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Flynn MacGregor hated Riverbend, Indiana, from the second his Lexus stalled at the single stop light in the quaint town center, right beneath the gaily decorated Christmas swags of pine needles and red bows. The entire snow-dusted town seemed like something out of a movie.
There were people walking to and fro with wrapped gifts, stores bedecked with holiday decorations, and even snow-flakes, falling at a slow and steady pace, as if some set decorator was standing in the clouds with a giant shaker.
Okay, so hated might be a strong word. Detested, perhaps. Loathed. Either way, he didn't want to be here, especially when he'd been forced into the decision.
His editor at Food Lovers magazine had assigned him this story in Riverbend, knowing Flynn, of everyone on staff, could get the job done. Write an incisive, unique piece on the little bakerya bakery rumored to have cookies that inspired people to fall in love, his editor had said. So here he was, spending the Christmas holiday holed up in the middle of nowhere penning one more of the stories that had made him famous.
Flynn scowled. He couldn't complain. Those stories had been his bread and butter forever, a very lucrative butter at that. And after that little fiasco in June, he needed to get his edge back, reestablish his position at the top of the writer pack. To do that, he'd do what he always didsuck it up, feign great joy at the festive spirit surrounding him and get to work.
Then he could get back to Boston, back to Mimi, and back to civilization. This town, with its Norman Rockwell looks, had to be as far from civilization as Mars was from Earth. Not that he had anything against quaint, but helived in a world of iPods, e-mail and high-speed Internet connections. Riverbend looked like the kind of place that thought Bluetooth was a dental disease.
So, here he was, at the Joyful Creations Bakery.
He pushed his car to the side of the road, then grabbed his notebook and headed across the street. The crowd in front of the Joyful Creations Bakery blocked most of the plateglass window, but Flynn could see that storefront, too, had not been spared by the town's festive elves. A trio of lighted wreaths hung in the window, one of them even forming the O in the business's name.
"Nauseatingly cute," Flynn muttered under his breath.
He circumvented the line that stretched out the door, around the bakery and all the way to the corner of Larch Street. Ignoring the snow falling from the sky, couples stood togethermost of the men looking none too keen on the idea of being dragged off to a bakery purported to be a food love source, while groups of women chatted excitedly about the "romance cookies."
It took sheer willpower for Flynn not to roll his eyes. The airline magazine that had first broken the story had clearly created an epidemic. By the time this piece hit Food Lovers' Valentine's Day issue, the shop would be overrun with the lovelorn. He hoped the owner was prepared for the onslaught. Flynn knew, from personal experience, how a too-fast rocket to success could be as destructive as a too-quick drop to the bottom.
Regardless, he was here to do a job, not offer a business consultation.
He brushed by a woman holding a toddler and entered Joyful Creations. A blast of warm air and holiday music greeted him like he'd jumped into a Christmas bath. The scent of fresh-baked bread, coupled with vanilla, cinnamon and a hint of raspberry, assaulted his senses. The waiting patrons were surely impressed, but Flynn had seen all this and smelled all this before.
"Hey, no cutting," the woman said.
"I'm not buying anything," he replied, and kept going. Get in, get the story, get out. Get back to Boston. Hopefully before Mimi even noticed he was gone. If Mimi even noticed he was gone.
"Why would you battle this crowd if you weren't going to buy anything?" the woman asked, shuffling the kid to the other hip.
"For " Flynn turned toward the counter where two women were busy filling orders as quickly as they were being shouted over the din. One, gray-haired and petite, the other, tall and blond, curvy, with the kind of hips that said she didn't spend her days obsessing over having two pieces of celery or one.
Wow. The airline magazine hadn't run a photo of Samantha Barnett with their story, just one of the cookies. But clearly, she was the owner that the writer had described as "energetic, friendly, youthful."
"Her," Flynn said.
"Sam? Good luck with that." The woman laughed, then turned back to her kid, playing with his nose. Pretending the thing was a button or something. Flynn had no experience with other people's children and had no intention of starting now, so he moved away.
