Connor McClain knows what he wants. And after four harrowing years in Afghanistan, that's a quiet life in the lakeside town of Evergreen Cove. But coming home has land mines of its own-the most dangerous of them being long-legged bombshell Faith Garrett. Now getting her into his arms this holiday is going to require more than mistletoe . . .
With a cheating ex behind her, all Faith wants is a relaxing holiday free from man drama. And even though every moment with gorgeous Connor is a sweet temptation, Faith is determined not to give in. But Jack Frost has other plans, and soon Faith and Connor are snowbound in a winter wonderland with only the sparks flying between them to keep them warm. As one hot kiss leads to another, they'll have to decide if they're ready to give each other the best gift of all-love.
"Everything I love in a romance." -- Lori Foster, 2014
Release date: September 29, 2015
Print pages: 416
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A Bad Boy for Christmas
Glitter everywhere. Lining the seams of the car’s seats, sprinkled liberally across the floorboards, and at this point, probably a part of Faith Garrett’s DNA.
She had spent the day gluing pink glitter onto the surface of one hundred pumpkins in various shapes and sizes for a Breast Cancer Awareness dinner. The woman in charge of said dinner had oohed and ahhed over the dinner’s bedazzled centerpieces, going as far to throw her arms around Faith’s neck and sing the praises of Make It an Event. As well she should. Faith and Sofie had busted their butts to pull together the last-minute dinner, which was why Faith had taken a sudden interest in arts and crafts. There wasn’t time to hire out the task.
With the heel of her pump, she kicked off the shop vac and blew out a sigh. This was not working. Maybe she could use tape. She ran the back of her hand over her forehead, feeling a dab of perspiration there. The crisp October weather she loved had yet to make an appearance in Evergreen Cove. Instead, the temperature was in the high seventies, and there was not a prayer of a breeze blowing through the colored leaves still clinging to the trees lining the mansion’s drive.
She leaned back into the car, snagged her fountain Coke from the cup holder, and took a long, delicious, sugar-laden sip. While she stood basking in the noonday sun, she admired her home away from home. The quartz blocks twinkled and the gold turrets stood regally against a blue sky filled with puffy white clouds.
The mansion looked more like a fairy-tale castle than a house, but then it was the host to Sofie’s fairy-tale romance, so that was not an inaccurate description. Since Sofe had closed the doors on her business downtown, Faith was lucky enough to get to spend her workdays here, planning events in the library-turned-office, drinking coffee in the gorgeous kitchen, or helping set up the massive ballroom for the occasional fundraiser.
Maybe it was her way of having a slice of fairy-tale life for herself. Because face it, after the epic mess with Michael last year, a fairy tale was clearly not in the cards for her. Had she listened to her mother about “the curse” (legend had it the women on the Shelby side of the family “couldn’t marry”), maybe Faith could have saved herself the heartache.
Then again, maybe not.
The last thing she needed, the very last thing she wanted, was a relationship. Been there, done that, cleaned the toilet with Michael’s T-shirt. No, what she wanted more than anything was not a man. What she wanted—what she needed—was to find her independence. She wasn’t going to rely on a man any longer. She was moving on. Her life had taken a turn, but not for the worst. For the better. She’d see to that.
In the meantime, she was content to be happy for her friends. Sofie and Donovan seemed to have found their happily-ever-afters, and Evan and Charlotte had found theirs. Freed of her fiancé and, finally, freed from living with her mother for way too long, Faith was on a different path altogether. The path to find her inner strength.
Had to be in there somewhere.
She strode toward the front door, past thick, neatly trimmed hedges, flowering mums, and decorative rocks interspersed in between. The saplings out front stood strong and tall, accepting their new homes in the dirt like they’d been there from the start.
The beauty of the grounds never failed to amaze her. As someone who couldn’t grow a plant if her life depended on it, the fact that one man and Mother Nature were responsible for this blew her away. The door opened, and she turned her head expecting Sofie to come strolling out, cell phone to her ear.
Instead, Connor McClain walked her way, and Faith’s tongue promptly welded to the roof of her mouth. Broad shoulders molded by a long-sleeved henley, wide frame in perfect proportion, thick legs pressing against worn, soft-looking denim…The only other thing that amazed her more than the grounds was the way this man’s muscular thighs filled out a pair of well-worn jeans.
He moved with purpose, not quite a stride but more of an amble. All those large upper-body muscles—perfectly outlined by his fitted shirt—moved fluidly, which was unexpected. A guy with that much girth should be a little less graceful.
