The bell above the front door to Nora’s Books and Brew jingled, but Nora didn’t bother to glance away from the customer she was helping. Since renovating this place seven months ago it was no longer just a bookstore, but a combination bookstore and coffee shop and they sold more coffee than books.
Which wasn’t exactly surprising since Holly, North Carolina saw a lot of tourists, especially during December. Located in the Blue Ridge Mountains, it was a popular tourist getaway that boasted cobblestone streets, Victorian gingerbread architecture and an old-world feel that made her never want to leave. And it was Christmas twenty-four-seven, year round. Nora’s friend Ella, the town scrooge, hated it, but after growing up with a mom who got depressed every damn holiday and refused to do anything special for either of her daughters, Nora loved everything about Holly.
“Trust me, your daughter, no matter what age, will love the elf, even if she doesn’t read the book. My sister’s seventeen and goes crazy with this thing. Every morning I find him in a different place around the house.”
The woman with pale blonde hair and a bright smile nodded. “I’ll take two sets and a pound of the White Christmas coffee. Whole beans.”
“I’ll meet you at the cash register.” Even though the town was Christmas-themed year round, the month of December was still always their busiest. In addition to her regular employees, she’d hired three seasonal ones, all high-school students, to help out in the afternoons. They were all busy so she headed to the back to grab the Elf on the Shelf book sets and the coffee.
As she passed Macy and Eleanor Baker, sisters in their sixties barely a year apart, sitting at one of the high-top tables in the café, she paused at the odd way they were watching her. “What? Do I have something on my face?” She’d been working since eight o’clock this morning and had barely taken a bathroom break.
Macy, the brunette, gave her a Cheshire cat smile. “Nope. Though it wouldn’t hurt you to put some lipstick on.”
Nora blinked in surprise.
Eleanor nudged her sister. “Don’t be rude. She looks fine. He won’t care about lipstick anyway.”
He? Since she had no idea what they were talking about, Nora gave them a polite smile, murmured something about grabbing stock from the back, and kept going. She adored the sisters, but they could be eccentric on their best days. And today, she didn’t have time for their dose of crazy. She slipped behind the counter, the rich aroma of coffee, coconut, vanilla, caramel and nuts all filling the air. The scents were soothing and familiar, as were the little beeps from the cash register as Kelsey rang up another customer. Music to Nora’s ears.
“I’ll grab what you need. I overheard you and the snow bunny. Two elf sets and coffee, right?” Marjorie, one of her full-time employees asked as she pushed open the swinging door to the back.
“Yeah, but you don’t have to—”
“Go see your man. I got this.” Marjorie tilted her chin in the direction of the café before disappearing through the door.
What the heck? Nora turned around and froze for just a second. Jackson O’Connor, Mr. Too-sexy-for-his-own-good stood at the high-top table talking to the Baker sisters. He held a bouquet of white snapdragons, her favorite. Her immediate instinct was to duck in the back and just avoid seeing him, but screw him. He was in her territory and she certainly didn’t want his flowers. So she pasted on her “shopkeeper smile” and skirted around the counter.
As she rounded it, he looked over, those striking blue eyes landing on her. And damn it, she felt the effect of that stare all the way to her toes. She tried to pretend she didn’t, but her body didn’t lie. Everything around her funneled out, the rich scents and chattering customers all seemed to fade away as she maneuvered her way through the tables. She wished she was in something sexier than jeans, a red and green striped top and her apron, but there was nothing she could do about it. Now she understood the lipstick comment, but not the ‘your man’ one. Jackson certainly wasn’t hers.
He’d made that perfectly clear with his radio silence over the last three weeks. One date and he’d completely ghosted on her; no calls, nothing. Considering they’d been friends before their date, it cut deep that he’d simply decided to ignore her for no reason she could decipher.
“O’Connor,” she said politely as she reached the table. Oh yeah, it was back to O’Connor, what pretty much everyone in town called him. Calling him Jackson was way too intimate and she wanted to set up clear boundaries between them.
She saw the slight way his eyes narrowed when she did. “You have a few seconds, Nora?” His voice was deep and delicious, the baritone making all her nerve endings flare to life.
“Ah…” She glanced behind her. The line at the register wasn’t too bad, but the truth was, she didn’t want to talk to him, much less see him. “I’m pretty busy.”
“Oh go on, honey.” Macy winked at her. “No one will blame you for taking a few minutes to yourself.”
“And if she’s not interested, we are,” Eleanor continued.
To Nora’s surprise, Jackson’s cheeks flushed red. Clearing his throat, he motioned toward the front door. “I shouldn’t have come at such a busy time.”
Though she wanted to tell him that he was right—and give him a piece of her mind—she simply smiled and headed for the front door with him. “Don’t worry about it.” She had to keep her “shopkeeper smile” in place until they were alone. Otherwise everyone in town would gossip and though she might hate it, she had to uphold a certain appearance. When she was Nora Cassidy, business owner, she had to keep a smile on her face and be professional at all times. Which normally wasn’t hard at all. She loved her job and she loved the people of Holly.
“That’s the fakest smile I’ve ever seen,” Jackson murmured as he held the door open for her.