No Room at the Inn
How much wine was too much? Was such a thing even possible?
Bottle in hand, Charlene Holloway scowled at the steaming pot of Madeira sauce on the stove. As the sauce cooked down, she was supposed to add more wine, but how much? She’d been too distracted by the array of foil pans the caterer had deposited on her kitchen table to pay close attention to his instructions before he breezed out the door with a cheery, “Don’t worry. It’s foolproof.” It better be.
How long had he said to re-heat the Beef Wellington? Thirty minutes or forty? And the minted carrots? Charley tipped a couple tablespoons of Madeira into the sauce then checked the pastry-wrapped tenderloin in the oven. It looked okay, but what did she know? Thank heaven the guests had chosen pecan pie instead of Baked Alaska or Bananas Foster for dessert or she might risk setting the kitchen on fire.
As owner of The Foxborough Inn Bed and Breakfast in Dobson’s Ford, Virginia, Charley was used to cooking for guests. She could whip up a batch of morning glory muffins or an omelet jardinière in a wink, but a large formal dinner was well outside her comfort zone. That was why she had referred Mrs. Tisdale to Shenandoah Catering for the elaborate pre-bridal Christmas Eve dinner currently underway in the inn’s dining room.
Six months ago the Tisdales had booked the romantic, two hundred-year-old inn for their daughter’s intimate day-after-Christmas wedding. The wedding party had arrived that afternoon in a flurry of excited chatter and overloaded garment bags, and Charley and Henry, her right-hand man, had settled them in their rooms before serving sherry in the parlor. They were now working their way through a tureen of cream of celery soup while Charley assembled dinner plates in the kitchen.
She had just pulled the beef from the oven when she heard a clattering against the windows, as if someone were tossing handfuls of uncooked rice against them. Sleet. Her jaw tightened. It had started—the ice storm forecasters had been predicting for days. Why did they have to pick this time to be right?
The lights flickered and a moment later Henry pushed the swinging door from the dining room and poked his head into the kitchen with a look of concern on his mocha-hued face. “The guests have are finishing their soup. Are the salads ready?”
Charley tossed her head to send a damp curl back where it belonged. “The plates are in the fridge. Can you serve by yourself? I’m tied up at the moment.” She lifted the roasting pan with oven mitt-clad hands.
“No problem.” Henry opened the wide door of the commercial refrigerator and began removing the pear, walnut, and blue cheese salads. When another gust of wind flung pellets of ice against the windows, he craned his neck and peered out toward the barn with a worried frown. The lights flickered again but regained their steady glow. “I hope the lights last through dinner.”
Charley carefully transferred the Wellington to a carving board. “We’ll be fine. We’ve got the fire going in the dining room and dozens of candles lit. If we lose power the generator will run the furnace overnight.”
Henry nodded and loaded a large serving tray with salad plates. “In the innkeeping business, it’s always something. Keeps you on your toes.”
That it did. In the ten years she’d owned The Foxborough Inn, she’d dealt with everything from a woman choking on the engagement ring her fiancé had placed in her champagne glass to the sheriff interrupting a wedding to haul the preacher off for fraud. Once she’d even had to fend off a flock of wild turkeys who decided to invade a tea party in the garden.
Charley held the carving knife poised above the Beef Wellington when a loud knock at the back door almost caused her to drop it. Who could that be? All the guests were accounted for, and no one would be out in this weather unless they had to be. She set the knife on the table, wiped her hands on her apron, and stepped to the door. Through the small glass panes, the porch light illuminated the rugged features of a man she’d never seen before. His cap bore the logo of a building supply company, and a couple days of dark beard stubbled his square jaw, not quite concealing a pair of deep creases that bracketed his mouth.
He frowned through the glass and banged again when she didn’t respond. “Open up—it’s an emergency!”
What kind of emergency? Before moving to Dobson’s Ford Charley had lived in Washington, D.C. long enough to learn not to open the door to a stranger without a very good reason. She leaned close to the door, stood on tiptoe, and peered through the window into the darkness. The man scowled, stepped aside, and thrust a teenage girl forward. The girl was small and slim, but with a prominent bulge protruding between the sides of her unzipped black parka. Short, spiky, black hair framed her thin face, and heavy mascara streaked her cheeks, whether from tears or sleet Charley couldn’t tell.
“We need a room,” the man yelled through the door.
