Authors: Stella MacLean
Tags: #Romance, #Contemporary, #Fiction
And humiliate herself in front of the one man she’d met in
years who truly seemed like a decent guy.
Her fingers fairly danced over the keys of her cell phone in
her rush to reach Scott. He answered on the first ring.
“How could you do this to me?”
“Hello, Marnie, and what did I do to you?”
“You registered me as one half of a couple, using your name,
and I just spent a humiliating hour being grilled by the staff and the manager
over the fact that I’m here alone.”
“I’m sorry, Marnie. I had no choice. They’d only take the
booking if I made the reservation under both our names. Is that a problem?”
She nearly choked on her anger. “No, not at all, if you don’t
mind being told by the manager that you can’t stay unless you pretend to be his
assistant so no one will see a single person here during the Christmas Getaway
event for couples—only couples. But the most fun of all is that I have to lie to
people about who I am,” Marnie yelled.
Someone knocked at the door. “Is everything all right?” a man’s
Damn! All she needed was for someone to go down to the desk and
complain about a crazy woman screaming on the third floor. “I’m fine,” she
called through the door, summoning the voice she used to calm unhappy
“Who are you talking to?” Scott asked.
“You. I’m talking to you. I’m not spending the next three days
here under these circumstances.”
“Point taken. But calm down a little while I think.”
“There’s nothing to think about! I’m coming back tomorrow. You
and your questionnaire are history. Don’t ever ask me to do anything for you
There was a long silence, giving Marnie time to catch her
breath and settle onto the bed, being careful not to hit her head this time.
“Did you hear me?”
“I did. I did. But look, I really need this survey done, and
you’re the only person I can call on at such short notice to do it.”
“But why do you need it if they’re simply going to sell the inn
“I told you. They have this buyer who’s interested, but he
doesn’t want any problems on the operational front. He’s looking for a turnkey
operation, and Angus McAndrew is determined to sell him one. That’s where you
“And if I find a problem?”
“Just get the forms filled out and get them off to me. Angus is
calling daily to hear if there are any problems, and I need to know the minute
you find anything, understood?”
Scott never allowed anything to get in the way of what he
wanted. He’d been like that since the day he found out he stood to qualify for
the Olympic swimming team. He’d not only practiced with the best coach
available, he’d driven himself and the rest of his family nearly crazy in his
quest to achieve his goal, and he had succeeded. He was a champion athlete—the
pride of the McLaughlan clan. “I’m not sure if this will work.”
“I’m depending on you, Marnie. Don’t let me down.”
She didn’t know what to say. She was here, and she’d promised
to do this for him. She owed him a lot, and this was the first time he’d ever
asked her for a favor. “I wish I hadn’t agreed to this.”
“Look, I know you can do it, and I’ve kept my side of the
bargain. Mom thinks you’re away with no cell-phone access, so we’ve both had to
tell little white lies.”
“And your little white lie will also get me in trouble with Mom
if she finds out the truth. She’ll never blame you. She’ll blame me for putting
you up to it.”
“No, Marnie. If it ever comes out, I’ll take full
responsibility. I promise.”
“Then take responsibility now. Call the inn and tell them the
“What? That you’re there under false pretenses? That not only
are you not married, but that you’re there to check up on the inn’s operations?
What would that accomplish?”
“I don’t know.... You can’t tell them why I’m here, but you
could tell them we’re not married, that you made a mistake. With the way my life
is going at the moment, they’d probably ask me to leave.”
“Why? You’re a paying guest.”
But how could she have any relationship with Luke that wasn’t
based on honesty? As long as Luke believed she was married, and she didn’t tell
him the truth, there would be no chance for anything with him beyond the
occasional cup of coffee.
“The manager has offered me to pose as his assistant for the
duration of my stay, and as nutty as that sounds, it might work at least until
you tell the truth.”
“Then do it. You go along with the idea of being the manager’s
assistant. That will make your mystery-guest job easier, and you can be out of
there by the latest the day after tomorrow.”
“Have you forgotten that I came here partly to rethink my
“Okay, then what about this? You get your survey questions done
ASAP. And once Christmas is over, I’ll buy you a ticket to any vacation spot you
She had to hand it to her brother; he had a gift when it came
“Listen, Marnie. I’m really sorry about all this, and I’ll fix
it, I promise.”
Her brother had all the answers. And if she went home now, her
mother would want her to be Mrs. Claus.
