Allison Stuart has always been the odd-woman-out of her family. She wears her jeans a little too tight, colors her hair a little too blonde, and instead of going into medicine and law like her sisters, she runs a diner. She’s also the only single sibling left. And while she won’t change her style, and her meatloaf is to die for, thank you very much, she wouldn’t mind her share of wedded bliss. So she makes an early New Year’s resolution: No more meaningless flings.
Drop-dead sexy Luke Hamilton is everything Allison has sworn off. His only serious relationship has been with his five-star restaurant, Le Cygne Noir, in Chicago. When he’s threatened by a lawsuit, Luke decides to hide out in Pineville, Michigan, until the statute of limitations runs out. The small town is filled with Christmas charm, but he can’t imagine living there. Heating things up with the hottie who owns the local diner would make his exile bearable—if he can convince her to give up her ridiculous resolution . . .
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Black Friday was a hopping day for her diner, The Pantry. Tired Pineville shoppers stopped by in droves, happily dumping their bags and getting off their feet before diving back into the competitive sport of sales shopping. The bell on her register rang enough times to outfit heaven with an entire army of angels, which was why Allison Stuart was more than a little surprised to find herself not in her bustling restaurant, where she belonged, but out with the mob of other Christmas shoppers, mired in consumerism and 50 percent off deals.
Even more shocking was the half-nelson she had wrapped around a middle-aged woman wearing a sweatshirt with a smirking gingerbread man. Emblazoned across the front in a bold, red font were the words "Bite Me." Allison seriously considered following the advice.
"Let go of me, you crazy b — oosh." The woman went limp in her arms as a teenage boy dressed like an elf tripped over her flailing legs and landed with a thud on her stomach, knocking the wind out of her.
Never one to miss an opportunity, Allison grabbed the Caty Cowgirl doll, the cardboard box only slightly dented when the rabid mother had torn it from her hands. She rolled out from under the woman, scuttling away like a crab, her prize clutched to her chest. Her niece, Molly, wanted this damn doll, and she, as the doting auntie she was, was damned well going to give it to her. It wasn't her fault it was the last one on the shelf or that the other woman had been too short to grab it from its high perch. The woman shouldn't have walked down the aisle of Tinker Tots to look for something to stand on, not if she had been determined to land the prize. Nope, Allison had won the doll fair and square, and she was going to keep it.
The woman rolled onto her hands and knees, gathering her breath. When the woman drew herself to her feet, Allison was quick to jump to hers as well. She held the doll tighter and searched for something to defend herself with. A basketful of Wiffle ball bats stood at the end of the aisle, and Allison inched toward it. The way her opponent was eyeing her, she was going to need a weapon. Gingerbread Woman might have been short, but she was fierce.
The elf rubbed his elbow. "I'm sure I can help you both find just the toys you're looking for. At Tinker Tots, we aim to make your shopping dreams come true." The sing-songy slogan of Pineville's premier toy store came out a little shaky as the teenager backed away.
Gingerbread Woman never took her eyes off Allison. "Do you have any more Caty Cowgirl dolls in the back?"
The elf tugged at his red-and-white-striped turtleneck. "Uh, no. All our inventory for that item is on the shelf, but —"
"Then the only way my shopping dream is going to come true is if I get that doll." She leaped toward Allison, her fingers clawing the air inches from the box as Allison jumped back. "It was my doll. I saw it first!"
"You left it on the shelf. It's mine." Allison tucked the box under her arm like a football and spun on her heel. The cash register was only an aisle away. She leaped over a pile of discarded toys and zigzagged around an abandoned shopping cart. The small part of her brain that had managed to remain rational knew that her behavior had passed batshit crazy a while back. Christmas was supposed to be the season of peace, giving, and all those other sappy greeting-card messages. And it was only a doll, after all.
But when Molly had looked up at her with those big brown eyes, her lips quivering as she explained how much she wanted the limited-edition toy, well, what was an aunt to do? Allison didn't have her own kids and hadn't developed the immunity necessary to tell a little girl no.
And besides, once Gingerbread Woman had gotten physical, all bets were off. Allison had a competitive streak a mile wide, and no way was she going to lose now. She whipped around the end of an aisle and jumped over a child lying on the floor playing with a toy truck. Ha! All those years playing flag football with the neighborhood kids growing up weren't wasted. They were training, for this, for —
"Oof!" The breath hissed out of her as something hit her legs from behind and she went down. Caty Cowgirl rolled out of her hands, the box turning end over end for several feet before settling near the toe of a shiny black boot.
Her heart tumbled like the box. She couldn't cope with black boots right now, her deal with her sister be damned. She pushed to her feet, kicking the woman off her legs, and stumbled toward her prize. Gingerbread Woman grabbed a handful of Allison's hair and yanked, pulling her up short.
