Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Countdown to Christmas...CHRISTMAS BELLS ARE RINGING by Tanya Stowe

Heiress Ariana Christmas is in trouble. Fed up with her wastrel life full of parties, hot spot appearances and Internet scandals, her parents cut her allowance, her cell phone access and her car. Then they send her to the back of beyond…Hope Springs, Tennessee. Her aunt has suffered a mild heart attack and needs help restoring Christmas Inn to its past glory. All Ariana wants is to get the job done and get back to her life. What she doesn’t count on is the famous old inn weaving its way into her soul…not to mention the handsome young contractor who sees the Inn as it could be, not what it is. Can he do the same for Ariana?

Taylor Knox is a man with a plan. After years of handling the family’s construction business everything is set for his brother to take over. Taylor is determined to finish his education and complete his dream to become an architect. But first, Knox Construction has to complete renovations of Christmas Inn…a task made more difficult by the arrival of Little Miss Entitled. Ariana Christmas throws Taylor’s plans and schedule into complete disarray, threatening the completion of the work and his future. That doesn’t even begin to cover what she does to his heart.

First Chapter...

The Tennessee countryside rolled out before Ariana Christmas as the highway topped the crest of a small hill, providing a stunning view of Hope Creek. Early October, and the trees had turned. Bright orange, russet and golden leaves created an amazing patchwork of colors on the panorama below.
Beautiful. Even if it was in the back of beyond. She tamped down on the anger and resentment that threatened to raise ugly heads again. Those emotions were useless. When her father first sentenced her to this imprisonment she’d tried sarcasm, rage and finally tears. All to no avail. He’d cancelled her credit cards and her phone account. He’d even taken away her lovely little sports car with its leather interior and told her she had to earn her own way. Her ailing Aunt Lizzie needed help. Ari’s new job was to take care of Lizzie, and oh, by the way, oversee the renovations of the family’s historic Christmas Inn.
So not fair. What did Ari know about running an inn? OK, so she did have a master’s degree in hotel management. But she’d never worked a day in her life. She didn’t need to. Her older brother Ian took his place beside their dad to manage their hotel empire long before Ari left school. Ian was a natural leader and a great asset to the business. She should know. Her father told her so enough times.
She sighed and focused her gaze back on the road. She shouldn’t resent Ian. It wasn’t his fault he was a natural born leader and IT genius while Ari was good at…
Parties. She was the best at partying. In fact, that’s what got her into this trouble. A video had surfaced on the Internet and gone viral. OK, so she’d had too much to drink. And yes, her little impromptu dance on top of the table was a bit suggestive. Well, maybe more than a bit. At least it wasn’t a strip tease. Still, her parents would probably be shocked to find out she was as pure as the day she’d been born.
And who’s fault is it they’d be shocked?
There it was again. That nagging little voice she’d been hearing more and more frequently. She didn’t much like the constant, niggling reminder of too many things she’d liked to forget, or drown out.
She stabbed at the button on the dash, hoping to find a station with some music. All she got was dead air.
The radio in her newly purchased, semi-ancient economy vehicle didn’t work. Neither did the air conditioning or the heater. In fact, the engine seemed to resent the need to turn over. Her mother had tried to convince her dad that he should give her a dependable car. But Dad had refused stating, “It’s time Ariana learned to appreciate what she has.”
Fortunately, she had just enough in savings to cover the price of a car and gas from New York City to Tennessee. She’d purchased a throw away phone for emergencies and hit the road. Of course, fuel had cost a great deal more than she anticipated so she’d skimped on lunch and dinner yesterday and completely skipped breakfast this morning, as evidenced by her tummy’s angry grumbling. Her stomach grumbled just to remind her. But she’d eat when she got to the inn, after the meeting of course. Her father had scheduled a meeting for her with Paulina Kovacs, the inn’s manager, and the contractor hired to do the renovations. Ari was already fifteen minutes late. Fortunately, her family’s historic inn was just around the corner.
Chug. Chug.
Great. There was that funny sound in the engine again. The car stuttered, lost power and slowed almost to a stop. At the last minute, it choked back to life and picked up speed. Ari released her breath in a sigh.
OK. So maybe she should have spent a little more and bought a newer used car. But her favorite designer purse had released a new winter addition and she just had to have it. So she’d splurged on the accessory and settled for the cheaper vehicle.
