It’s always been you
Actress Chloe O’Connor has become America’s sweetheart, but back in little Christmas, Colorado, she’s still remembered as a shy, awkward schoolgirl. And there’s no one she dreads (and secretly wants) to see more than her high school crush, Easton McBride. Just one look from the former star quarterback and it’s like she’s instantly transformed from daytime drama queen to tongue-tied teenager. She’s kissed Hollywood actors and famous cover models, so she can certainly play it cool while turning up the heat, right?
After an injury ended his military career, Easton McBride built a good life in the rugged countryside of his hometown. And the last thing he needs is his quiet solitude shattered by a high-maintenance temptress who isn’t anything like the sweet Chloe he misses. While he enjoys the flirtation with this new bold and beautiful woman, he can’t help but wonder whether a kiss could have the power to bring back the small-town girl he’s grown to love.
Release date: February 23, 2016
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Print pages: 400
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Kiss Me in Christmas
The room was dark, the floorboards creaking ominously under the weight of the intruder’s footsteps as he approached the bed with murderous intent. His shadow loomed over Chloe O’Connor, and she squeezed her eyes shut. She heard the rasp of his breath behind his mask, and felt a whisper of cool air against her cheek as the pillow beside her disappeared. He was going to kill her, and there was nothing she could do to stop him.
It was the most ridiculous, uninspired ending for a character of her stature that she had ever heard of. The writers hadn’t put enough effort or thought into the scene. Chloe had been the star of the daytime drama As the Sun Sets for five years. She’d won two daytime Emmys for her portrayal of Tessa Hart, and she refused, absolutely refused, to go out with a whimper.
If they were going to kill her off, and obviously they were, she should be begging and pleading for her life, the camera capturing the sheer terror in her green eyes. Janet Leigh’s famous shower scene in Psycho popped into her head. The idea was so perfect Chloe could barely contain her excitement. There was no doubt in her mind that she’d win another daytime Emmy for the scene she envisioned. Now she just had to convince the director, Phil. Rising up on her elbows, she opened her mouth to call cut at the same time the killer slammed the pillow over her face.
The vindictive force of the attack lay Chloe flat-out on the mattress and had her second-guessing the assailant’s identity. It wasn’t a man; it was Molly. The redheaded actress had auditioned for the part of Tessa Hart, but had been given the lesser role of Tessa’s sister. Her backstabbing sister who was going to get everything once poor Tessa was dead. Chloe struggled to breathe. Her heart gave a terrifying flutter, then another, leaving her weak and light-headed.
“Stop! Please, stop,” she cried, the pillow shoving the words back down her throat.
The killer had responded to her muffled pleas by leaning their weight onto their hands. They were actually going to kill her! They didn’t know she had a weak heart. She hadn’t told anyone on the show. Her identical twin, Cat, had acted as Chloe’s unauthorized stunt double for the past two years, but she was gone now, abandoning Chloe in her hour of need.
There was no help for it; she had to save herself. Her arms felt like they had twenty-pound weights strapped to them as she pushed ineffectually against her attacker. She concentrated on her lower body. Twisting and turning, kicking her leaden feet, she attempted to wriggle from beneath the pillow. It didn’t work. It was hopeless. Tears pooled in her eyes as she lost the feeling in her arms and legs. She was dying. And as though to confirm it, her life began to flash before her eyes.
The hospital stays for her heart condition, the times she was teased and bullied in grade school and high school, her sister standing up for her, Easton McBride protecting her, the day he told her he loved her, the day he broke her heart and she broke her sister’s. The images from her past were filled with love, lies, and loss. The images from the last five years were filled with much the same as she clawed her way to the top, stepping on whoever got in her way.
A sob warbled in her throat. She wouldn’t get the chance to tell her family she loved them, to have a family of her own, to have someone who loved her, to win an Oscar, to…Please God, please, I don’t want to die. I want to live.
“That’s a wrap. Good job, everyone,” Phil called out.
The pressure lifted from the pillow. Chloe barely had enough strength to push it from her face. Once she did, she dragged in great, gulping gasps of life-saving oxygen.
Dame Estelle Alexander, her agent and manager, rushed to her side and offered her a hand. “As soon as I realized Molly was your killer, I went to the dressing room and got your pills, my dear,” the older woman whispered, her British accent more pronounced.
