Savannah Taylor loved Felicity’s Ball, Whiskey River’s annual Christmas charity ball. The event was held in a converted barn on the grounds of the Harwood Inn, a short distance from town, and the barn was beautifully decorated. Even though Savannah knew what to expect, the ballroom decorations took her breath away. Lights twinkled throughout, giving the huge ballroom a fairy-tale air. Fireplaces resided at either end of the room, their mantels decorated with garlands and colorful ornaments. A huge Christmas tree was centered against a wall with gaily wrapped presents brought by the guests for needy children placed beneath it.
There was seating at tables covered with red or white tablecloths, gold and silver centerpieces with white roses on each one. Tall tables were scattered around the beautiful polished wood dance floor for people to place food and drinks on, or to cluster around and talk.
Large food tables with gleaming white tablecloths were set up on either side of the Christmas tree, loaded with a variety of delicious finger foods, hors d’oeuvres and desserts. Three bars were placed strategically around the room, with ticket tables set up nearby.
For Savannah, this year’s ball was different from previous ones. First of all, her ex-fiancé was there with his new fiancée. Savannah couldn’t begrudge him happiness with another woman. After all, she’d been the one to break the engagement—after she put off the wedding three times. She’d finally realized that while she cared about Brandon, she didn’t love him like she should. She’d already been through one divorce. She had no intention of going through another.
Savannah’s best friends, Avery Burton and Rachel Wood, were also part of the event committee. In fact, they were the ones who’d convinced her that being in charge of operations was right up her alley. After all, Savannah was the office manager for Whiskey River Construction. She could do that sort of thing in her sleep.
But the job had been harder than she’d anticipated, even though she thought everything would work out all right.
Avery was a co-chair of the ball, in charge of promotion, entertainment, and the silent auction. Avery was tasked with finding a band who would play free of charge, and celebrities who would attend. Logan Calloway, local boy turned famous movie star, was Avery’s boss. Somehow Avery had convinced him to not only attend the ball, but to be her co-chair.
Their other friend, Rachel, was catering the event and had planned to stay behind the scenes, but Avery and Savannah had nixed that idea. Avery had presented Rachel with a beautiful emerald-green long, fitted dress just that afternoon and between them they’d convinced Rachel she had to show up and not hide behind her chef’s uniform. Like Savannah and Avery, Rachel’s public presence at the ball was necessary. Besides, it was about time Rachel did something fun.
Savannah left the ballroom and ducked into the chef’s kitchen to check on Rachel. Finding her still in her chef’s clothes, Savannah said loudly, “Rachel! You promised you’d be ready and the guests will be here in an hour or less. Don’t even think about backing out.”
“I’m coming as soon as I can change. Some of us are working.” She held up her floured hands. “I’ve got a million things to take care of here.”
Rachel shrugged and changed the subject. “You look great, Savannah. That color is perfect on you. And the dress suits you.”
“Thanks.” She smoothed her hands down over the soft layers. “I thought it did.” It should, she thought. She’d spent a small fortune on her dress and by God, she was not going to waste it. Savannah glanced down at the beautiful red chiffon and smiled. While she wasn’t exactly a clotheshorse, she loved pretty clothes. And shoes. Never forget shoes. Her dress had a fitted, strapless red bodice, molded to her body, then flared out a little above her knees to fall in ripples and waves to the floor.
“Brandon will be eating his heart out,” Rachel said. “Is he here?”
“Yes, with his new fiancée. I saw them together and believe me, he’s not thinking about me.”
Rachel winced. “I’m sorry. I realize you called it off but still, it must be hard to see him with someone else.”
Savannah shrugged. “It’s easier now that a few months have passed. We wouldn’t have been happy together. And he’s a nice guy who deserves a good woman.”
“I’ve never met her but I’ve heard Joanie is very nice.”
“That’s what I hear too.” She waved her hand, not about to let Rachel distract her from her purpose. “But enough about that. Come with me.”
“Why?” Rachel asked suspiciously.
“Because I’m going to help you get dressed. I’ll even do your hair and makeup.”
“Oh, Savannah, that’s sweet of you, but—”
Savannah grabbed her friend’s arm and steered her out of the kitchen and toward the stairs. Knowing their friend, Avery and Savannah had set up the “Bride’s Room” to serve as Rachel’s dressing area as well as a place to hold other things they might need. “You can thank me later. And don’t you dare touch me with those hands. Go shower. And don’t dawdle.”
Grumbling, Rachel acquiesced.
