Read an Excerpt
"Ho! Ho! Ho! What good skaters you are!"
Shannon Duffy smiled a little at what she saw and heard in the distance when she got out of her car.
After a long drive from Billings, she'd just arrived in the small town of Northbridge, Montana. At the end of Main Street, she'd spotted a parking space near the town square and pulled into it so she could get out and stretch for a minute.
Not far from the parking area was an open-air ice skating rink and it was there that a group of preschool-age children were apparently being taughtby Santa Claushow to skate. Or at least they were being taught by a man dressed in a Santa suit, using the ho-ho-hos to encourage them.
Christmas was a little more than a week away and Shannon was anything but sorry to have it herald the close of the past year. It had been a rough year for her.
But as she breathed in the cold, clear air of the country town, as she watched the joy of kids slip-sliding around the ice rink that was surrounded by a pine-bough-and-red-ribbon-adorned railing, she was glad she'd come. She already felt just a tiny bit less disconnected than she had, just a tiny bit less alone, almost as if the small town her late grandmother had loved was holding out its arms to welcome her.
Shannon had suffered three losses this year. Four, if she counted Wes.
She'd lost her dad at the beginning of January, and her mom just three months after that. Their deaths hadn't come as a surprise; both of her parents had been ill most of their lives. But when, in August, her grandmother had suddenly and unexpectedly had a heart attack and died, too, that had been a shock. And it had meant that her entire family was gone in just a matter of months.
Then her relationship with Wes Rumson had ended on top of it all..
But now her trip to Northbridge was twofold. Primarily, she was there to attend the wedding of and spend the holiday with the people she'd come to think of as her New Wave of family.
Two months earlier she'd been contacted by a man named Chase Mackey. Out of the blue he'd made the announcement that he was one of three brothers and a sister she'd been separated from when she was barely eighteen months old, when they'd lost their parents to a car accident andwith no other familyhad been put into the system and up for adoption.
Shannon had known that she was adopted. She just hadn't knownbefore Chase Mackey's callthat she had biological siblings out in the world.
And not even too far out in the world at that since Chase Mackey had been calling her from Northbridge where her grandmother had lived and owned the small farm that Shannon had inherited at the end of the summer.
The farm was the second reason she was in North-bridge. Today she was to attend the closing on the sale of the property that she had no inclination to keep.
"Ooh, Tim! You okay?"
One of the little boy skaters had fallen soundly on his rump and Shannon heard Santa's question as she watched him race impressively to the child, clearly not inhibited by the bulky red suit and what was obviously padding around his middle.
Tim was a trouper, though. He fought the tears that his puffed-out lower lip threatened, let Santa help him up and get him steadied on his feet again. Then, casting nothing but a glance in the direction of the adults who looked on from the sidelines, the child let Santa ease him back to the group without making a bigger deal of the fall than it had called for.
Shannon silently approved of how the whole thing had played out.
Not that she had any reason to approve or disapprove, it was just that she was missing her job and some of that kicked in as she watched the scene.
She'd taught kindergarten since she'd graduated from college. It was a job she loved, but she was currently on sabbatical. Her grandmother's death had just been one blow too many and she'd needed to take some time.
It was a job she loved but might not be going back to. At least not exactly the way she'd done it before, not if she accepted her old friend's offer and moved to Beverly Hills instead..
But that possibility was in the mulling stages and for the next week and two days she was just going to get to know her new brother, and her new nephew, and try to enjoy this first holiday without the only family she'd ever known.
She looked away from Santa and the skaters and took her cell phone from her coat pocket. She'd lost service just before getting to Northbridge and she wondered if she was back within range or if she was going to have a problem while she was here.
No problem, she had service again.
And a message.
The message was from Wes's secretary, informing her that Wes wanted to know when she arrived safely at her destination.
Shannon appreciated the concern the same way she'd appreciated it when Wes had inquired about her plans for the holidays to make sure she wasn't spending them alone.
But merely the fact that it was Wes's secretary calling now rather than Wes himself was a glaring reminder of why she'd turned down the proposal of the man she'd been involved with for the last three years.
Wes Rumson. The Hope-For-The-Future of the Rum-son family political machine that had provided a long history of Montana's district attorneys, senators, representatives, mayors and nowif Wes's campaign was successfula governor.
The man who would have definitely provided her with the bigger life she'd always wanted, always dreamed of having. If she'd just said yes to his on-camera proposal.
But she hadn't. Regardless of how it had appeared, she hadn't. She'd said no.
Of course the general public didn't know that yet, only a select few insiders did. But still, she'd said no.
And she wasn't going to call and talk to Wes's secretary now, so she sent only a text message that yes, she had arrived safely in Northbridge. Then she added a cheery Merry Christmas!
