“Please don’t hit, please.” Victoria Mason closed her eyes as her tiny rental car slid into the parking space on Main Street. Parallel parking was not a skill she possessed and yet she was relieved to see she’d cleared the other cars. She wrapped her scarf around her neck and reapplied her lipstick. The pink, shimmery gloss did the trick of adding a touch of color to her pale complexion. The two-hour drive on the busy interstate from New York City to Brookhollow, New Jersey, had tested her already frazzled nerves. She prayed the unpleasant road trip, with its bumper-to-bumper traffic and icy road conditions, wasn’t a sign of things to come as she stepped out into the cold. The early-December wind whipped through her cashmere winter coat and her breath came in puffs of white clouds as she locked the car. An unnecessary gesture in her small hometown. This wasn’t New York. Anyone here for more than two minutes could see Brookhollow at rush hour was the opposite of Manhattan’s fast pace and crazy traffic.
The Christmas season was in full swing and all the small mom-and-pop shops lining both sides of the quiet street boasted holiday displays in their storefront windows. Kitty-corner from where she stood, Pearl’s Petals showcased a frosty winter wonderland with pale pink and white poinsettias lining the base of the window. The crystal snowflakes hanging from the ceiling glistened against the white scrim backdrop. Next door, the town’s secondhand bookstore, Dog-Eared Books, featured a selection of holiday cookbooks and children’s stories positioned under a Christmas tree decorated with crayons and bookmarks.
From here, she could also see Town Center Square in the distance. The twenty-foot Christmas tree had been put up the day before, as was the tradition for the first weekend in December. On the corner the town’s welcome sign was bordered with holly and twinkling white lights. Welcome to Historic Brookhollow, Population 10,810. According to her mother, that number had decreased in recent years. Victoria had certainly been eager to remove herself from the population count. Now here she was, for the first time in three years. Freezing her butt off.
Victoria shivered as she walked the short distance to Legend’s Sporting Goods. The quicker she started the acquisition process, the better. Her previous acquisitions had closed without the slightest hiccup, but she suspected this would be different. Why hadn’t she declined this one? Being back in her hometown was tough enough. Having to deal with this particular store owner would be torture.
Her gaze fell to the acquisition papers in her hand. Luke Dawson. She hadn’t seen or spoken to her ex-fiancé in twelve years. A different agent, a stranger in Brookhollow, may have had an easier time. Leaving town for a career in New York, abandoning the star quarterback and homecoming king two weeks before their wedding, hadn’t exactly put her on Brookhollow’s favorite people list. She bit her lip. Could she really be successful in a place she’d always considered a roadblock to her ambition?
She had to focus on what mattered: securing this purchase and getting out of Brookhollow before Christmas. Pausing in front of the store, she checked her reflection in the window, running a hand over her blond, shoulder-length hair. She forced several, slow deep breaths. It had been twelve years, how bad could this reunion be? She reached for the door handle.
“The store is closed for renovations,” a deep voice said to her right, several feet above her.
“Oh, well, I have a meeting with—” Victoria turned and took in the man on the ladder she’d walked right past without seeing “—Luke?” She placed a hand over her eyes to shield them from the low, setting sun glaring off the roof of Ginger Snaps, the bakery next door. She could barely make out his face in the blinding light, but the voice was unmistakable. “How long have you just been watching me from up there?”
“Long enough to enjoy that painful parking job.” He turned back to his work, placing a string of lights along the roof.
She glanced toward the rental car, parked on a slight angle in the space that now looked much larger than it had when she was trying to park in it. Squaring her shoulders, she moved closer. “Renovations? Didn’t you receive the letter from Clarke and Johnston Acquisitions earlier this week?”
“The one claiming you’d be here at noon today?” Luke asked.
Victoria struggled to maintain her composure. This wasn’t exactly how she’d pictured this meeting. In truth, she’d had no idea what to expect, but she hated that she’d given him the upper hand by being late. “Traffic was a lot slower than I’d predicted.” And she’d left the city three hours later then planned. “Anyway, the letter also stated that my firm will be placing an offer on Legend’s within the week.”
