"Your grandmother would have been in her early twenties back then, right?"
As he nodded, he noticed her festival paperwork spread out across the foot of the bed, along with the slip she'd been knitting on top of the pattern book. "Were you still up working?"
"I couldn't sleep, so I figured I might as well take care of a few things."
"Don't you have enough on your plate already?" He didn't wait for her to respond before saying, "You can't do it all. Not without things starting to fall apart here at the inn. With Wesley gone and while you're teaching me the ropes, wouldn't it be easier if you let the festival go for now?"
Hating that he thought she would ever intentionally do anything to damage the inn, she decided to call him on what was really behind his frustrated words. "This isn't about the festival. This isn't about the inn. This is about what happened this afternoon, isn't it?"
In an instant, she watched Liam shut himself down. "Don't try to turn my concern for your well-being and the inn's into something it isn't."
She should let it go. She should let him go. But she was too tired to even try to rein in her impulses. "I saw your reaction to my conversation with Mark."
She watched emotion flash across his face, before he deliberately shut the reaction down. "I shouldn't have been listening to your private conversation. And I shouldn't have barged in here tonight either."
Beyond frustrated, she all but yelled, "But you were! And you did!" And the truth was that she hadn't been able to get his judgmental expression out of her head all night. "Why don't you be honest with me, for once?"
His mouth was tight, his eyes narrowed as he finally picked up the gauntlet she'd thrown down in front of him. "You broke up a marriage."
"If I'd known he was married, I never would have--"
"You must have known."
She couldn't pretend that didn't hurt. "He didn't wear a ring, he had his own apartment, he was free on evenings and weekends. There were no pictures of a family, no strange phone calls he didn't want me to hear."
"There had to be signs," Liam insisted. "Signs you were ignoring. Times you couldn't call him. Places you couldn't meet him. But you chose to ignore all of them."
It would be so much easier to stay on the defensive, but his words were pricking at so many things she hadn't wanted to admit to herself that she couldn't. Had she been more concerned with the fantasy of happily-ever-after than what was really right in front of her? And if that was the case, then wasn't she guilty of ignoring the reality about Wesley too--that a platonic life with him would never have worked out either?
"I didn't mean to hurt anyone," she finally said. "And I'll never stop regretting the pain his wife and children must be in."
"You have no idea how bad it can be."
The pain in his voice struck her deep in her solar plexus. "Liam--"
He took a deliberate step away from her. Then another. "Sorry for barging in. I'll check the roof and the water pipes tomorrow to see if those are the issue."
Obviously, he wanted to get out of her bedroom. To get away from her. Trying to push away all the emotions that had bubbled up, she worked to focus on the business of the inn instead. "Thank you, but that's normally something I would oversee." Even though it meant adding one more thing to her already endless to-do list.
She thought he would argue with her, tell her again that she wasn't some kind of superhero. Instead, he simply said, "I know you can handle anything that comes your way, Christie. You've proved that to me in spades this week. But I want to help."
And then, before she could react either to his surprising compliment or to his offer to take some of the burden from her shoulders, like the ghost she was almost starting to believe lived in the walls of her bedroom, he was gone.
The next morning, Christie was headed for Jean Kane's cottage when she found her on the lakeshore skipping pebbles across a patch of water where the ice had melted.
What, Christie wondered, had kept Liam's grandmother so young in so many ways? In addition to the clear delight she was having by the lake, Jean's skin was incredible for a woman in her eighties. Yes, there were lines in it, but they were mostly around her eyes and mouth from smiling.
Jean waved a hand in greeting. "Grab a handful of pebbles and give it a try."
Christie picked up a pebble and tossed it into the lake, where it skidded off the nearby ice.
"Just takes a little practice," Jean said encouragingly.
Many dozens of throws later, when Christie finally managed her first good skip, she cheered out loud.
Jean grinned, then said, "Now that the wind is picking up, why don't you join me for a cup of tea in my cottage?"
