Taylor Knox is a man with a plan. After years of handling the family’s construction business everything is set for his brother to take over. Taylor is determined to finish his education and complete his dream to become an architect. But first, Knox Construction has to complete renovations of Christmas Inn…a task made more difficult by the arrival of Little Miss Entitled. Ariana Christmas throws Taylor’s plans and schedule into complete disarray, threatening the completion of the work and his future. That doesn’t even begin to cover what she does to his heart.
The Tennessee countryside rolled out before Ariana Christmas as the highway topped the crest of a small hill, providing a stunning view of Hope Creek. Early October, and the trees had turned. Bright orange, russet and golden leaves created an amazing patchwork of colors on the panorama below.
Beautiful. Even if it was in the back of beyond. She tamped down on the anger and resentment that threatened to raise ugly heads again. Those emotions were useless. When her father first sentenced her to this imprisonment she’d tried sarcasm, rage and finally tears. All to no avail. He’d cancelled her credit cards and her phone account. He’d even taken away her lovely little sports car with its leather interior and told her she had to earn her own way. Her ailing Aunt Lizzie needed help. Ari’s new job was to take care of Lizzie, and oh, by the way, oversee the renovations of the family’s historic Christmas Inn.
So not fair. What did Ari know about running an inn? OK, so she did have a master’s degree in hotel management. But she’d never worked a day in her life. She didn’t need to. Her older brother Ian took his place beside their dad to manage their hotel empire long before Ari left school. Ian was a natural leader and a great asset to the business. She should know. Her father told her so enough times.
She sighed and focused her gaze back on the road. She shouldn’t resent Ian. It wasn’t his fault he was a natural born leader and IT genius while Ari was good at…
Parties. She was the best at partying. In fact, that’s what got her into this trouble. A video had surfaced on the Internet and gone viral. OK, so she’d had too much to drink. And yes, her little impromptu dance on top of the table was a bit suggestive. Well, maybe more than a bit. At least it wasn’t a strip tease. Still, her parents would probably be shocked to find out she was as pure as the day she’d been born.
And who’s fault is it they’d be shocked?
There it was again. That nagging little voice she’d been hearing more and more frequently. She didn’t much like the constant, niggling reminder of too many things she’d liked to forget, or drown out.
She stabbed at the button on the dash, hoping to find a station with some music. All she got was dead air.
The radio in her newly purchased, semi-ancient economy vehicle didn’t work. Neither did the air conditioning or the heater. In fact, the engine seemed to resent the need to turn over. Her mother had tried to convince her dad that he should give her a dependable car. But Dad had refused stating, “It’s time Ariana learned to appreciate what she has.”
Fortunately, she had just enough in savings to cover the price of a car and gas from New York City to Tennessee. She’d purchased a throw away phone for emergencies and hit the road. Of course, fuel had cost a great deal more than she anticipated so she’d skimped on lunch and dinner yesterday and completely skipped breakfast this morning, as evidenced by her tummy’s angry grumbling. Her stomach grumbled just to remind her. But she’d eat when she got to the inn, after the meeting of course. Her father had scheduled a meeting for her with Paulina Kovacs, the inn’s manager, and the contractor hired to do the renovations. Ari was already fifteen minutes late. Fortunately, her family’s historic inn was just around the corner.
Great. There was that funny sound in the engine again. The car stuttered, lost power and slowed almost to a stop. At the last minute, it choked back to life and picked up speed. Ari released her breath in a sigh.
OK. So maybe she should have spent a little more and bought a newer used car. But her favorite designer purse had released a new winter addition and she just had to have it. So she’d splurged on the accessory and settled for the cheaper vehicle.
She turned down the drive to Christmas Inn. Her great-great grandfather, Angus Christmas, had been one of the first to settle in the township of Hope Creek. He and her great-great grandmother lived in a small log cabin while Angus built the beautiful white chapel that still stood at the back of the property. Its steeple and bells had earned Christmas Inn a reputation. Legend had it that the bells rang whenever a couple was destined to fall in love.
Even though Ari had heard the story since she was little, she wasn’t sure she believed it. Wasn’t even sure she believed in true love. But her mother believed. She’d repeated often enough how she and her family had come to spend their summer vacation at Christmas Inn. Ari’s dad was home from college for the summer to perform lifeguard duties. The minute her mother saw the handsome son of the inn’s owners, she fell in love. The first time he kissed her, near a park bench outside the chapel, the bells had tolled, startling everyone within earshot.