“I want to go to Hawaii the first week of January. And I want a
second ticket so I can take someone with me.”
“Are you hiding something, Marnie?”
“No, I’m not hiding anything. I just don’t want to go to Hawaii
by myself.” She had no idea who she’d invite, but she figured Scott didn’t have
to know that.
“Agreed. Now I’ve got to go to bed, get my handsome rest,” he
“Sleep will not make you handsome. A few spa treatments,
“Don’t have time for such pampering, but I do need to get some
rest with the holiday season in full swing here. Talk later,” he said.
“When you have my tickets ready,” she reminded him.
“Don’t worry, Marnie. I realize that you’re off to a bad start,
but things will get better.”
“And you know that because…?”
“Because you’re my baby sister and I love you.”
“You have a strange way of showing it,” she said, before
snapping her phone shut, ignoring the warm feelings his words provoked.
Regardless of how angry Scott could make her, she still wanted his approval. It
had always been that way between them, mostly because he’d been the one brother
of the four who had always been there for her.
She gazed around the room, at the mess she’d made of her
clothes in her rush to find her black dress. In her haste, she’d forgotten she’d
packed a black lace bra and panties and the hot-pink bustier, just in case she
That was before she discovered that the only available male at
the inn wanted her to disappear. She couldn’t tell him she wasn’t married, and
she certainly couldn’t tell him about the questionnaires she was working on. If
he discovered that she was spying on his inn, it would be the end of
That left her with one option. She would enjoy tonight’s dinner
while she prepared her explanation to Luke. She would tell him what her brother
did, and what he’d asked her to do. That she couldn’t lie to him regardless of
what perks her brother offered. If Luke was still interested in her after that,
then they might have a chance. If not, it was better for her to learn that now
before her heart got involved.
She was about to put the bustier back into her suitcase when
someone tapped on the door. It had to be room service with her dinner. “I’ll be
right there,” she called out, tucking the bustier behind her back and opening
Before her stood Luke dressed in a dark suit and a tie that
matched the green of his eyes. “I decided to deliver your dinner myself.”
, I really appreciate this,” she
said, dropping the bustier on the floor behind her, and kicking it behind the
door with her foot as she reached for the cart.
He pushed the serving table into the tiny room, wedging it
between the bed and the door to the bathroom.
“Do you mind if I stay a minute so we can talk?” Luke
“Talk? S-sure,” she said, reluctantly closing the door and
praying he wouldn’t notice the bustier among the rest of the clothing strewn
across the floor. “Sorry for the mess.”
He chuckled and shook his head. “Don’t worry about it.” Then
his face took on a more serious expression. “Scott called me just a few minutes
ago, and said how sorry he was for making a mistake involving the booking.”
“He what?” Had her brother found an easy way out of the whole
Mr. and Mrs. debacle?
“He wanted me to understand that he was the one who made the
“Exactly! Yes,” she said. Heat rose in her cheeks as she
envisioned the possibilities that were now tantalizingly within her reach. She
could only hope that Mary was babysitting Ethan tonight.
“I wish I’d known earlier, I wouldn’t have been so blunt with
you. Your husband said he made the booking as a special vacation for the two of
you, and then he suddenly got called away on business.”
“Called away on business?” she croaked. While she’d been trying
to come to terms with how she’d manage to work for this man, and do the
find a way to explain things,
Scott had gone behind her back again and told another one of his ridiculous
It all had to stop now because when the truth came out—and it
would—she would lose all her credibility with Luke. Besides, she refused to
spend the next few days before Christmas lying to this man who had been nothing
but honest with her.
* * *
McLaughlan’s eyes glistened, and he admired her control. He didn’t know how he’d
feel if faced with having to stay alone at an inn when it was supposed to be a
romantic vacation. “Scott said he wasn’t sure when he’d be able to join you
here, but in the meantime I want you to know that you can still be my assistant
if you’d like.” He shrugged.
“Thanks,” she said. “But I’m not sure I can stay.”
He could identify with loneliness, with being the one single
person in a sea of couples. “You’ve been a good sport about this. And Ethan
likes you. When I was putting him to bed tonight, he explained to me that you’re
his new friend.”
Her expression brightened. “He is so sweet.”
“So what do you say? Why not enjoy your dinner, and we’ll talk
tomorrow morning. I usually have breakfast with Ethan around six-thirty. Would
you like to have a hot date with the only two unattached males in the
“I would love that. I’ve never had a date with two men before
in my life.”
“Then I hope we live up to your expectations.”
