A CALIFORNIA CHRISTMAS
Silver Springs Series, Book 7
About the Book:
Spend the holidays in Silver Springs, where the greatest gift of all is the love you never expected.
Up-and-coming TV anchor Emery Bliss can’t imagine anything more humiliating than the sex tape her ex revenge-posted online. That is, until it causes her to lose her job on top of her self-esteem. Seeking solace—and anonymity—in Silver Springs, Emery isn’t looking to get involved with another man any time soon. But when she’s thrown back into contact with Dallas Turner, she sees something that his many detractors have missed.
Being home for the holidays and his adoptive mother’s wedding isn’t where mountain climber Dallas feels most comfortable. Thanks to his troubled childhood, he’d rather be on a rock face alone than trying to connect with people. Emery, however, makes him want to overcome his past…somehow.
Both Emery and Dallas had been planning on a quiet, solitary Christmas, but the sparks between them are lighting a fire strong enough to last—possibly forever.
“There’s nothing predictable about this sweet love story, and Novak’s believable yet easy resolutions make it a delightful, touching introduction to the Silver Springs series.”
Monday, December 7
A California Christmas
Dallas Turner figured he shouldn’t be surprised when he walked into his mother’s house to find someone who wasn’t part of the family in her kitchen. Aiyana had taken him in, hadn’t she? She’d taken in and raised seven other boys, too. Only a couple of years ago, she’d expanded the campus of New Horizons—the school she’d started twenty-four years ago for troubled boys—to include a girls’ side.
But she hadn’t adopted any girls yet.
This wasn’t a girl, anyway. Although he was seeing her from behind, he could tell it was a full-grown woman who was reaching into the cupboard. A full-grown woman who wasn’t entirely dressed.
“Hello?” he said.
Startled, she whipped around, and he nearly dropped the groceries he’d carried in. This was no stranger to him, as he’d first assumed. It was Emery Bliss, someone he’d known when he was living here in the artsy community of Silver Springs, ninety minutes northwest of Los Angeles. He hadn’t seen her since he moved away after graduating high school ten years ago, but he recognized her instantly.
She was equally surprised to see him—or to see a man suddenly standing behind her. He didn’t know which.
With a yelp, she yanked her T-shirt down far enough to cover her underwear. “Excuse me, I—I didn’t expect anyone to be home until this afternoon. Aiyana said—” She blinked several times and her blush deepened. He was no longer the skinny boy with the bad acne whose gaze had so often trailed after her when she returned her horse to the equestrian center of her private school, where he’d worked mucking out stalls, but he could tell she now recognized him. “I was just…getting a bowl of cereal and…”
Her words trailed off as she edged along the counter, leaving her breakfast behind while she stretched her T-shirt down as far as possible, holding it in a death grip with both hands.
“No problem,” he said, relieving her of the burden of trying to finish that sentence. She didn’t seem to know where she was going with it, anyway.
“I’m really sorry,” she mumbled as though she’d caused him some terrible injury and escaped the kitchen as soon as she could.
He could hear her footfalls racing up the stairs as Aiyana and his two youngest brothers filed into the house with the rest of the groceries—Aiyana telling them they had only a half hour, at most, before they had to leave again. They were looking forward to playing a particular video game, so this was met with the type of groans one might expect from much younger boys.
“Give us an hour, at least,” Bentley, the youngest, a senior in high school, pleaded.
“Just one hour,” Liam chimed in. Two years older than Bentley, Liam was working and taking online classes instead of going to college because he’d injured his knee playing basketball and was getting an operation next month.
“No,” she said firmly. “We can’t miss this appointment.”
After setting down the bags in his hands, Dallas pulled their mother aside and lowered his voice so that it wouldn’t carry to the second level. “What was that all about?”
Aiyana didn’t respond right away. She was still preoccupied with his brothers. “You can’t start anything interactive where other players are depending on you. We don’t have time.”
“We’ll turn it off the second you say so,” Bentley promised, and they dumped the groceries they were carrying on the first horizontal surface they could find and rushed into the living room to turn on the Xbox.
“Mom?” Dallas prodded.
“What?” She gave his hand an affectionate squeeze before disengaging so that she could set her purse aside and put away the food.
Dallas could hear his brothers negotiating which video game to play, since they didn’t have time for the one they’d initially planned. Aiyana, Bentley and Liam had met him for breakfast as he came into town from Las Vegas, where he lived in the months he wasn’t rock climbing. They’d expected to go directly from there to Santa Barbara, so that he and his brothers could be fitted for tuxedos. Aiyana’s wedding was on the nineteenth, and every one of her eight adopted sons would be in the line. But the tuxedo place had called while they were eating and asked to reschedule for later in the day, so they’d done the weekly grocery shopping before they left town instead of waiting until they were on their way home. “What’s the deal?”
A California Christmas
Confusion showed on Aiyana’s face, so he clarified. “Emery Bliss was in the kitchen when I came in.” He didn’t mention that she’d been wearing nothing except a faded Van Halen T-shirt and a pair of bikini briefs. It was obvious she hadn’t planned for anyone to walk in.
“Oh! You saw her?”
“Yes, I saw her.” Emery’s long blond hair had been mussed, as though she’d only recently climbed out of bed, and she hadn’t been wearing makeup, so it wasn’t only her state of undress that led him to believe she was staying at the house. “It looked to me as though she’s living here.”
“She is,” Aiyana said simply, and went back to unloading the groceries.
His mother didn’t volunteer the reason; she made him ask. “Why?”
“Why not?” she countered.
“Your wedding is less than two weeks away, for one.”
She waved off his words. “It’ll be fine. You’ll all be here, but Elijah and Gavin have their own houses these days. It won’t get crowded until the twins and Seth come home on the eighteenth. Even then, we should have plenty of room.”
“I wasn’t claiming there wouldn’t be enough room—just that…that we’ll be busy. We have a lot going on,” he added to shore up his argument.
A playful gleam entered her eyes. “What’s the matter? Does having her here make you uncomfortable?”
As innocent as his encounter with Emery had been, he wouldn’t soon forget seeing her ass in those panties, he knew that much. He tilted his head and narrowed his eyes. “Don’t start with that.”
“You know what. I don’t need you playing matchmaker.”
He’d wanted to take Emery to Senior Ball back in the day, and Aiyana knew that because she’d tried to help him come up with a clever way of inviting her. But even with his mother’s encouragement and the ideas they’d tossed around, he’d never gathered the nerve. He couldn’t imagine a wealthy girl from Topatopa Academy, a private school known for providing an elite education, would care to be seen with one of the “bad” boys from New Horizons. He couldn’t imagine her parents would be pleased to have her go out with him, either. And during the time he was dithering back and forth, she accepted an invitation to attend the public school’s prom with the best player on the McGregor football team—the running back, who was now in the pros. The McGregor prom was the night before New Horizons’ Senior Ball, so while the events didn’t directly conflict, he’d decided to spare her the trouble of trying to decide whether to attend two formal dances on the same weekend. There was no way he could follow a local hero. She’d be taking a huge step down.
Considering everything, he figured he’d saved himself some rejection by not asking her out ten years ago.
“I’m not playing matchmaker,” she said. “I admit that I like Emery. She’s a lovely person. And I wouldn’t mind if you were to finally fall in love—”
“Finally?” he broke in. “I’m only twenty-nine!”
She closed the refrigerator after putting away the bacon. “Someone has to get hold of you, get you to change your focus and settle down before you kill yourself. The idea of you rock climbing without any safety gear, any ropes…” She shook her head. “It keeps me up at night. But having Emery here has nothing to do with you. That poor girl. I’m just providing a safe haven for her until after the holidays.”
“Why would she need a safe haven?” Emery’s father, a plastic surgeon, was rumored to have patients who were famous. He made a lot of money. On top of that, Emery had been smart, popular and pretty. What could possibly have gone wrong when she was starting out with everything in her favor?
His mother pulled a tub of mayonnaise from one of the bags and opened the fridge again. “You don’t watch much TV, do you?”
A California Christmas
“Not in the months I’m climbing.” He put some potato chips in the pantry. “You don’t understand what it’s like. I live out of my van for a week or more at a time.” And this year, his climbing season had lasted longer than in previous years. He’d finally found a sponsor, a sponsor who was paying handsomely just to have him endorse their brand of climbing apparel. He’d never had so much money.
“Well, if you don’t already know what happened, I probably shouldn’t tell you.” She reached into another sack. “The more word of it spreads, the worse things will get for her.”
“What are you talking about?” He folded the sacks they’d emptied. “And how could telling me make it any worse?”
With a sigh, she dragged him farther from the room where Bentley and Liam were playing, and the stairs where Emery had gone. “After college, she became a news anchor on a popular morning show in Los Angeles. She loved her job, was doing very well at it and had high hopes of eventually moving to New York and taking over a show like Good Morning America.”
“But then…” He scowled at her. “Why are you making me drag this out of you?”
“Mom? This is me you’re talking to.”
“I realize that, but…” She seemed torn. “Okay. She broke up with her coanchor, and he retaliated by posting a video of the two of them online that humiliated her and caused her to lose her job.”
He raised his eyebrows. “What kind of video?”
She cast him an exasperated look. “What kind do you think?”
“No…” he said, stepping back.
“Yes! They were having s-e-x,” she whispered.