She turned down the drive to Christmas Inn. Her great-great grandfather, Angus Christmas, had been one of the first to settle in the township of Hope Creek. He and her great-great grandmother lived in a small log cabin while Angus built the beautiful white chapel that still stood at the back of the property. Its steeple and bells had earned Christmas Inn a reputation. Legend had it that the bells rang whenever a couple was destined to fall in love.
Even though Ari had heard the story since she was little, she wasn’t sure she believed it. Wasn’t even sure she believed in true love. But her mother believed. She’d repeated often enough how she and her family had come to spend their summer vacation at Christmas Inn. Ari’s dad was home from college for the summer to perform lifeguard duties. The minute her mother saw the handsome son of the inn’s owners, she fell in love. The first time he kissed her, near a park bench outside the chapel, the bells had tolled, startling everyone within earshot.
They didn’t marry right then, not until three years later when Ari’s mother finished college and returned with her family for another summer at Christmas Inn. By that time, the young man she’d been infatuated with on the last visit was managing the place. As soon as he saw her familiar face, he set out to claim her as his own. The rest was history.
Ari had loved hearing the story when she was little. But time and experience had taught her love didn’t come that easy or stay so true. Still, Christmas Inn was their home and even after her father purchased more hotels and her family left to manage them, they’d returned to spend every Christmas in Hope Creek.
Aunt Elizabeth and her husband Dale managed the inn. Uncle Dale had passed almost a year ago. According to her parents, Lizzie had not handled his passing well and now her own health was failing. Her oldest friend, Roberta, had moved into the suite to help out.
Ari knew nothing of her aunt’s condition personally. Somehow she hadn’t managed to return to Christmas Inn for the holidays since she’d left for college. This was her first visit in years and she had to admit, she was a bit excited. She’d always loved Christmas Inn with its quaint, old-fashioned decor and Christmas-themed rooms. She couldn’t wait to see it.
The Tudor gables appeared through the trees just as the engine sputtered again.
“Come on. Come on. You can do it.”
The vehicle responded with a small explosion. Ari jumped and gripped the wheel as the car coughed and fell silent. It coasted to a stop just short of the front entrance. She released another heavy sigh.
Close enough. The valet could take care of the vehicle from here. Turning off the ignition, she grabbed her purse, checked her makeup and hair, then climbed out. A young man of seventeen or eighteen came out of the inn’s front entrance.
“Wow. Sounds like you’ve got engine trouble.”
“Yes. Thank goodness I made it this far. I have no idea what’s wrong.” She held out the keys.
He stared at her extended hand for a few moments before finally taking them.
“I’m Ariana Christmas. And you are?”
The young man looked flustered. “I…I’m Jason.”
“Pleased to meet you, Jason. Just have the car serviced then park it in my place. I’ll arrange payment later. Thanks.”
She shouldered her purse and headed in to her meeting, even later than her usual fashionably late appearance. The door slid open and a rush of warm air flowed over her. She closed her eyes as familiar smells surrounded her. Smoke from the massive fireplace. Pine boughs and cookies. And maybe just a little dust.
Her eyes popped open. That wasn’t familiar here. In fact, now that she was inside, the dusty odor was stronger, more like musty old carpet.
Ari halted. The entryway tile had multiple cracks—not to mention the dirt clogged in the corners. The carpet edges were badly worn, and tiny fingerprints caked the sliding doors. A fine layer of construction dust rested on the table beside the entrance, where cookies and hot cider usually resided. Leather divans posed in the square conversation area looked ragged, and black soot marred the large fireplace directly across. The clock above was impressive as ever, albeit in need of a good polishing.
Hammer blows echoed in the distance and the zing of electric drills made her teeth rattle. Obviously the renovations had already begun. Still, how had her favorite place in the world fallen into such a sad state?
At that moment, the elves on the cuckoo clock above the mantel marched out of their little home to chime forty-five minutes after the hour, reminding Ari that she was late. She hurried toward the reception desk, where a young woman greeted her with a sweet smile.
“Hello, I’m Ariana Christmas and I’m very late for a meeting with Ms. Kovacs. Can you send me in the right direction?”
The receptionist pointed to the hall on the left. “She and Mr. Knox are in her office.”
Was it her imagination or did the receptionist’s voice soften when she said ‘Mr. Knox’?
“Thank you. Who exactly is Mr. Knox?”
The girl’s smile grew bright and her eyes took on a glazed look. “Why, he’s the general contractor hired for the inn’s renovations.”
