, Book Three
There was nowhere in the world like Holly, North Carolina.
Ella McKinley looked out her second-story office window at the snow falling lightly over the quaint village nestled at the base of Holly Mountain and sighed. Meg Anderson, the local florist, was right. Holly was a feast for the senses—gingerbread architecture so sweet each building looked as if it dripped honey, cobblestone streets that echoed Old World sounds with every crossing, festively decorated shop windows sporting miniature pine trees decorated in exotic ornaments, twinkle lights illuminating the trees on Main Street, and pine wreaths and garlands wrapping each and every Victorian cast-iron streetlamp in a plume of green until the scent of Christmas made a person light-headed.
Yeah, there was nowhere in the world like Holly, North Carolina. Too bad it was decked out like a Charles Dickens novel three hundred and sixty-five days per year and not just during the holidays.
Frowning, Ella turned away from the view and looked back down at the inventory sheet on her desk, attempting—yet again—to focus on the items she needed to restock. Most weeks she could ignore the winter-wonderland-themed decor of Holly. After all, her pub, Yuletide Spirits, on the corner of Main and Mistletoe, was thriving because of the constant tourist traffic through Holly twelve months per year. But this week—the week just before the actual holiday—wasn’t just any week. And with each day the calendar inched closer to Christmas Eve, the more Ella wished she were anywhere but in a town that glorified the one day of the year she hated more than any other.
Just a few more months. Then she’d have enough money saved up for that new start she’d been promising herself for way too long. She already had a couple buyers interested in the pub. So long as the economy didn’t crash again and business continued to boom the way it had been doing the last few years, she’d soon have enough for that cute little bungalow in the Keys. Then she wouldn’t have to live through another hell week in Holly. And in the Keys, she’d never have to celebrate Christmas again.
She sat at her desk and pulled up the online order form she’d started on her laptop. The pub needed more eggnog, more peppermint Kahlua, more Snowflake vodka—the really good stuff from that Tahoe distillery, not the cheap liquor the Pinnacle rep was always trying to get her to buy—and more Mad Elf ale. The stupid tourists who visited Holly wanted the full effect, and that meant stocking the bar with winter-themed beers and liquors so her bartenders could make the disgustingly sweet, froufrou holiday drinks the tourists always ordered, like Candy Cane Cocoa, Red-Hot Santa Tini, and Ella’s personal favorite, the Grinch. Not that she’d ever be caught dead drinking a Grinch. She just liked the sound of it. And the thought of stealing all those irritatingly happy tourists’ Christmas cheer.
You’re doing it again…
“Shoot.” Ella pulled her hands away from the laptop and stared at the numbers blurring on the screen in front of her. She was doing it again. Letting her personal distaste for the stupid holiday color her mood. If she was going to get through this week, she needed to pull it together before anyone noticed.
Or pitied her again for it.
Grabbing the clipboard on the desk, she pushed to her feet and decided to check the stockroom one last time before she sent in her order. She was just about to pull the office door open when voices from the hallway trickled to her ears, stopping her momentum.
“It’s true,” Bobbie Fenton, the college kid from Asheville whom Ella had hired to bus tables over the holidays, said.
“It can’t be,” Angela Smith answered. “You’re making that up.” Angela was a cute twenty-something Yuletide Spirits server all the old men in town flirted with, and at last tally, she was the best server in the bar.
“I saw it with my own two eyes,” Bobbie went on. “She told that guy from the homeless shelter to get out of her damn bar. Used those exact words too. ‘Damn bar.’ Then she told him she wasn’t interested in donating to his worthless cause.”
Ella stepped closer to the door to hear better.
“I don’t believe it,” Angela said. Cardboard rustled, as if they were moving boxes in the hallway. “The homeless shelter? Ella might run a tight ship here, but I don’t think she’s the kind of person to turn her back on someone in need. Especially at Christmas.”
“Maybe you better start believing it,” Bobbie muttered. “She made it perfectly clear she doesn’t want to have anything to do with the homeless.” His voice lowered, and Ella had to press her ear to the door to hear him. “And it’s obvious she doesn’t like people. She spends most of her time up here in her office, counting her money, instead of down in the bar. In fact, I heard the reason she always spends Christmas alone is because no one wants to be around her.”
“That’s not true either,” Angela said quietly. “I was in the bar last year when Randy Paulson invited her to Christmas dinner.”
“And did she accept?”
“Come on, Ang. Randy’s a nice guy and all, but he’s eighty. His idea of Christmas dinner is a hot chicken potpie. Did anyone else invite her to spend the holidays with them?”
