Authors: Susan R. Hughes
Tags: #Romance, #Contemporary, #Fiction
WINE & ROSES
Susan R. Hughes
© 2011 Susan R. Hughes. All rights reserved.
Abby sighed in satisfaction, smiling up at the portrait of King George III that she had just hung above the stone fireplace. Resplendent in his coronation robes of gold brocade and ermine, he kept watch over the small dining area, bringing a dash of nineteenth-century royal opulence to her modest establishment. It was the perfect finishing touch.
She turned to glance around the pub, pleased by the result of her efforts to refurbish it with authentic-looking details of antique tables and chairs, aged oak floors and wainscoting, and paintings inspired by the period to adorn the walls. Though she was alone, she could envision the room filled with customers, and imagine the din of cheery voices punctuated by the
of glasses and cutlery.
The anticipation of it filled Abby with an exhilarating sense of pride. Closed by the city due to its dilapidated state a decade before, The Roses Inn looked renewed while capturing the feel of the cozy Georgian-era tavern it had been two centuries before. Local history was important to the residents of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, as was tourism; Abby felt confident that both locals and visitors would fall in love with the place once it reopened in just over a week.
As she set her hammer on the polished oak bar-top, she heard the heavy entryway door creak on its hinges, and glanced up to see the figure of a man in the doorway. The daylight flooding in behind his head made it difficult to see his face.
He paused to gaze around. “I can’t believe it. The place looks fantastic,”
“Thanks, but we don’t open until the twenty-first,” Abby told him over her shoulder, pleased nonetheless by the compliment.
“I know.” He let the door swing closed, taking a step into the warm light of a wall lantern. “I’m here to see you. I’m Jason Brinleigh. Do you remember me, Abby?”
Recognizing the name, she peered at him more closely, studying the wavy dark hair and features that were as familiar as they were striking.
. As the memory filtered in, she felt her stomach dip. He was about the last person she’d expected to walk through the door.
“Jason, of course.” Suddenly too warm, she nudged her glasses up her nose and offered a genial smile. “How are you?”
“Just fine.” A smile touched his own lips, as though he recalled the evening they met with the same sense of guilty pleasure that she did. After all, she’d been a married woman then, and he’d been engaged. But it had been one of those moments when a spark between two strangers flares despite either party’s good sense or intentions.
Abby could hardly believe it was two years ago that her friends had rented the picturesque courtyard of the Brinleigh Estate Winery for her fortieth birthday party. A mutual friend had introduced her to Jason, the young proprietor, only thirty-one at the time. The moment of their meeting, tucked away in her memory, now flooded her mind with pristine clarity. Offering her hand in greeting, she had found her gaze locked onto a pair of direct, coffee-brown eyes and a broad mouth drawn into a charmingly sensual smile. He was a beautiful man from head to toe, his lean frame and handsome features tugging instantly at her feminine senses.
She well remembered his gaze flickering down her form-hugging red dress, pausing briefly to appreciate her long legs and the swell of her breasts above the peek-a-boo neckline. Abby’s friend Marguerite had persuaded her to wear the dress, much more revealing than her usual style, and with this gorgeous young man seemingly unable to tear his eyes from her, she’d been sure her cheeks glowed as red as the silk fabric. It was a feeling Abby had quite enjoyed. They talked for only an hour or so, the illicitness of whatever flirting had happened between them making it all the more exciting, but that was all it had been—a moment of fantasy and nothing more. Aside from the handshake, they hadn’t even touched one another.
Jason looked much the same now, but dressed casually in a cotton shirt and trousers rather than a cashmere suit. Abby glanced briefly at her reflection in the mirror behind the bar. She was surprised he’d recognized her; she looked almost frumpy in old jeans and a billowy tank top, her curly auburn hair pulled hastily into a pony tail. Wishing she’d taken a little more care with her appearance that morning, she tucked an errant lock behind her ear as her gaze settled again on Jason.
“What brings you by?”
His smile faded.
“I was sorry to hear about Colin.”
“Thanks. I’m all right,” she added automatically, though he hadn’t asked. It had been over a year since her husband’s death, but people still tended to treat her as though she were made of glass, prone to shatter if not handled gently. Jason’s presence still puzzled her. Had he just heard about Colin’s death? And why would he come here to offer condolences to a woman he barely knew?
“I can see that.” The smile crept back to his face. “I don’t know where you’ve found the time to renovate a historic inn and write a new novel. I picked up a copy the other day. I’m looking forward to reading it.”
“I hope you’ll enjoy it.” Having written seven successful mystery novels over the past two decades, Abby was used to being approached by her readers. She remembered discussing her books briefly with Jason at the party, but hadn’t gotten the sense that he was an avid fan. Surely he wasn’t here for that reason.
“You know,” he added, “when we met at that party I knew of your writing, but I had no idea your husband was Colin Bennett.”
“Had he been there, you would have,” she told him dryly, knowing her late husband would never have tolerated her prolonged conversation with a young man as handsome and successful as Jason. “Did you know him?”
“Not really. But my father did. Did you know my father had been trying to buy this place from Colin for years?”
Abby shook her head. She remembered that Colin and Owen Brinleigh had been acquainted at one time—Owen was a guest at their wedding—but it had been many years since she heard her husband mention the senior vintner’s name.
“Colin refused to sell it to him,” Jason went on, lifting one eyebrow. “Now that the inn is in your hands, I thought I’d take another shot at making an offer.”
“You want to buy this place?” So this was the reason for his visit. Abby felt a twinge of disappointment that he wasn’t there to see her for personal reasons. She shook it off; he must be a married man now, she reminded herself.
Jason simply nodded in reply.
“May I ask why?”
