Last week we announced that Kaira Rouda’s The Trouble with Christmas is our Romance of the Week and the sponsor of thousands of great bargains in the Romance category: over 200 free titles, over 600 quality 99-centers, and thousands more that you can read for free through the Kindle Lending Library if you have Amazon Prime!
Now we’re back to offer our weekly free Romance excerpt, and if you aren’t among those who have downloaded The Trouble with Christmas, you’re in for a real treat:
by Kaira Rouda
At 35-years-old, Cole Stanton is burned out. His high-paced, uber-successful career has left him yearning to start over. He finds Indigo Island, buys a restaurant and settles into an uncomplicated life. But Christmas is a mess. He has over-committed the small restaurant’s resources again, and is over his head. He finds himself longing for everything he has left behind, until a chance encounter with gorgeous Lily offers a spark of salvation to his business and, perhaps his life.Beautiful pastry chef Lily Edmonds is thirty years old and heartbroken. It’s just before Christmas and she’s just been dumped by via telephone by her fiancee. Her best friend Avery Putnam invites her to Indigo Island, hoping to add joy back into Lily’s life. A chance encounter with the sexy owner of a local restaurant makes Lily feel an attraction she thought she’d never feel again, and offers her a business challenge to keep her mind focused on something other than her broken heart.
Cole Stanton and Lily Edmonds are both starting over. Will the joy of the holiday season bring them together or will the troubles with Christmas push them apart?
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And here, for your reading pleasure, is our free romance excerpt:
As with the other books in the Indigo Island series, The Trouble with Christmas is set on an island much like Daufuskie Island, South Carolina. In this particular story, food plays a very central role and for inspiration I turned to the fabulous cookbook Gullah Home Cooking the Daufuskie Way by Sallie Ann Robinson. Robinson grew up on Daufuskie Island and was one of Pat Conroy’s students for the year he spent teaching in the island’s one room schoolhouse. His experience was captured in his novel The Water is Wide. My character, Sally Ann, is named in her honor.
I hope you’ll enjoy your visit to Indigo Island. It’s a magical place for the holidays, as is any place where you gather with your loved ones.
May all of your Christmas dreams come true!
Happy Reading! Happy Holidays!
Lily Edmonds gently pulled another soft petal from the white daisy she held in her hand. Only one petal remained, and she looked down at the pile accumulating on the green picnic table on the back deck of her apartment. It was a brisk December day, deceptively cold in Atlanta, but Lily didn’t feel the chill.
He loves me not. She tossed the stem to the ground. It had been a week since Bob’s phone call shattered her world and undermined all of the confidence Lily had built up in her thirty years on earth. She glanced down at the three-carat, emerald-cut diamond, sparkling on her left finger and again felt a spurt of tears.
“Keep the ring, Lily,” Bob had said at the end of the call. “We did have a great time together, and I’ll always care about you. I am sorry.”
He was sorry?
After spending almost five years together, building a relationship, planning their future, talking about the children they would have, the life they would live, he was, simply, sorry.
Once she found out the reason he was dumping her, Lily had been furious. She still was. She had no idea how she would ever get over the betrayal. Her best friend, Avery Putnam, was expecting Lily and Bob to stay with her and her family for the holidays on Indigo Island. Lily knew she should call Avery and tell her, but she couldn’t make herself pick up the telephone. Denial was a powerful coping technique, and Lily was guilty of pretending if she didn’t tell anyone Bob had broken off their engagement, it might not be real. Pretending had become her life and how she’d been able to go to work at the restaurant each evening, a forced smile painted on her face.
Her routine had saved her. For the past week, at Alfredo’s Italian Restaurant in Buckhead, she had focused on her work as a pastry chef, and she continued to be especially proud of her ricotta cheesecake and Tiramisu she’d learned to create during culinary school. She added her own twists to make her confections uniquely hers and a patron favorite at Alfredo’s.
Lily swallowed and pushed back tears when she thought about other plans she and Bob had planned after their wedding—buying a building downtown and turning it into a bakery. Gone, she thought in despair. All her dreams were gone, erased by one phone call, and Bob no longer took her calls. Instead, he texted, What’s the point? It’s over.
