Part of the Winter clan, the Evergreen family is considered magical nobility. While Evergreen Industries in picturesque Gingerbread, Colorado, might look like an ordinary office building, this is where the magic of Christmas unfolds. Above Santa's workshop, the Evergreens hold court, manage Christmas and, sometimes against their will and better judgment, fall in love. When it comes to love, the Evergreens know that sometimes you have to play a little naughty to get exactly whator whoyou want from Santa. Celebrate the holidays with Evergreen siblings Cole, Ethan, Dash and Belle in this enchanting collection from New York Times bestselling authors Vicki Lewis Thompson and Rhonda Nelson, Kira Sinclair and Andrea Laurence.
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About the Author
A New York Times best-selling author, two-time RITA nominee, Romantic Times Reviewers Choice nominee, and National Readers’ Choice Award Winner Rhonda Nelson writes hot romantic comedy for Blaze. She’s thrilled with her career and enjoys dreaming up her characters and manipulating the worlds they live in.Rhonda loves to hear from her readers, so be sure to check her out at www.readRhondaNelson.com, follow her on Twitter @RhondaRNelson and like her on Facebook.
Double winner of the National Readers’ Choice Award, Kira Sinclair writes passionate contemporary romances. Her first foray into writing fiction was for a high school English assignment, and not even being forced to read the love story aloud could dampen her enthusiasm...although it did make her blush. She lives in North Alabama with her two amazing daughters and their pet hedgehog. www.KiraSinclair.com
Andrea Laurence is an award-winning contemporary author who has been a lover of books and writing stories since she learned to read. A dedicated West Coast girl transplanted into the Deep South, she’s constantly trying to develop a taste for sweet tea and grits while caring for her boyfriend and her old bulldog. You can contact Andrea at her website: http://www.andrealaurence.com.
Read an Excerpt
INTERNAL MEMO: Christmas countdown, minus 20 days
FROM: Cole Evergreen, CEO, Evergreen Industries TO: All staff
Thanks to centuries of intel monitoring, the North Pole is widely accepted as the home of Santa Claus. That misinformation has allowed the Winter Clan, under the guise of Evergreen Industries, to operate undetected in Gingerbread, Colorado, as we employ our magick in the service of Christmas.
But magick has its limits, and computer technology is more efficient for information storage and retrieval. Because of the sensitive nature of our database, specifically the "Naughty or Nice" list, our security system is constantly being updated.
However, I regret to inform you that despite our best efforts, we've been hacked. While I investigate the source of this breach, be advised that your current usernames and passwords are invalid. When you create new ones, use the strongest possible codes. Failure to maintain secrecy is not an option.
The memo, as Cole had expected it would, brought his three siblings to his office on the fifteenth floor of the Evergreen Industries building within minutes. It was the tallest structure in Gingerbread, and also the deepest. Besides having fifteen floors aboveground to house Evergreen's Christmas ornament business, it had five subterranean floors dedicated to the secret task of Christmas toy production.
Ethan, Cole's next oldest brother, arrived first with a typically optimistic attitude. There was a reason Ethan had been put in charge of Christmas cheer. Ethan was the sort of wizard who, if he found a box of horse manure under the Christmas tree, would look around for the pony.
"It was a fluke." Ethan commandeered one of the two leather swivel chairs in front of Cole's desk. "I'll bet it was a total accident and they won't be back."
"They knew exactly what they were doing. They left me a message." A message that had made his pulse leap when he realized who had been prowling through his database.
"What message?" Belle, the youngest Evergreen, walked in carrying a mug of coffee, because she had to be different. Everyone else in the company drank cocoa.
It must have been an emergency ration she'd brewed herself, because it clearly hadn't come from Cup of Cheer, her favorite coffee shop in Gingerbread. She claimed that the stress of her job as head of human (and elf) resources, especially her work with Santa, Mrs. Claus and the elves, required large quantities of caffeine, specifically double-shot peppermint lattes.
Belle grabbed the other swivel chair and glanced at her brothers, eyebrows raised. "What's the deal?"
"Whoever hacked into the database left a message," Ethan said. "Can you trace where it came from, Cole?"
"Don't have to. I know who it is." A memory of Taryn from ten years before, her slender body naked and willing beneath his, scorched a path through his brain. He ignored it.
"That's great!" Ethan looked even more encouraged. "So you can nip this in the bud, right?"
Oh, yeah. Even after ten years, Cole remembered nipping, and tasting, and He banished that memory, too, and propped his hips on the edge of the desk. "Sort of. I'm planning to"
"I see we're all here." Dash, two years younger than Ethan, sauntered into the office, followed closely by No-elle Frost, who'd recently come back to Gingerbread to head up company security while her father recovered from a health scare.
Dash and Noelle were exes, which made her return problematic and their working relationship tricky. Dash was in charge of elf transportation and Christmas magick, including Santa's sleigh and flying reindeer. Noelle had to make sure the sleigh was properly cloaked to avoid detection by military radar and civilian air traffic controllers. Dash and Noelle had no choice but to cooperate on sleigh duty, whether they wanted to or not.
