Jack Murphy slid the receiver back onto its base, his mind racing a mile a minute. A heart attack? His dad? Jack sank back into his chair and it spun toward the window. The Boston skyline that normally energized and rejuvenated him did neither of those now.
What was he going to do? He turned back to his desk where the files for the upcoming investors meeting sat waiting for his approval. Beside them, three resumes for potential Vice Presidents required his review and assessment. But he couldn’t focus on work after the phone call he’d just gotten.
“Patricia, can you come in here, please?” His voice betrayed none of the turmoil churning in his gut. He couldn’t allow it. His reputation with his employees was defined by his steely control and the ice in his veins. Little did anyone know how far from the truth that was.
“What can I do for you, Mr. Murphy?”
“Have a seat.” Jack needed a minute to compose himself. How could he get all of his work done for the company he’d worked so hard to build while covering for his dad at home? Christmas was the busiest time of year, and they couldn’t afford to shut down the lot while Dad was laid up. Mom told him he didn’t need to come, but they both knew her protests would fall on deaf ears. He’d be on the next plane regardless of what she said. “I’m going to be out of the office for a while.”
Patricia flipped through the notebook on her lap, her brows furrowed and her mouth quirked. “Did I forget to put something on the calendar?” Her voice wavered.
Okay, so maybe he’d been a bit heavy-handed with his assistant. She was the best in the business and she took good care of him. He should remember that, especially now when he’d be asking her to basically facilitate his work from his hometown.
“This was a last minute thing. There’s an emergency at home.”
Her expression changed to one of concern. “Did something happen to your condo?”
“I’m sorry. I’m not being clear. I’m going home… to Oak Grove.”
She leaned back in her chair. “Oh.”
Yeah, oh. He hadn’t been home since he’d moved to Boston after earning his MBA from Wharton. His parents understood why he’d never been back, their visits always somewhere else or here in Boston. But his excuses felt flimsy as he considered the potential of never seeing his father again. “My father’s had a heart attack. It’s the busiest time of their year. I need to be there.”
“Of course you do. What can I do to help?”
For the next hour, he and Patricia came up with a plan. Most of the day to day items could be handled by Dan, his business partner. Jack would be available by cell phone during the day, and he’d work remotely early in the morning and after the farm was closed each night. Shoot, half of his clients were around the globe anyway, so he frequently worked odd hours. As long as he found Wi-Fi somewhere in the small town where he’d grown up, he’d be fine.
Two hours later, he slid into a leather seat in the first class cabin for the short flight to Philadelphia. He loosened his tie and unbuttoned the collar of his starched shirt. Sure, he could have changed before leaving, but he’d worked hard for everything he’d earned, and everyone in Oak Grove was going to know it.
Three little bottles of scotch later and he finally dozed off, only to awaken to the thump of the wheels hitting the ground.
As he waited for his bag to spin around the carousel, his mind shifted to another day in this same airport under very different circumstances. The day his soul had been gutted by the only woman he’d loved when she’d refused to move with him to Boston.
That feeling stuck with him as he pulled onto the highway for the drive to Oak Grove, each mile bringing him closer to the life he’d left behind. He hadn’t had time to miss his hometown, and his parents visited him often. But there was one thing he’d missed.
Did Casey even live here anymore? He never asked his parents and they never shared—it hurt too much to talk about the loss. It just meant he was alone in his grief. He’d dealt by donning nerves of steel, refusing to allow himself to get close to anyone again. No one would ever hurt him the way Casey Patterson had.
An hour and a half later, he turned onto Main Street headed toward the town green. When he’d left, the park had comprised most of the center of town, with just a few businesses surrounding the natural green space.
Rows of shops with brightly-colored awnings and cheerful signs lined two sides of the park in the center of town. In the decade since he’d been gone, Mom and Dad had talked about the new retail and the houses being built on the outskirts of town. But the image of Oak Grove he’d kept tucked away in his mind hadn’t changed.
New businesses meant more residents. That must be great for his parents’ lot. Maybe he could come up with a growth plan for the tree farm while he was here. Plans to diversify and share the burden so his dad could sit back and relax. He worked too hard. No wonder Mom had called. She couldn’t run the lot and take care of Dad at the same time.
