He looked into Savannah’s dancing eyes. “What do you think? Should I drop her in that snowdrift over there?”
“No!” Hannah squealed. “Put me down. I’ll be good. I promise.”
Trace kept his gaze on Savannah’s. “Your call.”
“Hannah does keep her promises,” she began thoughtfully. “Then again, that snow was really, really cold. She needs to know that.”
“I know it. I know it,” Hannah said. “Really, Mom. I swear.”
Before he realized what she intended, Savannah scooped up a handful of snow and rubbed her daughter’s face with it, dribbling a fair amount inside the collar of his coat while she was at it. Accident? he wondered. Probably not.
“Mom!” Hannah squealed, laughing.
Savannah clapped her gloved hands together to get rid of the excess snow and regarded Trace with a pleased expression. “I think it’s okay to put her down now.”
He lowered Hannah to her feet and caught her grin. “I hope you learned a lesson,” he said, fighting to keep his own expression somber.
“Oh, yes,” she retorted just as seriously. “I learned that my mom is very, very sneaky.”
Trace nodded, shivering as the snow melted against his suddenly overheated skin. “I caught that, too. What do you think we should do about it?”
“Hey,” Savannah protested, backing up a step. “Don’t you two even think about ganging up on me.”
“Never dream of it,” Trace said, winking at Hannah.
She winked back, then giggled. “Never,” she agreed.
Savannah looked from one to the other. “I’m going to regret this eventually, aren’t I?”
“Could be,” Trace said. He took a step closer, reached out and tucked a flyaway strand of hair back behind her ear. “But you’ll never see it coming.”
Her gaze locked with his, and suddenly the tables were turned. The desire to kiss her, to taste her, slammed through him with enough force to rock him on his heels. He hadn’t seen that coming, either.
“We are never in a million years going to get this tree into the house,” Trace said, eyeing the giant-size pine that Hannah had picked out. “What about that one over there?” He pointed to a nice, round, five-foot-tall tree. It was cute. It was manageable. Hannah was already shaking her head.
“No,” daughter and mother replied in an emphatic chorus.
“I suppose it’s also a tradition that the tree has to be too big to fit inside,” he grumbled as he began to saw through the trunk. He’d worked for a lawn service one summer and had some skill at sawing down trees and branches, but nothing this size. He should have brought along a chainsaw.
“Exactly,” Savannah said, grinning and apparently thoroughly enjoying his struggle with the tree.
“I think my mother had the right idea after all,” he said. “A ceramic tree that lit up when she plugged it in.”
“Oh, yuck,” Hannah said. “That’s so sad.”
As he breathed in the scent of pine and fresh, crisp air, Trace was forced to agree with her. Despite his grumbling about the endless search for the perfect tree and his protests over the size of their choice, he hadn’t felt this alive in years. Something that might have been the faint stirrings of holiday spirit spread through him. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt like this.
“Stand back, you two. When this thing falls, you don’t want to be in the way,” he warned as he heard the crack of the wood and felt the tree begin to wobble. One hard shove and it would hit the ground. Before he could touch it, the tree began to topple…..straight at him. It knocked him on his back in the deep snow. He found himself staring straight toward the sky through a tangle of fragrant branches.
“Uh-oh,” he heard Hannah whisper.
Her mother choked back a giggle and peered through the branches. “Are you okay?”
“What the devil happened?” he asked, frowning up at her.
“I gave the tree a teeny little push to help it along. I guess I pushed the wrong way. You aren’t hurt, are you?” The twinkle in her eyes suggested she wasn’t all that worried.
Trace bit back his own laughter and scrambled out from beneath the tree. “You are in such trouble,” he warned even as she began backing away, her nervous scramble hampered by the deep snow.
“You wouldn’t,” she said, regarding him warily.
“Oh, but I would,” he responded quietly. “Nobody pulls off a sneak attack on me twice in one afternoon and gets away with it.”
She tried to escape, but she was no match for his long legs. He caught up with her in a few steps, scooped her up and dropped her into the cushion of snow.
Hannah’s laughter mingled with theirs. He whirled on her. “Okay, young lady, you’re next. Don’t you know better than to injure a man’s pride?”
Hannah was quicker to scamper away, but Trace still caught up with her, grabbed a handful of snow and rubbed her face with it. Just then he felt himself being pelted with snowballs from behind. In seconds all three of them were engaged in a full-fledged snowball fight.
“Oh, my,” Savannah said a few minutes later, collapsing into the snow. “I haven’t laughed that hard in ages.”
“Me, either,” Trace said, his gaze clashing with hers. In fact, he could barely recall ever laughing that hard.
Or wanting a woman as much as he wanted the virtual stranger lying beside him in the icy snow right this minute. With all the heat crackling between them, he was surprised they hadn’t melted the snow right out from under them.
