2017 sure has a busy, eventful year. We started the beginning of it spendingWAY TOO MUCHtime in hospitals. Those moments, living in limbo, sure do make you cherish the time your loved ones are healthy. I’m thankful, that today, all my family members are at home to share this holiday season with me. I hope you all can say the same. No matter where you’re at, no matter what holiday you celebrate this month (if any), enjoy your day. Enjoy life.
Gather ‘round the Christmas tree with your favorite Cranes…
Eli and Isabella Crane are hosting a very special Christmas gathering this year. Join Reese and Merina, Tag and Rachel, and even Alex “Big” and Rhona for a magical evening filled with love, laughter, and a few surprises that aren’t wrapped in ribbon…
This short story serves as an epilogue to the Billionaire Bad Boys series. If you haven’t read the series yet, you may encounter spoilers!
“Well, I didn’t know I’d be hosting this year, maybe that’s why I’m crabby.” Eli fussed with his bowtie before grousing at his wife’s reflection behind him in the bathroom mirror. Isa wore the usual bemused expression on a face so beautiful it still hurt a little to look at her. It hurt because of how close his bumbling had come to losing her.
Thank God she was as stubborn as he was.
“You’re crabby every day. It’s what I love about you.” She dragged her fingernails over his crisp, white shirt and smiled. She wore a slinky, sequined black gown that accentuated her voluptuous figure and made his mouth water. Her beauty had always contrasted his “beast” nicely.
“How much time do we have?” His eyes feasted on the low V-neck, danced around her luscious hips and jerked back to whiskey-colored eyes he couldn’t get enough of.
“Don’t even think about it. Your family is due to arrive any minute.”
“Why are we dressed like this if everyone is coming here?” His warehouse was more rustic and comfortable than formal. His frown returned, but only so that his wife would tut at his tone.
“You know why.”
He’d been the last to know—or at least he felt like it.
“Tag ruins everything.” He turned to face her, but some of the bite went out of his tone when his hands found her supple hips. Fingers digging into the dress’s material, he growled, “I’d like to take you out of this dress.”
A former job-hopper, Jessica Lemmon resides in Ohio with her husband and rescue dog. She holds a degree in graphic design currently gathering dust in an impressive frame. When she’s not writing super-sexy heroes, she can be found cooking, drawing, drinking coffee (okay, wine), and eating potato chips. She firmly believes God gifts us with talents for a purpose, and with His help, you can create the life you want.
It’s Christmas in Copper Ridge, and love is waiting to be unwrapped…
Falling for a bad boy once is forgivable. Twice would just be foolish. When Sabrina Leighton first offered her teenage innocence to gorgeous, tattooed Liam Donnelly, he humiliated her, then left town. The hurt still lingers. But so does that crazy spark. And if they have to work together to set up her family winery’s new tasting room by Christmas, why not work him out of her system with a sizzling affair?
Thirteen years ago, Liam’s boss at the winery offered him a bribe—leave his teenage daughter alone and get a full ride at college. Convinced he wasn’t good enough for Sabrina, Liam took it. Now he’s back, as wealthy as sin and with a heart as cold as the Oregon snow. Or so he keeps telling himself. Because the girl he vowed to stay away from has become the only woman he needs, and this Christmas could be just the beginning of a lifetime together…
Though being a favorite in their household growing up would never have meant much, Liam was confident that as much as both of his parents disdained their younger son, Alex, they hated Liam more.
As much as his brothers loved him—or, whatever you wanted to call their brand of affection—Liam knew he wasn’t the one they’d carry out if there was a house fire. That was fine too.
It wasn’t self-pity. It was just a fact.
But while he wasn’t anyone’s particular favorite, he knew he was at least one person’s least favorite.
Sabrina Leighton hated him with every ounce of her beautiful, petite body. Not that he blamed her. But, considering they were having a business meeting today, he did hope that she could keep some of the hatred bottled up.
Liam got out of his truck and put his cowboy hat on, surveying his surroundings. The Grassroots winery spread was beautiful, with a large, picturesque home overlooking the grounds. The winery and the road leading up to it were carved into a mountainside. Trees and forest surrounded the facility on three sides, creating a secluded feeling. Like the winery was part of another world. In front of the first renovated barn was a sprawling lawn and a path that led down to the river. There was a seating area there and Liam knew that during the warmer months it was a nice place to hang out. Right now, it was too damned cold, and the damp air that blew up from the rushing water sent a chill straight through him.
He shoved his hands in his pockets and kept on walking. There were three rustic barns on the property that they used for weddings and dinners, and one that had been fully remodeled into a dining and tasting room.
He had seen the new additions online. He hadn’t actually been to Grassroots in the past thirteen years. That was part of the deal. The deal that had been struck back when Jamison Leighton was still owner of the place.
Back when Liam had been nothing more than a good-for-nothing, low-class troublemaker with a couple of misdemeanors to his credit.
Liam might still be all of those things at heart, but he was also a successful businessman. And Jamison Leighton no longer owned Grassroots Winery.
Some things, however, hadn’t changed. The presence of Sabrina Leighton being one of them.
It had been thirteen years. But he couldn’t pretend that he thought everything was all right and forgiven. Not considering the way she had reacted when she had seen him at Ace’s bar the past few months. Small towns.
