Two gorgeous stories about the most romantic time of the year…
The holidays don’t have to be fraught with tension, as lifelong friends Lily Cavanaugh and Cameron Greene discover inMistletoe Between Friends when they cook up a scheme to fool their family and friends.
The Snowflake Inn shows rivals Grace Brodie and Riley Walsh that Christmas is a time when dreams come true-even if you’ve given up on those dreams long ago.
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Mistletoe Between Friends
Monday morning came way too soon for Lily. She’d given herself multiple pep talks and reminded herself how important it was to do the right thing for Cam.
It just sucked that the right thing for Cam was going to be torture for her.
Ever on time, Cameron arrived to pick Lily up at exactly 7:00 a.m. Knowing he was a stickler about time, she’d made sure that she was ready and waiting for him. But she could tell by the look on his face when she opened the door that he was surprised she was ready.
“What?” she asked.
Cam looked her up and down and then at the suitcase beside her. “You’re ready,” he said with just a hint of disbelief.
A shy smile crept across Lily’s face. “You told me you’d be here at seven, so I was ready for seven. Actually, I was ready at six forty-five. Impressive, right?”
His eyes narrowed slightly. “You’re never ready when I tell you what time I’m coming to pick you up. I build a cushion for Lily time.”
The smile shifted to playful annoyance as Lily cocked a hip and crossed her arms over her chest. “If it would make you feel better, I can change clothes and decide that I want a bowl of cereal before we leave.”
“No, no,” he said with a slight chuckle. “I’m sorry. I guess I should have just said thank you, right?”
“No,” she corrected. “You should have offered to put my suitcase in the car because all this chitchat will make us late.” Without another word, Cameron reached beyond Lily and grabbed her case while she locked up her condo. “I watched the Weather Channel last night while I was packing, and they said it’s going to snow while we’re up there. Won’t that be beautiful? We can see snow in Central Park!”
Cam shrugged; he’d never given much thought to snow in Manhattan and didn’t care about it now. They lived just outside of Raleigh, so it wasn’t as if they’d never seen snow before. But that was just one of the things about Lily he adored—that the little things in life made her happy.
Lily had a bigger heart than anyone he’d ever known. He knew that even though she made light of it, she was easily hurt by her family. It didn’t help that her parents always made her feel like she wasn’t living up to her full potential, or that she had an older sister everyone seemed to think walked on water. Cam knew the real Lily. If anyone took the time to get to know her and saw beyond her inability to find a career, they’d see a person who’d give them the world.
For as far back as Cameron could remember, he’d been in love with Lily Cavanaugh. While everyone else around them treated him like a freak because of his intelligence, Lily always considered him Cam, her friend. He’d never once thought about telling her how he felt because the last thing he wanted was to lose Lily as his friend. Most days, she was the only one who kept him sane.
And now he was going to have her to himself for nearly a week.
Once they were on the road, Cam glanced over at Lily and saw the serene smile on her face. “What are you thinking about right now?” he asked.
“Actually, I was wondering if we were going to play the part of boyfriend and girlfriend during your conference or if we were waiting to kick it into gear when we got back.”
He nodded and then pondered the situation. “I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to try out the act around my colleagues before we return home.” His tone was rather cut and dried, like he was talking about a root canal.
“How about a little enthusiasm, champ?” she asked sarcastically. “This was your idea, remember? And if we’re going to pull this off and get four months of freedom from our parents, you can’t talk about our relationship like it’s a chore.”
Cam turned to look at her as if she were crazy. “Talk about our relationship? It’s seven fifteen in the morning, Lil. We haven’t been around anybody except each other. What do you want me to do?”
She sighed. “You’ll need to show a little more excitement if you’re going to be believable as my boyfriend.”
What had he gotten himself into? “Why, exactly, do I have to do that?”
“Cam, everyone who knows me knows that I’m a fairly happy-go-lucky person. You and I are complete opposites. I’m going to have to tone it down a little, but on the flip side, you’re going to have to kick it up a notch. You know, crack a smile or a joke once in a while. Laugh.” She looked at him quizzically. “You have no idea what I’m talking about, do you?”
Honestly, he didn’t. When he had devised the plan to have a make-believe romance with Lily to survive the holidays, Cam had simply thought that by saying they were involved, people would get off their backs. But as Lily explained the complexities of the situation, he realized he was greatly unprepared.
And that was simply unacceptable.
Taking a fortifying breath, he said, “Okay. It’s not like we have to play twenty questions to know each other better. We already know everything about each other. What do you suggest?”
“Well,” she said, “it would probably help if we held hands when out in public.”
