There isn't a lot that Elisha Rowe is sure of at this hour, but as she shivers on her parents' snow-dusted porch in fluffy pink slippers and a pom-pom beanie, she's sure of this: someone has broken into her house.
Well, not her
house. Rather, the green, gabled Victorian across the street. She doesn't own it-could barely afford a square foot of the sprawling place-but until the new owner takes possession, she thinks of it as hers. Mostly because her beloved neighbor, Maeve Hollins, had always made her feel like it was her home away from home.
Maeve and Elisha's grandma Lou, may they both rest in peace, had been lifelong best friends who adored romance, cocktails, and Christmas-not necessarily in that order. As a child, Elisha had always considered Maeve's house their clubhouse: a place to go after school for Maeve's famous hallongrotta, the sweet and crumbly raspberry thumbprint butter cookies that were a staple of Elisha's childhood, and back-to-back romantic movies. Much to Maeve's and Lou's amusement, by age ten, she was mouthing along with the dialogue of her favorite movies, and by twelve, she knew them by heart.
And this was her first Christmas without either of them.
If Maeve's mischievous cats, Thor and Thorin, hadn't woken her up-well-timed swishing tails in the face and headbutts to the kidneys-she would have slept right through the lights flicking on across the street. Before she'd even had the chance to blink the sleep out of her eyes, her protective instinct had kicked in. How dare someone break in.
"You've got to be kidding me," Elisha huffs. It's six a.m. and she should still be snuggled into her warm flannel sheets, waiting for the smell of hazelnut coffee to wake her. Instead, she's seriously contemplating violence. "You're a determined thief, I'll give you that."
The figure's blurred shadow moves behind Maeve's living room windows. Elisha can't be sure, but it looks like they're searching for something. Her eyes narrow, her toes curl tight.
It's the first of December, which puts this affront right on schedule. Every December, tourists made the trek to their Poconos mountain town of Piney Peaks for photo ops with Maeve's house, which had become famous for its role in the 1974 classic film Sleighbells under Starlight
. Elisha is used to seeing total strangers flirt with trespass, but without Maeve here to find it charming and invite them in for hot cocoa and a cozy chat...
No one's breaking in on Elisha's watch.
She's already marching over when it occurs to her that it might
not be the best idea in the world to surprise an intruder empty-handed. Without breaking stride, she snatches one of her mother's giant plastic candy canes lining the driveway. Despite the size, it's flimsier than she expected, weighing almost nothing. Not exactly the most menacing object of self-defense.
She half frowns, then gives it an experimental whack
against her palm. It stings a bit, but not enough to do any true damage. Okay, so this definitely
isn't her best idea, but to be fair, she's way better at talking herself into things than talking herself out.
Thank god she's not wearing her winter boots. They would have crunched across the street, announcing her arrival. Instead, her slippers silently sink into last night's snowfall. As the cold bites at the sliver of exposed skin on her ankles, Elisha winces and pretends this is all in the name of stealth rather than rushing in without thinking.
The soggy slippers muffle her ascent up the Victorian's stairs, and she avoids the creaky board one step from the top in the nick of time. Once she's reached the front door, she only stops long enough to scrape off her slippers on the cheeky Hey There, Pumpkin welcome mat, still there from when Maeve had decorated for Halloween. The pink toe-bunny on each slipper is crusted with a beard of ice she can't quite manage to shake.
But her gaze snags on the snow already there, not yet melted. A thief with manners who brushed off his feet at the door? Frowning, she tests the door handle. Unlocked, the door silently swings open.
She leaves it open in case she needs to make a quick exit, inching past the wide foyer and into the living room, or as Maeve used to call it, the front parlor. Like every other room, it's an incongruous mishmash of coziness and ostentation that shouldn't work but somehow does.
Immediately, her eyes land on the broad-shouldered back of a man who, despite the generous dimensions of the room, towers over everything in it: the spindly end table teetering with the last books Maeve was shuffling through, the Tiffany torchiere floor lamp low-lighting the hand-painted frieze wrapping around the room. He's the kind of tall that makes Elisha, at five foot seven, feel dainty in comparison.
Her Goliath is mumbling to himself now, shoulders hunched as he scrounges through the drawers. He flips through the stack of papers in his hands quickly, scrutinizing them for just a second or two. Tossing Maeve's treasured memorabilia on the floor-like trash-as he goes.
A whole lifetime discarded as if it's nothing.
Elisha bristles, watching the soft flutter of theater programs, movie ticket stubs, and elegant wedding invitations as they scatter on the hardwood floor. Her fingers clutch her impromptu weapon even harder.
"Why couldn't it be money?" the intruder asks, actually tipping his head to the ceiling as if he expects an answer. His sigh is followed by a growl. "This whole place is a fucking fire hazard."
