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November 1, 2015


A Copper Ridge Christmas

#2

Snow is falling in Copper Ridge, Oregon—but the heat between a holiday-loving party planner and the town’s resident Scrooge is off the charts in this sweet and sizzling Christmas novella…

Holly Fulton is throwing a special Christmas Eve party for the foster parents who gave her so much. To finish the preparations in time, she needs to recruit her one-time foster brother, Ryan Masters. He may have a scowl that could curdle eggnog, but under that surly demeanor is a big heart. And amazing muscles. And a gorgeous chest. In fact, X-rated visions of Ryan have been dancing in Holly’s head for years, but she can’t risk complicating the only real family she’s ever known.

But maybe there’s a way for Holly to have her Christmas cake and eat it too. A no-strings affair, just until they’re done with the planning. Ryan is certainly willing. But from the first touch, it’s clear that this isn’t just a festive fling. It might just be a Christmas miracle in the making…

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Excerpt

 

Chapter One

 

 

There were a few things Holly Fulton knew for certain. The first was that Ryan Masters would not be looking forward to Christmas. The second was that she needed him if she was going to pull off her plan for a perfect holiday party. And the third was that if she was approaching the metaphorical badger in his metaphorical den, she needed to bring bait. In this instance, bait was takeout cheeseburgers and curly fries from Ace’s Bar.

Holly wasn’t a fool. She wasn’t going to approach Ryan without a peace offering.

She walked across the dock, careful not to slip on any of the pools of water gathered in the old wood. The ocean lapped up against the sides, gray and chilly, a reflection of the winter sky that hung low around her, thick and heavy with mist.

Ryan’s boat was moored at the end of the dock, bobbing in the surf. It was slightly tarnished and a bit weathered, like the owner himself. But he would have to be rickety in private for the next couple of weeks, because she needed him to get it together long enough to pull off her plan.

She approached the boat, eyeing it for a moment. She wasn’t exactly sure how she was supposed to get his attention. Knock on the hull? She hadn’t come to visit Ryan on the boat before. Usually she caught up with him at Dan and Margie’s house, or during occasional get-togethers at Ace’s Bar. But they didn’t really hang out at each other’s homes.

Which stood to reason, really. They’d both been foster children to Margie and Dan years ago, and that was the connection that united them. So they rarely saw each other out of that context these days.

She frowned, leaned in and pounded her fist on the boat’s side. She knew his living quarters were belowdecks, and she imagined she was making enough noise to get his attention. Though, she realized belatedly, he might be asleep. A fisherman, Ryan had to be out on the ocean at an hour she had rarely ever seen the a.m. side of. It was still pretty early, but it was already dark, the cool December evenings swallowing the sun down into the sea earlier and earlier every day.

But if he was asleep, he would just have to deal with the interruption.

After waiting for a moment, she leaned forward and rapped her knuckles against the hard, unforgiving surface yet again.

She probably should have called first. But then, had she called first, he would know it was her, and he would probably pretend he wasn’t home.

She straightened, tapped her foot and crossed her arms. The bag, laden with greasy food, crinkled as she did.

It was really starting to look like he wasn’t home. Or like he was asleep. Or just hell-bent on ignoring anyone who came knocking. Holly started to turn away, but just then she heard something. The creak of a door, heavy footsteps. She looked up just in time to see Ryan appear on deck.

Her heart did a jump up and out, hitting her breastbone hard. It didn’t matter how often she saw him. It didn’t matter how many years stood between the present and that teenage crush she’d had on him. Didn’t matter that adulthood and all its complexities stood between now and those years when she thought of him as the most beautiful, compelling, desirable man she’d ever known. Didn’t matter that she realized now that even if something could happen between them, it was a risk she couldn’t take. Because family came first, and the Traverses were her family.

It had been easy to fantasize about growing up and marrying Ryan when she’d been too young and naive to understand that those things often didn’t last. Now that she had no illusions about how most relationships ended, the truth seemed much simpler: as hot as he was, the potential loss of her surrogate family wasn’t worth it. Well, that and the broken heart she would surely get out of the deal. There would be no middle ground with that man. He made her feel too many things far too intensely. She didn’t have a future with Ryan.

