Authors: Stella MacLean
Tags: #Romance, #Contemporary, #Fiction
Luke had planned to spend the day with his son, but an urgent
call from the owners of the inn had meant he’d been forced to work on cost
figures this morning. He was proud of his management of the inn, which was
located only a few miles from some of the best skiing in the eastern United
Digging a tissue from his pocket, he wiped the frosting off
Ethan’s cheeks. “Hope he hasn’t been too much trouble.”
Mary smiled, a warm smile that had been so welcome in those
early months after Anna’s death in a car accident. She’d been the mother figure
to a one-year-old toddler who had no comprehension of why his mommy had left,
only that she was gone from his life. Mary had helped both his son and him
through the proceeding months of agony and loss, and her generous support and
advice had held Luke’s life together during a very difficult time.
“Evelyn and Ethan made a batch of sugar cookies with Santa
faces on them for the children who are coming.”
“How many cookies did you eat, Ethan?” he asked.
The boy grinned and held up five fingers.
“You didn’t! Did you share them with anyone?”
Mary laughed. “Henry probably has a tummy ache. I put him in
his crate in your apartment. It seemed safer that way.”
Henry was a stray part-terrier, part-spaniel that had arrived
at the inn on one of the coldest nights in January last year. Henry and Ethan
had been constant companions since that frozen evening. “Great. We don’t need a
four-footed tree trimmer joining the excitement.”
“Daddy, I patted the branches of the tree.”
“You patted them?” He glanced at Mary.
“Yep. He patted the tree and helped open the boxes of
“I found a red bulb this big,” Ethan said, opening his arms
wide and grinning at his father.
“Wow! You’ve been busy,” he said, reveling in the joy of his
son’s face. The past three years since his wife’s death had been the hardest of
his life. Each morning he woke to the fact that Anna wouldn’t be there to share
the day, to see their son grow into a young man, to face each moment with her
inexhaustible enthusiasm. In those early weeks after her death, he sleepwalked
through each meaningless day. His only connection to the world around him was
Ethan. All those lonely months had been made bearable by the presence of his
But there was a part of him that couldn’t forgive his wife’s
reckless behavior. She’d insisted on driving to Boston to do some last-minute
Christmas shopping and hadn’t heeded his warning to stay there until the ice
storm had passed and the roads had been cleared. As much as he tried, it had
been hard for him to understand how she could have acted the way she did,
knowing the risks involved. The kind statements from their friends about how
Anna did what she thought best were drowned out by the heartbreak of life
“Are we ready to start trimming the tree?” Mary asked, reaching
Luke hugged his son before putting him down. “Don’t know about
you, but it will be the bright spot in my morning.”
Ethan nodded so vigorously his elf hat fell off, and he raced
from the room.
“Where does he get the energy?” Luke asked.
“Kid power is what I call it.” Mary chuckled as she rescued the
hat. “And I should know.”
“By the way, how’s Troy doing at college?”
“Not bad for his first term. Better than his sister and brother
did. Peter and I were figuring out the amount of free cash we’ll have once Troy
is out of school. We’ll be living well, let me tell you,” she said, a smile
spreading across her round face.
Luke had never thought that far ahead: he’d been too busy
keeping his life on an even keel and working long hours at the inn. Because of
the good friends he’d made since he’d come to work at the inn, he wanted to stay
on there for the long term, and maybe someday own an inn like his grandfather
had. Owning an inn was not the career his parents had dreamed of for their only
child. His father had wanted him to get a law degree and become a partner in his
law firm—a profession Luke had no interest in, despite his father’s love for
“I’m sorry your parents can’t come for Christmas this year.
Ethan is growing up so fast, and Christmas is all about children.”
“I am, too, but it seems they have a prior commitment to spend
Christmas with friends in Australia.”
