From a USA Today bestselling author comes a heartwarming holiday romance between the a small-town florist and the handsome chief of police.
Christmas is always bustling for Halona Locklear’s flower shop, but this year, she’s determined to take some time out to give her young son an extra special holiday. So she should be thrilled when hunky police chief Alex Baker wants to be their not-so-secret Santa. But Halona can’t get too close to Alex. He knows a truth she needs to keep hidden…for her boy’s sake.
Though Alex always had a thing for Halona, he never dared to pursue his best friend’s little sister. But he can’t shake the feeling that the gorgeous single mom and her little boy could use some holiday cheer, even if Halona refuses to let down her guard. But when ghosts of Christmas past threaten, Alex and Halona must decide what matters more: protecting their secrets or opening their wary hearts to new possibilities.
Includes the bonus novel Then There Was You by Miranda Liasson!
Something crashed in the kitchen.
Halona Locklear cracked open an eye as she listened and debated whether the sound warranted getting out of bed. Before she could decide, her alarm clock started to shriek from across the room. She'd put it there so that she couldn't press Snooze and make herself late for the morning drop-off at her son's school.
She groaned and burrowed deeper into her covers. She'd gotten up with Theo and his nightmares four times in the night, and she was exhausted. Just one more hour. Another crash in the kitchen launched her out of bed. She slid her feet into a pair of slippers and hurried down the hall.
"Theo?" she called. "What are you doing?"
She squinted in the harsh overhead lights, seeing her son sitting on the kitchen counter. There was a carton of milk at his side and a box of Cheerios. Without a word, he grabbed a bowl and hopped down. There was another dish on the floor, the culprit of the crash she'd heard in her bedroom. Thankfully, it was plastic.
"To the table," she ordered, grabbing the milk and cereal and following behind him. She couldn't be mad. At seven, he was finally at the age where he was doing more stuff for himself, even if it meant chipped plates and a few spills here and there.
Halona poured them both a glass of orange juice and then sat down alongside her son and drank as she talked to Theo. He smiled up at her intermittently while he ate. He didn't speak. The only time she heard his voice anymore was during his nightmares, which were the source of his dark eyes underscored with blue half-moons. She imagined hers looked the same right now.
"Hurry up," she prodded after a few minutes, standing up from the table. "I've got to get you to school."
Theo lifted his gaze and started shoveling the cereal into his mouth faster than he could chew and swallow. Milk dribbled down his chin, and he quickly wiped it away with the sleeve of his pajama shirt.
Halona laughed despite her bone-deep fatigue. Then she retreated to her bedroom and dressed herself before helping Theo pick out something to wear.
On the way out the front door, she grabbed the lunch she'd packed for him last night, his backpack, and her purse. Then they loaded in her car and headed down the road.
"Have a good day," she said cheerfully as she pulled up at Sweetwater Elementary ten minutes later.
She saw the corners of his mouth lift just a touch in the rearview mirror.
"I love you," she added as her breath suspended in her chest, waiting and hoping this time that he'd return the words.
Instead, a teacher working with the car pool line opened the passenger-side door for him to exit.
"Good morning, Theo," the teacher said, helping him step down onto the school's curb.
Theo's greeting came in the way of another smile as he pulled the straps of his backpack over his shoulders. Then he glanced back at Halona and waved before heading off.
"Bye, sweetie!" She watched him until the car behind her beeped its horn. Halona cast an irritated glance at the driver behind her and then drove to the Little Shop of Flowers on Main Street. There was usually an uptick in business in the winter months heading into the holidays. People were more generous this time of year. They looked for ways to say I love you, and what said it better than flowers?
She unlocked her door and stepped inside.
She knew better. Nothing replaced those three little words, not even roses. What she wouldn't give to hear Theo whisper them again. His doctor had diagnosed him with selective mutism last year, and she'd been working with every professional in the area who might be able to help. So far, nothing had made a huge difference, but she wasn't one to give up easily, especially where her son was concerned.
Her nerves calmed a touch as she inhaled the sweet floral aroma of her shop. Then she walked to the back room. The smell of roasted beans would also perk her up. She poured water and grounds into her coffee maker and flipped it on. After a moment, the machine started funneling its dark brew into the pot.
