Nevada Barr, Judith Arnold Delores Fossen, Linda Warren, Linda Conrad, Andrew Gross, Merline Lovelace, Catherine Mann , Roxanne St Claire , Patricia Rosemoor, Julie Garwood, Anna Adams, Helen Brenna, Charlene Sands, Robyn Carr, Kerry Connor, Laura Lippman, Linda Castillo, Jennifer Morey
Well, here it is! The Harlequin Historical Authors Advent Calendar giving you 22 chances to win a fun prize or the Grand Prize of a Kindle 3-G.
Each participating author will have an activity planned on their website for their special day. You may be asked to comment on a blog, find an ornament, or visit a Facebook page. For each day you participate, your name will be entered into the Grand Prize drawing. At the end of the month on December 23, one day from the calendar will be randomly selected. One of the entrants from that selected day will be randomly selected to win the Kindle. The more days you visit, the better your chances!
December 3rd - Charlene's giving away a $15.00 Amazon Gift Card.
Here's what you have to do today -- Check out these hunky country western artists and guess which one I'd cast for the the part of my hero, Cooper Garnett in my Christmas anthology Western Winter Wedding Bells! Post your guess today/tomorrow and I'll announce the winner chosen at random from the list of correct guesses tomorrow. Please stop tomorrow for the winner! And be sure to visit as many authors as you can listed below.
I'll start taking your guesses on December 3rd!
Brad Paisley #1
Blake Shelton #2
George Strait #3
Josh Turner #4
Here's a list of all the participating authors. Be sure to stop by their sites on the given day for a chance at more prizes! Good luck!
Early December snowdrifts sent a powerful chill clear through Rachel Bodine’s body, despite her heavy winter coat and fur-lined boots. After checking on her livestock and closing the barn door, she scooted across the Double J yard just as Jess, her cook and Mikey Ray, her youngest ranch hand, came barreling up the road in the wagon.
“Miss Rachel! Miss Rachel!” Mikey Ray’s usual smile gone, he waved his arms high in the air to catch her attention. “We found an injured man up on the south pasture,” he shouted from the wagon.
Rachel’s heart pounded seeing a man’s body lying across her buckboard covered in a woolen blanket. Her mind flashed to her husband, Josh, coming home to her this way more than a year ago. Only Josh’s injuries had been fatal. He’d come home to her, dead.
She squeezed those haunting memories away with a quick blink of the eye and focused on the wagon. She couldn’t make out whom the man was, his face covered in a shabby beard and felt hat. Jess reined the two mares in and brought the wagon to a halt just steps from her front porch. “He’s in a bad way, Missy,” Jess said. “Looks like he’s been shot and robbed. He was on foot, his horse probably stolen too. Figured he’d freeze to death out there.”
Rachel gazed into the wagon. “Who is he?”
“Okay, let’s see to him. Bring him into the house.”
“The house, Missy?” Jess asked, his bushy brows gathering like a storm. “You don’t rightly know him.”
“I know one thing, Jess, he’ll freeze to death out in the bunkhouse. He’s likely frostbitten. He needs warming up real fast.”
“But you alone with little Johnny, and this stranger?”
“I’m not alone, Jess. I’ve got Josh’s peacemaker and his Winchester and you’ve seen me use ‘em. Now, bring the man inside. I’ll build up the fire in the hearth. We’ll put him into Johnny’s room for now. Take off his wet clothes and wrap him in a dry blanket on the bed. Johnny fell asleep in the main room near the hearth so be as quiet as you can manage.”
Rachel went inside, tiptoeing past her sleeping little boy as he lay on a bundle of quilts and added logs to the fire. Her ranch hands moved the man inside her house and laid him on Johnny’s bed, the room partitioned from the main room by a curtain. She heard the injured man groan in pain. Quickly, she began heating water on the cookstove to cleanse his wound. She made as little noise as possible, hoping Johnny wouldn’t wake.
Once Mikey Ray and Jess had the stranger situated, they walked out of the bedroom. Jess had a scowl on his face – he’d been with her for years and since Josh’s murder he’d been overly protective.
“I don’t know about this, Missy.”
“Jess, do me a favor.” She took his arm and walked him to the door. “Cook up something good for the boys tonight, something to warm them on such a chilly night.”
“I’ll do just that and I’ll be bringing you a portion of supper when I’m through.”
Rachel cast him a smile. “You mean you’ll be checking up on Johnny and me.”
He scratched his jaw. “That too. I can ride into town to get the doctor.”
“You will, but wait until dawn. The weather’s real bad right now and I don’t need to worry over you trampling six miles through the night to fetch the doctor. I know how to help this man,” she assured him. Jess was getting up in age and was too stubborn to let anyone else go for help. Tomorrow, Rachel decided would be soon enough. Being a doctor’s daughter, Rachel had learned early on how to tend an injury.
She saw the men to the door and then turned her attention to the stranger out cold on her son’s bed. She sent up a silent prayer to her father and all his wisdom to give her the guidance she needed.
