The early morning air was biting, and the ground was white with frost. But Juliana Anderson opened the kitchen door and stood at the screen, welcoming the cold. She closed her eyes for a moment, feeling the chill air sweep over her flushed face, feeling the perspiration on her forehead grow icy.
The smell of the pancakes cooking on the huge old griddle made her turn back to the work at hand.
It was breakfast time at 31 Farmer’s Hill Road, the most illustrious bed and breakfast in all of Benton, Massachusetts.
The only bed and breakfast in all of Benton, thought Juliana wryly as she plucked the sticky buns from the hot depths of the ancient oven with one mittened hand even as she flipped the pancakes with the other.
She smoothed her apron, tucking away a stray wisp of her willful red-gold curls before hoisting up the heavy platter of warm buns and a pitcher of foaming milk. She opened the swinging door into the dining room with her back, smiling gently, always the gracious Victorian hostess, as she placed the food on the huge oak table.
Five of last night’s six guests were already at the table. With any luck, the sixth would arrive shortly, and Saturday’s breakfast would soon be history.
She smiled to herself at the expression. Life at 31 Farmer’s Hill Road tended to be mostly history all of the time.
Juliana and her aunt Alicia ran the huge old Victorian house as if it were a guest house of the early 1900s, even to the point of dressing in period outfits when guests were in residence.
This morning, Juliana wore a stiffly starched white blouse with a high, standing collar and leg-of-mutton sleeves that were puffy at the shoulder but formfitting from the forearm to the wrist. The blouse was carefully tucked into a pale-gray, high-waisted, full skirt that trailed behind her as she walked.
“Will you be joining us this morning, Miss Anderson?” one of the guests asked as Juliana picked the large glass bowl of fresh fruit salad off the table.
“Of course, Mr. Edgewood.” Juliana smiled. “After one more trip into the kitchen, I think.”
Many of her guests stayed with her regularly as they traveled the Massachusetts Turnpike from Boston to points west. The Edgewoods had relatives in Ohio and booked a room whenever they passed through. She could count on seeing them at least four times a year. It was like a visit from friends. In fact, the Edgewoods had been among her very first customers when the bed and breakfast had opened nearly five years ago.
She enjoyed their company and looked forward to seeing them.
But not all her guests were like the Edgewoods.
Juliana piled the pancakes onto a plate and put them into the oven, pouring more circles of batter onto the griddle.
Some of her guests came and went without a word, without even a greeting. She shrugged. Products of modern times. Most people had forgotten how to be friendly these days. Or even polite.
She crossed to the old-fashioned, rounded refrigerator, pulling a huge plastic container of cut fresh fruit from its chilly interior.
Take, for example, last night’s mystery guest, one Webster Donovan. Mr. Donovan had been due to arrive yesterday evening. Juliana had waited up ’til long past midnight, but the man didn’t even bother to telephone. Bad manners. Very bad manners.
Filling the ornate glass fruit bowl, she covered the plastic container and put it back in the fridge.
Yet Mr. Donovan had booked a room for six consecutive weeks, she mused as she crossed to the stove and turned the pancakes. He was bound to turn up sooner or later. He was a writer—that much Alicia had told her after he’d called to make his reservation. Juliana had been hoping he was a little elderly man, someone friendly, someone who could entertain her with the stories of his life during the next six weeks of breakfasts.
Please, she thought with a flash of desperation, let me like him. Don’t make me have to endure a silent, surly, unpleasant, modern guest. But if his failure to call last night was any indication of his manners, she was in for a long six weeks.
Juliana crossed back to the glass bowl, peeled several bananas, and quickly cut them into the already huge mound of fresh fruit. With a quick stir, she mixed the fruit, then went back to the stove for the pancakes.
Juliana picked up the plate heaped with steaming, aromatic pancakes and the huge bowl of fruit and backed toward the dining room door. But instead of the giving swing of the door, she slammed into something hard and unyielding.
No, someone, she realized, as a large hand, attached to a strong arm, encircled her waist to keep her from falling. Another hand snaked out and grabbed the plate of pancakes, leaving her to concentrate on the bowl of fruit, which, much to her relief, she didn’t drop.