No mistake. The girl’s eyes glazed over at the mere mention of Mr. Knox.
Well, Ari dealt with dreamy types all the time. She wasn’t going to lose her focus. This meeting had taken on new importance. Christmas Inn needed saving!
She knocked on the door. Then, not waiting for a reply, Ari turned the knob and sailed in.
Paulina Kovacs, employee of Christmas Enterprises and current manager at Christmas Inn, sat behind the desk. Dressed in a black pantsuit, her hair pulled into a tight roll and black-rimmed glasses perched on her nose, the woman looked so much like a caricature of a businesswoman, Ari almost laughed out loud. Then she caught sight of the man sitting in front of her desk and caught her breath.
Dreamy was the perfect word. Light brown hair fell over his forehead in just the right casual but controlled wave. A rather thin nose with a perfect slope. Strong lips, the lower fuller than the upper. On any other man, the five o’clock shadow above his lips might have seemed grungy, but on him it looked just rugged enough. And those eyes. Hazel. But she couldn’t tell for sure because as she walked forward, they changed with the light. At a distance they’d seemed green but up close they were light brown. Almost yellow. Incredible.
Ari only realized she was staring when Ms. Kovacs cleared her throat. Gathering herself, Ari flashed her trademark smile, guaranteed to win over any male over the age of five and extended her hand.
“I’m Ariana Christmas. You must be Mr. Knox, our contractor.”
“Yes…yes, I am.” His handshake was warm and comfortable. Rough fingers. Working man’s hands. Quite a change from the male hands she was accustomed to. One side of his mouth tilted in a perfect half smile and Ari found herself staring again. She could watch the way his upper lip tilted all day.
But that wouldn’t do. Turning, she smiled at Ms. Kovacs and offered her hand. “So pleased to meet you at last, Paulina. I’ve heard so many wonderful things about you.”
One very black eyebrow quirked upwards. “Really?” She gave Ari’s hand a quick shake then looked down to fiddle with something on her desk. “Well, I’d like to think so, but if that’s true, why did your father send you down here to supervise my efforts?“
Ari smiled to cover Paulina’s surprisingly honest response. Truth was, her father probably wanted Ms. Kovacs to supervise Ari, but somehow she didn’t want to admit that out loud–at least not in front of Mr. Knox.
“I’m really here to watch over my aunt. But now that I’m here, I have to say I’m shocked at the condition of the inn. How did things get so bad so quickly?”
Paulina drew a slow breath. Ari could almost visualize the woman mentally counting to ten. “It hasn’t been quick. I’ve been here for almost two years and I’ve been asking for funds to renovate since the first month I arrived. It simply hasn’t been possible with the budget.” Paulina’s tone dripped pure frustration.
Ari wasn’t sure what to say. “Oh, I see.”
The family business couldn’t find a way to finance upgrades in their hereditary home? That jarring thought made her father’s frustration with Ari’s spending habits a little more understandable. Why hadn’t he told her? Hadn’t he known she’d be only too happy to curtail her activities if it meant Christmas Inn could be brought back to its previous beauty?
“Well, now that the renovations have begun, we absolutely must do something about that entrance. The tile and carpet have to go.”
Paulina’s eyebrow quirked again but she never said a word. She simply handed Ari a list of budgeted items. Tile. New carpeting. Furniture. Windows replaced. Ari gazed down the list and almost gasped at the total.
No wonder her father was cutting costs where he could.
She swallowed hard and licked her lips. “It seems you and Mr. Knox have the situation well in hand.” She flashed Mr. Dreamy a quick smile that had no doubt lost its previous pizazz and met the manager’s definitely disdainful stare. “It seems I’m interrupting. I didn’t mean to. I would have been on time but I had car trouble. I barely made it here and handed it over to the valet.”
At that moment, a knock sounded at the door. Paulina answered and Jason, the young attendant, peeked around the corner.
“Excuse me, Ms. Kovacs.” He glanced at Ari. “Ms. Christmas’s car is blocking the drive. It needs to be moved but it won’t start. I’m not sure what she’d like me to do with these.” He held out Ari’s keys.
Paulina drew in a slow, frustrated breath. This time Ari didn’t have to visualize the woman counting to ten. She could hear it. “I’ll take them, Jason. Thank you.”
The young man handed the manager the keys, then quickly stepped out and closed the door. Paulina smiled but her lips had a tight, strained look, hardly a smile at all. “We don’t have valet service. And we have a very narrow drive and entry. Your vehicle will need to be towed as soon as possible.”
