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There's first love, and then there's best love.
It was a very bad day to take a pregnancy test, Kaitlyn Barnes decided as she washed off the counter at her coffee shop, the Bean, on a snowy late November evening. But she'd taken the test, and in light of how crappy she'd been feeling lately, the bright blue plus sign hadn't come as a surprise.
She was way too busy to even think about being pregnant, let alone ponder how on earth it could ever have happened.
Okay, she knew how it had happened. And when. And she wasn't going to lie to herself: the sex with Rafe Langdon had been, after years of dancing around their attraction to each other, epic. But with two forms of birth control, how on earth…Nope. She wasn't going there. Not now, not with worries about her family, her business, and her life at the forefront of her mind.
Mary Mulligan, the last customer in the shop, brought her empty mug up to the counter, her kind but mischievous blue eyes twinkling. "You're good friends with Rafe Langdon, aren't you, dear?"
"Oh, yes, I've known Rafe forever." Kaitlyn squeezed her eyes shut to avoid thinking of his strong, muscular body, his square jaw, his dark, well-defined brows. And other parts of him that she really was not going to think about.
"I haven't seen him in here lately. How's he been doing?" Mary asked.
Kaitlyn wouldn't know. She hadn't spoken much to Rafe since what she was coming to call the incident, which consisted of one wedding, a few drinks, a rainstorm, and a much too inviting cabin. "I-I haven't seen him," Kaitlyn said with a shrug. "Maybe he gave up coffee."
Yet not even a minute had gone by that she hadn't thought about him, and his nice full mouth that always seemed to be turned up in the tiniest smile.
Oh, that smile. That's what had gotten her in trouble—Rafe's ability to take any kind of worry or concern and somehow lighten it up with that easygoing, assured grin. It was irresistible—he was irresistible, especially to her, whose life was typically chock-full of worries and concerns.
She blinked to find Mrs. Mulligan staring at her. "I'm sorry, Mary," Kaitlyn said. "What did you say?" She had to stop her mind from wandering.
"I said I hope you're going home soon, dear. You look peaked."
Kaitlyn flicked her hand in a dismissive gesture. "Just a little tired." And nauseated. And losing her lunch on a regular basis. And breakfast. "Want another cup of tea?" Kaitlyn asked. "It's no trouble."
"Oh, no thank you. I know you're closing. I just can't get over how Rafe posed for next year's first responder charity calendar. Mr. December—Chief Walker made a poster of him to help sell the calendars and gave it to a lot of the shop owners on Main Street. Someone even hung one at the base of the angel statue. All the girls in the beauty shop were talking about it. Don't you think he's a hottie?" Mary punctuated her statement with a knowing look.
First off, the police chief, Colton Walker, was Rafe's best friend, and he'd goaded Rafe, a firefighter, into posing for that calendar, knowing full well that including Rafe's image would sell dozens. Second, Colton had not delivered her a copy of Mr. December (not that she wanted one), but she wondered why, since her coffee shop was right in the middle of the main drag. And yes, Rafe was a complete hottie, but she knew too well he didn't do serious. So it didn't really matter what she thought.
She skimmed her hand lightly over her abdomen, which was a little fuller than usual but still flat enough that no one would suspect a thing. Another wave of nausea hit her, but she clutched the counter and took a deep breath to quell it. Like it or not, she'd be thinking of Rafe Langdon for a long time to come.
"He's sure going to sell a lot of calendars for Children's Hospital," Mary said, clapping her hands together. "What an inspiration for the Christmas season."
Yes, Christmas. Even now, outside the big plate glass windows that faced the street, snowflakes eddied around the orange glow from the streetlight. Swirls of chaos that reflected how Kaitlyn felt inside. Someone from the Angel Falls maintenance crew had hung a big lit-up candy cane on each light post, making the Main Street cheery and festive, and she herself had strung multicolored lights around all the coffee shop's windows. She loved Christmas. It was her favorite time of year. But not this year. Not now. She felt anything but festive.
"How's your niece doing, dear?" Mary asked. "I heard she'd gotten into some kind of trouble."
Ah, Hazel. Kaitlyn's older sister, Nikki, had sent her seventeen-year-old daughter to be with family and away from the bad influences at her huge high school in LA. Needless to say, Hazel was beyond thrilled to be dumped off in Angel Falls to complete her senior year far away from home. Kaitlyn knew that Hazel was simply biding her time until she turned eighteen and could kiss Angel Falls and their whole family goodbye.
