HOME IN TIME FOR CHRISTMAS
Melody Tarleton is driving home for Christmas when a manclad in Revolutionary Warera costumeappears out of nowhere. Jake Mallory claims he's a Patriot soldier executed by British authorities. Concerned, Melody brings Jake to her parents' house. He's passionate, charming and unlike anyone she's ever met. Can he really be who he claims? And can a man from the distant past be the future she truly longs for?
AN ANGEL FOR CHRISTMAS
The holidays have never brought out the best in the MacDougal family. Still, they gather in the Blue Ridge Mountains to try to make the season merry. Then, in the midst of a sibling shouting match, a mysterious stranger appears. Despite their fears, the MacDougals take a leap of faith. But when another stranger arrives, they don't know which of them to believe. One of these men can't be trusted. And one is about to bring Christmas into their hearts.
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Ho, ho, ho. Merry, merry. Yeah, Merry Christmas. The road was a slip and slide.
Peace on earth.
Even when she had left New York City that morning, Melody Tarleton thought, people were practically trampling one another to get into Macy's, make the next subway or beat everyone else out for one of the cabs slip-sliding all over the street. The stores were advertising that they were open Christmas Eve and some even on Christmas morning, just so that the jerks who couldn't remember to buy gifts all year long could rush out last minute and buy some stupid thing that no one would really want anyway. But they'd realize they were going to grandma's for dinner, and hadn't even thought to buy the woman who had loved them their whole lives so much as a bouquet of flowers. Got to keep stores open for that. And God forbid, someone should forget they had another little niece or nephew. The children of the world definitely needed more stupid plastic toys! And, surely, the forgotten infant needed another bib that was embroidered with Spit Happens! or some other inane sentiment.
The car started to spin. Melody gripped the wheel and took her foot off the gas. It righted itself.
She let out a sigh of relief, and then winced. What in God's name was the matter with her?
What had become of her usual joy of the holiday season? She wished that her mood would lighten, and that she would pay heed to a few of the Christmas carols resounding from her car-stereo system. She had a million things for which she should be thankful; healthy, living parents who loved her, a wonderful brother who was just about her best friend noweven though they had fought wretchedly growing up. She loved what she did for a living .
Ah, there was the problem!
In a few days, he would be there. Her mother had asked him to come for Christmas. Which, of course, he had expected. He wasn't taking a thing that she said seriously.
I can't do it, Mark. I can't marry you, or be engaged to you. I can't even be your girlfriend. I thought I knew you, but then you began to talk about our future. You 're a fine man, just not for me.
Well, she had known him. Most of her life. They'd gone to middle school and high school together, gone off to different colleges, and then met again at a book fair. It had seemed perfect at first; they'd been old friends, reconnecting. She drew pictures, he wrote words. They both loved illustrated novels. They'd both hailed from Gloucester, and moved to New York. So much to talk about, so much of the past to relive!
And they were friends. She was so happy to be his friend.
Then they'd been more. She thought she could see a wonderful future with him until he shared what he saw for the two of them.
She was just amazed at his vision of the future. He would take care of her. She wouldn't workoh, well, of course, she could draw little pictures for their children. They'd have ten.
It was so odd how things had changed. She'd found him charming and attractive.
She was afraid of mistletoe.
There was no way out. As it had become clear that they were each seeking a different future, and the harder she struggled to escape, the more he had set the tethers upon her, it had all happened too late to salvage Christmas.
Her mother had already given him the invitation to come up. So, for Christmas, he'd keep insisting that she loved him and didn't understand that he just loved her and wanted the world for her. She'd be avoiding him, and no one would understand.
Ho, ho, ho. It was going to be great.
Stop feeling sorry for yourself.
So, okay, Mark was the one with the publisher and he would probably see that she was fired off the project she had been hired to work on with him.
No, she had a contract.
Contracts could be broken.
Good God, she wasn't going to lead a man on because of a contract!
She believed in herself. Even if he didn't. And that was the point.
She'd just start pounding the pavement all over again if need be.
