Christmas on the Last Frontier (A Last Frontier Lodge Novel) - J.h. Croix - darmowy ebook
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A steamy, full-length, standalone romance with a guaranteed HEA from Bestselling author J.h. Croix! If you like smoking hot romance with alpha men and strong women, you’ll love this series!Christmas on the Last Frontier is a sensual and steamy holiday romance set against the wilderness and beauty of small-town Alaska! Gage Hamilton is a smoldering Navy SEAL and a man on a mission. He’s returning to Diamond Creek, Alaska to resurrect his dream of reopening Last Frontier Lodge. Marley Adams moves back home hoping to find a sense of security and safety after it was stolen from her.Gage has spent many years successfully avoiding emotional entanglements. He is looking for nothing more than peace and sanctuary at his family’s old ski lodge. His new neighbor, Marley, was definitely not part of his plans. Marley is a brainy computer whiz and way too sexy for Gage’s own good. A man who prides himself on always being in control, Gage finds that he has little when it comes to Marley.Marley only wants to get her feet back under her after her world was turned upside down in Seattle. She’s been focused on little else beyond her work and is seriously out of practice with anything resembling romance…including the scorching hot attraction that sizzles anytime Gage crosses her path.Gage and Marley are powerless against the magnetic pull between them. Steamy and snowy nights weave a spell around them. While Marley thought she escaped whoever set out to hurt her in Seattle, she finds the threat of danger has followed her to Diamond Creek. Gage must face the depth of his feelings for Marley when he realizes he will do anything to protect her. Can Marley and Gage discover love in time for Christmas? The magic of a white Christmas is right around the corner.*All novels in this series are full-length standalone novels with an HEA.

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Christmas on the Last Frontier

A Last Frontier Lodge Novel

J.H. Croix

Contents

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Epilogue

Excerpt: Love at Last by J.H. Croix; all rights reserved

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Acknowledgments

About the Author

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

Copyright © 2015 J.H. Croix

All rights reserved.

ISBN: 1518682251

ISBN 13: 9781518682254

No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

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Dedication

DBC…you made me believe in my dreams.

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Chapter 1

Marley Adams walked up the old ski trail, taking in the view around her. The air held a bite of winter though fall had yet to entirely pass. Cresting the top of the trail where an abandoned ski lift sat, she turned and looked behind her. Her breath caught in her throat. Kachemak Bay lay sparkling in the sun. Mountains rose behind it on the far shore, snow-tipped and bright. She was home. Home was Diamond Creek, Alaska, a fishing village and tourist mecca in Southcentral Alaska. Breathtaking views, wildlife galore, and a tight-knit community of independent, hardy souls. The place she couldn’t wait to get away from once she graduated high school. Today, she let her heart soak it in, the one and only place that ever felt like home.

She breathed in the bracing autumn air, scented with spruce and the hint of snow to come. The ground danced with color. Most of fall in Alaska happened underfoot as the landscape was heavily forested with evergreens. She turned around and eyed the ski lift. The lift swayed and creaked in the breeze. It felt like a lifetime ago when her parents had brought her up here with her sister to ski when they were little girls. The exhilaration of rushing down the bunny slope and tumbling into the soft net at the bottom was vivid in her memory. Sometime during her childhood, the ski lodge had closed and stayed empty all the years since.

Curiosity drew her to walk up to the tiny building by the lift. She wiped her arm over the smudged window and peered inside. A woodstove sat in the corner and a bench along one wall. A first aid kit was on the floor and a discarded jacket on the bench.

“Excuse me, are you aware you’re trespassing?”

Marley leapt away from the window with a squeak, whirling around to find a man leaning against the corner of the building. The man in question had short brown hair, gray eyes, sharp features, and a body that looked as if it had been sculpted in stone. Even though it was chilly enough for her to wear a lightweight jacket, he wore nothing over the t-shirt that hugged his muscled chest and arms. His legs were rock-hard and encased in sleek running pants. He looked as if he was out for a run. His gray eyes held hers. They were bright gray, as if they held lightning inside. His energy was potent masculinity. He didn’t seem unfriendly, but neither did he appear welcoming. Against all reason, her body hummed at the sight of him. He was just…pure man.

