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Open your heart to the holidays with these stories of unexpected love....
"A Baby for Christmas" by Lisa Jackson
The uneventful Christmas Annie McFarlane expected is suddenly anything but. First, there's the adorable baby left on the snowy doorstep of her Oregon cabin. Second, there's the extremely attractive, yet extremely angry, man claiming to be the father. Liam O'Shaughnessy may be intimidating, but this is one precious gift Annie isn't giving up so easily....
"What the Cowboy Wants for Christmas" by Maisey Yates
When Meg O'Neill's longtime boyfriend lets her down, again, on Christmas no less, she braves an Oregon blizzard to get to her best friend Noah's comforting arms. But this time Noah's not telling her what she wants to hear — he's telling her the truth, from his heart. And his words just might be the gift Meg's been wishing for all along.
"Snowed In" by Stacy Finz
Rachel Johnson has found the perfect spot for her second Tart Me Up bakery in Glory Junction, California. Except she's in fierce competition with hunky bar owner Boden Farmer. Worse, while the icy rivals await the city's decision, they end up catering the same Christmas Eve mountaintop wedding — and getting snowed in. But sometimes a loss of electricity generates a different kind of heat....
"A Cowboy Wedding for Christmas" by Nicole Helm
Big city art teacher Lindsay Tyler isn't just back home in Colorado for her brother's wedding at the Barton Christmas Tree Farm and Ranch. She's back for good. She just hasn't told anyone yet — including Cal Barton, the ex-boyfriend she left behind. Will it take a Christmas miracle for him to welcome her back with open arms?....
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Read an Excerpt
There was something borderline sadistic about Christmas music playing in comforting, melodic strains when your eyes were still burning from your daylong crying jag, and your whole body was nearly numb from the ten hour cross-country trip that had included five hours on one plane, a mind-numbing wait in the small terminal in Salt Lake City, and a short, but bumpy, flight in a prop plane that felt more like a toy than an actual vehicle.
She needed the cheer to stop. She turned the car radio off and focused on the sounds of her tires moving over the snow-covered gravel road, weariness overtaking her completely.
Meg O'Neill felt like a boomerang.
She had flung herself across the country yesterday, only to be sent right back. Okay, so she was the one who had flung herself back. All the while calling herself every evil name she knew.
What kind of idiot was she? What kind of idiot was she to think that surprising Charlie in New York for Christmas was a good idea? What kind of idiot was she to take him seriously when he said it was for real this time?
Over and over again she did this. Over and over again she trusted him.
By now, she should be well aware that Charlie said things and then those things fell through. He was always ready for more, and then something happened.
In this case, the something seemed to be that he had tripped and fallen directly between some woman's thighs. That was most certainly an impediment to the much alluded to marriage proposal that Meg was beginning to realize was never going to come.
Unlike Charlie's bedmate. Who seemed to have the coming under control.
Do you still want to marry him?
She wiped a tear off her cheek and sniffed loudly as she pulled her car into her best friend's driveway. It was snowing fiercely outside, the weather in the mountains above Bend, Oregon, looking good for anyone with plans to ski Mount Bachelor over the holiday but looking pretty crappy for anyone who actually had to try to get around.
She tightened her hold on the steering wheel and took a deep, shaking breath. Did she still want Charlie to propose to her? Their relationship was complicated, and it had never been traditional in any sense.
But she had loved Charlie for thirteen years. Since she was a teenager. She had always seen ... Had always seen a future with him. And he had always acted like there would be one. Once he got to a certain place. Once he had built his life up to where he wanted it to be. Security, that was what he had said.
And with any other guy, maybe Meg would have thought it was an excuse. But she knew Charlie. She knew his background, and why this kind of thing was difficult for him. It was just one of the many reasons she had accepted their strange arrangement.
But over the years it had come with its fair share of heartache. And this was the worst.
She could only hope that Noah was home. And honest to God, if she walked in and Noah was with someone, too, she was going to have a meltdown.
