CHAPTER 1

Holly Hoffman parked at the curb and swallowed the final bite of her soggy, drive-through burger. Her gaze scanned the items stacked haphazardly on the garage sale’s randomly placed tables while she sucked on the straw in her cup. When empty bubbles gurgled from the depths, she put the cup in the holder and reached for the door handle. She hated these sales. They reminded her too much of the hand-me-downs and never-new items of her childhood. But a friend had called with a heads-up about an item she might be able to use, so here she was. And she was just one of many.

Rainy, chillier-than-normal September weather had kept a lot of people inside during the first part of the week. But Friday dawned bright and warm, making it a perfect day to be outside.

She climbed from behind the wheel and slammed the door of her fifteen-year-old Jeep. Sunshine glinted on bare metal scratches in the door, present for longer than she’d owned the vehicle. Holly ignored them with practiced disregard and focused on locating the object of her quest.

One of the tables in the back featured some drooping tinsel and a collection of cheap, boxed Christmas ornaments. That was as good a place to start as any. Her friend had only called thirty minutes before. Hopefully what she’d come for was still here.

Holly picked her way through shoppers and around tables so intent on her goal that she almost missed it. She passed by a table loaded with glassware and discarded knickknacks heading toward the shiny red, green, and gold tinsel.

Holly.

She stopped and turned. A quick study of her fellow shoppers didn’t reveal a single person she knew, and no one was looking at her.

So who’d called her name?

Something moved in her peripheral vision, drawing her attention away from the mystery of an unrecognized voice and back to the table stacked with glassware. She retraced her steps and bent to take a closer look. It was the unfinished Nativity set she’d come here to find. A twelve-inch-tall angel stood on the corner of the table, his wings spread, his hands lifted in invitation, his face joyful. The rest of the set surrounded him, packed neatly in open boxes. A cow, a donkey, a shepherd with a lamb around his neck, a kneeling wise man with a jeweled box in his hands, and of course Mary, Joseph, and a baby in a manger.

“Ohh…” Holly picked up the angel, turning him gently in her hands, looking for cracks and chips. She held it up to the light and smiled at the slight translucence of the wings. Next she tested the edge of his robe with a fingernail. The finish was as smooth as an eggshell. He was porcelain, and he was perfect. A quick study of the companion pieces assured her that all of them were in pristine condition. She replaced everything, crossed her arms, and took a step back.

The card next to the set read twenty-five dollars. It wasn’t the price that gave her pause. Her business fund had more than enough to cover such a minor expense. No, it wasn’t the cost. It was the time involved in taking on such a time-intensive project with a built-in deadline. The set would need to be painted, fired after each round of paint, and finally glazed. It’d need to be on display by Halloween for her best chance to sell it by Christmas.

It was already mid-September, and on top of the commitment she’d made to Ember Abbott to keep Ember’s store, Crafted with Love, supplied with hand-crafted Christmas ornaments, Holly was cleaning a dozen houses a week, participating in a dog walking service, as well as slowly building an Avon clientele. Her last three orders had topped the five-hundred-dollar mark, and she was on track to crack the next sales level by December.

She tapped her fingers against her lips. Once the Nativity set was complete, she could sell it for a hefty profit. A profit that would go into her car fund. She gave a quiet snort. Go into? More like finish. And once she could ditch her old relic for a dependable vehicle, she could add Uber driving to her résumé. With that goal achieved, her finances would be much more secure.

Something fluttered in the corner of her eye.

What the…

The tiny hairs on the back of her neck rose as she leaned in for a closer look at the statuesque angel. Holly would have sworn that the hands that were now clasped under his chin in an attitude of prayer had been raised to the sky just a few seconds ago. Goosebumps prickled her skin as she retrieved the angel with an unsteady hand and tapped one of his wings with a fingernail. He was as solid as the material he was made from.

Of course he was.

Her breath came out in a nervous huff of laughter.

Girl, you’ve been working too hard. First you’re hearing things and now you’re seeing things.

Holly traced the delicate sweep of his wings. She could almost imagine bringing him to life with her stock of porcelain paints. Blue and gold for his robe and sash, white and silver for the wings, maybe a little sparkle along the edges for some added pop. Her eyes lost their focus as she looked at the other pieces. She could see them complete and gracing a mantle with candles burning on either side or nestled in the folds of an ornate tree skirt under a Christmas tree. Either way, her handiwork would become the centerpiece of someone’s Christmas.