The coffee next door at the Sweetwater Café was far better, but that would require running into half the people in town, including Chief of Police Alex Baker, who appeared to have a small addiction to Emma St. James's brew. Or maybe for the café owner herself. Not that Halona was jealous. The last thing she needed was romance intertwining with her heavy load of responsibilities.
When the coffee was done, she poured a cup. No sooner had she taken her first sip than the bell above the door rang with an incoming customer. Halona put her mug down and dutifully put on a smile as she approached the front counter from the back room. Her breath stumbled along with her feet when she locked eyes with the man who'd just walked in. So much for avoiding Chief Baker by settling for mediocre coffee.
"Hey," he said, his deep voice a product of his six-foot-plus body and broad quarterback-size shoulders.
"Hey," she echoed back, feeling a bit foolish because a thousand butterflies, usually dormant, suddenly fluttered around inside her chest. She'd always had a thing for her brother's best friend but he'd only ever looked at her as a little kid when they were growing up. And just like her brother, Alex was overprotective. Perhaps to a fault.
Resentment over what happened two years ago festered up, which she suppressed along with those annoying butterflies. "To what do I owe your visit? Business or personal?" she asked.
"A little of both, I guess. I need an arrangement for a fellow officer's wife. Mary Beth Edwards."
"Oh. She just had surgery, right? That's nice of you to think of her," Halona said.
"It'll be from the whole department."
"Well, I'm sure she'll appreciate the sentiment. I'll get that arrangement for you right away." Halona stepped toward her cooler of fresh flowers to get started, feeling the coolness of the air contrasting with the burning of her skin.
"I thought I'd grab a coffee from next door while I wait," he said behind her. "Would you like some?"
She turned to face him. "No, thanks. I've got a machine in the back."
"Not the same," he coaxed. "Let me grab you a coffee. How do you take it?"
He stared at her from the other side of the counter, his blue eyes shining brightly beneath his rust-colored hair.
Overprotective and hard to resist. "Medium-dark roast with three raw sugars and a splash of cream," she finally conceded.
"You got it. I'll be right back."
She watched him walk out of her store and exhaled softly. She wanted to be mad at him but she knew he was only doing his job when he'd arrested her late ex-husband. Overprotective, hard to resist, and unbending when it came to the law—that was Chief Alex Baker.
* * *
Alex's blood felt electric, and it had nothing to do with the smell of fresh coffee and the promise of its jolt of caffeine. When was he ever going to stop reacting to Halona this way? He'd known her when she'd been a tomboy irritating him, her brother Tuck, and the last of the three musketeers, Mitch Hargrove.
She wasn't boyish in any way these days though—that was for sure.
"Hey, Chief Baker," Emma St. James said as he reached her counter. She always smiled a little wider when he was around. Why couldn't he have a thing for someone uncomplicated like Emma? The only thing the beautiful café owner stirred for him, however, was his coffee. Halona, on the other hand, whipped up a variety of unsettling emotions: attraction, need…confusion. He didn't understand her choices. All he knew was that he'd made the right one. He would never regret arresting Ted for hurting her.
"Your usual?" Emma asked.
He gave a nod. "And a medium-dark roast with a splash of cream and three raw sugars."
Emma lifted a thin brow. "That's the way Halona takes her coffee."
He shoved his hands in his jeans pockets. "Do you know how everyone in town takes their drinks?"
She turned to start pouring. "It's my job to know, Chief Baker," she called over her shoulder. A moment later, she exchanged two coffees for his debit card. She swiped it and handed it back. "Tell Hal I said hello."
Alex didn't respond. Instead, he said a polite goodbye and started toward the door just as Mayor Brian Everson was pushing through in his wheelchair. Alex held the door as a courtesy, not that Brian needed help. Brian had more strength and endurance than most men with two able legs.
"Thanks, Chief," Brian said as he looked up. "You've been dodging my calls. I figured I'd run into you sooner or later."
