Main Street Dealmaker
Sadie Rollins wasn’t sure what it was about Christmastime in Havenbrook, but she couldn’t deny that it felt as if there were actual magic floating in the air. Snow may have been rare in their pocket of Mississippi, but that didn’t stop the holiday spirit from settling over their quaint little town. From Thanksgiving through New Year’s, the homes and businesses were decked out with wreaths and garland and enough twinkling lights to be seen from space.
Just exactly how she liked it.
The festiveness wasn’t relegated to just outside, though. Since she was little, she’d always loved decorating, and that had only grown now that she had an entire bed-and-breakfast in which to do so. The Starlight Haven Inn’s six trees were trimmed within an inch of their lives, garland was draped around each of the plethora of fireplaces in the old Victorian, and fairy lights hung from the ceiling like the icicles they so rarely saw in Mississippi.
She couldn’t deny the happiness she felt every morning when she stepped inside. Though maybe that sentiment had nothing at all to do with the decorations and everything to do with the fact that she was in the business of Happily Ever Afters.
“Yes, I’m sure, Naomi,” Sadie said into the phone, nodding even though the harried bride on the other end of the line couldn’t see her. “All 120 poinsettias you ordered for the gazebo arrived this mornin’. I counted to make sure.” Twice.
Naomi exhaled a relieved sigh. “You’re a godsend, Sadie. A godsend. Have I told you that?”
Sadie laughed. “Not today.”
“I’m serious! I have no idea what I’d do if I didn’t have you helpin’ me with this. Brad’s so sick of my craziness.”
“I’m sure that future husband of yours isn’t sick of anything. And I’m always happy to be able to make things a little easier for you. You can call any time for whatever you need.”
Sadie’s lips twitched. “Was there something else you were wonderin’ about?”
Naomi blew out a sharp breath. “Would you think I was a total diva if I had you go over the schedule one more time?”
“Not at all,” Sadie said without hesitation, already pulling up the schedule she’d painstakingly created, down to the minute. “This is your big day, and we want to make sure everything runs smoothly for you.”
Timing was a challenge even under the best circumstances, but after planning almost fifty weddings, Sadie knew most didn’t come close to the best circumstances. Which was why she had the day detailed within an inch of its life. And also why she had Plans B through Z just in case A didn’t go off without a hitch.
She, once again, went over the schedule with Naomi, assuring her everything would be perfect for her special day before ending the call with a promise to check in again tomorrow. Sadie was so comfortable with the task now—both planning the day and dealing with the frantic brides leading up to it—that no one would ever guess she’d fallen into the job when she, along with her twin sister, Elise, had inherited the bed-and-breakfast at the ripe old age of twenty-five.
Three years ago, she’d still been fumbling through her life, trying to figure out what she wanted to do when she grew up. Yes, she had a business degree that had gotten her a job as an office administrator in town, but that hadn’t ignited any sort of passion within her. It had been a job, plain and simple. It hadn’t been until she’d planned her first wedding at the B&B—full of one mistake after another, but amazing nonetheless—that she could say she’d truly found her calling.
Of course, with as tiny as Havenbrook was, there was no way wedding planning alone—even when one included all events within that distinction—would keep her busy, but the inn itself was enough of a job to fill her days.
Elise rushed out from the tiny back office as she shrugged into her winter coat. “Okay, I’m outta here.”
Sadie’s brow furrowed as she glanced around the bustling inn. “Where’re you goin’?”
The inn was booked solid, as it usually was this time of year. The holidays were one of their highest-grossing seasons, thankfully allowing them to float by in the leaner months. But busy meant Sadie couldn’t do this on her own—although her sister definitely pushed those boundaries as much as possible. It wasn’t a secret that Elise didn’t love the inn like Sadie did. Sometimes she thought her sister would sell the B&B at the first opportunity.
Sadie would find a way to make it work on her own before she ever let that happen.
“I have that thing, remember?” Elise wound a scarf around her neck and fluffed her dyed black hair—so very different from their natural red. A tiny rebellious streak that had started shortly after her divorce.
If Mr. and Mrs. St. Charles weren’t sitting in the parlor, drinking their afternoon tea in front of the roaring fire only fifteen feet from where she and her sister stood, Sadie might have snapped back. Instead, she pressed her lips together and forced a smile. “No, I don’t. What thing?”
“I told you yesterday.”
She absolutely did not. “Tell me again.”
Elise rolled her eyes. “I promised I’d help Will get things set up for the tree lighting and parade this weekend. You know how frazzled she always gets during the holidays.”
That was certainly true. The festivities in Havenbrook between Thanksgiving and New Year’s were even more involved than their Fourth of July celebration, and Willow Haven—their cousin and event coordinator for the town—spent months coordinating that. That wasn’t a surprise, considering the Fourth of July lasted a single day and Havenbrook went all out every weekend for more than a month straight during the holidays. Even though she desperately needed Elise’s help around the inn, Sadie couldn’t fault her for helping their cousin when Will barely stayed afloat this time of year.
She just wished Elise would check once in a while to make sure she wasn’t the one who was drowning.
Sadie’s shoulders slumped as she realized she was on her own. Again. “Yeah. All right. Do you know when you’ll be back?” she asked, pulling up the rest of the day’s schedule.
“Not really. Why?”
“Why?” Sadie gestured to the full, color-coded calendar displayed on the monitor in front of them. “Um, because I’m tryin’ to run an inn here, and it’d be great if I could have some help.” She pointed to each event on the screen as she recited them, hoping against hope that her sister would wake up from whatever this funk was she’d been in since her divorce and actually…care about something. “The day is packed. I need to show Mr. and Mrs. St. Charles to their couple’s massage by four, have to confirm the Baumgartners’ dinner reservation tonight at six, and then make sure the horse-drawn carriage is here by seven sharp, not to mention we need to start plannin’ for the Sip and Shop event in two weeks.”
“See? And you’ve already got this all under control. I’d just get in the way.”
“Just because I’m better at the details doesn’t give you a free pass to bail,” she said, conscious of keeping her voice down so as not to draw attention to them. “While I’m doin’ all that, you can handle—” She glanced at the screen, her eyes stuttering over the name blocking out the one and only room they’d converted within the inn to be used as a meeting space.
Okay, so yeah, making her sister help the man who’d represented her ex-husband in their divorce wasn’t an option. Although Sadie wasn’t exactly a good replacement. Cole Donovan, with all his arrogant, insufferable cockiness, made her blood boil, and that feeling hadn’t receded at all in the three years since Elise’s divorce.
“See you tomorrow,” Elise tossed over her shoulder, fluttering her fingers in a wave as she blew out the front door before Sadie could even sputter a response.
Her mouth dropped open as she watched her brat of a sister flee as if she were running from the scene of a crime. Too bad Sadie couldn’t have her arrested for being an asshole.
“You’ve got to be kiddin’ me,” she muttered, running her hands through her hair as she surveyed the schedule, which had suddenly morphed from a few hours of her day to another overnight shift.
They’d been bequeathed the inn with nothing but its contents, and the upkeep was astronomical and ate up a good majority of the funds brought in by guests. Without enough cash flow to hire additional staff, she and Elise took turns staying the night in the guest house on the property—or they did in theory, anyway. More often than not, it was Sadie who stayed on-site.
She couldn’t say she actually minded too much, though. The cottage was adorable, and she’d considered more than once just biting the bullet and officially moving in. But staying there meant she was on call twenty-four hours a day for whatever issues came up at the inn. True, they were few and far between, but she’d gotten enough 3 a.m. wake-ups that she could say it wasn’t exactly peaceful.
“Well, I guess I know what my plans are tonight.” She exhaled a sigh, her shoulders slumping as she prepared herself for another long evening.
But it wasn’t like she had much else going on. She might have planned forevers for happy couples, but she was nowhere near finding that for herself. In order for that to happen, one needed to actually, you know, date. And Sadie couldn’t remember the last time she’d been out on one of those.
Finding her soul mate was definitely on her to-do list, though. You couldn’t plan weddings for a living and bear witness to two people promising to share their lives with each other without yearning for the same. She’d just hit a few snags along the way. And by snags, she meant jerks.
Seemed she had a way of attracting them.
No sooner had she thought that than had the master of jerks himself walked out of the inn’s makeshift conference room, one of his smarmy clients leading the way.
“You think since I paid for her fake titties, I can get ’em, too? Best thing that ever came out of that prison sentence of a marriage, if you ask me,” aforementioned smarmy client said.
“It would be a shame for you not to get a souvenir,” Cole said, not an ounce of emotion in his voice. “I’ll see what I can do.”
Ugh. The way they talked about that woman—about that marriage—as if both were inconsequential was enough to turn her stomach. It was reason number four thousand and fifty-three why she truly detested Cole Donovan. She couldn’t keep the disgust from her face—she always wore her heart on her sleeve, for better or worse—and from the subtle lift of Cole’s eyebrow in her direction, every bit of that showed.
She cleared her throat and averted her gaze, focusing her efforts on sorting through the pile of mail Edna had dropped off earlier in the day. As the conversation continued in front of her, she listened with disgust, all the while pretending to be incredibly interested in the latest issue of Happily Ever After that had been delivered.
