One Mistletoe Wish
Book 1 in the Temptation Series
All she wants for Christmas…
Everything schoolteacher Morgan Hill loves is in her hometown of Temptation, Virginia—her twins, her students and the charming community center where she’s staging their holiday play. But now the building’s new owner, Grayson Taylor, is putting sexy visions into Morgan’s head, making the young widow long for a future even Santa couldn’t deliver.
As the oldest of sextuplets, Gray grew up in the media spotlight. His family’s fame once helped Temptation thrive, but drove his parents apart. Coming back is just a bittersweet necessity until he meets petite firecracker Morgan. Somehow she gets the handsome tech guru to forget about big business in favor of small-town delights…and steamy winter nights. It’s a life he never knew he wanted, but can he put his past aside to turn a festive fling into the sweetest forever?
One Mistletoe Wish
“Bah hamburger!” Ethan Malloy shouted. His skinny arms were wrapped around his chest, lips still red from the punch he’d had during the break, poked out.
Morgan rubbed her temples and held back a sigh.
“It’s humbug, Ethan. Say it slower this time and remember the word is humbug.”
He wouldn’t remember. Or rather, he did know the correct pronunciation, but Ethan thought he was a five-year-old Kevin Hart, minus the cursing. So, everything he said or did he was looking for the chuckle or fall-out laughter from those around him—his audience, so to speak. His personality worked Morgan’s last nerve. She’d chastised herself more than once about feeling this way about a little boy. She was trained to deal with children, as she’d gone to the University of Maryland and received her bachelor’s degree in elementary education. Unfortunately, there were no classes and no amount of money she would have paid to attend them, which would have prepared her for Ethan Malloy.
He was the only child of Rayford Malloy, the sixty-three-year-old President of the Temptation Town Council, and Ivonne Danner-Malloy, his twenty-five-year-old video dance queen wife. Between his father being too busy and too tired to discipline him and his mother being too young, too conceited and too everything else to be bothered, Ethan never had a chance. Those were the reasons Morgan used a good portion of her patience with the child. Morgan’s Granny always said—whenever Ida Mae Bonet had the displeasure of being in the presence of her brother’s children—“we don’t get to choose who our parents are”.
That was certainly the truth, Morgan thought as she watched Ethan continue with his rendition of the dialogue for the scene where Ebenezer Scrooge continued to refuse heat or any other comfort for his only employee Bob Cratchit—played by seven-year-old Wesley Walker. Wesley, unlike Ethan, knew his lines and probably knew the lines of everyone else in the play, as he was a perfectionist and determined to prove himself to everyone in this small town, despite the fact that his father had run off and left his mother with four kids, a broken down old Nissan and a mountain of debts. It was a shame, Morgan thought as she watched the young fella on stage, walking around and holding his head up high—even though Bob Cratchit wasn’t such a proud man—that a boy at such a tender age should be faced with the gossip and cruelty that could be dished out in a small town.
They lived in Temptation, Virginia, population 14,364 as of the last census, two years ago. Temptation was an eclectic blend of rich history and a struggle to catch up with the modern world. With its ten member town council—the majority of which were descendants from original families to the town’s inception in the 1800’s—and the newly elected Mayor Cinda Pullum going toe-to-toe in battles over everything from revitalizing Mountainview Park and adding more young and vibrant merchants to the Maine Street shopping hub, to the weekly trash pick-up Temptation could be as lively as any of the reality shows that littered today’s television channels.
The town could also be as traditional and heartwarming as an old black and white movie with things such as the annual Christmas Eve celebration, which included the play that Morgan and her crew of youngsters were now painstakingly rehearsing. That’s the part about living in Temptation that Morgan loved. The tradition and the resilience. No matter what the people of this town had gone through—from the battles carried out through the Civil War, to the dark days of The Depression and the hostile times of the Civil Rights Movement—they’d always bounced back and they never stopped doing the things that made the town so special in the first place. The families were the heart of Temptation, families and their determination to live in harmony in their little part of the world. More recent and localized catastrophes had hit Temptation and now, sadly, Morgan found herself living through her own test as a citizen of the town.
“You should put him out, mama.”
The soft voice of Morgan’s five-year-old daughter, Lily, interrupted her thoughts.
“What?” Morgan asked.
Lily looked up from where she was sitting cross-legged on the floor with an unruly stack of twinkle lights in her lap. Her little hands had been moving over the strands in an attempt to separate the tangled mass for the last half hour. There hadn’t been much progress, but Lily was much more patient than Morgan could ever claim to be. She was also the prettiest little girl Morgan had seen in all her twenty-eight years.
Her daughter shook her head, two long ponytails swaying from side-to-side with the motion.
“He’s a mess,” she told Morgan. “A hot mess like Aunt Wendy says all the time.”
