A Second Seduction
Janet Lane Walters
New Concepts Publishing
Christa Sommers counted the receipts for the restaurant and the bar of Green Mountain Inn. She rubbed her forehead and stared at the totals. As she matched the bills to the cash and credit card slips she clenched her teeth. Someone had dipped into the cash and she knew the identity of the culprits. One hundred dollars short. Last week the shortage had been three hundred.
She reached for the stack of just paid vendor bills. For the fourth month she had to use money from the room rentals to cover the bar and restaurant expenses. Her stomach roiled. The time had come to confront the thieves and face the guilt trip they would attempt to use again. This time she wouldn’t cave. She might even call the police, but they were family.
“Mom, when are we leaving?”
Christa smiled at her son. “Give me ten minutes.” She tousled Davy’s blond hair and felt a pang of regret. He looked so much like the father he didn’t know.
Do not walk that road, she warned herself. She had no time for regrets. She wrote the last check and sealed the envelope. After putting the money and credit card slip in a deposit bag she reached for her jacket.
Before she and Davy reached the office door her half sisters barged into the room. She looked at her son. He didn’t need to hear another quarrel with the pair. “Wait for me outside.”
He glared at the two young women. “Okay.”
Christa cleared her throat. “What now?” She waited for one of them to speak.
“Look at this brochure.” Peggy waved a paper. “Just what Stel and I need to survive boredom. The guests here are so old.”
“We need some fun,” Stella added.
“No cruise.” Christa looked at the price. “This is out of the question.” Though the guests who came to view the fall foliage were older they were little problem. “I’m not paying for your fun and games any longer.”
“Why not?” Stella asked. “You owe us. Remember where you were when Mom and Dad died. We were left alone and ended up in that place for six weeks.”
Christa swallowed. She wouldn’t bite this time. “I said no. You need to find jobs.”
“We have them here,” Peggy said.
Stella sneered. “Right. Showing old people to tables and running the cash register. Getting paid pennies. All we need is a few thou.”
Christa shook her head. “Not possible. We need to discuss the money that’s missing from the restaurant and bar registers.”
Peggy rested a hand on one hip. “If people didn’t use credit cards we could have everything we need.”
Stella nodded. “She’s right. We just need to get away. A singles’ cruise is the perfect escape.”
Christa remembered the bills from the vacation the pair had taken in June to celebrate Peggy’s college graduation. And the problem presented by the two men who had followed them to the inn in hopes of sharing the bounty. At twenty-one and twenty-three, her half sisters were selfish and self-centered. When would they stop blaming her for the accident that hadn’t been her fault, and that she’d been out of touch when they’d needed her? That time was ten years in the past and the time had come for them to take some responsibility for their own lives.
Peggy planted her hands on the desk. “Why do we always have to fight for our share of the inn’s profits?”
Christa drew a deep breath. “You have no share.”
“So you say.” Stella glared. “On Monday we’ll call a lawyer.”
“Go ahead. Instead of taking that course you need to find jobs.” There, she’d said what she’d avoided saying since Peggy graduated in June.
“What are you talking about?” Stella’s voice rose to a strident pitch. “We own more of this dump than you do. Mom said no matter what happened we were set for life.”
“She lied.” Christa knew the tale her father had told about the inn. Until his death, he’d been her guardian with no more than life tenancy. After his death she’d learned her mother had left the inn to her. “You also need to know the inn is for sale.”
“You can’t do that,” Peggy said.
“We won’t sign,” Stella added.
“You don’t need to.” Before Christa could tell them about the inn’s ownership the pair stormed from the room.
Christa slumped on a chair. Their anger and their thefts weren’t her fault, except she had allowed them to continue all summer. She had intended to tell them once Peggy had graduated from college. As usual she had put off the confrontation. No longer.
“Mom, when are we going?”
“Now.” She picked up the stack of envelopes and the deposit bag. She followed her son to the Jeep. She had finally grown a spine. The trick was finding a way to keep it stiff.
* * * *
Mark Blakefield sat behind the desk in his office. He listened to the head writer’s description of his New England trip. “Found the Green Mountain Inn on our last day. Place is perfect for a feature in Good Travelin’. Owned by a single mom with one child. Inn’s been in her family for generations. An inn for all seasons. Fabulous food. Scenic vistas. Skiing, leaf peeping, lake with boats, fishing, walking and riding trails. Look at the photos and let me know. Be glad to return.” He grinned. “Owner’s easy on the eyes.”
