Chapter One Untitled Document
Chapter Two Untitled Document
Chapter Three Untitled Document
Chapter Four Untitled Document
Chapter Five Untitled Document
Chapter Six Untitled Document
Chapter Seven Untitled Document
Chapter Eight Untitled Document
Chapter Nine Untitled Document
Chapter Ten Untitled Document
Christmas on Thin Ice Excerpt
Diamonds for Christmas Excerpt
HER SWEETEST CHRISTMAS
Copyright © 2016 Holly Blair
All rights reserved.
“YOU’VE GOT TO be kidding me.” Natalie LeClair froze in mid-step and blinked back her surprise. Her ex husband and his new wife beamed, arm in arm, tanned and toned as they waited for their luggage. Natalie could see Sydney’s honker of a ring from twenty feet away. All three princess-cut carats winked merrily in the baggage claim’s fluorescent lighting and seemed to mock her. A slick slip of pain stabbed Natalie’s middle, and she stared, transfixed.
“Hey, watch it!” A gaggle of fellow travelers bumped into her as she stood motionless at the bottom of the escalator.
“Sorry,” she murmured, pulling her suitcase out of harm’s way. She hid behind a pillar, Charlie’s Angels-style. A man in a Steelers jacket gave her a funny look. Natalie graced him with a shaky smile and continued to take deep, steadying breaths, like a drowning woman who’d finally reached shore. It had been one year since she’d caught Heath with his pants down and his arms entwined with Sydney. One year since she’d demanded a divorce. One year since she’d fled Juniper Falls and everything she’d loved.
Natalie had heard that her ex and the woman he’d left her for had gotten married last week. She’d been safely tucked away in Chicago, hundreds of miles away. She never would have guessed she’d be called back to Pennsylvania just as they were returning from their honeymoon. The universe must have had other plans.
“Okay, you can do this.” She eyed the rental car kiosk directly across from Heath and Sydney and calculated whether she’d be able to cross the distance without being seen.
“Here goes nothing.” She called up every ounce of reserve to keep from bolting across the tan-colored tiles. Her heeled boots seemed to strike out a deafeningly loud clatter with each step, and she swore she could feel her ex’s eyes trained on the back of her head. But she made it to the rental station without incident. A furtive glance behind her revealed Heath and Sydney only had eyes for each other.
“Can I help you?” The bored clerk blinked at Natalie with impassive eyes behind a pair of tortoiseshell glasses.
“I have a reservation,” Natalie whispered.
“Excuse me?” The woman leaned across the desk and cupped her hand behind her ear. “Can’t hear you, sweetie. You’ll have to talk louder.”
“I have a reservation under Natalie LeClair.” She hissed out her request under her breath, all the while glancing back at the cheater who’d once pledged his undying affection and fidelity.
The clerk’s fingers flew over the keyboard. She bit her lip and looked up, contrite.
“I’m sorry, ma’am.”
Ma’am? When did I become a ma’am? Could this day get any better?
“It seems we gave away the last car in the lot. There’s a game this weekend, and your flight was late.” The clerk trailed off, her eyes drifting to the floor.
“But I made a reservation.” Natalie toned down her panicked voice and pasted on a tight smile. “Are you sure you don’t have anything? I’m not picky.” She gripped the edge of the counter, her knuckles turning white.
“No, ma’am. You might try one of the other rental companies.” The clerk gestured beyond her to the other desks. Long lines of weary travelers lined up to claim their cars. The knot at the bottom of Natalie’s stomach grew tighter. It had been there since she’d called her grandmother Pearl and gotten no answer. The local Juniper Falls police had stopped by to do a well check at Natalie’s urging, but Pearl wasn’t home. So Natalie had booked the next flight from Chicago to Pittsburgh. It was a nearly two-hour drive to the sleepy little resort town of Juniper Falls, and Natalie didn’t have a minute to lose.
A firm hand gripped Natalie’s shoulder. She stiffened and called up every reserve of calm in her body. She didn’t need to swivel around to see who it was. The sharp fizz of cologne gave him away.
“Heath.” Her voice was clipped and her eyes were daggers as she removed her ex-husband’s paw from her arm. Her eyes narrowed as she flicked them over his familiar face.
You’re thirty now, too old to make a scene. Calm down.
“Natalie. What a lovely surprise.” Heath flashed his trademark grin, the one that used to melt Natalie and set her all aquiver. She couldn’t muster up a return smile and took a protective step back.
“What brings you back to this neck of the woods?” Sydney joined her husband and wrapped her arm possessively around his waist. She aimed a smug smirk in Natalie’s direction like a skilled marksman.
“My grandmother,” Natalie managed to grind out. “No one seems to be able to reach her.”
“A pity.” Sydney rubbed a smudge from her colossus of a diamond and draped her left hand around Heath’s arm to show the ring to its best advantage. “You must be worried sick.” Her simpering smile was anything but genuine.
“We’ll give you a ride to Juniper Falls if you’d like,” Heath gallantly offered, ever the gentleman.
When he wasn’t boinking his boss’s daughter in the marital bed.
“No!” Natalie was louder than she’d meant to be. Several travelers glanced up at the harsh ring of her voice. “I mean, no thanks. I wouldn’t want to be a bother.”
The last place I want to be is trapped in Heath’s Mercedes with his new wife for two hours.
“Suit yourself.” Sydney shrugged and pulled at Heath’s arm. “Let’s go, honey.”
“But—” Heath began to argue, used to getting his way.
“Oh, shit.” Natalie’s eyes went wide. She dropped her heavy carry-on bag on Sydney’s open-toed berry-colored stiletto.
“Ouch! You did that on purpose.” Sydney jumped back and rubbed her tiny foot. She shot Natalie a petulant glare.
Yes, this day could definitely get worse.
There at the bottom of the escalator was the man Natalie had thrown caution to the wind with three years ago. Before she met, married, and divorced Heath. Before she fled Juniper Falls. The man scanned the crowd. He spotted Natalie. He blinked, and a slow, sensuous smile graced his face. His smoky eyes lit up when he registered her shock. His gaze traveled appreciatively over her, taking in her red sweater dress and brown boots. He looked as distinguished and delicious as he had the last day she’d seen him. His sandy hair was shorter now, and he was dressed for business. But his broad shoulders and adorably chipped tooth smile were the same, and she swore he’d just winked at her. Natalie felt a flush start to bloom and travel up her neck as he watched her. Her knees weakened as she remembered the way he’d touched her. Then she recalled the day after their kiss, waiting alone in a restaurant for two hours. He’d never showed, and she received a lame text offering to explain why he’d stood her up. She’d deleted the text and tried to delete the memory of him as well, but her body, based on its traitorous reaction, hadn’t forgotten him and their encounter.
The man who shared the best kiss of your life and never called.
The slow wave of heat traveling through her middle was replace by steely anger.
She turned to Heath and Sydney. “Maybe I’ll take you up on that ride, after all.” Natalie gulped and dived behind another pillar.
Cooper King did a double take. There stood Natalie LeClair, in all of her stricken glory. The same luscious chestnut waves graced her shoulders, and the same spirited amber eyes stared back at him with an edge of panic. Cooper’s stomach did a graceless flip-flop, and a warm feeling spread down to his toes.
“Settle down,” Cooper murmured to himself. He crossed the baggage claim area with his heart thumping in his chest.
She’s off limits. Especially since you’re here to buy her grandmother’s company. When she finds out, she’ll go ballistic.
Still, Cooper couldn’t get Natalie out of his head. It had been three long years since he’d left the chocolate convention and caught the first flight from Seattle to New York. His father was dying, and he’d had no time for goodbyes. He’d texted her the next day when he realized he couldn’t make their dinner date, and he wasn’t surprised she hadn’t texted back. He’d respected the wish her silence telegraphed, and hadn’t contacted her again to explain. But the memory of their kiss lingered on his lips all these years later.
[_I should’ve tried harder to explain. _]
Natalie was a girl who didn’t need rescuing, but she looked keenly uncomfortable standing with a man and woman dressed to the nines in tropical vacation finery. The blonde was decked out in a cheery peach sundress, the man in a light colored suit. They weren’t dressed for the frigid, early December weather, and judging by their fresh tans, they’d just returned from somewhere warm. Natalie looked like she wanted to bolt. He finally reached her.
Now that the jig was up, she emerged from behind the pillar, her head held high. She had the same smattering of freckles and the same pert nose. He wanted to bend down and grace her full lips with a kiss, but took a step back when her eyes narrowed. She wasn’t happy to see him.
And I don’t blame her. I wish I’d had a chance to say goodbye.
“Natalie.” His voice was inadvertently husky. The man next to Natalie narrowed his eyes and gave Cooper a once-over.
Is she with this buffoon?
The blonde tugged on the self-important man’s cuff and motioned toward the baggage carousel. “Heath, let’s go.”
So Natalie’s not with him.
He suddenly felt cheered.
“Cooper.” Natalie’s voice could freeze a river of lava. “What are you doing here?” She glanced at the couple next to her and stared longingly at the baggage carousel, as if she wanted to flee the scene.
“I’m headed to your hometown, as it happens. Do you want to share a ride back to Juniper Falls? I’m guessing that’s where you’re headed.” Cooper felt the corner of his mouth crook up in a smile. He wouldn’t mind spending the next two hours in close confines with Natalie, even if she understandably didn’t want to spend them with him.
She bit her plump lip, her teeth white and even. She was as lovely as ever, the blush rising on her cheeks making her appear all the more alive and beautiful. She glanced from Cooper to the couple, back and forth, as if following a ping pong match. She took a deep breath, as if she were about to plunge into a pool, and stepped away from the man and woman.
“Let’s go.” She linked arms with Cooper and the two swept away from the couple without a backward glance.
“That seemed intense.” Cooper cocked an eyebrow and glanced at Natalie, enjoying her proximity. She smelled delicious, just as she had three years ago. The scent jogged his memory, a mixture of honey, cinnamon, and lavender. It was all he could do from stooping to take in the whole of her, breathing in her delectable scent.
As they approached the baggage carousel, Natalie unhooked her arm from his and put a foot of space between them.
“I wasn’t expecting to run into them, that’s all.” It was all the explanation she seemed willing to give. “Or you, for that matter.” Her berry-colored lips twisted in a frown.
I deserve that.
“Let me get that.” Cooper shouldered her carry on and relieved Natalie of her suitcase. In no time he’d collected his luggage and his rental car. He settled into a weighty silence as he turned south from the airport, headed to a tiny resort town nestled on the border between Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
“So what brings you to Juniper Falls? Business or pleasure?” Natalie turned from the window, her delicate face backlit by the sun, a pleasing silhouette.
“A little of both.” Cooper kept his voice calculatedly neutral. He’d never expected to run into Natalie the week he travelled to Juniper Falls to buy LeClair’s Chocolate Company for his father’s candy empire. Pearl LeClair had assured him her granddaughter wouldn’t be in town.
“Oh?” Natalie raised one perfectly arched brow, begging Cooper to go on.
“I’m checking out the Winterhaven Resort for a company retreat.”
A small white lie of omission. Cooper was staying at the Winterhaven, and if it met his specifications, he would recommend it. But Natalie obviously didn’t know the real reason he was going to her hometown. And if she had half the passion she’d had during their kiss three years ago, she’d go crazy when she found out. Pearl LeClair had specifically mentioned that her granddaughter didn’t know she was selling the family business. The charming octogenarian had warned him that Natalie would give them hell if she found out.
Natalie leaned back in her seat, finally appearing more at ease. A pang of guilt rippled through Cooper. He frowned and brushed it away. He was used to handling acquisitions for King Chocolates, and he’d never let his personal feelings get in the way of business. And he wouldn’t start now. Not even for the gorgeous woman sitting a mere foot away, her warm brown eyes seeming to sparkle with suspicion.
“I’m worried about my grandmother. That’s why I’m here.” Natalie shielded her eyes from the waning sun. “I just saw her over Thanksgiving, when she came to Chicago for a visit. But she hasn’t returned my calls for the past two days.”
Cooper stared ahead at the winding ribbon of road, his face impassive. He figured Pearl was trying to avoid her granddaughter to keep sale of the family company a secret until it was too late for Natalie to do anything.
“The annual wine and chocolate tasting event and auction for charity is coming up at the end of the month, and our chocolate company always sponsors it. We come up with a signature chocolate flavor that’s featured for the rest of the year. It’s a Juniper Falls tradition. There’s no way my grandmother would just disappear. It’s her favorite thing.”
“Your family’s little chocolate outfit sponsors an event for the whole town? How is that cost effective?” Dollar signs swam before Cooper’s eyes and he wondered about LeClair’s book of business. He’d promised his father acquiring the tiny chocolate company would be worth it, but little alarm bells were ringing in the back of his head.
“I beg your pardon?” Anger flashed behind Natalie’s brown eyes. “I don’t think that’s any of your concern.” She settled back in her seat with her arms crossed in front. She gave Cooper a shrewd look.
[_Settle down, or you’ll blow your cover. _]
The two drove in tense silence for the next half hour. Cooper feigned disinterest, but his body gave him away. There were worse things than being stuck in a car with Natalie LeClair. His fingers ached to tuck an errant strand of her rich, dark hair behind her ear. She shifted in her seat, her soft-looking knit dress riding up her legs, before she shimmied it into place again. He talked himself down from the start of arousal stirring between his legs, and cracked the window to let in some fresh, calming air. Natalie stole frequent glances at Cooper through slitted eyes, and he longed to make her laugh and smile again, as he had during their chance meeting at the chocolate convention in Seattle three years ago.
You can’t get involved with her. You’re here for business, just keep it that way. What’s in the past should stay there.
Cooper inwardly groaned and tried to focus on the road, sternly admonishing himself to stay focused on the prize, acquiring LeClair’s Chocolate Company.
The grade of the road became steeper as he wended his way up the mountains. The deciduous trees stood out among the evergreens, their branches sparkling with a fine coating of snow. The sky deepened from a deep navy to black as he pulled into the town limits.
Natalie took a sharp breath as they passed the “Welcome to Juniper Falls” sign.
“You alright?” It was all Cooper could do to stop putting his hand on her arm.
“I just wasn’t expecting to be back here so soon.”