He might’ve laughed that she’d felt the need to spell it when his brothers were plenty old enough to understand, but he was too shocked. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“I wish I were,” she said with a frown. “She refuses to show her face in Los Angeles. That video went viral. Everyone’s seen it. It even made the national news.”
Dallas could only imagine how mortified Emery must’ve been. As attractive as she was, every male viewer had probably raced onto the internet to have a look. “What about her family? They were always supportive. Why wouldn’t she go to them?”
“They don’t live in the area anymore. They moved to Boston two years ago, and her parents are in the middle of a nasty divorce, something she doesn’t need to be involved in when she’s going through so much herself. Her father is already living with another woman. And her mother is trying to care for Emery’s grandmother, who has dementia. That’s the reason they moved to Boston in the first place.”
“What about siblings?”
“She’s an only child.”
“Wow.” He sank into one of the kitchen chairs. “I didn’t realize you knew Emery well enough to take her in.”
“I didn’t until her mother began volunteering here at the school. A year or so after you graduated, Connie started teaching the boys how to ride. She even donated a couple of the horses. We still have one of them. Anyway, we became close, and that’s how I got to know Emery. Whenever Emery came home from college, even after she earned her degree, her mother would bring her over, and she’d help, too. So when the scandal broke, and I saw it on the news, I called to see how she was doing. The poor child wouldn’t even pick up the phone. I had to leave several messages before I could get her to call me back. Her mother said she was hiding out in her apartment.”
A California Christmas
“And when you did get hold of her, you insisted she come here?”
“I had to. I couldn’t leave her in that situation.”
No wonder Emery had apologized when he’d caught her in her underwear this morning. Someone who’d just been through what she’d been through would be extra sensitive to that sort of encounter, even though it was completely accidental. “Wait. So she got fired for sleeping with a coworker? Can that even happen these days?”
“Yes. She signed an agreement when she started at the station saying she wouldn’t get romantically involved with anyone in the workplace. But she’s considering a wrongful firing suit. This was revenge on his part, pure and simple. He was out to get her when he posted their personal video all over the internet, and their producer—a Heidi Coventry—piled on. Emery thinks it’s because Heidi has had her eye on Ethan Grimes herself and was angry when he chose Emery over her.”
Dallas didn’t know Emery that well. He didn’t know Ethan Grimes at all. And yet he felt no small degree of outrage. “Sexism has been such a hot topic, all over the news, and yet this Heidi person, who works for a news station, no less, is only making it worse?”
“I know. I thought in California we’d come further than that.”
“The station had better have fired him, too.”
“They did, but Emery told me yesterday that she’s pretty sure they’ve hired him back.”
“She needs to proceed with that wrongful firing suit.”
Aiyana made a skeptical sound. “Even if she does, I’m not sure she’ll win.”
“How much will it cost to get an attorney?”
“That isn’t the problem. She can get an attorney who’s willing to do the work for a portion of the settlement. It’s the upset and the negativity she’ll have to contend with, for months, that she’s not convinced she can endure. Not with how hurt and vulnerable she is right now. What’s happened to her is beyond embarrassing, and the more attention she draws to it, the more people there will be who hunt down that video.”
“It hasn’t been removed?”
“From some sites, yes. But this is the internet we’re talking about. Once something’s out there, there’s no taking it back.”
That was true. “What’s her other choice?”
“To let it all go and try to rebuild her life.”
He nearly knocked over the chair he’d been using as he shot out of it but caught it just in time. “Maybe I’d better go have a talk with the asshole who posted it. What’s his name again—Ethan Grimes? Who has a name like that, anyway?”
His mother grabbed his arm. “No! Stay out of it. It’s none of your business, which is why I hesitated to tell you.”
“But if she ever goes back to work at that station, or even in the same industry, she’ll never live down that video. She can’t be expected to start over at ground zero.”
“I agree. And she’s always wanted to be a news anchor, has no idea what she’ll be if she doesn’t continue to pursue her life’s dream.”
A California Christmas
“Why in the world would she allow him to take a video in the first place?” he asked. “I get that she probably loved him, trusted him, all that. But this type of thing has become more and more common. You don’t take the chance, especially when you have so much to lose.”
“She had no idea he was filming.”
Dallas rubbed his forehead. “That makes it even worse.”
“I know. It’s so unfair.”
He pictured Emery’s big blue eyes and couldn’t help feeling protective of her. “What’s she going to do?”
“That’s what she’s trying to decide. If she moves forward with the suit, she’ll need to remain somewhere close to LA so she’s available to meet with her attorney, take the deposition, go into arbitration or whatever might be necessary. If she decides not to move forward with it, she may pack up and move to Boston—where her mother is—and try to get into another line of work. But I’ve told her she’s more than welcome to stay here through the holidays. She deserves some time to get over what’s happened and to make the best possible decision.”
He shook his head. “What a terrible thing to have to deal with, especially at Christmas.”
She checked the doorway to make sure Liam and Bentley were still too preoccupied to be listening in. “Now you understand why I invited her here. I want to help her, if I can.”
He walked over to give his mother a hug. “You want to help everyone,” he said. He’d always been proud of her. Always been grateful to her, too. He couldn’t imagine how he would’ve turned out—where he’d be—without her.
Fully dressed, even though she was now back in her bedroom behind a closed door, Emery Bliss paced the short distance at the foot of the bed. She could hear the commotion below, knew Aiyana, Bentley and Liam had returned instead of going to Santa Barbara. She should’ve pulled on a pair of shorts and a bra before venturing below, but she’d had her mind on the call she’d received from an attorney in LA. She’d never dreamed it wouldn’t be safe to run down for a bowl of cereal—not after Aiyana had specifically told her that she’d have the entire house to herself until five or so.
“Damn it.” She rolled her eyes at the memory of the shock on Dallas Turner’s face when he walked into the kitchen to find her half-naked and helping herself to his mother’s food. She hadn’t gone down there with the intention of causing a problem, but after everything she’d been through recently, she was so sensitive she didn’t feel capable of withstanding any kind of blow. When she’d decided to come here, she’d pictured herself with Aiyana and Aiyana’s two youngest boys, who rarely interacted with her. They were too caught up in their studies, their girlfriends, their sports and their video games to pay her any mind. Aiyana did so much for so many, they took a new guest in stride.
Emery hadn’t anticipated running into the Turner boy she remembered from high school—unless it was closer to the wedding—and she hadn’t looked that far ahead. She’d simply jumped at the chance to escape LA and go somewhere no one would think to look for her, so she could create a buffer between her and the harsh judgment and salacious interest she’d received once Ethan Grimes posted that video online.
Had coming here been a mistake?
She eyed the suitcase she’d stashed at the end of the dresser. She’d emptied her clothes into the closet and a chest of drawers so she wouldn’t have to dig through all of the belongings she’d brought with her every time she needed to change. But she could pack and fly to Boston, get out of California entirely. She would’ve done that to begin with if her parents weren’t facing their own problems. They each blamed the other for the breakdown of their marriage, so whenever she talked to them, she felt as though she was being torn in two—literally ripped apart.
That was more than she could take right now. She also knew her savings would dwindle fast if she wasn’t careful, so she’d been hesitant to spend money on flights she could avoid.
Emery winced at the sound of a knock on the door, then made a face at herself in the mirror. She looked terrible. Her eyes were puffy and her skin blotchy from all the tears she’d cried, her hair was a tangled mop she had yet to comb and what she’d thrown on immediately upon returning to her room covered her but didn’t match.
Those small things were the least of her concerns, however. She had to figure out some way to recover from the devastation of losing her boyfriend, her job and, worst of all, her reputation. She had to forget what’d happened at KQLA and focus on the future so she could decide what to do next. But she was so distraught by what other people were seeing when they logged on to the internet and searched for “Emery Bliss sex video” she could hardly cope. This was easily the most embarrassing thing that could ever happen to her.
After clearing her throat so that she’d be able to talk in spite of the large lump that threatened to choke her, she peeked into the hall.
Aiyana stood there holding a bowl of Mini-Wheats and wearing the brightly colored clothes and turquoise jewelry she preferred, her black hair falling down her back in a thick braid. “I’m sorry if Dallas surprised you, dear. I should’ve called. I honestly didn’t think of it, or I would have.”
A California Christmas
“No, of course you didn’t need to call,” she said. “This is your house.”
“We had a last-minute change of plans, but we will be leaving again shortly and then we’ll be gone for the rest of the day.” She handed Emery the bowl. “Here, you left your breakfast on the counter, so I added some milk and brought it up.”
“Thank you.” Emery managed a smile for Aiyana’s kindness—but then her lip began to tremble.
Aiyana took the bowl back and set it aside before drawing Emery into her arms. “It’s going to be okay.”
The scent of her flowery perfume filled Emery’s nostrils as she rested her head on the smaller woman’s shoulder. Aiyana was only about five feet tall but she had the biggest heart of anyone Emery had ever met, and the solidness of her embrace felt so convincing and nurturing that Emery was loath to let her go.
“You don’t have to worry about Dallas staying here the next few weeks,” Aiyana said when she pulled back. “He won’t bother you.”
“I don’t want to get in anyone’s way…”
“You’re not in anyone’s way. There are eight bedrooms in this house. And Dallas doesn’t mind that you’re here. As a matter of fact, if I know my son, he’ll end up being your best friend and your fiercest protector.”
