All podcaster “Cheery Charlee” Ridgeway wants for Christmas is to land her one-millionth follower. But first, she needs a really good story. Amid hundreds of submissions, one stands out: a plea from Cape Sunset, a small fishing village that hasn’t celebrated Christmas since Jack Fortner lost his fiancée four years ago.
It’s the perfect pitch, but who knew Jack would be such a downright Grinch—or so heart-stoppingly handsome?
Jack’s comfortable crab-fisherman routine is shaken when Charlee blows into town with bells on. It’s not long before the pretty podcaster is breathing new life into Cape Sunset, captivating everyone—including Jack, who’s feeling things for Charlee he once thought he’d never feel again. Not that he shows it.
Despite Jack bah-humbugging her every move, the show must go on. But the closer Charlee gets to Jack, the more growing her audience is the furthest thing from her mind. Thankfully, Jack has a few surprises waiting under the tree…including a love that will last a lifetime.
This book is approximately 70,000 words
One-click with confidence. This title is part of the Carina Press Romance Promise: all the romance you’re looking for with an HEA/HFN. It’s a promise!
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About the Author
After studying dolphins and sharks, she earned a Ph.D. in Biostatistics and wrote her first novel. Creative writing served as an escape from technical writing and all things adulting.
Mary loves incorporating her science background into her fiction. She resides in Tennessee with her husband and three children. For more, visit maryshotwell.com.
Read an Excerpt
Monday, December 7
"I'd like to thank all my guests this evening, especially Dr. Ambrosia. It's always a pleasure to hear how the simple things we do in a day, like keep a gratitude journal, can invoke a positive response in our mental and physical health."
Charlee Ridgeway closed the fluffy gray sweater jacket tight around her chest. Her recording studio was permanently cold, despite Atlanta's stuffiness.
"And remember, there are only a few days left to get in your submissions to the Cheery Christmas Contest. All contest rules are up on my website, cheerycharlee.com. Many of you doubt I can top last year's hurricane-stricken Gulf Coast home rebuild, but just you wait! This is Cheery Charlee. As always, new podcasts are posted on Tuesday nights. Until next Tuesday, stay cheery."
Charlee pulled off the headphones, the metal bracket on the right speaker holding her curls hostage.
Her audio editor, Vanessa Herivaux, walked into the recording room wearing a ribbed tank top and A-line skirt. Her dark silken skin and tall stature made Charlee feel even paler and shorter. "Another great one."
"A little help," Charlee said.
Vanessa untangled Charlee's hair off the headphones. "I don't know why you insist on wearing these huge things."
"Earbuds hurt after a while. Besides." She stood up from the swivel chair. "It drowns out all your tapping on the window."
Vanessa leaned against the recording booth's desk. "If you would stay on target with time, I wouldn't have to tap." Her Haitian Creole accent thickened whenever she grew angry, even after living most of her life in Georgia.
"But that's why I have you." Charlee placed her hand on Vanessa's shoulder. "The whole point of being a production editor is to edit."
"Yes, as in add cheerful background and smooth transitions to elevate Cheery Charlee's cheerfulness. Not filter out half the show in our twenty-four hour window before broadcast."
"I love you." Charlee stretched her grin as far as it could go and spread her arms out for a hug.
Vanessa obliged. "You'd better stop before I melt. Or you do."
Charlee let go and unraveled her layers, taking off the sweater jacket and turtleneck and hanging them over her swivel chair.
"Is all that really necessary?" Vanessa said.
"You try sitting in here for hours. It's freezing."
Vanessa shook her head with a smile. "No thanks."
Located in midtown Atlanta near Ansley Park, the studio was a major upgrade from where they had started out. It didn't take much to be better than the sixth floor of a college dormitory lacking central air. Now Cheery Charlee Productions was at home in an old studio between two larger modern buildings. The original brickwork formed the two shared walls, and tinted windows in the front kept sunlight to a minimum. It made for a cool workspace, in stark contrast to the literal sweat they had poured into starting up the podcast.
Charlee placed her hands on her hips. "Lunch?"
