Monday, December 19, 2016

Countdown to Christmas...BELLS ON HER TOES by Delia Latham

Her world is safe and predictable…until the bells start ringing.
As part of an elaborate birthday gift from her sister, Karynn Michaels gets a pedicure that includes a pretty bell on each toe and a promidiction—part promise, part prediction—for each of the next ten days. Quiet, sensible Karynn finds the whole thing ridiculous. But it’s just for fun and she is, after all, on vacation at Christmas Inn, where bells are legendary.

The same day, she comes face to face with Daniel Sheridan—the male standard by which she’s measured, and found lacking, every man she’s dated since he moved away during their senior year of high school. Is it mere coincidence that her first promidiction hints at a reunion with someone from her past?

A widower, Daniel is at the Hope Creek, Tennessee resort with his adorable little girl and her less-than-agreeable nanny, who’s unpleasant to everyone—except her handsome boss. Karynn refuses to hope for a rekindled romance, but her old flame has lost none of his irresistible high school charm. She should have stayed at home in Quillpoint. She was doing just fine without bells on her toes, a jealous nanny, and a sapphire-eyed airline pilot who might fly away with her heart…again.

First Chapter...

“We’re early.” Karynn Michaels glanced at her cell phone screen. “By a whole two hours. How could we have over-estimated driving time by that much?”
“We didn’t.” Her sister swung her luxury sedan into a small shopping center a few blocks from their destination and slid smoothly into a parking slot. She shot Karynn an impish grin and opened her door. “I got us here early so you could get a head start on unwrapping your gift.”
“Savannah!” She climbed out, and then stood for a second, listening for the beep that assured her the doors were locked. “What are you up to now?”
Her gaze swept the storefronts lined up side by side. The little strip mall boasted only a half dozen or so businesses. Which of them was her sister all set to dash into and lay down more money?
Savannah could afford to spend lavishly, now that she’d married Dr. Darren Quinn, brain surgeon extraordinaire. Karynn rejoiced in the couple’s happiness, and was thrilled for her sister—who grew up right along with her in the school of hard knocks, hard work and staying hard at it to keep the wolves from the door.
Still, despite her genuine joy in Savannah’s happiness and financial security, she cringed when the younger woman tossed money around like game board cash. This trip to Hope Creek, for instance. Why couldn’t her sister be like everyone else and just wrap up a bathrobe or a good book for her birthday? But no…nothing would do but to bring Karynn here—several hours from their hometown of Quillpoint—for a ten-day vacation at Christmas Inn. They’d be in Hope Creek all the way through Karynn’s birthday on December 25th. Darren would join them on Christmas Eve.
She didn’t dare think about the fact that Hearth & Home, the bed and breakfast that was her livelihood, would be closed for two entire weeks. She’d manage the loss of income by cutting corners for a while. Growing up poor taught a person how to live on less than most people thought possible.
Savannah rounded the hood of the car and pulled her into a tight hug. “Sis, just let me do this for you. Please? Darren wants me to. He gave me specific instructions to pull out all the stops and show you the time of your life.” She batted her long lashes like a preening prima donna. “He said he owes you for taking such awesome care of his ‘Precious’ until he could take over.”
They both burst out laughing, despite the truth of the exaggerated presentation. Dr. Quinn adored his wife and always referred to her as ‘my Precious,’ never mind the negative connotations brought about in recent years by a popular book-turned-movie. Unlike Karynn, Darren didn’t waste time and effort trying to please everyone.
Savannah grabbed her hand and tugged her along as she stepped out of the parking slot and up onto a wide sidewalk. “Seriously, Karynn, my husband thinks you’re pretty special, and he’s right. You are. So this year, we want to pamper you for your birthday. Will you just let us do that without fretting the entire time?”
“Oh, sweetie…I promise to try, but you know how I am.” Karynn heaved a hopeless sigh. “If life were to roll along without a single kink in the works, I’d fret because there’s nothing to fret about.”
“Well, then I’ll consider it my job to foil your frets. See this?” Savannah whirled in a circle and pivoted to a stop directly in front of Karynn, who came close to barreling into her.
“Vanna!” She brushed off her sweater, which didn’t need brushing. Still, it made her feel better to administer a stinging slap to something.
“Sorry, Sis. But look at me.” Savannah tilted her head forward, raised one perfect eyebrow and dipped the other one. “When you see me do this, you’ll know you’re being an old fuddy-duddy fretter.”
“What are you, eight years old?” Karynn tried to give her sister a stern look, but when Savannah only repeated the ‘fuddy-duddy’ alert, she burst out laughing instead. “Fine. I will try to behave more like my crazy, lighthearted, totally irresponsible little sister. Now, will you stop doing that?” She cast a furtive glance around. “People will think you’re strange.”
“Uh-uh…that’s fretting!” Still, Savannah stopped rolling her eyes, linked arms with Karynn and they were on the move again. “Anyway, I am strange.”
“Well, you got that right.” Karynn giggled, and then blinked. Twice. Giggling? Really? Now who’s the eight-year-old?
“This is it!” Savannah trilled. “We’re here.”
Karynn read the sign on the window and suppressed a sigh.
Nail It.
“I take it we’re getting manicures?”
“And pedicures—a double-digits treat. And we’re right on time for our appointment.” She opened the door, enacted an exaggerated bow, and waved Karynn inside with a flourish. “After you, birthday girl!”
Later that evening, Karynn started to slip one foot into a brand new, strappy red heel, but paused to consider. She loved the shoes, in spite of the scary price tag they’d worn when she spotted them. But the bright, cheery bells, one on each of her toes….
