Her Christmas Kisses (Rainbow Cove Christmas, #2)
One gourmet party. Four potential couples. The taste of love?
Devastated by her parents’ divorce and the impending sale of the family restaurant, Flick Ardmore is determined to find the money to buy the restaurant herself. She doesn’t expect to find herself stranded in Rainbow Cove with no car, no work, and no prospect of success.
Xander McIntyre, owner of the luxury Rainbow Cove Resort, is a workaholic developer with a looming deadline hindered by the arrival of his young special needs sister, Jenny.
When Flick connects with Jenny, it seems like the perfect solution to both their problems – if only Flick and Xander can ignore the undeniable spark between them. Or will their building attraction cause more problems than it solves?
Flick Ardmore unlocked the back door and turned on the lights in the kitchen of Pecorino. Stainless steel gleamed and light glinted off her baking tools hanging on the rack her father had installed in her corner of the family kitchen. Her kingdom. Her gaze landed on the German mixing machine in pride of place on the counter. A little burst of pride blossomed in her chest like the spray of flowers on the engagement cake she’d delivered yesterday. The mixer had cost a week’s wages, but it was a marker of her progress towards achieving her dream.
Flick’s savings were nowhere near enough to buy her parents out yet, but Dad had estimated five years before they were ready to retire. Then the best family-run restaurant in Brisbane’s east side would become her top-end patisserie. Would her parents be happy helping out part time, or would they do the grey nomad thing for a while?
No. She could imagine Mum’s response to that suggestion: Felicity, why on earth would you think I have any desire to eat dust with every meal?
After washing her hands and donning her apron, Flick checked the running list for the day. Leading up to Halloween, she needed to bake more orange and dark chocolate cakes for Pecorino and she had an order to fill for one of Brisbane’s upmarket Southbank restaurants.
Through the kitchen window the glow of pre-dawn intensified into a band of gold that lit a bank of low clouds. The sight lifted her spirits and she turned optimistically back to her morning routine. Better get the ovens on and the cakes in before Dad arrives.
She bit her bottom lip. Dad would arrive in his vintage VW with a cheery toot of the horn, and Mum would follow thirty minutes later in the delivery van. Her mother’s first words would probably be: Felicity, why haven’t you finished those biscuits. Really, must I do everything for this business? She’d follow that with a lingering look at Dad. A look full of censure and anger and disappointment. A look that had become more common over the past couple of months.
Flick wrapped her arms around her waist, hating the burn like bad indigestion racing from her stomach to her throat. Lately when her parents were together, Flick could cut the tension with a boning knife.
She headed into the cold room and assembled the ingredients for the special order, including a light, blood-red paste she’d prepared last night to create a spider-web pattern through the layers of vanilla cake. Focusing her mind on the design for the special order, she returned to the kitchen and set the first cake layer on a board.
Hinges creaked as the back door opened, and she glanced up. Her father stood in the doorway. Still, silent, sad. He didn’t enter the kitchen.
‘The ovens are heating, Dad, and I’ve started the special order—’ Her words died, along with her voice.
Her father leaned against the doorjamb as though, if he moved an inch, the building would collapse. His head shook like a bobble-head toy in slow motion, up-and-down, side-to-side, useless, winding down, drained of energy, hope, joy.
Dad’s face was pale beneath his stubble and his hollow eyes, and he looked older than his fifty-five years. Older than Yoda and as weak as Benjamin Button at either end of his life. But it was the expression in his eyes that would haunt her dreams.
Lost, lonely and unloved.
Flick set the thin-bladed knife on the counter and gripped the squared edge. She tightened her grip until her fingers turned white and the metal dug a ridge in her palm.
Only something wrong with her mother could put that expression on her father’s face.
‘What’s happened? Is it Mum?’ Her parents’ love affair was the stuff of Flick’s other dreams. Dreams that had taken a battering when her jerk of an ex-boyfriend Jason had dumped her. She aspired to a love like theirs. One day. Swallowing against bile rising in her throat, she forced herself to stay upright. ‘Has something happened to Mum?’
He shook his head again. A muscle jumped in his cheek. Slowly, as though he was the Tin Man working oil into his rusted jaw, he opened, closed, opened his mouth. Words dropped like pebbles, pinging like hail on a tin roof.
‘Your mother is divorcing me. And she’s served me with a court order. I’m not allowed to enter Pecorino.’
