SWEET CHRISTMAS KISSES 3 is a bundle of seventeen wholesome holiday romances from New York Times, USA Today, national bestselling, and award-winning authors—all members of Sweet Romance Reads.
This is our third SWEET CHRISTMAS KISSES bundle, and I’m happy to have had a story in each of them. For this one, I decided to include my favorite animal: dogs. I have two French bulldogs, Dolly and Bailey, and their love affair was the inspiration for my book, along with my daughter’s crazy antics while working at a doggie daycare.
THE CHRISTMAS GIFT is a sweet small-town contemporary romance about two high school sweethearts who get a second chance at love during Christmas with a little help from a French bulldog. I hope you enjoy this excerpt:
Riley Wayne placed the star on top of the Christmas tree. A wave of melancholy washed over her. Being single over the holidays was no fun. She’d been back in town two weeks and was still moping over the fact that her last relationship hadn’t worked out. At least she had Taylor, though, and the last thing she wanted was to bring her down. Her younger sister loved this time of year. Always had. Even after their parents died and it was just the two of them, Taylor had wanted to maintain all their family traditions.
The pretty brunette stood next to her studying the tree, and Riley swallowed the lump in her throat before saying, “What do you think? Is it on straight?”
Taylor bit her bottom lip and cocked her head to the side. “It’s just a little crooked. Move it a smidge to the left.”
Riley reached up and moved the star. “Good?”
She stepped off the stool and inspected the tree. It was the scrawniest thing she’d ever seen, but they’d done the best they could decorating it. With just three days until Christmas, most of the tree farms had been sold out. They were lucky to have found anything at all. Although, it would’ve been okay with her if they’d come home empty-handed. But Taylor insisted they have a tree. She said it wouldn’t feel like Christmas without one, not to mention the fact that she was under the misguided assumption that celebrating the holiday would help Riley cheer up.
She begged to differ, though, because so far it was having the opposite effect. At thirty, she should’ve been married with children. Instead, not only was she single, she didn’t have any desire to date.
Riley had left the quaint small town in New York that she’d grown up in to move to Maine with a man she’d thought was ready to settle down. Boy, had she been mistaken. Not only didn’t she receive a proposal, she’d found out that Derek had been having affairs with numerous women. If only she could’ve kept Sam, the Saint Bernard they’d acquired together, that would’ve helped ease her loneliness, but Sam needed a large yard to romp around in, and Derek was able to give him that. Besides, moving back to Crescentville mid-month didn’t give her many rental options. In fact, she was lucky that her sister offered to share her condo with her, and although pets were allowed, there was a weight restriction—one that Sam far surpassed.
Taylor draped her arm across Riley’s shoulders, giving them a squeeze. “I know you’re sad, but maybe something magical will happen that will cheer you up.”
Riley frowned. “Like what?”
Her features became more animated. “Oh, I don’t know. This is the season of joy, and you never know when something wonderful might be around the corner.”
Riley shook her head. “Good things happen for some people, but I’m not going to hold my breath on anything like that happening for me.”
Taylor let out a huge sigh. “You know, I’m not one to say I told you so, but I did warn you not to move in with Derek.”
“That’s because you didn’t want me to move away,” she said with a hint of annoyance.
“Well, that goes without saying. However, you know that wasn’t the only reason. You hardly knew him.”
“How did my little sister become so wise?”
“I had a good teacher.”
Despite her glum mood, Riley shot her a slight smile. “Want some tea?” she asked, changing the subject.
“I never turn down Earl Grey.”
As she headed toward the kitchen, the doorbell chimed. She glanced back at her sister to ask if she was expecting a visitor, but Taylor had disappeared into the bathroom.
With a shrug, she pulled open the front door. A whoosh of cold air and wet snow hit her in the face, but it wasn’t the shock of that that caused her heart to nearly skip a beat. It was the sight of her ex-boyfriend that did—the boyfriend she’d gone with through high school and college and dumped for Derek.
