By Debbie Mason
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The Trouble with Christmas
Resort developer Madison Lane spoiled a deal that would turn quaint Christmas, Colorado, into a tourist’s winter wonderland. The citizens want her fired, but her company sends Madison to the small town to restore the holiday cheer. For Sheriff Gage McBride, no hotshot executive from New York City is going to destroy the dreams of the people he loves. But in just a few days, Madison causes more trouble than he’s had to deal with all year. He can’t decide if she’s naughty or nice, but one thing is for certain-Christmas will never be the same again . . .
Christmas in July Grace Flaherty had given up hope of ever seeing her husband again after he went missing in combat. So when he strides through the door of her bakery, she can hardly believe her eyes. But her happily-ever-after is going to take some effort-because Jack has no memory of his family. All Jack Flaherty remembers about Christmas is that he couldn’t wait to leave town. Now he’s a local hero with a wife and son he doesn’t know. Even as he struggles to rekindle the romance with his wife, he knows in his heart what he wants: a second chance at love.
It Happened at Christmas
Free-spirited activist Skylar Davis hides out in Christmas, hoping to forget the reckless actions of her past. All goes well . . . until she comes face-to-face with one of her mistakes: the town’s gorgeous young mayor. Ethan O’Connor is about to move from small-town politics to the Colorado State Senate, but if word ever got out about the night he and Skye spent together, the scandal could cripple his career. Yet as he starts his campaign, Ethan finds that, like the town of Christmas itself, he can’t get Skye out of his head . . . or his heart.
Table of Contents
The Trouble with Christmas
Christmas in July
It Happened at Christmas
A Preview of Wedding Bells in Christmas
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If Madison had a gun, she'd shoot out the sound system pumping "Jingle Bells" through her office speakers. Instead, she bit off Rudolph's chocolate head and pointed a finger at the brightly colored, foil-wrapped Santa on her desk. "You're next, big guy."
It was only November 29, and she was already sick to death of the nauseating carols hijacking the radio stations, the migraine-inducing Christmas lights that used up enough energy to power a small country, and don't get her started on the crowds—people running around buying presents they couldn't afford, racking up credit card debt that would make them want to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge come January.
Her attitude was probably the reason why her assistant decided today was a double-chocolate day. She'd worked with Madison at the resort developer Hartwell Enterprises for the last five years and knew the over-the-top holiday hoopla made Madison… cranky. She didn't know why, no one did, and Madison planned to keep it that way. To keep the past exactly where it belonged, in the past.
No Boo hoo, woe is me for Madison Lane. She was a "dust yourself off, pick yourself up by the bootstraps" kind of gal. And that was exactly what she'd done ten years ago. At eighteen, she'd kicked off the dirt of the small Southern town she'd grown up in and never looked back. Moved to the big city where no one knew your name, cared where you came from, or who your parents were.
She loved her life in New York. She had the best boss, the best job, and two of the most amazing best friends. Yep, her world was… almost perfect. And as soon as she figured out a way to get rid of her boss's nephew, Harrison Hartwell the Third, with his fake tan and fake British accent, it would be perfect. Six months ago, playing the family card, Harrison had slithered past her defenses. But now she saw him for what he was: a slick freeloader who wanted her job.
Her job was safe. The guy was an idiot. He'd tried to steamroll a resort development deal with the small town of Christmas, Colorado, past her—an investment that would have bankrupted Joe, her boss. But four days ago, as VP of finance, she'd presented a twenty-page argument against the deal. Her report, along with Joe's respect for her opinion, had paid off, and the negotiations ended.
Take that, Harrison, she thought, biting off Rudolph's leg.
The alarm on her watch beeped, ending her five-minute endorphin-releasing therapy. Wrapping up the half-eaten chocolate reindeer, she tucked him in the drawer along with Santa and got back to work on the budget she was presenting this afternoon. Thanks to the elimination of the deal with Christmas, Hartwell's financial future looked a whole lot brighter. She'd been practically giddy when she deleted the town from the budget. And it had nothing to do with her dislike of small towns or the holiday it was named after. She never let emotions interfere with business.