Elisha stifles a laugh at how quickly his despondency turns to irritation. He's seriously criticizing the clutter? Those who break into other people's houses do not
get to throw stones!
His neck suddenly straightens, shoulders dropping. The move is uncannily similar to the one the cats make when sneaking up on each other, about to pounce.
She must have made a noise, given herself away somehow. The Goliath starts to turn.
Her fight-or-flight kicks in. She raises the candy cane high above her head, ready to bring it down. "I'm armed!" she half warns, half shrieks, leaving off the dangerous
, because of course she's not.He
doesn't know that, though.
With a startled yelp, he stumbles, almost slipping on the pile of Maeve's precious mementos he had just tossed on the floor.
Elisha can't help it-she shrieks again.
The candy cane swings through the air. It misses the man entirely, but it's too late to stop the force of its arc. The knobby part of her knee catches the brunt of the blow like a doctor testing her reflexes with a tiny hammer. Pain ricochets down her leg, a hundred times worse because it's self-inflicted, and even worse, it's acutely embarrassing.
Immediately, involuntarily, and absolutely inconveniently, her eyes well with tears.
The lawn ornament slips from her fingers, clattering to the floor. Her leg gives out and she collapses in an elegant heap. A jumble of swears erupts from her mouth. If Goliath guesses most of them are aimed at him, he doesn't make a peep. Instead, he crouches.
Through her blurry vision, she can make out two things:
One, he does not look at all pleased to see her. Which is a shame, because two, he's gorgeous.
Even if he is a thief. An exceedingly well-groomed and well-dressed one, if that belted, expensive-looking coat and thick red scarf are anything to go by.
He raises a sharp dark brow, a shocking contrast to his platinum-blond hair. "Are you done?"
She's too busy tentatively massaging her injury and mulling over which adjective would perfectly describe the striking shade of his blue eyes when she realizes he's speaking to her. "What?"
"Whatever tantrum you're throwing," he says. "Are you done?"
Now he's the one to look annoyed. "I'm not repeating myself a third time."
She gapes. "You're not even going to ask me if I'm okay?" She gestures at her knee.
His eyes flick down as if to ascertain it's not serious, then back to her face. There, he holds steady, almost as if he's mapping her for clues. Elisha scowls and juts her jaw out, breathing through her nose.
"I'm not in the habit of inquiring after the well-being of people who break and enter," he drawls finally.
"I didn't 'break' in," she says with finger quotes and a scoff. "I'm protecting this house!"
He bristles at the implication that it needs protecting from him
, the sharp line of his jaw growing even more taut as he sets his mouth in a grim line. "Ah, yes. The woman dressed like a deranged elf who escaped from the North Pole strikes terror in my heart."
She glances at her slippers and pajamas. Okay, rude. Accurate, but rude.
Not one to let a good tit-for-tat opportunity slip by, she says dryly, "Guess that explains your scream."
He shoots her a dour look. "I did not scream."
She smiles sweetly. "If that's what you need to believe."
His jawline is so rigid that she's surprised she can't hear teeth cracking. "So, either you're part of the neighborhood watch, or you like to play at being a knight and defend unguarded houses."
Well, when he puts it like that, her actions sound childish rather than brave. Now it's her turn to quietly fume. "Something like that."
Goliath plays along. "And that's the best armor you have?"
She rolls her eyes. "What can I say, my chain mail is in the wash."
He nods at the candy cane. "Along with your sword, I'm guessing."
At that, he almost smiles. Worse, her own lips threaten to curl. She stomps down the urge.
"I don't want to argue with you," he says, even though he's giving a great
"Wow, the view must be awesome from your moral high ground. Last I checked, intruders don't get to act offended when they're caught in the act."
"Know a lot of them, do you?"
Elisha huffs. His voice is silky, with a hint of a New York accent, and manages to sound both amused and taunting at the same time. Mostly taunting. "Yeah, we all hang out in the same bar. You should come to our weekly Intruders Anonymous meeting."
"I guarantee that you'll never see me in any bar you
frequent." His smile is like a paper cut. "And, as it happens, I'm not an intruder. I own this house."
"Ha. Try again."
With an unrepentant eyebrow raise, he crosses his arms. "And why is that so unbelievable?"
She gives him a derisive sniff. "Because according to her lawyer, Maeve Hollins's great-nephew owns the Christmas House." Then she narrows her eyes, eyeing him up and down.
Expensive shoes. Expensive coat. Even more-expensive-looking haircut. He's not... There's no way that he could be... But what if...?
"Wait. You're not...?" she asks weakly.
"Maeve's great-nephew, Ves Hollins. And I wish I could say it was a pleasure to meet you, but-"
Elisha's cheeks burn at the way he lets the sentence hang.
He shrugs like he didn't just insult her, getting to his feet without offering her a hand. "So, want to tell me who the hell you are?"
"Elisha Rowe," she croaks.
