MONTANA SECRET SANTA – Love at the Chocolate Shop, Book III
Ad exec Krista Martin, while feeling more Grinch than elf, still jumps at the chance to co-chair Marietta’s Secret Santa Society. Why not? Especially since brilliant, attractive, and innovative tech wunderkind Jonah Andrews has agreed to help. He’s well connected and Krista’s hoping for some advice on rebooting her career.
Jonah knows Krista has a not-so-hidden agenda, but sparring with her over cocoa at their Secret Santa meetings is the most fun he’s had since returning to his old hometown. Krista may come across as all business, but Jonah’s positive he’s glimpsed a little girl inside her who wants to believe in Santa… and in love.
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Stilettos and snow? Bad idea.
Krista Martin had lived and worked in Marietta, Montana, long enough to grasp the importance of proper winter footwear. But today she needed the height and authority that came with heels. One didn’t tell one’s best friend and business partner–the person responsible for Krista moving halfway across the country to help create Blue Sky Promotions–that said partner and friend’s work lately had become substandard, uninspired and phoned-in without adequate body armor and a large travel mug filled with Sage Carrigan’s cocoa.
Krista feared Copper Mountain Chocolates–her favorite downtown Marietta haunt–was the reason she could barely snap the waistband of her black Armani pencil skirt. A bad-mommy-forgot-your-birthday gift from Krista’s producer/screenwriter mother a couple of years back. In the year and a half that Krista had lived in Montana, not a single member of her family–from either coast–had made the effort to visit her. Normally, Krista was too busy to care. But once the holiday season set in, all those old hurts and grievances seemed to rise to the surface of her consciousness.
She’d been banking on a big uptick in business to keep her too distracted to feel sorry for herself, but between Sage Carrigan’s decision to table any talk of expansion until after the first of the year and Amanda Heller-Montgomery’s general ennui when it came to their ad agency, Krista was close to reaching level ten on her frustration meter.
She paused a foot from the doorway to take a gulp of fortitude before leaving the warm, fragrant safety of the chocolatier. Sweet, rich, and chocolaty warmth slid like hot lava down her gullet to her mostly empty tummy. She’d been too busy practicing her speech to eat breakfast.
She still hadn’t decided which approach to take.
Direct and businesslike?
Amanda. We have a problem. Blue Sky is underperforming and the obvious correlation to this decline can be tracked back to your marriage to Tucker Montgomery. I’m concerned that marriage has completely gutted your work ethic.
Or something a bit more diplomatic?
Amanda. Girlfriend. We need to talk. You’re more than my business partner and best friend. But I’m worried that we’re not going to meet our year-end goals if you don’t return to your pre-marriage self.
Krista hesitated before reaching for the door. Blaming marriage might backfire. Amanda was the happiest Krista had ever seen her. But, the harsh reality couldn’t be avoided. The Amanda who invited Krista to join her on the new frontier where–to paraphrase Amanda, “…all you need is drive, brains, and decent Wi-Fi to blow the glass ceiling of NYC advertising out of the market”–was MIA.
And, while Krista wasn’t shy about sharing her goals and ambitions, she’d let the situation at Blue Sky slide for the past nine months, hoping Amanda would return to her normal highly focused and efficient self after the first blush of marital bliss dissipated.
They’d made a pretty fantastic team to start out. Amanda brought her local contacts to the table. Krista’s family had enough connections on both coasts to fill any gaps. And Blue Sky’s highly acclaimed promotion of last year’s Big Sky Mavericks’ New Year’s Eve Masked Ball had resulted in a dozen or more excellent paying leads.
Their first quarter rocked. Then, Amanda took off a week at the end of February to join her soon-to-be-fiancé at Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Tucker proposed, Amanda said yes, and the snowball rolled.
Thanks to Tucker’s connection to the Zabrinski family–all successful entrepreneurs and pilots, with several airplanes at their disposal–Krista and nine other Marietta friends flew to Louisiana to celebrate the Heller-Montgomery nuptials.
While Krista could appreciate the romance of the near-elopement, she put no trust in grand gestures. She’d seen plenty growing up in a family of actors. But promised vows were as empty as an actor’s lines. Love and family soon became relegated to the backburner of life so each partner could pour his or her heart and soul into their respective careers.