"I'm actually in a hurry this morning," Alex lied. He liked Brian but he knew what the Sweetwater Springs mayor wanted to discuss. Apparently, Alex had gotten the reputation of being hard-nosed with some town members. He didn't bend the law for anyone, including eighty-year-olds who spiked the punch at public gatherings. Janice Murphy hadn't learned her lesson with all of Alex's many warnings over the years so he'd taken her to jail a couple of months back. It was just a scare tactic, of course. He hadn't actually charged Janice with anything, and afterward, he'd taken her to Dawanda's Fudge Shop. Was that the behavior of a hardened cop?
Brian angled his wheelchair to pin Alex with an assessing stare. "Call me. Better yet, stop by my office. This is your friend talking, not the mayor. You're good for this town, and we need to make sure everyone knows it."
Alex shifted the carrying tray of coffee in his hands. "I'll be in touch." Right after he figured out who was vandalizing the town and solved the cold case that had been in his desk drawer haunting him since he was nineteen years old. Every December, as the anniversary of his father's death loomed, he reassessed the facts and interviewed old witnesses. Yet the case wasn't any closer to being solved.
Alex stepped out of the coffee shop and walked back into the Little Shop of Flowers. Halona looked up with those honey-colored eyes of hers that seemed unnaturally bright against her inky black hair and tanned skin. She had high, defined cheekbones characteristic of her Cherokee heritage and petal-pink lips that none of the flowers in her shop could ever match.
His lungs constricted, making it hard to breathe for a second. She had this effect on him. Every. Single. Time. And he reckoned she always would.
Never going to happen.
"Here you go," he said, clearing his throat as he approached the counter and setting the cup of coffee in front of her.
"Thank you." Her gaze flitted up to meet his. Then she pointed to a small table set up next to the flower cooler. "Your arrangement is over there. No charge. Please send Mary Beth my best wishes."
"You don't have to do that," he said.
"I want to. For her." There was a sharp note in her tone that he didn't miss. She reached for the coffee that he'd placed before her. "Thank you for this. Emma's brew is so much better than the stuff I have."
"I like to tell people I go so often because I'm secretly investigating her. Her coffee is too addictive to be legal."
Halona's face contorted with a small laugh that punched him as forcefully as a gunshot into his bulletproof vest.
"Well, I better get back to work. There's a graffiti incident to investigate."
Halona's brows lifted. "Sounds urgent."
Alex smiled at her teasing tone. "To Mrs. Roberts it is."
Halona's lips parted. "At the seamstress shop? That's right next door to A Taste of Heaven Catering."
"Don't worry. Brenna's business survived the incident unscathed. Hopefully, I'll catch the perp before their can of spray paint strikes again." He turned and headed toward the arrangement that she'd prepared. If he didn't leave now, he was at risk of doing something foolish like asking her out. Her answer would be no, of course. While she seemed to have forgiven him for arresting Ted, that didn't mean she wanted to date him. In fact, Halona didn't seem to want to date anyone.
"Good luck!" she called after him, her words muted by the sound of a cell phone ringing. "Hello," he heard her say at his back. Her sharp intake of breath made him turn to face her. "Yes. Is he okay?…I'll be there as soon as I can."
"Everything all right?" Alex asked once she'd disconnected the call.
"No. Theo threw up at school. I need to close up shop and go get him." She hesitated. "I have a customer coming in anytime to pick up an arrangement I promised her." She nibbled her lower lip and then pulled her phone back out of her pocket. "Maybe Mom can come watch the store," she said to herself.
"Not necessary. I'll watch it for you," Alex heard himself say.
Halona looked up with surprise in her eyes. He was a little shocked at the offer too. He didn't have time to take on extra work. Yet, here he was, offering to do exactly that for Halona.
"That's not necessary. I don't need your help," she said, that sharp tone returning, even if her smile was firmly in place.
"No, you don't. But you could get to Theo's school a lot faster if you let me do this for you."
Halona's shoulders rounded. "Are you sure?"
"Positive. Go get Theo. I'll try not to burn the place down while you're away."
Halona smiled, and it actually reached her eyes this time. That felt like a small accomplishment. "Thank you."
"Of course." He watched her grab her keys and hurry out. Then he looked around the store, completely perplexed at how the town's chief of police had suddenly gotten himself into running a flower shop.
