Wishful Romance Volume 3: Books 7-9 - Kait Nolan - E-Book

Wishful Romance Volume 3: Books 7-9 E-Book

Kait Nolan

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Dance Me A Dream (Book 7)
As guardian to her two younger half siblings, Tara Honeycutt has forgotten what it's like to be a normal twenty-something.  When a major gas line breaks, leaving them with no heat, no hot water, and no way to cook for Christmas, Jace Applewhite invites Tara and her sibs out to his family's Christmas tree farm.  Will a good old fashioned farmhouse Christmas be enough to get Tara to give him a second glance?
 
See You Again (Book 8) 
Mayor Sandra Crawford has survived divorce and cancer, but she's not at all sure she'll survive the discovery that her town's benefactor is actually the man she nearly left her husband for almost 30 years ago. Gerald Peyton, III didn't fight for Sandy back in college--a decision he's regretted ever since. Now Trey's older, wiser, and determined to win the heart of the woman he's never forgotten.
 
The Christmas Fountain (Book 9)
After finding out her Mr. Right was actually Mr. Wrong, Mary Alice is taking a break from love to chair her favorite holiday charity. Chad thinks volunteering is the perfect way to get to know his Christmas crush. Will he manage to overcome her once bitten, twice shy caution?

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Wishful Romance Volume 3

Books 7-9

Kait Nolan

Contents

Invite

A Letter to Readers

I. Dance Me A Dream

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

II. See You Again

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Acknowledgments

III. The Christmas Fountain

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Epilogue

Sneak Peek You Were Meant For Me

Sneak Peek If I Didn’t Care

Other Books By Kait Nolan

Acknowledgments

About Kait

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A Letter to Readers

Dear Reader,

This book is set in the Deep South. As such, it contains a great deal of colorful, colloquial, and occasionally grammatically incorrect language. This is a deliberate choice on my part as an author to most accurately represent the region where I have lived my entire life. This book also contains swearing and pre-marital sex between the lead couple, as those things are part of the realistic lives of characters of this generation, and of many of my readers.

If any of these things are not your cup of tea, please consider that you may not be the right audience for this book. There are scores of other books out there that are written with you in mind. In fact, I’ve got a list of some of my favorite authors who write on the sweeter side on my website at https://kaitnolan.com/on-the-sweeter-side/

If you choose to stick with me, I hope you enjoy!

Happy reading!

Kait

Part I

Dance Me A Dream

Dance Me A Dream

Written and published by Kait Nolan

Cover design by Lori Jackson

Copyright 2016 Kait Nolan

All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book, or portions thereof, in any form.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: The following is a work of fiction. All people, places, and events are purely products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual people, places, or events is entirely coincidental.

Chapter 1

FROST GLISTENED ON THE carved stone of the fountain that was the jewel of the Wishful town green, looking candied and fanciful, like something out of a fairy tale. Tara Honeycutt hunched her shoulders against the cold, watching her breath puff out in clouds. She really needed to get going. The window between when she dropped her siblings off at school and when she had to be at The Daily Grind for her shift was already narrow, and today she needed to swing by to pick up a check for her sales at the artisan market where she sold her hand-crafted jewelry. But the fountain had drawn her. Maybe because of the dream.

Last night she’d been back in her old life. On the stage. Preparing for the season’s opening performance of The Nutcracker. She’d woken out of sorts, with a gut-deep yearning for what used to be. And so, here she was, a coin in her fist, about to make a wish in the fountain that gave the town its name.

I wish...

What did she wish? Did she really want to go back to professional dance? To the brutal schedule? The grueling competition? The loneliness? No. Whatever she may have missed about performing, it wasn’t that. She’d traded her career for family and she wouldn’t—couldn’t—go back on that.

But God, to be a normal twenty-one year old girl, free of all these responsibilities...

I wish I could be normal girl, just for a little while.

Tara tossed the coin into the water and immediately felt guilty for making such a selfish wish. She found herself digging into her purse for another coin.

I’ll just make another wish. Surely that’s not breaking the rules.

Clutching this one tight in her hand, Tara stared hard at the fountain, as if that would somehow impress upon whatever powers that be that she was really serious about this one.

I wish I could give Austin and Ginny a good Christmas. The kind of Christmas they truly deserve.

The nickel hit the water with a thunk, joining the legion of others from wishers who’d come before.

Okay, that was enough of that foolishness. She needed to get going. With long-legged strides, she headed across the green toward Wishful Discount Drugs.

The historic downtown pharmacy was decked out for the holidays in true Currier and Ives style, with swags of greenery, twinkly lights, and festoons of ribbon. The windows had been flocked with fake snow, and somebody had even found a vintage Christmas village to set up in the front window. Tara made a mental note to bring the kids by to see it. Ginny would absolutely love it, and even Austin would be charmed by the train circling on a track. Bing Crosby crooned “White Christmas” over the loudspeakers as Tara stepped inside.

“Be with you in a sec!” Pharmacist Riley Gower’s voice floated from somewhere below counter level.

Tara crossed over, trying to think if she needed to pick up anything else while she was here. Ginny’s insulin supply was good, and they’d just restocked syringes last week.

Riley popped up, a pair of felt reindeer antlers perched in her glossy dark brown hair. “Tara! Merry Christmas!”

Tara grinned. “Nice antlers.”

“I drew the line at the nose.”

“I think the rosy cheeks and sparkle in your eyes make up for it. They’ve been a permanent addition since you and Liam got engaged.”

Riley beamed and blushed. “I keep thinking I’ll get used to it. But I don’t.”

