Just in time for the holidays, my Christmas themed episode is now live on all podcast locations. I’m taking a break from reviewing books just for today and tomorrow, but I’ll be back the next day. Until then, enjoy this podcast and have a safe and wonderful Holiday Weekend! Merry Christmas to those who celebrate.
I received a free copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review. All opinions are my own.
Two former friends turned enemies find themselves back in each other’s lives years later, and a shared bond and goal forces them to examine what they truly mean to one another in author Michelle Major’s “Mistletoe Season”, the second book in The Carolina Girls series.
Spend the holidays in Magnolia, North Carolina, where two lonely hearts find exactly what they need for Christmas.
Angi Guilardi needs a man for Christmas—at least, according to her mother. What she really needs is to grow her fledgling catering business. Partnering with Magnolia’s Firefly Inn holds promise, but when her mother falls ill, Angi’s drawn back to the family restaurant. Balancing work and her eight-year-old son, there’s no time for romance… until Angi runs into Gabriel Carlyle.
Temporarily helping at his grandmother’s flower shop, Gabriel’s plan isn’t to stick around, especially after he runs into Angi, one of his childhood bullies. Sure, she’s all grown up and gorgeous now, and when they find themselves under the mistletoe, their chemistry is undeniable. But it’ll take more than a Christmas miracle for Angi to break through the defenses of Gabriel’s well-guarded heart and find a love built to last.
The tension between the two protagonists was palpable as the story began. The way the author explores the past these two characters share with one another and the impact their families have had on them as well was so intriguing and engaging and made the impact of their growing romance that much more meaningful. The pain of their pasts both tougher and individually elevated their character arcs to new heights and allowed the reader to feel connected to their emotional states overall.
The small-town vibe and history of the characters and area really made this story what it was. The intimate moments between the protagonists and the holiday romance felt much more alive due to the connected way the town and its citizens interacted with one another, and the connection each protagonist had to the wellbeing and overall happiness of Angi’s son brought out the best of each of them, making this such an emotionally-investing narrative.
A memorable, hopeful, and well-written holiday romance, author Michelle Major’s “Mistletoe Season” is the perfect read for romance fans this winter. The world-building and character development the author captured here in this narrative was entertaining and emotional all at once, and the twists and turns their relationship takes will keep readers on the edge of their seats. If you haven’t yet, be sure to grab your copy today!
About the Author
USA Today bestselling author Michelle Major loves stories of new beginnings, second chances and always a happily ever after. An avid hiker and avoider of housework, she lives in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains with her husband, two teenagers and a menagerie of spoiled furbabies.
Here is an Excerpt from “Mistletoe Season”
ANGI GUILARDI LET herself out of Il Rigatone, the restaurant her family had owned in Magnolia, North Carolina, for the past thirty years, and locked the door behind her. It was nearly eleven at night, and a brisk December wind whipped down Main Street. Although she should be wearing more than a white button-down, now stained with smatterings of red sauce, Angi welcomed the gust of air. At least it blew away the smell of sausage and tomato paste that clung to her like a barnacle.
Scents that seemed to be infused into her at this point, bringing back memories of years of a childhood spent in and out of the restaurant. It had been a long day, so she needed a shower and a glass of wine in equal measure.
She started toward her car, parked around the corner, but the sound of a door slamming nearby caught her attention. Downtown Magnolia rolled up the sidewalks early on a weeknight, so she didn’t expect anyone else to be out and about. She arched a brow at the woman approaching.
“Are you stalking me?”
Emma Cantrell gave an impatient snort as she moved closer. “That’s what it feels like, but it wouldn’t be necessary if you’d return my calls or answer messages.”
Angi turned to fully face her business partner—now former partner. “I’ve been busy,” she said, trying to make her tone dismissive. Instead, the words reeked of desperation.
“How’s your mom?” Emma asked gently, her annoyance with Angi temporarily put aside because, clearly, Emma was a good person. Too good for Angi to be ignoring her the way she had.
“Equally weak and ornery.” Angi dropped the oversize set of keys into her purse with a jangle. “The doctor says two more weeks, and then she can slowly begin to resume her normal activities.”
“Like running Il Rigatone?”
“We don’t know yet if she’ll ever return at the same capacity.” Angi bit down on the inside of her cheek until she tasted blood. “It doesn’t matter because I’m running it now.”
“But only temporarily,” Emma insisted. Or suggested, like saying the words out loud would make them true.
Oh, how Angi wanted them to be true.
She gave a small shake of her head. No more time for fanciful thoughts or big dreams about making her life her own. Unable to meet Emma’s sympathetic gaze, she looked across the street to the storefronts decorated in festive holiday cheer.
Colorful twinkle lights danced in the darkened window of the hardware store, and she could make out the shadow of garland wound through the sign for the dance studio. Boughs of greenery with bright red bows hung from every light post on either side of the street. Magnolia had gone all out on the holiday cheer this year.
Too bad Angi didn’t feel much of the holiday spirit. Sure, she’d gone through the motions of assembling the fake Christmas tree that had graced the corner of the restaurant’s small waiting area each December for as long as she could remember.
During a lull in customers yesterday, she and one of the waitresses had pulled out the totes of decorations from the storeroom, but nothing managed to conjure up the magic of the season. Not for her.
“I’m sorry I let you down,” she told Emma, thankful her voice remained steady. “I’ve got calls in to a couple caterers in the area to see if they can—”
“I don’t want another caterer.” Emma stepped forward. “You’re it, Ang.”
“I can’t…” She swallowed when a lump of sorrow lodged in her throat. “I should never have deserted my mom in the first place. If she hadn’t been working so much and upset about me as well, maybe the heart attack wouldn’t have happened.”
“Sweetie, you aren’t to blame for that.”
“She almost died,” Angi insisted, needing to make it clear. “Less than a year after my father. She collapsed in the restaurant’s storeroom, and I wasn’t here.”
“You were at the inn.”
“Having a grand old time, not a care in the world. My mom was fighting for her life, surrounded by employees until the EMTs got there, and I wasn’t with her. When she needed me the most—”
“Stop.” Emma held up a hand. “I remember that day, Angi. It was the McAlvey wedding, complete with the bride’s niece and her tiny Irish dancer friends pounding away on the parquet floor we assembled in the backyard. You made food for over a hundred guests. Plus lunch baskets for the Thompson reunion and their picnic at the beach. Five of the six online reviews that came from those two events mention the food being a highlight. You care a lot, so don’t pretend otherwise. Not with me.”
Emma still didn’t get it.
“I should have cared more about my mom. The way she did when I needed her. She looked so pale, Em.” Angi crossed her arms over her middle, squeezing tight. “I kept waiting for her eyes to pop open so she could start ordering me around or give me some kind of guilt trip, but she was still in the hospital bed with the monitors beeping and the smell of antiseptic permeating everything. She needs me now, and I can’t let her down.”
“What about letting yourself down? What about your happiness?”
Angi sniffed. “Doesn’t matter.”
“I’m sorry,” Angi said again.
She’d met Emma in the spring when the other woman bought an old mansion in town with a plan to turn it into a boutique inn. Emma had had her share of setbacks, but Angi admired her dedication to her dream. She also knew that leaving behind her old life had cost Emma her relationship with her mother.
Angi’s mom had been outspoken in the way only Italian mothers can manage when Angi walked away from the restaurant to partner with Emma on the inn. But Angi assumed that her mom would get over her disappointment. That they’d find a way to bridge the emotional distance between them. She loved her mom, even if Bianca Guilardi could be overbearing and autocratic. The willful matriarch had good intentions.
But they never got the chance to mend their fences because, a month earlier, Bianca had suffered a massive heart attack that led to double bypass surgery. In an instant, all of Angi’s plans changed.
She’d moved from her cozy apartment back to her childhood home, along with her ten-year-old son, Andrew, in order to care for her mom. She’d also stepped in at the restaurant, and in doing so, she’d left Emma in a pinch.
For that, she felt sick to her stomach with regret.
“If you can’t find someone to take care of the holiday events, I’ll still manage it,” she offered now, absently thinking about ways to clone herself.
“You can’t do both.”
Emma sighed. “My intention for tonight wasn’t to guilt you into more work.”
“Come on, I’m a master of guilt.”
“I know.” Emma gave her a pointed look. “That’s why I don’t want to add to it. I thought we were friends—business partners, as well. But you cutting me off as a friend is what hurts.”
Cue the remorse, Angi thought. She didn’t need anyone to lay it on her. She could do that very well for herself.
“It seems like all I’m doing lately is disappointing people. You and my mom.” She hitched a finger at the restaurant. “The staff who can tell I don’t want to be there. Andrew.”
“Wait. What’s going on with Andrew? I know you’re an amazing mother. That kid thinks the sun rises and sets on his mommy.”
Angi’s throat tightened again at the thought of her sweet, awkward, lanky string bean of a boy. He was everything to her, and now he was struggling and she didn’t know how to make it stop.
“He’s being bullied at school,” she confided. As difficult as it was to talk about, she appreciated the flash of supportive fury in Emma’s dark eyes.
“Give me the kid’s name.” Her buttoned-up friend spoke as if she were some kind of avenging angel.
“I don’t have it. Andrew won’t say anything, and his classmates are keeping quiet, as well. But he came home with a split lip and scrapes on his hands. I talked to the teacher and met with her and the principal. They said all the right things, but kids can be such jerks. Maybe if we lived in a bigger town or someplace where differences were more accepted, it would be easier for him to find his way. I hated growing up in Magnolia, and now I’m doing the same thing to him.”
Her nails dug into the fleshy part of her palms, and she welcomed the pain. At least it distracted her from the telltale scratchy eyes that foretold a bout of tears. She wasn’t going to break down in the middle of the sidewalk, even if it was deserted.
“How is it possible to hate it here?” Emma shook her head. “It’s idyllic.”
“Not for the Italian cannoli princess,” Angi muttered.
“Is that like a Midwestern Corn Queen at the state fair?”
“Not exactly. Never mind. My point is that I’m screwing up in every aspect of life. I’m sorry I ghosted you, Em. We are friends, but I didn’t want to admit that I was ditching the inn. You gave me the new start I wanted, and I can’t keep up my end of the bargain.” She let out a humorless laugh. “Here comes the guilt again.”
