November 21, 2015

Publisher Week Day 7: Holiday Surprise @LSB_lsbooks #RLFblog #Holiday

Liquid Silver Books presents Spotlight on The Holiday Surprise

We asked six LSB authors to write an original, 5 part story about a holiday surprise. Authors Anneka Ever, Olivia Night, Kristine Bria, Vicky Burkholder, Allison B. Hanson, and Errin Stevens are pleased to bring you 6 holiday short stories to warm you heart and get you in the holiday spirit.

Enjoy Part 1 of each story is below and come back during the day for parts 2 through 5 in the comments.


Lea Eisig peered at the cookies through the oven window. Well, they sort of look like the ones in the book. Her experience in baking cookies was limited. Usually she grabbed a roll of slice-and-bake dough at the grocery store and threw a few hunks on a non-stick pan. Truth be told, sometimes she just grabbed a spoon and ate the raw dough straight from the end of the plastic sleeve, warnings be darned.
            Baking cookies from scratch was a whole new experience. The last hour had been a hair-raising adventure in measuring, sifting, and mixing. She was covered in flour and somehow had gotten orange marmalade in her hair. On the plus side, I smell good. She looked at the brand new bottles of spices with regret: ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves. What a waste of money, she thought, knowing she would never use them again.
            Her phone buzzed in the living room. As she ran to grab it, she knocked a plastic measuring cup of molasses from the counter. Gooey syrup splattered on the floor.
            “Shoot!” She flapped her hand at it and hurried out of the kitchen.
            The caller was her boss, Tracy Day, Queen of Home Living. That was literally her title; she had it printed on her business cards. She was founder and CEO of a lifestyle media empire that catered to the handmade is superior crowd. Her legions of fans spent hours – and millions of dollars – trying to emulate Tracy’s projects in cooking, crafting, decorating, and gardening.
Lea was part of the senior-level marketing team, on call twenty-four hours a day. Tracy did call at all hours and expected her employees to drop everything to attend to her. Lea was no exception.
“Good evening, Ms. Day. How can I help you?”
She spent the next ten minutes trying to soothe Tracy’s jitters. They had a huge presentation with some overseas investors. Tracy Day, Queen of Home Living, was going global. At the moment, however, Tracy Day, Queen of Home Living, was going ballistic.
“I mean, can you imagine? Charlotte was actually going to make dessert with that jiggly boxed junk! Well, I fired her on the spot.”
Lea cringed. Poor Charlotte. “I’m sorry to hear that, Ms. Day.”
“I hope I can count on you to bring something that’s worthy of the Tracy Day name.”
“Yes, ma’am. The holiday spice cookies from your second book. Completely from scratch. Organic eggs. Vanilla beans. Locally sourced molasses.” The whole snotty nine yards.
 “Excellent. I’ll see you tomorrow.” She hung up without waiting for a response.
Lea tossed the phone on the couch, rubbed her forehead, and took a deep breath. She smelled the bitter scent of burning cookies.
“Oh no! No, no, no!”
Black smoke drifted through the kitchen door. Now she remembered the package of batteries – intended for the smoke alarm – she had shoved in a kitchen drawer. After opening the front door, she hurried into the kitchen and threw open the windows. She ran around the counter and slipped in the molasses. She hit the floor hard, landing on her hands and knees.
Coughing, she crawled toward the oven. Suddenly she felt herself being picked up by a pair of strong hands and tossed across a broad shoulder like a sack of cement. Jolted up and down, all she could say was “Umph!”
A moment later she was dumped on the cold ground outside her house. Before she could get a look at her rescuer, he disappeared back inside. When he returned, he kneeled next to her and said, “Good thing I was home.”

Drummer Boy by Anneka Ever  

Part 2 - 7:00 a.m. | Part 3 - 8:30 a.m. | Part 4 - 10:00 a.m. | Part 5 - 11:30 a.m.

Wish Granted – Part 1


            Amelia hustled quickly between her car and the entrance to her apartment. She had a love/hate relationship with this time of year. She loved celebrating with her family. The house would be all toasty and warm and would smell like whatever everyone had pitched in to cook for Christmas dinner. She loved the fireplace crackling with tree limbs (and probably some newspaper). And she loved spending time with her family and the people she considered her family. Amelia was lucky. Her best friend Kelly and Kelly’s family always spent Christmas with Amelia’s family.
Kelly and Amelia’s dad’s Jack and Jerry had been best friends growing up and had remained friends. Her dad and Jerry owned a construction company together. They had started from the ground up right after high school graduates, just the two of them. Slowly, over the years their company grew as did their success.
            It had practically been preordained that she and Kelly would be best friends. They were born two months apart and grew up three houses from each other. Their mothers had started them on play dates before they could hold their heads up, let alone hold a conversation.
            But Amelia also hated this time of year. The freezing temperatures mostly. For some reason if she got cold (which was as easy as going in between her car and her apartment), she could never get warm again. Never. She would come in and bundle up, but hours later her nose was still cold, her toes were still cold and most annoyingly her butt was still cold. Yes, her butt.  
            However, if Amelia was really being honest with herself, the actual reason she both loved and hated this time of year was mainly Grant Lane. Grant was Kelly’s brother.
As pathetic as it was, Amelia had been in love with him since kindergarten. Even more pathetic she remembered exactly when she fell in love.

22 years ago

She had been out front of their house, riding bikes with Kelly and had totally kicked it. Totally and completely wrecked. Amelia almost went up and over the handlebars, but because she wasn't going all that fast she kind of awkwardly flew forward and then down the right side of the bike. Thankfully, she hadn't had the forethought to be embarrassed at her lack of ability to crash a bike, she was only focused on her scrapes and, soon to be, bruises. Grant, who was ten at the time, had come out of the garage, where he was doing who knows what, and had helped her into the kitchen. He had silently cleaned up all of her scrapes and placed band aids over them. He hadn’t seem bothered by Amelia’s little girl sniffles and hiccoughs. And when he finished fixing her up he gave her a big, handsome smile and kissed the bruise that was forming on her cheek, said “There, all better.” and then helped Amelia off the table. And that was it. She was in love.


            When she was a child she loved him as only a child could. She worshipped him like he was a hero. Amelia would follow him around like a shadow and looking back she couldn’t remember a single time he showed annoyance with her, or her puppy dog ways.
So now at twenty- seven Amelia (still hopelessly, pathetically in love with Grant)  both hoped that Grant would be there for Christmas and also hoped that he would be out doing whatever superman stuff he did for a living. Protecting annoying, rich chicks, trailing corporate traitors, flying through the air instead of driving and kicking terrorist ass like a ninja- that kind of stuff. Okay, so he actually worked for a high end security firm, but Amelia liked her version better.
            Amelia quickly made her way up the stairs to her apartment and she heard her cell beep as she closed and locked her door.
            The text was from Kelly.
“Mom says to make double your regular recipe of crab dip for tomorrow.”
Great. That could only mean one thing. Amelia felt the one side of her scale disappear. The hope that Grant would be out saving the world had vanished. Now, excitement, terror and giddiness took its place. Grant loved her crab dip. Shit, shit, shit. Grant was coming to Christmas.

Wish Granted by Olivia Night     

Part 2 - 7:30 a.m. | Part 3 – 9:00 a.m. | Part 4 - 10:30 a.m. | Part 5 - 12:00 p.m.

Sneaking Up On Santa – Part 1

With her cashmere camel coat draped over her arm, her scarf carefully tucked in the sleeve so it would be ready on her return to the cold, brisk air of Manhattan, Claudia pulled her rolling carry-on Louis Vuitton suitcase across the tarmac toward the Savannah airport. Inside she looked about for a man in a black suit and tie then headed toward the only person in uniform.
A black-haired trunk of a man in a plaid flannel shirt and jeans cut into her path. “Excuse me,” she said, trying to step around him.
“Ms. Finch?”
Her name had her stumbling, mentally and physically off balance so she toppled into the lumberjack and dropped her suitcase handle leaving the expensive leather to fall to the tile. “Wha—?”
In one deft turn, he caught her and scooped her suitcase up off the floor. Taking her elbow, he steered her toward the exit. “I hope your flight was smoother than your landing.”
“Should I know you?” Unamused by his joke, Claudia tugged her arm free.
“I’m Ethan,” he stated and strode through the endless cloud of humidity toward a shiny wooden-paneled maroon Jeep Wagoneer. He opened the passenger door and glared at her with emerald eyes ringed by lashes her friends would pay for. His terse lips only served to emphasize the squareness of his jaw.
She forced herself to provide a civil explanation. “I was expecting...”
“What? A chauffeur from a fancy hotel? This ain’t the Ritz, lady.”
Her perfect holiday vacation started on a less than perfect note. “I’m sorry. Okay?”
“Not really,” he muttered as he stowed her suitcase in the back, leaving her to climb in and close her own door.
With her words so rudely deflected, Claudia pretended not to notice him buckle his seatbelt and crank the engine. Instead she began furiously punching at the keyboard on her phone, texting her best friend. Arrived safely...
Claudia screamed and stumbled into the open door. Without releasing her phone, she stuck her head inside the vehicle and barked, “What was that for?”
“Some of us have things to do. Your flight was half an hour late which means I’m already behind schedule.” His left hand gripped the steering wheel, knuckles whitening. “When do you think you’ll be ready to go?”
She crawled in the ancient SUV and answered with a slam of her door. Hello? Isn’t this your job? The bed and breakfast had touted having someone—likely him—at her service for the next five days she had booked at O’Malley House in Moss Point, Georgia.
When Ethan manually rolled down his window, she sniffed the salt air, closed her eyes, and couldn’t help but smile. They exited the highway and crossed "creeks" that were wider than New England rivers, passing long docks from marsh-front homes with small fishing boats tethered to the ends. Rounding a turn, she gasped as they entered a picture perfect version of a small southern town. Massive oak trees canopied the avenue. Victorian homes with wrap around porches sprawled across manicured lawns. Palmettos and palm trees grew in random clusters throughout the medians. A tiny, perfect white wooden church caught her eye then was gone.
She looked ahead and gasped at railings draped in greenery interspersed with bows and magnolias. Matching wreaths hung over the glass of double doors. "It's beautiful," she whispered under her breath.
For the first time since they’d met, Ethan’s tone softened. "It's home. Let's get you inside."
Sneaking Up On Santa by Kristine Bria          
Part 2 – 8:00 a.m. | Part 3 – 9:30 a.m. | Part 4 – 11:00 a.m. | Part 5 - 12:30 p.m.

Christmas Lost and Found – Part 1

Holiday music piped through the speakers in the bland room. Even though the guards had put up red and green streamers and a little ceramic tree in the corner where the coffee maker usually sat, there wasn’t much you could do with industrial tan. But none of it mattered to Tess. She didn’t do Christmas. Not for two years, and never again. It was just another day to get through. She pasted a smile on her face and studied the little girl sitting next to her desk.
“Mommy says manners are real important. Mommy says only aminals don’t use manners.”
            Tess smiled at the little girl sitting in the too-big chair, her legs swinging as she chattered and clutched a stuffed snowman to her chest. The endearing face with light brown hair separated into two long braids tugged at Tess’ heartstrings. It had been two years since her own little girl had died – along with her husband – victims of a driver full of too much Christmas cheer and snowy roads. Helping this little munchkin had brought the memories rushing back, along with the pain. Tess sighed and clicked the general announcement button on the PA system.
As a security guard for the Columbia Mall, she often helped lost children, but none pulled at her as this little girl in her snowflake patterned sweater and white leggings did. Tess made the announcement and sat back to wait. Technically, she was off-duty, her shift having ended ten minutes ago, but she wanted to stick around and make sure the little girl got safely hooked back up with her parents. As she waited, a pang of pain twined through her. This time of year, she should be happy, right? Celebrating. Enjoying the season. But all she felt was sadness. She’d have preferred to take the entire season off, but that wasn’t an option. Instead, she often worked extra hours, giving those who actually had families time to be with theirs.
“You’re mommy sounds like a very smart person,” Tess said. Yeah, smart enough to let a little one like this out of her sight, especially this time of year. Didn’t the woman know what could happen to kids these days?
“Oh, she is!” The little girl went back to the coloring book and crayons Tess had dug out of her desk drawer. “Mommy is pretty too. Like you.”
Tess bit back a snort. Yeah, she looked real pretty in her black pants and gray uniform shirt, practical shoes made for walking the mall beat all day long and shoulder-length hair pulled back in a tight knot. Real pretty. She glanced up as a tall, frantic, incredibly good-looking man in jeans and off-white fisherman’s sweater burst into the security office.
“Daddy!” The little girl jumped from the chair and launched herself into the man’s arms.
Tess thought she wouldn’t mind doing the same thing. Where the devil had that idea come from? She hadn’t looked seriously at a man in two years – not from lack of trying on the part of her friends. She just hadn’t found anyone that sparked her interest – until now. This guy, though, had definite possibilities. A head taller than her 5’5” frame, well-built, tanned, dark hair that fell over his brow and the most amazing green eyes she’d ever seen. Shame he was married.

Christmas Lost and Found by Vicky Burkholder
Part 2 – 1:00 p.m. | Part 3 – 2:30 p.m. | Part 4 – 4:00 p.m. | Part 5 - 5:30 p.m.

Home for the Holidays – Part 1

She sat on the pull-out bed and looked around her father’s den. Being home for the holidays after four years should have been a great thing. But here she was, staying in the room where her heart had been shattered the last time she was there.
This time it would be different. Kayla didn’t need to worry about her brother, Ryan, showing up with his business partner and best friend. She was going to have a Liam-free Christmas with her family. If only she could block out the memories of what the two of them had done in this lumpy bed years ago.
It had been the Christmas after she’d graduated from college. Liam and her brother Ryan had just opened a landscaping business. Up until then, she had been happy to flirt with Liam. He’d occasionally put his hand on her back in passing, but nothing more.
She didn’t know why he was so different. Having four older brothers meant her home was always filled with guys. But she’d always treated those guys as extensions of her brothers. Not Liam.
From the moment he’d stepped in their house with those sad, dark eyes and messy blond hair, she knew she’d never think of him as a brother.
She’d never expected him to feel anything for her. She’d been wrong.
“Do you have everything you need?” her mother asked as she stepped into the room. Her father’s den was a well-stocked man cave. Complete with its own refrigerator and bathroom. Located above the attached garage, it offered privacy as well as access to the house without having to put on a coat.
“It’s great. It looks the way I remembered.” The same sports memorabilia hung on the walls. “The TV might be bigger.”
Her mother nodded and patted her shoulder.
“Josh and his family will be here soon.”
“When is Ryan getting here?”
“He said he and Liam would get here tonight. But I don’t expect them until tomorrow afternoon.”
Kayla could feel her eyes go wide as her mouth fell open.
“Liam is coming? You said he couldn’t make it this year.”
“He had plans to go to skiing, but they fell through at the last minute. I told him we had room so he’s coming.” Her mother tilted her head to the side. “What’s wrong? You don’t like Liam all of the sudden? I thought you liked him.”
She did like him. Too much. More than he liked her apparently. After he’d come knocking on her door that Christmas Eve four years ago, she’d shown him exactly how much she liked him.
It had been perfect. Only the lumpy pull-out had kept it from being magical.
But the next morning she’d woken up alone. And at the breakfast table on Christmas morning, he’d acted as if nothing had happened between them.
She hadn’t come home for Christmas since because every year Liam had been visiting. The only reason she’d given in to her mother’s pleading this year was because she’d been assured Liam wasn’t coming.
Now she was going to have to see him.
“It will be so nice to have the whole family together for Christmas again,” her mother said, spreading on an extra layer of guilt.
“It’s going to be great, Mom.”
Just great.
Home for the Holidays by Allison B. Hanson
Part 2 – 1:30 p.m. | Part 3 – 3:00 p.m. | Part 4 – 4:30 p.m. | Part 5 – 6:00 p.m.