She sighed heavily and turned the engine off, listening to it continue to pop and hiss in the cold weather for a moment. Then she took a deep breath and got out of the car, shuffling through the dry snow on the ground, the powdery flakes sluicing over her boots.
She made sure to walk noisily up the front steps, just as a warning. Just in case. She really couldn't take surprising somebody else in a compromising situation this weekend
She lifted her hand and knocked, then stood there, bouncing up and down, freezing while she waited. Her cheeks were cold, because they were wet. Because she was still crying. Off and on. The flight from New York to the West Coast was long enough, but she'd had a layover and then she'd had to drive from the airport to Noah's place up out of Bend.
It wasn't like she had cried the whole time. Just off and on with alarming frequency, occasionally making the people next to her deeply uncomfortable.
She heard heavy footsteps and nearly sagged with relief. He was here. He was here, and he was going to make everything better, because that was what Noah Carter always did.
The door jerked open, and she was greeted by Noah, looking ... Well, different somehow, mostly because he looked grumpy. He was sporting a fuller beard than she was used to seeing on him, but it had been a couple of weeks since she had seen him last, and his dark brows were locked together in an expression of irritation.
Something tightened, low and deep inside of her, a strange restlessness that had been intensifying around Noah lately. She didn't like it. So she did what she'd been doing for months now. She ignored it. There was no room inside of her for any more feelings right now.
It only took a moment for Noah's cranky expression to shift, his brown eyes to soften, fill with concern. "Meg? I thought you were going to be in New York for Christmas."
"Well," she said, sniffing loudly. "Surprise. To me, too."
"Are you okay?" he asked.
Her lip wobbled. "Yes."
"You're not. Come inside."
She complied, walking into Noah's small, comforting living room. She loved his old ranch house. She was so proud of him, of what he had built for himself here. This little place to call his own. She was proud of all of them, really.
She, Noah, and Charlie had been in foster care together when they were teenagers, and at that point each of them had been through so much crap it was amazing they were still standing, much less functional.
But that home — their last home — had been one that was full of support, and they had gotten the exact right kind of guidance to get a good start on adulthood. And once they had aged out of the system, they still had each other.
Charlie had gone on to make a successful career for himself in finance, Meg had her brewery in downtown Bend, and Noah had the ranch. Which, objectively, she had to admit she liked better than the insane bustle of the city. But Charlie had made it sound like he was ready to come back. Charlie had made it sound like he was finally ready to get married.
You know it's you, he had said to her, so long ago, but more than once since. It always has been. And it always will be. The time just has to be right.
She was really sick of waiting for the time to be right. She was starting to suspect that it never would be.
She plopped down on Noah's couch, sinking into the brown leather cushions, pulling a red pillow into her lap. "I was going to New York to surprise Charlie."
Noah suddenly looked pained, and it made her wonder what he thought about her. About this. Suddenly, she was starting to look at the situation with a strange kind of detached clarity.
She looked up. "Noah, am I pathetic?"
Noah shook his head. "No."
"I'm serious." She flung the pillow to the side, slamming it down onto the couch. "Am I pathetic? Do you think I am? Does he think I am?"
"Meg," Noah said, keeping his tone as measured as possible. "Charlie does whatever Charlie wants to do. No one has ever been able to tell him anything else. You know that. Charlie also says a lot of things."
"Apparently, he wants to do other women." She frowned. "But that's how it's always been."
Charlie had been the only one for Meg since she was fifteen years old. And while she'd never thought he'd lived like a monk, she had believed he'd had ... well, that his feelings were all for her. Now she wondered.
"Meg," Noah said, sounding placating, and it made her want to punch him in the stomach.
"I'm not stupid," she said, shaking her head. "I started my own business. My own really successful business. And I'm not gullible. I've been consistently let down by the people in my life from childhood, so I kind of expect it. But I trusted him. And he told me ..."
