Season of Joy

Includes a bonus novella


By Annie Rains

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Fall in love with this heartfelt holiday romance between a down-on-his-luck Christmas tree farmer and a woman with plans to bring the merriment back to their town.

Tis the season for love

For single father Granger Fields, Christmas is his busiest and most profitable time of the year. But when a fire devastates the Merry Mountain Tree Farm, he fears the season won’t be holly or jolly unless he can convince free spirit Joy Benson to care for his two rambunctious daughters. Yet while Granger wants to focus on saving his business, Joy seems determined to shake up his family’s Christmas with her festive ideas and merry making.

Joy is counting down the days until she can open her own art gallery. Babysitting Abby and Willow will help her reach her goal, and when inspiration strikes, Joy convinces Granger that her craft classes can bring even more holiday cheer to the farm. As crowds return and Joy’s creative side flourishes, life with Granger and his girls begins to feel like home. But with Christmas coming nearer, can Joy convince Granger to open his heart again? Or will their newfound happiness be as fleeting as the newly fallen snow?


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Chapter One

Joy Benson picked up her pace, walking faster as she burrowed into the depths of her lightweight jacket. Fall in Sweetwater Springs was as chilly as it was beautiful. As an artist, she could appreciate how the colors of the valley changed from varied golds and greens to deep crimsons. Try as she might, she’d never fully captured the magic of it on a canvas, but one day…

Her steps slowed as she approached an empty storefront in the downtown area. Wasn’t this the old clockmaker’s shop? Where had it gone? Joy guessed there wasn’t a lot of need for handmade clocks anymore, but still, the shop had once been a living, breathing part of Main Street. Now it stood vacant—and a little sad.

Joy eyed the time on her cell phone. She was already running late but she couldn’t help taking a moment to cup her hands over the glass and peer inside. She’d been looking for a place to open an art gallery. A place where she could display and sell her work along with other pieces from local potters, sculptors, and artists like her who dabbled in everything. For a while now, she’d run a successful Etsy store online. Her goal at the start of this year, however, was to find a physical location to work out of. A place where she could also teach her classes instead of doing so at the local library.

This place would be perfect.

Except for the tiny detail that this was Main Street, a location that was undoubtedly out of her price range. That was especially true now that her car had decided to die and she was using a chunk of her savings to fix it. Which was why she was walking to the library this afternoon. And if she didn’t hustle, she’d be late for the class she was scheduled to teach there.

Reluctantly, Joy turned from the store window. It wouldn’t hurt to call the real estate agent handling the property later and at least inquire about the details. Maybe by some miracle it wasn’t out of her price range. The season of miracles was almost upon her after all. Not that Joy had ever experienced a Christmas miracle herself. In fact, she’d experienced the opposite last year around the holidays.

A chill ran down Joy’s spine, and she quickened her steps as much to outrun the memory as to make good time. She walked another half mile away from the downtown area until she reached the Sweetwater Springs Library. Then she opened the door and stepped inside, standing in the entryway a moment to catch her breath. As she removed her jacket and repositioned her bag on her shoulder, the door opened again, and two little girls rushed in, nearly knocking her over.

“Whoa!” Joy’s arms flew out to catch herself against the door to the main room of the library. Then her purse slipped off her shoulder and spilled out onto the floor.

She’d been meaning to clean out her bag, and the contents were now laid out before her. Gum wrappers galore. A comb. A notepad. And a business card that Aunt Darby seemed to have in endless supply for a local matchmaking service. Every time Joy saw her favorite aunt, Darby was handing her a card and urging Joy to “try again.” Joy wasn’t necessarily anti dating right now. She just didn’t need a service to help. Thank you very much, Aunt Darby.

Joy knelt to collect the items.

“Are you okay? Willow doesn’t know her own strength,” a deep voice said.

Joy knew that voice. Something warm moved over her as she looked up and met Granger Fields’s dark gaze. “Oh. Hi.”

