Liam loved his brother, but the urge to defend her was strong. "He has absolutely no reason to be angry with you. He should never have asked you to keep his secret."
"But your mother asked you to keep hers, didn't she? And you've kept it. All these years."
He didn't know what to say to that, not when a slide show of painful visions from twenty years ago immediately began playing inside his head. Only when he felt Christie's hand cover his did he remember where they were and shut the memories down.
"I'm sorry," she said softly. "We both know I should think before I speak."
He hated the way she took the blame for his problems. He couldn't give her love, but he could work like hell to give her confidence. To fly. To travel. And to believe in herself as much as he believed in her. "You're perfect just the way you are."
He'd never kissed anyone in public before, had always been put off by displays of affection in inappropriate places. But tonight, he didn't care what was appropriate and what wasn't.
His mouth found hers soft and waiting for his kiss.
"I was planning to take you to my bed tonight," he said a couple of hours later, when they were back at the inn, and they were alternately kissing and stripping off each other's clothes inside her bedroom.
"Mine was closer."
After the heavy discussion that led off dinner, they'd settled into telling each other stories, each trying to make the other laugh harder. Liam had wild tales of mischievous elephants in India; Christie countered with things that had happened with guests at the inn--true comedy-of-error stories.
"My bedroom is only warm when you're here with me," Christie murmured into the crook of his neck as he lifted her and carried her to the bed.
He laid her down on the covers and moved over her, making her sizzle all over, inside and out. "Go figure."
She giggled against his mouth as he gave her soft, teasing kisses. And oh-so-potent as he ran them down her body--they were delicious drops of heat, of desire, of something that felt like reverence. And she felt exactly the same way as she ran her hands over him, as she kissed his jaw, his shoulder, his chest.
She shuddered as he found every last one of her sensitive spots, and she lost hold of everything but the intense, soul-deep pleasure only Liam could give her. And yet, even as he moved inside of her and she took all of him, it still wasn't enough.
I love you was right there on her lips, wanting so badly to be said.
But while he might have let his walls down with her for one night, that didn't mean they were going to stay down forever. Especially when everything he'd been struggling with for so long at Summer Lake--all the secrets and problems with his family--were still right here.
Reaching the beautiful peak of pleasure, they jumped off together. But though she made herself swallow back the three little words, that didn't make them any less true. Any less real. Or any less powerful within her heart.
The next morning, Christie woke when Liam kissed her on the forehead, then headed into the bathroom and turned on the shower.
Feeling a million times more rested than she had in weeks, she figured it had to be because sleeping in Liam's arms made the bed better than any had ever been. But when she looked at the clock, she supposed it could also have something to do with the fact that she'd slept a couple of hours longer than usual. After all the tossing and turning she'd done since calling off her wedding and Wesley's leaving, she had really needed the rest.
She looked toward the shower. Boy, oh boy, was it tempting to join him. But with only thirty minutes until she was needed downstairs at the front desk, she couldn't miss her window to make a couple of very important phone calls.
She got up and put on her robe, then called Catherine at the town hall to ask her to take a quick look at the zoning maps for the property. Catherine confirmed what Susan had said about the agricultural zoning. Her next call was to the Adirondack Preservation Council.
"This is Christie Hayden. I was in to see you last week, but I've just learned something really important about the inn's zoning, and I was hoping to bring the new information to you today." She was smiling as she said, "Noon? Yes, I can be there by then."
With bells on.
She had only just hung up when Liam walked out of her bathroom with a towel wrapped around his waist...at which point she completely lost the thread of her thoughts as she took in his tanned skin, his muscles, and the heat in his dark eyes.
The breath she was about to take caught somewhere in her windpipe. "I wanted to join you," she found herself admitting.
"Why didn't you?" he asked as he brushed a lock of her hair from her cheek and his touch sizzled through her.
Because I already want you too much. Because you're like a drug I can't get enough of. Because even though I know you're going to break my heart, when I'm with you, I forget all about the fall that's coming.
But she refused to ruin the time they had together by foolishly pushing for things he'd already told her he couldn't give, so she shook the thought out of her head. "I needed to make a couple of calls. My friend Catherine in the county clerk's office confirmed what your mother told me about the agricultural zoning. And I was hoping you could cover for me here for a few hours, because I've arranged to meet with the Adirondack Preservation Council at noon today."
"Of course I can cover for you." He grinned as he added, "Give 'em hell."
He kissed her again, and she was on the verge of forgetting all about the zoning maps and the council meeting, when he said, "I've got an inn to run. And you've got a festival to save."
From shower to dressing, to heading out to the clerk's office so that she could pick up copies of the zoning maps, to driving along the winding Adirondack roads to the Preservation Council building, Christie was pretty sure she didn't stop smiling the entire time.
"Ms. Hayden," the woman at the front desk said when she walked inside. "They're all expecting you. Are you ready to go in?"
Previously, when Christie had been standing in this light-filled entry, she'd been shaking with nerves. She'd been unsure of so many things--her feelings for Liam, along with her chances at persuading the council to let her festival go forward. And even though not very many days, hours, had passed--so much had changed.
One sweet kiss with Liam at a roadside dive had turned into so much more.
Liam's mother had approached her almost as a friend, or at least as an ally of sorts.
And Christie had decided to stop giving up.
Christie loved Summer Lake's community. Susan's suggestion to look into the zoning was wonderful. And, of course, Liam's support for her festival touched her deeply. But some things a woman had to take care of on her own.
This festival was her idea. Ultimately, it was up to her to fight the final battle. If she succeeded, if she failed--it was finally tim
e to find out what she was made of.
From here on out, if she wanted something, she was going for it. Because she'd finally learned that the worst anyone could say was no. And for the first time in her life, she was banking on yes.
"Yes," she told the receptionist. "I'm ready."
"The festival is back on!"
Christie had been bursting to tell someone her good news. She'd assumed Liam would be the first person she'd tell, but just as she was getting out of the car, she saw Susan in the inn's parking lot.
"I'm so glad," Susan said with a wide smile.
"Your suggestion about the zoning was brilliant," Christie said.
"More like helpful. You're the brilliant one for coming up with the festival in the first place. I don't know why no one thought of it before now, actually. Maybe it takes someone with a fresh eye on the town to see something new. By the way," Susan added, "your flyers and posters look great, but if you need any help in the future, please don't hesitate to ask."
Susan would have been her first choice for the design, but she hadn't thought she'd get a yes. "I'd love to work together, but I'm pretty sure we can't afford your graphic design skills."
"Nonsense," Susan said with a wave of her hand. "I do pro bono work for local events all the time. Besides, my sons own the inn, and the festival directly benefits their business. Of course I want to help them in any way I can. In fact, you're just what Liam needs."
"I am?" Christie could hardly believe what she was hearing.
"Yes, you are."
Tears pricked at Christie's eyes. It was a day of miracles. First the thumbs-up on her festival from the council, and then the same from a woman she'd never thought even liked her. "I care deeply for both of your sons." More than anything else, she needed Susan to know that. "Wesley will always be one of my closest friends, and Liam is..."
"Very special," Susan said softly. "Congratulations, again, on your good news," she said, then got into her car and drove away.
Christie felt more than a little dazed when she headed into the inn. But Liam took one look at her and knew.
"You did it," he said. And then he swung her up into his arms and kissed her, right there in front of everyone.
Liam had joked about walking down Main Street holding her hand, but even though she knew their relationship would last only until he left town again, this felt like so much more than that.