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Slack Friday

Friday, November 28, 2014
Jim Piecuch
November 17, 2014

In A Christmas Carol, evil Scrooge was shown the error of his ways by three helpful ghosts and vowed to become a better person. Bob Cratchit and his family benefited most from Scrooge’s change of tune—but what happened after the goose was given, and Scrooge resolved to turn over a new leaf?

Tim Cratchit's Christmas Carol shows us Tiny Tim as an adult. Having recovered from his childhood ailment, he began his career helping the poor but has since taken up practice as a doctor to London’s wealthy elite. Though Tim leads a very successful life, he comes home at night to an empty house. But this holiday season, he’s determined to fill his house with holiday cheer—and maybe even a wife.

When a single, determined young mother lands on Tim’s doorstep with her ailing son, Tim is faced with a choice: stay ensconced in his comfortable life and secure doctor’s practice, or take a leap of faith and reignite the fire lit under him by his mentor, Scrooge, that fateful Christmas so many years ago.

Dr. Timothy Cratchit emerged from his Harley Street office shortly after six-thirty in the evening. He was surprised to find that the yellow-gray fog that had blanketed London for the past week had disappeared, swept away by a biting north wind. He paused for a moment to gaze up at the stars, a rare sight in the usually haze-choked city. Then, pulling his scarf tightly around his neck, he walked quickly down the steps and along the path to the curb, where his brougham waited. The horses, a chestnut gelding and another of dappled gray, stomped their hooves on the cobblestone pavement. They made an odd pair, but Tim had chosen them for their gentle nature rather than their appearance.  As the doctor approached, his coachman smiled and swung open the side door. The coach’s front and rear lamps barely pierced December’s early darkness. 

“Good evening, Doctor,” the coachman said as Tim approached.

“Good evening, Henry,” the doctor replied. “How are you tonight?”

The coachman, who was tall and lean, wore a knee-length black wool coat and a black top hat, his ears covered by an incongruous-looking strip of wool cloth below the brim.

“Cold, sir,” Henry replied. Tim grasped the vertical rail alongside the carriage door and was about to hoist himself inside when he heard a shout. Stepping back from the carriage, he turned to his left, toward the direction where the sound had come from.

The gas lamps along the street penetrated just enough of the gloom to allow Tim to distinguish a figure hurrying toward him. As the person drew nearer, Tim could see that it was a woman, clutching a dirty bundle to her chest. Thousands of poor women in London made a meager living sifting through the city’s dustbins for usable items and selling them for whatever pittance they could fetch. The bundle this woman cradled so carefully probably contained an assortment of odd candlesticks, worn shoes, frayed shirts, and the like. Still, this was not someone who would normally frequent Harley Street.

“Wait a moment, please,” Tim told the coachman, resignation in his voice. He was eager to get home, and too tired to wait while the woman unwrapped the bundle. He reached into his trousers pocket, found a half crown and two shillings to give her so that she would continue on her way.

When the woman came to a stop in front of him, Tim noticed with surprise that she was young, perhaps twenty years old. She was small, not much over five feet tall, clad in a tattered dress covered by a dirty, threadbare gray blanket that she had fashioned into a hooded cloak. Her dark brown hair was matted in greasy clumps, and a smudge of dirt smeared her right cheek.  Her face, though it was beginning to show the premature wear of a hard life, was still quite pretty. She stood with her brown eyes downcast, silently waiting for Tim to acknowledge her.

“Can I help you, miss?”

“Thank you for waiting, sir,” the woman said, still struggling to catch her breath. “I was hoping that you could take a look at my son. He’s very sick.” She tugged back a corner of what appeared to be a piece of the same blanket that constituted her cloak to reveal the face of an infant.

Tim suppressed a groan. It had been a long day—all his days seemed long now—and he was eager to get home. “Come inside, please,” he instructed the woman. To Henry he said, “This shouldn’t take too long.”

Unlocking the office door, Tim went inside, lit a lamp, and then held the door for the woman and baby to enter. Inside, the woman gazed at him with an earnestness that aroused his sympathy.

“I’m very sorry to bother you like this, Doctor. I didn’t mean to come so late, but I had to walk all the way from the East End, and it took longer than I thought,” she explained. “I never would have found your office yet, except that a kind old gentleman asked if I was lost and then pointed me to your door. A friend of yours, he said.”

“Well,” Tim replied in a reassuring tone, “you’re fortunate that I had to work late; I usually close the office at six.”

The woman shuffled her feet uneasily. “If it’s too late, sir, we can come back tomorrow.”

“No, no, that’s all right. Now tell me, what is the matter?”

“It’s my Jonathan, sir. He’s been sickly since birth, and now he’s getting worse,” she said. Tim noticed that her eyes were moist.

“Let’s take him into the examination room.” Tim led them in, lit the lamps. The woman laid the child on the table and pulled back the blanket and other wrappings. Tim was shocked to see that the boy was not an infant—his facial features were too developed—but he was clearly undersized, and Tim did not dare hazard a guess as to his age.

“How old is the little fellow?”

“Three last summer, sir.”

Tim studied the boy. His eyes were open, brown like his mother’s, and though they gazed intently at Tim, the little body was limp. No mental defect, but something physical, and severe.  Tim placed a thumb in each of the tiny hands.

“Can you squeeze my thumbs, Jonathan?” he asked. The boy did so, feebly.

“Very good!” Tim said. Jonathan smiled.

“I didn’t know who else to go to, sir,” the woman explained as Tim flexed the boy’s arms and legs. “There’s no doctors who want to see the likes of us, but then I remembered you, sir. You took care of me many years back, when I had a fever. You came by the East End every week then, sir, and took care of the poor folk.”

“I’m sorry, but I treated so many patients that I can’t recall you, Miss, ah, Mrs.—”

“It’s Miss, Doctor. Jonathan’s father was a sailor. We were supposed to marry, but I never seen him since before Jonathan was born. My name’s Ginny Whitson.”

It was already clear to Tim that the child, like his thin, almost gaunt mother, was badly malnourished. That accounted in part for his small size. Tim also noticed that the boy’s leg muscles were extremely weak. Jonathan remained quiet, looking at the strange man with a mixture of curiosity and fear.

“Does Jonathan walk much?” Tim asked.

“No, sir, never a step. He could stand a bit until a few weeks ago, but now he can’t even do that. I think it’s the lump on his back, Doctor.”

Tim carefully turned the boy over to find a plum-sized swelling along the left edge of his spine at waist level. He touched it lightly, and Jonathan whimpered. “How long has he had this?” Tim asked.

“I didn’t notice it till a year ago, sir. It was tiny then, but it’s grown since. In the last month or so it’s gone from about the size of a grape to this big.”

Tim hesitated. He needed to do some research and then give Jonathan a more thorough examination before he could accurately diagnose and treat the boy’s condition. He did have several possibilities in mind, none of them good, but there was no sense alarming Ginny prematurely. After she had swathed her child in the bundle of cloth, Tim ushered them back into the waiting room, where he studied his appointment book.

“Can you come back at noon on Saturday? I’m sorry to make you wait that long, but I have some things to check, and it will take time.” Ginny nodded. “I’ll see then what I can do,” Tim said.

“Oh, Doctor, thank you so much,” Ginny blurted, grateful for any help regardless of when it might come. She shifted Jonathan to her left arm, and thrust her right hand into the pocket of her frayed and patched black dress. Removing a small felt sack, she emptied a pile of copper coins onto the clerk’s desk.  Most were farthings and halfpennies, with an occasional large penny interspersed among them.

“I know this isn’t enough even for today, sir,” she apologized. “But I’ll get more, I promise. I’m working hard, you see, sir. Every day I go door-to-door and get work cleaning house and doing laundry, and save all I can.”

With his right hand, Tim swept the coins across the desktop into his cupped left palm and returned them to Ginny. He was touched by her attempt to pay him, knowing that she must have gone without food many times to accumulate this small amount of money. Her devotion to her son and effort to demonstrate her independence impressed him.

“There isn’t any fee, Miss Whitson. I’ll be happy to do whatever I can for Jonathan at no charge.”

“But I can’t accept charity, Doctor,” the surprised woman answered. “It wouldn’t be right, taking your time away from your paying patients.”

“We all need charity in one form or another at some time in our lives,” Tim said. “I wouldn’t be where I am today if not for a great act of charity long ago, and as for taking time away from my paying patients, that may be more of a benefit than a problem. Come along, now, and I’ll give you and Jonathan a ride home.”

Tim locked the office door and escorted Ginny and Jonathan to his coach as tears trickled down her face, picking up dirt from the smudge on her cheek and tracking it down to her chin. Jonathan began to cry soon after the coach got under way, and Ginny comforted him with a lullaby, one that Tim remembered his own mother singing to him. When the child finally fell asleep, both remained silent, afraid to wake him. Once they reached the narrow streets packed with sailors, beggars, drunks, and an assortment of London’s other poor wretches, Ginny asked to be let out. Tim knocked twice on the roof, and Henry reined in the horses.

As she was about to step out of the carriage, something she had said earlier occurred to Tim. “One moment, Miss Whitson. You mentioned that someone directed you to my office. Do you know who he was?”

“No, Doctor,” she replied, “and he didn’t say. He was an old gentleman, thin, with a long nose and white hair. Neatly dressed, but his clothes weren’t fancy, if you know what I mean, sir.”

Tim bade her good night and watched as she walked down the sidewalk, past gin mills and dilapidated rooming houses. She soon turned into the recessed doorway of a darkened pawnshop and settled herself on the stone pavement. Tim briefly thought of going back to find out if she even had a home, or if she was going to spend the night in the doorway. Fatigue slowed his thoughts, however, and by the time the idea took root, the carriage was a block away and gathering speed.

Tim lay back against the soft, leather-covered seat cushions, pondering which of his Harley Street neighbors had directed her to his office. Most of them would have ignored such a woman, or ordered her back to the slums. Her description, though, didn’t fit any of them. He shook his head, trying to remove the cobwebs from his tired mind. It must have been someone else, someone he just couldn’t recall in his fuddled state. No sense wrestling with the question, he concluded.

During the long drive across town to his home in the western outskirts of London, Tim tried to relax. It had been another in a seemingly endless string of days filled with consultations and surgeries. Tim had arrived at his office at five-thirty that morning, half an hour earlier than usual, to prepare for a seven o’clock operation on the Duchess of Wilbersham. She had been complaining for weeks about pain in her left shoulder, which she attributed to a strain that refused to heal. Since she never lifted anything heavier than a deck of cards at her daily whist game, Tim doubted the explanation, and several examinations showed no sign of any real injury. The duchess had a reputation as a hypochondriac who sought treatment for her phantom ailments from the best doctors in London, then bragged about how she managed to maintain her health by not stinting on the cost of good medical care. To placate the pompous woman, Tim had finally caved in to her demand that he operate to repair the tendons and ligaments she insisted had been damaged. Because the surgery was minor and the duchess, with good reason, abhorred hospitals, Tim performed the operation in his office, which was equipped for such tasks. A small incision and internal examination verified his suspicion that the duchess’s shoulder was perfectly sound. When she awoke, with more pain from the surgery than she had ever experienced from her imaginary injury, along with sutures and an application of carbolic acid to prevent infection, she swore that the shoulder had not felt so well in ten years. Tim wondered if she would be so pleased when the effects of the morphine wore off.

“Just give the doctor that bag of coins I asked you to bring,” the duchess had ordered her maidservant. “I won’t insult you, Dr. Cratchit, by asking your fee, but I’m sure there’s more than enough here to cover it, and worth every farthing, too.”

When Tim’s clerk opened the leather pouch, he found it contained one hundred gold guineas. Tim could not help contrasting the way his wealthy patients tossed gold coins about with Ginny Whitson’s offer of her pathetic little hoard of coppers. The thought stirred memories of his own childhood, when pennies were so scarce that he and his brothers and sisters sometimes had to roam through frigid alleys to scavenge wood scraps to keep a fire burning on winter nights. It was on one such night when he lay awake, shivering on his thin straw mattress, that he overheard the conversation that changed his life.

“I’m to get a raise in salary,” his father murmured excitedly, trying not to wake the children.

“I don’t believe it,” Mrs. Cratchit declared. “That old miser would die before he parted with an extra farthing.”

“It’s true, dear,” Bob Cratchit insisted. “I’ve never seen Mr. Scrooge like that. We sat for an hour this afternoon, talking. He asked a lot of questions about our family, Tim in particular.”

“I’m surprised that he even knew you had a family, Bob.”

“I was, too, dear, but he seemed to know a good bit about us. Why, from a few things he said about hoping we had a good Christmas dinner, I think he’s the one who sent the turkey yesterday. Who else could have done it?”

“Well, I hope you’re right, Bob. I’ll not believe any of it until I see the proof.”

Tim smiled at the recollection of his mother’s skepticism. She had always been the realist in the family, Bob the optimist. Tim had shared his mother’s doubts. She and the children had despised Ebenezer Scrooge, blaming his greed for the family’s struggles. But with his stomach filled to bursting with turkey left over from Christmas dinner, Tim dared to hope that his father was right, and that old Scrooge might truly have undergone a change of heart. After all, it was Christmas, a time when good things were supposed to happen.

