Savannah grinned. “I’ll bet I know which room,” she said. “Aunt Mae always referred to it as her honeymoon suite because it’s the largest room here. Want to take a peek? The decorating isn’t finished, but I painted it yesterday.”

“Oh, I’d love to,” Donna said, following her upstairs.

At the door of the freshly painted green room with its white antique iron bed, she turned to Savannah with a gleam in her eyes. “It’s going to be beautiful.” She moved to the window that faced the mountains. “And the view is fabulous. I wonder if I could convince my husband to sneak off here for a weekend sometime.”

Savannah heard the wistfulness in her voice and considered it thoughtfully. “You know, it might not be a bad idea to offer an introductory weekend getaway special for locals. People get so used to living in a place like this, they forget that the tourists who come here see it entirely differently.”

“And it seems silly to spend money to stay just a few miles from home,” Donna said enthusiastically. “But if it were a special promotion, I’ll bet you’d be jammed with reservations. There’s no better way to build word of mouth. People would start sending all their out-of-town guests here. It could fill in the slack once ski season dies down.”

“I’m going to do it,” Savannah said, delighted by the whole idea. “And for giving me the idea, your stay will be free.”

“Absolutely not,” Donna protested. “That’s no way to start a business.”

“Sure it is. You’ll tell everyone you know how fabulous it is, so when I offer the promotion, it will be sold out in minutes.”

As they walked back downstairs, Donna regarded Savannah with open curiosity. “So, what’s the story with you and Trace Franklin? I’m sorry if I’m being nosy, but everybody in town remembers his coming to visit Mae. A handsome, single man who owns his own company is bound to stir up comment. Have you known him long?”

Savannah felt a now-familiar flush creep into her cheeks. “Only a few days,” she admitted.

“My, my,” Donna teased, “you work fast! I know a lot of women who tried to get to know him on his prior visits, and he never gave any of them a second glance. Last night he couldn’t take his eyes off you, and, if anything, he’s watching you even more intently tonight.”

“We’re just—”

“If you say you’re just friends, I’ll lose all respect for you,” Donna teased. “Any woman who doesn’t grab a man like that ought to have her head examined.”

“Talking about me, by any chance?” Trace inquired, stepping up beside Savannah and slipping an arm around her waist.

Savannah felt her face heat another ten degrees. “We were talking about—” she frantically searched her brain for a suitably attractive, sexy bachelor “Kevin Costner.”

Trace regarded her with amusement. “Oh? Is he in town?”

“No, but we do like to dream,” she said, as Donna coughed to cover her laughter.

Trace leaned down to whisper in her ear. “Liar,” he said softly.

“I think I’ll go chat with my husband and tell him about your offer,” Donna said. She grinned at Trace. “Nice to see you again. Merry Christmas.”

“You, too,” he said.

When Donna had gone in search of her husband, Savannah lifted her gaze to meet Trace’s. “I think the party’s a success. Thank you for talking me into it.”

“It’s been fun,” he said, as if that surprised him just a little. “Mae’s introduced me around before, but this is the first chance I’ve had to really talk to some of the locals. They’re good people, and they really are delighted that you’re reopening the inn. Not only has this place been a boon to the economy, its history and charm provide something that the chain hotels can’t. I didn’t realize that in its heyday, Holiday Retreat employed several full-time people on staff and that the dining room was open to the public for dinner. Is that part of your plan, as well?”

“Eventually,” Savannah said. “I’m going to have to take things slowly, so that I don’t get overextended financially. Once all the rooms are ready for paying guests, then I can start thinking about whether to offer more than breakfast. I can cope with making eggs or French toast—I’m not so sure I could handle gourmet dinners. And I know I can’t afford any help yet.”

“Your spaghetti was pretty good,” he said.

She frowned at him. “Somehow I doubt that’s up to the standard the guests would expect. Remind me and I’ll show you some of the old menus. Mae stopped doing the dinners about ten years ago, when it got to be too much for her, but she saved all the records. Since she left the file right where she knew I’d find it first thing, I’m sure she was hoping that I’d open the dining room again in the evenings.”

The rest of the party passed in a blur. Soon guests were putting on coats, thanking Savannah for having them over and leaving for the Christmas Eve services planned by the local churches. When the last guest had departed, Hannah found Savannah and Trace standing on the front porch.

“Mom, this was the best. I must have met everybody in my class at school. I can’t wait to start after New Year’s. And there’s going to be an ice-skating party in a couple of days and I’m invited. Isn’t that totally awesome?”

“Totally,” Savannah agreed.

Trace grinned. “Then you’re back to being happy about living in Vermont?”

“Absolutely,” Hannah said. “Can we go to church now?”