Heat crept into Ari’s cheeks. “Of course. I’ll take care of that right now.” She took the keys and hurried to the door. Just as she reached for the handle, a thought occurred to her. Cheeks flaming, she stood for a moment more, gritting her teeth but knowing she had no other choice.
She turned back around. “Uhhmmm…exactly how do I do that?”

Purchase Christmas Bells are Ringing


Leave a comment to be entered in the drawing for a copy of this heartwarming story! 

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Countdown to Christmas - Sugar Cookie Kisses


Christmas is a time for miracles...will Katy claim hers?
Katy Sullivan has brushed aside past hurts to make a name for herself in the small town of Holly Haven. Her Main Street Boutique is a successful showplace while her sugar cookies are destined to repeat blue-ribbon fame at this year's Christmas festival. All is well...until Caleb Kendrick rides back into town. Caleb Kendrick returns home to Holly Haven to help his sister rebound from a flare-up of Multiple Sclerosis. He's thankful to find high school sweetheart Katy Sullivan unattached, and hopes for a second chance to win her love. But, Katy won't easily forget that he broke once her heart--even though that was a decade ago. Christmas is a time for miracles, and Caleb aims to claim his. But will Katy block the blessing?

1st Chapter

Katy Sullivan bobbled double-stacked bins of sugar cookies as she navigated the crowded school hallway. Holly Haven Elementary School’s Christmas Family Night was cranking up to full-speed-ahead, and she wondered once again how her sister had talked her into spending the better part of a busy work day baking her special recipe cookies for this event. It wasn’t as if Katy didn’t already have enough to fill her to-do list; managing her Main Street Boutique kept her especially busy this time of year, with holiday shoppers hunting for the perfect gifts.
“Oh, good…you made it.” Liz rushed up to greet her, and snatched one of the plastic bins from Katy’s arms. Liz lifted the lid, inhaled appreciatively. “Oh, these smell heavenly, and just when I was beginning to worry you’d burned the sweets.”
“Me…burn my soon-to-be-famous, top-secret-recipe cookies?” Katy blew out a breath, desperately trying to move the strands of hair that spilled across her forehead to tickle her cheek. “Never. Surely you know better that that.”
“Well…the thought did cross my mind—for a second or two. After all, we all have our off days.” Liz rolled her eyes. “I had one yesterday, and I hope I’ve fully recovered.”
“You had an off-day? Impossible. You are never less than perfect, sis.” Indeed, Katy had spent the better part of her life trying to live up to the standards her twin sister had set. Liz had penned a life plan by the age of fourteen, and she’d spent the last decade-and-a-half conquering it. She’d graduated college a full year early while Katy opted for the five-year plan. By twenty-two, even before Katy donned a graduation cap and gown, Liz was happily engaged to Curt.
By Liz’s twenty-third birthday, the couple had married, and by her twenty-fourth they’d built and moved into Liz’s dream house—a whopping three-story deal near the outskirts of town. Merely a few months later, Janie came along; and following half-a-decade of teaching, Liz had been named the principal of Holly Haven Elementary School.
Now, five years later, Curt captained trans-continental airline flights while Liz had been named Holly Haven School District’s Administrator of the Year for two years running. Katy’s head spun simply trying to keep up with all the details of their busy lives.
“Never mind about my faux pas. It’s getting dangerously close to time to open our doors for this fundraiser, and right now there are still a million-and-two things left to do.” Liz glanced at her wristwatch as impeccably neat, cropped blonde hair framed her face of perfectly-arched cheekbones and porcelain skin. You’d never know she’d already put in a ten-hour workday. Unlike Katy, who chose to wear her natural curls in their true strawberry blonde color—a sign of her Irish heritage—whose hair constantly looked as if she’d just stepped out of wind storm.
Unlike Katy. That seemed to be Katy’s mantra when it came to Liz. It wasn’t a bad thing in Katy’s mind. They were just different where everyone expected them to be…well, identical. Liz, unlike Katy, was minus a smattering of freckles across the bridge of her nose. When the two were young children, before hair dye and make-up, those freckles—or lack of them—were one of the only ways the teachers at school could tell them apart. That led to a shipyard of laughs and one very memorable phone call to their parents.