“Don’t ever get used to it. I think that’s the key to staying in love. And it looks good on you,” Tara added. If she felt just a wee pinch of envy, it wasn’t big enough to note. Riley and Liam were two of her favorite people—kind and generous to a fault. Tara was delighted they’d found each other.

But a tiny part of her—the small, self-absorbed part wishing for a normal life—wondered if she’d ever get the chance to find someone of her own. At least before her siblings were grown and out on their own. What did the dating scene look like for thirty-two year olds? It didn’t bear thinking about.

“I’ll get your check. You’ve had absolutely outstanding sales. If you’ve got any other stock to load in, now’s the time. The last minute shoppers are picking up and everybody’s loving the new artisan market.”

“I’ve got a few more things I can bring by in a day or two.”

Riley disappeared into the office.

If she stayed up a couple extra hours tonight, she could probably stretch that to more. Tara’s mind was already spinning new jewelry designs based on the supplies she had left when Riley came back out.

“Here we go.” She handed over the check.

Tara took it. “Thanks. I’ve gotta jet. I’m gonna be late to my shift at The Grind and we’ve been hopping with all the holiday shoppers.”

“I’ll see you in a few days when you bring in the new stock.”

Tara turned toward the door, glancing down at the check. She took in the number of zeroes. Blinked. Looked again. “You forgot to take out the booth rental fee.”

“Nope. The amount is right. You’ve sold out all but two pieces.”

Tara stared at her. “You’re kidding.”

“Make that all but one,” Jessie Applewhite said. Riley’s pharmacy tech wandered in from the market side of the store. “I’m nabbing that turquoise pendant necklace right now. And if Eli comes in looking for ideas, I want the earrings, too. Just sayin’.”

“Well, sweet little baby Jesus,” Tara muttered.

“Told you. Enjoy it!” Riley urged.

Two wishes, one of them answered in fifteen minutes. That had to be some kind of record. Batting 500—and the more important 500 at that—was pretty darn good odds. She didn’t have a prayer of a shot at being a normal girl, but this year—this year she’d be able to give her brother and sister a real Christmas. One with new traditions and festivities that would make up, at least a little, for the absence of their parents.

Tucking the check carefully into her purse, Tara hurried to work.

There’s no place like home.

Jace Applewhite took his time crossing the town green, enjoying the sight of the enormous town Christmas tree. The Bradford pears lining Main Street were wrapped in twinkle lights, and the light poles had regimented lines of lit wreaths marching all the way around the green. Beautiful. And with the unseasonably cold weather, it actually felt like winter. Of course, give it a day or two and it’d be 75 degrees. Such was the nature of December in Mississippi. His sister Livia and their cousin Jessie had a long-running bet on whether they’d be able to wear t-shirts for Christmas Day.

Jace stepped into The Daily Grind, scanning the faces for his friends. Grad school exams had wrapped a bit earlier than expected, so he’d come on home to Wishful to help with the family business for the remainder of the holiday. He’d head out to the farm and surprise his parents after catching up with the guys.

Across the room, Eli lifted his hand in a wave.

“Well, you’re a sight for sore eyes,” Jace said, pulling him into a back thumping hug.

“That’s what you get for doing the grad school thing, man. Lots of tiny print. While you’re up to your eyeballs in textbooks, I’m out in the good clean air.”

“And how’s the Forestry Service treating you?”

“Can’t complain,” Eli said.

“How’s my cousin treating you? Or maybe I should ask how you’re treating Jessie.”

“He’s whipped,” Zach Warren announced, rising from his chair to repeat the man hug routine.

“As he should be. She’s too good for him. Where are Leo and Reed?”

“Leo’s running the lighting and sound for the community theater’s production of White Christmas, and Reed is in Connecticut with his lady love and her parents.”

“I still can’t believe he’s engaged,” Jace murmured.

“Brother, you and me both,” Eli said.

“You worried Jessie’s gonna get ideas?”

Eli’s face paled. “Dude, don’t even talk about that. We haven’t been dating that long.”

Laughing, Jace slapped him on the shoulder. “Only a matter of time, buddy. Let me grab some coffee.” Jace joined the short queue at the counter, tapping a finger against his leg in time with the rhythm of the music playing over the sound system. What was that? Charlie Brown Christmas?

“Welcome to The Daily Grind. What can I get you?”

Jace focused on the girl behind the counter. Your number.

Tall and willowy, her sandy blonde hair was piled on top of her head in some updo that left her long, graceful neck bare. His fingers itched to trace it, to see if her skin was as soft as it looked. Her hazel eyes were expectant, and Jace realized he hadn’t said anything. He cleared his throat. “Um, what do you recommend?”

“For light roast today, we’ve got a Nkurubuye from Rawanda. Our dark roast is an Idido from Ethiopia. This late in the day, I’d be inclined to go for the dark. Less caffeine.”

“Really? I thought darker roasts had more caffeine.”

“Other way around,” she said. The name tag on her holly red apron read Tara. “The roasting process destroys some of the caffeine, so the lighter the roast, the more potent.”

Her voice was deeper than he expected. A throaty, rich alto. Talk about potent.

“I’ll have the dark then. Just black.”

Tara punched at the iPad mounted at the register. “Any nibbles to go with it?”

Jace could think of several of her inches he’d like to nibble. Jesus, he really had been stuck in a book too damned long. “No, nothing to eat, thanks.”

Her slender fingers punched in the rest of the transaction and tipped the iPad toward him to pay. “I’ll just get this started for you.”

Jace pulled out his wallet and swiped his card before he forgot how to use it. Tara seemed to float across the floor, graceful and unhurried, almost like a dance. How did she do that?

“Here you go.”

