Forget love—I’d rather fall in chocolate!
—Sandra J. Dykes
Sugar Creek, Vermont
Luke Monroe was no Scrooge. He was all about family and giving and good times with friends. He co-owned and ran the Sugar Shack, a local pub and restaurant devoted to camaraderie via top-notch food and drinks, and a cozy atmosphere. Like every other year, this year he’d decked the Shack’s halls with boughs of holly on December 1st—fa-la-la-la-la. He’d helped decorate two other family businesses, too. J. T. Monroe’s Department Store—owned and operated by his dad and Luke’s older brother, Devlin. And Moose-a-lotta—a kitschy café owned and operated by his grandma, Daisy Monroe, and Dev’s lady love, Chloe Madison. Lots of red and green and a good dose of silvery white due to the latest snowstorm. Overall the entire town of Sugar Creek looked like Santa’s Vermont Village. Normally, Luke felt like a giddy kid for most of the month of December. This holiday season, for reasons that alluded him, Luke was bluer than blue. Fa-la-freaking-la.
Considering Luke and his entire family had a lot to celebrate, first and foremost, his dad’s ongoing recovery from a scary bout of cancer, this seasonal funk really pissed Luke off. No way was he going to rain on anyone’s holiday parade, so he’d been putting up a cheery front for weeks, waiting for the funk to fade and the joy to commence. No moping. Life as always. Hence why he was with family just now instead of home alone, swigging beer and watching sports.
Sunday dinner at Daisy Monroe’s was a Monroe family tradition. Only last month Gram had moved out of her longtime spacious home and Luke’s sister, Rocky, and her fiancé, Jayce, had moved in. Just before that, Gram, who’d grown eccentric and reckless, had officially agreed to let Chloe (a kick-ass gourmet chef) take over the planning, prepping, and cooking. So now Sunday dinner was at Rocky’s house and Chloe oversaw the meal.
In essence, nothing had changed. (With the exception of Luke’s brother and sister and even his grandma now being in committed relationships.) As always, not every member of the Monroe family and their extended clan attended the traditional dinner every Sunday. As always, you never knew who you’d end up seated by at the table. Since it was the night before Christmas Eve and a really big family shindig, only a core few Monroes were in attendance. There’d been more food than people, but Luke had doubled up on portions and he’d offered to take home leftovers since Rocky’s fridge was crammed with the next day’s feast. Amazing that he had room for dessert, but he did. Lately Luke had had a real weakness for sweets and, in addition to other holiday goodies, there were a boatload of cupcakes leftover from the holiday party Rocky had attended earlier in the day. The annual bash for the town’s number-one social and charity club—the Cupcake Lovers.
While Rocky, Dev, Chloe, and Gram laughed and fussed over last-minute decorating in the living room, Luke battled the blues and lingered over the nearby dessert buffet. He’d been lingering for a while.
“Seriously? That’s your fourth cupcake, Luke.”
Grinning, Luke glanced at his sister while licking sweet, tangy icing from his fingers. “Yes, but it’s my first—” He glanced at the card tented near this particular batch, focused on the three words and waited until the letters stopped swirling in his brain. “—Chocolate Peppermint Surprise.”
“Leave him alone, Rocky. Obviously our poor boy is eating to fill some emotional void.”
That observation was a little too keen for Luke’s comfort. He shifted his gaze to Gram—hell on wheels at the spry age of seventy-five. “Did you read that psychobabble in Cosmo? And don’t deny you’re reading that glam mag, Gram. I saw it sticking out of your Make Love, Not War tote bag along with a copy of Simple & Delicious.”
“I’m trying to spice up my life,” Gram said while repositioning one of three nativity scenes on the fireplace mantle.
Luke opened his mouth as did Rocky, but Dev beat them to the punch. “You recently moved out of this grand old Colonial and into a rustic log cabin with your boyfriend,” Dev said while climbing a step stool to straighten the crooked tree topper. “Your life is spicy enough.”
Luke was surprised that his brother left it at that. Dev had always been anal and overprotective. Although he wasn’t half as bad as he used to be since hooking up with Chloe, a bit of a free spirit who went with the flow.