“Joy,” he said, acknowledging her with a dimpled smile. “I didn’t realize that was you down there. Do you need help?”

Before she could insist that she didn’t, Granger knelt in front of her and grabbed the business card.

Mortification flooded Joy’s system. “That’s my aunt Darby’s.” She snatched the card, hoping he hadn’t read the name. His grin told her he had though. Great. He was going to think his girls’ art teacher was clumsy, gum smacking, and desperate.

“The contents of a woman’s purse are supposed to be kept secret, right? Should I cover my eyes?” he teased.

Joy nodded seriously. “Yes, please.”

Apparently, Granger was only joking, however, because he continued to grab her items one by one and toss them inside her bag. Then he stood and reached out a hand to help her up.

Joy stared at it for a moment, her brain misfiring right along with her heart. She had a teeny, tiny crush on Granger that she’d been actively ignoring for months. When he’d first started taking his girls to her art classes here, she’d promised herself that, despite being incredibly attracted to him, he was look-but-don’t-touch where she was concerned. She had no intention of getting involved with a handsome single father. That was too complicated, and if and when she started dating again, she was keeping things simple.

Granger kept his hand outstretched. Reluctantly, she slid her palm against his calloused one, no doubt the result of chopping trees on his farm. As soon as she was on her feet, she pulled her hand away and took a tiny step backward, giving her attention to his two little girls who were now bopping up and down on each side of him.

“Hi, Abby. Hi, Willow,” Joy said, smiling as she looked at them. Joy was a sucker for a cute kid. She’d spent a large part of her teens and twenties working in childcare. In fact, being a nanny was how she’d put herself through art school. Her parents had refused to pay when she’d dropped out of nursing to follow her passion but she’d taken out a loan and she’d persisted. People had told her that she’d never make it as a starving artist but she hadn’t given up then either. And now, she fully supported herself with her art. Yeah, she’d walked here because her car was on its final miles. But she had a car and a nice town house. And she had more than enough food in her fridge.

Not a starving artist.

“Ladies first.” Granger opened one of the double doors that led into the main room and looked at Joy. “I promise we won’t try to bowl you over this time.”

She glanced over her shoulder to catch him wink at her. It was an innocent wink but it still made her insides turn to something akin to Jell-O. Then she stepped into the room filled with quiet whispers and the smell of books, old and new.

“Hi, Joy!” Lacy Shaw, the librarian here, waved from behind the counter.

Joy waved back. Lacy was a good friend of hers. She’d always been quiet, but her new beau was bringing out a less introverted side of her these days. It showed in the way Lacy wore her hair down on her shoulders. Gone were her cardigans, replaced by cropped lightweight blazers.

“Miss Joy?” Willow tugged on Joy’s arm as they continued walking to the far corner of the library. Willow was a tow-headed seven-year-old, a second grader by Joy’s recollection and a ball of enthusiasm. This child would probably get excited over doing chores. “Can I be your special helper today?”

Joy chose one child at the start of every class to pass out supplies and collect them at the end. “Of course you can, sweetheart.” Joy looked at Granger’s older girl. Abigail was nine and the calmer of the two sisters. She had long, dark-blond hair that she wore in a low-hanging ponytail and pink-tinted glasses that she constantly pushed up on her nose. “Abigail, I have a job for you too,” Joy said. “Follow me.”

Joy led them to where she held classes and handed Willow some river stones to place on the table for the other students. Then she handed Abigail some paintbrushes to distribute. Joy handled putting out the palettes and a variety of paint. When they were done, Joy filled some cups with water, and Willow put one in front of each place setting.

Other children began to wander in as they prepared the space, hurrying to the table to get their preferred spot.

“What are we doing today?” Abigail asked once everyone was seated.