She frowned when a high priority e-mail from her best friend, Vivian Westfield, a reporter for the online Daily News, popped up on her screen requesting an immediate Skype conference call with their mutual best friend, Skylar Davis, a trust-fund baby who was in Belize, presumably saving the world again.
Madison had met Skye and Vivi on their first day of college, and they'd been inseparable ever since. With her father dead ten years now, not that he'd been much of a father, her friends were the closest thing to family Madison had.
She logged in and waited for the connection, trying not to worry about the reason for the call. They knew how she felt about taking personal time at work. Then again, that had never stopped them in the past. As far as they were concerned, especially Skye, Madison was always at work.
And that, Madison decided, was probably the reason for the ASAP call—her Thanksgiving no-show. Vivi had ratted her out. But Madison had a good reason for skipping the holiday. She'd been working on her report to end the negotiations with Christmas. Now that she thought about it, Vivi hadn't sounded overly upset when she'd bailed on her.
Vivi popped up on the left side of the screen, sitting on her couch and looking disgustingly gorgeous for a 9:00 a.m. call in a black tank top, her long, chocolate-brown hair falling over her shoulders as she leaned closer, narrowing her eyes at Madison. "You okay?" she asked in her raspy voice that left men panting at her feet.
Madison frowned, wondering why she asked, then realized it was probably because of all the hours she'd had been putting in at work. "Great, better than great, actually. Just going over the budget one last time, and next year's bonus looks like a sure…" She trailed off when her best friend winced.
"What's with the face?" Madison asked, pushing her black-framed glasses to the top of her head. She didn't need glasses. She'd started wearing them when she realized men thought with her blonde hair, blue eyes, and ridiculously curvy body that she was a bimbo. She wasn't. She was smart. "And speaking of faces," she said, taking a closer look, "there's something about yours. You look different. Kind of glowy and… Wow, you look happy."
Vivi blushed. Weird. Vivi never blushed.
And then, obviously as a means of distracting Madison, she said, "You look different, too. What's with the lipstick? You never wear lipstick."
She didn't. Her lips were full enough without drawing attention to them. She hadn't worn lipstick since junior high, when the senior boys told her all the disgusting things they'd like her to do with her mouth. She'd known it was because they thought she was like her mother, but knowing that hadn't made it any easier.
She touched the tip of her tongue to her upper lip. Chocolate. Taking a tissue from the box on the corner of her desk, she wiped her mouth.
"Better. Brown's not your color."
Okay, Vivi'd distracted her long enough, but before Madison could question her about the wincing thing, and the blushing, Skye appeared in the upper right of her screen. Her butterscotch-blonde, curly hair more wild than usual, she looked like Malibu Barbie sitting cross-legged in a "Save the Planet" T-shirt on a bed surrounded by mosquito netting.
"Are you okay?" Skye asked, her eyes filled with concern.
"Y'all are making me nervous. What…" Madison's mouth fell open as a half-naked man with incredible arms, broad shoulders, and a sculpted chest walked behind Vivi's green couch. Vivi tipped her head back and followed him out of view, devouring him with her eyes.
"Move your screen! Follow that man," Skye demanded.
"Sweet baby Jesus. Who. Is. That?" Madison tugged on the black turtleneck beneath her boxy blazer.
Eyes sparkling, face flushed, Vivi… giggled. Madison gaped at her. Vivi "Kick-Ass" Westfield did not giggle. The body sauntered back into view, holding a container of milk in one hand while his other hand caressed Vivi's shoulder. A champagne-colored Stetson lowered to the side of her face as the large hand left her shoulder and reached for the screen. Their best friend disappeared from view. They heard a man's deep, sexy laugh and Vivi's breathy moan.
"Hey, not fair," Skye complained.
Nope, it wasn't. Whenever Madison mourned her almost nonexistent love life, she comforted herself with the knowledge that her workaholic friend Vivi didn't have one, either. They lived vicariously through Skye. But even Skye would be considered a nun by today's standards.
Vivi reappeared on the screen, hiking up the strap of her tank top and smoothing her hair.