Morgan couldn’t help it, she smiled. Wendy, her older sister by barely a year, talked a mile-a-minute and Lily always seemed to be around soaking up each and every word that fell out of Wendy’s mouth, good or bad.
“He’s trying,” Morgan told her, knowing without any doubt who her daughter thought was a hot mess. “We have to give him a chance.”
Lily shook her head again. “No, we don’t. You’re in charge.”
She was, Morgan thought. In charge that is, funny how she didn’t feel like it. Especially since she hadn’t wanted Ethan for the lead in the play in the first place. But Rayford had stopped by her house the Monday before Thanksgiving and told her in no uncertain terms that he expected his ‘boy’ to have a prominent part in the play this year, especially since this was most likely the last year the Community Center would be open to house the play and the Christmas celebration. Morgan and a good majority of the town had been worried about this hundred year old building and two others: The Plympton House which had been converted into a hospital during the war, then restored, added on to and renamed to All Saints Hospital in the sixties and the Taylor House, a now almost dilapidated Victorian that had once been the home of the town’s biggest financial benefactor. She’d been so concerned with the possible loss of three of their historic buildings that she hadn’t had the energy to fight with Rayford about something as trivial as his son’s part in a play. Now, however, she wished she’d mustered up some fight because Lily was wright, Ethan was a hot mess.
“I wanna load the presents,” another child’s voice sounded from behind Morgan and before she could move a hand was tugging on the hem of her shirt.
“Didn’t you say it was my turn to load the presents in the sleigh, mama? Last night. You told me last night, cause I’m tall enough to do it.”
Morgan turned around ready to reply to her son with his dark brown eyes—slanted slightly in the corners as a result of his father’s half Korean, half African American heritage—and butter toned complexion—courtesy Morgan’s mother and grandmother who were descendants of the Creole born Bonets of Louisiana. His twin sister had those same features. Jack and Lily were different, not only by their sex, but also by personality. Where Lily was quiet and somewhat serious, Jack was boisterous and playful. They were sometimes like night and day, but always the very best of Morgan and her husband James. Each day she looked into their precious little faces she was reminded of that fact and, at the same time, she was overwhelmed with love and grief.
James Stuart Hill had been a wonderful man. Kind, loving, compassionate and totally committed to his young wife and family. Morgan had met him in Baltimore, during her senior year of college. He’d been on leave from the Army, finalizing the sale of his late mother’s convenience store and her house. An American born Korean, Mary Kim, had raised her only child alone, after his African American father had been shot to death in an attempted robbery. Although Morgan had never met Mary, she felt she’d known the woman through the great man she’d raised.
Their courtship had been fast and passionate and by the time Morgan graduated from college, she’d learned that she was pregnant. James was leaving for a year-long tour in Hawaii two weeks later. So they married quickly in Granny’s backyard and then traveled to Honolulu where she gave birth to her two precious jewels. A year later James received a temporary assignment in Virginia and Morgan came home to Temptation with her twins, where the four of them had lived a happy, normal life. Until months later James was shipped off to Afghanistan. He was killed a week before the twins’ second birthday. Three years later, the pain of that day, still had the power to take Morgan’s breath away.
“Some people are only in your life for a season,” Granny had said as she’d stood leaning on her cane.
They’d been at the cemetery then, the one in Maryland right next to where James had buried his mother. Hours later they were back in Temptation and Morgan was tasked with raising her two young children alone. With the love and support from her grandmother and her sister, she’d managed to make it through those first tough weeks. She’d taken a job as a first-grade teacher at the elementary school, went to church on Sundays and played all day with her babies on Saturday. Her life had managed to move on even though there were still some days when all she wanted to do was cry for the love and all the possibilities that had been lost.
“Marley’s coming! Marley’s coming!” Alana, a six-year old playing one of Bob Cratchit’s children began yelling from where she was sitting at the end of the stage.
“It’s not time yet,” Ethan complained. “I’m not finished saying bah hamburger.”
“He needs to shut up,” Lily said with a sigh.
“You’re not adding the chains this time, mama,” Jack stated loudly as if the louder he said it, the faster she would start doing it.
Usually, when it was time for Jacob Marley—played by Malcolm Washington who was missing one of his front teeth—to make his ghostly appearance, Morgan or Wendy who was her part-time assistant whenever she wasn’t on duty at the hospital, would knock on the desk to make the footstep sounds and rattle the bike chains in her bag. But Ethan was right, it wasn’t time for Jacob’s appearance yet.
Still, Morgan could not deny the sound of footsteps coming fast and almost furiously down the hallway toward the hall where they were rehearsing.
“Hush children,” she said as she stood.