“I didn’t give you anything. You earned your place in our partnership, which I refuse to believe is over. At least until your mom fully recovers and we see what happens next. I’ll find someone to help with the nitty-gritty food prep and serving, but I’m going to take you up on your offer to manage things for the holidays. As long as it’s not too much. We can reassess in the new year.” She enveloped Angi in a gentle hug and couldn’t have known how much it helped. “Either way, the friendship stands.”
“Okay.” Angi couldn’t help but agree. She wasn’t ready to let go of her dream, even though she knew she had to. She dashed a hand over her cheeks. “Do you believe in Christmas miracles?”
“Me neither,” Angi agreed with a wry smile. “But I sure could use one.”
Excerpted from Mistletoe Season by Michelle Major. Copyright © 2021 by Michelle Major. Published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.
I received a free copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review. All opinions are my own.
A preschool teacher who’s never had a first kiss meets a handsome man and his nephew, who are both grieving the loss of the man’s sister, and both must figure out if they can get past their trauma and insecurities to find a new family in each other in author Lee Tobin McClain’s “First Kiss at Christmas”, the fifth book in the Off Season series.
At 25 years old, preschool teacher Kayla Harris is embarrassed to admit she’s never been kissed. When Tony DiNunzio and his grieving nephew show up in her classroom, she can’t help being drawn to both of them. If only her insecurities-and his guilt over his sister’s death-would stop standing in their way.
As Christmas approaches, can these three come together to form a family… not just for the holidays, but forever?
What a powerful and emotional holiday romance. Tragedy marks the male protagonist of this story, putting him into the role of a caregiver to his nephew after his sister’s tragic murder. Trying to help his nephew through his loss and struggling with his own guilt, the author really did an amazing job of showcasing the emotional turmoil that a loss of this magnitude could have on a person, and the lengthy process of not only letting go of that guilt but of allowing ourselves to feel love again in the face of that tragedy was such a powerful message for this narrative.
The balance the author found with that profound theme and the more holiday romance magic of the female protagonist’s story was amazing to read. Her own struggles with the past and her desire to experience love and her first kiss was the romantic incentive the narrative needed, and the story did an amazing job of showcasing these two characters’ evolution and the way opening ourselves up to others could help with the healing process.
A beautiful, heartbreaking, yet truly romantic and emotional read, author Lee Tobin McClain’s “First Kiss at Christmas” is a must-read holiday romance drama. The gripping story of these two characters and their developing relationship will absolutely enthrall readers, and the magical romance that drives the narrative forward brings a harmonious tone to the more tragic circumstances of the character’s backgrounds, making this a truly remarkable read. If you haven’t yet, be sure to grab your own copy today!
About the Author
Lee Tobin McClain is the bestselling author of more than thirty emotional, small-town romances described by Publishers Weekly as enthralling, intense, and heartfelt. A dog lover and proud mom, she often includes kids and animals in her books. When she’s not writing, she enjoys hiking with her goofy goldendoodle, chatting online with her writer friends, and admiring her daughter’s mastery of the latest TikTok dances.
Check Out This Excerpt From First Kiss At Christmas
KAYLA HARRIS CARRIED a bag of snowflake decorations to the window of her preschool classroom. She started putting them up in a random pattern, humming along to the Christmas music she’d accessed on her phone.
Yes, it was Sunday afternoon, and yes, she was a loser for spending it at work, but she loved her job and wanted the classroom to be ready when the kids returned from Thanksgiving break tomorrow. Nobody could get as excited as a four-year-old about Christmas decorations.
Outside, the November wind tossed the pine branches and jangled the swings on the Coastal Kids Early Learning Center’s playground. A lonely seagull swooped across the sky, no doubt headed for the bay. The Chesapeake was home to all kinds of wildlife, year-round. That was one of the things she loved about living here.
Then another kind of movement from the playground caught her eye.
A man in a long, army-type coat, bareheaded, ran after a little boy. When Kayla pushed open the window to see better, she heard the child screaming.
Heart pounding, she rushed downstairs and out the door of the empty school.
The little boy now huddled at the top of the sliding board, mouth wide open as he cried, tears rolling down round, rosy cheeks. The man stood between the slide and a climbing structure, forking his fingers through disheveled hair, not speaking to the child or making any effort to comfort him. This couldn’t be the little boy’s father. Something was wrong.
She ran toward the sliding board. “Hi, honey,” she said to the child, keeping her voice low and calm. “What’s the matter?”
“Leave him alone,” the man barked out. His ragged jeans and wildly flapping coat made him look disreputable, maybe homeless.
She ignored him, climbed halfway up the ladder, and touched the child’s shaking shoulder. “Hi, sweetheart.”
The little boy jerked away and, maybe on purpose, maybe not, slid down the slide. The man rushed to catch him at the bottom, and the boy struggled, crying, his little fists pounding, legs kicking.
Kayla pulled out her phone to report a possible child abduction, eyes on the pair, poised to interfere if the man tried to run with the child.
One of the boy’s kicks landed in a particularly vulnerable spot, and the man winced and adjusted the child to cradle him as if he were a baby. “Okay, okay,” he murmured in a deep, but gentle voice, nothing like the sharp tone in which he’d addressed Kayla. He sat down on the end of the slide and pulled the child close, rocking a little. “You’re okay.”
The little boy struggled for another few seconds and then stopped, laying his head against the man’s broad chest. Apparently, this guy had gained the child’s trust, at least to some degree.
For the first time, Kayla wondered if she’d misread the situation. Was this just a scruffy dad? Was she maybe just being her usual awkward self with men?
He looked up at her then, curiosity in his eyes.
Her face heated, but she straightened her shoulders and lifted her chin. She was an education professional trying to help a child. “This is a private school, sir,” she said. “What are you doing here?”
The little boy had startled at her voice and his crying intensified. The man ignored her question.
“Is he your son?”
Again, no answer as he stroked the child’s hair and whispered something into his ear.
“All right, I guess it’s time for the police to straighten this out.” She searched for the number, her fingers numb with the cold. Maybe this situation didn’t merit a 911 call, but there was definitely something unusual going on. Her small town’s police force could straighten it out.
“WAIT. DON’T CALL THE POLICE.” Tony DeNunzio struggled to his feet, the weight of his tense nephew making him awkward. “Everything’s okay. I’m his guardian.” He didn’t owe this woman an explanation, and it irritated him to have to give one, but he didn’t want Jax to get even more upset. The child hated cops, and with good reason.
“You’re his guardian?” The blonde, petite as she was, made him feel small as her eyes skimmed him up and down.
He glanced down at his clothes and winced. Lifted a hand to his bristly chin and winced again.
He hadn’t shaved since they’d arrived in town two days ago, and he’d grabbed these clothes from the heap of clean but wrinkled laundry beside his bed. Not only because he was busy trying to get Jax settled, but because he couldn’t bring himself to care about folding laundry and shaving and most of the other tasks under the general heading of personal hygiene. A shower a day, and a bath for Jax, was about all he could manage. His brother and sister—his surviving sister—had scolded him about it, back home.
He couldn’t explain all of that, didn’t need to. It wasn’t this shivering stranger’s business. “Jax is going to enroll here,” he said.
“Really?” Another wave of shivers hit her, making her teeth chatter. Tony didn’t know where she’d come from, but apparently her mission of mercy had compelled her to run outside without her coat.
He’d offer her his, but he had a feeling she’d turn up her nose.
“The school is closed on Sundays,” she said.
Thank you, Miss Obvious. But given that he and Jax had slipped through a gap in the playground’s loosely chained gate, he guessed their presence merited a little more explanation. “I’m trying to get him used to the place before he starts school tomorrow. He has trouble with…” Tony glanced down at Jax, who’d stopped crying and stuck his thumb in his mouth, and a surge of love and frustration rose in him. “He has trouble with basically everything.”
The woman shook her head and put a finger to her lips, then pointed at the child.
What was that all about? And who was she, the parenting police? “Do you have a reason to be here?” he asked, hearing the truculence in his own voice and not caring.
She narrowed her eyes at him. “I work nearby,” she said. “Saw you here and got concerned, because the little guy seemed to be upset. For that matter, he still seems to be.”
No denying that. Jax had tensed up as soon as they’d approached the preschool playground, probably because it was similar to places where he’d had other bad experiences. Even though Jax had settled some, Tony could feel the tightness in his muscles, and he rubbed circles on his nephew’s back. “He’s been kicked out of preschool and day care before,” he explained. “This is kind of my last resort.”
She frowned. “You know he can hear you, right?”
“Of course he can hear, he’s not…” Tony trailed off as he realized what she meant. He shouldn’t say negative things about Jax in front of him.
She was right, but she’d also just met him and Jax. Was she really going to start telling him how to raise his nephew?
Of course, probably almost anyone in the world would be better at it than he was.
“Did you let the school know the particulars of his situation?” She leaned against the slide’s ladder, her face concerned.
Tony sighed. She must be one of those women who had nothing else to do but criticize how others handled their lives. She was cute, though. And it wasn’t as if he had much else to do, either. He’d completed all the Victory Cottage paperwork, and he couldn’t start dealing with the program’s other requirements until the business week started tomorrow.
Jax moved restlessly and looked up at him.
Tony set Jax on his feet and gestured toward the play structure. “Go ahead and climb. We’ll go back to the cottage before long.” He didn’t know much about being a parent, but one thing he’d learned in the past three months was that tiring a kid out with active play was a good idea.
Jax nodded and ran over to the playset. His tongue sticking out of one corner of his mouth, forehead wrinkled, he started to climb.
Tony watched him, marveling at how quickly his moods changed. Jax’s counselor said all kids were like that, but Jax seemed a little more extreme than most.
No surprise, given what he’d been through.
Tony looked back at the woman, who was watching him expectantly.
“What did you ask me?” Sometimes he worried about himself. It was hard to keep track of conversations, not that he had all that many of them lately. None, except with Jax, since they’d arrived in Pleasant Shores two days ago.
“I asked if you let the school know about his issues,” she said. “It might help them help him, if they know what they’re working with.”
“I didn’t tell them about the other schools,” he said. “I didn’t want to jinx this place, make them think he’s a bad kid, right from the get-go. He’s not.”
“I’m sure he isn’t,” she said. “He’s a real cutie. But still, you should be up front with his teachers and the principal.”
