Gifts of Love…Chapter One

giftoflove
If you haven’t read the Prologue you can catch up first.

Past the Stress

Fifteen years later

Holly was sitting at her desk trying her darnedest to get two and two to equal four. If it equaled five she’d be thrilled, but currently it seemed like it was a big fat red three.

She wanted to lay her head down on the cold metal contraption of a desk that was older than her and just start to bang it a few times and try again. It didn’t matter. The business was still struggling.

The last few years just weren’t kind to the family tree farm. This past summer had been better for sure, but they were still digging out of the hole of repairs to some of the greenhouses. Equipment that had to be replaced. And then there were her grandmother’s medical bills that had mounted when the family realized her life savings was gone.

Added to that was her brother Ryan’s idea to use fifteen acres for growing hops for local brewers. It was a great investment in their future, but it was an investment and that meant loans they had to take.

This first summer had covered their investment, but they didn’t yield much profit. Next year they would. Now she just hoped to get past the stress on her end to make it all work.

One thing or another always seemed to happen.

But Christmas was around the corner and always a big time of year. At least she hoped so.

She looked up when she heard a knock on the doorframe to see her older brother, Ryan, standing there in old worn jeans, work boots, and a thick flannel shirt open over a T-shirt. She wasn’t dressed much differently. Though she worked in the office, she’d fill in where she was needed and could end up on the grounds getting her feet and clothes dirty.

“Brynn Harper was here earlier.”

“Who?” Holly asked.

Her brother walked in and sat in the chair across from her. “From Harper Construction.”

That perked her up a bit. Harper Construction was one of the biggest construction companies in Saratoga. In all of the Capital Region in Upstate New York.

“What did she want?”

“They had a falling out with their landscaper and are looking for bids for new ones for the spring.”

“Really? And they reached out to us? This could be huge.” Her heart was already moving faster than Thumper’s big fluffy feet over the possibilities and the potential income of this.

“Yep. They are big into family-owned businesses. Her husband and his brother have owned and operated Harper’s for years. They are looking for a few things. They have a lot of rental properties, and they do flips. So they need landscaping for those houses. But the bigger part is the new builds in their developments. Most people want the property already landscaped and so they would pick what they want and Harper’s would contract with someone. Hopefully us,” Ryan said, grinning wide.

She wished she could be as carefree and laid back as Ryan, but she seemed to be born with the stress gene in the family. That was probably why she sat behind the desk while he got to work the land. It suited him better, often the one found whistling while he worked.

“So what do I need to do?” she asked, her pen ready and paper in front of her, dying to dive right in.

“Here’s her card. I told her you’d get in touch for more specifics.”

She reached for the card and placed it right in front of her on the keyboard. “The minute you are out of my office, I’m on it.”

“That’s the smile I’d like to see on your face more often. I’m kind of sick of seeing the frown. You know you’ve got more worry lines than anyone should for twenty-eight.”

She snorted. “What no woman ever wants to hear. That’s why you’re still single at thirty-two.”

“The same as you,” he said back. “But I’ve got one more thing. It’s a day of good news.”

“Good news is always welcome, especially when I keep seeing red and would love to see some black.”

“Better you than me,” he said. “I’m happy dealing with the green all day long.”

“We all have our strengths,” she said. “So put me in an even better mood and tell me the other good news.”

“Brendan St. Nicholas just left here a few minutes ago.”

“Am I supposed to know who that is?”

“Really, Holly? What world do you live in?”

“A world that doesn’t know who Brendan St. Nicholas is.”

He laughed and started to rub his hands together. “Does Force Frontier ring a bell?”

“Huh?” she said. “Should it?”

“It’s one of the best-selling battle royale games out there. Right up there with Apex.”

“No clue,” she said. “That is your thing, not mine.”

Her brother had always been into video games. She couldn’t care less.

“Whatever. You never do anything fun.”

She rolled her eyes. “I do a lot of fun things, but video games aren’t part of it. Anyway, is there a point to your video game nights and this conversation?”

“Force Frontier was created by Brendan St. Nicholas. That and several others. He’s the local good guy turned into more zeroes behind his name than we’d ever have. Anyway, he does this big toy drive every year.”

Now she knew who it was and she didn’t like where this was going. “What did he want with us?” she asked slowly.

“He wants to use Lane Tree Farm as the location for his toy drive this year.”

“Ryan,” she said slowly. “You know how I feel about this.”

“Too bad, Holly. This is a family decision and you know you will be overruled.”

She knew that. “How can you want to be involved in this after everything Granny went through?”

Their granny had always had a soft heart and wanted to help people out. She’d made some bad decisions and got taken advantage of. They all wished they’d known what was going on but they didn’t until it was too late.

“But Brendan isn’t like that. He isn’t asking us for any money. He isn’t asking us for anything other than the space to collect the toys.”

She hoped Ryan was telling the truth. And this could be huge, but she just had a distrust—more like a distaste—for any charity organization or do-gooder. They always wanted something in the long run, at least from her experience.

She wasn’t a sucker like her granny was. She was more practical. More serious, and more in your face. If Holly didn’t like you, you knew it.

“So what does he want?” she asked.

“Just what I said. He’d like to have the drive here at the farm. It’s perfect. Think of the business we would get. People will come here and drop off gifts for a few weeks before Christmas at the same time they will be looking for Christmas trees.”

“I suppose we could decorate the area well with wreaths and Christmas plants and such. Try to make a profit that way. At least more than normal. Mom will be all over that.”

“There you go putting that business mind to work. Maybe set up some decorative trees that people could buy? You know we’ve talked about that before.”

They had. Her mother loved to decorate and did a lot of the plants and displays around the farm. She’d just eat this whole thing up. As much as she wanted to fight this, Holly knew she’d lose, and if it meant a bigger profit, which they needed, she’d give in, as long as she didn’t have to deal with this guy.

“Mom would love that,” she said.

“She would.” Ryan threw another business card on her desk. “We need to make a decision tonight. He gave us twenty-four hours. If we don’t want to do it, he will move on to his second choice.”

“How did we end up as his first choice?” she asked.

“No clue, but when you talk to him, you can ask that.”

And there was the dread. “Why do I have to talk to him?”

“Because you run the business end of things.”

“Then why did he talk to you?”