Lily stood up and stretched her arms to the sky. The backyard of her apartment was as sad in winter as her heart. The grass was brown. The leaves had fallen from the giant oak trees gracing her neighborhood, leaving bare branches beseeching an empty grey sky. Lily had always made it a point to have a sunny floral arrangement in her apartment at all times. Just before Bob’s call, she’d purchased two dozen of her favorite white daisies from the flower store on the corner. She hadn’t even made a dent in the bunch during her new daily petal-plucking ritual. As she walked inside to get ready for work, Lily stared at the bouquet, resigned. She could pick petals for the rest of the week, but it wouldn’t matter what each daisy told her, she would never be able to change his heart.
As always, Alfredo’s was packed with hungry diners who were the who’s who of Atlanta. For the most part, Lily worked busily at her pastry station, hidden, while the majority of the kitchen and wait staff, mostly male and Italian, bustled around her. Lily often thought she’d been hired fresh out of culinary school due more to her dark, glossy hair and chocolate brown eyes—so large in her small face she sometimes felt like a cartoon character—than she had been recruited for her pastry skills. She definitely could pass for Italian, Lily quickly swept her long hair into a topknot and put a white chef’s hat on her head.
Her ingredients were ready to go so she pulled a white apron on to protect her black, long sleeved t-shirt and black pants, her work uniform, which her manager insisted on just in case Lily was ever asked to come to the front of the house to talk to the guests. Luckily, that didn’t happen often.
“You never know, bella,” Sergio had said when he hired her, with his attempt at a seductive smile. “I would ask to meet you.”
She’d been at the restaurant almost three years now, and she might still feel like the shy little girl she’d been when she’d first been engulfed in the sunshine of Avery’s friendship so many years ago, but Lily had been able to hold her own with the male employees of Alfredo’s. She was all business in the kitchen.
Lily carefully added the finishing touch to a chocolate mousse, squeezing the cone-shaped pastry sleeve in her hand to write Happy Birthday, James on the top of the cake.
“Lily, table seven wants you to personally deliver the cake. Go on,” Sergio appeared at her side and pulled her chef’s hat from her head.
“Oh.” She fought the impulse to drag her hat back on and continue to hide. “I’m really not in the mood,” she said. “Just have Tony take it over.”
“The Putnams insist on having you deliver it. They tell me you’re part of their family? Nice family,” Sergio said.
Lily huffed out a breath. Her best friend had left her numerous voice mail messages all week, and sent texts Lily hadn’t returned because she just couldn’t face telling Avery about Bob. That would make her broken engagement real, permanent. No way could she keep the awful news a secret in front of Avery. Lily felt flustered as she pulled her top knot off and allowed her hair to cascade down her back.
She picked up the cake and walked into the small, intimate dining room, determined to find a smile and congratulate James. Then she could flee back to her kitchen and blissful pretending that everything would be okay and she would wake up from the nightmare of Bob’s defection. Avery grinned and jumped up to hug Lily the moment she spotted her. Lily managed to shift her stance to protect the cake. Mark, Avery’s husband, her brother James, and father Richard all stood politely.
“Hey, Avery, hello everyone,” Lily said, forcing a smile. “Happy birthday, James.”
“Surprise!” Avery said.
“Lily, dear, so good to see you,” Avery’s dad said and kissed her cheek as soon as she’d put the cake in front of James.
“You, too, all of you,” Lily said, bending to give Avery’s mom, Evalyn, a kiss on her cheek.
“How are you, dear? How’s Bob? When is the big day? We barely survived Avery’s wedding and now, well, I demand to be involved in planning yours,” Evalyn said. “You’re my second daughter, you know.”
Lily swallowed hard and nodded, but no way could she speak.
“You oaky?” Avery asked softly as she wrapped Lily in a big hug. “I’ve been so worried. What is going on? Is it Bob?”
Lily nodded for the third time, purposefully avoiding eye contact with her beautiful blonde friend. Instead, she moved on to give James a hug. Even through her haze of misery, she noticed that for once he didn’t have a date. “Happy Birthday, James. Hope you all enjoy the cake. It’s so good to see you all. And Merry Christmas, if I don’t see you again before then.”
“It’s only December 10th, Lily, we’ll see you before Christmas. You’re coming to Indigo remember?” Avery said, hands on hips, watching her closely.
Lily wanted to escape their concerned eyes. “Would you like me to light the candle? Are we singing?”
