Here is a sneak peek at ALL I WANT FOR CHRISTMAS IS YOU! I must confess, this book features a couple I really adore! Rafe is a dedicated firefighter and Kaitlyn is the hardworking owner of the Bean, Angel Falls’ favorite coffee shop. They’ve been best friends, but that is about to change forever…
Being naughty was nice, but now these friends-turned-lovers are in for an unforgettable Christmas…
Just when Kaitlyn Barnes vows to get over her longtime crush on Rafe Langdon, they share a sizzling evening that delivers an epic holiday surprise: Kaitlyn is pregnant. And if that weren’t life-changing enough, everyone assumes they’re engaged — a charade they must keep alive through the holiday season. But Kaitlyn knows Rafe better than anyone, and Rafe settling down is about as likely as Santa skipping Angel Falls this year…
Rafe would rather Kaitlyn believe a lie — that their night together was a fling — than face his own dangerous truth: he’s falling for her, hard. After a devastating loss, Rafe swore he’d never risk his heart again. Yet the longer they pretend to be engaged the more Rafe starts to want the real thing. But now he has to convince Kaitlyn he wants to be by her side — and their baby’s — for all the Christmases to come.
Includes the bonus novel Christmas on Mistletoe Lane by Annie Rains!
Release date: October 29, 2019. Out now!
“A scrumptious holiday treat!” ~ Publishers Weekly
It was a very bad day to take a pregnancy test, Kaitlyn Barnes decided as she washed off the counter at her coffee shop, the Bean, on a snowy late November evening. But she’d taken the test, and in light of how crappy she’d been feeling lately, the bright blue plus sign hadn’t come as a surprise.
She was way too busy to even think about being pregnant, let alone ponder how on earth it could ever have happened.
Okay, she knew how it had happened. And when. And she wasn’t going to lie to herself: the sex with Rafe Langdon had been, after years of dancing around their attraction to each other, epic. But with two forms of birth control, how on earth…Nope. She wasn’t going there. Not now, not with worries about her family, her business, and her life at the forefront of her mind.
Mary Mulligan, the last customer in the shop, brought her empty mug up to the counter, her kind but mischievous blue eyes twinkling. “You’re good friends with Rafe Langdon, aren’t you, dear?”
“Oh, yes, I’ve known Rafe forever.” Kaitlyn squeezed her eyes shut to avoid thinking of his strong, muscular body, his square jaw, his dark, well-defined brows. And other parts of him that she really was not going to think about.
“I haven’t seen him in here lately. How’s he been doing?” Mary asked.
Kaitlyn wouldn’t know. She hadn’t spoken much to Rafe since what she was coming to call the incident, which consisted of one wedding, a few drinks, a rainstorm, and a much too inviting cabin. “I-I haven’t seen him,” Kaitlyn said with a shrug. “Maybe he gave up coffee.”
Yet not even a minute had gone by that she hadn’t thought about him, and his nice full mouth that always seemed to be turned up in the tiniest smile.
Oh, that smile. That’s what had gotten her in trouble—Rafe’s ability to take any kind of worry or concern and somehow lighten it up with that easygoing, assured grin. It was irresistible—he was irresistible, especially to her, whose life was typically chock full of worries and concerns.
She blinked to find Mrs. Mulligan staring at her. “I’m sorry, Mary,” Kaitlyn said. “What did you say?” She had to stop her mind from wandering.
“I said I hope you’re going home soon, dear. You look peaked.”
Kaitlyn flicked her hand in a dismissive gesture. “Just a little tired.” And nauseated. And losing her lunch on a regular basis. And breakfast. “Want another cup of tea?” Kaitlyn asked. “It’s no trouble.”
“Oh, no thank you. I know you’re closing. I just can’t get over how Rafe posed for next year’s first responder charity calendar. Mr. December—Chief Walker made a poster of him to help sell the calendars and gave it to a lot of the shop owners on Main Street. Someone even hung one at the base of the angel statue. All the girls in the beauty shop were talking about it. Don’t you think he’s a hottie?” Mary punctuated her statement with a knowing look.
First off, the police chief, Colton Walker, was Rafe’s best friend, and he’d goaded Rafe, a firefighter, into posing for that calendar, knowing full well that including Rafe’s image would sell dozens. Second, Colton had not delivered her a copy of Mr. December (not that she wanted one), but she wondered why, since her coffee shop was right in the middle of the main drag. And yes, Rafe was a complete hottie, but she knew too well he didn’t do serious. So it didn’t really matter what she thought.
