With a dash of Christmas magic,..
Two people who have spent most of their lives being rivals learn a little something about following their hearts.
Carter Montgomery broke the family mold when he went to culinary school. Now a successful restauranteur, he’s at a crossroads: should he continue on his successful path or look for a new challenge? What he needs is time alone to think things through. But his matchmaking family has other ideas…
Emery Monaghan’s no-good fiancé has embroiled her in scandal and she needs a way out. When mentor Eliza Montgomery offers her a refuge, she’s relieved—until she realizes that the deal means rubbing elbows with Eliza’s son Carter—Emery’s childhood nemesis.
Exhaustion—mental and physical—was going to be the death of him.
And his mother was fully to blame.
Carter Montgomery climbed into the back of the sleek town car and confirmed the address with the driver before returning his attention to the phone conversation with his mother. To most, Eliza Montgomery didn’t appear capable of it, but right now she was most certainly going to kill him.
“Mom,” he began wearily as he leaned his head back against the cushions, “I did what you asked of me. I did what I could afford to do. In case you’ve forgotten, I’m a bit busy right now.”
“Yes, yes, yes, I know. We all know, Carter,” Eliza said with a hint of annoyance. “But a promise is a promise, and I didn’t expect you to renege on this! You know how important this project is to me. With everything I’ve gone through in the last year, you would think—”
“Okay, okay,” he quickly interrupted before she reminded him of all the ways she had been struggling since his father died. It wasn’t something he liked to think about, but it was a subject she had used with increasing frequency since she’d approached him with this project some time ago.
A holiday cookbook.
Rolling his eyes at the thought of it, Carter wondered what he could possibly do to appease her at this point. He’d chosen the recipes, had some photos taken, and written the foreword. What else was there? It wasn’t like this book was going to press with a major publisher, for crying out loud. It was a little self-published cookbook for a local charity. Why was she making such a big deal out of it?
“Look,” he said, starting again with a little more patience. “I am struggling with this Montauk place—the permits aren’t all in and I’m having trouble finding the right staff. And I gave you everything you asked for in regards to the book, Mom. You wanted recipes? I gave you recipes! You wanted a little personal touch? I wrote one!”
It was long enough that he knew he’d only prolonged the inevitable.
Here came the guilt trip.
“This is the first project I’m heading up in a long time, Carter. My original plan was to do it last holiday season, but…well, with losing your father, I just couldn’t. Our group put out a cookbook with contributions from our members and it wasn’t a very big hit and we didn’t raise a lot of money. But one with your name and reputation behind it will.”
“Besides selling it as part of our annual fundraiser, I’m sure we could attract a bigger crowd by placing the book in your restaurants, with a percentage of the proceeds coming back to the charity.”
“Wait, wait, wait.” He rubbed his temple. “Now you want to branch out and place this book in my restaurants? When did we talk about this?”
“I don’t see why you’re getting so huffy,” Eliza snapped back. “It’s good PR for you too.”
While she did have a point, it also meant he would have to put a little more effort into the project since it was going to be in his restaurants. When it was just something they were going to sell as a charity fundraiser, Carter hadn’t put much thought into making the book look polished. Using a smaller press and doing a print-on-demand sort of thing was just fine with him. His mother had organized a team to handle the formatting and cover design, and by that point he’d be well and truly out of the process—but now?
Rubbing his temple wasn’t doing a damn thing for him right now except reminding him that his head was pounding. It was late—he’d been traveling all day and he was looking forward to two full days of sleep before heading out to Montauk to look at the progress on the restaurant. Currently, he was in Manhattan and staying at the family condo because it was easier for him to get the flight out of LaGuardia to the island.
Okay, that wasn’t entirely true. He wanted to be lazy and spend some time eating at a few of his favorite restaurants in the city before dealing with all the stress and aggravation the next several weeks were going to bring.