James grimaced. “No, of course we aren’t singing.”
Lily remembered his embarrassment at public displays like a birthday cake, and she was thankful. Now she could make her exit.
“Well, enjoy. It’s my special chocolate mousse! I’ve got to get back to the kitchen,” she said as cheerfully as she could and bolted back to the kitchen.
Back in the safety of her workspace—the comfort of heat, routine chaos, creative mixing, and the smells of garlic and tomato sauce—Lily relaxed a little. She had to tell Avery, she just didn’t feel ready to face the concerns, the pity, the questions.
And then, Avery appeared at her station. “Lily, we’re all worried about you. What’s going on?”
“Nothing,” Lily lied, her face flushed with guilt.
“Honestly, Lils, it’s not even James’s birthday for another week. You should know that.”
“I’ve just been busy at work. You know, we had all those catering jobs over Thanksgiving, just the busy holiday season,” Lily said, rolling pastry with her rolling pin, preparing the wafer thin dough her famous Sicilian Cannoli deserved. “You’re going to get me in trouble being back here.”
If anything, the chefs—all men—appreciated the appearance of the tall, beautiful blonde. Suddenly, they all found a reason to saunter past the pastry station, a miniature white-hatted parade.
“Bull shit. I told Sergio I was coming back here. Are you and Bob in a fight?” Avery said, blue eyes flashing. “I’m not budging until you tell me the truth. In fact, I want you to come home with me after work. Mark and I drove separately and he’s riding home with my parents, leaving our car. So tell me now, or after work. Your choice.”
Lily felt the tears well up in her eyes before she could stop them. They rolled down both cheeks, landed on the pastry dough, and ruined the batch, the moisture making the delicate dough too sticky. She’d have to start over.
She was starting over.
“Oh, Avery,” she said, hurrying around the stainless steel counter to embrace her friend. “Bob broke our engagement. He said he’s in love with someone else. They’re getting married this Christmas!” Her voice ended in a wail.
Avery wrapped her arm around Lily and escorted her out the kitchen’s back door into the chilly evening. She walked to her car, opened the passenger door and pushed Lily, still wearing her kitchen whites and chef hat, gently inside.
Sobs wracked Lily’s body as Avery climbed into the driver’s seat.
“He was an asshole, Lils,” Avery said, her musical voice for once hard. “I’m sorry, but I couldn’t figure out a way to tell you I didn’t think he was good for you long term. You only saw one side of him.”
“I loved him, Aves,” Lily managed.
“I know,” Avery rubbed circles on Lily’s back. “I know you did. But you deserve much better.”
Lily couldn’t speak anymore, and Avery seemed at a loss for words, stroking Lily’s tangled, damp hair after the chef’s hat had fallen off.
“I need to go back in there, finish my shift,” Lily gulped.
“You’re in no condition,” Avery was already taking over like she always did, like Lily had let her take over for years. “I’m texting mom right now to tell Sergio that you’re very ill. He’ll be fine. Most of the tables are through desert anyway,” Avery said.
Lily wondered what she would do without Avery. Only Avery knew how far Lily had come, overcoming the heartbreak of her teens to emerge as a strong, independent woman. Avery had been there every step of the way. In fact, all of the Putnams had been like a second family, even Avery’s brothers, Blake, James, and Denton were like siblings to her despite the one time she and James crossed a boundary in the back of his car her senior year in high school. They’d both been drinking, and later had promised each other that it would never happen again.
Lily had imagined that once she and Bob had become engaged, she wouldn’t rely on the Putnams’ emotional support again. She would get married and start her happy life. Now she was starting over. Alone. Once again, she would need to lean on Avery, maybe even her family. Lily covered her face and tried to stop the stream of tears and Avery drove away from Alfredo’s.
“Lily, are you awake?” Avery asked, pulling Lily from her dreams.
She opened her eyes and smiled wanly at Avery. The whole night came crashing back—crying, confessing that Bob had dumped her for someone else, leaving work. And now she had to face life alone. Again. Lily looked around the guest bedroom at Avery’s house, which reminded her of the guest bedroom at the Putnam Estate, the same soothing light pink color scheme. She’d spent many nights at the Putnams’ throughout her life, and in almost every case, she’d been there because of an overwhelmingly sad event. Now, she was repeating the pattern, a pathetic guest in Avery and Mark’s new home. A chill moved down her spine as she forced herself to ignore the old memories trying to bubble up in her mind. Bob’s betrayal was enough to deal with for now. When did he stop loving me? Why did he stop loving me?