Christmas had always been her favorite time of year, maybe because her folks had loved the holiday so very much. Her mom went all out. Massive, overstuffed stockings for the entire family and whatever friends happened to be with them. A tree that was so heavily decorated, it almost sank into the floor. House lights that might have been a cause of global warmingthe only non-earth-friendly concession her mother ever made.
Be thankful for my family, she told herself. And she was really.
Oh, Lord, she would have to face her father. He was such a good soul. He'd be confused at first when she tried to explain what had happened with Markthat she didn't want a relationship in which she was basically owned. He wouldn't understand a man like Markactually, she wasn't sure many people would. Mark gave new meaning to old-fashioned.
Her parents had met in college. Her mom had become a nurse, and her dad had become a professor. They had shared child rearing. In this day and age, she thought, they were truly adorable. Somehow, through thick and thin, they had made marriage a two-way street.
Thereshe could blame it on her folks. She just wanted the same kind of love and respect in a relationship. Support and belief. It really wasn't a dreamshe had seen it work.
Okay, so her mother often shook her head over her father, but she did it with affection. "He's tinkering in his office," she would say, and roll her eyes. Her dad had been a professor at Worcester Poly-Tech once, and he was still always trying to tweak an old inventionor master a new one. Puffs of smoke arose from the building out back upon occasion, but he'd never burned anything down. And despite her protests to the contrary, Melody knew that this was exactly the man her mother had fallen in love with all those years ago.
Oh, her mother would hate the news of her relationship with Mark. Mona would be all indignant when she tried to explain the truth. How dare he think he was better than she was, or more worthy of expressing creativity! Or, it could be worse. Her mother believed that she came from a long line of mystics, or healers. She could trace her family back to Saxon England, and she was convinced that she could grow herbs and create medicinal drinks that actually had magical strength. She just might decide that Mark could imbibe enough herbal tea laced with God-knew-exactly-what that he would see the error of his ways.
The thought made her groan aloud.
Mark! she thought, feeling ill, don't you see, we can't make it. And trying to pretend that everything is all right just because it's Christmas is not going to work.
And if all that wasn't enough stress for this trip home, there was her brother. As much as she loved her brother, Keith
God only knew who or what he'd have found to come home with him.
Though he'd never played football, Keith looked like a fullback. He was tall, charming, and very good-looking, but he was their father in all aspects of geek. He was attending his father's alma mater, learning electronics and physics and so on, and when he wasn't busy studying, he was finding someone or some creature who needed help.
One year, he'd brought home a stripper.
Another year, it had been a wounded raccoon.
He had a great heart. She loved him to death.
She just hoped that they wouldn't have to share Christmas with Mark and a stripper.
Hmm. Maybe that wouldn't be such a bad thing .
No, it would probably be another animal this year. Like the blind Persian cat he had found last year, the basset with the little roller now to replace the hind legs a driver had crushed the year before, or Jimmy, the big old sheepdog mix he had found three years ago, starved and left to die in a crate on a trash pile. If Keith hadn't found a wounded animal, he would decide that Melody was one. Maybe, she was. Human beings were, after all, animals. Usually, it was events like Christmas that lifted man above the beasts.
Christmas. How she had once loved it. How she dreaded it now. And this feeling of dread was wrong, so wrong! Because no matter how uncomfortable the festivities proved to be for her, she had to remember that it was Christmas.
She frowned suddenly, slowing the car. The day had been bright and beautiful, despite the ice on the ground and roads. But out of the blue, there was suddenly darkness, as if a cloud had passed the sun. The darkest cloud ever known to man. And in the midst of it
Good God, there was a figure in the middle of the road, a dark form .
Melody slammed hard on the brakes, even though she knew better. There was just so much ice on the road. Before the car fishtailed, she saw the figure more fully in the glare of her headlights.
It was a man.
A man dressed as if he were a refugee from the past. He was hatless in the snow, and wearing a white muslin shirt and tight-fitting pants. Tall black boots. He wasn't in a wig, but his long dark hair was queued back. He was staring at her with pure amazement.
As if the idiot had never seen a car before.
Then, the car started to spin. She had hit black ice. She knew better than to try to stop the way she had. But hell, it had been that, or.
She felt a bump; she'd hit the figure.