“I need you to take these down the hall to the fishing game in the Janie’s classroom, at the far end of the kindergarten wing, Katy.” Liz directed without missing a beat. “I’ll help the others get set up and ready for the crowd forming in the foyer. Janie can show you the way.”
Unlike Katy, Liz’s mind didn’t wander all over the place while escorting cookies down the school hall.
“I know the way.” Katy had visited the class for show-and-tell day just a few weeks ago, when Janie begged her to come and share cookies for her classmates to decorate. Hence her invitation to this Christmas Family Night event—word of her delicious cookies had spread like wildfire through the halls of Holly Haven. And, just last week, Janie’s teacher had invited her back for the class’s Career Day, where Katy had shared an assortment handmade jewelry, scarves, and handbags she’d fashioned for her boutique. She’d brought inexpensive baubles and allowed every child to create his or her own art design. The girls had practically squealed with delight and even the boys had loved the activity.
“I can help you carry those.” Janie swooped in beside Katy, her cheeks flushed with excitement as she reached for a cookie container. “Mama says I’m strong.”
“That you are.” Katy handed a smaller tub that held decorating supplies to her niece, who balanced it carefully in tiny hands. At five years old and nearly halfway through kindergarten, she already had the take-charge attitude of her mother that made her seem older and wiser than her years. Katy supposed she came by it honestly. Both Curt and Liz proved headstrong. “You lead the way.”
“OK, follow me, Aunt Katy.” Blonde pigtails bobbed as the heels of Janie’s black patent leather shoes clacked across polished tile. She was dressed in crisp evergreen holiday velvet and white tights…a miniature fashionista. “Mr. Caleb—he’s Billy Kendrick’s uncle—has been waiting for you.”
Katy knew well the Billy whom Janie spoke of.  He was the son of Mariah Kendrick, one of Katy’s closest high school friends, and he had been full of questions during both of her visits to the school, practically talking her ear off with chatter about the treasures his uncle Caleb had scored during his many cross-country treks. The kid was a firecracker for sure, and with his tousled dark hair and eyes the intriguing color of seafoam, he’d proved the spitting image of his uncle Caleb Kendrick…the same Caleb Kendrick who’d broken Katy’s heart.
“Caleb?” Katy’s heart did a weird little two-step as his name whispered from her lips. She already knew the answer, yet she had to add, “It can’t be…it isn’t possible…I never imagined he’d be here tonight. Are you sure it’s Caleb Kendrick…the Caleb Kendrick?”
“Are there two Caleb Kendrick’s?”
“I don’t think so.” The world couldn’t possibly handle two.
“Then yes, that’s right. Billy’s uncle just opened the antique store next to yours. Mr. Caleb volunteered to help with our fishin’ game when Mrs. Onsteen got the flu.” Janie peered over the decorating bin, her gaze narrowed with a sort of confusion that said all the puzzle pieces weren’t fitting together for her. “You look upset, Aunt Katy. Why?”
“I’m just…it’s just…” Why, exactly, was she upset? It was an inevitable fact of life that she and Caleb would run into each other again, eventually, especially in a small town like Holly Haven. She just didn’t expect it to be this soon.
It’s been ten years, Katy…more than ten years. And you’ve spent the better part of that decade dodging him. The gig is finally up…
“Mama says you and Mr. Caleb used to be kind of special friends when you were in high school. What does ‘kind of special’ mean?”
“Umm…hmm…” She wasn’t often rendered speechless, yet Katy paused as a worried frown caused her lips to sag at the corners. She managed, “Caleb and I were…we were…I was…”
“His girlfriend?”
“Yes.” Katy swallowed hard as the thought invaded. “For a while.”
“But you’re not now?” Janie hugged the box tighter to her chest, as if trying to squeeze an answer from it. “Why?”
“I…we…” Katy couldn’t manage an adequate explanation. Even she still failed to understand what, exactly, had transpired that final day…in those last heart-wrenching moments when Caleb had ridden off, literally, into the sunset.
“Mama says Mr. Caleb still likes you. She says his eyes lit up when she told him you’d be here tonight to help, and that you were makin’ cookies. Are you gonna go out with him again—maybe to the Christmas tree lighting or for a sleigh ride along Main Street to see all the pretty holiday displays?”
“I don’t think—” Katy paused, had to catch the door jamb to steady herself. Her breath wouldn’t seem to come. “No…I have no plans to do any such thing with Caleb.”
“Hey, are you OK?” Janie bobbled the decorating crate as she tugged at Katy’s shirt hem. “You look like Mama did yesterday when she told Daddy she backed the car into the garage door.”
