Book 2 in the Holiday, Montana Series
Rina Brewer is one of Santa’s elves, yes you read that right. Not the tiny cute little toy maker, but the sexy, petite, bombshell kind. She’s come to Holiday to set a promise right, even if she’s not sure she’s made for a small town with too prying eyes.
Justin Cooper knows how to make mistakes. It’s taken years to learn how to rectify them. When he nearly died one snowy night, he made a promise to the big guy up north and now it’s time to deal with the consequences.
Only Jack Frost might nip more than your nose if you’re not careful and this Christmas romance is one misstep away from melting everything around them.
Sometimes being the bad boy seemed a whole lot easier. Justin Cooper let out a sigh and closed his eyes. The tension that had crept through his shoulders and neck throughout the day seemed to suffocate him. He sat at his desk in his office at the elementary school and wished he were anywhere else. Sure, he loved being the principal of his small-town school, but, sometimes, he just needed a break.
The school bell rang, a soft trilling sound that set his teeth on edge, indicating he might just get that break he wanted. It was the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, and the temperature had dropped dramatically in their small Montana town of Holiday. He’d deal with the biting cold, just as long as he got his much-needed break. A full five-day weekend all to himself.
He let out a snort. Okay, not all to himself.
He was one of five Cooper brothers, which meant he was never too alone. They’d grown up close, and he, Matt, Tyler, Brayden, and Jackson hadn’t drifted apart as they’d aged like some families; perhaps because, after the death of their parents, they’d needed to rely on each other. Not to mention Matt, his youngest brother, had proposed to Jordan, bringing another family member into the fold. Being the most prominent family in town had its drawbacks. No, he was never quite alone, and everyone knew his business.
Holiday was one of those storybook old Western towns that had never quite gotten with the times and evolved. But, he was okay with that. He kind of liked having the general store across the street from his brother’s hardware store. Everything was pretty much laid back and moved at a slower pace. It was a perfect pace when he really just wanted to hide away and relax. Though, in reality, he never got the chance to do just that.
He ran a hand through his too-long hair and groaned. He needed to get a freaking haircut because, according to Jordan, he was starting to look like some punk kid. And, God forbid, he didn’t fit the part of a proper and professional school principal. As it was, he looked like the aging bad boy of a small town.
He was a thirty-four-year-old man who spent his life either at work or tinkering around the house. Fuck, he sounded like a whiny bastard. At least he enjoyed his job and had a roof over his head.
He worked for another hour or so on the school budget for the upcoming year and called it a day. He closed down his computer, locked up his desk, and walked out to his car, the tension never quite leaving his shoulders as he looked forward to the long weekend.
The snow had just started to fall again, leaving a light dusting on the sidewalks and cars. Everything looked like the beginning of a white wonderland, complete with Thanksgiving and harvest decorations in store windows. The one-road town appeared to be a scene sliced from an old western movie. The storefronts had been updated over the years, the road had been paved, but the town still looked old-timey. The road branched off in other directions as people built out, but Main Street remained the center of town. The snow was light, but he knew it wouldn’t take long for the sidewalks and roads to become slick. He stopped beside his car and called town maintenance, which consisted of George, his plow truck, and a few other key tools.
“Hey, I know the school’s closed, but I’d still like you to salt the sidewalks, just in case. You never know what kids will want to do once they get a break.” The last thing he needed was a kid to break an arm or worse. Not to mention the irate parents that would blame him. As much as he loved the kids, sometimes dealing with parents made him feel as if his job was sucking the life out of him.
George grunted, but agreed to prep the sidewalks.
Justin hung up, shivered in his coat, and got in his SUV. It dawned on him that it would have been smarter to get in the car and then make the phone call. Why he hadn’t done that was beyond him. Maybe it was old age. Okay, he wasn’t that old, but damn, he sure felt it. He slammed the door shut, shivered again, and started his car. He let it idle for a few moments while it warmed and cupped his hands over his mouth. Dear God, when did it get this cold? It hadn’t been this cold that morning.
When the car was finally heated up enough that he wasn’t afraid he’d kill the engine, he shifted into drive and headed home. It wasn’t even that late; he just wanted to go to bed. His body felt heavy, heated, and edgy. Maybe he just needed a beer. All the more reason to head home.
Justin carefully navigated the roads, not surprised at the lack of cars. People who lived in Montana were accustomed to snow, but that didn’t mean people necessarily loved to drive in it, nor did they drive anywhere, if they didn’t have to. The ice was already starting to build up, and Justin knew, in a few more minutes, it would get dangerous. Luckily, he lived close enough to the school that on a warm day he could jog to work; not that he wanted to do that anymore. The leering looks from some of the single and not-so-single moms when he had done so had quickly squashed that idea.