“Well, no, but that doesn’t mean anything. You don’t know what she’s been thr—”
“Yeah, it does.” Shuffling sounded on the stairs. “It means no one with half a brain wants to spend any more time with her than they have to. Listen, I don’t care if she’s a loner or not, all I’m sayin’ is that she’s more like Ebenezer Scrooge than St. Nicholas. The way she treated that homeless guy was proof of that.”
Their footsteps faded on the stairs, and even though Angela continued to defend Ella as they walked away, Ella’s skin chilled.
Bobbie was wrong about the homeless “guy.” The man hadn’t been a Good Samaritan looking for any donation. He’d been a bum from two towns over, on the prowl for free alcohol. Even if Ella had wanted to give him a drink, she couldn’t because of state liquor laws, but besides that, she wasn’t about to contribute to any homeless person getting loaded, then thinking they were warm enough to brave the freezing temperatures. She didn’t need another death on her conscience.
Grabbing the door handle, she pulled it open and stared out into the quiet hallway. Like her apartment, the walls were barren. She didn’t have time or energy to decorate rooms no one but she and her employees would see. A few boxes were pushed up against the wall, but as she’d suspected, Angela and Bobbie had carted down the ones containing napkins, straws, and the bamboo frill picks, which she’d yet to unpack.
Okay, so maybe there was a hint of truth in what Bobbie had said, but did she care if some college kid thought she was a Scrooge? She didn’t. She only had a few short months left in this miserable town anyway.
Putting it behind her, she marched down the curved staircase and made sure her holiday smile was firmly in place before stepping into the pub. Being the town Scrooge wasn’t hurting her profits any. The place was hopping for a Sunday evening—people squeezed in at the old mahogany bar, laughing and chatting as they sipped their drinks, glasses clinking on tables filled with food and liquor, a group in the corner near the edge of the empty stage, swaying and singing along to Kenny Chesney’s voice echoing from the speakers at the end of the room about wanting a tan for Christmas.
Next year. Next year that’ll be you in the sunshine. Just hold on one more year…
Ella turned at the sound of the familiar voice. Justin Holmes, the new English teacher up at Holly High School, lifted his arm and waved at her from the direction of the group across the room, excitement lighting his youthful face. Feigning interest, Ella waved her hand in acknowledgment.
Justin cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled, “Turn on the mikes! We gotta get him on stage!”
No way in hell was she sanctioning spur-of-the-moment karaoke. She’d killed that horrendous form of entertainment when she’d taken over the bar two years before. Nothing turned a trendy pub into a dive faster than octave-crackling karaoke.
Except that voice definitely wasn’t crackling. Ella’s gaze narrowed on Justin and the group, and she realized the music wasn’t coming from any speakers. It was coming from someone in the middle of that group, strumming a guitar she couldn’t see.
She listened to the lines of the familiar holiday song, to the raspy tenor belting them out, and couldn’t stop the fine hairs along her nape from standing straight.
Because that sure as heck wasn’t karaoke.
A hard knot formed in the pit of Ella’s stomach as the song finally ended. The sexy male voice echoed in the air until the last notes faded into a chorus of claps and hoots and shouts. And even before the group parted, before she got her first look, Ella knew exactly who was singing in the middle of her bar.
Seated on a chair with a guitar across his lap, Tate Kendrick laid his big hand flat on the strings to silence them and grinned Ella’s way.
Tate Kendrick. The Tate Kendrick. Lead singer of the wildly popular rock band Kendrick. And the last person she ever expected to see again in this lifetime.
“Hey, Ella.” He lifted that big, talented hand in a halfhearted wave. “Nice place.”
For a split second, she wasn’t twenty-eight, jaded, broken, and struggling just to make it through each day. She was nineteen again, about to start art school after a wasted year at a community college, staring at the ballplayer who’d completely rocked her world one hot and sultry summer.
But nineteen faded as fast as it had then, and in a flash, she remembered where she was and all that had happened to bring her to this time and place.
Turning quickly away, she wove through tables until she reached Kelly Evans, her evening bartender, making a trio of Mistletoe Mojitos on the edge of the bar. “I’m putting in an order. If there’s anything we’re low on, let me know when I come back up from the storeroom.”
Kelly shook her long blonde hair over her shoulder and added a sprig of mint to each glass. “Got it. Oh, I know we’re almost out of crème de menthe. Might want to add that to your list.”
Ella nodded and made a mark on her clipboard as she moved around behind the bar. “One more thing.” She glanced over her shoulder at Kelly—not at the superstar in the corner. “Don’t turn on the mikes for that yahoo.”
Kelly looked across the bar toward the group breaking up on the far side of the room and chuckled. “That’s not what most women call him, but okay, boss lady. Whatever you say.”
Ella didn’t care what most women called Tate, and she sure as hell wasn’t waiting around for the inevitable questions on the tip of Kelly’s tongue. Stepping into the kitchen, she nodded at Matt working the grill, then moved to the back of the building, rounded the corner, and propped the cellar door open.
