"Liam. Christie." Henry's pleading voice had them stopping their departure from the kitchen. "Please stay for dessert. Your mother went to all the trouble of baking a second cherry pie after the first burned."
Leaving would be easier. So much easier than staying. But she also knew deep in her heart that if Liam left like this, it would only make things worse between him and his mother.
Christie put her hand on his arm. "I do love cherry pie."
Everyone held their breath. For so long that Christie was half expecting one of them to turn blue and pass out.
Finally, Liam said, "Can the inn survive without you for a little longer?"
She wanted to pull him down for a kiss. Because he was a good son. And family meant everything to her. "Absolutely." She turned to Susan. "Any chance you have vanilla ice cream?"
The relief in the other woman's eyes nearly brought tears to Christie's own. "I wouldn't serve warm cherry pie without it."
The next twenty minutes were entirely made of small talk about the town, the weather, and pro baseball prospects. When their plates were finally cleared of pie and ice cream, they said their good-byes.
As they walked out to the car, Liam said, "I thought that went well."
His deadpan comment was completely unexpected--and just what she needed to unravel the tension that had been coiling up tighter and tighter inside. For the first time in far too long, Christie laughed freely.
All because of Liam.
"Did you see that?" Susan was standing at the kitchen sink trying to wash dishes, but her hands were shaking so hard a plate knocked into the porcelain and almost broke.
As steam rose up from the sink, Henry rushed over to shut off the water. "You're going to burn yourself!"
But Susan felt numb. Too numb to notice a little hot water. "There's something going on between them." She turned away from the sink and looked at her husband. "Didn't you see it?"
"See what?" There was annoyance in his voice. He never used to talk to her like that. Even though she'd likely deserved it many, many times before now.
"The way Liam looked at Christie at dinner." Her voice was shaking now just as much as her hands were.
"He likes her. Everyone likes her."
"Are you blind?" Her words were sharp. "He could hardly take his eyes off her. And she blushed every time he spoke to her."
"Fine. So maybe they like each other as more than just friends. What business is it of yours?"
She whirled from the sink, water and suds flying all over the kitchen floor. "She has already driven away one of my sons. I'm not going to let her drive away another. I'm not going to let her ruin their lives one by one."
"Whatever Wesley's reasons were for leaving, that sweet girl couldn't have driven him away."
"Stop saying how sweet she is!" She was yelling now, long past the point of being rational.
"Damn it, she is sweet. You say I'm the blind one. Now it's time for you to open your eyes. Can't you see that a woman like Christie is exactly what Liam needs?"
"You don't think I know what my own son needs?"
"And you do?"
"Yes, I damn well do. He needs a woman who will love him no matter what. Regardless of how hard things get. He deserves a woman he can love with his whole heart. A woman he isn't afraid to share anything with."
Oh God, he wasn't talking about Liam and Christie anymore. He was talking about the two of them. About what they used to have. About who they used to be.
Until she stupidly went and ruined everything, in one weak and horrible moment that she'd regret for the rest of her life.
"Henry--" She needed to tell him. She should have told him twenty years ago, right after she'd screwed up. She shouldn't have held it all inside. Because instead of the years making her betrayal seem less bad--every single year, every week, every hour had magnified her mistake a thousand times over.
But before she could tell him anything at all, he said, "Stay out of it, Susan. Whatever is going on with Liam and Christie, let it be. If they've got something growing between them, it's their business and no one else's."
She knew he was right. She could feel it deep inside her torn-up heart. But fear had her saying, "She was Wesley's fiancee."
"If Wesley and Christie were meant to be together, they would be married right now. You read his letter. He didn't want the marriage any more than she did."
"But what will people think?"
"If Liam and Christie end up together, I hope people will think they're a beautiful couple. I hope they'll look at the two of them and see love. Real love. I hope that all anyone will want is what's best for them."
With that, he got back to work loading the dishwasher, and she was so tired, so weak--so scared--all she could do was sit on a kitchen chair and watch him work.