Joy clapped her hands together at her chest, eying the children and not the parents, who sat along the wall—Granger included. He usually sent the girls with their nanny, Mrs. Townsend. But lately, Mrs. Townsend had been under the weather, and he’d been coming more often with them. “Well, in honor of today being Halloween, we’re painting pictures of candy on river rocks. You can sneak them in the trick-or-treat basket at your home tonight and that will be your trick instead of a treat.”

The kids all giggled. She had to admit that she’d thought herself a genius when she’d concocted the idea in the middle of the night last week.

“You have to try to paint the candy as realistic as you can to trick the treaters tonight,” she said with a wide grin. “That’s why I brought the real thing for you to use as your model.”

Willow’s eyes went wide. “Can we eat it too?”

Joy laughed softly. “You’ll have to ask your parents.” Her gaze unwittingly met with Granger’s, and if a heart could sigh, hers did at the sight of his overgrown chestnut-colored hair and tanned skin that acted like a canvas for his light brown eyes.

She reined her gaze back in and looked at the children. “All right. Let’s get started.”

Half an hour later, there were dozens of river stones on the paint-splattered table. They were painted with designs of Tootsie Rolls, M&M’S, Starbursts, and Skittles. And the kids were sugared up as well as high on the excitement of the adventure to come tonight as they went door to door.

Willow raised her hand and signaled to Joy to lean in for a secret. “I’m going to try to trick my dad with this stone,” she whispered loudly. “He always tries to steal my candy after we go trick-or-treating.”

Joy laughed and looked at Granger.

He shook his head and palmed his face adorably before standing. “All right, girls, tell Miss Joy thank you.”

“Thank you!” Abby and Willow said in unison, throwing their arms around Joy’s waist.

“You’re welcome. Have fun tonight, okay? Halloween is one of my favorite holidays. After Thanksgiving and Christmas.”

“Those are my favorites too,” Willow said, bopping on the balls of her feet. She was much more talkative than her older sister, who typically didn’t say much. Joy knew that the girls’ mother wasn’t in the picture anymore. That was a lot for two kids to deal with. Abigail had obviously taken some of the maternal responsibility on her shoulders.

And Granger bore the rest. Which was both honorable and another reason that Joy planned to keep her crush to herself. From the outside looking in, Granger’s life was complicated. And Halloween or not, her heart didn’t need any tricks or treats tonight or any other night.

*  *  *

There was nothing Granger would rather do than spend the afternoon with his girls but he had a lot of work to do right now. It was the last day of October, and tomorrow started Merry Mountain Farms’ Christmas season. After the fire that had wiped out half the trees this spring, the farm was already operating at a deficit.

“Daddy?” Abby tapped his shoulder as she approached from behind. “Did you see the rocks I painted at the library?”

Granger was sitting at his desk, where he was supposed to be working. He had an open-door policy when he was in the house though, and not a lot of work ever got done here. He lifted his gaze to his oldest daughter, taken aback by how much she looked like her mother with her long, blond hair and freckled cheeks. “I did. You’re an artist.”

“Like Miss Joy,” Abby said, a smile touching the corners of her mouth. His girls looked up to Joy Benson, especially Abby, who loved to draw and paint. Willow, on the other hand, had been missing having a mother like her friends lately, and any woman in the right age group who gave her the least bit of attention was her new best friend.

“Maybe so,” Granger said.

“Why did you take us to the library again today instead of Mrs. Townsend?” Abby asked. “Where is she?”

Granger sighed and rubbed a hand on his forehead. The girls’ nanny had called out again this morning. Lately, his girls were running circles around Mrs. Townsend. They lived in a house on the same property as his parents and the Christmas tree farm, so someone was always around to help if needed. Mrs. Townsend was only there to make sure the girls ate their after-school snacks and did their homework while he and his parents ran their homegrown business, which included caring for the evergreens, the apple orchards, and the strawberry fields. “Mrs. Townsend will be back tomorrow,” he said. Hopefully.

Abby shrugged her tiny shoulders. “I like it when you take us instead.”

