McKensie's Christmas Gift
A Second Chance Romance Novelette
Sweet & Clean
McKensie Cutter stomped snow off her boots and entered The Wycliffe Hotel. She closed her eyes and savored the familiar aroma of fresh bread. A beautiful autumn bouquet of flowers, twigs, and greenery sat on the reception counter that had been a part of the small hotel since the 1800s when her great-great-however-many greats-grandmother founded the inn.
Everything looked the way it had the last time she had visited two summers ago. She had been too busy to travel from Connecticut to Wyoming last summer, even though she had come every summer since age ten. Unfortunately, the “too busy” excuse was one she couldn’t take back.
Regret weighed down on her as she veered away from the lobby and reception area to the dining room. The summer white linens had been replaced by autumn greens and oranges, though she noticed a subtle difference in this year’s seasonal décor, as though the staff had attempted to mimic her aunt’s graceful and perfectly balanced style with their own.
She walked past the kitchen and storage area to her aunt’s office behind the small country hotel. No, McKensie reminded herself, this was now her office. She smoothed a hand over the desk situated in the center of the room. She recognized the nineteenth-century William IV mahogany writing table desk and complementary leather desk chair.
McKensie’s mother would have been disappointed if the years spent in their exclusive antique shop hadn’t rubbed off on her daughter. “Well, Aunt Olivia, you had spectacular taste.” Both pieces were new since she’d last visited, as was the round oak table and English bookcase that McKensie estimated was circa 1870. The room was a blend of rustic warmth and rich antiques, a look that shouldn’t have gone together, but did.
She lowered herself into the leather chair and smiled. Her aunt had positioned the desk to offer a view of the Teton Mountain Range and expanse of open land and forest between. The only office item missing was a computer, a tool McKensie knew her aunt refused to allow into what she considered her private sanctum.
“I’m sorry but you can’t—”
“It’s okay, I’m—” McKensie rose and faced the doorway. “Shirley!”
“Oh, my! McKensie Cutter!” Shirley Jessup, the longtime cook at The Wycliffe Hotel, hurried into the room. “You’ve come back!”
McKensie embraced the older woman and stood at attention for the same inspection she’d received every summer.
“You’re too skinny.”
“Not for long. I gained a pound just walking past the kitchen.” She grinned and brought the woman into her arms for another hug. “Do you still make that amazing coffee cake?”
“Same recipe since . . . oh heavens, 1880 when Caitlyn Marsh introduced it to the hotel menu. But I doubt it can compare to your cooking.” Shirley looked around the room, her smile somewhat faded. “This place has been in your family a lot of years. Hard to imagine it . . . without your aunt.”
The regret McKensie drove across the country with returned to the surface. “Yes, it is. She loved this place more than anything.”
“Now that isn’t so, and you know it. There was nothing on this earth Olivia loved more than you, but this place was a close second.”
The women shared a knowing smile. McKensie studied the room again. “It looks like she’s done a bit of decorating. I noticed a few new pieces when I walked through the foyer.”
“You know Olivia. She hated the idea of life moving forward and times changing. She upgraded where needed to keep the place standing, but she preferred living in the past.”
McKensie’s gaze fell on the beautiful English bookcase. “What happened to the original furniture she had in here? They belonged to Caitlyn.”
“Your aunt moved those into her cottage behind the hotel last year. Said she wanted them close to her.”
Last year, McKensie thought. Had her aunt known even then that her time was nearing the end? She shook the melancholy thoughts away and faced Shirley. “Does everyone know I’m back?”
Shirley nodded. “Your father and aunt’s lawyer sat us all down last week. You’re really staying?”
McKensie hadn’t been sure of her plans when the lawyer called. She’d only heard the day before from her father about her aunt’s passing. Now she owned The Wycliffe Hotel and had no idea what to do about it.
Her previous employer regretted losing McKensie. However, when you’re the head chef of a top-rated restaurant in a small town, business didn’t stop for any reason. The sous chef, trained by McKensie, had eagerly taken over the position. If asked, McKensie would admit to a sense of loss when she watched her apprentice take over the kitchen whose reputation she’d built over five years.
Life happened, and in McKensie’s case, it came with a new direction, a direction which terrified her. “Yes, I’m really staying.”
Cameron held the passenger door of his truck open and waited for his sister to climb out, her arms wrapped protectively around a thick binder. “Do you really need that thing?”
Julie narrowed her eyes and blew bangs away from her eyes. “This has everything. Shirley said she could handle things, but I’m not so sure. Olivia had a magic touch, and I want this day to be perfect. Though I’d give up a big wedding if it meant having Olivia back.”
Cameron closed the door and held onto his sister’s arm as they walked toward the main entrance. The parking area had been cleared, but cold temperatures had left sheets of black ice in the most inconvenient places.
“It’s going to be perfect, Julie. If Shirley said she has it covered, believe her.”
“Yes, well, I’m not so sure,” Julie murmured as they stepped inside the hotel. She inhaled a deep breath and sighed. “At least I know the food will be fabulous. That reminds me, do you have the meat order written down?”
“Since you told me two weeks ago.”