Like everybody was at the same party and could only avoid each other for so long.
If it wasn’t at the bar, they would most certainly end up at a four-way stop at the same time, or in the same aisle at the grocery store.
But today’s meeting would not be accidental. Today’s meeting was planned. He wondered if something would get thrown at him. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time.
He walked across the gravel lot and into the dining room. It was empty, since the facility had yet to open for the day.
rustic barn with a wooden chandelier hanging in the center. There was a bar with stools positioned at the front, and tables set up around the room. Back when he had worked here there had been one basic tasting room, and nowhere for anyone to sit. Most of the wine had been sent out to retail stores for sale, rather than making the winery itself some kind of destination.
He wondered when all of that had changed. He imagined it had something to do with Lindy, the new owner and ex-wife of Jamison Leighton’s son, Damien. As far as Liam knew, and he knew enough—considering he didn’t get involved with business ventures without figuring out what he was getting into—Damien had drafted the world’s dumbest prenuptial agreement. At least, it was dumb for a man who clearly had problems keeping it in his pants.
Though why Sabrina was still working at the winery when her sister-in-law had current ownership, and her brother had been deposed, and her parents were—from what he had read in public records—apoplectic about the loss of their family legacy, he didn’t know. But he assumed he would find out. About the same time he found out whether or not something was going to get thrown at his head.
The door from the back opened, and he gritted his teeth. Because, no matter how prepared he felt philosophically to see Sabrina, he knew that there would be impact. There always was. A damned funny thing, that one woman could live in the back of his mind the way that she had for so long. That no matter how many years, or how many women he put between them, she still burned bright and hot in his memory.
That no matter how he had prepared himself to run into her—because he knew how small towns worked—the impact was like a brick to the side of his head every single time.
And no matter that this meeting was carefully orchestrated and planned, he knew it was going to be the same.
And it was.
She appeared a moment after the door opened, looking severe. Overly so. Her blond hair was pulled back into a high ponytail, and she was wearing a black sheath dress that went down past her knee, but conformed to curves that were more generous than they’d been thirteen years ago.
In a good way.
“Hello, Liam,” she said, her tone impersonal. Had she not used his first name, it might have been easy to pretend that she didn’t know who he was.
“Sabrina.” The word came out neutrally enough, but he couldn’t ignore the fact that he could taste it. Like honey on his lips. Sweet. Enticing.
Something he hadn’t tasted in far too long.
Sabrina didn’t seem to feel the moment at all. Her expression remained cool. Her lips set in a flat line, her blue eyes looking through him.
“Lindy told me that you wanted to talk about a potential joint venture. And since that falls under my jurisdiction as manager of the tasting room, she thought we might want to work together.”
She finally smiled.
The smile was so brittle it looked like it might crack her face.
“Yes, I am familiar with the details. Particularly since this venture was my idea.” He let a small silence hang there for a beat before continuing. “I’m looking at an empty building at the end of Main Street in Copper Ridge. I think it would be a great opportunity for both The Laughing Irish and for Grassroots. A tasting room that’s more easily accessible to the tourists who come to Copper Ridge.”
“How would it differ from Lane Donnelly’s store? She sells specialty foods.”
“Well, we would focus on Grassroots Wine and Laughing Irish cheese. Also, I would happily purchase products from Lane’s to give the menu a local focus. It would be nothing big. Just a small lunch place with wine. Very limited selection. Very specialty. But in a town like Copper Ridge, that works well. People want wander the historic main street and shop in boutiques. A place that offers the change to sit and have a short break is perfect.”
“Great,” she said, her smile remaining completely immobile.
He took that moment to examine her even more closely. She was more beautiful now than she had been at seventeen. Her slightly round, soft face had refined in the ensuing years, her cheekbones now more prominent, the angle of her chin sharper.
Her eyebrows looked different too. When she’d been a teenager they had been thinner, rounder. Now they were stronger, more angular.
“Great,” he returned. “I guess we can go down and have a look at everything sometime this week. Gage West is the owner of the property, and he hasn’t listed it yet. Handily, my sister-in-law is good friends with his wife. Both of my sisters-in-law, actually. So I’ve got the inside track on that.”
Her expression turned bland. “How impressive.”
She sounded absolutely unimpressed. “It wasn’t intended to be impressive. Just useful.”
Her lips twitched, like she was holding back a smile. But not a particularly nice smile. “Well, aim for what you can achieve I suppose.”
“I didn’t say I couldn’t be impressive if I had the mind to be,” he said, unwilling to let that dig go.
Her lips twitched again, bit this time he sensed a lot more irritation than he had before. “That won’t be necessary.” She cleared her throat. “Lindy and I had discussed a shopfront in Gold Valley, since it’s slightly closer to the winery, and at the moment retail space is cheaper there. Why are you thinking Copper Ridge? Aside from the fact that it’s closer to your ranch.”
. It’s definitely on its way, but it’s not there yet.”
“But it’s on its way like you said. Property values are only going to go up.”
“Property values in Copper Ridge already have. And oceanside real estate isn’t going to get cheaper. At the price Gage is willing to sell for we’ll come in with equity.”
She looked irritated, but clearly didn’t have another argument ready. She sighed slowly. “Did you have a day of the week in mind to go view the property? Because I really am very busy.”