Beach-Bound – Part 1

He knew where he was before he opened his eyes.
First he heard the surf, the rhythmic rush and crash of waves hitting the shore perhaps ten yards from where he lay. The fresh sea air tickled his nose and awakened him further. When he shifted, sugar sand cascaded from his hair, brushing his face as it fell to the ground beneath his cheek.
His eyelids lifted to reveal a weak December sun whose light barely penetrated the gray carpet of clouds covering what appeared to be his own private beach. Diffused and dim, the sky was still too bright for early morning; he guessed the time to be maybe ten? Perhaps closer to noon.
What was he doing here? His mind was clear, his perceptions crisp… but he could not recall the events leading to his current circumstances. He drilled his memory, encountering only blackness until a single image surfaced like the too-brief revelation of a dark landscape by a flash of lightning. A party in someone’s backyard… no, on the beach, at night. There was a fire and laughing; and strange, beautiful women drifted around him and several other guys, everyone a stranger. The women were extraordinary – their eyes, their skin, their hair – every feature, every movement fascinated him. He and the other men examined them hungrily, riveted. He felt like a predator hunting the one he would choose… but then maybe he and the others were prey, there for one of them to select. His mind shuttered and the picture disappeared.
He decided to work his situation backwards instead, to search for tangibles in what he could see and understand at the moment. He was on his back with his face turned toward the ocean, and he was blanketed under an enormous pile of seaweed. Which he supposed he appreciated since he would otherwise be dead from hypothermia. He started to disentangle his arms, and then quickly tucked them back into his body for warmth, and because he apparently needed to make a stronger inventory before he acted as he didn’t seem to be wearing anything underneath all this kelp. This was a significant problem he wasn’t sure he could solve – it felt like it might actually snow – and he peered up the beach. He had an insubstantial memory of parking his car in a lot possibly located just to the north. He calculated the time it would take him to traverse the half-mile stretch and immediately abandoned the idea. He wasn’t sure the lot was even there, and in any case, he’d never make it in this cold.
He lifted his head as high as the weight of his cocoon allowed and noticed markings in the sand next to him. Someone had left him a note.
Seth - Go to the house over the berm.
An arrow pointed behind him and he followed it to see where it indicated. He glimpsed the roofline of a simple, heretofore unnoticed shack, a brown-shake Cape Cod perched on the otherwise bleak landscape, not too far from where he was. Seth fought his way out of his nest and sprinted to the cottage.

Beach Bound by Errin Stevens
Part 2 – 2:00 p.m. | Part 3 – 3:30 p.m. | Part 4 – 5:00 p.m. | Part 5 – 6:30 p.m.

Thank you for joining the authors of Liquid Silver Books
for a week of fun on Romance Lives Forever!
We wish you all a safe and happy holiday season.
Baby it's cold outside! Heat up your holiday with hot spicy romance novels. Go ahead, be naughty ... save Santa the effort!

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  1. DRUMMER BOY Part 2 by Anneka Ever

    Nicholas Stanley realized it was the wrong thing to say as soon as he said it. Lea narrowed her eyes at him. “Have you been spying on me?”
    “What? No!” He stood up and put his hands on his hips. “I was in my yard, putting up some Christmas decorations. I saw smoke coming from your windows.”
    She coughed, then tried to stand. When he offered her his hand, she smacked at it. “I’m fine!”
    “You didn’t look fine in the kitchen. I saved you.”
    “From what? Burning cookies? It wasn’t a five-alarm fire.”
    After she managed to get up, he got a good look at her. Her t-shirt was covered in flour and a dark brown substance coated her feet and her jeans. He was sticky with it too. He opened and closed his hands. “What is this?”
    It was even in her hair. No, not molasses. He leaned close and sniffed. Orange marmalade? “Mmm, citrusy.” His mouth watered.
    Despite the gunk that covered her from head to toe, Lea was as beautiful as ever. Shiny chestnut hair. Eyes dark as fine chocolate. Creamy skin. The sight of her made him hungry.
    “I can’t believe you were making cookies. You never baked when we were together.”
    They had dated for nearly two years, until Lea broke it off with him about this time last year. Apparently he was too laid back for someone with her aspirations. He was a drummer in a local band, and worked in a bookstore. She thought he should do something more corporate.
    “Baking isn’t my choice, believe me.” She tried to dust the flour from her clothes and ended up making paste because of the molasses on her hands. She sighed. “It’s part of Tracy’s new initiative. All employees have to develop their home living skills.”
    Nicholas threw back his head and guffawed.
    “What’s so funny?”
    “The thought of you cooking or sewing or decorating.”
    “I can do it. If I have to.”
    Raising his eyebrows, he looked her over from head to toe and then glanced at the wisps of dissipating smoke drifting out the door. “You’re doing a bang-up job.”
    “Don’t be a jerk.” She walked to her front door, then turned to face him. “I have to do this or my job will be in jeopardy. She’s already fired one person for not living up to her standards.”
    “Listen, if you need help –”
    “I don’t need your help. I don’t need you to save me.” She grabbed the door knob. “And another thing, are you going to have all those gaudy decorations up again this year?”
    “They’re not gaudy!”
    “It lights up the whole neighborhood. Last year I couldn’t sleep for all the light shining in my bedroom!”
    “Was that the only reason you couldn’t sleep? You know, dumping someone right before Christmas –”
    “Don’t, Nick.”
    Her mouth turned down at the corners. Her kissable, kissable mouth. He stepped forward and almost walked into the door, which Lea had slammed when she saw him move.
    “Merry Christmas to you, too.” He shoved his hands in his pockets and walked back to his house, which was across the street from hers.
    He approached the inflatable reindeer he had been working on before he saw the smoke. Its nose was bright red and would blink when it was plugged into a power source. Nicholas kicked it and it deflated with a slow, sad pfffttt sound.
    He entered the house and went straight to his soundproof basement. He needed to hit something. His drum kit fit the bill.

  2. Wish Granted Part 2:


    Crap. Amelia was running late. She was running late on Christmas. She was never going to hear the end of this. Amelia had already gotten three texts from Kelly asking where she was.
    Amelia had spent more time than usual on her appearance this morning. This was mainly in case Grant decided to bring a guest with him.
    Two years ago he’d brought his girlfriend to Christmas. She had been gorgeous. Of course. Long legs, blond hair, big boobs and a laugh that was contagious. Amelia had been wearing jeans and a sweatshirt. Her hair was tied back haphazardly and she had only a dusting of makeup on. There was no comparison. Amelia had been mortified. Kelly had known something was up due to the, not so subtle, fact that Amelia’s face had gone eight shades of red when the girlfriend (maybe model) walked in.
    Amelia’s complexion was on the pale side. She had strawberry blond hair that accompanied her pale skin. She had never been able to hide excitement, embarrassment or really any other extreme emotion because of her complexion. But one great thing about her pale features was the green eyes that came with it. She had to admit that she loved her eyes.
    Unfortunately, Kelly hadn’t been the only one who noticed that Amelia was embarrassed. She watched as Kelly’s mom, Alex looked between Amelia and Grant’s girlfriend and purse her lips. Her own mother, Gabbie had given Grant a death glare, which for a really observant guy, he didn’t notice. The dad’s hadn’t noticed the change in the atmosphere.
    They did take notice when Amelia cut short her Christmas. She had come up with a lame excuse that she had forgotten to turn off her stove top and had rushed out like she was on fire.
    As Amelia had passed Grant he had grabbed her upper arm in a steel grip. Amelia had been forced to stop. She looked up at Grant and saw that his expression was unreadable. His eyes searched hers long enough that she became uncomfortable with what he must be seeing and when he found whatever he was looking for she saw his jaw jump.
    When they were this close she was completely aware of the difference in height. She was 5’3, he was 6’3. She had stopped growing in the ninth grade. Amelia tried (operative word being tried) to work out three or four times a week. She had worked out for a while with a trainer to learn the right moves and postures. So she wasn’t walking around with extra or unwanted weight. She had small boobs, pretty wide hips but ,on the flip side a pretty small waist. This meant she was kinda curvy. Not like Salma Hayek curvy, but her curves weren’t too shabby. Infact at one point she had been almost certain Grant liked the way Amelia looked.
    But she was also far from perfect. She had jiggly bits and bumps that, no matter the workout or nutrition, remained exactly where it wanted to be. Grant had grown three more inches after high school graduation. Grant had always been built like a God. When they were younger he was tall and lean. As he got older and played football he spent a lot of time in the weight room with the other guys. Grant had filled out slowly. By the time he had graduated high school he was more muscular than anyone in his grade. Now, years later he hadn’t lost any of the muscle. Infact, he had gained more. And he carried himself in a way that clearly said he was not a person to mess with. Everything about him seemed lethal. And Amelia loved that too.
    But as he held her arm, keeping her from leaving, she knew he saw everything that she had spent years keeping secret.
    “I gotta go.” Amelia had whispered up at him. She watched as the muscles in his jaw worked harder and she felt his grip grow stronger on her arm. Amelia pulled at her arm in his hand and slowly he released her. Without looking at him again, she had rushed out of the door and driven home.
    And then she spent Christmas night alone, crying.


    “Here’s your room.” The third floor room featured a turret housing a chaise lounge, antique side table, and lamp with a stained glass shade.
    Claudia raised her hands to her face. “A reading nook! How...” she tapered off, suddenly conscious of her audience of one. He placed her suitcase on a bench at the end of the bed.
    “Do you need anything else right now?”
    “No, thank you. Hold on.” She fumbled through her purse before pulling out her wallet and started counting out bills.
    Ethan backed away, hands in the air and shaking his head. “No.”
    “But you picked me up from the airport and carried my bag. I owe you something.” She walked toward him holding out the cash.
    Insulted didn’t begin to describe Ethan’s reaction. She clearly had no idea he simply enjoyed helping out his parents. “No, thank you, Ms. Finch.” He refused to use her first name. He’d used her last name at the airport to be polite. After all, she was a stranger. Granted they hadn’t gotten off to the greatest start. And okay, maybe his joke had a little—or a lot—to do with it. He usually didn’t greet guests so rudely, but her designer duds radiated a high maintenance vibe he couldn’t help but rail against.
    He came home to escape status symbols. Seeing his hometown—worse yet, his parents’ home—polluted with an uptown girl aura tainted the overall Moss Point experience.

  4. SNEAKING UP ON SANTA - Part 2.1

    Claudia smiled into the sunlight sifting through the lace curtains and onto the wedding ring quilt that she had tucked under her chin as she slept. A sigh escaped her as she realized she had slept peacefully even without the sirens and horns of the city to lull her into slumber. Her arms stretched to their full length, and she pushed herself out of bed, her feet squeaking on the polished hardwoods as she crossed the floor anxious to try out her private bath with a claw-footed tub.
    Half an hour later, she slipped into the hallway in half her usual makeup and hair pulled up in a twist, thrilled that it only took her half the time to get ready. She couldn’t wait any longer to explore the “breakfast” portion of her southern B&B experience.
    Catching sight of her lumberjack in the foyer as she descended the stairs, she wrapped the comfy cable knit cotton cardigan she’d bought especially for the vacation tighter about her waist. Rallying her nerves to face his green eyes she suddenly wilted as he raised them to her. And it had absolutely nothing to do with him. Sweat slicked her palms as she grasped the shiny railing, and her knees began to melt. Everything had become irrelevant when she’d caught the scent of the orange icing her mother had made only on Christmas.
    Yes, she’d come to Moss Point to experience the holiday there through fresh eyes which hadn’t considered a view of the past through any of her other senses. She’d been focused on the future and instead had spun into a time warp...only to be pulled back to the present by a strong arm at her back and a familiar firm hand at her elbow.
    “Here she is—desperately in need of caffeine.” Ethan’s voice left no room for argument, not that she was in any condition to provide one.
    Mrs. O’Malley slipped a plate of cranberry orange scones onto a table then hurried to open the door and kissed Ethan on the cheek. “Yes, she obviously needs one of those stout coffee drinks from across the street.”
    ...and not having a guest faint on her stairs. Claudia’s mind began to function. Her body responded more slowly, and she allowed herself the luxury of slumping against the large man propelling her down the shady sidewalk.
    “Are you okay?” His freshly shaved face partially blocked her vision though he kept them in motion.
    “Oh. Yes. I’m fine.”
    He stared at her as if he could see through the load of bull she was feeding him. Whatever had her almost dropping to her knees on the stairs this morning was not a small trigger. He wanted to understand what caused her reaction, wanted to know what he’d missed. His parents wouldn’t let it happen again. He wrote off his protective instincts to the manners of a southern gentleman. He’d do the same for any guest, man or woman.
    “My blood sugar.”
    He released Claudia but remained tense at her side. “Right.” Before she could argue, he opened a glass door for her and she entered a wonderland of art and was enveloped in the aroma of freshly ground coffee beans.
    She took a deep breath. Then another.
    Ethan’s face blocked her view. “What’s your usual?”
    “Large hazelnut soy latte with a double-shot of espresso.”
    The honey-blond woman behind the counter called Ethan by name. “You brought us a guest?”
    He ordered Claudia’s drink perfectly then added, “—and a slice of cinnamon coffee cake. For here.”
    Looking between them, she placed the bill he’d dropped on the counter in her cash register, the barista said, “Why don’t y’all grab that table? I’ll bring it right out.”
    Claudia verbally stumbled into a “But...” as he pulled out a wrought iron chair for her at a cafe table.
    Almost immediately the coffee and pastry landed before her. “Let me know if you need anything else. Anything at all.” She delivered Ethan a pointed look before heading back behind the counter.
    Claudia reached for the ceramic mug with both hands and shivered as the first steaming sip warmed her throat and chest.

