Excerpt for Th Jingle Bell Bride by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

The Jingle Bell Bride

Christmas Brides

Scarlet Wilson

 

 

The Jingle Bell Bride

Copyright © 2017 Scarlet Wilson

Smashwords Edition

The Tule Publishing Group, LLC

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

ISBN: 978-1-947636-23-1

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Dedication

This book is dedicated to my partners in crime Maisey Yates, Nicole Helm, Megan Crane, Kasey Lane, Katherine Garbera, Nancy Robards Thompson, Eve Gaddy and Julia Justiss. Thank you all for making RWA 2017 such fun and looking after the could-have-been-lonely Scots girl!

And to Meghan Farrell, thank you so much for continuing to indulge my Christmas obsession!

Table of Contents

Title Page

Copyright Page

Dedication

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Epilogue

Eager for more Christmas Brides…

About the Author

Chapter One

Day Six

Jessica Christie held the phone to her ear as she scribbled frantically. “Where? When?”

Her brain was fried. It was only six days until the wedding in the UK of her latest client and the list of demands was multiplying like a virus. Her current list had seventy-six items.

“Yes, Renee, I’m here. I’m picking up your dress now.” She glanced around the exclusive New York designer’s showroom. What she hadn’t said out loud was that she was actually picking up Renee’s fourth wedding dress – the reality TV star had still not decided which one she would wear. But none of the dress designers knew that. They all thought they had an exclusive deal.

Renee. She was so famous that she just went by one name. Like some kind of rock star. Or pop singer. Her reality TV show was transmitted worldwide, and she was sponsored by around ten different products that were regularly placed in the background while she filmed, meaning Renee was rapidly moving towards billionaire status.

Her engagement photos alone had earned her three million.

“Okay, got to go. Franc’s just appearing. Speak later.” Jessica breathed a sigh of relief as she cut the call and gave her head a shake, trying to clear some space.

All brides got stressed in the lead up to the big day. Jessica was used to it. She’d been a wedding planner in New York for the last six years. She worked hard and had a real attention to detail, and those attributes had been noticed. Slowly but surely she’d become more and more in demand. But Renee was the queen of demands.

She’d wanted to get married in the UK at a castle, instead of in her home in New York. She’d insisted that all the staff in the castle sign confidentiality agreements. Then she’d decided she wanted a white bandstand installed in the castle grounds, along with pale peach night-lights in the surrounding gardens. Then she’d wanted a particular calligrapher to write all the invitations, a famous classical musician to sing between the wedding vows and a million other little things that seemed to appear out of nowhere. Jessica had spent the last six months catering to every whim and demand in order to give Renee the wedding of her dreams.

“Six more days,” she whispered.

Six more days then she’d never need to set eyes on Renee again.

Franc came out with the stunning dress on a hanger, the skirts spread out on his other arm as he held it aloft for admiration. “We’re finally finished.” He blustered, his face almost scarlet. “All the beading and sequins have been replaced as she requested.” He looked almost offended. “I thought she might have reappeared for a final fitting.”

Jessica spoke tactfully. She’d already attended three final fittings across the state of New York with Renee. “You know how frantic things get before a wedding. She’s at the airport right now, about to fly to London. And you fitted the dress so perfectly the last time I’m sure it won’t need any further adjustments.”

Franc’s face was still bright red. He frowned at the dress. “I’ve never had a bride demand so many last minute changes.”

Jessica smiled and put her hand on his arm. “It’s just Renee. She changes her mind about everything, believe me, I know.” Jessica moved slowly around the dress under the muted lights of the showroom. This was New York. There were no bright white lights to show wrinkles or bumps that celebrities didn’t want to see.

The now pale pink sequins and beads caught the light just perfectly, giving the whole dress a magical hue.

Each of Renee’s four dresses was entirely different. This was the most traditional – previously in white, but now in the palest of pinks – it had a sequined and beaded bodice with an illusion neckline and straight tulle skirts. The dress had originally been decorated with white beading and sequins, then, last time she’d come for a fitting, Renee had insisted they all be replaced with pale pink.

Jessica let out a little sigh. For all her faults, Renee had a good eye. Something about the change of color just gave the dress that little extra oomph. That little suck one’s breath in when they saw the bride feel.

One of the other dresses had a plunging back that practically showed off Renee’s backside. Another appeared to be made of white stretch net with panels covering only the most essential items of skin – it looked like a stripper’s outfit instead of a wedding gown. The third was ultra slim fitting, showing off Renee’s curves with an enormous fishtail at the back. This was the most sedate by a million miles.

“It’s amazing,” she admitted to an anxious Franc. She pulled out her phone. “Let me take a quick photo and send it to her. I’m sure she will just love it.”

Franc gave a nervous cough as he held the gown. “I thought she might have had second thoughts about the veil she’d chosen. The white doesn’t look quite right now the dress has changed tone.”

Jessica smiled. Franc nodded to where a garment bag was hanging up as she snapped the photo and pressed send. “So, I’ve given you two. The original, and the same veil made in palest pink. I think it will match perfectly.”

Jessica planted a kiss on the side of his cheek. “Franc, you’re a miracle worker. Thank you for this. Our bride is going to be beautiful.” As Franc carefully packaged the dress for transport, Jessica could feel a tiny bit of the tension start to release from her shoulders. This was the last thing she had to do before she headed home to pack for London. She’d already arranged four special deliveries to the castle in the heart of England, as well as sourcing the dozens of other little essential “items” Renee required that meant Jessica was now travelling with three giant suitcases to London.

She couldn’t wait to finally get on the plane and get this wedding underway. Her scribbled items had now been added to her electronic tablet. Seventy-seven items. All just details. Details that were currently circulating around in her head.