Rachel walked into the bedroom with a bowl of warm water and a bar of lye soap ready to cleanse and dress a wound. She looked at the man’s unshaven face and longish hair and couldn’t quite make out his features. His eyes were closed. She always could tell a man’s intent in the quality of their eyes.
Rachel sat down on the bed careful not to disturb him too much and peeled back the woolen blanket to take a look at the bullet wound. The injury was on the right shoulder and the blood had congealed from the frost. A good thing or he might have bled to death. Rachel was thankful once again when she noted the exit wound in his back. The bullet had slashed straight through and she wouldn’t have a need to go digging.
“You’ll be on the mend soon,” Rachel said quietly as she swabbed at his shoulder. She was fully aware of the man’s state of undress, but she’d seen a man naked before many times and wasn’t a wilting willow about it.
This man was powerful and capable, she presumed, by the breadth of his shoulders and the length of his body. A bandit had robbed him and left him to die out in the bitter cold. She could only look upon him as a victim for now, but she’d put Johnny to bed in her room and bolt the door at night. Rachel had learned the hard way that a widow had to keep from falling victim herself and the best way to do that was to always be on guard.
After she cleansed the wound thoroughly, she wrapped his shoulder in bandages, and then covered his frigid body with more blankets and a quilt. She rubbed his body over and over, up and down, watching for signs of improvement and hoping for some color to come to his face.
He didn’t stir but for involuntary groans and moans of pain. Rachel had grown up hearing those sounds. She left the man with no name to check on Johnny a few times. When her son woke up, she fed him from the meal Jess had delivered to her, giving him bits of carrot and potato and spicy stew.
Johnny made the sweetest, sour face when he chewed on the stew, but he ate it. He had a hearty appetite just like his father in that regard.
After checking on her unconscious patient, Rachel bedded down with Johnny in her own room. She bolted the door shut, not that she’d feared the stranger at this juncture. The man was too weak to wake, much less move.
She napped in intervals and stoked the fire, keeping the house extremely warm and worked on her patient several times through the night with a technique her father had taught her, trying to circulate the blood. When her arms couldn’t take the struggle any longer, she retired to her bedroom for the rest of the night.
There wasn’t anything more she could do for the stranger.
Cooper Garnett slid his eyes open slowly, the lids weighted like bricks of clay. Through the narrow slits, a young boy appeared before him and Cooper searched his addled brain coming up with one conclusion. He’d died and gone to his maker and the Good Lord saw fit to reunite him with his son, Donny.
A female voice, soft as a summer breeze, cautioned the boy and Cooper lifted his lids to find a woman standing over him, her arm on her toddler son. “He needs rest,” she said to the boy.
A measure of happiness entered his heart as the blurry visions filled him with relief. He had to be in heaven, joining his family and putting him out of his misery. Jocelyn was here and so was his little son. It was too much to hope they hadn’t died in the fire that claimed their lives. It was too much to hope they hadn’t been robbed and left for dead in a burning house.
Cooper groaned, not from the pain shooting through his shoulder, but from memories that haunted him each day. He’d been too late to save them. He’d missed the murdering bastard by only minutes. He’d ridden in and witnessed hot flames sear through beams that fortified his house. Panicked and spurred on with dreaded fear, he’d bounded from his horse and ran inside, soot and smoke scorching his eyes. A falling post knocked him out and branded his back. A sole ranch hand coming back early from the range had rushed in and pulled him free before the fire claimed him. How often he wished it had.
But now, he was with Jocelyn and Donny again. Somehow, some way, they were here with him and tranquility surrounded him. Since that fateful day he’d never known more peace.
“Come on, Johnny,” the woman said taking the boy’s hand. “Let the man sleep.”
Johnny? Not Donny? Had he heard right?
Cooper’s eyes widened. His mind cleared from wishful sentiments. He focused hard and noted the boy’s blonde locks, the woman’s hair of the same hue. As she moved to brush by him, he grabbed her arm; the sudden movement making him wince. He strained to make out her features. “Who are you?”
Her voice was soft, but wary and he recognized it now. She’d nursed him from his wound. She’d been the one taking care with him. Not Jocelyn.
Heartbreaking pain welled up inside, the disappointment hollowing out his gut and shredding it to pieces. His body sagged and he released her arm. “You took me in.”
“My ranch hands found you shot and left for dead on my land. Yes, I took you in. I’ve been tending to your wound.”
“The boy?” he asked, glancing now at a youngster that only resembled his Donny by size.
She set a proprietary hand on his shoulder and her eyes glowed with pride. “This is my son, Johnny Bodine.”
Cooper glanced away then closed his eyes. He couldn’t bear to look at the woman with her child, not when his immediate wishful hopes had been dashed. How fresh the heartache was still. The rawness of it burned clear through him.
“What’s your name?” she asked softly.
“Cooper Garnett,” he whispered.
“Do you know who shot you, Mr. Garnett?”
