Authors: Donna Alward
“That smells amazing,” Todd said, standing at her shoulder. She hadn't heard him get up from the table, and she jumped a little in surprise.
“Do you want help with anything?”
The door to the kitchen opened and the two sisters stuck their heads in. “Good morning,” one of them said.
A pancake was ready to be flipped and the eggs were setting up nicely, so Lainey let out a breath. “Actually, you could help. If you could pour the coffee into that carafe and take it and the cream and sugar to the dining room, that'd be great. There are mugs on the buffet that everyone can use.”
Once he was headed for the dining room, she started another pot brewing and heated water for a pot of tea for those who preferred it. The ham was lightly browned, the eggs at a delicate point, and a warming tray filled with pancakes. Lainey transferred everything to the serving dishes and made her way to the dining room, putting out the food so guests could serve themselves buffet-style. Lastly she grabbed a bottle of maple syrup, a glass pitcher of juice, and a bowl of strawberries and the meal was ready.
The table seated twelve, which left no room for Lainey, who usually made a point of eating with her guests. Instead she refilled coffee and tea, fetched more cream, replaced the empty strawberry bowl with sliced oranges. Neither was there room for Todd, but he snagged a bar stool from the kitchen and perched on it, holding his plate on his knee. He talked and laughed with the guests, answering questions about the town and the storm with ease. Once he caught her eye and gave a little wink, which made her blush. She covered it by fussing with the plate of pastries. It was clear that Todd had all the guests in the palm of his hand, particularly the ladies. His good looks and easy charm had everyone smiling and laughing, and she started to wonder if he had any flaws at all.
As the meal wound down, Lainey made sure to remind the guests of the DVD shelf in the living room, or the library in the parlor where they might find a book to their liking. Todd also mentioned that the town streets would likely be cleared later in the afternoon, and that he'd keep everyone posted.
“Does that mean you're hanging around?” Lainey asked, stacking plates as the guests began to rise. She half hoped he would, but knew it was probably better if he didn't.
“I called Bryce this morning. He wanted to know if I could stay in town today and help out. Not much going on now, with everyone snowed in, but with the potential for accidents and how slow we're probably going to be to respond, I'm kind of on call. I'm going to head to the station in a bit.”
“Be careful out there,” she cautioned, frowning. “It looks so beautiful and sunny, but the roads are probably terrible.”
“Don't worry.” He looked down at her, and she felt that warm, melty sensation again.
“I'd better get this cleaned up,” she said, stepping away. “I'm guessing I'll have people to feed for lunch and probably dinner, too, depending on whether or not other restaurants are open and if people want to brave the sidewalks.”
“Are you set for groceries?”
She thought for a minute. “I am for lunch. I'll worry about dinner after that's over.”
He went to the buffet and grabbed a clean plate. “What, going for second breakfast?” she joked.
He loaded it with ham, eggs, and two pancakes and then shoved it into her hands. “You didn't eat. And you need to. I don't have to check in until ten. Sit down for five minutes and fuel up.”
There wasn't much in the way of sentimentality in his words, but Lainey felt her throat tighten at the attention he gave her. It wasn't just that he'd noticed. He'd also fixed her a plate and pulled out a chair for her. She sat, and he handed her the syrup. “It's a damn fine breakfast,” he said, pouring her some coffee. “You should enjoy it, too.”
“Thanks, Todd. For everything today. You were really a hit with the guests.”
“It's my sparkling personality.” To her continued surprise, he started stacking plates and put them on a tray to go to the kitchen.
“Well, it is, actually,” she agreed. “But then you always were charming. Almost too charming.”
He grinned. “I know.”
“And so modest, and humble.”
He laughed. “See? This is why I never asked you out before. You're too quick. A man's ego could be sliced to shreds before he even knew what was happening. And mine's more fragile than you might think.”
She put down her fork. “Is it all an act, then?”
“Maybe not all.” He stopped by her chair and knelt down a little. “But I don't show people the real me that often. Come on, you must know that a lot of people hide behind humor and charm.”
