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‘A Christmas Fling’ and ‘A Cupcake Christmas’ by Beth Barany (2 Book Christmas Showcase)

Dahlia, a Santa’s Elf, has 21 days left before Christmas to create the best toy in the world without using magic or revealing her true identity. Stuck on how to complete the prototype, and working as a temp in San Francisco’s financial district with no time for love, will her innocent Christmas fling get her unstuck, or will she turn her back on her beloved career for her heart?

Liam, an up-and-coming financial analyst, swore off women after getting dumped by the love of his life. He just found out his ex is going to the company Christmas party with his rival Michael Hendricks. Up for promotion against Hendricks, Liam has to win the favor of his boss. His best bet is to invite the vivacious secretary Dahlia to the party. Will Dahlia be a welcome distraction, or will she turn his life upside down?

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Chapter 1
December 1, Oakland, CA

Dahlia strolled through the small neighborhood park. It was great fun to think about how the children would enjoy her toy once she was done with it, but she had to complete it first. She only had twenty-two days to fix whatever was wrong with it before returning home. She’d gone over her designs and schematics and taken it apart and put it back together a dozen times, but it still wouldn’t work.

Dahlia left the park and headed down the street toward the detached studio she rented on Miles Avenue.

A dog bark had her look up just in time to almost but not quite avoid getting tangled up in a long leash. A man with the warmest brown eyes she’d ever seen gazed down at her, a half smile on his face.

She smiled back startled out of her daydreaming, but not before she noticed his endearing dimple on one side of his mouth.

She said, “Sorry, I didn’t see you. Thank goodness for your dog. Oh, she looks like a Husky.”

Dahlia shifted her bag to one hip, so she could bend down and pet the dog.

The dog wagged her tail.

Dahlia said, “You must feed her really well. Her coat is so soft and luscious.”

“She’s a Bernese Mountain Dog. Sally. My roommate’s.”

His voice was deep. She had to look up to smile into his deep brown eyes. He was a whole head taller than she was. Almost two meters. She translated into American measurements. Six foot three or something.

“My uncle, well one of my uncles has one—that he uses for work. But I hardly see him because he lives—” She paused. “I’m prattling, aren’t I?”

“Yes, you are, but I like listening to your accent. Scottish?”

“Yes, wow, you guessed correctly. Most people here can’t do that. Yeah, we’re from Scotland, but it’s been a few generations.” She couldn’t very well tell him how Santa’s elves lived a very long time. It had only been her grandparents that had immigrated with Uncle, known as Santa to most, and some neighbors to set up the North Pole.

“So, you’re in school here?” He waved off toward what she knew was the art college a few blocks away.

“No. I’m here on an independent research project for a few more weeks.”

“So you’re from—”

“Alaska. Well, near Alaska, anyway. I—I best be going,” she interrupted and gestured to her bag of goodies. She shifted from foot to foot on the corner of Miles and Clifton Streets, still tangled up in the Bernese’s leash. “Gifts to wrap. For the kids. Big project.” She gulped and held out her hand. “I’m Dahlia, by the way. Dahlia MacMillian.”

With a half-smile, he shook her offered hand. His grip was firm and strong. “Liam. Nice to meet you, Dahlia MacMillian.” He led the dog around her, slowly untangling the leash.

How he moved with grace and power, even in his simple gestures. He was tall, lean and muscular, broad shoulders identifiable even in his sweatshirt with the UC Berkeley name and logo on it.

“There we go, Sally,” Liam said, his voice a rumbling, soothing cascade.

Sally licked Dahlia’s hand, bringing her out of her staring. She gulped and felt the heat of a blush creep up her neck and onto her cheeks. Dahlia stroked the soft fur to cover her embarrassment. It had been a long time since she’d felt attracted to anyone. Everyone she’d dated at the Pole was so familiar to her, and mostly related. She didn’t have time for a distraction.

She looked up when she heard Liam chuckling. He was shaking his head.

“What?” She couldn’t help but ask.

He shrugged. “I guess I should run into girls more often with my roommate’s dog. I didn’t realize it could be such a pleasant experience.”

“You must not walk her very often then.” Oh my, she was flirting. The Elf boys back home never brought that out of her. She felt her pale skin flush. Och, yes, this was a man, she thought. “Thank you, then. For the pleasant experience. And the untangling.”