“Yes,” she responded, that smile spreading over her face again. “This is a very demanding job, plus, I do have a life.”
She stopped short of saying exactly what that life entailed.
“Too busy to work on this project, which is part of your actual job?” he asked.
She looked calm, but he could sense a dark energy beneath the surface that spoke of a need to savage him. “I had my schedule sorted out for the next couple of weeks. This is coming together more quickly than expected.”
“I’ll work something out with Gage and give Lindy a call, how about that?”
“You don’t have to call Lindy. I’ll give you my phone number. You can call or text me directly.”
She reached over to the counter and chose a card from the rustic surface, extending her hand toward him. He took the card, their fingertips brushing each other as they made the handoff.
And he felt it. Straight down to his groin, where he had always felt things for her, even though it was impossible. Even though he was all wrong for her. And even though now they were doing a business deal together, and she looked like she would cheerfully chew through his flesh if given half the chance.
She might be smiling. But he didn’t trust that smile. He was still waiting. Waiting for her to shout recriminations at him now that they were alone. Every other time he had encountered her over the past four months it had been in public. Twice in Ace’s bar, and once walking down the street, where she had made a very quick sharp left to avoid walking past him.
It had not been subtle, and it had certainly not spoken of somebody who was over the past.
So, his assumption had been that if the two of them were ever alone she was going to let them have it. But she didn’t. Instead, she gave him that card, and then began to look…bored.
“Did you need anything else?” she asked, still looking determinedly cheerful.
“Not really. Though I have some spreadsheet information that you might want to look over. Ideas that I have for the layout, the menu. It is getting a little ahead of ourselves, in case we end up not liking the venue.”
“You’ve been to look at the venue already, haven’t you?” It was vaguely accusatory.
“I have been to the venue, yes. But again, I believe in preparedness. I was hardly going to get very deep into this if I didn’t think it was viable. Personally, I’m interested in making sure that we have diverse interests. The economy doesn’t typically favor farms, Sabrina. And that is essentially what my brothers and I have. I expect an uphill fight to make the ranch successful.”
She tilted her head to the side. “And yet, our winery is well-established and very healthy.”
“But Lindy wants to expand, I’m not incorrect about that. She was very interested in this proposition, and not only that, she’s started hosting weddings and farm-to-table dinners, right?”
“You know you’re right,” she said. “Like you said, you do your research.”
Her friendliness was beginning to slip. And he waited. For something else. For something to get thrown at him. It didn’t happen.
“That I do. Take these,” he said, handing her the folder that he was holding on to. He made sure their fingers didn’t touch this time. “And we’ll talk next week.”
Then he turned and walked away from her, and resisted the strong impulse to turn back and get one more glance at her. It wasn’t the first time he had resisted that.
Ex NFL star + snarky single mom = a touchdown of a holiday romance
After two Super Bowl rings, MVP status, and retiring from the NFL while still on top, Mitch “Flash” Flashman’s millions should make life at the ripe old age of thirty-five a blessing. Yet he’s restless, rudderless, and can’t tell up from down. Roped into helping his brother coach a bunch of teenagers, Mitch finds himself playing defense against the many women in town wanting his attention. Except for one particular woman who doesn’t seem to like him much. Becka Bragg is mouthy, vulnerable, and sexy, and she captivates Mitch despite himself. But Mitch has no time for a sexy single mom when he’s still trying to figure out who he really is. With the playoffs, a boy’s future, and his own heart on the line, he’ll need to figure out how to pull the ultimate victory—winning Becka’s heart and keeping it. For good.
Mitch was cold, hungry, and had a headache growing at the thought of the many people outside who would want to talk to him. He knew it came with the territory, but man, he’d love to just be average Mitch Flashman again. A simple guy who wanted nothing more than a cold beer and a plate of warm nachos to end the week.
Davey Madison popped his head around the lockers. “Hey, Coach? My mom wants to talk to you.”
Mitch contained a groan. “I’ll be out in a few minutes. I’ll meet her by the concession stand, okay?”
Davey nodded and left.
Mitch rubbed his face, suddenly bone-tired.
“She just wants in your pants.”
He spun to see Simon smirking at him.
“Mrs. Madison. She’s got a thing for you, like half the other moms out there.” Simon shoved his hands in his pockets, a tall kid swimming in a man’s coat a few sizes too large for his build. His light-brown hair needed a cut but seemed to fit the typical teenage style of too long and too shaggy. “Apparently you’re rich and handsome. I think I heard one of them call you sexy too.”
Mitch tried to play it off, though he felt his cheeks heating. Damn. Nothing like being a celebrity who hated the limelight and blushed too easily. Oh yeah, I’m macho and manly, alright. “Yep, that’s me. Sexy and handsome.”
“And rich, don’t forget that.” Simon grinned. The kid seemed to be enjoying Mitch’s discomfort.
Nothing like being wanted for your money. “Not your mom, though?”
Simon chuckled, his hazel eyes sparkling. “Nah, my mom thinks you’re an ass. ‘Night, Coach.” He left with a spring in his step.
Behind him, Deacon guffawed. “I do like that kid.”
“You would.” He walked slowly out of the locker room with his brother. “So what did you think?”
“About your crappy speech, the game, or the fact that we’re about to be mobbed by women who want in your pants?”
