Easton O’Callaghan stood, shifted into his jacket, and stared at the mess on his desk. Damn if he was going to take the time to straighten it before leaving. Clearing and organizing would put him hours behind schedule.
“Penny, I need that report before I leave this afternoon.” Silence greeted him. “Penny!”
He loosened the tie currently cutting off his circulation.
The work would wait until he got back after Christmas. He deserved a break, had been busting his ass to grow his business and his brand for the past two years. It felt like two years straight through—no breaks, no time off. When was the last time he’d taken a moment to breathe? A moment for himself? Some decompression time so he didn’t lose his mind?
He couldn’t remember.
His part-time assistant—she refused to work more than thirty hours a week and he refused to lose her—rushed through the door with a file folder in her hand, her heels sinking into the carpet. She’d decorated herself in an array of Christmas regalia, from a headpiece made of fake holly to the little jingle bells on the backs of her shoes.
At least he knew where she was in the office. At all times.
“Here you go!” she told Easton cheerfully, dropping the folder into the chaos on his desk. It disappeared immediately, blending in with its bedfellows, and he scrambled to grab it before he lost sight. “Do you need me for anything else, sir?”
He hated when she called him sir. Penny was his grandmother’s age, and it felt wrong.
“No, of course not. You get out of here and go home to your family. Are you still driving up to Massachusetts?” he asked, and sent her an easy smile.
Penny returned the gesture and the wrinkles around her eyes put him in mind of Mrs. Claus. Cheerful. Plump. Good-natured. “My daughter just had her second baby and I haven’t seen the little tyke yet. I’m so excited! How about you? Did you make Christmas plans, sir?”
For the last several years since starting his business, Easton had spent the holidays alone in his apartment. The experience had evolved over the years, at least. The first time involved a microwaved meal and the radio tuned in to a Christmas station. Alone. Staring out his window at the bleak sliver of sky he saw beyond the brick wall of the neighboring building.
This last time was a hair better. His apartment had doubled in size with a move into Chelsea, and instead of the microwaved meal, he’d splurged for a bottle of champagne. The good stuff, not the kind he snuck behind the bleachers to guzzle with his best high school friends.
He finished gathering up his belongings and shoved the papers, with the added folder from Penny, into his briefcase. Material for later if he felt the itch to work. Or needed help falling asleep.
“This year I’m doing things a little differently,” he told Penny. “I thought I’d take a trip to somewhere I’ve never been before. Have you ever heard of Heartwood, Virginia?”
Penny stared at him for a moment, her lips pursed and her nostrils flaring while she accessed her mental Rolodex. “I can’t say I have. Why? Why are you headed there?”
A city boy born and bred, Easton hadn’t experienced grass outside of Central Park. Starting his own business—and having it be successful—was the biggest adventure of his life. He didn’t want to be the guy who spent his holidays alone at home. And he definitely didn’t want to be the guy who confined his world to a single box. Namely, the 305 square miles comprising New York City.
He wanted to do something adventurous. He wanted to do something out of the box. Or blow the box wide open—whatever came first.
“One of my friends said he went there with his wife. Stayed at some kind of awesome bed and breakfast backed right up to the mountains. It cleared his head.” The friend, in fact, was a magazine feature writer who traveled to different small towns around the country, staying at and writing about quaint little inns. Easton had stumbled upon the article by accident and was taken with the photos and charming description of Heartwood. So maybe friend was a stretch, but he didn’t want Penny to know just how lonely his world had become.
“You’re saying your head needs clearing? I thought people like you had shrinks for those kinds of things,” she said, crossing her arms. Her shoes jingled when she shifted.
He swallowed a chuckle. “Maybe I want to see snow that’s actually white, for once.”
“I can’t fault you for it. Although if you’re looking for a Norman Rockwell Christmas, I’m not sure going to the boonies of Virginia will give it to you. You’d do better with someplace like Vermont. Or how about Colorado? Do you like to ski?”
If he tried to strap those toothpicks to his feet he’d probably end up with leg fractures and a concussion faster than he could blink. “No, I think that’s too much of an adventure for me. You forget, Penny, I’m the type of person who needs to start off small and build his way up. I’m going to enjoy the peace and quiet. Maybe get in a hike if the weather holds. I don’t know.” He straightened and felt his knee bump against the briefcase stashed under his desk.
“Well, I’m sure you’ll have fun,” she replied with a smile. “If you don’t mind, I’m going to clean up and then lock the door behind me.”
It was her way of telling him to scoot. She had better things to do than make idle chit-chat.
Regardless of the status wealth brought, Easton had been raised to respect his elders. “Yes, ma’am. Merry Christmas.”
