Christmas Light

Adirondack girl-in-transition Jade Engel comes home to recharge after ending a career she never truly wanted, but soon realizes she’s in danger of also being swept off her feet by the boy-next-door, her former best friend, Ben Stephens. If only he’d stop kissing her every time she falls into his arms.

Everything local celebrity Ben Stephens ever wanted is in Starling. Then Jade comes home after an eternity away and sends his simple world into a tailspin. He’s determined to pursue her—the one girl who got away. But when their friends-with-benefits arrangement blows up in their faces, will they have the courage to put their pasts to rest in order to forge a future together?

Enjoy an Excerpt

Chapter One

 

Jade Engel strode the short distance from her gate in the Burlington International Airport to the car rental counter, spinner suitcase by her side. Why bother with checked luggage when the bulk of her winter clothes were still in her bedroom closet and drawers at home?

Home.

Although she had lived in Florida these past eight years, she still thought of Starling, New York, as her town.

She handed her car reservation to the tall woman in beige behind the counter, and waited briefly as the agent answered a phone call, while "Jingle Bells" piped through the PA. She smiled to herself. Her father had always sung that tune on the ride home from her grandparents' house on snow-covered country roads. She and her brothers, their bellies full of Grandma's chicken and dumplings and their bodies tired from playing outside on their red plastic toboggans, would snuggle in the backseat, their eyes drooping and arms wrapped around boxes of knitted gifts.

The agent keyed in Jade's reservation number. "You're returning the vehicle here in a month?"

"Yes." Jade bit her lip. Had she made the right decision, quitting her job and the city of Tampa? Her girlfriends considered her change of direction a brave choice. She saw no alternative. It was more that her choices had failed her.

"If you're headed to the Adirondacks, you may want to check the weather conditions," the agent advised. She explained the charges, swiped the credit card, and handed her a receipt with directions to the rental lot.

Jade tucked the credit card in her wallet. "Thanks for the warning." She turned and began her trek. After living out of her suitcase the past three days at her friend Sabrina's house on Long Island, she had been eager to complete her flight, drive the two-hour trip home and settle in before dark. Now, she'd have to take it slow, and Mom would have to keep her dinner warm for later.

In the parking garage the wind howled between the cement pilings, while snowplows rumbled past on nearby Route Two. She fastened the top button on her toasty leather coat and pulled on her matching hat and gloves, but still her teeth began to chatter.

Ten minutes later, the rented Kia crawled along South Williston Road headed west with the rest of the traffic. She hadn't even made it to I-89 yet. Visibility was poor and becoming worse, the roads were slick with snow and sleet. She gripped the steering wheel with both hands against the buffeting wind and learned forward, muscles tense. If only she could see the apron, she could pull over to use her cell phone's GPS and locate a hotel, but the fresh snowfall covered the road's markings. She rubbed her eyes and turned the wipers on high.

A light to her left caught her attention. University Mall and a cluster of hotels lay ahead. She turned onto Dorset Road and made a quick right into a parking lot crammed with vehicles, but then the Kia lost traction. Yikes. Black ice. She steered into the turn, hands clammy and heart almost beating out of her chest, until she regained control. Phew. That was close. She concentrated on breathing at a normal rate, inching around the back of the hotel to a lone open space. Turning off the ignition, she slumped against the steering wheel.

There'd better be room at the inn.

Luckily, there was a vacancy. She was safe for the night. After calling her parents with her change of plans, she texted her best friends Bree, Elena, Kara, and Cassandra that she'd arrived then took a much-needed cat nap in her room's pillow-top bed before freshening up for dinner.

But when she came out of the elevator and turned the corner toward the lobby, she stifled a groan. A line of hungry guests spilled from the Green Mountain Bar and Grill entrance. She had no choice but to be patient about the grumbling in her stomach and step behind the last person in line, a tall businessman occupied by his phone. Taking his cue, she pulled out hers to check her new messages.

Of course, there were texts from the girls about how much fun they all had Black Friday shopping at Long Island's East End outlets. She took another few steps forward as the line moved. What would I do without my four girls?

Their mothers had been sorority sisters in college and best friends afterwards. It only made sense that Jade and the gang had been raised like sisters, which was nice considering she was the only girl in her immediate family. The families had gotten together for holidays, taken getaways to the Poconos and Catskills, and once in awhile enjoyed vacations like Disney and Caribbean cruises. Now that the girls were adults, they struggled to carry on the traditions in addition to busy careers and growing responsibilities. Still, they had social media and texting. In that way they were inseparable.