“Because he walked onto the grounds and I recognized him. I knew it was better that I take the first step. You would have told him off or ticked him off.”

She laughed. “I’m not that bad.”

“I don’t know about that. Anyway, I’m going to go talk to Mom and Dad, then we can bring Granny in on it later tonight, but you know her…”

“No need to ask. She’ll say yes to anything that has to do with giving kids toys.”

“As should you,” Ryan said. “Brendan does good for the area. Look him up. He’s a great guy.”

“You say that because you like his game.”

“Games,” Ryan said. “He’s big. Huge. You wouldn’t understand.”

“No, I wouldn’t,” she said. “But I can be a good family player and suck it up for a few weeks.”

“You’ll be thrilled when you see all those black numbers on those spreadsheets of yours.”

“There is that,” she said, grinning. “So what? I’ve got to call the guy tomorrow or something?”

“I’ll go talk to Mom and Dad, get their take.”

“They will agree,” she said grudgingly and wondered why she was putting up a fight. The business needed it and she’d have to suck it up.

“They will, but I like to cover all my bases. Then I’ll come back and let you know. Give him a call in the morning and go from there. I’m sure he has all sorts of people that will do the work for him. You probably won’t have to talk to him much at all.”

“There is that,” she said, feeling better about that thought.

“I’ve got work to do now. Go back to your numbers, as we know that is the only thing that makes you happy.”

“It’s not the only thing,” she said.

“That’s right, Reese makes you happy.”

“Of course,” she said, looking over at the picture of her chocolate lab puppy on her desk. Normally she brought Reese to work with her, but twice a week she dropped him off at doggie daycare so he could play with his friends.

“Do you have separation anxiety for two days a week?” Ryan asked, grinning.

“Of course not,” she said.

“Liar.”

“Get out of here,” she said, waving her hand. “You got your way, now let me get to work.”

Gifts of Love…Prologue @NatalieAnn121 #Mgtab

 

giftofloveGifts of Love is just 99 cents!

Prologue

 

Brendan rolled over on Christmas morning and looked at the clock to see the bright red light showing seven thirty. It was later than he imagined since he was normally up earlier when it came to the holidays.

He guessed he was more tired than he thought he was. He couldn’t wait for the day when he didn’t feel like this. Like his body was fighting for every breath to just get up and move. He was hoping today wouldn’t be one of those days, but it seemed not much in his life was going the way he thought it would.

When he walked out of his room and down the stairs, he saw his parents sitting at the small kitchen table drinking coffee. “Morning,” his mother said.

“Merry Christmas,” he said back, looking around for his sister. “Where’s Kat?”

“Sleeping. You know her, once her head hits the pillow she is out like a light.”

“Yeah, but it’s Christmas morning,” he argued.

His younger sister, Katrina, was the most chill eleven-year-old he knew. When she was a toddler she hardly ever cried. If she didn’t get her way, she just strutted away proud as can be like it was her right to not get what she wanted and decided to do something else. Like a cat—and that was when he decided to shorten her name.

His father shrugged. “You can go wake her if you want. I’m sure she’s excited…at least she will be once she stretches and rubs the sleep from her eyes.”

He grinned, turned, and went back up the stairs. When he pushed Kat’s door open he saw that she was almost curled into a ball with the comforter half hanging on the floor. “Wake up, Kat. Santa came.”

She did exactly as his father said, lifted her arms over her head, stretched, her legs straightening, her toes pointing, her mouth twisting in a yawn. “Did Santa really come or are you making it up?”

He figured she probably didn’t believe anymore, but he wasn’t about to ask that and give up the secret if she did.

She stood up and stretched one more time, then followed him down the stairs. They were both wearing their new Christmas pajamas that they opened the night before, a tradition his parents had done for as long as he could remember.

“You know I wouldn’t tell you something that wasn’t true. There are gifts under the tree from Santa.”

“I believe you,” she said, running past him and down the stairs. There were the energy and excitement she showed when she wanted to.

Brendan jogged down after her. Trying to fight back how tired he’d just gotten, he sucked in a bit of air, his heart racing, then sat down on the floor while his sister looked around at the boxes.

“Are you okay?” his mother asked.

“I’m fine. Just got winded a bit. You know how it gets. It will pass.”

“I’m sure it will,” his mother said, always one to humor him. He’d like it to pass permanently. Soon, he knew. Not much longer before he had surgery to fix his heart.

Was he scared? Shit yeah. No fifteen-year-old wanted to have their chest cracked open and their heart exposed, but he knew he’d be fine after, so it was best to get it over with.

He looked around under the tree hoping to see some new video games. It seemed like that was all he did with his time since it was discovered he had aortic stenosis a few years ago. He was most likely born with it, though he never showed symptoms.

Then all of a sudden he got active in sports and found he was tired more than he should be. A routine physical showed a heart murmur. He was watched and continued to play sports, but everything got worse. That was when all the tests were done, the procedures and such.

Nothing was working and as a last resort he was having valve replacement surgery in two months.

It wasn’t what he wanted to think about right now. Instead he was looking forward to what was on his wish list.

What he wanted was a gaming computer. He had a Playstation and an Xbox. He had no care for a Wii, but his big wish was the computer.

The problem with that…a good one was thousands of dollars and his parents already spent enough money on his medical bills. He couldn’t ask them for something as expensive as that.

His hope was that he could get a job when he turned sixteen to add to the money he was putting away from all the holidays. Then he could buy one himself.

Kat was now ripping into her gifts. New clothes, jewelry, a few board games, and books. She was easy to please and all girl. Princesses and frilly things were right up her alley.

Once the living room resembled a war zone of red, green, and Santa paper, his father handed him another small box. “One more thing.”

“Who is this from?” he asked, not seeing a name on it.

“Just open it and you will see.”

Kat turned to watch while he opened it up and saw the letter from Make A Wish Foundation. No way. It couldn’t be. He’d applied a while ago, never thinking he’d get it.

He read the letter, felt his eyes fill up with tears and wasn’t even the least bit embarrassed over it.

“Are you getting your computer?” Kat asked.

“No,” he said, looking at her, then his parents. “We’re going to Disney.”

Kat screeched and started to jump around the room. Disney wasn’t his first choice, though he enjoyed a good ride like the next person. He was all about Epcot and special effects at the movie studios. But this trip wasn’t for him, it was for his family.

