Chapter One

Early December


Liam Adler buttoned his coat as he walked down the main street in Barstow, an icy wind freezing his cheeks. Cold weather didn’t normally bother him, but he’d forgotten how different winter days in Colorado could be from Pennsylvania.


In the distance, he caught sight of Ryan entering a storefront. Since it was mid-morning, Liam guessed his youngest brother was on a coffee break from the office Adler Inc. kept in Barstow. When the destination turned out to be Bella’s Bakery, his assumption proved correct.


The establishment looked new, but Liam hadn’t really spent any time in Barstow recently except for skiing at the resort, and despite being in town the last four weeks he hadn’t paid attention to the local businesses. The arduous task of finding a new normal after the sudden death of his father had consumed each day. His middle brother, Flynn, had fled back to California as soon as the funeral had ended, leaving Liam and Ryan to face the cutting grief of their mother each day.


He entered the bakery as Ryan was taking a seat at one of the small tables with a hot drink and pastry in hand. A handful of customers sat at the other tables, a festive Christmas vibe filling the air, and for a moment Liam felt joy rather than sadness.


The young dark-haired proprietress behind the counter looked like Bella Thatcher. The last time Liam had seen her was at the Reindeer Ball five years ago. It was also the last time he’d seen her cousin, Ellie. He’d pretended to be Ellie’s date to save her from the unwanted advances of Mark Osborn, a local boy Liam had never liked.


Liam knew the moment Bella recognized him because her amiable expression turned into a glare.


“Hi, Bella,” Liam said with a smile and a nod. He wanted to ask about Ellie: What was she up to? Had she finished art school and traveled abroad? Was she married?


There had been a time when his mother had known such details, but even she had lost track of the Thatcher kids over the past few years.


“I’m sorry about your father,” Bella said, her face softening with sympathy. “And I’m not trying to turn away business, but are you both trying to ruin mine?”


“You sold me the coffee,” Ryan said in his defense, but there was humor in his voice.


A blush crept onto Bella’s face, and she busied herself with something behind the counter. Liam looked at his brother and then at Bella and then back to Ryan.


He took a seat and said in a low voice, “Don’t let Gramps see you come in here.”


“You worry too much about what he thinks,” Ryan said, stirring cream into his coffee as his Adler blue eyes flashed in irritation. Liam and Ryan took after their mother with their blond hair, but the eye color was all from Theo Adler, patriarch of the family.


Despite a family feud between the Adlers and the Thatchers—courtesy of the grandfathers—it hadn’t kept Liam and his brothers from interacting with Ellie’s brothers, Jamie and Owen, and Bella’s brother, Mason, through the years. Or Liam with Ellie herself.


“Gramps would cut you out of the will as well as Adler Inc. if you so much as dated a Thatcher, let alone got serious, and God forbid, married one.”


“You’re moving awfully fast,” Ryan murmured as he sipped his drink.


“How long have you been eating pastries? Weeks? Months?”


Ryan sighed. “Too long. I need to start working out more.”


“If you two get serious, you’ll need to leave the country, you know. And she’s not leaving Reindeer Pass.” It was clear that Bella’s Bakery was a labor of love. There were too many special touches to doubt that.


“Thanks as always for your burning insight,” Ryan said, a sarcastic tone in his voice. “And we’re currently in Barstow.”


Liam chuckled quietly, welcoming the brief amusement of teasing his brother, as if life were as normal as ever and not turned upside down by the loss of their dad.


Barstow was adjacent to Reindeer Pass. Ryan’s argument was weak, and his brother knew it. The Adlers and Thatchers first settled in Reindeer Pass over a hundred years ago, and their descendants still lived there today—namely Bella and Ellie’s parents as well as Liam and Ryan’s mom, and of course the grandfathers and their wives.


“Now I know why you didn’t want to take over Adler Inc,” Liam said. “You want an escape route so you can date a Thatcher.”


Ryan glanced in Bella’s direction. “Maybe.”


Liam grabbed a piece of the cranberry tart from his brother’s plate and asked, “When do you plan to make your move?” He suppressed a moan as the sugary food melted in his mouth. “Damn, this is good.”


“I know,” Ryan agreed. “And I’ve been trying to work up the nerve, but Bella’s dislike of Adlers is well known.”


“She’s just been scared into it like the rest of us.” Liam suspected her grandfather was as bad as theirs in stoking the ongoing feud. “You’ll never know unless you ask her out, but if she says yes, I wouldn’t advertise it in case it goes nowhere. No reason to cause any more stress in the family.”


The shadowed cast of his brother’s gaze reflected Liam’s own grief.


Liam had been in town since Thanksgiving to support his mom, who had been reeling after losing his dad in early November. It was still hard to believe Teddy Adler was gone.


And now Liam had made the decision that his grandfather and his mother had been pressing him on—to take over Adler Incorporated, to replace his father. It wasn’t the life path Liam wanted, but with his education and background in finance—acquired at the urging of the elder Adler men—he was poised to take over. It was a given. But it didn’t fill the gaping hole that his father’s death had left behind.


Or the fact that Liam had never wanted to run Adler Inc.


He’d assumed his dad would stay in charge, and then maybe Liam’s brothers, Flynn or Ryan, would take over. But even as he thought it, he knew it would never have happened that way. Flynn lived in Los Angeles and was trying to break into acting, and while Ryan resided in Reindeer Pass and had been working for Adler Inc. for the past two years, helping in the real estate division, he didn’t have the ambition to run the whole thing. In fact, Ryan was the first to ask Liam to come back.