If only she’d called when Dad first complained about not feeling well. Who was Jack kidding? His dad was so stubborn that he was probably fighting Mom to get out of bed right now. He and Dad were alike in that way, but in so many others, not so much. Dad didn’t understand why Jack couldn’t build his life in Oak Grove, for example. Oak Grove might be his father’s home but it wasn’t Jack’s. Not anymore.
It did no good to worry about that now. Other worries took precedence, like getting to his parents’ tree lot and seeing what had to be done to survive the holiday season. Decorations were starting to go up around town for the Christmas season, but the prominent spot in the town that normally held the Christmas tree sat empty. As though it waited for his return. Dad musn’t have taken care of that before his attack.
Jack rounded the town green and headed out of town. Before long, he passed the sign he’d been waiting for:
Murphy’s Christmas Tree Lot – 1 mile
A sense of peace washed over him. He’d worked alongside his parents during high school, college, and grad school, taking his exams early each year to spend the entire month of December helping out. Those last few years, Casey had been by his side. Like he’d expected her to be for the rest of his life.
He hadn’t known that last Christmas with Casey would be his last Christmas in Oak Grove. Just thinking about Casey shattered his fragile peace. He hadn’t thought about her in a long time and now that he was coming home, he couldn’t get her off his mind.
He drove through the gate posts a few minutes later. It had been a long time since he’d been here, and there had been changes in the intervening years. Cars filled the parking lot Dad had paved last year. Kids ran around wearing hats and mittens while others warmed their hands around the huge fire pit. He spied a few employees darting around, their bright red aprons and Santa hats singling them out from the customers.
Jack parked in the one remaining spot and stepped carefully along the dirt path leading to the cut-your-own tree section. They were doing good business and the customers appeared happy. Maybe Mom and Dad didn’t need him at home as much as he thought. Maybe he could check things out, make sure the manager had everything covered, and head back to Boston before…
He shook the thought out of his head. He’d have time enough to worry whether he’d run into his ex-girlfriend later. For now, he would find the manager and introduce himself before heading home. Mom had been elusive when Jack asked for the manager’s name, but he’d been too shaken over the news of his father to dig deeper. Now that he was here, he wished he’d pushed her harder.
“Can I help you find something?” The sweetest voice he’d ever heard rang out from behind him, and he froze. It couldn’t be.
He spun around. The smile on the woman’s face faltered. Her eyes widened and her mouth gaped. “Jack.”
All color left her cheeks and she swayed. He reached out and caught her just before she hit the ground.
Warmth wrapped around her and she snuggled deeper into the feeling. But as her mind began to clear, her comfort gave way to confusion. She stretched her arm and ran into something… hard. Well, not exactly hard, more like firm.
Where was she?
All of a sudden, everything flooded back. Jack… was here… in Oak Grove.
She forced her eyes open, squinting at the bright sun. Deep green eyes that had haunted her dreams for years stared back at her. She bolted upright and her head swam.
“Take it easy, Casey. You’re still pale.”
She sank back into the lap of the one person who had always calmed her. At least until he left her behind and never returned. As soon as she settled against his chest, his arms came around her, holding her in place. He stroked her hair, much like he’d done all of those nights after…
No. Casey refused to dwell on a past she couldn’t change. And no way would she give Jack the satisfaction of knowing he had any kind of effect on her. Of course, she’d be a bit more convincing if she hadn’t fainted as soon as she laid eyes on him. And if she wasn’t sprawled across his lap right now.
She drew in a few deep breaths, squared her shoulders, and sat up slowly. “I’m fine.”
Jack chuckled but didn’t let go of her. “Stubborn as always, eh, Case?”
“Don’t call me that. My name’s Casey.” He had forfeited the right to call her that the day he left her behind.
He raised his hands in defeat, but the corners of his mouth still quirked.
It was too difficult for her to put any emotional distance between them while she was on his lap. She scrambled to her feet and stepped away.
Jack rose in a much more deliberate fashion, like he hadn’t been at all affected by their meeting. Maybe he wasn’t surprised to see her. His parents must have mentioned her role. It was just a shame that it took Sid’s heart attack to bring Jack home after all these years.