Cole couldn't worry about their issues today. But he noted with some amusement that a love seat positioned against the wall was the only place left to sit. Noelle eventually took it and Dash chose to stand, leaning against the opposite wall, arms crossed.
Ethan turned his chair to face them. "Cole just said he knows who hacked into the database. That means we're halfway to solving the problem."
"Not exactly." Cole looked at each of his siblings in turn. Their generation was in charge now. Their parents, following a time-honored Winter Clan tradition, had turned over the operation to their adult children. The senior Evergreens were currently in Ethiopia helping create clean water sources for impoverished villages.
No one would doubt those four were Evergreens. They'd all inherited the fabled green eyes from their wizard father, and the brothers had their mother's dark, slightly wavy hair and their father's height. Belle was blonde, like their father, and petite, like their mother.
Anyone entering the room would identify Noelle, with the straight, dark hair and the clear blue eyes of the Summer Clan, as the unrelated participant. But despite not being an Evergreen, Noelle was an important component of any strategy meeting. Her experience as a CIA operative would be very helpful.
She sat forward, her gaze intent, her tablet at the ready. "So, who's the hacker, Cole?"
"An old girlfriend from college." Dash grinned. "Ah. So it's Taryn."
"How do you know that?" Noelle was in full interrogation mode.
"Because Cole only has one old girlfriend from college who counts," Dash said. "That makes this easy, bro. Pay her a visit and find a way to offer her some of Noelle's memoryerasing cocoa. Problem solved."
"Negative on that, Dash." Noelle's tone was brisk, even a little defensive. "Our current formula isn't sophisticated enough to create selective memory loss, which is what's needed here."
Cole turned his attention to her. He hated to put her on the spot, but he needed to know his options, just in case. "How fast can you beef up the formula?"
"It shouldn't take long." She said it quickly, as if forestalling any discussion. "I'll have a more versatile batch soon."
A hint of panic flashed in her expression, and was quickly replaced by a confident smile. "Not today, but very soon. I'm just saying that if you give Taryn the cocoa we have on hand, she'd forget hacking into Evergreen, but if she's trying to get a rise out of you, she'll hack in again."
"Get a rise out of him?" Dash chuckled. "Under the circumstances, you might want to rephrase that."
Noelle rolled her eyes. "Oh, grow up, Dash."
"Not planning on it, Noelle."
Their banter hit too close to home. Cole ducked his head and studied the wreath pattern in the thick green carpeting as he fought the heat climbing his cheeks. This was hell. His brothers and sister knew too much about Taryn, which was his own damned fault.
He'd left MIT in the middle of his senior year, right before Christmas break. All his fanciful dreams about Taryn had died that Christmas when he'd realized he wasn't ever going back to college. He'd abandoned her without an explanation. But what could he have said? That he was a wizard going home to help his family straighten out the "Naughty or Nice" list and make sure Christmas went off without a hitch?
Lying hadn't been an option. He'd learned early in life that his brain didn't work that way, and everything that came out of his mouth was true, no matter how embarrassing or unwise the statement. Over the years, he'd trained himself to hold his tongue in delicate situations.
But leaving Taryn so abruptly when she'd done nothing to deserve that treatment had gnawed at him. On New Year's Eve at the clan's ancestral lodge on Mistletoe Mountain, he'd mainlined champagne and spilled his guts to his brothers. Belle had found out the whole story eventually, as sisters usually do. He could feel them all waiting with bated breath for his next move.
He prayed it wasn't a stupid one. "I need to find out how she got in." He lifted his head and glanced around the room. Everyone seemed to be with him so far. "It's not surprising that she could do it. I've done some digging, and discovered she freelances as a computer security tester. Multinational corporations hire her to see if she can hack into their systems. If she can hack in, she takes care of whatever weakness she finds."
"And she's a certified genius like Cole," Ethan added helpfully. "I remember you telling us she's very smart."
Cole let out a breath. "Actually, she's smarter than I am."
"Whoa!" Dash pushed away from the wall. "They must be ice-skating in hell. Did you just admit someone was smarter than you, big brother?"
"Yep." He'd fallen in love with her brain first and her body second. He still remembered that first glance into her eyes, framed with enormous tortoiseshell glasses. The intelligence shining in those hazel depths had stolen his breath. "That's why she was able to hack in. But if I hire her to strengthen the system, then we shouldn't have to"
"Wait a minute." Noelle glanced up from her tablet, where she'd been typing notes. "Hire her? How can you do that without creating an even bigger security risk?"
"My question, exactly." Belle polished off her coffee and set the mug on Cole's desk.
"I've given it a lot of thought," Cole said. That was the understatement of the year. He'd discovered Taryn's handiwork at midnight and hadn't slept since. "The good people of Gingerbread are convinced we operate a Christmas ornament factory in this building, and that's all Taryn has to know. I'll code her access card so she's restricted to the IT floor."
"What about the categories in the database?" Ethan asked. "Won't she wonder about those?"
