If other members of her family resented the gesture, Savannah didn’t know about it. She’d lost touch with most of them years ago. She’d been estranged from her parents ever since she’d divorced a man of whom they enthusiastically approved. Aunt Mae had tried to broker a peace agreement between Savannah and her father, but he’d remained stubbornly silent and unyielding. He’d been convinced Savannah was a fool for divorcing a man who brought home a steady paycheck.
“Mom, I love it here!” Hannah announced, throwing her arms around Savannah. She was shivering even in her heavy coat. “I want to build a snowman. Can we?”
“I think we’ll need a little more snow than this,” Savannah told her. “Besides, I’m freezing. How about that hot chocolate?”
“I want to stay out here. I’m not cold,” Hannah insisted.
“Then why are your teeth chattering?” Savannah teased. “Come on, baby. Even if you won’t admit to freezing, I will. There will be more snow once we’ve warmed up. I’ll teach you how to make snow angels.”
“What are snow angels?” Hannah asked, her interest immediately piqued.
“You’ll see. Aunt Mae taught me when I was a little girl. Now come inside and get warm.”
Far more agreeable lately than she had been for months, Hannah finally acquiesced, following Savannah into the kitchen. Savannah studied her daughter’s sparkling eyes, pink cheeks and tousled hair and knew she’d done the right thing, no matter what struggles might lie ahead.
Despite the sad state of the inn, they were going to have the fresh beginning they both deserved, she decided with a surge of determination. And it was going to start with the very best Christmas Hannah had ever had, even if she was going to have to do it on a shoestring. Some of her very best holiday memories had cost nothing.
As for the practicalities—the repairs, the marketing plan she needed to devise—they would just have to wait for the new year.
Mae Holiday had been one of the most eccentric people Trace Franklin had ever known. He had met her when he’d been dragged to Vermont for an idyllic summer getaway by one of the women he’d dated. That had been eight or nine years ago. Twice that number of women had passed through his life since then. Of them all, the one he hadn’t dated—Mae—had been the most memorable.
She’d been the grandmother he’d never had, the mentor who tried her best to bring some balance into his life. Until the day she’d died at seventy-eight, it had frustrated her no end that she hadn’t managed to convince him that romance was just as important as money.
Trace knew better. His parents had been madly in love, but it hadn’t brought either one of them a blasted thing except heartache. Love had kept his mother with a man who never had two nickels to rub together, a man whose big killing was always “just around the corner.”
While John Franklin had spun his dreams, his wife had cleaned houses, worked in fast-food chains and, finally, when it was almost too late to matter, gotten a steady job selling toys to families that could afford to give their kids elaborate backyard swing sets and fancy computer games.
When Trace was fifteen, his mom had brought one of those games home to him, but by then he’d been way past playing childish games. He’d been working with single-minded focus on graduating from high school with honors and getting a scholarship to the best college in the state. He didn’t want to play with toys. He wanted to own a whole blasted toy company.
And now he did. The irony, which Mae had seen right away, was that he still didn’t have time to play. He wasn’t even sure he knew how.
He was driving along the snow-covered roads of Vermont right now because of Mae. On his last visit to see her at the end of October, she had made a final request. She had known she was dying, had known it for fully a year before the cancer had finally taken her, but she hadn’t said a word to Trace until that last visit when she had detailed her losing battle, reciting the facts with a stoicism and acceptance that had awed him.
“I want you to promise me something,” she had said as they’d sat in front of the fire on his last night there. Despite the heat of the blaze, she’d been wrapped in blankets, and still she had shivered.
“Anything,” Trace had responded, and meant it. Not only was Mae one of the earliest investors and biggest stockholders in Franklin Toys, she was his friend.
“I want you to spend Christmas here at Holiday Retreat.”
It was only a couple of months away and it would require some juggling of his schedule, but there was no question that he would do it. “Of course I will,” he said at once. “We’ll have a wonderful time.”
She had squeezed his hand. “I won’t be here, Trace. You know that.”
Even now, the memory of that moment brought the sharp sting of tears to his eyes. Her gaze had been unrelenting. From the beginning of her illness, she had refused to sugarcoat the truth to herself. Now that she was revealing it to others, she expected them to face it, as well. The cancer had spread too far and too fast before the doctors had had the first inkling there was anything wrong. She was dying and there was going to be no reprieve.
Trace had returned her unflinching gaze, heartbroken yet unable to face her death with less bravery than she was showing. “Why, Mae? Why would you want me here after you’re gone?”
“Just do it for me,” she whispered, her voice fading. “Promise.”
“I promise,” he’d said just as her eyes drifted closed. He’d been willing to do anything that would give her comfort. He owed her that much, and more.
