The fairy lights are up and shoppers are flooding the snowy seaside promenade. It’s going to be a busy month at Forget-Me-Not Vintage, a magical shop with a warm heart where every item has a story to be told.
With bright red hair and an infectious smile, Dodie is a hopeless romantic and absolutely one of a kind, just like the pieces in her shop.
When Dodie finds a love letter in the pocket of an old woollen coat, she makes it her mission to deliver it to its rightful owner. Following the address, she manages to persuade the handsome but reluctant new tenant, Edward, to help her with her search.
As the story of the letter unfolds, Dodie is there, as always, to pick up the pieces and make things right. But who will be there for her when her own love story needs a helping hand?
Is it too much to dream of a happy ending like the ones in the black and white movies she adores?
All Isla wants for Christmas is to be left in peace, but in the Alps there’s potential for romance in every snowflake that falls…
It’s the week before Christmas and Isla McCoy has just received an unexpected gift: a letter announcing she is due a life-changing inheritance, but onlyif she’s willing to make peace with the father who abandoned her.
She has absolutely no intention of making amends, but who could resist an all-expenses-paid trip to the French resort of St Martin-de-Belleville?
There she meets smooth-talking Justin and nerdy glaciologist Sebastian; two very different men, with two very different agendas. Torn between her head and her heart, Isla finds herself utterly lost in a winter wonderland of her own feelings.
Surrounded by twinkling candles and roaring log-fires, Isla’s resolve finally begins to melt. But will she learn how to reconnect, not only with a whole new family, but with herself and her heart?
Tilly Tennant was born in Dorset, the oldest of four children, but now lives in Staffordshire with a family of her own. After years of dismal and disastrous jobs, including paper plate stacking, shop girl, newspaper promotions and waitressing (she never could carry a bowl of soup without spilling a bit), she decided to indulge her passion for the written word by embarking on a degree in English and creative writing, graduating in 2009 with first class honours. She wrote her first novel in 2007 during her first summer break at university and has not stopped writing since. She also works as a freelance fiction editor, and considers herself very lucky that this enables her to read many wonderful books before the rest of the world gets them.
You can get the latest news on book releases and special offers by subscribing to Tilly’s mailing list. So you never need to be left out!
5 All-New, Never-Before-Published Holiday Romances, Featuring NYT Bestselling Authors Jennifer Ashley & Jennifer Probst! Let The Men of Starlight Bend keep you warm on cold winter nights!
Starlight Bend is a cozy Montana town nestled between glacial lakes and snow-capped mountains. This Christmas, holiday magic is in the air and wishes can come true–all it takes is believing. Visit us in Starlight Bend and meet five sexy, heartwarming heroes and the women who steal their hearts…
Snowbound in Starlight Bend ~ Jennifer Ashley
Haley McKee is furious to find herself stuck in the tiny town of Starlight Bend so near Christmas, helped out by the handsome Maddox Campbell, a cowboy who’s not impressed with her fancy job titles and parents’ money. In fact, no one has given her this much crap her entire life. But there’s a lot more to Maddox than at first seems–he’s a hard-working man who gives much of his time and patience to help those who have little. When a spark of Christmas magic promises Haley all she wants, will she make her wish with her head or her heart?
The Long Gone Girl of Starlight Bend ~ Erin Quinn
Kari has big plans that are about to pay off, and she doesn’t have time for tall, dark, and amazing Ty Timberlake. Ty knows he’s in trouble as soon as he meets smart, beautiful Kari. He understands her goals, but knows the rat race won’t make her happy. Kari is hell-bent on making her mark and moving onto the next challenge; Ty is determined to win her love and make her stay. As Christmas approaches, Kari begins to question what she wants. Should she stick to her plan and be long gone by the New Year, or choose the man who’s stolen her heart?
His Angel of Starlight Bend ~ Calista Fox
Anna Voss and Nick Hoffman are Starlight Bend’s star-crossed lovers. They were inseparable growing up, but destined for different paths. They haven’t seen each other in over a decade, but this Christmas, Nick returns home—with some startling surprises that turn Anna’s world upside down.
Love and desire have always burned bright between these two, but they’re both haunted by the past. Yet there’s a mystical entity working in their favor this time around—if they can open their hearts and minds to a destiny rewritten, with the help of family and a little holiday magic…
Ropin’ the Lone Cowboy of Starlight Bend ~ Mary Leo
Jolie Shepherd didn’t want to spend Christmas alone. So when she accepts an open invitation for a visit to Starlight Bend, Montana from her best friend, Jolie expects to pass most of the holiday season holed up inside a rustic cabin, not playing cowgirl with quite possibly the most adorable cowboy in the entire state. Red Weisman is a man who prefers to ride alone . . . that is until he meets Jolie Shepherd. Once they team up to grant a Christmas wish for a needy child, something magical happens between them. Now all they have to do is believe . . . but can they?
The Grinch of Starlight Bend ~ Jennifer Probst
Noah used to be a beloved member of the Starlight Bend community, until a tragedy turns to betrayal and drives him into solitude. His face horribly scarred, he retreats to his mountain top mansion—until a stubborn social worker asks for a Christmas wish to help a sick child. He never expects to fall for the spitfire, do-gooder, but when she offers love as the solution, can he let go of the past? When Josephine convinces Noah to host a Winter Carnival, she’s intrigued by the fascinating man hiding a bruised heart. But will her love be enough for him to take a chance on a brand new future?
