Love Gently Falling


By Melody Carlson

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This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around January 6, 2015. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

Rita Jansen is living her dream as a hairstylist in Hollywood when her father calls with news that her mother has suffered a stroke. When she gets home to Chicago, Rita finds her mother is healing but facing a long recovery. Worse, without being able to run their family-owned salon, her mother could lose the business. Rita decides to help, but she only has until Valentine’s Day to come up with a plan.

As Rita takes her mother’s place at work, the nearby skating rink she loved as a child brings back fond memories. Rita also finds herself renewing friendships with her childhood best friend, Marley, as well as her classmate Johnny. Although they now lead such seemingly different lives, Rita is surprised by how well she and Johnny connect and how far he will go to help her. Though Rita believes Johnny is only being kind, with romance kindling in the air and on the ice, their friendship may just fall into something more.


Chapter 1

Rita woke with the lovely dream still fresh in her mind. Gracefully gliding across a shimmering ice rink illuminated by a rainbow of light, she’d felt unencumbered and free and weightless…as if she were flying. Getting out of bed, she pulled on a pair of fuzzy socks and, extending her arms, slid across the hardwood floor as if she were really on ice, as if she could spin and leap and execute moves she hadn’t attempted in years. She skidded to a fast stop by the window, pausing to open the blinds, allowing the Southern California sunshine to flood into her pale blue bedroom. Not exactly a winter wonderland.

As she gazed down to the pool area, where tall, graceful palms barely moved in the morning breeze, she vaguely wondered if a public ice rink was even located in Beverly Hills. And even if a rink was nearby, would she be bold enough to pay it a visit? Twenty-nine seemed a bit old to reinvent oneself as a figure skater.

Not that she’d ever been much of a skater. Rita chuckled as she threw the comforter back onto her bed. Truth be told, she’d probably spent as much time on her hind end as she’d spent on her skates, but it had been fun. And not a bad way to grow up…back in Chicago. Continuing to slide her feet, she faux-skated out into the great room of the condo. Swaying side to side, she moved smoothly across the hardwood, attempting a couple of awkward moves as she worked her way toward the kitchen. She knew this was silly and wouldn’t want her roommates to witness her antics, but Margot would be at work by now, and Aubrey was probably still asleep.

“What on earth are you doing?” Aubrey asked with what sounded like way too much amusement.

Spying her roommate in the shadows of the hallway with a foaming mouth and toothbrush in hand, Rita just shrugged. “Ice skating.”

“Good to know.” Aubrey laughed. “I heard the clunking and got worried that we were having an earthquake.”

“And here I thought I was being so graceful,” Rita said sarcastically. She was well aware that, with her nearly six-foot frame, grace was not her strong suit. And with petite and delicate roommates who lovingly called her Moose sometimes, it was a fact she was mindful of.

As Rita went into the kitchen to start a pot of coffee, she tried to remember how long she’d been sharing accommodations with Margot and Aubrey. It was shortly after she’d landed her job as a stylist at Roberto’s…which was almost seven years ago. She’d felt on top of the world back then—being in her early twenties and working for one of the chicest salons, living in an upscale neighborhood with a couple of pretty cool roommates. How much better could it get for the daughter of a Chicago car salesman and a hairdresser?

Margot, the oldest of the roommates, owned this condo unit and hadn’t raised the rent once. A corporate attorney, she was as dependable as they came. Aubrey was a year younger than Rita and could be a little unpredictable at times, but she was generous and fun. And since she worked for a fabulous restaurant in the neighborhood, she could always be counted on to bring home something divine at the end of her shift. Rita’s contribution was free beauty advice and sample products. All in all, it was a pretty good setup for all three single girls.

And yet, as Rita poured water into the coffeemaker, she felt restless. Maybe it was just the remnants of her ice-skating dream, slowly melting away in the warmth of the California sun. Or maybe it was something else. She sighed as she turned on the small flat-screen in the kitchen, tuning it to the local news, where, according to Vince the weather guy, it was going to be “another unseasonably warm day.” Not a record breaker, but in the high eighties. And to think this was late January!

“So what’s up with ice skating?” Aubrey asked as she came into the kitchen and opened the fridge.

Rita sheepishly explained her dream. “It felt so real. And it was so awesome to be gliding along like that. Made me want to go ice skating again.” She paused to sneak a cup of coffee from the machine as it brewed.

“Were you a pretty good skater?”

Rita laughed. “Not really. But I enjoyed it. That dream was probably just a subconscious reminder that I’ve been missing winter.”