“You think you can get me that, Donovan?”
Sadie’s ears perked up. Somewhere along the way, she’d been pulled into the artfully decorated reception locations and stopped listening to the men’s conversation. Were they still talking about his soon-to-be ex-wife’s breasts?
Cole paused, then cleared his throat. “If that’s what you truly want.”
Smarmy guy—Travis—snorted. “I don’t give a rat’s ass about her doll collection. I just don’t want her to have it.”
No longer breasts, but something equally infuriating. Sadie ground her molars together so hard her jaw ached. While she hadn’t been privy to the specific details surrounding her ex-brother-in-law’s sudden obsession with the collection of antique furniture housed in the inn that had been part of their family for generations, she had little doubt the conversation had gone remarkably similarly to the one happening in front of her. Were these men’s penises so tiny that they had to overcompensate by stripping their wives of what they loved the most?
She made a disgusted noise in her throat and quickly covered it up with a cough, but not before she’d snagged Cole’s attention. He turned his devastating blue eyes on her, and she was so caught off guard, she had to grip the counter just to steady herself.
Why did all the gorgeous men have to be complete pricks?
Cole wore a navy suit, very obviously expensive and very obviously tailored to fit his body like a glove. She averted her gaze before she could catalog the breadth of his shoulders or the planes of his chest beneath the baby-blue button-up he wore. But looking at his face was no better. His dark-blond hair was floppy, almost careless, and a whisper of scruff brushed his chiseled jaw—both of which were incongruent from the otherwise perfection of him. Honestly, was it so much to ask for a freaking scar or something?
Although, she supposed his horrid personality was blemish enough.
“Long as it don’t take too long,” Travis the Smarmy Jackass was saying. “Wanna be free and clear ASAP. Though that never stopped me before, if you know what I’m sayin’.” His lips turned up in a sneer, and he elbowed Cole, intent to bring him in on the joke. “’specially when there’re ones as pretty as this just waitin’ to get the D.” He turned his attention to Sadie and braced his elbows on the front desk, leaning too close for comfort, his wretched breath nearly knocking her over. “What’s your name, darlin’? I’ve got only a few months till this thing is final, but we don’t gotta wait that long…”
Sadie bared her teeth in a semblance of a smile, reminding herself that maiming an individual was most definitely a crime. “Such a charming proposition,” she said in a voice that dripped faux sweetness, “but I’m gonna have to pass. I don’t think my boyfriend would take too kindly to me seein’ other men. But I do so appreciate the offer.”
Travis shrugged, unbothered, no doubt because he’d be dropping those lines again later that evening. For men like that—and no doubt men like Cole Donovan who helped these miserable excuses for human beings—it wasn’t about love. It wasn’t even about the person. It was about what she could offer him—namely a warm place between her thighs and little else.
Sadie wasn’t in the business of one nights. She was in the business of forever. And there was little doubt neither of the two men in front of her could provide that.
If Cole Donovan had ever doubted that his ex-wife was the actual devil, he had days like this to remind him. There was no other explanation for why he’d been thrust into a situation where he’d be tormented. Tempted, day in and day out, for three solid weeks, with what he absolutely, without a doubt, could not have.
He walked his client, Travis Allen, out of the Starlight Haven Inn, schooling his features as he kept a tight leash on his irritation, despite anger crackling beneath his skin. For years, he’d been able to separate what his clients did and said from what he needed to fight for on their behalf. So then, why was he letting Travis’s dick comments get to him?
“What do you think of Red in there?” Travis elbowed Cole in the stomach and nodded back toward the inn. “Think it’s natural?”
Clenching his hands into fists, Cole locked his jaw and reminded himself that his relationship with Travis—both personal and professional—would soon be coming to an end. And then he was done doing favors for old friends. He was still feeling the chill courtesy of his last one.
He clapped Travis on the shoulder, much harder than necessary, and barely bit back the smile at the guy’s sharp Oof. “Just so there’s no confusion,” he said, his tone low but firm, “I absolutely will not represent you in a sexual harassment case.”
Travis chuckled and shook his head. “Aw, c’mon, man. I was just playin’ around. She’s hot, though, isn’t she? A little young and innocent for my usual tastes, but I can definitely work with that. Dirty her up, know what I’m sayin’? Think she was just givin’ me a line about havin’ a boyfriend?”
Cole refused to look back at Sadie Rollins—aforementioned “young and innocent,” his undeclared nemesis, and possibly the most idealistic, not to mention gorgeous, woman he’d ever met. Also, one of a very few people in Havenbrook responsible for keeping him in business.
After all, without marriages, there wouldn’t be divorces, and he’d be out of a job.
Sadie might be there to set those couples up with the illusion of their happy ending, but Cole was the one who was around to pick up the pieces when it inevitably fell apart.
“I don’t know, and I don’t care,” Cole said, concealing all emotion in his tone. With a firm hand, he guided Travis toward his ostentatious truck—the one Cole liked to refer to as Travis’s Small-Dick Express—eager to put an end to this interaction. “And you shouldn’t either. If you want that laundry list of demands from your wife, you better not get caught fucking around in town.”
Travis held up his hands. “All right, man. Point taken.” He shot finger guns—complete with sound effects—in Cole’s direction before opening the door to his jacked-up F-250 and climbing up. “I’m so damn glad we rushed the same fraternity back in the day. I wouldn’t be gettin’ fuck-all if it weren’t for you.”
Without another word, Travis slid into the driver’s seat before starting the overdone beast and peeling out of the driveway.
“Yeah, that’s the problem,” Cole muttered to himself as he ran a tired hand through his hair.
Working with people like Travis hadn’t always been so exhausting. Ever since his ex-wife—the she-devil—had blindsided him with the one-two punch of sleeping with his former best friend and then serving him with divorce papers after he found out, he’d gladly slid into his role as take-no-prisoners divorce attorney, able to move past that deception by representing men in similar situations and making sure they got their revenge in court. And he’d made a name for himself by doing so. Enough that it was no longer only wronged men who sought him out.
But somehow, revenge wasn’t enough anymore. He didn’t know what had changed in the past few months, but lately, he’d felt…unsettled. Though, his current upheaval certainly wasn’t helping things. Cole didn’t do well with change, and he was presently living in a constant state of it, thanks to his temporary home.
He inhaled a few lungfuls of the crisp December air as he pressed his thumb and forefinger to his closed eyes and mentally counted down how many days he had left in this hellhole.
“What’re you doin’ out here in the cold, sugar?” Edna, Havenbrook’s mail carrier, called from her old Jeep before stepping out with a package in tow.
“Afternoon, Edna.” He tipped his head at the older woman currently decked out in a flashing holiday sweater that read, Come deck my halls, Santa. “How’s your day been?”
“It’s about to get a lot better.” She hooked her hand around Cole’s elbow as she not so subtly guided them up the front porch steps and to the inn’s entrance. “I always coordinate any package drop-offs with Sadie’s afternoon bakin’ session. If my calculations are correct—and they are because this isn’t my first rodeo—those cookies will still be warm from the oven.”
Ah, yes. That which had been tempting him every day since he’d arrived on Monday, the mouthwatering scent making him hungry like he hadn’t been in years. Cookies. Yeah, it was definitely the cookies that had evoked that reaction.
“Then we better get you inside.” He held open the ornate front door, the carved mahogany no doubt an original fixture of the late-1800’s home, as Edna strolled through as if she owned the place. Though, from her outfit that coordinated with the inn’s festive interior, he wouldn’t be surprised.
Even though it was only a week past Thanksgiving, the front entryway was laden with fresh garland and wreaths, clusters of flickering candles in glass terrariums, and its own tree—one of too damn many to keep track of in the inn. White lights twinkled everywhere his eyes landed as he strode into the main gathering space, the scents of cinnamon and, yep, freshly baked cookies wafting his way.
Okay, so Starlight Haven wasn’t actually a hellhole. It was a gorgeous, recently renovated home that had been maintained well. Though, from what he knew of the inn’s history, neither that maintenance nor renovation fell at the feet of the woman who was both his biggest irritation and temptation.
“Forgot to drop this off for you earlier, Sadie,” Edna said, holding up the package.
“Well, you came at the perfect time. I just took these out of the oven.”
“Oh, what luck!”
With a snort, Cole paused just inside the room, his hand in the pocket of his suit pants, and watched Sadie interact with Edna. Her whole face lit up when she spoke to someone she didn’t hate—obviously something he didn’t usually have the pleasure of witnessing.
Christ, she was gorgeous, all fiery hair, bright blue eyes, and soft pink lips. The worst part about Sadie the Temptress was that she had no idea the power she held. She snagged his attention without even trying—something she’d managed to do nearly every day since he’d moved to Havenbrook shortly after his divorce four years ago.
It was really too bad he’d caught her attention for all the wrong reasons.
