“An eviction notice? Let me see that.” Jillian snatched the papers from Erik’s hand. Lawyers didn’t serve eviction notices. They left that unpleasant duty to the sheriff’s office. Surely Alan, Jr. hadn’t sent her on such a fool’s errand. She could kick herself for not reading the contents of the folder before she left. She’d been annoyed and in a hurry to beat the storm, but neither was an acceptable excuse for allowing herself to be caught unprepared.
She scanned the first page. “It’s not an eviction notice. Technically, it’s a notice exercising the termination provision in your lease.”
Erik crossed his arms across the breadth of his chest. “I don’t think so.”
She sighed and silently cursed Alan, Jr. “There’s no need to make this more difficult than necessary. It’s a straightforward legal document. If you’ll sign next to the arrows, I can be on my way.”
His expression remained implacable. “You’ve got the wrong man.”
“You are Mr. Gustafsson, aren’t you?”
“And you currently rent this property?”
She knit her brows, echoing his frown. “I don’t understand.”
“I told you you’ve got the wrong man.”
Frustration poked a chink in her professional armor. “I need to speak to the lessee of this property, whoever it is.” The termination might be an unpleasant legal action, but it was legal. If this man thought he could make it disappear by intimidating her, he was mistaken.
Erik stared at her for a long moment, as if weighing his options. Then he turned his head and called out over his shoulder, “Farfar, you have a visitor!”
Jillian leaned and peered around him. When a figure emerged from the back room, her mouth fell open and the folder slipped from her fingers, sending papers wafting to the floor.
Holy, moly. It was Santa Claus. That rat, Alan, Jr., had sent her to evict Santa Claus two days before Christmas.
“Ms. Mayberry, this is my grandfather, Gustav Gustafsson.”
Santa smiled and took her hand. “Please call me Gus.”
Except for his customary red suit (which was apparently flapping from the flagpole out front), he looked exactly like the illustrations in her cherished childhood copy of The Night Before Christmas. Same rosy cheeks; same bushy, white beard; same little, round belly (well, maybe not so little).
The surrealism of the moment hit home. She was shaking hands with Santa Claus.
“Farfar, Ms. Mayberry is here to kick you out.”
Gus gave her a cherubic smile. “I’m sure that’s not true.”
Jillian swallowed hard. How could she do this? But how could she not? It was her job. She bent down, scooped up the papers from the floor, and stuffed them back in the folder. “I’m afraid the owner of this property has decided to invoke the termination provision of your lease. I need you to sign these papers.”
A look of confusion crossed Gus’s face. “Even though Sam Oglethorpe passed away last month, I can’t believe he would let that happen. We grew up together.”
At the waver in his voice, Jillian clenched her teeth. If Santa started to cry, she was going to murder Alan, Jr. the minute he got back in the office.
Erik placed his hand on his grandfather’s shoulder and gave it a small squeeze. Gus sniffled and blinked a couple of times before regaining his composure. “I don’t understand. Sam always said this place was mine as long as I wanted it.”
She frowned and opened the folder to check the documents. “These papers indicate the owner is a Ronald Oglethorpe.”
“That’s Ronnie, Sam’s son. There must be some mistake. I’m sure you’ll figure it out.” Gus pulled out a big red handkerchief, blew his nose, and gave her a watery smile.
Alan, Jr., you’re a dead man walking.
Jillian glanced at her watch. It was after 6:00p.m. No one would be in the office this late on December 23rd, and Alan, Jr. was still in the air on his way to Aspen. “I’ll do what I can to get more information, but I’m afraid it will have to wait until tomorrow.”
Gus’s smile blossomed. “I’m a pretty good judge of character, and I have complete faith in you.”
She wished she shared his confidence. He seemed like such a sweet man. If there was a way out of this mess for him she would find it, but even a good lawyer couldn’t work miracles.
Gus patted his belly. “Now that we’ve put that worry behind us, I’m hungry. I’ve got a pot of potato soup on the stove and homemade gingerbread in the oven. Take off your coat, and we’ll eat.”
For a moment she was tempted. The cabin was warm and cozy, and mouth-watering smells emanated from the kitchen. Besides, who wouldn’t want to eat dinner with Santa? But the Mini Cooper wasn’t a very big car, and if she stayed much longer, she might end up stranded. She retrieved her gloves from her pockets and started to pull them on. “That’s a lovely invitation, but the weather is horrible, and I need to get back to Two Harbors while I can.”
Erik crossed to the front window and flicked back the curtain. Clumps of thick white flakes tumbled down like puffs of cotton candy. “I wouldn’t count on it tonight unless you drove here in a snowplow.”
She rushed to the window and shoved the curtain aside. The flagpole had disappeared behind a veil of white. Her nerves tightened. “I can’t even see my car.”
Gus poked his head around her shoulder. “All the more reason to join us for dinner. If the storm passes by the time we finish, Erik can dig your car out and follow you into town to be sure you make it. If it’s still snowing, you can both stay here. There’s plenty of room.”
Sleep here? With Santa and the Viking? That would make some story for her grandchildren (if she ever had any), but it was out of the question. “Oh, no, I couldn’t.”
Erik stepped back from the window. “Well, you’re not going anywhere right now, so you might as well eat.”
He was right. She had no other option. The least she could do was be gracious. She tucked her hand into Gus’s elbow and smiled. “In that case, I’d be delighted.”
They walked through a smaller room, also chockfull of Christmas decorations, and into a cheery, old-fashioned kitchen. Gus seated Jillian at a sturdy pine table, then joined her while Erik dished up steaming bowls of dilled potato soup and added wedges of chewy pumpernickel bread.
As they ate and talked, night settled on the cabin. The soup was fabulous, delicate and hearty at the same time. When her spoon clinked against the bottom of the bowl, Gus laughed and declared her an honorary Swede. To her surprise, Jillian found herself spilling the story of her life, up to and including the humiliation of finding Alan, Jr. in the coatroom of the fanciest restaurant in St. Paul draped all over Brunhilde the Berserker (aka the assistant coach of the U of M women’s volleyball team).
When she finished, Gus took her hand. “I hope you gave that fellow the old heave-ho. You’re much too good for a knucklehead like that.”
She wondered if she could adopt Gus as a grandfather. Her own mother had berated her for letting such a “good catch” slip away.
By the time Erik served the gingerbread with lemon sauce, even he seemed to have decided she was no longer Simon Legree’s henchwoman. His blue gaze warmed when it touched her, and his knee brushed hers under the table more than once. When he rose to clear the table, she jumped up to help.
Hands full, he shook his head. “Go check the weather.”
The thought of leaving the cozy cabin to drive to a motel sent a shiver through her body, but if the snow had stopped she had no excuse to stay. When she pulled back the curtain and saw the swirling flakes, her selfish internal voice cheered. “It’s still snowing, and the wind’s picked up,” she called out.
“Give me your keys.”
She jumped and spun around at the sound of Erik’s deep voice behind her.A half-smile played around his lips, accentuating the sexy masculine dimple on one side. “I’ll get your bag and show you to the spare room.”