Saturday, December 31, 2011

A Holiday to Remember Chapter Thirty

(jump to the first chapter)

Chapter Thirty – Georgia on my Mind

by Jannine Gallant

A mirrored silver ball lowered to the countdown on the TV in the corner of the room. Five, four, three, two, one… Happy New Year!

Mitch deepened the kiss, and Candy clung to him, breathless. Finally he released her, and she gasped for air. Longing for this man sizzled through her.

“We could have gone out. Could have joined the masses in Times Square,” he said, pointing at the TV. “It is our first official holiday together.”

She leaned against him and let out a sigh. “I’m pretty happy right where I am. I don’t need pizzazz and hoopla, Mitch. Some of the happiest moments of my life were spent in a cabin tucked away in the woods.”

Stroking the hair back from her brow, his hand paused. “Uh, about that cabin…” He cleared his throat. “I realize your life is here in Manhattan.”

Candy scooted around to face him and took both his hands in hers. “Yes, it is. My company is important to me. But it doesn’t have to be my whole life.” She pressed their twined fingers against her breast. “There’s room in here for more.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Yeah?”

A smile curved her lips. “Did you think I was going to make you give up everything for me?”

“Now that you mention it…”

She punched his arm. “Funny man. Feeling pretty cocky since I’ve said yes?”

He raised her hand to his lips and kissed it. “Just relieved.” He rolled his eyes. “You have no idea how relieved.”

“Oh, I think I do. I was so certain I’d blown it for good with you. I let hurt get in the way of our happiness.”

“I was a bigger idiot not to trust you.” He grinned. “Just ask Jeb. He’ll tell you.”

“Jeb is a wise man. He knew all along we’d work it out.” She grinned. “I’m actually looking forward to hearing I told you so and getting a big, sloppy dog kiss from Major.”

“Until then…”

He bent his head and kissed her, his mouth claiming hers, stoking the fire inside her. When they broke apart, she let out a shuddering breath.

He pressed his forehead against hers. “It’s after midnight. Time for bed?”

She nodded. “It’s a new year. What better way to start it.”

“I can’t think of one.” Mitch lifted her into his arms and settled her across his lap, his hand sliding beneath her shirt. “A time for fresh beginnings.”

She quivered as his fingers trailed across her ribcage and traced the underside of her breast. “New Year’s resolutions?”

“I have two. The first is to make you happy. Always. The second is to stop hiding from my past. I need to build a life for myself here with you.”

Candy looked into his beautiful blue eyes and saw the glint of determination in them. “At Crawford Industries?”

He shook his head. “I want to go forward, not back.”

The Wright Way is always looking for new talent.” She smiled. “I can vouch for your creativity.”

He ran his finger along her jaw. “I do want to get involved with your work, but I was thinking more along the lines of your charitable causes.”

Warmth flowed through her. “Really?”

“Yeah. I’d like to give something back. I think it’s about time.”

She framed his face in her hands. “I do love you.”

He rose to his feet with her in his arms, his eyes alight with teasing. “I’m going to let you show me how much.”

She scattered kisses across his face as he headed toward the back of the apartment. “Big of you.”

“Isn’t it?” He hugged her tight, his hand curving to her bottom.

“About your cabin,” she said on a breathless gasp.

He pushed open the bedroom door. “It’ll be our refuge, our place to go when we want to be alone together.”

As she slid down the length of his body until her toes touched the carpet, she looked into his eyes and smiled. “Then we definitely haven’t seen the last of Georgia.”

Friday, December 30, 2011

A Holiday to Remember Chapter Twenty-Nine

(jump to the first chapter)

Chapter Twenty-Nine – It's Always Been You

by Claire Ashgrove

As Mitch folded Candy into his embrace, a glimmer of gold in the warm light caught his attention. He squinted at the curio cabinet he’d given Marie. Back then, he’d been afraid his father would find out and dish out another serving of disapproval. Now, he hated that he’d been afraid, and later unable, to tell the woman who’d been more of a mother than his own what she meant to him.

He eased Candy out of his arms and rose to his feet. Crossing to the cabinet, he stuffed a hand in his pocket, glad he’d given in to the impulsive urge to bring the angel Candy had made so long ago with him. In case he seriously needed to grovel. In case she clung to doubts about the place she’d always held in his heart.

He opened the cabinet and gently plucked out the angel he’d given Marie. “I miss her, you know,” he murmured.

“No. I don’t know.” Though her voice lacked censure, her honesty stung.

Mitch pulled in a deep breath. “My father never told me about her death, you know. I hate that I never got to say goodbye. I hate that I wasn’t there for her…for you.”

He turned to find her watching him. A flicker of pain passed over her face before she attempted a smile. It trembled at the corners of her mouth. “I survived… I understand—”

With a shake of his head, he turned to stand in front of her and fished the angel out of his pocket. Keeping his fingers closed around it, he levered himself to both knees in front of her. “No, it’s not okay. Hold out your hand.”

Puzzlement creased her brow, but she extended her hand palm up, fingers open.

“I brought this with me in case you made me beg. If you’d spent just a little more time in my office, you’d have seen it sitting right next to the fax machine. There to remind me of you, what you gave to me, the peace you brought.” He uncurled his fingers and gently pressed the angel into her palm. “It’s always been you, Candy. Will you add this to the collection? Can we make it ours?”

A soft gasp escaped her lips as he pulled his hand away and revealed the childhood trinket. Her eyes lifted to his, tears giving them a bright sheen. Mitch’s heart rolled over, the enormity of feeling swelling behind his ribs making it difficult to speak. God, if he didn’t watch himself, he’d end up in tears too.

He blinked anyway, just to make sure. A chuckle slipped free. “I don’t have anything with me to do this the right way. I figured I’d be lucky if you heard me out.” He laid his palm over hers, trapping the memento between them. “You’re my angel, and I want to build a life with you. Say yes, Candy?” Holding onto her gaze, he willed her to understand the pain, the regret…all the fulfillment she alone could give him.

As tears trickled down her cheeks, Candy nodded, and the vise around Mitch’s lungs let go. He hauled her onto the floor in front of him, wrapping her tight in his embrace, barely making out her whispered, “yes” before claiming her in a hungry kiss.

He’d missed her. Ached for her. Now that she was in his arms, the past no longer a mountain between them, he was certain in a thousand lifetimes he’d never get enough of her sweet flavor. Not even forever could satisfy his need.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

A Holiday to Remember Chapter Twenty-Eight

(jump to the first chapter)

Chapter Twenty-Eight – Forgiveness

by Jerri Hines

Doubts flooded Candy. Could she forgive him? Survivor’s guilt. In one short phrase, Mitch had explained everything. Not in words, but his eyes spoke of the world of pain he concealed for not dying in the Tower. With his confession came an understanding of the demons he’d fought all these years. The fact that he sat next to her now meant he’d come to confront those demons. To face her. To grovel.

She stared at him, didn’t dare blink for fear he’d disappear. For a brief moment she considered flinging herself into his arms and accepting his apology. Then the hurt flared to life once more along with the wall she’d let slip. He would leave. If there was one thing she’d learned from her past, it was that men left when the next obstacle emerged. And this time it just might kill her.

“Mitch, I can’t.” The knot in her stomach tightened. “I hate that you came all this way, but it just won’t work.”

“Why not?” he asked, edging closer.

“ just won’t. Okay. This love thing...I suck at it.”

A smile flickered over his lips. “That makes two of us. Maybe it didn’t work in the past because it wasn’t right. It’s right now. I couldn’t stand it in Georgia without you. You shouldn’t mess with something that feels this good.”

She’d always taken pride in knowing the right thing to say, the right move to make. Sitting so close to Mitch, she hadn’t a clue how to defend her emotions against him—and realized she didn’t want to. The memory of their time together burned within her. Maybe it was time to take a risk.

“What are you saying?”

“I want you, Candy. I have since the moment you stopped for gas in the middle of a freak snow storm. Fate threw us together. We don’t need to rationalize our relationship. Maybe we should just let ourselves feel.”

He kissed her sweetly, drawing her tight against his chest. “I’m not going to let you go.”

She ached to believe him. Her heart pounded painfully as fear gripped her.

“You say that now.” Her voice broke. “But if I do this…and it doesn’t work…”

“Trust me, Candy,” he said simply. “I can’t promise you the road before us won’t have bumps. That’s life. But I can promise we’ll face them together. Honey, I didn’t run from you. I came back to New York because I can’t live without you.”

He hadn’t left. She had. Speechless, she stared at him. He wasn’t fighting fair. She’d never expected him to break down her defensives so easily.

He didn’t give her time to answer. Cupping her face between his hands, he touched his mouth to hers, wiping out any lingering doubts. His strong embrace and the press of his lips against hers mesmerized her.

He pulled back and caressed her face with his thumbs. “I’ve never felt this way about anyone. I’ve never wanted something so badly. I want you, Candy. I need you. You gave me the courage to come back to New York. I never thought I would. Never realized I needed to return to start living again instead of just existing. But I can’t live without you.”

When he kissed her, love filled her to bursting. She’d spent years protecting herself, but the wall around her heart was only an illusion. She wanted desperately to be be loved by this man.