She truly hoped that whole happily-ever-after thing worked out better for Amanda and Tucker. They certainly seemed happy, committed, and in love. But, for the moment, at least, Krista needed to stay focused on the personal fulfillment side of life.
Crunch time. I can do this.
She set her travel mug on a convenient display table, laden with chocolate treasures, while she tugged on her faux rabbit fur-lined leather gloves and re-tucked the soft alpaca scarf into the “V” of her white tuxedo-style shirt. Anticipating the single digit wind chill she’d already encountered when she scraped a thick layer of ice from the windshield of her Subaru, she pulled up the collar of her knee-length, cranberry wool coat. Even with expensive hose, she expected her legs to be numb by the time she reached the Blue Sky offices about a block and a half away.
She grabbed her mug and turned to leave just as an older woman in a bulky, masculine-looking Carhartt jacket, grubby jeans, and cowboy boots blew in on a gust of arctic air. The woman looked familiar but Krista avoided making eye contact so she wouldn’t get pulled into a neighborly exchange of nonpersonal hi-how-are-yous.
Grabbing the edge of the door with her free hand, she hurried outside. The cold hit like a full-on blast from a high power fire hose. Her stride required mincing steps to keep her thighs together. The last thing she needed was frostbite on her privates. Bad enough a former romantic interest had accused her of “freezing him out of the pleasure zone”.
Who says things like that? Pleasure zone. Bah—
The humbug required to finish the thought disappeared the instant a knee-high dog shot, headfirst, between her legs. A nearly invisible tether attached to a harness hidden beneath the animal’s stylish red and black plaid fleece overcoat snapped taut, sending Krista’s skirt to mid-thigh. She squeezed her legs tight in self-defense.
Wobbling like a tightrope walker, she’d nearly recovered her balance when a shrill zipping sound of the dog’s coated wire tether being recalled–too late, in her opinion–yanked the animal–now square to Krista’s body–sideways against her shins.
Things went downhill pretty fast after that. Although every action and reaction felt like slow motion from Krista’s perspective, the entire debacle probably took seconds.
“Wait. No. Oh, crap.” The last came out on a protracted cry as her skinny pumps shifted sideways on a patch of black ice.
Her wonderful, badly needed insulated cup of Sage’s divine cocoa went flying. Her small, smart patent leather shoulder bag shot upward to conk Krista on the chin, which caused her to windmill backwards straight into the open arms of the person reeling in their stupid dog.
Since Krista closed her eyes, she couldn’t say for sure what happened next, but it involved ear-piercing barks, grunts and groans, and several colorful curses, which might have come from her. Luckily, the person in meager control of the dog’s leash turned out to be a man, large enough and strong enough to catch her mid-fall. She recognized his gender by his deep voice and the rock solid arm that locked around her chest as they went down. The thick padding of his winter jacket–along with a nicely built torso–cushioned her impact when they hit the sidewalk. The angle of their repose told her they’d taken another casualty with them.
She blinked as the pile beneath them morphed into a small golden moose with floppy ears, a big black nose, and a tongue about a mile long. Too hairy for a Great Dane. The beast yanked her rescuer’s arm–the one that had been around her chest–out and back like a spastic puppeteer when it caught a whiff of her warm cocoa, spreading like a blood stain across the thin layer of ice and snow.
The man ungallantly shoved Krista aside so he could scramble to his knees and do a hand-over-hand motion to reel in the giant dog. “River Jack, no. Cocoa is not on your diet, dude. And Mom said dogs are never supposed to eat chocolate.”
River Jack? Odd name. She might have been intrigued if she weren’t busy taking stock of her situation.
She pulled down her skirt the best she could.
“It’s mostly milk. And Sage’s chocolate is the best. It won’t kill him. Them,” she corrected, noticing the beagle and a puffy hairball with a curly tail had joined River Jack at the quickly freezing trough of goodness.
“Bear,” the guy cried, fumbling with the rat’s nest of leads in his hands. “Not you, too.
“Bear? River Jack? What’s with the strange names?” she muttered, mostly to herself.
The man found the right leash and tugged the largest beast away from the spill.