“It’s lunch time,” Avery said gently, pulling back the thick silk curtains to reveal a grey, rainy day. “You slept through breakfast.”
Lily slowly sat up. “Thanks for bringing me here, Aves.”
“I can’t believe you didn’t call me the minute he broke up with you. The jerk. You know what Mark said about him right?”
“Boring Bob?” Lily repeated, a small smile crossing her face despite herself.
Avery’s husband found Bob a boring snob who only wanted to talk about money and social status.
“Yes, well, he has appended the nickname and now it’s Boring Bastard Bob. You like it? I do.”
Avery plopped down on the end of the queen bed. She wore a simple black cashmere turtleneck and fitted, dark jeans. Her long blonde hair was pulled back in a loose ponytail. Her gorgeous blue eyes were filled with love and concern.
“You have to be sick of my pathetic life,” Lily said. “I really thought I was on the road to my future. I really believed he loved me.”
“Well, after you went to sleep last night, I did a little snooping,” Avery said, her face drawn and sad. “Bob is planning to marry Rebecca Postle. I don’t know who set them up, his parents or hers, but it’s an arranged marriage of sorts,” Avery said.
“How could he possibly agree to marry her when he’d asked me to marry him?” Lily demanded, playing with the diamond ring on her finger. “I know I never was good enough for Bob’s family.”
“Bob’s not good enough for you if, after five years and a proposal, he caves in to his parents’ wishes. I mean really? Who does that?” Avery’s blue eyes flashed with indignation.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Lily fought back a fresh rush of tears. “Or think about it. I can’t imagine him, kissing her, making love to her.”
“You know what? You need to get angry, and then you need to realize the Postles have done you a big favor. You are better than that, Lils, you are. Good riddance is all I say. You’re keeping the ring right?”
Lily nodded. She hadn’t given it too much thought except to toy with idea of returning it so that she could see Bob again, make him explain himself in person, but after Avery’s outburst, she realized she needed to stop crying. She did need to stop thinking about Bob in present tense.
“Good. That’s a little safety net right there. I know you and Bob had discussed you opening a bakery at one point. That ring could be a nice start to a savings account for that dream.”
“I can’t think about all of that yet,” Lily said. “I don’t want to think about anything, but he’s still in my dreams. It’s like he’s haunting me. And it’s almost the holidays. This is the trouble with Christmas, and every other major holiday. It’s a time for family and love. And once again, I’m alone.”
“You have me, and my family. Mom and I are leaving for Indigo Island tomorrow and you’re coming, too,” Avery said. She excitedly reached for Lily’s hand. “It will be the best thing for you to get away and regroup. We’ll have fun like when we were kids. You have time to stop your mail, clean out your refrigerator, and pack your clothes. We leave in the helicopter in the morning.”
“I can’t,” Lily finally made a move to get out of the comfy bed so she could face the day and the rest of her life. “I have to work. It’s December, the restaurant is crazy busy.”
“I told Alfredo you needed time off,” Avery said, very sure of herself—like always. “And you do. If you want it, he’ll give you your job back when you return. I even helped line up a temporary pastry chef. It’s your choice about whether you return after the holidays. I’d rather have you start your own business,” Avery said, like it was the most natural thing in the world to arrange her friend’s life.
Always so willing to help, Lily thought wryly. To fix her life. She knew she had to stand on her own, but Lily had to admit it felt good to be taken care of after such a blow.
“You’re incredible. You really are. Thank you, Aves,” Lily said, her heart lightened a little bit at the thought of a trip to Indigo Island.
The remote Sea Island was like a second home to her. She’d even thought it would be fun to open her bakery there, but Bob had laughed off that idea as unreasonable.
“So let’s get started. We won’t return until after New Year’s. A whole new year and a new start when we get back.”
Lily looked down at the diamond ring sparkling on her finger and swallowed a sob. She wasn’t quite ready to take it off. And where would she keep it safe, anyway? She took a deep breath and stared out at the grey day. Another new start.
