/ Language: English / Genre:love_contemporary

Small Town Christmas

Jill Shalvis

An omnibus of novels Three heartwarming holiday stories to prove that love is the greatest gift of all Kissing Santa Claus NASCAR driver Logan Perrish returns to Lucky Harbor, Washington, with love in his heart and a ring in his pocket. But can Sandy Jansen forget the past and give him a second chance? Or will Logan be spending another Christmas alone? I'll Be Home for Christmas After ignoring the advice of Miz Miriam Randall, local matchmaker, Annie Roberts expects another hum drum holiday in Last Chance, South Carolina. But when a stray cat arrives in the arms of Army sergeant Matt Jasper, a calico named Holly just may be the best matchmaker of all. O Little Town of Bramble All Ethan Miller wants for Christmas is to celebrate in Bramble, Texas, with family and friends. But when his childhood neighbor, Samantha Henderson, comes home for the holiday, Ethan realizes that the girl-next-door could be the girl of his dreams.

Jill Shalvis, Hope Ramsay, Katie Lane

Small Town Christmas

© 2011

Kissing Santa Claus by Jill Shalvis

Chapter 1

“Merry Christmas,” Sandy Jansen murmured to herself, staring in her office mirror. She closed her eyes, trying to avoid the sadness in her own reflection. She loved Christmas, loved the decorations, loved the festivities, loved the joy of the entire season, but this year that joy was sorely lacking.

It had been for five months, ever since the day she’d watched Logan Perrish’s very fine ass walk out of her life.

It was silly because she’d known he was just a fling. Hell, it’d even been her idea. But she hadn’t known that she’d miss the NASCAR star as much as she had.

Or that all these months later, she’d still remember his smile, his warm, dark eyes, how she’d melted at the sight of him. And when he’d touched her… well. She’d gone up in flames for him, all of her, including her damn heart.

Sandy opened her eyes but didn’t meet her own gaze again. Instead she looked at the rest of her. As the town clerk of Lucky Harbor, she’d come to the annual employee Christmas cocktail party in a cute little red dress, her “holiday” dress, which never failed to cheer her up. Being all of five foot two was a bit of a problem, but her four-inch Manolo knockoffs helped.

What hadn’t helped her was the costume she now had on over her sexy little red dress, complete with a stuffed belly and butt, white beard and wig, red fur-lined hat, and the final touch, thick wire-rimmed glasses.

Santa Claus.

From outside her office and down the hall, there was only silence. The party had emptied out, leaving her alone in the building. Tomorrow night, Christmas Eve, everyone in town would be here for the annual Christmas parade, which Santa would head up in the same 1972 Buick convertible, aka rust bucket, that they’d been using for years. The evening would culminate at the end of the pier, with all the kids lining up to sit on Santa’s lap so they could whisper their holiday wish.

Sandy’s wish, if anyone had asked, would be that Anderson hadn’t caught the flu so he could play Santa as planned. She’d tried to get a last-minute replacement, oh how she’d tried. But Jax Cullen, Lucky Harbor’s mayor, was master of ceremonies of the parade. Ford Walker and resident hottie had taken his new fiancée to Palm Springs for a holiday getaway. Sandy’s third and final choice, Sheriff Sawyer Thompson, was going to be on duty at the parade, handling crowd control.

There was no one else to ask, which panicked Sandy. No one but her… She took her roll of town clerk very seriously, but this… this was going over and above the call of duty. Yet all she could think of was the kids of Lucky Harbor, and how disappointed they’d be without Santa. Dammit. She sighed and took one last look at herself. She did actually look a little bit like Santa, albeit a very short one.

“You, Sandy Jansen,” she told her reflection. “Are a sucker.”

The biggest. And she had a broken heart to prove it. With a sigh, she reached around behind her to unzip the Santa costume, but the zipper wouldn’t budge. She tried again. And then again. “Really?” she said to the room in general, most specifically to her karma. “Are you kidding me?”

Karma wasn’t listening. The zipper was stuck.

“Dammit,” she said, and tried again to no avail. “Well, isn’t this just perfect.” With an eye roll, she snatched up her purse and her keys and headed out into the night, hoping a neighbor was still up. But if anyone so much as smiled at this I Love Lucy predicament, Sandy was going to smack them. “Christmas,” she muttered, but it wasn’t annoyance she felt so much as bone-deep sadness. Her family was back East. She didn’t have a date, and she felt… alone. It was a feeling that someone who’d grown up as the nerd, the bookworm in a family of charismatic, outgoing people, should be familiar with by now. Shaking her head at herself, she hurried out to her car, her heels clicking on the asphalt, and she realized how she must look in the Santa costume-with her heels.

Santa in drag…

Good thing she was all alone. Except she wasn’t.

The lot was empty but for her rundown Toyota and another car, a convertible BMW.

And leaning against her car as if he belonged there was the cool, sophisticated, gorgeous Logan Perrish, as if she’d conjured him out of her nightly fantasies. Except in her nightly fantasies, he returned her rambling but heartfelt e-mails…

Clearly she was hallucinating. Because no way would karma be so cruel as to stick her in the Santa costume and then produce the man who’d crushed her.


At the low, almost unbearably familiar voice that she’d expected to never hear again, she dropped her keys. To give herself a desperately needed moment, she bent over, and her hat and wig fell off. What were the chances he’d believe she really was Santa?


Dammit! Oh, how she wished she could turn back time. Because then, when she’d gotten that sexy “hey, babe” voice mail message a few days after he’d left, she wouldn’t have then poured her heart out to him via e-mail.

To which he’d never responded…

She scooped up both the hat and the keys and hugged them to her padded belly as she straightened and shook her head wildly. Nope, not Sandy. No Sandy here-

“It is. It’s you,” he murmured, and then laughed.

Which settled it. He’d hurt her and laughed at her. She tended toward a mild-mannered and easygoing temperament, but this was too much for her. She was going to have to kill him.

Chapter 2

Logan pushed off of Sandy’s car and shook his head. He couldn’t believe it when, through the mist of the frosty night, came a very short, round Santa, wobbling through the lot toward Sandy’s car.

In four-inch FMPs.

It hadn’t been until Santa dropped the hat and wig that he realized he recognized that wavy mass of dark hair. Choking out a laugh, he took a step toward her. His smiled faded when she just stared at him. Her baby blues, usually so soft and warm, were putting out a chill to rival the December night air.

Not exactly the welcome he’d envisioned. And he had envisioned. His fantasies had involved her throwing herself at him, and shortly thereafter divesting them both of all clothing.

“Hey,” he said. “You okay?”

“Why wouldn’t I be?”

Hmm. That didn’t sound like she was gearing up to throw herself at him at all, much less anything indecent after that. Logan looked at her thoughtfully, rubbing his jaw. In his world, decisions were made in split seconds. Sandy had always made him want to slow down and enjoy. Take his time… It was to his shame that he hadn’t realized how much she meant to him until he left Lucky Harbor.

He was going to have to leave again, but not until he’d made her his. Which apparently wasn’t going to be as easy as he’d thought. He took another step toward her, but her hand came up, eyes flashing, and she pointed at him. “No. Do not touch me.”

They’d spent a week together, during which she’d spent a fair amount of time begging him to touch her. He’d loved touching her. In fact, he’d spent seven long nights doing just that… every inch.

Logan wasn’t unsure of much. Of anything, really, not that he could think of. Things tended to go his way. Sure, there’d been a failure or two along the way, and disappointments, even heartbreak.

But mostly things fell right into his lap. His mom had always told him it was because he was the last of seven kids, born early. He’d been in a rush to get ahead of the pack from the get-go, and that had never changed. Which is what made the sweet, warm Sandy Jansen so confusing. He’d wanted her, he’d had her, and that should have been the end of the story.

Except that after their one-week, holy-shit-hot affair, he’d left Lucky Harbor, gone back to the racing world, and then proceeded to do nothing but think of her. He’d called her. What had he said? Hell, he couldn’t remember. Probably just “hey,” but she hadn’t returned the call. He’d had his manager send a round-trip ticket to his next race, but she hadn’t shown up.

He could admit, he’d been surprised. Disconcerted.

And utterly bewildered.

People called him back. Women called him back. He’d busied himself with his season, telling himself it didn’t matter. There were other women, lots of them.

But not a single one had attracted him. It’d been five months since he’d seen or heard from Sandy, and he should have been over it, but he wasn’t. So he’d come to see why…

Sexy Claus was tugging at something behind her, and swearing the air blue. “Goddamn, stupid, shitty, crappy, piece-of-shit zipper…”

“Do you kiss Mrs. Claus with that mouth?” he teased.

She stopped wriggling and narrowed her eyes at him.

Okay, so she wasn’t amused. He’d figured they’d be naked by now, sweaty and working their way toward round two.

And three…

“Need help?” he asked.

“Not from you.”

There was no one else in the parking lot. Across the street was the diner and the pier, and that lot was full. There was a group of Christmas carolers standing outside the diner, doing a rowdy rendition of “Jingle Bells.”

Sandy yanked off the wire-rimmed glasses and began to look more like herself. Well, except for that red suit, which was making her look wider than she was tall.

“And what are you even doing here?” she asked, but then, without waiting for an answer, she reached past him and unlocked her door, tossing in her purse, the Santa hat, and the wig. She tried to slide in behind the wheel, but she wouldn’t fit with her padded belly. “Cheese and rice!” she burst out, and with a deep sigh, dropped her head to the roof of her car and thunked it a few times.

“You’re going to rattle something loose,” Logan said.

She turned only her head and gave him an eat-shit-and-die look. “It’s been five months, Logan.”

Right to the heart. That was Sandy. She knew no other way. Out of all the women he’d known-and there’d been quite a few-she was the most open, the most direct. The most hardheaded. It was a huge part of the attraction for him, how she kept her own mind and didn’t take any shit from him. He dropped the smile and got serious. “I told you I’d be back.”

“Someday. You said you’d be back someday. You tell all the women that!”

Well, he’d meant it when he’d said it. Okay, so maybe he hadn’t. Maybe it had been a line, but he’d changed. From the moment he’d left her, he’d changed. Not that she wanted to hear that from him right now. “It was a busy season, and I couldn’t get away. If you’d have come to see me, this would have been a lot easier.”

“I didn’t want to be that girl.”

“What girl?”

She sighed. “The one who e-mails you her entire heart and then chases you around the whole frigging world.”

“I usually stay within the continental United States.”

This earned him another sigh.

Across the street, the carolers switched to “Oh Holy Night.”

“And what e-mail?” Logan asked.

“You know what e-mail,” she said, and she turned slightly, presenting him with her back. “Undo me.”

“Is this a sexual invitation?”

She craned her neck and eyed him long and hard.

Okay, not a sexual invitation. Got it. He gently stroked her hair from her nape and reached for the zipper of the Santa costume, brushing her creamy skin with his fingertips.

She shivered, and he went still. Coincidence? To test, he ran the pad of his thumb over the same spot, and she shivered again. Ah, he thought with a surge of fierce relief. She wasn’t completely over him, at least not yet. “I didn’t get any e-mails, Sandy.”

“Fine, so I went to spam. Whatever. I didn’t get any e-mails from you at all.”

This was true. He was more of an in-person sort of guy. “Know what I wished for from Santa?” he asked quietly.

She remained silent, but he knew by the stillness of her body that she was listening. She’d always listened to him, like no other. She’d listened, and she’d cared. He’d underestimated how much that meant to him. His fault. He’d clearly hurt her. Also his fault. But he was good at turning shit around.

“I wished for you,” he said, and slowly unzipped her. His heart caught as the costume opened, revealing more creamy skin.

And nothing else.

Her breathing quickened, and so did his.

“Logan,” she whispered.

“Yeah, babe?” Anything. God, anything you want. My car, my wallet, my life…

At the base of her spine, he ran into red silk. Before he could get any farther, she stepped clear and shrugged, and the Santa suit fell away, revealing the petite but lushly curved Sandy wearing a slinky red dress that made his mouth water. “There you are,” he managed.

“Thanks.” Bending, she scooped up the costume and shoved it into her car. “Appreciate it.”

“What are you doing now?” he asked.


“Yes, right now. Let’s go talk.”

“I have a very busy schedule,” she said. She glanced around her and narrowed her gaze on a group of carolers standing outside the diner across the street. “I’m supposed to be caroling. I have a date to be caroling.”

She was making that up right on the spot. He knew it. She knew it. “You have a date. Caroling.”

“That’s right. He’s probably over there right now, wondering why I’m standing here talking to you instead of holding his hand and singing with him.” She gave him a narrow-eyed look. “You don’t believe I could get a date? Because I have lots of dates.”

She was warm, soft, sexy, and adorable. He believed she could date anyone she set her mind to. But no, he didn’t believe she had a date tonight, caroling. “You’d best hurry over there then. Looks like they’re getting ready to move on. I wouldn’t want you to stand anyone up.”

She lifted her chin to nose-bleed heights and crossed the street.

Logan remained where he was, watching. When Sandy walked up to the group of carolers, she glanced back.

He waved.

It was dark so he couldn’t be sure, but he thought maybe she bared her teeth at him before sidling up to one of the men. Then she glanced back again and shot Logan a “see?” look.

Logan gestured that she should do her thing. Sandy hesitated, then slipped her arm in the man’s.

This earned her a startled stare; then the guy disentangled himself and shifted closer to the man on the other side of him. That man then curled a possessive arm around Sandy’s “date,” and they both shifted away from her.

Logan grinned.

The carolers finished their song and moved on.

Sandy came back across the street, and without a word to him, slid behind the wheel of her car, clearly intending to leave. She was a speedy thing.

But he was speedier. He blocked her move by stepping close, one hand on the roof, the other on the door, as he crouched down to look into her face.

Her eyes met his and softened, but then she shook her head and closed them. “Okay, so I didn’t have a date tonight. Dammit.”


With a sigh, she opened them again, and leveled him with those killer baby blues, which were filled with a shocking, staggering sadness. “Hey,” he said gently, and unable to help himself, leaned in and kissed her lightly. “Missed you.”

“Oh, Logan,” she whispered, as if maybe she’d missed him too, but there was something in her voice that disturbed him.

She didn’t believe him. “I should have told you sooner,” he said. “I’ve been thinking about you. Wanting you.”

“So this is what, a booty call?”

“I wanted to see you,” he said, smart enough not to touch that question with a ten-foot pole.

“Your season’s over now, right? Everyone’s off for Christmas, and you got bored. You were probably on the West Coast visiting your San Francisco relatives, so you thought why the hell not look up that cute little brunette you hooked up with from Lucky Harbor because she was easy enough?”

He stared at her, stunned that she’d think that. “You’re wrong.”

“Am I?”

“Yeah.” And he pulled her into his arms and kissed her to prove it.

Chapter 3

One moment, Sandy was sitting there behind the wheel of her car in her righteous resentment, and the next, Logan’s lips had covered hers. His hand cupped her jaw, and he sucked hungrily on her bottom lip, like a starving man in search of a meal.

Confused, dizzy, and extremely turned on, she threw her arms around his neck and pressed even closer. Logan answered with a low, rough groan and stood up, pulling her out of the car with him. He threaded his fingers into her hair while his other arm slid around her hips, hauling her up onto her tiptoes for a better lineup of their parts.

And, oh Lord, how their parts lined up.

She heard herself moan with the sheer pleasure of his hard body. He broke the kiss to stare down at her with a triumphant gleam.

“What was that?” she demanded.

“A reminder of what we had.”

“What we had was a fling,” Sandy said. “A very hot, wonderful fling, but then you left.”

“I had contractual obligations,” he reminded her. “And you’re not remembering all of it.” He brushed his lips across hers. “We said we’d keep in touch because we had something.”


“Yeah. Let me remind you just how much.”

This kiss was deeper, hotter, and far more intimate as he opened his mouth over hers. She told herself to shove him away, to regain some badly needed dignity, but her brain sent the wrong message to her fingertips, and she hauled him closer instead, pushing herself against him. He was hard. Everywhere. She was on the edge, and he’d barely touched her. This did not say much about her will to resist him.

And truth be told, she had just about forgotten why she wanted to.

Because he made you fall for him-hard-and then he walked his sweet ass right out of your life. It hit her like a bucket of cold water. She unfisted her hands from his shirt and gave him a push.

Logan stepped back and looked at her from beneath his sexy, hooded eyes.

“Don’t do that,” she said, annoyed at her own breathlessness.

“Don’t kiss you?”

“Don’t kiss me. Don’t touch me.”

He smiled. “Because you can’t resist me?”

His smile weakened her knees. She gave him another push and then slid into her car again. “And don’t do that either.”


“Smile.” She turned the key and started her car. “In fact, don’t anything in my presence. Go back to your bigger-than-life world, where women drape their panties on your hotel room doorknob and scream your name and want to be with you.”

“I don’t want to be with any of them. It’s Christmas, and I want to be with you.”

But could she really believe that? “You should go home, Logan.”

He was quiet, too quiet, and she made the mistake of looking at him. He was standing there all leanly muscled and gorgeous by moonlight. “That’s the thing, Sandy,” he said, his voice low and husky. “I am home.”

Until the season starts up again, she told herself, and revved her engine. “Stand back. I don’t want to run over your foot.”

Not a stupid man by any means, he took a step back, but his eyes never left hers. “I’m going to prove myself to you, Sandy.”

Afraid of him doing just that, she hit the gas and drove off into the night. Don’t look back…

She totally looked back. Logan was standing in the middle of the lot watching her go.

Sandy spent the evening staring at her bedroom ceiling, her body bereft and achy, like she’d betrayed it by not taking Logan home with her.

Sleep, she ordered herself. Concentrate.

But the truth was, she hadn’t been able to concentrate in months. Sleeping through the night had become a forgotten luxury. Instead, she’d toss and turn, remembering the feel of Logan’s hands and mouth on her body, and how he’d made her burn for him…

You could be burning right now, instead of lying here staring at the ceiling.

Ignoring herself, she gave up trying to sleep and showered, then drove to work. She pulled into the lot and blinked in surprise. The old ’72 Buick was gone, replaced by a… BMW.

She stared at it, then strode into the building. “Where’s the Buick?” she asked Kali, the front-desk clerk.

Kali was twenty-four, an avid snowboarder who supported her habit with this minimum-wage position, along with her minimum experience. She was quivering with excitement. “I can’t tell you.”

“Excuse me?”

Kali flipped her cute blond ponytail to the left and then the right, and when she’d satisfied herself that no one was looking or listening, she leaned close and whispered, “He paid me not to tell you.”

Sandy already knew damn well who “he” was, but she asked anyway. “Who paid you not to tell me what?”

“Well, not me exactly…” Kali swiveled her chair and pointed to the side counter, which was set up with three large money jars, each for a different charity, the Humane Society, the senior center, and disabled athletes.

Each was full. Shocked, Sandy moved closer. “Oh my God.” Each jar had been crammed with money.

“And those aren’t just one-dollar bills, either,” Kali said in an awed whisper. “Those are twenties. He said he’d have done it in hundreds, but the bank wasn’t prepared to give him that many hundreds on such short notice.”

Sandy’s eyes narrowed as a bad feeling came over her. “He.”

Kali smiled. “The cutest guy in the history of all cute guys.” From her desk, she pulled out last week’s People magazine and opened it to the Star Track page. There was Logan in full color in his racing gear, hot, sweaty, gorgeous… holding up a trophy and giving the grin that never failed to melt her panties.

Oh, no. No, no, no, no… this was bad. “Logan,” she hissed through her teeth.

“Yes!” Kali beamed at her. “Got it in one.”

He was just trying to impress her with the charity jars, she told herself. That was all. And he had more money than God himself, so it wasn’t like he’d done that much.

Except stay up all night and get the old Buick piece-of-shit towed away.

Replace it with his BMW.

Go to the bank and clean them out of twenties.

And stuff the charity money jars full. “Kali, you have one thing to do today.”

“What’s that?”

“Find me a Santa.”

Sandy was head deep in a mountain of paperwork at noon when sushi was delivered.

From a little place in Seattle, her favorite.

She eyed the small card that had come with it. She blew out a breath and opened it.



Love, Logan.

Love? He wouldn’t know love if it bit him on his very fine ass. But then again, she admitted with a soft sigh, she wasn’t sure she would know love either. Mostly she preferred books or work over men, not that they were beating down her door.

All she knew was that Logan was back in town-for how long she had no idea. She couldn’t imagine it would be more than a few days-and she couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t do anything but think of him.

She eyed the sushi, and her mouth watered. Okay, maybe she could eat, just a little…

Jax Cullen, town mayor and longtime friend, walked by her office and stopped, brows up. “You went out for sushi and didn’t ask me?”

Jax was leanly muscled and broad shouldered and… well, gorgeous. They’d almost had a thing once, a very long time ago, but they’d settled for a friendship, a comfortable one. “I didn’t go out,” she said. “This was delivered.”

“You have a secret admirer?”

“Not so secret. Logan’s back in town.”

Jax leaned against the doorway, settling in. “You going to admit to him that you’ve been pouting since he left?”

“Hell, no,” Sandy said.

“You going to admit to him that you’ve always wanted to stop being a small-town homebody and travel the world?”

