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It was the Saturday after Thanksgiving, and Julia Stanton was expecting a busy day at Toyland. Looking forward to some coffee to ward off the chilly morning air, she was about to pull open the door of Holiday Harbor Sweets when a man's black leather glove closed over top of her hand.
"Ladies first," said a deep voice, and she looked up into the darkest brown eyes she'd ever seen. Framed by a tanned face and hair that was just a little too long, those eyes had a piercing quality, as if their owner noticed things other people missed and didn't always like what he saw.
He was wearing classic black, from his briefcase and cashmere dress coat to a pair of stylish boots that were better suited to a business meeting in Manhattan than the slushy sidewalks of northern Maine. Set against the gently falling slow, his outfit gave him a dark, dangerous look. Until he smiled. The gesture lightened his intense features, and unabashed male interest flashed in his eyes.
When he opened the door and motioned her ahead of him, she returned the smile. "Thank you."
"Since I know who you are," he continued while they joined the to-go line, "I'm thinking you know who I am, too."
She laughed. "The notorious Nick McHenry. My friend Bree Landry tells me you're the toughest magazine editor she's ever worked for."
"Aw, she's just being nice. Speaking of Bree, when are she and Cooper due back from their honeymoon in the Caribbean?"
"Her last email said 'in time for Christmas.' That was about a week ago."
"I'm surprised she didn't mention to me that you're living here now. It's not every day you find the daughter of a U.S. Ambassador cooling her heels in a backwater place like this."
His unmasked disdain for the quaint village she'd called home for six months irked her to say the least. "Why would you say that? I thought you grew up here."
"I did. First chance I got, I was outta here."
"Too bad you didn't stay out." A young woman interrupted their conversation with an unforgiving scowl. Normally sweet and cheerful, Lucy Wilson looked as if she'd just run across her worst enemy.
"Hey there, Lucky," Nick replied. "How've you been?"
"I know you and your idiot buddies all thought that was funny in high school," she snarled, "but it wasn't. It's even less funny now."
"Right. Sorry." His brush-off tone made it clear he wasn't sorry at all, and Julia couldn't understand why he seemed to be going out of his way to make Lucy angry.
"What are you doing here anyway?" Lucy demanded.
"Mom invited me up for Thanksgiving," he replied smoothly, not showing the tiniest bit of concern about the bitter reception he'd gotten. "You wouldn't want me to disappoint her, would you?"
"You haven't been back in what? Seven years?" she challenged him. "Why now?"
For the first time, the seemingly unflappable man showed irritation with her less-than-welcoming attitude. "Planning to showcase my personal business on page one of the local paper again?"
Julia couldn't imagine why on earth they were going at it in public this way. She was starting to feel uncomfortable standing in the middle of this showdown, but there was no polite way to walk away.
"That was ages ago, and you totally deserved it."
Still locked in a glaring contest with her, he said, "Not that anyone around here will care, but I wanted to meet my niece and nephew."
"Whatever. Take my word on this one," she cautioned Julia. "He's been nothing but trouble his whole life."
Julia glanced at him, and he nodded solemnly in agreement. His glum expression was clearly an act, though. The bemused twinkle in his eyes gave him away. Without another word, Lucy shoved past him and charged out the door without ordering anything. The overhead bells jangled sharply as she left, and Julia faced Nick with a frown of her own. "You were needling her on purpose."
There was that wicked grin again. "Yeah."
"Why on earth would you do that? Especially this time of year."
"You mean because it's Christmas?" When she nodded, he shrugged. "To me, vacation's over, and I've got a ton of work to do. I need a bagel, some decent coffee and a wireless connection so I can plow through the pile of emails I haven't been able to read since I got here Wednesday. I don't have time to make nice with someone who's determined to hate me no matter what I say or do."
Julia was confused. "Why haven't you been able to check your email? I thought you were staying with your sister, Lainie, and her family."
