is the story of the small-town girl who runs "Holiday Quinn" -- a charming themed inn that's open only on holidays -- and the wealthy, workaholic, big-city businessman who finds himself at the scenic resort one winter's night...and keeps coming back throughout the year.
I hope you enjoy this excerpt (copyright Marilyn Brant 2012) of the book!
CHAPTER ONE: Valentine’s Day
Shannon Quinn made a final adjustment to the heart-shaped banner above the inn’s reception desk and sighed.
Yet another holiday weekend spent alone. Well, at work, which amounted to the same thing. If this romantic dry spell didn’t let up soon, she’d have to consider investing in an inflatable man.
She slid her clipboard across the counter to her assistant Jake. “You get to register the next set of guests,” she told him. “I’m all out of ink.”
Jake studied her fuzzy pink Cupid pen with one of his I’m-too-sexy-for-my-ballpoint looks. “And I’m all out of love, babe,” he crooned, bringing his palm to his chest as if struck by the romance god’s arrow. “I’m so lost without you. But, maybe, if you give me a kiss to recharge my batteries, I could—”
“Knock it off,” she said, laughing. “A guest might overhear you.” The guy brought sexual suggestiveness to every conversation and wasn’t above singing sappy love ballads for effect, but she knew better than to take him seriously. Her smooth-talking assistant was a Grade-A flirt.
Which was part of his charm.
But it was the kind of charm best kept out of an employer-employee relationship and better used to keep the young female guests at her Door County, Wisconsin inn amused and intrigued on “holiday” weekends. Jake Marcolis never had trouble scoring girlfriends, and Shannon knew her brush-off wouldn’t deter him from finding companionship that weekend. Or any weekend.
The front door swung open and a gust of February chill swirled inside, along with three snow-covered adults. Two men. One woman. An easy registration. Jake could handle this.
Shannon took a few steps toward the backroom to restock the printer paper and grab a couple of new Valentine pens.
“Hi, I’m Trevor Wainwright, and this is my wife Gina,” the shorter of the two men said, finger-combing his blond hair with one hand and rubbing the young woman’s snowy shoulder with the other. “We have a reservation for this weekend.” He winked at his lady, a petite brunette who looked to be about four or five years older than Shannon’s twenty-six. “For a room with a king-sized bed.”
“Of course,” Jake said, typing the name into the computer. “The Wainwrights from St. Paul, Minnesota?”
The blond man nodded.
Jake hit a key to print out the Wainwrights’ record. “Here it is,” he said, putting the sheet on his clipboard along with a pen covered with red, white and pink hearts. “Please read this over and sign it, sir.” To Shannon, Jake said, “That was the last of the printer paper.”
“I’ll be right back with more,” she told him, feeling two sets of eyes on her—the woman’s and the other man’s. That taller, darker one who wasn’t her husband. He was an intense-looking guy with jet-black hair, and he had an unsettling but somehow provocative gaze. It was a Come-here-baby/Don’t-touch-me look, the kind Bad Boys who’d grown into Dangerous Men possessed.
“Thanks,” Jake said. “And, hey, if you find a plain old Bic back there, that’d be fine by me…”
Shannon just laughed, but she heard Jake mutter something to the male guests about his “masculinity taking a hit with all these froufy pink things lying around.” The woman, Gina Wainwright, chuckled slightly.
Shannon raced through her chores in the backroom so she could get back out to the reception desk again, unable to account for her curiosity about the new guests. True, the three of them made an attractive trio, but she wasn’t quite sure where the powerful-looking dark-haired man fit into the lovey-dovey couple’s weekend’s revelries. A threesome? It didn’t seem that way, exactly, but she was willing to shamelessly eavesdrop as Jake processed the guy’s registration in order to find out.
Hey, it was within her rights. She owned the place, after all. Had to know what kind of guests she was dealing with, didn’t she?
She emerged with an armload of paper, refilled the empty printer tray then laid out a few new cutesy pens on the countertop. Gina grinned at her, so she returned the friendly gesture. Then the woman’s attention shifted to the unadorned fingers of Shannon’s left hand, which still rested on the countertop near the pens.
“Trevor, honey,” Gina said sweetly to her husband, her grin broadening. “I want a little tour of this quaint inn. Right now.” She raised her eyebrows in his direction.