“It’s not a log cabin,” Chloe said, sticking up for Gram, who also happened to be her business partner. “It’s a saltbox farmhouse.”
“And Vincent is my roommate and companion,” Gram said, moving in alongside Chloe to rearrange a few ornaments. “Boyfriend sounds silly considering his mature status.”
“Silly, huh?” Luke smiled and talked around a mouthful of chocolaty goodness. “Gram, you’re wearing glitzy reindeer antlers and pointy elf slippers.” She’d also dyed her springy curls flaming red, and had swapped her cat-eye specs for a pair of blingy green-tinted bifocals. Oh, and she had blinking snowmen dangling from her wrinkled lobes.
“It’s called being festive,” Gram said as she rearranged the presents under the massive Christmas tree she and Rocky had decorated to death. “It’s almost Christmas after all.”
Like Luke needed a reminder. Christmas was Rocky’s favorite holiday. Before her home and business had burned down, she used to decorate the hell out of her Victorian bed-and-breakfast. Obviously she’d invested some of her insurance money into replenishing her Christmas holiday décor and then some. There wasn’t a square foot of Gram’s, strike that, Rocky’s house that hadn’t been touched by an angel, snowman, snowflake, holly, garland, ice cycle, St. Nick, reindeer, candy cane, nutcracker, toy soldier, or wreath. Usually Luke was all for holiday cheer, but.…
Cripes. He’d almost thought: Bah, humbug.
Noting that nagging emptiness in the pit of his stomach, Luke eyed the desserts. Maybe one of these Oggneg … He did a double take at the printed tent card and slowed his mind. Aw, hell. Eggnog. Maybe an Eggnog Cupcake would inspire some Christmas joy. Just as Luke bit into the moist rich confection, a furry, big-eyed mutt bounded into the room. “Hey, Brewster.”
“Don’t feed him any people food,” Rocky said. “No matter how much he begs. It’s not good for him.”
“Gotcha,” Luke said while allowing the dog to lick crumbs from his fingers.
“Got the wood.” Jayce Bello, Dev’s oldest and closest friend, and Rocky’s fiancé, crossed to the fireplace with a canvas tote of chopped logs. “Sorry it took so long. Brewster was wound up and I figured it was better to tire him out with a few minutes of fetch, rather than risk him going on a tear in here.” He motioned to Dev. “Can you get a fire going? I need Luke’s help whipping up Daisy’s after-dinner cocktail.”
Luke frowned. “What are we in for this time?”
“Candy Cane Cocktails,” Gram said with a fist pump. “Yes!”
“Disgusting ingredient?” Rocky asked.
“Strawberry vodka,” Jayce said while brushing a kiss over Rocky’s cheek.
Luke’s heart squeezed when his sister smiled and blushed. Must be nice to be so freaking in love and for that person to freaking love you back.
“Remember to make Chloe’s a virgin,” Dev said.
“Got it.” Luke caught a sweet look between his brother and Chloe, who palmed her barely swelling stomach, and his heart squeezed again. Well, damn. His brother had lucked out in the love department, too, and the woman he loved was pregnant with his baby. It’s not that Luke hadn’t been in love. He’d been in love thousands of times. He had a way with women. In fact, seducing women was his one and true talent. But he’d never experienced the bone-deep forever love Rocky felt for Jayce or Dev felt for Chloe. Although he’d felt a glimmer of something different, something special a couple of months back with Rachel Lacey. He thought about their one ill-fated kiss, the sizzle that had damned near singed his senses, then immediately shoved that mystifying woman from his mind. Rachel had been a mistake and she wasn’t even a possibility. The woman had skipped town and had moved on to wherever. Rachel was history. Jayce rapped Luke on the shoulder as he strode toward the kitchen.
“Right. Candy Cane Cocktails for six—one virgin. Let’s do this. I assume I’ll need candy canes,” he said to Jayce as they sailed through the dining room. “What else?”
“Crème de menthe. Cranberry juice. Here’s the recipe Daisy gave me.” Jayce slapped a folded page from a magazine into Luke’s hand as they breached the state-of-the-art kitchen. “I located Rachel Lacey.”