Normally he would have told her to mind her own business, but he was just too tired for a fight. “You’re probably right.” It was another area where he was failing Jax, he guessed. But he was doing the best he could. It wasn’t as if he’d had experience with any kids other than Jax. Even overseas, when the other soldiers had given out candy and made friends, he’d tended to terrify the little ones. Too big, too gruff, too used to giving orders.
“Telling the school the whole story will only help him,” she said, still studying Jax, her forehead creased.
He frowned at her. “Why would you care?”
“The truth is,” she said, “I’m going to be his teacher.”
Great. He felt his shoulders slump. Had he just ruined his nephew’s chances at this last-resort school?
MONDAY MORNING, KAYLA welcomed the last of her usual students and stood on tiptoes to look down the stairs of the Coastal Kids preschool. Where were Tony and Jax?
She’d informed two of her friendliest and most responsible students that a new boy was coming today and that they should help him to feel at home. If he didn’t get here in time for the opening circle, she’d tell all twelve of the kids about Jax.
But maybe his uncle had changed his mind about enrolling him.
Maybe Kayla’s mother, who was the principal of the little early learning center, had decided Jax wasn’t going to be a good fit and suggested another option for him. That would be rare, but it occasionally happened.
Mom said Kayla fretted too much. Probably true, but it was in the job description. Kayla felt a true calling to nurture and educate the kids in her care. Sometimes, that meant worrying about them.
The Coastal Kids Early Learning Center was housed in an old house that adjoined a local private school. Kayla’s classroom was one of three located upstairs, and from hers, she could see down the central staircase to the glassed-in offices. Her mother was welcoming a few stragglers, but there was still no sign of her new student.
She turned back to face her students. “Good job sharing,” she said to redheaded Nicole, who was holding out a plastic truck to her friend. “Jacob, we don’t run in the classroom. Why don’t you look at the new books on our reading shelf?”
After making sure all the kids were occupied with their morning playtime, she stepped out into the hall. If she could flag down her mother, she’d try to find out what was going on with Jax.
And then Tony came into the school, holding Jax’s hand.
Kayla sucked in a breath. Wow. He cleaned up really well.
Not that he was entirely cleaned up; he still had the stubbly half beard that made him look a little dangerous, and his thick, dark hair was overlong. But he wore nice jeans and a green sweater with sleeves pushed up to reveal muscular forearms. He knelt so Jax could jump onto his back for a piggyback ride, then stood easily, and Kayla sucked in another breath. There was something about a guy who was physically strong.
He stopped and spoke to Kayla’s mother—she’d been occupied with another parent right inside the office, apparently—and then, at her gesture, headed up the stairs toward Kayla’s classroom.
A wrongly convicted businessman finally exonerated of his wrongful conviction and a young woman raising her goddaughter and looking for a fresh start find themselves drawn together during the holidays in author Brenda Jackson’s “One Christmas Wish”, the latest in the Catalina Cove Series.
It’s Christmas in Catalina Cove, a time of promise and second chances. But when you’re starting over, love is the last thing you’re wishing for…
Vaughn Miller’s Wall Street career was abruptly ended by a wrongful conviction and two years in prison. Since then, he’s returned to his hometown, kept his head down and forged a way forward. When he is exonerated and his name cleared, he feels he can hold his head up once again, maybe even talk to the beautiful café owner who sets his blood to simmering.
Sierra Crane escaped a disastrous marriage—barely. She and her six-year-old goddaughter have returned to the only place that feels like home. Determined to make it on her own, Sierra opens a soup café. Complication is the last thing she needs, but the moment Vaughn walks into her café, she can’t keep her eyes off the smoldering loner.
When they give in to their attraction, what Sierra thought would be a onetime thing becomes so much more. Vaughn knows she’s the one. Sierra can’t deny the way Vaughn makes her feel, but she’s been burned before. With Christmas approaching, Vaughn takes a chance to prove his love, and it will be up to Sierra to decide if her one Christmas wish—true happiness—will come true.
The author immediately brought a level of intrigue to the characters with the introduction of Vaughn. His backstory and the trials and tribulations he endured to get to the point he is at in the story was so emotionally driven, and to be able to convey that in a short introduction to the character and bring those emotions to the forefront showed the depth of the author’s writing immediately. Sierra showed such strength and resilience in the face of her own tragic past and highlighted the power and heart that goes into owning our own power and our ability to fight our own battles while still having a support system.
The romance and passion really drove this narrative forward greatly. The story does incorporate a bit of holiday setting and magic into the book, but this is definitely still a very steamy and heated romance, delving into both the emotional depths of their relationship and the more intimate and sexual nature of their bond together, giving romance readers a well-rounded narrative overall.
A brilliant, heartfelt, and truly creative holiday romance, author Brenda Jackson’s “One Christmas Wish” is a must-read story this holiday season. For fans of passionate and heated romances with a heartwarming holiday twist, the narrative takes readers on an emotional journey that tears down two people’s barriers and ends on a fantastically emotional twist of an ending that will keep readers feeling all the feels this holiday. If you haven’t yet, be sure to grab your copy today!
About the Author
Brenda Jackson is aNew York Times bestselling author of more than one hundred romance titles. Brenda lives in Jacksonville, Florida, and divides her time between family, writing and traveling.
Here is an Excerpt From One Christmas Wish by Brenda Jackson
SIERRA CRANE CRINGED every time her ex-husband called. Their marriage had ended almost two years ago, so why couldn’t he get on with his life the way she had gotten on with hers? She hadn’t heard from him since the divorce and now this was the second phone call in a month.
And why did he always manage to call her at the worst time? The dinner crowd was arriving at her soup café, the Green Fig, and she was short a waitress tonight. The last thing she needed to be doing was talking on the phone to her ex.
“What is it now, Nathan?” she asked, trying to keep her voice low to avoid being overheard by the customers coming in.
“You know what I want, Sierra. We rushed into our divorce and I want a reconciliation. We didn’t even seek counseling.”
She rolled her eyes. It wasn’t as if counseling would have helped their marriage. She had put up with things for as long as she could, and had to remove herself from that toxic environment. His infidelity had been the last straw, and then there had been his total lack of sensitivity when her best friend Rhonda Andrews was dying.
“Why are we even discussing this, Nathan? You know as well as I do that no amount of counseling would have helped our marriage. You betrayed me. I caught you in the act. Look, I’m busy,” she said when she saw customers waiting to be seated. “And do me a favor and don’t call back. Our divorce is final, and I intend for it to stay that way. Goodbye.” She clicked off the phone and, for good measure, she blocked his number.
Moving from behind the counter, she assisted her staff in seating customers and taking orders. It was an hour later when the dinner rush had ended that she found the time to go into her office and work on tomorrow’s menu. The monitor screen on her desk was connected to a video camera showing the perimeters of the dining area. If she was needed to assist her staff again, she would know it.
She sat in the chair behind her desk thinking about Nathan’s call. The nerve of him thinking they could get back together. Not only had he cheated on her but he had resented all the trips she’d taken from Chicago to Houston to spend time with Rhonda in her final days. It hadn’t mattered to him that Rhonda was terminally ill and there had been so much to do and so little time left.
The main focus had been the well-being of Rhonda’s four-year-old daughter, Teryn, who’d lost her father two years earlier in Afghanistan. Without family on both sides, Sierra was Teryn’s godmother and Rhonda had made Sierra promise to take care of Teryn when the time came. Nathan, who’d never wanted children, had been resentful of that, too.
It had been one of those weekends she’d visited Rhonda in Houston and she’d returned home early to find another couple, namely her neighbors, in bed with her husband. That’s when she’d found out about his swinging lifestyle. He’d confessed it was something he had tried during his college days but thought he had put behind him…until he had discovered their new neighbors had enjoyed doing that sort of thing.
When Sierra had filed for divorce, Nathan assumed if he kept sending her flowers, calling her all the time, and showing up unexpectedly at her new residence with chocolates, designer purses and jewelry, he could wear down her resistance and she would call off the divorce. He finally saw that wasn’t happening.
An hour later Sierra left her office to return to the dining area. It was time for her only waitress on the floor tonight to take her break. Sierra had just stepped behind the counter when the sound of the bell above the door alerted her that she had a customer.
The Green Fig, which served lunch and dinner Mondays through Fridays, had been open for business for only a year. The restaurant closed every night at eight. Most of her customers were locals who’d known her grandmother and were happy that Ella Crane had passed her delicious soup recipes on to her granddaughter.
Sierra had a good staff. She’d hired Emma, who’d been a friend of her mother’s for years, as head cook and Maxine, who’d graduated from the New Orleans cooking school last year, as Emma’s assistant. Normally there were two waitresses, Iris and Opal, who handled the dining room, and Sherri took care of the take-out orders. On any given day there were more take-out orders than sit-down orders, especially during lunch.
She’d hired Levi Canady as the assistant manager. An ex-cop who’d retired early from the force due to an injury, he was also a good friend of Sierra’s father from their elementary school days. Levi was a godsend and would take over for Sierra whenever Teryn came home from school. He managed the restaurant every night except on Wednesdays. He also opened and closed for her on Saturdays, when the restaurant was open only for lunch. Whenever Teryn had gymnastics practice Sierra would help out in the café until she got home. Today was one of those days.
Sierra glanced at the door and saw Vaughn Miller walk in, dressed in a business suit. On any other man the outfit would probably look like just regular professional attire, but on him it appeared tailor-made. He was a very handsome man and looking good in anything he wore was just part of who he was.
Sierra didn’t know Vaughn personally, although they had both been born in Catalina Cove and had attended the same schools. She hadn’t had the right pedigree to be in his social circles since his family had been one of the wealthiest in town. They had come from old money, probably as old as it could get in the cove when you were a descendant of the town’s founder.
When Vaughn Miller took a seat at one of the booths, she grabbed a menu out of the rack and headed to his table. He’d come in once or twice before, but it had always been for takeout. It appeared that today he intended to dine in.
“Welcome to the Green Fig.”
He looked up when she handed him the menu. “Thanks.”
This was the closest she had ever been to Vaughn Miller and she couldn’t help noticing things she hadn’t seen from a distance. Like the beautiful hazel coloring of his eyes. He had sharp cheekbones and she liked the way his nose was the perfect size for his face and the full lips beneath it. And speaking of lips…did his have to be of such sensual perfection? And then she couldn’t miss the light beard that covered his lower jaw and how it enhanced those lips but didn’t hide the dimple in his chin.