Later, alone in his apartment with his suitcases packed, Easton thought about his holidays up to this point in his life. His father had died when he was ten. Until then, Christmas had been Easton’s favorite day of the year. It was filled with excitement and delight. Lights and presents and the smell of cookies baking in the oven. He knew not to go downstairs until his parents were awake, just as he knew his presents would always be placed next to the electric fireplace in a neat little pile. Those were the traditions he was raised to appreciate.
After his father died, it was him and his mother. She’d tried the best she could, but it was never enough. Things weren’t the same and they both knew it. They both felt it. When his mother developed leukemia and passed away five years ago, the hole in his heart grew and swallowed whatever was left of his Christmas spirit. He wasn’t in Grinch territory yet but he knew it was closing in fast.
Having a goal to focus on helped. His goal this year was to get out of town, farther away than the tri-state area. And he knew a tropical vacation just wouldn’t do the trick. Not this time.
Planning out his next steps and executing them became his world once he was an orphan. Easton finished college with a bachelor’s degree in business. It started with a small portfolio of projects he’d accomplished for school and using his car as collateral. He sold his parents’ house and used the cash to pay off his student loans, so at least he wouldn’t have those hanging over his head. The money didn’t roll in quickly. In fact, there were times it didn’t come in at all, and he wondered if he should call it quits. Do something he knew would bring in the cash to pay his bills. He waited tables on the side just to keep his lights on.
Ultimately, and with hard work, it came. Oh boy, did it come.
Now he was comfortable. More than comfortable, he thought, staring around at the highline apartment in West Chelsea with its industrial beams and polished wood floor. And none of his money filled that damn hole in his chest.
He didn’t want to think about it. He didn’t want to think about any of it. This year, he was trying something different. It wasn’t an escape, he thought ruefully. It was starting fresh and experiencing something new. Something no one would expect of him. Something he wouldn’t expect of himself.
The next morning, he was in the car with an open road ahead of him—once he got out of New York, anyway, away from those congested streets and constant round-the-clock traffic and into the wilds of Pennsylvania. He’d never seen so many cows in his life. Not to mention fields and trees and old farmhouses and barns. Talk about a change of scenery.
His phone rang hours later and he pressed a button on his dash to answer. “Hello?”
“Hey, man. Where are you?”
Easton sighed, recognizing the gritty tenor. “You know, not everyone has an accountant that calls to check up on them. I’m not sure if I should be happy or worried.”
Heshi Benson chuckled, the sound like static over the speakers. “Probably a little bit of both! Maybe this is another attempt to work you over. And you know I’m more than an accountant. I’m your best friend.”
Easton strangled the next sigh, knowing it would be one too many. “You’re not going to make me reconsider your offer, Heshi. Thank you again for inviting me over for Christmas, but I’m already halfway to Virginia.”
“Fine, fine. I won’t push you.”
It was true; Heshi was his best friend as well as his accountant, a happy carryover from better days in college. They’d helped each other muddle through freshman chemistry. Both came out with Cs but it didn’t matter. The friendship endured. There was no one Easton trusted more with his money. Or with anything, for that matter.
“What do you call this, then, if not a push?” he asked with a chuckle. “And please don’t say you’re worried about me. We both know I have fabulous driving skills.”
“I call it saving you from road boredom! Why on earth would you drive ten hours to a hobo town in the mountains? You can afford to fly. First class, if you want to. I should know. I run your numbers.”
There was no explaining the siren song, not even to his best friend turned numbers-man. “I wanted the chance for introspection. This is me really getting into the experience.”
“You’re a powerful man and an eligible bachelor. You can pay for introspection if you want. There’s no need to—”
“Heshi…” Easton interrupted with a warning.
“Or better yet, you could have stayed in New York and come to Christmas dinner with me and Marsha. Honestly, Easton, you’ve told me no so many times I’m not sure why I keep trying to get you to come over. It must mean I like you or something.” There was a scuffle in the background and the sounds of laughter. Heshi’s daughters. Twins, no less. And a handful as they pounded their way into the terrible twos.
“It’s too late. I’m not turning around now.”
Easton wasn’t sure why everyone kept trying to talk him out of the idea of going to Heartwood. It wasn’t as if he would change his mind anytime soon. He was on the road with less than five hours to go. The sky was beginning to darken and he focused on the horizon instead of the blurring lines on the road.
Something about the town had buzzed inside of him ever since he’d read that article. Easton thought about the bed and breakfast. He thought about the mountains. They’d pulled him, tugged at him until he’d broken down and made his own reservation hours after first reading about it.
He’d come across it purely by accident. An article in a magazine outlining some of the best small towns in each state. Pure happenstance had him flipping through the states until he landed on Virginia. The picture underneath the headline was of a beautiful blue-tinted hillscape. A pure cloudless sky stretched above a vista of green. Something inside of him clenched at the photograph and it was like a voice in his head had told him to go.
He’d booked his vacation for the Christmas holiday. It had been hell waiting six months for the time to come. Now he thought this might be the best investment of his career.
