Authors: Cindy Kirk
He grinned and she went warm all over.
“Your cookies were a hit.”
“They were, weren’t they?” She gave a satisfied nod. “We’ll—I mean
—have to consider serving treats again next year.”
If he noticed her almost faux pas, it didn’t show. He took her hand and tugged her to the parlor, the sweet scent of roses even more apparent with the house empty.
When they reached the sectional, Ami dropped down and slipped off her shoes. She wiggled her toes and sighed with pleasure. “Now the party can really begin.”
“Your wish is my command.” Beck returned moments later with a bottle of wine and two glasses. “You look comfortable.”
“Removing the shoes helped,” she told him, taking the glass he offered. “But these dresses are heavier—and more restrictive—than they look.”
“I’ve got the solution. Take it off.”
His innocent expression didn’t fool her.
She tapped her temple with her index finger. “You’re always thinking.”
Beck grinned. “About some things, anyway.”
After removing his coat and laying it across the top of a nearby chair, he settled beside her on the sofa. “I’m glad the house is ours again.”
Ami tamped down the surge of pleasure and reminded herself that, regardless of what he said, they both knew this was
“My sister stopped by.” Realizing her throat was parched from so much talking, Ami took another sip of wine. “I didn’t get a chance to ask if she’d introduced herself to you.”
Beck shook his head. “Which one?”
“Marigold. The youngest.”
“The hair stylist. From Chicago.”
“That’s her. Perky, charming, and gorgeous as ever.” Ami smiled. “Things have been so hectic I forgot she was hoping to arrive early.”
“Do you need to leave?” Beck asked. “I can easily wrap those last few gifts before Floyd swings by to pick them up tomorrow.”
“Marigold won’t be around anyway.” Ami waved a dismissive hand. “She came early to attend a friend’s wedding.”
“Was the wedding this evening?”
“It’s tomorrow.” Ami wiggled her toes a few more times. “The bride is having a party at her home in Egg Harbor tonight. Since she’s here, I assume Marigold will be doing the bridal party hair.”
“Hopefully I’ll have a chance to meet her while she’s in town.”
Ami shot him a glance under lowered lashes. “If you come for Christmas lunch, you can meet
“I appreciate the invitation.” Beck pulled her close, and with a contented sigh, Ami rested her head against his chest. “But Christmas dinner at the café is taking on a life of its own. I never realized there were so many people who spent the holidays alone.”
“I wish I could join you.”
“You have your family.”
You feel like my family.
“Then you’re just going to have to make time to come to my father’s open house on Tuesday.”
“I’m not sure I’ll be able to get away from the café.”
“It’s an open house,” she said pointedly. “From four to eight. Drop in for five minutes. Cory and Jackie will be there.”
Beck smiled. “I saw them tonight.”
Ami’s eyes turned misty. “That anonymous gift changed their lives, and the lives of their kids.”
Beck splashed more wine into his glass, then looked up at her. “That’s seems a bit of an exaggeration.”
Something in his eyes had Ami’s Spidey senses tingling.
“It was you.” She straightened so quickly wine in her glass sloshed. “
made the donation.”
He hesitated. Then, as if realizing it would be pointless to deny it, he shrugged. “It was nothing.”
“I disagree.” Her voice rose and cracked. “You gave them a second chance.”
“I caught them up on their mortgage. That’s all.”
She took his hand, gave it a squeeze, her heart overflowing with love. “I’m so proud of you.”
Beck shook his head, looking baffled by the praise. “I just wanted them to be able to stay in their home.”
They sat silently staring into the fire for a long moment, lost in thought.
“Never alone,” Ami murmured.
“What did you say?” His soft words lulled her into responding.
“It was something my mother told me once.” Ami set her glass of wine aside. “That when you’re surrounded by people you love, you have the strength to face anything.”
Beck stilled. When Lisette had died, his family and friends had rallied around him. He’d still felt alone, as if he were an island surrounded by stormy seas. Any effort to bring him comfort didn’t, couldn’t, reach him. “Do you believe that?”
“I do believe it.” Ami met his gaze. “But only if you let people in. There was a time when I tried to shut out the support and the love. If you ever met my mother, you’d know no one shuts out Sarah Bloom for long.”
“When the pain is intense, it’s easy to shut out everything and everyone.”
“Is that what you did when your wife died?”
There were a dozen ways Beck could have responded to the question that would answer it without saying anything at all. Ami deserved better than pat answers.
“Lisette’s death came out of the blue.”
He abruptly straightened, and suddenly his arm was no longer around her. Yet when she reached over and grasped his hand, he didn’t pull away.
“You said it was a car accident.”
“I was heading into court when I got the call.” His fingers tightened around hers. “They said my wife had been in an accident. An ambulance had taken her to the local hospital.”
Ami said nothing.
His breathing turned shallow.
“She’d died at the scene but they didn’t want to tell me.” He gave a humorless laugh. “Didn’t want me having that in my head on my way to the hospital. Instead I raced there, hoping to comfort her. She was already dead. She’d been gone when they’d called.”
