“I hate this town. When we left for college, I swore I’d never come back here. I almost made it to graduation without a single return visit—until now.” My stomach churns and my heart races as I automatically scan the crowds, looking for him—Hunter Beckett. How I can simultaneously want to see him and not want to see him is still a mystery. But there it is anyway.
“Mallory, how can you hate this place? It’s awesome! I can’t believe I’ve never been here before. I also can’t believe you’ve kept this from me for all these years we’ve lived together.” Amelia, my best friend and partner in crime, is originally from Georgia and made the long drive back home with me so I wouldn’t be alone. Her head looks as if it’s on a swivel, trying to catch a glimpse of every Christmas-decorated storefront in town. Which, by the way, is every single one of them.
As I drive down Main Street in the small town in northeastern Pennsylvania where I grew up, I quickly realize nothing has changed in the last few years since I left. Winter always brings the tourists into our quaint little village. Strings of bright white lights are wound around every tree trunk and bare limb and also dutifully line every store eave. Professionally decorated wreaths hang from every lamppost illuminating the sidewalks of Main Street.
“The city council members know the livelihoods of most of the business owners depend on the influx of tourists, especially during the week of Christmas. Every business goes all out to make this place even better than Santa’s workshop itself.”
“Be careful what you wish for, Amelia—you may just get it. That wouldn’t be a good thing in this case. I’m afraid of being sucked back into the black hole of Cringle Cove and being stuck here forever myself.”
The idyllic mountain setting, complete with a virtually guaranteed white Christmas, brings families from near and far. Rooms in the local hotels and bed-and-breakfast inns are booked solid several months in advance by families looking for a little slice of Christmas heaven. And in the days leading up to the holiday, the intense draw to spend a holiday vacation here is obvious. Everyone in this town feels like a little kid on Christmas morning again for a few days, but reality lurks in the shadows, never too far away.
“It’s just a few flurries, Amelia. Don’t get too excited. It’s not like we’re in a blizzard or anything.”
Snow is a rare occasion at the University of Georgia where we attend together. Snow at Christmas is almost unheard of down south, where I can almost wear shorts right up until the January cold spell hits…and lasts for about thirteen days before the temperature begins to rise again. No such luck in my hometown. It is cold all winter long. And it snows—a lot.
As if the weather isn’t enough reason to avoid Cringle Cove, that jackass Hunter Beckett still lives here. I want to run into him almost as much as I want to run head first and butt naked into a snowdrift.
All excellent reasons for staying away. Permanently.
“Conner Veterinary Services—there’s your parents’ business. It’s so cool they’re both veterinarians.” Amelia bounces in her seat while she points toward the sign hanging prominently over the front door. I can’t help but laugh at her enthusiasm. This is a two-red-light town, so it’s a little hard to miss anything.
“I’m so excited about helping your dad while your mom helps your grandmother.”
“Me too. I’m just glad we didn’t draw the short straw like Mom did.”
After I park in front of the building, Amelia and I step out of the car and immediately tighten our coats against the icy December wind. We make a beeline out of the cold into the clinic to find my dad. The interior of the building is both familiar and surreal. Everything looks the same, but it feels like much longer than the almost four years since I last stepped foot in here. The same old bell is mounted over the doorframe, jingling a soft tune every time the door opens. The receptionist desk is still front and center, waiting to greet the patients and their owners. The door to the exam rooms in the back of the building is still to the left of the desk. The old wood floors still creak in certain spots but also give the clinic a more home-like feel.
Trusting my senses is becoming more and more difficult, and I’ve only been back for a few minutes. That’s because of the black hole syndrome—the intense gravity draws me in before suffocating me in total darkness.
I haven’t seen my dad in way too long, and a pang of guilt hits me like a sledgehammer to the chest. I grew up in this office with my parents, working side by side with them even before I was old enough to actually help. Nostalgia hits me unexpectedly, and I instantly feel like I’m home again. The entire time I’ve been away at college, I’ve chanted over and over about how much I hate it here and how I never wanted to return. Give me two minutes inside the city limits, and I’m right back to being a little kid again.
“Mallory! Come give your old man a hug.” Dad walks through the doorway from the direction of exam rooms and extends his arms out to each side, wide open for me to rush into them, and I do without missing a beat. He wraps his strong arms around me and squeezes tightly.
“Hi, Daddy. I’ve missed you.” I slide my arms around his neck and pull closer to him.
“I’ve missed you too, sweetheart. It’s so good to have you home again.”
Before I start crying like a little schoolgirl, I release him and take a step back. “Daddy, you remember Amelia.”
Like a moth to a flame, she flies into Daddy’s arms without waiting for a second request. After Amelia’s father passed away when she was a baby, her mom never remarried. Over the past several years, my parents have visited us in Georgia, and my dad has made it his mission to help fill that hole in Amelia’s life.
“It’s not crashing when you’re part of the family, honey. We’ve already claimed you as one of our own. Hang up your coats on the rack over there, then I’ll show you around the office before we meet Jackie for dinner.”
“She was, but we hired a sitter to help with my mom so your mom can spend some time with you since you’re home for the first time in forever.” His left eyebrow lifts slightly and his gaze remains locked on mine, leaving no doubt he knows I have no interest in seeing Gran today. Or any other day of the year, for that matter.