Mark accepted the stack of photos. Why Jonas insisted on using a camera when digital ones were so available Mark would never know. “What did your wife say?”
The older man winked. “She laughed and liked the idea.”
Mark rolled his eyes. “The pair of you matchmaking again?”
Jonas shrugged. “She thought you’d like the lady.”
“I’ll let you know if the inn will work.”
“See you.” Jonas turned and strode away.
Mark looked at each snapshot. The leaves on a hillside had just begun to change color. Another showed a lake shimmering in the sunlight. He put down several of the large inn. Others showed a garden near a two-story house and several cottages. A boy about nine or ten mugged for the camera. He stared at the next one where a woman stood with the blond boy. His jaw clenched.
“Damn her.” What was Christa Parsons doing at this inn? Mark opened his laptop and started a search for directions to this inn. Was the woman Christa? Could he be mistaken? Had he forgotten what she looked like? Not possible. He printed the directions. With the photo of the boy and the printout in one hand and his laptop in the other he strode to the door. He stopped at his secretary’s desk. “I’ll be out of town for several days, maybe a week.”
“Where should I say you are?”
“Just a phone or an email away.”
He didn’t wait for the elevator but took the stairs to the basement parking garage. Traffic was a nightmare with honking horns, squealing brakes and raised fists. When he reached his condo he felt as though he’d won a war. He dashed inside and packed. He zapped a frozen burger and stopped in the living room to remove a picture from the photo album on the coffee table.
He stared at the two pictures. Had to be. Why hadn’t she told him? He intended
to learn the answer to that and a dozen other questions. He tucked the picture in his shirt pocket, grabbed his jacket, a six pack and a tin of cookies. Outside he loaded everything in the trunk of his silver sports car. He slid behind the wheel. Christa Parsons had some explaining to do.
Though eight PM was a bit late to start the trip, a touch of anger and impatience to know why spurred him on. The need for action was too strong to allow him to sit and brood.
Why hadn’t she called him? Why had she vanished without a word? For ten years her disappearance had puzzled him. Had the fault been his?
His thoughts turned to those days of falling in love. Hadn’t taken long and that was a Blakefield tradition. Love came fast and hard. The long weekend of mind-blowing sex remained vivid. There had been more than the physical attraction. They had so many likes and dislikes in common. The ending had been done with a clever, abrupt and brutal.
She’d run to her dorm for an hour. As he was leaving to pick her up for dinner, Tony had returned from the beach and Matt had called with news. Mark had shouted he was in love. He’d handed Tony the phone and dashed to her almost-deserted dorm. She hadn’t been there and the two people he’d encountered had never heard of Christa Parsons.
He revved the engine and backed into the street. Jonas had discovered the where but the why remained unexplained. He frowned. When had Christa Parsons become Christa Sommers? Had she married? Jonas had called her a single mother. Was there an ex lingering about? Mark couldn’t imagine any man letting Christa go.
At midnight he found a motel, slept until six, ate breakfast and was on the road by eight. After grabbing a burger and fries at a fast food place, he pulled into the parking lot of the rustic Green Mountain Inn. The two-story building had a large screened porch. Two wings spread from the central portion. The number of cars in the parking lot brought a moment of concern. Were there any rooms available?
He shrugged. Didn’t matter. If not here, he would find somewhere and haunt the inn until he knew all. As he left the car he paused and surveyed the scene. The hills blazed with colors. Scarlet, orange and yellow were framed against a background of dark green.
Though he wasn’t amused Mark grinned. Christa Parsons, here I come with questions. I hope you have good reasons for your actions.
Along with his anger he felt a pulsing need. Those four days had been filled with fabulous sex, laughter and a sharing of dreams. Before he left the inn he would know what went wrong and why she had hidden his son from him.
He dropped the keys in the pocket of his black leather jacket and strode toward the entrance. A door opened. Two young women stepped onto the porch. Tight jeans and skinny tops and boots. Both carried jackets. As they approached he noticed a resemblance to Christa. Their hair was a darker brown and lacked the strands of gold he remembered. Their features weren’t as refined. Sisters or cousins? He paused at the foot of the steps and waited for them to pass. Their voices reached him.
“I don’t understand why Christa said no.”
“If we keep on her she’ll change her mind.” The taller of the two halted. “Always works.”
“It has to. I’ll go buggy if I have to hang here much longer.” The second young woman’s shrill voice made Mark wince. “How can she say we have no share in the inn? Daddy was the owner. Mom said so. That makes us owners as much as she is.”
“She has to give us the money. I’m tired of being an underpaid servant.”