Her taxicab pulled up outside and Franc wrinkled his nose as he took great umbrage at having to deposit the box carrying the beautiful dress in the trunk. Although it was only afternoon, the sky was beginning to darken, making all the Christmas decorations on the street and shop windows stand out even more. She couldn’t help but smile. Nowhere did Christmas like New York. The tree at the Rockefeller Center, the ice rink, the red and gold decorations at her favorite department store. All things that just made the holiday season sparkle in New York. She’d already given the cab driver her address, so Jessica leaned back against the leather seats as her phone rang again. She didn’t recognize the number as she pressed the phone to her ear. “Jessica Christie?”

“Jessica, it’s Renee.”

She must be using the phone in first class. “What can I do for you?”

“Flowers. I need you to get me flowers.”

Jessica frowned and sat forward. “What do you mean? The flower arrangements and bouquets are already arranged. That’s all been taken care of in England.” She could picture the list in her head. All she had to do was call the florists to make sure there were no hiccups.

“Yes, but…” Renee let her voice trail off.

Jessica’s stomach flip-flopped. She’d experienced this before. It was never a good sign.

“But what, Renee?”

She heard Renee take a deep breath. “I’ve been rethinking our whole ideas about flowers.”

A horrible prickle crawled its way down Jessica’s spine. “Yes…” she said warily. She could see all their carefully made plans fly out of the window. This was going to be another swap-all-the-beads-and-sequins on the wedding dress scenario.

“I’ve discovered something new. Something really unique that I’d like in my wedding bouquet.” Enthusiasm was bubbling from Renee’s voice.

Jessica was still treading carefully as her mind raced. Where on earth had Renee had time to look at some new flower, between their last conversation and this one? Last time they’d spoken Renee had been at the airport and since boarded a plane to London.

Renee kept going. “You know how much I love Christmas. You do too; that’s why I picked you as my planner above all the others.”

Oh no. She was reminding Jessica how lucky she was. This could only go from bad to worse.

Even though Jessica knew she’d regret it, she said the words out loud. “What is it you want in your bouquet, Renee?”

She could almost hear the smile in Renee’s voice. “Well, it’s something beautiful. Totally unique. A wildflower. And wait until you hear the name, you’ll just die when you hear the name. It was made for Christmas freaks like you and me. And, what’s more, it’s red – our favorite color.” The emphasis on the word our told Jessica exactly where this would go.

She leaned her head against the cab window as the Christmas lights rolled past in a blur of white, red and green. “What’s it called, Renee?”

Renee let out a little squeal. Jessica could almost feel the people in first class next to Renee all cringe. She pulled out her electronic tablet. She might as well add it to the list. “It’s called the jingle bell flower. It had some weird kind of other name pen… penstemon barb… something.”

Jessica was instantly intrigued. “It is? Oh, that sounds nice.” She frowned for a second. “Oh, well, I’m sure if I give it a try I’ll be able to find a florist in the UK that can provide some for the wedding bouquet.” Her fingers instantly itched to start searching the internet, but her phone was pressed to her ear.

“Well, that’s just the thing,” continued Renee. “There’s only one place that the flower grows out of season.”

“Oh?”

“Yes.” Renee paused for a few seconds. “The only place the flower grows is…. Alaska.” She said it as if it were some kind of celebration.

“What?” Jessica’s voice rose instantly causing the cab driver to glance in his mirror at her. She gave her head a gentle shake. She must be hearing things.

But Renee just confirmed Jessica’s instant worst fears. “Yes, Alaska. In a special university place.”

The breath seemed to suck itself out of her lungs. Renee was chattering away so easily. It was clear she already had a plan.

Jessica tried to interrupt. “There must be other places it grows, Renee. Why don’t you give me a few hours to try and find out? By the time you land in London I might even have already sourced some for the bouquet.”

Please, please let me source some for the bouquet.

“No. You definitely can’t. Anyway, I’ve already messaged the place it grows. You can pick it up on the way to London.”

“What?” The cab driver jumped as her voice increased again.

Jessica struggled to find the words as she stared at her list. She liked lists. They worked for her. They brought order to chaos that was the life of a wedding planner in New York.

No matter what she was doing in this life she made a list. Whether it was groceries, household tasks, or errands to run. Nothing made her happier than an electronic list for work duties, and a pile of multi-colored post-its stuck to her fridge at home.

But somehow the usual sense of calm she got from looking at a list was rapidly evaporating. “Renee, there’s no way that can happen. My flight to London is already booked. I’ve got extra luggage to bring. I leave first thing tomorrow and I’ve just picked up your other dress. There’s no way I’ve got time to go to Alaska to collect flowers for you. Can’t they just ship them? I’m sure I can find a courier somewhere that will collect and deliver.”

That was the thing about working for Renee. Money was never an issue. The world of reality TV had served her well.

“No. No,” Renee said firmly. “You have to do it. You’re the only person I trust. Anyway, the guy was kind of weird about shipping. Said they had to be picked up in person. Apparently, he’s in kind of an out of the way place. Couriers don’t pick up or deliver. And there’s some kind of weird international paperwork that needs completed – a certificate or something. But hey – he said there’s a reindeer farm. How cool is that?”

Jessica’s head was spinning. “No. Wait. Leave this with me. Send me the details. I’ll work something out. There’s no way I can get to Alaska, and then on to London, in time to sort out all the last minute details for the wedding. That’s why we were both going early Renee, to make sure that everything would be just perfect for you.”

Even as she said the words she knew it was fruitless. Renee was notorious for being single-minded. Once she had her mind set, there was no chance of changing it.

“And this will make things perfect for me, Jessica – once you bring me the jingle bell flowers.”

Jessica slumped back against the seat. Her insides twisted. Alaska. What did she know about Alaska? Apart from the fact it was probably the one place on earth right now that was colder than New York?

How could flowers even grow there?