“Hell, no.”

Jax shook his head. “Are you going to admit anything?”

“Would you?”

Jax smiled at that. “You suggesting I out-stubborn you?”

“I’m not suggesting,” she said. “I’m flat out saying it.”

“Yeah.” Jax nodded with a laugh. “Maybe. But I’ve changed my ways, and now I’ve got the woman I want in my bed every night. Change your ways, Sandy. He might surprise you.”

She wasn’t ready to go there. “Don’t let the door hit you on your very fine ass,” she said.

He laughed again and left, and Sandy spent the afternoon at her desk, with one ear glued for Kali’s footsteps to come down the hall and tell her that she’d located a Santa replacement.

“Nothing,” Kali said at the end of the day.

Sandy put her pen down. “Are you telling me that there’s not one man in this entire county willing to be Santa for the kids of Lucky Harbor?”

Kali rolled her lips together. “Um. Yes. No. I mean, not exactly.”

Sandy narrowed her eyes. “Then, what exactly?”

Kali covered her face. “Okay, so there was something else he paid me to do.” She said “he” like he was the second coming. “He paid me not to find you a Santa.”

This took a full moment to compute. “So… you didn’t make the calls.”

Kali bit her lip. “He said-”

“He who?” she asked, knowing damn well who.

“Logan. The one in my People magazine.”

“I know who he is, thank you.”

“Right.” Kali giggled.

Sandy worked on not completely losing her ever-loving mind. “So what was it?”

“What was what?”

“Why weren’t you supposed to find me a Santa?” Sandy asked with what she felt was remarkable calm, even though she wasn’t calm. Not even close to calm.

“It’s a secret,” Kali said; then with a softly uttered apology, she whirled and ran off. “See you at the parade in an hour!” she yelled back.

Sandy turned and stared at the costume in the corner chair. She was wearing her favorite emerald-green wraparound dress, but that was about to change. “Great. I’m going to be merry and fat for Christmas.”

“I think we can do better than that.”

With a startled gasp, Sandy whirled to find Logan lounging in her doorway, looking like he didn’t have a care in the world. “Logan.

His eyes heated. “You look like a Christmas treat. Good enough to eat.”

She pointed at him. “No. No charming me, remember?”

“You said no talking, touching, kissing.” He pushed off the doorjamb and stalked her across the office. “You didn’t say anything about charming.”

Well, shit. She was in big trouble.

Chapter 4

Logan didn’t have to get any closer to Sandy to see that she was stressed, anxious, and exhausted. Poor baby needed some TLC, and he was just the man to give it to her.

“This isn’t going to work,” Sandy told him, backing away as he advanced. When she nearly tripped over her own office chair, he put his hands on her hips to hold her steady. Surprised to find her quivering beneath his touch, he softened his hold. “Sandy,” he murmured softly while brushing a stray strand of hair from her cheek.

“You can’t charm me.” She shook her head from side to side. “You can’t.” She fisted her hands in his shirt and glared up at him, her eyes huge and wide. “I don’t have time to be charmed, Logan!”

“I know.” He ran his hands up and down her arms. “I know.”

“I don’t know what kind of game you’re playing, but having Kali not get me a Santa… There are kids out there. Kids, Logan, and they came to see Santa. So no matter what the hell you think you’re doing here playing with me, I can’t have it, not now. You’re not what I need right now.”

“I’m exactly what you need.”

She stared up at him, then dropped her head to his chest with a little moan. Because he couldn’t help himself, he stroked a hand down her slim back and brushed his cheek along her hair, loving the scent of her, the feel of her against him. “I’ll prove it,” he said.

“What?” She lifted her head and leveled him with her pretty eyes.

He slid his fingers into her hair and stroked her cheekbone with his thumb. God, he’d missed the feel of her skin. The way she looked at him. How she challenged him at every turn, treating him like…

A regular guy. “I’ll prove it,” he said again. “That I’m exactly what you need.” He gestured to the Santa suit lying lifeless in her spare chair.

She stared at it, then at him. “You? But you’re a national celebrity, and you’re… gorgeous, and you have a lot of really good qualities, but sweet isn’t one of them, and-”

He yanked his shirt over his head and tossed it to her desk.

She abruptly stopped talking and stared at him.

Nice to know that he had that power. He kicked off his shoes, unbuckled his belt and slid it out, tossing it down on his shirt.

Sandy’s mouth was open, as if maybe she needed it that way to breathe. “Um…”

He unbuttoned and unzipped his pants and shoved them down, kicking them off. She took in his only item of clothing left-black knit boxers-and drew in a shaky breath. She seemed to like what she saw. Ditto. Maybe he did have a few good qualities as she’d pointed out, but if that was true, she was his best quality.

The very best.

And he couldn’t lose her.

“Logan?” she whispered, her eyes glued to his body in a way that was working for him. So was her new breathlessness.

“Toss me the Santa suit, babe.”

She didn’t move.


She nibbled on her lower lip, worrying it between her teeth, making it all plump, her eyes locked on his abs-which wasn’t even his best part. “Hmm?”

“The Santa suit.”

She blinked, then jerked her eyes to his. “You’re actually going to wear the Santa suit. For me.”

She sounded bowled over at this, so utterly shocked that he felt a tightening in his chest. Hadn’t anyone ever offered to do something nice for her? “Yeah. I’m going to wear the Santa suit.”

“It’s going to be cold on the pier. Don’t you think you should leave your clothes on?”

Yeah, he probably should have. “I was trying to make a statement.”

She shook her head, still looking bowled over. Because she wasn’t moving, he walked by her and grabbed the suit, pulling it on.

It was thick and itchy. And Christ, what was up with the fat belly? “Santa needs a gym,” he said, looking down at himself. “And a whole hell lot less carbs and fat in his diet.”

Sandy snorted, then covered her mouth, still staring at him.

“Are you laughing at me?”

Hand still clamped over her mouth, she shook her head. Then she nodded. Yes. Yes, she was laughing at him. Her eyes were sparkling. She was smiling. She was beautiful. Leaning in, he kissed her on the end of her adorable nose. “You can trust me to have your back.”

She hesitated, then nodded, but he could tell she didn’t believe him, not wholly. That was okay. He was well used to proving himself, over and over again. It was one thing he could do and do well.

Or so he hoped. Because this wasn’t a race, and it wasn’t a game. Getting Sandy to believe in him, in them, was going to be the most important thing he’d ever done.

Sandy stood at the end of the parade, watching as the crowd celebrated and the kids rushed Santa.


He was in the hat, glasses, wig, and beard, and he’d even let her redden his nose. The costume was too short for him, but they’d stuffed the hem of the red pants into the black boots to be less noticeable. The belly was over-the-top-hell, the whole thing was over-the-top-but Logan was completely immersed into the role.

It shocked her.

He shocked her. She had the world-famous NASCAR driver wearing a Santa costume for a small town he’d never even heard of until five months ago.

He isn’t for me. She’d finally convinced herself that he was too into his career and the glitz and glam world that went with it, that he’d never be interested in making anything work with a small-town girl like herself.

But then he’d shown up.

For how long?

He glanced up and looked at her with that soft, tender, heated expression, the one that told her that she was the only woman on his mind.


When he could have had anyone. He sat on the throne at the end of the pier that had been set up for Santa, complete with a faux winter wonderland and lights and all the decorations the evening called for. As Sandy mingled and made sure the line stayed in control and that everyone was enjoying themselves, she kept one eye on Logan. Kid after kid jumped into his lap and whispered their greatest wishes for Christmas morning.

He had a smile for each of them, and she had to admit, she couldn’t tear her eyes off of him. He was doing this, coming through for her like no one else ever had, and he was doing it with good grace and utter sweetness.

Realizing that the line had died down, she slowly walked toward him. The only part recognizable was his eyes. Eyes that tracked her approach.

He let out a slow smile. “Got a wish, little girl?”

Yes, for you to stay. “I’m a little old for wishes.”

His smile went from playful to serious. “You’re never too old for wishes.”

Chapter 5

Logan watched Sandy absorb his words and realized that she wanted to have faith in him; she wanted that badly.

But she wasn’t sure she could.

His own fault. He’d had things pretty fucking easy most of his life, and he knew it. He was spoiled, and he knew that, too. But now was the time to change, time to learn from his mistakes.

Time to work his ass off for what he wanted, for what really mattered.

And that was Sandy. She mattered. She was his.

She just didn’t know it yet.

She hadn’t had anything easy, ever. She gave so freely of herself to others, and she cared. Deeply. She wasn’t used to people noticing, but he noticed. He wanted to kiss away her worries and keep them away forever.

The crowd was gone. He gave her a “come here” crook of his finger, and she surprised him by sitting on his lap. “I can’t tell you my wish,” she said softly, hooking her arms around his neck. “Or it won’t come true.”

He would have liked to make her tell him. He could have done it too, sliding his hands under her dress until she lost herself. But he’d prefer somewhere far more private. Rising, he set her on her feet, stretching, going still when she laughed.

“You look like an old man,” she said.

“An old, fat man,” he corrected, and narrowed his eyes when she laughed again. Enjoying her amusement, he grabbed her hand. “In fact, I’m so old, you’d better take me home.” He led her up the pier to the BMW, which she stared at with open fascination. He knew for a fact that she had several speeding tickets and a few fender benders, so it was a real testament to his feelings for her when he handed her his keys.

She stared down at them in her hand, then lifted her face to his. “I can take it for a spin?”

“Yeah,” he said, sliding into the passenger seat. “Though I should have installed a three-point seat belt system.”

“You don’t have to let me do this.”

He knew she didn’t want to be in any more debt to him. But he was in debt to her, for opening his heart. “Just watch fifth gear,” he said. “It’s an instant ticket maker.”

“ ’Kay.” But she chirped out of the lot on two wheels, and he grabbed the “oh shit” bar. In a Santa costume and he’d lost his balls. She flashed him a wide grin that made putting his life in her hands worth every second.

Half an hour later, after tearing up the mountainous roads with wicked glee, Sandy pulled back into the pier lot and regretfully turned off the car. “Thanks for that, Logan. Thanks for everything. Tonight was-”

He leaned in and kissed her. Kissed her until she let out a soft little moan that went straight through him as she slid her arms around his neck. Cupping her face, he stared into her eyes and saw his own hunger reflected back at him, so he dove back into the kiss, plundering her mouth until they were both panting for air.

Invite me to your place, he wished on a Christmas spirit he wasn’t even sure he believed in. Invite me into your heart.

“Good night,” she whispered instead, starting to get out of the car.

He grabbed her wrist, meeting her gaze, unable to let her go.

“I’m running a soup kitchen at Vet’s Hall until midnight,” she said softly. “I’m the only one of my staff without family in town. I always do it. I’ve got to go.”

Slowly he released her and nodded. She got out of the car, walked to hers, and drove off into the night.

Logan drove to the Lucky Harbor B &B. He knew one of the owners well.

His ex-wife, Tara Daniels.

They’d burned hard and bright in their early twenties, back in his wild days. He’d been an ass then, and hadn’t any idea how to nurture a relationship, much less a woman.

Tara was Southern, a real Steel Magnolia. Tough as hell, with a soft, warm heart.

She’d forgiven him, and they’d even become friends, of all things. He sat with her in the B &B’s big, homey kitchen that she ran like a drill sergeant.

“Word around town is that you’re whipped,” she drawled.

Whipped is such a strong word.”

She laughed at him. “Sugar, you’re here in Lucky Harbor, when you could be on a warm, deserted island with an assortment of babes. Give it up. You’ve finally fallen. Hard.”

He looked into her amused eyes and admitted defeat. Not easy for him. “I was a lousy bet in my twenties,” he said in way of apology to her, though she already knew this. “I screwed up, made mistakes. I’m better now. And I know what I want.”

“Don’t you even think about screwing this up,” Tara said. “Sandy’s a friend, a good one. She’s too sweet and kind for the likes of you.”

“I know.”

“You go after her this time, you have to keep her.”

“I know that, too,” he said, and pulled the small ring box from his pocket. He’d been carrying it around for a month now, ever since he’d realized he couldn’t live without her. “I wanted to wrap it in something she couldn’t resist. I was thinking something sweet. Can’t you make me a fruitcake or something?”

“Bless your heart,” Tara said. “But no one likes fruitcake. I’ll fix you up with just the thing. You’d best be sure, Logan Perrish. If you screw this up…”

“I won’t.” And God, how he hoped that was true.

It was twelve thirty a.m. before Sandy let herself into her house. Her place was high above the town on the bluffs. It was a tiny little thing, but she loved it because it was all hers.

Inside, she turned on the lights to her Christmas tree but nothing else. For a long moment, she just looked at the cute little tree, flickering for all it was worth. She very carefully avoided peeking beneath it, where there were no presents. Her family was all back East, but she couldn’t afford to go this year. Her parents had sent her a check, but she hadn’t bought herself anything yet. Now she wished she had. When her phone rang, she jumped, startled. It was Logan.

“Merry Christmas,” he said.

She melted at the sound of his voice, even as her heart panged hard. She imagined he was already back in San Francisco, maybe celebrating with friends and family. “Same to you. How’s your Christmas so far?”

“To be determined. There’s a present at your door.”

“No,” she said. “I just came in…” Biting her lip, she whirled to the door and pulled it open.

Logan stood there with a smile brighter than her Christmas tree, one hand braced above him, the other holding his cell to his ear. “Hey.”

“Hey,” she said breathlessly. Because she was a chronic idiot, she just stared at him. He shoved his cell phone into his pocket, and she walked into his arms. He wrapped them around her and kicked the door closed behind them as he eyed her tree. “It’s missing something.”

“It is not,” she said, insulted.

He set her loose and pulled a brightly wrapped present from his pocket and set it beneath the tree.

Her heart stopped. How had he known? She stared at the present, then dropped to her knees in front of it. “I bought myself a new hair straightener the other day. I almost wrapped it and stuck it beneath the tree just to have a present to unwrap on Christmas. This is much better.”

“Babe.” His voice was low, husky, and full of far too much understanding.

Her heart took a direct hit, and she busied herself with fixing an already perfectly placed decoration.

“Sandy, look at me.”

No. If she did, her mouth might run away with her good sense and ask how long he was sticking this time. Another week?


If she asked, he might feel the need to be honest, to remind her that come next season, he still had an entire world counting on him, a world that was far from here. It was also a world that she secretly yearned to see and experience-but how could she ask that of him? She knew she could have gone and seen him these past few months. She should have, but the truth was she wanted to go as his one woman, not as one of his women. And worse, if she looked at him, he’d see all of that along with her entire heart. That would be the biggest mistake of all.

Logan crouched before the woman he knew he’d never get enough of. She had her head bowed away from him, and she was breaking his heart. He reached for the box and handed it to her.

She pulled on the ribbon and gently tore away the paper, then sucked in a breath at the robin-blue Tiffany box. “Logan,” she breathed.

“Open it.”

She pulled off the lid and gasped, then lifted the diamond pendant necklace from the box. “It’s beautiful,” she whispered, and her eyes filled.

“Hey,” he said softly. “Hey, it’s supposed to make you happy.”

She flashed a brilliant smile, if not a little soggy. “I am,” she assured him. “It’s just the most wonderful gift anyone’s ever given me.” She saw the card on the bottom of the box and reached for it.

For Sandy,

The only woman I want to be with for Christmas.

Love, Logan.

He took the necklace from her and placed it around her neck. She fisted her hand around the pendant and held it to her heart. “I love it, Logan. Thank you.”

“Looks good on you.” He looked at her for a moment, hoping she was starting to understand how serious he was. Cupping her face, he stared into her eyes, slowly leaned in, and caressed her mouth with his in a gentle kiss. “I have another present for you. I’ve had this one for a while.”

“No,” she said. “You’ve given me too much. It’s my turn to give you your present,” she whispered against his lips. “It’s wrapped and everything.” She took his hand in hers and brought it to the bow at her hip, the one that appeared to hold her wraparound dress together.

“Mmm,” he said, pulse leaping. “My favorite kind of present.” The bow came loose, and her dress fell away, revealing a black silk bra and thong, and the soft, curvy body he’d been dreaming about every night for six months. “Exactly what I wanted,” he whispered, and pulled her down to the rug.

Sprawled out over her, he felt his heart roll over, and his smile slowly faded. “Sandy, about the other present. I-”

“Later,” she murmured. “Much later.” And she pulled his head down to hers.

Chapter 6

Logan’s mouth ravaging hers again after all this time sent a thrill through Sandy. She’d accepted that she loved him, that this was what he had to give her, and for tonight, it was enough. It would have to be. So she dug her fingers into his shoulders and arched up into him.

She was rewarded when his mouth continued its quest to own hers, his tongue stroking in tune to his hands on her body, which felt like a tightly strung instrument, playing just for him.

Only for him.

“Tell me what you want, Sandy.”

She was pretty sure he didn’t want the answer to that, because the answer was everything. She wanted everything from him. “Well… you’re overdressed,” she managed to say, and tugged at his shirt.

He reared up and stripped out of his clothes, leaving nothing but muscle and sinew and testosterone wrapped up in sleek, smooth skin. She couldn’t take her eyes off him.

He didn’t come back over her. Instead, he kneeled between her thighs and slowly slid her bra straps off her shoulders. “Tell me, Sandy…”

“I want you to keep going.”

He smiled, then reached beneath her with one hand and unhooked the clasp of her bra. “I am going to keep going.” He tossed the scrap of lace over his shoulder and then set his attention to her panties.

He removed those with his teeth.

She was panting by the time he crawled back up her body, touching every inch, following each of those touches by nips and kisses and licks of his tongue. She was panting, begging, and beyond desperate as he finally settled his weight over her.

With a moan, she arched her back, lifting herself to him. He smiled as if she’d given him the best Christmas present of his life, then went back to stoking her inner fire, caressing her until the flames consumed her, making her breath catch with each new touch. She wanted more, she wanted him, all of him, but hell if she’d beg.

For anything.

Then he stopped.

“What?” she gasped. There’d better be a fire…

“Just wanted to look at you.”

Oh, she thought, melting. Oh, damn. It had taken her five months to get over him, she still wasn’t over him, and now she wasn’t sure she wanted to be.

He leaned over her, his eyes telling her he could read her thoughts. “Trust me,” he said, his lips so close that they brushed hers as he spoke. “Trust me with you.”

She opened her mouth to tell him that she did, in spite of herself, she really did trust him, but he’d produced a condom and slid home and what came out was an erotic, sensual cry.

His attention was on her body, his gaze heating every inch of her skin as he trailed his fingers in a line from her breasts to her legs, which he wrapped around his hips. He slid in deep, and with a rough groan, dropped to his elbows so that he covered her completely. She wrapped her arms around his neck, and then his lips were on hers as he began to move.

She lost herself in the delicious, overwhelming sensations, unable to think or even remember the reasons she’d hesitated to let him love her again like this. His arms slid beneath her, pulling her even closer to him, plunging deep, then deeper still, until she burst. He went over the edge with her, pulsing inside her until they collapsed together, spent.

Afterward, he carried her to her bed and started over…

Much later, she snuggled in against him and everything was forgotten as she fell asleep. She awoke to the sun poking her in the eyes and panicked. It was eight o’clock on Christmas morning! She was supposed to be at the diner for the breakfast buffet. Everyone in town was coming and she was in charge. She tried to jump out of bed but found she couldn’t.

Because a very warm, tousled, leanly muscled man had her wrapped up tight in his arms. “Got to go!” she said, and kissed him on the jaw before shimmying loose.

He rolled over to catch her, but she was too fast, making quick work of pulling on jeans and a sweater. “I’m late!”

“It’s Christmas,” he said in a rough morning voice, and sexy as hell.

“Exactly!” She shoved her feet into boots, grabbed her purse, and headed for the door, but something bright nearly blinded her.

Her necklace.

She looked down at it, then at the naked man sprawled in her bed. “Thanks for last night.”

“And this morning?” he asked in that husky male morning voice that made her tremble.

They’d dozed and woken each other up somewhere around three a.m. to tear up her sheets again. Her thighs rubbed together, and she felt the slight sting of the whisker burn there. Her face heated. “That too.”

“I wanted to talk to you last night,” he said, rolling off the bed and coming toward her, completely unconcerned about his nudity.

And if she were him and looked that good, she’d be unconcerned too. “It’s okay,” she said, and patted his chest. “I understand now. We’re… explosive. I couldn’t resist you, and vice versa. No regrets, Logan.” And with a soft kiss, she left him alone.

And if maybe she shed a tear or two in the car on the way to the diner, well, no one had to know but her.

She arrived just in time. She jumped behind the counter to help the owner, Jan, and her waitress, Amy, serve the crowd. And it was a big crowd. Everyone was inhaling stacks of pancakes and eggs, and bacon and sausage, when suddenly the low level of mayhem ceased altogether as the diner door opened.

Sandy looked up just as Logan strode in.

The squeals of delight were genuine and real. The residents of Lucky Harbor had fallen in love with Logan on his first visit, all those months ago. Logan smiled but moved through the crowd, heading straight for Sandy. “Hope you don’t mind if I steal Sandy away for a second,” he said.