They hadn’t spoken a single word to each other before they’d officially met when he’d represented her complete asshole of an ex-brother-in-law. But even if they had, it wouldn’t have mattered. He could’ve been a saint—and, to be clear, he absolutely was not a saint—and she still would’ve hated him on principle alone. All because he did his job and he did it well. It wasn’t his fault her sister’s ex-husband had cheated. But it was his doing that Alec had walked away paying less in alimony than Elise had requested and with a hefty chunk of the Rollins’ family antiques, even after his indiscretions.
“Honey, you should quit starin’ and just go on and get yourself a cookie.” A woman in her late sixties with burnished bronze skin and a riot of gray curls unabashedly brushed crumbs from her sweater as she sat in front of one of the many fireplaces. “I swear I’m tastin’ heaven in my mouth right now.”
Cole tore his eyes away from Sadie and dipped his chin in the older woman’s direction. “Thanks for the suggestion, ma’am, but I don’t wanna spoil my supper.”
The woman waved her hand in front of her face and gestured behind him. “Nonsense! Sadie’s deliciousness is definitely worth spoilin’ your supper over.”
He couldn’t explain why those words—so sweet and innocent coming from someone older than his momma—conjured up thoughts of him feasting on all of Sadie’s deliciousness. He’d fall to his knees right in front of where she stood, duck his head under her flouncy red skirt, and lick up all the sweetness he had no doubt she was entirely made of.
“This nice lady’s right, Cole,” Edna agreed, ganging up on him. See if he offered her free legal advice the next time she put another dead animal in her ex-husband’s house. “Sadie’s goodies taste delicious.”
“Well, go on, then,” the other woman said to Sadie. “Offer this gentleman some of your goodies.” With a wink, she added, “Need to do all you can to lock down a man as handsome as this one.”
“Ain’t that the truth?” Edna said. “Been preachin’ that for years. It’s our job to guide these young people, you know. Never too early to—”
As Edna prattled on about the horrors of modern dating, Cole allowed himself to drink in the sight of the woman who always seemed to throw him for a loop. She wore black leather boots up to her knees and a short red dress that twisted and twirled when she walked. Enough that a tiny voice in the back of his head prayed for a glimpse of panties any time she moved.
When he finally lifted his eyes to meet Sadie’s gaze, it was full of a fire she was obviously struggling to subdue, and his lips twitched in response. What was it about this woman he was so obviously incompatible with that got him so damn hot…and hard?
“Yes,” she bit out between clenched teeth, which she probably intended to be a smile. “Please. Help yourself.”
The buzz of conversation between Edna and her new friend settled into background noise as he strode toward Sadie, stopping a foot from where she stood. Barring the day he’d checked in, this was as close to her as he’d ever been. Probably for the better, considering the state of his body right now. His cock always had been a disloyal bastard.
He reached out and plucked a warm cookie from the tray she held in front of her breasts—also probably for the better—and tried not to catalog the different shades of red in her hair or why those fire-spitting eyes were turning him on so fucking much. The cookies were small enough that he had no problem popping the entire thing into his mouth.
“So nice of you to savor it,” she said dryly.
“Would you prefer I take this next one nice and slow?” He grabbed another cookie from the tray and bit off an exaggeratedly small bite before chewing thoroughly.
“I don’t care how you take it,” she said, even as she watched his lips with rapt attention.
Cole’s eyebrows rose as he studied her studying him. Interesting… Apparently, he wasn’t the only one feeling a bit off-balance, because, as far as he knew, she’d never before given him a second glance.
Unable to help himself from poking the bear, he leaned down, bringing their faces closer together. “I’m not sure that’s true, firecracker.”
His words seemed to jolt her out of her trance, and she huffed out an irritated sound, spun around, and clicked away in those wet-dream-inducing boots, taking her sweet cookies and even sweeter ass with her.
He shook his head to clear his thoughts from the delusions sleep deprivation had no doubt caused. Thanks to the change in location, he’d been running on fewer than four hours of sleep this whole week. On top of that, the coffee here wasn’t the pour over espresso he usually started his day with, he hadn’t been able to get his suits completely wrinkle-free after the trip over, and the mattress in his room was too soft.
He’d been living out of a suitcase for only three days, and he was already over it. He was just going to have to suck it up because he still had another three weeks of being exiled from his home while King Haven Construction renovated his kitchen and master bedroom. Eventually, he’d get used to the bed, and he’d probably start being able to function on the watered-down trash they called coffee. Based on his current circumstances, it was no wonder he’d been feeling so off-kilter.
It definitely didn’t have anything to do with the gorgeous redhead shooting death glares his way like she wanted to rip him a new one…right before she ripped off his clothes.
“Please, Sadie. I’m seriously beggin’ for it.”
Sadie stared into the pleading eyes of her cousin Natalie Haven. Her elbows were propped on the front desk, chin resting on top of her hands, folded as if in prayer.
“I don’t know, Nat…”
“Please! You’re seriously my last hope. The original couple I’d planned to photograph can’t do it because they came down with the flu. And these pictures are due to this magazine next week.”
Sadie felt bad for the situation her cousin was in, but what she was trying to pull off—photographing two random strangers as if already in a relationship—was so far out of Sadie’s comfort zone, she couldn’t even see the outline of her boundaries.
“You could probably find someone better suited for this than me,” Sadie said. “Maybe someone with modeling experience?”
Nat shook her head. “Nope. No. They don’t want models. They want real people—that’s the whole point of this spread. Showcasing real love with real couples across the globe.”
“It sounds amazing.”
“It is! I’ve loved shootin’ these. My favorite session was this couple in Montreal. Neither of the men was very comfortable in front of the camera, but five minutes in, and they totally forgot I was there. It was just them and their love.”
“But that’s the thing—right now, it’s just me. No love here.”
“Let me worry about that after you say yes.”
“Oh, you’re so sure of my agreement, are you?” Sadie asked flatly.
“I think very highly of myself, yes, so I’m fairly certain I can get you to agree.”
Sadie snorted and shook her head. “I don’t know… I don’t really do well in front of the camera.”
Nat tipped her head back and blew out a heavy sigh toward the ceiling. “I don’t know how many times I have to tell people this—you don’t have to be good in front of a camera. I have to be good behind a camera. You let me worry about it. All you need to focus on is followin’ directions—something you are excellent at, by the way. I’m always the one who screws up.”
Her cousin certainly wasn’t wrong. Ever since they were little, she’d been nothing but a troublemaker, especially when she was around her two best friends.
“You do not,” Sadie offered without much insistence behind it.
Nat snorted. “Don’t even try that. Besides, I’m workin’ on it. I’m back here, aren’t I? Even though I was just home a couple weeks ago. After everything that happened with Daddy, I’ve been tryin’ to get back more, despite the fact that I hate it here.”
“How selfless of you.”
“I know, right? And I planned everything like I was supposed to. I lined up a different couple than I’d originally intended so I could work this location into my schedule, but who can predict who’s gonna get sick with the flu? Now, this might seriously fuck up my career, all because I wanted to come home and spend time with family…”
Oh, she was good. Sadie would give her that. She knew Nat was laying it on thick, but there was truth underneath it all. Her cousin had flown the coop at the earliest possible opportunity, and she hadn’t exactly made it a priority to visit Havenbrook in the years since. It was too bad it’d taken a near tragedy to bring her back, but at least she was home—even if it was temporary. And if Sadie could make her time there a little easier to encourage her to visit more often, well…wasn’t it her duty as a cousin to do so? Her aunt and Nat’s mom, Caroline, deserved that. The jury was still out on Nat’s daddy, Richard Haven, who was an insufferable ass even on his best days.
Sadie’s shoulders slumped and Nat’s eyes immediately brightened, no doubt sensing a looming victory, but Sadie held up her hand to stop Nat’s smile in its tracks. “I haven’t said yes. What about your sisters? Can’t you wrangle one of them into this?”
Nat huffed and rolled her eyes. “They’re all pains in my ass, I swear. I could probably talk Mac into doin’ it, but Hudson’s stationed in Washington right now. Will said she doesn’t wanna do anything in a wedding dress before her big day—like puttin’ on one that’s not hers is even gonna matter. And—”
“Wait, I’d have to wear a wedding dress?”
“Yes, but I promise, it’s gorgeous.” Nat swept her newly hot-pink hair out of her eyes and continued, “And Rory’s busy—something about a holiday bake sale and the girls’ school. I don’t know. Honestly, I don’t listen too much when she talks.”
Sadie laughed. “You know this would be a lot easier if you found a couple, right?”
“Uh, yeah, I do know that, actually. Unfortunately, I only know assholes who aren’t interested in helpin’ me. So, I’m gonna have to rely on my skill behind the camera and posin’ techniques to try to get the kind of chemistry that comes from two people bein’ in love.”
“I think you’re aimin’ for a miracle. You can’t fake that kind of connection.”
“Let me worry about that.” Nat reached for Sadie’s wrist. “Look, I swear I wouldn’t be askin’ if it wasn’t a huge deal…if I didn’t really, truly need you. This spread could be career-changin’ for me. It’s gonna be in the highest-circulated wedding magazine in the country.”
Sadie’s mouth dropped open. “You got a spread in Happily Ever After?” Was it a sign that she’d just been reading the latest issue the other day?
