Friday, September 21, 2018

First Chapter: The Mistletoe Bachelor Auction by Milou Koenings

I'm so excited as Release Day for Sweet Christmas Kisses 5 gets closer! Here's Chapter One of The Mistletoe Bachelor Auction, one of the nine sweet holiday romances in our box set which releases next Tuesday, September 25.

Rose Silver surveyed the lobby as she made her way tentatively down the stairs. When she stayed in hotels, she avoided the crowds, the photographers, the gaping looks by ordering room service to her suite. But this was a bed and breakfast. No matter how fancy the Green Pines B&B was, if she wanted nourishment she was going to have to brave being seen in public.

The lobby was quiet, however. Through the front windows, the postcard-perfect town square glistened in the sunlight. An uncommonly warm winter notwithstanding, holiday lights twinkled discreetly around the room, and a wreath made of bay leaves and plaid ribbon hung on the wall behind the welcome desk. The woman at the desk glanced up at her and smiled.
"Good morning. Sleep well?" she asked Rose warmly. 

Rose nodded. "Very well, thank you." She smiled back and looked quickly away. The woman — Julie, read her name tag — had checked her in the previous day. She'd done a fast double-take when she'd seen Rose and checked her name in the computer, but that was it. Except for that, Julie had treated her like a normal, anonymous person. Still, Rose didn't want to push her luck. You never knew when even the most perfectly nice people would suddenly start gushing. And that always made Rose feel like an imposter.

"Breakfast is in the dining room — through the lounge," Julie said.

"Thank you." The dining room was a large space with individual small tables, rather than one long one, as she had feared. Her sister, Dani, and their friend Loren Bennett were seated by the window, having coffee. There were two or three other guests, but not a photographer in sight. Three men dressed in black had the table near the entrance. Rose ignored them and allowed herself to relax. Along the wall, a buffet offered hot and cold assorted breakfast fare, including gluten-free pancakes and wheatgrass juice. Rose smirked. She'd been hoping for normal food. Real pancakes and maple sugar — that would have been nice. But she dutifully piled a plate with scrambled eggs, filled a mug with coffee, and headed to the table. 

"Hey, sleepyhead," Dani said, pulling out the chair next to her. Rose gave her a kiss on the cheek, then hugged Loren, who stood up to greet her.

"Welcome to Green Pines, sweetheart," Loren said. She held Rose at arm's length to look at her. "You look worn out."

Rose gave a small laugh. "Just what I want to hear. You, on the other hand, have never looked better." 

"True love does that," Dani teased. "You're blushing!" she exclaimed, still looking at Loren. "Rose, isn't that the most adorable thing? It must be his magic way with words."

Rose sat down, amused at Dani and Loren's banter. It was sweet how obviously in love Loren was with her husband, even after five years of marriage. "He is pretty hot," Rose said, winking at Loren, who promptly swatted her arm.

"He's mine!" Loren warned. "Besides, Trey's too old for you." 

"You weren't too old for him," Rose pointed out. 

Loren put her hand to her heart and recoiled in mock horror at being reminded of the five-year age difference between her and her husband. "Rose, you evil girl!"

"See how lucky you are to not have a little sister?" Dani interjected.

"Just wait until you’re over thirty and see if you can still nab the hottest man in town then," Loren retorted. 

Rose tossed her thick waves of ebony hair and batted her eyelashes teasingly. "Finally! I always knew the time would come when being younger than you guys would have its advantages." She sobered quickly. "Of course, it will all be wasted if Forrest has his way." She began eating her eggs mechanically, not really tasting them.

Dani sighed. "He just wants what's best for you," she said, not sounding fully convinced that their brother knew what “best” was in this case.

"What's best for the company, you mean. Forrest is setting up my new company and would like me to date the man he's hired to run it," she explained for Loren's benefit.

"Is he cute?" Loren asked.

Rose rolled her eyes. "Who cares? He's an old friend of Forrest's from Phillips Exeter."

"If he’s a friend of Forrest’s he’s probably a nice guy. Where is your brother, anyway?" Loren asked. "I didn't invite the three of you for the holidays so he could spend the whole two weeks holed up in his room working."

"He's holed up in his room working," Dani said. "I stopped by on my way down. He had already gone for a run, had his coffee, and eaten a couple of his employees for breakfast." Loren winced.