He focused on her concerned eyes. Pretty eyes, he noted grudgingly. Why didn’t she let him die? “Someone who wanted my horse and belongings, I suppose.”
She lifted her boy into her arms and he immediately clung to her neck, laying his head under her chin. The loving image was reminiscent of Donny and Jocelyn and Cooper remembered what he aimed to do and why he should be grateful this woman saved him. He couldn’t die, not until he claimed justice for his wife and boy’s death. “Where’s Mr. Bodine?” he asked.
“I’m a widow,” she whispered, as if the pain of that truth still hurt. “How’s your shoulder feeling?”
“Like it saw the front end of a stampede.”
“It’s healing up nicely. You’re strong.”
Cooper touched the spot where the bullet went through, bandaged now. He recalled the sharp shot slicing through him, catching him by surprise and jerking him from his horse. “You know doctoring?”
“My father was a doctor. I know enough. Doctor Reynolds was out here yesterday and checked on you. He said you’d make a full recovery.”
“You likely saved my life.”
“I probably did,” she said in earnest. “Good thing the boys found you when they did or you might have frozen to death. You’ve been unconscious for two days.”
“Son of a bit-” Cooper held up his oath and squeezed his eyes shut briefly. He was damn tired of losing time.
“You need more rest,” she said, ignoring his outburst. “You had fever during the night. I’ll bring you some broth shortly.”
His nod was slight and pained him some. “Appreciate it.”
He watched Rachel leave with her boy and then closed his eyes. He’d been tracking the man called Brett Hollings all the way from Nevada. He’d lost time, right after the fire to heal up from injuries to his scorched back. It had taken a full month to recover and get his mind in the right place. No man should have to witness his family’s demise. No man.
The only clue he’d had was that the ranch hand that’d saved him saw the robber fleeing the fiery scene, hanging onto the strongbox that held the Garnett payroll. He’d caught fire to the left side of his body and by all accounts, his face suffered burns that would be recognizable. He couldn’t figure out if the man deliberately torched the house, or if it’d been an accident during the commission of the crime, but the fact remained that Jocelyn and little Donny had died in that fire.
It had taken Cooper three months to find out the man’s name and another two to track him to the Cedar Flat area. His instincts told him it hadn’t been Hollings who’d shot him. Cooper had been careful not to arouse suspicion. Brett Hollings didn’t know he was being tracked and Cooper would make damn sure it stayed that way. Which meant that Hollings would still be in the environs.
Cooper meant to kill him.
Or die trying.
Rachel ladled broth with bits of beef and potato into a bowl and set it on a tray along with a biscuit. She pulled the curtain back and entered Johnny’s room. Cooper Garnett took one look at her and tried to sit up higher in the bed. His rugged face twisted in pain and he let go a vivid curse.
His impatience reminded her of Josh. Her husband was forever moving faster than his feet could take him. “Hold on, Mr. Garnett. I’ll help you sit up.”
She set the tray on a side table and reached around Cooper’s body, under his arms. “Hold onto to me,” she said, “and let me do the work. Whatever you do, don’t struggle with your bad shoulder.”
He pierced her with a look, his eyes dark, his brows elevated. Heat crept up her neck. It’d been a long time since she’d been this close to a man. Even though his beard covered most of his face she could tell, Cooper Garnett was a handsome devil.
He took hold of her around the waist, his fingers splayed over her hips. She couldn’t think about how good it felt having him touch her. She’d seen him naked from the waist up and knew he was sturdy and powerful. Her blouse brushed his skin and the tips of her breasts skimmed over his chest. “Now wiggle up slowly as I lift you.”
Cooper did as he was told, his gaze never leaving hers as he scooted up with her aid. Her heart fluttered and she turned away from him before he could see her blushing cheeks.
“There, that does it,” she said, reaching for the tray. She set it on his lap and continued to avert her gaze. “I imagine you can feed yourself, but if you need me-”
“What?” She met with his eyes.
“I can feed myself.”
She cast him half a smile and nodded.
“I’ll need my pants.”
“Why?” She hadn’t expected that. Why would he need his pants in order to eat? He wouldn’t be able to put them on unassisted and she wasn’t ready to help him. Not yet anyway. It was all she could do to stop from turning red as a tomato from lifting him up. For all her blustering about being a doctor’s daughter, she realized she’d never tended a man like Cooper Garnett before. Not without her father’s presence and assistance.
A grin slowly spread across his face. “Why do I need my pants? Can’t very well get up when nature calls without them now, can I?”
Rachel pictured him in his long johns and nothing else, the image so profound, she couldn’t meet his eyes. Instantly, she admonished herself for being such a foolish ninny. “I’ll get them for you once they’ve dried. I washed them out this morning along with your shirt. They were covered in blood.”
“Besides, I doubt you can put them on without re-injuring your shoulder. You’ll need help.”
