He shook his head, trying to clear it. "You're so damned beautiful that I can't think straight." At her flustered expression, he moved closer, taking her hands and kissing them. "And I've screwed up every second with you since waking up."
He was glad to see a small smile work its way onto her lips. "Not every second."
Still holding her hands, he tugged her closer, close enough that the sheet slipped away from her curves. "I want to take you out. Tonight. On a real date."
If this conversation had been with any other woman, he'd be itching to get out of bed. To get on with the day. To get away from the woman's hopes. Her dreams. Instead, he was the one asking for more. And he was damn well going to make sure he got it.
"Because I like you." So much. Too much. Enough that she deserved a hell of a lot more from him than one night--and morning--of scorching sex.
Emotion flashed in her eyes as she murmured, "I like you too."
His chest clenched at the simple words. Liking each other was perfect. Liking her would be enough.
It had to be.
"So we'll like each other during the day and have hot sex at night?" she asked. "For as long as you're in town?"
Just as she'd said to him last night, she wasn't trying to hold him to anything more than physical attraction. So then, why did her words grate on him so badly? On his heart more than anywhere else, as he made himself nod and say, "Exactly."
She slid from the bed, pulling the sheet with her. "You're right, you know. People are going to have a field day talking about us. You're Wesley's brother and I'm his ex-fiancee." Her eyes, her expression, were clouding over more and more with each sentence. "It's a gossip gold mine for any town, but especially a small one like this."
"It's one of the reasons I tried to stay away from you," he told her. "But I couldn't." He held her gaze, wanting her to see the truth in his eyes. "I just couldn't."
She lifted a hand to his cheek and lightly stroked his jaw. "Well then, who cares what people think? Everyone is already talking about me. Might as well give them something fresh to gossip about."
She said it so easily, but he already knew how sensitive she was. The urge to protect her from being hurt throbbed inside of him. And the worst part of all was the sure knowledge that the people who were going to hurt her most of all weren't those who gossiped about her.
It was Liam himself, when he packed up and left again, the way he always had before.
But then she was lifting her mouth to his...and he could focus only on what he felt. Not just desire, but the kind of peace that he hadn't known for two decades.
Their kiss quickly spiraled into her legs around his waist, his hands on her hips, another blissfully sweet climb toward release. But then the phone rang, and she pulled back, her eyes dilated, her breathing uneven.
"You have to get it, don't you?"
"It could be Alice. Downstairs at reception."
A few moments later, she turned out to be right. "Thanks for letting me know. I'll be there." She hung up. "Your mother is waiting for me downstairs." Her voice dropped to a hush. "She'll know. She'll see me and know about you. About us. I know we just agreed not to hide our relationship, but I hadn't planned on telling your mother first."
"I'll come meet her with you."
She jumped out of his lap. "No! Whatever she wants, you'll only make it worse." As if she realized a beat too late what she'd said, she grimaced. "I just mean that because the two of you don't get along--" She pressed two fingers to her lips. "I'm going to shut up now and get in the shower so that I can meet your mother without looking like I've been having crazy sex all night long with her son." Her mouth quirked up on one side for a split second. "All morning too, I guess."
But Liam couldn't stand the thought of their night together ending so suddenly. Especially not if his mother was the reason for it.
He reached for Christie before she could lock herself in the bathroom. "Last night, this morning...they were perfect."
"Yes," she said with a smile, "they were."
"You never gave me an answer about tonight," he reminded her, lightly caressing the pulse point at her wrist, still dizzy with wanting her. Would there ever come a day when he'd have his fill of her sweetness, her smile, the silk of her hair between his fingertips? "Will you let me take you on a real date?"
She was silent for a moment before saying, "I like Thai food." She pulled out of his arms and was halfway into the bathroom when she turned back to him. "Although, just sex would be easier than you taking me out on a real date in front of the whole town, you know."
He'd already told her he wasn't going to fall in love with her. And they both knew he was leaving the lake as soon as Wesley came back and resolved things with everyone.
She was right that just sex should have been enough for him. But it wasn't.
Not even close.
