Joe Matthews breathed an internal sigh of relief as a look of determination settled across Charley’s features. Maybe she wouldn’t send them back out into the storm after all. He hated being at someone else’s mercy, even someone as pretty as Charlene Holloway, but he couldn’t make the kid spend the night in his freezing truck. She was about to pass out from fatigue as it was. He glanced at Maria’s drooping, dark head as she shoveled the last spoonful of soup into her mouth and noted with surprise that his own bowl was empty, too. He’d never been a big fan of split pea, but Charley’s soup was a nice surprise—rich and flavorful, with plenty of ham.
When she began to stack the empty bowls, he rose. “Here, let me take those.”
She smiled and relinquished them. “Thanks. If you’ll put these in the sink, I’ll fix dessert. Do you like pecan pie?”
Pecan pie. At least one thing was going his way today. He nodded. “It’s my favorite.”
A pair of charming dimples bracketed Charley’s smile. “Great. What about you, Maria?”
The girl shrugged. “Never had it.”
Charley opened the refrigerator and removed a whole pie. “Then you’re in for a treat. My pecan pie won a blue ribbon at the Virginia State Fair last year.” She cut two slices and set them on the table, along with a pair of forks.
Joe slid the first bite into his mouth and closed his eyes in satisfaction. No wonder she’d won a blue ribbon—the pie was perfect, with a tender, flaky crust and firm, yet silky, filling. It might even be better than his mother’s, although he’d never admit that out loud. He cast an appreciative glance her way. Besides having hair the color of rich molasses and all the right curves under her long, loose sweater, Charley Holloway was one fine cook.
“I’ve figured out how to solve our accommodation problem,” Charley said, interrupting his bliss. “As soon as you’re finished, I’ll take you to my cottage out back. You can stay there.”
He frowned. “But what about you? I don’t want to put you out of your home.”
“It won’t be a problem. I’ve got two bedrooms.”
His frown deepened as he glanced at Maria, who had nearly finished her pie. Surely Charley didn’t think they were. . .
Then she flashed him a teasing grin. “You can have the living room sofa.”
He relaxed and picked up his fork. “That would be great. Thanks.”
Ten minutes later, after retrieving their bags from the truck, he and Maria picked their way across the yard, following Charley to a white clapboard cottage trimmed with dark green shutters. He kept a firm grip on Maria’s elbow while he helped her up the ice-covered steps. The last thing he needed was for her to fall and go into labor. He’d only known her a couple of hours, but her defensive vulnerability stirred his protective instincts.
Charley’s living room was small and cozy—emphasis on the small. Joe eyed the plump sofa and wondered how much of his length would fit on it. If he wanted to be able to stand the next day he might be better off on the floor. While Charley settled Maria in the guest room and pointed out the hall bath, he took stock of the situation. He’d expected to be home with his folks in Roanoke by nightfall, not camped out on a stranger’s sofa with a pregnant teenager in tow. All he wanted now was to get Maria home to his mom. She would know what to do. She always did.
When Charley walked into the room with an armful of bedding topped by a big, fluffy pillow, he reached to take it from her. “Thanks. I really appreciate this.”
She glanced at the sofa with a rueful smile. “I know it’s small. You might be better off in my room, and I could sleep out here.”
“I’ll be fine. Trust me. Your couch will be much more comfortable than my truck.”
She flipped the hood on her coat back over her head. “Well, I need to get back to the inn. I can’t leave Henry to take care of a dozen guests on his own. Make yourself at home, and I’ll be back in a couple of hours. You can start a fire if you want.” She tipped her chin toward the neat stack of logs by the fireplace then slipped out the door.
Joe glanced at his watch. Only seven-thirty. Now what? He didn’t see a television, although a well-stocked bookcase stood against one wall. He unbuttoned his coat and hung it over the back of a chair in the compact kitchen. Maybe he should check on Maria. He knocked softly on her door. Hearing no response, he turned the old glass knob and pushed the door open a few inches. The girl was fast asleep, tucked under a thick down comforter. She’d obviously washed her face and looked about five-years-old without all the mascara. He closed the door without a sound.
Maybe he should take Charley’s suggestion and light a fire. Ten minutes later, with a cheery fire crackling in the fireplace, he stretched out on the sofa as best he could. It had been a long day, and it wouldn’t hurt to rest his eyes for a few minutes.
