For the first time in years, Christmas brings hope to Bygones, Kansas. But for Josh Barton, Main Street's coffee shop owner, it brings back sad memories he'd rather forget. He's a new man, with a new life and faith now. Still, he hides a huge part of himself from his neighborsand from one very inquisitive reporter. Whitney Leigh seems determined to uncover the mystery of the town's recent windfall, and Josh could help her. But that would mean opening up his guarded heart. Can a man who thought family and Christmas were only for others find a forever home where he least expects?
The Heart of Main Street: They're rebuilding the town one stepand heartat a time.
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Whitney Leigh rolled her eyes. "Romance! It's getting to be an epidemic."
Because she was alone in the car she didn't try to temper her frustration. Fortunately, the editor of the Bygones Gazette had instructed her to use a different approach this time. He wanted her to praise the progress of the stores involved in the Save Our Streets redevelopment project to commemorate their sixth-month anniversary. If he had asked her for one more fluff piece about all the engagements, and even a recent marriage, involving those new businesses, she would have screamed. Just thinking about it made her want to.
Parking in front of the Cozy Cup Cafe and pausing behind the wheel of her vintage, yellow Mustang convertible, she shivered. A warm, wool coat, scarf and gloves were not enough to make up for the lack of insulation provided by the cloth-topped car. Although it was dear to her heart, there was a lot to be said for a thick, solid roof during the winter, particularly in Kansas.
She pulled the ignition key, set the brake and slid out. Myriad Christmas lights twinkled around nearby shop windows and hung from the colorful awnings that fronted the block of renovated stores.
The Save Our Streets merchants' decorating committee had wound garlands of holly, tinsel and shiny ornaments around the old-fashioned-looking light standards and topped them with banners heralding the holiday season. Coordinated wreaths decked every store entrance while bouquets of silk poinsettias had replaced real flowers around the bases of the evergreens in the quaint planters along the refurbished street. The whole effect was charming. Welcoming.
However, it was also freezing outside. Whitney leaned in to grab her tote bag, slammed the car door and picked her way cautiously through the dusting of fresh snow toward her current assignment.
As a lifelong citizen of Bygones she was supposed to have been perfect for the job of ferreting out the hidden facts concerning the town's mysterious windfall. Too bad she had failed. Instead of an expose, she'd ended up filling her column with news of people's love lives, when what she needed were reasonable, definitive answers to her more serious queries. But she was not going to quit investigating. No, sir. Not until she'd uncovered the real facts. Especially the name of Bygones's secret benefactor.
A few things were already known, not that that helped much. First, a mysterious philanthropist had bought a whole block of empty buildings on Main Street, then bankrolled a group of merchants from other places to open new businesses in every available location except the old movie house. Only outsiders could apply.
"What was that all about?" Whitney murmured to herself. Some former shopkeepers had fled when Bygones had started to die but that didn't mean there were no other folks capable of stepping in. If some wealthy person had really wanted to help the town recover and survive after the disastrous downturn in the economy and the permanent closing of Randall Manufacturing, the least heor shecould have done was relegate the grant money to locals.
The legal arrangement had included them as employees, yes, but never as bosses. That point, alone, was enough to convince her that the anonymous benefactor was not from a small town. He or she obviously had no earthly idea how the minds of country people workedor how they looked after their own.
She slipped and slid the last yard to the Cozy Cup Cafe, used the door handle to regain her balance, stepped inside and wiped her boots on the mat, stomping off globs of wet snow as she admired the delicate wreath that hung just inside the glass door. It wasn't the customary green and red colors. Instead, it had been fashioned of brass and gold ribbons and ornaments with snowy accents that perfectly picked up the mocha and cream motif of the shop.
And speaking of coffee Hearty aromas of freshly ground beans and warm drinks like cider and hot chocolate, as well as the shop's trademark specialty brews, washed over her. If she had not been worried that the handsome barista greeting her with a smile would misinterpret her overt expression of bliss, she might have sighed audibly.
"Cold out there?" Josh Smith asked Whitney.
"Not as cold as it will be in another month." She removed her teal-blue gloves and matching scarf and dropped them into the tote, then began to unbutton her cream-colored coat.
"What can I do for you?"
Whitney was tempted to launch right into her real reason for being there. Instead, she merely said, "Fix me something warm?"
Judging by his lazy smile and the twinkle in his greenish-hazel eyes, she decided she had made a mistake by giving him too much leeway so she added, "As long as it's mostly chocolate."
"Picky, picky, picky."
