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Carly Bishop must dig deep to unearth her Christmas spirit so she can return to her hometown and give her niece and nephew the best holiday ever. Mountain rescuer Jake Porter believes he could have saved her brother and her fiancé that fateful day and kept the Bishop family from experiencing such a heart-wrenching loss. He hopes helping Carly rediscover the magic of Christmas will allow him to finally move forward with his life, but he’s not certain anything can relieve the guilt that’s kept him stuck all these years.
Returning to Hood Hamlet had been a mistake.
She should have stayed in Philadelphia, where she’d made a new life for herself, far away from the shadow of Mount Hood and all the mountain had stolen from her. If only staying away had been an option, but her brother’s widow, Hannah, was expecting a new baby and needed help with her two children.
So here Carly was. Ready to be an aunt extraordinaire for her niece and nephew. For better or, most likely, worse.
All she had to do was survive her time here, including December twenty-fourth, the twenty-fifth, and New Year’s Eve.
How difficult could that be?
Given she hadn’t celebrated the holidays in five years, she didn’t want to know the answer.
Carly tightened her grip on the suitcase handle before climbing the steps to the front porch. With a tentative hand, she reached for the doorknob before remembering this was no longer her brother’s house. She pressed the doorbell and waited.
The doorknob jiggled.
Straightening, Carly forced a smile. Years of working with customers had taught her how to put on a happy face no matter how she felt inside.
The door cracked open.
“Welcome back, Carly,” a male voice greeted her warmly.
She’d expected to see Hannah’s husband of two years, Garrett Willingham, but the man standing in the doorway looked nothing like the clean-cut, non-risk-taking, business-suit-wearing certified public accountant. This guy was too rugged, too fit, too…familiar.
Over six feet tall with brown hair that fell past his collar, he still had piercing blue eyes, a killer smile, and a hot, hard body that made the girls, herself included, swoon back in high school. Those features had only improved with age.
Her pulse kicked up a notch. “What are you doing here?”
“Waiting for you.” His grin widened, the same way it had whenever he and Nick teased her. “Merry Christmas.”
“Merry…” Simply thinking the word left a bitter taste in her mouth. She couldn’t bring herself to say it. “Season’s greetings. Where’s Hannah?”
“At a doctor’s appointment,” Jacob explained. “Garrett drove her. She didn’t know if they’d be home by the time you arrived or before the school bus dropped off Kendall and Austin, so they asked me to come over.”
Carly noticed Jacob’s clothes—a light blue button-down oxford shirt, khaki pants, and brown leather shoes. A bit more stylish than the T-shirts, jeans, and sneakers she remembered him wearing. He must have come from work.
“Thank you.” Though she wasn’t surprised. Jacob had always gone out of his way for them, a surrogate everything to what remained of the Bishop family. He’d found her the job in Philadelphia. He’d taught Nick’s two kids to ski and fish. He’d even introduced Hannah to Garrett.
“Come inside before you get too cold.” Jacob reached for Carly’s suitcase. His hand—big, callused, and warm—brushed hers. The accidental contact startled her, and she jerked away. “You city girls aren’t used to the temperatures up here.”
Forget the cold. She wasn’t used to her response to his touch. That was unusual for her. “Philadelphia gets cold, too.”
As she stepped inside, heat surrounded Carly, cocooning her with the inviting comforts of home. The homey touches—a fleece blanket on a chair, throw pillows, candles, and framed photos—were ones missing from her apartment.
His gaze ran the length of her. “You look the same.”
He looked better. “So does this place.”
And that somehow made everything…worse.
A fire blazed and crackled in the fireplace. The way it had that horrible, dark Christmas morning when a teary-eyed Hannah had told the kids to unwrap their gifts from Santa.
Carly wanted to shut off the video of years gone by streaming through her mind, but the fresh evergreen scent, the twinkling multicolored lights, and the ornament-laden branches wouldn’t let her.
The popcorn-and-cranberry garland, keepsake decorations marking special occasions, and silver bells and gold balls reminded Carly of the rush to take the tree down before Nick’s funeral. Hoping to protect the children, Hannah hadn’t wanted the event to be associated with Christmas in any way. Her efforts seemed to have worked, but Carly couldn’t think of one without the other. Even now.
The door closed.
She glanced over her shoulder.
Jacob stared, an unrecognizable emotion in his eyes.
One time, during an argument with Iain, she’d turned to Jacob for advice. There’d been a moment when she thought he might kiss her. He’d been studying her then the same way he was now.
Her temperature rose—the combo of forced-air heating and fireplace, no doubt. She shrugged off her jacket.
“I’ll take that.” He hung her coat on the rack by the door. “It’s good to see you again.”