“You startled me,” she finally replied.

The man arched a brow and remained silent.

“Um, I hiked up the old ski trail. I didn’t know that was a problem. We used to do it all the time when I was growing up.”

The man nodded slowly. His gray eyes left her and traveled around the view, landing back on the small building he leaned against. “Right. Should have guessed that,” he finally said.

Marley had never seen this man and though she’d lived away from Diamond Creek for over a decade, she came home for visits every year and knew most of the locals. If she didn’t know them, her parents did. As far as she knew, no one had lived at Last Frontier Lodge for years. Residents still lamented its closure.

“Are you from around here?” she finally asked.

The man’s mouth tightened. If she’d known him, she might have thought sadness flashed through his eyes.

“Depends on how you define that.”

“I grew up in Diamond Creek. I used to ski here when I was a little girl. I haven’t lived in town for a while, but last I knew, this place was closed and empty.” She took a breath, gathering her courage. Her heart raced wildly, and she struggled to keep her composure. Whoever this man was, he had a hell of an effect on her. She couldn’t even think clearly enough to introduce herself. “I’m Marley Adams. I live down the road from here,” she finally said, gesturing vaguely in the direction of the little cabin on her parents’ property where she’d recently moved.

Those gray eyes landed on her again. For a minute, she thought he wasn’t going to respond. He cleared his throat. “I’m Gage Hamilton. My grandparents used to own this place. I was born in Diamond Creek, but my parents moved away when I was little. My, uh…” He paused and closed his eyes, grimacing slightly. When he opened his eyes again, she knew for sure what she saw was sadness. “…grandmother died recently and left the lodge to me and my younger siblings. I always loved it here when we came to visit, so I moved here. I’m planning to fix the place up and reopen, hopefully this winter.”

“Oh. I’m so sorry about your grandmother,” Marley said, uncertain what else to offer.

Gage nodded tightly. “Thanks. I was pretty close to her. Still getting used to the fact that she’s gone.”

Marley nodded, curiosity swirling inside, but she sensed now wasn’t the time to ask the many questions as she had. “It’s great you’re planning to reopen the ski lodge. People still talk about it back when it was open. Aside from staying busy with locals, this place was hopping all winter long with tourists.”

“That’s what I’m hoping for.” He paused and glanced at her again, his eyes softer. “I didn’t mean to sound harsh when I asked about the trespassing thing. I came up for a run and didn’t know who you were, so…”

“Oh, it’s okay. You should know plenty of locals hike up here and use the old trails for cross-country skiing. It’s not like people don’t know someone else owns it, it’s just no one’s been here for so long, people figure it’s okay.”

Gage nodded slowly. “I was thinking maybe I should make some kind of announcement, but I haven’t quite sorted out the details yet.”

“Oh. Well, as soon as word travels that you’re here and plan to reopen, you might want to be ready for lots of people showing up to say hi,” she said wryly. “Diamond Creek’s a small town. This is big news.”

Gage smiled, and Marley thought she might swoon. Dear God, he had a dangerous smile. When he wasn’t smiling, he had that whole, smoldering sexy and kind of intimidating vibe—just enough to keep her body in check. When he smiled, her body spun like a top inside—heat and electricity swirling. His eyes crinkled at the corners, the gray brightening and his mouth softening.

Get a grip, Marley. You’ve known this man for less than five minutes. If she let her body talk, all she could think about was what it would feel like to run her hands over his body, which was nothing short of a miracle. Though if she touched him, she’d likely melt on the spot.

Gage cleared his throat. “So, how far away do you live from here?”

“About a quarter mile down the road from the entrance to the lodge. My parents own about ten acres adjacent to the lodge. Their house is further down the road. I moved into a small cabin they used to rent out to tourists in the summer. It’s tiny, but it’s got everything I need.”

Gage nodded. “Well, feel free to walk around here as much as you want. I suppose I’d better come up with some kind of plan to handle the locals hikers, huh?”

Marley shrugged. “People won’t expect to be able to do whatever they want once you get this place up and running. So you needn’t worry. You might want to notify the town hall and maybe put a notice up in the paper. Otherwise, someone being helpful might call the police if they don’t know who you are and see you around the property.”