“You’re welcome.” Liam said to her, smiling, that one dimple showing again. Then he spoke to the dog. “Come on Sally. Let’s finish your walk, so we can go watch the game.”

Dahlia waved good-bye and turned to go down the street and head for her apartment. But first she had to watch Liam walk away. He fit nicely into his jeans. For a moment, a pang of wistfulness washed through her. She shook her. She had other things to focus on, like completing her toy on time so she could get her Master Elf badge, and even win the Grand Prize.

She was sure she’d be able to make progress on her toy tonight. Maybe it was something about meeting a happy dog and tall brown-eyed man that made her feel hopeful. Yes, she would get her toy done in time.

***

To read the entire first chapter, click HERE
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Love, chaotic magic, and cupcakes. What could possible go wrong?

What if you risked losing your baking legacy by cooking up a love truly special?

Florian MacMillian needs a final job to complete his baking resume—preferably a job where he’s unlikely to blow things up with his unruly magic—before returning to the North Pole and taking his rightful place as Master Baker to all the elves.

Kate Delore desperately needs help in her fast-growing cupcake business in downtown San Francisco.

Florian is a perfect fit, so she brings him on as baker.

For a short time, Florian is happily up to his elbows in batter, and Kate’s business is booming.

But when things heat up between them, Florian wonders if he should risk his legacy to cook up something truly special.

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Chapter One
Monday, December 1, San Francisco

“Help wanted. Must be good with pastry baking, parties + kids. Part-time/Holiday Temporary. Competitive pay. Flexible hours. Apply in person. Bring printed resume. Must love cupcakes.”

Florian jumped off the trolley at the bottom of Market Street and checked the address on his smart phone’s map. He peered around at the busy area, looking for his new possible employment, Kate’s Cupcake Cart. He didn’t see it. He must be off by a few blocks. He hustled back up Market Street, one of San Francisco’s main boulevards.

A cold brisk wind had him turning up his collar, pulling down his cap more over his ears—couldn’t have people spotting them and asking questions—and tightening his scarf. He loved the weather at the city on the bay. Way warmer than New York City where he’d been working up to last week, and way, way warmer than back home at the Pole.

He stood on the busy street corner of the city’s Financial District and swiveled, not just his head, but his whole body. He still didn’t see it. He was about to wave his hand to stir up some magic, maybe bring a magnifying glass in front of him—he never knew exactly what he’d conjure—but then saw as the busy crowd thinned for a moment what he was looking for. A small food stand perched on the corner, kitty corner to where he stood. A big sprinkle-top cupcake jauntily capped the sign that stated in broad flourish font, “Kate’s Cupcake Cart.” At the other end of the sign, a frothy cappuccino angled in nice symmetry. He smiled. His sign-making elf cousins couldn’t have done a better job.

He crossed the street, a bounce in his step, and wiggled his fingers in his pockets. Nerves. This job would work out. Had to. He needed one more stint of unique work experience to round out his resume, emphasis on the unique. Uncle, known as Santa to the rest of the world, expected him to have a diverse and eclectic resume when he returned home to finally ascend to his rightful place as Master Baker for the entire North Pole community. He was young for a Master Baker but ambitious. He still had to prove himself.

He approached the cupcake cart and stood in line, already ten people deep at 9 a.m. He bounced up and down on his toes. A busy boutique business, how fun. What a refreshing change from the bigger business he’d worked in recently. He’d mostly worked in storefronts or pastry kitchens this past year. He was almost done with his year abroad. His family would so delight in his travels. He couldn’t wait to tell them about his confection adventures at the festivities Christmas morning.

Vibrant, hopping San Francisco was his last stop. A nice bonus. There was something special about this sparkling city by the bay. Another bonus: He’d enjoy a taste of a mild winter before returning home.

What better way to end his year abroad than to make cupcakes in a vibrant city for quirky Californians? Now he just needed to wow the proprietor of this cute establishment for the final flourish to his resume.

***

To read the entire first chapter, click HERE

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Books, the perfect Christmas present! 