They didn’t marry right then, not until three years later when Ari’s mother finished college and returned with her family for another summer at Christmas Inn. By that time, the young man she’d been infatuated with on the last visit was managing the place. As soon as he saw her familiar face, he set out to claim her as his own. The rest was history.
Ari had loved hearing the story when she was little. But time and experience had taught her love didn’t come that easy or stay so true. Still, Christmas Inn was their home and even after her father purchased more hotels and her family left to manage them, they’d returned to spend every Christmas in Hope Creek.
Aunt Elizabeth and her husband Dale managed the inn. Uncle Dale had passed almost a year ago. According to her parents, Lizzie had not handled his passing well and now her own health was failing. Her oldest friend, Roberta, had moved into the suite to help out.
Ari knew nothing of her aunt’s condition personally. Somehow she hadn’t managed to return to Christmas Inn for the holidays since she’d left for college. This was her first visit in years and she had to admit, she was a bit excited. She’d always loved Christmas Inn with its quaint, old-fashioned decor and Christmas-themed rooms. She couldn’t wait to see it.
The Tudor gables appeared through the trees just as the engine sputtered again.
“Come on. Come on. You can do it.”
The vehicle responded with a small explosion. Ari jumped and gripped the wheel as the car coughed and fell silent. It coasted to a stop just short of the front entrance. She released another heavy sigh.
Close enough. The valet could take care of the vehicle from here. Turning off the ignition, she grabbed her purse, checked her makeup and hair, then climbed out. A young man of seventeen or eighteen came out of the inn’s front entrance.
“Wow. Sounds like you’ve got engine trouble.”
“Yes. Thank goodness I made it this far. I have no idea what’s wrong.” She held out the keys.
He stared at her extended hand for a few moments before finally taking them.
“I’m Ariana Christmas. And you are?”
The young man looked flustered. “I…I’m Jason.”
“Pleased to meet you, Jason. Just have the car serviced then park it in my place. I’ll arrange payment later. Thanks.”
She shouldered her purse and headed in to her meeting, even later than her usual fashionably late appearance. The door slid open and a rush of warm air flowed over her. She closed her eyes as familiar smells surrounded her. Smoke from the massive fireplace. Pine boughs and cookies. And maybe just a little dust.
Her eyes popped open. That wasn’t familiar here. In fact, now that she was inside, the dusty odor was stronger, more like musty old carpet.
Ari halted. The entryway tile had multiple cracks—not to mention the dirt clogged in the corners. The carpet edges were badly worn, and tiny fingerprints caked the sliding doors. A fine layer of construction dust rested on the table beside the entrance, where cookies and hot cider usually resided. Leather divans posed in the square conversation area looked ragged, and black soot marred the large fireplace directly across. The clock above was impressive as ever, albeit in need of a good polishing.
Hammer blows echoed in the distance and the zing of electric drills made her teeth rattle. Obviously the renovations had already begun. Still, how had her favorite place in the world fallen into such a sad state?
At that moment, the elves on the cuckoo clock above the mantel marched out of their little home to chime forty-five minutes after the hour, reminding Ari that she was late. She hurried toward the reception desk, where a young woman greeted her with a sweet smile.
“Hello, I’m Ariana Christmas and I’m very late for a meeting with Ms. Kovacs. Can you send me in the right direction?”
The receptionist pointed to the hall on the left. “She and Mr. Knox are in her office.”
Was it her imagination or did the receptionist’s voice soften when she said ‘Mr. Knox’?
“Thank you. Who exactly is Mr. Knox?”
The girl’s smile grew bright and her eyes took on a glazed look. “Why, he’s the general contractor hired for the inn’s renovations.”
No mistake. The girl’s eyes glazed over at the mere mention of Mr. Knox.
Well, Ari dealt with dreamy types all the time. She wasn’t going to lose her focus. This meeting had taken on new importance. Christmas Inn needed saving!
She knocked on the door. Then, not waiting for a reply, Ari turned the knob and sailed in.
Paulina Kovacs, employee of Christmas Enterprises and current manager at Christmas Inn, sat behind the desk. Dressed in a black pantsuit, her hair pulled into a tight roll and black-rimmed glasses perched on her nose, the woman looked so much like a caricature of a businesswoman, Ari almost laughed out loud. Then she caught sight of the man sitting in front of her desk and caught her breath.