Everyone in town knows that Christmas in Twilight has a way of bringing lovers together . . . but will its magic bring this pair from “I won’t” to “I do”?
Wearing a too-tight “Santa Baby” costume held in by a double pair of Spanx, Paige MacGregor runs headlong into a gorgeous, grey-eyed hunk of a long, tall cowboy. And not just any cowboy, but country-western star Cash Colton, visiting Twilight to perform in a charity concert. Most women would melt at his feet, but Paige knows all too much about self-assured men with cocky attitudes, so she tells him to get lost.
Cash is in town, nursing his own broken heart, but Paige has knocked him off his feet. He’s convinced she’s perfect—someone to inspire his music and share his now-empty bed. True, he’s not marriage material, but he’s determined to convince her that they’re perfect together—at least for a while. But what he doesn’t count on is falling in love with the one woman who isn’t about to give him the time of day!
“Always remember. . .” Lorena Colton cupped her ten-year-old son’s face in her palms, and stared deeply into his eyes.
She lay propped up in the hospital bed against three hard plastic pillows, and wore a thin white gown with tiny blue squares printed on it. The room smelled of Lysol, wilting flowers, and something darker, uglier. Her skin was spaghetti-squash yellow, and her lips the color of sidewalk chalk. A tube, attached to a bag of liquid, twisted into a vein in her arm like a clear plastic snake.
“Always remember . . .”
Cash hauled in a breath, fisted his hands at his sides, and shifted his gaze to the smiling, paper Santa Claus taped to the wall above his mother’s head, and waited for her words of wisdom.
“Never fall in love.”
Granny stood at the end of the bed, a deep frown pulling her mouth down, arms folded tight over her chest. Grandpa hovered near the closed door, Stetson cocked back on his head, looking just as stony, but less certain of it.
“Love is a trap,” Lorena rasped, her lungs rattling thick and wet. “Don’t fall for it. You’re special, Cash . . .”
She paused, coughed violently into a tissue. Wheezed. Started again. “You’ve got talent. So much talent.”
A hot shiver ran through Cash, landed hard in his belly. Burst. Bloomed.
“You can be somebody.” Her voice was low, her lips cracked and dry, eyes glistening with fever. “Don’t ever let a pretty face and hot body suck you into giving up your dreams.”
“Lorena!” Granny snapped. “That’s a horrible thing to tell a child!”
Summoning the last bit of strength in her, Lorena glared at Granny. “Cash is destined for great things, but not if he lets an ordinary life trip him up. He needs to know that.”
“He needs love. Everyone needs love,” Grandpa said, stuffing his long broad hands into the pockets of his faded jeans and hunching his shoulders forward.
“Then let him love Euterpe.”
“Who the hell is Euterpe?” Grandpa looked confused.
But Cash knew. His mother had been telling him about the Muses since he was a toddler.
“Euterpe is one of the nine Greek Muses.” Lorena’s voice grew softer still, losing strength the longer she talked, flickering, fading. “Euterpe…is the goddess of music, song, and dance.”
“There’s no such thing as a Muse.” Granny moved to cover Cash’s ears with her palms. “Stop filling the boy’s head with nonsense or he’ll end up just like you.”
Cash squirmed away from Granny, perched on the edge of his mother’s bed.
“Told ya we shouldn’t have sent her to that fancy school,” Grandpa mumbled. “It gave her funny ideas.”
“You’re the one who bought her the guitar,” Granny accused.
“Falling heedlessly in love got me here.” His mother struggled to sit straight up, her eyes flashing fierce for the first time since his grandparents had brought him into the room. For a moment she was her old self again. “Not education. Not the Muses, and certainly not the guitar. Music is the only decent thing in my life. My only saving grace.”
What about me? Cash bit his thumbnail. Aren’t I decent?
“I passed it on to you, Cash.” Lorena collapsed back onto the pillows that crinkled when she landed. “The music. My talent. That’s why you can’t ever let love lead you astray. You can make it as a musician where I failed.” Her voice was thin, evaporating.
He could hardly hear her, and he leaned closer.
“You can be famous, Cash, and rich beyond your wildest dreams. Just don’t let love lead you astray. Not ever.”
“This is wrong.” Grandpa shook his head like a windmill trembling in a West Texas sandstorm. “Wrong in so many ways.”
“Hush.” Granny grabbed his elbow and pulled him aside, and said in an angry whisper, “She’s dying. Let her say what she needs to say. We can fix it later. We won’t fail him the way we failed her.”
“Pick it up.” Lorena looked at Cash and waved a wispy hand at her guitar propped in the corner. The guitar she had never let him touch.
Cash hesitated, wondering if he’d misunderstood, wondering if it was a trick. Mom could be fickle like that. Tell him to do something, and then get mad when he did.
“Go on,” she prodded.
Granny and Grandpa huddled near the door, looking as uncertain as he felt. Granny laid a restraining hand on Grandpa’s shoulder, shook her head.
Cash eased toward the guitar, and cautiously picked it up.
“It’s yours now,” his mother said. “My Christmas gift to you.”
His heart caught fire, flamed. She was giving him her Gibson? It felt wonderful and terrible at the same time. Why was she giving him her most beloved possession?
Cash frowned, chewed his bottom lip. He didn’t like this. Giving away her guitar made no sense.
No. No. A creepy feeling crawled over the back of his neck.
And yet, and yet. . . he wanted that guitar. Wanted it with every muscle, cell, and bone in his body. Wanted, yearned, craved.