She couldn't help smiling in return as she settled herself at one of the small, round, glass-topped tables and hung her coat over the back of the wrought-iron chair. There was something unique about this place. And, truth to tell, the same went for the other new businesses on Main. Each one had filled a need and become an integral part of Bygones in a mere five or six months. That, alone, was amazing, particularly given the townspeople's original negative reaction to the so-called invasion.
Josh Smith was a prime example. He was what she considered youngtwenty-eight to her twenty-five, according to his original business applicationyet he had quickly won over the older generations as well as the younger ones. Some of the retired citizens had begun to make his shop their go-to place for morning coffee, gossip and camaraderie, while teens had adopted his internet cafe as if they had been waiting for it all their lives.
Perhaps they had. Josh's computers were state-of-the-art, with game-playing capabilities far beyond anything she had ever seen.
Wearing a brown-and-white-striped apron over jeans and a polo shirt, he stepped out from behind the counter with a steaming cup in one hand and a taller, whipped-cream-topped tumbler in the other.
"Your choice," he said pleasantly, placing both drinks on the table and joining her as if he already knew this was not a social call.
"I see you're not too busy this afternoon. Do you have time to talk?" She reached into her tote for her digital recorder, notepad and a pen.
"I always have time for my favorite reporter," he said.
"How many reporters do you know?" She took a cautious sip from the cup, holding it in both hands to warm her icy fingers.
"Hmm, let's see." A widening grin made his eyes sparkle. "One."
Whitney felt a frisson of energy zing up her spine. Of all the new folks, he was the only person whose teasing set her on edge and sometimes made her tremble like dry autumn leaves in a gale.
Trying to mask her nervousness she put down her cup and tucked stray strands of blond hair behind her ears before donning her glasses and picking up the pen.
"Mind if I ask you a question first?" Josh said amiably. "Sort of turnabout's fair play?"
"I guess not. I have a whole list for you."
He rested his elbows on the table, leaned forward and studied her for a moment. "Why do you wear those glasses instead of contacts?"
"Those clunky glasses. The heavy frames."
She noticed that he was no longer grinning like a Cheshire cat so she made a face at him. "That's a silly question. I need them to read."
"To read? Or as a mask to hide behind?" he asked quietly. "You have beautiful green eyes but I have to really work to see them clearly behind those lenses."
"Why would you want to?" Whitney asked before she realized she might not want to hear his answer. Instead of waiting, she waved her hands as if erasing a chalkboard and added, "Never mind. Forget it. There's already an epidemic in this crazy town and I do not intend to let myself catch whatever it is that's going around."
Josh rocked back and raked his fingers through his short, auburn hair before lacing his fingers behind his neck. "You've lost me."
"Romance, engagements, endless talk of marriage,"
Whitney blurted, immediately coloring with embarrassment. "Do you realize that nearly every one of the new shops is the setting for some kind of pairing? It's ridiculous."
"Considering it an illness is not very flattering to the couples involved."
"Listen," Whitney drawled, "you can pooh-pooh it all you want. I don't think it's a bit funny." She thumbed through her notes, found what she was looking for and began to read. "First, there was the florist, Lily Farnsworth, and Tate Bronson. They're already married. Then Melissa Sweeney at the bakery took up with her own Mr. Cupcake, Brian Montclair. They're getting married next month."
"Well, yes, but "
Whitney touched the paper with the tip of her pen. "I'm not through. The hardware store is just as bad. Patrick Fogerty is going to marry Gracie Wilson, providing she doesn't run away and leave him standing at the altar like she did her first groom. And what about Allison True?"
"That one shouldn't count," Josh argued. "Allison and Sam Franklin had a history already. I understand the only reason she was considered for one of the grants to start her bookstore was because she'd been away from Bygones for so many years she was no longer thought of as a local."
"Fine." Whitney sighed and paused for a sip of her mocha latte. "Then explain the pet store romance and engagement."
"You can't include that one, either."
"Because Vivian Duncan works for Allison, not Chase Rollins. His store had nothing to do with it."
Looking past him and seeing a group of teens entering, Whitney said, "You'd better go. You have customers."
"That bunch?" Josh barely took his eyes off her. "They just want to play computer games. They can log themselves on without my help."
He rested his chin in his palms and gave her another lazy grin. "So, what was it you wanted to interview me about? I'm all yours."
At that moment, all Whitney could think to ask was, How did you get so good-looking? She was certainly not going to give voice to anything like that.
Instead, she pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose with one finger and pretended to concentrate on her notes while she wrestled to subdue her errant emotions. She wished her cheeks didn't feel so unusually warm.
Josh could tell his casual repartee had rattled the cute reporter. Well, too bad. She had been sticking her nose into his business from the moment he'd arrived in Bygones. If she had been old and ugly, or even just a little slow-witted, he'd have been fine. Unfortunately, she was none of those things.
