Tuesday, the 15th of December
Nola Kendrick stopped feeling content with her life the moment the tall man with silver-shot dark hair and broad shoulders walked through the front door of the Northern Star Lodge.
She’d made it almost forty years, which was a pretty good run, but when he set his bags down and looked up so they made eye contact across the room, she found herself wanting things that had never really crossed her mind before. Not with this kind of potency, anyway.
She wanted a man like this to walk through the door looking for her. She wanted to be the kind of woman who’d pull a man like this into the pantry closet for sizzling, stolen kisses. The hot ball of yearning deep inside was so unfamiliar and unexpected, she actually dug her fingernails into her palms to steady herself.
Then two young adults came through the door, one of them calling him Dad, and she turned her back for a few seconds so she could take a deep breath and shove it all down.
Ian Emerson, party of three.
That’s what the sticky note on the bulletin board in the kitchen had said. Party of three. Just because he’d only brought his kids snowmobiling with him didn’t mean there wasn’t a wife at home, though. Maybe a wife who hated snowmobiling. Or maybe she had to work. Lodges in small, northern Maine towns weren’t for everybody. No amount of instant lust was going to make Nola look twice at a married man—and he was with his kids—so she really needed to get her unexpectedly strong reaction to him under control.
She listened to his footsteps approaching her and, after fixing a welcoming expression on her face, turned back to him. “Welcome to the Northern Star Lodge.”
“Thanks.” His eyes were so blue that she got distracted for a few seconds trying to figure out which Crayola color they were before realizing he’d put out his hand. “Ian Emerson.”
Cornflower. His eyes were cornflower blue.
“I’m Nola Kendrick.” His hand was big and strong, and the touch lingered just a hint longer than a typical perfunctory handshake. “Rosie usually handles the check-ins, but she’s already started cooking dinner, I guess. She probably heard you pull in and might come say hi if she can get out of the kitchen, but I can get you started.”
“You guys really go all out on the Christmas decorations around here.”
Nola looked around the big living room, trying to see the decorations from the point of view of somebody who hadn’t helped put most of them up.
They definitely hadn’t skimped when it came to flinging the festivity around. The massive tree, cut on the property, dominated the big room, and the twinkling multicolored light strings and red garland wrapped around it were an instant mood lifter. Three generations of the Kowalski family had accumulated the personal and—in some cases—quirky decorations, and the star at the top was older than Nola.
There were electric candles in the windows, and if there was a flat surface, there was a nutcracker or Santa or some other holiday knick-knack sitting on it. Christmas embroideries and pictures had replaced most of the art and framed photographs on the walls and, yes, they’d pretty much gone all out.
“The guest rooms are a little more festive-neutral,” she said, “but the lodge itself is still where the family comes together and on Christmas Eve, there will be little kids everywhere. It’s a big family.”
“I was looking for some Christmas spirit this year, so I guess I came to the right place.”
She wanted to ask him what he meant by that—why he was running low on Christmas spirit—but it was none of her business, so she just smiled instead. Maybe Rosie would have asked because the woman was anything but shy, but she had that older, grandmotherly vibe about her. Nola most definitely did not have that older, grandmotherly vibe—especially right now. She felt more like a teenager who’d been asked to show the hot new boy in school where his locker was.
“You definitely came to the right place because we love Christmas around here,” she said, trying to look anywhere but directly into his eyes just in case that hot flush they caused actually showed on her face. “If you follow me, I can get you checked in. Obviously, most of your information is in the computer already, but there are still a couple of things to go over.”
“Lead the way,” he said in a low voice that made the words sound a lot more suggestive than he probably intended for them to be.
While his kids collapsed onto the very comfortable sofa, he followed her into the room off the main living room, which had served as the dining room since the lodge had outgrown the large table in the actual dining room. It had once been a bedroom, but Josh—one of the owners—had built a small log cabin on the property for his wife and kids. Then they’d expanded the room by putting on an addition and there were half a dozen tables in it, as well as the counter that served as a coffee bar in the morning and an actual bar at night.
