She lifted her gaze to seek out a picture of Aunt Mae that sat on the mantel. “Thank you.”
Just knowing that there was one man left who kept his promises restored her faith that the future would turn out all right.
The scent of fresh-brewed coffee drifted upstairs, pulling Trace out of a perfectly fascinating dream. For once it had nothing to do with mergers and acquisitions, but with a woman—Savannah, to be precise.
How could a woman with so little guile, so little sophistication, get under his skin the way she had? That kiss the night before—little more than a friendly peck by most standards—had packed more punch than any kiss he’d experienced in years. He’d left the room, not because he believed in hasty, uncomplicated exits, but because he wanted so much more. If he’d gone after what he’d wanted, more than likely he would have scared her to death. Then she would have kicked him out and he would have spent another lonely holiday season back in New York.
“I hope to hell you knew what you were doing, Mae,” he muttered.
When the scent of sizzling bacon joined that of the coffee, Trace quickly showered and dressed in a pair of old jeans, a dress shirt and a heavy pullover sweater. That was about as casual as his attire ever got these days. He reminded himself if he was going to paint the front door and trim and sand the floors, he needed to buy something else to wear.
When he walked into the kitchen, Savannah regarded him with flushed cheeks and wisps of curls teasing her face. “Is that your idea of work clothes?” she asked. “Or do you intend to supervise today, the way I did last night?”
Trace noted that she, too, was wearing jeans, but her University of Florida sweatshirt had seen better days, as had her sneakers. She still looked fabulous. He still wanted her. A part of him had been hoping that last night’s desire had been an aberration.
“Did I say I was working?” he inquired as he poured himself a cup of coffee, breathed in its rich scent, then took his first sip. “Good coffee, by the way.”
She grinned. “Glad you like it, since it’s yours. I figured you wouldn’t approve of the instant I had on hand.”
Trace shuddered. “Good guess.” He met her gaze. “Exactly what sort of work are you planning to do today?”
“I want to pick up paint for the guest rooms, a tarp for the roof and…..”
“Whoa! Why a tarp for the roof?”
“Because it’s leaking.”
“Why not get it fixed?”
“I would if I could get the contractor over here,” she explained with exaggerated patience. “He said he can’t come till after the first of the year.”
“Then call another contractor.”
She frowned at him. “Don’t you think I thought of that?”
“I’ll handle it,” he said at once.
“What do you mean, you’ll ‘handle it’?”
“I’ll get someone over here to repair the roof.”
“Even if you are a business mogul, I doubt you’ll be any more successful than I’ve been,” she said. “Besides, there’s at least a foot of snow up there. They won’t even be able to look at it, much less start the repairs.”
“Okay, you have a point,” he conceded. “Though that would also seem to make the tarp a waste of time, too, unless you’re planning to put it over the snow.”
She frowned at him. “Okay, then, no tarp.”
“What else do you want from the hardware store?”
“The paint and tools to scrape the wallpaper will do it. I don’t want to spend any more till I know what the rest of the repairs are going to cost. And I have to set some money aside for new brochures and advertising. I need to start getting paying guests back in here as soon as possible. I’ve already missed the start of the ski season.”
Trace thought he heard a hint of desperation in her voice that she was trying hard to hide. “Savannah, do you have the money to get this place up and running again?”
“I have enough,” she said tightly.
“What about a loan? I could—”
“Absolutely not. I won’t take money from you.”
“Then let me talk to the bank.”
“No, I am not going to start off my new life with a pile of debts. Things will get done when I can afford to do them.”
Trace admired her pride and her independent streak, but as a practical matter he knew it was better for a business to present its best face from the outset so that word of mouth would spread. She might not take money from him, but she wasn’t in a position to turn down a little practical assistance in the form of labor. She could hardly tell him not to pick up his own supplies. He’d just have to be a little sneaky about it. That meant getting in and out of the hardware store without her catching sight of his purchases.
“Fine,” he said. “Holiday Retreat is yours.”
There was one more thing he could do, too. It would require a few phone calls, routing his attorney away from his new girlfriend for a couple of hours, but he could pull it off by Christmas.
“Is Hannah coming into town with us?” he asked as he ate the scrambled eggs Savannah put in front of him.
“Of course. She’s dying to take a look around. We stopped at the grocery store on our way up here, but that’s all she’s seen. I’ll go get her. We can be ready to leave whenever you’re finished with breakfast.”
“Did you eat?”
“I had a piece of toast,” she said.
Trace frowned at her. “I have enough eggs here for three people.” He stood up, grabbed a plate from the cupboard, then divided up his eggs, added two slices of bacon and set it on the table. “Sit. You need the protein.”
