Christmas Chances by Hope Malory

Chapter 1

“You aren’t going to believe what happened.”

Mia Loughry stopped unloading supplies from her car parked in the paved lot behind her café when Mandy approached. She trudged through the last layer of fall leaves. No spring to her step or vibrant face ready to share the latest news. A chill went through Mia. Her friend, one of the sweetest women she knew in Azalea Valley, must’ve met with trouble.

“After all this time building our shops into thriving, successful businesses, Miss Mary and I got notices late yesterday the owner of our building won’t renew our leases.” Mandy’s breath sent white wisps into the crisp, clean air.

Before Mia could reply, Mandy continued. “The new owner is kicking us out. We have to vacate by the end of the year. Only four-and-a-half weeks and during the Christmas holidays too. Can you believe it?”

Mia’s jaw dropped. She was losing her friends, her neighboring tenants. Worse for them. They would lose their dreams and sources of income. Miss Mary’s Bakery, Mandy’s Flowers, and her own Yellow Butterfly Café sitting ten feet away were icons known throughout the area.

“Are you serious? Oh, Mandy, I’m so sorry. Can the landlord do that?”

“Apparently. This would never happen if Mr. Newton were still alive, but his son sees dollar signs. This won’t be a very merry Christmas.”

“What will he do with the building?” Mia asked, worried he might tear down the classic structure.

“My friend on the city council said he’s selling to an investor who plans to build a hotel. Can you imagine in the middle of Main Street? They’re going to gut the interior of the original buildings, add extra floors, and extend the back. The posh new place will have a modern restaurant and bar. And a Starbucks. They bring in the crowds, you know.”

Mia’s pulse raced. She had worked at the café since she was old enough to earn a paycheck, and now she could lose customers. “That is ridiculous. No freaking way can we let this happen,” she argued hoping to calm her scattered nerves.

“Of course, we’ll try, but I’m not sure how much we can do in one month, especially at Christmastime. We’ll talk later.” With hunched shoulders and head down, Mandy plodded next door to her flower shop.

Mia rushed in, unlocked the door, and scanned the welcoming space, foregoing her usual morning brisk walk to counteract the extra pounds she often added during the holidays. No walking today. Not with the bombshell Mandy dropped. Sure, the hotel would be shiny and new. They’d offer modern amenities she couldn’t compete against. In comparison, her café was dated, but the building had character. Transoms, arched windows along the front, and thick brick walls. They don’t make them like they used to.

Dark sky-blue tablecloths with yellow butterflies graced the tables. Collected over time, the antique blue and white dishes her mama had randomly hung on toile wallpaper filled the back wall. A softer shade of blue paint covered the remaining three walls as part of a redecoration project when her mother had purchased and renamed the place almost twenty years ago. So many memories since she was nine with no worries except cracking a dozen eggs without leaving shells in the bowl.

She traipsed to the kitchen, hung her coat in the storage closet, and shoved her purse on a shelf above the boxes of Christmas ornaments she’d pulled out of the attic yesterday. With a deep weariness, she returned to the dining room and plopped at a table. She loved this place. Why did things have to change?

The café and her customers were her sanctuary. The image of her hometown turning into one of those tourist towns made her cringe, especially if the other owners, her friends, were forced to leave Azalea Valley.

Mia checked the schoolhouse clock on the wall above the checkout counter. She should be in the kitchen frying bacon for the breakfast crowd.Instead, the sliver of anger that had begun with Mandy’s revelation took hold. She dropped her head into her hands and fumed.

This was not the first time an investor had tried to come in and modernize in the name of progress. Azalea Valley was a prime tourist destination in the foothills of the Smokies. Their former Mayor, city council members, and residents had opposed the efforts, and they retained the reputation as one of the best small towns to live in Tennessee. The new officials’ only interest was in the revenue a hotel might generate.

“Morning, honey.”

So deep in concentration, she didn’t hear her mom enter the room. Mia jumped, spun in her chair, and met her mother’s gaze. “Blazes, you scared the daylights out of me.”

She walked over and kissed Mia on the top of the head.

“Is everything all right? You look awful.” She cocked her head and propped her fists on her ample hips, a familiar gesture since Mia often did the same.

People told her, sometimes to her dismay and sometimes to her delight, she was just like her mama. “Thanks, I love you too.” She smirked. “Sit down. We need to make a plan.”

