The change from one holiday to another was always a relief for Ruth Haynes. When you decorated sugar cookies day in and day out, it was easy to get burned out. After weeks of jack-o-lanterns, ghosts, and witch hats through October, she was now tired of pumpkins, fall leaves, and turkeys in November. Luckily, even though it was only the sixteenth, the city of Willow Falls was already moving on to Christmas—which meant she could too.
Being a business owner was stressful, but she loved the challenge. She’d only been open for a year and a half, so she still had a lot to learn but at least she was starting to make a profit. Last December had been a great sales month, so she was hopeful for the holiday season this year.
Her store, Sugar Lips Cookie Company, took up exactly twelve feet of storefront on Old Main Street on the northwest corner of the square. Even though it was small, it was expensive due to its prime location. So far it had worked out for her, though, because she held a monopoly on the sweet treat business in the downtown area.
Tonight was one of the city’s biggest events, Lighting the Square. All the big shots would be there along with the media and a huge crowd of people, all to see the lights turned on for the first time of the season. With nets of lights embracing every tree for several blocks and a towering fir tree covered in decorations in the middle of the square, it was truly breath-taking. Since there was also a parade after the lighting ceremony, the event always brought out big crowds. She had to be ready for it.
“Crystal, can you fill all the cookie cases and bring out that tray of Christmas trees I have ready in the back? I’m going out front for a minute.”
Crystal, a young twenty-year old who had gone straight to work out of high school instead of going to college, was her right-hand woman. She was short and thin with light brown hair and a cheerful sprinkle of freckles over her nose. She also had a wide smile that showed her white, perfectly straightened teeth and instantly put people at ease. She was Ruth’s only employee at the moment but she was amazing. Besides manning the cash register, she helped with simple cookie designs and took care of all their online marketing.
“Sure thing!” Crystal said, heading to the back.
Ruth picked up the A-frame chalkboard sign she’d spent the last twenty minutes working on. Spelled out in careful red and green lettering were the words, “4 for 10 Sale. Sweeten up your lips for a kiss under the mistletoe.” She’d drawn an arrow pointing straight up because she was going to hang a sprig of mistletoe over their doorway. Anything to get people to stop outside her door and get a good look at the tempting cookies inside.
About to go back inside for the step-ladder, she paused as she saw a truck pull up in front of the shop next to hers. Seeing that it was a local sign company, she watched curiously. For the last few weeks, the windows of the store front next door had been papered over while the new lease-holder set up shop. Even though she came in by five every morning and stayed until late in the day, she’d yet to meet the owner, and there had been no hint as to what kind of store it was going to be. Hopefully, she was finally going to find out. It was going to be a while though, so she got back to work.
A few minutes later, she set up a three step-ladder under the spot where she wanted to hang the mistletoe. With a drill in one hand and a screw-in hook in her pocket, she climbed up the steps. Unfortunately, she only realized when she was on the top step that it wasn’t quite tall enough. By standing on her tiptoes, she was able to drill the hole, but when she tried to screw in the hook, she couldn’t even come close to reaching.
“Dang it.” Sighing, she got down and stepped back to stare up at the hole she’d drilled as if it might give her a solution to the problem.
“Can I help?”
Ruth looked to her right to see who’d spoken and her mouth almost fell open. Not only was a tall, gorgeous man walking towards her, but it was someone she knew. Or rather, had known back in high school.
“Yeah?” He looked more closely at her. “Ruthie Haynes? I didn’t recognize you for a minute there. Wow.”
Ruth blinked. What did “wow” mean? Not that she wasn’t thinking “wow” about him, but it could have a dozen different meanings. While she had no problem recognizing the popular, athletic guy who had been like a king at their school, there was no doubt that the last ten years had made him even more attractive than before—more rugged and masculine.
Since she’d only grown rounder and older, she seriously doubted she was having the same staggering effect on him he was having on her. “Yeah. Wow.”
“So, can I help you?”
“If you want to. You’ll definitely be able to reach better than I can. Will you screw this in up there?”
She handed him the hook, careful to hold it out so that it was easy for him to take without their fingers touching.
Ruth couldn’t decide how she felt about seeing him again. Thinking about the past, she should just thank him politely and move on with her day. But he was being so friendly. And they were both adults now after all.
Mason climbed up the step ladder with a perfect, graceful balance she envied. It only took him a few seconds to have it screwed in. “What are you hanging? I might as well help with that too while I’m up here.”
Ruth reached for the sprig of mistletoe that she’d set on the bench next to her door. It was only when she handed it to him that she realized how awkward it was. Would he notice that they were both under the mistletoe? Praying he didn’t, Ruth took two quick steps backward.
Mason looked at her with a funny expression and one of his eyebrows quirked up. Despite a faint smirk on his face, he didn’t say a word. When the mistletoe was secure on the hook, he got down and stepped back to stand next to her. “Does that look right to you?”
