Authors: Cindy Kirk
As if she’d said too much, Hadley turned and added flour, baking powder, and salt to a bowl. With quick, efficient movements, she put butter in a large bowl and began to stir.
The word turned over and over in Ami’s brain like a mixer blade slogging through dough.
Ami knew how much it meant to have a supportive person in your corner during dark days. Her mom had once been her salvation.
Since her mother’s passing, every Christmas had been bittersweet. Did the holidays bring the same conflicting emotions for Hadley?
“Are you going to be around on Christmas?” Ami spoke in a casual, just-tossing-it-out-there way that probably didn’t fool Hadley.
Hadley added sugar to the butter before lifting her gaze. “Where else would I be?”
“I don’t know.” Ami placed a sheet filled with white chocolate cherry shortbread cookies into the oven. “North Dakota?”
“Why would I go—?” Hadley stopped herself. “Not this year.”
“Well, since you’re going to be around, I’d love it if you’d join us on Christmas Eve. We’ll be celebrating at my dad’s house, so there’ll be plenty of room.”
“The house will be filled with family. I don’t—”
“I’d love for you to meet my sisters.” Ami’s tone turned pleading. “Please say you’ll come.”
Hadley searched Ami’s gaze. Apparently reassured by what she saw, she smiled. “Okay. But I bring the bread.”
The door to the shop jingled open. Ami closed the oven door and hurried around to the front. “Can I help—?”
She skidded to a stop and her heart gave a leap.
Beck kicked the door closed with a foot, balancing a cup of coffee in each hand. His hair was mussed from the wind and little bits of snow clung to the tips.
His burgundy houndstooth jacket wasn’t one Ami had seen before. Though not up on the latest designers, Ami could spot a quality garment at ten paces. Beck’s coat definitely hadn’t come off any discount rack.
“Wha-what are you doing here?” Even as she spoke she crossed the room to take one of the cups.
“You didn’t come for coffee, so I brought coffee to you.” He sniffed the air. “What do you have to go with it?”
“What time is it?”
“Nine fifteen.” He looked amused. “Does that make a difference on what I get served?”
“I’ve been so busy baking I lost track of the time.” Ami glanced at the cupcake clock on the wall and grimaced. “I’d have sworn it was seven at the latest.”
“Then it’s a good thing I decided to stop over.”
“Who was at—” Hadley paused in the back doorway and took in the scene.
Despite the fact that there was at least a foot of space between them, Ami was seized with the ridiculous urge to jump back and put more space between her and Beck.
“Hadley.” If Beck was off balanced by her assistant’s appearance, his warm smile gave no indication. “Good to see you again.”
“I didn’t mean to interrupt—” Hadley began.
“You didn’t.” Beck crossed the dining area and handed her the cup of coffee he still held. “You’ve both been busy this morning. I thought you might enjoy some coffee. It’s not a blend you carry. It’s chicory and Ami’s favorite.”
“Thank you.” Hadley’s curious gaze slid from him to Ami. “Can I get you a piece of kringle?”
“I’m fine.” Beck was almost to the door when he turned back and his gaze locked on Ami’s. “See you at ten.”
Without another word, he strode through the door, the bells jingling as it closed.
“Seriously.” Hadley offered an apologetic smile. “I didn’t mean to interrupt.”
“I usually meet Beck for coffee at nine.” Ami started to rake a hand through her hair, remembered the snood, and let her hand drop to her side.
“He likes you.”
“He tolerates me.”
“Why does the thought that he might be attracted to you make you so uncomfortable?” Hadley took a sip of the coffee Beck had given her. “You’re single. He’s single.”
“Becoming involved could mess with our friendship.”
“Oh, so now it’s a friendship. A second ago you told me he tolerates you.”
“Don’t you have some cookies to get out of the oven?”
“What about yours?”
Ami glanced at her watch. “Another five minutes.”
They returned to the kitchen and the baking, with Ami resolving to pay closer attention to time. She was also going to pay closer attention to Beck.
The thought that Beck might care for her as more than a friend filled Ami with such sweet longing that her heart began to ache.
Though she wouldn’t get her hopes up, she had to admit Hadley had a good eye for such things. Could it possibly be true? Was Beck falling for her?
After placing the cookies on a rack to cool, Ami inhaled the pleasant scent of chocolate and sugar, closed her eyes, and let herself dream.
Beck had decreed the café would stick with the standard menu Muddy Boots had been serving since the Twelve Nights celebrations had first begun in Good Hope. Chili and cinnamon rolls might seem an odd combination, but Beck had been told year-round residents and tourists alike stopped at the café on First Friday specifically for that meal.
The simple menu certainly made things easier for Ami. But that didn’t mean she wasn’t keeping busy. That’s why when one of the waitresses came into the kitchen shortly before seven o’clock that evening and said Beck needed to see her out front, she demurred. Until the girl told her she’d stay in the kitchen to help get the food out.
Ami gave the woman her apron and hurried to the dining room. She found Beck waiting by the cash register.
He glanced pointedly at his watch. “We should have just enough time. Grab your coat.”
