"Yes," she said. "I'm Christie. I was his fiancee."
He couldn't miss the was. She hadn't intended he should. "You're supposed to be getting married tomorrow."
"Yes," she said again, but she was shaking her head even as she agreed with him. "We were, but--"
A door was flung open and Liam heard his mother's voice. "Christie, have you seen my wrap? I think I left it at my sea--" The words fell away as she realized her oldest son was standing there.
Christie jumped out of his grasp so fast he swore he felt a blast of cold air in the spot she'd been standing.
"Liam?" His mother moved toward him, her gaze immediately going to his scar and holding there for several seconds. "Oh, honey, I'm so glad you're finally home. It's all been such a mess. For all of us. Your father and I kept trying to reach you, but your secretary always said you were in a meeting or on a plane somewhere." She lowered her voice. "I didn't want to leave such a personal message with a stranger."
"So there's no wedding?" He directed the question to Christie rather than his mother.
"No," she said softly, "I'm afraid not."
"Why?" Again, he directed the question to Christie, but before she could reply, his mother reached for his hand to get his attention.
"Wesley left me and your father a note saying he needed to go away for a while to think about things, even though he didn't say what those things were. Isn't that right, Christie?"
Christie tilted her chin slightly to face his mother, who was several inches taller. "Yes." He was struck by her surprising strength as she turned back to him. "Wesley and I agreed a few weeks ago that the engagement and wedding were a mistake, but that we're still friends. There are no hard feelings between us. None at all. We both just want what's best for each other." She paused. "Unfortunately, the next morning he was gone."
Her earnest words seemed genuine, but Liam still wasn't satisfied. Not when he sensed there was a heck of a lot more going on than what she was telling them.
"I just wish Wesley had come to tell me that himself," his mother put in, "instead of disappearing in the middle of the night with only a note saying he'd left Christie in charge of the inn. I just don't feel right about it."
Yet again, the woman who had trembled in his arms stood strong in front of his mother as she said, "Wesley is a wonderful man. I'm sure he'll be back soon to let us all know what's going on."
"When?" Susan asked. To anyone else's ears, his mother's question was simply full of worry for her youngest child. But Liam could hear the ice at its core. Ice that was directed at Christie.
"I wish I knew, Susan. But I don't." Christie turned to him again. "Are you sure he didn't try to reach you, Liam?"
His name on her lips sent another jolt through him. Telling himself it was simply that he was feeling every one of the two hours of sleep he'd managed on the flight--or rather, the twenty-two he hadn't--he ran a hand over his face before answering. "Not as far as I know."
Damn it, if Wesley was in trouble, why hadn't he come to his older brother? Had Liam done so bad a job of being there for him these past years that Wes didn't know his door was always open? Wesley was the one person Liam had always loved with his whole heart. The only person he knew he could trust wholly and completely.
But now, out of the blue, his brother had done a runner.
"He left the rest of us letters," Christie told him. "Perhaps yours got lost in the mail."
"I'll have my assistant go through my mail--and email--again tonight."
The door creaked again and the clicking of high heels sounded on the old wooden floorboards. "Christie, I've got a tear in the seam of my dress, and I was wondering if you could--" Sarah skidded to a stop halfway into the room, looking shocked--but pleased--to see Liam. "You're here!" She threw her arms around him. "We only sent out invitations a few weeks ago, but when I didn't hear back from you, I wasn't sure you got yours."
"I didn't." He might not believe in love for himself, but if Sarah did, he was damn well going to be happy for her. "But I'm glad I lucked into being here anyway. Congratulations, Sarah."
"Thank you." Her smile was so full of joy that he could almost feel it melting a hole through the frustration in the room. "It's been forever since we've been able to chat, and I really want to catch up with you on everything, but I think I'd better stitch up my dress before it turns into a full-on tear."
"I've got a sewing kit upstairs," Christie said. "I can do it right away."
"Thank you, Christie!" Sarah turned back to Liam to give him one more hug, then said, "Come find me at the reception so that we can talk before you leave town again."
After Sarah headed up the stairs with Christie, Liam and his mother were left standing alone in a room full of empty chairs and hundreds of rose petals.
"It really is good to have you home, honey." His mother's hand felt cold on his arm. "We've all missed you."
The truth was that he'd missed the lake, the mountains, the clear air. But he hadn't missed the way the knot in his gut always tightened, how it grew bigger and harder than ever inside him, whenever he was here.
When he was a child, his mother's arms had been warm, and he'd loved to sit with her while she read him books and told him fairy tales before bed. But he hadn't been a child for a v
ery long time.
And he'd learned the hard way not to make the mistake of believing in fairy tales.
He knew she wanted him to forgive her for what she'd done so many years ago, to tell her everything was okay, that what had happened in the past didn't matter anymore. Instead, he asked, "What exactly did Wesley's letter say, Susan?" Her eyes flashed with hurt at the way he'd used her given name. He hadn't called her Mom since he was fourteen and everything had gone to hell. He wasn't about to start now.
"Just that he was sorry, but he and Christie had decided not to get married. And that while he was gone, he trusted her to run the inn as she saw fit."
She looked away too quickly, and his chest tightened, the way it always did when he spoke with her. After all these years away from Summer Lake, he'd believed he could be in complete control of himself during Wesley's wedding weekend. But that had been when he thought it was no more than a couple of parties and the ceremony.
He was nearly certain that she was hiding something from him. "Is that all his letter said?"
His mother was an attractive woman, but as they stood together, the sunlight disappeared behind a cloud. She looked worn and sad. "I don't want to hurt you, honey. Don't you know that? I've never wanted to hurt you."
He didn't say anything in response to this non sequitur. They both knew he couldn't say anything, not if she wanted him to continue keeping her secrets, just as he had for the past twenty years.
Her shoulders rounded even further as she sighed. "Wesley said none of this was Christie's fault and that if anyone should take the blame, it was him. But you and I both know he wouldn't hurt a fly. He's always been such a good boy."
Another wave of exhaustion swept over Liam. "Don't worry," he finally told her. "I'll find out what's going on."
Looking relieved, her gaze went back to the side of his face. "Your scar looks much better. You must be using that cream I sent you. I know how much it's always bothered you."