Of all four seasons, Autumn is my favorite.
First off, I’m an October-baby, so there’s the the birthday-factor. Then there’s Halloween and Thanksgiving, of course. Plus all the Christmas-magic preparation technically happens in fall. For some folks it’s too early to even mention Christmas, but I love Christmastime anytime.
When I plotted SLEEPING WITH SANTA, I opened the story in October to give NICK KNIGHT and LILY LANE enough time to get to know each other well before Christmas. And to give readers an opportunity to pick up the e-book at a great low price, I asked The Wild Rose Press to set the 99¢ sale when the story starts, so you can roll through the season with the characters.
Last week we took the kids pumpkin picking at the farm I used as the model for the fictitious in SLEEPING WITH SANTA. I compiled the photos from the day into a quick video. I hope you enjoy the visual to go with this extended excerpt from Chapter Five.
SLEEPING WITH SANTA–Chapter Five
The crowd was thinning now that night was coming on, but the lack of light made it harder to tell the shadowy figures apart. Lily planted herself in a dim corner, watching for Bob’s little lumpy body and Sophia’s big-bottomed pear-shape.
Stuffing cold hands into the pockets of her puffy-coat, she pulled out remnants of hay. Pointy bits and pieces made its way inside her clothes, too. It was everywhere.
“Hello, Lily.” The familiar voice came from behind. Footsteps shuffled closer until his silhouette stood between her and the rest of the world.
She wanted to run, but the blood drained from her limbs, making them feel like cold sand.
Be cool. Just be cool.
“Oh. Hi, Nick. I didn’t see you standing there. In the dark.” The last time she saw him he was lurking outside her hospital room.
“How’ve you been?” He sat beside her at the picnic table.
A small snort escaped, as if she’d actually fall for another heartfelt conversation with the devil in her dreams. Lifting her chin, she steeled herself against his heat. “I’m fine,” she lied.
“It’s a chilly night. I’d hate to see you get sick. Again.”
She wasn’t sure if he was concerned or condescending by his teasing tone.
“I said I was fine. Totally fine,” she added with a little singsong to her voice to disguise the nervous quiver.
“I know you’re totally fine.” His deep voice dropped a sultry octave the way he had whispered during the CPR lesson. Right in her ear. Right through her soul. “You don’t have to tell me twice. One look at you and anyone can see how totally fine you are.”
She ignored his loaded compliment, afraid to fall prey to his roguish charm after she worked so hard to get him off her mind.
Caution—he’s a fireman.
“So…” Hesitating, she segued onto a less controversial subject. “How’s your bungalow coming along?”
“It’s coming. I’m still debating if I oughta pull up my roots in Star Harbor and plant them here permanently.” He leaned back against the table and propped his elbows like he was getting comfortable. “How’s your place? Any biters yet?”
“Nope.” Lily sighed in lieu of venting. Talking about it would probably jinx any luck she had left. Since posting the For Sale sign in the ground, there hadn’t been a single phone call.
“Well, I’m sure it’ll sell. You need a little patience. The right person has to come along.”
The right person…ha! He was supposed to be her Mr. Right, but she couldn’t have been more wrong. Lily snuffed the small talk, allowing the awkward silence to fill the space between them as she concentrated on the folks on the dance floor.
After a minute, Nick seemed to be the one most affected by it. He leaned his head so close she could smell the cinnamon on his breath. “Lily, did I do something to upset you?”
The party lights softened his features, making him look glorious, like the Adonis she recalled from their first encounter. She shook her head, fighting the urge to succumb to the power of his plea. She couldn’t allow the frigid veneer she designed to thaw so easy. “It’s not you…it’s me. I’m just…a bitch.”
“No. You definitely are not.”
“Yes. I am.” She narrowed her eyes and shot him with a laser-look, but he only chuckled.
“No. You really aren’t.”
Damn this man! She gnashed her teeth before snapping back. “How can you say that? You don’t even know me.”
“Trust me.” He cocked a brow. “I know one when I meet one. And you’re not one.”
Lily folded her arms over her chest. “Is that so?”
“Yep. I was married to one once, so I know about these things.”
Absorbing his words, curious about the details he dropped, she took the bait. “So, what, that makes you an expert or something?”