“Maybe I should wear something else. Don’t get me wrong…I loved the mani-pedi, but my sweet, little Bohemian toe tickler might have gone a bit over the top. I’m not sure I want to hang these showy toes out there for everyone to see.”
What? No way, Sis. You’re wearing those heels. And your toes look fabulous!” She crossed the room to stand in front of Karynn. The silver sequins around her dipping neckline caught the light and sent out a myriad of bright sparkles as she moved. “Honey, they’re not gaudy at all. You asked for a soft, nearly transparent background. What’s gaudy about that? And the bells are beautiful—not large or distasteful in any way. You look stunning, Karynn, and I love that your finger-and-toe designs match so perfectly.”
Karynn sighed and slipped on the shoes. Savannah would throw a fit if she refused to wear them, and it wasn’t worth an argument. At least her hands sported tiny bells only on the ring fingers.
Moving to the full-length mirror, she took in her completed look for the formal dinner downstairs. She hadn’t dressed up for anything in such a long time…maybe this was too much.
“Oh, no, you don’t.” Her sister stepped up beside her and used the fuddy-duddy alert for the first time since they’d left the salon. “You look absolutely beautiful. Not in the least pretentious or overdressed.” She laughed when Karynn’s eyes widened. “What? I’ve known you all my life, remember? You always think you have to live in someone else’s shadow. Well, not tonight. Tonight you shine!”
Savannah reached up to touch Karynn’s hair, arranged in a loose coil behind one ear, with wispy strands hanging free. Tiny, pearl-tipped pins sparkled from within the twist.
“You look like an Italian princess. Do you seriously not know how lovely you are?” She kissed Karynn’s cheek—lightly. “Don’t want to mess up the little touch of makeup you allowed yourself. Thing is, on you it’s enough. You look amazing completely au naturale, but this—a bare touch of cosmetics to highlight your beauty—it’s perfect.” She shook her head. “I can’t believe some guy hasn’t scooped you up and carried you away, long ago.”
“Oh, stop it.” Karynn gave her sister a quick hug, and then ran both hands over the deep red fabric that hugged her hips and flowed like a silky river to her ankles. “I don’t need a man to sweep me off my feet, and I’d never leave Quillpoint. You’re the only family I’ve got, kiddo. You’re stuck with me.”
“Hmmm…what if Daniel showed up again?”
A quick intake of air, and then Karynn regained the composure she’d lost for half a second. “If Daniel had wanted to return, he would have by now. Let’s not talk about him.”
“Then let’s talk about the box of Daniel-memories you still keep in your closet.”
She rolled her eyes and busied herself putting on a pair of her sister’s triple-strand diamond earrings. Savannah had insisted they—and the matching necklace—were perfect accessories for her outfit, but Karynn wouldn’t be comfortable until the expensive trinkets were back in the safe.
“I know, I know. But tell me about them, and I’ll leave it alone.” Savannah settled on the side of her bed to watch Karynn finish getting ready. “Although…” She lowered her voice to a mutter. “I think I know why every single man who’s tried to win you over in the past decade has ‘lacked that certain something.’”
Karynn chuckled. She’d almost heard herself in Savannah’s silly impression. “Oh, do you now?”
“Yep. That ‘certain something’ they all lacked? They weren’t Daniel Sheridan.”
Karynn turned to face her pesky sister, both earrings swinging. “What does it matter?”
“It matters because you have to move on, Sis. Or maybe we could find Daniel!” Savannah’s blue eyes took on a gleam that knotted every nerve in Karynn’s body. “We’ll hire a private investigator and—”
“Savannah! Listen to yourself!” Karynn snatched up the soft, white wrap spread across her bed and pulled it over her shoulders. “Daniel was my high school sweetheart. He and his family left, and we eventually lost contact. It happens. We were kids, honey.”
She perched on the edge of the bed and took her sister’s hand. “I keep the box in my closet because it holds memories that are still sweet, even though things didn’t work out for Daniel and me—not because I’m still weeping over him, or dreaming of the day he returns.” She stood, tugging the younger woman up beside her. “Now let’s go down to dinner.”
“OK.” Savannah crossed to the mirror for one last look at herself. “Oh, wait! You’re supposed to ring your bell.”
Karynn’s ‘Bells on Her Toes’ mani-pedi package had included a beautiful handheld crystal bell…and a series of ten ‘promidictions’—some promises, some cheesy predictions. She’d been instructed by the petite, flower-child pedicurist to ring the crystal bell once a day, after reading that day’s ‘wise words.’ Karyn preferred to call it a daily slice of absurdity.
“You don’t expect me to play along with that silly bell-ringing ritual?”
“It’ll be fun!” Savannah reached for the box in which the crystal bell resided. “May I?”
“Knock yourself out.”
Savannah lifted the bell from its satin bed. “It’s lovely.”
“Yes.” And a good part of why that mani-pedi package was so expensive. Karynn bit down on her bottom lip, and then made a deliberate decision to share something of herself with her sister. “You know, there’s a bell in that box of ‘Daniel-memories’ in my closet. Just a cheap, glass one, but Daniel gave it to me the day he left Quillpoint.” She stared off into the corner of the room, remembering how he’d used his thumb to brush away her tears, and pulled her in for a sweet kiss before he handed her the bell. “He said to ring it and think of him when I was lonely.”
“Did you?”
“Many times.” Karynn tucked a small, sequined clutch under her arm and headed for the door. “But he mustn’t have heard, because ringing that bell never brought him back. After a while, he didn’t even call anymore. Let’s go eat.”
“First you have to ring this. I insist—and read the first promidiction.”
Karynn laughed and joined Savannah in the vanity area.
Ten small envelopes lay beneath the satin cushion on which the bell had rested. Karynn removed a single half-sheet of paper from the one marked “Today,” and read the beautiful, flowing script aloud, for Savannah’s benefit. “You will come into contact with someone from your past. Whether the relationship was romantic, familial, or a simple friendship, its revival will impact your future in unforgettable ways.”