Gage threw his head back with a laugh. Her stomach burst full of butterflies. She shook her head and forced herself to look away.

“I’ll take it as a good sign that I have to worry about that.” Gage followed her gaze out over the bay. “Well, I’m gonna keep running. Sounds like I’ll see you around.”

She nodded. “I’m sure you will. If you need anything, just stop by. You can see my place from the entrance to the lodge. It’s the little cabin with a red roof sitting on the hill nearby.”

Gage grinned. “I’ve seen it. Well, I’m off. Enjoy your walk,” he said with a quick wave before he took off running. He went around the ski lift and turned up onto the next trail nearby—a much steeper and more advanced trail—and proceeded to run up at a steady pace. Marley had never run up that trail, but she knew without a doubt it would be grueling. He ran without his pace changing. No wonder he was in such good shape. She finally turned away and began her descent, the view stretching before her.

For the first time in months, she obsessed about something other than the crash and burn of her grand plans to make something of herself. Gage filled her mind—his rock hard body, his sensual mouth…and whoever he was behind his guarded nature.

Gage pushed himself up the trail, his legs finally beginning to tire when he reached the top and paused beside another ski lift. He turned and looked behind him. He could see Marley walking down the trail below. He’d seen her long before she paused at the small building between trails. He’d only been at the ski lodge for a week, but he’d already memorized the pattern of trails and had been cutting across between two trails when he heard her walking. He’d paused in the edge of the woods and watched her. Her auburn hair glinted in the sun. Curiosity drew him to approach her. Why he felt the need to start off by confronting her about trespassing was beyond him. He shook his head. Not exactly the best way to introduce himself to his new neighbor.

From a distance, he’d thought she was beautiful. Up close, she took his breath away. Her wavy auburn hair was paired with forest green eyes, a pert nose, and a sensual mobile mouth—so kissable, he’d had to restrain himself. To make his body tread the edge of embarrassing himself, her body was flat out beautiful—curvy and athletic at once. She’d worn a green fleece jacket zipped halfway, which revealed a thin cotton shirt pulled tight across her breasts, her nipples peaked in the chilly air. From there, her waist dipped then curved into lush hips and strong legs hugged by her fitted leggings. She’d seemed entirely oblivious to the effect she had on him. Wearing his form-fitting running clothes had forced him to rein his body in and required so much attention, he knew he’d come across as a little too brusque. As he watched her walk down the trail, her auburn hair caught in the wind, flying wild behind her.

Marley. He turned the name over in his mind. It suited her though he couldn’t say why since he barely knew her. He watched her until she rounded a curve in the trail and vanished from sight. With a sigh, he glanced around. The building beside this stopping point for the ski lift was also in dire need of a new coat of paint. He turned in a circle. The vantage point up here offered a three hundred and sixty degree view. Kachemak Bay lay glittering under the sun in one direction, Cook Inlet could be seen beyond that with Mount Augustine, a volcano, rising in the waters. In the other direction lay Mount Illiamna, another volcano. Southcentral Alaska lay within the Ring of Fire, an area within the Pacific basin where over seventy-five percent of the world’s active and dormant volcanoes lay. As a little boy, Gage had loved this detail about his birthplace.

Returning to Alaska and his grandparent’s ski lodge was a childhood dream. His parents had moved away when he and his four younger siblings were little. They went to visit Last Frontier Lodge every summer until his grandmother had closed down the lodge after his grandfather passed away. She’d moved to Bellingham, Washington to live with his parents until she passed away. Gage had long ago let go of his childhood dream to return to Alaska because life…happened. Dreams turned into fragments of hope and hope was hard to find for him anymore. He’d recently retired from the Navy after years of active duty as a Navy SEAL and had been struggling to find a way for life to make sense.

Gage had been surprised to learn his grandmother had left the lodge to him and his siblings since he hadn’t even known it was still in the family. He’d inherited the largest share of the lodge with her will stipulating the lodge must be reopened within one year, or they would be required to sell it and divide the profits. He’d assumed she’d sold it as she rarely spoke of it. At loose ends and searching for something to give his life meaning again, he hadn’t hesitated for a minute to move to Alaska. The neglected state of the ski lodge would give him something to focus on beyond what he’d stared down on one of his last missions.