Candy gazed up at him. She pressed the palms of her hands against his solid chest but couldn’t say the words.

“Tell me there’s something special between us. Tell me I’m not imagining it. Tell me you love me as much as I love you.”

Her fears melted away and elation rose inside her. He loved her.

“I love you, too, Mitch.”

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

A Holiday to Remember Chapter Twenty-Seven

(jump to the first chapter)

Chapter Twenty-Seven – Prepare to Grovel

by Jannine Gallant

Mitch paid the cab driver and stepped out onto the slushy street. A cold wind blew down the back of his neck, and he shivered in his denim jacket. After ten years in Georgia, he’d forgotten how damn cold New York winters were.

Not nearly as cold as I’ll be if Candy refuses to listen.

Taking a breath, he pushed random buttons for the secure building, lighting up the board. Every button but Candy’s. He wanted to look into her eyes when he spoke to her, not beg for forgiveness through an intercom. Finally the door buzzed, and he pushed it open.

His heart pounded in his chest as he climbed the stairs carrying his overnight bag, too keyed up to wait for the elevator. His feet echoed hollowly in the stairwell. Exiting on her floor, he stood in front of the door and raised his fist.

Then lowered it.

Closing his eyes, he leaned against the wall. “Get it together, moron,” he muttered. If she tells me to drop dead… He shuddered.

Rapping softly on the door, he waited with his heart in his throat. The door cracked open, chain attached, and one wary hazel eye regarded him. It widened before Candy shut the door in his face.

All his blood drained straight to his feet, and he swayed. God, I’m not going to get a chance to explain. If only she’d listen…

Raising his fist to launch a fresh attack, the door swung wide. He caught himself on the jam to avoid toppling inside. Embarrassment surged as he took a step back.

Candy wore pink flannel pajamas, and her hair was hauled back in a sloppy ponytail. Face devoid of make-up, her eyes were red-rimmed and a little puffy. Had she been crying? His heart expanded. She was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen.

Mitch swallowed. “Hi.”

One brow shot up. “Hi, that’s all you have to say?”

“No, but I’d rather not say it in the hall.”

She stepped back and gestured him inside. “I was thinking about—Major.”

Leaving his bag in the foyer, he followed her across an acre of off-white carpet and sank into a butter-soft leather couch. Close enough to touch her if he stretched out a hand… He clenched his fingers together in his lap.

“Major missed you. I missed you. Candy…” He cleared his throat.

“I missed you, too.” Her voice cracked a little. “But nothing’s changed. You lied to me about—everything.”

He let out a shuddering breath, shifted closer, and picked up her hand. Smoothing the back of it with his thumb, it took all his willpower not to grab her and kiss her. “I’m ready to explain about that.”

“I’m listening.”

He saw a flicker of hope in the clear hazel depths of her eyes, and smiled. “Jeb suggested groveling.”

Her lips curved in response. “Jeb is a wise man. If you don’t start talking, I’m going to head back to Georgia and marry him.”

Leaning against the couch cushions, he held her gaze. “I’m not sure where to begin.”

Her grip tightened on his. “How about with why you changed your name and moved to the middle of nowhere. If I can understand your reasons, maybe I can forgive you for not telling me the truth.” Her nails dug into his palm. “Maybe.”

He reminded himself this was Candy, the woman he loved. Suddenly, telling her everything didn’t seem like an impossible task. The tightness in his chest eased as he opened his mouth.

“Ten years ago, Crawford Industries was located in the North Tower of the World Trade Center.” He heard her indrawn breath but didn’t pause. “On that day in September when everything changed, I was late to work, home nursing a hangover.” He squeezed his eyes closed, then forced them open. “I lived. Friends and co-workers didn’t. They call it survivor’s guilt.”

“Oh, God, Mitch. I’m so sorry.” She bent her head and kissed their tightly clasped hands, her lips whisper soft. “I can’t imagine what you must have felt.”

“I was worthless for months afterward, and my father…” He hesitated and stared at the floor. “He told me to be a man and move on.” Raising his head, he met her concerned gaze full on. “So, I did. I left New York and Crawford Industries and moved to Georgia. Michael Crawford III died with everyone else in the towers. I became Mitch Johnson, a man whose skin I could live in, a man I could respect.”

“There was nothing wrong with Michael. Nothing at all.” She grasped his arms and gave them a shake. “You were the better man for caring. I’m sorry your father couldn’t see that.”

He sighed. “You’re right, but I couldn’t stay in New York. I had to get away.”

She drew her finger down the seam in the cushion, avoiding his eyes. “Why didn’t you tell me who you were? Didn’t you trust me to understand?”

Mitch swallowed. He had to tell her the truth, even if she walked away. There’d been too many lies between them.

Pulling her close, their thighs touched, sending a shot of desire straight to his groin. When she didn’t shove him away, he slipped his arm around her waist. Her head dropped onto his shoulder, fitting perfectly in the hollow of his neck.

“Honestly, I didn’t trust you at first. You were a city girl with attitude.” When she stiffened, he held on tight. “But that changed as I got to know you again. The Candy I cared about all those years ago emerged and won my heart.”

“You had plenty of chances to confess, Mitch.” There was an edge to her voice that sent a quiver through him.

“I tried more than once, but the words stuck in my throat. My past isn’t something I talk about to many people.”

“So I’m the same as everyone else?”

“No, of course you’re not.” He rubbed a hand across his face. “I’m making it worse, when all I want…”

She spoke softly. “Tell me what you want, Mitch.”

“I want you, Candy. No one else. Just you.”

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A Holiday to Remember Chapter Twenty-Six

(jump to the first chapter)

Chapter Twenty-Six – Memory of an Angel

by Vonnie Davis

Candy tossed her keys on the table in her foyer and struggled out of her boots. The snow in Manhattan, blackened by soot and car exhaust, was no longer pretty. No doubt what snow remained back in Georgia was still pristine with less traffic and pollution to soil it. She hung her coat and scarf and stepped into her professionally decorated living room.

She gazed around the room, off-white carpet, ivory walls, white leather furniture and chrome and glass tables. Colorless. Flopping onto a club chair, depression pressed on her chest. One word described her life sans Mitch and Major. Colorless. She swiped at a falling tear. A major crying jag was brewing; she could feel the burning behind her eyes and the constriction in her chest. Deal with it. You’re the one who walked out.

Five minutes later she stepped out of her bedroom in an old pair of flannel pajamas and padded into the kitchen to open a can of tomato soup for dinner. Cheddar slices and rye bread to make grilled cheese joined the accumulation on the counter. Given the mood she was in, the quart of Chocolate Fudge Brownie ice cream in her freezer would be dessert. Comfort food, and boy did she need comfort.

Standing at the stove stirring the soup, she wondered what Mitch was having for dinner. In Georgia, the roads were cleared by now. Businesses were open. Maybe he would go out. Her hand tightened around the wooden spoon. Would he go on a date? Her forehead furrowed. Would his eyes soften when he looked at another woman? Would his kisses be as passionate?

Stop acting like one of those besotted females in a romance novel. Who cares what he does. He lied.

She carried her bowl of soup and sandwich to the table and sat. Did she want to eat? Her appetite was nonexistent since her return. If she was still in Georgia, she could share her sandwich with Major. She sipped a spoonful of soup. That mutt had wormed his way into her heart. She missed his affectionate personality, even his wet canine kisses.

As for his master, she ached for him. Ached in a way she never imagined possible.

Had she allowed pride and fear of loving someone to ruin what might have been an incredible relationship? Mitch had offered to explain, but feelings of betrayal had clouded her judgment. Why the secrecy? Why the lies? Why had he changed his name? So many questions. Too many.

She gathered her dirty dishes and loaded the dishwasher. In an attempt to work off some stress, she wiped down her kitchen cabinets and mopped the floor. On a cleaning tirade, she dusted and vacuumed the rest of her apartment, singing Gonna Wash that Man Right Out of my Hair.

It didn’t work.

Mitch was still in her mind—and her heart.

Okay, so maybe what she needed was time. After all, she’d only been back in Manhattan for a couple of days. While gone, she’d experienced the most amazing time of her life in close quarters with an attractive, charming male. In their isolation, it only made sense they’d be drawn to one another. After a few days ensconced in her established, busy routine, the memories and feelings would fade.

Truth be told, had Mitch been five-foot-five with a receding hairline and a beer belly, she’d no doubt have fallen for Mr. Chubby, under those circumstances. She slapped the heel of her palm to her forehead. Oh, God, I’m delusional.

She’d fallen in love with a man who didn’t exist—Mitch, the tow truck driver. She opened the door to her freezer and peered in at the quart of ice cream.

“If Mom were here, she’d tell me chocolate was the cure-all for a case of the blues.”

Thinking about the hours she’d have to work out to reduce the effects of the ice cream, she closed the door. She’d nuke a bag of popcorn and watch a movie, something lighthearted to counteract the heaviness inside her. Candy rolled her eyes.

“I’ve turned maudlin. Thanks, Mitch…er Michael…for doing this to me.”

She pressed the buttons on the microwave, waiting for the popcorn to do its thing. The man had secrets. Why? Why had he kept his identity hidden?