“She what?” Katy’s eyes grew wide and her thoughts came into focus. Liz had a perfect driving record…never so much as a speeding ticket or a fender-bender. “When did your mama manage to do that?”
“Last night. She called Daddy on the phone to tell him—he’s flyin’ his plane for the airline, you know—but Daddy wasn’t mad at all. He said it’s OK…it was just an accident…and he called the repairman for Mama. Daddy said we all make mistakes.”
“Yes, we do.” And as far as Katy was concerned, she wouldn’t repeat her mistakes, especially those she’d stumbled through with Caleb.
“So, you’re OK?” Janie’s brown eyes shone like a pair of newly-minted pennies. “Are you havin’ a headache like Mama does after a rough day at work?”
“Kind of…just a little.”
“Should I get Mama?”
“No, I’m fine. I just didn’t…” Katy sighed and glanced back at Liz, who’d not made her way down the hall yet seemed to hear every word of their conversation. Now, Liz simply waggled her fingers as she offered a lopsided grin along with a slight shrug as if to say, “Buck up little camper, where’s your holiday spirit? You act like you’re the one who plowed your SUV through the garage. It’s only Caleb. You’ll survive this.”
Easy for her to say. Katy grimaced and turned from Liz with a death glare.
“C’mon then, Aunt Katy.” Janie nodded toward a set of double doors sporting signage that read, Kindergarten Wing. “Mr. Caleb said if you didn’t get here soon he’d have to sing for the fishing game prize, and that’d be awful. Mama says he sounds like a walrus with a bad cold.”
“Is that so?” Katy’s trepidation segued to quivering laughter, because she knew Liz was teasing and Caleb’s singing voice was anything but abrasive. When Katy and Caleb were classmates at Holly Haven High he’d sung to her from the bed of his pickup truck on a stretch of warm, lazy summer nights beneath the stars. They’d even slow-danced a time or two while he serenaded. The gesture had made her feel loved and special beyond words. But that had been years ago…too many seasons ago to count. When Caleb left town following graduation, all but shattering her heart, Katy thought he’d stay gone forever. But he’d returned, and a couple of weeks ago, he’d opened an antique shop right next door to her Main Street Boutique.
Twelve days ago, to be exact. Katy knew, because she’d seen Caleb with her own eyes when he stopped by the boutique one afternoon looking for her. Of course, she’d closed the door to her back office and pretended to be busy—well, she didn’t really have to pretend that part because it seemed when it came to managing the boutique she was always busy—and said she couldn’t take visitors when her assistant Cassie buzzed in with Caleb’s request to speak with her. She’d managed to avoid him for a full dozen days, though he’d set up shop right alongside her, just to stumble into him here at Holly Haven’s Christmas Family Night.
Who would have thought?
“Yep, that’s so.” Janie’s response brought Katy back to the task at hand. “A singing walrus, that’s funny!”
“Well, we can’t have that.” Katy drew a long breath. She shook her head to clear memories of time spent with Caleb and the odd sense of longing that seeped like warm cider through her veins. She’d have to get past this train of thought and quick if she and Caleb planned to make their futures in the same town. And, from the chatter she’d heard through the grapevine, he’d returned for the long haul. Katy plastered on a smile and winked conspiratorially as she shoved open the doors with a swing of her hips. “We don’t want to scare away the customers.”
“Then we’d better get these cookies delivered to the fishing game quick.” Janie started off again, skipping to close the distance while her patent leather shoes clacked a staccato beat along the floor tile.
They rounded a corner that opened into a suite of kindergarten classrooms merrily decorated in handmade holiday crafts and strands of colorful, blinking LED lights. Christmas music spilled from a portable CD player on the counter. Above the upbeat tempo of piano chords and jingle bells, Katy heard the murmur of voices.
She recognized one of them as—
“Well, hello there, Katy.” Caleb glanced up from a where he sat in a chair that seemed impossibly too small for his broad, tall frame. He held an old-fashioned wooden fishing pole in one hand, the end adorned with a laundry clip instead of a hook and the handle graced with a generous red-velvet bow. Eyes the color of an ocean storm skimmed over her as an appreciate grin bowed his lips. “So, you’ve finally come out of hiding. You look…good.”
