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He never knew a simple gift left on his porch step would mend his wounded heart.
Hiding his dislike for the holidays isn't easy, especially when Chief Elliot Duncan meets a woman who captures his attention with one sweet smile. Lynn Carpenter is beautiful, strong-willed, hardworking, and he doesn't know how to return her gift that was left on his porch by mistake. As Christmas approaches, it doesn't take much for the holiday spirit to seep in, not when Lynn makes it so effortless with her excitement. The only thing he wants for Christmas this year is her heart. But between his meddling father and the need to take care of her, something she passionately resists, he knows it won't be that simple. He's up for the challenge, because losing Lynn is unacceptable.
The entire Holiday Romance series: (Each book can be read as a standalone.)
Merry Me (Book 1): Elliot & Lynn
Mistletoe Magic (Book 2): Aiden & Theresa
Christmas Wish (Book 3): Bentley & Emma
Snowed in Love (Book 4): James & Erin
Snowflakes and Shots (Book 5): Stu & Chasity
Release date: December 1, 2016
Publisher: Amanda Siegrist
Print pages: 226
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“Merry Christmas, Chief,” Bernie from the hardware store said as Chief Elliot Duncan strolled by.
“Hey, Bernie. How’s the family?” Elliot slowed his pace even as his feet were eager to reach his car and drive as far away from Mulberry as he could.
“Just fine. James is dying to have that new race car thingamajig, so I have to head to the store after work. Hope they’re not sold out.” Bernie laughed, wiping a hand over his forehead as if he hoped to dodge a bullet.
Elliot laughed in response and said, “Good luck, Bernie. Have a nice day.”
“You, too, Chief.”
Elliot kept walking as his truck loomed closer. Just a few more steps to freedom. How many times would people wish him a merry Christmas today? It wasn’t that merry. Oh, he played it off well enough that everything was merry, hunky-dory, and all that fine jazz. But he couldn’t stand Christmas since the day his mother passed away three years ago. And for some reason, because she didn’t pass away near the holidays, he always thought of his mom this time of year.
Probably because she always managed to make it bright and merry from day one of the holiday season. Baking delicious treats, stopping by at the police station almost every day, dropping off cookies, cakes, pies, and every other treat she had felt that him and the other officers would enjoy. Heck, many of the townsfolk had been aware of the delicious treats she made and knew they were welcome to the wonderful baked goods as well. He hadn’t even been chief then, just another officer in the building. That hadn’t mattered to her; she still stopped by to make nice with everyone.
And his parents’ house was always filled with the wonderful smell of cinnamon that hit his nose every time he walked through the front door and Christmas music that lightly played in the background. Sure, his mom probably had the TV on as well, but it didn’t matter. She wanted to hear the joyous music all the time.
She loved Christmas, and that made him love Christmas. Now she was gone, so what was the point? It’d be better if the holiday never existed.
No more visits with treats to the station. No more cinnamon wafting to his nose, especially since his dad sold the house and moved in with him. No more Christmas music just for the hell of it.
His dad tried to make this time of the year special, but Elliot would slap the Off button to the radio with a flick of his wrist or barely glance at the burnt cookies his dad always attempted to bake. He could hide his feelings about the holiday from everyone—but not his dad.
Sighing heavily as he pulled the truck door open, he decided that the point of the holiday was to make it merry for his dad. He missed her just as much as Elliot did. She had been an amazing woman.
“Merry Christmas, Elliot.”
Looking over the truck door, Marybeth Jenkins stood on the sidewalk in her dashing red-velvet coat and black high heels. His eyes drifted over her form, her coat grabbing his attention as he noticed nothing else peeked out from underneath it. It left a man to his imagination. Marybeth had a nice body, and she displayed it to him often enough with seductive, form-fitting clothes. Not that it ever enticed him. He didn’t want a woman this time of year, especially not Marybeth. She was too loud in her wardrobe, too forward in her advances, and that sort of personality made him cringe.
“Care to join me for lunch?”
“Thanks for the offer, but I’m going home for lunch. I told my dad I’d be there.”
Her face dipped a little, her disappointment obvious.
