Christmas in Good Hope (A Good Hope Novel Book 1) (9 page)

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Beck parked his Land Rover directly in front of the bakery. Thankfully, it was late enough that the Friday-night revelers had moved to the bars near the waterfront.

He expected to transfer most of the presents himself. But Ami must not have gotten the bulletin that lifting heavy objects was a man’s job. She worked as hard as he did, carrying items down the stairs and packing the SUV with the skill of a seasoned professional. It took four trips to clear all the gifts from her apartment.

At his house, Beck dropped an armful of blankets, each in a plastic wrapper, on top of several large boxes of kitchenware on the floor of a back bedroom. Ami relegated a box of Bristle Blocks to an open spot just inside the doorway. Other than leaving a walkway to the wrapping table—two sawhorses topped with a piece of plywood—he and Ami had decided all open spaces were fair game.

“Time to head home.” Ami pushed back a strand of hair and heaved a weary sigh. “Four a.m. will come all too soon.”

At first Beck didn’t understand. Until he remembered that tomorrow was another big day. Not just for the bakery. He’d been warned the Snow Blade Parade was a crowd favorite and to make sure the café had plenty of food on hand.

Tomorrow Ami would get up early to bake before rushing to the café to cook for the lunch crowd. Talk about burning the candle at both ends.

“Why don’t you take a nap after you finish baking?”

“That’s so sweet.” Her voice turned as warm as her eyes, telling him she appreciated the offer. But the slight tilt to her chin told him before she even spoke that she wouldn’t be taking him up on his offer.

“You and I, Mr. Cross, have a deal,” she continued in that sweet, slightly husky voice that he found incredibly arousing. “Once I get through tomorrow, there’s just Sunday. It won’t be nearly as busy.”

Beck hadn’t thought that far into the future. “Remind me again what’s on the Twelve Nights agenda for Sunday.”

“Activities at the Rakes Farm. Sledding, singing around a bonfire, then cider in the big red barn. Oh, and fabulous cookies.”

The smug look in her eyes put him on alert. “Who’s providing the cookies?”

Ami flashed a triumphant smile. “Why, Blooms Bake Shop, of course.”

The Energizer Bunny had nothing on her. “You’re an amazing woman, Ami Bloom.”

“You’re right.” Her bright smile flashed. “I am.”

He laughed.

Her laughter soon mingled with his.

Then their eyes met. The laughter died in his throat and his heart became a swift, hard beat.

He reached out for her and felt her arms encircle his neck. She was so lovely. Did she have any idea of the power she had over him?

The feel of her soft curves had Beck forgetting his resolve to keep it all business between them. Just this once he would stop thinking and open himself to the moment, to her. He shifted, gathered her closer still, and kissed her temple.

When she gave a pleasure-filled sigh and lifted her face, he lowered his mouth to hers and found it as soft and sweet as he’d imagined.

The kiss started out gentle and tender but quickly morphed into something more, something that felt . . . life altering. When her fingers slid into his hair and she began to kiss him back with equal enthusiasm, Beck knew he was in over his head.

At the moment, he didn’t care. A smoldering heat flared through him. The rush of sheer physical awareness that had assailed him as soon as his arms closed around her intensified tenfold. His need for her became a pulsing ache inside him.

From Ami’s uninhibited response, it appeared she felt the same pull. But when he flattened his hand against her lower back, drawing her up against the length of him, she stumbled.

Beck reached out to steady her, but she brushed away his hands.

“I—I should go.” Though her cheeks were dotted with bright spots of pink, she appeared back in full control.

Which was more than Beck could say for himself. He wanted her. Right now. If she was willing, he’d—

Beck didn’t let himself finish the thought. The way she was backing up told him if she’d once been interested, she wasn’t anymore.

The relief he felt was tinged with regret. “I’ll drive you home.”

“I’ll walk.”

“It’s late.” His tone brooked no argument.

After a thoughtful second, she shrugged. “Sure.”

