Authors: Hope Ramsay
She pushed him back and gazed into his eyes. He was a complete blur, but that didn’t matter. “You told Pam Lyndon she needed to apologize? Oh my God, I don’t think anyone has ever told Pam Lyndon that in her entire life.”
He laughed a little and put his forehead against hers. “Well, there’s a first time for everything.”
They stood like that for a long moment as the tension of the last few days melted away. “So, I have a million questions,” Melissa said.
“About you, Jeff. I want to know everything. I want to know what your favorite color is and what you like for breakfast, and lunch, and dinner. And which vegetable makes you want to yak. I want to know your birthday and the worst and best Christmas present you ever got. I want to know it all because, damn it, I crave your body, and when that happens, it means my heart is automatically involved. You know? I don’t do the whole friends-with-benefits thing well. So if that’s all this is, I’ll just get in my car and go now, okay?”
She was prepared to have her heart crushed when he said, “Brussels sprouts.”
“I hate brussels sprouts. How about you?”
She took in a deep breath filled with the woodsy scent of him. “It’s cauliflower that makes me want to hurl. And, for the record, my birthday is the sixteenth of March.”
“Really? Mine’s on the seventeenth. Next year we should throw a big party.”
She closed her eyes and rested her head against his chest. His arms were still around her. She was safe here. She’d always be safe here. She may have met him only days ago, but he was “the One.”
“I have something to seal this moment,” he said, moving back a little bit. “I intended to present it to you last night. But you didn’t answer my calls.”
“I was getting drunk with the girls. Bad move on my part.”
He laughed. “Put on your glasses.”
She snagged them from her jeans pocket where she’d put them right before her crying jag. She slipped them on just in time to see him pull something from his pocket.
He held it out to her, nestled in his palm. “It’s the arrowhead,” he said. “Yesterday I bought a rawhide shoelace and made a necklace out of it. When I get a chance, I intend to take it to a jeweler for a proper gold chain. I thought you might like a little memento of our first time.” He gave her a salacious grin. “Turn around. Let me put it on you.”
She turned, and he pulled her hair aside and then fastened the necklace at her nape. He pressed his lips to the spot right below her ear, and she groaned out loud.
“Our first time, huh? That implies there will be a second time,” she said.
“Yeah. And many, many more, I hope.” And then he did the most romantic thing ever. He lifted her into his arms and carried her over the threshold of his cabin.
Three Months Later
elissa was manning the checkout at Secondhand Prose and reading a murder mystery when the front door jangled. She looked up in time to see Jeff strolling through the door, carrying a cardboard box that looked as if it had come from an online bookseller.
Both cats immediately arrived on the scene and tried to trip him as he headed in Melissa’s direction.
“Hey, you guys, give me a break,” he said as he stepped over the felines with admirable grace—grace that hadn’t yet failed to warm Melissa’s insides.
“I bring gifts,” he said, putting the carton on the counter and leaning across it to give her a kiss that left them both a little breathless.
“Hmm, nice. I like your gifts,” she said.
He laughed. “I was talking about this,” he said, nudging the box.
“This looks like a box of books,” she said. “From the competition.”
“Ah, but this isn’t just any box of books. Look inside.”
She opened the carton, and right on the top was a large-format paperback book titled
A Child’s Book of Stories
. “Oh, how beautiful!” Melissa said in a rush as she opened the book and started browsing through. “I love Jessie Wilcox Smith’s illustrations. She’s my favorite illustrator of all time.”
“Yes, I know. That was one of the first things I learned about you. All those fairytale T-shirts.”
She looked up from the book and gave him another kiss.
“There’s another book in the box,” Jeff said after a very long, hot moment.
“Another Jessie Wilcox Smith book?”
“No, it’s a hardbound copy of
Grimm’s Complete Fairy Tales
She put her paperback on the counter and pulled the second book from the box. It was one of those leather reproduction books with a fancy embossed cover, gilt lettering, and a ribbon bookmark stitched into the binding. She wasn’t fooled. The book probably retailed for less than ten dollars.
She glanced up at Jeff. There was a gleam in his eye, and the corner of his mouth was curling just a tiny bit, as if he knew a secret he was bursting to tell. Did he think he’d found her a special first edition or something?
“Oh, this is nice,” she said, trying to sound super-enthusiastic, when she would much rather be hanging out on the beanbag chair drooling over Jessie Wilcox Smith’s illustrations. Or, better yet, upstairs in bed drooling over Jeff.
“Open it,” Jeff said, “to the marked page.” Was there a tremor in his voice?
She opened the book to a three-paragraph story entitled “Brides on Trial.” Right below the story’s final paragraph, the book had been horribly defaced. Someone had cut a deep hole in the pages to create a secret hiding spot. And in the spot, with the ribbon bookmark threaded through it, was a sapphire and diamond ring.
Melissa’s breath caught in her throat, and tears filled her eyes as she looked up at Jeff, the man who had become, in just a few short months, her best friend and the love of her life.
“Melissa,” he said in his deep, quiet voice, “I walked into this enchanted place, and the minute I saw you, I knew I’d come home. I’ve patiently spent the last few months waiting for the right time to ask this question, and I don’t want to wait anymore. I think I know enough about you to say that I never want to leave your side. You love Jessie Wilcox Smith, you know every story in
Grimm’s Fairy Tales
, even the gruesome ones like the ‘Heavenly Wedding.’ You snore, you love margaritas, and you read romances when you think I’m not looking. Will you marry me?”
Like any fairytale prince, Jeff got down on his knee, took her hand, and kissed it.