Mason Carr stood before her as buff and handsome as ever, with a cream French bulldog in his arms. “In case you hadn’t noticed, it’s pretty cold out,” he said, his voice velvet-edged and strong, “and Bodie’s shivering.”
“Come in,” she answered numbly, stepping aside so they could enter the foyer. After she closed the door, her gaze flicked from him, then to the dog.
“I never adopt out an animal without making sure the new home is suitable. No exceptions.”
Riley’s jaw dropped open. “Adopt? Who’s adopting?” Just as she croaked out those words, Taylor strolled out of the bathroom.
“You are,” she replied, taking Bodie from Mason’s arms and placing him into Riley’s. “He’s my Christmas gift to you.”
“Taylor told me how badly you’ve been missing the dog you had in Maine. French bulldogs make great apartment dogs. They’re happy as can be as long as they’re with their human.”
“Exactly why I can’t keep him.” Riley gave the dog back to Taylor. “I have to find a job… At least until spring, when I open my party-planning business. Either way, I won’t be home much.”
Mason’s brows drew together into a frown. “I was under the impression you really wanted a dog. If that’s not the case, I’ll find another home for him. No problem.”
“That’s not necessary.” Taylor headed toward the kitchen with Bodie. “We were just going to have a cup of tea. Why don’t you join us, Mason? I have something to propose that I think will be beneficial to you both and keep Bodie from being left alone.”
Riley followed her sister reluctantly, and by the grim expression on Mason’s face as he walked alongside her, she knew he wasn’t too thrilled with things either.
Taylor put the kettle on and then sat down at the table with Bodie on her lap. The dog stared at Riley as if willing her to keep him.
She had to admit he was pretty darn cute and the perfect size for condo living. However, it wouldn’t be right to leave a new dog alone for eight hours a day.
What if you could take him to work with you?” Taylor asked.
Riley narrowed her eyes. Had her sister lost her mind? “I’m supposed to tell my future employer that I need to bring my dog to work? Come on, Tay, do you really think someone would hire me under that condition? It’s going to be hard enough to find a job at this time of year…”
Taylor shrugged her thin shoulders. “I think it’s possible. Even likely, perhaps. It all depends on who that employer is.”
Both Riley and Mason stared at her with wide eyes, waiting to hear what she was going to say next.
“Mason, are you still shorthanded at Doggie Town?” she asked.
Mason… Shorthanded… He was a dog trainer there…an easygoing, irresponsible dog trainer who liked to hang out with the guys and watch sports all weekend, with no desire to ever settle down. That was why Riley had left him. She’d grown tired of waiting for him to grow up and accept the responsibilities of adulthood. “Am I missing something here? Tay, why would you ask Mason if he was shorthanded, making it sound like he owns the place?”
“Because he does,” she announced brightly. “Bought it in March, right?”
Riley blinked with bafflement. To say she was shocked was an understatement. Happy for him, but shocked nonetheless. Although he’d majored in business, he’d never expressed any desire to own one. She’d always thought he’d gone to college to please his dad. What caused this change in him?
She studied his handsome face—the hooded blue eyes, square jaw, and chiseled cheekbones with just a hint of stubble—as if that would provide her the answer. Instead, all it did was make her heart hurt. If he’d matured enough to own a business, could he have changed in other ways too?
Her cheeks burned when his gaze locked with hers and she was caught staring at him. No use wondering what might have been or even what could be, not after what she’d done to him. He’d have to be a fool to even consider seeing her again, and one thing Mason wasn’t was a fool.
She shifted her gaze to her sister. “It’s so embarrassing putting Mason on the spot like this.”
“Why’s it embarrassing?” His question threw her off guard.
“I, um… I-I don’t—” she stuttered.
“To answer you, Taylor, I need someone for daycare,” he said smoothly.
“Riley’d be perfect for that, don’t you think?” Her short bob bounced up and down while she nodded fiercely as if trying to coerce Mason into agreeing with her.
However, before he could answer, Riley shot out of her chair and began pacing the kitchen. “Are you crazy? I am not perfect for that. I’ve never worked at doggie daycare before.”
