“Then I will definitely make it happen,” she vowed. Because she was desperate for another one of those sweet kisses despite the risk of Hannah walking in on them, she backed away from Trace and moved to the stove, opening lids and checking on things that were simmering just fine only moments ago.
“Trace,” she said without turning around, “if I ask you something, will you tell me the truth?”
“If I can,” he said at once.
“You did make all the arrangements for Santa and the presents, didn’t you?”
“Do you really want to know?” he asked, sounding vaguely frustrated. “Wouldn’t you prefer to think it was part of the Christmas magic?”
She turned to face him. “Sure,” she said honestly. “But I also believe in giving credit where credit’s due. I’m not an eight-year-old who still believes in Santa, at least when it suits her. I know the kind of effort and money it takes to make a morning like the one we had happen. The person responsible should be thanked.”
He shrugged, looking as if her persistence made him uncomfortable. “Look, it was nothing, okay?”
“It was more than that and you know it. You made Hannah’s Christmas, and mine.”
“I’m glad,” he said. “Can we drop it now?”
“Why do you hate admitting that you did something nice?”
“Because I didn’t do that much. I just made a few calls, ordered a few little things. Nate was more than willing to play Santa, especially since he had that gift from Mae for you.”
“Which was wonderful of him to do, but you bought me a floor polisher and a professional-quality tool kit, for heaven’s sakes.”
“A lot of people would say that gift explains why I’m still single,” he said.
“And I say it explains why I find you so completely and utterly irresistible,” she said.
“Irresistible, huh?” A grin tugged at the corners of his mouth. “Come over here.”
“Oh, no, you don’t. We agreed that any more fooling around with Hannah underfoot would be a bad idea.”
“Did we agree to that?”
“We did,” she said emphatically.
“Does one kiss qualify as fooling around?”
“Probably not with a lot of people, but in my experience with you, it has a tendency to make me want a whole lot more.”
His grin spread. “Good to know. I’ll have to remember that tomorrow night.”
Savannah met his gaze, her own expression deliberately solemn. “I certainly hope you do.”
Trace woke up in a dark mood on the morning after Christmas. Rather than inflict his foul temper on Savannah or Hannah, he made a cup of coffee, then shut himself away in Mae’s den and turned on his computer.
Even though he’d given his staff the week between Christmas and New Year’s off, he checked his e-mails, hoping for some lingering piece of business to distract him. Aside from some unsolicited junk mail, there was nothing. Apparently other people were still in holiday mode. He sighed and shut the thing off, then sat back, brooding.
He’d spent the whole night wondering if he hadn’t made the biggest blunder of his life the day before by giving Savannah that stock. It wasn’t that he thought it was the wrong thing to do or that Mae would have disapproved. In fact, he was certain she’d known all along what he would do with her shares. No, his concern was over whether he’d given Savannah the kind of financial independence that would make her flat-out reject the proposal he planned to make tonight.
He was still brooding over that when the door to the den cracked open and Savannah peeked in.
“Okay to interrupt?” she asked.
“Sure,” he said, forcing the surly tone out of his voice. “Come on in.”
To his shock, when she walked through the door, she was wearing some sort of feminine, slinky nightgown that promptly shot his heartbeat into overdrive.
“On second thought,” he muttered, his throat suddenly dry, “maybe you should change first.”
“Why would I do that?” She glanced down. “Don’t you like it?”
“Oh, yeah,” he said huskily. “I like it. Maybe just a little too much.”
Apparently she didn’t get the hint, because she kept right on toward him. The next thing he knew, she was in his lap and his body was so hard and aching, it was all he could do to squeeze out a few words.
“What are you up to?” he inquired, staying very still, hoping that his too-obvious response to that wicked gown of hers would magically vanish. “Where’s Hannah?”
“Gone,” she said, brushing her mouth across his.
“For the day,” she added, peppering kisses down his neck.
“The entire day?” he asked, suddenly feeling more hopeful and a whole lot less restrained.
“She won’t be home till five at the very earliest,” Savannah confirmed. “I have Donna’s firm commitment on that. She couldn’t keep her tonight, so we compromised.”
“I see,” he murmured, sliding his hand over the slick fabric barely covering her breast. The nipple peaked at his touch.
“Sorry my present’s a day late,” she said as she proceeded to unbutton his shirt and slide it away.
Trace gasped as her mouth touched his chest. “Oh, darlin’, something tells me it will be worth the wait.”
