Miranda Hamilton yanked the freshly baked sugar cookies out of the oven and lightly touched the tops of them to make sure they were as perfect as the B&B experience she created for all of her guests. She put a pan of biscuits in the oven, cranked up the temperature, and set the timer. Normally, she kept freshly baked chocolate chip cookies on the warming plate on the ancient mahogany table at the top of the stairs, but Christmas called for sugar cookies. Perfectly decorated, like the rest of Ivy Cottage.
Outside, friendly magnolia wreaths with bright red plaid bows adorned each of the fifteen windows of her gorgeous historic home. At night the house sparkled, completely outlined in white twinkling lights. The same for the base and lower branches of the huge live oak in the front and the tall slender trunk of each stately palm. Powder pink camellias in full bloom encircled the house like a delicate bracelet and were also interlaced with lights as well, because goodness knows, if Miranda had learned anything from her dad, she’d learned there was no such thing as too many Christmas lights.
She headed up the stairs with the cookies and couldn’t help smiling at the scent of the fresh pine garland that lined the bannister, mingling with the aroma of the cookies, making her heart quicken. She loved Christmas as much as she loved her beloved two hundred year old home that was considered by most to be one of Magnolia Bay’s finest bed and breakfasts.
Eying one of the red plaid bows that was a hair cockeyed, she made a mental note to set it right on her way back downstairs. She put the cookies on the warmer and noticed that three of the five copies of the Charleston Post and Courier were missing from the threshold of the bedrooms. That meant she’d have guests at her table soon. Better get a move on if she was going to have breakfast ready and be out the door well before 8:30.
She hurried back downstairs straightening the plaid bow and the handmade stockings she’d hung over the fireplace. Real mistletoe hung with red satin ribbon over every doorway, and on the porch over the front door.
Miranda had gotten plenty of the traditional Christmas plant the day after Thanksgiving at the annual Magnolia Bay Mistletoe Hunt, a fun event where marksmen shoot the mistletoe out of the treetops. Only the best marksmen were allowed to enter the contest, which required hitting the plant just above the spot it latched onto the tops of tall oak trees, without nicking the tree. The mistletoe would then fall to the ground to be collected, and the marksman who collected the most mistletoe, won a silver spittoon.
This year, Miranda’s friend, Hannah had won the hundred-year-old competition. Hannah had accepted the honor with the grace of a Southern belle who’d just beaten the pants of the boys, but she passed on the silver spittoon prize.
Like Hannah, Miranda had missed the after-Thanksgiving sales. While she loved to shop as much as the next girl, Miranda’s Black Friday weekend was always spent in Boone. In the other Carolina. As usual, she’d chosen the perfect Christmas tree for her foyer. Sure, she always caught hell for not buying her tree local at Pineville Farms, but she ignored the complaints from friends who gawked at and secretly coveted her gorgeous Douglas fir.
The requirements for the tree were simple, not too fat as to overpower the foyer, not so skinny that it looked like a stick, and it had to be at least twelve feet tall. At just a hair under fifteen feet, this year’s tree was exquisite decorated in white twinkling lights and ornaments from the sea. Starfish. Sea urchin angels with white seashell wings and sand dollars of all sizes bleached white by the sun, collected from the beaches on Bulls and Capers islands, the nearby barrier islands.
The train set her grandfather willed to her meandered around the base of the tree and throughout the living room. He had obsessed over it for as long as she could remember, and it always made Miranda feel childlike to see it chugging around Ivy Cottage. Christmas figurines her grandmother had given her dotted the living room and were tastefully arranged throughout the cottage. The poinsettias in every room of the house would definitely need watering today, all forty-two of them.
In the kitchen, she filled a big pot with water and grits. The shrimp had been peeled the night before. The timer on the oven sounded; the biscuits were golden brown. She smeared butter over the tops of them and threw together what many had called the best shrimp and grits in the Lowcountry. She could make this recipe in her sleep, and, if she’d enjoyed herself a little too much with her best friends, the Six Chicks, sometimes she did.
She’d already whipped peppered pimiento cheese into the snowy white grits and stirred the heavenly shrimp that had been sautéed in olive oil and garlic and were swimming in her secret creamy sauce.
“Good morning,” the cute couple from Arkansas chimed in unison as she placed the chafing dish on the antique buffet table. They’d come the day before Thanksgiving and were staying until Wednesday.
“Morning, y’all. Everything’s almost ready. Juice, coffee, mimosa, or all of the above?”
“Mimosa for me,” Ms. Arkansas drawled. “Coffee for him.”
Miranda thought it was funny that these two had been married for so long, the husband rarely spoke. He didn’t have to; his wife did it for him.
“We adore your place, Miranda. Thanksgiving was perfect and waking up yesterday to a Christmas wonderland was even better.” Ms. Arkansas looked at her husband who nodded on cue. “I can’t believe it’s already Monday. Seems like we just got here.”
“Thank you. I’m glad you love Ivy Cottage as much as I do. Wish you all could stay until the Christmas tree lighting. The boat parade is gorgeous, and you’d adore the Christmas cotillion,” Miranda nodded at the wife. “It’s elegant and beautiful, really something to see.”