“I’m sure you will,” she said, the look of happiness on her
face, making him want to hug her. He liked this woman with the short haircut and
the yellow high heels. It had been a long time since he’d felt the way he was
feeling this minute.
He opened the door, before turning toward her one last time.
“Wait until you see what Ethan eats for breakfast.”
“I’m looking forward to it,” she said and waved.
* * *
Marnie had changed again. The trouble was he couldn’t imagine why any woman who
loved her husband would want to stay by herself at an inn filled with married
couples. It was such a lonely way to spend the days leading up to Christmas.
Surely she had friends or family she could visit instead of coming to an inn on
There was something about the situation that didn’t sit right
Gullible, that’s what you are. Or starved
for female company.
He hadn’t told Marnie the whole conversation he’d had with
Scott McLaughlan. Scott was less than convincing when he explained that he’d
been called away on business, and his eagerness to have Marnie stay at the inn
made it sound as if he wanted his wife out of his way. The guy was probably
having an affair.
And Marnie’s behavior at the bar last night raised further
questions in his mind. He’d spoken with Jack again last evening after he left
Marnie’s room, and Jack was convinced that Brad Parker and Marnie McLaughlan
knew one another. The other odd thing Jack said was that after the Parkers left
the bar, Marnie had asked all kinds of questions about how the bar operated.
Luke glanced impatiently toward the entrance of the dining
room. There was still no sign of Marnie, and there were two couples already
seated in the dining room. Adele and Thomas Lewis, and Mae and Walter Pearson,
both great couples and repeat guests. They were also avid hikers and were
leaving shortly on a two-mile trek that they’d arranged with the guide the night
Last evening Marnie had seemed interested in staying at the inn
and helping out. So where was she?
“Daddy, more syrup,” Ethan demanded, pointing to his
half-finished plate of French toast.
“You’ve had enough,” he said absent-mindedly.
“Hi!” Ethan yelled, wiggling in his seat and smiling at
“Hi, yourself.” Marnie slid into the chair next to Ethan and
across from Luke. “Sorry I’m late, but I couldn’t sleep last night. I went out
for a walk this morning to clear my head and left my watch in my room.” She
picked up her napkin and spread it on her lap, watching the female server who
was pouring coffee for her.
It was still dark outside.
A walk in the
he wanted to ask, but left it. It was none of his business.
“We need to get organized for the day ahead. It’s going to be a
busy one,” he said, hearing the stiffness in his tone. Once again, he was drawn
to her, to her bright smile, her easy manner. No wonder Ethan liked her. Hell,
despite all his misgivings, he still liked her.
“Finished!” Ethan stated in his outdoor voice as he spotted
Mary coming toward the table.
Mary took Ethan’s hand. “Come with me, and we’ll get you ready
for day care.”
Ethan leaned toward his father. “Miss you.”
Luke pulled his son into his arms, his heart pressing against
his throat. How he loved these words spoken every morning by his son, words that
kept him centered. “Miss you, too, buddy. Have a good day, and I’ll see you when
you get home.”
He watched his son leave the dining room before turning his
attention to the woman sitting across from him.
“This is so beautiful,” she said, nodding at the large space
with its tall windows, gleaming wood floors and linen-draped tables.
“The inn belonged to a lumber baron during the years when
lumber was the main export in this part of the country. It was a lavish home,
complete with its own water system located on the roof of the house. There used
to be horse stables with carriages, but they were lost in a fire sixty years
“Imagine living in so much luxury. It must have been a magical
life.” Her eyes shone with wonder, and he could see how easily people would like
her, how easily she would make friends.
But they weren’t friends, and he needed a few more answers from
her. “We have a problem.”
* * *
on the single rose in the
center of the table. She had no idea what was coming next, but after a restless
night she knew one thing for certain. She wanted a chance to get to know Luke
Harrison. It had been so long since she’d met a man she genuinely liked. It was
no secret that she was lousy at picking men, and maybe her interest in Luke was
a lost cause, but she had a right to find out one way or the other. “What sort
“I don’t understand why you’d want to stay at the inn when your
husband isn’t here.”
She squeezed her napkin, trying to soothe the apprehension
gnawing at her gut. Scott’s stupid lie had gotten her in a ton of trouble, and
now she was faced with a choice. She could perpetuate the lie, or she could tell
Luke the truth. She desperately wanted a chance with him, but she couldn’t spend
another night wrestling with her conscience. “I have to explain something to
you.” She took a deep breath and looked into his gorgeous, trusting eyes. Oh,
God… “Scott is not my husband. He’s my brother.”