But even with all the stress sure to come his way on this project, it was nice to know he’d have something to look forward to at the end of each day to help him unwind. He had opted to rent a small house in Montauk since the summer season was over—it meant a little more privacy while enjoying spectacular views. He hadn’t appreciated that sort of thing until he’d visited his brother Christian and his new bride, Sophie, at their place in San Diego and realized how relaxing the sound of the waves could be.
“Carter? Are you still there?”
And it was farther away from his mother and, if luck was on his side, would have lousy cell service.
“Yeah, Mom. I’m still here,” he said and then yawned. “Can we pick this up again next week? I just landed—I’m in the car going to the condo and I just can’t focus on this right now.”
“The condo? You mean your apartment?”
“No, the family condo in the city.”
“You mean you’re in New York already? I thought you said you were flying in on Monday!”
He groaned. He had mentioned that earlier in the week to get out of being guilted into going upstate first. All he wanted was a little time to himself before tackling the mess out on the east end.
“I wish you had let me know,” she said quickly. “I—I would have had food brought in or maybe driven in myself so I could see you.”
“It was a last-minute decision,” he said and immediately felt guilty.
“A likely excuse.”
“It’s not an excuse. And honestly, Mom, I’m legitimately tired. I worked all week down in New Orleans and grabbed a late flight and—”
“Yes, I get it. You’re tired. Your restaurants don’t open until lunch time, Carter, and I’ve visited you often enough to know what a typical day is like for you.”
He wasn’t sure if that was working for or against him at the moment.
“So I found someone to help with the cookbook project,” she said. “Someone who has looked at everything you’ve sent in and knows exactly what we’re looking for and will be able to work with you one on one to make this the kind of cookbook we can all be proud of.”
He was blind in one eye from the pain in his temple.
“Mom, I don’t think I have time to sit down with whoever this is. They’ll have to make an appointment with me—you have my assistant’s number—and if I have the time, I’ll make it work. I’ve already told you the next few weeks are going to be crazy for me!”
“You won’t have to worry,” his mother said sweetly. “It won’t be intrusive, and really, you’ll hardly know she’s there.”
He didn’t like the sound of that.
Carter was just about to comment when his phone beeped with an incoming call. Looking at the screen, he saw it was the general contractor for the new restaurant. With a sigh, he said, “Mom, I need to go. The contractor is beeping in. I’ll talk to you during the week, okay?”
“But Carter, I didn’t get to explain—”
“No time right now. For this guy to be calling at ten on a Friday night, it can’t be good. I love you!” He quickly disconnected before she could say anything else, and for the next fifteen minutes got caught up confirming meeting schedules for Tuesday. When he finally hung up and placed his phone on the seat beside him, Carter was surprised to see they were still at least twenty minutes from his destination.
“Gotta love New York traffic on a Friday night,” he murmured. With his mind racing from the two conversations, he had no idea how his brain was ever going to shut off.
Picking his phone up, he tapped out a text to his assistant not to put any calls through or accept any appointments for anyone having to do with the cookbook project. He knew it was childish and that he couldn’t put it off forever, but he also knew there was enough on his plate to get through before dealing with this.
Phone still in hand, Carter passed the time catching up on the news. As odd as it seemed, reading national and world news worked to clear his mind in ways little else did. If he were at home or at one of his restaurants, cooking would be the way to go. Hell, he’d created some of his most famous dishes while stressed out and using cooking as a distraction. But since that wasn’t an option right now, digital news it was.
Sports. None of his teams were playing.
Finance. Not in the mood.
And that was when he saw it—the story that had been popping up in his news feed regularly for weeks now.
Well, the story was more about her fiancé than Emery herself, but…
Carter shook his head as yet another picture of the less-than-happy-looking couple appeared. He’d known Emery since elementary school, and with their last names being so close in spelling, all through middle and high school they’d sat next to each other in homeroom. She was smart and outgoing and—
A complete pain in his ass.
Of course, that didn’t mean she deserved what she was going through.
Her douchebag fiancé? Yeah. That guy deserved it all, and more.
