Why didn’t we get together? Really??
Lizzie could have bitten her tongue. In college, Ryan had been one of her close circle of friends. She’d always thought he was cute in a serious, intellectual kind of way, but he’d seemed to view her mainly as a study partner.
His dark eyes crinkled at the corners the way she’d always liked. “I don’t know. Maybe you thought dating would spoil our perfect relationship.”
Something about the look in his eyes gave her a tiny jolt. He sounded like he was teasing, but…
No buts. Just go with teasing. She gave her hair a Miss Piggy-style toss. “I think you were just afraid to ask me out.”
He didn’t smile. “You could have asked me.”
O-kay. “Point taken.”
He rose from the table and walked to the window to peer out. “It looks like the snow’s let up. As soon as you finish your cider, I’ll show you to the Ethan Allen Suite—it’s our best. Then maybe you’d like a tour of the property. I noticed a camera bag with your luggage. You could take some pictures for your readers, maybe write a story about your unexpected holiday detour.”
Lizzie drained her mug. “That’s a great idea.”
She followed him up to a lovely, bright corner room on the second floor, furnished with antiques. After a quick freshen-up and a call from the room phone to Angela to apologize for having to bail on her invitation, Lizzie headed downstairs, where Ryan waited in the foyer.
“Ready?” He opened the front door and ushered her out.
A few sparkly flakes still drifted from the sky, but enough sunlight glowed through the clouds to send shadows of the bare trees across the smooth, white lawn. When she stepped off the porch, the snow nearly topped her boots.
“Here, take my hand.” He grasped her gloved hand and guided her toward the cluster of red-painted outbuildings behind the house.
“You keep chickens!” she exclaimed, when they approached the wire-covered enclosure attached to the smallest of the buildings.
“Just a few. The guests enjoy the idea of farm-fresh eggs for breakfast.”
“I bet they do. Our readers all seem to want chickens these days. I wrote an article about keeping urban chickens last year.” After snapping several photos, she scribbled a few notes in the small notebook she kept in her pocket.
They peeked into the barn, which he currently used as a garage and machinery shed, then Ryan led her to a classic New England dry-stacked stone wall. “This marks the edge of the property. From here you can see down to the creek and across to the next ridge of mountains.”
Lizzie followed the sweep of his arm. The stunning vista was a far cry from the urban landscape of Brooklyn. Maple trees, stubbornly hanging onto their last brown and orange leaves, blanketed the hills, and a rocky stream gurgled in the hollow. She couldn’t resist a few more photographs.
She sighed, and her breath rose in frosty puffs. “I can see why you left Washington for this. I’ve never been anyplace quite like it. It’s so beautiful and peaceful.”
His grip on her hand tightened. “I have to admit, I don’t miss the traffic or the crowds.”
“Who would?” She drew a deep breath. “I haven’t smelled air like this in forever.”
His lips curved with the beginning of a secret smile before he turned away.
When they got back to the house, Ryan helped her off with her coat and hung it in the hall closet. “I know it’s Christmas Eve, but since neither of us is celebrating this year, how about a pot of chili followed a classic sci-fi movie? I’ve got a great collection.”
Lizzie smiled, grateful that he understood. He always had. “That sounds like a perfect non-Christmas Eve.”
She followed him into the kitchen and perched on a stool while he pulled out a heavy stock pot and assembled the ingredients. “Can I help?”
Ryan’s dark eyes twinkled. “I don’t know. This is my secret recipe.”
She drew a X on her chest. “I solemnly swear I won’t tell a soul.”
He appeared to consider for a moment. “How are you with a knife?”
“I can chop with the best of them.”
“I’ll be the judge of that.” He handed her a chef’s knife, a clove of garlic, and a big round onion. “Have at it. The cutting board’s over there.”
An hour later, sitting across from him at the kitchen table, Lizzie’s taste buds were in heaven. “Are you sure you won’t share your recipe? Our readers would love it.”
Speculation gleamed in his dark eyes behind his glasses. “You really like your job, don’t you?”
