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Christmastime was alive in the artsy town of Northampton, Massachusetts. If the glittering lights winding up the trees or the scent of peppermint mocha from the local coffeehouse wasn’t enough of an indicator, the weather certainly was. It was freaking cold, but it was hard to care about rosy cheeks and chilly toes when the downtown shops were glowing with holiday cheer.
Grace McGovern’s teeth chattered as she crossed the redbrick street with nearly as many shopping bags as her best friend and roommate, Beth Harris.
“Remind me again why we don’t do our holiday shopping in August?” Beth grumbled, knotting her scarf more tightly around her neck.
“Because then we’d miss out on all of this.” The bags swayed on her arms as she gestured widely at the snow globe around them. Brick-and-mortar shops, each more unique than the next, lined the streets offering one-of-a-kind treasures from local artisans. Cheerful window displays made Grace’s heart swoon with the magic of Christmastime.
“Frostbite?” Beth raised a brow, but smiled all the same.
“Oh, come on. You love it just as much as I do.” She gave her friend a playful hip bump as they continued to walk through the snowy streets. Grace stopped to peer into the florist’s window display where a thick bed of holly mingled with pine-accented roses. Golden ornaments made it all come together with a dash of elegance.
“No one loves the holidays as much as you do.” Beth looped her arm through Grace’s and gave a gentle tug. “Come on, let’s stop into the jewelry store before it closes.”
Wind tangled in her hair as thick flakes floated down from the sky like feathers from a burst pillow. She breathed in the fresh air, loving the crisp and clean snap to it. “I know, I know. I was the one who was late coming from work.”
“How is work?” Beth asked, gripping the shop’s door handle. The bells hanging on the door clinked together as they stepped inside and stomped their boots on the welcome mat. A glorious rush of heat enveloped them in the toasty-warm store. All of the glass displays were hand painted in lace patterns that looked like frost forming at the corners of the cases. Silver ornaments and tiny lights dripped from the ceiling like icicles.
“Hmm. It’s been an eventful week—kidney stone blogs for a urologist and a few press releases to bury some unflattering news about a selectman in our neighboring town.”
“Who knew marketing could be so glamorous?” Beth laughed, then her blue eyes widened, and she rubbed her hands together. A sure sign that Hawk-eyes had spotted the perfect gift for someone.
Grace followed her across the room, luminous treasures catching the overhead lights, casting rainbows in every direction.
Beth admired a long pendant necklace. “Maybe if you took on fewer clients, you’d have time to write a second book.” This again.
“You know I can’t resist the lure of writing snappy secondhand car ads. Besides, I don’t have another book in me. That was just for fun.” She shrugged under her friend’s intense gaze.
“Fun that became a mass-market best seller.” Beth rolled her eyes to the ceiling.
“Thanks to all those forlorn daters out there.” She busied herself looking at a pair of dangling reindeer earrings. They were so outrageous, they made her laugh.
“Seriously. Why can’t I meet a guy who will sweep me off my feet with The Twelve Dates of Christmas?” Beth’s pink lips puffed into an indignant pout.
“Because it’s entirely fictional. And besides, you have Jim, who is quite lovely by the way.” She loved working in marketing, but a few years ago she’d gotten the itch to write a Christmastime romance novel. One where the heroine is enthralled by the hero’s downright inspiring, thoughtful, and well, totally not real-life date ideas. Readers ate it up like a bag of Lindor chocolate truffles. The experience was fun, but she’d decided after the fourth round of revisions with her editor, she preferred reading books over writing them.
“Which reminds me, I have to get back to the apartment,” Beth said, checking her watch. “Jim’s stopping by when I get out of work.” She fiddled with a pulled string on her scarf, and Grace’s lip twitched. Who would’ve guessed that Beth—the woman who had nerves of steel and bulldozed through anything that stood in her way—would be riddled with nerves over a man? She was happy her friend had finally met her match.
“I still need to pick up a few last-minute Christmas gifts.” Grace followed her up to the cashier to chat while Beth paid for her purchase. “Should I make myself scarce when I return?” She smiled, unable to resist teasing Beth just a bit. Jim was Beth’s brother’s BFF and the person she was never supposed to fall for. Whoops.
“Oh, shush.” Beth elbowed her as she removed her wallet, making Grace laugh.
