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Authors: Stella MacLean

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BOOK: The Christmas Inn
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Luke groaned. “I don’t need that—her deciding to cry on one of
the other husbands’ shoulders when hers doesn’t show, and we end up with an
argument, or worse still, the couple leaves. Not the image I want to
portray.”

“You know there is something you could do if you’re worried
about the other guests.”

“What’s that?”

“Until the other guests arrive, I don’t see a problem. But if
her husband isn’t here by tomorrow night for the dinner that launches the
Christmas Getaway event, you could invite her to be your guest. That way you’ll
be able to keep an eye on her.”

“And if she doesn’t want to be my guest?”

Jack shrugged. “She won’t object. Half the women I serve at the
bar ask me about you. Married or not. They’re all interested.”

He hadn’t dated anyone since Anna died. There was simply too
much to deal with between raising Ethan and running the inn. And if he were to
be perfectly honest, a new relationship with a woman would mean he’d have to
face his feelings around Anna’s death, feelings of anger over her unwillingness
to listen to his warning about the road conditions, all the emptiness of having
been left alone.

Yet, meeting Marnie had sparked something. He was attracted to
her, and he didn’t want to be. First, she was married, and second, he didn’t
want to care for someone when caring could lead to so much hurt. “That might
work for tomorrow,” he conceded.

“Her husband will probably arrive tomorrow, anyway.”

“Then why didn’t she say so?”

Jack shook his head. “Did you ask?”

“No.” He sighed. “I should have.”

“My advice? Leave it for tonight, and deal with it
tomorrow.”

* * *

M
ARNIE
WOKE
WITH
A
START
—nothing seemed
familiar, and the only sound was someone outside the door talking about a room
number. Then she remembered where she was. How long had she slept? She checked
her watch. Six o’clock! She’d planned to go for a hike, but now all she’d have
time for was a walk around the grounds. She jumped up, hitting her head on the
sloped ceiling. “Ow!” she muttered, rubbing the spot just above her
hairline.

“That’s what you get for agreeing to stay in this room,” she
said to the empty space as she bent over, searching for her hiking boots.
Pulling them on, she noted how dark it was outside, only the sliver of moon
peeking through the blind. She hurried downstairs and out the front door. Taking
a quick look around, she spotted a stone path leading to the side of the inn.
She took it, past a cluster of spreading juniper toward the back. The path led
to a stone patio where someone had removed all the snow.

Near the edge on the other side of the patio, Ethan was on his
hands and knees digging in the soft loam of a flowerbed, while making loud
dump-truck sounds. Squinting around the poorly lit patio space she realized the
little boy was out here alone. Except for Henry, who had settled in near the
patio door, his chin on his paws, one ear flopped rakishly over one eye. He
observed her carefully, his ears doing a flip-flop before settling back.

She went over and knelt down beside the boy. “Ethan, what are
you doing?”

“I drive the truck,” he announced proudly, his blue eyes taking
her in, a smile dawning on his face. “I need help. You push,” he ordered,
getting behind the toy dump truck loaded with dirt and giving it a shove.

She laughed. “You want me to drive your dump truck?”

He nodded, then stepped back and nodded his head again.

“Okay, here goes,” she said, pushing the truck along the edge
of the flowerbed toward a spot where he’d clearly dumped other loads.

He toddled along beside her, and when she stopped he pulled the
lever that raised the box on the dump truck, spilling his load onto the
ground.

He promptly got behind the truck and with a cacophony of
enginelike noises he drove the truck back to the spot where she’d found him. She
hugged herself against the chill of the night air. “Aren’t you cold?” she asked,
noting his fleece jacket partially zippered.

“No!” he howled, looking up at her and scrunching his tiny
face. “I’m not cold.”

“Okay. Do you want to load the dump truck again?”

“Yes.” He began shoveling dirt into the truck with his plastic
shovel, and again she wondered if anyone in the inn knew this child was out here
on his own.

“Where’s your daddy?”

He pointed to the tall windows overlooking the patio. Inside,
she could see a cluster of tables covered with white tablecloths and candles,
and staff moving around the room. The room looked so inviting with its twinkling
chandeliers, the golden walls and dark trim. She went to the window for a closer
look, only to attract the curious attention of one of the young female servers.
Embarrassed, she wiggled her fingers at her, then turned away and went back to
where Ethan was busily filling the dump truck.

“Push,” he ordered, pointing at the truck.