She skimmed her hand lightly over her abdomen, which was a little fuller than usual but still flat enough that no one would suspect a thing. Another wave of nausea hit her, but she clutched the counter and took a deep breath to quell it. Like it or not, she’d be thinking of Rafe Langdon for a long time to come.
“He’s sure going to sell a lot of calendars for Children’s Hospital,” Mary said, clapping her hands together. “What an inspiration for the Christmas season.”
Yes, Christmas. Even now, outside the big plate glass windows that faced the street, snowflakes eddied around the orange glow from the streetlight. Swirls of chaos that reflected how Kaitlyn felt inside. Someone from the Angel Falls maintenance crew had hung a big lit-up candy cane on each light post, making the Main Street cheery and festive, and she herself had strung multicolored lights around all the coffee shop’s windows. She loved Christmas. It was her favorite time of year. But not this year. Not now. She felt anything but festive.
“How’s your niece doing, dear?” Mary asked. “I heard she’d gotten into some kind of trouble.”
Ah, Hazel. Kaitlyn’s older sister, Nikki, had sent her seventeen-year-old daughter to be with family and away from the bad influences at her huge high school in LA. Needless to say, Hazel was beyond thrilled to be dumped off in Angel Falls to complete her senior year far away from home. Kaitlyn knew that Hazel was simply biding her time until she turned eighteen and could kiss Angel Falls and their whole family goodbye.
“She’s…settling in. Thanks for asking, Mary,” Kaitlyn said. Hazel was having some serious problems fitting in at Angel Falls, but Kaitlyn had learned a long time ago not to feed the gossip mill of their close-knit town, no matter how concerned and kind her customers were.
Suddenly the shop bell tinkled, bringing in a few eddies of snow as well as the police chief himself, who was holding on to Hazel’s bony elbow. With her thin frame, big brown eyes, and delicate bow-shaped mouth, Hazel still reminded Kaitlyn of a pixie, a sweet, fragile creature. Except it was difficult to get two words out of her now, and personality-wise, she nowhere near resembled the little girl who used to love spending summers here. Catching Colton’s worried eye, Kaitlyn braced herself and set Mary’s tea mug on the counter with a thunk.
“Colton. Hazel. Is everything all right?” She wiped her hands on her apron and bolted around the counter.
“Thanks for the tea, sweetie,” Mary said, blowing Kaitlyn a quick kiss. With a wave to Colton and a wink at Hazel, Mary astutely let herself out the door.
Kaitlyn approached her niece and held her by the upper arms, a move that forced Hazel to face her. Hazel’s eyes met hers with their usual stoic look of well-practiced indifference. But just for a flash, they might’ve held fear, until she made her expression go flat again.
Colton gave Kaitlyn a sympathetic look. He practically made a second career out of helping the misguided youth of their town, so she knew whatever Hazel had done, it must’ve been serious for him to drag her in at closing time like this.
“Tell your aunt what happened, okay?” Colton said. It came out as more of a command than a question.
Hazel crossed her arms and tossed Colton a glare. “Why don’t you just tell her? You’re the one who insisted on bringing me here.”
Kaitlyn braced against another wave of nausea, willing it away. Oh please, oh please, she prayed. Not drugs. Anything but drugs.
“Okay, fine,” Colton said, blowing out a patient sigh. “Hazel here decided she wanted to get a magazine over at the pharmacy—without paying for it.”
Kaitlyn frowned. “A magazine?” She turned to Hazel, who was nervously shifting her weight from one foot to the other, a move that showcased her Chuck Taylor high-tops. Under her coat, she wore a burnt-orange sweater with a crazily patterned scarf that looked straight out of the seventies. A thief with fashion flair. “I could’ve given you the five dollars.”
Hazel’s face flushed, which Kaitlyn took as a sign that maybe there was the teensiest bit of the old Hazel left in there somewhere.
“Mr. Barter said this isn’t the first time,” the chief said. “He’s looking to press charges.”
Kaitlyn gasped. Oh, this was not good. “Colton, no.”
“Hazel, do you have anything to say?” Colton asked.
“I didn’t do it.”
Struggling not to roll her eyes, Kaitlyn looked at Colton. “Can I talk to you—privately?”
