“Well, it’ll be morning before we get to it unless we get started,” Trace said. “There are a lot of lights here, and there must be hundreds of decorations. You two sit back and relax while I get the lights on. You can tell me when they’re in the right place.”
“Ah, my favorite job,” Savannah teased, settling onto the sofa with Hannah beside her. “Supervisor.”
Trace had a devil of a time untangling all the lights, making sure they worked and then getting them on the tree. It was the first time such a task had fallen to him, and he was beginning to see why his father had always grumbled about it. Trace would have settled for three or four strands strategically placed, but Savannah was having none of that.
“At least four more strands,” she insisted. “I like a lot of lights.”
“I’m not hearing any carols while I work,” Trace chided. “What happened to the music? Isn’t that your job?”
“Oops. I forgot. What will it be?” She shuffled through a stack of CDs. “Bing Crosby? Nat King Cole? Kenny G? The Mormon Tabernacle Choir? Vince Gill? The Vienna Boys Choir?”
“Your aunt certainly had eclectic taste,” Trace commented.
“She loved Christmas music. She used to buy at least one new album every year. Obviously she kept up that tradition. So, what’s your pleasure?”
“Surprise me,” Trace said.
Despite the suggestion, Savannah didn’t surprise him at all when she chose the old standards of Nat King Cole. As the singer’s voice filled the room, Trace recalled the way his father had scoffed at the sentimentality of the holiday music. Trace had inadvertently carried that same disdain with him into adulthood. Now, though, with Savannah and Hannah singing along with the music, he began to enjoy the songs.
“Come on,” Savannah encouraged. “Sing with us.”
“No, thanks, I’d rather listen to you,” he said as he wrapped the final strand of lights around the tree.
“But singing helps to get you into the holiday spirit. It doesn’t matter if you’re off-key,” she told him.
“Sorry,” he said, his voice a little tight. “I don’t know the words.”
She stared at him with obvious astonishment. “You never learned the words to all the old standard Christmas carols?”
“They weren’t played much at our house. My father objected. He said it was just more crass commercialism. We were lucky he let us put up a tree. After a few years, he carried on so about that, that my mother settled for the little ceramic tree I told you about earlier.”
“But you must have heard the carols when you were at your friends’ houses,” she persisted. “Or on the radio.”
“I didn’t pay much attention,” he said defensively.
“How awful,” she said, studying him with sympathy.
“Savannah, I got along okay without knowing the words to a bunch of songs that get played once a year.”
She studied him seriously. “Can I ask you something?”
“Sure,” he said, despite the wariness creeping over him.
“As a man who doesn’t seem to have many happy memories of the holidays, how did you end up running a toy company?”
“Long story,” he said.
“It’s still early. We have time.”
“I don’t want to bore Hannah with all this. Besides, we’ve got a tree to decorate.” He deliberately turned to Hannah. “Sweetie, are you ready to start hanging those decorations?” he asked, shutting down the topic of his career.
“Sure,” Hannah said eagerly. “Mom, you’ve got to help.”
Savannah cast one last curious look at him, before smiling and picking up several decorations.
By the time they were finally finished and all the boxes were empty, there wasn’t a bare spot on the tree’s branches.
“Ready for the lights?” Trace asked.
“Wait. Let me turn off the overhead lights,” Savannah said. “It’s better in the dark.”
As soon as the main lights were off, Trace plugged in the tree’s. The hundreds of lights shimmered, reflecting off the ornaments and filling the room with dazzling color. Even he was a bit in awe as he stared at it.
“It’s beautiful,” Hannah whispered.
“The very best tree ever,” Savannah agreed.
Suddenly she was slipping her hand into Trace’s. “Thank you,” she said.
“Just following directions,” he said.
“No. It’s more than that. I think we all need a touch of magic in our lives this year, and you’ve made sure we have it.”
“All I did—”
She cut off his protest. “Thank you,” she repeated emphatically, gazing up at him.
Trace thought he’d never seen anything so lovely in his life as he gazed into her sparkling eyes, which put the lights on the tree to shame. “You’re welcome,” he said softly, resisting the need to kiss her only because Hannah was in the room.
“I think I’ll go to bed,” Hannah announced with rare impeccable timing.
“Night, baby,” Savannah said, sounding just a little breathless.
“Good night, Trace. Thanks for helping with the tree.” Hannah stood on tiptoe to give him a peck on the cheek.
“Good night, angel.”
“I’m glad you’re here,” she murmured sleepily as she headed for the stairs.
Trace looked into Savannah’s eyes, aware suddenly that he was caught up in something he couldn’t explain with his usual rational practicality. “I’m glad I’m here, too.”