The bell on the door jingled, and Bella’s voice was tight with excitement. “Ellie!”


Ellie Thatcher walked past dressed in a tan wool coat buttoned to a red scarf around her neck and black boots with obvious good traction for the snow-laden sidewalks. She didn’t notice him or Ryan, her face split into a giant grin.


“What are you doing here?” Bella asked. “I thought you weren’t coming until the end of the week.”


“I got my life in order, so I came early,” Ellie said, removing red earmuffs and tucking a stray clump of dark hair into the low bun at her nape. “I wanted to surprise you.”


When Liam glanced back at his brother, Ryan said quietly, “Looks like I’m not the only one with an eye for a Thatcher girl.”


Liam shook his head. “She’s the enemy, as is Bella.”


Ryan smirked. “That sounds like Gramps talking.”


Ellie and Bella continued chatting, with Bella offering a new signature white hot chocolate with eggnog that she’d recently begun serving.


Without comment to Ryan, Liam stood and went to the counter. “I’ll take one, too,” he said.


Ellie’s eyes widened, her cheeks still flush from the cold. “Liam?”


“Hi, Thatcher. It’s nice to see you again.”


While the stubborn child she’d been was still present in the flash of her eyes, there was something else … a curiosity, a maturity … that tugged at him. Five years ago, she’d been beautiful, but she had been on the cusp of womanhood. The Ellie before him was more fully formed, and he found her more compelling than he would’ve imagined.


“I didn’t know you were back in town,” she said, and then her gaze became serious. “I’m sorry about your father. I sent flowers to your mom but signed my name as E. so it wouldn’t offend your grandfather.”


“Thank you. I’m sure she was appreciative.”


“Are you here for the holidays?” she asked.


“Actually, I’m here for good. And you?”


“Also back.” She smiled. “For good.”


“The family’s surprised,” Bella said. “You were so determined to see the world.”


He let himself indulge a long look, then said, “You’ll have to tell me about it some time.”


Ellie nodded, and Liam wasn’t sure if she was agreeing or simply placating him.


Honking diverted their attention to the street. As people outside moved past the window in a hurried manner, he, Ryan, Ellie, and Bella walked over to see what was happening.


* * *


 Ellie’s throat constricted as she watched the herd of reindeer moving down the street. As a child, she’d been enamored of the animals, and she’d even finagled her way into working for the Adler Reindeer Farm for nearly two years, only quitting when she’d left for art school in New York City.


Liam Adler stood beside her, and memories of their past encounters—dulled by time and distance—came suddenly into sharp focus.


When she had been ten years old, Liam volunteered to chaperone her into the mountains around Reindeer Pass. She’d been keen to ride a four-wheeler into the backcountry to search for the mythical Arctic reindeer whispered in family lore to have existed.


Three years later, he and Jennifer Dixon, an out-of-town girl he’d been romancing at the time, had intruded on Ellie’s forest hideout where she had established a secret lookout to again search for the white reindeer. Jennifer had fallen into a tree well, forcing Ellie to reveal herself and save the poor girl. Ellie had remained in touch intermittently with Jen over the years, but as far as she knew, Jennifer and Liam’s relationship had never gone far.


Then, at sixteen, Ellie had gotten a job at the Adler Reindeer Farm with the help of Liam’s mother and the begrudging acceptance of her own parents. Everyone had kept Ellie’s employment status from the grandfathers. Adam Thatcher and Theo Adler’s animosity was well-known, and neither would’ve approved of Ellie defecting to the enemy camp, but working with the reindeer had been a dream come true for her, and it hadn’t hurt that she’d proved to Liam that she had the tenacity to do something he’d said she never could—work for his family.


The last time she’d seen Liam had been the inaugural Reindeer Ball organized by his mother. Five years ago? Had it been that long? She had two distinct memories from that night: Liam’s grandfather ordering Liam away from her, and the way Liam had looked at her, as if she were no longer a child.


As that memory surfaced, she became acutely aware of Liam’s presence. He was older, his boyishly handsome face having changed to that of a man. She shook off the momentary excitement of seeing him again, but he and reindeer had always been linked for her, so it was yet another odd coincidence that a random wild herd was suddenly making their way through the slushy streets of Barstow.


Bella shaded her eyes. “Are those Adler reindeer?” she asked.


“No.” Ellie and Liam answered at the same time.


She caught his gaze. “I worked at the farm, remember?” Then she said to Bella, “The Adlers mark the ears of their herd with a notch. These are wild but probably go back to that original herd our families had imported in the 1800’s.” She watched the animals tromping by with a bit of awe—ten in all, several sporting large antlers. That would make them female since the males would have shed theirs by now.


Ellie pulled her cellphone from her coat pocket and began snapping photos. “Have they done this before?” she asked, wishing she had one of her cameras, but her gear was back at the Thatcher house in Reindeer Pass with the rest of her luggage.


“No,” Bella said. “I’ve had the bakery for two years and have never seen this. Does your family want to capture them?” she asked Ryan.


Ryan shrugged. “Nah. We have enough at the farm, but I didn’t realize there were wild herds, or that they’d come this far down the mountain.”


The reindeer headed toward a creek at the edge of Barstow.