His mother closed her eyes, her hands flopping to her sides as if they were too heavy for her to hold up, and her chest barely rose when she inhaled.
“Mommy?” Cash called her the name he hadn’t said since he was a toddler. These days, he mostly called her Lorena, because she asked him to. She didn’t want people thinking she was old enough to have a son his age.
“Play for me, Cashie,” she murmured without opening her eyes. “Play “Stone Free.’”
From the doorway, Grandpa snorted. Granny nudged him in the ribs with her elbow. “Wrong,” Grandpa muttered. “So wrong.”
Reverently, Cash cradled the Gibson, sat in the chair next to his mother’s bed, his fingers strumming the first notes of the Jimi Hendrix anthem to restlessness. His mother’s favorite song. The first tune she’d ever taught him to play on the cheap pawnshop guitar she’d given him for his sixth birthday.
He sang the lyrics about freedom and rebellion. Sang as if he would never have the chance to sing again. Sang with all the heart and soul he possessed.
Sang and sang and sang.
Several nurses crowded into the room, watching him with wide eyes and opened mouths. Impressed.
Cash paid them no mind. He was playing for his mother. Giving it his all. Everything. Left nothing on the table.
His fingers flew over the strings, his voice ringing out clear and certain with each guitar lick. He’d never played so masterfully.
He was the music and the music was he.
No separation. No thought. Nothing but experience.
Sound. Vibration. Rhythm.
Jimi Hendrix lived inside him, through him.
As Cash sang the last line, the last words “bye-bye baby,” Lorena—his mother, the woman he’d tried so hard to please but could never seem to make happy—smiled softly, took her last breath, and finally flew free.
Ellie Washington lost her husband in a tragedy five years ago at Christmas. She wouldn’t have made it through her grief if not for her husband’s brother, Nick, who helped her pick up the pieces of her shattered life. And with every year, her feelings for Nick have grown. Now she realizes she might be in love with him, but that’s not fair, because Nick deserves a life that isn’t about his brother’s widow and son.
Sharing his life with Ellie and her son has been the balm that soothed Nick’s soul after losing his brother. Now that friendship has turned into something deeper. Nick doesn’t want to upset the status quo, but someone has to make the first move, and it’s time they figure out if their feelings are real. Nick believes in what they have. He also believes in Christmas miracles, and he thinks they’re both long overdue for one.
“Do you want me to bring the Christmas decorations down from the attic?”
Ellie Washington tensed. She hated this time of year. And even though it would be five years this holiday season, she still missed her husband, John.
She turned to John’s older brother, Nick, and forced a smile. “I guess. Sure.”
Nick leaned against the kitchen counter. In many ways he resembled John. Tall, lean, dark good looks. But John had been her sweet, button-down shirt and khaki pants nerd—a financial planner by trade who’d worn the same look at home.
Nick was a grease monkey, an auto mechanic who owned a shop a few miles from his house. He wore jeans and T-shirts that were often smudged and dirty. His black hair was always a bit too long, and his eyes were a sea blue, whereas John had had green eyes.
She missed John’s eyes, that way they used to crinkle at the corners when he laughed.
Still stuck in the past, Ellie. Five years later, you’re still thinking about John.
Time to move on.
She knew it, and yet she still felt…stuck. As if she couldn’t quite find that joy that used to be hers.
Especially at the holidays, which was always tough.
But this year was going to be different.
“Hey, Ellie. You listening?”
She blinked, lost in the memories. “Sorry. What?”
“I said I thought maybe we’d take Henry and get a tree this weekend.”
Her stomach knotted. John had died at Christmastime five years ago. Henry had been growing in her belly and they’d stood in front of the tree, John rubbing her belly bump and the two of them dreaming about the following year, when there would be a new baby in their house.
And then her husband had died and her life had gone to hell. It had taken her a long time to get over that, to be able to function again as a living, breathing human.
She thought she was doing pretty damn well at the functioning part. The living part? Maybe not so much.
Nick came over and pulled her against him. “You’re thinking about John.”
He always seemed to know her so well, knew her moods and even her reflective moments. That came from spending so much time together over the past five years.
She looked up at him. “Yes.”
He rubbed her back. “We can put off the tree and the decorations if you want.”
She pulled away. “Nope. We can’t. Henry loves Christmas. You love Christmas, probably even more than Henry does. I’ll get into it once all the decorations are up just like I always do.”
He tipped her chin back with his fingers. “Like you always do?”
She let her lips lift, just a little. “Okay, buddy. Maybe I’m not all that jolly this time of year, but I’m working on it.
And if she wasn’t all gung ho about Christmas, okay, so maybe she was still a work in progress there. Her husband had died in a fire on Christmas Eve when she’d been at work. John, exhausted and overworked, had fallen asleep. Faulty wiring had sparked a fire in their old house and he’d died from smoke inhalation.
“So…what do you think this year?” Nick asked. “A noble fir?”
She shook herself out of the bad memories. Bad memories were for the past, and she refused to live in the past anymore. “That sounds great.”
Nick picked up his phone. “We could go today. There’s still plenty of time before it gets dark.”
“Or we could wait until tomorrow.”
Nick cracked a smile. “Yeah, because why do something today we could do tomorrow instead? Especially something you don’t really want to do, right?”
He gave her that look that told her he knew her all too well. And of course he did.
“Maybe we could wait a few days?” She cast him a hopeful look.
