“Good prize,” Hannah said enthusiastically. “What if you win?”

“Then you make me the biggest, mushiest Christmas card ever, something I can hang on my office wall.”

“Deal,” Hannah said, slapping his hand in a high five.

He glanced toward Savannah and saw that her lips were twitching. It wasn’t a real laugh, but it was at least the beginning of a smile. He pointed it out to Hannah.

“I get the first point,” he said.

“That’s not a real laugh,” Hannah scoffed. She leaned over, slipped her hand down her mother’s back and tickled Savannah until she giggled aloud. “That’s a real laugh,” Hannah said triumphantly.

Savannah wriggled away, then scowled at both of them. “What do I get if I maintain a totally stoic facade all day long?”

“Never happen,” Trace said.

“No way,” Hannah agreed.

“Bet I can,” Savannah retorted, her eyes twinkling.

“Okay, that does make it more interesting,” Trace agreed. “If you win—and that’s a really big if—you get Hannah’s mushy card.”

“What about you? What will you give me?”

Trace met her gaze evenly and felt his heart take a leap into overdrive. “Same as last night,” he said softly.

He noted the flush that crept into her cheeks as she remembered that fleeting kiss they’d shared.

“You’ll have to do better than that,” she challenged.

His gazed remained steady. “Oh, I promise you, darlin’, it will take your breath away.”


The blasted heater in the car must have shot the temperature into the nineties, Savannah thought, barely resisting the urge to fan herself as Trace’s words hung in the air.

Unlike the day before, when his seductive teasing had merely irritated her, today she was immediately all hot and bothered and wishing for more…..maybe because she knew for a fact exactly what Trace’s kiss could do to her. Worse, she wanted another of those kisses so badly, she was going to have to try really, really hard not to laugh for the remainder of the day. Given Hannah’s determination to win that bet she’d made with Trace, Savannah was going to have a real struggle on her hands.

She could do it, though. She just had to remember her resolve…..and keep a whole lot of distance between herself and those two coconspirators.

The second they reached the hardware store, Hannah begged to take a walk through town.

“Back here in thirty minutes,” Savannah instructed, relieved to be rid of one of them. She looked at Trace. “I’ll meet you back here in a half hour, too.”

“You sure you don’t need my help?” he asked, regarding her with a knowing grin.

“Nope. I’m sure someone will help me carry whatever I buy.”

“Here’s the spare key, then, in case you finish before I get back. You don’t mind if I come in and pick up a few things myself, do you?” he asked.

“What sort of things?” she asked suspiciously. Trace didn’t strike her as the type who had a lot of fix-it projects back home. Then again, didn’t most men get a little giddy around wrenches and screwdrivers and power tools? Maybe he just wanted to soak up the atmosphere.

“This and that,” he said vaguely. “I’ll know when I see it.”

“Fine. It’s a big store. I’m sure you won’t be in my way,” she said.

They parted at the front door. Savannah headed straight for the paint supplies. She’d already thought about the colors she wanted for each of the guest rooms—rich, deep tones, accented by white trim. In no time at all, she’d picked out the appropriate paint chips and had the colors being mixed while she chose brushes, rollers, an edger for trimming and a paint pan.

Just as she headed through the store toward wallpaper-removal materials, she thought she spotted Trace coming around the end of the paint aisle, but then he vanished from sight. She didn’t see him again until she was unloading her purchases into the back of his SUV.

“Find everything you were looking for?” he asked, tucking his own mysterious packages beside hers.

“Yes. What about you?” she asked as he lifted something heavy into the car. “What on earth is that? It looks as if it weighs a ton.”

“Just a tool,” he said, immediately turning his attention to the street. “Any sign of Hannah yet? Maybe we should go meet her. We could grab some lunch while we’re in town. There’s a little restaurant on Main Street that Mae used to like.”

“The Burger Shack,” Savannah said at once. “Is it still in business?”

“It was last time I was here. I took Mae a burger, fries and a chocolate shake from there.”

“I can almost taste their shakes,” Savannah said. “They made ’em the old-fashioned way with milk and ice cream. They were so thick, a straw would stand straight up in them.”

When she looked at Trace, his lips were curving into a grin.

“Sounds like that’s a yes,” he said.

“Absolutely,” she said eagerly. “And here comes Hannah.”

She noticed that her daughter was carrying a shopping bag and that her eyes were sparkling with excitement. “What did you buy?” Savannah asked.

“Mom, I can’t tell. It’s almost Christmas, remember?”

Savannah started to question where Hannah had gotten the money to buy a gift, then stopped herself. Rob had probably slipped her a little money before they’d left Florida. Knowing him, that had been his gift to her, and she was turning right around and spending it on Savannah. On Trace, too, more than likely. Her daughter had the most generous heart of anyone Savannah knew, something she clearly hadn’t inherited from her father.