Excitement coursed through Ellie. After bouncing across Europe on various photography assignments, she’d spent the last year and a half in Finland, developing an affinity for the place that was surely tied to her Finnish ancestry, despite that her grandfather always spoke about their British Thatcher roots.


She was struck by how similar Reindeer Pass and Barstow were to Finland. Her great-great grandmother, Eleonoora Korhonen Thatcher, for whom she was named, had come to Reindeer Pass sometime in the 1890’s from Finland with her father to deliver a reindeer herd to Charlie Thatcher and Henry Adler. She’d stayed when she’d fallen in love with Charlie and married him.


So Ellie had embraced her Finnish heritage, learning the language and spending as much time as she could in Lapland, the northernmost part of the country. And of course, getting to know the local reindeer. But then her mother had had a medical scare—breast nodules that had ultimately turned out to be benign—but it had shaken Ellie, stirring a homesickness that became difficult to ignore. It had been time to come home.


“If these are wild, then ….” she said half to herself.


“I can guess what you’re thinking,” Liam said.


She glanced at him, his blue eyes causing a nervous tumble in her stomach. It was just Liam Adler. No reason to get all flustered.


“And what’s that?” she asked.


“That if there are wild reindeer then the Vaadin must be real.”


As a girl, she’d been obsessed with finding the Arctic reindeer that might or might not live in the mountains around here, and old Eustace Hapgood, who lived in a remote cabin in the hills, had told her and Liam about the legend of the Vaadin, a magnificent and rare female Arctic reindeer. To see her was to be blessed with true love. Or something like that. But Ellie had learned during her extended stay in Finland the Vaadin was more of a divine ancestor to the mountain reindeer, a goddess who could forge magical artifacts.


“You remember that?” she asked. “Do you know if Eustace is still alive?”


“Are you talking about Eustace Hapgood?” Ryan asked.


She nodded.


“He’s still around,” Ryan said. “There’s talk he wants to sell his property. Adler Inc. is interested, but he’s rebuffed our efforts to talk about it.”


Ellie wondered if her grandfather would want to buy the Hapgood property, since the Adlers already owned much of the mountain. When Grandpa Adam and Liam’s grandfather had feuded over a woman—Ellie’s grandmother—Grandpa Adam had given his share of the reindeer they had imported from Finland to Mr. Adler. When Ellie was younger, she had thought it not fair. She had so wanted her family to have access to the amazing animals. If the Adlers bought Eustace’s property, would it also include the Arctic reindeer that could be living in the mountains?


“And that Vaadin thing you mentioned has changed things,” Ryan added.


“How’s that?” Ellie asked.


“You’ve missed all the hoopla by being away,” Bella interjected. “The Vaadin is our Loch Ness Monster.”


Ryan buttoned his wool coat. “The myth of the Vaadin has grown into big business around here.”


“How did I miss all of this?” Liam asked. “I guess I haven’t been paying attention.”


“It’s called the Christmas Village.” Ryan nodded toward the mountain visible beyond town. “It’s off the bypass road that leads to Eustace’s place.”


“People come from all over to try and find it,” Bella said. “The gift shops have the creature on everything from t-shirts to mugs to magnets. It’s a bit overdone but good for business.”


“Who started it?” Ellie asked, finding it hard to believe it was Eustace. The man had spoken reverently of the myth of the Vaadin, and he had seemed to value his privacy.


Bella rubbed her hands together and blew on them. “Mark Osborn. He brought in some marketing people and has been expanding it ever since.”


“Unbelievable,” Ellie muttered, a surge of irritation flashing through her that Mark would take advantage of Eustace and the reindeer lore of this area. “Maybe whoever buys Eustace’s land could shut it all down.”


Bella shrugged. “The Christmas Village isn’t on his land, but I’m sure Mark is itching to purchase it as well. It would make it easy for him to grow.”


The wild reindeer were now out of sight, so Ellie checked her watch.


“Bells, I have an appointment,” she said. “But I’ll stop by later.”


“I close at five. We can go to dinner at the Bistro.”


“Sounds good.” Ellie shifted her attention between Ryan and Liam, trying to give them equal time, but even when she didn’t look at Liam, she was all too aware of him. “Nice to see you both.”


“I have to leave as well,” Liam said.


“You’re going to take care of that appointment for me?” Ryan asked his brother.




Liam started walking in the same direction as Ellie, and they moved side by side in an awkward silence.


She tucked her phone into her coat pocket. “You’re not following me, are you?”


“Maybe you’re following me.”


When she spied her destination from the address the realtor had emailed her, she reached for the door handle, and Liam’s gloved hand brushed hers, startling her.


“What …?” she said.


“You’re going here?” He spoke at the same time.


She nodded, a little too vigorously, but he didn’t seem to notice. Instead, he pushed open the door and waited for her to precede him. As they entered the empty store—a bit musty with random furniture strewn about—she stopped short when the realtor turned to face them.


Mark Osborn smiled, then looked shocked, then disgusted. “You’re the clients?” he asked. He hadn’t changed much over the years, he was still stocky, but his normally gel-filled curly hair was instead cut short. The last time she’d seen Mark had been the same night she’d last been with Liam.


“Hi, Mark,” Ellie said reluctantly. “Where’s Tammy?” she asked, referring to the woman she’d been corresponding with.