It hurt to say those words, words that only increased the
disconnect he felt where his parents were concerned. He’d tried to get them to
be more involved in Ethan’s life, and they’d made promises they hadn’t kept. And
now with it being Christmas…
“The FedEx truck will be here tomorrow,” Mary said, as if she
were reading his thoughts. But in all honesty, it would shock him if his parents
had the foresight to send a Christmas gift to their only grandchild.
“We’d better get out there before Ethan hangs all the ornaments
on one branch,” he said, remembering last Christmas when he’d let his son
decorate a small tree for their apartment, and Ethan had hooked every ornament
on a branch near the bottom of the tree. Luke had left it that way and had
emailed several photos of Ethan’s efforts to his parents in Hong Kong.
They walked together to the front hall, where a throng of inn
guests and local residents had already gathered around the tree. A group of
carolers from Wakesfield had arrived to provide the entertainment, filling the
large entry hall with familiar Christmas songs. Luke made his way through the
crowd to the tree where Ethan was attempting to string a garland of colored
popcorn onto a branch. “Hey! Don’t pull the tree over,” Luke warned, kneeling to
“Daddy, I love popcorn,” he whispered, bringing the strand to
his mouth. “Want some?”
“You can’t eat that. It’s a decoration for the tree.”
Ethan’s lips formed a pout. “I’m hungry.”
“You can’t be.”
Ethan ignored him as he pulled on the strand of popcorn.
“Here, let me help,” Luke said, following the string down past
Ethan’s feet to a spot under the bottom of the tree where it had become
entangled. Reaching in, he freed it, and then lifted Ethan so he could place the
garland on the outer tips of the branches.
The people standing around the tree clapped, and Ethan smiled
as he hugged his father’s neck. Balancing his son in his arms, Luke finished
stringing the popcorn on the tree.
The group gathered closer as they all joined in decorating the
tree. Several of the men took turns hoisting Ethan up so he could reach the
higher branches. Everyone was intent on decorating the huge tree, reminding Luke
once again how lucky he was to have this extended family as part of his life for
the past eight years.
The sense of family and being together for the holiday season
caused a lump to form in Luke’s throat. It wasn’t that he disliked Christmas as
much as the idea that his son would never remember a Christmas that included his
But he couldn’t focus on the past, especially with so much
riding on the next few weeks. He’d heard rumors from other managers of hotels
and inns owned by Advantage Corporation that the CEO, Angus McAndrew, and his
management team were looking at all their resort holdings with an eye to selling
some of their properties. He hoped the rumor wasn’t true, but he knew better
than to think that they’d be concerned with what he believed or how he felt.
Still, it was worrisome because he’d worked for Advantage for
years, starting at a smaller inn and then being promoted to manager of The
Mirabel. Right now, with Ethan finally happy and content once again, he didn’t
look forward to any change that would affect his son’s life, not to mention his
own. If Advantage chose to sell this inn, they would probably offer him a job
somewhere, but if they decided that his performance wasn’t up to their standards
or they didn’t have a position to offer him, he could end up looking for a job
with another organization. In either case it would mean a different location and
a new place to live. For now, he didn’t want to consider the impact it would
have on them. He just wanted to watch his son enjoy the festivities that would
kick off the Christmas season.
“Up, Daddy,” Ethan demanded, a large angel dangling from his
fingers as he held his arms up to his father.
“An angel wants to put an angel on the tree,” Mary said over
the din created by the crowd.
And Ethan was an angel—the baby he and Anna had dreamed of and
waited years for. “Okay, Ethan, let’s see you hang this ornament,” he said,
holding his son aloft as he leaned into the branches to hang the angel near the
center of the tree. The staff had already placed a huge lighted star on top.
Luke stepped back with Ethan still held high in his arms.
“This is probably the nicest tree we’ve ever had at the inn,”
Mary mused, as they all gazed up into the tree.
* * *
against her brother, Marnie considered her options. How had
he known she was in here? Knowing him, he would’ve driven by her house, then
over here and found her car in the parking lot. Had he discovered her plan to
Scott was the last person she wanted to see right now. He’d
rant on and on about how she was making a huge decision without seeking the
family’s advice first. The unspoken issue was that Marnie McLaughlan, the
youngest member of the McLaughlan clan, wasn’t allowed to make any changes in
her life without their involvement.