Mark stepped aside to let them past. So, all wasn’t well in Christa’s world.
The taller young woman nodded. “I’m not waiting ‘til ski season for some action.”
The second groaned. “At least the place jumps then.”
“Not if she sells.”
“We won’t let her.” She reached the bottom step, saw Mark and smiled. “Well, hello.”
“Do we know you?” the taller one asked. “You look sort of familiar. Are you staying?”
“Depends.” He brushed past them. He knew the type and he didn’t want what they offered.
Just inside the door he stopped short. Though her back was to him he had found Christa. A battle raged in his thoughts between anger and desire. His heart raced. His hands clenched. Memories of love-making arose and were countered by his knowledge of the sun she’d hidden from him. His gaze roamed from her neck down her back.
She turned. Her breasts seemed fuller than he remembered. He recalled how they’d responded to his touch. He fought an urge to lunge across the counter and kiss her until she cried for him to come in her.
Mark stepped to the counter. “Hello Christa Parsons.”
“It’s Sommers.” She grasped the edge. “What do you want?” Her voice trembled.
He caught a hint of fear in her blue eyes. “You have something of mine.”
“What are you talking about?”
He smiled. She knows. The tension in her voice and the whiteness of her knuckles showed her awareness of his reason for his presence. “A boy. A bit older than nine. Blond hair, green eyes.” He pulled the photos from his pocket and slapped them on the counter. “Our son. Yours truly at that age. They could be twins.”
“Mark, go away.”
He shook his head. “I can’t.”
“How did you learn?”
Though her face had blanched she didn’t back away. “A colleague and his wife stayed here. He liked the inn, the food and the view. He took pictures. One happened to be of you and the other of my son.”
“What do you plan?”
The tears forming in her eyes almost made him walk away. He couldn’t. He had a son. “For starters, get acquainted. I’m not sure what else.” He opened his wallet and slid a credit card from a slot. “I want a room. Not sure how long I’ll stay. Start with a week. I’ll get my bags.” He turned to leave and nearly collided with the young women he’d seen outside. He arched a brow. “Ladies, curiosity could get you in trouble.”
* * * *
Christa slumped against the counter. What she needed was a pair of iron rods to act as a spinal brace. She had wanted thestrength to deal with her half sisters. Now Mark Blakefield’s arrival had added to the problems she faced. She wanted to collapse or hide until all the irritants vanished. That wasn’t going to happen.
Her decision to tell Peggy and Stella their free-loading days were over had promised a storm. Mark’s presence meant a hurricane. She willed her knees to stiffen. Fainting was not the answer. Mark was here and he knew about Davy. Thank heavens her son was in school. She had to find a way to send Mark away before the school bus arrived at three.
She gulped a deep breath. She should have told Mark about the pregnancy. Ten years ago her life had been chaotic and loaded with guilty feelings. The deaths of her father and step-mother had catapulted her into a life she hadn’t wanted. The inn was hers. There were many debts. Her half sisters were angry, frightened and spoiled. Three months had passed before she’d had time to think of her own needs.
The day she’d realized she was pregnant she had tried to let Mark know. He had graduated and gone to work for one of the magazines his family owned. A secretary reported he was in Europe and they weren’t sure when he would return. She hadn’t left a message. Several more times she had called only to learn he was unavailable.
There had been nothing for her to do but make order out of her hectic life.
Keeping her half sisters out of trouble had been a full-time job. So had been restoring the inn and caring for Davy. Telling Mark had been pushed aside, and
while not forgotten hadn’t been a priority. Now he was here and he was angry.
“Interesting situation,” Peggy drawled. “The man seems determined. You need to think about what he can do for you and Davy. The car he drives screams money. Not to mention, he’s hot.”
Stella laughed. “He’s beyond hot. Incandescent. Shoulders like a football hero. Dynamite smile. Killer green eyes. If you don’t want him I’d like a taste.”
“Stand in line.” Peggy grinned. “How about a double or triple?” She winked. “If I were you I’d hit him for child support. With a wad of cash you could give Stel and me the money for a cruise.” She sighed. “We’re ready for balmy nights and single men.”
Christa pressed her hands against the counter. The desire to slap them grew stronger. “Listen to me. I am selling the inn. You need to find jobs. I’ll give you enough to rent an apartment and to live on for three months while you find work and put your college educations to use.”
Stella shook her head. “No deal. You’ll have to buy us out. We’ll take our share in cash. Dad had three kids so we’re entitled to a third each.”
“You’re entitled to nothing.” Christa stared at the door. Though he presented a different problem, what was taking Mark so long?
