Holly hates the yuletide season more than ever since she received her very early inheritance: her mother’s Christmas novelty store. Now she has to put her life on hold to deal with the shop, while her parents settle into their busy sunny Florida retirement. But Holly’s childhood pal, Sean, is determined to warm her up—to Christmas and to him. When they uncover a diary concealing secrets involving both their families, this could be the Christmas that changes their lives forever …
Praise for Donna Kauffman and her novels
“Kauffman’s stories show that the bravery to reach for a connection is all we need to discover joy; she excels at expressing the struggles and joys of giving in to love.”
—Publishers Weekly on Sandpiper Island
“We all know where there's Donna Kauffman, there's a rollicking, sexy read chock-full of charm and sparkle. Kauffman's characters are adorably human and so very magnetic.”
“Kauffman pens a touching romance . . . a quirky community and secondary characters with enough personality to make readers want to come back. A light romance with a touch of heat, a pinch of intensity and a dash of mysterious small-town magic.”
—Kirkus Reviews on Pelican Point
“Sassy, witty, and sexy.”
—Library Journal on Snowflake Bay
“Charming characters, emotion galore, a small town—you’re going to love Donna Kauffman!”
Previously published in KISSING SANTA CLAUS
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Holly Berry Bennett hated Christmas. It was all her parents' fault, really. She was born ten days early, on Christmas Eve — ruining every birthday forever — and christened with a name that other children would mock well beyond adolescence. Her father, a family accountant, had been more excited by the really nice write-off she'd provided than anything else, and, when confronted with her schoolyard-provoked tears, had cluelessly chuckled that it could have been worse; they could have named her Mistletoe.
Her mother, on the other hand, would only have been more thrilled had her only child waited at least three more hours and been born on Christmas Day proper. Her mother loved Christmas more than anything, and would celebrate it 365 days a year if she could. And, by launching Santa's Workshop, a crafts, antiques, and collectibles store dedicated to all things Christmas, Beverly Bennett did.
Holly stared out the window of the jumbo 757 as it lifted off ... leaving Heathrow, her little London flat, and the entire life she'd built for herself in England all behind her. So, okay, maybe that life hadn't exactly turned out to be all she'd hoped for. But it was her life, dammit.
Now she was heading back to the States, back home. To her mother's life.
She fingered the set of keys that weighed heavily in her jacket pocket. Keys to her old life ... keys to the life she'd fled all the way across an entire ocean to get away from. Keys to her past ... and now, not a little terrifyingly, her future. Her immediate one, at least.
She tipped her head back and closed her eyes, but all she saw was what awaited her. Santa's Workshop. Owned and operated by ... Holly Bennett.
Heaven help them all.
What had her mother been thinking? Or drinking? When Holly had made her annual trip home for Thanksgiving, the very last thing she'd expected to receive along with her mother's perfectly roasted turkey and oyster stuffing was the shock of her life ... and the keys to the family store.
Her parents had calmly informed her that they had a buyer for the family home — the one they'd moved into almost fifty years ago as newlyweds, the very one she'd grown up in, and had been fairly certain both her parents would live out their days in — and had already purchased lakefront property in a senior community in Florida. Which they'd giddily announced they'd already begun moving into to start their brand-new, retired life.
Holly had simply stared — gaped, really — half tempted to rush her mother to the nearest hospital for a full neurological workup. None of it had made sense. It still didn't. This wasn't how things were supposed to work out. Her dad would be running his accounting business out of the detached garage-turned-office and her mother would run Santa's Workshop, until they were both too frail and old to do so — and even then, she'd pictured quite the battle. Her parents were now in their early seventies. She'd figured she had at least another decade, possibly more knowing them, before that battle would begin in earnest. Until then, she'd stay safely tucked away in London.
At eighteen she'd gone sailing off to college. Literally. To Oxford, in England. No following in her parents' footsteps. She wanted to be a painter, with her work displayed in the most interesting galleries from the West End to Milan, from SoHo to San Francisco.
She'd ended up in advertising. Which was not exactly the same thing, but was at least creative and occasionally called on her skills with pen and brush. However, her career enabled her to keep a roof over her head and still dabble on the occasional canvas when she could find the time. Italy, Spain, Portugal. Germany, Switzerland, Austria. All had provided stunning backdrops to her occasional artist forays. She'd worn out several rail passes and filled many canvases. It kept her sane in the demanding world of advertising ... which she didn't love. But it paid the rent. And kept her far away from home and hearth.
It wasn't that she didn't love her parents; she did. They meant well. And while they might not have had the first clue how to raise their unexpected late-in-life child — she'd grown up in a house that was more a museum than an actual home a person could live in (Holly, don't touch that! Don't sit there! Leave the figurines alone!) — they were definitely made for each other. And the three of them had long since settled into a comfortable pattern of happy coexistence. They bugged her about not waiting too long to get married and start a family, she bugged them about not waiting too long to retire and get a life ... each fairly certain their admonitions were going in one ear and out the other, and everyone was content. Right up until the day they took her advice.