He offered a polite smile. Why did she keep trying? He always brushed her off. She should’ve gotten the hint by now that he wasn’t interested.
“Rain check, then?”
“With the holidays here, it might be difficult to find the time.”
“I’m a patient woman, Elliot. Have a wonderful day,” she said as she sent him a sweet smile and continued walking down the sidewalk.
Elliot rushed into his seat, slamming the door before another person could stop him. Driving through town offering a big smile and a friendly wave to everyone he saw signified the holiday spirit, even as his heart spiraled into misery. He might not appreciate Christmas anymore, but it’d take a true detective to see the pain inside.
Ten minutes later, he pulled into his driveway. A loud grumble from his stomach erupted as he opened his truck door. What could be on the menu today? Hopefully his dad didn’t forget to cook. Occasionally, it happened and he’d crack jokes that his dad’s age was catching up to him.
Too bad it wasn’t his turn today. The burger joint he passed had made him salivate. Next week, he’d enjoy the burgers when his turn came around. Thank goodness he always made plans with his dad to have lunch. He was running out of excuses to politely shut down Marybeth’s invitations, and she had seemed eager for his attention today. He hit a good day when his dad didn’t actually make other plans. Being recently retired, that happened a lot.
The slam of his truck door didn’t drown out another gurgle from his stomach. He froze for a moment to regain his composure before going in. He knew that bringing his dad into his despair wouldn’t make the day any better. It would probably only bring up old arguments.
About two years after his mom died, his dad had moved in with him after he suffered a small heart attack that left Elliot nervous. He lost his mom to cancer, and he hadn’t been prepared to lose his dad as well. He had suggested that his dad move in with him, and it took a lot of talking and finagling to get his dad to agree. The one huge argument that always surfaced from his dad was, “How are you going to meet a nice woman with an old crotchety man living with you?” He always responded back with, “You’re not that old or crotchety.”
At one point in time, sure, it would’ve been nice to find a woman and start a family. Now, it was too risky. The pain that squeezed his heart every time he thought of his mother nearly made him keel over with no chance of regaining his stance. The perfect solution was to avoid that kind of pain and keep his heart locked up to any woman.
Another protest escaped from his stomach. He took two more steps to the porch and slowed his pace again. On the small table between the rocking chair and the front door sat a present. His feet dragged as he approached the bright package. Like most things associated with Christmas, receiving presents brought too many painful memories front and center. With any luck, it was his dad’s.
The paper looked fairly old as he turned it over in his hand. A light tannish-brown background with little multicolored presents littered in a haphazard pattern and a bright red ribbon with glittery snowflakes tied neatly around the box. His hand jerked as he zoned in on the ribbon. Tied so perfectly. So delicately. Damn, my mom would’ve wrapped it like that.
A small portion of white stuck out from underneath the ribbon. Carefully, he pulled out a tiny blank envelope. He turned toward the door to head inside and ask his dad who left the gift here, knowing in all reality his dad probably set it here and just forgot. That memory of his concerned Elliot sometimes.
The oddity of the paper and the uniqueness of the bow overtook his control as he pulled out a white card with a lovely green wreath circling the border.
May your holidays be ever bright. May your wishes be ever right. May the spirit of Christmas fill you with love and comfort until the end of night.
His brows dipped as he read the card. The words reached inside his heart, hammering once at the lock firmly in place.
No name attached. Who was the gift meant for?
Maybe the answer was hidden inside. He carefully removed the bow and tore open the wrapping paper. The cover to the box was a glittering silver color, sparkling like a diamond, with a shiny silver strip of ribbon from one end to the other. The box itself was a light gray with white snowflakes and dark gray stars sprinkled around it. Why wrap such a pretty looking box? He lifted the lid to the box, and the puzzle instantly morphed into a further complex mystery.
Inside, snuggled in a nice ball, was a pair of Christmas socks. The socks, patterned in red, green, and white with a fluffy white band on top, reminded him of Santa’s hat. Who in the world would give him a pair of socks, Christmas ones at that? He started to put the cover back on the box when a flash of green hit his eyes. Pushing the socks aside, a nicely folded twenty-dollar bill appeared. Now he could appreciate that gift. He had no use for the socks.
