Friday, September 30, 2016

A Merry Little Christmas - First Chapter - Sneak Peek! by Denise Devine

Chapter 1
November 28th
Merry Connor’s hand shook as she sat in her gold Cavalier and inserted the key into the ignition. She glanced up and saw large snowflakes drop onto the windshield, but the bleak November weather had little to do with her discomfort.

She turned the key.


“Come on, Rocket. Don’t fail me now. I have ten minutes to get to work. Please, start!”

She didn’t know where that noise came from under the hood, but it definitely sounded like trouble. Whispering a short prayer, she took a deep breath and tried again. This time she heard nothing but the sound of her own heartbeat pounding in her ears.

Rocket, the name her nine-year-old son labeled the car when she first brought it home, had been a reliable vehicle until now. However, from the looks of things, Rocket’s next trip would amount to a ride to the garage on the back of a tow truck. Unfortunately, towing didn’t come cheap. Neither did car repairs. For a divorced mother of two who could barely make ends meet, taking on more debt four weeks before Christmas meant financial disaster. She didn’t even have a Christmas tree yet, but that looked doubtful now.

Merry heaved a loud sigh and tipped her head back against the cold headrest. “Why is this happening to me? Don’t I have enough problems already?”

Her phone began to ring a familiar tune in her purse. Speaking of problems... She squared her shoulders, willing herself to remain calm as she reluctantly fished it out and pressed the speaker button. “Hi, Mom.”

“What’s the matter?” Lauren Benson asked sharply. “You sound upset.”

“No... I’m fine.” Merry grabbed her tote bag and shoved open the car door, not in the mood for her mother’s daily lecture on fiscal responsibility. “I’m on my way to work.”

“You’re starting rather early today, aren’t you? What about the kids?”

“I’ve already dropped them off at school.” She shut the car door and started walking down the driveway. The huge, feathery snowflakes were falling faster, covering everything with a fluffy layer of white. She would have been at work right now enjoying a rich cup of coffee with her coworkers if she hadn’t forgotten at home the apron containing her pens, wine key, crumber and other items needed for her serving job at the Nicollet Island Inn. “I’m working longer hours now. One of the servers turned in her notice and my manager offered me the shift. Instead of making the first cut at twelve-thirty, I’m now coming in a half-hour earlier and staying on until three o’clock, when the dinner shift starts. The kids don’t get out of school until four so I’ll have enough time to check out and drive over there to pick them up.”

That is, once she’d solved her car problems. Today she’d have to walk to Marcey-Holmes elementary school to get the kids.

At the end of the driveway, she turned right onto Nicollet Street and picked up the pace. According to her phone, she had exactly eight minutes to travel three and a half blocks to the Nicollet Island Inn and clock in for work. Luckily, the blocks were short and she always wore non-slip shoes.

“Have you started Christmas shopping yet?” Lauren asked. “I thought you and the kids might like to meet Dad and me at Rosedale Mall on Saturday for lunch. Cody and Lily could get their pictures taken with Santa.”

If only...

“Actually, Mom, I have to work a double shift that day.” Her heart ached knowing she had to miss such a special moment with her kids, but she couldn’t help it—especially now with her car on the fritz. “My manager had to pull several servers from the dining room to staff Christmas parties in the banquet rooms. I really need the money, so I was wondering if you and Dad could watch the kids for me. My heat bill came yesterday and I wasn’t counting on it being so high.”

“I suppose,” Lauren said, stretching out the word “suppose” to let Merry know of her disapproval of her daughter’s last-minute schedule change. “We’ll pick up the kids early on Saturday and keep them overnight. I hate waking them from a sound sleep when you come to take them home. Lily gets so cranky when she’s tired.” She paused for a moment. “You should sell that creaky old house and move into a nice townhouse. I see dozens of affordable places in Minneapolis listed for sale every week in the Sunday paper. Some are right in your area. The kids wouldn’t even have to change schools.”

Merry’s jaw clenched at the mention of the word affordable. The deliberate, calculated actions of her husband before their divorce had ruined her credit, causing nearly everything to be unaffordable now, including buying a decent car. She’d obtained her present house only through a sheer stroke of luck—and the personal recommendation of a good friend who knew of her unfortunate situation. Buying a nice townhouse meant asking her parents for help, something she’d determined to stop doing as soon as she could. Working a longer shift took her a step closer to that goal and one day she wouldn’t have to rely on them at all. Until then...

“Mom, I don’t want a townhouse. I like it here on Nicollet Island. Even though it’s in the center of the city, the island has a small town feel and I love my neighbors.”

At Grove Street, she turned left, heading for East Island Avenue.

“Merry, it’s smack dab in the middle of the Mississippi River for crying out loud! I worry every day about Cody and Lily playing in the park. What if they went down to the water’s edge and fell in?”

“I never let them go to the park without me. I don’t allow them to leave our block much less go all the way to the other end of the island by themselves.”

“Why won’t you at least consider it? You know it would be safer for the kids. Besides, you wouldn’t have to shovel the sidewalk or mow the yard and the utilities wouldn’t be such a burden on your finances.”

Merry reached East Island Avenue and saw the historic Nicollet Island Inn, a square, three-story limestone building with aqua trim. She glanced at her phone and began to power walk. “I’d have a living room the size of a postage stamp and the kids wouldn’t have anywhere to play,” she said between deep breaths. “Mom, I know my house needs a lot of work, but it has character and a nice yard. I’ll get it fixed up someday.”

After I get my car repaired and buy a Christmas tree and pay the heat bill...

She hustled past De La Salle High School and crossed the Inn’s rear parking lot, listening to her mother go over the plan for Saturday. “Sounds great, Mom. Gotta go. I need to punch in and get to work,” she said, breathless. “Thanks for taking the kids on Saturday. They’re going to have a lot of fun. Oh, and say hi to Dad. Bye.”

She shoved her phone into her pocket and pushed open the Inn’s back door. Sounds of a busy commercial kitchen diverted her attention, giving her a temporary respite from her problems. She waved to the chef on duty as he called out an order to one of his line cooks. A server asked for a side of toast while pulling an array of completed dishes from under the heating lights and arranging them on a large tray. Kitchen workers stood at their stations, chopping vegetables for soup and preparing items for the dishes of the day.

Merry hastened to find her security card and swiped one of the computers at the server station, clocking herself in exactly on time. She hung her empty tote and jacket on a hook then tied her long, black apron around her waist, mentally preparing herself for a busy day with friendly, interesting customers and great tips. Granted, she was barely making it financially, but life was good compared to two years ago when she’d lost everything—thanks to her lying, deceiving ex-husband. She’d come a long way since then and didn’t intend to look back. Even so, it would be a long time before she’d trust anyone with her heart again.

Maybe never.


Anthony Lewis sat at a table at Sam’s Bar, surrounded by multi-colored Christmas lights and the woodsy aroma of pine as he stared at his brother-in-law in disbelief. “You want me to...what?”

Wearing a gray ski sweater that matched the premature aging streaks in his black hair, Neal Carter leaned forward and looked him in the eye. “You heard what I said, Tony. I want you to get friendly with the wife of the employee who embezzled money from me and convince her to confide in you where he has it hidden.”

Tony cleared his throat and glanced around, hoping no one had overheard Neal’s request. “Are you serious?”

“More than you know.”

The man sounded so ridiculous Tony didn’t know whether to laugh in his face or change the subject. “You’re crazy,” he said, settling on the direct approach. “That’s impossible and you know it.”