The pain in his voice had her wanting to hold him tight and never let go. Instead, Ami kept her voice calm and her gaze level. “I can’t imagine what that was like for you.”
“Imagine the worst day of your life, then multiply it by ten.” He set down his glass of wine and pinched the bridge of his nose. “I don’t know why I’m telling you all this. It’s in the past.”
“She’s part of you. She always will be.”
“Lisette was pregnant. I don’t think I told you that before. Actually, I know I didn’t. Even now, it’s painful to speak about.”
“How far along was she?”
“Seven months. A baby boy.” He swallowed once, then again, his hand gripping hers so tightly it hurt. Then abruptly he released her and picked up the glass, downing the rest of the contents in one gulp. “It was a woman who killed her. She was a marketing exec, heading back to work after downing a couple of margaritas at lunch. Minor injuries for her.”
Tears leaked from Ami’s eyes and slipped down her cheeks. “I’m so sorry.”
“It’s not your fault,” he said in a flat tone. “It’s mine.”
Startled, Ami swiped at her eyes. “How do you figure?”
“Because I was the attorney who’d gone all out to make sure she didn’t lose her license after a previous DUI.”
Ami opened her eyes before the sun had a chance to rise in the sky, her heart overflowing with love for the man who slept beside her. The fact that Beck had shared something so intensely personal with her last night told her he trusted her fully.
His face looked so peaceful in sleep, but her heart ached for the loss he’d suffered and the pain and guilt he still carried. She couldn’t imagine what it had been like for him to not only lose his wife but his baby, too; a little boy who would never have the chance to laugh or cry or love the father who’d already loved him.
Ami blinked back sudden tears.
She’d gone numb when she’d heard the driver had been a woman who’d been drinking. It was clear he hadn’t forgiven the woman, nor himself for defending her and getting her earlier DUI charge reduced to reckless driving.
Ami wished she could tell Beck how much it had meant to her when Lindsay forgave her. But she’d remained silent, knowing Beck didn’t intend to forgive the woman. He’d later admitted she’d written him several times, apologizing and asking for his forgiveness.
What had Beck said . . . sometimes sorry isn’t enough?
That one comment told Ami he’d never see himself having a future with someone like her. In fact, he’d probably hate himself for ever getting involved with her.
That thought had been pinging around in her brain when Beck had begun to unbutton her dress with a desperation that told her he wanted to forget everything that had happened in the past and everything he’d just told her and lose himself in the moment.
She could have refused him. Perhaps
have refused him. But she loved Beck. If she couldn’t have him for eternity, she would give him comfort and hold him close one last time.
Later that morning, after he and Ami had eaten and she’d helped him wrap the last of the presents, Ami announced she needed to get to the café for the Saturday rush. Normally he’d have been disappointed she had to hurry off. This time, Beck felt only relief.
“I’m going to hang around here and catch up on some paperwork.” He walked her to the door and couldn’t resist brushing a kiss across her lips. “I’ll see you soon.”
The fact that her smile seemed hesitant didn’t surprise him. He’d laid a lot on her last night.
Once he closed the door, Beck returned to the kitchen and poured himself another cup of coffee. He took it with him to the parlor and sat for several minutes in silence, staring at the festively decorated tree.
While Beck hadn’t lied—he did have paperwork demanding his attention—the truth was he needed to regroup. He’d bared his soul to Ami last night.
It was no longer possible to deny how important she was to him.
Oddly, sharing what had happened—and his guilt over his part—had been cathartic.
When she’d spoken of her mother, he’d thought of his parents and brothers and the way he’d shut them out. Little doors closing one at a time until he stood alone, isolated, determined to fight his grief alone.
Ami had reminded him it didn’t have to be that way.
Beck pulled his phone from his pocket. Before he could change his mind, he pressed a familiar key.
“Cross residence.” The feminine voice, with its soft southern drawl, soothed a raw place deep inside him.
“Mom. It’s Beck. I wanted to wish you a merry Christmas. I realize it’s early, but I know you’ll be busy so—”
“JW, your son is on the phone,” his mother called out, interrupting him. The joy in her voice had guilt sluicing through his veins. “Pick up the other line.”
“I thought Dad would be at the courthouse.”
“It’s Saturday.” His mother gave a little laugh. “But you’ll be pleased to know the old workhorse not only took last week off, he’s taking the upcoming week as well. Anders is spending two weeks with us. Elliott and his family arrived last night. Jefferson, well, that little boy has his granddad wrapped around his little finger.”
His mother’s chatter abruptly ceased.
Jefferson and Beck’s son had been due within weeks of each other. Since the accident, the family had tacitly agreed to avoid speaking of the boy in Beck’s presence.
“If he’s like Elliott, I bet he’s into everything.” Beck kept his tone light. To his surprise, he found he could speak of his nephew without being overwhelmed by his own grief.
“He’s very precocious,” Margot said hesitantly, “and extremely active.”
“James,” his father’s voice boomed over the phone. While in the past Beck had reserved James for his professional life, his father insisted on using his legal name at home also. “Good to hear from you, son. How’s life in the frozen tundra? Do you have snow on the ground?”
