Jack Banning promised to support the mother of his unborn child But she doesn't need money, she only needs him.
Callie Banning's student has declared war on Christmas, so it's up to her to help the little girland her widowed fatherbelieve again.
Gina Vernay is about to meet her online mystery date and she's in for the surprise of a lifetime!
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About the Author
USA Today and national bestselling author Anna J Stewart can't remember a time she didn't have a book in her hands or a story in her head. Early obsessions with Star Wars, Star Trek, and Wonder Woman set her on the path to creating sweet to sexy pulse-pounding romances for her independent heroines. Anna lives in Northern California where she deals with a serious Supernatural addiction and an overly affectionate cat named Snickers.
Melinda grew up on an isolated sheep ranch, where mountain lions had been seen and yet she roamed unaccompanied. Being a rather optimistic, clueless of danger, sort she took to playing "what if" games that led her to become an author. She spends days trying to figure out new ways to say "He made her heart pound." That might sound boring, but the challenge keeps her mentally ahead of her 3 kids and college sweetheart husband.
Read an Excerpt
Snowflakes hit the windshield and splayed into star shapes while Bing Crosby crooned his dreams of a white Christmas. Sophie Palmer tried to sing along, but her mind was already racing up the icy interstate to Christmas Town, Maine, where the father of her unborn child now lived.
That Charlie Brown Christmas song came next, with talk of happiness and cheer and families drawing near. Sophie stared at the road, as frozen as the world she was driving into. The closer to Christmas Town she got, the more humiliated she felt.
But she wasn't going to ask Jack Banning to love her again. He'd rejected her and their childlove wasn't a possibility.
She dropped one hand to her slightly rounded belly. "You deserve better. You deserve the chance to have a father, if he can remember he's a decent man."
Overhead, a sign warned that the exit for Christmas Town was a quarter mile ahead.
Time to embark on possibly the most foolish fool's errand of all time.
She veered off at the exit, pausing to yield, and then turned onto a two-lane road bounded by primeval forest.
Another car was coming toward her, but it shimmied in its lane, as if the driver was asleep. Sophie slid her foot to the brake and lowered her speed, edging to the right, but the other car seemed to follow. It crossed the line. And sped up.
Sophie slapped at the steering wheel to find the horn. She hugged the edge of the road, screaming at the oncoming driver as she tried to stay out of the ditch.
Time yawned as the driver's face came into focus. A young womanlooking up from her phone. Her face screwed up in horror, and Sophie realized she would see that woman's expression in nightmares for the rest of her life.
The little blue car swung away, rocking, but then skidded back as the driver tried to steady it.
In the time it took to gasp, Sophie hoped they would have a near miss. Then the back of the girl's car smacked the front of hers, and they spun away from each other.
That quickly, it was over, and Sophie found herself staring up at snow-covered trees. While the clash of metal echoed in her ears, Nat King Cole's "Christmas Song" made the silence surreal. Sophie whipped off her seat belt and splayed her hands across her stomach.
Nothing. She felt nothing.
At eighteen weeks, she might not. The baby was small. She still had plenty of cushion. Her unborn daughter might be okay. Everything might be okay.
Sophie looked back at the other car.
Everything was not okay.
The girl's vehicle was on its side in a spray of snow. The teen lay on her back, spilled onto the road, denim-covered legs out straight, hair splayed across the car's skid marks.
Sophie tried to open her door, but it wouldn't budge. She shoved as hard as she could and then tried the other side, which also refused to open.
She tugged at the bottom of her coat until she could pull it over her head, and then leaned against the console and kicked the driver's window with all her strength. Two kicks and it crashed through, hanging on to the door by a corner, all in one jagged-edged piece.
Sophie slithered through, careful to avoid the glass, and hit the ground, taking her weight on her hands. Pain shot through her wrists to her fingers and up her arms. Ignoring it, she leaned back inside for her phone, tucked away in the console.
Punching 911, she ran the thirty-forty steps to kneel beside the young woman.
"Christmas County Emergency Services. How may I"
"I'm putting you on speaker." Sophie tossed her coat over the girl's torso. "I've just been in a car accident. We're east of the Christmas Town exit, not even a mile. I have a female in her late teens, ejected from her vehicle, probable broken arm. Unconscious. Probable broken right leg. She's got a gash on the head, just beneath her temple. Thready pulse."
"What's your name, ma'am?"
"Sophie Palmer. I'm easing her arm out from under her body"
"Don't move her, Sophie."
"I'm an E.R. trauma nurse. I think she's lacerated an artery." Sophie recognized her own growing shock in the wave of nausea that surged through her as she assessed the gaping wound on the young woman's upper arm. She whipped off her cotton shirt and tore it with adrenaline-fueled strength. "I'm applying a tourniquet," she said, shivering in her tank top.