Regardless, he shoved the lid back on the box and opened the front door. His dad would know the mystery of the box and put an end to the confusion. Unless it was a Secret Santa sort of thing. Did he miss a memo at work about it? Daphne, the queen of the front desk, was always trying to instill the holiday spirit every time he turned around. Pretending around her had become difficult.
Please don’t be that ridiculous tradition. He had a horrible time picking out gifts, even before his mother died.
“Hey, Dad. Where are you?” Elliot yelled, shoving the door closed behind him as he set the box down.
“In the kitchen. Is it snowing yet?”
Elliot hung up his jacket in the closet, grabbed the gift, and walked quickly to the kitchen. “No. I didn’t think we had snow in the forecast.”
“Yeah, the weatherman said we’re supposed to be getting three to four inches come nightfall.”
Elliot chuckled. “Doesn’t even look like it wants to. You know how those weather people are.”
Gregory looked at Elliot as he pulled the mayo out of the fridge. “Whatchya got there? Someone give you a present?”
Elliot tossed the box onto the counter. “It was on the porch outside. Did someone stop by? There’s no name on the card.”
Gregory stared at the box with glazed eyes, then abruptly turned around to grab more ingredients out of the fridge. “No one stopped by that I know of. Weird.”
“Yeah, it’s weird. I’ll wrap it back up. I just wanted to see if it said inside who it was from.” Elliot sighed as the bright red ribbon grabbed his attention, its glittering snowflakes sparkling like elegant white lights on a tree.
“Why would you wrap it back up?”
A better question would be—why did he open it up to begin with?
“Not sure when I would ever wear these socks, Dad. They look like they’re for a woman. Look how long they are,” Elliot said, pulling them out of the box. They hung in his hand, almost the length of his entire forearm.
“They look perfect for you. You need a bit more Christmas spirit in you, Elliot. Your mother wouldn’t like how much of a Grinch you’ve turned into. Maybe that present was just waiting for you to unwrap.”
“Dad, did you give me this ridiculous gift?”
Gregory shook his head. “Maybe it came from one of the churches in the area.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You know, donating a gift to a family in need.”
“I’m not someone in need, though,” Elliot said, shoving the socks back into the box, determined to find out who they came from. His mystery just turned into a case like the ones that landed on his desk at work. He never walked away from those and he wasn’t about to start now. There were definitely people who could use this gift, especially the twenty dollars. Not him. He had plenty of money.
“I don’t know about that, son. You are in need of a lot of things,” his dad said softly, grabbing the bread from the cupboard.
“If you have to ask, then you’re worse off than I thought. Enjoy the holidays for once. If you’re so pressed to refuse such a thoughtful gift, then give it back,” his dad replied as he slammed the bread on the counter.
Elliot flinched. “How? It doesn’t say who it’s from.”
“You’re the chief of police, figure it out.”
He ran a hand through his hair as his dad yanked two pieces of bread out of the bag. “I didn’t mean to upset you, Dad.”
“What makes you think I’m upset?” his dad replied, slamming the cupboard door shut.
Elliot sighed. Why couldn’t he hide his despair for the holiday better? Now the rest of lunch would be stilted as he attempted to make his dad feel better. He would make his father feel better before he left, even if he had to put some Christmas music on. Maybe his mom’s favorite song would cheer his dad up.
The grumbling of his stomach was lost in the sound of joyous holiday music as it filled the room. A smile slowly crept up his dad’s face as Elliot turned the volume up another notch.
He took a seat at the table, his back to the gift, but that didn’t force it out of his mind. How hard could it be to find the giver? The peculiar look in his dad’s eyes at the mention of the church gave him a starting point.
Lynn blew a breath up toward her bangs, resisting the urge to scream from the top of her lungs. The morning had been horrible trying to find the perfect gift, and the afternoon wasn’t looking any better.
Tis’ the season to donate.
The morning had proved to be one of the most challenging she’d had in a while. Walking toward the back supply room, she leaned against the wall as every sound from the diner melted away.
