BESTSELLING AUTHOR COLLECTION Reader-favorite romances in collectible volumes from our bestselling authors The Last Noel by New York Times bestselling author Heather Graham With a storm paralyzing New England on Christmas Eve, the O'Boyle household becomes prey to a pair of brutal escaped killers desperate to find refuge. Skyler O'Boyle's one hope for rescue is that the men are unaware that her daughter, Kat, has escaped into the blizzard. But as the wind and snow continue to rage, her prayers that Kat can somehow find help seem fragile indeed. When Kat stumbles on a third felon, half-frozen and delirious, she recognizes him immediately. What is Craig Devon, the onetime love of her life, doing in such company? Craig is desperate to unload a crucial secret that could change their destiny…but one false move and everything he's sacrificed will shatter. FREE BONUS STORY INCLUDED IN THIS VOLUME! Secret Surrogate by USA TODAY bestselling author Delores Fossen The last thing this Texas sheriff wanted was to heed a frantic late-night call from Kylie Monroe—the woman who'd destroyed his life. Old wounds were ripped wide open after Lucas Creed discovered that his former deputy had moved on…and was pregnant. But after rescuing her and taking her under his protection, she repaid him by dropping a bombshell on him. Now, as his secret surrogate, she planned to give the gruff lawman the ultimate gift to heal his heart.
Release date: October 26, 2021
Print pages: 512
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The Last Noel & Secret Surrogate
“But...this is Christmas Eve!”
The old man, frail and almost skeletally thin, stared at them in disbelief. His voice was tremulous, and he seemed to shake like a delicate, wind-blown leaf.
“You’re right. It is Christmas Eve, old-timer, and you’re not supposed to be here,” Scooter said.
Craig found that he couldn’t speak. This wasn’t supposed to happen. There shouldn’t have been anyone here. When he’d hooked up with Scooter Blane, the man had been all but invisible. He and his partner, Quintin Lark, were becoming heroes in a certain stratum of underworld society for their long string of extremely profitable robberies. But no one had ever gotten hurt. Ever.
But they only hit places that were empty.
Like this place should have been today.
There had been rumors, though. Rumors that the pair could be ruthless when they chose. But rumors were just rumors. Crooks needed them, went out of their way to create them, because they lived and died for them.
Killed for them?
But the real word on the street was that the pair were experts at slipping in and slipping out. Hitting fast, disappearing.
As far as Craig had been aware, they had never hurt anyone or even, thanks to careful planning, come across anyone still working during one of their heists.
He had discovered when he threw in with them that Scooter was frighteningly savvy with electronics. He’d seen that demonstrated when they arrived tonight and Scooter had broken the alarm code in a matter of seconds, unlocking the door as if they were being invited right in by an invisible host.
Now he was discovering that Scooter was equally adept with firearms.
Like the Smith & Wesson .48 special he suddenly pulled.
“But I am here. And I’m not letting you destroy my livelihood,” the old man said now, despite the gun in Scooter’s hand.
Craig was pretty sure that the octogenarian’s name had to be Hudson. The sign on the small shop in the valley advertised it as Hudson & Son, Fine Art, Antiques, Memorabilia and Jewelry.
It was the jewelry and antiques they’d come for. Scooter and Quintin were becoming infamous all through the Northeast for knocking off a long string of jewelry and antique stores. They went for family establishments—the type not found in malls. The kind in small towns, where the biggest crimes tended to be speeding or graffiti. They struck, then disappeared, and the insurance agencies were the ones to pay. Easy in, easy out, and no one got hurt, except in the wallet.
Craig had never heard of Scooter or Quintin using a gun.
Then again, he’d never heard of them ripping off a place where someone had remained behind after hours.
But there was a first time for everything. Here, in a little hick town in Massachusetts, they had found the place where someone was still around.
Craig felt ill.
He knew the pair were successful because of Scooter’s talent with electronics, which ensured that they were never caught on videotape. No witness could ever describe their faces, because there never were any witnesses. In short, they had never been seen.
“Scooter, it’s Christmas. Let’s just get the hell out of here,” Craig said.
Scooter looked at him, shaking his head as he scooped up jewelry and threw it into a bag. “No, sorry, I don’t think so. Even if I wanted to, and I don’t, I don’t think Quintin’s ready to go.”