Cameron considered her suggestions and—without reacting in any way, shape, or form—decided that this wasn’t going to be such a bad thing after all. He’d finally have the opportunity to touch Lily, to kiss Lily, and it was all her idea. He really was brilliant.
“Seems simple enough,” Cam said. “Done.” He reached for her hand and held it while he focused on the road and drove one-handed. He wouldn’t normally do that because safety dictated that he drive with his hands in the ten-and-two position. It took all of thirty seconds for him to start to squirm.
“This is physically painful for you, isn’t it?”
“What? No,” he denied although he was lying through his teeth. He wanted to concentrate on the feel of her hand in his, but couldn’t when they were on the road.
Lily pulled her hand away and almost burst out laughing at how quickly Cam’s hand went back to the steering wheel. “Okay, baby steps. We’ll only hold hands when we’re walking. How does that sound?” She smiled at the annoyance on Cam’s face.
“Safety isn’t something to take lightly, Lily.”
“Of course it isn’t,” she agreed. “I mean, driving twenty miles under the speed limit and one-handed? What was I thinking?”
“It’s a little early for all of this sarcasm,” he said dryly. “So other than hand-holding, what am I supposed to do?”
Was he kidding? At this rate, she could probably convince him to act out every one of her fantasies that she’d ever had about him. But that would be wrong.
Yes, yes, yes. Bad Lily! What were you thinking?
“Kissing,” she said before she could stop herself. “We’ll probably have to kiss in front of people from time to time. And none of that buddy-buddy, on-the-cheek stuff. Like…real kissing.”
Bad, bad Lily!
She saw him considering the idea from all sides as usual. He never agreed to anything without thinking it through. “I guess I can,” he said, seeming bored with the idea.
“That’s the spirit,” she said and was relieved to see them turning onto the exit ramp for the airport. If all went well, within a matter of hours she would be walking around Manhattan with Cam and presenting the image of a happy couple.
Project Girlfriend had begun!
The Snowflake Inn
She was feeling the burn and could clearly see the light at the end of the tunnel—or in this case, the clearing in the trees that meant the parking lot was close—when it happened. Her knee buckled. A cry of dismay escaped before she could help it, and next thing she knew, she was on the ground.
“Dammit,” she cried, pulling her knee to her chest as she rocked. “Why now?” Tears threatened to fall, and all she could think about was the walk to the car and how painful it was going to be. As much as her physical therapist had told her recovery would take time, Grace felt like her body had betrayed her.
“Are you all right?” a deep male voice said from behind her.
Uh-oh… Cute Angry Guy is here, and he’s talking to me! Looking up…and up…and up, her eyes finally met his. Holy cow.
Oh, right. He asked you a question. “What? Oh, sorry… Um… Yes, I’m fine,” she stammered and tried again to stand. But her darn knee wasn’t quite onboard with the rest of her, and she went down again. She muttered a curse and felt a blush creep up her cheeks in embarrassment.
He quirked a brow as he looked at her. “You don’t look like you’re fine,” he said seriously and crouched beside her. “Did you hurt your knee?”
Grace nodded. “About six months ago in a skiing accident. I was in rehab and physical therapy for months. I just decided to try to go back to my jogging routine—at a slower pace, of course—and I thought I was doing okay. Until about five minutes ago.”
Cute Angry Guy nodded. “You probably just pushed yourself a little too hard.”
She shook her head. “In therapy, I can run twice as long without any issues.”
“That’s on a treadmill. This is an uneven jogging path. It’s completely different.”
Now she glared at him. “Thanks for pointing out the obvious,” she snapped. If she had better luck, she’d be able to jump to her feet and walk away with a sassy sway to her hips.
Clearly, she had no luck. On her third attempt at standing, Cute Angry Guy wrapped a strong arm around her back and helped her to her feet. “Thank you,” she said quietly and did her best to disengage from his embrace. But he didn’t let her go. Looking up, Grace found herself trapped by the bluest eyes she had ever seen. Her breath seemed to catch, and she couldn’t speak, couldn’t breathe. The only thing saving her from complete and total embarrassment was the fact that he seemed just as mesmerized by her as she was by him.
“Can you walk?” he finally asked, his voice sounding rough to her ears. Nodding weakly, unwilling to break their eye contact, she tried once again to move away, but his arm seemed to tighten around her. “I’ll walk you to your car.”
He clearly wasn’t big on conversation. At the moment, that suited Grace just fine because she was having a hard time remembering how to form words. Cute Angry Guy was big and a feast for all of her senses, but she had to be careful to remember that he was a stranger. She knew nothing about him, and as much as she wanted to ask him at least a dozen questions, there was something to be said for companionable silence.