“She had a family emergency,” he said. “Her kid swallowed a quarter.”


“That’s terrible,” Ellie said. “I hope he’s okay.”


Mark’s gaze flicked between Ellie and Liam, who had been quiet so far. “Tammy said I was meeting with a Thatcher and an Adler, but I thought it was your angry grandfathers. Are you both still together?”


“Oh.” Ellie frowned. “No.”


But when Mark’s expression appeared a bit intrigued, Ellie regretted denying it. Liam had not only pretended to be her date but also her boyfriend to get Mark off her back. Osborn had been aggressively pursuing her after a few platonic dates and wouldn’t take no for an answer. When Liam had stepped in, Ellie had been relieved. And then slightly confused because her reaction to Liam had been decidedly different than to Mark.


Liam focused on her, ignoring Mark. “Why are you looking at this property?” he asked.


“I’m planning to open a photography studio.”


He nodded, a slight smile tugging at his mouth, and she couldn’t help but feel that he was somehow pleased by her answer.


“And you?” she asked.


“I’m taking over Adler Inc. Gramps wants to lease a bigger office in Barstow than the one Ryan currently works at.”


“Would this be large enough for you?” She gestured to the small storefront.


Liam hesitated, then said in a quiet voice, “He wants the entire building.”


Mark glanced at his notes. “The entire building? Oh yes, it’s here.” He lifted his gaze to her. “It’ll be tough for you to match that offer, Ellie.”


She bristled at Osborn’s smug tone, but he was right. She took in the quaint wooden counter, the high ceiling that would allow for ample wall space for photos from her travels, and the fantastic morning light spilling through the front windows. Not to mention that she’d be down the street from Bella.


She couldn’t afford the lease, of course, but Grandpa Thatcher had set up this meeting, telling her he would invest in her future. Did he know that Theo Adler also wanted the space? Did she want to be the cause of stoking their feud even further?


Mark chuckled. “Well, who’s going to butter me up the most?”


Ellie’s shoulders sagged.


Liam kept his attention on her. “I’ll talk to Gramps,” he said. “We’ll look for another building.”


“You will?” she asked.


With a nod, he said, “You should take it, Thatcher.”


Surprised by his gesture, she said, “Thank you.”


Liam turned to Mark. “Make sure she gets a good deal. And tell Tammy that Adler Inc. will need to see other properties.”


“Will do,” Mark said, then he looked at Ellie with a gleam in his eyes. “Let’s go back to the office to sign the papers.”


The last thing Ellie wanted was to spend the next hour with Mark Osborn, and she had an irrational wish that Liam would accompany them.


She gave a silent acknowledgement to Mark, then said, “Thanks again, Liam.”


He smiled. “See you around.”


She tried not to stare as he stepped onto the sidewalk and closed the door behind him.

Chapter TwO

Two weeks later, Ellie hung the last photograph on the wall of her new studio. It was a shot of an hours-old reindeer calf from her time in Lapland. The newborn female had been all legs and gawkiness, and it was one of her favorite photos. And it had been especially nice when it had graced the cover of a local Finnish nature magazine.

She stood back and took in the space she’d been working diligently on for her new business.

Most of the photos were from her time in Finland, but she’d also had the opportunity to visit the Dolomites in Italy, the mountain town of Chamonix in France, and the Ring of Brodgar in the Orkney Islands, so she’d included them as well.

The floors were cleaned and buffed, and the countertops decorated with poinsettia plants, evergreen sprigs, pinecones, and colorful holiday Christmas ball ornaments, although all the flora was fake since she anticipated having children on the premises for photoshoots. In that vein, she had an album with pictures she’d taken of people ready to show potential customers. Her hope was to work with locals on family portraits, weddings, and kids’ photos, but she was open to commercial jobs as well. Probably not the best time to start a business with Christmas right around the corner, but it would give her a chance to get settled before work hopefully picked up after the new year. It was Friday, and with the hard labor done, she’d spend the weekend working on her website in preparation for her opening on Monday.

In the meantime, she had an offer from Hilltop Magazine. An editor she’d worked with had been interested in the history of the Thatcher and Adler families and their ties to the local reindeer herds, and when Ellie had mentioned the myth of the Vaadin, the editor had liked it even more. She’d asked Ellie to piece together an article, not only taking photos, but also writing the story, which she had sometimes done in the past. At least it would help with the bills since her savings wouldn’t last forever, and she didn’t plan on leaning on her grandfather indefinitely. For now he was paying the rent and utilities, for which she was grateful.

Now that she’d been in both Barstow and Reindeer Pass for a few weeks, she’d had the chance to visit the souvenir shops and tourist hangouts in both towns, and the Vaadin was a bit of a local celebrity. The Osborn marketing strategy had done its job. There had been the poster hanging in Mark’s office at the realty company, a rendering of a mystical creature set against a backdrop of sparkly snow that was far from what an average Arctic reindeer might look like. Shops sold Vaadin figurines, tea towels, and sweatshirts with the creature’s supposed likeness, and chocolate bars wrapped in reindeer magic. Tours to the Christmas Village hinted at the possibility of being the first to find the creature in real life, but a photo with an actual reindeer was guaranteed. Ellie learned that Mark had rented two animals from the Adler Reindeer Farm and was keeping them in the Village for the winter.

As much as Ellie was loath to admit, a part of her wanted to visit the place.

It all sounded so downright enchanting.