“We’ll take you to court,” Peggy said.
“You don’t get the picture. The inn was left to me by my mother. When she died, Dad was my guardian and had life tenancy. I was twenty-one when he died and the inn became mine.”
“I don’t believe you,” Peggy said. “I know what Mom said.”
Christa drew a deep breath. No matter what their mother had said, Stella and Peggy had no share of the inn. Christa had paid for their college education, fed and clothed them. Over the years she had given in to their demands to avoid their tantrums and her guilt over the days following the accident when no one had known where she could be found.
She wanted to scream. She had avoided this confrontation. No longer. The pair had pushed her beyond her tolerance level.
The door opened. Mark wheeled stacked suitcases to the desk. Christa groaned. He had come to stay. He placed a laptop on the counter. Her heart raced. Anticipation pulsed through her. Why did he affect her this way? Her thoughts flooded with memories of his kisses and his touches.
“Room key,” he said.
She smiled. “I’m afraid the inn is booked solid through next weekend. I can give you a list of other places that might have vacancies.” She had to explain the past but not yet. “You could leave and return.”
“Not a chance. We need to talk and I’m not leaving until we do.”
Christa stared at the counter. Why had he come? Was he here to take Davy away?
“He could rent one of the cottages,” Stella said.
Christa glared at her half sister. “They’re closed until ski season.”
“Do they have water, electricity and heat?” Mark rested his elbows on the counter.
The look of determination in his eyes reminded her of their first encounter and the way he had pursued her until she had agreed to a date. Three weeks later she’d been in love and had spent a long weekend with him. Those four days had been a whirlwind fantasy of love and laughter. When the web of tragedy had brought a shroud of responsibility, those days had ended. She stared at her hands. To meet his gaze meant revealing how little her feelings had changed.
“Christa, the cottage?”
“They’re meant for groups.”
“I’ll take one.” He slid his credit card closer.
He would persist until she agreed. “Do you really want to pay for a place that accommodates eight to ten just for yourself?" His shrug told her he hadn’t changed. He would pursue what he wanted ruthlessly.
“Why not? I can afford it. There’s never been anyone to help me spend my money.” He brushed a finger over the back of her hand.
Christa felt tendrils of heat spiral along her arms and take root low in her belly. She held her breath but the scent of him seeped through her pores. Would he change his mind when he saw the weekly rate? She ran the card and filled in the amount. “Are you sure you want to do this?”
“Can’t think of anything I’d rather do.” His grin was feral. “Haven’t those words been said before? Didn’t you say that to me the day I asked you to spend a weekend with me.” He signed the slip.
She felt like a mouse being toyed with by a cat. Or a woman pursued by a man whose desire for conquest rode his scent and colored his voice.
He put the pen down. “Send the audience away. Time for our chat.”
Every word jabbed like a needle. How could she fight a man who signed for a thousand dollars without checking the amount? “I can tear this slip up and you can go home. There’s nothing to discuss. I chose my life.”
“But you also chose mine. Just because you didn’t intend to marry me doesn’t mean I would cede all rights to my son.”
She looked away. What did he mean? Years ago she would gladly have married him. “I see.” She spoke with more calmness that she felt.
“Do you?” He reached for her hand. “There’s a second reason for this visit.”
“And that is?”
“A feature spread in Good Travelin’. Would be good for business. My head writer suggested, ‘An Inn For All Seasons.’”
The carrot he dangled tempted her. A feature might bring interest from potential buyers. If the inn sold she and Davy could vanish. Or could they? Mark knew he had a son. Would he fight for custody?
Christa drew a deep breath and donned her innkeeper persona. “Welcome to Green Mountain Inn. The restaurant opens at six for breakfast. Dinner service starts at five. The dining room closes at ten but the bar remains open and has a limited menu. There is a gift shop that carries some snacks and local crafts.” She handed him a key. “Stella and Peggy will take you to the cottage.”
“Why don’t you do the honors?” His deep voice caressed the words.
“I have work to do.” She waved to her sisters. “Show Mr. Blakefield to number five.” The cottage was as far from the house she shared with her family as she could manage.
He pocketed the key and gathered his luggage. “Lead on, ladies. Christa, I’m looking forward to our talk.”
As the door closed behind them Christa sagged. What was she going to do? He was angry and he had a right to be furious. Why hadn’t she found a time during the past ten years to tell Mark about Davy? That was a question she’d never been able to answer. She leaned against the counter. His being here raised another question. How could she resist the temptation to fall in love again?