Neal pushed his empty beer glass aside and clasped his hands on the table, his green eyes widening with excitement. “Actually, it’s perfect.” He tapped his fingers on the table to the music echoing throughout the room as Frank Sinatra and his female chorus sang about j-i-n-g-l-e bells. “I’ve got it all planned out. It’ll work, believe me.”

Tony shook his head. “I don’t care what you’ve got up your sleeve; I’m not going to wine and dine some chick to get her into bed for the sole purpose of extracting a midnight confession for you. Find somebody else. I’m not your delivery boy.”

“I’m not suggesting you wine and dine and sleep with anyone.” Neal frowned. “I don’t care how you get the information out of her. I just want you to find out where Aidan Connor hid the money so I can get my million dollars back. There’s a ten percent finders fee in this deal for recovering it. Just think what you could do with an extra hundred grand in your pocket.”

“I don’t need your money.”

Neal lifted one brow. “Everybody needs more money. Including you.”

He’s not going to let this go until I either agree to it or walk out on him...

“Why me?” Tony snapped, becoming irritated. “Why don’t you hire a private detective to do your dirty work?”

“I did. Paid him good money to find out what the woman knows, but so far, he hasn’t delivered any useful information. It’s time to change tactics.” Neal signaled the cocktail server for another round. Sinatra’s song ended and the music switched to an instrumental rendition of “I’ll be Home for Christmas.”

Tony raised his hand to get the girl’s attention. “Excuse me,” he said to the tall brunette wearing jeans and a shiny gold blouse as she stood at the bar, arranging drinks on a tray. Behind her, a dozen red and white fuzzy Christmas stockings hung on a string along the cedar-paneled wall. “Cancel the beer for me. I’ll take a Coke.” He turned back to Neal. “Why are you so set on pressuring me into this?”

Neal went silent for a moment. “Because you’re the only one I trust.”

The manager suddenly appeared at their table with their lunch order and set the heavy platters on the table. “Is there anything else I can get for you?”

“We’re good,” Neal said as he sized up his food. “Thanks.”

The pungent aroma of fresh grilled beef and thick, crispy fries made Tony’s stomach growl. He reached for the ketchup, squirted a large puddle on his plate then dipped his burger into the thick red sauce and took a huge bite.

“Sorry I got so testy,” Neal said once they were alone again. “You’re right. This isn’t about the money. Our insurance carrier settled with Faith and me a while back. It’s the principle of the thing.” He pulled the upper half of the bun off his burger, dumped a garnish of coleslaw on the meat then placed the bun back on top, pressing it down. “Aidan Connor worked as our accountant for ten years. We had no idea he was siphoning money out of the store’s account right under our noses. He was smart, a little here, a little there. Our liquor sales run at such a high volume we never missed it.”

The server dropped off their drinks. “How’s everything?”

They both nodded to signal they were satisfied and continued to munch on their meals.

Tony reached for his Coke. “What makes you think he still has the money? Most embezzlers spend it as fast as they get it.”

Neal set down his burger. “Aidan is cheap. He doesn’t—I mean didn’t—fish, hunt, gamble or buy expensive toys. He lived in a modest home and didn’t believe in buying a brand new car because they depreciated so fast. The police investigation didn’t turn up any international activity or unusually large accounts established in his kids’ names.” Neal picked up a French fry and swirled it in a glob of ketchup on his plate. His hand stopped in mid-air, pointing the fry at Tony. “Make no mistake; he’s got that cash squirreled away somewhere. I don’t know if he’s converted it to silver or gold or maybe it’s still in currency, but I’ll bet you anything, he and the missus are planning to make a run for it with their booty as soon as he gets out of prison.”

Tony set down his Coke. “If the guy was so smart, how did you catch him?”

“When we expanded the store our business nearly doubled and we had to hire more people, including a second accountant. She’s the one who eventually caught on to him.” Neal’s green eyes narrowed. “Otherwise, he’d still be ripping us off.”

So full he couldn’t eat another bite, Tony sat back and exhaled a large sigh. “I understand how you feel, Neal, but I don’t know anything about undercover work. I’m a real estate investor. I have no idea how to approach Aidan Connor’s wife and, frankly, I don’t want to know.”

“Don’t worry about it. You’re good at dealing with people.” Neal wiped his hands on his napkin then reached under the table and grabbed a file from his briefcase. “Her name is Merry Connor, that’s M-e-r-r-y, and she lives in a house on Nicollet Island.”

“There you go,” Tony said, finding the ammunition to shut down his brother-in-law’s ridiculous idea. He knew that area like the back of his hand. “All of the houses on Nicollet Island are designated historic. The entire island is historic, for that matter. She must have used a nice chunk of the money to acquire a property there.”

“No, she didn’t.” Neal pushed his plate aside and set the manila folder on the table. “The house she bought was owned by a couple who’d lived in it for sixty years. The husband passed away about twenty years ago and the wife became a recluse. When the old lady died, she left the property to her favorite niece and nephew. They didn’t want to sink any money into the place to bring it up to code so they sold it ‘as is’ on a contract-for-deed to Merry. This is where you come in.” Neal flashed a smug grin. “You’re going to buy that contract and use it as an excuse to introduce yourself to her.”

“What?” Tony started, almost knocking over his Coke. “You’re out of your mind. I’m not donating to this ridiculous cause.” He stood up to leave. “You stick to your business, Neal, and I’ll stick to mine. I don’t buy anything until I’ve thoroughly checked it out and determined it’s worth adding to my portfolio.”

Neal flipped open the folder and shuffled through the papers as though he hadn’t heard a word. “I spoke to Gerald Grange; he’s the administrator of the old lady’s estate and one of the contract holders. He’s anxious to dump it because he’s trying to expand his consulting business and needs the money.” Neal waved his hand to indicate he didn’t know the whole story and cared less. “Anyway, he wants to cash out.” Neal held out a copy of the contract for Tony to examine. “If you can come up with the funds by the end of this week, he’s willing to discount it twenty-five percent.”

Tony glanced down and saw the contract amount. The house must be a total wreck to let it go that cheap.

He dropped the contract on the table. “Not interested. Thanks for lunch.”

“Wait.” Neal reached out, grabbing Tony by the arm. “I didn’t want to bring this up, but you owe it to Faith to give my idea a chance. She deserves justice for what Aidan did to her.”

“Justice my—” Tony shook off Neal’s hand and leaned over the table, face-to-face with his brother-in-law. “Don’t even think of dragging my sister into your little game of revenge.”

“She’s already involved whether you like it or not. Aidan stole the money from both of us.” Neal glared at him. “I see you’ve conveniently forgotten how Faith came through for you when you needed her. As I recall, she drove you to the hospital to identify Cherie and Evan’s bodies then took over the funeral arrangements because you were so distraught. She wanted to spare you the trauma of planning the burial of your own wife and son. Is this how you repay her?”

Neal’s low blow angered Tony, but even worse, it triggered a fresh wave of grief as the chilling memory of that snowy December night and the images of his lifeless wife and child flashed through his mind. Over time, he’d convinced himself he’d made progress in dealing with their deaths. Neal’s thoughtless words proved otherwise. Though the accident happened over three years ago, the pain of losing the greatest love of his life and his precious child still throbbed like a fresh wound, leaving a gaping hole in his soul.

“Don’t ever bring up that night again,” he said shakily, bracing his hands on the table, “or so help me, I’ll—”

Neal pushed his chair back and countered with a sheepish laugh. “Okay, okay, I’ll admit my situation isn’t as life altering as what happened to you, but nevertheless, this business with Aidan Connor is destroying my marriage. His thievery broke Faith’s heart. Aidan Connor was more than an employee. He was a longtime friend, someone she’d known since high school. His betrayal still fuels her depression because it has shaken her trust in people, including me.”