"I am." He gave her a suspicious look that appeared so natural for him, she assumed it was his normal way of interacting with people he'd just met. "How did you know that?"
"When I moved here in the spring, I didn't know anyone, and she took me under her wing. She and I have gotten to be good friends. She told me you were coming and would be staying with them. I know they have wireless at their house."
"Sure, but no privacy. I can't concentrate with everyone yakking all the time."
Why had he even bothered to come back? she wondered. The holidays were for family, but aside from the comment about meeting his niece and nephew, he didn't seem to appreciate that at all.
Not her concern, she reminded herself sternly. If he wanted to neglect his relatives, that was his own business.
They moved up a spot in line, and Julia told him, "There's no internet in here."
"I know, but someone around here must've smartened up by now. Know any place in this map dot town that's made it into the twenty-first century?"
Julia had the kind of connection he needed at her shop, but she was hesitant to tell him so. If she did, it would be common courtesy to allow him to use it, and she wasn't at all certain she wanted him camped out in her store on such a busy shopping day. With his brooding vibe and incessant grumbling, he'd probably scare away half her customers.
You get what you give, Julia.
In her memory, she heard her mother's gentle voice repeating one of her personal philosophies. Gisele Stanton had lived her entire life that way, abandoning a promising orchestral career to accompany her ambassador husband to every corner of the globe. While Julia had no intention of putting aside her own wishes for anyone ever again, she always did her best to follow her mother's generous example.
"I have wireless at Toyland," she finally said before she could think better of it. "You're welcome to use itwith one condition."
"Twenty bucks a minute?"
While she knew he was joking, the cynical remark spoke volumes about how this jaded journalist viewed the world. "You have to buy a toy to place under my Gifting Tree. They'll go to local children to make their Christmas a little brighter."
He blinked. Charity appeared to be a foreign concept to him. "You're kidding."
"Not at all." She gave him her sweetest smile, the one that over the years had charmed countless dignitaries and a crown prince or two. "That's the dealtake it or leave it."
Eyeing Julia incredulously, Nick turned to the young woman behind the counter. Dressed in a red-and-green-striped shirt and fuzzy stocking cap, she tilted her head expectantly. "What can I get you?"
He rattled off a complex order, and she laughed. "You're kidding, right? I don't know what half that stuff is."
"Fine." His jaw tightened, as if he was struggling to keep control of what seemed to be a remarkably short temper. "What've you got?"
"Regular or decaf, large or small. I've got some choco-peppermint holiday creamer if you want that."
His grimace made it clear he wanted nothing to do with creamer, holiday or otherwise. "I'll take a large regular, black, with a poppy seed bagel." At her give-me-a-break look, he sighed. "Plain bagel."
"Coming right up."
He didn't respond, but as the overhead speakers crackled with "Deck the Halls," he groaned softly. "This Podunk town wouldn't know a latte or decent music if someone force-fed it to them."
Because she was far from perfect, Julia made it a habit to be tolerant of other people's shortcomings. But his constant griping was getting on her nerves. "Not a morning person, Mr. McHenry?"
"Not a Christmas person," he corrected her as he reached into his inner coat pocket for his designer wallet. "Lainie calls me Scrooge, and she's not far off. I'm not into the decorations and sappy carols and all that. Never have been, never will be."
She waited a moment, then attempted to lighten the mood with, "Aren't you going to say 'bah, humbug'?"
He replied only with a wry grin, and she wondered if he enjoyed his Scroogey demeanor. He certainly had no qualms about showing his more abrasive side. Although she was still new in town, something told her Lucy wasn't the only local resident who wouldn't be pleased to see him. In a few short minutes, Julia had discovered he had a bristly personality and a sharp tongue. Honing that kind of sarcasm must have taken years, and she suspected he'd never been one who played well with others.
"This is such a wonderful time of year," she said gently while he paid for his order. "I can't imagine why you hate it so much."
"Trust me. You'd rather not know."
