Authors: Cindy Kirk
“I love a challenge.”
In the end Ami took the eggs, some Swiss cheese, onions, and spinach and whipped up a frittata.
Beck produced a bottle of pinot blanc and poured them each a glass. They took their food into the parlor.
The fire crackled in the hearth while they ate. Once they finished, Beck insisted on gathering up the dishes. While he took them to the kitchen, Ami kicked off her boots, totally relaxed.
When Beck returned to take a seat beside her and placed an arm around her shoulders, she sighed in contentment.
He sipped the wine and listened to her talk about her day. If he was a kick-off-his-shoes kind of guy, his would have joined Ami’s UGGs. He couldn’t recall the last time he’d felt this relaxed and content. It had to have been years.
Like his parents, he and Lisette had been busy professionals. They would often joke that they only met when they were coming or going.
She hadn’t even slowed down once she became pregnant, and he’d found himself wondering more than once how a baby would fit into their tight schedules.
He had no doubt they’d have made it work. Lisette was very organized and made time for what was important. He was important to her. So was their baby.
He turned to see Ami’s gaze on him, those beautiful emerald eyes filled with concern.
“Is everything okay?” Her voice was as rich as one of her cream-filled pastries.
“All good.” He sipped his wine.
“I imagine it’s difficult to be so far away from your family during the holidays.”
“In some ways it’s easier.” He spoke without thinking. While he missed his parents and siblings, last Christmas had been brutal.
He waved a dismissive hand. “I’m looking forward to serving Christmas lunch at the café.”
She went along with the blatant change in topic without missing a beat. “I never asked, are you planning to cook?”
Beck laughed aloud. “Tom will be in charge of the kitchen.”
“Perhaps my sisters and I can come over and help—”
“No.” Beck placed a hand on hers. “Focus on your family. With all your sisters back, it sounds like this will be a special year.”
“If you need extra help, I want you to call me. And I’m baking the pies, no argument.”
“You’ll get none from me.”
She smiled and snuggled back against him.
On Friday, the Twelve Nights celebrations would start up again and the weekend would be hectic. Once Christmas was over, Janey would be back and life would return to normal.
But as he stroked Ami’s silky brown hair and his emotions surged, something told Beck that when this Christmas was over, his life would never be the same again.
The Cross home threw open its doors from six until ten Friday evening. Guests flooded in, oohing and aahing over the decorations. On exiting the house, each person received a brightly colored Christmas cookie wrapped in cellophane and ribbon. Unlike in Victorian times, Ami’s green icing didn’t contain even a hint of arsenic.
Ami hadn’t planned to be there. After all, this wasn’t her home. Though she had to admit, it was starting to feel that way. She’d spent more time under these eaves in the last few weeks than in her own apartment.
When Beck had initially asked her to serve as his hostess, Ami gently reminded him that Friday was a workday for her at Muddy Boots. He’d been prepared, informing her the night of the home tour had historically been a light one for the café and Tom was confident he could handle any rush.
With no other barriers, Ami had enthusiastically agreed.
As was customary for the Victorian home tour, she dressed for the period. The gold brocade she’d picked up at a local costume shop perfectly complemented the home’s color scheme, though it showed a little too much cleavage for her taste.
Beck didn’t appear to agree. His eyes had lit up when she’d descended the stairs after changing out of her sweater and jeans. He raised her hand to his lips for a kiss that lingered a little longer than what would have been considered gentlemanly in Victorian times and pronounced her stunning.
Ami had to admit she felt beautiful tonight, with her hair pinned in a loose mass of curls at the nape of her neck. Though she rarely took the time, thanks to a younger sister who’d been into hair from diaper days, Ami was proficient in fixing her hair in all sorts of styles.
She’d also spent extra time with her makeup, using a shimmering brown shade for her eyes and applying mascara and lip gloss with a heavy hand.
While she felt confident she looked her best, it was the man standing next to her who stole her breath. Resplendent in black trousers, red silk vest, and white tuxedo shirt, Beck looked yummy enough to eat. The fitted tailcoat showed off his lean, muscular form to full advantage.
He fit her image of a gentleman host to perfection as he stood beside her at the front door, welcoming visitors. In the background, a string quartet played music popular in the Victorian era.
Opulent bouquets of tightly massed flowers boasting a heavy concentration of red roses accompanied by lots of foliage added a sweet fragrance to the air.