"Excuse me, Miss."

Jade glanced at the couple behind her then ahead to the gap between and the rest of the line. "Oh, sorry." She moved forward, almost there. She clicked off her phone and turned to people-watching to take her mind off the hunger-inducing aromas of burgers and steak.

The businessman in front of her wore a well-cut black suit with white dress shirt and had thick dark hair and an athletic build. She looked up. He had to be at least six three. Nice. His phone chirped and he answered--his voice a deep, sensual rumble. Was he talking to his wife or a girlfriend? He turned and she glimpsed his profile. Sexy scruff graced his rugged face, not pretty like the Floridian men she used to date, but salt of the earth handsome.

The man turned toward her and caught her staring. He smiled, emerald green eyes focused on her as he finished his conversation with, "We'll talk after I get home." Wow. Those eyes. It had been almost two years since she'd felt that flutter of warmth deep in her belly. He tucked his phone in a trouser pocket, his eyes still glued on hers. "Hey. Imagine seeing you here of all places."

She snorted and shifted her weight, hands on hips. Pretty lame, fella. Got a better line?

"Been a long time, hasn't it?" he said. "Wow!"

She gave him a sidelong glance. "Excuse me?"

"Since you've been north?"

Okay. I'll play along. "Yes, it has."

He hooked a thumb toward the restaurant. "Want to join me? My buddy had to leave a day early. His kid was sick."

Do you have a wife and kid waiting at home while you play these games? She turned to him, her stance wide and chin out. "No thanks. I'm good."

The stranger continued, "No? I could use the company. It's been a long week on the road." His smile, at such close quarters, was lethal.

She caught her breath and stepped back. Did he think it was her first time on the slopes? She knew how this game worked, and she was done playing. She crossed her arms and pursed her lips. "You don't even know my name."

His eyes widened, the grin disappeared, and his hands dropped. "Jade Emily Engel. Of course I know it." He enunciated every syllable.

Her jaw fell open as she frantically searched her memory. He knew her middle name, too? The only time she ever heard it, herself, was when her mother gave a reprimand. Surely she'd never seen this man before in her life. "How do you know me?" The squeak that passed from her lips sounded nothing like her usual matter-of-fact self. She needed to pull herself together.

"Huh? You don't remember." The man stepped back, arms crossed.

Her face flushed with heat, the tips of her ears burning. "I'm sorry." She looked at him closely, past the fine cut of his suit, from the tapered waist to the broad chest and chiseled jaw. She searched until she met his gaze again. Those eyes did seem familiar, but from where? Suddenly, childhood memories flooded back...and she saw a boy digging in the dirt next to her with tousled black hair and bright green eyes. She clapped a hand over her mouth. "Oh my." She blew his name out in a rush, a name she hadn't uttered, much less allowed herself to think in over a decade. "Benji?"

"People call me Ben now." One hand moved to his pocket and the other gestured toward her, palm out, a smile tugging at his lips. "What did you think? That I was hitting on you?"

Jade pulled her arms in close, a death grip on her purse. "I, of course not. I--"

The hostess appeared, tapping the menus in her hand, saving her from digging an even deeper hole for herself. "Sir, your table is ready." She glanced between them. "Table for two?"

Benji signaled for the woman to wait a moment and turned back to her. "C'mon, now will you join me? For old times' sake," he said, as if their shared history was filled with sunshine and roses. What alternate universe did he recall?

"Uh, okay." She tilted her head at him. The crowded, noisy restaurant and upbeat Christmas music fell away as she followed him to a small table, trying to wrap her brain around the differences between the man in front of her and the little kid who used to be her neighbor.

He held out her chair.

"Thanks." She sat and folded the linen napkin on her lap and glanced across the table at him. He'd known all along that it was her and was just being friendly. "Wow. You look so different. I mean, I can't believe how tall you are. You certainly grew into those big feet of yours."

Did I really just say that? Oh God, just let me sink through the floor.

He took off his suit jacket and placed it on the chair back. He sat, rolling up the sleeves of his dress shirt, revealing lean, muscular forearms dusted with dark hair.

Yeah. He's all man. Perspiration trickled between her breasts under her lightweight sweater. He caught her gaze and she looked away, swallowing and plucking at her scoop-neck collar.

He smiled at her and picked up the drink menu.

She slowly buttered a roll from the wicker basket between them then cleared her throat. "So, what's it been? Ten years?"

He set down the menu. "Something like that."