  5. SNEAKING UP ON SANTA - Part 2.2

    Ethan sat in silence, one arm draped across the tiny mosaic tabletop as he tracked her movements like a hawk. He finally spoke as she took a bite of the coffee cake. “Your color’s back. Care to tell me what happened back there?”
    What was the excuse she’d used? Oh yeah. “My blood sugar—“
    “I mean the real reason. If you won’t tell me then Kate’s a good listener.”
    “The owner of Local Flavor. She just brought your breakfast.”
    “Oh.” Claudia turned to hear laughter bubble out of the woman as a chestnut-haired man dipped her for a kiss.
    “Adam. Her husband,” Ethan responded to the unspoken question.
    She set down her fork and glanced around at the vibrant paintings and unique pottery surrounding them. “Are these for sale?”
    “Yes. Kate opened Local Flavor as much to support the community of artists as to fill our void of a cappuccino machine.”
    Claudia’s eyes flitted about the shop, pausing periodically before she took a large sip from her mug. “It’s impressive. So, what were you late for yesterday?”
    “Oh, nothing.”
    “It didn’t seem like nothing.”
    Ethan debated the pros and cons of sharing, making a quick assessment in his head that served him and his clients so well at his real day job. Sure, he could put her off, but there was obviously a vulnerable side to her he’d missed in his assessment of her at the airport.
    “I’m an elf.”
    Claudia sat up in her chair, and he couldn’t tell if she was shocked at this side of his character. And if the latter was the case then he really had made a lousy impression.
    “Maybe I should rephrase that,” he continued. “I’m one of Santa’s helpers. I was supposed to be making a top secret pick-up at the toy store, and when your flight ran late...”
    “I threw you off schedule. So who’s Santa?”
    “Mom and Dad play Santa and Mrs. Claus at a Christmas celebration they have in the park. They hand out gifts to the kids. Some of them only get the presents at the party.” He waited for his point to register.
    “No one knows where they come from...”
    “Beyond ‘Santa’s Workshop’.”
    Ethan nodded.
    “And you want it to stay that way.”
    He nodded again. “I think I could use a coffee after all.” He had to get away from those too-perceptive blue eyes, her soft smile, and those cheeks that now looked perfectly shaded since she’d lost the gray undertones from her near collapse on the stairs.
    Adam stepped up to take Ethan’s order. “Well?”
    “Christmas blend. Black.”
    “And the girl?”
    “Huh? Oh, Claudia.” Shoot. He couldn’t let anyone see him distracted, but he’d swooped in like her knight in shining armor and whisked her out of O’Malley House and into Local Flavor as efficiently as he would a date. Or a girlfriend. No! His gut railed against the prospect. Happy bachelor. Holidays with family. Santa’s helper. Moss Point Christmas celebrations. Definitely no room for a girlfriend in the mix. Or even for a date. Between helping out at the bed and breakfast and secretly buying, sorting, and wrapping Christmas presents he had absolutely no time for a romantic interest of any sort.
    Adam dragged his brain back to reality. “It’s okay to be interested.”
    “Says the happy newlywed,” Ethan grumbled.
    “I should know.”
    Adam been put through the wringer earlier this year. Never would Ethan have imagined he or Kate settling down, let alone them finding their own happily ever after as a couple. Just because it happened for them didn’t mean that it would happen for Ethan. He’d only known Claudia for two days after all. There was no way they could have the kind of connection that Kate and Adam did.
    He poured sugar in his coffee and stirred it with a wooden stick before heading back to the table...and the woman who called for more caution than he’d first thought.

  6. DRUMMER BOY: Part 3

    Lea leaned against the door and waited to see if Nicholas would knock. When he didn’t, she sighed and returned to the kitchen. The delicious scent of nutmeg and cinnamon had been replaced with the acrid smell of burnt sugar.
    Apparently Nick had pulled the baking sheets from the oven, for now they rested in the sink basin. The cookies, stuck to the sheets, looked like black turds.
    She leaned against the counter and surveyed the kitchen. Flour and spices dusted every surface that wasn’t already covered in molasses. The syrup was smeared across the floor where she had fallen. Molasses footprints trailed from the kitchen to the front door, hard evidence that Nick had carried her outside. Looks like a North Pole crime scene.
    Lea set to work cleaning up the mess. It took hours. When she was done, she climbed in the shower. She had to shampoo three times to get the marmalade out of her hair. After the third wash, she burst into tears.
    “What am I going to do?”
    She didn’t have other baking sheets, she had used all the eggs, and the molasses was gone. Locally sourced ingredients were out of the question now. Everything but the big box store would be closed. Lea couldn’t tell the difference, but she thought Tracy would know if she used substandard ingredients. Somehow, she would know.
    “Maybe I can pick up something from that upscale bakery on the way to work in the morning. She won’t like it. She’ll probably fire me. But, at least I tried.”
    Lea repeated that to herself after she climbed out the shower and dressed in a t-shirt and pajama bottoms. The t-shirt was one of Nick’s that she had found wadded in the bottom of a drawer months ago. She had meant to toss it in the garbage but somehow ended up wearing it to bed every night. She avoided analyzing why, telling herself it was because it was so soft and comfortable.
    She was climbing into bed when the doorbell rang. Lea glanced at the clock on the nightstand. Who’s visiting at this time of night? Please don’t let it be Tracy.
    She hurried to the living room, peeked through the peephole, and sighed. Nick. He held a Christmas tin in both hands.
    Opening the door, she said, “What?”
    “I thought you might use these tomorrow, since yours were ruined.” He handed her the tin.
    Lea opened it to discover cookies shaped like snowflakes, iced in white and pale blue, sprinkled with large-crystal sugar. Each one was nestled in silver fluted paper.
    “They’re lovely.” She picked one up and examined it. The sugar crystals glistened in the light from Nick’s decorations. “Where did you buy these?”
    “I made them.”
    “What? No, you didn’t!”
    “Yep. I used my grandma’s recipe for citrus sugar cookies. They’re really good! Try one.”
    She took a tentative bite, then gobbled the entire cookie. They were tart and sweet. “They’re delicious,” she admitted.
    He shoved his hands in his pockets and rocked back on his heels. “I made some for you last year but you worked really late that night. I ended up giving them out to Christmas carolers.”
    “Oh.” She felt blood rise in her face.
    “Anyway, good luck tomorrow.”
    When he turned to leave, she grabbed his sleeve. “Nick. Wait.”
    He faced her but didn’t say anything. She caught her breath. I forgot how attractive he really is. Dark brown hair, sad green eyes. He reminded her of an evergreen forest, dark and beautiful.
    She wanted to tell him she was sorry for how she broke up with him…sorry for when she broke up with him. Instead, she said, “Thank you.”
    “No problem.”
    As he walked back across the street, she realized it had started to snow.

  7. Wish Granted Part 3

    Kelly opened the door for Amelia.
    “Dude.” Kelly’s tone said it all. Kelly knew exactly why Amelia was late.
    “I know, I know. Sorry.” Amelia rushed through the door and straight to the kitchen to warm up the crab dip she had made. Amelia could feel Kelly at her heels. Like her brother, Kelly loved the crab dip she always brought. Vulture.
    Amelia had never admitted to Kelly that she was pathetically head over heels in love with Grant. But Kelly was her best friend, she totally knew.
    Amelia spent half of her childhood at Kelly’s house. She saw Grant almost every day. And much to her dismay Grant had always treated Amelia like a little sister. As she got older she had tried everything she could think of to get him to see her differently.
    But he never seemed to notice. Grant, on several occasions had personally introduced her to his girlfriend of the moment. If she didn’t know better she would think he was purposefully trying to drive it home that she was like a little sister to him and nothing more.
    Amelia hadn’t been incredibly bothered by Grant’s girlfriends when he was younger and in college. It wasn’t until he had gotten older and had a serious girlfriend that Amelia had been devastated. Jennifer had been tall- apparently Grant’s M.O. - dark hair and dark sultry eyes. She was beautiful. And to make matters worse, she was nice. She was a genuinely good person. A frigging social worker. Amelia couldn’t compete with that. There was no way she could compete with that.
    Jennifer and Grant had been together for almost a year. He was 27, Amelia had been 22 at the time. It had been a miserable year. Amelia had to listen to Alex gush about how Jennifer was perfect for Grant. How she hoped that Jennifer would be able to calm him down, get him to settle and start a family. And then Amelia felt like a really low person when Grant and Jennifer broke up. Low, because she was happy about it.
    Amelia gave her mom and Alex hugs when she walked into the kitchen.
    “Where’s Dad?”
    Amelia’s mom nodded to the back door that led to the deck.
    “What on earth are they doing outside?” It was barely above freezing.
    “Being men.” Her mom rolled her eyes and went back to the stove top. Amelia frowned as her eyes went to the back door.
    Kelly answered her thoughts, “Grilling.”
    “Grilling?” Amelia asked. Kelly nodded. “Grilling what?”
    “Who knows.”
    “Oh good lord.” Amelia sighed. Her dad and Kelly’s dad would never change. They would be eighty, and she would still find them grilling in the middle of a blizzard.
    Amelia gave the girls quick reheat instructions so that she could go out and give her dad a hug. She opened the door and felt the instant blast of freezing air. This hello was going to be a quick one. She looked to the left and saw her and Kelly’s dad huddled around the grill in winter coats with beers in their hands. She smiled shook her head and started over to them.
    “Hey darlin’!” Her dad called as she walked over, he extended his arm out to her.
    She went easily into his hug, “Hey Dad.”
    “How’s my baby girl?”
    “I’m good.” She smiled over to Kelly’s dad, Jerry.
    “Merry Christmas, Jerry.”
    Jerry raised his beer to her. As his hand was mid-raise he looked over Amelia’s head toward the back of house.
    “Need help with that, Grant?”
    It took everything in Amelia not to stiffen or freeze. It also took every ounce of self control not to look over her shoulder to where Grant must be. She didn’t hear a reply, just the clunk of, what had to be, wood being dropped into a pile. Out of her periphery she saw Grant stride up to the group. He came fully into her view as he bent slightly to pick up his beer, which incidentally, Amelia hadn’t noticed.

  8. “Amelia.”
    At this point Amelia was forced to look directly at Grant. Damn. She met his gaze and was shocked at what she saw looking back at her. His stare was intense. It was more than intense. He was looking at her in a way she had never seen. And it immediately raised goosebumps her arms and neck. He looked hungry and at the same time he looked like he was in pain.
    “Merry Christmas, Grant.” Amelia said in a voice she didn’t recognize. The voice was breathy and light.
    “You need a coat.” It was as if he hadn’t even heard her speak. She did a quick glance at her dad and Jerry to find them eyeing Grant with assessing gazes.
    “I’m okay, no worries.” Since when did he care about the temperature?
    “It’s cold. You need a coat, Amelia.” He said again. Grant was still staring at her completely unfazed that both her dad and his dad were wondering where this all was coming from.
    He had acted like this once before. For some strange reason, that Amelia couldn’t figure out, Grant was weird about what she wore.

    -Eleven Years Ago-

    He had been 21 and she had been 16. She and Kelly had snuck in after a late night out. Grant had been standing in Kelly’s bedroom in the dark. When Kelly clicked on her bed side lamp, while giggling uncontrollably, Grant’s large body had been illuminated by the soft light. Amelia let out a muted scream and swore (later to Kelly) that she had almost peed her pants.
    “Grant! Jesus!” Kelly hissed in a whisper.
    Grant had raised his eyebrows are her, “Out having fun, Kelly?”
    Kelly pushed passed him to get to her bedroom door. She silently opened it and peered out into the hall. All while she was doing this Grant had not changed his stance, but instead of staring at Kelly who was to his right, he was staring at Amelia. His face gave away nothing, except for the fact that he was pissed. Really pissed.
    Kelly closed the door and silently marched back over to Grant. “What are you doing in my room?” She hissed up at her brother.
    “What are you doing not in your room?”
    “None of your business.”
    “You’re sixteen.”
    Kelly clapped her hands up at Grant, “Good job, counting.”

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  10. Grant’s eyes flashed down at Kelly.
    Amelia decided it was time to wade in, “Um Kelly…”
    Grant’s eyes flashed back to Amelia. Amelia froze mid-sentence as all thoughts left her brain. All thoughts except one and that thought was that she was absolutely certain she never wanted to be on the receiving end of this glare again.
    Grant eyes shifted back over to Kelly, “You guys look ridiculous.” And with that parting shot he turned and left the room.
    The girls both looked down at their carefully planned outfits. Tight jeans, tight tops, awesome high heels. What was wrong with what they were wearing?
    Kelly turned and rolled her eyes at Amelia. “Be glad you don’t have a big brother.”
    “For real.” Amelia whispered staring at the door.
    Kelly reached into her dresser and tossed shorts and a tee shirt to Amelia. Amelia left the room and darted across the hall to the bathroom. She quickly changed, pulled her hair up into a messy knot and washed the makeup from her face. She pulled the door open quietly, listening for any noises before she prepared to dart back to Kelly’s room. Amelia looked behind her to close the bathroom door and when she turned back around she was staring at a solid wall of male chest. She sucked in a breath and looked up to find Grant staring down at her.
    “Umm….” For lack of anything else to say.
    Grant, however was not lost for words. “Don’t wear shit like that again, Amelia.”
    “What?” She whispered.
    “I find out you wear shit like that again, we’re gonna have problems.” He said as an explanation.
    “I don’t…” Amelia started to say as she shook her head in confusion.
    “You don’t want to find out what kinda problems you will bring on with me. So don’t.” Grant was glaring down at Amelia like she had broken some cardinal rule that she was completely unaware of.
    “Nod your head, Amelia.”
    Amelia’s mouth was completely dry so in the end all she could do was nod her head. She hadn’t worn something like that again and she never heard about it from Grant after that.

    Amelia gave Grant a quick smile for lack of any other real idea of how to react. “I’m going back in anyway.” Her dad released his arm from her shoulder as she pushed away from his body. She leaned up on her tiptoes and kissed her dad on the cheek, turned and walked back to the house. As she pushed open the door she saw that her dad and Jerry had stepped in closer to Grant and Jerry was saying something that didn’t travel over to her ears. Grant had been looking at nothing in particular, listening to his dad speak but he must have felt her looking at him because without warning his eyes flashed up to hers. And what she saw this time was very clear. His eyes were hungry.


    Waking up to her second morning in Moss Point, Claudia steeled herself, prepared for the waft of more orange icing as she descended the stairs only to be met with the scents of bacon and biscuits.
    “Good morning, love,” Mrs. O’Malley called out as she spied her on the stairs. “Come along. Let’s fix you a plate. I’ll bet you’ve never had cheese grits like mine.”
    Claudia wasn’t sure if she would recognize a grit if she fell over it. Ancient mismatched porcelain serving dishes covered a massive wooden sideboard in the dining room. Grabbing a plate with a scalloped violet border, her hostess began scooping some yellowish-orange grainy concoction onto the china. Aha! At last, these must be the infamous cheese grits so many people had raved about in their travel reviews.
    “What else would you like? Eggs? Bacon? Biscuits? Sausage gravy?”
    “Yes?” It all sounded so good and she hated to be a glutton, but gosh, since she only had time for a protein shake for breakfast on her walk to work each morning, she couldn’t imagine when she might have the opportunity to sample a smorgasbord like this again.
    Mrs. O’Malley released a robust laugh. “The full breakfast it is, then.”
    “Hey, Mom.” A familiar hulking figure walked in through a swinging door she assumed led to the kitchen and froze when he saw Claudia. “Um, hey.”
    She forced a greeting from her mouth. “Hey.”
    Mrs. O’Malley looked back and forth between them, seemingly unsurprised by their awkward interaction. “Yes, dear?”
    “Oh. Um. I just wanted to know... That is, um, do you...” Finally he moved his eyes from Claudia to his mother.
    At least she wasn’t the only one who was flustered.
    “Oh yeah. When did you want me to run to the store?”
    “You can do it after you have breakfast. I’m sure Claudia would love to ride along.”
    “I would?”
    “Of course you would. Go eat that breakfast, and you’ll be ready to go.”
    Claudia glanced at the plate and determined the only thing she might be ready for would be for someone to haul her up to bed for a nap.
    Bed. Ethan. Bad idea. Bad thought. No...Just no.
    But the more she thought about that extra-large sized body with the flat abs and arms that had lifted her and her suitcase in a single scoop... No! She’d come here to get away. He’d been kind to her yesterday. She had no business thinking about creating any kind of connection with anyone in Moss Point—especially not a gorgeous male who had to have a girlfriend. How could he not be? That body. That face. Those eyes. Wait a minute! What in the world am I thinking?
    “Here, Ethan, have seconds.” His mother shoved a full plate in his hands and pushed the two of them to a table set with mismatched antique silverware.
    “Uh, okay,” he responded. “So, um, yeah. My mom.”
    At least she wasn’t the only one at a loss for words. “Yeah.”
    “Yeah. She’s used to getting her way.”
    “Which is?” Claudia asked despite her reservations about the likely answer.
    “Other than throwing us together this morning? I have no idea.”
    Claudia took a bite of the grainy yellow casserole and forgot all her manners, speaking with food in her mouth. “Oh my god.”

