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Nico Rossi wasn’t one to let anything stand in his way. Not Christmas, not his brother’s wedding, not the very polite yet firm no that Cressida Cormac had given him. This was his season, his time to prove he hadn’t lost his edge, and no one said no to him—not for long.
“I’m afraid to ask why you are wearing a Santa hat but smiling like Satan,” Jock said.
Jock was his older brother and soon to be married to Last Stand’s premier chef Delilah Corbyn. As the youngest of the Corbyn sisters and the only one to go for a big wedding, her parents were pulling out all the stops. The fact that the big event was to occur on Christmas Eve hadn’t deterred them. They had planned an entire month’s worth of festivities. Nico as best man was expected to be here for all of them. To which he’d readily agreed. Delilah was the best thing to happen to Jock since his brother had won the Perfect Bite cooking competition and become a celebrity chef. He liked his future sister-in-law and loved his brother.
But he couldn’t take an entire month off from work—not now when two of his employees had left just before Thanksgiving, poaching some of his biggest clients and launching their own brand management company. Nico needed a comeback and right now everyone wanted to sign Cressida Cormac aka Weaving Goddess, who was the hottest thing on the internet. Everyone wanted to book her on their TV show, have her go live online with them and buy her incredible, one-of-a-kind baskets.
Nico had the edge on the other bastards as he was in her hometown for the entire month. And let’s face it Christmas was his time to shine. He was planning to convince Cressida to put her business in his hands.
“I don’t think I look like Satan,” he said, glancing at himself one more time in the ornate mirror that perfectly fit his mother’s over-the-top ‘palace’ interior design. “Just more of a charming St. Nick. Like I know how to fill your stocking.”
“Still sounds like there is something in it for you,” Jock said.
“When isn’t there?” Nico responded. “There’s always something in it for everyone, else why would people do deals?”
“To build community,” Jock said.
He shot his brother the bird and heard a tsking sound from the curving marble staircase with ornate turned iron spindles. He glanced up to see his sister Angelica coming into the large foyer of their parents’ recently renovated home in Whiskey River, Texas.
Angelica looked a lot like their mom had when she was younger with her thick blondish-brown hair and the fall of bangs over her heart-shaped face. She habitually wore her long hair pulled back in a high ponytail with two curly strands framing her face. She had on a high-necked sweater and a pair of jeans and Italian leather boots. His sister definitely didn’t look like she fit into Whiskey River.
Angelica had had a time of it lately with a viral video of her berating a member of her staff at her flagship store in New Orleans, making her need to lie low. So she’d retreated to their parents’ home and decided to open a new boutique with her business partner and their cousin Cosima.
“Looks like someone is going to have a good Christmas,” Angelica said with a forced smile.
“I am,” Nico promised. “You doing okay?”
“When aren’t I?” Angelica teased. “What’s with the Santa hat?”
Jock nudged him as if to say ‘see, I told you.’
“I’m going to talk to Cressida Cormac today. I’m trying to convince her that her company will be safe in my hands. I thought the hat made me seem charming.”
Angelica shook her head. “Um, I guess maybe. But not really.”
“What? Thanks for that,” he said, looking back in the mirror. With the black Hugo Boss suit, red shirt and matching tie, he’d cultivated a look that he thought projected success. He’d been born into a wealthy family where he was encouraged to work and find his own path. Which he had in brand management and marketing. He’d made his first million while still in college and had leveraged that early success into one of the largest companies in the country.
Cressida’s basket business was perfectly situated for a move to the next level. She was poised to go big-time, already The Oprah Magazine had highlighted her, and Southern Living magazine had called her baskets an instant classic—honestly, the next step was sell-ins to large retailers. But she’d resisted. Sending back polite emails that said she was good where she was.
His calls were always sent immediately to voicemail and a part of him admitted that it was as much her rejection of him as it was her reluctance to move her company from a small one-woman operation to a large money-making chain that had him stumped. To Nico it seemed like fate had stepped in to lend him a hand.
Despite what his siblings were saying, Nico shone during Christmas. He loved the season of giving. He had a generous spirit and that part of him wanted to see Cressida succeed. He thought that maybe his corporate image was keeping her from saying yes. Once she met the man…once she met Christmas Nico, then she’d find it hard to resist him.