All the Books in the Touchstone Series

Touchstone of Love (A Time Travel Romance) (Touchstone, #1)
A Christmas Fling (A Christmas Elf Romance) (Touchstone, #2)
Parisian Amour (A Fairy Tale Romance) (Touchstone, #3)
A Labyrinth of Love and Roses (A Fairy Tale Romance) (Touchstone, #4)
A Cupcake Christmas (A Christmas Elf Romance) (Touchstone, #5)

 

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Christmas on Reindeer Road by Debbie Mason (Book Showcase)

Can the magic of mistletoe bring together two busy single parents?

 

Mallory Maitland knows all too well what it’s like to feel abandoned, which is why she’s sworn never to give up on her two stepsons – her late husband’s children. But when the teens land in hot water, she’s got a whole new problem: how to resist the caring and incredibly hot Chief of Police Gabriel Buchanan. All Mallory wants is to give the boys a magical holiday. She doesn’t need the distraction of wondering what it would be like to kiss Gabriel under the mistletoe.

After his wife died, Gabriel left his job as an adrenaline-chasing New York City homicide detective to focus on raising his three sons. But back in Highland Falls, he doesn’t have to go looking for trouble. It finds him – in the form of a beautiful neighbor and her troublemaking stepchildren. With Gabriel’s mother-in-law looking for any excuse to gain custody of his sons, Gabriel can’t risk getting involved with Mallory, even though she’s the only woman capable of making this Christmas – and all the rest to come – his best ever.

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CHAPTER 1

 

Mallory Maitland hummed along with the Christmas carols playing on the car’s radio as she took the long way from Atlanta to Highland Falls, North Carolina the day after Thanksgiving. Despite her best friend living there, she wasn’t anxious to return to her hometown. For years, she’d done her best to avoid Highland Falls. Except now she no longer had just herself to think about.

She glanced in her rearview mirror at Oliver and Brooks, her late husband, Harry’s sons, who were no doubt silently plotting how to get back at her for ruining their lives. If they knew how difficult it had been for her to accept the job offer from Highland Falls’ mayor, they might take some pleasure in today’s move from the big city to the small mountain town.

Instead of blaming her and burning holes into the back of her skull with their resentful glares, they might want to take a good, long look at themselves in the rear-view mirror. They were the reason she’d lost six of her seven clients at Aging Awesomely, her newly formed senior care company. They were also the reason her landlord presented her with an eviction notice two weeks ago.

But did she tell them they were to blame? Remind them how often she’d warned them what could happen if she kept leaving her clients to meet with their overbearing principal? Or how often she’d told them that the next time they invited half the school to their apartment when she wasn’t home, the building’s manager would kick them out and good luck finding another one without a reference?

No. She didn’t blame them or give them an I-told-you so lecture. She wanted to, but she couldn’t bring herself to do it. And the reason she couldn’t was because, no matter how difficult they’d made her life these past two months, she understood why they hated her and acted out. They’d needed a scapegoat for the crummy hand life had dealt them, and she was it.

Their mother, Harry’s second wife, had given up her parental rights in exchange for half Harry’s fortune when Brooks was born. Mallory hadn’t been around then. She’d been fifteen at the time. Harry wouldn’t make the fateful decision that forever cast Mallory in the role of stepmonster until the lead-up to their wedding. He’d sent his sons to boarding school a month before the big day.

Oliver and Brooks had no idea how hard she—a woman who hated conflict—had fought to change their father’s mind, and she’d never tell them. She wouldn’t do anything to diminish Harry in their eyes. She’d gladly shoulder the blame to protect them. She knew what it was like to grow up feeling unwanted and unloved.

Yet despite her understanding and empathy for her teenage stepsons and the many weeks she’d spent applying every piece of parenting advice she’d gathered from podcasts, books, and friends, she’d come to the depressing conclusion that establishing a loving relationship with Oliver and Brooks was a lost cause. They’d never be a family, no matter how hard she tried or how much she wanted them to be.

Abby Everhart, her best friend, had told her not to lose hope, that love was the answer. But Mallory knew better. Love wasn’t enough to guarantee a happily-ever-after. Her own experiences had proven that to her time and again. Except, deep down, beneath all the hurt and pain, beat the heart of an eternal optimist. She couldn’t seem to help herself. She always looked for the bright side of life, the light at the end of the tunnel, the good in the bad.

And thinking of finding the good in the bad, she forced a smile in the rearview mirror while trying to make eye contact with Oliver and Brooks in the backseat.