Dutifully, she knelt down and pushed the truck toward the dump
spot to the tune of Ethan’s squeals of delight. They dumped the dirt out
together, and then Ethan turned to her, a bright smile on his face. Wrapping his
arms around her neck, he hugged her.

Startled, at first she didn’t know what to do, but feeling his
arms tighten, she hugged him back. What a wonderful feeling! How she missed this
now that all her nieces and nephews were older. Feeling the warmth of the little
boy’s body and breathing in his little-boy scent, she felt a strong sense of
missing out on life....

He sprang out of her arms. “You help me some more?”

“Sure. But why don’t we go inside for a bit first?” she asked,
the evening air cooling rapidly.

“No!” He pushed his lips out in a pout. “I don’t want to.”

She had begun to shiver and tucked her chin into the top of her
jacket. “But it must be time for you to eat,” she offered, hoping to encourage
him to go in with her. She got up, stretched her legs and moved toward the patio
doors. “Why don’t you come with me?” she asked, glancing over at the sound of
the door opening. Henry barked and ambled toward the door, slipping past the man
back-lit by the light of the room behind him.

Luke Harrison stood there, his face in partial shadow. “Oh,
it’s you.”

“Yes, I went out for a walk around the property and discovered
Ethan playing with his dump truck.” Why did she feel nervous? Was it the
detached tone of the man’s voice? Did he think she was trying to kidnap his
son?

“One of the serving staff told me a strange woman was out here,
so I came to check.”

“I’ve been called a lot of things, but until now ‘strange’
hasn’t been one of them,” she said, making an attempt at humor. After her
previous encounter she wanted to make a better impression this time around, if
only to ease his concerns over her being here alone.

Moving toward her, he chuckled, a deep, sexy sound that made
her body tingle. “I didn’t mean to imply that you’re strange.”

“That’s a relief.”

“Thanks for being here with Ethan. I got called to the phone
and meant to return sooner than this.”

Ethan had moved to stand between them, his head tilted back,
staring up at them. “He’s going to be an engineer when he grows up,” Marnie
said.

“Or a dump-truck driver.” Luke glanced down at his son, then
back at her. “I want to apologize for the way I behaved when we first met, but I
was concerned about whether you’d enjoy your stay here with us. I don’t normally
rent that room, and certainly not on such a special occasion. How is it, by the
way?”

She remembered the bump on her head, but didn’t mention it in
case he tried again to convince her to move to the Chancellor Inn.
“It’s…cozy.”

“That’s one way of describing it,” he said, picking Ethan up in
his arms and nuzzling his rosy cheek. “You’re cold, little buddy.”

“I’m hungry,” Ethan said.

“Maybe it’s time to go inside. Want to come?” he asked her,
making her feel included, part of his world.

“Sure.” She followed them inside, and was surprised to find the
lobby bustling with activity. The first seating for dinner would begin
momentarily, and the bar across from the dining room was filled with guests,
most of them older than she was, all of them laughing and talking together.

Luke carried Ethan to the office and stepped back, inviting her
to enter the room first. “Have you met our housekeeper, Mary?” he asked, nodding
to a woman seated at a tiny desk near the back of the room.

“Nice to meet you,” Mary said, extending her hand in
welcome.

Marnie shook hands with her. “Nice to meet you, too,” she said,
taking in this woman’s open, direct smile. She liked her immediately. “I’m
looking forward to my stay here. And my room is—” she let her gaze drift to
Luke—and only one word came to mind “—gorgeous. Though a little small,” she
added, eliciting a smile from him as he lowered Ethan to the floor.

“I’ll take Ethan for his dinner and maybe I’ll see you later,”
Mary said, giving Luke a long sideways glance before taking Ethan by the hand
and leading him out.

“I’m hungry,” Ethan announced again on his way out the
door.

“How does mac and cheese sound?” Mary asked.

“Yes!” Ethan could be heard racing down the hall despite Mary’s
warning to slow down and wait for her.

“He’s a sweet little boy. He and I had a great time
outside.”

“Thanks again for watching him. I don’t usually leave him alone
like that, especially at this time of the evening.”

“Not a problem. You and your wife must be so proud of him.”

Luke’s eyes swept her face, and his expression faltered. “My
wife died three years ago, around this time, actually.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry! I didn’t know.”

“There’s no reason you should.”

Her heart went out to him. How hard it must be to lose the one
person you loved, especially at Christmas, and be left to raise a child alone.
She searched for something appropriate to say, but realized that he was past
being helped by words of sympathy. No wonder his eyes looked so haunted.