Chloe struggled to sit upright. “Thank you,” she said, taking the pills while casting a covert glance around the set. The sound stage was empty. Chloe accepted the bottle of water Estelle offered with a small smile, doing her best to hide her disappointment that not one person stayed behind to thank her for her years of dedication. She popped the nitrogen tablets into her mouth at the same time Molly came into view.
The redhead pulled off black gloves as she walked toward them. Chloe’s fingers tightened around the water bottle. Molly was the last person she wanted to see, but at least she’d come to pay her respects. Maybe Chloe would forgive her for practically smothering her to death. “Well, Molly—” Before she got out another word, the actress lifted her iPhone. The flash nearly blinded Chloe.
Molly laughed, then turned the screen toward them. “I think I’ll caption it ‘Chloe O’Connor ends her days on a bender.’”
Chloe squinted at the photo and gasped. She was a hot mess. Her long, dark hair was all over the place, and not in a sexy bedhead kind of way. Her false eyelashes were half-off, half-on, her red lipstick smeared from her mouth to her cheek. If Chloe wasn’t afraid she’d have a heart attack, she’d leap off the bed and strangle Molly. “Do it, and I’ll sue,” Chloe threatened, her voice a weak rasp.
Holding up her phone, Molly smirked and pressed a button. “Consider it payback for all the years I’ve had to put up with you, Chloe. Good luck, by the way. Word on the street is no one will hire you. Everyone blames you for poor George going off the deep end.”
George had been with As the Sun Sets from its inception. He’d played Byron Hart, Tessa’s husband. He was currently serving time in a psychiatric hospital. “Me? The man tried to kill my sister! He’s delusional.”
Molly gave a negligent shrug. “That’s not how the fans see it. At least they’ll stop picketing the studio now that you’re dead.” She smiled and wiggled her fingers. “Toodle-oo, I have to change for your wake.”
“You’re having a wake for me?” Chloe blurted, horrified at the thought.
Estelle pointed her cane at Molly. “You won’t be so smug a month from now. You’re not half the actress Chloe is. You can’t carry As the Sun Sets. The fans will abandon the show in droves.”
A flicker of worry crossed Molly’s face. She might despise Chloe, but she respected Estelle. A Broadway actress of some renown, Estelle’s opinion held weight with the cast and crew. It’s too bad her star status didn’t appear to be influencing the casting directors. To date, Chloe hadn’t received a single offer for a new role.
She carefully swung her legs to the side of the bed. Still weak from her ordeal, she took a moment before standing. She swayed slightly as she got to her feet and looped her arm through Estelle’s. “Don’t waste your breath. We have an appointment with Steven at WP24, remember?” She tightened her fingers around the older woman’s arm, silently warning Estelle not to call her on the lie. Then Chloe lifted her nose in the air, focusing on her posture to walk away with her patented elegant grace.
Suck on that, Molly.
Getting the best of the other actress felt good for about five seconds before the realization hit that Chloe was washed up at thirty-two. And none of her colleagues cared. They despised her. She wasn’t exactly easy to work with, but only because she wanted the daytime drama to be the best it could be. She pushed her co-stars as hard as she pushed herself. But she’d never forgotten one of their birthdays and sent all of them cards at Christmas and Hanukkah.
“I don’t suppose Mr. Spielberg called you back, did he?”
“Sorry to say he hasn’t, my dear.” Estelle patted her hand. “I’m sure he would have if he’d viewed your audition tapes. You’re a brilliant actress. Don’t let Molly or the others make you doubt yourself. You have a bright future ahead of you.”
Chloe managed a weak smile. “You’re good for my confidence, Estelle. I don’t know what I would have done without you these past few months.”
The older woman had moved in with Chloe when Cat decided to remain in Colorado—with Estelle’s grandson Grayson. They were a couple now. A bitter pill both she and Estelle had to swallow. Grayson was perfect for Chloe. Even Estelle thought so. But he’d fallen in love with Cat while she’d been pretending to be Chloe. How telling was that? Estelle swore that one day he’d come to his senses and return to LA and Chloe.
“Likewise, my dear. Fluffy and I are very happy at the beach house,” Estelle said, referring to her white Angora cat and Chloe’s gorgeous home on Redondo Beach. The older woman gave her an apologetic smile when they reached Chloe’s dressing room. “I’m afraid I have more bad news.”
