Hidden Confections (Red Velvet Christmas)
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Copyright ©2013 Dawn Montgomery
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Liam Merriman loved half his job. Baking made him happy. Creating new and fun recipes rocked. Managing, on the other hand, not so much.
"We need another dozen reindeer hooves and a snow globe, Mr. Head Elf." Vicki's cheerful shout from the front of the store set his teeth on edge.
He finished the final decorating line on his cupcake and set it aside. Rushing to the back storage bin, he grabbed a sheet pan of reindeer hooves. The surprisingly popular chocolate, chili, and sugar combination was ready to go.
The snow globe was another matter. He brought it to the front. Vicki took the sheet with a smile and began tucking the reindeer hooves under the display window.
"Are you really an elf?" a soft voice called.
Liam leaned forward and peered down at an angel smiling up at him. Her bright blue eyes were wide and curls framed her face like a halo. He smiled.
"Sometimes Santa needs a little extra help, especially this time of year." He winked.
The girl's laugh bubbled up, and a knot of tension unwound in Liam's chest. Happy customers. Rare in this busy season.
"Where's the snow globe?" Vicki targeted Liam with her dark glare.
He was sure the boys in Outlaw River Falls withered under it, but with elf ears and a sprinkle of glitter over her freckles, Vicki looked about as intimidating as a puppy. "Don't have any more." He grinned and sidestepped her low kick. Not having what the customer wanted burned Vicki more than you'd expect from a seventeen-year-old former delinquent.
"Is something burning?" Her hushed question jerked Liam's attention back to the kitchen.
His stomach sank. No one possessed a nose like Vicki. If she smelled burning...
Liam rushed from the front of the store to the back, and hit the oven the same time the smell of burned cookies smacked him in the face. He jerked open the oven and groaned at the charred contents.
He cursed and slapped the oven dial to off. You burn a cookie, and a new chapter opens in your book, Liam. The last thing he needed was his grandmother's voice in his head. He could count on one hand the number of times he'd burned cookies. Sure as the sun rising each morning, every burned batch foreshadowed an insane upheaval in his life.
The smoke stench grew.
Liam grabbed the hand towel and slid the pan from the stove to the stainless steel sink where he ceremoniously dumped them to crumble and sizzle. Running a hand over his face, he willed his mind to clear. A new batch of dough needed to be whipped up. Cookies needed to be finished and decorated. The kitchen needed to be cleaned, and the cold beer waiting would have to stay that way for an hour or two more.
"Well that's a shame."
Liam stared down at the sink's contents, unsurprised to hear Mrs. Stockton in his kitchen. "The VFW Christmas party is tonight." They'd be by to pick up the cookies in two hours. He'd have to call them and delay the pickup.
"They should have known better than to ask for your help on the day of the party."
He grunted and set the sheet pan on the counter. Of course she knew about the last minute order. Mrs. S knew all things about Outlaw River Falls. Anyone who doubted this fact found himself at the receiving end of her stern-eyed judgment and acidic wit. "I've got a lot of work ahead of me." He hated making mistakes. The past four years were peppered with them.
He didn't have to look at the fridge to know he was low on ingredients. Again. Four times today he'd run out of materials for his sugar cookies and Northland cupcakes. If he sent Vicki out again, she'd probably stab his leg with one of the plastic sporks she loved so much.
Liam's body jerked, and his breath stopped. For a split second he couldn't hear over the roar of blood in his ears. A breath came out. And in. "Say that again."
"Mia's here. I just saw her."
He spun around and gripped Mrs. S's arms. Her eyes widened, but he shoved it away to deal with later. "In the store?"
"No. Out at the tree." Mrs. S smirked. "I pressed her into working."
He jerked her into a hug and ignored her cry of annoyance. A kiss on her forehead and he was off. Her chuckle followed him into the front of the store.
"Where are you off to, Mr. Head Elf?" Vicki's voice edged with annoyance.
"To find a wayward elf." He nodded to a family of three as a surprised brunette held the door open for his hasty exit. Wind tore through his T-shirt and whipped the apron around his jean-clad legs. With a wave and a jog at a slowing car, he stepped into the street to the other side. A magical laugh captured his attention. Mia stepped from behind the tree.
Stunningly beautiful, everything he'd ever wanted. Still wanted. Mia.
Four years had filled out her luscious curves. His mouth grew dry at the way her jeans hugged hips and thighs. She stood next to a kid and sported a lighthearted smile, something she'd lost since she'd closed down the shop and shut out her dreams four years ago. Dark brown hair flowed in waves down her back from a clip.
Mia's full lips haunted his dreams. He reached for her countless times in the night only to find the sheets cold, and his heart empty.
Determination locked his spine and he strode forward, ready to show her dreams were worth fighting for.