“I haven’t been hiding.” She barely voiced the words, because Caleb’s assertion rang true. She had been hiding. For a moment or two, a breath stuck like a blob of glue to her throat. Time had been good to Caleb; he’d lost none of the muscle he’d honed so meticulously while being the star receiver at Holly Haven High. And that hair…maybe it lay just a little bit shorter, but the waves toppled as thick and dark over those mesmerizing seafoam eyes as Katy remembered. Despite her resolve to stay strong against his charm, memories bubbled up and spilled over. “I’ve been busy with work and marketing and penning Christmas cards and baking and…”
“Might I find a card in your stack addressed to me?”
“Caleb…I don’t even know your address anymore.”
“I’m staying at the farmhouse…with Mariah. I thought you would have heard by now.”
“Mariah might have mentioned it…in passing.” Of course she had, and Katy had done a good job of glossing right over that particular nugget of information. With good reason, too. She knew the farmhouse well, having spent the better part of her childhood there hanging out with Mariah on long summer days and then later with Caleb. She and Caleb had spent hours beneath the massive weeping willow in the side yard, wishing and dreaming; and a creek that ran the rear length of the property was perfect for wading and skipping rocks on warm summer days. Later…as the pair headed toward graduation, stargazing and kisses had come…and then, finally, the leaving.
The memory stung. Just because Mariah remained a good friend, didn’t mean Katy had to offer Caleb the proverbial olive branch.
“Of course, well…My mistake.” Caleb studied her as if he read her mind. “Let me help you with those containers.” He rose from the chair and took the cookie bins from Katy’s hands. “Billy, come out and see the bounty I just snagged. Maybe Katy will let you taste test these delicious morsels before we start handing them out.”
Billy scrambled from beneath a platform that had been fashioned with white cotton dusted with glitter as well as a touch of silver foil to look like an ice-fishing hole.
“Hi, Miss Katy.” He offered a quick wave as he brushed too-long hair from his eyes. Mariah probably hadn’t been able to get him to the barber’s in a while, since she was feeling poorly. The realization tugged at Katy’s heart. Perhaps Caleb would see to it, now that he was home again.
“Hi, there.” Katy was warmed by Billy’s eager welcome. At least one of the Kendrick men had a shred of manners. “How are you?”
“Great. Uncle Caleb is going to show me how to hook the treats, but we were waiting on you to bring them.” He scampered over to Caleb and reared up on his tiptoes to peek into the oversized plastic containers. “Are these the cookies?”
“Affirmative.” Caleb mussed Billy’s hair. “Take a sniff.” He popped open the corner of a container and slid it Billy’s way as the aroma of brown sugar and warm, creamy butter drifted up to tickle. “Pretty amazing, huh?”
“Oh yeah. Wow.” Billy tossed Katy an eager look over one shoulder. “Uncle Caleb says you make the best sugar cookies ever. He knows, ’cause you used to bake them ’specially for him, right Miss Katy?”
“That’s right…once upon a time.” The memory of it caused Katy’s heart to ache just a little.
“Katy and I once shared a kiss over a sugar cookie,” Caleb offered, slanting a look her way. The grin on his face might have melted butter. “Do you remember, Katy?”
She did…all too well. It hadn’t just been a kiss…it had been her first kiss. And Caleb had stolen her breath, literally. They’d been standing in the farmhouse kitchen, having just pulled the baking sheet from the oven. Warmth drifted as Caleb leaned in, his hand resting at the small of her back, and the room had spun, her knees had buckled, and she’d have hit the floor if he hadn’t caught her in his arms and held her. She’d been all of seventeen, and thinking, right up until then, that she’d never know what it felt like to be kissed—really kissed.
It had been worth the wait.
“You two kissed. Really?” Billy asked.
“Really.” Caleb nodded.
“That’s gross.” Billy’s mouth twisted and he scrubbed his lips for emphasis. “I’m never kissin’ a girl…except for Mom, that is…on the cheek.”
“You’ll feel differently one day.” Caleb laughed. “But there’s plenty of time for that. For now, we’ll just stick to enjoying the cookies.”
“Oh, they are the delicious.” Janie nodded to solidify the fact. “Aunt Katy’s good at lots of stuff, but her holiday cookies are the best. Last year she won the blue ribbon at the Holly Haven Christmas Cookie Bake-off. No one can beat her.”
“If I remember correctly, that’s spot on.” Caleb nodded appreciatively as he slanted a look Katy’s way. “And, if my memory serves me right, her kisses…Yep, they’re worthy of a blue-ribbon, too.”


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