Frannie spent the summer in love with Darren, but she's kept the emotion to herself. He's a playboy, after all, and gets around.
Darren has the biggest crush on sweet Frannie, but she won’t give him the time of day. As his departure grows near, he decides it’s time to make his move and see if there could be a reason for him to stay on at The Lake House.
She takes him up on the offer of a one-night-stand, but when he comes back for more, she has to decide if her heart can handle him.
Turning her head, she scowled at him. “Yeah, right. I choose to be alone. It’s not like men are beating down my door.”
Teasingly, he leaned into her personal space until her sweet scent once again teased his nose. “You’ve turned me down at least a dozen times.”
She rolled those pretty green eyes again. “Because you’re not serious, and I’m not your type.”
“You have no idea what my type is, little lady,” he said in his best John Wayne drawl.
He laughed and leaned back a little. “Seriously?”
“I’ve watched you with them all summer. It’s nauseating!” She took another drink and looked away from him. “God, they follow you around like puppies, and then when you realize they’re there, you’re all…ugh…makes me gag.”
He took the bottle from her and finished it off. He didn’t really know how to respond, because lately it’d made him feel a little sick too. He did have the knack for getting the girls…women…girls. Well, they were all legal, but they were much too young for him.
“I’m surprised you’re not down there right now,” Frannie said, jutting her chin toward the resort.
It had been one of the reasons he sought refuge tonight on the hillside. A sorority from the University of British Columbia was here for the weekend. A couple dozen coeds. Every time he turned around, there they were. A giggling bunch of…Barbies.
He sighed. “Is that really what you think of me?”
She shrugged. “If the shoe fits…”
He fully admitted that since the age of nineteen, whenever he’d wanted a woman he’d gotten her. He liked women; he loved a woman’s body. And yes, he supposed he usually went after the Barbies because they were more secure with their bodies and more uninhibited than…than the Frannies.
So he laughed it off. “There’s too many of them. They’d eat me for dinner.”
“You wish.” There was real bite in that statement.
“That hurts,” he murmured, tipping the bottle and letting the last drop slip onto his tongue.
“Sorry. I’m just not in the mood.”
Frannie’s heart was so battered and empty, she didn’t know how she held it together. Here she was, with a man she’d lusted after all summer—since her first day on the job—and he’d seen her at her most vulnerable. She never let anyone see her cry. Not that she did it often, but when she did, boy did she let it all out.
She’d lusted after Darren from their first meeting, but over the summer she’d fallen head-over-heels in love. He was sweet and funny, and the best part was that he liked to tease. It was what had attracted her to Jared, her late husband. But Jared had been her equal: short, a little rotund, balding even when they met, and not even thirty. Darren was tall, dark, and handsome—gorgeous. Plus, he was younger; not by much, but six or seven years made a difference at her age. She’d almost drooled on him the first time she saw him without his shirt on, when a few of the employees had taken the cabin cruiser out on the lake for a picnic a couple weeks before the resort opened. He was…chiseled. He belonged in a centerfold, not on a construction site.
She was…fluffy. And she had no illusions that the teasing, flirting Darren wanted anything to do with her in a romantic, sexual way. She wanted a partner for life. He wanted a partner for a night. She knew his secrets. She’d watched him this summer, and the Barbies he favored with his attention. He never took them to bed until the night before they were scheduled to check out. Wham, bam, see ya next year, ma’am. Or probably not, since he was scheduled to leave in less than a week.
Learning from Kara about his imminent departure had sent her here. She’d had absolutely no idea he’d be here. She’d found this spot in the summer, and she liked to come up here at sunset. The lake was the deepest blue then, and the resort, with its cedar logs and red brick, looked like a chalet. It was her quiet place to be alone and think, and cry if she wanted to. But now when she came here, she’d have the memory of Darren sitting with her, sharing his bottle of whiskey.
She’d found a home with Smith Resorts, and The Lake House in particular. She loved it here, she loved the employee suite they’d given her on the main floor, and she loved the man sitting next to her who could never be hers.
He was right. She hadn’t wanted a man after Jared died. She’d loved her husband with all her heart and never thought she’d find anyone else so compatible with her. But Darren was nothing short of perfect—except that he would never be hers.
They sat quietly for long minutes as the sky darkened and stars appeared. The walk back to the resort was going to be a bitch. She’d forgotten to grab her flashlight before she left. And her bear spray. She rolled her eyes at her stupidity. She was the outdoor activity expert, and she’d headed into the woods without even a pocketknife.
“What are you thinking?”
Darren’s voice was low, more of a rumble than words. She loved his voice. So many times they’d sat together and had a couple of drinks. Sometimes he’d show up on the cabin cruiser with a six-pack of Kokanee, after she’d had guests out on the boat all afternoon. Or she’d drop by the bar before she headed to her suite and he’d buy her a mojito that Brian, the bartender, mixed up better than those she’d had anywhere. And she’d been a lot of places.
With a sigh, she replied, “This is the first place that’s felt like home to me in a lot of years.”
Darren’s response was a just a rumble of noise. Could have been agreement or not, she didn’t know. Then he asked, “How’d a Texan wind up in the Okanagan, anyway?”