When she hesitated, Beck placed his hands on her shoulders and spun her in the direction of the coatrack. “Hurry.”
The second she returned, he took her arm. “Let’s go.”
Ami pulled back and planted her feet. “Not until you tell me where we’re going.”
“It’s almost time for the tree lighting in the town square.” He smiled and tugged her forward. “You don’t want to miss it.”
“But the café—”
“Business has slowed considerably in the past thirty minutes.” Beck opened the door and gestured outside. “Most have already eaten.”
Ami stepped into the crisp evening air and breathed deeply. The forecasters had been right. Because of a lack of wind, the night felt almost balmy.
Though the sun had set hours ago, the town square was awash in lights. The lamplights glowed emerald green, and all of the businesses, save Muddy Boots, had been decorated with clear or colored lights.
Shirley Allbright, owner of the Enchanted Florist, had gone for funky this year. She’d replaced her traditional pine garland with plastic poinsettia flowers in blue, yellow, pink, and silver that had been taken apart, then reassembled around clear lights. After stringing the flowers on green wire, Shirley and her daughters had wound the strands around the railing at the front of her building, which resembled an old-fashioned front porch.
Not wanting to be outdone, Ami had encircled her shop window with fairy lights, then added a wreath made out of beads and vintage bulbs in varying shades of pink to the door.
Caught up in the Christmas spirit, Ami had offered to help Beck put up a few lights on the café earlier in the week. But he’d made it clear that while he may have allowed himself to be blackmailed into putting his home on the tour, he drew the line on lights.
Thankfully, the Muddy Boots frontage was cute enough on its own. The fact that it was the only business not decorated wasn’t all that obvious. At least not to Ami. But Katie Ruth had told Ami that Eliza had noticed and wasn’t pleased.
What the executive director of the Cherries didn’t seem to realize was that Beck had made great strides in embracing the Christmas spirit. He’d agreed to the tour. He’d agreed to allow her to store the Giving Tree gifts at his home. The thought reminded her of the items still cluttering her living room. “I’ll need to stop by—”
“Shhh, they’re about to light the tree.”
Mayor Jeremy Rakes, the man who would throw the switch, strode toward the podium. Ami could never see Jeremy without thinking of Fin. The mayor was the same age as Ami’s sister, and the two had dated all through high school.
Ami had always liked Jeremy, with his lanky frame, sandy-blond hair, and friendly smile. Since he was the son of one of the community’s most prominent families, it had come as no surprise to anyone when the hometown boy had been elected mayor last year.
As Jeremy had grown up in Good Hope and knew practically everyone, the mayor’s short trek to the stage was slow going. Every few feet someone stopped him, wanting to shake his hand or exchange a greeting.
Though Ami found herself enjoying the energy of the crowd, she still couldn’t figure out why she was here instead of in the Muddy Boots kitchen. She rose on her tiptoes to whisper in Beck’s ear to ask him that question.
Too late, she realized her mistake. He smelled so good, a spicy scent mixed with soap. Worse, when she leaned close, he put his hands on her shoulders to steady her.
It didn’t matter that she had on her red puffy coat; she could feel the heat of him through the fabric.
“I thought you hated these kinds of things,” she managed to stammer.
The heat engulfing her only surged hotter when he turned his face, putting their lips mere inches apart. “Hate is such a strong word.”
She forced herself to step back, knowing if she didn’t, she might do something crazy . . . like kiss him. “Why are we here, Beck?”
He leaned forward to tuck a strand of hair behind her ear. “I thought you’d like to see the tree all lit up.”
It was as if he’d reached up and stroked her heart, sending warmth flowing through every inch of her body.
“Turn now or you’ll miss it.”
Ami swiveled just in time to see the fir explode in dazzling colors of emerald green, sapphire blue, and flame red. A collective “ah” rose from the crowd, followed by spontaneous applause.
The high school choir launched into “Silent Night,” and Mrs. Sharkey motioned for the onlookers to join in. Ami sang loudly, intensely aware of Beck at her side. At first Beck was silent. But as one carol followed another, she finally heard his baritone join with hers.
Impulsively, she slipped her arm through his and leaned close, as if they were sharing a piece of sheet music. He slanted a sideways glance at her and grinned. Happiness bubbled as their voices blended with those of the assembled throng.
By the time the caroling ended with “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” the evening felt like a package that had been wrapped up and topped with a pretty bow just for her.
The crowd began to disperse and Ami cast an anxious glance at the bakery. Both Hadley and Karin were on duty, but were two enough to handle the post-tree-lighting crowd?
“Shall we check out Blooms Bake Shop?” Beck’s question must have been rhetorical because he’d already veered in that direction. “I’ve heard their stuff is pretty good.”
“I’ve heard it’s
,” Ami shot back and made him laugh.
“Then we definitely should check it out.”
“What about the café? Shouldn’t we get back?”
Beck waved a dismissive hand, as if he wasn’t at all concerned about the state of his business. “The staff can handle chili and cinnamon rolls.”
Ami decided if he wasn’t worried, why should she be?