It was something she did every year, no matter how tight money became. Just one nice little gift to donate to the church and feel like she contributed like every other faithful churchgoer. She loved Christmas and the holiday spirit, and the thought of giving a gift to a person and watching their eyes light up with excitement filled her with just as much excitement.
But, like every month, money was scarce.
Nothing dazzling had struck her eye as she roamed around her house, visiting each room like a drill sergeant inspecting the bunkhouse. She had no money to buy a present and nothing worthwhile in her house. But failure had never been in her vocabulary. Something extraordinary would pop up in her house somewhere. Any nice, well-maintained thing would do.
But there was the crux of the problem. Well-maintained.
Old, worn, and from the thrift store was the very definition of her belongings. No one said it would be easy being a single mom to a seven-year-old. When had life ever been easy for her? No money for that nice pair of shoes, or the new video game that just released, or the new movie that everyone had to see. Laura, her wonderful daughter, just understood. Money was tight, and when Lynn could afford to spoil her, she would.
It wasn’t often, but when she did, oh, boy, what a treat. Regardless of having no money, barely being able to pay the monthly rent, and sometimes scrounging for spare change just to buy food, her daughter’s happiness was top priority. Her daughter deserved it. She always did her homework right away, kept her bedroom clean, and rarely talked back with attitude. Such a good little girl. Too mature, really, for her age. She deserved the world.
While Lynn may not own the fanciest or the most fashionable clothes, she had decent clothes that fit. She would stick a needle in her eye before she allowed her daughter to walk out of the house with floodwater pants or shirts that didn’t reach her wrists or any clothes that were a little too tight. They were poor, but her daughter would never look poor. She drew the line at that.
Hand her a needle and thread and she’d create a masterpiece worthy in the designer world, something she did every so often with Laura’s clothes. Laura always displayed a smile and enthusiasm, giving Lynn pause at whether she was masquerading her true feelings. In the end, it didn’t matter. She had no money for the really nice stuff anyway.
She had ended the torturous search in her bedroom of hoping for anything lovely to pop out and say “Wrap me!” Except, the only thing to pierce her vision had been the twenty-dollar bill lying on her dresser. Who used money as a gift? So impersonal. Something she wasn’t. Thought and care went into each gift she gave every year. And she still had to buy Laura’s presents.
Banging her head on the wall as the cooking sounds from the kitchen still couldn’t pull her away from her turmoil, the pain radiated down her spine as it sunk in. Spineless. Taking the easy way out this year. And that twenty was now lost to another family instead of her precious daughter.
Considering there were only two more weeks until Christmas, she only had two presents so far. She always made it a point to give Laura five. It didn’t matter how she managed to do it, short of stealing—she’d never do that. But always five gifts. Faltering this year wasn’t acceptable. Some extra brainstorming was in order to achieve her goal.
She had already bought a beautiful monkey watch from the zoo when they made their yearly trip to the Twin Cities. Laura’s face had lit up when she saw the watch in the gift shop, and Lynn had slyly purchased it before they left. A whopping twenty-five dollars later, which set her back, of course. Just meant more overtime at the diner. Nothing new there, either. But imagining Laura’s excitement when the paper tore from the present and the watch was revealed, that’s what mattered. Her daughter’s happiness.
The second gift waiting patiently to be opened was a beautiful monkey quilt she started making last Christmas. Every time she walked into the thrift store, her eyes zeroed in on anything monkey-like. Laura just loved monkeys, and Lynn knew without a doubt that she would love the quilt.
The other three gift ideas still hung in the air like mistletoe waiting for a beautiful couple to kiss underneath it. What in the world would she get Laura with money she didn’t have? Now that the twenty was gone, her conscience clear that she donated, her predicament just transferred into a new puzzle. Why couldn’t something spectacular have popped out at her while she searched the house?
Not a stranger to extra hours and hard work at the diner, there was really only one solution. Even more extra hours and hard work than ever before. Not that it was helping her particularly at the moment after a busy morning and hardly anything to show for it. Rude outsiders strolled through the town demanding this and that as she broke her back to appease their every little desire. And did she receive a decent tip as gratitude? More like a slap in the face. Perhaps that was her sign she should’ve put more thought into the gift for the church. Karma always came around.
