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Mia Brooks-French stood before the Christmas tree inside their family bookstore the last Saturday of November, seeing red. Usually, she loved everything about this time of year—the thrill of shopping for just the right gifts, submerging herself in the season’s tastes and smells, and seeing their adorable little town of Bourbon Falls all lit up at night. But sometimes the holidays had a way of bringing out the Scrooges of the world.
After seeing the advertisement they’d received in the mail yesterday, this year’s Scrooge award would be going to fellow independent bookstore Books-A-Plenty in neighboring South Bend. Not only had they recently expanded their flyer distribution to overlap Brooks Books’ territory, but now it seemed they were hosting the same exact ornament-decorating event Mia’s family had put on each of the last five years. Even worse, they were doing it on the same day as the event at Brooks Books.
“Traitors,” Mia growled as she rearranged ornaments on the tree inside their window display. “I thought we indies were supposed to support each other, not steal one another’s ideas and customers. And this is our Bright Minds fundraiser—we’re helping bring cheer to kids at Riley Children’s Hospital, for crying out loud!”
Bright Minds was a campaign she started after a fellow teacher at their local elementary school had a child go through something no child ever should: cancer. Thankfully, after several surgeries, the cancer was successfully removed and her son had remained in remission. But watching her friend’s family make countless trips to Indy, each time struggling to put poor Sampson in his booster seat while he kicked and wailed that he didn’t want to go back, inspired Mia to help, especially during a time of year that should be full of Christmas cheer. So, they’d gathered all the town’s best knitters, bought a boatload of special yarn, and made as many bright and cheery chemo caps as they could by Thanksgiving. The bookstore donated a matching number of new children’s books, bundled them with the caps, and then drove the wrapped presents two hours south to Riley’s in Indianapolis. Now, the kids had something waiting for them besides needles and procedures. It was such a hit with the families there that Brooks Books decided to make it an annual donation event.
But yarn and books cost money, which had been the motivation behind starting the ornament-decorating event. In the past, customers throughout the region had come to decorate clear glass bulbs and support their Bright Minds cause. But if those same people could go to the bigger, fancier Books-A-Plenty, where would that leave next year’s kids at Riley?
Aunt Faye came to stand beside her, having just finished restocking the children’s section. “I’m sure Books-A-Plenty had their reasons. Besides, if it was going to happen any year, this is the one that will hurt us the least. We were blessed to have had a few exceptional months this fall, thanks to the fundraiser. Not everyone has been so lucky.”
“But stealing our ornament-decorating schtick? Come on. That’s just salt in the wound.”
Aunt Faye shrugged. “I’m more curious to find out who their ‘special guest’ will be. Clever of them to build suspense over which best-selling author will be doing a signing that weekend in addition to the decorating.”
“I wish we had an amazing best-selling author lined up. Someone with a huge local following to lure the customers here instead of South Bend.” Mia frowned at the gappy ornament placement on this side of the tree. Clearly, her middle sister, Delaney, had hurried through her assigned section in the wee hours of Black Friday morning. Probably, she’d been eager to get back to bed. And to Isaac. “I guess it’s a good thing I hadn’t made it to Hobby Lobby yet for glass bulbs and acrylic paint. But what are we going to do to raise money for our supplies if we can’t decorate ornaments? It’s a town favorite!”
“We’re not doing ornaments this year?”
Mia looked up to see her sixteen-year-old daughter, Brooklyn, step into the room, cheeks rosy from spending the afternoon outside helping her aunt Delaney at the lot full of freshly cut Christmas trees across the street. So far, no snow had fallen in Bourbon Falls and the temperatures had remained fairly mild. But this was Indiana, which meant that could change at any moment.
“No ornaments? Says who?” Delaney asked, emerging from the hall leading to their back entrance a few steps behind Brooklyn. “We always paint ornaments.”
“Not this year, I’m afraid.” Aunt Faye handed her B-A-P’s flyer as they all huddled around the front register.
“‘Come join us for some holiday spirit’?” Delaney’s eyes narrowed. “Oh, I’ll show them some holiday spirit all right. I should have plenty of red and green spray paint from—”
“No, Delaney,” Aunt Faye said, easing the flyer from her hands. “We had our big fundraiser in the fall. Now it’s time to let Books-A-Plenty have their moment in the spotlight.”