The drive to the bakery was made in silence. Beck tried to initiate conversation on the short trip, but Ami’s monosyllabic responses had him giving up before he even turned off Market Street.

He pulled to the curb, half expecting her to hop out without a word of good-bye. Once again, Ami surprised him. She unbuckled her seat belt and shifted to face him.

“I let things get out of hand,” she told him. “It’s been a while for me and, well, you’re a great kisser. But that’s no excuse for throwing myself at you. So . . . I apologize.”

Ami was out of the vehicle and inside the bakery before Beck processed her words.

She’d
let things get out of hand?

He was the one who hadn’t been able to stop from kissing her. She’d responded, but the original kiss had been at his instigation, not hers.

Why would she think otherwise?

Beck pondered the puzzling question the rest of the drive home.

C
hapter
N
ine

“I love the fact that you jumped him.” Hadley shot Ami a wink, then pushed off from the crest overlooking a snow-covered meadow.

Ami easily kept up with her friend, gliding down the slight mound—too small to be called a hill—on her cross-country skis, then coming to a stop beside Hadley at the bottom.

After making it through a busy weekend and playing catch-up on Monday, Ami had decided to celebrate her day off from the café by enjoying last night’s additional two inches of snow.

This had been Ami’s first chance to bring up Saturday night’s debacle with her friend. She’d barely pulled her skis on when the story began tumbling from her lips. It took longer than it should have because Hadley wanted every detail.


Jumped
isn’t entirely accurate.” Ami breathed in the cool, clean air and felt some of the tension in her shoulders dissolve. “I kissed him. He kissed me back.”

“Do you think if I kissed him, he’d kiss
me
back?”

Ami shot her friend a sharp glance.

“Just kidding.” Hadley laughed. “Seriously, if word got out Beckett Cross was serving kisses, Muddy Boots would be swarming with women.”

Ami wished now she hadn’t brought up the kiss. She didn’t have a clue what was happening between her and Beck, so how could she explain it to Hadley?

No, that wasn’t entirely true. Ami knew she was falling for the man with the soft southern drawl and gentle eyes. What she didn’t know was how to end the free fall.

One thing for certain, the thought of Beck kissing anyone else made her stomach churn. “I don’t believe he’s looking for a relationship.”

“I’m not talking about a relationship.” Hadley gave her a wink and pushed off across a pristine white field edged by a coniferous forest. “I’m talking sex.”

They continued across the field in companionable silence, the soothing sound of skis sliding across the snow only broken by the loud squawk of a raven. The strong scent of pine from the nearby forest hung heavy in the air.

With each push of her poles, the churning in Ami’s stomach became a sharp pain. She shoved past the discomfort of imagining Beck with a faceless female and caught up with Hadley.

“Something else about this Beck thing confuses me.” Hadley inclined her head, her expression mild. “Buying a café in a small town is hardly what you do when you want to be left alone.”

“True,” Ami agreed.

“What brought him here? I mean, what caused him to pick Good Hope as a place to settle?”

“No idea.” That, Ami thought, was a big part of her hesitation to get more deeply involved with the man. She didn’t even know the most basic information about his life before he arrived in Good Hope.

You know everything important
, a tiny voice in her head whispered.
You know he’s decent, kind, and honorable.

“What does he say when you ask?”

“I don’t ask.”

Hadley skied to a stop beside a large spruce, then studied her friend. “Why not?”

Ami focused on the distance, avoiding Hadley’s scrutinizing gaze. “The way I see it, if Beck wants me to know about his past, he’ll tell me.”

“But—”

“Just like you,” Ami continued. “I don’t pry into your background.”

“You’re right, of course.” Hadley sighed. “I’m just curious. Have you been able to pinpoint his accent?”

“Southern?”

Hadley laughed. “Have you googled him?”

Ami couldn’t help but laugh when her friend wiggled her brows. The mischievous glint in Hadley’s blue eyes reminded her of her sister Marigold, who’d always had some scheme up her sleeve.

