Single mom Piper Montgomery’s plate is full. Between her two adorable kids, two jobs and a fixer-upper house, she’s so busy she can hardly see straight. But when rugged biker Logan Taggart strolls into the inn where she’s working, she can’t help but stare. He has bad boy written all over him. And with two kids relying on her, that’s the last thing she needs this Christmas.
Rendezvous Falls is nothing but a pit stop for Logan. Once his grandmother is back on her feet and ready to reclaim the inn, Logan can get back on the road. It’s where he belongs, even if his grandmother’s matchmaking book club try to convince him otherwise. Still, there’s something about beautiful spitfire Piper that makes him wonder if family and forever might just be what he needs after all.
But as the holidays draw ever closer, so do Piper and Logan. Could these polar opposites find that all they want this Christmas is each other?
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Piper Montgomery was plunging the toilet in Room Twelve of the Taggart Inn when her four-year-old daughter announced she wanted to dress up as Deadpool for Halloween.
It wasn't even ten o'clock on a Wednesday morning, and this was already turning into one of those days. Piper was pretty sure she already knew the answer to her next question, but she asked anyway.
"Lily, where did you even hear of Deadpool?"
Lily brushed her white-blond curls from her face with a big smile. "Ethan told me! He said Deadpool was a superhero and he wears red and red's my favorite color, so it's perfect!"
Piper sat back on her heels on the marble bathroom floor. Mr. and Mrs. Carlisle would be finished with breakfast soon, and they'd expect their bathroom to be fully functional when they got back. But Lily's grandmother would have some expectations, too. She could just imagine the look of horror on Susan Montgomery's face if her granddaughter dressed up as a foul-mouthed superhero. It would be just one more thing Piper had failed at since Tom's death.
"But Gigi already bought you that pretty butterfly costume, remember?"
Lily's face scrunched. "Ethan says butterflies are stupid. He says ..."
"Yeah, Ethan says a lot of things." Her grip tightened on the wooden plunger handle, crinkling her rubber gloves. She had no doubt this whole Deadpool idea was her thirteen-year-old son's payback because she'd suggested he might be too old for trick-or-treating this year. Or it could be payback for her working two jobs up until a week ago. Or for moving them into a house he claimed to hate. Or it could just be payback for the fact that Piper was here and his father was dead.
She missed the sweet little boy who used to cling to her legs and declare his love for her so loudly that strangers would laugh. It was hard to reconcile that child with the sullen teen Ethan had grown into, but he'd been through a lot in a few short years. They all had. She sighed in the direction of the clogged toilet. "I think Ethan was teasing you, honey. He knows you're too young to be Deadpool. It's not appropriate."
"Oh! I know what approp-rat means!" Lily loved big words. "It means what people expect, right? So people wouldn't expect me to be Deadpool and they wouldn't like it?"
Piper could think of one person who definitely wouldn't like it. "That's right, honey. So let's talk later and we'll come up with something for you to wear that will make everyone happy." Except Ethan, of course, but making her son happy seemed a lost cause these days.
She put her frustration into her plunging efforts, and was relieved when the toilet drained with a whoosh. Lily clapped her hands and started dancing. Victory dances for toilets that flushed. Livin' the dream. Piper wiped down the bathroom, then shooed her daughter out to the hall.
Plumbing wasn't normally her responsibility at the inn. She usually handled cooking breakfast and doing some cleaning for the owner, Iris Taggart. But Iris broke her hip a week ago, leaving Piper, the only employee, as the temporary Woman In Charge. Since Iris was eighty, "temporary" could last a while. As long as Piper was in charge, she was not paying a plumber a hundred bucks for a job she could handle on her own.
She'd just peeled off her rubber gloves and tucked them, and the plunger, into the hallway closet when Mr. Carlisle came up the stairs. Just in time — she doubted the guests she'd served salted caramel pancakes to forty minutes earlier would want to see their cook with a toilet plunger in her hand. She gave him a bright smile as she grabbed Lily to stop her from twirling and singing about toilets.
"Your room is all set, Mr. Carlisle. So sorry for any inconvenience. If you'd like, I can box up some of those cookies your wife liked so you'll have a snack while you tour the wineries today."
"That was fast. Then again, you probably have a plumber on call with a place this ancient." He looked around the hallway, with its bold floral wallpaper, and wrinkled his nose. She understood the sentiment. She'd been campaigning for a few months now to get Iris to update the decor, but the old woman wasn't a fan of change. Mr. Carlisle shook his head as he put his key in the door. "No offense, but coming to Rendezvous Falls was my wife's idea of a good time, not mine. But I've heard there's a distillery around here, so I'm hoping that'll be worth the drive from Philly."
"Eagle Rock Distillery? Oh, you'll love it. Ben Wilson has done a great job up there, and the views this time of year are spectacular. You'll drive right by one of my favorite wineries on the way up there — Falls Legend Winery on Lakeview Road." She moved past him toward the main staircase. "That way you'll both have a good time today."
Lily nodded solemnly, precocious as ever. "Yes, the views at Ben's are spectac-alar this time of year."