It had been two weeks since she found out and she still couldn't wrap her head around it. Any part of it. She couldn't imagine her father spending time on a golf course and not umbilically attached to his calculators and computers and endless shelves of bound volumes on the most recent tax legislation. And her mother ... how in the world was she going to embrace life in a place that never even had a frost, a place where Santa was often seen sporting board shorts and buddied up with flamingos?
And yet ... Holly had never heard them sounding happier. They truly were giddy with it. Both of them had been lifelong workaholics, dedicated to vocations they dearly loved as much as they dearly loved each other ... and, in their own absentminded way, their daughter, who had largely raised herself, with the help of this housekeeper or that and the occasional babysitter. But now? Now they were two of the most relaxed, happy, laid-back strangers she'd ever met. How could she be mad at that? Hadn't she been telling them they needed that very thing for years?
She'd just never seriously entertained the idea that they'd actually do it. Nor had it ever crossed her mind that her mother would leave Holly the family business. Why? Why would she do that? Holly knew what her mother had said. She couldn't bear to sell it to a stranger, and the few employees she had were all retirees who weren't interested in taking on the full-time burden. And she couldn't possibly sit there and sell off her precious, beloved pieces, one by one. She simply couldn't bear it.
So, she'd bequeathed it — a little early — lock, stock, and jingle bells, to her only daughter. Holly had always figured that, at some future point, when her mother passed on, she'd be faced with the burden of dismantling the shop and doing with it whatever one did with such a thing. Never once in her wildest dreams — or darkest nightmares — had she contemplated it would be dumped in her lap while her mother was still alive and kicking ... and would know exactly what was being done with it.
And, to make it even better, Christmas was in ten days. Which meant her thirtieth birthday was in nine. Double goody.
If she planned to keep the shop, it couldn't stay closed, which her mother had reminded her during her most recent phone call. Her mother, who had been packing for the three-week Mediterranean cruise she and Holly's father were taking. In December. During High Season. High, having to be the operative word, Holly was certain. Her mother hadn't even sounded twitchy when she discussed the store. She and her father had been far too busy, running off to play cards, going out to the theater, visiting Sea World. Sea World. With friends. They had dozens of them now, apparently. They'd had their home in Frost-proof — a name they both found hysterically funny — for all of three months now. It was like they'd run away to summer camp for seniors. Permanently.
One thing was very certain. They weren't coming back.
Holly stared at the thickening layer of clouds, still fingering the keys in her pocket. She had taken the remainder of her annual holiday time and the rest of her sick leave to come back and sort things out. Which meant she had a whole two weeks and three days to figure out what in the hell she was going to do with the new life that had been dumped on her.
It didn't seem like near enough.CHAPTER 2
Sean Gallagher loved Christmas. It brought back some of his very best memories. Leaving Willow Creek, Virginia, and going on holiday to his grandparents' farm in Cork, Ireland, spending time with the tumble and chaos of his very large, very extended family, with more cousins than even he could keep track of. He loved the rich, centuries-old family traditions that had gone along with it, from the food, to the decorations, to the music, and to the storytelling. He always wanted to stay longer, had always left happier, eager for summer to come, when he got to go back again for school break. But even those long, languid summers couldn't compete with the twelve days he got to spend each year during the Christmas season.
His grandparents were gone now. His parents were, too. But the rest of that very extended, chaotic family still existed and thrived, and had been in large part the reason why he'd regained his focus and perspective after such a devastating and sudden loss. The Gallagher clan thrived in both Willow Creek and County Cork, but as he'd taken over running the family restaurant after his parents' death, it was a rare occasion now when he was able to go over and see the Ireland-based side of the clan. And definitely not at Christmas.
Sean unlocked the front door to the restaurant, then positioned the large, oak-framed chalkboard at an angle so his customers would see the day's specials upon entering through the heavily carved doors with the stained glass, mullioned windows, both hand-crafted by some of his Corkborn cousins. He turned to head back to the kitchen, knowing the day was going to be a busy one, but paused when he saw a car pull up in front of Beverly Bennett's store across the street. It was an airport taxi. He continued watching.
Everyone in Willow Creek had been stunned when Bev and Stan Bennett had up and retired. He still couldn't quite believe it. When he'd gone over to give her and Stan his best wishes, and ask what she intended to do with the place, she'd stunned him again when she assured him that Holly was coming home from England to run it. However, in the ensuing weeks, Sean hadn't seen any sign of that. The store had remained locked up and dark, through what was easily the busiest time of the winter season for their little Civil War town. In fact, it had gotten to the point where the only car he'd expected to see pulling up in front of the brightly painted row house shop was one with a Realtor inside.
But it wasn't a Realtor who climbed out of the black and white cab.
It was Holly Bennett.