“I did a little searching when he first arrived.” Despite the cool air, heat slid up Ami’s neck. The truth was she felt bad about snooping into Beck’s private life. Yet the guilt hadn’t been strong enough to keep her fingers away from the keyboard. “I plugged in a few different variables and tried again last week.”

“I searched yesterday,” Hadley admitted with a cheery smile. “What did you find?”

“Big fat zero.”

“I came up empty, too. We’ll probably never know what brought him here.”

Ami lifted one of her ski poles and pointed at Hadley. “No one can keep their past hidden forever.”

Hadley made a face.

“I’m serious.” Ami spoke with an air of feigned nonchalance even as her heartbeat hitched. “We both know Beck isn’t the only one in Good Hope with a few skeletons in the closet.”

That night Ami enjoyed a simple dinner of pad thai and a green papaya salad while watching the local five o’clock news. Afterward, she hummed along to the Christmas carols playing on her phone while she brought out her slow cooker. While doing her own version of a jingle-bell boogie, she blended whipping cream, milk, vanilla, and white chocolate chips together.

She set the timer on low and glanced at the clock. Two hours should provide more than enough time to pick out a beautiful fir and bring it home from the rotary club’s tree lot.

Her gaze dropped to the large red box covered with white dancing reindeer on the floor, and her excitement surged. In just a couple of hours the ornaments and lights it contained would turn a plain green tree into a thing of holiday splendor.

Ami had a wonderful evening planned for herself. She’d sip snowflake hot cocoa and decorate the tree while listening to the soothing sounds of Norah Jones. Anticipation fueled her steps as she bounded down the stairs and out into the crisp night air. Snow crunched under her boots on the short walk to the Christmas tree lot, located several blocks away. Although most of Ami’s friends preferred to cut their own trees at one of the nearby farms, without a vehicle, Ami didn’t have that option.

As it was, she was going to have to drag the tree home. Which meant size would be a consideration. Still, Ami had no doubt she’d find the perfect tree of her own.

She passed Beck’s house on the way and slowed her steps when she noticed lights on inside. Though she’d seen Beck that morning for coffee, she found herself wishing he was out shoveling so she could stop and talk.

But he didn’t appear, and moments later the parking lot edged in Christmas lights came into view. Ami spotted
her
tree the second she stepped onto the lot. Five feet tall with a lush shape, it was everything she wanted. As she started across the lot to claim it, a spindly hand on her arm stopped her.

Gladys Bertholf, Cherries matriarch and treasurer, smiled up at her. Dressed in a furry black hat with a thick white band and a dark, full-length mink coat, the elderly woman looked as if she’d stepped straight out of the pages of
Dr. Zhivago
.

“Merry Christmas, Amaryllis.” Gladys’s lips were as red as her cheeks. “I used to tell my beloved Henry, God rest his soul, this is why I never leave home without looking my best.”

She must have looked confused, because Gladys chuckled. “You never know who you might run across.”

Ami resisted the urge to glance down at her fleece-lined jeans and red puffy coat. At least she’d put on mascara that morning. “Have you enjoyed the holidays so far?”

“I have indeed, my dear. It’s been hectic. I’m sure you’ve heard I’m playing the Ghost of Christmas Past in
A Christmas Carol
at the playhouse. Between rehearsals and three performances a week, most days I don’t know whether I’m coming or going.”

The woman’s joyous trill of laughter was infectious.

“The play is getting excellent reviews.”

“I’d tell you to stop by and see it, but I’ve heard you’ve been keeping busy, too.” Gladys’s pale blue eyes danced with amusement. “Kudos to you on getting Mr. Cross to open his home to the tour.”

Ami waved away the compliment.

“I imagine he was happy to do it. For you, Amaryllis.” Gladys gave another hearty laugh. “Not for Eliza.”