The sudden stop as the carriage arrived at his front door shook Tim from his reverie. He was out the door before Henry could dismount from the driver’s seat and open it for him, a habit that Tim had observed left his coachman more amused than chagrined.

“That’s all right, Henry,” he said, waving toward the carriage house. “You and the horses get inside and warm up.”

Entering the large, well-lit foyer, Tim was greeted by his maid. Bridget Riordan was a pretty Irish girl, with long, flaming red hair pinned up under her white cap, numberless freckles on her cheeks and small nose, and green eyes that always seemed to sparkle with happiness. She took Tim’s top hat, coat, and scarf. “Dinner will be ready in a half hour, Doctor,” she announced, “so you can rest a bit if you’d like.”

“Thank you, Bridget,” Tim replied, watching her walk gracefully toward the kitchen. He loosened his cravat as he climbed the stairs, thought briefly of skipping the meal and going directly to bed, and decided that he could not afford the luxury since he had a long evening of work ahead of him.

As usual, Tim dined alone. At the time he had purchased the large house, Tim had expected that he would one day need the space for the family he hoped to have. However, the demands of his practice and the memory of his one previous and unsuccessful attempt at courtship kept him from actively pursuing any romantic interests. Now he sometimes wondered whether he would spend the rest of his life a bachelor, without the happiness he had enjoyed as a child in the crowded and bustling Cratchit home.

Solitary meals in the cavernous dining room always seemed to dim Tim’s pleasure despite the hot, tasty food that Bridget prepared. When he had hired them after buying the house, he had often insisted that she, Henry, and William, the gardener, join him in the dining room. But the trio had been servants since their childhood, and their previous masters, who had not shared Tim’s lack of concern with class distinctions, had impressed upon them the idea that it was improper for servants to associate with their master outside the scope of their duties. The dinner conversations had been stilted, with Tim trying to make conversation and Bridget, Henry, and William replying in monosyllables punctuated by “sir.” Tim had quickly given up the experiment, yet he still could not help feeling a pang of sadness, mixed with a bit of jealousy, every time the sound of their friendly conversation and laughter in the serving room rose high enough for him to hear. Still, he admitted that all three servants had warmed to him over the past two years, and had grown more willing to engage him in informal conversation. Perhaps one day they could dine together without the awkwardness of his previous attempts, he thought.

Shortly after nine o’clock, Tim retired to his upstairs study. There each night he reviewed the next day’s cases, looked up information in his medical books that he might need, and, if time permitted, read the most recent scientific journals to keep up to date on the latest advances in medicine and surgery. At one time he had contributed his share of new knowledge to the medical profession, but for the last several years he just could not find the time to do so. He really didn’t have the opportunity, anyway. How could he devise innovative treatments, he asked himself, when most of the patients he saw, like the duchess, had nothing seriously wrong with them to begin with?

Having finished his preparation for the next day’s work, Tim drew out his pocket watch. Not quite half past ten. He reached across the wide mahogany desk for the latest issue of the Lancet, which had lain unread for more than a week. Tim pushed it aside. It would have to wait until he had researched Jonathan’s condition. Tim walked over to the bookcase, scanned several volumes, removed a reference book, and returned to his chair. The coal fire that Bridget had stoked was still burning strongly; he would see if he could find confirmation of his suspicions regarding the boy’s problem, or alternative, less dire diagnoses, before retiring. Balancing his chair upon its two rear legs, he put his feet on the desk and opened the volume.

Tim did not know how long he had been reading. It seemed he had gone over the same paragraph a dozen times without registering the information in his mind when he felt how cold the study had become. He glanced toward the fireplace, where a single small log emitted a parsimonious warmth. The room seemed dark—looking over his shoulder at the gas lamp, he was surprised to see only a candle in a tin wall sconce, flickering in a chill breeze that came through a cracked windowpane. Strange, Tim thought, he was certain Bridget had closed the curtains. And when had the window broken?

His eyes better adjusted to the gloom, Tim turned back toward the fireplace. His surprise turned to shock when he looked down at his legs and saw that the new black trousers he had been wearing were now coarse brown cloth through which he could see the outline of his legs, withered and weak. The elegant marble of the fireplace had been replaced by cracked, ancient bricks. Leaning against them was a crutch. His childhood crutch.

Tim stared at the hearth, baffled, for how long he did not know. Then he started to get up, reaching for the crutch, only to find that his legs were so weak he could not stand. He gazed at his extended right hand. It was that of a child. He leaned back in his chair, rubbed his eyes, and when he looked around again, he was back in his own comfortable study. The gas lamp burned brightly, the fire still blazed in its marble enclave. There was no crutch to be seen. He flexed his legs. They were strong. He shuddered, perplexed at what had occurred. Although he was quite sure that he had not fallen asleep, he reassured himself that it must have been a dream. Not surprising, considering his thoughts about Jonathan, and the unavoidable realization that the boy’s plight reminded him so much of his own childhood illness. Tim stood, uneasy, and dropped the reference book on the desk before heading to bed.

Standing over the washbasin, he poured water from a pitcher into the ceramic bowl. He wet a washcloth and rubbed his face. Even in the light of the single gas lamp, he could see the creases beginning to form on his forehead, the dark circles under his blue eyes. A few strands of gray were sprinkled through his blond hair. He thought he looked at least a decade older than his thirty-two years. Combined with his short stature and thinness, Tim reflected that in a few years he would look like a wizened old man.

Too much work, that was the cause, he thought. Unpleasant work. And now he also had to do something about Jonathan Whitson, who had what was likely a malignant tumor. A boy not yet four, probably sentenced to death by nature before his life had a chance to begin. Five years ago, Dr. Timothy Cratchit would have tackled the child’s case enthusiastically and with optimism. Now he was reduced to performing fake surgeries to placate hypochondriacs.

Ginny Whitson had met him years earlier, and believed in his abilities. He only wished that he shared her confidence.

Jim Piecuch is an associate professor of history, and has published several works of nonfiction. Tim Cratchit’s Christmas Carol is his first novel.

Dani-Lyn Alexander
November 17, 2014

’Tis the night before Christmas… and businessman and single father Jason is scrambling to find the dollhouse of the season for his seven-year-old daughter Emily. But when he finally strikes gold at an obscure toy store, he’s met with resistance—literally, as a beautiful woman named Leah is grabbing onto the dollhouse box from the other side of the aisle, determined to get the same Christmas present for her own daughter.

Desperate not to let the other win, Jason and Leah forge a pact: stay together until they find the same dollhouse at a different toy store. It sounds simple, but ten stores and many hours later, they still come up empty. They might not be finding another dollhouse, but they sure are finding a lot to talk about and, as their mutual attraction grows, the unlikely pair finds the greatest holiday gift of all—love.

Ten minutes. Jason had ten minutes to make the twenty-minute trip across town. He’d never be on time for his meeting. He stared at his watch as if it would tell him something different this time. Acid rolled in his stomach. Well, they’d just have to wait. Christmas Eve was tomorrow and he had to take care of getting Emily’s present. Truthfully, he should have gotten it already, but between working, looking after the house, and taking care of Emily, he had little time left over for anything else.

The only thing Emily had asked for this year was the Little Family Dollhouse. She’d get other gifts, too, of course, but he had to be sure to have that one. A coworker he’d spoken to before he left the office had told him how popular the house was with girls Emily’s age. Every little girl she knew either had one or had put it at the top of her list for Santa. Apparently now it was almost impossible to find. She’d suggested this small, out-of-the-way toy store that specialized in hard-to-find items. So here he was, sitting in a traffic jam, hoping it wasn’t too late to get what he needed. Impatience threatened to strangle him. He glanced again at the clock on the dashboard.

Emily was mature for seven, so he knew she’d accept that he couldn’t find the dollhouse. Still, he didn’t want her to be disappointed. Since Karen’s death, he’d raised her on his own, and so far it had proved to be the most challenging, most rewarding thing he’d ever done, and he desperately wanted to do it right.

The traffic light turned red, and Jason ground his back molars. Not one car had moved while the light was green. Not. One. Car. City traffic was the last thing he needed right now. He clutched the steering wheel tightly and dropped his head onto his clenched fists. This was ridiculous. Who would schedule a lunchtime meeting all the way across town on the day before Christmas Eve? His boss, that’s who. How could he possibly get all of this done? He rubbed his temples with the heels of his hands. Didn’t these people need to be at work or something? The motorist behind him hit the horn—again—and Jason couldn’t help but wonder what the man was beeping at. There was nowhere to go. No doubt he was just voicing his frustration. While Jason could certainly feel his pain, the constant honking was grating on his nerves.

Spotting a gap in the traffic, he darted to the right as soon as the light changed. He whipped around the next corner and slipped into a parking spot only two blocks from the toy store. Figuring he was lucky to get this close, he locked the car and jogged the two blocks. The freezing-cold drizzle not only soaked him but also coated the sidewalk with a thin sheet of ice. Since he was dressed for work in his suit and hard-soled dress shoes, the going wasn’t easy. Slipping when he turned to enter the store, he went down hard. His feet slid out from under him and he hit the wet sidewalk, scraping his chin on the step, tearing a hole in the knee of his pants, and soaking himself in the process.

Could this day get any worse? Even as the thought crossed his mind, things indeed got worse. As he pushed himself up, he caught a glimpse through the front door of the toy store. Although a few customers still browsed inside, the clerk was already putting the key into the lock. Oh, no! She can’t. Clutching the handrail tightly, he hurried up the two front steps to the door, grabbing hold of it before she could turn the key.

“I’m sorry, sir. We’re closing early today. I’m flying down to Florida to visit family for the holidays.”

Soaking wet, shivering in the cold, he could certainly appreciate her hurry to head south, but he had to get into that store. “Please. I just need one thing. It’s really important. I promise I’ll only be a minute.”

Apparently, the woman could tell he was having a rough day, because she gave him a sympathetic look as she held the door open and gestured for him to enter.

“Thank you so much.”

He looked around, quickly locating the girls’ section and headed straight for the aisle that held the dollhouses. The store was small but crowded with merchandise, and it took him several trips up and down the aisle to realize the dollhouse he needed wasn’t there. Great. Now what would he do? He hated disappointing Emily. Shoving his fingers through his hair in frustration, he turned to leave.

Unbelievable. He took a deep breath to ease the disappointment pressing like a weight against his chest. Just when he thought this day couldn’t get any worse, he spotted it. The Little Family Dollhouse. It sat on the end of the aisle, pushed against the back of the shelf, and there was only one left. Wary of his slippery shoes on the wet floor, he moved cautiously but quickly toward the shelf. Breathing a sigh of relief, he grabbed the box, turned to head for the register, and . . . met with resistance. Snapping back around, he pulled again. Once more the box was yanked away from him. He held tight to the dollhouse as he peered around the corner of the aisle at the other set of fingers holding onto his prize. A small, delicate hand had managed an incredibly tight grip on the box. His gaze slid up the arm and into the biggest, bluest, most beautiful eyes he’d ever seen. The breath caught in his throat.

LEAH GRIPPED THE dollhouse as tightly as she could and stared into eyes that had to be made from melted chocolate. She’d never seen such amazing eyes, and her gaze held his.

“I’m sorry. I need to get this dollhouse.” He still hadn’t taken his eyes from hers.

She smiled her best smile. “I’m sorry, too, but I had it first.”

“Look,” he started, smiling back at her, the expression filling his eyes with even more warmth, and Leah’s heart melted a little bit. “I don’t mean to be rude, but I really need to have this dollhouse.”

His eyes might have melted her heart, but there was no way she was letting go of this box. Motherhood prevailed. She’d called all over the city looking for this dollhouse, and now that she’d found it, nothing could make her part with it, not even a pair of eyes she could easily lose herself in.

“This is the only thing my daughter asked for this year. I must have it.” Her grin faltered for just a second before she plastered it firmly back in place. Then she pulled her gaze away from his eyes, effectively removing any temptation she might have felt to release her hold on the box.

Having been so enthralled by his eyes, she’d somehow missed taking in the rest of him, and the sight that greeted her now left her momentarily speechless. He was a mess. His gray pin-striped business suit was soaking wet, dirty, and torn. Wet hair stuck up in thick, dark clumps along one side of his head. A large scrape marred his very sexy chin.

All right, don’t go there. Wow, he really was having a bad day.

He exhaled one of those annoyed male sighs she knew so well. “Look, let’s be reasonable here. I already had the box in my hand when you grabbed hold of it.”

“Actually, I had my hand on it first, and then you grabbed it.” Her smile wavered as she started to realize he might not release his hold.

“Okay, I’ll pay you the cost of the dollhouse if you’ll let me have this one.”

The dollhouse cost over a hundred dollars, and she had to admit the money would come in handy. Her job as a receptionist didn’t pay much. The only reason she hadn’t looked for the gift sooner was that she’d had to wait for her final paycheck before Christmas. Although she was tempted to accept his offer, she still held tight.

Allison hadn’t asked for anything else for Christmas. Leah had to have the dollhouse for her.