Mr. Carlisle chuckled, leaning down to the little girl's level. "So you've spent a lot of time at the whiskey distillery, have you?"
Lily's blue eyes shone. She loved being talked to like an adult. The girl was in way too much of a hurry to grow up.
"Oh, yes! Grandma and Grandpa take me there. Mr. Ben has a donkey named Rocky, and I feed him carrots. Mr. Ben was my daddy's best friend, but my daddy's dead, so Mr. Ben says he's my best friend now."
The words sent their usual slice of sorrow through Piper's heart. After four years, it was still hard to accept that Tom was gone. She had to give Mr. Carlisle credit. He hid his shock well, his smile barely faltering as Lily info-dumped all over him. Piper added talk to Ben to her to-do list. Ben Wilson was a great guy. Her in-laws adored him, and she'd already suspected Susan had decided he was the "anointed one" to take over Tom's role as husband and father. But, like so many other things, that wasn't Susan's — or Ben's — decision to make.
"Come on, Peanut. Momma has work to do." She tugged Lily toward the stairs. "Enjoy your day, Mr. Carlisle!"
Once downstairs, Piper started clearing the dining room. There were only three rooms occupied last night, but the weekend ahead was fully booked. Not only was it the peak of leaf-peeping season, it was also Harvest-Fest weekend in Rendezvous Falls. The festival would take place downtown, just a few blocks from the Taggart Inn. Iris usually had the porches decorated and set up for folks to enjoy tea and spice cookies to showcase the inn. But it was already Wednesday and Piper had no idea how she would get the decorating done in time, much less the food.
She'd check her to-do list and figure out a way. Maybe if she baked cookies at home at night and froze them? Maybe she could decorate the inn at night, too, if Ethan could be convinced to watch Lily. But if she decorated at night, she couldn't bake at night. Her shoulders sagged in defeat. She was so damn tired, and she didn't see any rest in sight. Between the kids, the house, two jobs, and now Iris's accident, Piper was nearly groaning from the weight of her responsibilities.
"Look, Momma! I'm an Iroquois princess!" Lily grabbed a garland of brown-and-gold silk leaves from the bannister of the massive mahogany staircase in the lobby and wrapped it around her head like a crown. Piper had been reading a children's book aloud to Lily before bed about the rich Native American history in the Finger Lakes region of Upstate New York, and the many legends handed down through centuries.
"Very pretty, Lily. Just be careful not to pull those garlands down by accident, okay?" At least Piper had managed to get autumn decorations up inside the inn — mostly pumpkins, gourds and silk leaves. Iris had been hauling out the boxes of decorations — without asking for help — when she took the fall that led to her broken hip. Thank god Piper had been cleaning a room on the second floor and heard the awful thud and Iris's cry of pain from upstairs. Another half hour and Piper would have been gone. Iris could have been lying up there for hours before anyone found her.
"Momma, I'm going to go feed Mr. Whiskers, okay? Because I'm respons-bull for him." Lily had been thrilled when Iris pronounced her the cat's caretaker while she was recovering.
"Just be sure not to let him out of Iris's apartment, and lock the door when you leave." Lily started to skip away as Piper called out one more order. "And no playing in the guest areas!"
The Victorian mansion, built in the late 1800s, had three floors plus a full attic and a scary, horror movie-style basement. The first floor held common areas for guests to enjoy, a large dining room, the kitchen, a few guest rooms, and Iris's living quarters in the back. Piper had bought the house next door that January. She'd started helping Iris part-time, eager for any job she could find once her pretty pink house turned into a money pit. The elderly woman gradually added more duties to Piper's list, and she was glad for the extra hours. Even better, Iris didn't mind her bringing Lily with her. Piper didn't have live-in babysitters these days, unless you counted Ethan. But he was barely a reliable babysitter in the afternoons, much less in the early mornings. Lily bounced out of bed every day raring to go, but Ethan was more of a don't-talk-to-me-until-noon sort of kid.
Iris insisted she didn't mind the endlessly active girl being around while Piper worked, as long as she didn't disturb the guests. Of course, Lily did that on a fairly regular basis, but most of the time the guests seemed charmed by her. She was so much like her father, with her ability to make people like putty in her hands. Tom had been so genuinely kind and friendly that everyone just ... relaxed around him. And smiled. Piper used to smile all the time too, when her husband was alive.
She loaded breakfast dishes into the commercial dishwasher. The kitchen was the one area in the inn where Iris didn't mind a modern look. There was stainless steel everywhere, including the oversized appliances. It was overkill for making breakfasts, but Iris had once served dinners at the inn. That had become too much for her to manage, but she still talked about reopening the restaurant somehow.
"Momma!" Lily's shriek as she ran into the kitchen startled Piper so much she almost dropped the platter she was holding. She should be used to her own child by now, but tell that to the heart that just tried leaping out of her chest.
"Lily! Please don't scream like that. There are guests ..." "But Momma, I saw a giant! He was walking right down the hall — a real live giant!"
Piper probably had Ethan to thank for this, too. He constantly told Lily the inn was haunted by monsters. Luckily, her fearless little daughter loved that idea, so his plan to scare her failed. But Piper was going to have yet another talk with him. Seriously? Giants now?
