Macy Frost was a sixth-generation Southern belle, a hard-working business owner, and an avid college basketball fan—and she wasn’t fond of pears. But she liked what pears meant on that sunny, cold afternoon in December, when the sound of Mariah Carey singing her famous Christmas anthem drifted in from Roastbusters, the tiny coffeehouse at the top of Love Lane.
Pears meant success!
When you were a founding partner at the most prosperous matchmaking agency in Charleston, South Carolina, a town made for romance, lots of satisfied clients sent holiday gifts. And since Thanksgiving, Macy had received four Harry & David fruit samplers, three boxes of Godiva chocolates, and a wall calendar featuring twelve state-of-the-art refrigerators from Joe, the Lowcountry’s most prosperous household appliance dealer.
Joe’s business calendar wasn’t very exciting, but she loved it anyway—because he was married now with two kids, thanks to Macy’s matchmaking skills, and Cupid.
She had an inside track, actually, when it came to the game of love. Thomas Winston Frost, the first of her ancestors to settle in Charleston in 1703, declared in a letter to his children that he was a direct descendant of Cupid himself. Thomas was a successful judge, well-loved, and skilled in matchmaking. He found a spouse for every one of his seven siblings and eight children.
So Macy liked to believe that she was Cupid’s direct descendant too, and took a special delight in wearing Thomas’s beautiful gold signet ring stamped with the family crest he’d brought over from England. The crest was emblazoned with a heart and arrow and the family motto in Latin: “Dives in caritate,” which meant “Rich in love.”
The Frost family tree was filled with people who had a spark for matchmaking. Macy’s father, her grandmother, and her great-grandmother were considered gifted in the love-and-marriage department. From the time she was a little girl, Macy had wanted to be Cupid’s assistant herself.
So what that she hadn’t found her soulmate yet? She’d barely noticed! She was having too much fun to worry about it.
That day—the pear day—she sat on the front edge of her massive desk, propped herself on her palm, slung one booted leg over the other, and bit into a juicy Anjou. A few pearls of juice trickled down her chin, and she let out a fake moan, fake because pear skin was always a little too bitter for her. But she didn’t care. She wanted to show Oscar, her orange tabby cat sprawled like a playboy across the desk blotter behind her, what luscious, in-your-face triumph looked like.
“Must be a really good pear,” a dry masculine voice announced from the door.
She stopped chewing. Whoever it was had said “pear” like someone from the Northeast—New York or Boston—and she was charmed. The voice woke her up the way an invigorating shower did, or an extra firm handshake. It occurred to her that she might not be having as much fun as she thought. She might be bored. Bored senseless! Showing off to a cat! Being happy about refrigerator calendars!
She turned toward the door.
A man channeling a young George Clooney—down to the amused expression in his eye—stood there in a black overcoat and a gray pinstriped suit, one broad shoulder on the doorjamb and his hands in his coat pockets. His bold stare beneath those jet eyebrows wasn’t exactly proper, according to Charleston standards. But Macy liked it, although she was loathe to admit it. She tried not to imagine him lounging next to her and feeding her grapes on a long barge sailing down the Nile and then ravishing her beneath a blazing hot sun. But she gave up and let the thought bloom while she took in the rest of him.
Beneath his open coat and jacket, his tapered waist and flat stomach appealed to her. So did his black hair, cut above his collar but slightly unruly at his temples. And there was the merest glimmer of a five o’clock shadow on his jaw, which looked chiseled out of desert sandstone. Damn him for being so handsome and virile when she was making a fool of herself with Oscar who, let’s be frank, was one of her very best friends.
“So you’re Macy Frost.” Sexy. Bossy. Two words she’d write at the top of his file.
“Who are you?” She wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of confirming his assumption, not until he introduced himself.
“Deacon Banks.” He crossed the threshold.
She put down the pear, slid her bottom off the front of her desk, and quickly maneuvered herself behind it, picking up a pen along the way to look official, busy, and unbothered, never once totally giving him her back.
Her first-impressions meter registered off the charts already. The man had spoken only six words, and already she wondered if there was a woman in Charleston who could take him on. She thought of Evelyn, the hard-edged, glamorous librarian at the main library on Calhoun Street, who was smarter than everyone and opinionated. Evelyn could hold her own with Deacon Banks.
But could they be a love match?
No, Macy could see that already. Evelyn would hate his gorgeousness. Evelyn would want a noble, hawk-nosed man with a slight stoop signifying his deep brooding nature.
Beneath his impressive garb, Mr. Banks—Macy guessed—was all action, a guy’s guy who played pick-up basketball after work and got hot wings delivered on a regular basis. At the most, he might have a passing knowledge of excellent wine to impress women and season tickets to the symphony. But he’d go just to network and would leave at intermission, or pass his tickets around to clients.