He followed her directions to a cheery turquoise Victorian complete with a turret and a garland of red-beribboned evergreens lacing their way through the porch railing. It didn’t look like Pearl LeClair had abandoned her house. Cooper helped Natalie with her luggage. She stood pensively in front of the door, her key poised over the lock.
“Can you come in? I’m a little nervous since my grandmother didn’t return my calls.”
Cooper nodded, a lump of foreboding forming in his chest. He wondered if Pearl had gotten cold feet. She’d sounded so sure about selling him the company.
It’s showdown time.
The door swung open of its own accord, and Natalie screamed. She took a step back and landed in Cooper’s arms. He swept her up in a hug and peered in the doorway.
“Well, don’t just stand there, kiddos. It’s cold outside.” It was Pearl LeClair, her leg ensconced in a cast, balancing on a pair of crutches.
“Grandma!” Natalie rushed forward and swept the woman up in a bear hug. “Why didn’t you return my calls?”
“Surgery,” the woman replied gruffly. “I spent the last day in the hospital getting a pin in my ankle. I took a spill down those damn steps.” She swung a crutch out to motion to the elaborate set of stairs behind her.
“This house is getting to be too much. I knew I shouldn’t have left.” Natalie clucked and shooed her grandmother into a cozy-looking living room bursting with pouffy chintz furniture and no less than three Christmas trees. Natalie fussed over her grandmother as she helped her into an overstuffed armchair.
“Grandma, this is—” Natalie turned to introduce Cooper.
“Hello, Cooper.” Pearl LeClair held out her hand and motioned for Cooper to sit down.
“You know each other?” A look of utter confusion graced Natalie’s lovely face. Her delicate features seemed to close as she anticipated the worst.
“Honey, I didn’t want you to find out this way, but I guess there’s no avoiding it now. I’m selling the chocolate company.”
Cooper had to hand it to Pearl. She didn’t beat around the bush or mince words.
The ruse is over.
Cooper wanted to look away, but he fixed his eyes on Natalie. He watched her cycle through a kaleidoscope of emotions – betrayal, sadness, and anger. She sat next to her grandmother, all the wind knocked out of her.
COOPER WHISTLED A carol as he strolled down Main Street. Juniper Falls didn’t skimp on celebrating Christmas, and he took in the mountain town with amusement. The antique, green copper streetlights were festooned with winding red ribbons, transforming the lamp posts into towering candy canes. Each storefront featured a different holiday wreath, some with crimson cardinals nestled among pine needles, others composed of sparkling golden ornaments. Icicle lights adorned the art deco buildings, and elaborate widow displays of festive wares graced the row of antique shops. A smooth layer of snow coated peaked roofs, and streams of smoke escaped squat and skinny chimneys, curling up into a deep sapphire sky. It was six in the morning, and the sun had yet to show its face. But the denizens of the town were already stirring and bustling about, getting a head start on their day. Several passersby gave him smiles, and he grinned in return, thinking what a coup it would be to acquire LeClair’s Chocolates.
Cooper had worked hard to convince his father they needed to diversify beyond their standard chocolate bars and cookie-cutter, predictable truffles. Just as he hadn’t forgotten their kiss, Cooper hadn’t forgotten the chocolate Natalie had offered him at the convention three years ago. It had been otherworldly. He had to have the recipe, even if it meant buying LeClair’s to get it. His plan to create an artisanal chocolate line for his father’s company depended on it. Though he didn’t want to capitalize on her misfortune, he was lucky Pearl LeClair had decided breaking her ankle was a sign it was time to retire and sell her company and shop. Pearl had assured him her granddaughter Natalie didn’t want to return to Juniper Falls after her messy divorce, and she’d been eager to set up sale of her business. Cooper might be heir to one of the largest chocolate companies in the world, but that didn’t mean he didn’t appreciate old-world, one-of-a-kind confections. He’d take LeClair’s recipe and make it the crown jewel of King Chocolates. His father’s portfolio would be enhanced, and Cooper would finally realize his dream: making exquisite chocolate and marketing it far and wide for the world to taste.
If only he could get the stricken look on Natalie’s face out of his mind. His smile dimmed, and he forgot the carol he’d been whistling. He’d never meant to hurt her by standing her up, and he’d done it again.
[_It’s just business. _]
But a dull thud resounded in his chest as he recalled the infinite sadness that washed over Natalie’s face last night when her grandmother announced LeClair’s sale. A look of pain that had been replaced by white-hot ire only seconds later.
A small smile turned up half of Cooper’s mouth as he recalled the fire in Natalie’s amber eyes when she’d summarily ordered him out. She still had the same passion she’d had when they’d kissed, only now it was directed at him in anger.
He steeled himself for another dose of her resistance and approached the door to LeClair’s Chocolate Shop. Pearl must have decorated before her mishap, as the shop’s front featured a massive evergreen wreath bedecked in holly berries. Sleigh bells rimmed the door, and a jaunty row of candles gleamed in the wide front windows.
Cooper reached for the handle, when Natalie beat him to it.
“There’s nothing good about it.” Natalie’s stormy eyes seemed to slice through him, and he noticed she hadn’t opened the door wide enough to let him in. A delectable whiff of cocoa and cream trailed through the slit in the open door, mingling with the lavender scent of her hair. He kept himself from leaning in and took a step back. Her pretty, plump lips were twisted in a frown, and her delicate features were sharpened by her displeasure in seeing him. He longed to make everything right, to come to some solution that would benefit them both.
Don’t go soft now. Keep your eye on the prize.
Cooper squared his shoulders. He was here to acquire the LeClair recipe and company, not rekindle feelings about a single kiss shared three years ago. If only she weren’t so damn tempting. She stood before him like a live wire, all five-foot-three inches of her vibrating with energy. She was dressed to work in the kitchen, in soft violet pants and floral kitchen clogs, her shapely figure obscured under a starched chef jacket. Her glossy sable hair was tied back in a neat bun, and her face was fresh and lovely, untouched by makeup. Her skin looked so soft, and he wondered idly if it would feel the same under his fingertips as it had when he’d kissed her.
“Look, I didn’t want you to find out about your grandmother selling the company that way. For that, I’m sorry.” He took a step toward her, eager to get out of the bracing cold. The wind had picked up, and it neatly cut through his wool jacket, chilling him to the bone. Natalie flinched, but didn’t budge.
“You lied to me.” She inched her shoe into the crack in the door to keep it open, and crossed her arms over her chest. “I wouldn’t have taken a ride with you if I’d known why you were really coming to Juniper Falls.”
Her words made him wince. They wiped any trace of a smile from his face.
“But my grandmother needs to retire. She’s intent on selling to you—” her voice caught and she paused to collect herself. “And I promised her I’d be professional.” She blinked up at him, a mixture of sadness and defiance clouding her eyes. She held the door open and stood back.
Cooper swept through the opening and into the warmth of the shop. He surprised Natalie, and himself, by tucking his finger under her chin and gently turning her face up until her eyes met his.
“LeClair’s will be in good hands, that I can promise you.” He let his hand drop, a surprising warmth spreading through his fingers. Her skin was like velvet, and her voice was low in response.
“I always thought I’d take over for Grandma Pearl. I shouldn’t have left Juniper Falls last winter. My life kind of imploded, and I went to Chicago to teach chocolate making in culinary school. It’s not my grandmother’s fault, she didn’t think my life was here anymore. In a way, she thinks selling the shop and company is doing me a favor. She thinks she’s setting me free.” Natalie gave a shaky laugh and stepped out of his orbit. “Let me show you around.” She flicked on the rest of the lights and a warm, honey glow flooded the space.
“Impressive.” Cooper turned around in a slow circle and took in the shop.
Gleaming dark wood floors and trim contrasted with cream and gold walls etched with sayings and poems about chocolate. Photographs of workers harvesting cocoa beans lined the walls. Intimate booths and small tables clustered in groups in the large room, and beyond were sparkling glass cases, mostly empty, but some filled with decadent truffles. The glossy confections were nestled behind the glass like little jewels. An ample coffee bar completed the shop in the center of the cases.
“LeClair’s is one of the most popular meeting places in town in addition to selling chocolate and coffee. We’re an institution.” Natalie led Cooper to the back of the shop, where the kitchen waited in cool, stainless steel silence.
“And this is where the magic happens.” Her mouth quirked up as she glanced lovingly around the room. “Most of the chocolate we sell online is made in the factory three blocks away, but we still make everything for the shop right here in this kitchen. We consider this to be our test lab for new flavors and treats.” Natalie beamed as she showed Cooper some of their specialty items.
“We use unconventional herbs and spices in our chocolate, like lavender, basil, and coriander.” She selected a drawer of intricately labeled contents and procured several bottles. Cooper moved next to her. He could sense the heat and energy she gave off, and his body leapt to attention. The air practically crackled, and Natalie dropped all three bottles at their feet.
I’m glad I’m not the only one who’s nervous.
He knelt to picked up the bottles of herbs and spices, which thankfully hadn’t broken. Natalie must have had the same idea. She swiftly knelt to retrieve the bottles, and Cooper felt their skulls connect.
“Ouch!” Natalie stood quickly and nearly tottered on her kitchen clogs. Cooper rose to steady her, carefully touching her head.
He whistled. “You’re going to have a pretty big goose egg, I’m afraid.” His hands trembled as her silky, coffee-colored tresses spilled through his fingers. She closed her eyes and took in a deep breath, parting her lips.
“You too.” She wove her fingers through his hair, finding a comparable bump. “I’m sorry. I’m such a klutz.” Her fingers slipped down to rest at the back of his neck, and she blinked up at him.
Cooper smiled lazily at her, and leaned in to brush her lips. Natalie shook herself as if coming out of water, and took a step back.
[_Damn. What are we doing? _]
He chastised himself for almost kissing her.
You’re here for one thing, don’t forget it. You have to get that recipe. Simmer down.
“Here.” Natalie fluttered past him and retrieved the glass bottles, setting them before him. She carefully unscrewed each lid and offered them to Cooper. A fresh bloom of pink dotted her cheeks and she wouldn’t meet his eyes. Cooper leaned in to smell the delicate aromas, and clasped his hands behind his back to keep from brushing her hair into place where he’d mussed it.
“They smell like spring, and sunshine, and meadows.” Cooper studied each jar. “Are those real vanilla beans?” He slid open a drawer and selected a small vanilla pod.
“You bet. We only use the best ingredients.” Natalie seemed to glow with pride and turned to another drawer. Cooper couldn’t keep from shaking his head in bewildered annoyance.
“That’s admirable, but not very cost effective.”
Natalie’s eyes narrowed, all of the sensual haziness evaporated. “We do a lot of things here that aren’t exactly cost effective, but make our company great. We pay our employees full benefits, for instance.”
Cooper felt his eyes nearly bug out of their sockets. He let out a low whistle. “We’ll try to honor the employee contracts you have in place, but I can’t make any guarantees.” There was no way his father would be okay with the details Natalie had outlined. The transition period after he acquired the company might be a little more complicated than he’d anticipated.
Natalie pivoted and placed a hand on her hip. “What exactly are you planning to do with LeClair’s if my grandmother chooses to sell?”
Cooper narrowed his eyes, then softened his stance. “Not chooses, Natalie. She’s selling.”
The words seemed to strike Natalie like a physical force. Cooper longed to gather her up in his arms and make everything better, until he realized he was going to buy LeClair’s, with or without Natalie’s permission.
Don’t let your guard down.
“I’ve got to go soon. I’m meeting with the production line team at the factory for a tour, then I’ll be holding a meeting to explain the transition once King Chocolates officially acquires LeClair’s.”
“I’ll be there for the meeting.” Her lips curved up in a smile. “With bells on.”
“That’s not necessary,” Cooper admonished, a little too hurried. He didn’t want her influencing the factory workers.
[_She’ll try to torpedo the deal. _]
And if this morning were any indication, he also wouldn’t be able to concentrate in her presence.
“I wouldn’t want anyone to get the wrong idea about what you’re doing here in Juniper Falls.” Natalie offered him a smile as sweet as a LeClair’s caramel, but her eyes narrowed and issued a challenge.
Cooper sighed, and all but threw his hands up in defeat.
“I’ll see you in a few hours, then.”
Natalie’s eyes twinkled before she turned around and began measuring ingredients, all but dismissing him.
Cooper saw himself out of the shop. He shook his head as the door closed behind him, the merry peal of sleigh bells jingling in his wake. He blew out a breath of air he hadn’t realized he’d been holding in, and a stream of steam escaped his lips. Natalie could still get under his skin, in more ways than one. He’d need all his resolve to focus on the prize, sealing the deal and buying LeClair’s and its amazing recipe.
“Pull it together, Cooper,” he muttered to himself as he headed toward LeClair’s chocolate factory.
Natalie sighed with relief as the sleigh bells went silent. Cooper was gone. She carefully set down the block of chocolate base and closed her eyes. Cooper distracted her in a way that was more than purely physical. His presence seemed to linger in the air, and her mind eddied with a confusing blend of annoyance and want.
“He’s poaching the family company. He’s not here to rekindle any unfinished business from Seattle,” she scolded herself as her eyes fluttered open. She took in the kitchen, calm and clean. And too quiet. She thought of the empty glass cases in the front of the shop as her heart rate accelerated. She created a frantic mental to-do list, shuffling items in order of importance. If she hurried, she could start a batch of truffles to replenish some of the shop’s stock before heading over to the factory for Cooper’s meeting. After the meeting, she could finish the truffles and get to work creating a brand-new chocolate concoction. The new recipe would become the official LeClair signature flavor of the year. Then she’d have a full night ahead of her making fudges, caramels, and flavored bars in dark, milk, and white chocolate.
[_Easy-peasy. Yeah, right. _]
Grandma Pearl insisted on making most of the chocolate in the shop herself, and her stubbornness was coming back to haunt Natalie. No one had made a single bon bon, truffle, or piece of fudge since Pearl had broken her ankle. The small factory three streets over couldn’t spare any chocolate for the shop, since it was chugging along to keep up with holiday orders. A part-time employee was due to start working in the front of the shop in an hour, but the young woman would act as a cashier and barista, instead of making chocolate. It would take a few days and nights of hard work in the kitchen to replenish the glass cases. Natalie thanked her lucky stars the semester was over at the culinary academy in Chicago where she taught, so she could spend the next few weeks running the shop while her grandmother recuperated.