While Dad shows Amelia around the office, my mind drifts back to the days and weeks when I worked here with him. All the supplies are kept in the same places they’ve always been. I only half listen as Dad explains the procedures for taking care of the crated animals—I remember exactly how to care for them. An older black-and-white dog catches my attention, so I stop at his crate and check on him. Amelia, on the other hand, hangs on Dad’s every word, soaking up the instructions and trying to memorize what is kept where, and she doesn’t even notice I’m no longer following them around.
She’s naturally an overachiever.
“Hey, Dr. Conner. How’s it going? Is Banjo ready to come home yet?”
That voice…I’d know that voice anywhere. Panic steals my breath, and my lungs seize in my chest. My hand remains on the sweet dog, keeping him from exiting the crate, but I can’t move.
Hunter Beckett is here.
In this very building.
And he’s picking up an animal.
“Hey, Hunter. How are you? He’s ready and waiting for you. Give me a minute to show Amelia how to get him out of the crate, then we’ll bring him up here.” Dad’s voice echoes in the hall, growing closer to me as he speaks.
“Take your time, Doc. I’m not in a hurry.”
The door to the boarding area starts to open, and my fight-or-flight senses kick in. I bolt through the door leading to the fenced area outside—right into the cold wind and spitting snow. Without my coat.
This was a really stupid move. What was I thinking? Hunter wasn’t joining us in the back, and I would’ve been completely blocked from his view had I moved one foot to the left or the right. Instead, I lost control of myself just because I heard his stupid, sexy, manly voice. Mentally psyching myself up, I draw my shoulders back and hold my head up high.
“I’m going back in there. This is ridiculous.”
I reach for the cold brass doorknob and give it a good, swift turn, ready to stroll back in and face the music like an adult. Except…the door automatically locked behind me, effectively thwarting my plan.
“Oh God. No, no, no, no.” I try the door again, but it seems at least one thing works right this evening—the door lock is doing its job.
A gust of arctic wind blasts through my clothes, and it feels like I’m not even wearing anything, automatically forcing me to circle my arms around my body in a tight hug and a desperate attempt for warmth. Of course, that doesn’t help at all since the wind just continues to slice through me. With my face down and my whole body shivering, I work my way over to the chain link fence and rush around to the front of the building.
Unable to hold out any longer, I trudge to the door and rush inside.
“Uh…Mallory?” Amelia’s surprised and alarmed tone barely hides the hint of humor underneath. The problem is, my mind is still frozen from the cold, but my body is very much aware of the electricity Hunter naturally exudes. Bad thing is, electricity can be deadly. Especially in this case.
“Yeah?” I refuse to make eye contact in my attempt to play it cool. Or cold. Whatever.
“Why were you outside…in the cold…without your coat…or a hat?”
“It’s not that bad. I walked around from the back, just looking around. It has been a long time since I was here.”
“I’d say it has been almost four years since she was last home. Isn’t that right, Pete?”
My eyes betray me at the sound of Hunter’s voice, and they rise with a slow perusal, taking in his form from his work boot-covered feet to the top of his head. He’s taller than when I left—and definitely more muscular. The handsome boy I knew grew into a fine, fine man. He filled out in all the right places. His hair is cut short but still almost the same shade of brown as mine. Those eyes, though—the swirls of chocolate brown and golden flecks—still make me weak in the knees. Then one side of his mouth lifts slightly in amusement—a dead giveaway he knows I’m checking him out.
“You’re right, Hunter. And I’ve missed my little girl every day during all those years.”
Hunter’s smile slowly fades at the mention of Gran, as I knew it would. She has a way of putting a damper on anything. “Welcome home. I’m sure your family is glad you’re home, even if it’s only for a short time.”
“Actually, home is in Georgia now. This is just a short visit.” I’m trying to convince myself as much as anyone else.
“You bet, Hunter. Don’t be a stranger.”
He walks toward the door, giving Dad a single nod in response. The ultimate noncommittal response. Something he was all too familiar with when I knew him as a teenager, and apparently, he hasn’t changed since then. Other than his bigger muscles. And the way he fills out his worn jeans. And that overtly masculine five o’clock shadow that I want to scrape my fingernails across.
“Mallory.” Amelia sounds like a frustrated mother when she says my name before grabbing my shoulders, pulling me out of my Hunter-induced haze. She twirls me to face her and begins running her fingers through my hair, smoothing it down in places and completely rearranging it in others. “You look like you were caught in a tornado and it intentionally turned your hair into a bird’s nest. You want to tell me what you were really doing outside now that he’s gone?”
I groan loudly and rush to the mirror hanging in the waiting area. “Oh. My. Freaking. God!” Amelia’s fingers soon join mine in a mad dash to tame the wild beast that has taken over my head. This day just keeps getting better and better.
Dad chuckles to himself when he walks away, checking the doors and turning off the lights before we leave to meet Mom.
“You don’t have to worry about checking the back door, Daddy. It locks just fine.”
“You’re going to explain what happened here. You know I don’t like being left out in the cold like this.” Amelia leans toward me, poking me with her finger for added emphasis.
“Don’t even talk to me about being left out in the cold right now. I still haven’t thawed out after my trip around the block.”