Minutes later, she carried a bowl of popcorn into the living room and stood in front of the only thing she’d kept of her mother’s. A large curio cabinet filled with her mother’s cherished angel collection. She ate a handful of popcorn while her gaze swept over the many angels. Some were wooden, a few made of glass, many were porcelain, and a couple she’d made, herself, as a little girl. One was made from Popsicle sticks, another from strips of crafting foam.

Her mother had been a thrifty woman of necessity, given her meager earning potential, but these angels had been her one indulgence. Beneath each was a slip of paper written in her mother’s precise handwriting with the date she’d acquired the angel and where.

After her mother’s death, when she’d numbly gone about settling the estate, she’d decided to keep the angels and cabinet. At the time, she thought it odd that her mother had splurged on the cabinet, given her penny-pinching nature. When she’d wrapped each angel in tissue paper, she also tucked in its slip of paper, too raw with grief to read the angel’s history. She’d placed the notations beneath each angel. Tonight, when she needed the comfort of her mom, she’d read them.

She reached for the one made from Popsicle sticks. Made by my darling Candy at day camp. The year and her age were noted in the corner. She trailed a fingertip over her mother’s handwriting, drawing a sense of peace.

She lifted the foam angel and its paper. Made by Michael. Candy made an angel at the same time and gave it to him. So sweet to see how they care for each other. Her hand trembled when she set the foam angel back on its paper.

A long ago memory surfaced; sitting at the table in the kitchen while her mother bustled back and forth, making hors d’oeuvres for the party the Crawfords were hosting that night. Michael, looking very gown up in his suit, walked into the kitchen. When he saw her at the table gluing together pieces of colorful foam, he pulled out a chair and joined her.

“What are you making?”

“Angels,” she whispered.

She’d been too shy to talk. Slowly he brought her out of her shell as he asked her questions about what to do next. After he made this angel, he’d given it to her mother. Enamored with Michael—her first childhood crush—she’d hesitantly offered her angel to him. For weeks, she’d dreamed of his smile as he accepted her impromptu, awkward gift.

Even then we had a connection. If only he’d told me who he was as soon as he figured out our shared past.

She shook her head. So many secrets—and for what reason? Nothing added up, and in her orderly world, things had to make sense.

The next angel she reached for brought a smile to her face. She knew the history of the jade figurine. Her mother’s face always lit up when she talked about it. Her Uncle Tim had bought it while on liberty in Viet Nam back in the ‘sixties and sent it to her mother for her sixteenth birthday. Beneath the angel were the words, Tim’s Vietnamese Angel.

Her hand wrapped around an exquisite, gold trimmed porcelain angel. On its paper was written, Given to me by Michael. He claimed the angel caught his eye because it reminded him of Candy. Tears burned. When she read the note written below it in a different color of ink, she lost it. Michael bought me this curio cabinet with his first paycheck from Crawford Industries. He asked me to keep his present a secret.

Michael had cared for her mother—and for her, too. Why all the secrecy? Didn’t she owe it to her mother to hear his explanation? Didn’t she owe it to herself? She set the angel back on its paper and closed the door to the cabinet.

Wiping tears from her eyes, she reached for the telephone and dialed. Mitch’s phone rang. Was she too late? Would he want to explain after she’d so rudely walked out of his house—out of his life? Her heart pounded in her ears as the phone rang and rang—and rang.

Monday, December 26, 2011

A Holiday to Remember Chapter Twenty-Five

(jump to the first chapter)

Chapter Twenty Five – One Call Changes Everything

by Laura Breck

Mitch’s phone rang once then silenced. Major opened one eye from his prime spot in front of the fireplace as Mitch picked up his cell. A New York area code. “Huh.” Probably another one of his father’s tricks to get him to answer the phone, dialing from a new number.


He checked the number again. It could be Candy. He could Google the number…

No. He’d been the one to let her go. If she wanted to contact him—decided she wanted her clothes or something—she would call. He wasn’t going to jump at every wrong number, hoping it was her. Replacing the phone on the table, he picked up his book and went back to reading.

After staring blankly at the paragraph for ten minutes, remembering the last afternoon he’d spent with Candy in his bed, he grabbed the phone. “Damn.” Accessing the last call, he got up and walked toward the back of the house.

In the office, he fired up the computer and plopped down in his ergonomic chair. Why couldn’t he get her out of his head?

He typed in the mystery number and came up with unlisted cell phone. On his phone, he saved the number, just in case whoever it was called again. While he sat at his computer, he checked e-mails, local weather, and sports scores.

Hell, who was he kidding? He only wanted to check one thing. Bringing up a search engine, he typed in Candice Wright.

A lot of results popped up, but none were the Candy he knew. He tried Candice Wright New York. There she was. A screen full of articles on her and her advertising agency, The Wright Way, followed by six more pages. He read a few of them, but they only discussed her business acumen and successful rise to the top of New York’s advertising world. He wanted more, wanted to understand what made Candice Wright Candy.

On page three, a few articles talked about her philanthropic projects. He searched again, adding philanthropy to the hunt. Four pages came up with pictures of Candy in formal gowns standing next to dignitaries and stars.

Her company provided advertising services to charities for kids, and she personally donated a lot of money to a number of causes dealing with children. Homelessness, domestic abuse, literacy. She’d never mentioned this side of her business when she’d been here. Of course, she barely spoke about her company.

He read her mission statement. Even though the objectives focused on the usual, customer service and employee integrity, the last line stood out. To share our talents and treasures in areas that will make a difference in a child’s life.

Mitch sat back and read the sentence again. Was it because of her difficult childhood that she chose to include such a personal goal in her business model? Her way of helping kids in similar situations?

A cold, wet nose nudged his arm. He turned toward Major’s expectant face and wagging tail. “You want to go out?”

The dog whined and stepped back, his tail double-timing, his eyes wide. As Mitch stood, Major ran to the back door, then retraced the path until he opened it.

The night was clear and cool, the stars overhead shone in an inky sky. He and Candy had lain in his bed, looking out the window at the constellations. He’d gotten some wild notions that night. Wanted to keep her in his bed forever. Imagined them building a life together.

Major barked and Mitch whistled him back.

A chill rattled through his body. Could he have kept her? If he’d been able to talk about the demons of the past? Hell, those demons still took a run at him from time to time.

She’d had a lot of pain in her own life. Maybe she would have understood. Maybe he’d underestimated her. She might have been the perfect person to open up to. Instead, he’d shut her out.

He looked at the sky. So cold and lonely. It wasn’t right. This wasn’t what he wanted for his life. Candy. He’d let the best thing that had ever happened to him slip away without a fight. When had he become a coward?

Major ran toward the house, and Mitch opened the door for them to enter the warmth of the kitchen. He walked toward the table where he’d shared intimate meals with her.

He braced both hands on the table and let his head hang down. He’d made a mistake. He’d let her go when everything inside him told him she was the one. He’d lost…everything.

A voice in his mind shouted, No! His head came up as he straightened his backbone. He wouldn’t give up that easily. He could fix this. He could make it right.

Major stood at his bowl of kibble, eyeing Mitch, as if sensing something odd happening.

Mitch pulled his phone and dialed. “Jeb, can you watch Major for a few days?”

“It’s about time, dumbass.” The older man’s quiet laugh eased through the phone. “You book yourself on the next flight to New York, and I’ll drive you to the airport.”

Mitch grinned. “How do you know I’m not going to Allatoona for some fishing?”

Jeb snorted. “You’re a smart man. Slow, but smart. You’re not gonna let Candy get away.”

“I should have stopped her—” Mitch huffed out a breath.

“Don’t waste time pissin’ and moanin’ about what you should’ve done. Just get your ass up north. And Mitch?”

“Uh huh?” This ought to be good.

“Prepare to grovel.”

Sunday, December 25, 2011

A Holiday to Remember Chapter Twenty-Four

(jump to the first chapter)

Chapter Twenty-Four – Men… Who Needs Them

by Barbara Edwards

Candy flipped open another file, but her gaze refused to settle on the page. Silence echoed through her open office door. Down the hall, a single strand of garland sparkled and twisted as air moved from the heat she’d turned up. Someone had left a holiday candle in one of the cubicles, and the scent of spiced apple drifted to her. She pulled her cashmere sweater close and ignored the fact that her favorite lay at the foot of Mitch’s bed. A shiver ran over her skin. Chilled by the slushy city streets, she needed warmth. Mitch’s steaming body came to mind, and she snarled aloud. Those long, slow hours making love were in the past.

Her hand slid across the wide desk, sending the file to the floor. Anger and pain combined in a dangerous cocktail. If he were here, she’d show him pain. Her fist slammed down, and she winced. She didn’t need him. She didn’t need a man, period.

Rising to her feet, Candy rubbed her arms as she paced to the wide windows. Nightfall lent sparkling beauty to the street below. She’d been so proud to occupy the corner office of her own business. Years of hard work and dedication had taken her to the top of the advertising industry. Her mother would have been proud of her accomplishments. She pressed her hand against the cold glass.

What was Mitch doing? Did he regret letting her go?

Why? Why? Why? The why pounded like hammer blows inside her skull, and a tear trickled down her cheek.