“Sorry. I can’t help it.” After they thanked the shop owner, they exited through the glass door. The whoosh of frigid air was pins and needles against her face.
“Sure you want to brave the cold? Feels like its dropped below zero.” Beth rubbed her hands up and down her arms, face contorted in discomfort.
Grace tapped on her phone to look at the time. Shoot. Only a half hour before the store she needed to get to closed. “Yeah. I love this stuff. See you back at the apartment in an hour or so.” They went their separate ways, Beth to their apartment on the next block while Grace rushed to the toy store. Her boots fluffed up the powdery snow as she dashed to Toy Town, a super cute kids’ store on the corner of Main Street. Her younger sister, Nora—much younger—still lived at home as a first grader should. Nora loved the heck out of these plastic beasts that extricated sparkly slime, and she was ready to rise to the occasion of best sister by getting her the latest blind box. The big surprise was how your slime would be revealed—an explosion of sewer sauce or a flying snot rocket. Gag.
The doorbell chimed and sugar-scented heat enveloped her. The source of the delicious smell was frosted cookies set out for shoppers. There were only a couple left on the plate. She shouldn’t, but she hadn’t eaten dinner after all. She snagged a treat in one hand—she had walked across the street—and looped a shopping basket around her forearm.
“Hey, we’re closing in twenty-five.”
She spared a glance toward the sullen voice to see a circa 2012 Justin Bieber lookalike. His arms were crossed over his varsity football sweatshirt, hip cocked against the checkout desk.
“Great. Thanks.” She took a bite of the cookie and picked up her pace so someone—no names—wouldn’t get their jockstrap in a bunch. She started at the far corner and went up the aisle.
A man standing in the middle of the carpeted row let out a labored sigh and pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose, only to have them slide back down. Cute. Totally out of his element. His dark hair fluffed out at odd angles, like he’d raked his hands through it too many times. And his clothes…well, matching wasn’t included in his packet of man skills. Right now there was a coordinating conundrum of epic proportion—gray dress pants and a khaki-colored shirt. His bottom half said board meeting, while the top half said safari exploration. Perhaps he was a bit colorblind. He was tall, with at least a foot on her, which wasn’t too hard when you barely reached five foot one in heels. He picked up a baby doll, examined it like it was a tissue sample from another planet, and returned it to the shelf. Poor guy. She brushed off her jacket to make sure no crumbs had settled there and cleared her throat to alert him of her presence.
“Guess you’re not looking for Really Wets Winnie, huh?” she asked, glancing at the doll’s packaging.
“Huh? Oh, no. I’m not.” Another sigh escaped from his lips, and she couldn’t stop the little pang of pity from sparking in her chest.
“Well, what are you looking for?” she asked, smiling as he fished through his coat pocket and pulled out a scrap of paper.
“Pixie Princesses—more specifically ‘Enchanted Water’ and ‘Blooming Blossom’ editions. Guess I’m out of luck.” His shoulders sagged slightly. His body language was so comical she nearly laughed. Still, he was pretty darn handsome in a cute-nerd sort of way and looked like he’d rather be anywhere else in the world than the toy shop.
“No, you’re just in the wrong aisle.” She stepped closer, catching the fresh, clean notes of his aftershave.
“Oh, you work here? Thanks. I couldn’t find anyone earlier.” The relief in his voice was audible, and he relaxed a fraction.
Was this guy for real? She was wearing a winter coat and boots. “You mean Captain Sunshine didn’t offer to lend a hand?”
“Ah, nothing.” He didn’t catch her sarcasm. She reached into her jacket pocket to peek at her cell phone. Eighteen minutes. “Just a last-minute holiday shopper like you. Come on, we’re headed to the same destination.” She gestured down the aisle with her hand, and he fell into line beside her. Who knew what would happen to him if she didn’t take him under her wing?
“I figured I could get them through Amazon Prime, but when I went to order this morning, they were out of stock. I can’t disappoint my two nieces.”
“Don’t look so defeated yet. My sister likes that set too. Almost as much as her slime beasts, but they are popular,” she said, waving her hands as she spoke, even with the cookie and basket still in her grasp. They walked along the shop’s back wall until they reached the aisle with the collectibles.
“How old is your sister?” he asked, scanning the shelves with the most vibrant green eyes she’d ever seen.