“I’m sorry. Even though your offer is very generous”—you jerk—“I’m afraid I can’t accept. My daughter is only seven, and this is the only thing she asked for this year. I have to have it for her. I’ve already been all over the city looking for it. I’m sure you can understand.”

She mentally kicked herself even as the words left her mouth. Maybe he hadn’t realized how impossible these things were to find. If Mr. Chocolate Eyes thought he’d be able to find another one, she might have a better chance of getting him to release his hold on the box. He forked his free hand through his hair. Good grief. No wonder it was so messy.

“Okay, let’s be reasonable.” He took another long breath, his wet clothes clinging to broad shoulders. “Only one of us can have the dollhouse. I understand your position. I have a seven-year-old as well. This dollhouse is the only thing she put on her list for Santa this year. She’d be so disappointed if it wasn’t under the tree. Please, is there any way I can talk you into letting me have it?”

“We’re obviously both in the same position. As adults, surely we can resolve this somehow.” She couldn’t help but wonder what he’d do if she just yanked the box out of his hand and ran. The only problem being she’d have to stop and pay for it. She couldn’t just run out of the store. Or could she? She glanced toward the front door and chewed on her bottom lip. She could always come back in later, after he’d gone, and pay for it. Of course, if the owner called the police and they caught her before she could come back, she’d spend Christmas in jail.

Definitely not an option. Allison didn’t have anyone but her mother and had never known her father. He’d taken off the day he found out Leah was pregnant. Right now Allison was with Leah’s parents in Ohio. She’d be home tomorrow, though, and Leah had to be at the airport to pick her up, not sitting in a jail cell for petty theft. No, she couldn’t run.

He was still staring at her, apparently thinking her silence meant she was contemplating his offer. “All right, maybe we could—”

“Excuse me.” The sales clerk didn’t appear to be the least bit amused. She stood with her arms folded across her chest, her foot tapping and a scowl on her face. “Sir, I let you in because you told me you just needed one thing. You said you’d only be a minute. I have to lock up now or I’m going to miss my flight.”

“We seem to have a misunderstanding here.”

At least he had the good grace to blush when he explained the situation.

“I don’t really care who gets the dollhouse. In one minute I’m locking that door and I won’t sell it to either of you.” She turned her back on them and walked away, effectively ending any argument
either of them could come up with.

When the Christmas music stopped and the lights flipped off a minute later, Leah panicked. “Come on. I really need to have this. Neither of us is going to get it if you don’t let go. Now.” Desperation nearly choked her. “Maybe we can find another one somewhere else, but we’re definitely not going to find two. Let me have this one and I’ll help you find another one.”

He appeared to be as surprised as she was by the offer, but he still didn’t let go.

“I’m leaving.” The clerk’s voice rang out, sounding completely annoyed.

“No,” they cried in unison.

“I’ll tell you what.” The man quickly glanced at the clerk and then back at her. “We’ll split the cost of this one and go together to look for another one. Then we’ll split the cost of that one, and we’ll each end up with a dollhouse.”

The rattle of keys made Leah’s decision. “Fine. You’re on.”

Dani-Lyn Alexander is a native New Yorker. She was born in Rome, New York, then moved to Rosedale, and finally to Long Island. She still lives on eastern Long Island with her husband and three children.  Please visit

Rexanne Becnel
November 17, 2014

Anna Spano is on the train to meet her father while she befriends Eva Stephens, an older woman who occasionally thinks she’s traveling to her home village in pre–World War II for the holidays. Recognizing Miss Eva’s disorientation as the same dementia her late grandmother experienced, Anna isn’t sure who is actually taking care of whom on the journey.

At the far end of the journey, Tom Thurston is anxious about what to expect when his daughter arrives. So he’s doubly shocked when a teary old woman embraces him, convinced that he is her long-lost brother.

At Anna’s insistence, he reluctantly agrees to bring the woman home with them and try to locate her family. And as Anna clings loyally to her new friend, and Tom struggles to be who Miss Eva needs him to be, both father and daughter begin to understand one another. And through Miss Eva, they learn the true meaning of family, and of love.

Tom Thurston stared at his phone in shock, then dropped it on the kitchen counter as if it had burned his hand. Like a ghost from the past, Carrie calls him and tells him she’s sending Anna to live with him? She’d said, “I’ve raised her for the first ten years. It’s your turn now.” Into his stunned silence she’d added, “I’ll let you know when she’s arriving.” He sank onto a bar stool and stared blankly. What was he supposed to do with a ten-year-old girl? Groaning, he raked a hand through his hair. He should have known this day would come—that his one big mistake would eventually come back to haunt him. He’d met Carrie Spano in his senior year at the University of Texas. A freshman, she’d been a beauty. Faced with her dark, flashing eyes, her killer body, and her devil-may-care approach to life, it had been easy to overlook her youth. By November they’d been an item. But by April, with graduation and a new job on his horizon, she’d started pushing for them to get married. Married? At twenty-two?

Then she’d dropped the bomb: she was pregnant.

It was painful to remember his panic and her stunned response. Backed against a wall, he’d blurted out that he was too young to get married; they both were. But if she wanted, he would help her get an abortion.

Carrie, always fun-loving but often intense, had gone ballistic, screaming and ranting that he was a son of a bitch and every other foul name she could think of. And she’d been right. He knew that now, but at the time he’d thanked his lucky stars to be rid of her. In a fit of rage she’d vowed to keep the baby and make him sorry that he’d ever messed with her.

That was the last time he’d seen her. But as he’d started his professional life as an engineer here in Iowa, the shadow of Carrie had hung over him. Carrie and her baby. His baby. He’d expected to hear from her once the baby was born, but when there was no word he got anxious. Did she have the baby or not? Did she keep it or put it up for adoption?

He’s finally researched the births in Carrie’s hometown and discovered that Caroline Spano—no father listed—had given birth to Anna Rose Spano on October 2, 1991.

He had a daughter.

And now that daughter was ten years old, and coming here to live with him.

“Damn it!” How was he supposed to fit her into his life? But even more difficult would be explaining her to his parents and sister. What would they think of him, their golden boy, who, as far as they knew, had never screwed up. Even worse, how could he justify keeping such a huge secret from them?

He braced his elbows on the counter. He supposed they would forgive him eventually. And they would accept Anna, he knew that. His mother was eager for a grandchild and made no bones about it, especially to his recently married sister.

But what about Joelle? Would she be able to forgive him? Or would she dump him and his surprise daughter like a load of bricks?

Muffling a curse, he dropped his head into his hands. This could not be happening. Not this fast, with no warning whatsoever. Surely he and Carrie could come to some sort of compromise. What if he offered her money to keep the child? After all, she’d cashed the check he’d sent her right after he found out the baby was born. Although she hadn’t acknowledged them, she’d cashed all the checks he’d sent that first year.

Then one of the envelopes came back marked unable to deliver. He’d done a cursory search for her with no success, and decided that if she’d moved and couldn’t be bothered to contact him, then so be it. And if he’d ever felt guilty on October 2 every year, he’d told himself that he’d done all he could do.

Now, though, he was in a quandary. He could no longer ignore the situation.

He stared at his phone. Taking a deep breath, he reached for it and pressed *69. “Pick up, Carrie. Pick up the damn phone,” he muttered as it rang and rang. He wasn’t ready to be a father. A kid would ruin everything. He would not let Carrie wreck his life without even giving him a chance to make some counteroffer. But when he finally hung up after twenty rings, he knew he was wrong. Carrie could wreck his life. She already had.

Anna rolled up her favorite nightgown, three pairs of socks and underpants, and three changes of clothes—her favorites, just in case her mother didn’t get around to sending the rest of her clothes and other things she’d packed into two big cardboard boxes. Even with the boxes full, there were so many things she loved that she had to leave behind. Her teddy-bear collection. Her shelf of Goosebumps books. Her school papers, and the art projects that Nana Rose had posted on the refrigerator. And then there was her bike, and all her Barbie stuff.

Her mother said it cost too much to send so much junk all the way to Iowa. If her father wanted to drive back and get it, fine with her.

Anna swallowed hard and began to shove the nightgown into her backpack. If her father did want her and all her stuff, he would’ve said so a long time ago. All the things her grandmother had scrimped and saved to buy her were as good as gone.

Except for the Christmas present.

Wiping away her tears, Anna knelt down and pulled the box out from under her bed. She’d found it in Nana Rose’s closet when her mother told her to pick out a dress for Nana Rose to be buried in. Even though it had only been October, the box had been wrapped in pretty Christmas paper with a wide red ribbon and a gift tag with Anna written on it in Nana Rose’s neat, familiar handwriting.

Setting the gift on her bed, she studied it and the rest of the clothes that had to fit in her backpack.

When she first found it, she’d wanted so bad to open it. Even now, just looking at it, knowing Nana Rose had wrapped it up so nice for her, made her want to open it. But she had to wait. This was going to be the worst Christmas of her life, but at least she had this present. When she opened it on Christmas morning, it would be almost like Nana Rose was there with her. Almost. Frowning, she emptied her backpack, wedged the box safely on the bottom, then repacked her clothes on top of it.

She wasn’t sure where she would be on Christmas Day, but at least she could look forward to opening this one last gift from Nana Rose.

The train depot was festooned for Christmas.

Garlands looped above the ticket counter. A huge wreath hung over the wide arched entrance to the station’s platforms, and a pair of lighted trees, flocked white and laden with shiny red ornaments, flanked the information and security booth.

Eva Stephens clutched the handle of her bag. It held no presents, but she hoped her surprising visit after so long an absence would prove present enough for her family. Her heart fluttered in her chest, an unwelcome symptom according to her doctor. But she preferred to think of it as butterfly wings beating eagerly for release. She was going home! After more years than she could remember, she was going home for Christmas.

She coughed three times, like the nurse had taught her, and felt the flutter subside. Then shifting her carpetbag from her right hand to her left, she set out for the ticket counter. How long since she’d been on a train? She couldn’t recall. But some things never changed: the busy excitement of so many people rushing everywhere; the low rumble of the massive engines that permeated even inside the station building. And through the glass doors, the view of people queuing up to board.

Unfortunately people didn’t seem to dress as nicely as they used to. She tried not to stare at a man in worn tennis shoes and a stained sweatshirt. And behind her in line a woman dressed in painted-on jeans, knee-high stiletto boots, and a sweater meant to emphasize her generous breasts held the hand of a little girl, all the while reeking of cigarette smoke.

Eva wrinkled her nose. I hope they still have separate smoking cars.

The child at least was properly dressed in corduroy slacks, some sort of puffy blue jacket, and a matching blue and white muffler and stocking cap. She was a pretty little thing with straight blond bangs hanging over striking blue eyes. She didn’t look very happy, though.

“Where to? Ma’am? Where to?”

“Oh.” Eva looked up with a start. “Am I next?”

“Yes, ma’am.” The ticket seller raised his brows, then returned his attention to his computer screen. “Where to?”

“Let’s see.” She pulled out the slip of paper with the town’s name on it. Not that she needed it to remember the name of her own hometown. Still, every now and again she got these annoying little lapses of memory. Better to be safe than sorry.


“Yes, yes. I want a ticket to Ennis. If you please.”

“Ennis.” He stared at his screen, a faint frown on his face. Then he smiled. “Here it is. Ennis, Iowa. Right?”

Eva faltered. Ennis was in Germany, not Iowa. She looked around her, at a loss suddenly for where she was.

“Ennis,” she repeated, tightening her grip on the handle of her carpetbag. “I want to go to Ennis.”

“Okay, okay,” the man said. “Ennis it is. “Will that be a round trip?”

“No.” Eva smiled at him, restored by overwhelming joy at the thought of her hometown. “No,” she repeated, beaming pure happiness at the ticket seller. “I only need a one-way ticket.”

“One way it is.” He glanced up at her. “Looks like you’re pretty happy to be going.”

Ach, so I am.”

“That’ll be one hundred forty-eight dollars. Cash or credit?”

Eva lifted her chin. “I deal only in the cash, young man. Buying on credit gets a person into trouble.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he agreed, taking the eight twentydollar bills she slid into the tray beneath the glass partition. “But, ma’am,” he added, leaning nearer and lowering his voice. “Don’t say too much about carrying only cash, okay? There’s people who’d love to fleece a nice lady like you. You know what I mean?”

Eva nodded, taking the change he slid back to her and folding it into her purse. “I will be very careful.” She patted her purse and as added precaution hooked the long strap over her head and shoulder. “But I thank you for your concern.”

“You’re boarding at three fifteen on platform seven. Merry Christmas and have a good trip.”

“Thank you, and a Merry Christmas to you, too.”

As Eva turned away she nearly collided with the cigarette-scented woman in the revealing sweater. “Oh,
my. Excuse me.”

“No problem,” the woman muttered, giving her a hard stare.

Eva nodded and headed toward the gates to the loading platform. It was too cold to wait outside, so she found a seat near the arched doors. Not long now. In less than an hour she would be on her way home at last. Smiling, she settled her purse and her carpetbag on her lap and folded her hands over them. This would be the happiest Christmas ever.

