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Authors: Stella MacLean

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BOOK: The Christmas Inn
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If I had any sense at all, I’d turn around
and drive back to Boston.

Luke had been kind and wanted to help her, and what had she
done? She’d lied to him. And she’d done it while fully aware of how much she
hated the men she’d dated who had lied to her. She was a complete hypocrite.
She’d behaved terribly and all because of what?

Why had she put the one relationship with even the tiniest bit
of potential at risk? To please her brother? She balled her fists on the
steering wheel. Even if she still had a chance with Luke—which she highly
doubted when he learned that she’d spied on his inn to get information for the
owners, information that could cause him problems—he would never believe another
word she said about anything.

She had experienced firsthand the agony of discovering that
she’d been lied to by Brad. It had destroyed all her hopes and dreams, and her
ability to trust.

She stared out at the dark clouds heavy with snow and wondered
what she should do. If she went back and told Luke about the questionnaire, he’d
be angry with her, which would mean the end for them. And when her brother
learned that she had told Luke he would be furious. She was trapped.

“I’m tired of all this!” she yelled at the windshield. She
wiped her face and leaned back, her head on the headrest, completely at a loss
as to what to do.

What if the attraction was all in her mind? Luke had been sweet
and kind, but that didn’t mean his feelings for her ran deeper. What proof did
she have that Luke cared about her? So far, all he’d done was look dark and
suspicious at her. The kiss they shared could have been just two lonely people
easing their loneliness. Had her longing for a meaningful relationship driven
her to believe that a single kiss meant something? After all, he’d tried to get
her to leave. When that hadn’t worked, he’d been determined to keep her away
from his married guests.

What sort of man asks you to leave? A man
who doesn’t want you there, you ninny! What more does the man have to do to
convince you that his heart isn’t in the same place as yours?

Her mind made up, she cranked the key and her car sputtered to
life. She’d do a little Christmas shopping, search for a couple of new sweaters
to replace the ones she’d lost in the basement flood and have a quiet lunch
before doing what she should have done first thing this morning.

Pack her bags and go where somebody gave a damn about her.

Forcing her worries to the back of her mind, Marnie parked her
car by a meter on the busy main street running through Wakesfield, and shopped
for her nieces and nephews and four sisters-in-law. She didn’t shop for her
brothers—a gift certificate at their favorite men’s clothing store in Boston was
what was expected of her each year. She spent the rest of the time picking out a
few new sweaters for herself.

When she reached a quaint little diner on the corner across the
square from the post office, Marnie spotted the perfect window seat with a
panoramic view of the street. Feeling ready for a break, she settled in with a
glass of red wine and a hamburger while she listened to the Christmas carolers
strolling in the square.

She wondered if Luke ever came here. Maybe he’d sat right where
she was sitting now, and watched the same scene she’d been enjoying. A pang of
yearning clutched her heart, tightening her throat. Taking a deep breath, she
focused her attention on the throng of people outside the window when out of the
corner of her eye she spotted Francine scurrying along the street and waved to
her.

Francine smiled, bobbed her head and pointed at her glass of
wine.

Marnie nodded and then waited for Francine to come in and join
her. “How are you?” she asked as Francine took off her jacket and sat in the
chair across from her.

“I’m great! Can’t wait for Christmas. What about you?”

“The same, really excited about all of it,” Marnie said.

After ordering her wine, Francine leaned her elbows on the
table. “Wow! Did you hear the latest weather report?” she asked.

“No, I didn’t.” Marnie put her glass down, glad to have someone
to chat with and take her mind off things.

“Luke asked as many of us as possible to stay at the inn
overnight in case the roads are closed tomorrow. I came here to pick up a few
things before I head back over there. Do you need a lift?”

“I have my car, but thanks. That’s really kind of you.”

“Well, to tell you the truth, it’s a little more than
kindness.” Francine toyed with the cocktail napkin under her wineglass. “You’re
the hot topic around the inn.”