Luke’s expression froze. “Would you care to explain that?” he
asked, his voice tight.
Marnie wanted to crawl under the table, slink out of the room
and make a run for her car. Instead she studied the huge silver Christmas tree
near the window while she collected her scattered thoughts. Luke was angry and
she couldn’t blame him. “My brother wanted me to be able to stay here at your
inn. I needed a break away from my… I’m selling my hair-and-aesthetics salon,
and I needed a little time to think about the future.”
“You could have done that at any number of resorts. I offered
you the Chancellor. Why this one?” he demanded, his words harsh.
What could she say? If she told him about the questionnaire,
there was no way he’d ever speak to her again. Clutching her napkin tight in her
fingers, she wished she could tell him the whole truth, that there wouldn’t be
any secrets between them. “I’d read about your inn, and it was so picturesque,
“And you wanted to stay here.” His eyes were hard.
She was certain she’d just lost any chance she had with him.
“Yes, but then when I got here and realized that it was just couples…”
“You wondered how you ever got a booking here.”
She nodded slowly. “When I found out that Scott had told the
story of us being husband and wife in order to make the reservation, I was
upset, and I…” She rubbed her forehead in desperation. This wasn’t going well at
all. “I should have told you the truth last night. I’m sorry.”
“And you had no idea that your brother had said you were
husband and wife in order to make the reservation?”
“I had no idea,” she said, with a sigh of relief. Keeping the
truth from him even for a few hours had been so difficult.
Her shoulders ached from the tension, her eyes hurt from lack
of sleep. It was over now. Whether she wanted to or not, she couldn’t stay here,
especially now that Luke knew what outrageous lengths her brother had gone to in
order to get her a reservation.
There was nothing she could say that would change what Luke
thought of her and her crazy brother. Scott could find someone else to be his
mystery guest. She didn’t want the job.
“Now that you know the truth, there’s no reason for me to
stay.” She pushed her chair back from the table, her appetite gone. “I’ll pack
my bags. This was a serious mistake, and I want you to know how sorry I am. I
didn’t mean to deceive you.”
His scowl eased, and a smile edged the corners of his mouth.
“Wait a minute. Are you saying you don’t want to be my assistant for a few
“I…I don’t understand.”
“Does it really matter why you came here? You’re here. I’m
facing the busiest season of the year, and I need help. If you own a beauty
salon you know how to manage people and clients. I could use your expertise for
a few days.”
She couldn’t believe her ears. “You mean it?”
“I do. You said you came here for the spa facility, and I could
use your input on the spa. Anything you see that might be done differently or
make the spa experience for our clients more enjoyable, I’d like to hear about
it. I’m not into that sort of thing, but it’s an important guest service. I’d be
willing to pay your for your time and expertise. What do you say?”
She wanted to help him more than anything in the world. To have
a chance to spend time with him without Scott’s stupid marriage lie coming
And after all, she’d come here uncertain of her future plans,
and she’d been handed an opportunity to learn about a new type of business that
involved the public.
Oh, yes, and she’d promised her lying brother that she’d do his
damned survey, even though at the moment, it was her last priority. While she
had her hair and nails done, and enjoyed a nice massage, she’d decide what to do
She sighed in relief. “Sure, I’d love to stay, but you don’t
have to pay me.”
“I want to.”
“No, you don’t have to pay me. You’ve given me an opportunity
to stay here and give you input on your spa. But, what if somebody’s wife gets
“Stay close, keep a low profile and let me worry about the
Sticking close to this man wouldn’t be a problem. “You sound so
He nodded. “I’m interested in your input. By the way, what does
your brother do for a living?”
Not her brother again. “Mostly he makes my life miserable,” she
The sound of Luke’s laughter filled the room. “Wish I had a
brother to drive me nuts.”
“I have four, take your pick. I’ll trade you one brother for a
month of R & R at your inn.” She took a sip of her coffee, her mind
luxuriating in the fact that she would get to spend some time with Luke after
“Well, that’s settled. Welcome to the staff of The Mirabel,” he
said, his disarming smile doing strange and awesome things to her.
“I’d better eat my breakfast. I see you’ve already finished.”
She wasn’t the least bit hungry, but a piece of toast might be a good idea.
He waved his hand, and a server appeared. “My assistant would
like…” He arched his eyebrows at her.