She sniffed, still trying to hold back tears—now caused by the sympathy she was receiving instead of her former mortification.
She thanked Aiyana, and Aiyana said goodbye before heading down the stairs.
When Emery closed the door, she took her cereal and crawled into bed. She’d known as soon as she’d felt Aiyana’s arms go around her that she wouldn’t pack up and leave. Maybe this wasn’t her home, but she felt welcome here. If she stayed, she wouldn’t have to face the outside world, wouldn’t have to pick sides in her parents’ divorce and wouldn’t have to witness the decline of her ailing grandmother—not until she felt stronger.
And right now, having the chance to get back on her feet in what felt like a safe environment mattered more than anything else.
It was late when Dallas returned from hanging out with his two older brothers at the Blue Suede Shoe, a popular bar they often visited to play pool or darts whenever he was in town. Elijah and Gavin were both married with children, but Eli, the oldest, helped run New Horizons and lived on campus not far from Aiyana. Dallas rode with him, returning to Eli’s house to watch a recorded Lakers game after they left the bar. By the time that was over, it was almost two, so Dallas walked home rather than having Eli drive him.
All the lights were off, so after he let himself in the back door, he was surprised to hear the soft drone of the television. Aiyana rarely stayed up late; she got up too early. And his younger brothers wouldn’t be watching TV in the middle of the night. Bentley had school in the morning; Liam had work.
As he neared the family room, the floor creaked under his weight, causing the small figure on the couch to sit up and take notice.
He could tell he’d surprised Emery Bliss just as he had when he first came upon her in the kitchen this morning. Only now if she didn’t have any pants on, he couldn’t tell; she was covered by a blanket.
“Hello.” She lifted the remote as though she felt she should turn off the TV and scurry back to her bedroom.
“Go ahead and finish watching your show,” he said before she could hit the Power button. “This is a big house. The TV’s not going to bother anybody.”
“Are you sure?” she asked.
A California Christmas
Standing about ten feet away from her, he shoved his hands in the pockets of his jeans. She was watching an episode of Dateline.
“What’s this one about?” he asked.
“A young mother has been kidnapped.”
“Her house in Iowa. Right in the middle of the day.”
Dallas was far more interested in learning if Emery had been able to determine whether Ethan Grimes had been rehired by the television station from which they’d both been fired than getting involved in the crime drama unfolding on TV. He’d thought about her and her situation all day. But he guessed Emery wouldn’t be excited to discuss it with him. For one, she barely knew him. For another, it had to be more awkward for her to talk to a man, especially one she barely knew, about the sex video her ex-boyfriend had posted than it would be a woman.
Still, he came around the couch and sat at the opposite end. He’d been so infatuated with Emery ten years ago that he couldn’t help wondering what she was like now.
She didn’t speak, though, and he didn’t interrupt, in case she was as invested in the show as it seemed.
When Dateline ended and she navigated to Hulu to put on another episode, he got up and told her good-night. His mother was right—what Emery was going through was none of his business. He needed to leave her alone and give her the space to work out her own problems.
“Aiyana tells me you’re a rock climber.”
Surprised that she would initiate a conversation when he’d just given up on the idea, he turned to face her. “I like to climb, yes.”
“She said you often free solo.”
Most people didn’t agree with climbing without ropes. They considered it too reckless, too foolhardy. He couldn’t tell whether she was one of those who would judge him, label him an adrenaline junkie or whatever, but he couldn’t help feeling slightly defensive. “Occasionally. But only when I know the climb well, have done it many times with ropes and feel certain I can make it.”
“What happens if you encounter something unexpected, some water or slime on a narrow ledge that makes it too slippery to grip—or a rattlesnake that slithers out of a crack in the rock?”
“Surprises like that generally don’t end well,” he admitted. “Encountering a rattlesnake while hiking could end as badly, though.”
She studied him. “Do you know the guy who climbed El Capitan free solo?”
“Alex Honnold? I’ve met him. Why? Do you know him?”
“I interviewed him on my show in 2018, right after the documentary came out. Since you probably climb in Yosemite, too, I figured you might’ve run into him.”
“I’ve encountered him in the valley a time or two.”
A California Christmas
She adjusted the blanket she’d been using. She had on the same faded Van Halen T-shirt he’d seen earlier, but he could tell that she was now wearing a bra. And when she shifted, causing the blanket to fall back, he noticed she was also wearing a pair of pink yoga pants. “How’d you get involved in rock climbing?”
“Unlike Alex, I didn’t have the opportunity to start as a kid. I didn’t get into it until I was in high school. I began bouldering at Enlightenment Ridge, which isn’t too far from here.” Climbing had provided an outlet. It was the only thing that quieted his mind and barred unwelcome thoughts from intruding.
“Do you have a sponsor?”
He leaned up against the wall. “I didn’t until recently. I got one just a few months ago, as a matter of fact.”
“Some climbers don’t like the idea of getting paid for climbing,” she said.
“Those are the ones who can’t get a sponsor,” he responded drily, but she didn’t give up that easily.
“They claim the money incentivizes guys to climb too fast and take bigger and bigger risks—to be the first to scale a particular rock face in a certain amount of time or whatever, which can be dangerous. They also say that the social media and other attention that goes along with climbing professionally is a problem, because it’s so distracting.”
“It’s a dangerous sport. I’m not going to stand here and argue that it isn’t. But I’d rather be making money doing what I love to do. That’s the only way I can do more of it.”
She raked her long hair back with her fingers and twisted it on top of her head. She still wasn’t wearing makeup, but she didn’t need any. She was as pretty as ever—just as pretty as she’d been at eighteen. She’d make the perfect news anchor or television host. She had a wide mouth with straight teeth that gleamed when she smiled.
He remembered being absolutely captivated by that smile, too nervous to even talk right when she deigned to speak to him.
“How old were you when you came to New Horizons?” she asked.
She let her hair drop. “Were you born in California?”
He nearly laughed. He’d been afraid to ask her anything that might make her uncomfortable, and yet she was veering awfully close to the one subject he didn’t like to discuss—his past. “I was,” he said simply.
“Do you mind if I ask what happened to your birth parents?”
“Sorry,” she said. “It’s the interviewer in me, I guess. I start in right away, but…is that a no?”
“Why don’t we trade?” He flashed her a grin. “I ask you something I’d like to know about you, and then you can ask me something you’d like to know about me. Maybe it won’t be comfortable for either one of us, but at least it’ll be fair.”
A California Christmas
She eyed him dubiously. “That’s okay. The last thing I want to do is discuss what I’m going through.”
“Understood. But I’ll let the offer stand. Let me know if you change your mind.”
He breathed a sigh of relief as he headed downstairs to the bedroom that had been his when he lived with Aiyana. He was fine with leaving things as they were between him and Emery. Satisfying his curiosity where she was concerned wasn’t worth digging through the wreckage of his childhood, especially because they’d go their separate ways soon enough. What was the point?
There was no point, no reason to even think about his childhood tonight.
But after he brushed his teeth and stripped off his clothes, he pulled out the letter he’d received and stared down at his name, written in pencil.
Somehow, his father had tracked him down. He’d found this letter in his post office box when he went by to clear it out before coming to Silver Springs. He hadn’t opened it, though.
He wasn’t sure he ever would.
Tuesday, December 8
When Emery’s alarm went off early the next morning, she fumbled around on the nightstand until she could find her phone and silence it. Ever since she’d arrived in Silver Springs, all she’d done was sleep. It was going on a week now, and yet she still didn’t have any energy. After pushing so hard for so long—to get her degree in Communications and Media Studies at Cal State LA; to graduate at the top of her class; to launch her career in television; to eat healthy so that she felt good and looked good, something that was important for an anchor; and to make it to yoga every afternoon, all while trying to maintain a relationship with Ethan on the sly—she’d nearly run herself into the ground.
Of course, some of what she preferred to categorize as exhaustion had to be depression. So many things had gone wrong at once, and not only little things. Her parents were breaking up. While divorce was pretty commonplace, it was still extremely painful, and this one had come as such a surprise. When she was living at home, they’d seemed perfectly happy together. What had changed? Her mother couldn’t explain the cause of the split—she said she didn’t know what went wrong, that her father hadn’t complained until he ended it all—and her father refused to explain what had led to his dissatisfaction, except to say that he wasn’t fulfilled.
And what was going on with Grandma Adele?
Emery winced every time she remembered her last visit to Boston. When she’d first walked into the room, her grandmother had said, “And who’s this beautiful young woman?”
Add to that the indignity of what Ethan had done and the loss of her job, and it was just too much.
How could he have recorded her? He must’ve set up a camera in his room, one he didn’t tell her about, and now her most private moments were being devoured, judged, ridiculed and shared by total strangers. She couldn’t stand the humiliation or the betrayal, not only by Ethan but by Heidi. Although she and her producer had never been the best of friends, she’d believed they respected each other on a professional basis. She’d never dreamed Heidi would allow Ethan to destroy her career—especially after he’d already destroyed her on such a personal level by posting that video.
Leslie Simone, a friend of hers and part of the camera crew at the station, had texted her to say she’d heard upper management talking about the situation. Losing both anchors at once had caused their ratings to drop. They needed to stop the bleeding, said that viewers were “attached” to the people they’d been seeing every day for so long. Leslie had gotten the impression they were going to take a step back from what they’d done.