“Sweet heavens,” she breathed, closing her eyes in relief. That bowl was an antique, a work of art, valued at over five hundred dollars. Alicia had been suggesting for months now that they stop using it as common dishware, and it would have been too awful for Juliana to have to explain that she’d dropped it.
Juliana opened her eyes slowly, suddenly aware that whoever was holding her hadn’t let go. In fact, he had put the plate of pancakes down on the sideboard and now wrapped his other arm around her.
She tried to pull free, but couldn’t. She turned her head to find the roughness of a several-days-old growth of beard against her cheek. She took a deep breath, prepared to order him sharply to release her. But she was stopped by the most intoxicating mixture of male scents she’d ever come across.
He smelled like the outdoors, like the pine trees on the top of Sleeping Giant Mountain, like sun block, baby shampoo, and clean sweat. There was a touch of city about him, too. She could smell a trace of gasoline, or maybe it was oil, and an echo of stale cigarette smoke, as if he’d recently spent time with a heavy smoker. He didn’t smoke himself. Juliana knew that without a doubt. His mouth was inches from hers and smelled only sweet. Like apple cider.
He must’ve stopped at Greene’s Orchards just a few moments ago, Juliana realized, feeling oddly off balance.
Large fingers gently took the bowl from her hands, and still she couldn’t find the words or the will to protest.
She turned her head to look up at him, and time seemed to stand still. It was only a few seconds, but it seemed like hours, days, centuries that she stood there, gazing into the bluest eyes she’d ever seen. They were an unreal shade of pure, deep crystal-blue, framed by sinfully long, dark lashes. Those eyes dominated his face. And his wasn’t a face easily dominated. High cheekbones gave him an exotic cast. Thick, wavy black hair tumbled over a broad forehead. He had a straight nose, a strong chin, and a mouth . . . His lips were sensuous and beautifully shaped. Fascinated, she watched as he slowly moistened his lips with his tongue.
And still he held her tightly. She’d turned so that she faced him, and she could feel his thighs pressing against her. Long thighs, lean thighs . . . This man was tall. Juliana couldn’t remember the last time she’d met a man that she couldn’t stare down nose to nose. But judging from the crick in her neck, this man had to be at least six and a half feet tall.
His grip on her tightened, and she looked up into his eyes again. The sharp, crystal blue had somehow become softer, gentler, and she knew without a doubt that unless she moved quickly, he was going to kiss her.
She pulled away, eyes wide, feeling a flush creep into her cheeks.
“God almighty,” he said, his voice a rich, husky baritone. “You’re so beautiful.”
She felt her color deepen. Unable to speak, she snatched the plate of pancakes and the bowl of fruit from the sideboard and disappeared into the dining room.
Catching a glimpse of herself in the gilt-framed mirror that hung on one wall of the dining room, Juliana was amazed at how calm and composed she appeared. Her face was slightly flushed, but the heat from cooking often did that. Redness in her cheeks didn’t necessarily mean that a rough, handsome stranger had waltzed into her kitchen and grabbed her.
“More coffee?” she murmured, filling Mrs. Edgewood’s cup with decaf.
How dare he come into her kitchen like that.
“Do sit down, dear,” Mrs. Edgewood urged.
“One more trip to the kitchen,” Juliana said, years of practice keeping her smile serene. “And this one will be the last. I promise.”
She put the coffee pot back on the sideboard and pushed the kitchen door open. When the door swung shut behind her, the man was still standing in the same spot.
He was wearing a worn pair of jeans, stained and grimy with grease—that was where the oil smell came from, Juliana realized. Over a dark T-shirt, he wore an unbuttoned plaid flannel shirt. The sleeves were rolled halfway up his forearms, and veins and tendons stood out against long, sinewy muscles. His hair was too short to pull back at the nape of his neck, but too long to be called short. It curled wildly about his head as if he hadn’t bothered to comb it after waking up. And he looked as if he hadn’t shaved in at least three days.