Her stepsons could pass for British royals William and Harry. Almost sixteen-year-old Oliver, with his sandy blond hair providing a curtain for his eyes, looked like William. While Brooks, with his curly ginger hair and freckles, looked like Harry—the prince, not his father.

The boys also had British accents to go along with their royal good looks, which only served to make Oliver’s superior attitude sound even more superior. He had a way of making Mallory feel like a downstairs maid in an episode of Downton Abbey. Why on earth Harry had thought it a good idea to send the boys to boarding school in England, she’d never know.

When smiling and staring at Oliver and Brooks in the rearview mirror failed to get their attention, she cleared her throat. “Only ten minutes until we arrive in Highland Falls!” she said with fake cheer. She continued in the over-the-top upbeat voice despite the boys’ chilly blue stares. “Abby checked out the house on Reindeer Road, and she says we’ll love it.” She actually said the house needed some TLC but the backyard was a nature lovers paradise. Since Oliver and Brooks weren’t exactly fans of the great outdoors, Mallory didn’t think that would help her cause.

The boys shared a mutinous glance, which made her nervous. Sometimes it felt like they could communicate telepathically, and whatever they mentally shared never boded well for her.

“Okay. I get that you guys are unhappy about the move. You’ve made your feelings perfectly clear. But let’s be honest: you haven’t exactly been happy in Atlanta either. It’ll probably be easier for you to make friends in Highland Falls.”

At the insulted expressions on their faces, she realized she shouldn’t have implied that they didn’t have friends. But it was true. They didn’t. Not real friends. “I mean better friends.”

They shared another look before Oliver said, “We need to use the loo.”

“We’re not far from . . . Okay.” She folded like an accordion at Oliver’s pointed stare. “There’s a truck stop up the road.”

She reached for her Christmas-spiced latte and took a restorative sip as she continued on Highway 64 with Mariah Carey singing “All I Want for Christmas Is You” on the radio. All Mallory wanted for Christmas was for Oliver and Brooks to give her a chance. To give them a chance.

And right then, with the smell of Christmas in her nose, the taste on her tongue, and the sound in her ears, the answer came to her. She knew exactly how to solve her stepparenting dilemma.

Love wasn’t the answer; Christmas was.

Click HERE to read Chapter One in its entirety!

 

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Debbie Mason is the USA Today bestselling author of the Christmas, Colorado series and Harmony Harbor series. Her books have been praised for their “likable characters, clever dialogue, and juicy plots” (RT Book Reviews). She also writes historical paranormals as Debbie Mazzuca. Her MacLeod series has received several nominations for best paranormal as well as a Holt Medallion Award of Merit. When she isn’t writing or reading, Debbie enjoys spending time with her very own real-life hero, three wonderful children and son-in-law, two adorable grandbabies, and a yappy Yorkie named Bella.

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Happily This Christmas: A Happily Inc Novel by Susan Mallery (Book Showcase)

There’s no place like Happily Inc for the holidays…

Wynn Beauchene has a thriving business, a great kid and a mildly embarrassing crush on the guy next door—local cop Garrick McCabe. She’s a strong, independent woman who can’t help dreaming what-if about a man she barely knows. Until he needs her help…

Garrick’s pregnant daughter will be home for Christmas, and his house needs a woman’s touch. Garrick and his little girl were tight once and he’s hoping a small-town Christmas will bring her back to him. But thawing his daughter’s frosty attitude will take more than a few twinkle lights. Maybe sharing the holiday with Wynn and her son will remind her of the joy of family.

As the season works its magic on these wounded souls, Wynn realizes it’s time to stop punishing herself for a painful secret, while Garrick remains haunted by the ghosts of past mistakes. Will he allow Wynn to open the only gift she truly wants—his heart?

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Chapter One 

Annoying other people was one thing. Wynn Beauchene could completely get behind that idea, mostly because more often than not, people deserved to be annoyed. But annoying herself? What was up with that? Not only was it a total waste of time, it made no sense. The only solution was to stop acting like a sixteen-year-old girl with a crush on the quarterback. She was a mature adult, a single mother with a successful business and a life she really liked. If she was attracted to her handsome neighbor, then she needed to stop hanging out by the front window of her house, hoping to catch a glimpse of him. She should march over to his place, knock on his front door and say… And say…

“I’m an idiot,” she muttered out loud, not for the first time. No matter how she envisioned the “march over there” scenario, she couldn’t figure out what she was supposed to say when he opened the door.