He took the steaming mug she offered. “You aren’t from around here.”

She tipped her head in question.

“I’d remember if I’d seen you before,” Jace clarified.

“You haven’t been in for coffee in a year and a half? I know all the regulars.”

“Grad school at Mississippi State,” he explained. “I’ve been having my caffeine directly by IV drip.”

Her lips curved a little, and Jace found himself wanting to see her full smile. He’d bet it was stunning.

“Home for the holidays, then,” she concluded, friendly but not exactly a green light to his flirtation.

“I am indeed. A full month until I have to go back. I’ll be one of those regulars before you know it.” Jace grinned, hoping she’d respond in kind.

But Tara wasn’t quite paying attention. Her head angled slightly, her eyes unfocused and heartbreakingly sad.

The sight of it struck a deep, painful chord in him, reminding him of another pair of somber eyes. He wanted to reach out and stroke her cheek. Don’t be sad. The music on the sound system had shifted to The Nutcracker. Not exactly a melancholy tune.

Before he could work that out, she shook herself, plastering on a smile that was stiff around the edges. “You have a merry Christmas.”

It was a polite brush off with an underlying message of hands off.

“You, too,” Jace murmured, lifting the coffee in a toast and heading back to his friends.

“Need a fire extinguisher?” Eli asked.

“Huh?”

“Because you just crashed and burned, brother.”

Jace glanced back at Tara, who was helping another customer. “What’s her story? Is she seeing somebody?” Which was only half what he wanted to know. He wanted—needed—to know what had put that look in her eyes.

“Oh no, the Snow Queen shoots down all comers,” Eli said. “Many have tried. No one has succeeded.”

“Snow Queen? Isn’t that kinda harsh?” Jace felt offended on Tara’s behalf.

“She’s never rude, just kind of holds herself apart. More important things to worry about than dating.”

“You’re taken,” Jace reminded him. “By my cousin.”

“I’m off the market. I’m not blind,” Eli protested.

Zach picked up the thread. “She’s been here a bit over a year, I think. Not sure where she came from, but she’s got guardianship of her two half-siblings.”

“She’s young for that isn’t she?” Jace didn’t think she was more than twenty-two.

“Got them at nineteen.”

“Holy crap. Why?”

Zach sipped at his coffee. “Mom left for parts unknown a few years back. And their dad is in jail on burglary charges. Tara’s the only other family they’ve got.”

That was certainly adequate reason to be sad. “Wow. How old are the kids?”

“Third grade and fifth from what I remember when I did school pics earlier this fall,” Zach reported.

So, for the time being, anyway, she was a single sort-of mom. The hands off vibe made total sense in that context. Jace should probably respect that. But as he sat catching up with his friends, he knew he’d spend the next month feeding his coffee habit.

Chapter 2

TARA’S EYE CRACKED OPEN and searched out the time on the LED clock by her bedside. 9:30.

Ohmygod. She rocketed out of bed and tripped down the hall, cursing the action figures and Legos in the floor. They were going to be so late to school!

Ginny looked up with wide blue eyes from her bean bag by the coffee table, her blocky stuffed bear, Lump tucked under her arm. Bugs Bunny sassed Elmer Fudd on the screen. Austin sketched at the kitchen table. He didn’t even glance her way as she came skidding into the room.

“Why didn’t you wake me?”

“’Cause it’s Saturday?” Ginny suggested .

“Oh.” Tara scooped a hand through her hair. The last week had flown by, full of late nights knocking out several new pieces to take to the artisan market. Her body clock was all screwed up and she’d lost track of days. In the wake of the adrenaline burst that had propelled her out of bed, she felt the exhaustion that had been dogging her for days.

Neither of the kids was in need of medical attention and nothing was broken or otherwise destroyed, so they’d managed to quietly entertain themselves, while she slept in for the first time in...who knew how long.

“Y’all had breakfast?”

“Cereal,” Austin said.

Tara looked sharply in his direction.

“No sugar on Ginny’s,” he added, though he still didn’t look up from his drawing.

Okay then. She’d slept in for three hours and the world had not stopped. Surely that miracle would last long enough for her to caffeinate.

Bugs Bunny gave way to Wile E. Coyote by the time she came back into the living room with a cup of tea. The ancient sofa sank beneath her weight. Mug in hand, Tara looked around the living room. Toys littered the old shag carpet, but she’d managed a fresh coat of paint on the walls back in the summer. Austin’s artwork hung in an informal gallery on one of them, something he’d acted annoyed by but she knew he secretly loved. All the furniture was worn. She’d refinished the wood pieces in a distressed cottage style that suited life with kids. The bright pillows accenting the sofa and chairs perked up the space. It helped, but there was no masking the fact that the house was old and hadn’t been cared for as it should’ve in the years before she moved in.

Maybe after she finished shopping for the kids, she’d swing by the local thrift store and see if they had a decent couch that fit into her budget.

Ginny crawled up beside her and curled into Tara’s side, snuggling in like an overlarge cat. Tara stroked her sister’s silky hair and felt her heart roll over in her chest. She’d come a long, long way from the terrified and distrustful little girl who’d suddenly found herself living with an older sister she’d only met a couple of times. Austin was slower to warm up and he still spent more of his time lost in his own head, sullen and angry over their circumstances. But he argued less and was more inclined to help with Ginny than resent her, so that, too, was progress.

“So I thought we’d decorate for Christmas this weekend. What do y’all think about that?”

Austin jerked a shoulder. “Whatever.”

Ginny sat up. “Can we make popcorn garland?”

Tara pegged her with an amused look. “Do you actually want popcorn garland or do you just want popcorn?”

“Both.”