"Charlee," Vanessa said. "Your production editor has to edit. Sometimes I think it would be easier to be behind the microphone."
"You hate speaking in public, even when it's behind the mic in a private office."
"And heavily edited, if the editor had a chance to do so."
Charlee scoffed, brushing off the friendly jab. It took some level of guts to have her voice out in the world, even if the mistakes and ramblings were flawlessly omitted, thanks to Vanessa. "I didn't go over too much, did I?"
"You really want me to answer that?"
"Nope. But you have to eat at some point. My treat."
"Okay, now you're talking."
They left the recording room and grabbed their purses. The bright Atlanta midday sun shocked Charlee's eyes. She walked with Vanessa along the sidewalk of Peachtree Avenue, its broad road busy with lunch traffic. Although Atlanta served as Charlee's home base, she spent most of the year traveling the country for on-location broadcasts. The city was loud, hot and crowded, and was only getting worse over time with traffic, all of which made it even more tempting to pack up and head off to somewhere new. When she was in town, she spent most of her time in the same square mile corner of Midtown.
"Usual food court?" Charlee said.
"Sounds good to me."
The food court was fast but also the best way for them to agree on anything. Vanessa was not just Charlee's editor but her best friend too, and they couldn't be more opposite. Their differences weren't just superficial. They disagreed on food, music, clothes, men. But they had shared Barbies as neighbors and never looked back. Nobody knew Charlee like Vanessa.
"So." Vanessa set down her tray of stir-fry. "How does it feel to be so close to one million subscribers? You realize you're going to hit that mark before your twenty-fifth birthday, right?"
Charlee smiled with her mouth full of pasta. She wiped her face and took a drink. "It is crazy. Can you believe it? Over two years of shows. One hundred podcasts."
"One hundred and nine, if you're including the one you just finished," said Vanessa.
"This year's contest should put me over the top."
"Which, by the way, you need to decide on ASAP."
"I know, I know." She took a bite of meatball.
"What's the matter? You love the contest."
"I just haven't been ... inspired yet by any of the entries. Nothing is giving me that spark of energy and creativity." It was beyond worrisome now. Not only was the deadline drawing near, but she hadn't hit a block like this before. With so many podcasts under her belt, she was bound to reach a stagnant point. But that wasn't supposed to happen until the ten or fifteen year mark. She hadn't even reached five years. The anxiety gnawed at her, deep in her stomach.
"You put a lot of pressure on yourself," Vanessa said. "It's okay to sit this one out if you want. I can edit a 'best of' podcast to highlight the past year's most inspirational and positive moments. Then you wouldn't have to worry and you could finally spend Christmas with my family."
"Thank you, really."
"You know they love you, all five feet three inches. You're part of the family, Charlee. Or close to it." Her up-to-something smile grew across her face. "My brother is going to be there."
"Vanessa." Charlee shook her head.
"He tries, God bless him. Every time I talk to him he asks about you, and I confirm you're single. Unless you're not telling me something." She pointed her fork at Charlee.
"What? No. You know I tell you everything. You're the only person I do tell things to."
"Okay, okay. Well, if not for a possible romance with my brother, then do it for yourself. When's the last time you spent the holidays with family and friends?" "The last time I had a family." Charlee set her fork down on her plate. "The year my mom died."
"That was five years ago," Vanessa said. "I don't mean to rush you, but come on, Charlee. You stayed cooped up on campus at Christmas in graduate school, and the last two years you went across the country for the contest. Maybe this year you should actually celebrate it, with your people."
"Yes. Believe it or not, you have people. Like me and my family. I'll invite the Cheery Charlee assistants over too. It'll be a big get-together."
"Our assistants don't even want to leave their homes to work in the office."
"That's because you said they could work virtually."
"That's not the point. Just because we're not blood doesn't mean we're not your people."
Charlee sighed. Vanessa's efforts were charming but didn't overcome the pressures of sustaining and growing a business. "I can't do that to my listeners. Not now. They're expecting bigger and better. And reaching a million subscribers would be great news for the both of us. I don't want to let you down, and I can't let our audience down."