Except…she hadn’t received a call. They hadn’t changed their minds about her.
It would be the ultimate irony if Ethan got to go on with his life as if nothing had happened. Of course it would be the man who was quickly forgiven, even though he was the one who’d pursued her despite the agreement they’d both signed when they were hired. He was also the one who’d insisted it didn’t matter what they did as long as it didn’t affect their work. And he was the one who’d become unbearably controlling, and jealous of anyone who had any contact with her—even her girlfriends. That was why she’d broken it off with him.
Was he heading over to the station right now?
A burst of anger gave her the power to kick off the covers and climb out of bed. It had been only three hours since she’d stopped watching episode after episode of Dateline and gone to bed. But she couldn’t miss KQLA’s morning show. She was dying to see if the station had hired a permanent replacement for her, or if they were still using that amateur Cindy Plank, who’d been after her job for years, as a temporary substitute.
More than that, she wanted to see if Ethan had been given his job back and was there, sitting next to Cindy.
A California Christmas
Her hands curled into fists and her muscles tensed. She wasn’t sure what she’d do if she saw him on the screen. She was afraid she’d head to Los Angeles and drive her car into the side of the building that housed the station. The possibility made her that furious; she’d never felt such intense emotion.
Taking only enough time to pull on her yoga pants, which she’d peeled off before falling into bed, she hurried down the stairs.
As soon as she turned on the TV, she lowered the volume to where she could barely hear it; she didn’t want to wake anyone before they had to get up.
Ethan had better not be there…
They’d both broken the rules by dating, and they’d both been in the video that had caused such an uproar among their viewers. The more religious viewers had written in to complain about her poor character. The less religious viewers had made joke after joke at her expense.
Both reactions had been equally painful.
Her heart thumped in a crazy cadence, almost making her light-headed as she waited for the news to start. Was he in the studio, putting on his mic?
Calm down. He’s not there. The station would never hire him back. If they were going to change their minds, they’d hire me. I was better at the job than he was.
That was what she told herself until the news came on, anyway.
But then, there he was.
“You motherfucker!” she yelled.
“Is everything okay, dear?”
The first blast of the TV, before she’d turned it down, must’ve awakened Aiyana. Or Emery’s alarm going off in her room had been louder than she’d thought. The older woman was standing behind the couch in her nightgown and robe, but Emery hadn’t heard her coming. She’d been too highly focused, too engrossed in the questions swimming around in her mind and her own torment at the possible answers to those questions.
“He’s back!” She pointed at the screen. “He’s sitting right there, reading the news as if nothing ever happened. After what he did to me. He…he can’t get away with it. He’s destroyed my life. My dignity. My…my sense of worth and decency!”
Before she knew it, she wasn’t just telling Aiyana these things, she was screaming them, and yelling about what a bastard Ethan was and she couldn’t believe Heidi would let him get away with ruining her life.
A little voice in her head told her she needed to calm down. She never acted this way. It wasn’t right to do this to Aiyana, who’d been kind enough to take her in.
But once she let go of the monster inside her, there was no way to cage it again. She got so upset that she was afraid she might start throwing things or punching the wall, so she pivoted abruptly to leave the room—and knocked into a lamp.
It crashed to the floor, pelting her legs with glass, but she could scarcely feel it. Mortified that she’d been so thoughtless and clumsy, she dropped to her knees and grabbed a fistful of glass with the intention of cleaning it up so that no one would get hurt—and ended up cutting her hand.
“Don’t!” As Aiyana started toward her, Emery stood to search for the closest trash can. God, look what she’d done! The mess on the floor mirrored the mess of her life. Everything she’d suffered was coming to a head in that moment, tearing her apart, ruining all her hopes and dreams as well as tarnishing everything she’d accomplished in the past. And there was nothing she could do about it, not without inviting even more humiliation by trying to pursue justice.
She didn’t hear Dallas come up the stairs behind her, so she didn’t have any idea when he joined them—not until she found herself caught in his arms and held so tightly she couldn’t move.
A California Christmas
Then all she could do was drop the glass she’d been trying to clean up, watch the blood drip off her fingers and sob.
“I’m sorry,” Emery cried. “I’ll leave now. Let me go. I’ll pay for the lamp and then I’ll be gone.”
Dallas could feel her body trembling against his. He could also see streaks of tears as he turned her around and she gulped for the breath to speak. When he’d been awakened by the screaming and cursing, he’d jumped out of bed and jammed his legs into a pair of jeans, but he hadn’t even taken the time to button them, let alone don a shirt before climbing the stairs two at a time to reach the living room.
“It’s okay.” Aiyana came around the couch to reach them. “Calm down. Everything’s going to be okay.”
“It’s not okay.” She turned her face into his chest rather than look at Aiyana. “It’s not right that I would take what’s happening out on you. You’ve been nothing but kind to me. I’ll replace the lamp.”
Aiyana stroked her hair. “I’m not worried about the lamp. I don’t care about things—I care about people. I care about you, and you’re in a safe place here with us. You can stay as long as you’d like. Maybe you needed to let out all that emotion. But with time, you’ll heal. You have to trust me on that. I’ve seen plenty of broken people put themselves back together again. Dallas is one of them.”
Emery seemed to have regained control, but Dallas still wasn’t sure whether it was safe to let her go. When he’d grabbed her, she was trying to pick up shards of glass without a care for getting cut, and he’d seen what he thought might be blood on her pink yoga pants. He didn’t want her to hurt herself any worse.
“Bring her over here, to the couch,” Aiyana told him.
“Hey, what’s going on?”
At the intrusion of another voice, Dallas glanced over to find that his two younger brothers had also reacted to the noise. They were standing on the stairs and were, like him, wearing only jeans. Their hair was sleep tousled, and Liam had the waffle imprint of his comforter on his cheek.
“Nothing. We’ve got it,” Aiyana said. “You can go back to bed. You have another hour or so before you have to get up for school.”
“Is Emery okay?” Bentley sounded concerned. At the same time, Liam said, “What happened?”
“That’s what we’re trying to find out,” Aiyana responded. “Let us deal with this, okay?”
They were tired enough that they accepted her response without any resistance and shuffled back up the stairs.
Aiyana got a cloth for Emery’s bleeding hand and Dallas guided her to the couch.
“I’m sorry,” she mumbled to him when he finally let go of her and helped her to sit down.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “What happened?”
Tears continued to stream down her cheeks as she gestured at the TV. “That’s him,” she said dully, holding her stinging hand to her T-shirt to staunch the blood. “That’s Ethan Grimes. They’ve given him his job back.”
Dallas studied the guy who’d been so vindictive to her. He was thin and certainly not unhandsome, with brown eyes, thick slashes of eyebrows and equally dark hair that he wore slicked back off his forehead. But as far as Dallas was concerned, he was also filled with self-importance and came off sort of…smarmy. Dallas wanted to say, “You fell in love with that asshole?” but bit his tongue.
A California Christmas
“Here. Let me see that cut,” Aiyana said.
Emery held out her hand.
“Fortunately, it doesn’t look too deep.” Aiyana peered even closer at it. “I can’t imagine it will require stitches. For now, just hold this cloth on it until the bleeding stops and I can see it more clearly. I’m going to make some tea. That should be warm and soothing.”
“How can they do that?” she asked Dallas, referring to the station, as Aiyana went into the kitchen. “After the Me Too movement and all that lip service about correcting sexism? He signed the same agreement I did. And he’s the one who pursued me. He also caused the scandal, made it public.”
“I don’t know.” Dallas sat down beside her in case she freaked out again. He was waiting for an opportunity to check the blood on her legs, but it was too soon. He was afraid if he drew her attention to the fact that she was hurt in more than one place, she might only get worked up again. “They must know he was the one who put up that video, right?”
She shook her head. “He lied about it. Said his roommate must’ve put up a camera and posted that video online.”
“Why would his roommate do something like that?”
“Ethan claims he must’ve got off on watching us. And he said Tommy posted the video online because he was being pressured to move out, and he wasn’t happy about it.”
Dallas dipped his head to catch her eye. “Could that be true? Could it have been this Tommy person?”
“No,” she replied immediately. “Tommy would never do anything like that. He’s a nice guy. Heidi and upper management are only pretending there’s some confusion about who did what, so they have an excuse to be able to continue their relationship with Ethan.”
“Did you tell them that?”
“And what’d they say?”
“That Ethan would never post something that would embarrass him as much as it would me, but it didn’t embarrass him. He’s proud of it. And he was happy he had something with which he could totally destroy me, especially because I didn’t see it coming.”
Dallas clenched his jaw. It was hard not to confront Ethan—to make him pay for what he’d done so that he’d think twice about using revenge porn to hurt any other woman. But Dallas knew getting into a physical altercation with Ethan would be stupid. Ethan deserved an ass whipping, but giving him one wouldn’t solve anything. The video would still be out there, available for those who were looking for it. Dallas would just get himself into trouble, and he’d promised Aiyana—long ago—that he would avoid that sort of thing. “So are you going to proceed with the wrongful firing case?”
She stared at the screen for several seconds, watching Ethan talk about a contest for gingerbread houses and a local Christmas tree event.
She blinked. “I can’t face having this negativity in my life as long as it will take to sue the station. And I don’t want any more publicity, nothing that will remind people of that video and make them go look for it.”