“You probably should’ve gone home for Christmas.” Au­­b­rey filled a glass with orange juice. “I hear it’s been seriously cold in the Midwest.”

“Yeah. My mom said they had a really pretty white Christmas.” Rita sighed to think of snowflakes tumbling down, ice sculptures, a rink filled with skaters wearing woolly hats and mittens and scarves… “I don’t suppose there’s an ice rink in Beverly Hills…is there?”

“I don’t know about that, but Culver City used to have a good rink. We kids went there sometimes when I was growing up. My sister still lives in Culver. Want me to ask if it’s still there?”

“That’s okay. I don’t really have time for ice skating this week anyway.” Rita glanced at the kitchen clock. “In fact, I should be getting dressed. I have a nine o’clock appointment this morning.” She held her coffee cup toward Aubrey. “What’re you doing up this early?”

Aubrey pointed at her teeth. “I lost a crown last weekend. I have a dentist appointment at ten.”

As Rita reached for a banana, the landline phone jangled. Assuming it was a telemarketer, since few of their acquaintances used that particular number, Rita ignored the ringing as she peeled her banana. But after the message beep, it was her father’s urgent voice that made her dash to the phone, grabbing up the receiver. “Dad?” she asked frantically. “What’s going on?”

“Oh, Rita,” Richard said with a smidgen of relief. “I’m so glad I reached you. I tried your other phone number and no answer. And now this one, and I was about to give up and call your work number.” He paused to catch his breath. “Anyway it’s about your mother. I don’t where, how, to begin, but—”

“What’s wrong?” she interrupted. She knew how her dad could go on and on sometimes. “Please, Dad, just cut to the chase and tell me what’s happened!”

“Your mother has suffered a stroke.”

“A stroke?” Rita tried to absorb this. “When did this happen?”

“Last night. The doctor said it happened while she was asleep. She must’ve slept right through it. I didn’t know anything was wrong until early this morning.”

“Is Mom okay?”

“No, not really. I mean, she’s alive, Rita. But she’s not okay. She’s not herself at all.”

“Where is she?”

“Jackson Park Hospital. That’s where I am right now. She’s in ICU, and they’re doing all they can for her—lots of tests and God only knows what else. But she’s in a bad way, Rita.”

“A bad way?” Rita reached for a barstool, easing herself onto it. “What do you mean, Dad? Is she going to make it?”

“I don’t know—” Her dad’s voice broke, and she could tell he was crying. Rita could only remember him crying once before—when his mother, Grandma Jansen, had passed away. “I really don’t know what’s going on with her, honey. The doctor said the worst is probably over, but your poor mother can’t talk or walk or eat or anything.” He made a choking sob. “It feels like she’s already gone.”

“Oh, no!” Tears filled her eyes. “I’ve got to come see her, Dad.”

“I know, honey. I thought you’d want to come. Do you need me to send money for airfare or—”

“No, Dad,” she said firmly. “You don’t need to do that.” She knew that, thanks to the economy, her parents had been more financially strapped than ever. For that reason she’d been extra frugal with her own earnings. “I have money…my savings,” she reassured him. “I’m fine.”

“All right, then.” He let out a weary sigh. “Call and let us know when you’ll get here. I still don’t have a cell phone. Can’t stand those things. So you can either call your mom’s phone, which I’m on right now, although I barely know how to use it. Or, better yet, call your brother.”

“How’s Ricky doing?” She knew that her younger brother had been struggling a lot recently, still adjusting to the aftereffects of some serious football injuries he’d sustained while playing college ball last year. Poor guy.

“Oh, Rita, Rick’s taking it pretty hard. Your mom’s been such a help to him this past year…and now this.”

“I’ll be there as soon as I can,” she promised. “And I’ll do whatever I can to help.”

“Thanks, honey. I hate interrupting your life like this, but we really do need you.”

“Don’t worry, Dad. I’m on my way.”

As Rita hung up, she turned to see Aubrey still in the kitchen. “Oh, Rita,” Aubrey said with worried eyes. “I didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but is it your mom?”

Rita nodded as she grabbed a paper napkin to wipe her tears. “It’s a—a stroke. It sounds like she’s not even conscious. My dad was really upset. He thinks she might not make it.”

Aubrey hurried over, wrapping her arms around Rita. “I’m so sorry. What can I do to help? Want me to go online and book a flight for you?”

“Can you?” Rita asked between sobs. “My credit card is in my wallet, over there on the table.”