But she was trying to take the high ground, since Eustace’s property abutted Osborn land and she couldn’t help but feel that Mark was exploiting the old man. According to Ellie’s father, Mark was trying to buy Eustace’s land, should the property go up for sale, and so were her grandfather and Liam’s grandfather as well. Eustace’s land was surrounded by Osborn, Adler, and Thatcher land, making it highly coveted by all three parties.

But as yet Eustace hadn’t moved forward with a listing, so everyone was in waiting mode.

Thinking of the Vaadin and reindeer stories and everyone acting like buying land was some kind of chess game had helped with one thing—keeping her mind off Liam Adler.

She hadn’t seen him since that day when she’d run into him in Bella’s bakery. A bit of covert questioning had turned up that he was indeed back to stay, and he was single. Not that it made a difference. Thatchers couldn’t date Adlers. Why would they want to? Adlers were nothing but trouble.

The bell on the door jingled as her grandfather entered.

“Hi, Grandpa.”

“How’s my girl doing?” He grinned wide, his gray beard and mustache cropped close.

“Everything’s going well.” She indicated the space with a sweep of her arm. “Thank you again for helping me get started.”

He removed his gloves but kept his thick jacket buttoned. “It’s nice to have you back, sweetheart, and this was a small price to pay for it.”

Her attention was captured by two men outside the storefront. The first was easily recognizable—Liam. Her heartrate jumped at the sight of him, and she grimaced. No need for that, Ellie. The other man, almost as tall as Liam, was Theo Adler, Liam’s grandfather. And if she hadn’t been sure it were him, then his both appalled and surprised reaction to the writing on the window—ELLIE THATCHER PHOTOGRAPHY—tipped her off. Mr. Adler pushed open the door and came inside like a bull ready for a head butt, Liam talking rapidly to the man who was steadfastly ignoring his grandson.

Ellie took a breath, bracing herself. Before she could warn Grandpa Adam about what was coming, he turned and faced the horns bearing down on him.

“What the hell is going on here?” Theo Adler demanded, his receding hairline revealing a shiny forehead.

“Gramps, I can explain,” Liam said, glancing her way with a look of apology in his eyes.

Great. Somehow, she was in the middle of this.

“Is this your shop?” the elder Mr. Adler demanded of her.

“Y-yes.” Worry gripped her. What had she done?

Mr. Adler shifted his attention to her grandfather. “Was this your doing, Adam?”

Grandpa Adam squared off against his nemesis. “If you mean helping my granddaughter realize her dream of running her own studio, then yes.”

“Well, you both need to leave. I own this building and I sure as hell never gave you a lease. Don’t make me sue you.”

“Gramps,” Liam cut in, “calm down. They do have a lease.”

Mr. Adler frowned at his grandson. “What are you talking about?”

“I didn’t sign a contract with Adler Inc.,” Ellie said, alarmed by the turn of events. “It was with Ludlow and Sons.” What was supposed to be a fun day of putting the finishing touches on the studio had quickly gone south.

Liam looked at her. “Gramps wasn’t trying to lease the building as I’d thought. He was buying it and the deal closed two days ago. I told Mark Osborn we would honor the existing leases.” He pulled an envelope from his jacket pocket. “In fact, I was on my way here to explain everything and have you sign a new contract.”

“I didn’t approve that, Liam,” Mr. Adler growled.

Liam faced his grandfather. “Yes, you did. We discussed an already existing tenant on the ground floor. You agreed they could stay.”

“I didn’t realize it was a Thatcher. I rescind the agreement.”

Ellie was about to speak, but Grandpa Adam stepped forward. “You’re really going to kick out my granddaughter? I’ll sue you.”

The two of them began arguing and Ellie glared at Liam.

“Enough,” Liam said in a stern voice. “Gramps, you gave me free rein to run the company, and yet you neglected to tell me about this purchase, so I’m honoring the lease. Ellie’s business is a good addition to Main Street.” Then Liam met her gaze. “Unless you want to leave. You can, of course, break the existing contract, and we won’t penalize you for it.”

“Why are you being so soft on a Thatcher, Liam?” his grandfather huffed.

“Look, I don’t profess to understand all the reasons for the animosity the two of you have,” Liam said, “but how about showing some common human decency? Ellie’s done a nice job with the interior. I’m not about to make her start over somewhere else.”

Grandpa Adam turned to her. “Do you want to stay?”

While it didn’t seem worth the additional family strife, she was in love with the space. She nodded, her voice resolute as she said, “Yes.”

Her grandfather turned back to Mr. Adler. “Then I expect you not to harass my granddaughter.”

Theo Adler leaned close. “That goes both ways.” Then he left the store, barking over his shoulder, “Don’t be late for supper, Liam.”

A charged silence ensued in his wake.

Ellie finally spoke. “Why can’t the two of you get along?”

A resigned and half-hearted smile tugged at her grandfather’s lips. “I’ve tried. He’s so goddamned stubborn. But then so am I.”

“It must’ve been hard for him when Grandma chose you over him.”

Her grandfather again nodded, his demeanor contemplative, but he didn’t elaborate. Instead, he reached for the envelope Liam held. “Let me have a look at that. Can’t have you taking advantage of Ellie.”

“I’d never do that, sir,” Liam said.

An hour later, they had ironed out the details of the lease—Grandpa Adam had argued over the late fee and the terms for eviction and Liam had compromised on both. She signed, and her grandfather had left.

