Wild Holiday Nights (Anthology)
HOLIDAY RUSH by Samantha Hunter
Cake guru Calla Michaels is canceling Christmas to deal with fondant, batter and an attempted robbery. Then officer Gideon Stone shows up at her door. Calla thought her kitchen was hot enough before...
PLAYING GAMES by Meg Maguire
With her plane grounded on Christmas Eve, Carrie Baxter agrees to share a rental car with her secret high school crush. Sure, Daniel Barber is hotter than ever, but he's still just as prickly, too. It's gonna be one looong drive…and an unforgettably X-rated night!
ALL NIGHT LONG by Debbi Rawlins
Overworked paralegal Carly Watts needs Jack Carrington's signature, but he'll do whatever it takes to buy more time before selling his grandfather's company. Including having one very naughty night before Christmas!
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Calla Michaels never wanted to see another holly leaf or berry ever again. She'd always loved the dark green holiday plant, with its pointy leaves and ripe, red berries. But after hand-shaping two hundred of them from gum paste—accented with twenty-four-karat gold leaf—for the holiday wedding cake she was decorating, she was over it.
Still, while she was tired of Christmas themes, she was doing the work she loved. Good thing, since she had one more wedding cake to make before she was done. Spring and summer would bring much more variety, she mused as she applied the last berry to the delicate edge of the pristine white cake before standing back to assess her work.
Perfect. Absolutely gorgeous. The decoration wasn't the only thing that was custom—the inside of the cake had to be as special as the outside, and Calla often created flavor profiles requested by clients. This one was a butter-mint cake with white chocolate filling between the layers. The next cake would be rum-pecan.
All she had to do was load this one into the truck and get it to the restaurant downtown. They would store it for the wedding the day after next. Then she could take a short break before she started work on the final cake, which was needed for Christmas Day—only ten days away.
It didn't escape her that she still had a ton of shopping to do. If she couldn't be home for Christmas this year, the least she could do was to send some gifts from the Big Apple. It didn't make up for her not being there, especially not for her mother, but Calla really had no choice.
She had to work straight through Christmas Eve, then she would take Christmas Day off, sleep and get back to it the next day. She'd managed to contract for three New Year's cakes, which was a lot to do in one week, so she had to keep moving. Those orders would give her enough to pay the rent and supplies through January.
Her funky little storefront in Chelsea had been expensive, but it was a good location. One she could barely afford, but the eclectic local food scene helped her visibility. Still, she'd have to double her business in the coming year to stay alive, and she really needed to hire part-time help.
That meant there was no way she could go home for Christmas. It was difficult getting her family to understand. Hers was a law enforcement clan—even her mother worked at the sheriff's office. Her father and brothers all worked for assorted law enforcement agencies. Her sister was a firefighter.
Calla baked cakes for a living.
She could still hear her mother's voice on the phone. Calla, I understand when your brothers or sister have to work a shift over the holidays, but how is it that you can't ever seem to make it home?
Her siblings saved lives, after all. Her mother hadn't said that explicitly, but she might as well have. Calla knew her career choice puzzled them. They had no idea how competitive the big-city food scene was. But this was her dream, and it had taken everything she had to get here. It was going to take even more to stay.
Calla's Cakes was the result of arduous training at culinary school and graduating at the top of her class. That had been followed by internships at some of the best bakeries. Now she was trying to make it on her own in the middle of one of the biggest cities in the world. Not an endeavor for the fainthearted. Unfortunately, it had meant missing several holidays along the way, but that was the cost of running her business.
Her mother had suggested she come back to Houston and open a shop there, or in the small town near their ranch. That might have been a possibility if she had smaller goals, but New York was where Calla had always wanted to be. She missed her family, but this city felt like home.
Being here pushed her to be at the top of her game—better than the best.
She loved her family, and they said they were proud of her, but as she'd pursued her ambitions, the gap had widened. They just didn't understand how she could be so passionate about her work.
What she did was important to the people she baked for, though, and it was why they were willing to pay her a premium for something special. Something unique that would become one of their most cherished memories. It wasn't life or death, but it was part of her customers' dreams. Their happily ever afters.
She smiled as she rolled the cart holding the cake to the back room. She'd load it into a refrigerated case for safe transport, and then she'd get a night's sleep. She could do some shopping tomorrow, pack gifts off in the mail, before starting the next cake.