“I did…” A slow smile spread across Nat’s mouth. “You know…I was plannin’ to shoot down by the covered bridge, but,” she said, drawing out the word, “maybe we could shoot on the grounds here at the B&B. That way, we can get the inn’s name in the magazine, too.”
Nationwide exposure for Starlight could mean serious changes for them. As in, they’d be able to do more than just skimp by every month. Not only that, but they could hire someone to work the front desk, which would free up Elise to pursue something she actually enjoyed, and Sadie could plan more weddings—ones that would hopefully be booked thanks to this spread.
“Fine. I’ll do it as long as Elise can watch the inn. But we’re shootin’ it here, and I want your assurance that the bed-and-breakfast will be highlighted in the piece.”
Nat fist-pumped and shouted an expletive that was definitely too loud and inappropriate for the older couple currently reading in front of the fireplace. Fortunately, Mr. and Mrs. Fischer only spared them a glance before returning their attention to their afternoon activities. Two points to Sadie for spiking their hot chocolate excessively well today.
“Don’t get so excited,” she said. “You still have to find me a groom, right?”
Nat’s shoulders sagged as she rubbed her forehead. “Yes.”
“What about Nash? I know you said Rory had something goin’ on with the girls, but is Nash involved in that?”
Nat barked out a laugh. “Rory’d have my ass if I even thought of shootin’ her boyfriend with another woman, cousin or not.”
Yeah, Sadie could see that. Aurora Haven, eldest Haven girl and demanding taskmaster, was definitely someone you did not want to cross.
“Honestly, what good is it havin’ a local best friend if I can’t exploit him for my needs?”
This time, Sadie didn’t bother trying to smother her laugh. “And that other best friend of yours?”
“Asher—aka Mr. Hotshot—is on tour in Florida and scheduled to be in town in a couple weeks. And I’m not desperate enough to throw down our emergency word just to get him here early enough for the shoot. There’s gotta be someone in town who could—” Nat’s eyes widened as she glanced behind Sadie, a brilliant smile sweeping over her face. She fluffed her pink hair, perked up her boobs, and strode off without another word.
Before Sadie could turn to look at who’d caught Nat’s attention, Mrs. Fischer walked up and plunked her empty mug on the front desk. “Oh, good, I was hoping I’d catch you,” the woman said with what sounded like a Midwestern accent.
Sadie smiled. “Of course, Mrs. Fischer. What can I help you with?”
“Could you tell me a little bit about the festivities happening in town this week?”
“Bob and I are just so excited to experience everything your cute little town has to offer!”
“And we’re excited—”
“Do you know how we found Havenbrook?”
Having been cut off enough times, Sadie simply kept her mouth shut and smiled, raising her eyebrows in a please continue gesture. Sadie had no idea if it was that or the fact that the other woman seemed to have a lot to say, but she continued on.
“Well, I’m not sure if you know this,” Mrs. Fischer said, leaning in as if she were about to spill a secret, “but Havenbrook is on a list of the twenty best small towns in which to spend the holidays!”
“Really?” That was just the kind of publicity they needed. Getting on a list like that could make their business boom. Especially if it was on a major site, like—
“Oh yes! On Trudy’s Travel Blog. It’s a little hard to read with the bright green background and white letters, but I found a ton of good information on there.”
Sadie grinned, though her chest deflated slightly. Havenbrook may not be on the map for the big leagues, but at least they were getting some representation, small as it may be. “Well, I’m glad you found us, however that was. Was there something specific you were hopin’ to do during your stay?”
“We just want to experience Havenbrook at this time of year in whatever way you think is best.”
Sadie spent several minutes discussing with Mrs. Fischer the options that were available in town. They wanted to spread out the events over the course of their stay, so Sadie suggested a few choices for them to select from. She also made a reservation for them at the restaurant downtown that gave the best view of the huge lighted tree in the middle of the Square.
“You’re such a doll. Thank you for helping us with this!” Mrs. Fischer patted Sadie’s hand and squeezed before gathering up the brochures Sadie had offered and heading back to her suite, grabbing her husband from in front of the fireplace as she went.
Sadie tucked her hair behind her ear as she closed out the browser windows she’d opened to show Mrs. Fischer the offerings before remembering herself, her head snapping up as she glanced around for Nat. She did a double take when her eyes landed on her cousin. The man she was talking to had his back to Sadie, but she’d know that careless blond hair, the crisp, expensive suit, and the wide breadth of those shoulders anywhere.
“Oh, please no. No, no, no,” she muttered to herself. But either there was no deity listening, or they simply didn’t care to answer her prayer, because the man turned his head toward her, their eyes locking, and Sadie’s stomach bottomed out.
Nat shot her a huge grin and a wink, giving her a thumbs-up before transitioning her hands into a completely inappropriate gesture. Sadie’s face flamed, her cheeks no doubt going scarlet. As soon as Cole turned back to face Nat, her cousin dropped her hands immediately and smiled up at him.
Maybe he didn’t realize who he was signing up to be posing with. Surely if he did, he wouldn’t have agreed to this. As far as she could tell, their relationship, for lack of a better word, wasn’t comprised of one-sided animosity.
Or…Lord. Maybe he intended to agree to it specifically because he knew it’d be a way to get under her skin. Hadn’t this whole week he’d been staying here when he’d always managed to be in the inn at three o’clock on the dot, just in time to devour her cookies very slowly, been proof enough that he enjoyed doing that? Enjoyed torturing her?
Nat squeezed Cole’s biceps and then strode directly toward Sadie, a huge grin stretching her mouth. She leaned an elbow on the front desk and turned her sparkling eyes on Sadie. “I mean, I don’t want to be a dick or anything, but you should definitely be thankin’ me for this. Did you see that man?” She waved her hand in front of her face as if she were overheated. “Holy fuck. Fortunately, he has a dark gray suit he can wear, because there’s no way he could fit into the one I’ve been loaned. He’s got to be packin’ some serious heat, if you know what I’m sayin’.”
Sadie’s thoughts immediately flew to Cole’s assets before she snapped her eyes shut as if that would block out the mental imagery of what he might be hiding inside his pressed suit pants. She cleared her throat. “We’ve, um… We’ve actually already met.”
“Really? Great! This might not be as difficult as I thought, then.”
Sadie glanced toward the dining room, finding Cole still standing there, his piercing eyes burning into her. She could never tell his emotions from simply looking at him, but by the hard set of his jaw and the tense lines of his shoulders, it was safe to say he did not look happy. Yeah, well, that made two of them.
“Actually, Nat, this might be worse.”
Sadie hadn’t been sure what to expect on the day of the shoot or how she’d feel. Turned out, nerves. Just straight-up nerves.
Nat had wanted to shoot in the light of the setting sun—something about the golden hour and the gorgeous glow it would cast over them. As if Sadie’s anxiety leading up to the session hadn’t been bad enough, now, thanks to the late session time, she’d had hours upon hours of early morning reflection today—read: anxiety daydreams—and she just wanted to get this nightmare over with.
“How much longer?” Sadie didn’t even attempt to tamp down the hopeful note in her voice as she sat in a chair in front of the largest window in the room as Janine, the makeup artist, brushed and swept and dabbed various products on her.
Fortunately, the inn’s honeymoon suite wasn’t booked until the weekend—Naomi and her new husband having just vacated the day before—so they’d been able to commandeer it for their purposes. It was the inn’s largest suite, with a bedroom, sitting room, and huge bath complete with multihead glass shower and claw-foot tub. Maybe she’d reward herself with a soak in there after this stressful day—Lord knew she’d need it. They were going to have to have the room cleaned again anyway. She might as well make the most of it.
“The majority of the women I work on usually like havin’ this done, you know,” Janine said with a teasing lilt.
“Yeah, well, my cousin’s not most women.” Nat hadn’t moved from her perch next to Sadie, no doubt so she could give constant input about the hair and makeup to make sure it fit her vision.
They hadn’t allowed Sadie to peer into any mirrors, so, of course, she feared the worst. She’d been sitting there for nearly three hours already—what the hell were they doing? She wasn’t a vain person by nature, but she had no idea it’d take so much to make her camera-ready. She was terrified they’d turned her into someone else. Worse, what if Cole actually liked new, completely inauthentic her?
Better question—why did she even care?
“Okay, I’m just gonna apply the lashes…”
At the blob of black slowly invading her sight, Sadie jerked far enough back so Janine came into focus, said black blob pinched between the tweezers she wielded.
Sadie held up her hand. “Wait…eyelashes? I…I have eyelashes, though.”
Nat and Janine both laughed before Janine lowered the tweezers and rested a hand on her hip. “Relax. They come right off. Well…not right off because then they’d start flappin’ in the breeze right in the middle of the session, but they’re easy to remove. I promise.”
Sadie eyed her skeptically until the other woman held up the non-tweezer-wielding hand. “Swear. I’m not even usin’ the fullest option. I just wanna accentuate what you already have.”
Blowing out a deep breath, Sadie nodded, even though her shoulders remained stiff. As Janine placed the eyelashes, Sadie’s apprehension only grew. It felt like two caterpillars crawling on her eyelids—how could that possibly look authentic?