Nick twisted his torso in such away she caught a whiff of the most intoxicating phenomenal-aroma of leather and musk. She needed to fortify her weakening willpower against this firefighter’s potency before her hormones raged out of control.
“As a matter-of-fact, yeah,” his voice floated against her ear, “I am an expert. Or something.” His arm slipped behind her until his hand appeared on her other side, resting on the tabletop.
Huh? Lily jolted at his overt pass—unless, maybe, she read him wrong yet again, and just he enjoyed playing head games.
“If they were giving out bitch-awards, I hate to tell you this, but you wouldn’t even be nominated,” he said in a mellifluous tone that made the back of her neck sweat despite the autumn chill. “I’m actually surprised a nice girl like you isn’t taken.”
Despite her better judgment, Lily prodded the conversation with a husky bedroom-voice she barely recognized. “How would you know if I’m taken or not?”
“Well, when we first met I got the feeling you kinda liked me. I figured if you had a man, you wouldn’t be looking at me the way you did…the way you’re looking at me right now.”
Heat flashed in her cheeks. Grateful for the cover of darkness, knowing how candy-apple red they get when all fired up, she challenged his words despite knowing they were true. “I’m not looking at you in any way,” she whispered weakly.
“Yes, you are.” He surprised her by moving his hand onto her shoulder. She surprised herself even more by letting him. “You can’t deny there’s a spark between us.”
She rolled her eyes, but she didn’t shake him off. “You’re delusional.”
“And you’re adorable. Why dontcha let me take you out sometime?”
Lily sucked in a breath, stupefied, her heart wavering. She couldn’t say yes—although, Lord knows she wanted to more than anything! She struggled to say no, but the tightness in her throat sealed off her words. After a painstaking hesitation, with a halfhearted headshake, she said, “I, uhh…I don’t think so.”
To combat the sting behind her eyes, she rubbed them hard, suppressing any impending tears of disappointment. She had a rule. She couldn’t—wouldn’t—break it. She couldn’t risk a broken heart.
“Twinkle lights make me woozy,” she lied.
“You’re not gonna pass out on me again, are you?” he asked with concern.
“That had nothing to do with you.”
“Good. I hate thinking it did. You gave me such a dirty look before you keeled over.”
“The truth is I wasn’t feeling well that whole day. The doctor said it was from fatigue.”
“Yeah, yeah. I know, I know. I just hope you’re taking care of yourself. Eating right, getting enough rest. I thought, maybe we can go out to dinner.”
“And then what—you’ll tuck me in bed?” Tuck rhymes with…God—she nearly made the terrible Freudian slip.
“Tuck you in bed? Hmm.” A mischievous smile curled his lips. “I wasn’t planning on going there, but if that’s what you want.”
She cut her eyes at him, and he shut up quick.
“Lily, I’m just kidding. Really. Taking you to bed is the furthest thing from my mind.”
“Humph.” She shrugged off his arm just as Chief Maresca interrupted.
“Oh, good, you found her.” The man was double-fisted with roasted corn and a steaming Styrofoam cup.
“Sure did.” Nick nodded.
“The Barbieris had to leave. Sophia didn’t feel well. I told them I’d take you home.”
Lily didn’t have a chance to protest before the chief shuffled away.
“Come on.” Nick stood. “Let’s get some corn. I’m starving. How about you?”
“No, thanks.” She fought the urge to befriend him after visions of being in bed together bounced in her head. “You go. I’ll stay right here.”
“Stop fighting it. I’m attracted to you. You’re attracted to me. Let’s agree on that much.”
She refused to budge.
“I’m done joking, I promise. I’ll be nothing but serious from this point forward. Now, come on, let’s get some food.”
Lily still wasn’t sold.
“Look, I’m not leaving you here for some other guy to swoop in and snatch you up.”
“No one’s snatching me up.”
“I am. But you’re not making it easy, which I completely respect.” He smiled and put out his hand.
She felt guilty for putting up such a cold front when he didn’t deserve it. “Corn gets stuck in my teeth.”
“They make dental floss for that. Now come on, before they shut down the snack bar.” He took her hand despite her best attempt to keep her body parts to herself.
“You know what? I think I’m gonna ask the chief to take me home now.”