“I understand,” he said. “But you can’t let them get away with what they’ve done.”
She dropped her head in her uninjured hand and began to knead her forehead.
A California Christmas
After a few minutes, Aiyana came back into the room carrying a cup filled with hot tea. “Here you go. Try this,” she said to Emery. “Chamomile will help ease the anxiety.”
Emery managed a weak smile for her kindness but because of her hurt hand, Dallas took the cup and saucer and held it while Aiyana sat on the other side of her.
“They’re betting you won’t sue,” Aiyana said. “Or they wouldn’t have risked hiring him back.”
“They know I can’t, not without causing more damage to myself. And if I don’t win, it’ll all be for nothing.”
“All adults have sex,” Dallas said. “Or most of them, anyway. It’s a perfectly natural, normal part of life. So who cares if there’s a video of you on the internet? Other than trusting the wrong person, you didn’t do anything different than everyone else.”
“I wish I could be that cavalier, but even my family, relatives can see that video!”
“Only if they go looking for it. And if your family is watching it, there’s something wrong with them, not you.”
She surprised him by laughing, and he laughed with her.
“Look, maybe from the station’s perspective you shouldn’t have gotten involved with your coanchor,” he went on, “but office romances are so common I can’t believe employers still require their employees to sign such an agreement. Your relationship with Ethan wouldn’t have affected your work if he’d been cool. So why not flip off this douchebag and sue the station despite all the reasons they think you won’t? Remove his power to hurt you by refusing to care? Let them know that they’ve underestimated you?”
“I’ll think about it,” she said with a sigh.
“Okay. I’d like to see you do it, so I’ll keep my fingers crossed,” he said with a grin. “Now why don’t you go change into a pair of shorts so that Aiyana can see if there’s any glass in your legs.”
She looked surprised when she saw the blood staining her yoga pants.
“We’ll get this taken care of,” Aiyana said gently, obviously eager not to let it undo all the progress they’d made.
“Okay,” she said with a sniff, and went upstairs.
“You’re so good with people,” Aiyana murmured when she was gone.
He took a sip of the tea he was still holding. “I learned from the best.”
Emery could’ve taken care of the cut on her hand and the ones on her legs. They weren’t that bad. But Aiyana insisted on checking them with a magnifying glass and removing the few slivers she found with a pair of tweezers. Once she was satisfied that she’d gotten everything, and that none of the cuts were very deep or threatening, she applied some antiseptic and covered each one with a Band-Aid.
“I’m so sorry about what I did to your lamp,” Emery said as she sat on the countertop. “I’m going to replace it. I want you to know that.”
“Don’t worry about it. Now that we’re getting married, Cal will be bringing over some of his stuff. I’m sure he has a lamp.”
A California Christmas
“No, that’s not fair. I’ll buy you a new one.”
“Please don’t. Between the two of us, we have more than enough household items as it is. I promise.”
Someone knocked on the door. “Hey, I’ve got to shower if I’m going to make it to school on time.”
The voice had to belong to Bentley. He was the only one who had to leave for school. They were in Liam and Bentley’s bathroom, where the Band-Aids and antiseptic had been stored.
Aiyana applied the last Band-Aid, and Emery slid off the vanity.
“We’re done in here,” Aiyana said as she opened the door.
Bentley did a double take when he saw Emery’s legs. “Damn!”
“Language,” Aiyana warned.
“Right.” He looked back at Emery. “You okay?”
“It looks a lot worse than it is. I’m fine—better than the lamp I broke,” she said with some chagrin.
A shy smile lit his face, his smooth dark skin contrasting nicely with his large white teeth. “At least I’m not the one to break something this time.”
Aiyana swatted his arm, but Emery could tell she wasn’t seriously angry. “What you did wouldn’t have happened if you hadn’t been playing ball in the house.”
He pretended to throw a pass to some imaginary receiver. “Hey, I’m a football player. That’s what I do.”
“You’re a running back, not a quarterback, and you had no business throwing that ball in the house,” Aiyana insisted with a begrudging smile. “He’s hoping to get a football scholarship,” she explained as an aside. “We’re pretty darn proud of him. But he’s not going to let his studies suffer, right?” She winked at him. “You’re going to use your brain, too, so that you’ll have a fallback in case the worst happens and you don’t make it into the pros—or, heaven forbid—you get injured.”
“Aw, man, listen to you,” he said. “Don’t jinx me like that, Ma!”
They squeezed past him on the way out. “You need to be prepared for anything,” Aiyana advised.
As Bentley closed the door, Emery couldn’t help glancing down the stairs to see if Dallas was still up, but all seemed quiet.
“So are you okay?” Aiyana asked before they parted in the hallway.
Emery knew Aiyana had to get ready for work. She spent long days at the school. “I’m fine. Again, I’m sorry—”
Aiyana waved her words away. “Please, stop apologizing. It’s nothing. Really. But I do hope you’ll think about what Dallas had to say. Being nice is wonderful, but allowing someone to push you around isn’t. Sometimes when people step over the line, you have to let them know you won’t put up with it.”
A California Christmas
Emery was slightly surprised to hear this coming from the nicest person she’d ever met. “I agree.”
Aiyana was walking away from her, but at this, she turned back. “You do?”
Emery drew a deep breath. She felt so fragile. But Dallas’s words had imbued her with the desire to stand up for herself, to fight back, regardless of what it might cost. “I’m going to call the attorney I’ve been talking to and tell him to go ahead and file suit.”
Aiyana smiled in apparent satisfaction. “Good. They’ll learn that they can’t treat people the way they treated you.”
Although Emery nodded decisively, she knew winning wasn’t automatic. She’d have a battle on her hands, one that came with no guarantees.
She paced in her room, trying to work up the nerve, until eight o’clock, when her attorney would be more likely to arrive at his office.
Then she made the call. She managed to reach him, but after it was over, she felt like throwing up.
About the Book:
When charming, mysterious, Nik sits next to Jess on a plane home from a Christmas toy trade fair, she never could have imagined the impact he’d have on her life. As they touch down in London, Jess is hesitant to let Nik walk away, and before she knows it, she’s invited him to visit.
As the two take in the delights of the toy store where she works, Jess gets an upsetting phone call. Willow Court, her Grandmother’s care home, is to close before Christmas. With the help of Nik, and her best friend Oliver, Jess is determined to find the perfect new home for her Gran – and throw the best Christmas party Willow Court has ever seen! But time is running out and Oliver isn’t the only one who has suspicions about charismatic Nik’s intentions.
Will a chance encounter on an aeroplane bring love to Jess’s life or is this Christmas miracle too good to be true?
About the Author:
Samantha Tonge lives in Manchester UK with her husband and children. She studied German and French at university and has worked abroad, including a stint at Disneyland Paris. She has travelled widely. When not writing she passes her days cycling, baking and drinking coffee. Samantha has sold many dozens of short stories to women’s magazines. She is represented by the Darley Anderson literary agency. In 2013, she landed a publishing deal for romantic comedy fiction with HQDigital at HarperCollins and in 2014, her bestselling debut, Doubting Abbey, was shortlisted for the Festival of Romantic Fiction best Ebook award. In 2015 her summer novel, Game of Scones, hit #5 in the UK Kindle chart and won the Love Stories Awards Best Romantic Ebook category. In 2018 Forgive Me Not, heralded a new direction into darker women’s fiction with publisher Canelo. In 2019 she was shortlisted for the Romantic Novelists’ Association romantic comedy award.
Jess. is a toyshop owner and meets Nik on the plane on the way back from a trade fair in Germany. I thought the trade fair was an original event and a toy store owner is always a welcome job to have, especially in the months running up to Christmas.
People meeting each other on planes seems to be a bit of a thing in books I have reviewed over the past few years and can get a bit tired. But that’s the only bad thing I have to say about this book.
From the start, Nik seems interesting and Jess is drawn to his sexy Aussie looks and accent. They part ways too soon but she thinks of a quick way to keep him at the airport longer. They always say the best way to a man’s heart is through his stomach 🙂
They get chatting more and I found myself feeling sad as they left the airport, but happy at the promise of her seeing him again.
Their love of food and toys shines through. Jesss’s toyshop is beautifully decorated and very cosy.
Jess lives in an apartment with her friend and flatmate Oliver and there’s tension when he first hears about him. He just wants Jess to be OK.
Alice is Jess’s grandmother and is a lovely person who Jess adores. Alice’s wellbeing is in danger as the assisted living facility she lives in is up for sale.
Can Jess and Nik save Willow Court and its residents from ruin and celebrate the annual Cheistmas party the residents deserve?
Their efforts are interesting to witness and the residents are lovely. I enjoyed meeting them through Jess and Nik’s visits there.
The Winter We Met is heartbreaking, warming inspiring and like a warming cup of hot chocolate and a hug rolled into one.
The fight for Willow Court and Jess’s worry about her grandmother was incredibly realistic and I could relate to the struggle to get needs met and the frustration that casuses when it does not go to plan since both myself and those close to me have had to fight for our health and wellbeing needs. I am an advocate for people never stopping fighting for what they are entitled to.
This is especially important for elderly people or those of us with disabilities and I congratulate Samantha Tonge for painting a realistic but sensitive picture of the reality of the fight for those of us who are more vulnerable for one reason or another and the fact we need to be seen as people.
I was so happy that Alice had a good support network as that can be hard to come by.