“Absolutely. Do you fly into O’Hare?”

Rita nodded then blew her nose. “I need to go pack.”

“And I’ll let Margot know,” Aubrey called out. “Want me to contact your work, too?”

“No, that’s okay, I’ll call the salon,” Rita hurried to her room to get dressed, make plans, and let her tears flow freely.


Thanks to Aubrey’s unexpectedly efficient help, Rita was on her way to LAX by noon.

“That was really nice of you to give me a ride,” she told Aubrey’s current boyfriend, Maxwell. “I told Aubrey I could get the shuttle, but she wouldn’t hear of it.”

“Hey, it’s no problem,” he assured her. “I was heading out to Westchester for a job anyway.” Maxwell was a plumber, something Margot had mercilessly teased Aubrey about. But as he carefully navigated his way down Santa Monica Boulevard, Rita began to see him in a different light. Maxwell seemed like a genuinely nice guy. She suspected there was more to him than his faded jeans, sleeveless T-shirt, multiple tattoos, and well-worn work boots. And she knew he was trying to get her to relax and think positively.

“I know it seems dark to you right now,” he said as he drove down the San Diego Freeway. “But medical technology is really amazing these days. I had an aunt who had a stroke a few years ago and she completely recovered. It just takes time and work.”

“I’m sure you’re right.” She nervously fingered her electronically generated boarding pass.

“Your mom will probably need a physical therapist and a speech therapist. Does she have good insurance?”

“I think she does.” They continued discussing all the ins and outs of stroke recovery, and by the time Maxwell took the LAX terminal exit, Rita felt unexpectedly encouraged. She also felt that Aubrey had surprisingly good taste in boyfriends—something Rita couldn’t necessarily claim for herself. The last guy she’d dated had turned out to be a complete jerk.

She thanked Maxwell once again as he pulled up to the Jet Blue entrance. “Not just for the ride,” she said as he helped her with her bags. “But the encouragement, too. It means a lot to me. You’ve been great. Really great.”

“I’ll keep your mom and you and your family in my prayers,” he told her as he closed the back of his van.

She tried not to look surprised by this. Why wouldn’t a nice guy like Maxwell be inclined to pray? “And I’ll keep Aubrey posted about how it goes,” she promised as she wheeled her bag onto the sidewalk and waved. “Thanks again!”

Once inside the bustling terminal, she began to feel overwhelmed again. But with no time to waste, she hurried through the various stages of getting to her gate. With every step Rita felt more and more like she was in a hazy dream. Not the sweet, happy dream she’d experienced this morning. This was more of a chilly, unsettling dream, where everything was fuzzy and blurry. By the time she reached her gate, her flight was already boarding, but she took a minute to call her brother’s phone, leaving him a message regarding her flight schedule. “It’ll probably be close to nine by the time I get my bags, and I’ll just take the train from O’Hare to the hospital,” she explained. “I know it’ll be late at night by the time I get to Jackson Park. But I don’t mind. I just want to be with Mom. And I do not want you or Dad coming to pick me up. Understand?

Rita had no idea how Aubrey had managed to secure her a seat on a nonstop flight at such short notice, but she appreciated it. And the seat wasn’t half bad either. Still, it was hard to sit patiently for four hours. And one could only pray for so long without feeling redundant and pathetic, not to mention not very faithful. Naturally, she’d been too worried and hurried to pick up anything to read. Plus the battery in her Kindle was dead. Left to the in-flight magazines and her own thoughts, she tried to remember the last time she’d been home. When had she last seen her mother…and her family? She felt dismayed to realize it had been a full three years. No wonder she missed snow and winter so much!

She tried not to send herself on a guilt trip for not having been home for so long—or for missing this past Christmas. Besides, she reminded herself, she’d been encouraging her family to come out and visit her this winter, promising them some warm California sunshine. In fact, the last time she’d talked to her mom, on New Year’s Day, she’d sounded quite positive about making the trip, declaring that she wanted to see Disneyland. “Before I’m so old that you have to push me around in a wheelchair and spoon the applesauce into my mouth.” They had both laughed over that then. It didn’t seem funny now.