Rubbing it away, she straightened her shoulders. Mitch wouldn’t talk to her, wouldn’t explain. And she’d let him get away with that? It wasn’t like her. She spun away from the window.

Her mother’s smile glinted from a candid photo on her desk. The breath caught in her throat. Her mom had loved Michael. Her big heart had welcomed the lonely boy. Though he had only a single neighbor and a big sloppy dog, shedding love like loose hair, Mitch’s life now held more affection than it ever had in his youth. She rubbed away another tear.

Had she judged him too harshly? She’d blamed him for not talking to her, but had she asked the right questions? Pain closed around her heart and squeezed.

Her hand shook as she reached for the phone.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

A Holiday to Remember Chapter Twenty-Three

(jump to the first chapter)

Chapter Twenty-Three – Goodbye to What Might Have Been

by Brenda Whiteside

“Truck should be warm by now.” Jeb stamped his boots, knocking off snow, as he stood just inside the door. “You ready to go, Candy?”

Candy turned from the window where she’d watched Mitch’s neighbor clear the snow from the windshield of his truck. “Yes, I’m ready.”

Jeb pulled a hooded sweatshirt from a hook by the front door. “Put this on.”

“Thanks.” She slipped the fleece around her and smiled at the elderly man. Following him to the truck, her footsteps were heavy, but less from the soggy ground than the sadness weighing her down.

“You sure you wouldn’t like to stop at Mitch’s and get your own coat…or anything else?” He put the truck in reverse and backed out onto the road. “Wouldn’t be any trouble since we’ll pass right by.”

“I’m sure.” Candy didn’t mean to sound as icy as the weather but any reference to Mitch—to Michael—chilled her soul.

She stared out the window into the growing dark, not wanting to watch for Mitch’s place, but drawn to where she’d left her heart. The golden glow from the windows flickered through the trees before the cabin came into view. Tears stung her eyes. She could smell the wood burning in the fireplace, feel his arms around her.

“Mitch might like to ride to the airport with us. Should we stop and ask?”

Candy shook her head and forced herself to look at the road. She shut her eyes, damming the threatening tears. He’d made a fool of her. He’d played her, gained her trust and love, only to smash her feelings without any explanation. She never wanted to see that manipulating, heartless man again.

“You and Mitch—”

“There is no me and Mitch.”

“No? Maybe—”

“His name isn’t Mitch. He’s not who you think he is.” Why the hell should she protect his identity?

“He’s Mitch. He might have another name, another life before this one, but to all of us in Elridge, he’s just Mitch.” Jeb gave her a serious, narrow-eyed glance before turning his attention back on the road.

“You don’t know the real man. His name is Michael Crawford—”

“The third.”

Candy stared at Jeb, dumbfounded. She closed her gaping mouth when Jeb snickered at her.

“I’m probably the only one around here who does know, but that’s Mitch’s business.”

“Why would he hide his identity?”

“I don’t think he’s hiding, exactly.”

“No? Then why are you the only one who knows?”

“Can’t say. We all have secrets, and our reasons are our own.” His voice was quiet, the slushy road sounds nearly blocking out his words.

“Why, Jeb? Why did he change his name and move here?”

“I said I knew his real name, where he came from. Don’t know much more. When and if Mitch ever decides to tell me, I’ll listen. But it really doesn’t matter. He’s one hell of a man, whatever he calls himself.”

“Oh, yeah, one hell of a man.”

They rode in silence for a few miles. The fact that Mitch had told Jeb who he was didn’t mitigate her anger. Michael, not Mitch. But they were one and the same. All those years ago, she’d loved Michael—a childish love but love nonetheless—and he’d hurt her. What she felt for Mitch—the love, anger, hurt—was history repeating itself.

“The first winter Mitch was here, Jenny Martin lost her husband. Mitch went to her house every day, though he didn’t really know her.” He held up his hand when she opened her mouth. “Before you jump to conclusions, Jenny’s a grandma. But he was there, doing all the chores, helping her get the house ready to sell.” Jeb nodded at her as if he’d relayed the news of the week.

“What has that got to do with anything?”

“A man’s actions speak louder than words.”

Candy hugged the fleece around her. Mitch’s actions were loud and clear. He’d concealed the truth. That said it all.

“I was down with a broken leg a while back. Mitch was handy whenever I needed something done.”

“Fine, Jeb. I understand he’s a Good Samaritan.”

“There’s a lot more to the man.”

“Like what? How can you be sure if you don’t know why he’s here? Why he lives under an alias?”

“I could tell when he first moved here, he needed to set something right.”

“What do you mean?” Candy squinted to see his face in the dim light of the truck cab. If he knew something, anything that would absolve Mitch for his deceitful actions, she wanted to know. God, was she still harboring a sliver of hope?

“Sorry, Candy. I don’t know exactly what I mean. It’s just a feeling. But he’s a good man.”

She shook her head and turned away from him.

“When he was with you…happiest I’ve ever seen him.”

“You don’t understand, Jeb. You can’t know…” She leaned her head back and closed her eyes.

The good neighbor took the hint, and they rode in silence the remaining miles.

Candy dozed; pleasant dreams of Mitch’s kisses laced her slumber. She jerked awake when Jeb turned a sharp corner and pulled into a parking space at the Atlanta airport.

The engine noise died, and Jeb opened his door. “I’ll walk you in.”

“You don’t have to do that.”

“My orders were to make sure you were delivered safely.”

“Your orders?”

His only response was a smile.

Tears came from nowhere. “Well, consider your task accomplished.” She swiped the tears away with the sleeve of his sweatshirt. “Oh, jeez, sorry.” She dabbed at the wet spot with her hand. “Look, let’s just say goodbye here. There’s no need to walk me in. You’ve been so very kind and helpful. Can I pay you for the gas?”

“You most certainly cannot.”

“Then I’ll give you back your hoodie and—”

“No, no.” He shut his door and waved a hand in the air. “You keep it. You can return it when you come back.”

“Jeb, I’m not—”

“Don’t make promises you can’t keep.”

She leaned across the cab and planted a kiss on his cheek. “Goodbye, Jeb.”

“Until next time.”

There was no use arguing with him. She hopped out onto the asphalt of the cold parking garage, pulled the hoodie tighter, and walked to the elevator. As the doors closed, she waved goodbye to Jeb. Goodbye to what might have been.

Friday, December 23, 2011

A Holiday to Remember Chapter Twenty-Two

(jump to the first chapter)

Chapter Twenty-Two – A Lonely Future

by Laura Breck

Mitch stood with one foot on the ground and one on the bottom step, hanging on to Major’s collar. The disloyal dog wanted to go after Candy. Hell, he wanted to go after her, but something held him dangling between advance and retreat.

No one knew his inner pain. Other than the therapist he saw ten years ago, no one understood why he’d run away to Georgia.

Candy disappeared around a bend in the path. Gone. He looked down at Major, who stared at him with censure in his gaze. “In the house, boy.” Major walked inside, his head held low.

Mitch stared down the path. He wasn’t ready to spill his weaknesses all over the kitchen table for Candy to see. For Candy to judge. The way his father had judged ten years ago.

The fear that Candy would respond the same way held him back. It wasn’t the girl he’d known years ago, or the woman he’d gotten to know the last few days. It was the Candy he’d met at the gas station that made him leery. The hard-driving, demanding city girl who’d looked him up and down and jumped to categorize him.

It was too late, anyway. She was gone now, or would be as soon as…

“Shit.” He tugged his phone out of his pocket and dialed Jeb.

His neighbor answered on the second ring. “Brother, what's happening over in Romanceville?”

“Candy left me. She’s on her way to your place.”

Silence. “She’s dumping you for me?” His voice held a chuckle.

“She wants to get away from me. Do you have time to drive her to Atlanta?”

“You’re serious.” Jeb huffed out a long sigh. “All I’ve got is time. But I’d rather hand you my truck keys and let you drive her.”

If Mitch couldn’t talk to her in his own home, there was no way he’d be able to break loose in Jeb’s truck. “Just make sure you get her there safe, okay?”

“Yeah, she’ll be safe.” He paused. “When I get back, if you need a drink…”

“Thanks. I owe you one.” He clicked the off button. No amount of alcohol would wash away this mess. His lungs wouldn’t fill. As if something inside him was missing.

A rare nocturnal cardinal landed on a bare tree branch where Mitch had hung a feeder full of sunflower seeds. The yard light spotlighted the bright spot of color against the dull landscape. Kind of like Candy… No. Not going to make up metaphors about her.

He turned and walked into the house, the smell of the simmering stew hitting him in the stomach. It wasn’t hunger. It tasted like guilt. He covered the pot and turned off the stove.

In his stocking feet, he padded into the bedroom and found Major lying with his head on Candy's sweater. “That’s not yours. Off,” he chided, and the dog raised his head.

Mitch picked up the piece of fluff and fought the urge to press it to his nostrils and suck in her scent. It probably smelled like dog anyway. Should he wash it and dry it before he shipped it back to her with the rest of her stuff?

No, this had to be expensive and dry-clean only. He knew of a half-dozen drycleaners, but all of them were in New York City. Different lives. Folding the sweater carefully, he shook his head. Different worlds.

