Savannah Wilson heard the light knock against the front door just moments before the dogs started barking. Apparently they had the ability to see through the wooden door and verify that an ax murderer was standing outside. Savannah sighed and didn’t even bother to tell the dogs to hush; it made no difference. Instead, she opened the door and allowed her mom, Veronica, to enter.
Mom somehow stepped around both dogs while carrying a steaming mug of tea in each hand without spilling a drop. Nellie, the sheltie, and Nessie, the spaniel mix, followed Mom into the living room, tails wagging.
Savannah closed the front door again. “Mom, you don’t have to keep bringing me tea.” When her parents had volunteered her to house-sit for their next-door neighbors during the holidays, it hadn’t exactly been Savannah’s first choice. But the Potters had few other people to turn to. They needed someone to watch over the house and their dogs while they spent Christmas in Florida with their daughter and her large family. Savannah had moved into the house the day after Thanksgiving, and Mom brought tea over at least every other morning.
She accepted the mug and took a careful sip. “Thanks, Mom.”
“You’re welcome.” Mom sat on the couch and reached down to pet Nellie. She looked around the living room. “It is too bad the Potters didn’t decorate their house at least a little before they left. It’d be nice to see some Christmas cheer in here.”
Savannah had to agree. The Potters were well known for decorating their home from top to bottom every Christmas. They’d planned to go to Florida in the spring, but once their granddaughter was born prematurely, Mrs. Potter knew they needed to help with the three older siblings. They planned to stay until after the new year. Meanwhile, they couldn’t take their two beloved dogs.
Maybe Savannah wouldn’t have volunteered for the job, but she didn’t mind all that much. She had no pets of her own back at her apartment, so it wasn’t that big of a deal. And the money they were paying her translated into unexpected Christmas cash.
“It seems weird to see it without all the lights.” She took in the bare hearth and empty fireplace. She’d attended many neighborhood Christmas parties here growing up. The food and carols were fun, but eventually Savannah would run into Baxter, the Potters’ grandson.
When they were kids, she referred to him as her arch nemesis. He’d done everything possible to annoy her, and she’d tried her best to dish it right back at him.
So even though the holiday cookies and festivities were fun, it never did quite make up for the aggravation of dealing with Baxter. She remembered the time he’d pushed her underneath hanging mistletoe right in front of their friends, and then she’d had to endure being kissed by one of the other neighborhood boys.
Yes, she missed the pretty decorations the Potters usually had hanging up, but she didn’t miss having to deal with their grandson. He’d moved away some years back, which was just as well.
Mom took a sip of her tea and continued to pet Nellie with her foot. Both dogs had curled up on the floor near her. “Have you heard how the baby’s doing?”
“Mrs. Potter called last night to check on the dogs. Apparently little Sarah is in the NICU and likely will be for at least a few weeks. Right now, they’re just hoping and praying she might be home in time for Christmas.” Savannah could only imagine how hard it would be to see your tiny baby hooked up to tubes and machines. “I’m glad the Potters could go help out.”
“Me, too.” Mom set her mug on the coffee table. “Are you going to the tree lighting ceremony tomorrow?”
The town of Romance, Oregon had one of the most beautiful tree lighting ceremonies around. Savannah hadn’t missed one in years, and she didn’t plan on starting now. “Of course. Actually, Sweet Hearts will have a booth there with cookies, doughnuts, and hot chocolate. I’ll be manning it at least part of the time.”
Working at Sweet Hearts Pastry and Treats may not be a fancy job, but Savannah enjoyed it. What could be wrong with making and selling goodies that people loved to eat? Not to mention all the fancy drinks that put the small business on the Romance map.
“Oh, good! Your dad and I will have to swing by for some hot chocolate. I think it’s supposed to be chilly.”
“As long as it doesn’t rain.”
Mom stood up and gathered both of the mugs. “I’d better get going.”
Savannah followed suit. “Yeah, and I have work in about thirty minutes. I need to take these hairy mutts outside to do their thing before I go.”
“Have a great day, honey.” They hugged and Mom left, leaving two dogs staring at the closed door behind her.
Savannah shook her head. “You two are pathetic, you know that?” She couldn’t help but feel sorry for them. They likely missed their owners like crazy. Savannah was pretty much at the house when she wasn’t working, but she doubted she made a good substitute for the Potters. “Come on, you two, it’s time to go outside.”
She breathed in the crisp air as the dogs wandered about the backyard. Twice, she had to whistle and call Nessie away from one of the many broken boards in the fence to keep the dog from exploring further than she should. As soon as she moved away, Nellie was right there in her place.
This was why Savannah couldn’t just let them outside on their own while she tended to something else. She had to watch their every move. The Potters would never forgive her if the dogs escaped, and she’d feel absolutely terrible.
A few minutes later, she snapped her fingers. “Let’s go, you two. I need to get to work. Cookies don’t bake themselves, you know.”
The moment Baxter Reid pushed the door open, the scent of cookies, cupcakes, and coffee hit him hard. He breathed in deep. Though he wasn’t one who normally went for fancy coffee, someone told him they made an incredible peppermint hot chocolate here. Everyone had their weakness, and for Baxter, it was peppermint.
He got in line and took in the variety of cookies and pastries in the display cabinet as he slowly made his way closer to the counter. When there were only two people in line in front of him, the sound of a voice jerked his attention to the register. He’d know that voice anywhere.