Rita didn’t often admit it, but her mom had probably been her greatest mentor. Other than a couple of rough adolescent years, they’d remained really good friends. Rita had grown up watching Donna efficiently running her own business. Not only did she own and manage her own hair salon—Hair and Now—she was also an excellent and respected hairdresser, with a faithful following of clients. As a child, Rita had loved helping out at Hair and Now on no-school days. And when she’d announced her decision to go become a hairdresser, during her senior year, her mom had supported her. Even when Rita had to break the news that she’d chosen a beauty school in Southern California, her mom had still supported her. And she’d paid Rita’s tuition. “Your grandmother gave me my start with Hair and Now,” she’d told Rita. “This is the least I can do for you.”

Rita had fond memories of Hair and Now. It was located on the lower level of Millersburg Mall, a mall that had once been host to one of the best ice rinks in the area—the same rink where Rita had learned to skate. But due to bad management and expensive repair costs, the rink had been shut down when Rita was in high school. The ice had been replaced with bistro-style tables and chairs and potted trees circling a big fountain. Many considered this an improvement, but Rita had always felt it was a mistake.

Hair and Now remained in the same place, where it had been nearly as long as the mall itself, and although Donna sometimes joked about retirement and had been preparing to celebrate her big six-oh next month, Rita had never gotten the impression that she was serious about hanging up her scissors. In fact, Rita had been convinced that her mother, with her sparkly blue eyes, youthful complexion, and shiny platinum-blond hair, was young for her age. When Rita was a teenager, she and her mother had sometimes been mistaken for sisters. “Oh, that’s just because our coloring is so similar,” her pragmatic mother would say in a dismissive sort of way. But Rita knew that her mom had loved the gaffe. And why not?

As announcements were made about preparing for landing, Rita felt a surge of conflicting emotions rush through her. She peered nervously out the window, looking through the dark night, down to where the blue-hued lights illuminated the landing strips of O’Hare. As much as she hated to admit it, she felt fearful that her mother might not have made it. What if she’d taken a turn for the worse and hadn’t survived the day? But at the same time, Rita felt hopeful, remembering Maxwell’s encouraging words about stroke recovery. Surely her mother, who’d always been a strong woman and a fighter, would still be holding on. Perhaps she’d be sitting up in bed by now, talking and joking with Ricky and her dad. Rita also felt a giddy sort of excitement to think of this—she was about to see her family again. But even that was laced with dark thread of concern. What if she was too late? What if her dad and Ricky were brokenhearted with grief right now?

Chapter 2

As she hurried down to baggage claim, Rita considered calling Ricky or her father, just to say she’d arrived and to check on her mom’s status. But she didn’t want to make them feel they needed to leave the hospital to come fetch her. She was a big girl. She knew how to ride the train…how to take a cab. She could make her own way to the hospital.

Still, by the time she dragged her well-stuffed wheeled bag from the carousel, she felt overwhelmed. The prospects of hauling her baggage to the train stop, waiting by herself for the next train, getting her luggage onto the train, riding all the way into the city at this hour of night, then getting off and finding a cab to take her to the hospital…well, it wasn’t for the weak of heart. But she could do it. She would do it. She would do it for her mom.

Rita?” a masculine voice called out.

As she proceeded to the exit, Rita glanced all around, expecting to see her brother’s big ruddy face or maybe her dad’s. But no one looked familiar. Perhaps she’d heard wrong…or maybe it was just wishful thinking.

Rita Jansen?” the voice called out again.

She peered through the faces in the crowd by the door and spotting a handwritten sign waving above the heads, she was shocked to see her name clearly printed on it. “What is going on?” she mumbled to herself as she pushed through the travelers to investigate.

Rita!” a tall man eagerly declared as he placed his hand on her shoulder. He wore a brown leather jacket, a red Bulls cap, and a big friendly smile. “I would recognize you anywhere.”

What?” Rita peered curiously into the man’s face. He had warm brown eyes and was a few inches taller than her. “Do I know you?”

“You used to,” he said cheerfully. “We went to school together. John Hollister. Remember?”

Johnny Hollister?” She slowly nodded with recognition. “It is you.”

“Yep.” He reached for her wheeled bag.

“But what are you doing here?”

“Your brother asked me to pick you up.”

“Ricky knows you?” She felt confused. “It can’t be from school. I mean, Ricky is eight years younger than us and he—”

“I met Ricky through work.” John lifted the carry-on bag from her shoulder so that she now only had her handbag to carry. “And your mom is one of my clients. I was real sorry to hear about her stroke today.”

“Yes…me too.” She frowned. “This is so unexpected.”

“Anyway, Ricky told me to let you know that your mom is already starting to improve a little,” he said as he pressed their way through the crowd. Loaded down with her luggage, he led the way toward the exit.

