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Lydia immediately moved to smooth her hair and straighten her shirt. Cam shook his head. “You don’t have to tidy yourself for me,” he whispered.
She froze, meeting his eyes once again. A blush crept over her cheeks. “Who says I was doing it for you?”
He flicked a glance around the room. “I don’t see anyone else in this kitchen.”
She raised her chin and swiped away a smear tomato sauce from her neck. “Maybe I’ve got a hot date later?”
“Well then in that case, you should leave the pizza sauce between your cleavage. Give him something to snack on.”
Lydia stared out the window at the falling snow as the hostess at the Maple Grove Inn tapped her blue-polished fingernails across the computer keys. It was a wonder that her flight from LA to Boston wasn’t delayed with this weather. But what was even more amazing was the fact that the fallen snow stayed white for longer than twenty minutes. In New York City? That snow would be a dismal gray by now. But here in Maple Grove, it was like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting.
“Ms. Ryder, you said?” She leaned into the screen, brow furrowed and head shaking. “We don’t have a reservation under that name.”
Lydia inhaled deeply, letting the breath out long and slow. “My secretary made it for me. Maybe it’s under my magazine’s name? The City Star? Could you check again?” Then she added, “I’m here for the charity auction.”
There must be something in this New England water to cause people to lose their reservations. First her rental car at the airport, and now this? She’d had to lug her bags onto a bus and ride an additional hour crammed between people after an already exhausting six hour flight. She was flown to the west coast last minute for an impromptu story about a celebrity wedding. Though she had planned on using that week to study up on this charity auction story, celebrities took priority—as always. And Mara had promised to help with this auction story when throwing two last minute ideas her way. Something Lydia should be grateful for… and yet, she couldn’t shake the feeling that her boss was up to something.
The woman nodded with an uncertain smile. “Of course.” She tapped a few more keys, and the smile wobbled before she lifted her gaze again to Lydia’s. “I’m so sorry, but there’s no reservation under either name.”
A flash of aggravation twisted in her chest. “How is that possible? We even paid more for early check-in so I could get rid of my bags.” Lydia gestured to her rolling luggage, camera bag, and portfolio.
“I’m very sorry. Why don’t you have some lunch while I figure out a solution? Elsa’s Café is wonderful.” The lady gestured to a glass door off to the side of the hotel. Inside were a myriad of diners feasting on greasy eggs and, no doubt, crappy coffee. Where were the damn Starbucks around here?
Lydia shook her head. “No. No, thank you. I have a meeting to get to—”
“Hey, Michelle,” a baritone voice boomed from the stairwell. “I got that banister tightened and the shower in Room Six is working again. Anything else?”
Lydia stilled as her eyes traveled up the man’s body—tight, sweaty, and oh, so masculine. When she finally brought her gaze all the way up to his eyes, she was met with sparkling baby blues and a haughty smirk. You can do this. She could hear his voice as clearly as if it were yesterday. The man from the coffee shop. The man who unknowingly convinced her to take this job. One dark eyebrow arched over a spectacularly blue eye, and Lydia quickly turned her attention to the phone in her hand.
“I have to go,” she murmured to reception. “Just, uh, call me when you have a room ready.”
“But—” the clerk called after her.
Lydia dragged her heavy bags across the lobby and shoved through the entry door. With every breath, fog escaped her lips. She shivered and pulled her coat tighter around her. With a shake of her head, she brushed the fallen snow out of her straight, light-brown hair. Feelings lurched from her belly into her chest. She didn’t have time this week to connect. She didn’t have time to remember and explore the memories of one moment seven months ago. That man was trouble. She could feel it. The kind of trouble that was never boring, but always messy.
Her hand instinctively flew to her heart, hovering over the leather fabric of her coat. A snowflake caught on her eyelash, and as she blinked, it fluttered to the ground, a mere water droplet upon landing.
She’d be a little early for her meeting, but according to her phone, the primary school was just a short walk away. Tossing the camera strap around her body and hoisting the portfolio on one shoulder, she bounded down the rocky sidewalk, luggage rolling clumsily behind her, until her heel caught a crack in the sidewalk and she spiraled sideways. Her bag skipped over the curb, tipped to the side, and tumbled into the main street.
“Shit.” She scrambled to her feet as a car headed right for her Louis Vuitton. That luggage was her one splurge. The one item she had bought herself years ago with her first paying job. She had skipped happy hour drinks with her friends for a month to be able to afford it. “No! No, no, no…” She lunged for the bag. But two muscular arms caught her around the waist and tugged her back from the traffic.
The car swerved at the last minute, missing her bag, and Lydia exhaled, pressing a palm to her forehead. “Oh, thank God.”
“What’s the matter with you? Have you got a death wish?” The man released his hold. Had his hands lingered a moment longer than needed? Or did she simply imagine that?
Lydia knew even before she looked that it was the man from the inn. She remembered those hands. Holy hell, was he gorgeous. Testosterone personified. From beneath her wool coat, her nipples tightened. And it had nothing to do with the snowfall. “Oh.” She said, spine stiff. “Hi. Again.”
