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Authors: Stella MacLean

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The Christmas Inn

BOOK: The Christmas Inn
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There’s room at the inn…but maybe not for long!

As a favor to her brother, Marnie McLaughlan has agreed to
spend Christmas at the lovely Mirabel Inn—as a mystery guest. But Marnie knows
this favor is bound to be complicated because the owners need a confidential
report
immediately.
Marnie’s impressions could
affect their decision to sell.

From the outset, the inn is not what she expects…and neither
is the manager, Luke Harrison. She quickly develops a rapport with this very
attractive widower and his adorable little boy. He knows something is up, yet
she can’t tell him that the inn—which is home to Luke and his son—is in danger.
Marnie’s torn between her obligation to her brother and her growing love for
Luke. Fortunately, things have a way of working out at Christmas!

Luke sat at his desk, staring at Marnie McLaughlan’s
reservation

It was made out to a Mr. and Mrs. Scott McLaughlan, and yet
she’d shown up here alone…and without a wedding ring. Where was Mr. McLaughlan?
Amanda at the front desk said he’d been very friendly on the phone and so
disappointed when they didn’t have a vacancy that she’d offered him the room on
the top floor. But why hadn’t he arrived with Marnie if he was so anxious to
come here?

Luke tapped the desk, his mind running over the
possibilities.

His concerns aside, he’d been surprised to find his son,
Ethan, hanging off the woman’s leg when he got to the front of the house, but
she seemed to take it in stride. What could have been an embarrassing situation
had turned into a pleasant interlude with a beautiful woman. And with her
heart-shaped face framed by dark curls and her well-toned body, Marnie
McLaughlan was gorgeous and sexy….

Her husband probably planned to arrive later, a simple enough
explanation, and Luke hadn’t given her much opportunity to explain why they
hadn’t arrived together. He would simply come up with a diplomatic way to find
out when her husband was going to join her. It was essential that there be no
disruptions during the inn’s Christmas event for couples, and a woman as
beautiful as Marnie McLaughlan could prove to be a
serious
disruption…

Dear Reader,

Christmas is my favorite time of year. I love nothing better
than to root around in my dozens of boxes of Christmas decorations, digging out
all the ornaments, lights, wreaths and mantel decorations needed for every room.
Each year my husband and I decorate two fir trees in our home, simply to be able
to breathe in the scent unique to evergreens. Christmas for me is both a happy
time with my family and also a sad time, as I recall one very lonely Christmas
during which I spent hours caring for my sister Elizabeth as she made her
graceful exit from this world.

This book is also based on my experience as a mystery guest
for a hotel chain near my hometown. Being a mystery guest is a lot like living
in a parallel universe, as you will see in
The Christmas
Inn
.

But most of all, this story is about a man who’s surrounded
by a self-made wall of loneliness and the inability to forgive, and a woman who
has to overcome her fear of rejection to find that common ground called
love.

I believe that inside each of us is a Luke or a Marnie
waiting to be rescued from our insecurities and fears to find the one person who
makes life truly worthwhile.

Please enjoy
The Christmas Inn,
and
stay in touch by visiting my website,
www.stellamaclean.com
.

Thank you, and may your Christmas season be filled with love,
hope and the spirit of giving.

Sincerely,
Stella MacLean

The Christmas Inn

Stella MacLean

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Stella MacLean has spent her life collecting story ideas,
waiting for the day someone would want to read about the characters who have
lurked in her heart and mind for so many years. Stella’s love of reading and
writing began in grade school and has continued to play a major role in her
life. A longtime member of Romance Writers of America and a Golden Heart
finalist, Stella enjoys the hours she spends tucked away in her office with her
Maine coon cat, Emma Jean, and her imaginary friends while writing stories about
love, life and happiness.

Books by Stella MacLean

HARLEQUIN SUPERROMANCE

1487—HEART OF MY HEART
1553—BABY IN HER
ARMS
1655—A CHILD CHANGES EVERYTHING

Other titles by this author available in ebook format.