“Oh my God, yes. Yes, yes.” Melissa fell down onto her knees, too, and wrapped her arms around him. “I love you, Jefferson Talbert-Lyndon. And even though you are technically a member of the Lyndon family, I can’t imagine spending my life with anyone else.”
Jeff grabbed the
Grimm’s Fairy Tales
off the counter and sat on the bookstore’s floor. “Sorry about defacing a book, but I figured it was for a good cause. And we’ll be keeping this book forever.”
He pulled the ribbon bookmark through the ring. “Do you like it?” he asked. “It’s a family heirloom, but from the Talbert side of the family. It’s my grandmother’s ring.”
“The cat-lady-on-the-Hudson grandmother?”
Jeff grinned. “The very one.” He took her left hand and slipped the ring on her finger. It fit perfectly. “Grandmother would have loved you, Melissa.”
And just then, Dickens and Hugo joined the group hug on the bookstore floor, one cat in each lap, proving—at least to Melissa’s satisfaction—that Grammy would have loved Jeff too.
Here’s a preview from
A Christmas Bride
, in which Melissa gets her big, white wedding, and wedding planner Willow Petersen finds her own happy-ever-after.
t was happy hour when Willow strolled into the Jaybird Café and Music Hall in downtown Shenandoah Falls. The scent of beer and French fries jolted her with a wave of deep nostalgia as she took the last open seat at the bar.
Willow’s family had owned and managed the Jaybird for more than thirty years, providing farm-to-table menu choices and live music on Friday and Saturday nights. The café was a second home for Willow and her younger sister, Juni, who’d come along a couple of years after the family had settled in Northern Virginia. Many a night Willow and Juni had eaten their dinners at the café, done their schoolwork at one of the tables, and crashed on cots in the back.
Now the little baby who had once toddled around the place was the café’s manager and backup bartender. Tonight she was busy dealing with a larger-than-normal happy-hour crowd, who were drinking and keeping tabs on election results on the television screens scattered around the dining room.
“What have you been up to today?” Juni asked from behind the bar.
As usual, Willow’s sister was channeling Mom this evening. She wore a blue East-Indian-print dress that she’d probably bought at the Haggle Shop, the local consignment store, which had a large section of vintage clothing. Juni had dark curly hair that reached her waist, and even though she and Willow shared a mother, they looked nothing alike. Willow had straight blond hair and eyes that were a mossy shade of green. Juni’s eyes were as dark as espresso coffee.
“I spent some time at Eagle Hill Manor. Did you know David Lyndon’s selling the place?” Willow asked.
“That’s not surprising. The inn’s been closed for a couple of months.” Juni leaned toward the bar and spoke in a low voice. “If I had the money, I might just buy that old place.”
“Since when do you have a burning desire to be an innkeeper?”
Juni shrugged. “Don’t know. I just have a feeling, you know?”
Juni was always having “feelings” about stuff. She could also allegedly read auras, tell fortunes with tarot cards, and heal people with crystals. In short, Juni couldn’t have been less like Willow if she tried.
“What do you think?” Juni asked. “You’re the one with the MBA from Wharton. Could Eagle Hill be a business opportunity?”
“I’d have to do some market research. I know nothing about the hospitality sector.”
Juni shook her head. “It’s amazing how much time you waste with research. I say go with your gut this time. My gut says that someone is going to make a pile of money with that place.”
“Someone with liquid assets,” Willow said. “Which isn’t me. Hey, can I beg a beer and one of your bacon cheeseburgers? I’m desperate for comfort food, not Mom’s fried eggplant.”
Juni gave Willow a Madonna-like smile as she pulled a draft. “If you tried eggplant, you might like it.”
Willow shook her head and made a gagging noise. “I have tried it.”
Juni put the beer in front of her sister. “I’ll put in an order for the cheeseburger. I gotta go. It’s crazy in here tonight for a Tuesday.”
Juni headed off to fill a drink order, leaving Willow alone to brood about the dismal state of her life. She had no job and no prospects.
After what Restero Inc. had said about her in the
Wall Street Journal,
it was likely that potential investors and venture capitalists would regard her as high risk. But she couldn’t self-fund anything because she was without assets or collateral.
The retainer she’d paid to the law firm of Astor, Roswell, and Cade to file a civil suit against Restero for violations under the US False Claims Act had cleaned out her bank accounts. The law was supposed to protect whistle-blowers like her from harassment and job retaliation, but those provisions meant nothing until Willow got a court date. Until she proved that Restero, and its CEO, Corbin Martinson, had committed Medicare fraud by knowingly selling defective hip replacements, she would always be a disgruntled troublemaker out for revenge.
So buying the inn was a pipe dream.
She was mulling over this depressing reality when a thirtysomething woman with straight black hair and sky-blue eyes sidled up to the bar and ordered a margarita, a manhattan, and a lemon-drop martini. There was something vaguely familiar about the woman, but Willow couldn’t quite place her.
The woman turned, her forehead rumpling. “Willow? Oh my God, is that you? It’s me, Courtney Wallace, remember, from tenth grade?”
Willow blinked a few times, trying to jibe this beautiful woman with the Courtney Wallace she’d known in high school. That Courtney had zits and braces and was the undisputed geek girl in their graduating class.
“Hi,” Willow said, suddenly awkward.
“It’s been years, Willow. Are you visiting for a while?” Courtney asked.
“I’ve moved back,” Willow said, her face heating with a deep shame she had yet to understand. “I’m living with Mom at the farm,” she added, although it was humiliating to be thirty-four years old and suddenly living at home with her mother.
No, it wasn’t wonderful, but Willow refrained from saying that out loud.
“Here you go,” Juni said as she finished mixing Courtney’s drink order. “You want to put this on a tab?”