, his eyes bright as he went into full combat mode. Maple whined and shot under the table for protection. “I will not spend tomorrow in bed. Do you think I don’t know how much there is to do here? Summer is a busy time. The place is heaving with tourists.”
“Which is surprising when you think that no one does their jobs when you’re not here,” Tyler drawled and earned himself a fierce look from his grandfather.
“This place doesn’t have enough staff to be able to afford to be a man down. I am not going to lie in bed so don’t suggest it again. I’ll be on that deck by nine o’clock, helping Élise. And now I’d like a beer, please.”
Alice pursed her lips. “You’re not drinking beer. And this place can run perfectly well without you for a few days.”
“Life is for living.” Walter thumped his fist down on the table. “What use is it being back home if a man can’t enjoy a beer in his own kitchen?”
Concerned about the effect the stress was having on his grandfather’s blood pressure, Sean smoothly steered the conversation toward the renovations of the boathouse and soon the whole family were gathered around the table talking and sharing food.
He’d spent half his childhood in this kitchen, arguing with his brothers, grabbing food on the run to some place more exciting. It had always been a place to gather, to argue and to eat. The only thing that had changed was that his father was missing.
Sean sat quietly, struggling with his own emotions, and then realized that his grandfather was unusually quiet, barely touching the food on his plate and not joining in the laughter.
He felt a flash of concern.
Had they discharged him too early?
Was he exhausted by the number of people around the table?
He wished now he’d put a stop to it, but trying to stop the O’Neil family from being there in a crisis would have been like trying to hold back an avalanche with a shovel.
It didn’t help that the meal was disturbed twice by calls from his hospital. Each time he excused himself he earned a disapproving glare from his grandfather.
“We’re not even allowed one meal with you undisturbed? If you spent a bit more time around here, you wouldn’t need to ask your brothers what’s been happening. The hospital can’t carry on without you?”
“I left a few ends untied.” It was an understatement. “I’m tying them off now.”
His grandfather grunted. “If you’re so important then perhaps you’d better just go back and save them the trouble of calling you. Work is all you think about.”