How had she ever forgotten what a beautiful man her husband was? Thirty years after she'd met him, he was still muscular, with broad shoulders, and strong arms and legs. His brown hair was mostly gray now, but it looked great on him. She could see both of her sons in Henry: Liam's build, his large hands and serious eyes; Wesley's artistry, his ready smile, the way he could get along with absolutely anyone.
She wanted to say so many things to her husband, wanted to tell him how much she loved him, but she could see how angry he was with her. And how she'd only dug the hole between them deeper with her comments about Liam and Christie. There had been a time when they could have talked about the women their sons were interested in without fighting about it. But not anymore.
He closed the dishwasher. "Will the sander keep you up?"
"You're not coming to bed?"
"There's a lot of work to do still on the floors."
Just yesterday, he might have asked her to come upstairs and help him. But she'd had her chance. And now she couldn't stand the thought of begging. Of being turned down. Of knowing for sure that he didn't want her.
She forced herself to keep what was left of her pride intact. At least until she left the kitchen. "Don't worry about me. I'll put my earplugs in."
She went through the motions of getting ready for bed in the guest room, where they were sleeping while they worked on the master bedroom. She lay down on the bed, curling up on her side with her arms around her knees.
Even with her earplugs in, she could feel the vibrations from the sander moving through her and was glad that they would keep her awake until Henry came to bed. Until she could put her arms around him and show she was sorry without actually having to say the words.
But even after the vibrations stopped, he never came.
And she had never been able to sleep without him beside her.
Back at the inn, Liam walked Christie upstairs. The laughter had gone a long way to relaxing her, but standing with him in front of her door made her feel as skittish as a teenage girl on her first date. Even though no one in their right mind could have called that tense dinner with Liam's parents a date.
"Thank you, again, for going with me tonight," he said. "I'm really sorry I put you through that."
Wanting to say something to make him feel better, but knowing she didn't have the words, she couldn't stop herself from reaching up to cup her palm over his jaw instead. More than ever, she needed to be closer to him. Needed to touch him. Needed him to know that despite how difficult the night had been, she would do it all over again if he asked. And when he turned his jaw into her hand, actually letting her give him comfort, her heart melted even further.
He'd needed her once already tonight, as a buffer between him and his parents, and she'd given in to that need. Now, just steps away from her bedroom, she knew he needed her again. Only this time, it wasn't because he had a difficult relationship with his mother.
No, tonight he needed her for all the same reasons she needed him. Heat. Sparks. Undeniable attraction.
They were less than five seconds from a kiss, and her heart was fluttering
like mad. But then he abruptly took a step--a large one--away from her, so that they were both backed up against opposing walls in the hallway.
Neither of them said anything for a long moment, one where the sexual tension was palpable between them. Finally, he said, "Don't be afraid to wake me up if you hear more noises tonight."
Disappointment flared so strongly that her, "Sure," came out sounding more like a croak than a word. Groping blindly for the doorknob, she somehow got her key inside and said good night.
The next morning, after tossing and turning most of the night--and wondering if Liam was doing the same thing--Christie decided to go see Jean again. Maybe today she'd be able to get more of the story.
She walked through the maple forest on her way to Jean's cabin. Christie had never seen anything like it before coming here. In the fall, the display of colors had been nothing short of mind-blowing. She hadn't expected the budding leaves of spring to even come close to matching that beauty, but she'd been wrong. Because as their bare branches reached out all around her, above her head, into the blue sky, she was overwhelmed by beauty. Growing up in Connecticut, she'd loved being outside, to go to the park or swim at the local pool, but being outside at Summer Lake was different. As though she was part of nature, rather than just being witness to it.
Four months ago, as fall had begun to give way to winter, she'd conceived of the Tapping of the Maples Festival on a walk through this forest. She'd felt as though she could take root like one of the seedlings between the large trees, that the mature growth would shelter her from storms and let through enough light for her to grow and stretch and become strong. Sap had been leaking from the trees, even then, and she'd reached out to brush some onto the tip of her finger. The pure maple syrup had tasted like magic. Like happiness. And she'd wanted to share that joy, that sweetness.