“But they’re right next to Notre Dame,” Brooklyn countered. “So they’re in the spotlight every day. I’m with Aunt Del—this stinks.”
Mia nodded. “Agreed. But since their flyers have already been sent out, it’s up to us to come up with something different to rival their event. Something this town can get excited about that we haven’t done before. Something…I don’t know.”
“Yeah, me neither,” said Del. “Maybe it’s time for a Meeting of the Minds?”
Mia forced a smile. If anyone could successfully brainstorm the perfect new event for their bookstore, it was that group of amazing local women. After all, hosting a regional talent show that had helped save the bookstore a few short months ago had been their idea. Unfortunately, now that the leaky roof crisis was over and Del had finally found herself a man, that same group of women had shifted their focus to finding Mia the next prospect for happily-ever-after. Which she’d done her best to avoid. But if it would help the bookstore come up with another successful event, she would endure an evening or two of their dating scrutiny.
“I’ll send out an invite later,” Mia said. “We can have it at our house Monday evening. Brooklyn and I were already planning to get the house decorated this weekend. Weren’t we, sweetheart?”
Brooklyn, her nose buried in her cell phone, didn’t respond. Mia sighed. Maybe cranking up some holiday music while spending some quality decorating time together would get Brooklyn to unplug and reengage for a while. Mia understood that teens operated differently than when she was this age, but all tech and no talk didn’t seem like the best idea—something she and her daughter sparred about occasionally.
Del gave her a wink from across the way. “I think that’s a great idea. You get the house ready, and I’ll stock up on snacks and booze—er, beverages. Don’t want to give Mrs. Harper an excuse not to come.”
“Nope,” Mia said. “We’re gonna need as many minds as possible to come up with a doable event on such short notice.”
She looked to the Bourbon Falls annual chamber of commerce calendar hanging behind the checkout counter and its listing of dates beneath a picture of their town’s beloved historic train depot blanketed in snow. Two weeks—that’s all the time they had to work with. And while Aunt Faye didn’t seem too concerned about the Bright Minds funds they might miss out on because of the event overlap with B-A-P, Mia refused to sit back and doing nothing.
But what to do?
Her worries were interrupted by the bell over the front door tinkling as a customer walked in. A quick glance at the clock showed Mia it was five minutes after closing. Shoot, they’d gotten so wrapped up in their conversation that they’d forgotten to flip over the OPEN sign and lock the front door.
Hopefully, whoever it was wouldn’t stay long. Mia now had a house to clean and decorate, on top of grading papers and planning for her third-grade classroom’s upcoming holiday party. She left the others to change the sign and lock the front door, hoping to offer a subtle hint to whomever had just walked in.
As she rounded the new releases table, however, Mia had second thoughts about hurrying their newcomer away. He was tall and lean, with chestnut hair and matching stubble on his chin. Jeans hugged his lower body in all the right places, and with no coat on, the way he had the sleeves of his Henley pushed up revealed toned forearms. Sunglasses hid his eyes, and for the briefest of moments, she wondered if he was some kind of celebrity, hiding from the paparazzi.
Especially since this guy could have easily played the stunt double for Ryan Reynolds. The nose wasn’t quite right, though, she decided as she drew closer. Probably, he’d just been sparing his eyes from the brutal, early evening sunset.
Probably-Not-Ryan stood in the entryway, his gaze slowly scanning the store. Looking for something or just curious? Either way, she didn’t plan to let him stay long.
“Welcome to Brooks Books. Is there something I can help you find?”
“Actually, I believe you just did.”
His smile widened, and Mia felt her knees go a little weak. She could only imagine the kind of trouble a smile like that could get a girl into. As opposed to dating as she’d been since her divorce three years ago, there was something about this man that made her momentarily rethink her position on the matter. That hint of spice in his cologne wasn’t helping matters, either. She tried to do a subtle ring check, but his left hand was just out of view.
“Oh?” she asked, wishing he would take off those darned sunglasses so she could get a clear view of his face. Or that he’d carry her off into the sunset. Either would be fine with her in this moment.
Whoa. When was the last time a man had made her feel like that? And from across the room, no less?
“Yes, you see, I was looking for someone.”
Please be me. Please be me.
He removed his sunglasses, and Mia swallowed hard. He’d been sexy with those shades on but was even more striking with them off. Perfect skin stretched across high cheekbones, while that stubble on his chin beckoned her closer. His eyes quickly claimed her attention, though, with their unusual light-brown coloring and flecks of green.