She pulled him off to the side, next to a vintage life-sized sign of Santa holding a cup of coffee up to his mouth and winking. “Look, I’ve been…preoccupied the past few weeks. I should’ve been looking out for her more.” Guilt pummeled her. “I’ll hire her here…as punishment. And to keep an eye on her.” Not exactly the best plan to recapture the relationship they once had, but what else could Kaitlyn do?
Colton narrowed his observant cop-eyes at her. “You okay? You look almost as bad as Rafe.”
“What are you talking about?” she asked, narrowing her eyes right back.
“It’s no secret you two have some kind of tiff going on.”
“It’s not a tiff.” She really didn’t know what to call sleeping with someone you never should’ve slept with in the first place, someone you couldn’t avoid because his sisters were your best friends and his family was just like your own. Complicated and awkward—yes. But a tiff—no.
“Well, whatever it is, he looks like crap too.” Colton dropped his voice. “Look, you told me Hazel’s done this in LA. That makes her a repeat offender. Letting her slide again isn’t going to do her any favors in the long run.”
“I’ll be more diligent. I won’t let her out of my sight. Please, Colton. If you tell Mr. Barter that, he’ll listen.”
Colton grimaced. “You can’t be responsible for everyone, just to let you know.”
Colton was well aware of Hazel’s situation, and Kaitlyn appreciated his understanding, but still, she felt like she’d been too wrapped up with her own…issues. She’d left the tending of Hazel to her mother, and that had been a mistake. “Thank you, but…I can handle it.”
He let out a heavy sigh. “It’s against my better judgment, but okay, I’ll see what I can do. But next time…” He made a cutting motion across his neck with his hands…accompanied by the faintest lift of his lips.
“Thank you,” she said, giving him a hug.
“And you’d better go get some sleep. Or make up with Rafe or something.”
She ignored that, then walked back over to the table where Hazel sat drawing patterns in the sugar she’d dumped from packets onto the table.
“So, are you throwing me in the clinker?” Hazel asked, her mouth pulled up in a smirk. Kaitlyn tried not to be upset.
“You’re going to work here,” Kaitlyn said. “Every day after school.”
“What?” She sat up and shot Kaitlyn an outraged look.
Kaitlyn forged on. “That’s the deal. And when your shift is done, you’ll do your homework in the back. And if your fingers get sticky again, I won’t be able to stop anyone from pressing charges. That will look bad on your college apps.”
Hazel snorted, and Kaitlyn knew why. Because there were no college apps. And possibly because of the fact that she’d said “sticky fingers,” as if she’d been watching too many old mafia movies.
The point was, Nikki had worked long hours and sometimes multiple jobs to give Hazel everything a kid needs. But she’d struggled, and funds for college were simply…not there. And with Hazel getting into trouble recently, both with her grades and with the shoplifting, her shot at a scholarship or a free ride to college had slipped away.
At parent-teacher conferences a few weeks ago, Hazel’s teachers had said she was bright but undisciplined. Unfocused. She didn’t seem to care. Maybe that was because she didn’t think anyone else did.
“I’d like to go back to Gram’s now,” Hazel said, not looking her in the eye.
“I’ll drop you off on my way to the station,” Colton said.
Kaitlyn thanked Colton. “I’ll see you here after school tomorrow,” Kaitlyn said to Hazel, as Colton ushered her out the door. She didn’t get an answer back.
Kaitlyn locked the door after them and dimmed the lights. Then she sat down at a table and put her head down on the cool wooden surface.
She had to do something to help Hazel before it was too late. But she couldn’t help wondering if maybe she was already too late, that Hazel’s decisions so far had set her on a certain course and changing that would be almost impossible.
Kaitlyn had no experience in her own life to compare—she’d always been responsible, a good daughter and a faithful sister. Nikki had always been the more emotional, more impulsive one. She’d gotten pregnant at eighteen and had ended up marrying her high school sweetheart, but things hadn’t worked out.
Kaitlyn had always been determined not to allow her emotions to rule her decisions like her older sister had. But hadn’t the same thing happened to her? She’d acted rashly with Rafe. She’d gotten swept away. How could she not, when every time he looked at her, her pulse skittered and desire rushed through her like a tidal wave?
In the darkened coffee shop, the strings of Christmas lights were as cheery as always, and the blinking lights from the ice cream shop across the street continued to remind her that life was going on as usual for most everyone else.
