Read The Christmas Inn Online

Authors: Stella MacLean

Tags: #Romance, #Contemporary, #Fiction

The Christmas Inn (8 page)

BOOK: The Christmas Inn
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“Toast. Whole wheat toast.”

After the server left, Marnie smoothed her napkin over her lap
while all sorts of thoughts swam through her head. “Running a place like this
must have its challenges,” she said. They made small talk as she sipped her
coffee, and the pretty, young server returned with her toast.

Once she’d finished it, she wiped her lips on her napkin and
placed it beside her plate. “So, I have to get to my manicure appointment, only
I don’t know where the spa is.”

He pointed toward an archway leading from the dining room to a
back corridor. “Straight through there, and to the right. Can’t miss it.”

“Thank you.”

“See you in my office when you’re finished.”

* * *

T
HE
DOOR
TO
THE
SPA
was a deep mahogany-red with gold letters announcing Spa Delights.
Marnie eased the door open and a woman with a mass of long red hair and a
welcoming smile greeted her. “I’m Francine, and you must be Marnie McLaughlan.
Love your name, by the way. Not a common name in these parts.”

“Probably not anywhere else, either,” Marnie responded,
instantly liking this woman.

“You’re booked for hair and nails first, so I’m going to take
you to Lucy, who’ll do your nails, and then to Eileen for your hair. Your
massage will be with me. How does that sound?”

“Wonderful.” She followed Francine to where Lucy waited at the
manicure table.

“Enjoy yourself. I’ll see you later.”

Marnie studied her half-chewed nails and torn cuticles before
holding them out to Lucy. She’d been so preoccupied with selling her salon that
she hadn’t bothered to have her nails done. Not a great advertisement for
someone in the business…well, not in the business much longer. “Looks like
you’ve got your work cut out for you,” she said.

Lucy grinned and put a bowl of warm, soapy water in front of
her. “Let’s start with your cuticles.”

The woman worked away on Marnie’s nails, and although she was
friendly, her technique was lacking. She didn’t get out a new emery board for
the nail filing, and she smeared the polish remover over Marnie’s fingers
instead of just on the nail beds. Because this spa would have few repeat
clients, it ought to be using disposable tools or putting those nondisposable
tools through a thorough cleaning process. Fungal infections were easily spread
by lack of proper clean technique and hard to get rid of once a nail was
infected. As for the nail polish remover, the drying effects of the solution
would dry the cuticles even more.

She made a mental note of deficiencies she’d experienced with
the manicurist. The selection of hair products Eileen used on her was
professional with lots of client choice. She didn’t have her hair cut or
trimmed, so she’d have to leave those questions unanswered. Once Eileen had
finished blow-drying her hair, Francine appeared and led Marnie to a room where
muted light and soft music created a restful space.

Once she had positioned herself on the state-of-the-art massage
table, Francine began her massage, putting Marnie instantly at ease. “So, you’re
going to be Luke’s new assistant.”

“Wow! News travels fast.”

“This is a very close-knit group of people, and we all care
about Luke. He’s been through so much.”

Marnie couldn’t resist the subject of Luke. “I was told his
wife died.”

“In a car accident just before Christmas three years ago. You
can’t imagine what a sad place the inn was that year. He wanted to cancel all
the reservations, but everyone pitched in and took over for him. He was
incapable of anything other than tending to Ethan. We were all afraid he might
have a nervous breakdown.”

“He loved his wife a lot,” Marnie said, wishing that someone
might love her that much some day.

“He did. And she loved him, but Anna was headstrong and
determined about everything. If she’d listened to him when he told her to stay
in Boston that night, maybe she’d still be alive today. And that’s the part Luke
struggled with for months after she died, and still does.”

“She probably just wanted to get home to her husband and
child.”

“That’s true, but I don’t know if Luke saw it that way. And how
could he when what she did destroyed his life, and left his son without a
mother?”

“But surely he can’t believe his life is over. A man like Luke
shouldn’t have any trouble finding someone to love.”

Francine sighed. “He’s shut himself off. It’s as if he can’t
bring himself to care for another woman. His whole life is Ethan and this
inn.”

