Authors: Cindy Kirk
Only minutes later, the tree stood straight and tall in its stand. Thick and full, the perfectly shaped fir’s pleasant wintry smell filled the room.
Ami stepped back, hands on hips, and studied the tree. “It’s beautiful.”
“Yes.” Beck spoke from behind her. “Beautiful.”
When she turned, she discovered him staring at her, not the tree.
Heat rose up her neck, and despite the new furnace’s warmth, Ami shivered. “Thank you again for helping me.”
“It was my pleasure.” His gaze settled on the box at his feet. “Are the ornaments in there?”
She nodded. “I thought I’d put on Norah Jones and do it up right.”
“Need some help?”
“I don’t want to impose—”
“Hey.” The touch of his hand on hers stilled the words. “I offered because I’d like to help. It’ll be our trial run before we do mine. It’s been a very long time since I’ve decorated a tree.”
“Are you saying you’ve been a scrooge?”
He laughed. “According to Max, I still am. But I’ll have you know, until the past couple of years, I always had a tree. A designer was assigned the chore of decorating it.”
Ami frowned. “Decorating is fun, not a chore.”
He stared at her for a long moment, then smiled. “Tell me what to do.”
“Take off your coat and boots and get comfortable.” Even as she instructed, she sat on the sofa and slipped off the UGGs. “I’ll put on Norah. Then we’ll start on the lights.”
Although Ami’s ornaments were every shape and color, the lights were all a pale pink. When Beck asked why, she told him without a hint of embarrassment that pink was her favorite color. Once the lights were strung, Ami called for a break.
“We just got started,” Beck protested.
“The timer went off.” Ami hurried over to the counter in the kitchen. “It’s snowflake cocoa and candy cane brownie time.”
“In that case”—Beck grinned—“I could use a break.”
Ami asked him to cut two brownies out of the pan while she garnished the cocoa with whipped cream and shards of candy canes.
While they sat at the tiny table across from each other, the pure tones of mellow piano and acoustic guitar enveloped them and brought an air of Christmas magic to the room.
“What’s with the jar?” Beck gestured with his head to where a mason jar sat perched on the counter. Small scraps of green and red paper filled the glass interior.
Ami sipped her cocoa. “It’s my gratitude jar.”
The corner of Beck’s mouth twitched. “A
“That’s right. Each day I write down things I’m thankful for on those little pieces of paper. At the end of the month, I open up the jar, read them, and reflect on the blessings in my life.” Ami rose. “I haven’t done mine for today. We can each do one.”
Beck cleared his throat. “I’m not really into such things.”
Ami ignored him, went to a drawer, and pulled out two small strips of paper. After grabbing two pencils, she handed one to Beck and kept one for herself, dropping the strips in front of each of them. “It doesn’t have to be real wordy.”
For a second she thought he might refuse. Then he bent his head and scribbled something. After carefully folding the paper, he handed it to her. She put hers and his in the jar, then took his hand. “Break time is officially over. We have a tree to decorate.”
The next hour passed quickly. Ami couldn’t remember the last time she’d laughed so much. Beck was easy to be around and had a sense of humor in sync with her own. Once the ornaments were on, with the star at the top, they stood back and studied their masterpiece. Ami’s heart rose to her throat.
tree, she realized, not hers.
He took her hand as she walked him to the door, and she savored the moment of closeness.
“Thanks for all your—”
Before she could finish, he shifted, gathered her close against him, and kissed her softly on the mouth. Then he reached up and touched her cheek, one finger trailing slowly along her skin until it reached the line of her jaw.
Her heart galloped in her chest and her eyes grew wide.
“You were right,” he murmured, those dark eyes never leaving hers.
“Decorating can be fun. With the right person.” He lowered his head, and his mouth found hers again. Then he was gone.
Ami listened to his footsteps on the stairs, then heard the door to the shop jingle open, then close. She hurried to the window and watched him until he turned the corner and disappeared from sight.