That crazy night with Rafe had led to something that would change—was already changing—her whole life. She was going to be a mother, something that, at nearly thirty-two, she was beginning to think might not happen. A baby—hers and Rafe’s—was growing inside of her right now. That was overwhelming, frightening, miraculous, and…awesome.
She imagined how Christmas next year would include a whole brand-new little person in their lives…a sweet bundle to hold and love and carry around, tiny arms outstretched toward all the shiny ornaments on the Christmas tree.
She wanted to be a mom more than anything, even if the circumstances weren’t perfect. She was going to do all she could to make smart choices so her baby would have the best life she could give it. That meant growing up, setting aside her misplaced feelings for Rafe, and focusing on securing her business.
She reached into her apron to examine the clipping she’d ripped from a baking magazine earlier in the day. Win $15,000 Plus three Months of Pastry Classes for the Best Christmas Cookie Recipe! the headline read. Kaitlyn tapped the clipping on the table. She had to start thinking of sustaining her business. Becoming a real businessperson. Growing. Winning this contest would give her a chance to put her café on the map. And it would give Hazel a shot at college.
As for pastry classes…well, Kaitlyn had always dreamed of taking those. She’d always wanted to expand her baked goods section, which was popular. Plus, she knew exactly the recipe she’d submit—one for the most amazing Christmas cookie in the entire world. Her grandfather’s chocolate snowcap cookies, which were slightly crunchy on the outside, gooey on the inside with melted chocolate, and coated with powdered sugar that cracked in the oven so they looked like snow-covered mountains. She’d grown up eating them after school in the Bean, her grandfather placing a warm plate full of them before her and Nikki and asking them about their days.
She had to start securing her future. Because she hadn’t needed a pregnancy test to tell her that she was going to have Rafe Langdon’s baby.
“There’s our pretty boy,” Jonathan McDougal, said, as Rafe walked into the Tap, a flurry of snow swirling in as he shut the door behind him. Jon was the owner of the popular neighborhood hangout, and apparently, he had seen the calendar.
“Pretty boy, Jon?” Rafe said, raising a brow.
“Oh, he’s just jealous,” Jon’s wife, Maggie, said, brushing her gray hair aside as she slid some menus into the holder on the wall behind the bar. “We all know Rafe’s more than just a pretty boy—he’s Mr. December.”
“Ha ha, right. Thanks, Maggie,” Rafe said. Maggie was also a paramedic, and he was used to her ribbing. Off to his right, he heard a giggle. Two young, pretty women sitting at the other end of the bar were looking at him and whispering to each other. One of them wiggled her fingers in a little wave.
He smiled back, but it wasn’t genuine. Not his usual lady-killer smile. But the woman flashed him a big smile back, and he knew that if he wanted to, he could land her number in a heartbeat.
Not that Rafe was cocky or arrogant. He just…knew women.
Well, some women. But definitely not one woman in particular whom he couldn’t figure out for the life of him.
It was really unlike him to get his suspenders in such a twist. He should be excited that Mr. December was bringing him new dating opportunities, but he just…wasn’t. He was losing his touch. Had been for the past few months. What was wrong with him?
Across the bar, the women stood up and began to head to the door. The one who waved at him earlier was trying to make eye contact, but he made sure not to look.
“Mr. December?” Eli Nelson, a carpenter buddy who was sitting at the bar, chuckled as he took a swig of beer.
Evan Marshall, the full-time police deputy who sat next to Eli, teased him. “December’s going to be a great month for you—every day will be like Christmas with all the women you’re going to meet.”
“He had on Santa pants and a cute Santa hat,” Maggie said, gesturing excitedly as she handed Rafe a beer, “and the only thing hiding those amazing abs was a tiny little kitten. Next December’s going to be my permanent calendar page.” Her voice faded as Jon stared at her.
“Oh, honey,” she said, kissing her husband on the cheek and lovingly patting his beard, “you’ll always be my favorite Santa.” Everyone knew that Jon played Santa for the women’s shelter Christmas party every year.
“Aw, look at that,” Rafe said, watching Jon’s ruddy complexion turn even ruddier with a blush.
Jon smiled at his wife, mollified. Turning to Rafe, he said, “Maybe you should do something with all that Santa talent.”
“Yeah, like what?” Rafe asked, taking a sip of his beer.
