Excerpt: One Night in Christmas

CHAPTER 1

Snow blanketed the small mountain town of Christmas, Colorado, on the last night of the year. The pastel-painted shops that lined Main Street were decked out for the holidays, their colorful lights blinking through the gently falling flakes.

Sophia Dane couldn’t remember the last time she’d been this happy to the turn the sign on the door of her boutique, Naughty and Nice, to closed. She’d been run off her feet trying to dress what had felt like half the women in town. They’d begun arriving before eight that morning. She couldn’t afford to lose a single sale and had extended her hours of operation for the holidays.

But the women who crowded into her store today were in search of something to wear to the Dane’s New Year’s Eve party, a hastily organized affair to celebrate both the holiday and their grand reopening. And thanks to the family (of which she was no longer a member) holding their party at the recently renovated lodge, most of her customers had been looking for nice and cozy instead of gold and naughty.

She glanced down at the blush-colored mohair sweater she’d paired with gold-and-silver sequined leggings in an attempt to show her customers glamorous could be just as cozy as flannel and plaid. Her gaze flitted over several still-packed racks of clothing. Her strategy hadn’t worked as well as she’d hoped. It looked like she’d be holding a blow-out sale of all things glittery and gold this weekend.

“Autumn,” she called to the sister of her heart, whose sweet shop, Sugar and Spice, was housed in the same building as Sophia’s boutique. An arched opening in the wall providing access to both stores. Sophia liked to say she was the naughty of their joint venture, and Autumn was the nice.

They’d bought the rundown colonial on Main Street for a steal eight years ago this past April. Both their hearts had taken a beating just months before they’d decided to go into business together. Autumn’s husband, Logan Dane, had asked her for a divorce, breaking her heart and spirit.

Sophia had understood better than most what her best friend was going through at the time. She’d lost her own husband, Logan’s brother, in a skiing accident just weeks before Logan pulled the plug on his and Autumn’s marriage.

The months of back-breaking work it took to get the store in shape had been cathartic. It brought them back to life just as much as it had the old colonial on Main Street and created an unbreakable bond between the two friends.

Autumn stuck her strawberry blond head around the archway. “What is it?”

Sophia’s heels clicked on the white marble as she walked to one of the racks. Her gold-painted fingernails flicked through the clothes until she found the gorgeous sequined dress that would be perfect on her best friend’s lithe frame. She held it up. “Happy New Year. You can wear this to the Penalty Box tonight.”

Even Sophia would admit it was a little much for the local sports bar, but no one would care. They all knew them there. She angled her head in an attempt to read Autumn’s expression. It wasn’t one of delight or gratitude, of that Sophia was certain. “You said you loooved this dress when it came in, and now you don’t?”

“It’s not—” The front door’s holiday chime of Auld Lang Syne interrupted Autumn as a customer walked in.

About to turn and tell whoever it was that they were closed, Sophia instead forced her tired facial muscles into a welcoming smile. After all, they might buy an entire wardrobe in glitter and gold, was her hopeful thought just before she realized it was their friend Ty.

Ty was a former Hollywood hairstylist who opened Diva, a high-end beauty salon in town a couple years before. He’d be all-in with the glitz and glamor had she owned a men’s clothing store.

Sophia frowned at his Army-green parka, plaid flannel shirt, and heavy winter boots. “Why are you dressed like this?’ She moved her index finger up and down. Until now, his wardrobe reflected his love of all things stylish.

“I know, it’s small town goes country, but it’s all the rage in chalet-wear these days.” He rolled his eyes at Sophia. “I see by your curled upper lip you don’t approve. But look,” he stuck a black fedora on his head, “totally elevates the style factor, doesn’t it?”

“It would take a lot more than a hat to . . . Wait, why do you care if it’s the rage in chalet-wear? We’re not going to the party at the lodge. We’re going to the Penalty Box. Like we always do. It’s tradition.” Sophia did not like change almost as much as she did not like the Danes.

At least some of the Danes. She liked Calder, the family’s patriarch, and his second wife, Nell McBride, but Sophia did not like her late husband’s brothers, Logan and Adam. Not only had Logan broken Autumn’s heart, he’d broken Sophia’s too. So had Adam. Her husband’s brothers hadn’t thought she was good enough for him. They’d tried to talk Bryce out of marrying her, and then they’d blamed her for his death. She blamed herself too.

“Ah, ah, ah, remember what you promised Christmas Day, Gloria?”

She made an irritated sound at Ty’s nickname for her. “I do not look like the Modern Family lady, and I do not talk like her either.”

“What was that? I can’t understand you,” he said with a thick Spanish accent, his eyes glinting with amusement beneath his silly hat.

“You are so funny, I can not stand it.” She gave Autumn the side-eye when Ty drew a laugh from her best friend as he walked around the store swinging his hips while flicking his imaginary long hair back with his fingers. His heavy winter boots were ruining the effect. He was usually much better at impersonating Sophia’s walk.

His right hand went to the hip he cocked, and he glanced over his shoulder to waggle his eyebrows at her. “And tonight, we’re going to find you you’re very own Joe Manganiello to ring in the new year with.”

She was about to say she didn’t want her own Joe, she was happy with her life just the way it was, but after one glass of spiked eggnog too many on Christmas Day, she’d caved to Ty’s arm-twisting and Autumn’s pleading and gave her word that she’d get back in the dating game. She was too tired to argue with them now.

