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Deck the halls with white-hot passion!
“Naughty But Nice” by Donna Kauffman
Businessman Griffin’s never believed in luck…until sassy-sweet small-town baker Melody turns his world around. Except there’s a catch: There’s no way he’ll be able to build his empire and hold on to her. His new “lucky charm” could destroy all his dreams…or make this Christmas better than he ever imagined possible…
“All I Want for Christmas” by Cynthia Eden
Good girl toy inventor Christie takes a walk on the naughty side when she sparks a no-strings fling with Santa—actually, sexy cop Jonas in a Santa suit. She loves her new “bad girl” persona, except as the holidays approach, she starts falling, and hard, for this known’ “love ’em and leave ’em” ladies man…
“Tattoos and Mistletoe” by Susan Fox
Charlie returns to her hometown to fix up her aunt’s B&B, but she doesn’t count on LJ handling the renovations. Nerdy LJ pined for her in school, but now he’s grown into the town’s hottest bachelor. Charlie’s been burned before and won’t let him get close. But LJ’s determined to break down her walls and make her dearest Christmas wish come true.
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“Good Lord, more of the bloody damn things.”
A cluster of the silver nuisances jingled and chimed cheerfully as Thomas Griffin Gallagher entered Cups & Cakes, the small bakery and coffee shop on the edge of the town square. He winced at the increased throb in his temples. The American celebration of Thanksgiving was still weeks away, but the town was already riddled with the festive touches of the pending Christmas season. In fact, everywhere he went in the rural little burg of Hamilton, he heard bells ringing. Each and every doorway or archway had one hanging somewhere; men in red suits standing over black kettles clutched at least one or two. Moments ago, when a trundling service truck with the damn things tied to the grille had come within an inch of running him down, they’d almost been the last thing he’d seen on this earth. Ringing and clanging, clanging and ringing.
It was enough to drive a bloke bloody, raving starkers.
The rich scent of coffee beans filled his senses, and the jangling bells went mercifully ignored as he shut the door behind him. He’d arrived in Virginia from Dublin two weeks ago, but the nagging headache wasn’t due to prolonged jet lag. His arrival in the village proper that morning was the next critical step in his mission . . . and not likely to do anything to help the throbbing in his temples.
It was why he was in a cupcake shop—to gird himself with a bit of freshly ground armor. He took a moment to breathe in the most heavenly of scents and thought about that morning, almost one year ago, when he’d been informed by his Gallagher cousin, Sean, that the only Irish in him came from his mum, who’d been a Houlihan before marrying his father. Otherwise, he was a red-blooded American. It had explained many things, possibly among them the reason why he’d always preferred the rich, dark taste of coffee over tea. In fact, he could feel the pinch of the headache he’d woken up with already receding, just from the scent alone.
He walked up to the short tidy counter. Given the typical Yank’s apparent addiction to the stuff, he was surprised that he’d yet to find anything comparable there. After mentioning as much to the owner of the rustic inn where he was staying, just on the outskirts of town, he’d been guided to this quaint little shop. Posh hotels were more typically his style those days, but the closest one to Hamilton was several hours away in Charlottesville. He supposed there were some who found the cozy, rural setting something of a respite from their usual hectic pace of life. Griffin, on the other hand, would have given anything for room service and a decent concierge.
However, if the coffee tasted half as good as it smelled, he’d have to thank Mrs. Crossley, the innkeeper, the next time they crossed paths. It hadn’t been often of late, given the hours he’d been keeping since his arrival. One cup, then he’d brace himself for a day of trying to explain to the fine citizens of Hamilton how his ideas on globalizing the town’s potential would revolutionize their little world. His plans were going to improve the quality of living for every man, woman, and horse presently living in Hamilton Township proper, as well as the surrounding county of Randolph. They would see improvement on every measureable scale. Who wouldn’t want that?
At least, that’s how he saw it. But he knew from personal experience with his family back home that not everyone understood or appreciated possibilities and potential. Especially those who had never had their fair share of it. He smiled again at the irony that this little village, thousands of miles away from his childhood home, was, in many ways, just as strangled by tradition and conservative thinking as West Cork.