He responded with his signature smile. “Sure.”
She wouldn’t let him see the relief that swept through her. Instead, she offered up a smile. “Thanks, Nick.”
“Hey, no big deal.”
“It is a big deal. You have no idea how much everything you’ve done for me, and for Henry, has meant to me.”
“Whoa. Where did that come from? And no thanks is necessary, Ellie. You’re family.”
Family. Yeah, that’s what they were to each other. But they were also so much more. At least now. Back then when John died, they’d been each other’s saviors.
She’d moved into his house five years ago. She’d had nowhere else to go. She didn’t have family. When she’d married John, his family had become her family. And after the fire, it had been Nick who’d taken her in and become her lifeline.
She hadn’t meant to stay at Nick’s house this long. But she’d been five months pregnant with Henry when John had died, and finding a new place to live had been impossible at that time. Then she’d given birth and Henry had been an infant and Nick had told her he had three bedrooms and there was no hurry.
His place was perfect, a one-story brick house near the hospital in St. Louis where she worked as a labor and delivery nurse. She’d settled in with Henry and had felt safe and comfortable.
Then safe and comfortable had become routine for all of them.
Now Henry was four and he loved his uncle Nick. He had his own room and Nick had wired model airplanes to soar on the ceiling. They’d painted the room a bright blue, and he had a four-drawer dresser and oversized wooden box that Nick had made for all of Henry’s toys, plus a nice twin bed next to the window that looked out over the huge backyard.
Her room was nice, too. It was spacious with a queen bed and a beautiful quilt plus a lovely sitting area where she could read. It had a connecting bathroom that she shared with Henry, which was perfect in case Henry wasn’t feeling well or she needed to check on him. It also gave her privacy and a separation from Nick, which Nick thought was important.
In the beginning she hadn’t been thinking much of anything other than basic survival. But after a while she’d seen its merits. Plus the room had a walk-in closet, which worked perfect for her. Not that she had a lot of clothes. She had her scrubs, her jeans, and basic tops. It wasn’t like she went out on dates or anything.
Ugh. Dates. Just the thought of it, of going out with anyone who wasn’t Nick…
Not that she was going to go out on a date with Nick. Because he’d never asked her. Not that she hadn’t thought about it once or twice or a hundred times in the past year or two.
The change had been subtle. First, he’d been her brother-in-law and nothing more. And then, there were these chemical signals, like running into him in the hall while he wasn’t wearing a shirt, and she found her gaze lingering. At the time, she’d thought she should probably look away. Only she hadn’t looked away.
It was at that point she’d realized she needed to start living again. She’d noticed Nick as a man. A hot, living, breathing man. It was time.
“Let’s go out tonight.”
She blinked, feeling like she’d been caught fantasizing about Nick. Had she been staring at him? She wasn’t sure. She looked over at him. “What?”
“Henry mentioned pizza before I dropped him off at Oscar’s for his playdate. What do you think?”
Nick cocked his head to the side and smirked. “Pizza, Ellie.”
Shake it off, Ellie.
She cocked her head to the side and gave Nick the once-over. Despite the hotness factor, of which he had an ample amount, the dude was looking a little shaggy.
“You need a haircut.”
He dragged his fingers through the unruly thickness of his dark hair. “No, I don’t.”
“Yes, you do. If it gets any longer, I’ll be able to put it up with one of my ponytail holders.”
“Bullshit. It’s not that long.”
“It is, too. At least a trim.”
“We have to go pick up Henry.”
She lifted her phone out of her pocket to check the time. “Not for another half hour, which gives me plenty of time to trim your hair.”
“I hate haircuts.”
“I know. But you can let me trim it, then we’ll go get pizza. Now sit.”
He sighed. “Is this a torture/reward kind of thing?”
She shrugged. “If you want to look at it like that, fine. But you’re getting a haircut, and then we’ll get pizza.”
“Fine. But not too short.”
She smiled as she went to one of the drawers in the kitchen to pull out her hair-cutting scissors. “Of course not. I wouldn’t want to ruin your rock star good looks.”
He’d taken a seat at the kitchen table, so he tilted his head back until she could see the twinkle in his eyes. “So…you think I look like a rock star, huh?”
She grabbed a kitchen towel and draped it over his shoulders. “Yes. Shaggy and unkempt.”
She dragged her fingers through the thick softness of his hair, and for a moment she wanted to linger. The thought of it gave her pause.
She’d cut Nick’s hair countless times and not once had she ever thought about how it felt in her hands. The softness of it, or how her fingers tingled as she sifted the strands through them.
She paused. What was that all about?
“Don’t cut too much. Seriously. I hate short haircuts.”
Her lips curved. “You know, for a guy who never complains about anything, you sure are picky about your hair.”
“My hair is magic, Ellie.”
She rolled her eyes. “Right. And I have unicorn eyelashes.”
He tilted his head back and looked at her face. “I knew there was something special about those long lashes of yours. Bet your hair is made from pixie dust, too, isn’t it?”
He picked up a strand of her hair and sifted it through his fingers, and maybe he lingered just a little longer than was usual when he teased her.
She felt that zing of attraction.
This flirting was killing her. Or was she reading something into it that wasn’t there?
Yeah, she definitely had to shake it off.
“And here I thought maybe it was your hair that was made of pixie dust, the way you fuss over it.”
He laughed and the deep, gravelly sound of it shot right through all the feminine parts of her that had lain dormant for the past five years.