“Thanks, but you didn’t have to do this, Johnny. I planned to take the train and—”

“I wouldn’t let my worst enemy ride the train into the city at night.” He stepped aside, waiting for her to go through the door ahead of him. “And I should warn you that the hospital’s located in an area that’s not exactly safe.” He held up her carry-on bag. “And with all this baggage, you’d be like a sitting duck for a thief.”

As Rita got further outside, she was caught off guard by the cold blast of air that hit her. Pushing the collar of her lightweight jacket higher, she hurried with Johnny across the street. “It’s freezing out here,” she muttered as they went into the parking area.

“Yep. It’s been hovering around twenty degrees these past few days.” He chuckled. “Not like LA, eh?”

“Not in the least.” She dug in her handbag for a silky scarf, wrapping it around her neck a couple times for warmth. “I forgot how cold it can get.” As she picked up the pace to keep up with his long strides, she wondered about this morning’s longing for winter. Am I nuts?

“Here we are.” Johnny stopped behind a red and white utility van, and, after opening the back, he quickly set her bags inside. “Hopefully it’s still warm inside. Go ahead and get in. It’s open.”

As she hurried around to the passenger’s door, she read the words on the side of the van. Apparently Johnny worked for some kind of a janitorial service located in Chicago. “Jolly Janitors?” she said as Johnny slid into the driver’s seat and started the engine.

He chuckled as he fastened his seat belt. “That’s right. The way I know your mom and brother is from cleaning Hair and Now at Millersburg Mall. I’ve been doing her salon for a couple of years now.”

“Oh…” She nodded, trying not to feel too judgmental. After all, what was wrong with a man working as a janitor? Good, honest work—and somebody had to do it. As Johnny maneuvered the large van out of the parking lot, she was hit with the irony of something. She had been driven to LAX in a plumber’s van and now she was being driven away from O’Hare in a janitor’s van. Okay, it wasn’t very stylish or impressive, and Margot would probably have a good time teasing her for it. But really, a ride was a ride…and, as her mom would say, beggars should not be choosers. Besides it was far better than riding the train on a cold winter’s night.

She glanced over at Johnny. And, really, despite being a janitor, he’d be rather attractive with his curly sandy brown hair, strong chin, and nicely shaped nose. Okay, he was attractive. And why was she being such a snob about it? She wasn’t really like that. Was she? But for some reason it was hard to imagine being involved with a janitor. Why was she even thinking about something like this in the first place? For all she knew, Johnny was married with three children. Besides, she reminded herself as she turned her focus back onto the street ahead of them, she should be thinking about her mother right now.

“So…you say my mom is doing better?” she asked cautiously.

“Yes. That’s what Ricky told me this evening when I dropped some flowers by for her. She’s been moved out of ICU and into a regular room. And it sounds like she made good progress in her physical therapy today.”

“She’s already having therapy?” Rita wasn’t sure which was more surprising—that her mom had been in therapy on her first day in the hospital, or that a Jolly Janitor had taken her mother flowers.


  • "Ms. Carlson pens an uplifting tale of love, family and courage."—RT Book Reviews
  • "A sweet, quick read that celebrates love's beginnings as well the spirit of Valentine's Day."—Serena Chase, on Once Upon a Winter's Heart
  • "A delightful story about the loss and recovery of romance, love and hope. . . .ONCE UPON A WINTER'S HEART will revive anyone who's given up on romance and wants a happy ending."—Family Fiction on Once Upon a Winter's Heart
  • "A sweet love story, Once Upon a Winter's Heart is a beautiful picture of the joy of being swept off your feet."—Melanie Dobson, award-winning author of Love Finds You in Mackinac Island, Michigan andWhere the Trail Ends on Once Upon a Winter's Heart
  • "Melody delivers all that is sweetest and best about love in this Valentine's novella and does it with a tasty dash of Italian spice. Now that's amore!"—Robin Jones Gunn, bestselling author of Sisterchicks in Gondolas on Once Upon a Winter's Heart

On Sale
Jan 6, 2015
Page Count
192 pages
Center Street

Melody Carlson

About the Author

Melody Carlson is a bestselling and award-winning author of more than 200 books for adults, teens, and children that have sold over six million copies. She writes women’s fiction to which women of all ages can relate and young adult novels that she hopes will change lives. Her series, Diary of a Teenage Girl (Multnomah), has sold more than 775,000 copies and her Christmas novellas have sold over 590,000 copies combined. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband.

Learn more about this author