“World War III averted,” she said when they were both alone.

“Barely. Listen, I’m sorry about all that. I only just learned about it. There’s been a mountain of work to get through since my father died. My grandfather likes to think he’s still on top of it all, but the truth is he’s let a lot of things slide.”

She accepted his answer, quelling her annoyance over the argument between their grandfathers. For a moment she’d thought all her hard work these past two weeks was going to be for naught. Unfortunately, she needed something else from an Adler, and she’d much rather ask Liam than Theo Adler.

“I was wondering if I could ask for a favor,” she said. “I have a magazine assignment involving reindeer in the area. I’ll be going into the mountains to photograph the wild herds, but I doubt they’ll saunter down Main Street again like they did the other day. All I had were my cellphone photos for that one.” She made sure she always had her Canon on her now, along with a long lens.

“I might cross onto Adler land,” she continued. “And I wonder if I could have permission to do so. Also, could I come to the farm and photograph the Adler domestic herds?”

Liam hesitated. “I’m happy to say yes, but as you can see my grandfather is a different story. I don’t think it’s wise keeping this from him. How about you come for dinner tonight and you can ask him yourself?”

She laughed. “I could’ve asked him an hour ago right here, but as you saw he doesn’t exactly like me. I was kinda hoping to avoid him from here on out.”

“I never pegged you for a chicken, Thatcher.”

Ellie suppressed a grumble at his goading.

“I’ll tell you what,” he said. “Why don’t you bring Bella. That way you won’t be like a deer among wolves.”

“You’re all wolves?”

“My mother will be there, and she does like you, so you’d have that.”

“And what about you, Liam? Do you like me?” Too late, she couldn’t take it back. It sounded like she was fishing for a compliment, and a hot flush crept up her cheeks.

“I’ve never liked you, Thatcher.” But the heat in his eyes said otherwise. Then it was over, and he was walking to the door. “I’ll text you the address.”

“It’s all right,” she said. “I know the location of the Adler Mansion.”

“Be there around six for cocktails.”

He left her shop, and she didn’t know what to think. He’d made it sound like a date. Had she imagined the wanting that had escaped his eyes before he’d tamped it down?

Her heart pounded.

Should she go? Did she have a choice? In the wilderness, she wasn’t certain she would know the property lines. And with the way her luck was running, she’d end up on Adler land, shoot a fantastic photo, it would be published, and then Theo Adler would see it and sue her, claiming she’d been trespassing on his property.

No. She would like this to be on the up and up.

She finished cleaning while she wondered what she should wear to an Adler family dinner.

Chapter Three

When the knock came at the front door, Liam made sure he got there first.

On the other side was Ellie, wearing a maroon wool coat, her dark hair spilling over her shoulders. She looked a bit stressed but otherwise confident. He’d always liked that about her. She’d had a natural courage as a girl, and he was glad to see she hadn’t lost it. Bella stood beside her, her back straight beneath a matching white hat, scarf, and mittens that contrasted her dark hair. There didn’t seem to be any blondes on the Thatcher side.

“Please come in,” he said, stepping back as they entered the foyer.

“I brought a chocolate peppermint cake,” Bella said, indicating the item she carried wrapped in cellophane and topped with a big red bow.

Liam took it from her. “Thank you.”

While the girls shed their winter gear, Liam texted his brother that Bella was here for dinner, guessing that Ryan wouldn’t want to miss this. He should have mentioned it earlier, but he wasn’t sure if Ellie would bring her cousin. Or if Ellie would show at all.

His brother replied almost immediately, putting the emoji of an exploding head beside gramps and then followed with, I’ll be right there. Just closing up the office now.

They needed to move Adler Inc. to the new building in Barstow—the one that Ellie now occupied on the bottom floor—and Ryan had started to box up files and supplies after hours.

Liam led the girls into the spacious sitting room as his grandmother, Charlotte, joined them. Liam had already told her that Ellie might be coming by so she could be prepared, and she had surprised him by smiling, clearly delighted by the prospect.

“Ellie, welcome,” his grandmother beamed, her silver bob tucked behind her ears. “Bella, you came too.” She gave each girl a hug. “It’s a shame it’s taken this long to have you both over.”

The wrinkle on Ellie’s forehead conveyed her bewilderment, matching Liam’s. He’d had no idea his grandmother had been waiting to have a Thatcher over for dinner.

Liam’s mother breezed into the room, dressed casually in jeans and a green sweater, her blonde hair pinned back and some color in her cheeks. He was glad to see her in a somewhat cheerful mood. The grief had been hitting her especially hard this week.

“It’s so nice for you both to join us,” she said. And then to Ellie, “You were one of our best employees at the reindeer farm.”

“It was one of my favorite jobs. I’m so sorry about Mr. Adler.”

“Thank you.”

Guilt hit him again. His mother had said that having him close was helping, which made him feel badly that he wasn’t as excited as he should be to take over the day-to-day management of Adler Inc. It was one reason he was still letting Ryan handle most of the daily issues, while he tried to understand the bigger picture of all the holdings his grandfather had amassed over the years. With hope, it would get better in time.