He smoothed his hand over his hair. “Would you—” He stopped as
if he remembered something. “Would you like to have dinner with me this
evening?”

He smiled his son’s smile, and Marnie was captivated. “I
would.”

“Then why don’t I meet you in the bar around nine? We could
have a drink and talk—” He shrugged. “Talk about anything you want.”

He seemed uneasy. Why? Surely he had his pick of women who
would happily go to dinner with him. “I would love to have dinner with you.” She
waited to see if he’d say anything more, and when he didn’t she headed for the
door, sucking her stomach in, hoping to appear thin and beautiful in spite of
the fact that she was still wearing the same pair of jeans she’d been napping in
only a short time ago. “See you soon,” she said.

Marnie was nearly bursting out of her skin. She had a date with
the most gorgeous man she’d ever met, and that was the truth, pure and
simple.

A real live date. Wonders never ceased.

She literally skipped up the first flight of stairs. Belatedly,
she realized that she had exactly one dress with her that would be suitable for
a date—a little black dress that was still in the bottom of her suitcase. And
one pair of canary-yellow heels to wear with it.

CHAPTER THREE

A
HALF
HOUR
LATER
M
ARNIE
stood at the
entrance to the bar, trying not to look at her feet. She had bigger problems,
she noted, as she held her head high to keep the V of her dress from puckering.
The few times she’d donned this dress she’d worn her Victoria’s Secret push-up
bra to take up the slack created by her less than impressive “front bumpers,” as
her brothers used to call them. But the bra in question was resting peacefully
back in her underwear drawer at home.

As for what was on her feet, there was nothing she could do
about that particular issue, either. She’d packed her only pair of high heels,
prepared to look different and sexy.

She had different covered, all right.

When she entered the bar, some of the men stopped talking and
watched her walk past them. Sliding up onto a bar stool, she quietly assessed
the bartender. He was a man around her age, she guessed, and the hairdresser in
her wanted the opportunity to restyle his hair, shorten the top, maybe....

He came over to her immediately, and with a welcoming smile
planted his hands on the bar. “What can I get you this evening?”

He had a pleasant voice, and his manner put her immediately at
ease. “Chardonnay?” she asked, feeling good about herself, all because she was
about to have a glass of wine while waiting for her date. So maybe it wasn’t a
regular date, and maybe there’d only be one, but one was better than none.

“Coming right up,” the bartender said, snapping open a bar
fridge under the counter behind him. She peered up at the ornate carving on the
wood framing the bar. It looked like a stag and a dove.

A woman dressed in a bright red top and black pants sat down on
the stool next to her. “Do you mind?” the woman asked, her blond hair—a good
color job, Marnie noted—swaying around her high cheek bones and sparkling blue
eyes.

“Not at all. I’m Marnie.” She smiled, happy to have someone to
chat with while she waited for Luke.

“I’m Cindy. So nice to meet you.”

“You, too. Are you staying at the inn?”

“Yes. It’s our fifth wedding anniversary. My husband and I were
married here in Wakesfield just before Christmas five years ago. The minister
from the local Episcopalian church married us. I wanted a church wedding so
much, and my husband was willing to go along.” She adjusted the neckline of her
red top. “You know how men are about weddings. They’d just as soon go to a
justice of the peace, but I wanted a big wedding.”

“I did, too, once,” Marnie said, drawn to this woman’s
openness.

“Are you married? Are you taking part in the Christmas Getaway
event?”

Marnie tucked her naked ring finger out of sight. “No, but the
getaway sounds like fun.”

“When we heard about it, my husband and I were thrilled. He
doesn’t usually take this much time off so close to Christmas, but I talked him
into it. One of the couples we met this afternoon is also here celebrating an
anniversary.” She glanced toward the door. “I don’t know what can be keeping my
husband. Even though we’re on holiday, he’s calling his office, but it shouldn’t
be taking this long.”

Glad to be off the hook on the marriage thing, Marnie leaned
forward wondering where her drink was. She noticed that her dress was gaping
open, and she pushed her shoulders back. “Where does your husband work?”

“He owns a business in Boston. And he’s always so busy, I worry
about him.”

“It takes a lot to start a business these days, but it’s even
harder to make a success of it.”

“Don’t I know it! I’d like to start a family, but my sweetie
feels we’re not ready. He says after he hires one more salesperson, we’ll be
able to concentrate on starting a family.” She smiled wistfully at Marnie. “Do
you have children—”

“One California Chardonnay.” The bartender interrupted their
conversation, his gaze sharp as he placed the wineglass on a Christmas napkin in
front of Marnie. “Are you staying at the inn?” he asked.

