Excerpt from Tickle My Candy Cane

The apples were perfect - sweet, juicy, firm, and at the peak of their picking. Jonathan paused in peeling them to stare at the curling ribbons of skin already piled in the bowl. How those people at the farmers market managed to get the apples at their prime to sell baffled him. Like all raw fruits and vegetables, that window of superb quality was extremely narrow. But somehow he knew that anything they sold would be of equal perfection.

Damn if he could explain how he knew such a thing.

Looking up, he glanced out the window over the sink. Snow still fell in slow, light flakes. If it continued, there would probably be at least four more inches of fresh powder by morning. The market was on the other side of the trailer, but it was probably closed. Out of habit, he checked his watch. Yeah. Closing time was an hour ago.

She might be home by now. Does she live here in town? Or was she one of those farmers who came from out of town?

He started peeling the last apple, but the woman was foremost in his mind. Habit made him pause before he cut himself. His thoughts weren’t on the pie. They were on the beautiful redhead who had given him these apples.

In exchange for a slice of pie.

Which was why he was working on the dessert now instead of tomorrow. He and Lyle were supposed to remain here in Toppers Cove until Christmas Day, then drive back to Vermont on the twenty-sixth. Even with the market closed for the season, the tree lot would remain open on Christmas Eve. Hell, there were less than half a dozen trees left in the tent. Jonathan figured if they discounted them, those could be sold before noon.

And then I could take Tammy her slice of pie.

He reached back to feel his jeans pocket where he kept his wallet with the phone number safely tucked inside, needing to reassure himself that it was still there.

What if I called her tonight. Maybe ask her out. Surely there’s some place here in town that stays open after dark.

His thoughts were interrupted by the sound of something falling onto the floor. Curious, he turned around and stared down at the candy cane lying beside his boot. “Hello. Where did you come from?” Maybe I brushed up against someone’s decorations back at the market, and it accidentally attached itself to me. The reasoning sounded plausible enough, considering all the times he’d similarly found his back and rump sprinkled with fake snow and pine needles from the trees on the lot.

Jonathan bent over to pick it up. He started to lay it on the counter, prepared to forget it, when something told him to look again. It was a typical red and white peppermint stick, about six inches long. It took him another couple of seconds to realize what made it different.

Its stripes weren’t stripes. Instead, they were swirls. And curlicues. Thin and delicate looking, and almost filigree in design, as if the machine making the candy had suffered a creative glitch. Smiling, he laid the cane on the back of the sink and went back to the pie, and his thoughts returned to Tamberly.

Yep. That’s what he would do. If he pushed it, the pie would be ready within the hour. Then he could call her up with the excuse that he wanted to bring her the promised slice, and while he was there, find a way to ask her out. There was a chance she might even go out with him tonight, if there was something open where he could treat her.

The thought was tempting. In fact, it was becoming increasingly seductive, like a siren’s call, beckoning him. Beguiling. And damn him if he could figure out why. But there was no doubt in his mind he had to see her again. He had to learn more about her.

His mind raced frantically. He’d promised Uncle Morris he’d stay and help Lyle until after Christmas. It would take them a couple of days to get back to Vermont, then he could drive back here to see her again if their first date looked like it could go a second inning.

He remembered the young man who had passed her the paper and pen. Apparently the guy wasn’t her husband or boyfriend, or else he would have made it immediately clear the woman wasn’t available.

An image flashed in his mind’s eye. The man had been wearing a wedding band. Tammy didn’t. The guy was probably her brother, then, he figured, and a sense of relief swept through him.

“Tamberly.” It was an odd name, but it suited her. Tamberly, with the red hair that looked totally natural, and green eyes that were the same shade as the evergreens he sold. He remembered how she smelled like peppermint. Like Christmas candy. Jonathan glanced down at the candy cane sitting on the edge of the sink. The comparison made him smile, and he went back to peeling the remaining apple.

He would take special care making this pie. It would have to be the best damn pie he had ever made, or else he would permanently hang up his chef’s hat.

The door opened, and Lyle came inside, stomping the snow off his boots on the short steps at the last minute. “We got three left,” he announced with a grin, then sniffed. “Wow. Something smells good. What’s for supper?”

“Homemade pizza,” Jonathan told him. “Did you say there were only three trees left on the lot?”