“Go away, Scott,” she yelled through the door. “I’m not doing
anything that concerns you.”
“Marnie, listen to me. Mom is all worked up over Christmas and
worried about you. You know what she’s like,” he said.
Her mother loved the holidays; she relied on Marnie’s support
for whatever scheme she had in the works. This year she planned to have Santa
arrive complete with sleigh and elves, which meant that Marnie had to be there
to act as Mrs. Claus, a role she’d flat-out refused, much to her mother’s
chagrin. The problem with Eleanor’s party schemes was that they always seemed to
involve an unattached male—usually the temporarily single son of one of her
mother’s bridge-playing friends—with whom she’d be forced to socialize. “I’m
well aware of our mother’s ability to be a drama queen.”
“Not fair, Marnie. Mom has always had your best interests at
Right. Good old Mom, not to mention good
old Dad and my four good old brothers.
How she’d like to snap her fingers and have Scott disappear.
But Scott’s Velcro tendencies were legendary once he decided to become involved
in something. He beat a tattoo on the door, making her clap her hands to her
If, just once, her family could see her for what she was rather
than what she wasn’t, her life would be so much easier. Reluctantly she turned
the lock, opened the door and forced a smile. “What brought you here so early
“I heard that you were selling your half of the business.”
“Who told you?”
“Dad heard about it through some friend at the Elks Club—a
friend of a friend of a woman named Gina something or other. Is it true?”
“I’m not going to change my mind.”
Dressed in his uniform of an immaculately tailored dark suit,
silk tie chosen to match the tiny thread of magenta woven into the suit fabric,
Scott gave her a persuasive smile—the one he usually saved for his marketing
clients—as he stepped past her into the tiny office.
“Hello, Shane, it’s great to see you, and I hear that
congratulations are in order.” Scott was about to plunk himself down in the lawn
chair, took a closer look and reconsidered.
As Shane launched into the story about how he met his new love,
and soon-to-be new partner, Marnie leaned back against the wall and enjoyed the
look on Scott’s face. Her brother had problems with any conversation he didn’t
control. Scott wasn’t mean. He was constantly thinking ahead to the next step in
his plans, and thus he didn’t have much patience for small talk. Not
surprisingly, it didn’t take him long to interrupt Shane and ask a couple of
pointed questions concerning the contract.
“Shane, you don’t have to answer,” she said hurriedly, wanting
to block Scott’s interrogation of her friend.
Shane closed his mouth and sank his neck into his turtleneck.
“That’s right, I don’t,” he confirmed, his eyebrows rising to meet his
“Shane, would you excuse my sister and me for a couple of
With an expression of resignation Shane rose from the chair.
“I’ll be in the salon going over the renovation plans,” he said, giving Marnie
his “chin up, kid” smile as he walked past her out the door.
“You have yet to sign, and he’s already going over plans?”
Scott asked, disbelief evident in his tone.
“They’re old blueprints Shane and I had considered a couple of
years ago. He and Gina are going to revisit them and see if they’re feasible for
the expansion they want to make.”
“This Gina person is certainly moving fast.”
“That’s their business, not mine. What’s the family’s problem
with me selling to Shane?”
Scott scooped up the agreement Marnie had carelessly left lying
on the desk and took his time reading it before he answered. “We want to be sure
you’re being paid fair market value for the business and this building. And that
Shane hasn’t slipped in a noncompetition clause that would stop you from working
as a hairdresser once you leave here,” he muttered. “What’s this?” he asked,
pointing at the page.
“What?” she asked, refusing to glance at the page.
“You can’t work in Boston as a hairdresser?”
“We agreed it was only fair. My client list and the goodwill
I’ve built up in the city are part of what he’s buying beyond the physical
assets,” she said, exasperated with Scott’s attitude.