Her name has never felt more like a tangled ball of scratchy yarn is lodged right in her throat. It worsens when she has to tip her head back to look at him. Ves. He has a name now. A rather sexy one, really. Which makes her shitty first impression all the more of a shame, but she shoos the thought away.
"So, Elisha, now that we've established that you're the only intruder here..." Ves's voice is as stony as his jawline. "Care to explain why?"
Her stomach nose-dives like Santa's sleigh crashing through the atmosphere, aiming for a chimney.Well, Ves
, she thinks, I'm here because I was watching Maeve's cats until I knew whether you wanted to adopt them, and they suck at personal space and letting me sleep in. And sure, go ahead and laugh, but this house is one of my favorite places in the whole world, and I did think I was protecting it, actually
.But if you want the full story, I'm the film liaison for our Chamber of Commerce and I busted my butt to make sure the fiftieth-anniversary anticipated sequel to
Sleighbells under Starlight will be filming in Piney Peaks this January. Since the house is yours now, I need you to sign the location release because I promised everyone that I would and Elisha Rowe does not go back on her word.I know we got off on the wrong foot, but feel like helping a girl out?
Nope, can't do it. Asking him for a favor now would be entirely inappropriate and completely pathetic. Her window of opportunity to make a good first impression was just smashed into smithereens thanks to a candy cane and some questionable judgment. Had she really thought her elf pajamas and pink bunny slippers were cute? Why hadn't she thrown on a robe before leaving the house? Or, better yet, changed into something remotely in the realm of adult?
So Elisha sighs and points haphazardly in the direction of home. "I live there. Welcome to the neighborhood."
Ves crosses his arms and arches an eyebrow, clearly unimpressed. "Piney Peaks really
needs to work on its welcome committee."Chapter TwoElisha
I might as well have introduced myself as Elisha Rowe, the biggest fuckup in Piney Peaks history," Elisha says with a groan, sinking her head into her arms on the counter at the Old Stoat pub. Even after an achingly slow Friday at work, her run-in with Ves Hollins hasn't diminished her embarrassment in the slightest. "I keep seeing his face in my mind. Ugh! I can't believe I took a swing at the man who inherited Maeve's house when the one thing I needed to do was to win him over." She heaves a sigh. "What the fuck."
Ves Hollins. The hot man. The really
hot man. Which shouldn't have even been a thing that she noticed, but now that she has, she decides it's an unhelpful adjective. So no, not the hot man-the smug
man. That suits him better.
And right now, he's the man who holds the fate of this movie and her sparkling reputation in the palm of his hand.
Elisha's best friend, Solana Pereira, gives her shoulder a sympathetic rub. "It's not that bad, Lisha. I bet he's already forgotten it."
forget a deranged woman in elf pajamas playing Whac-A-Mole on your head with a giant candy cane? Nothing short of a time machine can undo that epic disaster."
"Heh. Yeah, that was pretty bad."
Elisha groans again.
"But!" cries Solana. "Let me finish! It’s not like you actually succeeded in Whac-A-Moleing him. Just be extra nice, redeem your terrible first impression, and make Ves Hollins see how lovely you are, my darling."
Elisha lifts her head. "There’s no fixing this, Lana. Literally the second I told him that I was simply a concerned neighbor, he kicked me out. I apologized, but he didn’t even let me finish before he slammed the door in my face. Oh, and he kept the candy cane."
"Well, you did try to hit him with it…"
Elisha’s right eyelid twitches. "Friday happy-hour drinks are getting less happy by the minute."
"Sorry, sorry! I’m back to being optimistically-supportive-BFF." Solana gestures for Adam, her bartender boyfriend, to bring them both a second fruity Grinch cocktail. "You’re good at wooing, so woo. You know how tight my mom is with the annual budgets, but you still managed to convince Madame Mayor to literally create our town’s first ever film liaison position in the Chamber of Commerce."
"You know that’s different. Your mom loves Sleighbells
almost as much as I do, and attracting more productions here is a super smart way to boost our economy. Plus, she’s known me my whole life and knew I’d already wanted to come back home, especially after Grandpa’s heart attack." Elisha fixes her with a knowing look. "And you were keeping her updated on the work I was doing in Atlanta."
Lana grins, unrepentant. "What, like I’m not supposed to brag about my best friend?"
"You were doing the ground work to angle for me to come home, admit it."
"And what, may I ask, is so wrong with that?" Lana waves her hand in the air. "You should
be using your superpowers for your hometown. Atlanta doesn’t need you the way Piney Peaks needs you."
"And we missed you," Adam chimes in, over two decades of friendship packed in his words. "Everyone did. You’re the heart and soul of this place."
Elisha’s taken aback at the matter-of-fact way he says it. Apparently, by some unspoken understanding, Maeve’s mantle has passed on to her.
Copyright © 2023 by Lillie Vale. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.