Publication Date: February 13, 2017
Genres: Adult, Contemporary, Romance, Holiday
About the Book
A gorgeous woman, a heart pounding kiss.
It should’ve been the start to my new life, but I pushed her away.
She deserved better than a wounded warrior, someone who could barely face getting up in the morning.
A year later I’ve turned my life around, made myself into a man she could be proud of. A man who will stop at nothing to get what he wants.
And all I want is a second chance with her.
Holidays never end well in my family.
“Faith,” my sister Lila hisses from the entrance to the dining room.
I turn away from the annual sharing of presents going on in the living room and glare at her. It’s been a mild holiday for us. One that hasn’t devolved into someone calling the cops or an all-out brawl in the front yard. “What?”
I have my eye on the medium-sized box sitting just under the tree. Aunt Ethel has been giving me suspicious glances all night, and I know she must have gotten my name. After thorough reconnaissance, I ferreted out which of the gifts under the tree she brought. Ethel always has a heavy hand with the presents, so I know it’ll be good, and I don’t want to miss when they call my name.
Lila skirts around two of our cousins with a harried smile. “We have a problem,” she whispers in my ear as her fingers wrap vise-like around my upper arm.
A collective gasp comes from the living room, and I stretch up to my toes to see over the heads of the crowd. With my eyes on the biggest present of the bunch, I say, “Did Grandpa get into the eggnog again?”
“Good. The last thing anyone needs is another look at those cinnamon buns again.” I shiver just thinking about it. There are some things you just don't need to know about your grandparents. What they look like naked is all of them.
“Jesus, Faith, pay attention," Lila hisses.
I turn to her and remove her hand from my arm. “What’s the problem? It can’t be worse than Grandpa streaking across the front lawn.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” she says with a heavy dose of sarcasm, “would you consider Aunt Marie not bringing our guest of honor a present for the Secret Santa exchange a problem?”
“You’re kidding,” I say. Though, I’m not very surprised.
There’s always that one miserable individual who decides they don’t want or need to take part and forgoes purchasing a gift. I thought no one would dare forget to bring a gift for this recipient.
Lila’s expression is grim and for a good reason. The present in question is for local legend and hero, Scott Green, who returned from Afghanistan a year ago minus a limb.
My parents are patriotic to the extreme, my father having served for twenty years. So, when he heard Scott would spend the holiday alone, he invited—or ordered—Scott to attend our annual Christmas party. It must have been an oversight to allow his Secret Santa to be Aunt Marie—a bad one.
“I’m serious as a friggin’ heart attack.” Lila wipes a hand over her sweaty brow. “Dad doesn’t know yet, but Mom’s been keeping track of all the Santa’s and their gifts, and she told me to figure something out.”
A glance back to the living room shows the gift swapping still in full swing. I scan the attendants, but Scott isn’t among them. I haven’t laid eyes on him yet, but my brother Paul saw him earlier. With as many family members as we fit in our little house during the holidays, it’s no real wonder I haven’t met him yet. Hordes of them part around us on their way to the kitchen or the bathrooms causing us to squeeze against the wall to escape the crush. Clouds of perfume and cologne make me wrinkle my nose. We have to shout to hear one another.
“What the hell are we supposed to do now?” I ask Lila.
She bites a nail. “Do you think we have time to run to the store?”
I glance at my watch as if it’ll have answers. “Depends. How many people are waiting on presents? Did Mom say?”
Lila grimaces. “Okay. Okay. What about money? Too crass to give him money?”
I snort. “That's an excellent idea. That’s like the ultimate pass-off gift. No imagination.”
Lila glares at me. “You’re not helping!”
A crash comes from the kitchen, and Lila whips around. “Oh, no!” she shrieks. “Grandpa’s into the eggnog. You handle the present, and I’ll make sure he doesn’t drink himself out of his clothes again.”
I open my mouth to protest and then remember seeing Grandpa naked. She got the worse out of the two. How hard could it be to find a present for this guy? With one last mournful look at the box under the tree, I cross the room to where my mother sits.
She’s in the middle of the melee, calling out names from a little sheet. We tried to do it without moderation one year, which resulted in one of the more epic police visits. Her wild eyes meet mine, but her panic doesn’t show in her voice when she calls out the next name to receive their gift.
“Did your sister talk to you?” she asks under her breath.
“Yes, she did. I’m working on it.”
Relief wipes away the tightness around her eyes and mouth. “Thank goodness. Your father will kill Marie. I only have a couple people left before Scott, and if we don’t figure something out, that poor boy will be the only one here without a present. I swear that woman doesn’t have a damn thing between her ears except meanness.”
“Do you have any presents stashed away in the closet?”
Mom stops mid-name and glares at me. “What do you mean ‘stashed away in the closet’?”
“C’mon, Mom, you can’t think I didn’t know where you keep them.”
“Faith Louise, you better not have been snooping around my closet.”
I roll my eyes. “Let’s not get off track here. We don’t have time for this.”
“I’m not off track. I’m on track. And you’ll damn well make time, young lady. How long have you known?” Her eyes widen. “Christmas of ’07. I knew you weren’t surprised about the life-sized cardboard cutout of that movie star you liked.”