“Sometimes I really hate you. You know that?”
“Yep, little brother. I do.” Deacon put him in a headlock and dragged him out the door. “But hey, I did my time. You’re the new celebrity on the block. Roll with it.”
Mitch got free. “So was I too harsh on the kids? It’s only my third game helping out.”
“And I’m glad you are. Stan’s flu couldn’t have come at a worse time. The pub has me running ragged, what with that distributor problem and Roy out of town.” He groaned. “What a sucky time for his wife to go into labor.”
Mitch shook his head. “Such compassion for your best friend.”
Deacon laughed. “Right? I’m kidding. I wish Jess would have had the baby here though. Nope. Had to be down in Houston with her folks. She’s robbing me of my business partner!”
“What was she thinking?”
Roy had what they both wanted—a great job, a loving wife, and now a new baby. Deacon, like Mitch, had played pro ball. He’d had seven amazing years as a starring quarterback before he’d blown out his right shoulder to the point he couldn’t throw with the speed and accuracy he’d once had. A brutal divorce had stolen even more happiness, until Deacon had nearly quit everything—football, family, breathing…
Mitch had tried to help his brother, but he knew seeing him only reminded Deacon of all he’d lost. Their parents hadn’t known what to do either.
But good old Roy, Deacon’s best friend before, during, and after the NFL, had thrown Deacon a lifeline. Now Deacon was a partner in a thriving brewpub, head coach for a high school football team in a dream of a town, and had recently even dipped his toe back into the dating game.
“You know, all these women aren’t just here for me,” Mitch told him. “You’re fair game, from what I hear.”
“Ah, but I’m damaged goods.” Funny, Deacon didn’t seem too upset over the fact. “You’re rich and retired. Money, fame, fortune. You, little bro, have it all.”
“What I’ve got is a headache,” he grumbled as they passed many well-wishers. Parents from both teams shook his hand and made small talk, everyone wanting to touch the man who’d once been an MVP in the NFL. As if touching him would guarantee their kid’s own success. At least they bugged Deacon too. That made him feel a little better.
Mitch kept it together as they drew closer to the concession stand, encountering a rare moment of peace from the dispersing crowd. “God, kill me know. Deacon, don’t even think of leaving me to deal with her by myself.” He grabbed his brother by the sleeve and held on for dear life, having spotted Linda Madison’s flailing hands and bright smile.
Deacon didn’t try to hide his grin. “Mrs. Future Flash is waiting for you.”
Mitch shot him the death glare.
“Look, I’ll do my best to block for you,” Deacon conceded. “But you’d have an easier time saying no if you actually said no.”
“I did.” Mitch groaned. “The woman is like a pit bull, and her friends are just as bad. I tried to tell them I’m not interested. Yes, them, because all of them have made some not-so-subtle moves. It’s not funny,” he snapped.
Deacon continued to laugh.
“Hey, it’s not as if I’m out screwing half the town. I don’t want to date some pushy yokel so she can tweet about having landed the ‘Amazing Flash.’” He grimaced. “I have standards.”
“And so do we,” a husky voice muttered from behind him. “Come on, Simon. Let’s get away from God’s gift to women before I accidentally throw myself at him. I suddenly feel nauseous.”
He turned to see Simon grinning widely before the kid hurried to accompany two pretty, dark-haired women away. Mitch couldn’t be sure which one had insulted him, but tired, he couldn’t bring himself to care.
“Wow. You really do come across as a huge ass,” Deacon said. “Simon’s mom is right.”
“Huge.” Deacon dragged him faster toward the gaggle of women standing with Linda and Davey. “Hey, Linda. Look who I have with me? Flash wants to talk to you.”
Should totally have drowned him in third grade when I had the chance.
Award-winning author Marie Harte has been writing professionally since 2005. She’s both a NY Times and USA Today bestselling author and has written over 100 books and counting. Marie writes books with heat, humor, and Harte. ♥
She writes independently and for several publishers, to include Sourcebooks and Entangled. Though currently writing contemporary romance, she also writes paranormal and romantic suspense. Basically, everything romance with a touch of spice.
Before turning to writing full-time, she earned a B.A. in English from Pennsylvania State University and spent several years in the United States Marine Corps as a communications officer.
Marie currently lives in Central Oregon with her family. There’s nothing she likes more than finding a good book to read and a great cup of coffee to drink.
Run for the hills—temporarily. That’s Colbie Albright’s plan when she flees New York for San Francisco. Wrangling her crazy family by day and writing a bestselling YA fantasy series by night has taken its toll. In short, Colbie’s so over it that she’s under it. She’s also under the waters of a historic San Francisco fountain within an hour of arrival. Fortunately, the guy who fishes Colbie out has her looking forward to Christmas among strangers. But she’s pretty sure Spencer Baldwin won’t be a stranger for long.
Spence’s commitment to hiding from the Ghosts of Relationships Past means he doesn’t have to worry about the powerful—okay, crazy hot—chemistry he’s got with Colbie. Just because she can laugh at anything, especially herself… just because she’s gorgeous and a great listener…just because she “gets” Spence immediately doesn’t mean he won’t be able to let Colbie go. Does it?
…and hope for a miracle.