He could only pray that, unlike those who had raised him, the fine folks of Hamilton—his blood family, as it were—would embrace his ideas, rather than turn a deaf ear before hearing him out. In order for them to fully realize the depth and breadth of his plans, he would need their cooperation.
But change was coming, regardless. Fearing his death was imminent, aged and frail Lionel Hamilton had signed off on Griff’s every idea, knowing it would ensure the future for the empire that Lionel, along with his ancestors, had built.
Griff’s train of thought was abruptly broken by a loud yelp coming from somewhere in the rear of the small shop, followed by a ringing crash of what sounded like metal on metal.
He gritted his teeth against the renewed ringing inside his own head, even as he called out in the ensuing silence. “Hullo? Are you in need of some assistance?”
What followed was a stream of very . . . colorful language that surprised a quick smile from him. He’d found Americans, at least the ones of his immediate acquaintance, to be a bit obsessed with political correctness, always worrying what others might think. So it was somewhat refreshing, to hear such an . . . uncensored reaction. He assumed the string of epithets wasn’t a response to his query, but then he’d never met the proprietor.
He debated heading around the counter to see if she might need help, then checked the action. “No need to engage an angry female unless absolutely necessary,” he murmured, tipping up onto his toes and looking behind the counter, on the off chance he might spy the pot of coffee. “Ah,” he said, on seeing a double burner positioned beside an empty, tiered glass case.
He fished out his wallet and put a ten note on the counter, more than enough to cover the cost of a single cup, then ducked under the counter and scanned the surface for a stack of insulated cups. Oversized, sky blue mugs with the shop’s white and pink cupcake logo printed on one side and the name on the other were lined up next to the machine. He didn’t think she’d take too kindly to his leaving with one of those.
“Making an angry female even angrier . . . never a good thing.” His mouth lifted again as a few more, rather unique invectives floated from the back of the shop. “Points for creativity, however.”
He glanced at his watch, saw he still had some time, and took a moment to roll his neck, shake out his shoulders, and relax his jaw. He could feel the tension tightening him up, which was a fairly common state of late. But he’d never been so close to realizing his every dream. He fished out the small airline-sized tube of pain relievers he’d bought when he’d landed. Upon popping it open, he discovered there was only one tablet left. He shrugged and dry swallowed it.
He crouched down to look under the counter and had just opened a pair of cupboard doors when he felt a presence behind him.
“May I help you with something?”
Hmm. Angry female, immediately south of his wide-open back. He was fairly certain there were sharp knives within reach. Not the best strategy he’d ever employed.
Already damned, he reached inside the cupboard and slid a large insulated cup from the stack, snagging a plastic lid as well, before gently closing the doors and straightening up. “Just looking for a cup,” he said as he turned, a careful smile on his face.
The smile froze as he got his first look at the cupcake baker.
He wasn’t normally given to poetic thought, but there he stood, thinking her clear, almost luminescent skin made her wide, dark blue eyes look like twin pools of endlessly deep, midnight waters. It was surprisingly difficult to keep from looking away, every self-protective instinct he had being triggered by her steady hold on his gaze, which was rather odd. She was the village baker. Despite the tirade he’d just overheard, he doubted anyone who made baking cheerful little cakes her life’s work would be a threat or obstacle to his mission. “I hope you don’t mind,” he said, lifting the cup so she could see what he’d been about. “You sounded a bit . . . occupied, back there.”
“Yes, a little problem with a collapsed rolling rack.”
His gaze, held captive as it was, used the time to quickly take in the rest of her. Thick, curling hair almost the same rich brown as the steaming hot brew he’d yet to sip had been pulled up in an untidy knot on the back of her head, exposing a slender length of neck and accentuating her delicate chin. All of which combined to showcase a pair of unpainted, full, dark pink lips that, even when not smiling, curved oh-so-naturally into the kind of perfect bow that all but begged a man to part them, taste them, bite them, and . . .