“Yeah, here’s the thing…” He tugged her along gently. “I’m the chief’s new driver until further notice. So, when he said he’d get you home, what he really meant was I’d be getting you home tonight. Are you okay with that?”
Dumbstruck, she rambled, “Um, I only live a mile away. I could actually walk—”
He stopped and spun her, putting his face in hers. “I know. I’ve seen you all over town. But it’s dark and cold. I really don’t want you walking.” He squeezed her biceps, demonstrating his disapproval.
She read the lines of concern around his frown and solemn eyes. Felt it in his voice and under his fingers. Of all the things he’d said and done in the little time she’d known him, this, by far, was the icebreaker to shatter the igloo she’d built around her fragile heart. No man has ever given her an ultimatum before, and as much as she should despise it, it secretly thrilled her.
He thrilled her.
And as much as she wanted to deny it, she couldn’t. Consumed by the moment, she forgot about the firefighter, and only saw the virile, attentive man.
“I-I didn’t say I would. I-I said I could.”
“Well, don’t even think about it.” He pulled her securely under his arm as they sauntered toward the snack shack.
Eyeing the selection, he asked, “See anything you like?”
Besides you?—she smiled in private.
Hot apple cider fragranced the air, making Lily’s mouth water, along with an array of seasonal treats. Jelly and caramel apples. Apple cobblers. Apple pie. Kettle corn. Roasted corn. Corn bread. Pumpkin pie. Pumpkin bread. Pumpkin muffins. Chili. Clam chowder. And more.
Although the aromas were tempting, her hunger pangs vanished. She shook her head. “Nothing for me.”
“Not even a hot cider? It’s medicinal on a cold night.”
“Spiked or straight?” asked the fellow behind the counter.
Nick glared questionably at Lily. “Better make ’em straight. Alcohol won’t help you recuperate from fatigue.” He gave a perceptive smile, and his inflection made her feel stupid for the diagnosis, but they probably didn’t have a medical code for lovesick. “Candy apple?”
She’d kill for one but wasn’t about to gnaw on something so sticky in his presence. Plus, without dental insurance, she couldn’t afford more than an annual checkup. “No, thanks. I’ve gone this far with zero cavities and plan on keeping it that way.”
“Don’t mind if I have one. And a bag of sugar nuts. A couple of caramel lollipops. And candy corn. It isn’t Halloween without candy corn.” He handed her the nuts and filled his jacket pockets with the loot like a kid robbing a candy store.
“You’ve got a little sweet-tooth, huh?”
“You’re right about that.” He cocked his head and winked, grinning like the Big Bad Wolf at a scrumptious Red Riding Hood.
His sexy smile made her twitch, sending a wave of scalding cider over the side of the cup.
Nick must have shared her little earthquake, because he fumbled with his apple and it landed on the ground before he took a single bite. “Oh, well.” He sighed in disappointment.
Lily sighed too—only hers was more of the swooning kind, studying his movements as he bent down in fitted jeans to pick up his dirty apple, then strutted to the trash barrel with it.
They strolled along, sharing the nuts, sipping hot cider under the strings of lights.
“You have straw in your hair, you know.” He plucked it out and showed her.
“Hey, what? I’m not making fun of you. I’m just letting you know.”
“I know. But that’s hay, not straw.”
“I’m no farmer, but I think it’s the same thing.”
“Well, it happened on the hayride, not the straw ride.” She shut up fast, feeling silly for arguing over something so trivial and for lacking anything clever to say.
“Must have been one helluva hayride.”
“I was babysitting. Doing a favor for a pregnant mom with three boys who needed a chaperone.”
“Sounds like fun.”
Lily grimaced. “It was awful.”
“So, I guess offspring are outta the question then, huh?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing. Just making conversation.” He shrugged in a haphazard way it was almost believable.
“Sure. I’m just asking where you stand on the subject, that’s all. No biggie. I could have asked about the weather. Or politics. Or religion. But you brought up the subject of children.”
“Uh…I dunno. What do you think about ’em?”
“I think they’re great.”
“Well, these kids were a handful.”
“Then start with one. See how it goes. And move on from there.”
“You? Me? We?” He released a sneaky smile she couldn’t decipher.