Noah knew almost everything about her. He was her best friend. But they had never really talked about this. If only because the stuff between her and Charlie always seemed to rub him the wrong way. And maybe she had never told anybody about this aspect of her relationship with Charlie because part of her had always suspected that they might give her the dose of reality she was desperate to avoid.
"He told me he was going to marry me," she said, the word sounding hollow and so ridiculous in Noah's warm living room. "And he made it really clear that ... that he really wanted it to be soon. We've been talking a lot lately. He said he was going to come back here. In the next year. And that when he did he would be ready to settle down. And I'm so ... I thought that meant a certain thing. And now ... I don't even think he meant it. Or maybe he did. Maybe part of him meant it. But I don't think he's ever going to do it. If I had my way, I would have married Charlie eight years ago. Well, I probably would have married him thirteen years ago — let's be real. But fifteen-year-olds can't get married here." She tried to force a laugh. "But he's just been ... He's been putting me on hold, and I've been letting him, haven't I?"
"That son of a bitch."
Her eyes widened. She had never seen Noah look as furious as he did now, and certainly not when referencing Charlie, who as far as Meg knew was like a brother to Noah.
"Well," she said slowly.
"Don't defend him, Meg. His Peter Pan ass doesn't want to grow up, and that's not your problem."
But she did want to defend him. In spite of everything that had happened in the past twenty-four hours, part of her still reflexively wanted to defend Charlie. And what was that? She supposed it was down to more than a decade of loving him, and less than a day of wanting to throw him through a window.
She was just more practiced at the former than the latter.
"He's had it hard," she said, knowing she sounded defensive.
"And you haven't? Why should he get to run around doing whatever he wants while you stand on vigilant watch like some heroine in a Greek tragedy?"
"That's love," she said, feeling defensive.
"No, that's bullshit."
"I'm going to go," she said, standing up, her chest feeling so achy that she thought it might cave in.
"The weather is crazy out there. You probably shouldn't try to drive back down."
"I just ... I thought I needed to talk to you, but you're not telling me —"
"What you want to hear? Well, that should be a good thing, Meg, considering that I think Charlie has spent a long time telling you what you want to hear whether or not it's true."
Those words burned.
Meg stood up, flinging aside the throw pillow, even though it already was to the side, but she felt the need to make some kind of dramatic gesture and started toward the door.
"Meg," Noah said, his voice hard. But she ignored him, and she went back out into the blizzard.CHAPTER 2
Noah wanted to fly to New York and kill Charlie himself. It didn't matter that the man was like a brother to him, or maybe that was why he wanted to kill him, actually. Noah expected better from him. And he damn well expected better for Meg.
Well, that was the real issue. If he was honest.
He couldn't be neutral on the subject of Megan and Charlie, no matter how hard he tried to be. It had been clear early on that Meg only had eyes for Charlie and it didn't mean anything that she had tied Noah up in knots since he was seventeen. It wasn't how the dice had fallen, and he wasn't one to beat his head against a brick wall.
More than that, Meg was too important to him to go messing it up. And so, over the years as he had watched her make herself sick over Charlie, he hadn't done a thing. Even while he had wanted her. Every time she smiled. Every time he caught that light feminine scent of hers — the peony-scented soap she used mixed with something that was just her — his whole body tightened.
But he was practiced at pretending it wasn't happening. He did not stand around waiting. Because he could never put that on her. Could never put it on their friendship. It didn't matter that he wanted Meg; he had known all this time that it could never be.
But seeing her like that ...
Well, it made him want to either punch Charlie or kiss Meg.
But then he always wanted to kiss Meg. He had ever since he had first met her, back when he had been an angry seventeen-year-old boy and had known exactly what the feelings coursing through his body were when he looked at the sweet, beautiful girl who had been brought to live with his foster family.
She'd had it hard, her parents unable to care for her because of their addictions. But there had been some innocence left in her, and that had been apparent. Noah's had been long gone. In every sense of the word. And he had known that touching her, taking advantage of her in any way, would be an unforgivable sin.