“New Year’s Eve is the time for making resolutions, and January is a time for keeping them.” Or breaking them, as was the case for Sophia and nearly everyone else she knew. “So I will look for my Joe next week. Tonight is all about having fun with my two best friends.” She smiled at Ty and went to smile at Autumn, but she’d ducked back inside Sugar and Spice.

“Yes, but what if your two best friends have plans to ring in the new year with their own Joes?” Ty said.

“Which two of my best friends are you talking about?” she asked, because not only did she have a lot of good friends in Christmas, she’d know if there was a man in Autumn’s life. They told each other everything, and they were rarely apart. They not only worked together, they shared an old Victorian house on Holly Lane. They bought it last spring.

Ty glanced at the entrance to Sugar and Spice and then motioned for Sophia to join him on the white leather chaise between the fitting rooms. Her stomach took a nervous dip. Ty wasn’t often serious but his demeanor said this was a serious conversation, one which he didn’t want Autumn to overhear.

Sophia joined him on the chaise, her shoulders stiff, her back poker-straight as though perfect posture alone would protect her from the bad news she was positive he was about to deliver.

So when he gave her an appreciative look instead and said “You really are one gorgeous woman,” she sagged with relief. She must have misread his expression.

“It’s too bad men can’t see past your centerfold body and your movie-star good looks to the sweet, giving, and funny woman underneath. If they could, you wouldn’t have been alone for so long. But don’t you worry, now that Uncle Ty is on the job—”

“No, I do not need you on the job.” Emotion of any kind thickened her accent, and right now fear had garbled the words so badly even she couldn’t make out what she said. So she repeated them, slowly and emphatically, in English and then in Spanish to make it clear she was serious.

Ty had become as notorious as Nell McBride-Dane for his matchmaking schemes, and his success rate was almost as high as the older woman’s. And that was saying something. Nell had a series of books written about the couples she matched in Christmas. They were shelved in romantic fiction, but everyone knew they were true. At least in Christmas, Colorado, they did.

But Sophia did not need nor want another man in her life. She’d loved and lost and been betrayed in the most horrible way. She wouldn’t put her heart on the line again. As both she and Autumn could attest to, love didn’t last.

“You do so need me on the job, and do you know why?” Ty took her hand, and she hoped he didn’t expect an answer. The sympathy she saw in his eyes had caused her throat to go dry. “Because Autumn has a chance to be happy, and she won’t take it unless she knows you have someone to make you happy too.”

“That is stupid talk. The only person who can make you happy is yourself. And Autumn, she is happy. Happy, happy, happy.” Sophia freed her hand from his, waving it in the direction of Sugar and Spice. “Why wouldn’t she be? She has a business she loves, a beautiful home . . . and me. She has me. You too.”

“Maybe she wants more, and maybe so do you but you’re too afraid to get hurt again and won’t put yourself out there.”

“I put myself out there.”

“Oh, I know you do. You’re hands down Christmas’s biggest party girl and flirt. The thing is, I spent a decade in Hollywood with some of the biggest names in the biz and can spot someone acting in two seconds flat, so you don’t fool me.” He retrieved her hand, giving it a gentle tug to get her to look at him. “I know what you’re up to. And one day, someone will come along who sees past your act and catches a glimpse of the woman only a few of us are lucky enough to call their best friend, and that man will know you’re worth the wait. He’ll settle in for the long haul and win your trust.”

She pulled her hand from his. “Stop with your silly talk.”

“It’s not silly talk, and you know it. But while it might take some time before your special someone comes along, Autumn’s is already here.”

With her pulse pounding in her ears, Sophia jumped to her feet. “Autumn! Autumn, where are you?”

Ty latched onto her arm. “No! Don’t say anything. You’ll ruin everything. She told me in confidence.”

“Then why did you tell me!”

“Because! When you find out who she’s dating, you’re going to lose your mind and ruin her chance at happiness. You’re as important to her as he is,” Ty whisper-yelled.

Sophia briefly closed her eyes and then slowly lowered herself back onto the chaise. Logan Dane. It had to be. He was the only man Autumn had ever loved and the only relationship she wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing with Sophia. He’d stopped in at Sugar and Spice over the holidays with his two children. Their mother, his second wife, had died the year before.

Logan had spent the last several months overseeing the renovations at the lodge. Before that, he rarely came home. Not since he left Autumn. And not once on his infrequent visits to Christmas had he ever stopped by the store. Until this year.

Still, she might be wrong. She crossed her fingers. “Logan Dane stopped by Sugar and Spice three times. With his children. Those do not count as dates.”

“No, but the two nights Autumn missed our Saturday Mystery Movie Night do. Remember when she told us she had car and had to work late to fill an order? She went out with him.”

Autumn stuck her head past the archway. “Hey, did you call me? I was taking out the garbage.”

“Yes. Yes, I did.” Ty pinched Sophia, and she pushed his hand away with a scowl. She wasn’t about to confront her best friend until she knew what she was dealing with. Ty didn’t have a clue how badly Logan had hurt Autumn. Sophia did, and she was not about to let her best friend make the same mistake twice. “Ty is being a baby about going to the lodge. So unless we want to listen to him whine all night, we have to go too.”