"Your audience. I'm just in it for the food."
Charlee's resolve broke and she laughed. They finished their meals as the noon lunch crowd grew. The food court would be depleted of empty tables and oxygen for talking, with the noise level rising to intolerable. Time to return to work. They walked the busy sidewalks toward the studio. The heat brought Charlee to a near sweat, but the studio quickly chilled her back to her usual popsicle body temperature.
Vanessa clapped her hands. "Now how about we check up on the latest submissions? Several came in while you were recording."
Charlee let Vanessa's eager optimism propel her along, but by twenty seconds in, she knew her answer.
"So please, please, please, Cheery Charlee, pick me — I mean, my boyfriend, Nathan." A twenty-something flipped her hair one last time over her shoulder, her neon yellow tank top strap accentuating her spray tan. "Surprising him with a visit on Christmas morning would make his holiday!" Judging from the background, Charlee guessed the video had been shot in front of a closet devoted to a designer shoe collection.
Charlee switched her gaze from the computer to Vanessa, who hovered over the desk chair. "Well?"
Charlee closed her eyes for the length of ten blinks before opening them again. "Well ... Maybe I should take her gum away. I'm sure her boyfriend, Nick, or whatever his name is, would appreciate not having to listen to her chomp on it for another second."
"Okay, okay," Vanessa said. "So it's not exactly what you're looking for."
"Not exactly? Not even broadly." Charlee slumped and stared at the monitor. It was a good thing they had finished recording tomorrow's podcast material. It looked like deciding on the contest winner was going to take the rest of the day. Or year.
Vanessa rolled her dark eyes and mimicked the hair flip, although her smoothed-back onyx hair barely reached her nape. "Don't worry. There has to be at least a single worthy entry in all of these."
"I looked over the ones you gave me yesterday," Charlee said. "If those were the ones that passed your initial judgment, I'd hate to see the ones that didn't."
Vanessa shook her head, eyes closed. "I wish I could unsee some of those."
"We have to top last year's." Charlee stood and folded her arms, leaning on the desk.
"How are you going to top rebuilding an old lady's destroyed-by-a-hurricane house? Build two houses? I don't know if our budget can handle that."
Charlee had teamed up with Vanessa for her editing skills but also for her business savvy. Her strict adherence to their budget, as well as schedules and talking points for each episode, could occasionally suck some of the joy out of the job. On the other hand, it was impossible to imagine achieving their accomplishments without her. But none of that would matter if Charlee couldn't find inspiration soon.
"I don't know," she said. "We'll cross that bridge when we find the right one."CHAPTER 2
Thursday, December 10
The engine vibrated the hull of Forrester as it cut through the ocean miles off the shores of Cape Sunset, Oregon. Weighed down with the decent late autumn fish haul in its belly, the ninety-nine-foot vessel rode low. The discolored steel hull parted the sea more like a gavel through peanut butter than a hot knife in margarine.
Jack Fortner stood starboard, scanning for the blip the lighthouse made in the dead heartbeat of the horizon. "Old Bessie" signaled they were three miles offshore on a clear day, and anywhere from one mile to seaside when conditions were harshest. Today was overcast with no rain. The wind was strong but not strong enough to blow off his green Oregon Ducks cap. The hat, with frayed rim and faded emblem, fit his head like a second skin. It had survived eight seasons of Dungeness crab fishing, six years of off-season tug-boating, the blizzard of the century, and the occasional brawl at Tabby's Tavern.
Jack scratched his face scruff, a short beard by most standards after the eight days of sea time. It wasn't that Jack couldn't shave with the rocking of the ship. Being cramped with nearly a dozen men didn't make for ideal conditions, not to mention the plumbing problems Forrester would have if they all shaved in its tiny bathroom sink. But out at sea, there was no reason to. Heck, there was no reason to on shore either.
Jack entered the cube-shaped navigation bridge, which sat atop the ship near its stern, directly behind the base of the crab pot crane. First mate, Chris, was in control of the ship's path, earbuds in, mind out. It brought a chill up Jack's spine to see Chris in shorts. He wore a hoodie under a vest, but somehow his legs were warm enough. Jack pulled out one of the earbuds.