She finished zipping her suitcase at the same moment the doorbell rang.
“You better be ready, we’re all waiting!” Avery yelled through the door.
Lily smiled. What would she do without her best friend? I’m thirty years old, suddenly single and adrift. She opened the door and Avery burst inside. My best friend is my only constant.
“Wipe that frown off your gorgeous face, immediately,” Avery said pulling her into a bear hug.
Avery wore a light blue cashmere sweater, khaki jeans, and ankle boots. She looked chic and ready for an island adventure. Lily looked down at her own outfit – black turtleneck, black jeans, black boots – and sighed. She looked as gloomy as she felt.
“I hope you’re ready because the Putnams wait for no one, as you know!”
“I’m all set, but are you sure Sergio is okay with this?” Lily said, imagining her boss and all of his Italian temper boiling over at her departure. She needed her job, especially now.
“Yes, I’m positive. It’s all worked out,” Avery said, with her breezy confidence.
“Okay, I have no idea how you did it, but if Alfredo’s can manage without me during the holiday rush, well, they might decide they can manage without me forever.”
“Impossible,” Avery said and grabbed Lily’s suitcase as she pulled her toward the front door. “They’re hosting a guest pastry chef from Paris, a guy who just happens to have always wanted to visit America. He’s a friend, from when I studied abroad. It worked out perfectly. Under the table, of course.”
“You’re amazing,” Lily said, and pulled her apartment door behind her tightly. “Thank you.”
“Anything for my best friend, Lils,” Avery said and led her down the walkway to the white limo, with the Putnam orange P emblazed on the door, waiting at the curb. The driver hopped out and helped them inside and then took care of Lily’s suitcase.
“It’s been forever, John, how are you?” Lily asked.
“Great, same as always, Miss Lily. It’s good to see you,” John said. “To the airport, then, Miss Avery?”
“Yes, please,” Avery said, then turned to Lily. “I’m so excited. This will be like Christmases during high school when you were always with us.”
Lily wished she could share Avery’s excitement, but she felt empty. It wasn’t at all the same, Avery was married and Lily was supposed to be engaged. She forced a smile since she didn’t want to bring everyone down this holiday. “Your family has always been so kind to me.”
Avery smiled, accepting Lily, as always, just the way she was. The limo pulled into the private airplane section of the airport and up to the Putnams’ white helicopter, sporting the orange script Putnam P on the side. Seeing the copter, Lily did feel a small burst of excitement.
“See, you’re smiling, Lils,” Avery said as they climb out onto the tarmac. Mrs. Putnam emerged from another car and the three women walked to the helicopter. “My dad is coming over this afternoon. It’s a girls’ flight now.”
“Hello, Avery. Lily.” Evalyn kissed both girls on the cheek. She smoothed her sleek gray cashmere dress down her slim body. “Let’s get going, shall we?”
And at her command, everyone strapped in, and the helicopter took flight. As they neared the island, Lily felt her shoulders begin to relax. She had been visiting Indigo Island with the Putnams for years, but she never realized until today just how much the island calmed her. She took a deep breath and looked over at Avery, who was smiling out the window.
Lily remembered the December of her freshman year in high school when her dad had packed his bags and said goodbye, telling her he’d found his soul mate and was moving to Chicago to be with her. “But what about me and mom?” Lily had asked, too stunned to be able to comprehend that he really intended to leave them forever.
“I’ll always love you, Lily, but I need to live a genuine life,” her dad had said, patting her on the head like a dog. And then he’d left. Lily had barely seen him since. Her mom had fallen apart, unable to pull herself out of the alcoholism his sudden exit triggered after their twenty-two year marriage.
And now more than fifteen Decembers later, another man has abruptly left, breaking his promise to her. She was cursed. A tear worked its way down her cheek before she could stop it.
“Hey, no more tears. We’re about to land at the most magical island of healing ever,” Avery said patting Lily’s hand.
“You get your own room now! I have to share with Mark,” Avery joked as they hurried to the waiting golf cart. Lily smiled at the things the Putnams took for granted. The wealth, the happiness, the golf carts that matched their helicopters, and their private jets. But even as much as Avery took all the symbols of her wealth for granted, she was a true and wonderful friend. The best friend Lily could hope for.
