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Love is always in season.
There’s no place like home for the holidays, especially for divorced pastry chef Iris Nelson. After escaping an abusive marriage, she’s found peace on charming Cavanaugh Island. As the holiday approaches, Iris looks forward to spending it with her newfound best friend’s family . . . and their very handsome visitor.
On leave from Afghanistan, Army Master Sergeant Collier Ward is excited to be reunited with his family for Christmas. But the best gift of all may be this warm, beautiful stranger who joins them for the festivities. With his visit coming to an end, Collier can’t deny the heat smoldering between them. Yet Iris can’t help but wonder if it’s just the glow of the season-and one night of passion-or a true miracle of love that will change their lives forever . . .
Better a dry crust with peace and quiet than a house full of feasting, with strife.
- 4 parts vodka (2 oz.)
- 2 parts triple sec (1 oz.)
- 2 parts cranberry juice (1 oz.)
- 1 part fresh lime juice (½ oz.)
Combine ingredients with cracked ice in a cocktail shaker. Shake well. Pour into chilled cocktail glass.
Peering closely at her image in the mirror over the bathroom vanity, Iris Nelson applied a coat of mascara to her upper and lower lashes and then took a step back to examine her handiwork. The smoky shadow on her lids, faint raspberry blush on her cheekbones and matching gloss on her lips complemented her chestnut-brown complexion. Not bad, she thought. She hadn’t lost her touch.
Taking up a small round brush, Iris smoothed back the sides of her short, chemically straightened hair before spiking the crown with her fingertips á la Halle Berry. She smiled, flashing straight, white teeth. If the style worked for such a beautiful actress, Iris hoped it would do the same for her. The sophisticated makeup, hair, with a body-hugging red dress and black suede stilettos was a complete departure from her normal jeans, T-shirt, and apron she wore as the pastry chef at the Muffin Corner.
She left the bathroom, humming under her breath, then scooped up her phone, clutch bag, and keys. A cool November breeze swept over her exposed skin as she stepped out into the parking lot behind the row of stores where she rented a second-story, two-bedroom apartment above a gift shop on Cavanaugh Island; it was cool but not cold enough for her to go back upstairs for a shawl.
As soon as she slipped in behind the wheel of the late-model Lincoln MKX and tapped the start Engine button, her cell phone rang. Tracy Daniels’s name appeared on the dashboard screen. Activating the Bluetooth feature, she asked, “Are you ready?”
“Not really,” Tracy replied. “My professor wants to go over the entire thesis tonight instead of putting it off for another time. Once I revise according to his suggested changes, he’ll review it again so I can submit it before the end of the semester. I’m saying all of this to let you know you’ll have to go to the club without me.”
Iris groaned inwardly. It’d been Tracy’s suggestion to hang out together. She claimed they needed to dance and kick up their heels, while letting off some steam.
“Iris, are you there?” Tracy asked while Iris stared out the windshield.
“Are you still going?”
Iris’s first instinct was to say no. What self-respecting woman went to a club by herself? Then again, she’d been really looking forward to an evening with a little flirtation…and more. When would she have this opportunity again?
She closed her eyes and sighed. “Yes, I’m going,” she answered. After all, she’d taken the time to put on makeup and a hot outfit. The red color and narrow bands crisscrossing her bared back were a welcome departure from the requisite modest black dresses she’d worn to her ex’s fund-raisers and dinner parties.
“Good for you,” Tracy said. “Remember, you don’t have to look for Mr. Right—just Mr. Right Now.”
“I know. I’d even settle for Mr. Tonight.”
Picking up a man only for sex had never been Iris’s style, yet she wasn’t going to rule out a little harmless flirting. She also wasn’t looking for a relationship. Been there, done that. A whirlwind courtship and subsequent marriage to a man who’d revealed the ugly side of his jaded personality within an hour of exchanging vows made her wary of forming any lasting relationships.
Tracy laughed. “Have fun.”
The smile tilting the corners of Iris’s mouth reached her eyes. “I plan to. I’ll see you tomorrow.” She ended the call, taking one last glance at her reflection in the rearview mirror.