As Ellie and Bella chatted with his mother and grandmother, it was clear the Adler and Thatcher women didn’t seem to hold a grudge like the grandfathers did. But it was also true that they didn’t seek out the other’s company, always remaining a respectful distance. Except when his mother had been behind hiring a teenaged Ellie to work at the farm. The move had surprised Liam when he’d learned of it, but his mother had remarked at the time that Ellie has a light in her eyes around the reindeer, and they respond to her.

How had he not seen how sentimental his mother was about the animals? And judging by the way she was talking to Ellie, about Ellie herself.

“We don’t want to impose,” Ellie was saying when his mother insisted she and Bella stay for dinner. “I just need to speak with the older Mr. Adler.”

“You’re a brave one, I’ll give you that.” His mother squeezed Ellie’s arm and smiled. “He’s not here yet, so let’s have a drink and we’ll set two extra places at the table.”

“Ryan is on his way,” Liam said, and Bella seemed to briefly perk up over that news. “What can I get you both?”

“Sparkling water?” Ellie asked.

“I’ll have the same,” Bella added.

Liam nodded, pouring the drinks over glasses of ice and adding a slice of lemon. As everyone sat, Ryan entered and if the redness on his cheeks was any indication, he’d run the entire way. Liam suppressed a smirk.

“Sorry I’m late,” his brother said.

“Hi, Ryan,” Ellie said, and Bella offered a smile.

Ryan was about to say more when Gramps arrived, kicking snow off his boots and removing them before he entered the roomful of women staring at him. Belatedly, Liam realized he was staring too, the tension in the room suddenly thick.

“We have guests, Gramps,” Liam said.

“I can see that.” He ran a hand over his thinning hair.

Charlotte came to her husband and kissed his cheek, murmuring softly to him. He gave a slight nod of acknowledgement.

“Girls,” he said to Ellie and Bella.

Ellie stood and cleared her throat. “Hello, Mr. Adler.” She reached out a hand. “Thank you for allowing me into your home.”

Gramps squinted and then relented, shaking her hand. “You’ve got gumption, I’ll give you that.”

Liam relaxed just a hair. Maybe this evening wouldn’t be a total disaster.

“Thank you, sir. There’s a reason I’ve come. That we’ve come.” She indicated Bella who was still sitting on the sofa looking very uncomfortable.

When Gramps didn’t respond, Ellie quickly continued. “You see,” she said, clearing her throat once again. “I’ve been given a magazine assignment to photograph the wild reindeer in these mountains, and I’m planning on looking for them and should I happen to stumble, well … although I’ll try not to, I might accidentally cross the wrong property line.”

When she paused for a breath, Gramps said in a calm voice, “Spit it out, dear.”

“Can I go onto your land?”

A prickly silence descended on the room.

Gramps finally shook his head and sighed. “I suppose you’ll go anyway.”

“Not on purpose, sir. I did go into the hills frequently when I was a child, and I’m afraid I didn’t always pay attention to where I was. I asked Liam”—she glanced at him—“but he said I needed to speak with you.”

Gramps cast a censuring look at Liam. “You keep her shop from me, but not this?” He raised an eyebrow.

“What’s this about Ellie’s shop?” his mother asked.

“Liam has leased the first floor to her in that building I just bought in Barstow,” Gramps said, but he didn’t seem as angry as he’d been earlier.

His mother cast a surprised look his way.

“I didn’t realize it was an Adler building,” Ellie said to his mother. “Liam didn’t tell me until today.”

“It didn’t seem right to break the lease just because she was a Thatcher,” Liam said quietly.

His mother’s expression softened before turning to her father-in-law. “I’m sure it will be fine, Theo.” Then to Ellie, she said, “What kind of shop are you opening?”

“A photography studio.”

“That’s wonderful. I’ll have to stop by.”

“That would be lovely, Mrs. Adler. I’m planning to open on Monday.”

“Look,” Gramps said, raising his voice. “I’m not terribly keen on you wandering around Adler land unchaperoned. God knows we have enough problems with all those tourists looking for some damned mythical reindeer. Speaking of which, Liam, that’s our first order of business.”

“What’s that?”

“Dealing with Osborn and his Christmas machine up there on the mountain, along with Hapgood. If he’s selling the land, then we need to buy it, so you’ll go up there with her and deal with it all at once, since you’re such a Thatcher sympathizer and all.”

“I can assure you that I’ll be careful,” Ellie said. “I’ve been in the field the last three years. I have experience in the mountains, especially in northern Finland. I don’t need a chaperone.”

“Well, that might be the case,” Gramps said. “But you’ll not be out there alone. You shouldn’t have done it when you were a child, but that’s a moot point now. You could’ve gotten hurt or worse. I’ll not be responsible for that, and God knows that Adam would drag me to court over it.”

Liam frowned. He hadn’t realized how much Theo and Adam threatened litigation with one another.

“Liam, you’ll go with her.”

While spending the day with Ellie Thatcher wouldn’t be a hardship, he knew he couldn’t keep putting off Adler Inc. business. “Ryan handles the real estate side. Let him talk to Eustace, as well as Osborn.”

“Eustace won’t talk to me,” Ryan said from across the room. “And you’re the boss now, Liam. You should check out what Osborn has going on up there. You’re the one who gets to decide what to do.”

Liam wasn’t so sure of that. While he was technically in charge, Gramps’ fingerprints were still all over everything, and his opinion could be heard from miles away. Liam wasn’t under any illusion that he was the final word, as was clearly in play with him ordering Liam to babysit Ellie.