“No way. My hair is made from ancient Thor and Hulk follicles.”
She paused and stepped around to stare at him. “Yeah? And where do you find those?”
She snorted out a laugh, then went back to focusing on the task at hand.
“I like you better with your hair a little longer,” she said.
He tilted his head back and gave her that signature smile of his, the one where one side of his mouth lifted. “Aha. See? You do think I look like a rock star.”
Now it was her turn to laugh. “I didn’t say that.”
“You didn’t have to.”
She shook her head and finished the trim, then grabbed the comb, though it wouldn’t do any good. Nick’s hair just fell naturally into place whichever way it wanted to. And typically whatever way it wanted to fall was still pretty darned hot.
He got up and shook his head. “Thanks. And you’re right. It does feel better having a little of that length cut away.”
“Plus you look much better.” She swept some of the hair away from his face, her body once again tingling in response to touching him.
What. The. Hell. Is. Going. On. With. You. Ellie?
She had no idea, but she quickly snatched her hand away. “Yup. Looks fine.”
“Good. I’m gonna go shower and wash away the motor oil smell from work today. Then we’ll head out.”
She wouldn’t tell him she liked that motor oil smell on him. He’d think it was weird. Or kinky. Or something.
Oh, my God what is wrong with you? Now you’re turned on by his motor oil scent?
She was most definitely not turned on. His scent was just familiar to her, which made Nick comfortable to her.
Not hot or sexy or anything.
Stop thinking about Nick like that.
When he left, she exhaled, exhausted by her body’s responses and her utterly bizarre thoughts. She grabbed the broom to sweep up the hair on the floor. After she finished, she went into her bathroom to check herself in the mirror.
Her face was flushed, and since it was early December, it wasn’t because of the heat. She washed her face, then brushed her hair. On impulse, she applied makeup and lip gloss, realizing as soon as she’d done it that it was ridiculous because she never thought about those things when she was hanging out with her son and with Nick.
So why are you doing it now?
She had no answer for that, but since she’d already done it, there was no undoing it.
It was just pizza night with Nick and Henry and nothing more. As for her reactions to Nick, well, she had no answers for what had happened.
Maybe it was time to start thinking about herself as a woman again. And maybe her body was pushing her in that direction.
But not with Nick. Nick was John’s brother. And her friend. Her lifesaver.
And something—anything—with Nick could never happen.
Romance writer Julia Landon knows how to write a happily-ever-after. Creating one for herself is a whole different story. But after a surprising–and surprisingly passionate–kiss under the mistletoe at Harmony Harbor’s holiday party last year, Julia thought she might have finally found her very own chance at true love. Until she learns her Mr. Tall, Dark, and Broodingly Handsome has sworn off relationships. Well, if she can’t have him in real life, Julia knows just how to get the next best thing….
Aidan’s only priority is to be the best single dad ever. And this year, he plans to make the holidays magical for his little girl, Ella Rose. But visions of stolen kisses under the mistletoe keep dancing in his head, and when he finds out Julia has written him into her latest novel, he can’t help imagining the possibilities of a future together. Little does he know, though, Julia has been keeping a secret that threatens all their dreams. Luckily, ’tis the season for a little Christmas magic.
With each frantic beat of my heart, Adrian’s name echoes in my mind. I have to reach him before he discovers my secret. As I race across the ice-crusted meadow, my breath forms small, frosted clouds in the frigid, moonlit night. My throat, my chest, my legs, everything aches but I can’t stop until I reach the white castle by the turquoise sea. Adrian is there, waiting for me. He needs to hear this from me and no one else. If he. . .
A loud buzzing sound pulled Julia Landon out of the scene she was writing and onto the hard chair behind her desk in her cramped, one-bedroom apartment. She gave her head a slight shake to free herself from the grip of her heroine’s emotions and reached for the Santa timer that danced on top of her narrow desk.
Julia’s timers had saved her butt in the past, and this was no exception. Although it didn’t feel that way at the moment because her secret crush still filled the pages of her book for all the world to see.
She turned off Santa, set him on the crowded shelf above her desk, and replaced him with a turkey. Julia had forty-eight timers in her collection, and she had a sinking feeling she’d use each and every one of them before she sent off Warrior’s Touch to her editor. Her manuscript was due tomorrow at nine a.m. sharp. And unless things had changed while she was running through a meadow on a moonlit night in the Emerald Isle, there were still just twenty-four hours in a day.
Which was where the trouble all began. She’d mistakenly assumed she’d be granted a three-day reprieve due to the Thanksgiving holiday, only to discover that New York editors rarely took time off.
Asking for an extension was out of the question. She’d blown through one deadline already. If she blew through another one, she was afraid her editor would write her off as an unprofessional one-hit wonder and cancel the contract, ruining Julia’s chance of making her dream come true.
Back in June, she’d published the first book in the Warrior trilogy, Warrior’s Kiss, on her own. It had taken off almost immediately, exceeding her wildest expectations. Reader support had been phenomenal, and the extra money had come in the nick of time. Sales were down at her bookstore—Books and Beans—and fulfilling her vow to her late fiancé was costly.
But as much as the digital success of Warrior’s Kiss had been mind-boggling in the happiest of mind-boggling ways, Julia’s dream was to see her books sitting on the same shelves as the authors she adored.
The added benefit, which was almost as important, was the hope that the four alpha males in her life—her father and three older brothers—would believe that seeing her in bookstores across the land meant they no longer had to worry about her, that she had what it took to support herself.