He awoke suddenly to a hand shaking his shoulder. A soft, feminine voice said, “Wake up.”
“Huh?” He blinked and focused on Charley Holloway’s face leaning over his. Almost close enough to kiss. He bolted upright, barely avoiding a collision with her chin. “What time is it?”
She laughed. “A little after nine. You’re welcome to turn in, but you’ll be much more comfortable if you take your boots off first.”
He glanced at his feet and immediately swung them to the floor. He’d fallen asleep on a strange woman’s sofa with his boots on. His mother would have his hide if she found out. Heat rose in his face. “Sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it.” She set a foil-wrapped plate on the kitchen counter. “I brought the last two pieces of pie. Would you like one?”
There was never a bad time for pie, especially Charley’s pecan pie. “That sounds great.”
She took two plates from the cupboard. “How about a brandy? It’s the perfect thing for a cold night.”
He’d never drunk brandy, but a little warmth couldn’t hurt. The cottage was chilly in spite of the fire. “Sure.”
“It helps me unwind, although I’m not sure you need much help with that.” She glanced at the sofa, and her dimples re-appeared.
Joe’s face warmed again, and he breathed a tiny sigh of thanks for the dim firelight. He hadn’t blushed like this since high school. What is it about her? You’d think I’d never been alone with a woman before.
He rose and joined her as she slid the second slice of pie onto a plate and added forks. “Let me take those.”
Setting the plates on the coffee table, he waited until she joined him with two juice glasses half-full of reddish-brown liquid that sparkled in the firelight.
She handed him a glass. “I hope you don’t mind. The proper snifters are in the dining room at the inn.”
“These are perfect. I wouldn’t know a ‘proper snifter’ if it bit me on the nose.”
They sat side by side on the short sofa, watching the dancing flames and eating pecan pie in companionable silence. After a few minutes, he took a tentative sip from his juice glass. Yow! The stuff burned all the way down his throat. His eyes teared and he choked.
Her dark eyes widened in alarm. “Let me get you some water.”
He waved her down. “No…I’m okay…it’s just that…I’ve never…Wow.”
“It’s an acquired taste. Just go slow.”
He took her advice and was surprised by the warm glow that spread through his body in a matter of minutes.
She tilted her head, and her lips curved. “Better?”
He nodded. “Yeah.” Blood was definitely flowing—everywhere. He shifted on the sofa. Time to re-direct his attention unless he wanted to embarrass himself further. “So, how long have you owned the Foxborough Inn?”
Her expression sobered and she stared into the fire. “I bought it ten years ago, after my parents died. I’d been working in D.C., but their accident made me re-think my priorities. Washington’s political scene lost its appeal.”
Joe couldn’t imagine politics ever having any appeal. “What about siblings?”
She shook her head. “I’m an only child.” Her voice sounded small and lonely.
An image popped into his head of Christmas mornings with his parents, grandparents, and five siblings. Charley had likely never known that kind of cheerful pandemonium. “What do you do for holidays?”
She shrugged. “Rest. Relax.”
She took a sip of her brandy then nodded. “I usually close the inn right before Christmas until the middle of January. That way Henry can spend the holidays with his daughter and grandchildren.”
“But not this year.”
“We’ll close the day after tomorrow, when the wedding party departs.” She finished her drink with one final swallow and stood. “I’d better get to bed. I’ve got a busy day tomorrow—Eggs Benedict for twelve at nine o’clock.”
Joe rose too. “Thanks again for taking us in. I hate to add to your work.”
“I don’t mind. Busy is good.” Her smile seemed tinged with sadness, and he wondered if it was his imagination or a trick of the shadows.
At six-thirty the next morning, Charley poked her nose out from under the comforter. No sound greeted her ears. Good. If she was lucky, she could grab a quick shower before her visitors awoke. Fifteen minutes later, dried and dressed, she tiptoed into the living room, where Joe Matthews’ lanky form draped over her sofa in an awkward jumble of limbs and joints. She knew she shouldn’t laugh, but a giggle slipped out anyway.
Joe rolled over and groaned. He scrubbed his prickly face with one hand then ran it through his hair. When he shoved the blanket aside and pushed to his feet Charley giggled again.
“Sorry,” she said.
He made a wry grimace. “I may never walk again.”