Twenty minutes later, Iris entered the town limits for Haven Creek, maneuvering into a parking space adjacent to the Happy Hour. It was minutes before seven, still early enough for her to find a parking spot close to the club’s entrance. Groups of women, walking arm in arm in an attempt to maintain their balance in four- and five-inch stilettos, were making their way across the parking lot, giggling uncontrollably. Her eyebrows lifted a fraction. It looked as if she wasn’t the only one exposing a lot of skin tonight.
Iris had come to the club for Thursday karaoke and Sunday brunch, but this would be her first Tuesday Ladies Night. The club’s greeter secured a fluorescent pink plastic band around her left wrist after he’d checked her ID.
“Welcome to Happy Hour’s Ladies Night.”
Iris flashed her best smile. “Thank you.”
He winked at her. “Enjoy, beautiful.”
Cradling her small evening bag, she managed to wend her way through the crowd to the bar. Even though it was Ladies Night, there were just as many men in attendance. The twenty- and thirty-something males coming directly from their offices in Charleston had shed their ties and suit jackets, while their female counterparts preened in power suits, designer dresses, and shoes.
Prerecorded music blared from speakers, making it virtually impossible to carry on a conversation without shouting to the person close by. The U-shaped bar, the club’s centerpiece, and mirrored walls made the space appear larger than its actual square footage. Tables seating two, four, and six were positioned closely together, maximizing capacity as waitstaff moved from table to table, taking orders from those who’d elected not to take advantage of the prix fixe buffet and salad bar. Iris planned to order a cocktail and then become a spectator, and if no one caught her eye, then she planned to head home. Raising her hand, she caught the attention of one of the three bartenders pouring, shaking, and mixing drinks.
Deeply tanned with a long, sun-streaked blond ponytail, the bartender gave her a practiced professional smile, exhibiting shockingly white teeth. “What are you drinking, miss?”
“I’ll have a cosmo.” Opening her bag, she took out a bill, placing it on the bar. Iris went completely still when she felt body heat and the woodsy scent of a man’s cologne sweep over her. He was standing so close she couldn’t turn around even if she wanted to. His hand grazed her waist as he placed a fifty-dollar bill on the bar next to her twenty.
“That’ll be on me,” said a deep voice in her ear.
Iris shivered despite the warmth of the man’s chest molded to her back. She closed her eyes. Apparently the heels and dress were working even better than she’d anticipated.
Channeling her inner Halle Berry, she smiled and opened her eyes. “Would you mind stepping back a little bit, so I can see who’s offering,” she said.
He complied, and Iris glanced over her shoulder to meet the most stunningly virile man she’d ever seen. He was beyond gorgeous. The black pullover sweater he wore emphasized broad shoulders tapering to narrow hips. And it was as if the gold flecks in the brown depths of his eyes had hypnotized her. Iris studied his features like an artist, taking in each distinct feature one by one. He reminded her of wrestler-turned-actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Her gaze moved up to his cropped straight black hair. He exuded masculinity, making her dizzy and unable to draw a normal breath.
When Collier Ward walked into the club, his intent was to have a couple of drinks and catch up with old friends before driving back to his hotel. Then the woman in red caught his eye. As she turned to face him, he saw she was just as scrumptious from the front as she was from the back. His eyes lingered on her full, parted lips, which practically begged to be kissed. Now he stood a hairbreadth away, inhaling her vanilla-infused perfume, fighting to keep himself from reaching out to stroke the skin he knew would feel like pure silk. Everything about this woman was a definite turn-on.
He extended his hand. “Collier Ward,” he said. He counted off at least three seconds before she placed her hand on his outstretched palm.
His fingers closed over hers. “Well, Iris, will you allow me to pay for your drink?”
There came another moment of silence before Iris said, “Yes, but only if you let me pay for yours.”
“My drinks are on the house, compliments of the owners.” The fact that he was a silent partner in the club was a closely held secret on Cavanaugh Island, where keeping secrets were as scarce as hen’s teeth.
He picked up the twenty, handing it back to her. “Please put that away.”
