Holiday Kisses

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CHAPTER ONE


WITH HIS TAILORED jacket tossed over one arm and designer tie knotted hard into his throat, Xander Costas stood on the bottom plank of the steps and cringed at the deafening roar of waves crashing onto the beach before him. “Well, they’ve got plenty of water and sand, that’s for sure.”

He’d never understood the appeal of water, other than as a hydration agent, of course. The ocean was so unpredictable. Uncontrollable. So...loud. The way the tide left a foamy film across the damp sand reminded him of a badly topped-off latte or a rejected Jackson Pollock painting.

He was a city boy, born and bred. His family joked he had steel for bones —strong, unbending. Their code word for stubborn, no doubt, but he didn’t take offense. Steel stood the test of time—it shaped civilizations. Nature served its purpose, but it wasn’t the first thing Xander thought of.  

Yet here he was, thousands of miles from home, placing all his hopes—and his family’s financial future—on an ocean-side town rebuilding its reputation as green and nature-friendly. A town that, up until a few months ago, few people had ever heard of.

Xander’s fists clenched as he forced himself to inhale. He nearly choked on the briny tang that scraped the back of his throat. His lungs would need at least a week to adjust from the smog-tinged air he’d been inhaling for thirty-three years. He missed the blaring traffic, the hard strength of cement and reinforced concrete, and what was with that sun? Didn’t California know it was only weeks before Christmas? His first without snow. He never thought he’d miss the snow-capped bite of an early winter cutting across his skin, and as the late afternoon rays beat down on him he wondered if he hadn’t just traveled across the country, but perhaps been transported to a different planet. What on earth had he gotten himself into?

“Cash! Tabitha!”

The sound of urgent children’s cries accompanied by the frenetic, enthusiastic barking of two dogs drew Xander’s attention to the shore. Not only did the dogs dive snout-first into the ocean, but their adolescent owners also hurried after them. The boy hit the water face-first and came up sputtering, his arm filled with golden retriever. The little girl had come to a
screeching halt. Her toes barely kissed the water before she backed away. The second dog, a terrier mix of some kind, bounded back onto the beach and plopped her drenched hindquarters into the damp sand beside her mistress.

You’re gonna get in big trouble, Simon!” The superior tone in the little girl’s voice had Xander’s lips twitching as he was reminded of his youngest sister, Alethea. Strong, determined and most definitely unique. But where Alethea maintained a penchant for Bohemian-chic clothing and untamed curls, this little girl had crooked red pigtails, wore purple overalls and carried a worn butterfly backpack with a missing gossamer wing.

Alethea. Xander’s big-brother sigh rivaled the roar of the ocean. In the past six months his college-aged sister had to deal with their father’s debilitating stroke, plus the death of her best friend—a friend who had been just as much a part of the Costas family as any of their siblings. A car accident, he could understand. Just about anything else he could understand, but a drug overdose? Talia? The grief that had lodged itself in his chest six months ago surged. Sweet, pretty, ebullient Talia, who had made all of them laugh with her goofy antics was gone. It hadn’t taken Xander long to realize Alethea didn’t have any idea how to live without her.

“Give her time,” his mother had said when Xander broached the subject of therapy. His mother, who had her hands full dealing with their father and his caregivers, while Xander and his brother argued over how to save the family’s architectural firm. Alethea seemed okay, on the outside at least.

She’d gone back to school for her last year, had insisted she needed to get back to her routine, move on with her life, sounding, at least to Xander’s ears, suspiciously like their mother. Xander had only one request when she’d left —to call him if she needed anything. Anything.

That he hadn’t received that call hopefully meant she was doing okay, if not stressing over finals.

The children’s laughter cut through his sour air-travel-related mood. The tension in his chest eased. His father and brother were content to believe the damage done to their company’s reputation a year ago would repair itself.

That previous clients would be willing to stand up for them and continue to recommend them. Xander knew better. If Costas Architecture was going to put the past behind them and be in the running to build a new corporate headquarters for a massive banking and real estate empire moving to Chicago, they had to have active clients. Not just big conglomerates, but
smaller, unassuming projects many firms their size would have passed on.