Love flooded into her, swamping her, leaving her weak and needy. Ami could no longer deny what was happening. She was falling in love with Beck.
Fears and hopes tumbled together in her head. As she cleaned the kitchen, Ami’s gaze kept straying to the mason jar. Finally she could withstand the temptation no longer. She opened the lid and pulled out the two strips at the top.
On her green one was the name she’d printed:
With her heart in her throat, she slowly opened his red one. Her lips curved. In bold, sure strokes he’d also written a name.
Wednesday evening, Beck turned his Land Rover down the lane leading to the property known as Rakes Farm. More of an orchard than a farm, with five hundred acres of tart cherries and thirty acres of apples and pears, the land had been in the Rakes family since the 1880s. In addition to fruit trees, the estate held a converted barn and an elegant Victorian home, both popular venues for parties and wedding receptions.
This evening, Mayor Jeremy Rakes was hosting a holiday party for Good Hope business owners. Tonight was but a preview of what was to come Friday evening, when Rakes Farm would once again open its doors to the public for another of the Twelve Nights festivities.
Beck couldn’t imagine ever wanting strangers traipsing through his property. The thought of the Victorian home tour, now only ten days away, made Beck flinch. Thankfully, he’d only agreed to open the main level to the public.
Last Friday he’d contacted a vintage furniture store in Sturgeon Bay. The owner had agreed to furnish the main level with period pieces as long as his shop was acknowledged on a prominently displayed placard.
The fact that there would be furniture was reassuring, but as it was a
tour of homes, a Christmas feel was essential. Ami’s offer to assist him with decorations was one he immediately accepted. When she’d mentioned the Cherries were available to lend their expertise, he’d blanched.
Beck would help Ami with the lights and the greenery and whatever else she thought necessary, but he made it clear Eliza and her cohorts were not welcome in his home. He’d softened the refusal by adding that he would find it more enjoyable if it was just the two of them.
The slow smile that widened her lips had warmed him to the core. He’d meant every word. Beck liked her company and felt at ease with her. If Ami were with him tonight, he knew he’d be looking forward to the evening with anticipation rather than dread.
It wasn’t as if he didn’t like Jeremy or any of the other merchants who were sure to be here. But he was around people all day. He’d quickly discovered that in Good Hope, visiting with patrons was as important as what was on the menu.
Though the regular staff had handled the lunch and dinner crowd without any snags today, it felt to him as if something,
, was missing. He’d found himself going to the kitchen to spend a few minutes with Ami only to remember this was one of her days off.
Beck was still considering turning back when the Rakes farmhouse came into view. It was a massive structure three stories tall with a porch that wrapped halfway around the front. Leaded glass above each window and a turret made out of copper, as well as the exterior colors of salmon, green, and yellow, brought a unique quality and charm to this Victorian-style home.
He found himself curious if the inside was as striking as the exterior. Since he’d come this far, he might as well check it out. Nothing said he had to stay all evening. With that thought in mind, he followed the winding drive to a large gravel lot. The amount of available parking was a clear indication the place was more than a family home.
Beck parked beside a sturdy Subaru. Though the lot was far from full, it appeared there was a good turnout. Max would have been here if he hadn’t gone out of town.
Once again he wished Ami had come with him. He’d mentioned the event, but she made it sound as if she wouldn’t be attending, so he hadn’t brought it up again. Lately there’d been something different in the air whenever they were together. It would be easy to label the change as unease, but that wasn’t the right word.
It was more of a watchful waiting, a simmering tension as if neither of them could decide how to deal with whatever there was between them.
That’s why he’d kissed her again last night, to put to bed any awkwardness between them. Oh, who was he kidding? He’d kissed her because he couldn’t keep his hands off her, didn’t want to keep his hands off her.
He understood moving on was natural, and he knew Lisette wouldn’t want him to be alone forever. But a part of him feared it was too soon and meant he hadn’t loved his wife as much as he’d thought.
Still, Ami was a beautiful, fascinating woman, and he couldn’t believe another guy hadn’t snatched her up. When he was around her, he was starting to feel happy and content in a way that he hadn’t been in years.