This book is dedicated to all those people who serve the public
as members of the hospitality industry. Thank you for being there and making the
lives of people like me more enjoyable.

And thank you to Sharon Allaby, friend, reader and fabulous
cook.

CHAPTER ONE

E
LEVEN
DAYS
UNTIL
C
HRISTMAS
and Marnie
McLaughlan hadn’t finished her shopping, but that was the least of her worries.
She eased open the back door of the salon. The only sounds were the comforting
hum of the refrigerator in the staff room and the clacking of a keyboard in the
office to her right. She waited for the familiar click telling her the door had
locked behind her before she headed for the office.

This was the day she’d wished for and worried over.

She was about to sell her half interest in Total Elegance, the
hair-and-aesthetics salon she and her partner, Shane Walker, had co-owned for
the past ten years. Her brothers, the superachiever foursome, would jump out of
their jock straps if they knew she was in the process of selling her part of the
business without their input. She had come in today to get her copy of the
agreement to go over with her lawyer before signing. She was quite proud of the
fact that her brothers wouldn’t be involved. Their best-before date as
inquisitive overseers had long since passed.

At the door of the office she had shared with Shane through all
the growing pains of their business she hesitated. This was it. She would read
the agreement one more time, then take it to her lawyer. She took a deep breath
and tapped lightly. He glanced up, his spiked mullet bobbing like a rooster’s
comb as he stood to greet her. “Hey, great to see you,” he said, all brightness
and light. Marnie had only one wish where her soon-to-be-ex-partner was
concerned. She’d like him to change his hairstyle. When she first met him he’d
styled his dark hair to frame his face, softening his angular features, and now
the vertical spike of hair only made his nose appear longer, his chin more
pointed. Worst of all, his haircut made him look dated.

It was a word that everyone who was anyone in the beauty
industry hated to hear, and Marnie didn’t have the heart to tell him. Then
again, maybe he knew and just didn’t care. But why should she worry about it,
anyway? In mere weeks, she’d be able to put Shane’s hair, and all the other
issues that came with running a salon, out of her mind. “Freedom thirty-five,”
she’d dubbed her decision.

“It’s great to see you, too,” she said, crossing the narrow
space and sitting down in what passed for the guest chair—a warped, plastic lawn
chair she’d pilfered from her parents’ garage.

“So, are we ready to sign?” he inquired, his eyebrows doing an
odd dance over his forehead, a rather peculiar move for a man, and one that had
left questions in the minds of some of their patrons as to his sexual
orientation. But those in doubt didn’t know Shane’s history where women were
concerned. He was a consummate professional at work and a regular tomcat at
night—that is until a particularly clever feline had put an end to his roaming
ways.

Her name was Gina, and Shane planned to marry her, which was
why he’d offered to buy Marnie’s half of the business. Gina, it turned out, was
also a hairdresser and she and Shane were working on more than marriage
plans.

“Slow down, Shane. Like I told you yesterday, I want my lawyer
to read it before I sign.” She reached for the document, intending to pop it
into her oversized bag.

“Sorry. It’s just that I’m so anxious, you know. God!” He
sandwiched his head between his hands. “I’ve never felt like this before! We’ll
be celebrating our three-month anniversary in a week, can you believe that?” he
asked, giving her the same wide-eyed look she’d seen at least a dozen times a
day for the past few months.

If he launched into yet another of his long-winded sagas about
the wonders of love at first sight, about his plans for marriage and a future
with the soon-to-be Gina Walker, she was going to have to slap him. She’d never
slapped anyone except her brother Scott for telling Andy Capson she wanted to go
out with him. But if Shane didn’t stop talking about how great love felt, how
happy he was… As far as Marnie was concerned, love was nothing more than a word
in the dictionary somewhere between
lovat
—a tweed of
muted green—and
low
—inferior or depressed.

All the boyfriends she’d had to date could be slotted into one
of two categories: they either had issues around commitment, or they bordered on
being illiterate. And if that wasn’t bad enough, they’d all turned out to be
liars. Every man with whom she’d had a relationship had been dishonest in one
way or another.