“I’ll send you all the details. Thanks sweetie,” Renee chirped before she rang off.

Jessica shivered. She hadn’t even agreed. Renee hadn’t even waited for a yes.

“Everything okay?” the cab driver asked.

“Not really,” Jessica murmured as she slumped back in her seat. “Looks like I’m going to Alaska.”

Chapter Two

Day Five

The whole landscape was white. Not just a little white. Like everything white. For as far as the eye could see. Was this even normal?

Jessica closed her eyes for a few seconds and tried not to listen to the phut-phut of the small two engine plane. There were four other passengers. A middle-aged couple, an older woman and a man in his fifties. The plane only had one spare seat and Jessica had taken one look at the tiny hold and bought it to carry Renee’s wedding dress. The huge box had been eyed suspiciously by all the other passengers since they’d got on board.

The plane gave a shudder as they entered another white puff of clouds. Jessica gripped the armrest as the plane tilted from side to side like a carnival ride.

She looked back out of the window in an attempt to distract herself from being sick. More white. Perfect. There wasn’t really anywhere to focus. Wait? Was that the tip of a mountain below? Shouldn’t they be a little higher? She gave a groan and leaned back against her seat. First time on a small airplane and hopefully the second last. One flight to there, one flight back.

Things hadn’t just been difficult. Things had been nigh on impossible. The flight from New York to Anchorage had been simple enough. But the connecting flight to Corona Creek airport had been a nightmare to book. Apparently not many flights landed at Corona Creek, and even fewer pilots were prepared to do the journey. Something about difficult air streams when landing between two glaciers.

Jessica kept her eyes closed. This should be simple enough. Once she reached the airport she’d grab a cab to the address she’d been given, pick up the flowers and head straight back. There were no direct flights from Anchorage to London. The quickest route was flying via Seattle and that would still take more than fourteen hours. She’d been highly tempted to reserve her next flight before she’d boarded the plane to Corona Creek and just charge it to Renee’s account. But even when most exasperated, she wouldn’t do that. She’d hate to reserve a flight and then miss it. She’d just have to wait until this part of the journey was over.

The plane lurched heavily to one side and she let out a yelp as her hand hit the airplane window.

“Sorry,” the pilot yelled. “We’re virtually flying into a snow storm here. Hold on.”

“Will we be able to land, Jack?” the woman sitting behind Jessica asked. She was older, with grey hair and around five layers of clothes on. It seemed she was familiar with the pilot.

Jack looked over his shoulder. “I’ve radioed ahead and they’re trying their best to keep the landing strip clear. Hank’s out with the snow plow now.”

A little shiver crept down Jessica’s spine. She’d glanced at a map when Renee had sent her the details. Corona Creek, Alaska had seemed kind of out of the way. But she hadn’t paid that much attention. Just how out of the way was it?

“Hold on folks,” Jack shouted as the plane started to bank to the side. Jessica put her hand to her mouth. This was like some really bad fairground ride that one went on looking all pristine, and came off looking as though they’d just wrestled a bear.

“I’m babysitting tonight,” the woman in the back shouted. “You better get me home, Jack.” There was an edge to her voice.

The plane, which had been gradually descending, pulled up sharply. Jessica was thrown back in her seat and Renee’s box slid off the seat next to her and opened, spilling the beautiful wedding dress across the floor of the plane.

“You’re getting married? How nice,” the older woman remarked, completely unperturbed by the fifty-thousand dollar wedding dress rolling around the cabin.

“No!” Jessica squealed as she made a grab for the dress.

The man in the seat behind tried to help, picking up the glistening dress with hands smudged with newsprint.

Jessica twisted in her seat, winced and pulled the dress back towards her, trying not to be obvious. “Thank you so much, but I’ll get it from here.”

The plane gave another jump. Snow was falling thickly on the windows. Jack gave a shout, “We’ll need to go around again. The runway wasn’t clear enough to land. I’m not sure if we’ll manage.”

“You better manage,” the old woman muttered under her breath.

Jessica tried to calm her breathing. The box slid past her feet. The beading and sequins prickling into the palm of her hands. Darn it. She’d just hold the dress until they were firmly on the ground. The engine next to her side of the plane made a strange noise. Different from the phut-phut. More like a groan of strain. Was the propeller supposed to be that slow?

She pressed her shoulders back against the seat and took some deep breaths as the plane dipped again. “Please let it land, please let it land,” she murmured.

She concentrated on the list. The list with eighty-three items now on it. Maybe it would help if she could try and say them out loud. She started rhyming things off in her head. Call the caterers to make sure they know about the seven guests all with different allergies. Speak to the chef for a detailed list of all items on Missi Burambi’s menu – she has more allergies than anyone. Swap the place cards and seating arrangements for two minor celebrities who’d dumped their other halves in the last day. Check the four hundred Christmas scent candles had arrived at the venue. She kept going. Lists kept her happy. Lists kept her safe.

It was almost like a hiccup. Then a false start, then before she knew it the plane’s wheels finally bumped down onto the runway.

“Woo-hoo! That’s us folks,” Jack shouted.

Jessica opened her eyes in time to see a bead of sweat drip from his brow. She turned to the couple in the other seats. “Is it always like this?”

They smiled. “Just fifty percent of the time. In the summer, it’s almost fine.”

The plane taxied to the small airport hangar, the door opening and steps flipping outwards. A blast of icy air shot inside.

“Brrrr,” Jessica zipped up her thin raincoat. She knew Alaska would be cold, but she hadn’t expected it to be quite so freezer worthy.

She bit her lip, almost scared to look down at the dress clutched on her lap. She stuck out her foot, catching the edge of the large cardboard box and dragging it across the floor towards her. When she’d left New York, even though the dress had been folded, the material had been pristine. Now, the delicate taffeta was crumpled and crushed beyond recognition.