The mention of his sister’s mental state caused Tony to pause. He knew she’d been dealing with the condition for a long time, and during the holidays, it always seemed to get worse. He couldn’t deny that she’d helped him through the darkest time of his life, but it ticked him off to hear Neal play the guilt card to coerce him into action.

He grabbed his jacket and slid his arms into it. “Does she know you’re orchestrating this little mission-impossible on her behalf?”

“Of course not,” Neal said, “and she’s not going to know about it until I get the money back. I want to give her some good news, not an empty promise.”

Tony gripped his hips with his hands. “This is such a long shot I wouldn’t know where to start.”

Neal’s face brightened. “You can start by buying Merry’s contract and making friends with her. You two have a lot in common. She’s about ten years younger than Aidan is. That puts her close to your age—middle thirties, right? She’s lost her spouse; she has small children and owns a house, so obviously she likes real estate.”

Tony stared at Neal in frustration. Yeah, that makes no sense. How many drinks did you have before I got here, anyway? He sighed, feeling torn. “If I decide to do this, I’ll do it on my terms.”

Neal stood. “All right, what are your terms?”

“You get one shot at this and I make no promises, so don’t get your hopes up. I’ll set up a meeting with her to go over the contract and if I learn something useful through the course of our conversation, I’ll let you know. There’s no ‘Plan B,’ no further argument from you. I want no part of whatever scheme you’re concocting against this woman. Is that understood? As far as I’m concerned, this is a business deal and nothing more.”

“Understood.” Neal signaled to the server to bring his tab as Elvis crooned “Blue Christmas.” He cut a hard glance at Tony. “While you’re thinking this over I want you to do something for me. Try to visualize the face of Aidan Conner after he gets out of prison and he realizes we’ve found his hidey-hole because his stash is gone.” His eyes narrowed. “And that his time served was for absolutely nothing.”
                                                   ~     ~     ~
A Merry Little Christmas by Denise Devine
Denise is a USA Today bestselling author of contemporary romance and romantic comedy.
This first chapter "sneak peek" is part of the Sweet Christmas Kisses 3 boxed set now available for 99 cents (for a limited time) at all major retailers.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Sweet Christmas Kisses 3 - 1st Chapter of THE ROAD NOT TAKEN, by Magdalena Scott

Serendipity, Indiana--Book Six
Copyright 2016, Magdalena Scott

Brad turned the car into the lane of the Christmas tree farm, and some of the stress built up during the long drive from Florida to Indiana fell away.


No matter how long I lived away from here, the peaceful feeling always settled over me when I returned to Serendipity.

From the placid scene of the hilly farm covered with evergreens and a thin skiff of snow, I dragged my eyes back to my husband. “Thank you again for making the trip, Brad. I know it’s not your favorite place to spend the holidays.”

He nodded, his eyes on the gravel lane. “You’re welcome, again, Francie. Where else am I going to spend Christmas than with my son and wife?”

That sounded simple, but he and I both knew better. Our marriage was in trouble. I wasn’t sure how or when it had begun to deteriorate, but I feared this was our last Christmas together, unless something drastic happened to turn things around.

Heading up the driveway, we passed my sister Carla’s house on the right. On the left was the small acreage my parents gave me when I turned twenty-one. Unlike Carla and our brothers Jim and David, I had never built my dream home here. Had never lived the life as an adult that looked so idyllic—residing on a Christmas tree farm, selling trees and working in the Christmas shop during the holidays.

It was hard work much of the year, but because we worked together and our family was close-knit, the effort was always worthwhile. Time spent with customers in the Christmas shop was the easy part—more like play than work to me, with the CDs providing holiday music, families shopping together… Okay, sometimes that part was stressful to endure, depending on how well the kids and adults behaved.

After Dad died, every facet of the farm business changed. At first, my brother Jim had tried to shoulder all of Dad’s responsibilities, but he eventually had to hire help so he could keep his law practice going. Mom, who had always been in charge of the Christmas shop, helped Jim in overseeing the farm’s operations. She also ran the relatively new sideline—the tiny cabin B&B. I leaned my forehead on the cool glass of the passenger side window, feeling anew our family’s loss.

Brad parked the Prius in front of the house I’d grown up in, as close to the edge of the gravel pad as possible, since the parking area is also used by customers who come to cut their own trees and peruse the shop.

Mom appeared on the front porch, her dog Daisy at her side. Daisy had been Dad’s, but after his death, she became Mom’s near constant companion. I tore out of the car and ran up onto the porch, and Mom enveloped me in a hug.

“Sweetheart, I’m so glad you’re here.” She held me, rubbing my back as if I were a small child. I had to steel myself to keep from crying. At last I found my voice and pulled back a little.

“It’s great to be here, Mom. Thanks for putting up with our last-minute decision.”

Brad walked up the wooden porch steps and set down the first load of luggage. He moved toward Mom and I took a step away. He hugged her briefly and kissed her cheek. “What Francie said, Lillian. I’m embarrassed that we called you so late to see if you have room.”

“Have room? My goodness, of course I have room for my baby daughter and favorite son-in-law.”

The thought flashed into my head to wonder if she would call Jared Barnett favorite son-in-law once he and Carla got married. By that time, it was possible Brad and I would be divorced. My breath caught, anticipating the conversation we would need to have with Joseph, and with my family. Like the proverbial elephant in the room, the breakdown of our relationship in the last few years had been something neither of us wanted to talk about—even keeping it between the two people who might be able to repair the situation. In all the hours of our drive north, we had studiously avoided discussing anything personal. During my stints at driving, there was no conversation at all. Brad was too focused on his phone or laptop to talk.

Mom’s cheerful voice broke into my depressing reverie. “If I had known ahead of time that you were coming, I wouldn’t have begun the renovations upstairs. You don’t mind staying in one of the cabins, do you?”

Brad’s jaw dropped, and I can only assume mine did too. He recovered more quickly though. “No room at the inn, as they say.” He turned to me, one eyebrow cocked. “We can be flexible, can’t we, Francie?”

“Um. Sure. Sure, that’s not a problem.” I hadn’t spent much time in any of the cabins that were part of the farm’s bed and breakfast business, but from what I remembered, they were truly tiny. Was there enough space for two people who used to be intimate life partners but no longer were?

Mom sighed with relief. “Oh, good. I’m so glad you don’t mind. Do you want to see what’s going on with the rooms upstairs?”

We abandoned our bags and followed Mom through the living room and up the stairs to the bedroom Carla and I used to share. Mom opened the door.

Most of the wallpaper had been scraped off, but stubborn layers of old paper remained in patches here and there. The woodwork had been scraped too. Paint chips in a variety of colors littered the floor. The posters and other teenage memorabilia were long gone, no doubt. Most of all, the twin beds were missing.

“Oh. My. Word.” I couldn’t help it, and lucky for all of us, I hadn’t let loose with something more colorful.

Mom put an arm around my shoulders. “It’s just a start, you know. When we’re done here, the room will be fit for royalty. You’ll love it.” She squeezed me and let go, stepping further into the room.
I staggered after her.

Mom looked thrilled with the renovation, and I didn’t dare say what I was really thinking. “Wow. This is a surprise. I guess I was picturing new curtains, maybe some paint.”

Brad remained in the hallway, taking in the devastation of the room where he and I always stayed when visiting. “Whoa. It’s major, Lillian.”