“Have you got time to hear the whole sordid story?”
“I can spare a few minutes. Can I get you some coffee?”
Reaching behind the bar, Abby grabbed the pot of coffee that she’d just brewed for herself, and brought out two mugs from a nearby shelf. Though she was curious to hear what Jason had to say, she waited patiently, dolling out cream and sugar before taking the hot mugs to a table by the fireplace. As they sat down, she handed one to Jason.
“Thanks.” His hand grazed hers as he took the mug. An instant flutter of awareness invaded her belly, and she bit down hard on her lip, chasing the sensation away. Just because the man was attractive, that was no reason to act like a schoolgirl with hearts dancing in her eyes.
“Did you know my father once owned this inn?” he began.
“I’m afraid Colin didn’t tell me that, either. But then I’m not surprised. He kept his business very much separate from our life together.”
If you could call it a life together,
she added acerbically to herself. “So how did Colin get ahold of it?”
“My father loved running this inn, but wine was his passion, so he opened the winery in the early 1980s. Colin loaned him money to do it. But it was hard the first few years. Dad lost money. Eventually he had to pay Colin back and the only way to do it was to sell the inn. So Colin agreed to take it as payment.” Jason paused to sip his coffee, then continued. “Years later, when the winery became successful, my father tried to buy the inn back. Colin refused. My father was furious, watching the place fall into disrepair. After my father’s death, I approached Colin myself with an offer, with no better result. Colin was intent on having the place torn down. My father would have been irate.”
“As was I.” Abby recalled her astonishment at hearing of Colin’s plans to demolish the building. Remembering Colin’s vague excuse of being too busy to attend her fortieth birthday party, it occurred to Abby now that his real motive must have been to avoid bumping into Jason at the winery. “The place is a historical landmark. But he wouldn’t listen to me. He said it was too expensive to repair, and he’d make more money developing a new building. After he died, I stopped the demolition.”
“I can’t tell you how relieved I was to hear that.” Jason’s sensual lips pulled into a soft smile that sparked an unbidden bloom of warmth behind her breastbone. “I would’ve approached you sooner about buying it, but Colin had just died and I didn’t want to trouble you. But now I feel like I owe it to my father to try again.”
“Why did this place mean so much to your dad?” she wondered, absently circling the rim of her mug with her fingertip.
“Do you know about the resident ghost here?” Jason inquired mildly.
“Of course. I’ve heard the stories about a woman heard weeping in the rooms upstairs, and footsteps echoing when no one’s around. They say it’s the daughter of the original innkeeper, grieving for her husband killed in the War of 1812.” Though Abby didn’t believe in ghosts, the legend had intrigued her instantly. “That’s why I decked this place out to emulate that era. I think people will really connect with the history of the place.”
“Do you know who the woman was?”
Abby nodded. “I did a bit of research and found out there was a Rebecca Norris whose family lived here during that time. Of course, the original inn was badly burned when the Americans set fire to the town during the war, and was rebuilt afterwards, so these aren’t the very rooms she would have known. But I suppose ghosts have a way of attaching themselves to a location despite the renovations that happen over the years,” she added with a half-smile. “I wish I had a portrait of her to hang someplace, but I couldn’t find one.”
“I may be able to help you out there.” Jason leaned forward, resting his elbows on the table. “You see, Rebecca was my five-times great aunt. The poor woman died in childbirth in one of the rooms upstairs, too grief-stricken over her husband to find the resolve to live.”
Picturing the grisly scene taking place one floor above where they now sat, Abby felt the fine hairs on her arms rise. “Are you saying this inn belonged to your ancestors two hundred years ago?”
He nodded. “That’s why my father originally bought the place. That’s why I want it back in my family.”
Raising her mug to her lips, Abby took a slow sip of her coffee while absorbing his words. She wasn’t surprised by Colin’s actions, knowing how coldhearted and selfish he could be. And of course she understood Jason’s desire to reacquire the inn; she couldn’t disagree that it should remain in the Brinleigh family. On the other hand, it was the only part of Colin’s business—now
business—that Abby had ever felt passionate about, and she’d put so much heart into the restoration that she couldn’t bear the thought of letting the place go just as it was about to open.
“I don’t know, Jason,” she said at last. “You’ve blindsided me with this.”
He dipped his chin in a slow nod. “I understand. You’ve obviously put a lot into it. It must mean something to you.” Clasping his hands on the table, he held her gaze, his words carefully measured. “I’m not asking you to make a decision on the spot. Please think it over. I’m overjoyed, really, to see that you haven’t only saved the place from demolition, but done this wonderful restoration. It’s more than I ever expected.”
Abby smiled, relieved that he didn’t intend to pressure her, at least for now. “Why don’t you bring your wife here for dinner opening night? I’ll reserve the best table for you.” Abby hadn’t met his fiancée, and didn’t even remember her name.
Jason answered with a grim smile. “I’d be glad to come, but I’ll be alone. Brianna and I never did get married. We broke off our engagement.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.” Abby felt a small leap in her pulse, followed by a twinge of guilt for feeling happy to hear of something that must have been painful for him. But each time she looked into his dark eyes, she couldn’t help but recall the brief, forbidden thrill of their first meeting … not that it would have led to anything real, had they not both been spoken for. She reminded herself that she was forty-two and he was thirty-three—not a huge gap, but big enough to give her pause.
“It was for the best,” he added with a tight smile as he rose from his chair. “I’d better let you get back to work. It was nice to see you again, Abby.”
Standing as well, she smiled and nodded. “I’ll see you on the twenty-first.”
“I’ll be here.” He turned toward the door, then swiveled back to face her. “Are you free this evening?”
Abby froze, her heart turning over. “Why do you ask?”