Christie's teacup clattered onto her saucer in shock at the unexpected twist in Jean's otherwise very romantic tale. But before Christie could even think about asking whether Thomas had come back, Jean said, "Storytelling always wears me out. Would you mind helping me clean this up?"
"Not at all," she said, reluctantly accepting that she'd heard all she was going to from Jean today.
But as she walked back to the inn, she couldn't help but wonder--if Jean and Thomas had celebrated their wedding night in the top-floor bedroom at the inn, could that be why it always felt so cold?
Because love hadn't only been made in that room. It had also been lost.
"Are you the person responsible for this Tapping of the Maples Festival?"
As soon as Christie saw Mr. Radin walk into the inn, a warning bell went off in her head. She'd never had anything against him until he'd stood up at that town hall meeting last fall and tried to tear Sarah apart for suggesting new condos might go up along the lakefront. He was entitled to his opinion, but it was the way he went after her friend that had been truly horrible. He'd actually invoked Sarah's late father's name, telling her that James would have been ashamed of what his daughter was doing to his beloved town.
Christie had always forgiven too quickly. More than once, being able to hold a grudge might have helped her steer clear of personal disaster. But she hadn't managed to forgive Mr. Radin for hurting her friend. And today, unfortunately, he was wearing the same angry expression as he had during the town hall meeting.
"Yes, that's me," she said in as polite a voice as she could manage. "I'd be happy to answer any questions you might have about the festival."
He slapped down a thick folder. "You can't drill into Adirondack Park trees without the proper permissions. I've filed a halt petition with the Preservation Council."
Christie felt her mouth fall open, but at that moment she was powerless to close it. She stared at the papers, not wanting to touch them. "I checked everything out with the park's agency before I started putting the festival together."
"Then they didn't read the codes any better than you did. The Adirondack Park is preserved for a reason--so that people like you can't come here from the big city and destroy our trees. We don't need more buildings and machines and people ruining our land. You're no better than that friend of yours with her condos."
"How dare you make some sort of claim that I'm trying to destroy the forest." She was glad for the anger that shot through her, if only because of the energy it gave her to stand up to this bully. "You could have come and talked to me first, before filing this petition. You should have given me a chance to address your concerns before escalating things to such a high level." It had never occurred to her that someone would try to stop her from putting on a small festival.
"All that talk just gets in the way of what needs to be done. I believe in taking action first."
She had to bite her tongue to point out how well that had gone for him, given that he was alone, grumpy, with virtually no friends in a small town that thrived on interpersonal connections. "The festival is in two weeks, Mr. Radin. Vendors are in place. People have already made their plans to attend the festival and have booked rooms at the inn and all of the local B&Bs. Pulling the festival now would be a headache and a heartache for more than just me." She hated begging for things, but this was more important than her pride. "Please reconsider this petition. I'm not the only one who will benefit from this festival. It's not just going to be good for the inn. This entire community will reap the rewards of it. And I will personally make sure that none of the trees are harmed in the process."
Suddenly, he smiled, a smug expression with no warmth behind it. "The Preservation Council will make certain of that."
Across the lake, Susan and Henry were down on their hands and knees in opposite corners of their bedroom. He was sanding by hand, while she worked carefully to finish the already sanded planks with a paintbrush.
Though Susan had practically had to beg him to let her help him with the bedroom floors, the truth was that she had never cared for work like this. Painstaking, patience-bending work had always been Henry's forte. Like his mother, Jean, he wasn't one to be rushed. Susan, on the other hand, liked seeing something go from idea to reality as quickly as possible.
Still, she wanted--needed--to be in the bedroom with him, on the floor with a paintbrush, listening to the steady scratch of sandpaper. She dearly hoped working together on something they both wanted would bring them closer together. That they'd lie in bed when it was done and know that they could still be a team.
Funny the things one didn't realize about someone when one was still in the first flush of new love. She'd loved how considerate he was, how seriously he thought about everything she asked him, rather than just giving her whatever answer she wanted to hear, like most men would. And if his mother had driven her a little crazy in those early years with the way she never seemed to answer a question directly, Susan had believed Henry was different. But more and more, she'd come to see just how similar they were. Wesley had the same easygoing patience. Only Liam needed change, needed a faster pace, the way Susan did--even if he didn't want to admit that they had those personality traits in common.
She was thrilled that he was coming to dinner tonight. No matter how strained things were between them, he was still her son, and she loved him dearly. Looking down at her watch, she saw that it was time to pull the cherry pie--his favorite--out of the oven.
Her back was stiff as she stood, and she stumbled slightly to her left. Before she could prevent it, a can at her heel tipped over and lacquer poured out all over the boards that Henry had worked so hard to sand to perfection.
She bent down to grab the can, but as she did so, she accidentally stepped into a puddle of goo. Slipping, she had only just hit the floor when her husband was there, running his hand down her arms, checking for places she might be hurt. And it felt so good to be touched by him.
"Does anything hurt?"
Just her pride. But she couldn't admit that, not even to her husband. Especially not to him, it seemed. "No. I don't think so." She started to get up, but his hands were firm, holding her right where she was. A thrill shot through her at the proof of his strength, something else she'd somehow forgotten.
"Stay put for a little while," he insisted. "Give your body a chance to recover from the fall." That was when he finally looked from her to the huge mess she'd created. "Well, that's something, isn't it?"
Though he hadn't outright blamed her for screwing up, she thought she could hear the resignation in his voice, as if letting her help had been a bad idea right from the start. "I didn't do it on purpose."
He didn't look at her, just shook his head. "I didn't say you did."
"But you were thinking it."
His chest filled with a deep breath, one that he let out before he said, "No, I wasn't. Although I thought I was pretty clear about closing the containers before you went anywhere."
She pushed out of his arms, getting to her feet as fast as she could in the sticky glop that covered her. "I should have known working together would be a bad idea."
He was up on his feet just as fast. "Don't try and turn this around on me." The moment where he'd put warm hands on her like he used to was cle
arly long gone. "You're the one who's been pushing me to do the floors. You're the one who demanded to help. If you'd just let me do it the way I planned, none of this would have happened."
"You know what?" Emotions roiled through her, making it impossible to think through her words before they spilled out. "We never should have started this. We never should have tried to pretty up the past and make it look new again. We can't sand down and refinish something that's fundamentally broken. We'll never be able to go back to the way it used to be."
For how many years had Henry tried to avoid this conversation? He had always loved Susan so much that he couldn't let himself imagine a life without her.
But more and more often, he had to wonder if he'd been wrong.
If only they hadn't started this renovation. For years he'd told her the same thing: that he didn't feel comfortable turning away paying business to spend the time working on his own home. But that had been only a superficial reason. In truth--and it was a truth he wasn't at all comfortable admitting to himself--he'd been worried about spending so many hours in the house with his wife when they seemed to manage best with only evenings and weekends together. And now that his fears had become reality, he didn't know what to say, what to do.
So when he smelled something burning, it was actually a relief to be able to rush down into the kitchen, where black smoke was pouring out of the oven.
"Oh no, my pie!" Susan tried to push past him to get to it.
He caught her arm before she could open the oven and burn herself.
"Let me go!"
She was talking about the oven and her burned pie, but he had to wonder if Let me go was what she'd really been saying to him all these years. Only he hadn't wanted to listen.
"I can't let you burn yourself." It didn't matter that he was angry with her, that she'd hurt him more deeply than ever before with what she'd just said in their bedroom. We never should have tried to pretty up the past and make it look new again. He simply couldn't stand the thought of Susan ever being hurt.