The Greatest Christmas Gift of All
Whether wished for or not, the gift of true love may come from any places this holiday season.
Forbidden love. Second chances. Healing from loss…
Irene McKinlay wants to help her adult children unwrap the mysteries of true love, but her own love life isn’t exactly tied up neatly. Her fickle ex-husband wants her back. But is she willing to give him a second chance and risk getting hurt again?
Even a magical Christmas in Manhattan may not be enough for Anthony, Jake, and Gloria McKinlay to find the gift of true love with all the pitfalls, secrets, and romantic surprises awaiting them. Embracing forbidden love and testing the limits of love’s power to heal wounded hearts might be thrilling, but can they forge the kind of love that lasts forever?
The Greatest Christmas Gift of All
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Six days before Christmas Eve
Oh no, not again.
I knew that look. I knew that smile.
“Thank you, miss. You’ve just brightened my day.” The blond-haired customer flashed a seductive smile, grabbing the dark coffee I had just handed to him.
He looked like Leonardo DiCaprio, and any other woman would be flattered to be approached by such a handsome man. I was not one of them.
Robotically, I nodded, then shifted to prepare the next beverage.
“How about having dinner with me sometime?” he asked bluntly, putting a quick stop to my intention to end this increasingly unpleasant interaction.
Uneasiness crept inside me. To get rid of him, I lifted my left hand, showing off my wedding ring.
It didn’t work, this time.
“I don’t mind you being married, honey,” he shot back, with an over-the-top arrogance that immediately soured my stomach.
His insistence caught me off guard for a few seconds. Usually, when I showed my wedding ring, they would get the hint and leave me alone. I didn’t have a clue about how to make this importunate customer go away without bothering my employers, Irene and her daughter, Gloria. “Well, I do mind,” I said with a tight grimace.
“C’mon, honey,” he insisted, cracking his pompous smirk. “Just once.”
“I told you no,” I said, irritated and slightly scared.
Without warning, like a shooting star in the night sky, a strong hand shoved the customer aside, making him hit the floor, hard. I jumped at the unexpected appearance. “She said she can’t, asshole,” Anthony growled, glaring down at the customer, now sprawled on the ground.
The room went silent as people stopped their own activities to stare at the scene Anthony had caused, making me want to hide under the counter.
The out-of-his-luck customer finally scrambled to his feet and stalked out of the coffee shop, mumbling curses and threats.
Anthony was Irene’s oldest son, strong, confident, charming, and a successful fantasy author. Even I could see that he was the kind of man any woman could fall in love with—anyone but me, that is. We had met three years back, soon after I had started working at the coffee shop. At the time, he was dating a woman named Marlene, who would come by here from time to time to meet him. I was told that four months earlier, they broke up, and Anthony had been single since.
His blue eyes found mine. They glowed with a tenderness that took my breath away. “You all right?”
I didn’t need Anthony’s tenderness, his concern for my well-being, or for him to play the knight in shining armor.
I didn’t need anyone, because needing someone would be too risky. Avoiding men was safer for me, and for my loved ones. That was exactly what I had done for the last five years.
“Yes, thank you.” I cleared my throat. “That wasn’t necessary, you know,” I added, my voice mirroring the annoyance simmering in my belly.
His brows squished together. “You looked like you needed some help, and I helped. That guy wasn’t going to take your no for an answer,” he replied with unshakable assertion as he took off his coat. He went to the left side of the checkout counter and sat on his usual stool to work on his writing, like he did every single day.
“Well, next time, don’t,” I warned.
The fact that he was nice to me, I could handle. But him coming to my rescue was crossing the line.
His jaw worked back and forth. “Whatever, Ava. I’ll try to remember that.”
A thick tension floated in the air, creating a wall between Anthony and me.
I swallowed hard and managed to regain a professional attitude. “What can I get you today?”
“Surprise me, Ava.” He winked at me, conveying that the tension-filled wall between us was starting to evaporate into the air, or at least, that was what he was hoping.
While I was preparing a special hot chocolate for him, I could feel his gaze on me. That man had the power to wreck my life and shatter the walls that I had carefully built around me, if he ever wanted to.
A woman, who looked about twenty years old, approached him for an autograph. She told him how much she loved his novels. Beaming, he signed his name on the piece of paper she handed him. They chatted for a few minutes before she left the coffee shop. Anthony often met fans here, men and women, who would ask for an autograph, or just chat with him. He had a lot of success, particularly with his female fans, who weren’t afraid to speak to him and show their attraction to him.
As I sprinkled cinnamon over the hot beverage, I darted a furtive glance in his direction. His eyes revealed a hint of fascination and concern, sending a kind of fear I couldn’t identify or understand crawling through me. I had the urge to tell him to stop staring at me like that, but I didn’t dare.
“Ava?” His voice brought me back to reality. “Why do you wear a fake wedding ring?”
His question shook my inner world like an earthquake, leaving me completely unprepared to give a coherent answer. My heart skipped a beat, then throbbed painfully against my rib cage. I turned my face away from him as a flare of deep, shameful mortification squeezed my chest. “I-I just don’t need a boyfriend,” I stuttered.
“Everybody needs someone to love, Ava.”
Everybody but me.
His eyes told me I could be loved, too, if I gave myself a chance. A part of me yearned to believe him. To believe that I could find somebody to love who would love me back unconditionally. But then again, Anthony didn’t know what I had done, and I couldn’t risk everything by allowing someone in. The last time I had made that mistake, I had lost so much.
I placed his hot drink in front of him.
“Thanks,” he said with a husky voice. “Any plans for Christmas?”
“Family’s too far,” I whispered. I quickly turned my back and set a piece of red velvet cake on a plate, hoping he would not pry further. Family was a subject I never talked about with anyone, and Anthony would not be the exception.
“How far can they be?” His voice held a mix of disbelief and playfulness.
Not wanting to answer, or even look at him, out of fear that he’d see all of the lies, all of my secrets written all over my face, I went around the counter with the piece of cake and walked away to serve a customer.