Karynn rolled her eyes, but she picked up the bell and swung it back and forth, enjoying the sweet, high tinkle in spite of the ridiculous situation. “There. Now let’s go.” She reclaimed her evening bag and widened her eyes. “Perhaps this mystery person waits in the dining room even now.”
Savannah gave her another fuddy-duddy face, but said no more.
The sisters admired the lovely Christmas decorations as they made their way downstairs. A dainty garland of holly berries and silver bells wound around the baluster, from the newel post at the top to the identical one at the bottom of the staircase. Over the fireplace, a large clock boasted elves that popped out every quarter hour to chase each other behind the timepiece and back inside.
Darren’s family had wonderful memories of Christmas Inn, where they’d often spent brief vacations. “It never mattered what time of year we were there,” he had told them. “The place is like having Christmas all year round. It’s beautiful, and the décor is breathtaking. I was a kid—and a boy, so I didn’t really notice particulars, but it did make an impression. You girls will love it.”
Karynn did love it. While retaining the all-important elements of welcome and home, the inn also possessed an unmistakable touch of class. She was eager to explore the gift shop. Perhaps she’d find something to enhance those same elements at Hearth & Home.
A faint smell of paint, varnish and new carpet hung in the air, lending a clean, fresh ambiance. Had the place fallen into disrepair at some point? Many clues pointed to a recent facelift…but then, Karynn’s efforts to maintain her bed and breakfast made her aware that keeping a place like Christmas Inn in this kind of condition would be a constant, ongoing effort.
“This is it.” Savannah spoke in an awed tone, so unlike her usual fun-at-all-costs persona that Karynn bit back a grin. Her sister was impressed with their surroundings, as well.
They stood in the door of the dining room, getting their bearings.
White linen cloths topped six round tables, each of which boasted a three-arm candelabrum. Candlelight played over bright Christmas baubles and gleaming silverware.
“Each table has its own holiday theme,” Savannah noted.
Karynn lifted an eyebrow. “And each room is assigned to a specific table, based on theme?”
“Right. Ours is the bell theme.” She laughed. “So is our room—and your toes. We’ll be hearing bells in our sleep tonight, won’t we?”
Karynn glanced down at the painted-on bells peeking from beneath the hem of her gown. They were growing on her. “That’s OK. I like them. Let’s find our table.” She gave Savannah a quick, mischievous grin. “Or perhaps we should close our eyes and follow the sound of tinkling bells.”
“Ha! I’m game, but you’d never make such a spectacle of yourself. Oh, I see it.” Savannah pointed out a table that sported a bell-adorned wreath around the base of its candelabrum. “Only one other guest at our table, at least for now.”
An older gentleman stood as they approached, a broad smile lighting his face. “Ladies.” He pulled a chair out for each of them before returning to his own. “I am Gabriel D’Angelo.”
They introduced themselves and Gabriel shone that sunny smile again. “It is an honor to meet such lovely sisters.”
Karynn couldn’t put a finger on why, but the man’s presence calmed her. Gabriel D’Angelo wasn’t just any sweet, elderly man from…where? Certainly not America, judging by his beautiful accent. She’d enjoy getting to know this guest.
“Gabriel, I’m guessing you are perhaps from…Italy?”
“Ahh…you are as perceptive as you are lovely. Venice.”
“I thought so. What brings you to Tennessee?”
“I’ve come to deliver a message for an old friend.” He smiled, but seemed disinclined to reveal more about his mission.
Karynn didn’t pry. The man’s purpose in Hope Creek was his own business.
“Savannah, may I be so presumptuous as to guess that you are a newlywed?” Gabriel ventured.
Savannah laughed outright. “How did you know?”
“It is easy to see beneath the surface, if one tries. You are quite young, yet you wear a beautiful wedding ring. You are glowing, so your heart is happy. Mine was a reasonably safe assumption.”
“You had me going for a second!” Savannah said. “I was starting to think—”
A petulant female voice cut into their conversation. “I take it this is the bell table.”
Something unpleasant coiled its way up Karynn’s spine, and her breath caught in her throat. She’d experienced it before…the same instinctive, soul-deep, gut-wrenching aversion on first contact with an individual. Over time, she’d come to recognize the powerful inner reaction as more than the instant dislike some humans experience now and then toward one another. This wasn’t a personality clash or adverse chemistry. Karynn called them Spirit-warnings, and she no longer downplayed their existence or their importance. They’d proven true and accurate one hundred percent of the time.
She fisted both hands, as if by tensing her fingers she could school her facial muscles to hide the war raging inside. Then she lifted her eyes to see what kind of person could call forth her Spirit-warrior by voice alone.
Copper-colored hair. Green eyes—up-tilted, almond shaped and narrowed to slits, like a cat on the hunt. A face that might have been lovely but for its bored, dissatisfied, self-indulgent expression. The newcomer held the hand of a small, blonde-haired girl whose sunny smile made up for her mother’s lack of one.
“Please…join us.” Gabriel stood once again and waved an arm toward the empty chairs.
“Thank you, but we’re waiting for my daddy.” The child’s voice was as sweet as her smile.
“I’m here, Chrissy.” A tall man with a trim, medium brown beard and slightly longish hair strode toward the table. “It’s crazy cold out there, and the snow is—” He broke off and stopped as if frozen in place, sapphire-blue eyes wide, shocked…and fixed on Karynn.
“I, uh…I don’t…Karynn? Karynn Michaels?”
The cat-eyed woman cast a waspish look at Karynn, and then back at her husband.
Savannah’s soft laughter held a touch of pure wonder. “This is unreal.”
Karynn refused to look at her sister. She forced a smile that felt wooden and dredged up every ounce of courage she possessed to hold the man’s startled gaze. She prayed her eyes did not reflect the mixed emotions creating utter turmoil in her heart.
      “Hello, Daniel. It’s been a long time.”