“There are fresh towels in the bathroom. You’ll feel better after a hot shower.”
As he stumbled down the hall, she smiled and began humming a little tune under her breath. It had been ages since she’d seen a man first thing in the morning. It was kind of nice.
When he returned, dressed in clean clothes and sporting a fresh shave, she directed him to the kitchen table. “Sit.” He gave her a quizzical look but complied. “Eat,” she said, setting a heaping plate of French toast and bacon in front of him.
“You didn’t have to do this,” he objected, picking up his fork. “It’s too much work.” The last bit came out muffled by a mouthful of food.
She couldn’t suppress a little buzz of gratification. Apparently her cooking was good enough to make a Southern boy forget his manners. “I enjoy cooking breakfast. It’s my favorite meal.”
Charley turned to see Maria standing by the table wearing flannel pajama pants with koala bears and a long t-shirt that stretched tight across her tummy. She looked heart-breakingly young.
“Have a seat and I’ll bring you some French toast. Do you like bacon?”
Maria gave her a classic teenage duh look. “Who doesn’t like bacon?”
Charley smiled. “Exactly.”
Joe finished his breakfast just as Maria dug in to hers. He rose and picked up his dishes. “Have you checked the weather yet this morning?”
Charley pushed back the lace-edged curtain over the sink. “The sleet stopped sometime last night.” She leaned forward on tiptoe to check the thermometer mounted to the outside of the window frame. “It’s already above freezing. The roads will thaw in an hour or two.”
Joe’s arm brushed against hers as he peered out the window. “Then we shouldn’t have any trouble making it to Roanoke in time for Christmas dinner with my folks.”
Maria’s chair scraped the floor as she jumped up with a speed that belied her belly. “We gotta go now.” Her eyes darted between Charley and Joe, and urgency vibrated in her voice.
Joe crossed the room and laid a big hand on her shoulder. “Hey, it’s okay. We’ve got plenty of time.”
Maria shook her head. “No, you don’t understand.”
“We gotta go. They’ll catch me.” She spread a protective hand across her belly.
The girl was clearly terrified of someone.
Charley hurried to Maria’s side, slid her left arm around the girl’s back, and placed her hand over Maria’s, holding her in a loose embrace. She frowned when the girl’s icy hand twitched beneath hers. “You’re freezing.” She lifted her gaze to meet Joe’s, and he nodded and strode to the fire to toss on a couple more logs.
Charley guided Maria to the sofa. “Everything’s going to be fine. Come sit and warm up. Then you can tell us all about it.” Maria shook as Charley plucked the rumpled blanket off the sofa and wrapped it around her shoulders before sitting beside her.
Joe dragged a chair over and sat, taking her hands in his. “Maria, I won’t let anyone hurt you. Trust me.”
“You d-don’t even know me.”
“I know you need help. That’s enough.”
“Who do you think is after you?” Charley asked quietly.
Maria drew a shuddering breath. “Big Sammy, or a couple of his guys. I don’t guess he would do something like that himself.”
Joe stroked her hand with his thumb. “Something like what?”
“He wants to make me disappear.” She shivered. “Because of the baby, you know.”
Charley glanced at Maria’s belly. “Is that Big Sammy’s baby?”
Maria jerked upright and wrinkled her nose. “Eww, no. Big Sammy is, like, old. It’s Little Sammy’s.”
“I’m sure this man wouldn’t harm his own grandchild.”
Maria tossed her spiky, black cap of hair. “Hah! You don’t know Big Sammy Spitelli. When he wants someone disappeared, they disappear.”
Joe sat back in his chair. “Well, you’re not going to ‘disappear’.”
“Then we gotta get out of here. Big Sammy’s guys have been following me for three days in a black Cadillac with dark windows. That’s why I had to get out of Jersey.”
Joe planted his hands on his thighs and pushed up. “In that case, we should be able to safely hit the road by nine. You finish your breakfast and take a shower, and I’ll go out and start chipping the ice off the truck.”
“I’ll walk with you,” Charley said. “I’ve got to get breakfast started for the wedding party. Maria, don’t you worry. You’re going to be fine.” She pulled on her coat and followed Joe out the door.
The ice storm had transformed the inn and its surroundings into a glittering wonderland. Even the barn looked like something out of a fairy tale. The sound of dripping water filled the early morning stillness as tiny icicles melted on the eaves and gurgled through the gutters and downspouts.