Of Samantha Tonge’s books, I liked that this was another Christmas-themed one. After reviewing The Christmas Calendar Girls and then The Summer Island Swap on their corresponding blog tours, I was really happy to review The Winter We Met because Samantha Tonge has a real gift for representing friendships, enticing settings and creating chatacters you want to know about.
Every character is well fleshed out and the residents of Willow Court have so many interesting tales to tell but also complement each other brilliantly.
Another wonderful novel by Samantha Tonge. I have now reviewed all her books and loved them all.
Thanks to Samantha Tonge and Aria for my ARC in exchange for an honest review.
Where to Buy:
It was a misunderstanding that started it. I sat in the wrong row. The air steward said it didn’t matter. The flight wasn’t full and so I stayed there, by the window. We were about to take off.
I was travelling back to England after attending one of the many toy trade fairs that ran throughout the year, this time in Germany. I managed a shop called Under the Tree. It was the end of October and I was thinking ahead to next year’s must-have products. I yawned. It was an obscenely early flight.
Before heading to the airport I’d bought a little Bavarian cuckoo clock. I bent down and took it out of my hand luggage, put it on the seat next to me for a moment and grinned, imagining my plain-speaking gran’s face as the wooden bird flew noisily out of its door.
‘Must be a great joke.’
I looked up at the lofty frame, red jumper and eyes that laughed with me. Hastily, I put the clock back and removed my woollen bobble hat. He put his big rucksack and anorak into the overhead cabin and offered to lift my bag up there as well. Then he settled into the seat next to me and put on his seatbelt.
‘Sorry. I haven’t introduced myself. I’m Nik.’
He had an accent, it took me a moment to place it. Australian. He held out his hand and long fingers enveloped mine.
‘Jess,’ I said, unable to look away from those eyes, surprised by their startling blueness – and the tingly feeling spreading across my palm.
He glanced down at our hands and humorously raised an eyebrow. Blushing, I released him.
‘Sorry. Premature jet lag. I’ve been at a trade fair for two days and feel as if I could sleep through to next year’s.’
‘Me too. Nuremberg by any chance?’ he asked, and we chatted about how busy the fair had been.
‘So you manage a toy shop?’ he said, then really listened as I replied. His eyebrows moved up and down as we chatted. He was interested, paid attention.
Not everyone did that. It made me feel seen.
The plane vibrated as the engines started and Nik ran a hand though thick hair that was streaked with white. It was unusual for someone in their, what, early thirties, and contrasted with his tanned, smooth skin. He looked distinguished. At twenty-nine I’d not had my first grey hair yet.
‘What about you?’ I asked.
‘My family owns a toy manufacturing business in Sydney and I’ve been keeping track of the competition.’
The plane turned onto the runway – normally my cue to lean against the window and try hard to relax.
‘Do you like flying? You must be used to it, coming all the way from Australia.’
About the Book:
Join us for Christmas in the Cotswolds in this perfect festive escape, from the bestselling Lucy Coleman.
Imogen Tolliman never knew her mother. And when an accident robs Immi of her father too, she goes to live with her grandfather, Tollie, in his picturesque lock-keeper’s cottage by the Aysbury marina.
Tollie is the star of the Santa Ahoy Special each Christmas – a festive boat ride along the canal that enthralls both children and adults alike. And as Immi grows up, she starts to appreciate the magical community she is lucky enough to live in.
When Immi meets Gray Adams, she instantly realises he’s someone special. And as their relationship gets serious, they start to plan for the Christmas to beat all Christmases.
But as the day approaches, and the romantic snow showers turn into blizzards, their dream of a Christmas to remember, looks set to be one they’ll never forget – for all the wrong reasons. Can they salvage the festivities, or will old secrets that are finally uncovered turn Immi’s life upside down forever?
Let Lucy Coleman transport you away to a dreamy Cotswolds Christmas full of snowflakes and secrets, log fires, mistletoe, friends and much-loved traditions. Perfect for all fans of Trisha Ashley, Holly Martin and Sue Moorcroft.
About the Author:
Lucy Coleman is a #1 bestselling romance writer, whose recent novels include Snowflakes over Holly Cove. She also writes under the name Linn B. Halton. She won the 2013 UK Festival of Romance: Innovation in Romantic Fiction award and lives in the Welsh Valleys.
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I adore Lucy Coleman’s books and so when I was given the opportunity to take part in the blog tour for Christmas at Lock Keeper’s Cottage I accepted.
A Christmas novel is always welcome and the place this is set is original. I have reviewed books set on canal boats, and in quaint riverside towns but never in a lock keeper’s cottage and the surrounding area.
The importance of the river and waterside way of life is evident and it was a new and different way to experience a riverside location.
Having lived in places with rivers all my life, and in a town in the past that has a lock not too far away, I have always wondered what went on inside a lock keeper’s cottage.
Lucy Coleman never fails to disappoint in terms of attention to detail and originality in setting in any of her books I have had the pleasure of reviewing, whether it’s France, Italy or England, she takes a setting and makes it her own.
The characters are endearing and realistic and there are plenty of ups and downs in the novel which Lucy Coleman deals with expertly and in a compelling way while the characters are fleshed out accordingly.
Love, fun times and hardship at a lock keeper’s cottage. This novel is a relaxing way to spend a few days. I cannot tell you how much I was waiting for Lucy Coleman’s latest and it did not disappoint. There were some aspects I wanted wrapped up, but that leaves room for another novel which I hope we’ll see soon.
Overall, compelling, relaxing setting and a well balanced plot.
Thanks to Lucy Coleman, Rachel’s Random Resources and Boldwood Books for my ARC in exchange for an honest and voluntary review.
Wrenching shut the door of Lock Keeper’s Cottage, I head off along the towpath. Every Friday evening there’s one place everyone at the marina heads for – The Bullrush Inn. As I push through the door and step inside, the low hum of chatter tells me that most of the regulars are here already. I liberally dispense waves and smiles as I make my way between the tables.
A café and gift shop by day, every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday evening between six and ten p.m., it’s the haunt of the Aysbury Junction Marina Anchor Club members.
‘Hi, Fisher.’ As I walk past the marina manager he jumps up, leaning in to give me one of his bear hugs.
‘Hey, darling girl. Where’s Tollie?’
‘I left him wrapping the kids’ Christmas presents. We’ve been at it all day, but Gray’s on his way, so Granddad has given me the evening off.’
Fisher beams from ear to ear. ‘Glad he’s back, Immi. I know how much you’ve missed him. Besides, the Christmas festivities can’t begin until he’s here.’ He gives me a second hug before easing himself back down into his seat.
Fisher took over when Tollie retired, a little over twenty years ago, now.
When I first came to live with my granddad, I had just turned fourteen and it was a rough time for us both. Ernest Tolliman – Tollie, as he’s known to everyone, including me – struggled to cope with the grief of losing his only son. Throwing a teenage granddaughter into the mix didn’t make it any easier. But the truth was that all we had left in the world was each other. My mother had disappeared when I was only three months old, never to be seen again.
For Tollie, my dad’s death brought back the grief he felt over losing Grandma, two years before. I can see that now, but I didn’t appreciate that fact way back then. All I could feel was my own loss and an overwhelming sense of anger. My head was screaming ‘why me?’ as I was forced to say goodbye to friends I regarded as family. Losing Dad broke my heart and I was angry at life, at fate and at a stupid accident that needn’t have happened.
Dad worked at the Royal Navy Training Centre in Portsmouth. He promised me faithfully it would be our last move, and we fitted right in, surrounded by a great bunch of people.
Ironically, it wasn’t the dangers of the sea that snatched him away from us, but a freak accident when the brakes failed on a coach in which he was travelling. Dad had been away for three days, running an off-site refresher course, and he just never came home. That made it worse, not being able to say a proper goodbye. Nothing prepares you for that and I’m afraid I didn’t manage my emotions very well at the time.
Fisher ended up being my listening ear whenever Tollie and I fell out, which was a frequent occurrence in those early days. My frustrations and disappointments in life turned me into something of a rebel and I wanted to fight back. So, I took on the world. Now I can look back and think, poor world and poor Tollie, because it wasn’t anyone’s fault.
BUY THE BOOK
After having taken part in the Cover reveal for City of Second Chances, I’m pleased to be on the blog tour for this book.
About the Author:
Born in London, Jane’s writing career began in cable TV, writing true crime documentaries. More recently, Jane has contributed to an anthology of short stories and written two weekly crime serials. When she’s not writing, Jane loves to read good books, binge watch TV boxsets and drink tea. And wine.
Twitter handle: @JaneLaceyCrane
About the book
She’s already met The One, it was just that Mr Right came along at the wrong time….
Evie Grant is forty-five years old, a widow, and single mum of two children about to leave the nest. Suddenly alone in the family home, Evie realizes she hates her job, hardly goes out and hasn’t had a date since who knows when…
So it feels like fate when the opportunity arises for a girls trip to New York City. Staying with her sister on the Upper East Side, Evie is enchanted by a snow-covered city consumed by preparing for Christmas. Bobble hat firmly on, Evie is walking through the city one day when she bumps into Daniel Roberts, Hollywood heartthrob and one-time boyfriend of hers.
It’s now or never for Evie – but she open her heart to the possibility of a new beginnings and true happiness once again….?
Funny, real and wonderfully romantic, this is the perfect feel-good read to keep you warm this winter!
