Start reading this book:
A smile tugged at Kayla Hunter’s lips as she glanced down at her cell phone screen. She accepted the call. “Hi, Gram.” Holding the device between her ear and shoulder, she unlocked the door to her apartment, walked inside, and dropped the keys into the wicker basket on the entryway table.
“It’s good to hear your voice. We’re counting down the days until you come home.”
Paper crinkled on the other line, and Kayla’s smile widened. “Wrapping presents already?” Of course, she knew the answer. The moment the Thanksgiving decorations were packed away at The Candy Manor, her grandparents were in full-on Christmas mode. Kayla kicked off the slip-resistant shoes she wore at work and headed straight for the couch. There was no better feeling than sinking into the cushions after ten hours on her feet as the pastry chef at the Winston Hotel.
“Oh, no. Not quite yet. Just storing the chocolate turkey molds for next season.” Gram sighed.
Kayla paused mid-squat, hovering over the couch. When had her grandmother ever sounded drained? Tension instantly tightened her chest, and she stood up and paced the apartment, a tiny space by city and suburban standards alike. “Is everything all right? Are you sick?” Kayla couldn’t stop panic from edging her voice. Her parents and grandparents both lived in the town of Hollybrook, but for her parents, it was really only a mailing address. They traveled for the better part of the year playing bluegrass music at festivals and concert halls around the country, and Kayla had developed a close bond with her grandparents as a result.
“Oh, nothing like that. Gramp and I just aren’t as lively as we once were.” Her warm chuckle soothed the tightness pinching Kayla’s chest. “Things take a bit longer these days.”
“Maybe I should come out a few days early,” Kayla mused, as much to her gram as she did to herself.
“Nonsense. We know how busy you are at the hotel. Being a pastry chef is important work.”
“Nothing’s more important than you guys.” Guilt struck her in the solar plexus. The past few years, her city job had taken precedence, and she’d only been home a handful of times. How could she tell her gram that the sales department had booked a colossal New Year’s Eve dessert party and she’d have to cut short her three-week visit home? Her grandparents depended on her this time of year, and she was going to disappoint them. A sinking feeling shimmied its way down her body. She didn’t see her family nearly enough.
“Don’t fret, honey. We’re just fine.”
A voice she couldn’t place called out on the other end of the phone, and Kayla’s brows knit together. “Who’s that? Did you hire someone new?”
“Oh, that’s Dominick,” Gram said, the smile audible in her voice. “He’s brought his law firm to Hollybrook from New York and has been kind enough to help us with a few things.”
“Keep paying me in those truffles, and I’ll do just about anything.” A deep, baritone rumbled over the line, and Gram’s girlish laughter followed.
Kayla paused, poking her tongue into her cheek. It was wrong to feel the sudden stab of envy at the clear adoration in her gram’s voice. No, not envy, but guilt. She’d let them down when she’d made the decision to move to the city, even though they’d never admit to being anything but proud. Was it so wrong to want to make her mark? To experience the whirling pace and dazzling lights of a metropolis?
“Kayla, did I lose you?” Her gram’s voice snapped her out of her thoughts.
“No, I’m here.” She sighed, suddenly feeling as though the hectic hours of the past few months had finally caught up with her all at once.
“I was just saying that Dominick has offered to lend a hand with the Christmas Eve prep.”
Her stomach tangled. More guilt. She should be there for the people who’d helped raise her. Gram and Gramp had been influential throughout her childhood. Even the career she chose was because of the memories she had of working alongside her grandfather, who was a confectioner. She might not live in the quaint town of Hollybrook anymore, but that didn’t mean she shirked her yearly duties to prepare The Candy Manor, a charming Victorian mansion that housed her grandparents’ chocolate business, for the town’s annual Christmas Eve event.
“That’s…great. The more, the merrier, right?” She forced a half-hearted laugh. Since she could remember, the Christmas Eve event had been orchestrated by her and her grandparents. It was their thing, and she felt protective of it. And how silly for a grown woman to feel threatened by someone else helping. Of course, letting someone else into the planning process wouldn’t change the beautiful community event they held each year.
Once they said their goodbyes, Kayla tossed the phone over to the couch and leaned toward the window. Frost was pressing against the glass, clouding it, but that did nothing to dim the glimmer of city lights. The cold weather months warmed her with memories of her childhood: racing through the halls of The Candy Manor, the scents of melting chocolate and gooey caramel permeating the air, and helping her grandmother pack up the Thanksgiving decorations to make room for all the glitz and glamour that made up the manor’s Christmas decorations.
She also enjoyed tucking the ornaments safely away and taking inventory of what they’d used and what was left over. She could still help prepare the manor and even stay for the event if she had everything organized for the New Year’s party. Her grandparents might be getting on in years, but she never questioned their ability to keep the event and the candy store going. Her smile widened. Gram and Gramp made the four seasons magical for the residents of Hollybrook: chocolate and wine pairings for Valentine’s Day, thousands of pastel eggs dotting the grounds in spring, and the Young Chocolatiers Summer Day Camp when school let out. Fall was a time for giving, and the community banded together to send sweets to troops overseas and to make sure no one in the community went without.