Flecks of green?
There was only one person she’d ever known with eyes like that. Eyes she hadn’t seen in nearly two decades and would have been perfectly content to never see again. Surely, fate wouldn’t drop that arrogant, cocky, overconfident jerk from college into her happy little corner of the world with everything else she had going on right now. She hoped—no prayed—she’d guessed wrong. That it was somebody else, anyone else.
Nope. There’d only ever been one man who could say her name and send her toes curling and hands fisting at the same time:
Alex watched Mia’s smile shift from genuine to forced, reminding him the task ahead would not be easy. Not that he expected it to be, as big a jerk as he’d been to her all those years ago. But ever since seeing her on television this fall, he hadn’t been able to get the woman off his mind.
Oh, sure, he’d tried. Added additional stops along his usual autumn, eastern customer check-in route for Wellington Equipment & Trucking. Spent more time than necessary working on bids and proposals. He’d even attended a silent auction at one of his mother’s charity organizations, just to avoid being home alone with his thoughts. But nothing had worked.
So, he intentionally made a detour as he passed by her hometown tonight, to say what needed to be said. Only then could he truly fulfill the promise he’d made this summer to his dear friend Tom—to live a life with no regrets. And his regrets with Mia were many.
The visit was also a chance to finally prove to himself that the ridiculous crush he’d had on her in college was long gone.
“Why, hello, Alex. What brings you to our humble little corner of the world?” She passed him with her chin in the air to flip over the OPEN sign on their front door. “And five minutes past closing, no less.”
Ouch. He’d said two words and already she was trying to get rid of him.
“Actually, I was passing through the area and remembered your family had a bookstore here.” He shrugged. “Thought I’d stop by and check it out.”
“Really.” Mia folded both arms over her chest. “I’m rather surprised you even know what a bookstore is—it almost implies that you actually know how to read.”
At that, he couldn’t help but smirk. “Read and write, actually. In fact, I make it a point to stop in as many bookstores on my travels as I can. You know, to see if my books made it to their shelves or not.”
“Oh? Did you hire someone to write your memoir?” She glanced briefly toward a cluster of wooden shelves behind her. “I’m not sure we have a section for wealthy jerks of the Midwest.”
Yep, still the same spitfire she’d been back in college. And just as beautiful. Her hair was a little longer than it had been back then, her makeup more subtle. But oh, how those curves still called to him, and her stormy blue eyes slayed him like no other.
The attraction is all in your head, buddy. All in your head.
“I sensed that type of book might be a tough sell,” he said, smiling. “So, I decided to write something a little more interesting. Turns out, there’s quite a market for books featuring American bourbon distilleries. At least, that’s what my agent tells me. So far, only the first two have hit bestseller status. We’ll see what book three does next summer.”
Her jaw dropped, the look absolutely priceless. Rarely if ever had he seen Mia Brooks rendered speechless. However, as entertaining as it was, Alex knew gloating over his newfound fame wouldn’t help further his cause for stopping by. He drew in a deep breath before continuing but was interrupted by a second woman who appeared around the corner.
“Hey, Mi. Did you get rid of our—?” She came to an abrupt stop, her bright-blue gaze darting between the two of them. “Everything okay, Sis?”
Though her hair was much shorter than Mia’s and lighter in color, the family resemblance was striking. No doubt this was one of her younger sisters. He also had no doubt that she was sizing up the situation and debating to what extent she needed to intervene. Alex offered her a gentle smile, hoping to disarm her.
“Of course, Del. I’m just giving Mr. Wellington directions out of town.”
Damn, she really was trying her best to get rid of him.
“O-kay,” Del said, her gaze still wary as she walked away.
That left Alex and Mia alone once more. He kept his distance, not wanting to test his luck on the crush aspect, especially as irritated as she seemed to be by his appearance tonight. It was time to say his piece and head out. But despite spending the last week rehearsing what he might say if he found her here tonight, Alex found himself struggling to string a full sentence together.
“So…it’s been a few years, huh?”
She gave him a flat look. “Yes. Listen, Alex, as much as I’d love to chat, we’re actually closed now, so—”
“I’m here to apologize.”
Finally, his brain decided to get back on track. Come on, speech, don’t fail me now.
Mia’s eyes narrowed. “For what, exactly?”