“How about taking over being Santa this year for the women’s shelter?”
“How come you’re not doing it?” Rafe asked. Jon had the great beard, the deep laugh, and the stockier build. The perfect Santa.
“One of our kiddos has a Christmas program that night,” Maggie said. “As much as we love helping out the shelter kids, we’ve got to pass this year.”
“So how about it?” Jon said. “I’ve seen you with your niece and nephew. You’re a natural.”
Being a fun uncle was one thing. But playing Santa for an entire roomful of shelter kids was another thing entirely.
“The only people who get to sit on my lap are single women.” Rafe grinned to punctuate the joke and left it at that.
Evan and Eli howled, and Jon threw up his hands.
Maggie, however, shook her head. “I’m glad you’re having fun being a pinup now, Rafe, but sooner or later you’ll be happier to have a baby on your lap and a wife at your side.”
He flashed his brightest smile and used his most joking voice, but deep down, he meant every word. “Don’t hold your breath, Maggie. Sorry.” Because it would never happen.
Rafe had been there, done that, and vowed to never go there again. Eight years ago, his fiancée had died in a car accident, on the way to a doctor’s appointment. She’d been eight weeks pregnant, a fact that only a few people knew.
Rafe understood himself pretty well, and he knew he was not capable of surviving that kind of loss again. And if joking about never settling down made him seem calloused, or insensitive, or whatever, he was okay with that. He knew his limits.
“Hey, a couple of us are going into Richardson tomorrow night to have some fun,” Evan said with a grin. “Want to come?”
“Thanks, Evan, but I’m busy this weekend,” Rafe said. He wasn’t that busy—he just wasn’t in the mood to pick up women. Which was odd because usually he was all in for that.
But lately, all he could seem to think about was Kaitlyn.
Kaitlyn, whom he’d known forever. Who was best friends with two of his sisters and practically part of his family. Whom he’d impulsively slept with after they’d had too much fun together at a wedding because he’d been unable to resist her. And he’d regretted it ever since.
If he were completely honest with himself, over the past couple of years, on top of their friendship, there’d been something else brewing. Attraction. A certain…fondness. Feelings.
Somewhere along the line, Kaitlyn had gone from that nice-enough girl who always hung out with his sisters to a funny, vivacious woman who made him laugh and who sometimes knew him better than he knew himself. It was no wonder they struck up an even closer friendship after she broke up with her last boyfriend. But he knew from the start that he had to draw a thick line in the sand, one that could never be crossed.
He’d tried to keep her at arm’s length, but he’d let his guard down that night—and the unthinkable had happened. But it would never happen again. Sleeping with her had messed everything up—their easy conversation, the jokes and banter he looked forward to every day. And now he had no idea how to get them back to the fun and easy friendship they had.
Because not having Kaitlyn in his life ironically made him think about her more. And that was ruining his mojo. He hated having his mojo ruined.
“C’mon, Rafe,” Eli said. “You’re scaring us. Snap out of it, because wingmen need love too.”
Rafe turned to Evan and Eli and sighed. “Buy me another beer and that might twist my arm.”
For the next half hour, Rafe managed to laugh and make small talk and buy another round. So maybe he wasn’t really in the mood to do any of these things, but what was it that his mom used to say? Even if you don’t feel like doing something, do it anyway—and you’ll be surprised how your mood will change.
Have to take your word on that, Mom, he thought, lifting his beer a little in salute. She’d been gone a long time, but one thing he remembered: his mom had used humor to make people feel better. The only trouble with that was that people expected you to be funny all the time, regardless of what you were feeling underneath.
A half hour later, the beer gone, Rafe said his goodbyes and walked out into the cold. It was snowing pretty heavily now, the flakes big and fat, the kind that stuck to your eyelashes and your coat. The cold air felt good—it woke him up and pulled him out of his thoughts, made him focus on something other than Kaitlyn.
His truck was parked in the lot, but he didn’t get in, just kept going. He told himself he needed a brisk walk to clear his head, that he didn’t care where his feet led him. But he did care. And he knew exactly where he was headed.
* * *
The Bean was closed for the night, but Rafe found himself on his way there anyway. He imagined Kaitlyn inside tidying up before tomorrow’s morning rush. He missed seeing the way she tucked her pretty blond hair behind her ear and smiled. And talking to her about everything and nothing. He missed her, period.