Luke would love that, she thought ruefully. “Why?”

“We’ve haven’t seen Luke look happier than he has in the past
twenty-four hours, and we’re convinced it’s because of you.”

If his scowling and paranoia were seen as a happier version of
Luke, she’d hate to see what he looked like when he was sad. “Luke looking
happier makes me a hot topic?”

“I have to tell you. Luke has never allowed a woman in his
office, except for Mary Cunningham, that is. Not since Anna died.”

“And that’s the basis for your conclusion? That he let me into
his office?” she asked, skeptical, but with just a hint of hope rising to the
fore.

“You have to know Luke. For the past three years the guy has
spent his days grieving his wife, and believe me it’s not a pretty sight. He’s
moped around for far too long, and we all want him to find someone new.”

“Am I the first suitable candidate who’s come along?” She
frowned in disbelief. “You’re telling me there are no available women his age in
all of Wakesfield?”

“Oh, yeah, there are. And lots of them are interested in Luke.
It’s just that he’s not interested in them.”

Well, maybe she could hope that there was at least a granule of
truth in what Francine was saying, which reopened the issue of whether she
should go back home, or whether she should stay and find out if there was any
chance that there was something between them. The coward in her wanted to hit
the highway. She pushed up her sleeve to check her watch. Three-thirty. Her
hamburger forgotten, she looked outside and realized that she could hardly see
across the square to the post office. “If I’m going to leave, I’d better get a
move on.”

“Leave for where? The inn?”

“Yeah, the inn,” she decided. “At least for now.”

“Do I detect a hint of indecision in your voice?”

She shrugged and took one more sip from her wineglass. “I can’t
see any reason for me to stay.”

“You mean that business over your brother?”

“How did you know about that?”

“You haven’t lived in a small town, have you? Or worked at an
inn before, right?”

“No, I haven’t,” Marnie admitted.

“Trust me. Everyone knows everything.” Francine smiled. “I’m
glad your brother isn’t your husband, and I’m even happier that you decided to
stay after you told Luke the truth.”

There really were no secrets in this town. “Why?”

“Because, like I told you. I want the guy to be happy. Anna was
my friend, but she’s not here, and she wouldn’t want Luke to be so lonesome for
so long.”

* * *

O
N
THE
WAY
BACK
TO
T
HE
Mirabel Inn, Marnie
replayed Francine’s words. Everyone wanted Luke to be happy and seemed to
believe that she was the woman for the job. The question was, did Luke?

With “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” blaring on the radio, and
her ancient snow tires spinning and catching on the ruts created by the snow,
she turned up the driveway toward the inn. What she saw when she took her eyes
off the road took her breath away. The falling snow softened the edges of the
imposing old structure while the floodlights gave a gauzy glow to the elegant
windows draped with cedar wreaths. The front door held the largest wreath Marnie
had ever seen, and beyond it, a tall Christmas tree glittered in the lobby.

Marnie brought her car to a halt, enchanted by the sight. With
the snow swirling around the driveway and wrapping the lovely old building in
magical light, The Mirabel Inn was the most beautiful Christmas scene she’d ever
witnessed.

What a romantic spot for a Christmas getaway! Who wouldn’t love
to be wined and dined in a place with this much grace and style? What a
brilliant plan on Luke’s part. And she’d thrown a monkey wrench into it all by
showing up at the door.

Suddenly it all came together for her.

She was spying on this wonderful place for her brother, who was
taking orders from people who didn’t work here, who had no personal involvement
and whose actions stood to hurt someone she had come to care about. Meanwhile,
she was living a fantasy life as she gathered the information that could damage
someone’s career. It wasn’t right, and she was sorry for her part in it.

She was packing her bags and heading back to Boston. Whether
she and Luke stood a chance with each other she didn’t know, but she didn’t
intend to go on lying to him. She’d tell him the truth, explain that she needed
to go home, and she’d give him her home number in the unlikely event he did want
to see her again. Then she’d call Julie and let her know to expect her late this
evening. It would mean driving for long hours in the snow, but she didn’t care.
All she wanted was to escape with as little personal embarrassment as
possible.