He looked away. Damn. He couldn’t recall his body ever leaping to attention like that, after a single look. No matter how direct. Especially when his attentions were clearly not being encouraged in any way, if the firm set of her delicate chin was any indication.
“Nothing too serious, I hope,” he said, boldly turning his back to her and helping himself to a cup of coffee. After all, he’d paid for it. Not that she was aware of it as yet. But he thought it better to risk her mild displeasure until he could point that out . . . rather than engage more of the fury he’d heard coming from the back of the shop minutes ago— which he was fairly certain would be the case if her sharp gaze took in the current state of the front of his trousers.
“Nothing another five hours of baking time won’t resolve,” she said, a bit of weariness creeping into her tone. From the corner of his eye, he caught her wiping her hands on the flour covered front of her starched white baker’s jacket. “Please, allow me.”
He quickly topped off the cup and snapped on the lid. “Not to worry. I believe I’ve got it. I left a ten note on your counter.”
“I’m sorry,” she said, sounding sincere. “It’s been . . . a morning. I’m generally not so—”
“It’s fine,” he said, intending to skirt past her and duck back to the relative safety of the other side of the counter. The tall, trousers-concealing counter. He just needed a moment, preferably with her not in touching distance, so he could button his coat and allow himself a bit of recovery time. It seemed all he had to do was look at her for his current state to remain . . . elevated.
Unfortunately for him, and the comfort level of his trousers, she moved closer and reached past him. “The sugar is here and I have fresh cream in the—”
“I take it black,” he said abruptly, then they both turned the same way, trapping her between the counter …and him.
Her gaze homed in on his once again, but he was the one holding hers captive.
“Okay,” she said, her voice no longer strident. In fact, the single word had been a wee bit . . . breathy.
“Indeed,” he murmured, once again caught up in that mouth of hers. Those parted lips simply demanded a man pay them far more focused attention. Step away, Gallagher, he counseled himself. Sip your coffee, gather your wits, and move on.
“You’re Irish,” she blurted, somewhat abruptly.
He smiled. “All of my days.”
The corners of her lovely lips tilted, but not quite into a responding smile. More the beginnings of a smirk. “You must be Thomas Gallagher.”
“No’ too many Irishmen in Hamilton?” he replied, not particularly surprised she’d heard of him. His arrival hadn’t been kept a secret. Nor had the purpose of his visit—although it had been broadly misrepresented by some. Clearly she fell into the latter camp.
“Just one,” she replied. “At the moment.”
Interesting, he thought, given her reaction to finding out who he was, that she’d made no move to extract herself from their inappropriate, if accidental, entry into each other’s personal space.
“That could change, you know,” he said.
“So I hear,” she replied.
He cocked his head, and drew on his considerable experience staring down the recalcitrant faces of the numerous corporate executives he’d faced over the past eight years as he dismantled their companies in order to rebuild them. It took a surprising bit of doing to pull off that stare with the beautiful baker. “What, exactly, do you hear?”
“Does it matter? After all, I’m just a cupcake baker.”
That made him pause for a moment, but no, he hadn’t uttered that very thought out loud earlier. His smile broadened. “And yet, a smart cookie.”
She gave him a pitying look.
“Deserved that,” he rejoined, with a quick, humble duck of the chin. His smile deepened when their eyes met again, but rather than be amused at his expense, her gaze remained steady and somewhat impenetrable. He returned the look. “Other than infiltrate the area behind your counter in search of what I was made to understand is the best coffee in Hamilton, have I done something in particular to make you cross?”
“Is it true you’re planning on broadening the scope of industry here in Hamilton? And by broaden, I don’t mean to the next county over. I understand you have aspirations to make us a global commodity of some sort. Is that an accurate assessment of your goals here?”
Ah. So, she wasn’t a naïve optimist after all. He’d generally only heard such comments delivered in that flat, business- savvy tone from the highly placed corporate types he was used to dealing with. He tried to conceal his surprise. “You sound less than enthusiastic about the potential for community growth and strengthened economic stability,” he replied directly, opting to treat her question in the serious manner he would have those of the executives. “Perhaps you should consider that your business in particular would be one almost guaranteed an enormous boost in revenue. And that’s just for this location. There would be quid pro quo opportunities for you abroad, and you are poised to capitalize on a rather attractive niche market that would likely straddle both worlds.”