“I’m not interested in selling the store.” The sound of the nail gun reverberating off the awning made her wince.
“Either way, we should still discuss my client’s interest in obtaining it.”
He ignored her as he continued to work. An older couple she didn’t recognize stepped out of the bakery and shot her suspicious looks as they passed.
Victoria shivered as big, wet snowflakes began to fall from the darkening sky. “Do you think we could go inside?” She danced from one foot to the other, her feet chilled in her two-inch leather boots. “I’m kind of in a hurry.”
“Well, maybe you should have gotten here earlier.” He paused to look at her with a raised eyebrow.
“Luke,” she said, tilting her head to the side.
He waved her away. “Go on inside, the door’s open. I’ll be right with you.”
“Fine.” She pushed open the door. A small bell chimed as she entered Legend’s and looked around. Nothing had changed inside and an unwelcome sense of familiarity washed over her.
The same wooden shelves lined the wall behind the counter, displaying rows of trophies, marking the town’s many achievements in baseball, football and soccer. The New York Giant’s number-eighteen football jersey that belonged to Mr. Jameson, the previous store owner, still hung on the wall above. The front window was decorated the same way it had been year after year, with red-and-white lights bordering a cardboard cutout of a Santa sleigh driven by the Brookhollow High Cougars mascot and pulled by the football players. Pictures of the various high school teams framed the storefront.
She scanned the photos, and one in the
corner—of the 1996 junior boys soccer
victory—caught her eye. In the top-row center stood Luke, grinning from ear to ear in his Crimson Cleats uniform, division trophy held high above his head. A knot formed in her stomach as she wondered if the Dawsons had heard of her visit and if she’d run into his family. Despite how close the two families had been in the past, his mother and sisters had been quite clear about how they felt about Victoria ever since the day she left town. Ever since she’d said goodbye to Luke and returned her engagement ring.
She turned away from the photos and moved farther into the store, stepping over boxes of sporting goods. Everything from hockey sticks to baseball gloves littered the floor. Judging by the scattered goods, Luke had run out of room to store his stock. That didn’t bode well for the acquisition. More stock and upgrades meant she’d need more money to buy out the store.
Toward the back she paused in front of Mr. Jameson’s personal display of sports memorabilia, an extensive and impressive array of autographed footballs and jerseys. He’d also collected rare baseball trading cards, secured behind glass frames. Victoria ran a finger along the edge of the shelf and a puff of dust rose in the air. She shook her head. These items were worth a lot and they’d meant something to Mr. Jameson. If he knew how Luke was caring for them, he’d be rolling over in his grave.
She moved away from the collection and continued toward the stockroom, giving the swinging door a push.
At the sound of a voice above her head Victoria started and her hand flew to her chest. A boy stood precariously on the top rung of a tall ladder, balancing a large box over his head. “I’m just waiting for…Luke.” She watched, horrified, as the kid scurried down.
“He said he’ll be back in about ten minutes. Mrs. Norris asked him to hang Christmas lights in her store window.” He moved the ladder to the corner of the stockroom.
“Yeah, I saw him stringing lights on the roof.”
The boy smiled at that, and she immediately got the joke. Ginger Norris was known for her add-on projects. Left alone, the older woman could find things for Luke to do all evening.
As he picked up a box, Victoria held the door for him and he carried it past her into the store. He set his load down in an aisle and turned to her. “You’re Victoria Mason, aren’t you?”
She hesitated as she looked at the young man. His face wasn’t familiar, but then again he would have been a baby or not yet born, when she’d left Brookhollow. She nodded.
“I heard you were coming to town. Are you home for Christmas?” He opened a box and began stocking a shelf with baseball mitts. Stopping to examine one, he shoved his hand in it, punching the leather a few times with his other hand.
Great, even this kid had heard the rumors. Asking her mother to keep a secret was futile, and gossip in this place spread faster than wildfire. She wondered what people were saying about her. After all this time, she hated that she still cared about the opinions of her former neighbors.