And maybe I’ll stay for even longer if I can convince Grandma Pearl not to sell to that corporate chocolate thief.
Natalie glanced down at her chocolate-making garb, and a rueful smile spread across her lips. She certainly hadn’t dressed to impress Cooper, but she’d felt his eyes traveling up and down her body. And appreciated it, if she was honest. She thought of him coming to her rescue at the airport, his cheeky smile and his broad shoulders. His sandy hair had felt so soft and silky when she ran her fingers through it after bumping his head. She’d longed to trail her hand over his face, sweeping over the long lashes framing his gray eyes, over his aquiline nose, to his full lips. Her mind strayed to their one kiss so many years ago, and she swallowed as she pushed the memory from her mind.
She turned on the radio while she worked, melting different cocoa bean bases together with cream, stirring her concoctions in massive copper kettles. It felt good to be back in the shop’s kitchen. She soon found her rhythm and nearly danced around the room, adding ingredients from memory to make three different truffle bases.
The annoying, ubiquitous jingle for King Chocolates, Cooper’s father’s behemoth company, blasted over the radio. The retro ditty broke her concentration. She winced as she pictured her family’s pride and joy becoming just another acquisition for the colossal chocolate empire. Natalie’s family’s company may not have been as large as Cooper’s, but it had just as much tradition and history.
[_And better chocolate. _]
Natalie wondered what would become of the workers in the factory down the street. The production part of the company employed twenty people who were skilled artisans and who Natalie considered family. Her parents had passed away when she was five, and Grandma Pearl and the whole LeClair operation had banded together to raise her.
I’ll be damned if some smooth-talking corporate hustler will endanger everything my family worked so hard to create.
She cooled the chocolate on a marble slab and flicked her eyes over the drawers of herbs, spices, and liquors. She willed her mind to leave the subject of Cooper so she could start to dream up ideas for a new chocolate. She missed working with her grandmother to come up with the new signature flavor. The two of them would retreat to the shop’s kitchen the weekend after Thanksgiving and chat excitedly about ideas until the chocolate muse struck them. But this was the year Natalie had fled Juniper Falls after catching her ex husband canoodling with his new wife. The year Grandma Pearl had broken her ankle. The year Natalie’s family history was going to go up in a cloud of chocolate vapor. A heaping helping of guilt crested then crashed over her.
I never should have left.
She glanced at the big cuckoo clock on the wall and retrieved her laptop from her bag. If she wanted to save LeClair’s, she was running out of time. She wasn’t going to just let Cooper waltz into town and buy up her legacy.
Her fingers flew over the keyboard and her eyes narrowed as she pieced together the history of some of the smaller chocolate outfits King Chocolates had gobbled up over the years. King had acquired other specialty chocolate shops with much fanfare, but one by one, the factories had shuttered their doors, and the King team had moved production to their main facilities.
Does Grandma Pearl even know what will happen?
Natalie couldn’t imagine Pearl would want to go through with the sale when she shared what she’d just found. She glanced at the clock on the wall, and abandoned her chocolate making. It was time to set the record straight at Cooper’s meeting. Natalie vowed to save LeClair’s from the silver-tongued salesman who’d come to fleece her grandmother of her family’s livelihood. She donned her coat as if suiting up for battle and swept from the shop.
“THIS IS THE beginning of a wonderful partnership.” Cooper sat at the head of the break room table, and paused to take in the smiles and nods from LeClair’s twenty production line employees. The meeting was going better than expected. When he began the discussion this morning, he’d been met with flat stares and begrudging smirks. The men and women arrayed around the table didn’t seem receptive to having their beloved company bought out by King Chocolates. But he’d deftly laid out his proposal for getting LeClair’s amazing chocolate the recognition it deserved, and quite frankly, needed.
He was aware this was one of the busiest times of the year for the production line. They’d graciously shown him around for the past two hours, and he’d been impressed with what he saw. Pearl wanted everyone on board with the transition, and he was going to allay their every fear and concern. Then he’d head back to New York and make the pitch to the board, and ultimately his father, as to why LeClair’s and its factory should remain open. While he couldn’t guarantee the company would remain in existence, he was going to do everything in his power to make it so. And he hated that he was going to try so hard to keep LeClair’s open because of a certain spitfire chocolatier. He’d already let Natalie down three years ago, and he wasn’t going to do it again if he could help it.
“I envision production quadrupling within a year,” Cooper finished, meeting the eyes of each employee in turn. Excited chatter rippled through the room.
“Will you be hiring more employees to keep up with demand?” A pretty, plump woman in green raised her hand and spoke when Cooper nodded to her.
A snort emanated from the corner of the room. Cooper glanced up to see Natalie occupying a chair partially obscured by a pillar. She rose and joined the employees at the table.
“It’s wonderful to see you, sweetheart.”
“You should come home more often.”
Cooper frowned as the employees leapt up to embrace Natalie in turn. He hadn’t seen her come in. Her amber eyes met his as she returned a hug from the woman who’d asked the question.
“I think Cooper should explain what happens to the companies King Chocolates acquires.” Natalie smoothly pulled out a chair and seated herself at the other end of the table, across from Cooper.
[_Here we go. It’s game time. _]
Cooper cleared his throat and opened his mouth to rejoinder.
Don’t let her control the narrative.
“Some locations have been consolidated, but—”
“Consolidated?” Natalie spoke the word with extreme disdain. “He means closed.” She crisply translated Cooper’s statement and folded her hands neatly in front of her. “Sweet Treats, Lang’s Truffles, and Cocoa Creations were all bought out by King Chocolates, then subsequently absorbed, aka shuttered.”
Shit, shit, shit.
The formerly ebullient employees looked stricken, as if they’d just learned there really was no Santa Claus. They toggled their gazes between Cooper and Natalie, and frowns now replaced their former smiles and nods.
“Those stores joined King Chocolates over a decade ago,” Cooper rebutted Natalie with carefully chosen words. “Every chocolate company with a production component that’s joined the King family in the last three years has remained open.” Cooper had worked hard to convince his father to keep their latest acquisitions around in their original incarnations, if only to appease employees and stave off bad PR. He took a breath and glanced around the room. A few of the deep frowns relaxed, but some still remained. He had more work to do.
“Juniper Falls is integral to the LeClair tradition, and King Chocolates wants to enhance that tradition, not replace it. King Chocolates will provide LeClair’s with a platform to introduce your chocolate to a wider audience. LeClair’s Chocolates will always have a home in Juniper Falls. Period.” He raised his eyes and locked them with Natalie’s, which were skeptical and hooded.
“Now, back to the topic at hand—”
“But you didn’t mention the smaller chocolate stores you simply closed after acquiring them.” Natalie’s voice was bell-like and clear, and she raised her chin in defiance. “Did you just buy them to get their recipes and names, then get rid of them when you’d gotten what you wanted?”
This meeting is getting out of hand.
“Those stores didn’t have a production component like your company—” He stopped short. He’d just called LeClair’s her company. He willed himself to calm down and waited until the murmuring faded.
“I can promise you, LeClair’s will stay open.” He scanned the table of employees. Some were nodding slowly, and he knew he still had them. But others were blinking and waiting to hear what else Natalie had to say. Her pretty eyes glinted with an open challenge. She was insubordinate, rebellious, and had never looked more beautiful.
The production line returned to work, and Cooper mentally tallied their expressions as they left the room. He still had the majority on his side, but there were a few who had been swayed by Natalie’s impassioned warnings. It was going to be a rougher transition than he’d counted on before Natalie showed up.
One thing was for sure. He was going to do everything in his power to make sure LeClair’s wasn’t closed according to the whims of his father.
Why do you care so much?
He didn’t need to answer the question. The reason, one Natalie LeClair, stood and tossed a defiant glance over her shoulder as she fled the building.
Cooper trotted to keep up with Natalie as she made a beeline back to the chocolate shop. Her chestnut hair had slipped out of her bun, and whipped behind her in the brisk December wind. He didn’t enjoy the winter wonderland display this time. He focused on Natalie’s retreating form and doubled his speed.
“Natalie, wait.” Cooper made up the distance between them, his long stride catching up to her shorter one.
She surprised him by stopping in her tracks and whirling around. He collided with her small frame and wrapped his arms around her to prevent a fall. He was shocked that she let him hold her for a moment.
“That was some stunt you pulled.” His voice was huskier than he’d meant, and he carefully released her. She paced in front of him on the sidewalk, and several shoppers glanced at her agitation with curious stares.
“You’re acting as if it’s a done deal. But I’m sure my grandmother doesn’t know what happened to some of the companies your father took over.”
“You know how to do your research.” Cooper gave her an appraising look. “But we don’t close companies anymore. Not on my watch.”
[_Not that my father doesn’t try. _]
“You don’t own LeClair’s, Cooper. And you won’t if I have anything to do with it.”
“I don’t own it yet. But your grandmother is moving forward, make no mistake.”
Natalie wrapped her arms around her middle, seeming to try to block out his words. Cooper wished in that moment he were in Juniper Falls for any other reason than to make her life miserable.
“Natalie—” he impulsively reached for her and trailed a single finger along her lower lashes, where a tear threatened to drop.
“I’m going to bring my grandma lunch and check up on her,” she whispered, wrapping her mittened hand around his bare one and gently lowering it. He longed to raise her fingers to his lips.
Natalie closed her eyes, and when she opened them, a switch seemed to flip. She steeled herself.
“Then I’m going back to the shop. Did you see those empty cases this morning? They should be filled with bonbons and truffles and fudge. The production line can’t spare a single piece of chocolate for the shop, since all of their chocolate is being shipped out for Christmas orders. Grandma Pearl insisted on making all of the chocolate for the shop herself.” She took a deep breath. “She always did too much, and I realize I shouldn’t have left last year. But I can help out now. I’ve got to replenish the cases, even if it takes all night. And then there’s the wine and chocolate auction.” A frantic look graced her face. “It’s in a little over a week, and I’ll need to unveil the new signature chocolate flavor. The one my grandma hasn’t invented yet.”
“I’ll go with you.” The words flew out of his mouth, unbidden. It didn’t make any sense, this crazy need to mix business with pleasure. He’d always kept his personal life far away from his work. And acquiring LeClair’s would be the crowning achievement of his career. He couldn’t mess it up by messing around with Natalie. But he felt an inexorable pull toward her and was helpless to dismiss it. He wanted to make all her problems go away, when in reality, he was her biggest problem.
Natalie stared at him for a long moment. A frigid wind from the west whipped silky strands of hair around her face. A few flakes of snow began their descent, pirouetting through the sky and dotting their faces.
Natalie slowly nodded her assent. “I need all the help I can get.” The beginnings of a rueful smile played at the corners of her lips. Cooper offered his arm, and without any hesitation, Natalie took it. He silently fell into step with her. It felt right. It felt exhilarating.
What the hell am I doing?
NATALIE PEERED OUT of the shop’s front window at the silent night. The snow had begun to fall in earnest, and a fluffy layer of the white stuff blanketed the sidewalks and eaves of the buildings across the street. Thousands of twirling flakes, coupled with the twinkling lights and cheery wreaths lining the other stores transformed Juniper Falls into a veritable snow globe.
Despite the looming sale of her family’s shop and company, Natalie’s heart was full. Her grandmother Pearl’s ebullient laughter had finally returned. She seemed to believe selling the shop and company was the right thing to do, and her merry blue eyes had sparkled when she’d shown Natalie the website detailing the cruise she’d take as soon as her ankle healed. Pearl LeClair seemed to trust Cooper King, and Natalie desperately wanted to follow suit. Something stopped her, though.
She whirled around and took in the glass cases with satisfaction. She’d managed to replenish half of them with assortments of cherry cordials, chocolate-covered pretzels, caramels, and decadent truffles. A new gingerbread house, flanked with miniature marzipan Christmas trees, stood at attention next to the coffee bar, trimmed in milk and dark chocolate. Her fingers ached from the work, but a slow smile graced her lips. Grandma Pearl would be proud.
But Natalie could barely keep her mind on the work ahead of her. She was awaiting Cooper’s arrival, and to her astonishment, she could hardly tamp down her excitement.
[_Have you gone insane? _]
She still didn’t trust him. But she’d watched him earlier that day with Pearl as they’d shared lunch together and found herself softening. He’d allayed her grandmother’s fears about the company, and Natalie wanted to believe him. But she suspected Cooper couldn’t personally guarantee LeClair’s would stay open. And she was going to do everything and anything to safeguard her family’s legacy.
Natalie saw Cooper turn down Main Street. As he approached the shop he caught her watching him. He gave her an electric smile as she unlocked the door to let him in. A boyish lock of tawny hair, rife with snowflakes, fell into his eyes. She longed to brush it from his forehead, but willed her hands to be still.
He stopped before her, his slate gray eyes growing serious. “Let’s get started. Make no mistake. I may spend my days working for the corporate side, but I can make a mean batch of chocolate.” His face split into an infectious grin, showing off the slight chip on his left front tooth. “You won’t regret it.”
Natalie swallowed and took a step back. She regretted it all. Not seeing Cooper after their shared kiss three years ago. Leaving Juniper Falls after her marriage imploded. Not being home to take over the chocolate company. And the fact that she and Cooper were meeting again under these circumstances.
But she did need his help tonight, and he was here. In her personal space, as her body’s reaction made her keenly aware.
Get it together. He may be helping you tonight, but he’s not exactly on your side.
She recalled with surprise how many of the production line employees seemed excited about the prospect of becoming part of King Chocolates. Cooper was a masterful salesman, and a sizable chunk of the workers had been impressed with his words. Even her grandmother was eager to offload their family legacy, and Natalie couldn’t figure out why. She’d been running different scenarios through head all afternoon as she made truffles, but nothing made sense. She didn’t have time to ponder any longer, as she was acutely aware of Cooper’s nearness. He stood before her, all six foot two inches of him, eager and willing and helpful and gorgeous. She wanted to forget the history between them, old and new, and start over.