“Then I suppose we can do popcorn garland. What about you, Austin?”

“No amount of popcorn is going to cover up that ugly fake tree.”

Her little brother had a deep and abiding hatred of the fake Christmas tree they’d had the year before. Tara had found it in the attic and done what she could to nurse the Charlie Brown tree into something festive, but even her artistic skills had been challenged by that.

“You’re absolutely right. Which is why we are aren’t going to use the ugly fake tree.”

“So we’re not having a tree?” Ginny’s lip wobbled.

“We’re not having a fake tree,” Tara corrected. “This year we’re going to get a real one.”

Austin finally looked up at that, a fleeting expression of hope on his face before he shut down again. “We can’t afford a real tree. They’re a waste of money.”

Hearing what she knew were their father’s words falling out of his mouth, Tara felt a fresh wave of rage whip through her. He hadn’t done right by these kids. Not ever. When she was sure she could speak without swearing, she said, “Well, whether they’re a waste or not is a matter of opinion. But as it happens we’re doing okay this Christmas, and we’re going to have a real tree.”

“Won’t all the lots be picked over? It’s only two weeks to Christmas.”

“Probably. That’s why we’re going out to Applewhite Farms to cut a fresh one ourselves.” It was so much more expensive, but by damn, she was going to give them some good Christmas memories.

“Really?” Ginny’s eyes got even rounder. “I’ve heard stories about that place. Becca says they have hot chocolate and horses and lights and everything!”

“Well, I don’t know if they’ll have lights and stuff during the day, but I’m sure they’ll have something. And it’ll be fun to walk the fields and pick our very own tree. What do you say?”

“Yay!”

She patted Ginny on the rump. “Go get dressed. Both of you. If we get the tree this morning, we can spend the afternoon making more ornaments.”

Her sister bolted down the hall to her bedroom.

Tara looked back at her brother. “Austin? You up for the whole cutting a live tree experience?”

“That could be cool.”

An almost positive statement. Tara would take it.

Jace loved quiet mornings on the farm. Other times of year, when it was the apple or pecan groves that were their bread and butter, mornings meant work. But when it came time for Christmas, the Fraser Firs and Scotch Pines were far less demanding. After four, they’d have steady traffic the rest of the night as the last minute folks came in search of a tree. But for now, it was just him and the trees. Livia had already gone in to work at the library where she ran the children’s program. Dad had headed to the Co-op to pick up a part for the tractor, and Mom was puttering around in the kitchen, baking up cookies for the legion of people she gifted them to for the holidays.

He was working on his second cup of coffee when the little SUV came up the drive. They weren’t officially open until this afternoon, but not everybody knew that. The driver slowed near the house, then pulled to a stop over near the main barn. The driver’s side door opened and one long leg stretched out, followed by the rest of a tall blonde. She opened the rear passenger door and a little girl tumbled out, vibrating with excitement. The blonde took her hand as an older boy climbed out of the front seat. It was just one little family. He could deal with that. Jace stepped down from the porch and headed over.

“Mornin’,” he called.

The blonde turned and he was delighted to meet the gorgeous hazel eyes of his coffeeshop crush. “Jace.”

“Hey Tara.” In the week he’d been home, he’d gone in to The Grind for coffee almost every day. Enough that she recognized him now, even if he hadn’t gotten any further than giving her his name.

“I didn’t know you worked out here.”

Translation: I didn’t come looking for you, so don’t start up with that flirting again.

He repressed a smile. “Comes with the last name.”

“Which is?”

“Applewhite. This is my family’s farm.”

“You’re related to Livia. Or Jessie?”

Small town. Of course she knew them. “Both. Liv’s my sister. Jessie’s my cousin.”

“Oh.” She seemed to cast around for something else to say. “We came for a tree.”

Jace looked up at the clear blue sky. “It’s a fine morning for it. And you’ll have the place to yourselves since it’s not Saturday.”

Tara startled. “It’s not?”

“Nope. Friday.”

She shot a Look at the little girl. “Ginny.”

The little girl grinned like an imp. “What?”

“You said it was Saturday! And you didn’t contradict her,” she said to the boy.

He shrugged. “It’s nothin’ but stupid parties at school today. We’re not missing anything important.”

Something flickered over Tara’s face. Distress? Some kind of understanding? Jace wondered what was going through her head.

“Well then, I guess we’re playing hookey today.” She turned back to him. “But you’re not open until four. I’m sorry. I’ve been running around all morning thinking it’s Saturday.”

“It’s not a problem,” Jace assured her. “You’re already here. Might as well pick a tree.”

Ginny bounced. “It’s our first real tree ever! We have to pick the best one!”

“First one, huh?” He looked to Tara. “You in a hurry?”

“No, I don’t suppose so. I need to call in to work, though.”

“In that case, y’all should have the first timer’s special. Come on into the barn out of the cold and make your call, while I get things set up.” Without waiting for agreement, he went on inside.

Ginny’s eyes got huge when he led Pepper out of the stall. “Ohmygod. It’s a horse!”

“This is Pepper. She helps pull the wagon for our hayrides.” The chestnut mare bumped her nose at his jacket where she knew he had some carrots. Jace scratched between her ears. “Want to feed her?”

“Can I really?” Ginny whispered.

“If it’s okay with your sister.”

Tara, who’d just finished her call, looked sharply in his direction.

Jace pretended not to notice.

“Be careful,” she said.

He showed Ginny how to hold her hand flat and placed a piece of carrot on her little palm. She giggled as Pepper carefully picked it up. “Her whiskers tickle. Austin, you gotta try this!”

“You can treat Rupert. We have to be fair or I’ll hear about it.”