Evalyn Putnam walked ahead of the younger women, up the steps to the front door of the Putnam Plantation, a replica of an antebellum Southern plantation that formerly occupied just this spot on Indigo Island. Every time Lily visited, she imagined what it must have been like here before air conditioning and running water, before all the comforts she took for granted. As Evalyn reached the wrap-around porch, she smiled and said, “It’s so good to be here, isn’t it? Take a deep breath, girls. Ahhh.”
Lily smiled, trying to shake off her negative thoughts so she’d be a better guest. Avery rushed past her mom up the stairs to the wide front porch. A huge wreath made from large branches of local pine trees decorated the front door. Garland had been wrapped around the banister of the long porch. White twinkle lights have been threaded through the branches, held in place by cheerful red ribbon. The front porch lights were decorated with the same bold red ribbons, standing out against the white wood of the home. A fresh evergreen wreath adorned every window, held in place by a thick red velvet ribbon. Everything was, as always, perfect.
“Well, do you girls feel the chill in the air?” Evalyn asked as her housekeeper pulled open the front door. “Hope you have a fire going, Millie.”
“Yes, in the library and in the family room, Ms. Putnam. Welcome home,” Millie said, stepping out of the way.
“Oh, Mom, who decorated the tree?” Avery asked in a voice that made her sound as if she were a small child.
“Millie handled it, since I wasn’t sure who would be here when and I wanted the tree up when I arrived. Isn’t it gorgeous?”
The tree was massive, easily fifteen feet tall, towering over the Putnams’ grand foyer. The entire room was filled with the smell of fresh pine. The tree was decorated with white lights, and the only accent color was red. Huge silver and white ornaments glistened and danced under the light from the tree and the large crystal chandelier was suspended just above the shining silver star topping the tree. The scale of everything in the room reminded Lily of a grand hotel lobby. And this was only one of the Putnam’s homes.
Behind the tree, the bannister of the circular stairway that led up to the second floor was decorated, like the outside deck, with garland, white lights and red ribbon.
“It’s gorgeous,” Lily said to Evalyn.
Avery had lost interest in the tree and had walked into the library to the right of the foyer.
“Avery is making sure I didn’t decorate the library tree,” Evalyn said to Lily with a knowing smile. “I didn’t, of course. I’ll leave that one to you girls.”
Avery walked back to where Evalyn and Lily stood admiring the tree. She kissed her mother on the cheek. “Thanks mom. I was worried you’d let someone else decorate the family tree.”
“You know I wouldn’t, dear,” Evalyn said. “Lily, you are in the blue room at the end of the hall. Perhaps you’d like to unpack. Lunch will be served in about an hour, in the kitchen since it’s just the three of us.”
“Thank you, both, so much. I’m so happy to be here,” Lily said and realized it was true.
She followed Avery up the grand staircase, grateful her friend had realized that if Lily had been left alone to dwell on her heartbreak, she would have felt far worse.
“James will be here this afternoon,” Avery said as they reached the top of the stairs. “I’m surprised. Usually he doesn’t come play family until the last minute. He’s almost as bad as Blake used to be.”
“Oh great. When do Mark and Denton and Blake get into town?” Lily followed Avery into her bedroom.
Avery’s room faced the ocean and had been redone since Lily had last visited. Instead of the two queen beds, there now was a king bed covered with an impossibly fluffy white comforter. The floors, as in all the bedrooms, were hardwood, softened by thick white wool rugs. Two overstuffed white chairs framed the window and the sparkling ocean view.
“This room is gorgeous,” Lily said.
The bedside tables were each decorated with matching three-foot tall Christmas trees, with shiny red ball ornaments—the only color in the room. A fresh pine wreath tied with a bright red velvet bow hung from the top of the mirror over the long mahogany dresser.
Avery walked into the passageway that separated the room from the full bath and slid open the mirrored closet doors, inspecting the clothes hanging inside.
“It’s always so much fun to see what I left here. Sometimes I leave things here on purpose, just so something will seem new and fresh. Like this sweater—oh, and these sweat pants. I love these,” she said, pulling out a pair of gray sweats and hugging them tight. “Mark doesn’t like me in sweats so I’ll have to wear them all day today.”