A pity, as he did make a rather dashing figure standing on the upper deck of his boat, partially illuminated by a light on the deck. He was wearing a thick cable-knit sweater, a beanie pulled down low over his dark hair, his hands shoved into his pockets.

He’d always had a beard, well, at least since he’d been old enough to grow one. He claimed it was to keep the frigid sea air from freezing his face. At first, Holly hadn’t liked it. But as she’d gotten older it had called to her on some deep feminine level. Evidence of his testosterone, or something like that. Maybe she just liked beards now. Or maybe she was just a hopeless enough case for Ryan that she liked beards because he had one.

“Holly?” he asked, looking down from his position on the boat.

“Yes.” She lifted up the bag of cheeseburgers. “And I come bearing dinner.”

She couldn’t quite make out his expression, but she sensed that he was frowning. “I already started cooking.”

“Oh.” She fought against the disappointment making her stomach sink. “What are you making?”

“I just opened a can of clam chowder.”

She laughed. “Don’t you think that might keep? I have cheeseburgers.”

“Why?” he asked, his tone turning decidedly suspicious.

“It’s cold out here.” She wrapped her arms around her midsection, still holding onto the bag of food, hopping up and down as though to prove her point. “Aren’t you going to invite me in?”

“You don’t want to come in. Just hand me the burgers.”

“Sorry. There’s no such thing as a free meal.”

“Were you hoping to trade me for a sturgeon?”

“Keep your fish, Travers. I have… Well, I have bigger fish to fry than literal fish.”

“Ha-ha,” he said, the words carrying no humor at all. “Fine, come on up. But it’s at your own risk.”

“Am I going to be tripping over stray mollusk?”

“I try not to leave mollusks lying around.”

“Well, in that case.” She looked around. “How do I get …on the boat?”

“Climb on up.”

She looked around and saw the basic rope ladder hanging over the side of the boat, leading to the lower deck. She raised the bag of burgers. “You’re going to have to take these.”

He walked down to the lower deck, coming close to the railing and extending his hand. She reached up, transferring the bag to him, trying not to react when their fingers brushed.

Yes, her mind had accepted the fact that nothing was going to happen with Ryan. Her body was another matter. It was all aflutter over the brief contact between his hand and hers.

She gritted her teeth and pulled her arm back to her side before grabbing hold of the ladder and climbing up onto the ship.

“Okay. Now you’re here. Before I let you down into my house tell me why,” he said, holding the burger bag out of her reach. “You made a mistake, Holly. I have the food now. Therefore, I hold the power.”

“Bastard.”

“I’m wounded. I am a literal bastard, as you well know.”

“Sorry,” she said, wincing.

“If you really are sorry, you’ll leave me in peace to eat both of these cheeseburgers, and all of the French fries.”

She shook her head. “Sorry, not that sorry.”

He grunted. “Then come on down.”

He led the way down the narrow staircase, and pushed open a door that led to an even smaller living area. Ryan was over six foot, and his broad frame seemed much too large for the space around him. Honestly, it was kind of appalling. He could barely stand up straight. There was a narrow bed in the corner, built into the wall. A tiny galley kitchen with a one-burner stove, and a table and chairs that were also bolted down.

“I really don’t get how you stand this.”

“I don’t stand it. I like it. It’s my home.”

“Right. I guess….I prefer a yard. And to be not on the water.” As if to reinforce her point, the boat tilted as the water rolled beneath it.

He shrugged his shoulder. “That’s maybe why you aren’t a fisherman.”

“Not everyone lives on their boat.”

“I’m betting my boat cost about the same as your house. Anyway, I like the freedom. And the solitude.” He looked at her pointedly. “The general solitude.”

She fought to keep a scowl off her face. “Oh, boo-hoo. You have a cheeseburger.”

“That I do. But you didn’t just come to feed a lonely man on his boat. Cut to the chase.”

She cleared her throat. “Right. Well. Margie and Dan are going to be back from Hawaii on Christmas Eve.” Their foster parents spent more and more time at their home in Hawaii these days. The perks of retirement, Dan said.

“I’m aware. I’m picking them up from the airport.” His dark eyes looked wary. She decided it was best to press on before he started forming his own conclusions.