Sandy told herself to be brave, but she wasn’t feeling brave. She stood there in a bright red apron, a serving spoon in one hand and a coffee carafe in the other, and shook her head. “I can’t,” she said. “I’m busy.”

Logan looked at her for a long beat. He took the spoon from her hand and set it down, then did the same with the coffee. He cupped her face. “I’ve been trying to tell you something. But I’ll do it right here if I have to.”

Oh, God. He was going to end things now. She wasn’t ready. Maybe tomorrow she’d be ready. “No, that’s not necessary-”

“I know you thought this was just a fling. Hell, I thought this was just a fling. I wanted it to be. I wasn’t looking for this, and I sure as hell never wanted you to get hurt.”

Someone in the crowd “ahhed” at that.

Logan ignored it. “But there’s something about you, Sandy. Something that I just can’t get enough of. That was proven when I left here and thought of nothing but you.”

“You raced every weekend,” she murmured, trying not to think about their audience. “You were too busy to think of me.”

“Believe me, I had room to think of you no matter what I was doing. Just don’t tell my team. That sort of thing is frowned upon since it tends to get people killed.” He flashed a grin. “I would fly you out every weekend to ensure my safety, if you’d let me.”

Her heart felt instantly lightened, and now butterflies were bouncing off the walls of her stomach. The good kind of butterflies. “Oh my God.”

“Tell him you love him back!” someone yelled.

“Hurry, before he changes his mind!” someone else called out.

“How about hurry, my eggs are getting cold?” a third party griped.

Logan never took his eyes off Sandy. “I don’t want anyone’s eggs to get cold. Let’s speed this up.” He handed her the basket. “They’re peach muffins. Because apparently no one likes fruitcake.”


He sighed and pulled out the muffins. Beneath, nestled in the bottom of the basket, was another Tiffany box, this one smaller than the first.

A ring box.

Her mouth fell open, and she slowly reached into the basket. Her fingers were shaking so badly that Logan took over and opened the box, revealing the diamond ring he’d picked out for her.

“There is no other woman for me,” he said. “You’re it, Sandy Jansen. You’re warm and sweet and kind and funny, and you make me feel like I’m more than just a good driver. You make me feel… everything.” He removed the ring from the box and slipped it on her finger. “I love you,” he told her. “I love you more than I’ve ever loved anyone or anything. I want you to marry me, even though you drive like a crazy person.”

There was a collective “ohmigod” around them, but Sandy paid them no mind. She stared at the ring, then up into his face, clearly stunned. “You do? Really?”

He was going to work on that, on making sure she never doubted or wondered how he felt. Ever. “I do.” He loved the dreamy look in her eyes, but she hadn’t said anything, and he was starting to feel a little bit like he was out in public without a stitch of clothing. He slid a look at their avid audience, then leaned in closer. “This is the part where maybe you could say you want me, too. I’ve kinda got my ass hanging out here. Say yes, and I’ll throw in the BMW. You know you love that thing as much as you love me.”

“Hey.” A little kid tapped Logan on the arm. “You look a lot like Santa.”

Sandy choked out a laugh and covered her mouth.

Logan looked down at the kid. “Santa already came this year. Did you get what you wanted?”

“Yeah,” the kid said, waving a handheld game. “Did you?”

“I don’t know.” Logan looked at Sandy. “Did I?”

“Yes,” she breathed, and threw herself at him. “You got everything you ever wanted. Forever.”

“Does this mean you love me, too?”

“It means I love you. With or without the BMW.” She waited a beat, grinning up at him mischievously. “But with is better.”

I’ll Be Home for Christmas by Hope Ramsay

Baby Jesus wailed loud enough to be heard in the next county. His floodlit manger rocked back and forth while a group of gaily painted plaster wisemen looked on. Staff Sergeant Matt Jasper took a few hesitant steps toward the crèche and wondered if PTSD had finally found him. He peeked into the wobbling manger.

A pair of golden eyes stared back.

He let go of the breath he’d been holding. It was a cat, not a baby. Thank goodness. He knew how to handle a cat. A baby would have scared him silly.

“What’re you doing in there with Jesus?” he said as he scooped up the animal and cradled it against his chest. It sank its claws into the fabric of his combat uniform and ducked its head under his chin.

It started to purr, its body shaking with the effort.

He looked down at the animal. The markings on its face weren’t quite symmetrical-a little patch of brown fur by its white nose made its face look dirty. The cat stared back at him as if it could see things beyond Matt’s vision.

Then it let go of its claws and settled down into his big hands as if it believed it had found a permanent home.

Stupid cat. It should know better than to settle on him. He didn’t have a permanent home. He was as much a stray as the animal in his hands.

He didn’t need a cat right now.

He just needed to deliver Nick’s present-the last one he’d bought for his grandmother. And once Matt finished that errand, he could think about the future-preferably without any animals in it.

Annie Roberts sang the closing lyrics to “Watchman, Tell Us of the Night,” her solo scheduled for tomorrow night’s Christmas Eve service. Dale Pontius, the Christ Church choir director, sat in the back pew listening and nodding his head.

Pride rushed through her. She had a very good singing voice, and she loved this particular carol. She was looking forward to singing it for everyone at tomorrow night’s services. Singing on Christmas Eve was one of Annie’s greatest joys. She’d been singing in the Christ Church choir since she’d returned home from college, almost fifteen years before.

Just as the closing notes of the guitar accompaniment faded, a soldier in fatigues with a big pack on his back entered the sanctuary through the front doors. He strolled down the center aisle a few steps, the sound of his boot heels echoing. He stared up at the choir and Annie in particular.

He had forgotten to take off his dark beret, and a shadow of day-old beard colored his cheeks. He looked hard and worn around the edges.

“Who the dickens are you?” Dale said from his place in the back pew.

The soldier looked over one broad shoulder. “I’m Staff Sergeant Matt Jasper, sir,” he said in a deep voice. “I was wondering if anyone had lost a cat. And also I need some directions.”

It was only then that Annie noticed the ball of orange, white, and brown fur resting in Sergeant Jasper’s hands.

“Good heavens, get that mangy thing out of here. I’m allergic.” Dale stood up and gestured toward the door.

Millie Polk, standing behind Annie in the alto section whispered, sotto voce, “Maybe he’ll have a sneezing fit, and we’ll all get to go home to our gift wrapping and cooking.”

This elicited several chortles of laughter from the vicinity of the sopranos. Annie loved choir practice, but she had to admit that Dale was a real taskmaster this time of year. And, like Millie Polk, she had a long list of Christmas errands she needed to get done before tomorrow afternoon.

“You think a cat in this sanctuary is funny?” Dale said, turning toward the soprano section. “Did ya’ll have any idea how lacking your performance of the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ was this evening? There is nothing funny about this situation.”

Dale turned toward the soldier. “I am very grateful for your service to the country, but this is a closed rehearsal. I would appreciate it if you would leave and take the cat with you.”

It was almost comical the way Dale managed to stare down his nose while simultaneously looking up at the sergeant holding the kitten. The situation was sort of like a Chihuahua playing alpha dog to an adorable collie.

Matt Jasper wasn’t intimidated by Dale though. He simply stared down at the choir director out of a pair of dark, almost black eyes. His eyebrows waggled. “Sorry to bust up your choir practice, sir, but I found this cat in your manger. If I hadn’t picked it up, it probably would have broken your baby Jesus. So I figure the cat’s yours. I need to get going. I’ve got an errand to run, and I-”

“Well, it’s not my cat.” Dale turned to the choir. “Did any of you bring your cat to choir practice?” There was no mistaking the scorn in Dale’s voice.

The choir got really quiet. Nobody liked it when Dale lost his temper.

“See? The cat doesn’t belong to anyone.” Dale gazed at the bundle of fur in the soldier’s hands and sniffed. “It’s probably a stray. Why don’t you leave it outside and get on with your errand?”

“He can’t do that,” Annie said, and then immediately regretted her words. She did not want a cat, no matter how lonely she felt sometimes.

On the other hand, she wasn’t going to stand by and let Dale Pontius and Sergeant Jasper drop a stray in the churchyard and walk away. That was inhumane.

Dale turned toward Annie, his displeasure evident in his scowl. Dale could be a tyrant. She should keep her mouth shut. But for some reason, the little bundle of fur in the big soldier’s hands made her brave. “It’s cold outside. It’s supposed to rain.”

She pulled her gaze away from Dale and gave the soldier the stink eye. She wasn’t intimidated by that uniform or his broad shoulders. He needed to know that she frowned on people leaving stray cats in the neighborhood.

Jasper’s full mouth twitched a little at the corner. “Ma’am,” he said, “you can rest easy. I’m not going to leave it outside to wander. I’d like to find it a good home.” His gaze never wavered. His eyes were deep and dark and sad, like a puppy dog’s eyes.

She didn’t need a puppy either.

The cat issued a big, loud meow that reverberated in the empty sanctuary. The church’s amazing acoustic qualities magnified the meow to monumental proportions.

“Get that thing out of here.” Dale was working himself into a tizzy.

“Uh, look,” the soldier said, “can anyone here tell me where I might find Ruth Clausen? I went to what I thought was her address, but the house is all boarded up.”

The choir shifted uneasily. “Ruth’s in a nursing home,” Annie said.

The soldier’s thick eyebrows almost met in the middle when he frowned. “In a nursing home?”

“Yes, she’s very old and quite ill,” Dale said. “Now, if you don’t mind, I have a choir practice to get on with.” Dale strode past the man in the aisle and back to the front of the church.

“That was very nice, Annie, Clay.” Dale turned toward Clay Rhodes, the choir’s main instrumentalist. “I’d like one more run-through on the Handel.”

Annie resumed her place with the altos, and Clay put his guitar in its stand and took his place at the organ. He flipped through a few pages of music and began the opening chords of the “Hallelujah Chorus.”

Annie sang her part and watched as the cat-packing soldier ignored Dale’s request and took a seat in the back pew. Halfway through the choir’s performance, Sergeant Jasper must have remembered that he was in a church, because he finally took off his beret. His hair was salt-and-pepper and cut military short.

For some reason, Annie couldn’t keep her eyes off him. She wondered if he might have been one of Nick’s friends.

It seemed likely, since he’d come in here asking after Ruth, Nick’s grandmother. She didn’t want to be the one to tell him that he’d come on a fool’s errand.

Matt settled back in the pew and listened to the music. This little town was way in the boonies, but the choir sounded pretty good. Not that he was a student of religious Christmas music. Matt had never been to church on Christmas. In fact, he’d pretty much never been to church in his life.

Not like Nick Clausen. If Nick’s stories were to be believed, his folks had practically lived at church.

That’s why Matt had come here to the church after he’d discovered that Ruth’s house was boarded up. He’d known that someone at this church would know where to find Nick’s grandmother.

Just like he’d known that the altar would have big bunches of poinsettias all over it, and the stained-glass window would have a picture of Jesus up on his cross.

It struck him, sitting there, that Nick had gone to Sunday school here. Nick had been confirmed here. He’d come here on Christmas Eve.

Matt took a deep breath. Boy, Nick sure had loved Christmas. Matt could kind of understand it, too, listening to the choir.

Matt’s Christmases had been spent in a crummy apartment in Chicago while his mother and father got drunk.

He closed his eyes and let the music carry him away from those memories. He’d gotten over his childhood. He’d found a home in the army. He’d made something of himself.

He buried his fingers in the stray’s soft fur. It licked his hand with a rough tongue.

He needed to find the local animal shelter, followed by the nursing home. Then he planned to get the hell out of Dodge before the urge to stay overwhelmed him. Because a guy like him didn’t belong in a place like this. This was Nick’s place, not his.

The music ended, and the choir director finally let everyone go. Matt stood up and slung his pack over his shoulder. Maybe the brown-haired woman with the amazing voice could help him. He’d heard her singing from out on the lawn, after the cat had stopped howling. The sound had called to him, and he’d followed it right into the church.

The choir members seemed thrilled to be dismissed. Probably because the choir director was a jerk, and they had shopping, and cooking, and a lot of other holiday crap to do. People in Last Chance would be busy like that, cooking big meals, wrapping presents, decorating trees, and stuff.

He found the brown-haired woman who’d spoken up in the cat’s defense. “Ma’am, I was wondering, could you help me, please?”

She was shrugging into a big dark coat that had a sparkly Christmas tree pin on its collar. She gazed at him out of a pair of dark blue eyes. She had very pale skin, a long nose, and a thin face.

“I’m not taking your cat,” she said in a defensive voice. “But if you’re looking for Ruth, she’s in the Golden Years Nursing Home up in Orangeburg.”

He frowned. “Where’s that?”

“You’re not from around here, are you?”

“No, ma’am. I’m originally from Chicago. Since I joined up, I’m from wherever they station me.” Except, of course, that wasn’t true anymore. He hadn’t re-upped this time, and he had nowhere permanent to go. He’d come to deliver Nick’s present, and then he had some vague plans for spending New Year’s on a beach somewhere-maybe Miami.

“Well, Orangeburg is about twenty miles north of here. But I need to warn you, Ruth’s been in the nursing home for the last year, and she’s pretty ill. I know because I work for her doctor.”

“I see.”

“Are you a friend of Nick’s?” she asked.

He smiled. “Yes. Did you know him too?”

“I went to high school with him. I had a bit of a crush on him.” She blushed when she said it.

“And you are?”

“I’m Annie Roberts.”

He blinked and almost said I know you. But of course he didn’t know Annie, except from the things Nick had told him. Annie had been Nick’s girlfriend in high school. They had broken up the night of their senior prom.

“You studied nursing at the University of Michigan,” he said.

“How did you-Oh, Nick told you that, didn’t he?”

He grinned. “He told me you were looking forward to going someplace where it snows.”

She frowned at him. “Why are you here? Nick died more than a year ago.”

“I know. I was with him when it happened.”


He shouldn’t have said that. People always got that look on their faces when he spoke about this crap. No one back home really understood.

She squared her shoulders. “I’m so sorry. Are you a member of the Army Engineers K-9 team too?”

He continued to stroke the cat. “I was. As of yesterday, I’m officially a civilian.”

The words came out easy. It took everything he had to hide the emotions behind them.

“And you came here? Right before Christmas? Don’t you have a family someplace?”

He shrugged. “I have Nick’s last Christmas present-you know, the one he intended to send home to his grandmother. I need to deliver it.”

Her gaze pierced him for a moment. It was almost as if she could read all of his thoughts and emotions. A muscle ticked in her cheek, and she seemed to be weighing something in her mind.

She must have decided that he wasn’t a threat because she let go of a long breath and gave the kitten a little stroke. “Poor thing. She looks half starved.”

“How do you know it’s a female?”

“How do you know it’s not?”

He shifted the animal so he could actually inspect it. “Well, you were right. It’s a girl. Means she’ll have to be fixed. Is there an animal shelter somewhere?”

“Yes. In Allenberg. But it’s probably closed.”

His frustration with the situation mounted. “Uh, look, Annie, I just got in on the bus from Charlotte. I don’t have a car. And now I need to find a home for this kitten, as well as a place to stay for the night. It’s probably too late to go visiting at a nursing home twenty miles away.”

She buttoned up her coat. “Boy, you’re in a fix, aren’t you?”

“Is there a hotel somewhere?”

Her cheeks colored just the slightest bit. “Well, the only place in town is the Peach Blossom Motor Court. They would probably allow you to keep the cat.”

“I’ve heard about the Peach Blossom Motor Court,” he blurted and then remembered the story. “Oh, crap. That was stupid.”

Annie’s cheeks reddened further. “I guess guys in the army have nothing better to do than talk.”

“Yes, ma’am. And believe me, being in the army can be really boring at times. Guys talk about home all the time. I’m sorry. I should have kept my mouth shut.”

“Don’t be sorry. What happened between me and Nick the night of senior prom happened almost twenty years ago.”

“I guess he never told you about me, did he?” Nick asked.

She shook her head. “Why would he? He and I parted ways that night. He went off to join the army and see the world. I went off to college to see the snow. I guess I saw him that Christmas right after he went through basic training, but I wasn’t speaking with him at the time.” She hugged herself, and Matt noticed that she wasn’t wearing a wedding ring.

So the girl Nick had never forgotten was unmarried.

She gave him a smile that didn’t show any teeth. A few lines bunched at the corner of her eyes. She wasn’t young. But she was pretty.

And Matt knew that she was sweet. He had a lot of Nick’s stories filed away in his head. Nick had been a real good storyteller when things got slow.

Annie studied the cat sleeping in his hands and then nodded her head as if she’d come to a decision. “Look, you can’t stay at the Peach Blossom. It probably has bed bugs. It’s just an awful place. So you might as well come on home with me. I’ve got a perfectly fine guest room where you can sleep, and in the morning, we can figure something out. I’m sure I can find someone to run you up to Orangeburg, or I can do it myself.”

“How about a friend who wants to adopt Fluffy?” He held up the cat in his hands.

“Fluffy?” She gave him a funny look. “That is a stupid name for a cat.”

“Why? She’s kind of fluffy.”

“Yeah, but everyone names their cat Fluffy. There must be five Fluffys living here in Last Chance, and they all belong to single women. Please don’t name the cat Fluffy.”

“Okay, I won’t,” Matt said. “I thought you didn’t care about this cat.”

“Well, no, but you found it in a manger a couple days before Christmas, didn’t you?”


“Well, then, it needs a better name than Fluffy. Something holiday-related, like Noel.”

He looked down at the slightly scruffy kitten. “That’s a pretty pretentious name for this particular cat, don’t you think? Of course, if you were going to adopt it, you could name it anything you wanted.”

She scowled at him. “I’m not adopting any cats, understand?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Annie should have her head examined. She could almost hear Mother’s voice outlining all the reasons she should send Sergeant Matt Jasper off to the Peach Blossom Motor Court. Mother would start with the fact that he was male, and then move right on to the worry that he was secretly either a pervert or an ax murderer.

Mother had trust issues.

But Annie could not, for the life of her, believe that a man with Matt’s warm, dark eyes was either a pervert or a murderer. And besides, he knew how to handle the cat. His hands were big and gentle. And that uniform seemed to be tailor made for him.

She led him down the aisle and out the door and into the blustery December evening.

“Feels like snow,” he said.

She laughed. “I don’t think so. We don’t ever get snow here.”

“It seems like you should.” They headed across Palmetto Avenue and down Julia Street.

“Snow in South Carolina? Not happening.”

He shifted the cat in his arms. “Nick used to talk about Christmas in Last Chance all the time. I always kind of imagined the place with a dusting of snow.”

She snorted. “Nick sure could tell stories. But I can only remember one year when we got a dusting of snow. It was pitiful by snow standards. And it didn’t last very long.”

“Well, I’m from Chicago, you know.”

“So I reckon ya’ll have snow on the ground at Christmas all the time.”

“Yeah. But in the city it doesn’t take very long for the snow to get dirty and gray. I always kind of imagined Last Chance covered in pristine white.”

“Well, that’s a fantasy.” She reached her mother’s house on Oak Street. The old place needed a coat of paint, and a few of the porch balusters needed replacing. Annie ought to sell the place and move to Orangeburg or Columbia. A registered nurse could get a job just about anywhere these days. And her social life might improve if she moved to a bigger town.

But she’d have to leave home. She’d have to leave friends. She’d have to leave the choir and the book club, not to mention Doc Cooper and the clinic.

No wonder Miriam Randall had told her to get a cat. If she wanted to deal with her loneliness in Last Chance, a cat was probably her best bet.

She pushed open the door and hit the switch for the hall and porch lights. Her Christmas lights-the same strand of large-bulbed lights that Mother had used for decades-blinked on.

“Oh,” Matt said. It was less than a word and more than an exhalation.

“I’m afraid it’s not much of a display. Nothing like the lights the Canadays put out every year.”

She looked over her shoulder. Matt was smiling, the lights twinkling merrily in his eyes. A strange heat flowed through Annie that she recognized as attraction.

Boy, she was really pathetic, wasn’t she?

She shucked out of her coat and hung it on one of the pegs by the door.

“It smells wonderful in here,” Matt said. He strolled past her into the front parlor. His presence filled up the space and made the large room seem smaller by half. He made a full three-sixty, inspecting everything, from the old upright piano to Grandmother’s ancient mohair furniture.

Crap. Her house look like it belonged to a little old lady. Which, in fact, it had, until last spring, when Mother died. Suddenly the cabbage rose wallpaper and the threadbare carpet made Annie feel like a spinster. The cat would complete the picture.

Matt stopped and cocked his head. “You have a tree.”

“Of course I have a tree. Mother would-” She cut herself off. The last thing Matt wanted to hear about was what Mother expected out of Christmas. This year, Annie planned to make a few changes.

But she’d still put out Mother’s old Christmas lights. And she had still bought a Douglas fir instead of a blue spruce.

And she’d made the annual climb up to the attic for the ornaments. But when she’d gotten the boxes down to the front parlor, she’d lost the will to decorate. One look at her mother’s faded decorations, and she’d felt like her life was in a big rut.

She’d done the unthinkable-she’d carried all those old boxes right back up to the attic. If she’d been a braver woman, she would have carried them to the curb for the trash man.