Unable to help himself, Carter scanned the story, which reported how more women had come forward and accused the guy of inappropriate and unwanted sexual advances. It filled him with disgust. Where did guys get off doing this sort of thing? When had this become the norm? And what did it say for society that this was being brought to light with more and more frequency?
Carter’s curiosity about Emery, however, was piqued. Where was she, and how was she handling all of this? There weren’t any new pictures of the two of them—any photos used were from months ago. Even when he’d run into the two at his father’s funeral last year, neither had looked particularly happy.
And not just because it was a funeral.
Either way, the article said little about her except that no one had seen her since the story broke. No doubt she’d had no choice but to go into hiding to avoid the media. Carter snorted with disgust. That wasn’t going to be easy. It wasn’t often that someone could completely slip off the radar and go undetected in this day and age. No doubt she was holed up in her own home or with a friend or family member.
“That’s got to suck,” he said and focused on the picture again. With a small smile, he realized Emery still looked exactly the same. Her dark hair was long and straight, she wore little makeup—not that she needed it—and her classic sense of style hadn’t changed. Emery Monaghan reminded him of Audrey Hepburn. There was just something about her that drew you in. She had always been kind to everyone in school.
Except to Carter.
Yeah, all these years later and it still rankled.
The girl had seemed to go out of her way for everyone in their school except him. Why? Maybe it was because he was just as smart as her but didn’t have to put in as much effort. And that wasn’t him bragging, it was just a fact. Academics came naturally to him but they weren’t nearly as important to him as they were to Emery. They had butted heads their entire school lives, right down to graduation day when she took the podium as valedictorian and he as class president.
Tossing the phone aside, Carter closed his eyes. “This is definitely not helping me relax.”
Sex, he thought, sex right now would be a great distraction. He eyed his phone and wondered if there was anyone he would consider calling. His last relationship had ended three months ago. Not that it mattered. Ivy lived in New Orleans and he was in New York, and hooking up with an ex is never a good idea. So that left—
“Frustration,” he murmured. “Add frustration to the list.”
“Sir?” the driver asked, meeting his gaze in the rearview mirror.
“Sorry,” Carter said. “Just talking to myself.” He was saved from saying or thinking anything more as they pulled up to his building. He could almost feel his head hitting the pillow. Maybe a solid eight hours of sleep and nothing pressing to do tomorrow would help him unwind a bit.
And then his stomach growled.
There was no possibility of cooking, because there wasn’t anything stocked in the condo. When he came to the city, Carter always preferred to go shopping for fresh ingredients if he was going to make something himself. More times than not, however, he simply walked around until he found a restaurant to try. But just because he was in the city that never slept didn’t mean he didn’t need sleep.
Climbing from the car, he tipped the driver, grabbed his luggage, and walked up to the doorman.
“Good evening, Mr. Montgomery,” the man said with a tip of his hat. “It’s good to see you again.”
Smiling, Carter responded, “Thanks, Seth. It’s good to be here.” He paused. “Hey, any recommendations for someplace that delivers?”
The doorman studied him for a moment. “There is an amazing sushi place that just opened a couple of weeks ago that everyone is raving about. I know they deliver, but on a Friday night you may be waiting for a while.”
Carter laughed softly. “Even at this hour?”
Seth nodded. “I’m sure the place is still packed. Earlier tonight one of the residents mentioned the line being out the door.” He considered that. “The wait might be worth it. You know, if you’re into sushi.”
It wasn’t one of his favorites, but right now, it did sound pretty good. Considering his options, he said, “Where’s it at?” Seth gave him the address. “Thanks. Keep an eye on my luggage and I’ll be back.”
“I thought you wanted delivery?”
Five minutes ago, he had. But once he stepped outside and breathed in the semifresh air, the idea of a little walk and some food had suddenly revived him. “After being in town cars in traffic and flying, it might be good to stretch my legs for a bit.” With a smile and a wave, Carter made his way up Park Avenue and hopefully towards a new favorite place to eat.
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