She wasn’t going to make this easy on him. As awful as he’d been to her back in the day, he probably deserved that. Alex looked to the floor, drew in a deep breath, then met her gaze once again.
“I know that I said and did some things that were mean and mostly uncalled for back in college.”
He offered her an apologetic smile. “Let’s just say I was wrestling with some issues and didn’t handle it as well as I could have. And for that, I’m sorry.”
He’d hoped she would look surprised or maybe even relieved. Instead, Mia remained stoic as she continued to stare him down. After several seconds of the silent standoff, panic crept into Alex’s chest. Would she refuse to accept his apology, even after so much time had passed?
“Why are you really here?” Mia asked.
That was an answer he wasn’t ready to give. “To apologize.”
“Yes, but why now? All of that happened nearly twenty years ago. And don’t even try to tell me it’s been eating at you all this time.”
“I saw you on television a while back.” Which was true, though only a part of his reason. “One of our local news reporters did a live report from Bourbon Falls, highlighting your big fundraiser. Congrats, by the way. It sounded like the talent show was a rousing success.”
Her right shoulder lifted and fell. “We did all right.”
The lights in the back of the store faded to black. Alex took the hint: His time here was up. A small part of him actually felt relieved.
“Anyway, I should probably get going, seeing as you guys are closed and all.” Alex fished a business card from his back pocket. “If you ever want to talk books or feel like catching up, feel free to drop me a call or a text. I promise I’m not that big jerk anymore.”
After a moment of indecision, she stepped forward and took the offered card. “Best-selling author, huh? What are your books about again?”
“It’s a travel series, featuring American distilleries from different parts of the country. Book one highlighted distilleries of the Northeast, book two of the Southeast. I’m just finishing book three, which shines the spotlight on distilleries in the Midwest.”
“Wow. That’s actually sort of interesting. Congratulations on your latest accomplishment.”
“Thank you. I’m actually on my way to South Bend. The manager of Books-A-Plenty contacted me a few weeks ago about doing a book signing for their holiday event.”
Mia’s face darkened. “Of course they did.”
And just like that, her demeaner went from almost civil to loathing him again. No matter, he had said what needed to be said. No more sitting around regretting that he hadn’t tried to make things right. It was time to head out and cut his losses.
“Well, come again when you can’t stay so long, and safe travels to wherever you’re headed.”
She stepped past him to push the front door wide, the scent of cinnamon and vanilla suddenly teasing his senses. In a blink, Alex was that same, smitten nineteen-year-old drowning in an attraction he didn’t know how to navigate.
So much for his theory that enough time apart could smother any crush.
He swallowed hard, rooted to the floor and unsure of what to do next. Beg for the forgiveness she wasn’t granting? Make a run for it?
Haul her in for a kiss that would leave no doubt as to how he’d always truly felt about her?
“Good night, Alex.”
She wanted him to go, but indecision moved him for the door at tortoise speed. He had everything to lose and nothing to gain by walking away. Then again, she’d never been his to lose.
Alex paused before her, waiting in silence until her stubborn gaze reluctantly met his.
“I meant what I said, Mia. I was young and stupid and…and I’m sorry.”
Mia studied him for a long moment, then blew out a sigh.
“Yes, you were young. And stupid!” Alex took a step backward out the door, surprised by the outburst. Mia followed, poking a finger into his chest as they moved. “And cocky and arrogant and—”
She stopped, scanned the sidewalk around them, and winced as she spied an older couple outside the next shop staring. Mia offered them an appeasing smile, then squinted toward a nearby streetlight wrapped in multicolor lights. When she spoke next, though quieter, her tone still carried a frustrated edge.
“But if it’ll help you sleep better tonight, then whatever, apology accepted. Good luck with your book signing, and Merry Christmas.”
With that, she stepped back inside and pulled the door shut behind her. The lock clicked into place, and the only woman who’d ever truly stolen his heart disappeared once again into the depths of Brooks Books. Alex stood beneath a giant artificial snowflake, trying to process all that had just happened.
First, his theory about that crush had, unfortunately, been disproven.
Second, she’d forgiven him.
Mia Brooks, the last person on the planet he deserved forgiveness from, had just granted it. Maybe it was because he never expected it to happen or never thought he’d build up the nerve to face her again, but something unexpected happened to Alex in that moment. The trip he’d hoped would bring him closure instead had filled him with an entirely new and unexpected longing:
A second chance to win her heart.
End of Excerpt