* * *
It wasn't even an hour ago that Halona had dropped Theo off. Now here she was again, picking him up. He'd been having stomach pain a lot lately. His therapist believed it was anxiety induced, just like his refusal to talk. In his short life, Theo had been through a lot. At the parent-teacher conference last month, his teacher reported that Theo didn't have any friends. She'd described him as a good student who kept to himself.
Kids were supposed to have friends though. They were supposed to act up and get into trouble. Halona certainly had. She'd prefer to get called to the principal's office because Theo was misbehaving than because his emotions were eating away at him little by little.
Halona opened the door to Sweetwater Elementary and stepped inside, hearing the cacophony of school-related sounds: the buzzing of overhead lights, the sound of children's voices and laughter, the intercom calling for a custodian.
Veering into the front office to her right, Halona straightened her shoulders and put on a smile. Masking her feelings was something she'd come to do well. She wasn't sure if that was an attribute or a character flaw.
"Good morning, Ms. Locklear-Byrd," the front office secretary said.
Halona decided not to correct the secretary for the tenth time. In a small town, everyone knew your name and, apparently, couldn't remember if you had decided to change it. After her divorce, she'd dropped Ted's last name. She'd wanted a clean break from her past, not realizing until later that one never truly broke free. "I got a call about Theo?"
"Yes, he's in the nurse's office." The secretary pointed to a room down the hall but Halona knew her way.
"Thank you." She took quick steps until she was standing in the doorway.
Theo looked up while holding his little hands over his belly, his face scrunched up tightly.
"Hey, buddy. How are you doing?" She walked over and kneeled in front of him.
"He doesn't seem to feel well," Nurse Johnston said. "No fever though."
Halona could've guessed that much. He had been fine when he was eating Cheerios at breakfast earlier this morning.
"He threw up?" Halona asked.
Nurse Johnston nodded. "Just a little bit. Could've been something he ate or maybe a little bit of nerves." She winked. "I hope he feels well enough to return to class tomorrow."
Halona stood, keeping her gaze on Theo. "Yeah, me too. Want to come work at the flower shop with me today, bud?"
Theo's face relaxed, and a smile touched the corners of his mouth. Nerves it was. Halona almost would've preferred he had a virus. At least then she would know what to do for him.
Grabbing his hand, she stopped back in the office to sign Theo out. Then she walked him back to her car, buckled him in, and cranked the engine. "School is important, you know. You can't keep coming home just because you're not happy." She looked at him in the rearview mirror. The only sign that he'd even heard her was the stubborn lift of his chin.
With a sigh, she pulled out of the parking spot and drove back to the Little Shop of Flowers. Despite her worry, a little flutter of anticipation batted around in her belly at the knowledge that Alex was inside waiting for her. She ignored it, parked, and helped Theo out of the car. As soon as he darted into the store, he froze at the sight of Alex behind the counter.
"Hey, buddy," Alex said.
After a moment's hesitation, Theo took off running toward him, making Halona's heart squeeze. Theo was shy with most people, even before his selective mutism diagnosis, but he'd never been that way with Alex. There was something between them that Halona didn't quite understand. The same was true between her and Alex.
"Give me five, little man," Alex said after the hug.
Theo gave the hit everything he had.
"Down low." As Theo tried to hit him again, Alex yanked his hand away. "Ohhh, you're too slow."
Theo giggled happily.
"As you can tell, he's sick," Halona told Alex, approaching the two of them.
"Oh, yeah." Alex's face turned solemn. "Guess you better stay in bed all day and eat nothing but chicken soup. That's what my mom used to say."
No longer smiling, Theo's eyes widened.
Halona redirected her attention to Alex. "Thanks for watching the store. Did anyone come by?"
Alex shook his head. "I had it easy. Just me and the flowers. They're good listeners, you know."
Halona gave him a curious look. "You talked to my flowers?"
"Of course. Told them all my secrets. They promised not to tell." He winked at Theo, whose cheeks puffed back up into a wide grin. "Well, I'll see you later." Alex grabbed his flower arrangement for Mary Beth Edwards and headed out the door.
Watching him, Halona reminded herself to breathe. The flowers knew his secrets, and Alex knew hers. Well, one of them, at least. She'd made a promise never to tell anyone the rest of the story, and she intended to keep it.
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