Chapter One

If anyone had told Sebastian Romanov that today would be the day he fell in love, he would have dismissed them completely. And if he’d had any inkling of how hard he would fall, he would have had them shot for the lack of warning.

He didn’t believe in love, in any of its stages: at first sight, over a series of dates, or people who’d been friends for years suddenly snogging each other at the local pub.

Sebastian believed in facts, figures, and results.

Fact: His annoying cousin, Alexander, was moping around, and kept calling him.

Fact: Sebastian had Alexander’s calls blocked.

Fact: Alexander had resorted to popping up everywhere Sebastian had the unfortunate luck to be at the time.

Figures: This had been going on for six weeks, which was five and a half weeks too many.

Result: Sebastian had boarded a jet and flown to the States to collect a woman, in order to not to kill his cousin and land himself in jail.

Or so he had convinced himself.

Never would he admit to anyone that this entire scheme was the result of the fact he actually owed it to his cousin to meddle in the poor bloke’s relationship due to (also a fact) all the years Alexander had been forced to do his uncle’s (and Sebastian’s father) dirty work.

The soles of his shoes crunched on the salt and sand coating the formerly icy sidewalks of Holland Springs. Christmas decorations adorned nearly every storefront, bright red and green attracting the last minute shopper.

“Aren’t you Christian Romanov?” a woman dared to ask.

Slicing his gaze her way, he raised a brow. “No.”

She tossed long blond hair over one shoulder, her brown eyes assessing. Knowing. The smell of freshly cut lawn, coconut, and sea breezes drifted to him. Summer. She smelled of summertime.

“But you look just like him.” She matched her stride to his, the heels of her boots tapping out a rhythm.

Jaw clenching, he bit out, “Coincidence.”

“If you say so.”

An escape route appeared and adrenaline flowed through him, but he kept his steps measured. “I do.”

He made a sharp right. The echo of her boots went silent and he shoved his hands in his coat pocket, surveying the area. The little side street was blessedly devoid of people.

Exhaustion hit him hard, and he mulled over taking a breather on a convenient bench. Just as he leaned in the direction of resting for a minute or two hundred, tastefully twinkling white lights caught his eye.

Crossing the street, he felt the beginnings of a smile on his face when seasonally decorated cupcakes activated his sweet tooth. Pausing, he glanced up at the name, The Sweet Spot. Pink and brown dots surrounded the curly letters, underneath was a name, Daisy Barnes, and a phone number.

He didn’t have time for this. There was a woman to be found, a company to run into the ground, and a father to commit to the worst and slowest imaginable death possible.

Really, what more could be expected of him during the holiday season?

Sugary candy canes placed in the center of cupcakes topped with green icing made him pause once more. All glittery red and white under a spotlight. Just sitting there, waiting to be eaten. He’d never been one to deny his culinary cravings. There were very few things in life that he gave himself permission to enjoy. Sweets were at the top of his list.

“Only a quick pop-in and I’m done,” he muttered to himself. A few more steps and he pushed open the door. Bells jingled. Bing Crosby crooned in the background. Customers sat at tables with Menorahs, Christmas trees, and Kwanza candles as centerpieces, drinking and eating various desserts.

There was a line at the register, so he queued up for his turn. He shoved his hands into his coat pockets, palming his phone. Any minute now, he expected a text from his driver or one of his bodyguards for the location of Rose Holland.

He turned his attention towards the display of sweets, mentally sorting out the ones that he wanted to buy.

“Now you know those éclairs aren’t good for your diabetes. What will your wife think of you sneaking these?” a melodic voice asked, her voice teasing. “She’ll come in here and fuss at me for enabling you.”

That was well done of her, Sebastian thought. It was good business to take care of one’s customers.

“Wouldn’t want that to happen,” the elderly gentleman in front of him said.

“Then how about something healthier, like a pretzel, with some low-fat, sugar-free yogurt on the side?”

“Sound disgusting,” the man said and Sebastian nodded in agreement. It sounded horrid.

“It’s yummy,” she insisted. “I tried it myself first.”

“Then your taste buds are on the fritz,” the man grumbled.

The woman laughed, full and hearty, and as melodic as her voice.

That laugh made him look up and over the man’s shoulder. Had he known it would become the moment of moments, he would have turned around and never darkened this street or town again instead.

But he didn’t know. So he looked. And what Sebastian saw made him freeze.

Forget moving—he couldn’t speak or even hear anything, his heart pounded too loudly in his ears.

She smiled, hazel eyes shining and orange hair bright under the lights.

Everything inside of him came alive. His palms were sweaty, his knees all weak, and he felt the earth move beneath him.

The man in front of him paid for his purchases and walked away. Now all of her attention was on him.

“Can I help you?”

A sort of croak emanated. From him.

Her smile fell as her head tilted to one side, and he was gutted. It was his mission to make her smile again. Finding Rose Holland was rapidly sinking to the bottom of his to-do list because of that smile.

That smile was beautiful, sweet, kind, and lovely, so very lovely. He was in love with that smile—that face. Everything. Oh, holy hell and kill him now.

“Are you okay?” she asked, and he blinked. Apparently, she felt nothing he did. She hadn’t felt the connection or the earth tilt on its axis. It was just another day, another customer for her. “Would you like for me to call your brother? I don’t think he and Zoe have left town just yet.”

That she knew exactly who he was made it worse. Heat rising to his face, he took a breath and drawled, “Not necessary. However, may I speak to the owner?” Hopefully, Daisy Barnes would take this woman’s place and spare him any more embarrassment.

Lush lips twisted a little. “I am the owner.”

“You’re Daisy Barnes?” he barked, accusation and disbelief in his tone. Oh, bloody great.