Mistletoe and Mr. Right Page 2

She’d learned a long time ago to compensate for that discomfort by throwing her best and brightest smile to the room. Usually it worked to lessen the tension, but not this time. The gathered townsfolk most definitely didn’t smile back.

The smiles had been fewer and farther between since her condominium project had been announced.

“Tough crowd,” she told the plastic elves in her arms.

If Ben hadn’t told her where they held town hall meetings, she never would have been able to find it. By the looks she received when she headed toward the front of the barn, more than a few people wouldn’t have minded her absence. But as meeting halls went, the barn worked well. A wooden stage had been built on the end farthest from where Lana had made her less-than-grand entrance, and at least most of the people present hadn’t witnessed her faux pas. They’d scooted the chairs around to form rows facing the makeshift stage up front.

They’d tried to make the barn seasonally appropriate, filling it with a cheerful if haphazard assortment of holiday decor. Most was fairly innocuous, but liberties had been taken with Rudolph’s antlers, and something seemed to be going on between Mrs. Claus and Frosty the Snowman if the twinkle in her eye was to be believed. The pile of elves had been hanging out near the rear escape exit, the one Lana had unwittingly entered. They’d probably had the right idea.

The combination of strings of blinking Christmas lights, red and green plastic ornaments, blue and white papier-mâché snowflakes, and gold sparkles painted on popcorn balls was somewhat jarring. Someone had mounted a star on the top of a cardboard cutout of a lamp made out of a woman’s stockinged leg, with several presents stuck underneath.

Drawing her coat close to chase away the chill, Lana scanned the room, searching for a friendly face among the familiar ones. She breathed a sigh of relief when she spotted a short, slender brunette in glasses seated off to the side, across the room from a folding table loaded with coffee urns and holiday treats. Zoey Caldwell glanced up from the book in her lap as Lana approached, brightening when Lana waved at her in greeting.

“I saved Graham a seat, but you can have his,” Zoey said. “He’s been a brat all day.”

“Is he ever not a brat?” Lana replied, sitting next to her best friend.

“Hmm, good point.” Zoey’s boyfriend was many things, and a brat was definitely one of them.

The constant good mood Zoey had been in since meeting Graham and moving to Moose Springs the previous summer still hadn’t faded, and she gave Lana an enthusiastic hug. A hug Lana happily returned. It was embarrassing to admit how much Lana wanted those hugs…and needed them. They had met years ago at a truck stop diner outside Chicago. Zoey had been Lana’s waitress, and something between them had simply clicked. If Lana had to be honest with herself—which was more of a pain than she wanted to think about at the moment—her relationship with Zoey was the healthiest human interaction she’d experienced in her entire life. And it meant more to Lana than Zoey realized that they would be spending the holidays together.

Lana glanced around. “I was hoping Jake would be here.”

Jake was originally Graham’s dog, but all three of them worked equally hard at securing the blind border collie’s affection. So far, Zoey was winning.

“We asked him if he wanted to come, but he preferred to sleep by the fireplace.” Adjusting her glasses, Zoey said, “I think he was done being dressed for the day. Graham changed his outfit four times.”

“Jake’s wearing pajamas right now, isn’t he?”

“His Christmas Ninja Turtle pj’s,” Zoey said. “They’re his favorite.” They both knew whose favorite those pj’s actually were. “How did the meeting go?”

“Festively phallic,” Lana said. “How did it go meeting Graham’s parents?”

“They’re like him. Loving, wonderful, excessively loquacious. Their place in Anchorage is right off the inlet, and it’s very cute.”

“But?”

“But that’s a lot of Barnett humor in one room.” Zoey shuddered. “I might need to crash with you tonight so I don’t murder him.”

“My couch is always yours.” Lana squeezed Zoey’s hand, briefly leaning into her friend’s shoulder companionably. “I don’t think the heater is doing much to help.”

“Graham is bringing another one and some more chairs. I guess people always show up when his cousin’s wife, Leah, makes her holiday mix.”

As Zoey expounded on the deliciousness of holiday mixes, Lana made a mental note. Leah, Graham’s cousin’s wife, owner of a local car rental business and one of Lana’s recent acquisitions. These days, it seemed like everyone was either directly or indirectly affected by her company’s mass purchase.

“You have your work face on.” Zoey nudged Lana with her elbow. “You’ve been running a hundred miles an hour since this summer. You need a day off.”

