New York Times bestselling author Shannon Stacey returns with a warm and cozy opposites-attract Christmas story.
Zoe Randall is busy living her life as she damn well pleases. She’s back in her favorite town, her divorce in her rearview mirror, and living out her childhood dream of running a bookstore with her cousin. She has no interest in the uptight nerd who opened his boring-ass business next to her shop…until he complains about one of her sexy window displays.
Then it’s game on.
Preston Wheeler knows he takes life a little too seriously. But when the saucy bookseller next door starts pushing his buttons, he can feel that changing. Beautiful, vivacious Zoe challenges him in all the best ways, and soon he’s pushing her buttons right back: teasing and flirting all the way through the holiday season.
As Preston loosens up and Zoe is treated to the man behind the suit (particularly his forearms), she realizes she’s more interested than she cares to admit. And Preston comes to see the beauty—the absolute delight—in adding Zoe’s bright splashes of color to his once very black-and-white existence.
This book is approximately 34,000 words
One-click with confidence. This title is part of the Carina Press Romance Promise: all the romance you’re looking for with an HEA/HFN. It’s a promise!
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November first was shaping up to be one of Zoe Randall's least favorite days of the year.
The purple fairy lights. The saucy witch statue with her glowing book of spells. The tiny fog machine. Halloween was over and it was time for the huge bay window of Cedar Street Books to be stripped bare of one of her most fun book displays yet.
To make way for the month of November, which didn't exactly lend itself to fun. First up was Veterans Day, for which she had a special display planned, but then came Thanksgiving.
Zoe muttered about an entire month devoted to a turkey dinner as she climbed into the window display and sat cross-legged next to the little witch.
"Are you talking to me, yourself, or the witch?"
Carly, her cousin and partner in the bookstore, paused on her way by, and Zoe laughed. "I'm just ranting about Thanksgiving because I want to jump right to the Christmas decorations. Turkeys aren't irresistible and they're not going to lure customers in."
"Cookbooks might," Carly said, and Zoe wrinkled her nose. "I know, but we have to try harder in November if we don't want too much of a dip."
"I know." Novembers in a small New Hampshire town driven by tourism could be tough. The lake people had wrapped their water toys in blue plastic and gone home. The foliage was dead on the ground and the ski season hadn't yet begun. There was literally nothing for people to do.
Except read, Zoe reminded herself firmly.
She hadn't shown up on her cousin's doorstep, with everything she owned and freshly signed divorce papers, determined to make their childhood dream of co-owning a bookstore come true just to whine about turkeys.
After the attitude self-adjustment, Zoe reached for the witch, but from the corner of her eye, movement caught her attention and she turned her head to see a man standing on the sidewalk.
He was staring, but whether at her or the sexy witch or the very steamy paranormal romance covers, she couldn't tell.
She could tell he was hot as hell, though, in a buttoned-up way. He was wearing a very well-tailored gray suit, with a subdued tie in a darker gray. His brown hair was cut in a standard business style, but her gaze still lingered because there were so many hues of gold and red, she wondered if it could be natural.
He wasn't somebody she remembered seeing around town, and she was pretty sure she wouldn't have forgotten him if she had. The man really knew how to wear a suit.
She gave him a friendly wave and a smile, hoping to lure him inside, but he didn't smile back. In fact, his expression was anything but friendly.
Zoe knew that look. She'd divorced the man she'd thought she was going to spend the rest of her life with — a man who'd claimed to love and cherish her — because of that look, so she wasn't about to accept it from a total stranger.
Arching one eyebrow, she gave him her best bitch face. And not the resting kind, either. Hers was a fully active bitch face.
The man scowled and — after casting a final, dismissing glance at the display around her — he turned on his heel and walked away.
Zoe rolled her eyes and was picking up a stack of popular paranormal romances that had been part of the Halloween display when she noticed he hadn't gone very far. In fact, he'd only taken a few steps and now the blue door of her shop was swinging open, making the small brass bell ring.
Crap. Carly was in the back room, so now she was alone with a strange man who didn't look very friendly. Zoe rarely let fear get the best of her since her divorce, but she wasn't stupid, either.
"Mrs. Walker wants us to order the third book in that trilogy you recommended to her," she said in a conversational tone to hopefully give the impression somebody was just on the other side of the bookshelves. And then, to distract from the lack of response she was going to get, she turned to the man closing the door behind him. "Can I help you find something today?"
She knew she should be smiling, but he was still looking at her with a faint air of judgment and she couldn't make herself do it.
"I'm looking for Carly or Zoe," he said in a voice that wasn't threatening, but just deep enough to make her shiver.
The good kind of shiver, though. The voice went so perfectly with the stern expression and the tie just begging to be loosened. He'd probably be a lot less judgmental if her fingers were mussing his hair and undoing the tiny buttons of his crisp, white shirt.
