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TANGLING WITH THE GRINCH

I had a feeling this was the year I’d finally fall in love—I just didn’t know it would be with the grumpy, grinchy single dad who takes over running the Pineville Christmas tree farm.

Mazie

I’ve never been worried about not finding “the one.” I’ve always believed I’d recognize him the moment I see him, so as my friends got married, I continued to build my pop-up gift business until he shows up. Now at 35, I’ve checked off two of my top three goals: purchasing my first house and opening a storefront. And I’m confident the third one will happen just in time for the holiday season.

But first, I’m committed to one more pop-up at the tree farm. He’d given me my first shot ten years ago, and I would not let the aging owner down.

Only this year Sheridan’s son is running the farm and I literally run into him on the first day. Not a great way to make a first impression, but oh, what an impression he made on me.

Walker

I never wanted what my cantankerous old man spent more time working on than with his family, so when he leaves me his tree farm, I scramble to make it work until I can find a buyer and fast.

Christmas is my least favorite time of the year and I only tolerate it for my young son. Now, I just have to get through the next four weeks of non-stop Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town and pine-scented everything.

Then a whirlwind of peppermint-scented sunshine slams into me as I inspect the barn where my father rented out space for holiday treats and over-priced snow globes.

Every day I try to ignore how my body aches for her, but what I don’t expect is how slowly but surely, she gets under my defenses with her smile and yes, her non-stop holiday spirit.

When she discovers I’m selling the farm, will I be able to prove to her I’m not the total grinch she believes me to be?

Welcome to Pineville, where love always finds a way.

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CHAPTER 1

WALKER

 

The crackle and crunch of dry leaves filled the air, mocking me as I strode toward the old red barn on my old man’s tree farm. Scratch that my tree farm. Dang it, my Christmas tree farm. 

“Dad, this is the best day ever!” My seven-year-old, Devon, had found the tire swing.

The ancient oak stood out in a sea of evergreens, with its gold and red-orange leaves. Well, the leaves had all fallen, but the childhood memory of watching the tree turning colors was one of the positive memories I had during the months leading up to our father’s all-consuming passion—and it wasn’t spending time with his four kids, well at least with me. 

Mason Sheridan hadn’t passed along his love of farming to any of us. Oh, he’d tried. Maybe a bit too hard. The farm hadn’t always grown a variety of fir and blue spruce trees. When dad first bought the land, the crops were mainly mint, wild rice and barley. That was before he sold off chunks of it over the years to developers in order to pay mom’s medical bills. Now all that’s left are those darn trees.

And surprise, surprise, instead of making things easy on his kids, because whenever did he do anything that was easy, he put a stipulation in his will just for me. Besides the one where he named me executor and manager of the farm. He decreed that there would be one more tree season no matter what time of the year he passed, and I was the one who had to run it.

And now I had to meet some lady named Mazie who ran the holiday gift shop in the barn where I’d had my first kiss when I was twelve. Her name was Jessica, and she was an older woman of thirteen. We’d snuck away from our job of helping customers pick out their trees when things had gotten slow. She’d moved away the following year and broke my heart. The first, but not the last woman to do so.

I can still hear my dad’s disappointment ringing in my ears as I get closer to the barn that’s seen better days. We were staying in the farmhouse I’d grown up in, which held even more memories, mostly of mom. It was bittersweet for sure, but Devon was having a blast and that’s all that counted.

“Devon, I’m headed inside. Don’t get too crazy on that thing. That rope has been there since I was your age.” Standing with my back to the barn doors, I knew I was stalling. I knew that once I entered, then this whole debacle of overseeing the Christmas tree farm that had made me run as far away as an eighteen-year-old could get would become real.

Dammit, I don’t have time for this. Spending six weeks away from my business back in Seattle and taking my son out of school was more than inconvenient. It was my dad’s way of having the last word one final time.

Jeez, why’d he have to pick me? He knew how pissed off it would make me to come back here. And I guess I had my answer. I needed to shake off this mood for my son. He was so mature for his age, sensing when I wasn’t fully present in the moment. And that was the last thing I wanted for him. It was how my dad was with me, and I swore I’d never be that way if I ever had kids.