He'd known the Bennetts his entire life, but, for the past seven years as fellow business owners, they'd developed a true friendship based on mutual respect and support. Still ... Sean couldn't deny that hearing that their only daughter might come back to town had been welcome news.
He'd had a crush on little Holly Bennett for as long as he could remember. Not actively the past dozen or so years since she'd been gone. She only came home on Thanksgiving, and that was crunch time for him business-wise. So, other than a passing wave, he hadn't really ever been given the opportunity to see if there might still be an ember or two left over from the flames he'd always wanted to fan back in their high school days, but had never worked up the nerve to try.
So, despite knowing the hubbub and controlled chaos that awaited him back in the kitchens, and his cluttered office as well, he took the time to indulge himself in watching her climb out of the cab. She really hadn't changed much from high school. Sure she was more polished, presumably more mature, her features and her fashion sense a bit more refined. But her dark brown hair still swung around her shoulders like a shiny, silky curtain, and even in her smartly belted, British tweed coat, she was still a slight little thing who looked like she might blow over in a stiff wind. He knew better. She might be nothing like her gregarious, outgoing, fireplug of a mother, but he knew from growing up in the same small town as she that she not only had her father's reed-thin frame, but his reserved, rock-steady strength as well.
It hadn't surprised him a bit when, as a barely turned eighteen-year-old, she'd moved a continent away to continue her education. Or that she'd stayed to build a life for herself in such a metropolitan, worldly city as London. He had no doubt she could handle whatever life threw at her. She'd been preternaturally poised as far back as he could remember.
He watched as the cab pulled away, leaving her with a single piece of luggage and what looked like a computer bag slung over her shoulder. She didn't immediately go inside. Instead she stood, curbside, and stared up at the store that had become part of her family decades before either Sean or Holly had come into the world. Sean knew the whole story by now. Bev had grown up in Willow Creek and had started dating Stan while completing her business degree at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
Stan had been a few years older, born in Charlottesville, but had inherited a family home in Willow Creek and was establishing his own accounting business there. They'd been planning their wedding by the time she graduated and took over the dusty little antique book shop in town from Old Lady Haversham. Both Bev and Stan had poured everything into their respective businesses, and took the same kind of pride and joy in watching them grow and flourish as most folks did with their children. Holly had come along much later. In fact, though Sean was a few years older than Holly, his parents had been several decades younger than hers.
Like Holly, Sean had gone away for college, too, only he'd just gone as far as the Culinary Institute in New York. He loved his family dearly, but while his mother and father had built the family restaurant in Willow Creek using cooking skills they'd learned at the elbows of Sean's grandparents, great-aunts and -uncles, on both sides of the ocean, he'd wanted classical training. He'd envisioned opening his own place in the nation's capital, attracting the locals, the politicians, and the out-of-towners. There were Michelin stars in his future, he'd been sure of it. And though he'd missed being in the middle of the boisterous Gallagher clan, he'd only been a train ride away, and the visits back and forth had been frequent in both directions. His parents and the rest of the family had supported his dreams and he loved them all the more for that.
And then, in one night, everything changed. His life, his dreams, his foundation, his strength. Instead of moving to D.C. and beginning the climb toward opening his own place, his parents' death had brought the brand-new culinary graduate back to Willow Creek instead. But while he still missed them both, every day, he'd never regretted the new path fate had set him on. As it turned out, he loved running Gallagher's, loved having family and lifelong friends surrounding him. He wondered if he'd ever have been so truly fulfilled with his old dreams, but was too busy, too content and focused on the here and now to really give it much thought.
Staring at Holly, he remembered what it had been like, coming back. Only he'd come back into the warm embrace of extended family, sharing their grief over a devastating loss. She was coming home to an early inheritance, her parents happily alive and kicking up their heels in the Mediterranean right about now. So ... no grief, no tragedy to overcome. But, perhaps, a similar weight of sudden obligation on her slender shoulders. Did she resent it? Was she happy to be back?
He couldn't fathom what it would be like to come home to, well, no home, actually — he knew the house was newly occupied by a young couple with toddlers — and no family waiting with open arms. Only a darkened shop welcomed her back. She'd always been quiet, smart, focused. He remembered how he'd catch her watching his boisterous, crazy family with a combination of terror and wonder in her oh-so-serious deep brown eyes, and wonder what she was thinking. Her family was the opposite of his: small, neat, tidy. But friendly. He'd always found Mrs. Bennett's holiday world somewhat amazing and the woman herself nothing short of a wonder. He enjoyed the friendship they'd developed, and had often spent time chatting with her at her shop when he'd bring her dinner on the nights she checked in this late shipment or that. He'd enjoyed Mr. Bennett, too, and could see where Holly got her seriousness and quiet demeanor from. He wasn't much of a talker, but he was dedicated to his wife and their business, and Sean respected both. He still couldn't really process that they were off playing golf and cruising the high seas. It was almost impossible to picture it.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Lock, Stock and Jingle Bells"
Copyright © 2009 Donna Kauffman.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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