They faced each other across the picnic table at the rear of the restaurant, neither one able to meet the other’s eyes. The folded beach umbrella cast a long shadow across her father’s chest.
Divorce. D-I-V-O-R-C-E. The act of breaking apart a marriage.
Flick’s brain froze around the word. ‘How, Dad? Why? This happens to other people, not to you and Mum.’
‘Apparently, it does. I knew she wasn’t happy, but …’ Dad looked up at last, and his hands made a vague gesture. He looked helpless, hopeless—
The pain in her strong and dependable father’s expression hit Flick like a kick in the guts. ‘I thought you were happy, in love. It’s your thirtieth wedding anniversary next month.’ She had planned a cake shaped like an oyster for their pearl celebration.
Her father dropped his head into his hands. ‘She said she needs to find herself, whatever the hell that means. Probably that she’s bored by our life together, all that we’ve achieved.’ He turned towards the building and exhaled a shaky breath. ‘I’m barred from entering the restaurant in any capacity. Flick, I don’t know what I’ll do without the restaurant.’
‘And home—has she kicked you out of the house too?’
‘Yes. I’ve asked Charlie down at the bay if I can stay in his fishing hut for the time being.’
The sound of tyres crunching over the gravel drive gave Flick brief warning before the delivery van pulled up behind Ruby, her small, ancient, but freshly painted red sedan. Her mother got out of the car and strode towards them.
‘Felicity, why aren’t you inside baking today’s orders? And you—’ She turned eyes like chips of granite on her husband. ‘You’re barred from the premises. You need to leave now or I’ll call for the police to escort you off.’
Her father lifted his head as though weighed down by an anchor and looked at her mother.
Without hope. Without care. Without passion.
‘I didn’t set foot inside the restaurant.’
Oh God, his voice … emotionless. Flick stared at his blank expression, seeking a trace of her passionate, caring father.
‘The court order includes the outside area. You aren’t allowed on the property at all.’ Her mother folded her arms and glared.
At last Flick understood. The love between her parents had died, and at this moment, she hated her mother for turning her father into a broken man.
Flick stood, untied her apron and dragged it over her head. ‘Pecorino is us, all three of us, and I can’t work here if Dad isn’t welcome.’
Essie Ardmore folded her arms and pinned Flick with a look that told her more than words ever could. Her mother was miffed at most. Not sad or angry or surprised or any of a dozen emotions that suggested a connection between mother and daughter.
Miffed negated every sense of security, of belonging that Flick had ever believed in. ‘I’ll collect my utensils and leave too. If Dad isn’t welcome here, neither am I.’ She might not be welcome, but her heart wrenched at the thought of leaving the restaurant.
‘Do as you wish. You’ve always been your father’s daughter. You might as well pack your gear from home too. Both the house and restaurant are going on the market today. They’re both in my name.’ Flick froze. For a heartbeat that expanded, pounded and filled her ears with a rush of blood that made her dizzy. All that Flick thought she knew of her mother vanished with those words. This woman with the outward appearance of Flick’s mother was a stranger.
‘You’re selling Pecorino?’ Her voice was flat, disconnected from emotion, distanced from pain.
‘Of course. I need my share of money from both sales to get away from here.’
Flick struggled to keep a note of pleading out of her voice. ‘If you’ll give me a little more time to save the deposit, I’d like to buy the business. Will you do that for me?’
Her mother shrugged, the action uncaring. ‘Do what you want. If it hasn’t sold by then, I’ll sell it to you. I don’t care who I sell it to. Frankly, I don’t know why you’d want such a damned millstone around your neck, but you’re more like your father every day. He likes being tied down to one place too.’ Without a goodbye, her mother climbed into the van and backed out of the driveway. Out of Flick’s life.
‘Sweetheart, I’m sorry about …’
‘You have nothing to be sorry for, Dad.’
‘But I have. Now you’ve got no home and no job. I should have tried harder, done more, though God knows what.’ He hugged her, rocking a little as she held him close.
Dragging in a deep breath, Flick eased out of his arms. ‘Since you’re heading to the Bay, I might head south for a break. Maybe go to Newcastle for a bit. If I can save enough for a deposit, we can reopen Pecorino. Dad? We’ll keep Pecorino going—together.’
Xander McIntyre had the door of the taxi open before it came to a complete stop at the western entrance to the Rainbow Cove shopping centre. He handed over two fifty-dollar notes. ‘Keep the change.’