Spending Christmas alone somewhere other than his apartment was a step in a good, healthy direction. Spending Christmas alone in a quaint town in Virginia? It was like two steps. Three, if he pushed his luck.
“Maybe next year I’ll say yes,” he told Heshi. “I’ve always enjoyed spending time with you and the ladies, you know that. Don’t take my declining of your invitation as a personal affront. How about I bring you back something nice?” His tone went into cajoling mode even when they both knew it wasn’t necessary.
“What’s the town known for? Good cheese? Homemade bath soaps?” Heshi asked, no doubt grasping at straws to understand why his friend had gone bonkers.
“I’ll let you know when I get there,” Easton stated. His hands tightened on the wheel. “Tell Marsha and the kids hello for me. I’m signing off to focus on my driving. You’ve distracted me for too long.”
It was Heshi’s turn to sigh this time, something long and windy that ended on a grumble when the twins became rowdy again in the background. “Fine, fine. I’ll call you tomorrow to make sure you didn’t get lost or killed and lying in a ditch somewhere.”
“Well, if I’m lying in a ditch dead, I won’t be able to answer.”
He hung up, his heart pounding, thinking of the next few hours. Wondering if this trip would be the shot of adrenaline in his veins he needed to wake up. Or if he was just wasting his time.
The most wonderful time of the year?
For Quinn Armstrong, the Christmas holiday was the busiest season for her and her business, which meant working long overtime hours. Luckily, she loved what she did, else she ran the risk of being bitter.
Bitterness had never looked good on her.
“Bruno, come on!” She grabbed the leash off the table next to the door and slapped it against her thigh. “It’s time for a walk. Do you want to go for a walk? Come on, you big baby.”
The lug didn’t need any further prompting. The three-year-old black Labrador made a jump at the door and dug his nails into the wood. She knew she should scold him but couldn’t find the energy to do it. Her latest projects were sapping every last ounce of energy from her body. If she could crawl into bed and spend the next several weeks asleep then she would gladly do it. Just call her Sleeping Beauty.
Sadly, Bruno wasn’t going to allow it, and neither was her already packed schedule. It didn’t matter that she was her own boss. Hell, that just made it worse. The only person she had to answer to was herself, and she was the harshest taskmaster out there, or so everyone said.
She bent to clip the leash into his collar, light golden-blonde hair falling into her face. The clip was nearly through when the dog lunged at the door again. His tongue lolled out the right side of his mouth.
“Dammit, dog.” She scrambled to get him ready. “You can’t hold still for five seconds? Five seconds. It’s all I ask.”
The instant the door was open, Bruno bolted. It was normal. And usually, Quinn was prepared to have her arm yanked out of its socket. Today it came with searing pain as she stumbled over the threshold and down the steps of her front stoop. The door closed behind her.
They were down the driveway and on the road in less time than it took a hummingbird’s heart to beat. Or so it seemed.
“Take it easy!” she told him, feet pounding on the pavement. If she wasn’t careful she’d trip and scrape her skin off again. It happened at least once a week. Certainly worse in the summer when she wore shorts and t-shirts because there was more exposed skin to bruise. Now, she ran the risk of slipping on ice and breaking her face.
She considered herself a pretty good dog owner. She didn’t tie Bruno outside, and she didn’t leave him in a cage all day while she was gone. Still, he acted like he was starved for attention and exercise.
There was a word for dogs like him. Spoiled. She tacked rotten to that for good measure.
“We’re going, we’re going,” she murmured. Then tried to reel him back in. It did no good; his desire for speed was greater than the strength in her upper arms. “Bruno, come on. Be good for Momma. Slow down.”
He regarded her with sad eyes and a doggy sigh. He was too opinionated for his own good.
This was one of their rituals, Quinn thought. On her off days she always made time to take Bruno on a long walk, or he’d be stuck in the monotonous routine of all dogs. Napping on the couch, rolling in the grass, swimming in the river when the weather warranted, and chewing on things he had no business chewing.
Her quiet street remained free of traffic. She lived just off of the Blue Ridge Parkway in the sleepy town of Heartwood and this time of year, vehicles were at a minimum. Which meant she was safe to walk unhindered in her own little slice of paradise.
Quinn drew in a breath and let the cold air sting her lungs. This was the time, she thought, her busiest time of year, but she had to carve out those precious minutes of the day to slow down, take the dog for a walk, and get out of her head and into her body. Her toes wiggled inside her boots.
Plus there were benefits. She stopped and grabbed a can from the side of the road where someone had tossed it into the weeds, hoping it would disappear on its own, no doubt. She brushed road dirt and particles of ice off the aluminum and tucked the can into the bag at her hip. She could use it for something.
That was what had started her on her present path.