Julie’s frown told Cameron she didn’t appreciate his dry response. He grinned and held her monstrous binder while she removed her coat. He did the same and hung both coats on the rack behind the door.
He’d always loved the hotel. The only lodging in Wycliffe, Wyoming, the hotel was also one of the few original structures still standing. The town had only one main street. The post office, saloon-turned-bakery, and the general mercantile remained intact after a fire brought down most of the storefronts and homes in 1915.
When the residents rebuilt the town, they did so with impressive authenticity. The hotel laid claim to more than a century and a half of history, and Cameron never tired of Olivia’s stories whenever he delivered meat from his ranch.
Of course, the days of storytelling were over. His heart clenched at the reminder that he’d never see Olivia again. He waited while Julie spoke with the young woman at registration and took in the subtle changes in the foyer, sitting room, and beyond to the dining room.
Caitlyn Marsh’s legacy had lived on through generations of her family, and Olivia had preserved the history with class and honor. The Wycliffe Hotel was a business, but also a home, and Olivia had maintained a homelike atmosphere of comfort over the years. Her special touch was evident in every piece of furniture, artwork, and linen, though Cameron noticed the place somehow felt different.
Shirley had contacted him a few days ago to place their weekly order and mentioned the new owner should arrive soon. It seemed that Olivia hadn’t left the hotel to her brother, a successful corporate attorney who had spent more time in a saddle than behind a desk. Shirley hadn’t offered details, and Cameron hadn’t asked.
When the willowy brunette walked into the dining room and directly into Cameron’s line of sight, he knew he should have asked for those details.
“Shirley should be out in a few . . . Cameron?” Julie waved her hand in front of his face and he moved it away. “What gives?”
Cameron realized the moment when Julie noticed McKensie. They’d been close, and as far as Cameron knew, still kept in touch despite the distance and years.
He slowly faced his sister. “What do you mean ‘Oh, yeah’? You knew she was coming back?”
“In my defense, I was going to tell you. I just thought I’d have more time before she arrived. Dang, she made good time driving.”
“Julie. Please, stop talking.”
Cameron started for the front door.
“Oh, no. You’re not really running away, are you?” Julie’s hand gripped his arm, and she waited to speak again until he looked at her. “Look, I don’t know what happened between you two. McKensie never gave me the specifics and I didn’t pry, but I know you haven’t dated anyone since that summer two years ago. I also know you don’t hate her.”
Cameron didn’t know if he should be embarrassed because his younger sister scolded him in her own logical way or because of the unexpected reaction from both his mind and body when he saw McKensie.
“No, I don’t hate her.” He smiled for his sister’s benefit. “Go and meet with Shirley. I’m going to reacquaint myself with the hotel’s new owner.”
Julie cast him a worried glance as though she didn’t believe him. She left, but not without gaining a promise not to do anything stupid. Of course, he couldn’t keep the promise. When it came to McKensie Cutter, Cameron sometimes stepped over his own feet trying to untwist the jumbled mess of feelings she aroused.
When he turned around, McKensie no longer stood in the dining room. Cameron knew his way around and didn’t bother to ask or explain to anyone when he walked through the halls to the back of the hotel.
She stood behind the desk, her back to him, facing the window. He knew how much she loved the mountains, and it baffled him as to why she only allowed herself a few months every year to enjoy the place where she’d been born. Even as an adult, she kept to her rigid schedule, coming and going at the same time as the year before. Except last summer.
He believed her choice to stay away had been in part on account of him, and he was sorry for it. Because of him, she missed saying a last good-bye to someone she loved. As though she sensed him—or someone—behind her, McKensie shifted her feet and turned around. She didn’t appear surprised to see him.
“I wondered when I’d see you again.”
Cameron leaned against the doorframe, his hands jammed into his pockets. “Too soon?”
McKensie had thought of little else except her aunt, the hotel, and . . . Cameron Langdon since her arrival. The cross-country drive had been filled with sadness, without time left to remember the stolen and unforgettable summer she and Cameron had shared. Now that she was settled—in his town—he crept near the surface of her thoughts.
Too soon? She wasn’t sure any amount of time would have prepared her. “No. It was inevitable, and I know how much you loved my aunt.”
“She was the best of . . . everyone I’ve ever known.”
McKensie understood exactly what he meant. Olivia had a way of making everyone around her feel welcome and part of the family, even if she only knew them a few days.
More comfortable in a kitchen or alone for a quiet walk in nature, McKensie questioned how she’d ever broken down her barriers long enough to let Cameron into her heart. Just one summer. They’d agreed that at the end of those three months to live their own lives and remember their time together with fondness.
Except matters of the heart could not be boxed away into a tidy schedule.
“I noticed a file with your ranch’s name on it. You still supply the hotel’s meat. Not that you shouldn’t, of course you would, I just . . . never mind.”
Cameron pushed away from the doorframe and walked into the office. As he came closer, McKensie was grateful for the desk dividing the space them. He looked as good as he always had. His face bore the few days of stubble since he didn’t like to shave. His dark blond hair fell past his ears, again out of a dislike for barber shops and razors.