Holly didn’t buy into all that religious stuff. A virgin giving birth to a God come to save the world. Really? She shook her head. Life had taught her to depend on herself, but there were plenty of people who did believe, and one of those people would pay handsomely for what she could create.

A gray-haired woman approached and stood beside her. “What a lovely set.”

“It’s perfect,” Holly whispered, her voice a bit dreamy.

“You’re holding that angel like he’s an inner tube in a raging sea. Are you a buyer or a looker?” the older woman asked. “I’ve got a granddaughter looking for a high school art project. This just might fii the bill.”

Holly swallowed as her vision of perfection dissolved. Suddenly she saw these gorgeous pieces being ruined by a halfhearted teenager. She bit her lip as the woman reached for the figure of the baby.

“Yes.” The word escaped Holly’s lips in a near shout.

The old woman’s hand halted in mid-reach.

“Yes,” Holly repeated in a more measured tone. “Sorry, you caught me daydreaming. I was just about to pack them up and pay for them.

The woman dropped her hand to her side. “No problem. Enjoy your project.” She stepped over to look at something on the next table.

Holly gathered up the boxes. She didn’t understand the sudden compulsion to take them home, but there was no denying that something about these pieces had gotten under her skin. She gave a small deprecating chuckle. It certainly had nothing to with the nonsensical notion that the angel had waved his wings at her. Twice. Nope, she wasn’t going there.

***

Thirty minutes later Holly pulled into a narrow spot in the alley behind Crafted with Love. She’d worked all week on a special item for the store and couldn’t wait to see what Ember thought. The set of four ceramic, Christmas-themed mugs were an experiment on Holly’s part. One she hoped Ember liked well enough to add to the Christmas display.

And what are you going to do if she does? You just bought a Nativity set that will take every spare minute you have to complete. Holly shrugged the question away. She’d cross that bridge once she got there. Sleep was overrated.

Holly scooped up the box of mugs and let herself in the back door of the store. The small break area was empty, but she could hear more than one voice coming from the showroom. She took the time to fix a cup of coffee from the pot Ember kept hot and fresh on the counter before she ducked through the door to find the shop owner. Ember Abbott, was standing next to the front door with the building owner, Dane Cooper. He watched thoughtfully as Ember made broad motions toward the back wall of the store. The wall Holly now found herself in front of. Ember waved a greeting and motioned Holly to the side.

“Nothing fancy,” Ember said to Dane. “But I thought if we came down from the ceiling a couple of feet, we could get in three or four rows of shelving on either side of the door. As it is, it’s pretty much wasted space. We might as well put it to use.”

Dane tilted his head and studied the area. As one innovator to another, Holly could almost see the creative wheels turning inside the head of the handyman/building owner. With a single nod Dane lowered his gaze to Ember.

“I like it.”

Ember clapped her hands and bounced up and down on her toes. “Oh, I hoped you would. I could have put up portable units without bothering you, but this isn’t something I’ll be rearranging, so stationary will just look better. How soon can you start and how long will it take?”

“Women…” Dane muttered, but there was a smile on his face. He pulled a worn notebook from his back pocket and flipped through a few pages. “The bad news is that my schedule is pretty full. The good news is that I have a helper for the immediate future, and I haven’t put him to work just yet. Some simple shelves would be a perfect place for him to start.”

When Ember narrowed her eyes at Dane’s statement, Holly bowed her head over her coffee to hide a grin. It was clear that Ember was about to take umbrage at having her new pet project foisted off on an untried underling.

As entertaining as the showdown promised to be, Holly hoped that they came to some sort of agreement soon. She took out her phone and studied her schedule. It was almost one. She had another house to clean, and she’d marked herself available to walk dogs between four and six. Not a lot of wiggle room.

“Dane, I know I sprung my idea on you out of the blue. I appreciate your willingness to accommodate me, but if you don’t have the time, I’d rather you said so instead of handing the job off to a newbie. I’d rather wait on the shelves than deal with a lot of extra mess and nonsense generated by—”

Dane stopped Ember with an upraised finger. “Hold that thought.” He took his phone off the belt clip at his waist and punched in a few numbers. “You still at the spa?”

Holly tuned out Dane and his one-sided conversation. She needed to talk to Ember, and her negotiations with Dane looked like they might take a while longer.With a quick swipe, she opened the dog walking app and removed her name from this evening’s calendar. Being your own boss with a flexible schedule had its perks. With her name off that list, if she got a late start on the Roble house, she’d still have plenty of time to finish before the family arrived home at six-thirty. With her schedule adjusted, she turned her attention back to Ember and Dane only to be sidetracked a second time when the bell over the store’s door announced a new visitor.