Thinking about his prior encounters with Whitney made him smile. Actually, any time he let his thoughts drift her way he found an unexpected lift. His rational mind kept arguing that there was no good reason for feeling that way, yet he did. And that connection was getting stronger the longer he knew her.
In view of the fact that he still had a successful software business to run in St. Louis, developing an emotional attachment to the local reporter was not only foolish, it was counterproductive. He had never intended to stay past the first of the year and nothing had happened since his initial arrival in Bygones to change those plans. Now that his coffee shop was starting to show a profit he felt certain it would be salable. So why was he starting to have mental reservations about putting it on the market?
"Hey, don't look so depressed," Whitney joked, sounding slightly nervous. "My boss wants me to write about the successes of the new businesses and how being in Bygones has affected their owners. I'm not going to ask you anything I haven't already asked all the other grant recipients."
"Okay. Fire away."
"You once told me you had never run a coffee specialty store before. What made you decide to learn?"
Josh shrugged, hoping he looked nonchalant. "I don't really know. I was kind of a computer buff and I thought the two would go together pretty well. By the time I heard about this opportunity, the bookstore people had decided not to serve coffee there, so I thought I'd try it with my computers. I like espresso and I figured the local kids would take to the games."
"Was it hard to learn how to make the different drinks?"
"Not really. I got a book and watched a tutorial on the internet. After that it was mostly a matter of practicing." He grinned. "I did drink a lot of my own coffee those first few weeks while I experimented."
Whitney glanced at the chocolaty concoction he'd served her. "Well, you certainly have a knack for it. This is delicious."
"Thanks. As long as I stick to a set formula I do fine. The only customers who throw me are the ones who like to invent their own recipes, then expect me to remember and repeat them months later."
"You have plenty of computers here. You could use one to make a special file for each person."
Smart, Josh thought. Too smart. "Good idea," he drawled. "I'll have to give that some thought."
"So, tell me more about the other part of your store. When did you get interested in computers?"
"In college," he said, hoping she wouldn't pursue the subject further. "It's just a hobby."
Whitney's brows arched. "A hobby? I heard you had repaired laptops for friends, plus you keep all the stations in this place working perfectly. That's a little more than a hobby."
"Not necessarily. All it takes is a logical mind."
"Which you obviously have. You mentioned college. Where did you go to school?"
This was getting a bit too personal to suit Josh. "Let's just say I didn't graduate and leave it at that, shall we?"
"Really? That surprises me since you seem so capable. What was your major?"
Standing abruptly, Josh picked up the taller drink and paused next to the table. "Sorry. I have to get back to work," he said, forcing a smile, "and make sure the kids don't download something that's too advanced or adult for them. Enjoy your coffee."
"What do I owe you?" Whitney called, lifting her cup for emphasis.
"No charge. It's on the house."
He could have told her that she owed him a lot more than she knew, but he held back. If things went as planned, he'd never have to reveal his part in the rescue of the struggling little town that was such a nostalgic part of his mother, Susanna's, memories. At least not before he left there for goodand, hopefully, not even then.
He had not launched this recovery project for the accolades it might bring him. He had done it for unselfish reasons, to surprise and please his mother. However, considering the scope of his investment in the captivating Kansas town, he doubted he'd ever tell anyone how much of his personal fortune he had spent on the Save Our Streets project.
Josh huffed. So, Whitney wanted to know how being in Bygones for six months had affected him, did she? The honest answer was, adversely. He was actually starting to question the wisdom of his firm, sensible plans to sell out soon and move back to St. Louis.
Spending money to benefit others was not his problem. He simply hoped he had not inadvertently invested too big a part of himself.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I won this book in a contest on another blog and when the author sent this book to me, I decided to read it right away since it is a Christmas book. I have had a lot of fun reading Christmas stories over the holidays and this is another story that I really enjoyed. The author has done a wonderful job of creating a sweet, hometown atmosphere and a truly cozy Christmas (as the title implies). The storyline is clever and the characters are likeable. The heroine of the story, Whitney, was sometimes a bit pushy, however, that really goes along with her personality and career. She is a journalist, after all, and intent on uncovering some hidden information in her town. Josh is the local coffee shop barista, and is very hesitant to have Whitney asking him so many questions and wanting his help to uncover the mysterious town benefactor. As feelings grow between the two, will Whitney’s determination to figure out the truth undermine what could be true love? If you are looking for a sweet Christmas love story, with a twist, you will find it in Cozy Christmas. I am glad I read it during the holidays, however, I must admit that I will also read holiday stories at other times of the year, too!