He took a last look around and began jogging slowly down the trail. An eagle flew across the trail ahead of him, its wings casting a wide shadow on the ground. Magpies chattered in the trees. When he reached the lodge again, he jogged down the drive to the road and looked toward the cabin he now knew to be Marley’s. It was hard to miss with its bright red roof practically glowing amongst the deep green spruce trees surrounding it. He turned and looked at the sign for the lodge. It hung at a drunken angle, one of the chains holding it up broken. The lettering on the sign was faded—something else to replace. He looked at Marley’s cabin again, sitting on a small rise, a cheery picturesque home. Her auburn hair, green eyes, and sensual mouth flashed in his mind. The mere flicker of her and his body reacted.

Chapter 2

Marley stopped her car at the end of her drive and glanced up at Last Frontier Lodge. From the road, it wasn’t obvious anyone lived there. Knowing Gage was there set her pulse thrumming. Seriously, Marley? You’re acting like an idiot with a crush. You barely know the guy. Not to mention, there’s no way a guy like him would be interested in you. Way out of your league. She shook her head sharply and turned onto the winding road that led down the hill to town. She’d only been here about a week and had yet to mentally adjust. Her parents meant well, but they were driving her mad with their daily calls to check in and job suggestions.

Her move back home had been unplanned and abrupt. She’d graduated from high school and headed to college in Seattle, filled with dreams of making it big in the technology world. She’d never wanted the money, but she’d desperately wanted to feel like a success. All through school, she’d been a computer geek of the highest order, long before it became fashionable. She’d headed to Seattle with stars in her eyes. Sometimes cliché’s fit, and in this case, her starry dream was she’d get her business degree and make a splash in the tech world. In the big scheme of things, she’d done okay. But she’d tried to break into the world of technology as a woman from a tiny town in Alaska. She’d become well-versed in the rampant sexism in the tech field. She’d made it farther than many women and made a good salary as a code developer for an app company in Seattle.

Right when she thought she might have enough money put away to break out on her own, she’d walked into her apartment in the midst of a robbery. Her surprise appearance had only made the situation worse with the masked robber whacking her across the face with his gun and shoving her in a corner before he commenced to finish what he started. She’d fallen apart afterwards though she’d tried her damnedest not to. Sleepless nights, constant anxiety, and the loss of concentration made her job all but impossible. At thirty, she found herself without a job and afraid to live in her apartment.

Lost and confused, she returned to Diamond Creek, the only place that felt like home—that felt safe. Her hopes and dreams were tattered, but she was sleeping a few hours every night now. Anger sometimes choked her. She hated feeling so fragile and having her dreams ripped away from her. She’d spent most of her life being proud of how independent she was, unafraid to see what the world had to offer. Now, she just wanted to hunker down and hide. Though a part of her was happy to be home, she wished she’d come home on her own terms. She took a shaky breath and forced her mind away from her problems.

Marley looked around as she drove into town. Diamond Creek had grown since she’d moved away. Though she’d visited every year, she hadn’t taken time to explore town much. There were now three grocery stores in town, and the multitude of art galleries, restaurants and shops catering to tourists had ballooned. She was meeting her sister, Lacey, for coffee at Misty Mountain Café. Lacey was two years younger than her and had happily returned to Diamond Creek after she finished college in Juneau.

Marley walked into Misty Mountain, smiling at how little had changed. The café was in a renovated Quonset hut, one of many scattered around Alaska, relics from World War II when the huts had been used for military installations throughout Alaska due to its proximity to the Pacific Rim. The owners had transformed the utilitarian steel tube-shaped building with finished walls and decorative timber beams. Cheerful paint colors and curtains brightened the space with local artwork lining the walls. She looked around and found Lacey in the corner. She waved and headed to order her coffee.

Threading her way through the scattered tables, she grinned when she reached Lacey and slid into the chair across from her.

“Hey there,” she said with a lift of her cup in greeting.

“Hey yourself,” Lacey replied. “How’s it going over at the little red inn?”

That was Lacey’s affectionate name for the cabin Marley had commandeered on her parents’ property. The cabin wasn’t red, but the roof was, so the name stuck. Marley shrugged. “Pretty good. I forgot how amazing the view is from there.”