“I wish we could stay too. Maybe we’ll come back next year for the event, although we’d already planned to come back for your Thanksgiving feast. The sweet potato casserole alone is worth the trip.”
“Thanks. I’d love to have you.” She set the rest of the breakfast in place. “Everything’s out on the buffet. The chafing dishes will keep things warm. There’s plenty of coffee and juice, an endless supply of champagne,” Miranda smiled as she poured the mimosa. “I apologize for leaving you all this morning, I have to dress and get to a meeting.” And Miranda couldn’t wait. “I let the other guests know last night. They’ll find their way to the food and coffee, and I’ll be back before you know it.”
The meeting was a block away at City Hall; if everything went well, she’d be back by eleven. And everything would go well. Even if it was just for this year, the Bloom Bitches, Daisy and Camellia, who ran The Historical Society and thought they ran Magnolia Bay, had finally and begrudgingly handed over the reins to the Holiday Festival weekend, which included the Christmas tree lighting, a boat parade and, of course, the cotillion.
With her organizational and creative hooks into the events, Miranda was in heaven. Just three weeks away, the Holiday Festival was going to be bigger and better than ever, but Miranda wasn’t doing it for the accolades that would surely come. A large portion of the money raised from the Holiday Festival went to her favorite Lowcountry charity. While the festival had been around as long as Miranda could remember, her late mother’s foundation received the majority of their annual operating expenses from these events.
The Barbara T. Hamilton Foundation was established ten years ago after she died of breast cancer, the same year Miranda graduated from college. Half of the proceeds the foundation received went to research. The other to half went into a fund that provided help to patients and their families with travel and medical expenses, which, as Miranda knew from experience, could eat up a family’s resources in a heartbeat.
Every year since, she had honored her mother’s memory working tirelessly during the Christmas kickoff for Daisy and Camellia. The Bloom Bitches didn’t like to give up control of anything, much less the biggest annual events in Magnolia Bay. But both of their husbands had recently retired, and they were traveling more. With their husbands underfoot, Daisy and Camellia claimed they couldn’t accomplish one thing. Now, with Miranda as chairperson, she could do things the way she wanted, make the weekend bigger, better. Raise more money to help families in need, and maybe even help find a cure for the horrible disease that had taken her mother at such a young age.
She pulled on a lovely Christmas red sheath and a gorgeous pair of Stuart Weizman black pumps. She ran a brush through her thick blond shoulder length hair and finished the look with her mother’s pearls. Saying her goodbyes to the guests who were in heaven around the breakfast table, she was out the door.
The crisp Lowcountry morning felt delicious as her heels clicked along the sidewalk. She’d checked online ticket sales for the cotillion Thanksgiving Day. Already, they were on track to beat last year’s record, and, if sales kept going up, they’d need to find a bigger venue, which could be a problem. But a wonderful problem that would have the traditionalists’ panties in a twist.
Daisy and Camellia had kittens when they’d learned Miranda had advertised the cotillion to the public. It had always been a hoity-toity affair for the locals, held at the historic city gardens. Miranda had changed things around a bit, raising the cost of tickets, inviting the public. That alone probably accounted for sales being up over last year.
She entered City Hall and was greeted by Dee, a sweet round receptionist in her fifties who singlehandedly ran City Hall. She’d been invaluable to Miranda, getting her up to speed so that she could do this job, even with the scrutiny of the Bloom Bitches. “Morning Sunshine,” Dee said, handing Miranda her coffee.
“You’re a mind reader, I really needed a third cup.” Miranda took a sip and spat it back in the cup. Was that some sort of whiskey?
“About the coffee,” Pat began in a hushed tone, “You’re going to need a shot of something.” Crap. Pat had known Miranda since she was a kid. This couldn’t be good.
She tossed the cup in the trash and poured herself a fresh cup. The last thing she wanted was the committee members thinking she was a lush. “Are Daisy and Camellia here again? I thought after the last meeting, they trusted me to get this thing right.”
“They’re not here, but—” Pat was cut off as Mayor Delaney breezed out of her office in a flowy navy dress.
“Miranda.” She had a pained look on her face she tried to make pleasant with a smile. This wasn’t like Mayor Delaney at all. She gave Miranda an air kiss, but never looked directly at her. “Come. The meeting’s already started.”
“But I’m fifteen minutes early,” Miranda stammered, following her down a long hallway toward the boardroom. “Aren’t I?”
“Yes and no. There’s been a new development. Really, a wonderful development that came with a great big fat donation made out to your mother’s foundation. I know the holiday weekend is your responsibility, but there’s going to be a few more fingers the pie,” she said, hesitantly. “But it’s all good. All for charity.”
“Fabulous,” Miranda said, but what had this woman so tentative, almost worried?
“The money comes with some strings,” the mayor continued. “That’s one of the things we were meeting early about. I left a message on your cell last night. Didn’t you get it?”
“I’m sorry, I’m oblivious when I’m decorating the cottage for Christmas. But it is wonderful about the donation. Whatever those strings are, I’m thrilled.”