She pressed on the gas, and the car fishtailed in response,
nearly going off the narrow driveway. She turned the wheel to correct the
swerve, and gently moved her car forward to park near the entrance. Thank
heavens she’d be out of there soon, and safely on her way back to Boston and
away from this storm.

As she turned off the ignition, she noticed a man stood framed
in the open door, the light blazing around him. She looked up at him, realizing
too late that it was Luke.

Here’s your chance.

Mesmerized by the sight of him, she was unable to look away as
he came around to her side of the car. As he opened her door a blast of snow
covered Marnie, making her gasp. “Isn’t this beautiful?” she commented, getting
out of the car, forgetting all about her parcels and barely remembering to grab
her purse.

“It is. Certainly not a night to travel,” he said, his words
whipped away by the blowing wind.

She gazed up into his face to see a look in his eyes she’d only
ever seen on her brothers’ faces before, when she’d first come home after her
accident. A look that made her feel protected and warm, despite the icy air. “Is
the weather report that bad?” she asked, following him to the front door.

“Worse, actually. It looks like we’re in for a bad storm. I’ll
get someone to park your car. We’ve already had several cancellations for
tomorrow, and we’re getting organized in case there’s a power outage.”

What? She’d finally made up her mind, and she was about to be
stopped by a storm? Not likely. “Guess I’d better hurry, then, before they close
down the roads,” she yelled at his back.

“Hurry to do what?” he demanded, stopping so abruptly she
bumped into him.

He turned and grabbed her shoulders. “What are you talking
about?”

“I…I think it would be best for everyone if I left.”

He scowled at her as the snow created a mantle of white across
his broad shoulders. “You are not leaving here tonight under any circumstances,”
he ordered. She saw the raw fear in his eyes. Was he remembering a storm three
years ago? A storm that took his wife from him?

He put his arm around her shoulder and drew her close as they
walked in step up to the door. “I was looking for you to tell you that there’s
no reason for you to leave—storm or no storm.”

“Really?” Her heart jumped in her chest.

She was afraid to leave and afraid to stay, but a storm that
threatened to close the roads meant she had no choice but to remain here. “I
guess I’ll just hunker down and wait for the snowplow tomorrow morning,” she
said, happy to know that he wanted her to stay.

“The plows may not be here in the morning, more likely the
afternoon, but we’ll see how much snow we get.” He held the door for her as they
walked together inside the inn.

Walking beside him, visions of spending a romantic night in
front of a roaring fire while snow swirled outside the window sent her
imagination into overdrive. But Luke clearly had something on his mind, if the
set of his jaw was any indication.

She peered up at him to discover that he was frowning at
something down the hall.

So much for romance.

She was nursing her bruised fantasy when he suddenly stopped by
the tree. “Marnie.”

He said her name as if he wanted to say more, so she
waited.

Go ahead, set yourself up for a fall.
You’re an expert in that department.

The grandfather clock broke the silence as it struck five
o’clock. “Did you need to talk to me about something?” she asked, still clinging
to the hope that she might have a chance with him.

He brushed the smattering of snow off his shoulders. “No, it
can wait until tomorrow.”

Damn! She was losing patience with him. Couldn’t he see that
she was interested in him? Didn’t he want a life outside of working long hours?
Or maybe Francine and Mary didn’t know everything there was to know about Luke
Harrison.

Two could play this game. He didn’t trust her. He’d said as
much, and there was no obligation on her part to trust him. “Sure, fine.
Tomorrow.” She pushed her purse strap farther up her shoulder, spun on her heel
and marched up the stairs to her room.