One brow arched up as he assessed her. With a hard gleam, his eyes roamed from her blond hair to her shoulders and lower to her breasts, his gaze lingering just enough to bring more heat to her face before he met with her eyes again. “I’d best be putting my own trousers on.”
With his right hand, he lifted the spoon and dug into the broth. She watched him take a few spoonfuls without much fuss. “Course, if I run into a problem with the clothes, I’ll give you a holler, you knowing about doctoring and all.”
Rachel’s eyes went wide and a protest was hot on her lips until she noted a quick smile emerge from under Cooper’s beard.
She whipped around and her gown brushed the edge of the bed as she made her way out, closing the curtains with a swipe of her hand.
She marched into the main room and put a hand to her chest. “Heavens,” she whispered as an unexpected tremble coursed the length of her. Why was the sight Cooper Garnett and the deep timbre of his voice so, so … appealing? With only youngsters like Mikey Ray and her dear old friend, Jess around the ranch, had Rachel forgotten the heat of a real man’s gaze? Had she forgotten what it felt like to be touched intimately? Josh had been gone a year and a half now and how she missed him, but she was still young and her mourning time was over. She couldn’t abide the loneliness much longer. The winters were fiercely cold and lonely without a husband beside her.
“Maybe I should take Robert Livingston up on his offer for a buggy ride after church,” she murmured as she set Cooper’s clothes closer to the fire. Robert didn’t spark any longing in her, but he was steady and gentlemanly and held a good job at the bank. He was forever asking her to picnic with him. Maybe it was time she thought about it.
“Here he is, Miss Rachel,” Mikey Ray said, appearing in the doorway with Johnny. “We had us a good time in the bunkhouse with the boys, didn’t we, Johnny?”
Johnny bobbed his head up and down and ran to Rachel, clinging to her skirts. She patted his head and met with her son’s big loving eyes. “Did you mind Jess and Mikey Ray?”
“I minded, Mama,” her boy said. At a little over eighteen months old, Johnny was especially bright and talkative for his age. On cold nights, Rachel would sit down with him before the fire and read to him. He loved to listen, to mimic words and before she knew it, he was making short sentences on his own. As smart as he was, he was also adventurous for a little one and Rachel was forever trying to keep up with his antics.
She often asked Jess or Mikey Ray to watch him for an hour or two whenever they could spare the time to give her son some male companionship. As a result, both the men had come to love Johnny as much as Johnny loved them.
“How’s the stranger doing? ” Mikey Ray asked, standing in the doorway, taking a quick glance at the curtain.
“Come in outta of the cold and have a warm biscuit and I’ll tell you, so you can go back to report to Jess.” Rachel grinned, catching him but Mikey Ray just shrugged it off. He never minded doing Jess’s biding. The two fought like cats and dogs at times, but they also cared about each other like father and son.
Aside from one recent incident with a hired hand, Rachel considered herself fortunate in having a small, but dedicated bunch of ranch hands.
She buttered a biscuit and handed it to him. “The stranger’s name is Cooper Garnett and he doesn’t know who shot him. They robbed him of all his possessions and stole his horse. He came to, just a while ago. That’s all I know right now.”
Mikey Ray dug into the biscuit and with a nod, he spoke with a full mouth. “I’ll tell Jess.” He swallowed then took another bite and waited this time to speak once he’d finished the biscuit. “Mighty good, Miss Rachel.”
“I’ll send a batch to the bunkhouse.” Rachel set a dozen more biscuits into a basket and covered it with a checkered cloth. She had three other boys, the same age as Mikey Ray working for her that made up the whole of the Double J outfit. She was short-handed and couldn’t afford to keep up with the bigger, more prosperous ranches in the area who paid their men better.
“Here you go.” She handed the basket to him. “And be sure to share those biscuits.”
“I will. Thank you.” Mikey Ray strode to the front door, then stopped and turned. “Do you feel safe in here, now that the stranger’s awake?”
Rachel took a deep breath, remembering another time when she’d had to fend off the lurid advances of her foreman. Seems that some men thought that widow, meant willing. She’d never put herself in that position again. “I’m not in any danger. I sleep with my Winchester under the bed.”
“I’ll tell Jess that too.”
Rachel watched Mikey Ray close the door and leave.
“I won’t be giving you cause to use that Winchester.”
Rachel spun around to find Cooper Garnett leaning against the curtained wall, his chest bare but for the bandage on his right shoulder, and filling out his long johns with a capacity that made her blink, then blink again.
Heavens, the man gave her pause and palpitations at the same time.
“Unless you refuse to give me my clothes, Miss Rachel.”
Since Cheryl St. John and I both have short Christmas stories in Western Winter Wedding Bells we thought it would be fun to chat with you together. We both love the holiday season and I feel blessed authoring this anthology with two very talented writers! Hope you enjoy this fun little perspective about our stories!
How would you describe your heroes, Alpha or Beta? Do you want to slap his face or wash his underwear?
