“Yup, I was that annoying little kid who followed you and my brother Dan around all the time.”
Lucy tried not to roll the dough too hard or accidentally throw the rolling pin in his general direction. Caleb had always been a straight talker, so why was she surprised that he spoke the truth?
“I remember.” Lucy put the new cookies in the oven. “You tied me to a tree in the backyard with my jump rope once.”
Caleb frowned. “That wasn’t nice.”
He shoved his hand through thick reddish-brown hair that matched his tight beard. “I guess I should apologize.”
“It was probably Dan’s idea.” She offered him an out as she washed her hands.
He winced. “No, that one was all me.”
He’d brought his coffee through with him and sipped it as he stared at her. She considered what to say next. As a hotelier she shouldn’t ask any personal questions, but as a resident of Quincy, she felt some responsibility for his personal safety—or that was what she was going to tell herself.
He set his mug down by the side of the sink. “Not yet.”
“I didn’t tell him when I planned to arrive, so he’s not exactly expecting me.” He hesitated as he pulled his phone out of his pocket. “My cell’s out of battery.”
“You can charge it right there.” She pointed at the electrical outlet. “It looks like the same brand as mine.”
“Thanks.” He plugged it in and turned back to her.
Lucy made herself meet his gaze. “I’m sorry about your mom.”
“Yeah.” He picked up his mug. “Is there any more coffee?”
“Help yourself.” Lucy pointed at the dresser. “There’s a whole pot right there.”
“Thanks. You can put it on my tab.”
“As I said, coffee’s free,” Lucy reminded him, her gaze fixed on his broad shoulders and long jeans-clad legs as he turned his back on her. He’d certainly filled out since high school. She’d seen him occasionally when he’d come into town, but she’d never had much opportunity to talk to him without blushing and stammering like a fool. It wasn’t surprising he’d erased her from his memories. But it was definitely a setback when she’d given him her heart when she was nine and decided she was going to marry him.
“Stupid . . .” Lucy murmured to herself before addressing Caleb again. “Shall I see if there’s a taxi available to take you out to the ranch?”
He turned to look at her, his expression guarded. “I’d rather wait for my truck to be fixed.”
“You know what it’s like here. That could take a while and Christmas is less than a week away.”
“I suppose that makes sense,” Lucy said cautiously. “But wouldn’t you rather be home than stuck here with me?”
“You don’t want guests?” He raised his eyebrows.
“Of course, I do.” He had no idea how much she needed them right now.
“Then you’ve got one.” He nodded. “Is it okay if I get my stuff from my truck while you sort out a room for me?”
“Absolutely.” She nodded like she was in a trance. Caleb Erickson was staying in her house. Voluntarily? And he was even willing to pay for the privilege?
“Great.” He drained his mug.
She froze as he walked over and paused to look down at her. He leaned in so close she could smell the coffee on his breath and flicked her nose.
“Thanks.” “I’ll get going before the snow buries my truck.” He nodded at the back door. “I’ll come in this way, so you don’t have to leave those cookies again.”
A minute later he was gone, leaving Lucy gawping at the door like a fool.
The timer pinged, making her jump, and she checked the cookies, and reset it. If she hurried, she could get Caleb’s room prepared and be back down to take the cookies out. With that thought she ran
up the wide staircase and stood on the landing. Where to put him? She turned toward the rear of the house and selected door number three. There was a king-sized bed, and a walk-in shower big enough to accommodate his tall frame.
She considered him naked in that shower and almost tripped over her own feet.
“Be professional, Lucy,” she admonished herself as she made sure the gas fire worked, that there were warm towels on the heated rack, and that all the potions and lotions for the bathroom were present and correct. She’d aired the bed on the previous day and just had to turn down the covers.
Even as she smoothed a hand over the sheets where Caleb would soon lay his head, the timer went off in the kitchen and she hurriedly descended the stairs. A blast of cold air from the opening back door heralded Caleb’s return. She turned to smile at him as he set his bags on the tiled floor.
“It’s really snowing out there.” Caleb took off his hat and gloves. “I’d forgotten how bad it can get.”
“You don’t come back very often,” Lucy remarked as she transferred the cookies to a wire cooling rack.
“Maybe I don’t consider it home anymore.”
She looked up, saw the bleakness of his expression, and decided not to say a word.
“Seattle might be wet, but it’s not so remote.” He moved restlessly around the kitchen, his gaze everywhere. “The gingerbread smells like the kind my mom used to make.”
“Help yourself,” Lucy offered. “I’m making enough to feed a nonexistent army of guests.”
He took a piece, bit into it, and chewed slowly. “This is good.”
“My gran’s recipe.” Lucy smiled at him. “Have you eaten tonight?”
“I know it says bed and breakfast on the door, but I do offer dinner, and I haven’t had mine yet.” Lucy paused to check his expression, which didn’t help much because he’d always been hard to read. “It’s a chicken casserole with dumplings.”
“I could go for that.”
“Great!” She turned off the oven. “It’s been sitting on the bottom shelf cooking away all afternoon while I baked the cookies. I checked it just before you arrived and it’s ready to go.” She paused. “Would you rather eat by yourself in the guest dining room, or here with me?”
He frowned. “Here.”
“That makes life much easier.” She found plates and silverware and put them out on the pine table along with the casserole.
“Can I help?”
She glanced at him as she went by. “What would you like to drink?”
He shrugged. “Water’s fine.”
“I definitely have that, and there’s iced tea and lemonade in the refrigerator.”