No doubt, he was messing with her head, but she went along with it anyway, reacting with a playful backhanded slap to his gut. “I don’t think I’m cut out to be a mother.”
“I think you’re wrong,” he added before quickening his pace.
Lily stopped dead in her tracks. Staring at his back, caught between confused and captivated, the thought of making a baby with this beguiling man was tempting. But it wasn’t an offer—just conversation, like he said.
“Hey,” he called back, waiting for her to catch up. “Wanna check out the corn maze?”
“No. Not really.”
“Why not? You scared or something?”
Lily shrugged. “Maybe.”
“Of me? Or being in the spooky maze at night?”
“There’s no reason to be afraid of me, Lily.”
“I’m kidding. I just don’t like corn mazes. I’m not afraid of anything.” She raised her head and thrust her chin forward, neglecting to mention her fear of debt collectors, being broke, and potentially homeless at the velocity of her financial plight.
“Then why won’t you let me take you out?” He unleashed a killer smile that left her weak and tingly all over. “I’m not asking to set a wedding date. Just one date. As friends.”
The idea of going out with him was so enticing she almost agreed without considering the consequences. She didn’t want to say no, but she was afraid to say yes. So, she bit her tongue and said nothing at all.
“Never mind.” He waved the words away.
Her heart shriveled. “Nick…”
“Pretend I never asked. Let’s just enjoy the moment. I don’t like corn mazes either. I was just hoping for a chance to use my manliness to protect you. Change your opinion about going out with a firefighter.”
“I have nothing against firemen.” Spilling her soul crossed her mind, but beyond rejecting his invitation after the loss of his candy apple, she didn’t want to ruin the night any further.
“But you just won’t date one.” He smiled with his lips, but it didn’t reach his sad eyes. “Or you just won’t date me. It’s all right. I’ll get over it. Eventually.”
She didn’t have the heart to admit he was right. This conversation was the hard and fast reminder she needed to instill the golden rule she almost broke. Firemen were off limits. They can only break your heart one way or another.
If she couldn’t date a firefighter, maybe she could be friends with one.
They wandered along the perimeter of the party, where the crickets were louder than the music, chitchatting about everything and nothing at all.
The chief reappeared, startling her. “They’re closing up shop soon. I’m ready to go whenever you are.”
Now that she was getting to know Nick better, she didn’t want this night to end, yet it wasn’t fair to lead him on. “Me too,” Lily lied.
“Let’s hit the road.” Nick whipped out a big key ring and twirled it on his finger.
The ride in the backseat was uneventful, with the static of the sports-talk radio station and the chief’s directions on how to get to her house on Sunflower Summit.
“Did Nick tell ya? He’s our new Santa Claus this year,” Chief Maresca said.
Her heart fluttered at the idea of him sticking around for the next two months. “Good luck.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Nick glanced in the rearview mirror.
“Oh, nothing. Everyone loves Santa. I’m sure you won’t have any trouble.” Lily grinned at the mental picture of him dressed as the man in red.
“What do you mean—trouble?”
“You know, some kids carry grudges for not getting what they wanted last year.”
“Don’t listen to her. She’s messing with you. We have nothing but respectful kids around here. They’ll love you. Just don’t make any promises Santa can’t keep.”
When they pulled into the driveway, Nick got out and opened her door. He hung his hand on the roof and lingered like he was waiting for something more than just her to slide out of the backseat. Her phone number, perhaps?
Under the bright streetlight, his dark eyes were a friendly-ferocious combination, which gave his features an edgy air of danger. This is what he must look like at the end of a date. Smoldering. Kissable. Irresistible. She wasn’t accustomed to this breed of masculinity.
“I’ll see you around,” he whispered in the wind, and she wanted to say she hoped so, but not in front of the chief.
She ran to the door with headlights shining behind her until she was safe inside.
Peeking between the drapes, she watched the red taillights until they were out of sight. Maybe out of sight, but never far from her mind, not since the day they met.
Was she completely out of her mind for considering, even for a single second, getting involved with this man?
With her fingertip, Lily wrote the answer on the foggy glass. “Yes.”
Then, recalling her mother’s advice, she swiped the word away with a swift fist and an excruciating, “No!”