Christmas at Evergreen Inn (8 page)

BOOK: Christmas at Evergreen Inn
9.79Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

He smiled at her. “It's yours.”

Lainey peered inside the bag. “It's the last candy cane one. Are you sure?” She held it out again.

He took it from her fingers, took a bite, and held out the other half for her. “Fifty–fifty,” he said quietly, holding the morsel to her lips.

She swallowed nervously, opened her mouth, and let him feed it to her. Half a cookie. Hardly romantic, and yet the act was oddly intimate and … yes, arousing. There was a heat in his eyes he couldn't quite disguise, made more potent by the fact that he didn't press his case. He was patient. He was keeping his word. And it made her want him even more that she already had. She clenched her hands together in her lap to keep from reaching out for him. They were in public, for heaven's sake. Whatever incendiary thing had happened the other night couldn't happen again.

If she said it enough, maybe she'd believe it.

He reached out and brushed a crumb off her lips with his thumb. She thought she might spontaneously combust.

Instead she balled up the paper bag and got up, pasting on a smile. “So what's next?”

“Whatever you'd like,” he replied, pulling his hat down over his ears a bit more. “It's your day.”

What she was thinking wasn't exactly PG-friendly, so she looked around, searching for a shop that might pique her interest. The Three Fishermen gallery was open right next to the edge of the wharf, with a beautiful tree on the front porch. The bookstore was across the street, the front bay window decorated with lights and a tree fashioned from stacked books. Up one street stood the big purple building that was Treasures, where crafters and tourists alike found unique local items and supplies for homey touches. She shopped there often, looking for things to use at the inn. It called to her the most, so she turned to Todd and said, “Let's pop into Treasures.”

They turned their backs on the wind coming off the water, passed the tree in Memorial Square, and laughed at how someone had looped a huge wreath around the neck of the statue of Edward Jewell. Gulls circled overhead, their cries thin in the bitter air, but Lainey was oddly warm. A snowbank blocked access to the sidewalk, so Todd held out his hand to help her over. She could have done it easily on her own; the bank was only a couple of feet high. But she put her hand in his anyway, and felt his fingers squeeze hers through their heavy gloves. Once they were on the concrete sidewalk, he let go. The gloves were so thick that holding hands was awkward, but Lainey couldn't erase the feeling of her hand in his.

Treasures was warm, welcoming, and smelled of cinnamon and pine. Instrumental Christmas carols played in the background and Lainey saw Jess Sullivan wrapping a parcel behind the counter, her smile wide and eyes twinkling. Her husband, Rick, was there, too, holding their little boy in his arms. The baby was too young to get into much trouble, but he was wearing adorable tiny jeans and a fleecy sweater with little red and blue snowmen all over it. As she watched, Rick absently pressed a kiss to his son's head.

She swallowed against a lump in her throat. There was something about men with babies. And babies were something she hadn't let herself think about much over the last year.

“Wow. Look at all the stuff in here.”

She was diverted by Todd's voice, and she forced herself to turn and look up at him. “Sorry?”

“Are you okay? You got a strange look on your face all of a sudden.”

“I'm fine. Let's browse.”

They split up, and Lainey was glad. Her heart was hurting a little right now. All it had taken was one look at a baby and her ruined dreams came rushing back. She and Jason had had plans, dammit. They'd be married a couple of years and then start a family, when they could afford for Lainey to hire an on-site manager for the inn. Everything had been discussed, planned, dreamed about.

He'd ruined more than Christmas for her, and she was tired of it.

A display shelf held handmade Christmas ornaments, glass balls delicately painted with holiday scenes and symbols. Poinsettias, like the one Todd had brought her this morning, holly and berries, ribbons and bells and packages all painstakingly crafted on the smooth surface. The shelf had a small string of LED lights along the back, so that the paint colors popped. Her favorites, though, were the town scenes. She knew Rick painted all these by hand and she marveled at his talent at re-creating the wildness of the ocean next to the lighthouse at Refuge Point, snow falling over the Jewell Cove marina and, to her surprise, the Evergreen Inn. It was stunning, the depiction of the inn absolutely perfect, down to the brick-red color of the siding and the wreath on the door.