“How do people wear these every day?” she asked.
Janine laughed. “You’ll get used to ’em.”
“They’re so much heavier than I thought they’d be. And are they supposed to cloud half my vision?” There was no way she remotely resembled herself. Would her twin even recognize her?
“You’re gonna forget all about that when you see how hot you look,” Nat said, brandishing a mirror in front of Sadie.
She froze for half a second, terrified at what she’d find, but in the end, curiosity won out. She lowered her gaze to the large mirror, and her mouth dropped open.
“Wow,” she breathed.
They’d left her hair down, curled in loose waves not unlike she usually styled it, and though it felt as if she wore a pound of makeup, the effect was actually very subtle. Deep pink stained her lips—something she wouldn’t normally wear, but that she actually sort of liked—and her blue eyes popped thanks to the eye shadow colors Janine had chosen. And she’d been right. Sadie couldn’t believe that the massive clump that felt like it was taking up half her vision didn’t appear fake. The whole look was her, just kicked up a notch…or twelve.
Nat raised a single eyebrow. “Good ‘wow,’ or what the fuck ‘wow’?”
Sadie huffed out a laugh and lowered the mirror, turning to catch her cousin’s gaze. “Definitely good. I thought you were makin’ me up to look like a totally different person.”
“Why the hell would I do that? You’re gorgeous. Now for the dress…” Nat’s eyes brightened as she strode into the bedroom where the gown had been hanging all day.
“Have you seen it?” Sadie asked Janine as the makeup artist spritzed some sort of spray all over her face.
“Yep, and all I can say is I’d kill to wear a dress like that.”
Well, that sounded promising at least…
Nat strolled back into the sitting room, the dress held aloft as a huge grin split her face. “Ta-da,” she said, flipping the gown around with flourish so Sadie could see.
Sadie’s smile froze as she glanced at the article of clothing she’d be wearing for the next several hours. She’d coordinated enough weddings to know the vast range of bridal gowns, so she didn’t know why she’d assumed the one she’d be wearing today would be a ballgown. That was ludicrous, considering there were dozens of other styles. She now realized her assumption had been based in hope strictly out of self-preservation. Because at least a ballgown would allow for a safe distance between her and Cole. This—this full-lace dress with its plunging neckline cut clear down to damn near her belly button and see-through skirt that would tease nearly every inch of her—was anything but a ballgown.
“What do you think?” Nat asked. “Gorgeous, right? I’m so glad you and Anne are the same size so you could wear this one! You’re gonna be stunning in it.”
Sadie swallowed, the sound like a gunshot ricocheting through her head. “Will I have a shawl or anything like that?”
Nat snorted and hung the gown on the hook above the window, the light coming in behind it illustrating just how sheer the skirt was. “Course not. That’d cover all the best parts.”
Yeah, it was all her best parts that she wanted to cover. Especially in front of Cole. At least the stylist had left her hair down, so she’d be able to use it as some sort of shield.
But as Nat helped her step into the dress, the fabric clinging to every inch of her body, the lace design concealing only her most intimate places, she knew she could’ve had Captain America’s shield, and it still wouldn’t be enough.
Sadie had been right. Her fears and apprehensions leading up to the shoot had materialized in front of her as soon as she stepped through the archway that led to the inn’s courtyard. They’d lucked out with a warmer day, the temperature hovering in the lower fifties. Definitely colder than she usually wore sleeveless dresses in, but it could’ve been a lot worse.
Cole stood in front of the gazebo strung with lights and garland and surrounded by the leftover poinsettias, hand in his pocket and eyes fixed on her, looking for all the world like a gorgeous, imposing, pompous ass of a man.
Nat broke off from Sadie, walking ahead and calling out to Cole with a wave, but she couldn’t pay attention to a single word her cousin spoke. Not when dormant butterflies had erupted in her stomach, fluttering around every inch inside her. Instead of listening to what were no doubt instructions from Nat, Sadie had to focus on shutting down her ridiculous body.
What the hell was she doing getting butterflies over a man like this?
It was just hormones. It had to be. Crazy, unpredictable, inconvenient hormones. She was in the middle of a long dry spell, and her body was making her pay for it now.
“All right, you two. Let’s see if we can fake some chemistry,” Nat said on a grin as she pulled her camera from its bag.
“I’ll try to muster up some attraction,” Cole said, his tone flat, not an ounce of humor to be found. He dropped his gaze to take in Sadie, and it might as well have been his lips ghosting over her skin for how her body reacted to the look.
Thank God he’d brought his jackass self with him, because his rude words were exactly what she needed to snap herself out of whatever hormone-induced stupor she’d fallen into.
She hefted up the skirt of her dress and stomped toward him as carefully as possible, her ridiculous four-inch heels needed to offset their height difference making it difficult. “You’re not the only one who’ll have to work on that,” she snapped before turning her back to him. “You’re not exactly my type.”
Sadie hated to lie, but when she did, she always grounded it in as much truth as possible, hence the second part of her statement. That, certainly, was true enough. She dated nice guys. Sweet guys. Safe guys. Cole was none of the above.
“Okay, y’all, I’m gonna guide you how to pose,” Nat said, “but I don’t want you to feel boxed in, all right? If something doesn’t feel natural, just move till it does. And feel free to talk while I’m shootin’. It’ll be more authentic if I can catch some real smiles.”
“Oh, dang,” Sadie murmured, “I forgot to tell her that I don’t usually smile around jackasses.”
“Not even if I found all your ticklish spots?” Cole asked from behind her, the heat of his body seeping into her as goose bumps swept over her skin.
“You won’t get close enough,” she said, steeling her tone.
“I’m gonna need y’all to get a little closer.” Nat flashed a smile. “Remember? You’re supposed to be a couple. Cole, just pretend you hiked up her skirt in the dressin’ room and had your wicked way with her before y’all came out here.”
Sadie’s mouth dropped open in shock. “Natalie Haven! I cannot believe you just said that.”
With a laugh, Nat lifted a single shoulder and waved a dismissive hand. “What? Gotta break this awkward tension somehow. My dirty mind is usually the way to go.”
Sadie didn’t have the heart to tell her cousin it wasn’t awkward tension that was the problem—it was just plain old tension. It’d been a constant between her and Cole since he’d first moved to town years ago. At the time, she’d actually wondered if it’d been attraction. But after they’d officially met during her sister’s divorce hearings, it was clear that tension was strictly of the hate variety.
Nat was definitely going to have her work cut out for her.
“I suggested ticklin’ her,” Cole offered unhelpfully.
“Oh, good call!” Nat nodded, lifting her camera to her face and messing with the controls. Lowering the camera enough to meet their gazes over the top, she said, “For the record, her sides are the worst.”
Sadie huffed out an indignant breath and glared daggers at her cousin. “I’m no longer speakin’ to you.”
“We both know that won’t last.”
“Don’t get mad at her,” Cole said to Sadie, the low timbre of his voice rattling her insides like an earthquake. “I’m the one who brought it up.”
“You’d rather I direct my irritation at you, then?”
“I don’t see how that’d be different from any other day.”
“Well, unlike any other day, I’m now close enough to accidentally inflict some bodily harm.”
Cole chuckled low, the sound shocking Sadie so much, she glanced back at him, her own lips curving up without permission. But by the time she met his gaze, his lips were once again in their standard flat line, though his eyes were twinkling in a way she’d never seen.
“See?” Nat called. “Told you my dirty mind always works. Now, let’s make some magic.”
Nat directed them into various poses, each one more illicit than the last, and Sadie tried futilely to control her reactions. Janine hadn’t needed to put on an ounce of blush for how heated Sadie had become, despite the outdoor temperature.
“Good. Now, Cole, I want you to flatten your hand on her stomach, span your fingers wide, and pull her back into you. And then just do what comes natural.”
Natural? Ha! Sadie was stiff as a board, had been this entire time. She could feel how tight her shoulders were, practically hiked up around her ears. She just hoped it wouldn’t be obvious in the pictures.
“You need to relax, or we’re gonna have to do this all over again,” Cole murmured. “Unless that’s what you want?”
“Are you always this impossible, or just with me?”
“You do seem to bring out the best in me.” He must’ve leaned closer, his breath now fanning over her ear and down her exposed neck, eliciting a shudder she couldn’t attempt to hide. “Cold?” he asked, a cocky lilt to his voice.
“Obviously,” she snapped. “You try standin’ out here in fifty-degree weather, wearing barely more than Eve did.”
See? Another lie rooted in reality. She should be cold from the temperature. But the fact of the matter was that since the moment Cole had put his hands on her, her entire body had flamed, heat burning her up from the inside. And the hard points of her nipples had absolutely nothing to do with the chill in the air.
“What can I do to warm you up, I wonder?” Cole said slowly, dipping his head to the slope where her neck met her shoulder. He ghosted his lips over the skin, and she barely held back a moan, biting her lip to keep it trapped inside where it belonged.
“Oh yes! More of this, please,” Nat said excitedly, the camera shutter click-click-clicking in quick succession.