Henry appeared at her side. “What’s all the fuss?”
Charley half-turned. “They want a room, but we’re full up.”
Henry peeked across her shoulder. “We’ll figure something out. Look at that child. We can’t leave her outside in this storm. It wouldn’t be right. Besides, it’s Christmas Eve.”
Charley reached for the deadbolt and the doorknob. Henry was right, of course, and if the pair turned out to be axe murderers on the run, at least he had the old hunting rifle he used to scare off foxes from the chicken coop. She opened the door, and the man ushered the girl inside.
“Thanks.” His voice was gruff as he yanked off a pair of old deerskin gloves.
Charley eyed him closely than turned her attention to the girl, who shivered and tugged at her coat with small hands clad in black fingerless gloves. They were an unlikely duo. He was tall, sturdy, and weather-beaten and looked to be more than twice her age. Maybe he was the girl’s father. That would account for his sour expression. She appeared to be no more than seventeen or eighteen years old and at least seven months along.
Too bad she couldn’t help them. “I’m afraid we don’t have any rooms available. We’re booked solid for the next two days.”
The man took off his cap and slapped it against his thigh, knocking bits of sleet onto the wide pine planks of the kitchen floor. When he raised his head his dark gaze held a hint of desperation. “We’ve got to have something—anything. The roads are too bad to drive further, and I can’t make her sleep in the truck.” He tipped his chin toward the girl, who swayed on her feet.
“Here, child, you sit down.” Henry swung a kitchen chair under her before she collapsed.
Charley sized up the situation. She had a dozen guests in the dining room who would be expecting their Beef Wellington any minute and a half-dead pregnant girl in the kitchen. Henry was dressed for serving; she had on worn jeans and an oversized sweater. “Henry, if you’ll slice and plate the beef—the sauce is in that pan on the stove—and add the carrots from the foil pan in the oven, I’ll take care of this young lady.”
“No problem.” He moved to the island and picked up the carving knife.
Charley opened the fridge. “I’ve got some soup.” She turned to strangers in her kitchen. “Do you like split pea and ham?”
“Whatever.” The girl might have been going for a classic, surly teenage response, but the exhaustion in her voice spoiled the effect.
The man removed his coat and hung it on the back of a chair. “Thanks. That sounds great. By the way, I’m Joe Matthews and this is Maria.”
Charley poured the soup into a large saucepan and set it on the stove. “Pleased to meet you. I’m Charlene Holloway, but everyone calls me Charley. Why don’t you have a seat. The soup will be ready in a couple of minutes.”
Joe joined Maria at the kitchen table.
Charley stirred the bubbling pot. “What brings you out in weather like this?”
“We’re on the way to Roanoke,” Joe replied. “My folks are expecting me for Christmas.”
Just him? The girl must not be related.
Charley set two steaming bowls on the table, along with crusty chunks of French bread. “What about you, Maria?”
The girl picked up her spoon without raising her head. “I’m just on the road.”
“Where are you headed?”
“Wherever. It doesn’t matter. As long as it’s away.”
Charley sent Joe a quizzical look.
“Maria told me she’s from New Jersey. I picked her up on the highway a mile or two south of Staunton. I’m a contractor there.”
At that moment the lights flickered twice and went out. Maria’s spoon clattered in her bowl, but before Charley had a chance to react, they bloomed back to life.
Henry pushed through the swinging door. “I think maybe I’d better go out and check that generator. It looks like we might be needing it.”
“Take the big flashlight,” Charley said, “and that slicker hanging by the door.”
Henry retrieved the industrial-sized flashlight from the pantry, and slipped out the back door. About ten minutes later he was back, along with a bone-chilling blast. He shoved the door closed and shrugged out of the slicker. “The generator’s ready to go, but no one’s going anywhere tonight. I ‘bout killed myself trying to get back up the steps. There’s a thick coat of ice on everything and it’s still coming down.”
Charley glanced at Maria, who had started eating again, then turned to Joe. “I’m so sorry, but we really don’t have any rooms left. Every single bed is taken.”
His dark eyes burned with resolve. “We’ll take anything—even a stall in your barn if you’ve got extra blankets.”
Charley stiffened and stood a little straighter. Was he trying to make her feel guilty? No way was she going to put a carpenter named Joe and a pregnant girl named Maria in her barn on Christmas Eve because there was no room at the inn. She’d sleep out there herself before she let that happen.