Maybe then every phone call home wouldn’t begin and end with her father and brothers exhorting her to move back to Texas so they could look after her—folding her like a burrito in bubble wrap to ensure she wouldn’t get hurt or have her heart broken again.
Honestly, it felt like she’d been trying to prove herself to them her entire grown-up life. If opening Books and Beans hadn’t convinced them she could manage on her own, she didn’t know why she thought being published would. No doubt her brothers would tell her it was her magical thinking at work again. To her mind, there was nothing magical or wrong with being hopeful.
If she hadn’t held onto the hope that things would get better these past couple of years, she didn’t know where she’d be. Maybe cast adrift on a turquoise sea. She wished she didn’t care what everyone thought about her, but sometimes it felt like she’d been born with an extra people-pleasing gene.
Emmeline, Julia’s mother, would have been over the moon for her. The former actress would have held Texas-sized celebrations the day Julia had finished her first book at eighteen, the day she’d received her first non-form rejection letter at twenty-eight, and the day Warrior’s Kiss hit number sixteen on the USA Today bestseller list a week before Julia’s thirty-second birthday.
Every step of the way, every small victory and minor defeat, her mother would have been there cheering her on. Even though Emmeline had died when Julia was twelve, she believed her mother held parties for her in heaven.
Julia paid tribute to Emmeline in each and every book she wrote. In the Warrior’s trilogy, an Urban Fantasy set in Ireland, her mother was the inspiration for the White Witch. In a way, it was like bringing her back to life. The White Witch looked, acted, and dressed exactly like Emmeline once had.
Julia refocused on the computer screen. She’d been a finger press away from deleting the last three chapters when Santa shook his booty and brought her back to reality. Sometimes reality sucked. Because no matter how much she wanted to, there was no way she could kill off Adrian Greystone, the trilogy’s hero. He was the book boyfriend that readers lusted after and the reason they were clamoring for more.
Including Julia’s friend Olivia, who had finished Warrior’s Kiss a few weeks earlier. But unlike Adrian Greystone’s other fans, Olivia had told her that she was uncomfortable lusting after the fictional hero. And it had nothing to do with her friend being a married woman. Olivia said it was because Adrian reminded her of her brother-in-law Aidan Gallagher.
All too clearly, Julia recalled the knowing look Olivia had given her that morning in the bookstore. She’d brushed off Olivia’s silent insinuation with a laugh before making an excuse to run up to her apartment above the bookstore. She’d taken the back stairs two at a time to check for herself.
The evidence was overwhelming. From his physical description to his badass demeanor to his name. Adrian alone may not have raised eyebrows, but then Julia had made the fatal mistake of using Greystone as his surname. Greystone Manor, the fairy-tale castle standing sentry over the town of Harmony Harbor, was the Gallagher family’s home as well as a hotel.
Julia knew exactly where to lay the blame. It was because of that one kiss they shared under the mistletoe last Christmas at the manor. Given the length of time Aidan’s mouth had been on hers, it probably wouldn’t even qualify as a kiss—more like a peck. He hadn’t known her, and she hadn’t known him, and Kitty Gallagher had been standing right there with a twinkle in her eyes demanding they take advantage of the long-standing tradition or risk a lifetime of bad luck.
Since Julia had suffered enough bad luck at that point, she wasn’t willing to take a chance she’d have to live through decades more. Beside that, Aidan was big and beautiful, and at that moment, she’d needed something big and beautiful to distract her. But she should have risked a lifetime of bad luck.
Because while the kiss was merely a brief touch of his firm lips upon hers, it had an earth-shattering effect on Julia. She’d felt like she’d been transported to another place and time, as if she were dancing among the stars. And when she looked into Aidan’s extraordinary blue eyes, something inside her clicked into place. She’d known then that she’d found him. Her soulmate. Her one true love. In her head, she could almost hear her brothers groaning at the idea she’d discovered her true love after sharing only one kiss.
But they’d be happy to know that thoughts of tall, handsome princes and fairytale endings had vanished the second the Gallagher matriarch had introduced the two. Aidan Gallagher would never be the man of Julia’s dreams. He couldn’t be. Because if he ever found out why she’d taken on the job of the Gallaghers’ fairy godmother, he’d have her thrown in jail and would instruct them to lose the key.
Oddly enough though, she’d begun writing Warrior’s Kiss months before she’d met Aidan. But it wasn’t until he’d kissed her under the mistletoe that the story took on a life of its own and her hero, Adrian Greystone, came fully alive.
As much as Julia knew a relationship between her and Aidan could never be, it didn’t stop her from living vicariously through her heroine and embarking on a love affair to end all love affairs with Adrian Greystone.
Within hours of discovering that Olivia was right and that Julia had exposed her secret crush for all the world to see, she’d developed a debilitating case of writer’s block. Every time she sat at her desk, her brain would freeze and her fingers would seize and her first deadline flew by. And now here she was again, staring another deadline in the eyes.
As she saw it, she had three choices. One, get the manuscript to her editor on time and take the risk that someone other than Olivia—who’d been sworn to secrecy—discovered that Julia was author J.L. Winters. Two, kill off her hero and risk alienating both her readers and her new publisher. Three, ask for an extension and risk the possibility of being dropped by her editor.
Deciding the risk was worth it, she went with number three and brought up a new file on the screen. As she worked on a believable way to disguise Adrian’s resemblance to Aidan, she noticed wisps of smoke floating past her. It always amazed her how quickly the real world faded away and she stepped into her imaginary one, but this was downright freaky. Never before had she. . .
