Ghosts haunt a veteran and a spunky Christmas-shop owner in a small town…
Lexi Taylor never let herself be defined by the fire that burned her when she was just a kid. Now, she happily works at The Christmas Cat, a year-round holiday boutique. So what if she wears long sleeves to hide her scars? Who cares if her relationships don’t last long enough for a lover to see her damaged back?
Tom “Finn” Finnegan is one week out of the Army, fresh from Afghanistan. He vowed to visit the parents of J-Dawg, his best friend who was killed by a roadside bomb almost a year ago. But promises are easier made than kept—especially when J-Dawg haunts Finn’s dreams.
When he literally stumbles into The Christmas Cat, Finn shatters dozens of ornaments, not to mention Lexi’s peace of mind. The only way he can repay her is to take on handyman work in her store. But “other duties as assigned” takes on new meaning when sparks sizzle between the couple. Can Lexi and Finn find the key to healing each other’s scars as Christmas approaches in Harmony Springs?
Previously released as Fly Me to the Moon.
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It was beginning to look a lot like Christmas.
Which was another way of saying that Lexi Taylor was hard at work, tucked behind the counter at The Christmas Cat. Inside the Harmony Springs Main Street boutique, every day was Christmas. Lexi repeated to her best friend, “You know I don’t go to the Christmas Fête.”
“But this year is different,” Anne Barton said, leaning against the counter as she sipped from a cardboard cup of coffee. “Every store on Main Street is sponsoring a booth. It’ll be a great chance for you to advertise. Bring in some new customers to help you over the New Year’s hump.”
Lexi was beginning to regret ever confiding her financial fears. Of course Anne didn’t have any seasonal woes. The Orchard Diner was busy month in and month out, unlike The Christmas Cat, which would be moribund for the first quarter of the year.
Anne leaned forward to sweeten the pot. “How can you not look forward to the Fête? Hot cider? Fresh doughnuts? All the roast pork you can eat, with handsome policemen turning the spit for the pig roast?”
A bonfire, smack in the center of Harmony Park.
Lexi shook her head. “It’s just an excuse to get kids out of the house so parents can finish up Santa’s work.” How many times had she heard about her own father using the Christmas Eve celebration to assemble her first bike? Or her mother putting the finishing touch on a knit scarf as she supervised carnival games for the town’s sugar-hopped kids?
“Spoil-sport,” Anne pouted.
Before Lexi could retort, a circular saw screamed in the back room, followed by a string of colorful curses. Lexi called out,
“Everything okay back there?” Edging past a six-foot-tall artificial blue spruce decorated with superhero ornaments, she peered into her brother’s construction zone.
Chris pushed his protective goggles onto his forehead. “You know I failed wood shop, right?”
“You’re the one who said you wanted a platform to keep your books off the floor!”
“I think I said, ‘I need a place to store these books.’”
Lexi shook her head at the misshapen scraps of wood that punctuated piles of sawdust on the floor. “And I said the back room has flooded three times, which is why I keep my stock in the front room.” Harmony Creek ran through a channel a block away. The usually well-behaved stream overflowed its banks when the Virginia weather was especially wet. She reminded Chris, “If you’re willing to take the risk, then you can be done playing tool guy.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Chris said, kicking at a section of one-by-eight that was supposed to form part of a frame for his raised plywood surface. Sawdust billowed up, coating the overstuffed Queen Anne armchair he’d dragged over from his shop.
Anne peered around Lexi’s shoulder. “Are you sure you got the right wood at the lumber yard?”
“Don’t you start in too.” Chris jutted his chin toward the front room. “Don’t you two have work to do out there? A diner to run? Ornaments to hang?”
“Absolutely, brother dear,” Lexi said as Anne grinned. “Just remember: Measure twice. Cut once.”
Chris acknowledged her advice by scratching his temple with his middle finger. Laughing, Lexi led Anne back to the front room.
“When does he start in DC?” Anne asked, taking another swig of coffee.
“He moves tomorrow and reports for work on Thursday. Chef Morales says they’re crazy busy for the holidays.”
“Chef Morales…” Anne mused. “Maybe I should start calling myself Chef Barton.”
Lexi laughed. “It doesn’t quite go with a greasy spoon.”
“I wash every one of my spoons!” Anne protested in mock outrage.
Lexi smiled as Chris let loose another stream of profanity. Until last week, her brother had been the mild-mannered owner of Taylor’s Books. He’d grumbled about shutting up the unsuccessful business forever, dreaming about pursuing a job as a chef. Lexi had spent years eating the byproducts of those dreams, the delicious appetizers and entrées and desserts Chris experimented with on his days off. Now, he’d finally landed a job as a sous-chef in Washington, just an hour and a half away, and he was really pulling the plug.
Lexi had volunteered to watch over his stock for a few months while he gave the big city a chance. She shook her head. Chris was a great guy, and an even better cook, but he was one hell of a lousy businessman. His tiny bookstore had been doomed from the get-go—three blocks off Main Street and at the far end of town, too far for any casual tourist to wander. It didn’t help that Chris had insisted on stocking the shop only with books he wanted to read. Coffee-table gourmet cookbooks didn’t naturally mix with massive tomes on Harmony Springs’s Civil War history and lurid true-crime accounts of serial killers.