“It’s all right, sir,” Ellie cut in. “I’ll be fine out there. I promise my grandfather won’t sue you.”

“That’s a sweet sentiment, young lady, but that’s not a promise you can make. Besides, I know that Adam is after Hapgood’s land too. So how do I know you’re not going to undermine the deal somehow on his behalf?”

She shook her head, looking perplexed. “I’m not. I can assure you I’m not involved at all.”

“Nevertheless, Liam you’ll keep an eye on her.”

Ellie glared in his direction, frustration written all over her face.

“Dinner is ready,” his mother said, breaking up the standoff.

They all walked into the dining room. Normally, Liam and Ryan sat near Gramps so they could talk business despite his grandmother insisting the supper table was for family and not work, but Liam thought it might be wise to give Gramps some distance from Ellie, or maybe it was the other way around, so he guided their guests to the opposite end of the table, and he and Ryan sat with the girls while his mother and grandmother bookended Gramps.

A cook served plates with salad for everyone.

“It’s like you live in a palace,” Bella murmured.

Ryan leaned forward. “We’ve heard the Thatchers dine on crystal plates and drink from gold goblets.”

Bella’s expression remained serious as she said, “We also ride unicorns.”

Ellie laughed. “When did you get a sense of humor, Bells?”

Bella raised her eyebrows and munched on her salad.

“Do you all live here?” Ellie asked Ryan.

“Yeah,” Ryan replied, and Liam wondered if Ryan was feeling as embarrassed of that as he was. Except that the house was large, and it had always been nice to be near his folks when he visited. And now … well, he didn’t feel comfortable leaving his mom alone.

“Eventually we’ll find our own places,” Liam said.

Ryan looked at him with a bit of confusion. That had never been on the table. But it should be. They were grown men. He didn’t examine too closely why he cared what Ellie thought, but surely if Ryan were hoping for any type of romance with Bella, then he had to know it couldn’t possibly happen while living under this roof.

“I’m with my parents for now, but after the new year I’m going to look for something too,” Ellie said.

The rest of the evening was uneventful, and Gramps behaved himself at the first Adler and Thatcher dinner. After Ellie and Bella said their goodbyes and left, his mother faced both him and Ryan.

“They’re nice girls,” she said, a rare gleam in her eye. “Goodnight, boys.”

Gramps sighed from his chair in front of the fireplace, his nightly glass of whiskey in hand. “I suppose they are. For Thatchers.”

Pre-order A MIRTHFUL WISH now!

a Mirthful Wish

A Christmas Romance

Wishing for Love ~ A multi-author series

The Thatcher-Adler feud goes back generations. Despite this, Ellie Thatcher befriended Liam Adler when she was a girl. She even managed to get a job at the Adler Reindeer Farm while in high school, the very farm that had once belonged to her family. Now, with college and a stint working overseas behind her, she’s returning home to Reindeer Pass to open a photography studio. But the feud has been reignited and Ellie and Liam are about to get dragged into the middle of it.

Liam Adler has returned to the Colorado town where he grew up to take over the family business after the sudden death of his father. It wasn’t the life path he’d planned, and now he must convince old Eustace Hapgood to sell his adjacent land to the Adlers and not the Thatchers. And his opponent is none other than Ellie Thatcher—no longer the sweet and funny little girl he remembers, but all grown-up and strikingly beautiful.

Years ago, Eustace told a young Ellie and Liam about the Legend of Reindeer Pass, where a rare Arctic reindeer herd is rumored to have lived since the first Thatcher and Adler men settled in the valley in the 1800’s. When Ellie and Liam appear before the old man, Eustace tells them he will sell to the first to see the Vaadin, the largest of the elusive female reindeer. But there is more to the legend … only the pure of heart are presented with such a gift. And to a special few, true love is granted.

When Christmas comes around, everyone has their own special wish. For some, those wishes are as simple as getting the perfect gift for that special someone. For others, those wishes are much bigger. Especially, when they wish for love.

Everyone deserves the gift of love, but sometimes that's more complicated than it should be.

This year is different.

For those pure of heart, their wishes, even their wishes for true love, just might be granted.

Wishing for Love is a heartwarming series about Christmas wishes of love coming true for those who have the purest of hearts. If you're looking for a feel-good read this holiday season, pick up A MIRTHFUL WISH to meet the authors of this heartwarming holiday romance series and find your next happy ever after.

Out now!! Read it today!!

Ellie and Liam's story begins in The Reindeer That Got Away and will be included in  STOCKING UP FOR CHRISTMAS.

This collection will be available in November 2023 FREE to subscribers! You'll be the first to be notified when this collection of romantic and heartwarming Christmas stories is ready to download. If you're not already on Kristy's list, sign up here.

Young Ellie Thatcher has always been told to stay away from “those Adler boys.” The Thatcher-Adler feud goes back generations, and she’s never given it much mind. Until now. She’s searching for an elusive Arctic reindeer that may be roaming the Colorado mountains where she lives, and it might be found on Adler land.

Liam Adler is amused by young Ellie Thatcher. His brothers have secretly defied the edict to stay away from the Thatchers and that’s how Liam finds himself helping Ellie search for the legendary white reindeer rumored to be living in the mountains near the town of Reindeer Pass. As he continues to cross paths with the girl through the years, his fondness turns to something more. But there’s still the issue of the family feud …