So much time, energy, money, and emotions were spent on him and it was time to give back for all that everyone sacrificed. He was getting a new lease on life, and with it, he was going to pay back his family.

So he did the one thing he could. He was giving his parents a vacation and his sister a chance to spend some time with princesses.

The joy on everyone’s face made up for not asking for his gaming computer. And when they went in a few months and he saw them all smiling, it would be the best trip of his life.

It’s My Chance…Chapter One

It's My Chance

If you haven’t checked out the Prologue, you can do that now. Here is chapter one!

Nine Lives

Two months later

Monday morning Logan pulled into McGuire’s B&B a little more than five hours after he’d left New York City.

His body was stiff and sore and he needed to get out of the car and walk it off. Stretch. Bend. Anything to get out and just move.

Maybe it was too soon to sit for this long, but he couldn’t stay in his apartment staring at the walls any longer contemplating his future.

He’d left the Army shortly after his buddy Trevor Miles. Trevor got out before anything major happened to him. When Logan barely escaped being blown to pieces with a bomb, he knew it was time to move on—after he lost one of the only women he’d let into his life in that explosion, knowing he’d have a hard time getting past it.

The job at NYPD seemed the logical decision. He went back to where he’d grown up in Manhattan and figured why not?

He’d been stabbed on the force a few years ago and been told he was lucky to be alive. Just a few more inches and he would have bled out like a gutted deer.

Did he leave his job after that? Nope, he went right back at it.

But this time, he was starting to think of the whole three strikes and you’re out. He had his third strike, he wasn’t out, but he wasn’t sure he was ready to try the nine lives theory either.

He had a month left on his medical leave to come to terms with his future.

And why he felt he had to come to terms with anything surprised him since he had more zeroes in the bank than anyone ever knew.

He didn’t flaunt it and never would. Why? Because it wasn’t who he was.

But that wealth was making it easier for him to walk away from the career he loved and not worry about starving. That wealth wasn’t going to make him happy if he couldn’t figure out what to do with his life though.

Thirty-five was just too damn young to do nothing.

He walked up to the front door of the B&B, let himself in and heard a woman call out from the back, “Come on in. I can see you on the camera.”

He looked up in the corner and saw a camera aimed at the door, then walked toward the voice. She was standing there, her hands kneading dough on the counter. “I’m Celeste Ryder. You must be Logan Taylor. Trevor and Riley’s friend.”

“That’s me,” he said. When it came time to escape, he figured why not go up in the mountains and relax in nature. Though he lived in the big city and had loved the action, there was a part of him that just wanted peace and quiet in his surroundings. Water, trees, woods. Anything different than what he was coming from.

Celeste wiped her hands off, then walked forward and shook his hand. “So glad to have you. Can I offer you a drink or a snack after your long drive before I show you the cabin?”

“I’m good,” he said. He really just wanted to get his stuff unpacked and sit down and have a beer from the cooler in his vehicle. He knew he’d have to get some food at the store, but he wanted a cold beer before he did anything else.

“Then let me show you where you’ll be staying.”

“I can find it myself if you’re busy,” he said.

“It can wait,” she said. “I’m just making a few pies for dinner. I serve breakfast at eight, lunch at noon, and dinner at six. On that wall is the menu for each day. If you aren’t here for the meal, there are normally leftovers and snacks around.”

He looked over at the large chalkboard and saw the menu in a neat script. He was both impressed and touched by the hominess of something he’d never experienced growing up. Home cooked meals by a parent. Nah.

His mother never cooked a day in her life. Why would she when she’d grown up with housekeepers and cooks herself? When she married, she wasn’t about to change or learn anything different from what she’d known.

Divorcing his cheating, lying father when Logan was five just padded his mother’s bank account with a lot more than she’d had. Marrying someone twenty years older than her a few years later did the same. Now she was a widow with not a care in the world living in Long Island on the water, being catered to by all sorts of staff.

Cooking for her only son, yeah, nothing she’d ever cared to do.

“Let me just grab your keycard.”

He watched as Celeste walked to what he assumed was an office off the kitchen and that was when he noticed she was pregnant. His best guess was not too far along, but long enough that there was a slight bulge showing with her leggings and fitted shirt to her mid thigh.

He was kind of surprised to see her so covered up even though the windows were open letting in some nice spring air. He was still warm in his shorts and T-shirt though it was barely eighty out now. Eighty in the mountains did feel cooler than eighty in the concrete jungle.

Celeste walked back out and handed him the card. “This will get you into the cabin out back and in here too. Every guest has one for the main house, but that will access both locations.”

He followed her out the back door and saw the little cabin closer to the water along a stone path. “It’s bigger than I thought it’d be,” he said.

“It’s where I used to live before I got married. My husband, Caleb, and I live in the house to your right. The smaller house, or what we really refer to as the cottage, on your left is where Max’s patients stay.”

“Riley’s brother?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said.

Trevor’s wife Riley’s brother was a plastic surgeon that had relocated here years ago from New York City himself. Logan had met Riley when Trevor needed his help trying to find who was stalking Riley on his own home turf almost a year ago.

Once they realized it wasn’t really a stalker, but a woman with disabilities that missed Riley and their friendship, Trevor and Riley came back home, got engaged then married only a few months ago. No long engagement for them. Just a few months.

They’d flown back to New York City so Riley could have Debra in her wedding. The woman who’d missed her and kept sending her flowers and letters. Logan was Trevor’s best man for the small ceremony held in an upscale restaurant.

Riley and Max had come from money. Not as much as him, but again, no one knew that and if he had his way no one would.

Celeste opened the door and he followed in behind her, looking around. There was a small galley kitchen on one wall with a counter and two stools. It opened up into a small living room that more than suited him with a couch and chair, a TV on the wall.

The colors were blues, greens, grays, and extremely calming. Just what he needed in his life.

“The bedroom and bath are behind those doors.”

He walked the few steps and looked into the tiny but efficient bathroom, then popped his head into the bedroom. There looked to be a queen sized bed. Again, enough for him. He’d be fine without his king bed for a month. “Is that a deck off the back?” he asked, looking out the sliding door to the water beyond.

“It is. It’s not big, but enough to sit out and enjoy the view with a cup of coffee.”

“Or a beer,” he said, grinning, knowing he was going to do that the minute Celeste was gone.