Her husband raised his eyebrows back. “A fab idea, darling.”
Gina glanced pointedly at Jake. “Excuse me, sir. Would you be so kind as to show us around for a few minutes? Perhaps your colleague,” she gave a cheery nod to Shannon, “would be able to register our friend? He wishes to settle in for the night in his own room, but we’re so anxious to explore our surroundings.”
Shannon wasn’t certain, but she could’ve sworn the dark-haired man rolled his eyes at this pronouncement. Gina’s husband, Trevor, let out a short laugh that he tried without success to cover up with a cough.
Jake peeked over at Shannon, not in on the trio’s joke but not opposed to stepping away from his desk duties either. With a smirk that seemed to say What can I do? A guest’s wishes always come first, Jake stood up and turned to Gina. “At your service, ma’am.”
This left Shannon and the tall, unsmiling man just watching as Jake led the happy couple sashaying down the hall. Terrific. Now she was alone with Mr. Intensity.
She cleared her throat. “Welcome to Holiday Quinn, sir. May I have your name, please?”
The man’s glance appraised her—there was no other way to describe it—from her chest upward. Granted, her chest, shoulders and head were all that were visible behind the registration desk’s counter, but still. She mentally fumed over this distinct act of rudeness until she saw his stony face break into a full smile.
“I apologize,” he said in a voice that was far deeper and much more resonant than she’d expected. “I could see immediately why Gina selected you as my personal desk attendant for tonight, but you must excuse her matchmaking tendencies. She’s incorrigible.”
Shannon looked into his sharp hazel eyes, stunned by his candor and even more shocked at being “selected” as any kind of a match for him. Alpha males weren’t the type to appear often on her dating radar. And this one was too, too…just too much.
Of something. Of everything.
“Why, th-thank you,” she stammered. “I think.” Then added, “Your name, please?”
He laughed briefly. “Yes, of course. The reservation is under Hartwick. Bram Hartwick.” He paused. “Unless it’s under Graybell.” His forehead creased and he frowned. “Perhaps try searching under that name first.”
Shannon stubbornly typed in “Hartwick” and found his computer file, but it was cross-referenced with, yes, an Angie Graybell—the woman who’d originally made the weekend reservation. Shannon didn’t know why, but her stomach roller-coastered downward at this news. From the “matchmaking” comment, she’d foolishly assumed this towering, commanding man was single. Silly her.
“I’ve found your reservation, Mr. Hartwick. You’re from Minneapolis, Minnesota, correct?” she asked him in her most professional voice. He seemed the type to demand a professional demeanor in all things.
He nodded once.
“We’re all set, then.” She printed out his form and handed him a pen. “Will Ms. Graybell be arriving later tonight, or shall we expect her in the morning?”
The handsome Mr. Hartwick didn’t immediately respond, but his face turned to rock-like seriousness again in an instant. He pressed his lips together in a line of clear displeasure, and Shannon was certain of only one thing: This was not the kind of man she’d ever want to upset. He looked capable of biting off the heart-shaped heads of all her Valentine’s Day pens, starting with the red-sequined one he was holding in a death grip. Not an image she wanted to cling to, thanks.
“Ms. Graybell will not be coming tonight. Or tomorrow. Or Sunday. You may safely remove her name from the reservation,” he said stiffly.
“Very well, Mr. Hartwick.” And Shannon had to admit to feeling a perverse pleasure in deleting the heretofore-unseen Angie Graybell.
“And what would be your name, if you don’t mind my asking?” he said to her, still intense-looking but his lips turned up a tiny notch at the corners.
“My name is Shannon Quinn, sir.” And why, exactly, did so much as telling him her name make her heart rate speed up and her fingers twitchy? It must be that Bad-Boy/Dangerous-Man Factor again. Truth be told, this trait was starting to bug her.
Bram Hartwick, of course, did not look nervous. He did, however, appear downright surprised, and he couldn’t seem keep the shock off his face.
“Is your last name a lucky coincidence, Ms. Quinn, or are you related to the original owners of this charming establishment?”
“The luck of the Irish is always with me,” she shot back, determined not to let him intimidate her. “But, yes, I’m a direct descendent. The original owners were my grandparents. They opened the inn back in the mid-1940s.”