The only thing he and his brother agreed on, other than keeping their father as far out of the picture as they could, was that rebuilding their reputation step by step, job by job, was the only solution. What those steps would be was where they parted ways. If Antony thought going straight to the top would help them leapfrog over re-earning the industry’s respect, not to mention trust, his brother was seriously out of touch with reality.

Little jobs, projects with a modicum of fuss and expectation, were the best way to climb back up the ladder. Xander knew this in his gut, a gut that had never steered him wrong. That ladder’s first rung was Butterfly Harbor. He couldn’t explain it; he didn’t try to. He just knew it.

And he refused to feel guilty about it.

Not when there were dozens of employees counting on them for their livelihood. Not when the Costas name was on the verge of becoming a punch line in the architectural world. Not when Xander had his own future to consider.

Still, guilt climbed up his spine and attempted to claw apart the few minutes of peace he’d taken to recharge. He’d acted as long-distance dealmaker and silent partner in the family firm for long enough. He wasn’t going to stand by and let his brother and father ignore the financial earthquake that had shaken the company to its core. People they cared about were relying on them to find stable ground.

They needed to get back to what had made the firm successful in the first place—originality and reliability. To do otherwise would be tantamount to surrender.

And Xander Costas never surrendered. Not to anything. Not to anyone.

Much like the boy and his dog on the beach, both of whom seemed determined to empty their part of the ocean one splash at a time. 

“I’m not the one not allowed to go in the water!” the boy called back, but he slogged his way out of the surf and shook himself almost as hard as his canine companion. Thick-rimmed glasses soared off his face and landed in the sand beside his friend, who was squealing away from the salty shower.

Okay, Xander admitted. Maybe being able to swim in the ocean in mid-December wasn’t such a bad thing. In the hour or so since he’d driven down the main road of Butterfly Harbor he’d seen plenty of people—more than he’d expected—wandering about. Local businesses lined Monarch Lane, which ran parallel to the ocean. The street was decked out in holiday finery, from wreath-topped streetlamps to candy cane-accented garlands that stretched across the entry to town. He’d spotted a diner, which appeared to do a brisk business and a bookstore he’d somehow resisted the pull to explore.

The hardware store could prove interesting and seemed to stock every kind of Christmas bulb one could think of. Local businesses like that sometimes carried the most unusual items and offered unexpected inspiration. He was determined to keep his mind open. The local grocery store boasted an extensive deli, while the ice-cream shop on the corner seemed to appeal to those out and about. Peppermint ice cream? Lavender honey? Might be worth a try.

What he’d read online about the tourist town located only a hop, skip and jump away from the more popular Monterey had been brief and incomplete. It would take him a while to acclimate, to really get a feel for the town. Only then could he solidify their plans for the new butterfly sanctuary. Then, and only then, could he finally get back to rebuilding his own life.

He shielded his eyes and inclined his chin toward the historic Flutterby Inn, which graced the edge of the cliffs above him. The bright yellow structure with stark white trim harkened back to classic Victorian style.

Predictable, but solid. Welcoming. His home for the next couple of days while the town mayor and council approved his proposal for the butterfly sanctuary on which they hoped to break ground next spring.

When the wind picked up and a number of beachgoers turned away from the water, Xander took that as a hint he’d spent enough time mulling. He cast another quick glance up at the cliffs.

His heart stopped.

Even from this distance, the woman he saw was tall, with long arms, and was draped in color, from her sun-fire red hair to the blues and purples of the dress swirling about her legs. He stood there, transfixed, as she held out her hands, palms up. Tiny flecks of color exploded from her fingers and flittered around her so fast he swore he saw a golden circle of light appear.

Xander watched the light fade and shift into tiny sparks that drifted down the side of the rocks, spinning, racing, darting around each other as they approached...him.

He couldn’t move; didn’t remember how. And then he realized they weren’t lights at all. The sun’s rays had caught the colors of the butterflies’ wings. Butterflies that flittered their way closer, so close he could see the patterns of black spots among the light orange of the town’s namesake Monarch Festival.

The winged creatures darted around him, whipping in a circle, before they arced up and returned to the cliff face and disappeared into the rocks.