“Your three-month anniversary?” she repeated idly, as she
skimmed the opening paragraphs of the sales agreement, glad to see the main
terms of the agreement in writing, especially the financial ones. There was a
non-competition clause, restricting her from opening a salon in the city, which
was fine with her.

Shane put his hand on her shoulder. “Look, take your time and
read through carefully, but I would like to have it all settled before
Christmas. Is that possible?”

She looked up from the document as she considered what he’d
said. As much as she loved the business, she’d often wished for something more.
She was a good manager, and she wanted a bigger challenge in her life, but he
hadn’t considered acting on her discontent until Gina had started at the salon.
The unfortunate truth was that she couldn’t work with the woman. She was bossy
and overbearing.

Marnie hadn’t busted her butt for ten years to end up taking
orders from a woman whose only qualification, other than that of hairdresser,
was that she had snagged the other owner. And with the cash from the buyout
Marnie would be able to start a different business. She didn’t know what yet,
but she’d figure it out. All she needed was a little time.

“Before Christmas? I don’t see why that should be a problem,”
she said.

“Great. I’ll go out and put the coffee on so we can have a cup
to celebrate. I brought a bag of these special beans Gina loves. They’re from
Costa Rica. I’ll go grind them and be right back. Do you want a cappuccino? Or
just regular?”

“Why don’t we splurge and have a cappuccino?”

He winked at her and smiled the goofy smile he’d recently
acquired. “You got it.”

After he left, Marnie skipped through the legalese to the
important parts of the agreement, and made sure they said what Shane had
promised.

She sat back and let her gaze move around the office,
remembering the long hours she’d spent there, the worries she and Shane had had
over the finances, whether they’d be able to grow their client list and hire the
best hairdressers. But most of all she remembered the sense of accomplishment
she’d felt when she and Shane had been written up in one of the local magazines,
commended for their successful partnership. And now, as she faced the fact that
this would all be over in a few weeks, she felt a sudden pang of longing.

For ten years she’d lived and breathed Total Elegance. She’d
borrowed her share of the start-up money, and then prayed that the salon would
be enough of a success to pay off her loan. It was and she had. She’d proven to
her family that she could succeed on her own terms, and it felt so good.

Marnie swallowed against the hard lump in her throat. This was
not the time for tears. She and Shane had had a good ride, but it would be fun
to spend a few weeks considering her next venture, sleeping in until noon,
shopping when she felt like it.

Shane reappeared with two mugs in his hands, and with what had
become his signature wide-body smile, only to come to a dead halt. “Hey, Marnie,
is something wrong?”

His words startled her. “No. Nothing. Why?”

He passed her a cup with her usual two teaspoons of sugar and
went to sit behind the desk, placing his mug on a coaster Marnie’s mother had
crocheted for the office—to give it a homey touch, as she’d put it. “For a
minute, I thought I’d left something out of the agreement,” he said, hefting his
size-twelve shoes up onto the corner of the desk.

“Not at all.” She took a sip of her coffee, letting the aroma
infiltrate her nostrils while the caffeine hot-wired her mind.

“Well, what do you think? Is it all right?”

“I’m sure it is.... I’ll miss this place.”

“I know you will, honey. If you’d like to work in the salon
until you decide on a new career, that’s fine by me,” he offered, his words
holding the nuance of a man who just realized that he should run the idea past
his woman.

“Thanks. I appreciate it,” she said. “But I think I’m going to
concentrate on what I want to do next.”

“Have you considered going back to university?”

Having flunked her first year, she didn’t intend on repeating
the experience. Besides, she didn’t want to waste her hard-earned cash on
learning things she’d never use. She was far too practical. Of course, not
having made up her mind about her future would mean she’d have to sit through
the next dozen or so family dinners, and be subjected to all sorts of unwanted
advice.

“School isn’t for me, at least not right—” A loud banging sound
interrupted her.

“Someone’s at the back door at this hour of the morning?” Shane
asked, a frown on his face.