All of those thoughts had only mattered for a few moments, anyway. Because it wasn't long after that — just a few minutes, really — that Meg had met Charlie. And it had been immediately clear that Charlie had her affection from moment one.
It wasn't really a mystery to Noah as to why. Charlie was blond, had that kind of All-American football player handsomeness that people prized so much. And along with that, he had an easy smile, a kind of relaxed demeanor. Something Noah had certainly never possessed. But then in Noah's experience if you relaxed that was when someone could get a shot in. Physically or emotionally, and by the time Noah had been sent to that last foster home he had been well past the point of letting anyone land a blow.
They had become friends, all three of them. Quickly, easily.
Meg had always loved Charlie, while Charlie mostly loved himself. And Noah burned.
When a few moments ticked by and Meg did not reappear, he realized that her stubborn ass was actually going to try to drive back down the mountain in this weather. He put a coat on, grabbed his cowboy hat off the peg by the door, and walked outside into the bitter cold. He had worked outside all day, balls deep in a snowbank, so heading back outside now was low on his list. But letting anything happen to Meg was unthinkable.
He shoved his hands in his pockets and walked toward the dirt road that led back down to the main highway, following the fresh tracks left by Meg's car.
He only had to walk around one bend before he found her, stuck.
He rolled his eyes, making his way over to the vehicle. Then he knocked on the window. She jumped, brushed a cinnamon curl away from her face, and treated him to a dark glare.
"I'm sorry, Meg, were you going to stay here all night?" Her sherry-colored eyes flashed with annoyance. "No," she said, her voice muffled by the window.
"Dealing with wounded pride, were you?"
She growled and pushed the car door open, nearly pushing it into Noah's gut. "I feel like my pride has taken quite enough hits for one day." Her shoulders sagged. "Can I stay here tonight, Noah?"
Snowflakes were falling, landing in her curls, sprinkling across her nose, joining the freckles that were there already. His stomach tightened and he told his body to calm the hell down. Meg had to stay here tonight, because she couldn't get back down the mountain. She was his friend, and they had spent the night under the same roof countless times when they were kids.
But also, Charlie had finally wounded her to the point where she was ready to at least show Noah that she was upset with him. Usually she protected Charlie at all costs. Even when his behavior was beyond forgiveness.
It made Noah feel like finally, for the first time, the door was wedged open.
A door for what? You're going to offer Meg marriage? As if you'd ever lie about it like Charlie does?
Hell no. Noah's life had been too ...
All he knew was violence. All he knew was pain. Neglect. Growing up in a drug house made you a cynic very early on. Taking care of your mother when she was passed out from yet another overdose, putting a wadded-up sweatshirt underneath her head so that she could lie more comfortably on the bathroom floor when you were only six years old, took all of the light and hope out of life pretty damn quickly.
He didn't harbor dreams about setting up his life. About having a family. He was content with his ranch. Content with his friends.
He looked back at Meg. At her fresh-faced beauty. At that beautiful body he had always wanted to touch. All right, maybe he wasn't completely satisfied. But there was nothing that a man in his position could offer a woman like her. Meg wanted that family she had never had. She and Charlie always had to some degree.
It was why Meg was so sweet and loyal to those around her. Why Charlie collected people.
Noah had held on to his two closest friends, and them alone.
Charlie wanted more. Meg wanted more.
Noah just wanted to survive.
"Of course you can stay here, Meg. But you should have listened to me, because now your car is stuck."
"You're my eternal big brother," she groused, opening up the car door again, reaching inside, and taking out a duffel bag. "At least I have supplies."
He let the big-brother shot hit him square on. That was how she saw him. Like a brother.
Dammit to hell.
"Thank heaven for small miracles, huh?" He reached out, taking the bag from her hands and hefting it over his shoulder.
Meg didn't say anything. She simply trailed behind him, following him back to the house.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Santa's on His Way"
Copyright © 2018 Kensington Publishing Corporation.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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