She stared at his large, capable hands. He's not wearing a ring. She tamped down the flare of hope. Some married guys didn't wear wedding bands. Yeah, she knew of one in particular. She tore off a piece of roll and chewed it with a bit more gusto than necessary.

Men.

The server approached their table and introduced herself before filling their water glasses. "Anything to drink?"

Benji looked at her. "Red or white?"

Jade leaned back and shrugged. It wasn't his fault she'd had such horrible luck when it came to relationships. "Either's fine."

He ordered a bottle of Riesling and handed the drink menu to the server before she left. Turning back to her, he asked, "Celebrate with me?"

She swallowed the last bit of warm, buttery roll. "What, the weather?"

He rolled his eyes. "My next project has been approved for an educational grant. I own an indie film company. My assistant and I've been hoofing it all over the northeast the past six months to win this one. We learned the good news this afternoon."

"That was who you were talking to on the phone out there?"

He nodded. "And my mom. She was concerned about me traveling in the storm."

She fiddled with her fork. "I guess the anxiety comes with the job description."

He cocked his head at her. "Excuse me?"

"You know, parenting."

He lifted a shoulder. "I wouldn't know."

"No wife either?"

Nope." The word rolled off his tongue with a decisive pop.

Well, now she knew. "Me neither." It felt like another gaffe. "No husband I mean." She curled her hands around her middle and stared at her plate. Okay, time to change the subject. She risked a glance at her dinner mate. He didn't appear to have picked up on the significance of her comment. She released her pent-up breath and leaned forward on her elbows, chin in hand. "So, tell me about your new project."

He swallowed his roll. "I produce educational films--hence the grant--for school children. My next production will be a virtual field trip filmed in Lake George. I'm pumped about it, actually." He eyed her closely. "Last I heard, you were in marketing. Right?"

"Um."

Their server reappeared, bottle in hand.

Jade watched the server pour the wine, and forced her mind to go blank. No crying with strangers or former best friends allowed.

She looked around at the packed dining room. What should I say? Do I tell him I spent eight years, eighty hours a week, dedicating my life to a firm that didn't appreciate me? She clenched her hands in her lap. No, she didn't need to rain on Benji's parade by talking about her own nonexistent career. "Not a lot to discuss, there. Hey, but what's going on with this weather? And it's busy!"

He gazed at her over his glass. "Ski season. Everyone's eager to get out in the white stuff and play. I have a feeling some flights may have been cancelled too."

She nodded. "I consider it a minor miracle I found a room."

"Perhaps it was." He appeared to mull that one over. "Your dad picking you up?"

She shook her head. "Rental."

"What kind?" He took a sip of his wine.

"Compact."

"Four-wheel or all-wheel?"

She squinted over her glass. "Is this some kind of interrogation?"

He raised his eyebrows.

"Okay. Front wheel." Her rental car hadn't been the wisest selection, considering the conditions, but with no job hadn't wanted to spring for a larger vehicle. She might have to, now, if the company would let her swap.

His tone was matter-of-fact. "Ride home with me. I'm heading out as soon as the weather clears."

She scrunched her nose. He appeared harmless, he was Benji after all. "I need a car to get around while I'm in Starling. I like to be independent."

"We look after each other back home, remember? Besides, most places you'll want to go will be within walking or snowmobiling distance."

Flying through the woods on snowy trails with her brother, Jeremy, and Benji when they were kids flashed through her mind. She hesitated. "I don't know." True, though, she hadn't planned on the extra expense of a hotel room tonight and the car rental had already put too much of a dent in her savings.

"What's to know?" he asked, misinterpreting her hesitation. "I'm not a serial killer. Hell, you've known me since we were in kindergarten together."

"It's not that. I'd just prefer to drive myself."

He shrugged. "If you don't want to take me up on my offer, I suppose you won't get to meet my Sadie." Ha! Girlfriend! She knew it. He held out his phone. "Isn't she pretty?"

Jade hesitated before reaching out to accept the device. She peered at the screen and stifled a gasp. She couldn't help but laugh at the shiny-coated Golden Retriever with long tongue falling adorably to one side. "Oh my, you weren't exaggerating. She's beautiful." Her finger bumped the screen. "Oops." A picture of Ben in front of a massive, modern log cabin appeared. "Wow. Nice digs." She handed the phone back.

"Thanks. I had it built last year," he said modestly. "Moved in a few months ago." He set the phone on the table.

Benji seemed to have it all--and probably a sophisticated girlfriend lurking in the background.