Now the clock’s ticking for Colbie and Spence: Two weeks to cut loose. Two weeks to fall hard. Two weeks to figure out how to make this Christmas last a lifetime.
Colbie Albright stood in the crowded LaGuardia Airport staring up at the flight departure board. Her chest was tight and her throat felt like it was closing in.
Classic anxiety, she told herself. Just breathe right through it.
Not that her body listened to her brain. Her body rarely listened to good sense.
In any case, it was December 1 and people were rushing all around her like chickens without their heads, while she stood still trying to figure out her choice of destination. Her only requirements were warm and tropical. An exotic beach would fit the bill perfectly.
Oooh, I wanna take you . . .
Great, and now the Beach Boys song was stuck in her head. Doing her best to shake it off, she eyed the board again. So many choices for a twenty-eight-year-old runaway with a packed bag and no regrets.
From inside her purse her phone vibrated and she grimaced. Okay, so there were regrets. Buckets of them that made her suitcase feel like a thousand pounds and sucked the air from her lungs, but she refused to let herself turn tail and go back.
She was doing this.
But even as she thought it, the board changed and a bunch of the flights—all the southbound ones—blinked off and came back on … showing as delayed or cancelled.
“A surprise late season hurricane,” someone said in disgust next to her. “Of course.”
Okay, so she wasn’t going south. There was a flight to Toronto in twenty minutes but Toronto was the opposite of warm and tropical, and plus it wouldn’t give her enough time to grab some breakfast. Apparently running away really ramped up a girl’s appetite…
That’s when her gaze locked on a flight leaving for San Francisco in an hour. Huh. California, the land of celebrities, avocados, surfer dudes. She’d never really had a chance to enjoy any of those things. In fact, LaGuardia was the furthest she’d been from home in three years. But hey, there was a first time for everything, right?
She nodded, psyching herself up for this. After years of taking care of her family and working herself half to death, she deserved this. She needed this.
So…San Francisco or bust.
It would work, she assured herself. Getting away would allow her to find her muse again, her love for the writing. And so, convinced, she strode to the ticket counter.
Fifteen minutes later, she hit the very long, very slow-moving security line. Surrounded by people complaining about the wait, she was in the process of removing her laptop, her sweater, her shoes, her watch, and her bracelet and was patting herself down to make sure she’d gotten everything out of her pockets when a TSA agent pulled her aside.
“Oh,” she said, “I’m not carrying any liquids over three ounces.”
The guy shrugged. “Random female,” he said. “That your bag?”
“Yes.” This was what she got for buying a last-minute one-way ticket and she bit her lower lip as the agent started to go through her things. She favored layers, especially tees and sweaters with loose skirts or yoga pants—even though she’d never been to a yoga class in her life. He pawed through everything, pausing at the sight of her bunny slippers—which, hey, totally completed her favorite writing uniform.
“My three-year-old kid has these,” he said and then kept going, alternately looking up at the X-ray monitor and down at her bag, clearly seeking something specific. He moved aside a lightweight jersey dress and she grimaced as some lacy, silky things were exposed. Maybe her clothes were nothing special but she did have a thing about what she wore beneath them, her one concession to feeling sexy in this crazy life she’d built where she didn’t have time to actually be sexy . . .
Luckily for his health, the agent’s stoic expression never changed. No doubt he’d seen it all and couldn’t care less as he dug past her favorite peach lace bra-and-panty set, a box of tampons, and . . .
“Ah,” he said, holding up an apple.
“Are apples a problem?” Colbie asked.
“They sometimes look weird on the screen.”
“No weirdness here,” she said. “Just a morning snack. It’s not even poisonous.” She added a harmless smile.
He didn’t return it, because he was staring at some papers she’d paper-clipped and shoved in her bag to read on the plane. “How to murder people by poison without detection,” he read aloud.
The woman behind Colbie gasped in horror.
“Okay,” Colbie said, pointing to them. “That’s not what it looks like.”
The woman behind her, cradling a leopard-print cat carrier, had turned and was frantically whispering to the people behind her.
“Really,” Colbie said. “It’s a funny story, actually.”
But the TSA guy was flipping through her notes, not even remotely interested in her funny story. He didn’t need to read aloud what he was looking at, because she knew exactly what was there—other Google searches, such as how to get away with murder using a variety of different everyday products that weren’t considered weapons. “It’s research,” she said to the room.
“Yeah, that’s probably what I’d say too,” a guy said from somewhere behind her.
Colbie didn’t look back; she just kept her gaze on the TSA agent, trying to look nonthreatening as she said something she rarely if ever said aloud. “I’m a writer.”
“Uh-huh.” He pulled out his radio now with an ominous “Female agent, please.”
“Oh, pluck it!” she snapped.
The agent narrowed his gaze. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing bad,” she said. “That’s the point. See, we’ve got this swear jar at home, which means I’ve gone broke swearing, so I say other stuff instead of bad words. Stuff that sounds like bad words but isn’t. I don’t lose any money that way, and—” She broke off because he didn’t appear impressed. “Look, never mind that,” she said. “Just believe me, I’m not a problem. You saw the bunny slippers, right?”
“Ma’am,” he said, pulling her bag aside. “I’m going to need you to come with me.”