Dreamy was the perfect word. Light brown hair fell over his forehead in just the right casual but controlled wave. A rather thin nose with a perfect slope. Strong lips, the lower fuller than the upper. On any other man, the five o’clock shadow above his lips might have seemed grungy, but on him it looked just rugged enough. And those eyes. Hazel. But she couldn’t tell for sure because as she walked forward, they changed with the light. At a distance they’d seemed green but up close they were light brown. Almost yellow. Incredible.
Ari only realized she was staring when Ms. Kovacs cleared her throat. Gathering herself, Ari flashed her trademark smile, guaranteed to win over any male over the age of five and extended her hand.
“I’m Ariana Christmas. You must be Mr. Knox, our contractor.”
“Yes…yes, I am.” His handshake was warm and comfortable. Rough fingers. Working man’s hands. Quite a change from the male hands she was accustomed to. One side of his mouth tilted in a perfect half smile and Ari found herself staring again. She could watch the way his upper lip tilted all day.
But that wouldn’t do. Turning, she smiled at Ms. Kovacs and offered her hand. “So pleased to meet you at last, Paulina. I’ve heard so many wonderful things about you.”
One very black eyebrow quirked upwards. “Really?” She gave Ari’s hand a quick shake then looked down to fiddle with something on her desk. “Well, I’d like to think so, but if that’s true, why did your father send you down here to supervise my efforts?“
Ari smiled to cover Paulina’s surprisingly honest response. Truth was, her father probably wanted Ms. Kovacs to supervise Ari, but somehow she didn’t want to admit that out loud–at least not in front of Mr. Knox.
“I’m really here to watch over my aunt. But now that I’m here, I have to say I’m shocked at the condition of the inn. How did things get so bad so quickly?”
Paulina drew a slow breath. Ari could almost visualize the woman mentally counting to ten. “It hasn’t been quick. I’ve been here for almost two years and I’ve been asking for funds to renovate since the first month I arrived. It simply hasn’t been possible with the budget.” Paulina’s tone dripped pure frustration.
Ari wasn’t sure what to say. “Oh, I see.”
The family business couldn’t find a way to finance upgrades in their hereditary home? That jarring thought made her father’s frustration with Ari’s spending habits a little more understandable. Why hadn’t he told her? Hadn’t he known she’d be only too happy to curtail her activities if it meant Christmas Inn could be brought back to its previous beauty?
“Well, now that the renovations have begun, we absolutely must do something about that entrance. The tile and carpet have to go.”
Paulina’s eyebrow quirked again but she never said a word. She simply handed Ari a list of budgeted items. Tile. New carpeting. Furniture. Windows replaced. Ari gazed down the list and almost gasped at the total.
No wonder her father was cutting costs where he could.
She swallowed hard and licked her lips. “It seems you and Mr. Knox have the situation well in hand.” She flashed Mr. Dreamy a quick smile that had no doubt lost its previous pizazz and met the manager’s definitely disdainful stare. “It seems I’m interrupting. I didn’t mean to. I would have been on time but I had car trouble. I barely made it here and handed it over to the valet.”
At that moment, a knock sounded at the door. Paulina answered and Jason, the young attendant, peeked around the corner.
“Excuse me, Ms. Kovacs.” He glanced at Ari. “Ms. Christmas’s car is blocking the drive. It needs to be moved but it won’t start. I’m not sure what she’d like me to do with these.” He held out Ari’s keys.
Paulina drew in a slow, frustrated breath. This time Ari didn’t have to visualize the woman counting to ten. She could hear it. “I’ll take them, Jason. Thank you.”
The young man handed the manager the keys, then quickly stepped out and closed the door. Paulina smiled but her lips had a tight, strained look, hardly a smile at all. “We don’t have valet service. And we have a very narrow drive and entry. Your vehicle will need to be towed as soon as possible.”
Heat crept into Ari’s cheeks. “Of course. I’ll take care of that right now.” She took the keys and hurried to the door. Just as she reached for the handle, a thought occurred to her. Cheeks flaming, she stood for a moment more, gritting her teeth but knowing she had no other choice.
She turned back around. “Uhhmmm…exactly how do I do that?”
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