“Sometimes. Not always. If I'm really comfortable with someone, it's easier.”
“And you're comfortable with me?”
He gave her a piercing look. “More than I'm comfortable with.”
Something stirred within her. She got the feeling that last night she'd seen the real Todd, at least for a few minutes. His guard had been let down in those moments before she'd dashed off to bed, abashed at what had happened at the same time as she'd been beautifully relaxed and sated. And he was being real now. He had to be, to admit such a thing.
“So, Miss Price, if I were to ask you out on an actual date, would you go?”
The invitation surprised her. And flustered her, too. Last night had been one thing. An accident. A special circumstance. But if they made plans, had a real date, it would be acknowledging that there was really something going on that went beyond being in the right place at the right time. Lainey really wasn't sure she was ready for that. The very idea scared her, because of where it might lead. One date could lead to two, or three, and before long feelings were involved and she wasn't at all interested in getting those trampled on again.
It felt like it was too soon. Rationally she told herself it had been a year, so how long was she going to wait, anyway?
“It's pretty hard for me to get away right now,” she replied. “I've got guests booked in until the twenty-third. I'm closed the twenty-fourth through the twenty-sixth, but that's Christmas.”
He stood back up. “I see,” he said, standing back. “I'm on the schedule over Christmas, too. I work the holiday so the guys with family can be home with their kids and stuff.”
Why didn't she want to date him again? Because right now he seemed quite perfect.
Maybe that was it. He was too perfect. And she knew very well that too perfect didn't actually exist.
“Well, I'd better get going. I'll stop in later with a road update, okay? Thanks for putting me up last night.”
His voice was merely friendly now, lacking the soft warmth she'd heard in it before, and she felt a sliver of regret knowing it was because she'd refused his invitation.
“You're welcome. You more than earned your room and board with the shoveling and stuff. Take care out there today.”
She stayed in the dining room and listened for the moment he went out the back door. Then she let out a deep breath, wondering if she'd done the right thing.
Then she remembered all the events where she'd seen Todd, a new girl on his arm, that lopsided smile and sparkle in his eyes just for her, and knew she wasn't equipped to deal with a man so potently sexy.
By five o'clock Lainey felt run off her feet.
She'd cleaned up the breakfast mess and then started the batch of soup she was planning on feeding the group for lunch, knowing it needed to simmer for a couple of hours. Once the kitchen was spotless, she went through the house and tidied as much as she could, replacing towels and bedding and cleaning bathrooms. She answered questions about the town, made phone calls to determine what was open and what wasn't, updated guests on road conditions, fed them again, made more phone calls since the only two guests to leave were the father and son, who'd decided to try their luck on the highway south. That still left her with all rooms full for the night and a sofa open for Mr. Sewell if he chose it.
It also meant feeding everyone dinner, which usually wasn't part of the inn's service. The Rusty Fern was open but the grill was closed, Breezes CafÃ© informed her that they were run off their feet and short-staffed, and that only really left Gino's Italian. Gino, bless him, said that he could supply her with baked ziti, garlic bread, and salad for fifteen. The only problem was getting it to her. The walkway from the road to the inn was shoveled, but the roads above Main hadn't been touched by a plow. When Lainey went out at three o'clock, she could still see where Todd's SUV had left deep tracks in the snow. These, along with the ones from the men who'd left an hour earlier, were the only sets of tire tracks on the street. Everyone else was staying put.
She ordered the food anyway, saying she'd figure out something for delivery.
At five there was a knock on the front door. When she answered, Todd was there with a truck that wasn't his. “What are you doing here?” she asked, looking behind him at the monstrosity. It was a diesel, fitted out with a wedge blade on the front. “Don't tell me you're clearing snow.”
He grinned. “And having a great time. It's one of Tom Arseneault's rigs. The road crews are so busy on main streets and highways that a bunch of us are helping clear some places in town. I wanted to see if you needed anything.”