Creating unique pieces people could actually use was always something she’d aspired toward. It was in the back of her head all through high school, when she’d signed up for every art class offered. It was in the back of her head all through college too, when she’d emerged with a degree proclaiming her ready to create. Qualified to create.
And it was in the back of her head all through her time teaching at the high school before being let go due to budget cuts.
Now it had moved to the front of her head and she prided herself on her pieces made from recycled and locally sourced materials. Turned out people love handmade gifts. And people love Christmas, of course. So what did people love most? Handmade gifts for Christmas.
It was a no-brainer.
For the last several years she had been using her spare bedroom as an art studio. She wasn’t ready to open a store yet, or even set up a permanent display at a local shop. But she was getting there. And she was proud of what she’d been able to accomplish so far.
Quinn was watching her feet instead of where she was going. Icy patches here and there commanded her attention. Bruno had his nose stuck to the pavement. Then his tail began to wag like a motor propeller.
He hauled her forward and she lost her footing. “Hey, what are you doing?”
His body unable to contain his excitement, Bruno bunched his muscles and leaped forward onto the man walking toward them from the other direction.
“Bruno, no!” she yelled.
It was too late. The leash snapped out of her hand, and with two deep barks and tongue lolling out of the side of his mouth, he was on the stranger, knocking into the man with seventy-plus pounds of pure doggy enthusiasm.
Quinn was fast but not fast enough to stop the inevitable.
The man went down hard, knocked flat on his back.
“Dammit!” The stranger sounded winded, his hands trying to shove at Bruno and having little luck.
“I’m so sorry. Are you okay?” Quinn muscled her way between them. She grabbed Bruno beneath his front legs and tried to lift him off. No more biscuits; the boy was getting pudgy. She could hardly handle him. “Did you hit your head? Should I call for help? I apologize for my dog.”
“Are you sure that’s a dog? It feels more like a mountain.” The man took a moment to simply lie there and catch his breath.
She shuffled back, tightening her hold on Bruno. He sat whining, tail thumping on the ground, obviously drawn to something about the guy. “I’m sorry. Bruno can be a little excitable. Exuberant, even. It’s because he’s young. Still a puppy, really, albeit a rather big puppy. Usually I can stop him from the leaping and the licking, but not always. Do you have food on you, by any chance?”
He sat up slowly. “Sure, I always walk around with hot dogs in my pockets.”
“How’s your head?” she asked.
“Just a little dizzy.” He raised his hand to his head and, staring at his profile, Quinn was aware then of the angle of his nose, the strong set of his chin accented by a slight layer of dark stubble. The man wore a hat but beneath it she could see brown hair flecked through with premature silver at the temples. She hoped it was premature. By the look on his face, she wouldn’t put him at a day over thirty. “I wasn’t expecting to meet the ground so fast. We’ll say it’s my fault,” he offered.
“My dog isn’t used to people walking in our neighborhood,” she said in lieu of another apology. “Especially strangers. I’ve never seen you around before.”
It was work trying to keep her hold on the dog while offering her hand to the stranger. He eyed it rather skeptically, and Quinn felt a prickle of irritation down her spine. Didn’t he realize she wasn’t physically equipped to hold that posture for long?
After what felt like an hour of trying to be polite to him, the stranger finally took her hand and allowed her to help pull him to his feet. The momentum brought him closer and she drew in a deep breath, filling her lungs with the scent of him. Clean. Spicy. Expensive.
That, coupled with the fit and cut of his jacket, led Quinn to realize one important fact about the man: He was obviously wealthy. And definitely not from the area.
She wanted to smack herself. Of course he wasn’t from around here. His words were clipped, terse, his vowel sounds harsher and less rounded than the ones she was used to hearing. He was from somewhere up north. If she had to venture a guess, she’d narrow it to the tri-state region.
She was a pretty good judge when it came to accents.
“I’m in town for a few days. Taking a break for the holidays.” The man stared down his front, brushing bits of snow and dirt off his pants—Quinn grimaced when she caught sight of the paw prints—then raised his gaze to hers.
She took a step in the opposite direction and nearly tripped over Bruno’s thumping tail. Whoa, the man was…gorgeous. In a pretty-boy sort of way. His face seemed sculpted in all the right ways. He had bright blue eyes, and hair he must have styled professionally once a week to keep it looking ideal. The piece now falling casually across his forehead positively glistened. Did he condition it twice a day?
And there she was, looking like she’d dragged her clothes out of the dirty hamper and thrown them on. Oh, wait, that’s exactly what she had done. Dammit.
He’d released her grip earlier, dropping it faster than a hot potato. Now he reached to take it again, his fingers wrapping around hers. Firm. Strong. “Easton O’Callaghan. Nice to meet you. And your dog Bruno too, I suppose.”
She was glad they’d both eschewed gloves. The feel of his skin was…electric. “Meet nice to you too,” she murmured. “Armstrong.”