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Monday, December 12, 2016

Countdown to Christmas...WITH BELLS ON by Mary Manners

When Emilee Lancaster’s aunt calls her home to Hope Creek for the holidays, Emmy readily agrees to assist with a charity event at the family theater—until she finds herself front-and-center stage with her high school flame, Jayson Taylor. She’s not thrilled about the pairing, but she’s made a promise to her aunt, and unlike Jayson, she keeps her promises.

Jayson Taylor makes his living building sets for Dahlia Brewster's Family Theater. When the Christmas show's emcee falls ill, Dahlia asks Jayson to step from the backstage and into the limelight. He's more comfortable working behind the scenes, but the country-singing superstar has always treated him like a favorite son, so Jayson reluctantly agrees. Center-stage at Christmas—especially beside dream-chasing Emmy Lancaster, who once ran off and broke his heart—is not where he planned to be.

But God has other plans, and what happens when the curtain falls and the stage lights dim truly reflects the heart of this holiday season.


First Chapter...

Emmy Lancaster settled back in the leather seat of the posh limousine her aunt Dahlia had sent to fetch her from McGhee-Tyson airport. The fuss hardly seemed necessary—a simple rental car or even a taxi would have sufficed for the short ride into Hope Springs. But Aunt Dahlia wouldn’t hear of such a thing, insisting on only the best for her favorite niece. So Emmy embraced the kindness.

The next several weeks would present a flurry of activity and challenges. Emmy would take on the lead entertainer role in Aunt Dahlia’s holiday show, slated to benefit a new pediatric wing at the local hospital. The week-long stretch of rehearsals, followed by a series of a dozen shows, would lead straight into Christmas.

Holiday tunes that filtered through the limo cemented the fact that Christmas was well on its way. Currently, Bing Crosby’s warm bass-baritone yearned for a cheerful blanket of white. Emmy hoped for snow, too. In Hope Creek, it seemed almost mandatory at Christmas time.

“Are you there, Emmy?” Aunt Dahlia’s signature, upbeat southern twang came through the cell phone pressed to Emmy’s ear. “Are you listening?”

“Yes, I’m here.” Emmy fought the urge to hum along with Bing. She could hardly help herself. Like Aunt Dahlia, singing had proved to be her passion from the moment she realized she could use her vocal chords to string notes together. “What were you saying?”

“My driver, Louis, will take you to Christmas Inn, where I’ve booked a room for you on the second floor—room eight, I believe.”

“Right. Room eight.” Emmy filed away the information.

“You should be off the road and settled in soon.”

“Yes. Traffic’s not too bad tonight, and we’ve traveled the roads in record time, thank goodness. I think we’re almost there.” Emmy peered out the window as snowflakes drifted through the air to kiss the polished car. Along the parkway, Christmas lights twinkled across a black-velvet canvas of sky. Their merry dance of illumination bolstered Emmy’s mood as well as her ability to fight off the ache that had pitched a tent along the small of her back. The flight from California, with its layovers and unexpected delays, had proven grueling and had stolen Emmy’s energy while putting her behind schedule a solid six hours. “I’m sorry I missed rehearsal this afternoon.”

“It couldn’t be helped, but we’ll get an early start in the morning and go until we can’t dance another step or sing another note.”

“Now, auntie…you know I never grow weary of singing. The dancing, though, is another story altogether.” In reality, Emmy sometimes felt as if she had two left feet. She’d worked tirelessly through a decade of ballet and jazz classes to counteract the curse. “I’ll do my best, though.”

“You always do, my dear. I’m not a bit worried about your part in the show. But Harvey, on the other hand…” Aunt Dahlia’s voice trailed off. “Well, let’s just say that the theater is closed to the public—no shows on Mondays and Tuesdays this week—so we’ll have plenty of time to put things in order.”

“I’ll wear my dancing shoes and bring along a supply of potato chips and juice.” Salt was good for strained vocal chords, a trick Emmy had learned early-on from Aunt Dahlia. “I’ll be ready. I’ve heard Harvey is a fine dancer, and I was able to tell through the demo clip you sent that our voices blend nicely. A bit of practice together should make the harmony shine. You mentioned that he’s been working hard on the show’s choreography, so I’ll simply follow his lead and—”

“Emmy, dear…about Harvey…” Aunt Dahlia cleared her throat and, after a lengthy pause, continued in an uncharacteristic monotone. “There’s been a slight change in plans due to—”

“Oh, Aunt Dahlia...” Emmy interrupted as the limo crested a slight hill and Christmas Inn came into view along a backdrop of ethereal, moonlit mountains. “Oh, oh, oh…it’s gorgeous!”

“What’s gorgeous, honey?”

“The inn…oh, the inn!” Emmy leaned forward, craning her head to peer through the windshield as the wipers worked to clear flecks of snow. “It’s breathtaking…so much more majestic with holiday cheer than I remember.”

Grand turrets rose three stories high, flanking an expanse of brick and glass that shimmered against the night sky like magical starlight. A candelabra glowed from each window, as if guiding her home. The grounds along the entranceway seemed to dance beneath a whisper of shimmering snow. She’d always loved spending time here when she was in high school and later college, before she left for the West Coast. Exploring the undulating gardens for signs of the changing seasons had been an activity she’d treasured.