He slipped off his overcoat and shouldered his suit jacket over a chair. He unbuttoned the cuffs of his crisp blue shirt and rolled up the sleeves, treating her to a view of his forearm’s sinewy muscles. She remembered what it had felt like to be gathered in his arms when he’d kissed her, and a shiver stole through her body.
“Let’s get to it.” Natalie wheeled around on her heel and ushered him into the kitchen, her inner sanctum. A wave of trepidation and elation bathed her nerves as every cell seemed to pick up on his proximity.
“Tonight you’re making fudge.” She willed her hands to stop fluttering and began assembling ingredients in front of Cooper. “We’ll need to make coconut, candy cane, key lime, eggnog, and birthday cake.”
Cooper nodded and accepted the recipe book she proffered. “Is the company recipe for chocolate in here?” He held the old book reverently before him, a glow of anticipation sharpening his features. Little alarm bells began to ring in Natalie’s head. The recipe was the key to their success, and perhaps more inherently valuable than the shop and company. If Cooper planned on disbanding the shop and everything her family had built after he got his hands on the recipe, she’d do everything in her power to stop LeClair’s sale.
“No,” she began carefully, assessing his reaction. “My grandmother and I know the recipe by heart. It’s all in here.” She tapped twice on her head and studied Cooper. Now would be a good time to ferret out exactly what he planned to do with LeClair’s when the sale went through.
“Tell me again about what will happen after King acquires us.” Natalie stopped amassing ingredients and leaned against the prep table to carefully watch Cooper. But her body betrayed her, and she found herself drinking in the sight of him again, his profile sharp under the beginnings of a five-o-clock shadow. She longed to trail her fingers over the roughness, but settled for reveling in the sight of Cooper, his ruddy skin stretched over his lovely cheekbones, his hair mussed from his walk in the wind. He flipped open the recipe book and began measuring ingredients, talking as he worked.
“I’ve tasted chocolate all over the world, and the best is made right here in this kitchen. I first sampled it three years ago when I met you at the chocolate convention, and I haven’t been able to get it, or you, out of my mind since.”
A slow wave of heat traveled through Natalie, and she felt her face growing warm.
“LeClair’s will maintain its identity. King Chocolates will just be the platform you need to introduce your chocolate to the world. Your family’s recipe will be the foundation of the new artisan chocolate line I’m building, but everyone will know it’s LeClair chocolate.”
He spoke with passion and joy, his keen slate gray eyes lighting up, his expressive mouth animated and lovely. Natalie found herself nodding and smiling as the production line employees had. Cooper was persuasive as hell, and if she wasn’t careful, she’d soon find herself agreeing with his every plan for her family’s chocolate company.
But there was a fine thread of hesitancy she picked up upon, and her mind couldn’t let it go.
“Are you certain the factory will stay in Juniper Falls? I know you said at the meeting all of your recent acquisitions have maintained their original locations, at least in some form. But can you be certain?”
A barely perceptible cloud swept over Cooper’s face, and Natalie’s breath caught. Or was she imagining it? Cooper began to crush candy canes with a mortar and pestle, the sharp, sweet peppermint flavor permeating the air. He melted sugar, butter, and cream in a heavy copper pot, and seemed to consider his words.
“I don’t see why not. The board is amenable to keeping stores and factories where they all began, especially when it enhances the brand.” Cooper’s delivery was firm and steadfast, but he hadn’t exactly answered her question.
A frisson of doubt crept between Natalie’s shoulder blades.
“But can you make a promise, right now, that this shop will remain here? And that all of the LeClair employees will still have a job?”
“I’ll do everything in my power—” Cooper began.
Natalie felt her eyes shutter. “I don’t think my grandmother would still want to sell the company, recipe and all, if you’re going to fundamentally change how we do things around here. Especially if there is no here left.”
Cooper sighed and slipped his hands in his pockets. “It’s not exactly up to me, Natalie. I can promise you LeClair’s will stay open. And I can make recommendations to corporate, but I can’t just guarantee things will remain exactly the same.”
“Up to corporate? Don’t you mean your father?” Natalie delivered the last pronouncement with some satisfaction when she saw Cooper wince. She remembered their conversation years ago before their kiss, when Cooper had lamented the tight reigns his father held on their chocolate empire. Cooper had wanted to focus on specialty chocolate, but his father only cared about the bottom line. It sounded like Prescott King, the so-called czar of chocolate, was still calling all the shots.
Cooper ground his teeth and took a deep breath. “You know how business works, Natalie. I’ve asked around about your experience working here before you left to teach in culinary school.” Cooper deftly changed the subject.
Natalie looked up in surprise.
“You got your degree in business. You tripled LeClair’s sales after you graduated college and returned to Juniper Falls to work here with your grandmother. You designed the website and started taking online orders. Our colleagues in the chocolate business say you’re passionate, savvy, and you know how to promote your chocolate. I know you love this company, but you also understand the bottom line.”
Natalie winced at his rejoinder. He was right in a way. If it were any other company than LeClair’s, she’d agree.
But this place is special. This place is home.
For the thousandth time, Natalie realized it had been a mistake to run off after her marriage imploded. She was back home, right where she belonged. With her grandmother. At LeClair’s.
I won’t make the same mistake again.
Natalie squared her shoulders. “The bottom line is that my grandmother won’t sell to a company that will just gobble up my family’s lifeblood and turn it into another acquisition. LeClair’s matters, and I won’t let you dismantle it or turn it into another generic piece of your father’s chocolate company.”
Cooper winced. “King Chocolates is a family company, too. I want to create a special line of artisans chocolates, and LeClair’s will be at the heart of that.”
Natalie gave a joyless laugh. “You’ll just cut and run. You’ll buy LeClairs, take our recipe, then leave. Just like you did after you kissed me all those years ago at the convention.”
She took in Cooper’s stricken face. She’d finally addressed the giant, ten-ton elephant in the room. She felt as if she’d hurled a lighting bolt between them.
A look of utter pain and recrimination stole across Cooper’s handsome face.
“That was the biggest mistake I’ve ever made. One I won’t make again.” He crossed the three steps separating them and gently cupped her chin in his surprisingly rough hand. He traced her lips with his fingers, sending delicate shivers rippling down her back. A quiver of alarm danced down her spine as her body willingly came alive at his barest touch, but the intensity of his gaze pinned her to the spot.
“If only we weren’t meeting here, and now, under these circumstances.” Her voice was the faintest whisper, husky and low. She swallowed and dared to get lost in his eyes, the barely perceptible flecks of blue amidst the gray vivid and sparkling up close.
He let out a low laugh. “It may not be the right time, or place, but I’m not letting you go this time, Natalie.” His gaze left her eyes and hungrily took in her mouth.
She raised her lips to meet his, and drank in his kiss.
WHAT HAVE YOU gotten yourself into?
Cooper ignored the insistently clanging alarm bells in his head and dove deeper into the kiss, taking Natalie in. She gave a soft moan and nestled closer to him, a more than willing participant. He moved from her lips and dropped a trail of kisses along her jaw, her ear, and her neck, tasting and breathing in the sweet scent of her skin, an intoxicating mixture of honey and lavender.
He didn’t care about acquiring LeClair’s as the crown jewel for his father’s portfolio. He didn’t care about how unprofessional he was being. He only cared about this moment, the woman in his arms, and finishing what they’d started three years ago.
He lifted her onto the prep table, shoving ingredients out of the way with no regard or care. He distantly heard a clang of stainless steel bowls and measuring cups on the tile floor. She pulled him closer to her, wrapping her legs around his waist. Her breath beat a staccato rhythm in his ear, warm and soft and insistent.
They were close to the point of no return. He slid his hands under her chef’s coat and his needy hands stroked her back, questing to undo the clasp of her bra. Her skin was like velvet, her chestnut hair like a waterfall, slipping out of her bun and through his fingers.
She leaned back, a hazy smile playing on her plump lips, red and swollen and curving up as she gazed at him. Her hand played along his open collar, and she began to undo the buttons of his shirt, her eyes hungrily taking him in.
A hiss emanated from the stove, followed by the acrid smell of burning sugar and butter. Like a witch’s cauldron, the contents of the copper pot boiled over their confines and onto the scorching stove.
[_The fudge is burning. _]
The burning sugar should have been a sign he’d gone too far. He was in Juniper Falls to get one thing, the LeClair chocolate recipe. He had to keep his eye on the prize, and not be tempted by the gorgeous, spirited woman in his arms. But he didn’t care. All he wanted was in his grasp, and he wouldn’t let a little burned sugar ruin the moment. He swallowed and leaned down to claim her lips again.
“Cooper—” Natalie’s voice was insistent and a little panicked. She pushed him away and deftly jumped down from the prep table.
Natalie moved the copper pot from the stove and poured a fine stream of salt on the flaming mixture. She seemed to wake from a trance, glancing down at her rumpled chef’s coat in wonder. She let out a shaky breath and moved away from the stove to collect herself.
“Long overdue.” Cooper crossed the room and gathered Natalie in his arms again.
“Slow down.” There was laughter in Natalie’s voice, like merry bells. Her eyes were alight with amusement and hunger. Cooper tucked her hair behind her ears and tilted her head up again.
“I need to come up with a new chocolate recipe for the annual holiday auction.” Her voice was still breathy, but her eyes were now clear and determined. “I’m not sure what will happen to that tradition when you buy the company. This may be the last year LeClair’s sponsors the auction with Rossi’s winery, and if so, I want to go out with a bang.” She carefully extracted herself from Cooper’s arms and moved to the drawers filled with spices and herbs.
“I need your help, Cooper.”
And I just need you. Period.
He willed himself to calm down and joined her in front of the flavor counter.
“My grandma and I always collaborated to create a new chocolate flavor.” Her eyes danced as she took in the spices before her. “We’d start by eating some of our best chocolate, and wait for the muse to strike. We were always in sync. I want to create something spectacular for her.” She seemed to draw further away. “It’s got to be driving her crazy, staying cooped up in her house with her ankle out of commission. I know there’s no place she’d rather be than here.”
“You’re taking good care of her. She’s lucky to have you as a granddaughter.” He recalled their shared lunch today, as Natalie bustled around Pearl, plumping up the pillows under her leg and regaling her with stories from the employees on the chocolate production line. She hid her concerns about what had happened at the meeting, and made sure Pearl was all settled before heading back to the shop. Cooper hadn’t missed the affection passing between the two women, something he wished he’d had growing up with his father, a cold, hard man, more intent on growing his business empire than engaging his son.
“It’s always hard to see someone you love in pain, but you’re doing everything you can to make her comfortable.” Cooper recalled rushing to his father’s side the day after he’d kissed Natalie in Seattle all those years ago. The powerful man had looked so frail and helpless in the hospital bed, and it had been touch-and-go for days. Cooper had ended up taking care of his father and simultaneously running King Chocolates in his absence, ascending to the top of the company at the age of thirty. He’d deftly managed the company’s affairs, and no one suspected his father was so ill.
“You sound like you have some experience in the matter.” Natalie turned her warm amber gaze on him, filled with compassion. Cooper wondered how transparent he’d been.
“My father,” he admitted with a gruff tinge to his voice. “He was ill several years ago—”
He stopped himself and buried his fists in his pockets.
You never talk about this. What in the hell are you doing?
He’d never wanted to share what had happened with anyone. His father’s illness had been a closely guarded secret, one Prescott King didn’t want to leak and jeopardize his position at the top of his business. Cooper had tended to his father alone, and borne the brunt of the barrage of questions about his absence. By the time he recovered, no one had known Prescott King was ill. He’d barely thanked his son for tending to King Chocolates during his convalescence. It was a period of time Cooper didn’t want to return to, especially since it had cost him Natalie once before.
[_I shouldn’t even be here. _]
He finally woke up from the warm trance her skin had woven over him, and his mission became crystal clear. He was going to buy LeClair’s and start the line of special chocolates he’d been working toward for years. And giving in to temptation with Natalie, and discussing his father’s health, was not the way to get there.
“I have an idea.” He deftly switched the subject and appealed to what he guessed was Natalie’s competitive nature. “Why don’t we both create a flavor? We’ll see which one is the best, and that’ll become this year’s signature flavor to be unveiled at the auction. Let’s see what we can come up with in an hour.”
Natalie gave a throaty laugh. “Okay, businessman. You may appreciate fine chocolate, but can you make it? Let’s see what you’ve got.”
They worked in close proximity, stealing glances every few minutes. It was all Cooper could do to concentrate on his concoction and avoid scooping Natalie into his arms. He wasn’t sure if the heat in the room was from his body’s nearness to her and its continued response, or the pots they stirred on the stove, their elbows brushing against each other.
He idly wondered if she regretted their kiss as he assembled ingredients and chopped, heated, and cooled his chocolate. He chastised himself for getting so close to revealing the secret of his father’s illness, and vowed not to let her tempt him into sharing so much of himself again. But something about her made him want to share every last confidence he had.
“Time’s up.” Natalie plated her chocolate on a tiny yellow platter with LeClair’s insignia etched along the edge, the letters in curly script, a honeybee playing among them.
Cooper plated his chocolate and flashed Natalie a triumphant grin.
“Allow me.” Natalie picked up a perfectly round orb of chocolate and raised it to his lips. He took the truffle in his mouth and an explosion of sharp sweetness and cool herbs burst upon his tongue.
He opened his eyes and cast Natalie an appraising look. “Tarragon and chardonnay. A perfect blend.”
Her perfect rosebud of a mouth formed a small o and she choked back her surprise. “You can taste that? I’m impressed.”
“Now my turn.” He lifted the slim wafer of chocolate he’d made to her mouth and delicately placed it on her tongue. A slow smile played at the edges of her mouth. “Cayenne, cinnamon, and honey. Sweet and hot and earthy.”
She’s just described herself.
“I tried to capture you in a chocolate.”
She didn’t laugh, and for that he was grateful. She turned to him, her face open and hopeful. She stood on tiptoe and raised her chin to place her mouth on his, when the cuckoo clock in the corner sprang to life, clucking and breaking the spell they’d been under.
“It’s midnight.” Regret etched Natalie’s pretty face as she sank down on her heels. “Time to turn into a pumpkin. Will you walk me home?”