"Spill," Madison said. "How… where… when?" The why she knew—the man's body was to die for.
Skye cleared her throat. Vivi's moony smile faded. "Right. Okay. Maddie," Vivi began, but that's as far as she got.
"Sweetie," Skye leaned forward, "we have something to tell you. Just remember, this too shall pass."
Vivi sighed, crossing her arms.
"Bad things happen to good people," spouted Skye, who flitted through life like a butterfly wearing rose-colored glasses. "It always looks darker before the sun comes out. When a door shuts, a—"
"Enough already, we don't have all day," Vivi interrupted her. "Maddie—"
"Wait." Skye held up a hand. "Take a minute and breathe, Maddie, slow and deep. Find your happy place."
"I'm in my happy place. Tell me already." Madison's left eye began to twitch.
Vivi held up the front page of the New York Times, pointing out the headline: The Grinch Who Killed Christmas.
"Way to go, Grinch," Madison murmured, her gaze dropping to the woman in the picture. She leaned in to get a better look. Her heart flip-flopped in her chest. "Is that me? That can't be me."
Skye tilted her head. "I know. You've got those serial killer's eyes going on, but it is you, sweetie. Sorry."
"But I-I am not a Grinch, and I didn't kill Christmas."
"You kinda are," Skye said.
"Skye," Vivi muttered, then redirected her attention to Madison. "It's because of the resort in Christmas, Colorado, Maddie. They're blaming you for killing the deal and the town. They've got letters from old people and four-year-olds saying it was because of your report Hartwell didn't go through with the resort."
"How would they know that? No one called me for a comment."
"Harrison spoke on behalf of Hartwell."
Madison groaned. "What did he say?"
"Um, here, I'll put it up to the screen."
Scanning the article, Madison stabbed the monitor when she came to Harrison's name and quote. "Harrison," she growled her nemesis's name. "I can't believe he questioned my numbers, and to the press! My facts are accurate. I quadruple-checked my projections. If we went through with this deal, we'd have gone under." Stupid small towns and the small-minded people who lived in them. They'd ruined her life once, and she was not about to let them ruin it again. "I'll sue. They'll have to print a retraction."
"If you say the deal won't fly, it won't. But honestly, there's not much you can do about this. They're putting a spin on the facts, but you are the one who compiled the report, even if Joe signed off on it. Harrison hung you out to dry," Vivi said.
"So I just have to sit by while they tear my reputation to shreds on the front page of the Times?"
"Yeah, you do. And I hate to tell you, Maddie, but with Christmas less than a month away, a headline like this is going to sell a lot of papers."
And that was her biggest concern, because Joe didn't like conflict or negative publicity. If Santa really did exist, he'd be her boss. Unlike Madison, Joe was a people pleaser and had come close to bankrupting the destination firm before she'd come on board. If he read the letters from the little kids and old people, he'd waver. He'd question her report, and Harrison would have the ammunition he needed to reopen the deal.
That was not going to happen, not on her watch.
"What are you going to do?" Skye asked.
"Once I've reamed out Harrison for talking to the press, I have to reassure Joe that the negative publicity will have no impact on us whatsoever, and that I stand by the numbers in my report."
"If you need me, I'll be on the next plane out of here," Skye offered.
"And if I can think of an angle to counter this in the Daily News, I will," Vivi promised.
"Thanks. I love you guys, but I'll be fine," Madison said past the fist-sized lump of gratitude in her throat. She really did have the best friends in the world.
"Group hug, it's time for a group hug." Skye waved her hands.
At home was okay, but at the office, no way. "I'm not doing a group hug. Someone might walk in, and thanks to the Times, I already look like an idiot." And that was bothering her more than she let on.
At the disappointed look in Skye's eyes, Madison gave in, wrapping her arms around the monitor. "Vivi, Hot Bod is welcome to join us." They laughed and made kissy noises before saying good-bye.
A throat cleared. "Ms. Lane, what are you doing?" Harrison "the Snake" Hartwell asked.
Heat suffused Madison's cheeks. "Um, I have a bad connection. Wire's probably loose." She patted her hands along the back of the monitor.
