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“Who got engaged?” Simone said, shoving her brother Blue out of the way. “I’m always the last to know.”

I glanced frantically at Darius, who seemed to be taking it all in stride. He had a pleasant grin on his face like this interfering mass was simply lovely.

They weren’t.

“Gotta go,” I said quickly, ripping at the ties on my apron. “Sorry to beat and run.”

“What did he say?” Granny asked. “Because it sounded like—” Irene’s fingers clapped over Granny’s mouth again and stayed there.

I felt my face ignite. “Eggs. Cake batter. Christ.”

“One of those things is not like the other,” someone muttered.

“Welcome to Honey’s,” Darius said, wiping his hands off on his own apron before pulling it off and leaving it on a nearby counter. He walked over to help me with mine since I’d managed to tighten the strings into a big knotty mess. “We’ll be with you in a moment.”

He met my eyes. “Why are you acting like you just got caught with your hand in the cookie jar?” he murmured while he attempted to untangle my strings. “Your family doesn’t seem like they’re all that prudish.”

“You and I have known each other for like two days,” I said. “It’s… I’m just…”

Darius’s smile went from easy to a little forced. “Okay. Fair enough. I didn’t mean to push.” He pulled the strings loose and stepped back out of my personal space. I leaned forward before catching myself and pulling back. This wasn’t the time to sputter an apology for being weird and cagey.

Or to grab him and abscond through the back door.

“You got any of them cookie dicks?” Granny called out. “Because Saint and Otto challenged Griff and Derek to a dick-eating contest, and let’s just say mpfh.”

This time it was Tilly who shut her up. “Let’s not,” she said calmly, moving Granny into Irene’s arms. “Cage your beast.”

Tilly turned back to me and gave me a long, assessing look. Her lips curved up slowly like the Grinch. “One must assume you acquired the ultimate cookie dick, Miller. I take it the eating was satisfactory?”

My entire body flushed hot with mortification. “Let’s go. I don’t want to hold up Mikey’s breakfast.”

I started to walk out of the kitchen, but Darius stopped me with a gentle throat-clearing. “Don’t forget the order.”

My eyes closed, and I forced myself to take a deep breath. “Of course.” I grabbed the bags we’d already packed and handed them off to a couple of my cousins. “Thank you,” I said back to Darius. “I’ll…”

His smile was still a little forced, but at least there was warmth in his eyes. “Go. I’ll catch up with you later.”

“Come to Christmas Eve dinner tomorrow,” Tilly said to Darius with her usual tone of regal command. “We shall expect you at six for a seven o’clock meal.”

With that, the family swarm turned and moved en masse out of the bakery. I shot Darius an apologetic smile, but it most likely came out as a grimace.

I let the crowd direct me to the passenger vans parked across the street, and I spent the ride up the mountain thinking back on the evening I’d spent in Darius’s arms and the morning in his kitchen. Being with him was easy, almost too easy, and for some reason, it made me feel guilty.

I hadn’t expected to be happy this soon after losing my mom. As the first holiday season without her, this Christmas was supposed to be something I was meant to endure, not enjoy. I’d imagined nights spent alone and sad under a blanket, comfort eating ice cream and pizza, and losing myself in a good thriller novel. Never in a million years had I expected to find myself among this large extended family being distracted from my grief and kept company in spades.

And I’d certainly not anticipated having a holiday fling.

Except “fling” wasn’t at all the right word for what was happening between Darius and me. And that scared me even more. How could I finally meet the man I might want to spend forever with when my mom was no longer around to get to know him and tell me what she thought?

When we got back to the lodge, I quickly excused myself and flopped facedown on the bed in my room to have a good cry and talk to my mom.

I miss you so much. You’d like him. He’s sweet and easygoing. But also ambitious and hardworking. He’s so damned good-looking, and he appreciates family. Also… he seems to think I’m pretty special.

I could almost hear my mom telling me to go for it, to take a chance on Darius.

Kelly Hobbs had been a little quiet and a little shy, but she’d believed strongly in fate and love and happily ever afters, even though my dad had left us for parts unknown when I was still a child. And she’d always, always believed in me.