He quirked a brow. “Fans of the classic film, then?”
She knew what he was asking. Everyone wanted to know if Holiday Quinn was named after the famous Bing Crosby-Fred Astaire movie musical Holiday Inn.
“Yes,” she informed him. “The picture came out in 1942 and it was one of my Grandma Quinn’s all-time favorites. When she and my grandfather opened up their inn a couple of years later, the play on the name was intentional. However, until a few years ago, we were open all year round, not just on holidays. My parents made that change themselves.”
“Hmm.” He tilted his head, leaned in toward the counter and said, “Why?”
Why? Because, as much as she tried to help them, they could no longer take care of the inn day after day by themselves. Because they loved her and wanted to leave her family’s legacy in good condition. Because they deserved to finally retire and enjoy the relaxation their elderly years afforded them.
Only, once they did, they died.
But Shannon wasn’t about to confide her personal life story to a man whose face, as far as she could tell, resembled a block of granite.
“Because they had a great sense of humor,” she said instead.
“Ah.” He glanced around the lobby, a glint of interest in those intelligent eyes. He focused them again on her. “And what about you, Ms. Quinn? Do you have a great sense of humor, too?”
“I’d like to think so, but everyone believes that about themselves. I could be sadly deluded.”
Mr. Stonyface actually laughed. “Delightful,” he murmured, just loud enough for her to hear. He signed the forms, pushed her copies back across the counter toward her and pulled out his iPhone. After a moment of squinting at it and fiddling with the buttons, he said, “So, Gina tells me there are also singles’ events at the inn this weekend. What’ve you got scheduled?”
“We have a High Tea Mix-n-Mingle tomorrow at four, the Queen of Hearts Singles’ Dance tomorrow night from eight until midnight and the Valentine’s Morning-After Breakfast on Sunday at nine.”
“The Queen of Hearts Singles’ Dance…” he repeated, staring down at his cell phone again. “That sounds almost promising.”
He gave her one of his cool, assessing stares. “Well, I’d only be sure if I knew who was planning to attend the function.” He paused. “Any chance you’ll be there?”
A strange but thankfully temporary panic gripped her throat. “Of course, Mr. Hartwick,” she managed to reply. “I run the inn. I oversee everything.”
He broke into a near-grin, one clearly calculated to subdue women into compliance. “In that case, count on me to show up.” Then he leaned forward, as if about to ask a personal question, when the electronic version of an old dance tune, “La Vida Loca,” blared from somewhere inside his clothing. Curious choice of ringtone.
He grimaced and reached into his coat pocket. “Excuse me,” he told her before clicking on his cell phone. “Hartwick,” he said into it. Then, “Ciao, Senior Niccolo.” He listened, winced and took the room key she extended toward him. He waved his thanks, grabbed his bag and strode in the direction of the stairs. The last words she heard him say were “Il problema con la sapone in Milano?”
Italian. The man spoke rapid-fire Italian. How weird was that…and, okay, how very cool. For someone with such a stately façade, she never would’ve guessed he’d be fluent in a Language of Love. What other surprises hid behind that composed demeanor? She stared after him.
She spun around and to find Jake eyeing her with a curious expression. “Huh?”
“He’s not your type.”
She blinked. “What?”
“The tight ass who just went up the stairs. Not for you. And besides—” He tapped her nose with the tip of a fuzzy-heart pen. “The guy looks like trouble. He’s got Control Freak written all over him. Stick with someone who might actually be fun.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Like who?”
“Well, like…me,” Jake said. “I’m real fun, great at karaoke, a sharp dresser and, I’m told, unbelievably cute,” he added with his usual modesty and a fluff of his light-brown hair. “And I promise to fight off any tall, grim-looking guys who glare at the world as if it didn’t agree with them.”
She laughed. “He wasn’t that bad.”
“Matter of opinion, babe.”
Jake was joking around, of course. He didn’t care about Bram Hartwick one way or another, he just wasn’t too fond of some other man forcing him to relinquish center stage. Jake delighted in being the main attraction.
Before she could comment again, though, one of the female guests who’d checked in that afternoon sidled up to the counter. The young woman in her early twenties shot Shannon a quick smile before turning toward her oh-so-fun assistant.