Savannah had never felt so thoroughly cherished as she did lying on the sofa in Trace’s arms, a blanket covering them, as a fire blazed across the room. In a few short days, she had discovered what it meant to be truly loved, even if Trace himself hadn’t yet put a label on his feelings. She wondered if he ever would.
She turned slightly and found him studying her with a steady gaze.
“You’re amazing, you know that, don’t you?”
She shook her head. “I’m just a single mom doing the best I can.”
“Maybe that’s what I find so amazing,” he said. “You remind me of my mother.”
“Just what every woman wants to hear when she’s naked in a man’s arms,” Savannah said lightly.
He gave her a chiding look. “Just hear me out. You’re strong and resilient. You’ve had some tough times, but you haven’t let them turn you bitter. You’ve just gotten on with the business of living and making a home for Hannah. When I was a kid, I don’t think I gave my mother half enough credit for that. I spent too much time being angry because she didn’t tell my dad to take a hike. I realize now that she didn’t see him the same way I did. She loved him, flaws and all. It was as simple as that, so she did what she could to make the best of his irresponsible ways.”
Trace caressed Savannah’s cheek, brushing an errant curl away from her face. “So, here’s the bottom line. I meant to do this with a bit more fanfare, but since our date has turned out to be a little unorthodox, this part might as well be, too.”
He sounded so serious that Savannah went still. “What’s the bottom line?” she asked worriedly.
“Will you marry me? I know we’ve just met and that you’re still recovering from a divorce, but I’ve fallen in love with you. I talked it over with Nate—”
Savannah stared, sorting through the rush of words and seizing on those that made the least sense. “You what?”
“Now don’t go ballistic on me,” Trace said, then rushed on. “I ran into him yesterday. He saw that I had a lot on my mind, because I had all these feelings and I thought they were probably crazy, but he put it all in perspective for me. He said life is way too short to waste time looking for rational explanations for everything. I’m not all that experienced with falling in love, but apparently it doesn’t follow some sort of precise timetable.”
Savannah’s lips twitched at his vaguely disgruntled tone. “No,” she agreed. “It certainly doesn’t.”
“Then again, I’m used to making quick decisions. And I do think it’s exactly what Mae had in mind when she insisted I come here for Christmas.” He met her gaze. “And just so you know, with these quick decisions of mine, I rarely make mistakes.”
“Is that so?” Savannah said quietly. “Well, it’s certainly true that Aunt Mae was an incredibly wise woman. She hasn’t steered me wrong so far.”
“Me, either,” Trace said, regarding her warily. “So?”
“Bottom line? I’ve fallen in love with you. Something tells me that if I don’t reach out for what I want with you now, it will be the biggest mistake of my life.”
“Then reach,” she said softly, her gaze locked with his.
Trace held out his hand. Savannah put hers in it, and for the first time in her life, Savannah felt as if she were truly part of a whole, something real and solid, with a future that was destined to last forever.
“There’s something about this place,” she said with a sense of wonder. “It must be Aunt Mae.” She lowered her mouth to Trace’s. “She always did get me the best gifts of all.”
UNDER THE CHRISTMAS TREE
Years ago I decided to hook a rug. Not a bath mat, but a rug about the size of Michigan. Before I got half of Detroit done, I was bored to death. Next I bought an unassembled dollhouse—three stories, twelve rooms and pieces the size of toothpicks. Not such a good idea. Then came my quilting phase, which was limited to collecting boxes and boxes of colorful fabric. I took a whole day off from writing to “piece.” When I showed my one-foot square to my neighbor she said, “Don’t worry—you’ll get the hang of it.”
Then one day when my mind went out to play, which lucky for me is my work, it wandered up a mountain road, through some enormous trees, along a wide river in which the fish jumped, and I decided to stay awhile. I began to mentally live in a little town called Virgin River. I got to know the people and began to tell their stories. In no time at all I realized I was hooking together an ongoing story—building and piecing together the fabric of their lives.
Welcome back to Virgin River for another Christmas. And this time what is found “Under the Christmas Tree” not only brings the town together, but works some special magic on a couple of occasional patrons to Jack’s Bar. Virgin River has a way of weaving its spell around the hearts of unsuspecting singles who pass through.
Happy holidays to all of you, and most especially to Debbie and Sherry!
During the Christmas holidays a side trip through Virgin River was a must; the town had recently begun erecting a thirty-foot tree in the center of town, decorated in red, white, blue and gold and topped with a great big powerful star. It dominated the little town, and people came from miles around to see it. The patriotic theme of the decorations set it apart from all other trees. Local bar owner Jack Sheridan joked that he expected to see the three wise men any minute, that star was so bright.
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