Beck laughed and relaxed his grip around the phone. “It’s December. In northern Wisconsin. Of course there’s snow on the ground.”
“Are you ready to come home?” The hopeful edge to his mother’s question came through loud and clear. “Move back to the civilized South?”
“I’m going to stay.” Without him knowing exactly when it had happened, this town, this part of the country, had ceased being an escape and become his home.
“How’s the restaurant business?” his father asked.
“It’s doing well. This is a busy time.” He went on to tell them about the Twelve Nights events and the tour of homes. Before he knew it, he was telling them about the Giving Tree and Cory and Jackie. “Neighbors helping neighbors.”
“Sounds like a nice place,” his mother said.
“You should all come up and visit this summer,” Beck urged. “The Fourth of July celebration is huge. You’ll be impressed.”
“You want us to come?”
Beck understood the hesitation in his mother’s voice. He’d made it clear when he relocated that he wanted—no, needed—to be left alone.
“I’d like all of you to come. You and dad, Elliott and his family, and Anders.” Saying the words felt right, and he could almost feel Ami beside him, cheering him on. “I have a big house. There’s more than enough room for all of you.”
“That would be nice. I—” When his mother’s voice broke, his father stepped in.
“We’ll make it work.” His dad spoke in the same authoritative tone he used when rendering judgments from the bench. “My son, the restaurateur. I never thought when you graduated from law school summa cum laude, you’d end up running a café.”
Though his father had tried to stay out of the decisions Beck had made after the accident, he knew it bothered the judge that he’d turned away from the practice of law.
“I had the chance the other day to make use of my law degree.” Beck briefly explained the situation with Dakota. “I didn’t end up doing anything except offering advice. It felt good to help someone.”
“I’m so happy, Beck.” His mother’s voice was thick with emotion.
His father cleared his throat. “I’m proud of you, son.”
Beck could have ended the conversation there and everyone would have been happy. Except he had more to say. Now that he could see more clearly what he had done, how he had hurt the ones he loved, he had to address the issue.
“I’m sorry I pushed you away when all you wanted to do was help.” This time it was Beck’s turn to clear his throat. “We’re a family. I realize now that I didn’t lose everything when Lisette and the baby died. I still had you.”
“You’ll always have us.” His mother’s soft southern drawl was like a caress.
“Darn right,” the judge added in a gruff voice. “We’ll be up to see your new place in the summer. You can count on it.”
He could count on it, he realized, and count on them. They’d always been there and
always be there for him.
By the time Beck hung up, the heavy weight he’d been carrying around for nearly two years had lifted. When he pushed back the curtain of the parlor window, it seemed fitting that the gloomy skies had cleared and the sun had started to peek out on a new day.
The Saturday dinner rush at Muddy Boots ended early. After ingesting a quick meal of Salisbury steak with wild mushroom gravy and smashed potatoes with garlic, most patrons headed outside to watch the Snow Blade Parade. Ami and Beck had just finished their meal when Joe Lyle, a local fisherman, entered the café.
He stood just inside the doorway for several seconds, glancing around the near-empty café. He was a tall man with an Abe Lincoln build and a short-cropped beard. His clothes were pure Door County fisherman: coveralls and strap trousers, an insulated jacket as slick as any duck’s feathers.
Ami knew Joe through his daughter, who’d been one of Prim’s friends back in high school.
“Mr. Lyle.” Ami rose from her seat at the table and Beck did the same. “It’s good to see you again. How’s Emily?”
“Why if it isn’t Amaryllis Bloom.” Some of the tension in Joe’s face eased and he smiled. “Emmy is good, living in Madison, expecting her first baby any day. Wife and I are planning to spend Christmas with her.”
“Give her my congratulations. It’s too bad she isn’t coming here. Prim will be back for Christmas and I know she’d love to see her.” Ami turned. “Do you know Beckett Cross?”
Without pausing for an answer, she introduced Joe to Beck. The two men exchanged greetings.
Ami noticed Joe seemed uncharacteristically nervous, shifting from one foot to the other, his gaze darting around the café.
Joe shoved his hands into his pockets. “Looks like business is slow.”
Beck laughed. “We shut down early, figuring most of the patrons who hadn’t already been in to eat are probably at the soup supper First Christian is putting on in the town hall.”
“I can rustle you up some Salisbury steak if you’re hungry,” Ami offered, stepping away from her chair.
“Actually.” Joe rubbed his chin and, once again, shifted from one foot to the other. “I stopped by hoping to have a few words in private with Mr. Cross.”
While surprised, Ami quickly rallied. “Your timing couldn’t be more perfect. I was just getting ready to clean up the dining room and shut down the kitchen. You can keep Beck company while he finishes his coffee. May I get you a cup?”
She took the man’s noncommittal shrug as assent and moved behind the counter to pour him a mug. “Cream or sugar?”
Once she’d set the cup down, Ami turned and began to slowly bus a nearby table, hoping to discover just what business Joe Lyle had with Beck.