Christmas at Evergreen Inn (7 page)

BOOK: Christmas at Evergreen Inn
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And yet he'd done her a favor yet again and out of the goodness of his heart. It would be rude to accept his help and then send him on his way. Besides, like this morning, they'd be surrounded by people. The least she could do was feed him dinner.

“You'll stay for dinner, won't you?” She unbuckled her seat belt and turned toward him. “There's plenty.”

“I need to get the truck back to Tom, but thanks for the invitation.”

“Are you sure? There's lots.”

He hesitated, then shook his head. “Honestly, it's already nearly dark and I haven't been home yet. I know the main road has been cleared, and I'd like to get home and get myself plowed out before it gets too late and cold.”

Of course. She reached for her purse and hooked it over her shoulder, then opened the door to the cab. “I never thought of that. Of course you want to check on your own place.” She reached for the bags of goods from the bakery and hefted one of the restaurant boxes.

He hopped out and came around the front of the truck, carrying the other box. “Thanks for the invite, though,” he said, following her up the walk. “Maybe I'll take a rain check.”

At the door she paused. Her keys were in her coat pocket and her hands were full. She put everything down carefully and reached for the key ring, surprised when his strong hand circled her wrist. “I'll call you,” he said, giving her wrist a squeeze.

“Okay.” The word came out breathless, like she'd been holding her breath and suddenly let it out. Her fingers fumbled with the keys but she finally got the right one in the lock and opened the door. Then she picked up the food and stepped inside, Todd following her in and shutting the door behind him. For a few minutes they were busy taking everything to the kitchen, and all too soon they were back at the front door and she was seeing him off.

“Thanks again for the help today. I really appreciate it.”

“It was no problem. I'd say we're even.” When her cheeks heated, he smiled, popping a dimple in his cheek. “You make a mean breakfast, Lainey.”

Lord, he was a tease. He leaned forward and placed a light kiss on her cheek. “I'll call you,” he repeated. Apparently he wasn't giving up so easily.

She nodded, unable to speak. The days' worth of stubble on his face scraped her cheek, and his lips were soft and warm. She was tempted to turn her head, just a bit, and kiss his lips. But the door was open and guests were around and so she took a step back.

“Drive carefully,” she cautioned.

“I will.”

He jogged down the steps and walkway to the truck, got in, and started the engine with a rumble. He lifted one hand in a wave and then he was gone.

She shut the door and turned around to find one of the sisters—Christine, if Lainey remembered right—grinning at her.

“Phew,” Christine said. “A man like that would make a girl want to commit a crime just so he could put her in handcuffs.”

Lainey burst out laughing, horrified and amused all at once. There was no sense in denying anything, not with that farewell kiss in plain view. “He's something, all right.” She fanned her hot face. “And he's also a heartbreaker.”

“A good man and a heartbreaker? That's a lethal combination.”

“Which is why I've stayed away.”

“Until now.”

She laughed. “Oh, nothing's going to come of it. I'm sure of that.” Todd might have shown some interest in the last twenty-four hours, but he'd avoided her plenty in the decade or so they'd been of dating age. This was probably nothing more than a game to him. A flirtation, to use an old-fashioned term. “Now let's get dinner on the table. Gino's cooking is amazing.”

The evening passed quickly, and by eleven Lainey retired to her quarters again. But this time it was different. Tonight she could see Todd there, sitting on her sofa, kissing her by the fire, the light of the flames flickering in the amber whiskey in his glass.

She let out a sigh. The stupid thing was that one night was all it took for him to invade her thoughts and fantasies.

He was right about one thing, though. All through dinner tonight she'd heard the guests talking about their holiday plans, and then they'd gathered in the parlor next to the Christmas tree and watched
It's a Wonderful Life
on TV. She'd thought about her little house, naked of all Christmas decorations and cheer. It was lonely. But she still couldn't get herself in the mood to celebrate. What was the point? She was alone anyway. And while Todd had said he'd call, he hadn't reissued his invitation to dinner. He'd kissed her cheek, not her lips—and walked away.