Rexanne Becnel is the USA TODAY bestselling author of more than twenty books, including Thief of My Heart, A Dove at Midnight, and Dangerous to Love. She lives in New Orleans.

Christine Feehan
November 17, 2014

When Cole Steele, a womanizer rumored to have killed his father, meets Maia Armstrong, a veterinarian rumored to practice magic, the sizzling romance could melt all the snow on his Wyoming ranch.   And when an injured horse brings them together, Cole can’t help but believe that Maia casts spells on animals—and men. What else could explain the burning passion he feels for her and the thawing of his heart just in time for Christmas?

Cole Steele could hear the screams coming from the room down the hall. He knew those nightmares intimately, because the demons also visited him every time he closed his own eyes. He was a grown man, hard and disciplined and well able to drink his way through the night if necessary, but Jase was just a young teenager. Guilt edged his anger as he made his way through the dark to the boy’s room. He should have done something, to spare his half brother the horrendous legacy of his own past.

In truth, he hadn’t been in touch with his father for years. It hadn’t occurred to him that his father would remarry a much younger woman and produce another child, but he should have considered the possibility, not just dropped off the face of the earth. Cole shoved open the bedroom door. Jase was already fully awake, his eyes wide with the terror of his memories. Something twisted hard and painfully in Cole’s chest.

“I’m here, Jase,” he announced unnecessarily.He wasn’t good at soothing the boy. He had been born and bred in roughness and still had a difficult time being gentle. Worse, Jase barely knew him. He was asking the teenager to trust him in spite of his reputation and the rumors of attempted murder flying freely through the town. It was no wonder the boy regarded him with some suspicion. “I hate Christmas. Can’t we just make it go away?” Jase asked. He threw back the covers and paced across the room, the same edgy tension in his teenage body that Cole had in abundance as a grown man. Jase was tall and gangly, like a young colt, all arms and legs, looking a bit like a scarecrow in flannel pajamas.He had Cole’s dark hair, but his eyes must have been his mother’s, as they were a deep, rich brown. Right now, his eyes were wide with terror, and he turned away to hide his trembling.

Cole felt as if he were looking at himself as a youngster, only Jase had poured himself into books and Cole had become a hellion. Cole knew what it was like to hide the bruises and the terror from the rest of the world. He had grown up living in isolation and hiding, and he still lived that way, but he would be damned if this boy would endure the same.

“Did he shoot your dog for Christmas?” Cole asked bluntly. “That’s what he did for me the last time I wanted to celebrate the holiday like my friends. I haven’t ever wanted a Christmas since.He also beat the holy hell out of me, but that was insignificant next to the dog.”

Jase faced him slowly. The horror was still all too stark in his eyes. “I had a cat.”

“I’ll bet he said you weren’t tough enough and that only sissies needed pets and Christmas. He wanted you to toughen up and be a man. Not get attached to anything.”

Jase nodded, swallowing an obvious lump in his throat.

“He did a lot of things.”

“You have burn marks? Scars from cuts? He liked to whip me with a coat hanger. And when I didn’t cry, he took to using other things.”

“I cried,” Jase admitted.

“I did too, at first. He was a mean son of bitch, Jase. I’m glad he’s dead. He can’t touch you anymore. I’m not going to lie to you and tell you the nightmares go away because I still have them. We both lived in hell and he had too much money for anyone to want to believe us.” Cole rubbed his hands through his thick black hair.

“He was sick, Jase. I got out, changed my name thinking he’d never find me, and stayed as far from him as I could possibly get. That’s no excuse. I should have kept tabs on him. Maybe I could have gotten you away from him.”

Jase shook his head. “He never would have let me go.”

“You know what they’re all saying, don’t you? They think I had something to do with his death.”

Jase nodded, his eyes suddenly wary. “I’ve heard. Why did you come back?”

“I was named your guardian in his will. It was the first I’d heard of you. I didn’t know you existed until five months ago. I knew he must have done the same thing to you and your mother that he did to me and mine. I thought I could protect you, at least until you’re old enough to live on your own. I figured I would be a better guardian than anyone else the court might appoint or that our father had named if I didn’t accept.”

Dawn was creeping in through the huge plate-glass window. Cole watched the sun come up. It was cold, and the ground outside was covered with several feet of snow, turning the hills into a carpet of sparkling crystals. “You hungry?”

“Are you cooking?”

Cole managed a lazy shrug even though he really wanted to smash something. It was always there, that volcano inside him, waiting to erupt. The thought of his father, the time of year, it wasn’t all that difficult to bring rage to the surface. “I thought we’d go into town and give them all something more to gossip about.”

Jase met Cole’s eyes squarely. “They say you killed the old man and that you’re planning to kill me next. Sixtyfour million dollars is a lot of money, twice as much as thirty-two.”

“They do say that, don’t they?” Cole said. “And don’t forget the ranch. It’s worth twice that easily, maybe more with the oil and gas deposits. I haven’t actually checked into how much yet.”His eyes had gone ice-cold, a piercing blue stare that impaled the boy. “What do you say, Jase? Because in the end, you’re the only one that counts as far as I’m concerned.”

Jase was silent a long time. “I say I’m glad you came back. But I don’t understand why he left us the money and the ranch when he hated us both so much. It doesn’t make any sense.” He looked around the enormous room, frowning.

“I keep expecting him to show up in the middle of the night. I’m afraid to open my eyes because I know he’s standing over the bed, just waiting.”

“With that smile.”Cole’s voice was grim.

Jase nodded, a small shudder betraying the fact that he wasn’t as calm as he tried to seem. “With that smile.” He looked at Cole. “What do you do when the nightmares come?” He punched his fist into his pillow. Once. Twice. “I hate this time of year.”

Cole felt a sharp pain in his chest and the familiar churning in his gut. His own hand balled into a fist, but he tamped down the smoldering anger and hung on to control for the boy’s sake. “I drink. I’m your guardian, so I have to say that’s not allowed for you. At least not until you’re a hell of a lot older.”

“Does it work?”

“No,” Cole said grimly. Honestly. “But it gets me through the night. Sometimes I go to the workout room or the barn. I hung a heavy bag in both places, and I beat on them until my hands hurt. Other times I take the wildest horse we have and go out into the mountains. I run the hills, using the deer trails, anything to make me so tired I can’t think anymore.”

“None of that works either, does it?” Jase had tried physical activity as well, but he was finding that talking quietly with his half brother was helpful. More helpful than anything else he’d tried. At least one person believed him. And one person had gone through the same torment. It created a bond in spite of the ugly rumors that surrounded his tough, harder-than-nails half brother.

Cole shook his head. “No, none of it works, but it gets you through the night. One night at a time. He’s dead, Jase, and that’s all that matters.”

Jase took a deep breath. “Did you kill him?”

“No, but I wish I had. I used to lie awake at night and plan how I’d do it. That was before Mom died. Then I just wanted to get out.” Cole studied the boy’s face. “Did you kill him?” He concentrated his gaze on the boy. Every nuance. Every expression, the way he breathed. The flick of his eyes. The trembling of his hands.

Jase shook his head. “I was too afraid of him.”

Cole let his breath out slowly. He had stayed alive using his ability to read others, and he was fairly certain that Jase was telling the truth. Jase had been in the house when someone had shot Brett Steele right there in his own office. He wanted to believe that the boy wasn’t involved in Brett Steele’s death. Cole wasn’t certain how he would have handled it if Jase had admitted he’d done it, and for a man in Cole’s profession, that wasn’t a good thing.

“Cole, did he kill your mother?” For the first time, Jase sounded like a child rather than a fourteen-year-old trying to be a man. He sank down onto the bed, his thin shoulders shaking. “I think he killed my mother. They said she was drinking and drove off the bridge, but she never drank. Never. She was afraid to drink. She wanted to know what was happening all the time. You know what he was like, he’d be nice one minute and come after you the next.”

Brett Steele had been a sadistic man. It was Cole’s belief that he had killed for the sheer rush of having the power of life and death over anything, human or animal. He’d enjoyed inflicting pain, and he had tortured his wives and children and every one of his employees. The ranch was huge, a long way from help, and once he had control over those living on his lands, he never relinquished it. Cole knew he’d been lucky to escape.

“It’s possible. I think the old man was capable of paying everyone off from coroners to police officers. He had too much money and power for anyone to cross him. It would be easy enough for a medical examiner to look the other way if there was enough money in bribes. And if that didn’t work, there were always threats. We both know the old man didn’t make idle threats; he’d carry them out.”

Jase met his brother’s stare directly. “He killed your mother, didn’t he?”

“Maybe. Probably.” Cole needed a drink. “Let’s go into town and get breakfast.”

“Okay.” Jase pulled a pair of jeans from the closet. They were neatly hung and immaculately clean, just like everything else in the room.“Who do you think killed him? If it wasn’t either of us, someone else had to have done it.”

“He made a lot of enemies. He destroyed businesses and seduced as many of his friends’wives as possible. And if he killed anyone else, as I suspect he must have, someone could have known and retaliated. He liked to hurt people, Jase. It was inevitable that he would die a violent death.”

“Were you surprised he left you the money and guardianship over me?”

“Yes, at first. But later I thought maybe it made sense. He wanted us to be like him. He had me investigated and found I spent time in jail. I think he believed I was exactly like him. And the only other choice of a guardian he had was your uncle, and you know how much they despised one another.”

Jase sighed.“Uncle Mike is just as crazy as Dad was. All he talks about is sin and redemption. He thinks I need to be exorcised.”

Cole swore, a long string of curses. “That’s a load of crap, Jase. There’s nothing wrong with you.” He needed to move, to ride something hard, it didn’t matter what it was. A horse, a motorcycle, a woman, anything at all to take away the knots gathering in his stomach. “Let’s get out of here.”

He turned away from the boy, a cold anger lodged in his gut. He detested Christmas, detested everything about it. No matter how much he didn’t want the season to start, it always came. He woke up drenched in sweat, vicious laughter ringing in his ears. He could fight the demons most of the year, but not when Christmas songs played on the radio and in every store he entered. Not when every building and street displayed decorations and people continually wished each other “Merry Christmas.” He didn’t want that for Jase. He had to find a way to give the boy back his life.

Counseling hadn’t helped either of them. When no one believed a word you said, or worse, was bought off, you learned to stop trusting people. If Cole never did another thing right in his life, he was going to be the one person Jase would know he could always trust. And he was going to make certain the boy didn’t turn out the way he had. Or the way their father had.

The brothers walked through the sprawling ranch house. The floors were all gleaming wood, the ceilings open-beamed and high. Brett Steele had demanded the best of everything, and he got it. Cole couldn’t fault him on his taste.

“Cole,” Jase asked, “why were you in jail?”

Cole didn’t break stride as he hurried through the spacious house. At times he wanted to burn the thing down. There was no warmth in it, and as hard as he’d tried to turn the showpiece into a home for Jase, it remained cold and barren.

Outdoors it was biting cold. The frost turned the hills and meadows into a world of sparkling crystal, dazzling the eyes, but Cole simply ignored it, shoving his sunglasses onto his face. He went past the huge garage that housed dozens of cars—all toys Brett Steele had owned and rarely ever used—to go to his own pickup.

“I shouldn’t have asked you,” Jase muttered, slamming the door with unnecessary force. “I hate questions.”

Cole paused, the key in the ignition. He glanced at the boy’s flushed face. “It isn’t that, Jase. I don’t mind you asking me anything. I made up my mind I’d never lie to you about anything, and I’m not quite certain how to explain the jail time. Give me a minute.”

Jase nodded. “I don’t mind that you’ve been in jail, but it worries me because Uncle Mike says he’s going to take you to court and get custody of me. If I lived with him, I’d spend all my life on my knees, praying for my soul. I’d rather run away.”

“He can’t get you away from me,” Cole promised, his voice grim. There was a hard edge to the set of his mouth. He turned his piercing blue gaze directly on his young half brother. “The one thing I can promise is I’ll fight for you until they kill me, Jase.” He was implacable, the deadly ruthless stamp of determination clear on his face.“No one is going to take you away from me. You got that?”

Jase visibly relaxed. He nodded, a short jerky gesture as he tried to keep his emotions under control. Cole wasn’t certain if that was good or bad. Maybe the boy needed to cry his eyes out. Cole never had. He would never give his father the satisfaction, even when the bastard had nearly killed him.

It was a long way to the nearest town. There had been numerous guards at the ranch when his father was alive, supposedly for security, but Cole knew better. Brett had needed his own private world, a realm he could rule with an iron fist. The first thing Cole had done was to fire all of the ranch hands, the security force, and the housekeeper. If he could have had them prosecuted for their participation in Brett’s sadistic depravities, he would have. Jase needed to feel safe. And Cole needed to feel as if he could provide the right atmosphere for the boy. They had interviewed the new ranch hands together, and they were still looking for a housekeeper.

“You, know, Jase, you never picked out one of the horses to use,” Cole said.

Jase leaned forward to fiddle with the radio. The cab was flooded with a country Christmas tune. Jase hastily went through the stations, but all he could find was Christmas music and he finally gave up in exasperation. “I don’t care which one I ride,” Jase said, and turned his head to stare out the window at the passing scenery. His voice was deliberately careless.