CHERYL SAYS: I usually write a beta hero. That seems to be the way I'm wired when it comes to creating characters. I do occasionally make a concentrated effort to do an alpha male, and it's a lot of fun. If I made a list of all the heros in all my books, the percentage would lean heavily toward betas.
CHARLENE SAYS: Oh, slap his face, to be sure! I write mostly Alpha heroes, who have a soft side that they rarely show. Cooper Garnett is hot, sexy, tortured and on a secret mission to hunt down the man responsible for his wife and child’s murder. He’s not happy that a robbery left him injured on the Double J Ranch with a widow woman and boy tending him. They are a painful reminder of the family he’d lost. Though, there’s some underwear washing going on too!
Is there someone in your story that STEALS the show? Any cute kids, pets or secondary characters we might see again?
CHARLENE SAYS: Eighteen-month old Johnny Bodine slowly worms his way Cooper’s hardened heart. He’s the same age as the boy Cooper lost many months ago and he’s quite adorable, if I say so myself. Probably won’t be seeing him again, but he’s a keeper!
CHERYL SAYS: She doesn't steal the show, but Owen's youngest sister JoDee captured my interest. She's a gifted musician in a small town, and Owen plans to send her to a conservatory. She might show up again.
It takes skill to create a satisfying story in the short novella format. Do you have any tips for writing to this length?
CHERYL SAYS: A novella needs all the same elements as a full-length novel: Engaging sympathetic characters, internal and external conflict, believable motivation, a realistic setting and hooks that keep the reader turning pages. However, you have a lot fewer pages in which to do all that. Here are a few techniques I use.
* The first place I look for a story is in my idea file where I’ve saved ideas that didn’t have enough conflict to support a full-length novel. Don’t ever throw out an idea—the archives are a gold mine when you need a novella.
* It can be helpful if the hero and heroine already know each other. There is less set up and getting-to-know-you time involved.
* When developing your characters, don’t give both major story people complicated pasts or set them both up with difficult to resolve motivations or conflicts. Keep the major stumbling block to falling in love focused on one character.
* One character may already be in love with the other or have admired them from afar.
* Use a secondary character from a previous book as your hero or heroine. You already have their names and descriptions decided and most likely your setting has been established, so your job is easier.
* Secondary characters are important, but one character may serve several purposes. Look to combine characters if the cast gets too large.
* Use stereotypes for secondary characters. The reader already has expectations and a mental image.
CHARLENE SAYS: Pretty much what Cheryl said, but I’ll emphasize that reunion stories work very well. If they know each other first, then they have past history. But I broke the rules in Wearing the Rancher’s Ring- Cooper’s mission to hunt down his family’s murderer, works well because the conflict to see justice to the end, wars with the eventual love he feels for Rachel and Johnny. He’s torn and that’s makes for a very strong conflict.
Also, I write only 8 chapters in an anthology, keep the pace fast and the story moving forward. Each scene has to be important. No room for dallying, as they say.
How did you come up with a story to fit the Christmas or Springtime theme?
CHARLENE SAYS: The setting played an important role with this Christmas themed story. When you think Christmas, you immediately think of snow, cold winter days and sizzling fireplaces. So I was lucky with this story since I’d left one heroine hanging, without a story in my full-length western historical, Bodine’s Bounty. Rachel’s tale had to be told. And she lived in northern California, where, guess what? There’s snow, cold winter days and fireplaces. The same holds true for Mother’s Day or Spring Brides themes. Though they CAN be set anywhere, I tend to think of them as clear blue-sky places, a western setting on the plains or small towns of the Old West.
CHERYL SAYS: Anthologies are most often released in time for Mother’s Day or Christmas, so those themes are already established. My novellas have always been part of a western collection, so that narrows the possibilities even further. I just start thinking cowboy hero or small town holiday or babies, and an idea comes to me. As I mentioned in my previous list of novella tips, I sometimes have a story set aside because it wouldn’t work for a full-length book, and this is a good place to use it. I often use a secondary character from a previous book whose story begs to be told.
What one word would describe your heroine?
CHERYL SAYS: Tenacious. Chloe does not give up. She is bound and determined to save her grandfather's church, and she's fighting with all her resources--as well as Owen's--to see the task completed before the deadline.
CHARLENE SAYS: Survivor. Rachel has endured much loss and suffering in her life, but as a young widow with a little son to raise, she still manages to keep her heartache to herself and keep the ranch going.
Now tell us why?
CHERYL SAYS : She's alone and always has been. The church is her connection to the only family she ever had--her grandfather. She will do anything in her power to save it from demolition.
CHARLENE SAYS: Rachel doesn’t try to find a new beau, or a man to marry. She was deeply in love with her husband and never thought she would find love again. The appearance of Cooper Garnett on her ranch and the yearning she feels for him makes her realize how lonely she truly is.
Any special Christmas traditions in your story? And what holiday traditions do you enjoy today with your family?