She put her hand on it, prepared to buy it, when she realized she didn't have a tree to put it on. Oh, there was the one in the inn, but no one would see that now that she was closed until after Christmas morning.

“Rick has a lot of talent,” Todd said from behind her shoulder. “Did you know he did ornaments featuring the inn?”

“No,” she replied, shivering at the nearness of him. She could feel the warmth of his breath fluttering on the fine hairs along the back of her neck, just below the ribbing of her hat. “It's beautiful.”

“You should buy it.”

“I was just thinking the same thing.” She smiled as she looked up into his eyes, and felt herself tumbling, just a little. There was understanding behind the dark depths, as if he recognized she was making an effort. When his lips curved up a little, she suddenly didn't feel like skipping out on Christmas anymore. The problem hadn't been the holiday, she realized. It had been being alone. Last year she'd been hurt and it had been terrible and inconvenient and humiliating, but what she remembered most was being alone.

But Todd was here now. They didn't have to take things fast, but he'd forced her out of her self-imposed Grinchy Mount Crumpet. Why should she turn her back on the whole season? Why should she let something bad have that much power over her life?

Standing in the middle of the cozy store was an odd place to have such an epiphany. It was as if a weight had suddenly been lifted off her shoulders. Maybe the problem hadn't been Jason. Maybe it was that she'd tried to get through the memories by boycotting the holiday. Now she realized the best way might be to actually immerse herself in it.

“I'll buy it on one condition.”

“And that is?”

She picked up the ornament and dangled it from her finger by the satin ribbon loop. “If I buy an ornament, I need a tree to put it on. And I might need some help putting up said tree.”

“Does this mean you're actually getting some Christmas spirit?”

She raised an eyebrow. “I think what you're asking is if your little ploy worked.”

His grin widened.

“Shut up,” she advised, winking at him. “Okay. You win. Hot chocolate, shortbread, and hand-painted ornaments. God, I'm so weak.”

“Not weak. You just needed some incentive.” He'd taken off his gloves and his hand rested on her jacket sleeve. “It's going to get better from here on in, you know.”

Was it such a bad thing that she was starting to believe him? Getting involved with someone—trusting someone—was scary. She'd really been burned. And yet, for the first time in months, she had the desire to try. To take a risk, even one as small as putting up a Christmas tree and opening herself up to feeling again. Excitement and anticipation—two things she hadn't thought she'd have this season—started to fizz through her veins.

“The fact that I believe you is kind of huge,” she said. “And I think I'd like to pick up a few more things, if you don't mind.”

“By all means. I wouldn't dream of standing in the way of holiday spirit.”

To her surprise, Todd left her alone to shop. He went to talk to Rick for a while, and she browsed the shelves, picking up small items but glancing over at him frequently. Their earlier proximity to each other had fanned the embers of attraction, but now he was giving her space and instead of cooling the fire, it only stoked it further. She couldn't stop looking at him. Even as she chose some holiday candles and a table runner, she was aware of where he was, the twinkle that always seemed present in his dark eyes, the way his lips curved up in a smile, which was most of the time.

Damn. Todd Ricker was one of the most positive people she'd ever met. She needed more of that in her life.

Maybe what she needed was more of him.

When she'd finished her purchases, they both pulled on their mittens and headed back to her cottage behind the inn. Todd shut the door behind them and pulled off his hat, leaving his dark hair in cute little spikes. She pulled off hers and got the feeling it was standing up all over from static.

“You need a tree,” he observed as she put her shopping bag down on a chair.

“I have one. It's a bit late to get a decent real one anyway. I have a pre-lit seven-footer in my storage closet.”

“Well, it's better than no tree.” Todd grinned. “I mean, just getting you to put one up is a major thing.”

“You're going to stay to help, aren't you?”

He was still wearing his coat and boots. Lainey had taken hers off and hung them up, but it occurred to her that Todd wasn't taking anything for granted. He was waiting for an invitation.