Hi, Garrick. I was wondering if maybe we could, um, well, you know, go out sometime.

Really? That was how she was going to start the conversation? Shouldn’t she lead into it? Maybe mention she’d enjoyed having him as her neighbor for the past year and tell him how nice it was that he was a police officer and the whole street liked the fact that he parked his patrol car in the driveway. Not that crime was a problem in Happily Inc, because it wasn’t, but still, having a cop as a neighbor was great. Although her interest was more personal, what with how he’d looked over the summer, mowing his lawn…shirtless. Not that she hadn’t noticed him before—she had. Until the lawn mowing season, she’d managed to ignore him, but now she couldn’t and it was already November and she’d done absolutely nothing to take their nonrelationship past the waving and hi-ing stage, and here she was, hanging out by her front window and she was ready to slap herself upside the head.

It was the dating thing. She wasn’t good at it because she didn’t do it very often. There were a lot of reasons, very few of them interesting, but in the past five or six months, she’d been thinking that maybe it was time to let the no-dating rule go and have a personal life. But while she’d spent a lot of time thinking, she hadn’t done much on the doing front.

“I’m better than this,” she muttered, ignoring the little voice in her head whispering that she obviously wasn’t.

It was just that in every other area of her life, she was capable. Hunter, her fourteen-year-old, acting out in school? She could deal with that five ways to Sunday. A printing order gone awry at work? Easy-peasy. A friend with an emotional crisis? She was all about the hugging and straight talk. But when it came to dating, or wanting to date, or thinking Garrick was sexy and supersweet with her son and lately she’d been wanting them to get to know each other better, she was a mess. Worse than a mess—she was pathetic.

As proof, she was standing in her living room, looking out the picture window, staring at his house, waiting for him to get home. It was Saturday afternoon. She had a lot of things she should be doing, and none of them included staring at some guy’s empty driveway.

If only there weren’t something about him. But there was. Not just the whole tall with broad shoulders thing, although that was very nice, as were his gray eyes and dark hair, but that wasn’t really what got her attention. It was more the fact that while Garrick was always friendly and pleasant, there was a hint of something a little dark and dangerous lurking beneath the surface. Ridiculous, but true, and like most reasonably intelligent women who knew better, she couldn’t help responding to the possibility of a great guy who just might have a whisper of a dangerous streak.

She turned away from the window just in time to hear a dinging sound. After walking into the kitchen, she pulled two cookie sheets out of the oven. Because she’d made chocolate chip cookies, if you could believe it. Things were that bad.

Oh, not the baking—she baked all the time for Hunter, and most likely she would pretend she’d made these for her son, as well. Only she hadn’t. She’d baked them thinking she would take them over to Garrick, in a neighborly kind of gesture that—hopefully—would lead to some witty conversation, lots of laughter and him confessing that he’d spent the past few months wanting to ask her out.

It was a lot of pressure to put on chocolate chip cookies.

She slid in two more cookie sheets, reset the timer and had nearly moved all the baked cookies to a cooling rack when the doorbell rang.

Wynn walked through the living room and pulled open the front door only to find Garrick on her front porch.

He wasn’t in uniform—instead, he had on jeans and a T-shirt. As usual, his mouth was curved up in a smile that left her a little breathless.

“Hi, Wynn,” he said, his voice low and sexy—although that could have been wishful thinking on her part. “Do you have a second?”

“Sure.”

She stepped back to let him in, wondering what on earth was happening. She’d just been thinking about him, and here he was. Weirder still, even though they’d been neighbors for a year, they’d never exchanged much more than a few passing comments, greeting each other and mentioning the weather. They’d certainly never been in each other’s houses.

“I’m baking cookies and I need to get them on a cooling rack,” she said, leading the way into the kitchen. “What’s up?”

“I need your advice.”

“Sure. I’m good at giving advice.” She glanced at him as he slid onto one of the stools at the island in the center of her kitchen. “People are less good about taking it.”

“Tell me about it.” He eyed the cookies. “May I?”

“Help yourself, but be careful. They’re hot.”

He took one and blew on it before taking a bite. His eyes half closed as he chewed.

“Perfect,” he told her, looking at her. “You’re a great cook.”