She'd be foolish to get her hopes up. She'd leave the decorations right where they were—in her storage closet. There was no sense setting herself up for another disappointment.

Chapter Five

Todd skirted around the inn and went to the back, his hands clutched tightly around the waxy paper covering the poinsettia he'd bought. After witnessing the lack of Christmas cheer in Lainey's cottage the other day, he'd realized that what she needed was a good old injection of holiday spirit. Today was his last day off until after Christmas, and he'd decided to spend it with her.

If she said yes, of course.

It was cold out, and had been since the storm front had cleared. The wind off the sea was bitter and harsh, and Todd's breath made big puffs in the air as he paused in front of her door. Swallowing hard, he lifted his hand and knocked, then took a step back. Maybe if he took a deep breath he'd find his confidence again. The last thing he wanted was for Lainey to know how nervous he was. He still couldn't believe how honest he'd been with her over breakfast the other day. But that was Lainey. She was kind and nurturing and easy to be with, and before you knew it you were sharing things.

She opened the door and his breath caught. She looked beautiful, in a simple pair of dark-wash jeans and a slouchy sweater that somehow made her seem feminine, comfortable, and still incredibly sexy.

“Todd,” she said, her breath forming a cloud in the air. “This is a surprise.”

“May I come in? I brought you something.” He held out his hands.

“A poinsettia?” She reached for it and stood back, making room for him to enter the cottage.

Right. Poinsettias. That's what they were called. “Do you like it?”

“Of course I do. Thank you.” She took it to her small table and began peeling off the florist paper. Bright red blooms appeared, and she placed the pot in the center of the table.

“Are all your guests gone until after the holiday?” he asked. He hoped the answer was yes. She'd said that she was done with bookings on the twenty-third. That was today. Nerves threatened again, and he shoved his hands in his jacket pockets.

“The last one checked out about thirty minutes ago. A good thing, too. My pantry needs replenishing.” She folded the paper and fussed with it a bit, keeping her hands occupied. “Was there something you wanted?”

he thought, but he smiled instead. “Well, seeing as it's almost Christmas, and there's not a lick of holiday cheer around here, I came to kidnap you for a day of merrymaking.”

She frowned. Damn. Maybe that had been too much.

“Todd, about Christmas…”

Refusal tainted her voice, but he pushed forward. “Yeah, I know. What's-his-name wrecked it for you. I'm here to help you get it back.”

“What if I don't want it back?” She stood back, put her hands on her hips. A little wrinkle formed between her brows. It was adorable.

“Of course you want it back. No one really wants to feel grouchy and Scroogy. You just don't know how to move past it.” He held out his hands. “That's where I come in.”

“You,” she said, and he heard the doubt in her voice.

“Me,” he confirmed. “I'll be like your Christmas angel. Or Santa. Or something.”

“More like the Ghost of Christmas Annoying,” she muttered.

He chuckled. “Oh my God. She cracked a Christmas joke.” And he was gratified when her lips twitched just the slightest bit. “Come on, Lainey. What else are you doing today? I'm off shift until tomorrow, and you don't have any guests, and we can spend the day together.”

She hesitated. That was a good sign.

“I'm just going to be sitting home alone on my day off anyway,” he said, shrugging. “Why shouldn't we enjoy the day?”

“No strings?”

He swallowed thickly. Raised his right hand. “No strings,” he affirmed. There wouldn't be. He didn't expect anything from her in return. That wasn't how he operated. Then again, no strings simply meant he didn't expect anything. If something were to happen, he'd be more than happy to go along with it. “We can call it spending the day with a friend,” he suggested.

When she didn't answer right away, he sensed she was on the verge of saying no. “Lainey,” he said quietly, “it's December twenty-third. I work most of the holiday. Don't make me spend today by myself.”

She let out a small laugh, her eyes warming. “Todd, you could spend the day with any number of people.”

“But I want to share it with you,” he replied, holding her gaze.

The moment spun out.

“I don't have any presents to buy or anything,” she said, turning away. “I already took my presents over to my parents' place.”

