She doesn’t want to fall for him. He can’t help but fall for her…
The Kiss That Saved Christmas
Claire lay sprawled out on the
leather sofa in the timber-framed great room, feeling a kinship with the
skeleton of what should’ve been something beautiful and full of life. The stone
fireplace crackled softly before her. At its heart, flames cast the only light
and warmth in the empty lodge. Floor-to-ceiling windows exposed the brewing
winter storm outside Briar Ridge, snowflakes piling up against the glass like
the guilt in her stomach.
She hated the notion she needed to
hire a man. Ignoring the ache in her hands from working on her husband’s old
truck, she gathered his worn flannel shirt beneath her head. Briar Ridge was
her late husband’s dream, and she didn’t want to lose her last piece of him.
Claire had taken time off from her
second job, a remote position writing articles for an online newspaper, to
focus on the venue. There were still too many things to prepare for her last
scheduled wedding of the season to do everything alone. Mr. Carver was her only
applicant, and she couldn’t wait. The lodge wouldn’t pay for itself.
Mr. Carver was her last hope.
She drew in the last breath of her
husband’s piney, metal-slag scent. Then it was gone—like footprints in the
sands of a honeymoon in Hawaii. Claire clutched the fabric of his shirt.
Her body ached, wishing to lie next to him once more. Despite her fluffy wool
socks, her feet were cold. Nothing could combat the chill that followed that phone
call. She had to love a soldier.
“I’m not ready.”
The loss of their child only made
her heartbreak harder to bear. Ghost pains crept through her core. She forced
herself to focus on the future of Briar Ridge. Two weeks to the wedding. Two weeks after, Christmas—the day her
Weddings gave the lodge life and a
chance to survive while keeping her mind occupied. She refused to let Briar
Ridge go under without a fight. Stanly deserved that much, at least.
Tori, her last assistant, had stolen
her husband’s Purple Heart from the desk in their old bedroom. Sheriff Riviera
had returned Stanly’s medal, but the violation of that respect boundary broke
Claire. He’d died for his country, and no one cared but her. Not even his
She clenched her teeth and stared
into the fire. Tori had the code to the safe. Cash regularly disappeared in
small amounts. Claire couldn’t seem to catch Tori with it. Five thousand
dollars had gone missing in less than eight months.
Forehead throbbing, Claire rubbed the
spot between her eyebrows to push back the ache. Firing the young woman had
made her feel better, but Claire never found the money.
Her arms quivered in protest when
she pushed herself up. Claire wiped the moisture from her cheeks and laid Stanly’s
shirt tenderly in her lap. The ad for a new venue assistant she’d placed in the
local newspaper sat on the oak coffee table in front of her. Regret made
her pick it up.
The rustle of paper echoed
throughout the empty house. “Forgive me, Stanly. I need someone who can do the
heavier stuff I can’t.” I’ve lost my
appetite recently. I don’t know how much longer I can go on without you, out
Her interview with Mr. Carver was
scheduled for the next morning.
Tossing the ad back on the table,
she raked her hands through her hair and leaned forward. She’d tried to eat
dinner but lost interest. Her stomach did flips over the idea of another man
being in the building, even if it was just for work. I’m not trying to be unfaithful to you, she thought, hoping Stanly
The last two years had taken fifteen
pounds from her. If she didn’t make a change, she was bound to end up with her
She didn’t always fight the idea.
At night she dreamt of little feet
thundering through the halls like they had always wanted, the reason he built the
“It’s for family, my big family!”
He’d take her on a tour now and then, stopping by each of the twenty rooms.
Stanly would tell her who could stay where for the holidays and which room
would be the nursery. “You can decorate it however you want. I don’t even care
if you paint the wood pink.” His nose would wrinkle in mock disgust, and
Claire laughed once to herself but
lacked the strength to smile. Collecting his shirt from her lap, she trudged
down the hall to their old room and padded across the wood floor to the
closet. She freed a hanger from the rack, deftly slipping it inside the
shoulders of the red and brown plaid shirt with cold fingers. Claire clenched
her teeth and hung the shirt back with the rest.
His scent had faded from the
others. They hung like fabric ghosts of the man he once was.
Falling in against the soft pillow
of his shirts, she buried her nose in the flannel again. Claire drew in only a
musty whiff of old cotton and dust.
“I’m trying to do what you made me
promise.” She shivered. “Fill this home with life, with love, and never give up
on what I want. It’s hard without you.” You’re
what I want.
Claire pressed a trembling kiss
above the chest pocket of a shirt and forced herself to back away. Her body
felt weak, her joints complaining at every movement.
I have to be strong—for him. Claire strained to steady her muscles.
The effort was exhausting, and she decided to save her energy for the morning.
She didn’t want Mr. Carver to think she was a pushover or fragile. Claire
couldn’t afford to be taken advantage of again.
She wondered what his personality
would be like. Claire had fired the last three girls. She’d considered an age
requirement in the ad, though it wasn’t always a sure indicator of maturity in
Releasing a weighted breath that
puffed out her cheeks, she flopped back on their bed. Claire tucked her feet
beneath the comforter and replayed the phone call.
His name was Zach. He had
mechanical skills and could lift over 100 lbs.
Good for him.
But could he be polite with
guests? Could he stay clean and drug-free? What was his work ethic like? Was he
trustworthy? Or would he take advantage of her like the other assistants? Steal
like Tori? Get caught in the shed with a significant other like Amber? Be lazy,
worthless help like Gretchen, who preferred her phone to guests?
Claire rubbed her face and
groaned. Tomorrow was going to be more stressful than hosting a wedding with a