Twenty years ago, everything in Liam's life had changed in an instant with a kick to the gut, the ripping of his heart.
But tonight, it was just the opposite. Because just looking at Christie, standing only inches away, was all it took for Liam to finally feel whole again.
While she'd been at the knitting group, he'd been trying to concentrate on the emails his lawyer had sent earlier that week. Concentration had never been a problem for Liam, even when he wasn't getting much sleep. Heck, in the past, a circus could have been going on all around him and he would have been focused on his task. On his goal.
But tonight he hadn't had a prayer.
How could he when he'd been checking the clock every other minute? When he'd been holding his breath waiting for footsteps outside his door, for the moment when Christie came back to him, so warm and pretty and sweet that he never wanted to let her go?
Waiting, he'd walked over to the window, thinking about how he hadn't been planning to stay in Summer Lake. Even if he decided to buy a string of inns, he'd been planning to run his business from Boston or New York City, close to funding and business partners. Only, he couldn't take Christie away from here. She was as much a part of the land, the water, the mountains as anyone whose family had been here for generations. And the thought of leaving her behind had every muscle in his body tightening.
Again and again, he'd found himself thinking back to their flight, to their conversation on the beach, to what she'd told him: I love you. And what he'd told her, something just as incredible: I trust you.
The rain had started coming down, a spring shower that would turn buds to leaves, dirt to grass, ice to lake water. The dark street was empty, the lights all along Main Street making it look like a movie set for an old black-and-white film like Singing in the Rain.
That was when he saw her running across the street, through the puddles, a bag clutched to her chest. A half-dozen emotions went through him.
The desire that had grown from the first moment he'd set eyes on her.
A surge of protectiveness. The knowledge that he would have swept the sky clear of rain if he could have to keep her dry and warm.
But strongest of all was the one emotion he'd never thought he'd be able to feel. Or recognize. But it was there, so strong, so powerful, he had to grip the edges of the window frame to steady himself.
The same emotion he felt right now as he stood in her doorway...and his entire life changed again.
All because of Christie.
For a long moment, Liam didn't move from the hallway, didn't come toward her, until suddenly, she was in his arms and he was kicking her door shut.
He carried her into the bedroom and laid her on the bed as if she were the most delicate porcelain. She had never been looked at this way, as though she was the only person on earth who mattered.
"Kiss me," she said, and then he was gently, slowly moving to her, over her. His kisses were always spectacular, but this one was different. Almost as though it was a beginning to something more.
The next thing she knew, he was sitting up and she was in his lap. He brushed another kiss against her forehead, down to her cheekbones, before stopping at her earlobe. "I can't believe you're real, that you're here with me." His voice shook. "I can't believe you love me."
"I never had any other choice."
He threaded his hands into her hair, holding her still. She expected another kiss, wasn't at all surprised by the heat in his eyes. But she was thrown completely by the depth of emotion there.
"Liam? What is it? You can say anything to me. Anything at all."
"I know I can. But this--" He stopped, took a breath, actually closed his eyes as he steeled himself for whatever he was going to say to her.
Her heart was racing out of control. Please. No. Don't say this is the end. That you're ready to leave again. And then his eyes opened, a deep, rich brown as he gazed at her.
"I love you."
She thought her mouth might have fallen open, knew she was having a hard time finding enough oxygen to pull into her lungs. But before she could get a handle on anything--anything at all--he was kissing her again.
The kiss that followed the three words she hadn't thought she'd ever hear him say turned her brain to mush. He wasn't the only one who could hardly believe this was happening between them. Her brain was a lost cause...but her heart needed to know for sure.
She dragged her mouth from his. "Liam?"
It wasn't until the corners of his mouth moved up that she knew that she wasn't dreaming. "Do you want me to say it again?"
"Yes," she whispered, tracing her fingers over his jaw, along his cheekbones, over his lips.
He held her hand there, pressed a kiss to her fingertips that had her shivering with desire. With love. "I've never trusted anyone the way I trust you. I've never admired anyone the way I admire you." He moved her hand from his lips to his chest, holding it steady right over his heart. "And I've never loved anyone the way I love you."
After so many years of guarding his heart, it should have been harder to tell Christie how much he loved her. But she made it easy, her eyes shining down at him as he moved his fingers beneath the thin shoulder straps of her slip. The knitted slip he hadn't even realized she was wearing until now, because he hadn't been able to look away from her eyes.
God, she was gorgeous. Her skin was so soft, so pretty as it flushed beneath his every touch as she gave herself over to him.
For so long, he hadn't believed in love. But now, here, tonight, love was all he could feel. When Christie was in his arms, he could forget everything but her. Nothing else needed to matter.
And in the morning, when reality came rushing back, he'd try to figure out how to balance what he knew to be true about the world with this new love that he couldn't deny.
He pressed a kiss to the center of her chest, wanted to feel her heart beating beneath his lips. Her hands moved from his shoulders to thread through his hair.
"Liam?" He lifted his head and instantly read her desire. But there was something else there, something that had his own heartbeat hitching. "I want to be with you so badly, but I'm scared." She shifted, and for a split second, he was afraid she was going to move away. Instead, thank God, she pressed herself more tightly against him, as if she were trying to take shelter in his arms. "When I thought you didn't love me back, I knew I had to be prepared for all this to end. I kept telling myself that I didn't have expectations. Even though I was falling for you, it was easier somehow to know that it went only one way. I know it sounds strange, but it was safer. For me. For my hear
t. But now, if something happens--"
He kissed her before she could finish her sentence. "I love you." God, it felt good to say it. To feel it. "You love me." And her love--he still couldn't figure out how he'd been lucky enough to deserve it--meant absolutely everything to him. "Whatever comes, we'll figure it out. Together."
During the next week, as Christie worked to make sure the Tapping of the Maples Festival was the best it could possibly be, Liam helped her when she needed it and gave her enough kisses throughout the day to make her feel as though she was still flying through wonder with him--but otherwise, he was on the phone working on his own business endeavors.
She would never want her love to box him in. Still, she couldn't help but hope he'd factor her into his future plans.
And then, every night, when she was sure that she was too exhausted to do more than sink into a bath with a glass of wine, just being in Liam's arms was enough to chase away all thoughts of sleep and baths--unless he was there too, doing deliciously wicked things with her.
But it wasn't just how hard she was working, wasn't just her lack of sleep at night that had her so off-kilter during the busy week. It was the secret he'd trusted her with.
The secret he expected her to hold forever.
Liam had never trusted a woman enough to let himself love her. Not until now. She couldn't stand the thought of betraying his trust. But she was desperate to tell his mother what she thought of her--that Susan was an awful person for hurting her own child the way she'd hurt Liam, forcing him to carry her secret. And every day that frustration, that anger on his behalf, grew bigger and bigger. So big that Christie was very much afraid the day would come when she wouldn't be able to hold it all inside.
"Your work crew has arrived!"
Christie turned to see Calvin and Sarah; Calvin's sister, Jordan; and Sarah's mother, Denise, walking through the inn's front door. She'd been so busy this week she hadn't seen Calvin since they'd returned from their honeymoon.
Forcefully pushing aside her thoughts about Susan, she gave him a hug. "Thanks for coming to help, you guys."
"This is exciting," Jordan said. "My friends are all dying to tap a maple."
Calvin grinned. "We've been practicing making the perfect pancakes to eat with the syrup all week."