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CHAPTER 1


The wind whipped down Main Street, stirring up gusts of snow that swirled and danced in the glow of the lamplights and landed on the fresh spruce wreaths secured to each post by a red velvet ribbon. Inside Sugar and Spice, the air was warm and fragrant, the music low but festive, and the mood positively cheerful.

Well, mostly cheerful.

Each morning, when Kara Hastings tied on her crisp cotton apron and started her first batch of cookies for the day, she felt energized and excited, but by the time dusk fell, she struggled to remember what she had been thinking, starting her own bakery right before the holiday rush.

Nonsense. This is what she had wanted! A cookie business all her own. Days spent in the kitchen, creating new flavors and taste-testing samples. But hours upon hours on her feet were taking a toll and oh, how she longed to snuggle under her warm duvet, pop in a Christmas movie, maybe pour a little eggnog, and—

Nope. No time for that. Not when she planned to get a head start on her gingerbread house kits tonight. Her sister-in-law Grace had offered to sell some at Main Street Books, and Briar Creek’s first annual Holiday Bazaar was just days away. Kara had envisioned dozens of gingerbread kits, all wrapped and ready for sale, tied with a big satin bow, and trays upon trays of cookies in every shape and flavor.

Kara eyed her display case with a critical eye. She’d nearly sold out again, and she’d box up the rest for a late-night snack, if she didn’t collapse into bed before she had a chance to pop the top. She frowned, thinking of the nightmare she’d had last night where she spilled the flour canister and couldn’t find any more to replace it, and then she’d mixed the sugar with the salt… And then people stopped coming by and she had to close the business.

It was just what they all assumed would happen, Kara thought as she bit into a chewy oatmeal cookie. It tasted sweet and buttery with hints of cinnamon and spice. Her father’s favorite, she recalled, conjuring up a murky memory of mixing dough with him in the kitchen. He didn’t cook, and he was lousy at cleaning up, but he loved making cookies with his three children, especially at Christmas.

Kara smiled sadly to herself when she thought of her dad. It was because of him that she had this place and because of him that she worked as hard as she did to make it a success.

She swallowed the last bite of cookie, wiped her hands on her apron, and looked up at the ceiling. “Oatmeal spice. Just for you, Dad.”

She turned the sign on the front door to CLOSED and marched back to the kitchen, just in time for the oven buzzer to alert her that the latest batch of gingerbread was ready. Sliding on her red ticking stripe oven mitts, she pulled the tray from the oven and began carefully transferring each piece of gingerbread to the cooling rack.

One down… four to go, she calculated as she popped the next sheet into the oven and set the timer, stifling a yawn with the back of her hand. Even with the multiple ovens, she’d be here for another couple of hours. She made a mug of peppermint hot chocolate and took a seat at one of the small tables in the storefront to work on the decoration part of her kits: clear plastic tubes filled with colorful sprinkles, packets of glistening gumdrops and other candies, and an instruction sheet she’d designed herself, complete with stamps of little gingerbread men dancing their way down the paper.

A knock on the door startled her and caused her to spill some candies on the floor. It wasn’t the first time she’d had to shoo away a last-minute customer hoping to pick up a quick item for a holiday party or school event. Flustered, she looked up to see her sister Molly waving through the glass, her hand covered in a thick red mitten that was nearly the same color as her nose. Kara hurried to unlock the door and let her in.

“I didn’t think you were coming back until tomorrow!” she said excitedly. She could still feel the chill on her sister’s wool coat when they hugged.

“I decided to come back a day early.” Molly grinned at her as she pulled back. Her blue eyes lit up as she looked around the room. “Wow, you’ve done a lot with this place since the last time I saw it.”

It was true. In the three months since she’d signed the lease, Kara had gradually added to the shop, slowly bringing it to life. For the holiday season, she’d decorated with a candy cane theme, focusing on glittering red and pink ornaments that went nicely with her pink and white logo. Most customers picked up cookies to take home, but a few liked to stay and enjoy them. This made her nervous at first, but she was yet to hear a complaint, and now she looked forward to the company.

Someday she’d like to hire an assistant, someone to manage the storefront while she did the baking in the kitchen. But for now, until she could afford it, she was on her own.

In every possible way, she thought a bit sadly. One by one her friends and family members were pairing off, getting married, and she… well, she was still waiting for Mr. Right, even if she’d long ago stopped looking.

She shook away the thought. She was getting sentimental. The holidays were good for doing that. It was too easy to notice all the couples cozily holding hands as they walked down Main Street or shared a cookie in her shop, arguing over which one to try. Too easy to then notice how quiet her apartment was, night after night.

She supposed she should be grateful she was so busy. She was almost too busy to notice. Almost.

“I guess that’s what I get for not coming home for Thanksgiving.” Molly flashed a rueful smile and brushed past Kara to the glass display case, which was mostly cleared out by this hour. Snow still rested on her red knit hat as she shook her head and bent down to admire one of Kara’s newest Christmas offerings. “These gingerbread houses are too cute. Such detail!”

Kara grinned. She took special care in making sure each one was unique. It kept things interesting, and also helped her to challenge herself. She was learning as she went, experimenting, really, and she had a long road in front of her. Hopefully.

“Will you make me one?” Molly asked, turning to give her a hope-filled smile, and Kara burst out laughing. The youngest of the three siblings, Molly had never been shy to ask for what she wanted. But this was one time Kara was putting her foot down. Time was getting away from her, and the holiday demands were more stressful than she’d prepared herself for. Even if some of it, like the gingerbread houses, was of her own doing.

“If I have any left over after Christmas, then yes, you can have one.” The chances of it weren’t likely, though. She’d originally made this one for her counter, just for decoration, but the reaction she’d had from the customers had opened up a new possibility, and a whole lot of work to boot. She was now selling at least a few a day, in addition to her kits and cookie sales.

 
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