Two more weeks until Christmas. Positive thinking. Anything could be accomplished with an optimistic outlook. Life had taught her that.
A deep breath escaped her mouth right before she bit her bottom lip. Picturing her daughter’s face always brightened her mood. Like her excitement this morning.
“What are you doing, Mom? You’ve been tearing the house apart all morning. Have you found what you’re looking for? Can’t imagine it’s hidden in your sock drawer,” Laura had said, raising an eyebrow to the drawer hanging open behind Lynn.
“Just looking for, you know, stuff. Are you ready for school?”
“Yes, Mom.” Laura had shuffled her feet for a millisecond before blurting, “A few of the other girls are doing Secret Santa gifts this year and asked if I wanted to join in. Sounds like fun. Max spending amount is ten dollars. Can I do it, Mom?”
Laura had rushed into the room a few steps when Lynn’s mouth had started to open. “I have money in my piggy bank. I already counted. I have ten dollars of my own money. I really wanna do it. Please, Mom. Please, please, please.”
If there was one thing Lynn had never liked, it was Laura spending her money on other people. Now, she understood it was Christmas, but like Lynn, Laura saved her money wisely to buy herself something special every once in a while. She’d rather give Laura ten dollars to join in on the Secret Santa fun instead of using her own money.
Problem. Of course, there’s always a problem. Lynn didn’t have ten dollars to give her. But denying the happiness that spread across Laura’s face had her saying only one thing.
“If you want to use your own money, then that’s fine. We can go shopping this weekend.”
Laura grabbed her into a huge hug, squeezing tightly. “Thank you, thank you, thank you. I love you, Mom. I need to grab my bag and I’m ready to go. Hurry up, Mom. We’ll be late if you don’t hurry up.”
“Shoo. I’ll be right out there.” Lynn motioned for her daughter to leave, turning back toward her dresser.
That’s the exact moment the twenty had disappeared into the box with a lousy pair of Christmas socks. The stress of everything had bogged her down. Wrapping the present, releasing heavy sighs in between ripping off pieces of tape, her Christmas obligation had been completed. To lighten the pain around her heart for taking the easy way out, she had written words to uplift the recipient. Her words would have to be enough to instill the Christmas spirit.
Utterly crazy. The whole ordeal.
As she tied the ribbon, the crimson red with white shimmering snowflakes twinkling in front of her eyes, the heavy weight of guilt had pulled her down like an anchor falling to the ocean floor. That cemented the decision even further. She had donated every single year. As she would this year. She wasn’t a family in need. Never once had she considered herself to be a family in need. She did just fine raising her daughter by herself and didn’t need anyone’s help. And curse the person who said otherwise.
When she had dropped the gift off to Father Preston, she had seen the strange look in his eyes that said he wanted to deny her gift, that he had considered her to be a family in need. Of course, when he tried to persuade her to keep it, nothing but a smile graced his features.
Friendly or not, she politely ignored him. Speaking ill towards a priest, especially Father Preston, who treated her as if she were family, would turn her into her mother. Definitely not a woman she aspired to be.
Slipping out a half-truth that plenty of love and thoughtfulness went into picking out the gift, Lynn had made it impossible for him to refuse. And with one last glance at Father Preston as he had lifted the gift in goodbye, the bright red ribbon had flashed again.
Hurriedly, she had left the church before she snatched the present back. The urge had followed her each step she took to the junker of a car she proudly owned.
After arriving at the diner, about a mile away, the thought that she should voluntarily sign in to a mental ward sounded ideal. One problem after another as the shift progressed had brought the despair lower and lower.
A calming breath released as her spine steeled. No mental ward. No wishing upon a star. No lucky penny in her pocket. Only hard work and determination to make some wonderful, astronomical tips the next few days would save her Christmas.
Yeah, right. Like that was ever going to happen. The way this hectic day was going, she’d be lucky if she left work in one piece.
“Hey, Lynn, I need you back out here,” her co-worker, Jeremy, yelled down the hallway.
Lynn pushed herself off the wall, pasted her friendly diner smile on, and walked back out to hopefully make a killing and give Laura the best Christmas ever.
The day couldn’t possibly get any worse.
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