“Remind me where we’re keeping the extra cookies?” Dakota asked Ami in a low tone, looking as fresh and pretty as any young debutante of the late nineteenth century. The Worth gown, a blue satin woven with gold threads, suited her fair complexion to perfection.
Beck had hired the teenager to hand out cookies to those exiting the house by way of the kitchen. For a girl who normally lived in jeans, dressing up had been an extra bonus.
“I’ll show you.” Excusing herself, Ami moved through the parlor with Dakota following. She pointed at the room on the left at the far end of the hall, then reached into the beaded reticule looped around her wrist and pulled out a key. “This is the same room where we’re storing the Giving Tree gifts.”
“Who’s going to deliver them?” Dakota asked as the door clicked open.
“Why, Santa, of course. On Christmas Eve.” Ami gave the girl a wink. “You’ll find the bakery boxes on the makeshift table.”
While Ami couldn’t imagine anyone walking out with any of the gifts, not everyone coming through tonight was known to her, and it seemed best to be cautious. “Be sure and lock the door after you.”
“Absolutely.” The shadows that had darkened Dakota’s eyes even a week ago had disappeared. Living with her aunt had been good for her.
Ami placed a hand on the girl’s arm. “Thanks for helping out.”
“This is a blast. And I can use the money,” Dakota confided with the refreshing honesty of youth. “I’m happy you and Beck asked me.”
You and Beck.
How many times this evening had Ami heard those words?
You and Beck
have done a fabulous job with the home. Do
you and Beck
have plans for Valentine’s Day?
With everything going on, Ami hadn’t thought that far ahead. The day for lovers. Well, based on their numerous encounters of the physical kind, she and Beck met the criteria. The big question was, would they still be together in February?
That would be up to him, once she told him the whole truth about her accident.
She looked up to find Dakota’s worried gaze on her. “What?”
“Are you okay? You have the strangest look on your face.”
“It’s these shoes.” She stuck out the elegant satin shoes with their pointed toes, French heels, and intricate beadwork. “I can’t wait to take them off.”
“I think they’re sexy.”
The husky feminine voice had Ami whirling with a smile of delight.
“I’ll get the cookies.” Dakota hurried off.
Ami barely had time to register the familiar waterfall of blond curls and laughing blue eyes before she pulled the petite dynamo into her arms. “Marigold. Ohmygoodness, I didn’t expect you until Tuesday. What a wonderful surprise.”
She hugged her sister tightly, breathing in the familiar scent of jasmine as tears stung the backs of her eyes. Oh, how she’d missed her baby sister.
“It’s good to be home,” Marigold murmured just before she released her.
“Let me look at you.” Ami held the youngest of the four sisters at arm’s length and studied her.
Long, curly strands of blond hair, artfully disheveled, fell in a tumbled mass past her shoulders. Vivid blue eyes. A perky, upturned nose that made her look like an intriguing sprite or fairy. She was the shortest of the Bloom girls, barely hitting five three, with a lithe figure that still managed to have curves in all the right places.
Tonight she wore the little black dress so popular with urbanites. Instead of heels, she had on thigh-high boots that added at least three inches of height.
“You’re going to kill yourself in those shoes,” Ami, ever the big sister, warned. But there was no censure in her tone, only a warm welcome.
“Pot calling the kettle black,” Marigold shot back.
“You forget. I saw the shoes you have on under that heavy dress. They’re lethal.”
Ami gave a reluctant chuckle. “Yes, but I have sensible ones upstairs.”
“Would that be in Mr. Beckett Cross’s private quarters?” Marigold cocked her head. Before Ami could answer, she continued, “I saw our delectable host. I totally approve.”
“Beck and I are . . .” Ami paused, searching for the right word. Friends? Lovers?
“Well, look who’s all grown up and gorgeous.”
Her sister whirled, dispensing a zillion-watt smile on the town’s mayor. “Jeremy Rakes. I swear you get more handsome every time I see you. My sister had to be crazy to let you get away.”
The flash of pain that flitted across Jeremy’s face was gone so quickly Ami wondered if she’d imagined it.
“How is Fin?” he asked in an almost too-casual tone.
“You’ll be able to see for yourself,” Marigold answered. “She’s flying in Tuesday.”
“Oh, there you are, Jeremy.” Eliza rushed up, not appearing to notice the mayor was already engaged in conversation. “I lost track of you in the crush of people.”
“Hey, Eliza.” Marigold turned a much more subdued smile on the Cherries’ executive director. “For some reason I thought you’d be at Hill House this evening.”
