“I think she was worried when I took off.”

“She called earlier to wish me a merry Christmas, but that was hours ago,” Nate said. He regarded Traced curiously. “Funny thing, she seemed to have the idea that I was over there this morning playing Santa. Where would she get a notion like that?”

“Santa did bear a striking resemblance to you,” Trace said.

“You didn’t tell her, though, did you? You let her go on thinking that Mae was behind all the gifts and that she was the one who conspired with me to bring them.”

“Oh, she suspects I had something to do with it, but there were enough surprises to throw her off.” He glanced at Nate. “So, if Savannah didn’t call, what brings you out into the bitter cold?”

“The truth is, I was all settled down with a new book my son gave me for Christmas when I felt this sudden urge to go for a stroll.”

“Really? A sudden urge?” Trace said skeptically.

Nate nodded. “Finding you out here, I’m guessing Mae put the thought in my mind.”

Trace kept his opinion about that to himself. Maybe Mae did have her ways even from beyond the grave.

“Something on your mind?” Nate inquired after they’d walked awhile in companionable silence.

Okay, Trace thought, here was his chance to ask someone older and wiser whether there was such a thing as love at first sight, whether a marriage based on such a thing could possibly last.

“Do you think there’s such a thing as destiny?” Trace asked.

Nate’s lips didn’t even twitch at the question. “’Course I do. Only a fool doesn’t believe there’s a reason we’re all put on this earth.”

“And that applies to love, too?”

“I imagine you’re asking about you and Savannah,” Nate said. “Now, granted I’ve only seen the two of you together once or twice, but looked to me as if there was something special between you. It’s not important what I think, though. What do you think?”

“I don’t know if I even believe in love,” Trace said dejectedly.

“Well now, there’s a topic with which I’m familiar,” Nate said. “You know about Mae and me, I imagine.”

Trace nodded.

“You probably don’t know so much about me and Janie, my wife. Janie and I met when we were kids barely out of diapers,” he said, a nostalgic expression on his face. “By first grade I’d already declared that I wanted to marry her, though at that age I didn’t really understand exactly what that meant. Not once in all our years of growing up did I change my mind. Janie was the girl for me. We married as soon as I graduated from college, settled down right here and began raising a family.”

He glanced at Trace. “Now that should have been a storybook ending, two people in love their whole lives, married and blessed with kids. But Janie’s nerves started giving her problems. The kids upset her. Anytime I was away from the house for more than a few hours, she’d get so distraught, I’d find her in tears when I came home. The doctors checked for a chemical imbalance. They tried her on medicine after medicine, but slowly but surely she slipped away from me.”

Tears glistened in his eyes. “The day I had to take her to Country Haven was the worst day of my life. I told her she’d be home again, but I think we both knew that day wouldn’t come. She’s happy at Country Haven. She feels safe there. But there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t miss the carefree girl I fell in love with.”

“It sounds as though you still love her deeply,” Trace said.

“I do,” Nate said simply.

“Then what about Mae?”

“After Janie went into the treatment facility, Mae helped out with the kids from time to time. They adored her. They stopped by the inn every day after school, and she always had cookies and milk waiting for them. Soon enough, I took to stopping by, too. Mae was a godsend for all of us during that first year.”

He met Trace’s gaze. “It’s important that you know that nothing improper went on between us. I considered myself a married man and I loved my wife. But I loved Mae, too. Since you’re not even sure if love exists, I don’t know if you can understand that it’s possible for a man to love two women, but I did. If I had thought for a single second that my friendship with Mae would hurt Janie, I would have ended it. But the truth was, there were times when Janie didn’t even seem to know who I was, didn’t seem to care that I was there to visit. That never kept me from going, but it did make me see that I didn’t need to lock my heart away in that place with her. I gave Mae every bit of love I felt free to give her. I also gave her the freedom to choose whether to love me. I admired her too much to do anything less.”

He sighed. “Given the way of the world now, a lot of men would have divorced a wife like Janie and moved on. That wasn’t my way. I’d made a commitment, and I honored it in the only way I knew how. And whether you believe it or not, I honored my commitment to Mae the same way.”

“I’m sorry you were in such a difficult position,” Trace said. “It must have been heartbreaking.”

“Having Mae in my life was one of the best things that ever happened to me. I can’t possibly regret that it couldn’t have been more, except for her sake. She deserved better.”

“I think you made her very happy,” Trace told him.

“I hope so,” Nate said, then paused and looked directly into Trace’s eyes. “There’s a reason I’m telling you this. I always believed that one day Mae and I would be able to be together openly, that we’d marry and spend our remaining years together. Maybe even do a little traveling. We never had that chance.”