“Thanks.”

Despite the relatively ordinary conversation, everything about the moment was surreal. Him sitting in her kitchen, them talking, all of it. Not that she minded his presence. Her kitchen didn’t host many men, not counting service guys doing things like fixing her dishwasher and unclogging her sink, and the change was nice. Plus she couldn’t help feeling she was being given the perfect opportunity to try one of the conversational threads she’d been practicing, where she mentioned them maybe, possibly, going out sometime.

“Joylyn’s going to be moving in with me,” he said, taking a second cookie. “It’s going to be a new experience for me.” He glanced at her. “We’ve never lived together before—not full time. There have been plenty of weekends and vacations, but this will be different. I want to make sure the house is comfortable for her.”

Joylyn? Who was Joylyn and why was she moving in?

Even as the questions formed, the obvious answer popped into her rattled brain. He had a girlfriend. Of course he did. She’d been telling herself that two years after her last relationship ended she was ready to find someone new, and Garrick was about to have Joylyn move in. How perfect.

“I think I have the right furniture,” he said. “It’s the other stuff I need help with. Making the house seem…” He paused, as if searching for the right word. “Cozy.”

Her mind went blank. Totally and completely blank.

 

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Book 1: You Say It First
Book 2: Second Chance Girl
Book 3: Why Not Tonight
Book 4: Not Quite Over You
Book 5: Meant to Be Yours
Book 6: Happily This Christmas

 

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Mistletoe in Paradise by Jill Shalvis (Book Showcase)

Problem Number One – Getting There

Old childhood friends each fly separately to join their families on what’s been an annual holiday themed yacht adventure. Secret ex-lovers, Hannah and James are determined to make the best of things…

 

Problem Number Two – Getting Stuck.

When everyone but Hannah and James gets held up in an airport snarl, it leaves them stuck together for four days, making Hannah’s already problematic trip a whole lot harder to face. Especially because she comes bearing more than just gifts…

 

Problem Number Three — Falling In Love (again)

As the former lovers try to make the best of the Christmas snafu, they soon realize that the best things in life can’t be planned and sometimes love is sweeter the second time around. 

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Prologue

Fourteen-year-old Hannah Banfield stood at the very edge of a cliff. Not a mental cliff, which would have been less terrifying. Nope, she was stupid enough to be standing on an actual rocky bluff, toes hanging off as she stared down at the Caribbean blue-green sea swirling hundreds of thousands of feet below her.

“Twenty,” came the amused male voice at her side. “It’s twenty feet.”

She slid her gaze to James Webber, ancient and full of wisdom at age fifteen. “We’re going to die.”

Tall, gangly, his messy dark brown hair weeks past needing a cut, he flashed her his crooked smile. His board shorts hung nearly to his knees, one of which was scraped and bleeding from when she’d accidentally tripped him on the hike up here. “We’re not going to die,” he said.

“How do you know?”

 

 

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Their Christmas Baby Contract by Shannon Stacey (Book Showcase)


Striking the deal was the easy part.

He’ll help her make a beautiful baby.

Brady Nash is handsome and anti-marriage. And with IVF completely out of her financial reach, Reyna Bishop is running out of time to have the child she so very much wants. Theirs is a practical baby-making deal: no emotion, no expectation, no ever-after. They’ll even “date” through Christmas to silence their hometown gossips. It’s foolproof…till the time she spends with Brady and his warm, loving family leaves Reyna wanting more than a baby…

 

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Chapter One

 

“Nice day for a hockey game.”

Reyna Bishop would know that smooth, deep voice anywhere and, after tucking her debit card into her back pocket and accepting two steamed hot dogs from the vendor, she turned to face Brady Nash.

A ball cap with the minor league hockey team’s logo was covering his thick, dark hair, but the brim didn’t hide the blue eyes Reyna wished she didn’t find so attractive. They’d probably been in middle school when she discovered she had a thing for blue eyes and a hint of dimples, thanks to him. “Hi, Brady. I didn’t know you’d be here.”

“No reason you would,” he responded, a not-so-subtle reference to the fact they hadn’t spoken beyond polite greetings in a few years, despite having been friends since childhood.

“But half the town’s here, at least, so I probably could have guessed.”