"She's…settling in. Thanks for asking, Mary," Kaitlyn said. Hazel was having some serious problems fitting in at Angel Falls, but Kaitlyn had learned a long time ago not to feed the gossip mill of their close-knit town, no matter how concerned and kind her customers were.
Suddenly the shop bell tinkled, bringing in a few eddies of snow as well as the police chief himself, who was holding on to Hazel's bony elbow. With her thin frame, big brown eyes, and delicate bow-shaped mouth, Hazel still reminded Kaitlyn of a pixie, a sweet, fragile creature. Except it was difficult to get two words out of her now, and personality-wise, she nowhere near resembled the little girl who used to love spending summers here. Catching Colton's worried eye, Kaitlyn braced herself and set Mary's tea mug on the counter with a thunk.
"Colton. Hazel. Is everything all right?" She wiped her hands on her apron and bolted around the counter.
"Thanks for the tea, sweetie," Mary said, blowing Kaitlyn a quick kiss. With a wave to Colton and a wink at Hazel, Mary astutely let herself out the door.
Kaitlyn approached her niece and held her by the upper arms, a move that forced Hazel to face her. Hazel's eyes met hers with their usual stoic look of well-practiced indifference. But just for a flash, they might've held fear, until she made her expression go flat again.
Colton gave Kaitlyn a sympathetic look. He practically made a second career out of helping the misguided youth of their town, so she knew whatever Hazel had done, it must've been serious for him to drag her in at closing time like this.
"Tell your aunt what happened, okay?" Colton said. It came out as more of a command than a question.
Hazel crossed her arms and tossed Colton a glare. "Why don't you just tell her? You're the one who insisted on bringing me here."
Kaitlyn braced against another wave of nausea, willing it away. Oh, please, oh, please, she prayed. Not drugs. Anything but drugs.
"Okay, fine," Colton said, blowing out a patient sigh. "Hazel here decided she wanted to get a magazine over at the pharmacy—without paying for it."
Kaitlyn frowned. "A magazine?" She turned to Hazel, who was nervously shifting her weight from one foot to the other, a move that showcased her Chuck Taylor high-tops. Under her coat, she wore a burnt-orange sweater with a crazily patterned scarf that looked straight out of the seventies. A thief with fashion flair. "I could've given you the five dollars."
Hazel's face flushed, which Kaitlyn took as a sign that maybe there was the teensiest bit of the old Hazel left in there somewhere.
"Mr. Barter said this isn't the first time," the chief said. "He's looking to press charges."
Kaitlyn gasped. Oh, this was not good. "Colton, no."
"Hazel, do you have anything to say?" Colton asked.
"I didn't do it."
Struggling not to roll her eyes, Kaitlyn looked at Colton. "Can I talk to you—privately?"
She pulled him off to the side, next to a vintage life-sized sign of Santa holding a cup of coffee up to his mouth and winking. "Look, I've been…preoccupied the past few weeks. I should've been looking out for her more." Guilt pummeled her. "I'll hire her here…as punishment. And to keep an eye on her." Not exactly the best plan to recapture the relationship they once had, but what else could Kaitlyn do?
Colton narrowed his observant cop-eyes at her. "You okay? You look almost as bad as Rafe."
"What are you talking about?" she asked, narrowing her eyes right back.
"It's no secret you two have some kind of tiff going on."
"It's not a tiff." She really didn't know what to call sleeping with someone you never should've slept with in the first place, someone you couldn't avoid because his sisters were your best friends and his family was just like your own. Complicated and awkward—yes. But a tiff—no.
"Well, whatever it is, he looks like crap too." Colton dropped his voice. "Look, you told me Hazel's done this in LA. That makes her a repeat offender. Letting her slide again isn't going to do her any favors in the long run."
"I'll be more diligent. I won't let her out of my sight. Please, Colton. If you tell Mr. Barter that, he'll listen."
Colton grimaced. "You can't be responsible for everyone, just to let you know."
Colton was well aware of Hazel's situation, and Kaitlyn appreciated his understanding, but still, she felt like she'd been too wrapped up with her own…issues. She'd left the tending of Hazel to her mother, and that had been a mistake. "Thank you, but…I can handle it."
He let out a heavy sigh. "It's against my better judgment, but okay, I'll see what I can do. But next time…" He made a cutting motion across his neck with his hands…accompanied by the faintest lift of his lips.