“Yep. It looks great.”
“Laying booby traps for your customers, huh?”
Ruth laughed. “I’m not above dirty tricks.”
“I’ll have to remember that when I’m up and running.”
“Wait. You’re the new store owner?”
Grinning, Mason nodded and pointed to where the two workers from the sign company were up on ladders installing a huge metal sign. “Yeah. Come see my sign.”
Ruth walked across the street with him so they could see the sign better. “The Chocolate Box? You’re selling candy?”
“Handmade, gourmet chocolates.”
Ruth’s curiosity ratcheted up at the same time her stomach dropped. The last thing she needed was competition for the sweet-tooth crowd. Especially right next door. “And you thought opening next to a cookie place was a good idea?”
Mason’s eyebrows scrunched together. “It wasn’t my first choice, but it was the only place that had a lease available. Are you worried about the competition?”
Ruth bit her bottom lip. This was going to be tough. Her ideal neighbor would have sold savory food or maybe flowers. Now people were going to have to choose which door to walk through to get their sugar fix. And there was nothing she could do about it. “When do you open?”
“My soft opening is tonight. I’ve got some stock ready and I’d be stupid to miss out on the crowds that will be here tonight, wouldn’t I?”
He would indeed. “But have you done any advertising yet? I haven’t seen anything.”
“No. Getting set up has been so hectic that I didn’t have time to set ads up until a few days ago. I’m focusing on Facebook since I don’t have a huge budget. But I’m going to be passing out free samples and coupons tonight, so I hope that helps. What do you think?”
His expression showed signs of concern—as if he cared about her opinion. Which was just crazy. They hadn’t seen each other since before they were old enough to vote, and he certainly hadn’t paid much attention to her then. But this was one business owner to another. “I think it’s a great idea, actually. Good luck.”
Ruth checked for cars and crossed back to the other side of the street. Mason jogged after her. “It’s great seeing you again, Ruthie.”
“Oh, okay. Sure. I look forward to being your neighbor.”
“Me too.” She just hoped her lie sounded sincere. This was going to be bad for business and things were a struggle as it was.
She’d wanted to hire a third employee to help with the holiday crowds, but that wouldn’t be a good idea anymore. She couldn’t take the risk. So, no free time for her this month after all.
As soon as she went inside and shut the door behind her, she let out the growl she’d been holding in for the last few minutes. Hearing it, Crystal jerked up from her crouching position behind the cookie cases. “What’s wrong?”
“You’re never going to believe what is going in next door.”
Crystal grinned. “You’re right. Just tell me.”
“The Chocolate Box.”
“Cool. I love chocolate.”
“Everybody loves chocolate. And there’s no way people are going to buy chocolate and cookies at the same time.”
“Why not? I would.”
Ruth rolled her eyes. Crystal could eat that way and not gain a pound.
“He’s opening up tonight for the lighting event. The sign is going up now.”
“Oooh, can I go see?”
“Sure. I’ll take over for you.”
Ruth went to the back and washed her hands then put on a pair of plastic food-service gloves. As she finished filling the cookie case Crystal had been working on, she couldn’t help but think about Mason.
How in the world had Mason Baker, of all people, gotten into the chocolate business?
Even though she’d always been fascinated by his good looks, she’d also been annoyed by the way everything had come so easily to him. Grades, sports, popularity. Girls.
But never her.
One time they’d been assigned to work together on a poetry project in English. After a couple of weeks of study Robert Burns work together and then writing a report, they’d both gotten an A+ on the project. He’d picked her up in a big bear hug when they’d gotten the grad and she’d felt like she was walking on air until she overheard one of his buddies asking if he liked her. His answer had been as clear as it was final. Never.
The memory of it still burned like poison inside her. Time had not healed all wounds.
When Crystal came in a few minutes later, her bright, toothy smile was in evidence. “Oh man. You didn’t tell me the owner was so hot.” Crystal narrowed her eyes. “And do not tell me you didn’t notice.”
“Oh, I noticed. I’ve been noticing since I was like twelve years old. We went to school together.”
“No way. I’ve never seen him before.”
“He’s been gone for ten years. And let me tell you, if there’s one thing that man is going to be good at, it’s beating the competition. I’ve watched him in too many basketball games to doubt that for a minute. Which means we’re going to have to pick up our game.”
“Okay. But how? We’ve been trying to figure that out for weeks.”
“He’s going to be giving out samples tonight, so we’d better do it too. Too bad we don’t have time to print out some coupons.”
“I could make some up really quick using the same graphics we use for your ads. How many do you want?”
“Not tons. We’ll just give them to people who buy something. Maybe one cookie free when you buy six?”
“Sounds good. I’m on it.”
Crystal’s cheerful tone frustrated Ruth. Didn’t she understand how potentially disastrous it was going to be to have Mason Baker right next door?