“Hey,” Anne said before Lexi could tease her more about the diner. “When did you get these?” She walked over to the retro tree halfway down the middle aisle. Lexi’s belly churned as Anne reached out to touch a bubble candle light on the aluminum tinsel branches.
Don’t be ridiculous. They’re plastic.
But she had to conquer the nerves that twisted through her gut. She forced a smile as she crossed the store. “Last week,” she said, proud that her voice didn’t shake. She reached out and straightened one of the candles, a blue one. But her heart was still pounding when she took refuge by the cash register. She wiped her palms against her bright red and green skirt. The long sleeves and high neck of her traditional Victorian costume felt like an exoskeleton, holding her upright.
Anne must have sensed something was wrong, because she changed the topic of conversation. Lexi barely heard her babble on, something about a new sandwich she was going to serve as a lunch special. Turkey. Bacon. Pepper jack cheese. Chipotle mayonnaise.
Lexi forced herself to straighten her right arm, to prove she had nearly full range of motion. With grim determination, she opened the tube of heavy-duty moisturizer she kept beneath the counter. She massaged a dab into the tight skin on the back of her hand.
Thirteen years. Thirteen freaking years, and she still got caught by surprise sometimes.
Oh. From the silence, Anne must have asked her a question. “I’m sorry,” Lexi said. “I wasn’t paying attention.”
Before Anne could repeat herself, the bell tinkled above the front door, teaming up with a gust of winter air to announce a new customer.
Or maybe not.
In college, Lexi had majored in accounting, but she’d rounded out her departmental requirements with a few classes on marketing. She knew how to identify her core customers—and this guy wasn’t one. He ducked into the shop as if he were trying to escape a winter blizzard, immediately jamming his hands into the pockets of his jeans.
Hello! Lexi’s girl parts perked right up. Those were some nice-fitting jeans. Lexi shot a look toward Anne to see if she’d noticed. Of course she had. Anne was a woman, and she had a pulse. She was paying every bit as much attention to the guy as Lexi was.
Not that the hands-jamming, jeans-wearing not-customer noticed. He just hunched his shoulders inside his stiff leather jacket, settling deeper inside his knife-sharp khaki work shirt. His new, unscuffed work boots looked like he’d just taken them out of a box.
The rest of his clothes looked brand new, but those jeans… The soft denim was worn smooth, with a button fly and white creases across his thighs that no nice girl would ever notice. Would certainly never stare at.
Lexi forced her eyes up to the guy’s face—hair almost hidden beneath a faded Red Sox cap, a beard just growing out. That hair was dark, black, which only made his blue eyes seem that much brighter. What did they call it? Black Irish? This guy was that, and a whole lot more. Those amazing blue eyes darted around the shop, as if the ornaments might jump off their display trees and roll right under his feet if he wasn’t careful.
Bull. China shop. This guy wanted to be anywhere else in the world but here. That much was crystal clear.
Well, this wasn’t the first time Lexi had helped a customer choose a last-minute gift. Casting a meaningful look at Anne—see how hard I work, here at The Christmas Cat?—she put a smile behind her words and asked, “May I help you find something?”
The entire room was filled with crap. From trees that loomed into the aisles to little round tables boobytrapped with breakable ornaments, every surface sparkled and shone and screamed about merry fucking Christmas.
Automatically, Finn swept his gaze around the shop’s four walls, glancing past the two women to the open door at the back. He could hear someone moving back there, shifting things around, and the muscles in his chest automatically grew tight.
Shit. Stand down Sergeant Finnegan. You’re in Harmony Springs, Virginia, not Parwan Province.
He was a civilian now, had been for one full week, and the sooner his overclocked alarm system got the message, the better.
He swallowed a foul taste at the back of his throat and said, “I’m looking for a present.”
He shouldn’t have come in here. There was a florist’s shop a few doors down. He could have bought a wicked big poinsettia there and been done. Or the liquor store, at the edge of town. He could have picked up a bottle there, something decent enough to give as a gift. Tossed in a bottle of Jack for himself. Or Wild Turkey. Both.
The woman with the coffee didn’t work here. She hadn’t said a word. Plus, she had stains on her sweater—egg maybe, and maple syrup, grease along both cuffs. Her hair was pulled back tight, and she wore thick-soled shoes. She was a cook, somewhere where she had to be on her feet most of the day.
He dismissed her as a threat. That left the other one, the woman behind the counter. She was dressed in some sort of costume, like an old-fashioned schoolmarm in one of those crappy westerns J-Dawg loved to watch, Gunsmoke or Bonanza or whatever else he managed to dig up online. Her high-necked white blouse tucked into a floor-length red skirt that was covered with holly and bells and shit. Add a head covering, and she’d fit right in, back in Afghanistan.