Bending, he lifted her luggage from the gutter. He shook his head, looking from her, to the bag, and back again. His mouth pressed into a line with a sensuous curve of the bottom lip. It was the sort of bottom lip that you wanted to nibble until he was writhing beneath you.
“You okay?” he finally asked. His swagger was slow as he moved closer. He rubbed his jaw, which despite it being one o’clock in the afternoon, was dark with a five o’clock shadow.
Lydia nodded. “Yes. Thank you.”
“Good. Then lead the way. I’ll carry your luggage for you.”
“Thank you, but—” Lydia’s voice came out in a willowy rasp. She cleared her throat and tried again. “But you don’t have to do that. I’m perfectly capable of pulling my own luggage.”
“Apparently, you’re not,” he countered with another heart-melting grin. “That was really stupid, by the way. Diving in front of traffic for a bag.” He gestured ahead of them. “After you. I’ll walk you to the elementary school.”
“How do you know where I’m going?” Lydia narrowed her gaze at the man. Perhaps it was too many years of living in a hardened city, but letting a man you don’t know walk you in a town you know even less about… it rang of a bad choice.
“You mentioned the charity auction back at the inn, right? And a meeting? I assume that means your meeting is at the school.”
Damn. He was good at that whole deductive reasoning thing. With a nod, Lydia walked, careful not to step in any other cracks in the sidewalk. After a moment, she cleared her throat. “It’s a very expensive bag, you know.”
He snorted. “More expensive than your life?”
Lydia lifted one shoulder to her ear. “I guess that was a little stupid, huh?”
“A little? Understatement of the year, I’d say.” His elbow brushed hers as they made their way down the street.
Lydia smoothed her hand down her ribs. “You’ve got quite a grip on you.”
“I didn’t hurt you, did I?” His gaze darkened and he stopped walking, placing a hand on her arm.
Lydia shook her head. “Nothing a little yoga won’t fix.”
“I’m sorry. I just—I reacted. We’re lucky I didn’t knock us both into oncoming traffic.”
Lydia shrugged and resumed her slow stroll. “I’m not complaining. Seemed like you had it covered to me.” Something jumped in her chest as his eyes locked on her.
His mouth twitched as one corner lifted into a ghost of a smile. “I had you covered. Your bag might have been a different story, though.”
Her breath quickened. And it wasn’t until she moved her gaze down his body that she realized how unnaturally close they were walking. Like lovers. His elbow brushed against her, their knuckles grazing as their arms swung with each step. That dark hair that had been longer and tousled months ago was now trimmed; recently showered and styled.
“There’s also an artist in residency program around here, right? Where’s that in relation to the school?” She could hardly see through the snow as the wind picked up, lifting her hair and whipping it around her face.
“It’s not too far. But it’s back the other way.” He paused, pushing a hand into his coat pocket. “Don’t you have a car?”
“Another reservation casualty, I’m afraid,” Lydia sighed.
He hissed through his teeth, shaking his head. “This town’s gonna be a nightmare without a car. Let me see what I can do. I might be able to get you a rental from Sal’s… our local used car shop. Won’t be fancy—”
“That would be amazing. Trust me, with the week I’ve had, I don’t need anything fancy.”
The school was less than a block ahead. An American flag flew, hoisted in the sky, and Lydia shaded her eyes, looking the building up and down. It wasn’t huge. Fuzzy memories from her own school days slid into her mind like storm clouds.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve stepped foot in a school,” she said, her voice more wispy than she intended. “Then again, I spent more time in the principal’s office than the classroom most days.”
“You? In the principal’s office?” His nose scrunched. “C’mon. You were probably the straight A student, right?” He elbowed her arm playfully.
Lydia snorted. “Hardly. I was the rebellious cheerleader who always got caught smoking in the bathrooms or making out under the bleachers.” Lydia laughed in spite of herself, remembering Jimmy Crane’s hand up her bra during a pep rally. She twirled her grandmother’s sapphire ring, the smooth white-gold cold as it brushed against her finger. They had both been caught with their shirts pulled off and dragged into the principal’s office by Sister Maria. Jimmy had been grounded for two weeks. But Lydia? Her mom never even answered the phone when the principal called. Lydia swallowed. She would have killed back then to have a mother who cared enough to punish her.
“Here you are.” He set her bag to the ground and turned to face Lydia. They stood so close that with just one more step forward, her breasts would be pressed against his chiseled chest.
Holy shit. Get a grip. When Lydia looked into his eyes again, he held a hand out for her to take. She slipped her palm inside. His skin was surprisingly soft and warm despite the freezing weather, and he held hers firmly in a slow shake.
“It was nice to meet you….?” His voice trailed off, asking for her name.
“Lydia.” She answered. “Lydia Ryder.”
“Lydia,” he repeated, and her name on those full lips brought goose bumps to her flesh.
She waited for him to respond with his name, but he simply towered above her, his hand gripping her fingers and a smirk splayed prominently on his face.
“Well,” she said, pulling away when his answer was absent. “I should get in there.” She crouched and pulled the handle of the luggage. “Will I be seeing you around?”
His grin widened. “Oh, I can guarantee it.” He tipped an invisible hat. “Nice to meet you, Ms. Ryder.”