Google Play: http://bit.ly/2A1KBr0
Evie Grant is 45, widowed and with children who have their own plans for the Christmas season, is not looking forward to a lonely Christmas.
There’s nothing that a bit of traveling can’t fix and she and her best friend Rachel jet off to see her sister in The Big Apple. Daniel Roberts, her former college boyfriend who has found acting fame has made the city his home. What will happen when they meet again?
The City of Second Chances has an explosive opening. Don’t be fooled by the beautiful Christmassy cover. When bodies are found in an isolated cabin in New York, Evie does not want to make the connection that one of the victims may be her friend, Olivia, who vanished during a holiday she and her friend Rachel took with Olivia precisely to New York twenty years earlier during their Sixth-Form College days.
I actually gasped at the beginning. It’s so realistic one minute then shocking the next. Evie has the ongoing challenge of feeling bad about Olivia’s disappearance and this, compounded by the fact she lost her husband Tom and the father of her two teenagers, Grace and Sam.
All this pushes the plot forward and the effect on every member of the family is so vivid.
The tragedies are ever-present, as are Evie’s attempts to deal with them while living a life she tries to make as normal as possible for herself and her family are very realistically shown by the author.
There are many themes, life, coping with death depression as well as happy times family friendship and a quest to heal past wounds.
Through all this, there is fun and laughter too. Evie’s friend Rachel loves a Cosmopolitan and a bit of shopping (just my kind of friend exactly).
Daniel is passionate driven and there are conflicts.
Jane Lacey-Crane has a style of writing that is utterly engrossing.
Thanks to Jane Lacey-Crane and Aria for my ARC in exchange for an honest and voluntary review. I’m pleased to be on the blog tour for this title.
The City of Second Chances is the second book by Jane Lacey-Crane I’ve reviewed after her previous title. Secrets and Tea at Rosie Lee’s. BLOG TOUR POST
I enjoyed both books immensely and hope that it won’t be too long before I have the chance to review another one of her future releases.
London, December 2017
‘Do you really think it could be her? After all this time?’ Rachel’s voice sounded shaken. It mirrored my own.
‘I don’t know. I read the whole story but all it said was that eight bodies had been found in some cabin in the middle of nowhere. It didn’t give any more information as to why they might think it’s her.’ I took a large mouthful of my wine and looked at the clock on the cooker – it was almost seven. I was expecting Grace and Sam home at any moment.
‘I can’t talk about this now – the kids are due back any minute.’
‘They’re back from uni already? It’s not Christmas holidays yet, is it?’
‘No, they’re only here for the weekend. Grace is catching up with some old school friends and Sam has tickets to see some band or other.’
‘So they’re just using you as a B & B, then?’ Rachel chuckled.
‘Yep, that’s about the size of it.’
In truth, I didn’t really mind; I was just happy to have them home, even if I’d probably only get to see them for a couple of hours. ‘They’ve promised to at least sit down for dinner with me tonight. That’ll be nice. All three of us together around the table again. I know Grace has been gone for a few months, but it still feels weird being here in the house on my own.’
‘Think yourself lucky. I don’t think Sean is ever going to leave home. The boy spends all day in his room with the curtains shut, playing games on his computer.’
‘I thought he went for a job interview the other day?’
Rachel snorted down the phone. ‘Ha! He did but he decided it wasn’t quite for him.’
‘Apparently he’s holding out for a management position,’ said Rachel, with more than a tiny note of sarcasm. I nearly spat out the mouthful of wine I’d just taken. ‘What?’
‘I know. He’s my son and I love him but he’s such a lazy little shit at times.’
‘Sounds sensible to me. Management is always going to be a better option, career wise,’ I replied, tongue firmly in my cheek. Thankfully Rachel and I had been friends long enough to be able to take the piss out of each other occasionally.
‘I’ll tell him you said that. Maybe you’d like him as a lodger for a bit, you know, to keep you company.’
‘Er, no, thanks. I’m fine just as I am.’ I heard the key in the front door followed by the sounds of my two children squabbling in the hallway. ‘Rach, I’ve got to go. Shall we meet up tomorrow for a coffee? We can talk about this properly.’
‘Yes, sounds good. Morgan’s, about one-ish?’
‘Great. See you then.’ I ended the call.
‘I don’t know why you couldn’t park on the road. You’ve blocked me in. Mum, tell her she’ll have to move her car, will you?’
‘I’ll move it later. I had a lot of bags, you moron. Mum, where shall I put these?’ asked Grace.
As I came down the hallway to greet my darling children I saw the bags of what I assumed was my daughter’s laundry, piled at her feet. Three of them.
‘Grace, have you not done any washing since you left in September?’
Grace looked down at the bags. ‘Yeah, of course. I’ve only brought the big stuff. Bed linen, towels, that sort of thing. There’s only a few bits of clothing in there. I just figured if you had the washing machine going, I could chuck these bits in.’
I shook my head and then turned my attention to Sam. I had to look up though. Sam was six feet four and he towered over me. He got his height from his father. Tom had also been tall. That was what had caught my attention on the night we met. That, and he had the most beautiful smile I’d ever seen; something else that my son inherited from his father’s gene pool. I didn’t give his dad all the credit though; from me he’d got his dark hair and dark eyes, in fact both of them had. I knew I was undoubtedly biased, but my children were gorgeous. I picked up the bags of dirty sheets and towels and God knew what else and walked back into the kitchen. Sam slammed the front door and then followed me with his younger sister trailing behind. I looked at them both, standing together in my kitchen, Grace scrolling through her Instabook or Facegram or whatever it was, and Sam texting his friends. I was overwhelmed with a feeling of gratitude to have them both here with me.
‘I’ve made arrabbiata sauce for dinner. Your favourite.’
‘No pasta for me. I think I have an intolerance,’ said Grace, without looking up from her phone. She wandered through into the living room and flopped down onto the sofa.
‘You mean you’re intolerable, Grace. Totally different thing,’ shouted Sam. His sister flicked him her middle finger by way of a reply.
‘I can make courgetti instead of pasta if you’d rather,’ I called to her. I’d bought a spiraliser thingy on a whim a few months back in an effort to eat healthy and get fit. It was still in the box.
‘Yeah, that’s fine. Whatever.’
‘You pander to her too much, Mum,’ said Sam, dropping a kiss on the top of my head. ‘I’m going to dump my stuff upstairs. I’ll be back in a minute and I’ll set the table.’
‘You’re such a good boy, Sam.’
‘I know. I’m your favourite. You can say it, Grace won’t mind.’
I laughed. I didn’t have favourites; the three of us were a team. Sam was only eleven when his father died, and Grace was just eight. Tom had been killed in a car accident on his way home from work, almost ten years before. Ten years – had it really been that long? To me it still felt like only yesterday; the late-night knock on the front door from the police, the drive to the hospital to see Tom’s body. Overnight we became the three Musketeers; one for all and all for one. Without them I would have fallen to pieces. In my darkest moments, when I couldn’t see a way forward through all the pain, the thought of them dragged me back from the edge and kept me going. I didn’t have a choice; losing one parent was more than enough for any child to deal with.
‘How long’s dinner going to be? I’m starving,’ shouted Grace, from her prone position on the sofa.
‘About twenty minutes. Do you want to take your bag upstairs?’
Grace huffed. She knew this was my code for, ‘Get your bag out of the hallway before I fling it on the compost heap at the end of the garden.’ I heard her huffing and stomping her way out of the living room and up the stairs.
I’m so pleased that Canelo asked me to take part in blog tour number two for Christmas at the Northern Lights. See my post for the first blog tour (Review and Spotlight) here
About the Book:
Climbing out the window in her dress and tiara wasn’t exactly how Frankie imagined her wedding day…’
Runaway bride Frankie Ashford hops a plane to Norway with one goal in mind – find her estranged mother and make peace with the past. But when a slip on the ice in Oslo lands her directly in Jonas Thorsen’s viking-strong arms, her single-minded focus drifts away in the winter winds.
When it comes to romance Jonas knows that anything he and Frankie share has an expiration date – the British heiress has a life to return to in London that’s a world away from his own. But family is everything to Jonas and, as the one man who can help Frankie find the answers she’s seeking, he’ll do whatever it takes to help her reunite with her mother.
Now, as Christmas draws closer and the northern lights work their magic Frankie and Jonas will have to make a choice…play it safe or risk heartbreak to take a chance on love.
Where to Buy:
Google Books (UK)
Apple Books (UK)
About the Author:
Darcie Boleyn has a huge heart and is a real softy. She never fails to cry at books and movies, whether the ending is happy or not. Darcie is in possession of an overactive imagination that often keeps her awake at night. Her childhood dream was to become a Jedi but she hasn’t yet found suitable transport to take her to a galaxy far, far away. She also has reservations about how she’d look in a gold bikini, as she rather enjoys red wine, cheese and loves anything with ginger or cherries in it – especially chocolate. Darcie fell in love in New York, got married in the snow, rescues uncoordinated greyhounds and can usually be found reading or typing away on her laptop. Other books by Darcie are: Love at the Italian Lake, Christmas at Conwenna Cove, Forever at Conwenna Cove, Summer at Conwenna Cove and A Very Merry Christmas
Author Social Media Links
My Q&A for Darcie Boleyn
1. Have you ever been to the area where the book is set?I haven’t but it’s on my bucket list. I read lots of articles and blog posts and looked at lots of photographs and watched videos on YouTube. Research can be so much fun!
