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.
Prologue (courtesy of Jill Shalvis’ Website)
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.
She was sure of it.
It’s Christmastime again in Heartbreaker Bay!
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.
Excerpt courtesy of Jill Shalvis’ Website
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.
“You,” she said.
Yep, he had the bad timing thing down pat.
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.