Christmas at Evergreen Inn

 

Christmas-at-Evergreen-Inn-by-Donna-Alward-300CHRISTMAS AT EVERGREEN INN  

Jewell Cove Digital Exclusive

October 2015

Amazon / Barnes and Noble iTunes Kobo

 

Welcome back to Jewell Cove, where this holiday season, there happens to be no room at the inn…

When a December Nor’easter roars up the eastern seaboard, Jewell Cove cop Todd Ricker spends his day off being a Good Samaritan to stranded holiday travelers. But when the roads close and Todd can’t make his way home, he discovers that the Evergreen Inn is full up. Until another Good Samaritan opens her doors and offers him a place to stay…

Lainey Price is not looking forward to Christmas, but just because she’s not filled with the holiday spirit doesn’t mean she’s going to turn Todd out into the stormy night. Even if it means offering the handsome police officer the couch in her tiny cottage. But when the weather takes a turn for the worse, the two are snowed in for a wintry evening by the fire. With Christmas only a few days away, can Todd convince Lainey to open her heart to the season…and love?

Reviews:

“This is a really sweet and heartwarming holiday read that I couldn’t put down!” –Pretty Little Books

“Christmas at Evergreen Inn is a lovely Christmas story that is perfect to read when the Christmas lights are glowing and the snow is swirling outside.” –One Book Two

“This story was sweet and simple and everything I love to read this time of year.” — Fiction Fangirls Book Reviews

“The romance is charming and believable, the secondary characters always delightful. This is one that will warm up that special Christmas reading spot for you this year and many years to come.” — Keeper Bookshelf

CHAPTER ONE

Todd Ricker felt the back end of his SUV slide as he took the turn at barely more than a crawl. He was heading north toward Jewell Cove, a hot meal, and a warm bed. Goddamn if this wasn’t the worst nor’easter they’d seen in years, with crazy high winds that took the heavy snowfall and whipped it around so you could hardly see. He had his four-way flashers on, and his headlights slashed through the snow, but it was getting harder and harder to see where the road met the ditch—and if he wasn’t careful he was going to be in it.

He might be off duty right now, but he’d gone into the station anyway, volunteering to help. The SUV skidded a little and he eased off the gas, slowing to barely more than a crawl. His job was to help stranded travelers, not become one of them. And to do that he had to stay on the road. A road filled with lots of curves and turns, as it happened. But this was his last run. Once he returned to town he’d check in at the office and then head home for the night. Thank God the road so far was clear of vehicles in the ditch.

The thought had just run through his head when he saw a dark lump on the right. Tire tracks led down the embankment to the ditch. “Shit,” he muttered, and carefully slowed. He pulled as far over to the side as he dared and left his headlights on to show him the way and his hazard lights flashing.

He hopped out of the truck and made his way through the snow to the car. From four feet away he could see a person inside. “Please don’t be hurt,” he prayed, pushing forward to knock on the window. Hopefully the driver had simply slid off the shoulder and into the ditch, because getting an ambulance out here would be a real challenge. He rapped on the glass. “Hello? Are you okay?”

The window rolled down to show a very anxious middle-aged man who was clearly glad to see him. His face sagged with relief at being found. “Oh, thank the Lord! I ran off the road a few minutes ago and I don’t have any cell service and everyone says that you should stay in your vehicle . . .”

“So you can be picked up safely,” Todd said, nodding. He knew the man couldn’t have been there long since the tracks leading to the car were still visible. “I’m Officer Todd Ricker with the Jewell Cove Police Department. I’ve got a four-wheel drive up there, and I can give you a lift into town. You can make arrangements to come back for your car later.”

The man nodded briskly. “That sounds wonderful, Officer. I just have a few things with me, can I bring them?”

Todd looked inside the car. A small overnight bag and a briefcase sat on the passenger seat. At least the guy traveled light.

“I don’t see why not. Let’s go, though. It’s getting worse out there instead of better.” He helped the man get out of the car.