So here I was, all tied up in knots over something that can’t be changed, but that didn’t mean I had to like it. 

So distracted by the memories this place stirred up, I wasn’t paying attention when I turned around to head inside that instead of the wooden handle, I found myself holding a soft, warm peppermint-scented female a good eight inches shorter than me. 

“Oomph! Oh, my.” The surprisingly sexy voice traveled directly south to the territory behind my zipper and settled, sending signals to my brain, rerouting blood flow. A signal I hadn’t received quite so quickly, at least since my teenage years.

Holding her upper arms, I kept her from falling backward. Her head snapped up at the change in direction and I was face-to-face with a decidedly younger and sexier version of the woman I thought I’d be meeting.

While my long-neglected appendage attempted to stand at attention, I took in a deep breath and tried my best to untangle myself from the gorgeous, curvy brunette wearing garland around her neck like a scarf and a dusting of green glitter on her chin.

“Are you okay, ma’am?” 

“I’m so sorry I wasn’t paying attention to where I was going.” 

Speaking at the same time, I took a large step back, putting as much distance between us as I could without making her feel self-conscience about how quickly I removed my hands. Her breathy voice was like another hit of adrenaline I wasn’t sure my zipper could withstand. 

This reaction was the strangest damn thing. I was a long way from my twenties when a strong wind would have made me instantly hard, so what was it about her that had me wishing we were alone and close to a bed?

“I’m good. Just, uh, embarrassed. Anyway, you must be Mr. Sheridan’s son, Walker. I’m Mazie Cameron. I’m so sorry for your loss.” The expression on her upturned face was so sincere and if it were any other moment in time, I could get lost in her dark brown eyes. But it wasn’t. And I couldn’t.

The mention of my dad was the bucket of cold water my out-of-control libido needed.

Mazie held out her hand. It was dwarfed in mine as we shook, and I swear electricity sparked.

“Thank you, Ms. Cameron. I’m sure the lawyer informed you that this will be the last year you can run the gift shop. I hope it doesn’t hurt your business, but running this tree farm was our dad’s dream and none of his children want it. I’m just here to fulfill what was laid out in our his will, then I’ll be putting this place up for sale come the new year.”

Her expressive eyes narrowed then she released a long “hm” which sounded awfully like “yeah right, buddy.” Although I realize I came off a bit harsh, I wanted to make sure she understood what was what right up front so there’d be no false hope of changing my mind.

“Really? That’d be such a shame. This place is such a big part of so many families' holiday traditions. I’m sure once you see how much the community loves this place, how the children get a thrill from hunting down the perfect tree, cutting it down themselves or watching the staff bundle it up, and then there’s the gift shop. Did you know we have at least a dozen local artisans who sell handmade items from wooden toys to holiday home décor and unique gifts found nowhere than right here in Pineville and the tree farm has always been their showcase?”

The challenge in her tone should have put me off, instead it fanned the fire already lit inside me. The one that had flared to life the moment we bumped into each other. 

And her excitement over everything Christmas and this farm should have had the opposite effect on me. Instead, as I watched her talk, focusing my gaze on her full, cherry red lips, all I could picture was the two of us rolling around naked and me dropping kisses along her flushed pink skin.

Nope, not going to happen. Besides, she wasn’t my type. Anyone who loved the holidays as much as she obviously did was not someone I needed in my life. I was just going through a sex drought, is all. One of my own making, sure, but since gaining full custody of Devon four years ago, there wasn’t much room in my life for dating.

And no matter how pretty and tempting Mazie was, I would not be sucked into her orbit.

“Are you feeling okay? You look as if you just sucked on a lemon? Oh, hi there. What’s your name?”

A lemon? That’s a bit harsh. So focused on Mazie I hadn’t realized that Devon was standing next to us, his gaze bouncing between us.

“Hi, my name’s Devon Sheridan, ma’am. What’s yours?” Devon had lost both his front teeth last week and had refused to smile ever since. But not today. His toothless grin filled his face as he gazed up at Mazie.

Rolling my eyes, I let out a long sigh as I took in her reaction to my son’s interruption. It was both a blessing and a curse, the Sheridan charm. And my son seemed to have found his. I needed to remember that and make sure I held mine in check. I’ll let Devon be the good cop while I, as usual, play the bad cop.