Of course, she hadn’t done one thing about replacements. She had been putting all of that off. And suddenly, she realized that if she was going to take Matt up to Orangeburg tomorrow to visit Ruth, and still host a party for her friends from the book club, she was going to have to get her fanny in gear.

Matt pulled in a deep breath, drinking in the Christmas tree aroma. He squeezed his eyes closed and could almost hear Nick’s voice, talking about how he’d helped his grandmother trim her tree.

Annie’s tree was naked.

He put the cat down on the carpet. She darted under the sofa, where she crouched, looking up at him as if he’d abandoned her.

Stupid cat. She should realize that she had found a better home than he could provide. Annie’s house was like something out of a picture postcard. If Matt had had a grandmother, this is precisely the way he’d want her house to look.

Matt had a feeling that Nick’s grandma’s house had been like this, too.

He turned back toward Annie. She looked like a picture postcard too. Like Mom and apple pie. Like home.

“So,” he said on a deep breath, “your tree needs help, Annie Roberts.”

She gave him a bashful smile. “I guess it does.”

“I’m willing to work for my room and board. Just point me in the direction of the lights.”

She laughed. “Everything is up in the attic. Wait a sec, and I’ll go get the boxes.”

She scurried away up the stairs in the main hall, and he amused himself watching her shapely backside, clad in a pair of blue jeans, as she climbed to the second story.

Oh yeah, Annie Roberts was more than pretty. She was built. He could understand why Nick had had trouble forgetting her.

“No, cat!” Annie tried to pull the feline away from the string of lights that Matt was hanging on the tree.

“Maybe we should call her Pouncy,” he said with a deep, rumbling laugh.

He stood rock steady on the stepladder. He’d taken off his army jacket and wore only a tan-colored T-shirt that hugged his torso. He looked fit.

Okay, she was understating the fact. Matt looked gorgeous, and ripped, and competent standing there hanging tree lights.

The cat, on the other hand, looked like a menace on four feet. The kitten had gotten over her fear of the new environment and had decided that the Christmas tree and anything associated with it was her personal play toy.

Matt was no good at discouraging her either. He kept tugging on the string of lights, making them move suddenly in a way that the cat found irresistible. The kitten pounced ferociously on them and then backed up and pounced again.

The cat was growing on Annie.

But not as much as the man.

“So, you said you have a Christmas gift for Ruth?” she asked, purposefully raising the specter of Nick. She really needed to remember that Matt had come to do something that was going to make Ruth unspeakably sad. And then he would go away, just like Nick had done. Best to keep her distance.

“Yeah. Nick bought it for her a year and a half ago.”

“What is it?”

“I have no idea. I don’t even know where he bought it. I just know that I found it with his stuff after he died. I took it before the CO could lay his hands on it. Not exactly regulation, I know, but I kept thinking about Ruth getting Nick’s effects and finding it there. I thought it would be really crummy to get a gift and not have Nick there, you know? I thought it would be better to bring it myself.”

She studied him for a very long time. He was a pretty sensitive guy for a soldier. Her opinion of him rose a little more. “You waited a long time.”

He finished putting the lights on the tree and stepped down from the stepladder. “I was in Afghanistan. It was a long deployment.”

Annie unwrapped the angel that Mother always put on the top of the tree. The angel wore yellow velvet with gold trim, and her halo had been broken years and years ago. She handed the tree topper to Matt, and their fingers touched. Heat flooded through her, and the look of longing in Matt’s eyes told her that the reaction was mutual. Matt let go of a big breath, as if he’d been holding something inside. They stood there for the longest moment, their fingers touching across the angel. Eventually Annie let go, and Matt turned, stepped up the ladder, and put the angel in her place.

For some reason, the angel, even with her bent wings and broken halo, looked beautiful up there. Once, a long time ago, Annie had thought the angel was the most beautiful Christmas ornament ever. How had she forgotten that?

Matt turned back toward her, his eyes filled with joy. “I love doing this,” he said. “I haven’t had much experience trimming trees. My folks used to put a little fake tree on the kitchen table when I was a kid. We always lived in a pretty small apartment.”

Annie turned away, suddenly overcome by emotions she couldn’t name. Who was this stranger who had walked into her house with a cat and a heaping dose of holiday spirit?

He was the man who’d come to give Ruth a present she didn’t need or want.

But Annie could hardly explain that to Matt, could she? He’d come here first thing after the army let him go. Like delivering his gift was a kind of obligation.

She held her tongue and picked up a cardboard box filled with slightly tarnished glass balls. “Here, make yourself busy.”

He took the box and immediately set to work. She watched him for the longest moment before she said, “You know, Ruth isn’t in her right mind.”

He stopped. Turned. “No?”

Annie shook her head. “Hasn’t been since those army men came to her door with the news.”

He pressed his lips together. “I’m sorry.”

“What do you have to be sorry about? It’s just the way it is. She’s been in a nursing home for more than a year. And according to what I heard from Doc Cooper, she’s not expected to live past New Year’s. She’s got congestive heart failure. It’s only a matter of time. But, you know, she’s alone now and almost ninety.”

He startled. His hands reflexively squeezed the box of ornaments.

Annie stood up. “Can I get you something? A cup of coffee? Some hot chocolate?”

He stood there, looking a little confused, his eyebrows cocked at a funny angle. “Uh, yeah. Some hot chocolate would be great.”

What was he doing here? He looked up at the little angel atop the tree. She didn’t seem to have an answer.

Just then the cat attacked his bootlace. He bent down and picked Pouncy up.

Annie was right. Pouncy was a stupid name. One day the kitten would grow up and quit pouncing on everything in sight.

He cuddled her closer and sat in the big armchair facing the front window. The lights on the tree looked festive. The cat curled up in his lap.

“Poor little stray, born out of season. Were you abandoned?” he asked the cat.

The cat only purred in response.

He let go of a long sigh. He wondered what was in that gaily wrapped package at the bottom of his knapsack. Maybe it would be better if he left town tomorrow and didn’t bother.

“Here you go.” Annie came into the room bearing a tray and a bright smile. “Hot chocolate, made with real milk.”

She bent over to put the tray down on the coffee table, giving Matt a great view of her backside. Unwanted desire tugged at him with a vengeance.

He shouldn’t be getting the hots for Nick’s old high school flame. Even if she and Nick had broken up twenty years ago. It seemed forbidden somehow.

And yet attraction was there as clear as a bell. Annie was everything Nick had said she was, and more. And her home was…

Well, he didn’t want to delve too deeply into that. Especially since he felt like he’d walked right into one of Nick’s Christmas stories.

Annie handed him a cup of chocolate, their fingers touched again, and the heat curled up in his chest.

He took the mug from her and lifted it to his mouth. The chocolate was warm and rich and sweet. A lot like the woman who had made it.

She turned away and put her hands on her hips. “We still have a lot of work to do.”

She picked up another box of ornaments and began digging through tissue. “These are my mother’s birds,” she said.

She pulled out a delicate red glass bird and clipped it to a branch.

“I take it your mother is gone?” he asked.

She nodded, her shoulders stiff. “Yeah, she died last spring. This is my first Christmas without her.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Well, she’s in a happier place. She was always sick, and she missed my father.” Annie stopped and turned and gave him a very serious stare. “Sort of like Ruth these last few years.”

“You think I shouldn’t deliver my present?”

“Depends on the reason you want to deliver it.”

Before he could answer, the kitten got up and stretched, then bounded off Matt’s lap. It pranced over to a box laden with decorations and dived right into it. Pouncy stalked and jumped and pussyfooted while Matt and Annie watched her and laughed.

Finally she lifted her “dirty” face over the lip of the cardboard as she ferociously batted at the red ribbon she’d managed to entangle herself in.

“I think we should name you Holly,” Annie said on a laugh.

“Holly’s a good name for a cat that was found two days before Christmas,” Matt agreed.

Annie turned her head, and they gazed at each other for the longest moment. She finally blushed, and an answering heat rose like a column right through him. He stood up, drawn to her by some force he didn’t quite understand. “Annie Roberts,” he said, “I feel like I’ve known you all my life.”

She blinked at him. “Uh. That’s not possible. It’s probably just because Nick talked about me.”

“Maybe, but that’s not quite it. Do you believe in love at first sight?”

She blanched. “No. No, I don’t.” She turned a suddenly nervous gaze on the kitten who had curled up under the coffee table.

She stepped back toward the hallway. “Uh, I’m going to go check the guest bedroom-make sure the bed in there has clean sheets.”

She turned and escaped.

Matt stood by the tree watching her run.

Boy, he was an idiot. He should have kept his feelings inside. He glanced around the room, filled with Christmas decorations that had been carefully handed down through the generations.

Annie was like Nick. She had traditions and a place where she fit. Matt wanted all that. He could tell himself he’d come to deliver a Christmas gift, but that would be a lie.

He’d come to Last Chance in the hope that Ruth might invite him in and give him a taste of what Nick had known growing up. The truth was, Matt envied Nick’s childhood.

But Matt was just a stray, like the cat. And Annie had made it clear that she wasn’t interested in taking in any strays.

Christmas Eve day dawned gray. Annie awakened just before seven. She snuggled down under the covers and listened to the rain pinging against the tin roof.

She didn’t realize she had company until Holly pranced across Grandmother’s quilt, her little claws pulling at the fabric. Annie started to scold and then held her tongue.

The old quilt was nearly a rag anyway. She slept under it only as a matter of habit. For months now, she’d been telling herself that she’d make a run down to Target and buy herself something new.

Why had she been putting that off? Why hadn’t she gone down to Target earlier in the week and purchased new ornaments for the tree?

Why had she run away from Matt last night?

The kitten wormed its body up against her chest, curled itself into a little ball, and started to purr.

If she was going to keep it, she’d need to get a litter box.

She stopped herself in midthought.

She was not keeping this cat. No matter what. The cat was like an emblem for everything that was wrong in her life. If she took responsibility for a cat, like she’d taken responsibility for Mother all those years ago, how was she ever going to escape and find her own life?

She was getting old. She wanted children. She wanted a family of her own-someone she could hand the old ornaments off to. But if she accepted that cat, she was accepting the end of that dream.

No way. She pushed the cat aside. It didn’t get the message. It came right back at her, cute as a button and looking for love.

Matt looked up from his cup of coffee as Annie stepped into the kitchen. She looked like something out of a Christmas movie in a red-and-white snowflake sweater, her hair in a ponytail with a red ribbon.

“Thanks for all your help last night,” she said, as she leaned in the kitchen doorway. “I just checked in with the nursing home. They open for nonfamily visiting hours at ten am. I’ve got an early appointment at the beauty shop, and after that, I can run you up to Orangeburg. I’ve got some last-minute shopping to do; then I have to get back here to cook before my friends arrive for Christmas Eve dinner.”

“I’ve been an imposition, haven’t I?”

“No, it’s all right.” She seemed so nervous with her arms crossed over her breasts, as if she were trying to shield herself from him.

He came to the decision he’d been mulling over for most of the night. “Look, I’ve been thinking about what you said last night, about Ruth’s present.”

“Oh? What did I say? I don’t remember saying anything in particular.”

“You asked me why I wanted to deliver a present that’s probably going to make her very sad.”

“I asked that? I mean, I think you should think about what you’re doing. After all, Ruth is ill and she’s not entirely with it, you know.”

“Okay, maybe you didn’t. But it’s still a good question, isn’t it? I’ve been trying to decide why I wanted to come here and deliver that stupid gift. And well, the thing is, I’m not sure I came here for the right reasons.”

“What do you think are the right reasons, Matt?” Her gaze seemed to focus on him, as if she really cared about his answer.

He shrugged. “When I took that present from out of Nick’s effects, I told myself I was going to do his grandmother a favor. I thought it might be hard for her to get a Christmas present from a person who had died. I thought maybe I could come and say a couple of words to her, you know, about what a great buddy Nick had been.”

“That seems like a good reason, Matt.”

He nodded. “Yeah, but there was something else. I realized it last night while I was helping you with the tree.”


“The thing is my Christmases as a kid were crummy. They sucked. But Nick used to talk about Christmas all the time. He used to tell stories about how his grandmother made a big roast with mashed potatoes. He used to talk about his parents kissing under the mistletoe, before they died.” Matt’s voice wavered, and he stopped and took a big breath.

“So you thought you’d come and experience that?” Annie said.

He turned away and looked out the window that opened on to the back yard. The window had lacy curtains, and outside the rain was pouring down.

“My dog died three weeks ago,” he said in a voice that he could barely control. “They shipped me home, and because the dog died, they let me out a little early. I had already told them I wasn’t going to re-up. Now I just want…” He shook his head and pressed his lips together.

“Oh, Matt, I’m so sorry. I didn’t know.”

Then he turned back toward Annie. “Losing the dog was hard. He wasn’t killed in action. He just got sick and had to be put down. He was getting old anyway, and I had planned for the two of us to retire together. But now I’m alone. And being a soldier is the only thing I know how to be.”

“Matt, every returning soldier has an adjustment period.”

“I know. But I came here looking for Ruth. I thought maybe she would have some wisdom for me, or at least maybe a slice of her apple pie. God, Nick used to talk about that pie all the time, especially when we were stuck eating MREs. And then I found her house all boarded up, and I was lost. I went to the church because I knew she was a member there. To be honest, I heard the cat yowling, and Holly kind of led me right there.”


He gave her a short nod. “And then I heard you singing, and it was like, for an instant I felt like I’d… well, hell… I don’t… like I’d come home. And that’s ridiculous because I don’t belong in Last Chance. I’m a street kid from Chicago.”

She blinked down at him but didn’t say a word.

“I’ve scared you again, haven’t I?”

“No, it’s more like I’m a little surprised. What was your dog’s name?”

“Murphy. He had liver failure. He’d been a pretty hard worker for six years. He saved a whole lot of lives over there, sniffing out IEDs. He was a good, hard-working, war dog.” Matt swallowed before the emotion ate him up.

“I’m sure he was. You know, you should take Holly. She’d be a comfort to you.”

He nodded and took a calming sip of his coffee. Annie really didn’t want that cat, did she?

“So, uh,” Annie said, “I have an early appointment at the Cut ’n’ Curl. I won’t be more than an hour at most.” She turned on her heel and strode out of the room like she was trying to escape his toxic emotions.

Matt watched her go. He really needed to get a grip. He probably needed to put that stupid gift under Annie’s tree and go see about taking a bus to someplace warm and sunny.

Annie’s appointment at the Cut ’n’ Curl was for nine in the morning, and even at that early hour several members of the Christ Church Ladies Auxiliary were already present and accounted for. It being both Saturday and Christmas Eve, Ruby Rhodes, Last Chance’s main hairdresser, had opened up an hour early.

Thelma Hanks was having her roots touched up. Lessie Anderson was in Ruby’s chair getting a wash and set, and Jane Rhodes, Ruby’s new daughter-in-law, was giving Miriam Randall a manicure.

“Hey, Annie,” Thelma Hanks said after Annie had hung her coat in the closet. Thelma had just looked up from one of those romance books Ruby kept on a shelf at the back of the shop. This particular book had a cover featuring a naked male torso.

“How are you doing, honey? Everything okay?” Thelma’s voice was laden with concern. All the women in the shop stopped what they were doing and watched Annie as she sat down in one of the dryer chairs. “What?” she asked, flicking her gaze from one woman to another.

“We’re just concerned, sugar,” Ruby said.

Ruby and her customers had been Mother’s friends. Mother had been an active member of the Auxiliary. She had a standing Wednesday appointment at the Cut ’n’ Curl, so it was just natural that they would be worried about Annie this Christmastime.

It was her first Christmas alone. And everyone seemed to be working hard to make sure she didn’t have a minute to be sad about it. She’d received invitations to Christmas Eve and Christmas Day dinner from Ruby, Lessie, Thelma, Miriam, and several of Mother’s other friends. She had declined them all and had invited some of the members of the book club to dinner instead.

Mother had not fully approved of the book club. She was living in the last century and looked down her nose at Nita and Kaylee, because of their race. But Annie had always counted them as friends, even in the face of Mother’s disapproval. And now Annie could invite whomever she wanted to dinner, without hearing Mother’s ugly complaints.

“I’m fine,” she said to the ladies in the beauty parlor. “I’ve got my tree all trimmed, and I’m going up to the Target in Orangeburg for some shopping this afternoon, and then Nita and Jenny and a few other friends from the book club are coming over for dinner before midnight services.”

“I’m so glad to hear that,” Ruby said, “what with Nita’s daughter being off in Atlanta this year. It’s nice the two of you are spending time together.”

“So, honey, have you taken my advice yet?” Miriam asked from her place at the manicure station.

Everyone turned to stare at Miriam. Today the little old lady was dressed in a pair of red plaid slacks and a red sweatshirt with a big graphic of Rudolf on its front. She had a pair of dangly Christmas tree earrings in her ears. Her eyes twinkled behind her 1950s-style trifocals.

Miriam was about eighty-five years old and widely regarded as Allenberg County’s premier matchmaker. Not that Miriam considered herself a matchmaker. She always told folks she was a match finder. She said God made the matches, but sometimes He would clue her in.

Her matchmaking advice sometimes resembled the messages you might find inside a fortune cookie. But the weird thing about Miriam’s marital forecasts was that they almost always came true.

“I declare,” Ruby said to Miriam, “when did you give Annie any advice?”

“Oh, I think it was last week after church.”

“And what advice did you give Annie?” Thelma leaned forward, her romance book forgotten.

“I told her to get a cat.”

“What?” Lessie turned her head, and the roller Ruby was trying to secure came undone.

“And I told her that I wasn’t so lonely that I needed a cat.” Annie folded her arms across her chest. “I need to get out and have a social life now that Mother’s gone. I don’t need a cat.”

“Miriam,” Ruby said, “you didn’t really tell Annie she needed a cat, did you?”

“What’s wrong with suggesting that she get a cat?” Miriam looked honestly surprised.

“Because you don’t tell a single lady of a certain age that she needs a cat. It’s, well…” Ruby’s voice trailed off.

“It’s pitiful,” Annie said into the silence. “It’s bad enough that I’m sleeping under a quilt my grandmother made and living in a house with old-fashioned mohair furniture. Getting a cat would be like sealing my fate.”

“Yes, exactly,” Miriam said.

Ruby, Lessie, and Thelma stared at Miriam as if she’d lost her mind. Miriam was a little quirky, but she’d never been mean.

Jane pulled Miriam’s hand out of the soaking solution and said, “Clay said something about a big soldier finding a cat in the manger down at the church last night. This guy came strolling into the sanctuary with a little kitten, interrupting choir practice, and Dale almost had a stroke.”

“Really?” Miriam asked. Somehow Miriam didn’t sound very surprised.

Everyone turned toward Annie. Her face flamed. “His name is Matt Jasper, and he did find a cat in the manger. He came in on the bus from Charlotte last night, and he was looking for Ruth Clausen.”

“Oh dear,” Ruby said. “Is he one of Nick’s army friends?”

“Yes, he is. He’s come here to deliver Nick’s last Christmas gift.”

“What?” the women asked in unison.

“Evidently, Nick bought Ruth’s present before he died last year. Matt has been carrying it around Afghanistan for a long time.”

“Oh my,” Thelma said. “He has no clue, does he?”

“No, he doesn’t.”

“Did you tell him about Ruth?” Thelma asked.

“Well, I told him that she’d been sick and a little out of it. But I didn’t say anything else. He’s committed to making this delivery. It’s kind of sweet, actually. His heart’s in the right place.”

“So he didn’t spend the night at the motel, did he?” Jane asked.

“Uh, no, he didn’t.”

Miriam snorted. “See, I told ya’ll. Annie needed to get a cat. The Lord was very specific about that part.”

While Annie went to her appointment at the beauty shop, Matt showered and shaved and put on his civies. Holly kept him company, trailing after him like a little lost soul.

He and the cat were kind of alike. If anyone could understand how a man could come looking for a warm place by a holiday fire, it would be a stray cat.

But he didn’t really belong by Annie’s fire, did he? And what was the point of delivering Nick’s gift to his grandmother if she was senile and sick? How could that possibly brighten her day?

He’d come for his own selfish reasons, not to do any favors for Nick. And now, here he was, staying at Annie Roberts’s house, thinking things about her that he had no right to think.

He should leave, right now, and take the cat with him as a consolation prize. He started packing his bag. He had just brought the bag downstairs and set it in the corner when Annie’s key slipped into the front door.

She came prancing into the foyer like a young girl. She stopped just a few feet from where he was standing and gave him the biggest grin. She was red cheeked from the cold outside, and there was a spark of something in her eyes that hadn’t been there last night or even this morning. Something had changed. She seemed lit up from the inside.

“Uh,” he said, suddenly tongue-tied, “I was thinking that with Ruth so ill, it might be best if I just…” He couldn’t finish the sentence.

Holly pussyfooted across the floorboards and meowed a welcome. She rubbed up against Annie’s legs and tried to wrap herself around both of them simultaneously.

Annie laughed. The sound was so merry and full of life. She bent down and picked up the kitten. “You need some cat food and a litter box,” she said to Holly. “I hope you’re housebroken.”