“Absolutely. I don’t provide alcohol at the main house. Guests are allowed to bring their own; however most don’t do it unless they drink it that night. Otherwise it’s stored in their room or the kitchen where someone else might drink it.” He smiled at her laugh. “But here, you’ve got more privacy.”

“I’m surprised this was available,” he said.

When he made the last minute decision to come here, he feared he’d be in a hotel the whole time. He wasn’t sure he could handle that, but would have if he needed to.

“I don’t rent it out often. As I said, I used to live here. Caleb is trying to convince me to hire someone full time to care for the B&B and move in here, especially with the baby coming. It’s just so hard to step away from something you love doing though.”

“Yeah, I know,” he said quietly.

She just looked at him, nodded her head and said, “I’ll let you get unpacked and settled. No need to let me know whether you’ll be around for meals. There is always plenty though.”

“Thanks,” he said, then followed her out and back to the parking lot to get his things. His shoulder was aching like a cat in heat, his side not much better, but the sooner he had his belongings in the cabin, the sooner he could have that beer on the deck.

He opened the back of his brand new black SUV. His last car had too many bullet holes in it to repair. He should have gotten another sedan, but something told him to change that too.

After two trips to the cabin, he finally grabbed his little cooler that was filled with a six-pack of his favorite craft beer. Long Island, Brooklyn, the Bronx. Craft breweries were flowing there and he had his pick of more than he could name. Short of filling the back of his SUV up with beer for the month, he hoped he could find a few here he wouldn’t mind.

His clothes could wait to be put away, but the beer really couldn’t.

He pulled the can out, found a glass in the kitchen, poured it, and then made his way to the deck. There were two chairs and one was calling his name.

He’d taken one long sip when his phone rang. He looked down to see Trevor calling him. “Hey,” he answered.

“Did you make it?” Trevor asked.

“Sitting on the deck with a cold one as we speak.”

“Damn. You couldn’t even wait for me?”

“Come on over,” Logan said. “I could use another by the time you get here.”

“Can’t,” he said. “On duty. How about you come to the house tonight and have dinner? We can have a few on my deck while Riley cooks for us.”

“Barely three months of marriage and you have her cooking for you?” Logan asked, grinning.

“Riley is a great cook. She loves taking care of me,” Trevor said.

Logan heard the humor behind the words. The love too. Yeah, he was jealous. “But will she love cooking for someone else?” he asked, taking another long sip of his ice cold brew that hit the spot better than it ever had before.

“We had planned on it. She gets out of work at five. I’ll be out shortly after. How does six thirty sound? Sometimes she can be held up at work with patients.”

Riley Hamilton-Miles was a dentist in town. Trevor, the chief of police of Lake Placid. “Sounds good. Anything I can bring?”

“Just yourself,” Trevor said. “I asked Kennedy to join us, but it’s her late night at the spa.”

Kennedy Miles, Trevor’s sister. Another reason he came here, but he had no intention of letting Trevor know that, at least not tonight. “I’m sure I’ll see her at some point.”

“You two seemed to hit it off at the wedding. Figured it wouldn’t hurt to have a friendly face to show you around besides me.”

Kennedy was more than a friendly face, but he doubted she was going to be all that friendly to him when she saw him again. That was probably why she’d declined the dinner invitation.

“I’ll see you in a few hours,” Logan said, disconnecting the call, thoughts of Kennedy in his mind.

Kennedy had had a little bit too much to drink the night of Trevor’s wedding. The two of them ended up back at her hotel room. Things were getting heated, and if it were anyone else, he wouldn’t have stopped.

But he did. He realized it was his best friend’s sister and told himself it wasn’t right. He couldn’t have a one-night stand with her. Especially since they’d both drunk more than they should have.

He’d stopped when everything within his body told him to push forward and strip her naked like she’d asked him to do.

She hadn’t been happy with him when he stopped and then left. She’d probably been embarrassed though she had no reason to be.

He hadn’t been able to get her out of his mind in the past few months. He’d walked out of her hotel room just two weeks before he’d gotten shot.

And all those times he’d been told he was lucky to be alive…well, he was ready to put some of that luck to use and finish what was started with Kennedy.

 

It’s My Chance…Prologue

It's My Chance

Here is the Prologue for It’s My Chance!

Detective Logan Taylor was on his way home after a twelve-hour stakeout. An all-nighter which he hated with a passion. And one thing Logan didn’t do was hate much.

A good guy. The good cop, he was always told. Even his buddies in the Army said he was too happy to be a Ranger, smiling more than anyone should for a man that was an elite sniper.

Was he always happy though? Partially.

The other times the smile was just in place out of habit. Some to throw people off. Some to just mask what was going on in his mind.

That his job was getting to him, that it had in the service too. But this was what he was good at and why not do what he excelled at?

What he excelled at right now was keeping his eyes open when he’d been up for more than twenty-four hours. He’d worked a case all day, gathering what he needed for the drug bust that would be coming soon. He volunteered to stake out the suburbia house hoping to catch the stay at home mom making a mistake.

Where had the days gone when drugs were run through gangs? Now it was June Cleaver while her kids were at school. It still made his head spin.

It was just after eight when a call came in over the radio of a robbery in progress not more than a block from him. Other patrols were called in, but he knew he was closer.

Go in that direction, or go home and get some much-needed sleep?

It was an easy decision in his mind. He picked up the radio and called it in, knowing he’d be the first on the scene.

When he pulled in front of the jewelry store in his plain black sedan, he hopped out with his weapon drawn just as the assailant came running out of the store, saw him and grabbed a woman who was paying more attention to her phone than her surroundings.

“NYPD,” Logan shouted, his gun aimed. “Drop your weapon and release the woman.”

“Let me go and no one gets hurt,” the masked man said, his voice shaking, his eyes darting all over the street.

“Let her go. You hear the sirens. Backup is on the way. We can do this the easy way and let me get you cuffed, or the hard way.”

The woman started to shake, cry, and plead. “Please let me go.”

The masked man tossed the woman aside and rather than drop his assault rifle, he lifted it the same time as Logan took final aim, both of them firing, Logan diving for cover. He felt the bullets rip through at least two parts of his body, then lost consciousness before he could see if his bullet hit the target he was aiming for.