Maybe just being near a jolly old Saint Nick was giving her some much-needed Christmas spirit.
Although when she returned her phone to the pocket of the knee-length navy blue wool coat she was wearing, and glanced at the skating teacher again, it struck her that this particular Saint Nick wasn't old at all. That behind the fake beard and mustache, under the red hat that he wore at a jaunty angle, was a much younger man with broad shoulders and impressively muscled legs that powered those skates expertly.
No, he was definitely not old. He was fit and trim and strong and
And she didn't know what she was doing standing there ogling him. Especially when she knew she should be on her way.
Taking one more deep breath of the clear air and a last glance at the snow-covered town square, at the festively decorated octagonal-shaped gazebo at its center, and finally at the tiny skaters enthralled with the somehow-sexy-seeming Santa, Shannon got back into her sedan.
The fact that she would be seeing her new brother again made her want to make sure she didn't look too much the worse for wear from the drive, so she pulled down the visor above her and peered into the mirror on the underside of it.
She'd tied back her long, dark, walnut-colored hair into a ponytail in order to keep it neat. The plan had been a success because it looked the same as it had that morning. She wasn't sure she liked the new mascara she'd used to accentuate her blue-green eyes, but at least it had stayed on. So had the blush that dusted her cheekbones to add some pink to her pale skin and give her oval face some definition. But her glossy lipstick needed refreshing so she took the tube from her purse and did that.
Otherwise, she decided she was presentable enough to meet Chase Mackey where he lived with Hadleythe woman he was marrying on Saturday.
Take a left on South Street. Pass three mailboxes outside of town. Turn right at the fourth.
Shannon read her directions again to make sure she had the number of mailboxes correct.
She'd met Chase twice since he'd made contact with her, but he'd come to Billings each of those timesmuch the way her grandmother had over the years. This was Shannon's first trip to Northbridge since she was barely twelve.
According to Chase, he and his business partner Logan McKendrick had bought a section of an old farm that they had converted to meet their private and business needs. Logan lived in the original farmhouse. There was work space and a showroom for Mackey and McKendrick Furniture Designs as well as a loft where Chase lived, and a separate apartment he'd offered to Shannon for the holidays. So she wouldn't merely be visiting her newfound brother and the woman who would be his bride, she would apparently also be having a lot of contact with Logan and his family.
And with her nephew, Cody.
Cody was the fifteen-month-old son of Shannon and Chase's oldest sister. The death of Cody's mother was the reason Chase was now raising Cody, and what had revealed the far-reaching family ties that had brought Shannon and Chase together. Chase had brought the baby on both trips to Billings so Shannon had had the opportunity to meet the adorable baby and she couldn't wait to see him again.
She flipped the visor back up, and when she did she saw that the skating lesson had apparently ended because Santa and his not-quite-elves were all taking off their skates.
Thinking to leave before the parking lot got busy, Shannon buckled her seat belt and turned the key in the ignition.
Click, click, click. Nothing.
"How can that be, you just got me all the way to Northbridge?" she said to the thirteen-year-old car as she tried again.
But the same thing happeneda few clicks and nothing.
Not that time, not the next time, not the fourth time. The car just wouldn't start again.
And the only thing Shannon knew about a car was how to drive it.
"Great," she muttered.
As if something might have changed in the few minutes since she'd tried, she tried again, just as Santa was headed in her direction.
Still the engine wouldn't turn over. And then there Santa was, at the window right beside her, bent over so that a pair of thick-lashed, smoldering, coal-black eyes could peer in at her.
He'd tied his black ice skates together by their laces and was wearing them slung over one shoulder as if having them there was second nature to him. The beard remained in place, but even from what she could see of his face she knew she'd been right in thinking that he wasn't old Saint Nick. The man appeared to be about her own age.
Shannon rolled down the window. "It won't start. There was no problem when I drove in. I stopped for two minutes and now it won't start again."
"Pop the hood and let me take a look," he suggested in a deep, deep voice.
Shannon had no idea if her roadside service could provide a rescue all the way in Northbridge, so this seemed like the next best thing. She pulled the lever that unlocked the hood and then got out of the car to join Santa in front of it.
He was tall. Of course he'd seemed tall compared to the kids who had surrounded him in the distance minutes earlier, but when Shannon stepped up beside him, she was surprised by just how tall he wasover six feet to her five-four. He was also much more massively muscled within that Santa suit than she'd realized.
And she had no idea why she was taking note of things like that.
He slipped his skates off his shoulder and set them on the ground. Then he found the latch that still held down the hood, released it and raised the heavy front cover of her car to expose the engine.
Shannon looked at it along with him even though she didn't have the foggiest idea what they were looking for.
"Your battery is new so it isn't that, and a jump won't get you going."
Oh, the wicked places her mind wandered to when he said that!