Mari Madison wants only two things for Christmas: to help her mother win the town`s annual holiday decorating contest and to reinstate her good-girl reputation so that she can start her business on the right foot. Then across the street she spots the best-looking Christmas package she`s ever seen…and realizes it`s Declan Cole. The man who ruined her reputation in the first place. The man who`s sure he`s going to win the contest. So sure that Mari and Declan decide on a bet. If she wins, her spot on the nice list is guaranteed. But if he wins…he gets to prove that naughty is nice.
Well, ho, ho, ho. Mari Madison gave a little hum of appreciation as she stared across the street at what was, in her considered opinion, the nicest ass she`d ever seen. Leaning one denim-clad shoulder against her mother`s porch pillar, she sipped the viciously strong coffee and decided that this was her reward for moving back home to be closer to her mother. "Looks like the Coles are gearing up for the town`s annual holiday decorating contest," her mother said from inside the front door. "I`d love to win that someday, but I`m not very clever with the big outdoor display." "I`ll bet we can come up with an awesome idea that`s guaranteed to win," Mari decided. Her mom had been through so much—a lot of it because of her. Mari`s initial solution had been to leave town—out of sight, out of mind and all that. But she`d missed her mom. When she`d heard the only hairdresser in Ponder Hill was retiring, she`d taken it as a sign to come back home. And now that she had, she was going to do her mom proud. So Mari tossed a warm smile over her shoulder and promised, "I`ll help. This year will be your year." With another wistful glance and a laugh, her mom warned her not to get too chilly, then returned to baking yet another batch of gingerbread. Mari leaned against the pillar again, eyeing the sexy carpenter across the street. Despite her hot coffee and even hotter view, she shivered. After five years of California living, Ponder Hill, Tennessee, in the winter was a shock to her system. It was freaking cold here. She`d bundled up in a thick sweater under her fleece-lined denim jacket, jeans and two pairs of socks tucked into a sweet pair of wedge-heeled hiking boots. Totally impractical, but a girl had to have priorities. Cute shoes were definitely at the top of hers. The hottie across the street didn`t seem to have a problem with the temperature. Like her, he was wearing jeans and boots, although his were clearly for work, not fashion. But instead of layers and a knit beret, he wore a white T-shirt. Not that she was complaining. This gave her a great view of his rounded biceps as he swung his hammer at a big slab of wood. His hair, dark enough to contrast nicely where it brushed the collar of his shirt, gleamed in the morning light. Her gloved fingers itched to test the weight and texture of his hair to see if it was as wavy and thick as it looked. Occupational hazard, she figured. Though the tingle of desire in her belly had nothing to do with being a hairdresser and everything to do with attraction. Then he turned. Mari`s eyes focused on the nice fit of his jeans, noting they were just as promising from the front as the back. The tingle heated up as desire intensified. Her gaze took a slow, appreciative slide up his flat belly, over a chest worth sighing about and paused briefly to give a little hum at the impressive width of his shoulders. Oh yeah, they built them nice here in Ponder Hill. Nicer than she`d remembered, even. Anticipation tight, she let her gaze rest on his face. A lock of dark hair fell across his forehead, giving a little-boy sweetness to a face that was hard planes and masculine angles. Sharp cheekbones, a chiseled jaw and a mouth that just begged to be kissed. Yum. Her eyes met his—and widened in shock. Though she was too far away to see the color, she knew those deep-set eyes were a vivid green, like a grassy field on a hot summer day. Declan Cole. Well, shit. Mari`s fingers constricted on the mug. Figured. The sexiest guy she`d seen in years was the one who`d ruined her high school reputation. It looked like paybacks would be topping her holiday list this year.