“No, really! If you look in my purse, you’ll see it’s filled with scraps of paper, napkins, whatever, all with handwritten notes on them. I write notes for my books all the time. Plot points. Characterization stuff. Just little things, really. For instance . . .” She looked around and gestured to the woman behind her. “‘Crazy cat lady with a leopard-print cat carrier—’”
“Hey,” the crazy cat lady with the leopard-print cat carrier said.
Colbie ignored her. “—or ‘friendly, sweet, kind TSA agent with a heart of gold…’” she said, and added a flirty, hopefully innocent-looking smile. “I use the notes in my books. It adds color and heart to the story and all that.”
The agent’s eyes were still suspicious, but at least he opened her purse to check her story. And just as she’d said, it was filled with what probably looked like trash but were in fact little treasures to be revisited and added to her manuscript.
“What do you write?” he asked, unraveling a small square bar napkin and staring at the words she’d scribbled on it: Icicle—the perfect weapon. It melts and vanishes!
The agent lifted his gaze and leveled it on her.
“Cheese and rice!” she exclaimed and drew a deep, calming breath. It didn’t help. “Okay, listen,” she said. “It’s not what it looks like. I write young adult action-adventure. Postapocalyptic world.” She was hoping to not have to go further than that, but the expression on his face told her she was on borrowed time. “The characters are teenagers with powers they acquired in the radioactive war,” she added.
“And these teenagers, they . . . kill people?”
“No,” she said. “But the bad guys do. And it’s fiction. You know, made-up stuff.” She pointed to her brain and shook her head, like See? Harmless. “And so really, all this is for naught. It’s not like I’ve got a bomb in my bag or anything.”
In hindsight, she probably shouldn’t have mentioned the word bomb. She missed her flight and almost the next one, instead becoming intimate, very intimate, with a pair of female TSA agents.
She also missed breakfast.
And the nap she’d been counting on since she hadn’t slept more than a few hours in so long she couldn’t remember what a good night’s sleep felt like.
Not exactly an auspicious beginning to her vacation from life, but hopefully all her trouble was behind her now and the rest of the trip would be perfect.
A girl could dream anyway…
Eight hours later, she pressed her face to the window of her plane as it banked and came in for a landing at SFO International. They’d been diverted twice for too much air traffic, which turned out to be a blessing because they came in from the north, giving her a view of the Golden Gate Bridge glowing red in the late afternoon sun. The bay was a gorgeous sparkling blue, all of it looking like a postcard, and something in her tight chest loosened. It seemed like the entire world was laid out in front of her and she brought a hand up to the window as if she could actually touch the sight.
This, she told herself. This was exactly what the doctor had ordered—if she’d actually gone to a doctor for her anxiety and crippling writer’s block. Here she would find herself, so that by the time she went back home in three weeks for Christmas Eve, she’d be happy again.
When Sean O’Riley shows up at the Hartford Bed & Breakfast for his older brother’s bachelor weekend, he’s planning to get through this weekend as well as he can and fulfill his duties as best man. What he’s not expecting is to come face to face with the woman he lost his virginity to a decade ago—a woman he’s never really forgotten. The last time Lotti Hartford saw Sean, she told him she loved him while he said nothing. Now, ten years later, she’s just looking for a good time. For once, she wants to be wild and free, and when she sees how good Sean grew up, she thinks he might actually be the perfect candidate. As the weekend continues, Sean realizes that after a lifetime of being the hook-up king, he’s ready to find happily-ever-after with Lotti. But is she ready to open her heart once again? As Christmas sweeps through the little B&B, love and magic are in the air.
To say Sean felt stressed was a huge understatement. Give him a cliff to scale or a bar brawl to break up. Hell, give him a freight train to try to outrun, anything but having to pull off being the best man for his brother Finn’s wedding—including but not limited to keeping said brother from losing his collective shit.
It’s not like Sean didn’t understand. Getting married was a big deal. Okay, so he didn’t fully understand, not really, but he wanted to. He really did. And how funny was that? Sean O’Riley, younger brother, hook-up king extraordinaire, was suddenly tired of the game and found himself aching for his own forever after.
“We almost there?” Finn asked him from the backseat of the vehicle Sean was driving.
“And you double checked on our reservations?”
“No, I’m serious, man,” Finn said. “Remember when you took me to Vegas and when we got there, every hotel was booked and we had to stay at the Magic-O motel?”
“Man, a guy screws up one time…”
“We had a stripper pole in our rooms, Sean.”
Sean sighed. “Okay, but to be fair, that was back when I was still in my stupid phase. I promise you that we have reservations—no stripper poles. I even double and triple checked, just like you asked me a hundred and one times. Pru, I hope you realize you’re marrying a nag.”
Pru, Finn’s fiancée, laughed from the shotgun position. “Hey, one of us has to be the nag in this relationship, and it isn’t me.”
Sean held up a palm and Pru leaned over the console to give him a high-five.
“Just so you know,” Sean said to Finn, “I didn’t pick this place, your woman did.”
“True story,” Pru said. “The B&B’s closed to the public this entire weekend. Sean booked the whole place for our bachelor/bachelorette party weekend extravaganza.”
“I superheroed this thing,” Sean said.
