I’m in love–with my new story and characters in LAST CHRISTMAS, the novella I’m writing for our LOVE, CHRISTMAS Romance Collection.
I can’t think of anything more fun than throwing a man and a woman together and proving to them that they are made for each other. Oh, and creating the small towns in my stories is great fun too. In LAST CHRISTMAS, I found Estacado, an old ghost town in the Texas Panhandle that was perfect for my needs. I renamed it New Estacado, a Spanglish combination that made it perfect for the Texas setting.
Then there’s the…oh, wait. Why don’t I just post the first chapter since it’s my turn to give you a sneak peek from my unedited manuscript? I’m excited about LOVE, CHRISTMAS, our 2016 Holiday Romance Collection. I hope you enjoy this excerpt because I’m having a blast writing this story.
How long did it take for a broken heart to heal? Annabelle Cooper stared at the framed photograph she’d pulled from the packing box. To her dismay, her hand trembled and her chest tightened, making her lungs feel as if all the air in her bedroom had been sucked out into the cold December night.
Her heart pounded so hard she swore she could hear it over the blustering north wind that swept down through the Texas Panhandle and rattled the old-fashioned windows in her grandmother’s Victorian house. Annabelle couldn’t stop herself from lifting the photograph and studying the smiling couple, each wearing a Santa hat. She looked so happy, so…innocent, in the photograph taken last Christmas at her friend Mary Beth’s party.
Innocent? She gave a snort of derision. She hadn’t been innocent. She’d been pathetically dumb. Scorn at her naiveté dampened the pain as Annabelle stared at the photograph. Her eyes stung, but she wouldn’t allow herself to shed another tear over what had been the worst mistake she’d ever made.
Why did it still hurt so much?
Despite all she’d done to banish Rick Lassiter from her mind and her heart, the photograph shattered the illusion that she was over the man who’d swept her off her feet and into a weekend of passion, unlike anything she’d ever experienced. She blinked rapidly. The trouble was she had experienced very little in her twenty-five years. She had been nearly as virginal as a heroine in the Regency romance novels she’d always loved. In all honesty, an urban teen probably had more sexual experience than Annabelle had possessed a year ago.
Even in the photo, Lassiter drew her as no man ever had. His ebony hair was hidden by the Santa hat, but his laughing eyes—so dark they appeared black—drew her gaze even now. His smile compelled a smile in return. Her hands were clasped on his shoulder, but his arms were folded, his chin resting on his hands. She was the one clinging to him. The clinging was not mutual. That should have been her first clue.
“Annabelle?” Her grandmother’s voice warbled up to the second floor.
Annabelle took a deep breath and released it slowly before answering. “Yes, ma’am?”
“Come on down, sugar. The first guests are getting out of their cars.”
“I’ll be right there,” Annabelle called. She imagined her grandmother, the original Annabelle Edna, was peeking through the lace curtains over the front windows like an excited little girl instead of like the white-haired senior citizen she was.
Annabelle looked back at the framed photo she still held. Her hand tightened on the wooden frame until her knuckles whitened. She wanted to fling it against the wall and smash it into a million pieces the way Rick Lassiter had smashed her heart.
“Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance,” she whispered as if they were her mantra. “You are at acceptance. You will not regress,” she vowed in a fierce whisper. She loosened her fingers and let the framed photograph fall to the jewel-toned oriental rug. It landed with a soft thud. Deliberately, Annabelle stepped on the photo and heard glass break.
Okay. Maybe she hadn’t yet graduated from the anger stage of grief.
Not in a rush to join the elderly early arrivals since she saw them just about every day now that she’d moved back to New Estacado, Annabelle lingered over the box. She found a “Playbill” from Houston’sTheater Under the Stars, a ticket stub from the blockbuster movie that had been showing last December, and a menu from her favorite Mexican restaurant. Damn. Everything in the box was a memento of—what? Her love affair?
Mary Beth, her friend and neighbor in the Houston apartment complex, had called it a fling. Mary Beth had lots of flings so she hadn’t understood why Annabelle had been so distraught when Rick had disappeared. When she’d learned that much of what he’d told her were lies, she’d been devastated.
Ah. Realization dawned. Mary Beth had packed all of this rather than consigning the lot to the dumpster as Annabelle had instructed after the April flood had invaded their respective ground-floor apartments and destroyed everything in its smelly, muddy path.