That was all too obvious, Craig thought, looking over at the other man. Already Craig had figured out that, while Scooter talked as if he called the shots, it was Quintin who really ran the operation. And Quintin wasn’t all that fond of Craig, so he knew he had to be careful.
“There’s got to be a safe, so open it, pops,” Quintin was saying now.
“Sir, please,” Craig said politely to Mr. Hudson, silently begging the old man to back down and do as he was told. “Open the safe.”
“I’ll shoot you, you old fart, and don’t think I won’t,” Scooter told him.
“Do it,” the old man said.
“Come on, guys. There’s a storm coming in, and we need to get the hell out of here before it does,” Craig said. “Why don’t we just leave the old guy alone and get out of here?”
“Told you that the kid was a mistake,” Quintin said disgustedly to Scooter. Quintin was a big man, but not fat. He was pure muscle, with small dark eyes, a bald head and the shoulders of an orangutan. He was oddly fanatic in his dress. He liked to be neat, and he was fond of designer clothing. He was in his forties, and despite his occupation, he was quite capable of speaking and appearing like a gentleman.
Scooter was just the opposite: thin as a rail. He had a wiry strength, though. Sandy hair worn a little too long, and eyes that were so pale a blue they were almost colorless. Scooter was somewhere in his midthirties, and Craig was becoming more and more convinced that he had some kind of learning disability. He often sounded totally vicious, but at other times his voice held the awe of a child, and he was sometimes slow.
Craig was the youngest of their trio and the newcomer. He wondered just how odd he looked, joined up with the two of them. At twenty-five, he considered himself in good shape, but, of course, the life he’d chosen demanded that he be fit. Bitterness at the past had made him work hard. He was blue-eyed and blond, like the boy next door. Quintin had liked that about him. What Quintin didn’t like about him, Craig had never quite figured out.
As they all stood there, at something of an impasse, the store was suddenly cast into pitch-darkness as a loud crack announced the splitting of a nearby power pole.
“Nobody move,” Scooter snapped.
A backup generator kicked in almost immediately, and they were bathed in a soft, slightly reddish light. In those few seconds, though, the old man had tried to hit the alarm. Craig could read the truth in his eyes and in the nervous energy that made him shake just slightly. Scooter saw it, too.
“You stupid old fool,” Scooter said softly.
“The power was out,” Craig said quickly. “The alarm was dead.”
“I don’t give a damn,” Scooter said. “Open the safe. Now!”
But old man Hudson seemed totally indifferent to his own impending doom. He even smiled. “I don’t care if you shoot me.”
“Just open the safe, sir. What can possibly be in there that’s worth your life?” Craig asked.
Quintin looked at him contemptuously.
“Look, you old fool,” Quintin said to Hudson, “He won’t just shoot you, he’ll make you hurt. He’ll shoot your kneecaps, and then he’ll shoot your teeny-weeny little pecker. Now open the safe!”
“You must have insurance,” Craig pointed out reasonably. He was stunned at Quintin’s viciousness. Not that he knew the man well. This was actually his first real job with Scooter and Quintin. Before, he had been trying to pass muster. When he’d been taken along tonight, he’d thought he’d been cleared. And he had been—by Scooter. But Quintin was hard.
And Quintin didn’t like him. Didn’t trust him.
Craig knew they’d worked with another guy before, who hadn’t been arrested, and hadn’t been found dead. He had just disappeared. And that was how Craig had gotten in.
Well, he’d wanted in, and he’d gotten what he wanted, Craig thought, and swore silently to himself. This wasn’t the way it should have gone. And now he was going to have to do something about that.
Scooter still looked ready to shoot. The situation was rapidly turning violent.
Craig reached nonchalantly behind his back for the Glock he carried tucked into his waistband. Before he could produce it, Quintin slammed him on the shoulder. “You’ve got no bullets, buddy,” he said softly.
Craig frowned fiercely, staring at him.
Quintin stared back, dark eyes cool and assessing. “Were you planning to shoot the old man—or one of us?” he asked. “I took away your bullets, friend.”
“Why’d you do that?” Scooter demanded.
“Didn’t you hear me? I don’t trust him not to shoot one of us,” Quintin said, then turned back to Hudson. “Come on, asshole. It’s now or never.”