She ignored him, sat poker straight in her chair, and lowered her glasses onto her nose. She decided not to say a word about the paper tucked under his arm. She wouldn't give him the satisfaction of thinking the article had gotten to her. "What can I do for you, Harrison?"
"My uncle wants to meet with you in the conference room. Have you seen the Times this morning?" he asked in his faux British accent.
She looked him right in his shifty dark eyes. "Of course I have."
"And you're not concerned?"
"Why would I be? It's nothing more than a piece of sensationalist crap. Everyone will have forgotten about it by tomorrow." She hoped.
"I don't think my uncle agrees with you, nor do I. As I see it, the only way to combat the negative publicity is to reopen the deal with Christmas."
Over her dead body. She hit the key to print off her revised budget and the previous one with the resort included. Organizing the papers into a neat pile, she rose from her chair, striding past Harrison.
She walked into the boardroom where her boss stood by the window, his gray suit hanging on his too-thin frame. "Joe." He turned, his face lined with worry, his eyes tired.
Her heart pinched. He didn't need this right now. He had enough dealing with Martha, his wife of fifty-five years, who'd been diagnosed with lung cancer not long before Harrison had come on board. Madison had begun to believe that was the reason Joe had hired his nephew in the first place. He wasn't thinking clearly. And she wasn't about to let Harrison take advantage of his vulnerability.
"Don't worry, Joe," she said, coming to stand beside him. "No one's going to pay any attention to this."
"It doesn't look that way to me, Madison." He tapped the glass. On the sidewalk below, at least twenty protestors marched in a circle, waving Grinch signs that called for a boycott of Hartwell Enterprises. She couldn't believe it. With everything going on in the world, people came out to protest this? The paper had only been out a couple of hours. How…
Her gaze shot to Harrison, who gave her a got-you smile.
* * *
Madison gritted her teeth as the midmorning sun glared off the snow-covered mountains and the GPS cheerfully informed her she was going in the wrong direction. She wasn't. The problem was the town of Christmas was off the grid. She'd been lucky to find a map that showed it actually existed. And Harrison had the nerve to insinuate her visitor projections were too low? Like hell they were; no one would be able to find the place.
As the number of protesters grew yesterday, she'd practically had to tackle Joe to stop him from picking up the phone and reopening negotiations. He'd only relented once Madison had offered, as a last-ditch resort, to go to Christmas and turn the public relations nightmare around. She hadn't figured out exactly how to do that, but she would. Hartwell Enterprises' survival depended on her.
Harrison had pulled out all the stops in his campaign to be sent in her place. He'd gone from charming to butt-kissing to whining in a New York minute. But three hours later, Joe had conceded that Madison was the best one to convey her findings to the people of Christmas. Of course, she was to do so in such a way that they would understand the decision was in everyone's best interest.
Which meant she was supposed to charm and cajole the citizens of Christmas and kiss a baby or two—so not her strong suit. But she'd suck it up and get the job done. Otherwise, she might not have one.
She'd flown out on the red-eye, arriving early this morning at the Denver airport, wasting an hour trying to locate the car and driver Harrison offered to arrange for her. Only to find out it had never been ordered. She should've known better. Harrison was probably sitting in her office dreaming of her demise, which was highly likely given her limited driving experience and the hairpin curve she'd just rounded in the rented SUV.
The man in the car behind her blasted his horn as he sped by. If she wasn't terrified of letting go of the wheel, she would've flipped him the bird. She needed something to calm her nerves. She slowed down to turn up the radio when "Independent Women" by Destiny's Child came on.
Madison loved to sing, even though her friends encouraged her not to. No matter what they said, she didn't believe she sounded that bad. Her confidence returned as she belted out the empowering lyrics. The town of Christmas wouldn't know what hit them. She'd have them eating out of her hand in no time once she expounded on the evils of bringing corporate America to their sleepy little town.
She glanced at the clock on the dashboard. She'd been on the road for over three hours. According to the map, she should be approaching the turnoff to Christmas right about now. Perfect. There it was. If the meeting went as planned, she'd be back on the road by 2:00, which meant the most hair-raising part of her drive would still be in daylight.
