Once upon a time, he was everything to her, except for one thing: her future
Christmas sparkles from every bough and window at the cozy Four Winds Ski Resort, where single mother Eden Kendall and her eight-year-old son are spending the holiday. A surprise marriage proposal from her boss’s son wasn’t on her Christmas list, but it’s the perfect excuse to get away and weigh her options. She never imagined her son’s ski instructor/Santa impersonator would be the gorgeous, charismatic dreamer she left behind years ago, the one who still owns a piece of her heart.
Cole Hagan has never stopped loving Eden and he’s spent the last eight years proving her wrong on every count about his potential. While he fights to save the resort that he helped to build by organizing a holiday concert, he decides it’s about time that Eden puts aside her list-making pragmatism so that she and her skeptical son can experience the true magic of Christmas.
Can a not-so-perfect angel help this unlikely pair get a second chance at happily ever after?
Find Every Time a Bell Rings at:
Eden gulped down the last of her now cold drink and noticed that the ski lesson had ended, and the whole class had skied to the bottom of the hill.
She hurried outside through the packed snow to the spot where parents were picking up their children, looking for Quinn. She spotted him gliding along beside his instructor, the one in the Santa costume, heading straight for her.
It was the eyes, of course, that gave him away beneath that beard and ridiculous hat. Those Kryptonite-green eyes of his with long, dark spikes for lashes that had, once upon a time, made her knees weak, her breath stutter, and her will to walk away nearly falter.
As he pulled off the beard and hat, staring at her like he’d just seen a ghost, he looked just how she felt.
He said her name as one might if she’d accidentally walked into the wrong room or got caught snagging a bagel from the meeting tray early, or . . . or even the way Wesley had the other night after he’d proposed. Eden? Did you hear me? Eden?
“Cole?” was all she managed to croak in reply. Dear God. It was him. Eight years older. Eight years better. His face—always handsome—had an angled beauty to it now with his patrician profile and sun-burnished skin. Tiny lines around his eyes—from squinting in the sun or laughing—only made him look . . . hotter. Where was the fairness in that?
“Mom! Mom! Did you see me?” Quinn was practically hovering above the packed snow, he looked so excited. “I was skiing! I learned how to snowplow and everything.” Frankly, she’d been worried he’d hate it. But no such thing.
Pulling her gaze between them, Eden smiled and opened her arms. Quinn skied in for a hug. Again, an event as rare as a blue moon, lately. “I saw you up there. You were awesomely awesome.”
He beamed. “Cole says I did really good. Cole says I could be on the green runs on my next lesson if I want.”
She looked back at the man she’d walked away from so long ago. “Is that right?” It was probably just the cold that had her feeling all shivery inside. Or not . . .
“He’s a natural. Your son.” Cole’s gaze dropped deliberately to her left hand. Her bare, left hand, then slid back upward. “I didn’t connect the dots ’til now. I guess I’m just surprised to see you here, Eden.”
“Ditto.” Oh. God. Ditto? You’re such an idiot. “I mean,” she corrected, “well, we’re here on vacation. A skiing vacation. At least for Quinn. I mean, I’m lounging in the lodge, sipping coffee and reading while he’s . . .” He was waiting patiently for her to finish. She swallowed hard. “And you? You’re still—”
“—skiing?” He nodded. “I guess some things never change, huh?”
Though he said this with a bit of sarcasm, skiing was technically, mostly why they’d broken up eight years ago, she thought. But things had been much more complicated than that. And here he was. Still the same dreamer he was then. His life and ambition still ruled by snow.
Quinn leaned in. “Hey, Mom, do you know him?”
Tugging at the ends of her scarf, she admitted, “We . . . we used to know each other. It was a long time ago.” But his handsomeness, that scruff on his chin was distracting her. “Don’t you think you should—” she pointed at the white fluff in his hand, “—cover up? I mean, disguise yourself with that beard? For appearances sake?”
In reply, he stuffed the thing in the pocket of his coat. “Quinn here says he doesn’t believe in Santa. So, I guess I’m not breaking any fourth wall by taking it off.”
Sarcasm again? She couldn’t be sure.
“But,” he went on, “I told him none of us here on the hill are the real Santa. That old guy doesn’t make his rounds until Christmas Eve.” To which her son laughed and the two of them shared a complicated fist bump, finger-wag, high-five that they’d clearly choreographed earlier. Some inside joke between them.
She exhaled and an unintentional peep of distress emanated from her throat. “Quinn, honey, why don’t you go stack your skis over there, and I’ll be right with you. We’ll go get some hot chocolate and warm up”
He looked ready to stay all day with his new best friend. But he sighed and said, “Okay. Bye, Cole. See you tomorrow?”
“You bet, Q. You did good.”
Quinn puffed up proudly and pushed away with his poles toward the outdoor ski stacking area.
“Um . . . What was that?” she asked Cole, trying to sound off-handed.
Bending down to pop the bindings on his boots, he’d gathered up the skis and took the opportunity to study her face. “What was what?”
“That . . . secret handshake, finger-wave thing you and Quinn did?”
“No secret. Just something I do with the kids to make them feel more comfortable.”
“Like calling him Q?”
He shrugged. “Nicknames, joking around . . . it takes their mind off the skiing while they learn how.”
“So, nothing to do with trying to convince him that Santa is, in fact, a real thing.”
“Not my job,” he said, shifting the skis in his arms. “But how old is he? Seven? Said he doesn’t believe in the Easter bunny or the tooth fairy, either. A little young to be so skeptical, isn’t he?”
“Quinn is . . . he’s smart and . . . pragmatic and—”
“Pragmatic. Huh. Big word for a little kid.”