She left him opening random cupboards looking for glasses while she went into the old washroom that housed the industrial-sized freezer, backup refrigerator, and extensive pantry. She decanted lemonade into a jug, found some ironed napkins, and came back into the kitchen to find Caleb had taken off his sheepskin-lined jacket to reveal a thick black sweater over jeans.
He’d always been the ideal man for her, and nothing had changed. She finally remembered to take off her apron.
“Nice to see you getting settled in.” She set the jug and napkins on the table.
“It’s warm in here.”
“I’m glad to hear it. We had to replace the whole heating system last year and it cost a fortune.”
“I guess it would.” He sat opposite her. The light brought out the red tones in his dark auburn hair. He nodded at the casserole dish. “Smells great.”
Lucy helped herself and let Caleb do the same. A comfortable silence fell between them, enhanced by the ticking of the kitchen clock and the patter of hailstones on the windowpanes. It felt like they were the only two people in the world and that she was living out her most personal of fantasies. Except, in her dreams, after dinner, Caleb would sweep her off her feet and carry her up the stairs to bed.
She took another peep at his face, only to find his gray gaze trained on her.
“What is it?” She touched her nose. “Is there something else on my face?”
“I was just looking.” He paused. “I’d forgotten how pretty you are.”
She took a hasty sip of her lemonade and ended up choking herself so badly that Caleb had to get up and slap her on the back.
After he resumed his seat, she jumped out of hers, and started collecting the plates.
“There’s apple pie and ice cream if you’re still hungry?”
“Apple pie would be good, but I’m avoiding anything with the word ice in it.”
“I hear ya.” Lucy nodded. “I’ll warm some up for you.”
He grimaced. “I guess I should try and call Dad while you’re doing that.”
“You go ahead.”
She determinedly turned her back as he held the phone to his ear and eventually started speaking.
“Dad? It’s me. I should be with you by Christmas Day. Anything you want me to bring from town for you? Call me back when you get a chance.”
He set the phone on the countertop and looked over at Lucy. She decided not to ask him why it would take him four days to travel the eight miles up to the ranch.
“He almost never answers his cell or landline.”
“My grandma was the same. She always answered the B&B number, but never her own phone. It’s probably a generational thing.”
“Did she leave you this place?”
“Yup.” Lucy smoothed a hand over the scarred surface of the pine table. “I think I’m the only one in the family who loved it as much as she did.”
“What about your parents?”
“Back in Seattle. Dad’s working at the hospital and Mom’s a tenured professor at the university.”
Caleb nodded. “I hear from Dan occasionally.”
“Nice.” She smiled. “Probably more than I do. He’s a terrible correspondent. He only calls when he’s stuck somewhere and needs money.”
“Sounds like Dan.” Caleb started on his apple pie. “This is good.”
“Thanks, I made it.” Lucy cut him another slice and indulged in a little fantasy about him coming home to her every night for pie and . . . other things maybe involving whipped cream.
“Have you ever left here?”
She set down the spoon. “Yes. I went to college at Humboldt.”
He half smiled. “That hardly counts.”
“Maybe not to you, but I enjoyed it.” Lucy deliberately ignored the many implications behind his words. “Not everyone gets into Stanford like you did.”
“Did you apply to anywhere except Humboldt?”
“Of course, I did. Caleb Erickson, are you judging me? I was offered a full scholarship there.”
“Hell, no.” He leaned back in his chair until it started to creak. “Nothing to do with me. You just always struck me as a smart little kid.”
“I’m only six years younger than you are.” Lucy pointed out.
“Yeah?” He studied her again, his hand smoothing over his mouth and beard. “I thought it was more than that.”
“I’m twenty-eight, and for your information I spent several years working for a multinational hotel chain before I decided to come back here and help Gran out. So, stop trying to treat me like a country hick.”
His eyebrows rose. “Still as feisty as ever then.”
“I had to be, growing up with Dan as a brother.”
“I bet.” He returned his attention to his apple pie.
Lucy waited for her temper to settle. She rarely got mad, but Dan and Caleb had worked out exactly how to yank her strings, and it seemed nothing had changed.
“Would you like some more coffee?” Lucy reverted to professional mode as she cleared the table.
“No, thanks.” He stifled a yawn behind his hand. “I think I’ll turn in. I drove down overnight.”
“Then I’ll show you to your room.” Lucy washed her hands and went to help him with his luggage.
“I’ve got it.” Caleb waved away her help and she didn’t argue. She walked back through to the main hall, ascended the stairs, and stopped at the door to number three.
“We still use old-fashioned keys here.” She unlocked the door and handed the key to Caleb, who went into the room. “As you’re the only guest, breakfast can be anytime you want. I don’t think I’ll be going anywhere in this weather, so just come down to the kitchen when you’re ready to eat.”
He had his back to her as he set his bags down and looked around the room. She stayed where she was and pointed out various things rather than intrude on his space.
“It’s a nice room.” He nodded.
He came back toward the door and looked down at her. “Thanks for taking me in.”
“It was my pleasure.”
He leaned in and dropped a kiss on the top of her head. “Night, little Lucy.”
“Night—” Before she’d even finished speaking, he shut the door in her face, leaving her standing there opening and closing her mouth like a goldfish. Eventually, she turned and went down the stairs to begin closing up for the night. Caleb Erickson was back in town for the holidays, staying in her B&B, and he’d just dropped a friendly kiss on her head like she was six . . .
Lucy sighed. Would he ever see her as an equal, or was she doomed to be his best friend’s little sister forever? She had a few days to make him see her in a different light and she was determined to take advantage of them. Fate had dropped Caleb on her doorstep for a reason. Now all she had to do was decide what to do about her unexpected gift.