“You’re the asshole, Quintin,” Craig said. Damn it, he thought. What was he going to do without any bullets?
Finally the old man turned and started turning the dial on the safe. As soon as it opened, he stepped away, staring off into the distance, as if none of it meant anything to him anymore.
Craig felt a sudden deep, overwhelming surge of sadness. What the hell was this old man doing alone on Christmas Eve? Where was the son listed on the sign? Where was the rest of his family?
Was this really the sum of life? Men wanted sons. Sons wanted the keys to the car. Sure, Dad, the son said. I’ll help with the business. And then he found something else that interested him more and was gone, until one day Dad was old. And alone.
“Bag it up,” Scooter demanded, pointing to the bills and jewelry in the safe. “Bag it all up.”
“You know you’re not going anywhere, right?” the old man asked calmly.
“Wrong, pops. We’re going straight to New York City. Hiding in plain sight,” Scooter said happily.
Craig felt his stomach drop. Scooter had just told the old man their plans, not to mention that Hudson had seen their faces. Craig could practically see the death warrant in his mind.
“A nor’easter is coming in,” the old man said, sounding so casual. “Hasn’t been one this bad in years, I can tell you.”
The weather was turning; Craig could feel it. The storm that should have gone north of them had veered south instead, he thought, then went back to wondering why Hudson was at work and alone on Christmas Eve.
“Right. Like I’m afraid of a little snow.” Scooter sniffed.
Did the old man have a cell phone? Craig wondered. He had lied before. He was certain the man had hit his alarm already, but there were no sirens drawing near, no sign of help.
Now, with no indication of panic or hurry, the man started filling the bag Scooter handed him with bills and jewelry.
“We got it all. Let’s go,” Craig said.
“You go,” Quintin said. “Get in the driver’s seat and wait for us. And don’t fuck up.”
“Let’s all get the hell out of here,” Craig said. “Come on. You’ve got what you came for.”
“Wuss.” Quintin sniffed. “Or worse.”
“What do you mean, worse?” Scooter asked.
“I’m no cop. I just don’t want to do life over a couple of lousy bracelets,” Craig said, but he felt a bead of sweat on his upper lip. Quintin was one scary SOB. His eyes were like glass. No emotion, empathy or remorse lay anywhere behind that stare.
“The old guy’s seen our faces, and thanks to Scooter—” he shot the man a scathing glance “—he knows where we’re going,” Quintin said.
“And he’s probably legally blind and totally deaf,” Craig argued.
“I’m not taking that chance,” Quintin said harshly.
“And I’m not going to be party to murder,” Craig said and turned to appeal to the other man. “Scooter, you’re an idiot if you listen to this thug,” he said. “We’ll all get locked away forever for murder, and I’m not as old as you guys. I don’t want to spend the next fifty years without a woman.”
Quintin started to laugh. “Don’t worry about it, kid. They lock up people like Martha Stewart. Killers, hell, they get to walk away free. Crazy, isn’t it?”
“Craig...we gotta do what Quintin says,” Scooter insisted.
“Even if what he says is stupid?” Craig asked.
“Fuck you,” Quintin said, casually pulling out a gun. “Keep talking like that and you won’t have to worry about jail.”
Craig assessed his situation. No question it was dire. He was probably in the best shape of his life, and he was the youngest of the three of them. In a fair fight, he could probably take out Quintin, no matter that the man was an ape. But there were two of them. And it wasn’t going to be a fair fight. Because they had guns. With bullets.
There would never be a fair fight with Quintin.
He turned to plead with Scooter again, but he was too late. Quintin, moving faster than Craig would have thought possible for a man his size, cracked Craig on the head with the butt of his gun.
Craig literally saw stars, and then the world went black.
As he sank to the ground, he heard the deafening sound of an explosion.
The blast of a gun...
He’d screwed up.
What a great, last thought to have—and on Christmas Eve.
As he sank into unconsciousness, he was certain he could hear the familiar refrain of a Christmas carol.
Oh, tidings of comfort and joy.
The stereo was on, playing songs of Christmas cheer. Skyler O’Boyle took a moment to listen to a woman with a high, clear voice who was singing, “Sleigh bells ring, are you lis’nin’...”
