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"Looks like a storm's about to roll in."
"So I heard," Holly Tate murmured distractedly. Furrowing her brow, she studied the reservation list and then glanced at the hands of the old grandfather clock at the base of the stairs. There was still one guest unaccounted for, and the dining room would be closing in fifteen minutes. Well, she'd have the chef hold a turkey sandwich and a slice of apple pie. She could always send it up to the guest's room upon check-in, just as a courtesy. Exceptional customer service was something she took seriously, and while a few minor complaints were inevitable, The White Barn Inn had yet to receive a bad review on any travel website Holly knew of. The repeat customers she saw year after yearand the referrals they providedalways filled her heart with a sense of pride and warmth.
"They say we should get three or four inches tonight," the assistant manager and housekeeper, Abby Webster, continued. "Steady through the morning and afternoon, but the Nor'easter's expected to hit tomorrow night."
Holly finally glanced out one of the tall, lead-paned windows that framed the front door. Large flakes of snow were falling steadily on the vast stretch of lawn that separated the old mansion from the main road. There would be no sense in asking the handyman to clear the path; it would be covered again in half an hour. It would have to wait until morning.
"We're still waiting on one guest," Holly informed her friend. Though she was Abby's employer, the two women were also good friends. Life at the inn was quiet and occasionally confining, resulting in long days, weekends, and holiday hours. After leaving Boston five years ago to transform the large historic home she had inherited from her grandmother into a bed-and-breakfast, Holly had retained fond memories of riding bikes or lining up at the candy store on Main Street with Abby during her annual summer visits to her grandmother's house in Maple Woods. Having lost touch years before, the friends had picked up where they had left off and grown even closer since.
"Do you want me to stick around until he arrives?" Abby asked halfheartedly.
Holly shook her head. "You go home to that handsome husband of yours," she said. "Besides, I don't want you driving in this kind of weather at night."
"The streets should be plowed by the morning." Abby stifled a yawn and pulled her red wool pea coat off the wrought-iron rack next to the front desk. She shrugged herself into a hand-knitted creamy wool hat and wrapped a matching scarf tightly around her neck. "Don't stay up too late."
"Have a good night," Holly called after Abby, pulling her cardigan tighter around her waist as a cold gust of wind rushed through the open door. The flames that were burning high and steady in the fireplace in the adjacent lobby flickered precariously. Holly wove her way through the oversize sofas and chairs, pausing to plump a pillow and refold a chenille throw, and then added another log from the neatly packed pile at the side of the brick hearth.
She checked her watch again. Ten minutes until the kitchen closed. Stephen, the chef, would be eager to get home, especially in this weather. Inside the dining room, another large fireplace crackled invitingly, casting a warm, golden glow on the four couples hunched over their desserts and savoring the last sips of their red wine. Conversation was low and intimate, and Holly silently crossed the polished floorboards to the kitchen where inside a clattering of pots and pans posed as a sharp contrast to the serenity of the other areas of the inn.
"We've got a straggler," Holly said, grabbing a Christmas cookie from a tray and taking a bite.
"Those are for the guests!" Stephen chided, throwing a white dishtowel over his shoulder.
"You know me." Holly laughed. "I can never resist your gingerbread. Besides, it's only a few weeks out of the year, so I'm entitled. I'll hit the gym in January."
"Sure you will." Stephen smiled, knowing all too well that this was not true. Holly had only been saying this every Christmas season since the inn had officially opened for business four and a half years ago, and she still had every intention of following throughif she ever managed to find the time. Running the inn had become her life and she poured everything she had into doing her job well. There was little time for anything else. Or anyone else, as Stephen also liked to point out.
"Do you mind putting together a tray before you go? A turkey sandwich and a slice of pie would be perfect."
"Are we sure this person is even going to make it in tonight?" Stephen pulled a loaf of sourdough from the basket on the counter and began slicing two thick pieces. "It's getting bad out there."
"Maybe not, but even if he's already tired from a long drive, he might want a little something." Holly perused the variety of cookies and plucked a dried-cranberry-and-nut variation off the platter. She took a quick bite, casting a furtive glance in Stephen's direction. Delicious. "Besides, this particular gentleman is staying in the Green Room."