He bit the inside of his lip as if to keep from chuckling. She noted the attempt but heard it anyway. “Were you named after the one who landed on the moon? Or the jazz musician?”
She scowled in confusion. “Huh? What are you talking about?”
“Your name. Your parents must be pretty off the wall to name you Armstrong. Do you go by Armie, maybe?”
She almost smiled. Almost. What was wrong with her? She wasn’t usually this ditzy. “My name is Quinn. Armstrong is my last name.” At last, she found the strength to tug her hand out of his, wondering how they’d managed to continue shaking for so long without their arms getting tired.
“Well, why didn’t you say so?” Easton slipped his hands into his pockets. His head quirked to the left and he stared at her, apparently entertained.
She didn’t like the look. Like he was judging her and found her about as amusing as a child with a new trick to show off. The look at me, look at me kind. “I just did,” she replied dryly.
Easton glanced down to stare at the dog. “And this handsome boy is Bruno? Handsome and sturdy, might I add.”
Quinn tugged on the leash to keep her dog in place when Easton bent down on his haunches and reached out for a pat. It was more than Bruno could stand. He strained and whined to get closer, pink tongue flapping for purchase. “He’s a licker,” she warned. “He won’t stop until you’re covered in slobber.”
“I don’t mind. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen such a friendly dog. Are you a good boy?” He took on an affected tone most people used with animals. Instead of rubbing her the wrong way—she always talked to the dog like he was a person—it brought waves to her stomach. Tiny white-capped waves slapping against her insides.
“Yes, he’s a good boy who needs to finish doing his business so Mommy can get back to work.” She shot the dog a pointed look which he happily ignored.
Her breath came out in a white puff in front of her face. Except she wasn’t cold. Her fingers and toes tingled but the rest of her was hot. Boiling, even. Which was why the puff was surprising.
“Do you live in the area?” Easton stood and flashed her a smile. Perfect white teeth the color of snow stood out against plump pink lips. For half a second, Quinn lost her focus.
“I do,” she managed. “Just down the street. I have an art studio.”
“You live in your art studio? How cute. Seems to go with your eccentric personality.”
“What? I don’t live in my art studio!” Frustration at her unorthodox reaction and the dog’s behavior rose up to take control over her. “I’ve got to go. I’m sorry about the dog. I’ll try to keep a better hold on him next time if we’re walking and happen to run into each other. Are you sure you’re okay?”
His smile grew wider. “I’m wonderful, thank you for asking. Hopefully, I’ll get to see you around.” He hiked a thumb over his shoulder. “I’m staying at the bed and breakfast off the parkway.”
“Good for you, buddy. Again, nice to meet you. Have a great day!” Quinn wrapped the leash around her fist and gave a tug, accompanied by a swift whistle. “Come on, Bruno, let’s go home. Come on, boy.”
She was jogging in the opposite direction when Easton called out to her again. “You’re welcome to run into me any time you want, Armie!”
Quinn shook her head. Don’t bet on it.
“Are you going out to explore the town today?” a female voice asked.
Easton glanced up from where he’d been studying his bowl of cereal. The bed and breakfast owner was staring at him. What was her name, again? Oh God, he knew this one…why couldn’t he remember?
He was terrible with names, a fact he tried to hide with index cards tucked up his sleeves before big meetings. It never paid to sound like you didn’t know what you were doing.
Instead of answering her right away, he swallowed and nodded to buy time. “Sure. I thought I should get out while the weather is nice and see what the town has to offer. I took it easy yesterday so I better get off my duff and do something today.”
“Not much to see, I’m afraid. It’s kind of an off-season for us right now, although there’s a winter festival coming up in another few days. Something they do in town with arts and crafts. I’ve never been involved with it. Will you be staying for that?”
“I think so. I hadn’t really thought about it.” Easton lifted his spoon to his mouth then paused. “Is it something I shouldn’t miss?”
She leaned against the counter and stared at him over the rim of the largest coffee cup he’d ever seen. It looked like she’d gone to a greenhouse and repurposed a small planter. “That’s what people say. It depends on your idea of fun and what you hope to accomplish with this trip.”
“I don’t have fun, in general,” Easton answered. “It’s not part of my anatomy.”
Shari! That was her name. Easy to remember. He said it three times in his head and hoped it would stick.
“There has to be something you like to do. I mean, I’m all for you staying here as long as you want and relaxing, but I don’t want you to be bored. It tends to reflect badly on us if you post an online review like that,” Shari explained.
“I wouldn’t leave you a bad review. The opposite, in fact. What kind of place actually goes out and gets a customer’s favorite cereal at their request?” He used the spoon to gesture down at the bowl. “I am loving this.”
