Ryan Murray couldn’t believe his eyes. The curly, dark blond hair was the same, although she’d cut it shorter, and she might have gained a few fine lines around her blue eyes, but the high cheek bones and strong chin definitely belonged to Lizzie Carmichael. What was she doing smashed into a tree on a country road in rural Vermont? The last he’d read in their college alumni magazine, she was a rising star on the New York publishing scene.
“Lizzie? What are you doing here? Are you hurt?”
She blinked and refocused. “I’m okay—I think.”
He straightened and scanned the exterior of the small car. The impact had bent both the bumper and the hood. “Can you back up onto the road?”
She shook her head. “The engine won’t start.”
“I’ll call for a tow, but first let’s get you out of the cold.” He reached for her hand.
As she climbed out of the damaged vehicle, Lizzie scrambled to gain her footing in the deep snow. Instinctively, Ryan slid an arm around her waist and held tight. As soon as they reached the flat surface of the road, he released her.
His insides contracted at her quick smile of thanks, and it was all he could do to keep from grinning like a simple-minded baboon.
Lizzie is here.
He didn’t know why or for how long, but it didn’t matter.
Lizzie is here. Nothing else matters.
He loaded her into the front seat of his SUV, turned on the engine, cranked up the heat, and pulled his phone from his pocket. “I’ll call a tow truck then get your luggage.”
She shivered and tightened her hold on her purse. “I was on my way to a B&B called the Maple Creek Farm.”
“I guessed that. I’ve been waiting for my last-minute guest for a couple of hours. When no one showed up, I came looking.”
Her expression changed from numb shock to surprise. “You’re the owner of a B&B in Paxton Falls, Vermont? When we graduated, you were headed to Georgetown Law School. What happened?”
He dropped his gaze to his phone. “We can talk about that after I get you out of the storm and back to the inn.” He placed a quick call to the tow service in town then disconnected. “George will be here in about ten minutes. Will you be all right if we wait?”
“Of course.” She rotated her head in a slow circle. “I’m not hurt. I’m not even cold anymore. I’m mostly upset about the car—it’s a rental. It’s a good thing I let them talk me into taking the extra insurance.”
“I’m sorry this has upset your Christmas plans.”
The animation drained from her face, leaving her expression closed. “It hasn’t. I’m not doing Christmas this year.”
Now, it was Ryan’s turn to be surprised. “I’m not, either. My parents are in Albuquerque, visiting my sister’s new baby. But you? You always loved Christmas.”
She stared out the window at the falling snow. “Not this year.”
“That’s another topic we can save for later.”
Before he could push her further, George arrived with the tow truck. A few minutes later, Ryan had retrieved Lizzie’s luggage and her battered car was on its way to the garage in Paxton Falls. Silence filled the car until he turned into the gravel drive leading to the B&B.
When the house came into view, Lizzie perked up and leaned forward to get a better view. “Oh, it’s beautiful—like something out of a Currier and Ives print.”
He pulled the SUV to a stop in front of the classic, white-clapboard colonial and parked. “Thanks. It was built in 1771 by a way-back relative who was a member of Ethan Allen’s Green Mountain Boys and helped capture Fort Ticonderoga.”
“Wow. So, it’s a national landmark.”
“More like a local point of interest. My grandparents lived here until four years ago when Grandma died and left it to me.”
“What a wonderful legacy.”
“It came at a good time.”
She faced him with a questioning frown. “You’re being awfully cryptic.”
“No more than you.” He opened the car door and stepped out. “Let’s go inside, and I’ll heat you a mug of the local cider.”
“That sounds terrific.”
While he unloaded her suitcases, Lizzie climbed out, walked up the steps to the covered porch, and waited. Ryan set the luggage down long enough to unlock the front door then ushered her into the foyer.
She swiveled her head, taking in the wide-plank pine floors, colorful wallpaper, and period furnishings. “It’s almost like a museum in here.”
“It’s really not. Grandma wanted to keep the place as authentic-looking as possible for the visitors, but we have all the modern conveniences. It’s pretty comfortable for an almost-two-hundred-and-fifty-year-old building.” He left her bags at the foot of the stairs. “Come into the kitchen, and I’ll fix that cider.”
She followed, unzipping her coat on the way. She draped it over the back of one of the Windsor chairs and took a seat at the big, worn farmhouse table. “I’d better call the rental car company about the accident.”
“Good idea. They should be able to arrange for a replacement vehicle. You can use my phone.”
While she was on the phone, Ryan poured cider from a jug into a pot and put it on the stove. A few minutes later, he handed Lizzie a steaming mug with a cinnamon stick poking out before joining her at the table.
“You were right.” Her smile was apologetic. “They’re going to send another car, but it won’t be here before the twenty-sixth.”
“That’s no problem. You’ve got a suitcase. I’ve got an inn.” He raised his hands in a good-natured shrug.
“I’m sure you had other plans for your un-holiday.”
“Nope.” He watched her take a long sip then set down her cider. “So, do you want to go first?”
Her lips tightened. “It’s been ten years since we’ve seen each other. I don’t know where to start.”
“How about with why you aren’t doing Christmas this year.”
She glanced down and twisted an antique gold ring on her left hand. “It’s hard.”
He placed a hand over hers, stilling its movement. “Then it must be important.”
Her lashes were damp when she met his gaze. “My mom died in March.”
Ryan’s heart contracted. “Aw, Lizzie…” He squeezed her hand. “I’m so sorry.”
She blinked a couple of times and took another sip of cider. “I’ve been doing okay, but it’s Christmas…you know.” She lifted her chin and faced him with a tight smile. “Now, it’s your turn. I can’t wait to hear how you ended up running a B&B in your grandparents’ old house.”
“If you ask my dad, it’s a classic tale of squandered opportunity.” With a glance at her raised brows, he continued. “When I graduated from Georgetown law, I got a job at one of those prestigious Washington firms every law student drools over. Our clients were mostly politicos and other Beltway bigwigs.”
“That doesn’t sound much like you.”
He grimaced. “I hated every second of it. When Grandma died and left me the inn, I couldn’t wait to leave D.C. Now, I run the inn, practice law part-time, and write.”
Lizzie’s expression brightened, and she leaned forward. “You write? That’s wonderful! You were the best writer in the English department.”
Elbows on the table, she propped her chin on laced fingers. “So, tell me what you write.”
“Nothing highbrow. Political thrillers, mostly for fun. But I understand you’re a writer, too.”
She nodded and sipped her cider. “Among other things. I’m an editor at Your Country Life magazine. I write articles about food, gardening, crafts—everything you need to live the romantic country lifestyle.” She waved a hand around at his kitchen. “And here you are, out in the country, living the life our readers dream about.”
“I don’t know how romantic it is, but it suits me.”
She hesitated for a long moment, staring into her mug, then raised her gaze to meet his. “Do you have anyone special in your life right now?”
His breath stilled in his chest. “No. You?”“No…Ryan, why didn’t we ever get together?”