Rupert stuck his head over the stall and nickered.

“See?”

Jace led the gelding out as well and tied him to a ring mounted on the wall. He repeated the demonstration for how Austin should hold his hand and handed over a piece of carrot. Some of the apathy slipped from the boy’s expression as Rupert mouthed up his treat. He ran a hand down the horse’s glossy brown coat.

“Austin, you want to help me carry the harnesses?”

“Sure.”

As he went through the process of getting both horses hitched to the wagon, Jace was aware of Tara watching him. But he kept his attention on the kids, the animals. She didn’t want flirtation; he’d try another tactic. Besides, he got a kick out of Ginny’s enthusiasm. He lifted her in to the wagon bed. “Up we go.”

Austin climbed in himself.

Jace turned to Tara. “You want to ride in the back or up front with me?”

“I don’t much fancy hay poking me in the behind, so I’ll take the seat.”

He leapt up and held out a hand for her. After a moment’s hesitation, she took it, seeming to flow almost like water as he pulled her. For a couple of long seconds they stood a handspan apart. She was tall, only a few inches shorter than him, and he was very aware that it’d take almost no effort to close the distance between them. He was also aware of her two younger siblings less than five feet away, so though he wanted to linger, Jace released her as soon as she was steady.

His mother came out on the porch as he gathered up the reins and clucked at the horses to head out. She lifted one hand in a wave. There would be questions later, but he’d endure them. It was worth it for the excited stream of questions and chatter from Ginny and the unguarded look of pleasure Tara beamed over her shoulder at the kids.

“Dashing through the snow.”

Beside him, Tara startled when he began to sing.

“On a one horse open sleigh. Ginny?”

“Over the fields we go, laughing all the way! Ha ha ha!” she shouted, joining in with more enthusiasm than correct pitch.

“Bells on bobtail ring.”

Tara jumped in. “Making spirits bright.”

“What fun it is to laugh and sing a sleighing song tonight.”

They picked up Austin on the chorus and the four of them belted good cheer into the late morning air, startling some birds from the trees in the apple orchard as they rolled through. A rendition of “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer” got them to the edge of the fir trees.

Jace drove the horses down the center lane before pulling them to a halt. “Now we walk.”

Tara leapt down before he could help her, but Ginny waited, arms outstretched for him to lift her down.

“How tall are your ceilings?” Jace asked.

“Just the standard eight feet.”

He pulled one of their premarked measuring sticks and handed it over to Austin.

“What’s this for?”

“See this mark? That’s seven feet. In a stand, that’s about as tall as you can go with your ceilings. You hold this next to the trees to check and see if they’ll fit.”

“Okay. C’mon, Ginny!”

The pair of them scampered down the row, Ginny launching into an off-key rendition of “Frosty The Snowman”.

“She hasn’t quite mastered the difference between singing and shouting,” Tara said. “They’re loving this. Thank you.”

Jace retrieved the axe and headed after them, Tara falling into step beside him. “You’re more than welcome. There’s hot apple cider when we get back. Made from our own apples.”

“Oh, you don’t have to go to any trouble.”

“No trouble. Just part of the package. You brought them out here for the whole live tree experience, right?”

Again, something flickered over her face. “Yes. They’ll be talking about this for weeks.”

“We like making it into people’s memory books and family traditions.”

“We’re working on starting some new ones.” Tara’s expression was fierce as she said it.

Jace recognized a vow when he heard it. “Gotta be hard on you. All that responsibility.”

He got that sharp look again.

“You’re too young to be Mom. You and Ginny have the same eyes. I figured sister.” He’d known already but didn’t see the sense in confirming her expectation that people were talking.

Ahead of them Austin and Ginny raced from one tree to the next. Tara watched them for a moment before answering. “Half-sister, actually. We share a father, such as he is. As it happens, I lucked out more in the mom department than they did. So I’m working on making up for that.”

“I’d say you’re doing an admirable job.”

Tara frowned at him. “You aren’t at all put off by them, are you?”

“Not a bit. I love kids. They’re a lot of fun. Especially this time of year.”

“Tara come look! This one! This one!” Ginny waved her arms like she was presenting a prize.

Her sister walked around the tree, checking the shape. “How’s the height?”

Austin held up the measuring stick. “Little over seven feet, but it’ll fit.”

“Well, I guess this is it then,” Tara confirmed.

“My axe is at your service, milady. Stand back, y’all.” He made short work of chopping down the tree. “We’ll clean up the base once we get it back to the barn.”

They retrieved the wagon and loaded up the tree. Jace took the long way back, giving an informal tour of the farm on the way.

As predicted, his mom had hot cider waiting. Jace made introductions.

“Mom, this is Tara, Austin, and Ginny Honeycutt. Y’all, my mom, Linda Applewhite.”

“Nice to meet y’all.” She passed out drinks, while he hauled the tree over to the baling table and smoothed out the base with the chainsaw.

“You want the trimmings?” he asked Tara.

“Yes, please.”

He trimmed the lower branches enough for a stand, then pulled the whole thing through the big round tube of the baler, wrapping it in netting that would keep it bundled until they got it home. Hefting the tree on one shoulder, he hauled it over to the little SUV and tied it to the roof rack with twine.

“You’re all set.”

“How much do we owe you?” Tara asked.

He named a figure and accepted the cash she handed over. “I hope you enjoy it. Are you okay to get it down and in when you get home?”

“I’ll manage. Thanks for everything, Jace. And thank you for the cider, Mrs. Applewhite.”

“Thank you!” the kids chorused.

“Come on, you monkeys. Load up. We’ve got a tree to decorate.”