I don't even have a goldfish.

Jade shook her head. Riding home with him would be far too risky for her mental health.

"Well, let me know if you change your mind." Holding his drink, he said, "To chance meetings."

A jolt zipped through her body as she lifted her glass and took a healthy sip.

Their server arrived to take their order.

Jade picked up her dinner menu, sneaking another look at the man across from her. Benji was the neighbor boy she befriended because her brothers couldn't be bothered with girls and all the girls in her town wanted to play with Polly Pocket or dress up their American Girl Dolls instead of exploring outdoors. Yeah, Benji and she had some great memories. Too bad they were overshadowed by later, awful ones.

She would do well to remember that.

 

 

Chapter Two

 

Ben had thought the day couldn't get any better--and then out of nowhere--the girl who had fractured his fragile young teen heart had reentered his life, as beautiful and unattainable as ever, and was sitting across from him eating dinner.

Jade.

He almost hadn't recognized her when he first saw her in the lobby. Where she once had angles she now had incredible curves, and her dirty blond ponytail had transformed into sun-streaked, pin-straight tresses.

He twisted his napkin under the table. He had to stop thinking about her physical assets. What lay beneath a person's skin was far more important. His ex-girlfriend claimed he didn't know his own heart, but she was wrong. He knew what he wanted, and Sofia was peeved it wasn't her. Thank God he'd finally seen the light.

"So, tell me about your videos." Jade dipped two more fries into ketchup and bit them in half, her tawny eyes fixed on his. She didn't peck at her food like Sofia. He liked that. But then, he knew that about her already. He rubbed his chin. Maybe the reason he'd hooked up with a woman like Sofia--high-maintenance and ultra-feminine--was because she was as much of an opposite to Jade Engel as he'd been able to find.

He swallowed and shifted in his chair. The timing may have been off when he and Jade were teens, their hormones at odds with their brains and good sense, but now they were adults. He gazed at her and realized she was still waiting for his response. "You won't be surprised - American History."

"Wow. That's right. Remember how many trips I took with your family?" She smiled a real smile for the first time this evening, one that reached her eyes. "I was practically your adopted sister. We went to Fort Ti, Crown Point, Lake George, and--" She sat up straight and slapped her hand on the table. "Hey, did you ever make it to Colonial Williamsburg?"

"I did."

"Did you love it? I always wanted to go but never got the chance."

"You should go. When we got there, it was like we'd time traveled and landed in the late 1700s. The guy who impersonated John Adams was the best."

"Your favorite president, right?"

"Yes." She remembers. A strange bubble rolled around in his chest, a lightness he hadn't felt since he was a kid. "He was incredible. He had the dialect, the stories, the mannerisms." He took a sip of wine. "There was a tour and a bunch of hands-on activities. Inspirational." He stopped; tempted to tell her how she had inspired him, also. But he couldn't. She had been cruel, in the end, and he refused to allow anyone that kind of control over him again.

She was still there, eyes glued on him, chin in hand.

Those eyes captured his imagination and his head swam with ideas. He wanted to get close and personal with this girl from his past. "It's too bad you couldn't go with me."

"When was it?"

He rubbed the scruff on his chin. "Summer before I started high school."

She sat back in her chair and pulled her hands onto her lap. "I see." She swallowed. "That was after..." Her voice trailed off and she looked at her hands.

Was that anger or sadness he glimpsed in her eyes before she looked away? He sucked in a breath at her pinched expression, the same look she'd worn that horrible day, the last time he'd spoken to her--until today.

Ben entered the cafeteria of their K-12 school with racing heart and sweaty palms. He was going to surprise Jade with the most amazing gift, and by next weekend they would be girlfriend and boyfriend. He arrived at their usual table, the one they had claimed as a pair since fourth grade. She wasn't there. He scanned the room twice. On the third sweep, he realized she was the girl in the off-the-shoulder shirt and painted-on jeans with her back to him. She was sitting at the popular table. That was why he'd had trouble finding her. She blended in with all the other girls in their class.

He walked up to her and said hi and she whipped around, her face covered in clownish make-up like the other girls, as well as that pinched look she wore when her mother yelled at her to clean her room. "Why are you wearing all that?" he blurted out.

She hissed as him under her breath. "MYOB." She turned away and whispered to Amy Wilder next to her.

Slow to get the message, he thrust the envelope between the two girls toward her like an olive branch. "I got Medieval Times tickets for next weekend." His voice cracked on the last word.

End of Excerpt