The most amazing sense of contentment stole through Savannah as she settled onto the sofa with Trace beside her. He was careful not to sit too close, but she could still feel the heat radiating from him, and she was drawn to it more than ever.
It had been an incredible evening. Even listening to Trace and Hannah bickering over where to place the ornaments on the tree had been wonderful. Hannah wouldn’t have risked such a debate with her father. Things were always done Rob’s way. It was a lesson Hannah had learned early, to keep peace in the family.
It was more than that, though. Maybe it was the cozy fire. Maybe it was the hot chocolate and salvaged chunks of sugar cookies.
Or maybe it was simply that for the first time in years, there was no real dissension as the holidays got under way. It had always been a battle to get her husband home from the office in time to help with the preparations. And unlike the bantering between Hannah and Trace, there had been a superior edge to her ex’s tone that had always sent Hannah to her room in tears.
“Can I ask you something?” Savannah said, studying Trace intently.
He kept his guarded gaze directed toward the fire, but he nodded.
“Christmas is still a couple of days away. Why did you come up here early?”
“I told you.”
“I know. You promised my aunt. But she’s been gone for several weeks now. You could have waited till the last second and still fulfilled your promise.”
He glanced at her, then looked back at the fire. “You’ll think I’m crazy.”
Savannah laughed. “I doubt that. Even in the brief time I’ve known you, I can tell you definitely have all your wits about you.”
“Okay, then, here it is. I was planning to wait till Christmas Eve, rush up here, spend the night and rush right back to the city on Christmas Day.”
“But you changed your mind. Why?”
“I woke up this morning with this weird feeling that I needed to be up here today.” He met her gaze. “Normally I would have dismissed it and kept to my original plan…...” His voice trailed off.
“But?” Savannah prodded, intrigued by the distinctly uncomfortable expression on his face. For a man who exuded confidence, it was a rare display of vulnerability.
“You know that cooler of chocolate mocha almond ice cream?”
“Very well. What does that have to do with anything?”
“It was delivered to my apartment this morning with a note that said I should get it up here before it melted.”
Savannah stared at him. “Someone sent you that ice cream as a gift?”
His gaze held hers. “Not just someone. It was your aunt’s handwriting.”
“Oh, my,” Savannah whispered. “How could that be?”
“I called the store and the delivery service. The arrangements had been made weeks ago.” He shrugged ruefully. “I guess Mae was afraid I might not keep my promise without a little nudge from beyond the grave. Needless to say, I packed my bags and hit the road.”
She studied him closely. “Are you teasing me?”
“Absolutely not,” he said. “I have no sense of humor. Ask the people who work for me. Heck, it’s even in most of the articles about Franklin Toys.”
“That’s absurd,” Savannah said, dismissing the suggestion out of hand. “You’ve been joking and laughing with Hannah and me since you got here.”
“I know,” he said, his expression serious. “What do you make of that?”
“We’re good for you,” she said, her voice suddenly a little breathless. Could it really be that she had something to offer this man who had everything money could buy?
“Which, I suspect, is exactly what your aunt had in mind when she plotted this meeting.”
Suddenly it all made sense to Savannah. The inheritance of Holiday Retreat at a time when she desperately needed a change in her life. The unexpected arrival of a handsome stranger on the inn’s doorstep. Yes indeed, Aunt Mae had been scheming, all right. The realization horrified her.
“I am so sorry,” she told Trace with total sincerity. “She shouldn’t have dragged you up here with an ulterior motive. If you want to get back to the city and your friends for Christmas, I will certainly understand.”
Her declaration seemed to amuse Trace for some reason. His eyes were glinting humorously when he reached out to caress her cheek. “Are you kicking me out, Savannah?”
“No, of course not. I just wanted you to understand that you’re free to go if there’s someplace you’d rather be, people you’d rather be spending the holiday with.”
As an answer he leaned forward and touched his lips to hers in the lightest, tenderest of kisses. There was a whisper of heat, the promise of fire…..and then he was on his feet.
“I’ll see you in the morning,” he said as he headed for the stairs.
“You’re staying?” she asked.
“Of course I’m staying.”
“Because it was what Mae wanted?” she asked, determined to clarify the reason.
“No, darlin’. Because it’s what I want.” He winked at her. “Besides, I promised to take you into town tomorrow.”
With that he was gone, leaving Savannah staring after him. She touched a finger to her lips, where she could still feel his mouth against hers. “And you always keep your promises,” she whispered to herself. It was such a little thing, but it meant more than Trace could possibly imagine.