"Yeah, don't feel bad for him. It's his idea of heaven." Just to spite her brother, Rose reached for one of the warm whole-wheat rolls in the basket on the table. "Oh!" she moaned at the first bite. "That is so good! I'd forgotten what carbs tasted like."

Loren laughed. "You could use a few more pounds on you."

Rose shook her head. "Don't tell Forrest." She wolfed down the roll hungrily. "Do you know how tired I am of being hungry all the time?" She took another roll. "I can't wait for this contract to end. One more photoshoot and then I'm free. Or at any rate, sort of free." 

Loren tilted her head. "Forrest told me about the new makeup company you want to launch. I think it’s great. But you don't sound excited." 

"The company that Forrest is launching, you mean," Rose said bitterly. "With my ideas. And a huge publicity campaign — with my name and face on it, and me going on promotional tours everywhere. It's not exactly what I had in mind when I said I wanted to stop modeling, get out of the public eye, and live a normal life." Rose picked up her coffee cup, then changed her mind. "And to tell you the truth, it's a bit insulting. As if he doesn't think my products will be good enough to stand on their own, and that people will only buy them if they have the Silver name on it."

"It's not all bad, Rose," Dani interjected. "Forrest did the same for me when I stopped modeling. He's very good at launching businesses — he has vision."

"But I'm not you. You don’t mind having your face and name associated with your brand."

"True enough," Dani admitted. "That's because I never got as famous by modeling as you. And I haven't the faintest clue how to make bedsheets or style a room. I just know how to sell stuff."

Loren and Rose laughed. “I think you do a little more than just sell stuff,” Rose said. Dani’s sense of style and her interior design skills were legendary.
“I, on the other hand, still have to come up with a decent product, and Forrest is already planning huge publicity campaigns around something that doesn’t even exist yet. I don't want people to buy my makeup just because the packaging has the name of someone who's famous for being famous on it. I want to know they appreciate it on its own terms. Plus, Forrest is already talking big — Macy's and Bergdorf — while I'm thinking of supplying hospitals at a discount. Without my name on the boxes," she clarified.

"You could say that you and Forrest have slightly different visions." Dani broke a roll in half and buttered it.

“Bottom line: it’s my idea,” Rose said simply. “And, as soon as I knew we were coming here for Christmas, I spoke to Tony Black, and he’s set up meetings for me with one of the scientists at the medical center whose research I’ve been reading. So, thank you for inviting us, Loren!”

"Fantastic!" Loren exclaimed. "Oh, I almost forgot. I have something for you." 

She reached into the handbag slung over the back of her chair. "Your belated birthday present, Rose." She handed Rose a flat, soft package wrapped in muted colors, tied with twine and a miniature pine cone.

"I love it already," Rose said, fingering the wrapping paper. "It's handmade, isn't it?"

"Uh-huh. Go on, open it."

Rose carefully undid the knot, rolled up the twine like a precious jewel, and only then did she unfold the paper. She lifted out a river of silk. "Oh, Loren, it's gorgeous!" She examined the fabric, which was printed with swirls of earthy tones, then opened the scarf and wrapped it around her shoulders. "I don't think I have anything in quite these colors. What do you think?" 

"Beautiful," Dani agreed. "It brings out the green in your eyes."

"It's made by a woman who makes her own dyes with plants she collects in different areas of the country. She comes here at the end of the summer every year to go hiking and collect plants. This is her Midwest range — dyes from around right here in Green Pines."

"Thank you, Loren." Rose leaned over and kissed her. 

"Now that that’s taken care of," Loren said briskly, handing each of them a brochure, "this is the schedule for the Green Pines Winter Carnival. Dani, you are going to love the carpentry exhibit. Hire a moving van for the trip home right now because Mac Bennett's handmade furniture is unbelievable. I bet you’re going to want to do a feature about him in your magazine. And Rose, thank you so much for volunteering to do the kids' story hours at the library — I hope you don’t mind, I scheduled an hour each day until Christmas Eve, okay?"

"Sure, it’ll be fun. " Rose hesitated. “You didn’t tell anyone who I am, right?”

“I promised not to, didn’t I?” Loren reassured her.

“Then just tell me where and when to show up.”