He pulled into his driveway, parked, and then shuffled as quickly as he could into his home. Thankfully, he’d turned the heater on with a timer before he’d left, so stepping into the house wasn’t like stepping into an icebox. He shook off the snow and stepped out of his shoes. He hated cleaning, so he did his best not to be a slob. He wasn’t a neat freak like his brother Jackson, but he kept a clean house.
He knew his home wasn’t perfect, far from it. It would always be a work in progress, at least until he had someone to share it with; another heartbeat in the house. He’d filled the rooms with heavy furniture suitable for him and his brothers. There was no feminine energy whatsoever in the home. He hadn’t painted the walls yet, beyond a quick white coat, because he didn’t know what he wanted. He also hadn’t yet put anything up on the walls. It was as if he were waiting for something—or someone—to help him fill it. What, or who, he didn’t know.
With a sigh, he strode to the kitchen and took out the ingredients for dinner. He’d been craving Christmas cookies for the past month—and given in to those cravings more often than not—so he decided on fresh salmon, rice, and yellow squash for dinner. He needed to eat healthy so he could indulge in some sugar cookies later. He didn’t know what it was, but he needed sugar cookies, daily. He loved them best when they were soft and had a thick icing layer on them. Just thinking about them made his stomach growl and his teeth ache. He knew his brother, Jackson, a dentist, would absolutely kill him if he knew how many cookies he had ingested over the past month. But, he couldn’t help it. He craved the suckers.
He quickly got the rice going, sliced the squash so it could steam, and heated some olive oil in a pan for the salmon. He seasoned the filet then put it on the heat, but, even as he did, visions of cookies danced in his head. Yep, he was officially going crazy. The salmon crackled and popped as the fatty tissue hit the hot oil in the skillet. The aroma of lemon and dill filled the air, and he groaned. Nope, didn’t smell good enough to him. He wanted those damn cookies.
“I’m a fucking adult. I can eat a cookie before dinner if I want to.” Sure, keep telling yourself that.
Knowing if his mother had been alive, she would have scolded him, he tiptoed to the airtight container and took out one cookie. Come on, one little frosted cookie wouldn’t hurt. He hesitated, and then he grabbed a second cookie in case the first didn’t take the edge off. He bit down into the sugary goodness and groaned.
Hell, yeah, this is better than sex.
He choked on the last bit of cookie and grabbed his beer to wash it down. Fuck, he needed to get laid if a cookie was better than sex. How long had it been? He tried to think about it and sighed. Damn, he was turning into the cat lady. The one that resembled the little old lady who stayed indoors all day with a shawl around her shoulders and a cat on her lap. He just needed the fucking cat.
The salmon popped again, and he rushed to the stove. Thankfully, he hadn’t burned his dinner. Though, if he did, he could just eat more cookies.
No. No, that wouldn’t work.
He turned off the heat and plated his dinner, and then he moved to the bar at the end of his kitchen isle and ate. With each bite, he turned the same question over in his mind: what the hell he was doing with his life? He was thirty-four years old and bored. He used to be the life of the party and celebrate the holidays like no other. Now he just did it for others. He didn’t enjoy Christmas as much, either. Not since that night and that weird dream.
The doorbell rang, and he shook off his thoughts. Justin shuffled to the door and opened the it. He raised a brow when he saw who was on the other side.
“What are you two doing here?” he asked as his brothers, Tyler and Brayden, walked through the door, inviting themselves in.
Tyler took off his hat and raised his brow. He still wore his sheriff’s uniform, even after a too-long day at work. His short black hair looked like it needed a cut, and his blue eyes were exhausted. “Is that any way to greet your brothers?”
Justin let out a sigh and took the six-pack of beer from Brayden. “At least you brought me something. But, really, I have enough beer as it is.”
Brayden smiled, his face brightening. He ran a hand that still had car grease under its fingernails through his too-long hair and shook his head. “We always bring presents. It’s the holiday season, after all. And, plus, this beer is for me and Ty; you can drink your own with that attitude.”
Justin just shook his head and closed the door behind them as his brothers shook off the snow on their shoulders and walked toward the kitchen.
“Yum, cookies,” Tyler said as Justin walked in behind them. He clenched his fists and held his tongue so as not to say anything. What the hell was wrong with him? It wasn’t as if he minded sharing. But, for the life of him, he didn’t want his brother to have a cookie, and he didn’t know why.
It was as if he was five years old again.
Brayden took a seat at the bar and opened beers for the three of them. Justin took his and waited to see what his brothers wanted.
“What are you bringing for Thanksgiving?” Brayden asked as he took a swallow.
“Seriously? You ventured out in the storm for that?” Justin wiped his forehead, surprised to find it clammy. Damn, what the hell was going on with him?
His brothers shared a look.
“What?” he growled.
“Nothing,” Tyler said in is smooth cop voice, the kind that he would use with a wounded crime victim.
“Sure. Tell me what’s up.”
“We’re just worried about you,” Brayden said as he set down his beer.
“Why? I’m fine.”
“No, you’re not,” Tyler said.