Opening the back doors, she patted her pockets and realized she didn't have the keys to the van.
She went back in and found them on the counter, then returned to load up the cake. As she started to do that, though, the hairs on her neck stood up. She wasn't alone.
"Stay quiet and you won't get hurt. Just show me the cash drawer now."
Equal parts fear and fury had Calla shaking from head to toe, and her voice shook, too, as she spoke.
"Does this look like a doughnut shop? I don't have a cash drawer. My customers pay by credit card, and there's no cash kept on the premises. Not even a register, which you would have seen if you'd looked through the window first."
Something sharp jutted into her spine as hard fingers grabbed her shoulder.
"I don't believe you. A fancy place like this has to have some money around somewhere."
Tears stung as she wondered, for a brief second, if she would ever go home for Christmas again. If she had listened to her mother and closed for the holiday, maybe she wouldn't be in this spot now.
"I have some money in my purse. And my credit cards, too. That's all," she said as calmly as she could, hoping to placate her attacker—and hoping that money was all he was really after. He was welcome to it. There wasn't much, and her cards were almost maxed out buying everything she needed for the shop.
Suddenly, she wished she had taken more to the weapons and self-defense training her father and brothers had always tried to push on her.
"My purse is in my office. Go back through those doors and—"
"I think you and me will go back there and get it together," he said, his voice slurring a little. As if he'd been drinking or something.
Then Calla heard a noise in the alley behind the store, a door slamming and voices. Someone was out there, maybe someone from one of the neighboring businesses or apartments.
No way could she walk back into the dark recess of her office with this guy. There no one could see them. She'd be helpless.
"Help!" she yelled as loud as she could, tripping as she pulled sharply away, falling forward and scrambling across the floor toward the back door. "Help! I'm being robbed!"
Please, let someone hear me, she thought desperately as her attacker cursed and came forward after her. She spun around to see where he was. He was tall, young—maybe in his mid-twenties, she guessed, seeing his face as he rushed toward her.
No gun, she also noted with relief—until she saw the gleaming knife in his hands. She was close to the door, and the only thing between her and the intruder was the cake.
She scurried behind the cart and pushed hard, rolling the metal cart toward the thief. The dangerous-looking blade he'd been carrying slid across the floor as the cart—and her gorgeous cake—slammed into him.
"Hey, what's going on in there?" someone called from outside. Jack Samosa, the dry cleaner from two doors down, stepped inside, shocked as he took in the scene before him.
Before Calla could warn Mr. Samosa, who was an older man, he was almost knocked over as the robber ran out the door into the alley.
"What the… Calla, are you all right?" he asked as he rushed to her and helped Calla pick herself up from the floor.
She was still shaking as she nodded, unable to speak yet. Then she took in the scene before her.
The cake she'd just spent four days working on was now decorating her back-room floor. She stared at the mess, not answering Mr. Samosa though she heard him, in the distance, calling the police.
"Merry Christmas to me," she whispered, sliding back down to the floor to sit among the mess until the police arrived.
Four days before Christmas, Gideon Stone walked along the streets of Chelsea, scanning the Christmas decorations and crowds as he searched for the storefront of Calla's Cakes. It had to be here somewhere. Finally he spotted the small silver sign with black script hanging high above the entry a few yards in front of him. People were gathered in front, watching something.
As soon as he joined them, he realized what they were watching: Calla.
It had been a few years since he'd seen her, but she was even lovelier than he remembered. Her dark brown hair was longer now, though pulled back in a severe braid at the moment. That only emphasized her ivory skin even more so—not tanned like it used to be in Texas—and huge green eyes.
The bakery window wasn't like anything he'd ever seen before, either. There weren't glass cases with rows of goodies, but a single, bright room with ovens, refrigerators at the back and worktables poised in front of the large windows where Calla apparently worked in front of an audience.
Then he remembered Nathan, her older brother and Gideon's friend, mentioning that. She called it performance baking—it was some new thing in the city. He hadn't had any idea what it meant at the time.
Calla seemed completely unaware of her onlookers as she sat sculpting a row of different-size bells from golden blocks of cake. As she finished one perfect bell, she looked up, showing it off to the group as they expressed their admiration. Calla smiled back and held up her finger in a gesture to wait. She gathered the scraps of cake from her carving and put them in small white cups, topping them with a dollop of something white and creamy before carrying them outside to her company.