CHARLENE SAYS: In Wearing the Rancher’s Ring, Rachel maintains the same traditions that she had enjoyed with her husband Josh. A small pine tree is chopped down and then she invites her ranch hands inside the house to string popcorn and help decorate the tree. Her humble home is open to friends and they sing carols, enjoy her pumpkin muffins and cakes as she hands out knitted gifts to her close friends and her loyal employees.
Our family spends Christmas Eve together every year at my sister’s house. It’s a fun night of eating honey-baked ham with all the fixings and playing games. We open gifts and eat some more! The most wonderful thing about Christmas is that the entire family is together.
CHERYL SAYS: Christmas in Red Willow features a family gathering with all the chaos that makes the day special and memorable. Owen's family plays parlor games, to which Chloe has never been exposed.
My family plays board games on winter holidays. We play Masterpiece, Monopoly, Scrabble, Aggravation, Clue, Uno and more recently, Life. I introduced the younger kids to Apples to Apples a long time ago. They were all excellent readers at a very young age and the game helped their vocabulary skills as well as being fun. We just like to laugh, and that is parallel to Owen's family.
CHARLENE SAYS: Would you believe that I found fully decorated Christmas trees in a department store in the middle of September? Which warrants this question: What kind of holiday shopper are you? Do you shop early and often? Do you wait until after Thanksgiving? Or are you a last minute shopper, waiting until the week of Christmas?
Be sure to check out my Win Stuff page for your chance at a $50 Amazon Shopping Spree!
So my question is, do you plan for the holidays way ahead of time? I have friends who FINISH their Christmas shopping by the end of the summer. They are all done! They watch for sales. They buy at their leisure. No mad-last-minute-pull-your-hair-out kind of shopping for them.
It's kinda annoying.
Then there's the shoppers who buy mostly Online. If you LOVE shopping or if you HATE shopping, this works both ways. You can spend hours browsing the internet for bargains and just the right gift , that's the Love part. If you Hate it, then you can find something quickly without ever leaving the house, no fighting for parking spots at the mall or standing in long lines. The only thing you have to do when the gift arrives on your doorstep is wrap it. And they'll do that for you too, if you'd like.
I also know people who wait until the week before Christmas to buy all their gifts. These are the same friends who get their Christmas tree put up a day before the holiday. They are my pantzer pals. They live on the edge. They shop late at night and spend hours wrapping into the wee hours of the morning.
I usually start my shopping before Thanksgiving and TRY to get it done before the mad rush on Dec 24th, but honestly there have been times when I've forgotten or need something at the very last minute. Not pretty. I have used the internet to shop often and in an effort to simply life in general, sometimes I buy gift cards as gifts - they are usually very much appreciated! I hate wrapping, so I try to keep it. Wrap as I buy. Wrap as I buy. So I don't face a huge wrapping job at the last minute.
So, are you going to be ready for Christmas in October? To get you in the mood, why not try three yuletide stories from my new Christmas anthology, Western Winter Wedding Bells, with the fabulous Cheryl St. John and Jenna Kernan. I think you'll love my sexy, hot cowboy, Cooper Garnett. He's a keeper!!
Nick Carlino hopped into his Ferrari and drove out of the Rock and A Hard Place parking lot, gravel crunching under his tires as he turned onto the road that led him to his Napa Valley home. He could really use a smoke right now and cursed the day he quit for good. Rachel Mancini had had that look in her eyes tonight, the one that told him she was getting serious. He'd seen that soft half-lidded expression a dozen times in the women he'd dated and each time he'd been wise enough to back off and let them down easily.
Nick liked Rachel. She was pretty and made him laugh and as the owner of the successful bar and nightclub, she intrigued him with her business smarts. He respected her and that's why Nick had to break it off with her. Rachel dropped hints like bombshells lately that she needed more. Nick didn't have more to give.
Moonlight guided his way on the dark patch of highway with vineyard columns on either side of him, the pungent scent of merlot and zinfandel grapes heavy in the summer air. He'd been called back to Napa after his father's death to help his two brothers run Carlino Wines and according to the will they had six months to decide which of Santo Carlino's three sons would become head of the empire. None of his old man's sons wanted the honor. So it was win by default. Yet Tony, Joe and Nick had pulled it together for the past five months and they had one more to figure out who'd run the company.
As Nick rounded a hilly curve, oncoming headlights beamed straight at him. He let out a loud curse. The car skidded halfway into his lane as it took the turn. Those beams hit him straight in the eyes and he swerved to avoid a head-on collision, but not enough to avoid impact. The two cars collided with a loud smack and his Ferrari whipped around in a tailspin. The jolt jarred him and his airbag deployed. He found himself sitting at a perpendicular angle to the car he'd just collided with.
"Damn," he muttered, barely getting the words out. Pressure from the air bag crushed his chest. He scooted his seat far back and then took a deep breath. Once he was sure all of his body parts were in working order, Nick got out of the car to check on the other driver.
The first thing he heard was a baby crying. Holy crap, he thought, fear gripping him tight. He moved quickly, glancing at the damage to the dated silver Toyota Camry as he strode past. He peered inside the car to find a woman behind the wheel, her body slumped forward, her head against the steering wheel. He opened the door with caution and saw blood dripping down her face.