“If you want me to.”

She went over to him and peered up into his face. Oh, she wanted him to. Wanted him to do more than help decorate her tree. “You dragged me into this,” she teased. “You're not getting out of it that easily.”

He grinned in response and unzipped his jacket. “Yes, ma'am,” he answered.

They spent the next hour putting up the tree, adding garland in big swoops, and then hanging ornaments, including the one they'd bought at Treasures. Time and again their fingers brushed and their gazes caught, but neither made a move. Not yet. Though Lainey was pretty sure they were both thinking about it.

When the tree was done, it was four o'clock and Lainey's stomach was rumbling. She stood back and looked at their handiwork, and once again felt the fizz of excitement. On impulse, she dashed to the bedroom and grabbed the few presents she had from her folks. She put them under the tree and felt better. At least there'd be something for Christmas morning.

“Are you hungry?” she asked him. “I could fix us something. We really didn't have lunch, other than cookies.”

“I have a better idea.” Todd's gaze met hers. “Let's go out to dinner. You can put on a dress and we'll drive to Freeport and make it a date.”

A few days ago she would have said no. She'd told him that she wasn't interested in dating or starting anything, and she'd believed it was true. But something had changed between then and now. Maybe it was that he'd known what she needed, even though she hadn't. Or the easy way he'd teased her, or how simple it was to just be with him. Whatever it was, she didn't want the day to end. And the idea of a real honest-to-goodness date with him sounded magical.

It had been a magical day, after all. Who was she to break the spell?

“Give me a few minutes to change?” she asked. “I won't take long.”

“Take all the time you need,” he replied, looking at her with an intensity that made her toes curl a little. “I'm not going anywhere.”

As she dashed into the bedroom to find the perfect dress, she realized that she believed him.

She came back carrying a clutch and a long coat draped over her arm. The look on his face when he saw her favorite little black dress did more for her feminine ego than anything else had in the last year. Wordlessly, he stepped forward and helped her slip her arms into the coat, resting his hands on her shoulders for a fleeting second. Then she reached back to take her hair out from beneath the collar and the quiet, intimate moment passed.

He took her elbow as they went down the walk, and he made sure she was inside his SUV safe and sound before shutting the door. Once inside, he checked to ensure the heat was blowing on her feet before setting out. It had been so long since she'd experienced such attention and gallantry. The day together had already been special. But this was different. This was taking it to another level. Earlier it had been about comfort and ease. Now it was …

She swallowed, pressed a hand to her stomach. It was romance, pure and simple. She knew deep down she should be afraid of too much involvement, but being wooed was too exciting to worry about the why-nots.

It was already dark. Only two days past the solstice, the days were short. He had satellite radio in the car, and in keeping with the day he pressed a button so that Christmas classics came over the speakers. The music filled the expectant silence as they headed through Jewell Cove and toward the highway.

Chapter Six

Lainey tried to relax against the back of the truck seat, but she could still feel the light pressure of Todd's hands on her shoulders when he'd helped her on with her coat. The tension had been so thick back at her place she could have cut it with a knife, but it hadn't been a bad sort of tension. Oh no. It had been the delicious, anticipatory kind. For a second she'd thought he was going to take a step forward and kiss her, but he hadn't. She couldn't decide if she was relieved or disappointed.

“When are you back at work?” she asked, trying to break up her thoughts, too, before she got carried away.

“Tomorrow night until Boxing Day. Tomorrow I'll work four until midnight, and then Christmas Day until six. Bryce'll be able to be home with Mary and the kids for Christmas Eve and Christmas morning.”

“That's really good of you.”

“It's no big deal. My folks are waiting to have Christmas dinner around seven, so everyone is there.” He looked over at her briefly. “You know my sister, Emma? She's home with her husband and their baby. Mom and Dad will be plenty busy on the day.”

He merged onto the highway, checking his blind spot. “What about you? What are your plans?”

BOOK: Christmas at Evergreen Inn
9.79Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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