“You must have a preference,” Cole persisted. “I’ve seen you bring the big bay, Celtic High, a carrot every now and then.” The boy had spent a little time each day, brushing the horse and whispering to it, but he never rode the bay. Jase’s expression closed down instantly, his eyes wary. “I don’t care about any of them,” he repeated.

Cole frowned as he slipped a CD into the player. “You know what the old man was all about, don’t you, Jase? He didn’t want his sons to feel affection or loyalty to anything or anyone. Not our mothers, not friends, and not animals. He killed the animals in front of us to teach us a lesson. He destroyed our friendships to accomplish the same thing. He got rid of our mothers to isolate us, to make us wholly dependent on him. He didn’t want you ever to feel emotion, especially affection or love for anything or anyone else. If he succeeded in doing that to you, he won. You can’t let him win. Choose a horse and let yourself care for it. We’ll get a dog if you want a dog, or another cat. Any kind of pet you want, but let yourself feel something, and when our father visits you in your nightmares, tell him to go to hell.”

“You didn’t do that,” Jase pointed out. “You don’t have a dog. You haven’t had a dog in all the years you’ve been away. And you never got married. I’ll bet you never lived with a woman. You have one-night stands and that’s about it because you won’t let anyone into your life.” It was a shrewd guess.

Cole counted silently to ten. He was psychoanalyzing Jase, but he damned well didn’t want the boy to turn the spotlight back on him. “It’s a hell of a way to live, Jase. You don’t want to use me as a role model. I know all the things you shouldn’t do and not many you should. But cutting yourself off from every living thing takes its toll. Don’t let him do that to you. Start small if you want. Just choose one of the horses, and we’ll go riding together in the mornings.”

Jase was silent, his face averted, but Cole knew he was weighing the matter carefully. It meant trusting Cole further than perhaps Jase was willing to go. Cole was a big question mark to everyone, Jase especially. Cole couldn’t blame the boy. He knew what he was like. Tough and ruthless with no backup in him. His reputation was that of a vicious, merciless fighter, a man born and bred in violence. It wasn’t like he knew how to make all the soft, kind gestures that the kid needed, but he could protect Jase. “Just think about it,” he said to close the subject. Time was on his side. If he could give Jase back his life, he would forgive himself for not bringing the old man down as he should have done years ago. Jase had had his mother, a woman with love and laughter in her heart. More than likely Brett had killed her because he couldn’t turn Jase away from her. Jase’s mother must have left some legacy of love behind.

Cole had no one. His mother had been just the opposite of Jase’s. His mother had had a child because Brett demanded she have one, but she went back to her modelthin figure and cocaine as soon as possible, leaving her son in the hands of her brutal husband. In the end, she’d died of an overdose. Cole had always suspected his father had had something to do with her death. It was interesting that Jase suspected the same thing of his own mother’s death.

A few snowflakes drifted down from the sky, adding to the atmosphere of the season they both were trying so hard to avoid. Jase kicked at the floorboard of the truck, a small sign of aggression, then glanced apologetically at Cole.

“Maybe we should have opted for a workout instead,” Cole said.

“I’m always hungry,” Jase admitted. “We can work out after we eat. Who came up with the idea of Christmas anyway? It’s a dumb idea, giving presents out when it isn’t your birthday.And it can’t be good for the environment to cut down all the trees.”

Cole stayed silent, letting the boy talk, grateful Jase was finally comfortable enough to talk to him at all. “Mom loved Christmas. She used to sneak me little gifts. She’d hide them in my room. He always had spies, though, and they’d tell him. He always punished her, but she’d do it anyway. I knew she’d be punished, and she knew it too, but she’d still sneak me presents.” Jase rolled down the window, letting the crisp, cold air into the truck. “She sang me Christmas songs. And once, when he was away on a trip, we baked cookies together. She loved it. We both knew the housekeeper would tell him, but at the time, we didn’t care.”

Cole cleared his throat. The idea of trying to celebrate Christmas made him ill, but the kid wanted it. Maybe even needed it, but had no clue that was what his nervous chatter was all about. Cole hoped he could pull it off. There were no happy memories from his childhood to offset the things his father had done.

“We tried to get away from him, but he always found us,” Jase continued.

“He’s dead, Jase,” Cole repeated. He took a deep breath and took the plunge, feeling as if he was leaping off a steep cliff. “If we want to bring a giant tree into his home and decorate it, we can. There’s not a damn thing he can do about it.”

“He might have let her go if she hadn’t wanted to take me with her.”

Cole heard the tears in the boy’s voice, but the kid didn’t shed them. Silently he cursed, wishing for inspiration, for all the right things to say. “Your mother was an extraordinary woman, Jase, and there aren’t that many in the world. She cared about you, not the money or the prestige of being Mrs. Brett Steele. She fought for you, and she tried to give you a life in spite of the old man. I wish I’d had the chance to meet her.”

Jase didn’t reply, but closed his eyes, resting his head back against the seat. He could still remember the sound of his mother’s voice. The way she smelled. Her smile. He rubbed his head.Mostly he remembered the sound of her screams when his father punished her.

“I’ll think about the Christmas thing, Cole. I kind of like the idea of decorating the house when he always forbade it.”

Cole didn’t reply. It had been a very long few weeks, but the Christmas season was almost over. A couple more weeks, and he would have made it through another December. If doing the Christmas thing could give the kid back his life, Cole would find a way to get through it. The town was fairly big and offered a variety of latenight and early-morning dining. Cole chose a diner he was familiar with and parked the truck in the parking lot. To his dismay, it was already filled with cars. Unfolding his large frame, he slid from the truck, waiting for Jase to get out.

“You forgot your jacket,” he said.

“No, I didn’t. I hate the thing,” Jase said.

Cole didn’t bother to ask him why.He already knew the answer and vowed to buy the kid a whole new wardrobe immediately. He pushed open the door to the diner, stepping back to allow Jase to enter first. Jase took two steps into the entryway and stopped abruptly behind the high wall of fake ivy. “They’re talking about you, Cole,” he whispered. “Let’s get out of here.”

The voices were loud enough to carry across the small restaurant. Cole stood still, his hand on the boy’s shoulder to steady him. Jase would have to learn to live with gossip, just as he’d learned to survive the nightmare he’d been born into.

“You’re wrong, Randy. Cole Steele murdered his father, and he’s going to murder that boy. He wants the money. He never came around here to see that boy until his daddy died.”

“He was in jail, Jim, he couldn’t very well go visiting his relatives,” a second male voice pointed out with a laugh. Cole recognized Randy Smythe from the local agriculture store. Before he could decide whether to get Jase out of there or show the boy just how hypocritical the local storeowners could be, a third voice chimed in.

“You are so full of it, Jim Begley,” a female voice interrupted the argument between the two men. “You come in here every morning grousing about Cole Steele. He was cleared as a suspect a long time ago and given guardianship of his half brother, as he should have been. You’re angry because your bar buddies lost their cushy jobs, so you’re helping to spread the malicious gossip they started. The entire lot of you sound like a bunch of sour old biddies.” The woman never raised her voice. In fact, it was soft and low and harmonious. Cole felt the tone strumming inside of him, vibrating and spreading heat. There was something magical in the voice, more magical than the fact that she was sticking up for him.His fingers tightened involuntarily on Jase’s shoulder. It was the first time he could ever remember anyone sticking up for him. “He was in jail, Maia,” Jim Begley reiterated, his voice almost placating.

“So were a lot of people who didn’t belong there, Jim. And a lot people who should have been in jail never were. That doesn’t mean anything. You’re jealous of the man’s money and the fact that he has the reputation of being able to get just about any woman he wants, and you can’t.” A roar of laughter went up. Cole expected Begley to get angry with the woman, but surprisingly, he didn’t. “Aw, Maia, don’t go getting all mad at me. You aren’t going to do anything, are you? You wouldn’t put a hex on my . . . on me, would you?”

The laughter rose and this time the woman joined in. The sound of her voice was like music. Cole had never had such a reaction to any woman, and he hadn’t even seen her.

“You just never know about me, now do you, Jim?” She teased, obviously not angry with the man. “It’s Christmas, the best time of the year. Do you think you could stop spreading rumors and just wait for the facts? Give the man a chance. You all want his money. You all agree the town needs him, yet you’re so quick to condemn him. Isn’t that the littlest bit hypocritical?”

Cole was shocked that the woman could wield so much power, driving her point home without ever raising her voice. And strangely, they were all listening to her. Who was she, and why were these usually rough men hanging on her every word, trying to please her? He found himself very curious about a total stranger—a woman at that. “Okay, okay,” Jim said. “I surrender, Maia. I’ll never mention Cole Steele again if that will make you happy. Just don’t get mad at me.”

Maia laughed again. The carefree sound teased all of Cole’s senses, made him very aware of his body and its needs. “I’ll see you all later. I have work to do.”

Cole felt his body tense. She was coming around the ivy to the entrance. Cole’s breath caught in his throat. She was on the shorter side, but curvy, filling out her jeans nicely. A sweater molded her breasts into a tempting invitation. She had a wealth of dark, very straight hair, as shiny as a raven’s wing, pulled into a careless ponytail. Her face was exotic, the bone structure delicate, reminding him of a pixie.

She swung her head back, her wide smile fading as she saw them standing there. She stopped short, raising her eyes to Cole’s. He actually hunched a little, feeling the impact in his belly. Little hammers began to trip in his head, and his body reacted with an urgent and very elemental demand. A man could drown in her eyes, get lost, or just plain lose every demon he had. Her eyes were large, heavily lashed, and some color other than blue, turquoise maybe, a mixture of blue and green that was vivid and alive and so darned beautiful he ached inside just looking at her.

Jase nudged him in the ribs.

Cole reacted immediately. “Sorry, ma’am.” But he didn’t move. “I’m Cole Steele. This is my brother, Jase.” Jase jerked under his hand, reacting to being acknowledged as a brother.

The woman nodded at Cole and flashed a smile at Jase as she stepped around them to push open the door.

“Holy cow,” Jase murmured. “Did you see that smile?” He glanced up at Cole. “Yeah, you saw it all right.”

“Was I staring?” Cole asked.

“You looked like you might have her for breakfast,” Jase answered. “You can look really intimidating, Cole. Scary.” Cole almost followed the woman, but at the boy’s comment he turned back. “Am I scary to you, Jase?”

The boy shrugged. “Sometimes. I’m getting used to you. I’ve never seen you smile. Ever.”

Cole raised his eyebrow. “I can’t remember actually smiling. Maybe I’ll have to practice. You can work with me.”

“Don’t you smile at women?”

“I don’t have to.”

Christine Feehan is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of thirty novels, including the Carpathians, the Ghostwalkers, the Leopard People, and the Drake Sisters series. Her books have been published in multiple languages and in many formats including palm pilot, audiobook, and ebook. She has been featured in Time magazine and Newsweek, and lives in Cobb, California. Please visit

Colette Auclair
December 15, 2014

The third lighthearted romance in Colette Auclair’s award-winning Aspen Valley series, Branded will take readers on a wild and dreamy ride through the beautiful valleys and mountains of Colorado.  Professional, polite, and pearl-wearing, dressage rider and resort consultant Cordy Sims is the last person anyone would expect to initiate a weekend of debauchery. And yet, that’s exactly what she does after meeting a handsome stranger at an Aspen resort. Agreeing that they’ll leave personal details at the door, they indulge in a memorable weekend of carnal recreation. On Sunday night, Cordy doesn’t want to leave this charming, seductive man, but she must play by her own rules.

On Monday, Cordy sits in a meeting at the ad agency that’s hired her as a freelancer, and her professional and personal worlds collide. Turns out agency owner Jack Cormier looks just as good in the boardroom as he did in the bedroom. Forced to work together, Cordy and Jack can’t ignore the chemistry that crackles between them, or the deeper feelings that have developed. But secrets and scars from their pasts may prove too formidable, even for a love that’s as powerful as it is unexpected. 

Sometimes things aren’t what they seem, but it seemed to Cordy that indeed, there was a man in a tuxedo riding down the chairlift in Aspen. And he was probably drunk, which meant she wanted nothing to do with him.

It was exactly six-thirty-two a.m. on May 16, four hours before the lifts opened. She stood there, panting and staring. He was floating toward her, one arm slung along the back of the chair and a foot, also in formal wear, perched on the seat. The bands of his unfurled bow tie fluttered in the breeze.

My first morning in Aspen and already there’s a guy in a tuxedo. Talk about a town living up to the hype. The app on her phone beeped, telling her she’d logged five miles and could begin her cool-down. After this run, she would officially begin her part-work, part-leisure long weekend. She shook her head and started across the black-diamond run, which without snow was steep but hardly treacherous. As usual, she imagined how Marcas, her horse, would handle it—her dressage horse wasn’t the world’s best trail horse, but she still wished he were here with her. It would be fun to explore the mountains from his back. Maybe she’d have him shipped to Colorado, if she ended up staying longer than a few weeks.