She glanced up at Matt, and he had a feeling Annie was talking about something other than the cat.

“I understand your hesitation about Ruth,” she said, her blue eyes darkening with some emotion he couldn’t quite fathom. “But there’s no rush. The Ladies Auxiliary always visits up there on Christmas morning, and you could tag along with them. I offered to drive Miriam Randall and the rest of the ladies up there, since I don’t have a big family. So, if you want, we can all go together tomorrow morning. In the meantime, if you came to Last Chance for a Christmas like Nick loved, you’re free to stay here at my place. In fact, I could use some help with my errands.”

The tension he’d felt all morning suddenly eased. He’d been given permission to live out his deepest fantasy and let tomorrow slide. War had taught him the benefits of living in the moment. He didn’t have to think very hard about her offer.

“I’d be happy to help. But I’m warning you, I’m really inexperienced in this whole Christmas thing.”

“It’s okay. There are plenty of people in Last Chance willing to give you pointers on how to celebrate the season.”

Annie held out her hand, and he took it. It was small and warm, and it seemed to fit in his like it had been custom made.

They went to Orangeburg and practically bought out the Target there. Annie seemed to be hell-bent on taking advantage of every cut-rate deal on Christmas decorations. It being Christmas Eve, she made a few spectacular bargains-especially on a glow-from-the-inside snowman that had caught Matt’s fancy. She had refused to let him buy it for her. She told him she needed to spruce up her lighting display before the neighbors complained about her lack of imagination.

She also bought some new sheets and a blanket-a move that made Matt just a little bit uncomfortable, since she asked his opinion on every choice. When he’d wrinkled his nose at the girly flowers on one set of sheets, she’d changed her mind about them.

Shopping for sheets with Annie was definitely sexier than it probably should be. He kept thinking about what it might be like to lie down on those new sheets with this amazing woman.

He needed to watch it. She had been Nick’s girlfriend, and he was already perilously close to losing his grip on the real world.

Annie was brimming over with good cheer. Her day with Holly and Matt had been so happy. But then she could hardly fail. Miriam Randall hadn’t been speaking literally last week in church. She’d been finding Annie a match.

And Annie couldn’t be more pleased with the way things were going. Matt was tall, dark, and handsome. He was kind, and he seemed to understand the inherent problem associated with his grim chore. And yet she got the feeling he still wanted to deliver that present, even if he wondered whether it was the right thing to do. His conflict made him all the more loveable. And she knew she was falling for him. Maybe she did believe in love at first sight after all.

When they got home from shopping, she put him to work finishing the decorating and setting up the big glow-in-the-dark snowman they had purchased.

The snowman was silly and a little tacky. But it reminded her of the few years she’d spent in Michigan at college. Those had been happy years, before Mother had come down with rheumatoid arthritis. Before Dad had died. Before her future had been hijacked by circumstances beyond her control.

Matt had fallen in love with the snowman too. He said if he couldn’t have real snow in Last Chance, he’d go for the fake kind.

Of course, Mother would never have approved of the snowman, the cat, or the soldier, which made all of them welcome additions to Annie’s holiday. Nothing about this Christmas was going to be like last year.

And having Matt around, lapping up all the holiday cheer, made everything seem a little more joyful. He had so many reasons to be sad, having lost his dog this year and his best friend last year, but he seemed determined to let the joy of Christmas in. And his joy was infectious.

Nita Wills was the first member of the book club to arrive at Annie’s dinner party, with Cathy close on her heels. Both of them seemed more impressed and surprised by the snowman than the cat or the soldier.

“Well, Annie,” Nita said as she put a plate of gingerbread cookies on the buffet table, “it sure does look like Santa has been good to you this Christmas.”

Annie didn’t have a minute to respond before Elsie and Lola May arrived, followed very closely by Jenny Carpenter. Jenny, of course, came bearing apple and shepherd’s pies. Jenny’s pies were to die for, and Matt seemed more than a little interested in both of her offerings.

Annie stifled the strange, unwanted wave of jealousy. And she was soon busy playing hostess when Kaylee and Nomi arrived each bearing matching bean casseroles.

The women gathered around the buffet and filled their cups with eggnog and Christmas punch-two things Mother would never have allowed in her home at holiday time. They laughed and chatted about Barbara Kingsolver’s latest book. All in all, the house hadn’t seen so many people in years, and Annie was feeling happy and free and flushed with Christmas spirit.

Then Nita scooped Holly up from the easy chair and sat down. She held the kitten up for inspection. “Well, aren’t you just the cutest, dirty-faced matchmaker in Last Chance?” she said aloud.

The women of the book club collectively laughed, and Annie felt suddenly stripped naked. She glanced over at Matt to see if he’d heard what Last Chance’s librarian had said.

Apparently he had, because Nita hadn’t used her librarian voice. Matt’s dark stare zeroed in on Nita, and his eyebrows bunched up in the middle.

Elsie gave him a pat on the back. “Don’t you mind Nita, now. She’s just talking about how Miriam Randall told Annie that she needed to get a cat.”

Matt’s frown deepened.

“See,” Cathy explained, “Miriam has a pipeline to the Lord, and when she gives advice, it’s always right.”

“Exactly,” Lola May said. “And that just means that you and Annie are a match made in heaven.”

Matt turned his dark gaze on Annie. Her heartbeat raced, but whether in embarrassment or desire she wasn’t sure. It was insane to think that Matt was destined to become her lover, just because he’d found a cat in a manger.

But hadn’t she been behaving like that all day?

“Uh, ladies, I think there’s been some kind of misunderstanding,” Matt said. “I just came here to deliver a gift to Ruth Clausen.”

“And have you delivered it yet?” Nita asked.

Matt scratched the back of his head and glanced at Annie. “Uh, no. I kind of got involved with a bunch of errands. I’m going up to Orangeburg tomorrow for that chore.”

Nita spoke again. “Do you think that’s wise?”

“I don’t know. But I’ve been lugging that thing all over Afghanistan. I think it needs to find its way home.”

Nita nodded. “Well, I guess I can understand that. And I admire you for bringing it to Ruth personally. You didn’t have to do that.” She gazed at the kitten. “Well, one thing is for sure, this cat is cute,” she said.

The members of the book club went back to chatting and grazing at the buffet.

Matt strolled over to where Annie was standing, his dark eyes filled with emotions that weren’t very merry.

“I can explain about the matchmaker,” she said. “See-”

“I know all about Miriam Randall,” he murmured.


“Nick told me all about her. He seemed to think she was infallible. He told me once that he was very sorry Miriam hadn’t matched him up permanently with you. You should know that Nick really regretted what happened between the two of you.”

“He wanted to be a soldier. He wanted to leave this town, Matt. That’s all he ever talked about. And I wasn’t sure I wanted to be in love with a soldier or a man with wanderlust in his soul.”

“I know all about what happened. I know how you guys fought that night at the motel. I know how he walked away in a huff. He told me everything.”

“He told you all that?”

“He told me a lot of things. You talk about things when you’re getting shot at. And God knows, we got shot at a lot when we were in Baghdad on our first deployment. You were the girl he never forgot, Annie. You’re the girl he regretted. The one he missed. He never married, you know.”

They stared at each other for a long emotion-filled moment; then he leaned in to kiss her on the cheek. She saw what was coming and turned her head to meet his lips. It was a pretty brazen thing to do, given the fact that Matt had been talking about how Nick had loved her. But Nick had walked away twenty years ago and never come back.

Annie tried, for all she was worth, to take the kiss a little deeper, but Matt pulled back. He looked up. “So, ah, that’s what mistletoe is all about, huh?”

Annie followed his gaze. Sure enough they were standing under a sprig of the stuff. Disappointment swallowed up her Christmas merriment.

“Sorry, I couldn’t resist,” he said in a voice loud enough for everyone in the room to hear, “seeing as you were standing there under the mistletoe.”

“Do you remember what you said last night?” she whispered.

“Yeah, I remember. I was insane last night. I don’t know what came over me.” He let go of a long breath and turned to look at Mother’s parlor, filled with the members of the book club.

“I don’t belong here. This is Nick’s place, not mine.”


He turned and held up his hand. “I’m a guy from Chicago, Annie. And they don’t have snow here. I’ll probably go back to the Midwest and see if I can get a job as a dog handler someplace like Milwaukee or St. Louis. There isn’t anything for me in Last Chance. I just came here because I wanted to see if Nick’s stories were true. I wanted to meet his grandmother. So I’m going to go up there to the nursing home tomorrow. I’ll pay my respects, deliver Nick’s present, and be on my way.”


“Annie, I’m not your soul mate, no matter what Miriam Randall says. And don’t you go mistaking me for Nick Clausen either. Because I’m not him. If you believe in what they say about Miriam, you should keep the cat. I’m guessing that there’s a handsome veterinarian in your future.”

Matt went to midnight services along with all the members of the book club. He sat in the back of the church. He wasn’t a believer. He was out of step with the people who came to celebrate the birth of Jesus that night.

The only thing that kept him in his place was the choir.

When they sang the “Hallelujah Chorus,” Matt’s skin prickled. But that reaction was nothing compared to what happened when Annie sang her solo, especially when she got to the last couple of lines.

Traveler, darkness takes its flight,

Doubt and terror are withdrawn.

Watchman, let thy wanderings cease;

Hie thee to thy quiet home.

Traveler, lo! the Prince of Peace,

Lo! the Son of God is come!

There seemed to be a message in that song, even for an unbeliever. He needed to firm his resolve, push his own needs aside, and visit Ruth tomorrow. Nick had wanted his grandmother to have a Christmas gift last year, and Matt had kept it from her. He needed to go and let her know just what a good friend Nick had been.

Early the next morning, after a night of very little sleep, Matt found himself in the Christ Church van, sandwiched between Miriam Randall and another, equally ancient church lady. Making good on her promises, as Matt suspected she always did, Annie took the wheel of the van and drove everyone up to Orangeburg.

The church ladies came laden down with gifts like the wisemen. They carried cookies and gingerbread and a bundle of quilts the size of pillowcases that they called prayer blankets. He was literally surrounded by a bevy of ancient angels of mercy.

Within an hour, he stood alone on the threshold of Ruth Clausen’s room at the nursing home, holding a brightly wrapped shirt box in his hands. The box wasn’t very heavy, nor did it rattle. It was surely something to wear-something Ruth Clausen, now consigned to this small room, didn’t need anymore.

He stepped up to the bed. The old lady looked pale and tiny, her gray hair thin. She had an oxygen tube hooked over her ears. She seemed to be having trouble breathing.

“Ruth,” Matt said gently.

She opened a pair of hazel eyes, the exact same color as Nick’s. Man, staring into those eyes threw him for a loop. They seemed clear and aware and alive.

A little smile quivered at the corner of her lips. “Nicky, you’re home,” she said.

Matt opened his mouth to correct her. But just as he was about to speak, something came over him. He flashed on the sound of Annie’s voice singing that carol from the night before. He said not one word.

Instead, he pulled up the chair and took Ruth’s hand in his. Her skin was paper-thin, her hand cold. He rubbed it between his.

“I’ve missed you so much,” Ruth said.

“Me too, but you didn’t expect me to miss Christmas, did you?”

“Christmas?” Ruth’s voice sounded frail and confused. Her eyes dulled a little.

“Yes, Grandma, it’s Christmas. The best time of year. You remember that year when we had the snow?”

She nodded, and her lips quivered. “It wasn’t really snow, Nicky, just a dusting.”

“I made a snowman.”

“It was three inches tall.”

“It was still a snowman. Size is not that important, Grandma.”

She laughed and squeezed his hand. “I love you, boy, you know that?”

“Yes, ma’am, I do,” Matt said; then he launched into one of Nick’s favorite Christmas stories that involved a dog named Gonzo and an apple pie that disappeared when no one was looking.

Ruth enjoyed that story, and the five other Christmas stories Matt told her as if they belonged to him.

At some point, just as Ruth was beginning to fade off into sleep, he became aware of someone behind him. He turned and found Annie and Miriam standing in the doorway of the room. He had no idea how long they had been there listening. Both of them had tears in their eyes.

“So,” Miriam whispered, “you going to give her that present or not?”

Matt realized that he hadn’t said a word about Nick’s present. It still rested on his lap.

Suddenly the present seemed kind of stupid. Ruth didn’t need or want a present like this. All Ruth wanted for Christmas was Nick. And in a way Nick lived on, in the stories he’d told when the bullets had been flying or the boredom had set in. Matt knew them all by heart.

He couldn’t bear to look at Annie or Miriam because his own eyes were overflowing with the tears he’d been holding back for a long, long time.

Annie strode into the room, bent over, and put her arms around his shoulders. Her hair spilled over him like a veil. “You’re staying, of course,” she murmured in his ear. “I couldn’t imagine Christmas without you.”


“But nothing. You aren’t Nick. I know that even if Ruth doesn’t. You’re kinder than Nick ever was. And you came home, when all Nick ever wanted was to wander the world. He may have told great stories, Matt, but he left Ruth alone. He walked away from me and everyone he loved in Last Chance. He never came back to visit, even when he wasn’t on deployment. Instead, every year, he sent Ruth a Christmas present, as if that were enough. They came like clockwork. She always put them in the charity box. She never even unwrapped them.”

“You knew this all along and you didn’t tell me?”

“We all knew it. Why do you think I asked you about your reasons for coming? Why do you think Nita questioned your motives last night? I guess once you explained yourself everyone understood that you’d come here looking for something Nick had thrown away without really looking back. No one wanted to dash your illusions. Not after what you’d been through.”

“And,” Miriam said, “it sure does look like Nick’s last present was maybe the best one he ever sent home.”

Matt closed his eyes and leaned in to Annie. Miriam was wrong. If there had been a gift given this Christmas, it had been what Annie had given him the last few days-a Christmas he would never forget.

And a warm, welcoming place to come home to.

O Little Town of Bramble by Katie Lane

Chapter One

The folks of Bramble, Texas, believed in doing things up big. And the holidays were no exception. Every building along Main Street was decorated with garland, balls, and bows. A giant, ornament-filled Douglas fir stood in front of the town hall, fake poinsettias spouted from storefront flower boxes, and ropes of evergreen encircled each light post.

Having lived in Bramble for all of his life, the excess was nothing new to Ethan Miller. In fact, he had to admit he liked the town all spiffed up. It put him more in the mood for Christmas-which was only a day away.

As Ethan ambled along the street, he looked up at the blue west Texas skies. It was clear now, but the weather was about to change. He could feel it in his bones.

“Nice ass.”

The words caused Ethan to stop so fast that Buckwheat ran into him from behind. And being run into by a four-hundred-pound donkey could bring even a big man down in a hurry. One knee hit the cement, and he had to grab on to the back of the bench in front of Sutter’s Pharmacy to keep from landing on his face. Old Moses Tate, who was sleeping on the bench, didn’t even break-snore. Of course, without his hearing aids, the man was as deaf as a stone.

With pain shooting up his thigh, Ethan turned to get after Buckwheat for tailgating when his gaze got snagged by the woman who had just spoken. Words dried up in his mouth. Of course, words always dried up in Ethan’s mouth when he was around a woman he found attractive. And this woman he found much more than attractive. She was downright breathtaking.

Hair as thick and black as a bay horse’s tail fell around a face with high cheekbones, a button nose, and lips painted the pink of the sky right before sunrise. She wore big movie-star sunglasses that concealed her eyes and city clothes that would be useless on a farm-but were damned nice to look at. A long, red sweater hugged breasts the size of plump September peaches and curved down over slim hips that would sit real pretty in a saddle. Of course, the painted-on jeans and knee-high boots with their tall, skinny heels wouldn’t work for riding.

Leastways, not horses.

A tingling of sexual awareness settled in Ethan’s stomach. But it wasn’t the first time he’d ignored the feeling, and it wouldn’t be the last. Farm life left little time for giving in to one’s desires.

“Uhh… excuse me, ma’am?” The slow, awkward words that came out of his mouth had his face heating, and his embarrassment only grew when her pretty lips tipped up in a soft smile.

She moved away from the pharmacy window with its display of a tiny tinsel Christmas tree surrounded by brightly wrapped packages and came to stand directly in front of him. Seeing as Ethan was still kneeling, it brought those sweet peaches mere inches from his mouth. And there was no ignoring the heat that slammed into him much harder than Buckwheat.

“Are you plannin’ on makin’ a declaration, Ethan?” she said. “Or are you just takin’ a mornin’ prayer break?”

The country twang that had been missing when she’d commented on his ass was now thick and familiar. His head came up, and he squinted at her mouth, trying to visualize it without paint. But it wasn’t until she reached up and removed the sunglasses that he recognized the face. Eyes the deep blue of Morning Glories stared back at him, and Ethan’s voice rang out as clear as one of Hope Scrogg’s hog calls.

“Sam?” With only a small cringe, he climbed to his feet and within two steps had the woman in his arms. He swung her around once before he realized what he was doing. Then he quickly set her back on her feet and stepped away, more than a little embarrassed by his uncharacteristic behavior. If it had been any other woman, he would’ve been stammering his apologies like a bashful idiot.

But this was Sam.

He grinned back at her, not quite believing his eyes. “Would you look at you? I thought you’d gone and left Bramble for good.”

“I thought so too,” she said rather breathlessly. Her gaze wandered over his face as if taking in all the changes. He figured there had to be plenty. The last couple years had been hard-what with his daddy’s accident and the majority of the farm work falling to him. To a young woman five years his junior, he must look as old and weathered as a leather harness left out in the sun.

While she, on the other hand, looked as fresh as a new spring daffodil. She even smelled like flowers. He filled his lungs with the subtle, sweet scent, realizing too late the effect it would have on a man who’d hadn’t been this close to a woman, other than his mama, in a while. Suddenly, he felt like he had the time he’d gotten sandwiched between a couple linebackers during a high school football game-kinda dazed and loopy.

Confused by his reactions, he dropped his head and ran a hand over the back of his neck. What was the matter with him? Sure, it had been a while since he’d been around a pretty woman. But this was little Sam Henderson, who used to sneak out to the farm every chance she got. Sam, who Ethan had taught to swim and fish and ride a horse. Sam, who, up until she graduated and went off to college, was the closest thing Ethan had to a sibling-or a best friend.

In an effort to get his bodily reactions back on the right track, he reached out and ruffled her hair. “So what brings you back, little Sammy?” He glanced down at the boots. “Besides playin’ dress up?”

The soft smile slipped, and her entire body stiffened. Ethan didn’t know a lot about women, but he knew a lot about animals. And Sam suddenly seemed as pissed as Clara the barn cat when his hound dog, Hooper, got a little frisky. Those pretty eyes narrowed at him right before she placed her sunglasses back on.

“People call me Samantha now,” she said in a citified voice. “Dr. Samantha Henderson.”

He’d heard the rumor going around town about Sam becoming a doctor. But since “doctor” just didn’t seem to go with the image he’d held in his head of a skinny girl in a lopsided ponytail, he couldn’t help but laugh. Which he figured out soon enough wasn’t a good thing to do when a woman was upset already.

“Is something funny, Ethan Michael Miller?” The words came out between her even, white teeth. Her hands tightened into fists. And for a second, he wondered if she was going to haul off and slug him like she had Joe Riley when he’d teased Ethan about his size. The thought made Ethan laugh even more.

She crossed her arms over her chest. “You haven’t changed a lick in the last seven years, have you, Ethan?”

He sobered. “Seven years? No kiddin’?” He shook his head. “I guess time flies when you’re havin’ fun.”

She glared back at him. “And is your life fun, Ethan?”

The question took him by surprise. No one in town ever asked him questions like that. They asked him about his daddy and mama. Asked about his opinions on crops, animals, and weather. But never about his personal feelings. Which was probably why it took him so long to come up with an answer. Fun? No, he wouldn’t say his life was fun. It was familiar and comfortable. And that was about all a person could ask for.

Wasn’t it?

A munching noise pulled him away from his thoughts, and he turned to find Buckwheat helping himself to a midmorning snack. Although Ethan didn’t think the fake poinsettias in front of the pharmacy were a good choice. And obviously, Sam didn’t think so either.

“No!” she yelled, and those skinny heels clicked against the sidewalk as she hurried over to where Buckwheat was grazing. “Get away from there!” She waved her arms, but Buckwheat ignored her completely and continued to munch on the bright red flowers. Still, Sam had always been tenacious, and Ethan had to grin when she hooked an arm around the donkey’s neck and tried to pull him away. Too bad Buckwheat had a thing about people touching him. With one flick of his head, he threw her off balance, and she tittered on those silly heels for a second or two before landing hard on her butt.

This time Ethan was smart enough to control his laughter.

“You okay?” He ambled over and stretched out a hand. But she completely ignored it and climbed to her feet.

“I expected more from you, Ethan Miller.” She pointed a finger at Buckwheat, who’d gone back to munching the flowers. “Do you realize the kind of stomach and intestinal problems the dyes and synthetic materials could cause that poor animal?”

Figuring she had a point, Ethan made a distinct clicking noise with his tongue, and the donkey turned from the flowers and trotted over. For his reward, Ethan pulled out a carrot from his overall pocket and stroked the donkey’s soft, long ears while he ate the treat.