She hurried on, unaware of our shock. “It was time, I’d say. I had lots of help deciding which way to go, as you can imagine. Carla, and Jared’s daughter Katie, both had ideas about everything. Katie’s very creative. She’s promised to help me with the sewing, since Carla is so busy at her dress shop. Katie is learning to machine embroider too. She’s trying out her new skill on the coverlet and matching curtains. But, you know, at fourteen, she has lots going on at school and extracurricular events.”

“That’s nice,” I muttered.

Her face fell, and not wanting to hurt her feelings, I pasted a smile on mine. Something was different with Mom today, but I wasn’t sure what.

“Don’t get me wrong. I’m sure it’ll be nice. I’m just surprised.”

“There didn’t seem to be any reason to leave it as a museum to you and Carla when you’ve had your own homes all these years. That’s why I sent you the boxes of things from the closet, remember? I found a few other items in the attic too. They should fit into your trunk for the return trip. Carla took the beds to put in the room that will be Katie’s whenever Jared and Carla finally tie the knot. You remember I asked if you wanted any of the furniture, right, Francie?” Her voice was filled with concern about my reaction to the room.

“Yes. Yes, I remember, and that’s totally fine. And—let me think—you’re going to rent this room out as part of the B&B?”

“Well, that’s a possibility. Jim and David are against the idea. Those boys are overprotective of me and insist the B&B guests only belong in the tiny cabins. I think if it were up to them, I wouldn’t serve breakfast during tree season at all.”

“Why’s that, Lillian?” Brad was leaning against the doorframe, handsome and casual—not flipping out as I felt myself doing.

Mom scraped with her thumbnail at a piece of wallpaper that refused to budge. “Because there isn’t a way to serve them in the Christmas shop during tree season, and I host breakfast in my dining room instead. I figure it gets the good china out of the cabinet one month each year. Really, it’s easier to have them in the dining room than to carry everything to the shop building across the parking area. 
But Jim and David don’t understand that part.”

“What’s their room like?” I blurted out.

“Their room? Oh, the boys’ old room. Come and see.” We followed her across the hall. The bedroom David and Jim had shared was always a boys-only territory which historically housed a variety of creepy pets, concert posters, and their sports trophies.

We strolled through the large bedroom, noting a variety of stuffed Santa figures, Nativity sets, and a big plastic Rudolph suspended from the ceiling smiling down at us.

Brad chuckled, shaking his head. “Wow. Salute to Christmas, huh?”

Mom nodded. “Pretty much. Can anyone guess who worked with me on the plan for this room?”

Our son Joseph appeared from the hall, strode to each of us in turn and administered bone-crushing hugs. “Hey, guys. What do you think of my room? Grandma said since I’m the one who stays here the most, I could decide what it looks like.”

Evidently, our recent college grad was more of a Christmas junkie than either of us realized.

“It’s… It’s very Christmassy.” That was all I had. What it was, in my opinion, was overdone to a massive degree. “How much of this glows in the dark?”

Joseph bounded over onto the messily pulled-together bed. “Not that much. And I sleep with my eyes closed anyway. Only thing I miss from the way it used to be is the bunk beds, but Matthew has those now, which is awesome.”

Mom crooked her finger. “Let’s go downstairs and I’ll get you something to eat. Do you need a nap before dinner?” She was leading the way down the steps not watching the reaction from Brad or me.

Thank goodness.

THE ROAD NOT TAKEN is one of 17 holiday romances available in SWEET CHRISTMAS KISSES 3!

Magdalena Scott is a USA Today Bestselling Author, and writes small town sweet romance and women's fiction. Visit her website to find out more about her, and her two small town series.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Sweet Christmas Kisses 3 Release Day - 1st Chapter of Secret Wish by Victoria Pinder

I am so excited to be part of this year's boxed set. Today's post is all about all the amazing stories available to read. I read the previous two years boxed sets and all the stories involved.

This year, my novella Secret Wish, is joining the set. I had so much fun remembering Christmas when I wrote this. This year with the birth of my first daughter, I'll get to experience the season as a mom. Writing this while pregnant really made me look forward to December.

Purchase the book at your favorite online retailer:  
Google Play:
And don’t forget to connect with the Authors at Sweet Romance Reads:

This was my first chapter.