And, heaven help him, he missed the thing that had ruined their friendship. Sinking onto her softness, murmuring her name as he brushed his lips against her soft full ones, hearing her little moans as she kissed him back and came apart in his arms.
He shook his head to clear the images. But he couldn’t, and they’d already affected him, if the tightening in his pants was any indicator.
He told himself he was going to the Bean to set things right. Because she meant too much to him to let things continue as they were. After all, they’d been best friends until that had happened.
“Rafe?” a familiar voice said. “What are you doing out there?”
Kaitlyn. Startled, he realized he’d been standing in front of the Bean’s big plate glass windows, staring in. He wasn’t sure for how long.
She was fussing over him, tugging him by the arm. “It’s freezing out here, and you haven’t even got your jacket zipped. And where are your hat and gloves? Geez, you’re covered with snow.” Her busy hands dusted off the coating of snow that had accumulated on his hair, his coat.
“I was at the Tap for a while,” he said. He’d never admit it, but he enjoyed her fussing. Her touch.
He wondered if this was how it was going to be, that they were both going to pretend everything was normal between them, like they hadn’t been avoiding each other for months.
As she pulled him inside of the warm, deserted cafe and steered him over to a table, he noticed she smelled good, like dark rich coffee. And apples and cinnamon.
She placed a hand on a hip and assessed him. “Did you eat dinner?” she asked. “Don’t even answer. I’m making you a sandwich. And I’ve got some chicken soup left.”
“Why are you still here?” he asked. “It’s Friday night. Don’t you have a date or something?” Oh no. Why did he say that?
“I was…going over some numbers,” she said.
“You look pretty,” he said. Oh, even worse. Why had he come here when it was clear his foot was going to spend the entire time in his mouth?
She halted halfway to the kitchen and turned. “Rafe Langdon, are you drunk?” She frowned and tiny lines appeared between her eyes. He wanted to smooth them with his fingers. No, he wanted to kiss them away.
What on earth was he thinking? He had to stop being an idiot.
“Just a little,” he said. He wasn’t at all. But if saying so would help excuse his foot-mouth situation, so be it.
“Are you okay?” he asked. Getting the attention off of himself was a relief, but he was genuinely worried, noticing the dark circles rimming her eyes. He could swear she blushed at his question.
“Of course I am.” She sounded fine—maybe a little too fine, in his opinion. Like she was trying hard to convince him. “Why would you ask that?”
He shrugged. He knew everything about her too well. The way she blushed when something was bothering her, the way worry filled her blue eyes and made her press her lips together in a tight line. “Just that you look tired.” On the table was a clipping from a magazine. He lifted it up. “What’s this for?”
She took it out of his hands. “Nothing. It’s…nothing.”
He snagged it back and read it. “A recipe contest?”
She shrugged nonchalantly, but her fingers tapped restlessly on the table. “It’s just something I’m thinking of entering.”
He searched her eyes as he slid the clipping back in her direction. “I’ve been worried about you.”
“My sisters told me your niece is having some problems. Everything all right?”
“Yes. Everything’s fine.” She lowered her eyes. “Actually, just between the two of us, she got caught tonight trying to lift a magazine from the pharmacy.”
Her pretty blue gaze flicked up at him. Between the two of us. What would it be like for there to actually be a two of them? But he knew better than anyone that there was no chance of that ever happening. After he’d lost Claire and their unborn baby, he’d made a pact with himself…never again. Never. Again.
No matter how much he cared about Kaitlyn or how sometimes he had moments where he thought they’d be amazing together…she deserved someone normal. Unscarred. And capable of love. Which he was not.
“Just a magazine?” Rafe asked.
Kaitlyn frowned. “There’s no such thing as ‘just a magazine.’ Plus, you know she was caught shoplifting in California too.”
“What I mean is, if you’re going to be bad, why not go for the cash register? Or the narcs.”
“Rafe!” Her voice sounded horrified but it was clear she was suppressing a laugh.
He grinned. It was so easy to loosen her up, to make her smile. He felt a sudden surge of pride that he hadn’t lost his touch with her at least. “Wasn’t she supposed to get a job to teach her some responsibility? And you know, so she wouldn’t have time to shoplift?” he asked. “I thought that was the deal your mom made with her.”
“My mom never insisted on it. So I just hired her.” Kaitlyn sent him a look that he knew meant What have I done? But she’d never say that.