Her friend was going to look fabulous. It wouldn’t be hard, Savannah thought, gathering her makeup brushes. Rachel was a very pretty woman, whether she was all decked out or wearing jeans and a sweatshirt. Or her chef’s uniform, which she wore most of the time. Soon, Rachel was dressed, made-up and ready to go. “My work here is done,” Savannah announced. She turned Rachel around to look in the mirror. “You look amazing.”
“I wouldn’t go that far,” Rachel said. “But I look pretty good.”
“You look great and don’t forget it,” Savannah said, leaving her.
Savannah was in charge of operations, so she had been given the task of officially opening the ball. A half-hour after the ball began, Savannah stepped up onto the stage and tapped the microphone to get everyone’s attention.
“Welcome to Felicity’s Ball!
“I wanted to take a moment to talk a little about the history of Felicity’s Ball. Beginning in the early 1900s, the Harwood family hosted an annual Christmas ball. The gala was canceled in 1918 after Drew Harwood’s fiancée, Felicity Blanchard, died the night before the ball. Drew’s new love and later wife, Audra Donaldson, helped the family to revive the annual ball in 1919 in honor of Felicity. The family hosted the event as a Christmas ball for many years.
“Then, after World War II, the Women of Whiskey River Service Organization, or the WOWR as we call it today, took over the event, making it a charity event to raise money for worthy causes. This year’s beneficiary is the Whiskey River Children’s Home, which I’m sure you all know is a very worthwhile organization. We hope you all enjoy yourselves and be sure to bid on the silent auction. We have some wonderful prizes available.”
Breathing a sigh of relief, Savannah stepped down from the stage. The WOWR was a top-rated charitable organization, spending more than ninety percent of its budget on the particular projects it committed to. The Whiskey River Children’s Home was very worthy, and Savannah was proud to be part of an organization committed to supporting worthwhile causes.
Your turn, Avery, she thought, nudging her friend onto the dance floor for the first dance with Logan. They looked awfully cute together.
About an hour into the ball, Savannah was able to catch her breath. Everything was organized as well as she could make it and the people she’d delegated to do various jobs were doing them. Introductions were out of the way, the first dance had taken place, and so far everything was even running on time. That probably wouldn’t last, but maybe they’d come close to being on time for all the events planned for the evening.
Glancing around, her gaze lit on a man standing a few feet away with his back to her. He was tall, with longish, thick dark brown hair reaching just to the collar of a tux that fitted his broad shoulders to perfection. She wondered if he looked as good from the front as he did from the back. He was talking to Elijah Lane, who’d returned to Whiskey River just recently. Rumor held Elijah had bought land in the area and was looking to build a winery on it.
Seeing Eli reminded Savannah of him and his friends: the “bad boys from the Barrels.” Harlan Sullivan, Logan Calloway, and Eli had quite the reputation in high school. Just as she always did, she pushed thoughts of Harlan Sullivan out of her head as soon as she had them. But Christmastime—even years later—always reminded her of Harlan and what might have been.
Savannah moved away, intending to check with Avery about the timing of the silent auction, and saw her boss, Bill Griffith, owner of the Whiskey River Construction company. Just yesterday Bill had told Savannah and their part-time help, Liv Anderson, that the sale of the company had gone through. He’d been trying to sell it for some time now, ever since he decided to retire. So the fact that it had finally sold didn’t come as a shock. But Savannah wasn’t sure about what this meant for her.
“Good news,” her boss had said. “I’ve sold Whiskey River Construction to Phoenix Homes. You’ve likely heard of them.”
Phoenix Homes? Sure, she’d heard the name, but she didn’t know much about them.
“That big company out of Dallas?” she asked.
“That’s the one.”
“I thought they only built houses.”
“According to the owner, they do other things as well. He’s a general contractor and plans to get going with some commercial projects along with building custom homes.”
“Do we get to keep our jobs?” Liv asked.
Which was exactly what Savannah had wondered. Bless Liv for asking so she didn’t have to.
“Don’t worry,” Bill said, still beaming. “He assured me he’s not planning to fire either of you.”
Savannah wasn’t so sure of that. Was her job as office manager truly safe or would the new owner bring his own staff with him? She and Liv exchanged an uh-oh glance. Liv was probably even more worried than Savannah, since she was part-time. Who knew if the new owner might decide he only needed one employee in the office?
After Bill left them, Liv had said glumly, “I know what I’ll be doing this weekend. Checking out the help wanted ads.”
Savannah had protested but secretly wondered if that wasn’t what she should be doing as well.