“Seven. Her birth was immaculate conception though.” She was happy to have a sibling, but she didn’t want to think of all the gory details that might’ve transpired right down the hall from her bedroom.
The man beside her laughed. The sound reverberated off the walls and warmed through her like hot chocolate. His wide shoulders shook beneath his winter coat. She liked to make people smile, even at her own expense. She especially liked the way the stranger’s Adam’s apple bobbed along his throat, and the dimples that popped in his cheeks when he grinned like that. Super cute.
Too bad she was on a dating hiatus. It was for the best though. Her last date six months ago had taken her to a cheap steakhouse and asked if she could finish the Cowboy’s Blue-Ribbon flank steak—free if you consumed the whole sixteen-ounce slab. He wouldn’t have to pay, and she could get her picture on the wall. Not happening. She had declined the case of the meat sweats and a second date. The event described her romantic life to a T. Nonexistent. She just wanted to find what her parents had. After all these years, they were still deeply in love, and her dad was super romantic—always surprising her mom with the sweetest gestures and dates to let her know he cared.
“You’re funny.” He stretched out his hand. “I’m Owen Ellis. Thanks for helping me out. Sadie and Selina will appreciate it.”
“Grace McGovern.” She clasped his hand in a quick shaking motion. “Don’t thank me yet though. The shelves look a bit sparse, and we’re on a time crunch.” She started taking down boxes of dolls and other packaged items on the display. Usually people didn’t put things back in the right space. She’d leave it nicer than she found it, despite Bieber’s foul disposition.
Grace let out a victory whoop when her hand closed around a pink box. “Blooming Blossom.” She handed the package behind her without looking and frowned. There weren’t any other boxes like it, and he still needed one more. “Looks like it’s the last one.” She stood on her tiptoes to reach the gift for her sister, and suddenly he was right behind her, lending a long arm to remove the slime beasts from the top shelf.
“Thanks all the same. One down, one to go.” His eyebrows rose as he looked at the slime beasts package. “Those do what?” He crinkled his nose, and she chuckled.
“The big reveal is whether they poop or snot out the slime. If you get super lucky, your beast will toss its cookies. That means you’ve got an ultra-rare on your hands.” She pointed to that little detail on the package.
“How is that lucky?” He shook his head incredulously, looking totally befuddled by the gift.
“They’re all the rage among the elementary school population.” She skirted to the side to allow a woman escorting a trio of excited children to pass: a parade of puffed coats, red cheeks, and pom-pom topped woolen hats. “I guess body humor will never not be funny.”
“Looks messy,” he said, lifting his chin toward the package. His eyes twinkled with humor as he rocked back on his heels.
“Ah, well.” She sighed. “We throw plastic covers over anything we hold dear.”
His lips twitched. “What happened to the run-of-the-mill jack-in-the-box?” He shook his head, feigning dismay.
She shrugged. “At least the world has Pixie Princesses. Come on, let’s see if someone put more in another aisle by mistake.” When they didn’t find any others, she went to the counter, unable to give up on the mission to help this nice uncle find the toy his other niece wanted.
“Hi. We were hoping you might have an Enchanted Water Pixie.” The look the Bieber wannabe cast her was that of total disdain.
He shrugged, glancing at his watch. “Yeah, probably.”
“Okay,” she said when he didn’t make any attempt to move. “So can you get it for us?”
“Listen, we close in ten minutes, and it’s out back, so you’ll have to return another time.” He tossed his hair, even though it was cemented in place by gel.
“Unless the ‘out back’ you’re referring to is the land Down Under, I don’t think it will take ten minutes to walk to the back room.” She echoed his stance, arms crossed, hip cocked. The kid rolled his eyes and turned to the door directly behind him. Not exactly a ten-minute walk.
“You know you’re kind of a bully, right?” Owen whispered, leaning slightly toward her. Whatever scent he was wearing made her want to bury her face in the material of his shirt. A hint of balsam. Maybe citrus.
“You’ll thank me in five minutes.” His smile grew wider, the thump of her heart faster. She was used to getting what she wanted. Convincing businesses of the marketing packages that would lead them to their goals wasn’t for the faint of heart, but she was up to the challenge, and to this day not one of her clients had regretted spending a little extra to get results for their product or business.
She wasn’t sure when dimples had become so dazzling, but it was her new favorite feature of the opposite sex. Or maybe he just wore them well.
End of Excerpt