Finn snorted and let loose of a small smile because they both knew that for most of Sean’s childhood, that’s what he’d aspired to be, a superhero—sans tights though. Tights had never been Sean’s thing, especially after suffering through them for two seasons in high school football before he’d mercifully cracked his clavicle.
After that, he’d turned to fighting, and not the good kind either. Finn, physically older by seven years, mentally older by about a hundred, had single-handedly saved Sean from just about every situation he’d ever landed himself in. Thanks to Finn, there’d been a lot fewer situations than there should’ve been and it hadn’t been for lack of trying.
Fact was, everyone knew Sean had taken the slowest possible route on his way to growing up, complete with plenty of detours, but he’d hit his stride now. Or at least he hoped so because Finn was counting on him in a big way over the next week and Sean had let him down enough for a lifetime. He wouldn’t let him down now.
Sean pulled into the B&B’s parking lot and turned to face the crowd he’d driven from San Francisco to Napa. And he did mean crowd. They’d had to rent a fourteen-seat passenger van to fit everyone, and he was the weekend’s designated driver.
Oh, how times had changed. “Ready?” he asked.
Finn nodded. Pru was bouncing up and down in her seat with excitement. Willa, her BFF, was doing the same. Keane, Willa’s boyfriend, opened the door for everyone to tumble out.
It was two weeks before Christmas and the rolling hills of Napa Valley were lined with grape vines for as far as the eye could see, not that they could actually see them right now. It was late, pitch dark, and rain had been pouring down steadily all day, which didn’t detract from the beauty of the Victorian B&B in front of them. It did, however, detract from Sean’s eagerness to go out in the rain to get to it though.
Not Pru and Willa. The two raced through the downpour laughing and holding hands with Elle, Colbie, Kylie, and Tina—the rest of Pru’s posse—moving more cautiously in deference to the preservation of their heels. Sean, Finn, and Finn’s posse—Archer, Keane, Spence, and Joe—followed.
They all tumbled in the front door of the B&B and stopped short in awe of the place decorated with what had to be miles of garland and lights, along with a huge Christmas tree done up in all the bells and whistles. This place could’ve passed for Santa’s own house.
Collectively the group “oohed” and “ahhhed” before turning expectedly to Sean.
This was because he was actually in charge of the weekend’s activities that would lead up to the final countdown to the wedding happening next week at a winery about twenty minutes up the road. This was what a best man did apparently, take care of stuff. All the stuff. And that Finn had asked Sean to be his best man in the first place over any of the close friends with them this weekend had the pride overcoming his anxiety of screwing it all up.
But the anxiety was making a real strong bid right at the moment. He shook off some of the raindrops and started to head over to the greeting desk and twelve people began to follow. He stopped and was nearly plowed over by the parade. “Wait here,” he instructed, pausing until his very excited group nodded in unison.
Jesus. He shouldn’t have poured them that champagne to pre-game before they’d left O’Riley’s, the pub he and Finn owned and operated in San Francisco. And that he was the voice of reason right now was truly the irony of the century. “Stay,” he said firmly and then made his way past the towering Christmas tree lit to within an inch of its life, past the raging fire in the fireplace with candles lining the mantel…to the small, quaint check-in desk that had a plate with some amazing looking cookies and a sign that said: yes, these are for you—welcome!
“Yum,” Pru said and took one for each hand.
She hadn’t “stayed.” And neither had Finn. They both flanked Sean, munching on the cookies.
A woman sat at the check-in desk with a laptop, her fingers a blur, the tip of her Santa hat quivering as she typed away. She looked up and smiled as she took in the group. That is until her gaze landed on Sean and she froze.
He’d already done the same because holy shit—
“Greetings,” she said, recovering first and so quickly that no one else seemed to notice as she stood and smiled warmly everyone but Sean. “Welcome to the Hartford B&B. My name’s Charlotte Hartford and I’m the innkeeper here. How can I help you?”
Good question. And Sean had the answer on the tip of his tongue, which was currently stuck to the roof of his mouth because he hadn’t been prepared for this sweet and sassy redheaded blast from his past.
It’d been what, nearly a decade? He didn’t know exactly because his brain wasn’t functioning at full capacity, much less capable of simple math at the moment. The last time he’d seen Lotti, they’d been sixteen-year-old kids and at a high school football game. It’d been back in those dark, dark times after he and Finn had lost their parents and Sean had been at his most wild. Still, he’d somehow managed to sweet-talk the kindest, most gentle girl in school out of her virginity, losing his own in the process.
Finn nudged Sean, prompting him to clear his throat and speak. “We’re here to check in. We’re the Finn O’Riley party.” He smiled. “It’s really great to see you, Lotti. How’re things?”
She cocked her head to the side and looked out the window. “Well the storm’s certainly been challenging. I heard the roads were bad, so wasn’t sure you’d all even be able to get here. I’m glad you made it. So, the O’Ryan party…” She turned to her computer. “I’ll get you checked in.”
“O’Riley,” Sean corrected. And why was she playing like she didn’t know him? “Lotti, it’s me. Sean.”
“O’Riley,” she repeated, fingers clicking the keyboard. “Yes, here you all are. Twelve guests, two nights. Wine tasting tour tomorrow. Bachelor/bachelorette here tomorrow night. Checking out Sunday morning.” She then proceeded to check them in with quick efficiency, managing to avoid Sean’s direct gaze the entire time.