The staff had unpacked Avery’s suitcases and her toiletries were assembled on the white marble countertop in the large bathroom. Avery pulled off her jeans and pulled on her sweats. “That’s better,” she said. “Let’s go get you settled and into some sweats. We have a tree to decorate!”
Cole Stanton thought the chill in the air felt great as he stretched for his morning jog. Compared to the summer months when he’d been sure he’d given himself heat stroke a couple of times, this was the perfect weather for a run. Since he’d moved here a few months ago to start a new life, Cole was now in the best shape of his life, as long as no one looked too closely at his hands, covered with cuts and blisters, and the hair on his right arm had been singed off as well as his eyebrows in a freak flash over fire two days ago. If Sally Ann hadn’t been there with a fire extinguisher, the entire restaurant would have been consumed in flames.
He ran along the flat, firm sand at the edge of the ocean, enjoying the views over to Hilton Head, and along the south to the tip of the island, a development called Bloody Point after the notorious battles that had taken place centuries before. In the far distance, he could see Tybee Island, another Sea Island that, like Hilton Head, was connected to the mainland by a bridge ages ago.
What a difference a bridge would make for the restaurant. He stopped at a tangled pile of driftwood that blocked the rest of the beach. A bridge would bring in more diners, which the restaurant desperately needed, but it would also ruin the seclusion and peace of the island, a place his grandmother introduced him to when he was a child. He needed to find an answer to the dwindling profits. As he jogged back home, his mood dark, not improved by the quick five-mile run. For the first time in his life, Cole had failed. His embarrassment still rankled. As the new owner of Marshside Mama’s restaurant, he’d overpromised and under delivered on his first major holiday, Thanksgiving. What had he been thinking? He didn’t know the restaurant industry, nor did he know the island that well, but he had jumped in anyway, investing in Sally Ann’s Marshside Mama’s with a lot of ideas fueled by arrogance and enthusiasm and not a lot of knowledge or foresight.
What the hell had happened to his brain? He’d been determined to improve people’s lives, not destroy them. His jaw hurt because he’s been clenching it so often, but as he ran past the Putnam Plantation, he had a whole different hurt. Christmas had arrived. The porch glowed with white lights, wrapped in garland and cheery red ribbon bows. Christmas. The trouble with Christmas? It was a family holiday, but his family was far away. His parents had begged him to come home to New England for the holidays but he couldn’t leave Sally Ann with the mess he had created. So he’d promised his mom he’d make it next year. She hadn’t been happy, and he felt even worse.
Cole imagined his family’s home in Lincoln, elaborately decorated for Christmas with colorful lights, a tree filled with the handmade ornaments Cole and his brother had made through elementary school. His mom’s spiced apple cider always simmered on the stove, filling the house with the scents of family and the holidays. He imagined the snow was already blanketing the ground, and his mom would have a roaring fire in the fireplace. And he was here. Alone.
He shook his head and pushed the sadness away. He’d chosen to change, to move far away and start over. He decided that after the lunch rush, he’d head to the General Store to find a few Christmas decorations. That would get him in the spirit.
After lunch, and decorating the library tree together—with Avery explaining the meaning and significance of almost every ornament they unwrapped—Lily suggested they bake Christmas cookies. It was the least she could do to thank the Putnams for their hospitality.
A quick survey of the kitchen pantry revealed all of the ingredients she needed, except sprinkles.
“We can’t have Christmas cookies without sprinkles,” Avery announced.
“Sure we can,” Lily said. “We can make gingerbread boys and girls, even a gingerbread house. That would be fun.”
“I need sprinkles, and gumdrops, and those shiny round metal thingamabobs, otherwise, it’s just not the same,” Avery said. “They’ll have some at the General Store. If not, we’ll go beg for some from the inn. James and dad own it now somehow, did I tell you that?”
“Something about a sex scandal with the general manager.”
“I don’t think it was that lurid,” Avery laughed. “But two employees there, a couple, are now managing it, and Dad and James agreed to buy it from the corporation that owned it so they could keep it true to the island and its history. I guess it has been going well because I haven’t heard James complain at all about it,” Avery said. “Speaking of James,” she said with studied casualness, which made Lily’s ears perk up. “Do you still think he’s cute?”
“How about I go round up the decorating supplies?” Lily said, ignoring Avery’s question. ‘I know your mom wanted your help with the guest list for a dinner or something.”