But tonight was about the Christmas ball and enabling the Children’s Home, which was bursting at the seams, to add on more living quarters.
“Savannah, you look beautiful,” Bill said when he reached her side.
“Thank you, Bill. Is Poppy here?” she asked referring to his wife.
“Yes, she’s talking with some friends. She said to tell you to come talk to her when you get a chance.” He looked around and asked, “Where’s your date?”
“No date. I’m fancy free.”
He looked pleased at that, though she couldn’t imagine why. “Great. Let me introduce you to the new owner.” He took her arm and led her toward the man she’d noticed a little earlier. “Harlan,” he called out as they approached. “Here’s someone I want you to meet.”
Harlan? Surely not—
Harlan Sullivan turned around.
Harlan Sullivan. Harlan had bought Whiskey River Construction? Harlan would be her new boss?
Oh, hell, no.
Damn, he grew up gorgeous. He looks good. Really, really good.
Idiot. He might look good but he’s probably still the same jerk who—
“Thanks, Bill, but there’s no need for an introduction,” the voice she’d never forgotten said. Deep, smooth and sexy. Like the man. “Savannah and I have known each other since high school.”
“Well, isn’t that handy?” Bill said jovially, unaware of any tension.
But the tension was probably all on her side. After all, Harlan had had no problem dropping her flat years before. Shit. Why couldn’t she speak? She’d imagined this moment a million times over the years. Particularly when she was younger. However, those daydreams had always ended with her crushing Harlan’s heart under her stiletto heels and laughing when he begged her to forgive him.
He did not look in the least crushable.
“We haven’t seen each other in a long time,” Harlan continued. “How have you been, Savannah?”
Savannah read the amusement in his gaze and wanted to punch him. Right in that smiling mouth that used to give the most delicious kisses.
Don’t think about that, you dummy. “You’re the new owner?” she finally managed to spit out.
“That’s right. Phoenix Homes is my company.”
Savannah stood mute. Where was her much-vaunted knack for making snappy comebacks? Where did her ability to think on her feet go? Damn the man—Harlan Sullivan had scrambled her brain.
“Savannah is the best office manager I’ve ever had,” Bill informed him. “You’ll see when you come to the office Monday.”
“I’m sure she is,” Harlan said, still with that amused smile.
“I’ll leave you two single people to get reacquainted,” Bill said, winking at Savannah, and left them.
“Very subtle, Bill,” Savannah muttered, glaring at his back.
Harlan laughed. “Saves me having to ask.”
Savannah was certain her boss thought he was doing her a huge favor. Some favor.
Thank God she’d finally found her voice. “Are you back for good or are you just here for a little while?”
While they were talking, the music had picked up. The band was good, but new and not yet well known. But they’d agreed to perform for free, which was important so as to have the most money possible go to the beneficiaries.
“Let’s dance,” he said as the volume pumped up. He didn’t give her a chance to refuse, but swept her out onto the dance floor.
She soon realized that here was a man who obviously knew what he was doing. Couldn’t he at least have the decency to be a lousy dancer? He hadn’t been so capable when they were young, but they’d only been eighteen and hadn’t danced together much. Some time in the intervening years Harlan had learned the art extremely well. He held her firmly, but not obnoxiously so. Instead of shoving her around on the dance floor, he guided her steps, almost imperceptibly. With one hand on his shoulder and the other clasped in his hand, she was closer to him than she’d been in over a decade.
She glanced up to find him looking down at her with an almost rueful smile. He still had those dimples she’d loved when she’d been a teenager. And his eyes were the same deep green with dark lashes. Eyes that could speak volumes. Eyes that had turned her susceptible teenaged heart to mush.
Realizing she’d been staring at him, she jerked herself back to the present. “What does it depend on?”
“What does what depend on?”
“How long you’re staying in town. You said it depended.”
He smiled again and said, “I’ll be here at least as long as it takes me to finish one project and build another for some friends of mine. Assuming everything works out well, I might move here permanently.”
Permanently? Oh…crap. “I’m surprised. You hardly ever come to town and now you’re thinking of moving here permanently?”
“I come to town more than you seem to think. I do have family here.”
That’s right. His brother and sister and her two kids lived in Whiskey River. “Oh, I guess I just haven’t seen you.”
“We never ran in the same circles, did we?” Harlan said.
“No, we didn’t.” Not that they’d cared. Then.
Being in Harlan’s arms, even for something like a dance, brought back far too many memories. She remembered the excitement of seeing him, of being with him. Looking up into his face, she saw that gorgeous, talented mouth curving upward, reminding her of how he’d looked after he kissed her to within an inch of her life.