Justin let out a breath and closed his eyes. “I’ve just been a little tired and then weird. It’s odd, but I’m fine.”
“You’re not turning into a ghost, are you?” Brayden asked. He didn’t crack a smile when he asked.
Considering their brother, Matt, had been a ghost for the past ten years, that question had been a serious one. Add in the fact that their soon-to-be sister-in-law was a witch and the supernatural presence in their town could be a reason to worry.
He hadn’t faded into the darkness, and he didn’t cast spells. So, he knew it wasn’t that.
“No, I’m all corporeal. But, thanks for caring,” he said dryly.
“We’re just worried about you,” Tyler said.
Justin nodded, feeling oddly touched. But, these were his macho brothers, so he couldn’t actually let them know. “Ah, thanks, buddy. Let’s go watch that new tear-jerker, hold hands, and I’ll get you a tampon.”
“Fuck you.” Tyler sneered then winked. “If anything, Matt may need one. Have you seen how lovey-dovey, starry-eyed whipped he is?”
Justin snorted. “So eloquent. But, yeah, Jordan makes him happy. Whatever.”
“Yeah, but does he have to be smiling all the damn time?” Tyler asked as he munched on a cookie.
Must not rip cookie from his hand.
“It’s because he’s getting laid,” Brayden interjected and took a bite of a cookie.
God, are they going to eat all of them?
“More than I can say for the three of us,” Justin said.
“Hey, speak for yourself,” Tyler said, his palm out. “I got laid this week. More than I can say about the two of you.”
“You’re a pig,” Bray said, a distant look on his face.
“No, I have sex with women who don’t like commitments. I don’t have sex every day, so back off.”
“If you’re so testy about it, maybe you should start thinking about settling down,” Justin said. “What about Abby? Jordan’s friend? She’s nice, and I think Jordan wants to bring her into the family.”
Tyler looked confused for a moment then frowned. “Abby? No, not so much. But thanks.”
“Hey, she’s nice. What the fuck is your problem?”
“She’s the settling-down type, and I don’t want to settle down. Plus, she’s, you know, Abby.”
Brayden turned toward their brother, anger on his face. “Now what is that supposed to mean?”
Tyler looked at them both and blinked. “She’s just not my type.”
“Oh, you mean she isn’t a bimbo?” Justin asked
“Well, that’s just not nice. And why are you ganging up on me? Why don’t you settle down with Abby?”
Justin sighed. Because Abby doesn’t have a crush on me, dumbass. But, he couldn’t say that. Fuck, his brother was a careless bastard when it came to Abby, and he had no idea why.
But, that same idiot of a brother was right about one thing; Justin needed to get laid. He might not be as much of a ladies’ man as Tyler, but he still needed a woman.
His brothers said their goodbyes, and Justin was left alone in his empty home, thinking about women—and whether he should make another batch of cookies. He patted his eight-pack. He would have thought he’d have Santa’s bowlful of jelly by now, but, no, he hadn’t gained a pound from the dozens of cookies he’d inhaled in the past month.
Justin sat in his armchair and watched the snowfall outside his window accumulating in large drifts. His phone beeped, and he looked down at the texts from each of his brothers saying they’d made it home. He must have been looking pretty bad if they had worried enough about him to venture out in the snow.
The holidays were coming, and he needed to get ready. Even though he didn’t enjoy Christmas as much as he had in years past, he still loved giving gifts. He knew what he wanted to get each of his family members, including Jordan; not something they’d necessarily need, but something that would spark a memory or bring a smile to their faces.
Thinking about Jordan made him remember that, other than his brothers and her, he really was alone. Maybe he needed a girlfriend.
Just the thought of hooking up with anyone in Holiday made him shake his head. There were only two women, other than Jordan, in town that even sparked his interest, and those two didn’t really spark it as much as make him feel as if they were family. Allison, the waitress at the town diner, was beautiful and had a great personality, but Brayden was in love with her, even if Brayden didn’t know it. And Abby was like a kid sister who, yes, may be hot, but there was no interest there. God, he hated his small town sometimes.
His phone rang, startling him out of his thoughts. “Hello?”
“Hi! Justin?” a perky, unfamiliar voice asked.
“Uh, yeah. Who’s this?
“Oh, I’m Rina Brewer; you’re trainer. We’re going to need to meet soon.”
Justin blinked and looked at his phone.
Out of Range.
“Who are you again? What does this concern?”
“Oh!” She giggled. Actually fucking giggled. But, it sounded sweet and not annoying like giggling usually did. Okay, enough of the beer for him. “It concerns Santa, of course. He needs you.”
Justin coughed. “Funny. I don’t know you who are, but really, come up with better jokes next time. Though you do sound pretty, I’m hanging up now.”
He pressed End as the high-pitched voice yelled at him to stop. Whatever.
He rolled his neck and stretched. His skin felt tight, achy. Something was coming. What the hell?