  12. SNEAKING UP ON SANTA - Part 3.1

    “I know, right?”
    “What are these?”
    “Garlic cheese grits. Mom had to adjust the recipe because they quit making the garlic cheese that went in the original.”
    “How dare they! Not that these aren’t fabulous, but who in the world would mess with a recipe that created anything as heavenly as this?”
    Ethan couldn’t help but laugh. “She’ll be glad to know you like them.”
    “How could anyone not?” She shoveled another forkful into her mouth. “Why don’t we have these up north? I mean, we have polenta, but that’s not the same.”
    “I know. ‘Grilled polenta. French fried polenta.’ Why don’t they just call them grits?”
    “Not soupy enough. Hey—how do you know about polenta? Do you have that down here?”
    “Nope. City living. Fancy restaurants. I almost fell over the first time I ordered them and discovered they were basically a stiffer version of grits.”
    “Hmm.” Claudia was too busy chewing to respond. Picking up a piece of bacon, she asked, “So how much time do you spend here?”
    “Mostly just when Mom and Dad need me. Like the holidays.” He pinned her with a glare that threatened violence if she shared the secret from their previous breakfast.
    “And the rest of the time?”
    Before Ethan could answer, his mother swept away their plates and pronounced judgment. “Good. You got some real food in you. Now, get on with your errands.”
    “I’m sure she’d rather—”
    “I don’t want to be in the—”
    Mrs. O’Malley spoke over both of them. “You can give her a tour of downtown while you’re out. That way she’ll know what she wants to see.”
    “But—” they protested simultaneously.
    “You can take her to the park and the pier. I’m sure she hasn’t been there yet.” The stout woman continued to railroad the pair of them. “Oh look, that couple from Chicago needs a table. It’s a good thing you two are on your way out.”
    Somehow they wound up on the sidewalk in front of Ethan’s Jeep. Claudia turned to him. “Do you have any idea what happened back there?”
    “Aside from my mother getting her way, whatever that is, I have no clue.” He stuffed his hands in the front pockets of his jeans. “I’m not doing anything special today, unless you count going to Savannah to buy bulk children’s underwear and socks.”
    “I’d say that’s a pretty big deal to the kids who’ll be getting them.” She mirrored his actions with her own hands. “So, do you want some help?”
    He looked warily toward the house. “Do you think that either one of us have a choice?”
    “Now that you mention it, no. We have no chance at all. I think that if your mother doesn’t see us leave together that she will be out here in two seconds shoving me in your passenger seat.”
    “All right, then. Let’s go.”

  13. SNEAKING UP ON SANTA - Part 3.2

    Claudia caught him staring at her as she texted her best friend with a vague update on her trip. "What? Do you have an issue with phones?"
    "Nope," he drawled. "We just don't see a lot of Yankees on working holiday vacations."
    "Yankee? I thought the Civil War ended in 1865."
    "It did. You're still a Yankee."
    "What’s your problem?" Better to fight with him than...anything else.
    "Do you know what polk salad is?"
    "What has that got to do with anything?"
    "I'll take that as a 'no'." He chuckled, turned on the CD player, and pressed fast forward. Applause gave way to beat and a story.
    "Wait—is that Elvis?"
    "The one and only."
    "Just listen. There will be a quiz." He thrummed his fingers in time to the music, hitting pause when the song ended.
    "Okay. Hit me. I'm ready for your quiz."
    "What is polk salad?"
    "It's kind of like collard greens."
    "Not bad," he replied. "Technically, polk salad is the poor man's collard greens."
    "You don't believe me? If you don't believe me, surely you believe Elvis. You can't not believe Elvis."
    "Okay. Fine. It's the poor man's collard greens."
    "Next question."
    "How much polk salad did Polk Salad Annie pick?"
    "Is this like 'Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers'?"
    He leveled a stony glance at her.
    "Jeez. Alright." She closed her eyes and nodded her head to an imaginary beat. After a few moments, she opened them and hit him with an angry stare. "That's a trick question."
    He snorted. "You just don't know the answer."
    "No, he didn't say. Anyway, they were in Louisiana, not Georgia."
    "A mess."
    "You're calling me a mess."
    "No, that's how much she picked."
    "A mess o’ greens. Like a herd of cattle or a murder of crows."
    She humphed and turned to look out the window. "Wow." She breathed in the salty air and stared at the green-gold marsh that stretched at far as she could see. "It's so beautiful."
    He chuckled softly. "Glad you finally noticed."
    "Well if you hadn't distracted me with the lesson on polk salad then I would've looked sooner. I should resent that."
    She turned to him and smirked. "But now I'm an expert on polk salad."
    "I wouldn't say you're an expert."
    "But still pretty good for a Yankee, huh?"
    "Let's call it an improvement."
    Whatever... She was learning southern culture and loving it, though she wouldn't tell him that. Or that she found his brand of humor more attractive than that of anyone else she’d met in a long, long while.

  14. DRUMMER BOY - Part 4

    Nick woke up to a world of marshmallow cream, or so it seemed, when he looked out the window. The amount of snowfall had taken the city by surprise and a lot of businesses were closed, including the bookstore. He thought about going back to bed, but decided to work with his drums instead.
    When he practiced, he tried to balance musicality with technique. He liked the idea of communicating an idea or an emotion, but doing it with technical prowess wasn’t always easy. He practiced a lot.
    After a few hours, he padded upstairs to fix himself some lunch. He opened a can of tomato soup and made a grilled cheese sandwich. Sitting at the dining room table, he stared out the window while he ate his comfort food. The sun was shining now, illuminating icicles and snow crystals in a fantastic light show. Beautiful.
    From this spot, he could see Lea’s house. Her car wasn’t in the driveway. Hope she makes it home okay, he thought. The snow ploughs hadn’t made it to their neighborhood yet.
    As if on cue, Lea’s car appeared. As she eased into her parking spot, he saw the back end of the car slide a little to the side. When she exited the vehicle, he exhaled, only then realizing he had been holding his breath. She trudged through the snow and disappeared into her house.
    Wonder how her meeting went. I hope she’s home early because of the snow and not because she got fired. Tracy Day sounded like a wacko.
    He was washing the dishes when his doorbell sounded. When he opened the door, he found Lea standing on his doorstep. She was bundled in a snow parka, toboggan, scarf, and gloves. She looked like an oversized toddler. Nick smiled at the thought.
    “Well, are you going to invite me in or just stand there grinning like an idiot?”
    “I should shut the door in your face like you did me yesterday.” He opened the door wide and motioned her inside.
    She stomped snow from her boots before stepping through the door. Once inside, she unwound the scarf and looked around the room. “Doesn’t look like you’ve changed much in here.”
    “No.” He stuck his hands in his pockets and stared at his socks. He hated wearing shoes in the house. “How did your meeting go?”
    “It went well. As a matter of fact, Tracy Day liked your cookies so much, she wanted me to make you an offer for the recipe. She wants to buy it.”
    “What?” Nick shook his head. “No thanks.”
    “But you haven’t heard the offer. It’s an obscene amount of money.”
    “I don’t care. I’m not interested in money.”
    “I should have known.” Sighing, she tossed the scarf back over her shoulder. “She’ll be disappointed. Few people ever say ‘no’ to Tracy Day.”
    “Hang on. I’ll walk out with you.” He pulled on his boots, coat, and gloves. “I want to show you something.”
    As they walked down his sidewalk, he pointed to the depth of the snow in his yard. “See that?”
    “You know what it’s great for?” When she shook her head, he gave her a light push and she fell backward into the deep snow.
    “Hey, what’s the big idea?”
    Before she could get up, he turned and fell on his back next to her. “Snow angels! It’s great for making snow angels.”
    He moved his arms and legs in a jumping jack motion to form a snow angel. When he looked at her, she was frowning.
    “Come on,” he said. “Try it. I bet you haven’t made one since you were a little kid.”
    “This is stupid.”
    Although she sounded irritated, her eyes sparkled. He waited for her. Finally, she moved her limbs and made her own snow angel. When she was done, he stood, lifted her in his arms, and set her on the ground away from the impressions in the snow.
    They had been so close to each other, their snow angels were touching. “Looks like they’re holding hands,” he said.

  15. Wish Granted Part 4

    Amelia absolutely did not care that she acted like a five year old when she opened her Christmas presents. Unlike Kelly, who unwrapped them neatly and folded the paper, Amelia tore into her gifts, wrapping paper flying, bags tossed across the floor. In her opinion Christmas was not time to be timid.
    She finished opening her last gift from her parents, a new coffee maker (score!) and sat back to take a sip of her wine. Amelia could feel Grant’s eyes on her. His eyes had been on her the whole time she had opened presents. And when she was puttering around the kitchen and when she was opening two different bottles of wine and when she had put out all of the appetizers. He had been watching her the entire evening. The entire evening.
    And not only had Grant been watching her, but her dad had been watching Grant watch her, his dad had been watching Grant watching her, Kelly had been watching Grant watching her. The only ones who hadn’t noticed the weird waves of intensity coming off Grant was her mom and Alex. But everyone who was watching was absolutely aware of this new intensity from Grant.
    Amelia didn’t know how to deal with it, so like her mom and Alex she pretended as if she didn’t notice. That is, until Kelly decided to throw a match to the gasoline.
    “ Amelia, you’re still dating Trevor? The architect, right?”
    Amelia immediately choked on her wine and started coughing. Her mom patted her lightly on the back, admonishing her simultaneously. As she was getting her breath back Amelia watched Grant’s gaze, which had been, briefly, on the football on the TV swing back around to Amelia. There wasn’t desire now. No, now there was anger.
    Grant, had a bit of a history when it came to Amelia’s boyfriend’s. She didn’t want to add a chapter to that history. The one chapter was enough.

    -Seven Years Ago-
    Amelia and Kelly had been twenty and standing outside of a house party.
    “Kelly, seriously. I just want to go home. Now.”
    Kelly was pacing back and forth, fury written all over her face. “No, fucking way. I’m getting Grant.”
    “No! Let’s just go.”
    “You honestly think that my dad, that your dad is going to completely miss that you have a busted lip?”
    She wasn’t wrong. They had just left a party that turned bad. It had turned bad really quickly. After deciding they wanted to go home, Amelia had gotten into an argument with her boyfriend, Mark. Well, Mark had been her boyfriend until three minutes ago. Mark, who had clearly had way too much to drink, had not liked the idea of leaving but considering Amelia was his ride, he had no choice. He had grabbed her keys and then in the tussle to get her keys back from him Mark had back handed her. Her lip had split open upon impact. Kelly had jumped in at that time and pried the keys from Mark’s hands. Mark, had looked at Amelia’s lip, slurred an apology and then turned and waded back into the crowd. So they said screw him and left. But now Kelly had other ideas.
    “This isn’t a good idea.” Amelia plead to Kelly. Kelly just looked at Amelia, raised one eyebrow and pursed her lips.
    Kelly’s eyes lit up, “Grant.” Amelia watched as Kelly listened to whatever he was saying. Kelly huffed out a breath, “No. Amelia is D.D., but thanks for the vote of confidence.” Kelly listened some more and then spoke, “I think you still need to get over here.”
    Amelia started to pace away. Crap, crap, crap, crap, crap.
    “Because, “I’m looking at Amelia right now. And right now she’s got a split lip that’s bleeding.” Amelia looked to the dark sky asking herself why their mothers had to go ahead and introduce them as babies.
    “Her now ex- boyfriend.” Kelly nodded. “Kay.” And then she hung up. She smiled over to Amelia, “He’s on his way.”

  16. “Great. Thanks.” Amelia shot back.
    “What? What can I say? He’s got a weak spot for you.” Kelly smiled innocently.
    “Um, yea, big brothers are like that.”
    Kelly laughed, “Yea, um hon, Grant so doesn’t think of you like a little sister.”
    Amelia felt a wave of excitement rush over her body. But still she pushed (mostly to find out more), “Ha! He totally does. It’s why he’s coming out at one o’clock in the morning.”
    Kelly’s smile vanished and then she said in a low tone, “That’s not why he’s coming.”
    The rush was renewed, but Amelia did everything she could to hide it. And to do so, she stomped over to her car, opened the door and threw herself into the seat. And then she waited.
    Fifteen minutes later, Grant pulled up. Amelia heard the low rumble of his ‘67 Mustang before he even turned on the street. A street, that she wished would swallow her whole at that moment.
    Grant pulled up to her side and she felt more than saw Kelly get out of the passenger seat that she had occupied shortly after Amelia had sat down. Grant unfolded his muscular body from the car and strode over to Amelia. When he got to her door he crouched down and got eye level with her. Grant carefully put his hand to her face and turned it so that he could give her mouth a closer inspection. His lips pressed together and his jaw grew visibly tight when he must have gotten a clear look of her lip.
    Without a word he got up and strode into the house.
    They both watched him go. “Crap.” Amelia whispered. Kelly, in all of her evil glory, looked over and grinned.
    Amelia looked at her and rolled her eyes. “Drama queen.” Amelia added.
    As they both sat, staring at the house while Amelia regretted introducing Mark to Grant a month ago. Grant would spot him easily. Two or three minutes after Grant entered the house he came walking back out. He didn’t look any different than before, no clothes out of place, no blood or signs of bruising. At least it seemed that way until he got closer. It was then a Amelia noticed the blood on his knuckles. Blood that was clearly not his.
    As he came striding up to the car, he called to Kelly “ Grab the first aid from my trunk.”
    Amelia with Kelly respond, “Aye aye captain.” And then she disappeared from view.
    Grant crouched back down in front of Amelia. His eyes were staring into hers as like he was trying to read what was going on in her head. Normally, Grant eyes were unreadable, but now, now Amelia knew exactly what they were saying. There was tenderness in them. And mixed with that tenderness was desire. Under any other circumstance Amelia would think she was hallucinating. But it was there plain to see.

  17. Lightly, Grant brushed his thumb over her mouth. His eyes dropped to her lips and he leaned in. Unable to stop herself, Amelia closed her eyes. She felt the lightest brush of his lips on hers and then a little bit of pressure. And then it was gone. Amelia found it hard to open her eyes again. When she did she saw that Grant face was still close to hers. He had a small smile playing on his face and his thumb swept back over her lips for a second time.
    Then he whispered, “There. All better.”
    Kelly gave him the first aid kit and he cleaned the cut quickly. Then, he stood, motioned for Amelia to turn her body into her car and closed the door for her when she did. He tapped the top of her car with his hand, as men often did, and then he got into his car and drove away. And that was it.