They piled into the car. Tara shot him a wave before she backed up and headed down the drive.

“You didn’t charge them for the hay ride,” Linda observed.

“Take it out of my paycheck.”

Chapter 3

AUSTIN DRAPED COLORED TWINKLE lights around the tree. “That was so awesome! Did you see the way Jace used that axe? Chopped this thing down in three strikes. Someday I’m gonna be big enough to do that.”

Yes. Yes I noticed. Tara told herself her mouth was watering over the popcorn she was stringing onto fishing line. She hadn’t been able to avoid noticing the flex and bunch of muscle as he’d wielded the axe to fell their tree. She’d never known she had a secret lumberjack fantasy until this morning. A lumberjack with big brown eyes and a mile wide soft spot for kids.

It wasn’t what she’d expected from a twenty-four year old grad student. She’d done her homework, too. Not that it’d been hard. Her boss, Cassie Callister, was the self-declared Princess of Gossip in Wishful, second only to Mama Pearl Buckley, who owned Dinner Belles Diner. The two were in a constant competition to find out the scoop on anything and everything before anybody else. In this case, Cassie had given a hopeful eyebrow waggle that the inside scoop was about Tara being interested in Jace. She’d shut down that assumption in a hurry. Even if Wishful was the family seat, he didn’t live here. Not permanently. And aside from that, she didn’t have time for dating or relationships. Besides, what guy in her age bracket would want a package deal?

The kind of guy who would go out of his way to take you all out to pick a Christmas tree, even though the farm was closed.

She’d wondered initially if Jace was just being nice to her siblings to try to get to her since his more direct flirtation hadn’t worked. But he’d seemed to genuinely enjoy hanging out with them. Austin and Ginny hadn’t stopped talking about him or the farm since they got back in the car.

“Do you think we could maybe go back sometime and take Pepper and Rupert more carrots?” Ginny asked. “Horses ought to get Christmas presents, don’t you think?”

“Oh, well, we’ll have to see about that.” Tara took great care not to make promises she wasn’t positive she could keep. They’d had far too many broken in the past.

Jace may have been kind enough to give them all a great Christmas memory, but that certainly didn’t mean he was ready to entertain them again.

Still, Tara couldn’t regret the expressions of sheer delight on Ginny and Austin’s faces. This was the most excitement she’d seen from her brother in the year and a half they’d been under her care. It was the first time he’d really acted like the kid he was. Tara figured she owed Jace something for that. If she baked him cookies would he read too much into it?

“Are you done with the popcorn garland?” Austin asked.

“Not by half. Ginny keeps eating the components.”

Her sister giggled and stuffed another handful of popcorn into her mouth.

Shaking her head with a smile, Tara headed for the kitchen. “I’ll go make another batch.”

An enormous boom shook the house. Tara automatically dove to cover Ginny, yelling for Austin to get down.

But no glass rained down. There were no aftershocks. No scent of smoke.

Austin peeked out from behind the Christmas tree. “What was that?”

“I don’t know. Maybe a transformer blew.” It totally wasn’t a transformer. That explosion had been way too loud. “Everybody okay?”

“Yeah, fine.”

“I’m okay.” Ginny squirmed out of Tara’s hold and made a beeline for the window. “There’s smoke over there.”

Tara followed where she pointed, seeing billowing smoke in the distance above the treeline. “Y’all, put on your shoes and coats. We’re gonna go find out what’s going on.”

While the kids gathered their stuff, she stepped out onto the porch. Whatever was burning was far enough off she didn’t feel like the house was in immediate danger. They’d had a wet autumn, so the woods between here and there shouldn’t go up like tinder. But something big had blown.

Bundling the kids into the RAV, she locked the house and headed up the road. As soon as the trees cleared, she could see the huge towers of flame fanning the sky.

“Holy crap!”

Tara was too shocked to correct her brother. Holy crap, indeed.

Even as she stared, a fire truck approached from the rear. She pulled over to the shoulder behind another vehicle to let it pass, then just sat there. The driver of the car in front got out and walked up to the window.

Tara rolled it down and heard the roar. “Any idea what’s going on?”

“Gas line exploded,” he said, turning to look back toward where the firemen were unfurling hose and spraying down the blaze. “I heard it over the scanner. They’re calling in fire crews from all over the county.”

“Gas? Oh man, our house runs on gas. Is it safe?”

“Tara! Lump!” Ginny wailed from the back seat.

“Hush, honey. Lump will be okay.”

“The damage to the line is two miles from here. If they haven’t already, the gas company will be shutting down the supply to help contain the fire. Thankfully there aren’t any houses right around the fire.”

“Thank God for small mercies.” They weren’t equipped to recover from a fire.

“The bigger question is how long it’ll take them to repair it. I don’t think that’s one of the main lines, but that was a pretty big mess. It’ll take some doing to get it back up and running.”

That introduced a whole new set of worries. They had gas heat, gas water heater, and gas stove. She could manage the cooking via microwave and toaster oven. And she’d bundle the kids into the living room for a family snuggle fest with the couple of space heaters they had. But they’d only be able to rough it for a couple of days. If the repairs took longer than that, they’d be screwed.

“Hey little brother.”

One hand on the door to The Daily Grind, Jace cursed Livia’s proclivity toward being early for everything. But he fixed a smile on his face as he turned to greet her. “Hey big sis.” He wrapped an arm around her in a hug.

“So, Mom tells me there’s a girl.”

“There’s no girl.” There wasn’t. He hadn’t even asked Tara out, so there couldn’t be a girl. Right? “How’s the library treating you?”

“Could be better. Our hours are going to be cut again. I just know it.”