Jessica bent down and folded the dress as best she could, trying to smooth out the wrinkles. She didn’t want to examine it further; she could just imagine the fury in a few days from Renée if the dress was marked. She closed the lid of the box over, something else for her to deal with later. She’d need to add it to the list.

The snow swirled around her as she stepped from the plane. She shivered as the true depth of the Alaskan temperatures permeated through to her bones. New York was cold. Alaska was deadly.

Jack was unloading the luggage from the rear of the plane, his face growing redder by the second as he wrestled with her three extra-large suitcases that were wedged inside. Red, blue and lime green – she liked to have cases she could spot easily on a conveyer belt. Or, it seemed, in the snow, like here. She slung her purse over her shoulder and balanced the box with the dress in one hand, trying to grapple the pull-along handles from the cases with another.

The old woman next to her pulled a woolly hat over her smooth grey hair. “You’ll never manage all those. Here, let me give you a hand.”

The woman took a case handle with either hand and started walking swiftly towards the black glass doors ahead of her. Jessica blinked for a second, then tried to scurry after her, slipping and skidding in the snow.

Seemed like there was no conveyer belt for luggage in Corona Creek airport, or official baggage handlers. Her New York stilettos had no grip on the icy path and she slid straight into the back of another passenger. “Oops, sorry.”

The silent man just glared at her and stepped aside to let her enter the airport hangar first. The terminal was small. It seemed everything happened here and on a rather informal basis. She looked around for a few minutes as the other passengers all disappeared out another exit. There were only a few check-in desks at one end of the terminal, then three departure gates with a mish-mash of different seats. There was a Christmas tree lurching to one side at one of the departure gates, and a few garlands on the walls. Corona Creek’s attempt at Christmas.

Jack, the pilot, came in at her back. “Still here? I wouldn’t advise it.”

She shivered again. The sooner she got out of here the better. England would be warmer than this – even though it was in the depths of winter too.

He pointed her towards the exit the other passengers had left from. “That’s the only way out.” He glanced at her luggage. “I take it someone is meeting you?”

She shook her head. “Oh no, I’m just going to call a cab.”

Jack’s eyebrows lifted. “In Corona Creek?”

Jessica shifted. The wet snow had managed to find its way into her shoes and her toes were feeling uncomfortably cold. “Well…yes.”

Jack let out a short laugh. “This isn’t New York, honey. If you want a ride in Corona Creek you better call somebody.”

Jessica gulped and stuck her hand into her jeans pocket. “I have a name and address somewhere.” She pulled out her phone and flicked it on. “Yes, I’m sure I have.” She tried to search the million messages she’d received from Renee in the hope of finding what she needed. “It was Mark… no Matthew, something.”

Jack frowned. “Matthew? Oh, Matt. Matt Holden?”

The message finally appeared. “Yes.” She smiled with relief. “Matthew Holden, that’s it.” She scanned the message and her face fell. “I have an address but I don’t have a number.”

Jack waved his hand. “Don’t worry, I know Matt. I can call him.” He started to walk to the exit, then stopped as he noticed Jessica staring in panic at her three cases. “Here, I’ll take these two to the exit for you and give Matt a quick call.”

Jack walked to the sliding glass doors. Jessica balanced the wedding dress box on top of her suitcase, brushing off the large flakes of snow that had landed on it outside. Please don’t let the dress get wet – chances were it was already dirty. Maybe she could find some lightning cleaning specialist service to meet her at London and miraculously clean the dress so that Renee was none the wiser?

She took a step towards Jack and her shoe made a strange squelching sound. She glanced around quickly, embarrassed by the noise, then stared down at her shoes. She took a tentative second step. Squelch. The sole looked as if it were coming away from her shoe. Just what she needed. She hadn’t meant to travel in these shoes, but she’d been so thrown by Renee’s call telling her she had to travel via Alaska that it had distracted her. The shoes she’d meant to wear were in one of these three suitcases – she just didn’t know which one.

She squelched on over to where Jack was standing just as he put down a phone on one of the unmanned car hire counters. “Matt will be here in twenty minutes. I’d wait inside here if I were you. He drives a large red SUV.” Jack gave a smile. “You’ll see him when he comes.” He tapped her shoulder. “Good luck.”

She opened her mouth to ask him about the return journey but he disappeared out into the swirling snow, vanishing almost instantly.

Jessica looked around. Corona Creek, Alaska. Last place she’d expected to be. She pulled out her phone again and tried to send an email to Renee, asking her if she had a phone number for Matt Holden. But the message wouldn’t send. She stared at her phone again. She barely had a phone signal – let alone any 3 or 4G. She tried to flick to wifi – surely the airport would have some? But no. Nothing.

She looked around for a desk to book her return flight. But the small airport seemed to be woefully lacking in staff. Each of the three desks for flights was empty. Maybe she should have chased after Jack out into the snow?

Time dragged. Jessica wasn’t used to doing nothing. A million things were racing through her brain. She could be searching for information on the darn flower she was supposed to be collecting. She wasn’t even sure what it looked like. Or, she could be tracking down a specialist wedding dress cleaner in London. All things she required internet access for. Anything but standing in some freezing, drafty airport. She pulled out her tablet and started adding things to her list.

After around forty minutes, she thought she could see a smudge of red outside. A few seconds later the glass doors slid open in another swirl of snow and a guy in a black jacket with fur around the hood stepped inside, kicking the snow off his boots.

Finally. She tried to hide her flicker of annoyance.

He pushed his hood back.

And she stopped thinking.

Oh… wow.

He had short dark hair, a close-cropped beard and the brightest green eyes she’d ever seen.

But, boy, did he look grumpy.

Her mouth did that instantly dry thing. Air travel was supposed to dehydrate, wasn’t it?