    Amelia inhaled a shaky breath trying to clear the wine out of her lungs, “Um, we broke up like three months ago. Remember?” Kelly shook her head like this was the first she had heard of Amelia breaking up with Trevor, the douche bag.
    “Kelly. You came over. With wine. We ate pizza and spent two hours trashing Trevor the creep. And then we marathoned episodes of Supernatural because we both agreed that Dean Winchester can make any heartbreak better.”
    Kelly faked an expression that she was suddenly remembering that whole night. “Oh, yeah!” Too bright and too fake.
    What was she doing?
    “The creep?” Grant spoke, his voice low and filled with something Amelia didn’t recognize. But whatever it was it made his voice sound gritty and raw. And it was the sexiest thing she had ever heard. She wanted him to talk like that in bed next to her after a night in it together. That was voice she would love to hear everyday.
    Amelia turned her head to him and forced herself to meet his gaze, “What about him?”
    Grant’s eyes were unwavering, “Why is he ‘the creep’?” His posture, voice and gaze all said that he expected an answer. Amelia totally didn’t want to answer him.
    “Ummm.” She was stalling. The whole family knew, so he would find out sooner or later.
    “Amelia.” His voice was a warning.
    “He cheated on her.” Kelly interrupted.
    Amelia swung her head back to Kelly. “Oh, now you remember we broke up?” Kelly just smiled up at her the brightest, most innocent smile. Amelia rolled her eyes.
    Amelia looked back at Grant. He was still looking at her. “That true?”
    “Does Trevor have a last name?”
    “Winthrop.” Kelly supplied.
    “He lives over on North Broadway.”
    “Kelly!” Amelia snapped. Then she looked over to Grant, “No.”
    He raised his eyebrows at her. “No?”
    “Grant, you may not go find Trevor, the creep. Live it alone.”
    “And if I don’t?” It was a challenge. And one that she didn’t want to take. But her pride wouldn’t let her back down. She opened her mouth to fire back but Jerry got to him first.
    Grant’s dad stood at that moment, “Right. Grant. Talk.”

  18. Grant shifted his gaze to his dad and then back to Amelia. Grant would do whatever he felt inclined to do. Jerry knew that. But still he waited. And Grant, like the good son that he was, stood and began to follow his dad out to the back deck. At the door between the living room and kitchen Grant turned back around, “Jack, I think it’s best that you come out too.”
    Amelia’s Dad sighed like he knew that had been coming and was resigned to whatever the conversation would be about. Men.
    A few minutes later Amelia went to the kitchen on the pretense of freshening her drink. Instead she peered out the window to see what the guys were doing.
    Grant was standing, facing both men, his arms were crossed over his chest, his legs were spread in a strong, unyielding stance. Her dad was speaking to him and she watched as Grant worked his jaw. Grant shook his head and said something that made her dad put his hand to the back of his own hand and rub. A sign that he was thinking about something. Grant watched this, he would know what his meant too.
    Then when her dad dropped his hand and gestured to Grant’s dad, Jerry took that as the opportunity to speak. Whatever was said again made Grant grind his jaw and then shake his head. Amelia’s dad jumped in and both Grant and Jerry looked over at him. Then Grant uncrossed his arms and stuck his hand out to her dad.
    Her dad paused a beat and then shook Grant’s hand. Jerry clapped Grant on the back and the men began to move toward the door. Amelia, too focused on what was going on, didn’t think to duck from the window. All three men saw her at the same time. Grant looked over and though he didn’t break his strong, sure stride, his face did break into a big grin. Half amused, half chesire cat.
    For some reason her dad shook his head, grinned and clapped Grant on the back. Amelia grabbed her glass of wine, not refreshed at all, and hightailed it back to the living room as if she totally just hadn’t been caught eavesdropping.
    Amelia had barely sat when the men walked back in. Grant walked right over to her, and took her glass from her, “I’ll refresh this for you.” He said on a smile.
    Argh! Of course, he wouldn’t let her get away with it.
    He came back with her wine glass refilled and sat next to her. He handed the glass to her and asked, “Get everything you wanted for Christmas?”
    She frowned at him but answered, “Yes.”
    “You sure, Amelia?”
    She didn’t know what it was that he was asking, so she pushed, “Um, yes….?”
    He smiled that smile again, but this time it was way more cheshire than anything else. It was like he knew something she didn’t. Amelia looked over to her dad and Jerry, both were smiling happy, content smiles. This was not out of the ordinary for Christmas, but still. She was definitely missing something. And that something was whatever was discussed outside.


    "Wow.” Claudia’s mouth had been gaping since they checked out. “How many dolls did you buy? They almost ran out."
    Ethan shook his head at the ground. "Not enough. I'd like to give more, but we can only afford so much."
    "I'd like to contribute."
    "I'll send you the account information for next year. This year we've already gotten wrapping paper calculated and ordered as a fundraiser through the local schools' extracurricular programs."
    "So it's too late for me to help?" Somehow assisting Ethan with the toy run didn’t seem like enough.
    "I didn't say that. Everything we bought today has to be wrapped in time for the Moss Point Holiday Party tonight."
    "What! All of this? By tonight?"
    He propped his arm on the roof of his SUV. "So are you serious about helping or not?"
    "Put up or shut up, huh?"
    "Which is it gonna be?"
    "I'm in.” She climbed in as they started the drive back. “Where are we going to do this?"
    "Usually I commandeer some space at Mom & Dad's, but we've already filled most of that space."
    "Bigger budget than prior years. Plus some of the gifts are larger than usual. Those trendy bears? They aren't that heavy, but man, are they bulky."
    "What if we use my room?" Did I just say that? Not the bed. Not the bed. Ignore the bed. What bed? See? Exactly.
    His body had gone rigid. "Are you sure?"
    No. I've got this under control. There is absolutely no reason not to. "Totally. Besides, that way it's still at your parents' house so they're ready for Santa tonight."
    Sneaking garbage sized shopping bags into the foyer and up the stairs proved an easy task, especially since Ethan did the heavy lifting. Apparently all the guests were out and about or napping in their rooms. Not a peep in response to their creaks on the stairs as they made their way to her door where she produced a skeleton key to open the ancient lock. They slipped in through her door as quickly as they could with the massive bags.
    Giggling like children, they dropped the packages to the floor then caught each other’s eyes. Their laughter dropped to an awkward silence.
    "I'll," Ethan cleared his throat. "I'll go get the wrapping paper."
    Claudia couldn't find her voice and only nodded. After he stepped out, she collapsed against the wall. Holy cow. Claudia came here for a family Christmas, not to send her hormones on a rampage. If the O'Malley House ad had included a picture of her partner in crime then she would have stayed somewhere else altogether.
    Far too soon for her, the door opened and the object of her thoughts brought in a large organized container designed for holding wrapping paper, scissors, tape, and labels. Someone had invested some time in putting the kit together, likely his mother.
    "Ready?" he asked.
    "Sure. Let's do this."
    "We have about three hours before anyone will notice that we're missing."
    Somehow she doubted that. She had only read about small towns, but there were witnesses to her and Ethan's earlier departure. People talked, or so she'd heard. Who knew what kinds of assumptions were flying around about her and Ethan, especially after he took her to breakfast yesterday morning?
    It's not like it mattered, though. He would be here and she would be back in New York. So really, why should she care?
    He pulled out two rolls of paper, handing her one covered in snowmen and keeping one with Santa for himself. "We'll have to share some of the supplies. I'm usually doing this by myself and I couldn't find any spares in Mom's office."
    Speaking of which, she asked, "Could you please pass the scissors?"

  20. SNEAKING UP ON SANTA - Part 4.1
    For the first time since they'd sat he took in the picture they made. Her legs were sprawled wide and straight so she had plenty of room to unroll paper and wrap the boxes of toys between them. When she stretched forward to take them from his hands, his eyes widened. "Um, I wish I could stretch like that."
    "Oh, yeah. I started ballet when I was three, and I still keep up lessons for exercise."
    "Oh." His eyes remained locked on hers until he devoted his full attention back to the task at hand.
    They worked in tandem and in silence for the next two and a half hours. He noticed the way she creased her eyebrows when she was concentrating to make the precision-cut paper fit around the packages just so.
    "Where's the..." Claudia tapered off as she looked about to discover they were done. There had been something soothing about the rhythm she and Ethan had developed in wrapping the children's gifts. It felt good to have a purpose beyond herself. She had always considered working in a soup kitchen on Christmas day but had never been brave enough to do anything about it. Here she had gone on vacation and stumbled into her own project—it wasn't hers officially, but now she felt she had an investment in it.
    As the two of them picked up the scraps and shreds of paper to throw in her trash and replaced the leftover supplies in the container, Claudia felt a sense of sadness that their task was over. And now she would be saying goodbye to Ethan, at least for a few hours though possibly for the night.
    He packed the presents in a giant red velvet bag with white fur trim and said, "Mom and Dad would thank you for helping. I appreciate it. It went much more smoothly than it would have otherwise. I'm not how I would have found the time to finish it."
    "You're welcome. I mean they're welcome. I know what I mean."
    "Yeah, I do. Thanks, Claudia. See you at the party later?"
    Someone wanted her at their Christmas celebration. She smiled. "Okay."
    "It starts at the tree in the waterfront park then moves to the community center for the kids to get their presents. And now you know the secret password."
    "Yeah. Polk salad." He winked at her as he headed out the door taking a small piece of her heart with him.

  21. SNEAKING UP ON SANTA - Part 4.2
    Claudia changed outfits four times trying to determine the most appropriate dress for the occasion. Slacks were too fancy, even the cotton ones. Her wool sweater was way too heavy for the weather. Finally she decided on a green long sleeve T-shirt and a navy cardigan. She couldn't help but notice that her top was the same shade as Ethan's eyes. She hoped he wouldn't be as present in her thoughts when she left Moss Point as he was while she was here. Heaven help her, she didn't know what she'd do.
    When she left her room, other guests were heading out for the festivities as well. She fell in line with the couple from Chicago that had taken her and Ethan's table that morning.
    "What brings you, young lady?" the wife asked.
    "I wanted to see a fairy tale Christmas." She fought to keep her voice even.
    "Without snow?"
    "I could ask you the same thing."
    "There's something truly appealing about the lack of layered winter gear and shoveling sidewalks that we thought would make the holiday special."
    "You're exactly right," Claudia agreed. What she didn't share was her desperate need to feel a sense of family and the fact that the B&B was owned by a couple the age of her own parents gave her hope that she could imagine she'd fit in. That was her own secret, and she wanted it to stay that way, at least for now.
    Volunteers passed out programs at the gates, and families filed down the sidewalks surrounding the lit Christmas tree. It reminded her of the holiday cartoons where the communities came together for happily ever after endings on television.
    Claudia couldn’t help but shed a tear at the Christmas carols that hadn’t been the same since her childhood. Adam from Local Flavor offered her a hug as she wiped away the wetness from her cheeks. She caught sight of Ethan helping carry their bag of presents to a concrete block building that must be the community center. It was too much.
    She couldn’t go, wasn’t ready for this no matter how desperately she thought she needed it. In the end, she dropped her sheet of lyrics leaving it to float to the ground in her wake as she ran for her room in O’Malley House and locked herself in the closest thing she had to shelter from her own emotional storm.

  22. DRUMMER BOY: Part 5a

    Lea laid her head against the back of her sofa and watched Nick through her front window. Despite the heavy snowfall, he was outside hanging more lights. He beats all I’ve ever seen. Only a mad man would be out in this mess fiddling around with decorations.
    Only a mad man would turn down a huge amount of money without even asking how much.
    When she called Tracy and told her Nick’s answer, she was met with complete silence for a full minute. She couldn’t tell if the woman was astonished or furious. Tracy offered her a choked “We’ll see!” before disconnecting the line.
    She had to admit it…Nick had principles and he lived by them. Which is more than I can say for myself.
    She thought about the past year and what she had sacrificed to move up the proverbial ladder. She had given up her personal time. Her ability to say no. Her personal opinions.
    My relationship with Nick.
    She cringed at the memory. They had been happy together. He made her laugh. She gave him structure. Yet, when Tracy Day’s job offer materialized, I dropped him faster than Santa slides down a chimney.
    Feeling a blue cloud of melancholy settle around her, Lea started to cry. She hid her face in case Nick should glance this way and see her weeping at the window. When the crying jag dissipated, she wiped her nose on her sleeve and looked toward Nick’s house again.
    She gasped. He was on his roof, stringing lights onto a wire frame. As he moved forward, clumps of snow fell to the ground, spraying glittery puffs into the air.
    You idiot. It’s almost dark. How can you even see what you’re doing? She stuck her thumb to her mouth and chewed on her nail, a nervous habit she had developed this past year.
    Nick crouched, manipulated the wire, moved forward a few inches, and repeated the process. When he was done, he stood and started back across the roof. Halfway to the end, his foot slipped. He pinwheeled his arms, trying to find his balance, to no avail. He fell off the roof.
    Lea screamed. She jumped up from the couch, threw open door, and ran across the street. The deep snow slowed her down and by the time she reached him, her jeans and sneakers were wet. She shivered, wishing she had grabbed her coat. She crouched next to him.
    When he didn’t respond, she patted his face. Opening his eyes, he said, “Ouch.”
    Lea punched his shoulder. “You moron! You scared the daylights out of me.”
    “Hey, that hurts!” He wallowed in the snowdrift that had cushioned his fall, then extended his hand to her. “A little help, please.”
    Sighing, she helped him to his feet. “What were you thinking? You don’t play on the roof when it’s covered with snow.”
    “I wasn’t playing. I had to get this done tonight.”
    “Don’t you remember what night it is?”
    “Tonight is the anniversary of the first time we met.”
    She blinked. So it was. A window dresser for a boutique store, she had been setting up an intricate Christmas display that night. She had been adjusting a colorful drummer boy in the scene when she heard a tapping on the glass behind her.
    She turned and found a handsome man with green eyes smiling at her. He pointed to the drummer boy and then to himself. She frowned and offered him a look of confusion. She mouthed the words “I don’t understand.”


    He held up one finger, then pulled something from his back pocket. Two drumsticks. He set his foot on the brick lip below the window and proceeded to beat the sticks against his knee. When he looked up at her, she laughed. “Oh, a real life drummer boy.”
    He didn’t seem to understand what she mouthed, so she pointed him to the door. They spent the rest of the night talking and laughing.
    Lea turned her head to blink away the tears she felt gathering again. When she turned back, she said, “What does that anniversary have to do with lights on your roof?”
    “You’ll see.” He moved to the side of the house and plugged in several cords.
    The lights on the roof illuminated the snow at her feet. She was too close to the house to read what they said, so she backed away. When she saw the message, her heart lifted.
    In all the colors of Christmas, it read, Do you believe in love at first sight?
    Nick waded through the snow and stopped in front of her. Taking her hand in his, he said, “The moment I saw you standing in that window, I knew I had found the love of my life. You were then, you still are. You always will be.”
    He kissed her hand, then let it go. She curled her fingers at his jaw, then pulled his face to hers.
    “I believe,” she whispered, then she kissed him.