“You don’t have to tell me twice. I’m Jacob Sewell.” The man introduced himself as they struggled up the embankment. “I was headed here on business and thought I’d beat the storm up the coast. Stupid of me, really.”

Todd wanted to agree with him, but there wasn’t much sense in making the guy feel worse. “Well, Mr. Sewell, my guess is you’ll be stuck in Jewell Cove for a day or two while this gets cleaned up. Hope you’re not in any hurry.” He reached for the man’s arm, giving him a firm tug to get him to the top of the bank. Overnight bag and briefcase shuttled forward and bumped his arm, then settled back again. Stupid man had driven up the coast in December in nothing more than a pair of leather dress shoes and a peacoat. City people, he thought.

“Here’s my truck. Hop in and we’ll see about getting you a place to stay in town.”

Thankfully Mr. Sewell wasn’t too interested in talking on the drive. Todd looked over once and noticed that the man’s fingers were gripped together so tightly, the knuckles were white. Not much wonder. The roads were a mess, they were barely crawling along, and Sewell was probably still reliving the sensation of sliding into the ditch and being stranded. It didn’t help when the back end of Todd’s truck skidded from time to time, even with the four-wheel. For some reason a line from an old animated Christmas special popped into Todd’s mind: It wasn’t a fit day for man nor beast.

When the Jewell Cove, 1 mi. sign appeared, Todd started to relax a bit. Once they got to the town limits, hopefully the roads would be plowed and in a little bit better shape. The next question was where to go. He knew that the motel on the main drag was already full. When he’d left for this last run, the lot there and across the road at the service station already housed a few transport trucks where even the truckers had pulled off for the night. The best chance would be the Evergreen Inn. His chest tightened a little at the thought. Lainey Price ran the inn now. She’d always been beautiful, but now she was beautiful and successful and Todd found that even more intimidating. Not that he’d ever own up to it, of course. Still, it wouldn’t exactly be a hardship to see her tonight.

The roads in town weren’t much better, and Todd turned left off Main and up the few blocks to connect with Oceanview Drive, the tires grabbing in the snow that was getting deeper by the moment. The clock on the dash said eight forty-nine. Surely anyone else would be off the roads by now if they had any sense at all.

“I’m going to park at the back lot of the church, and we’ll walk over,” Todd said to Mr. Sewell. “I don’t imagine the inn has much space for vehicles at the moment and there’s no parking on the streets tonight.”

“Thank you so much, Officer Ricker.” Mr. Sewell sighed heavily. “I’m just so relieved to be here safe and sound. I don’t know what I’d have done if you hadn’t come along.”

“You were doing the right thing,” Todd replied, nodding. “And no need to worry about what might have been.” In Todd’s view, life was too short for that.

The wind was so sharp that the little snowflakes bit at their faces as they crossed the parking lot and then the street to reach the inn. At some point, someone must have shoveled the front walk and steps, because the snow wasn’t as deep there as elsewhere. Regardless, it still drifted over the path, and they had to stomp their way through. When Todd reached the front door, he tried the knob and found it locked. He knocked then, good and hard. Someone would hear, surely. But he was worried that the locked door meant they were full for the night.

The second knock got results. The door opened and Lainey stood to the side, leaving the door open only a crack. Even so, he was able to get a glimpse of her face, dominated by heavily lashed brown eyes.

“Todd?”

“I’ve got a stranded motorist out here, Lainey. Any room at the inn?”

She knit her brows. “Not really. But come inside out of that weather while I help you sort something out.”

He and Mr. Sewell stomped their way inside, out of the blowing snow. Sewell looked so utterly relieved to be somewhere warm and dry that it was almost comical. Todd half expected the man to kneel and kiss the ground. Todd merely stayed on the welcome mat and removed his gloves. He had to get this guy settled and get home. His time on the roads wasn’t quite done yet.

“This is Mr. Sewell.” He performed a basic introduction. “Found him just the other side of Fiddler’s Rock, car in the ditch. He needs a place to stay for the night is all.”

