In the glow of the gas lamps on the street, Trace could see Savannah blush. If a simple compliment rattled her so, it must have been years since she’d heard any. Which made her ex-husband even more of a fool than Trace had imagined.
“You know, as much as I loved growing up in Florida,” Savannah said, “this is the only place it’s ever really felt like Christmas to me. Just look around. All the stores are decorated along Main Street. There’s a tree in the center of the green that’s all lit up, and snow underfoot. It’s like a Currier and Ives Christmas card. What could be more perfect?”
She looked up into Trace’s eyes, and he felt his heart slam to a stop.
“You,” he said softly.
“You’re the only thing I can think of that’s more perfect than all of this.”
For the second time that evening, she was blinking back tears.
“Hey,” he protested. “I didn’t mean to make you cry again.”
She gave him a watery smile. “It’s just that no one’s ever said anything so sweet to me before.”
“Then you’ve been spending time with the wrong people,” he said emphatically.
Suddenly she stood on tiptoe, and before he realized what she intended, she was pressing a kiss to his cheek. “Thank you. I’m really glad you’re spending Christmas with us.”
Trace could have let it go at that. It was a tender gesture, not an invitation, but the night was cold and that kiss promised heat. He captured her chin and gazed into her eyes, then slowly lowered his head until his mouth covered hers.
She tasted of mint and felt like satin. Then the anticipated heat began to work its way through his system, hinting of a simmering passion just waiting to be unleashed. He unzipped her jacket and slid his arms inside, pulling her close until their body heat mingled. She melted against him. They were a perfect fit, her curves soft and yielding, his body hard and demanding.
Trace could have been content to stay right here, doing nothing more than learning the shape and texture and taste of Savannah’s mouth for hours on end, but sanity finally prevailed. This was a small town. Savannah was a newcomer. The last thing she needed was him stirring up gossip. Whatever happened between them—and there was little doubt that something would—he didn’t want there to be regrets. Not of any kind.
With a sigh, he slowly released her. His gaze clung to hers as he slid the zipper of her jacket up, then tucked her scarf more securely around her neck.
“Trace, what…..?” She swallowed hard. “What was that about?”
“New beginnings,” he suggested. He drew in a deep breath of the cold air, then added, “And speaking of that, I had an idea I thought I’d run by you.”
“If it’s anything like that last one, the answer’s yes,” she replied, amusement threading through her voice.
“Don’t agree until you’ve heard it,” he said. “What about holding an open house at the inn tomorrow before midnight church services? The downstairs rooms can be ready by then, and it would get people talking about the place.”
She was staring at him, her expression dazed. “Are you crazy? I can’t be ready for an open house tomorrow night! Even if we could finish up with the downstairs rooms, what about food? We’d need wine and eggnog. All of the good dishes would have to be washed, the table decorated. I can think of a million reasons why it would never work.”
He waited through the tirade, then asked, “Is that it? Any other objections?”
“I think those are quite enough.”
“Okay, your turn to listen to me. I can have a caterer here first thing in the morning. He’s already on standby. He’ll bring all the food, the drinks, the table decorations, linens, crystal and china. All you need to do is say yes and stay out of his way.” He pulled his cell phone out of his pocket. “What’s it going to be?”
She regarded him with obvious astonishment. “You’ve already done all that?”
“I put it into motion, checked to make sure the caterer I use for our big marketing events was available. I haven’t given the go-ahead. That’s up to you. I thought it might be the perfect way for you and Hannah to get to know your neighbors, a way to let them know that the inn is back in business.”
She looked torn. “It’s a wonderful idea, but I can’t let you do it.”
“Because…..” Her voice faltered. She frowned at him. “I don’t know why exactly. It’s just too much. Besides, how would we let people know?”
He sensed that she was weakening and pressed his advantage. “I think we can count on Hannah and her friend to take care of that. Say the word, and we can send the two of them through this crowd. It’ll be faster than an instant-message e-mail.”
“What if no one comes?” she asked worriedly. “It is Christmas Eve, after all. People have plans. Then you would’ve gone to all that expense for nothing.”
“I’m not worried about that. I’m sure people are curious. Some are probably anxious to know if you intend to reopen the inn. It’s been a historic landmark in the town for years. I think they’ll be more than eager to take a little side trip on their way to church.” He waited while the wheels turned in her head. He could practically see the pros and cons warring in her brain, as her expression shifted from dismay to hope and back again.
“You’re absolutely certain we can pull this off?” she said at last. “It won’t be the biggest mistake either of us has ever made?”
“Darlin’, when it comes to business, I try really hard never to make mistakes.”
“Okay, then,” she said decisively. “Make that call. Then let’s find Hannah and Jolie and put them to work.”