CHAPTER SIX

L
UKE
TRIED
NOT
TO
LET
disappointment take hold as he
watched Marnie retreat up the stairs. The truth was he didn’t want her to go.
For the past hour he’d feigned interest in the hall decorations, checked the
dining room twice and basically stuck close to the front door, waiting for her
to return. Even the staff had left him alone—waiting, he supposed, to see what
he’d do when Marnie came back to the inn.

Then he’d blown it because he couldn’t find it in his heart to
let go of his fear that he wasn’t ready for a relationship, that letting Marnie
into his life was risky. After all, she had deceived him—although perhaps not
intentionally—by letting him believe she was married when she wasn’t.

As for the matchmaking efforts by the staff, he realized they
were acting out of genuine kindness and a desire to see him happy. He
appreciated their wanting him to be happy, but he was struggling to hold up his
end of the bargain. A few moments ago, he’d shot a hole in their hopes by
standing there like an ox, saying nothing. Was he afraid of being hurt? Or had
he simply not been able to shake the feeling that there was something about
Marnie’s behavior that continued to trouble him?

Or was he simply out of practice when it came to making
conversation with a beautiful woman? He’d never had a problem talking to a woman
in his entire life. Actually, most of the time he didn’t have to do much talking
because the women did it for him. Anna was the first woman who had drawn him
out, seen beyond his outgoing facade to find a man who had lived a pretty lonely
existence despite the fact that he never lacked for women or friends.

For the first time since Anna’s death, he found himself
attracted to a woman, and he didn’t seem to be able to do much about it. Why
hadn’t he simply asked her what he’d wanted to ask? What held him back?

“Daddy!” Ethan squealed, racing toward him, his arms flung
open.

Luke scooped him up, hugging him close, pleased as usual to see
his son. “What are you up to? Were you helping to make cookies again?” he asked.
“How many did you eat this time?”

“I painted a picture for you. In your office,” Ethan said,
bristling with indignation.

Mary came along behind him. “I was about to get Ethan his
dinner before I put him to bed, but he wanted to see you first.”

“Daddy, we’re having chicken fingers. You want some?” His
bright smile returned, lighting the room.

“No, partner, not tonight.” His gaze moved to Mary, who gave
him a quizzical smile. He always ate with Ethan whenever he could, but tonight
he was restless, edgy.

“Why?” Ethan placed his hands on his father’s cheeks and
pressed while he looked up into his eyes. “You like chicken fingers.”

“I do, but not tonight,” he said, trying to smile around his
pinched cheeks. Luke seldom was able to resist the pleading look in Ethan’s
eyes. “Daddy’s got something he needs to do tonight.”

“Are you going out in the snow? Can I come?” Ethan asked.

“No, I’m not going out in the snow, and neither are you.”

“All right,” Ethan said, his eyes downcast, his voice full of
genuine sadness. He pushed away, his signal that he wanted Luke to put him down.
“See you later.”

“Enjoy your chicken fingers,” he called to Ethan as Mary took
his hand and led him down the hall.

Ethan made a growling sound and smiled at his father over his
shoulder.

He loved his son with every fiber of his being, a love that was
as deep and powerful as it was unexplainable. He’d had no idea how much having a
child could change his life until Ethan was born. He envied Jack and Lindsay.
His friends had so much to look forward to with the impending arrival of their
baby. He’d always planned to have a house full of children, and he certainly
never planned to have Ethan grow up as an only child.

Unable to shake the unsettling feeling that he should have
asked Marnie to have dinner with him, he headed for the bar.

* * *

M
ARNIE
LOCKED
THE
DOOR
,
and dragged out her laptop and paperwork, prepared
to tackle Scott’s questionnaire once and for all. Pretty sad when a woman had to
seek solace in a questionnaire, but that was how it worked in her world this
snowy evening. She sure couldn’t appear at the bar and upset the boss, or the
bartender. No, never that. And yes, she was feeling sorry for herself, but she’d
earned the right to a little self-pity.