Lacey nodded, her chestnut ponytail bouncing along. “The rise from the hill makes it feel like you can reach over and touch the glacier across the bay.”

Lacey paused and waved to someone who entered the café. Yet another person Marley didn’t recognize.

“So how are you? Any more trips planned before the snow flies?” Marley asked.

Lacey was an outdoor guide. She spent most of summer away from Diamond Creek with brief stays in between treks to the backcountry. She wasn’t a hunting or fishing guide, but an expert backcountry guide for elite hikers who wanted to experience hiking without easy access. Lacey didn’t consider anything hiking unless she had to fly in. She was tough as nails. Marley had the brains, and Lacey the brawn. Lacey was pure athlete and dressed the part. Her body was toned and fit, and she could have easily been a model for outdoor clothing companies. Except for the fact that her clothing was usually worn to shreds within weeks of getting it.

Lacey nodded, her green eyes, so similar to Marley’s, taking on a gleam. “One more. Heading up to the refuge for a week. My friend Cal is running this trip with me. The early snow is already flying that far north.”

“You mean the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge?”

At Lacey’s nod, Marley continued. “Wow. That’s way up there. Have you been there this late in the year before?”

Lacey shook her head. “Nope. It’s safer than going in the thick of summer. The grizzlies are already hibernating.”

Marley shook her head. As if grizzly bears were all Lacey would need to worry about. Marley wouldn’t mind finding a way to siphon some of Lacey’s courage. She’d never thought of herself as a frightened person, but getting robbed at gunpoint made her afraid of too many shadows.

Lacey nibbled on a muffin and pushed a plate across the table to Marley.

“For me?” Marley asked.

“Of course! It’s your favorite—spinach and ham pinwheel.”

Marley almost burst into tears. It was ridiculous how emotionally edgy she was these days. The mundane moment made her feel safe, something she’d never take for granted again. She took a slow breath and tried to gather herself.

“You okay?” Lacey’s voice was soft.

Marley nodded, the press of tears subsiding. “Yeah. It’s just…good to be home.”

Lacey looked at her carefully. “So, what now?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, you’re here now. What are you going to do next? Mom and Dad are going to be super helpful, so either you come up with your own plan, or else,” Lacey said with a wry grin.

Marley sighed. “Working on it. My plan right now is to try to do what I meant to do in Seattle—start my own app company. I have plenty of connections. All I need is an internet connection to do what I need. I have some money saved up, so I figure I might as well try.”

Lacey grinned. “Awesome! That’s what I was hoping you’d do.”

“Really?” Marley felt so disoriented since the robbery that she questioned everything she did. Between that and years of witnessing how hard it was to break into the market with anything new, she’d lost the confidence she’d once had in herself.

Lacey took a sip of coffee. “Of course! I always wondered why you thought you had to make a go of it in the city. You can do everything you need to right here, and avoid the bullshit of all the hobnobs telling you what you can and can’t do.”

Marley nodded slowly. “Right. Maybe I should have asked your advice about ten years ago,” she said ruefully.

“Nah. You had to figure it out yourself.”

Marley pondered Lacey’s point. Marley had been determined to show her stuff somewhere outside of Diamond Creek. She wished upon wish it hadn’t taken a robbery to shake the foundation of her life, but coming home felt so good.

“Hey, did you know that Last Frontier Lodge was reopening?” Marley asked, ready to move on from discussing her life.

Lacey’s eyes widened. “No way! Where did you hear that?”

Marley filled her in on her encounter with Gage, minus the details about how drool-worthy handsome and sexy he was.

Lacey leaned back in her chair. “That’s big news! I’m stoked. We’ll finally have somewhere to ski again nearby. Last time that place was open, we were so little, all we could do was coast down the bunny slopes. Now we can do some real skiing. What’s he like? The guy who inherited the place?”

Marley paused and pictured Gage—his body, all hard muscle, his eyes like lightning, his mouth sensual and full, and his reserved manner. She flushed at the mere thought of him.

“Oh my, Marley, you have a thing,” Lacey said with a sly grin.