He smiled. “I like it too. And tonight, I’m taking you and Willow trick-or-treating. Why aren’t you putting on your costume?”

Abby’s eyes lit up behind her thick glasses. “I’ll go do that.”

“Help your sister too?” Granger asked before he could think. Lately he’d been wondering if he’d been asking Abby to help Willow too often. Abby deserved to be a kid and not be responsible for her younger sibling so much. Granger couldn’t do everything on his own though. That was why he needed a nanny in the first place.

Abby headed toward the door. “Don’t forget your costume, Dad,” she called before disappearing. He heard the patter of her socked feet race down the hall and up the stairs toward her bedroom.

Granger chuckled and closed his laptop. He wasn’t getting any more work done this afternoon anyway. He’d looked at the numbers. With the shipment of trees that he’d ordered from Virginia, they’d be able to satisfy customer demand this holiday and avoid losing their customers to the competition. The Virginia tree farm had to make a profit, though, which meant that Merry Mountain Farms wouldn’t. These trees would be sold to Merry Mountain Farms’ customers at the same cost as the other trees.

A sigh tumbled off his lips as he stood and headed into the kitchen. He dipped into the fridge and grabbed an apple, taking a huge bite. There was one solution to fix the decreased profits. He’d spoken to his father about bringing back the lighted hayrides they used to run.

There was a trail on their property that weaved through the woods. They used to drive Grandpa’s tractor pulling a large trailer that could accommodate twenty or so guests, driving past lighted displays in the dark. It was magical, and Merry Mountain goers had adored the experience, making it part of their holiday traditions.

Five years ago, his father had shut down the ride after a little boy somehow climbed over the ride’s guardrail and fell out, breaking his arm. The family had sued, and Granger’s father had decided to put all the lighted displays and props in storage under proverbial lock and key.

The lawsuit hadn’t gone anywhere, of course, because parents were supposed to watch their children. There were warning signs posted that read as much. The rides were safe, and they brought in customers and income, which was needed this year. His father didn’t agree when Granger had brought it up last week but Granger planned to broach the subject again. They had to do something, and this would be easy. They already had everything they needed.

Someone knocked on the back door. Granger turned just as his mom stepped inside with a large basket of candy in her arms.

“Aren’t you going to dress up?” she asked, laying the basket on the counter and giving him a hug.

“This is my costume.” Granger pulled back and gestured at his long-sleeved T-shirt and jeans. “I’m going as a grumpy Christmas tree farmer.” Which wasn’t far from the truth right now.

His mother swatted him playfully. “Are you taking the girls downtown for trick-or-treating?”

Granger reached for a miniature candy bar in the basket. “They’d be pretty sad trick-or-treaters if we tried to go around here,” he said. The farm was expansive, stretching all the way to the border of Evergreen State Park. It wasn’t inside a neighborhood where door-to-door trick-or-treating made sense.

His mom’s gaze landed on the painted river rocks on the counter. “Aren’t those cute?” she said, picking one up. There was a Hershey’s Kiss painted on the top. It wasn’t good enough to trick anyone, but Willow had been proud of it nevertheless. “Is this what Joy taught the kids at the library this afternoon?”

“Yep.” Granger unwrapped his piece of candy and popped it into his mouth.

“The girls just love her. I don’t know why she’s still single.”

Granger avoided meeting his mom’s gaze. He knew what she was thinking. His mom wasn’t so subtle about making sure he knew exactly which females in town were available should he want to start dating again.

“Maybe that’s what she wants,” he said, thinking about that matchmaking business card that had fallen from her purse earlier today. She’d claimed it was her aunt’s, and if Joy’s aunt was anything like his own mother, then he understood perfectly.

“Nonsense. No woman wants to be alone,” his mother said.