When they spent time together, she got him to talk. She knew about his childhood with Jack, the resort owner. She knew how Jack’s family had taken Darren in when his own parents had major financial issues. And he’d complained on more than one occasion that he had two moms, both on him to settle down and have some kids—especially now that Jack was engaged and most likely on the way to having a few babies with Kara.
Frannie rarely talked about her past. She didn’t like anyone getting that close to her. She and Jared had moved around so often, she’d always hurt when she’d made close friends and had to leave them. There was safety in keeping her private self private.
But she’d loved all the adventures she and Jared had been on during their marriage.
“I’m actually a dual citizen, of Canada and the US. I was born seven weeks early in the back of a pickup truck just outside Whitehorse while my parents were on vacation. That’s why I can work here when I’m clearly not from Canada.”
He chuckled. “Clearly, darlin’,” he drawled in a horrible imitation of her accent. He lay back on the crunchy layer of pine needles, crossed his ankles, and laced his fingers together over his chest. “Tell me more.”
He looked so good there, all long and lean stretched out beside her. What she wouldn’t give to lie down beside him and snuggle up to that solid chest. When he’d held her and she’d cried…she’d never wanted him to let go.
Pulling her legs up, she wrapped her arms around them and set her chin on her knees, staring down at the glowing lights of the resort as they reflected off the glassy water of the lake.
“I grew up in West Texas on a cattle ranch. When I turned eighteen, I got the heck outta there. My brother loved the business my dad had built, loved the cattle, but I couldn’t get away from the smell of dust and cow shit fast enough. I moved to Washington State, to a fishing village on the coast, and was as happy as I’d ever been. I got my guiding license and took hikers through the Olympic National Park. That’s where I met Jared.”
“The guide falls in love with the guided?”
She laughed at the memory. “I was volunteer Search and Rescue, too.”
“Of course you were.”
She frowned down at Darren. “Still am.”
“I know. Kara told me. Said you’re trained in just about every life-saving technique known to man. That’s why she hired you.”
He’d asked Kara about her? “I also know a dozen ways to kill a man, so don’t be annoying.”
Darren laughed. “I’ll watch myself. Out here all alone in the dark with you could be dangerous for my health.”
Oh, what she would do to him—if she weren’t afraid of losing the last shreds of her heart she’d been able to protect. “Damn right.”
“So…did he wreck his plane on a mountain or something?” Darren asked.
She shook her head and couldn’t stop the smile that always came when she thought about their meeting. “Nope. He was just a big-city boy out for an afternoon hike while on vacation. He was out there for almost three days before I stumbled across him. He was hungry, dirty, had so many mosquito bites he looked like a leper, and was so happy to see me he wouldn’t stop hugging me.”
“What, hm?” she said, again frowning down at her companion.
Darren rolled toward her and wrapped his arms around her. “So you’ll keep me if I don’t let go?” he teased.
Her breath caught for an instant and she shoved him off, shaking her head. “Jeez, you’re annoying.” She prayed the slight sheen of tears didn’t show in the darkness as the emptiness nearly consumed her.
“So what was it that made you fall for him?”
Darren stayed on his side but propped his head on his hand. The unnerving part was that he wrapped his other hand around her calf, right above the top of her hiking boot. His warm touch, even through her jeans, sent a spark through her, and it took all her concentration to sit still and pretend she didn’t notice.
“He brought me flowers the next day and asked me out.”
That hand squeezed gently, slid up a little then back down, spreading tingles and heat in its wake. “Dinner and flowers? I could do that.”
Why was he doing this to her? He always teased, but this was ridiculous. She swatted his hand away from her leg. “No. We had a lot in common.”
His hand returned right away, this time slipping up under her pants, his slightly rough palm against the flesh of her calf. She gasped, but caught herself quickly.
“What did you have in common?”
This time she grabbed his wrist and forced him away, and he didn’t fight her. “Books, movies, traveling…”
He moved to his knees in such a lithe motion she couldn’t believe any human could move like that, and she had to tip her head back to look into his face.
“The kind you read.” She leaned back, away from him, but he came toward her. “What are you doing?”
She scooted back. “Yeah, right.”
“My dirty little secret. Why are you running away from me?”
“Maybe it would help if you were, but I’m not.”
She slapped her hand against his chest to stop his forward momentum, but by then she was almost on her back. “Darren, please stop kidding around.” She cursed the hitch in her voice, the weakness there.
She closed her eyes against the pain but kept her hand firm against his chest. His hard, beautiful chest. “No.”
“Because we were talking about your husband?”
She swallowed and opened her eyes only when she knew her tears wouldn’t fall. “No.” She wasn’t one of those women who thought she couldn’t have a man again because she’d lost a mate.
A half smile curved his lips and he eased back onto his knees. “I really can’t remember the last time I was rejected by a woman. That’s not a real good feeling.” He rubbed his fingers over his chest where her hand had been.
“You’ll get over it, big boy,” she said, rolling to the side and getting to her feet. It took a second or two to steady herself. That whiskey had gone right to her head, probably because she hadn’t eaten since her early lunch. “There are all those Barbies down there.” She waved a hand toward the resort.