“The kind of place with a consistent five-star rating who wants to keep it that way.” She winked. The statement didn’t come off as brash, as it might with some, only matter-of-fact. “How about you go into town today? Meet some people, enjoy lunch at Perq, our coffee shop. Who knows? You might run into something entertaining. There’s always a little bit of drama in Heartwood.” She hid the eye roll in another sip of coffee. “It’s the small-town mindset. Although usually people get pretty swept up in the holidays and the drama takes a back seat.”
“The good kind or the bad kind of drama?” he asked for clarification.
“Depends on how you react to it,” she replied.
Which was how Easton found himself parking adjacent to a vacant lot downtown, bundled up in his winter clothing. Not that it was snowing anymore. There were light piles of it on the ground here and there, the road salted, and a partly sunny sky overhead. Fishing his sunglasses out of the pocket of his heavy trench coat, he got out and began to walk down the street.
He’d been against coming out at first, half of him wanting to spend most of his time today lying in bed and watching television, the way he had the day before. Trying to get back to neutral, he called it. After the hard work he’d put in this year, he’d more than earned a little down time, a little relaxation. He’d scheduled a massage for the end of the week and fully planned to take advantage of it.
Now that he was out walking the streets and peering in store windows…he found he was actually enjoying himself.
He’d needed the escape, he knew. More so than he ever had before. When he was first starting out, it was nose to the grindstone, keep his head down, and try like hell to keep out of the red. There were plenty of months of red waiting for him. He had tried to think of it all as a staircase. Sure, there would be bad months, but if he kept putting one foot in front of the other, eventually he would climb higher and higher and get to where he needed to go. Past those lean times where he had to pay his employees out of his pocket and deal with Heshi screaming at him about his finances. Heshi working pro-bono, of course, because that’s what friends do. There had been times so lean Easton ate nothing but macaroni and cheese until he couldn’t stomach the stuff anymore.
No one had wanted to work with him when he’d begun. Now he had companies all around New York calling to set up meetings.
Step by step, he felt his shoulders begin to relax. The tense knots along his spine let loose. The twisting in his stomach unwound until he was an average guy taking a walk down the street.
Around the corner, there was a sweet shop offering hot chocolate with homemade whipped cream and marshmallows. It was the perfect opportunity to warm up on a cold winter day. Easton’s lips turned up in a smile at the chalkboard sign offering fresh baked goods. No way he was missing this.
The town was on the miniscule side, with a single stoplight in the entire county. Miniscule, quaint, and unlike anything he’d seen before. It was an entirely distinctive atmosphere. People’s attitudes were different. A handful of people he didn’t know took the time to wave at him and say hello.
It was like stepping into another world.
Easton went into the sweet shop and purchased the advertised hot chocolate, with every kind of topping they offered. Why not? He was on vacation. It was normal to indulge and enjoy the small things. Expected, even. The woman behind the counter with her sky-blue eyes and severely cut black hair sent him on his way with a bag of gingerbread cookies after finding out he was staying at the B&B.
Everyone in this small town must know each other, he mused. It was the strangest sensation.
The first sip scalded his lips even as it soothed the chill in his body. Holy shit, that was good hot chocolate. Maybe the best he’d ever had.
Once he started, he couldn’t stop himself, finishing off the cup on his walk along the town center. There were companies in New York who would kill for whatever secret ingredient the shop owner put in her drinks. Part of him wondered if he could squeeze it out of her. He could make her a billion if she allowed him to work a buy-out.
He let the thought pass. This trip wasn’t about acquisitions, he reminded himself. Wasn’t about business. It was about relaxation.
He walked slowly by a gallery storefront, taking time to peruse the window display, when a familiar head inside caught his attention. No, it couldn’t be…could it? He slowed his steps to the point where he began to walk in reverse. Hoping for another glimpse.
Ah, yes, it was. Armie.
No, he corrected. Her name was Quinn. It fit her, too. Sweet with a little bit of spice. She’d certainly given him the full spectrum of reactions when he’d met her yesterday, from apologetic to charming to indignant. He wasn’t sure what he’d done to warrant the last one.
He felt his lips curl up in yet another smile. When he felt an actual pinch in his cheeks, he realized it had been too long since he’d shown his real smile to the world. Wide, willing, a tad awkward. He’d always pushed the awkwardness down and refused to let it show. Funny how a glimpse of sunny gold hair brought it to the surface.
There was something about the woman that made him want to break out in a grin whenever he saw her. Hell, she didn’t even have to have the dog with her, the big goofy mutt who’d knocked Easton on his ass yesterday. Although he surely felt a swell of giddy giggles whenever he thought of the pooch.
He walked into the store without a second thought. Whatever it was she was doing in there, he wanted another chance to speak with her. It felt like as good a time as any other.