Jace winced. The Wishful Public Library had been suffering from epic budget constraints the past year and a half, a reflection of Wishful’s languishing economy. Livia, the children’s librarian, had been operating at three-quarter’s salary for months. Given the salary was a pittance in the first place, that was very bad indeed.

“I thought things were getting better around here since the new city planner started.”

“They have. But the kind of trickle down we need takes a long time. Mitzi has been doing the budgets this week and looking grim. I think I’m going to have to give up my apartment and move back home until this gets straightened out.”

Pulling open the door, Jace made an after you motion. “You know Mom would be delighted to have you back for more than just tree season. She loves nothing more than having all her chicks under one roof.”

“I know. And I love it out at the farm. It’s just demoralizing. You aren’t supposed to have to move home at twenty-seven.”

“Well then, let me buy you a hot chocolate or something.”

“I won’t say no.”

Tara stood behind the counter, chatting with a customer and Jace had to work to keep the smile off his face. He spotted the kids hanging out in a nearby booth. They hadn’t seen him yet or he was sure they’d be running over to greet him.

“—doing since the gas main exploded? That’s out near you, isn’t it?” the customer asked.

Jace’s ears perked. Like everybody else in town, he’d heard about the gas main explosion. It’d taken every fire fighter in the county to get the blaze under control.

“We’re mostly fine. It wasn’t close enough to do any damage to the house. But a lot of our stuff runs on gas. The heat, the stove, the water heater. The gas company said the damage was so bad, we’re not going to have service again until after Christmas.”

“That’s awful!” said the woman.

Jace stepped around her. “What have you been doing without heat, hot water, or a way to cook?”

“Hey Jace. We’ve been roughing it the last few days. Camping in the living room with space heaters. That hasn’t been so bad since it warmed up. We’ve been cleaning up in the locker rooms at the gym. And thank God for crock pots. We’ve been eating tons of soup. The kids look at the whole thing as an adventure, but the shine’s going to wear off of that soon.”

“Serious cold front’s coming, too. Have you seen the forecast? They’re saying we may have our first white Christmas in generations.”

Tara grimaced. “Yeah, I heard. The kids are so psyched about that. But it’s definitely not ideal under the circumstances. I have no idea what we’re going to do if the gas company doesn’t pull off some kind of Christmas miracle.”

“You should come out to the farm.” The words were out of his mouth before he even knew they were there.

“Excuse me?”

“We’ve got an apartment upstairs in one of the barns. It’s usually used by seasonal staff, but this year all our help is local, so there’s nobody in it now.” In his periphery, Jace could see Livia giving him the side eye. “It’s just a little two bedroom with a kitchenette, but it’s furnished, and, more importantly, it has full utilities and heat.”

He could tell before she even opened her mouth that she was going to say no. “That’s very kind of you, Jace but—”

“Jace!” Ginny, finally catching sight of him, raced over from the booth, throwing her arms around his legs.

He ruffled her hair. “Hey, Peanut. What’re you doing out of school?”

“It’s a teacher day,” she informed him. “How are Pepper and Rupert?”

“They’re good. They say hi.”

“I wanna say hi back,” she insisted. “I asked Tara if we could bring them carrots for Christmas but she said we had to ask you first.”

“You can absolutely bring Pepper and Rupert carrots for Christmas.” And then Jace decided to play dirty. “I was just trying to talk your sister into bringing all of you out to the farm for Christmas as our guests, since y’all are out of heat.” He placed extra emphasis, figuring part of her objection would be money.

Ginny’s eyes got huge. “Tara! Oh can we can we can we? Ohpleaseohpleaseohplease!”

“Yeah, Tara,” Austin added, “we could help with stuff at the farm.”

“Sure,” Jace said, getting into the idea. “I could teach you how to drive the wagon.”

“For real?”

“Sure.”

“That’d be awesome!”

“It’s settled, then. These two will work for their keep. We need a couple of elves around the place.” Jace made a show of checking Ginny’s ears for points.

Tara’s expression only got stiffer. “I really appreciate it, but—”

Ginny’s face crumpled and Jace could tell she was about to cry. He scooped her up and pressed his cheek to hers. “C’mon. How can you say no to this face?”

Tara’s eyes narrowed. “You don’t play fair,” she murmured.

“He doesn’t,” Livia agreed. “I’m sorry to say, he learned that from me. But seriously, we’d love to have you. Having some kids around will get Mom off our backs for not having given her grandchildren yet.”

“Well, I...” She trailed off, looking from Ginny to Austin before closing her eyes. Jace knew she was going to cave. “Thank you. We appreciate it.”

“Hooray!”

Jace put Ginny down and the kids launched into some kind of complicated victory dance.

Tara just shook her head, a reluctant smile twitching at the corners of her mouth. “Did you actually want coffee, or were you only here to railroad me?”

“Oh coffee, absolutely,” Jace said.

He and Livia gave their orders and headed for a table. “Thanks for backing me up.”

“No girl, my ass,” she said. “How long will it take you to move your stuff out of the apartment?”

Jace maintained an innocent expression. “Not long. And I’m just spreading the Christmas spirit.”

“You’re spreading something.” Livia laid a hand over his. “It’s a nice thing you’re doing. But be careful. Those kids have been through a lot.”

So had Tara. And Jace was willing to bet nobody had been thinking about helping her.

Chapter 4

THE OLD VICTORIAN FARMHOUSE glinted like a jewel in the night as Tara pulled up. Lights and garland twined the rails, followed the eaves. The whole place looked like a postcard.

What must it be like to live out here in all of this?

