But when her stomach growled, she decided low blood sugar was the only reason she was thinking about ghosts and spirits. Her bath would have to wait until she went back downstairs and had a snack. There was leftover cake, and considering she hadn't eaten much all day, she figured she deserved a big slice. Maybe two. Plus, even though her employees had all gone home, if she was lucky she might find a guest in the common rooms downstairs who could help her unstick the zipper.
So the dress was staying on for the time being. Shoes, however, weren't going to happen again tonight. Just the thought of putting her heels back on had her wincing.
Her feet bare, she left her living room and walked out into the private hallway. Well, not so private anymore, since Wesley insisted on keeping a small suite here for Liam's visits to town--which had never happened until today. Hurrying past his door and down the stairs, she was soon pushing through the inn's kitchen door.
Where Liam was sitting on one of the stools, tucking into a piece of wedding cake.
"Hi," Christie said, wishing her voice didn't sound so breathy. "I didn't realize you were still up."
Liam's eyes quickly took in both her slightly wrinkled dress and her bare feet. For some reason, not wearing her shoes around him made the moment feel almost intimate.
Far more intimate than she had ever planned to be with Wesley's brother.
"I got hungry and thought I'd come down to get a snack," she told him when he didn't say anything, "but I didn't think anyone would be here. I don't know where you flew in from today, but since Wesley says you're always traveling overseas, I figured if it was a long-haul flight, you might be really jet-lagged."
Oh God, she was babbling. Stop talking, Christie. Just stop. She clamped her lips shut and tried to lift her feet to back out of the room, but they were stuck as though she'd stepped into quick-drying cement.
Liam gestured to the cake. "There's plenty."
It wasn't exactly an embossed invitation to sit down with him, but it didn't take a social genius--which she was not, by any stretch of the imagination--to see that if she ran now, she'd look guilty of something.
Like, maybe, breaking his brother's heart.
And, probably, single-handedly driving Wesley out of town.
As if she needed any help from her stomach, it growled so loudly that Liam's eyes actually widened. "When was the last time you ate?"
She looked down at her wrist, but she'd already taken off her watch in preparation for the thwarted bath. "A long time ago."
She couldn't have been more surprised when he stood up, got a clean plate off the rack, and put a large piece of cake on it. For her. "Sit down and eat. You were on your feet all day."
He'd noticed? She tried not to flush. It was so embarrassing, but with her light coloring, if she blushed it didn't just cover her cheeks, it also covered her chest. A chest that was on much better display in the green dress than usual.
Realizing she was still standing there in the most awkward way, she tried to put a smile on her face and move toward the cake. Toward Liam. Thankfully, her limbs obeyed her this time--unlike her heart, which was racing out of control again.
What was wrong with her? Why did he make her so nervous? Well, not nervous exactly, but like she was buzzing on the inside. And even worse than the fact that she clearly had no control over her stupid feelings, was that she was certain he could see her attraction to him written all over her face.
Her unfortunate reverse-poker face.
Taking the stool to the far side of the one that he had been using, she was pleasantly surprised again that he didn't sit down until she was seated. He was obviously a gentleman, like his brother and father. It should have made her more comfortable. Instead, her nerves ratcheted up another notch.
There was nothing quite like a bad boy who acted the part of a gentleman. It tended to do all sorts of ooey-gooey things to her insides.
She'd eat as fast as she could, and then she'd flee.
She was reaching for the fork when a pang landed in the pit of her empty stomach at the thought of running again. Her instinct had always been to run. From bad jobs and bad boyfriends.
But when she'd gone to break things off with Wesley, she'd vowed that she was going to change her life for the better. She'd started by throwing herself not only into Sarah and Calvin's wedding, but also into focusing on something that was all hers: the Tapping of the Maples Festival. In two weeks, she was going to put on her first big event in the Adirondacks. Even before Wesley left, she'd watched the details line up one after the other and knew in her heart just how great the event was going to be for the entire town.