Two weeks later Mae Holiday had died peacefully, a lifelong friend—a man she had loved deeply but never married—by her side. Now Trace was on his way to Vermont to pay his respects….and to keep his promise.
There was smoke curling from the chimney at Holiday Retreat. Lights were blazing from the downstairs windows. Trace sat in his car and stared, trying to make sense of it. He’d expected to spend the Christmas holiday alone here, mourning Mae in private, reliving the happy times they’d spent together over the years they’d known each other.
And, he conceded with a rueful grimace, catching up on the mounds of paperwork he’d brought with him, along with his cell phone, laptop computer and fax machine.
What the dickens was going on? he wondered, thoroughly disgruntled by this turn of events. Mae had said nothing about anyone else being here. Nor had the attorney in the note that had accompanied a key to the inn. The note had merely advised that Mae had seen to having plenty of food and firewood on hand and that she hoped his visit would be a memorable one. If he had any problems, he was to contact Nate Daniels, the man Trace had heard of, but never met, the man who was the shadowy love of Mae’s life.
Trace fingered the old-fashioned key in his pocket as he walked through the foot or so of recently accumulated snow. He was halfway to the door when he spotted indentations, a hectic swirl of footsteps and something else. He looked more closely and saw…..not one but two snow angels, the sort made by flopping down in new-fallen snow and moving outstretched arms to create wings.
At first the sight brought a smile, reminding him of innocent, long-ago days as a kid before the unpredictability of the family’s day-to-day existence had registered with him. Winters back home had been relatively mild, so that rare snowfalls had been regarded with sheer delight. He hadn’t owned a sled, but he’d had his share of snowball fights and made more than a few snow angels.
Then the full implication of the snow angels sank in, and pleasant memories gave way to edginess. Judging from the smaller size of one snow angel, there was a kid on the premises and that generally meant noisy chaos, the last thing he’d anticipated when he’d made the commitment to Mae to spend the Christmas holidays here. For a man who made his living by providing expensive hobbies and toys to children, Trace was amazingly uneasy when confronted with an individual child. For him, toys were a multimillion-dollar business, not entertainment. Unless he could persuade himself to use whatever child was around to conduct market research, this whole situation had just gone from bad to worse.
He was about to turn tail and run, but then he heard Mae’s voice in his head as she’d extracted that promise from him. He’d never gone back on his word to her, ever. He wasn’t about to start now.
Filled with a sense of dread, he made his way to the front door. He stood on the slick porch debating whether to ring the bell, rather than walking in on whomever was here. Then again, he had just as much right to be here as the unknown occupant did. More, perhaps. That remained to be seen.
He stuck the key in the lock, turned it and pushed open the heavy door, noting as he did that it was in serious need of paint. It had once been bright red, as had all the shutters on the house. Now it was faded to a shade only slightly deeper than pink. Maybe he’d take care of that while he was here. It would be a fitting homage to Mae to see the doors and shutters restored to their scarlet holiday brilliance.
He was about to close the door when a girl—just about the size of the snow angel outside, he noted—skidded to a stop in front of him on one of the scooters his company made. It had been the hottest gift of the holiday season two years ago. It was not meant to be used indoors, though he could understand the temptation given the wide expanse of hardwood floors. And it wasn’t as if those floors were in particularly great shape. They could do with sanding and a fresh coat of wax. Something else he could do while he was here…..in Mae’s memory.
First, though, he had to figure out who was this imp of a child regarding him with blatant curiosity, her golden hair scooped through the opening of a baseball cap, her T-shirt half in and half out of her jeans.
“Who are you and what are you doing here?” he demanded in the no-nonsense tone he used on executives who’d failed to deliver on their division’s projections.
The kid didn’t even flinch. “I’m Hannah and I live here. Who are you? And how come you have a key to my house?”
Trace’s head began to throb. What the devil was Mae up to? “Are your parents here?”
“Just my mom. My dad divorced us. He lives in Florida. My mom’s baking Christmas cookies.” She cast an appealing smile at him. “Don’t they smell great?”
Trace automatically sniffed the air. They did smell fantastic, just the way Mae’s always had. He’d eaten fancier food than what was served at Holiday Retreat, but he’d never had any that tasted better or was prepared with more love. He wondered if Hannah’s mom shared Mae’s talents in the kitchen, then sighed. That was hardly the point.
“Want me to get my mom?” Hannah inquired.
“I’ll find her,” Trace said, heading determinedly toward the kitchen. He’d taken only a step before he turned back. “By the way, that scooter is not an indoor toy.”
The kid’s smile never faltered. “Maybe not, but it works great in here.” And off she went, completely unimpressed by his admonishment.