Hope for Christmas
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This Christmas in snow-capped Nugget, California, the gift of a second chance is all anyone can wish for . . . Sparkling lights, sugar cookies, a fragrant tree—Emily McCreedy is checking off her list for a perfect holiday with a new baby on her hip, two adorable stepsons hunting for presents, and her husband’s love shoring up the life she rebuilt after the unbelievable tragedy of losing her young daughter to abduction seven years ago. But the merriment dims when Emily receives a strange note alluding to her daughter’s disappearance. Emily’s sure Christmas miracles are only for TV movies, but with each new communication, she finds herself face to face with the one thing that matters most—hope. PRAISE FOR STACY FINZ “Stacy Finz is a unique new voice. Nugget, California, is a charming small town filled with inventive characters and sweet romance.” —Jill Shalvis, New York Times bestselling author “Tender and touching, Stacy Finz writes romance with heart.” —Marina Adair
Release date: October 10, 2017
Publisher: Lyrical Press
Print pages: 118
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Hope for Christmas
She would’ve been more than happy to drive to Reno and buy a tree at the myriad places that sold them but Clay wouldn’t hear of it. “It’s a McCreedy family tradition,” he’d told her repeatedly. So, rain, snow, or shine, they’d drive to the back forty of the ranch, hike to the tallest pines, and Clay and the boys would chop down whatever tree she deemed acceptable.
“What are you doing?” Clay came into the kitchen, holding Paige.
She brushed a kiss across his cheek and then planted a raspberry on Paige’s pudgy belly. “Making gingerbread for our foray into the forest this evening.”
“What time are you leaving for the doctor?”
Emily glanced at the clock. “About fifty minutes. You want me to take her so you can eat?”
“I’ve got her.” Clay took Paige everywhere. If it was up to him, he’d sit her in the saddle while riding fences and looking for stray cattle.
Born seven days early, Paige was only a couple of weeks old. Too young to be riding horseback with Daddy. Justin and Cody called her their early Christmas present and between them and their father, they spoiled her with attention. It warmed Emily’s heart to see two teenagers fuss over their baby half-sister.
“You want me to come?” Clay asked.
“To the doctor? Don’t you have work to do?” She got down a pan to scramble him some eggs.
“It can wait.”
“While I’d love to have your company it seems silly for both of us to go. The weather’s good.” After three years living in these mountains Emily still wasn’t used to driving in the snow. “I thought while I was in Glory Junction, I’d pop into that cute gift shop where Tawny sells her boots and buy a few Christmas decorations.”
Clay made a face. Shopping for him was the second circle of hell. “Maybe I should stay home, then.”
“Your choice.” She laughed.
Justin came into the kitchen, dropped his book bag on the floor, opened the refrigerator, and stuck his head in.
“I’m making eggs,” she told him, and sliced the bread she’d baked the night before, sliding a few pieces inside the toaster oven.
Justin grabbed the juice and poured himself a glass, taking it to the table. “Did Paige sleep?”
Emily waggled so-so with her hand. Her daughter was proving to be a handful. Luckily, Emily didn’t have another deadline for months and could work at leisure on her latest cookbook project, focusing on the kids and the holidays.
Cody came barreling in. “Anyone see my history book?”
“It’s on the dining room table,” she said. The boys had one week left of school before winter break and were in the middle of finals.
On his way to the dining room, Cody dropped a kiss on Paige’s forehead. Emily smiled at the sweet gesture as she scrambled eggs and opened a package of bacon. Clay had already made the coffee. She poured two mugs and brought one to the table.
“It’s hot, be careful,” she told Clay, who had Paige in his lap.
He got up and put her in the car-seat carrier so he could drink his coffee. Emily held her breath, waiting for the baby to cry, but she gurgled contentedly.
“You want me to meet you in town so I can pick up Paige before your meeting with the Baker’s Dozen, save you a trip back to the ranch?”
“That would be great if it’s not too big of an inconvenience.”
“Nah, I wanted to go over to Farm Supply anyway and pick up that grain order.” They’d trucked most of the cattle to the Central Valley for winter. But they still had horses, chickens, and a few hogs and milk cows to feed. “Want me to get anything while I’m there? You know you still haven’t told me what you want for Christmas. I’m running out of time, here. You’ll wind up getting a new drawbar for the tractor at this rate.”
Emily gazed at her beautiful family sitting at the table. “I’ve got all I want.”