Eliza stared at Ami’s sister as if she were a stranger she was trying to place.
“Marigold Bloom.” With an impish smile, Marigold extended her hand, leaving Eliza no choice but to take it or look like a schmuck.
Ami concluded it had to be the briefest handshake in history.
“I remember.” Eliza offered a perfunctory smile. “And, to answer your question, I’m responsible for making sure everything is running smoothly on the tour.”
Her sister’s speculative gaze shifted between Jeremy and Eliza, who looked stunning—as usual—in a royal-blue sweaterdress and boots. “Are you and Jeremy dating now?”
“Eliza and I are here tonight in an official capacity,” Jeremy said smoothly, before Eliza had a chance to respond. “I’m here as mayor. She as executive director of the Cherries.”
“Oh.” Marigold nodded sagely. “It’s strictly business.”
Jeremy’s lips twitched slightly, as if remembering what a pain in the backside little Marigold had once been. “Eliza and I are also good friends.”
As if to illustrate, he looped an arm around the woman’s shoulders. A flush of pleasure spread across Eliza’s pretty face.
“Jeremy asked about my sister,” Marigold told Eliza. “I told him Fin is arriving Tuesday. It’s too bad there won’t be time for the three of you to get together. Seeing as you and Jeremy are good friends and Fin and he used to be really good friends.”
Eliza’s lips lifted in a tight smile. “Yes, that is too bad.”
Ami punched her sister in the side. While Marigold had disliked Eliza ever since the woman had turned on Ami after the accident, there was no need to be unkind.
Thankfully her sister got the message and shut up about Fin. She took Ami’s hands. “I have to leave.”
“You just got here.”
“Shannon is having a party at her place tonight.”
“I forgot you were coming in early for the wedding.” The last time Ami had spoken with Marigold, her sister hadn’t been certain she could get off work.
Shannon Tracy had been Marigold’s childhood buddy. While they hadn’t been as close in recent years, they’d stayed in contact through social media and Marigold’s occasional visits back to Good Hope.
“Good to see you, Marigold. Ami.” Jeremy rested his hand on Eliza’s arm. “Let’s check out the Chapin house next.”
Eliza’s expression gave nothing away. “I’ll meet you at the Dunleveys’.”
Marigold watched through slitted eyes as the two strolled off. “Looks like the Shaw-Chapin feud is alive and well.”
“Some things never change.” Impulsively, Ami gave her sister another hug. “I can’t wait to hear the latest on you and Daniel.”
Her sister’s boyfriend, Daniel Smithson, worked for the Chicago Board of Trade. Ami had met him briefly when she’d visited the Windy City last spring.
Marigold glanced around the beautifully appointed parlor. “We’ll get together before the open house and I’ll catch you up. You can do the same.”
Ami inclined her head.
“I can’t wait to hear all about you and the delectable Mr. Cross.” Marigold’s smile widened. “The way you’re blushing says there’s a lot to tell.”
By the time ten o’clock approached, Beck realized Ami hadn’t exaggerated. The people of Good Hope and the tourists that flocked to the township in droves loved the Victorian tour of homes. There’d been a steady stream through the house since the doors opened at six.
While he enjoyed greeting everyone and especially seeing customers he recognized from Muddy Boots, Beck was ready to reclaim his home. Still, having Ami at his side had made the evening not only bearable, but pleasurable.
A few times during the night, he’d found himself thinking of this as
home. That might be because she’d been spending so much time here, but Beck knew the connection went deeper. Somehow, over the course of the past few weeks, they’d become a couple. When he thought of the future, it was becoming increasingly difficult not to imagine her with him.
“The upstairs is clear.” Ami offered a tired smile as she descended the staircase, her hand sliding down the banister. “No stragglers.”
“It’s clear down here, too,” Beck reported.
Ami glanced around. “Where’s Dakota?”
“Lindsay picked her up a few minutes ago. She gave me the key to the room where we’re storing gifts and said she’d catch up with you later.” Beck smiled, remembering Dakota’s stunned look of pleasure at the fifty-dollar bonus he’d given her.
“I had a good time.” Ami’s gaze slid around the parlor and lingered on the star at the top of the magnificent tree. Her heart swelled with emotion.
“It wasn’t nearly as bad as I envisioned,” Beck admitted.
Ami pulled her attention back to the man at her side. Her lips quirked in a smile. “Now there’s a ringing endorsement for the home tour.”