"Are you scared now?" he asked.
She took a breath. "Yes."
He frowned, clearly not expecting that to be her answer. "You are?"
"I am." She smiled at him. "But it's a good kind of scared. I'm scared that I've wasted too much time. I'm scared that there are too many beautiful things out there for me to fit into one lifetime." She gathered up all of her courage to say one more thing. "And I'm scared about what I'm feeling for you."
Christie held her breath during the landing, but it was just as smooth as the takeoff. She was spoiled by having Liam as her personal pilot, because she trusted him in a way she'd never trusted anyone else.
Now, as he helped her out of the plane, his hands on either side of her waist, she tried to read his reaction to her confession. But too soon, they had to move away from each other to secure his plane to the dock.
Once that was done, he said, "Mrs. Higgins packed a hamper of food for us. It's in the trunk."
Her heart thumped inside her chest while they went to get it and then spread a blanket over the sand and sat down. But neither of them reached for the food.
"Thank you for flying with me." His voice resonated with the same emotion she'd seen in his eyes during the flight.
She had to reach over and take his hand in both of hers. Because after the gift he'd just given her--after the wonder he'd just shown her--she couldn't live with her earlier lie that she wanted more only sometimes.
"I never expected you to come into my life," she said softly. "All those years I knew Wesley and he told me about his amazing older brother, I never realized just what you would mean to me one day." A thousand times more frightened than she had ever been of flying, Christie had to force herself to look Liam in the eye. "I've fallen for you. All the way." She sucked in a shaky breath. "I know you warned me not to, but you made it impossible to keep my heart to myself."
She squeezed his hand. "No. Please. I didn't just say all of that because I thought it would get you to say it back to me. I just--" She brought his hand to her lips, pressed a kiss to it. "You've become my best friend, Liam. And I need to tell my best friend that I've fallen in love."
Women had claimed to love Liam many times, but never like this. No one had ever bared her true soul to him. No one had ever put her heart in his palm and given him the chance to crush it so easily. So completely.
And he'd never thought his heart could feel so full, never knew just one word--love--could be so beautiful or mean so much.
Unbidden, a flash came of what it would be like to have Christie by his side from this moment forward. As his wife, in his arms every night. As his business partner, running lakefront inns across the Northeast together. As the mother of their children. She'd be warm and loving and a fierce protector--and proponent--for all of them.
He brushed away the tears that fell down her cheek. No one had ever meant as much to him as this beautiful woman sitting beside him. And he hated hurting her. Hated it with every fiber of his being.
"All my life," he said in a voice made raw with the deep emotions only Christie had ever been able to draw from him, "I've looked at things I wanted from every angle, and only when it made sense would I go out and get them. But the way I've wanted you has never made sense. Not when you'd been in a relationship with my brother. Not when you wouldn't tell me why he left or where he was. Not with you working for me. Not when I know you're looking for something I can't give you. But in the end, all that has ever mattered is how much I want to be with you."
"And you've got me."
"No, sweetheart. You're so much more, so much bigger than any one man could possibly hold on to."
"How can you call me sweetheart in one breath and tell me not to love you in the next? You want to love me, don't you, Liam?"
More than anything I've ever wanted in my life.
But he still couldn't say the words.
And when she said, "I taught you how to make the inn's beds. Maybe I could teach you how to love me too," his heart actually twisted inside his chest at the hope he heard.
At the hope he would give anything to share.
He kissed her then, had to kiss her because she was so sweet and so honest in every single moment. Even the ones where she could be hurt the most. Especially those.
If he couldn't give her the love she deserved, he owed her an explanation at least, promises and secrets be damned. "When I was fourteen years old, I found my mother in bed with someone. Not my father."
Christie didn't gasp. She didn't exclaim. She simply held his hands over her heart.
"I should have been in physics class, but I'd forgotten my football helmet and had aced the quiz the day before, so the teacher let me skip out for a few minutes."
He'd never said these words aloud to anyone. All these years, he'd thought it was because he had to keep his mother's secret. But now, he finally realized that the reason for his silence went far deeper.
A part of him had hoped that if he never said the words aloud, somehow his silence could help erase the past.
"She probably thought there wouldn't be anyone home for hours. I didn't find them actually having sex, but she was wearing her robe and telling him what they had just done was a mistake. That they couldn't tell anyone what had happened. That she hadn't been thinking straight. She told him to put his clothes on and leave. That was when she walked into the hall and saw me."
He'd never forget the look on his mother's face. She'd been crying; he could see that, and he could see the self-hatred, the guilt already ravaging her face at what she'd just done. As soon as she spotted Liam, all of that had been replaced by fear.
"She stood in the hallway, her hand over her mouth, her face white. That was when he walked out and saw me too. He was an architect my father worked with sometimes. It was pretty much a joke in town that he'd screw anything in a skirt. He still lives a couple of towns over. He's married now. Has kids of his own." Liam had to clear his throat. "She told him to go. To get the hell out, and then she came to me, begging me, pleading with me not to tell my father what I'd seen."
"How could she?" Christie was clearly shocked.
He'd asked himself this question a million times. "My father loved her so much. She was everything to him. I don't know how she could have cheated on him."
"No, I'm not asking about her relationship with your father." Christie's voice broke. "I want to know how any mother could possibly ask her child to do something like that. To keep such a horrible secret."
"She had no other choice."
"She damn well did!"
It was instinct to pull her onto his lap, to put his arms around her, to try and soothe her by stroking a hand down her back.
Her eyes were glassy with unshed tears--tears for him. "Has she ever tried to talk to
you about it?"
"No." The one word came out sharp. Hard.
When she reached up to touch his face, her hand was blessedly soft and cool. "Have you ever told anyone before now?"
He shook his head. "But after my accident, everyone had to know that something bad had happened in our family." Even after all these years, it was far too easy to be right back there, standing in the kitchen while his mom wept tears of pure terror that his father would learn of her betrayal. "I couldn't listen to her begging anymore. Couldn't stand to look at her and see that fear. So I grabbed the car keys to get the hell out of there. I didn't have my license yet, but I shouldn't have been driving anyway. I think I hit the tree on purpose, as though somehow I could punish her by crashing her car. Instead, the car got fixed and I ended up with this scar on my face." He moved Christie's fingers over it, made her trace the slightly jagged skin under his cheekbone. "You've never said anything to me about it."
"I never see it." She gently, lovingly stroked his face. She pressed a kiss to his lips, then said, "And I wouldn't want to love someone again either, if that had been me. If I had been through what you've been through all these years." She leaned closer, pressed another kiss to his scar. "Are you ever going to talk to her about it?"
"Christie." He heard the warning in his voice, knew it had no place in a scene where she'd just told him so sweetly that she loved him. But none of that could stop him from saying, "Promise me you won't say a word about it. Not to her. Not to anyone."
She stared at him, time stretching out between them on the beach, the sun moving down behind the tops of the tall trees.
Her whispered, "I promise," floated away from them and out across the lake.
That night, the moment Christie opened the door to Lakeside Stitch and Knit, Sarah surprised her with a huge hug. "You look so tanned and gorgeous," she told Sarah when they pulled apart. "And happy."
Her friend's grin could have lit up the yarn shop all by itself. "I am. So, so, so happy." Sarah leaned in close to whisper, "You've got to tell me--is Liam as good a kisser as it looks like he'd be?"