Her breath caught as she made the turn. The town, nestled in a valley surrounded by mountains, looked like it belonged in a snow globe. Sunlight sparkled on snow-laden evergreens and danced off the pastel-painted wooden buildings in the distance. It was postcard perfect and exactly the ammunition Madison needed to convince the town that Hartwell Enterprises had done them a favor by backing out of the deal.
She'd focus on the town's positive attributes and not the negatives that had made the case against them. Like this road, she thought, her good mood evaporating as her tires spun out beneath her. She slowed to a crawl, a white-knuckled grip on the wheel. Three-quarters of the way down the treacherous hill, as she was about to release the breath she'd been holding, a movement to her right caught her attention. A deer leaped from the woods, darting in front of her. She braked hard, the car fishtailing as she slid along the road. From behind a cluster of evergreens at the side of the road, a twelve-foot Santa holding a "Welcome to Christmas" sign seemingly sprang out in front of her like a giant jack-in-the-box.
Madison screamed. Her foot mistakenly jumped to the gas instead of the brake. She watched in slow-motion horror as the car kept moving and crashed into the sign. Santa loomed, teetered, then fell on the hood, his maniacal, smiling face leering at her through the cracked windshield.
Her last thought before the airbag slammed into her face was that she'd finally succeeded in killing Santa.
Sheriff Gage McBride stood in the doorway of the old town hall, scanning the familiar faces in the standing-room-only crowd for the one person who could turn the law-abiding citizens of Christmas into a teeth-gnashing mob in ten seconds flat.
His great-aunt Nell.
Gage loved his aunt. She'd stepped in when his wife left him eight years ago with a nine-month-old and a four-year-old to raise on his own. But it didn't mean he was blind to her faults.
"Where's your riot gear?" Ethan O'Connor, the mayor of Christmas, asked as he came up beside him.
A reluctant smile tugged the corner of Gage's mouth at his best friend's question. "I figure once I find out where Nell's sitting, I'll park myself where she can see me, and we'll be good."
Ethan snorted. "Yeah, right. And I can tell you exactly where she is." He leaned past the door, pointing toward the front of the room. "Front row center. She ambushed me as soon as I arrived at the office this morning. Gave me a headache with her suggestions as to how we can change Ms. Lane's mind, then browbeat me until I let her in an hour before we opened the doors."
Gage groaned. "Are you nuts? You know better than to leave her on her own for that long. She's probably built a bomb and stashed it under the podium."
He wasn't kidding. His aunt had been an engineer at the mine before it folded forty years ago. At times, Gage questioned his sanity for having his daughters, Annie and Lily, spend so much time with her. But they loved Nell as much as she loved them, and deep down he knew she'd never knowingly put them in danger. It was the unknowingly part he wasn't too sure about. In the end, he went with the lesser of two evils. It was either let Nell look after his daughters when he was at work or one of the single women who vied for the position of Mrs. McBride Number Two.
"She wasn't alone. Ted and Fred were with her," Ethan added.
"Aw, hell, there's no stopping her with those two egging her on." Today had shitshow written all over it. Gage studied his friend. "You don't honestly believe this meeting is going to affect Hartwell's decision, do you?"
A pained expression on his face, Ethan glanced into the room filled with people who saw the resort as the last hope for their town's survival. "I wish I did. But no, I'm a realist. Ms. Lane's report didn't leave much room for optimism."
Gage had read the twenty or so pages crammed with graphs, statistics, and projections, along with a damning summary that listed the many reasons why his town didn't make the grade. He got the impression the woman who'd produced the report cared more about numbers than people. Cold and uncompromising, with no thought as to what her decision meant to the citizens of Christmas.
"So why's she coming?"
Ethan shrugged. "Not sure. When Hartwell called to set up the meeting yesterday, he said she'd explain why they decided not to go through with the deal. Interesting thing, though. I heard from his nephew a couple of hours ago. He intimated that we shouldn't give up. As far as he's concerned, the deal isn't over. But I don't think we can pin our hopes on him. It's his uncle's company, and Ms. Lane apparently has the old man's ear. From what Joe Hartwell said, he stands by her report. She's supposedly brilliant and has never steered him wrong in the past."