Vaughn’s skin was a maple brown and he wore his thick black hair long. It wasn’t down past his shoulders like Kaegan Chambray’s, but it was long enough to touch his collar. To her the long and tousled hairstyle did much to highlight his French Creole ancestry.
The Creoles derived from free people of color from Africa, France and Spain, as well as other mixed-heritage descendants. Those blended races and cultures were a large population of Louisiana, and more specifically, New Orleans, Catalina Cove and other surrounding cities.
Sierra had to concur with the feminine whispers around town that Vaughn Miller was a very handsome man and a sharp dresser, yet she noted he had a definite rugged masculine appeal. Even dressed nicely in a suit, all you had to do was add a tricorne hat on his head and a loop earring in his ear and he would instantly become a dashing pirate. A look that no doubt would make his great-great-great-great-grandfather, the cove’s founder, Jean Lafitte, proud.
She knew six years ago he’d been sent to prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Three months ago, articles appeared in numerous newspapers reporting on his exoneration and how those who were guilty had been brought to justice. He had been cleared of all charges.
“What’s the special for today?”
She blinked upon realizing she’d been standing there staring at him the entire time. Clearing her throat, she said, “Today’s special is the broccoli and cheese soup and it’s served with a half sandwich. Turkey or chicken.”
He smiled up at her and that smile made his features even more beguiling and clearly showed that dimple in his chin. “That sounds good. I’d like a bowl with a chicken sandwich.”
She wrote his order down on the pad and noticed his French accent. She recalled overhearing her parents say that his mother had been French and his father mixed French and African American, and that French had been the primary language spoken in the Miller household. She also remembered hearing while growing up he would spend his summers in France as well with his grandparents. That was probably the reason the accent was still strong after all this time.
“What would you like to drink?”
Sierra nodded. “Okay, I’ll put in your order and get your ale.”
She turned and walked toward the kitchen. When she knew she was out of his sight and that of customers and staff, she fanned herself with the menu. Vaughn Miller had definitely made every hormone in her body sizzle.
One Christmas Wish by Brenda Jackson. Copyright © 2021 by Brenda Streater Jackson. Published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.
A woman finds her ex-husband at the front door of her winter resort just as a winter storm hits the area, injured and suffering from amnesia. Soon old feelings and romance begins to bloom as she helps care for him, but will their past come hurtling back and upend what they are building together? Find out in author Patricia Johns’s novel, “Snowbound with Her Mountain Cowboy”.
A lost memory could mean a second chance! Mountain resort owner Angelina Cunningham has her hands full with a massive winter storm. Which is exactly when her ex-husband arrives, injured and suffering temporary amnesia. Ben King has always been her weakness. Though he doesn’t remember her, he’s still as charming and sweet as ever, and Angelina is falling for him all over again. But can their rekindled love outlast the storm and the return of their past mistakes?
This was such an engaging and beautiful story. The author does a great job of exploring the depths that love can take us on. While the fairytale, love at first sight style stories are so fun and entertaining to read, getting a much more layered and in-depth exploration of romance between two people who were in love, lost that love, and then found it again was so much closer to reality and gave readers someone to identify within this novel.
The character development was so rich and gripping to behold. The thing the author really zeroed in on during this read was the need for love to be worked on, not just taken for granted. Love can sadly be a fleeting thing if people don’t work together to hold onto it, and the characters and their journey really explored this to the fullest, showing that feelings can remain in our hearts and can be brought to the surface if people are willing to work on it.
A remarkable, honest, and emotional read, author Patricia Johns’s “Snowbound with Her Mountain Cowboy” is a must-read holiday romance novel. The honest and engaging way the author explored this relationship and the exploration of love and romance’s more complicated facets will keep readers engaged throughout the novel’s entirety. If you haven’t yet, be sure to grab your copy today!
About the Author
Patricia Johns writes from Alberta, Canada where she lives with her husband and son. She has her Honors BA in English Literature and writes for both Harlequin and Kensington books. She loves prairie skies and time with her family.
A hustle and bustle businessman hoping to convince his powerful parents that he isn’t alone asks a local bartender and working designer to pretend to be his girlfriend during the holidays, and soon sparks begin to fly in author Georgia Toffolo’s “Meet Me In London”, the first in the Meet Me series.
What do you do when your fake engagement starts to feel too real?
Aspiring clothes designer Victoria Scott spends her days working in a bar in Chelsea and her evenings designing vintage clothes, dreaming of one day opening her own boutique. But these aspirations are under threat from the new department store opening at the end of her road. She needs a Christmas miracle, but one is not forthcoming.
Oliver Russell’s Christmas is not looking very festive right now. His family’s new London department store opening is behind schedule, and on top of that his interfering, if well-meaning, mother is pressing him to bring his girlfriend home for a visit. A girlfriend who does not exist. He needs a diversion. Something to keep his mother from interfering while he focuses on the business.
When Oliver meets Victoria, he offers a proposition: pretend to be his girlfriend at the opening of his store and he will provide an opportunity for Victoria to showcase her designs. But what starts as a business arrangement soon becomes something more tempting, as the fake relationship starts to feel very real. But when secrets in Victoria’s past are exposed, will Oliver walk away, or will they both follow their hearts and find what neither knew they were looking for?
The author did such a great job of finding that perfect balance between slow-burn romance and in-depth character development. The theme of the class difference between the working class trying to keep their businesses afloat in the face of a massive launch of a megastore in the same neighborhood paired well with the wealthy businessman desperate to find a way to maintain his business and help out the local community all at once.
Yet it was the characters themselves that brought the romance aspect of this holiday read to life. The haunting past that Victoria is desperate to steer clear of and the struggle of Oliver to reconcile the man his family expects him to be with the man he wants to be is so fascinating to read, and the way this plays into their growing feelings for one another makes this such a heartwarming holiday romance.
A heartwarming, engaging, and truly thoughtful read, author Georgia Toffolo’s “Meet Me in London” is the perfect first installment in this brilliant romance series. The harmonious way the holiday setting and the character growth came together in this story and the twists and turns this relationship takes the characters into, especially when neither was looking for a romance, to begin with, was so entertaining to read and readers will be eager for more entries in this series. If you haven’t yet, be sure to grab your copy today!
About the Author
Georgia Toffolo is a broadcaster and TV personality. She has been a firm favourite with the public right from the start of her TV debut, Made in Chelsea, all the way to winning over the hearts of I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here in 2018.
Georgia turned her eye to fashion and has curated two sell out collections with fashion retailer Shein. An ambassador for many British brands, both large and small, Georgia has also collaborated with Dyson, Baileys, Emma Bridgewater, Great British Racing, Foreo and Malibu amongst many more.
Most recently, Georgia has dived into the world of fiction by publishing her debut novel Meet Me in London with publishing house Mills and Boon. This is the first of an original series of four books following a group of lifelong friends and bringing personal anecdotes to life with humour and charm.
Here is an Excerpt from “MEET ME IN LONDON”
OLIVER RUSSELL COULD wrangle a wayward balance sheet back into the black, take failing stores apart and breathe new life into them, make difficult calls on staffing and personnel issues, make his shareholders happy and very, very rich. But he had never managed to curb his mother’s meddling in his private life.
Some things were just impossible.
Earth to Oliver. This is your mother asking about your Christmas Day plans. Will I need to set an extra place at the dinner table? Hint, hint. Your mother xx
Sitting on a stool at the bar in the upmarket wine bar The Landing, Oliver groaned as he interpreted the “hint” as yet another badly veiled attempt to discover his relationship status. Great one, Mum. Way to put pressure on a guy.
Could this week get any worse? He threw his mobile phone onto the sticky, beer-stained counter, gripped the tumbler in front of him and took a sip of a much needed fifteen-year-old Scotch. As the honey-colored syrup oozed down his throat and hit his stomach with a warming buzz he silently counted all the ways things had gone wrong in such a short space of time.
First mistake: allowing his mother to believe he was finally settling down when in reality his love life could only be described as…nonexistent. And now having to think up all the ways he could appease his parents over the holidays without going quietly insane.
Whereas other families had jolly traditions of games and church on Christmas Day, his parents’ idea of fun was to corner him in the living room, pin him down with laser stares and interrogate him for signs of commitment, a potential wife and progeny. A grandchild, or preferably many grandchildren, to spoil and give meaning to their later years, someone to carry on the family name and also an heir to entrust the business to. As an only child Oliver was expected to do so, as his father had done before him.
Trouble was, after his last romantic failure, settling down was not on Oliver’s bucket list. At least, not for a very long time.
Second mistake: in the spirit of keeping the family business afloat he’d agreed to clean up the mess his cousin was making of the new build. Ollie should have let him fall on his sword, but that would have meant his parents suffering too and there was no way he was going to allow that. So, here he was in a rowdy bar in Chelsea at ridiculous o’clock at night—or was it early morning?—having only just finished work, with the prospect of another seventeen-hour day tomorrow and the next day, and the next…
He took another sip of whiskey but almost choked as someone bumped into his hip, jolted his arm and sloshed the Scotch, rich but burning, down his throat.
“Hey, gorgeous.” A woman old enough to be his mother—and even though deep down he loved his mum, Lord knew he didn’t need two of them—appeared at his shoulder and beamed at him. Her eyes were wine-glazed and the lipstick smudged over her mouth almost up to her nostrils made her look like a startled fish. “I’ve got mistletoe, you know what that means, right?”
“That it’s time I left?” Scraping his stool back he stood, steadying the woman as she swayed, and then handed her into the waiting arms of her friends who were all dressed as…well, he wasn’t entirely sure, but there were glitter wings and feathery haloes involved, so he imagined they were supposed to be Christmas angels. In November?
As if knowing all about his work stress and family dilemmas even the music in the bar seemed to mock him. Too loud and too cheery and all about being home and in love at Christmas. He shuddered. No thanks.
Which brought him to his third mistake: choosing the bar from hell to drown his sorrows in. It wasn’t even December and yet here they all were screeching Christmas carols at the top of their tone-deaf voices. Christmas was everywhere. In the glittery tinsel that hung in loopy garlands across the ceiling and the fake tree in the corner. The soundtrack to the evening. The clothes people were wearing. Christmas was hurtling fast towards him and he was running out of time. He had so much to do to fix his first mistake before the doors of the new Russell & Co. department store opened, way behind schedule, but in time for the busiest, and therefore most lucrative time of the year.