"Lily, it's not nice to tell stories." She talked over her daughter's objection. "I know, your brother loves tall tales, but we should always tell the truth, okay? Did you take care of Mr. Whiskers? Did you lock Iris's door?"
"Yes, but Momma, that's when I saw him! A big hairy giant dressed in black!"
Piper slid the door open on the dishwasher and rolled the steaming tray out onto the counter. She glanced at her watch. Damn, she was supposed to stop at the insurance office this morning to pick up her final check. They'd been more than understanding when she'd had to give her notice for the part-time job in order to help Iris. Arguing with her daughter would just slow her down. Choose your battles.
"Okay, Lily. If you see that giant again, bring him to me so I can tell him to stop hanging around here. It's bad for business."
Lily giggled and dashed out of the kitchen before Piper could tell her they were leaving soon. She put away the rest of the dishes and tossed the dishrag into the bin to be washed. She was mopping up the last corner of the floor when she heard the kitchen door open again. Good — Lily hadn't wandered far.
"I'm glad you're back, sweetie. I'm almost done, so —"
"Momma! I found the giant! Isn't he hoomongus?"
Piper turned and froze, clutching the mop handle tightly. Lily was standing in the doorway, holding hands with a stranger. Well over six feet tall, with straggly, wet hair hanging to his shoulders and a scruffy beard, the man was clothed entirely in black leather, including leather chaps on his long legs. He had the deepest-set eyes Piper had ever seen, shadowed under heavy, dark brows. With his size and overall menacing appearance, it was no wonder Lily thought he was a giant.
And he was holding her daughter's tiny hand.
Piper bristled, her exhaustion gone in a flash. She'd gladly battle actual monsters to save her children, and big or not (and he was big), this was just a man. A man who was about to regret touching her little girl. She brandished the mop handle in front of her like a sword as she went toward him. "You let her go right this minute! And get out of here! I'm calling the police ..." She fumbled to get her phone out of her back pocket while still aiming the mop at him. Her voice was fast approaching a scream. "You get the hell away from my daughter!"
Logan Taggart had been thrown out of plenty of places in his lifetime, but never by a pretty little ponytailed momma wearing a ruffled yellow apron. He managed to squelch his smile, knowing it would be a mistake to laugh.
The golden-haired munchkin clutching his fingers right now was clearly the woman's daughter, and he probably looked like an ax murderer. He gently freed himself from the child and stepped back, raising both hands and modulating his voice carefully.
"Ma'am, I'm sorry. The little girl said she wanted me to go to the kitchen, and I was heading here anyway ..."
The woman seemed flummoxed. Her chest rose and fell rapidly, her blue eyes wild as she stepped closer. She raised the mop higher with one hand, then dropped her phone on the counter with the other so she could snatch her daughter's hand, tugging her to safety behind her. She waved the mop again, as if that would really protect her if he posed a threat. He was a foot taller and a good seventy pounds heavier than she was. The biggest danger to him was in her other hand — the cell phone she'd picked up again.
"Please don't call the police," Logan said, trying to sound as reasonable as possible. "It'll upset the customers and I haven't done anything wrong."
The woman hesitated, glancing back at her daughter. Momma Bear had saved her cub. She swallowed a couple times, then gestured to the door with the mop. Her voice still shook, but the volume lowered.
"You need to go."
"I'm sorry I startled you. I've had a long-ass ..." He glanced at the kid and grimaced. "It's been a long trip, and I got caught in a rainstorm just south of here. I haven't eaten since yesterday's dinner ..."
Her eyes softened a fraction, even as she held the mop out firmly. She nodded toward the door. "The Methodist church three blocks over has a food pantry, and the Catholic church does soup and bread every Wednesday for whoever stops in. Father Joe might be able to help you find a place to sleep. But you can't stay here."
Logan couldn't stop his bark of laughter, even though it made her jump. She thought he was homeless? He couldn't decide if he was offended or impressed. Clearly scared out of her wits, she was still kind enough to offer him a chance at hot food and a bed. Yeah, definitely impressed. It was no surprise she worked for his grandmother, who was also a tough-as-nails woman who cared about others far more than she ever let on. Her eyes started to narrow again, so he tried to clarify that he wasn't some random vagrant.
"Actually, I can stay here."
She lifted the cell phone. Not good. His words tumbled out. "I'm Logan Taggart. This is my grandmother's place. I know I look like Sasquatch right now, but I'm honestly just here to help my grandmother." There was certainly no other reason he'd ever come to Rendezvous Falls with all its froufrou festivals and Gran's kitschy old inn that should have been sold ten years ago.
The woman froze. "You're Logan? But Iris said ..." She looked him up and down. "Iris said you worked on an oil rig somewhere." Her chin rose defiantly. "And she didn't tell me you were coming."
Right now he wished he was on a rig somewhere. He'd be more comfortable in a screaming hurricane than standing here in Rendezvous Falls, defending his presence to this woman raking over him with her suspicious blue eyes. He bit back a tired sigh.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Stealing Kisses in the Snow"
Copyright © 2019 Jo McNally.
Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
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