“Damn!” the man said, bringing Cordy back to the present. What, you just realized you were riding a ski lift the wrong way? Cordy thought as she kept walking. She looked up the hill in time to see a silver cylinder hit the grass. It bounced and tumbled down the ski slope, winking in the sun. Remarkably, it stopped short, wedging itself between two small nearby boulders with a muffled metallic clink.

“Excuse me, darlin’,” yelled the man.

Darlin’? Cordy looked up. She was not this man’s darlin’, but she was the only one around.

“It seems my shaker and I have parted company. Could I trouble you to fetch it for me?”

He had a Southern accent. “Why do you have a martini shaker?”

“I was making martinis.”

Silly me. “On a ski lift?” He was passing overhead so she had to crane her neck to see him.

“Last evening. If you could just recover it, I’d be eternally grateful.” He half-turned to face her as he glided by.

“Where were you making martinis?”

“Top of the mountain.”

“For mountain goats?”

She thought he grinned. “Will you please get it for me? It has great sentimental value.”

She had to yell pretty loud now. “Then why’d you drop it?”

“Could you bring it to the hotel bar?”


He shouted something, but she couldn’t make it out. What an idiot, to drop a martini shaker. What an idiot to have a martini shaker on a chair lift. Still, it was an interesting turn of events, and a good omen for this new chapter in her life. Quirky. Not exciting, but unusual. She made her way down the slope and plucked the shaker from the boulders. It was dimpled from its fl ight, but she could make out the engraved initials JCL.

Who are you, JCL? “Guess I’ll fi nd out later today,” she muttered. “If he isn’t too drunk to remember.”

She looked down the mountain and saw that the man had neglected to jump off the lift and was headed back up.

Wow. He’s super drunk. She didn’t particularly want to have another shouted conversation, so she jogged into the trees, out of earshot. Still, she heard his voice.

“Take care of that shaker, darlin’!”

Cordy couldn’t remember if she’d ever been to a restaurant bar as it opened. It made her feel so . . . pathetic. Occasionally she’d lingered over a late brunch and been around when the dinner service began. But this? Nah.

It wasn’t every day you had to return a martini shaker to a man who shouted to you from a ski lift. A handsome man. Scratch that—a handsomedrunk. He might not even make it here. She’d have a cocktail and if he didn’t show by the time she’d finished, she’d head back to her room, because she had better things to do—those notes on the Pinnacle Resort weren’t going to write themselves.

Setting the shaker on the bar, she picked up the cocktail menu. The thirtysomething bartender materialized before her, a dime-sized portion of a darkgreen tattoo peeking above his starched white collar. His light-brown hair kept to itself, a disciplined wavy mass Cordy found appealing. He angled his head and indicated the shaker.

“We’re a full-service resort. We have our own shakers, but if you insist . . .”

What? She followed his gaze. “Oh! I’m returning that.”

“So you’re the one.” He raised his chin.

“I didn’t steal it!” The bartender laughed and after a beat, Cordy felt her cheeks relax. “Oh. You’re kidding.” Lighten up, Cordy! “What I mean is, the owner is coming to get it.”

“Looks like a nice one. Would you like me to wipe it off for you?”

“No,” Cordy said quickly and too primly. She didn’t want to do that clumsy drunk guy any favors because she felt put-upon as it was. It was her own fault—no one forced her to retrieve the shaker—but she resented him all the same. “It’s fine as is.” She was waiting for a stranger for whom she’d done a favor. She should feel good; instead, she felt . . . owed. May as well enjoy myself while I wait. And act like a “real” guest. With that in mind, she went for decadent and ordered a champagne cocktail. To counter her immediate guilt, she followed with a respectable and nutritious Cobb salad. She gazed at the entrance to the bar one more time, noting the dark-wood backdrop and the paintings and fabrics in the oranges, reds, and purples of a mountain sunset. Then she pulled out her leather notebook and Cross pen and began to write her initial impressions of the Pinnacle Resort at Aspen.

Thirty minutes later, as her cocktail neared its logical conclusion (she was an admittedly slow drinker) and her salad was gone, Cordy had mellowed. A smattering of other customers had come in, which Cordy calculated was average for fi ve o’clock on a Friday in the off-season.

The off-season. Her favorite phrase because it had given her a dream career that allowed her to make a good living, own and show a horse, and travel around the world. She had become a go-to professional for how to make more money in the off-season. She could look at a resort, no matter where it was, and come up with ways to make hay when the sun didn’t shine, as it were. For Cordy, it was akin to taking a meh horse and making it a wow horse. She used to think anyone could see the off-season potential in a resort, but she accepted that she had a knack, though she was still reluctant to believe the hype heaped on her by happy clients. After working for a company that ran several resorts around the world, she went out on her own. Pinnacle was her first project as an independent contractor, but the winter resort wasn’t her client. A small Aspen ad agency that was trying to impress Pinnacle had hired her to overdeliver and wow them. She was a surprise bonus, and her recommendation could be the tipping point.

Or that’s what the agency was banking on. She thought they were overly optimistic, but they were paying her well, so she’d give them their money’s worth.

She had already completed a page of bullet points after being at Pinnacle for less than twenty-four
hours. Not bad.

Was someone playing a piano? As Cordy looked around, a lock of shiny wheat-colored hair fell in front of her face. As she shoved it behind her ear, she saw a fresh champagne cocktail in front of her. “Excuse me,” she called to the bartender, who rushed over. “I didn’t order this.”

“It’s on the house, madam.” Did management know why she was here and was trying to impress her? As though she were a secret shopper or something? “Really? Why?”

“A gentleman came by and bought you a drink.”

“That’s impossible. I don’t know anyone here.”

“Begging your pardon, but that’s what happened.”

“Who was it?”

“He didn’t say,” the bartender replied as he wiped the bar.

“Where is he? I ought to thank him.”

“He left.”

“What did he look like?”

The bartender filled his cheeks with air and puffed it out. “Dark hair. A little taller than me.” He shrugged in defeat.

That didn’t help. If it was the martini guy, surely he would have taken the shaker.

The bartender spoke. “I’d say you have a secret admirer.”

“Right.” She said this merely to confirm she’d heard him because her attention was back on the music. What is that song? I know that song. And where is the piano?

Oh no. No. No no no no no.

“Excuse me, again,” Cordy said. “But where’s the piano?” She struggled to sound polite and not distressed.

“Just behind that tree,” he said, nodding toward an impressively leafy plant in the middle of the room that stretched to the ceiling. Cordy threw back a mouthful of her complimentary drink, dabbed her lips with her napkin, and took a breath before striding to the hidden instrument.

The man’s hands were sure and efficient as they transformed the keys into a gorgeous melody. Playing was muscle memory for him; that much was obvious. He rocked gently to the rhythm as though in a trance, oblivious to her or even that he was in the middle of a restaurant. If she weren’t in such a strange mood, she would have appreciated his talent and artistry. But the only thing she wanted to do was stop him.

“Excuse me,” she said.

No response.

She stared for a moment, willing him to look at her. The mental energy she expended could have bent several spoons, possibly a spatula. Or a shovel. He kept going, damn him. “Excuse me!” she said, louder this time.

He looked at her. Mildly. And literally didn’t miss a beat.

She was pretty sure it was the martini shaker guy. Of course. Because this was inconvenient, too. Maybe he didn’t recognize her. After all, he’d been flying overhead and three sheets to the wind when they’d met more than ten hours earlier. She sighed, flicked her hands at him, and said, “Could you maybe skip over this song and play something else?”

He shook his head and a few strands of pin-straight brown hair flopped into his eyes. “I’m sorry; I can’t hear you. I’m playing the piano.”

God. She spoke louder. “Yes, I know. I was wondering if you could play a different song?” He continued playing all those damned notes she hated, while conversing—of course he was—he was a professional, what did she expect? It wasn’t even multitasking for him, it was his job to chat up diners while playing. “This is a great song. Cole Porter. What do you have against Cole Porter?”

“Nothing, but—”

“This is part of my warm-up. I always play ‘So In Love.’ ”

It seemed he was embellishing the tune just to annoy her. The golden buzz from her vintage cocktail had turned on her and was making her grumpy. He continued, “Have you ever heard the words? They’re beautiful.” Then, to add musical insult to emotional injury, he started over and sang softly, so only she could hear. Her own private concert from hell.

His voice was as smooth as a premium liqueur and his accent—Southern and lyrical—disappeared. Still, hearing a declaration of a searing love come out of this man’s mouth only made her feel terrible. What did Cole Porter know? This kind of love doesn’t exist except in songs. I should know. Her throat ached, her cheeks heated and, lo and behold, she was about to cry. This wasn’t going to happen. She clamped down on her unacceptable emotional response, leaned toward him, and said, “Please.” “I’ll finish—”

She blurted, “I’ll give you a hundred dollars to stop.”

He kept playing. “You abhor it that much?”

She rolled her eyes. “A hundred bucks to do less. Come on.”

“Deal.” He finished with a flourish, held out his hand with its long, strong fingers, and raised his eyebrows at her.

“I don’t have that much cash on me.” She folded her arms under her breasts.

“You should have thought of that before you bribed me to stop.”

“I’ll leave it with the bartender.”

“George? He’s a confirmed kleptomaniac. I’ll never see a red cent.”

“I’ll leave you a check, then.”

“I’m sorry, darlin’, but traditionally speaking, bribes are cash only.” He whispered, “You don’t want it to be traced.”

“It’s not a bribe. I made it worth your while to stop playing. Think of it as a tip.”

“Pourboires are usually given as an expression of appreciation.”


“Tips. Why did you want me to stop? That was a whole lot of hatred aimed at poor Mr. Porter’s classic.”

Cordy sniffed and looked at the far wall over Martini Boy’s head. “I’d rather not say.”

“All that hostility can’t be good for you. Why don’t we discuss it over a . . . champagne cocktail?”

She knew her face betrayed her—her eyes widened, her eyebrows shot up, and her mouth opened a little more than usual. There was a reason she wasn’t a professional poker player or counterintelligence operative.

“No. Thank you. I should go.”

He tsked and shook his head. “I would’ve never taken you for a welsher.”

“I’m not—Don’t worry, you’ll get your money.”

His full lips kicked up at the corners, making him more appealing than she cared to admit. It was the
kind of appealing that made her want to stick around.

“As I see it, you owe me a hundred dollars and my martini shaker. Which I thank you for returning, by the way. It’s another reason I need to buy you a drink. In fact, I hardly think a drink’s enough—after all, that shaker is very important to me. I believe I owe you at least a dinner. Would you do me the honor of having dinner with me this evening, Miss . . . ? It is Miss, correct?” He didn’t need to know her name or her marital status. Not with that appealing smile chipping away at her defenses. “That’s very generous of you, but I don’t know you and you don’t know me. We don’t have to be friends. I’m sure you have plenty of friends. I’ll give you your hundred dollars, you can take your shaker—it’s right there on the bar, safe and sound—and we’ll go our separate ways. It’s not necessary to have dinner. It’s not necessary to have drinks or coffee or . . . anything. We had an encounter, then a business transaction, and that’s all. Besides, you can’t leave your shift—as you pointed out, you only just started playing, and the cocktail crowd is going to want their Gershwin as a backdrop for their scintillating conversations.”

She looked at the top of the upright. “Hey, where’s your brandy snifter? You’re good. A guy like you could make a lot of . . . pourboires.” She gazed at his face just in time to see it brighten. He didn’t smile, but his lips twitched and his eyes lighted. She was on a roll and it felt good. “After you’re done with your Harry Connick, Jr. stint, surely you have a few martinis to make, don’t you? Or do you only bartend on top of the mountain with your friends the goats?”

He swiveled on the piano bench to face her.

“Honey, your drink’s getting warm, and that’s a tragedy.” He stood. He was taller than she’d predicted. He had six inches on her, easy. She didn’t like that she had to look up to him now, after getting to look down at him this  hole time. “Let’s go rescue that drink,” he said, and turned her with a finger on her shoulder. That finger then breezed the small of her back, propelling her toward the bar. “And careful about speaking ill of mountain goats,” he said as they walked. “They’re integral to the ecosystem here, they please the tourists, and they’re remarkably rugged, graceful, nimble creatures.” He pulled out her barstool for her. Cordy thought about dismissing his gesture, but decided to finish her cocktail. He amused her, and that was worth a few more minutes of her time. “I didn’t say anything bad about goats. I called them your friends. What does that say about you?” Plus he was easy on her eyes. He had great hair—the dark brown of a horse’s deep bay coat, and glossy—with regular features, a nose straight and assertive as a dressage whip, wide, dark eyes, full lips…A woman could do worse. He was elegant, yes, but oh-so-unavoidably masculine. A dangerous combination, but perfect for temporary scenery at a bar in a ski resort in Aspen.

She sat. He stood. He sipped her drink. “Hey!” she said.

“Just as I feared. Too warm.” He beckoned the bartender.

“George, the lady is in dire need of another champagne cocktail, if you will. This one is tepid. And I’ll have one as well.”

“It was fine,” Cordy said.

“No, it wasn’t. There’s nothing worse than warm champagne.”