He blew out a breath. “Kaitlyn, that’s kind of you, but—you sure that’s a good idea? It sounds like the kid needs more than a job.”
“I’ll be able to keep a better eye on her this way. And maybe I could…I don’t know. Try to figure out what’s going on with her.” She dropped her voice. “I couldn’t just do…nothing.”
He nodded sympathetically. Kaitlyn was known for taking on lost causes—stray cats, lonely customers…him. Before he could say anything, she’d jumped up and run into the kitchen. She came back a minute later with soup and a sandwich, which tasted like the best he’d ever had, and he thanked her.
“So why the recipe contest?” he asked as they sat together while he finished eating. “Don’t you have enough to do?”
She heaved a sigh. “My grandfather had this recipe for chocolate snowcap cookies that was amazing. I know it would win the contest. But it’s…lost. No one knows where it is and my mom doesn’t remember how to make them.”
“And this is important why?” Her voice held an edge of passion, and something else—desperation, maybe?—but for a recipe contest?
Kaitlyn blushed. “Nikki makes too much money for Hazel to qualify for full financial aid for school. So she’d have to take out massive amounts of loans. If I win this contest…voila…college money.”
“Is Hazel going to take pastry classes too?” He tried not to sound skeptical, but he hoped this scheme wasn’t all for Hazel. He knew how much Kaitlyn loved the Bean and how she always wanted to experiment with new recipes.
“Those are for me. For the Bean’s future. I know it’s crazy and a long shot but…it’s a shot I want to take.”
“Well then, you’ve got to take it.” He sat back and smiled—because he couldn’t help it.
“What? What’s so funny?”
“Just that it reminds me of that time you invented that coffee milkshake to sell in the Bean.”
She put a hand to her forehead. “Don’t remind me. That tasted terrible!”
“It wasn’t that bad. You looked pretty hot serving it up to everyone who walked by wearing that stuffed coffee bean costume.”
“What?” she said, rolling her eyes. “Quit joking. That stuffed bean costume was not sexy.”
“I mean, I’m just joking,” he backpedaled. “You always look nice.” Okay, he was blathering, and he needed to stop. Right now. Even though the coffee bean costume had been kind of hot—with her long pretty legs in yellow tights under the stuffed bean part. But why he was even thinking about that he had no idea.
Frankly right now, she looked more than nice. And that way she had of nervously worrying her lower lip was making him crazy. He wanted to stop talking about baking contests, reach over the table, pull her into his arms, and kiss her sweet full lips. He had a few other ideas too, about how to get her to relax. All of which were completely out of line.
Instead, he gave a nonchalant shrug. “The point is, you went for it. And I think you should follow your instincts on this too and go for it. Why not?”
She smiled. “Well—thanks for your support. It means a lot that you don’t think I’m crazy.”
“You are crazy but…Nothing ventured, nothing baked.” He quirked his mouth in a wry grin.
She gave a snorty, sudden laugh. “Okay, you’re crazy too.”
“Probably,” Rafe said, setting down the clipping. “You look tired. Are you sleeping okay?” He’d said that already—probably because he was too afraid to say what was really on his mind.
Kaitlyn swallowed and dropped her gaze from his. “I’m fine. How have you been?”
He ignored the question and placed his hand over hers on the table, and she immediately stiffened. But he cut to the chase anyway. “Kaitlyn, I—miss you. I miss how we used to talk. I miss my…friend.”
“We became more than friends that night at the wedding, Rafe.”
He smoothed his thumb over the back of her palm. “That part was…That was really good too.” What was he doing? He had no business touching her. Wanting her. Or allowing her to believe he could give her what she wanted. “Not that I remember much, that is. I mean, we’d both had too much to drink, and…”
“Yeah,” she said, sitting up straighter. “I mean, I don’t either. Remember, that is.”
“Oh.” She didn’t? The truth of the matter was he remembered too much. The way she felt, soft and warm in his arms. The way she kissed him, breathless and passionate, their kisses breaking down a mountain of forbidden feelings between them.
At least that’s how it had been for him.
But he couldn’t tell her that because he had no intention of acting on any feelings he might have for her. He didn’t have feelings.
He pushed down his irrational disappointment and continued. “It was obviously a mistake. One we won’t be stupid enough to make again.”
“No, of course not,” she said hurriedly. Disappointment riffled through him, settling in his stomach. She didn’t care about him like that. So why wasn’t he relieved?