“Nice to meet you, Devon. Are you excited about the opening of your grandpa’s, I mean your dad’s, Christmas tree farm? We’ll have free hot chocolate and cookies every day. I was just checking the supplies for the gift shop. I bring in items crafted by local artisans each season and help out with the wreaths that are made right here on the farm. Maybe you could help me out? If it’s okay with your dad.” Mazie’s smile rocked me back a step. It rivaled Devon’s in wattage, but it had a whole different effect on me than my son’s.

I had to hold firm.

Releasing a low whistle, I placed a hand on my son’s shoulder. “You act fast, Ms. Cameron. We just met and you’re already recruiting. What’s next? You going to ask me to wear that ridiculous Santa suit my dad wore every Christmas Eve?”

Maybe there was too much rude and not enough tease in my tone as I’d meant because by the height of her eyebrows just now, I could very well be on her naughty list. And with that thought, my mind took a left turn to a decidedly sexier naughty list than the one ol’ Saint Nick ever checked.

I tried again to sound a bit more neutral. “Neither one of us is here to participate in any of the holiday activities, Ms. Cameron. I’m just here doing my duty, then we’ll be heading back to Seattle.

Better she knew right from the start where I stood about my son taking part in the holiday activities on the farm and with her. The last thing I needed was to be around her tempting body every day.

Mazie’s smile disappeared as I spoke. She crossed her arms under her firm, and perfectly sized to fit in my palms breasts. It took every bit of effort to keep my gaze on her face and I prayed that she didn’t notice the bobbing of my Adam’s apple as I swallowed a moan at the alluring picture she made. Did she have any idea how she was affecting me?

“You’re awfully young, Mr. Sheridan, to be so…grinchy.”

“Young?” I let out a scoff. “I’m forty-two. Old enough to know better. How old are you? Twenty-five, twenty-six? There’s more to life than running a tree farm that’s only useful for a handful of weeks of the year. I’m only here because I have to be, not because I want to be. Not because I have joy for the season or whatever good tidings it’s supposed to bring. My son will not be working anywhere on the farm and that includes the gift shop. I, on the other hand, have no choice, so if you have any issues, you’ve got my number.”

Instead of arguing with me, she stared me down. Not in defiance, but in speculation. No, that wasn’t right. It was like she could see right through my bluster. For a moment, I saw what might have been a flash of empathy, then interest, but that too disappeared in an instant so I wasn’t sure. 

But I was mesmerized either way as her luscious lips thinned out, and she gave me a slight nod.  

I was being a dickhead, and I knew it. Instead of arguing with me, her gaze dropped from my face to the tip of my battered cowboy boots and back up again. Not only did I feel the heat from her perusal, and perhaps some mutual interest, I also felt her disappointment.

Rarely do I let what others think of me bother me. I’d long ago developed a thick skin toward other people’s opinions, and it had become even thicker when my ex took off. But with Mazie, as ludicrous as it seemed, I wanted her to like me even knowing nothing could come between us. I refused to let another beautiful woman lead me around by my hormones.

“Oh, I have your number all right, Walker.” She dropped her arms and gave Devon another smile. “It was so nice meeting you. I hope you visit me next week after we open. I’ve been known to hand out candy canes.” Her smile disappeared when she looked back at me. With a quick nod, she spun on her heel and walked back inside the barn.

“Dad, she was nice. Why’d you have to be like that?”

“Like what?” I knew what he meant but instead of answering me, he rolled his eyes, turned and ran back to the tree. I was left alone, staring at Mazie’s heart-shaped backside as she bent over a box of holiday ornaments. She’d effectively dismissed me. But my body wasn’t getting the memo.

If anything, her standing up to me made me harder, and more interested than I should be considering what I’d said. The only thing that saved me from further embarrassing myself was my mid-thigh jacket covering the evidence of a less than five-minute interaction with a woman I just met.

Apparently, my body and my brain were ready to do battle, and whether I wanted it or not, I had a feeling Mazie Cameron would be more than worth breaking my self-imposed hiatus.

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