Regardless, she’d been running this lot for almost three years, and she didn’t need Jack coming in and threatening everything she’d worked so hard for. He should go by the hospital, visit with his dad, and skedaddle on back to Boston or wherever it was he was making the millions he always swore he’d make.
If his clothes were any indication, he’d succeeded. Those were no off-the-rack suit pants that he brushed his hands down. God forbid a little dirt had gotten on them. Everything about him screamed “money.” That was the life he’d wanted and he’d gone after it. Without her.
To hell with him.
She squirmed under the intensity of his gaze.
“Why are you staring at me?” Okay, so she’d been staring at him, too. But his eyes had been locked on her since he’d stood.
He stretched his hand out, and her gaze followed as he slid his fingers toward her hair. She almost allowed her eyes to flutter closed, to sink into his touch, when he pulled back with a piece of shredded bark between his fingers.
Her heart beat rapidly. What was he doing to her? She always imagined running into him again. In her fantasies, she wore a glamorous dress and maybe he was in a tuxedo. She would stride into some fancy party on the arm of a handsome millionaire and show Jack exactly what he’d been missing. Instead, she fainted at the sight of him, and here he was, picking mulch out of her hair.
He stared at her another minute. She ran her hands down her hips. What was going through his mind when he looked at her? Sure, she’d put on a few more pounds since the last time he’d seen her, but not many. She jogged every day and ate healthy. She took care of herself. She had to. People depended on her.
Jack continued staring but said nothing.
“What?” Wow, that was brilliant. Couldn’t she come up with something a little more intelligent? Then again, Jack always had her tongue tied.
“I can’t believe you’re here. That I ran into you.” He wrenched his gaze away from her and scanned the lot behind her. For a just a moment, there was a vulnerability in his expression she hadn’t expected.
“Where else would I be?”
“I don’t know. Moved away somewhere, maybe.”
“No, Jack. That’s what you did. I’ve been right here all along.” Well, that wasn’t exactly the truth, but she didn’t dare bring up the time she was away, and how she came home with her tail between her legs.
A hurt expression crossed his face. Good. He deserved to suffer at least some of the heartbreak she had when he left her behind to grieve alone.
She crossed her arms. He didn’t have the power to hurt her anymore. “So what are you doing here, Jack? I presume you’re in town to see your father. He’s at the hospital.”
Jack slid his hands into his pockets, drawing her attention to…
Stop it, Casey. He’s your past. He left you behind, remember?
“I thought I’d check in on the business, introduce myself to the manager since I’ll be helping out while Dad’s laid up.”
Helping out? What were Sid and Jackie thinking, asking Jack to help? Sure, it was their business, but they’d been more than happy to ease into a hands-off approach these past years and allow her to manage things. She’d worked hard to build a good relationship with the fulltime staff who cared for the trees and the loyal crew of teens who filled in as seasonal help. They didn’t need Jack coming in and changing things up.
She stuck out her hand. “Casey Patterson. I’m the manager.”
Shock crossed his face. “You’re the manager?”
“Yep. Have been for nearly three years now.” Take that, Jack.
Jack scrubbed his hand over his clean-shaven jaw. This man before her was not the boy she’d fallen in love with. He was so much more. His shoulders were broader, his arms thicker, but his smile lacked the warmth that had always turned her insides to mush.
Her heart skipped a beat. You are not allowed to have feelings for Jack Murphy. Not again. Remember what he did to you last time.
“Mom and Dad didn’t tell me.”
“Well, you’d have known if you’d visited.” That wouldn’t be all he’d have discovered if he’d bothered to come home.
“I’ve, uh, been busy.” His feeble attempt at rationalizing his absence wouldn’t work on her. “And besides, it’s not like I haven’t seen them since I’ve been gone.”
“Meeting your parents in Philly doesn’t cut it, Jack. Making them always leave Oak Grove to see you. You left them behind.” They weren’t the only ones he left behind, but she wasn’t about to admit to the hurt that still consumed her from time to time.
“Regardless, I’m here now.” He spun in a circle. “Lot’s doing great. How are the trees this year?”
“We have a good crop of white pine and blue spruce. It was a rough summer for Douglas firs, though.” Why was she talking to him like he had any business sticking his nose into the goings on at the tree lot? He made his decision when he left ten years ago.