His eyes took in the giant cases and box perched precariously on top of one. He didn’t even try to make any attempt to hide his eyes rolling. “I’m Matt Holden. Are you the person looking for the penstemon barbatus?”

She couldn’t help but wrinkle her brow. The guy seemed as if he was talking a foreign language. “Whaat?”

He sighed. “The jingle bell flower.”

It was like flicking a switch in her head. “Oh, yes.” She nodded in relief and held out her hand. “Jessica Christie. Pleased to meet you. I’m the wedding planner for Renee. I know it might have come out of nowhere”—she gave a nervous kind of laugh because his face hadn’t moved since she’d started talking—“to you and me both, but Renee gets married in London in five days and she’s set her heart on including the jingle bell flowers in her wedding bouquet.” She felt as if she was jabbering and she just couldn’t help it. This guy was unnerving her.

Jessica. The girl who’d dealt with a hundred celebrity temper tantrums and told one of the most famous actors in the world what he could do with his wandering hands at a wedding last year.

Jessica looked around. Matt wasn’t holding anything in his hands. She gave a hopeful smile. “So, did you bring it?”

Matt frowned. “Bring what?”

“The flower. The jingle bell flower, the penst”—words temporarily escaped her—“thing.”

His eyebrows shot up. “Thing?”

“Yes, you know, the flower that Renee needs for her bouquet. The one with the fancy name. I thought you might just bring it with you. Then I could just turn around and catch the flight back to Anchorage, Seattle, then on to London.” Darn it. She was babbling again. What on earth was wrong with her?

She’d dealt with some of the world’s most demanding stars. She’d handled a bridesmaid standing on the bride’s train and ripping the dress five minutes before the ceremony. She’d handled allergies and sneezing fits from respective family members, and intrusive press photographers trying to sneak pictures at weddings where the exclusive rights had already been sold.

Babbling just wasn’t her thing.

Darn it, that word again.

Matt let out something resembling a snort, put his hands on his hips and started laughing.

A little flare of anger lit inside her. “Are you laughing at me?” She moved her feet and her shoes let out an uncomplimentary squelch.

Matt laughed even harder. “Of course I’m laughing at you. You were lucky to land. You think there’s a single flight that will take off in that weather now? You must be crazy.”

The doors slid open again as someone walked inside, bringing an even sharper gust of wind and a giant swirl of snow that dusted the floor all around them. Jessica lifted her eyes and gulped. Outside was a complete white out. She could barely even make out the red smudge of the SUV parked across the road.

Her heart started thudding inside her chest. No.

She had to get back to Anchorage. She had to catch that flight to London.

She was on a time limit. The wedding was in five days.

“But… but… I need to get back. I’ve still got a hundred things to do.” Well, ninety-one at last count. “How long will the snowstorm take to clear? An hour? A couple of hours?”

The edges of Matt Holden’s lips turned upwards. “That’s the thing about Alaska. Corona Creek is flanked between two glaciers. Wind blows off the glaciers and funnels with terrible consistency, making it almost impossible for flights to take off and land. If there’s a substantial snowfall”—he lifted one hand and gestured to outside—“which happens frequently around here, then the snow will sit for several days before it’s blown away.” He gave a nod of his head. “No one is getting out of here anytime soon.”

Jessica blinked and tried to breathe. Really tried to breathe.

“What… what do you mean?”

He gave an ironic smile. “I mean, Ms. Christie, welcome to Alaska.”

Chapter Three

It was obvious she was trying so hard not to panic and failing miserably.

Matt had been mad earlier. The phone call yesterday from the woman that thought she was some kind of superstar had been more than a little irritating. She seemed to think she could snap her fingers and the whole world would jump.

Still, the money she was willing to pay for the flowers was extreme. And who was he to turn down the chance for more research funds?

He still couldn’t imagine why she was so wrapped in wanting the jingle bell flowers – or why she thought transporting a wild flower from one continent to another was a good idea. However, if she wanted to pay for it – he’d let her.

But now, as he watched Jessica flounder around in her totally unsuitable shoes, with what looked like her entire house contents in those cases, he couldn’t help but almost laugh. With her skinny jeans, thin bright pink coat and blonde hair caught up in a ponytail she honestly had no idea what she was doing in Alaska. Talk about a fish out of water.

With those bright cases – red, blue, and lime green, along with the pink coat she looked like a veritable rainbow in amongst the drab surroundings. Or maybe the color burst was reminding him of the aurora borealis that frequently graced the night sky above him.

He folded his arms across his chest as he watched her hyperventilate.

He almost felt sorry for her. Life in Corona Creek was mainly quiet. And he liked it that way. He’d chosen to be here. Not many people wanted to study plants in Alaska. And his university-funded post didn’t exactly cover the bills – which was why he’d taken on another part-time role. He glanced at his watch. He had commitments to meet.

“Jessica, you should plan on being around for a few days at least. You really don’t have much of a choice. Do you have somewhere to stay?”

Her eyes had a sheen around them – the one that meant a woman was about to cry. He hated that. Had always been a sucker for it. She really was panicking.

She shook her head and wrapped her bright pink jacket closer around her. She must be cold. It was clear no one had briefed her on what to wear in Alaska.

He sucked in a breath. No. His brain was screaming at him.

Jessica worked for the most annoying woman on the planet. They had probably had identical personalities. This was the last thing he needed. This time of year was busy. He couldn’t hang around any longer. The animals depended on him.

He looked at the luggage. He spoke before he had any more chance to think about it. “Wait here, I’ll bring the SUV to the entrance way.”

She blinked. “Do you know a local hotel I can stay at?”

He tried not to sigh as he headed to the door. “Not likely. The nearest hotel is in Fairbanks, a forty-minute drive away, and the snow on the roads will be too thick to get through by now.” He picked up the first suitcase, “Looks like you’ll just have to stay with me.”

