She'd never seen a Santa suit used in quite that way.
Jillian Mayberry leaned against the steering wheel of her Mini Cooper and squinted through the swirling snow outside the windshield. Her eyes weren’t playing tricks on her. That really was a bright red Santa suit flapping like a flag in the wind from the pole in front of the old log cabin. A lighted sign above the door spelled out Santa’s Workshop in hand-carved red letters. Thank heaven, she’d found it. She wasn’t sure she could drive another mile in this storm.
That morning she’d left St. Paul under a cold, bright sun, but by the time she’d reached Duluth a light snow had started to fall. Now, a few miles up the north shore of Lake Superior past Two Harbors, it looked like an army of snow giants were having a pillow fight—and the pillows were losing. The fat flakes were so close together she could barely see the log building ahead. She inched forward a few feet and stopped the Mini next to a big brown SUV with a Department of Natural Resources insignia on the door.
She flipped up the hood of her puffy down coat and reached for the briefcase on the seat beside her. Leave it to Alan, Jr. to dump this chore on her before hopping a jet for a skiing holiday in Aspen with his new girlfriend. It was only one of the many perks of being the son of the founder of the most prestigious private family office firm in St. Paul, which catered to the legal and financial needs of some of the wealthiest families in the state. As the most junior member of the firm (and Alan, Jr.’s former girlfriend), Jillian was low woman on the totem pole, so this last minute task had naturally fallen to her two days before Christmas.
Oh, well. It didn’t really matter, since she wasn’t going home for the holidays anyway. She’d been feeling sorry for herself ever since her mother had announced her plans to spend Christmas in St. Tropez with her latest flame, Ricardo. Jillian huffed out a sigh, and a cloud of vapor fogged the windshield. She should be impervious to being hurt by her mother after all these years, but somehow she wasn’t.
She glanced at the log cabin again through the thickening snow. At least this was a simple assignment; she just had to get a couple of papers signed. With any luck she would be in, out, and on her way within a few minutes—which was a good thing. The highway was already heavily snow-packed, and she worried about making it back to the shelter of the motel room she’d booked in Two Harbors.
When she stepped out of the car, a gust of wind snatched the door from her hand and slammed it shut. She was so startled she lost her footing and sat down hard in a knee-deep pile of snow. Muttering under her breath, she struggled to her feet. Whatever had possessed her to leave Virginia for this god-forsaken icebox? Oh, yes. The lure of a well-paying job at Saperman, Ellis, and Saperman and those pesky student loans.
Her socialite mother had considered law school a waste of time and money, so Jillian had cobbled together the funds to pay her own way. At the moment, with her nose running and fingers and toes numb, she wondered whether she should have caved and gone the debutante route. Then she thought of the requisite small talk with silly, overdressed people at endless rounds of parties and decided freezing to death was preferable. It hadn’t been easy, but she’d scrimped and saved every penny during the past five years to pay off the last of her loans. Only one more payment and she could tell Saperman, Ellis, and Saperman—specifically Alan, Jr.—what they could do with their job.
And go where? Do what?
With no ready answer, she picked up her fallen briefcase, sighed, and trudged through the growing drifts to the door.
Up close, the cabin appeared to be at least eighty years old with dark, hand-hewn beams and wide white chinking. Warm light beckoned from a pair of curtained windows flanking the rustic, planked door. Jillian raised a gloved hand to the big knocker carved in the shape of a grinning Santa and brought it down with a resounding thud. Teeth chattering, she counted the seconds until the door swung open and Paul Bunyan peered down at her. Okay, so maybe he was Paul Bunyan’s beardless, blonder, cuter brother, and wearing a dark green ranger’s uniform with a patch on the shoulder that read Gooseberry Falls State Park instead of plaid flannel and denim, but he was mighty impressive all the same.
His brows drew together in a formidable frown. “What kind of fool goes shopping in weather like this? You’d better come in.” The giant grabbed her arm and pulled her through the door into a warm, gingerbread-scented Christmas wonderland.
The cabin might have started life as a humble pioneer homestead, but now it housed a mind-boggling array of Yuletide décor—a veritable explosion of red and white. Jillian blinked twice, trying to take it all in. Against one wall a fire crackled in a fireplace of rounded river rocks. Shelves lined the other walls, and a couple of tables and chairs peeked through the holiday mayhem. Every inch was filled with carved wooden Santas, red and white painted bird ornaments, and ribbon-wrapped animals and wreaths fashioned from straw. In the middle of it all stood a floor-to-ceiling Christmas tree, twinkling with tiny white lights and covered with wooden ornaments in the shapes of animals, toys, and elves in pointed red hats.
“Wow.” The word slipped out under her breath. She’d never seen anything like Santa’s Workshop in her life. Her minimalist, modern art-loving mother would have fainted if confronted by such colorful confusion. To Jillian, it was magic.
“It’s something, all right. My grandpa made most of them.”
She’d almost forgotten the giant. She had also almost forgotten her mission. She flipped back her hood and pulled off her gloves, stuffing them in the pockets of her coat. Pasting a smile on her face, she stuck out her hand. “I’m not a customer. I’m Jillian Mayberry, from Saperman, Ellis, and Saperman.”
His big, warm hand engulfed hers, even as his brows drew together in a confused frown. “Erik Gustafsson.”
Gustafsson. Good. He was the man she’d come to see. He also had eyes the color of a fjord in summer.
Where on earth did that come from?
She’d never been prone to poetic flights of fancy. She gave her head a tiny shake to rid it of such nonsense.
But he’s so tall, and strong, and blond. Like a Viking warrior, but with better hair and minus all the scars.
Stop that, you moron! You’ve got a job to do—do it.
With reluctance, she withdrew her hand and nodded. “Mr. Gustafsson, I’ve brought you some papers on behalf of our client, Ronald Oglethorpe.”
Suspicion entered Erik’s gaze. “What kind of papers.Jillian fumbled in her briefcase, pulled out a folder, and handed it to him.
He read the first page, and a muscle in his jaw flexed. He turned to her with a scowl. “This is an eviction notice.”