She cleared her throat as the realization sank in that he was looking for them, specifically by name, so hadn't come in just to hassle her about the look she'd given him. And she should probably pay attention to what her facial expression was doing while she was mentally undressing him. "I'm Zoe."
"Joe Randall said I could get the key to the office next door from you."
It took a few seconds for Zoe's brain to stop obsessing about how long and thick his eyelashes were and catch up with the conversation. "You're the new tenant?"
"Yes, I am. Preston Wheeler. I'm renting the office space from Joe and we signed the papers last week, but the painters and the cleaning crew hadn't finished up yet, so he told me he'd leave the key with you."
She didn't bother telling him she, Carly and Carly's husband, Noah, had done both the painting and the cleaning. "Yeah, it's in the register. I'll grab it for you. What is it you do?"
She looked up in surprise as the register drawer popped open. "For dead people?"
"It's generally more effective to do the estate planning before the client is dead."
Neither his expression nor his tone gave any indication he was trying to be funny, but she laughed anyway and waved her hand. "I meant instead of planning a literal estate. Like building brick manor houses and landscaping and stuff."
"I think that would be architectural engineering, but I admit I don't know very much about building brick manor houses."
Noah was an architectural engineer, actually, but Zoe kept that to herself, too. She'd just give him his key and send him on his way because there was something about him that grated on her nerves.
But once he had the key in his hand, he hesitated. "That window display ..."
He let the words trail away without finishing the thought and — remembering the derisive look he'd given the window — Zoe didn't feel the need to help him out. She could tell him she'd been in the window to dismantle it, but she'd rather make him say it out loud.
"When I toured the property with the real estate agent, there was a tasteful display of historical texts in your window."
Zoe wrinkled her nose. "Yeah, that was for the town's birthday bash and they leaned on us to fall in with the historical theme. Super boring."
"It might have been boring, but it was an entirely suitable display to have next door."
"If you're trying to insult me, you're going to have to up your game because entirely unsuitable is not the worst thing I've been called this week." She laughed. "Maybe not even today since I accidentally cut off that asshat in the BMW this morning."
He not only sighed, but he managed to make it sound as if the weight of the entire planet was slowly and painfully pushing the air out of him. "Tell me you don't drive a red Kia."
"It's my cousin's car, but I borrowed it to run to the bank, so yes." When his jaw tightened, she got the message. "A boring gray BMW sedan. Of course that was you."
"Then I can confirm entirely unsuitable is definitely not the worst thing you've been called today."
"Well." Zoe was pretty sure this conversation had run its course. "Enjoy your new office space."
He looked for a second as if he wanted to say something more, but then he took her not-so-subtle hint and after thanking her for the key, he gave a curt nod and left the bookstore.
"Who was that?"
Zoe heard her cousin's voice and turned to see Carly peeking out from behind a bookshelf. "Granddad rented the office next door to him. He's not a fan of the current window display."
"Or of your driving, by the sounds of it."
"Whatever." She folded her arms and looked at the window. "I'm sure he'll enjoy the next display."
"Zoe." Her cousin's voice rose in a warning tone. "The last thing we need is another battle with the town selectmen."
"You didn't see the way he looked at me, though." Her mind was made up. "Pissing that guy off will be worth a sternly worded letter from the town. Trust me."
* * *
Preston paused and allowed himself — or maybe forced himself — to take a second and appreciate the moment before he turned the key in the dead bolt of his new office space.
Leaving his fairly secure but highly stressful job in Boston to open his own business in a small town had been a lengthy, monumental undertaking. Just the paperwork involved in moving from doing estate planning in Massachusetts to doing it in New Hampshire had been enough to make him second-guess himself. Then he had to find a town that not only had available rentals for living and working, but that had the demographics to make his business thrive. The more assets people had, the more they worried about what would become of those assets, and there was a lot of money in this little town.
He took a deep breath as the door swung open, and as he stepped inside the space, the constant buzz of anxiety that had been in his head since he decided to take this leap quieted.
It was perfect. And it was his for at least one year.
The hardwood floors looked original but had been well cared for over the years. Fresh pale gray paint covered the walls, offset by white trim. The room was empty for — he glanced at his watch — another forty minutes, so he walked to the door at the back of the space to look in the back room. They'd painted that as well, which he appreciated despite the fact the only thing he'd be keeping in this room was locked filing cabinets. And the restroom was freshly painted and sparkling clean, too.
His watch buzzed and when his father's name showed up on the face, he pulled his phone out of his pocket to answer it. "Hey, Dad."
"First day! How's it going?"
He chuckled. "I've only been here five minutes, but so far, so good. The movers should be here soon with the furniture, which will help."
"Didn't you tell me you have an appointment already booked for this afternoon? You're cutting it pretty close."
"You know me. Always living on the edge." As expected, his dad laughed at that, since on the edge was pretty much the opposite of how Preston liked to live.