Hopefully not as badly as she would have, had she not tried so hard to stop!
She came to a halt against a snowbank. Incredibly, her air bag did not go off. Her lights streamed against the gray color the day had become and the snow, coming down now in a fresh swirling round of flurries. Stunned, she sat still for long seconds, thanking God that she was alive.
Then she remembered the soft thumping sound against the car. She tried to open her door, but she was against the snowbank. She maneuvered across the car to the passenger side and managed to get out.
He was there, lying in the snow. He was clad only in eighteenth-century attire, often enough seen around Salem, but ridiculous in this weather. His shirt and pants were simple cotton, no barrier against the bitter cold, though, at the least, his knee-high boots would keep his feet warm. He must have been freezing.
Her initial reaction was panic. She had just struck down a man in the snow.
She flew to his side, saw his chest rise and fall.
Oh, thank God, he was alive!
He was young her age, maybe a year or two older, but he was under thirty, she was certain. His hair, somewhat frayed from what had been a neat queue.
At a loss in those first few seconds, her own heart thundering, she felt her second reaction kick in.
What the hell had the idiot been doing standing in the middle of the road in a snowstorm?
Concern quickly replaced the anger. He was breathing, and she didn't see blood spewing from any part of his body, but had she broken him?
She needed to dial 911. Fast. Get help.
She fled from the man back to the car, found her purse and cell phone on the front seat, and dialed. Nothing happened.
The No Signal information screen flashed on.
Swearing, she called her phone service a zillion names in a single breath, and tossed the phone back on the seat. She scrambled back to the man on the ground. Should she move him? She suddenly wished she'd taken some kind of first-aid class. If she moved him and he did have a broken limb, she could make it worse. What if his neck was broken? Moving him, she could finish him off!
As she knelt by him, the snow on the ground seeping through her leggings, the flurries coming fast and furious, he suddenly groaned.
"Oh," she breathed, looking down at him. "Hey, please. Sir, can you hear me, sir? What hurts? Oh, Lord, speak to me, please!"
The snow fell on the contours of his face and turned his hair white.
She might hurt him if she moved him, but if she didn't, he was going to freeze to death. Second problem. If she did move him, could she get him to the car? Was she capable? He was tall, she was certaindespite the fact that he was prone, he seemed awfully long. Also, it looked as if he was composed of pure muscle. That meant he'd be heavy. She'd never been that thrilled with her own figure, because, basically, there wasn't enough of it. She wasn't exactly a weakling, but she was a probably-too-slim hundred and ten pounds stretched out on a five-seven frame.
"All right, if I'm hurting you, I'm sorry," she said. "I have to try to get you into the car."
She stood, trying to figure it out. She'd have to grab him by the feet.
As she did so, she noted his boots were like nothing she had ever seen before. They were reproductions, she was sure, but they must have cost a mintthey had been singularly crafted and were sewn, sole to body, with leather strips meticulously threaded by hand.
Quit with worrying about his state of dress! she warned herself in a puffing silence. He was heavy.
She was barely managing to drag him a quarter inch a second. She could hear herself grunting and puffing in the cold air, and yet she was straining so hard that it seemed her muscles and lungs were on fire.
Then, suddenly, words in a deep, masculine and explosive tone sounded loudly against the stark landscape.
"Good woman! What on God's own earth are you doing to me?"
She dropped his ankles and stared at him, speechless. He was still stretched out, but sitting up, legs out in the snow, staring at her as if she had lost her mind.
"Oh, you're alive!" she gasped.
To her dismay, he appeared both surprised and puzzled. "Yes, yes, I am. I believe. It is cold, so I must assume this feeling means alive." He offered her a rueful and very puzzled grimace. "Excuse me, but who are you, and where are we?"
She frowned. She didn't much mind the who are you part of the question, but the where are we was more than a bit disturbing.
"My name is Melody Tarleton. We're in the middle of the road, heading toward Gloucester. You ran out in front of me. I struck you with my car."
"Your car?" he said, truly puzzled.
She pointed. He tried to rise, staring at the cargaping at the car, actually. Inwardly, she groaned. What? Was he taking this reenactor thing far too seriously?