"Give it —"
"Hello, ladies." Judge Nichols bent down and picked up the doll — her doll. The older man turned the box over in his hands. "Caty Cowgirl," he read. "The cleverest cowgirl in all of Texas and a friend for all ages. Recommended for children between two and ten." He harrumphed. "Two through ten isn't all ages. Misleading advertising." He rolled the box over and studied Caty. "But a very nice gift for our children's toy drive. Thanks for thinking of it, Miss Stuart, Mrs. Samson."
Gingerbread Woman, aka Mrs. Samson, tugged on Allison's hair. "It's not for the toy drive. That's my —"
The small man laughed, the rich chuckle slapping Allison with shame. The judge might look like a sweet old man with his snowy-white hair and twinkling blue eyes, but everyone knew that the authority he wielded was absolute. She felt the laugh for the warning it was.
So did Mrs. Samson. The hand in Allison's hair loosened, and the woman shuffled back a step.
"Of course it is," Judge Nichols said. He tipped his head to the side, a lock of his hair brushing against the black wool of his long coat. "If what I saw wasn't the two of you arguing over who would make the kind donation, then I might be obligated to call the police." His eyes turned flinty. "Mrs. Samson, you tackled this woman and grabbed her hair, an action that could be considered assault. How would you like to explain that?"
"Well ..." Mrs. Samson looked at Allison, eyes wide, as if expecting her to help. Reaching out, she stroked the ends of Allison's hair and cleared her throat. "I was just asking, uh ..."
"Miss Stuart," the judge said helpfully.
"Yes, Miss Stuart where she got her hair done." She dropped the platinum blonde strands, and rubbed the tips of her fingers together as though wiping off cooties. "It's really nice."
Allison narrowed her eyes. She knew her hair was a frizzy mess. She'd stumbled out of bed at four a.m. in order to be first in line for the deals. When on a shopping mission, hair was the least of her concerns. But Mrs. Samson had to get her digs in when she could, and the judge, being a man, probably wouldn't even recognize the insult.
She was right. He beamed. "That's what I thought. Now, I don't want you two fighting over who gets to be the generous person to buy the doll and donate it. So I have the solution." He walked to an open cash register.
Allison gaped. The whole morning she had been stuck in lines that coiled all the way around stores, but the second the judge wanted to steal her doll away, he snaked an open spot. She clamped her fingers around the large shopping bags she held, precious booty from earlier that morning, and the plastic crinkled loudly.
The judge handed the doll to another elf and pulled out his wallet. "I'll buy this doll, and the two of you will leave donations instead." He picked up his purchase and placed it in the round tub of toys the firefighters were collecting for charity. Next to it, on a small wooden table, sat a clear plastic box half full of cash, coins, and checks. The money was going to purchase more toys for the needy children of Pineville and the surrounding areas for them to open on Christmas. He tapped the box. "Very nice donations, I might add."
"Yes, Judge." Mrs. Samson pulled a checkbook out of her purse, her shoulders rounded in defeat.
He turned his blue eyes in Allison's direction.
"Uh, yeah. Of course." She went to a cash register that wasn't open and dumped her purse on the counter. She dug through the bag. "I don't have my checkbook with me. I don't suppose they'd take a credit card?" She laughed, only half joking. The judge's lips firmed in a hard line, so she kept digging. She pulled out her wallet. "I don't have much cash on me right now. Just" — she counted — "sixteen dollars." A bit of green peeked out from the back pocket of her wallet. "And my emergency hundred."
Crap. Had she said that out loud? She peeked up at the judge. Going by the approving smile on his face, she'd have to guess that she had. A hundred bucks? She looked at Mrs. Samson but was too far away to see the number she was writing down. By the smug look on her face, Allison would bet it wasn't close to that amount.
She sighed and took the C-note from its place. The emergency money had been there for so long it was still entirely green, none of that new blue and red holographic technology in sight. Walking over to the donation box, she hesitated just a second before dropping the bill in. It was for a good cause. And it wasn't like she didn't make donations this time of year anyway.
Caty Cowgirl winked up at her, the doll's eyelids opening and closing as she settled in the tub. Allison itched to grab the doll and run. She grabbed her bags instead. Plastering a smile on her face, she wished the judge happy holidays and scurried out the door.
Shifting her bags to her right hand, Allison rolled her left shoulder, trying to ease the ache. Christmas shopping wasn't for sissies. Her morning so far had consisted of weightlifting packages and sparring over a doll. She didn't need a gym to get rid of that extra twenty pounds; the Black Friday workout had her heart pumping harder than a spin class.
Finding an empty bench, she dropped her bags on one end and sank onto the other. She pulled out her phone as Mrs. Samson exited the toy store. They scowled at each other before the other woman stomped off.
Tucking the phone to her ear, Allison waited for her sister to pick up. Without preamble, Camilla asked, "Did you get it?"
"Not yet." She rubbed her shoulder. "Tinker Tots has to restock. But don't worry; it will be under the tree for Molly come Christmas."
"It better." Camilla huffed. "I love my kids, but I tell you, that one is driving me nuts. 'Molly and Caty are going to win the rodeo; Molly and Caty are going to fight off the bank robbers.' That's all I ever hear these days. I'm worried if she doesn't get that damn doll, her head will explode."