More often than not Jayson had been at her side. The memory gnawed at her. Where was he now?

“Yes,” Aunt Dahlia’s voice drew Emmy back. “The Christmas family has kicked renovation plans into high gear, working to restore the family inn to its legendary state of grandeur. I knew you would be enchanted by the progress, Emmy, that’s why I chose to book a room there for you. That, and—”

“We’re pulling into the drive now, Auntie.” Emmy’s gaze flitted from the stately turrets to the sweeping, circular drive as she drank in captivating details of illumination. Suddenly surging with Christmas cheer, she felt the urge to belt out the refrains of Jingle Bell Rock and Silver Bells all rolled into one. “Oh, oh, oh!”

“Yes, the inn is lovely,” Aunt Dahlia affirmed once again. “But, Emmy, dear, focus for just one moment. I have something to tell you about tomorrow…about the show.”

“Whatever it is, Auntie…whatever you need, I’m there for you. Yes.” Emmy gathered her purse, bobbling the cellphone as she slipped the strap over one shoulder. She recovered quickly and continued. “I know how important the hospital project is to you, as well as seeing to the children’s needs. Just share the details with me in the morning. I’ll be there with bells on, ready to kick up my heels and belt out a tune or two.”

“I know you will, dear, and I appreciate your generosity, but give me just a moment before you flit away again. This is important—”

Not to be deterred, Emmy reached for the overnight bag she’d dropped on the floorboard and prepared for a quick exit. “You mentioned earlier that Louis is going to pick me up tomorrow morning in the limo, right?”

“Yes. At eight o’clock sharp. But about the rehearsal—”

“Eight o’clock sharp.” Breathless with excitement, Emmy was unable to draw her gaze from the rooftop where a pair of ethereal angels welcomed visitors with trumpets formed of mesmerizing, golden lights. “Yes, right. Louis, eight o’clock…long rehearsal.” Snow crunched beneath the vehicle’s tires as it slowed at the entranceway to the inn. Emmy released her seatbelt and tugged at the door latch. She knew Louis would see to her luggage. “I have to go, Aunt Dahlia. I can’t wait to see the inside of this place again. It’s incredible, amazing… simply gorgeous.”

“If you must…go explore, then, while you still have a bit of energy left.” Aunt Dahlia sighed, seeming resigned to the fact that Emmy refused to be lassoed into further conversation. “Get a good night’s sleep, dear. You’ll need it.”

“Thanks, Auntie, for booking the room. I just know that I’m going to love it here, to the moon and back.”

“Yes, we’ll see.”

“I promise I will get some sleep as soon as I’ve checked things out a bit. I wonder if the inside is as grand as I remember. And the chapel, with its wondrous bells…”

Ah, the chapel…the bells…how long since they’d rung to signify love…?

Emmy had shared her first kiss on the chapel steps with Jayson Taylor, and they’d heard those bells toll at the affection. And though legend nodded toward the belief that the bells rang only when true love was found, they’d laughed and chalked it up to a breeze through the steeple…nothing more. That was eons ago, when she was young and naïve. She’d believed teenage love could last forever, and had thought Jayson did, as well. Emmy brushed away the memory and the hurt that filtered in. She would not allow such thoughts to dampen her joyful mood.

“I’ve heard the kitchen is undergoing some renovations,” Aunt Dahlia informed her. “But if you ask, I am sure Ari Christmas or her chef will see that you get something to eat. You’ll need your strength in the days ahead.”

“I’ll check on that.” In fact, Emmy’s stomach voiced a not-so-delicate growl. She’d taken her last meal before noon.

“Of course you will. Happy exploring, my dear. I’ll see you in the morning. ” Aunt Dahlia chuckled softly, and then added a cryptic, final statement. “You’ll want to talk with me more then, I’m sure.”

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Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Countdown to Christmas...Christmas 'Couragemant by LoRee Peery

It is more blessed to give than to receive.

Acts 20:35

Liam once approved of helping others, but not anymore. He lost his mother due to a crazed street person, and he's hardened his heart. Now a successful photographer, he’s returned to set up shop in his hometown--directly across the courtyard from his sister’s best friend. Zoe runs an outreach center and encourages the homeless and needy, especially at Christmas. Nursing a soft spot for Liam that started as a girlhood crush, she sets out to help him by creating her unique brand of encouragement cards. Her hope is to reignite the fire and love for Christmas and God, which Liam once had. The cards and ornaments countdown to Christmas, but what if Liam doesn’t want to be one of Zoe’s projects? What happens when her crush grows into something more? What if they both receive more than expected?

Chapter 1.......



Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position.
~ Romans 12:16
15 Years Ago
“He needs ’couragement.” Zoe ignored the walk light and stopped at the curb.
Her best friend, Meredith Gorgeous, went on ahead.
Would Mom be mad if Zoe talked to the man on the bench?
His crossed arms told her that he sought warmth from the ragged blanket, which was too small to cover the front of his body. Though his knees were pulled up, the metal bench had to be ice cold. Did the poor man have anyone to share Christmas with?
From the corner of her eye she caught Liam stay his sister with a hand, and return her to Zoe’s side, where Meredith stood rooted. Zoe felt the heat of Liam’s heart-stopping blue eyes as he looked down at her.
“What kind of crazy word is ’couragement?”
Meredith jerked from her brother’s touch and bumped into Zoe. “Just because you’re a teenager now, Liam, doesn’t mean you can pull me around.”
Zoe liked Liam’s protection. She’d never been afraid walking with Meredith in downtown Lincoln. On Saturday afternoons, he often escorted them from a movie to the SUV where Mrs. Gorgeous waited.
“I’m obeying Mom, Meredith. And Zoe, that stranger might be as crazy as the word you used.”
The heat of Liam’s attention pulled Zoe’s gaze off the homeless man. She raised her eyes and had to tip back her head. Liam’s handsome face was capped by dark blond hair that brought his last name to life. He’d grown again since school began. She looked down to listen to what he said without being distracted by staring up at him.
“You’re in the fifth grade now, way too old to not say the word correctly.”
Her heart did a flip-flop at the sound of his deep voice. They’d never be in the same school again. Next year he’d go to high school at the same time she and Meredith advanced to middle school.
“Let her be, Liam.” Meredith hit him on the shoulder. “So what if she says the word without the beginning letters? I want to always be a little girl at heart.”
Zoe reached for Meredith’s hand. “That man on the bench. He’s sad. He’s cold and alone. I want to make a Christmas card to ’courage him.”
“OK, squirt.” Liam circled her tender earlobe, freshly pierced. “I got it. You want to encourage the man to make him feel better.”
“Right. Could you ask your mom to take us to the craft store on the way home so Meredith and I can make a card tonight? Let’s look for him next week after the movie.”
That night, the girls sat at Zoe’s kitchen table, which was covered with scrapbooking materials. “Meredith, since Mom works at the hospital on Saturdays, I’m glad your mom drives us. Do you think Liam will walk us girls around a couple blocks by the theater? I’ll pray first on Friday night.”
“I’ll pray, too. I want to give this card I’m making to just the right person.”
Zoe worked her tongue while she cut silver paper. “Did you see the face of the man on the bench today?”
“I did. He made me think of Santa Claus.” Meredith swung her heavy, long braid over her shoulder.
“It shouldn’t be hard to find him with that white beard. I want this card to go to him. I wish I was older and had a job so I could buy him a big blanket to keep him warm.” Zoe handed the scissors to Meredith.
“You look for him. I want to look for a raggedy woman. Maybe even someone who has a place to sleep at night, but looks lonely and lost. God will show me if a sad lady needs Christmas cheer from my card all decorated like a beautiful tree.”
“I have an idea.” Zoe reached for gold foil and a snow-white sheet of paper. “Let’s each make a card and then make one together. That way we can give out three cards for three Saturdays.”
“You work your favorite number nine into everything you do.” Meredith uncapped a bottle of silver glitter. “That’s OK. We don’t have enough time to make twenty cards.”
“You’re my best friend, Meredith Gorgeous, but I’ll never understand why your favorite number is twenty.”
“Why does anybody have a favorite number?” Meredith straightened the table mess.
Three weeks later, the girls waited inside the lobby for Liam. He and his friends had met for a sci-fi movie, yet to end. Meredith bopped to a tune plugged into her ear.
Zoe scanned past the movie posters, and sighed at the sight of Liam loping down the corridor. Her mom said she was too young to read romance novels, but as long as they were Christian and her mom had already read them, it was OK. Every hero in every book she read had Liam’s face. She’d never told Meredith the way Liam made her feel. He was strong and protected them. He did funny things to her insides, and she often didn’t know what to say or do. He thought she was his sister’s best friend, and nothing more. I want to marry Liam someday.
He approached and yanked out Meredith’s earbud.
Zoe waited, but he didn’t look at her.
He waved to his friends as they headed for a different exit.
Outside the theater, the girls held hands, Liam walking behind so it didn’t appear as though the three were together.
A homeless man pushed off the wall of the building and into their path. “You girls are angels.”
Liam’s shoes slapped on the sidewalk as he ran to catch up. He placed a hand on each of their shoulders, preventing them from getting too close to the man.
Zoe smiled at the man who wore a light jacket over a frayed, hooded sweatshirt that looked more gray than black. “We’re not angels, we’re ’couragers.”
“I like that better. It takes courage to approach a reprobate like me. I’m not gonna hurt them, laddy. You girls encouraged me last week by that beautiful gold angel card. Prettiest thing my hands have held in a long, long time. You gave me hope, so much I’m gonna clean up and find a church Christmas Eve.” He gave a slight bow and moved aside.
The girls didn’t say a word as they walked the two blocks to the SUV.
Liam clambered into the front.
Zoe waited to open the door. “Meredith, let’s always remember each other at Christmastime.”
“Why would we forget? We’re best friends forever. How could we forget each other?”
“I don’t know.” She braved a look at Liam through the window, where he slouched in the seat, drumming his fingers on his knee. “He always keeps us safe when we walk downtown.” I’ll never forget Liam, either.
Thank you so much for visiting. I hope you have enjoyed this glimpse into LoRee Peery's heartwarming Christmas story. Please leave a comment to be entered into a drawing for a free copy!


Monday, December 5, 2016

Countdown to Christmas...BELLS AT MIDNIGHT by Marianne Evans

Stranded at Christmas. For food critic and TV personality Graham Forrester, that is definitely not part of the game plan. He’s on his way to North Carolina to celebrate the holidays with his family and take a hard look at his life. A sense of discontent is hot on his tail. The last thing he needs is to be trapped by a record-breaking snow storm in the backwater town of Hope Springs, Tennessee. To add insult to injury, he’s stuck at a B&B so steeped in Christmas cheer it causes his teeth to ache.

IT expert Lydia Cutler is transplanting from Nashville to…wherever God chooses. Free spirited but searching for meaning, she has agreed to help her surrogate family reestablish Christmas Inn as a go-to resort for year-round Christmas joy. Bumping up the spirits of Graham-eneezer Scrooge becomes a captivating perk to her life at the Inn, however temporary.