Savannah opened her mouth to protest, but his scowl achieved what his directive had not. She sat down and picked up her fork.
“You know, I have to get used to serving the guests around here without sitting down to eat with each and every one of them,” she told him.
“I’m not a guest.”
She nibbled thoughtfully on a piece of bacon. “Which means I probably shouldn’t have cooked this for you,” she said.
“Right. I told you I’d look out for myself.”
“I’ll remember that tomorrow morning.”
He regarded her slyly. “Of course, it wouldn’t hurt to get in a little practice in the kitchen. You wouldn’t want the first real guests to starve, would you?”
She laughed. “I don’t think there’s any chance of that. I may not have had a lot of practice at cooking for a crowd, but Aunt Mae has a whole box filled with recipes she perfected over the years. I can read directions with the best of them.”
“I seem to recall some sort of baked French toast Mae used to make,” Trace said, his gaze on Savannah. “I don’t suppose…..”
To his surprise, Savannah’s eyes lit up. “I remember that. She always made it Christmas morning.”
“Then it’s a tradition?” Trace asked hopefully.
“Yes, it’s a tradition. And yes, I’ll make it. And yes, you can have breakfast with Hannah and me on Christmas morning.”
“Before or after we open presents?” Trace asked, only to see her shoulders stiffen slightly.
Hannah arrived in the kitchen just in time to hear the question. “We’re not having presents this year, ’cause we’re poor,” she said with absolutely no hint of self-pity.
“We are not poor,” Savannah said, obviously embarrassed by her daughter’s comment. “It’s just that the divorce and the renovations needed on this place have left us temporarily strapped for cash, so we’re keeping Christmas simple.”
“I see,” Trace said slowly.
Simple might be good enough for Savannah, maybe even for Hannah, who seemed resigned to it, but not for him. For the first time in years, he had the desire to splurge on the holidays.
Oh, he always sent truckloads of toys to various homeless shelters in the city, but his personal gift list was small and mostly confined to business associates. He couldn’t recall the last time he’d had anyone in his life to whom he’d wanted to offer even a small token of affection.
He made a mental note to make a few more calls the second he had some privacy.
“Why don’t you guys grab your coats while I clean up in here?” he suggested. “I’ll meet you at the car in a few minutes.”
Savannah regarded him curiously, almost as if she suspected something was up because he’d let her description of their financial plight pass without comment.
“Go on. Warm up the car,” he encouraged, tossing her the keys. “You cooked. I’ll clean up. That’s my tradition.”
“I thought you didn’t have any traditions,” she replied.
“I’m starting a new one.”
To his relief, she seemed to accept that.
“We’ll be outside,” she said. “Try not to break any dishes.”
“Hey,” he protested, “I know what I’m doing.”
He loaded the dishwasher, turned it on, then grabbed his cell phone. It took less than ten minutes to set things in motion. That was one of the benefits of being rich. Trace rarely threw his weight or his money around. When he did, people were eager enough to do as he asked. He’d always been satisfied in a distant sort of way when he thought of the delight his toys would bring to kids on Christmas morning, but he’d never actually experienced that sense of awe and wonder that was pictured in his commercials. Maybe this year things would be different.
Satisfied that Christmas was under control, he grabbed his coat and joined Savannah and Hannah, who’d already retreated to the slowly warming interior of the car. Hannah shivered dramatically when he opened the door.
“I hate cold weather,” she declared.
Trace regarded her in the rearview mirror. “You’re living in the wrong place, then, kiddo. Weren’t you the one who was out here half-buried in snowdrifts yesterday?”
“It’s colder today,” she insisted. “And now I’ve seen snow. Yesterday I hadn’t.”
“Does that mean you want to move back to Florida?” Savannah asked.
There was no mistaking the note of trepidation in her voice, Trace thought. He glanced over and saw the tight lines around her mouth.
“No,” Hannah said at once. “Even if it is cold, I want to stay here.”
Savannah’s relief was almost palpable. “Why?” she asked.
“Because since we got here, you’ve started laughing again,” Hannah said quietly. “You never laughed in Florida.”
Savannah turned her head away, but not before Trace saw a tear sliding down her cheek. He wanted to reach for her, to hold her…..to make her laugh.
Instead he glanced toward Hannah. “How about you and me making a pact?” he said. “The one who makes your mom laugh the most today wins.”
Hannah’s eyes lit up. “Okay. What’s the prize?”
“Hmm,” Trace began thoughtfully. “If you win, I make us all hot-fudge sundaes for dessert tonight.”