Casey was the manager and his parents treated her like a daughter. Would that change now that Jack was home?
“What about the tree for the green? I saw the empty spot when I drove by.”
Her heart lurched. The tree on the green was usually up by now.
“Sid, uh, didn’t get that done before his attack.” She couldn’t share with Jack the fear that had coursed through her when she’d found Sid lying on the ground on the way to the tree he’d picked out this year. How she’d flashed back to another day, another loss, and it had nearly given her a heart attack of her own.
She paced over to the row of trees at the edge of the clearing and swiped at her eyes. She refused to cry. Not in front of Jack. She may never live down fainting at his feet, but she sure as hell would prove that she was no wilting flower. The farm was in capable hands—hers—and she didn’t need his help.
He stepped up beside her. “So, how have you been?”
What, he wanted to chat now? Her head spun from his bouncing around from topic to topic. “Fine.”
She turned toward the office but he grabbed her arm. “Casey, wait. I’m trying to talk to you.”
She jerked her arm away before the heat of his touch could soak into her soul. Why did he still affect her this way? She was over him, had put everything about their relationship behind her. Or so she believed. “Then talk. Nothing’s stopping you.”
“Where’s this coming from Case-, uh, Casey?” At least he corrected himself before she had to remind him again that he didn’t know anything about her anymore. Little things, like she hated being called Case. And bigger things, that she wasn’t ready to share with him.
“Where’s it coming from? Like you have to ask. You left Oak Grove ten years ago. You left me. And you have to ask where this is coming from? You don’t bother to come home in all that time, and you expect me to fall at your feet when you do?”
He raised his eyebrows. His mouth quirked into that little smile she used to love. For just a minute, he looked like the boy she’d fallen in love with. The one who had broken her heart when he left. “As a matter of fact, that’s exactly what you did.”
“I was surprised to see you, that’s all. I’m not anymore.” Didn’t he have anything to say about his dad almost dying? That it took a crisis to bring him home, and he’d come here before actually checking on his father? “If that’s all, I have work to do. We’re pretty busy today.”
She stomped toward the safety of her office. She’d grab a few minutes alone before dealing with the next challenge life planned on throwing her way. Jack always had the ability to knock her off-kilter and today was no exception.
Unfortunately, the man in question fell into step beside her. “You’ve done a good job, Casey.” His voice was soft, gentle. Much like it had been growing up, during their stolen moments in the back of his truck down by the river. And that one night that ended with tragic consequences.
“Thanks. Is that all?” She waved her hand to dismiss him, hoping he’d take the hint and walk away.
“Yeah, I’ll get out of your hair for now. I’m heading to see Mom and Dad. But I’ll be back.”
She wasn’t sure if his words were a threat… or a promise. She’d had enough of his promises to last a lifetime.
Jack made his way down the familiar streets to his childhood home. A short hour later, Mom was tucked safely in the passenger seat of Dad’s truck while Jack drove to the hospital. It had been years since he’d driven the truck—the same truck Dad had had when Jack left town—and almost nothing had changed.
Dad’s fleece-lined jacket and hat laid on the seat like they were waiting for him to come back, and an evergreen-shaped air freshener hung from the rearview mirror like it had every day of Jack’s life.
Dad loved his trees.
That was why Jack was so surprised when he’d found Casey running the lot. Doing the job Jack had expected to inherit when he grew up. But things changed. Despite the hurt in Dad’s eyes when Jack announced he was leaving town, his parents supported his choice and never expressed any disappointment that Jack hadn’t followed in the family business.
He covered Mom’s hand on the seat. “I wish you’d have told me that Dad wasn’t feeling well before it got this bad.”
“You know your father, too stubborn for his own good. If it wasn’t for Casey…”
Yeah, Casey. Jack’s head had been spinning since the moment he’d heard her voice. He couldn’t blame her for being mad at him. He’d asked her to move to Boston with him. Practically begged her. But she insisted on staying in Oak Grove and Jack just couldn’t.
For a long time, he couldn’t even think about coming back. Then days became weeks and weeks became months. Before he knew it, years had passed and he didn’t know how to come home anymore.
“That sweet girl. She was so shaken up. Thank God she found your dad when she did or he might not…”
What was this about Casey? “Casey found him?”