“I can think of something worse.”

He sat, then looked at her, and his gaze was so focused, she felt there must be a red laser dot on her nose. Her pulse actually kicked up a notch. “And, pray tell, what would that be?” This had to be what an impala felt like when it knew it couldn’t outrun the lion.

“Impertinent pianists.”

“Come now, was I really that bad?”

“You weren’t exactly cooperative. You could’ve stopped when I asked the first time.”

“I assure you, under the right circumstances, with the right woman, I can be the very picture of cooperation.”

Cordy shifted on her barstool. Where was George with her cocktail? And why was Martini Boy with her and not at the piano? Normally she wouldn’t have asked, but her experience with him had been anything but normal. “Don’t you need to get back to the piano? People are starting to fidget.”

“They’ll manage,” he said, looking around the room. “Would you be so kind as to hand me my shaker? I’d like to inspect it for damage.”

Cordy handed it to him and noted his clean, flat, broad nails rounding out his capable hands. She also felt their fingers touch for a fraction of a second.

“Yeah, so, about that. What was up with that?”

“What was up with what?”

“You dropping it. If it means so much to you, shouldn’t you have been more careful?”

“People drop things all the time,” he said, turning the shaker as he examined it. “It’s an international habit.”

“Clumsy people drop things. You play the piano like a dream, so I’m guessing you’re not usually clumsy. All that hand-eye coordination and everything.”

“You give me an immense amount of credit. I hear Van Cliburn had an embarrassing and expensive habit of dropping crystal.”

Who was this guy who talked like he’d just stepped out of 1920? Cordy was slightly surprised he was in color and not black-and-white like an old movie. Nobody really talked like this. He was putting on an act. He had to be. Well, two could play at this game. She was going to say something out of character. Their drinks arrived and Cordy took a good long sip. She furloughed her internal editor, the one who kept her scrupulously polite, then looked at him.

“Why were you in a tux riding the ski lift the wrong way and carrying a martini shaker at six thirty in the morning?”

He grinned and took a few swallows of the water George had given them with the drinks, making her wait. He set the glass down and licked his lips. “Earlier in the evening, I attended a party that demanded formal wear.”

“What kind of party?”

“A formal one.”

She beetled her brows at him. “It went on until sunrise? At your age? Were the cops involved? You can tell me. After all, it’s not like we’ll see each other again.”

“Now that would be a tragedy of epic proportions.”

“Trust me, it’ll be fine.”


“Was it a wedding? Which would be unusual on a Thursday, but not unheard of.”


“Graduation? Bar mitzvah? Barn raising?”

“You’re not going to guess the occasion. Have you considered the possibility that I might just enjoy dressing up?”

“Oh!” Was this code? Was he telling her he was gay? Which would be great, because they could pal around and she wouldn’t have to worry about getting involved. She would never have guessed, but these days, with straight metrosexuals around every corner, her gaydar was unreliable.

“Oh?” he asked.

She shrugged. “Oh.”

“What does ‘oh’ mean?”

“ ‘Oh’ means ‘oh.’ ” She couldn’t tell him what she was thinking. Even her absent editor returned to keep her silent.

“ ‘Oh’ means ‘oh,’ huh? All right, then. Since you were so kind as to return my shaker, I’m not going to press you for an answer.”

“Now we’re even,” Cordy said, feeling positively cocky. “You didn’t answer my question and I didn’t answer yours. Let’s just enjoy our drinks, okay?”

“Absolutely. Whatever you prefer.” He tipped his flute to clink with hers, sipped, then paused. “Hmm.”

“What?” she asked.

“Nothing. Just hmm.”


“You won’t tell me what ‘oh’ means, but you expect me to tell you what ‘hmm’ means?”

Cordy went for the chink in his armor. “It would be the gentlemanly thing to do.”

“If that’s what you think. I was thinking how it’s curious that a woman such as yourself is here alone.”

“What makes you think I’m alone?”

“That would be because you are.”


“You’re in a resort town, at a resort. Most guests come with at least one other person. In your case, I would expect you to be here with a man. A significant other of some sort. Spouse, boyfriend, fiancé—”

“Don’t say that word.”


“Yes. Just . . . don’t. Or I’ll take that shaker and throw it off a cliff.” Cordy smoothed her hair behind her ear and stared at the bubbles zipping to the surface of her drink. Why did he have to say that?

“I promise not to say ‘fiancé’ anymore. If you tell me why I can’t.”

She felt like Martini Boy was squeezing her windpipe.

“I can’t. Okay? It’s a . . . thing.” The words choked out. He must’ve noticed because he nodded and didn’t argue. She wished she was one of those people who could laugh and make light of it, but in this case, she couldn’t. “Excuse me for a moment. I’ll be right back.” She reached under the bar to snag her purse from the hook. Purse hooks under bars were a godsend. More points for Pinnacle. Martini Boy stood. More points for Martini Boy.

“Will you be back?” he asked, and sounded concerned.

She slid off the stool. “Yes. I need to use the restroom.”

By “use” she meant “regain my composure, then figure out what I want to do next and if it involves you.”

Colette Auclair has been a copywriter for more than twenty years. She’s ridden and shown horses since she was ten and owns a lovely twenty-year-old Thoroughbred mare. A 2012 Golden Heart finalist in the contemporary romance category, Thrown was her first novel and Jumped was her second. Please visit

John Lansing
October 20, 2014
The second Jack Bertolino thriller by John Lansing

“An unyielding pace, vigorous characters and explosive ending.”
—Kirkus Reviews

“A fantastic read…This extremely fast and well-thought-out thriller will remind some of James Patterson’s early works.”
Suspense Magazine

“Blond Cargo an extraordinary, must-read detective thriller…Look out Patterson, someone’s gaining on you!”
Amazon Reviewer

Blond Cargo is the highly anticipated second Jack Bertolino installment from New York native and now Los Angeles author John Lansing.  This gripping eBook from the former writer/producer of Walker, Texas Ranger and Co-Executive producer of the ABC series Scoundrels continues the story that began in The Devil’s Necktie.

Jack Bertolino is back…in the sequel to John Lansing’s bestseller The Devil’s Necktie!

Jack’s son, Chris, was the victim of a brutal murder attempt and Vincent Cardona, a mafia boss, provided information that helped Jack take down the perpetrator of the crime. Jack accepted the favor knowing there’d be blowback. In Blond Cargo, the mobster’s daughter has gone missing and Cardona turned in his chit.  Jack discovers that the young, blond mafia princess has been kidnapped and imprisoned while rich, politically connected men negotiate her value as a sex slave.  John Lansing taps into the real life world of cops, crime, drugs and murder inBlond Cargo to deliver another sizzling whodunit.

Jack Bertolino moved briskly down the polished terrazzo floor of the American Airlines terminal at San Francisco International Airport. He walked past travelers who were deplaning, waiting to board, eating, drinking, and queuing up at ticket counters. Through the windows on either side of the crowded terminal he could see a line of Boeing MD-80s and 737s.

Jack had his game face on. One thought only: take down the manager at NCI Corp who was dirty.

Todd Dearling had been hired as one of five project managers, developing a new generation of semiconductors meant to challenge Intel’s control of the market. Yet the new engineer was plotting to steal the proprietary architecture for the company’s most advanced technology and sell it to an Argentinean competitor.

Jack had done a thorough background check on Dearling and found no skeletons in the man’s closet, no gambling issues, no drugs, no priors; it was greed, pure and simple. Cruz Feinberg, Jack’s new associate, had arrived in Silicon Valley two days prior and wirelessly inserted a program onto Dearling’s iPad while the stressed-out manager was sucking down his daily chai latte at the local Starbucks. Any text or e-mail sent to or from Dearling was cloned and sent to Cruz’s laptop. A piece of cake to pull off for the young tech whiz. Jack was being well paid to catch the thief in the act—let the money and the technology change hands, and then drop the hammer.

Todd Dearling had made reservations at the Four Seasons Hotel in East Palo Alto. A car would be waiting at SFO to ferry his Argentinean counterpart to the suite where the exchange was scheduled to take place.

Jack had booked Cruz into that same suite two nights earlier, where he had set up wireless microcameras and wired the room for sound, to be routed to the suite next door, where Jack’s team would document the crime.

Jack lived for these moments. Outsmarting intelligent men who thought they were above the law. Badge or no badge, Jack loved to take scumbags down.

Ten minutes ago, Flight 378 from Buenos Aires had flashed from black to green on the overhead arrivals screen. Dressed in a gray pinstripe business suit and wheeling a carry-on suitcase, Jack walked toward a limo driver stationed near the exit door of the international terminal. The man held a sign chest-high that read emilio bragga.

Jack reached out a hand toward the driver, who was forced to lower his placard, shake Jack’s hand, and make quick work of grabbing up Jack’s bag. Jack headed quickly toward the exit, explaining to the driver that he was traveling light and had no checked luggage.

As soon as the two men exited the building, Jack’s second employee, Mateo Vasquez, dressed in a black suit, moved into the same spot, carrying a sign that read Emilio bragga.

Jack and Mateo had once been on opposite sides of the thin blue line, Jack as an NYPD narcotics detective, Mateo as an operative for a Colombian drug cartel. When Jack busted the cartel, he made Mateo an offer—spend thirty years in the big house, or come to work for the NYPD as a confidential
informant. Mateo had made the right choice and Jack had earned himself a loyal operative when he became a private investigator.

Thirty seconds later, the real Emilio Bragga walked up to Mateo, stifled a yawn, and handed off his carry-on. He was short and stocky with a rubbery face.

Buenos días, Señor Bragga. I hope your flight was acceptable?” Mateo asked deferentially.

“Barely. First class isn’t what it used to be.” Bragga’s accented English was spoken in clipped tones. “Take me to the First National Bank. I have business to attend to.”

Two hundred and fifty thousand dollars’ worth of business, Mateo might have added, but refrained.

Jack arrived at the Four Seasons, generously tipped the limo driver, and hurried up the elevator to the suite where Cruz was waiting. Once Jack stripped off his suit jacket, he joined the young genius by his array of monitors.

“They should make these baby ketchup bottles illegal,” Cruz said as he tried to pound the condiment out of the room service minibottle of Heinz. Growing frustrated, Cruz shoved a knife deep into the viscous ketchup and poured a heaping red mound onto his fries. Happy with the results, he chowed down on three drenched fries before wiping his hands on his jeans and returning his gaze to the computer.

“It looks like he’s getting ready for a date,” Jack said as he took a seat. Cruz kept his eyes trained on the four screens corresponding to the four different camera angles of the room they were covering.

“Guy’s squirrelly,” Cruz said, biting into his cheeseburger.

They watched as Todd Dearling twirled a bottle of champagne in the ice that had just been delivered from room service, along with a tray of finger sandwiches and crudités. He was a slight, pale, middle-aged man with thinning hair that he kept nervously brushing back off his forehead. He shrugged out of his tweed sports jacket, but when he saw the sweat stains in the armpits of his blue dress shirt, he slid it back on. He hurried over to the thermostat near the door, appearing on a new screen, and turned up the air.

Jack checked his watch and then his phone to make sure he was receiving enough bars to communicate with Mateo. “I’m getting a little nervous. You?” Cruz asked before sucking down the last of his Coke. He crumpled the aluminum can with one hand and executed an overhand dunk into the bamboo trash bin.

Cruz’s mother was Guatemalan, his father a Brooklyn Jew who founded Bundy Lock and Key. That’s where Jack first met him. Cruz, who took after his mother’s side of the family, looked taller than his five-foot-nine frame. Darkskinned, intelligent brown eyes, a youthful angular face, and at twenty-three, he could still pull off the spiky short black hair.

“I’ve got some energy going,” Jack said, “but it’s all good.  You’d have to worry if you didn’t feel pumped.”

Just then Jack’s phone vibrated and the number 999 appeared on his text screen, code for It’s a go. Mateo and Emilio Bragga had just pulled up to the front entrance of the Four Seasons Hotel.

“We’re on,” Jack said with a tight grin.

In another minute, a loud rap on a door made Cruz jump. “Is that here?” he asked, and glanced over at the door to their suite.

“No, it’s next door. Great sound, Cruz,” Jack said, trying to keep his newest charge calm.

Jack and Cruz watched as Dearling’s image moved from one screen to the next, went over to the door, unlocked it, and ushered in Emilio Bragga. The man of the hour wheeled his carry-on across the white marble floor, pushed the retractable handle down into the bag, and gave Dearling an unexpected bear hug, lifting the thin man off his feet. Once the blush faded and he had regained his composure, Dearling was all smiles. He could smell his fortune being made. “First, tell me you have them,” Bragga said brusquely, his smile tightening.

“I have them and more, Emilio. There are even some preliminary renderings for the next series of chips. Consider it goodwill,” Dearling said.

He lifted the champagne bottle out of the melting ice with a flourish, dripping water onto his dress shirt. “A celebratory drink and then business.”

“No, business first,” Jack said.

“No. Show them to me. Now,” Bragga ordered, his voice unyielding.

“Now we’re talking,” Cruz said to Jack, barely able to control his excitement.