“I do not!” she replied, trying and failing miserably at making her blush go away. She was so rusty at relationships, the idea of having a ‘thing’ for anyone intimidated the hell out of her.

Lacey giggled. “All I did was ask you what he’s like, and you got all quiet and dreamy. Don’t you hate how easy you blush?”

Marley rolled her eyes, her face and neck hot. “You do too!”

“That’s how come I know you probably hate it,” Lacey retorted. “Okay, so you’ve got the serious hots for him. As far as I’m concerned, you are in need of a distraction, and this Gage guy might be exactly what you need.”

“Um, pretty sure he’s out of my league.”

Lacey waved a hand dismissively. “You’re totally hot, but you had your nose buried so deep in books and computers that you’ve never noticed. When’s the last time you went on a date?”

Marley tried to recall. After a long moment, she gave up. “I don’t know. You know how it was for me. I worked all the time. Sixty, seventy-hour weeks were the norm. There wasn’t much time for dating.”

Lacey’s grin faded as she looked across the table. Her green eyes softened and she absently twirled her ponytail around a finger. “I hate what happened to you and it pisses me off that you’re feeling bad about freaking out about it, but I’m really glad you’re home. I didn’t want it to happen this way, but I’ll take it.” She paused, considering her words. “I’m not the mushy sort, you know that. But if you need to talk, I’m here. And if there’s only one thing I can tell you, it’s that you have to know anyone would be scared if they went through what you did. Stop beating yourself up about it.”

Marley looked over at her sister and wondered how Lacey understood her so well. They were so different. Marley took a deep breath and closed her eyes. Opening them, she met Lacey’s. “I’m working on it, okay?”

Lacey nodded. After a moment, her grin returned. “Maybe you should offer to help Gage out with the lodge? Be a friendly neighbor and all that.”

Marley started to shake her head.

Lacey held her hand up. “Or you could skip the preliminaries and screw his brains out.”

Marley choked on her coffee.

Chapter 3

Gage walked down the driveway. He was tired, dusty and sweaty from an entire morning dedicated to cleaning and repairing inside the lodge. Given how many years the lodge sat empty, the inside areas were in surprisingly decent shape though covered in dust. His grandmother had left the place with all the windows boarded up and the doors secured. Throughout the lodge’s many rooms, he’d only encountered a few mice infestations. The inside was in dire need of updated furnishings, along with some minor repairs, but the essentials were sound. The outside was where he had more work to do. He’d ordered the exterior paint yesterday from the local hardware store.

After a long morning inside, he needed some fresh air. He reached the head of the drive and eyed the sign at the entrance, a large wooden sign mounted between two posts. The chain was broken on one side. He tugged the new chain he’d brought with him out of his tool belt and wiped his face on his sleeve. He quickly got to work replacing the chain, stepping back once it was done.

“Well, your sign doesn’t look drunk anymore,” a feminine voice called out.

Gage turned to find Marley walking up the road toward him. Her auburn hair fell around her shoulders in loose waves. She wore running shoes, fleece leggings and a t-shirt that pulled tightly across her breasts. When she reached him, she put her hands on her hips and tilted her head, eying the sign. All she did was stand there and his body kicked into gear. His breath hitched as he imagined what it would feel like to run his hands along her curves.

“I’d say it’s level,” she said with a grin.

“Would you tell me if it wasn’t?” he countered. He wanted to keep her talking—about anything. Because that meant she’d keep standing here beside him. Get a grip, dude. You’re about to lose it over a woman you barely know.

She pursed her lips, those full, sensuous lips a magnet for his eyes. He had to force himself to look up. Of course, that meant looking into her bright green eyes.

“I would. I mean, you’re trying to fix it, right? You seem like someone who’d want to do it right.”

Gage couldn’t help but grin. “I definitely want to do it right. No sense in half-measures.” He paused and looked to the bay. The sun was high in the early afternoon sky. Clouds drifted lazily in front of the mountains. A cool breeze gusted when he looked back at Marley, blowing her hair wild. She ignored the tousled waves. Her nearness kick-started his pulse. Without the slightest effort, she made his body stand up and take notice.

“What brings you up here?” he asked.

“When I came home a few minutes ago, I saw you working on the sign. Just thought I’d see how it’s going.”