Yes, she was uncomfortable sitting in the inn's kitchen with Liam. But that didn't mean she was going to let herself fold under the pressure, darn it. Not only was she going to make herself sit here and enjoy every single bite of what was supposed to have been her wedding cake, but she was also going to force herself to relax. After all, for years she'd listened to Wesley's stories about his beloved older brother and she'd wanted to meet him. At last, she was getting her chance.
"So," she said to Liam, "you said earlier that you've been on the road for a few weeks?"
While she waited for him to say more, she finally took a bite of the cake. Mmmmm, it was good--half a dozen layers of chocolate cake surrounded by coconut and chocolate frosting. So delicious that she couldn't hold back a small moan as she closed her eyes to fully appreciate it. When she finally swallowed it down and opened her eyes, she was surprised to find a glass of milk in front of her. Provided by Liam.
After drinking half the glass in one gulp, she smiled and said, "Thank you. That was the perfect touch."
She swore one half of his mouth had almost quirked up as he said it, but she couldn't have proved it for a jury. It was just a sense that he might be loosening up the slightest bit.
"Where were you traveling, if you don't mind me asking?" One of the things she loved most about her job was talking to the inn's guests about their travels. She very much wanted to visit all those wondrous places she'd heard about. It was another vow she'd made to herself--that one day she would see the seven wonders outside of a book or a cable TV program.
"I've been all over Asia these past weeks."
She could tell he was a big traveler, simply by the way he said it, like it was no big deal to visit Asia. She would have been gushing like crazy about her trip and pulling out pictures.
"I've always wanted to see that part of the world," she said after another bite of cake. "Do you have a favorite country in the Far East?"
"Japan. Especially in the spring."
She leaned forward, guessing, "Were the cherry blossoms in bloom?"
closed her eyes, trying to imagine what it must be like to stand beneath the pink blooms. "How lovely it must have been," she said, a smile on her lips at the vision in her head.
"Lovely," he echoed.
She opened her eyes and found his gaze locked on hers. His eyes were darker than she remembered them being a few minutes earlier. Even more intense. Which was saying something, because he was one of the most intense men she'd ever come across.
Wanting to go back to that space they'd just been in where things had finally felt somewhat comfortable, she said, "Wesley told me you have your own business."
His almost-smile disappeared. "I just sold it."
"Oh." She wasn't sure what she was supposed to say to that. "Is that a good thing?"
"It was time to move on."
Yes, she knew all about moving on. "Any thoughts about what you want to do next?" Feeling borderline comfortable again, she picked a chocolate crumb from the stainless-steel countertop with the tip of her left index finger and licked it off.
Of course, that was right when he said, "Look, Christie, you seem like a nice person, but I don't understand what happened with you and my brother. I need you to explain it to me. Now."
Christie nearly dropped the fork in her right hand at his abrupt conversational switch. But really, how could she blame him for asking when they hadn't had a chance to talk much about it earlier? It was easy to see how much his brother meant to him.
"I'll do my best." She wanted to be honest with him, despite knowing she had to keep Wesley's secret. It was a heck of a position to be in. She put down her fork and pushed her plate away, not hungry anymore. "You probably know that Wesley and I have been friends since college."
"He always said you made him laugh."
She grinned at that. "He made me laugh too. Did he tell you the first time we met was in a nude-drawing class?"
His lips twitched a little bit again, and she found herself wishing he would let himself actually smile. But, again, his mouth flattened out before that could happen. "No, he didn't mention that."
"I probably should have known right then and there that I wasn't cut out to be an artist when I couldn't keep a straight face while sketching the nude." When he raised an eyebrow, she realized she was getting off track. "Anyway, fast-forward ten years and I needed a job." And an escape from her mistakes. "Wesley offered me one here at the inn." She looked around the inn's kitchen, at all the upgrades she'd helped make in the past nine months. "I absolutely love working here."