“Of course. We’re packed in pretty tightly here, Mr. Sewell, and I’m not sure I can guarantee you your own room,” Lainey said as she hurried around the desk to look at the books. “The only motel in town is full up, though, so even if you did want to go somewhere else, there’s not much chance of it. It’s only supposed to get worse out there before it gets better. We’ll find a way to squeeze you in somewhere.” She smiled reassuringly.

Lainey looked up at Todd. “You’ve been out on patrol?” Her pretty face showed concern as her brows lifted and her smile faded. “The roads must be terrible.”

“They are, but I’m done now. If anyone was out there, we’ve picked them up.”

“And not much chance of anyone starting out. They’ve closed the highway, you know.”

Damn. That put Todd in a bind, but he’d have to get Sewell situated first. “Busy night for you, I take it,” he said, noticing a little strain behind her warm cinnamon eyes. Lainey was simply stunning. Her ancestors had come to Jewell Cove as freed slaves during the Civil War, but in the 1960s her grandfather had married a white woman from New Brunswick, giving the town gossips plenty to talk about. Mixed marriages were not the done thing back then. Now, two generations later, her heritage showed in her caramel skin and her jet-black hair.

Tonight she was dressed in black trousers and a soft gray sweater, her curly hair caught up in a ponytail. Always professional on the job, he thought, admiring the way she took Sewell’s information and smiled in a welcoming way. When they’d been teenagers, Lainey had been a bit of a party girl. Not lately, though. He tucked his gloves in his jacket pocket. No, for the last few years they’d all calmed down and taken on real-life responsibilities.

She took Mr. Sewell’s coat and hung it in the closet. “Lots of people are stranded, that’s for sure. Mr. Sewell, can I offer you a cup of coffee and something to eat? I’m afraid we don’t generally serve dinner, but today’s a special circumstance. Most of what I have on hand is for breakfast, but I can whip up some eggs and toast or offer you muffins and fruit.”

“I’m not fussy,” Mr. Sewell replied. “Whatever is easiest is fine.”

“Then please, head into the parlor and make yourself comfortable. I shouldn’t be long.”

A grateful Mr. Sewell disappeared into the parlor. Lainey sighed and looked up at Todd. “Phew. Well, the storm is causing a sensation. No shortage of conversation topics in there tonight. But I hope no one else shows up. I was already full when you knocked on the door.”

“I can try to find another place for him to stay.” It was a polite offer; they both knew that going anywhere now was impossible.

“There is no other place, Todd.” Lainey reached for his coat, her reassuring fingers touching his shoulders. “Come on, take this off and have a coffee. You look dead on your feet. It had to be nerve racking, out there on the roads.”

It was true. He’d been out most of the day, and the intense attention it had taken for him to drive had left him exhausted. Particularly now that he was done, out of the storm, and relaxed. It was as if it all caught up with him at once.

He let her hang up his coat while he took off his boots and placed them neatly by the front door. She led the way to the kitchen. Todd watched the gentle sway of her hips and wondered—not for the first time—why he’d never bothered to ask her out. He’d never been the shy type. Maybe it was the sense that Lainey was out of his league. When she did something, she did it all the way. As a teen she’d made straight A’s and was school council president. Now she’d taken over the inn and was making a great success of it. As far as Todd knew, she’d never failed at anything.

The kitchen of the inn was an old-fashioned monstrosity, lined with solid wood cupboards. A big oak table and chairs sat at one end, flanked by several windows. A butcher block provided a working area in the middle, and there was a hutch made for the back corner, a triangle-shaped piece painted a brick red and then distressed to make it look antique. A red tablecloth covered the table, and in the middle was a beautiful pine-and-candle centerpiece. Christmas-themed serving dishes lined the hutch as well, giving the room an appropriately festive look. Despite the old-fashioned country décor, the appliances were stainless steel, shiny, and large.

“You know, I’ve never been inside the inn before.”