Charley caught up to Joe in a few paces. “What do you think of her story?”
“It doesn’t matter what I think. She’s scared, so I’ll get her to Roanoke as soon as possible.”
“What will happen then?”
“I don’t know, but my mom’s a retired social worker. She knows people who can help.”
Just then the crunch of tires on the ice-covered gravel driveway drew Charley’s attention as a vintage black Cadillac drove slowly toward the inn. She and Joe stood frozen as the car disappeared around the front of the building. Then a door slammed, followed quickly by a second.
Joe muttered an expletive and started forward, but she laid a hand on his arm. “Go back to the cottage and help Maria get ready to go. I’ll take care of this.”
She left him and scurried up the slick back steps. This was her inn, and nothing bad was going to happen here on Christmas Day, period.
Dumping her coat in the kitchen, she took a deep breath and marched down the short hall, past her office, to the lobby. Three men in black wool overcoats stood in front of the desk, stomping their feet and rubbing their hands together. When they saw her, they stilled.
Charley lifted her chin and pasted a smile on her face. “Merry Christmas. What can I do for you gentlemen?”
The tallest stepped forward. “We’re traveling with some friends—a man and a girl. We got separated last night because of the weather and wondered if they stopped here.”
“The girl’s knocked up,” the short, round one added helpfully. “You can’t miss ‘er.”
“I’m sorry, but I can’t help you. All our rooms are occupied by a wedding party.”
The tall one eyed her closely and twisted a chunky, gold ring on his right pinky. “You’re sure you haven’t seen them? They were headed this way. We’re in the freaking middle of nowhere here. There’s no place else to stop for miles.”
The medium-sized man tugged on the tall one’s sleeve. “Vinnie, if they’re not here, they’re not here. We better get going and find them. Big Sammy’s not gonna be happy.”
Jeez. Could these guys be for real? They looked and sounded like extras from The Sopranos. But what did she know? She’d never even been to New Jersey.
Vinnie pursed his lips for a moment then said, “Right. Let’s go.”
Charley glanced at the grandfather clock across the lobby and chewed her lip. What if Maria was right? What if Vinnie and his pals really were some kind of hitmen? She wished she knew if Joe and Maria were still in the cottage. She didn’t want these goons to leave now and run into them outside. She needed to stall Big Sammy’s men long enough to give Joe and Maria a good head start.
“I’m about to start breakfast for my guests. Can I fix you gentlemen something before you go? You might have a long, cold drive ahead of you. I doubt any place else will be open Christmas morning.”
“No, thanks. We need to be going.” Vinnie started to turn toward the door, but his short associate stopped him with a tug on his sleeve.
“We got time, and we gotta eat. I’m starved, and like you said, there’s no place else around for miles.”
“I’m making Eggs Benedict,” Charley added.
The three faced her and then each other. She held her breath.
Finally Vinnie relented. “Okay, but you guys need to eat fast.”
His cohorts readily agreed, and Charley ushered them into the kitchen and seated them at the table. On her way to the fridge, she glanced out the window and saw Joe’s truck still parked near the barn. Her stomach began to churn. What if one of the men spotted it? If they knew Joe and Maria were together, they must know the kind of vehicle he drove.
However, they quickly became embroiled in conversation about someone named Sal who owed Big Sammy money over a failed business deal and what they were going to do about it. Charley tuned them out and concentrated on getting food in front of them as quickly as possible. They were less likely to notice to anything happening outside with her Eggs Benedict under their noses.
Ten minutes later, she poured herself a cup of coffee and leaned one hip against the sink. The only sounds coming from the table were grunts of satisfaction as the men concentrated on their food. Something dark and a flash of movement outside caught her attention, and she shot a quick glance out the window to see Joe helping Maria across the icy yard to his truck. Her heart pounded in her throat. How far would the sound of the doors closing carry in the still morning air? She needed to create a distraction, but what?
Music. There was a CD of holiday favorites in the player in her office and speakers throughout the first floor. Perfect. She set her cup on the counter and headed toward the door.
As she passed, Shorty twisted in his chair, raised his cup, and looked over his shoulder—in the direction of the window. “Could I have another. . .Hey, Vinnie, isn’t that the girl?”