 

 

It’s My Chance

It's My Chance

We all have secrets in life…

As an Army Ranger and now an NYPD detective, Logan Taylor has narrowly escaped death more times than he cares to remember. After his last shooting, he heads to Lake Placid to recover and think about his future. About the fortune he has that no one knows about. But more importantly to spend time with the woman he foolishly turned away months before.

Kennedy Miles is no weak willed damsel in distress and she loathes anyone who thinks she is. Her father and brother taught her to be independent and stand on her own two feet. She doesn’t need a man to protect her and doesn’t want one. What she wants is Logan who she’s had a crush on for years and rejected her after she put herself out there more than ever before. Now he’s back and she’s wondering what his true reasons might be.

Hot Hunks-Jake’s Christmas Decision…Chapter One

HolidayHunksTemplate(1)

 

If you haven’t read the prologue you can catch up. Here’s chapter one!

Feel Welcome

Nine months later

Jake let himself into the apartment above his parents’ garage. No one had lived in it since his father’s brother when Jake was a teen. Uncle Patrick’s wife had kicked his butt out for cheating and he had nowhere to go. Since it wasn’t the only time Uncle Patrick had been kicked out by his wife, it had been habitable on and off in the past ten years.

He looked around now at the fresh gray paint on the walls, the thick chemical smell in the air telling him his parents were trying to make him feel welcome.

Trying to give him a place to call his own when he had no idea where he wanted to be.

He flipped the lights on even though there was enough sunlight coming through the big window up front.

The place looked smaller now through adult eyes than it did when he was a teen and begging his parents to let him move in here.

They’d laughed and said no way. He’d never expected any different since his older brothers had asked, begged, and pleaded for a chance to live in the apartment and had been told the same thing, “You’re teens and too young to be on your own. We don’t care if it’s just above the garage, we don’t trust you enough.”

Since he and his brothers were typical teenage boys and caused enough grief at times, he couldn’t fault his parents for their opinion.

His phone went off in his pocket, and he pulled it out to see his mother calling him. He’d purposely planned it so he’d arrive while they were all at work, allowing himself the time to gather his thoughts before he saw them.

He silenced the phone and put it away. He wasn’t ready to talk to anyone yet.

Six months of traveling hadn’t cleared his head any. Everyone was worried about him, he knew, but the truth was, he was worried about himself.

Rob’s death hit him hard. He finished out his last tour and left. Staying at Air B & B’s hadn’t done much for the solitude he wanted. After years of being surrounded by his fellow soldiers…he thought the opposite was what he needed.

The truth was, he didn’t know what he needed other than it was time to come home.

Was he dreading that it was in time for the holidays? Not really. But he was here and he had to start making some decisions in life.

He took a deep breath and walked into the big room, saw boxes in the corner, his possessions that were shipped when he left the service. Traveling with clothes and anything else that fit in his SUV was enough for him.

As he made his way to the little galley kitchen that still had the same dingy white Formica counters, he pulled open the fridge to see it stocked with water, soda, and a six pack of beer. Thank you, Dad, he thought, reaching in and pulling out the bottle of chocolate coffee stout. It’d hit the spot on this chilly day.

He twisted the top and put the bottle to his lips. It was after lunch, just because he hadn’t eaten didn’t mean anything.

He moved to the other end of the space and pushed the door to the bedroom open with his boot. A queen-sized bed was pushed against the wall, a simple blue comforter on it. There were even curtains on the windows. He had his mom to thank for that.

A few more steps brought him to the bathroom. Yeah, it was smaller than he remembered, but would suit his needs with a sink, toilet, and shower stall.

He was walking back to the living room when he heard footsteps coming up the wooden stairs. So much for having time to prepare for family.

Though he was expecting his mother, even his father, it was his baby sister, Alexa, standing there.

“Shouldn’t you be at work?” he asked her.

“Really?” she said, running forward and jumping into his arms. He missed this. He needed it. And he hugged her back and kissed her forehead. “I wouldn’t have missed this for anything.”

As welcome homes came, this was pretty awesome. “I thought for sure Mom would be here.”

“She wanted to be. Everyone did. But it was decided everyone would wait and give you space.”

He laughed. “And yet here you are in my arms.”

“Have I ever listened to them before?” she asked, moving back and pulling the beer out of his hand, then taking a big swig of it.

“Are you even legal yet?”

She put one hand on her hip and shot him a look that almost had him taking a step back. “I’m twenty-four and you know it.”

“You still look ten to me.”

She wrinkled her nose adorably. He’d missed her more than he thought he would when he left home thirteen years ago at eighteen like the eager graduate ready to be a hero. He was no one’s hero now.

“How are you doing, Jake?”

Figures she’d cut right to the chase. “About what everyone expects, I’m sure.”

He moved away from her and back to the front door, deciding it was as good of a time as any to bring up his clothes. Maybe it’d stop the conversation.

It didn’t. She followed him. “That isn’t an answer.”

“It’s the answer you’re getting,” he said back, his lips twitching. It’d been a long time since he’d felt the need—or even desire—to smile.

“You always were the stubborn one.”

Alexa grabbed one of his duffel bags and flung it over her shoulder, the weight of it making her wobble a little. He wanted to pull it away from her but knew they’d get into a little tug of war until she got her way. She always got her way with her older brothers.

“Look who is talking. That bag probably weighs more than you.”

She snorted. “Can I help it if I’m the petite one of the group? It’s not fair Grey, Colt, and you got all the tall genes.”

“How are Grey and Colt doing?”

“They’d be here if they could,” she said of their older brothers.

“I’m sure Grey is in surgery and Colt in court,” Jake said. A doctor and a lawyer were hard to live up to, so he’d decided to not even try and went in the opposite direction. Stupid on his part when he thought of it now.

“Everyone will be here for dinner tonight.”

He fought the roll from escaping his eyes, barely. Part of him expected it, the other part wanted to avoid it like a skunk on his doorstep. Then he realized the sooner everyone saw him, the sooner they’d let him be.

“So why aren’t you working?” he asked her again.

“I took the day off. Someone had to be here to welcome you home and it was darn well going to be me.”

“I thought it was frowned on for teachers to take personal days,” he said, taking the bag off her shoulder now that they were back in the apartment. He’d followed her up to make sure the weight of it didn’t make her topple backward. If it did, he’d catch her before she broke her scrawny little neck.