"Thank you," she said, giving him a hug.
"And you'd better go get some sleep. Or make up with Rafe or something."
She ignored that, then walked back over to the table where Hazel sat drawing patterns in the sugar she'd dumped from packets onto the table.
"So, are you throwing me in the clinker?" Hazel asked, her mouth pulled up in a smirk. Kaitlyn tried not to be upset.
"You're going to work here," Kaitlyn said. "Every day after school."
"What?" She sat up and shot Kaitlyn an outraged look.
Kaitlyn forged on. "That's the deal. And when your shift is done, you'll do your homework in the back. And if your fingers get sticky again, I won't be able to stop anyone from pressing charges. That will look bad on your college apps."
Hazel snorted, and Kaitlyn knew why. Because there were no college apps. And possibly because of the fact that she'd said "sticky fingers," as if she'd been watching too many old mafia movies.
The point was, Nikki had worked long hours and sometimes multiple jobs to give Hazel everything a kid needs. But she'd struggled, and funds for college were simply…not there. And with Hazel getting into trouble recently, both with her grades and with the shoplifting, her shot at a scholarship or a free ride to college had slipped away.
At parent-teacher conferences a few weeks ago, Hazel's teachers had said she was bright but undisciplined. Unfocused. She didn't seem to care. Maybe that was because she didn't think anyone else did.
"I'd like to go back to Gram's now," Hazel said, not looking her in the eye.
"I'll drop you off on my way to the station," Colton said.
Kaitlyn thanked Colton. "I'll see you here after school tomorrow," Kaitlyn said to Hazel, as Colton ushered her out the door. She didn't get an answer back.
Kaitlyn locked the door after them and dimmed the lights. Then she sat down at a table and put her head down on the cool wooden surface.
She had to do something to help Hazel before it was too late. But she couldn't help wondering if maybe she was already too late, that Hazel's decisions so far had set her on a certain course and changing that would be almost impossible.
Kaitlyn had no experience in her own life to compare—she'd always been responsible, a good daughter and a faithful sister. Nikki had always been the more emotional, more impulsive one. She'd gotten pregnant at eighteen and had ended up marrying her high school sweetheart, but things hadn't worked out.
Kaitlyn had always been determined not to allow her emotions to rule her decisions like her older sister had. But hadn't the same thing happened to her? She'd acted rashly with Rafe. She'd gotten swept away. How could she not, when every time he looked at her, her pulse skittered and desire rushed through her like a tidal wave?
In the darkened coffee shop, the strings of Christmas lights were as cheery as always, and the blinking lights from the ice cream shop across the street continued to remind her that life was going on as usual for most everyone else.
That crazy night with Rafe had led to something that would change—was already changing—her whole life. She was going to be a mother, something that, at nearly thirty-two, she was beginning to think might not happen. A baby—hers and Rafe's—was growing inside of her right now. That was overwhelming, frightening, miraculous, and…awesome.
She imagined how Christmas next year would include a whole brand-new little person in their lives…a sweet bundle to hold and love and carry around, tiny arms outstretched toward all the shiny ornaments on the Christmas tree.
She wanted to be a mom more than anything, even if the circumstances weren't perfect. She was going to do all she could to make smart choices so her baby would have the best life she could give it. That meant growing up, setting aside her misplaced feelings for Rafe, and focusing on securing her business.
She reached into her apron to examine the clipping she'd ripped from a baking magazine earlier in the day. Win $15,000 Plus Three Months of Pastry Classes for the Best Christmas Cookie Recipe! the headline read. Kaitlyn tapped the clipping on the table. She had to start thinking of sustaining her business. Becoming a real businessperson. Growing. Winning this contest would give her a chance to put her café on the map. And it would give Hazel a shot at college.
As for pastry classes…well, Kaitlyn had always dreamed of taking those. She'd always wanted to expand her baked goods section, which was popular. Plus, she knew exactly the recipe she'd submit—one for the most amazing Christmas cookie in the entire world. Her grandfather's chocolate snowcap cookies, which were slightly crunchy on the outside, gooey on the inside with melted chocolate, and coated with powdered sugar that cracked in the oven so they looked like snow-covered mountains. She'd grown up eating them after school in the Bean, her grandfather placing a warm plate full of them before her and Nikki and asking them about their days.
She had to start securing her future. Because she hadn't needed a pregnancy test to tell her that she was going to have Rafe Langdon's baby.