Morgan was walking towards the door, or rather she was tiptoeing like she actually expected to see the ghost of Jacob Marley come through that doorway, just like she knew the now quiet children were. The footsteps continued and so did Morgan. She was wearing her bright orange and fuchsia tennis shoes today, along with her black running suit which Wendy said made her look more like a teenage track star than a grown woman. Morgan tended to ignore her older sister when it came to dressing because Wendy was a proud member of the single, sexy and seriously looking club. Whereas, Morgan was a mother and a teacher, and she was perfectly content with that.
“Oh!” she yelled.
“Sorry,” he said, reaching out to grab her shoulders and keep her upright.
She’d bumped into what felt like a concrete wall and was embarrassed to discover it was simply his chest. Well, there was really nothing simple about this man or his chest, which she figured out the moment she stepped back and looked up at him.
He was tall with a honey brown complexion, a strong jaw, precisely cut goatee and seductive dark brown eyes. His shoulders were broad, the suit he wore expertly cut. His hair was wavy and black, his lips of medium thickness.
Morgan almost sighed. If this was the ghost of Jacob Marley, then she was seriously going to consider crossing over to the land of the walking dead, because standing before her was one fine ass black man.
Gray removed his hands from her instantly. He had no choice, the warmth that had immediately spread up his arms and to his chest was so intense he immediately thought of the heart attack that had killed his father two months ago. Sure, Gray visited his internist once a year for a physical as suggested for all men, so he knew that he was in perfect health, but the feeling had shocked him.
She had shocked him.
“Are you alright?” he asked, because she’d taken a step back away from him, looking as if she’d seen a ghost.
Her and the number of children that almost instantly flocked around her, as if offering their juvenile protection, should he be there for some nefarious reason. He wasn’t, or at least he didn’t think of it that way. Still, they were all glaring at him. Something else that made Gray uncomfortable.
“I’m fine,” she answered, clearing her throat. “Can I help you with something?”
Gray didn’t need anyone’s help. He hadn’t for a very long time, but that was not his response. At thirty years old, Gray had been running his own company for fifteen years, supervising billion-dollar deals and mediating between brilliant tech minds to create the most innovative products in the world. He could certainly travel back to the small, dilapidated town that had torn his family apart, and take care of the sale of three measly buildings, without anyone’s help. Hence the reason he had secured a limited Power of Attorney document from each of his siblings. There was no need for all them to come back to the place they all hated. He was the oldest and as usual, he’d decided to bear the brunt of the task.
“My name is Grayson Taylor,” he told her. “I own this building.”
“Oh,” she’d said, taking another step back as if she were afraid, he’d reach out and touch her again.
“I’m just stopping by to take a look around as I’ll be selling the building hopefully in the next couple of months.”
“Christmas is next month,” the little girl holding tightly to the woman’s hand told him matter-of-factly.
He nodded. “Yes. It is.”
She was a cute little girl, with an intense stare that shouldn’t have unnerved him, but just like touching the woman had, it did.
“Even though the sales probably won’t be official until after the first of the year, I need to do a walk-through before then. I’ll send my lawyers a report and they’ll get started with the listing. If you don’t mind, could you show me around?” he asked, returning his gaze back to the woman.
His question was met with immediate silence and after a few seconds she shook her head. “I’m rehearsing with the children. We’re just getting started and the play is in four weeks. They have school during the day. We only have the weekends and an hour and a half in the evenings to rehearse.”
Gray presumed she was telling him ‘no’. That wasn’t a word women usually used with him, but his ego wasn’t bruised. This was business, after all.
“Fine. I’ll wait until the rehearsal is finished,” he said. “Can I sit over here?”
There were chairs scattered about the spacious room, some lined directly in front of the small stage where he suspected they were rehearsing their little play.
“You can watch me be Scrooge,” a boy wearing a frizzy white wig and an oversized black tuxedo jacket with tails, told him.
He’d stepped away from the woman and her entourage and motioned for Gray to follow him. Admiring the child’s initiative, Gray walked behind him, leaving the still leery gaze of the woman behind.
She didn’t say another word but moved across the room and gave instructions for the children to resume their places and to continue. The little girl that had been holding her hand, still stood right beside her, but the child peeked back at Gray more than once. She had questions, he thought. Who was he? Why was he here and what did that possibly mean for them? He’d stared into her pensive eyes and felt the urge to answer all her questions in a way that would make her stop looking at him with such sincere inquiry. It was the strangest thought he’d ever had, especially since Gray wasn’t known to get caught up in anyone’s emotions, about anything.