As Cole continued his subtle torture against her neck, Sadie’s shoulders dipped with each second that passed, melting her body down until she had to lean back against him just to remain upright. He released a gruff sound from his throat as his grip on her stomach tightened, the hold firm and possessive. He tugged her back fully against him, the hard length of his cock pressing against her backside, and she sucked in a ragged breath as she felt him for the first time. Suddenly overwhelmingly desperate to feel him for the first time.
Giving herself a mental chastising, she shook herself from those thoughts. See? It wasn’t just her feeling the effects of this. Her body’s reaction was totally reasonable, considering this entire situation was obviously turning both their brains to mush.
“Those were so hot,” Nat said, glancing down at her camera screen. “Let’s do some face-to-face now that you two are warmed up.”
Good. Maybe staring into the eyes of the one guy in Havenbrook she couldn’t stand would be the bucket of ice water her libido needed. After seeing her flushed face, Cole wouldn’t waste any time teasing her, and then they’d be back exactly where she needed them to be—at odds with each other.
But when she turned around, Cole didn’t taunt or tease. Didn’t ridicule or insult. Instead, he stared down at her as Nat directed them, his pale-blue eyes darker than Sadie had ever seen.
On Natalie’s command, Cole wrapped one of his hands around Sadie’s hip, his fingers digging into her lower back and guiding her closer so their bodies pressed tight together from the waist down. And, yep, she most definitely was not the only one still feeling the effects of this shoot. Parting his lips, he slid his other hand up her arm, over her shoulder, and to her neck, his thumb fanning against her cheek as he threaded his fingers into her hair.
Up this close, he smelled so damn good, like ocean air and sunshine, and she had the absolutely ridiculous urge to press her nose to his neck and breathe him in deep. Suck him into her body and keep him there forever.
“Good,” Nat said. “Now lean toward each other like you’re gonna kiss…”
Thank God Cole was following directions, because Sadie was frozen, her eyes wide and anxious as she looked up at him. Cole’s gaze, though, had turned heavy. Sultry. His eyes flicked from hers down to her lips and back again. They stood so close, their bodies pressed everywhere they could, and she could feel his exhales whispering across her mouth. Could taste the mint of his breath.
With one hand wrapped around his wrist, the other gripping the front of his shirt, she felt her eyes flutter closed without her permission, her lips parting as she finally gave in to this crazy chemistry between them and prepared for his kiss.
“Perfect! You guys were awesome. I think I have everything I need,” Nat said, snapping Sadie out of her stupor.
She jerked back, nearly tripping over her dress’s train, and Cole reached out to steady her, but she shook him off, unable to meet his eyes. “Great! Great. That’s…great.”
Well, that was fantastic—this whole situation had apparently zapped every ounce of her intellect so she could only say great. What was not great was that she’d very clearly lost her mind and nearly kissed Cole freaking Donovan during an extremely fictional photo shoot. She was an idiot.
“It was better than great,” Nat said, stuffing her camera and lenses into her bag. “It was amazing. Don’t you think, Cole?”
Sadie refused to look at the man her cousin spoke to. The one who’d so easily blown all of Sadie’s defenses out of the water, erasing three years of animosity with a single afternoon of close contact.
“Um, if we’re done,” Sadie interrupted before Cole could answer, “I’m freezin’, so I’m gonna go on in and get changed.”
Without waiting for a response, Sadie hiked up her nearly indecent dress and fled into the inn with the single ounce of dignity she had left.
Hours later, Cole sat in the plush armchair in his suite, looking out the window toward the gazebo on the grounds, white lights twinkling under the pitch black of the night sky. Remembering the feel of Sadie’s curves against him as they’d stood there, closer than they’d ever been. He should have been embarrassed for how his body had betrayed him, his cock growing thick and hard the second he’d seen her walk out in that dress. But the truth was, his reaction was nothing new. He’d been drawn to her from the first moment he’d noticed her when he’d moved to town, smiling brilliantly at someone in the Square. As soon as she’d turned that grin his way, it’d knocked him on his proverbial ass.
Their distant attraction had continued until the day they’d officially met outside the courthouse. Recognition had lit her gaze before realization dawned. He’d sworn he could see her eyes shuttering right there in front of him. As he’d glanced between her and her sister—before Elise had started dyeing her hair, their appearances had been similar, though he’d never had any trouble telling them apart—he could feel her disdain practically rolling off her.
From that day on, every heated glance toward him was filled with nothing but malice and hate. And he couldn’t even blame her. Cole prided himself on a job well done, and he’d lived up to that when he represented her former brother-in-law. Had done that job so well, in fact, that he’d managed to rob the very inn in which he stayed of the majority of their multigenerational family antiques. A power move on the part of his client and former fraternity brother, and something that still made Cole sick to think about.
But that was all part of the game he had to play. He got paid to make sure his clients received exactly what they wanted. Even if their intentions only came from a place of revenge. Even if it wasn’t fair.
He downed the last of his bourbon before glancing at his watch. It was just before midnight, which meant the rest of the inn would be quiet and desolate. He’d found that out the second night in his temporary home. While he didn’t necessarily need a lot of space, it was still quite an adjustment transitioning from a two-thousand-square-foot home all to himself, which he could roam completely naked if he so chose, to a two-hundred-square-foot box without even a kitchenette.
He stripped from his lounge pants and tugged on a pair of jeans and a hoodie, just in case he ran into any fellow guests while he was wandering around. The inn was quiet as he stepped out of his room, the hallway lit by a plethora of white lights hung from the ceiling. The bed-and-breakfast looked like St. Nick himself had thrown up inside, but Cole couldn’t deny its festiveness. He could see why it was a permanent stop on the town’s Sip and Shop holiday event that showcased several of Havenbrook’s best.
The door directly across the hall from Cole’s room opened suddenly, and Sadie stepped out, stopping short when her gaze landed on him.
“Oh!” Her hand flew to her throat as she startled. “Cole. You scared me.”
He ignored the way the sound of his name on her lips shot straight to his cock. In his time staying here, he’d never seen her in the main house past nine, which was when she usually headed off to the cottage on the back of the property. Narrowing his eyes, he shifted his gaze to the door very clearly marked as the honeymoon suite.
“What’re you doin’ in there?” he asked. Demanded, really.
She crossed her arms over her chest and arched a single indignant brow, her face scrubbed clean of the makeup she’d worn earlier in the day and eyes so bright, he could clearly make them out even in the dim hallway. “I’m not really sure that’s any of your business. Last I checked, this is my inn, and I don’t need to account for my whereabouts to the guests.”
Well, it was good to see the fire between them that had been stoked earlier in the day was less filled with raging attraction and now back to just rage.
“Yes, I am aware of that. Believe it or not, I did pass first grade.”
“Sometimes I wonder,” she mumbled just loud enough for him to hear.
He knew he shouldn’t look his fill—especially after earlier. But when Sadie was around, he shifted from the detached man he’d turned himself into after his divorce to someone hungry for every ounce of her. Dropping his gaze to take her in, he followed the curve of her cheek, down her neck—lingering for only a moment where his lips had rested earlier—to the slope of her shoulder he so rarely saw. She wore a too-big holiday sweatshirt with snowmen on the front, the neckline wide and falling off one side. Her hair was pulled up, the thick mass of red waves piled on top of her head with several tendrils falling loosely around her face. Wisps of hair at her nape were damp. From sweat? He narrowed his eyes before flicking his gaze back to the door that led to the honeymoon suite, straining his ears for sounds of another person inside.
He didn’t think she was seeing anyone. But then again, they weren’t exactly BFFs. Hell, they weren’t even acquaintances. For all he knew, she had a string of fuck buddies whom she brought back to the inn to avoid any intimate connection with her home.
“You have a gym here that I wasn’t aware of?”
Sadie’s brow furrowed. “What? No, why?”
Cole lifted his hand and ran two fingers over her damp hair, biting back his satisfaction when she shuddered at the contact. “Your hair’s wet.”
Sadie dropped her gaze and cleared her throat, tightening her arms over her chest, which only managed to perk up her absolutely delicious-looking breasts and made him even hungrier for her. “I’m not sure why it’s any of your business, but I was utilizin’ the honeymoon suite’s enormous bathroom and claw-foot tub.”
“Is that so?” he managed through the choke hold that vision had on him. He slid his hand into his pocket to hopefully hide the evidence of his reaction to her being naked, just across the hall from him.
“Kind of a necessity,” she said, her voice oozing a fake sweetness that seemed to come so easily for her with anyone else. “See, I had this run-in earlier with a complete asshole, so I desperately needed the relaxation. Unfortunately, it looks like I might need to head right back in there as soon as we’re done.”
He studied her, from her full, parted lips, to her flushed chest, to the hard points of her nipples she was trying very hard to hide. One thing was clear—she may not like him very much, but she sure as hell was attracted to him. “You know what I think?”
She rolled her eyes. “Even though I don’t care, I’m sure you’re gonna tell me.”
His lips twitched as he took a single step toward her, enough so the heat from her body radiated off her. She smelled of lavender, and he wanted nothing more than to bury his face in her neck and breathe her in. “I think that soak wasn’t for relaxation at all. I think it was for relief.”
