“Still, I’d hate to feel responsible for you missing out on something important. Besides, I promised Hannah that she and I would go cut down a Christmas tree this afternoon.”
He regarded her as if she’d just mentioned a plan to cut down the entire forest.
“There’s a perfectly good tree lot in town. I passed it on my way out here,” he said. “Those trees are already cut. Less work. Less waste.”
“Is that an expression of environmental concern?” she inquired. “Because the trees I’m talking about are grown specifically for the holidays. It’s how some people make their living.”
He looked skeptical. “Still seems like a lot of work.”
“But this is a tradition,” she countered.
He looked as if she’d used a foreign term.
“Didn’t you have any holiday traditions when you were growing up?” she asked.
“Sure,” he said at once. “Staying out from underfoot while Mom and Dad argued over how much money was being wasted on presents.”
Savannah couldn’t imagine a home in which the holidays had meant anything other than a joyful celebration. For all of the problems she and her parents were having now, they had given her years of memories of idyllic Christmases. Very little of that had had anything at all to do with the materialistic things. It had been about family togetherness, laughter…..traditions. For some reason, she suddenly wanted to share just a little of that with this man to whom tradition meant so little. She’d never been able to get through to Rob, but maybe Trace Franklin wasn’t a lost cause.
“Would you like to help us?” she asked impulsively.
He looked even more disconcerted by that invitation than he had been by her request that he join them for dinner. “I had planned to get some work done this afternoon,” he said predictably.
“Surely the company founder can take a break for a couple of hours,” she coaxed. “Most people do relax around the holidays. I doubt anyone will be too upset if they don’t get a fax today or even tomorrow. Some people might actually be hoping to leave work early to finish their holiday shopping.”
A vaguely guilty expression passed across his face, as if he’d already forgotten that Christmas was only a few days away.
“You’re right,” he said eventually. “The work can wait. In fact, maybe I’ll call my secretary and tell her to let everyone leave early.”
Savannah grinned at the unexpected evidence that Scrooge had a heart. “That’s the spirit,” she said. “I’ll get my coat and hurry Hannah along. You’d better change into something warmer, too. My hunch is that this could take a long time. Hannah rushes through most things, but she’s never made a quick decision about a Christmas tree in her life.”
As Savannah left Trace to finish putting his groceries away, she was all too aware that his gaze followed her as she exited from the kitchen. And that she unconsciously put a little extra sway in her hips because of it.
Oh, so what? she thought as a guilty blush crept into her cheeks. If she could grant Hannah’s not-so-secret Christmas fantasy of a pair of skis, then surely Fate wouldn’t mind granting her the chance to flirt with a handsome man for a couple of days. After the holidays, what were the chances she’d ever see Trace again? Slim to none, more than likely. He was the perfect guy on which to practice a little harmless flirting. She had to get back into the dating game one of these days. Here was her chance to relearn the rules with a man who absolutely, positively was not her type, and better yet, a man who wouldn’t be around long enough to break her heart.
Then she recalled that desire she’d read in Trace’s eyes only moments before. Harmless was not the first word that came to mind. Okay, she concluded, wicked would be nice, too.
Trace hauled all of his business equipment into Mae’s den, but before he could plug any of it in he was so overcome with emotion that he sank into the chair behind her antique desk and drew in a deep breath. As he did, he was almost certain he could still smell the soft, old-fashioned floral scent she had worn.
The room looked as if she’d just left it moments earlier. A jar of her favorite gourmet jelly beans sat on the desk. He noted with amusement that most of the grape-flavored ones were gone. They had been her favorites, though she had claimed that she continued to buy assorted flavors precisely so she wouldn’t get in a rut. She’d never realized that Trace had added a half-pound or so of the grape-flavored jelly beans each and every time he came to visit, secretly stirring them into the mix.
The inn’s guest book was still beside the phone with reservations carefully noted. He turned to today’s date and saw his own name written in her graceful, flowing script. He saw that Savannah’s arrival had been noted for a date only a few days earlier in a script that seemed less steady.
Had she made those final arrangements for her niece’s inheritance when she’d known the end was near? Had she cleverly schemed to bring him together with Savannah even as her health was failing? It would have been just like her to plot something for those she loved, something to make them less lonely once she was gone.
Ironically he didn’t think Savannah had picked up on the scheme yet. He’d been the subject of so much matchmaking in recent years that he’d seen what Mae was up to the instant he’d realized he wasn’t going to be alone at Holiday Retreat over the holidays. It was no accident that he and Savannah were here at the same time. Mae had wanted some of the seasonal magic to rub off on her heart-weary niece and a man she thought was missing out on romance.
