Jillian followed Erik as he carried her bag down the hall to the spare bedroom. She was about to spend the night in an isolated cabin with two men she’d just met. Of course, one of them was Santa, so that must make it all right.
He opened the door to a picture straight out of Northwoods Home magazine—a hand-carved log bed with plump pillows and a red and white reindeer comforter, wrought iron light fixtures, and a braided rag rug on the floor. Even the switchplate by the door was carved in the shape of a black bear.
He set her bag on the bed. “The bathroom’s through there. I’ll be in the room next door if you need anything.”
She turned to face him. “Thank you. I’m sure I’ll be very comfortable. It was kind of Gus to put me up for the night.”
His blue eyes twinkled. “You didn’t expect Santa to send a lady out into a storm like that, did you?”
She grinned. “He is the spitting image, isn’t he?”
Erik returned her smile. “He tries hard.” Then his expression sobered. “He’s a great old guy, and he doesn’t deserve what your client is trying to do to him.”
“No, he doesn’t. I promised I’d try to find a way out for him, and I will.”
“I hope so. He’s counting on you.” He stood with his hand on the doorknob. A brief flash of longing crossed his features. “Well, good night.”
“Good night,” Jillian echoed softly as he closed the door.
While she donned her flannel PJs and brushed her teeth, she tried to recall everything she’d learned in law school about leases. There must be some angle she could use to help Gus. Santa’s Workshop was his life, and she didn’t want to be part of taking it from him. She climbed into bed, pulled the covers up to her chin, spread the papers from the folder on her lap, and began to read.
The next morning, she woke to the tantalizing aroma of bacon. Her lips curved into a smile before she opened her eyes. When was the last time she’d eaten bacon? Her mother refused to have it in the house, and since she started working, Jillian hadn’t had time in the morning for more than a quick tub of yogurt. If she wanted to claim a slice before Erik and Gus demolished it, she’d better get moving. Besides, her late-night research had yielded a startling result, and she couldn’t wait to share it.
Twenty minutes later, showered and dressed, she made her way to the kitchen and found the men half-way through a mountain of scrambled eggs, blueberry pancakes, and crisp bacon.
Erik popped up and pulled out the extra chair. “Have a seat. I made plenty. I’ll bring you a cup of coffee.”
She smiled at his manners—Alan, Jr. would have left her to fend for herself. “Thanks. Everything smells wonderful.”
Gus speared another slice of bacon from the platter. “Erik’s a darned good cook.”
“Every woman’s dream,” Jillian quipped. She suppressed a grin at the color rising up Erik’s freshly-shaven cheeks.
Gus’s eyes twinkled just like Old Saint Nick’s. “Yes, he is.”
“Eat your breakfast,” Erik grumbled.
After several bites, Jillian set her fork down. “I have some wonderful news. I read through the papers last night, including a copy of the original lease, and—”
Gus raised a hand. “Not now.”
She frowned. “But—”
The old man patted her hand. “I knew you’d solve the problem, but we can wait until supper to find out how. It’s Christmas Eve, you know. Lots to do.”
Erik set his napkin aside and rose from the table. “And I’ve got start digging us out.”
The storm. She’d completely forgotten. “Did it stop snowing?”
“Take a look.”
Jillian hopped up and hurried to the front window. She pulled the curtain aside and stared. She’d lived through a few Minnesota winters in the city, but this was different. The scene outside was pure nature, untouched by the hand of man. The snow glittered like slivered crystals as the early morning sun reflected off each individual flake on the ground, the trees, and the mound she assumed was her car.
Erik joined her at the window, peering out over her shoulder. “I haven’t heard the plows go by on the highway yet.”
She could swear she felt the heat radiating from his flannel-covered chest against her back. “Do you think I’ll be able to go home this afternoon?”
“Do you have someplace you need to be for Christmas?”
His warm breath stirred the hairs on top of her head, sending an involuntary shiver down her spine. She pictured her lonely apartment that had never felt like home. “Not really.”
His arm slid around her shoulders. “Then why bother? I know Gus would love to have you stay for the holiday.”
She turned her head against his shoulder “Will you be here?”
His blue eyes crinkled at the corners. “Umm-hmm. And I bet you’ve never celebrated a traditional Swedish Christmas Eve. You wouldn’t want to miss that.” He bent his head slowly toward hers.
“No, I wouldn’t,” she murmured. Her lashes drifted down, and her lips parted.
“Then it’s all settled!”
Jillian and Erik broke apart at the sound of Gus’s voice. His smile was innocent, but the twinkle in his eye suggested he knew exactly what he’d interrupted. “You kids go out and play in the snow. Jillian, you can help Erik uncover your car and clear the driveway.”
Three hours later she was exhausted but had never had so much fun outdoors. She cleared the snow from her car while Erik’s mammoth snowblower made short work of the driveway. Afterwards, they built a magnificent snowman and had an impromptu snowball fight. When they trooped inside, Gus met them with leftover dilled potato soup. After lunch, Erik flopped on the family room sofa to watch football, and Jillian re-read the copy of Gus’s original lease. She wanted to be absolutely certain she was right before raising his hopes.
By five o’clock night had fallen, a fire crackled in the fireplace, and Gus announced it was time for the Julafton smörgåsbord. Jillian took her place at the table and stared at the array. Christmas ham, pork sausage, herring salad, pickled herring, home-made liver pâté, rye bread, and potatoes.
Pickled herring? She swallowed hard.
Erik chuckled at her reaction. “Just be glad Farfar and I hate lutfisk.”
She shook her head. “I don’t even want to know.”
Jillian was still pushing the pickled herring around on her plate when Gus announced, “Now for the best part—the risgrynsgröt.”
She must have made a face, because Erik leaned over and whispered, “It’s rice pudding with raspberry jam.”
That sounded better than herring, but she had something she wanted to say first. “Before we get to that, there’s something I need to tell you.” Gus smiled and nodded, so she continued. “As you know, Ronald Oglethorpe wants to invoke the termination clause in your lease.” Gus nodded again. “Well, there was a copy of the original lease included in the folder with the termination paperwork. I read it to the end, including all the addenda, and found a stipulation stating that upon the death of the original owner, Mr. Gustav Gustafsson is to have right of first refusal to the property, and if he chooses to exercise that right, the property is to pass to him at the price of one dollar. It seems neither Ronald nor the attorneys at Saperman, Ellis, and Saperman, bothered to read the document all the way through.”
Gus beamed and patted her hand. “You’ve given me the perfect Christmas present, my dear. Now I have one for you. Erik, will you serve the risgrynsgröt?”
Jillian had never cared much for pudding—it always reminded her of being in the hospital—but Gus’s risgrynsgröt wasn’t half bad. At least not until she bit down on something hard. She surreptitiously deposited it in her spoon and eyed it with suspicion.
“Ah, you got the almond,” Gus exclaimed.
At her blank look, Erik gave her a teasing grin. “Tradition says the one who gets the almond will marry during the coming year.”
His words brought a sudden pang. “That’s unlikely. I’m not even dating anyone.”
Gus shook a playful finger at her. “You never know. Don’t be so quick to dismiss tradition.”
Erik popped another spoonful into his mouth then grimaced and slid a similar nut into his own spoon. He pointed the spoon at Gus. “Tradition says only one almond.”Gus laid a finger aside his nose and winked. “Sometimes tradition needs a little help.”