“You’re right, she did ask,” Avery said. “You still think James is cute, don’t you?”
Lily shook her head and laughed. “Your matchmaking skills are not your best attribute and neither is subtlety, but yes, James is cute.” She put air quotes around the word. “All your brothers are super cute but so not going to happen.”
“I know,” Avery sighed. “But I still have this dream of having you as a sister.”
“I can be your sister without having to take on your brother,” Lilly said. “My fiancé just dumped me. Give me some recovery time.”
Lily was surprised that she could even joke about Bob. The island really was magic, but the tears were never far away, and looking for cookie sprinkles would be a welcome distraction.
Avery sighed and smiled. “I know. Ignore me. Take the golf cart out front. Charge whatever you find to our bill.”
Lily was happy to escape. She didn’t bother to change out of her sweats and instead hopped into the golf cart and drove to the General Store. The drive led her along the edge of the forest, by the golf course and past the large Melrose Inn, another replica of an original plantation, but now it was a successful resort and owned by the Putnams. The inn has been trimmed in red and white lights and huge concrete urns were filled with red poinsettias lining the porch and entrance.
From some deep recess of her mind, Lily remembered her ninth grade project about the “painted leaf” flowers, named after Charlestonian Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first ambassador to Mexico, who in 1828 carried home clippings of the plant to the Lowcountry. Her project partner had been Avery, of course.
Lily laughed and smiled at the blessing of long-time friendship, memories to last a lifetime. Lily pulled the cart up to the front of the General Store, a bright blue wooden cottage with butter yellow shutters. She hurried up the ramp to the entrance. Just as she pushed the door, a man pulled on it to come out and Lily lost her balance, tumbling into him. Strong arms steadied her and Lily looked into the face of the most handsome man she had ever seen. He smiled.
“Sorry,” he said, still holding her. His hands wrapped around her arms like an electric band that warmed her all the way to her bones, and there was no way she could tear her riveted gaze from his mesmerizing blue eyes. A jolt of heat zipped throughout her body and lodged deep in her core.
“You Okay?” he asked.
Lily didn’t want to act like a teenager, but her brain wouldn’t function. Her body couldn’t move. It was like she’d been here before. Here with this man and his indigo gaze, melting her bones and turning her blood to honey.
“Did I hurt you?” Now he looked concerned, and his hands smoothed up and down her arms.
“I’m fine, my fault,” she said, noticing her voice sounded husky. What was her deal? Had she lost her mind? What about Bob, the man she’d wanted to marry, have children with, build a life with?
“Sure you’re okay? I think I shook you up.”
If he only knew the half of it. Lily wondered what he’d say if she told him, no, she was not fine. She was an idiot.
She smiled and nodded. Truly an idiot.
“Fine,” she said. “I wasn’t looking.”
Missing seeing this man would be a tragedy no woman should have to endure.
“No, I’m afraid I wasn’t paying attention and almost flattened you. Deep in thought, none of it good,” he laughed. “I’m Cole Stanton, and I’m not typically this clumsy. “
“Lily Edmonds, and I typically stumble into at least one man every day.”
She nearly clapped her hand over her mouth. Was she flirting? Was she heartbroken?
“So I’m the quota for today. Good to know, Lily Edmonds. It’s early.” He looked at his watch. “You’ll have to be very careful for the rest of the day.”
He was flirting back! Lily checked. No ring. And he was hot. Hotter than Brad Pitt. Self-consciously, she spun her ring around so the diamond pressed into her palm, reminding her of everything she no longer had. Why had she flirted? She hated men. She was done with men.
“Maybe go home, draw the shutters.”
“Or I could walk through the door again,” she said more boldly than she’d ever been in her life. Avery would faint. She would think Lily’s personality had been transplanted by aliens.
“I’m willing,” he said easily, but he didn’t let go of her arm, and Lily could feel his fingers like a pulse through her body.
“So, Lily, are you living on the island or just visiting?”
Cole didn’t have a drawl. He definitely sounded like a Northerner. It took every ounce of nerve she had to continue making eye contact with his bright blue gaze. Her heart thudded and her palms were clammy. He finally released her arm and she felt herself sway. He was making her dizzy just standing there. She’d need to go home and drink something much harder than a sweet tea. She remembered he’d asked her a question.