Tossing the troubling thoughts aside, Beck started up a recently shoveled sidewalk toward the farmhouse. If the swaths of evergreen looped on the porch rail and secured every few feet with red ribbon hadn’t alerted him, the huge wreath on the front door made it obvious this home was ready for Christmas.
He was greeted at the door by a young woman wearing a red skirt, crisp white shirt, and a Santa hat topped with a fluffy white pom-pom. Even if her name hadn’t been embroidered in red script on her hat, Beck would have recognized her instantly.
“Dakota, what a pleasant surprise. I didn’t expect to see you tonight.”
“My counselor recommended a couple of us for jobs this evening.” She lowered her voice to a confidential whisper. “We’re getting ten dollars an hour.”
“Good for you,” he said. “How’s your mother?”
The teenager glanced at an older woman—a supervisor, perhaps?—watching from several feet away. “She’s good. May I take your coat?”
Beck slipped off his jacket and handed it to her. He spoke as softly as she had only moments before. “Don’t forget to stop by the bakery.”
She gave a tiny nod, draped the coat carefully over her arm, and handed him a claim ticket. “Have a wonderful evening and a merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas to you.”
The girl’s dark eyes widened at the size of the bill he handed her. “Thank you very much, Mr. Cross.”
She hurried off, and Beck wandered into the large living room off to his right. His eyes were drawn to the corner where the star atop a perfectly shaped Christmas tree nearly brushed the ceiling. Beck stepped closer for a better look at the massive fir.
Decorated in shades of red and green with plaid accents, the thick base of the tree sat in a galvanized pan filled with sand. Small nets made from colored construction paper and filled with candied fruit, sugar-covered nuts, and sticks of candy hung from branches.
Little dolls, remarkably human-like, hung from branches along with walnuts and apples. At least a hundred unlit candles in red and green were anchored to the limbs.
“It’s the way they used to decorate in Victorian times,” a soft, feminine voice spoke from behind him. “Quite lovely.”
Beck smiled and turned. The evening was definitely looking up. “I thought you weren’t coming.”
“I’m a woman.” Ami shrugged good-naturedly. “I changed my mind.”
“I’m happy you did.”
As the event was casual, he’d pulled on a pair of khakis and a dark brown sweater his sister had gotten him for his birthday last year. Ami was decked out for a party. The green wrap dress enhanced her gentle curves, and heels gave her at least another three inches of height.
She looked happy, festive, and good enough to eat.
“The candies in these little nets were called sweetmeats.” She leaned forward and touched one of the paper cones. “Back in the day they held pastries, bonbons, stuff like that.”
“You seem to know a lot about such customs.”
“Baking is my business.” She brushed a piece of lint from his sweater. “In case you’ve forgotten.”
“How could I?” He smiled. “I smell those delicious aromas each time I step out of the café. And every time you step close.”
The look of startled surprise skittering across her face made him smile.
“You always smell like something sweet,” he added.
Two tiny lines appeared between her brows. “I’m not sure that’s good.”
“Trust me.” Beck took a step forward. “It’s very go—”
“There you are.” Clay Chapin pushed through the crowd, never taking his gaze from Ami. “Jeremy told me you were here. I’m glad I found you.”
Only when Clay stood directly in front of her did he appear to notice she wasn’t alone. The principal shifted his gaze to Beck and smiled.
The two men shook hands.
Ami’s brow pulled together in puzzlement. “I’m surprised to see you here, Clay.”
“The times they are a-changing.” Clay grinned. “Besides, a party isn’t complete without a token educator.”
Ami laughed. “Well, I’m glad of it.”
Beck stiffened as the two chatted easily for several minutes about people and high school events unfamiliar to him.
Finally, Ami glanced at the bar, then at Beck. “I believe I’m ready for that glass of wine.”
Though there hadn’t been time to discuss refreshments before Clay showed up, Beck played along. He placed his palm against the small of Ami’s back. “Let’s get you one.”