But he was sort of glad her hair wasn’t covered up. Not with the way it fell around her face, tumbling past her shoulders in rough curls, like she’d just woken up and was ready to—
“A present?” she said brightly, her lips soft and red, like she’d been sucking on a cherry Popsicle. “For whom?”
Whom. Yeah. She was totally a schoolmarm. And he’d better get his mind out of the gutter before he made a fool out of himself. More of a fool than he already had, standing there like he’d forgotten the English language.
He shifted his weight and ordered his body to stop acting like he was a teen-age boy. Or a soldier who’d only been stateside for seven days. He kept his hands in his pockets.
“It’s a, what do you call it? A hostess gift. I’m going to someone’s house, and I don’t want to show up empty-handed.”
The woman flashed him a blinding smile. It wasn’t possible for anyone to be that goddamn cheerful. He felt like he was in some Disney version of small-town America, where the fucking rabbits and sparrows danced around in circles. At least the woman didn’t burst out singing when she asked, “Do you know anything about them? Hobbies, maybe? Or things they like? Dogs or cats, maybe?”
Yeah. They liked their son. Until he was blown up by an IED a few clicks north of Kabul.
Finn rubbed his left biceps, telling himself to ignore the itch that said the tat was healing. JLD. 12/24/14. Not that he needed ink to remember the date.
Coffee Woman cleared her throat, like she was rushing him to answer. Schoolmarm’s smile was getting a little weak around the corners. He shook his head and ran a quick hand down his face, coming up with a stiff grin that was supposed to be disarming. “Sorry,” he said. “I don’t know them well.”
“Is it for someone here in town? Maybe I can point you in the right direction.”
He nodded curtly. “Susan and David Dawson.”
Both women tightened up at the name. He watched Schoolmarm’s lips pull into a tight O, and her eyes narrowed as she looked more closely at his stiff new clothes, at the shoes he hadn’t even started to break in. Now she’d pegged him as military. Not that it took a PhD in psychology.
She knew the Dawsons, knew about J-Dawg. Everyone knew everyone in Harmony Springs. That’s why J-Dawg had gotten away as fast as he had, taking the first bus out of town the day after he’d graduated high school.
Schoolmarm was a professional, though. She pasted a Merry Christmas smile on her lips in the time it took for her to swallow. “Nancy collects Holiday Town.” He must have looked as confused as he felt, because she waved her left hand toward the back corner of the shop. “Those little buildings on the back table. The ones around the mirror lake. I keep a list of the ones she already owns, to help out her husband. To help Jon.”
His gut tightened at the name, but he made himself say, “Thanks.” Feeling like a linebacker at the ballet, he edged past silent Coffee Woman, making his way toward the corner the other woman had indicated. That meant getting by a display of stuffed animals—reindeer and polar bears and moose—without knocking any of them over. He had to skirt half a dozen crèches, too, each one cluttered with carved characters, each one built around a smiling baby Jesus.
One entire tree was filled with moon-shaped ornaments. There were round balls, some gleaming silver, others dark as slate. A few had craters like miniature globes. There were a lot of crescent moons, each with a laughing face. Some were made out of painted wood and others were brightly-colored plastic. Black cats camped out on some of the moons, and stars gleamed behind a couple. There were dozens of them—every one different, every one catching the light and throwing it back into the shop.
Conscious of the women behind him, he was determined not to turn around, not to back himself into more awkward conversation. When he finally made it to the far corner, he saw what she meant by a mirror lake. Cotton stuffing was layered around a silver circle, with little buildings scattered in the pretend snow. There was a church and a general store, a post office and a livery barn. A dozen houses crowded around the “lake”, choking on wreaths and bunting and bows.
Finn picked up a barber shop, complete with its red, white, and blue pole. He turned it over to check the price and couldn’t help wincing. That would buy one hell of a nice bottle at the packie on the edge of town. Or enough cheap booze to last him the rest of the month. Well, the week, anyway, at the rate he was going through it.
But the woman behind the counter said Nancy Dawson liked this crap, that J-Dawg had already given her some. She’d cry when she opened whatever he brought her.
She was going to end up crying anyway. They all would, unless he drank enough to get numb before they started swapping stories. Hell, that was the whole reason he’d come here, to the middle of fucking nowhere. To meet the Dawg’s family. To tell them it had happened fast. There hadn’t been time to feel pain. To be afraid.
He squared his shoulders like he was picking up his pack for an all-day march. Buy the damn thing and be done with it. Sure, he was short on cash. But that’s what credit cards were for. And once he got his shit together, once he filed the goddamn severance paperwork, got the VA on his case, found a job… Another hundred bucks wasn’t going to make a difference.
He looked back at Schoolmarm. “What about this one?” he asked. “Does she have one of these?”
Another blinding smile. Christ. No one could be that happy. Ever.
“Let me check,” she said, reaching beneath the counter and pulling up a laptop computer. She typed with one hand, her fingers flying across the keyboard. A tiny frown settled between her eyebrows.
He sighed, already knowing what she was going to say. He’d have to choose something else. Before he could turn back to the town, though, a shot rang out, loud and sharp and clear.