Luke stopped cold. His brain zapped. His heart jerked. “I thought you gave up.”
“I only told you that so you’d stop hounding me for an update twice a day.”
Jayce had years of experience in law enforcement, first as a cop with the NYPD, then as a successful private investigator. Now he ran a cyber detective agency and Luke had hired him to find Rachel Lacey. Two freaking months ago.
“The reason she was so hard to track,” Jayce said, “is because when it comes to hiring someone to create a false identity, Rachel can afford the best.”
“What are you talking about? Rachel lived on a shoestring.” She’d dressed in frumpy clothes and she’d driven a beat-up car. When she’d lost her job at the day care center, Luke had hired her as a waitress. She was desperate for the work, desperate for money. Shed said so. “I need the money, Luke.” Her shy, anxious gaze haunted him … sort of like that sizzling kiss.
“Maybe you should sit down.”
Heart thudding, Luke dragged a hand through his shaggy hair. “Is she dead?”
“She’s alive and well in Bel Air, California. Her name is Reagan Deveraux. She’s a trust fund baby. An heiress. As of tomorrow, her twenty-fifth birthday, she’ll be a millionaire.”
Luke blinked then snorted. “You’re kidding me, right?”
Jayce shook his head.
Luke gawked. “That’s screwy. That’s … impossible. You’ve got the wrong girl, Jayce.”
The PI plucked his iPhone from the pocket of his leather jacket, thumbed through bells and whistles, and then showed Luke an image of Reagan Deveraux.
Holy … It was Rachel, but it wasn’t.
Luke leaned back against the kitchen counter, willing starch into his legs and air into his lungs. “What the hell? Why the ruse?”
“I don’t know.”
“She lived in Sugar Creek for almost a year,” Luke said. “She was a member of the Cupcake Lovers. A beloved teaching assistant at Sugar Tots. She was shy and awkward and freaking mousy. That chick in the picture, that’s not mousy, that’s … that’s…”
“Hot. I know.” Jayce raised a brow then thumbed something else on the screen. “I can’t tell you why Deveraux pretended to be someone she wasn’t, but I can fill you in on her background. I downloaded the report. Here. You can read—”
“No, you read it.” Luke pushed off the counter, nabbed a cocktail shaker from the cabinet. “I’ll make Gram’s cocktails.” Trying to read all that information … the letters would dance and swim in front of Luke’s eyes and he’d end up staring at the screen looking like an idiot while he tried to get the words right in his head. Jayce didn’t know Luke was dyslexic. No one knew. His family thought he’d beaten his reading disability when he was a kid. He’d just learned to hide it, to fake it, really, really well. Only one person—Rachel—had seen through his polished ploy and he had no idea how. It’s not something they’d ever discussed. But in his gut he knew she knew.
“I’ll hit the highlights,” Jayce said, scrolling through his screen.
Luke nabbed ice cubes, cranberry juice, and the liquor. Bracing for the details on Reagan Deveraux, he mixed up the holiday cocktail without one glance at the recipe. He’d been a crack bartender for years. He could wing it.
“Her father, now deceased, was a tycoon. Her mother, a B-list Hollywood actress, has remarried three times since. Seems to have a type.”
“You got it. An only child, Reagan was raised in a privileged environment,” Jayce went on. “Private schools, lavish vacations. Rich and smart. College educated, with a master’s in education.”
The more Jayce revealed about the trust fund baby, the more Luke felt like a fool. When he thought about the strife Rachel had caused between him and his cousin, Sam.… When he thought about the way she’d abandoned the Cupcake Lovers in the midst of their big recipe book publishing deal … the way his sister and the other Cupcake Lovers had fretted over her disappearance … the nights Luke had wrestled with guilt and worry …
“Dammit!” Luke exploded just as Rocky poked her head into the kitchen.
“Everything all right in here?” she asked.
“Just mixing up some Christmas cheer,” Jayce said.
“Fa-la-freaking-la,” Luke said then passed the chilled shaker to his sister. “Fill martini glasses with this and garnish the rims with candy canes.”
“Where are you going?” Rocky asked as he stalked toward the back door.
“To solve a mystery.”
Copyright © 2013 by Beth Ciotta