Cool air surrounded her as she descended the scuffed cement steps. Shelves ran in rows through the rectangular space, stocked with everything from glasses to fry oil to cleaning supplies. Three unshaded bulbs illuminated the room. Shivering once in her thick cable sweater, she moved along each row, checking stock and making notes when she noticed something was low.
Tate Kendrick. Tate freakin’ Kendrick. What the hell was a big star like Tate doing in Holly, North Carolina? And why, in the name of all things holy, had fate led him into her bar this week?
“If I didn’t know you better,” that same sexy male voice she’d heard upstairs said from the direction of the stairs, “I’d think you were avoiding me.”
Ella jumped, then drew a breath that did little to settle her suddenly racing heart and stepped out from behind a shelf to look his way.
Dammit. He wasn’t just a huge rock star now. He was a huge, gorgeous rock star with dark, tousled hair brushing his collar, exquisite golden skin from hours somewhere on a beach, and a body that was carved and filled out in ways it hadn’t been before. Of course, it only made sense he was a thousand times hotter today than he’d been at twenty-two. Fate was just that cruel. Women grew saggy and tired-looking as they aged. Men simply dazzled.
“You’re not gonna say anything?” he asked. “Even after nine years?”
Nine years. Nine pretty miserable years for Ella, anyway. For him— Her gaze rolled over his black, two-button Henley stretched across wide, toned shoulders, down to the faded, loose jeans on his strong thighs, and finally to the scuffed leather boots, which probably cost more than her car. For him, those nine years had been nothing but success.
Looking back down at her clipboard, she focused on her list, not on the way her blood was suddenly pumping harder in her veins. Don’t even acknowledge the nine-year comment. It’ll just set you back, and you don’t have time for that. She glanced up at the bottles on the shelf beside her. “What are you doing here, Tate? Holly’s a little off your tour route.”
“Keeping tabs on me, huh?”
Footsteps sounded as he descended the rest of the steps and crossed toward her. Her skin instinctively prickled, but she ignored it, instead stared at a bottle and tried to read the damn label.
He leaned against the end of the shelf, only feet from her, and tucked his hands in the pockets of his jeans, looking relaxed and casual and way damn sexier than any man had the right to look. “I’ll take that as a good sign.”
Ella moved a step away from him and ran a finger over a bottle on the shelf. Cocoa. That was what the stupid label said. They had plenty of cocoa. She crossed that item off her list. “You can take it however you want. Has nothing to do with me.”
He grinned. She saw it from the corner of her eye. A luscious, lopsided smile that made her remember all the times he’d smiled at her on the beach. One that did weird, unwanted things to her belly. “I heard you bought a place up here. Thought I’d stop by and see it on my way to Miami. Have to admit, a tourist trap like this is the last place I ever expected you to end up in.”
Holly was the last town Ella ever expected to end up in too. But life sometimes threw you curveballs, and a smart person swung at what they could hit. Even if she missed more often than not.
Not wanting to think too much about baseball, and him, she stepped to her right again, desperate to get away from his body heat, which seemed to kick up the temperature in the cold room at least ten degrees. And the succulent scents of pine and leather wafting in the air, which she remembered all too well. “Heard from whom?”
Ella’s pen stilled against the paper, and she finally looked up at him, unclear if she’d heard him correctly. This close, she could see nine years had aged him. Fine lines were starting to form around the edges of his mesmerizing blue eyes. But if anything, they only made him that much more intoxicating. Though, at the moment, all she could focus on were the two words he’d just spoken. “My what?”
“Your mom. In Myrtle Beach. The band did an impromptu gig there a few weeks ago, so I popped in and said hello.”
Two things registered at once. One, he’d talked to her mother, someone Ella didn’t even speak to much these days, and two, his being here was not at all a random coincidence.
All those emotions she’d locked deep inside over the years came bubbling up, squeezing the air in her chest until she felt as if she couldn’t breathe. She didn’t need this. Not now. Not this week. She’d gone two years without feeling a single thing, and she wasn’t about to let Tate Kendrick, of all people, ruin things for her now.
The need to run overwhelmed her. Turning away from him, she rounded the shelving unit, then made a beeline for the stairs. “I have work to do.”
“Ella, hold on. I was hoping maybe we could have dinner. Catch up a little before I have to leave.”
Catch up? Catch up? He wanted to catch up and hear about the total disaster that was her life since they’d parted ways?
Ella gripped the banister and moved quickly up the steps, desperate to retreat to the safety of her apartment, where she didn’t have to think about the past, the mistakes she’d made, and everything she’d lost along the way. “Sorry. Too busy. Have a nice drive down to Miami, Tate.”