“How different his life must be now.”

“Luke’s been lucky to have Mary Cunningham. She’s been like a
grandmother to Ethan, and Luke couldn’t have managed without her. We all take
turns babysitting Ethan when we’re needed.”

“It does sound like one big family.”

“Even more so since Anna died. Luke passed up a promotion five
years ago because he wanted to stay here. With Ethan in his life now, he’s even
more determined to stay put.”

Angus McAndrew and his management team probably wouldn’t
understand a man who wouldn’t take a promotion because of his attachment to a
community. They’d want to know if the manager was operating the inn with the
intention of supporting his staff, rather than supporting their profit goals.
“What if the manager’s job here wasn’t available?”

“He’d look for a job in the area,” Francine said with
certainty.

“You have to admire someone who knows what he wants.”

“Well, you’ll find out soon enough, Luke can be a very
demanding boss.”

Francine finished the massage, and Marnie regretted that she
couldn’t simply stay and have a nap. “That felt so good.”

“I’m pleased, and I hope you like your job here at The Mirabel
Inn. I don’t know if anyone told you this, but Anna was Luke’s assistant before
he proposed to her. He hasn’t had an assistant since they were married, so you
must be pretty good at what you do.”

It was so weird to feel flattered over something that wasn’t
really true. Luke hadn’t picked her to be his assistant because she was good at
it. He picked her because he felt sorry for her. “Thank you for the
massage.”

“You’re welcome, and I’m sure we’ll see you around.”

Marnie signed the bill to her room and left. Her cell phone was
buzzing where she’d left it on the top of the dresser when she unlocked the
door. She checked the call display.

“Scott, what do you want now?”

“Is that any way to greet your dear brother?”

“Skip the chitchat. What do you want?”

A moment of silence was followed by an exaggerated sigh from
Scott. “I guess I want to know why you’re in such a bad mood.”

“You told Luke Harrison that you’d arranged a trip to this inn
as a surprise for me, your beloved wife, and then you said that business had
called you away.”

“Whoa! You and this Luke guy must be getting pretty friendly
for him to have shared that information with you.”

“Friendly or not, you had no business lying…again.”

“I’m sorry, Marnie. I wanted to fix things, to make your stay
there as easy for you as possible. I had no idea that you and he were close
enough to discuss such things.”

Did her brother have no scruples? “What do you want?”

“Mom is calling me wanting to know when you’ll be back. I told
her three days, but now she wants to talk to you. It seems your Mrs. Claus suit
arrived today.”

Because she was the only one in the family who was single it
was assumed she would be available for whatever anyone in the family needed, and
she was sick of it. She wanted to enjoy her time here with Luke, she didn’t want
to be here under false pretenses, and what she wanted mattered. “I’ll worry
about Mom later. And I’m not going to do your mystery-guest thing.”

“You what?” Scott yelled.

Scott never yelled. He had too many other techniques for
getting what he wanted. She held the phone away from her ear for a moment. “You
heard me.”

“Listen, you promised you’d do it, and I need it done. In case
you’ve forgotten, you’ll have a great vacation on me afterward, along with a
friend. This isn’t fair. I can’t go back to Advantage and tell them that my
little sister chickened out, can I?”

“You tell them anything you want. I quit.”

“Then I’ll cancel your trip to Hawaii, and bill you for your
room.”

“You wouldn’t.”

“A deal’s a deal.”

“I’ll pay my own bill.”

“And sit in a strange inn for the next few days at your own
expense? Why would you do that?”

So that she could simply enjoy her time with Luke, her
conscience clear while she got to know the man. But what if there was no
relationship to pursue with Luke? What if it turned out that she’d wasted all
her money, and made her mother upset, simply to chase a dream?

Besides, she couldn’t tell Scott her real reason for wanting to
stay, especially if it turned out like so many of her relationships. The
questions weren’t difficult, and the forms shouldn’t take long to complete, and
if it meant so much to Scott that he was willing to lie to get a booking here,
it had to be important. “Okay. I’ll finish your survey.”