The sound of the smoke detector beeping and the voice inside it repeatedly saying fire cut off the thought.
Her head snapped up, and her gaze shot around her apartment, searching for the smoke’s source. She made out the Christmas tree in the corner of her living room, its colorful miniature lights twinkling through the fog. If it wasn’t the tree . . .The bookstore! She jumped from the chair.
And that’s when the smell of burning cookies invaded her nostrils.
Her Santa timer hadn’t gone off to remind her to get up and shake her booty; it was to remind her that her contribution to Thanksgiving dinner was ready to come out of the oven!
Frantically, she searched for her cell phone on her cluttered desk, around the boxes of Christmas decorations she’d yet to unpack on the floor, and the clothes on the couch that she’d forgotten to put away. Her cell phone was nowhere to be found.
And her overprotective father, who was more overprotective than most fathers of daughters because he was a sheriff, had ordered and installed a state-of-the-art alarm system the last time he’d visited. As soon as the smoke detector went off, Julia had four minutes to call the company and report a false alarm or the Harmony Harbor fire trucks would be on their way, sirens wailing.
Just like they had last month.
* * *
Julia walked down the narrow, smoke-filled stairway from her apartment to the bookstore with a fishbowl in her arms while apologizing for a second time to the fire chief. The sixty-something man with a full head of silver hair bore a striking resemblance to Paul Newman, right down to his blue eyes that appeared to be glinting with amusement as he held open the door leading into her store.
“I really am sorry, Mr. Gallagher. From now on, I’ll make sure I have my phone on me before I put anything in the oven.”
He scratched his chin, obviously fighting back a grin. “Colin, remember? And if I’m not mistaken, last time you were making spaghetti sauce and the time before that it was oatmeal. So let’s make a deal. You don’t use the stove or oven until you’re fully awake, okay?”
She typically started her day at five a.m. to get in her word count before opening the store. But it wasn’t like she could tell him she set things on fire because she disappeared into her make-believe world, so she’d told him she fell back to sleep. She’d used the excuse so often that he probably thought she had narcolepsy.
“I think I’ll give up cooking altogether,” she said as she placed the fishbowl on a low table in the children’s section. Her worry that Ariel and Erik had been affected by the smoke in her apartment was alleviated when they began swimming around. But while she could set aside her concern over her goldfish, she had another worry to contend with. . . “My dad didn’t happen to have the alarm system wired so that he gets notified too, did he? Like a three-strikes kind of thing?”
“Not that I know of,” Colin said, no longer holding back a grin. He was giving her a smile that she was unfortunately familiar with. It was the same smile people got on their faces just before they pinched her cheeks. She’d known a lot of cheek pinchers in her thirty-two years.
“He didn’t tell you to call him if my alarm went off, did he?” She made a mental note to ask Paul Benson, the chief of police, the same question. She’d forgotten her pass code and set off the intruder alarm last Sunday when she came back from a walk. In her defense, it was a new password. She’d had to change it when . . . she forgot it the last time. She needed to think about using one password for everything.
“No, he didn’t, but your oldest brother did.” At her groan, Colin added, “Don’t worry. I won’t call unless it’s for something other than a false alarm. You should be glad they worry about you like they do, honey. It shows how much they care.”
Of course he’d side with the men in her family. Just like her father and brothers were the to-serve-and-protect Landons, Colin and his sons were the to-serve-and-protect Gallaghers.
There was one big difference though. Her family got an extra Texas-size helping of alpha which made them way more annoying than the Gallaghers. Thinking back to her interactions with Aidan Gallagher this past summer, she revised that thought. He was the a in alpha and annoying.
“I know they do, and I love them too. I just wish they’d remember I’m thirty-two and not fifteen.”
Colin looked down at her feet, and his lips twitched. She followed his gaze. She had on a cozy red plaid onesie with fake fur lining the hood and reindeer slippers on her feet. She shrugged, smiling up at him. “What can I say? I love Christmas.”
“No one would argue with you there. That’s quite the plan you’ve come up with for decorating Main Street. I got a look at it yesterday.”
“Do you think it’s too much? I made sure there was enough room for the firetrucks to pass under the lights and garland.” It was her first year as head of Harmony Harbor’s Christmas committee, and she wanted to do a good job.
“It’s ambitious, that’s for sure.”
“If you think I’m being ambitious, you should see what they’re doing in Bridgeport. It’s important that we keep up, you know? For the manor’s sake.” Bridgeport was the town adjacent to Harmony Harbor and was the home to Greystone Manor’s biggest competitor.
Which was the reason Julia had volunteered to head up the committee despite having a bookstore and coffeeshop to run and a book to write. Now that she thought about it, it was no wonder she couldn’t keep the code for her alarm straight. But it’s not like she had a choice. Greystone played an important role in ensuring the Gallagher family’s happiness. A job Julia’s late fiancé, Josh Winters, had tasked her with, and one she feared that if she failed, he’d never rest in peace.
“So my mother and the Widows Club keep reminding me,” Colin responded to her keeping up with the Jones comment, or in this case the town of Bridgeport. “Don’t worry, I approved the plan. A few of the boys have volunteered to give you a hand on Sunday. I’ll e-mail you their contact information.”
She hoped his second oldest son wasn’t one of them. “That’s great, thank you. Now we just have to pray that Mrs. Bradford doesn’t try and file another injunction against us.”
