“Do you trust me?” he asked.

Now there was a sixty-four-thousand-dollar question. “I suppose,” she said, hedging. Only Mae’s faith in him was giving him her current benefit of the doubt.

“Well, you can,” he said, clearly disappointed by the less than wholehearted response. “You need to go back to whatever you were doing and let Hannah and me finish up what we’re doing.”

She returned his gaze without blinking. “I was thinking of quitting for the day, maybe coming downstairs for a snack.”

“I’ll bring you a snack,” he said at once. “Anything you want.”

“An entire pint of your ice cream?”

“If that’s what you want,” he said at once.

“Okay, that’s it. Something bad is going on down there, isn’t it?” she said, trying to brush past him.

“Mom, please,” Hannah wailed. “You’ll spoil everything. It’s not bad. I promise.”

Savannah told herself that it was her daughter’s plea, not the pleading expression in Trace’s eyes that won her over. “You can’t keep me up here forever, you know.”

“Just another couple of hours,” he said, looking relieved. “Still want that ice cream?”

“No, that was just a test.”

He grinned. “I figured as much.”

Savannah sighed. “I’m going back to strip wallpaper.”

“Maybe you ought to take a break,” he suggested. “Maybe take a long, leisurely bubble bath or something.”

“Who has time for that?” Savannah grumbled. “This place isn’t going to get fixed up by itself.”

He tucked a finger under her chin. “When you start saying things like that, it’s exactly the time when you need a break the most.”

“This from a workaholic like you?” she scoffed.

“Actually that’s something your aunt used to say to me every time I protested that I couldn’t get away from the office to come visit. It got me up here every time,” he said, an unmistakable hint of nostalgia in his voice. “And she was always right. I always felt better after a few days with her. I even got so I barely cracked open my briefcase the whole time I was here.”

“Did she talk you into taking a bubble bath, too?” Savannah teased.

“Nope, but you probably could,” he retorted, then added in an undertone, “especially if you were joining me.”

Heat and desire shot through Savannah like a bolt of lightning. “Any bubble bath I take, I’ll be taking alone,” she told him, keeping her own voice muted.

“Too bad.”

Before she made the fatal mistake of agreeing with him, she whirled around and went back upstairs. She started toward the room where she’d been about to work, then changed her mind and headed another floor up to her bathroom, where she poured some lavender-scented bubble bath into the tub and turned on the water, knowing that the sound would be enough to keep Trace’s imagination stirred up. He wasn’t the only one under this roof who had a wicked streak, she thought with satisfaction as she sank into the warm water. Hers had just been on hold for a while.

Unfortunately the memory of his suggestion that he join her and the sensual feel of the water against her skin combined to make the bath far less relaxing than she’d envisioned. In fact, she concluded as she stepped from the tub and wrapped herself in a thick terry-cloth towel, it really was too bad that she wouldn’t find Trace waiting for her in her bed. Thank goodness they were going caroling in a couple of hours. It was definitely going to take a blast of icy air to cool off her wayward thoughts.

“Quiet,” Trace admonished Hannah when they heard Savannah moving around upstairs. Since they were due to leave for the caroling in less than a half hour, he figured they had five minutes, maybe less, before she started down from the private quarters on the third floor. He squeezed Hannah’s hand. “Not a word till she gets all the way down and sees what we’ve done.”

They’d only made a dent in the work that was needed to put Holiday Retreat back into shape for guests, but the outside of the front door and the exterior trim were now a bright red, the brass fixtures glistened and the foyer and living room floors were polished to a mellow sheen. Hannah had even fashioned some greens and ribbon into a decoration that had been hung from the brass knocker. In his opinion, with just a little effort, they had made a vast difference in the appearance of the inn. It looked as it had on his first few visits, before Mae had let some of the maintenance slip.

Beside him, Hannah was practically bursting with excitement as they waited for her mother.

“I should open the door,” she whispered. “Otherwise, how will she know about the paint and the decoration?”

Trace grinned at her. “Good point. Why don’t you sneak out the back door, run around to the front and open it when I give the word that she’s almost down the steps. I’ll make sure it’s unlocked.”

Hannah took off, thundering across the floor in her eagerness.

“Don’t forget your coat,” Trace called after her just as he heard Savannah’s footsteps descending from the third floor to the second.

Since he didn’t want Savannah to miss Hannah’s grand entrance, he stepped into view as she started down the last flight and blocked her way. She paused halfway down, regarding him warily.

“I am not going back up,” she told him.

“Never said you should.”

“Then why are you standing in my way?”

“Am I in your way?” he asked, still not budging.