Taylor shrugged. “But you love dogs and know more about them than anyone I know, except Mason, of course. Besides, what you don’t know, you can learn. Isn’t that right?” She had a wide smile on her full lips and pleading in her big green eyes. Not many people were able to say no to Taylor when she set her mind to something.
“That’s true,” Mason said. “I’m not necessarily looking for someone with experience. What I need is someone reliable and someone I can trust.”
“That’s Riley all right!”
His magnetic blue eyes bore into hers. “Is it? I thought so once.”
She was surprised at how those words stung. It wasn’t that she’d ever wanted to hurt Mason. They’d been drifting apart for a long time, and then when she met Derek, she knew it was time to move on. It was the right thing to do. At least that was what she’d tried to tell herself.
Taylor had made sure, however, that she knew Mason had been having a hard time getting over her. But that was then, and this was now, and he seemed to be doing just fine.
Riley broke his stare by looking down at the floor. “I’m not a bad person, you know. I didn’t deceive you or cheat on you. I was perfectly honest about my feelings. I wanted to get married, and you didn’t.”
He shook his head, but there was no denying the pain on his face. “There’s no sense rehashing all that. We’ve been down that road, and I don’t want to go back. But I do need to hire someone, and you need a job.”
“And Bodie loves Doggie Town,” Taylor added, setting the bulldog on Riley’s lap. “So everyone’s happy, right?”
“This is only temporary. Come spring, I’m opening my own business.”
“Party planning.” Mason once again held her gaze.
“Yes. Party planning.”
“Fine. We have a deal.” He pushed back his chair and stood. “So, I take it you’re keeping Bodie.”
“Does the condo meet your adoption standards?”
“You know it does.”
Taylor got up and went over to him. “I’ll walk you out.”
Before they left the room, Riley said, “I didn’t know Doggie Town did adoptions.”
“It didn’t. I added it about six months ago. There was a real need for one in the area, and it seemed like the right fit for us.”
“It was a good thing to do,” she said warmly.
“Thanks. See you bright and early tomorrow. We open at seven,” he responded matter-of-factly.
Mason pulled his collar up to keep the bitter winter wind from blowing down his neckline. “You must be freezing,” he said to Taylor, who wore only a thin hoodie, as she closed the front door behind her.
“Nah, I’m a tough girl,” she said with a chuckle.
“That you are.” But he draped his arm across her shoulders to shield her from the wind anyway.
“I told you my plan would work.” She grinned. “Did you see the admiration in Riley’s eyes when she learned you’d bought Doggie Town? And the adoption center… She was way impressed with that.”
“Not so fast. Just because she’s coming to work for me, and it’s temporary, I might add, doesn’t mean she’ll want us to get back together.”
“No negative thoughts allowed. Once she sees you in this new light, how can she resist? Besides, regardless of what she says, Riley never stopped loving you.”
“And you know this because…”
“Because she’s my sister, and I know her better than she knows herself at times.”
Now it was Mason’s turn to chuckle. “We’ll see about that. Go inside and get warm. You’ve meddled enough for one night.” With that said, he spun her around, opened the door, and ushered her inside.
Later, when he was home and sprawled out in bed with Sable, his three-year-old boxer, he let himself hope that Taylor might be right after all. Maybe there was a shot that he could win Riley back. He closed his eyes and visualized her beautiful oval face, her gorgeous hazel eyes, and silky blonde curls. There’d never been anyone else for him, and after seeing her tonight, he was afraid there never would be. And that made him realize he had to tread carefully. Losing her once had been devastating, but losing her a second time… Well, he was afraid that was something he just might not recover from. With that depressing thought, he fell soundly to sleep.
USA Today bestselling author Raine English writes sweet small-town contemporary romance, along with paranormal and Gothic romantic suspense. She’s a Daphne du Maurier Award winner and a Golden Heart finalist. To receive information on all her new releases, you can sign up for her newsletter, like her on Facebook, follow her on Twitter, and visit her website.
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