"We're sending a helicopter," the operator said. "Is she breathing?"
"Yes. Low and fast." Drops of blood had appeared on the teen's chin. "She has a Oh." It wasn't the girl's blood. Sophie didn't dare stop winding the shirt to check her own injury.
No pain in her abdomen. My baby girl. Eighteen weeks. Plenty of cushion.
"Are you hurt?"
"Some pain in my wrists, and I have a laceration somewhere on my head or face. I'm eighteen weeks pregnant, but I don't think I'm bleeding, and I have no abdominal pain. Please hurry."
"They're lifting off. Shouldn't be more than five minutes."
The girl struggled as if she were trying to breathe, and thennothing. Sophie felt for a pulse with shaking fingers. "She's stopped breathing. I'm starting CPR."
She began compressions, while her wrists screamed for her to stop. The operator's voice went on in the background, but Sophie barely heard.
This girl had left some other mom's home this morning, with her whole life just waiting to be lived. She'd be going back if sheer force could make her breathe again.
Tears leaked from Sophie's eyes.
A new sound made her want to look up. The whir of blades. So many times Sophie had waited on the landing pad in Boston, but today would be different. Her own baby and this girl were both going to live.
Chaos descended. The helicopter landed close enough to lift her hair and the teen's. Papers fluttered past. One, titled "Biology," imprinted itself on Sophie's eyes. The girl's Christmas break assignment.
Feet appeared around them. One crushed her phone on the road. A pair of legs in dark blue uniform pants eased her out of the way.
Someone else helped her stand, but she felt as fluid as water. The EMT supported her when she began slipping back to the ground.
"Are you in pain?" He looked younger than the girl she'd been helping.
"A little in my wrists but I don't think they're even sprained."
He tilted her chin up with his finger and then pushed her hair out of the way. "You have a small laceration." Producing an alcohol wipe, he cleaned it.
A nurse in a flight suit applied a cervical collar to the patient, while the first EMT was still doing compressions. Sophie watched his hands, stronger than hers.
Sophie slid her arms around her stomach. "I'm pregnant," she said. "Eighteen weeks."
The EMT helped her to sit down on the road, out of the way of the others.
The man's colleague, still working on the girl, looked back. "I have a pulse. Let's get her in the chopper." He helped the others strap their patient to a backboard.
Sophie's EMT touched her arm. "An ambulance is on the way for you. She'll be fine. Are you bleeding?"
Sophie shivered as the cold cut into her. "I don't think so."
"How hard did you strike your head?"
"I'm not sure."
"We'll check for concussion at the hospital. For now, follow my finger." She did. "How old are you?"
"Where do you live?" he asked. "Street address?"
"Nine-ten East Portland Street in Boston."
"Good enough. Can we call your husband? I think I stepped on your phone."
Jack's face, expressionless, flashed in front of her. She tried to breathe. "No husband. No one to call." She stared across the road at the pieces of glass and plastic and a hot-pink phone cover, instead of looking into her own thoughts.
With any luck, Jack wouldn't be on duty today.
Jack Banning met the chopper, where the patient had gone into arrest for the second time from loss of blood. After the crew resuscitated her, he took a report from the flight's RN. Running beside his patient's gurney toward the E.R. entrance, he was forced to veer out of the way of an incoming ambulance.
When the doors opened, he saw Sophie.
It wasn't really her, of course. Since he'd left Boston, Jack had seen her face everywhere he went. Guilt, he figured.
Not that guilt would change his mind.
Sophie would have to accept his financial assistance and hope a better man came into her life.
Jack looked back at his patient, assessing on the fly. He couldn't help glancing at the ambulance.
It was still Sophie.
Staring at him, white with shock, blank. Nausea hit him so hard he was almost sick on the cement. He took deep breaths that didn't provide nearly enough oxygen.
Was she hurt? And her baby He didn't let himself think of the child. Another doctor would take care of Sophie and theherbaby. What was she doing here?
"Dr. Banning." The trauma nurse assigned to his team spoke his name. No one ever had to focus him, and she sounded alarmed.
Sophie had come after him when he'd rejected her and the babyit was completely out of character. He pushed thoughts of her aside, clearing his mind and hardening his heart.
Emotionless, capable, in charge, he knew what to do next.
"O.R. Two is waiting for us."
"Your baby looks great." Dr. Everly glanced up from the ultrasound, where Sophie's unborn daughter appeared to be practicing for a future in Olympic diving. "Your blood pressure and pulse are a little elevated."
"Natural, considering I was just in an accident."
"And you're bruised. I'd like you to stick around town for a few days. Were you headed home for the holidays?"
Relief helped to calm Sophie. Dr. Everly wasn't worried about the baby if she was going to let her leave the hospital. "I'm visiting."