“I wouldn’t worry too much,” he said. “Buckwheat’s eaten worse and survived.”

Sam plucked a poinsettia leaf from the corner of the donkey’s mouth. “Obviously, he has dietary needs you’re not meeting. What are you feeding him? I hope it’s not the same thing you’re giving your horses. Donkeys need more protein and fiber.” She glanced down. “And when was the last time you trimmed his hooves? You need to do that every twelve weeks or his joints and tendons will get deformed.”

Ethan squinted at her, suddenly feeling as annoyed as she looked. He might not have a doctorate, but he knew animals. And he sure didn’t need a sassy woman in crazy shoes telling him how to take care of his donkey. Especially a woman who used to think he hung the moon.

He pulled off his straw cowboy hat and scratched his head. “You know a lot about donkeys, do ya, Samantha Louise? Because I seem to remember a young skinny girl who was terrified to get on a horse.” He lifted an eyebrow. “And it took a good three months to convince her otherwise. ’Course, that girl didn’t look nothin’ like the one standin’ before me. So maybe I’m wrong.”

Before Sam could do more than sputter, Rachel Dean’s voice rang out.

“Why, Samantha Henderson, I thought that was you!” She hurried across the street, wiping her large hands on her waitressing apron. She grabbed Sam up and gave her a big bear hug. “I didn’t realize you was comin’ in for the holidays. Last I heard, you was goin’ to some fancy college back East to become a doctor.”

Since Sam’s face was squashed against Rachel Dean’s holiday corsage, she had to wait to be released before she could answer. “I graduated just last week.”

Rachel beamed. “Why, ain’t that somethin’? Little Sam Henderson a doctor. Maybe later I can get you to take a look at my bunions. The medicine Doc Mathers prescribed don’t work a lick.”

“I’d love to help you, Rachel,” Sam said. “But I’m not that kind of a doctor.” She looked over at Ethan and tipped her cute little nose in the air. “I’m a doctor of veterinary medicine.”

Ethan felt like he’d been kicked in the stomach by Buckwheat. Ever since he was old enough to help his father with the livestock, Ethan had wanted to become a veterinarian. But besides not having enough money, his parents had needed his help on the farm. So he’d put his dream on the shelf. In fact, the only person who knew about his secret desire was the same woman rubbing his nose in it. It was enough to make a grown man want to toss down his hat and cuss a blue streak. But farm folk weren’t ones to show their emotions. So instead, he plopped his hat back on his head and nodded to both ladies.

“I best be gettin’ Buckwheat over to Lowell’s barn.”

“We sure appreciate you takin’ care of all the animals for the live nativity over at The First Baptist, Ethan,” Rachel Dean said. “Nobody handles animals better than you do. Why, it’s almost like you speak their language. Sorta like that Doctor Doolittle feller-without the singin’, of course.”

Ethan had to fight down the strong urge to snort a “hah” at Sam. Still, Rachel Dean’s praise didn’t change the jealousy that ate at his insides. A gift was one thing, a diploma something else entirely. While most of his knowledge came from what he could scrounge up on the Internet or in library books, Sam had been taught by the top experts in the field.

“Why don’t you come on over to the diner, Sam?” Rachel Dean said. “If anything will put meat back on those skinny bones of yours, it’s Josephine’s chicken fried steak. And while you eat, I’ll fill you in on all the juicy gossip. Things have sure been excitin’ while you’ve been gone.”

Sam hesitated, as if there was something else she wanted to say to Ethan. But as far as he was concerned, they’d said everything they needed to. The little Sam Henderson he once knew was long gone. And he had no use for an uppity vet who didn’t understand the first thing about a man’s pride.

“Goodbye, Ethan,” Sam said in a voice that didn’t sound all that uppity. A gust of cool December wind blew her hair over her face. She pushed it back and sent Ethan one last look before Rachel tugged her across the street toward the bright pink caboose that served as Josephine’s Diner.

Ethan stood on the sidewalk and watched as they walked away, his gaze trailing down the length of ebony hair to the curvy behind covered in the painted-on jeans. He was still as mad as a dog on bath day, but that didn’t seem to stop two words from popping into his head.

Nice ass.

Chapter Two

“… so Faith Aldridge ended up being Hope Scroggs’s long-lost twin sister.” Rachel kept right on talking as she filled Sam’s cup with steaming, black coffee. “And I’ll tell you what. Those two look so much alike that the entire town was fooled. All except for Slate. He knew after just one kiss that Faith wasn’t Hope. ’Course, he figured out some other things as well-like he couldn’t live without our little Faith.”

The news surprised Sam. Slate Calhoun had been the hometown football hero while Hope Scroggs had been the homecoming queen. It just made sense that they would end up getting married. Of course, love had never made sense.

Sam glanced out the front windows, but Ethan had long since returned to his old truck and driven away.

“I bet Hope was brokenhearted,” she said.

“We all figured as much.” Mayor Harley Sutter swiveled around on the barstool next to Sam’s, his big belly brushing the counter, and his handlebar mustache wiggling as he talked. “But as it turned out, Hope has always been in love with Colt Lomax.”

“Which surprised the heck out of me,” Sheriff Winslow said. “Colt spent more time in my jail than Elmer Tate.”

“And maybe that’s why Hope fell in love with him. It’s hard to resist a bad boy.” Rachel winked at Sam. “Ain’t it, girl?”

Sam smiled in agreement, even though she’d never had a thing for bad boys with bad attitudes. Just soft-spoken farm boys. And it seemed that time hadn’t diminished her feelings. The moment she looked into Ethan’s green eyes, she’d been lost all over again. And when he’d pulled her into his arms, for one brief second, she’d thought he’d felt it too. But it turned out his greeting had been no different than Rachel Dean’s.

“So how long do you get to stay, Sam?”

Sam glanced down the counter to the cowboy with the contagious grin. “Only until the day after Christmas, Kenny Gene. If I’m going to pay back all my student loans, I need to find a job and quick.”

“Well, I don’t know why you couldn’t just set up shop right here in Bramble,” the mayor said. “Folks in Bramble have to go all the way to Odessa to find a vet. ’Course, most folks don’t mess with that and just take their animals to Ethan. That boy has a real gift.”

“So I’ve heard,” Sam said dryly. Of course she knew Ethan had a gift and had known it long before anyone else. It was Ethan who opened up the world of animals to her. Ethan who showed her the comfort found in the soft cuddle of fur or the warm nuzzle of a cold nose. And maybe that was her problem. She’d gotten her love of animals confused with her feelings for the young man who had offered a haven from her dysfunctional family.

As if reading her thoughts, Mayor Sutter asked, “So how’s your mama doin’? She still livin’ in Austin?”

Sam didn’t have a clue. The last time Sam had spoken to her mama had been on her fourteenth birthday-the day her mother had left town. She wanted to blame her mother for the rift in their relationship, but Sam was the one who hadn’t returned her letters or phone calls. Still, the town didn’t need to know that.

“So tell me more about this live nativity scene,” she said in an attempt to change the subject.

Fortunately, Mayor Sutter latched on to the new topic like a bass to live bait. “It was Pastor Robbins’s idea. I guess the church he worked at before us used to have one every Christmas Eve-supposedly it gets everyone’s thoughts back on the reason for the season.”

“Animal poop?” Kenny Gene piped up. “Because I gotta tell you, puttin’ all those animals in that little stable the pastor had me build is just askin’ for trouble.”

“Which is why we put you on poop patrol,” Rachel Dean said.

Kenny Gene’s eyes narrowed. “But I thought I got to be the Angel of the Lord.”

“You do, son.” Mayor Sutter patted him on the back. “But when you ain’t spreadin’ tidin’s of great joy to all people, you’ll be spreadin’ manure in the church flowerbeds.”

Kenny’s eyes lit up. “Well, I guess that ain’t so bad.”

“I just wish our hunt for baby Jesuses was goin’ so well,” Rachel said as she poured the mayor more coffee.

“Jesuses?” Sam said. “You need more than one?”

Rachel’s smile got even bigger. “Since we couldn’t decide on who should get to be Mary and Joseph-Faith and Slate or Hope and Colt-we decided to have two shifts. ’Course, now we need two Jesuses. And we’ve had tryouts for the last week and a half, and not a Jesus have we found. Dusty Ray don’t fit in the manger. Rufus Miles throws fits like he’s possessed. And Titus Smith is allergic to hay.” She released her breath in a long sigh. “Which means we might have to settle for the porcelain doll Darla made. And I gotta tell you that Chucky-lookin’ thing scares me to death.”

Sam muffled her laugh behind a cough. She had missed the craziness of Bramble. Missed it more than she’d realized. In the last seven years, she’d tried to become a cosmopolitan girl. But all it had taken was five minutes in Josephine’s to realize she was small town through and through.

“Not to say that Darla ain’t gifted,” Rachel continued. “Why, her manger-decoratin’ skills are gonna surprise the pants right off of Pastor Robbins when he gets back from that preacher convention in Dallas.”

Mayor Sutter nodded. “The pastor might’ve had a nice enough live nativity at his last church, but it’s not gonna hold a candle to ours.”

There was a chorus of “shore ain’ts” before the conversation moved on to Hope and Faith’s pregnancies and what they should name their babies. After a good hour of listening to children’s names weirder than Hollywood movie stars’, Sam decided she had delayed seeing her family long enough and got up from the stool.

“If you stop by the church a little before six, Sam, I’ll fix you up with a costume,” Rachel Dean said as she handed Sam her change. “We don’t got any more heavenly hosts’ wings or shepherd sheets, but I’ll find you somethin’.”

Sam smiled. It was so like the people of Bramble to include everyone.

“I’ll try to be there,” she said as she made her way to the door.

The weather had turned while Sam had been in the diner. Gray clouds blocked out the blue west Texas sky, and a cold wind press against her as she hurried to her rental car. She probably could’ve called her sister, Marcy, to pick her up from the airport in Lubbock. But she wasn’t willing to be stuck at her father’s house without a means of escape.

The one-story stucco house she’d grown up in hadn’t changed all that much over the last seven years. The lawn and flower beds were better cared for, and the yellow trim looked freshly painted, but other than that, it looked the same. It wasn’t a big house-no more than six rooms total-but it had been a comfortable home.

At least physically.

Emotionally was another story.

Ever since Sam could remember, there had been underlying tension in the house. When her mother and father weren’t arguing, they weren’t speaking. And their discontentment had filtered down to their children. By the time her mother had left, Sam felt almost relieved. Until she realized she was stuck with a father who didn’t know the first thing about showing love to his two teenage daughters.

As Sam got out of the car, a black Lab and a Yorkshire terrier came running up. But since her father had never particularly cared for animals, she figured they belonged to a neighbor. She gave each dog a good scratch before heading up the steps of the porch.

Rather than just walk in, she tapped softly on the screen door. But when the sound of Christmas music drifted from the closed windows, she pressed hard on the doorbell.

The door was pulled open by a woman Sam recognized immediately from the wedding pictures she’d sent. A puff of orange hair surrounded a round face with laugh crinkles at the eyes. Those eyes widened for only a second before the screen door was pushed open. The dogs squeezed past Sam’s legs just as she was pulled against a bright red sweatshirt with reindeer appliqués and a soft body that smelled of gingerbread.

“You came,” Laverne said against her hair. “I worried myself sick that you wouldn’t.” The back door slammed, and before Sam could utter a word, Laverne was herding her over to the large Christmas tree set up in the corner.

“I know I shouldn’t have kept it a secret,” Laverne whispered under her breath. “But I just didn’t want him to be disappointed if you didn’t show up.” She grabbed a big gold bow off a package beneath the tree and slapped it on Sam’s head. “There.” She grinned so brightly, her eyes disappeared. “You’re going to be the best Christmas present he’ll ever get.”


Sam’s father’s voice boomed from the kitchen, and Sam jumped. But Laverne didn’t seem to be too intimidated by the gruffness.

“Would you keep it down, Phillip!” she hollered back as she hurried toward the kitchen, the dogs on her heels. “I swear you’re goin’ as deaf as Moses Tate.”

“I’m not deaf, woman,” her father said, “I’m starvin’. When will that turkey be done?” There was a creak of the oven door, followed by a sharp slap.

“Oh, no you don’t, Phillip James Henderson,” Laverne scolded. “You’re not gettin’ a taste until it’s finished.”

“Blame ornery woman,” her father huffed, but with more humor than anger. “Well, if I’m not gonna get any turkey, I might as well get me some sugar.”

In the silence that followed, Sam stared at the doorway and tried to reconcile the happy, loving man in the kitchen with the angry, bitter father of her youth.

It proved impossible.

Pulling off the bow, she tossed it to the coffee table and was halfway to the door when her father’s voice stopped her.


She turned. Unlike the house, Phillip Henderson had changed a great deal. His hair was completely gray, and he was almost as chubby as his wife. Sam had to admit that the added weight looked good on him. It softened his features and made him seem more approachable. Or maybe it was the smile on his face. A smile that had been missing for much of her childhood.

Not knowing what to do, Sam held up her hands. “Merry Christmas, Daddy.”

They stared at each other for a few moments until Laverne prodded.

“Well, go on, Phillip. Hug the girl.”

Her father hesitated only a moment before taking the three steps necessary to pull her into his arms. It was awkward. Sam didn’t pull away; nor did she sink into the broad chest that smelled like Old Spice and chewing tobacco. She just stiffened up and waited for it to be over so things could go back to normal. But when her father finally pulled back, he didn’t appear normal. He appeared to be crying.

And Laverne wasn’t far behind him.

“I’ll just let you two chat,” she sniffed before heading back to the kitchen.

Once she was gone, Sam moved over to the partially decorated tree so she wouldn’t have to look at the man she no longer recognized. She had just leaned closer to examine a clay horse ornament when he finally spoke.

“I wrote you some letters.”

Her hand stilled on the bumpy horse’s mane. “I didn’t get them.”

“Because I never mailed them. I never could get the words right.”

Sam turned to find him standing close behind her. His eyes still glittered with tears, but his voice was strong.

“You made that one in fifth grade.” He nodded at the horse ornament. “I always refer to that year as the year of the horse. Every drawing, every library book, and every gift you asked for-or gave-always had to do with horses.” He reached down and lifted another ornament from the box on the table. His callused fingers gently removed the cotton before lifting a red-glitter pinecone. “Now, this one you made in first grade. It started losing its glitter the second year, which was why your mama wrapped it in cotton from then on.”

Sam hadn’t remembered that, and she wondered how he had. He went on to describe every ornament she’d ever made, recounting the year and details that she’d long forgotten.

“This one you and Marcy made.” He pulled out a colorful beaded wreath. “First time you’d ever worked on something together without fightin’.”

Sam couldn’t help the words that spilled from her mouth. “Unlike you and mama, who could never do anything without fighting.”

A sad smile played around his mouth as he hung the ornament on the tree. When he didn’t say anything, she continued with the questions that had eaten her up over the years.

“I realize people get divorced when they discover they don’t love each other anymore, but what I don’t understand is why you waited so long. Why did you continue to put your children through that?”

A long sigh escaped his lips, and he walked to the recliner and sat down. The Lab came wandering back in, and her father ran a hand over the dog’s shiny coat. “Because, believe it or not, I love your mama. And will love her until the day I die. It just took us a while to figure out that sometimes you can love someone and still not be able to live with them.”

“Geez, Daddy.” Sam couldn’t keep the sarcasm, or pain, from her voice. “I wish you’d figured that out before you had kids.”

Her father’s gaze snapped up, and he pointed a finger. “Don’t you even think it, Sam Louise. I’m sorry for a lot of things, but havin’ you and Marcy aren’t among them. Now, I realize you aren’t goin’ to forgive me anytime soon, and I guess I’ll have to live with that. But remember that forgiveness is like a gift-the receiver’s not the only one who benefits. And if you can’t see fit to forgive me, I wish you’d forgive your mama. She’s been real upset about you not replyin’ to her letters.”

Sam stared at him. “You talk to Mama?”

“About every week.”

“Without fighting?”

He laughed. “As strange as it may seem, your mama and I are better friends than we ever were husband and wife.”

“Hey, you two.” Laverne came back into the room carrying a tray filled with eggnog and gingerbread cookies. She set it on the coffee table and handed Sam the Santa mug she’d used as a child. “Marcy should be here any minute. So let’s turn up the music and finish decoratin’ that tree. But first I thought we’d have ourselves a little toast.” After handing Sam’s daddy a mug, she lifted her own. “Here’s to new beginnin’s.”

A part of Sam didn’t want to toast, or decorate a tree, or eat turkey dinner in a house filled with memories of her dysfunctional family. But there was another part of her-the part that had been so lonely the last seven years-that wanted to believe that people could change. That no one was perfect. And time might actually heal all wounds. And maybe those were the truths she needed to embrace this Christmas Eve while standing next to a father she’d yet to forgive and a stepmother who looked like a redheaded Mrs. Claus.

Sam lifted her Santa mug. “To new beginnings.”

Chapter Three

“You want to what?” Ethan stared at his parents as if they had lost their minds. It was a possibility. Winter on a farm could make people a little stir-crazy. Ever since returning from town, Ethan had felt like he’d swallowed a bucket of bees. Of course, that had more to do with Sam Henderson than two hundred acres of farmland.

His mother reached out and patted his hand, which rested on the linen tablecloth his great-great-grandmother had brought over from Germany. “I know this is a shock, Ethan, but it’s not like we’re fallin’ off the face of the earth. We’re just moving to South Padre Island.”

“Just?” Ethan pulled his hand out from under hers and got up from the table, pacing back and forth. “What about the farm? The animals? The folks of Bramble?” He turned and stared at his parents. “Me?”

The weathered skin around his father’s green eyes scrunched up. “You’re thirty years old, boy. You still scared of the dark?”

His mother jumped back in. “Of course he’s not scared of the dark.” She shot Ethan a skeptical look before addressing her husband. “I told you we shouldn’t just drop the news on him, Jeb-especially on Christmas Eve.”

“Hell.” His father got up from his chair. “I thought the boy would be excited to finally get rid of us. I figured that was why he’d never married or brought a girl home besides that cute little Sam Henderson.” He studied Ethan again. “You ain’t one of them…”

“No!” The word came out louder than Ethan intended, and he quickly tacked on a “sir.”

“Then what’s your problem?” his father asked. “You ain’t worried about being able to handle the farm, are you? ’Cause you’ve been doin’ most of the work ever since I fell off that danged ladder and screwed up my back.”

“I just think it’s crazy, is all,” Ethan said. “Why would you and Mama want to live on a beach when you’ve spent your entire life on a farm?”

“Maybe that’s why,” his mother said in the soft voice that had always soothed Ethan. She patted the table. “Come sit down, Ethan, and quit pacing like an expectant cat.”

Begrudgingly, he sat back down in the chair, but couldn’t help crossing his arms and staring belligerently at the toes of his work boots.

“In case you haven’t noticed,” his mother said, “your father and I aren’t exactly spring chickens. We were in our late thirties when God finally blessed us with you.” Since Ethan’s hands were tucked under his armpits, she reached out and patted his knee. “And we couldn’t be more proud of the man you’ve grown into. But I agree with your father. There comes a time in every man’s life when he needs some space. And since you don’t seem to be in any hurry to fly the coop-we are.”

“Fly the coop?” Ethan’s jaw dropped as he stared at his mother. “I stayed for you-for you and Daddy because I didn’t think you two could make a go of the farm without me.”

“Now, don’t lie, boy,” his father said. “You get flustered just walkin’ into Josephine’s Diner.”

Ethan jumped back up from the chair and sputtered out the words. “F-flustered or not, if I’d known how you felt, I would’ve left a long time ago to pursue my own dreams.”

“Now, don’t be gettin’ all upset, Ethan.” His mother stood up and sent his father a stern look. “What your father means is that anyone can see that you were born to be a farmer. It’s obvious in the way you love animals and get so darned excited during harvest. But if you want to sell the farm, your father and I will support that.” She shrugged. “Maybe it’s time for all of us to leave the hard work behind and have us a little fun.”

Fun? First Sam and now his parents. Ethan was really starting to hate that word. Fun was something kids had, not grown adults who had responsibilities. He ignored the fact that he wasn’t exactly acting like an adult either.

“We’re not selling the farm,” he said. “I’ll figure out a way to buy you out so you can race off to South Padre and have some fun on the beach.”

His parents exchanged bright smiles.

“That won’t be necessary,” his daddy said. “Back when you was born, we put a little money aside, and since you never used it for college…”

The tires of the truck hit another pothole, but Ethan still didn’t slow down. He had never been the violent type, but he couldn’t help thumping the steering wheel with his fist as he turned onto the highway that led into Bramble.

A college fund? His parents had put money in a college fund and never mentioned a word? Okay, so maybe at eighteen he hadn’t exactly acted like he wanted to go to college. And maybe some of that had to do with being a little scared. But what good were parents if they couldn’t force a shy, backward kid out the door?