“I value our friendship a lot,” she said, sounding like she was letting him down gently.
“Me too. I would never want anything to mess that up. Especially not a dumb…mistake.” It was a dumb mistake, right? He almost expected her to cut in, interrupt him. Deny it. “I mean, I’d never want to ruin our friendship by trying to have a…relationship.”
“Rafe, I’m not one of those women you have to try and get out of things with.” She squeezed her eyes shut tightly. Great. He knew what that look meant—that she was 100 percent serious about something. “I don’t…expect anything from you.”
He sat there, tapping the tops of his fingers together on the table. Of course she wouldn’t be demanding or pressure him for more. She was different than other women. Still, her low expectations of him niggled in a way he couldn’t quite explain.
“So how about we go back to being…just friends?” That he could handle.
“We’ll always be friends, Rafe.” She looked right at him, her pretty blue eyes deep with feeling. But he couldn’t shake the sense that she was rejecting him. Writing him off. “But after what happened, I can’t…It can’t go back to the way it used to be. Things are…different now.”
“They don’t have to be.” He sounded a little desperate, but he needed things to go back to the way they were before. Their relaxed, easy friendship. Sharing laughs, hanging out. Talking to her about the latest crazy news around town or really anything that was on his mind. Surely they could put this inconvenient…attraction aside for both their sakes. They had to.
Kaitlyn sighed. “Well, they are different. Look, I have something to say, and I’m just going to come out and be honest. I’m—”
She was interrupted by Rafe’s phone ringing. On the phone a photo came up beside the caller’s name. It was of him and a woman he’d met at a bar with his friends, his arm around her, both of them smiling for a selfie. He pressed ignore, hoping Kaitlyn didn’t see it.
Too late. Kaitlyn glanced from his phone to him but didn’t say anything.
“What were you saying?” he asked.
“The night of the wed—”
His phone rang again. Same woman calling. Again he pressed ignore.
“Maybe you should get that,” she said. “It looks important.” She nodded toward the picture on the phone.
“I doubt it. She’s just someone I met out the other night.” Someone who was clearly interested.
“You two look pretty cozy.”
His first impulse was to tell her the truth. That it had been the woman’s idea to take a selfie together and put her number into his phone. And that he’d rather sit all night with Kaitlyn than answer a call from someone else.
But what good would that do? He knew the answer to that, and he also knew what he had to do. He picked up his phone and pressed a few buttons and looked Kaitlyn dead in the eye. “I always do that when someone wants my number.”
“Do what?” she asked innocently.
“Take a selfie so I don’t forget who she is.” He pocketed the phone and stood to go, trying not to wince at what he’d just said. “I’m glad you don’t hate me, Katie. Your friendship means too much to me.”
Friendship, he reminded himself. Just that and nothing more.
“Rafe, you’re such an idiot. But I could never hate you.” She stepped forward and hugged him. Her voice sounded a little funny, a little cracked.
Only she would hug him after he’d been such a jerk. He inhaled the sweet smell of her hair, felt the softness of her cheek as it brushed past his. Deep down, his stomach ached from the lie. After a few seconds, he pulled back and held her at arm’s length. “You know I love you, Katie.” Then his phone rang again, vibrating from his pocket. “What was it you were going to tell me?”
Kaitlyn was staring at him, her eyes a little watery. “Oh, just…just that…that your friendship means a lot to me too. And…and we’ll figure out where to go from here.”
Where to go from here? That didn’t sound good. But he had faith they’d figure it out, now that he knew she didn’t hate him. “We will.” Then he tossed her a wave and headed back out to the street.
His phone buzzed yet again. He was a second away from blocking the number when he hesitated. Took a deep breath of frosty air. This time when he picked it up, he decided to follow his mom’s advice again. “Hey, Jade. Yeah, I’ve been thinking about you too.”
Maybe if he willed that to be true, he could drive all thoughts of Kaitlyn out of his head for good.
* * *
One last thing…my webmaster Chris has done a miracle – I mean, he always does an amazing job, BUT now he’s made it snow on my home page! Just looking at it makes me want to be in Angel Falls for the holidays right now! (And trust me, I’ve spent a lot of time in Angel Falls where it was Christmas for months on end while I was writing the book. 🙂 )
Let me know if you like the snow!
Hope you enjoyed the sneak peek…thanks for reading and for your support!