The bartender placed a coaster on the bar, set a cosmo on it, and then leaned over and bumped fists with Collier. “Long time no see, Scrappy. What’s up?”
“Not much, Billy.”
“Are you having your usual Jack and Coke?” the bartender asked Collier.
“I’m going to try a boilermaker tonight.”
With wide eyes, Iris gave him a sidelong glance. “Scrappy?”
A woman stepped away from the bar, creating a space for Collier as he shifted and stood close to Iris. “I’ll tell you about it later.”
“After you get your drink, let’s find a table so we can talk,” she suggested.
What Iris didn’t know was that Collier wanted to do more than talk. He wanted this woman in his bed tonight.
Collier led Iris along the perimeter of the dance floor to a small round table tucked in an out-of-the-way corner and lit by a single votive. He set his shot glass of whiskey and beer mug on the table, then pulled out a chair for Iris. Once she was seated, he shifted his chair closer so they could talk without having to shout over the ear-shattering music.
Pouring the shot of whisky into the mug, he touched his glass to hers, staring at Iris as she took a sip of the pink concoction. “How’s the cosmo?” Collier held his breath when she looked at him through lowered lashes, wondering if she was aware of the seductive expression.
He took a long swallow of his drink, enjoying the smooth taste of whiskey and beer on his palate. His gaze shifted from the woman, who’d managed to enthrall him even before he was given an opportunity to see her face, to the couples dancing to a popular dance club hit. “How often do you come here?” he asked.
“This is my first Ladies Night.”
His head came around and he met her eyes in the diffused light. “Are you here to meet someone?” The last thing Collier wanted was a confrontation with another man. Something about Iris stirred up emotions he hadn’t felt for a while. And he didn’t want to let that go anytime soon, because with Iris he wanted a little more than a one-night stand.
Iris took another sip of the icy cocktail. Alcohol always lowered her inhibitions, and she had to decide whether to be coy or brazen, figuring the latter was preferable if Collier was to become her Mr. Tonight. “My friend was supposed to meet me, but she couldn’t make it. And before you ask, I don’t have a boyfriend, lover, or a husband.”
“What about an ex?”
“That’s ancient history.”
“What happened?” Collier asked.
Iris paused as she contemplated her response. “We didn’t see eye to eye on a lot of things, so we ended it.”
“So, you’re just here to check out Ladies Night.”
She flashed a sexy moue. “You can say that, but my actual reason for coming is to meet someone new.”
“Have you met this new person?”
She ran the tip of her tongue over her lower lip, bringing his gaze to linger there. “I’d like to think I have,” she said, successfully biting back a smile when Collier’s eyebrows lifted. Iris knew she’d shocked him with her candor. He leaned closer, his muscular shoulder pressing intimately against her bare one.
“Where is he?”
There came a beat. Now she was ready to lower the boom. Either Collier would take the bait or he would run in the opposite direction. “I’d like to believe he’s sitting next to me. That is, if he isn’t married.” There. She’d said it. There was no way Collier could misinterpret her intent.
“Then this must be my lucky night,” he whispered in her ear, “because I’m a free agent.” He held up his left hand. “No ring, no wife, no girlfriend.”
Bracing an elbow on the table, Iris rested her chin on the heel of her hand. She’d waded into the waters of seduction instead of flirtation, and now there was no turning back. She glanced down at the same time, a mysterious smile parting her lips. “You have no idea just how lucky you are.”
Collier smiled, an elusive dimple appearing in his left cheek. “Now I know I must be living right.”
The teasing smile that played at the corners of Iris’s mouth didn’t waver as she applauded herself for her spontaneous, witty repartee. “I take it that’s a good thing.”
“It is,” he confirmed. “I wasn’t expecting to meet someone so incredibly beautiful, intelligent, and sexy.”
His compliment buoyed her confidence. “By the way, how often do you come here?” she asked, steering the conversation away from seduction. She didn’t want him to misinterpret her flirting with the desire to get him into bed, despite having been celibate for the past three years. Iris thought of her self-enforced celibacy as penance for marrying someone who was so wrong for her.