Trace glanced at Savannah. “What about it? Are you too tired?”

“I’m tired, but exhilarated. Besides, going to Christmas Eve services was always part of the tradition. I’ll grab my coat.”

Trace drove into town, which was teeming with many of the same families who had just left Holiday Retreat. They were all walking toward the various churches within blocks of the town square. Bells were ringing in the clear, crisp air.

As they entered the same little white chapel Savannah had attended with her family so many years ago, the scent of burning candles, the banks of red poinsettias by the altar, the swell of organ music, all combined to carry her back to another time. A wave of nostalgia washed over her.

How had she let moments like this slip away? As a child, she’d had no choice, but she could have insisted on coming back as an adult, even if she’d had to leave Rob behind to sulk in Florida. His mood had always been sullen around the holidays anyway. What would it have mattered if it got a little worse because she was sharing an experience like this with their daughter?

Ah, well, those days were behind her. She glanced at Hannah and saw the wonder in her eyes as the choir began to sing “O, Holy Night.” Trace slipped his hand around hers as the familiar notes soared through the tiny, crowded church.

Savannah’s eyes filled with tears at the beauty of the moment. Trace regarded her with such a concerned expression that she forced a watery smile. “Merry Christmas,” she murmured.

“Merry Christmas, angel.”

Hannah heard the murmured exchange and beamed at both of them. “Merry Christmas, Mom. Merry Christmas, Trace. I don’t care if we don’t have presents. This is the best holiday ever.”

Gazing into Trace’s eyes, Savannah couldn’t help but agree with her daughter. It was definitely the best one ever.



Savannah was hearing bells. Convinced it was a dream, she rolled over and burrowed farther under the covers.

“Mom! Mom! You’ve got to see this! Hurry!” Hannah shouted, shaking Savannah.

Groaning, Savannah cracked one eye to stare at her daughter. “This had better be good.” She and Trace had sat up talking until well past midnight, and if she wasn’t mistaken, the clock on her bedside table said it was barely seven. Even if it was Christmas morning, she had counted on at least another hour’s sleep, especially since Hannah wasn’t expecting Santa’s arrival.

“It’s not just good,” Hannah said, clearly undaunted by her testy tone, “it’s fantastic. Come on, Mom. Hurry. I’m going to wake up Trace.”

“Wait!” Savannah shouted, but it was too late. Hannah was already racing down the stairs screaming for Trace. Savannah heard his groggy reply, which amazingly was far less irritated than her own had been. In fact, he sounded downright cheerful.

Even with all that commotion right downstairs, Savannah could still hear those bells, louder and more distinct now. She tugged on her robe and went to the window, then stood there, mouth gaping at the sight that greeted her.

There was a huge, horse-drawn sleigh coming through the snow toward the house, the bells on its reins jingling merrily. The back was piled high with sacks and wrapped packages. And the driver was…..She blinked in disbelief and looked again. Nope, no mistake. The driver was Santa himself.

Savannah whirled around and headed for the stairs, pausing only long enough to run a brush through her hair and take a swipe at scrubbing her face and teeth. She met Trace at the second-floor landing. Hannah was already downstairs with the front door thrown open to allow in a blast of icy air.

Savannah studied Trace’s expression, looking for evidence of guilt. “What do you know about this?”

“Me? I have no idea what you mean.”

“Santa? The sleigh piled with gifts? It has your name written all over it.”

“Actually I don’t think you’ll find that’s true,” he said, giving her a quick kiss. “Stop fussing and go down there. Santa’s a busy fellow. I doubt he has all day to hang around here.”


“Go,” he said, waiting until she led the way before following along behind.

They arrived downstairs just as Santa trudged up the steps toting two huge sacks. Still filled with suspicion, Savannah stopped him in his tracks. “Are you sure you have the right place?”

“Holiday Retreat?” he said, edging past her. “You’re Savannah Holiday, right? And that young lady out there by the sleigh is Hannah?”


“Then this is definitely the place. Even after such a long and busy night, I try not to make mistakes. Sorry about not squeezing down the chimney the traditional way, but if I go home with this suit all covered with cinders, Mrs. Claus will have my hide.”

Savannah barely managed to suppress a chuckle. “I had no idea Mrs. Claus was so tough on you.”

The jolly old man with a weathered face and white beard, who looked suspiciously like Nate Daniels, rolled his eyes. “You have no idea. Now, where would you like these gifts?”

“Under the tree, I suppose.”

“And that would be?”

“Inside, in the living room on the right.”

Santa carried two loads of packages inside, declined Savannah’s offer of hot chocolate, then left with a cheery wave and a hearty “ho-ho-ho” that echoed across the still air. Hannah stared after him, still wide-eyed.