Granger bit his tongue. His ex-wife had. She’d wanted to be rid of her family so badly that she’d packed her bags soon after Willow was born. She’d been diagnosed with postpartum depression, which he’d vaguely understood at the time. What he didn’t understand was why she never returned. Willow was seven years old now. Erin’s PPD had passed, and she clearly wasn’t coming back.

“No man wants to be alone either,” his mom continued, oblivious to his inner thoughts.

Granger side-eyed her. “I don’t have any inkling of an idea what alone feels like. Between you and the girls and Tin”—he gestured at the sleeping sheepdog blocking half the doorway—“I can’t get a moment’s peace.”

Tin lifted her head at the mention. She’d been a Christmas present for the girls the year that Erin had left the family. Granger had brought her home as a sort of consolation prize. She’d been the size of a football back then and had an attraction to the silvery tinsel on the tree in their living room. Abigail had named her Tinsel but over the years that had shortened to Tin.

“Joy’s a beautiful woman,” his mom continued. “Caring too. Do you know she volunteers at Sugar Pines Community Center all the time?”

Granger attempted to grab another piece of candy from the basket but his mom blocked him.

“That’s for the kids,” she said. “She drives her aunt around town too because Darby can’t drive anymore.”

Granger looked up. “I didn’t know that.”

“Darby has epilepsy. Her sister, Joy’s mother, should be giving her rides but she’s too busy at the hospital to make time. Joy makes time though. That speaks volumes about her character. She’s loyal.”

Granger reached for a piece of candy again. This time his mom didn’t stop him. “Enough matchmaking, okay? I need to be focused on the farm right now. At this rate, we’re not going to make any profits this year unless we can get Dad to consider bringing back the lighted hayride.”

His mom’s smile wilted. “Good luck with that. I’ve never seen your dad so upset as when that kid got hurt on our property.”

“It wasn’t his fault,” Granger said, unwrapping a Twizzler this time. He took a bite.

“Well, I know that. But it’s not me you have to convince. I’d love to see the rides happen again. They were so special. It was one of the most anticipated holiday events around here.”

Before Granger could say anything more, Willow barged into the room, dressed as a monkey wearing a pair of Minnie Mouse ears. “Nana!” she cheered. “Are you going with us?”

Granger’s mom laughed. “No, no. I’m staying here, darling.”

“Boo,” Willow whined. Then she reached for her father’s hand. “I’m all ready to go! I want to leave now so I can get as much candy as possible.”

Granger inspected the costume that his mom had helped put together. If it had been left to him, Willow would probably be wearing something store-bought. “I’m sure you’ll get plenty of candy tonight, Monkey Mouse,” he teased.

“Daddy, I’m dressed as Minnie Monkey,” she corrected.

Abby entered the room as well. She was wearing an artist’s smock, splattered with paint, with large brushes poking out of the front pockets. She had paint splattered on her cheeks and in her hair as well. “I’m an artist,” she declared as if that weren’t obvious. “Can we stop by Miss Joy’s house so I can show her?”

Granger made the mistake of looking at his mom when Abby said this.

“Well, I am sure your father can arrange that. Can’t you, son?” She patted his shoulder.

“Please, Daddy,” Willow asked. “I want Miss Joy to see my costume too!”

Granger chuckled. He wasn’t kidding about never getting a moment’s peace. He had to admit there was some part of him that wanted to see Joy again tonight though. He’d always found her attractive. But the way she interacted with his girls and the contagious nature of her laugh reeled him in—even if he always managed to break the line. “I guess we can swing by Miss Joy’s home,” he relented. “But just for a couple minutes.”

Chapter Two

Joy felt like she was back in her college days. While in art school, there’d been all kinds of parties that had required her to dress up. Tonight, she was dressed as an artsy twist on a peacock. She wore royal blue from head to toe and had a headband that she’d decorated herself with a variety of brightly colored feathers, all fanned out over her dark hair. She’d done the same to the belt she was wearing around her waist. She’d gotten a little carried away with the face paint and jewels too, but this was much more toned down from those college days in her early twenties. She’d even used some hair chalk to color a few strands of her hair royal blue like her costume—and some part of her, the artist, wanted to keep the blue locks after tonight.