“I don’t know where you heard that.”

His sister was an elementary school teacher and was probably close to the same height as some of her fifth grade students. “Guess I was misinformed.”

“Guess you were.” Alexa looked around the empty place. “Mom wanted to get some furniture in here for you, but Dad said no. That you’d take care of it yourself.”

“Yeah. The bed is good for now. I’ll pick up a couch and chair or something this week. I don’t need much.” He’d probably been the least needy kid of the four of them. He’d always been called simple and it was the truth.

“Is there a TV in one of those boxes?” she asked. “You’ve never been without a TV.”

He tipped back his beer that he’d been carrying with him like a pacifier. “I didn’t have a TV in the service when I wanted it. Times change.”

“You’re not in the army anymore, Jake.”

“No,” he said quietly. “I’m not.”

Her long brown hair was falling over her shoulder like it did when she was a kid. He reached forward and pushed it back. “You’re not okay, are you?”

“I’m getting there,” he said. What more could he say?

She took a deep breath like she wanted to argue with him. Or ask more questions, but instead said, “I’ll help you unpack.”

“Or you can go get me some lunch. I haven’t eaten anything yet today.”

“And you’re drinking?” she asked, grabbing the bottle from him. She finished the last bit before he could and he laughed.

“Lunch?” he said again.

“I’ll go to the house and make us both a sandwich and try to find some cookies or chips with it. Then I’ll come back and help you unpack. No reason you have to do it alone.”

He watched her walk out the door. Yeah, no reason to do it alone anymore, even if he wanted to.

Holiday Hunks- Jake’s Christmas Decision

HolidayHunksTemplate(1)

Prologue

 

“What do we have?” Jake Baxter asked as he stumbled into the room. Being woken up from a dead sleep was never fun, more so in a war torn country.

“A convoy was just attacked out in the desert. We believe two are dead, four taken.”

Another reason why he wasn’t sleeping. He was here on base; his best friend from childhood was in the desert miles away. “Do they have names?”

His commander looked at him, shook his head, and said, “No. Here are the images from the satellite.”

Jake watched the muddy green clips of the convoy moving at a fast pace, then a bright light as the explosion flipped it on its side. Within minutes, gunfire erupted, two bodies were left and four taken prisoner. If they didn’t get to them soon, they’d be tortured like the civilians Jake and the rest of his squad were sent here to protect…then most likely killed.

“When do we leave?” he asked, looking around the room at the Night Stalkers that would be going up in the AH-6M that he’d be piloting.

“We are waiting on word. Suit up. This is a rescue mission. The sooner we can get in, the sooner we can catch them unaware.”

Ten minutes later they had their coordinates, instructions, and were in the air.

It didn’t take long to get to the village where their men were brought. They were ready to provide group support to the other men on their way, while having the ability to fire Hellfire missiles several miles away.

Jake knew he had to focus on the mission at hand, but his mind, and his heart, were with Rob. Rob, the buddy he’d grown up with and talked into joining the army with him. He knew damn well Rob was down there somewhere on the front line trying to get his men back too.

Minutes from their location, they were taking on enemy fire while Jake tried to maneuver the chopper away. It was a balancing act—get to the men on the ground, save the men with him in the air, protect the others with the same objective as him…the prisoners returning safely.

The more fire they took on, the more he had to move away from where they’d thought the men were being held and circle back.

The gunfire on the ground was increasing. Jake locked in on his target and fired, blowing up a building and giving the men relief to make their move.

As he moved closer to provide more coverage, alarms started to go off, he was taking on heavy damage and knew if he didn’t pull back, he could be brought down.

He didn’t want to leave. He didn’t want to pull back. He wanted to know Rob was safe.

His choices were narrowing when smoke started coming out of the engines and his orders were to abort. He didn’t. He stayed and he fired, and he continued, until he had no other option but to choose between the men in the chopper with him, or the men on the ground that were retreating.

He did what he was told. He provided cover to get the men out of there and they’d go back for the hostages another day.

Another day didn’t come, when the bodies of the four soldiers showed up hours later— beaten, broken, bloodied, and beheaded. One of them was Rob.

Holiday Hunks- Jake’s Christmas Decision #mgtab @Natalieann121

HolidayHunksTemplate(1)

Seven Hot Hunks to warm our hearts at the holiday!

Army Helicopter Pilot Jake Baxter has flown his last mission. After an unsuccessful attempt to rescue his best friend from captivity, he finished up his final tour and left for good. Haunted by his failings, he heads home for the holidays in an attempt to start his life over.

Ambition has always been Rachel Chapman’s middle name. She’s out to prove to everyone she has what it takes through hard work and determination, not her family’s name, money, or her good looks. So she’s given up on finding love until someone is willing to accept her as an equal. That is until Jake enters her life and she realizes that being an equal may not be what she always thought.

Seven USA Today bestselling and award winning authors come together to give you Holiday Hunks, the next in the Hot Hunks Steamy Romance Collection

A helicopter pilot with a decision to make, a cowboy working on his best roundup yet, a dancer faced with a dilemma, a hockey player’s surprise, a roping rodeo star’s ultimatum, a fireman’s miracle, and a billionaire’s wish. What do these seven hunks all have in common? They are spending the holidays with family and friends where each and every one has a life-changing event. Read along and watch these seven hotties meet their match, fall in love, and have a very Merry Christmas!

Check out the other Holiday Hunk stories

Angela Stevens- Miles’ Christmas Roundup

Alicia Street- Finn’s Christmas Dilemma

Katie O’Sullivan- Brendan’s Christmas Surprise

Stephanie Morris- Dalton’s Christmas Ultimatum

Suzanne Jenkins- Joey’s Christmas Miracle

Tamara Ferguson- St. Nick’s Christmas Wish

 

Have you read the first Hot Hunks Steamy Romance Collection, After Hurricane Nina?

Natalie Ann- Reed’s Resolution
Angela Stevens- Nolan’s Resolution
Suzanne Jenkins- Jason’s Resolution
Alicia Street- Kip’s Resolution
Katie O’Sullivan- Quinn’s Resolution
Stephanie Morris- Leland’s Resolution
Nicole Morgan- Hayden’s Resolution
Tamara Ferguson- Rand’s Resolution

Fierce-Bryce…Chapter One @Natalieann121 #mgtab

Bryce2

If you haven’t had a chance to catch up on the Prologue, you can now.