“And that’s all you need to tell us,” Trace said, making room in the back of the car for Hannah’s purchases. “Your mom and I were just talking about lunch. You interested?”

“Only if you’re talking about that burger place on Main Street. The smell coming out of there is awesome. And I saw lots of kids my age going in. It must be the cool place to go.”

Trace grinned. “Then it sounds like it’s unanimous.”

“Guess what?” Hannah asked excitedly. She went on without waiting for a response. “I met this girl at the store. Her name’s Jolie. Isn’t that a great name? And she’s my age. We’ll be in the same class at school. She says the teacher is really great. Her name’s Mrs. Peterson. She’s been here, like, forever, but everyone loves her because she’s so nice.”

“Really?” Savannah said, since Hannah didn’t seem to expect much of a response. She was already rushing on.

“And guess what else?” she said. “Jolie says there’s going to be caroling in town tonight and that everyone will be there, so we should come, too.” She regarded Savannah hopefully. “Can we, please?”

Savannah instinctively thought of how uncomfortable Trace had been when she’d asked him to sing carols at the house the night before. She glanced at him.

“I think it sounds like a wonderful idea,” he said with apparent sincerity.

Hannah grinned at him. “Jolie says they give out song sheets, so you’ll know all the words.”

“Then I definitely say we do it,” Trace said. “Savannah?”

Being out on a cold, snowy evening two days before Christmas singing carols with her daughter and Trace? Savannah couldn’t imagine anything more romantic. That probably meant she ought to say no, but of course she wouldn’t. Not if it meant disappointing Hannah.

Sure, as if that were the real reason, she mentally scolded herself. She was going to do it because there was no place on earth she’d rather be tonight.

“Yes,” she said, noting the smile that spread across Hannah’s face. It was almost as bright as the warmth stealing through her.

 

Seven

Savannah had the radio blasting as she got into a rhythm of applying paint to the walls of the first guest room. The beautiful deep shade of green brought the color of the evergreens in the surrounding forest inside. When the white trim was added, it would be reminiscent of the way the scenery looked right now with snow clinging to the trees’ branches. She envisioned a thick, warm comforter in shades of green and burgundy on the queen-size bed, with aromatic candles to match on the dresser.

Glancing out the window, she caught a glimpse of Hannah building her first snowman and chattering happily, no doubt to Trace, though Savannah couldn’t figure out exactly where he was. He’d been up to something, though for the life of her she couldn’t figure out what it was. The instant they’d arrived home after lunch, he’d disappeared into Mae’s den. She hadn’t seen him since.

Despite her declaration that she intended to handle the painting task on her own, a part of her had been counting on his defiance of that. She’d expected him to show up by now, if only to critique her work, maybe try to coax a laugh out of her in his ongoing attempt to win that bet with Hannah. Instead, much as her ex-husband would have done, Trace had retreated to whatever work he considered more important.

Oh, well, this was her job, not his, she thought with a sigh. And a man she barely knew was hardly in a position to disappoint her.

Besides, the painting was going very well, she decided, as she stood back and surveyed the room. There was an elegance and warmth to the result. Once the finishing touches were in place—probably after she could hit the January white sales at the Boston department stores—it would be perfect.

Satisfied, she snapped the lid back on the can of paint and prepared to move on to another room, the one she thought of as the blue room, though at the moment it had faded wallpaper that needed to be stripped. It was already late afternoon, so she probably wouldn’t get much of the stripping completed before they left for the caroling in town, but any progress on the messy task was better than none.

She was about to peel off her first chunk of paper when something that sounded a lot like a big-time power tool kicked on downstairs, followed by a muttered curse, then giggles and deep, booming laughter. Savannah went to the top of the stairs and looked down just in time to see Hannah and Trace cast a furtive look in her direction.

“Uh-oh, we’re busted,” Trace said.

“If she heard you cussing, she’ll probably send us to our rooms,” Hannah said, looking downcast.

Hands on hips, Savannah scowled at them. “What are you two doing?”

“Nothing bad, Mom. Honest.” Hannah’s expression was filled with sincerity.

“Trace?”

“She’s right. It’s just a little surprise,” he said.

Savannah remained skeptical. “, or a shock?”

Hannah giggled. “Mom’s not real good with surprises.”

“Maybe because I’ve had so many bad ones,” Savannah said. “By the way, I’m not hearing any reassuring explanations. Do I need to come down there?”

“No,” they both said at once.

The quick chorus only roused her suspicions further. She started down the steps, only to have Trace take the bottom steps two at a time and meet her when she was less than halfway down. Putting both hands on her shoulders, he gazed into her eyes.

***

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