That wasn’t exactly the whole truth but since moving to Nugget, marrying Clay, and helping to raise his sons—now their sons—Emily had come to accept what she couldn’t control. And though the holidays were always difficult, this year she’d vowed not to let herself get depressed and to make them as perfect as possible for the people she loved.
She finished making breakfast and got it on the table before the boys had to leave. Justin had inherited Clay’s old truck and helped out by shuttling his brother and their neighbor, Samuel Shepard, to and from school, sports practices, and various after-school activities.
“Remember, we’re getting the tree this evening,” Clay told Justin as they all headed to the back door. “So don’t dillydally after school.”
“Paige is coming too, right?” Cody called as he raced Justin to the truck and tossed his backpack into the bed.
“Yep.” Clay said, and draped his arm over Emily’s shoulder while they watched the boys drive off.
They went back to the kitchen to clean up and finish their coffee before Emily had to leave. Paige had fallen sound asleep in her carrier.
“Funny how she doesn’t do that at bedtime,” Emily said, and Clay let out a yawn. They were both exhausted.
“She’s got her own schedule and it’s certainly messing with ours.” He grabbed Emily around the waist and kissed her. “Which reminds me, when can we . . . you know?”
“Have sex?” She laughed because the man had a one-track mind. “Three more weeks, according to the doctor.”
“But we can still fool around.” His hands snaked up her sweater.
“Yes, but not if I’m going to make it to Paige’s checkup on time.”
“I’ll do the dishes.” He danced her against the center island and started to unclasp her bra.
“Clay.” She swatted his hand away, laughing. “I’ve got to get the gingerbread in the oven and pay those bills before I leave.” She nudged her head at the growing stack of envelopes on the counter.
“All right.” He lifted his brows. “Tonight, then.”
“Maybe we could get the boys to babysit for a couple of hours, park somewhere, and make out in the truck. How does that sound?”
“Uncomfortable. But beggars can’t be choosers.”
Emily glanced over at Paige, who continued to sleep peacefully. Clay cleared the table and did the dishes while she tended to her baking. She set the oven timer for fifteen minutes and sorted through the mail while she waited. These days her life required a great deal of multitasking.
“That doesn’t go in the dishwasher,” she said, glancing up at him as she prioritized what to look at now and what to open later.
She put Clay’s mail in one pile and envelopes that looked like holiday cards in another, focusing on the bills. The subcontractors she used for her cookbook business needed to be paid before Christmas.
One of the envelopes didn’t have a return address. Not sure which stack to put it in, she slit open the back and found a piece of notepaper inside. Some of the less-organized food photographers she used were known to handwrite their invoices on business cards, candy-bar wrappers, or any piece of scrap paper they could find. She slid the note out, turned it over, and her knees buckled.
“What’s the matter, baby?”
She handed him the letter. He maneuvered her to one of the bar stools so she could sit down.
“Read it,” she said in a shaky voice.
His eyes quickly scanned the note. There were only three words: “I HAVE HOPE.”
Clay let out a long breath. “It’s a prank.” He’d thought they were done with the crazy. Hope, Emily’s daughter from her first marriage, had been missing for seven years. The likelihood that she was even still alive was so remote that they rarely talked about the possibility anymore.
“He just wants to mess with us or jack us up for money.” He sat next to her and held her trembling hand.
The false sightings, the phony calls, the nutty emails, and the dead-end tips had all stopped three years ago, after a serial killer on death row lied about his involvement in Hope’s abduction. Once the sadistic bastard was called on his bluff, the news crews left and the cuckoos crawled back under their rocks. Still, Emily had never been able to completely move on. What parent could?
“Why now?” she asked.
“The holidays. There are a lot of sickos out there, Em.”
“Will you show it to Rhys? Just in case.”
Of course he would. If nothing else, he’d like to find the SOB and give him a piece of his mind. The last thing he wanted was for his wife to latch onto false hope and be put through another emotional ringer. Her pregnancy with Paige had been difficult—both psychologically and physically—and she’d nearly miscarried in the first trimester. They were finally settling in and he didn’t need some crackpot hurting Emily by making false claims.
“I will, I promise,” he said. “You okay?”
The timer dinged and Emily got up to take her cookies out of the oven. “I just thought we were through with this kind of thing.”
She efficiently placed each sheet on a cooling rack, and when she finished Clay took her in his arms, tipped her face up, and looked into her blue eyes. “I don’t want you to worry about this. I’ll take care of it. Trust me?”
“I do,” she said.
“Good. Would you rather I take Paige to the doctor?”
“No, I was lo. . .
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