“Then treat yourself.” He stepped toward her and put his hand on her arm. “We can go to Treasures and you can see Jess and pick up some things for the inn. Or to Bubbles for some pampering bath products. The bookstore is bound to have deals … and we'll go to lunch somewhere.” He squeezed her forearm gently. “You probably didn't even go to the Evergreen Festival, did you? Or the Christmas tree lighting? The tree in the square is really something this year.”

She shook her head. “I had a house full of guests.”

He slid his hand down her arm and linked his fingers with hers. “Spend the day with me. If we get halfway through and you want to come home, I'll bring you. Just give it a chance.”

Her gaze met his, and the air between them seemed suddenly heavy and charged. The attraction was still there, pulsing beneath what neither of them was saying. He hadn't been able to stop thinking about her and right now had the overwhelming urge to kiss her, to pick up where they'd left off the other night. But he figured that would scare her off, so he tamped down the need that had flared up and focused on the initial agenda.

“Shortbread,” he whispered. “Main Street Bakery's chocolate shortbread. If that doesn't convince you, it's a lost cause.”

She smiled at him. “Well played, Ricker. Well played. All right, you win. I'll put on a jacket and we'll go into town and do something holiday-ish. But only because the alternative is cleaning and I've done enough of that this week to last a month.”

He'd won. As Lainey went to retrieve her jacket and boots, Todd felt … excited. There was no other way to describe the light, happy sensation coursing through him. He watched her tuck her hair beneath a slouchy sort of hat and considered. Maybe he'd been looking for someone like Lainey for a long time. Kind, funny, and steady. A woman sure of herself and her abilities. He admired that sort of confidence, and as she shoved her wallet into a canvas bag, he swallowed tightly.

This wasn't like other dates or girls. This was different because it was grown-up. They were grown-up.

It was scary as hell.

*   *   *

Lainey tucked her hands into thick knitted mittens and tried to ignore the delicious butterflies in her stomach. They'd been dancing around in there ever since she'd opened the door and found Todd on the step holding that poinsettia.

She'd done so well avoiding the holiday. She really wasn't in the mood for all the hoopla, but she'd discovered something else once her guests were gone.

The quiet gave her too much time to think. But the alternative was being inundated with Christmas messages everywhere she turned. The radio played carols and the television aired holiday specials. Even the regular programming was punctuated with ads for the latest toys, long-distance connections, and adorable puppies with big bows under the tree on Christmas morning. But shutting off all media left her sitting in the silence, replaying last year's … well, the only way she could describe it was a total shit-show.

Todd was a welcome distraction. Not that she'd tell him that. And the idea of browsing around town and having some hot chocolate and shortbread was a decent alternative to wallowing in regret.

“I'm ready.” She grinned up at him and ignored the excited thump of her heart. “Let's go.”

They left his truck at the inn and walked down the hill to Main Street. The wind off the harbor was brisk and raw, but to Lainey it was invigorating. Todd's cheeks were ruddy with cold, and she caught a glimpse of frost on the tips of his lashes where his eyes had watered. It was strangely attractive, but then he was extraordinarily good looking. It used to be he knew it and used it. That cockiness had tempered over the years, mellowing into quiet confidence.

Okay, maybe this had been a mistake. She was being downright silly over him now and they'd agreed today was about being Just Friends.

They hit the bakery first, as promised, and Todd purchased a dozen chocolate shortbread bites. Then they stopped for two hot chocolates to go and sat on a bench on the waterfront, cradling paper cups in their hands, sipping and munching. Neither said much; it was a strange and nice thing that they could sit together in silence and be comfortable. Until they reached for a cookie from the bag at the same time, and their fingers met. Then their gazes did, too, and Lainey felt a blush creep up her cheeks.

“Ladies first,” he said softly, withdrawing his hand.

She reached in and withdrew a quarter-sized cookie dipped in chocolate glaze and crushed candy cane bits. She held it out. “It's a mint one. Do you want it?”

BOOK: Christmas at Evergreen Inn
8.04Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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