From the moment they meet, the unexpected becomes the norm. An emergency at the Inn. A midnight kiss. The tolling of long-silent bells in a nearby chapel. Everything comes together to seal Graham and Lydia’s destiny, but will they find life answers that lead to love, happiness and God’s perfect plan?

First Chapter.......

Women with dimples had always been Graham Forrester’s weakness.
He pushed through the expansive, double-door entrance of Christmas Inn and stomped blackened slush from the surface of his boots, littering a wide plastic mat that featured a colorful Christmas tree and the words, ‘It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.’
He gave an involuntary snort. “Seriously? No. Way.”
Sure, his muttered condemnations stemmed from a jaded attitude more than anything else. After all, who wouldn’t be jaded after finding themselves stranded at the side of the road due to a broken down car, in the back-of-beyond, in who-knows-where Tennessee, at t-minus three weeks to Christmas? For now, all Graham wanted to do was land in bed, hunker in for the night, and start fresh in the morning by making a hasty exit.
And this Christmas Inn place the tow truck guy had recommended and driven him to? Honestly? The place was so full of Christmas cheer it made his teeth ache. Wonderful, indeed. But, all that noise aside, the lovely woman who occupied an office spot behind the reception area provided him with a welcome and warming distraction.
After all, there was just something about dimples…
“Excuse me?” Graham addressed the woman while he dropped his computer bag and oversized duffle on the floor at his feet. Dimples tossed him an inquiring look, and a smile. On the inside, he froze, and held, because, on top of those dimples, oh—what a smile.
“Hi. Can I help you?”
He regrouped on the fly. “Yes, please. I don’t have a reservation, but I need a room for the night if there’s one available.”
“Sure. Let’s get you settled in.” She wheeled back in her chair and spun. “Paulina!”
Graham focused on her legs as she maneuvered her seat. So, Dimples was petite. Petite, but sweet looking. Innocent and wispy. Looking at her, Graham pictured all things airy, pixyish. Warm moved rapidly toward very warm. For the first time in hours, he even cracked a smile and continued to enjoy the view as his hotel-helper returned to work.
“Good evening, sir, I’m Paulina Kovacs, manager of Christmas Inn. How can I help you?”
Ambushed from his right by the arrival of a woman, dressed in full-on business attire—at way past business hours, Lord bless her—with dark hair twisted into a roll at her neck. Paulina pushed the frames of her black-rimmed glasses to a higher perch on her nose and offered a welcoming smile.
“My car broke down about a mile outside town and the gentleman who gave me a tow told me you might have a room available.”
“Ah, yes. That’d be Tom Sanders. He’s a good man, and a top rate mechanic. You’ll be up and running in no time. Welcome to the inn, and don’t you worry about a thing. We’ll set matters right in the morning. I have a wonderful room available on the second floor that overlooks the courtyard. Unlike some resort-style B&B’s, it even has a private bath.”
Graham stifled a shudder. A private bath. She spoke the words as though they were an amenity rather than a necessity. He covered fast with a trademark, camera-ready smile. He’d had a lot of practice at that lately—faking his way through things to avoid the growing mess of his life. Life worked better when you could move right along and dodge the bullets—sort of like a high-stakes paintball tournament…
“I appreciate your hospitality. The room sounds great.”
“Follow me.” Paulina gestured toward a curving stairwell while Graham retrieved his bags. “Typically, this is our honeymoon suite, but I doubt any honeymooners will be straggling across the doorstep in this weather.”
“Highly unlikely,” he muttered, looking around as she led the way. “Ah…don’t you need my credit card information, or…”
“Oh, no problem. It’s late, and I’m sure you’re tired. We can deal with that in the morning. Just check in with me then. Lydia, I’ll be right back. Thanks for manning the fort.”
“No problem.”
So, Dimples had a name. Lydia. He rolled it around in his head a few times, and his smile went from manufactured to real. Ascending the stairs, he kept an eye on her, watching as she clicked away at her keyboard, leaning forward to check her monitor.
“Lydia Cutler. My Internet specialist. As you’ll see, we’ve got some dust settling as we renovate the Inn. Lydia there is dragging me, kicking and screaming, into the age of technology. Lovely, isn’t she?”
Busted. “Oh…yeah. Sure.” Overtired to begin with, Graham nearly took a tumble when Paulina’s wily observation called him out and jarred him to proper focus. “She’s lovely, of course.”
Paulina chuckled as she paused in front of the first door they came to, marked by a brass number four. “Here we are. Christmas Inn has been family owned for generations. It’s kind of a fixture here in Hope Creek.”
Hope Creek. Of course that was the name of the town where he had landed. Graham ached to give a derisive snicker, or at least roll his eyes. Polite behavior had him nodding in gracious understanding. After all, it wasn’t the manager’s fault he was so burned out and cynical these days. Nope. The fault for that rested entirely on his shoulders, and his New Year’s resolution was to perform an about face.
But how? The answer to that question continued to give him trouble.
“…from early 1900, and the courtyard is a gem. Rimmed by evergreens and all lit up with Christmas lights. Straight ahead is Jingle Bell Creek, and to your left is North Pole Bridge.”
He had drifted while Paulina played tour guide. Had she seriously just said Jingle Bell Creek and North Pole Bridge? Shaking it off, determined to nip his rude behavior, Graham joined her at the big bay window where she had drawn back a sheer to reveal the view below. Not much could be seen in the night except for a flood-lit courtyard where metal benches circled a small open area now covered by a layer of snow. The white stuff continued to build and drift as the wind picked up and whistled against the glass pane. Trees and bushes formed a perimeter. Walkways had been recently shoveled, it seemed, but rapidly filled with a fresh layer of white. The trees, though thoroughly coated, still glowed with diffused multi-colored light.
