USA Today Bestseller!
CHRISTMAS ON MAIN STREET
The Christmas Gift
Business is booming at Bridey Roke's pastry shop. Everyone in town stops in to sample her holiday treats. But in her spare moments, she's perfecting a special recipe to charm the handsome new neighbor—who has his own surprise gift for her come Christmas Eve!
Bridey boxed up a pair of cupcakes slathered with pink icing and glittery sprinkles for Gage Logan, the chief of police in Snowberry Creek. She smiled to herself at the mental image of the big tough lawman sharing the treat with his nine-year-old daughter, Sydney.
As she set the box on the counter, the relief in Gage's expression was impossible to miss. "Thanks for saving a cupcake for me, Bridey. I promised Syd I'd bring her one if she kept her room picked up for a week without having to be nagged. If I'd forgotten—" Gage shuddered. "Well, let's just say it wouldn't have been pretty."
Bridey smiled as she took the money he held out. "The good news is that I stuck in an extra so you two can celebrate together."
The man's face lit up with a wicked grin. "Not to mention the added bonus Syd can't nag at me for eating sweets if she's doing it, too. It's a win-win situation." Gage picked up the small box with great care. "Thanks again, Bridey. You're definitely a lifesaver."
As he walked away, a movement in the far corner of the shop drew Bridey's attention. One glance sent her pulse into overdrive, and she felt her cheeks flush. This made Seth Kyser's third visit this week, and it was only Wednesday. Seth had already staked out his usual table, marking his territory with his coat on the back of the chair and the newspaper open to the crossword puzzle.
He'd been coming into her coffee shop, Something's Brewing, for more than a month now, almost as long as he'd lived in the area. From what she'd heard, he'd moved into the old Sedgewick place on the outskirts of town. No one seemed to know much about the man, only that Seth paid his bills in cash and on time. Otherwise, he pretty much kept to himself.
Except when he came in here.
She glanced at the clock and then at her assistant as Seth finally started toward the counter to place his order. "Fiona, why don't you take your break before the onrushing hordes from the high school head this way."
Her assistant immediately started for the back. "Boy, where has the time gone? I can't believe we're less than twenty minutes until the afternoon influx of kids."
Bridey laughed. Fiona had it right. While she was grateful for the steady business from the high school students, things got pretty hectic once the teenagers came pouring through the door. For the moment, though, there was just the one customer in the shop. She took a calming breath, determined to maintain the facade that Seth was just like any other customer who came through the door even if he wasn't.
From the first day he'd walked into her shop, her reaction to him had been far from ordinary. She'd yet to figure out exactly why. Certainly, Seth was a far cry from the kind of men she'd known in her previous career as the pastry chef in a high-end restaurant in California. For one thing, her ex-husband's taste in clothes had run to hand-tailored and expensive, not the flannel shirts and faded jeans that apparently composed Seth's entire wardrobe. And yet she found the casual attire soothing.
Today's shirt, a mix of deep forest green and blue, brought out Seth's green eyes. His sandy blond hair looked a bit damp, as if he'd been out walking in the rain. She tried to keep her appreciative glance quick, but she couldn't help admiring his lean, athletic build.
She had only one question for herself: When had plaid become so darn attractive?
Bridey realized she was staring. Kicking her smile up half a notch, she got down to business. "Mr. Kyser, what can I offer you today?"
He was on the quiet side, rarely saying more than the absolute minimum to place his order. Shifting from one foot to the other, he gave her a shy smile. "Call me Seth. A tall drip with extra sugar and cream and a refill. Two pastries. Your choice."
After pouring his first cup of coffee, she pulled out the two treats she'd set aside earlier on the off chance he came in again today. "Here's your usual blueberry muffin. The other one is a new recipe I've been working on for Christmas. It's a gingerbread cupcake with cream cheese icing. I've been playing around with the spices a bit and thought maybe you could let me know what you think."
He nodded as he pulled out his wallet. "Glad to. They smell wonderful."
When she rang up the total, he frowned. "It's usually more than that, Ms. Roke."
She shook her head as she counted out his change. "Please, it's Bridey, and the gingerbread is on the house. I never charge my test subjects. I ask only that you be honest with your evaluation."
"Will do." His eyes twinkled. "Never been anybody's lab rat before."
Her cheeks flushed hot. "Hey! I never called you that. Besides, my pastries are far too good to feed to rodents."
He winked at her and retreated to his table, leaving her staring at his back. And if she took a few seconds to admire those broad shoulders, well, that was her own business.
Luckily, she'd managed to tear her eyes away before her assistant returned. The bell over the door chimed as the first bunch of teenagers entered the shop in a bright burst of noise and high energy. She and Fiona braced themselves and got to work. The rush was on.
Seth sipped his dark roast and savored the chance to watch Bridey Roke in action as she greeted each customer with a smile and friendly banter. He couldn't help but notice that she had singled him out to sample the new flavor of cupcake.
He ate the blueberry muffin first, preferring to hold off on the gingerbread until his second cup of coffee. Right now the line was too long, which gave him the perfect excuse to linger awhile longer here in Something's Brewing.