She huffed out a laugh. “Relief? From what? The fact that I didn’t have to be in your presence any longer?”
What would she do if he reached up and traced the neckline of that sweatshirt? If his fingertips ran perilously close to those pointed nipples taunting him… “Keep tellin’ yourself that, firecracker, but you and I both know exactly what kind of tension you needed to release after earlier.”
Cole didn’t voice aloud that he’d needed the same. After the shoot, he’d barely managed to wait until his door had closed behind him before he’d had his pants undone and his hand wrapped tightly around his cock. Memories of Sadie’s body against his had fueled his urgency as he stroked himself to completion.
Her eyes flashed with heat and hunger, the low light in the hallway illuminating the pink flush to her cheeks. She dropped her hands to her sides, and her chest rose and fell with each labored breath, the puckered tips of her breasts calling his name. “I could kick you out of the inn for sayin’ something like that to me, you know.”
Yeah, he knew. But even the prospect of being booted out on to the street in the middle of December wasn’t enough to make him shut his mouth. He didn’t know what it was about this woman, but she pushed every one of his buttons. Woke a beast inside him he hadn’t even known existed until her.
“Maybe,” he said, just noticing how they’d invaded each other’s spaces as they’d talked, now mere inches apart. “But I think you enjoy usin’ that smart mouth of yours to make my life a daily hell too much to do so.”
She narrowed her eyes. “You’re a complete jackass, you know that?”
“Only around you, apparently.”
“Oh, that’s real mature. You’re blamin’ me for your complete lack of manners?”
“Believe me, Sadie, the last thing I think about in your presence is manners.”
“I’m sure this is gonna be good. What, exactly, do you think about while I’m around?”
He dropped his gaze to her lips, so full and pink and perfect. Ever since that first day he’d seen her in the Square, he’d wanted to know what they’d feel like. What they’d taste like. “Sometimes I wonder what you’d do if I kissed you just to shut you up.”
“You…what?” Sadie’s eyes flashed, her gaze falling to his mouth before snapping up to meet his again.
He cocked a single eyebrow. “Don’t believe me?”
“No,” she said stiffly. “I don’t.”
“Tell me to prove it, then,” he said, his voice low and gravelly. He was done playing this game with her. Wanted to see if this tension between them exploded or fizzled out when they finally gave in to it. One way or another, he needed to move on from this woman.
“What? I’m not—”
“Tell me.” This time, he gave in to the temptation to put his hands on her, sweeping his fingers over that bare shoulder, his thumb pressing lightly to the thrumming beat of her heart. “Tell me to prove it.”
She stared up at him for long moments, her breathing ragged, her eyes pinning him in place. And just when he thought she’d tell him to fuck off, she whispered, “Prove it.”
With a groan, he lowered his head and captured her mouth with his. She tasted of wine and chocolate, a mixture that had his cock attempting to break through his zipper after a single swipe of her tongue against his own. He moved her head how he wanted it, taking the kiss deeper as he filled his other hand with the full curve of her ass that had taunted him from afar.
She moaned as he jerked her leg up over his hip and pressed her back into the door, grinding his cock against her as the heat of her pussy seeped through their layers until it was all he could feel. All he could focus on.
He’d never been this hard in his life. Had never wanted to be inside someone more than he did right here, right now, with this woman. This woman who’d done nothing but drive him completely mad. This woman whose fingers were threaded through his hair, rocking her hips against him as they learned each other’s tastes and sounds. As they—
The bell at the front desk rang at the same time Sadie’s pocket buzzed, and she jerked away, stumbling in her haste to sidestep him. On instinct, Cole reached out to steady her, but she stepped out of reach, her eyes wide on him before she dropped them to the floor and spun around, walking quickly away from him and never once looking back.
Even though Sadie was a fully grown woman who’d had her fair share of dating disasters, she wasn’t too proud to admit that she’d spent every second of every day since that kiss with Cole…hiding. There was no other way around it. She was totally hiding from him.
In her defense, she’d needed time to regroup…and also make sure she didn’t turn into a puddle of goo in his presence. And it wasn’t like she could go to her typical problem-solver and spill her guts about what had happened. Elise would hate her. And, yeah, okay…hate wasn’t exactly a new emotion between them. You couldn’t be sisters—and twins, no less—without spending a solid twenty-five percent of your time hating the other one. But the wounded look in Elise’s eyes if Sadie told her she’d just had the best kiss of her life with the man who’d helped rob her sister of happiness would be even worse.
And there was absolutely no denying the power of that kiss. It had completely and utterly eviscerated every single one that had come before. She was pretty sure her toes had actually curled as he’d swiped his tongue across hers…his hands, so hot and possessive against her, moving her body exactly how he desired. And there had been no pretty sure about the state of her panties.
“Did Nat send you any of the pics yet?”
Sadie jumped as her sister came up behind her, as if Elise could actually see the dirty images flipping through her mind. “What? No, why? What made you ask that?”
Elise eyed her up and down as she filled a to-go mug at their hot chocolate station, adding three scoops of peppermint flakes and five mini marshmallows, just like every day. “What’s with you? I was just wonderin’.”
“Oh.” As inconspicuously as possible, Sadie exhaled a long, relieved breath. “No, I haven’t gotten anything yet. Nat said probably today, so maybe she’s already emailed.” She definitely hadn’t. Sadie had adjusted her notifications specifically to alert her if Nat so much as forwarded her a meme. She’d also been obsessively checking said email every five minutes just in case the aforementioned notifications weren’t working.
“Text me when she does, okay?” Elise shrugged into her coat before capping her hot chocolate. “I wanna see ’em. That man may be colder than a popsicle, but there’s no denyin’ he’s fine as hell.”
Sadie ignored her sister’s statement, instead focusing on what the hell she thought she was doing. “Where are you goin’?”
“Helpin’ Rory with a house she’s workin’ on.”
“What? No. C’mon, Elise. You can’t keep runnin’ off whenever you get an urge. It’s our busiest season, and I’m drownin’ over here.”
Elise propped herself up on her forearms and leaned over the front desk, peeking around the computer monitor to view the schedule Sadie always had pulled up. “Looks pretty well taken care of to me.”
Sadie had to bite her tongue to keep from snapping. Of course it was taken care of. Because if Sadie didn’t do it, it didn’t get done. She understood that Elise had been having a hard time since the divorce—even before that. Sadie had almost effortlessly fallen into her preferred profession, and Elise was still fumbling, trying to find her way. Which was why she tagged along with their cousins any chance she got, if only to feel out different careers and see if something stuck.
“It’s taken care of because I made sure it was,” Sadie said, her voice hard. “But that doesn’t mean I don’t need you here, especially to help get ready for the Olsens’ wedding on Sunday.”
“And I’ll be back.” Elise grabbed her cup and lifted it toward Sadie. “In the mornin’. Still plenty of time to get everything set up.”
As she watched her sister flounce off without a backward glance, Sadie stood there, jaw locked as she stewed in frustration and resentment that had been building for a long time. Thirty-eight months, to be exact. Every day since they’d been handed the keys to the Starlight. And she was so damn sick of it.
It made her second-guess her restraint when it came to Cole. So what if her sister hated her for a little while? It wasn’t like the feeling wasn’t mutual at this particular point in time. And the attraction Sadie felt toward the man was hard to ignore. Actually, attraction may be too tame of a word. Her body burned for him, an ache so deep in her core, she wasn’t even sure he could reach it—and she’d felt exactly what kind of heat he’d been packing.
Thankfully, in her world, mere attraction wasn’t enough to derail her plans. With Elise bailing every chance she got, Sadie had to put all her focus on the inn. Especially with the upcoming spread in Happily Ever After magazine. Soon, their bookings would be through the roof, and they’d finally become the destination wedding locale she’d dreamed of since their grandma on their daddy’s side had bequeathed the property to them.
Besides, it wasn’t like she and Cole had anything in common other than plain old carnal lust. The local divorce attorney and the local wedding planner couldn’t possibly be less compatible.
“Excuse me, dear, but would you mind telling me what holiday events in town are happening this weekend?” Mrs. Wilson, an out-of-town guest, asked.
“Not at all,” Sadie said with a genuine smile, grateful for the distraction.
Of course, it was while she was tied up with Mrs. Wilson that her phone pinged with an incoming text. Despite urgency bubbling inside her chest, she ignored it until she’d printed out a schedule highlighting the important events. But she barely waited until her guest was out of sight before she pulled her phone from her pocket and read the text from Nat.
I just emailed you some of my favorite shots. And giiiirl. They. Are. Hawt. You need to take that man for a spin if you haven’t already.
Sadie’s face flamed as emotions swamped her, memories of that kiss overwhelming every one of her senses. That ravenous look in Cole’s eyes moments before he’d crashed his lips into hers. She could still taste him—smoky and sweet like bourbon and honey—and the scent of him had clung to her sweatshirt, even after she’d left his company.
She shook her head to rid herself of those thoughts and bit her lip as she glanced around. The majority of the guests hadn’t checked in yet, so the main room was empty, and no sounds filtered in from any of the common spaces. It wouldn’t hurt just to take a peek, would it?