“Hi, Jakey.” The woman giggled. Svelte, soft-spoken and seductive, this lady had Jake leaning toward her, his expression indicating he was “ready to help” with whatever might be needed.
“Yes, Ms. Malone?” he asked with his ultra-solicitous tone. “Is there a problem with your accommodations tonight?”
The woman bit her lip, brushed a dark curl behind her ear and murmured something only Jake could hear. He cleared his throat as if to suppress a laugh then whispered something back that included the words “late-night” and “fantasy.”
Enough already. Shannon walked into the backroom to give them some privacy. Besides, she had late-night fantasies of her own she’d love to indulge in. Finding the right heroic lead for those sexy daydreams, however, proved to be an ever-changing mental pursuit. Sometimes Ryan Reynolds headlined. Sometimes Henry Cavill or Colin Firth. Sometimes a classic actor like James Dean.
Tonight she knew Bram Hartwick would be featured in the starring role. Something about him had her certain that, though he might be too much to handle in real life, he’d be just perfect for a hot night of erotic fantasy. And she intended to enjoy it.
Bram clicked off his cell phone after a full twenty-seven minutes of talking long distance with his European distributor. Seemed there’d been some delay in getting the latest batch of Lathericious Bath Products to Milan, and now they were running low on the scented body oils. The Italians really loved those body oils. Especially “Citrus Cravings.”
Bram smiled. As the Minneapolis-based company’s founder and CEO, he had a say in the names of all their products, but he usually let the creative team do their thing. His personal favorite, which he’d been known to give as a gift to very special women in his life, was the fiery fragrance “Sin-amon Spice.” Nothing like it.
He’d given Angie a bottle, of course. Not that it’d helped heat things up much. At least not in the last few months of this cold freeze they’d mistakenly called a relationship. Damned good thing she finally put an end to their misery. She was already dating again—some accountant in St. Paul.
Bram tossed his cell phone on the bed, kicked off his dress shoes and twisted open the complimentary split of champagne chilling in the white plastic tub on the table. He took a few swigs and shrugged off his coat, letting the residual snowflakes fall where they may. Then off with his jacket. Next he loosened his tie, imagining Scarlett Johansson—wait, no, that auburn-haired woman downstairs with the huge blue eyes and the soft voice—what was her name?
Imagining Shannon pulling the tie off from around his neck and letting it float to the floor. Then, with those delicate, creamy fingers, unbuttoning his shirt.
When his shirt billowed open, he rubbed his chest with his palm. Would Shannon do that? Would her touch be light and teasing or firm and decisive?
He didn’t know, but he’d gotten a good look at her chest and, if she were here with him right now, that cutesy hearts sweater she was wearing would be on the carpet mingling with his tie. So would her bra.
Visions of her covered with Sin-amon Spice and Valentine’s Day red-hot candies danced through his mind. Mmm.
He loosened his belt, unzipped his pants and let them drop to the floor, too. His fingertips skimmed the waistband of his boxers as his mind drifted back to Shannon. She was the inn’s owner, not—as he’d first thought—a subordinate of that glib jerk standing next to her downstairs. A woman full of surprises.
Maybe his scheming friends weren’t so wrong to insist he come away on this weekend after all. Maybe he’d just need to make a little time to get to know the inn’s attractive owner a bit better. He’d look for her tomorrow. Ask her some questions.
Then Bram’s hands dipped lower but, as he closed his eyes, it was Shannon who touched him.
Shannon perused the guests at the High Tea Mix-n-Mingle the next afternoon. Everyone had been served in the Crosby Room and, adding a splash of milk to her Earl Grey, she stirred her drink and kept a watchful eye on the crowd.
“These lemon teacakes are scrumptious,” Darlene Baker purred, springing across the parquet floor to Shannon and planting a wet kiss on her cheek. “Keith has eaten four of them already. Somebody make him stop.” She paused, raised a thin, white eyebrow. “I want there to be some left for me.”
Shannon grinned and leaned in to whisper in the older woman’s ear. “Don’t tell anyone, but I’ve got two more trays in the kitchen.”
Darlene Baker gasped then giggled.
“No whispering allowed here,” her husband’s voice boomed with good-natured irritation. “I know you’re telling tales about me to our favorite hostess. Said I’d start that damned diet on Monday, didn’t I?”