Sweet relief! Saved by a drink. “Yes, as a matter of fact, I
am. Nice spot. I’ve never been here before, but it’s really lovely,” she said,
happy to chat with him rather than answer questions that would raise the issue
of her being here alone. She’d have to be careful to keep a low profile while
she worked on the questionnaires.

“You’ll love it here, trust me. Isn’t that the truth, Cindy?”
he asked, taking the drink order of the woman sitting next to her—a dry
martini.

“It is. We’ve come back here on our anniversary the past two
years. And Jack’s the best martini maker in the state. I had my first martini
right here at this bar on my wedding night.”

“I remember that night. The entire inn was booked for your
wedding,” Jack said, taking down a bottle of gin from the shelf at the back of
the bar.

As he moved down the bar to prepare the martini, Marnie watched
him, searching her memory for some of the questions she’d need answered in order
to complete the bar section of the survey.

Cindy gave him a grateful smile when he returned. “Thank you,”
she said, reaching for the glass.

He placed the napkin in front of her as she took the glass.
“Enjoy.”

Jack turned to another customer, leaving Marnie to observe the
efficient way he moved, mixing drinks while keeping up a flow of conversation
with the patrons. He certainly knew his job, she mused, watching him as he
loaded a blender with ingredients from the fridge and the counter in front of
him.

“Is this bar always this busy?” she asked Cindy.

“Yes. And I’m sure Jack has a lot to do with it,” she said, her
voice trailing off. Again her gaze moved to the door. “What could be keeping my
husband? I’d like you to meet him.”

“I’m sure he’ll be along soon,” she offered to ease the woman’s
obvious anxiety. “Do you live in Boston?”

With a huge smile, Cindy answered. “We live in Boston. I’m a
kindergarten teacher, and I love it. The four- and five-year-olds are so
cute.”

“Like Ethan?”

“Oh, you’ve met him already? Isn’t he the sweetest little boy?
And so sad that he lost his mommy.”

“Yeah. It must have been hard for his dad, too.” Marnie checked
her watch, wondering where Luke could be.

“I see we’re in the same boat.” Cindy nodded at Marnie’s watch.
“We’re both waiting for the men in our lives.” Cindy smiled at someone behind
Marnie. “And here’s mine now.”

Marnie turned on her stool and nearly fell off. Coming toward
them was Brad Parker, the man she’d nearly married eleven years ago. The man who
told her he couldn’t marry her because he didn’t want a wife who put her career
first. What he really meant was he couldn’t give up the playmate he’d stashed
away in an apartment in downtown Boston.

For about ten seconds Marnie considered walking out of the bar
to avoid him. But she hadn’t done anything wrong, unless you counted falling in
love with a loser. A love that died the evening she’d grown suspicious of his
frequent business demands and followed him across town to his girlfriend’s
place. She’d nearly turned her brothers loose on him, but she decided that he
wasn’t worth it.

She watched, waiting for his phony smile to come her way, as
she knew it would. Brad could never resist sizing up the women in any room he
entered. And sure enough, after a smile tossed his wife’s way his eyes swerved
to her. The muted light of the bar was still bright enough to expose the sudden
blanching of his skin and the rigor mortis smile claiming his handsome
features.

“Marnie, this is my husband, Brad Parker. Brad, this is
Marnie.” Cindy looked from Marnie to her husband, her face beaming.

Feeling nothing for the man standing in front of her, Marnie
waited for Brad to say something to smooth over the awkward moment, something
Brad was very good at when he wanted to be. If he used his usual technique, he’d
make some remark about where they might have met, and she’d take her cue from
him.

He hesitated. Then he moved in between them, his arm going
around his wife’s shoulders as he stared at Marnie. “Do I know you?” he
asked.

“You look familiar,” she said, her smile easy, despite her
shock at seeing him and his refusal to at least acknowledge her.

“I’m often mistaken for other people. Don’t know why,” Brad
said, his cautionary gaze fixed on Marnie.

Leave it to Brad to take the coward’s way out, but Cindy
clearly loved her husband, and Marnie wouldn’t do anything to hurt her. She
forced a smile. “Probably that’s it.”

There was a long pause during which Brad waved the bartender
over. “I’ll have a double bourbon.”

Cindy finished her drink in one long swallow, and placed the
empty glass on the bar. “Honey, I’m going to the ladies’ room, but I’ll be back,
and then the three of us can have a drink together.”