"Doctor Morgan, you're being paged."
Luke Morgan turned to the nurse as his name echoed over the speaker that said he should report to the nurse's station. Strange no code was announced, so he had to assume someone new worked here. He passed the carolers who were visiting all the rooms to fill the place with holiday cheer.
Luke walked briskly away from any sign of Christmas. One of his patients must be critical. He dropped his coffee cup into the basket, and the rubber of his sneakers squeaked against the linoleum floor.
"Thanks," he said as he ran past the nurse that stood at the door.
His mind shuffled through which of his patients might be in trouble, but today he hadn't seen anyone close to critical in the ER. Someone must have been wheeled in from an ambulance. He fixed his stethoscope around his neck and turned the corner.
His sister, Elizabeth, stood there, with her shoulders straight, in her new House of Morgan ensemble that currently rivaled Prada, and acting like she was now an heiress. The pretense didn't help them. Their billionaire father had ruined their family, and it was better to not acknowledge their inheritance.
Elizabeth must want to talk, but he didn't want reminders of the trust fund or the billions they had. He had important work to do here. He slowed his pace, but as he approached he saw her familiar brown eyes and brown hair that always silently said 'big brother, I need you.'
He slumped his shoulders. "Liz, I don't want to talk about accepting the trust fund in my name at the bank. Mitch Morgan ruined our mother and is probably to blame for your son’s disappearance."
"He was still our father." Her hands went to her hips. "You know I need the money. I need the best private investigator money can buy to find my baby."
"Come with me to my office."
She dropped her hands to her sides and followed him. Every fiber in his being told him that Mitch Morgan orchestrated his sister's loss, and his money would not bring her son home. He opened the door and then closed it behind him once she came inside.
He stared into her brown eyes and said, "Sis, we've been through this."
"It's Christmas, Luke." Her head shot up. "I can't give up on my son. I need a miracle."
Miracles were for fairy tales. Christmas wasn't about hope. It was his job to protect Liz and Mom from more of the heartbreak that the Morgan name brought them. If he had a way to help her, he'd have given anything, but he didn't believe her plan had merits now.
"I'm not saying that. We've bankrolled the best detectives money can buy, Liz, and no one has found any clue in months. There is nothing we can do except find more people to recruit and help us."
"I can't." She choked on tears. "He's my son, my baby, and I lost him."
"He was kidnapped. The more I hear about Mitch Morgan, the more convinced I am he did this to you. We should stay away from his name, but otherwise, I wish I knew how to help."
Their father hadn't approved of their sister Victoria's child. Their father had told her that her baby girl died at birth and let her live her life without her daughter until Vicki realized the truth. Mitch probably had the same thoughts about Elizabeth's. The difference with Elizabeth was the father of the child wasn't a good guy, and in no way would he raise a son on his own.
He took her hand in his. "I will continue to pay for everything. The trust fund money so far has all gone toward the search and that's fine. Take every dime I have. You know that, but you have to take care of yourself too."
"I need you to go with me to this wedding." She shook her head and dropped her hands to her sides. "You don't have the resources that Peter and John do. Money isn't enough. We need their connections, and I want your support. We are all family. They are our brothers."
"There is no resource that money cannot find and they were raised by him."
“I trust them, Luke, and I want you with me.”
The wedding was a joke. He had no answer for how to help Liz find her kidnapped child. It had been three months already, and the trail was cold. The detectives told them to begin to grieve, but she saw Christmas as a reason to hope. Right now there was nothing.
“I don’t see how you trust them.” He turned to his sister. “They might be our siblings but we didn’t grow up with them. Besides, they were raised by the same monster who probably set you up and took your son.”  He coughed and shook his head. “Look, I don't want to talk about this at work, but you never had time to build trust with any of them."
"He was our father too and my instincts say I trust them."
She crossed her arms, looking and acting exactly like their mother. Her glassy eyes now mirrored the pain Mom always embodied.
Every cell in his body wished he knew what to do to help as she said, "They are our brothers. Peter's getting married. Let's go and play nice, so I might find the people who stole my son."
Liz was on her personal mission. His body was chilled by the reality that he hadn't been able to help her so far. He stilled.
"What does his nuptials have to do with taking that money? I'm afraid you're putting too much stock into Christmas."
"Luke, you're not listening. We have to be a family. So get over yourself."
Elizabeth wasn't wrong. He glanced at his door and longed to deal with his patients, who he could help unlike his sister and her crisis. She made him feel helpless. If everything worked out, today's shift would be a rare one with simple, easy-to-fix patients.
Right now he had patients. He couldn’t help his sister or locate their brother for his help either. He was older than Elizabeth by seven minutes. Last he heard, their other brother, Matthew, had been at some conference in Brussels for a few weeks now.
He took a deep breath and told Liz, "Sis, please think about what I said. I have to go now."
She met his gaze, and he saw her lower lip push out in a pout that always got to him. "I need you to come with me to Peter and Belle's wedding. He's our brother."
No. Mitch Morgan, their father, had forced their mother into seclusion and sent the three of them to boarding school as soon as they were six. Now he understood Mitch had kept Peter, Victoria and John from their mom and then taken the three of them from her too. He hadn't known till well after college, and then Liz's son was kidnapped a week after they reconnected with their own mother. Liz had to see that the three other siblings meant more bad news for the rest of them. Their father had to have a hand in this.
"You should have come to the party with Mom."
"I don't want to meet them."
"Are you going to tell Mom that?"
Their mom saw the appearance of John, Peter and Victoria as a blessed miracle. He'd have better luck with negotiating peace in the Middle East. His stance widened as he slipped a printout that was automatically forwarded from a nurse into his white doctor's coat.
Liz didn't mention the interruption and continued with her argument. "From what I read, our sister, Victoria, thought her own daughter was dead. For all we know our father could have done the same to me."
At least she had the same suspicions he had. "He died the same time as the kidnapping. I have no way of retracing that man's steps and that’s exactly why I don’t want us to bother with them. Mitch Morgan kept Peter at his side at all times."
An email came through about a new patient that might be dehydrated. He sucked in his breath and stood.
"Liz, our world is fine without the rest of them." An alarm went off that indicated there was an emergency. "I have to go for now. I have patients."
She stepped in his way and blocked the door. "You don't have a life either. All you do is work. Come to the wedding and all the festivities that begin tomorrow."
The alarm ended, which meant another doctor was already there.
An argument here would be heard, and he had a reputation. He couldn't call Peter and John his brothers, not if they were anything like their father. He couldn't take a chance.
So he deflected what he wanted to say. "I don't have a tux."
She shrugged. "I'll send it over to your condo on Collins Ave."
His forehead was hot, but he still kept what he wanted to say to himself. He glanced around her to the door.
"I don't have a date, and you and Mom have wedding duties."
She smiled and again stepped in his way, so he couldn't clear a path. "I'll set you up with a hot woman to have on your arms for the night."
The last time he’d kissed a woman in Miami, it had scorched his soul. Caro Soliz was a college dream, who probably was married with three children now.
He lowered his voice and narrowed his gaze. "You're finding me a date now?"
She dropped her hands to her sides. At least now she seemed more like the girl he grew up with.
"I'm your sister."
He squared his shoulders. "We don't know anyone in Miami. We’ve been here less than a month."
"You moved because you’re a good son. I moved here as the investigators tracked Brandon to Miami." She smiled like she would for some child. He shook his head as she said, "You have this nice job already. Matthew will be transferred to a Miami branch soon. We're all going, and it would be wrong for you to miss it. It's Christmas, Luke. I need that miracle."
Miracles weren't just offered. A brief vision of Caro Soliz flashed in his mind. He blinked and the thought left him.
"Where are you finding this woman for me?"
She shuffled on her feet. "I have my ways."
She had no clue. He should let her and then whatever disaster she found, he could tease her about for the next decade. At least she wasn't crying again.
He smiled. "Fine. It seems you are determined."
"I am."
The teasing needed a set up. "You owe me."
"How do you figure that?"
Anything that helped keep her smiling would be good, though he already imagined what a horrible date she'd find at the last minute. "I'm letting you find me a date for a wedding. I'm sure I'll have something to say once I meet this woman."
"Trust me."
If she needed him at this wedding for the show, then fine, he'd go. He tapped his fingers on her arm to ensure she was listening.
"In most things, no problem, but I've met the line of losers that you called your boyfriends."
She shook her head. "And the quiet mice that you brought home to dinner were what? Stellar examples of your taste?"
One of the losers she had dated might have been the one who kidnapped Liz's child. What happened that day sounded too planned out. He'd spent money finding every possible ex of hers, but he never found Brandon. If the kidnapping was related to their dead father, their new last name should be kept a secret, not advertised. He kept these thoughts to himself and focused on what she said.
"I like quiet women. You and Mom are the opposite and can give me a headache."
Her lips curled into a smile. "Stop it. Now go to your patients. I have work to do."
At least she seemed stable at the moment. He reached out and hugged Liz as he said, "I love ya, sis."
She turned to leave, but glanced over her shoulder. "Don't try to butter me up, and thank you for this weekend."
He waited for her to leave, and then checked his paper printout on his next patient. He read numbers and realized this wasn't life threatening, but the patient might be distraught.
As he walked down the hall, decorated with Christmas cheer, he picked up the patient chart outside the first door on his rounds.
Now if he could wave his magic wand, he'd somehow help his sister find her missing son and help his own mother stay calm. As he slipped into the patient's room, he let his own thoughts go and put his effort into diagnosing what was next. Here, he knew what to do. Here he didn’t wonder if Brandon was dead and he hadn’t been able to find him. The ache in his heart grew stronger every day.

SCK3 Blog Tour 2 

Ring in the holiday season with 17 all-new, stand-alone stories from New York Times, USA Today, national bestselling, and award-winning authors. Sweet Christmas Kisses 3 takes you around the globe from small-town USA, to London, England, and even to Africa with a foreword written by USA Today Bestselling Author Donna Fasano. Don’t miss out on this sweet romance boxed set that’s sure to touch your heart, make you smile, and put you in the mood for Christmas.
Mona Risk 
On Christmas Eve by Mona Risk
She yanked him out of her heart years ago. But fate throws him in her path again and his tender gaze erases her loneliness. Can they forgive each other and create a new future?

Christine Bush 
Christmas Holly by Christine Bush
 Can a lonely single father of five-year-old triplets find love on a South Carolina beach? It might just take a Christmas miracle!

Lyn Cote 
Mistletoe and Sage by Lyn Cote
 New deputy in town, a single mom, two wounded hearts with a puzzle to solve together—will love spark under the mistletoe?

Denise Devine 
A Merry Little Christmas by Denise Devine
Merry Connor and Anthony Lewis search for treasure and find true love.

Raine English 
The Christmas Gift by Raine English
When Riley Wayne receives a dog for Christmas, it’s not just the pup that makes her heart flutter, the rescue group’s handsome owner does too.