Lose Yourself

Thirteen years later

Bryce let himself into his parents’ front door. He’d seen both of his parents’ cars in the garage that they’d left open for him to enter. Glancing at his watch, he realized he was late as always. He was sure his mother would have something to say about that.

He couldn’t help it though. He got held up at work. Between lesson plans, grading papers, helping kids and then working on his thesis, he tended to get lost in time. In space. Hmm, maybe that should have been the topic for his thesis…is it possible to lose yourself in space?

He laughed at that thought. Not many thought he was funny, so he kept those bits of information to himself when they popped into his head.

“Bryce,” his mother said when he walked into the kitchen. “You’re twenty minutes late.”

“I know. Sorry. Got held up.”

“I know how it is,” she said. “It’s hard to walk away from the kids when they want help.”

He could let his mother believe that. She was a fourth grade teacher and she’d stay until midnight if she had to help anyone that asked or needed it. “Yeah. Hope dinner isn’t cold.”

“Don’t worry about it. We are just having chili and I let it sit in the crockpot until you show up. I’ve learned my lesson over the years.”

Meaning he’d ruined one too many of the family dinners because he was late.

Now as an adult, he and his brothers came to dinner once a month or so individually. It seemed he came the most though.

His older brother, Sam, a surgical oncologist, worked a ton of hours and when he wasn’t working, he used to have female company or go out to eat. Of course now he was recently engaged to Dani Rhodes and spending more time with her than coming for family dinners.

Then there was his younger brother, Ryder, who was an architect and worked at his father’s firm. Ryder came once or twice a month for the company of his mother rather than for the food.

Ryder was the baby of the group and had the most in common with their mother, the two of them always putting their heads together with recipes. When Ryder came to dinner, it wasn’t for a free meal but to experiment with her.

Bryce…he just wanted food. He’d never really learned how to cook, which was funny considering he was the smartest of the family and knew he could read a recipe just fine and execute it. It’s just he had no interest in it at all.

Why should he when his mother kept him supplied with meals once a week? If he didn’t come for dinner, she dropped him off something that he could heat up as leftovers.

When he wasn’t eating his mother’s food, he was making eggs or sandwiches or getting takeout. Campus food, he was fine with it when many weren’t.

“Chili sounds great,” he said, walking to the fridge and grabbing a beer.

Before he had a chance to take a sip out of the glass he’d just poured, his father came down the stairs and snatched it off the counter. “Thanks, just the thing to go with your mom’s fire hot chili.”

He laughed at the move he’d seen one too many times in his life that he should have known to expect it, then grabbed another bottle out of the fridge for himself. “Do we get bread with chili tonight?” he asked his mother.

She opened the oven and pulled a loaf out that had been warming in there. Hot damn, his lucky night. “I know one of your favorite meals, don’t I?”

The three of them had been sitting there eating quietly, surprising Bryce since his mother was very rarely quiet. “Are you and Dad going on vacation when school is out?” he asked since the silence was starting to make him squirm like they were planning something on him and he had no idea what it could be.

His parents made a habit of taking a week off after school finished for his mother. He thought it was nice they had that routine and didn’t break it in all the years he and his brothers had been out of high school.

“I was just talking to your father about it last night. Not even two months away and I can’t get him to commit to where he wants to go.”

“It’s getting late to get a place, don’t you think, Dad?”

“Don’t be siding with your mother,” his father said, drinking his beer. His father topped Bryce’s six-foot-two-inch frame by two inches easily. The Fierce men were a big lot. “I could have told her I wanted tuna noodle casserole tonight and she would have made it.”

Bryce shivered and fought back the gag. He hated tuna noodle casserole and wondered what sadist came up with that dish that his father loved so much but three kids of the house refused to eat.

“Don’t listen to your father,” his mother said. “I’d never make that for anyone but him. Even I struggle to eat it, but the things you do for love…”

His father smirked and went back to his chili, wiping up the sauce with his bread, then reaching for another helping. Bryce knew he was going in for seconds in a minute too.

“I’m sure wherever you go you’ll have a great time.”

He should be happy his mother wasn’t talking about his personal life anymore. Ever since Sam started dating Dani, and then got engaged, his mother had backed off of setting him and his brother Ryder up.

What was it about his parents that they wanted to get everyone married off?

His Aunt Jolene and Uncle Gavin had set up their five kids and they were all married or engaged in less than a two-year period of time. It was as if the rest of the family took that as an open invitation to start matchmaking.

Thankfully nothing came about from it and Bryce, his brothers, and cousins were all on the lookout and knew they wouldn’t be caught in the web of manipulations their other cousins had been.

“Speaking of a good time,” his mother said, “how is your thesis coming?”

“It’s coming,” he said. These things took time; she knew that, yet she always asked as if it was a paper he had due at the end of the week.

He’d already gotten his doctorate in chemistry and now he wanted it in physics. Why? Because he’d never grow tired of learning.

“Oh,” his mother said, jumping up fast. “I forgot I picked something up for you.”

His father and he both lifted their heads from where they were gobbling up their dinner when she dashed out of the room. He looked over, caught the eye raise and shoulder shrug from his dad and went back to eating.

When his mother came back to the room, she dropped an envelope on the table next to him.

He picked it up and looked inside to see a gift card for a place called Millie’s. “What’s this?”

“I tried out this little place the other day. One of the teachers at work, her daughter just took it over. You know how it is, they want you to try it out and I couldn’t say no. It’s right on your way to work. The food was good and I figured I’d give her a little business and get a gift card for you since you eat out all the time.”

“Sweet,” he said, setting it back down. “What do they have there?”

“It’s not that big,” his mother said. “They are open from six thirty in the morning until six at night. They’ve got seating for about twenty, but it’s more a takeout place. Breakfast is donuts, muffins, egg sandwiches and the like. Lunch and dinner are subs, sandwiches, salads, some burgers. Quick things. Like I said, takeout, which is right up your alley.”

“Sounds perfect,” he said, knowing he’d stop in soon enough. He loved how thoughtful his mother always was.

Speaking of thoughtfulness, over an hour later, he was walking out the door with enough leftovers for a few meals while he sat in his one-bedroom apartment reading and doing research.