Quickly, she navigated to her email app and looked for Natalie’s name, glancing up one more time to ensure she was alone. She held her breath as she opened the message, scanning Nat’s extremely brief note instructing them to let her know what they thought.
As the first image popped up on Sadie’s screen, her previously held breath promptly left her in a whoosh. The picture had been taken after they’d stepped close enough that she could feel every hard inch of Cole pressing into her backside. One of his hands wrapped possessively around her hip, while his other splayed wide across her stomach, his fingers just grazing the bottom swells of her breasts as he held her tight. Her head was turned toward him, her fingers wrapped around his wrist—when had that happened?—her mouth parted as if she were waiting for a kiss. Her forehead was pressed to his temple as he bent low over her shoulder, his lips just brushing her skin, and she could tell even through the screen that she’d been breathless then just as she was now.
Each image was better—or worse, depending on how you looked at it—than the last. Not only did she and Cole look like a couple, but they looked like a couple who was insatiable for each other. A couple who was counting down the minutes until they could rip each other’s clothes off and get lost in each other’s bodies.
And now that she’d seen them, just how, exactly, was she supposed to pretend everything was fine the next time she ran into him? Well, she was just going to have to keep up the hiding charade, because Lord knew her panties couldn’t weather another second in his presence.
Sadie had managed to avoid Cole for a grand total of ninety minutes after cramming her eyeballs full of the might-as-well-be-indecent-for-how-hot-and-bothered-they-made-her images of the two of them.
Elise had flaked on Sadie enough times that she’d stopped taking her at her word and had just started doing stuff on her own—probably something that was ultimately only feeding Elise’s irresponsibility, but that she did regardless, simply for her own peace of mind.
Which was why she was attempting to rearrange the furniture in the front gathering space all by herself. She treated every wedding held on their property as if it were her own, and that was why her brides continued referring the inn to their friends. Thank the Lord all their guests wouldn’t be checking in until tomorrow at the earliest, and her grunts and groans were for her ears only. Why had she picked today of all days to wear her knee-high heeled boots and a short dress, even if it was festive?
“Magic gliders, my ass,” Sadie grumbled as she attempted to lift one corner of the behemoth buffet that would house Sunday’s post-wedding, pre-reception hors d’oeuvres and wine. “There’s nothing magical about this.”
“Need some help?” Cole’s deep voice rumbled behind her.
She startled, hitting her head on the hutch on her way up. “Ow! Son of a—”
As she rubbed her hand over the tender spot at the back of her scalp, she glowered at Cole, grasping at her irritation if only to override the overpowering lust he always seemed to awaken in her. “Didn’t your momma ever teach you not to sneak up on people? It’s rude.”
He dropped his gaze to where she rubbed her head before shrugging out of his suit jacket and hanging it on the coatrack by the door. “She also taught me to help if someone was in need.”
After loosening his tie and hanging it with his jacket, he undid the cuffs of his dress shirt and proceeded to roll up each sleeve to just below his elbows, his eyes on her the entire time.
And damn if she didn’t nearly combust.
“Wh-what are you doin’?”
Lifting a single brow, he said, “Thought that was fairly obvious.”
Nope. It absolutely was not. Because she’d seen Cole do that exact move with his shirt sleeves enough times while he’d been staying there that it now starred in her fantasies. When she was alone in her room—or the honeymoon suite’s tub, as it were—and she inevitably conjured up his image in her mind, it was this, exactly. Those eyes boring into hers as he made quick work of his shirt sleeves before cupping her ass in his large hands, tossing her on a bed, and burying his face between her thighs.
She snapped her eyes to his, ignoring how her breath had suddenly become more labored and her cheeks warmed at the memory of her fantasies. “Um, what?”
He raised a brow. “Where do you want it?”
“’scuse me?” she squeaked, heart pounding like a bass drum in her ears.
He studied her for long moments, his gaze seeming to read into every twitch and shift she made. Cataloging. Calculating. Finally, he said, “The piece of furniture. Where do you want it?”
“Oh, right. Of course.” She straightened and brushed a hand down the front of her dark green velvet dress, attempting to collect herself even though her brain had boarded the runaway express to Trouble Central. “Ideally, over there,” she said, pointing to the east wall. “If you can move it that far.”
Cole ran a hand down the whisper of scruff along his jaw and shook his head. “Do you have trouble sleepin’ each night if you don’t get in your quota of insults?”
She played back her words and cringed, for once not meaning them as they’d come out. She held up her hands. “Believe it or not, I didn’t intend for that to be an insult.”
“Then you’re on your game more than usual tonight.”
Breathing out a laugh, she shook her head and glanced at the floor, unable to meet his gaze as flashes of their images flipped through her mind. Ever since she’d opened that email, had borne witness to the chemistry she and Cole so very obviously shared, she’d been so far off her game it wasn’t even funny. “I am definitely not that.”
He only offered her a grunt of acknowledgment as he squatted down and lifted a corner of the buffet without strain, sliding one of the round magic gliders under the wood. “You always dress like that for manual labor?”
She glanced down at herself, feeling stupid all over again. She had no idea why she’d worn this today, considering she’d known she’d have to prep the inn for the wedding—and do it all, more than likely, by herself. No, that was a lie. She totally knew why she’d worn this. Because the rich emerald green set off her complexion, and she’d received enough compliments on it paired with the boots that she knew it was a killer outfit. A date outfit.
Except the Starlight wasn’t a date locale.
Nope, she’d worn this with the sole intention of catching Cole’s eye, should they happen to cross paths. Had been doing the same thing all week, despite hiding from him as best she could.
“Not my smartest choice,” she finally admitted.
Cole didn’t respond as he made quick work of the other gliders, placing them into position before standing to his full height and turning the weight of his gaze on her. He drank her in, his eyes sweeping over her body so viscerally she felt it straight to her core.
“I wouldn’t say that,” he murmured before turning away from her and easily moving the piece where she’d instructed.
Once it was situated in place, he removed the gliders from beneath it and handed her the stack of them.
“Thank you.” It was, quite possibly, the first nice thing she’d ever said to him, and how sad was that? After all, her anger toward this man stemmed entirely from the loyalty she had toward her sister, who didn’t seem to return the sentiment.
“Why’re you tryin’ to do this all by yourself anyway?” He held up a hand and stopped her when she’d opened her mouth to snap back at him. “I’m not sayin’ you can’t, just that it’d be a lot easier with two of you.”
Sadie lifted a shoulder as they strolled back into the great room. “Elise helps me”—rarely—“but she ducked out early.”
He hummed in acknowledgment. “I see. I suppose that means you haven’t had a chance to look at the email Nat sent.”
She rolled her lips between her teeth and quickly diverted her gaze, focusing everywhere but on him. If she met his eyes…well, she had no idea what would happen. She may spontaneously combust—Lord knew it was hot enough between them that it wasn’t completely out of the realm of possibility.
“No, I didn’t,” she said, willing her voice not to shake as she lied her ass off—a new habit she’d picked up while in his presence. She stepped behind the front desk and focused on the computer, closing down each program for the day since it was nearing nine.
“Really.” His tone was flat, disbelieving, and that only sparked her irritation.
“Yes, really,” she snapped. “Is that so hard to believe? Can’t imagine a woman not trippin’ over herself just for a glimpse of you on her screen?”
“Trippin’ over herself, huh? You speakin’ from experience?”
“Absolutely not,” she said stiffly, ignoring Cole’s close proximity as she exited out of their calendar app…realizing too late that she’d pulled up the email on the desktop to see the images on a larger screen. And there they were, for all the world—or at least Cole—to see. The one currently showcased was after they’d turned to face each other, his hands cupping her cheeks and hers fisted in the front of his shirt, their lips a mere breath apart.
He stepped into the tight space behind her and braced his hands on the desk on either side of her hips, leaning forward until the length of his body pressed against every one of her curves. “You might wanna call someone about this. Looks like you’ve been hacked,” he said into her ear, his voice nothing more than a low rumble.
Oh, sweet baby Jesus, she didn’t have enough willpower to resist this man. It was one thing when she’d hated him silently from afar before they’d ever had a conversation. But this…this push and pull with him was getting to be too much, turning her brain to ash.
“Or maybe…” he continued, “you thought these were just as fucking hot as I did, and you spent all afternoon forcin’ yourself not to look at ’em again. And again. And again.” He punctuated each sentence with a sweep of his lips against the side of her neck, and she had to grip the counter just to keep herself upright.
Her breaths sawed in and out of her, her nipples tight and peaked, her pussy so wet, he could bend her over right there and slide inside with ease. Fill her completely and steal her breath once and for all.
“So, which is it, firecracker? You can tell me that someone hacked your account and pulled up this email, I’ll head to my room, and we won’t ever have to talk about this again.”
Heaven help her, but she couldn’t stop the single word from leaving her lips. “Or?”
He splayed a hand across her abdomen, nearly identical to how it’d been during the photo shoot, and pulled her back against him, ensuring she knew exactly how invested he was in her answer. “Or we see if the chemistry between us is just as potent in the bedroom as it is outside of it.”
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