Untangling Christmas 
Untangling Christmas by Shanna Hatfield
Tricked into helping with Silverton’s Festival of Trees, electrician Mike Clarke battles faulty outlets, tangled lights, and a woman determined to share the spirit of the season.

Ciara Knight 
A Christmas on Miracle Mountain by Ciara Knight
When it takes a miracle to heal a heart.

Milou Koenings 
The Kampala Peppermint Twist by Milou Koenings
A twist of fate. An overbooked flight. Christmas in Africa will flip her life upside down.

Magdalena Scott 
The Road Not Taken by Magdalena Scott
Francie Standish Carrington has some tough decisions to make and a lot of questions about a past she thought she understood.

Roxanne Rustand 
A London Christmas by Roxanne Rustand
When Catriona heads to London for Christmas to meet a guy she met online, he steals her purse and disappears, but will a handsome photographer in the pub end up being the man of her dreams?

Alicia Street 
Her Christmas Secret by Alicia Street
 Desperate to help her sister’s family, Lila courts a cold-hearted investor for her handmade toys, but learns Christmas has a way of bringing surprises where they’re least expected.

Kristin WallaceFalling For You at Christmas by Kristin Wallace
 One expectant mother. One gorgeous innkeeper. Three days that will change her life forever.

Merrillee Whren 
Second Chance Christmas by Merrillee Whren
A young boy helps his estranged parents find love again at Christmas.

Christmas Eve Wedding by Cindy Flores Martinez
 A maid of honor is swept up in the chaos of planning her best friend’s spur-of-the-moment Christmas Eve wedding.

Victoria Pinder 
Secret Wish by Victoria Pinder
Luke Morgan doesn’t believe in miracles, but this season Christmas brought him Caro Soliz, the family maid.

Josie Riviera 
Candleglow and Mistletoe by Josie Riviera
 A rising pianist and a pro stuntman winding down his career find love amid the glow of Christmas candles.

Couple by Christmas by Pat Simmons
Divorcee Derek Washington wants to reconcile with his ex-wife by Christmas. Although he’s got a plan, with the help of his six-year-old son, Derek only has two weeks.

Background With Snowflakes 
 Join the authors for the Release Party, Tuesday, Sept. 27 on Facebook! All 17 authors in this boxed set write sweet romances and are members of Sweet Romance Reads, a group of authors whose books contain no sex, violence, or strong language. While the emotional stakes are high as the characters’ relationships grow, these stories are wholesome. Think movies rated G or PG. Therefore, Sweet Christmas Kisses 3 can be enjoyed by romance readers of any age.

Snuggle into a chair by a cozy fire with a cup of hot chocolate and allow these bestselling and award-winning authors to bring the holiday season alive as they warm your heart.

Purchase the book at your favorite online retailer:  
Google Play:
And don’t forget to connect with the Authors at Sweet Romance Reads:

Or connect with each of the Sweet Romance Reads Authors individually:

A tireless traveler, New York Times and USA Today bestselling author, Mona Risk, writes contemporary romance, medical romance, and romantic suspense novels, all simmering with emotion, sprinkled with a good dose of humor and set in the fascinating places she visited— or in Florida, her paradise on Earth. Website | Newsletter | Facebook | Twitter
Christine Bush is an award winning author of many sweet romances, mysteries, and novellas. When she’s not writing, she can be found teaching Psychology at a local college, working as a Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice, or (mostly) spending time with her twelve grandchildren. Website | Facebook | Twitter
Award-winning author of over 40 romances, Lyn Cote writes inspirational historicals and contemporary romantic suspense in her distinctive brand, "Strong Women, Brave Stories." Lyn lives in a cottage on a lake in the northwoods with her real-life hero husband and (for comic relief and furry cuddling) her two cats. Website | Newsletter | Facebook | Twitter
Denise Devine is a USA Today bestselling author of romantic comedy and she also writes inspirational fiction. She wrote her first book, a mystery, at thirteen and has been writing ever since. She writes about true love, happy endings and stories that touch your heart. Website | Facebook | Twitter
USA Today bestselling and award-winning author Raine English writes sweet small-town contemporary romance, paranormal, and romantic suspense. She's a Romance Writers of America Golden Heart finalist and a Daphne du Maurier Award winner. Raine lives in New England with her family and two French bulldogs, Bailey and Dolly.
Convinced everyone deserves a happy ending, hopeless romantic, USA Today bestselling author Shanna Hatfield is out to make it happen one story at a time. Her sweet historical and contemporary romances combine humor and heart-pumping moments and relatable characters. Website | Newsletter | Facebook | Twitter
Ciara Knight is a USA Today and Amazon Bestselling author who writes 'A Little Edge and A Lot of Heart' that spans the heat scales. Her popular sweet romance series, Sweetwater County (rated PG), takes readers into small town romance full of family trials, friendly competition, and community love. Website | Newsletter | Facebook | Twitter
Milou Koenings writes heartwarming romance novels because she believes sweet stories with happy endings are like chocolate – they bring joy to the world and so make it a better place. She’s lived all over the world, working as an editor and newspaper columnist, but loves staying home with her family most of all. Website | Facebook | Twitter
USA Today bestselling author Roxanne Rustand is the author of thirty-five traditionally published novels, plus four indie novels. She was a Golden Heart finalist twice, and a Golden Heart winner in 1995. She has won two RT Magazine Reviewers’ Choice Awards, and was nominated for an RT Magazine Career Achievement Award. Her earlier books were secular, but she now writes sweet indie romance, and inspirational romance for Love Inspired. Website | Newsletter | Facebook | Twitter
USA Today bestselling author Magdalena Scott writes sweet romance and women’s fiction with small town settings. She invites readers into her world to find out what’s hidden just below the surface of those tiny dots you can barely see on the map—mystery, romance, and the occasional unexplained occurrence. Website | Newsletter | Facebook | Twitter
Award-winning and USA Today bestselling author Alicia Street writes both sweet and steamy romances and sometimes collaborates with her husband, Roy. She spent many years as a dancer, choreographer, and teacher and is a compulsive reader of every genre. Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads
Kristin Wallace is a USA Today bestselling author of inspirational, contemporary and women’s fiction filled with “Love, Laughter and a Leap of Faith.” Her popular series include the Covington Falls Chronicles and Shellwater Key Tales. Website | Facebook | Twitter
Merrillee Whren is an award-winning author who writes inspirational and sweet romance—stories that stir your emotions. She is married to her own personal hero, her husband of forty plus years, and has two grown daughters. Website | Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest
Cindy Flores Martinez is an Amazon bestselling Spanish romance author. She writes sweet romantic comedy and Christian romance. Her debut novel, Mail-Order Groom, started out as a screenplay and movie project, which she shopped around Hollywood, New York, and other parts of the world. Website | Facebook | Twitter
Victoria Pinder is a bestselling author of science fiction/fantasy and contemporary romance where her stories all include “Bold Women and the Brainy Men who love them.” Her popular series include the House of Morgan and the Collins Brothers. Website | Facebook | Twitter | Free Novella
Author Josie Riviera writes Historical, Inspirational, and Sweet Romances. She lives in the Charlotte, NC, area with her wonderfully supportive husband. They share their empty nest with an adorable Shih Tzu who constantly needs grooming and an old house forever needing renovations. Website | Newsletter | Facebook | Twitter
Pat Simmons is a three-time Emma award-winning author for Best Inspirational Romance. With more thirty Christian romance titles, Pat is the bestselling author of the Carmen Sisters series.
Website | Newsletter


Saturday, September 24, 2016

Sweet Christmas Kisses 3 - 1st Chapter of COUPLE BY CHRISTMAS by Pat Simmons

It's countdown to our Sweet Kisses 3 Boxset Facebook Release Party, September 27th. I'll include the link below. I thought I would share an excerpt from Couple By Christmas.