The next knock was more subdued than the first, just a quick double knock.

“That’s here,” Jack said as he slid out of his chair and opened the door. Mateo was thirty-nine years old, tall, handsome, with striking gray eyes, long brown hair, and a thousand-dollar suit. He beamed at his old friend as he walked in, bumped fists, and moved into position behind Cruz, eyes trained on the computer screen.

Emilio Bragga placed his carry-on luggage on the couch as Dearling pulled a slim buffed metal briefcase from behind the table and snapped it open on the tabletop. Inside was a series of blue, red, silver, and gold flash drives, seated in foam cutouts next to three bound technical binders.

Bragga leafed quickly through one of the binders, visibly relaxed, and placed it back inside the case. He looked at Todd Dearling and nodded his head. Then he smiled.

“This is the money shot,” Jack said. “Make it the money shot.”

Emilio Bragga walked over to the couch, ceremoniously produced a key, and opened the lock. The sound of the zipper ratcheting around the circumference of the bag got everyone’s full attention. And then Bragga flipped open the canvas top.

Two hundred and fifty thousand, in crisp, banded hundred-dollar bills. Jack’s team could almost hear Dearling’s breath catch in his throat.

“You see those appetizers?” Bragga said, gesturing to the tray of crudités. “That is what this is.” He turned his gaze to the thick stacks of money like it was nothing. “Antipasto…before the meal.”

The two men shook hands. The deal was consummated. It was all gravy now, Jack thought. He would contact Lawrence Weller, CEO of NCI, who would have Bragga quietly arrested at the airport and Dearling picked up outside his condominium, thereby avoiding any negative publicity regarding the security breach that could affect the value of NCI’s stock.

“Start taking sick days as we get closer to the rollout date,” Bragga advised. “Then you’ll take a forced medical leave. I’ll set you up with a doctor in San Francisco who’s a friend. He’ll recommend you spend a month at a local clinic to recuperate while we launch and beat NCI to market. Six months later and with two million in your account, you’ll give notice and head up my division. Did I ever tell you how beautiful the women in Mendoza are?”

Bragga’s speech was interrupted by another knock on the door.

“Room service,” a muted voice said.

“We’re good,” Dearling shouted as he moved toward the door while Bragga instinctively closed the lid of his bag, covering the money.

Jack gave his team a What the hell? look. “Who are these jokers?”

“Complimentary champagne from the management of the Four Seasons,” intoned the muffled voice.

“Don’t open the door,” Bragga hissed.

“Don’t open the door,” Jack said at the same time. But Dearling had already turned the handle.

Three men dressed in navy blue blazers with gold epaulettes pushed a service cart draped with a white cloth into the room with a bottle of champagne in a silver ice bucket and a huge bouquet of flowers in a crystal vase. “Three men on one bottle,” Jack said as he pulled his Glock nine-millimeter out of his shoulder rig and headed for the door.

“We weren’t the only ones who hacked his computer,” Cruz intuited.

“Don’t leave the room,” Jack told him over his shoulder. He quickly exited the suite, followed by Mateo. Cruz nodded, but his wide eyes never left the computer screen.

The lead man pushed the cart toward Dearling, but instead of slowing down, he muscled the cart up against the timid man’s waist, picked up speed, and forced him to backpedal across the room. Dearling’s eyes bugged, his face a mask of terror. The flowers and champagne tumbled off the cart, and the crystal vase shattered on impact. The champagne bottle exploded. Flowers and glass and water and bubbly flooded the slick stone floor. Dearling’s body slammed into the television set on the far wall; his head whipped back and splintered the flat screen. Glass rained down on the Judas as he slid to the floor behind the cart.

Bragga placed himself in front of his bag of cash and took a gun barrel to the side of his head. The gash spurted blood, drenched his shirt, turned his legs to rubber, and took him down onto one knee. The gunman made a fast reach past him for the bag, but Bragga grabbed the thug around one thigh and tried to bulldog him to the ground.

“I’m gonna shoot you, you dumb prick,” the gunman grunted, rapidly losing control of the situation.

“So much for keeping it on the QT,” Jack said to Mateo as he kicked the door open and followed his gun into the room.

The third uniformed man spun as the door smashed against the jamb and Jack’s fist exploded into his face. The man’s head snapped back, and blood streamed out of his broken nose. His arms flailed, and his gun was suspended in midair for a split second before the man and the gun hit the floor.

The man who’d pushed the cart turned his weapon on Jack, who fired first, blasting the man in the shoulder. The force of Jack’s bullet propelled the gunman’s body backward onto the cart before he flopped to the stone floor, landed on his shoulder in the broken glass, and cried out in pain. The gun discharging in the close confines of the hotel suite stopped the action. The room smelled of cordite, the only sounds heavy breathing and Todd Dearling’s whimpering. Mateo picked up the third man’s pistol and covered Jack’s back.

Jack turned his Glock on the second man. “Give me your gun or your friend’s going to bleed out,” he stated with extreme calm.

Before Jack could take control of the weapon, Bragga stripped it from the gunman’s hand and smashed him in the temple with surprising violence. Then he swung the confiscated Colt back and forth between Jack and Mateo, stopping them in their tracks.

“Nobody move and nobody follow,” Bragga said as he half-zippered the suitcase with one hand and picked up the carry-on bag.

“Drop your weapons,” he ordered Jack and Mateo through clenched teeth as blood continued to drip down the side of his face. They complied, knowing he wouldn’t make it as far as the lobby. Bragga walked around the couch on unsteady legs, muscling the heavy bag. His eyes bored into Mateo, the “driver” who had betrayed him, and ordered him to clear the doorway with a sharp wave of his gun barrel. Mateo took a half step to the side, gave the short man just enough room to pass, and pistoned with his full two hundred pounds of muscle, leading with his elbow and hitting Bragga in the back of the head, just above the neck. The Argentinean went down hard.

The overstuffed bag bounced on the floor, the luggage’s zipper split open, and a green wave of banded hundreds cascaded out onto the polished white Carrara marble. “That was a cluster fuck,” Jack said with disgust as he picked up his Glock and surveyed the carnage in the suite. Mateo collected the fallen weapons, grabbed a towel off the wet bar, and used it as a compress to stanch the first gunman’s bleeding wound. He was all business. “Call 911 and have them send an ambulance,” Jack said to Cruz, who he knew could hear him over one of the multiple microphones.

“That was insane.”

Jack turned around and found Cruz standing, wild eyed, in the hall directly behind him.

“Call 911 and lock the door. Did we get it all?”

“I copied Lawrence Weller and you on your cell, iPad, and laptop.”

“Good man,” Jack said.

“No, really, you, Mateo . . . man.” Cruz shuddered as he pulled out his cell and dialed the emergency phone line. Jack was not one normally given to second-guessing, but at the moment he found himself seriously questioning his new career choice as a private investigator.

Muttering a curse, Jack holstered his nine-millimeter, crossed the room, and proceeded to snap plastic flex-cuffs on the broken assembly of thieves.

John Lansing spent five years writing for TV hit Walker, Texas Ranger, and another three years studying the life of an NYPD Inspector. What emerged from his combined writing about a cop and time spent with an actual cop was Jack Bertolino—a fictional character with very real-life stories. Lansing was also a Co-Executive Producer for ABC's Scoundrels. John's first book was Good Cop, Bad Money, a true crime tome with former NYPD Inspector Glen Morisano.  The Devil's Necktie was his first novel. A native of Long Island, John now resides in Los Angeles. Please visit

J.A. Jance
November 24, 2014
An Ali Reynolds e-novella

Find out where fan favorite Ali Reynolds’ new adventure takes her in A Last Goodbye as New York Times bestselling author J.A. Jance brings her trademark breakneck pace to this fun and exciting e-novella, in which Ali Reynolds takes on double responsibilities as both sleuth and bride. Ali Reynolds is finally getting married to her longtime love B. Simpson. They wanted a simple Christmas Eve wedding, but nothing is ever simple with Ali. Even as a motley crew of her friends—Leland Brooks, Sister Anselm, and others—descend on Vegas, the bride-to-be finds herself juggling last-minute wedding plans and a mystery in the form of a stray miniature dachshund. Ali’s grandson rescues the little dog, but Ali’s not in the market for a new pet right before her honeymoon, and leaves no stone unturned in hunting for the dog’s owner. But what she finds is more than just a shaggy dog story…Bella’s elderly owner has vanished, and her son seems to be behind it. So it’s Ali and B. to the rescue—and still making it to the church on time!

Ali Reynolds leaned her head back against the pillow in the soaking tub and closed her eyes. With the help of the pummeling water jets, she let the rush of the past few days recede into the background.  She and B. had made it. They were finally in Las Vegas. The rest of the wedding party was there, too.  Back in November, when she and B. Simpson had first settled on a Christmas Eve wedding at the Four Seasons, it seemed entirely doable—a piece of cake. After all, how hard could it be?

Because Ali and B. had chosen to be married in a hotel, much of the planning was done by simply cruising through the wedding planning pages on the Four Seasons website. Arranging the time, date, flowers, type of ceremony—including their preferred verbiage in the vows—was just a matter of making a few mouse clicks on her computer. Ditto for the menus. One was for what they were calling the rehearsal dinner despite the fact that there would be no rehearsal until the morning of the wedding. She also used the website to choose separate menus for both the reception and the post-ceremony supper. Ali stepped away from her computer, thinking that she had most everything handled. Unfortunately, she had failed to take her mother’s reaction into consideration.

Preparations for Ali’s previous weddings had been well beyond Edie Larson’s geographic reach—Chicago for the first ceremony and Los Angeles for the second. Caught up in running the family business, the Sugarloaf Café in Sedona, Arizona, 363 days a year, all Ali’s parents had been able to do on the two previous occasions was arrive in time for the rehearsal dinners and depart immediately after the nuptials.

This time around, Ali wasn’t so lucky. Her parents, Bob and Edie Larson, were both retired now, having sold the restaurant. Bob had found plenty to do in retirement, but Edie, left with too much time on her hands, had hit the wedding planner ground at a dead run, a reaction for which Ali herself had been totally unprepared.

In the past, Ali had found the term “bridezilla” mildly amusing, but when it came to dealing with an Edie who had suddenly morphed into what could only be called the bride’s “momzilla”? That wasn’t amusing in the least. To Ali’s surprise, Edie had whipped out her long-unused Singer sewing machine and set about stitching up a storm. In keeping with the season, Edie’s mother-of-the-bride dress was a deep-green velvet and probably the most sophisticated attire Ali had ever seen in her mother’s wardrobe.

With her own dress safely in hand, Edie had gone on to tackle outfits for the twins, Ali’s grandchildren, Colleen and Colin, who would serve as flower girl and ring bearer respectively. Colleen’s dress was a ruby-red taffeta, and Colin’s tux, also homemade, came complete with a matching rubyred taffeta cummerbund. Once that was finished, Edie took it upon herself to sew identical cummerbunds for all the men in the wedding party.

Ali’s father, Bob, was not an official member because Ali’s son, Chris, would do the honor of walking her down the aisle. Even so, Edie had gone so far as to bully her husband into actually buying a tux as opposed to renting one so Bob would have one to wear to formal dinner nights on their next cruise. Edie had been in despair about Ali’s ever finding a suitable wedding dress, and her sense of dread deepened when her daughter abruptly removed herself from the wedding planning equation. For the better part of two weeks in early December, Ali avoided all the frenetic pre-wedding activity by, as Edie put it, “larking off” to England.

That’s what Ali and B. had both expected her trip to Bournemouth would be—a lark. She went along for the ride when her longtime majordomo, Leland Brooks, returned home to the British Isles after living in self-imposed exile in the U.S. for the better part of sixty years. The trip was actually a thank-you from B. and Ali for Leland’s years of loyal service, including his having saved Ali’s life a month earlier in a nighttime desert confrontation with a kidnapper.

Ali had expected that her responsibilities would entail providing backup in case any of Leland’s long-lost relatives decided to go off the rails. She was also there as the designated driver, since most
car rental agencies didn’t allow octogenarians to rent vehicles.

In a role-reversal variation on Driving Miss Daisy, Ali had taken the wheel of their “hired” Range Rover and driven Leland through the snowy English countryside from London to Bournemouth, Leland’s hometown, on the south coast of England. Together they even took a sentimental side trip to one of Leland’s favorite childhood haunts: Stonehenge.

In a small fashion boutique in Bournemouth, Leland had helped Ali find the perfect dress for her third and, as she put it, hopefully last wedding. Even now, her lovely lace-adorned ivory silk knee-length sheath was hanging in its original clear plastic wrap in the closet here at the Four Seasons. Needless to say, Edie was greatly relieved to know that the wedding dress issue had at last been handled even if she hadn’t been allowed to make it or choose it.

J.A. Jance is the New York Times bestselling author of the Ali Reynolds series, the J.P. Beaumont series, the Joanna Brady series, as well as four interrelated Southwestern thrillers featuring the Walker family. Born in South Dakota and brought up in Brisbee, Arizona, Jance and her husband live in Seattle, Washington, and Tucson, Arizona. Please visit Please visit

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