He held her arm to steady her as they minced through the several inches of snow. Juniper Falls lay quiet and still under the achingly bright stars. The sky was a limitless black bowl above, and Pearl LeClair’s Victorian rose up before them, the Alleghenies framing the house in the distance.
Cooper dropped a kiss on Natalie’s forehead, and she held him tight, before wordlessly climbing the front stairs and letting herself into her grandmother’s house.
Cooper stared after her and let out a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding. It hissed out in a stream, the cold air making it visible. His cell phone vibrated in his pocket, and he swiftly scrolled over the screen. It was his father.
Have you gotten that recipe yet? I’ve looked over the books, and this one’s not worth saving. We’ll close them down after the first of the year.
A panic gripped Cooper’s chest as he slipped the phone into his pocket. He’d made specific promises, and it looked like they’d be impossible to keep. He’d come to Juniper Falls to launch his dream, and now he’d be crushing Natalie’s.
It was always just business. Then why do I care so much about her?
NATALIE SETTLED BEHIND the desk in the office above the chocolate shop. The weak December sunlight scattered over her keyboard, and the old radiator hummed a pleasing rhythm. Pictures of Natalie with her grandmother graced the shelves, and the office was as cozy and pleasant as always. Her grandmother Pearl had maintained the small, tidy space just as it had appeared when Natalie fled Juniper Falls a year ago, fresh from her divorce, looking for a new start in Chicago. A shiver of guilt shuddered through Natalie as she realized Pearl had probably thought she’d return one day.
“I don’t blame her for selling the company,” she mused out loud. “It’s not like I stuck around to help.”
Still, she took some solace working in her old office. Sitting behind the desk felt like slipping on a comfortable pair of slippers. She was home. Where she belonged.
Too bad I ran away and gave all this up. And now it may be gone forever.
She returned to the task at hand, planning the menu for the wine and chocolate auction. Twenty different confections would be on offer for attendees to try, and the highlight would be two new signature flavors: the tarragon chardonnay she’d dreamed up and the cayenne and cinnamon chocolate Cooper had created. It would be the first year LeClair’s unveiled two new chocolates, and Natalie hoped it wasn’t the last time for this particular tradition. She wasn’t sure the company would be sponsoring events in Juniper Falls after King Chocolates gobbled it up, if LeClair’s even existed in its present incarnation.
Despite the uncertainty surrounding her family business’s fate, Natalie couldn’t wait to see Cooper again this afternoon. It rattled her that she cared so much about what he thought. She’d dressed carefully for their meeting, against her better wishes. At first she’d selected a suit that screamed she meant business. Then she shucked the severe gray wool for a soft green sweater dress that hugged her curves. That hadn’t seemed right either, so she’d finally settled on a wool pencil skirt and a blue sweater. Professional, but not trying so hard.
“Concentrate,” she admonished herself as she turned back to her document. But she soon found herself reveling in their kiss, replaying last night over in her head again. The way his hands had felt, the way his lips had tasted. His passion for his business, and chocolate, and her. Cooper got under her skin. She wanted to know what made him tick, and what his plans were for the future. And whether his future included her, and Juniper Falls.
Serendipity had brought them together after a single kiss shared three years ago, and Natalie didn’t want to lose Cooper again. But there couldn’t be a future with Cooper if he dismantled her family legacy. She willed herself to stop daydreaming about an impossible future and returned to her work.
“This is business,” Natalie cautioned herself under her breath. “And maybe your last chance to save the family company.”
She closed the document for the auction and booted up the company’s accounting software. She spent the next hour going over the figures, looking for evidence LeClair’s was still doing well, and would be enticing to other investors. If King Chocolates was interested in buying their company, surely others would be interested too. Her plan was to entice investors who would want to back LeClair’s, but would allow the small factory to keep operating, and the flagship shop to remain in Juniper Falls.
There was just one problem. She couldn’t make heads or tails of the numbers. When she’d left the business last year, they’d been turning a modest profit. Nothing substantial, but enough to cover payroll and Natalie and Pearl’s modest salaries.
[_This is worse than I thought. _]
Sales of chocolate had flat lined, and the prices of their ingredients had skyrocketed. An icy trickle of panic trilled down Natalie’s spine, as she recalled trying to convince Pearl almost a year before to slightly raise the prices of their most popular items. But her grandmother wouldn’t hear of it.
“What are you up to?” Cooper’s broad shoulders filled the doorway. He carried two cups of coffee from the shop downstairs, and the mellow java scent wafted up with the steam. He looked at Natalie with tender eyes, and wore a gracious smile on his face. A smile that faltered as he took in her distress.
“I’ve been looking at the company figures.” Natalie dragged her eyes from the computer screen to meet his. His gray-eyed glance was sympathetic, but ultimately knowing. He handed her a cup of coffee and sat down before her.
“So now you know.” Compassion seemed to soften his mouth, and he put down his cup. “This sale has to go through. Or soon there won’t be a company to save.” His pronouncement pricked and popped the last bubble of hope she’d felt welling up.
“I had no idea the company was in such dire straits.” She heard her voice grow heavy with accusation, but she tried to keep her tone level, without much success. She sounded as if she were going to shatter into pieces.
“It wasn’t my information to give.” Cooper reached across the desk and took Natalie’s small hand in his. His palms were rough and callused, but warm and soothing.
“Pearl insists on premium ingredients, and steady raises for your employees. It’s an admirable way to run a business, but it won’t cover what you need. You need a capital investment. The factory’s equipment needs to be upgraded. But you’re in luck, Natalie. Your family’s company makes the best chocolate I’ve ever come across. I fell in love with it, and the world will too. You have to expand to move forward, and King Chocolates will make that happen.”
Natalie blinked back a painful prickle of tears. Her last minute plans for LeClair’s finding another investor were dashed to smithereens, and she wanted nothing more than to take solace in Cooper’s arms. But she didn’t trust that he could protect her family’s legacy.
“There’s more.” Cooper withdrew his hand and seemed to consider his next statement. “Something you haven’t found yet. Pearl took out a rather hefty loan six months ago to keep LeClair’s afloat. She doesn’t have enough to pay the interest.”
The shop is going under. This can’t be happening.
Her heart beat a frenzied rhythm in her chest, like a trapped bird trying to escape. No investor would want to float LeClair’s the money to keep it running as it had been, fantastic chocolate or not. She needed Cooper to save LeClair’s, no matter what his plans for it.
Cooper leaned across the desk and gently wiped away a trickle of tears from Natalie’s lashes with his thumb. “Pearl didn’t want you to know.” His voice was low, barely above a whisper. “She didn’t want you to think I was the company’s only option.”
Natalie gave a shaky laugh. “There are worse options, Cooper. Like if I’d never gotten a chance to see you again.”
She wished, more than anything, that he were here in Juniper Falls for any other reason. She wanted them to have a chance, without her distrust of his plans for the company getting in the way. She wanted it all: to save LeClair’s, to come home to Juniper Falls for good, and to have a real chance with Cooper.
His gray eyes went soft with emotion, the pupils dilating. He leaned over the desk and cupped her face in his hands. “I regretted not seeing you again for three long years. I won’t do it again.” He tucked an errant strand of hair behind her ear. “I promise you, I’ll do everything I can to make sure your family’s chocolate company stays open after the sale.”
NICE JOB, COOP.
He’d royally screwed up. He couldn’t believe he’d broken Pearl’s confidence about the loan she’d taken out. He’d promised her he wouldn’t breathe a word to her granddaughter. But one look at Natalie’s meltingly soft, whiskey-colored eyes, brimming with tears, and he was spilling the beans right and left. But she deserved to know the truth. It was her legacy, too.
“You weren’t supposed to tell me how dire the situation is.” Natalie leaned back in her chair, the waning winter sunlight glinting off the strands of her cocoa hair. Her gaze was sympathetic and open.
“I’m that obvious, huh?” Cooper ran a nervous hand through his hair and leaned back away from the desk. He stood and paced in the small space, letting out a gust of air.
“Don’t worry. Your secret is safe with me.” Natalie shook her head a little ruefully. “I’m sure my grandmother had her reasons for not telling me. She started this company, back in her kitchen on Willow Street. She and my parents, before they passed away, poured everything they had into LeClair’s to make it a success.” She grabbed a heavy paperweight, fashioned as a bee fluttering around a hive, and carefully held it in her delicate hands.
“After my divorce, I couldn’t bear to see my ex, so I fled Juniper Falls. Pearl was probably just respecting my wishes, not wanting to drag me into what was happening back here with the company going under.” Her mouth crooked up in a regretful-looking smile. “Though I wish she had.”
Cooper stopped pacing and offered Natalie his own smile. “Then you wouldn’t have to sell to the likes of me and my father.”
Natalie laughed. “You’re not all bad, Cooper. In fact, I’m growing pretty fond of you.” She blinked at her admission and her heart-shaped face grew serious. “I appreciate you telling me the truth. I love LeClair’s with everything in me. It’s my family, my life. I don’t know if I can stand to see it change.” Twin tears beaded at the corners of her almond-shaped eyes. “But if we have to sell the company, I’m glad it’s to you.” She looked into his eyes with such faith and hope that his heart ached.
I’ll make this right for her.
He wanted to gather Natalie in his arms and crush her to him, to hold her and make all of her worries melt away. He wanted to save her family’s company the way she wanted to, without collecting it as just another jewel in his father’s crown. He wanted to pledge himself to her, to stay by her side, to collaborate, to make her laugh, to wake up next to her. He wanted her, plain and simple. And wanted her to want him too.
Don’t take your eyes off the prize.
He wanted to swat at the buzzing gnat in his conscience reminding him of his mission in Juniper Falls. He was on the precipice of realizing his dream to start and oversee an artisan chocolate line for King Chocolates. He couldn’t go soft now, not for Natalie. He couldn’t change his dream just for her. But she wasn’t just anyone. She was the one that got away, and he wouldn’t let it happen this time. He dared to dream of a life with her, a partnership. A chance at happiness. A chance to focus on something other than the blind pursuit of business. A chance for love.
She is the prize.
“I’m glad you’ll be heading up the transition after the sale,” Natalie reiterated, her gaze soft and wistful. She brushed away the set of tears and squared her shoulders. “And Juniper Falls is my home. But I won’t be able to stay at LeClairs and watch what happens.”
Her speech pricked the buoyant balloon swelling in his chest, and he sat down in the chair before her.
“I hadn’t realized you’d be leaving so soon.” A cold sliver of realization cleaved his heart, and he shook his head at his own stupidity.
She cut her eyes to him and let out a shaky breath. “I don’t think I can handle watching my family’s company be dismantled if that’s what King Chocolates decides to do.”
He nodded slowly, already shutting himself off from her. He’d imagined her returning to New York with him, to transform her family recipes into the heart and soul of King Chocolates.
[_I’m such a presumptuous fool. _]
He shouldn’t even be here. Business and pleasure don’t mix well, as he’d just been reminded.
“Will you be staying in Juniper Falls to oversee the transition?” A glimmer shone in Natalie’s light brown eyes.
“I’m headed back to New York as soon as the sale goes through.” His voice sounded unnecessarily cold, even to him, and he softened his tone. “I’ll keep my promise. I’ll recommend to the board, and my father, that LeClair’s be able to keep the shop open, and the factory here in Juniper Falls.”
“But you can’t guarantee it.” Natalie set down the honeybee paperweight and crossed her arms over her chest. Disappointment dimmed her lovely countenance, as she sought to elicit the one promise he couldn’t give.
“I’ll try, Natalie. For my father, this is just about a recipe. But for me, it’s so much more. I believe in your company, Natalie.” His eyes went soft, and he drew his thumb over her plump lower lip. “I believe in you.”
He couldn’t have her forever. It would never work. But he would never forget her.
He crossed the small office and gently gathered her in his arms. She trembled and turned her face up to him. A mixture of sadness, hope, and desire met in her eyes. He lowered his mouth to hers to claim her, if only for now, with a kiss.
I DON’T EVER want to let him go.
Natalie reveled in Cooper’s kiss. She pressed the heels of her hands into his back, drawing him ever closer to her. He reciprocated, holding her so tightly she dared not breathe. He took hungry possession of her mouth, and a small moan escaped her lips.
She wanted her family’s company. She wanted Cooper. She wanted it all, and was probably going to lose them both. She trusted his intentions, but that was all he had to offer her. Just his recommendation that LeClair’s be able to exist after his father’s company snatched up the shop and factory. But she would take it, everything she could get, if only in this moment.
Cooper dropped soft kisses down the side of her neck, sending shivers coursing through her. Natalie stroked his jaw and buried her hands in his soft hair.
“We shouldn’t have waited three years to meet again.” Cooper’s voice was hushed and intent. He rested his nose against Natalie’s, and a sensuous smile broke out across his face.
“If it had been up to me, we wouldn’t have waited.” Natalie traced a pattern on his chin with her finger. “Cooper, I’ve always wondered…” She felt her resolve falter, but pressed on. “Why did you stand me up all those years ago?”
She thought back to their first kiss, stolen on the rooftop of the hotel at the chocolate convention. It was a kiss for the ages, and she’d never forgotten it. Her thoughts strayed to waiting for Cooper in the dining room of the convention hotel the next evening, toying with a glass of wine for two hours, and finally realizing he wasn’t going to show.
“I took the red-eye flight back to New York. My father was dying.” Cooper’s words were barely above a whisper. Natalie looked up sharply and nodded for him to go on. “He wasn’t expected to recover. I realized that evening that we were supposed to be having dinner, and that’s when I texted you. You never responded, and I respected that. When he did recover, months later, I thought it was too late to pursue you.”
A dull knot of pain resonated in her chest. “I didn’t know,” she said simply. “Oh, Cooper, I’m so sorry.” She laid her hands on his chest, and he leaned down to drop a kiss on her forehead.
“We’re making up for it now, Natalie.” His rough hands closed over hers. She could feel his heart pounding beneath her palm.
“And now I’ll tell you a secret.” She licked her lips and plunged on. “The LeClair recipe. The secret ingredient? It’s been right under your nose the whole time.”
He gazed at her in wonder, and she delicately ran her fingertips over his lashes, closing his eyes. She opened his hand, running her fingers over the calluses. She picked up the heavy silver paperweight and placed it in his palm.