Bells tinkled above the door in a distinctive Christmas-y tone, the air filled with the scent of cinnamon and apple. He caught a glimpse of a greenery garland strung through with cranberries, popcorn, and dried orange slices. It was better than most stores, where the fake scents of the holidays smacked you in the face whenever you entered them. This one was rustic. Comfortable. Something able to ignite a tingle inside of him when he breathed in, held it, then exhaled. Or maybe it was the sweet-looking lady near the counter holding a box propped on her hip.
“Where do you want me to set the latest stash?” she asked, her voice high and soft. Clear, like a bell.
“You can set up on the table beneath the wreath. That’s where I put your last ones and they went in a snap.” The woman behind the register physically demonstrated by bringing her thumb and middle finger together sharply. “Trust me, girl, these are going to be gone just as quickly.”
Quinn sighed. “I’m happy, I am. But I can hardly keep up as it is.”
“Well, whatever you’re doing, keep at it. People are loving your art. It’s perfect for the most wonderful time of the year.”
Easton crept closer until he was right behind Quinn, leaning over her shoulder in an attempt to see into the box. “What kind of art do you make?”
He gave her credit. She didn’t scream, and she didn’t leap out of her skin. Whatever surprised peep she allowed at his intrusion she kept to herself. She did, however, jump ever so slightly toward the counter until the bottom of her box knocked against it.
When she whirled on him, her free hand was against her heart and he could see her pulse jumping on the side of her neck. “What is this? You get your kicks by scaring a few years off of people’s lives? Announce yourself next time.”
Easton shrugged understandingly. “I wanted to see what you have in there. Sorry. I was trying to be inconspicuous.”
“Wear a cowbell next time,” she muttered.
Instead of pursuing the conversation he desperately wanted to have with her, Quinn adjusted her grip on the box and strutted across the store toward the front display area.
“You never answered my question,” he pushed, following her.
“No, I didn’t.”
If he expected an answer, then he would probably die waiting for one. Quinn set her box down and proceeded to unload it in front of him without sparing a glance in his direction.
Easton was about to protest her odd behavior toward him when he saw the ornaments in her hands. “Wow, did you make these?” He reached out and took an ornament from her, turning it over between his fingers, eyes captured by the little thing.
It was an angel with curled wings and a halo. Its dress was made out of some sort of material which his fingertips and brain, even working in conjunction, couldn’t identify. Instead of looking cheap, it was natural and earthy. Brilliant in its simplicity, with a vibrant, artful concept. Its wings were delicate and straw-like. Face painted on in sweet repose.
Quinn spoke in a terse tone. “Yes, I did. It’s what I do. I’m a local artist who makes Santas and treetop angels out of locally-sourced and even recycled materials.” When he glanced up, it looked like she wanted to snatch the angel out of his hands. Luckily, she let him keep it. “It’s not enough to sustain me through the year, so I also work part-time as a substitute teacher. Art, of course.” She opened her mouth like she wanted to say more and then thought against it. “Gotta pay those bills.”
“Of course,” he agreed without hesitation. There was something masterful about the ornament she’d made. “This is fabulous. Truly fabulous.”
His brain began to spin with ideas and he felt the usual rush of excitement through his lower intestines. The tingle always began there, he knew, when he was on to something big. He’d learned to trust his gut reaction when it came to potential profitable deals. Oftentimes, his instincts knew when to react before his head did.
“How long have you been selling these? I mean,” he turned to face her, to judge her reaction, “do you only sell them around the holidays? Or all year ’round?” She opened her mouth to comment and he continued without a thought. “Do you stick to Heartwood, or have you been able to expand to surrounding areas?”
Her chuckle was strangled. “I make them all year ’round to sell at the holidays. Usually, I start setting them out in stores and markets around October, to get ahead of the game. It keeps me so busy I don’t have time to market to surrounding areas at this point.”
He could tell she wanted very badly to snatch the ornament out of his hands but that ran the risk of damaging her art. Something she would never do, he guessed. But why did she seem to loathe him on sight? It was a mystery, and solving it warred with the desire to acquire her.
Whoops! Acquire her art. He made the internal correction with great difficulty.
“I think I can help you.” Easton tightened his grip on the little angel. “I mean, help you market to other areas. Across state lines even, if that’s what you want. It’s taken me a bit of finagling over the past few years, but I’m actually a pretty savvy investor and advisor.”
Quinn cocked a hip and raised an eyebrow at the same time. “Oh really?”
“I take an interest in startup businesses and individuals—like you—that I think have a real chance of making it in the big leagues. Then I pass them on to interested companies. Mergers and acquisitions kind of thing. I don’t want to toot my own horn, but I’ve made a lot of people a lot of money.” Himself included.
“I suppose most people you tell that to are impressed.” She sounded anything but, her left eyebrow hitching higher toward her hairline.
“I’ve successfully pitched to companies like QVC in the past,” Easton continued, unfazed. “The Home Shopping Network. Even food production companies. I think, with a little push, we can sell your products across the United States.”