“Yep. Sold two just as they were shutting the gates. Homemade pizza, huh? With pepperoni?”

“And mushrooms and onions, just the way you like it.”

Lyle hung his jacket on the hook by the door and parked himself in the padded bench next to the table. “What’s that you’re working on?”

“Apple pie. I thought I’d go ahead and fix it for Christmas.”

“Did I ever tell you you’d make someone a great wife some day?”

Jonathan paused long enough to give his cousin the finger before going back to his slicing. Lyle cackled.

“Where did you find apples? At the farmers market?”

“Yeah. I was lucky, too. There were some at the last stall. I got to talking to the woman there, and after I told her I was a professional chef, she gave me what she had left in exchange for a slice of pie.” He glanced back to see Lyle giving him an odd look. “What?”

“The last stall?” his cousin repeated.

“Yeah. Why?”

“What did the woman look like?”

“She was a gorgeous redhead. Said her name was Tamberly.” Jonathan frowned. “Why are you looking at me like that?”

Lyle scratched his head. “You promised her a slice of that pie in return for free apples?”

“Yeah. There’s nothing wrong with that, but you’re acting like I shouldn’t have taken her up on the offer. Why? Do you know the girl?”

“Not personally, no. But I know what I’ve heard, and she’s not good news.”

“Explain yourself.” Jonathan laid his knife on the counter and turned around to face his cousin, giving the man his full, undivided attention.

Lyle gave him a searching look. “Why should I explain myself? I’m just telling you the woman is bad news.” He shrugged. “So you promised her a piece of pie. No problemo. Take her the pie, and let it remain at that.”

“And what if I don’t intend to let it ‘remain at that’?” Jonathan challenged him. “What if I want to take her out to a movie or something?”

“I’m just saying, Jon, you would be doing yourself a whole lot of good to stay clear of her and her whole family, especially her old man, if you know what’s good for you.”

“That sounds vaguely like a threat.”

“Whatever.”

“No. No ‘whatever’.” Jonathan crossed his arms over his chest. “Give it to me straight, Lyle. I want to know that the hell you’re insinuating.”

“You’re not gonna believe me, even if I tell you.”

“Try me.”

“The woman’s a witch.”

“So what? She’s a redhead. And as far as I can tell, a genuine redhead. And we all know redheads are typically hot heads. But judging from what few words we exchanged, she seemed pretty sane to me.”

Lyle gave him a disgusted shake of his head. “You’re not listening. I said she was a witch. A real witch. You know, one of those broom-riding kind? And her father’s a warlock.”

Jonathan found himself with a stunned smile on his face. “Are you shitting me?”

“No. I’m dead fucking serious.”

“A witch?”

“Yeah.”

“And I’m supposed to stay clear of her?”

“Yep.”

“Why? Afraid she might put a spell on me or something?”

Lyle stared at him for a few moments. After a while, he threw up his hands in surrender. “Hey, it’s your ass you’re putting on the line, whether you believe me or not. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

“That’s right,” Jonathan acknowledged. “I’m a big boy now, and I appreciate the heads up, but I don’t see any harm in trying to be friendly. I take it she and her family are locals?”

“Yeah. They’ve been here for generations. They have a farm right outside of town. Blakeney Farms.”

Now that his cousin mentioned it, Jonathan recalled a sign hanging in the stall that had that name on it. “That explains the freshness of their produce,” he commented. Sensing the worst of their disagreement was over, Jonathan turned back to rolling out the pie dough. He could feel his cousin’s eyes still on his back. “Any final word of warning?” he casually asked.

“You’re just gonna take her the piece of pie, and that’s all, right?”

When Jonathan didn’t answer, Lyle tried again. “I mean, you’re not thinking of doing something stupid...are you?”

“Stupid as in what?”

“As in asking her out while you’re here.”

“That would be my business, wouldn’t it?” Jonathan countered.

“All right, but if things start looking, you know, freaky, don’t call me to come bail you out.”

Jonathan nodded. “Fair enough. Now go wash up. The pizza should be ready.”

Lyle got to his feet and pointed at the pie. “Will that be for dessert?”

“It depends,” Jonathan answered.

“On what?”

“On whether or not I can get a date tonight.”