Then, even over the music and from her place in the kitchen, she heard the yelling.
“I said hold it. Hold the tree!”
Christmas. Home for the holidays, merry, merry, ho, ho, ho, family love, world peace.
In her family? Yeah, right.
The expected answer came, and the voice was just as loud. “I am holding it,” her eldest son insisted.
“Straight, dammit, Frazier. Hold it straight,” her husband, David, snapped irritably.
In her mind’s eye, Skyler could see them, David on the floor, trying to wedge the tree into the stand, and Frazier, standing, trying to hold the tree straight. That was what happened when you decided “home for the holidays” meant everyone gathering in the old family house out in the country. It meant throwing everything together at the last possible moment, because everyone had to juggle their school and work schedules with their holiday vacation.
“The frigging needles are poking my eyes. This is the best I can do,” Frazier complained in what sounded suspiciously like a growl.
His tone was sure to aggravate his father, she thought.
Some people got Christmas cheer; she got David and Frazier fighting over the tree.
Where the hell had the spirit of the season gone, at least in her family? Actually, if she wanted to get philosophical, where had the spirit of the season gone in a large part of the known world? There were no real Norman Rockwell paintings. People walked by the Salvation Army volunteers without a glance; it seemed as if the only reason anyone put money in the kettle was that they were burdened by so much change that it was actually too heavy for comfort. Then they beat each other up over the latest electronic toy to hit the market.
“It’s nowhere near straight,” David roared.
“Put up your own fucking tree, then,” Frazier shouted.
“Son of a bitch...” David swore.
“...walkin’ in a winter wonderland.”
Please, God, Skyler prayed silently, don’t let my husband and my son come to blows on Christmas Eve.
“Hey, Kat, you there?”
Great, Skyler thought. Now David was getting their daughter involved.
“Yeah, Dad, I’m here. But I can’t hold that tree any straighter. And I hope Brenda didn’t hear you two yelling,” Kat said.
Skyler headed out toward the living room, ready to head off a major family disaster, and paused just out of sight in the hall.
Had she been wrong? Should she have told her son he shouldn’t bring Brenda home for the holidays? He’d turned twenty-two. He could have told her that he wasn’t coming home, in that case, and was going to spend the holidays with Brenda’s family. And then she would have been without her first-born child. Of course, that was going to happen somewhere along the line anyway; that was life. With the kids getting older, it was already hard to get the entire family together.
“Oh, so now I have to worry—in my own house—about offending the girl who came here to sleep with my son?” David complained.
David wasn’t a bad man, Skyler thought. He wasn’t even a bad father. But he had different ideas about what was proper and what wasn’t. They had been children themselves, really, when they had gotten married. She had been eighteen, and he had been nineteen. But even as desperately in love as they had been, there was no way either of them could have told their parents that they were going to live together.
Current mores might be much wiser, she reflected. Most of her generation seemed to be divorced.
“What century are you living in, Dad?” Frazier demanded. Apparently his train of thought was running alongside hers. “There’s nothing wrong with Brenda staying in my room. It’s not as if we don’t sleep together back at school. You should trust my judgment. And don’t go getting all ‘I’m so respectable, this girl better be golden.’ We’re not exactly royalty, Dad. We own a bar,” he finished dryly.
“We own a pub, a fine family place,” David snapped back irritably. “And what’s that supposed to mean, anyway? That pub is paying for college for both you and your sister.”
“I’m just saying that some people wouldn’t consider owning a bar the height of morality.”
“Morality?” David exploded. “We’ve never once been cited for underage drinking, and we’re known across the country for bringing the best in Celtic music to the States.”
“Dad, it’s all right,” Kat said soothingly. “And you...shut the hell up,” she said, and elbowed her brother in the ribs. “Both of you—play nice.”
Skyler held her breath as Frazier walked away and headed upstairs, probably to make sure his girlfriend hadn’t heard her name evoked in the family fight.
It was probably best. Her husband and son were always at each other’s throats, it seemed, while Kat was the family peacemaker, who could ease the toughest situation. She’d gone through her own period of teenage rebellion on the way to becoming an adult, and getting along with her had been hell for a while. But that was over, and now Kat was like Skyler’s miracle of optimism, beautiful and sweet. A dove of peace.