The doorbell rang.

Joy grabbed her nearly empty basket of treats and hurried to the glass door, her steps slowing when she saw the man and two little girls standing on her stoop with a large dog. Joy knew that man and those girls. She also recognized that lovable canine.

She smiled brightly and opened the door to the chorus of “Trick or treat!” Laughing, Joy held out her basket. “Wow. If not for your dad, I might not have been able to figure out who you were. Those costumes are amazing,” she told Abby and Willow. “Minnie Monkey and a famous artist?” she asked.

Abby looked up. “I’m supposed to be you.”

“Oh, wow. I see the resemblance,” Joy said, glancing up at Granger. Then she reached over and patted Tin, who was also in costume tonight. The big, lovable dog wore a Wonder Woman cape draped over her back. It was tradition in the downtown area where Joy lived for trick-or-treaters to bring their dogs in tow and for those manning the doors with baskets of candy to have dog treats on hand as well.

“How many pieces can we have?” Willow asked, digging her small hand into the basket that Joy held out.

“Don’t be greedy,” Granger said.

“Oh, there’s no such thing. Besides, I think the crowd is dwindling, and I don’t want to be stuck with all this sugar later. I have a sweet tooth late at night,” Joy confessed.

“I see the tricks in there.” Willow offered Joy a wide gap-toothed grin. “You’re good at drawing but I can tell which pieces are just rocks.”

Joy laughed and looked up at Granger, meeting his eyes. She wasn’t sure she’d ever stared into them at night. The colors were deeper, richer. They made her want to grab her oil paints and search for the ones that would re-create them.

“How do you like my costume?” Granger asked, his voice deeper than she recalled.

She lowered her gaze to scan his body—big mistake. The man was all lean muscle, sculpted like a marble statue. “What costume?” Handsome single dad? Hot Christmas tree farmer?

Granger held open his arms. “I’m the Grinch.”

Willow started giggling. “Daddy, the Grinch is green. You’re not green.”

Abby smiled too. “I have paint in the pockets of my apron. I can paint you green if you want,” she offered with a mischievous grin.


  • "Rich in depictions of the quaint and cozy traditions that make small towns so special to the subtle reminders of just how magical Christmas really is, this novel is a success."—
  • "This holiday romance novel breaks your heart and mends it back together again with its characters and family dynamics."—
  • "A festive, atmospheric, uplifting treat that will have you believing in the magic of Christmas..."—
  • "Annie Rains is a gifted storyteller, and I can't wait for my next visit to Sweetwater Springs!"—Raeanne Thayne, New York Times bestselling author
  • "If you’re looking for a sweet romance set at Christmas about finding love after loss, look no further. Annie Rains brings us a book that captures the Christmas spirit perfectly."—
  • "Annie Rains puts her heart in every word!"—Brenda Novak, New York Times bestselling author
  • "Annie Rains is truly a storyteller. Time and again, she brings us wonderful small-town contemporary romances."—Tif Marcelo, author of In a Book Club Far Away
  • "This delicious rom-com has plenty of heart and is ideal comfort reading."—Publishers Weekly on Springtime at Hope Cottage
  • "This first installment of Rains's Sweetwater Springs series is cozy and most enjoyable. A strong cast of supporting characters as well as expert characterizations and strong plotting will have readers looking forward to future installments."—Publishers Weekly on Christmas on Mistletoe Lane

On Sale
Oct 13, 2020
Page Count
432 pages

Annie Rains

About the Author

Annie Rains is a USA Today bestselling contemporary romance author who writes small town love stories set in fictional places in her home state of North Carolina. When Annie isn't writing, she's living out her own happily ever after with her husband and three children.

Learn more about this author