He might be easier to write off if he was only made up of the physical attributes, but no such luck. The guy was ex-military, worked tirelessly for his friends, and had a flirty sense of humor that almost threatened to break down the barrier she’d so firmly erected since Michael had raided the Cookie jar…so to speak.
Her hand went to her hair as Connor brought that amble over to her. Since she was very tall, five-ten to be exact, she guessed him around six-one. She couldn’t be sure, unless she was within kissing distance of his incredible mouth, which he’d stopped just shy of. But kissing that incredible mouth wasn’t going to get her any closer to her independence. So she shouldn’t consider it. Not even for a second, she reminded herself as he grinned at her. Her heart thrummed.
Around his penetrating grin, Connor spoke the words, “Afternoon, Cupcake.”
She was sort of known for her sugar addiction. After a recent stressful workday, he had caught her devouring a bakery box full of Sugar Hi cupcakes. It wasn’t her proudest moment. But showing weakness had its perks, because he’d ribbed her good-naturedly ever since. She recalled lamenting to Charlie some time ago (who Evan referred to as “Ace”) that she’d never had a nickname. Now she did.
Truth was, she liked it way too much to ask him to stop.
“Good afternoon to you, Beefcake.”
His smile didn’t budge, proving he liked her nickname for him, too. And maybe that’s all this was for both of them. A few teasing nicknames and prolonged glances. It was better than nothing. His eyes left hers, narrowing and traveling her face. Self-consciously, she smoothed the hand over her forehead where she felt her hair tickling her skin.
He stepped closer, until her vision was filled with broad muscle and golden-flecked hazel eyes. One rugged, working-man’s hand, so different from any hand that had ever touched her, raised and brushed her hair away from her eyes. Then he dragged his fingertips over her forehead. She tried to keep her eyes on his, but for a scant second they went to his mouth again. Firm lips. Stubbled jaw.
“Maybe I should start calling you Sprinkles instead?” He held his hand up for her to see. Pink glitter dotted his fingers.
It took her a second to reroute her thoughts. His touching her had sent her brain on a one-way vacation to Neptune. She traded the Coke from one hand to the other, scrubbing her hand along her skirt, which she noticed was covered in glitter as well.
A low chuckle echoed from Connor’s throat.
“Laugh it up,” she said, but did a pretty good job of laughing with him. “Now it’s stuck on you, too.”
“Damn.” He backed out of her personal space and spread his palm. Thick fingers, blunt nails. A callus here and there. Even his hands were insanely attractive. “How am I going to explain looking like I had a run-in with a stripper when I go on my date tonight?”
She felt her face blanch as her blood raced from her cheeks to her toes. He had a…a date? She tried to reel her emotions in, but the effort was too little, too late. No doubt he’d seen the abject disappointment flit across her face.
Misplaced. Misplaced disappointment. She reminded herself she did not need or want a man. It didn’t matter if he was going on a date. Connor was ridiculously attractive. And insanely, ridiculously attractive men with great senses of humor went on dates. But she also silently acknowledged that she preferred not to think about who he dated. Or what they did on those dates…
She forced a smile. Even though she’d justified everything to death, it took a lot of effort to get the words, “Ohh, a date. Have fun!” past her lying lips.
“I plan on it.” His eyes jerked to one side, a strained silence settling between them. “I should get started so I can get out of here on time.” He lifted a tool belt full of garden trowels and other implements for digging in the dirt.
“Yeah. I have to get back in there.” She showed him her pink-glittered palm. “Try and clean myself up.”
His grin returned and she had to remind her knees to stay strong. Her entire body seemed to forget it was one cohesive unit whenever he was around. One by one, parts of her turned to jelly. Kneecaps oozed, her spine melted, and the part between her legs…Well, she just wasn’t going to think about that part.
Being alone was best. She had spent three years believing she was half a unified whole and had spent three seconds learning otherwise. No. Regardless of the way the landscaper’s pectorals tested the strength of the henley he wore, Faith was an independent woman. Hear her roar. Or meow.
She might be able to rustle up a hearty purr.
“Have a good day,” she told him, finalizing her decision to stop ogling him and get back to work. De-glittering herself was at the top of her to-do list.
“You got it, gorgeous.” He stepped past her, not sending another look over his shoulder, not giving her a flirtatious wink, not saying another word. Just a brief interaction before he walked to the far side of the house and vanished around the corner.
What her friends Charlie and Sofie had was fine, and Faith was happy for them, but it wasn’t something she wanted personally. A relationship with a man from the Cove was not in her future. No man from anywhere was in her foreseeable future.
Things were better this way.