Collier’s left hand covered Iris’s right, his callused thumb caressing her fingers. “I haven’t been here in a couple of years. I’m just visiting for the holidays.”
Iris suddenly realized Collier wasn’t the only one living right. Unwittingly he had become the perfect candidate for her Mr. Tonight. Thanksgiving was two days away, and then he would be gone. “Where’s home?”
“North Carolina,” he replied. “Where do you live?”
Collier’s thumb stilled. “Where in the Cove?”
“Downtown where?” he asked.
“I rent an apartment above the sweetgrass basket shop.” She gave him a direct stare, flickering light from the candle throwing long and short shadows across his lean face. “Where are you staying?”
“I’ve checked into a hotel in Charleston.”
Collier pointed to her half-empty glass. “Do you want another drink?”
“No thank you. One’s my limit when I’m the designated driver.”
His fingers tightened on her hand, then eased. “What if I become your designated driver tonight?”
Iris’s confidence soared. Collier had a quiet assurance, a sense of strength. She was thrilled that he had made this night so easy for her.
“Did you drive here?” she asked. Collier nodded. “What are you going to do with your car if you drive me home?” she asked Collier.
“I’ll arrange for someone to bring me back to pick it up later.”
Iris was certain Collier detected her wildly beating pulse under his fingertips as his gaze met and fused with hers. “If that’s the case, then I’ll have another one. But first I want to know why folks call you Scrappy.”
Collier released her hand and leaned back in his chair. “I used to fight a lot as a kid. Hardly a day went by when I didn’t scrap ass.”
“You were a bully.” She meant it as a question, but it came out as a statement.
He shook his head. “I never bullied anyone. I just didn’t back down when it came to a fight. If someone stepped up to me, then they got popped and dropped. It ended once my father sent me to military school. The structured environment taught me discipline and to control my quick temper. At thirteen I left home a tall, skinny kid and came back, at eighteen, twenty pounds heavier and confident enough to know that I didn’t need to use my fists to settle a conflict. Even though I’ve changed, folks still call me Scrappy.”
Iris digested this information, wondering whether the anger and aggression from Collier’s childhood lay dormant where it could surface without warning, praying she hadn’t targeted a crazy man. “Does it bother you you’re still called Scrappy?”
He ran his forefinger down the length of her nose. “No, only because it reminds me of what I used to be like.” Pushing back his chair, Collier stood. “I’ll go get your drink now.”
Collier hadn’t known what to expect when Iris invited him to come upstairs to her apartment, but it wasn’t the furnishings in the living and dining rooms resembling luxurious lodgings for those on African safari. The colors of white, tan, and black predominated. Rattan chairs, a sofa, and a love seat covered in Haitian cotton cradled accent pillows in animal prints. Zebra-, leopard-, and giraffe-printed area rugs were scattered about the wood floor, and intricately carved mahogany masks and framed watercolors of African women in native and ceremonial dress were exhibited on stark white walls above the wood-burning fireplace.
“I like what you’ve done with your place.”
- "4 Hearts! A charming love story."—http://harlequinjunkie.com/ on HAVEN CREEK
- 4 1/2 STAR REVIEW! "It's always a pleasure to discover little-known facts about racial history in America. Even better, the slow build to the love affair between the leads is believable and satisfying, on all levels. Sit back and enjoy!"—RT Book Reviews on ANGELS LANDING
- "An excellent love story...huge messages throughout this book made for a very loving and interesting summer read."—Publishers Weekly on ANGELS LANDING
- "Appealing, mature protagonists, a colorful cast of islanders, and a rewarding romance that realistically unfolds add to this fascinating, gently paced story that gradually reveals its secrets as it draws readers back to idyllic Cavanaugh Island."—Library Journal on ANGELS LANDING
- "These are strong character-driven books that always contain interesting twists, and a strong sense of place."—Romance Reviews Today on ANGELS LANDING
- "Angels Landing is a heartwarming novel...I thoroughly enjoyed [it] and recommend it to all romantics."—Fresh Fiction on ANGELS LANDING
- On Sale
- Dec 2, 2014
- Page Count
- 100 pages
- Forever Yours