Ami wasn’t about to get into that discussion. “Are you here by yourself? Because if you need help loading the tree, I can—”

“You’re so kind, but Frank insisted on coming with me. He’s securing the tree in the trunk now. I offered to help, but my son is old-school. He believes physical work is a man’s job.” Gladys paused as if realizing she’d been rambling. “How about you? Have you found a tree yet?”

“I believe I have.” Ami gestured her head in the direction of the fir.

“You were smart to bring man power.”

“Pardon me?”

“Your man.” Gladys gestured with one hand, the diamond bracelet above the black leather glove catching the light. “I see him right over there.”

Ami didn’t bother to look. Whomever Gladys was looking at certainly wasn’t here with her.

“Well, I’d best scoot. Frank doesn’t like to be kept waiting. See you at the next meeting.”

“Break a leg,” Ami called after Gladys.

The woman lifted a hand in acknowledgment but didn’t turn around.

“Did you really just tell an elderly woman to break her leg?” Amusement filled the deep voice.

Ami’s heartbeat hitched as every synapse in her body pinged with awareness. She slowly turned.

With rumpled hair that brushed the collar of his shirt and cheeks that held a hint of five o’clock shadow, Beck looked sexy as sin. And he smelled terrific, a spicy scent that made her want to step closer.

Ami couldn’t keep the pleasure from her voice. “This is a nice surprise. What are you doing here? I thought your tree was being delivered.”

He chuckled, a low, pleasant rumbling sound. “I’m not here for a tree.”

“Then why?”

“I saw you walk by my house and thought I’d say hello.” When he leaned toward her and lowered his voice, time seemed to stretch and extend. “Hello, Ami.”

Her heart skipped a couple of beats. She grinned. “Hello, Beck.”

“Now, tell me why you told the old woman to break a leg.”

Ami laughed. “Gladys Bertholf is the treasurer of the Cherries. She’s also an actor in
A Christmas Carol
at the playhouse.”

“Ah, that makes sense.” Still looking bemused, Beck shifted his gaze. “Have you found a tree yet?”

“Yes.” Ami slanted a glance in the direction of the balsam fir she’d spotted moments before. Her heart sank. “It’s the one that family is looking at.”

Beck followed her gaze. “You have good taste.”

“If they don’t take it,” she said in a low tone, “I will.”

Even from this distance, she could hear the couple arguing. The woman liked it. The man was insisting it was too small.

“How do you propose to get it home?” Beck’s gaze turned speculative. “Do they deliver?”

“I plan to carry it.”

“Seriously?”

She nodded.

Beck stared at her as if she’d lost her mind. “You propose to carry a five-foot-high tree three blocks. By yourself.”

“Easy-peasy.” Ami forced an air of confidence. While she had no doubt she had the strength to drag the tree home, she did harbor a few concerns about what shape the needles would be in once she got there.

“What about your dad?”

“What about him?” Ami’s heart gave a sudden leap when she noticed the couple and their two children moving toward the bigger trees.

“Couldn’t you have asked him to help you?”

With the tree firmly in sight, Ami wove her way toward it.

“My father and I had a little spat the last time I was at his house,” she said over her shoulder. “Besides, he’s probably busy with Anita.”

Beck caught up with her just as she reached the tree. “You could have asked me.”

After placing a proprietary hand on one of the limbs to stake her claim, Ami shook her head. “I’ve already asked too much of you. The last thing I want is for you to think I’m using you. Because I’m not.”

“I know that.”

She widened her eyes at the surety in his tone. “You do?”

“You’re not that type of person.”

“Thank you.”

“I’ll make this easy. You don’t have to ask me to help carry the tree to your place, I volunteer.”

It was an offer she couldn’t refuse. Though he told her he could carry the tree by himself, she was determined that this be a joint effort. Beck took the base while Ami took charge of the top.

Beck didn’t even look askance when halfway home she burst into song, singing several popular Christmas carols. Once they reached the bakery, he stabilized the tree as she unlocked the door, then waited at the bottom of the steps while she ran up to make sure the path was clear for the tree.

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