“Open your eyes, Cooper.”
A swift jolt of recognition seemed to overtake him, and his luscious, full lips parted in a smile as he took in the honeybee and the hive.
Natalie nodded. “We infuse our chocolate with honey made right here in Juniper Falls. People say they can taste sunshine and meadows in our chocolate, and that’s why.”
She let out a shaky breath, owing as much to being in his heady proximity as to revealing the family’s recipe.
“Thank you.” He kissed her with the utmost tenderness, slow and insistent, savoring her lips. When he pulled away, his eyes were filled with warmth and fire.
Natalie drew nearer to him, lacing her fingers behind his neck. She wanted to suspend time, to exist only here, with Cooper, with no strings or concerns or hard decisions. “We’ve wasted so much time. I don’t want to lose you again.”
She’d said it. Declared it. Laid her heart bare.
“Natalie—” his voice was husky and low. “I—”
His cell phone began to trill in his pocket, insistent, clanging, rude.
She gave a shaky laugh and pulled away. “You’d better get that.”
“It can wait.” Cooper practically growled, and jabbed at the phone to silence it. The screen announced a new voicemail, and instead of quieting, the message was played aloud for them both to hear.
“Cooper, it’s your father. Did you get that damn recipe, or not? I looked over the financials for LeClair’s again last night. The sale will go through, but we’ll definitely be shutting them down. Finish up, and head on back. We need you here in New York.”
Cooper stared at the slim black phone as if it were kryptonite.
“Natalie—” he reached for her, but she twisted out of his grasp. The walls were closing in on Natalie, and she felt faint. The roar of some distant ocean crashed deep within her ears as her pulse accelerated. She stumbled, away from him, and grasped for her chair.
Cooper’s face fell, a look of infinite sadness and contrition marring his good looks. “My father doesn’t know—”
Natalie barely heard him. And she barely cared.
COOPER WATCHED THE dancing light leave Natalie’s eyes. Her swollen bottom lip began to quiver, and she sat down in her chair as if in a nightmare. Then she seemed to gather herself, drawing upon some inner reserve of steel. She raised her eyes level to his.
“Natalie, I haven’t had a chance to explain to him the importance of keeping LeClair’s open. I’m sure when I get back to New York—”
“Cooper.” Her voice was a whisper, but make no mistake, she was a force to be reckoned with. “You need to leave. Now.”
Her delicate features were laden with infinite sadness. His perceived betrayal weighed down her slender shoulders, and all of the effervescent happiness had left her.
Cooper nodded, the spell broken. He trudged out of LeClair’s on leaden legs, his heart pounding in his throat.
All of his promises to make things right had evaporated in a hazy cloud. The sale would most likely still go through. What Natalie didn’t know was that Pearl was aware King Chocolates might shut down operations. She still wanted to sell. Even if it broke her granddaughter’s heart. For Pearl, their chocolates finding a new home was enough.
Cooper trudged through Juniper Falls, back to the Winterhaven Resort. Families strolled along the sidewalks, taking in the holiday ambience and reveling in the crisp December air. Carolers stood at attention on the corner of Main and Spruce, and people stood to listen, their cheeks red from the cold. Lilting smiles lit up their faces.
But he didn’t see them. He only saw her. Natalie was the sweetest thing that had ever happened to him. He’d be damned if he’d lose her again. He was tired of bending to his father’s whims. Tired of catering to the business, and shunting love from his heart. He was tired of only thinking of the bottom line, and not the people who made it happen.
What’s going to happen to the factory employees?
He’d acquired several smaller chocolate companies for the King portfolio over the years, and he’d always done what was right for his father’s company. It had always just been business. He thought of the men and women from the factory production line. He couldn’t do this to them, to Pearl, to Natalie.
“Excuse me, sir? Would you like a flier?” A teenager wearing a Santa stocking cap thrust a shiny piece of paper into Cooper’s hands, startling him and breaking him from his trance.
“Thanks,” he said gruffly, and began to crumple the glossy paper. The tiny honeybee and hive insignia caught his eye right before he tucked the flier in his pocket.
“Twenty-fifth Annual Wine and Chocolate Tasting Event and Auction” read the flier in cheery red curlicue script. “Sponsored by LeClair’s Chocolates and the Rossi Winery. Black tie.”
The auction would be held in a week, and with any luck, Cooper would be safely tucked away back in New York, the sale of LeClair’s complete. It would be the last auction sponsored by the small chocolate company. He idly wondered if Natalie would still introduce the chocolate they’d created together that steamy evening.
He stopped short, and several passersby jostled into him.
“Sorry,” he apologized. He stood stock still in the middle of the sidewalk, creating a traffic jam of sorts. A crazy idea began to percolate in his head.
[_I have to try. _]
He began to run, eager to get to the resort to check out. He soon set off for the airport, two hours away, to grab a red-eye flight to New York.
NATALIE STOOD BEFORE the mirror and twisted her dark hair into a chignon. She pinned a few errant strands with a rhinestone clip that had belonged to her mother, and stood back to assess her appearance.
She wore a forest green velvet gown, featuring a deep v neckline, with a smattering of crystals glinting on the bodice. Her cupid’s bow lips were drawn in a tight line, and she willed herself to practice a smile. Her mouth didn’t comply.
It had been a week since she’d seen Cooper. Natalie was adrift. She went through her days with Pearl, preparing for the sale of the company. She took solace in the fact that she’d decided to stay in Juniper Falls. But she couldn’t enter the chocolate shop without a panic seizing her, and a wave of sadness cresting and crashing over her.
She couldn’t even be mad at Cooper. He hadn’t lied. Natalie believed he’d tried his damnedest to keep the company up and running. He just hadn’t been able to convince his father to give them a chance.
Natalie fastened a small gold honeybee pendant around her neck, and shivered, remembering the trail of kisses Cooper had dropped along her jaw, her ear, her collarbone. Kisses that would never grace her skin again.
She stifled a sniffle and slowly descended the stairs of her grandmother’s Victorian.
“Grandma, you look amazing.” Natalie clapped a hand to her mouth and took in the older woman’s outfit.
Pearl laughed and executed a slow twirl on her crutches. “This is the last auction we’re sponsoring, so I thought I’d go out with a bang.” She wore a striking red sequin jacket and matching satin skirt, her crutches wrapped in festive red ribbon. Her left foot was encased in its cast, but her right foot peeked out from the skirt, clad in a flat ruby-red slipper.
Pearl’s twinkling blue eyes grew serious, and she balanced on one crutch to take Natalie’s hand in hers.
“I’m so sorry it’s the last auction, sweetheart.”
Pearl had still wanted to go through with the sale of their company, even with the knowledge that Cooper’s father would shut them down. She took solace in the fact that their chocolate recipe would live on, even though the shop and factory would be closing. The sale was almost finalized. Pearl hadn’t figured out how to tell employees yet. She threw herself into making the last auction a roaring success, and Natalie followed suit.
“Everything will be alright, Grandma.” Natalie quirked up the corners of her mouth and gave Pearl a bone-crushing hug. “Let’s go make this the best auction ever.”
The last auction ever.
The Winterhaven Resort had outdone itself. A hundred denizens from Juniper Falls milled about the ballroom, the women in lush satin, silk, and velvet gowns, the men tailored and tidy in their tuxedos. Hundreds of twinkling white lights criss-crossed the ceiling above, transforming the dimmed indoor space into a gorgeous, starry December night sky. Twenty-foot trees graced each corner of the ballroom, glinting with red and green ornaments. Natalie accepted congratulations from well-wishers about the sale to King Chocolates. They didn’t know yet the shop and factory would be closing. They sipped wine from the Rossi family vineyards and praised the two new chocolate flavors, but Natalie couldn’t bring herself to sample the confections she’d created by Cooper’s side.
“So I hear you’re shutting down LeClair’s.” A snide chuckle broke into Natalie’s thoughts, and she whirled around to take in her ex husband, Heath.
How does he know?
Natalie steeled herself and met his eyes.
“We’re still up and running.” She carefully neither confirmed nor denied his claim. “If you’ll excuse me.”
Natalie slipped out of the ballroom when the silent auction benefitting the local hospital began in earnest. She pushed open the glass front doors to take in some fresh air and descended the steps to the gate below. The frigid wind punished her bare arms, but she welcomed the numbness. She rested her head against the cool wall and closed her eyes, shutting out the moon and stars and gently falling snowflakes, wishing for a different outcome to everything.
She didn’t dare to turn around. She was imagining his presence, when she knew she’d never see him again.
But his palms on her bare shoulders were real enough, rough and warm and caressing, as was his breath at the nape of her neck, and soon she was whirling around to face Cooper.
He traced a finger along her forehead, down the bridge of her nose, and ended at her lips. Natalie’s knees dipped, and it was all she could do to keep from throwing her arms around him.
“I want you to come to New York with me.” His slate eyes were vivid and insistent, the infinitesimally small blue flecks swimming in a sea of gray. He cupped her chin in his hand and brushed a tear from her lashes.
“I thought I’d lost you for good.” Natalie bit her lip and toyed with his bowtie, scarcely believing he’d come back. “But my home is here, Cooper.”
A teasing smile lit his face. “It would only be for a month. I sold my shares in my father’s company and cashed out my inheritance. I’m going to buy LeClair’s from your grandmother with a team of investors, and we’re going to make it the best little company with the most delicious chocolate the world has ever had the privilege to taste. And we can run it together right here in Juniper Falls. That is, if you’ll join me.”
A world of possibilities swam before Natalie. Her family’s legacy, intact. Her life, here, in Juniper Falls. With Cooper.
Cooper peered into her eyes with a smoldering intensity, the depth of his feelings etched plainly on his face.
“I want nothing more.” Natalie threw her arms around Cooper as he spun her around and around. She laughed and showered his face with kisses.
It was her sweetest Christmas ever.
“THIS IS OUR most successful Valentine’s season yet.” Natalie’s eyes sparkled as she pivoted her laptop so Cooper could see the tally of their February sales. “We can barely keep up with online orders.”
After meeting with investors in December, Natalie and Cooper had relaunched LeClair’s Chocolates with new advertising and recipes. They’d gone on a hiring spree and expanded the production line. In the summer they’d oversee an addition to the factory. They’d spent several weeks in New York, planning the grand opening of a second store in Manhattan.
“We make a great team.” Cooper nuzzled her neck. He was happier than he’d ever imagined, settled down in the sleepy resort town of Juniper Falls, with Natalie by his side.
“I’d like you to taste something.”
Natalie was used to trying his new flavors. The one thing Cooper loved more than expanding their business was concocting new chocolates in the shop’s kitchen.
His eyes danced with mischief. “This chocolate reminds me of you. Lavender and honey, with a bit of nutmeg. Sugar and spice, and everything nice. And naughty, too.”
Natalie licked her lips, eager to try his new confection.
“Close your eyes.” Cooper pulled a small red box from his pocket, and laid it with infinite care on Natalie’s outstretched palm.
“Open it, darling.” His heart beat an insistent rhythm in his ribcage, and he held his breath has she shimmied the lid off the box. A single truffle sat on a bed of satin. She picked up the chocolate, her eyes growing wide at the diamond ring nestled at the bottom of the box.
“Please say yes.” A hopeful look flooded his face.
“Yes, yes, yes!” Natalie held out her hand as Cooper slipped the ring on her finger.
Cooper held the truffle to her lips, and they each took a bite. He gazed down at her with infinite love in his eyes.
“To everything sweet in life.”
“SO JUST pee on the damn stick, already.” Lily Jordan delivered the harsh pep talk to her image in the mirror. The gentle glow from the old fashioned light bulb softened the lines flanking her lips, her mouth turned down in anticipation. A fragrant wreath of pine and holly hung in the small room. The greenery and red berries heralded the season, but she felt anything but festive. She blew her bangs from her forehead and stared at the pregnancy test in her shaking hand. “It’s not like he’s coming back, no matter what the test says.”
She closed her eyes and pictured Kyle’s face an hour ago when she’d told him she was late. He’d informed her he was late, too. Late for his flight to Jamaica. Late for picking up the groupie who had been trailing them for the last month, showing up everywhere Kyle was, dogging his steps and batting her eyelashes. Too late to fix their relationship. Too late to make something of their fling, as he’d decided to call it.
As if announcing his departure wasn’t enough, he’d delivered a final blow, an icicle straight to her heart. He’d accused her of making it all up in a desperate attempt to keep him in Juniper Falls.
“Good riddance,” Lily breathed. She opened her eyes and steeled herself for the answer.
“Three, two, one…”
Bang, bang, bang.
“Everything okay in there?” Blake Jordan’s concerned voice trailed under the door.
Lily jumped and wrapped the test in toilet paper, tossing it into the chasm of her messy purse.
“Just a sec.” She washed her hands and splashed cold water on her face before throwing the door of the employee bathroom open. She greeted her brother Blake with what she hoped was a convincing smile.
“You were in there forever. There’s a line for the public restroom, and I was going to start directing traffic here.”
Lily clutched her purse to her chest in what she hoped was an inconspicuous manner. “Just lost track of time, is all.” She neatly sidestepped her brother and made her way toward the small conference room nestled in the back of the refurbished barn. The lofty space served as business headquarters for the Jordan family nursery and Christmas tree farm. The red building was usually decked out from floor to rafters with garlands and ribbons and winter flowers, but this year the space was nearly devoid of any decoration. A wreath, a twin of the one in the bathroom, hung on the door to the conference room. A small poinsettia graced the top of the microwave, but other than that, the office looked like it did any old time of year. Lily’s mother June had been in charge of decorating the office, and it was the first December since she and Lily’s father were gone.
Lily blinked at the subdued space and pushed away thoughts of her parents and the hit-and-run that had claimed their lives just a month ago. It was too painful to dwell on their absence. After the funeral, she’d numbly gone through the motions at her job as a florist’s assistant, before resigning a week ago to help her brothers during the busy season at the Christmas tree farm.
“What’s this emergency meeting about, anyway?”
Blake grimaced and held the door open for his sister. “Let’s wait for Alex and our guest to get here.”