“Yes, honey,” his wife replied with a smile in Shannon’s direction.
“I’m so glad you’re enjoying the Tea, Mr. Baker. How are your accommodations this weekend?”
“Wonderful, as always, Shannon dear,” the man replied. “And, for the three-hundredth time, enough with the ‘Mr. and Mrs. Baker’ nonsense! Call us Keith and Darlene.”
“Yes.” His wife turned on her, too. “We know no one can top your professionalism, but we insist. We practically live here these days. Heck, we’re almost like your relatives.”
Shannon felt a pang of longing in her chest—loss entwined with an unexpected strand of hopefulness. The Bakers spoke the truth. They visited the inn often enough to be both well known and well loved by the Holiday Quinn staff, and they reminded her enough of her parents to almost always break her heart when she saw them. The two couples shared the same warmth of spirit.
“I’d be honored,” she admitted to them. “And thank you.”
She was about to ask the Bakers their plans for the rest of the afternoon when, out of the corner of her eye, a tuft of jet-black hair snagged her attention.
Mr. Bram Hartwick. Seemingly unchanged since last night. Still tall, dark and intense.
Also unchanged since last night were her growing fantasies of the man. How, in her midnight dream—manufactured for personal arousal—she imagined those strong arms encircling her. The stubble on his chin burning a trail along her cheek. The press of his lean hips against hers as the two of them tumbled between the silky sheets of the Astaire Suite…
She felt a bolt of white heat rush through her just from the memory of that dream.
Darlene Baker tapped her shoulder. “Are you okay, dear? You seem to be blushing.”
Shannon brought a hand to her face. Damn her fair skin. “Oh, I’m fine. Fine. Thanks. I’m just, um, a little warm. From the tea.”
Keith Baker scanned the room and his gaze came to rest on Bram, who was standing near the door. Keith turned back to Shannon. “Well, that’s as good an excuse as any, but to me it looks like the stirrings of young love.”
Shannon shook her head to deny such an embarrassing notion.
His wife rolled her eyes. “You’re such a romantic, Keith. Don’t you know that not every woman spends her days lusting after men?” She shot a glance at Bram. “Even really, really handsome ones?”
“Maybe, maybe not. But men sure lust after lovely women.” He paused. “Shannon here doesn’t know about our Tommy yet, now does she?”
“Who’s Tommy?” Shannon asked, mostly to be polite. She couldn’t seem to keep her gaze from straying to Bram, who held his high-tech cell phone up to his ear with one hand and rolled a chocolate dipped pastry between the fingers of the other. He caught her glance and, for a split second, the air between them sizzled.
“Our youngest son,” Keith explained. He then began telling her the story of how their “little” boy’s commitment-phobic heart finally got captured for good by a pretty lady in Arizona. “Just when he thought he was safe from the wiles of women, he goes on this wilderness hike, and who should be the trail guide? Why, none other than Mary Ellen. The girl he’d had the hugest crush on back in seventh grade!”
“See, she’d moved away from Wisconsin when they were in junior high, but Tommy had never forgotten her,” Darlene said. “They recognized each other right away—I don’t know how, but they just knew. He asked her out, and they’ve been together ever since.”
Keith leaned toward her. “And every time she looks at him, she blushes. Still.”
Shannon laughed faintly. “That is romantic. But I’m, um, not in the same situation. At all.”
The Bakers grinned as though they didn’t believe her, and why should they? No matter what Bram Hartwick’s feelings were toward her, her feelings were about as romantic…or at least erotic…as they came.
Why the hell was he still staring at her?
He had the cell phone away from his ear and attached to the holster at his belt. He popped the pastry in his mouth and reached for a cup of tea from the table nearby. Before he lifted the cup to his lips, though, he raised it slightly in her direction. A salute of sorts. Then he grinned.
She felt her cheeks flush warm again.
“If you’ll excuse us, dear,” Darlene said with a saucy smile. “I do believe I need another teacake.”
“Oh, me, too,” Keith insisted.
They stepped away before Shannon could utter a sound, and they deliberately steered a path that left plenty of room for the dashing Mr. Hartwick to get through. Darlene winked at Shannon over her shoulder.