“Jack is my parents’ recent rescue dog adoptee. He was a lonely hearts dog.”
The dog in question lumbered toward them with a friendly manner, big, pink tongue still licking its chops.
“’Lonely hearts.’ I don’t know what that is.”
The guy opened his arms, which barely fit around the animal’s girth, and buried his face in the fluffy blond coat. “Mom said that’s what the staff calls animals that have been at the shelter for months, even years.”
Krista stared, transfixed by the sweet bond evident between man and dog. An emotion she couldn’t quite name—yearning? wistfulness?—climbed up her throat making speech impossible.
The man looked her way, his smile bemused. “I suck at dog-sitting.”
Krista agreed on one level but, since she’d never owned pets and didn’t have a great deal of patience with other people’s animals, she’d learned to keep her opinion to herself. After a quick inventory to make sure the only thing bruised was her pride, she tried to figure out the most graceful way to stand without putting her nylon-covered knees on the trampled, crusty snow.
With an even more impatient sound, the dog walker tossed the ends of the leashes on the ground and jumped to his feet. “River Jack, stay.” He turned toward her and extended his hand, his glove coated in dog hair. “What’s wrong with me? Screw Jack’s diet. I can’t believe I left a beautiful girl sitting on the ice and snow. Double suck.”
“Double suck?” She barely got the words out before he grabbed her by the upper arms and lifted her to her feet.
He didn’t let go right away. “Are you hurt?”
His thick, tanned, buckskin leather gloves looked huge against the cranberry wool of her coat.
She shifted her gaze to his interesting blue-gray eyes that crinkled at the corners when he smiled. A smile that sent shivers–the hot sort–up her spine like a mini-burst of lightening.
He was a hunk. In a scruffy, just tumbled out of bed sort of way. What’s someone his age doing walking dogs at this time of day?
Cute and unemployed? No thanks. She went for the high-achiever, goal-oriented, make-partner-by-thirty type. “A male version of you,” Amanda had said recently. “That’s what you’re holding out for and, frankly, Krista, they’re not that easy to come by–especially in Montana.”
A point supported by Krista’s three dates in a year and a half. But having no man in her life was better than wasting time on the wrong man. A lesson she’d learned the hard way.
“I’m okay. Nothing’s broken.”
“Thank God.” He let go of her to make a pretend brow-swipe of relief. “I’ve only been home a week. My brother would never let me live it down if I wound up getting sued the first time I walked the dogs on my own.”
“I’m not going to sue you. Your dog? Maybe.”
He picked up the leashes again and coaxed all three animals to his side. “Bindi,” he said, addressing the animal. “Apologize at once. I mean it. This lady has every right to be mad at us. Mostly me, but you know how you get when you’re focused on a scent.”
His tone—and humor—took the edge off her irritation.
“Bindi was a gift from my sister after Mom and Dad’s fourteen-year-old beagle died. She’s only four. Or five. Which is probably a teenager in dog years. And teens are just… well… impossible.”
She refused to smile but the teasing look in his eyes made it tough not to give in to his goofy good humor.
“And Bear is short for Teddy Bear. Look at that face. Self-explanatory, right? He’s a chow mix they inherited from my brother who was dating a girl who worked at the animal rescue at the time.”
Krista looked at the dog in question. The fuzzy square face with coal black eyes, short ears, and shiny nose could easily have fit on a shelf with a selection of stuffed animals. “You’re right. He does.”
She noticed the dogs studying her with varying expressions of interest. She had a feeling they weren’t impressed by what they saw.
“Jack has an eating disorder.” He lowered his voice and leaned closer to whisper, “Mom says we’re not supposed to use the word f-a-t because that’s a form of body shaming. Nobody knows Jack’s story, but it probably didn’t involve a lot of exercise, hence our twice-daily walking routine.”
He held up his hand, boy scout-like. “I promise to pay better attention in the future and avoid the chocolate shop at all cost.”
Coming from New Jersey, Krista rarely, if ever, was left without a snappy comeback, but the sincerity behind this guy’s slightly abashed look robbed her of speech. Crazy, ridiculous, disparate thoughts played tag in her head. Is he for real? Could this be a prank? Is my brother hiding in one of these storefronts with a film crew? Why can’t I stop looking at him?