Yet somehow he’d figured out a way to get around the very precise Miss Thing at her antique King Louis XV bureau du roi and matching strawberry-silk-covered chair in the parlor off the front hall.
Macy stood straight and told herself that she was one hundred percent back in charge. Maybe Mr. Banks was here to sell her something. . . .
Instantly, she felt calmer. And disappointed.
“Nice place.” His six-foot-oneish, solid frame cast a shadow across the Persian rug as he sauntered all the way up to her desk and scratched Oscar’s ears.
Oscar was a terrible security cat. He burst into loud purrs and shut his eyes.
I’m sorry, but—Macy almost said but didn’t because Ella Mancini and Greer Jones, her business partners, had made a three-way pact not to apologize so much. “Whatever you’re selling, I’m not interested. Miss Thing should have told you—”
“I’m not selling.” Deacon Banks stayed flat-footed where he was, carelessly rubbing Oscar’s forehead, his fingers smooth and steady, not twitching the way hers were.
“Oh,” she answered.
“Is there really someone here named Miss Thing?”
“Yes.” Macy wouldn’t say more. Couldn’t say more. She was tongue-tied.
“This guy,” her unscheduled visitor said of Oscar, who was still preening, “looks almost exactly like the cat I had growing up. King Bean. The best mouser ever.”
His accent was adorable, and he liked Oscar. And he’d named his cat something as curious and likeable as King Bean. But she wouldn’t ask him more. She had a job to do.
She nudged Oscar off the desk. “So what is it you want, Mr. Banks?” She wouldn’t ask him to sit. And she wouldn’t sit, either.
He sat anyway, in front of her desk, in another beautiful vintage French chair, this one upholstered in an eye-popping, high-end, turquoise-saffron-and-white-patchwork fabric. He leaned forward, his hands curved and dangling between his knees, like he was on a basketball bench waiting to get called into the game.
Which appealed to her, of course. Anything about basketball did.
“I hear you’re a social butterfly with a local pedigree,” he said. “Just the person I need to talk to.”
Wow. His friendly tone probably got him a lot of attention and phone numbers from women in New York or Boston or New Haven or wherever he was from. But it didn’t affect Macy. At least not the way he probably hoped.
“I do have a lot of friends,” she answered him. “People I care deeply about. And yes, my family has been in Charleston a long time. But I’m earning my own way in this world. Social butterflies and pedigrees? U-G-H, ugh to terms like that.”
He arched one brow. “You really had to spell that out?”
“It felt good to, yes.” A shudder would have done as well, but she was a Southerner, which meant she loved being a little over the top when the situation called for it. “Now why are you here, exactly?”
“I’m in town until the end of December”—his eyes told her he was conflicted about this fact—“and I’d like to line up a string of striking, sophisticated dates. Good conversationalists. Women with style. It would also help if they have serious social cache here in Charleston.”
“I’m sorry.” She couldn’t wait to tell him why. “We’re not a dating service. We’re in the serious business of finding people the love of their lives. Nothing less.”
Take that, Mr. Banks!
“I’m not interested in love.” He spoke with utter assurance. “This arrangement is strictly temporary, a way to burn time while I’m here. I’d like to hire you to screen potential candidates. I’ve got an hour to spare today to write up the contract. This hour.”
She should have told him guys who talk like that fall the hardest. But she was busy being irritated at his indifference to her actual skill set and her business’s core mission, of which she was very proud.
“Please take a look at that wall.” She flung a well-manicured hand (nails painted in Deborah Lippmann’s “It’s Raining Men”) toward a mosaic of frames holding photos of couples who’d married as a result of working with her. “‘Strictly temporary’ and ‘burning time’ don’t match what we do at Two Love Lane.”
He gave the wall a cursory glance. “But you’re a businesswoman. You make deals.”
“Yes, I am a businesswoman. In fact, we have a special metric system here at Two Love Lane that’s garnered national attention.”
She loved talking about what she and her partners did. “We developed unique algorithms that rate compatibility and soulmate status to such an accurate degree, we’ve been featured on the Today show and Live with Kelly. So now we have clients from all over the United States. Soon we’re going international. We had to, after a European prince and a few Hollywood people showed interest.”
“Yes.” She had to admit, she was extremely excited about their royal and celebrity connections. Even the Chamber of Commerce was proud of Two Love Lane and had given them a special award at their last luncheon. If Mr. Banks was being sarcastic with that no, she’d show him to the door.
“Can I get in on this?” he asked. “Buy some stock? Become a partner?”