It took the navigational skills of a fleet admiral to wade through the crowd inside the shop, but a few minutes later, Flynn had managed to reach the glass counter. He stood to the far right, away from the line of paying customers, most of them looking like they'd come straight from placing a personal ad. "Are you Samantha Barnett?"
The blonde looked up. Little tendrils of her hair were beginning to escape her ponytail, as if the first few strands were thinking of making a break for the border. She wore little makeup, just a dash of red lip gloss and a dusting of mascara. He suspected the slight hint of crimson in her cheeks was natural, a flush from the frantic pace of the warm bakery. A long white apron with the words Joyful Creations scrolled across the middle in a curled red script hugged her frame, covering dark denim jeans and a soft green V-neck sweater. "I'm sorry, sir, you'll have to get into the line."
"I'm not here to buy anything."
That made her pause. Stop putting reindeer-shaped cookies into a white box. "Do you have a delivery or some mail for me?"
He shook his head. Vowed to buy a new dress coat, if he looked like a mailman in this one. "I just want to talk to you."
"Now is not a good time." She let out a little laugh. "I'm kind of busy."
"Yeah, well, I'mon a deadline." He fished a business card out of his pocket and slid it across the glass case. "Flynn MacGregor with Food Lovers magazine. Maybe you've heard of it?"
Her face lit up, as so many others before hers had. Everyone had heard of Food Lovers. It was the magazine about the food industry, carried in every grocery store and bookstore, read by thirty million people nationwide. A print mention in its pages was the equivalent of starring in a movie.
Even if Food Lovers magazine's focus had shifted, ever since Tony Reynolds had taken over as editor a year ago. His insistence on finding the story behind the story, the dish on every chef, restaurant and food business, had given the magazine more of a tabloid feel, but also tripled readership in a matter of months.
At first, Flynn hadn't minded doing what Tony wanted. But as each story became more and more invasive of people's personal lives, Flynn's job had begun to grate on him. More than once he had thought about quitting. But Flynn MacGregor hadn't gotten to where he was by turning tail just because he butted heads with an editor or ran into a roadblock ot two.
"Wow," Samantha said, clearly not bothered by Food Lovers' reputation. "You want to talk to me? What about?"
"Your bakery. Why you got into this business. What makes Joyful Creations special " As he ran through his usual pre-interview spiel, Flynn bit back his impatience. Reminded himself this was his four hundredth interview, but probably her first or second. Flynn could recite the questions without even needing to write them down ahead of time. Heck, he could practically write her answers for her. She got into baking because she loved people, loved food. The best part about being in business in a small town was the customers. Yada-yada-yada.
As for the cookies that made people fall in love, Flynn put no stock in things like that. He'd seen soups that supposedly made women go into labor, cakes that were rumored to jump-start diets, appetizers bandied about as the next best aphrodisiac. None of which had proven to be true, but still, the magazine had run a charming piece in its pages, appealing to its vast readership.
While he was here, he'd track down a few of the couples who owed their happiness to the sugar-and-flour concoctions, then put some kind of cutesy spin on the story. The art department would fancy up the headline with dancing gingerbread men or something, and they'd all walk away thinking Joyful Creations was the best thing to come along since Cupid and his trademark bow.
"That's pretty much how it works, Miss Barnett," Flynn finished, wrapping up his sugarcoated version of the article process.
The bakery owner nodded. "Sounds great. Relatively painless."
"Sam? I hate to interrupt," another woman cut in, just as Flynn was getting ready to ask his first question, "but I really need to pick up my order. I have a preschool waiting. And you know preschoolers. They want their sugar."
Samantha Barnett snapped to attention, back to her customer. "Oh, sure, Rachel. Sorry about that. Two dozen, right?"
The other woman, a petite brunette, grinned. "And one extra, for the teacher."
"Of course." Samantha smiled, finished putting the reindeer into the box, then tied it with a thin red ribbon and handed the white container across the counter. "Here you go."
"Will you put it on my tab?"
Samantha waved off the words. "Consider it a Christmas gift to the Bumblebees."
Not a smart way to run a business, giving away profits like that, but Flynn kept that to himself. He wasn't her financial consultant. "The interview, Miss Barnett?"