She pointed to one of the bar stools before going around to the backside of the counter. There were shelves under it and she pulled out the binder Rosie kept there. A sheet for the Emersons had already been started, but there were still a few blank spaces, so she handed him the paper and a pen.
“We like to have an emergency contact. Somebody to call if, God forbid, there was an accident or medical emergency.”
His brow furrowed for a few seconds, as if he was thinking. Then he shrugged. “I’ll put my ex-wife’s number, I guess. Makes sense since she’s the kids’ mother, and she knows all my information.”
So he was divorced. And presumably single since he’d list a girlfriend or even a new wife to call if he had one. She wasn’t going to act on the potent attraction she felt for him, of course, but at least she didn’t have to feel guilty for it.
When he was finished filling out the emergency information—as well as info about his truck and trailer, and signing a statement acknowledging that he knew snowmobiling had rules and he and his party would abide by them or they’d get tossed with no refund—he slid the paper back to her.
She checked to make sure he didn’t miss anything and then slid the paper back into the binder. “During check-in, Rosie usually reminds everybody we’re not a hotel. There’s no room service or daily housekeeping, so if you need something or want the towels or sheets switched out, just let her or Laney know. Laney’s only here during the day, usually, but Rosie’s always around somewhere. She and her husband, Andy, live here and she’s run the place for decades.”
“What about you?”
She blinked at the question, not sure what he meant by it. “Me?”
“Are you always around somewhere?”
Was he flirting with her? She thought he was, but she didn’t trust her intuition enough to flirt back. Yet. “I’m only here evenings and weekends, to help out in the dining room. And here, behind the bar.”
“Something tells me I’ll be looking for a cocktail after spending the day trying to keep up with those two.” He nodded his head toward the living room. “They may look grown, but don’t let that fool you.”
There was so much underlying affection in his words, she couldn’t help smiling. “Here’s a card with the cell phone numbers on it and who you should text for what. We don’t have a curfew, but if you know ahead of time you’re going to be late, we appreciate a heads-up so we don’t worry too much. When we have inexperienced riders or guest with young children, we’re a little nosier about plans and a little quicker to pull the search party trigger, but overall, just be safe and respect the property and other guests and have a great time.”
He looked at the card for a few seconds and then turned his gaze back to her. His eyes crinkled as one corner of his mouth quirked up in a playful smile that made warmth flood through her. “I don’t see you on here. What if I need something in the evening or during the weekend?”
Okay, he was definitely flirting. “I guess you’ll have to come find me at the bar.”
Before meeting Nola, if Ian Emerson had stumbled across a time machine, he would have used it to go back to the moment he’d first thought taking a Christmas vacation with two children whose birth certificates claimed were adults and slapped himself upside the head.
They hadn’t even gotten on the road before Jacob had started it by running to the passenger door. “Shotgun!”
“I’m the oldest,” Maddie told him. “So I always have dibs on shotgun. It’s implied.”
“I’m taller than you, so the only thing that’s implied is that people with shorter legs get the backseat.”
“Keep it up and you’ll both ride in the backseat,” Ian said in his best dad voice, even though he totally understood the bickering. He wouldn’t want to ride in the backseat of an extended cab pickup, either.
But neither Jacob’s Jeep nor Maddie’s AWD crossover had the towing capacity to handle the enclosed trailer with three snowmobiles in it, so they were going to have to figure it out. Jacob was eighteen and Maddie was twenty. He’d always thought they’d outgrow this, but apparently not.
“You can have shotgun,” Maddie said, “and I’ll drive and Dad can ride in the backseat.
Ian laughed before he realized she was serious. “No.”
He was forty-six, which definitely made him the oldest—and he certainly felt it in that moment—and he also owned the truck, as well as everything it was pulling.
“We can all take turns driving,” Jacob said. “So me and Maddie can take turns in shotgun.”