Lainey looked at him, pondering. Why had he come back? She hadn't really been overly kind this morning, and when she'd taken a few moments to breathe she'd felt guilty about that. She wasn't usually cold or rude. She'd been afraid. Todd was so dynamic, almost larger than life. She could easily get swept up in fancyÂ â¦ and fantasy. Now here he was, asking if she needed a helping handâagain.
“Todd, has anyone ever told you you're too good to be true?”
He laughed. “Nope. Never. Are you a little more relaxed now? You were wound pretty tight this morning.”
She shook her head. “Sorry about that. To be honest, I wasn't sure how to act.”
“You have a full house. I get it.”
“No, not that. Well, not entirely that,” she amended. Determined not to blush, she looked up at him. “What happened between usÂ â¦ well, it was unexpected and I didn't know how to handle the morning after. It wasn't you, though, it was me.”
He groaned, and she let out a sigh. “I know. Oldest line in the book. And you told me last night not to use it.”
“It's okay. Let's not worry about it now. Seriously, is there anything you need?”
He was so easygoing that she had to blink to switch gears. “I have an order for dinner at Gino's. I was trying to get in touch with a cab to deliver it for me, butâ”
“But Hal's only got two taxis and both are busy?”
“I wish. He's not running them at all.”
“I think I could handle it in the truck. Anything else?”
Just like that, her problem was solved. She thought for a moment. If they were going down to Main, she could use some things from the bakery for tomorrow. “Is the bakery open? That would help me a lot.”
“It might be. Get your coat and shut the door. I'll run you down.”
“Give me one minute.”
She dashed inside, popped her head into the parlor, and said she'd be back in thirty minutes. Normally the room was empty this time of day, and she could lock up and put a sign on the door stating the time she'd reopen. But desperate timesÂ â¦
A minute later she had her purse and was bundled up to her neck in warm clothes. “Let's go,” she said, stepping on the running board so she could hop up into the cab.
“I never thought. You're leaving the inn unattended.”
“I know. Honestly, the bed-and-breakfast kind of guest is usually pretty honorable. That being said, I'm hoping this is a quick trip. It feels weird.”
“If you want I can pick things up and you can stay.”
It was a generous offer, but she had the business credit card to pay for things and it would just be easier this way. “It's fine. Truly.” She shrugged. “Something about a storm and being stranded makes people band together. I had one couple who made their bed and offered to replenish towels for me today. The sisters who are staying asked if I needed help cleaning up from lunch.” She smiled. “Which is actually one of the things I love about running this sort of business.”
He took her to the bakery first, clearing the end of the street with the plow as they went. The sign on the bakery storefront said
but the place was empty of customers. Todd waited in the truck while she popped in, selected a variety of breads and sweets, and dashed back out again. Main Street had at least been cleared, so driving to Gino's wasn't difficult. Todd went in with her, and they left again with two boxesâone filled with foil-covered pans of ziti and another holding huge containers of salad and loaves of garlic bread.
The interior of the truck smelled delectable, like garlic and tomatoes, fresh bread, and rich cheese. “Thank you so much for this, Todd.” He'd lowered the plow blade again as they made their way slowly up the hill toward Oceanview Drive, pushing snow to the side of the road. “I couldn't have gotten through with my car.”
“I had trouble with my four-wheel drive this morning,” he admitted, watching the road carefully as the snow furled away from the blade. “Tom's truck is much better. Anyway, I'm glad I could help.”
She knew spending more time with him might not be the wisest course. She'd thought of him all day, even during her busiest times. She'd thought about Jason, too, and how she'd opened her heart to him only to have him stamp on it. The truth was, Todd reminded her of Jason and that made her put up her guard automatically. He was good looking, popular, personable, naturally social, andâthe kind of person who attracted others. She hadn't been able to hold her own with Jason, and he'd found someone else who could. It wasn't just the fact that Todd was the first man she'd kissed since her engagement ended; it was also that she was fairly certain that she wouldn't be able to hold on to him, either, if they pursued anything.