And they’d be spending Christmas here? Tara didn’t know whether to jump for joy or run away. The generosity of Jace and his family would certainly keep them warm this holiday and give all three of them cherished memories. But what happened next year when things were back to whatever version of normal she managed for Austin and Ginny? Nothing she could do could possibly live up to all of this.

A figure came down the porch steps. Livia. A blend of relief and disappointment trickled through Tara as she got out of the RAV. She wasn’t quite ready to face Jace again. She felt far too off balance around him, and that wasn’t a comfortable state for Tara. “I wasn’t sure where to park.”

“Where you are is fine. The apartment’s down here.” Livia led her down a path to a smaller barn out past the one that housed Pepper and Rupert.

“Y’all really know how to do Christmas, don’t you?”

Livia grinned. “It’s kind of the Applewhite thing. Goes with the territory when you have a tree farm.”

“I suppose it does. Do you ever get tired of it? All the hustle and bustle and forced holiday cheer?” Tara was pretty sure she was caroling in her sleep these days.

“Only when it starts the day after Halloween. The actual traditions attached to this place…nah. It’s all part of marking the seasons here. And it’s a privilege to be a part of so many families’ holiday traditions.”

“I’m sure after spending the holiday out here, the kids will be campaigning to make this a part of ours. Jace may have created a monster.”

“He’s a big boy. He can take care of himself. The apartment’s just up those stairs. It’s unlocked. Sorry to leave you here, but I’ve got bread coming out of the oven in a few minutes.”

“No problem. Thanks again.”

Livia disappeared before she could ask where her brother and sister were. With Jace, probably, given how they’d both glommed onto him like he was the best thing since peanut butter met chocolate. She’d just check the place out and breathe a minute before going to find him. Them, she corrected. She needed to steer clear of Jace.

Stairs went straight up to her left, just inside the barn door, then angled back right toward a railed space that began what had once probably been a hay loft. Tara sniffed, but the place didn’t smell of hay, more like pine or cedar, with a faint undertone of…apples? She made her way up the stairs, glancing down at the equipment neatly stowed below. It seemed like a sort of carriage house with tractor attachments lined up in rows down the side walls.

As Livia promised, the apartment door was unlocked. She opened it, expecting to have to fumble for a light switch, and stopped dead in the doorway.

He’d brought their tree.

The fully decorated Fraser fir that’d been in her living room a few hours before now stood in a place of honor near the window, twinkle lights blinking on and off in the darkness.

Tara stared for a long moment before absently reaching to turn on a lamp. Slowly, she circled the tree, marveling that the ornaments were not only intact, they seemed to be more or less exactly where they’d been originally. How the hell had he pulled this off? And when? He’d shown up at the house just before Tara had left to go teach her 5:30 yoga class and somehow she’d been agreeing to let him take the kids and their stuff out to the farm so they wouldn’t have to hang out in the gym office while she taught.

She wasn’t purely sure how that happened either.

What was she even doing here?

Footsteps tromped up the stairs and the man himself ducked into the entryway. “Oh good, you made it. Are you finding everything okay?”

“I just got here. Livia pointed me up.”

“How’d your class go?”

“Fine.” Though every bit of Zen she’d earned from the practice had evaporated when he’d walked into the room.

Jace crossed to one of the doors at the back of the apartment. “We put your stuff in here. Kids are across the hall.”

Because she didn’t know what else to do, Tara walked over and peered into both rooms. Twin beds were set up in each, cheerfully made up in red and green plaids. Her bags were set up on one of them. Her siblings had already laid claim to their room, Ginny scattering stuffed animals—far more than she’d had packed when Tara left her—and Austin his art supplies and comic books.

“Well, I guess they’ve made themselves right at home.”

A chuckle rumbled in Jace’s chest. “They’re great.”

She sighed and turned toward him, suddenly finding herself at eye level with his mouth. Because she wanted to stare at it, Tara forced her eyes upward. His cheeks were ruddy from the cold and he smelled of evergreens. She had the ridiculous desire to lean in for a better sniff, wanting to stroke her hand along the five o’clock shadow that darkened his cheeks.

Idiot. She wasn’t in a position to be noticing the fact that he was incredibly attractive. She had far too many responsibilities for that.

“So, um, where are the little heathens?”

“In the kitchen with Mom, baking cookies.”

“Cookies?” Tara couldn’t keep the alarm out of her voice. “Ginny’s diabetic. Has she been eating the—”

“Sugar free cookies,” Jace assured her. “Austin’s keeping an eagle eye on her. He warned us before we got started.”

Tara exhaled slowly, willing her heartbeat to slow. “Sorry. We had an ER trip last year with a massive hyperglycemic attack. I guess I’m still not over it.”

“It’s fine. I don’t expect that’s the kind of scare you ever really get over.”

True enough.

“So it’s just you? Nobody to pitch in with them?”

She shot a glare his way. “You’ve been coming into The Grind almost every day and flirting for the past two weeks. I don’t for a second believe you haven’t been asking around about me.”

“I’m not interested in gossip. I’m asking you.”

Not an outright denial. Tara didn’t know if she preferred his direct approach or not.

Well, she wanted to put some distance between them. This had certainly worked with anyone else who’d tried to get too close.

“Our father is in prison. Burglary. He had primary custody of the kids at the time of his arrest. Their mother disappeared for parts unknown years ago. Dad’s parents are dead and I don’t know about the kids’ maternal grandparents. As far as anybody knows, I am the only family they have left, so I’ve basically been a mom since I was nineteen. It’s me or the foster system, and I won’t do anything to jeopardize that.”

Jace didn’t look put off at all. In fact he looked…impressed? “You’re doing a great job with them.”