‘Thanks.’ The taxi driver’s eyes lit up as he tucked the notes into a tatty, faded-black wallet. ‘Thanks a lot, mate.’
Xander nodded, slammed the door and strode around the back of the vehicle towards the far lane of the car park. He’d have known where to find the accident, even without the police information. A crowd had gathered midway down the lane, shoppers returning to their cars, passers-by drawn like vultures to a carcass. Overhead, a police helicopter veered away, and a news chopper edged into the air space above the crowd.
Xander shouldered through the onlookers, lifted the fluttering yellow tape and ducked under it, bypassing a uniformed constable.
‘Stay back please, sir.’ The constable, young enough to pass for a school student, thrust a hand in front of Xander in a futile effort to stop him.
Fuelled by adrenaline and anger, Zander ignored him and pushed past until he reached his target. ‘That’s my car.’ He stab-pointed in the direction of the silver vehicle now meshed with a small, red, parked sedan. ‘It was stolen two hours ago from my hotel and—’
‘Mr McIntyre?’ A plain-clothes officer held up his ID, stepped between Xander and his car, and waved off the rookie uniform.
‘Yes. And you are?’
‘Detective John Wilkins. The PolAir helicopter located your vehicle when it was spotted speeding down the highway and followed it here. Could I have a few words with you now?’
Xander inhaled a calming breath. The detective’s intervention was smooth and low-key. He took another deep breath and tunnelled irritated fingers through his hair.
There was a process to follow, but the wasted time grated. Tamping down his impatience, he turned from his car to the detective. ‘What do you need to know?’
The time? Two hours ago.
Where the car was parked? In the secure parking of my resort hotel.
Your hotel? Yes, I own it.
Long minutes passed as Xander answered the detective’s questions, and passed on details supplied by his security team.
A forensics team worked methodically, taking every item from the vehicle and dusting the car and its contents for fingerprints before setting each item in a row on a drop sheet.
‘How long have you owned Rainbow Cove Resort?’
‘About twelve months. Renovations are ongoing. The secure car park where my car was taken from is yet to be upgraded.’
Somebody has a lot of explaining to do when I get back to the resort.
‘Something is always last in a project that size.’ Detective Wilkins jotted a note in his book.
Xander glanced at his watch. He was cutting it fine to arrange for another vehicle before his sister’s plane landed. ‘How long will you need my car?’
‘It will be towed to the police lock-up yard for further examination. Your insurer will most likely have a hire car option available in the interim, but, say, a week. Yours is repairable. Can’t say the same for the other vehicle.’ The detective scanned the bystanders and the wider view of the parking lot.
Xander glanced at the red car, sparing a pitying thought for its unknowing owner. He extracted a business card from his wallet. ‘Losing my car is a damned nuisance, but the other car’s copped the worst of it.’
‘Extra annoying, I guess, since your car was taken from your own premises.’
Xander handed over his card. ‘Do you have a card in case I need to contact you?’
‘Sure.’ Wilkins handed one over and tucked Xander’s into his wallet.
‘I’ll be launching a full investigation into how this occurred.’
Thank God it was my car and not one of my guests’.
How would his sister react when he showed up in an unfamiliar car? According to their mother, Jenny was less inclined to become agitated by change since her operation, but Xander remained sceptical. Until he saw her for himself, he’d do whatever he could to avoid a repeat of his sister’s nerve-wracking tantrums.
The detective turned to the second uniform. ‘Any news on the other car’s owner?’
‘Yes, sir.’ A female senior constable stepped forward, flipped open a notebook and thumbed over a few pages and read the details. ‘Felicity Ardmore. Last known address is in Brisbane, Queensland.’
Wilkins bent down and peered at the car’s crumpled front assembly. ‘So, Queensland plates could mean the owner is here on holiday.’ He beckoned the young constable over. ‘Go into the shopping centre and get them to put a call over the speaker system for the owner to come to her car.’
‘Yes, sir.’ The constable lifted the tape and ducked under it, shouldering through the crowd in the direction of the shopping centre.
A young woman with auburn hair and an armful of groceries emerged from behind an elderly couple holding a trolley with a giant assemble-it-yourself inflatable castle. She slipped under the tape and came to an abrupt halt. Glossy pink lips formed an O shape as she stared at the red car. For several heartbeats her gaze was glued to the point of impact before she turned a dark blue gaze on Xander.
‘You. What the hell have you done to my car?’