“I’ll take that as a yes, then?”
So serious for a cupcake baker. “Aye, I believe you could.”
She deftly snagged the cup of coffee right out of his hand, then slipped out of the narrow space between him and the counter. “I’m sorry, Mr. Gallagher. No disrespect to your extended family here in the States, whom I adore, especially your . . . cousin? I suppose that’s what Sean would be to you. I hope they will understand, though I don’t much care if you do. You’re not welcome in this establishment. I’d appreciate it if you’d leave now.”
If he hadn’t been so bereft at the sudden loss of his much- needed coffee—so close!—he might have been more amused by her combative attitude. He’d won over his share of hardened battle veterans and might have even enjoyed the challenge. At the moment, she was not his utmost concern. Not individually, anyway. He had a whole town of small business owners to win over. Better to absorb the loss of one to spare himself the time he needed to win over the many. “Hardly the spirit of the holiday season,” he said, sending a longing look at the cup in her hand, steam wafting from the hole in the lid.
“Oh, I can be quite spirited, rest assured.”
His gaze skipped right back to hers. Oh, how well he could imagine that. Far too clearly, in fact. And in great detail, if given the time. He held his long wool coat closed in front of him. “Surely you wouldn’t be so heartless as to toss me out into the bitter cold without so much as a sip—”
She rolled her eyes. “For heaven’s sake. Here.” She shoved the coffee into his hands. “Stupid accent,” she muttered under her breath.
“I beg your pardon?”
“No, I believe you begged for coffee—which you now have. So, if you would be so kind”—she gestured to the door—“I have cupcakes to remake.”
“You have a weakness for accents, do you?” He grinned, then took a very quick sip when her scowl darkened.
“Taking my leave, not to worry.” He sketched a short bow, then as the flavor burst on his tongue, he lifted the cup toward her in a gesture of sincere reverence. “The innkeeper was right. Truly, a remarkable blend.”
“Enjoy it,” she said, the unspoken ending making it clear that it would be his only chance to do so.
“I plan to.” He couldn’t have said what made him do it, but rather then take his leave, he remained where he stood a moment longer, and quite deliberately allowed his gaze to roam down her chef’s-coat-draped body, and back up again. Not that he could tell one whit what she was hiding behind the starched white linen, but his imagination filled in the blanks quite nicely. “Down to the last drop,” he murmured, as he met her eyes once again.
It was simply payback for the abrupt eviction, and maybe a wee bit more for putting him so off balance. But his impulsive behavior backfired quite spectacularly when his caddish behavior didn’t earn him the expected scowl and possible swift boot straight out the door, but rather a far more delicious bloom of hot pink spreading across her delicate cheekbones.
Bollocks. He’d have to take several turns around the town square in the frigid cold morning air if he hoped to have even the slightest chance of taking his coat off at any point during his upcoming council meeting. He could only pray the windy chill would do what his normally stalwart willpower had not.
“Good-bye, Mr. Gallagher.”
“Have a good day, Miss . . . ?”
“Duncastle,” she responded, polite to the end, despite her obvious dislike of him. When he didn’t respond right away, she sighed, and added, “Melody Duncastle.”
He nodded his appreciation, though he doubted she much cared. “Miss Melody Duncastle.” Her full name suited her, he thought. From her milkmaid complexion to her courtesan mouth, which was where his gaze was lingering.
“I’d wish you the same, Mr. Gallagher, but we both know that wouldn’t be sincere. Especially today.”
He chuckled at that, appreciating her honesty. A shame it looked as if they were to be adversaries. He could have used someone like her on his side. If only he could stop thinking about what it would be like to have her on her back.
He quickly tipped an imaginary hat her way. “Top o’ the mornin’ to ye, then,” he said, with a hearty, full-on brogue. “I’m sure we’ll meet again.”
“Of that you can be certain,” he heard her mutter as he left the shop . . . whistling.