Of course, it had worked out real well for them. They had gotten years of free labor and now had a nice, fat nest egg to buy a motor home so they could “have fun” in some South Padre retirement village. Well, maybe it was time for Ethan to have a little fun too. He pressed harder on the accelerator and watched the skinny gauge of the speedometer inch up the miles per hour. Except when it got to seventy-five, the old truck started to shake so badly that he had to ease back down to sixty.

Ethan still made it to Bramble in record time. He’d planned on heading over to Lowell’s barn to check on the animals people had brought in for the nativity scene, but instead he pulled into Bootlegger’s Bar. He’d been to the bar before-every person over eighteen years of age had been in Bootlegger’s at one time or another. Ethan just wasn’t what you would call a regular, which explained the surprised faces when he ambled in the door.

Of course, Ethan was a little surprised himself when he looked at the bar and saw who was sitting there. The beginning line of a joke popped into his head: An angel, a beer-bellied wiseman, Joseph, and a pig walked into a bar…

“Well, hey, Ethan!” Kenny Gene waved him over so exuberantly that his wing clipped Mayor Harley Sutter’s wiseman crown and knocked it to the floor.

Harley sent him an annoyed look before leaning down to pick it up. “So what brings you to Boot’s, Ethan?” He readjusted the plastic crown on his balding head. “I thought you were supposed to be gettin’ the animals over to the church.”

“I am. But I thought I’d have me a beer first.” Or six, Ethan thought as he slipped onto the stool next to Joseph. Even in his sour mood, Ethan couldn’t help grinning at the floral sheets draped around his friend Colt Lomax-especially when the man had once been the biggest bad boy in Bramble. But before Ethan could do a little friendly teasing, the baby pig sitting on Colt’s lap released a squeal of delight and launched himself at Ethan.

Ethan laughed as his face was covered in wet pig kisses. “I’ve missed you too, Sherman. But it looks like you’ve been well taken care of.”

“That’s putting it lightly,” Colt said. He took another drink from his long-necked bottle, the pink-flowered sheet sliding up his tattooed arm. “Hope and my sister, Shirlene, spoil that pig rotten.”

Ethan was glad to hear it. Ever since he’d given the pig to Hope as a gift, he’d had second thoughts. Sherman was special-the runt of the litter that Ethan hadn’t expected to live. But the tiny piglet had surprised him. And what Sherman lacked in physical size and strength, he’d made up for in brains. And not just brains, but a sixth sense about people. Even now, he studied Ethan with his intense beady eyes, almost as if he could feel Ethan’s emotional turmoil.

“I’m okay, boy,” Ethan whispered close to his ear. Still, Sherman continued to stare at him until Manny, the bartender, brought over the beer and a bowl of mixed nuts. And food could distract Sherman from just about anything.

While the pig devoured the nuts, Ethan turned back to Colt. “So I guess Darla is responsible for your Joseph’s outfit?”

“I wish,” Colt grumbled. “If Darla had made it, I could’ve gotten out of it. But how do you tell your wife of two weeks-your pregnant wife, no less-that you aren’t going to wear the costume that she went to all the trouble to make for you?”

“Well, I have to admit that the purple yarn belt is a little flashy,” Ethan teased. “But other than that, it’s not so bad.”

Colt grumbled something under his breath about annoying farmers before Mayor Sutter spoke up.

“Well, I think you should be honored, son. It’s not every day that a man gets to be Joseph to our little Hope’s Mary. It just doesn’t get much better than that.” The look on Colt’s face said that he could think of a lot of things that were better.

“Unless you’re Slate and get to be Faith’s Joseph.” Kenny Gene shook his head, causing the halo that was attached to his cowboy hat to wobble. “Man, Pastor Robbins ain’t gonna know what hit him when he sees our nativity scene.”

Ethan figured that was an understatement. The pastor had been in Bramble for only a year and was still trying to adjust to west Texas life. Tonight might just send him straight back to California-or over the edge.

Colt downed the rest of his beer and slipped off the stool. Standing, the floor-length floral robes looked even more amusing.

“Come on, Sherman.” Colt jerked the sheet from under the toe of his biker boots and picked up the staff that leaned against the bar. “Let’s get this over with.”

But the pig refused to budge from Ethan’s lap. Even when Colt reached for him, he grunted out a refusal and continued to lick the nut bowl.

“Smart pig.” Colt patted Sherman’s head. “I wish I could get out of it so easily.”

Ethan laughed. “I’ll watch out for him, Colt. You just watch out for that lightnin’ bolt when God notices who’s playin’ Joseph.”

“Real funny, Ethan,” Colt said before he headed for the door.

“We better get goin’ too, Kenny,” Mayor Sutter said. “Cindy Lynn will have our hides if we’re not there for the big dress rehearsal.” He glanced at Ethan. “You comin’, son?”

Ethan held up his beer. “After I finish this.”

Once they were gone, Ethan sipped his beer and tried to have fun. He failed miserably. Manny was busy closing up the bar for the night, which left Ethan no choice but to watch the Christmas movie on the television over the bar. It was the one where Jimmy Stewart gets to see how the world would change if he’d never been born. And it depressed the hell out of Ethan. Since he didn’t have a brother to save from a frozen pond, wasn’t married, and didn’t have children, he figured the world would do nicely without him.

“Every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings.”

Instead of coming from the television, the words came from just over his shoulder. And Ethan turned to find Sam’s sister, Marcy, standing there. She wasn’t wearing a sheet or wings, just a red dress that revealed more of her large breasts than it covered. She reached up and flicked one of the jingle bells that hung from her earlobes, and the tinkling noise had her laughing.

“What do you know, Marcy Henderson is handin’ out wings to angels,” she said as she slung an arm over Ethan’s shoulders.

“Hey, Marcy,” he said. Since he’d never found Marcy attractive, Ethan had no problem talking to her. Too bad they’d never had anything to talk about. While Sam loved animals, football, the farm, and a multitude of other things that Ethan liked as well, Marcy seemed to like only two things-herself and men. And Ethan didn’t care to talk about either subject. He glanced at the door and wondered how long it would take him to get to it. But before he could even gather Sherman up in his arms, Marcy took the seat next to him.

“Buy a girl a drink?”

Figuring a drink might get her arm off him, he motioned to Manny, who came over to take her order for “Sex on the Beach.” Manny didn’t even blink at the word, but Ethan’s face burned with heat. Or maybe his embarrassment had more to do with the image that flashed into his brain. An image of his parents having sex on the beach in South Padre.

Geez, I really am losing it. He shook the image away, disrupting a sleeping Sherman and causing him to grunt in disapproval. But the sound achieved what Ethan wanted. Marcy removed her arm as she jumped off her stool.

She held a hand to her chest and waved one long red nail at Sherman. “Who let that thing in?”

“Marcy, you know animals have always been welcome in Boot’s,” Manny said as he placed her drink on one of those little napkins. “Especially if they know how to mind their manners.” He reached out and patted the pig’s head. “And Sherman always minds his manners.” He arched a brow at Marcy. “Unlike some people I know.”

Marcy ignored the comment and turned back to Ethan. “It figures that you would have some kind of animal with you. You and that sister of mine can’t seem to stay away from them.” Casting a wary look at Sherman, she eased back onto the stool. “I just had to suffer through two hours of Laverne and Daddy gushing over my sister becomin’ a doctor. Not a real doctor, mind you, but an animal doctor. Geez, what was she thinkin’?”

Ethan wondered the same thing. What had Sam been thinking when she stole his profession? And why hadn’t she ever mentioned the fact to him? Of course, she had written him a few times, and he’d never written her back. He had justified it by telling himself he was too busy with the farm, but in reality he’d been mad at her for leaving in the first place. Hell, he was still mad at her.

As he took another drink of beer, Marcy stuck out a leg and pointed to her red shoe. “Although I got me a pair of New York designer shoes out of the deal. ’Course, now I have to come up with a gift for Sam. Somethin’ that’s never been easy, considerin’ she has the worse taste in clothes of any human I know. Unlike me, who happens to have unlimited fashion sense.”

Ethan glanced over at Marcy. Fashion sense wasn’t the only difference between her and Sam. Marcy didn’t have a cute little button nose. Or a mouth shaped like a rosebud. Or a slim body with breasts that were… perfect. Two perfect swells that looked great in a red sweater. Or a snug Western shirt. Or a tiny, white drill team uniform.

Ethan’s brow crinkled. What the hell? Where had all those images come from? He could understand the red sweater-he’d just seen her in that today-but the other clothes she hadn’t worn since high school. And while he was puzzling over this, some locked chamber in his brain opened up and a wellspring of images flooded his mind. Images of Sam horseback riding, her cute butt nestled against the saddle and her breasts jiggling in a tight T-shirt. Leaning over the corral fence in a pair of tattered cutoffs. Stretched out in a pile of fresh-cut hay in faded jeans and a snap-down Western shirt that showed just a hint of cleavage.

And once those images ended, his mind filled with others. Sam helping him with the birth of a calf and laughing as the wobbly baby cow took its first steps. Sam eating watermelon and spitting the seeds at him. Sam catching her first fish. Sam helping his mother can pickles. Sam sending his father get-well cards when he’d fallen off the ladder.


“See anything you like?”

Marcy’s words made Ethan realize too late that, while he’d been thinking about Sam, he’d been staring at her sister’s abundant breasts. As his face heated, she leaned closer.

“It’s a shame, you know.” She tapped his bottom lip with one long fingernail. “You really are cute, Ethan Miller. And I’ve often wondered about those big feet of yours. But as much as I love men, I can’t bring myself to poach on my sister’s property.” She shook her head. “You would think that with all them good-lookin’ college boys, she’d get over you and move on. But nooo, every time she calls she asks a million and one questions. Is he married? Does he have a girlfriend? Is his hair still as blond? His eyes still as green? Even when I mentioned that there was a distinct possibility that you were gay, she wouldn’t shut up.”

Suddenly Ethan couldn’t get his mouth to work. All he could do was stare at Marcy as his heart thundered in his ears. Sam wasn’t over him?

Completely unaware of his stunned confusion, Marcy took another sip of her drink and continued. “I figure it has to do with all those reruns of Little House on the Prairie she used to watch. She was obsessed with the episodes that featured that awkward, blond farmer dude. She specially liked the one where Half-pint finally gets him to notice she’s a woman by wearing a pair of high-heeled-”

“Boots.” The word slipped out of Ethan’s mouth without much thought, especially considering he’d never watched that particular television show in his life.

Marcy shot a glance over at him. “I was going to say shoes.” Her eyes crinkled like two squashed spiders. “You actually noticed what my sister was wearin’? What color was her sweater?”

If Marcy’s plan was to confuse the hell out of him, she was doing a pretty damned good job. Between the things she’d said about Sam, Little House on the Prairie, and shoes, he didn’t know what they were talking about. Still, he answered the question.

“Macintosh-apple red.”

“And her eyes?” She leaned closer, her face starting to look intense and scary.

He swallowed. “Deep blue like the sky at twilight just after the last rays of the sun flicker out.”

Marcy plopped back on her stool as if she couldn’t quite believe his words. Ethan knew how she felt. He was pretty stunned himself. Which was why he almost fell off the stool when Marcy reached over and grabbed the front of his Western shirt.

“Now, I realize you like to do things nice and slow, Ethan,” she said. “And I’ll be the first to tell you that, on certain occasions, nice and slow works out real good. But this ain’t one of those times. Sam plans on flyin’ out day after tomorrow.” She smiled slyly. “And if Half-pint is going to get her awkward farmer for Christmas, we have no time to lose.”

Chapter Four

“Y’all!” Cindy Lynn’s high-pitched voice came through the bullhorn she held to her mouth, causing most of the costumed folks of Bramble to cover their ears. “Would you stop yammerin’ and get in your positions? And, shepherds, remember, I said ‘sore’ afraid-that means you’re so scared your muscles hurt. So look hurt!”

Sam didn’t have to worry about looking “sore afraid.” Instead, she had to worry about looking like a complete idiot in the sheep costume Rachel Dean had given her. At least she wasn’t the only one. Being that Bramble was a cattle town, the shepherd’s herd was made up of a good twenty townsfolk and a billy goat that was eating the hem of Moses Tate’s wiseman robe as Moses slept in one corner of the stable.

“Good Lord.” Shirlene Dalton sashayed up in a pretty white dress and huge wings, looking more like a voluptuous Victoria Secret model than a member of the heavenly host. “If Cindy Lynn doesn’t put a sock in it, this angel is going to deliver something more than good tidin’s.” She winked at Sam. “Hey, honey, I heard you were back in town and pretty as ever.” She reached out and adjusted the sheep ears on Sam’s white hoodie. “Which is saying something in that getup.”

Sam grinned. She had always liked Shirlene. Of course, everyone liked Shirlene. The woman was not only beautiful. She was sweet and fun-loving. Not to mention filthy rich. At the thought of all her oil money, Sam’s grin faded.

“I was sure sorry to hear about Lyle’s death, Shirlene,” she said.

Shirlene’s smile never even drooped, but her pretty green eyes held a sadness that spoke volumes. “Weren’t we all, honey. Weren’t we all.” She flapped a hand that glittered with diamonds. “But let’s not talk about me. How have you been? I can’t tell you how proud your daddy is of you graduating with honors from that big, fancy school. And I know he’s hoping-as we all are-that you’ll start up your practice right here in Bramble.”

For Sam, opening a practice in Bramble would be like a dream come true. Or half a dream. Her gaze swept over to the stable.

Ethan was there comforting the animals that had been tied to the rails of the wooden structure. He usually wore overalls, but tonight he was dressed in pressed jeans, a Western shirt, and a blue jean jacket. With the black felt hat pulled low on his head, he looked more like a cowboy than a farmer. At least he did until the baby pig popped his head out of the top of the jean jacket. Then Ethan just looked heartbreakingly perfect.

“If you feel that way about Ethan, honey, why’d you stay away so long?”

Sam looked back at Shirlene. Either Shirlene was extremely observant or Sam wasn’t as good as she thought she was at hiding her feelings. Of course, it made no difference now. Tomorrow Sam would be on her way back to New York. The thought caused a lump to form in her throat that not even a hard swallow could remove.

“Maybe because Ethan doesn’t feel the same way,” Sam said as she plucked at the lumpy cotton batting that covered her sweatshirt.

“Then change his mind.”

Sam shook her head. “You don’t know Ethan. He might be sweet, but he’s as stubborn as they come.”

Shirlene snorted. “Believe me, honey. There was no one more stubborn than Lyle Dalton. The man was convinced I was too young for him. And if I’d waited around for him to make the first move, I’d still be waitin’.” Her perfectly plucked eyebrows lifted. “Men don’t know what they want until you show them.”

That was easy for a woman who looked like Shirlene Dalton to say. One little twitch of her hips made men go wild. Sam, on the other hand, wasn’t quite as well endowed. Besides, she’d thrown herself at Ethan more times than she could count without a reaction, and her self-esteem couldn’t take any more rejection.

“Shirlene!” Cindy Lynn’s voice echoed across the front lawn of the church. “I realize you think you deserve special treatment because you’re hostin’ the big Christmas party tomorrow night. But tonight I am in charge, and you need to be with the other angels on the bleachers instead of cavortin’ with the sheep.”

Shirlene’s eyes narrowed. “If her husband doesn’t wise up and slip that woman a Xanax, I’m going to do it for him. Because if anyone should be tranquilized, it’s Cindy Lynn.” She sashayed off just as Rye Pickett came hustling around the corner of the church.

“Pastor Robbins is comin’!” he yelled. “He just pulled up into the back parkin’ lot and should be here any second.”

“Places, y’all!” Cindy Lynn’s voice screeched even higher.

Not wanting to bring on Cindy Lynn’s wrath, Sam hurried to get to her flock on the other side of the stable. Unfortunately, as she came around the corner of the wooden structure, she ran smack dab into Ethan. His hands slipped around her waist, and she was lifted clean off her boots. As always, the closeness of his large body sucked all the wind right out of her.

Usually, he released her as soon as he touched her. But this time, his hands tightened on her waist as he continued to hold her inches from the ground. Beneath the brim of his cowboy hat, his deep green eyes stared at her as if it was the first time he’d seen her.

“Sam.” The word hung in the cold night air between them, not quite a question and not quite an answer.

“It looks like Ethan was just a late bloomer.” Rye Pickett’s voice cut through Sam’s daze. “First, I saw him at Bootlegger’s with Marcy, and now he’s hittin’ on her sister.”

Her eyes narrowed. Ethan had been at Bootlegger’s with Marcy?

Anger replaced desire, and she shoved against his chest until he released her. She might’ve given him a piece of her mind if the outside lights hadn’t clicked off, throwing the front lawn of the church into darkness. The darkness worked much better than Cindy Lynn’s screeches. Before Sam could utter a word, she was being pushed along with the crowd as people hurried to get to their spots.

Sam no longer felt like being part of the Christmas celebration. But just as she started to make her way through the flock, the doors of the church opened.

“Hit it, Darla!” Cindy Lynn yelled through the bullhorn.

The outside lights came back on along with about a zillion others. Twinkle lights covered all the bushes and trees. Multicolored lights lined the windows of the church. And a bunch of Japanese lanterns hung from the eaves of the stable Kenny Gene had built. A stable that was painted bright Bramble High purple and framed by fake palm trees covered in more lights.

“ ‘And there were in the same country,’ ” Cindy Lynn’s voice rang out. “A country no doubt very similar to the great state of Texas.” There was a mutter of “amens.” “ ‘Shepherds abiding in the field, keepin’ watch over their sheep by night.’ ”

The townsfolk sheep all started to baa, except for the goat who continued to munch on sleeping Moses’ robe. “ ‘And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them.’ ” When nothing happened, Cindy yelled louder. “And an angel of the Lord came upon them!”

A spotlight suddenly shone on the stable. And with a creak of rope, Kenny Gene rose above the huge star on the very peak. He might’ve looked pretty authentic if not for the cowboy hat and the shovel of poop in his hand.

“I ain’t ready,” he said. But when Cindy Lynn hissed at him through the bullhorn, he stopped looking for a place to drop the pooper scooper and spoke his lines.

“Don’t be scared, for I bring y’all tidin’s of great joy that will be to all folks. For unto yew is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign onto y’all; Yew shall find the babe wrapped in swallowin’ clothes and lyin’ in a manger.”

On cue, Mary leaned over the tiny wooden manger. Since Faith and Hope looked identical in their costumes, Sam wasn’t sure which Mary it was until Slate Calhoun stepped up. He looked down at Faith with so much love that tears welled up in Sam’s eyes. But they evaporated quickly enough when Faith lifted the baby Jesus from the manger.

It had to be the scariest-looking doll Sam had ever seen in her life. With its vacant glass eyes and sneering expression, the porcelain face could only be described as demonic. And Rufus Miles, who was perched on Hope’s hip waiting for his turn at baby Jesus, must’ve thought so too. Rufus took one look at the doll and let out a bloodcurdling howl that sent shivers up Sam’s spine.

The howl frightened Lowell’s cow so much that he jerked back on his lead rope and pulled a two-by-four loose. The board slapped Ethan’s donkey, Buckwheat, in the butt, causing him to kick the back wall of the stable in self-defense. Japanese lanterns wobbled as the entire stable fell backward, the top point of the star of Bethlehem catching Kenny’s arm and sending animal poop showering down. But it wasn’t the poop that had the people scurrying for cover as much as the icy rain that suddenly fell from the sky. Josephs scooped up Marys, and along with wisemen, shepherds, sheep, and the heavenly host, made a mad dash for the church while Cindy Lynn screamed through the bullhorn.

“Come back here! We ain’t finished!”

But a freezing rainstorm beat out a live nativity scene any day.

Instead of heading inside, Sam chased after the goat that was following Moses Tate into the church, still munching on his robes. And once she had the goat by his halter, she turned back to the collapsed stable to help Ethan with the other animals.

Lowell’s barn was only a block and a half away from Main Street. But by the time she finished helping Ethan get the animals safely inside, she was soaked to the skin and freezing. She would’ve headed home for a hot bath if Ethan hadn’t been blocking the only exit.

He held his hat in his hand, his wheat-colored hair wet and in need of a good trim. Droplets of water dripped down his cheeks and a square jaw that was as stubble-free as it had been earlier that morning. He opened his mouth to speak, but then closed it again.

“What, Ethan?” Sam propped a hand on her hip, squeezing water from her jeans. “Don’t tell me you’ve suddenly lost the ability to talk to me. Especially since it’s only women you’re interested in that seem to make you stammer.” She lifted her eyebrows, but the effect was lost beneath the soaked, sagging hood. She shoved it off her head. “Of course, I guess you didn’t worry about talkin’ when you were at Bootlegger’s with my sister.”

A baffled look spread across his face, and he rubbed the back of his neck. At one time, the gesture had been endearing. But now it just annoyed her.

“I guess not,” he said. “Seein’ as how me and your sister didn’t do much talkin’.”

Could blood vessels pop from mere anger? Sam thought it might be possible as she stared at Ethan and tried to keep from racing over and slapping him upside the head.

“Now, you and me, on the other hand,” he continued, completely unaware of her anger, “we’ve always been able to talk up a storm. Something I’ve missed more than I was willing to admit.” He glanced up at her, and his eyes crinkled at the corners. “Are you gonna hit me, Sammy?”