And walking really close together.
Deciding to just enjoy the moment, Grace pressed herself more firmly against his warm, solid frame and began to walk slowly with him toward her car. With the way they had been seeing each other all around town for the past couple of days, she figured he’d know which car was hers without her saying anything.
Sure enough, he did.
As they approached her little white sedan, they stopped and Grace pulled her keys out of her jacket pocket. It was then that she realized what a complete mess she must look like: black leggings, white jacket, and a green wool scarf to match her green socks…ugh. And then there was the hair.
She was so not going to think about the hair.
Normally after her jog, Grace would take a few minutes in the car to relax and apply some lip gloss and fix her hair before going anyplace else. That was why she hadn’t been worried about approaching him the other day in Starbucks. But now that he’d seen her in this—well, in all her ill-fated glory—she was certain her current appearance had killed any attraction (real or imagined).
Quickly and painfully.
“So, um…thanks for the help,” she said, feeling awkward. She fidgeted with her hair, doing her best to tame it, and cursed herself for refusing to wear a hat. At least a hat could have camouflaged the flyaway mess.
His lips twitched with an almost-smile as he watched her fidget around. “Are you going to be okay to drive?”
Grace ran her hand through her hair and cursed when it got stuck. With a wince, she pulled it out and forced herself to play with her keys and try to remain calm. “Yes,” she said, wishing that the parking lot would just open up beneath her and take her away. “I’ll be fine. I’ll go home and do the whole ice-and-heat thing, take some ibuprofen, and call it a day.”
“You should probably call your therapist and let him take a look at it.”
She shook her head. “I don’t have one here.”
“Then you should set up an appointment for when you get home.”
Grace gave him an odd look. “Get home? I am home. I live here.”
Now it was Cute Angry Guy’s turn to give her an odd look. “You live here?”
She nodded. “I just moved here about six weeks ago. I thought I was done with therapy, so I haven’t bothered to look up a therapist. But I guess I’ll have to now.” She shrugged and turned to unlock her car. Once the door was open, she turned and forced a smile on her face. “Anyway,” she said and did her best to relax, “thank you for the help.”
“My pleasure.” His voice was deep and a little rough, and Grace almost wanted to purr. Hearing the word pleasure come from that mouth—which was pretty spectacular too—had her heart rate going into overdrive.
“Well, I guess I’ll see you around,” she said brightly and sat in the car, wincing slightly as she bent her leg.
“Don’t wait to find a therapist. Call the one you know and see if you can get a referral.”
“Thanks, I will.” She was just about to ask his name, but he turned and walked away. And the rear view was as enticing as the front one. Grace almost had to fan herself. Her first instinct was to call out to him, but really, it was probably better not to. If he had been following her these past couple of days, wouldn’t he have asked for her name or phone number? The fact he hadn’t just proved Grace was imagining things. Bad hair and wardrobe aside, the man couldn’t seem to get away from her fast enough.
With a depressed sigh, Grace pulled the car door shut and decided to cut her losses and go. The drive through the small downtown area didn’t take long, and when she saw Starbucks coming up, she decided she could deal with the pain for a little bit longer. A white-chocolate peppermint mocha would go a long way in helping her deal with it, of that she was certain.
It didn’t take long to park, and then she was surrounded by people she was coming to know. She smiled and made small talk while she waited her turn in line at the coffee shop. When one person was left in front of her, Grace felt an odd tingle go down her spine. Turning her head, she had to suppress a grin. There in the doorway stood Cute Angry Guy, and if her eyes weren’t deceiving her, he was doing his best to suppress his own smile.
She wished he’d stop trying to hide it. With a face like that, he had to have a smile that was positively breathtaking. Certain she’d never really know, Grace turned her attention back to the counter and placed her order as she made her way to the register to pay. She was mentally congratulating herself on the fact she hadn’t turned around again. Self-control—she’d known she had it in her somewhere.
“Thank you,” Grace said with a smile as she took the hot beverage from the young barista. Turning slowly in the crowd, she made her way carefully to the door, still doing her best to not look around and see if cute-angry-smirking-guy was still there. I guess I’ll never know, she sighed inwardly and headed back out to her car.
If her knee hadn’t been in so much pain, Grace was certain she’d have a little pep in her step. Being rescued by a sexy stranger was certainly a great way to start her day. A quick glance at her watch showed she needed to get moving or she’d be late for work. And with so much on the line, the last thing she wanted to do was mess that up.
Although she doubted anyone would blame her if they had seen the sexy reason for her delay.