She wanted to think that she was a dove of peace herself, but she wasn’t and she knew it.
She was just a chicken. A chicken who hated harsh tones and the sounds of disagreement. Sometimes she was even a lying chicken, for the sake of keeping the peace.
But this was Christmas. She had to say something to David. He really shouldn’t be using that tone—not here, not now and not with Frazier.
Frazier just... He just wasn’t a child anymore. He didn’t always act like an adult, but that didn’t make him a child. David was far too quick to judge and to judge harshly, while she was too quick to let anything go, all for the sake of peace. There had been hundreds of times through the years when she should have stepped in, put her foot down. She’d failed. So how could she blame others now for doing what she’d always allowed them to do?
At last she stepped out of the shadows of the hallway and looked at the tree. “It’s lovely,” she said.
“It’s crooked,” David told her, his mouth set in a hard line.
“It’s fine,” she insisted softly.
“That’s what I say, Mom,” Kat said. She was twenty-two, as well, their second-born child and Frazier’s twin. She walked over to Skyler and set an arm around her mother’s shoulders. “I’ll get going on the lights.”
“I’ll get the lights up,” David said. “You can take it from there.”
Skyler looked at her daughter. Kat could still show her temper on occasion, but she could stand against her father with less friction than Frazier. Maybe the problem with David and Frazier was a testosterone thing, like in a pride of lions. There was only room for one alpha male.
But this was Christmas. Couldn’t they all get along? At least on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day? Other people counted their blessings; shouldn’t they do the same? They had three beautiful, healthy children: Jamie, their youngest son, was sixteen, and then there were the twins. None of them had ever been in serious trouble—just that one prank of Jamie’s, and that should be enough for anyone, shouldn’t it?
“Mom,” Kat said, “I’ll decorate. Anyone who wants to can just pitch in.”
David was already struggling with the lights, but he paused to look at Skyler for a moment. He still had the powerful look of a young man. His hair was thick and dark, with just a few strands of what she privately felt were a very dignified gray. She had been the one to pass on the rich red hair to her children, but the emerald-gold eyes that were so bewitching on Kat had come from her father.
Where have the years gone? she wondered, looking at him. He was still a good-looking and interesting man, but it was easy to forget that sometimes. And sometimes it was easy to wonder if being married wasn’t more a habit than a commitment of the heart.
Skyler winced. She loved her family. Desperately.
David cursed beneath his breath, then exploded. “They can put a man on the moon, but they can’t invent Christmas lights that don’t tangle and make you check every freaking bulb.”
“Dad, they do make lights where the whole string doesn’t go if one bulb is blown. Our lights are just old,” Kat explained patiently.
Skyler looked at her daughter, feeling a rush of emotion that threatened to become tears. She loved her children equally, but at this moment Kat seemed exceptionally precious. She was stunning, of course, with her long auburn hair. Tall and slim—though, like many young women, she was convinced she needed to take off ten pounds. Those eyes like gold-flecked emeralds. And she had an amazing head on her shoulders.
“Yeah, well...if we stayed in Boston and prepared for Christmas...” David muttered.
Not fair, she thought. He was the one who had found this place years ago and he’d fallen in love with it first. Once upon a time, they had come here often. The kids had loved to leave the city and drive the two hours out to the country. They never left the state, but they went from the sea to the mountains. And everyone loved it.
She realized why she had wanted to come here so badly. It was a way to keep her family around her. It was a way to make sure that if her son and his father got into a fight over the Christmas turkey, Frazier couldn’t just get up and drive off to a friend’s house. Was it wrong to cling so desperately to her children and her dream of family?
“Mom, need any help in the kitchen?” Kat asked. It was clearly going to be a while until the lights were up and she could start on the ornaments.
Skyler shook her head. “Actually, I’m fine. Everything is more or less ready. We’re going traditional Irish tonight—corned beef, bacon, cabbage and potatoes, and it’s all in one pot. We can eat soon. Tomorrow we’ll have turkey.”
“Want me to set the table while Dad argues with the lights?” Kat asked.
Skyler grinned. “See if you can help him argue with the lights, and I’ll set the table. We’ll just eat in the kitchen, where it’s warm and cozy.”
Kat smiled at her mother.