Savannah sighed heavily, just as Trace heard Hannah hit the porch running.

“You look lovely,” he said in a voice meant to carry outside.

Her gazed narrowed. “Announcing it to the world?”

“Why not?” he said. “It’s worth announcing.”

At that instant he heard Hannah turn the doorknob. He stepped aside as the door burst open.

Clearly startled, Savannah looked straight at her daughter, then caught sight of the freshly painted door. Her eyes lit up.

“Oh, my,” she said softly. “It’s beautiful.” She looked from Hannah to Trace. “Is that what you two were up to?”

“Only part of it, Mom,” Hannah said. “Come down the rest of the way and look around some more.”

As soon as Savannah stepped off the bottom stair, she glanced around, her expression puzzled.

“Down,” Hannah said impatiently.

Savannah’s gaze shifted to the floor with its brand-new shine. “What on earth?” There were tears in her eyes when she turned to Trace. “You did this? That’s what I heard down here? I couldn’t imagine the wood ever looking like this again. It’s beautiful.”

Hannah beamed at her. “I helped, Mom. Trace and I did it together.”

“It’s just a start,” Trace said. “We only had time to do the foyer and the living room. We’ll do the dining room tomorrow.”

The tears in Savannah’s eyes spilled down her cheeks. “I don’t know how to thank you.”

“You could start by not crying,” Trace said mildly, stepping closer to brush the dampness from her cheeks. “We wanted to do something to help. Hannah made the decoration for the door. She’s got a real knack for that sort of thing.”

Savannah’s gaze shifted to the greens. “Trace is right, sweetie. It’s absolutely beautiful. Aunt Mae would be so pleased with all of this.”

She turned to Trace. “I know you did it for her, but thank you.”

It had started as something he wanted to do for Mae, but that wasn’t how it had ended up. Trace realized he had done it to put that sparkle into Savannah’s eyes, the sparkle that shimmered even through her tears.

“It was the least I could do,” he said. “Now, do you want to admire our work some more, or shall we head into town for the caroling?”

“Let’s go,” Hannah said at once. “Mom can look at this forever when we come home.”

Savannah laughed. “So much for savoring the moment.”

“I made you laugh,” Hannah gloated. “That’s a whole bunch of points for me and hardly any for Trace. Those sundaes are mine!”

“Ah, well,” Trace said with an exaggerated air of resignation. “I suppose the art already on my office wall will have to do.”

Savannah was quiet on the ride into town. Too quiet, in Trace’s opinion. When they’d finally found a parking place a few blocks from the town square and Savannah was exiting the car, he pulled her aside. “Everything okay?”

“Of course,” she said brightly, though her smile was as phony as that too-chipper tone.

“Tell me,” he persisted.

She sighed. “I was just thinking about all the Christmases I missed with Aunt Mae, years when I could have had this, instead of…..well, instead of what we had.”

“You can’t go back and change things,” Trace reminded her. “You can only learn from your mistakes and look ahead.”

She regarded him intently. “Are there things about your life that you’d change, mistakes you regret?”

He hesitated over the answer. “I wish things had been easier for my mother,” he said slowly. “But I was a boy. I had no control over that. She made her own choice to stay married to a dreamer who was very good at criticizing everything she did, but did nothing himself.”

A half smile touched Savannah’s lips. “You say that, but you sound as if you still believe that you should have fixed it somehow.”

“I suppose I do believe that,” he admitted. “But by the time I had the money to make a difference in her life, it was too late. She’d already died of pneumonia. She’d let a flu go untreated too long because my father thought she was making too much out of a little cold. Once she got to the hospital, there was nothing they could do. That was the beginning of the end for my dad. He was devastated. I finally saw that in his own way, he had felt my mother was everything to him. He died less than six months later.”

“Oh, Trace, I’m so sorry,” Savannah said.

He forced aside the guilt that the memory always brought. “Time to take my own advice. I can’t change the past. I have to let it go. We all do.” He managed a smile. “I think I hear a band warming up. It must be about time for the caroling to begin.”

As if on cue, Hannah, who’d been hurrying ahead of them, bolted back. “Hurry up, you guys. The carols are starting. And I see Jolie. Can I go say hi to her?”

“Of course,” Savannah said. “But then you come back to join us. Got it?”

“Got it,” Hannah said, racing away from them.

Left alone with Savannah, Trace reached for her hand and tucked it through his arm. “This is nice,” he said, looking into her shining eyes. “The stars are out. The air is crisp. I can smell the bonfire up ahead. It definitely feels as if Christmas is in the air. And there’s a beautiful woman on my arm.”