Annabelle had lost her heart in December, and the swollen Cypress Creek had taken most of her possessions—even her little Toyota in the parking lot. Aggravated that she was again obsessing over what had happened with Lassiter, she folded the flaps of the cardboard box closed. Maybe Mary Beth liked dwelling on her old flings, but Annabelle didn’t. She’d left Houston, hoping to leave her mistakes in the past. That’s where a…a reprobate like Lassiter belonged. In the past.
Annabelle snorted. Maybe reprobate was old-fashioned, but she was old-fashioned too even if her strait-laced morality was over-compensation for the apathetic neglect of a mother who was the embodiment of promiscuity.
Reprobate. Scoundrel. No-good waste of skin walking the planet. That’s what Lassiter was. She’d certainly treat him differently if she met him today. She’d recognize him now for what he was. A lying, manipulative scum of the earth man-slut. Annabelle slapped the carton. After the party, she’d toss the photograph and everything in the box into the trash where it belonged.
A quick glance at her reflection in the Queen Anne cheval mirror told her she hadn’t messed up her hair or wrinkled the full skirt of the emerald velvet evening gown. Fortunately, her exterior didn’t reveal the emotions seething within. She looked fine. She practiced a smile, took a deep breath, and left her bedroom, closing the door behind her.
Laughter and holiday greetings floated to her as she started down the steep staircase. The college girl who had been hired to play Christmas carols on the baby grand piano situated in front of the bay window in the living room had begun with a jazzy version of “Jingle Bells.”
Annabelle took the steps carefully , in deference to the black silk evening shoes with four-inch heels. Sexy shoes weren’t necessarily safe on steep stair treads. When she’d been a child, she’d never bothered with the steps when going downstairs. She smiled at the memory of riding the banister from her turret bedroom to the black and white marble tiles of the foyer.
A frigid blast from the front door heralded more guests arriving. Chilled, she stepped onto the polished tiles. The noise level wasn’t uncomfortable. Yet. The pianist segued into “O Holy Night.” People in various styles of holiday dress—some in evening attire, some in cowboy shirts and stiff blue jeans—milled around, propelled inward every few minutes by new arrivals. Waiters, college students home for the holidays, circulated with trays of champagne flutes and platters of finger foods.
Annabelle smiled at her grandmother. Her Namesy. When she’d been a child, she’d heard the word namesake often and had come to think namesake meant her grandmother. Her toddler’s effort to pronounce the word namesake had come out as “Namesy” to the delight of her grandmother who immediately adopted the name as being far more original than any of the other grandmother nicknames.
“I’ll man the door,” she murmured in Namesy’s ear. “Go to the living room and hold court.”
Her grandmother smiled and strolled away as the pianist launched into “Blue Christmas.”
Glad her grandmother had acquiesced so easily, Annabelle assumed the duties of hostess at the door. “Merry Christmas and welcome to the Gazette’s Christmas Open House,” she greeted, taking a minute or two to chat with each guest and direct them to the buffet in the dining room. By the time Vince Sanchez, her late grandfather’s best friend, arrived, Annabelle was convinced that the house couldn’t hold another person. She was beginning to think the velvet might have been a poor choice because she felt overly warm in the crush of the party guests.
“Merry Christmas, Mayor Sanchez, and welcome to the Gazette’s Christmas Open House.” The portly Hispanic man who’d been mayor for as long as she could remember, bellowed a holiday greeting to her and chucked her under the chin as if she were still ten years old.
Annabelle winced. “Is your hearing aid turned on, Mayor?” She pantomimed the question.
He laughed and pulled two small devices out his coat pocket and put one into each ear. “Is that better?” he asked, his voice starting loud and then lowering. He cocked his head and listened. “Hey, Edna did get that kid to play her piano for the party. Nice.”
The pianist did a slow run on the piano keys and then launched into “The First Noel.” Annabelle smiled. “Yes the music is good and so is your volume now.”
The Mayor chucked her under the chin again. “Funny girl. I’ve got a scoop for you, Annie Belly.”
At hearing the name her grandfather always called her, Annabelle’s throat tightened. “And what might that be, Mayor?” she asked, smiling fondly at him and at the memory.
Before he could reply, the door opened again and a blond woman Annabelle’s age rushed in, shutting the door behind her with a bit more force than was needed.