Graham looked over his shoulder, returning his attention to the interior of the room, which was something akin to crashing the theatrical set of A Christmas Carol. Damask wallpaper featured shades of red, green and gold. Thick fringed tassels held back elaborate swags of heavy brocade. Swoops of faux evergreen decorated the top of a mahogany four-poster and a subtle undercurrent of apple, pine and cinnamon piqued his senses. Then there were the elaborate, seemingly hand-painted ornaments that danced on varying length ribbons from the inner sill of the window, sparkling and spinning as the heat vents came to life. Warm air did battle against the cold and snow that danced thick from an ink-black sky. Renderings of St. Nicholas were positioned throughout, upon end tables, tucked into a far corner…
“If there’s anything you need, just dial zero on the phone there by your bed.” Christmas Inn’s warm but studious manager crossed the room and opened the door. “I’ll leave you to get a good night’s sleep.”
“Thank you, Paulina. Your kindness is just what I needed.” And the truth was, he meant it.
“Happy to oblige. G’night.”
Once the door closed and he was alone at last, Graham forced his muscles to ease. Working to unwind mentally, he wandered his suite. The quiet that settled helped. In spite of the travel-crushing snow storm, he was grudgingly charmed by the over-the-top décor. If only he wasn’t so put off by the world at large right now. Dissatisfaction, on a number of levels, pushed at him from all sides, negating any kind of exit, or respite.
He needed a new life. He needed a change. He needed to shift course and rediscover himself, his passion. If he didn’t, he was going to end up wasting the life he’d been given. Sighing, he connected and charged his cell phone then did the same for his laptop, opting to log on to his e-mail account and check recent traffic. Anything to keep from dwelling. The most recent offering came from his big sister, Becca. He’d see her in a few days for the annual Forrester family Christmas celebration. He smiled at the thought, until he took in the subject line of her e-mail. Any Publicity is Good Publicity. Right?
Graham frowned. What? He clicked, and began to read.
Hey, G, –Becca had always referred to him as ‘G’—you might want to check out social media feeds at your station and Knoxville Express magazine. The broadcast of that cook-off segment you judged yesterday seems to have made a few virtual waves. BTW? That pompous, arrogant jerk you ousted on yesterday’s segment totally deserved it. Not even a question. Don’t let what he said afterward bug you. K? Love you and see you soon! Becca
Frown deepening, Graham chased the links Becca had included. Via Twitter, he was led straight to YouTube and a video of his weekly visit to Knoxville’s KRTN-TV where he worked the entertainment beat. For years now he’d provided insights and information about local events around Knoxville as well as restaurant visits and reviews.
His monitor came alive with the image of a mocked-up kitchen stationed on the ground floor of a massive, three-story mall. In the background, holiday shoppers bustled. In honor of the upcoming holidays, this segment featured a cook-off between three local chefs. The episode had been shot a few days ago, and Graham had acted as one of the judges along with a local radio personality and the star running back of the Tennessee Titans.
Graham tuned out the banter and back-and-forth discussion of the final food evaluations that would lead to the crowning of an overall champion. Instead, when the time came, he hyper-focused on the dismissal of the first of three combatants—a young and self-aggrandizing chef named Frederic Mendell.
Lips curled into a sneer, Frederic addressed the judging panel after being eliminated from the competition. “Of course, I thank you for the opportunity. I don’t agree with the verdict, but I understand the laws of subjectivity.” His slicing gaze made it clear he falsified humility in favor of being affronted. “I’ve orchestrated nine-course meals for the governor of our state. The reviews of my bistro represent a social media explosion. So, at the end of the day, I can honestly say it’s better to be the chef who can rather than a wanna-be chef who judges and critiques rather than attempting success by being one with food.”
Frederic didn’t call Graham out by name, but the exiled chef didn’t need to. Everyone who watched Graham’s restaurant reviews on TV, or read his foodie travel articles in Knoxville Express understood the implication. Tact and grace had kept Graham from spewing the hot retort that bubbled on his tongue. On camera, Graham and his colleagues worked together to shrug it off, but a poisoned dart had struck home, injecting a heavy dose of self-doubt—and disappointment.
Shaking free, Graham slid open dresser drawers, stashed what few items had followed him to Hope Creek. He stripped off his button-down shirt and tossed it on the bed as he headed to the bathroom, ready to brush his teeth and get to sleep.
All the same, thoughts of Frederic Mendell followed close, continuing to stir Graham’s anger—and uncertainty. By over ten-to-one, the comments Graham had just tracked on the social media site decried the bitter outburst, giving Graham nods of support. The encouragement was great, sure, but still he felt needled as poison leaked beneath his skin. He had worked hard in the culinary arts, training in classic French cuisine at the Atlanta Culinary Institute. Now, he was nothing more than a talking head, a meaningless television and magazine food critic on the outside of the food world he loved, looking inside through an impenetrable sheet of plate glass.
He had gifts—but he wasn’t using them. Shelving his talent, he grew to realize, was the equivalent of holding God in contempt. Maybe Frederic’s rude and jarring shove to the ego was just what Graham needed in order to move forward along a new, albeit riskier path.
He groaned, dropping his head back. More turmoil. What a perfect end to a perfect day. Once he toppled into bed, exhausted, drained and disappointed, Graham’s last thought before succumbing to exhaustion was of a lovely woman with twinkling amber eyes, a dynamite smile, and the most kissable pair of dimples imaginable…
The image sent him into a deep, restful slumber.



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