Maybe it was the holidays or his son’s upcoming sixth birthday on Christmas Day that had him re-evaluating his life. Lately, the what-ifs plagued him every time he had custody of Tyler.
His divorce from Robyn had been so ugly, mean-spirited, and anything but Christ-like. It represented yet another vow they both had broken.
Their antics in the courtroom had caused the judge to decree they communicate through—a service designed to document their conversations—in case they returned to court for more litigation.
According to the parenting plan, the judge thought it best that they exchanged custody of Tyler at either of his grandparents’ homes. Most of the time, Robyn’s mother’s house was the drop off and pick-up spot.
“It’s not your child that needs adult supervision, but the adults who are his parents,” Judge Wilson had reprimanded them.
Sitting behind his desk, he couldn’t keep his mind from drifting to that fateful day when he kissed his marriage goodbye. As a quality improvement manager for a Fortune 500 company in West St. Louis County, he had plenty of projects to keep him busy, but he lacked concentration.
At one time, he and Robyn had everything going for them; they were the epitome of a Christian couple at their church, Holy Ghost Temple. People complimented them as an attractive couple. They had the support of their respective in-laws who welcomed them as one of their own, which explained why his mother, Lane, and her mother, Sara, sat unified on the front row in court, giving both of them a disapproving glare once his marriage was dissolved.
It had been two years and he still had past regrets. Did Robyn? 
“Stubborn people are fools,” his mother stated on more than one occasion when he would drop by with Tyler. Of course, she made sure her grandson was distracted before she lit into Derek. “I know you still love Robyn or you would have moved on by now. Talk to her before she moves on. Don’t repeat the same mistakes your foolish daddy did. Now, he’s miserable with that other woman. Hmphed,” she scolded him as if he were eleven years old instead of thirty—almost thirty-one.
Somehow, he made it through the day, operating on autopilot. Hours later, he hurried home to change before picking up Tyler for his weekend visit. He was almost out the door when he received an email alert from I got Tyler from kindergarten instead of Mom. You can pick him up from my house.
Her house—formerly their house. Derek grunted. It had been months since they crossed paths. Their greetings were nothing more than cordial. Would time eventually heal the wounds between them so they could hold a civil conversation and not play the blame game?
After parking in front of the two-story, three-bedroom suburban house, he sat staring at the starter home they had purchased. Neighboring houses were lit from the porches to the trees. Not Robyn’s. Besides the massive holiday wreath on the red door, the only other decorations were battery-operated candles that were displayed in all six front windows.  Living in an apartment, his decorations were scarce too. Be nice, he prepped himself as he stepped out the car, then strolled up the pathway and knocked.
“Daddy’s here!” He heard Tyler scream from inside.
He grinned. At least someone was glad to see him.
“Get your hat and coat,” Robyn said as she opened the door.
Rocking on his heels, Derek stayed rooted in place. The few times they had to alter the arrangements for pickups, she never invited him inside, so he never crossed the threshold—rain, shine, or blizzard.
She didn’t make eye contact with him, but that didn’t stop Derek from noticing everything about her. She was one pretty lady, which was what attracted him to her in the first place. Robyn still maintained her beauty. Her goldish-brown color hair shone under the hallway light and her skin glowed.
There was something else he noticed while she multi-tasked, bundling up their son and slipping her arm in the sleeve of her coat. She was fast, but not without him catching a glimpse of a Red Lobster uniform. Robyn was an executive assistant, so what was going on?
“You’re working a second job? Why? I don’t mind adjusting my child support amount,” he offered with a frown. Money had been the source of many arguments. His wife loved to shop. He liked to save. But he wasn’t going to be accusatory, not this time, not again. He had no say in her financial affairs unless it affected their child. What else was going on that he didn’t know about?
“You’re more than generous with your child support.” She dismissed him when she knelt and opened her arms to receive a kiss and hug from their son. She stood again. “You can drop him off at my mother’s.” She guided Tyler outside.
“Bye, Mommy.” He waved before taking Derek’s hand. As they spun around to take the steps, he glanced over his shoulder. Robyn slowly closed the door without looking his way. He would give anything to earn her smile, a sparkle in her eyes, or her alluring tone when she used to tease him. Instead, he got nothing—no emotion.
Taking a deep breath, he continued to his car. He wanted to cross the line, and break the “don’t use the child as a pawn” rule to find out what Robyn was up to. He didn’t.
As promised, Derek took his son to the park for ice skating. While going around the rink, he kept a grip on Tyler’s hand while his mind stayed on Robyn. She had a liberal arts degree and could adapt to any working environment, but a waitress? No doubt, she had to be the prettiest one on staff. She could flirt without knowing it, and her shape…he groaned at the same time he almost fell, trying to steady Tyler.
Once they regained their rhythm, he thought about Robyn again. She was curvy and her pants did nothing to camouflage her God-given assets.
Forty-five minutes later, he hoped his son had worked up an appetite. “Hungry?” When Tyler bobbed his head, Derek grinned. He had a plan. “How about we go see Mommy at work?”
“Yeah.” His eyes widened in excitement. “Are we going to see Granny Gibson too? Mommy takes me there when she has to work.”
Hmm-mm. That narrowed down the locations. “Not today. After we eat, you’re going back home with me.”
It was two weeks before Christmas and he had planned to take his son to pick out his birthday present. That would have to wait until tomorrow. “Have you thought about what you want for your birthday?” Last year, Derek bought him a LEGO starter kit.
Since Robyn had Tyler last Christmas, he had to wait until the following weekend to play with him. That had to be the saddest Christmas of his life and he wouldn’t wish that same loneliness on anyone, but this year, Robyn would experience it.
“I want you to come live with us,” he stated matter-of-factly as he glanced out the window.
It was a good thing Tyler was strapped in, because Derek jammed on his brakes at the same time the street light turned red. He eased his foot off and exhaled.
“Son, what’s your second choice?” It would take a Christmas miracle for him and Robyn to reconcile for that to even be a possibility.
It wasn’t his business to know that her long-time position could be in jeopardy. The hand writing was on the wall about possible layoffs and when no one received Christmas bonuses, Robyn refused to cut back on her son’s gifts for Christmas and his birthday. The job was seasonal and the day after Christmas, she would quit so she could celebrate a delayed birthday and Christmas with her son.
Until then, she would endure the constant walking and juggling of dishes. So far, the tips had been worth it.
Plus, shopping was her favorite pastime. Once she married, Robyn sometimes felt guilty about splurging. Then when Tyler was born, she and Derek practiced the Christian celebration of Christmas, but that was before she and her ex began to drift apart.
When her marriage ended, Robyn’s faith faded. She went through the routine of being a Christian, but she felt like a failure. Only being a mother kept her going and distracted from pity parties.
Her ex, Derek Tyler Washington, did make an exceptional father and a good provider, never missing a child support payment or house note. Then last year, without warning, he started sending monthly maintenance checks for her—a perk that wasn’t part of the divorce decree. She didn’t call or text him, but logged on the message board and asked him why.
Because you’re the mother of my son.
After graciously thanking him, she had cried that day—the first time in a long time. She told her best friend, she didn’t know what to make of the gesture.