The baby's cries grew louder. Nick opened the back door and glanced inside. The baby was in a car seat facing backward and looked to be okay—no blood anywhere, thank goodness. The car seat had done its job.
"Hang on, kid."
Nick didn't have a clue how old the child was, not an infant, but not yet at the walking stage, he presumed. He focused his attention on the woman behind the wheel, placing his hand on her shoulder. "Can you hear me? I'm getting help."
When she didn't respond, Nick braced her head and shoulders and gently guided her back, so that he could see her injuries. Blood oozed down her forehead—she had a deep gash from hitting the steering wheel. He rested her head back against the headrest.
Her eyes opened slowly and the first thing Nick noticed was the incredible hue of her hazel eyes. They were a mix of turquoise and green. He'd only seen that spectacular color once in his life. He brushed aside blond wisps of hair from her face, "Brooke? Brooke Hamilton, is that you?"
"My baby," she whispered, straining to get the words out, her eyes beginning to close again. "Take care of my baby."
This woman he'd known in high school, twelve, maybe thirteen years ago, implored with her last conscious breath. "Promise me, you'll take care of Leah."
Without thinking, Nick agreed. "I promise I'll take care of her. Don't worry."
Brooke's eyes closed as she slipped out of her conscious world.
Nick dialed 9-1-1.
When he was through with the call, Nick got into the backseat of the car. The baby's sobs grew to soft whimpers that tore at Nick's heart. "I'm coming, kid. I'll get you outta this contraption."
Nick could write a book about what he didn't know about babies. He had no idea how to remove the little girl from the straps that bound her into the car seat—hell, he'd never even held a baby before. He struggled for a minute, then finally figured out the release, all the while muttering soft words to the helpless child.
To his amazement, the baby stopped crying and looked up at him, her face flushed and her breaths slowing. With eyes wide, she stared at him in wonderment with her mother's big hazel eyes. "You're gonna break hearts with those eyes," he said softly.
The baby's lips curled up. The smile caught him by surprise.
Nick lifted her out of the car seat, holding her awkwardly in his arms. "You need someone who knows about babies," he said quietly.
Nick shifted the baby onto one arm and got his cell phone out again to call Rena, Tony's wife. She'd know what to do, then he remembered the late hour and how much trouble Rena was having sleeping these days. She was nearly ready to have her own baby. He clicked off before the phone had a chance to ring and dialed Joe's number. Joe's fiancée, Ali, would come running to help and he'd be glad to turn the baby over to her tonight.
The phone went straight to voicemail. Nick left a quick message then remembered Ali and Joe were vacationing in the Bahamas this week. "Great," he muttered, taking the baby in both of his arms now. "Looks like it's me and you. That's not good news for you, kid."
Before the paramedics arrived, Nick managed to sift through the woman's handbag and find her driver's license. In the car's dim overhead light, he saw he wasn't wrong. The woman who'd swerved into his lane and caused the accident was Brooke Hamilton-Keating. He'd gone to high school with her. He'd gone further than high school with her once, but that was ancient history.
Nick sat the baby down on the backseat. "Sh, you be quiet now, okay? I've gotta check on your mama."
The second he released her, she whimpered.
Nick gazed at her and made a slow move toward Brooke. The baby opened her mouth and let out a wail.
"Okay, fine." Nick picked her up again and as soon as she was back in his arms, she quieted. "Let's both see to your mama."
Nick held the baby in one arm and opened the front passenger door. He slid in carefully and adjusted the baby in his right arm, so he could look Brooke over better than he had before. She was out cold, but still breathing. He didn't think the collision had been enough to cause internal injuries, but hell, he was no doctor so he couldn't be sure.
Sirens in the distance sent a wave of relief through him. Nick closed his eyes for a moment. It was late and no other cars were on the road. Napa wasn't exactly a party town and the road they were on led to nothing but residential properties and vineyards.
With the baby in his arms, Nick greeted two paramedics in dark blue uniforms that came bounding out of the van. "The baby seems fine, but the mother is unconscious," he said.
"What happened, sir?" one of them asked.
"One minute I'm driving around a curve, the next this Camry is coming at me head on. I swerved the second I saw her car, or it could have been a lot worse."
"The baby yours or hers?" he asked as he examined Brooke.
He looked at his partner. "We'll take them both to the hospital." Then he turned to Nick. "How about you? Are you injured?"
"No. The air bag inflated and I'm fine. The Camry doesn't have one, apparently."
The paramedic nodded. "Looks like the car seat saved the baby any injuries."
Within fifteen minutes, the police arrived to take a statement and Brooke's gurney was hoisted into the ambulance. Nick stood by, holding Leah in his arms.
"I'll take her now," the paramedic said, reaching for the baby.
"What'll they do with her?"
"Give her a full exam and then try to reach a relative."