Bram took three strides in her direction before stopping in his tracks and grimacing. He put down his teacup on a nearby tray and raised a silent hand at her. What was this? Charades? She hadn’t planned any games for the High Tea, but she didn’t feel the lack of activities had left the guests wanting.
Then she saw him reach for that blasted cell phone at his hip, which, even from a distance of a couple yards, could be seen to be vibrating.
“Hartwick,” she heard him say into the receiver as his long legs carried him out the door.
Well, so much for romance—erotic or otherwise. Bram Hartwick had attractiveness going for him, sure, but he was clearly a workaholic, and nothing seemed capable of pulling him away from that damn phone. The only interaction the two of them would probably have this weekend would be the imaginary face-to-face contact in her mind, featuring him as the lead in her nighttime fantasies.
Not that this was all bad. But the tiny, adventure-seeking side of her had begun, irrationally, to hope for the real thing.
Shannon ladled a few more glasses of pink, champagne-spiked punch into crystal goblets and placed them on the refreshments table for the dancers. The song “Playing with the Queen of Hearts” resonated clearly from the speakers, while newfound couples laughed and made small talk throughout the room. The evening’s singles’ dance looked to be a success. Too bad she wished herself to be elsewhere.
She couldn’t help it. She wanted to be dancing, too, but somewhere more exotic, like on a romantic cruise down the Seine with Paris as a backdrop. Or, on a sandy Caribbean beach, the sun sinking into the water in thunderbolts of gold. Or, maybe—
Jake bustled up to her, interrupting her latest daydream, and reached for a goblet. “The DJ said he was thirsty.”
She shook her head and stilled Jake’s hand. “I’d be happy to get him any kind of soft drink he’d like but, please, no alcohol for him tonight. He’s got to drive back in an hour and the roads are treacherous.”
“Fair enough.” Jake set off toward the kitchen, grinning at all the single ladies littering the dance floor. Waving. Winking seductively. The usual.
Jake’s ease with women was infamous in these parts. He even went as far as to proposition her again this weekend. Jake was cute. He was “a catch,” of sorts. And some nights the loneliness of not having a real lover left her tempted. Just not tempted enough.
“Why are you always standing on the sidelines, Ms. Quinn?” a deep voice near her said.
She swiveled toward it, her heart rate picking up speed. “Mr. Hartwick. H-How are you? How are you enjoying your stay?”
“Hmm. Answering a question with more questions. That’s not the answer I was looking for.” He appraised her appearance again, as was his habit, his hazel eyes twinkling as he took in her cream-colored, floor-length evening gown with the gold spaghetti straps. One of the few outfits she felt actually flattered her. “You, of all people, should be out on the dance floor.”
“Because you’re the loveliest woman in the room.”
Her breath caught at these words, but she forced herself to show no overt reaction. God, she hoped she succeeded. Instead, she replied coolly, “You presume too much. This is a singles’ dance, Mr. Hartwick. It’s for those men and women who are looking for love.”
He took a purposeful step closer. “And you’re not?” Those serious eyes bored into her, ready to disagree. “Tell me, are you the queen of your own heart or has some lucky man already claimed it?”
A smooth line but, she had to hand it to him, though it might have sounded silly coming out of anyone else’s mouth, Bram Hartwick somehow managed to sell it with style.
“Mine isn’t a quick or easy heart to claim,” she replied. “But there are plenty of other ladies out there who may feel differently.” She pointed toward a couple of especially pretty guests, both of whom had stolen not-so-subtle glances at him during this little chat.
He grinned. “I never said I needed either ‘quick’ or ‘easy,’ Ms. Quinn, and you deflected my question yet again.” He scanned the room then focused those sharp eyes on her. “I’ll be more blunt this time. I’d like to dance with you, but I don’t want to step on another man’s toes or offend your sense of propriety. If you’re not free, just say so. But if you are, I hope you’ll honor me with the next slow dance.”
Direct, wasn’t he? Shannon cleared her throat and battled a cocktail of emotions. Sure, she desired him, but he was a weekend guest from another state. How likely would it be that she’d see him again? Not very. And his whole ultra-polished, International-Man-of-Mystery air was slightly on the intimidating side…and, also, a little intriguing.
Okay, a lot intriguing.
Still, he wasn’t proposing marriage. Just a dance. Only a three- or four-minute dance.