* * *
Connor sneaked a glance over one shoulder as he walked away from Faith. Legs. Heaven help him, legs up to her neck. How he’d encountered a woman who looked like a Victoria’s Secret model but was as down-to-earth as they came on a daily basis and not begged her to go to bed with him was an epic accomplishment on his part.
Admittedly, parts of him had wanted parts of her since he laid eyes on her for the first time. Not that she remembered him from back in those days. He understood why. Back then he’d been a too-smart, skinny kid with no direction and an on-again off-again girlfriend who was way more “off” than he’d ever dreamed.
Faith, with her recent engagement implosion, had more in common with Connor now than ever before. It may have been years and years ago for him, but he knew what it felt like to be cheated on. Knew the sting of that pain—of being lied to, of being discarded for someone else. He may not have caught Maya in the act, but he had caught her after the fact.
Way after the fact.
He pulled the gloves from the back pocket of a pair of stressed jeans. At least he didn’t marry Maya. And Faith didn’t marry the dickhead who screwed her over. Bullet dodged for both of them.
That last thought hit him square in the chest. Maya wasn’t the only bullet he’d dodged. Toward the end of his tour overseas, he’d dodged several of them. Literally. And a few of them had his name carved on them.
Closing his eyes, he pulled in a deep breath, counting down from five. He concentrated on the feel of the breeze on his skin, on the sounds of the birds, the rustling of leaves. Then he reopened his eyes. The anxiety didn’t happen often anymore, but when it did, that was his way of dealing with it.
That and his friends. Faith had become his friend, he supposed. They didn’t hang out, but they talked. Gorgeous as she was, he responded to more than just her looks. There was something fragile yet tough about her at the same time. He’d locked eyes with her on more than one occasion and had seen the pain there. With her height, she often looked him damn near dead in the eye when they were face-to-face, and he thought if he looked long enough he might uncover all her secrets.
But they had an unwritten rule—an invisible boundary line they’d silently agreed not to cross. She for her own reasons, probably having to do with her idiot ex, and he because, well…Sleeping with the girl who was his buddy’s girl’s best friend was the jewel in the crown of Stupid.
He and Faith worked together often, on projects both personal and professional. Getting intertwined—which made him think of her legs around his waist—with her was a high risk. If something went wrong, the fallout would be brutal.
So, Cupcake was a demilitarized zone. He wasn’t going to date her. Hell, he hadn’t seen her date, or talk about going on a date, since her breakup. Understandable. After the shit that went down with her ex, he guessed it’d be some time before she was interested in crawling into bed with anyone.
Damn if the thought of her crawling didn’t insert an image into his head of her tiny, pert ass in the air, those elegant, long legs…
He blinked out of the image, blaming her outfit today: dark blue dress that matched her navy eyes, and a pair of shoes that made those long legs even longer. Was she actively trying to kill him?
So, yeah, it hadn’t escaped him she was beautiful. And it hadn’t stopped him from teasing her to get those pink lips to part into a smile as often as possible. He was a sucker for a cheap laugh, and in spite of what she’d been through it’d been fairly easy to get her to laugh. Which swelled the head on his shoulders almost as much as the one in his pants.
She hadn’t been laughing a moment ago when he mentioned his “date” though, had she? He’d been shamelessly fishing. Despite his reasons to keep his distance from her, part of him was curious to see if she’d pursue him after all these years. His “date” tonight wasn’t a date, anyway. It was an appointment with his sister, Kendra. Ken was having trouble with her car, and he offered to come over and take a look. One of the many services he provided since he’d moved back to town. Not that he minded. He’d do anything for his older sisters.
Their family was tight. His father owned McClain’s Handyman Services, a business that had served the town of Evergreen Cove since before his oldest sister Dixie was born. A few years after, they had Kendra, and five years later, Connor was born the baby of the family. Roger McClain had been overjoyed. A boy to take over the business.
When Connor grew up and showed zero interest in fixing anything, save for himself in front of a science project, Roger began applying pressure. The pressure kept coming, driving Connor right out of the house at age eighteen, where he’d met Donny Pate and the two of them had shared an apartment and made some spectacularly bad decisions.
He guessed it was a belated rebellious streak that made him behave like the kid he was. He’d spent most of his childhood being way too grown up for his own good, and then after he enlisted, spent his years longing for the idea of “grown up” the way he used to know it. Serving his country was the highest honor, but war was hell on earth.
A few months ago, he hadn’t been sure his friend would keep his inherited house, but Donovan had stayed in the Cove after all. The mansion loomed in the light, her clean windows shiny, gleaming. His buddy belonged in this town, and he belonged with Sofie. Claiming his seat as “heir of Evergreen Cove” was the right fit for him.