He just needed some kind of miracle to make it happen.
On the counter his phone vibrated. He picked up and grimaced at another text, knowing what was bound to be coming but also knowing if he ignored her it would only get worse: Oliver? It’s a simple question. Blink once for yes. Twice for no. Are we finally going to meet your new girlfriend? Your mother xx.
Uh-oh. She was dropping the veiled interest and taking a more direct approach. This was serious.
He flicked a text back:
When your message flashes onto my screen it identifies you as my mother. There is also a little photo of you smiling at me at the top of your texts. You don’t need to tell me who you are.
He added two kisses, because, well, she was his mother: Ollie xx.
A pause while he watched three gray dots dance on his screen and then:
Not a single blink. How do I interpret that? We just want to see you happy. Your mother xxx
By happy, she meant married. As if you couldn’t be otherwise. Although he knew just as many people who were married and miserable as married and happy.
How was he even meant to send a blink by text anyway? He rolled his eyes instead. Nothing confirmed as yet.
Before he could say “Bah Humbug” her reply flashed on his screen:
When will you know? Your mother xx
Oliver: I don’t know.
If he told her the delightful Clarissa had moved on to a more malleable boyfriend his mum would be trying to arrange dates for him.
As if on cue another text arrived:
Is there something you’re not telling us? Is it over? So soon? Again? Oh, Oliver.
He could feel the disappointment coming through the airwaves as her next text quickly followed:
Perhaps I should invite the Henleys over on Christmas Day. I heard Arabella’s back from her Indian ashram trip and SINGLE. And stop rolling your eyes at me. Your mother xx
He couldn’t help but laugh at that, despite his growing frustration. He tried to stay noncommittal. Apparently, according to his ex, noncommittal was a strength of his:
Do NOT set any more dates up for me. Nothing’s confirmed re Xmas. I’ll let you know when I know.
Mum: At the new store opening then?
Just a matter of weeks away. She clearly wasn’t giving up. She never gave up. She wouldn’t give up until she was holding his first child. Or maybe his second—his second set of triplets.
That was the problem; she wasn’t giving up. He just needed to appease her. Or ignore her. So, he chose the latter.
Realizing he hadn’t finished his drink and grateful that the bar staff were now shuffling the off-tune singers outside, he sat back down and resumed his contemplation of the whiskey in front of him. At some point the staff would shuffle him out too, but for now he craved this brief peace and quiet, save for his mother’s infuriating but well-meaning texts and a muted conversation between the servers coming from a little room off to the side of the bar.
He could hear Paul, the guy who’d served him earlier say, “Hey, Vicki, are you OK to close up tonight? I promised Amanda I’d get home early. It’s our anniversary.”
“Of course.” A soft voice filtered through. “You helped me out by taking the early shift so I could teach my class, so I’m more than happy to hang around here for the stragglers. Sara said she’d stay on and help me clear up.”
Stragglers? Was that what he was now? Ollie looked around the bar at the three other solo drinkers—all male, all staring hopelessly into glasses of alcohol. He laughed to himself. Yeah, damned right he fitted that description; moving slowly. He didn’t want to hurry because the sooner he went home, the sooner tomorrow would arrive bringing with it all his problems.
“So how did class go today?” he heard Paul ask the owner of the soft voice. “Any more visits from the local cops?”
Police? Interesting. Ollie leaned forward to hear the mystery woman’s answer.
“Oh, that was all just a misunderstanding. Her brother gave her the iPad, Jasmine didn’t know it was stolen.” A pause. “Um. By her brother.” A rumble of soft laughter that sounded so free and bright had Ollie straining to see who the voice belonged to. It wasn’t the other woman who worked here because she was now collecting glasses from empty tables and her accent was Cockney through and through. This Vicki woman was from somewhere else. Southwest maybe, a tiny hint of something he recognized from holidays down in Cornwall. Laughter threaded through her intonation. “We sorted it out. The police dropped the charges against her.”
“So, one of the kids you’re teaching is harboring stolen goods. Great. You really need to stay away from trouble like that, Vicki.” Paul came back into the bar and started to wipe down the counter with a dishcloth.
The woman followed. “If I stayed away there’d be even more trouble for her, I’m sure. She’s so talented. You should see her designs, they’re stunning. Really fresh ideas. She could go a long way with the right guidance. I’m pulling out all the stops.”
“You’re too good to those kids.” Paul frowned. “Instead of focusing on your own career you’re spending all your energy on a bunch of no-hope teenagers who probably have never even heard the word gratitude.”
The Vicki woman turned and put her hands on her hips, giving Ollie full view of her face. Wow.
She was wearing a dress that looked like it had come straight out of the nineteen fifties; all slash neck and cinched waist in a fabric of cream and scarlet flowers. Her glossy, dark hair was loosely tied into a ponytail that was pulled forward over one shoulder. She had bright red lipstick on full lips—not smudged in the slightest, and the most intense dark eyes he’d ever seen.
In stark contrast her skin was pale; he wasn’t sure whether it was makeup or natural and he didn’t care. Oliver Russell had known a lot of beautiful women in his time, but she was next level. Quite simply, she was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen.
That gorgeous red mouth curled into a smile, but a little frown appeared over her eyes. “Paul, honestly, they’re struggling in so many ways. They have so much hope and potential and no one else seems to care. If I don’t help them, then who will?”
“I’m just saying, be careful, that’s all. Your heart’s too soft, Vicki, you’re going to get hurt.”
“It’s a fashion design class for underprivileged kids, Paul. Not target practice in the ’hood. Trouble is, we’re fast running out of opportunities for them to showcase their work. All the design schools have organized shows already and we’re lagging behind. I’m going to have to be creative with my thinking.” Her eyes wandered over the bar and settled on Oliver, just for a moment.
Instinctively, he smiled. She gave him the faintest of smiles back and didn’t look away immediately. A look of surprise flickered behind her eyes. Even from here he could see the flush of her cheeks as their gazes met and, as if someone had flicked a switch, a rush of heat hit him too. Interest. The flicker of awareness. Brief. So brief he checked himself; maybe he’d imagined it?
Excerpted from Meet Me in London by Georgia Toffolo. Copyright © 2021 by Georgia Toffolo. First published in 2020 by Mills & Boon. This edition published in 2021 by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.
After her estranged and wealthy father passes away, Janessa is brought back to the small Texas town she spent one summer desperately trying to connect with the father she never knew, only to reconnect with the man she fell for that summer long ago, but as old wounds and secrets are revealed, a hitch in her father’s will forces her to spend the holidays in his home or else force several people to lose their jobs in author Delores Fossen’s novel, “Christmas at Colts Creek”, the second in the Last Ride, Texas series.
An unexpected inheritance rekindles a red-hot romance just in time for Christmas…
Janessa Parkman spent one long-ago summer in Last Ride, Texas, trying to bond with her estranged father, Abe. Turns out that was plenty of time to fall hard—and crash badly—for Brody Harrell, who managed Abe’s ranch. Everyone believed Brody would inherit Colts Creek one day, but now, fifteen years on, Abe’s will reveals the shocking truth—Janessa gets everything, and she must agree to stay in town for three months…through Christmas.
Brody’s attraction to Janessa burns hotter than ever. Though he refuses Janessa’s offer to give him the ranch, refusing her is impossible. Misunderstanding drove them apart once before, and secrets and betrayals run through both families. But what starts as a temporary Christmas fling might turn into a love strong enough to last every holiday season yet to come.
The author did a marvelous job of finding the fiery and passionate heat that romances surrounding either a cowboy or ranch-style setting tend to have while striking a unique chord with the holiday romance readership as well. The themes of family secrets, overcoming bad past relationships, and learning to trust in love are all felt so wonderfully in this narrative, and the setting of the small town itself really makes the story feel vibrant and alive as if you could walk right into the town this holiday season.
The characters themselves popped right off of the pages of this novel. The painful memories of the past that haunt the two protagonists of this novel really draw the reader into the narrative and the character’s journey together as they reconnect, discover the lies that tore them apart before, and find a way to rekindle the flame between them that never truly died. The vivid imagery and passion of their scenes together are definitely steamy and adult romance enthusiasts will not want to put down this story as both the character’s heated romance and the dramatic narrative keep them on the edge of their seats.
A memorable, entertaining, and deeply rich holiday romance story, author Delores Fossen’s “Christmas at Colts Creek” is a must-read novel this holiday season. The perfect winter read for those who enjoy western or ranch-style narratives with a romantic twist will thoroughly enjoy this read, and the honest and hopeful final chapters will leave fans wanting more from this incredible romantic series. If you haven’t yet, be sure to grab your copy today!
About the Author
USA Today bestselling author, Delores Fossen, has sold over 70 novels with millions of copies of her books in print worldwide. She’s received the Booksellers’ Best Award, the Romantic Times Reviewers’ Choice Award and was a finalist for the prestigious Rita ®. In addition, she’s had nearly a hundred short stories and articles published in national magazines.
Here is an Excerpt from “Christmas at Colts Creek”
THIS IS LIKE one of those stupid posts that people put on social media,” the woman snarled. “You know the ones I’m talking about. For a million dollars, would you stay in this really amazing house for a year with no internet, no phone and some panty-sniffing poltergeists?”
Frowning at that, Janessa Parkman blinked away the raindrops that’d blown onto her eyelashes and glanced at the grumbler, Margo Tolley, who was standing on her right. Margo had hurled some profanity and that weird comment at the black granite headstone that stretched five feet across and five feet high. A huge etched image of Margo’s ex, Abraham Lincoln Parkman IV, was in the center, and it was flanked by a pair of gold-leaf etchings of the ornate Parkman family crest.
“Abe was a miserable coot, and this proves it,” Margo added, spitting out the words the way the chilly late October rain was spitting at them. She kicked the side of the headstone.
Janessa really wanted to disagree with that insult, and the kick, especially since Margo had aimed both of them at Janessa’s father. Or rather her father because he had that particular title in name only. However, it was hard to disagree or be insulted after what she’d just heard from Abe’s lawyer. Hard not to feel the bubbling anger over what her father had done, either.