Fortunately, the door of the chocolate shop opened and two people rushed out. Dakota, Sage’s clerk, must have witnessed the debacle through the store window because she carried a handful of napkins and a replacement cocoa. The same cowboy-woman who Krista recalled passing on her way out of the shop followed. “Young lady, you need to get yourself a pair of snow boots.”
Krista couldn’t remember the last time she’d been scolded. Her lips parted but no words came out. Dumbfounded twice in one morning. This did not bode well for her upcoming meeting. And when she saw the dog walker’s gaze on her, her cheeks turned icy hot.
“And you, young man, need to keep your eye on the ball. Or on the dogs, as the case may be.” She petted and praised all three canines before looking at the human holding their leashes.
Her demeanor instantly became less schoolmarm and more schoolgirl. “Oh, my word. Jonah Andrews,” she exclaimed, pointing him out to the small crowd that had gathered to gawk. “I should have recognized the dogs. Your mother said you were going to be house sitting and dog walking for a few months. Looks like you need more practice.”
“Ya’ think?” Krista murmured softly.
The woman turned her gaze on Krista. “Are you okay? I’m Emily McCullough. Most people call me Em. I’ve seen you around, but I don’t know your name.”
“Krista Martin. I’m in advertising. Blue Sky Promotions.”
“You work with Amanda Heller. Nice gal. She’s on our board. Whip smart.”
Board? What board? Krista and Amanda were partners. Best friends. They didn’t have secrets from each other. Well, not many.
Krista started to ask, but Dakota walked up at that moment with Krista’s battered cup, its broken lid dangling by a thread of plastic. “I was going to pour this cup into yours, but I think it’s beyond hope. Shall I throw it into our recycling bin?” She held out the replacement. “Maybe you should come in and sit down for a bit.”
Krista’s fingers closed around the to-go cup greedily. “Thanks so much. You’re a lifesaver. But Amanda is expecting me at the office. I’d better go.”
“Wait. Wait just a second.” The dog walker–what was his name? Jonah something?–took a step closer. The dogs surged in mass as if that signaled something completely opposite of wait. “Hold on.”
Once he had the trio of misfit mutts under control, he looked at Krista. The sparkle in his lively, intelligent eyes made her breath catch. Did I break a rib when I fell?
“If you give me your number, I’d like to send you something to compensate for your ripped nylons and cover the cost of dry cleaning.” He used his teeth to pull off one glove. The gesture fell short of sexy when he had to spit dog hair out of his mouth.
He wiped his lips then held out his hand. “I’m Jonah, by the way.”
Krista glanced down. She hadn’t noticed the collection of snags that must have been caused by the beagle’s sharp nails.
Before she could give him her hand, Emily McCullough grabbed Jonah by the elbow and turned him toward the street. “She’s in the book. You two can make up later over drinks or something. I need to talk to you about the meeting tomorrow.”
He mouthed the word “Sorry,” as the bossy woman led him–and the trio of dogs–away.
From the back, Krista got a better look at the man. She liked what she saw. Six-foot or better. Broad shoulders, although the bulky coat left a lot to her imagination. And, damn, if her brain didn’t fill in all the gaps with Charlie Hunnam’s body.
No. Stop. Don’t go there.
The holidays were a terrible time for a fling. Awful. She’d learned that the hard way her last Christmas in New York. The whole new-person-gift-giving thing was an evil trap. Too much and she came across as desperate. Too little, she looked cheap. No thanks. Definitely not happening.
She readjusted her purse then checked the time on her phone. Ten minutes late. So not her style, but neither was getting taken down by a beagle.
“Listen, Em, it’s good to see you again, but I really think the dogs and I should walk that poor girl to her place of business. She might be hurt. Soft tissue damage.”
He’d liked every inch of the soft tissue that had touched him. Krista Martin. Her name flitted around his head like a snippet from a new song. He didn’t know the rest of the words, but the melody made him want to download the whole thing. Immediately.
Emily made a dismissive motion, as if shooing away a pesky steer. “Oh, she’s fine. You’ll have plenty of time to check out her bruises when you see her tomorrow at the Secret Santa Society meeting.”