“Really?” Lainey turned on the coffee machine to heat the water. “It’s generally not so busy this time of year. Sure, it fills up during the weekend of the Christmas festival, but once that’s over we’re pretty quiet until at least Easter.” She busied herself taking out muffins and pastries and two coffee mugs. “I let the seasonal staff go after Thanksgiving.” She laughed. “So it’s just me here. I certainly didn’t expect a full house this close to Christmas. I’ll have my hands full tomorrow morning.”

She popped a coffee pod into the machine and hit the button. “What do you take?”

“What?” Todd had been watching her efficient movements, marveling at the change in her. The girl he used to know had been a little bit of a hell-raiser. Nothing too serious, but definitely good for a beach party or whatever was happening after the sun went down. Now, though, she’d gotten all respectable and . . . domestic, with her coffee and home-baked muffins and cozy kitchen. But when she smiled at him, there was a sparkle in her eye that told him the girl he’d known growing up was still in there.

“In your coffee,” she said, and grinned. “Which you’d know if you quit staring at my ass.”

He coughed. “Jesus, Lainey.”

That was the girl he remembered. She’d say what was on her mind and then laugh about it.

“You take it black, don’t you?” she asked, tilting her head.

“Don’t all cops?”

She laughed again and reached for a plate for the muffins. “Yeah, well, you becoming a cop was a big surprise, that’s for sure. Mr. Straight and Narrow.”

Right. Because those parties he’d been thinking of earlier? He’d been at them, too. And not to shut them down.

“Truce,” he said, chuckling. “Yes. I was staring at your ass. It’s a mighty fine one, as it happens. And yes, I take my coffee black. And finally, you, Miss Lainey Price, still have an awfully smart mouth. I see that much hasn’t changed.”

“Thank you.” She winked at him, then shoved a muffin in his hand. “I bet you didn’t eat dinner. Have a muffin.”

She’d sounded confident and flirty, but he’d seen the heat in her eyes as he’d admitted he’d been checking her out. Well, well. Maybe she wasn’t completely immune to him after all.

Lainey disappeared with a tray containing Mr. Sewell’s coffee, muffins, a bowl of fruit, cream, sugar, and butter. While she was gone, Todd’s coffee finished brewing and he reached for the cup. God, it was good. Hot and rich and soothing. The muffin was good, too, some sort of carrot nut thing with a crumb topping. Since she was taking her time coming back, he reached into the container for another. He’d missed dinner, and once he’d started eating he’d realized how hungry he was.

Lainey came back to the kitchen and put her hands on her hips as she saw him reach for a third. “If you’d waited two minutes, I would have made you an omelet or something. Heated you some soup . . . I don’t have much in this kitchen, but in the cottage my fridge is pretty well stocked.”

“Cottage?”

She nodded. “I like my own space. When I took over the inn, I hired Tom Arseneault to convert the storage building at the back into a little apartment for me. It leaves another room open for guests in the house, too.”

“You’ve done a great job with it since Joan and Roger retired,” he said, referring to the previous owners.

“Thanks.” She looked absurdly pleased at the compliment. “Are you sure I can’t fix you something?”

“This is fine. Fills the hole. I need to call in, anyway. And be on my way.”

Lainey raised one doubtful eyebrow at him, but he ignored it. Instead he pulled out his cell and dialed the office and dispatch.

When he hung up he looked at her, eyebrow still raised, and sighed. “Okay, so you were right. The roads out of town are all closed.” As much as he hated to ask, he did anyway. “Is there room at the inn for me, too?

***

Lainey stared up at Todd. Room at the inn? For a brief second, she had the absurd thought that her normally quiet life had suddenly become some sort of weird Christmas play. Not only that, the place was filled to the gills. All the rooms were taken. She was going to have to put the last fold-out cot in one of the rooms for Mr. Sewell, if one of the male guests consented to sharing space for the night. The father-and-son duo had already volunteered to give up their room to a pair of sisters on their way to Boston for a girls’ weekend. The men would be bunking on the sofa and love seat in the parlor, once everyone went to bed.

“You can’t get out to your place at all?”