Cole shrugged. "I'll say it's appropriate to our Christ-mas-themed business, which it is. It's not her job to worry about what's in the database, anyway. I'm hiring her to correct a flaw in our system. I'm sure she's worked with other corporations that maintain a high level of secrecy about their products."
"Yes, if you're talking about military applications and technical innovation." Noelle frowned. "But why be secretive about Christmas ornaments? It makes no sense."
"Doesn't matter." Ethan glanced up at Cole. "I see where you're going with this. The fact is we do make Christmas ornaments that are prized the world over. If Taryn suspects that's a cover for something else, so what? It's not her job to speculate. If she made a habit of prying into things that don't concern her, she'd be out of business in no time."
Belle swiveled her chair back and forth. "Even so, I don't like it. I can keep the elves off the IT floor while she's here, but what if she runs into Santa? He could show up anywhere, including the lobby, and he's something of a loose cannon these days."
Noelle groaned. "Tell me about it. Did you know he's started jogging?"
"Jogging? Well, sugarplums!" Belle let her head fall back against the chair. "No, I didn't know that." Raising her head, she looked at Noelle. "Merry told me he's acting weird and is on some crazy diet, but I hadn't heard about the jogging. I don't know how that's supposed to help matters."
"What in St. Nicholas's name are you talking about?" Cole stared at them. "And why don't I know about it?"
"I hated to bother you unless it was urgent," Belle said. "We all hoped it would blow over."
"It still could." Ethan sounded determinedly cheerful. "Okay, so Kris forgot their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary and Merry's pissed, but I'm sure after all these years together she'll come around."
"Don't count on it," Dash said. "Women are complicated creatures."
"We have to be," Noelle said, "in order to compensate for men being so"
"That's enough of that." Cole scrubbed a hand over his face. "We need to focus. So Kris and Merry are having marital problems. What's that got to do with the diet and jogging?"
"My best guess?" Noelle glanced up from her tablet. "He's intimidated because Merry's signed up for skiing lessons with Guido, who is, admittedly, a fine specimen of Italian manhood. I think Kris is trying to recapture his inner stud so he can compete with Guido."
"His inner stud" Cole sighed. "But he's still on track to drive the sleigh, right?"
"As far as I know," Belle said. "If he trims down, the suit will automatically adjust, but I doubt he'll lose much weight in three weeks."
"Thanks for that hopeful thought, Belle. I want you to send a memo to Kris and Merry about Taryn's visit, though. They should avoid her if possible, but if she happens to meet Kris and notices his resemblance to Santa Claus, he can say he was hired as a mascot."
"A mascot?" Dash laughed. "Oh, he'll just love that description. Not."
"Then he needs to stay out of sight." Lack of sleep was sapping Cole's patience. "I'm leaving in a couple of hours for Seattle. I'm taking the corporate jet. I'll be back tonight with Taryn."
"Too bad you can't apparate and bring her back the magickal way," Dash said. "Speaking as your transportation coordinator, it would be faster and cheaper."
"I realize that, but I'm hoping to engineer this operation without the use of anything magickal, cocoa included. But Noelle, please get that more complex batch up and running, in case I need it for Taryn."
"I'll make it a top priority. But when you say you're bringing her back, I hope you don't intend to take her to the lodge. There's no way I can keep security tight if you do that."
"No, not the lodge. Too much magick going on there, too many witches and wizards randomly casting spells. Even meals are well, anyway. The lodge is out. I'll get her a reservation at the Nutcracker Inn. Dash, I'll need a car and driver for her. The less she wanders around on her own, the better."
"I suggest you be that driver," Noelle said.
"I'd rather not."
"Then who?" Noelle met his gaze. "This is our busiest time of year. Everyone's schedule is packed."
"That's for sure," Ethan said. "I'm booking talk show appearances as fast as I can to counteract the effect of Lark DeWynter's new bestseller. The Christmas Lie was just reviewed in the New York Times and it's playing havoc with Christmas cheer. I can fix that. I always do. But I have no spare time."
"Elf personnel issues tend to peak about now," Belle said. "It's the stress of the season, and with Kris potentially going off the rails, I"
"I know." Cole hadn't considered how this part of his plan would work, but he could see the trap closing on him.
"I have to agree with Noelle," Dash said. "The driver should be someone with maximum clearance, which means it has to be one of us in this room, and we're all working on last-minute Christmas preparations. You, not so much. You're the logical candidate, big brother."
"Okay." Cole rubbed the back of his neck. "I'll take the driving duties."
"In fact, you probably should shadow her while she's here," Dash continued. "You know, keep close track of her and make sure she sticks to the program, literally."
Cole met his brother's gaze. Mischief danced in those green eyes. "She's a professional, Dash."
"If she's so professional, why did she hack into your database?"
That was an excellent question, one he'd been struggling with. "Maybe for old times' sake, to prove she could. I don't know, but I'll find that out, too. I can assure you, excessive monitoring of her activities won't be necessary."
"Maybe not." Dash winked at him. "But I'll bet it would be fun."