The second Leah was out of Nick's arms, she put up a big fuss. Her face turned red and those big eyes closed as she wailed loud enough to wake the dead. Worse yet, when she opened her eyes, she stared straight at Nick looking at him as if he were her savior.
He remembered the promise he made to her mother.
"Let me have her," he said, reaching for the baby. "I'll ride with you to the hospital."
The paramedic cast him a skeptical look and kept Leah with him.
"I know the mother. We went to high school together. I promised her I'd watch out for Leah."
"She opened her eyes and was conscious long enough to make sure the baby was taken care of."
The paramedic sighed. "She likes you a heck of lot better than me. Grab the diaper bag in the car and anything else you see they might need. We've got to get going."
Brooke opened her eyes slowly and even that slight movement caused a slashing pain across her forehead. She reached up to rub it and found a bandage there. She didn't know how long she'd been out, but slivers of sunshine warmed her body.
Her first thought was of Leah and a wave of panic gripped her. "Leah!"
She sat straight up abruptly and her head spun. Her eyes rolled back and she nearly lost consciousness again.
Stay awake, Brooke.
She fought dizziness and took slow, deep breaths.
"She's here," a masculine voice announced softly.
Brooke glanced in the direction of the voice, narrowing her eyes to focus. She saw Leah tucked into her pink blanket, looking peaceful and content, sleeping in the arms of a man. Relief swamped her at first. Her beautiful baby was safe. Tears sprung from her eyes when fragments of the accident played over in her head. She'd gotten distracted by Leah's wailing as she navigated a sharp curve in the road. She glanced back for an instant to check on her and the next thing she knew, she'd collided with another car. She vaguely remembered waking for a moment before all had gone black. Brooke took a minute to thank God for keeping Leah safe in the Peg Perego car seat she'd insisted on when she was pregnant.
Her gaze shifted up to the deep blue eyes and self-assured smile of… Nick Carlino? She'd never forgotten the timbre of his voice that oozed sex or the handsome sharp angles of his face. Or the dimples that jumped out when he smiled. It was enough to make a girl get naked in just under a minute.
She knew. She'd been one of those girls, way back when.
"Leah is safe," he assured her again.
That's all that mattered to her. "Nick Carlino?"
"It's me, Brooke." Those dimples peeked out for a moment.
She reached out for Leah and the movement rattled pain through her head. "I want to hold my baby."
"She's sleeping," he said, not moving a muscle.
Brooke rested her head against her pillow. It was probably better she didn't wake Leah now, she still felt light-headed. "Is she really okay?"
"She was examined last night. The doctor said she had no injuries."
"Thank God," Brooke whispered, tears once again stinging her eyes. "But why are you here?" She couldn't wrap her head around why Nick was holding her baby in her hospital room.
"You really don't remember?"
"I barely know my own name at the moment."
"You came around a turn late last night and crashed into my car. For a minute there, I thought it was lights out for all of us."
"It was your car I hit?" If she were a cruel-hearted woman she'd say it was poetic justice.
"My Ferrari. Yeah."
His Ferrari. Of course. Nick always had to have the best of everything. How was she ever going to pay for the repairs? She'd let her insurance lapse when she took off from Los Angeles.
"I'm sorry. I don't know what happened."
"What were you doing driving so late at night?"
"I was looking for my aunt's place and must have taken a wrong turn. The roads were dark and I got distracted. We'd been driving all day and I'd thought we could make it to her place rather than stop at a motel for the night. Are you all right? You weren't injured, were you?"
She still couldn't believe that Nick Carlino was in her hospital room, holding her baby in his arms like Leah belonged there. A shudder went through her. This was all so surreal.
"I'm fine. The air bag saved my as—uh, butt."
She let go a sigh. "Oh, that's good. What about your car?"
"Needs some repairs."
"The same. I had them towed to my mechanic's shop."
Brooke wouldn't think about the cost to repair those cars. If she did, the tremors in her head would escalate to a major earthquake.
"You haven't been here all night?" she asked.
The dimples of doom came out on cue and he gave a short nod. Her heart fluttered. "You have?"
He glanced down at Leah then up at her again. "I promised you I'd take care of her last night."
"You were adamant, Brooke. You woke just for a minute to make sure Leah was taken care of. You made me promise."
"Thank you," she said, holding back another round of tears. She didn't need to fall apart in front of Nick Carlino. "I appreciate all you did last night for my baby."
Nick nodded and glanced down at Leah for a second. "Where's her father?"
Brooke blinked. Leah's father, Dan? The man she'd been married to for all of two years, who had told her on her twenty-ninth birthday that he was having an affair with a woman he'd always loved and that he'd gotten her pregnant? He'd left Brooke that night, and one week later she found out that she herself was going to have a baby. That father? "He's not in the picture."
A true romantic at heart, I love happy endings. I been known to cry at sappy commercials, so a real good romance really moves me. Bring on the tissue box and give me a happy ending!
Be sure to visit me at www.charlenesands.com