The seventy-something woman’s husband owned the local bank and had chaired the Christmas committee for the past twenty years. She wasn’t happy that she’d been replaced by Julia, and she’d made her unhappiness known by taking the town to court for wrongful dismissal. The case had been thrown out of course, but Mrs. Bradford still managed to put them two weeks behind in their decorating schedule.
“She won’t try again. Not with the Widows Club threatening to close their accounts at the bank if she does.” His radio crackled. “I better get going. Give your apartment an hour to air out before you go back up.”
She followed him through the bookstore and the small coffee bar to the front door. “Thanks so much for coming so quickly. I’m just sorry it was for another false alarm.” She wrinkled her nose. “Umm, not that I wanted it to be a real fire, just that . . . well, you know what I mean.”
He laughed and patted her cheek. “You’re welcome. Happy Thanksgiving, honey.”
She held back a heartfelt sigh. Colin Gallagher was the nicest man, and so handsome too. After everything he’d lost, he deserved the happiest of happy ever afters. She was glad that she’d played a small role in helping him achieve it. “You have a happy Thanksgiving too. Say hi to Maggie for me and tell her two o’clock Sunday is fine.”
Julia smiled at the thought that all her scheming and plotting to get Maggie and Colin together had finally paid off. She’d spent most of the fall maneuvering the couple into chance meetings all around town.
Her smile fell at the look that came over Colin’s face. It was not the look of a man who’d just heard the name of the woman he loved. He looked like a man hearing the name of the woman he’d just dumped. Again.
He shifted on his booted feet. “The thing is, Maggie and I . . . Maybe you should just call and let her know the time yourself.”
The bell above the door tinkled as Colin said goodbye and closed it behind him. Through the frosted glass, she watched him get into the firetruck. She didn’t understand it. The man was brave, heroic even. Every day he put himself in danger on the job and had been doing so for more than thirty-five years. But when it came to opening his heart to love again, he got cold feet. This was the second time he’d bailed on poor Maggie. As far as Julia was concerned it would be the last, because one way or another she was getting the couple together for good.
The Gallaghers’ happiness had been her priority, her mission, for eighty-four plus weeks. And as much as she wanted Josh to rest in peace, she wanted to hang up her fairy godmother wings and move on with her life. Being responsible for someone else’s happiness—make that five someone’s—was a heavy burden to bear.
She’d hoped by helping the Gallaghers achieve theirs, she’d find her own. Weighed down as she was by guilt, true happiness had been an elusive thing these past few years. She was ready to change that. Her goal had been to hang up her wings on New Year’s Eve. She’d been thrilled when it looked like she’d achieved her objective months before her self-imposed deadline. Now here she was strapping her wings back on with only five weeks until the ball dropped.
Disappointment and a small dose of self pity caused her stomach to head for her toes as slowly as that big old ball in Time’s Square. But before she managed to sink even a foot into despair, Julia reminded herself of something her mother used to say Nothing is impossible; the word itself says “I’m possible.”
A few years ago, she’d discovered her mother had borrowed the line from Audrey Hepburn. Julia decided she’d borrow some of that positive thinking for herself today. The odds of accomplishing her goal by New Year’s Eve wasn’t impossible or insurmountable. After all, she had only Colin left. And whether he’d admit it or not, he was in love with Maggie. Everyone in town knew it . . . Obviously he didn’t, or at the very least, he was a pro at denying his feelings.
Another small flicker of doubt crept up on her at the thought that Colin’s fear of loving again might be stronger than Julia’s matchmaking skills. But like before, she brushed those pesky worries aside. This time with the reminder that she had four successes to her name—Colin’s sons. Finn, Griffin, and Liam were all happily married, and Julia credited herself with playing a small role in helping them achieve their dreams.
Their brother Aidan’s dream hadn’t included a wife, for which Julia would be eternally grateful. And it had nothing to do with her secret crush on the man. Tall, dark, and dangerous had destroyed any tender feelings Julia might have had for him last summer. Up until then, she thought he was a prince among men. But he’d turned out to be a beast. In good conscience, she couldn’t match him with any of her friends.
So yes, she’d been relieved to learn that what Aidan wanted most was a job. The former DEA agent had moved home to Harmony Harbor in order to prove to a judge that he could provide a stable environment for his six-year-old daughter. But he’d needed a job to do that.
So, in true fairy godmother fashion, she’d finally managed to convince Paul, the chief of police, to hire Aidan at HHPD three weeks ago. She’d even been able to conclude her assignment without any direct contact with Aidan. Not an easy feat in Harmony Harbor. In her book, that made it a win all around.
As long as she didn’t think about Paul who apparently thought they were an item. Because while she didn’t have to interact with Aidan to make his wishes come true, she’d had to interact with his boss-to-be to get him the job. Interact as in date him. Three dates to be exact.
She didn’t have time to worry about Paul now. If she planned to be fairy wing-free by New Year’s Eve, she had work to do and no time to lose. She turned to look over her bookstore, and a plan formulated in her mind. One that would require a pre-dawn visit to Maggie’s house on Breakwater Way.
There was just one teensy problem with her plan. Detective Aidan Gallagher was staying in his childhood home across from Maggie’s. But surely it was early enough that he was still in bed dreaming of sugarplums. She snorted at the thought of anything sweet entering Aidan Gallagher’s dreams. He’d probably shoot it if it did.