He opened her suitcase. It sat on top of his dresser, serving as a reminder of the certainty that this relationship was over. He’d been counting on a few more days, though.

Setting her sweater in the suitcase, his fingers brushed a silky scrap of panty. He jerked his hand back. She’d been so soft, so passionate in his arms. Adventurous one hour and slowly seductive the next. The perfect lover.

Mitch rubbed the heels of his hands over his closed eyes, needing to erase those memories. He’d never hold her again. Never carry her to his bed and press himself along her satiny length. Never kiss her, or taste her sweetness.

Fisting his hands, he punched them toward the ceiling and dropped his head back, letting out an animal howl of pain. Major jumped onto the bed, barking and circling.

He picked up a pair of her jeans, rolled them into a ball, and threw it into the suitcase. “I’m so damned messed up…” Picking up her robe, he threw it into the suitcase. “I let her go…” He hurled her boots in on top of her clothes. “The most amazing woman…” Mitch picked up her bra, then dropped it.

He collapsed on the bed, and Major instantly lay next to him, his head on his chest, his canine eyes full of worry. Petting his best friend with soothing strokes, Mitch murmured, “The one I let get away.”

Thursday, December 22, 2011

A Holiday to Remember Chapter Twenty-One

(jump to the first chapter)

Chapter Twenty-One – No Strings Attached

by Claire Ashgrove


The single word stopped Candy at the door. Her fingers grazed the brass knob. Wisdom ordered her to turn the cold metal and ignore Mitch’s nearly inaudible directive. Her naïve heart, that so desperately wanted him to have a justification she could forgive, instructed her to turn around. She pivoted slowly, pinning him with a mistrustful stare. “Wait?”

He nodded and stood taller. His throat worked visibly as he swallowed, and then the façade cracked and his stare dropped to Major. “You set the rules. This was no strings attached.”

His voice was quiet, but it lashed like the crack of a whip, flaying her already wounded heart into bits. She’d been so foolish. So absolutely stupid to think that Michael Crawford III might have developed feelings for the maid’s daughter. He’d known all along who she was. If he’d cared, if he’d come half as close to love as she had, he’d have spit everything out days ago.

Candy steeled her resolve. This man had hurt her once before. She’d be damned if she'd let him know he could wound the woman who’d moved beyond her subservient social status. He and his family didn’t deserve that kind of power. “You’re right, I set the rules. Now I’m holding to them and leaving.”

She yanked open the door and grabbed her purse. Chill winter wind rushed through the plush fabric of her sweater.


Heavy boot steps followed her quick retreat down the stairs, crunching what remained of the slush and ice on the pave stones. Candy quickened her steps, her focus on the path leading into the woods.

“Candy! Your coat, your things! You can’t just walk out in the middle of winter. Come back and we can talk about this.”

Like hell. Gritting her teeth, she refused to acknowledge the cold and lifted her voice over the brisk breeze. “Burn them. I don’t want to see them again.”

No reminders of Mitch—her favorite cashmere sweater might be in a heap at the foot of his bed, but she could buy another. Keeping memories of him hanging in her closet would make it impossible to erase their connection from her mind. And she would erase him. One way or another.

Taking a deep breath, she ignored Major’s muffled bark and stumbled down the four-wheeler’s path. Jeb could give her a ride. To the airport, to town where she could catch a cab, all the way to Manhattan if necessary. It didn’t matter where he took her, so long as it was far from Mitch—no Michael’s—rustic home.

What in the world was he doing all the way down here anyway?

It didn’t matter. She no longer cared.

As she blinked back tears, she summoned the old, familiar walls around her heart and turned the bend, trudging deeper into the forest. Above the tall pines, a slender plume of smoke wove through the branches, marking the path back to the life she could depend on. The life where everyone remained at a safe distance and no one trespassed across the rock-hard boundaries she set.

So what if that meant Christmas, New Year’s, and all the rest of the holidays would be spent alone? So what if that meant she’d have to go out and buy her own damn dog?

So what if she never knew why Michael had ignored her mother’s death?

She didn’t really need to know. Like before, he’d said everything with his silence.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A Holiday to Remember Chapter Twenty

(jump to the first chapter)

Chapter Twenty – It's Cold Outside

by Barbara Edwards

Mitch’s heart pounded at the sight of Candy seated at the table, her head in her hands. The rich smell of homemade stew filled the air. Guilt tightened his throat. She’d cooked supper for him. She couldn’t be holding a grudge, could she?

He quietly closed the door behind the dog. He had to tell her how his feelings had changed.

He groaned when Major laid his head in Candy’s lap. She ignored him, while she rubbed his dog’s silky ears.

Mitch knew how those fingers felt, and his skin burned at the memory.


“What do you want, Mitch? To talk? You’re not the only one who needed time to think.” A sigh trembled from her lips.

She finally looked at him, and he wished she hadn’t. Her reddened eyes revealed she’d been crying.

“I’m sorry,” he mumbled. His cold fingers fumbled with the zipper of his jacket.

“For what? Not telling me who you are? Pretending to be interested in my past?” Her hazel eyes sparked with anger. “For making love to me like you really cared?”

Mitch held his hands up to stop the barrage of words. They found their target, anyway, ripping pieces from his heart. When he opened his mouth, nothing came out but a low groan.

Candy jerked to her feet.

Major scrambled to avoid being stepped on as she advanced until her face was inches from his. The varied colors of her hazel eyes glittered up at him. “Are you going to explain?”

His jaw worked as he tried to force out all the things he’d kept locked inside for ten years. All the horror and heartbreak. “I can’t,” he said, defeated.

She gave him a look cold enough to frost the Georgia Dome in August. “Then I’m out of here.”

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A Holiday to Remember Chapter Nineteen

(jump to the first chapter)

 Chapter Nineteen – The Moment of Truth

by Laura Breck

His hand, scratching his bare chest, froze as Candy spat out his real name like she'd bitten into a rotten peach.

Ah, shit. How had he let it come to this? For days he'd been searching for a way to tell her, struggling for the right words.

Candy dropped the paper she'd been holding in front of his face, and it fluttered to the floor.

Mitch watched it settle and then raised his head to meet her gaze. Wet with tears, her beautiful hazel eyes glistened. His breath faltered. He opened his mouth, but words failed him. What the hell could he say? What could fix this?

Major nosed his way past him into the room. After sniffing at the paper, he yawned and stretched his front legs out in a yoga position, then dropped his butt and lay on the floor watching them.

“Oooooh!” Her face pinched and turned bright red. “I could just…” When her gaze lowered to his bandaged arm, she dropped her raised fist and let out a heartbreaking sigh.

Major whined, the sound skittering along Mitch’s nerves.

“If hitting me would make you feel better…” He held his arms out to the side. “By all means, do it.”

When she blinked, tears ran down her cheeks. She shook her head, and her bottom lip quivered.

“I hate to see you hurting like this.” He lowered his arms.

“Really?” She snapped. “You're concerned about me? You're the one who orchestrated this whole—”

“Nothing was orchestrated.” He lifted a hand, and she jumped back. As if she was afraid of being struck. Or worse, touched by something nasty. “When I realized who you were…”

“You asked me a dozen questions.” She jabbed a finger toward him. “Questions you knew the answers to. And I went on and on, telling you all about my life.” She closed her eyes for a second, then looked past his shoulder. “You must have had a damn good laugh."

“Of course not. I just didn't know how to—”

“Was this a game to you?” she cried. “Did the rich boy have fun seducing the maid’s daughter?”

“No. Goddamn it, Candy…” He had to make this right. Mitch scrubbed a hand down his face. “I wanted to tell you. After we made love the first time, I wanted to tell you.”

“Why didn't you?”

The misery in her eyes clawed at his gut. Everything he said was wrong. He had to get away, just for a little while. He had to have time to think before he screwed this up completely.

“C’mon, Major.”

The dog jumped up.

Without looking at her, he said, “I'm going to take a walk. When I come back, we’ll talk this out.”

She didn't speak.

He waited.

She stared at him as if he were just this side of full-crazy.

Hell, maybe he was crazy. All he knew was, he didn't want to say any more until he cleared his head. He turned and went to the bedroom, dressed, and walked through the kitchen to the back door. Major followed, not his usual exuberant doggy self, as if sensing the tension in the air.

Mitch let the dog out and paused to listen. Silence. Where was she? God, he hoped she wasn't crying.

He headed into the woods as the sun dipped low between the trees. The ground sucked at his boots as the melting snow turned the forest floor into mud. He walked toward Jeb's cabin and considered knocking on his neighbor's door and burying his troubles in a bottle of whiskey, but that was a coward’s way out.

“I may be an idiot, but I’m not a coward.”

Major looked up at him from where he dug snow around a tree.

“Yeah, me,” he told his dog as he turned and headed back toward his own house.

Major barked twice and bounced alongside him as if in full agreement.

When he stepped into the yard, he drew up short. The fresh air and exercise had helped, but he still needed a plan.

He ducked into the garage and turned on the light over the workbench. Picking up a hammer, he whacked at a loose nail. Then dug out another one and pounded it into a piece of scrap lumber. Then another. Pretty soon, he’d wasted a half a box of nails.

