He shouldn't have touched her so intimately, but he hadn't been able to stop himself. No matter who she'd slept with, or how wrong it had been, it was pure instinct to want to protect her. Which was why he remained standing at her side. If she needed him to bodily throw this guy out, he'd be more than happy to take care of it.
"My schedule is really busy right now," she said. "I can't--"
"I came all this way," Mark whined. "At least hear me out. Just let me take you somewhere private tonight to explain everything to you. To try to make you understand."
With a resigned look on her face, she said, "I have a meeting tonight, but I might be able to spare a few minutes this afternoon."
Mark looked triumphant as he said, "Tell me when and where, and I'll be there. Your terms this time."
"Four p.m. Follow the signs to the public dock. I'll meet you out there."
His eyes grew big. "Are you kidding? It's freezing out there. Can't we meet somewhere warmer?"
"I thought you said they were my terms this time?"
He did a quick double take, almost as though he didn't quite recognize the woman standing in front of him. Or her strength. "Okay," he said, putting his hands up. "You're right. I'll be there."
Christie held herself perfectly still until he left the inn. Only then did she let her breath go slowly, her shoulders dropping slightly from her battle-ready position.
Liam half expected her to make an excuse about what had just happened, to try to spin it into something it wasn't. But he should have known better. Because Christie not only didn't act like other people--she also didn't seem to know how to brush awkward under the rug like anyone else.
"I'm really sorry about that," she said softly. "I'm just glad no guests came in while he was here."
Twenty years ago, Liam had learned how quickly things could change in fifteen short minutes. How his mother could go from being the person he loved and trusted most in the world to a virtual stranger. He'd vowed to keep himself far out of the path of any emotions that might put him back in that teenager's shoes again.
Since meeting Christie, however, pushing his feelings away had been a surprisingly difficult task. But he'd already made the mistake of touching her today. He couldn't afford any more mistakes. Especially given what he'd just learned--that she'd been the other woman.
What if one of Mark's kids had caught him with Christie? It would have scarred them for life.
A part of Liam wanted to lash out at her for making such a bad decision when it came to being with Mark, even if their relationship was in the past. But he forced himself to hold those words back and focus on business instead. "I've been reviewing the inn's files. I have a few questions for you."
She raised her eyebrows at his abrupt change of subject. "Is that something they teach you in business school? To act like nothing happened when we all know it just did?"
No one he worked with had ever been this bold, or this up front with him. But he knew better than to let himself get so riled up about whom she dated. "Your personal life is personal." The intense effort it was taking not to let himself get emotionally involved with her made his words hard. "And so is mine."
For a moment, he thought she might push back again. But then she simply nodded, one tight dip of her head, and said, "Which files do you have questions about?"
Though he'd gotten exactly what he'd said he wanted, he couldn't help but regret the distance between them as they pored over spreadsheets and files. Just as he couldn't help but say, when four o'clock approached, "I don't think you should meet Mark this afternoon."
Her eyes met his, no longer cool, but obviously irritated by his intrusion into her life. A personal life that he'd told her just hours ago he wanted nothing to do with--when now he was on the verge of playing the role of her bodyguard.
"Thank you for your concern," she said carefully, "but I can take care of myself."
Knowing he should back off, but finding it impossible, he tried again. "If something happened to you, Wesley would never forgive me."
"Ah. Yes. Wesley." Another flash of irritation crossed her face. "Well, he isn't here to stop me, is he?"
And clearly, as she grabbed both her coat and her bag of knitting for the group meeting that night, then practically slammed the door in Liam's face, he'd better not either.
"That guy from the inn is watching us, isn't he?" Mark said.
For a moment, she'd thought Liam was going to insist on coming out here with her. And even though she wouldn't have let him, she couldn't deny that a part of her hoped he was in fact watching over her, given that Mark's behavior was suddenly making her more than a little nervous.
"What Liam does is his own business," was all she said to her ex, however.
Liam had also said that her personal life was supposed to be hers alone. But even as he'd said it, she'd known that he was disgusted by the conversation he'd heard. And who wouldn't be? Mark had been married while they'd dated. Though she hadn't known it at the time, it still made her sick to her stomach to think about the part she'd played in the betrayal of his wife--no matter how unwitting.
"I don't like the way he looked at you," her ex said, as if he had any claim to her at all.
Christie stared at him in shock. Had she really been in love with him? Or had she just been in love with a fantasy of the perfect man? Because it was almost funny just how imperfect Mark had proved himself to be.
Maybe next time around, instead of searching for perfect, she should deliberately look for imperfect so that things could only get better, instead of worse. The thought had her mouth moving up into an unexpected smile.
"I've missed you so much," Mark said, brushing her cheek with the backs of his knuckles.
A year ago, she would have nuzzled into his caress, rather than flinching and pulling away. But things had changed.
She had changed.
"I need to get back to the inn. I just came out here to tell you that I'm not going to get back together with you. Ever."
Anger simmered in the eyes that she'd once looked to for approval. For what she'd thought was love. But he quickly banked it as he tried to give her a caring look. "I remember the way you cried when you found out about my wife. You can't have gotten over me that quickly."
"I cried because I was ashamed of what I'd done." How could he still not see that?
"Oh, baby, you weren't to blame for anything. Dating you on the side was the only way we could be together. But now we won't have to hide our love from anyone."
He was reaching for her again, but before he could touch her, she backed even farther away. Liam had been right about one thing--coming here to try to talk some sense into Mark had been a mistake.
"I don't love you. How could I, when you don't know what love really means?" The wind whipped up around them, and she pulled her coat more tightly around her.
"And you think you do?" Now that he knew he'd struck out with her once and for all, his laugh was harsh. And pitying. "Do you really think there's a man out there who is ever going to be able to live up to your fairy tale?"
She wished with all her heart that she'd never met him, never wasted two years of her life with him. "There's a big difference between lying about every single thing for two years and wanting a fairy tale." With the wind whipping her hair and clothes around her on the public dock, she let the anger drain away. The man standing before her simply wasn't worth it. "Good-bye, Mark. Good luck with your marriage."
Liam kept his eyes trained on Mark until he got into his car and sped away too fast on Summer Lake's icy roads. The whole time Christie had been out there with that scumbag, Liam hadn't been able to breathe properly.
He didn't realize his mother had come into the inn and was standing beside him, following his line of vision out the window, until she said, "Is everything all right, honey?"
Hell no, everything wasn't all right. He was thinking far too much, far too often, about Christie. Wanting her far t
oo much, far too often.
"I was just thinking about the inn's staff," was an honest, if incomplete, answer.
He moved away from the window, and she walked with him over to the registration desk. Only a coward would pray for a guest to walk in asking for help right now. And, unfortunately, only a lucky coward would see that prayer answered.