After saying good-bye to Clay, Ami waited to speak until the principal was out of earshot. “Seeing him here is quite a shock.”
“Because he’s an educator, not a business owner?”
“No. There’s a little bit of everything here this evening.”
“Then why the surprise?”
“He’s a Chapin,” she said, as if that explained it all.
Before he could ask what she meant, they reached the bar. Once they had their glasses of wine in hand, she and Beck spent the next hour mingling.
“I’m impressed.” He waited until the mayor had stepped away. “You really do know everyone.”
“No big surprise.” She took a tiny sip from the crystal flute. He noticed she hadn’t made an appreciable dent in the liquid. “I’ve lived here all my life.”
“Did you ever leave?”
“I got my Bachelors in business administration from the University of Wisconsin in Madison,” Ami told him. “I didn’t want to leave, but when it came time for me to go to college, my mom was doing better. Education was superimportant to both my parents. I knew it would stress them both out if I insisted on staying.”
“A BBA.” Beck stroked his chin. “That surprises me.”
She lifted a brow and took a sip of wine.
“I thought you’d have gone to culinary school.”
“My talent is homegrown. Some people sing or dance or have an aptitude for sports. My gift lies in the culinary arts.” She gave a little laugh. “I don’t mean to brag.”
He found it all fascinating and was about to tell her so when she moved to the large stone fireplace, her slender fingers traveling over the vintage stockings hanging from the mantel.
Beck’s mouth suddenly went dry as he imagined the feel of those fingertips against his skin. He cleared his throat and tried to remember what they’d been discussing. Ah, yes, her education. “Did you enjoy your business classes?”
“At the time not so much, but now I’m grateful. Everything I learned helps me run my business.”
“So you graduated, came back, and opened the bakery.”
“Not quite that quickly. Or easily. I worked for the previous owner. When she was ready to sell, I had enough money for a down payment to buy the business. The rest, as they say, is history.” She took a sip, studied him over the rim of her glass. “Where did you go to school?”
For a second Beck was tempted to slip behind the wall he’d erected when he’d left Georgia. Until he recalled his resolution to be more open with Ami.
“I received my undergraduate degree from Vanderbilt. I majored in political science.” Beck paused, then frowned. “She’s drunk.”
“Eliza. She’s over by the tree, speaking with Katie Ruth.”
Ami casually glanced in that direction. She narrowed her gaze. “How can you tell?”
“She’s unsteady on her feet. A second ago she nearly fell into the gingerbread house display.” A muscle in Beck’s jaw jumped. “She’s laughing too loudly.”
As if on cue, Eliza emitted a peal of laughter that echoed through the big room.
Ami’s expression turned puzzled. “She’s certainly acting strangely. I don’t ever recall seeing her so . . . so uninhibited.”
“Did she drive here?” Beck thought of the dark, winding roads leading back into town. “Or did she come with someone?”
“I have no idea.” Ami frowned when Eliza stumbled. She’d have fallen if not for Katie Ruth.
“She shouldn’t drive home.” He gave Ami’s arm a quick squeeze. “I’ll be right back.”
When Beck returned, he found Ami sampling cookies at the dessert table. The unfamiliar colors and shapes told him these weren’t from her bakery. “Are they as good as yours?”
Ami answered before she’d even taken a bite of the candy-striped cookie in her hand. “Not even close.”
The bold assertion made Beck chuckle. “I thought you told me you were providing the cookies.”
“That was for the Twelve Nights event held here last Sunday,” she clarified. “Jeremy thought he should spread the business around, so he gave the contract for tonight’s open house to Crumb and Cake.”
Beck lifted a brow. “Anita Fishback’s bakery?”
“That’s the one.” When Beck picked up an almond bar and took a bite, she watched him intently.
“What do you think?” she asked once he’d finished the bar.
He briefly considered teasing her but chose honesty instead. “Not even close.”
“Ding. Ding. Ding.” She rose on her tiptoes and plopped a noisy kiss on his cheek. “Right answer.”