She shuffled through the papers until she found the
housekeeping one she’d started to fill out, and found a section on the
air-conditioning unit. She put a call in to the desk to ask that someone come
and check her air-conditioning unit. The questions on the form were directed
mostly at how technician behaved, how long it took to answer the call, how long
the technician spent in the room and what the result was as it pertained to the
condition of the unit. Simple enough.

She was still reading over the questions when the technician
announced his arrival with a light tap on the door. He introduced himself as he
entered the room. “I’m Kevin Bailey. I’m not sure what you need checked on your
air-conditioning unit.” He nodded to the window and the snow fluttering over the
glass.

Idiot!
“I meant to say the heater.
It’s all part of the same unit, right?”

“Yeah,” he said, glancing doubtfully at the unit under the
window. “But according to my records here, the unit was checked two months ago.
Did you have a specific problem?”

What was she supposed to say to that? There was no problem. “I
couldn’t seem to get the heat to turn on,” she lied. She hadn’t attempted to
turn it any higher than the automatic setting, but come to think of it, the room
did seem a little chilly.

She climbed on the bed out of his way as he took the cover off
the unit and peeked inside, flipping a switch and poking around.

He opened his tool kit and withdrew a pair of pliers, then
unhooked a wire out and examined it closely. “Hmm,” he said, sounding puzzled.
“The wire is frayed.” He sat back on his heels and looked up at her. “It’s
possible that because this room is to be renovated, a full check of the system
wasn’t done, or someone was careless. Whatever the reason, you might have
started a fire with this—” he held the wire up for her to see “—if you’d tried
to turn the heat any higher.”

“Really,” she said, imagining what could have happened if she’d
been there that afternoon, felt chilly and tried to turn up the heat before
taking a nap.

“You can’t stay in this room tonight. I’ll have to shut the
unit down until it’s fixed. I’ll speak to Luke about it, and I’m sure he’ll find
you another room.”

She’d have to report this. The instructions on the survey
emphasized guest safety and this was a major deficiency on that front. Darn!
Given how well the rest of the inn was cared for, she hadn’t expected to have
something serious to report on his inn that could reflect badly on Luke’s
management.

“Thank you,” she murmured, worried for Luke and what this might
mean for him when Advantage got the survey results.

She closed the door behind Kevin and leaned against it for
support. As much as she wanted to, she couldn’t lie about what she’d discovered,
but that didn’t stop her from wishing she could. A hotel manager had to put the
safety of his guests first, the same as any other business that catered to the
public. More than ever, she wanted to give up on the survey, and enjoy the rest
of her stay here, and face her brother’s displeasure when she got back to
Boston.

She was still leaning on the door when someone knocked.

Had they arranged for her to change rooms that quickly? “Who is
it?” she asked.

“It’s Luke.”

Her heart jumping into her throat, she opened the door and
stood back. “Did you come to show me to my new room?”

He gave her a quick nod before glancing past her. “Kevin told
me what he found, and I want to apologize. The unit was checked, but obviously
not carefully enough. We’ve had some cancellations due to the storm. Mary will
arrange to move you down to an empty room for tonight. If our guests are able to
get here tomorrow, we’ll have to move you back up here. But in the meantime,
they’ll fix your unit and you’ll get to experience the kind of luxury we’re
known for around the area.”

His apologetic smile warmed her body in all the right places.
“That sounds perfect.”

“And I also want to invite you to have a drink at the bar with
me.”

“A drink?” A drink would almost certainly lead to dinner, and
who knew where else after that? And now that fate had granted her a fancy room
with the implied promise of a big bed, she gave her fantasy life full reign. He
would ply her with liquor; she’d eat her fill of beautifully prepared food,
after which they’d make their way upstairs hand in hand....

But before she went for a drink she needed a couple of minutes
in the bathroom to get changed, apply a little makeup. She could be dressed in a
matter of seconds. She glanced around and to her horror spotted the open laptop
and the files containing the survey questionnaires scattered across the bed.