Sure enough, there stood Savannah. He chuckled and shook his head at the irony. He’d teased the girl mercilessly growing up, and they’d had many an argument yelled over the common fence between his grandparents’ house and hers. Truthfully, he’d missed their banters when his family moved to Salem and he no longer visited his grandparents regularly like he used to.
He’d just moved back to Romance. Partly because he missed the small-town atmosphere and partly because he missed his grandparents. A lot of it had to do with breaking a cycle of somehow dating all the wrong women. Okay, and maybe a little of it was because he was curious how the girl next door had turned out.
Savannah hadn’t noticed him yet, giving Baxter a few minutes to watch. She still had the same gorgeous black hair and eyes like pools of dark chocolate. She’d never been a petite girl, but even then, her little girl figure had been replaced with womanly curves. Savannah smiled brightly at something her customer said. It was a smile he’d often wished he could elicit from her instead of the constant look of annoyance he normally received.
He thought about all the ways he would try to aggravate her and wished he could go back in time and slap himself. If he could give his younger self some advice, it’d be that the way to make the cute girl next door notice him wasn’t to annoy her ruthlessly.
The woman in front of him stepped to the side, making way for Baxter to approach the counter.
“I’ll be right with you.” Savannah spoke over her shoulder as she slipped a muffin into a paper bag. As soon as she handed it to her customer, she turned back with a smile on her face. The moment she recognized him, her smile faltered. “Baxter.”
Her disappointment shouldn’t have bothered him as much as it did. “Hey, Savannah. I didn’t realize you worked here.”
“I have been for about five years now.” She shrugged. “So what can I get for you?”
“Someone recommended the peppermint hot chocolate, so I thought I’d give it a try.” When she didn’t respond, he added, “Please.”
“Sure.” She quoted him a price. He paid with a five and then dropped the change into the jar on the counter.
Without another word, Savannah got started on the drink, and Baxter moved out of the way so the next customer could approach the counter.
She was methodical as she worked, as though she’d memorized every step and probably never deviated from the exact order of things. That sounded like Savannah.
How many times had he teased her about being the over-careful goodie-goodie when they were kids? All of that time goading her had been a lot of fun, but looking back, he realized he might have gone a little too far. Especially if the less-than-enthusiastic way in which she greeted him was any indication.
Baxter had a huge crush on her back in the day. He’d thought of her from time to time in the years he’d lived away from Romance. Had she thought of him at all?
“Here you go.”
Baxter accepted the warm cup and took a tentative sip. The chocolate-to-mint ratio was perfect. “This is great. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome.” She hesitated as though she might ask him something. She covered it by picking up a napkin and handing it to him. “Enjoy the drink and have a great day.”
“Yeah. You, too.” Baxter watched as she turned to help the next customer. Banking the many questions he had about what she’d been up to in the last eight years, he left the pastry shop and stepped onto the sidewalk.
The biting cold air hit him immediately, and he was glad to have the warm cup of liquid in his hands. The temperatures had hovered a few degrees above freezing for several days. Thankfully, it should warm up a little tomorrow. Baxter had never been a huge fan of winter weather, so the less snow and ice, the better.
Although he wasn’t sure which was colder: The temperatures outside, or the shoulder Savannah had given him.
Ignoring the whole issue, he drove to the other side of the square where the Romance Credit Union was located. He’d just started working there as a financial advisor last week thanks to his cousin, Caleb, who was the bank manager. Not only did it seem like a great place to work, but knowing someone was a plus.
Baxter had just stepped inside when Caleb waved him over to his office. He shut the door behind them, nodded toward Baxter’s hot chocolate cup, and grinned. “So, did you see her?”
“See who?” Baxter knew full well who he was talking about but would not make it easy on Caleb.
“Savannah. She works at Sweet Hearts. Wasn’t she in today?” He frowned a little.
What difference did it make to Caleb? Baxter took a long drink of his mint hot chocolate. “Yes, she was there.”
“I’m pretty sure she would’ve been fine had it been another eight years before I stopped by.”
“I doubt that.” Caleb shuffled papers on his desk. “Emmy thinks we need to set you up on a date. Just giving you a heads up.”
Baxter groaned. His cousin’s wife was a wonderful person, but her obsession with relationships was a bit much. “Yeah, I don’t think so.” Although his own choice in women left a lot to be desired.
Maybe Baxter was old-fashioned, but he’d always hoped to eventually marry a woman he was head over heels in love with, settle down somewhere, and raise a family where his kids could grow up loved. But for whatever reason, every woman he’d gone out with in the past seemed to want the opposite. He thought his last girlfriend, Reece, might be the one until she announced that she wanted to tour the world and felt tying herself down to one place would be a mistake.
When she told him she’d be unhappy in Salem or anywhere else in Oregon, Baxter knew it wouldn’t work between them.
All in all, he doubted Emmy would do any worse choosing a woman for him to go out with. Still, the last thing he wanted to do right now was go on a blind date. “I think I’ve got enough going on right now, Caleb. But I do appreciate you and Emmy welcoming me back to Romance the way you have.”
“No problem.” Caleb paused, a mischievous glint in his eyes. “How’d you like the coffee? You planning on going back for more?” It was clear he wasn’t referring to the beverage at all.
“It’s peppermint hot chocolate, and that is a distinct possibility.”
Caleb roared with laughter as Baxter left the office and went to his own desk. He shook his head, a grin forcing its way out.
The hot chocolate was reason enough to return to the pastry shop, but he probably would go back again even if he hated it.