Sophie tried to wipe away the tears she couldn't hold back. Who knew if they were tears of joy or sadness? All this time, she'd been stunned at Jack's sudden exit from her life. She'd been unable to believe the man who worked miracles in the operating room could be so cold to a woman he'd professed to love, who'd loved him.
"Stop worrying." The doctor squeezed her shoulder. "I wouldn't lie to you, and someone told me you're an E.R. nurse. You'd know if you were in trouble."
"I'm happy." Happy didn't exactly describe everything she was feeling. She pulled the sheet up to her chin. The doctor whisked a tissue out of a box on the counter and passed it to her before reaching for the switch on the ultrasound machine. Sophie caught her wrist. "Could I listen for a few more minutes?"
"No problem. Where are you staying?"
"I have a reservation at a B and B. Esther's House?"
"Esther is an old friend of mine. She'll send someone to pick you up." The doctor began inputting notes on her tablet at the counter. "Is your car drivable?"
Shrugging, Sophie discovered her muscles were as tender as if she'd thrown herself into a blender. "I don't even know what happened to it. An EMT told me the tow truck driver would be in touch with a bill."
Dr. Everly smiled ruefully. "My brother-in-law owns a body shop. I'll see if they towed it to him. They might have impounded it, but impound at the police station consists of the two farthest spaces in their lot." She made a note on the palm of her hand with her pen, but then looked up. "I'll ask him to let you know if he has the car."
After a quick grasp of Sophie's hand, she went to the door. "I'll call Esther's to check in with you later tonight. Unless you'd rather stay in one of our fine rooms?"
"Not a chance." Forcing a smile, when she was still fighting the urge to cry, Sophie swallowed hard. Naturally, she was emotional. Her baby had survived that crash. Sophie was a walking cesspool of hormones, and the man she'd been driving for hours to see had just looked at her as if they'd never met.
A fatherless daughter herself, she'd believed her child had a right to know her dad. Maybe she'd been mistaken.
"Why don't you get dressed?" Dr. Everly suggested. "Esther's car will be here by the time we discharge you."
"Thank you, Dr. Everly."
"Georgette. And that young lady in surgery should be thanking you. Word around the landing pad is you saved her life."
Jack's sharp features swam in front of Sophie's eyes. Thank goodness the ultrasound only measured the baby's heartbeat.
She pulled herself together. Coming here might have been an impulse she'd live to regret, but she could leave at any time. "My shirt got torn." She plucked at the neck of her borrowed scrub top. "Do you think I can wear this out of here? I'll wash it and return it after I get home."
"No problem. I'm sure you can keep it." The other woman opened the door, but then turned back. "Sophie, do you have anything else on your mind?"
She pressed her palms to her stomach, ignoring the slight tenderness in her wrists as she took consolation from the rapid heartbeat echoing in the small room. "No."
"Call me if you have any problems. I'll have your nurse put my cell number on your discharge instructions."
Tessie's surgery was a success. No problems. Nothing unexpected. Jack explained to her parents that their daughter would live to celebrate many more Christ-mases if they confiscated her phone. They went to see her, and he was left alone. Taking a deep breath, he tried to figure out what to do about Sophie.
Coming out of that ambulance wrapped in a blanket, she'd been pale with terror. The physician who'd taken oaths to help the sick and injured wanted to go to her.
The man, who knew what he had to do, didn't want to get near her. She was the last person Jack had expected. Proud and strong and self-contained, Sophie would never chase a man who'd rejected her.
So what was she doing here?
He went back to the E.R. and checked the board to see if she was listed as a patient. Oddly, in the computer age, Christmas Town's hospital still used a whiteboard. It was large, easy to read, easy to update.
He found the palest outline of "Sop" where someone hadn't completely erased her name after she was discharged. The pregnancy meant that Georgette Everly would have been her attending unless Sophie had come to Maine to tell him she'd lost the baby.
She could have lost the baby in the accident.
Georgette opened the door of a treatment room almost directly across from where he stood at the nurses' station. With her eyes on her tablet, she was already moving on to the next room.
Jack headed for the doctors' lounge.
He showered and dressed in jeans and a blue button-down shirt, then grabbed his coat from his locker before heading for the E.R. exit.
Georgette was leaning on one elbow at the nurses' station, making notes. She looked up with a smile. "I heard your surgery went well."
In no small part because Sophie had treated the girl while she was still lying on the road.
"Tessie Blaylock's fine." Jack should walk on. He should make sure he knew nothing about Sophie or the child. He didn't want to ask, but the words came out of his mouth. "How's your patient?"
"She's good. Eighteen weeks pregnant, and the baby has a strong heartbeat. Lots of movement. Lucky for Tessie, she hit an E.R. nurse with trauma experience."
"Are you keeping her overnight?"
"She's staying at Esther's House. I called to have someone look in on her before bedtime, but I'll phone her, too."