The man coming through the door was tall, broad-shouldered, with a head full of thick dark hair that just brushed his shoulders. Any woman with a pulse would have fallen prey to the stranger’s high cheekbones and generous mouth, but it was his eyes that stole Holly’s breath. They were as dark as his hair and surrounded by lashes thick enough to be the envy of any model who’d ever strutted her stuff on one of New York City’s fashion runways.

Holly swallowed and gathered her scattered wits. A Greek god had just wandered in off the street, and he looked a little lost. Someone should see what he needed. With Ember occupied, that left Holly. Dang the luck.

She took a step forward and paused with a cringe when she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror attached to Maggie’s jewelry display. A faded T-shirt bearing the logo of her favorite soft drink, frayed blue jeans, and scuffed athletic shoes might have been perfect when she’d left home that morning for a day spent cleaning houses, but the outfit fell considerably short of the mark when it came to the task of greeting this incredibly hunky slice of humanity.

Why, why did he have to pick today to come into the store? Why, why was she the only person available to greet him when she looked like a street orphan straight from a Dickens novel? She blew out a frustrated breath. Why was the earth round, why was the ocean salty, why was snow cold? They just were. None of those things was a conspiracy aimed at her, and neither was this.

She straightened her shoulders and prepared to do her duty but froze when Ember gave a little squeal, rushed to the stranger, and threw herself into his embrace.

“Riley. Welcome home.”

Strong muscled arms folded around Ember. “Ms. Monroe.”

Holly’s eyebrows elevated at the deep rumble of his voice. How was it possible to put so much masculine sex appeal into two words?

“No…wait. Not Monroe.” He stepped back. “Mom says you got married a couple of weeks ago. Congratulations.”

Ember looked up…way up…and gave a loud, exaggerated sigh. “Thanks. I got tired of waiting on you to grow up. A woman’s gotta do what a woman’s gotta do.”

Holly moved back behind the counter as Riley’s rich male laughter filled the store. Holly’s next job, and her need to visit with Ember, suddenly found themselves secondary to being busy and inconspicuous so she could find out what she could about Adonis…er…Riley.

Dane inserted himself back into the conversation. “You done flirting with my help?”

Ember put a hand on the younger man’s wrist. “Riley is the help you want to give my project to? Why didn’t you say so?”

“You didn’t really give me a chance. I take it my son meets with your approval.”

Ember offered Dane an are-you-kidding-me look.

So Riley was Dane’s son. Holly tucked that snippet of info away for later consideration.

“Good,” Dane said. “Now that we have that settled, let’s do this. Why don’t I draw up a couple of designs over the next few days? Once you pick out what you like, Riley can get started.” He looked at the younger man. “What do you think time-wise?”

Riley turned to study the wall. “Going by what you said over the phone, shouldn’t take more than three or four weeks once I get started.” He looked down at Ember. “I’m sorry I can’t give you my undivided attention. I’m splitting my time between helping Dad and my new job. Will that work for you?”

“Perfect,” Ember said. “And thanks to you both.” She made dismissive shooing motions with her hands. “Now you two get out of here. The quicker you bring me ideas, the quicker we can get started.”

Holly watched them go, heads together, already talking about pine versus oak…the benefits of straight edges versus the appeal of a beveled design. “Wow.”

“Hmm…?” Ember asked.

Oops. She hadn’t intended to say that out loud. “Oh, nothing. Sorry I interrupted your shelf talk, but it sounds like the project will pick up some speed now.”

“Hopefully, and you are never an interruption.” Ember patted the box. “I love it when one of you brings me a box. It’s like Christmas, and in your case…”

Holly laughed at the expectation in Ember’s expression. She opened the flaps and set the mugs on the counter, delighted when Ember’s eyes rounded in surprise.

Ember picked up one of the cups and turned it around in her hands. “This is really beautiful work. I knew you did some small porcelain ornaments and bells, but this…” She looked up. “Please tell me that this is a sample of something you want to display and sell.”

“It is if you approve,” Holly said.

“Absolutely. I think our Christmas shoppers will love them.”

Holly smiled at her friend. “I hope—”

The bell over the door tinkled. Holly looked up and swallowed. Adonis was back, and he was looking straight at her.

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