Skyler couldn’t have asked for a better daughter, she thought as she made her way back to the kitchen. They shared clothes and confidences, and she had learned not to worry every time her daughter drove away.
With her daughter here...
Skyler felt as if there were a chance for a Norman Rockwell Christmas after all.
Frazier came running down the stairs, followed by Brenda. They were an attractive couple, she had to admit. He was so tall, muscled without being bulky, with hair a deeper shade of red than his sister’s. And he, too, had his father’s eyes. Next to him, Brenda was tiny, delicate. And blond.
“Way too perfect,” Kat had told her mother teasingly, since she’d met Brenda first.
“You might want to turn on the TV and check the weather update,” Frazier said.
“That storm is getting worse,” Brenda added shyly.
“Really?” Skyler said, offering Brenda what she hoped was a welcoming smile. Not only was Brenda tiny and blond, her brilliant blue eyes made her look like a true little snow princess. Skyler had been relieved to learn that she was twenty-one. When she’d first met the young woman, she’d been terrified that Frazier had fallen for a teenager, but Brenda simply looked young because she was so petite. She tended to be shy, but she certainly seemed very sweet.
Okay, it would be nice if she talked a bit more to someone in the house other than Frazier, but really, what wasn’t to like about her?
David was too entangled in the lights to find the remote. Skyler saw it on a chair and flicked the TV on. A serious-looking anchorman was delivering a warning.
“We’re looking at major power outages, and despite the fact that it’s Christmas Eve, because the weather is already turning vicious, we suggest that anyone who may have medical or other difficulties in the event of a power loss get to a hospital or a shelter now. And everyone should be prepared, with candles and flashlights within reach.”
“Ah-ha!” David cried, and they all turned to stare at him.
He shrugged weakly. “Sorry. I untangled the lights.”
“Let’s get ’em up, and then let’s eat,” Skyler suggested cheerfully. “With luck we can finish before the power blows, and if it does, we can play Scrabble by candlelight or something.”
“Wretched weather,” Kat muttered, her attention turning back to the television. “Mom, Dad, why didn’t we buy a house on a Caribbean island?”
“We couldn’t afford a house on a Caribbean island,” David said, but he sounded a lot more cheerful than he had earlier. He hesitated, then said, “Frazier, will you grab that end?”
Frazier hesitated, as well, before saying, “Sure, Dad.”
“Good. You two deal with the lights, and I’ll get the food on the table,” Skyler said.
“Let’s get Mister Sixteen and Rebellious down here, too, huh?” Kat said. “He can give us a hand.”
“Good idea, and would you get Uncle Paddy, too?”
There was a short silence after she spoke. Perhaps she’d even imagined it, she thought.
David wasn’t thrilled about her uncle being there, she knew, and she was suddenly thankful that they’d both been born the children of Irish immigrants. He would never expect her to actually turn away a relative, even if he felt that Paddy was a drunk who deserved whatever he was suffering now. Which wasn’t really fair, she thought, but David was entitled to his opinion.
Often enough, Uncle Paddy was the real Irish entertainment at the pub. In his own way, of course.
Kat sprang to life, dispelling whatever awkwardness there might have been. She grinned and ran halfway up the stairs, then called, “Jamie! Jamie O’Boyle! Get your delinquent ass down here on the double. Uncle Paddy...dinner.”
“I could have yelled myself,” Skyler said.
“But you’d never have used such poetic language,” Kat said, and even David laughed.
The first thing Craig realized when he came to was that his head was killing him.
Quintin packed one hell of a wallop.
He didn’t know how long he’d been out, didn’t know how far they had come. All he knew was that even from where he lay, tossed into the backseat of their stolen vehicle, when he first cracked his eyes open it looked like the whole world had turned white.
He closed his eyes again, waited a long moment, then reopened them. The world was still white. It was snow, and not just snow, but fiercely blowing snow. Hell. It was a nor’easter and a mean one. A blizzard.
He ached all over and wondered if anything in his body was broken.
And what about the old man they had robbed?
His stomach tightened painfully when he caught sight of a familiar stand of trees and realized he knew exactly where they were. For a moment, memories filled his mind and drove away the pain, and then every muscle in his body tensed in an effort at self-preservation, as the car suddenly spun and came to a violent halt in a snowdrift.
“Asshole!” Quintin shouted from the front seat.
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