There's our pretty boy," Jonathan McDougal said, as Rafe walked into the Tap, a flurry of snow swirling in as he shut the door behind him. Jon was the owner of the popular neighborhood hangout, and apparently, he had seen the calendar.
"Pretty boy, Jon?" Rafe said, raising a brow.
"Oh, he's just jealous," Jon's wife, Maggie, said, brushing her gray hair aside as she slid some menus into the holder on the wall behind the bar. "We all know Rafe's more than just a pretty boy—he's Mr. December."
"Ha ha, right. Thanks, Maggie," Rafe said. Maggie was also a paramedic, and he was used to her ribbing. Off to his right, he heard a giggle. Two young, pretty women sitting at the other end of the bar were looking at him and whispering to each other. One of them wiggled her fingers in a little wave.
He smiled back, but it wasn't genuine. Not his usual lady-killer smile. But the woman flashed him a big smile back, and he knew that if he wanted to, he could land her number in a heartbeat.
Not that Rafe was cocky or arrogant. He just…knew women.
Well, some women. But definitely not one woman in particular whom he couldn't figure out for the life of him.
It was really unlike him to get his suspenders in such a twist. He should be excited that Mr. December was bringing him new dating opportunities, but he just…wasn't. He was losing his touch. Had been for the past few months. What was wrong with him?
Across the bar, the women stood up and began to head to the door. The one who waved at him earlier was trying to make eye contact, but he made sure not to look.
"Mr. December?" Eli Nelson, a carpenter buddy who was sitting at the bar, chuckled as he took a swig of beer.
Evan Marshall, the full-time police deputy who sat next to Eli, teased him. "December's going to be a great month for you—every day will be like Christmas with all the women you're going to meet."
"He had on Santa pants and a cute Santa hat," Maggie said, gesturing excitedly as she handed Rafe a beer, "and the only thing hiding those amazing abs was a tiny little kitten. Next December's going to be my permanent calendar page." Her voice faded as Jon stared at her.
"Oh, honey," she said, kissing her husband on the cheek and lovingly patting his beard, "you'll always be my favorite Santa." Everyone knew that Jon played Santa for the women's shelter Christmas party every year.
"Aw, look at that," Rafe said, watching Jon's ruddy complexion turn even ruddier with a blush.
Jon smiled at his wife, mollified. Turning to Rafe, he said, "Maybe you should do something with all that Santa talent."
"Yeah, like what?" Rafe asked, taking a sip of his beer.
"How about taking over being Santa this year for the women's shelter?"
"How come you're not doing it?" Rafe asked. Jon had the great beard, the deep laugh, and the stockier build. The perfect Santa.
"One of our kiddos has a Christmas program that night," Maggie said. "As much as we love helping out the shelter kids, we've got to pass this year."
"So how about it?" Jon said. "I've seen you with your niece and nephew. You're a natural."
Being a fun uncle was one thing. But playing Santa for an entire roomful of shelter kids was another thing entirely.
"The only people who get to sit on my lap are single women." Rafe grinned to punctuate the joke and left it at that.
Evan and Eli howled, and Jon threw up his hands.
Maggie, however, shook her head. "I'm glad you're having fun being a pinup now, Rafe, but sooner or later you'll be happier to have a wife at your side and a baby on your lap."
He flashed his brightest smile and used his most joking voice, but deep down, he meant every word. "Don't hold your breath, Maggie. Sorry." Because it would never happen.
Rafe had been there, done that, and vowed to never go there again. Eight years ago, his fiancée had died in a car accident, on the way to a doctor's appointment. She'd been eight weeks pregnant, a fact that only a few people knew.
Rafe understood himself pretty well, and he knew he was not capable of surviving that kind of loss again. And if joking about never settling down made him seem calloused, or insensitive, or whatever, he was okay with that. He knew his limits.
"Hey, a couple of us are going into Richardson tomorrow night to have some fun," Evan said with a grin. "Want to come?"
"Thanks, Evan, but I'm busy this weekend," Rafe said. He wasn't that busy—he just wasn't in the mood to pick up women. Which was odd because usually he was all in for that.
But lately, all he could seem to think about was Kaitlyn.
Kaitlyn, whom he'd known forever. Who was best friends with two of his sisters and practically part of his family. Whom he'd impulsively slept with after they'd had too much fun together at a wedding because he'd been unable to resist her. And he'd regretted it ever since.