  24. Wish Granted Part 5:

    Amelia closed the door behind her using her foot. She walked over to her couch and let all of her packages go so that they dropped lightly on it.
    Grant has been weird for the rest of the evening. Not in a way that made her uncomfortable, but in a way that made her think that there was something going on she wasn't aware of. He had helped her fill her plate when it was time to eat dinner, he sat next to her at the dinner table ( he sat so close to her their elbows touched several times while they ate), he made sure that her glass of champagne was always topped off without her having to ask and he had offered to get up to get her seconds. She hadn't wanted seconds so he simply nodded and stood taking her empty plate with him. He had placed her plate in the sink and then came and sat back down next to Amelia while the family's dinner conversation turned to reminiscing about the years past when all of them were much younger.
    All through dinner Kelly watched this behavior with very excited but shrewd eyes as did Kelly's mom. Amelia's mother had watched as well but her gaze was a bit more concerned. Amelia saw her mother make eyes with her dad from across the room. He had simply shook his head at her, clearly telling her not to wade into whatever was that was going on with Grant.
    Amelia waited about an hour after dinner before she decided that it was time to go home. Whatever was going on with Grant was confusing her and she wasn't sure how to react or how to behave.
    When Amelia announced that she was going home she saw something flash in Grant’s eyes and a small smile merged on his face. She wasn't able to figure out what was behind his smile or his eyes and she decided wasn't going to try. Her father helped her pack up her car with her Christmas gifts and she had gone back in to give everyone the obligatory Christmas hug. When she was finished, Grant had been holding her jacket out for her and helped her put her coat on. He then silently opened the door and waved his arm for her to precede him. The entire way to the car he said nothing. And she had no idea what to say, so she didn’t say anything at all.
    Grant opened the door for her and leaned in and told her “ Get home safe.” and then almost as an afterthought he said quietly “I'll see you soon.”
    Amelia didn't ask what that meant or when she would see him, she just nodded up at him and watched as he closed the door and stepped back from her car.

    Now at her apartment Amelia put on the tea kettle to make tea and began to unpack her new Christmas gift.

    After she unpacked her things, she changed into pajamas as she waited for her tea kettle to begin whistling. Amelia walked by her TV and mindlessly hit the power button. The volume had been turned up from earlier. So that sound that came from it masked the noise of her door opening and closing.
    Amelia wandered back into her living room dunking her tea bag into the cup of hot water. She looked up to find Grant sitting comfortably on her couch.
    Amelia emitted a soft gasp as she also focused on not spilling the hot water on her skin. “Good grief, Grant!” Amelia took her free hand and placed it on her chest, ”You scared the crap out of me, what are you doing here?”
    Grant, throughout her moment of panic, had not moved but instead tilted his head slightly to the left. His eyes were filled with a predatory gleam. She watched as his eyes took in her pajamas which were just simple fleece black sweatpants and her old high school graduation t-shirt. She had an embarrassingly thick fluffy socks to keep her toes warm and her hair was pulled back in a ponytail with a few strands falling around her face.
    Grant smile at her suddenly and said “Cute Amelia.”
    “Umm, thanks?”
    Grant’s eyes went back to the TV. Amelia's eyes follow the path of his briefly and then went back to him sitting on her couch
    She asked again, ”What are you doing here?”

  25. Grant’s eyes shifted back to hers and again his eyes were filled with intensity. He smiled like he had a secret. “ I asked you a question earlier Amelia.”
    “ You came over here to ask me a question?”
    “ No, I said I asked you a question earlier.”
    “ Okay?”
    “ I don't think you told me the truth.”
    “ About what?”
    “ Did you get everything you wanted for Christmas?”
    “ I'm not sure I understand where you're going with all of this.”
    “ You don't have to.”
    Amelia looked around her apartment wondering what was going on and why he was so concerned about whether or not she got all of the things that she wanted for Christmas. She was old enough to be okay with not getting all of the things that she wanted for Christmas. Christmas really wasn't about getting gifts, was it?
    “ What is that you want me to say?”
    “I want you to answer the question truthfully.”
    “ I thought I had.”
    Grants legs shifted slightly as he seemed to get more comfortable sitting on her couch. “I think there's something you've wanted for a long time Amelia.”
    Amelia rolled her eyes at Grant, he was always such a know-it-all. “ What is it that I've wanted?”
    That was absolutely the very last thing Amelia thought Grant would ever said. And because of that she had nothing to say in response. So she stood there just staring at him. Him know was actually really embarrassing.
    Amelia shifted on her feet, “Well I don't know what to say to that.”
    “You don't have to know what to say.”
    It was silent again in her apartment for a few moments and then Amelia asked, “What are you doing here?”
    “Something that is long overdue.” Grant stood up and walked over to Amelia. His eyes stayed on hers as he carefully took the steaming mug from her hand. Without looking he placed it on the book shelf next to her.
    “What's long overdue?”
    Grant didn't respond. Instead both of his hands came up and cupped both sides of her jaw. His eyes never left hers as he slowly leaned in and brushed his lips over hers. Amelia couldn't help but close hers eyes as Grant deepened the kiss.


  26. Tingles shot up her spine as goosebumps erupted all over her body. Grant’s tongue pushed into her mouth and as it did he slowly began to walk them into her dark bedroom.
    Amelia felt her knees hit her bed and they both went down. Grant twisted at the last minute so that he took the brunt of the fall and then as soon they both hit the bed he rolled them so that they were laying side by side. Grant broke the kiss and moved his hand up to hold the side of the face. He leaned in and kissed her forehead, kissed the tip of her nose and then he pushed his head back and laid it down on one of her pillows. Amelia was in a bit of a trance after having kissed him freely for the first time.
    But still she had to ask, “What's going on?”
    “What should’ve happened a long time ago.”
    “Us?” She felt like a parrot.
    “I wasted a lot of time. That's my fault, that's on me.”
    Amelia felt as Grant hand left her face to lay on her waist. She opened her mouth but he got there before she did.
    “I've wanted this for a long time. I've wanted you for a long time.”
    Amelia felt her eyes go wide, “Really?”
    “Yea.” She felt his hand grip her waist.
    Amelia couldn't help yourself, “ Since when?”
    “Probably since before you wanted me.”
    “I doubt that.”
    “You shouldn't.” Grant’s eyes were Looking deep into hers. “ I've wanted you, I've wanted us, since you went ass over tea kettle over that bike.”
    “ I was 5.”
    “ Yeah, and I knew then that I wanted to marry you one day.”
    “What?” She whispered. He gripped her waist a little bit harder but didn't respond.
    “But you had at different girlfriend every week for years.” Amelia reminded him.
    “ Yeah, they were distractions.”
    “ Distractions from what?”
    “ You.”
    “This is crazy.”
    “No it’s not. It's actually the least crazy thing I can think of.”

  27. Silently Amelia agreed with him. And then curiosity got the best of her. “ What was that whole thing when you went outside with your dad and my dad?”
    Grant smiled at her and lazily moved his hand up and down her waist.
    “That was me asking permission.”
    “ I'm done wasting time.”
    “And what did my dad say? What did your dad say?”
    “ My dad? He said it's about time. Your dad? He said good luck”
    Amelia couldn’t help herself. She reached out and smacked him lately I'm the chest, “Not funny, Grant.”
    Grant smiled, “ Babe, I ain't lying.”
    Amelia raised her eyebrows at him, “My dad said good luck?”
    Grant smiled again and just nodded his head at her. He leaned in again and brushed his lips over hers as he mumbled “And I think I’ll need it.”
    “ What for?”
    “ Well for one are you going to take me seriously?”
    “ What do you mean?”
    “Like I said I wasted a lot of time, I paraded women in front of you on purpose, and I've spent the last 25 years pretending like I didn't see you.”
    “ But you saw me?”
    “Every second of every day.”
    Amelia smiled, “Really?”
    “Watching you prance around in those little outfits of yours day in and day out, year in and year out, was it’s own form of torture.”
    “ No, you're not.” He smiled at her.
    She smiled back, “ No I'm not.”
    Grant chuckled softly in a way that only he could. Amelia didn't want to break the mood, but she needed to know, “So now what?”
    Grant leaned in and nuzzled his nose into her neck she felt and heard him inhale deeply. She felt the vibration of his voice when he replied, “Now we both get what we want.”
    “And what do you want ?” Amelia asked.
    “You. I've only ever wanted you.”
    Amelia felt electricity shoot through her. Grant used both of his arms to pull her close so that they laid without an inch separating them. He started to stroke the back of her hair and soon afterwards she felt herself start to doze.
    Right before she fell asleep she felt his arms tighten around her and when he spoke his voice was thick and deep with his own sleep. “ Amelia?”’
    “ Yes?” she was into his chest.
    “Did you get everything you wanted for Christmas?”
    “I can't imagine ever having a better Christmas than this one.”
    “Neither can I.”
    Grant leaned in and kissed her lightly on the lips, “There, all better.”


    Ignoring Ethan O’Malley’s efforts to check on her was simply impossible, but that didn’t stop Claudia from refusing to answer her door. She did, however, accept the trays of breakfast, lunch, tea, and dinner that his mother kept leaving outside her door as she swore to guard her guest from the man.
    Christmas Eve day hadn’t turned out at all as she had planned.
    That night Claudia crept down the stairs as they creaked randomly beneath her lightly padded footsteps. Racks of stockings with each guest's name embroidered across the top were being stuffed in the low light by the hulking Santa in his suit.
    He started at her steps behind him until she whispered, "No, Mr. O’Malley, please don’t turn around. I need to talk to Santa. This is hard enough without looking at you, even though you aren't real. You’re both strangers to me, and I think it will be easier to get this out without looking you in the face."
    The head nodded.
    She curled up in a wingback chair. "Please, just keep stuffing the stockings. I need you to. We all do. Especially me. I need to get back to the heart of Christmas—not the presents but the spirit of giving. I lost it, and I so want it back. When I was eleven, this woman showed up at our house on Christmas morning. She had two kids with her...and..." Claudia sniffed. "And she swore my daddy was their father."
    Santa froze.
    "No, I don't want you to feel sorry for me. I never wanted anyone to feel sorry for me, including myself. When I was growing up, my parents always made sure my Christmases were perfect. It was just the three of us in a small apartment, but we had a perfect holiday every year. Mom would cook and Dad would play with me and my new toys under the tree. Even the girly ones. I yelled at the lady. I called her a liar and every ugly word I could think of at that age. I waited. I wanted to hit her but she had the children and they were so small. I pulled on my father. I remember how stiff his arm was when I yelled at it and said it couldn't be true. I waited for him to look at me, to say she had the wrong house, to pull me and Mama to him and tell her she was wrong. But he didn't. Not at all."
    Claudia wiped her eyes with her sleeve.
    "He went to that lady and kissed her. Then the screaming started. I'm not sure who was first or loudest, me or Mama. She wanted him to get out and I was begging him to stay. They sent me to my room. He was gone by the time I came out. That was the last time I saw him. Everything went in the trash—dinner, presents, decorations, and I don't know where she got the strength but my mother dragged that tree down the stairs to the street all by herself, tinsel and all. That's when I lost Christmas. I let my family rob me of a dozen Christmases. A dozen trees. A dozen years of joy were filled with activities that really didn't fill them at all.
    She cleared her throat. "That's why I came here for Christmas. Mom doesn't even celebrate the holidays anymore. New York is painful. Every department store window is filled with memories I'll never have again. Or at least that's what I thought."
    Santa stuffed the last stocking then began placing presents in brightly wrapped paper under the tree.
    "I let my mother take Christmas away from me. I stopped going to visit her on the holidays and now she's just...hard. A shell that used to hold so much joy is now empty. I don't want that. I don't want to become that. I need Christmas. I need a spirit of giving. I need Santa Claus in my life."

  29. SNEAKING UP ON SANTA - Part 5.1

    The man in the red suit turned to meet her tear-streaked face, and she recognized the same green eyes that had met her at the airport. Ethan pulled the beard down and looked upon her with such sympathy she thought she might break.
    "I-I-I thought... What I mean is... Ethan, how can you be Santa? You were there when he was... It's your father. I hoped he would understand." She had to get out of there. She'd bared her soul to the man she most wanted to trust and was most afraid would break her heart. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to impose." She scrambled to stand and leave but Ethan was in her path before she could take a step, as effectively as he cut her off the first day they met.
    "Claudia...” He pulled her into a hug so fierce that she couldn’t help but wrap her arms around him.
    “Oh, Ethan. It hurts so much to live without the holidays every year. But I’m terrified that it’ll hurt even more if I try to bring them back. That’s why...”
    “That’s why you came here. To start fresh and feel safe.”
    “Uh-huh.” She nodded.
    “And I made you feel anything except that.”
    “Well,” she tilted her head. “You didn’t exactly help.”
    “No, I’m not letting myself off the hook here. I judged you unfairly at the airport, from the first moment I set eyes on you. I put myself first without giving any consideration to what you needed. Just because I didn’t understand why you chose to spend Christmas here didn’t give me the right to make you feel any less at home. If I’d been thinking, I would’ve realized you needed something more.”
    Claudia tried to push away, but he didn’t budge. “Ethan, you don’t have to do this. I hoped that if I could explain...”
    “So you tried to sneak up on Santa.”
    “Silly, isn’t it?”
    “Hey, if wishes whispered in Santa’s ear are private, why shouldn’t a fireside confession be the same?” He gave her a gentle smile and stroked her cheek.
    “Do you think I can find the spirit of Christmas again after all these years?”
    “After the hurt that you’ve been through, I think Santa would apologize for not being there to fix it himself. I know I would.” His words fanned the small flame that had ignited between them.
    “I feel safe here. Like I could come every Christmas.” She looked around the room. “I won’t just miss the place, I’ll miss the people.”
    “I know. I always do, too.”
    “But I thought you lived here.”
    “I did. Mom and Dad converted O’Malley House into a bed and breakfast when I left for college.”
    Her hand reached up to take his. “Now I’m sad again.”
    “Why, baby?”
    “I’m leaving for New York on the day after tomorrow.”
    “So am I.” He smiled.
    “I’m in finance. I took a job on Wall Street last month.”
    Claudia swatted at his chest. “You should’ve told me.”
    “When should I have done that? When you were snarling at me at the airport? Or maybe while you were trying to tip me?”
    “Speaking of tips... Do you realize where we’re standing?”
    Ethan didn’t need to look up to see they were directly under a sprig of mistletoe. “Yep. I did that on purpose.”
    She closed her eyes and felt his soft lips on hers. When she opened her lids, she found his green eyes sparkling with firelight.
    “How would you feel about spending New Year’s Eve with Santa Claus?”
    “I’d feel very, very lucky.”
    “Good. He would, too.”

  30. Christmas Lost and Found, Part 2
    Vicky Burkholder

    Molly, where have you been? I looked everywhere for you!” He hugged the little girl tight.
    “I did just as you said, Daddy. I found a big person in a u-ni-form and she brought me here. Her name is Tess. I like her. I think she’s pretty. Don’t you think she’s pretty?”
    Tess felt her face heat up as the man stood, his hand out. “Hi, I’m Mike Clanahan, Molly’s father.”
    Tess shook his hand and felt the warmth spread through her. “Mr. Clanahan. You really should be more careful.”
    “I know. One minute, we were looking at the tree displays, the next thing I knew, she was gone. Thank goodness for your announcement.”
    Tess nodded. The weekend before Christmas, the crowds were larger than normal, though still within the norm for the season. “It happens. Fortunately, you have a very smart little girl there. She told us her name and yours, which allowed us to page you so quickly. Most kids don’t know more than ‘Mommy’ or ‘Daddy’ when we ask them their parent’s names.”
    “Her mother was a firm believer in safety first.”
    Tess chuckled. “And manners.” Then she sobered. Had she heard that right? Was?
    “I ‘membered my manners, Daddy. I said ‘please’ and ‘thank you’.”
    “That’s good, honey. Mommy would be proud.”
    “When’s Mommy coming home?”
    Mike knelt next to his daughter, his face level with hers. “Molly, honey, she’s not. Don’t you remember what I told you?”
    Molly nodded her little head. “That God needed Mommy to help him teach manners to the angels. They must be dumb angels, Daddy. She’s been gone a long time.”
    He picked up the little girl, cradling her head against his shoulder. “I know, honey, I know.”

