Nate clasped her hand in his. “Come on now, girl. Don’t you be crying for your aunt. She’s at peace.”
“I know. I just wish I’d been here for her.”
“She understood why you couldn’t be here,” Nate assured her. “And I was here. She wasn’t alone.”
“Thank you for that,” Savannah said.
“No need to thank me. My place was by her side,” he said simply. “I only wish I’d been able to give her more. Now let me get out from underfoot, so you folks can have your dinner.” He regarded Trace with a stern expression. “And a nice long talk.”
Trace accepted the admonishment without comment. “I’ll walk you out,” he offered.
Nate shook his head. “No need. I know the way. Seems to me like you have better things to do,” he said, casting a pointed look at Savannah, who’d deliberately turned her back again.
“Yes,” Trace agreed.
He waited until he heard the front door close before attempting his apology. “Savannah?”
“I’m sorry if I offended you earlier.”
“If?” she asked with a hint of disdain. She faced him, eyes flashing heatedly. “You all but propositioned me in front of my daughter!”
“I made sure that Hannah was out of earshot before I said a word,” he reminded her, but she didn’t seem the least bit pacified. She turned away and began stirring the spaghetti sauce with a vengeance. “Okay, I’m just plain sorry. I never meant to give the impression that I seriously thought you and I ought to be back here tumbling around in bed together.”
“Oh, really?” she asked skeptically. “Then exactly what did you mean?”
“I was just teasing. Your cheeks get all flushed and your eyes sparkle when you get indignant. That was the only reaction I was going for. I was out of line.”
She turned slowly and studied him. “Apology accepted. I probably overreacted, anyway. It’s been a long time since I’ve flirted with a man.”
“You’ll get the hang of it again.” He reached for her hand and tugged lightly until she was standing directly in front of him. “I only think it’s fair to warn you, though.”
“Warn me? About what?”
“Next time I might not be teasing.”
She gulped visibly, then nodded. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
“Is it all right if I stay here, or would you rather I go?”
She seemed startled—perhaps even dismayed—by his offer to leave. “Aunt Mae invited you here. I’m certainly not going to kick you out.”
“I know what Mae wanted,” Trace said. “What do you want?”
She drew in a deep, shuddering breath, then stiffened her shoulders as she looked straight into his eyes. “I want you to stay.”
The satisfaction that swept through Trace felt a lot like the exhilaration he felt when a difficult business negotiation ended well. “Then that’s what I’ll do,” he told her solemnly.
She muttered something that he couldn’t quite make out.
“What was that?” he asked.
A flush crept up the back of her neck. “I said, like I really had a choice.”
“Of course you have a choice.”
“Not if I want that tree to get put up tonight,” she said, facing him with a renewed sparkle in her eyes.
Trace laughed despite himself. “I do love a woman who’s always working an angle.”
“Of course you do,” Savannah said. “Makes you feel more at home, doesn’t it? I’ll bet you spend most of your time with female boardroom piranha types.”
Trace chuckled at the all-too-accurate assessment. “True enough,” he admitted. “But something tells me that’s about to change.”
Savannah sent Trace in search of Hannah, while she got dinner on the table. She also needed the time to compose herself. She knew precisely why she had overreacted to Trace’s teasing. It was because she had actually been tempted to take him up on his offer to slip away for a so-called nap. Even if they’d actually done no more than crawl into bed together and snuggle, it would have satisfied the yearning that had been building in her ever since he’d arrived earlier in the day.
Of course, she doubted a man like Trace would have settled for simply holding her in his arms. He would have wanted much more, and while she was tempted by that, she didn’t want to wind up with her heart broken when he left in a few days. It was better that she’d made her position perfectly clear. If she was lucky, there would be no more temptations.
Next time I might not be teasing.
Trace’s words suddenly came back to haunt her. How convenient that she had forgotten the warning.
At the sound of his laughter as he and Hannah came toward the kitchen, Savannah’s pulse raced a little faster. The same wicked yearning that had gripped her earlier teased her senses now. She sighed. Resisting him was going to be a whole lot harder than she’d ever imagined. She’d just have to keep reminding herself that he was cut from the same cloth as her workaholic ex-husband.
“Mom, can we put the Christmas tree up tonight?” Hannah pleaded as they finished up bowls of ice cream after the best spaghetti Trace had eaten in years.
“According to tradition, we never put it up till Christmas Eve,” Savannah told her, but she sounded regretful, as if this were one tradition she could be persuaded to change.