He was the strongest of the Taylor sextuplets, the first one to be born on that humid July evening thirty years ago. His brothers and sisters all shared his birthday, but none of them had ever shared the weight of being the first baby born of the first set of multiples in the town of Temptation. That had been his title for the first seven years of his life, “the first born of the first Temptation sextuplets”. The Taylors of Temptation was what they’d named the reality show that featured his parents as they brought home their six bundles of joy and lived in the huge blue and white Victorian with the river at its back. As Gray had recalled, the show would have been more aptly named if it were called Terror of the Taylors, instead.
“Do you like Christmas?”
He was yanked from his thoughts by the soft voice of the little girl that had been sneaking glances at him. Her hair was dark and long, brushing past her shoulders with red bows at the end of each ponytail. She wore jeans and a red and white striped sweater. Her boots were black and white polka dots, with Minnie Mouse on each side.
“I don’t know,” he replied. “Do you like Christmas?”
She nodded and said, “Yes. I do. So does my mother.”
As she’d said those words Gray nodded. “Is your mother up there directing the play?”
“Yes. Her name is Morgan Hill. She’s a teacher too.”
“You’re not supposed to talk to strangers,” a little boy came up beside the girl and pulled on her arm.
She jerked away. “He’s not a stranger. His name is Grayson Taylor and he owns this building.”
Gray didn’t like the stoic way in which she’d mimicked his previous words.
“We don’t know him, so he’s a stranger,” the boy who looked a little like the girl, said. “I’m gonna tell, mama.”
Gray almost smiled, but he felt his forehead drawing into a frown instead. Twins?
“No need to tell,” he intervened. “How about we all go up front and sit with your mother. That way she’ll know where you both are.”
It would also give Gray a chance to ask a few questions about the building. From the looks of the outside, he didn’t think he’d get much for the building itself, but the land might be worth something. Between this building, the hospital and the house, that should be a good chunk to split between the six of them. Not that Gray needed any money, he didn’t. His vision and the talented people he’d hired to work at Gray Technologies, had made him a rich man years ago. No, any money that came from these sales was what the Taylor sextuplets thought of as their father’s payment for destroying their lives all those years ago.
“Mama, he wants to sit with you,” the little girl said when they’d come to a stop next to the chair where her mother sat.
Morgan looked up from her clipboard and then hastily stood. “Oh, I apologize,” she said. “I hope they weren’t bothering you.”
Now it was Gray’s turn to simply stare. She was very pretty, he thought, as if he hadn’t noticed that before. Her skin was smooth and unmarred by any cosmetics. Gray was used to seeing more glamorous women, from the ones he worked with, to the ones trying to get into his bed. High heels, tight dresses, heavily made-up faces and beaming smiles, that’s what he was used to.
Morgan was looking at him like she couldn’t decide whether to curse him out or be cordial to him. The look, coupled with the stubborn lift of her chin and the set of her shoulders tugged at something deep inside of him, so that looking or walking away was not an option.
“He doesn’t know if he likes Christmas, mama,” the little girl said.
“She’s always snitching,” the boy added with a shake of his head.
“Hush,” Morgan told them.
“Ms. Hill! Ms. Hill! Ethan forgot what to say,” another child’s voice sounded.
“I did not! I’m imposizing. That’s what actors do,” the boy in the white wig—who Gray now knew was named Ethan—argued.
“The word is improvising, Ethan and I’d prefer if you just repeated what’s written in the script,” Morgan replied.
She’d moved quickly, heading to the stage where the two arguing children stood. She spoke in a voice that was much calmer than he suspected she was feeling. Guiding the children to where she wanted them to stand on the stage, repeating the lines she wanted them to say, in the tone she wanted them to say it, all while Ethan looked as if he had other, more exciting things to do.
“He thinks he knows everything,” the little girl told Gray.
She’d scooted onto one of the chairs by then.
“Be quiet, Lily. Mama’s gonna show Ethan who’s the boss,” the boy told her.
“I think he’s the boss,” Lily said to her brother and they both looked up to Gray.
He was just about to speak, to say what, Gray wasn’t totally sure, when the lights suddenly went out. Screams were immediate and should have been expected since Gray didn’t think there was anyone in this room over the age of six or seven, besides him and Morgan.
“Stay calm,” he heard Morgan speak over the growing chaos of children’s voices. “It’s probably just a blown fuse again. I’ll take care of it.”
Gray slipped his phone from his jacket pocket and turned on the flashlight app, but when he attempted to take a step towards the stage, he found his moves hampered. Gray was a six foot, two-inch-tall man. He weighed two hundred and thirty-five pounds which consisted of mostly muscle thanks to the ten to twelve hours a week he spent at the gym. Last year he’d run in the 5K marathon to fight diabetes and finished in under fifteen minutes, so there should have been no problem with him walking across this room to assist Morgan in whatever was going on. Except for the two sets of arms that had wrapped tightly around his thigh, holding him down like weights.