At last, she backed up out of the way of the oven door. Henry carefully opened it. Just as he'd expected, sizzling hot smoke billowed out of it. The pie was a black lump of coal on the middle rack. Susan was already opening windows, but he knew the smell would linger long after this afternoon.
Just as the words that had been laid between them would remain: We'll never be able to go back to the way it used to be.
"If I start working on another pie right now," she said, "I can probably get it made before Liam comes for dinner."
"I don't think dinner with Liam tonight is such a good idea." It wasn't fair to subject him to the tension between his parents.
But Susan was adamant. "He's our son, whom we only rarely get the privilege of seeing. We can't let our problems get in the way of a chance to sit down with him for a few hours."
She was right. He'd missed Liam a great deal these past years and knew the likelihood of his leaving the lake again soon was high. "Then you'd better make the replacement pie. I'll go clean up upstairs and see if anything can be salvaged."
She winced at his words, even though he could have sworn he'd been talking about the floors and nothing else. But he'd never been comfortable telling lies. Which would account for the unease that had been building up inside him all this time.
Because hadn't he been lying to himself about his marriage for nearly twenty years?
"I'll put a bottle of paint thinner in the shower for you in case the lacquer doesn't wash right off." Despite his efforts to the contrary, his voice was strained, rough around the edges where emotion was tearing away at him.
He wasn't used to hearing a plea in her voice, and that was what made him stop halfway out of the kitchen and turn around. Susan was the strongest person he knew. Even stronger than his mother. But now, for the first time in a very long time, she looked like she was about to break.
"I didn't--" She wiped away a tear falling down her cheek. "What I said upstairs, I didn't mean it." But they both knew she had. Because they'd been limping along half broken for too long.
Knowing he was going to regret it, but unable to stop himself, he said, "Do you know why I finally decided to refinish the floors?"
His wife--so lovely after thirty years that she was still turning heads--blinked at him from her post by the window. "Why?"
"Because I was hoping fixing the floors might fix us."
He held up both hands to stop her. "But you're right. Shiny new floorboards aren't going to heal what's broken between us. Not when one little mistake means having to rip them up and throw them away."
"What are you saying?" Her mouth was trembling, and although there were no more tears rolling down her cheeks, her eyes were bright with them.
"I don't know yet." He felt the weight of every strained moment between them. "Let's just have dinner with Liam tonight and take it from there."
But it wasn't. And he wasn't sure anything would ever truly be okay again.
Christie was going to have to cancel the festival.
After reading through the petition start to finish and then again to make sure she hadn't missed anything, she had no choice but to face the truth. While the Adirondack Preservation Council hadn't yet made a judgment, at this point the petition was enough to put a halt to the proceedings until they'd reviewed all of the arguments for both sides. Unfortunately, the next formal review session wasn't for three weeks--one full week after the festival should have already taken place.
All these weeks, Christie had thought she was doing such a good job of holding it together, had been proud of how strong she was becoming.
Right now, she felt anything but strong.
"How's everything going so far today?" She jumped at the sound of Liam's voice. How long had he been standing there watching her try not to fall apart? "I didn't intend to be gone for so long," he continued, "but one meeting with my former business partners in Boston turned into six, the way it always used to."
Frustration with Mr. Radin and his stupid petition, with Wesley for leaving her to deal with everything alone--and with Liam for making her feel things she had no business feeling--had her throwing out an uncharacteristically sharp, "I'll tell you how everything's going. The festival is off."
Frowning, he set down a tray that held cookies and two cups of coffee, and she belatedly realized he must have been worried that she was working through her meals again.
"What are you talking about?" he asked. "Why would the festival be off?"
She slid the petition across the counter. "Courtesy of Mr. Radin."
"Isn't he the bored loner who likes to stir up trouble?"
She touched the tip of her nose with her index finger. "Bingo! He's filed a petition against my festival with the Adirondack Preservation Council." She pointed to the bound papers. "It's all right there in black and white."
His frown dug in deeper as he flipped through the pages. "This is nuts." He shifted his gaze back to her. "Aren't you going to fight it?"
She shrugged, all the fight from the previous night knocked out of her. "In order to fight the petition, I'd need to present my case at the next council meeting. But that isn't for three weeks. And even if the meeting had been before the festival date, it would probably be a full-time job to comb through all of the rules and regulations in the hopes of convincing the council." She hated to admit this, but it had to be said. "You were right last night. I can do only so much."
"You didn't seem to think I was right." Though his words were blunt, his voice held no recrimination.
"Well, you were." She was barely managing to hold his gaze when all she wanted to do was run up the stairs, crawl into bed, and pull the covers over her head. But she had a job to do running the inn. She couldn't lose that too just because everything else had fallen apart. "Besides, I thought you'd be happy about the festival being off."
"I honestly don't know what to think right now."
He never lies. The thought hit her right between the eyes.
So many men had lied to her over the years--even Wesley, by withholding the truth of who he really was--that she'd given up hope of finding one who didn't.
"I don't like the way Radin went about this, Christie. He should have come to you first, been up front about his concerns, rather than weaseling in some loophole in the park's policies."
"That's what I told him."
"I'd like to have seen that." A smile almost raised the edges of his lips as he spoke, and she found herself actually holding her breath, she wanted to see it so badly. Today, more than ever.
When she realized she was staring, she quickly said, "In other news, William Sullivan said he knows a guy who could look at the pipes and roof. Unfortunately, he's away from town for the next week, but he'll squeeze us in as soon as he returns."
"Until then," Liam said, "why don't you move into another room?"
"I'm perfectly okay where I am. A few noises aren't going to bother me again." She couldn't let them when she needed to prove to Liam that she could hold it all together. Admitting that she was still more than a little freaked out by the ghostlike sounds in her bedroom definitely wasn't in the cards.
Of course, that was right when the front door blew open, and she was so on edge from both lack of sleep and heightened emotions that she jumped back--and tripped over a box of flyers for her festival.
Before she knew it, Liam was around the counter and his arms were around her, making sure she didn't knock her head on something sharp and hard. She knew she should step away and put at least a handful of feet between them. But his warmth--and his gentle touch--were irresistible.
"Thank you for catching me."
"I would never let you fall, Christie."
Suddenly, it all felt so inevitable, the kiss that was finally going to happen. A kiss that she didn't know why she'd even bothered to fight for so long. Especially when she could no longer deny j
ust how much she wanted to taste him. Wanted to feel his strong muscles pressed against her. Wanted to give in to her own innate sensuality that he'd brought out in her from the first moment she'd set eyes on him, despite all the barriers that lay between them.
This was what was really between them. This heat. This attraction. This need that was pumping through her, head to toe, inside and out.
His eyes grew even darker as he leaned in, his lips barely a breath away from hers.
The phone rang, loud and jarring enough for them to have no excuse not to break apart.
She picked it up with a shaking hand--and with the palpable loss of his touch, his kiss, aching inside of her. "Summer Lake Inn."
Was that her voice, all breathy and disappointed at losing out on a kiss she'd wanted so badly--but knew better than to take? In any case, hearing Liam's mother's voice should have broken the spell that had been weaving itself around them.
But even speaking to Susan couldn't knock sense into Christie as she said, "Sure, he's right here." She held out the phone, and when Liam's fingertips brushed against her knuckles as he took it from her, her entire body jumped with renewed awareness.
"Yes, I'll be there for dinner at six with a bottle of your favorite wine from Napa Valley," Liam said to his mother. To the untrained ear, his voice sounded perfectly pleasant, but Christie noted how still he'd become. As though he had to be prepared for disaster every second around Susan. "Okay, see you soon."