“Guest?” Lily raised her eyebrows in surprise and settled into a comfy plaid upholstered swivel chair. She dared to sneak a peek in the depths of her purse, but the test was nowhere to be found. “This is a family business, and we keep it among family. Who did you invite to the meeting?” Her fingers finally recognized the thin plastic wand nestled in tissue at the bottom of her purse.
Just then her other older brother Alex burst into the room. Lily dropped the test like a hot coal and benched her purse on the chair next to her. Alex’s normally jovial face was somber and tense. Her brothers were having just as hard a time with their parents’ passing as she was.
“We need to talk.” Alex flopped down in a chair and glanced at Lily and Blake in turn. If Alex was salt, taking after their father with his sandy hair and blue eyes, Blake was pepper, favoring their mother and her dark curls and brown eyes. Lily was somewhere in the middle, her hair a dark blonde and her eyes a keen hazel. Lily looked back and forth between her brothers as if she were watching a ping pong match.
“Spill it, boys.” Though the men were both years older than their twenty-seven-year-old baby sister, she was used to cajoling information out of them. The two of them had participated in enough hijinks through the years, and Lily was usually happy to help bail them out of trouble as the responsible, if younger, sister.
“Running a nursery and Christmas tree farm is harder than it looks.” Alex dug four glossy looking reports out of his shoulder bag and passed them to his sister and brother. He placed a final copy at the head of the table, where their father usually sat. For the mystery guest, Lily supposed.
“Mom and dad insisted on handling the business end of things themselves.” A ribbon of panic roped its way around Lily’s heart and gave a little pull. “I would’ve pitched in if they’d just—”
Alex cut his sister off by holding his hand in the air. “They didn’t want us to be concerned. Jordan farm hasn’t made a profit in years. Mom and dad liquidated most of their savings and poured it back into the business just a month before…” he trailed off, suddenly very interested in the hangnail on his left thumb.
Before the accident.
Their mother and father had been returning from an anniversary trip, and the hit-and-run seemed to have just happened yesterday.
“To make matters worse, they made some questionable investments.” Alex exhaled and raised his eyes skyward. “One of their friends gave them some bad tips, and they lost nearly everything in a last-ditch effort to save the farm.” Alex had spent the last week trying to make sense of the piles of financial documents in their mother’s office.
“So what are we looking at?” Blake’s voice was unnecessarily gruff, most likely a cover for the wave of pain that threatened to crash over him.
Lily flipped through the pages of the report, her pregnancy test momentarily forgotten. “How could mom and dad have hid this?” The numbers in the report announced their problem in cold, black and white precision.
“People buy their Christmas trees at Home Depot now.” Blake shrugged. “And Mom and Dad were getting older. They put a halt on some of the Jordan family farm traditions. People stopped coming.”
Lily bit back the start of tears. “I don’t even know if the bank would let us borrow enough to get out of the hole.”
Alex glanced at Blake in silent conference.
“What are you two hiding from me? As if this wasn’t enough.” Lily pushed the offensive report of doom away from her and across the table. She’d meant to take more of an active role in the family business, but she’d just finished up her internship to become a florist. She’d only just started her new job when the accident claimed her parents’ lives. Now she vowed to dedicate herself to the farm, a wave of guilt crashing over her.
“We have interest from a silent partner—” Blake began, running a nervous hand through his dark hair.
“No way!” Lily pushed her chair back and stood, her purse falling from the chair. “This is a family business, we aren’t bringing in a silent partner!” She thought of the bad investments her parents had made, trusting their friends rather than seeking out help from their children. It was a mistake she wouldn’t repeat, eliciting outside help. “The holiday season has just started. We have a chance to turn things around, starting today. Besides, the three of us are technically the board of this business, and I vote no.” Lily suddenly remembered the pregnancy test and dove under the conference room table. She emerged with her purse intact, but not so much her dignity.
Blake sent Lily a quizzical look, but Alex just smirked at her. “Two to one, sis. Blake and I have looked at this from every angle. We even met with Juniper Falls Savings and Loan yesterday before you arrived, and a loan is a no-go. This is our only shot.”
Lily sat down in her swivel chair with a huff. The springs whined and she glared at her brothers.
“And just who is this silent partner?”
“The last place on earth I want to be is a Christmas tree farm.” Seven-year-old Sophie Wright stamped her tiny foot in typical dramatic fashion and took in the scene before her. The Jordan family farm corporate headquarters in the barn may not have been given the full-on holiday treatment, but the rest of the grounds were decked out in their usual December finery. The stately twenty-foot tall Douglas firs lining the drive from the highway were swathed in twinkling red and green lights. The farmhouse porch was festooned with red velvet ribbons and lush pine garlands. A replica of Santa’s workshop hunkered down by the small ice-skating rink, and a path flanked with giant candy canes led to the stables where sleigh rides would soon begin. The greenhouse filled with poinsettias sparkled in the foreground and Noah could smell the welcoming aroma of a wood-burning stove. The sky was clear and blue and frost winked on each blade of grass.
Noah Wright squinted in the early December light. All of the decorations appeared to be the same. But upon closer inspection they were a bit shabbier. A little dimmer than he remembered. He hadn’t been back to Juniper Falls since last Christmas when he popped in to visit his mom for twenty-four hours, before heading back to his hockey team on a red-eye flight. He hadn’t had time to drop in and see the Jordan family. But now he had lots of time. An early retirement would do that to you. I have all the time in the world.
A slow smile spread across Noah’s broad face.
“It’s not just any Christmas tree farm, Soph.” Noah picked up his daughter and hoisted her onto his shoulders. She squealed with delight. “This is where I learned to skate.” He pointed to the miniature rink.
“Can I go?” Sophie attempted to wriggle off his shoulders and laughing, Noah set her down.
“Not yet. It doesn’t look like it’s open.” The small rink’s entrance was shut tight and there were no skaters on its surface.
“Why don’t we check out Santa’s workshop?” Noah’s mother stepped out of the SUV and reached for Sophie’s hand. The little girl’s face fell at the mention of Santa.
“You can check out the ice-skating rink,” Noah reminded her, and the grin slowly returned.
“C’mon grandma, let’s go!” Sophie broke off in a run and Cindy Wright trotted to keep up with her granddaughter.
“Good luck!” Cindy called after her son. Noah took a deep breath, redolent of pine and smoke and cinnamon. He was finally home. Right where he needed to be. A place where he could raise Sophie away from prying eyes. A place where he could heal and start over.
“Doing a little holiday shopping?”
Not a moment too soon. Thank goodness Mom has Sophie. Noah wheeled around to face a man with a camera raised, clicking madly away.
“Don’t you ever give it a rest?” The smile slid off Noah’s face and he abruptly strode to the barn to meet with the Jordan family. He thought he’d dodged the paparazzi back in Los Angeles, but it seemed at least one of the dogged photographers had found him in this sleepy town nestled on the Pennsylvania border with West Virginia. At least Sophie and his mom were no longer in sight.
Make that two buzzards.
“Noah! Can we get a comment?” A second man quickened his pace until he was in front of Noah. “Why’d last year’s Stanley Cup MVP quit the team out of the blue? What are you hiding?” He was positively leering. “Noah, can I get a quote?”
“No comment,” Noah growled before he slipped into the barn and slammed the door shut.
His eyes adjusted to the dim lights inside. He took in desks and phones and filing cabinets. It looked the same as usual. But that was just it. It was December. Something was missing. Make that a whole lot of somethings. The Jordans always went crazy in here, matching the outside display of holiday cheer and then some. But this year there were barely any signs of Christmas.
Noah shook his head. It had to have been hard on the Jordan siblings, losing their parents a month ago, not to mention having to taking over the farm and finding out about its insolvency. He was happy to do anything to help his oldest friends, Alex and Blake. And to keep himself busy. Becoming a silent partner of the Jordan family nursery and Christmas tree farm would be just the thing to take his mind off of his sudden and unexpected retirement. He’d heard from Alex and Blake about the business opportunity at just the right time. And after the concussion last week, Noah had realized there were more important things than hockey. He wanted to be around, and lucid, for his daughter. Most of his teammates hadn’t understood his suddenly walking away. And the press had gone mad. Star center hockey players didn’t make a habit of abandoning the game at the height of their powers.
A flutter of movement caught Noah’s eye. He could see through the glass door to the conference room. Lily Jordan jumped from her chair, her hazel eyes flashing and her thick, honey-colored hair whipping around her face. He’d never seen her angrier or more beautiful. The last time he’d seen her, Lily had been just a pretty teenager. The reedy teen she’d been, tagging alongside her older brothers was gone. He remembered the one clandestine kiss they’d shared right here in this very barn, under the mistletoe. He felt a wave of heat wash over him. She was all grown up. Gorgeous. And vibrant. And mad. Noah smothered a hint of misgiving bubbling up in his chest and glanced at his watch. Right on time. He set his face in a professional smile and pushed open the door to the conference room.
“Over my dead body. He’ll never stay in Juniper Falls, he’ll just bail and leave us in the lurch when he’s tired of playing small businessman. Everyone leaves.”
[_Especially if they’re famous athletes. Whether it’s Kyle running off after he got you pregnant, or Noah leaving after our first and only kiss over a decade ago. _]
“And he’s not family.” Lily remained standing. Her eyes swept from her brothers, pinned to their chairs by the cut of her glare. Lily finally noticed Noah in the doorway. His ready smile faltered. He looked stricken and sheepish.
“Hello, Lily.” He took a step into the conference room, then wisely stepped back.
“Hello, Noah.” Her eyes cooled considerably as she raked them over the hockey player. But behind her eyes her mind was racing. Lily hadn’t seen Noah in over ten years. Not since he’d kissed her the first Christmas break he’d been back from the pros, then left her without another word. He’d been the biggest thing to ever happen to Juniper Falls, that is until Kyle Graham, pro golfer extraordinaire, bought a vacation home here last summer and stole Lily’s heart. The prodigal hockey star had returned, and he was just as gorgeous as ever. He’d tried to acclimate back to typical small town garb, clad in his jeans and plaid shirt. But his broad shoulders and ready stance gave him away as the star center he was. Or had been.
Lily wracked her brain for the tidbit of news she’d read on a tabloid site last week. Noah Wright had retired early from his professional hockey team amidst swirling rumors. And now he was back, here in the conference room. Here to save her family farm. He looked up to the task, every bit the super hero. Lily’s heart sped up, taking in his kind blue eyes and his ready smile, which had just returned, sheepish and warm. His face bore the brunt of his career on the ice, his nose broken and healed at the bridge, a slight scar tracing a line on his forehead, a nick marring the smooth symmetry of his strong jaw. She was almost as tall as her brothers, but found she had to look up to meet Noah’s gaze, like she always had, when she was just her brothers’ kid sister, five years younger than them, tagging along after the boys. But he’s different now. He has an entourage of groupies and hangers on, and that kind of thing is just what we don’t need around here.
“Have a seat, Noah.” Lily sat down in her chair with a huff, determined to be civil, but not ready to cede a part of the family business.
Noah grabbed the report from the head of the table and elected to sit next to Alex and across from Lily.
Smart. Don’t look like you’re trying to take over.
Her eyes trailed to the door and the spot where they’d shared that one kiss a decade ago. She studied Noah’s face as he flipped through the report. He was thirty-two now, and small lines crinkled in the corners of his eyes. The smile lines were etched deeper. He still had the same unruly shock of chestnut hair, and Lily longed to reach out and brush back a loose strand. A wave of heat spread through her. Then she remembered why he was here and she silently chastised herself.
“I know this must come as a shock,” Noah began. He looked to Alex and Blake for support. “Your brothers just approached me about this last night. But I’m just the right person to help you save your farm.”
Lily snorted and rifled through the financial report with shaking fingers. “We’re in a bit of trouble, but it’s nothing we can’t sort out this holiday season. We still have time to make this the best and most profitable Christmas ever.” She jutted out her chin and dared Noah to defy her.
“C’mon Lily, you know it’s too late for that. If mom and dad were here they’d want us to accept Noah’s proposal. He’ll float us enough cash to get on our feet.” Alex winced at delivering the sucker punch of stating what he thought their parents would want.
“And he has some great ideas,” Blake chimed in.
“Just how much of the business are you trying to buy?” Lily cut to the chase. She assessed Noah with cool eyes and ignored the part of her mind that appreciated the view. Noah looked endearingly nervous, and an image of the teenage boy she once had a crush on came crashing back. All of the sudden, she remembered the pregnancy test percolating at the bottom of her purse and felt the heat of a raging blush crawl up her throat.
And he’s an athlete. The least dependable specimen of all men on earth.
“Fifty-one percent.” Noah delivered the blow with an even tone.
“Forget it.” Lily rose once more. “We are not selling out our farm, our blood, our heritage, just for an infusion of cash.”
A knock on the glass door made all of them jump. Noah shook his head as he took in the gorgeous blonde perched on four-inch fuck-me heels. She minced into the room carrying a fragrant apple pie before her, still steaming from some oven.
“I heard you were back in town, Noah, and I baked you a pie!” She plastered a winning grin on her face, revealing perfect, whitened teeth.
“This is a private meeting,” Alex said gently.
“Well, this man is hard to track down.” The woman looked a little less certain of herself. “I’m Tessa, remember? We sat next to each other in history senior year?”
“Thanks, Tessa.” Noah gave the woman an easy smile and stood to take the pie. “I really do need to attend to business right now. It was nice seeing you.” He gently escorted the woman out of the room and to the front door of the barn. Alex and Blake exchanged a look.
“It’s like that every time the ladies catch wind he’s home.” A smile danced at the corner of Blake’s eyes.
“I know all too well.” Lily shook her head, recalling the spicy redhead who had run off with Kyle.
Kyle. The perhaps father of my perhaps child. I can’t believe I forgot about the test.
“I’ve got to go.” Lily grabbed for her purse and made for the door. She hoped to flee from the back exit before Noah returned from his groupie fest. She’d cut off any possibility of his joining the family business forever.
“We’re not finished here, sis.” Alex stood to follow his sister.
“Sorry about that.” Noah returned wearing an apology on his handsome face. “I don’t know how anyone found out I’m back in town. Hey, where are you going?” He reached out and placed a massive but gentle hand on Lily’s arm. A frisson of electricity danced up her shoulder, and she shivered, her body betraying her with its eager response.