Behind them, the line groaned. Samantha brushed her bangs off her forehead. "Can I meet with you later today? Maybe after the shop closes? I'm swamped right now."
She had help, didn't she? On top of that, he had somewhere else he wanted to go before beginning that long drive back to Boston, not endless amounts of time to wait around for preschoolers to get their sugar rush. "And I'm on deadline."
The next person had slipped into the space vacated by Miss Bumblebee, a tall senior citizen in a flap-eared flannel cap and a Carhartt jacket. He ambled up to the counter, leaned one arm on the glass case and made himself at home, like he was planning on spending an hour or two there. "Hiya, Samantha. Heard about the article in that airline magazine. Congratulations! You really put our town on the map, not that you weren't a destination from the start, what with those cookies and all." He leaned forward, cupping a beefy hand around his mouth. "Though I'm not so sure I want all these tourists to stay. They're causing quite the traffic jam."
Samantha chuckled. "Thanks, Earl. And sorry I can't do anything about the traffic. Except fill the orders as fast as I can." She slid a glance Flynn's way.
"You give me my interview, Miss Barnett, and I'll be out of your hair."
"Give me a few hours, Mr. MacGregor, and I'll give you whatever you want."
He knew there was no innuendo in her words, but the male part of him heard one all the same. He cleared his throat and took a step back. "I have to get back on the road. Today. So why don't you just cooperate with me and we can both be happy?"
"I have customers to wait on, and it looks like now you're going to have a long wait either way." She gestured toward the windows with her chin as her hands worked beneath the counter, shoveling muffins into a bag. "You might as well make yourself comfortable."
Flynn turned and looked through the glass. And saw yet another reason to hate Riverbend.
By noon, Sam was already so exhausted, she was sure she'd collapse face-first into the double-layer cinnamon streusel. But she pasted a smile on her face, kept handing out cookies and pastries, all while dispensing directions to her staff. She'd called in her seasonal part-timers, and everyone else she could think of, right down to Mary, who did the weekend cleaning, to help keep up with the sudden influx of tourists. It seemed every person in a three-state area had read the article and turned out to see if Joyful Creations would live up to its reputation of bringing love to people who tried Grandma Joy's Secret Recipe Cherry Chocolate Chunk Cookies.
Sam had long heard the rumors about her grandmother's cookiesafter all, they were the very treats Grandma Joy had served to Grandpa Neil when they had first metbut had never quite believed all the people who credited the tiny desserts for their happy unions. Then a reporter from Travelers magazine had tried them on a trip through town and immediately fallen in love with one of the local women. The two of them had run off to Jamaica and gotten married the very next weekend. Afterward, the reporter had raved about the cookies and his happy ending in the airline publication, launching Sam's shop to national fame, and turning a rumor into a fact.
Ever since, things hadn't slowed down. Sam had worked a lot of hours beforebut this was ridiculous. Nearly every spare moment was spent at the bakery, working, restocking and filling orders. But it was all for a larger goal, so she kept pushing, knowing the bigger reward was on the horizon.
"I can't decide." The platinum-blond woman, dressed head to toe in couture, put a leather-gloved finger to her lips. "How many calories did you say were in the peanut butter kiss cookies?"
The smile was beginning to hurt Sam's face. "About one hundred and ten per cookie."
"And those special cherry chocolate chunk ones?"
"About a hundred and fifty."
"Do those cookies really work? Those love ones?"
"That's what people say, ma'am."
"Well, it would really have to be worth the calories. That's a lot to work off in the gym, you know, if I don't meet Mr. Right. And if I meet Mr. Wrong" the woman threw up her hands "well that's even more time on the treadmill."
Sam bit her lip, then pushed the smile up further.
"Do you happen to know the fat grams? I'm on a very strict diet. My doctor doesn't want me to have more than twenty-two grams of fat per day."
From what Sam could see, the woman didn't have twenty-two grams of fat in her entire body, but she kept that to herself. "I don't know the grams of fat offhand, ma'am, but I assure you, none of these cookies have that many per serving."
The gloved finger to the lips again. She tipped her head to the right, then the left, her pageboy swinging with the indecision. Behind her, the entire line shifted and groaned in annoyance. "I still don't know."