Trace sighed and went in search of her mother.
He wasn’t sure what he expected, but it certainly wasn’t the frail wisp of a woman who was bent over in an incredibly provocative pose, her head stuck halfway into the huge, professional-quality stainless-steel oven that had been Mae’s pride and joy.
This room was where Mae had splurged, spending her money to design a kitchen that was both welcoming and efficient. Everything in it, from the refrigerator to the granite countertops, was top-of-the-line. When she had shown it to Trace a few years ago, she’d been as excited as a kid on Christmas morning. She told him it was how she’d spent her first dividends from her stock in Franklin Toys.
And now there was an interloper in here, he thought, feeling oddly possessive on Mae’s behalf. Unless this woman could prove her right to be on the premises, Trace would have her packed up and out of here before nightfall, even if he had to call on local law enforcement to toss her out on her attractive backside.
Despite his impatience to accomplish that task, and rather than risk scaring her half to death while she was that close to incinerating herself, he waited, barely resisting the desire to haul her out of there immediately and demand an explanation for her presence.
Of course, he was also having some difficulty resisting the urge to smooth his hand over that narrow curve of her denim-clad bottom. That, he concluded, was a very dangerous temptation. He admonished himself to forget it the same way he’d scolded Hannah only moments earlier. He hoped he paid more attention to the warning than she had, since there was likely a lot more at stake than scarred floorboards.
The woman finally retreated, holding a tray almost as big as she was. As she turned to set it on the granite countertop, she spotted him and let go of the tray with a yelp of surprise. Trace caught it in midair, then let out a curse of his own as the hot metal seared his fingers. He dropped the tray with a clatter. Cookies went flying. And the woman regarded him as if he were a living, breathing embodiment of Scrooge and he’d deliberately set out to ruin her Christmas.
“Look what you’ve done,” she said, scowling at him as she bent to pick up the broken remains of sugar cookies decorated with pretty red and green designs. She waved a hatless Santa with half a beard under Trace’s nose. “Just look at this.”
She didn’t seem one bit concerned with the fact that he’d burned himself trying to save her blasted cookies. He stepped past her and stuck his hands under cold running water. That finally got her attention.
“Oh, fudge, you burned yourself, didn’t you?” she said. “What was I thinking? I’m sorry. Here, let me see.”
She nudged up against him and grabbed his hand. Her touch was anything but soothing. In fact, now Trace was suddenly burning on the inside, too.
“Sit,” she ordered before he could unscramble his thoughts. “There’s a first-aid kit around here somewhere.”
“Cabinet next to the stove,” Trace told her, blowing on his fingers.
She stopped and stared. “How do you know that?”
“Mae was always getting distracted and having little accidents in the kitchen. She said it paid to keep the bandages close at hand.”
Rather than fetching the first-aid supplies, the woman sank down onto a chair, her eyes promptly filling with unshed tears. “She did say that, didn’t she?” she whispered. “I must have heard her say it a hundred times. And even before she remodeled in here, she kept aloe and antiseptic spray and bandages right by the stove.”
Trace was startled by the depth of emotion in this stranger’s voice. Her love for Mae was written all over her face. That much raw pain was more than he knew how to deal with; his own emotions were shaky enough. He stepped carefully around her and got his own ointment and bandages, using the time to collect himself and try to fill with renewed resolve the tiny chink she’d created in his desire to be rid of her.
When he was finished repairing the damage to his hand, he finally risked another look at her. The color had returned to her cheeks, but there was no mistaking the signs of a woman on the edge. He’d seen that same stressed expression often enough on his mother’s face, the same tightness around the mouth, the wariness in her eyes.
“You okay?” he asked at last.
She nodded, still blinking back tears. “Sometimes it just catches me off guard, the fact that she’s gone. I hadn’t seen her in several years, but I always had such wonderful memories of being here, especially around the holidays.”
That must have been a long time ago, Trace thought with a surprising surge of anger on Mae’s behalf. He’d been here with Mae every year since that trip when they’d first met. He’d never been entirely sure how she’d cajoled him into coming, but year after year he’d found himself driving north from New York City, looking forward to spending time with the closest thing he had to family now that his folks were both dead.
Oddly, on none of those trips had he ever caught a glimpse of the man in Mae’s life. Only at the end had she explained why, that Nate had his own family responsibilities, duties that he had never once shirked through all the years they had loved each other. It had been an unconventional love—an impossible love—she had explained to Trace. The man’s wife had suffered a nervous breakdown years before, when his children were little more than toddlers. Nate could never bring himself to divorce her during all the long, lonely years when he’d struggled as a single dad, watching his wife’s mind deteriorate degree by degree. He had been the rock that held his family together…..and the other half of Mae’s soul. If she regretted anything about their long, secret affair, she never once complained of it to Trace. And it had certainly never soured her on the possibilities of romance.
It was little wonder, though, that Mae had sought out Trace’s company around the holidays, he had realized as she told him the story. The loneliness at a season meant for sharing with family and friends must have been unbearable. Trace wondered if this woman even knew about that part of Mae’s life.
“If you hadn’t been here for years, why are you here now?” Trace asked, unable to hide the note of bitterness in his voice. “Did you come to pick over her belongings?”