"Good morning, Christie," Susan said in a bright voice. "I'm so glad you're finally up and about. I didn't wake you, did I? Or interrupt something important?"
"No," Christie said, "you didn't wake me." She fought the battle against blushing over the thought of precisely what Susan had interrupted...and lost. Fortunately, apart from a slightly questioning quirk of her eyebrows, Susan didn't seem particularly interested in Christie's too-hot cheeks.
"I had a thought about your festival this morning. And I think I know how we might be able to save it."
Utterly thrown off by Susan's very unexpected statement, Christie fumbled for time to settle herself down. "Would you like to sit in the dining room and have a cup of tea?"
They went into the sunlit room. "You really have done a lovely job with the inn," Susan said.
Hold on a minute. Was trying to help with the festival and complimenting her on the inn Susan's way of apologizing for her behavior at dinner?
Christie studied Liam's mother's face carefully before saying, "Thank you."
Susan held her gaze, and Christie was fairly certain she saw a silent I'm sorry for the way I treated you in her eyes, even though the words the other woman actually said were, "You're welcome."
Alice popped by to take their breakfast orders, and Christie was surprised to realize she was starving. Normally, sitting down with Liam's mother would have made her lose her appetite. Then again, she'd burned off a ton of calories having all that sex.
Her gaze flew to the other woman's face, and she couldn't stop her hands from covering her even hotter cheeks. Fortunately, Susan wasn't looking at her. She was gazing around at the room.
"There is so much history here. So much beauty everywhere you look. The first time I came to Summer Lake, I knew I wanted to stay forever."
Christie had never felt any real connection to Susan. Until now. The surprises just kept on coming. "It was the same for me," she said softly. "I saw the lake, the mountains, this inn, and I knew."
Susan turned her gaze back to Christie. "Have I ever told you how Henry and I met?"
Christie was glad that Alice came to them with the teapots and croissants right then. She needed more time to gather her composure. Perhaps if she'd had more sleep, she'd be better able to handle this strange conversation. Finally, she replied, "No, you haven't."
"We met right here. In this dining room. Henry was on a date with another woman." Susan chuckled, but Christie couldn't help but think there was some sadness behind it. "I didn't care, you know."
"Oh." Really, what was she supposed to say to that? Especially when she was sleeping with her ex-fiance's brother. Talk about stones and glass houses.
"I've shocked you, haven't I?"
Christie wanted to say no. Anyone else would have, darn it. Instead, that truth serum that she drank at birth had the words, "A little bit," coming out instead.
"Well, you know how gorgeous my sons are, so--"
Christie swallowed her tea wrong and started coughing.
"Are you all right, honey?"
Honey? Had she gone to bed on one planet and woken up on another? One where Susan called her honey?
"I'm fine," Christie said, dabbing her watering eyes with the napkin as she tried to deal with the startling shift in Susan's behavior toward her. "Sorry. Go on."
"As I was saying, Henry was quite something when he was younger. He still is." Susan was silent for a moment. Pensive. Giving herself a little shake, she continued, "My family was renting a house across the lake for one week that summer. It was our last night here. I had one night to win him, so I pulled out all the stops, first in this restaurant and then later, at the Saturday night bonfire that all the kids were going to."
"You must have dazzled him."
She expected Susan to smile back at her. Instead, sorrow moved across the woman's face. "Once upon a time, I guess I did."
Christie wanted to say something to comfort her, but how could she? They weren't friends. And she had no idea what it was like to be married thirty years and hit a rough patch.
"In any case, we were talking about the festival, weren't we?" Susan said. "Do you know what the land around the inn was originally zoned for?" She didn't wait for Christie to answer. "Agriculture."
"Wait a minute," Christie said slowly. "I thought the inn was originally a tycoon's summer house."
"It was. He got rich from newspapers, but what he really dreamed of doing was farming." Susan gave her a wide smile. "I called a friend at the courthouse this morning and asked her to check their files. When the inn was turned into lodging, they added the commercial zoning. But they never took away the agricultural zoning."
"So, it's still a farm?"