Chloe placed a hand over her racing heart. She needed another pill, but she’d already taken her limit for the day. “You’re not leaving me too, are you?”
Her frantic gaze searched Estelle’s face. “Are you sick? Because if you are, you don’t have to worry. I can afford to get you the best care money—”
“No, no, it’s not me. It’s your sister and Grayson. They’re engaged. Your mother is hosting an engagement party for them this weekend and expects us both to attend.”
* * *
Chloe sat in the back of the stretch limo with Estelle and Fluffy. Her mother had met every one of Chloe’s excuses not to come to the party with stony silence. She supposed she shouldn’t have been surprised by her mother’s hard-headedness, but she was. She’d always been her mother’s favorite. Liz O’Connor, now McBride after her remarriage last fall, had been Chloe’s staunchest ally, her biggest fan. At least up until Christmas she had been. Everything changed the day Chloe accused her sister of trying to kill her.
But when she’d risked her own life to save Cat from the real killer, Chloe’d thought she redeemed herself. She’d discovered over these past few months that she was wrong. Her mother hadn’t completely forgiven her. Which was why Chloe was on her way to the engagement party. She didn’t want to risk further damaging their relationship.
Estelle, who was on the phone with Grayson, elbowed Chloe in the ribs with a gleam in her eyes. “Really, she invited your father? Whatever gave her the idea you’d be happy about that, my boy?”
Chloe couldn’t work up the energy to get caught up in Estelle’s excitement. Returning to Christmas always depressed her. It was a pretty town: quaint, charming, postcard perfect really with its pastel-painted shops and cobblestone lanes. She glanced out the tinted windows to where the majestic Rocky Mountains stood sentry over the valley. When she was a little girl, she believed fairy princesses and knights in shining armor inhabited those rocky outcroppings. Their castles hidden in the dark depths of the forest. Her hometown had seemed a beautiful and magical place to live back then. But everything had changed when she hit high school.
Then her dreams and fantasies had been about leaving Christmas and becoming a star. She’d win an Oscar and prove to them that the girl they thought wouldn’t amount to anything had. Only she hadn’t, not really.
She rubbed her chest, willing the tightness away. It was so much harder coming home today. Chloe’s life was circling the drain, and Cat was getting her happy-ever-after. And there’d been a time last December when Chloe had believed Grayson was her happy-ever-after.
That was the problem with being identical twins. Not only did they look alike, Chloe and Cat had the same taste in men. But the men fell in love with her sister. She didn’t understand why Cat’s happiness always had to come at the expense of hers. Cat got the perfect heart, and Chloe got the defective one. Cat got the man of Chloe’s dreams, and Chloe got…no one.
“Hang in there, my boy. We’ll see you shortly.” Estelle gave Chloe’s thigh an enthusiastic pat. “There’s trouble in paradise, my dear. Grayson is finally seeing the light. I knew sooner or later that he would. My son is in town.”
“Lord Waverly is here…in Christmas?” Whatever was Cat thinking? Even Chloe knew that Grayson and his father were estranged. And for good reason.
“Yes. Your sister invited him without telling Grayson.” Estelle rolled her eyes. “She wanted to surprise him.”
Chloe twisted the Sisters Forever necklace Cat had given her the day she’d been bullied so bad she’d wanted to quit school. She didn’t appreciate Estelle making fun of her sister. Chloe could say what she wanted about Cat, but no one else could. “My sister’s thoughtful like that. Family’s important to her. She’d want Grayson to have his with him today.”
“She’ll find out the hard way that Peter isn’t much of a father. Never was. I raised Grayson.” Estelle frowned at her phone. “But I’m surprised my son hasn’t called me. He must be as disappointed in Grayson’s choice of bride-to-be as I am. He’s all about the title. And, as you know, your sister is hardly ladyship material. But you are, my dear. And if we play our cards right, Grayson will see that, too. Maybe it’s a good thing Peter’s come to town after all.”
“I can’t think about that now, Estelle. I’m more concerned someone will discover my career is in the toilet. We should go over that list of movies we talked about. The ones we’re going to say I have a part in.” She chewed on her thumbnail. “Maybe instead of saying I have a part in all of them, we’ll say I’ve got one, looking good for the others.” Oh goodness, the plan was fraught with problems already. Estelle’s memory couldn’t always be trusted. There’s no way she’d stay on point the entire day.