Her genuine curiosity and friendliness threw him. He couldn’t say why, but it wasn’t something he experienced much beyond his family. After several years in the military, his mother had tried to point out that he’d become less approachable. He’d ignored her though part of him knew she was right. Marley didn’t seem to notice and carried on as if checking on a neighbor she barely knew was perfectly normal. In a place such as Diamond Creek, it probably was. But this world wasn’t the world he’d lived in for years.

He damn sure didn’t know how to manage his attraction to her. After too many years of high-level missions as a Navy SEAL, women weren’t something he considered. His life was all work and no play. His last girlfriend had tactfully ended their relationship. He’d been too quiet, too withdrawn and definitely not emotionally available. Yet, he hadn’t encountered a single woman who affected him the way Marley did. And Marley—she did it without the slightest effort, no artifice, and appeared oblivious to the effect she had on him.

Looking over at her, he watched her absently twirl an auburn curl around her finger. When she caught him looking at her, she flushed and dropped her hand. He realized he’d yet to reply to her.

“If you’re wondering how it’s going, it’s been busy. I’ve gotten the lay of the land, so to speak, and now I have to get to work. I was hoping I’d be able to get the lodge up and running by the holidays, but I’m not so sure. I’m focusing on the outside work from today on, so I can get new exterior paint on before it’s too cold. After that, I have to decide what to do inside.”

Marley tilted her head. “I can see the buildings need a new coat of paint, but what do you have to do inside?”

“Gram did a good job of boarding the place up, but it’s dusty and needs a hell of a cleaning. I have to decide what to do about the furnishings too. This place was modern roughly twenty years ago, but now it’s like walking into a time warp. I’m not thinking that’s a great way to start if I want to make a go of it with the lodge. Assuming I can take care of everything in time for the holidays, then I have to figure out the website situation. This place closed long before the internet existed. My sisters insist I’d better plan to get something up online sooner rather than later, but I’m lost in that area. I don’t want to start too soon, or before I know the lodge will be ready to take reservations.” He ran a hand through his hair and sighed. The repairs, even trying to handle the decorating inside, he figured he could somehow make it work. The online thing—forget it. He’d argued with his sisters about it, but they were adamant he’d be silly to think he could get a ski lodge up and running without some kind of online presence.

“I could help with that,” Marley said.

Gage looked at her, her beauty hijacking his brain for a second before he forced himself to focus. “Huh?”

The effect she had on him was flat ridiculous. He was a man of precision and focus. He’d handled high-stress, high-pressure missions for years. Yet, all he could say to Marley was ‘huh.’

She nodded, a strand of hair blowing across her face. Since she didn’t offer further clarification, appearing to think he understood her, he had to ask another question.

“What do you mean you can help with that?”

“I mean, I can help you build your website. If you tell me what you want, we can have one up and running pretty quick.”

Gage stared at her. “You can do that?”

Marley smiled and flushed. “I’m a programmer. Building a website isn’t that hard. I don’t mean to take sides, but your sisters are right. You need a website, and you need it up and running before you’re ready to open. If you don’t do that, you won’t have a way to take reservations and set up a payment system. No one will even know the Last Frontier Lodge exists unless they happen to live in Diamond Creek. The locals love this place, but they aren’t your bread and butter. You need a presence online as soon as you can get it. You can’t leave it until the last minute. We can set it up so you post updates about when it will be ready to open.”

Gage stared at her for so long, he didn’t notice until she started to shift on her feet and glance away.

She cleared her throat. “Sorry if I overstepped there. It’s just...”

“You didn’t overstep. Sorry if it seemed like I thought you did. The whole website thing is so out of my territory that I kind of hoped I could ignore it. But if you’re really offering to help…” He battled the smile building inside. Marley’s offer was two-fold for him. He needed the help she was offering, but more than that he couldn’t help the anticipation of having an excuse to be around her.

Marley’s smile made his heart clench and his pulse gallop away again.

“I’m really offering. Tell me when you have some time. I can stop by with my laptop and we can get started.”

“We?”

Marley threw her head back with a laugh. “Not to worry. ‘We’ doesn’t mean you have to do anything other than take a look at some other sites with me and tell me what you like.”