“Nope. The highway’s shut down and the chief just ordered us to stay put, wherever we are. Particularly if we’re in town, because he’ll need us in the morning.”

Bryce Arseneault might be the youngest chief Jewell Cove had ever had, but no one doubted his authority. If he said stay where you are, you stayed. There wasn’t anything Lainey could do about it. Besides, having Todd Ricker at the inn was no big deal. They were all adults. This was her job.

But stay the night?

The only available space for him to stay wasn’t at the inn at all. It was in the cottage. In her quarters. The very thought sent a strange sort of swirling through her stomach, a combination of nervousness and desire. As much as she hated to admit it, Lainey had had a thing for Todd for years. She certainly wasn’t going to come right out and tell him. The hot and sexy police officer was never at a loss for dates, yet she didn’t want to be one of his flavors of the month. When Lainey did something, she was all-in. And Todd . . . he was more of a passing-through kind of guy.

“You can sleep on my couch,” she told him, hoping he couldn’t see the heat that had risen in her cheeks. “It’s the only space left, but it’s comfortable enough.”

“On your couch. You mean over there.” He hooked his thumb to the right, gesturing out the back.

“Yes, over there.” Her pulse quickened at the thought. She needed to keep this businesslike. Like everyone else, he was merely a casualty of the storm. Besides, he’d been out there trying to help people. The very least she could do was give him some food and a blanket for the night. Just because it was at her place didn’t actually mean anything.

“I guess it’ll have to do.”

The words were blandly said, but Lainey saw a twinkle in his eye. When Todd looked like that, it was hard to remember to resist his charm. Maybe he’d never asked her out, but he could flirt like a champ. Thank goodness he wasn’t wearing his uniform today. She’d have been a goner. There was something about a man all pressed and starched and official looking that made her weak in the knees.

“You,” she said, pointing a finger, “are incorrigible.”

“So they say.” He tilted his coffee cup—it was nearly empty. The clock in the hall chimed, over and over, marking the hour.

Lainey sighed, feeling suddenly weary. “Listen, do you want to join everyone in the parlor or anything? With the surge in guests I haven’t had time to finish everything and it’s ten o’clock. I’ve got make sure the rooms are done up and everyone has enough towels and stuff. Flashlights, too, in case the power goes out.”

“Let’s hope not. That’d be fun. Not.”

“We’ve got a generator. But I’d rather not have to worry about it.”

He lifted his cup. “I might have another of these.”

She reached for his cup and their fingers brushed, a jolt of electricity sparking at the simple touch. It sent butterflies winging around her stomach as she turned her back on him and fussed with the coffeemaker.

“I can get it.” He must have felt it, too, because his voice was quiet and a little rough. “Go do what you need to do, Lainey. You don’t need to entertain me. I’m just glad to have a place to hole up for the night.”

Hole up for the night. He’d be in her cottage. Using her bathroom, sleeping on her sofa. Lainey knew there shouldn’t be a shred of intimacy to it but this was Todd. When a hunky cop spent the night—even platonically—intimacy, even the awkward kind, was a given.

She left him there in the kitchen and busied herself in the remaining guest rooms, checking supplies and testing flashlights. She took extra blankets from the linen closet in case they did lose power and it got cold, and took the last fold-out cot out of storage and put it in the captain’s room for Mr. Sewell since one of the guests had now kindly offered the space.

She passed the landing and the railing decorated with spruce boughs and red velvet bows. As she stopped to straighten one of the bows, she caught sight of her naked ring finger. The one good thing to come out of the storm was that she was incredibly busy, and it took her mind off things. Namely, Christmas.

It had always been her favorite holiday, but this year she just couldn’t seem to get in the holiday spirit. Last year had been such a disaster that these days the goodwill to men and warm holiday glow just seemed to bring her down.

It wasn’t even that her heart was still broken. She’d moved on; started putting the pieces back together. It was more that the decorations and songs and sappy TV programs reminded her of how she’d felt last year. Of how much she’d hurt. Yes, it was the reminders that hurt now. She’d loved Jason with everything she had. He’d been The One. And a week before Christmas—a week before their wedding—he’d broken their engagement.