Good grief. Talk about a goat rope the man had set up.
“Do you understand the conditions of Abe’s will?” Asher Parkman, the lawyer, asked, directing the question at Janessa.
“Yeah, do you understand that the miserable coot is trying to ruin our lives?” Margo blurted out before she could answer.
Yes, Janessa got that, and unlike the stupid social media posts, there was nothing amusing about this. The miserable coot had just screwed them all six ways to Sunday.
Twenty Minutes Earlier
“SOMEBODY OUGHT TO put a Texas-sized warning label on Abe Parkman’s tombstone,” Margo Tolley grumbled. “A warning label,” she repeated. “Because Abe’s meanness will surely make everything within thirty feet toxic for years to come. He could beat out Ebenezer Scrooge for meanness. The man was a flamin’ bunghole.”
Janessa figured the woman had a right to voice an opinion, even if the voicing was happening at Abe Parkman’s graveside funeral service. Janessa’s father clearly hadn’t left behind a legacy of affection and kindness.
Margo, who’d been Abe’s second wife, probably had a right to be bitter. So did plenty of others, and Janessa suspected most people in Abe’s hometown of Last Ride, Texas, had come to this funeral just so they could make sure he was truly dead.
Or to glean any tidbits about Abe’s will.
Rich people usually left lots of money and property when they died. Mean rich people could do mean, unexpected things with that money and property. It was the juiciest kind of gossip fodder for a small town.
Janessa didn’t care one wet eyelash what Abe did with whatever he’d accumulated during his misery-causing life. Her reason for coming had nothing to do with wills or assets. No. She needed the answer to two very big questions.
Why had Abe wanted her here?
And what had he wanted her to help him fix?
Janessa gave that plenty of thought while she listened to the minister, Vernon Kerr, giving the eulogy. He chirped on about Abe’s achievements, peppering in things like pillar of the community, astute businessman and a legacy that will live on for generations. But there were also phrases like his sometimes rigid approach to life and an often firm hand in dealing with others.
Perhaps those were the polite ways of saying flamin’ bunghole.
The sound of the minister’s voice blended with the drizzle that pinged on the sea of mourners’ umbrellas. Gripes and mutters rippled through the group of about a hundred people who’d braved the unpredictable October 30th weather to come to Parkmans’ Cemetery.
Or Snooty Hill as Janessa had heard some call it.
The Parkmans might be the most prominent and richest family in Last Ride, and their ancestor might have founded the town, but obviously some in her gene pool weren’t revered.
Margo continued to gripe and mutter as well, but her comments were harsher than the rest of the onlookers because she’d likely gotten plenty of fallout from Abe’s firm hand. It was possibly true of anyone whose life Abe had touched. Janessa certainly hadn’t been spared from it.
Still, Abe had managed to attract and convince two women to marry him, including Janessa’s own mother—who’d been his first wife. Janessa figured the convincing was in large part because he’d been remarkably good-looking along with having mountains of money. But it puzzled her as to why the women would tie themselves, even temporarily, to a man with a mile-wide mean streak.
A jagged vein of lightning streaked out from a fast approaching cloud that was the color of a nasty bruise. It sent some of the mourners gasping, squealing and scurrying toward their vehicles. They parted like the proverbial sea, giving Janessa a clear line of sight of someone else.
Oh, for so many reasons, it was impossible for Janessa not to notice him. For an equal number of reasons, it was impossible not to remember him.
Long and lean, Brody stood out in plenty of ways. No umbrella, for one. The rain was splatting onto his gray Stetson and shoulders. No funeral clothes for him, either. He was wearing boots, jeans and a long-sleeved blue shirt that was already clinging to his body because of the drizzle.
Once, years ago on a hot July night, she’d run her tongue over some of the very places where that shirt was now clinging.
Yes, impossible not to remember that.
Brody was standing back from the grave. Far back. Ironic since according to the snippets Janessa had heard over the years about her father, Brody was the person who’d been closest to Abe, along with also running Abe’s sprawling ranch, Colts Creek.
If those updates—aka gossip through social media and the occasional letter from Abe’s head housekeeper—were right, then Brody was the son that Abe had always wanted but never had. It was highly likely that he was the only one here who was truly mourning Abe’s death.
Though he wasn’t especially showing any signs of grief.
It probably wasn’t the best time for her to notice that Brody’s looks had only gotten a whole boatload better since her days of tongue-kissing his chest. They’d been seventeen, and while he’d been go-ahead-drown-in-me hot even back then, he was a ten-ton avalanche of hotness now with his black hair and dreamy brown eyes.
His body had filled out in all the right places, and his face, that face, had a nice edge to it. A mix of reckless rock star and a really naughty fallen angel who knew how to do many, many naughty things.
A loud burst of thunder sent even more people hurrying off. “Sorry for your loss,” one of them shouted to Brody. Several more added pats on his back. Two women hugged him, and one of the men tried to give Brody his umbrella, which Brody refused. You didn’t have to be a lip-reader to know that one of those women, an attractive busty brunette, whispered, “Call me,” in his ear.
Brody didn’t acknowledge that obvious and poorly timed booty-call offer. He just stood there, his gaze sliding from Abe’s tombstone to Janessa. Unlike her, he definitely didn’t appear to be admiring anything about her or remembering that he’d been the one to rid her of her virginity.
Just the opposite.
His expression seemed to be questioning why she was there. That was understandable. It’d been fifteen years since Janessa had been to Last Ride. Fifteen years since her de-virgining. That’d happened at the tail end of her one and only visit to Colts Creek when she’d spent that summer trying, and failing, to figure Abe out. She was still trying, still failing.
Brody was likely thinking that since she hadn’t recently come to see the man who’d fathered her when he was alive, then there was no good reason to see him now that he was dead.
Heck, Brody might be right.
So what if Abe had sent her that letter? So what if he’d said please? That didn’t undo the past. She’d spent plenty of time and tears trying to work out what place in her mind and heart to put Abe. As for her mind—she reserved Abe a space in a tiny mental back corner that only surfaced when she saw Father’s Day cards in the store. And as for her heart—she’d given him no space whatsoever.
Well, not until that blasted letter anyway.
She silently cursed herself, mentally repeating some of Margo’s mutters. She’d thought she had buried her daddy issues years ago. It turned out, though, that some things just didn’t stay buried. They just lurked and lingered, waiting for a chance to resurface and bite you in the butt. Which wasn’t a comforting thought, considering she was standing next to a grave.
Reverend Kerr nervously eyed the next zagging bolt of lightning, and he gave what had to be the fastest closing prayer in the history of prayers. The moment he said “Amen,” he clutched his tattered Bible to his chest and hurried toward his vehicle, all the while calling out condolences to no one in particular.
Most of the others fled with the minister, leaving Janessa with Brody, Margo and Abe’s attorney, Asher Parkman, who was also Abe’s cousin. It’d been Asher who’d called her four days ago to tell her of Abe’s death, and to inform her that Abe had insisted that she and her mother, Sophia, come to today’s graveside funeral. Both had refused. Janessa had politely done that. Her mother had declined with an “if and when hell freezes over.” That was it, the end of the discussion.
But then the letter from Abe had arrived.
Excerpted from Christmas at Colts Creek by Delores Fossen. Copyright © 2021 by Delores Fossen. Published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.
Two people scarred by their pasts must find a way to open themselves up to the world and to each other in author Brenda Novak’s “Keep Me Warm at Christmas”, the ninth book in the Silver Springs series.
Maybe this Christmas can thaw his frozen heart—and heal hers.
Hollywood starlet Tia Beckett knows one moment can change your life. Her career had been on the fast track before a near-fatal accident left her with a debilitating facial scar. Certain her A-lister dreams are over, she agrees to house-sit at her producer’s secluded estate in Silver Springs. It’s the escape from the limelight Tia’s been craving, until she discovers she’s not the only houseguest for the holidays. And her handsome new roomie is impossible to ignore.
I was immediately enthralled by this story. The unique characters of this story were the immediate hook of the narrative to be sure. A stunning actress who suffers a tragic accident and must deal with the physical and psychological scars not only of her accident but of her past as well. Meanwhile, a successful artist dealing with the shocking loss of his wife must contend with his art, teaching at his mother’s school, and the walls he’s put up over himself after his loss and the struggles of his childhood. The two of them coming together creates such stunning dynamics and a really engaging relationship that will draw the reader into the narrative easily.
The way the author incorporates themes of public perception, privacy, and the journey it takes to heal from the tragedy was so profoundly felt in this narrative. The integration of this emotional narrative into a holiday setting really felt natural and engaging as a reader and made the story fly by as the relationship between the protagonists grew stronger and stronger.
A memorable, entertaining, and heartfelt holiday romance, author Brenda Novak’s “Keep Me Warm at Christmas” is a must-read holiday novel to have this winter. The perfect next chapter in the author’s Silver Springs series of novels, the captivating cast of characters and shocking twists and turns some of the supporting cast takes the protagonists on really will have readers invested as the final pages play out. If you haven’t yet, be sure to grab your copy today!
About the Author
New York Times bestselling author Brenda Novak has written over 60 novels. An eight-time Rita nominee, she’s won The National Reader’s Choice, The Bookseller’s Best and other awards. She runs Brenda Novak for the Cure, a charity that has raised more than $2.5 million for diabetes research (her youngest son has this disease). She considers herself lucky to be a mother of five and married to the love of her life.
Here is an Exclusive Excerpt from “Keep Me Warm At Christmas”
Thursday, December 11
Tia Beckett ran a finger along the jagged scar on her cheek as she gazed into the mirror above the contemporary console on the living room wall. She’d taken down almost every mirror in her own house as soon as she came home from the hospital— broken them all and tossed them out. But she couldn’t do the same here. This wasn’t her home, and there seemed to be mirrors everywhere, each one projecting the same tragic image.
She leaned closer. It must’ve been the windshield that nearly destroyed her face.
She dropped her hand. After a month, her cheek was still tender, but she continued to examine her reflection. The woman in the mirror was a complete stranger. If she turned her head to the left, she could find herself again. The shiny black hair that framed an oval face. The smooth and creamy olive-colored skin. The bottle-green eyes with long, thick eyelashes. The full lips, which were her own, not a product of Botox injections. All the beauty that’d helped her land the leading role in Hollywood’s latest blockbuster was still there.