Trace understood what he was saying. “This is your way of reminding me that life is short and unpredictable.”

“Exactly. If you love Savannah, don’t waste time counting the days until it seems appropriate to tell her. Don’t fritter away precious hours planning for the future. Start living every moment. I’ve lived a good long life, but I’m here to tell you that it’s still a whole lot shorter than I’d like.”

They’d circled around and were back at Nate’s driveway. “Think about what I said,” he told Trace.

“I will,” Trace promised. “Would you like to join us for Christmas dinner?”

“I would, but I’ll be going out to see Janie in a while. She seems to like it when I come by to read to her.”

“Thank you for sharing your story with me,” Trace said, genuinely touched that Nate had told him.

“Don’t thank me. Take my advice.” He grinned. “Otherwise, I have a feeling Mae will find some way to give me grief for failing her. That woman always did know how to nag.”

Nate was still chuckling as he walked slowly toward his house. Trace watched to make sure he didn’t slip on the icy patches, then walked back to Holiday Retreat, his heart somehow lighter and more certain.

 

Ten

For the life of her, Savannah couldn’t read Trace’s expression when he got back from his walk. She thought he looked more at peace with himself, but had no idea what that meant.

She was also still puzzling over his magnanimous decision to give her Aunt Mae’s stock. Had that been his way of making her financially independent to ease his own conscience and rid himself of some crazy sense of obligation to look after her? Was that going to make it easier for him to pack his bags in a day or two and walk away? When he left, would he go with no intention of ever looking back on her or Holiday Retreat as anything more than a pleasant memory? If that happened, it would break Hannah’s heart.

It would break Savannah’s heart, too.

“How’s the turkey coming?” Trace inquired, peering over her shoulder to look into the oven. “It certainly smells fantastic.”

“Another hour or so,” she told him, wishing he would stay right behind her, his body close to hers.

She stood up and turned slowly to face him, relieved that he didn’t back away. She reached up and cupped his cheeks. “You’re cold. How about some hot chocolate? Or some tea?”

“I’m fine,” he said, slipping his arms around her waist. “I’d rather have a kiss. I’m sure it would do a much better job of warming me up.”

Savannah tilted her face up for his kiss. His mouth covered hers and brought her blood to a slow simmer. She couldn’t be sure if it was working on Trace, but her body temperature had certainly shot up by several degrees. She sighed when he released her.

“Warmer now?” she inquired with forced cheer.

“Definitely,” he said, his eyes blazing with desire. “Too bad we can’t send Hannah for a ski lesson right this second.”

“Are you sure we can’t?” Savannah inquired hopefully.

“Nope. They’re all booked up at the lodge.”

She stared at him, biting back a chuckle. “You actually checked?”

“Of course. I always like to know my options.”

“Do we have any?”

“Afraid not.”

“Oh, well, once we’ve eaten, I have it on good authority that the turkey will put us straight to sleep. Maybe when we wake up, we’ll have forgotten all about sneaking upstairs to be alone.”

“I doubt it,” Trace said, his expression wry. “Besides, I promised Hannah we’d all go for a walk after dinner.”

“Why on earth would you do that? You just got back from a walk.”

“Which taught me the distracting power of exercise,” he said. “Besides, maybe we can have another snowball fight, and I can tackle you in the snow.”

Savannah laughed. “Now there’s something to look forward to.”

“Sweetheart, a frustrated man is willing to take any contact he can get.”

“Interesting. I would think the chill of the snow would be counterproductive.”

“I think I’d have to spend a month outdoors in the Arctic before it would cool the effect you have on me,” he said with flattering sincerity. He tipped her chin up to look directly into her eyes. “By the way, let’s make a date.”

“A date?”

He grinned. “You know, a man and a woman, getting together. A date.”

“Out on the town?”

“Or alone in front of a cozy fire.”

“Okay,” she said with a surge of anticipation. “When do you want to have this date?”

“Tomorrow night?” he suggested.

The level of relief Savannah felt when she realized he intended to stay another day was scary. She had a feeling she wanted way too much from this man. Asking for a date—even making love—was hardly a declaration of undying devotion. She really needed to keep things in perspective and not get ahead of herself.

“Tomorrow would be fine. Maybe I’ll see if Hannah can spend the night with Jolie again.”

Trace grinned. “Best idea I’ve heard all day.”

Savannah’s heart beat a little faster at the promise beneath his words. The memory of the last night they had spent alone in this house brought a flush to her cheeks.

***

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