It took a real effort to unclench her fists.

“No, Ethan,” she said. “I’m not going to hit you. I’m going to leave.” She walked around him. But before she could get through the huge opening, the wide wooden doors slammed shut. At first she thought it was the wind. Except when she tried to push them open, neither would budge. She pressed an eye to a knothole just in time to see a devil in a red dress race off in the sleety night.

“Marcy!” she yelled as she rattled the doors. “This isn’t funny.” But her only answer was a shriek of laughter, followed by a “Merry Christmas, baby sister.” Sam turned to find Ethan smiling. “You think it’s funny, do you?”

“A little,” he said. “And the Sam I used to know would’ve thought it was funny too. Did you lose all your humor?”

“No. I just acquired some taste.”

Ethan’s eyes ran over her soaked sheep sweatshirt, and his smile got even bigger. “I can see that.”

She ignored the comment and turned back to the doors, but no matter how much she shoved, pulled, and kicked, they refused to open. Finally, she gave up and slumped down to the dirt floor. The baby pig came trotting over and sat down only inches away, staring at her with eyes that seemed a little too human. She might’ve questioned Ethan about the animal if the wind hadn’t blown through the cracks in the door, causing her to shiver until her teeth chattered.

“We’d best get you out of those clothes,” Ethan said. And when her gaze snapped up to him, he blushed. “Uhh… I mean you’d better get out of those clothes before you catch a chill.”

“Are you proposing that I run around buck naked, Ethan?”

His face got even redder, but the look that entered his eyes wasn’t what Sam would call embarrassment. More heat with a whole lot of sizzle. “Didn’t you once ask me to do the same thing?”

“I did not,” she protested as she climbed to her feet.

His blond eyebrows hiked up. “Sutter Springs. Your senior year.”

The memory snapped back and hit her square between the eyes. “Oh. That time.” She turned away and walked over to Buckwheat’s stall. She held out her hand and waited for the donkey to nuzzle it before she stroked his big, soft ears. “That doesn’t count. I was only a stupid kid who thought that skinny-dippin’ might be fun.”

The popping noise of snaps coming undone had her looking back at Ethan. Her breath got hung up in her chest. She had seen Ethan without a shirt many times over the years-farm work could be hot and sweaty. But that didn’t prepare her for the sight that greeted her now. The skinny body of a boy had been replaced with the hard body of a man, and it took every ounce of willpower Sam had to keep her mouth from dropping open-or her body from melting into a puddle. Ethan had muscles. Lots and lots of tanned muscles.

“Fun.” Ethan tossed the shirt into the corner with a flex of bicep. “I’ve been hearing that word a lot lately.” He sat down on a milking stool and tugged off his boots before he removed first one sock and then the other. His big feet had her thinking about what Marcy had once told her, which in turn had a question popping out of her mouth.

“Is that what you were doing with Marcy at Bootlegger’s, having a little fun?”

His gaze moved back over to her, and his head cocked to one side. “Me and Marcy? I wouldn’t call it fun-” A grin split his face. And Ethan’s smiles had always made Sam’s stomach feel all light and airy.

“Are you jealous, Sam?”

“Yeah, right.” She turned back around to pet Buckwheat. “Why would I be jealous of you and my sister, Ethan?” Suddenly, Ethan was standing right behind her, his body radiating heat like a thoroughbred after a long, hard ride.

“I’ve never had fun with your sister, Sam,” he said in his soft, soothing voice. “In fact, the only woman I’ve ever really had fun with is you.”

Sam tried to remember how to breathe. “Me?”

He reached over her shoulder and stroked a hand down Buckwheat’s forehead, and she found herself transfixed by the gentleness of his long fingers. “You don’t think we had fun together?”

It was hard to think when surrounded by hard muscle and the scent of damp male. “N-no, it’s not that. It’s just that I didn’t think you… noticed.”

His hand slipped from Buckwheat and curled over the edge of the stall door. “I noticed. It seems I noticed a lot more than I thought I had.” His breath fell warm against the top of her head. “I came by your house the night you left.”

She turned around to find him much too close. “You came by my house?”

He nodded. “I wanted to say goodbye.”

“But we’d said goodbye earlier that day.”

He swallowed hard, and she watched his Adam’s apple slide up and down his tanned throat. “Not the way I wanted to.”

Her stomach did a crazy, little quivery thing that had nothing to do with her soaked sweatshirt. “And what way was that, Ethan?”

Heartbeats ticked off what seemed like a year’s time before he lifted his hand and stroked a trail of heat down the chilled skin of her cheek. Using just one callused finger, he traced over her lips, pressing the bottom one down gently before letting it spring back up. She sucked in a breath and tried to steady her suddenly tipsy world, but then those long, golden-tipped lashes lifted, and she was lost all over again in the deep green of his eyes.

“Did you miss me, Sam?” His words came out rough and hushed. “Did you miss me as much as I missed you?” He dipped his head and replaced his finger with his lips. He was hesitant at first, taking small sweet sips that had Sam swaying on her boot heels. His large hand cradled her chin as his other dropped from the railing and settled on her hip to steady her.

“You’re soaked,” he whispered against her mouth. “Lift your arms.”

She obeyed without the slightest hesitation. Numerous questions nibbled at the edges of her mind. But for now, she was exactly where she’d always wanted to be: in Ethan’s arms. Although, once he pulled the hoodie over her head, she couldn’t help but feel a slight twinge of embarrassment. Especially when his gaze settled on her simple white bra. She couldn’t see his eyes beneath the thick fringe of his lashes, but it wasn’t hard to figure out what he was thinking when his nostrils flared and his hands tightened in fists on her wet sweatshirt.

Only seconds later, the sweatshirt was tossed aside, and she found herself in the heated embrace of a man who was through with sweet kisses. His lips settled over hers in a hot, hungry assault that held not a trace of shy farm boy. While his tongue brushed against hers, his large hands encircled her waist just above the low rise of her jeans and tugged her closer to the heat of his wide chest. The kiss seemed to last for hours, yet ended much too soon.

He pulled back and rested his forehead against hers as their heartbeats echoed each other’s. “Now, that was fun.”

Chapter Five

Ethan planned on having a lot more fun. But then Sam shivered. He might’ve thought it had to do with his kisses if goose bumps hadn’t covered the arms looped around his neck. Figuring his fun could wait, he pulled back. He glanced down at the soft flesh that swelled above her bra, and it took closing his eyes before he could finally step away. A stack of horse blankets sat on the seat of an old tractor, and he lifted a couple off the top.

“Here,” he said as he handed her one of the blankets.

She took it slowly, her eyes wide and confused. He couldn’t blame her. After Marcy had left the bar, he’d felt pretty dazed and confused himself. But surprisingly, it hadn’t taken that long for things to fall into place. It seemed his hesitant heart just needed a little nudge.

Whistling, Ethan headed to the back of the barn to look for Lowell’s space heater. He was on his second round of “Jingle Bells” when he finally located the heater behind an old bike and some farming tools. He quickly found an outlet and plugged it in, and then stretched out the extension cord as he walked back toward the front stalls.

Sam had wrapped a blanket around her and was hanging his wet shirt on the railing, right next to her sweatshirt, jeans, the white bra, and a teeny-tiny pair of flowered panties.

Ethan’s whistling stopped mid “dashing through the snow” as his gaze flickered over her body. The blanket was tucked up under her arms and covered her from breastbone to calves. Still, all it would take was one yank to have her as nekked as the day she was born.

“Are you going to turn that on?”

The question brought his eyes back up to her pretty blue ones, and he thanked God for the cold, wet denim that kept embarrassment at bay. As it was, his voice still broke like a fourteen-year-old boy’s when he spoke. “Y-yes, ma’am.”

To hide his blush, he stepped into the only empty stall. It turned out to be not as empty as he thought. Sherman was stretched out in a pile of fresh hay. His gaze followed Ethan as he set the heater in one corner and clicked it on.

Sam peeked into the stall. “Why are you putting it in there?”

“It will conserve heat if we stay in a more confined space,” he said as he walked back out and grabbed the rest of the blankets.

She clutched the blanket and looked around. “You don’t think we’ll have to spend the night here, do you? I mean, surely someone will come looking for us once the storm dies down.”

“Probably.” He tried not to look at her as he shooed Sherman over and spread the blanket out on the hay. “But just in case, we should be prepared.”

Sherman snorted, and Ethan glanced over at the pig to find those beady eyes pinned on him with something that could only be described as condemnation. Ethan tried to ignore the look and continue making the bed, but it wasn’t easy. Especially when Ethan was lying through his teeth. Not lying exactly, more like failing to mention the fact that in the corner behind that tall stack of baled hay was a door. A door that Sam would have no problem walking through if she knew it was there. And Ethan wasn’t ready to let her go. At least, not yet. Not until he got some answers.

And a few more kisses.

Unfortunately, when Sam stepped into the stall, she didn’t look like she was in that big of a hurry to get back to the kissing portion of things.

“I’m not sleeping with you, Ethan Miller.” Her arms were folded tightly over her chest.

Just the thought of sleeping with Sam had Ethan’s face flaming. He cleared his throat and rubbed the back of his neck. “I was thinking that we would do more talking than… uhh… sleeping. But first I need to get out of these wet jeans. They’re starting to itch worse than a bad case of fleas.”

Her big blue eyes wandered down to the fly of his jeans. And figuring even wet denim wasn’t going to keep him from embarrassing himself, he hurried out of the stall. It didn’t take him long to get his jeans off and spread them out on the rail with the rest of their clothing. He left his boxers on and tucked a blanket around his waist, then went about shutting off all the lights. By the time he returned, Sam was sitting on the blanket he’d spread on the hay with Sherman’s head in her lap, the orange coils of the space heater reflecting off her dark hair.

“It’s almost like he can talk to you with his eyes,” she said as she scratched between the pig’s ears.

“He likes you,” Ethan said as he took a seat across from her. He hesitated only a moment before adding, “You’ll make a good vet, Dr. Samantha Henderson.”

Her gaze lifted to his. “Not better than you.”

“I’m not a vet.”

“Tell that to half the people in Haskins County.” Her serious look filled his heart with pride. She glanced down at Sherman. “He is a pet, right?”

Ethan smiled. “You think I’m fattening him up for slaughter? You should know that I’ve never much cared for pork.”

“Or beef, mutton, or venison.”

“Shhh.” He held a finger to his mouth. “Don’t tell anyone. Josephine will have my hide if she ever found out I didn’t like her chicken fried steak.” He squinted at her. “How did you get out of eating it this morning?”

“I hid most of it in my napkin.”

He laughed. “I bet we’re the only two vegetarians in the entire state of Texas.”

“No doubt.” She smiled. It was a smile he hadn’t seen enough of since she’d been back, and he basked in the glow like a cat in the sun.

“We know each other pretty well, don’t we?” he said.

She looked down and ran her hand over Sherman’s back. “I thought I knew you, but the Ethan I remember never hung out at Bootlegger’s-or tried to kiss me.”

“My mistake.”

Her gaze snapped back over to him, but he continued before he lost his nerve. “Do you have a crush on me, Samantha Louise?”

Her mouth dropped open, right before her eyes scrunched up. “Marcy.”

He felt like jumping up and punching the air like a ten-year old. Instead he kept it together. “So you do have a crush on me.”


The word deflated him like an overfilled balloon. “So you don’t now?”

“Kids have crushes, Ethan. In case you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m a woman.”

His gaze drifted down to the blanket that had inched low enough to reveal two soft swells of perfection. “Believe me, I’ve figured that one out.” He lifted his eyes. “So how does the woman feel about me?”

Even in the dim light, he could tell that her face turned as red as an August tomato. “I-I… well, I think I…”

He smiled. “I’m the one who stammers, Sam. Don’t you start.” He scooted closer until their knees touched, and took her hand. It was much smaller and softer than his with smooth close-clipped nails. And he couldn’t help lifting it and brushing his lips over the tiny blue veins that pulsed in her wrist. “How about if we take it slower, sort of like we did when you were learning to ride? Do you like me?”

“Of course I like you, Ethan.”

The quick reply had him grinning like a fool. “What do you like about me?”

She stared down at their clasped hands for what seemed like forever before answering. “I like that you don’t take anything for granted. Not the sun, or the rain, or a friendship. I like the way you treat animals and people, with love and understanding. And I like that you rarely lose your temper. Even when I couldn’t do something, you never got mad and started screaming. You just showed me again until I got it right.” Her gaze lifted. Her deep blue eyes uncertain. “Do you like me?”

Like wasn’t really the word, but he also didn’t want to scare her off.

“Yes,” he said as he caressed her palm with his thumb. “I like you, Sam Henderson. I like that you never made me feel stupid because I do things slower than most folks. And I liked that no matter what I was doing-mucking out a stall or weeding a garden-you joined right in and helped me. And I like the way you treat animals. And the way you don’t like to hurt people’s feelings. But mostly, I liked the way you looked in your drill team uniform.”

She sat up, dislodging Sherman’s head. “My what?”

He waved his hand at her body. “That tiny little skirt and white top that you wore when you were on the drill team.”

“When I was seventeen, Ethan Miller?” A smile eased over her face. “Why, you pervert.”

“I was, you know. As hard as I tried, I couldn’t get the thought of those can-can kicks out of my mind.”

She shook her head. “Now you tell me. Do you realize how hard I worked to get you to notice me? How many excuses I came up with to try to get you to touch me-to kiss me?”

“You’re five years younger than I am,” he said. “I guess I was waiting until you grew up.”

“I was eighteen for six months before I left. Why didn’t you do anything then?”

The hurt in her eyes was like a swift kick to his stomach, and it brought with it all the pain he’d felt when she left. A pain he’d tried to ignore by pretending that what he felt for Sam had been nothing more than friendship.

“I guess I was scared. Since I had never had a girlfriend before, I didn’t understand my emotions. All I knew was that I didn’t want you to go. But once I was standing on your front porch, staring at your doorbell, it seemed like a pretty selfish reason to keep you in Bramble.”

“I would’ve stayed, Ethan,” she whispered. “For you, I would do just about anything.”

He released her hand and rose to his knees, pulling her up with him. “Then don’t go, Sam.” He pulled her into his arms and spoke against her damp hair. “Stay here in Bramble.”

“Why?” The word came out muffled against his throat, and she pulled back and repeated it. “Why do you want me to stay, Ethan?”

For a man who had trouble talking to women, the words slipped out without a hitch. “Because I love you, Sam Louise. And if you leave, I’ll be forced to follow you to New York, where I’ll be a fish out of water if ever there was one.”

She smiled up at him. “I don’t want to go back to New York. I want to live on a farm in my hometown with the man I love.”

He kissed her then, and her mouth opened up for him like a flower to a bee. Her hands slipped around his neck, and she pulled him closer, close enough to realize that scratchy wool blankets no longer stood between them. The shock of skin against skin had them both pulling back. Sam’s eyes were wide and innocent, while Ethan’s couldn’t help dropping down to sweet raspberry-topped peaches that trembled from her quickened breath.

“I’ve never been with a man,” she said.

Her words had his heartbeat tripling, and his gaze sliding back up to her eyes. A smile broke out on his face, a smile he felt all the way down to his toes.

“And I’ve never been with a woman,” he said. Her eyes widened even more, but before the questions could start, he kissed her. Not a hungry kiss that would lead to hours of unbridled passion, just a sweet kiss that tasted of springtime and promises yet to keep. Pulling back from that kiss was one of the hardest things Ethan had ever done. He reached down and lifted the blanket around her and, after a brief, heated slide of knuckles against soft breast, tucked it neatly into place.

“You’re not going to make love to me, Ethan?” She looked so disappointed and hurt that he almost gave in. But if he’d learned anything on the farm, it was that time and patience always produced the best harvests.

“Oh, I’m going to make love to you, Sam. I’m going to love you like no man has ever loved a woman. But since this is our first go-around, I figure we shouldn’t put the cart before the horse.”

Her brow knotted. “And just what does that mean, Ethan Michael?”

“I want to court you. I want to bring you flowers, and sit on your porch swing, and see how many kisses I can swipe before your daddy comes out and tells me to leave. I want to take you to the movies, and football games, and maybe just into town to show off my girl.”

If it wasn’t for her big smile, Ethan might’ve been worried about the tears that trickled down Sam’s cheeks. But since his own eyes brimmed, he figured he understood and merely cradled her chin and kissed them away.

“And after I’ve made up for all the missed opportunities of my youth-including taking a few college courses, I’m going to make you my wife. In name. Soul. And body.”

“Oh, Ethan.” She threw herself into his arms, knocking him back to the hay as she covered his face with kisses.

“Enough.” He laughed. “If you keep this up, I won’t be responsible for what happens.”

She gave him one last kiss on the very tip of his nose before settling down in the hay next to him. Ethan probably should tell her about the door so they could get dressed and get back to the church. And in a few minutes, he would. But for now he just wanted to savor the moment. To lie there in the sweet-smelling hay with the girl he’d always loved, and the woman he’d never expected.

Sherman trotted over and nosed his way between them. When he had snuffled around until he was comfortable, he looked up at Ethan.

And damned if that baby pig didn’t wink.

“Shhh.” Pastor Robbins held a finger to his mouth. “I’ve found them.”

Most of the town crowded in through the big barn doors, taking turns peeking at the two sleeping forms curled together in the stall.

“Poor things are out cold,” Rachel Dean said. “ ’Course, I can’t say as I blame them. Live nativity scenes are more exhaustin’ than a person thinks.”

“Too bad all the hard work was for nothin’.” Cindy Lynn glared at Rye Pickett. “Pastor Robbins didn’t even get to see our performance.”

“Well, it ain’t my fault,” Rye defended himself. “He did pull up in the back. I can’t help it if Rachel Dean had to go inside to the bathroom and chose that moment to come out the front door of the church.”

“When a girl’s gotta go, a girl’s gotta go,” Rachel said.

Kenny Gene pushed his way through the group, smacking everyone with his large wings as he went. “Except now that the stable’s all busted to smithereens, the pastor ain’t gonna get his live nativity scene.”

The entire town looked forlorn until the young pastor spoke.

“I don’t know about that, Kenny.” He glanced down in the stall at Ethan and Sam. “I think I’m looking at one right now.”

“What do you mean, pastor?” Rachel Dean craned her neck to get a better look in the stall. “You mean Ethan and Sam? But then that would mean that Sherman is…”

Harley Sutter took off his wiseman crown and scratched his head. “Well, that pig does have a pure heart.”

“As pure as they come.” Moses Tate rubbed the sleep from his eyes. “And he sure ain’t as loud as that Rufus Miles.”

“Well, I’m not buyin’ it,” Cindy Lynn said. “Joseph and Mary weren’t cuddled together like a couple of spoons in a drawer. They were kneelin’ over the baby Jesus, givin’ him his due respect.”

“You’re right, Cindy Lynn,” Pastor Robbins said. “But doesn’t it also make sense that Joseph and Mary were tired? They had traveled a long way, and Mary had just given birth. So it seems reasonable that they would lie down in the hay to sleep that first Christmas night so long ago. And that Joseph, being filled with love for his new family, would’ve placed a protective arm around them and pulled them close-just like Ethan has done with Sam and Sherman. Because isn’t that what Christmas is all about-love and family?”

Kenny Gene looked at Pastor Robbins. “And the folks of Bramble are family, ain’t we, Pastor?”

“We sure are, Kenny. Everyone on the face of the earth is part of God’s family.”

Kenny smiled, and his shoulders lifted, causing his wings to expand. The storm had passed, and the clear night sky filled the opened barn doors, casting Kenny in soft starlight.

“ ‘And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praisin’ God, and sayin’, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, and goodwill toward men.’ ”

About the Authors

New York Times bestselling author Jill Shalvis lives in a small town in the Sierras full of quirky characters. Any resemblance to the quirky characters in her books is, um, mostly coincidental. Look for Jill’s bestselling, award-winning books wherever romances are sold and visit her at www.jillshalvis.com for a complete book list and daily blog detailing her city-girl-living-in-the-mountains adventures. You can also like her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/jillshalvis and follow her on Twitter @jillshalvis.

Bestselling author Hope Ramsay was born in New York and grew up on the North Shore of Long Island, but every summer Momma would pack her off under the care of Aunt Annie to go visiting with relatives in the midlands of South Carolina. She’s a two-time finalist for the Golden Heart and is married to a good ol’ Georgia boy who resembles every single one of her heroes. She lives in Fairfax, Virginia, where you can often find her on the back deck, picking on her thirty-five-year-old Martin guitar. You can keep in touch with her at www.HopeRamsay.com, on Facebook at www.facebook.com/hope.ramsay, and on Twitter @HopeRamsay.

Katie Lane’s interest in romance was sparked in high school in the backseat of a ’65 Mustang-okay, so maybe it wasn’t romance as much as raging teenage hormones. Still, coupled with a wild imagination, those make-out sessions inspired many a steamy story line along with a strong belief that true love does prevail. Katie lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, with the owner of that Mustang and would love to hear from her readers. Please contact her through her website www.katielanebooks.com, on Facebook at www.facebook.com/KatieLaneAuthor, and on Twitter @ktlane3.