For a second, he wondered if he’d dreamed them. Xander tilted his chin higher, squinted into the bright daylight. The woman turned, just a step, and angled her face down. And looked at him.

“Woof! Woof, woof!”

Xander jumped and broke his gaze. As he shifted his foggy attention back to the sand, he found the terrier mix—Tabitha, wasn’t it?—sitting in front of him, tail wagging so hard she tossed sand onto his shoes. He swore the dog was grinning at him. “Hello,” he said.

“Sorry, mister!” The girl with the butterfly backpack raced toward him, a neon pink leash in her hand. “She’s friendly, I promise.” She dropped into the sand and locked her arm around the dog’s neck, latched the leash and wound her hand to secure her hold. “She likes butterflies.” She pointed a finger up the cliffs. “Especially Calliope’s butterflies. They’re special.”

“Calliope?” Xander blinked and looked back up the cliff, but the woman was gone.

“Calliope Jones. She runs Duskywing Farm. My mom and I do deliveries for her. Um... I’m not supposed to talk to strangers,” she stated matter-of-factly, but didn’t seem to be in a hurry to get away.

Xander glanced over the girl’s head to see the boy and his dog trudging through the sand toward them. “That sounds like a wise rule,” he agreed. He liked kids. While he wasn’t in any rush for a house full of his own, he’d found his niece and nephew exceedingly talented at keeping him grounded. “My name is Xander Costas.”

Her eyes went wide. “Ooooh! You’re going to build the new home for our butterflies!”

“Well, I’m helping to design the building.” As if he and his brother could agree on anything when it came to this place. “I mainly just draw, at this point.” To say he was rusty was an understatement, and he’d had to learn some new technology as drafting tables and protractors had become a thing of the past. He’d spent the last few years as the face of Costas Architecture based in New York with occasional trips to their Chicago headquarters. He was the deal-maker. The client-getter. Concepts had been where his brother and father dwelled.
Until disaster had come calling.

“That’s cool,” the little girl said. “Weren’t you supposed to be here a long time ago? Like during the Monarch Festival?”

Xander nodded. Might as well practice his mea culpas while he could. “My father got sick. I had to postpone. But I’m here now.”

“I hope he’s better. I’m Charlie, by the way.” She took a step closer and held out her hand, which Xander accepted. “Charlie Coo—oops. Bradley. I got a new name with my new dad ’cause he adopted me.”

She grinned, accentuating the dusting of freckles on her nose and cheeks. She had the brightest green eyes Xander had ever seen. Sea glass, he thought. Interesting.

“He’s a deputy here in town. You’ll meet him soon I bet. Simon! It’s the archi—archi-nerts. I can never say that word. It’s the building guy for thesanctuary! He’s finally here!”

Coated in damp sand, the boy reached her and, Xander noted, took a protective stance in front of his friend. “Hi. My dad’s the sheriff.”

“Noted.” Xander gave the boy a sharp nod of understanding. “Are you two the welcoming committee?”

Charlie laughed and Simon’s lips twitched. “Nah.” Simon pushed his sandcaked glasses higher up his nose. “But where Calliope’s butterflies go, she follows.” He jerked a thumb at Charlie. “Even when it’s to talk to strangers.”

“He’s not a stranger. His name is Xander Costas,” Charlie announced. “We know each other now.”

A sharp whistle sounded from the top of the stairs. Charlie’s cheeks went instantly pink as she looked up. 

“Charlie!” The man in a khaki law-enforcement uniform must be the dad she was talking about. “Hustle it up! We’re already late!”

“I gotta go.” Charlie scrambled around him. “We’re planning my mom’s surprise graduation party. I get to help decide on the cake! It was nice to meet you, Mr. Costas.” Charlie raced up the steps. “Come on, Simon!”

“You can call me Xander. Huh.” Whatever unease he’d been feeling had vanished in the last few minutes. The tide didn’t sound quite so loud now. The air wasn’t quite so sharp. He felt...more comfortable.

He looked back up to the cliffs, a smile curving his lips as he remembered the image of the woman standing above him. There was something...odd about her. There was also a sense of calm and peace he couldn’t quite identify. Whatever he’d been expecting of Butterfly Harbor, this wasn’t it.

“Can’t wait to see what else this town has to offer.”