The creases between her mother’s eyebrows deepened. “Whatever for?”

“There’s a new hotel coming to town. Right beside us.” She repeated the rest of Mandy’s story. “. . . then out of nowhere, they got the notices and have to be out by the end of December.”

Arms crossed, her mother shook her head. “I’m glad I bought this building, or we’d be facing the same situation. Where would townspeople go to share their stories, celebrate their successes, or spread gossip? The problem is Azalea Valley isn’t big enough even with out-of-towners to support another restaurant, and vacationing tourists would flock to the bar.”

“What will they do?” Mia asked, worried about her neighbors.

“Oh, Miss Mary will probably close the bakery and retire, don’t you imagine? I hate it for Mandy. Few buildings are available to rent in town. None suitable to open a new flower shop. With online ordering and the new floral section now at Mountain Market, she might not make it much longer, anyway. All these bigger businesses come in and push out the little guys. It’s infuriating.”

“Mama, what can we do? We all stopped it once, and we need to stop this.”

“You bet we’ll fight this, but it will be more of a battle this time.” The familiar smile around her eyes and mouth faded, and a frown appeared.

“Thanks for filling in for Judi until she’s healed enough to come back.”

“Any time, honey. I miss seeing everybody. Let’s get busy and put those biscuits in the oven.”

Standing beside her mother cooking was like old times. Almost like breathing, they moved in harmony to prepare the dough, roll the biscuits out, cut them, and place them onto the baking sheets. After Mia popped them into the oven, she hustled to the pantry for ingredients for chocolate chip and streusel muffins. While she stirred in chocolate chips and walnuts, she stared into the bowl of lumpy batter for answers. What could they do to preserve the café?

Charlotte Loughry, or Coach as most people called her, would not stand idly by. Not if she acted as she had during hundreds of softball games. They’d be a team, all right. Mia loved the current version of Azalea Valley.

While her mama finished prepping for the rest of the breakfast, she started the coffeemaker and made tea for the true Southerners who drank sweet iced tea even with the morning meal. She often did herself.

At opening time, she stood at the front windows wondering what Main Street would look like by next Christmas. Instead of the familiar shops, Main Street might have a hotel next door with the extension taking up a chunk of the rear parking lot and the added floors towering over other businesses. How many floors? What other changes would developers try to make?

The town exuded community spirit especially this time of year. Across the street to the left, a holly wreath with an enormous plaid bow hung on the beauty salon door. A red Radio Flyer wagon filled with colorfully wrapped packages sat beside the entrance. A lighted garland surrounded the double doors to the new knit shop that recently moved in across the street. In the next block, a life-size nativity scene graced the front lawn of the library. Last week, the city had attached bows to the light posts and draped twinkling lights on the trees that lined both sides of the street-alerting everyone it was mid-November and past time to decorate the café. When a couple strolled hand in hand by the window laughing and talking like long-time lovers, an intense yearning struck. She switched the sign to OPEN and unlocked the door.

Within minutes, the bell jangled, and Buck Chance, the man who often slipped into her dreams disturbing her sleep and leaving her wanting him even more, walked in with Blake McLemore. Her nerve endings tingled. “Well, look who’s here. Two of my favorite people.” When she gazed into Buck’s piercing brown eyes she was lost.

“I’ll bet you say that to all the guys.” The sexy way he smiled at her caused goosebumps. Was his knowing, inviting look reserved only for her?

She’d said those words to a few select people, but these two truly were dear to her heart. Blake because she had known him and his family forever, and he had saved lives, maybe including hers last year. And Buck because . . . Well, for the last two years, he’d come into the café two or three times a week and flirted with her. She secretly hoped he would ask her out someday.

Her pulse raced faster than a mixer on speed nine. She took a deep breath. “No, I don’t say things I don’t mean. Breakfast specials for two handsome men?”

Buck leaned toward her and ran his knuckles down her forearm. “I’d sure like to have something special for breakfast.”

Her body heat ratcheted up ten degrees. She smiled at him and held eye contact longer than usual. “Comin’ right up.” Twenty-nine and she was still unmarried. How could she make her interest in more than flirting obvious? If he didn’t take the hint . . . Then what? A line of men weren’t waiting to ask her out. Of the few eligible guys in town, none interested her. Even in the nearby towns, how would she ever meet anyone? By design, she swiveled her hips as she walked away.