"I'd love that." But before turning away from the lake, Christie took another deep breath, letting the clean, crisp air fill her up and push away her lingering tiredness. The Adirondacks were so lovely in all seasons. Having arrived the previous summer, it was a real thrill to experience her first spring in the small lakeside town. "It really is lovely here, isn't it?"
"I never wanted to live anywhere else," Jean said as they walked together toward the yellow-and-white cottage that sat just above the beach.
"That's exactly what I thought the first time I came to Summer Lake," Christie admitted.
A few moments later, they were in the tidy, bright cottage and Jean was fussing with her teapot and tray. Soon, they were having an elegant midmorning tea, complete with butter cookies imported from England.
"This is marvelous, Jean," Christie said as she sipped her Earl Grey and nibbled a cookie. An idea suddenly struck. "We should do a special tea once a week at the inn, for both guests and locals. And if it's successful, we could even open up a tearoom off to the side of the inn, serving teas from all over the world!"
"You remind me so much of myself when I was younger," Jean remarked. "My brain was always spinning, always creating something new and exciting, like the tea service that I'm sure would do very well at the inn. Speaking of which, how have you been managing without Wesley there to help you?"
Not wanting to say anything negative about Jean's grandson, Christie carefully replied, "My workload has certainly increased, but Liam has been really helpful, so I'm hoping to have a little more breathing room soon."
"What do you think of my eldest grandson?"
Christie worked like crazy not to blush. "Liam is very intelligent." And so sexy that it was nearly impossible to think about him without remembering his hands on her, or how much she'd longed for him to kiss her. More than once. "He seems so interested in everything around him."
"Yes," Jean agreed. "He definitely is. Especially when he's surprised by something beautiful, something precious."
A dozen questions crowded the tip of Christie's tongue. What had he been like as a child? Why hadn't he been back to the lake in so long? Had he been in a serious relationship? But if she asked any of them, Jean would surely know Christie was interested in him as more than simply her almost-brother-in-law.
Which was why she said instead, "Last night at the k
nitting group, when I asked you about the strange things I've been sensing in my bedroom at the inn, what did you mean when you said you knew it would happen?"
Jean didn't answer right away. She took her time finishing her cup of tea and then poured again for both of them. Christie reined in her impatience, knowing that Jean had always been a woman who lived by her own timetable.
Finally, she put down her teacup and began to tell Christie a story.
Summer Lake, 1945...
As the youngest daughter of one of the richest men on the lake, Jean Farrington grew up in one of the biggest houses there. Her whole life, she had been content to live in Summer Lake--although the past years had been bumpier than expected, what with the boys she'd grown up with going off to war. Not to mention all of the drama surrounding Olive and her forbidden--and doomed--love affair with Carlos last year. Thankfully, Olive had found a new, lasting love with Kent Thomas, and they were now happily married.
However, in the aftermath of Olive's affair, their father had all but dropped prison bars around his daughters, and Jean had to learn to live under a microscope. It had been horrible. Jean had always longed to learn as much as she could about the world around her. She enjoyed female pursuits just fine and was a decent knitter and seamstress, but knitting was never going to become her passion, as it was for Olive.
What she really loved was building things. Even as a little girl, she'd been happy to play for hours with blocks, and her teachers had always remarked on her remarkable aptitude for math and science. Still, she'd known instinctively that no one would ever approve of her picking up a hammer or saw, so she'd funneled her interest first into her dollhouses and, when she grew too old for those, into sketching first her father's house and then most of the other houses around the lake, big and small.
She especially liked the tiny cottages where happy families came to play in the summer. For years, she'd had a picture in her head of the cottage she was going to build for her own family. She could even see her babies playing on the sand, her sister coming over with her own children.
The only thing she couldn't see clearly was the man who would be her husband.
She knew all of the boys from school too well to imagine actually marrying one of them. And, of course, her father hadn't given her many chances to date anyone who didn't live in Summer Lake. Besides, with all the grilling he subjected her dates to, any boy who dared ask her out ended up sorely regretting ever looking her way.