My steamy Christmas romance, Our Happy Holiday, is officially launched and available!
Want a peek inside the saucy short story? You got it — keep reading to enjoy the first chapter . . .
🎄 Chapter One 🎄
✨ Holly ✨
I close the door of my house behind me and shrug off my coat. My home spreads quiet around me — a welcome refuge after the too-cheerful din of the university’s staff Christmas party tonight.
I can’t stop my lip from curling a little at the scene I’d just left — all my colleagues decked out in their holiday best to gather in the campus ballroom beneath the soft light of twinkle lights. There was a three course dinner, live music, dancing, even a Santa for couples to take their photos with. Everyone laughing, embracing, wishing each other well.
It was, in a word, excruciating.
I slip off my heels and head to the kitchen to pour myself a well-deserved glass of wine. I’d barely had any at the party, after all, and I wanted to wash away the memory of tonight. At least for a while.
I pad to the living room and, setting my wine on the coffee table, begin to build a fire in the stone fireplace. What I wanted more than anything was an cozy night snuggled up under a blanket with Netflix.
The old newspaper that I use as tinder begins to smoke and curl beneath the twin logs I set on top of the stack. I inhale the scent, relishing it. This is what I need — a real fire to warm me from the snow quietly falling against my town’s mountain backdrop, and no one expecting me to show a single ounce of cheer.
Something’s wrong. The smoke isn’t rising up the chimney but instead billows into my living room. I try to wave it away, coughing, so I can get a look inside the fireplace. But the smoke is so thick, burning my eyes. I open and close the flue damper, but that does nothing to help the situation.
Shit. I was so distracted by thinking about the staff party that I forgot to make sure the chimney was clear. I have a hunch that something is stuck in there, and low, too, even though I have no idea what.
I grab a poker and, closing my eyes and holding my breath, shove it up inside the chimney, feeling with its metal tip.
It doesn’t come up against anything, but that doesn’t mean my hunch is wrong. I take the bucket of water waiting next to the fireplace and slosh some of it over the infant flames. They hiss and go out, and I sigh with a small measure of relief — at least there’s no more smoke filling my house.
But I want my cozy fire — no, I need it. Everyone else might think this is the happiest time of the year, but it’s not for me. It’s the saddest.
I push the encroaching memories away. No, I’ve got a chimney to attend to. No time for moping.
Standing up, I dust my hands off on my short satin red dress, not caring if any soot gets on the shimmery fabric. Stalking toward the door, I throw my coat back on and shove my feet into the tall muck boots waiting there.
I head back outside, stamping through the snow for the storage shed. I rummage in there for a moment in the light of the waxing moon and emerge with a ladder and a flashlight. Hauling both to the side of my house, I set the ladder against the wall next to the chimney and begin my ascent.
“Do you need any help, ma’am?”
I freeze at the polite inquiry. Before turning, I know who the deep, liquid voice belongs to — my construction worker neighbor who is always tinkering on his house, and sticking his nose into my business anytime I try to work on mine.
Stifling an expletive or five, I look over my shoulder. Sure enough, it’s him, standing on his side of the fence between our properties. He’s wearing a heavy jacket and jeans that hug his hips in just the right way, and he’s got — I blink — what looks like a black streak of soot across his forehead.
“No, thank you,” I say through gritted teeth. I try to make the tone of my voice sound like a thick wall with a GET OUT sign tacked to it.
He keeps standing there, hands shoved in his pockets, a small smile playing over his lips. “Trouble with your chimney?” He lifts his chin toward my house.
I grind my teeth together. “Something like that.” I make to turn back to the task at hand, but this guy can’t stop talking.
“Funny,” he said, then stopped.
“What exactly is so funny?” I can’t help but ask, feeling my blood pressure rise.
“I had a bit of chimney trouble myself this evening.”
“What an intriguing coincidence,” I said, words devoid of amusement.
To hell with him. Nothing and nobody were going to keep me from my fire. I kept climbing the ladder.
“Yeah,” he continued, talking to my turned back. “I tried to start a fire in my hearth tonight, and ended up filling the room with smoke.”
I’m at the roof now, scanning for ice on the shingles, but his words catch my interest at last. “Really?”
“That’s what happened to me just now,” I said slowly, hating to offer him anything like a conversation. “And that never happens when I make a fire here.”
“Me neither. Like I said,” he said, and I caught the hint of humor trimming his words like a garland, “funny.”
I give in with a sigh, turning toward him as much as I safely can on the ladder. “Okay, fine. I’ll bite. What was the deal with yours.”
That small smile gives way to an all out grin. “You’re not going to like it.”
I want to answer, How would you know what I do and do not like? But instead I swallow the words and say, “Spill it.” So much more polite. I roll my eyes at myself.
“Santa.” His voice is like hot cocoa, warm and sweet, and I can tell he’s enjoying himself.
I fix him with a flat stare. “Santa?”
He raises a single hand. “Scout’s honor.”
Shaking my head at myself, I resist the urge to grumble. “Okay, hang on, I’ll come down.”
I begin to the descend the ladder.
Later, I decide to blame the tight dress I’m wearing and the sips of wine I had inside. But it was probably more that I was distracted by that insufferable man, probably always thinking I can’t handle homeowner duties just because I’m a woman.
When my boot, caked with snow, slips against the slick metal rungs, I fling my torso forward to clutch at the sides of the ladder. Instead of steadying me, this only jolts the ladder from its position and causes it to keel over. I cling to it, eyes squeezing shut, bracing myself from a bone shaking collision with the frozen earth.
Instead, the stomach-turning fall ends in softness and warmth. I open my eyes to find strong arms somehow holding me, prying my cold grip from the ladder.
“Hey now,” he says, crooning as if I were a frightened fawn tangled in fencing wire. “Hey there. You’re okay. I’ve got you.”
My heart is leaping liking a wild reindeer, and I can’t tell if it’s from the fall or from his hand cradling my head as if it were a precious, fragile gift.
I also can’t decide if I want him to let me go or keep holding me close forever.