“I think I can handle that. How about this afternoon?” He startled himself with the offer. An unfamiliar part of him was making itself known—a part that didn’t fit the tidy, controlled compartments he’d lived within during his years as a Navy SEAL. Impulsive, last-minute decisions weren’t part of the planned life he’d lived for years. But he didn’t care to question himself. Beyond legitimately needing her help with something he’d planned to ignore, he couldn’t deny how much he simply wanted to be around her.

Marley held his eyes for a long moment before nodding slowly. “This afternoon is fine. What time?”

Gage calculated what he had left to do and the fact that he desperately needed a shower. “Four?”

“Four works for me. I’ll head back to my place and see you then.” She gave a small wave and turned to look at the sign once more. “It’s nice to see that,” she said softly.

“What do you mean?”

“I missed skiing at the lodge. If you get to know people around town, you’ll find plenty of people are going to be beside themselves about this place opening again.”

At that, she turned again and started down the slope to her cabin. “See you soon,” she called, her voice lifting above the breeze.

He watched her go, her arms swinging at her sides, her hair a blowing curtain behind her.

Marley stood by the table where her laptop sat and stared blankly at it. A vision of Gage filled her mind. He’d been wearing faded blue jeans, his leather tool belt hanging loosely at his hips, with another t-shirt that molded over his body like a glove. Sweaty and dusty, he’d been a sight to behold. Somehow, she’d remembered her manners and managed to engage in normal conversation with him. Then she’d gone and offered to help him with the website for the ski lodge. She hadn’t even been thinking. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to help. It would be minimal effort on her part. Problem was Gage drove her to distraction and made her want things she couldn’t have. He was probably accustomed to beautiful women, not brainy girls with an outdoorsy streak. But now she’d gone and said she’d be there this afternoon. And a tiny part of her was thrilled!

What the hell were you thinking? Too close for comfort. You’re going to end up half-drooling over him and look like an idiot.

Lacey’s teasing that Gage might be the distraction she needed came to mind. But Marley couldn’t go there. Distraction or not, she was not his type. No way. He was all manly, sexy, and smoldering. She was the girl who buried her nose in books and computers. Though she didn’t know his story yet, he exuded dark and mysterious, precise and in control. If he knew she checked her locks repeatedly every evening and jumped at the sound of unknown noises, he’d think she was a bumbling idiot.

But you can whip up a website for him in no time. That’s all this has to be. You’ll be a friendly, good neighbor and keep your distance after that.

A few hours later, Marley walked to her car, set her computer bag on the passenger seat and drove up to the lodge. The afternoon light was fading rapidly. With summer gone, the fall nights were coming earlier and earlier. She hadn’t been home in the fall since she’d moved away over a decade ago. She’d forgotten how much she loved it—the cool bite in the air, the sharp scent of spruce, the sense that the quiet of winter was just ahead.

Moments later, she knocked on the main entrance door to the ski lodge. Gage opened the door almost immediately. He gestured her inside. Marley looked around as she walked through the entryway. The inside was as Gage indicated: a time warp. The furniture was covered with plastic, so she couldn’t see what was underneath, but the overall feel of the space was as she remembered, including a faded calendar on the wall behind the desk with pictures of mountains. The calendar was open to the month of October, the year nineteen ninety-four. Faded harvest decorations remained on the reception desk. She followed Gage down a hallway, passed through the restaurant area and into an office in the back. This room had been thoroughly cleaned and was furnished sparingly with a basic black desk and new leather office chair. A round table was situated nearby with chairs surrounding it.

She set her laptop on the table and looked around for an outlet. She met Gage’s eyes. “Do you have internet, or should I run back home to get my portable wireless device?”

He surprised her by nodding. “Oh yeah. I may be clueless when it comes to building websites, but I like my cable and stay in touch with friends and family online. Got to be a habit when I was in the military.”

So he was military. It didn’t surprise her at all, given his near physical perfection and the sense of precision he exuded. She filed that detail away and quickly logged onto his network. Gage drew a chair up beside her and watched as she pulled up various ski lodge websites. At first, he was quiet, but he quickly became focused, pointing out websites he did and didn’t like.