The game tickets had been sold as a fundraiser by the eighth-grade class, which was hoping to take a trip to Washington, DC, in the spring, so she’d seen quite a few residents of Blackberry Bay in the stands. It was a long drive, but everybody loved a school fundraiser.

“A soft pretzel and a lemonade, please,” Brady told the vendor, and Reyna was about to take the opportunity to make her escape, but he looked at her again. “Who did you come with?”

Her face warmed, which was ridiculous since nothing she did was any of his business. “Lucas. My boyfriend.”

“Right. The guy you brought to the Fourth of July fireworks?”

“Yeah.” That had been their first date, but Brady probably knew that since they had a lot of mutual acquaintances. It was hard not to when you’d gone to school with a guy since kindergarten.

“He looked…stable.”

She leveled him a seriously? look because she knew that was his way of saying Lucas looked boring. Maybe Lucas didn’t ooze charm and sex appeal, but she was looking for a life partner, not a fling. “I’m surprised you’d recognize stability, since it’s not something you’re familiar with when it comes to dating.”

He chuckled and put his hand over his heart as if she’d wounded him, but before he could say anything else, she turned and walked away. Lucas was waiting for her, and their hot dogs were getting cold for a conversation that was only going to keep going south.

It was always awkward when she ran into Brady, but she wasn’t sure how to fix it. About four years ago—a year before Reyna’s dad passed away from cancer—she’d run into him at a bar. She’d been out with friends, and so had he. Years of chemistry and flirtation had escalated pretty quickly, and they’d both ditched their companions and left together.

Falling into bed with him had been an utter disaster and they’d avoided each other whenever possible since. Blackberry Bay, New Hampshire, was too small a town to allow for much of that, though, and somehow they’d gone from awkward avoidance to straight up not speaking to each other unless they had to.

She couldn’t really do anything to fix it since she wasn’t sure she even understood it. So he’d been too quick on the draw, she’d been unsatisfied and they’d both been embarrassed. So what? They’d known each other their entire lives and it should have been the sort of thing they could laugh off and move past. Unless he couldn’t stand the fact she knew he wasn’t the ladies’ man everybody in town believed him to be.

“No mustard?” Lucas asked when she reached the empty seat next to him and handed him his hot dog.

“Sorry, I got distracted.” She didn’t really want to tell him what—or rather, who—had made her forget condiments, so she changed the subject. “Anything interesting happen while I was gone?”

“Some raffles and then some sort of competition for little kids.” She wasn’t sure if it was her imagination, but she thought she heard a hint of irritation in his voice and she wondered again why he’d bothered coming with her to an event that clearly wasn’t his thing. “I was beginning to wonder if you were coming back.”

If he was that worried about how long it took to get his hot dog or not getting his mustard, he could go with her next time, instead of letting her go alone. “The line was long.”

 

“The game’s starting again,” he said with about as much enthusiasm as he’d announce he was making an appointment for a dental cleaning.

Reyna and Lucas had been dating for several months, so when he’d heard about the hockey fundraiser, he’d assumed they’d go together. That had surprised her, since he didn’t care about sports, but maybe he was trying to support her interests, which was nice. She’d originally planned to take her friend’s daughter, Sophie, to her first hockey game, but she’d caved and invited her boyfriend instead.

Boyfriend. She was still having some trouble wrapping her head around the word, though she supposed that’s exactly what Lucas was. She’d met his sister and she was supposed to go with him to see his parents for Thanksgiving. It was a lot for so early in their relationship, but she’d had a run of bad luck with men before she met him, so she was going with it.

He lived twenty minutes away, which worked for her. They could get together easily, but not so easily she felt suffocated by him. He was a tax accountant she’d met through a recommendation when she and her mom needed advice after her dad passed away, and he dressed nicely. His sandy-blond hair was always perfectly cut, and he had great manners. He was stable and nice and would probably be a solid family man.

That made him a strong contender for being Mr. Right. That stability that Brady mocked was one of the things she found most attractive about him because that’s what she was looking for in the father of the children she was more than ready to have. He’d be patient and help with homework—especially the math. He was the kind of man who’d make pancakes on the weekend and show up to parent-teacher conferences. He’d be the rock of their family, and when it came to men, that was a priority for her.

He was pretty much the opposite of Brady Nash, she thought as she took the last bite of her hot dog, and then she was annoyed she’d allowed him to creep into her thoughts again.

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