He didn't elaborate, and Julia moved up to take his place at the front of the line. "Just the usual, Ellen.
Nick stood to the side but leaned in to add, "Miss Stanton's order is on me."
Ellen scurried off to fill a take-out bag, and Julia looked at Nick. "That's really not necessary."
"You're helping me out, so I figure it's the least I can do."
Baffled by his sudden shift in attitude from grim to generous, she smiled and offered her hand. "Then it's Julia."
"And I'm Nick." Mischief brightened his features as they shook. "Does this mean you're ignoring Lucy's warning about me?"
"For now." It was hard to resist the glimmer in his eyes, but she did her best. This guy probably had women fawning all over him on a daily basis. She didn't want to give him any reason to think she'd be doing the same. "I like her very much, but I make up my own mind about people."
Ellen returned with her breakfast, and Julia thanked her, taking the bag and cup while Nick paid. He added a nice tip, then angled to the side to allow Julia to leave the store in front of him.
Out on the sidewalk, a cold gust of wind hit them, and he shuddered. "Man, I hate winter."
"Really? I love it." To prove her point, she took in a deep breath of crisp, cool Maine air. "It smells clean and fresh, like anything's possible."
"It smells cold," he muttered, glaring at the lazily falling snow as if he could will it to stop. "I'm headed back to Richmond today."
"What a fabulous city, with all that history," she commented, hoping to draw him into a more pleasant conversation. "How long have you been living there?"
He shrugged. "A year, I guess."
"Virginia is a long way from here. What made you choose it?"
"No special reason. I just kept moving south 'til I found a spot where I can stand all the seasons."
He didn't sound all that thrilled with where he'd landed, and she wondered if he was still searching for a permanent place to live. Then again, maybe he didn't even want to settle down. Having moved from one diplomatic post to another with her parents, the gypsy lifestyle no longer appealed to her. Still, she could understand how the excitement of it might be attractive to someone else.
Since Nick was clearly happy to be on his way out of town, there was no point in probing any further. Unfortunately, that meant she'd drained her usual well of small talk, and she was relieved when they reached her shop.
They paused outside the antique door, and Nick held their food while she dug out her keys. When she looked up, she noticed his eyes were fixed on the simple white church across the square. "Pretty, isn't it?" she asked.
"My father's church," he replied in a clipped tone. "But if you asked him, I doubt he'd claim me. I'm the black sheep of the clan."
Delivered in a near monotone, she couldn't decide if the confession pained him or angered him. The flash of anger in his eyes answered that question better than any words. "I attend services there, and I enjoy his sermons very much," Julia said.
"I can't say the same." Nick's face twisted into something between a smirk and a scowl. "I guess they're easier to take when they're not aimed at you."
Attempting to redirect the conversation, she said, "It's a lovely church, with all that leaded glass and hand-carved woodwork. I've always been curious about who built it."
His nasty expression faded, and he met her eyes calmly. "You've been here long enough to know the Landrys built it in 1817, a year after they got here."
"On Christmas Day," she added. "Which is how the town got its name."
"You're just trying to distract me with this little history lesson."
For some reason, he was trying to start a fight with her. Rather than join in, she laughed. "Is it working?"
That got her a slow easy smile, completely at odds with the intensity she'd assumed was part of his personality. A pleasant surprise, it brightened his gloomy expression. "Let's just say I could think of worse ways to kill a few hours before my flight than spending it with such a beautiful woman."
His rapidly shifting moods set off alarm bells in her head, making her wonder what else he was hiding beneath that cool, detached exterior. Shaking off the thought, she cautioned herself that he was too arrogant to interest her.
She'd spent most of her twenty-eight years traveling the world, and she'd run across more than her share of alpha males along the way. The last onea dashing Italian bankerall but destroyed her life before vanishing into thin air. Thanks to him, she'd given up on men a long time ago. Especially men like Nick, who clearly had no intention of sticking around.