“You will be taking turns riding shotgun. But I’m driving.”
It was ironic that, merely an hour into the trip, he was wishing he was alone in the truck when it was being alone that had trapped him in the cab of a pickup with two bickering semi-adults in the first place. He’d looked around the rented house he’d been trying to feel at home in since he and Heather split, and he hadn’t been able to picture what Christmas would look like, even though it would be the third since the divorce.
It was a throwaway remark Jacob had made about not having enough time for snowmobiling that had sparked the idea. And when a few Google searches had landed him on the Northern Star Lodge’s website, it had all come together.
He and the kids were going away for Christmas.
They’d put plenty of miles on their snowmobiles, spend quality time together, and enjoy being surrounded by Christmas decorations and holiday spirit it wasn’t up to him to provide. If he was lucky, he could fake his way through the season without anybody guessing he felt anything but jolly. Then he’d get them home in time to celebrate actual Christmas Day with their mom. When he’d made the reservation, he’d felt optimistic for the first time in a long time.
By the time he walked through the front door of the Northern Star Lodge after what felt like the longest drive ever, all he felt was exhaustion, a few twinges in his back and relief that he’d decided to get Maddie her own room so at least he could separate his kids. He’d put Maddie in one and Jacob in the other, and then he might go shut himself up in the snowmobile trailer just so he could have some peace and quiet.
But then he’d locked eyes with a beautiful woman who was looking back at him with heat in her eyes, and he rethought locking himself in the trailer. Not alone, anyway.
Before he was halfway through checking in, he knew if the woman was single, he wanted to get to know her better.
First he had to get Jacob and Maddie settled in so they could decompress for a few minutes before dinner was served, and maybe even unpack. He just hoped the rooms had enough outlets for the tangled mass of charging cords they’d brought with them.
“I guess that’s it,” Nola said. “Oh, keys.”
She took a small basket out of the liquor cabinet and pulled out two keys on small wooden key rings with the Northern Star Lodge logo burned into the wood. “Again, we’re not a hotel, but Josh put locking doorknobs in a couple of years ago so you can lock your door while you’re out.”
An unexpectedly vivid image of his hand grazing against hers in slow motion popped into his head, but she dangled them by the fobs, so he snatched the keys out of the air with no contact at all. “Thank you.”
“The cabins have guests in them, but they’re grilling and brought their own beer, so you probably won’t see a lot of them. There’s a group of four guys staying in the bunkroom at the end of the hall right now, and an older couple who come every year will be checking in for just the weekend. But that’s it.”
It was probably just meant to be informational, so he knew who he and the kids were sharing a house with for the next week, but he was focused on the fact one group was drinking in their cabins and the other was four guys who’d be talking with each other. There was a good chance he’d get some time to talk to the pretty bartender one on one.
They retraced their steps through the living room, stopping to get the kids and their bags, and then he followed her down the hall of a large wing of the house. He tried very hard to keep his eyes straight ahead, but it didn’t work. His gaze kept dropping to her ass, which was hugged by well-washed denim, and the sway of her hips as she walked.
“This room has the queen bed and set of bunk beds,” she said, stopping in front of a door.
“Maddie, that’s you,” he said.
“And the next door on the same side has the two queen beds,” Nola said. “The bathroom is across the hall. There’s another one at the end of the hall, on the right. So that’s it, I guess. I’ll leave you to settle in and we’ll start putting food out in an hour or so. If you need anything at all, just give a shout. Literally, if you want to. We’re pretty informal around here.”
All three of them thanked her, and then he had to focus all of his attention on not watching her walk away.
“Wait,” Maddie said. “What does she mean by the bathroom is across the hall?”
“I told you it’s not a hotel,” Ian said, nudging over the threshold into her room.
“I heard her tell you there are four guys staying at the end of the hall. What I didn’t hear was you telling me that not a hotel is some kind of code for me sharing a bathroom with six men.”
