"I appreciate you telling me that, but you didn't waste a single second of my time. I need to learn this inn from the ground up, and that's what you were showing me. Most people wouldn't have the guts to hand me rubber gloves and a scrubber."
He could easily read the surprise on her face as she flushed and said, "Okay then, let me know if you need anything else today. Otherwise, I'll see you tomorrow. And this time, you have my solemn vow that I won't ask you to get on your knees with a scrub brush."
But as she walked away, Liam found himself having the dangerous thought that it would be more than worth it if she did, if only so he could spend more time with her.
There shouldn't have been anything exciting about bumping into each other as they made beds and vacuumed floors, but even doing completely mundane tasks with Liam got Christie's heart moving too fast.
Especially since she was still reeling from that one beautiful, heart-stopping smile that he'd given her at the registration desk earlier that morning.
She still couldn't believe how good he'd been about doing whatever she tasked him with. He hadn't once acted too important for cleaning bathrooms or dusting. Even Wesley complained about cleaning rooms on days when they were short-staffed. But Liam had simply gotten to work and done a heck of a job. Maybe even a better job than she, given how distracted she'd been by his nearness.
But the craziest thing of all was not so much that she could feel herself falling under his spell--it was that moment in the guest room when he'd seemed just as captivated by her. As though brushing soap off her cheek had been only an excuse to touch her.
On her way to the front desk, Christie caught sight of herself in a hall mirror. Her eyes were bright, her cheeks were flushed, and her hair looked like she'd been driving in a convertible with the top down all afternoon.
She must be crazy to think Liam was attracted to her, she thought as she pulled out her hair band and tried to quickly finger-comb her hair. She didn't have to see pictures of the women he dated to guess his type. Polished. Highly educated. Perfect.
Not that it mattered, she reminded herself. Because even if he was attracted to her, and even if Wesley's disappearance hadn't been hanging awkwardly between them, she still wouldn't allow herself to go near him with a ten-foot pole.
Once upon a time, Liam's mysteriousness, and the hints of pain in his eyes, would have had her giving herself over to him, like a modern-day beauty to the beast, turning herself inside out to save him--and win his love. Only, all the while, she'd inevitably end up losing herself more and more. Until the day he decided he was done with her.
Christie knew all about losing, about trying to rebuild herself into something whole again. A look back into her relationship file told a clear-cut story. One handsome, dangerously mysterious man after another. Wesley had been the only deviation in the pattern, but that was only because she'd been trying to swing as far as she could in the opposite direction.
She absolutely refused to fall into the old trap again, couldn't repeat the same cycle she knew by heart. Especially not when one Kane brother had already left her in the lurch.
For once in her life, she was going to be strong and smart rather than letting her contrary heart lead the way. She was going to save her emotions for a man who was capable of returning them.
"Sorry I've been gone all day, Alice," she said as she approached the desk.
"Don't worry about it," Alice said, and then, "Hey, did you do something to your hair? Or are you wearing different makeup?"
Alice studied her a little more closely. "Maybe it's just that your cheeks are flushed from cleaning rooms. It's practically a workout the way you do it."
Oh God, she hoped Alice wouldn't put two and two together and realize what--who--was actually responsible for her flushed cheeks. She could only imagine the gossip in town if people thought she was already drooling over her ex-fiance's older brother...
"You know what?" Christie said as she grabbed her down coat. "We're pretty low on fire logs. If you don't need me at the front desk, I'll head out and bring some in before you go for the day."
"It's really cold out there," Alice said, "and we probably have enough logs to last the next couple of days."
But Christie had already shoved her feet into her snow boots and was heading outside. The crisp, cold air shocked the breath out of her for a moment. But instead of turning around and heading back into the warmth of the inn, she was glad for the way the cold woke her up.
Because she couldn't daydream about impossible happily-ever-afters--or the most beautiful smile she'd ever seen--in this kind of weather.
Liam was surprised to find his father at home, lifting a heavy sander out of his truck instead of off working one of his construction jobs around the lake. "I've got the other side, Dad."
Neither of them said anything more until they'd carried the sander into the house and up the stairs to his parents' bedroom. Most of the furniture had been taken out. Only the bed frame and mattresses were propped against the wall.
After they put down the sander, his father said, "I could use an extra hand with the bed too, if you don't mind."
When Liam was a kid, he and Wesley had played hide-and-seek in the huge king sleigh bed. His father had made the head-and footboards out of a birch tree he'd cut down himself. Growing up, Liam had thought his father was the biggest, strongest man in the world. Taking in his father's gray hair and slightly gnarled knuckles, he wondered when that had changed. He hadn't spent much time with his father since leaving for college. Suddenly, Liam realized it was one of the things he regretted most.
"I'm happy to help," Liam told him.
Moving the heavy frame was a two-man job. No question about it, he thought when his muscles complained at the weight, he had spent too much time behind a computer these past years. As a boy growing up in Summer Lake, he'd always been outside. Boston had plenty of nice spots, but nothing compared to his hometown.
"Couldn't have done that without you," his father said after they'd cleared out the room. "I've been meaning to refinish these floors for a long time. Figured since work is a little slow right now, it would give me a chance to finally get your mother off my back. You know how she's been wanting me to redo these floors since you were in high school."
Liam was about to suggest they head down to the kitchen to discuss Wesley's possible whereabouts when his mother called up the stairs, "Liam? Henry? Are you up there?"
Liam thought he saw his father's shoulders tense and his mouth tighten at the corners. That made two of them.
Susan was standing in front of them before either man could reply. "Oh good, I'm glad you're here, honey," she said to him, and then to his father, "I hope you didn't scratch any of the walls getting that bed frame out."
"We were careful, Susan," Henry replied in a flat voice.
Odd. Liam had never heard his father respond to his mother like that. What was going on here? First, Wesley disappeared. And now, his father was practically standing up to his mother. If Liam added in the way Christie kept getting under his skin, it was starting to feel like the earth was shifting on its axis.
His mother raised her eyebrows at Henry's curt reply before reaching out and putting a hand on Liam's arm. "When I saw your car, I was hoping you were here to tell us that you've heard from Wesley."
Regardless of how he felt about his mother, the hope in her eyes was difficult to see. Especially when he didn't have any good news for her. "He did send me a letter. Similar to the one he left you." He ran a hand through his hair, using the movement as an excuse to shift away from his mother's touch. "Unfortunately, he didn't say where he was going or for how long."
Susan's face fell. "How could he just leave us all? It isn't like Wesley to do something like that."
Without an answer for his clearly distraught mother, Liam could relay only the information he did have. "I've spoken with several of Wesley's friends, and n
one of them have heard from him either."
"I can't help but think that none of this would have happened if Christie hadn't come here. Obviously, things weren't good between them. Perhaps that's why he felt he had to leave."
An instinctive urge to defend Christie rose inside him. But his normally mild-mannered, quiet father beat him to it. "That's ridiculous, Susan. He adored Christie. Just like the rest of us do."
"Ridiculous? Adored?" His mother's color was high. "He was fine before they got engaged. Everything was just fine."
"No," his father countered, "everything was not just fine. And instead of blaming Christie for hurting your son, you need to open your eyes and give her credit for single-handedly holding things together at the inn."
Blinking rapidly in surprise, Susan turned to Liam for support. "Now that you're here, you can take over the inn for a while, can't you, honey?"
"I spent the morning working with her and can tell you firsthand that Christie is an excellent innkeeper. I have no intention of taking over for her or replacing her." Deciding to end the conversation--and this whole poorly thought-out visit--Liam turned toward the stairs. His father followed him, putting a hand on his arm before he could walk away.