Connor dug out a pair of garden shears from his tool belt before dropping it into the plush, green grass. He lowered to one knee and started on the scraggly lavender bush at the side of the house. No matter what he did to save it, the thing was determined to die. Part of him wanted to dig it up, toss it in the fire pit, but another, more stubborn part of him refused to give up on it.
As he clipped, he felt a slight streak of envy he couldn’t explain away. Maybe because Donovan, after living a nomadic and detached lifestyle in New York, had found his home in the Cove. Connor grew up here, still had family here, but ever since he had returned, Evergreen Cove felt more foreign than Afghanistan. She hadn’t quite welcomed him back with open arms…Proof was piled in his apartment. He’d been back for nearly two years and the cardboard boxes he’d hauled out of his parents’ house and into his own place had yet to be unpacked.
The patio door opened and Donny and Sofie’s big white and brown mutt, Gertie, strolled out. Sofie followed close on the dog’s heels. Soon the furball was standing way too close, big black nose sniffing his face.
“Hey, Gert.” He ruffled the dog’s fur. Another soul in the Cove who’d found an unlikely forever home. He hoped the pooch knew how good she had it.
Donovan’s fiancée, cell phone in hand, gestured to him. “Mrs. Anderson called and asked when you’d be over to set up for the Harvest Fest.”
“On the docket for this week.” Like he’d told Mrs. Anderson already. Twice. Persistent little old lady, he was learning. And tough. He’d attempted to backtalk her once and suffered her wrath. She was not a librarian to be trifled with.
“Sorry, she can be kind of a pain.” Sofie wrinkled her nose.
“Kind of?” he asked with a smile.
She chuckled. Sofe was a catch and a half. Bright, adorable, and would do anything for anyone. She was exactly what Donny needed at a time when no one—not even Connor—had been able to reach him. She brought Donovan back to life, and then together, they brought the mansion back to life. He never would have thought Donovan Pate could have been domesticated, but it was nice to see his buddy fall into line.
Connor pushed to standing and patted Gertie one last time. The dog had showed up here skin and bones last spring and had put on plenty of weight. Her coat was glossy, her pale blue eyes bright. “Good girl. Yes you are.”
Gertie wagged her tail and leaned against his leg, smiling up at him.
“Tell you what,” he said to Sofie. “I have a few hours to kill this afternoon, why don’t I stop by there and make sure Mrs. Anderson knows I’m on top of things.” It was an inconvenience, but not a big one. Like he’d do anything for his sisters, he’d do anything for his friends, too. And now that included Sofia Martin.
“Really?” She looked relieved with her hand pressed flat against her collarbone.
“Really.” He gathered his tool belt and shears and ambled toward the driveway where he’d parked.
Before he made it to his work truck, she called out, “Faith said you had a date tonight.”
Did she, now? He turned and Sofie raised an eyebrow. He wasn’t the only one fishing for information this afternoon. Yeah, he wasn’t giving the brunette anything.
Before he climbed into his truck, he waved. “See you tomorrow.”
“Tease!” she shouted as he reversed out of his parking space.
Yeah, let that get back to Faith. He didn’t mind stoking her jealousy. Not at all. Maybe she’d be filled with jealousy over his “date” and openly pursue him. All he needed was an opening, and then he’d charge in like a bull.
In town, he passed Cup of Jo’s, Fern’s Floral Shoppe, and the now vacant storefront that used to be Sofie’s event-planning company. His company, C. Alan Landscaping, had no home base. Not technically. Right now billing was done on his phone and in his head, and there was a box of receipts overflowing on his kitchen table. Probably he should do something about that.
When he’d first started taking the occasional odd job he hadn’t needed a fancy accounting system. But with all the referrals he was getting from Make It an Event, business had picked up and he found himself dogged by paperwork. Organization was not his forte.
The only upside to the influx of paperwork was that every referral was an excuse to thank Faith for sending a new client his way. Which he did daily and twice on Sunday. He smiled to himself remembering the way she looked today. Trussed in a tight dress and high-heeled shoes, and decorated with pink glitter. Yeah, being around a creature as gorgeous as Faith Garrett was not a hardship.
He pulled around the back of the library and shut off the engine. Mrs. Anderson shuffled in his direction wearing orthopedic shoes, her wrinkled mouth pulled taut, determination in her deep-set eyes.
Thoughts of Faith and his libido vanished into the atmosphere.
Thunder rumbled long and low in the distance, briefly causing the lights in Faith’s new apartment to flicker. She paused, take-out container in one hand, serving tongs in the other, wondering if she should light some candles. Even if she and her friends had to eat and drink by candlelight, by golly they were having Girls’ Night Out in her kitchen.