She placed the orders, poured two cups of coffee, and returned to their table speaking to Blake first. “How are the kids?”

He grinned. “Noah loves his big brother role. The twins run me ragged trying to keep up with feeding, dirty diapers, and rocking them to sleep. Krystan has a handle on it.”

“Tell her to bring them in soon. Are you guys running the Boston Marathon again in April?”

Buck answered, “Planning on it.”

“I couldn’t run two blocks to the ice cream shop.” Mia slid her hands down her hips. “I’m so out of shape.”

Buck eyed her body like she gazed at a devil’s food cake with extra thick icing. “I like your shape just fine.”

“Why, thank you,” she finally managed to say. She changed the subject to keep from drooling all over him. “I need cheering up. It’s been a lousy day so far.”

“How can I help my favorite lady?” Buck asked. “Lay it on me. I have broad shoulders.”

“Yes, I noticed.” She’d like the chance to run her hands over those broad shoulders. “Old man Newton’s son is sellin’ the property next door out from under Mandy and Miss Mary. They must be out by the end of the year. Of all things, the buyer is planning to put in a boutique hotel.”

“Has he already sold it?” Blake asked.

“I don’t think so.”

“Then we have time to stop it. Spread the word.”

“I intend to. I knew we could count on you. You don’t want Azalea Valley to change either.”

Buck took her hand. “Sorry, sweetie. Will this sale affect you?”

His touch and term of endearment sent a zing to her lady parts and made her forget his question. Oh, yeah, the sale. “The hotel’s restaurant, bar, and possibly a Starbucks will in all likelihood take away some of my business.”

“Well, we can’t have that. Count on me to help.”

“Awe, that’s so sweet. How can I thank you?”

Buck arched his eyebrows. “I’ll think of something.”

She winked. “Thanks, and you too, Blake.” She resisted the temptation to sweep a stray lock of Buck’s blond hair from his forehead before she left to greet other customers.

She took the coffeepot to a table and refilled the cups of four retired gentlemen who came in at least three times a week. Thankful for their regular business, she made a point to speak to them during the couple of hours they stayed and argued politics and sports.

Today, the Baptist preacher, Joey Stewart, a University of Alabama alumnus and vocal fan of his alma mater’s football team, brought his two-year-old grandson who sported a huge black eye.

“That’s quite a shiner. What happened?”

“He called me an Auburn fan.”

She shook her head. “You guys crack me up. There’s a world out there beyond sports and politics.”

“Not much worth talking about,” Pastor Stewart said. “Actually Lorrie flipped up a leaf on a folding table not knowing the boy was around and clipped him under the eye. She felt so bad.”

“I imagine. He’s a cutie.” With his blond hair and blue eyes, he could pass for her son. Until the last few years, Mia hadn’t considered having children since her own childhood had been less than ideal, but now she could almost hear her biological clock ticking. She absolutely wanted marriage and a baby.

Mia returned to the kitchen and spoke to her mom. “Blake and Buck said they would help us try to block the sale.”

“Respectable young men. Appears you’re a little sweet on Buck.”

“I wouldn’t mind going out with him, but he won’t ask.”

“Maybe I need to tell him to get off his duff and take you out on a date.”

She crossed her arms. “Mama, don’t you dare.”

“Probably wouldn’t, but I want grandchildren before I’m too old to enjoy them, and you aren’t getting any younger.”

She couldn’t deny the truth. Next September she’d hit thirty. How was that possible? “Gee, thanks.” Sometimes her mom drove her crazy, but she had sacrificed so much for her when she was little. For them both. Her love compensated for the unsolicited advice and pointed comments. Except for her mother, Mia had no relatives other than a father somewhere—if he was still alive. It had taken her a long time to realize not all men were like her dad. A lot of the guys in town were wonderful husbands and fathers.

She balanced two plates on one arm and clutched the coffee pot with her free hand. As soon as she brought the orders to Blake and Buck’s table, a stranger breezed in, tall and built like a working man who kept in killer shape. Distracted, she almost overfilled Blake’s cup. “Sorry.” She pivoted and strolled up to the hunk. Mmm, his muscles stretched the fabric of his shirt.