“I’ll go and see,” Marnie said, hopping up from her chair and
heading out back. Deliveries didn’t start until 9:00 a.m., and there was little
chance that any of the staff would appear ahead of their shift. She peeked
through the little hole in the middle of the door.

“No!” she moaned. Turning, she braced her back against the hard
surface. She would unlock the door and let her nuisance of a brother into the
salon when pigs wore roller skates. Scott couldn’t be certain she was there, and
besides, even if he persisted in banging on the door, she wasn’t going to
answer.

“Marnie. I know you’re in there, and we need to talk.”

* * *

L
UKE
H
ARRISON
HAD
ZERO
interest in Christmas. As far as he was
concerned it was everyone’s excuse to run up bills they couldn’t pay, but that
didn’t mean he wasn’t excited for other people and for all the planning that
came with the season.

As of today, The Mirabel Inn was fully booked for what he and
his staff had named the Christmas Getaway Event. The event had been designed for
married couples who didn’t have family plans or who had finally decided to skip
the Christmas madness, and simply have a quiet, elegant holiday by themselves.
He’d done it on a smaller scale last Christmas but had run into problems when
other guests booked into the inn who weren’t part of the program—one of the
single women had flirted with one of the married men, resulting in the wife
packing up and leaving. A messy, uncomfortable situation he didn’t want to have
repeated this year.

This year the event included five days—three before Christmas,
plus Christmas Day and the twenty-sixth. It had taken months to put together a
good marketing campaign, but it had paid off. The only room left in the inn was
a small one, with a double bed, that was earmarked for renovation, making it
into an office for the housekeeper Mary Cunningham.

He’d been up since six that morning, thanks to his
four-year-old son, Ethan, who’d been promised a chance to help decorate the huge
balsam fir that was presently being strung with lights in preparation for a
tree-trimming party. The staff and their families had been invited to a luncheon
due to start at noon, after the tree trimming, a party to show appreciation for
the staff of the inn. Luke, as the manager, had to be there to kick off the
celebration. It was important to hold this party before the getaway event began
as many of the staff would be working throughout the holidays.

Despite his aversion to Christmas, Luke enjoyed this event
because he got a chance to give back to the staff and their families whose
support was important to the success of the inn. The lunch buffet would be set
up in the glassed-in patio along the south side of the two-hundred-year-old inn.
The chef, Max Anderson, was making lobster quiche, this year’s special dish,
along with the usual turkey, ham and all the vegetables, rolls and condiments
people enjoyed as part of the Christmas festivities. Family members of the
staff, who liked to bake, provided the desserts, showcasing the recipes of some
of the best bakers in the region.

Tidying the cost projections report he’d been reading at his
desk, he placed it on top the pile, intending to work on it later. When Luke had
first come to work at The Mirabel Inn, he’d gotten rid of the stark furnishings
in the office and added his own touches along with state-of-the-art computers to
assist in managing the inn. But his favorite piece in the office was an antique
oak desk with hidden drawers, pigeonholes and a roll-up top, a special gift from
his grandfather. Grant Harrison had left the desk to him in his will, and now it
was a part of his life. A daily reminder of his grandfather, who had owned one
of the largest inns in Connecticut years before.

He was closing his computer when someone knocked on the door.
Before he could answer, Mary Cunningham opened the door and Ethan rushed in
behind her.

“Well, hello there, big guy,” Luke said, getting up from his
desk in time to catch Ethan in his arms.

“Daddy!” the little boy yelled, a red-and-green cap balanced
precariously on his head.

“Where did you get the elf hat?” Luke asked. Scooping Ethan up
and holding him close, he breathed in his scent—usually a mixture of dirt from
playing with his dump trucks in the garden plot next to the back patio, and
sweat from racing around the property. But today there was just a hint of
cinnamon, enhanced by frosting smudges on his cheeks, which meant Ethan had been
in the kitchen driving the pastry cook crazy with his questions and his pleas
for more sweets.

“Mary gived it to me,” Ethan said, triumphantly.

BOOK: The Christmas Inn
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