As the limo turned onto her stepfather’s street, Chloe caught sight of the long lines of vehicles parked on either side of the road. Her chest tightened again. Breathing slowly in and out, she reminded herself that at least she had the money to play the part of a celebutante. The thought helped ease the anxious knot.
The driver parked in front of the gray stone bungalow and then went to open his door. “We’ll need a moment,” Chloe said, taking a compact out of her coral Hermès bag. She fluffed her hair and did a quick retouch of her makeup. Estelle did the same.
Ten minutes later Chloe looked out the window, wondering why no one had come to greet them. She noticed the driver tapping impatiently on the steering wheel and nibbled on her bottom lip. She grimaced and rubbed her finger across her teeth, then reapplied her coral lipstick. Obviously Grayson hadn’t alerted the family that they were close by. She sighed and informed the chauffeur that they were ready.
Chloe checked to make sure her dress hadn’t ridden up before gracefully alighting from the limo. As she placed her hand in the chauffeur’s, she looked from under her fake eyelashes, checking to see if they had an audience. They didn’t. Her shoulders slumped. So far, the day wasn’t going how she envisioned. Smoothing a manicured hand down her Jean Paul Gaultier garden-printed sheath dress, she waited for Estelle to join her on the walkway. At least Chloe’s dress was divine, perfect for a garden party in early May. Her Louboutins with the four-inch coral heels were fab, too. And thankfully her hair had cooperated, falling into long, loose waves to her midback.
“You’ll be the belle of the ball, my dear. You look absolutely stunning.”
“Oh no, I don’t want to overshadow my sister. It’s her day after all.” She pasted a gracious smile on her face. She so wanted to overshadow Cat today. Yes, it was petty and mean-spirited, but it was the truth. She didn’t like the feeling and wished she could make it go away. The trick was not to let anyone else know how she felt. Thank goodness she was a brilliant actress.
Chloe companionably looped her arm through Estelle’s. “You’re looking very posh yourself.” The older woman had on a gold silk sheath dress with matching jacket, her champagne blond hair smoothed back in a classic chignon. At seventy-seven, she was still a beautiful woman. “Anyone special you were hoping to see today?” she teased, knowing full well there was.
“I thought perhaps I’d look up Fred and Ted.” Estelle patted her hair, then made a face. “That nasty old woman isn’t going to be here today, is she?”
Chloe knew exactly who she was referring to. Nell McBride was the town’s self-appointed matriarch and matchmaker. Ted and Fred were her best friends, and she hadn’t been pleased when they’d taken a shine to Estelle. “I’m afraid so. She’s my stepfather’s aunt.”
And that reminded Chloe who else would be here…Easton McBride. She stopped halfway up the stone walk and dug in her purse for her pills. Estelle did the same, then held up a silver flask. “I thought we might need this.”
“I’m not sure we should be taking our medication with Scotch, Estelle.”
“I watered it down,” the older woman said and popped her pills in her mouth. She took a swig before handing Chloe the flask.
She supposed it couldn’t hurt. She’d need a little liquid courage to face Easton. He despised her and didn’t care who knew it, including her. And yes, he may have had good reason to feel that way fifteen years ago. But my goodness, it was such a long time to hold a grudge. She wrinkled her nose as she lifted the flask to her mouth.
The front door opened. It was Easton. And like every single time she saw his outrageously handsome face, her heart pitter-pattered in her chest and the theme song from The Princess Bride started playing in her head. It was silly. And she wished she could turn off the soundtrack in her mind. But it had been playing there since she was fifteen and Easton saved her from the schoolyard bullies. He’d been her hero from that moment on. Her white knight. She’d thought he was her one until he became her sister’s. He’d loved Cat. They’d probably be…Chloe’s eyes widened…married now if it weren’t for her.
“Little early to be drinking, isn’t it, Scarlett?”
Chloe barely registered what Easton said because a lightbulb went off in her head. Her sister’s old flame was the answer to her prayers. She opened her mouth to lay out a win-Cat-back plan to Easton and inhaled an excited breath. She choked on the Scotch.
“Jesus,” Easton muttered with an irritated look in his sapphire blue eyes as she coughed and sputtered. He came down the front steps and patted her back.