“I swear. I don’t see why Daddy won’t move to Miami, or at least Galveston. These Panhandle winters are too damned cold. It’s already iced over out there. I might as well be on a mountaintop in Montana,” the blonde complained.
Annabelle firmly repressed a sigh. Namesy called Brianna Walker the town’s richest daughter. Annabelle had a different noun to describe the whining party girl. She’d oped Brianna would have had a red carpet in Hollywood to strut or a late dinner at Tavern on the Green in the Big Apple to jet off to. But, no. Apparently, the daughter of one of the richest men in the Texas Panhandle had nothing better to do than bring her pseudo sophistication to Namesy’s Christmas open house.
Annabelle welcomed her the same as she’d done the other guests. She wasn’t surprised when Brianna shrugged out of the full-length mink coat and tossed it to Annabelle. “Take care of this for me, will you, Annabelle? Put it where I can get it when I’m ready to leave,” she ordered. “And be careful with it. You wouldn’t be able to pay for it if you damaged it. I’m in serious need of a drink to warm me up.”
Annabelle bit back a retort and said only, “Sure thing, Brianna. Excuse me, Mayor. I’ll be right back to discuss your scoop.”
Annabelle walked to the right of the front door and opened double doors that led into what had been her grandfather’s domain, the library. She wadded the coat into a rough round shape. “Here you go, Brianna,” she muttered and hurled the coat at the small sofa against the windows. The coat landed halfway between the doors and the sofa. Annabelle nodded. “Coat taken care of.”
The song changed to “Last Christmas.” That had been one of her Annabelle’s favorite Christmas songs. She loved the Wham version and the more recent Taylor Swift version too. Or she had loved it until last Christmas when she’d been foolish enough to give her heart to a man who truly had thrown it away. Lassiter. Was everything about Christmas going to make her think of him? She snagged two glasses of champagne from a passing waiter’s tray and found the mayor who hadn’t moved very far from the front door.
“Here you go, mister Mayor. I know it’s not beer, but you know champagne and eggnog are the only drinks Namesy serves at her Christmas party.”
The Mayor grimaced. “Just hold onto those two glasses. I’ve got someone I want you to meet. You can give him that soda pop with the bubbles.”
Annabelle laughed. “Someone to meet? I already know everyone in the three towns that make up the Gazette’s circulation.”
“Believe it or not, we’ve got a newcomer in town. He just got in today. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised Brianna roped him into bringing her to the party. I guess he’s parking the car since she came in alone.”
Annabelle gave an exaggerated sigh. “The only new male in the Panhandle, and Brianna already has him lassoed. I didn’t even get a shot at him,” she joked.
“You know what they say, sugar.” He shrugged his broad shoulders. “You snooze; you lose.”
“I wasn’t snoozing. I’ve been busy since moving back.”
“Well, you haven’t been to any city council meetings. Your grandmother is still covering those. If you had, you’d have met the new guy because he was at the last two monthly meetings.”
“Right. Like Brianna met him at a city council meeting?”
The Mayor laughed. “I’m pretty sure it would be a sign that they were ice skating in hell if she ever came to a city council meeting. Personally, I think the girl has guy radar that picks up any male within a hundred miles.”
The Mayor’s smile broadened. He waved at someone standing behind her. “Here he is. Annabelle, I want you to meet our new Sheriff.”
“Interim Sheriff,” a husky masculine voice corrected.
That voice short-circuited Annabelle’s brain. She forgot to breathe. The tiny hairs on the back of her neck rose in alarm. Buzzing like that of a million bees filled her ears. She couldn’t turn to see the source of her danger. From the corner of her eye, a man entered her field of vision. Her eyes widened as he stopped in front of her.
“Annabelle, this is my score of the century. I’ve got us a guy with actual law enforcement background,” the Mayor prattled. “Say hello to…” The mayor’s voice trailed off. “Annie Belly, are you all right? You look kind of funny.”
Annabelle’s eyes connected with the nearly black eyes of the handsome man in a charcoal gray suit, white shirt, and red-patterned silk tie. She could only stare as she felt every last drop of blood drain from her face. She couldn’t move. Couldn’t speak. Couldn’t think.
“Hello. It’s nice to meet you,” the man said gravely, as if he didn’t know her from Adam.
Fury flowed into the vacuum created by the absence of thought and words. Annabelle murmured, “So nice to meet you too.”
Then she flung the contents of both champagne flutes into Rick Lassiter’s face.
The End…For Now
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