So, why hadn’t he run? He could have apologized for the intrusion and headed back to New York and the safety of his workaholic routine. It wasn’t entirely duty to Mae that had kept him here but—mostly, he had to admit—the sweetly vulnerable Savannah herself. Though she wasn’t complaining, it was obvious that her life hadn’t been easy lately. Still, she’d maintained an air of determination and her sense of humor. She was too unsophisticated to be his type, but there was something about her—a fragility encased in steel—that drew him just the same. It reminded him of a young man who’d fled Tennessee years ago with little more than a dream and the determination to make it come true. And in many ways it reminded him of his mother, who’d had the strength to endure poverty and hardship. Only in recent years—after spending most of his youth condemning her for the choices she had made—had he come to realize just how strong she had been.
“Trace, are you ready yet?” Savannah asked quietly, startling him. “My goodness, you’re not even changed. Is everything okay?”
He met her concerned gaze. “Sorry. I got distracted.”
Savannah came closer and perched on the edge of the desk. She regarded him with sympathy. “You feel her presence in here, don’t you? I feel it most in the kitchen. It’s like she’s watching over my shoulder.” A grin tugged at the corners of her mouth. “Making sure I don’t burn the place down, more than likely.”
“She wouldn’t have left the inn to you if she didn’t trust you to take care of it,” he told her, knowing with everything in him that it was true. Mae had been sentimental, but she had also had a practical streak. Her New England heritage, no doubt. “This place meant everything to her. When Franklin Toys started doing really well, I suggested she retire. She had plenty of money to live comfortably for the rest of her life. Know what she told me?”
“That retirement was for people waiting to die,” Savannah said. “She told me the same thing. She loved having her company, as she referred to the guests who came here year after year. She said they kept her young. What she missed was having family underfoot for the holidays.”
“You and Hannah and I are here this year,” Trace said, unable to keep a note of sorrow from his voice.
“Too late,” Savannah said, a tear sliding down her cheek.
Trace thought of his suspicions about Mae’s reason for bringing them together. Not that he intended to get too carried away trying to see that all of her wish came true, but celebrating this Christmas with her niece was the least he could do for the woman who’d believed in him.
“You said yourself that you think she’s watching over you,” he reminded Savannah. “What makes you think she’s not here right this second, gloating over having gotten us up here to celebrate the holiday and her memory at the same time?”
Savannah’s expression brightened. “You’re absolutely right! Let’s not disappoint her. We’ll make this the most memorable holiday ever. We’ll do everything just the way she used to do it, from the greens in the front hall to the candles on the mantel and in the windows.”
“Perfect,” he said enthusiastically. “Give me a minute to call my office and change, and I’ll meet you and Hannah out front. We’ll find the best tree on the tree farm.”
“It has to be huge,” Savannah warned.
He hesitated, phone receiver in hand. “How huge?”
“Really, really big.” She held her arms wide. “And very, very tall.”
“How were you and Hannah going to get such a huge tree back here by yourselves?”
“I was counting on help.”
“Are you sure you didn’t know I was coming?”
“Nope. Mr. Johnson has a truck. He also has a fondness for Mae’s sugar cookies.”
Trace winced. “The ones on the kitchen floor?”
“Those are the ones.”
“Think he’ll accept any other sort of bribe?” he asked, knowing that he was going to hate the alternative if Mr. Johnson declined to haul that tree.
“Nope. I think this tree is riding in your pristine, shiny SUV, shedding needles all the way,” she said happily.
Trace groaned. “I was afraid of that.”
She patted his hand, sending a jolt of awareness through him.
“I’ll go get a blanket to lay in the back,” she said soothingly. “Now, hurry, or you’ll have Hannah to deal with. Trust me, she’s worse than a nagging splinter when she’s anxious to get someplace. Right now she’s making a family of snow angels on the front lawn, but her enthusiasm for that will wear off shortly.”
“I’ll hurry,” Trace promised, unable to tear his gaze away as she left the room. He sighed, then dialed his office.
Two minutes later, he’d told his stunned secretary to shut the company down until after the new year, changed into warmer clothes and was heading out the front door, only to be greeted by squeals of delight as Hannah upended her mother into a snowbank. Savannah was sputtering and scraping snow out of her mouth. There was a dangerous glint in her eyes as she regarded her traitorous daughter.
Oblivious to her mother’s reaction, Hannah spotted Trace. Emboldened by her success with her mother, she raced in his direction. Trace braced for the hit. “Oh, no, you don’t,” he said, scooping her up when she would have tried to knock him on his backside. He held out a hand and helped Savannah up, even as Hannah tried to squirm free of his grip.
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