She shook her head. “No, I’m only here for a few days.” Her holiday plans never included Brookhollow. Every year she insisted her parents visit her in New York over the Thanksgiving weekend instead. She and her mother shopped, and her father took in a sporting event. Thanksgiving dinner was usually Chinese takeout while watching the replay of the Macy’s parade. Regrettably, that was their only real time together each year as her busy travel schedule and last-minute acquisition trips made taking planned holiday time nearly impossible. Christmas was spent on the ski slopes in Vermont with her New York friends, where she could ski and relax on Christmas Day in front of the lodge fireplace, where they always did their Secret Santa gift exchange. It was the only real vacation she took each year.
She made a mental note to confirm her room reservation and spa booking at the resort. She’d been putting it off, unsure if her workload would allow her to take a full week or just a couple of days. She certainly needed it. Sixteen successful acquisitions this year had exhausted her.
The bell above the door chimed as Luke entered. A snowdrift followed him in and he stomped his boots on the mat near the door. A broad grin spread across his older but still handsome face. The radiance reflecting in his ice-blue eyes drew her in and, for a moment, she forgot why she was here. Her breath caught at the familiar sight that used to make her pulse race. Like it did now.
He moved past her to take a heavy box from the boy. “You can head out now, Steve. The snow is falling hard, and I told your mom I’d send you home before it gets dark.”
“Are you sure, Uncle Luke? There’s still a lot of boxes out there and the grand reopening is—”
“I’m sure.” Luke cut him off with a quick glance in Victoria’s direction. “Here’s the money for today and I’ll see you tomorrow.” He handed the boy several bills and his coat and gave him a friendly push out the door. “Call or text me when you get home.”
“Okay.” The boy nodded, tugging his hat over his head.
Luke pointed a finger. “Don’t forget, like last time.”
“I won’t.” Steve zipped his coat as he closed the door behind him. He jogged down the street, past the window, his head bent against the blowing snow.
She did the math. Alisha Dawson, Luke’s older sister, had been six months pregnant when Victoria had left town.
She turned to face him. “Grand reopening?”
He nodded. “That’s right. Next weekend, just in time for the last-minute shoppers,” he said, carrying several empty boxes to the back room.
Victoria collided with the swinging door as she followed him. She bit the inside of her cheek. Reopening with more stock for the Christmas season could generate significant profit for the small store. That would complicate a sale and drive the buyout price higher. “Well, hopefully, you won’t need to reopen. Play Hard Sports usually pays more than market value for the stores they purchase.” It made dealing with their acquisitions a pleasure.
She moved out of Luke’s way as he pushed past with more empty boxes.
He placed the broken-down cardboard under one arm. “I told you I’m not selling the store, so if that’s all you came for, you can go.” Picking up two large garbage bags, he headed for the front. “Right after you get the door for me.”
Same old Luke.
She refused to let their personal history distract her or forget her professionalism. Just because they’d been best of friends since the second grade when Luke had stood up for her against bullies in the school yard making fun of her braces and thick glasses. This was business. She pushed the front door open and stepped back to let him pass. But she couldn’t let him go without asking, “Why on earth did you buy this store?” She shivered as a gust of wind blew her blond hair across her face.
Luke studied her, his piercing eyes now void of emotion. “It must be worth something. Why else would your company send someone all the way out here to acquire it?”
Victoria’s gaze fell to his left hand. No wedding band. The relief she experienced both irritated and confused her.
“Well, we’re not actually interested in owning this store. My company’s client ran into complications obtaining a permit to build one of their own locations, with Legend’s still doing business nearby.”
“Well, I guess they’re out of luck. I just bought the place and I plan on keeping it.” Luke collected the discarded packing paper, crumpled it and tossed it into a waste basket near the counter.
“I’m surprised that you want to own a run-down sporting goods store.” Her eyes narrowed. The Luke she used to know would rather build and remodel the old-fashioned buildings in the downtown core, not own a business in one of them. He’d always had a talent for designing and building things. When they were kids, his derby cars were always the best in the race, and she remembered the lemonade stand he’d made her from the wood left over from building his sister’s tree house. The stand had been the summer hotspot for all their friends that year.
