But he knew better than to be fooled by it. Not when painful experience had taught him that people held back as much as they could get away with.
Liam's early years as a venture capitalist had been exciting, but over the past year or so he'd tired of the scene, of dealing with people who were in it only for the win. Just as he always had been. He'd come back to Summer Lake for his brother's wedding and to prepare for his next career move, but now he realized he should have come back sooner.
His brother had needed him. And he hadn't been there for Wesley. Liam wouldn't make that mistake again.
Just as he wouldn't make the mistake of letting Christie's big eyes and sweet mouth turn him into the gullible idiot he'd sworn he'd never be for a woman.
Despite a late night reading through business proposals and contracts, Liam was up early. Not as early as Christie, however, who was on the phone at the registration desk. He found it hard to believe how fresh and bright she looked, considering how hard she'd obviously worked putting on Sarah and Calvin's wedding, while also keeping the inn running without Wesley.
She hadn't yet noticed him standing by the door as she said, "Mom, I'm fine." There was a little frown between her eyebrows. "Please stop worrying about me. I've told you before, it's not like I'm all alone out here. I have a lot of wonderful friends." She gave a little shake of her head, her blond hair moving around her shoulders. "Please don't come right now, and don't let any of my sisters drive up either." She lifted her eyes to the ceiling as if looking for divine intervention. "No, it's not that I don't want you to visit. Of course I do. But when you come, I want it to be for a vacation, so that you can relax on the lake. Summer will be a much better time for that. Besides, I have so much to do right now with the Tapping of the Maples Festival that I'm afraid I wouldn't get enough time to spend with you." Finally, her lips curved up slightly at the corners. "It's going great. But I'm crazy busy trying to run the inn too." Her smile fell away at whatever her mother said in response. "Wesley would be here to help me with everything if he could."
It sounded like she meant it. At the same time, there was a slight thread of irritation, but whether it was at her mother or his brother--or both--he wasn't sure.
"I know I made another bad decision," she was saying into the phone, bristling a little as she defended herself, "but I'm staying this time." Christie's voice had risen, and she was pacing the small area behind the counter. "Even though things didn't work out with Wesley, that doesn't mean I have to pack up all my things and leave my friends and my job. I really love being an innkeeper. And I love Summer Lake." Remorse--and heightened frustration--flashed across her mouth as she said, "Of course I love you all too! But I've made my decision. I'm staying." Before her mother could say anything else, Christie said, "Give my love to everyone. I'll call again soon."
She'd been firm without becoming nasty. Yet again, she'd surprised him with her strength of will. She was a great deal tougher than anyone would ever guess, given how sweet and gentle she looked. It wasn't just her angel's face that gave that impression; it was the picture of those pink-painted toes he'd seen the night before that wouldn't leave his brain.
The inn was clearly home to her. That was why she felt comfortable coming downstairs to the kitchen without shoes on. Whereas Liam hadn't felt as though he had a home in a very long time. Although, in truth, the inn had a warmth about it now that managed to draw him in and make him want to stay, when for years he'd barely been able to come home without itching to get away again as soon as he could.
Just then, Mrs. Higgins, the inn's head chef, stepped out of the kitchen and pulled him in for a hug. "Liam! Well, aren't you a sight for sore eyes? I heard you were back but didn't get a chance to feast my eyes on you yesterday. Stand still and let me get a good look at you." Mrs. Higgins grinned at him, her eyes twinkling. "I can see that you're still the heartbreaker you always were."
Knowing better than to argue with the woman who used to change his diapers when he was a baby, he let her bring him into the kitchen, where he grabbed a piece of perfectly crisp bacon. "Are there any of your delicious scones left?"
She nodded to a tray beside her. "I just pulled a new batch fresh from the oven. How many, sweetie?"
Only Mrs. Higgins would call him sweetie. And, strangely, it was okay when she did it. Because she was one of those very rare people who was just as nice as she seemed. No hidden shadows. No secrets.
"How about four?"
She raised her eyebrows. "Got a big appetite today, do you?"
"I'd like to take some out for Christie too."