“She’s a Santa? Are you sure? I don’t remember seeing her name on the roster.” His mother had started briefing him about the venerable Marietta charity weeks ago. For the first time, his interest felt titillated. Maybe the chore he’d been volunteered for wasn’t going to be the drudgery he’d thought it would be.
How could a woman many years his senior walk so fast? The dogs, of course. Bindi ran circles around the overweight footstool and the easily distracted puffball. He tugged impatiently on their leashes.
“Go easy on them, son. We’re not all young and fit,” Em admonished. “A good dog owner leads, he doesn’t yank.”
The woman seemed impervious to the cold, but despite having grown up in Montana, Jonah had the blood of a coastal Californian. Even his dad’s oversized coat and three layers of expensive thermal undergarments weren’t enough to keep him from shivering. But Em’s hint about Krista Martin being involved in the society caught his attention.
His mother had explained in great detail what Montana Secret Santa volunteers did and why he had to take her place and his dad’s. “I feel terrible leaving them right now. I’m worried the group might die out, son. Our members are all getting older. Some have moved to live closer to their children. Two passed away last year. Plus, it’s like our donation well suddenly dried up. Apparently, we’re not hip and flashy and connected on social media the way some charities are. If not for our board members, we wouldn’t have enough money to fulfill even a simple wish or two.”
As Jonah understood the process, someone–a friend, family member, neighbor, or workmate–would write to “Secret Santa” asking for a special gift for someone deserving. The members of the board would read the letters, do enough background checking to make sure the request was legit, and then find a way to honor the request. Sometimes very ingeniously.
“Her name isn’t official yet, but it will be tomorrow.”
They’d reached a giant, diesel ranch truck that provided enough of a windbreak Jonah could speak without his teeth chattering. “How do you know?”
“The Marietta grapevine has it Amanda Heller… or does she go by Montgomery, now? So many women these days don’t take their husband’s names. Wasn’t an option when I got married.” She shook her head. “Anyway, Sarah Zabrinski–you know her, I assume…”
“Not personally, but I was in school with her son, Paul.”
“Big Z’s man of the hour. Big changes over there. Have you been in the store?”
Before he could answer, she kicked the truck’s running board with the heel of her boot. “Dang squirrel brain, I keep getting sidetracked. As I was saying, rumor says Amanda is expecting and her doctor told her she’s at risk for gestational diabetes. I don’t know how he knows, but she’s supposed to give up caffeine and stress. Which are two mainstays of advertising, I’d wager a guess.”
Jonah could see where this was leading. “You think Amanda will ask her partner to take her place on the Secret Santa board.”
“Sarah called to see if that was possible. As outgoing president, I said, ‘Yes.’ Our members are dropping like goddamn flies. The society needs new blood if we’re going to survive.” She gave him a soft tap on the shoulder. “Guess I got my wish. You’re good and you haven’t even started.”
Jonah blinked. “What do you mean?”
“You haven’t even formally taken over as board president but you’ve already made one wish come true–mine.”
She’d opened the driver’s side door and climbed in by the time he managed to digest her comment. “President? No, wait. There must be some mistake. I’ve never been president of anything.”
“Then it’s about time you stretched yourself a little. You don’t want Secret Santa to die on your watch, do you? If you’re as smart as everyone says, you’ll figure out a way to recruit Krista Martin to be your VP and the two of you will save Christmas.”
The truck door closed with a loud bang that spooked River Jack. When the engine roared to life, Jonah had his hands full keeping all three dogs from panicking in different directions. It took a few minutes–long enough for Emily McCullough to back out and disappear from sight–to come up with a plan of action.
Save Christmas? Me? Is this some kind of It’s A Wonderful Life takeoff? He looked around, half expecting his mom and dad to step out of some shop door laughing at the elaborate prank they’d pulled.
But he knew that wasn’t likely. They had too much on their minds at the moment. Me? Save Christmas? At least, it would keep me from being bored out of my freaking mind.
“Come on dogs. I don’t know what Em was talking about exactly. But knowledge is key to any good plan, and that requires good Wi-Fi.”
He looked longingly toward the chocolate shop as they passed. The smell of Krista’s hot cocoa had sent his taste buds into overdrive. But even if the picture-postcard-perfect shop welcomed dogs, only a fool would take these three marginally trained animals inside. “Let’s go home, doggies.”