She cleared her throat again. “I’d be delighted to dance with you, Mr. Hartwick.”
He smiled. “Bram,” he said, reaching for her hand.
“Bram,” she repeated. “And, please, call me Shannon.”
His smile broadened. “I will.”
He led her onto the dance floor as the next slow song began to play. And while Barbra Streisand belted out “My Heart Belongs to Me,” Bram caressed her shoulder with his palm and drew her a few inches closer to him. Shannon knew her heart may well belong to her alone but, goodness, her body cast its vote for the dashing Bram Hartwick.
As her skin tingled from his firm but soothing touch, conversation between them ground to a stop. She mentally sifted through their two prior meetings for some clue as to what to ask him. At first, all she could come up with was When did you learn to speak Italian? And How many hours do you spend on the phone every day? But then she remembered.
“Your friends, the Wainwrights,” she began. “Are they enjoying their weekend getaway? I’ll confess, I haven’t seen them once since they registered.”
He laughed. “Well, no, you wouldn’t, would you? Not unless you tried to spy on them from their balcony window. They warned me about their plans before we left Minnesota.” He leaned in close and whispered in her ear. “They’re doing a Lennon-and-Yoko-like ‘Love In’ this weekend.”
Now it was Shannon’s turn to laugh. “I believe I like your friends, Bram.”
“Yeah, me, too. They can sure be—”
“Excuse me, Shannon, I need your help.” Jake stood just to their left, his jaw tight and his eyes narrow. Something must really be wrong.
She broke away from Bram’s grasp. “What is it?” she asked Jake. “Is there a problem with a guest?”
He pursed his lips. “I should speak with you privately. If you’ll excuse us, Mr., um…”
“Hartwick,” Bram supplied. “And, of course. Perhaps I’ll have the pleasure of another dance with you later in the evening, Shannon?”
“I’d like that,” she told Bram before Jake dragged her away. She’d really like that.
“What’s going on?” she asked him when they were in the backroom.
“The chocolate hearts aren’t here,” he informed her. “I checked the kitchen twice, and the candy platters are nowhere to be found.”
She squinted at him. “Is that all this is about?”
He gave her a grim look tinged with anger.
Oops. Now she’d offended him. “I mean, there’s nothing to worry about, Jake. I thought I told you this, but maybe it slipped my mind. We’re doing the candy distribution differently this year and giving out the chocolate hearts at the Valentine’s Morning-After Breakfast instead of at the dance. Margaret hired a special chocolatier at The Ashland, and she’s bringing over a batch for us at seven a.m. tomorrow. Everything’s under control.”
Jake shrugged. “Oh. Okay then.” He gave her another odd look. “Are you all right, Shannon?”
She laughed. “Yeah, I’m doing great. No problem. How about you?”
“Fine, of course,” he said stiffly.
“Well, that’s…good to hear. So, I’m going to head back into the dance now. If anything important comes up, please let me know.”
“Oh, I will,” he said, his voice weirdly serious. Jake was in a mighty strange mood tonight.
“Super.” And, with that, she dashed back out to the dance to see if Bram was still there.
And the disappointment she felt surprised her with its potency. She’d wanted that second dance, and not just because it was Valentine’s Day. Not just because she was lonely. But because, in spite of herself, she kind of liked him.
Her imagination had always been stronger than her nerve. Time for that to change.
Bram watched Shannon scurry after that assistant of hers—that man with the shrewd eyes and the pesky manners—and he wanted to throttle the guy.
Jake Whatever-The -Hell-His-Last-Name-Was lusted after Shannon—that much was clear. Shannon’s feelings toward the assistant were more difficult to ascertain, but Bram would figure it out. He always did.
Why? Because she’d caught his interest. Even if anything beyond tonight was an exercise in futility.
He marched around the perimeter of the dance floor, trying to imagine his ex-girlfriend at a weekend affair like this. Angie would’ve wanted to hit every activity. Not miss a single second of excitement, whatever the latest thrill might be. She absolutely exhausted him when they were together, but not because he couldn’t handle the events she threw his way.
No. He could handle anything.
But her insatiable need for diversion drained him. It felt like a reflection on him. Made him fear his inability to keep her entertained. And he’d hated that.