“That’s my sister,” he whooped.

“It means that much to you?”

He didn’t answer right away. “Yeah, it does. Thanks. And I’m
sorry for lying to get a booking.”

Her brother actually sounded sincere. Could he be going through
some sort of seismic personality shift? No. Not Scott. “I’ve got to go.”

“Stay in touch,” he ordered, the old Scott back in charge.

* * *

L
UKE
SAT
IN
HIS
OFFICE
,
staring out at the back lawn that swooped up the
hill to a line of spruce and fir trees. Winter had been late in arriving this
year, but if the weather report he’d just read was correct, Mother Nature was
about to make up for it by dumping eight inches of snow on the region. The storm
was slowly making its way up the eastern seaboard and had already brought
traffic to a halt in parts of Delaware.

But with Christmas Eve two days away, he had bigger issues on
his mind. He’d reviewed the menus for the entire week, remembering to keep the
season festive while meeting the whims of his guests and the constraints of the
impending weather. He loved the Christmas Eve dinner they held for the guests.
Some of the recipes on the menu were from a local cookbook that his mother had
given him when she and Dad had sold their beachfront condo on Kiawah Island,
South Carolina.

“Hope I’m not late,” Max Anderson said, coming into the office
and closing the door behind him, a sheaf of printouts in his hand.

“No, not at all. I’ve just been going over our menus for the
next week, and checking on the weather report.”

“Me, too. I hope Jack’s baby doesn’t decide to arrive in the
middle of a snowstorm.”

“I’ve offered Lindsay and Jack the Hummer if they need it. I
tried to convince him to stay home, but he said he’d wait and see what the
weather was like.” Luke remembered the day Ethan was born, how overjoyed he and
Anna felt.

Max pulled up a chair next to the desk. “Well, we need to go
over our menu contingency plan in case the storm causes delivery problems. “

They worked on how they’d manage in the event of a storm,
should the weather make the roads impassable. Max was like a brother to Luke,
and when Luke had taken the job at The Mirabel Inn, he’d convinced his friend to
move up with him, leaving a hotel job he had in Virginia.

After three cups of coffee, Luke felt they were prepared for
anything. Max had agreed to order additional essentials right away, just in
case.

When they were finished Max leaned forward with a quizzical
look on his face. “By the way, I just had a strange experience. I was walking
past the library when I spotted a woman sitting near the window. She was running
her fingers over the windowsill, and then she got up and walked around the room,
checking the tabletops and the fireplace mantel.” Max rubbed his head. “If I
didn’t know better, I’d say she was checking for dust. Thank God Mary was
nowhere in sight. She’s got little tolerance for anyone who dares to imply that
the cleaning isn’t up to par.”

“That’s odd. What did the woman look like?”

“She was around five foot five, with short dark hair, and she
was wearing a pair of jeans and a bright orange T-shirt. The couples taking part
in the Christmas Getaway event must be younger than I thought.”

Luke had a pretty good idea who was loitering in the library.
She should have been in his office with him, not out there drawing attention to
herself. “I’ll look into it,” he said, getting out of his chair and heading for
the library.

He didn’t want it to be Marnie. He’d explained to her that it
would be best if she didn’t wander around too much by herself, and raise
questions in the minds of the other guests. And what was she doing in the
library checking for dust? Unease rose through him, followed by annoyance. Last
night she’d been asking questions about the bar and now she’d been inspecting
the library when she was supposed to find him after she finished up at the
spa.

When he first reached the library the room appeared to be
empty. Then he saw her over by the windows that overlooked the side lawn. The
morning light caught the blue and crystal ornaments on the Christmas tree a few
feet from where Marnie sat. The whole room glowed with a magical light, the air
filled with the scent of pine and cinnamon.

She hadn’t noticed him yet, her attention focused on the cell
phone in her lap. She seemed so alone, her expression sad. He had a sudden urge
to protect her from whatever made her feel so bad.

She turned, her eyes aimed directly at his. “I went looking for
you, but Amanda said you were in a meeting.”

BOOK: The Christmas Inn
3.75Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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