“Maybe it’s his way of saying he’s sorry,” Erica Williams had suggested.
“Please. ‘Sorry’ is not in that man’s vocabulary. Maybe it’s guilt from being a terrible husband.”
“Well, count your blessings.”
Right. She didn’t trust her ex’s motives. When those blessings arrived like clockwork, she put them in a savings account for Tyler. Her mistake was to mention the money to her mother. Sara Gibson had sung his praises. “I think you two got married too soon and divorced even sooner.”
It was an argument she would never win with her mother, who was the die-hard captain of her ex-husband’s fan club. She was just as vocal about Robyn’s absences from church. “Why punish God for your mistakes? Jesus is our best friend. Proverbs 21:24 says, “He’ll stick closer than any brother.”
She once prided herself on her relationship with God and had sought Him for wisdom in choosing a mate. It took a while not to be angry with the Lord for her decision. Finally, she admitted marrying Derek had been a bad decision. They weren’t as compatible as she was led to believe.
Despite the disappointment, she was willing to give love a second chance in the future. There had to be a man out there who believed in death do they part and would accept her son as his own. She was definitely keeping her options open for the right one. Enough musings, she had tables to serve.
“Rob…” Doris, the head hostess, said, catching her strolling out of the ladies room.
She hated that nickname. There was nothing masculine about her. She wasn’t even a tomboy growing up, but she wasn’t going to be petty.
“I just seated two in a booth in section four. One is a cutie pie. The other is hot. Sizzlin’,” she practically hissed. “Whew!”
Right. As long as they left a big tip that was all she cared about. With sixteen shopping days before Christmas, the crowd was taking advantage of the weather that hadn’t delivered any ice or snow yet. She had three more hours to stand on her feet. Despite the top of the line walking shoes, her back was aching. Straightening her shoulders, Robyn took a deep breath and made a beeline to the booth. She almost stumbled when she looked at the patrons.
“Hi, Mommy.” Tyler grinned and waved.
Recovering from the surprise, Robyn gave her son a warm smile before squinting at her ex. “Derek, why are you here?”
“To get something to eat.” He smirked.
Oooh. She didn’t have time for his sarcasm. Showing up at their places of employment was off limits per their divorce, so why was he crossing the line?
“May we have our menus Miss…Miss…?” His eyes sparkled with mirth. At one time, she fell in love with his playful nature. As their marriage deteriorated, his teasing just annoyed her.
“Humph, it’s Miss for now.” She slapped his menu in front of him and gently placed the other one in front of her son and turned to the kids menu. “Here, sweetie.”
Derek leaned forward and whispered, “Careful, you don’t want to mess up your tip.”
Why was she letting this man bait her? Lifting her chin, she put on a happy face and rambled off the specials as if he was an unknown patron. “Hi, my name is Robyn. Welcome to Red Lobster. Can I start you off with a fruit smoothie, raspberry lemonade, or Boston Iced Tea?” If left up to her son, he would order tea—he wasn’t going to get it. “How about I get you started with our seaside sampler?” The spiel was protocol, but there was no way she was going to let her son eat that much fish this late.
“Mommy, can I have popcorn shrimp and macaroni and cheese.”
She gave Tyler a stern look.
“Please.” He was a carbon copy of his father when he grinned.
“Sure, sweetheart.” She faced Derek. “And you, sir?”
Tyler giggled. “He’s Daddy, Mommy.”
“Hmm-mm. I’ll get your drinks and come back for your order.”
“Hey,” Derek said. “You don’t know what I want.”
“Trust me, I do.” Robyn twisted her mouth and turned around. As she walked away, she heard Derek say, “You have a pretty mommy.”
“Uh-huh. You should marry Mommy.”
“I already did.”
Her heart dropped. Why couldn’t they have made it? Her parents had married for life. She thought she and Derek would follow in their footsteps, but after the first year of bliss, they couldn’t agree on anything. Small disagreements turned into major arguments. She shook off the memories as she walked to the drink station.
She poured milk for her son, then a glass of water with a slice of lemon for his father. Derek’s eating habits were predictable—or they used to be. He didn’t like soda or juices. Health conscious, he preferred water. Returning to the table, she placed their glasses on it, then pulled straws out of her apron pocket.
“Mommy, I wanted a sodie.” He twisted his mouth and scratched his head.
“Milk will help you grow up to be strong and handsome.”
“Like my daddy?” His hopeful expression was amusing.
Anchoring his elbow on the table, Derek rested his chin on his hands. He seemed to be anxious for her to answer.
“Like my daddy—your grandpa.” She patted her chest, then turned to him with a smirk of her own. “So, have you decided, sir?”
When he toyed with the silky strands on his mustache, she knew he was stalling. She excused herself to check on her other customers. Spending too much time at one table could compromise her tips, so once again, she chose for him, and placed their orders.
With two demanding tables, Robyn hustled to please the patrons. In her peripheral vision, she saw the cook going in the direction of her son’s table.
This was the most she had seen of her ex in one day, and it unnerved her.
“Yes,” she said professionally with a blank expression. “Would you like a to-go box,” she stated in a tone that wasn’t meant to be a question.
“Actually, I would like to see a dessert menu.” He grinned, hoping it would soften her heart like it used to. It didn’t.
“It’s in front of you.” She lifted an eyebrow.
“Mommy, can I have a brownie?” Tyler’s eyes drooped.
She leaned forward. “You can have some pudding. It’s too late for chocolate. Okay?”
“O-okay.” He pouted. Clearly, his son wasn’t happy with his mother’s decision. Neither was he.
Derek had to get his son to bed, otherwise, he would have stayed until closing. He signaled for Robyn.
Flustered she returned to his table. “Yes, sir?”
He handed over his credit card. She didn’t even look at him and within minutes, returned. “I hope you enjoyed dining with us at Red Lobster.”
Enjoy? How could he, knowing the mother of his child was working two jobs as if he wasn’t giving her enough to survive? Plus, she earned a good salary, if she was managing her money, she wouldn’t need this gig.
“Daddy, I’m sweepy,” Tyler whined and rubbed his eyes.
“Okay, buddy, let’s go home.” He stood and heaved his son over his shoulder. Then, he reached in his pocket and pulled out a fifty dollar bill. Instead of laying it on the table, he went in search of Robyn.
She was at the table where four men were flirting shamelessly as they placed their orders.  “Excuse me, you were a great waitress.” He placed the bill in her hand and his son waved.
“Bye, Mommy.”
Thanks, son, for the backup. He smirked. Yeah, let them know that she didn’t need any more men in her life.
She kissed Tyler’s cheek then faced her customers who seemed stunned. Turning on his heels, Derek walked away with more pep in his step. Checkmate, gentlemen.
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Pat Simmons is an multi-published author of more than a dozen Christian titles and is a three-time recipient of the Emma Rodgers Award for Best Inspirational Romance. The Confession is the latest winner. She has been a featured speaker and workshop presenter at various venues across the country.
As a self-proclaimed genealogy sleuth, Pat is passionate about researching her ancestors and then casting them in starring roles in her novels. She describes the evidence of the gift of the Holy Ghost as an amazing, unforgettable, life-altering experience. God is the Author who advances the stories she writes.
Pat is currently overseeing the media publicity for the annual RT Booklovers Conventions. She has a B.S. in mass communications from Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts.
Pat converted her sofa-strapped, sports fanatic husband into an amateur travel agent, untrained bodyguard, GPS-guided chauffeur, and administrative assistant who is constantly on probation. They have a son and a daughter.
Read more about Pat and her books by visiting or on social media.