But when she turned her head to the right…
Her stomach soured as she studied the raised, pink flesh that slanted in a zigzag fashion from the edge of her eye almost to her mouth. The doctor had had to piece that side of her face back together like a quilt. He’d said there was a possibility that cosmetic surgery could improve the scars later, but that wasn’t an option right now. After what she’d been through already, she couldn’t even contemplate another surgery. It’d be too late to save her career by then, anyway.
Who was this poor, unfortunate creature? Her agent, her fellow cast members for Expect the Worst, the romantic comedy in which she costarred with box-office hit Christian Allen, and the friends she’d made since moving to LA said she was lucky to have survived the accident. And maybe that was true. But it was difficult to feel lucky when she’d lost all hope of maintaining her career just as it was beginning to skyrocket.
A knock at the front door startled her. Who could that be? She didn’t want to see anyone, not even her friends—and especially not the press. They’d been hounding her since the accident, trying to snap a picture of her damaged face and demanding an answer as to whether she would quit acting. That was part of the reason she’d readily accepted when Maxi Cohen, the producer of her one and only film, offered to let her stay at his massive estate in Silver Springs, ninety minutes northwest of LA. He and his family would be in Israel for the holidays, so he needed someone to house-sit. That was what he’d said. What she’d heard was that she could hide out for a month and be completely alone. And she wouldn’t even have to pay for the privilege. She just had to care for the houseplants, feed and play with Kiki, the parrot, occasionally drive each of the six vehicles parked in the airplane-hangar-sized garage and make sure nothing went wrong.
She also turned on the lights in the main house at night—Maxi didn’t yet have them set up on a timer, like those in his yard—so that it looked occupied since she was staying in the guesthouse, which was smaller and more comfortable. But that was probably unnecessary. There wasn’t a lot of crime in Silver Springs. Known for its boutique hotels, recreational opportunities and local, organic produce, it was sort of like Santa Barbara, only forty minutes away and closer to the coast, in that there were plenty of movie moguls and the like who had second homes here.
Still, he couldn’t have left Kiki without a caretaker. And safe was always better than sorry. He also owned an extensive art collection that could never be replaced, so she figured he was wise to have someone watch over it, just in case
Whoever was at the door rapped again, more insistently. Maxi had given the housekeeper and other staff a paid holiday. Even the gardeners were off, since the yard didn’t grow much during the cold, rainy season. The entire estate was essentially in mothballs until Maxi returned. And no one Tia knew could say exactly where she was. So why was someone at her door? How had whoever it was gotten onto the property? The front gate required a code.
“Hello? Anyone home?” A man’s strident voice came through the panel. “Maxi said you’d be in the guesthouse.”
Damn. Those words suggested whoever it was had a right to be here, or at least permission. She was going to have to answer the door.
“Coming,” she called. “Just…give me a minute.” She hurried into the bedroom, where her suitcase lay open on the floor. She’d arrived in Silver Springs two days ago but hadn’t bothered to unpack. There hadn’t seemed to be much point. There didn’t seem to be much point in doing anything anymore. She hadn’t bothered to shower or dress this morning, either, and she was wearing the same sweat bottoms, T-shirt and socks she’d had on yesterday.
Yanking off her clothes, she pulled on a robe so that there’d be no expectation of hospitality as she scurried back through the living room. Still reluctant to speak to anyone, she peered through the peephole.
A tall, slender man—six-two, maybe taller—stood on the stoop. His dark hair had outgrown its last haircut and stuck out beneath a red beanie, he had a marked five-o’clock shadow, suggesting he hadn’t shaved for a couple of days, and a cleft chin almost as pronounced as that of Henry Cavill. He was a total stranger to her, but he had to be one of Maxi’s friends or associates, and she should treat him as such.
Bracing herself—human interaction was something she now avoided whenever possible—she took a deep breath. Please, God, don’t let him recognize me or have anything to do with the media.
The blinds were already pulled, so she turned off the lights and cracked the door barely wide enough to be able to peek out with her good side. “What can I do for you?”
His scowl darkened as his gaze swept over what he could see of her. He must’ve realized she was wearing a robe, because he said, “I hate to drag you out of bed at—” he checked his watch “—two in the afternoon. But could you let me into the main house before I freeze my—” catching himself, he cleared his throat and finished with “—before I freeze out here?”
Assuming he was a worker of some sort—she couldn’t imagine why he’d be here, bothering her, otherwise—she couldn’t help retorting, “Sure. As long as you tell me why I should care whether you freeze or not.”
The widening of his eyes gave her the distinct impression that he wasn’t used to having someone snap back at him. So… maybe he wasn’t a worker.
“Because Maxi has offered to let me stay in his home, and he indicated you’d let me in,” he responded with exaggerated patience. “He didn’t text you?”
“No, I haven’t heard from him.” And surely, what this man said couldn’t be right. Maxi had told her that she’d have the run of the place. She’d thought she’d be able to stay here without fear of bumping into anyone. She’d been counting on it.
“He was just getting on a plane,” he explained. “Maybe he had to turn off his phone.”
“Okay. If you want to give me your number, I’ll text you as soon as I hear from him.” He cocked his head.
“I’m afraid you’ll have to come back later.”
“I don’t want to come back,” he said. “I just drove six hours, all the way from the Bay Area, after working through the night. I’m exhausted, and I’d like to get some sleep. Can you help me out here?”
His impatience irritated her. But since the accident, she’d been so filled with rage she was almost relieved he was willing to give her a target. “No, I’m afraid I can’t.”
He stiffened. “Excuse me?”
“I can’t let some stranger into the house, not unless Maxi specifically asks me to.” Even if this guy was telling the truth, forcing him to leave would not only bring her great pleasure, it would give her a chance to feed Maxi’s parrot before hiding the key under the mat. Then there would be no need for further interaction. He wouldn’t see her, and she wouldn’t have to watch the shock, recognition and pity cross his face.
Pity was by far the worst, but none of it was fun.
“If I have the code to the gate, I must’ve gotten it from somewhere, right?” he argued. “Isn’t it logical to assume that Maxi is the one who gave it to me?”
“That’s a possibility, but there are other possibilities.”
“Maybe you hopped the fence or got it from one of the staff?” His chest lifted in an obvious effort to gather what little patience he had left. “I assure you, if I was a thief, I would not present myself at your door.”
“I can appreciate why. But I’m responsible for what goes on here right now, which means I can’t take any chances.”
“You won’t be taking any chances!” he argued in exasperation. “If anything goes missing or gets damaged, I’ll replace it.”
What was there to guarantee that? “The art Maxi owns can’t be replaced,” she said and thought she had him. Maxi had told her so himself. But this stranger said the only thing that could trump her statement. “Except by me, since I’m the one who created most of it in the first place,” he said drily.
“You’re an artist?” she asked but only to buy a second or two while she came to grips with a few other things that had just become apparent. If he was one of the artists Maxi collected, he wasn’t some obscure talent. Yet…he couldn’t be more than thirty. And he certainly didn’t look too important shivering in a stretched-out T-shirt, on which the word Perspective was inverted, and jeans that had holes down the front.
“I am,” he replied. “And you are…the house sitter, I presume?”
She heard his disparaging tone. He wondered who the hell she was to tell him what to do. He thought he mattered more than she did. But that came as no surprise: she’d already pegged him as arrogant. She was more concerned about the fact that Maxi might’ve referred to her as a menial laborer. Is that the way her former producer thought of her now? It was only a few months ago that she’d been the most promising actress in Hollywood. Certainly she’d attained more fame than this snooty artist—when it came to having her name recognized by the general public, anyway.
But what did it matter how high she’d climbed? She’d fallen back to earth so hard she felt as though she’d broken every bone in her body, even though the damage to her face was the only lingering injury she’d sustained in the accident. “I’m house-sitting, yes. But, like you, I’m a friend of Maxi’s,” she said vaguely.
Fortunately, he didn’t seem interested enough to press her for more detailed information. She was glad of that.
“Fine. Look, friend.” He produced his phone. “I have proof. This is the text exchange I had with Maxi just before his plane took off. As you can see, he says he has someone—you—staying in the guesthouse, but the main house is available, and I’m welcome to it. If you’ll notice the time, you’ll see that these texts took place just this morning.”
Her heart sank as she read what he showed her: I have someone in the guesthouse. Just get the key from her.
“How long are you planning on being here?” she asked.
“Does it matter?” he replied.
It did matter. But this was Maxi’s estate, and they were both his guests, so she had an obligation to treat him as well as he was accustomed to being treated. “Just a minute,” she said and muttered a curse after she closed the door. There goes all my privacy.
Excerpted from Keep Me Warm at Christmas by Brenda Novak, Copyright © 2021 by Brenda Novak, Inc. Published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.
A young single mother hoping to make the holidays great for her son in a new home must find a way to warm the cold heart of the widowed neighbor next door as a helping hand from the beyond gives them both a subtle nudge toward one another in author Sheila Robert’s novel, “A Little Christmas Spirit”.
The best Christmas gifts—family, friendship, and second chances—are all waiting to be unwrapped in this sparkling new novel from USA Today bestselling author Sheila Roberts.
Single mom Lexie Bell hopes to make this first Christmas in their new home special for her six-year-old son, Brock. Festive lights and homemade fudge, check. Friendly neighbors? Uh, no. The reclusive widower next door is more grinchy than nice. But maybe he just needs a reminder of what matters most. At least sharing some holiday cheer with him will distract her from her own lack of romance…
Stanley Mann lost his Christmas spirit when he lost his wife and he sees no point in looking for it. Until she shows up in his dreams and informs him it’s time to ditch his Scroogey attitude. Stanley digs in his heels but she’s determined to haunt him until he wakes up and rediscovers the joys of the season. He can start by being a little more neighborly to the single mom next door. In spite of his protests he’s soon making snowmen and decorating Christmas trees. How will it all end?
Merrily, of course. A certain Christmas ghost is going to make sure of that!
This was an emotional and heartwarming read. The author found the perfect chord to balance out the romance elements of some characters with the themes of loss and opening ourselves up to new possibilities in the face of loss. The setting of the novel was so realistic and did a great job of reflecting the emotional shifts in the characters themselves.