“I’ll be right here, waiting for you,” Brad said, pulling her
hard against him and kissing her on the mouth.

Marnie waited until Cindy left the bar. “Brad, I—”

“What are you doing here?” Brad asked, as he looked her up and
down.

For years she’d dreamed of meeting Brad somewhere and calling
him out on his scandalous behavior, but not tonight. Tonight she intended to
rise above all the pain that he’d caused her.

But as she gazed into his eyes and saw not a hint of remorse
for what he’d done the words spilled out. “I’m here to enjoy myself, and that
means staying away from you. Remember me? I’m the woman you almost married. Let
me see, it was just a couple of weeks before our wedding day as I remember it,
and you and…what was her name?” She frowned to cover the hurt she was feeling
inside. “You had an urgent meeting in her bedroom. I believe she was a lawyer
from the law firm your company dealt with—Mary Ellen something or other.”

He downed his drink. “Marnie, I’d really appreciate it if you’d
not mention this in front of my wife.”

“Give me a little credit,” she snorted.

He glanced past her, frowning as he twirled his empty glass.
“We’re here for the Christmas getaway, or whatever the hell they call it.”

“Trying for a few brownie points? Is she catching on to your
story? The one where you pretend to be so busy at work that you can’t be at home
with her?”

“Your bitchiness is showing,” he muttered.

She caught the bartender watching her, bringing her back to her
senses. “Brad, I want you to know that as angry as I was back then, I now
realize that marrying you would have been the biggest mistake of my life.”

“Okay, so can we leave it there?” he asked, anxiously glancing
around.

“Is everything okay?” Cindy asked, appearing around the corner
of the bar and startling them both.

“Everything’s just fine, darling.” He put his arm around Cindy,
towering over her. “I’ve got a surprise for you. I was saving it for
tonight.”

“What’s that?” Cindy asked, her face turned up to his.

“We’re going back to our room and ordering champagne, followed
by room service, followed by a little rug time in front of the fireplace.” He
winked at Marnie behind his wife’s back.

Cindy blushed and smiled sheepishly at Marnie. “I’m sorry, but
can we have a rain check on the drinks? I’m sure we’ll see each other again
during our stay. Maybe you and your boyfriend can have dinner with us some
evening.”

“Sounds lovely,” Marnie said, dredging up as much sincerity as
she could muster.

“Then it’s settled. Maybe you and I could go into Wakesfield to
shop tomorrow?”

“Maybe,” Marnie said, making a mental note to steer clear of
both of them.

“Let’s go,” Brad said urgently.

Cindy giggled and linked her arm through his as they moved off
toward the door, and Marnie immediately started planning how to stay clear of
Brad and Cindy for the remainder of her stay. Since they were here on their
anniversary they wouldn’t come down early for breakfast, she figured. As for
lunch, she’d be sure to arrive early and sit at a table for two, and for dinner
she could always order room service—whatever it took to avoid them.

She was still mulling over her plan when she saw the bartender
approaching her.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

“Yes, why?”

“You looked…anxious, a little upset.” His squint was quizzical.
“Are you friends with the Parkers?”

“No. No, I… We were just talking,” she mumbled, struggling to
remember if either she or Brad had raised their voices.

She didn’t want any reports going back to Luke about her
behavior at the bar. He was already far too paranoid about her being here alone.
Learning that she’d had some sort of interaction with one of his precious
getaway couples could wreak a whole lot of havoc. And she was definitely not
into havoc.

Jack hesitated. “Can I get you anything?”

“No, I’m waiting for Luke. He must have been delayed.”

Upset and out of sorts over her altercation with Brad, she took
a good big sip from her glass of wine and gave the drink menu the once-over as
she planted a pleasant expression on her face and offered up a prayer that Luke
Harrison would make an appearance soon.

* * *

L
UKE
SIGHED
AS
HE
LISTENED
to Jack describing a woman
at the bar, a description that fit Marnie McLaughlan perfectly. Why had he
agreed to meet her there of all places? Why had he agreed to have dinner with
her? “Yeah, that’s her.”

“Still no indication as to when the husband’s arriving?” Jack
asked, over the din of the bar.

“None, and I talked to her not that long ago.”

“And what did she say?”

“Not much. It’s a long story. I wish her husband would show
up.”

“Might be a good idea. She just had a pretty heated discussion
with the Parkers before they left for dinner. I can’t be sure what it was about,
but she and Brad definitely knew each other.”

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