2. What led you to set the book there?
Love at the Northern Lights is dedicated to my dad and to the dreams we shared. The story isn’t about him, or me, but it was inspired by our conversations and plans. My dad was one of my best friends and we always planned on travelling together. Norway was one of the places we talked about visiting. With its mountains, glaciers and deep coastal fjords, it sounded perfect. There would be the chance to see authentic Viking ships in Oslo’s museum, to take a cruise on the Sognedfjord – Norway’s longest and deepest fjord – and to hike and ski. And, of course, there would be the opportunity to visit the city of Tromsø, to ride on a sleigh through the snow, and hopefully witness the magnificent Aurora borealis. Sadly, my dad passed away in 2004, but one day I aim to see the northern lights for us both. He was so full of enthusiasm for life and his ready smile and his wit made me laugh all the time. He is never far from my thoughts.
3. Any tips on creating a winter wonderland atmosphere in my own books?
Absolutely! First, get yourself feeling festive, even it’s the middle of the summer. Burn some cinnamon candles, play some festive music and make a hot chocolate. Then make a list of all the lovely things that we associate with Christmas, like Christmas trees, mulled wine, snow, movies, carols, mistletoe, Christmas shopping, Christmas cake, mince pies and so on. Create scenes in your novel where you focus on the evolving relationship between the characters and where you add in all the delicousness of Christmas.
4. Which was your favourite scene in the book and why?
I did have a good giggle as I wrote the opening scene, and that was a lot of fun to research! It’s s difficult to choose my favourite scene, as there are lots that I like, but I do always enjoy writing the first scene where the main characters meet – in this case Frankie and Jonas – and the first kiss, where they suddenly realise that until that point, something has been missing from their lives.
5. Who is your favourite character and why?
In Love at the Northern Lights, it’s Jonas. He’s so kind and caring and has integrity – important traits in a partner.
6. Which was the most difficult scene and chapter to write and why?
The scenes with Frankie and Freya were challenging, because you can’t put aside a lifetime of hurt in a few scenes, so I had to show Frankie’s feelings changing gradually. She has to go through a healing process and it was very emotional to write.
7. How do you spend Christmas?
I make a Christmas cake with my children and every year we watch Home Alone and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. I also try to read a few Christmas books, as that makes me feel festive and I love reading, of course. Christmas for me is about snuggling up with my husband, children and dogs and spending precious time together.
8. When you are not writing, what do you most like to do?
I’ll read, bake, take long walks with my husband and our three dogs and, the majority of the time, I’ll be thinking about writing and what I can write next, or how to work through a plot point. My mind never stops working on my writing, even when I’m sleeping…
9. For me, Love at The Northern Lights was one of my favourite feel good Christmas novels of the year. How can I captivate my readers in my own Christmas novel?
Thank you so much!!! That means such a lot. J I write from the heart and I fill my novels with emotion, laughter and love. Think about the story that you want to read and write it.
10. What is your greatest wish for Christmas?
I would love to see Love at the Northern Lights in the Amazon Top 100, but that’s out of my control. J However, spending the holidays with my husband, children and dogs will be just perfect.
11. I think you have a unique writing style and your books always leave me feeling good. They are satisfying reads. How can I find the balance between an engaging plot, realistic characters and leaving readers happy with having read a satisfying book?
I’m so glad to hear that! Thank you again!
It takes a lot of dedication, practice and hard work, and a good editor and copy editor to create the polished version of the novel. I used to be a ‘pantser’, meaning I used to work without a plan, but now I write a detailed synopsis before I start then I plan each scene out before I start writing it. Sometimes, my characters take me away from the plan, but at least I have an idea of where I’m going.
12. Which book format do you choose most when reading for pleasure? Physical, ebook or audiobook and why?
I still read paperbacks and hardbacks, but I love my Kindle, especially in the darker days and afternoons, because I can snuggle on the sofa and read it without having to worry about turning a light on. I have listened to a few audiobooks and it’s lovely, but I still like reading.
In the airport cafe, Frankie tucked her suitcase under the table then wrapped her hands around the mug of coffee. She could see the entrance to the toilets from here and winced every time someone went in or came out, wondering if she’d see someone emerge carrying the tote bag of treats. The light was fading outside and she realized she had no idea what time it was or how long she’d been sitting there, lost in her thoughts.
Her bones ached and she wished she could curl up under the table and sleep. Instead, she picked up the almond croissant she’d purchased and ate it quickly, washing each mouthful down with coffee, aware that she needed to put something into her empty belly.
Soon, the croissant and coffee raised her blood sugar and the headache she’d blamed the tiara for began to fade. But there was still a question burning inside her: what was she going to do now?
‘What time’s your flight?’ The woman at the next table spoke into her mobile. ‘Uh… aha… right. Well, see you when we get there.’
She cut the call then looked at Frankie.
‘My brother.’ She waved the mobile. ‘He’s getting married in Cuba next week, so we’re heading out there early to take in some of the sights first.’
‘Yes and I’m so excited. It’s my first holiday with my boyfriend too.’ Her eyes sparkled and her cheeks were rosy, presumably with the first flush of love.
‘That’s nice. I’m sure you’ll have a wonderful time.’
‘Thank you. Where are you going?’ The woman’s eyes flickered over Frankie’s tiara and she touched it self-consciously. It probably did look strange with her casual attire.
Frankie opened her mouth to answer, hoping something would spring to mind, but a tall sandy-haired man arrived at the woman’s table and she jumped up and hugged him, so Frankie was spared the embarrassment of admitting she had no idea. The couple gathered their bags then left the cafe arm in arm, leaving Frankie staring at the table they’d vacated. It must be wonderful to truly love someone. Sure, she’d enjoyed spending time with Rolo in the early days and they’d had some fun – in fact, she’d hoped it was love that she felt for him – but she’d never experienced a burning need to see him, to touch him and to be close to him. In reality, they’d been a lot more like polite acquaintances than lovers about to marry. Perhaps that had been because she’d known she didn’t really love him and had been holding back. And what had been holding her back? Not just a lack of love and desire but her need for independence. Her need to experience freedom, to know what it was like to be happy with who she was and what she was doing. Had she ever really had that sense of personal satisfaction?
Not in her job. Not in her relationship. And certainly not in her home life, where even though her father had tried hard to fill the gap left by her mother, it had been there… a chasm of emptiness and sadness, a constant awareness that the woman who should have loved her more than anyone else had walked away from her and not cared whether she lived or died. It had also, unsurprisingly, been laced with a bitter anger.
Until she dealt with that, Frankie realized, she would never be able to move on and be happy.
She drained her coffee then opened her bag and pulled out her purse. She had a variety of credit cards and some cash, so she could easily book a flight. At the back of her purse, folded over, was something she carried with her. Always. She pulled it out and unfolded it, then pressed it flat on the table and gazed at the image of a snow-covered landscape. It was dark and the trees cast bushy shadows across the ground. It made Frankie shiver just imagining how cold it must be there. But above the snow, brightening the dark sky with swathes of luminous green, blue and purple, were the northern lights.
Every time Frankie had looked at this postcard over the years since she’d turned eighteen, something had tugged at her heart and made her yearn to see these lights in person. They were beautiful, mystical, magical. Even though she’d read about them and knew their true cause, Frankie still believed that there was magic in nature if it could create such beauty. And, of course, she wondered if her mother had seen these lights… if she had thought of her daughter as she watched the shimmering display.
Her mother had sent cards every year on birthdays and at Christmas when she was growing up. They had been pretty cards featuring beautiful paintings but the messages inside had been brief, almost impersonal, as if her mother had either not cared to write more or had been holding back. However, now that she thought about it and tried to rationalize it, perhaps her mother had cared if she was alive and well. She’d noted every changing of the year in her daughter’s life, hadn’t she? And yet… how much did sending a card really prove? Was her mother actually just assuaging her conscience and nothing more?
Frankie wanted to believe that it was more than just that but what proof did she have other than cards?
She turned the card over and ran her eyes over the familiar words, words she knew without needing to read them, but still, looking at them again helped her confirm that they were real and not a figment of her imagination.
Happy 18th Birthday. I knew this day would come and yet, I cannot believe how the years have flown. Now that you are an adult, I feel able to give you my address. Please know that you are welcome to come and visit me anytime you wish. I would love to see you. However, I understand if you do not want to come. I will not contact you again unless I hear from you, because I don’t want to trouble you if you would prefer not to hear from me.
The postcard had arrived in a sealed envelope, presumably to prevent Grandma from reading the message, and Freya’s address was printed in the top-right corner, leaving her to make the decision. She had not gone when she was eighteen, nor when she was twenty-one, nor when she turned twenty-nine. It had seemed better to leave things as they were, to build her own life and not rake up the past. She didn’t want to hurt her father or upset her grandmother, and knew that visiting her mother could well do both. Her grandmother was a stern, aloof woman, but she had always been around – she had not left Frankie behind – and because of that, Frankie owed her loyalty – although her behaviour earlier today had made Frankie question her grandmother’s motives. Her father had been a kind and caring parent, but he had a haunted quality about him, as if he’d never recovered from losing his wife. Frankie had felt protective of him, even though he had been the adult and she the child.