“Shit.” Facing Candy would be one of the most difficult things he’d done in his life. No matter how hard, he’d tell her the truth. He hadn’t revealed his identity because she was only looking for a quick fling. Then she’d leave. How many times had she told him that? He hadn’t thought they’d grow this close. Never imagined she’d stick around.

He looked out the window toward the house. The kitchen glowed golden with light. Warm and inviting. His heart beat double time, and a bubble of emotion tried to break free of his throat. “Candy.” Damn, he was glad she’d stuck around.

He’d tell her how much she meant to him—no—how much she’d always meant to him. How those adolescent feelings had matured in the last few days. A love that took twenty years to—

Whoa! Love?

The hammer fell from his fingers, clattering on the cement floor. Panic gripped him. Where the hell had that come from?

Monday, December 19, 2011

A Holiday to Remember Chapter Eighteen

(jump to the first chapter)

Chapter Eighteen – Revelations

by Amber Leigh Williams

Candy had promised herself she’d leave as soon as the power was back on and Mitch was his healthy, hearty self again, but she lingered. Her rental car was being repaired. After hours spent on the phone with his insurance company, Mitch’s tow truck had been hauled away. The snow was melting. Yet it became increasingly difficult for her to pack up what she’d pulled out of her suitcase, the pieces of clothing mingling with his in piles on the floor, usually where she’d discarded them at the onset of sex. Once Mitch got his stamina back, they went several rounds throughout the house.

If she were honest with herself—and the longer she spent with Mitch, the more she was forced to confront her feelings—it wasn’t the lovemaking that kept her around. It was the unity that had grown out of their relationship. Despite the short time they’d spent together, being with him felt natural. Even the time engaged in their prickly brand of banter.

No, it wasn’t just sexual. And if she were really being honest with herself, it never had been. She’d fallen for him. After all her resolutions and reservations and years of being alone, Candy Wright had found love in the unlikeliest place imaginable. With the unlikeliest man.

Still, reality had to intrude at some point. She had a home and a career hundreds of miles away.

Turning toward him, she studied his face in the afternoon light shining through the undraped windowpane across the bedroom. He’d crashed hard after their latest tussle. Their lovemaking had been tender, slow, drawn out with such care it had shattered her heart. She feathered her hand lightly over his stubbled cheek, and a soft smile touched her lips when he sighed in his sleep.

Though she’d thought of little else all morning, she hadn’t known how to broach the subject of her return to New York. Usually, she didn’t have a problem putting an end to a relationship. And though this would only be a temporary end—she hoped—she didn’t want to wipe the soft look from his eyes. The look she’d basked under since their return from the clinic.

How she was going to live without that look… She didn’t want to think about it.

Unable to settle down, she rose as quietly as she could from the bed and stepped carefully over Major on her way out. Candy wrapped a white silk robe around her waist, glad she’d had the foresight to pack it for the trip south. She thought about going into the kitchen for some hot chocolate but decided against it when she found herself at the door to his office.

The first steps had to be taken. Preparation. As she stepped around the jamb and cracked the door behind her, she hoped Mitch would continue sleeping without her beside him.

Ignoring the pang of guilt at planning the initial stages of her return without his knowledge, she sat down in front of the spiffy-looking desktop and hit the button to engage the monitor. First up, she would see if there were any more flight delays out of the Atlanta airport. With the inclement weather moving northwest, air travel was getting back to relative normalcy in the south.

Releasing a heavy breath, she scanned the flights from Atlanta to New York. Which one? Several flew out that evening. She wouldn’t even consider leaving so soon. Biting her lip, she read the list for tomorrow.

The screen blurred. She blinked, surprised at the tears in her eyes and the ache in her chest.

She wasn’t ready to take this finite step.... Not without talking to Mitch first. She would be up front with him, no matter his reaction. Then she would book a flight and give them plenty of time to say their goodbyes.

Candy cleared her throat, swiped the tears from her cheeks, and opened her email inbox. There were several messages from clients with projects slated for completion after the holidays. She couldn’t ignore them forever.

As she reached up to turn off the monitor, the fax machine to her right whirred to life. She jumped and knocked her elbow against the desk.

A single sheet of paper spat from the printer, overshot the paper tray, and fluttered to the floor.

Reaching down to retrieve it, the letterhead caught her eye.


The name pierced her memory. So did the corporate logo beneath it. Her eyes flew over the words underneath the heading….


I’ve been trying to reach you for days. Do they no longer have phone service wherever it is you have chosen to bury yourself these past few years? Your mother is requesting your presence here at home on New Year’s Day. I’ve told her not to get her hopes up as you never answer any of our summonses for the holidays or any other occasion and that you have distanced yourself irreversibly from this family. However, if you could be so kind as to drop her a line, I’m sure she would be most grateful.

Your father,

Michael Crawford Jr.

She stared at the signature, her heart pounding against her breastbone. After several long minutes, she crumpled the paper in her hand.

Crawford. How had she not seen it? Mitch had been lying to her the whole time. Mitch Johnson was Michael Crawford III, her childhood friend. He’d made her explain to him who her mother was, where she’d worked, the demise of what little family she had…. And he hadn’t said a word. Not It’s me, Michael or I’m sorry. Nothing.


She whirled toward the doorway. By God, she shook with wrath, trembling and chilled to the bone. “I know who you are.”

His eyes narrowed. “What is it? What’s wrong?”

She held up the fax and waved it in front of his face. “I know who you are, Michael Crawford III!”

Sunday, December 18, 2011

A Holiday to Remember Chapter Seventeen

(jump to the first chapter)

Chapter Seventeen – Knight in Denim Overalls

by Jannine Gallant

Snuggling against Mitch, Candy rested her cheek on the flannel covering his chest and listened to his heartbeat. Faster than normal. A result of the fever or something else?

“What were you dreaming about?”

His body stiffened, and his breath rushed out, stirring the hair at her temple. “Something that happened a long time ago.”

She turned in his arms to look up at his face. His eyes squeezed closed, lines of pain etched deep.

“I’m listening if you want to talk about it.”

When he met her gaze, she stared into the soul of a deeply wounded man.

“I can’t, Candy. It’s not that I don’t trust you…” His throat worked convulsively as he swallowed. “I just can’t.”

She pulled away a fraction of an inch. His words stung. “All right.” Staring at the ceiling, she bit her lip, then blurted, “Do you have a girlfriend, fiancée, significant other, someone I should know about?”

“No.” His voice rose. “Of course not. I wouldn’t have slept with you if I was involved with anyone.”

Relief surged through her like a torrent, little bubbles of happiness bursting in her chest. “You said…I thought…never mind. It doesn’t matter.”

“Not a very flattering picture you have of me. What kind of jerk do you take me for?” He picked at the covers.

She covered his hand with hers. His skin was hot to the touch. Jerking upright, she touched his brow. Definitely warmer than she liked.

“Mitch, you’re scaring me a little. I think you need to see a doctor. Now.”

His eyes widened. “Seriously?”

She nodded.

“Jeb, my neighbor, was an army medic. If you really think—”

“I do.” She slipped out from under his arm and stood beside the bed. “If anything bad happens to you because—” She broke off and worried her lip between her teeth. “Let’s just say I’m not going to risk losing someone else I…care about.”

Reaching out, he snagged her arm. His fingers burned around her wrist. A smile curved his lips, and the ghost of devilish amusement danced in his fever bright eyes.

“I like the sound of that.”

“Save it for later.” She backed up a step, then rushed forward and dropped a kiss on his lips. Her heart contracted when he slid his fingers through her hair. “Mitch…”

“I’ll be fine. We’ll be fine.”

“Definitely, but let’s make sure of it.”


The damned ATV wouldn’t start. So maybe she was doing something wrong. Who knew how to run one of these things? Not an ex-country girl turned confirmed concrete junkie. Giving the machine a kick with her borrowed boot, pain shot up her leg. Candy gritted her teeth and forced back tears.

By the time she reached the little cabin tucked into the woods, she couldn’t feel her feet. Rapping frozen knuckles against the solid wood portal, she stomped hard on the porch until a burning sensation assured her they were still attached.

The door flew open. A tall, lanky man with a gray buzz cut glared down at her. “What’s all the ruckus out here?”

“S-s-s-s-sorry. I got snow in my boots on the way over and—”

“Good Lord, come inside.” Reaching out a long arm, he pulled her over the threshold. “Aren’t you the girl Mitch was with yesterday?”

Candy nodded. Her cheeks burned in the sudden blast of heat. Flames leapt behind the glass window of a woodstove. “I’m Candy Wright.” She pulled off a knitted mitten and stuck out red fingers.

“Jeb Nobell.” He released her hand. “You’re half frozen.”

“More like three-quarters.” She sniffed and wiped her running nose on the sleeve of Mitch’s jacket. “But right now, I’m more concerned with your neighbor. He cut himself on a chainsaw yesterday, and he’s running a fever.”

Frown lines bisected his weathered face. “Did you take him to the clinic?”

“I couldn’t.” She tucked her numb fingers into the jacket sleeves. “A tree flattened his truck the first night of the storm, and my rental car is stranded beside the road with a bent axel. I did the best I could…” The sympathy in his deep brown eyes was her undoing. Sniffing again, she dashed tears from her cheeks.