She opened the lid and plated what was inside: sweet and spicy chicken drummettes from Salty Dog. The local bar had great food, and the chicken wings were among her favorite menu items. Procuring another square serving platter, she plated the evening’s crowning glory next.
Three shiny, glistening, glorious Devil Dogs. Tall, rectangular, chocolate cream–filled cakes, dipped in dark chocolate, each topped with whipped cream and a cherry. She would like to say she’d had the wherewithal not to scarf one down before her friends got here, but the truth was she’d ordered four of the cakes from Sugar Hi. The fourth one was gone before she got home. It was perfection.
She had no regrets.
A roll of thunder rattled her picture frames, but this time the lights remained steady. She wasn’t quite used to the sounds in her new place yet, and oh, how it made her miss her old apartment. Being here was like having to break in new jeans. Uncomfortable. Foreign. And given this place had two hundred less square feet, a little tight.
Her old apartment was at ground level rather than the top of a long flight of stairs, with a big, beautiful oak tree and a picture window looking out over the golf course. After giving up the place to move in with Michael, there hadn’t been any hope of getting it back. Whoever had moved in was smart enough to stay rather than give up the prime real estate.
Which left her renting in Shady Pines. She was able to score a second floor with a balcony, and she’d admit it was nice not to have anyone stomping around above her this time around. The new building wasn’t as fancy as Oak Grove, but it was private. Freestanding, the six-unit building had small homes on either side, but not too close, with a patch of pines on one side and a parking lot with a basketball court on the other.
She was lucky to find it, really. Given the touristy draw of this town, most places were rented out to vacationers looking for some lakeside R&R. When one didn’t own a house, one was left to rent whatever was available.
Shady Pines was available.
Her immediate neighbors living in the building were elderly and friendly, aside from the guy downstairs who worked nights and rarely spoke to anyone. Faith didn’t mind having older folks nearby. It wasn’t like her friends were going to get “wild” or anything.
She arranged a number of bottles on the counter, frowning at the selection. She couldn’t get the one wine she wanted most. Layer Cake Primitivo was hard to find, and her favorite wine to drink in the fall. Packed with flavors like cherry, espresso, and white pepper, the red was great by itself, but with chocolate, it was to die for. In her former profession as the wine and beer girl for Abundance Market, she had special-ordered and kept in stock anything she liked. Primitivo was always stocked if the shelves had space for it. And if not, she kept a stash for herself in the back of her cabinet.
Recently, she’d run out.
She let herself run out, vowing to face her demons, specifically Michael and Cookie, who now also worked at Abundance. But in the end, Faith had chickened out (again), popping a Uey in the parking lot and driving to the small, under-stocked wine shop on Belinda Avenue. It was quaint, and she loved the staff, but alas, no Primitivo. The woman behind the counter politely offered to order it for her, but Faith had turned her down.
She’d compromised so much—she’d lost so much—the wine had become a sticking point. The next bottle of Layer Cake would be purchased from Abundance Market, so help her God. She couldn’t avoid the market forever. She could go. She had to go. And soon, when she found her courage, she would go.
You realize how ridiculous you’re being, don’t you?
Yes. She was being ridiculous. Unsurprisingly, that last thought reverberated through her head in her mother’s voice. Linda Shelby had always been critical of her eldest daughter, and learning Faith’s fiancé was no longer her fiancé had only stoked that flickering flame.
To be fair, that voice—her mother’s or not—was not wrong. Abundance Market wasn’t exactly Mordor. There were no gates, no mouth of Sauron, no leagues of orcs to battle her way through. All she had to do was park in the lot, walk through the automatic doors, and straight back to aisle fifteen.
But when she pictured Michael at the service counter, or Cookie uncorking bottles for samples as the new wine girl, Faith’s insides seized. The potential of running into the woman who soiled Faith’s future—and her favorite rug from IKEA—was too great a risk.
C’est la vie.
With a wave of her hand, she swept the worries aside. She arranged three wineglasses near the bottles just as chattering outside drew her attention to her front door. Charlie and Sofie had arrived.
Faith brushed her hands over her slim capris and simple blue T-shirt, ran a hand down her long ponytail, and pulled open the door.
Her friends squealed when they saw her as if they hadn’t all just seen one another earlier this week for lunch. She had no idea how she would’ve gotten through the Michael/Cookie disaster without them.
Charlie hustled in and wrapped her arms around Faith’s neck. “You look beautiful.”
“Oh, thank you. So do you.” Charlie wore an orange dress—Ch. . .
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