Kayla was about to step away from the window when something bright and silvery arched over the sky. She paused, fingertips still on the windowsill. Her practical nature didn’t lend to wishes on shooting stars, but a meteor sighting made her feel lucky all the same. In just a few days, she’d pack her things to go to Hollybrook for the holidays. Her favorite time of year. Now, if only she could relax long enough to enjoy the festivities.
Kayla’s phone rang. Again. In the two-and-a-half-hour drive to Hollybrook, her place of employment had called twice because Richard, the executive chef, was nowhere to be found. Surprise, surprise. The man who was supposed to oversee the entire banquet operation was usually the last to see to anything. She, on the other hand, had a soft spot for her coworkers and wanted them to succeed, so she’d taken the calls.
She couldn’t fault Alex, the sous chef, for panicking. The restaurant’s vendor had forgotten to include raspberries and blackberries for the signature crème brûlée—or Chef Richard had forgotten to order them—and the salted caramel cheesecake had been scorched while he was on the phone rectifying the situation. Kayla had dialed the wholesaler and asked that they correct their error. Then she’d phoned one of the prep cooks and convinced them to take an extra shift for tonight’s banquet in the Grand Ballroom. Under normal circumstances, she would’ve left the executive chef to fix his own mistakes or brought up his barely there schedule with management, but he was the general manager’s son. So, yeah. Not going to happen. Trying to point out Richard’s weaknesses as a manager would be like jumping from the proverbial frying pan directly into a scorching fire.
She’d thought she was finally rid of work when the hotel’s sales manager phoned. The New Year’s Eve clients wanted to change the six-course dessert menu—for the fourth time. She had even attended the last meeting to ensure the menu was just so. The financial company had its entire executive board in on the planning, and everyone seemed to have an incredibly different opinion about how the dessert event should run. The choices were too classic this time around, which was exactly what they’d asked for last week. She’d have to boot up her laptop almost immediately to deliver more adventurous offerings for the clients to review in the morning, even though once again, Richard had assured her it would be all taken care of. When she braked at the stoplight leading to the town’s center, she took one hand away from the steering wheel and pinched the bridge of her nose.
She could handle the pressure. It was totally fine. The New Year’s event would’ve been so much easier to plan if she skipped this year’s Christmas Eve Spectacular at the manor. The moment the thought crossed her mind, remorse rolled in her stomach. Her grandparents had raised her, supported her decisions, and she couldn’t even give them two weeks? Kayla unclenched her jaw, teeth aching from being ground together.
“Two weeks. I can give them that at least,” she muttered with a self-deprecating huff.
The tires of her sedan rolled over a crisp dusting of snow past the sign welcoming visitors to Hollybrook. Even on the outskirts of town, she could catch a glimpse of the manor. The turrets and towers eclipsed the tree line, and what she knew to be scalloped cedar siding looked like scales on a mermaid’s tail painted in muted coral and teal. Main Street was nearly as busy as the subway, choked with pedestrians completing holiday shopping or strolling past window displays holding a treasure trove of light and color.
Kayla rolled down her window as she passed the bakery, and the scents of fresh bread and something a bit sweeter—apple pie filling?—peppered the frigid air. She drove a few more miles, past the occasional home, and up the ridge to the manor. The porch hugged three sides of the building, enclosing the front of the property with decorative spindles and gingerbread cutouts—instant whimsy and intrigue. The building had served as inspiration for many Instagram and Pinterest posts over the years.
She was admiring the view when her phone chimed. A reminder from the sales manager to share a new dessert menu before she took her next breath. She shot her gaze to the sky and opened her car door. The brisk air assaulted her senses, and she drank in the scents of pine and melted chocolate fanning from The Candy Manor. Only one car aside from hers sat in the parking lot. It wasn’t her grandparents’ van.
“Huh. Strange.” She shrugged and tossed her purse on her shoulder.
It was nearly four o’clock in the afternoon, and the sun was dipping behind the horizon, casting shadows over the tall pines. Her boots crunched against the silver snow, and she padded up the porch stairs. Kayla stomped her feet on the welcome mat, removing the snow and salt clinging to the tread of her boots. The bell chimed as she twisted the brass handle and stepped inside, and the thick pine floorboards let out a familiar groan. She closed her eyes for just a moment as warmth enveloped her like a bear hug that carried a sugary aroma unique to The Candy Manor.
“Gets me every time too.” A deep voice resonated from behind the cash register, and heat rushed to her cheeks. “That scent doubles sales.”
The man’s smile captured her full attention. It was bright, calming. Sable eyes twinkled with humor, and the warmth crept from her cheeks to the tips of her ears. There was no need to be embarrassed that she’d let down her guard to enjoy the scent and feel of home, but she wasn’t used to being vulnerable. In the kitchen, she was professional and confident, but she rarely stopped to socialize. Her only goal was mastering the next confection. That, and she was a true introvert at heart.