"Don't let Nell catch wind of the nephew's opinion. She'll never be able to let this go if she hears what he said."
"Nell hasn't given up, not by a long shot. She has this idea in her head that if she can convince Ms. Lane to stay in town for a few days, she'll fall in love with Christmas. Or better yet, one of us, and then the deal will be as good as done."
Gage rolled his eyes. "The woman is delusional."
"I don't know. Ms. Lane is a beautiful woman."
He gave his friend a you've-lost-it look. "Yeah, and the belladonna is a beautiful flower. But be my guest, buddy. Take one for the team."
"Maybe I will. Lately I've been too busy to get out of town." Ethan ran a frustrated hand through his hair. "It's been so long I'm beginning to feel like a monk."
Unfortunately, Gage knew how he felt. Like Ethan, he was careful not to scratch his itch in his own backyard. In a town the size of Christmas, it wouldn't be long before the gossip reached his daughters' ears. If he wanted a relationship, that would be different, but he didn't. He had enough on his plate raising his two girls. Especially Annie, who at twelve, was making him feel a hell of lot older than his thirty-six years.
Ms. Lane's picture from the Times came to mind: blonde hair scraped back from a cold, emotionless face; thick glasses resting on a condescending blade of a nose above lips pinched thin in disdain. "Good luck with that. The woman looks about as passionate as a block of ice."
"I like a challenge." Ethan winked then grinned. "You might want to make your escape now. Here comes the I Want to Marry Sheriff McBride Fan Club."
"Gage. Yoo-hoo," a chorus of feminine voices hollered from behind him.
"Too late," Ethan chuckled, as Gage looked over his shoulder.
He forced a smile for the three women barreling toward him. If you went by what they were wearing, the town hall meeting seemed to be the highlight of their social calendar. Their winter jackets were open to show off tight sweaters paired with short skirts and high-heeled leather boots. He prayed Annie wouldn't get a load of their getups. The black Goth look she now sported had nearly given him heart failure, but it was better than her wearing skirts that barely covered her butt.
"Oh, Gage, I'm so glad you're all right. I heard you nearly went through the ice rescuing those boys last night." Brandi squeezed his leather-clad arm.
Hailey grabbed his hand. "Dr. Trainer was singing your praises when he dropped by the diner this morning. Those boys are lucky you were a paramedic before you joined the force."
Heat climbed Gage's face. He'd have to have a word with Matt, the doctor who'd taken over for Gage's dad while he was away on vacation. "That's nice of Doc to say, but I was—"
"Now, don't you be hiding your light under a rock—"
"Bushel, Holly, it's a bushel," Hailey corrected her twin sister, rolling her heavily made-up eyes.
"I know that," Holly snapped, then turned a megawatt smile on Gage. "Don't you go trying to deny it, Gage McBride, you're a hero. I baked your favorite chocolate cake for you."
Brandi frowned. "His favorite is lemon cake, isn't it, Gage?"
"No, he likes—" Hailey began.
Ethan intervened. "Ladies, I'm sure Sheriff McBride would love anything you make for him, but you might want to get in there and grab a seat before there's none to be had."
The trio promised to drop off their baked goods later that night, then took Ethan's advice, sashaying their way into the hall.
"You're my hero," Ethan said in a perfect falsetto, fluttering his lashes.
Gage shoved his hands in his jeans pockets, scowling at his friend. "You think it's funny, but you don't have to deal with Annie's death glares when they stop by under the pretext of dropping off food."
"Still having problems with her?"
"She got suspended for fighting two days ago. Nell tried to make me feel better by telling me she was just like Annie at her age." As if he didn't have enough to worry about.
Ethan laughed then sobered. "Do you think Annie's fighting has anything to do with Sheena not showing up for Thanksgiving?"
- On Sale
- Apr 21, 2015
- Page Count
- 1216 pages
- Forever Yours