“Is it the suit?” Nico asked. He kind of saw the Satan thing with the red shirt. Combined with his dark hair, and olive-colored skin, he definitely looked like temptation.
“No. I think it’s that you don’t look soft and cuddly. More like you are trying to lead someone to the naughty list.”
“I can’t help that I’m sinfully good-looking,” Nico said wriggling his eyebrows at them.
“Oh, ho,” Jock said. “Who said that?”
“Everyone says that about him,” Angelica piped up. “Whiskey River socialites haven’t stopped talking about Nico since Boots & Bangles in the spring. In fact, Mama has a few accidental meetups planned for both you and Ollie.”
“We’ll see about that. Do you think this works, Angel?” he asked his sister. “I want Cressida to see the real side of Rossi Management. Know that she’s not going to have more success by going with anyone else. Not the corporate side. I’m trying to be more down-to-earth.”
Jock laughed. “You’ve never been that. But now that I know what you’re going for. Yeah, the hat works. Sorry I called you Satan.”
“No, you’re not,” Nico said. He and Jock were always needling each other and honestly, that was what he needed. Here in Whiskey River with his family around him, he didn’t have to be ‘on’ all the time. And he could shake off the sense of betrayal he’d felt when Les and Phil had left. He could stand in front of a mirror and fiddle with this hat and no one would worry he was losing his edge.
But was he?
He didn’t dwell on that as he got into his candy-apple red Porsche 911 and drove toward Cressida’s place on the outskirts of Whiskey River. He knew her refusal to work with them was one of the many losses that had piled up this year. The company was still turning a large profit, but he had wondered if brand management was a young man’s game and now that he was over thirty, he might need to make some changes.
The things that used to resonate with him no longer did. He was maturing and evolving, but he wasn’t sure his audience was. And this worried him, but he didn’t want to admit it. Never show fear. He was going to charm Cressida Cormac, bring her business into the fold and everyone in the brand management world would know he was back.
He parked in front of her charming early 1900s Texas home. The sign out front read, Weavers’ Cottage. The house was white with wood siding and a large, covered porch that spanned the entire length of the house. There was a pitched roof over the front door, which was made of a rich mahogany and had a huge glass pane in it. The steps were lined with local sandstone. There were two Kennedy-style rockers to the right of the front door and a swinging bench to the left.
But no Christmas decorations at all. He was surprised because most of the town was already decked out for the holiday. He took the basket of warm-from-the-oven cranberry and white chocolate muffins and chocolate chip hazelnut cookies that Jock had baked for him and then got out of the car and went to knock on her door.
Time to do what he did best: wow her.
Cressida Cormac really hated Christmas. She wasn’t overtly mean or grinchy to anyone about it. She just did her best to keep her head down and get through the season every year.
It was even worse this year since the videos she’d made for her online social media accounts had gone viral. Seemed like everyone from Oprah to Drew Barrymore to Southern Living magazine wanted to talk to her. She’d done a series of remote guest spots on the national morning news shows and since then her phone and her email box had been inundated with people who wanted to help her develop and manage her brand.
She highly regretted ever doing the shows. But she knew half of the reason was that she hated change. And her baskets…well they were so much a part of her. She hated to give anyone a glimpse into her life.
The other half…well the ping of the doorbell interrupted her introspection just in the nick of time. She glanced at the app on her phone that showed her who was waiting. St. Nick?
A tall, inarguably handsome man with a gift basket and a Santa hat. His jaw was strong and square; he had a quick smile as if he knew she was checking him out. A light dusting of stubble was on his chin, but it just made him look dashing.
She glanced more closely at the screen and realized she recognized him. She walked to her desk and fumbled through the many business prospectuses that had been mailed to her and found his. Rossi Brand Management.
His company had been pestering her to put Weaving Goddess in their hands. She had thought that living in Texas Hill Country—in the smallish town of Whiskey River—would keep her safe from the world. She’d said no as kindly as she could, but this was…well something else.
Why was he here?
At Christmas. Didn’t everyone take the month off to celebrate and be with family? Why wasn’t he?
She simply didn’t have the wherewithal to be nice. The one time of year when she was simply holding herself together as if she were a basket made of daisies and weeds instead of willow.