Her chin dropped and bright blue eyes widened. “Oh no. I can’t ask you to do that.” She looked from side to side. “There must be somewhere I can stay. A motel? Some kind of hostel? I don’t want to inconvenience you.”

“You’ve already inconvenienced me, and I have an appointment I need to keep. It’s your choice, Ms. Christie. You either come with me now, or you can spend the night in the airport.” He looked around at the emptying building. “But, since there won’t be any flights leaving here for the next few days, I’d imagine they’ll want to shut up shop.”

She looked as if she’d been stung and he winced at his snappy tone. He was running out of patience with Ms. New York.

She glanced about again. The check-in desks were closed and the car hire desks were only ever open sporadically. “But where will all the rest of the stranded passengers go?”

He shrugged and tried to be more reasonable. “I imagine there aren’t any. People who fly to Corona Creek generally stay here, or have family here. All daytime visitors tend to come via Fairbanks.”

She licked her pink lips and shivered again. Her shoe squidged on the floor again. If she was staying for more than a day he was going to have to insist she get some boots.

She was still looking around – obviously trying to find someone who was going to save her from this situation.

He stopped for a second and glanced downwards. The men in the Holden family had never been small-made. He’d forgotten how imposing he could seem.

When he looked back up he saw a whole different scene. Instead of some New Yorker who was more like a comedy act than a professional business woman, he saw a young lady who’d just been stranded in a place where she knew no one. A voice echoed in his head. Deb. Have a heart, Matt.

He was instantly shamed. Jessica needed some reassurances. She needed a place to stay, and to feel safe. How hard could that be?

He took a deep breath. “Look, if you want assurances you’ll be safe with a stranger, I can give you the number of some folks in town. You’ve nothing to worry about. Believe me, all I’m interested in is getting home and getting on with my work.”

Her brow scrunched a little and he cringed. It was an odd thing to say. But the words just didn’t come out quite right. It made her sound as welcome as something bad on the bottom of his boot. Then, there was the other thing. The all I’m interested in words. He’d made it sound like he didn’t think she was attractive. That he didn’t work that way.

Not true. Not true at all. It was just that he hadn’t felt any kind of pull to a woman for the last three years. Not since Deb had died.

It was kind of hard to even have a hint of those types of feelings when his heart felt as frozen as his surroundings. It was really how he’d ended up here. Every part of the apartment in Montana that he’d shared with Deb just echoed with the memory of her. Her scent. Her laugh. Her singing in the shower.

His mood had got lower and lower. Depression could be inevitable after the tragic loss of a loved one, but this had felt deeper. This had felt worse. His brother Mitch had finally taken him to the doctor and his counselor had made him face up to the fact that at some point he’d have to try and move on.

Being a research botanist wasn’t the most profitable job on the planet. But when the university post had been advertised in Alaska, he’d grabbed it with both hands. Plants were easy. Plants didn’t ask difficult questions. Plants didn’t want small talk.

Which was why he was way out of practice with talking to attractive women.

The woman in front of him lifted her hand to her face. It was shaking ever so slightly.

She hesitated again. So he pulled his phone out of his back pocket. “Here. Pick a number, any number, and call them. Ask if I’m safe.”

He must be crazy. Last thing he wanted was some strange woman from New York stranded in his lodge. But he wasn’t going to leave her here alone when she’d nowhere to go.

She took the phone he held out towards her with the slightest tremor in her hand. He watched as she took a deep breath and scrolled through his phone book.

“Any number?” she asked through thick eyelashes.

Why did he feel nervous? Everyone knew Matt Holden was as straight as a die.

“Any number,” he confirmed.

She pressed the screen then put the phone to her ear.

She gave a little jolt as the person obviously answered quickly. “Hi there. No, no, it’s not Matt. No – nothing’s wrong, don’t worry. I’m Jessica.” She gave a nervous laugh. “No, I’m not his girlfriend. I’m a… a client.”

He almost sighed out loud. He had no idea who she was talking to but didn’t doubt they would call him back later and quiz him within an inch of his life.

“Yeah, I’ve got kind of stranded here in Corona Creek. Matt’s”—she paused for a second and a little color flushed into her cheeks—“offered to let me stay with him until the snowstorm passes.”

He could see the tension in her shoulders relax a little as the person at the end of the phone obviously kept talking.

Curiosity was killing him. Please don’t let it be my mom. She’d start knitting baby clothes.

She smiled and he was instantly curious. “Yes, yes, exactly that. He told me to pick any number in his phone and call to check up on him. He wanted to be sure I felt safe.” She stayed silent for a few seconds then raised her eyebrows at whatever the response was. “Oh, really?”

Inside a little part of him died. “What? What did they say?”

Jessica laughed now, ignored him and nodded. “Of course, I’ll tell him. Thank you so much.”

She hung up and handed him back his phone. “Well, you got a reasonably good reference.”

He frowned. “What’s a reasonably good reference?” His hand was itching to check the last number called.

She winked. It was the first time he’d seen anything other than the uptight personality, or the edge of panic. She walked over and grabbed the handle of the suitcase with the large box balanced on top of it.

Her eyes were sparkling with mischief. “Apparently”—she paused and let the tension build, before letting out a laugh—“you wet the bed. Oh, and Mitch says hi.”

Every word he could ever use stuck in his throat. “Wh-what?”

She’d started to walk towards the exit. He already had one case, but grabbed the other too.

“I haven’t wet the bed since I was five. That rat fink. Wait till I get him. I’ll kill him.”

His mind raced. It was exactly the kind of thing his high-school coach brother would say. He could see his brother in his head right now, rolling about his living room floor laughing.

Well, when Mitch Holden called later to get the gossip he would be ignored. Big time.