“Maybe it’s time to start your own tradition,” Trace suggested, earning a high-five from Hannah. “Besides, the sooner the tree is in its stand and has some water, the better it will be, right? It’ll last much longer, and it will fill the house with the scent of pine. Why not start enjoying it now?”
Hannah studied her mother, clearly trying to gauge her mood. “Please,” she begged finally. “I’ll go up in the attic and bring down all the decorations you said are up there. Trace will put it up and string up the lights. You won’t have to do anything.”
“Except keep the carols going on the CD player and the hot chocolate flowing,” Trace corrected. “What do you say, Savannah?”
“I say that you two are a formidable team,” she said, feigning an air of resignation that was belied by the spark of excitement in her eyes. “Go on. Bring in the tree.”
“Do you know where you want it?” Trace asked. “Once it’s up, I don’t want to be hauling it all over the house.”
She frowned at him. “It goes in front of the window in the living room. That’s where it’s always been.”
“And you’re happy with that?” he persisted.
“Why wouldn’t I be?”
“Since you’re starting new traditions and all, I just thought you might want to go for broke and pick a new location.”
“I think the old one is just fine,” she said. “That way, anyone driving up to the house will be able to see the lights on the tree.”
Trace resigned himself to moving the sofa that normally sat in front of that window. “Where should I move the sofa?”
Savannah regarded him blankly. “The sofa?”
“The one in front of that window.”
Her eyes suddenly lit with understanding. “So that’s why you were so eager to have me put the tree somewhere else. You’re going to be stuck moving furniture.”
“Hey, I’m not complaining.” He glanced at Hannah. “Did you hear me complain?”
“No,” she said at once.
“I’ll put that sofa just about anywhere you want it except the attic,” he insisted.
Savannah regarded him with a wry expression. “I think on the wall facing the fireplace will do.”
“Got it. Tree in front of the window. Sofa in front of the fireplace. And the easy chairs currently on that wall? Where should they go?”
A chuckle erupted from deep inside her, lighting up her face. “Maybe Hannah and I can rearrange the furniture while you get the tree in its stand.”
“No way,” Trace protested. “I’m providing the brawn here. Just give me instructions.”
By the time Savannah finished with the instructions, he was pretty sure that not one single piece of furniture in the living room would be where it had started out. He figured he could live with that, as long as she didn’t change her mind a million times.
“That’s it?” he questioned. “You’re sure?”
“As sure as I can be before I see what it looks like,” she said.
Trace sighed. “I’ll get started. You might want to hunt for some painkillers and a heating pad in the meantime.”
He leveled a look at her. “Who’s joking?” he asked as he headed for the living room to rearrange the furniture.
By the time everything was in its newly designated place, including the tree, the room did have a cozier, more festive air about it. A fire crackled in the fireplace, and the fresh scent of pine filled the air.
Hannah had brought down stacks of boxes of decorations from the attic. They were now scattered over every surface, as she took each one from its tissue and examined it with wide-eyed delight.
“These must be really, really old, huh?” she asked him.
“They certainly look as if they’re antiques,” Trace said, noting the loving care with which she handled them. It must be nice to have family heirlooms to be brought out year after year, each with its own story. But now with Mae gone, who would share those stories with Hannah?
Savannah came in just then carrying a tray of steaming mugs filled with hot chocolate. Her eyes widened as she saw the decorations.
“Oh, my,” she whispered. “I remember these. Mae used to tell us kids about them when she’d take them out of the boxes. We were never allowed to touch them because they were so old and fragile, but we each had our favorites.”
She immediately picked up a blown-glass rocking horse, its paint beginning to wear away. “This was mine. This and the angel that goes on the top of the tree. Is that still here?”
“Over here,” Hannah said excitedly, picking it up gingerly. “She’s beautiful.”
Dressed in white satin with red velvet trim, the angel had flaxen hair and golden wings. The delicate porcelain face had been rendered with a serene look totally appropriate for gazing down on the holiday festivities year after year. Even Trace, with his jaded, unsentimental view of the season, could see the beauty of it.
“We always drew straws to see who would get to put it on the top after all the other decorations were on the tree,” Savannah said as she held the angel. “My dad or one of my uncles would lift up whoever won so we could reach the very top.”
“Can I put it on this year?” Hannah asked. “Trace could lift me high enough.”
“Maybe this year your mom ought to do it,” Trace suggested, seeing the nostalgia in Savannah’s eyes.
“No,” Savannah said at once. “It was always one of the kids. Of course Hannah should do it—that’s the tradition.”