He rang the doorbell again and she pushed the button on the app that allowed her to speak to him.
“Hello, may I help you?”
“Hello, yourself. I’m here to see Cressida Cormac.”
“This is she, but I’m not expecting anyone,” Cressida said, firmly ignoring the fact that Nico had a deep voice that reminded her that as much as she might pretend she liked her celibate life, men still turned her on.
“I’m Nico Rossi of Rossi Brand Management. Is it possible we could speak face-to-face? I’ve brought a peace offering and it is the festive time of year.”
She groaned. Of course, he had. He looked like Christmas on steroids. She told herself the only reason she was even still debating letting him in was that she was stuck on her latest basket.
All of the attention combined with this time of year, combined with her parents pushing for her to stop letting the past rule her life were making her…well, not creative. “Why are you dressed like the grown-up version of a mall Santa?”
“Am I? Just trying to be festive. Is the hat too much?” he asked.
“Yes. I’m not really in the mood to chat,” she admitted.
The video doorbell app had made her feel like she was insulated from him. Like this conversation wasn’t taking place a few hundred feet apart. Her in her workshop at the back of the house, him on the porch.
“Well, I hope to change your mind,” he said. “I think one of my junior brand managers has been in touch with you. I wanted to stop by and talk to you about your concerns and maybe show you that there is a human side to our business.”
The human side? She couldn’t help but smile at the way he said it. And it was okay to smile while she was safely inside her home. The human side was exactly what she wanted to avoid. Her baskets had started out as a way to rehabilitate after the car accident had left her broken. She’d had to relearn everything. How to walk, how to talk…and how to—no. She wouldn’t let herself go there.
“It’s not that I don’t think you’re human,” she said.
“Phew, that’s a relief. I see you have two rocking chairs on the porch. How about if we sit out here and just chat?” he persisted.
She knew from the multiple emails, phone calls and DMs on her social accounts that his company didn’t give up when they wanted something. Given that he had launched it, she was pretty sure that was a top-down attitude. She looked at the reeds she had soaking for a basket commission she had. She had fifteen minutes until they’d be pliant enough for her to start working with them.
“I can give you ten minutes, Mr. Rossi, no more,” she told him as she opened the front door.
“Perfect,” he said.
Up close she saw he had thick dark eyelashes, which framed his impossibly blue eyes. He had classic Roman good looks with a well-defined jawline and a blade of a nose. His mouth was firm, and she suspected could be forbidding but when he smiled, he…he almost took her breath away.
She was a moment from stepping back inside and closing the door. She wasn’t about to do this. Not now, not at Christmas and not with this man. She didn’t know why she was suddenly noticing a man and feeling all these things but didn’t want to go there again. Not with him or any other man for that matter.
“Should we sit down?” he asked, gesturing to the rocking chairs.
No, she thought. But then she remembered how afraid she’d been after the accident. How she’d spent each day locked in her home, hiding from life. The sudden glare of the spotlight was almost erasing all of the hard work she’d done to recover. She didn’t hide anymore, and she wouldn’t let Rossi and his damned hot body and sexy smile force her to backtrack on the progress she made.
She stepped outside, double-checking her door was unlocked, and walked to the rocking chair farthest away. Inhaling his spicy, outdoorsy aftershave and noticing the faint five-o’clock shadow on his jaw. Up close she noticed that his eyes were even more brilliant than they’d seemed before.
Cress. Stop this. Now.
“I’m sure you are here to follow up on the last message I exchanged with Laura. As I mentioned to her, I’m really happy with my business as it is. I think part of the appeal is the fact that everything I create is handmade, and each piece is unique. I don’t want to lose that.”
She couldn’t. Making baskets had been her way back to life and she didn’t want to let any of that out of her control. And no matter how sexy and attractive Nico Rossi was, she wasn’t about to give up any of her hard-earned sanity to him.
She needed the baskets and going big wasn’t part of the plan. Not now or ever. She knew her therapist would say that she was refusing to move forward from the accident, but she didn’t care, which was why she’d stopped seeing the therapist. She was functioning, she left her home, and she was making a living. Anything other than that didn’t matter.
End of Excerpt