"At the library, next door to the restaurant. I'll give you the tour of Green Pines after breakfast."

Dani grinned. "That should take all of five minutes."

"Hey, this is my hometown now. Just because it isn't Fifth Avenue —"

"—but it all looks so quaint," Dani amended quickly. "I'm so glad you invited us, Loren."

Loren looked slightly mollified. "I figured you two could use a little peace and quiet."

"It's been a little nutsy," Dani admitted, glancing at Rose for confirmation. "But Rose's press agent says it's the second day without a new article about those pictures. It will all die down soon."

There was a chime from Rose’s phone. "Could we not talk about this, please?" she asked, pulling the phone out of her pocket. She glanced at the screen and quickly typed a message back.

"Who was that?" Dani asked.

Rose hesitated. "Alec."

Dani rolled her eyes. "Rose, please, not again. What is it with you and your recycled boyfriends?"

"Recycled?" Rose sputtered.

Dani turned to Loren. "Rose only goes out with guys she's gone out with before."

"At least it isn't like starting all over from scratch every time, like you. " 

"That's because if things didn't work out the first time with an ex, I'm smart enough not to go back for more. People don't change, Rose."

"Well, he knows how I like my eggs and why I hate shopping, and he liked Mrs. Hennessy. No one else liked Mrs. Hennessy." 

"Ms. Hennessy was your tenth-grade English teacher! Who cares? So what if he can order your eggs for you? How's that going to help the next time he's dragging you from one bar to the next all night long just so he can be seen and photographed with you?"

"So at least I know what to expect. He's familiar," Rose snapped. "No surprises." Although wouldn’t it be nice to be pleasantly surprised by a man, for a change? Rose pushed the thought away — like that was likely.

"Right, no surprises, not until he also digs up some half-naked shot of you at some high school party and sells it to the press, just like the last guy," Dani snorted. "Having known a guy in high school should not be the reason to date him — if anything, that's a reason for any grown woman not to date a guy."

"They knew me back when. They know me as a person."

"They knew you when you were a foolish fifteen-year-old going off the rails. That doesn't mean they know who you are now," Dani replied calmly, refusing to get worked up over what was by now an old argument. She flipped through the Green Pines Winter Carnival brochure.

Rose tossed her napkin on the table angrily. "Well, between your disapproval and Forrest’s matchmaking, I might just go off the rails again!"

Loren reached over to grab Rose's hand. "And that's why you're here. So you can get away from it all, relax, and think about the next chapter in your life in peace. No one here is going to be looking at or even care about those old pictures of you. But Dani does have a point. Not every man out there is a sycophant trying to use your public image to his own benefit. Believe it or not, there might even be a male or two left on the planet who doesn't know who you are."

"I could run a contest!" Rose joked. "Prove you don't know Rose Silver and win a date with her."

"Forrest would love it," Dani noted. "Great publicity."

"It's too bad it isn't colder this winter," Loren pointed out. "Normally it's so cold you could wear a baklava and no one would notice. You'd blend right in."
Rose smile despite herself. She squeezed Loren's hand and glanced at the three men in black at the corner table. "Except for the bodyguards, you mean."

Loren looked over her shoulder. "They'll keep the kids in line when you do story hour. Very useful." 

Rose shook her head. "Uh-uh — I'm ditching them. They can stay and protect Forrest." She pushed her cup away. "How about we start the tour?" 

"Hey, look at this—" Dani said suddenly, running her finger along a notice in the brochure. She glanced up at Rose with a wicked gleam in her eye. "I'm signing you up right now!"

"What?" Rose leaned over, but Dani moved the brochure out of her grasp. 

"It's for charity!" Dani said, smirking. "It's a fundraiser. For Loren's literacy project. No choice. We have to go."

Loren's face lit up in comprehension. She started to chuckle. "Of course — you have to come!"

Rose looked from one to the other, confused. "What is it?" she asked suspiciously.

Dani handed her the program with a triumphant smile. "The Mistletoe Bachelor Auction. My Christmas present to you."

Rose stared at her in shock. "You are not buying me a guy for Christmas!" 

Dani smiled sweetly. "Oh, you bet I am."


And mark your calendars for our September 25 Book Launch Facebook Party, from 2:00-7:00 p.m. EST.  We hope to see you there for lots of fun, games, and giveaways!