“I’m not interested in going big or selling out.” She opened the box wide, turning away from him, and began setting the rest of her ornaments out.
Each one he saw had Easton falling a little more in love with the concept. Not her, definitely not her. He didn’t know the woman. No, it was her art that captivated him. “I can see it in my head,” he murmured. “Country ornaments. Made by hand. Recycled Materials. Getting back to the basics. Something the whole family can come together on that benefits the environment as well. Made with love.” It could practically sell itself.
Quinn shook her head and said, “Sorry, no.”
“Oh, it wouldn’t be selling out,” he replied quickly. “People tend to think it is when they first hear the word acquisition. I assure you, there’s more to it.”
“I do what I do because I love it,” she insisted. “Not because I’m interested in making it in the big leagues. I’m not ambitious in that way. I create because I have no choice, because the urge is inside of me. When I see something, I see it not just for what it is currently, but what it can be.”
“You see the potential.” He understood better than she knew. It was part of what made him great at his own job.
She nodded her head again decisively. “Yes. So while I appreciate your tempting offer, I’m going to have to pass.” She flashed him the ghost of a smile. “Sorry.”
“At least let me buy what you’ve brought in today.” Easton fumbled around in his pocket for his wallet. He had to have it somewhere. Hadn’t he used it to purchase the hot chocolate? “I’ll take the whole lot off your hands.”
“No, thank you.”
Her answer stopped him in his tracks. “Excuse me?”
“No, thank you,” she repeated. “I don’t want to sell the whole lot to just one buyer.”
“I can understand you not wanting to sell out”—for which he was determined to change her mind—“but why won’t you let me buy the box?” It didn’t make sense.
“Easton, you seem like a nice man, but…” She trailed off and struggled to find the words, her hands swirling around her like she could pluck the right words from the air. “I don’t operate in the same way you do. To me, you buying the box, it…it takes away from the community. Do you want to deprive families of their chance for one of these because you bought them all before I had a chance to make more? And what are you going to do, keep them in storage? Try to sell them to one of the investors you keep in your back pocket? I don’t think so. It’s better if we call it a day. You aren’t going to change my mind.”
Her answer intrigued him, along with her stubbornness and lack of enthusiasm for a project he’d instantly believed in. Bummer didn’t begin to cover his disappointment. “You have to at least let me take this little girl home.” He gestured toward the angel in his hand. “I’ve become attached. I don’t think I can let her go now. Look at this sweet little face!”
The rest of the box disappeared under the table and left him longingly staring after it. Dang it, he’d gotten his hopes up.
“It’s fine. And I appreciate your willingness to help me out, I really do.” She treated him to a small smile. “I don’t want you to think I’m ungrateful. I am. Grateful, I mean. Thank you for the offer.”
“How much?” he asked about the angel.
“I charge about thirty per ornament.”
How did it cover what she put in? Did she have any upfront costs outside of time and labor? Usually, in a negotiation situation, he would sit down with the owners of the business he was interested in and examine their figures. He had a feeling that even if he managed to change Quinn’s mind, she would never let him in on the fundamental details. Somehow, it made him more resolute to try to change her mind.
She was a puzzle and a challenge. Most women were, he thought, but this one got him excited on a multitude of levels. And she was looking at him as if she expected he’d try to bargain for her firstborn.
“It’s a steal if you ask me,” he murmured. Then dug around in his wallet for the cash.
She paused, letting out a breath. “I appreciate it.”
“Say hi to Bruno for me.” It was just the sort of lighthearted goodbye to help put her at ease. “My knee still hurts from our meeting yesterday.”
“I’m sorry about him,” she said, her voice soft.
“I hope to see you again at some point.” Easton strode off toward the front register with his conquest in hand, still not sure whether he could count this as a win or not.
He walked out of the store shaking his head. He’d need to play it cool. He couldn’t mess this up again, because running into her for a third time…might come off as stalking. Something about her turned his brain from a fine-tuned machine to mud.
Smooth, O’Callaghan. Real smooth.
He puttered around town planning their next meeting, how he could control the situation to come off as suave, desirable. Something he’d never had a problem with before. If he kept this up his reputation would be—
He knocked against someone on the street, his eyes focused on the ground. “Oh god, I’m sorry. I wasn’t looking where I was going.”
“Jeez, man. I can’t get rid of you.”
He blinked until Quinn’s face cleared in front of him. Quinn! Damn.
“I promise I’m not doing this on purpose,” he stated. Then wanted to slap himself. Why would he say something like that?
Quinn tilted her head to the side, eyes wide in an I-know-a-liar-when-I-see-one expression. Double damn.
Without saying anything else, she walked past him. And the moment she was out of eyeshot, he indulged in the slap, a well deserved one. He opened his mouth to shout after her with a humble apology then thought better of it. Nothing was going as planned.
He walked back to his car knowing he’d ruined his chance with her.