The crowd cheered lightly as she emerged from the wrought iron door at the entrance and started passing out the cups of cake. Murmurs of appreciation rose from those gathered. Gideon waited until she handed a cup to him. He took it and didn't let go for a second as he waited for her to look up.
When she did, her lovely lips parted slightly and her eyes widened in surprise.
"Gideon? What are you doing here?"
She smiled, and he started to speak, but stopped when her smile faded.
"Nathan sent you, didn't he?"
She pulled away her hand before he could confirm or deny, though she'd hit the nail on the head the first time. He hadn't planned on lying about it, but he'd hoped she would be more receptive. Her family was simply worried, and he was doing them a favor.
At least he got some of the cake, topped with a fragrant whipped cream. As he put the small chunk to his lips, the aroma hit him first, the wafting scent of rum and nuts. Then the light, buttery texture floated over his tongue and took over his senses. It was the only time a piece of cake ever made him close his eyes in pleasure.
"Wow," he managed, wanting to enjoy it for as long as possible.
"Glad you like it."
He opened his eyes again to find Calla's cat-green gaze on him, her tone as chilly as the weather.
He almost said "wow" a second time, but swallowed it down with the last of the cake.
"You should have been here for the chocolate mocha she made the other day," a guy next to him said with a sigh of appreciation.
He'd met Calla once when Nathan had invited him over to their family ranch. That was eight years ago. She'd just graduated culinary school and had been home for a month over the summer, only twenty-two. Very pretty and very kissable.
Gideon had discovered that fact at a barbecue at the family ranch after they'd both had a little too much to drink. Though she had given him the green light for more than a kiss, he'd backed off. She was young, and she was his friend's sister. Moreover, she was his training officer's sister.
His eyes fell to her mouth. That hadn't changed at all. "That might be the best thing I've ever put in my mouth," he said and watched color rise in the perfectly smooth, porcelain skin of her cheeks. His heart beat a little faster, and he had to get hold of his response.
She was still Nathan's sister. He had to remember that, though he wanted to take back his comment that the cake was the best thing he'd ever tasted.
"I suppose it's no coincidence that you're here? That you aren't on a Christmas vacation and happened by?"
He shook his head. She glared.
The people around them watched with increased interest.
"You can tell Nathan I'm fine and go back to Texas. There was no reason to come all this way," she said as she turned and walked into her bakery. She sat at the front table, going back to work as if he didn't even exist.
Gideon had been dismissed, and he paused for a beat out on the sidewalk.
"Well, are you just going to stand there? Go on in there after her," said the man who liked the chocolate cake. He winked at Gideon, nudging him with his elbow, obviously misinterpreting the whole thing.
But the guy was right. Gideon couldn't just walk away and leave it at that. He went inside, too, and closed the door behind him, aware they still had an audience.
"Calla. Can we talk? Maybe have lunch? My treat."
"It's past lunch, and I have work to do. I'm running behind."
She picked up a long spatula, fumbled it, dropped it to the floor with a clatter and cursed.
"He only wanted to make sure you were okay," Gideon offered.
"I'm fine. I don't have time for this nonsense right now."
"It's nonsense that Nathan was concerned about you being attacked and robbed? Especially when he had to find out about it through the police sheets? You never even called home."
Calla glared. "I spoke with my mother just a week or so ago."
"But you never told her what happened."
"Why? To worry them for no reason? I'm fine. And Nathan should keep his nose out of my business. You, too." She pointed the spatula at him with a few sharp jabs that punctuated her words. "I can take care of myself, in spite of what my family thinks. For goodness' sake, I'm an adult. I don't need my brothers sending their friends to check up on me." Over the top of the spatula she leveled him a look. "You did your duty. Go home."
With that, she went to the large sink in the corner of the room and turned on the hot water, scrubbing the spatula and then drying her hands, putting on new gloves.
When she stretched to reach something on an upper shelf, Gideon was distracted by how the chef's coat lifted and hinted at her curves underneath. Eight years had turned Calla from a girl into a woman, and he wasn't immune to that fact.
"Have they caught him?"
"I have no idea."
She went to her table and started working on more bells, ignoring him completely.