Jessica gave a yelp as her shoe hit the ice on the ground outside, and Matt leapt forward to grab her elbow.

A waft of perfume drifted around him and sent a prickle down his spine. He’d spent the last three years smelling only wildflower scents. He hadn’t been close enough to a woman to smell her perfume and the strange combination of orange blossom, water lily, and clementine clouded his senses.

He could pick out each and every one of those components.

That was the thing about botany. It gave one a world of strange talents. She was leaning into him, trying to regain her balance after her stumble, and her eyes seemed bluer than ever.

Her shoes made the most uncomplimentary sound as she straightened up. Her eyes instantly widened. “What? Oh, no. I didn’t.” Her cheeks flushed bright red.

Matt laughed out loud as the thick heavy snow started to coat both of their shoulders. “Let’s go, Ms. Christie. I’ve got reindeer to feed.”

Her chin practically bounced off the sidewalk. “Reindeer? What? Are you kidding?”

He laughed as he crossed the road to the SUV, pulling the cases behind him. “Like I said, Ms. Christie. Welcome to Alaska!”

Chapter Four

She was bundled into the SUV in a matter of seconds and her cases flung in the trunk as if they were stuffed with cotton wool. She’d glimpsed the studded snow tires as she climbed in. She’d never seen those before.

“How far is it to your house?” she asked as silence filled the cab of the SUV.

Matt pulled out into the nonexistent traffic. It seemed that the rest of Corona Creek had gone home. “It’s about twenty minutes, depending on the roads.”

His answers sometimes seemed a little curt. There was something about him. Almost as if he had an invisible shield around him. Her insides gave a little twist. She hadn’t asked if he stayed with anyone, but was working on the assumption that he lived alone – why else would he encourage her to call someone to check him out?

The heat was blasting from the blowers in the car, heating the air around her instantly. Thank goodness.

She settled back into her seat. “Renee mentioned the reindeer. I’d forgotten about them.”

He kept his eyes firmly on the road. “Then you don’t pay attention to details? Guess life in New York is just too fast.”

It felt like a direct insult. “I do pay attention to details. Details are my thing.” There. She’d used that word again – partly to annoy him. “It’s one of the things I’m known for – my attention to detail. It’s why I’ve done so well as a wedding planner. I keep lists. I never forget anything. No detail gets forgotten.”

He raised his eyebrows as he kept driving. “Except today.”

Boy, this guy knew how to annoy her. She pressed her lips together to stop all the automatically defensive things she wanted to say. The guy could leave her stranded in a snowstorm. Picking a fight wasn’t her best option.

He swung right and pulled over to the side of the road.

“Oh, are we here already?” Was that really twenty minutes? Maybe time moved quicker in Alaska.

The snow was still falling heavily, she couldn’t really see out the side window of the car.

“We’re exactly where we need to be.” He grabbed the keys and jumped out.

She was kind of stunned. “Wh-what?” She was left talking to an empty car.

A second later he opened her car door and held out his hand towards her.

“What are we doing?”

He gestured to a store front barely visible through the haze. “We’re going shopping.”

She frowned. “What?” Shopping would normally fill her with pleasure. But here? Now?

“Come on,” he said a little sharply. “I’m on a time limit here.”

She swung her legs from the car and grabbed her purse. “What exactly do we need to go shopping for?”

She ignored his hand and jumped down, landing in around a foot of snow that promptly swallowed up her feet and soaked the bottom of her jeans. Darn it. That was why he was offering his hand.

He shrugged and slammed the door behind her, leaving her to slip and slide in the snow. He opened the door to the store and waited until she was safely inside.

She looked around. It was a kind of outdoor clothing store. The kind of clothes she’d never needed or wore. There were no designer labels in here. And, even though she’d never admit it, she was a bit of a designer label girl.

“What are we doing in here?”

Matt turned around and plainly looked her up and down. In protest, her shoes squelched. “You need something else to wear. At least, a jacket and a pair of boots.”

“But I’m still hoping I might be out of here in a few hours. You could be wrong about the snowstorm.”

He raised his eyebrows. She tried again, “A day?”

He let out a deep sigh and turned his gaze to look across the contents of the store.

She looked down at her shoes, about to protest. But even though they’d just come from the SUV her toes were still unbearably cold. She licked her lips and glanced around, trying to withhold the shudder. Some of this stuff was just ugly.

An assistant appeared with the obligatory grey hair. Was everyone old in Corona Creek?

“Hi Matt,” she said brightly. “You just caught me. I was about to close up. What can I do for you?”

“Hi, Isa.”

She did a double take as she caught sight of Jessica, her eyes doing the obligatory sweep up and down. “Oh, I see.”

Isa kept a smile plastered on her face while her eyes boggled out of her head like some kind of cartoon character at Jessica’s stiletto heels.

“I have just the thing,” she said as she disappeared.

Jessica stared at Matt. “How on earth does she know what I want? She didn’t even ask?” She couldn’t help the indignant tone in her voice.

He shook his head and laughed. “You think it isn’t obvious?”

Jessica breathed in slowly and peeled off her shoes. One sole peeled down in protest.

Isa’s voice shouted from the back. “Blue, red, or green?”

Jessica looked around. She was surrounded by clothes in various shades of black, blue and beige.

“Is this a trick question?” she asked Matt.

He shrugged. “I don’t know. Pick your favorite color.”

“Umm… red,” she shouted back, wondering what on earth she’d just decided.

Isa appeared from the back of the store carrying a pair of flat black, fur-trimmed boots and a bright red parka. “Are you a six or a seven?” she asked.

Jessica stared down at her feet. “A six.”

“Oh good, I guessed right.” Isa sat the boots at her feet then gave a laugh. “Socks, of course.” She walked over to a wire basket and pulled out a collection of brand new woolly socks. “Grey… or grey?”