"Ah," Stephen said, laying a wedge of cheese on top of a round of heirloom tomato. Every room in the inn was named after the color of its walls, and the Green Room was the best suite in the house, right down to its king-size bed, steam shower and private balcony. Abby liked to joke that it was named the Green Room because it reeked of money, but Holly had chosen the color specifically because of the way the leaves from the trees grazed its third-floor windows in the spring.
"I should go and see if he's arrived yet," she said, dusting the cookie crumbs off her hands. "Thanks again for putting something together."
"No problem," Stephen said. "See you tomorrow afternoon."
Holly retraced her steps to the front lobby, noting with a stir of childish glee the way the holiday lights, wrapped around garland framing each window, glowed like stars in the dimly lit room. Standing just to the left of the massive Christmas tree was a tall man hunched over the thick doormat, stomping the snow off his feet. His slightly wavy brown hair was wet and slick, and the shoulders of his black cashmere coat were dusted with fine white powder. At last!
"Welcome to The White Barn Inn," Holly said cheerfully, watching in slight dismay as the melting snow spilled over onto the cherry wood floors. She darted to the small reception desk to grab a rag, and returning quickly to the scene of the crime, she sopped up as much of the icy water as the cloth would hold.
"I'm afraid I've made a bit of a mess."
"Oh, no it's fine," Holly said easily, still fixated on her task. "Just a little water, no harm done. There." Once satisfied that the damage was under control, she stood to formally introduce herself to the latecomer and found herself face to face with a shockingly handsome man.
"Sorry again." The guest grinned sheepishly, gesturing to the snow melting off his weather-inappropriate shoes. His turquoise eyes flickered with boyish charm.
Holly struggled to compose herself, finally finding her voice. "Good to see you arrived safely. These roads can be treacherous if you aren't used to them."
"No, I'm fine," the man said mildly. He swept a hand through his damp hair and followed her over to the reception desk. "Believe it or not, there's a country boy hiding under this city slicker." His grin widened.
"That makes us opposites, then. I was born and raised in Boston. I've been in Maple Woods for five years now and I'm still terrified of driving in the snow, especially at night." Holly smiled.
"I'm Max, by the way. Max Hamilton. I'm booked for the next two nights. But then, you probably knew that."
Holly accepted Max's hand into her own, alarmed by the chill of his palm. The man must be freezing. "I had an inkling," she said, noticing how his skin warmed slowly from the heat of her own. The subtle intimacy made her feel instantly connected to him. "I'm Holly. Holly Tate."
"Pleased to meet you, Holly Tate."
Sucking in a nervous breath, Holly fished through the drawer for the key to the Green Room, noting the slight quiver in her hands, but happy for a diversion. Finally locating the familiar green keychain, she handed it over to its temporary owner and went through some of the routine information about the inn. The sound of her voice, on autopilot, filled the room, but her attention was on anything but breakfast hours or turndown services.
It had been a long time since she'd had the pleasure of being in the company of a man as attractive as Max Hamilton, and her stomach fluttered as she looked him over. She estimated him to be in his early to mid-thirtiesunmarried, she noted with a flip of her heart as he signed the registration book, left-handed, and devilishly handsome. Something about those electric blue eyes and that broad, kind smile made him instantly appealing.
"I'm past check-in, aren't I?" Max looked slightly alarmed at the realization. "I hope they didn't keep you at work on account of me."
Holly took in the friendly twinkle of his eyes and genuine, lopsided grin and felt herself inwardly melt. "Don't worry about it," she said. "And besides, they didn't keep me at work. I own the place."
Something in Max's demeanor shifted and the glint of his eyes turned murky for one quick, telling second. Holly wasn't surprised. No one expected a woman in her late twenties to be the proprietor of this establishment. She was often met with disbelief when she revealed this fact.
"Surprised you, didn't I?" she smirked, coming around the desk.
Max curled his lips into an irresistible smile. "You definitely did," he said.
Max Hamilton wasn't sure what to make of this revelation. What a strange profession for a woman as young as Holly. An innkeeper? In this remote little town? He had assumed that the owner of this quaint establishment would be an elderly retired couple, not the sexy young thing that stood before him.
He'd have to rethink his strategy.