 

***

 

“What the hell was that, Diane?”

Diane Fierce looked over at her husband, Grant, to see him narrowing his eyes at her the minute Bryce, her middle son, pulled out of the driveway. “What was what?”

“I’ve got a gift card for you. You know how we support the girls at work, yadda, yadda, yadda.”

She put her hands on her hips. “You know we do. How many times have I come home and caught your eye roll that I had frozen pies and cookie dough I had to find room for in the freezer? Or wrapping paper that fills the spare closet in the hall.”

“This isn’t the same thing and you know it. You’re up to something. You’re setting Bryce up, aren’t you?”

She smiled. “Maybe.”

“I thought we decided we’d talk about it before you did it. Just because you had luck with Dani and Sam doesn’t mean you can take Bryce on by yourself.”

“It’s not by myself,” she argued.

He snorted. “So fill me in then.”

“Fine,” she said, pulling out a chair and sitting down. “You know Rachelle Davies, right?”

“The phys ed teacher at your school?”

“Yes. Her daughter, Payton, owns the place now.”

“Okay. Tell me, because right now I’m trying to figure out how you think someone who owns a cafe is going to have anything in common with our brainy son Bryce. And isn’t Rachelle a widower? Didn’t her husband die years ago or something like that?”

“Yes, he did. When Payton was just a teen. Rachelle never really dated again. Not to be mean or anything, but she’s never been very feminine and well, maybe that stopped her from trying again.” Diane waved her hand. “It doesn’t matter. But Payton was always shy, or so Rachelle said. She wasn’t very good in school and never went to college.”

“This is getting worse and worse.”

“Don’t be snobby,” she said, pointing her finger at her husband.

“I’m not snobby in the least. I’m just saying that Bryce is the brainchild of the entire Fierce clan. Everything he does, says, or enjoys is over our heads half the time.”

“Except food,” she said.

“Okay, I’ll give you that. But that still doesn’t mean anything. You know how he is. He likes women he can talk to and have intelligent conversations with. You just said she wasn’t very good in school and never went to college.”

“She has a learning disability. She is plenty smart, but it was years before Rachelle realized that Payton was dyslexic. She struggles to read and write, but she can. It doesn’t mean she isn’t smart and I’m embarrassed that you are even thinking that.”

Grant frowned at her and she held back the laugh, knowing she put him in his place. “I think you are way off base.”

“You said the same thing with Dani and Sam and look at how well that is working out.”

Her husband’s shoulders dropped. “Fine. We’ll see how it goes, but this one could really be stretching it.”

“If I’m wrong, I’ll admit it. I promise. But I don’t think I will be.”

“You’ve never admitted you were wrong a day in your life,” he said, getting up and walking over to give her a kiss on the cheek.

“Because I never am and I won’t be this time either.”

Fierce-Bryce…Prologue #mgtab @Natalieann121

Bryce2

Prologue

“Hey there.” Bryce Fierce turned his head when he felt a finger trail down his arm. Not just a finger, but a fingernail, sharp and teasing. No pain, but with enough force for him to know who it belonged to. Then again, the scent of her minty gum mixed in with whatever fruity body spray she’d spritzed on let him know too.

“Hey, Marcella.”

“I was wondering,” she said, leaning into him. She had the lean perfected. She had everything perfected to get the attention she wanted. “If you were going to be working on your lab later tonight?”

“I planned on it after dinner.”

She snapped her gum and giggled, her blonde hair floating around her shoulders. “I could work on it with you? Professor Lang said that I’d have a better understanding of the class if I did my labs with classmates.”

She’d never have an understanding of it, in his opinion. “And you want to do it with me over your friends?” he asked.

Her friends that she walked around campus with, her posse. Always laughing, flirting, bouncing around with her arm on one guy or another. He wasn’t sure if she dated anyone, or at least exclusively, but she was sure seen with enough guys.

“My friends aren’t working on it tonight,” she said, her long nails playing a tap on his bicep now.

He might be a nerd in some people’s eyes, but he was still a Fierce and looked like one. Tall, dark, and built. If he had his face in books more than women or sports, that was his prerogative, but his looks still had women coming on to him, saving him from ever having to make the first move.

He liked it that way too.

“I’ll be around working on it if you find your way into the lab, but I’m not waiting for you,” he said. She frowned and he didn’t care. He wasn’t stupid; he wasn’t going to be used.

“What time are you going to start?” she asked, pushing her bottom lip out. “I’m meeting friends for dinner at six.”

“I’ll be in the lab around six thirty,” he said, adding another thirty minutes to when he’d planned to show up. No reason to be a complete jerk.

“I’ll see you then,” she said, turning, her hair hitting his neck as she strutted back over to her little crew at the other end of the room.

“What was that?” his buddy Kyle asked him, coming over to whisper. “Marcella was totally into you.”

Bryce snorted. “She’s into someone doing her work for her.”

“And?” Kyle asked. “Who cares if you get to spend some time with her.”

Kyle wouldn’t understand. He was smart like Bryce, but he looked like the brain that he was. He’d never dated and was just dying to get his first girlfriend. Maybe if he’d focus on girls that he had more in common with instead of those that wanted to use him, he’d find some success.

Bryce had been there and done that. He’d dated in high school. He’d dated in college. But school always came first and he was sick of girls that only wanted to spend time with him so he’d help them out. Especially if they were dishonest about it.

“I don’t need to waste my time with her when I’ve got work to do. She’s going to come over and ask me a million questions or just copy what I’m doing anyway.” He wasn’t an idiot. He’d been around the block enough. This was an old hat to him.

“Yeah, but everyone knows she puts out when she gets help. Like a payment of sorts.”

Bryce stared at Kyle to see if he was joking, which of course he wasn’t because everyone knew the games Marcella played. “I don’t need that kind of payment.”

“Says no guy ever,” Kyle said, his eyes drifting over to Marcella and her friends. Bryce looked across the room to see Marcella wave at him. He didn’t wave back, but he did nod his head. “Dude, guys like us need chicks like that to bump us up.”

“This guy doesn’t,” Bryce said. “I think more of myself than that.”

He walked away from Kyle and took a seat before class started, knowing Marcella and her friends were talking about him and giggling.

He wasn’t going to be used by anyone. If some woman didn’t want him for who he was, then he had no time for her. No energy. And no desire.