He chatted with his dad for a while, as he did at least twice a week. His dad had retired early and since his mom wrote freelance articles for travel magazines, they were constantly on the move now, looking for fresh topics. Preston kept the call on the shorter side, though, because he had no place to sit and he didn't want to lean against the freshly painted walls.
He carried in the few boxes of office supplies and his computer bag, and placed them in a corner out of the way. His mind should be on setting things in order, but the woman from the bookstore — Zoe — kept creeping into his thoughts.
She reminded him of the pin-up girls from calendars and airplanes of old, with her dark hair pulled into a long, thick ponytail and her very generous curves hugged by a polka-dotted shirt cut in a deep vee and her bright lipstick.
He hadn't known he found women with poor driving skills and big attitudes attractive until he met Zoe. And he'd like to deny — even to himself — that he had found her attractive, but he couldn't deny she'd piqued his interest. As a matter of fact, if he kept thinking about that lipstick or the way her shirt hugged her breasts, he was going to be dealing with the uncomfortable problem of an actual peak in the fly of his trousers.
Luckily, a small box truck pulled up outside and the arrival of his office furniture had him putting Zoe out of his mind. Or mostly out of his mind, since every time he made a trip out to the truck to pick which piece went in next, it took a conscious effort on his part not to look at the Cedar Street Books window to see if she was sitting in it again.
Finally the movers were finished and tipped, so he was free to close the door against thoughts of his neighbors and focus on preparing for his first clients.
The limited space had forced him to embrace a somewhat minimalist aesthetic, but he really liked the way it had come out. His simple desk was tucked in a corner, with his laptop and a few other work tools on top. Most of the room, though, was given over to a more intimate and relaxing seating arrangement. An armchair for him across a coffee table from a loveseat flanked by two more armchairs, all in an elegant dark gray fabric.
In his experience, clients were often stiff and fidgety when seated in visitor chairs at his desk. They relaxed much faster in a casual setting. Plus, couples planning for the death of one or both of them often wanted to be touching or to hold hands, and he thought the loveseat would be better. He was determined to make the process as painless as possible for his clients.
He would offer the kind of service he hadn't been able to at the Boston firm he'd left behind. Business in the city was a lot more competitive and the hustle was the first priority. He'd run that rat race for several years, raking in some good money, but he wanted to sleep at night. To not wonder if it was heartburn or an ulcer. His parents had set the bar high and he'd lived up to their expectations.
Now he was ready to live up to his own.CHAPTER 2
Great. Starting off her day with more judgment coming at her from the other side of the glass.
Unfortunately, this time the look was coming from her cousin. Or more importantly in this case, her business partner. Zoe tried not to make eye contact with Carly and after a long moment, the bell over the door rang.
"What are you doing?"
"Decorating the window."
She heard Carly's deep sigh of annoyance as she moved some books to set down her coffee, and she wasn't sure if it was because Zoe was always putting books in the way of where she set her coffee or because of Zoe's smart-ass, literal answer.
"I thought you were doing a Veterans Day theme."
"We have a week and a half for that. Did you know Monday is National Candy Day?"
When her cousin didn't say anything else, she finally took her attention away from the large glass bowl she was considering filling with M&Ms or Starburst candies and looked at Carly, who was waiting for the laptop to boot up. "What?"
"When I asked what you were doing, I guess what I really meant was why aren't you doing the display we spent a week planning?"
If she was being honest, Zoe would have to admit it was because the patriotic display they had planned honoring local veterans would be something Preston Wheeler would find entirely suitable, but she didn't think Carly would appreciate that answer. "I am going to do that display and everybody's going to love it. I just want to do a temporary but really fun and eye-catching window before that one. Just for a few days."
"Why do I get the feeling this has something to do with our new neighbor?"
Zoe looked around the materials she'd gathered for the display and couldn't stop the satisfied smile that curved her lips. He was really going to hate it. "Why do you think that?"
"Why don't you try being friendly instead," Carly suggested, and then she took a long drink of coffee, but she kept her eyebrows raised so she was still making her point without even talking.
"He was unfriendly first."
"Okay, but this isn't elementary school. We're business owners and so is he and, who knows, you might even like him if you give him a chance."
Oh, Zoe knew exactly what she meant by that. She'd been dodging Carly's attempts to set her up for the last two months. "The last thing I need in my life is an uptight nerd."
"You talked to him for maybe two minutes. He might not be as uptight as you think."
"His name is Preston, Carly. Preston."
"There's no nickname for Preston. His parents gave him a preppy name that can't be shortened, which means they're probably as uptight and nerdy as their son. I bet they drive gray sedans, too."
Carly laughed, which just annoyed her more. "This guy really got under your skin."
"He's not under my anything." Zoe walked over and took a sip of Carly's coffee, even though she'd been trying to give up caffeine for months. "You know what's going on here? You got married and now you won't be happy until I'm married too."
"That's a movie cliché."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "One Christmas Eve"
Copyright © 2019 Shannon Stacey.
Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
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