He started to reach out to touch her cheek, but recalling Hannah’s presence, he drew back. “Do you know what I’d like to do right now?” he asked, his gaze locked with Savannah’s.
She swallowed hard at the question and shook her head.
Trace realized that her thoughts had drifted down the same dangerous path as his own. “Not that,” he protested, deliberately teasing her.
Her cheeks, already pink from the chill in the air, turned an even brighter shade. Another woman might have called his bluff, but she merely kept her gaze on him, apparently waiting to see just how deep a hole he intended to dig for himself.
“What I’d like to do,” he said, “is go back to the house, build a nice warm fire in the fireplace, and…..” He deliberately let the suspense build. He saw the pulse beating a little more rapidly in her neck. He permitted himself a hint of a smile, then said softly, “Take a nap.”
She was still blinking in confusion when Hannah plopped down between them and said, “Grown-ups don’t take naps.”
“Sure we do,” Trace told her. His gaze went back to Savannah. “In fact, sometimes when adults take naps, we have the very best dreams ever.”
Savannah shot him a knowing look, then rose gracefully to her feet. “Well, by all means, let’s get home so you can get some sleep,” she said testily.
She muttered something more, something obviously meant for Trace’s ears, not Hannah’s. He caught her hand and held her back until they were well out of Hannah’s hearing.
“What was that?” he inquired.
She leveled a look straight at him. “I said, I hope you have nightmares.”
“No dream with you in it could ever be a nightmare,” he said, locking gazes with her once more. “Then again, you could take a nap with me.”
“In your dreams,” she retorted.
He winked at her. “Exactly.”
She stopped in her tracks and scowled up at him. “Is this some sort of game with you?”
There was a hint of anger behind the question that threw Trace completely. “Game? I’m not sure what you mean.”
“When you found me at the inn, did you decide I was Aunt Mae’s gift to you or something? Because I am here to tell you that hell will freeze over before I fall into bed with you just because it’s convenient.”
With that, she whirled away and stalked off as gracefully as the deep snow permitted, leaving him to deal with the tree. He considered running after her, trying to explain, but maybe it was better to give her time to cool down.
So he struggled with the monster tree, finally getting a firm grip on the trunk, then dragging it through the snow. The trek took forever. By the time he reached the car, Savannah and Hannah were nowhere to be seen. Since the inn was less than a mile down the road, they’d probably decided to walk.
Trace wrestled with the tree and finally got it half in and half out of the SUV, cursing at the mess it was making of the car’s interior. He tied it securely, then climbed into the vehicle and turned the heater up full blast.
He was still stinging from Savannah’s tongue-lashing as he drove back to the inn. Granted, he’d only been teasing her, but she didn’t know him well enough to understand that. He’d deserved every bit of scorn she’d heaped on him.
As he pulled up in front of the house, he noted that the lights were blazing and that smoke was curling from the chimney. Dusk was falling rapidly, and along with it, the temperature was dropping.
He lugged the tree onto the porch, then left it there to be dealt with after he warmed up with a cup of coffee or maybe some of that hot chocolate Savannah and her daughter were so fond of.
Inside, he stomped the snow off his boots and tossed his jacket over a chair, then headed for the kitchen where he could hear the low murmur of voices. He found Savannah at the stove stirring a pot of spaghetti sauce. The weathered older man to whom she was talking caught sight of Trace and gave him a wink.
“You must be Trace. Savannah here’s been giving me an earful about you,” he said. “’Course, it’s not exactly the same high praise I was used to hearing from Mae.”
Trace saw Savannah’s back stiffen, but she didn’t turn around. Obviously, the walk had done nothing to cool her temper. She was still royally ticked at him. The apology he owed her would have to wait, though. The man regarding him with such amusement had to be Mae’s longtime lover.
“You must be Nate Daniels,” Trace guessed at once. “I heard a lot about you over the years, as well, all of it good.”
“Only because Mae never had a sharp word to say about anyone,” Nate said. “Maybe that’s because she brought out the best in people.”
“I know she did in me,” Trace said solemnly, his gaze on Savannah.
Nate looked from him to Savannah, then stood up and began pulling on his jacket. “Think I’ll be going along now.”
Savannah whirled around at that. “I thought you might like to stay for dinner.”
“Not tonight,” Nate said, shooting a commiserating look toward Trace. “I’ll be around next time you’re interested in having company. Meantime, you two need anything, you give me a call. I’ll be happy to do what I can. You both meant a lot to Mae. I know she’d be happy that you’re here together for the holidays.”
Savannah regarded him with a disappointed expression. “Come by anytime,” she said, her voice husky, her eyes shimmering with unshed tears. “I want to hear everything you can tell me about my aunt.”