If he were completely honest with himself, over the past couple of years, on top of their friendship, there'd been something else brewing. Attraction. A certain…fondness. Feelings. Somewhere along the line, Kaitlyn had gone from that nice-enough girl who always hung out with his sisters to a funny, vivacious woman who made him laugh and who sometimes knew him better than he knew himself. It was no wonder they struck up an even closer friendship after she broke up with her last boyfriend. But he knew from the start that he had to draw a thick line in the sand, one that could never be crossed.
He'd tried to keep her at arm's length, but he'd let his guard down that night—and the unthinkable had happened. But it would never happen again. Sleeping with her had messed everything up—their easy conversation, the jokes and banter he looked forward to every day. And now he had no idea how to get them back to the fun and easy friendship they had.
Because not having Kaitlyn in his life ironically made him think about her more. And that was ruining his mojo. He hated having his mojo ruined.
"C'mon, Rafe," Eli said. "You're scaring us. Snap out of it, because wingmen need love too."
Rafe turned to Evan and Eli and sighed. "Buy me another beer and that might twist my arm."
For the next half hour, Rafe managed to laugh and make small talk and buy another round. So maybe he wasn't really in the mood to do any of these things, but what was it that his mom used to say? Even if you don't feel like doing something, do it anyway—and you'll be surprised how your mood will change.
Have to take your word on that, Mom, he thought, lifting his beer a little in salute. She'd been gone a long time, but one thing he remembered: his mom had used humor to make people feel better. The only trouble with that was that people expected you to be funny all the time, regardless of what you were feeling underneath.
A half hour later, the beer gone, Rafe said his goodbyes and walked out into the cold. It was snowing pretty heavily now, the flakes big and fat, the kind that stuck to your eyelashes and your coat. The cold air felt good—it woke him up and pulled him out of his thoughts, made him focus on something other than Kaitlyn.
His truck was parked in the lot, but he didn't get in, just kept going. He told himself he needed a brisk walk to clear his head, that he didn't care where his feet led him. But he did care. And he knew exactly where he was headed.
* * *
The Bean was closed for the night, but Rafe found himself on his way there anyway. Kaitlyn was probably inside tidying up before tomorrow's morning rush. He missed seeing the way she tucked her pretty blond hair behind her ear and smiled. And talking to her about everything and nothing. He missed her, period.
And, God help him, he missed the thing that had ruined their friendship. Sinking onto her softness, murmuring her name as he brushed his lips against her soft full ones, hearing her little moans as she kissed him back and came apart in his arms.
He shook his head to clear the images. But he couldn't, and they'd already affected him, if the tightening in his pants was any indicator.
He told himself he was going to the Bean to set things right. Because she meant too much to him to let things continue as they were. After all, they'd been best friends until that had happened.
"Rafe?" a familiar voice said. "What are you doing out there?"
Kaitlyn. Startled, he realized he'd been standing in front of the Bean's big plate glass windows, staring in. He wasn't sure for how long.
She was fussing over him, tugging him by the arm. "It's freezing, and you haven't even got your jacket zipped. And where are your hat and gloves? Geez, you're covered with snow." Her busy hands dusted off the coating of snow that had accumulated on his hair, his coat.
"I was at the Tap for a while," he said. He'd never admit it, but he enjoyed her fussing. Her touch.
He wondered if this was how it was going to be, that they were both going to pretend everything was normal between them, like they hadn't been avoiding each other for months.
As she pulled him inside of the warm, deserted café and steered him over to a table, he noticed she smelled good, like dark rich coffee. And apples and cinnamon.
She placed a hand on a hip and assessed him. "Did you eat dinner?" she asked. "Don't even answer. I'm making you a sandwich. And I've got some chicken soup left."
- "Step into the delightful world Miranda Liasson has crafted in her Angel Falls series, a fictional small town bursting with warmth, romance, and nosy neighbors."—Entertainment Weekly
- "A scrumptious holiday treat."—Publishers Weekly
- "A sweet, homespun romance that tugs at the heartstrings in all the right ways."—Entertainment Weekly on The Way You Love Me
- "Liasson's work here is among the best of its kind."—Akron Beacon Journal on The Way You Love Me
- "Emotional, heartwarming romance you can't put down."—Lori Wilde, New York Times bestselling author, on Then There Was You
- "Liasson will make you laugh and melt your heart in this can't miss read."—Marina Adair, author of Summer in Napa, on Then There Was You
- On Sale
- Oct 29, 2019
- Page Count
- 352 pages