“This meeting is over.” She stepped around the hulking hockey player, but her purse caught on the doorknob. The contents spilled out in a rain of items, her lip gloss, tissues, and wallet pinging on the floor.
The test ricocheted out of her purse and spun around like a demented top. It shed its thin layer of toilet paper and came to rest at Noah’s feet. He knelt to pick up the slim piece of plastic. An appraising look dawned on his face and his eyes searched Lily’s.
I’m too late, again.
“No!” Lily lunged for the test, but Alex snatched it out of Noah’s hands. He laughed and turned the test over.
“What the…” his mirth died in his throat, and he swallowed and stared at his sister.
Her lips trembled and she grabbed the wand from her brother’s outstretched palm. The tiny black writing on the digital screen may as well have been a beacon flashing in neon red. Pregnant. Pregnant. Pregnant.
“I WON’T retire until you’re settled down and attached, Ruby.” Muriel Parker rubbed away a smudge on the otherwise gleaming glass counter and raised a brow to punctuate her words. “And that’s final.” The woman was a seventy-five year old force of nature, at six feet tall, with rhinestone, cat’s eye glasses, her hair dyed the Parker family’s signature red. She wore it teased and styled in an impressive, gravity-defying beehive.
“You’ve got to be kidding. This isn’t the nineteen fifties, Aunt Muriel.” Ruby Parker handed her aunt a steaming cup of hot cocoa, fresh from LeClair’s Chocolate Shop across the street. The older woman gratefully wrapped her gnarled hands around the cup, inhaling the steam that wafted in the air. Ruby was used to her aunt’s ultimatums, but she hoped this one wasn’t true.
Ruby glanced around Parker’s jewelry store, wondering how many more Decembers her aunt would insist on working. Sparkling diamonds, emeralds, and sapphires twinkled from beds of scarlet and forest green velvet. A twelve-foot tall, tinsel Christmas tree held court in the center of the store, laden with pendants and bracelets in silver and gold. Twinkling white lights wound their way through the glass cases, the gems within refracting the light and creating hundreds of mini-rainbows. Sleigh bells adorned the store’s door and announced the arrival of each customer with a silvery trill. Ruby reveled in the festive atmosphere and wished her aunt could enjoy it too.
“It helps my arthritis just to hold this in my hands,” Muriel sighed, cradling the cocoa as she sat on the red stool behind the jewelry case. “These mountain winters really do a number on my creaky bones.”
Ruby shook her head and tsked. “We’ll have to carry you out of the store.”
I’m not even joking.
Muriel answered with a gleeful laugh and clapped her hands together.
“I mean it, Ruby dear. I’ll happily sign the jewelry store over to you as soon as I don’t have to worry about your future. I know you can take care of yourself, but I’d feel better if you were ready to start a family of your own. You’re thirty-two now, it’s time to move on with your life.”
[_If only it were that simple. _]
Working at the family jewelry store brought Ruby in close proximity with many men in the sleepy mountain resort town of Juniper Falls, Pennsylvania. But they frequented the store looking for baubles and trinkets for their girlfriends and wives. They certainly weren’t there to find a date.
“I tried marriage, remember? It didn’t quite work.” Ruby snuck a glance at the calendar behind the counter and the entry for her cancelled wedding. She’d crossed out the notation with permanent marker, and seeing the thick, black X over what was to be her big day made her want to curl up in bed for the rest of the month with a resounding “bah, humbug.”
Muriel waved her hand, weighed down with emeralds, dismissing her niece. “You were engaged, not married, and there are plenty of other men out there. Why, just the other day at my bridge club meeting, I met a woman with a grandson—”
“No way.” Ruby shook her head, the copper strands fanning out around her shoulders. “I agreed to ten blind dates, and I’ve met the quota.” She softened her tone and placed her hand over her aunt’s. “It was sweet of you to set me up, but I need to find someone on my own.” She swallowed and removed her hand. “When I’m ready, that is.”
And that wouldn’t be for a while. She was still recovering from her aunt’s latest set-up, a dentist who seemed to have more grabby hands and arms than an octopus. She’d ended that date in record time, five minutes in. And before the dentist had been the taxidermist who’d shared the secrets of his business in all its gory glory. Ruby’s head swam with the bad dates orchestrated by her aunt and wondered if she should retire from dating completely.
“I know it must be hard, with this weekend coming up.” Muriel studied her niece over the rim of her outrageous glasses.
Just twist the knife a bit more.
This Saturday was to be the day of Ruby’s wedding to Declan Rossi. Her former best friend. The man she was once sure was her soul mate. Ruby closed her eyes and pictured the half-Irish, half-Italian, one-hundred-percent wonderful man she’d walked away from a year ago.
Thank goodness he wasn’t around to tempt her. After their breakup, Declan had left Juniper Falls to take a job in Pittsburgh. It was bad enough running into Declan’s big, boisterous family all over town. His six younger siblings were still civil to Ruby despite her ending her engagement to their brother, but that didn’t make it any easier when she saw them. They all had the Rossi family’s glossy dark hair and big blue eyes, and seeing them reminded her of Declan.
At least she didn’t have to face him. But the ghost of their relationship seemed to surprise her when she’d least expected it, especially since it was Christmastime. The holidays weren’t the same without Declan, and everything reminded Ruby of her ex-fiancé. They’d started dating two years ago during the holidays, gotten engaged the first day of December, adopted her dog Jingle together Christmas Eve, and had planned a winter wedding. Now, instead of Ruby and Declan marrying, Ruby’s sister Amber was to get married on New Year’s Eve.
As if she’d summoned her twin just by thinking about her, Amber blew into the shop, trailing a dog leash, a swirl of snowflakes eddying in the air in her wake. Jingle the Scottie barked in greeting and danced around in frenzied circles, excited to see his owner Ruby. Amber took one look at Ruby’s face and burst out laughing.
“Quit trying to set her up, Aunt Muriel.” Amber unraveled a long turquoise scarf from her neck and shrugged off her coat. Jingle shook off a smattering of snow and wagged his tail, waiting for Ruby to pick him up.
“Thank you, Amber.” Ruby cast her twin a grateful glance and readied herself for one of Muriel’s outbursts. She nuzzled Jingle in her arms and tried not to smirk.
Muriel drew herself to her full height and wiggled her finger in Amber’s face. “Someone around here has to look out for Ruby.” Her expression softened and she rubbed her lower back. “Now if you’ll excuse me girls, I’m going to try to chase the chill away with a hot bath. Be a dear, Ruby, and close up the store for me, would you?” Muriel gave each of her nieces a peck on the cheek and Jingle a pat on the head. She swanned out of the jewelry store, her heavy trademark jasmine scent trailing behind her.
“Whew. That was intense.” Ruby set down the Scottie and buried her face in her hands.
“She still won’t consider retiring, will she?” Amber shook her head. Though they both had the Parker red hair and brown eyes, the fraternal twins were a study in contrasts. Ruby was short and slight, with vivid sienna locks and a smattering of freckles, while Amber took after Aunt Muriel, with her dark auburn hair and statuesque proportions. Ruby was slated to take over the family jewelry store, while Amber had launched a dog-walking business.
“She’ll never take a break, though she needs it.” Ruby untwisted a delicate pearl necklace and placed it on the retro tinsel tree. “And I don’t think she’s joking about finding me a guy. If I were to get serious with someone, she’d retire in a heartbeat. It’s sweet and insulting at the same time. Muriel is a feminist, except when it comes to my love life. I don’t need to be attached to someone to be a whole person.” Though she hated to admit it, she hadn’t felt whole since she’d broken her engagement to Declan.
A wicked twinkle sparkled in Amber’s eyes. “Well, what if…”
“Oh, don’t you start, too! I know where you’re going with this, and I don’t have the acting chops to pull it off.” Ruby could read her twin’s mind, and she didn’t like what she saw.
“Yes! A fake relationship. You’ll just have to make it work long enough for Aunt Muriel to take her long-overdue retirement, then you can break up.” Amber rubbed her hands together and started making plans.
“But who would agree to this ridiculous idea?”
“Any number of guys, starting with some of Cameron’s single groomsmen. This is a great idea! You’ll have a date to my wedding, and Aunt Muriel will finally get to enjoy some free time.” Amber began enumerating her fiancé’s friends’ qualities while Ruby shook her head. She buried her face in Jingle’s soft, black fur.
“I’m just not ready.”
Declan Rossi paused as he crested the hill at the top of Main Street. Juniper Falls lay before him, the buildings glittering in holiday finery like a collection of precious jewels. The storefronts were decked out in blinking green and red lights, and garlands of evergreens hung from eaves and railings. Red bows adorned parking meters, and a layer of blinding white snow coated each branch and tree limb like a dusting of the finest sugar. Tourists present for the start of ski season mingled with townspeople finishing their holiday shopping. The air was crisp and scented with cinnamon and allspice, and sounds of laughter and carols lingered in the air.
[_Damn, it’s good to be back. _]
He’d grown to love the city, but Juniper Falls was home. When Mike Dunbar called him to say there was a retirement on the police force and they were looking to fill the vacancy, it couldn’t have come at a better time. Declan’s father Mario, the ebullient and brash patriarch of the family, was desperately ill, a shadow of his former self. Declan wasn’t sure how much time his father had left, but he wasn’t going to miss a single second of it.
He’d missed his big Irish-Italian family, and as the oldest of seven siblings, all of whom had stayed in Juniper Falls besides him, it felt right to come home. Yesterday he’d officially been hired back on the police force, and he was to start in two weeks. He was slipping back into his old life, and it felt good, like putting on a favorite pair of old jeans.
All except for one thing. He missed Ruby. He longed to go back to one year ago and make things right. Back to when his father was healthy. Back before he’d gotten shot in the line of duty. Back when he was newly engaged to the love of his life.
Declan tried to push thoughts of Ruby from his head, but it was no use. He was bound to run into her soon enough in the small town. It may as well be today. He was drawn to her like a magnet seeking its opposite charge. His feet carried him in a familiar route, inexorably closer to Parker’s Jewelry Store. The window displays became more and more intricate as he traveled down Main Street, featuring dizzying holiday displays and treasures in each shop. But Declan didn’t see any of it. His gaze narrowed in on the jewelry store. He knew Ruby was in charge of the elaborate window display that drew oohs and ahs every year from passersby.
She had outdone herself this season. A team of three elves sat at a worktable, set atop cotton-batting snow. The wares spread before the elves were composed of gems instead of toys. The elves held jewelry loupes and tiny gold and silver hammers as they squinted at diamond rings, amethyst bracelets, and pearl earrings. Two tall tinsel Christmas trees clustered behind the elves, and hundreds of glittery white snowflakes hung suspended from the window display’s ceiling, transforming the scene into a North Pole blizzard.
But the most arresting feature of Parker’s Jewelry Store was the woman pushing open the door to exit, a little Scottie gamboling at her feet. Declan’s breath caught in his chest as Ruby withdrew a key ring from her emerald green pea coat pocket and locked up the store. Her rippling hair hung past her shoulders like a river of lava, and she bent down to scratch Jingle behind the ears. A laugh escaped her throat that sounded like silver bells.
A knot formed in Declan’s throat when he saw her. He mentally chastised her for not looking at her surroundings before she locked up. It was ironic that she’d broken up with him for not being cautious enough, when he’d bet he’d spent more time worrying about her working in the jewelry store, an easy target for theft and robbery. All he’d ever wanted to do was keep Ruby safe.
A wave of regret crested and crashed over Declan as Ruby turned to head home. Losing her was the biggest mistake of his life, and he vowed to do whatever it took to win her back.
If his sisters didn’t get their way and manage to set him up with someone else first, that is. Declan sighed and ran a hand through his dark hair, recalling the last three dates his baby sisters Caitlin and Molly had set him up on. He’d only been home a week, but they’d managed to cajole him into giving dating another chance. The women had been kind, and interesting, and he appreciated his sisters’ attempts. But there was one problem with each woman. None of them were Ruby.
He idly wondered if she was seeing someone else. He’d carefully avoided the topic of Ruby with his family, and they’d seemed to respect his wishes. What if he was too late? The thought caused a physical stab of pain to radiate around the scar in his abdomen, where he’d been shot.
The woman walking toward him was more beautiful and sparkling than any jewel displayed under the glass cases in her family jewelry store. The last few weeks of their engagement played back in his head on a slow reel. He recalled her tending to him in the hospital after he’d gotten shot responding to a domestic call gone wrong. She’d nursed him back to health in their little shared gingerbread cottage with gentle hands, tender caresses, and a dose of pure love. And he’d repaid her by refusing to quit the force, to guarantee that he’d never get hurt again.
When she’d finally realized he wasn’t going to stop being a cop, she’d slipped his grandmother Bianca’s diamond ring from her finger and pressed it into his palm with shaking hands. It was the last he’d seen of her. Until today.
Jingle stopped in his tracks, his little black nose sniffing the crisp December air. He gave a doggie yelp, and began tugging Ruby in Declan’s direction. She laughed and gamely followed, pulled along behind his red tartan leash. She followed the Scottie’s line of sight and locked her velvet brown eyes with Declan’s gaze. She gasped, slipped on a patch of black ice, and began to fall.
THANK YOU FOR reading [Her Sweetest Christmas. _]I hope you enjoyed it! If you are interested in visiting Juniper Falls again, there are two more books in the series, _Christmas on Thin Ice and Diamonds for Christmas.
Please consider leaving a review of Her Sweetest Christmas. Send a link to your review to [email protected] for a review copy of the next novella in the series, [_Christmas on Thin Ice. _]
Natalie LeClair will never forget the kiss she shared with Cooper King three years ago. Too bad he’s the enemy, back in her life to buy her grandmother’s chocolate company right from under her nose. Cooper King will stop at nothing to acquire LeClair’s Chocolate Shop and its famed recipe. There’s only one wrinkle. Natalie is standing in his way, and he wants nothing more than to rekindle their romance. Cooper longs to return to just business as usual, but Natalie may be the sweetest distraction he’s ever imagined. Novella-length, approximately 17,000 words.