As they were passing the ladies room, the door opened and out strutted Pammy Anderson dressed like a runway model in couture. Shit. Was this where the money came from? Was the catch Miranda would have to work with the woman who was vying to take the title of Biggest Bitch away from the Bloom sisters? Great. But if it came with money that would benefit her mother’s foundation, she could work with anyone. Even Pammy.
“Morning, Pammy. Great to see you,” Miranda gave her best smile. She was sure Mom was looking down from heaven and laughing at the show. She had comforted Miranda through her grade school years when Pammy lived to torture her. If Miranda achieved something, was given or earned something, Pammy made it her job to bully her out of it. But in the sixth grade, after Miranda grew a little backbone and some boobs, which shouldn’t have but did improve her social status, things were better. Pammy still tried to one up her occasionally, Miranda really thought Pammy would’ve grown out of it by now, but no such luck.
Pammy still loved to get her digs in whenever she could, but since she’d become one of the investors in Big Jim Mauldin’s huge Arcadia Dunes development, she’d been too busy making a shrimp boat full of money she loved to throw around town. Buying fabulous clothes and shoes and a custom made BMW that cost more than Miranda made in a year.
She took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. For Mom. “Thanks for your very generous donation, Pammy. I am looking forward to working with you.” For a moment, Miranda was hypnotized by Pammy’s predatory smile.
The mayor paused outside the boardroom and was saying something; Miranda only caught the tail end. “—new co-chair.” What? Pammy Anderson is her co-chair? This couldn’t get any worse.
For you, Mom. This is for you. “You’ll make a great co-chair,” Miranda offered. But you taught me to let people know where I stand. Never back down. “I look forward to working with you, Pammy.”
“Oh, Pammy’s just a new committee member,” the mayor gushed, as she pushed open the door and pointed to Logan Mauldin. “He’s your new co-chair.”
Fabulous. Logan Mauldin. The only person other than Pammy Anderson she would never want to be stranded on a committee with.
He stood as they entered the room and buttoned his black blazer. Her eyes glided down his well-worn jeans for a fraction of a second and then jerked back up to his face. The crisp white shirt he was wearing stood out against his perfect, year round tan and accentuated his disgustingly beautiful green eyes that sparkled. No. Twinkled. And he was enjoying this. Too much. Between the shock, and well, him, no wonder, Miranda’s mouth was gaping open.
She should have slapped herself silly for gawking at him. Instead, she turned her attention to the rest of the board members, and gave even Pammy, her most genuine smile. “Everyone. Wonderful to see y’all. Logan.”
“You can’t imagine my surprise when Logan here, nabbed me Saturday night at Crusoe’s,” the mayor said, like the man was the second coming. The sexy smirk on his face wasn’t helping Miranda at all. “Put a great big donation to your mother’s foundation in my hand and said he had some fabulous ideas for our little Christmas events. Even asked if he could co-chair. Of course, knowing you wouldn’t mind, I said yes.”
Miranda nodded. She’d been at Crusoe’s Saturday night and had seen the mayor and her husband. Miranda had been on a date with John Jackson, a yummy attorney from Charleston, whom she recently met at one of the gallery crawls there. He had talked her into taking a break from decorating the house, and she was glad she had. The food and the wine had been as good as his company.
Although there hadn’t been any real sparks at dinner, they were just getting to know each other and the night was young. After a lovely dinner, John had asked Miranda if she wanted to take a walk on the docks the restaurant overlooked.
When she’d stood to leave, she’d noticed Logan coming into the restaurant with a friend. Miranda had rushed past him, but then suddenly remembered she’d forgotten her wrap. When she’d turned around to retrieve it, she’d run smack into a wall of hard muscle. Logan. Adrenaline shot through her and her heart beat faster than it had at any point during the evening.
“I’m sorry,” she said. He’d been smiling down at her, holding her in place. Until she came to her senses. “Excuse me.” She’d tried to pull away, but he wouldn’t let her.
“No problem,” he said leaning in close enough to whisper. “But I believe you owe me a kiss.”
“What?” she’d hissed. “I do not owe you anything, Logan, not to mention that I’m on a date.”
Logan had glanced at the door where John looked extremely curious as to what was going on. “He looks like a nice guy, I’m sure he wouldn’t mind.”
“You’re nuts,” she’d snapped. But maybe she was nuts because her body was humming with anticipation, and it wasn’t for John.
“And you’re standing under the mistletoe.” He pointed to the perfect green ball hanging above them. “It’s tradition.”
“Good. Night. Logan.” When he let her go, she’d thrown on her wrap and rejoined her date, but she’d felt the loss of the connection long after she pulled away from Logan.
And now he was here at her committee meeting, trying to upend things in the ninth hour. Usual sexy smirk. A big fat donation with strings attached. What did that mean? That he was definitely nuts? They were oil and water. This would never work.
“Miranda.” He extended his hand. “Always a pleasure.”
She sat in the only available seat beside him, determined to get down to business. When she gave his hand a firm shake, her heat fluttered.
End of Excerpt