“She was walking in the upper lot and Dad was lying on the ground. She called 9-1-1 and then performed CPR until the paramedics arrived. They say that’s the only reason he survived. If she’d been even a couple minutes later…”
Why hadn’t Casey told him she’d found Dad? He would have said something. Thanked her instead of arguing about their relationship and how he’d left. Instead he’d teased her and questioned her running of the lot.
Casey was right—Jack was a bastard. But he was here now.
A few minutes later, he stepped into the hospital lobby with Mom by his side. His mind immediately flashed back to another trip here. One he’d never recovered from. Casey’s grief-stricken face filled his mind. The fat tears rolling down her cheeks that he was powerless to stop haunted him. He remembered his own tears falling as he scooped her up and held her close.
He’d deluded himself into believing that if he shut himself off from emotional connections that he would never suffer the pain of loss again. Now here he was, his father clinging to life. A life saved by the woman who’d shared the most painful experience of Jack’s life.
He and Mom stepped off the elevator on the fourth floor to the stench of antiseptic and the squeak of shoes on the linoleum floor. The sign on the opposite wall greeted him with a grim announcement—Cardiac Ward. Those words made everything real.
Why had Jack waited so long to come home? Why had his visits with his parents been restricted to when they could come see him? All this time, he’d told himself he was too busy to visit, but that was crap. He was a coward who couldn’t face the grief that Oak Grove held.
No more. He was here now, and things were going to change.
His cell phone beeped in his pocket, and he pushed the button to silence it. Jack’s work had been piling up since he’d left Boston earlier today, but Dad was his focus now. Jack would check his messages when he returned to the house.
The more immediate concern, after his father, was how he was going to scrub Casey out of his mind. It had only taken a single encounter for her to worm her way back into his soul, into the places he’d packed away and hoped never to see again.
Her eyes had sparkled in anger when she spat her words at him. The little five-foot-two spitfire got spun up on a moment’s notice. He’d loved her passion, but the flames had gone out after… well, before he left. It was good to see she’d found her spark again.
Mom stepped into a room in front of the nurses station and Jack followed.
“Hey, Sid, someone’s here to see you.”
Dad grumbled from behind the curtain. “I don’t wanna see nobody. I just want to get the hell out of here.”
Jack pulled the curtain aside. “Nice to see you too, Dad.”
The scowl on Dad’s face turned into a smile, and his eyes widened. “Boy, get yourself in here and give me a hug.”
Jack wrapped his arms around Dad’s narrow, weak shoulders. Dad hadn’t been this fragile when his parents had visited him in Boston a few months ago. In a short time, his father had aged years.
“Hell, Jack, if I’d known having a little heart trouble woulda gotten you home, I’da had one long before now.”
“Don’t even joke about that, old man.”
Mom fussed with the bedside table, shifting the colorful flowers and refilling the water cup. Mom always kept busy. That was why Jack was so surprised that she wasn’t involved with the day-to-day operations of the lot. She and Dad had always worked it, side by side. It had to be killing her to see Dad laid up in the bed. “Your color’s better today, honey.”
“Quit yer fussin, woman, and come over and visit with our boy. How ya been, Jack? How’s business?”
Jack helped Mom settle into the chair beside Dad’s bed and then perched on the windowsill. He wasn’t sure how to answer that question—he hadn’t spent an entire day out of touch since he’d started his investment firm seven years ago. Who knew what had happened at the office since he’d boarded a plane this morning? “Business is good, but I’m here to see you. How are you doing?”
Jack’s gaze followed Dad’s hand when he pressed his chest. Jack’s own heart lurched. What if Dad had died? “Fine. Old ticker just had a little hiccup. I’ll be back out there before you know it. There’s stuff to do, ya know.”
“Don’t worry about that. You need to get better first. I’m here and I’ll help out as much as I can.” Whether Casey would accept his help or not.
Dad nodded and scrubbed his hand over his chin. “All kinds of changes since you been gone. I’m lucky I put that Casey in charge. She’s done some great things these past couple of years.”
Did Dad not want Jack helping with the farm? It sounded as though things were well in hand with Casey. Maybe he could visit for a few days and return to Boston without seeing Casey again. “I stopped by. The lot looks great.”