  31. Home for the Holidays Part 2:
    Liam should have driven. If he had he could have dictated how long it took to get there. Ryan was late by nature. Everyone knew it and added at least an hour to his estimated arrival time.
    Normally it wasn’t a big deal to Liam, but today was different. Kayla was waiting at the end of this trip.
    He hadn’t seen her in four years. Not since the trip when he’d tried to take their friendship to the next level and ended up scaring her away. He’d always had a thing for her, but until that Christmas she had been in college and he would have been nothing but a distraction.
    Year after excruciating year, he’d waited until she had finished school, and was free to start a relationship with an older, and much-adored extension of the family. He was sure her parents and Ryan would have approved once they got over the initial shock.
    It was why he’d asked her to keep it quiet on Christmas morning. Blurting it out over Marian’s homemade waffles would have been in poor taste. Not to mention possibly getting him kicked out of the house.
    He’d had their big reveal all planned out, but before he’d gotten the chance, she’d packed up after dinner and left without a word to him. Something about her roommate calling and saying they’d had a pipe break in their apartment.
    He didn’t buy it.
    He also didn’t believe that she’d had unbreakable plans every Christmas since.
    Not wanting to spend another Christmas Eve alone in the house where he’d spent the best night of his life, he’d made alternate plans this year. The fact that she’d suddenly agreed to come home after he’d made his plans proved that she was avoiding him.
    Now he had her where he wanted her, which made it easy for him to bail on his ski trip and tag along with Ryan at the last minute.
    If only the guy would hurry up before she found out Liam was coming and came up with a reason to run away again.
    Liam had a holiday surprise for her that was four years in the making. He was determined to get what he wanted this Christmas.
    “Are you coming or not?” Liam leaned against the SUV at the gas station as he flirted with the attendant. “Your mom is going to have cookies coming out of the oven any minute. I would like to get there while they’re still warm.” Liam tapped his fancy watch for emphasis.
    “Relax. I’m coming. They’re only cookies.”
    “Says the person who grew up with a mother who would make him cookies for any reason. I’m the orphan. No family. No warm cookies anyti—”
    “Fine! Okay. Okay. Just don’t play the orphan card.” Ryan put his hands up to fend off Liam’s guilt.
    “There has to be some advantage to growing up in crappy foster homes.”
    “I thought your plan was to get married and start your own family as soon as you could,” Ryan reminded him as they got back on the road.
    “Yes. It still is. Unfortunately, certain members of my plan are being uncooperative.”
    “You already have someone picked out? Who?”
    “Don’t worry about it.” Your sister, he thought but didn’t say it out loud.
    He hoped Ryan would be okay with his choice. There was a chance the family who had invited him into their lives with open arms might think differently when it came to him being good enough for Kayla. He’d been working his ass off since college to make sure he was.
    The smell of warm cookies surrounded him the second he walked in the door.
    “Ma! We’re here!” Ryan called out.
    “We’re in the kitchen,” Mrs. Jenkins answered.
    They dropped their bags by the steps and practically raced toward the kitchen. No doubt Ryan was trying to beat him to the cookies.
    Liam, however, was in a hurry to see the girl of his dreams.
    Pushing into the kitchen he stopped when he spotted her sitting at the island.
    She was even more beautiful than she’d been the last time he’d seen her.
    Her hair was longer and she looked mature and sexy, despite the anxious set of her mouth and the way she kept her gaze away from him.
    He had his work cut out for him, but he was ready to do whatever it took to win her over.

  32. Beach-Bound, Part Two

    Poor Seth. Daisy didn’t understand how their run-of-the-mill matchmaking event could have ended so badly. Sirens had held these meet-and-greets for centuries, and never once had the female attendees almost drowned their dates.

    Of course, interactions with humans had always been tricky, so she should have assumed bonding with one would be as well. But if they hadn’t left that inland house, hadn’t led the men off before everyone coupled up, maybe the evening would have played out predictably? Too early though, one of her own had whispered, “Let’s go to the beach, take them to the water.” The prospect had galvanized all twenty siren women present, made their subsequent rash actions a foregone conclusion. When their overseers weren’t looking, they ran, laughing wildly and using all of their influence to keep their guys enthralled and following.

    Of course their self-control worsened the closer they got to the tide, although they satisfied themselves with just flirting around a fire, resisted the urge to swim and transform. Against all those delicious human emotional emanations, the ocean’s pull became secondary…

    But then the sea swelled with the unmistakable promise of a storm, a deep thrum of gigantic waves on their way up from the ocean floor. The louder and more insistent the approaching tempest, the hungrier and more reckless the sirens became to play in it, until the first of them broke with the group and flung herself into the surf. The rest succumbed in quick succession.

    To Daisy’s surprise, the men dove after them despite the dangerously frigid water. She and the others made an immediate about face to save them, and then fought an epic personal battle to return the men to shore alive. Absorbing all that human devotion in the more conductive environment of the ocean threw them into a frenzy of longing, one they’d been told almost always led to death for land people. Daisy finally understood all those warnings she’d heard about swimming with humans you didn’t mean to kill. It was all she could do to stop herself from dragging Seth further out to sea, from holding him to her and plunging deeper to show him her beautiful world.

    Once he was truly in danger though, she overcame her compulsions, or at least overcame them enough not to take him to a place she could survive but he could not.

    Her affinity for him crystalized the instant he hit the water, and then when they touched, a painful love for him blossomed within her. It took her beyond self-interest, and well beyond her earlier capriciousness. She identified her sisters around her as each swam to a man just as she had to Seth, and she laughed. Their inland struggles to choose a mate, which had taken hours out of the water, were resolved in mere seconds in the ocean. Best of all, no one died while it happened.

    I’m taking mine to the cabin on South Beach, Daisy announced, and then couldn’t quite make herself go so far from water to actually get to the little house. So she tucked Seth into a nearby dune, singing him to sleep as she did. She kissed him tenderly and promised to return. Then she ran for the black, newly raging waves, now peppered with other cavorting, love-struck mermaids just like her.

    Errin Stevens is the author of Updrift, now available at Liquid Silver Books, Amazon, and

  33. Christmas Lost and Found, Part 3

    Tess blinked back the tears that formed in her own eyes. “I’m sorry, Mr. Clanahan.”
    He shook his head. “It was over a year ago.” He glanced down at the coloring book Tess had given Molly. “Hey Pumpkin, what did you color?”
    Tess recognized the change of subject for what it was. “Molly is quite the artist, Mr. Clanahan.”
    “Look, Daddy, I colored a snowman and a tree and a house.”
    “So I see. You did a good job, Pumpkin. Now, what do you say we go get that ice cream you wanted?”
    “Oh, can Tess come too? She likes ice cream too. She likes vanilla, just like you and she likes it in a dish, too!”
    “Honey, Tess is working. She can’t come.”
    At the sad look on Molly’s face, Tess opened her mouth and stuck both feet in. “Actually, I’m officially off-duty. How ‘bout if I take you both to the ice cream store.” She bit her lip. Where had that idea come from? Her friends would think she’d gone crazy. Tongue-tied Tess never talked to anyone.
    Mike grinned at her and she melted. “I would really like it if you joined us.”

  34. Home for the Holidays Part 3.0:
    Kayla had managed to keep her distance from Liam the first night. She only had to make it through the next two days and she’d be able to go home where she could focus on forgetting him again.
    It wouldn’t be easy. The smile he’d given her when he walked in the kitchen the day before was seared in her brain. He almost seemed happy to see her, but that didn’t make sense.
    Wouldn’t he be happier to avoid the whole uncomfortable situation? Unless, he’d completely forgotten about it. The thought of that possibility made her fingers clench into fists. How could he have forgotten the best night of her life?
    She was dressed when she came down for breakfast and everyone in the kitchen looked confused. She was not a morning person and usually spent Christmas Eve day in her pajamas until she was forced to dress for the party that night.
    But this morning she had a plan.
    “I remembered something I needed to get for Christmas, so I’m going to the mall today.” As expected everyone groaned in displeasure. They were not a shopping family. Especially when the holiday madness began.
    “Would you be able to pick up a can of whipped cream while you’re out?” her sister-in-law asked as she put a bottle in her son’s mouth.
    “Sure thing.” The more errands the better.
    “Are you sure you need to go out? It’s supposed to snow. Your car is not made for Pennsylvania winters.”
    “Mom, I live in Maryland. It’s basically the same winter down there.”
    “Still, I’d feel better if you weren’t out in the snow.”
    “I can drive her, Mrs. Jenkins,” Liam offered.
    Kayla’s mouth fell open in shock. Why on Earth would he want to drive her to the mall? This defeated the entire purpose of her plan to stay away from him.
    “I’ll be fine,” she argued.
    “That would be so nice of you, Liam,” her mother said, completely ignoring her.
    “I’m sure he has something better to do, Mom.”
    “I really don’t. And if it will keep your mother from worrying, I’ll be happy to do it.” The grin on his face was confusing. He actually looked like he wanted to do this. Why? “When would you like to leave?”
    “Um. I guess whenever you’re ready.”
    “You need to eat breakfast first,” her mother ordered.
    “We’ll stop on the way,” Liam countered while holding her jacket out for her like a proper gentleman. Had he forgotten that night? How? She’d been trying for years and couldn’t do it.

  35. Home for the Holidays Part 3.1:
    He held open the door to Ryan’s SUV for her and climbed in the driver’s side.
    “I remembered you don’t eat a big breakfast. At least you didn’t the last time…” He didn’t finish the sentence. Instead he started the car and headed for town. At the franchise down the street he pulled up to the window and ordered her a small coffee and an asiago cheese bagel like he’d read her mind.
    “How did you know?”
    “I’ve known you for a long time, Kayla.”
    “Okay, let me rephrase. Why do you remember?”
    He shrugged but didn’t answer.
    Before they’d gotten through the drive-thru the snow began to fall. Big, fluffy flakes had collected on the edges of the windshield by the time he parked at the mall.
    “Maybe this was a bad idea.” She looked up at the sky as a snowflake got caught in her eyelash.
    “It will be fine. Come on.” He held out his arm, but not needing his assistance to walk through a dusting of snow she put her hands in her pockets and moved toward the entrance.
    He followed her through the first store and the second. She did find a few things to purchase for her new nephew and her nieces. Liam asked a few questions and she gave him short answers.
    “Your mother said you weren’t dating that guy anymore.”
    “What guy?”
    “The guy I saw you with when I stopped at your apartment.”
    “You came to my apartment? When?” She could feel her eyes get wide.
    “A few weeks after that Christmas.” So he did remember. “When you wouldn’t answer my calls or texts.”
    “I stopped by and saw you kissing someone.” She couldn’t even calculate the odds of him showing up at the exact moment she had come home from a date. A date that hadn’t worked out because she’d been stuck on Liam.
    She’d told her mother she was dating as much to keep her from worrying as well as have the information passed along to Liam. She found herself regretting it now.
    “So are you dating anyone or not?” he asked.
    As she debated over how to answer, his phone beeped with a text.
    “For Christ’s sake,” he huffed and typed something back. He frowned at the reply and excused himself. “I’ll meet you out front by one of the benches.”
    She waved him off and went to find a gift for him. Let it not be said she couldn’t be civil to an ex-lover.
    As she tried to find the perfect gift to say, “I care, but not too much,” she thought about why he had come to her apartment. Was he looking for a booty call? Since he lived five hours away from her, a booty call seemed unlikely. He could have had anyone in his own town. Men that looked like him didn’t want for bed companions.
    Maybe he’d wanted to make sure she wasn’t going to spill the beans about them. Or maybe—hope came rushing in like a wave—he had wanted to pursue something with her.
    Had she had it wrong all this time?
    She put back the reindeer socks and got him a nice tie instead.

  36. Beach-Bound, Part Three

    He didn’t realize he was looking for her until he didn’t find her in the cottage. And he remembered so very little, although the more he concentrated, the more he kind of recalled.

    Still, it wasn’t much. Wavy, copper-gold hair catching the firelight, then curling around him underwater as he held her in his arms. Brief illuminations of her long, lean frame as she mingled with others on the beach, every line of her a temptation. His clearest recollections were of her eyes, clear and green and wise; a dozen times he’d caught her stealing glances at him during the party and tried to catch her stare. He wouldn’t let her look away when they were submerged, when he finally got to hold her and became so lost in her gaze he forgot her name.

    Except… they couldn’t possibly have gone swimming in this weather. And had she even given him her name? He didn’t remember her saying it… but she must have, because it was just there at the edge of his thoughts. A flower, like a rose. No. A field flower, something sunny and open and strong in the wind. Daisy. Yes. Her name was Daisy.

    He absolutely had to find her. In fact, when he was sure she was nowhere in the cabin, he almost bolted back to the beach, reasoning – he wasn’t sure why – she must be in the sea. Which, again, was nuts.

    The sensation of floating with her under the waves replayed itself and he experienced every moment of it, the darkness closing off the rest of the world, the intensifying the intimacy between them, which was thick and sweet and wild enough to break a man’s heart.

    He was pretty sure she’d promised to come to him here, though. He walked to the front porch and scanned the stretch of sand leading to the water, and then examined the ocean itself. He found himself evaluating each inconsistency in the water’s surface, expecting her to appear and swim toward him… which, again, was nuts. He saw no sign of her anywhere, however. He returned to the house, rummaged for a pair sweatpants and then located the makings for coffee. One thing he knew for sure: he hadn’t imagined her. And if she didn’t come soon, he would go back out and look for her.

    Errin Stevens is the author of Updrift, now available at Liquid Silver Books, Amazon, and

  37. Christmas Lost and Found - final part.
    I know I was supposed to have another part at 5:30, but this is the final part. I hope you enjoyed Christmas Lost and Found. :)

    He was probably just being nice, she figured. She clocked out and let the second shift boss know she was leaving, then took one of Molly’s hands in hers.
    “Molly, I want you to hold my hand all the way. Don’t let go, okay?” It was dinnertime Saturday, and Tess knew the crowds would be even larger with people coming in for the movies, last minute shopping and hanging out.
    “Yes, Tess. Thank you.”
    The trio bumped and shuffled their way through the throngs, finally reaching the ice cream shop. The relative quiet inside the small store was a welcome relief to Tess. There weren’t a lot of people who wanted ice cream in the middle of winter, even though the store also sold candy and other confections. “Hey, Suze,” she said to the woman behind the counter. Susan Ming had befriended Tess when she came to work at the mall and often tried to set her up with dates.
    “Tess! What are you still doing here? Thought you’d be holed up in your apartment by now.”
    Tess blushed. “Um, just helping out a friend. Sue, I’d like you to meet Molly Clanahan and her father, Mike. Molly got a little lost today and we’re celebrating her getting found.”
    Sue leaned over the counter and grinned at the little girl. “Well, then your ice cream is on the house. What would you like, Molly?”
    “Vanilla with spinkles. In a dish, please.”
    “One dish of vanilla with ‘spinkles’ coming up. How ‘bout you two?”
    “Same!” Tess and Mike said at the same time, then both laughed.
    Sue raised her eyebrow at Tess. “Why don’t you three sit down and I’ll bring your dishes out to you.” She pointed at an empty booth at the back of the store.
    Two hours later, the ice cream long gone, and with Molly snoozing on the booth seat, Mike and Tess were still talking. Tess smiled down at the sleeping child. Christmas music flowed around them and she felt…happy.
    It looked like the lost and found had had a good day after all.