Now Todd Ricker was in her kitchen and for the first time in months she felt the delicious, unexpected stirrings of attraction. In a way it was scary as hell. Love hurt. But this wasn’t love; far from it. Besides, Todd didn’t do love, and that made her feel tons better. Because in another way, it came as a great relief to know she actually could feel like this again.

The closing of a door brought her back to the moment. What was she doing mooning over a bit of flirting when there was work to do? Back downstairs, she checked on the guests congregated in the parlor. The room was cozy and warm with a large Christmas tree in the corner. That afternoon, one of the guests had helped her carry the stack of firewood closer to the inn just in case, and a fire snapped and popped behind the grate. The two sisters were playing a cutthroat game of cribbage, and a few others had dug out the checkers board.

Todd wasn’t there, but she spent several minutes chatting, letting the guests know where she’d be in the night if anything happened. They checked the weather report and before long the first of the group decided to go up to bed.

Lainey took the tray of dirty cups and plates and went to the kitchen, expecting to see Todd there, but the room was empty. A strange, rhythmic grating sound came from behind the house and she peered out the window. He’d found a shovel and was clearing the walk between the main house and the cottage. She stopped and smiled for a moment. He was a good man when it came right down to it. Hardworking and honest.

But the last thing Lainey wanted to think about was romance. A relationship. She wrapped her arms around her middle and watched him in the dim circle of the porch light. Nope, she certainly wasn’t interested in a boyfriend. Scratching an itch with a guy like Todd, though? That thought had its attractions.

She was twenty-six. What was she going to do, stay celibate the rest of her life? That was hardly realistic.

Todd moved around to the front of the house, wading through the drifts until he was out of sight. With a sigh, Lainey put the dishes in the dishwasher, then went back to the parlor to set up the hide-a-bed and lay out blankets for the father and son. She wouldn’t go to her own quarters until everyone was settled.

Todd came back inside. His jacket and hat were covered in snow, his cheeks ruddy from the cold wind. Lainey took one look at him and knew it would be stupid to make him wait for her. She handed him the key to her door. “Go on over. I’ll be there soon. I’m just waiting for everyone to get settled, in case they need anything.”

“Are you sure?”

“Look at you. It doesn’t make any sense for you to take off your boots and coat and then have to put them back on again. Besides, you can turn on the TV, kick your feet up for a bit. I won’t be long.”

He took the key. “Sold.”

He opened the door again and Lainey called after him, “Don’t snoop through my stuff.”

His eyes snapped to hers, and she wondered how in the world they could seem like they were twinkling all the damn time. And why she had such a weird, fluttery reaction to him when she was far older and wiser than she’d been in high school.

“Now, Lainey, that would be an invasion of privacy. I’m offended you’d think I’d do such a thing.” He put a hand to his heart. “I’m a cop, after all.”

Her lips twitched. She walked over to him, not caring about the draft, and looked up into his face. Damn, he was handsome. “You forget, I’ve known you for a long time, Todd Ricker. I know you’d do such a thing.”

“Lainey.”

“I’m just glad it’s too cold for you to run my underwear up the flagpole.”

He nearly choked on his laugh and she raised an eyebrow. How the boys from the baseball team had gotten the principal’s underwear, no one knew. But they’d run it up the school flagpole on a Saturday and it had stayed there until the custodian had taken the rather large-sized panties down on Monday morning. It had never been proven who did it, but Lainey had known. It had Todd written all over it.

“Go on,” she said. “I’m not paying to heat the outdoors.”

With a mock salute he pulled the door closed and she watched him make his way to the guesthouse. Moments later the outside light came on over there, too, and she knew he was inside.

In her private space.

Despite her words, she actually did trust him not to snoop. Because Todd had kept his sense of humor, but she knew one thing for sure. He’d grown up and acquired a sense of honor and duty, too.

It made for one hell of a potent combination.