"Hey," Chris said. "I was listening to that."
"And you know full well I don't like you listening to anything other than the sound of the sea."
Chris mocked the words shaking his weightier hips.
"I'm serious," Jack said. "I've asked you, as your captain, to not do that anymore."
"Cool off. I'll put them away. Sheesh."
"Don't 'sheesh' me."
"What, you gonna tell Mom on me?"
Jack stared his younger brother down. Sure, Chris was only three years junior to Jack's twenty-nine years, but he seemed less mature than Jack had been at his age. Then again, Jack had needed to grow up fast.
Chris stuck out his tongue. Jack punched him lightly in the shoulder.
"Should be seeing Old Bessie any minute now," Chris said, returning focus to his job. "Hup, there she is."
A jagged dagger poked through the horizon, the black and white stripes not yet distinguishable. Jack confirmed the sight of the lighthouse with a nod.
Chris shook his head, scoffing.
"What?" Jack asked.
"Are you ever glad to go back home?"
Jack shrugged. "Sure, I guess."
"Because each time we go out, the more disappointed you look when we return."
"That's not true."
"Just saying," Chris said. "An observation."
Jack folded his arms across his chest and examined the global positioning system monitor, as if he didn't already know they were a mile and a half from the dock at Cape Sunset. His eyes wandered to a card taped to the instrument panel. He ripped it off.
He waved the card at Chris, a Christmas tree on the front. Chris snatched it out of Jack's hands.
"It's ..." Chris took a deep breath, the boat engine and wind never sounding so quiet. "It's from Jenny's family."
Jack didn't say a word, the audacity of Chris overwhelming. It wasn't that Jack hadn't appreciated Jenny's parents staying in touch throughout the years. But for Chris to openly remind him of Christmas? On his ship?
"You know how they always sent a Christmas card on our last trip out for the year," Chris said. "Just in case we didn't make schedule and missed Christmas Day."
Jack's mouth tightened and he swallowed. "Keep it at your house. Not on my boat."
He stormed out and stood port, grabbing the line. He held the rope, the frayed cords rough and pointy like a braid full of splinters. Jack's hands looked just as rough. He had always been embarrassed by them, the thick fingers and knobby knuckles the trademark of a cold-water fisherman, even when he wore gloves most of the time.
Then he had met Jenny.
She had slipped her thin, soft fingers through his, tracing over the back of his hand. It's a map, she had said.
Mm-hmm. It's a map of your life. The scar here. She touched where a hook had split the soft tissue between the thumb and palm. The tight palm and fingers.
Yes. She smiled with a slight tilt of the head. Your hands seem to fight being open. Like they need to be clenched, as if you're constantly holding on to something.
Jack stared at his hands that dwarfed hers. And what do these smooth, perfect hands say about you?
Oh well ... Jenny laid her head on Jack's shoulder. Her hair had smelled of light citrus that day on the beach some six years ago. I guess they're saying I need to spend more time with the likes of you. I could use a little more adventure.
Jack had squeezed her hands in his, vowing no one else would ever hold them. Her hand never looked as delicate as when he had slipped the ring on her finger. She had nodded, tears flowing.
"Captain." Willie, the greenhorn, stood behind Jack.
Denny, the most experienced deckhand, echoed Willie although Jack barely heard their words over his memories. "Captain!"
"Jack, snap out of it!"
Chris's voice whipped Jack fully back to reality. He looked at the crewmen.
"Ready to help dock, Cap," Willie said. "Denny gave the okay."
Jack nodded, shaking his head to file away the memory of Jenny. "Think he's good for it?"
"He'll never learn if he never has the chance," Denny said. His dark eyes matched his wrinkled ebony skin. White hair peeking between the grays reflected years of wear and tear on the sea. The latter half of them he'd spent with Jack.
"Truer words," Jack said. "Here, you take the line."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Christmas Catch"
Copyright © 2018 Mary Shotwell.
Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
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