“Now, if only it could be bottled.” She returned his grin, struck again by the little jolt the exchange sent right down to the tips of her toes. He was handsome, yes, but it was more. He had an air of self-assurance and a soothing aura, like he was perfectly content with his life at the current moment.
“That’s an idea the owners might be interested to hear. Name’s Dominick Rowe. Let me know if you need any help.”
“Of course.” Kayla strode over to the register and held out her hand. “You were here the other night when I was talking to Gram. I’m her granddaughter, Kayla.”
He met her outstretched hand, and his dark, smooth skin met hers, warming her pale hands, rough and cracked from working in the kitchen. She kept the handshake brief, partly because sandpaper was softer than her skin at the moment, and partly because her hand tingled where he’d touched her—and it wasn’t at all unpleasant.
“The big city pastry chef.” He grinned again, and for a moment, they just stood there. The only noise filling the cavernous space was a classic Christmas song playing softly from the speakers. Kayla had never been good at small talk or meeting new people. Especially someone as attractive as Dominick. She squirmed under his good-natured gaze. It made her feel like he was in on a secret that she wasn’t. “Your grandparents will be right back. They had to run a few errands, and because we’re meeting to talk business over dinner, I offered to watch the shop so they didn’t have to close early.”
“Business?” She rocked back on her heels. Maybe there was a secret she wasn’t privy to. Her mother had mentioned in one of their rare phone conversations that they’d had a will drafted, but that was last year. Were they being sued? Having financial trouble?
Dominick leveled his gaze. “Business,” he reiterated.
A frustrated huff passed her lips before she could stop it. The finality in his voice both annoyed her and made her appreciate that her grandparents were working with someone who wouldn’t divulge a hint of their affairs.
“They might be your family, but they’re my clients.” He smiled, his easy tone returning. “I’m sure they’ll keep you in the loop.”
“I wouldn’t expect you to tell me.” Her voice held a bite, one she instantly regretted. “I just…worry.”
“They run this place year-round on their own.”
Maybe she was being silly, but his comment hit a nerve. She didn’t need someone reminding her how hard they worked, or that her presence could help to ease some of the workload.
“And do a great job of it.” She tightened her grip on the strap of her purse and inwardly cringed at the defensive edge in her voice. She licked her lips, her mouth suddenly dry.
“Sure do. They’re excited you’re here, though, and it’ll be nice for them to have a second pair of hands through the New Year.” He shifted his weight, then crossed his arms over his chest. She could all but feel the judgment burning down from his gaze.
Her heartbeat was a loud drum, repeatedly sounding in her ears. Her trip would be cut short because of the big New Year’s Eve event that Chef Richard had begged her to return early for, and she hadn’t told Gram and Gramp yet.
She clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth. “They’d have all the hands in town if they’d only ask.”
He pressed his lips into a fine line, and his shoulders became more rigid than they’d been a minute ago. “They’re proud.”
“I know. They’re my grandparents.” She mirrored his stance, crossing her arms over her chest, and felt totally ridiculous.
She was being silly. This guy was helping Gram and Gramp out, and she was acting put off by his statements. Possessive and remorseful. This was her problem, not his. Hadn’t she just been thinking about her lack of social skills? Her New Year’s resolution had to be to learn to interact with people and to not be so gosh darn prickly. And for heaven’s sake, to go on a date. It shook her that she instantly pictured dinner by flickering candlelight with none other than the infuriating man standing behind the counter. The worse part was, he was only frustrating her because she knew her visits to Hollybrook were few and far between.
Once she had graduated college, her parents had been absent even more frequently—not that they had been present much during her childhood. She should be in Hollybrook, but the need to make her own mark beyond the shadow of The Candy Manor had been too compelling to ignore. That and a liberal dose of guilt. Her grandparents had made room in their hearts and their homes to raise a young child, had invested all their free time into making sure she was healthy and happy. She’d watched them work endless hours to make the business a success and hoped that someday they’d enjoy a relaxing retirement together. It wasn’t until her dad mentioned that someday the sale of the manor would give them financial stability in their senior years that she stepped away from the business. Her grandparents would never let her buy the place at market value. Not that she’d be able to afford it. There was no way she was standing in front of her loved ones’ futures. It was easier to make people believe that she wasn’t so different from her vagabond parents after all, and so she had left town as soon as she shed her cap and gown.
The shrill sound of her cellphone ringing cut through the tension-laced air. She immediately lifted it from her coat pocket and nearly sighed in relief at the screen.
“Work. I have to answer this,” she said, already lifting the phone to her ear.
“Of course. I’m sure you have important things to take care of.”
A retort was on the tip of her tongue, but she squashed it and turned toward the door. She’d take the call and use the short walk to her grandparents’ house to burn off some steam. Hopefully, this was the last she’d see of Dominick Rowe during her visit.
End of Excerpt