He grinned as though enjoying her discomfort. The moment managed to slice through the initial tension, and she returned his smile.
“I hope you’ll continue.”
He nodded and tapped his long finger on the desk. “My sister tells me I rush into things, but I have to ask. Are you staying or is this something else?”
“Julie is often right except I always liked that about you. I never rush into anything.” McKensie sighed on an exhale. “An hour ago, I wouldn’t have an answer to that question. I’m staying. I don’t know how long, but I do know Aunt Olivia deserved more from me.”
“You think you owe her this?” Cameron shook his head and started to walk around the desk. McKensie waited and relaxed when he remained on the other side. “Olivia never would have demanded anything from you. She cherished your summers together.”
“Only I didn’t make time last summer. I stayed away, too busy with my own life to visit. Yes, I owe her this.”
“Did you stay away because of what happened to us?”
McKensie didn’t have an answer to that question either. Her silence seemed to tell Cameron everything he needed to know.
“We agreed, and I don’t blame either of us,” Cameron said. “You certainly shouldn’t blame yourself.”
“I was a coward.” She whispered the words before she had a chance to think through the consequences. Words she was unable to take back hung in the air between them.
“No, you weren’t. If anyone—”
“There you are! Oh my!” Julie rushed into office, shoved her wedding binder into Cameron’s arms, and embraced McKensie. Half a head shorter and deceptively strong, Julie almost lifted McKensie off the floor. “I saw you earlier, but . . . well, you deserved a proper hello.” Julie stepped back, her smile faltering as she glanced between her longtime friend and her brother. “Did I just step in something?”
“Not at all.” McKensie fought back the emotions threatening to rise. “Cameron and I were catching up. I planned to call you tomorrow.”
Julie waved away what was about to be an excuse. “I was already coming over and this is better.”
McKensie looked from Julie to Cameron. “What do you mean, ‘already’?”
“Oh.” Julie’s lips formed a small circle and then turned upward into a goofy grin. “Yeah, well Kensie, you were so busy and then everything with your aunt . . . and then you said you were coming back so I didn’t want to give you one more thing to think about.”
McKensie knew she didn’t keep in touch as well as she should. She liked to work, she hated phones, and wished more people did crazy things like write letters or send postcards. “Let me guess. Whatever the news, you posted it somewhere on some place I don’t know about.”
“You and Cam are too much alike. He hates social media, too. Yes, I shared the news online. I know, tacky, but everyone is too spread out these days.”
A headache encroached McKensie’s already taxed brain. She loved Julie, always had, but sometimes her friend’s energy levels were too much for someone who spent most of her time with food. “You know you can always call and tell me anything. What’s the news?”
Julie thrust out her hand beneath McKensie’s nose. “Josh proposed!”
“Wow, Julie.” She pulled her friend into her arms. “Congratulations! When did this happen?”
“Just over two weeks ago.”
Around the time her aunt passed away. “I’m so sorry, Julie. I know how much you cared about Olivia and to have that happen at the same time . . . she would have been thrilled.”
“Actually, she was there when it happened in the hotel dining room over a romantic dinner. Apparently, she and Shirley were in on the surprise with Josh.”
The fog cleared from McKensie’s brain. “And knowing my aunt, she insisted you have the wedding here.”
“Yeah. I thought about moving the location, but Shirley insisted we still have it at the hotel, and Olivia—”
“Wouldn’t have wanted you to change a thing. I get it. Yes, you’ll have it here.” McKensie prided herself on handling tense situations, a handy talent when managing a kitchen. She avoided looking at Cameron throughout her conversation with Julie and realized he hadn’t moved, patient as ever. “When is the wedding?”
“The week before Christmas.”
McKensie raised a brow and studied her friend. “That’s fast.”
Julie shrugged. “When it’s right, it’s right. That reminds me, I have one more thing to ask Shirley about the food. Meet you in the foyer in ten, big brother.” She stopped at the door and pointed to McKensie. “I will call you tomorrow. We have so much to catch up on.”
Julie exited the office with as much excitement as she entered. McKensie replayed some of her last words over in her mind. When it’s right, it’s right.
She met Cameron’s gaze and for a few seconds, his heart-melting brown eyes stole away every rational thought.
His slow smile brought to mind a wild animal who just figured out how to capture its prey. “You’ll be here for Christmas.”
He hadn’t asked a question but she nodded. “I don’t have a schedule or a time frame. I’m doing this for Olivia, and when I figure out the rest—”
“You’ll what?” Cameron prodded her to finish the thought.
“I don’t know yet.” For the first time since she heard about her aunt’s death, McKensie wanted to give up, walk away, and find a quiet river to pitch a tent and close out the world. The last time she considered running away was when her mother told her they were moving to Connecticut when she was ten. “I didn’t get to say good-bye.”
Cameron said nothing. He walked around the desk, encircled her with his strong arms, and held her close as she cried on his shoulder.
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Excerpted from McKensie's Christmas Wish by McKenna Grey. Copyright © 2016 by McKenna Grey. Published by Trappers Peak Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the author or publisher.