“I guess it’ll be grey then,” Jessica said, accepting the socks gratefully.

The effect was instant. It was like a toasty warm fire on her feet. She pulled on the black boots. They were not quite as hideous as she first feared. The fur lining went all the way down to her toes. It was amazing – the way that having warm, comfortable feet somehow made her feel instantly better.

She pulled on the red parka. It had a fur-lined hood just like Matt’s and was super warm.

“Yes, that’s a good color on you,” Isa said. “I thought it might be.” She gave a little nod and glanced back over at Matt.

“We’re almost done.” He walked over to a shelf and grabbed a woolly hat, scarf, and gloves, then strode past her and put them on the cash desk.

“How much do we owe you, Isa?” He pulled out his wallet from the back pocket of his jeans.

Jessica grabbed her purse and walked over to the cash desk, thankful that her feet weren’t squelching any more. She nudged Matt out of the way – or at least she tried to – Matt Holden was no lightweight, as she pulled her credit card from her purse.

She looked at the price on the cash register. “You must have missed something.”

Isa shook her head. “No. It’s all there. The parka, the boots, the scarf, hat, and gloves.” She gave Jessica a wink. “I’ll throw in the socks for free. Welcome to Corona Creek.”

“Oh, you don’t need to do that. Let me pay, please.” Less than two hundred dollars. She almost couldn’t believe it. Last week she’d picked up a top that cost more than that alone.

Isa shook her head, “I insist.” She swiped the credit card and pointed at Jessica’s worse-for-wear shoes and thin jacket. “Do you want a bag for those?” Isa glanced outside as she kept smiling. “I imagine you just want to keep wearing what you’ve bought.”

Jessica crossed over and picked up her thin raincoat, ramming it into her purse. She pulled a face as she picked up her shoes. “These are done for. Would you mind throwing them in the trash for me?”

Isa shook her head. “No problem. Nice to see you again, Matt. Be sure to bring your friend back again.”

Jessica waved her hand. “Oh, thanks so much. But I’m not staying. I’m just here until the next flight can take off. I’m going to England, for a wedding.”

Isa’s eyebrows shot up. “Yours?”

Jessica laughed and shook her head. “Oh no. Not mine. I’m far too busy to get married. I’m the wedding planner.”

Isa gave an obvious look at Jessica’s hands. “So, you’re not already married or engaged?” She shot a sideways glance at Matt who stuck his hands in his pockets and stared out of the window.

Jessica shook her head as she took the receipt from Isa. “No, not yet. Like I said, no time.”

Isa leaned over and patted her hand. “Well, you know what they say. Don’t rush through life without taking time to smell the roses and see the rainbows.”

Jessica tilted her head to one side. “Who says that?”

Isa smiled. “Me.”

Matt strode over and opened the door behind her, letting the cold air from outside sweep in. His actions seemed abrupt. Odd. But this time she wasn’t cold. This time the only part of her the cold wind affected was her nose. The rest of her was toasty warm in her new bargain-priced clothes.

“Let’s go, Jessica. Isa will want to shut up shop.”

Jessica smiled her thanks once again to Isa and followed Matt outside. She barely had time to fasten her seatbelt before he pulled out onto the road.

He kept his eyes firmly focused on the road ahead, with no small talk. Silences made her uncomfortable. She wanted to fill it. But a reminder of the way she’d babbled in the air terminal persuaded her to keep her mouth firmly shut.

The landscape only changed a little. They went from houses and stores covered in snow to trees and bushes covered in snow. Everything was so white with only the occasional hint of green daring to try and peek out from the snow.

Her hands scrunched into the seat as she started to make lists in her head. First thing, call Renee. Let her know she was temporarily stranded, then attempt to do what she could from four thousand miles away.

She tried to dampen down the instant panic in her belly as her stomach clenched. She could use a phone. Hopefully Matt had internet. Everyone had internet these days – didn’t they? She could still follow up on details from here. Her time need not be wasted.

“How’s the parka?” Matt’s mood seemed to have thawed a little.

What on earth had caused the snappy response back in the store?

“It’s actually great,” she replied. The heat in the SUV was already getting to her. She’d need to unzip the parka soon. She pulled the hat off her head and unwound the scarf. “I guess I didn’t realize quite how cold it could be here.”

He raised one eyebrow and glanced sideways at her. “Average temperature this time of year is minus twenty.”

“Then how does anything grow?” The jingle bell flowers sprang into her head. “How on earth do you grow flowers up here when you can’t even see the soil?”

He smiled. “Just wait and see. Alaska might surprise you.”

She leaned back a little and looked at him curiously. He was deliberately being evasive.

“So, how can you grow jingle bell flowers and work on a reindeer farm?”

He smiled. “Does it strike you as odd?”

She shrugged, trying to find words that wouldn’t offend him. “Different.”

His smile disappeared. “I wanted a change. The job in Alaska came up, but it was only part-time hours. I decided I needed to do something else to supplement my income. I do need to eat, you know. We don’t all spend our lives in New York pandering to celebrities.”

That stung. She instantly bristled. “Well, that’s exactly what you’re about to do too. Pander to a celebrity. You’ve agreed to supply the flowers.”

He shook his head. “The university decided to pander to a celebrity. Not me. I have to put all requests back to them. These are Alaskan wild flowers. We grow them specifically to monitor them with regards to climate changes. Because they can be delicate, we frequently grow extra stock. That’s the only reason we can supply them.”

He indicated and turned left past a huge wooden sign painted with red letters and a motif of a reindeer. The Heritage Hooves Ranch.

She gave a smile. “Nice name.”

He rolled his eyes. “It’s not mine. I’m just the employee. Mary and David set the ranch up in 1987. But time has kind of caught up with them. They get really busy this time of year. So, I help out as much as I can.”


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