She teetered on her heels, raising her hand to get him to stop with the forceful slaps. “I’m okay,” she wheezed.
The man didn’t know his own strength. He was built like the star quarterback he’d once been in high school—thick neck, wide shoulders and broad chest, narrow hips and the tightest behind this side of the great divide. Actually, since he stood in front of her, she hadn’t gotten a look at his behind. But she didn’t imagine it had changed since she’d last seen him naked. His seven-year stint in the military had only served to further strengthen and harden the man.
Her four-inch heels put her eye level with his chin, the cleft she used to delight in kissing barely visible beneath the dark scruff. She lifted her gaze to his beautifully shaped mouth; the hint of a bow in his upper lip, the bottom sensually full. His perfect lips flattened. She briefly closed her eyes and released a disheartened sigh.
Easton McBride would never be the answer to her prayers.
He made an aggravated sound in his throat and dropped his hand, taking a step back.
“Are you all right, my dear?” Estelle asked, touching Chloe’s shoulder in concern while slanting a wary glance at Easton.
“I’ll be fine, thank you. I just need a moment to catch my breath.” And to prepare to see her family and the happily engaged couple. It would have been so much easier if she could convince Easton that Cat was his one. He could save them both a whole lot of heartache by simply going along with the plan that had popped into Chloe’s head the moment she saw him.
He crossed his arms over the U.S. Army logo stitched onto his sleeveless black T-shirt. “What’s with the accent?”
She drew her gaze from his biceps. “What are you talking about? I don’t have an accent.”
“Don’t know why I bothered to ask,” he said as if talking to himself, then gave them a mocking bow. “Your highnesses.”
She didn’t understand why he had to be so rude. The man held a grudge longer than anyone she knew. Still, she couldn’t help but watch as he headed across the grass toward the line of cars. His black sweat shorts showed off his tight behind. She’d been right, he did have the best butt, and his legs were…
A shocked cry escaped before she could contain it. His right calf was strong and muscular while his left was ravaged with ugly, vivid red scars from repeated surgeries. She’d heard that an IED had blown up the convoy he’d been traveling in in Afghanistan, but other than a noticeable limp, she hadn’t known the extent of his injuries. He was lucky to have kept his leg.
Easton glanced over his shoulder, and those mocking blue eyes held hers. He’d heard her horrified gasp. He wouldn’t want sympathy from anyone, least of all her. She turned away, forcing a smile for Estelle. “I suppose it’s now or never.”
Chloe flinched at the sound of a door slamming. He was angry at her. She didn’t blame him; she should have done a better job concealing her reaction. She wondered if she should go to him and try to explain. She glanced over her shoulder. He’d retrieved a football from his truck. He wasn’t leaving after all. Still shaken by that brief glimpse of how badly he’d been injured, how close he’d come to losing his life, she thought it best to hold off on the apology and returned her attention to Estelle. She helped the older woman up the steps. “An hour should be long enough to pay our respects to the happy couple, don’t you think, Estelle?”
Her manager rubbed her cheek against Fluffy’s head. “If it’s any longer than that, let’s hope the punch is spiked.”
Chloe seconded the sentiment and rang her stepfather’s doorbell. Technically, she supposed the stone bungalow was her mother’s home, too, since she lived here, but Chloe felt uncomfortable walking in without an invitation.
A drawn-out sigh warned her that Easton was close by. Sure enough, he reached around her and opened the door. She hesitated, once again wondering if she should apologize. But given how he felt about her, he’d probably throw her apology in her face. So instead she murmured, “Thank you,” and went to step inside. But strong, warm fingers wrapped around her arm, and he drew her out of the way. “Go on in, Dame Alexander. I need a word with Chloe. Everyone’s out back.” He gave Estelle directions, then closed the door.
Chloe pivoted. “Easton, that’s so rude. Estelle doesn’t know—”
He stared down at her. “Why are you here?”
She frowned. “Where else would I be? It’s my sister’s engagement party. I was invited.”
“Don’t bullshit me, Chloe. I know you too well. If you’ve come to make a scene, I suggest you head back to LA right now.”
“Why are you being so mean to me?” She searched his face, his cold, closed-off expression. This wasn’t about her reaction to his injury. This was about their past. “You’ll never forgive me, will you? I’ve apologized over and over again, but you just tune me out. Fifteen years is a long time to hold a grudge, even for yo. . .
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