"So you own all this?" he asked, gesturing to the lobby and the rooms beyond. It was clear that a lot of attention had gone into the furnishings and decor. The house was built in the colonial style, traditional with white siding and black shutters, but large and substantial. Coming up the main drive, he'd noticed the wreaths hanging from each window by a thick crimson ribbon, the inviting lanterns the hugged the front steps, the pine garland that wrapped the awning posts. Sweeping his gaze over holiday decorations that seemed to fill every inch of the foyer in which they stood, he had to wonder if that red front door had been painted especially for the holiday. Probably, he decided.
"That's right," Holly nodded and then stopped herself suddenly. "Well, almost. My family's been leasing the land for three generations, but I've been saving toward buying it when the lease is up."
Max raised an eyebrow. "That's a pretty substantial investment."
"You'd think so, but not in a small town like this. The Millers were the original owners of the land back in the early nineteen hundreds and the family has stayed in town for the most part. George Miller is the current owner now and he and his wife have no real use for the land, so luckily we've managed to come to an agreement."
"So then you were right the first time you answered my question," Max continued. "You really do own all this."
"Not yet," Holly corrected. "The lease was for ninety-nine years. It was a Christmas gift from my greatgrandfather to my great-grandmother. It expires next week."
"And then hopefully everything can be signed and sealed." Holly smiled, bringing a soft blush to her otherwise creamy complexion and a spark to her hazel eyes.
Max shifted his weight from his left foot to his right, unable to match her visible excitement. He grimaced at the water seeping from his black leather loafers onto the polished floorboards. "I'm doing it again," he warned, glancing at Holly from under the hood of his brow.
Holly laughed at his expression, saying, "Oh, I'm being rude babbling about the history of the inn when you've had such a long trip and probably want to get settled."
She bent down to pick up his luggage, but Max immediately stopped her. "I may be your guest for the evening, but I'm also a gentleman."
Holly's pale cheeks flushed with pleasure and she refused to meet his eye when she said, "I'll show you to your room, then. Follow me."
Gladly, Max thought, fighting off a suggestive smile. He did as he was told and followed her up the winding staircase to the second floor landing, and then up yet another set to the third floor. He couldn't resist taking in the curves of her figure, the slim waist and flare of her hips under her form-fitting black skirt. Her rich, chestnut brown hair brushed her back, swaying slightly against her narrow shoulders, and he traced his gaze down the length of her long legs as she carried herself silently up the red carpet-lined stairs, careful not to disturb guests who, it seemed, had already turned in for the night.
"Here we are!" she announced breathlessly, catching his eye. Max noticed how large and round her pupils were in the dim light, how her hazel eyes had darkened to moss, interrupted by flecks of amber. Her cheeks had a slight rosiness to them, and her lips were wide and tinted with the faintest touch of ruby lip gloss.
"You honestly planned to carry my luggage all this way?" Max grinned and reflexively winked.
Holly bristled and tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear. For the faintest hint of a second, Max wondered if this was such a good idea, after all.
As a major retail owner and developer, Max and his team had pinpointed Maple Woods as the ideal location for the next major upscale shopping mall in their portfolio. The demographics were strong, and the location roughly halfway between New York and Boston made a compelling argument. He'd driven through Maple Woods and the four neighboring towns three times each in the last two months, and the thirty acres of land housing The White Barn Inn was the best site.
He'd come to Maple Woods tonight with his renderings in hand, along with substantial market and financial research to back up his pitch, prepared to meet with the planning board and make an offer to the owner of the inn that couldn't be beat. He'd assumed the owner would be a retired couple, happy to trade in long, relentless days of serving others for a life of comfort and financial security.
He had assumed wrong.
The owner of the inn was this bright, cheerful, drop-dead gorgeous creature. And something told him she wasn't going to walk away quietly. The owner of the land, on the other hand, could most likely be bought. There was no way Holly could top his offer, and George Miller would have to be a fool to turn down what Max was prepared to offer him.
Max rolled his luggage to a stop beside an oversize armchair near the far window. Looking around the perfectly appointed room with the white trim and soothing sage-green-painted walls, it was becoming increasingly clear that Holly had invested a lot of time and money into what had probably been a very old home in need of substantial work. The inn could hardly be pulling in enough to make her rich. And that only led to one conclusion.
She loved this place. She wasn't going to go down without a fight.
Unless, Max thought, I manage to convince her otherwise.