“Elizabeth is going to be at Mount Bachelor skiing with her new boyfriend Todd until the twenty-third. Which means she isn’t going to be around for the next couple of weeks.” Elizabeth was Dan and Margie’s only biological child, and Holly’s best friend.

“I actually knew that too. Elizabeth invited me over for dinner a couple of weeks ago and Todd was in residence. For the record, I don’t trust a man who wears sandals. It’s December, for God’s sake.”

Holly had a few of her own criticisms regarding Todd, but she didn’t want to voice them, out of loyalty to Elizabeth. “Once you get past the popped collar and pastel shirts, he’s not that bad.”

Ryan chuckled. “Yeah, I’m never going to do that. Because I don’t have to.”

“Have it your way. Anyway.” She sucked in a sharp breath, immediately regretting it. The air smelled like fish, the sharp tang of salt from the sea, and sweat. Really, only the fish was bad. There was something about Ryan’s sweat that was not altogether unappealing to her. “I want to throw a Christmas party for Dan and Margie.”

His dark eyebrows locked together. “What?”

“They have such a great party every year. And Margie puts so much work into it. And I wanted… I want to give them something back.”

“Why exactly?” he asked, frowning.

“The gift of Christmas. Christmas cheer. Christmas pudding. Christmas…music. But I probably won’t sing, because I’m a terrible singer.”

“What does this have to do with my cheeseburger?”

“I thought we might discuss the possibility of the two of us working on the Christmas party together.”

Ryan extended his hand and released his hold on the bag, letting it drop to the table. “No. I would rather eat canned clam chowder than help you plan a party.”

“That cheeseburger has jalapeños and pepper jack cheese on it. The fries are curly fries, with garlic. Think very carefully before you commit to canned soup over this.”

“I live on a boat and haven’t bought a new pair of shoes in three years. But these are choices I make, Holly. I can still afford to go buy my own damned cheeseburger if I want. Your tainted bribery food is unnecessary.”

“Look, eat what you want. But hear me out.”

He scowled and turned to the side, opening a cabinet and pulling out two plates, which he laid on the small, marred table. “Fine.” He gestured to one of the seats. “Talk.”

He sat down, rustled through the bag and pulled out both burgers. After looking beneath the top bun of one, he found the one with jalapeños and set it on his plate.

“I never had Christmas before the Traverses. They included me in the celebration when they didn’t have to.”

He looked up, raising one brow. “Are you going to sit and eat? Because I will eat all of your French fries.”

She sat down, taking her own hamburger, which was a bit more vanilla than his, and transferring it to the plate in front of her. “Eat my French fries and suffer a painful fate,” she said, snatching the bag and removing a little pouch of fries. “Now. About you helping me with my amazing Christmas party….”

“Hollyberry,” he said, using an old name for her that only he could ever get away with, “do you see a damned Christmas tree on my boat?”

“No. But it’s early still.”

“There will be no Christmas tree on my boat. I may, in fact, skip Christmas. It’s on a Tuesday and I’ll be out fishing, like I am every day.” He took a bite of his burger and groaned, and she felt a strange, heated sense of satisfaction blooming in her stomach. Why did he have to make sex noises while eating?

At least, they sounded like sex noises to her. Curse Ryan and his ability to push her mind straight into the gutter with his mere presence.

“I know Margie and Dan mean a lot to you too,” she said. “Maybe you could skip handling fish carcasses for a day and help me make something special for them. A Christmas Eve party, and a traditional Travers family Christmas.”

“You plan parties for a living, and you want my help putting together one Christmas party?”

“That’s the thing. I’m busy. Very busy this time of year. I have two weddings coming up, and several Christmas parties that I’m organizing the details for already.”

“And that’s why you decided to add to your list of responsibilities, and do an unpaid party for the Traverses.”

“It’s the one party that actually matters to me,” she said, taking a deep breath. “Christmas is important to me, Ryan. Margie and Dan are important to me. They’ve given me so many Christmases and it’s my chance to return that gift.”       Ryan assessed her, his expression unmoved as he chewed his dinner.

“They’ve given us all so much,” she continued, trying her best not to make an idiot of herself by crying into a cheeseburger on Ryan’s boat. “I just want to give them a little something back. I thought…I thought it would be the same for you.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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