Home to his parent’s house where he’d lived with his brother and sister until leaving for college at the tender age of seventeen.
Boy genius, people had called him.
Big things are coming from this young man, the newspaper had written.
“Big being a relative thing.” He recalled his schoolteacher father’s attempt to keep Jonah’s head from swelling too badly. “Making a positive change in a young person’s life–the way your mother does–is big, too, son.”
His folks were as proud as parents of a successful youngish inventor and businessman who sold his company for megabucks could be. But money had never been the guiding force in their lives. Being happy meant more to them than how many zeroes and commas occupied the balance in their bank account.
Jonah and his entourage paused at the corner for Bear to lift his leg at the street sign pole. River Jack didn’t have the energy or balance for such frivolity.
Happy. Am I happy?
He didn’t have an answer. He wasn’t completely sure he understood the question. Normally, his work kept him too busy, too consumed by the demands of running a business to think about his personal life. Which, by most people’s standards, probably sucked. No wife or significant other. No kids. No pets.
As they drew closer to his parent’s home–a prairie-style knock off on a decent-sized lot a few blocks off Main–the tension that had been building started to ebb. Home. He hated to admit his six-figure house in the foothills above the Silicon Valley never produced the same warm, fuzzy feeling in him.
From the moment he’d walked through the door to be greeted by his mother and three mutts, he’d felt at home. Not that he planned to stick around once his parents returned from Florida. Good lord, no. A thirty-something, unmarried man living with his parents was poster boy for the title–Loser Of The Year.
So what if he had millions in the bank? The fact he didn’t have a clue about what to do with the rest of his life kept him awake at night. He’d lost his creative mojo to occupational repetitive mind stress and, without a goal, he was a rudderless boat adrift on a sea of whogivesadamns.
“We’re back,” he hollered after shedding a couple of layers and wiping twelve paws on a towel in the mudroom before entering the kitchen.
The smell of homemade chicken soup in the slow cooker filled his nostrils, taking him back to his childhood in an instant. He could picture Gracie–the studious one–doing homework at the counter. Daniel–the wild one–in the living room playing a bootleg copy of some video game. And slouched in the corner of the breakfast nook, nose in a book, Jonah would be traveling through time, space, and possibility with Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, or Orson Scott Card.
After hanging the leashes on their individual hooks and giving the dogs each a biscuit–diet variety for River Jack–he went looking for a note. Mom was famous for her cryptic messages scribbled on anything handy–the teacher’s copy of a report card, the return portion of a bill, or his personal favorite–the back of his acceptance letter from MIT.
Dad=Doc. Just ck-up. No worry. Soup 4 sup. Wait for us, plz.
And obviously added in a hasty dash a few lines down–U Santa Prez? Neat.
“Dang, Em. You don’t waste any time, do you?”
Jonah stirred the soup, then picked up his laptop and walked to the corner of the breakfast nook. When asked for the key to his success in business, Jonah always said, “Homework. Never go into a meeting without knowing everything possible about the company or issue in question.”
He’d read the information his mother had sent him about Montana Secret Santa a bit closer then check out Krista Martin.
The woman intrigued him. She’d had every right to cuss or shout at Bindi, but she’d acted as if getting knocked on her gorgeous behind by a poorly controlled dog was an everyday occurrence.
No drama worked for him. His last girlfriend-slash-mistake had cost him a small fortune in broken dishes and lawyer fees paid out in response to her frivolous lawsuit. According to the suit, he’d disappointed her by disappearing into his lab for long periods of time, thereby depriving her of conjugal relations.
“You’re being sued for sex, buddy,” his lawyer friend had told him. “Or, rather, the lack of it, stud muffin.”
A good reminder. Look but don’t touch. Especially here and now. He was supposed to be coming up with his next great idea, not drooling over a pretty girl who fit in his arms as if she’d been made for him.
Being attracted to someone as hot as Krista Martin was probably a normal guy reaction. Too bad he was the odd duck who didn’t relate well to people. Another reason he was a foolish choice to run the Secret Santa Society.
Krista had better be damn good at her job or Christmas was in big trouble.