He mustn’t see them. Wedging herself between Luke and the bed,
she smiled brightly. “I would love to have a drink with you, but first I need to
change my clothes and freshen up a bit.”

“You don’t have to dress up for me.” There was that smile
again.

“But I’ve been out shopping and didn’t get a chance to change,
and it would just feel better. You don’t mind, do you?”

“No, of course not. Meet you in the bar when you’re ready,” he
said, backing out the door, his eyes aimed at the piles of paperwork on her
bed.

When the door was safely closed behind him, she gathered up the
forms and her laptop and put them away in the bottom of her suitcase. There was
no way she wanted him to discover what she hadn’t had the guts to tell him.
Worse still, if he found out on his own…

She couldn’t let herself think about all that right now. After
all, she’d been invited for a drink, and she deserved to have a little fun in
her life. Once dressed, she finished packing her things for the move downstairs
and zippered her suitcase shut for good measure—just in case they decided to
change her room for her while she was out.

* * *

D
OWN
IN
THE
BAR
, L
UKE
settled on a stool and accepted the Scotch and soda Jack passed him.
“You were right. She seemed very pleased that I asked her to have a drink.”

“See? I told you. She was probably waiting for you to ask
her.”

Encouraged by Jack’s words, he grinned. “You think so?”

“Absolutely. You should have asked her to have dinner with you
when you met her at the door.”

Was he that obvious?
“So everyone
knows I planned to ask her to dinner when I met her at the door.”

“Why do you think the lobby was empty when you walked in with
her?” Jack rolled his eyes.

“Well, I’ll be damned.”

“We’re just looking out for your happiness, since you seem
determined to avoid it. Francine says that Marnie was asking about you when she
was at the spa getting her massage.”

“And about the operation of the spa, or so Francine told me.
Francine says she likes her, finds her easy to talk to,” Luke offered, taking
another sip of his drink, remembering that he was the one who asked for Marnie’s
opinion of the spa’s operation.

“Yes, everyone likes her around here.”

“Especially Ethan.”

Jack laughed. “If Ethan likes her, what more can you want?”

“There’s still something about her that bothers me.”

“Hot and bothered?” Jack asked, his voice edged with
laughter.

“I’m going to ignore that for the moment.”

“I’ll let you off this once.” Jack assumed a serious
expression. “Are you talking about what went on here in the bar last night?”

“No. Well, maybe a part of it. But did you know that she was
checking for dust in the library? And when I asked her about it she claimed it
was simply a habit she’d picked up when she ran her salon.”

“So, she likes to ask questions, and she checks for dust, so
what? If you want my opinion, I think you’re simply afraid to go out with her.
You’re making excuses, that’s all.”

Luke rubbed his chin as he stared at his friend. “Me? Scared?”
he bluffed.

“Yes. You. Scared. When I saw her today on my way here she
looked like one unhappy lady.”

“And you think I’m to blame for that?”

“Possibly. She’s a single woman sleeping alone at an inn
hosting a couples getaway, and you’re the only unattached male here.”

“So, I win by default?”

“No! Look, get your head out of your business for once, and
start paying attention to life. This woman is here. You’re here. And you could
do a whole lot worse than a beautiful, unattached woman who could probably use a
little cheering up.”

“So, you’re saying we’re a couple of people desperate to spend
the evening together?” Luke teased as he eyed his friend over the rim of the
glass.

“Cut it out, man! I’m only saying that it’s time you found a
woman for yourself. No more eyeing mine,” he kidded, polishing a wineglass
before hanging it on the rack.

“How is my favorite woman doing, by the way? Any labor
pains?”

“No, but I’m not taking any chances. I’m picking her up on my
break and bringing her up here to stay the night. The last thing either of us
needs when this baby decides to arrive is for her to be at home and me to be
here, and the road between us to be blocked with snow.”

“Why don’t you go now before the weather gets any worse? I’ll
take over the bar until you get back.”

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