Oh, boy. What the hell is wrong with me? And why do I smell lavender? Are they pumping it in through the vents?
They danced in silence for a moment, then she asked him the question she’d worried about since she first heard rumors of the sale. “Are you going to fire me?”
“Why would I do that?”
“That’s what happens in a takeover.”
Harlan looked down at her and laughed, sending her out to twirl and return. “Hardly a takeover. I wouldn’t fire anyone who does his or her job well. And I don’t need Bill to tell me you’re good at your job.”
“You were always smart and capable. I don’t see why that would have changed. Besides,” he added with a grin, “I checked out your work history. That’s easy enough to do with the Internet.”
So, he probably wouldn’t fire her. But could she work with Harlan Sullivan? Seeing him in from a distance once every few years was a whole lot different than being up close and oh so personal with him. Could she let the past stay in the past and not let it interfere with a purely business relationship?
Purely business. Damn. Shallow woman that she was, the fact that he was all grown up and sexy as sin appealed to her. Hell, she’d have to be dead not to notice that.
Avery, who was handling the silent auction, signaled her.
She breathed a sigh of relief. And, if she were honest, disappointment. “Sorry, Harlan. I need to see what Avery wants.”
He let her go. “Dance with me later?”
In answer she simply smiled. She felt him looking at her as she walked away.
The scent of lavender followed her.
Damn, she’s gorgeous. So much for seeing Savannah again, and holding her in his arms, not being a big deal.
Harlan had come back to Whiskey River for a number of reasons. His career in Dallas had been both rewarding and successful. But after years of building high-end houses and little else, he was ready for a change. He wanted to build a variety of things, not just homes. He’d considered moving back to Whiskey River before. So when he heard that Bill Griffith wanted to sell Whiskey River Construction, he began thinking seriously about buying it.
Then his friends Logan Calloway and Elijah Lane decided Whiskey River was the perfect place for a winery and they wanted Harlan as their builder. The three of them had been friends from way back and while they rarely saw each other until recently, they’d kept in touch.
Along with that, his brother Travis and a couple of his friends were expanding Devil’s Rock, the small private airfield near Whiskey River. They’d already expanded the runway so that Devil’s Rock could accommodate a small jet, but Travis, Zack Bannister and Levi Chapman wanted to put in a new terminal and add hangar space, among other improvements. They planned to create an honest-to-God small to midsized, private airport, not just a couple of landing strips in the middle of nowhere, which was basically what they had now.
Finally, Harlan wanted to spend some time with his family—his brother Travis, his sister Laurel, and Laurel’s kids. The one thing that had not been on his agenda was getting involved with Savannah Taylor again.
And then he saw her. In a strapless, long red dress, looking drop-dead gorgeous. Even more beautiful than he remembered. So dazzling she damn near hurt his eyes. Not that it mattered. Even if he’d wanted, he doubted Savannah would go for anything romantic between them.
Harlan and Savannah had seen each other a few times over the years, when they were both in Whiskey River. They hadn’t spoken. The last time he’d actually talked to her was ten or eleven years before. He’d literally run into her coming out of Riva’s Java shop. They’d talked then.
“How are you, Savannah?” Harlan asked.
“Drop dead,” she said.
Great conversation, that.
But hell, that was years ago. And their breakup had happened before that. There was no reason to think there could be anything between them. Of course, it would help if he hadn’t been damn near struck dumb at seeing her again. Luckily, he thought he’d covered his reaction decently.
“Harlan, what the hell is wrong with you, man? I’ve been talking for five minutes.”
Harlan looked at his friend Elijah. “Sorry. I was thinking about something.”
“Or someone,” Elijah said dryly. Harlan lifted an eyebrow. “I saw you with Savannah. Thinking of getting something going there?”
Harlan shrugged. “She’s a beautiful woman.”
“That she is. I hear she’s the office manager for Whiskey River Construction. Is she still going to work for you?”
“I hope so.”
“Wait a minute. You had the hots for her in high school. I remember now. What happened with that? One minute you were hot for her and the next you never mentioned her again.”
His friend looked at him. “What?”
“Shut up.” Harlan walked away, leaving Eli laughing. That was the problem with old friends. They thought they knew more than they really did.
The scent of lavender surrounded him as someone spoke. You should ask her to dance again. You know you want to.
The voice had been distinctly feminine. Harlan looked around, wondering who was speaking, but there wasn’t a soul anywhere near him.
End of Excerpt