“I do. I live and work in one of the biggest, busiest cities on Earth, but I get to spend my days looking at lovely photos and writing about the simple joys of country living—the best of both worlds.”
His expression clouded. “I guess that’s one way of looking at it.” He rose and gathered their empty bowls. “You go on into the living room and pick out a movie while I clean up here. I’ll join you in a few minutes.”
She thumbed through his DVD collection and selected the 1951 classic The Thing from Another World. When Ryan came in, he gave her a friendly smile but sat at the opposite end of the sofa.
She tried not to be miffed. What did you expect—a cuddlefest? You’re old friends. Period. But it didn’t work. Instead, she spent the rest of the evening chewing on the kernel of an idea that had been growing ever since she’d seen the chicken coop.
The morning dawned bright and sunny. Ryan brushed aside Lizzie’s offer to cook with a firm, “I’m the innkeeper. You’re the guest” and presented her with a plate of fresh-from-the-chicken scrambled eggs and cinnamon French toast. In the spirit of the non-holiday, they both scrupulously avoided any mention of Christmas.
After breakfast, he offered a snowshoe excursion to the creek, which she eagerly accepted. As she took pictures and made more notes, her idea continued to ripen.
The following morning, a persistent ringing from the bell on the front desk interrupted their coffee. Ryan pushed back from the table with a frown. “You stay here. I’ll go see who it is.” He returned a few minutes later and dropped a set of car keys in front of Lizzie. “The rental car company dropped off your new wheels.”
She palmed the keys and stood. “I guess I’d better go upstairs and pack.”
He followed her through the foyer to the staircase. “You’re welcome to stay a few more days. I don’t have any guests booked until after New Year’s.”
An impish internal voice whispered, Go for it, but she shushed it. She’d probably imagined the hopeful tone in his voice. After all, they hadn’t seen each other in ten years. Anything deeper than friendship would take time to develop. “Thanks, but I’d better get back to the city.”
When she came back down with her suitcase, Ryan was waiting where she’d left him. He picked up her bag, walked her out to the car, and opened the door.
She turned and gazed into his unfathomable dark eyes. “Thank you for rescuing me, and thank you for helping me get through my un-Christmas.”
He reached toward her then dropped his arms. “Now that you know where I am, come back anytime.”
“You could always visit me in New York.”
“Between my law practice, guests, and the chickens, it’s hard to get away.”
She sighed and glanced at the gathering clouds. “The Weather Channel says there’s another storm headed this way. I guess I’d better get going.”
“I guess you’d better.”
She rose on tiptoe and brushed a soft kiss against his cheek. His arms came around her swiftly but released her the second her heels touched the ground. With a wavery smile, she climbed into the car and slowly drove away.
An hour later, she pulled off the highway into a gas station parking lot.
What am I doing?
And suddenly, she knew.
She turned around drove back toward Paxton Falls.
When she pulled up in front of the stately white house, Ryan ran down the steps. She wasn’t conscious of opening the car door, but a split second later, she was in his arms.
“You came back,” he whispered against her hair.
“I missed you.” She’d never realized how much.
“I missed you, too.” His arms tightened and his mouth captured hers is the most amazing first kiss she’d ever experienced—one a decade in the making.
When he eased back, she gazed into his eyes with a tentative smile. “I had an idea.”
He smiled back then swooped down for another quick kiss. “You were always full of ideas.”
“This is a good one. At least, I hope you’ll think so. How would you like a long-term guest?”
“I can think of one long-term guest I’d welcome with open arms.”
“I was thinking I could talk to the Editor-in-Chief about working remotely. Using Maple Creek Farm as an example, I could write a whole series of articles about gardening, canning, cooking, crafts—”
“And don’t forget the chickens.” He nuzzled her neck, almost derailing her train of thought.
“No. I won’t forget the chickens.”
“I think it’s a terrific idea. Let’s go inside and work out the terms of the deal. But I have to warn you, I have a long list of conditions.”Her heart sang, and she squeezed his arm. “I can’t wait to hear them.”