Her expression softened. "Such a wonderful person, isn't she? And so good with the guests. Although I've always thought there's a little bit of wicked inside her to get out." Before he could reply to her offhand comments, she said, "Let me just add a pot of tea. It's a new maple tea that she's been experimenting with for the festival." She handed him the tray. "Her idea to launch the event is a smart one for this town, no question about it." She patted his hand. "With Wesley gone, I'm so glad you're here to help Christie take care of everything. Lord knows her load is heavy enough."
When he carried the tray out to Christie, she looked up in surprise as he placed the scones and tea in front of her. "Mrs. Higgins said these were your favorite." He had a feeling that if she knew it had been his idea, she might refuse them.
"They are. Thank you." As she picked one up, she seemed wary of him. Given the way he'd grilled her the previous night, he couldn't blame her.
Still, though jumping right back into it with her this morning wasn't the wisest choice, he needed her to know something. "My secretary found Wesley's letter."
"I knew he had to have contacted you," she said, clearly relieved to hear it. "Did he tell you anything about his whereabouts?"
"No." Damn it. "Just what he'd said in his note to my parents."
"I'm sorry. I know you were hoping for clues. We all were."
Liam felt a pang of guilt at what he wasn't telling her--that Wesley had, in fact, said more. It's my fault. Treat Christie kindly--she deserves it. Of course he wanted to be kind to her--but he also wanted answers as to where his brother had gone.
But since she clearly wasn't yet ready to tell him, he asked instead, "How have things been going here at the inn with him gone?"
She poured two cups of tea and handed him one. It smelled surprisingly good, like being out in the thick sugar bush behind the inn.
"Good. Busy, but good."
"Mrs. Higgins mentioned a maple festival?"
Christie's face lit up. "It's going to be wonderful." She handed him a well-designed flyer. "Three days of nonstop maple syrup, maple cookies, maple candies." She lifted her cup. "Even tea. I've found some incredible vendors over the past few weeks. I really think people are going to love being able to tap the maple trees themselves. I had someone come out and do a demonstration for me a few weeks ago, and it was really fun." She pointed to a spreadsheet in front of her. "Just a few more details to iron out and the festival should be smooth sailing in two weeks."
Liam scanned the flyer. "How are you managing to run the inn by yourself and put on this festival at the same time? Especially with Wesley gone?"
"Honestly, it hasn't been easy. But I've been pulling it all off so far." She gave him a little smile that made his heart do funny things inside his chest. "Besides, who needs sleep? I figure I can do a little reverse hibernation after the snow thaws and the festival has passed."
"What are you going to do if a ball drops?"
She was about to take a bite of her scone when his question registered. Holding it halfway to her mouth, she said, "Excuse me?"
"It's great that you've been managing to pull everything off so far. But what's going to happen when you have a problem with one of your festival suppliers and you're needed to deal with an emergency at the inn?"
Her face paled. He felt a little bad about poking holes in her plans, but spotting problems--and solving them before they happened--was a big part of his career success.
"I suppose I'll have to deal with those issues if they come," she finally said. "And hope that they don't."
"I disagree," he said with a shake of his head. "You should hire someone to deal with the festival and focus on your job at the inn."
She dropped the scone back on the plate. "The festival is mine. I'm not hiring someone else to take it over for me when it's the first thing besides running the inn that I've ever felt really proud of."
He couldn't believe the way she continually spilled her innermost thoughts and feelings. He would never--ever--admit to anyone the kinds of things she did. How could anyone be this devoid of pretense? But that didn't change the situation she was currently in--one where it was far too easy for her to be pulled in a half-dozen different directions.
Which was why he had to say, "I'm afraid I don't see how the situation can continue for much longer. I saw the way you ran around taking care of everything yesterday at the wedding, and I can also see how much energy it takes to run the inn. I'd hate for this business to suffer because you're focused on some festival."
"First of all, Wesley trusted me with the inn while he was gone. I would never let any part of it suffer." Last night he'd seen the same fight in her when he'd relentlessly gone after her about his brother. "Second, it's not just some festival. The Tapping of the Maples Festival is going to do great things for this town and the inn. And third, considering Wesley is the owner of the inn, I'm going to ask you to respect his wishes and let me run it as I always have."