They followed a group of giggling middle school girls into the bakery. The pleasant scent of cinnamon and chocolate permeated the air. The tables were occupied, as were the stools by the window. From what Ami observed, the orders at the counter were being quickly and efficiently filled.
Hadley and Karin were dressed in identical red ski sweaters. The headbands with reindeer antlers they both wore were topped with tiny brass bells that jingled with every movement.
Ami caught Hadley’s eyes. When her assistant gave her the thumbs-up, the last bit of worry dogging Ami disappeared. “They’ve got it under control.”
“Looks that way.” Beck stared at a gray-haired woman delicately eating a piece of kringle. “What is that?”
“Kringle. It’s fabulous. I’ll bring you a ring when I stop by tonight.”
Beck inclined his head. “When you stop by where?”
Something she couldn’t quite identify sparked in those dark brown eyes. “Because?”
He looked so serious and intense Ami had to resist an almost overwhelming urge to touch him.
“Because I have to get all those Giving Tree gifts out of my apartment so I can put up my tree.”
“You want to move the gifts tonight?” His brows drew together. “You’ve been working since four a.m.”
“I’ll be working long hours every day until Christmas. At this time of year, there is no perfect day or night.” She gave him a playful shove. “C’mon, let’s get out of here and make room for paying customers.”
On her way toward the door, another surge of teenagers drove Ami straight into the arms of Clay Chapin.
“Well, hello.” The principal kept his hands on her shoulders a moment longer than necessary. His gray eyes held hers. “I hoped I’d run into you again. I didn’t expect it to be this soon.”
“I’m not working at the bakery this evening,” Ami started to explain, then realized Beck had made it through the juggernaut at the doorway and now stood silently at her side. “You remember Beckett Cross? The new owner of Muddy Boots.”
“Of course.” Clay held out his hand and shook Beck’s. “Steve said Ami is working for you over the holidays.”
Beck smiled pleasantly, then turned to Ami. “We best get going. We have a lot to accomplish before you come over tonight.”
Before Ami could form a single coherent thought, Clay made some excuse about getting inside before all the kringle was gone.
Ami couldn’t believe Beck had been so careless with his words. He’d made it sound as if they were a couple. Actually, he’d made it sound as if they were sleeping together.
Beck raised a brow. “Something funny?”
Ami shook her head. Her smile faded at the sight of a figure in a turquoise coat and thigh-high black boots headed their way.
“Eliza alert.” She managed to sputter out the warning before the woman reached them.
“Beckett. Ami.” The cool tone could have frosted glass.
“Happy holidays, Eliza.” Ami managed to summon a smile. “You look lovely this evening.”
Eliza dipped her head as if accepting an accolade from an inferior, then focused on Beck. “I want to personally thank you for agreeing to make the Spencer-Shaw home available for the tour.”
Ami held her breath, praying Beck didn’t say anything that could be misconstrued. Nothing about a deal between them, nothing about her visiting his home later, just . . . nothing. Yes, saying nothing would be best.
“Amaryllis explained the situation to me. I saw the importance and agreed to open
to the public for that one evening.”
It was clear—at least to Ami—Beck didn’t appreciate Eliza referring to his house as the Spencer-Shaw home. Ami mentally filed that piece of information away so she wouldn’t make the same mistake.
had already explained the situation to you, Mr. Cross,” Eliza said pointedly.
“Did you?” Beck looked bored with the conversation. “If you’ll excuse us, we need to get back to the café.”
Eliza directed a pitying smile in Ami’s direction. “I heard you’d taken a second job. Obviously the bakery business isn’t all you hoped it would be.”
Ami’s blood did a slow boil. She gestured toward the shop, which was standing room only. “As you can see, Blooms Bake Shop is doing quite well.”
“Neighbors helping neighbors. That’s the Good Hope way.” Beck lifted a brow and fixed his gaze on Eliza. “Or do I have that wrong?”
If the flush riding up her neck was any indication, Eliza Shaw was doing her own slow burn. “It’s been nice chatting, but I need to move on.”
Beck watched her leave, then took Ami’s arm and turned in the direction of the town square. “I need a drink.”
“We used to be friends.” Ami couldn’t quite keep a note of sadness from her voice. “Now she barely tolerates me.”
“What happened?” Beck purchased two cups of hot chocolate from a vendor set up in the square.
Several years ago, the city had installed industrial parabolic heaters in the overhang of the gazebo. Between her down coat, the heaters, and now the hot cocoa, Ami barely noticed the cold.
“What happened between you and Eliza?” Beck repeated.
“Nothing, really. We were casual friends in high school. That was a long time ago.” Ami told herself it wasn’t as if she had to give him the full story, only enough to staunch his curiosity. “She was always more a friend of a friend. Now everything I do irritates her.”
Beck took a sip of cocoa, his gaze never leaving her face. “Why do you think that is?”
“Um, I don’t really know for sure.” Her laugh sounded a bit desperate. She stared into her cup and changed the subject. “I bet everyone has someone in their past who dislikes them or who they dislike.”
Beck’s expression darkened. “Often with good reason.”
“Well,” Ami forced a bright tone. “Let’s talk about tonight. Will you be helping me move the gifts to your house? Or will I have to do it myself?”