“Oh, I forgot to mention something,” Nola said, and Ian turned his head so abruptly he almost whacked it on the doorjamb. “At the top of the stairs, second door on the right, is a bathroom with a private sign on it. That’s for family, but there’s nobody staying in the rooms upstairs right now except for Andy and Rosie unless I stay over, and they have the master suite with their own bathroom, so it’s an unofficial ladies’ room.”
Maddie’s cheeks burned. “I’m sorry I sounded like I was complaining. I swear I wasn’t asking for special treatment.”
“It’s not special treatment, I promise, and Rosie would have told you about it if she’d checked you in. Go ahead and use it while you’re here.”
Nola returned Maddie’s smile, but then her gaze shifted to Ian and it felt as if time stopped for a few seconds as their eyes met. He felt his lips curve into a return smile and he knew he probably looked goofy, but he couldn’t help himself.
Then Maddie bumped into him while trying to pick up her overstuffed bag and the connection was broken. Nola waved a goodbye and then walked away.
Even though he was in the room next door, Ian took a quick peek inside Maddie’s just to make sure everything looked okay.
“I guess I need to remember sound carries, or maybe she has exceptional hearing,” Maddie said in a low voice that was practically a whisper and he could tell she still felt badly about being caught complaining.
“It’s fine, and nobody blames you for it. I’m a guy and even I don’t want to share a bathroom with five other guys.”
“You can’t use mine,” she said, pointing her finger at him. “The woman said so.”
“Nola,” he told her, and he hoped he’d remember to ask her where the name came from because he didn’t think he’d ever met anybody named Nola before. “And she said there’s another bathroom at the end of the hall on the right and the other guys are at the end of the hall on the left, so they’ll probably use that one the most. Most importantly, though, it looks like there are plenty of outlets in here and they don’t look a hundred years old, so you should be able to charge all that crap you brought with you.”
She was laughing when he left her room and went next door to the one he’d share with Jacob. His son had already claimed one of the two queen beds topped with matching quilts, so Ian dropped his bag on the free bed. His bag was considerably lighter than the others’, probably thanks in part to the fact the only gadget he’d brought with him was his phone. Not because he didn’t have anything else—he enjoyed streaming Netflix as much as the next guy—but because he didn’t feel like lugging them around and would just steal Jacob’s tablet if he got bored since the kid spent ninety percent of his down time staring at his phone screen.
The temptation to stretch out on the bed and “rest his eyes” for a few minutes was strong. It had been a long drive and he wasn’t twenty-five anymore. But he knew if he closed his eyes, it would be lot more than a few minutes before he opened them again, and then he’d be groggy and wanting coffee that would then keep him from sleeping tonight.
“Getting old sucks.”
“Anything specific?” Jacob asked, actually looking up from his phone. “Or just in general?”
“Too much time sitting in the truck,” Ian said. “And I didn’t mean to say that out loud.”
“Clearly a sign you should let me drive home next week.”
Right now he was tempted to agree, but he knew when the time came, he wouldn’t feel the same, so he just laughed. Jacob was a good driver, but there was a big difference between his little Wrangler and Ian’s truck and trailer. The biggest difference being that it was Ian’s truck and he didn’t like anybody else driving it.
“When aren’t you?” Ian stretched and winced a little at the tightness in his back. “They don’t start serving dinner for an hour, so why don’t you give me a hand unloading the machines and bringing our gear in so I can park the trailer out of the way and unhook the truck.”
Jacob nodded and reached for the coat he’d tossed at the foot of his bed. “You want me to text Maddie?”
“I think we can do it.” He wanted to spend a little one-on-one time with each of the kids during this week together, so he might as well start now.
They were almost to the front door when he heard laughter coming from another room which, judging by the layout and by photos on the website, he guessed was the kitchen. He paused, trying to pick out which female laugh was Nola’s. He was pretty sure he could tell, but he was going to have to make her laugh when he got to see her again, just to be sure.