And the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree was what he must be thinking, Eden mused. She bit her lip to keep from pointing out that all her pragmatism had her here on vacation at a five-star resort in the High Sierras, while he was still teaching at ski school wearing Santa costumes. But that sort of jab fell under the category of unnecessary roughness. “And your point is?”
He looked away, up the hill. “Just that kids his age will believe just about anything you tell them. Even if it’s just something that’s a little bit magical.”
Magical? What good was magic if it simply disappointed you when you found out it was just a trick? No good. That’s what. She still remembered getting busted for believing in Santa at eleven, and all her classmates laughing at her. But her parents—with the best of Christmas-y intentions—had steadfastly perpetuated the myth, until her local neighborhood bully, Kevin Mitchell, had not so kindly disabused her of it. “I don’t believe in lying to my son.”
He nodded, as if conceding the point. “Fair enough. He’s definitely on board the No such thing as Santa train. We just decided for the sake of the younger kids, that he’d go along with the idea of Santa. You know. Pretend?”
She flattened a look at him. “I do remember pretend,” she said. “And don’t worry. He won’t tell the others. He’s very kind that way.”
“I could see that about him,” Cole said. “Must get that from his dad.”
She wrinkled her nose at his pointed dig. But quite possibly, that was true.
He shrugged as if none of it mattered one bit. “But hey, you did what you had to. What was right for you. And so did I.”
But she’d never quite gotten over feeling wrong about it all. It was only fair that he still held onto a little bitterness about her. Which she absolutely deserved.
But he had been great with Quinn. All she had to do was remember the look on her son’s face to realize how long it had been since he’d looked really happy. Never once had Wesley—the man who supposedly wanted to become Quinn’s father—elicited that kind of joy in her son. And Cole had managed it all in the matter of what? An hour?
But then, we are talking about Cole Hagan. The guy everyone—including her, once upon a time—loved. Following his heart and the winter season. Determined to be a ski bum for life. Except that he looked happy too.
As if she’d spoken those thoughts aloud, he grinned at her in that infuriating way he used to when he seemed to mysteriously read her mind. But that was hardly possible. He didn’t even know her anymore.
“You look good, Eden. And he’s a great kid. You and your husband must be proud of him.”
Her uncharitable thoughts skidded to a halt. “I—uh . . . thank you. I am very proud of him.”
His gaze raked over her for a long, pregnant moment. “He here with you? Your husband? I’d like to meet the guy who replaced me.”
She wound her fluffy pink scarf around her neck a couple more times. “Actually. I’m . . . a single mom.”
Cole’s eyes widened, but as he opened his mouth to say something, a beautiful, red-haired ski instructor dressed like Mrs. Claus swooshed to a hard stop beside him, showering them with icy bits before grabbing his arm for balance. Frankly, she didn’t look like she needed help with balance, so it was clearly all for show. She did, however, manage a flirty smile for Cole.
“Look at you, all decked out. Slumming today?” Cat asked, eyeing Eden curiously.
Did Cat mean slumming with her? She resisted narrowing a look at her.
“Santa,” he replied, “never slums. Filling in for Kip.”
“Lucky little grasshoppers,” she murmured, giving Eden the up and down. Awkwardness ensued for a moment or two as Eden considered her escape route. “Oh. Sorry. Hi, I’m Cat,” she said, thrusting her hand at Eden. “Didn’t mean to barge in.”
“No—” Eden began, taking her hand. “We were just—”
“Cat, this is Eden Kendall, an old . . . friend of mine.”
Or something like that.
“Eden. Nice to meet you.”
“Sorry, Cole,” Cat apologized again, leaning against him with a provocative swoop. “But I’ve been trying to find you to talk about our gig at the concert.”
Eden might have imagined the discomfort in his expression as he flicked a look at her.
“Cat, why don’t you meet me at Granger’s office, and we can—”
Seizing her opportunity, Eden insisted, “No, no, I was just leaving anyway. You two . . . talk or whatever it is you’re doing. Thanks for Quinn’s lesson, Cole. It was . . . really nice to see you again.” And before it got any more awkward, she turned on her Ugg boot heel and headed back to the lodge where Quinn was waiting for her.
But before she’d gone five feet, he called after her, “See ya around, Eden.”
Against her better judgment, she turned back and waved. “Y-uh-huh. Sure.” But under her breath, she murmured, “Maybe.” As she walked, she squeezed her eyes shut for the idiot she was. For the way her heart was racing. For not just saying no. No, you will not be seeing me around. Or having a drink together. No, you will not remind me that Wesley’s kisses have never done to me what yours used to and—
She balled her fists with a groan of frustration.
Ohhh! Too late. She’d already remembered how the delicious slide of his mouth against hers had felt. The scent of the mountains on his skin. The taste of his tongue against hers.
Snow crunched under her feet as she hurried toward the lodge. And she couldn’t shake the picture of that irreverent grin of his. The one that held some secret he’d likely never share, clearly best utilized on the lovely Mrs. Claus—good old Cat (Katrina? Catherine? Cat on a Hot Tin Roof?) who was, even as she risked a look back, hanging all over him. His girlfriend? Probably.
See you around?
Not likely. Just what she didn’t need was to get distracted by Cole Hagan with that sexiness of his all packed into a hot Santa suit and that mouth of his, making her think about his kisses. The taste of his lips . . . all salty and sweet from a fast run down the hill and . . .
The thought momentarily disoriented her, and she stopped and turned in a half circle, looking for the entrance she’d lost. She found Quinn, waving at her from inside. Pasting a smile on her face, she waved back. No, she would not be seeing Cole Hagan again on this little working vacation of hers. And there would definitely be no kissing.
Definitely. Not a chance.