"I'd be more worried that you're raising a daughter who refers to herself in the third person."
"That too." A sigh came across the line. "I swear, sometimes I think you're the lucky one, not having kids. I mean I love them, but usually I just want to duct-tape their mouths shut."
Allison ground her jaw. Her sister's comment hadn't been a dig. Not this time. But it was the third time in two days that Camilla had reminded Allison of her childless status. It was beginning to grate on her nerves. "I was calling for another reason. You remember the boot bargain we made?"
"The deal we made just two days ago? Yeah, I'm not brain-dead yet."
"Well, guess who was the first man I saw wearing black boots?" Allison chuckled. "Judge Nichols. Can you believe it? That would be my luck."
Silence filled the receiver.
"Isn't that funny, Camilla?" she prodded.
"Well ... he is single."
Allison spluttered. "What the hell are you talking about? I can't flirt with Judge Nichols. He's old enough to be our grandfather!"
"He's single, of legal age, and wearing black boots," her sister said, recalling the terms of their agreement. "You promised you'd flirt with the first man who fit that description. Online dating hasn't gotten you anywhere. I don't get your thing with boots, but those were the conditions we laid out." Something clattered in the background. "I knew I should have made you sign our agreement in blood," she muttered.
"We need to add some more parameters to our deal. It's the judge —"
"You are thirty-three years old and still single." Her sister's voice was stern. "You always have an excuse. Either the guy's too old, too hipster, doesn't like cheese —"
"Hey," Allison said, objecting. "That wasn't Keith's only problem." Just the main one. What man couldn't enjoy a nice crumbly Stilton? Especially on a cracker with chopped pecans and dribbled with some honey ... Damn it. Now she was hungry. "And you didn't like him either."
"Can you really afford to be so choosy?" Camilla ignored Allison's interruption. "At least you know Judge Nichols has a good job."
Allison opened and closed her mouth, at a loss for words. "I've got to go," she finally said. It was no use arguing with an attorney, especially when that attorney was nuts.
"Promise me," her sister said, warning in her voice, "the very next man who meets your criteria, you're going to ask out on a date."
Allison sulked. "You can't sue me for breach of contract if I don't."
"No, I can do worse. I'll tell Molly to call you every day to talk about how much she wants that stupid doll. You'll be begging for mercy."
"Fine," Allison muttered. "I promise." Maybe. She didn't care what her sister said — she wasn't going after the geriatric division.
They hung up, mutually annoyed. Pulling her coat closer around her, Allison looked down the street for the next store she should hit, unenthusiastic about the prospect. She should try the toy store in the next town over, but her body was telling her that she was done for the day. And if the other toy store sold out of the doll before tomorrow, well, there was always the internet. She stood and headed for her car.
The gods of the buy-local movement must have heard her thoughts — and disapproved.
Her sneaker hit a patch of ice, and she went airborne.
She managed to twist so that she landed on her hands and her hip, a sharp pain arcing down her side bringing a sting to her eyes and a filthy word to her lips. Her shopping bags landed upside down, scattering cellophane bags of pastel-colored Jordan almonds and boxes of white votive candles onto thecold concrete.
Perfect. Just flipping perfect. Resting her head in the crook of one elbow, she sank back on her haunches. She rubbed her hip, knowing that a bruise would be forming. If that just wasn't the cherry on this craptastic morning, she didn't know what was.
Until a pair of worn black motorcycle boots stepped in front of her. Then she knew that as bad as turfing it on the sidewalk in the middle of downtown was, it didn't compare to being caught ass up by the next man she was supposed to flirt with.
He squatted, the faded denim at his knees pulling tight and exposing another inch of the pair of sexy boots. Two straps of butter-soft leather held a round silver buckle in place at the ankle. Small scuff marks were etched around the squared-off toes. She loved the squared-off toe on men's boots.
"Are you all right?" he asked, his voice a soothing rumble and genuine concern lacing his words. "Do you need me to call an ambulance?"
Allison sat back on her feet, and sighed. She wanted nothing more than to retreat to her restaurant and grab a bag of ice for her hip and a shot of whiskey from the bottle she kept in her office. But a deal was a deal. Time to get her flirt on. "I'm fine. I just ..." Her eyes caught up with her mouth, and she froze. He was beautiful, the hottest man she'd ever seen in person. Eyes the color of spring grass glinted at her over high cheekbones. His hair was a little darker than honey, lighter than caramel, and it looked as though it had gone a couple of weeks past its trim date. The tousled locks and stubbled jaw tempered any prettiness, making him appear a bit rugged, a little wild. The black leather bomber jacket stretched across a broad chest didn't hurt either. The only imperfection in an otherwise symmetrical face was the slight crook in his nose, hinting at a misspent youth.
She would never bitch about her sister and her interfering ways again.
"You just ..." He raised an eyebrow. His gaze drifted down her body before returning to her face.
Excerpted from "The Christmas Wedding Swap"
Copyright © 2017 Allyson Charles.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.