“I’m sure your best is mighty fine.” He gave her arm a squeeze. “Let me get my first aid kit, and we’ll go check him out.”

Feeling as if a two-ton elephant had been lifted from her shoulders, Candy watched her knight in denim overalls lope up the stairs.


Standing in Mitch's driveway next to Jeb's powerful four-wheel-drive truck, Candy stretched onto her toes and pecked his leathery cheek. “How can I ever thank you?”

“No reason to. Mitch is a friend, and I look out for my friends.” He smiled at her, his chocolate brown eyes twinkling. “I like you, Candy. You made the best of a bad situation and didn’t panic. If you ever need anything, all you have to do is ask.”

Warmth filled her, thawing the last of the chill she’d been feeling since setting out that morning. “I appreciate it. Appreciate everything. Even if I’d had a working vehicle, I’d never have been able to negotiate the road to the clinic. Thank God they got the downed tree cleared away.”

“Yup, almost back to normal. Power’s on. Another day of sunshine, and the road will be in tolerable shape. Mitch, too.” He chuckled. “I mean, a day or two of those antibiotics should work wonders. Just make sure he takes them all.”

“I will. Thanks, Jeb.”

He nodded, sketched a salute, and climbed into his truck.

Candy walked back to the house, closed the door, and leaned against it, relief settling in. Mitch was going to be fine. The visions of gangrene she’d harbored disappeared with the melting snow. And she had clothes. Real clothes. They’d stop at her disabled car on the way home. The thought of wearing something other than baggy sweats and flannel sent a shiver of anticipation skittering down her spine.

“If that smile gets any wider, you’re going to pull a muscle.”

Her gaze snapped to the hallway. Mitch lounged against the wall, watching her. Major sat beside him.

“I was thinking about my favorite sweater. It’s shouting my name from its prison inside my suitcase.”

He cocked his head and frowned. “Are you sure? I thought it was the lace teddy.”

A giggle burst through her lips. “You must be feeling better. Still, I think you should go sit down.”

“Only if you come with me.”

The way his gaze strayed down the length of her body nearly convinced her. Heat flared. For crying out loud, the man isn’t even touching you. Get a grip! She took a breath. “As soon as I change.”

“If it’s into that lacy teddy, you have my blessing.”

She crossed the room and stopped inches away. The dog whined, and she reached down absently to scratch his ears. “You’re in no condition for teddies, lace or otherwise.”

Mitch tugged her against him. “Wanna bet?”

Wrapping her arms loosely around his neck, she smiled. “No.” Leaning in, she kissed him lightly. “I’m just so thankful you’re going to be okay. I was worried. Really worried.”

“Does that mean you care, just a little?”

She rolled her eyes at his wheedling tone. “Maybe a little, smarty.”

“Then sit with me on the couch. I’m sure we can think of something to do that won’t tax my strength.”

“Just as soon as I change. Promise.”

His gaze caressed her face. The look in his eyes… She let out a shuddering breath, afraid to put a name to it.

“I’ll be right back.”

“I’m holding you to it.”

Saturday, December 17, 2011

A Holiday to Remember Chapter Sixteen

(jump to the first chapter)

Chapter Sixteen – Past Remembered

by Jerri Hines

Candy stared at Mitch. What could she say? He hadn’t done anything. She had no rational explanation for becoming so very, very angry. Except he’d crept into her heart when she wasn’t looking and broken it a little. She’d learned long ago never to become emotionally involved. To bad she’d forgotten the lesson.

“Sorry. I’m just tired. Poor thing, having no one but a city girl to look after you.”

“I wouldn’t want anyone else,” he said in a slow drawl. “No one else but you.”

He sounded sincere… “Let’s see if you feel the same way after I bandage your arm again.”

He snorted. “Give it your best shot.”

Not immune to his sense of humor, Candy laughed. After cleaning up the mess she’d made, she looked down at him. His eyes were closed. Hopefully his temperature had dropped. She hadn’t a clue what she would do if it got worse.

An ache started in her chest. She missed her mom. Her mother would have known exactly what to do. Candy pressed her fingers to her temples. She could hear her mother now.

“Sometimes, Candy, you need to let go. You can’t be in control all the time. Take a risk. Don’t hold love in contempt because it didn’t work for me. It doesn’t always end badly, the way your father and I did.”

Candy hadn’t argued, hadn’t wanted to disappoint her mother, but she couldn’t open herself up to the pain she’d felt when her father left and never came back. She’d been so young. Still, she remembered that lost feeling.

She hadn’t let a man get close enough to hurt her, was determined never to be dependent upon another living soul. This situation with Mitch was nothing more than a timely reminder.

Her glance strayed to the window. The sun was a glimmer on the horizon. It had been a long night. She turned back to Mitch. Sound asleep. Reaching over, she gently felt his forehead. Cooler, she hoped. Relief surged through her along with an unfamiliar feeling.

Major nudged closer. Turning she patted the top of the dog’s head, “Yeah, boy. He’ll be okay. I’ll make sure of it.”


Dreams disturbed Mitch’s sleep. Dreams he thought he’d left behind. Voices called to him. Voices from the past. The past he wanted nothing more than to forget…

He was in his apartment in New York. The phone was ringing. Someone pick up the damn phone.

Lifting his pounding head off the pillow, he glanced over at his alarm clock. Oh, shit! He was late…again. Moaning loudly, he made a mental note never to go out for an all-nighter on a Monday again, especially when he had an early morning meeting. His father would kill him when he got back from Tokyo.

He held his head with both hands, trying to make the ringing stop. It didn’t. The phone. Grimacing, he answered it.

“Michael, is that you?”

“Evan. Oh, thank God,” he said. Reprieve waited on the other end of the line. Evan would cover for him.

“Michael, do you know what the hell is happening?”

Something in Evan’s voice sobered him. A fire at work. At the Towers. Impossible. Television. Had to be on television. In a daze, he dragged himself to the living room and flipped on the big screen TV. He froze as images flashed before his eyes.

Smoke flowed out of the North Tower. In front of him the South Tower exploded in flames. He raced to the window of his high-rise apartment, looking out over the skyline of New York. Clear skies, not a cloud to be seen for miles except…smoke. Billowing smoke. Turning back to the TV, he watched in horror. Gray fog choked the streets. People running for their lives. Firemen, policemen running inside. The top of the North Tower engulfed in smoke. Oh God, no! No. No. No. Crawford Industries sat at the top of the North Tower.

Holding the phone to his ear…he never let go.

“Don’t leave me, Bro.”

“I won’t. I’m here.”

Words merged together. Never could he repeat those words, but he couldn’t stop them resonating in every fiber of his being.

I can hardly breathe. The smoke. It’s black. Then a calm silence before Evan spoke again. I left a message for Mom. Told her I was okay. Tell her…tell her…

“I will…Evan…Evan…”

Mitch bolted upright, soaked in sweat. He caught his breath. For a moment he was back in New York. No, this was Georgia. He glanced around to find Candy looking at him. God, she had the most beautiful eyes. He reached for her.

“You didn’t leave.”

“Did you think I would? Are you okay?”

“Yeah. Yeah, I’m fine.” He nodded, taking a deep breath, and hesitated before asking, “Do you mind if I just hold you right now? Just for a little while.”

She didn’t say a word, just climbed in beside him. He wrapped her in his arms and pulled her close. For the first time in his life, Mitch wanted more than a brief encounter. He wanted Candy.

Friday, December 16, 2011

A Holiday to Remember Chapter Fifteen

(jump to the first chapter)

Chapter Fifteen – Who the Heck is Marie?

by Vonnie Davis

Candy couldn’t move.

She couldn’t breathe.

A band of searing heat crossed her stomach. Something heavy weighed on her chest, the pressure making it difficult to draw air into her lungs. Was she having a heart attack? What a pair she and Mitch made; a man with a wounded arm, and a woman in coronary arrest. Her eyes opened, and two brown orbs stared back at her. She blinked to bring things into focus.


A canine tongue swept across her lips.

“Pppttthhh.” She spat away his slobber. “Get off my chest, you mangy bag of bones.” The room was cold. No doubt the fire was out. What time was it? She tried to roll over to reach the flashlight on the nightstand.

Mitch moaned at her movement. His arm banded around her waist, his very warm arm. No, warm wasn’t a strong enough word. Burning would be more like it. She turned and placed her palm against his face and neck. The man was running a fever.

She rolled out of bed, trying to organize her thoughts. Holding the flashlight so its beam illuminated her watch, she saw it was nearly five in the morning. She hadn’t planned to sleep all night with Mitch, but snuggling up to him felt so good that sleep quickly followed.

She let the dog out, noting the snow had finally stopped falling. After stirring embers to life in the fireplace, she built the fire up and loaded it with wood. When Major scratched, she let him in. Next, she went looking for a thermometer. Major padded along behind her.

“Okay, show me where your master keeps the thermometer. Is he organized enough to put it in the bathroom?”

The dog whined.