He hadn't meant to come in today, but he'd been too restless to stay home. A walk along Snowberry Creek had helped his mood, but somehow he'd ended up standing across the street from the coffee shop.
How the heck was he supposed to resist the potent combination of fresh coffee, delicious pastries, and Bridey Roke's bright gray eyes and pretty smile? As if sensing his gaze, she glanced in his direction. When she spotted the cupcake, she frowned. Oops. Not wanting her to think he didn't want to try it, he picked up his coffee cup and headed toward the counter for his refill.
There were only two people ahead of him, so it didn't take long for her to get to him. He held out his cup.
"I was saving the cupcake for my second round, not because I didn't want to eat it."
That was the most he'd said to her at one time. Thank goodness he hadn't stumbled over a single word. He'd learned to be grateful for such small miracles. His stuttering no longer ruled his life as much as it had in the past. Yet that didn't mean it didn't rear its ugly head once in a while, especially around attractive women.
And Bridey Roke was definitely that.
She filled his cup, automatically adding the extra cream and sugar he liked. "I'm glad to hear it. I was afraid that I had put you in an awkward position by asking you to do a test run for me."
"Not at all. I'm honored."
Since he'd already paid for the second cup with his original order, he'd run out of excuses to remain at the counter. After returning to his seat, he peeled off the wrapper and removed the plastic Santa decoration that was stuck in the top before tasting a piece of the cupcake without the icing. He kept his eyes focused on what he was doing because he suspected Bridey would be watching his every move.
He smiled as the complex flavor of cinnamon, ginger, and cloves hit his taste buds. Delicious, although the cloves threatened to overwhelm the other flavors just a bit. The added sweetness of the cream cheese icing complemented the other flavors perfectly.
When he was done, he gathered up his empty cup and wrappers and carried them over to the trash. As he slung the strap of his backpack over one shoulder, he wondered how honest he should be with his evaluation. Deciding Bridey would prefer honesty to platitudes, he paused by the counter. "Thank you for the holiday treat. The icing was just right. The gingerbread was moist and rich, but the cloves came across a little strong. I've always liked nutmeg better, so that might just be me."
His critique seemed to please her. "Thank you, Seth! I almost used nutmeg. I'll try it in the next batch. I want to start serving them as soon as I perfect the recipe. There's just something about the smell of gingerbread that puts everybody in the holiday spirit. In fact, that's what got me inspired to dig out all the Christmas decorations this morning and set the radio to a holiday music station. That's as far I've gotten, though, because it's been pretty busy today, not that I'm complaining. Busy is good."
As she spoke, she pointed toward the large wreath leaning against the wall behind the counter. Next to it was a box full of other Christmas decorations. Seth surprised himself as much as Bridey when he asked, "Do you want some help putting that stuff up?"
Bridey glanced at the pile of garland and the wreath. "I couldn't ask you to do that."
He was surprised by how much he wanted to help her decorate. "I've got some time on my hands. Besides, after eating those pastries, the exercise will do me good."
"Yeah, I get that," Bridey said, laughing. "If you're sure, I'd appreciate your help hanging the wreath. There's already a hook at the top of the window frame, but I can't quite reach it even if I stand on a chair."
"Sure thing." Seth tossed his pack on the nearest table as Bridey carried the wreath to the front of the shop. He climbed up on a chair and held the wreath up to the window. "Is this about right?"
Bridey cocked her head to one side and studied the wreath. "Perfect."
After he slipped the wire over the hook, he asked, "Does that garland go up h-here, too?"
This time Bridey didn't even hesitate. Between the two of them, they made quick work of the rest of the decorations while Fiona handled the few customers who came in. After Seth trimmed the window with the green garland that had Christmas lights running through it, Bridey had him replace the normal bell over the door with jingle bells while she set small vases filled with poinsettias and ivy on each of the tables. Seth liked that the two women felt comfortable enough in his company to sing along with the radio as they worked.
Finally, he hung a sprig of mistletoe over the pastry counter, providing a whole new layer to the temptations to be found in Something's Brewing. All told, it took less than an hour to transform the shop. Bridey was clearly pleased with the results, especially when she plugged in the lights around the window. "There, that definitely adds a bright touch of Christmas to the place. Thanks again, Seth. All of this would have taken me hours to do by myself."
"You're welcome. It does look n-nice."
Finally out of excuses to linger, he picked up his pack. "I'd better get going."
"Wait. Let me fix you a hot chocolate to go."
When it was ready, Bridey followed him toward the door. "And thanks for the feedback on the gingerbread cupcakes. I hope to try another batch on Friday morning."
Feeling more daring, he winked at her again. "S-save one for me. You know, for comparison's sake."
Bridey nodded. "I'll do that."
"I'll be here." Seth nodded at Bridey's assistant and started for the door. Friday was only two days away, but already the time in between stretched out unbearably. Even so, he had something to look forward to for the first time in months: cupcakes and another excuse to see Bridey.
"Pleasing, sexy, touching, and funny, this well-done anthology has something for everyone who's ever yearned for a small-town Christmas." —Library Journal
"This charming quartet of stories . . . brings some delightful stories full of love, Christmas cheer, and enough hot sex to melt ice." —Romantic Times