Trace confirmed the plans with the caterer, who was eager to do anything for the bonus Trace had promised him. After that, finding the girls wasn’t all that difficult. They were right in front, singing at the top of their lungs. Trace pulled Hannah aside and told her the plan.
“That is so awesome!” she said. “Jolie will help.”
She pulled her friend over, introduced her to Trace and Savannah, then told her the plan.
“Sure,” Jolie said at once. “I’ll tell my mom and dad to spread the word, too. They know everybody. And this will be way better than sitting around at home while my relatives say the same old things they say every year.”
“Tell them I’ll appreciate whatever they can do to let people know,” Savannah told her.
The two girls were about to race off when Jolie turned back. “I was supposed to ask you if it would be okay for Hannah to spend the night at my house tonight. A couple of my other friends are coming over, and my mom said it would be okay. She’s right over there, if you want to meet her.”
Trace saw the indecision on Savannah’s face, but he also saw the anticipation on Hannah’s. “Let’s go over and say hello,” he suggested. “You can discuss it with Jolie’s mother.”
Five minutes later, Savannah had given her approval for Hannah to spend the night at Jolie’s. Donna Jones had been reassuring about the slumber party and enthusiastic about the open house at Holiday Retreat.
“I can’t wait to see it,” she said. “And I know all my friends are dying to meet you. Mae Holiday was loved and respected, and everyone wants to let you know that. You’ll have a huge crowd. An open house on Christmas Eve is a lovely thing to do for the community.”
Savannah looked relieved by her genuine excitement. “I’ll see you then. What time should I pick Hannah up tomorrow morning?”
“Oh, don’t worry about that,” Donna said. “You’ll have enough to do. I’ll bring her by around noon, unless you’d like her there earlier to help out.”
“Noon will be perfect,” Savannah said, just as the band began to play “Silent Night.” She slipped her hand into Trace’s and began to sing.
A sensation that felt a whole lot like contentment stole through Trace. Not that he was familiar with the concept. For all of his success, for all of the people who filled his life day in and day out, he’d never experienced a moment quite like this. Maybe there was something magical about the holidays after all.
Or maybe Mae had been even wiser than he’d realized. Maybe she’d known exactly how to grant wishes before they’d even been made.
The bright red front door closed softly behind Savannah, and she suddenly realized that she was all alone in the house with Trace. Her heart thundered in her chest as she met his gaze and saw the familiar heat slowly begin to stir.
As he had earlier, he reached for the toggle on her jacket zipper and slowly slid it down, his intense gaze never once straying from her face. His knuckles skimmed along the front of her sweater, barely touching it, yet provocative enough to have her breasts swelling, the peaks instantly sensitive.
“Tell me to stop now, if that’s what you want,” he said quietly.
“I…..” Her voice quavered. She swallowed hard and kept her gaze level. “I don’t want you to stop.”
“Thank God,” he murmured, his mouth covering hers.
Savannah hadn’t expected the whirlwind of sensations that tore through her at his touch. Trace had kissed her before, each time more amazing than the last, but this was different somehow. Probably because of where it was destined to lead.
It had been so long since any man had wanted her, since she’d been open to feeling this reckless surge of desire. From the moment of her divorce, she had resolved never to let another man take away even one tiny bit of her control over her life or her body. In little more than a couple of days, Trace had made that resolve crumble. She’d wanted him almost from the moment he’d stepped into the kitchen on that first day.
The reaction then had been purely physical. Now it was so much more. She knew the kind of man he was, had seen for herself that the workaholic traits she despised covered a vulnerability spawned years ago. She knew he was kind and generous. Best of all, he’d had Aunt Mae’s apparently unwavering faith. That stamp of approval alone would have been enough to convince Savannah that Trace was someone to be respected and admired…..maybe even loved.
In one corner of her brain, she wanted to apply reason to all of the feelings he stirred in her, wanted to dissect them with logic, but the rest of her mind was clamoring for something else entirely. Majority wins, she thought, barely containing a giddy desire to laugh with sheer exhilaration.
And then Trace’s tongue was teasing her lips, tasting her, and the last rational thought in her head fled. From that instant on, it was all about sensation, about dark, swirling heat and a racing heartbeat, about the brush of his hand over flesh, about the clean male scent of him and the way his eyes seemed to devour her as he gauged the effect of each lingering, provocative caress.
She felt a connection with this near-stranger that she hadn’t felt in years with her ex-husband. It was as if Trace could read her mind, as if he knew exactly which part of her was screaming for his touch. Savannah knew he believed that Mae had brought them together with something exactly like this in mind. And maybe that was how it had happened. It hardly mattered, because it felt right. It felt as if she was exactly where she belonged with exactly the right man. Fate or Aunt Mae—it hardly mattered which—had brought them to this moment.