“We haven’t spoken in a long time. Maybe I’m not the same guy you remember.” Pulling a Swiss Army Knife from his jeans pocket, he tore into the remaining cardboard boxes, breaking them down.
Victoria watched him work. She had noticed the changes in him, despite her best efforts. Time had been good to him. He was bigger now, muscular and slightly wider around the waist. No longer the physique of a struggling architectural student. His face showed signs of maturity, but the fine lines around his mouth and eyes only enhanced his gorgeous, blond looks. The temptation to touch the five-o’clock shadow along his jaw was overpowering.
Luke straightened and his gaze met hers. “Besides, this store has a history in the community. That means something to most of us.”
Of course. Luke had worked in the store every summer when they were teenagers. Maybe his interest in preserving it made sense. “Okay, well I guess we should get to work.” She faked a smile, forcing her professionalism. She didn’t need or want to get to know this man over again. What she wanted was for him to sign her contract so she could get out of Brookhollow. “I’ll have an offer by Wednesday, but we should go over the preliminary paperwork as soon as possible.” She scanned the store for a place to lay out her documents. “The major chain store interested in purchasing Legend’s Sporting Goods is—”
Luke turned off the lights and unplugged the multicolored Christmas strand draped across the window. Only the glow from the pole lamp outside illuminated them.
“Do you prefer we do this in the dark?” she asked sarcastically.
He slid into his coat and wrapped his scarf around his neck. “I have dinner plans.” He stood next to the door.
The familiar scent of his musky cologne made her pulse race. She suddenly remembered the nights she’d fallen asleep in his T-shirt, when he’d been away at college, enveloped by that smell. “Tomorrow, then.” She opened the door and stepped out into the frigid air. “I’ll come by in the morning,” she said through the icy burst of wind and snow. Reaching into her purse, she pulled out a silver monogrammed cardholder. She popped it open with a manicured fingernail and slid one of her cards free, handing it to Luke.
“It has my cell number on it.” Her teeth chattered. The sun had almost disappeared and the temperature drop in the last half hour was significant.
“Victoria, this is Brookhollow.” He laughed. “I could stand in the center and call out to you, and wherever you are, you’d hear me.”
The rich, deep sound of his laughter wasn’t at all the boyish laugh she remembered.
“Nothing.” Her cheeks flushed and she looked away. “Anyway, let’s not test that theory. Use the cell number.” But he was right; the card was unnecessary. If he needed to find her, it wouldn’t be hard. She shivered again, wishing she’d packed a warmer coat. The pretty white cashmere did nothing for warmth.
Her cell rang in her purse and, tugging off a glove, she dug around in the side compartment until she found it. The office number flashed on the screen. Shoot. In her stress over returning to town, she’d forgotten to check in. “Hello?” she answered, turning away from Luke.
“Victoria, it’s…” Static scrambled the receptionist’s voice.
“Kim…Kim, you’re breaking up.” She moved a few feet down the street. “Can you hear me?”
“Yes, I’m here. Can you hear me?” Silence. Victoria held her phone up in the air, shook it then brought it back to her ear. “Kim?”
She sighed and turned back to Luke who seemed to be hiding a laugh behind his hand.
“What’s so funny?” She glared at him. She’d love to know exactly what aspect of this turn of events he found so entertaining. She glanced at her phone again. By now she suspected her would be full, as well.
Luke cleared his throat and shook his head. “Nothing,” he said, looking down the street. “Hey, check out your rental.”
She turned and gasped. A large amount of snow had fallen in the short time she’d been in the store.
“I have a snow scraper in my truck. Give me a second, and I’ll grab it.”
Victoria grabbed his arm to stop him.
His gaze fell to her glove on his sleeve, and she pulled her hand away. “No, that’s okay. I have one in the car.” She hoped. Rule number one in an acquisition: Don’t indebt yourself to the seller. She began to walk away, her toes icicles in her two-inch-heel boots.
Luke shrugged, checking his watch. “Suit yourself,” he said as he disappeared around the side of the building.
Victoria’s temple throbbed a she stood frozen in place, watching him walk away. This would be the hardest acquisition and opponent she’d ever gone up against.
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