  38. Home for the Holidays Part 4.0:
    Kayla had been silent as he’d helped her into the SUV. Snow was still coming down, adding to the three inches that covered the parking lot. He was happy for it, since it gave him a reason to touch her.
    She still hadn’t answered his earlier question, he’d gotten called away to deal with Ryan who had asked Liam to pick up a box of condoms when they stopped at the grocery store for the whipped cream.
    As if he wanted her to see him buying condoms. Things between them were already awkward. He told Ryan to help himself to the ones he had in his bag, but to leave three for him.
    That started a round of questions Liam wasn’t prepared to answer.
    “Who will you be using three condoms with while you’re here?”
    He’d turned his phone to silent during the grocery trip. The truth was he had a lot of ground to cover before he would be ready for condoms.
    Knowing he wouldn’t be able to talk to her once they got back to the house he pulled into the deserted park up the street.
    “You didn’t answer my question,” he said.
    “Which question?” So she was playing with him.
    “Are you dating anyone?” He kept his voice even.
    “Why do you care?”
    “Did that night mean nothing to you?” he asked, hating the desperation in his voice.
    “Apparently more than it meant to you!” she snapped.
    “How can you say that? I called and texted you after you left, and you never answered me.”
    “I didn’t need your guilt-ridden apologies.”
    “Apologies? What did I have to apologize for?”
    “For acting like nothing had happened between us that morning.”
    He blinked at her. Was she serious?
    “That morning I told you I had a plan.”
    “What are you talking about? You were gone when I woke up.”
    “Before I left I woke you up. I told you I thought it would be best to keep it between us until that night. I said I had a plan. A surprise. You said okay.”
    “I didn’t say okay. I don’t even remember this conversation.”
    “You did say okay. You smiled and nuzzled up against me. I kissed you and then left while I was still able to. I didn’t want your mother to catch us.”
    He looked out the windshield at the snow falling softly to the ground.
    “All this time you thought I just ran off without a word and pretended we hadn’t been together?” He couldn’t believe this.
    “Yes. That’s what I thought. I thought it was just a one-night thing.”
    “I didn’t want it to be a one-night thing. I had a plan.”
    “What was the plan?” she asked her body moving toward his. He leaned in toward her, but jumped at the sound of someone pounding on the window next to him.
    He put down the window letting in a puff of snow and a glare from Ryan.
    “There you two are! Mom is worried sick,” he complained. “Are you having car trouble? What did you do to my ride?”
    “Nothing. I just pulled in because I needed to make a phone call,” Liam lied.
    “I’ll meet you back home as soon as I go pick up my own condoms. Thanks a lot.” Ryan frowned and stomped back to his father’s truck.
    Liam didn’t get a chance to explain his plan, nor did he want to ruin it. He was still hoping it might work out.

  39. Home for the Holidays Part 4.1:
    Kayla was still in shock when she made her way back to her father’s den after the Christmas Eve party. She never got a chance to say more than a few words to Liam during the party. She was too busy being introduced to her parent’s friends and helping with the food.
    When she did catch his eye during the party he always smiled a little brighter, causing her to answer back with her own smile. They were flirting.
    She couldn’t believe how things had gone so wrong all because she wasn’t a morning person. She honestly didn’t remember the conversation, but other people had experienced the same thing when speaking to her while she was asleep. Apparently she seemed wide awake, but wasn’t coherent.
    After changing from her party dress into a comfy pair of sweats she brushed her teeth. She was getting into bed when she heard a soft knock at the door.
    It couldn’t be.
    She rushed to the door and opened it to find the only person she wanted it to be.
    “Can I come in?” Liam asked in the same tone he’d asked her four years earlier. His dark gaze drifted to her lips as they both waited for her answer.
    “Yes,” she said, and a second later his mouth came down on hers as he pushed the door shut with his foot.
    “Just so you know,” he said by her ear. “This is not a one-night thing.”

  40. Beach-Bound, Part Four

    Seth felt her approach before he saw it, drifted out the front door when the first prickle of expectation ran up his spine. He stood tall and searched every small movement on the landscape, seeing nothing at first. But his breathing deepened and his chest swelled, his body anticipating action.

    He settled his gaze where the berm blocked much of the path between land and ocean, was unsurprised when she appeared there. She ran toward him with the quiet swiftness of a cat on the hunt, and she was breathtaking. He briefly noted her strange attire, some kind of linen-y wrap thing that maybe used to be a sundress. Or prehistoric ball gown. Didn’t matter; it worked. He descended the steps in one stride and caught her as she launched herself the last few feet.

    The whole of her – her warmth, her radiant attractiveness – felt like liquid life, like the sea itself pouring into him. He kissed her ravenously, seeking more; and her own hungry responses shifted his reality by several degrees. He experienced in those first seconds a transformation of sorts, where his previous definition of himself first blurred and then dissolved altogether. He changed from discrete to incautious, fulfilled to needing, free to enslaved… and he suffered no regret over this metamorphosis. His very senses expanded so he breathed bigger, saw more, absorbed Daisy’s excitement as his own. He heard not just the wind rustling the grasses, but the whoosh of waves far out on the horizon and the call of wales and other sea life beneath them.

    He didn’t remember moving but realized he’d taken her into the cottage when warm inside air hit his skin, a sensation that brought him back into himself a tiny amount. But it was enough to cause a crack in the spell he was under. He kicked the door shut behind them, set her down, and with effort, inclined himself away.

    “I should probably know a few things before we go much further. Last night… what happened to us? Did you girls mickie our drinks? And I’m not sure, but I think your name is Daisy…”

    “Donna,” she offered. Then at his alarmed expression, “I’m kidding. You’re right – it’s Daisy.” Her low laugh resonated like a trill in his stomach and he leaned toward her again, unable to stop himself. As she pulled his face down to her, she said, “And no, we didn’t slip you anything, would never…” She kissed him, her eyes brimming with promise, and with things unsaid. Seth had the impression she pleaded with him not to reject her, not to resist the pull between them. “As if I could,” he muttered.

    “We’ll talk afterwards, I promise,” she said.

    He couldn’t sustain his concern over practicalities. He lifted her against his chest, securing her at the waist so he wouldn’t have to bend down, but his stare was a warning to her. “Fine,” he agreed. She closed her eyes and tilted her face up.

    “Yes. Fine,” she breathed.

    Errin Stevens is the author of Updrift, now available at Liquid Silver Books, Amazon, and

  41. Home for the Holidays Part 5.0:
    Kayla woke up alone like she had the last time, however unlike the last time, she didn’t fear he had run off to avoid her.
    He made certain she was awake when he’d left that morning. Even going so far as to have her repeat back his words to make sure she understood.
    He was still working out some sort of plan which involved her silence until after Christmas dinner. With one last kiss he’d gotten up and dressed before sneaking out of her room.
    Downstairs, she was greeted with a chorus of “Merry Christmas”, but didn’t see Liam at the table.
    “Where’s Liam?” she asked, hoping to sound only casually interested.
    Everyone shrugged.
    “I think he spent the night with a girl. I don’t know who,” Ryan said. “I just know he wasn’t in our room last night.” Kayla kept her eyes on her toast so not to beam with happiness.
    Liam had spent the night with a girl. Her. And somehow it had been even better than it was four years ago. All the hurt she’d been carrying around had simply fallen aside when she realized he hadn’t walked away.
    Now they would need to tell her family.
    “He met someone here? He doesn’t even know anyone here except us, does he?” Josh asked, as her mother nodded in agreement as Ryan answered the question.
    “I don’t know for sure, all I know is on the way here he said he wants to start a family with some girl he’s seeing, but then he comes here and spends the night with someone else.”
    Kayla’s good mood got washed out to sea at her brother’s words.
    Liam was seeing someone? Someone he wanted to start a family with?
    Liam was impressed by how well Kayla was playing the part of disinterested friend. She hadn’t spoken to him or so much as looked at him as the family opened their gifts and played with the kid’s toys. At dinner, he’d hoped to get a seat next to her, but instead she sat between her nieces at the other end of the table.
    It was fine though. If everything went the way he hoped after dinner, it would be the last family meal they would have to spend pretending.
    He managed to catch her alone in the kitchen as he took a load of dishes to the sink. Unable to help himself, he pulled her into the pantry and kissed her.
    “What are you doing?” she snapped as she pulled away. Something was wrong.
    “I’m kissing you.”
    “Why are you kissing me when you’re seeing someone else?”
    “I’m not seeing anyone else.” He stepped back, not sure what was going on.
    “Ryan said you have a girl back home that you’re planning to start a family with.”
    “This can’t be happening,” he mumbled to himself. “I don’t have a girl back home. If I had a girl back home, I wouldn’t be here. Or I would have brought her with me.”
    “Oh.” She pulled her lips to the side while she thought that over. “Why did he think that?” she asked. His answer seemed to calm her anger.
    “It’s Ryan. Who knows? What I need to know is if you’re ready to stop all of this and really be with me. No more silly insecurities. Me and you. Are you in?”
    “I’m in. I’m sorry.”
    “You should be,” he said with a smile so she’d know he was kidding. He stole another kiss before leaving her in the pantry alone.

  42. Home for the Holidays Part 5.1
    Kayla settled on the floor next to Liam’s chair as the family settled in to watch a Christmas movie. He stole a handful of her popcorn and covertly touched her neck as the opening credits filled the screen.
    Throughout the movie he would occasional touch her, once even bending down to whisper something naughty in her ear.
    When the movie was over, she anxiously awaited his announcement. She didn’t want to have to pretend any longer. It was hard enough not being able to hold his hand or kiss him.
    But he didn’t make his move.
    So much for his awesome plan, she thought as she stood up to stretch.
    “Kayla, would you mind grabbing me a soda while you’re up?” Liam asked.
    “Okay.” Just because she was standing didn’t mean she had planned to go into the kitchen. Apparently she was his gopher now that she was sleeping with him.
    She was sleeping with him. She found herself hoping it hadn’t been a mistake as she turned to leave the family room.
    “Hey, Kayla. Wait a sec,” Liam said as he jumped up from the chair.
    She hadn’t made it out of the room so she waited in the doorway.
    The doorway she’d forgotten had mistletoe hanging above it.
    Liam looked determined as he strode over to her. Putting his hands on each side of her face, he bent down to kiss her. A big one.
    The kind of kiss that left no doubts they were more than friends.
    “What the hell?” Ryan said as silence fell over the room.
    Liam pulled away and grinned.
    “Is this your plan?” she asked. Glancing over at her family she saw a variety of reactions. From shock to confusion to happiness.
    “Actually, this is my plan,” he said as he knelt down in front of her.
    For a brief moment she was about to tell him he’d picked a horrible time to tie his shoe, but then she saw the box and understood.
    “Liam?” He wasn’t going to…
    “I’ve been in love with you for a long time.” The low growl from the brothers made him revise. “Since you were in college. I’ve been waiting for the right time to do this, and I think it’s now.” She could feel his pulse racing where he held her hand. “Kayla, will you marry me? Please.”
    She spared a quick glance at her family as they all sat on the edge of their seats, leaning forward waiting for her answer.
    She turned her gaze back to the man in front of her. They’d already lost four years because of a misunderstanding. It was silly to waste one more second.
    “I love you too, Liam. Yes. Yes, I’ll marry you.”
    He jumped up, seizing her in a fierce hug and then he was kissing her again. Once he’d done a thorough job of it, he set her back on her feet and fumbled with the box to get the diamond out.
    Her family swelled around them as she took in her ring and the gorgeous man who had given it to her.

  43. Home for the Holidays Part 5.2
    “Congratulations,” Ryan said with a suspicious look. “You never mentioned this to me.”
    “What would you have said?” Liam asked. Worry tightened his stomach. He was much too happy to be brought down by Ryan, but it would be nice if her brother supported him.
    “I’m not sure.”
    “Are you okay with it?”
    “Does it matter?” Ryan’s lips pulled up on the one side.
    “Not even a little bit.” He’d waited years for Kayla. Now that she’d said yes, nothing would stand in their way. Not even his best friend.
    Ryan nodded. “I always thought of you as another one of my brothers. I guess I won’t have a problem making it official.” The relief nearly made him gasp.
    “Thank you.” They hugged it out in a very manly way.
    “I used to warn the other guys she dated not to hurt her.” He patted Liam on the back. “I’m glad I don’t have to worry about that anymore.”
    After pats, hugs and tears of joy from the rest of the family, Liam wrapped his arms around Kayla. She tilted her head back to look up at him. Her smile never failed to make a rush of happiness surge through him.
    “Welcome to the family,” she whispered as the rest of the Jenkins chattered on about how they’d had their suspicions all along.
    “Actually, I’ve always felt like a part of this family. But now I’d like to do my part to make it bigger.”
    She laughed and nodded. “Sounds like another great plan.”
    The end.
    Thank you, Romance Lives Forever for having me!

  44. Beach-Bound, Part Five

    “Story time,” Seth demanded.

    They lay on their sides on the living room floor, facing each other in front of a fire, which crackled prettily thanks to Seth’s efforts. Daisy hugged the plush throw covering her and curled an arm under her cheek. “I suppose it is,” she agreed reluctantly. Seth raised an eyebrow and waited, and when she tried to look away, cupped her chin. “Hey,” he prompted.

    She sighed. “I suppose now is as good a time as any…” Her gaze flickered away from him. A good time to let him know exactly how much of an intrusion she was about to make in his life? Ah well, here went nothing. “You’re right of course. I haven’t been forthcoming. But even so I haven’t left you much choice where we’re concerned…” Her gaze drifted out the window. “I have a better way to tell you everything,” she decided, and she rose to her feet. She offered him a hand. “Walk with me to the beach?”

    He draped an arm around her shoulders as the walked, which she found touching since she knew he did it to encourage her. She turned her face away at the thought, I should be the one encouraging him. She stopped at the water and squared her shoulders. He linked both their hands in front of them. “Just tell me, Daisy.”

    “So, have you, ah, maybe noticed I’m, kind of, a little… different?” she began.

    Seth snorted. “Yes. And?”

    “Yeah, it’s just that I’m really different, see…” She drew him into the tide, which he initially resisted, and then with her influence, didn’t.

    Whatever revelation Seth believed was coming, even taking into account his hazy underwater memories from the previous night, he was not prepared for what Daisy showed him.

    And here he’d worried she was going say, ‘Seth, I have to break up with someone first,’ or, ‘I’m in the country illegally.’ Ha. Turns out her preternatural pull on him was in fact preternatural, her call to him the call of an actual siren…

    …but he wasn’t upset, not really. How could he be? Daisy was a fantasy he hadn’t known was his, the adventure he’d craved without knowing why, the woman he’d searched for in the company of too many others. As they swam in her muted underwater world, the dense emotions flowing between them fed his hungry heart until it was full, perhaps for the first time. She didn’t want him to ever leave? He wouldn’t even consider the idea.

    I choose this, choose us. You are a man’s dream – this man’s dream – come to life.

    Daisy squeezed him tightly. Do we have to go back? It’s December, and I know humans hold a big festival…

    My ‘festival’ this year will be with you and me in that little cottage, Daisy. And with that he tempted her back to shore with the promise of twinkling lights and cookies and hot chocolate. And love. That’s the best part of the holidays, he promised.

    Errin Stevens is the author of Updrift, now available at Liquid Silver Books, Amazon, and


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