Mom gasped. “You stopped by? I thought you’d come to the house first.”
Maybe they hadn’t wanted him to know Casey was running the business. They’d certainly had plenty of opportunities to tell him, yet they hadn’t. “I wanted to check things out, see where I could help while you’re laid up.”
“So you’ve seen her?” Mom’s voice was soft, her concern apparent.
His parents knew how heartbroken Jack had been when Casey hadn’t moved to Boston with him. And they were the only other ones who knew about Jack and Casey’s private grief. He couldn’t bear to share it with anyone else. The heartbreak had been too raw when he made his plans to leave town. Once he left, he’d shoved all of his painful memories of Oak Grove aside. “Yeah. It was quite the reunion.”
Jack laughed as he shared how Casey had fainted when she’d seen him and then read him the riot act for not coming home sooner. His parents shared a few stolen glances. What did they know that he didn’t?
“Jackie, hun, how about you go get yourself a cup of coffee?”
Mom fussed with a handkerchief in her lap. “Oh, honey, I’m fine.”
“Then how about you give me a few minutes with my boy?”
Jack marveled at his parents’ exchange. Dad might sound gruff, but there was so much love between the two of them. How many years had it taken them to become so content with each other? Jack had thought he and Casey shared that kind of comfort and love when they were together, but age and experience had proven to him they’d been young and naïve about the realities of life. Maybe if they’d been a little older, more mature, they could have weathered the grief neither of them should have experienced.
Mom rose. “Oh, all right. I’ll check in with the nurses. See if I can get the real story on how your night was, instead of your whitewashed version.” Mom kissed Dad on the forehead and spared a quick glance at Jack before leaving the room.
After she stepped out of the room and the door clicked closed, Dad’s gaze turned on Jack. “She fusses over me too much.”
“She loves you.” Jack had never doubted the ferocity of his parents’ love for one another. Or for him. Unlike many of his high school classmates, he’d never been afraid his parents might split up.
As his love with Casey had grown, he’d hoped to have the kind of relationship his parents had.
But one night had changed everything, and Jack had shut himself off to love ever since. As a wealthy business man in Boston, he’d had his share of socialites on his arm at a party or between the sheets for a few steamy hours. But he hadn’t allowed any of them to crack the icy shell he’d built around his heart.
A shell that had split wide open the minute he’d had Casey in his arms.
Jack could use the excuse of his father’s heart attack for why he was so shaken, but it would be a lie. Casey had broken through his carefully built walls without even trying.
He couldn’t let her sneak any deeper into his soul. He’d barely survived the last time.
“Took ya long enough about comin’ home.”
“I saw you guys a few months ago.” For years, he’d claimed to be too busy to visit, and his parents had always obliged him. But that excuse fell flat now, seeing his dad laid up in the sterile hospital room, surrounded by the machines helping him recover.
“It isn’t the same, and you know it.”
He sighed. It had been too long. “Yeah, I know. But I’m here now.”
“For how long?”
Wasn’t that the question of the hour?
Before Jack answered, Dad barreled through the conversation. “We could really use your help. Casey says she’s doing fine by herself, but there’s a lot of work to be done. I worry about that girl and…”
What were Mom and Dad not telling him about Casey? “And what?”
“Nothin. She’s just working too hard these days. I want you to help her out, Jack. Just through the season.” Dad covered Jack’s hand. “Please?”
Jack ran through the long list of tasks waiting for him back in Boston, and the vibration in his pocket indicated more to be done. He’d somehow convinced himself that he could check in on Dad and jet back to Boston. Nope. His original plan to squeeze work in between hours at the tree lot would have to be enough. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d worked long hours. It was how he’d built his firm into one of the most successful in Boston in the first place.
So much for making sure the manager had things in hand and then heading home. Hopefully he and Casey could work side by side for a few weeks. Jack would keep his defenses up and no matter what, not touch her again. Certainly not hold her in his arms like he had. He’d liked it. Too much. “Of course, I’ll help. Don’t worry about anything except getting better.”
“Good, good. That girl has had a rough time of it. She shouldn’t be having to worry about me on top of everything else.”
Now he was really intrigued by what was going on with Casey. And since he was going to be in Oak Grove for a few weeks, he planned to find out.
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