The character growth and pacing of the narrative were crafted so eloquently here. The way the author delved into the backstory and history of Stanley and his late wife and the subtle yet crucial integration of the haunting of the older “scrooge-like” character by meaningful ghosts of his past was a refreshing way of integrating this classic Dickens style holiday trope while also honing in on the personal relationships and bonds these characters form with one another.
Balanced, heartfelt, and engaging, author Sheila Robert’s “A Little Christmas Spirit” is a must-read holiday novel of 2021. The perfect winter and holiday read, the personal character development and emotional notes the narrative hits with loss and how to overcome that loss is so captivating to read, and so if you haven’t yet, be sure to grab your copy of this wonderful story today!
About the Author
Sheila Roberts lives on a lake in Washington State, where most of her novels are set. Her books have been published in several languages. On Strike for Christmas, was made into a movie for the Lifetime Movie Network and her novel, The Nine Lives of Christmas, was made into a movie for Hallmark.
Here is an Excerpt from “A Little Christmas Spirit”
It was the sixth call in two days, all from the same person. Wouldn’t you think, if a man didn’t answer his phone the first five times, that the pest would get the message and quit bugging him?
But no, and now Stanley Mann was irritated enough to pick up and say a gruff “Hello.” Translation: Why are you bugging me?
“It’s about time you answered,” said his sister-in-law, Amy. “I was beginning to wonder if you were okay.”
Of course, he wasn’t okay. He hadn’t been okay since Carol had died.
“I’m fine. Thanks for checking.”
The words didn’t come out with any sense of warmth or appreciation for her concern to encourage conversation, but Amy soldiered on. “Stan, we all want you to come down for Thanksgiving. You haven’t seen the family in ages.”
Not since the memorial service, and he hadn’t really missed them. He liked his brother-in-law well enough, but his wife’s younger sister was a ding-dong, her daughters were drama queens and their husbands were idiots. The younger generation were all into their selfies and their jobs and their crazy vacations where they swam with sharks. Who in their right mind swam with sharks? He had better things to do than subject himself to spending an entire day with them.
He did have enough manners left to thank Amy for the invite before turning her down.
“You really should come,” she persisted.
No, he shouldn’t.
“Don’t you want to see the new great-niece?”
No, he didn’t. “I’ve got plans.”
“What? To hole up in the house with a turkey frozen dinner?”
“No.” Not turkey. He hated turkey. It made him sleepy.
“You know Carol would want you to be with us.”
He’d been with them pretty much every Thanksgiving of his married life. He’d paid his dues.
“You don’t have any family of your own.”
Thanks for rubbing it in. He’d lost his brother ten years earlier to a heart attack, and both his parents were gone now as well. He and Carol had never had any kids of their own.
But he was fine. He was perfectly happy in his own company.
“I’m good, Amy. Don’t worry about me.”
“I can’t help it. You know, Carol was always afraid that if something happened to her you’d become a hermit.”
Hermits were scruffy old buzzards with bad teeth and long beards who hated people. Stanley didn’t hate people. He just didn’t need to be around them all the time. There was a difference. And he wasn’t scruffy. He brushed his teeth. And he shaved…every once in a while.
“Amy, I’m fine. Don’t worry. Happy Thanksgiving, and tell Jimmy he can have my share of the turkey,” Stanley said, then ended the call before she could grill him further regarding those plans he’d said he had.
They were perfectly good plans. He was going to pick up a frozen pizza and watch something on TV. That sure beat driving all the way from Fairwood, Washington, to Gresham, Oregon, to be alternately bored and irritated by his in-laws. If Amy really wanted to do something good for him, she could leave him alone.
At first everyone had. He was a man in mourning. Then came COVID-19, and he was a senior self-quarantining. Now, however, it appeared he was supposed to be ready to party on. Well, he wasn’t.
Two days before Thanksgiving he made the one-mile journey to the grocery store, figuring he’d dodge the crowd. He’d figured wrong, and the store was packed with people finishing up the shopping for their holiday meal. The turkey supply in the meat freezer was running dangerously low, and half a dozen women and a lone man crowded around it like miners at the river’s edge, searching for gold, each trying to snag the best bird from the selection that remained. A woman rolled past him with a mini-mountain of food in her cart, a wailing toddler in the seat and two kids dragging along behind her, one of them pointing to the chips aisle and whining.
“I said no,” she snapped. “We don’t need chips.”
Nope. That woman needed a stiff drink.
Stanley grabbed his pizza and some pumpkin ice cream and got in the checkout line.
Two men around his age stood in front of him, talking. “They’re out of black olives,” said the first one. “I got green instead.”
The second man shook his head. “Your wife ain’t gonna like that. Everyone knows you got to have black olives at Thanksgiving.”
“I can’t help it if there’s none left on the shelves. Anyway, the only one who eats ’em is her brother, and the loser can suck it up and do without.”
Yep, family togetherness. Stanley wasn’t going to miss that.
He’d miss being with Carol, though. He missed her every day. Her absence was an ache that never left him, and resentment kept it ever fresh.
They’d reached what was often referred to as the Golden Circle, that time in life when you had enough money to travel and enjoy yourself, when your health was still good and you could carry your own luggage. They’d enjoyed traveling and had planned on doing so much more together—taking a world cruise, renting a beach house in California for a summer, even going deep-sea fishing in Mexico. Their golden years were going to be great.
Those golden years turned to brass the day she died. She didn’t even die of cancer or a stroke or something he could have accepted. She was killed in a car accident. A drunk driver in a truck had done her in and walked away with nothing more than some bruises from his airbag. It wasn’t right, and it wasn’t fair. And Stanley didn’t really have anything to be thankful about. He didn’t like Thanksgiving.
There would be worse to follow. After Thanksgiving it would be Merry Christmas!, Happy Hanukkah!, Happy Kwanzaa!, you name it. All that happy would finally get tied up in a big Happy New Year! bow. As if buying a new calendar magically made everything better. Well, it didn’t.
Stanley spent his Thanksgiving Day in lonely splendor, watching football on TV and eating his pizza. It’s not delivery. It’s DiGiorno. Worked for him. He ate two-thirds of it before deciding he should pace himself. Got to save room for dessert. Pumpkin ice cream—just as good as the traditional pie and whipped cream, and it didn’t come with any irritating in-laws. Ice cream was the food of the gods. After his pizza, he pulled out a large bowl, filled it and dug in.
When they got older, Carol had turned into the ice cream police, limiting his consumption. She’d pat his belly and say, “Now, Manly Stanley, too much of that and you’ll end up looking like a big, fat snowman. Plus you’ll clog your arteries, and that’s not good. I don’t want to risk losing you.”
Ironic. He’d wound up losing her instead.
Between all the ice cream and the beer he’d been consuming with no one to police him, he was starting to look a little like Frosty the Snowman. (Before he melted.) But who cared? He got himself a second bowl of ice cream.
He topped it off with a couple of beers and a movie along with some store-bought cookies. There you go. Happy Thanksgiving.
For a while, anyway. Until everything got together in his stomach and began to misbehave. He shouldn’t have eaten so much. Especially the pizza. He really couldn’t do spicy now that he was older. Telling everyone down there that all would soon be well, he took a couple of antacids.
No one down there was listening, and all that food had its own Turkey Day football game still going in his gut when he went to bed. He tossed and turned and groaned until, finally, he fell into an uneasy sleep.
“Pepperoni and sausage?” scolded a voice in his ear. “You know better than to eat that spicy food, Stanley.”
“I know, I know,” he muttered. “You’re right, Carol.”
Carol! Stanley rolled over and saw his wife standing by the side of his bed. She was wearing the black nightie he always loved to see her in. And then out of. Her eyes were as blue as ever. How he’d missed that sweet face!
But what was she doing here?
He blinked. “Is it really you?” He thought he’d never see her again in this lifetime, but there she was. His heart turned over.
“Yes, it’s really me,” she said.
She looked radiant and so kissable, but that quickly changed. Suddenly, her body language wasn’t very lovey-dovey. She frowned and put her hands on her hips, a sure sign she was about to let him have it.
“What were you thinking?” she demanded.
He didn’t have to ask what she was referring to. He knew.
“It’s Thanksgiving. I was celebrating,” he said.
She frowned. “All by yourself.”
“I happen to like my own company. You know that.”
“There’s liking your own company, and there’s hiding.”
“I am not hiding,” he insisted.
“Yes, you are. I gave you time to mourn, time to adjust, but enough is enough. Life is short, Stanley. It’s like living off your savings. Each day you take another withdrawal, and pretty soon there’s nothing left. You have to spend those days wisely. You’re wasting yours, dribbling away the last of your savings.”
“That’s fine with me,” he insisted. “I hate my life.”
He hated waking up to find her side of the bed empty and ached for her smile. Without her the house felt deserted. He felt deserted.
“You still like ice cream, don’t you?” she argued.
Except for when he paired it with pizza.
“Stanley, you need to get out there and…live.”
“What do you think I’m doing?” he grumped.
“Going through the motions, hanging in limbo.”
What else could she expect? “It’s not the same without you,” he protested.
“Of course it’s not. But you’re still here, and you’re here for a reason. Don’t make what happened to me a double waste. Somebody snatched my life from me, and I wasn’t done with it. I want you to go on living for the both of us.”
“How can I do that? This isn’t a life, not without you sharing it.”
“It’s a different kind of life, that’s all.”
It was a subpar, meager existence. “I miss you, Carol. I miss you sitting across from me at the breakfast table. I miss us doing things together and sitting together at night, watching TV. I miss…your touch.” He finished on a sob.
“I know.” She sat down on the bed next to him, and he couldn’t help noticing how the blankets didn’t shift under her. “But you have to start filling those empty places, Stanley.”
“I don’t want to,” he cried. “I don’t want to.”
He was still muttering “I don’t want to” when he woke up.
Alone. For a moment there, her presence had felt so real.
“She wasn’t there at all, you dope,” he muttered.
Except why was there a faint scent of peppermint in the bedroom? It made him think of the chocolate Christmas cookies she used to make with the mint-candy frosting and sprinkles on them. After a few big sniffs, he couldn’t detect so much as a whiff of peppermint and shook his head in disgust. Indigestion and memory. That was all she was.
Excerpted from A Little Christmas Spirit by Sheila Roberts. Copyright © 2021 by Roberts Ink LLC. Published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.