“Most men aren’t big on organization, but Mitch has surprised me on more than one occasion.” In the bathroom, she opened the medicine cabinet above the vanity and aimed the flashlight beam over its contents. “Aspirin, Tylenol, Pepto-Bismol…” She moved items around to see behind them. Her hand stilled. “Sultamicillin.” She glanced down at Major. “Hmm…take one tablet every eight hours. Wonder what this was for?” She opened the bottle and glanced in. Six tablets left. “Evidently your owner doesn’t believe in taking his medicine until it’s gone like the doctor tells you to do.” Men and their Superman Syndromes. “Ah. Thermometer.” She snatched it from the shelf, grabbed a clean washcloth, and headed to the kitchen for a bowl of water. Hands full, she walked into Mitch’s bedroom.

He was thrashing around in the bed as if battling some unseen foe. “Marie…Marie…”

Candy stopped and watched him. Marie? They’d talked about her mother, but why would he call her name? Unless he wasn’t…unless he has a girlfriend named Marie. He moaned, a long drawn out sound that set her teeth on edge. Her eyes narrowed. Exactly what was he dreaming about?

Pain and disappointment swept through her, and she pressed a hand to her chest. They hadn’t talked about significant others. Why should they? Neither wanted a relationship. What they had was strictly temporary. Snowstorm sex? Blizzard passion? She cringed.

Just my luck to tumble into bed with a guy who’s involved with someone else and doesn’t have the decency to tell me.

Thank goodness the storm had stopped. As soon as the roads were opened, she was out of there.


Her brows pinched together, and she sat on the edge of the bed. “Mitch. Mitch, wake up.” She jostled him as he moaned her name.

“It’s me. Stop dreaming about another woman and wake up.” When she got no response, she dipped the washcloth into the cool water, squeezed it slightly, and laid the dripping rag on his face.

Mitch gasped. His eyes popped open. “What the hell?” His hand grabbed hers, his gaze searching. “What…what’s going on?”

“You’re running a fever.” She depressed the button on the thermometer. “Here, put this under your tongue.” He dutifully opened his mouth, his eyebrows furrowed. “And if you don’t keep it there, I’ll gladly shove it elsewhere.”

His eyes widened for a second. “My-mar-mu-missed?”


He yanked the thermometer out. “Why are you pissed? I’m sick here.”

The man had a girlfriend. For all she knew he was engaged. Marie, indeed. Murder came to mind. Dismemberment at the very least. “Put that back in your mouth so I can see how high your temperature is.” No doubt if she stuck the thermometer under his pants, the tip would blow right off.

She wanted to be the only woman he dreamed about.

Crazy. Pathetic, falling for a man I don’t know at all.

She opened the bottle of aspirin and tapped out a couple. “What were the antibiotics for? The bottle in your medicine cabinet?”



He rolled his eyes and removed the thermometer. “Pneumonia.” He stuck the thermometer back under his tongue.

The thermometer beeped, and she checked it. “One-hundred and one point two. Not life threatening, but I’d guess you have an infection. Here, take these.” Candy laid the pills in his hand and handed him a glass of water.

“What are they?”

“Aspirin for your fever. Maybe the old antibiotics would help…” She bit her lip. “But without checking with a doctor first…”

“Better not risk it.” Mitch dropped the pills in his mouth and drank the water. “Thanks. Feel like crap. Arm hurts like a son of a bitch.”

She removed the bandage and shined the light beam from the flashlight over the stitches. The cut was red and looked sore. “I’m going for rubbing alcohol. Be right back.”

Pouring the alcohol over his wound a few minutes later, she took perverse delight in his reaction.

“Hells bells, that hurts.”

“I bet.” She leaned over him, resisting the urge to coil her fingers around his throat.

“Jesus, Candy, what’s gotten into you?”

Thursday, December 15, 2011

A Holiday to Remember Chapter Fourteen

(jump to the first chapter)

Chapter Fourteen – Scrambled Eggs and Sympathy

by Alison Henderson

“I guess they are,” Mitch muttered. Like his father. The old man hadn’t bothered to tell him when Marie died. Mitch had been away at college by then, but he would have come to the funeral. He would have written. He would have…something. “I’m sorry about your mother.” It was too little, too late, but all he could offer now. He’d save his confession for another time—or maybe never.

Candy tilted her head and gave him an appraising look. “Thanks. How are you feeling?”

He flexed his arm gingerly. “Sore.”

“I bet. I’ll get you some aspirin in a minute. How’s your stomach? Have you recovered enough to eat? We missed lunch, you know.”

Was that a subtle reminder of their fight that morning? He glanced up and met the glittering challenge in her hazel eyes. Memories of the argument brought back memories of the hours of passionate lovemaking that preceded it. She was still angry, but she’d done everything she could to take care of him. Maybe he was getting under her skin the way she was getting under his.

“I could eat.” He leaned forward and started to rise, but she pushed him back with a firm hand on his shoulder.

“Oh, no, you don’t. You stay right where you are. I have no intention of wrestling with your unconscious body again.”

A grin tilted his lips at the corners. “I’m much more fun when I’m conscious.” He reached for her but winced when pain shot through his injured arm.

A look of concern crossed her face. “I told you not to move.” She rose from the couch. “I might not be as good a cook as my mother was, but I scramble a mean egg.”

“I’ll take three.”

She arched a brow. “You’ll take what I give you and like it.”

He snapped a mock salute. “Yes, ma’am.”

Candy crossed the room to the front window and peered out. “The snow’s coming down hard again.”

Mitch twisted on the couch to see. “This is supposed to be the last of it. The forecast says it should stop by morning.”

“How long do you think it will take them to get the power back on and clear the roads?”

Her voice held a wistful note. Or was it his imagination? Better keep things light. That seemed to be the way she wanted it. “Why? Can’t wait to get away from me?”

She turned and smiled. “Well, you are pretty demanding.”

“Come over here and I’ll show you demanding,” he growled.

This time she laughed. “That’s mighty big talk for a one-armed man.”

“Hey, I’m better with one arm than most men are with two.”

Her smile faded. “I’ll fix supper.”

Mitch lay on the couch and listened to Candy bustling around in the kitchen. A couple of times she called out a question about where to find something, but mostly she kept quiet. He wondered what she was thinking.


After locating the matches, Candy lit the camp stove. It was a far cry from her compact, state-of-the-art kitchen in New York, but she managed to whip up a fluffy batch of scrambled eggs that would make Rachel Ray jealous. She even threw in some grated parmesan cheese she found in the fridge. She hoped the eggs would make up for the sorry state of the toast. She’d had to dangle the bread over the open flame of the stove, and the result wasn’t pretty.

“Here you go.” She handed Mitch a plate and fork and sat in a chair across from him with her food.

“Thanks.” He stabbed his fork into the mound of eggs like a healthy man who hadn’t eaten in way too long. She guessed he was feeling better.

Glancing at the gauze bandage on his arm, Candy swallowed hard. She’d almost fainted, too, when she saw the blood-spattered snow and the glazed look in his eyes. Fortunately, the executive in her had taken over. She’d sized up the situation and done what needed to be done. Now that the crisis had passed, she was amazed by her own resourcefulness. The wound wasn’t deep, but it was ugly. Chain saws weren’t exactly surgical instruments.

Mitch had propped his plate on his lap so he didn’t have to use his injured arm. It must hurt like the devil. She wished she had something stronger to give him than aspirin, but she’d scoured his medicine cabinet with no luck.

While she watched him eat, she was struck by a niggling feeling of familiarity deep in her brain. She couldn’t put her finger on it, but she felt like she knew him. Really knew him. She shook her head at the fanciful thought and turned her attention to her eggs. Maybe it was the memories dredged up by sharing the story of Michael. Maybe it was her mind trying to justify the fact that she’d fallen, or in this case leapt, into bed with a near-stranger. Maybe it was all those hours spent together in bed, mouth to mouth, skin to skin. That was certainly one way to get to know a man. Whatever the connection, it eluded her.

After they finished eating, she collected the dishes and washed them. When she returned to the living room, she found Mitch fast asleep on the couch with Major at his feet. She should wake him; he would probably sleep better in his own bed. But she hesitated. He looked so peaceful. She studied the hard, masculine angles of his cheekbones and jaw. What was it about him?

She’d decided to leave him where he slept and was adjusting the quilt when a hand shot out and grasped her wrist. She sucked her breath in hard and looked down into a pair of sleepy blue eyes.

“Come with me.”

Her breath released in a huff as she laid a hand against his forehead. It felt warm, maybe a little too warm. “You’re not going anywhere except to bed.”

“Exactly.” He threw off the quilt and struggled to his feet.

Candy grabbed his good elbow. “Hang on. I’ll help you. I imagine the shock from this afternoon has kicked in.”

She steered him to the bedroom and helped him lie down.

“Stay with me,” he said, holding her wrist to prevent her escape.

“That isn’t such a good idea.” Their lovemaking had been amazing. There was no denying it. But the storm would end soon, and their time together with it. She needed to start putting distance between them.

“Stay with me,” he repeated softly.

“You’re hurt.”

“It’s not so bad. I want you with me while I sleep.”

“You’re delirious.”

“Maybe.” He tugged on her arm lightly. “Stay. Please.”

Good sense warred with desire. A smart woman would tuck him in and say goodnight, but she wasn’t feeling exceptionally bright at the moment.

“Okay. But just until you fall asleep.”