Oh, good. He sounded impressed. “I’m afraid not,” she said. “I already have two partners.”
Get in line, is what she really wanted to say. Now that they were doing well, they fielded calls from interested backers all the time.
“Sure,” he said, like a seasoned New Yorker, “but do these partners share your obvious passion for the brand?”
Macy had to chuckle. “Ella has more passion in her pinkie finger than you’ll find in a whole room full of suits. When she’s not here, she’s at the Dock Street Theatre. She loves to act and has a special fondness for musicals. You’d think she’d be all about Ella, since she gets a lot of lead roles. But she’s not. She reads people like no one else.”
“Whoa. I’d like to meet this Ella. And your other partner?”
“Greer is a total brainiac dressed like a Bond girl. Every charlatan’s worst nightmare.”
“You’re not presuming I’m a charlatan, right?”
“I never presume.”
Mr. Banks grinned. “I’m enjoying our chat, Miss Frost. May I ask another question?”
“Of course.” She was enjoying the Q&A session too, although she didn’t want to admit it.
“Why are you three in the matchmaking biz?” His furrowed brow made him look terribly serious all of a sudden.
“That’s easy,” she said with genuine feeling. “We believe in love, and we can’t imagine doing anything else.”
“Yes, but”—he leaned forward—“I can see in your eyes there’s something more.”
She was shocked. There was something more. How had he seen that? “You’re astute, Mr. Banks.”
“Why, thank you.”
She decided to be cryptically honest, if that was possible. “One of us broke someone’s heart really badly. Matchmaking relieves the guilt. Another one of us had her heart broken, and it derailed her professionally. Connecting other people for a living makes her feel empowered again. And the third one of us has never truly been in love because she holds back. She immerses herself in the love business to live vicariously.”
“You won’t say who’s who?”
“I’d rather not.” Inside, she still felt off-kilter. He was looking at her as if he could see right through her. Could he tell which one of the three she was?
“Cancel your lunch date,” he said. “I’ll take you out.”
That well-defined mouth, tipped up on one side, hinted at fun. Fun was not a good idea. Exhaustion was Macy’s constant companion lately, but she had to stay focused on riding this wave of success Two Love Lane was experiencing. And she certainly wasn’t going to whine about it or cave, in any way, to anybody.
“No thanks.” She went to the door and opened it, her hand holding the glass knob so hard that her Cupid signet ring dug into her finger. “I’m afraid I’m out of time to chat. Thanks for coming by. And good luck.”
He gave a sexy shrug. “I’ll pay double your fee today after I lay out more details about our potential arrangement at lunch. Work with me, Miss Frost. I don’t usually have to beg, so I can’t promise my offer will be open for long.”
She was hungry, and she loved the idea of adding a big, fat sum to Two Love Lane’s PayPal account. But, “The answer is still no,” she said.
There was the merest beat of silence.
“Got it.” He grinned. “If you change your mind, I’ll be at Fast and French.”
Her favorite local lunch spot, on Broad Street. A little hole-in-the-wall straight out of Paris, with a bar where people dined elbow-to-elbow and a few high tables squeezed in the back. Most tourists didn’t know about it.
“I won’t change my mind.” No way, no how, even though she adored the croq monsieur and the daily soup, which was never overly salted—the hallmark of an excellent chef, in her mind. She always told her friends it was the hallmark of an excellent chef, and they were tired of hearing her repeat herself.
It was one of her weird quirks, but everyone had a few, didn’t they?
“Come and sit with me anyway,” said Deacon Banks. “I’d love to hear more about your fair city.”
She loved how he said “fair city.” She loved anyone who loved Charleston. Nevertheless, she said, “I’m busy. But thank you.”
He stopped right next to her and shot her a mysterious, testosterone-infused smile, like something James Bond would bestow upon a woman he wanted to seduce. But since everyone knew James wanted to seduce everyone, Macy wasn’t biting.
She frowned up at him.
“Good-bye, Miss Frost.” He sounded as if he was in a good mood. Unfazed by her frown. Excited to go to Fast and French by himself to partake of their excellent soup, which he wouldn’t appreciate the way she did, because she could tell he was a hot-wings man, through and through.
After he left, Oscar walked a figure eight through her legs. “Sorry,” she said, “he’s not my type.”
But something compelled her to throw on her favorite white A-line winter coat, zip through Miss Thing’s parlor—which she noticed was empty—and fly down the front brick steps and through the iron gate. She told herself she was running in her boots down a cobblestone alley—risking two twisted ankles—only because she had to have a bowl of that deliciously seasoned Fast and French soup. And if she happened to tell Deacon Banks it wasn’t overly salted, then so be it. He’d simply have to listen.