Pretty-faced women dotted the dance floor. Several looked at him with those eyes filled with feverish anticipation, an expectation that a love match might be imminent. Well, Bram knew better. Relationships were fine as long as they were kept in their proper place. Something hot. Something short-term. Something with boundaries. Try to make them your top priority and everything else in your life would get shot to hell.
He shuddered, flooded by a need to get away from the hopeful expressions etched on the faces of those single women.
So he strode out into the hallway and lingered by a display cabinet featuring, among other things, a curvy stained-glass vase. It was European. Mid-Twentieth Century. Delicate yet intricate. Colorful but in a tasteful, not discordant style.
Funny. In an odd way it reminded him of Shannon.
Now there was a woman whose company he’d admit to enjoying. But, let’s face it, she wasn’t exactly available to him. If he were being honest with himself—and he’d made a habit out of doing just that—perhaps this was part of his fascination.
She was lovely, but she wouldn’t be capable of making demands on him during his hectic workweek. She represented everything that spelled relaxation in his book: Home and hearth, an out-of-the-way locale, feminine cozy comfort nestled in a charming, rustic environment. She was smart, responsible and in full charge of her own career path.
He could almost convince himself his attraction to her was “wholesome.” Almost…because he still loved the allure of her most curvaceous assets. And, after a mere twenty seconds of remembering her in his arms as they danced, he knew their potential physical chemistry played no small part in her appeal.
He stared at the vase again, mesmerized by the swirl of colors whenever a stained-glass chip reflected the light. He squinted at it, and the magnificent rainbow was no longer distinct. The hues bled together like silken watercolors, as if, by a mere change in perspective, all the disparate elements of life could join together as one.
“Well, hello again, Bram.”
Shannon. Her voice made him open his eyes fully and drink in the vision of her standing before him.
“Crisis averted?” he asked her.
She smiled. “For the time being.” She pointed to the display cabinet. “See anything that intrigues you.”
He looked right at her. “Yes.” He stared into her blue eyes until she blushed. After another moment he added, “And the vase is nice, too.”
“Um…well, that’s one of my favorites also. My parents took a trip to New York about ten years ago, and they found it in an Old World antique shop there.”
“It’s pretty,” he said, reaching for her hand and entwining her fingers with his. “But I think it belongs elsewhere. In a private home. Atop a fireplace, maybe. It seems too personal for a hallway, even in an inn this cozy.”
She let him continue to hold her hand and even took a step closer to him, but her gaze was focused on the vase. Or maybe on something—a memory—further away. “I guess I’d never thought of that way, particularly since I grew up living here at Holiday Quinn. The entire inn was our house, but, I’ll admit, it was never especially private.”
Bram brought her soft hand toward his face, looked at her for a long moment and then pressed his lips against that smooth skin.
“So, what does a man have to do to get some privacy in this place?”
A flash of passion ignited within her at these words. He could sense it, feel it burning just beneath the surface. What did he want to have happen here?
A night with her? Yes.
A part of tomorrow? Maybe, maybe not. Goodbyes were difficult…and indefinite. But he’d take his chances on their flame blazing steadily until the morning.
“Bram.” His name rolled off her lips in a whisper. He could feel her interest. Her questions. Her deliberation. But he sensed, despite whatever internal battles she waged, she was as curiously enchanted as he.
“Shannon!” Jake called.
And the spell was broken.
Jake jogged up to them. “Excuse me, Shannon, I hate to interrupt,” he said with frozen, insincere syllables, “but we have another problem.”
Shannon sighed and pulled her hand away. Bram’s fingers felt the chill of her departure.
“I’m so sorry, Mr. Hartwick,” she said with a formality that would have offended him if he hadn’t noticed the flicker of disappointment in her eyes. “I’m afraid I have additional business to attend to tonight.”
“Perhaps we’ll be able to continue our conversation another time,” he found himself saying, though he had no immediate plans to return to the inn.
“Perhaps,” she replied. Then added, “I hope so.”
They smiled at each other before she turned away and trailed her assistant down the hallway.
Bad timing. Lost opportunities. Whatever you wanted to call it, it sucked.
Bram returned to his room for a fitful night followed by an early departure with his friends just after breakfast the next morning. He didn’t see Shannon or her pain-in-the-ass assistant. But he had to put the weekend behind him.
Time to get back to work.