I heave a groan. “Mom, this is not the time. Everyone has a re-gift stash somewhere. We can debate about it later.”
She doesn’t seem to hear me. “You’d think a teenaged girl would be excited about something like that, but no, not you. Why do you always have to make everything so complicated?”
Someone laughs behind me, making my shoulders tense. It’s a male laugh. A mocking laugh.
“I’ll go look myself,” I say through gritted teeth before spinning around. Though the stranger is vaguely familiar, I can’t put a name to a face. I may not recognize him, but I understand the humor in his all-too-attractive warm brown eyes. Having no time for a stranger's evident joy in my humiliation, I bite out a prim, “Excuse me,” and give the guy a tight smile before scooting past him.
I squeeze through the crowded hallway to my parents’ bedroom and push through the door. The couple on their bed springs apart, and I cover my eyes with one hand.
“Jesus, God,” I squeak. “Uncle Melvin?”
“Hey, buttercup.” There is a series of rapid whispers and the tell-tale sound of squeaking bed springs. “We’ll just . . .. er . . . get out of your way.”
I ease into the room using my hands to guide myself along the wall and wait. When I’m sure it’s safe, I peer through my narrowed eyes and sigh in relief when I find the room empty.
Mom is shouting from the living room, and it’s a testament to her desperation I can hear her over the pulsing Christmas music and the loud conversation. “Next to last for our Christmas Secret Santa . . .” she yells.
I yank open the closet door and, just as I suspected, find dozens of wrapped gifts. There’s a pile to the right of ones yet to be stuffed in a gift box or painstakingly smothered by gift wrap, so I get to my knees and paw through it.
There are gift sets of body washes, perfumes, and lotions. I dismiss those and reach for a likely box with branding geared toward men. It’s a gift set for flavored lubricant “for his pleasure,” which I throw as far away from me as possible. For a few horrifying seconds, I wonder who the hell bought it for my mother.
“And our last Secret Santa . . .”
My stomach plummets as I get to my feet and scramble back down the hallway, elbowing past relatives. I reach the living room, breathless, and try to wave down my mother’s attention, but Uncle Melvin and his lady love block her from seeing me. They couldn’t care less about what is going on around them, either. They are much more interested in the mistletoe hanging overhead.
“Is our hometown hero, Scott Green!” Mom finishes and looks my way with an expectant expression.
I make panicked eyes at her, but the crowd in the hallway is already parting, and I hear the dreaded steps of Scott making his way to the living room.
Oh, fuck, fuck, fuck!
I’ve never dealt well with pressure. Public speaking gives me hives. I’m known to call in on test days or big presentations. When all eyes swing in my direction, and I look up to find the man who laughed at me after my awkward conversation with Mom, I’m about three seconds away from having a veritable meltdown.
I didn’t get a good look at him before, because I wished he’d disappear and stop enjoying my moment of humiliation, but I get an eyeful when he draws to a stop next to me.
He’s wearing a red-green-and-black flannel shirt with the top three buttons undone. I’d never noticed how tempting such a suggestive expanse of skin could be. Those three buttons make my fingers itch to undo the rest. A silver chain disappears into the shadows beneath, and my eyes try to see through the material. I have the sudden urge to reach in there and feel the skin-warmed metal for myself. The sleeves of the shirt are rolled to his elbows and leave his muscular forearms and rough-hewn hands bare.
Realizing I’m staring—and so is everyone else—I flick my gaze to my mom, whose eyes are wide as she mouths, “Where’s his present?”
Panic spears through me, and I whip back to Scott. His dark gaze studies me as if we have all the time in the world, a little smile playing around his lips.
Uncle Melvin and his lady push me to get out of the limelight—no doubt to find another room in which to make out. My gaze lifts and my stomach clenches when the mistletoe in the doorway that inspired their kiss only seconds before fills my line of sight.
“Faith,” I hear my mother hiss. She clears her throat. “Faith has your present, Scott.”
Wrinkles form at the corners of his eyes as he full-on smiles. “I must have been a good boy this year,” he says in a low voice that shoots through me like a good shot of whiskey, warm and dark with a hint of heat.
The crowd around me laughs, and I smile half-heartedly. All the attention is making my heart beat double time in my chest. I resist the need to rub my hands on my dress and glance again to the top of the doorway.
Scott’s smile turns contemplative, and he follows my look up to the mistletoe. There’s a tense pause where his throat bobs with a swallow before he looks back at me, and his smile melts from his lips.
“Faith,” Mom says, her voice leaning toward high-pitched. “Why don’t you give Scott his present?”
“Yes,” Scott says, his eyes still twinkling at my discomfort, “why don’t you?”
There’s a dull thudding in my ears, and my heart is beating so fast I could use some of Grandpa’s medication. Before I can second-guess myself, I take a step forward, place my hands on his shoulders, and press my lips to his.
About the Author
New York Times and USA Today Bestselling author Nicole Blanchard lives in Mississippi with her family and their menagerie of animals. She chooses each day to chase her own fairy tale even if they contain their fair share of dragons. She is married to her best friend and owns her own business.
Nicole survives on a diet of too many books and substantial amounts of root beer and slim jims. When not reading, she’s lavishing attention on her family or inhaling every episode of The Walking Dead and The Big Bang Theory.