“If I took a day off, I wouldn’t know what to do with myself,” Lana replied. Zoey wasn’t wrong though. Lana was dying for a day of no phone calls, no emails, and no penises.

“Have you ever been to one of these things?” Zoey asked.

Lana started to answer, but Zoey was immediately distracted as her boyfriend arrived, his muscled arms full of space heaters.

Graham Barnett, a cheerful Alaskan local in his late twenties, was about as handsome as a man could get. Tall and broad shouldered, Graham tried his best to be lazy as often as life would let him, which wasn’t very often these days. Despite his best efforts to the contrary, Graham’s small one-man diner, the Tourist Trap, had become a foodie sensation for the thousands of guests who passed through Moose Springs every year.

Despite trying to run his customers off with grumpiness and bad service, they just kept coming back in droves…Lana included. His specialty cocktail, the Growly Bear, had become world-renowned, in spite of Graham thinking they were disgusting. Considering Graham had wanted to be a professional chainsaw artist and live a life of solitude in the woods, he found the entire successful entrepreneur thing to be very disappointing.

Pausing just inside the doorway, Graham searched for Zoey in the crowd. Beside her, Lana could hear Zoey’s breath catch. The pair met the previous summer over one of those Growly Bears, when Zoey had joined Lana on a two-week vacation over the Fourth of July. Since the moment they first locked eyes, the diner owner had been smitten. And since Zoey had chosen to stay in Moose Springs permanently, the pair had been inseparable.

Happy was a good look on both her friends.

“Hey, Romeo, move it,” a muffled female voice spoke up from behind Graham. “My arms are getting tired.”

Chuckling, he moved into the barn, looking for a place to set his heaters. Graham’s best friends—the very tall, very man-bunned Easton, and Easton’s heavily tattooed twin sister, Ashtyn—followed him, their arms full of extra folding chairs. Where one found a Graham, one usually would find the Lockett twins, although it was impossible to identify the leader in their little trio. Easton’s expression was hidden behind his reddish-brown beard, but Ashtyn’s super short, multicolored spiky hair was both visible and fabulous.

“I wish I could pull off that style,” Lana said as she watched Ash, fingers absently touching her shoulder-length auburn locks. The closest she’d come to exciting was freshly redone lowlights for the winter.

“I wish I were brave enough to.” Zoey quirked a grin at Lana. “Brace yourself. A Moose Springs town hall is nothing like what you’d expect. They get a little weird.”

“Quirky weird or get-out-of-the-room weird?”

“It’s more like…do you remember that guy who always came in at the end of my shifts on Friday nights?”

“The one with the underwear or the one without?”

“The one without.” Zoey rubbed her hands together to warm them. “This will be worse.”

In a place where Lana was an outsider, being reminded of her and Zoey’s shared history caused a rush of affection to wash over her. And she wasn’t the only one overwhelmed with affection for Zoey Caldwell. Graham’s face split into a broad, almost silly grin as he strode across the room, ignoring the leg lamp and heading straight for them. He dropped into the seat Zoey had saved on her other side and kissed her.

“Hey there, Zoey Bear.” He wrapped his arm around her shoulders, giving her the perfect place to snuggle for warmth at his side. Over Zoey’s head, Graham offered Lana an amused look. “Greetings, supreme overtaker.”

“Graham, stop.” Zoey frowned at him, poking his stomach with a finger. “You’re going to make her feel bad.”

“He’s only teasing me,” Lana said. “Graham teases the people he likes.”

“See?” Graham flashed her that charming look of his, the one that always got him out of trouble. “L knows me.”

That was true enough. Most importantly, Lana knew that of all the locals, Graham hated her plans for Moose Springs the most. He’d spearheaded most of the attempts to delay her condominiums, and he wouldn’t mind one bit if her project failed. But that didn’t mean he wasn’t her friend. He’d still hug her when he saw her and get mad if someone called her a rude name. He’d let her throw rambunctious parties at his diner if she needed a distraction for the evening, and he’d break pretty much every “no tourist” rule he had for her in the name of a friendship they’d been cultivating for several years now.

They just didn’t always agree on the tourism thing.

“I’m going to get myself a treat.” Lana stood up, smiling warmly at her friends. “Would you like anything?”

“Usually I’m the one tossing food your way. I’m happy to sit back and let you be the bearer of delicious things.”

“I’d like a coffee, please,” Zoey said.

“A complicated, no-one-can-get-it-right, super coffee with the exact right amount of everything, or she’ll give you hell for it.”

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