It wasn’t until she handed him a room key and their fingers touched that she actually met his gaze, her own warm chocolate one clear and startled.
Again she recovered quickly, lifting her chin and turning away.
“You really going to pretend you don’t remember me?” he asked quietly.
She didn’t answer. This, of course, delighted Finn to no end. He grinned wide at Sean as they all turned to head up the stairs to their rooms.
“What’s so funny?” Sean snapped.
“It finally happened. You being put in your place by a woman. And she was hot too.”
Pru cuffed Finn upside the back of his head.
“I mean she was smart and funny and had a great personality,” Finn said.
Pru rolled her eyes.
“And,” Finn went on, “she didn’t remember you. That’s the best part. Where do you know her from anyway?”
Sean shook his head. “Never mind.”
The ass that called himself Sean’s brother was still chortling to himself when they all vanished into their respective rooms. Because the B&B had only six guest rooms total, and eight of their group were coupled off, the four singles had been forced to pair up. Sean keyed himself into the room he was going to share with Joe. They both tossed their duffle bags onto each of the two beds.
Twin beds. And shit, those beds were small.
Sean stood there hands on hips, the bedding that was thick and comfortable looking, but done up in a girlie floral print, situated way too close to Joe’s bed to please him.
Joe was looking less than pleased himself. “Damn.”
“Yeah. Sucks to be single in a wedding party.”
“Yeah,” Joe agreed. “But hey, positive spin—it doesn’t suck to be single.” He flopped onto his bed and grabbed the remote, bringing up an MMA fight.
Sean blew out a breath and turned to the door.
“It’s nearly midnight,” Joe said to his back. “Where you off to? Back down to the hot chick who didn’t recognize you?”
“She totally recognized me,” Sean said.
“Dude, then that’s even worse.”
Sean flipped him off and left as Joe laughed, heading back down the stairs. Because Joe was right, being recognized and ignored was worse. And it was all his own fault.
The night had gotten noisy. Wind battered the old Victorian, rattling the windows, causing the trees outside to brush against the walls, which creaked and groaned under the strain. Sean hoped like hell that the carpenters back in the day had known what they were doing and that the place would hold.
For the second time in ten minutes, he strode up to the check-in desk. Pru had been the one to insist on this B&B because it’d been built in the late 1800s and had a cool history that he’d been told about in great detail but couldn’t repeat to save his life because he hadn’t listened. All he knew was that Pru had wanted to stay here so badly that he’d made it happen for her.
But it didn’t mean he had to like it.
Lotti was no longer in sight. There was a small bell for service on the desk and just as he reached out to hit it, he heard a male voice from inside what looked to be an office.
“I’m sorry, Charlotte,” the unseen man was saying. “But you know we’re not working. You’re so closed off that I can’t get close to you.”
Sean froze for two reasons. One, Lotti had always hated her full name. Hated it to the bone so much she’d refused to answer to it.
And two…those words. You’re so closed off that I can’t get close to you…They reverberated in Sean’s head, pulling memories he’d shoved deep. That long-ago summer night they’d shared had been the accumulation of several years of platonic friendship, started when he’d needed help in English and she in chemistry. They’d tutored each other, the perennial bad boy and the perennial good girl, and then one night they’d been each other’s world in the back of her dad’s pickup on the bluffs of Marin Headlands.
Afterward, she’d told him she loved him. He could remember staring into her sweet eyes and nearly swallowing his own tongue. Love? Was that what this all-consuming, heart and gut wrenching emotion he felt for her was? And even though he’d suspected that yes indeed it’d been love, he’d wanted no part of it because it hurt like hell.
And then proving just that, she’d gone on to tell him that her family was moving away, but since they were in love, they could stay in touch and write and call and visit.
She was going to leave. Even with all he’d felt for her, he’d known he wouldn’t, couldn’t, be the guy she’d needed. She’d indeed written him, and being the chicken-shit, emotionally stunted kid he’d been back then, he hadn’t written back. Or returned her calls. Losing her had been like a red-hot poker to the chest but he hadn’t been able to see himself in a long-distance relationship, or in any relationship at all.
Hell, he couldn’t have committed to a dentist appointment back then.
He’d thought of her, always with a smile and an ache in his chest because he deeply regretted how he’d behaved. By the time he graduated, he’d grown up enough to try to find her to apologize, but he’d had no luck. He’d never seen her again—until now.
A guy came out of the office, presumably the one who’d spoken, and headed straight for the front door, walking out into the storm without looking back.
Sean waited a minute, but there was only silence coming from the office. No sign of Lotti, nor a single sound. Clearly it was the worst possible time to try to talk to her, but her eerie silence worried him.
Then suddenly came the sound of glass shattering, but before he could rush into the room, she came out.
She wasn’t crying, which was a huge relief. Her eyes were…blank, actually, giving nothing away. That is until she saw Sean. Then they sparked, but not the good kind of spark.
New York Times and USA Todaybestselling author Jill Shalvis lives in a small town in the Sierras full of quirky characters. Any resemblance to the quirky characters in her books is, um, mostly coincidental. Look for Jill’s sexy contemporary and award-winning books wherever romances are sold and click on the blog button above for a complete book list and daily blog detailing her city-girl-living-in-the-mountains adventures.