RISKY CHRISTMAS: Holiday Secrets

Harlequin
November 2011
ISBN 978-0373277490

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Excerpt

Holiday Secrets by Jill Sorenson

After witnessing her husband's murder eighteen months ago, Leah is in hiding and has no plans to celebrate Christmas. Though she tries to resist, her handsome new neighbor awakens long-buried feelings of attraction…and brings a killer to her door.

Kidnapped at Christmas by Jennifer Morey

Chloe is a struggling artist and thoroughly bored with her life—until a rugged FBI agent pulls her into a fast-paced adventure…and a sizzling love affair! The only damper on their mistletoe madness is a vengeful mobster who won't stop until they are both silenced…forever.


EXCERPT

CHAPTER ONE

Risky ChristmasBrian adjusted the red stocking cap in an attempt to cover his dark brown hair.

He’d bought the costume on a whim a few years ago with the intention to play Santa for his sister’s children. Due to unfortunate circumstances, it had never been used. The cheap red suit came with an itchy white beard, but no wig. His own black rubber boots, which he used to wade through concrete, completed the look.

Leaving the hat askew, he stepped back and studied his reflection. He needed a haircut. His costume was “one size fits all” and poorly made. The fuzzy white cuffs of the jacket didn’t reach his wrists, the pants were too baggy, and the black plastic belt gaped at his waist. He looked like Homeless Santa.

He grabbed a pillow from the mattress on the floor and stuffed it under his jacket, fashioning a jolly paunch. There, that was better. As he headed outside, he picked up the bag of gifts and put the “Dear Santa” letter in his front pocket.

At 9:00 a.m., the sun was already blazing. It was going to be a hot Christmas in Oceanside, California. There wasn’t a cloud in the perfect blue sky. Brian had spent most of the morning on his surfboard, and the waves were in fine form. He might go back later for an afternoon session.

His pulse kicked up a notch as he approached the house next door. He hardly knew his neighbors and wasn’t sure what they would think of his getup. The single mom who lived there had never even spoken to him, and her daughters were quiet as mice.

If the girls hadn’t left a letter in Brian’s mailbox last week, he wouldn’t have considered buying them gifts. When he found the envelope, addressed to the North Pole, he’d opened it to investigate. At first he’d assumed that the girls had mistaken his mailbox for their own, because the two were side by side. Then he read the letter and realized that they hadn’t wanted their mother to see it.

The girls had penned the note to Santa in simple words and neat sentences. Judging by her careful signature, Mandy was the older daughter. Her sister, Alyssa, had scrawled her name at the bottom of the page in pink crayon. They asked for a couple of moderately priced toys that “Mommy can’t buy this year.”

Brian could easily afford the extra gifts; he had very few family members to shop for. But the last item on the list was something that no one could deliver—not even Santa. He’d been touched by the request and felt a powerful compulsion to make his neighbors’ holiday a little brighter.

They could all use some cheering up.

Whistling the tune to Jingle Bells, he knocked on the front door. “Ho, ho, ho, Merry Christmas,” he called out, preparing to leave the wrapped presents on the stoop. Before he had a chance, the door swung open.

Mandy and Alyssa stood there in red dresses, their dark hair shining. Twin expressions of wonder lit up their well-scrubbed faces.

“Santa,” the younger girl breathed, fooled by his outfit.

Brian winked at her. “Have you girls been good this year?”

The both nodded dutifully, eyes wide.

He reached into his bag, finding a present for Alyssa. She jumped up and down, delighted to receive it. Mandy, who was at least five, probably knew he wasn’t the “real” Santa. But she accepted the second gift with a shy smile, examining his ill-fitting suit. If she found it lacking, she didn’t say.

“We have cookies for you! My mommy made them.”

Brian glanced around, wondering where she was. “Okay.”

Mandy raced into another room, coming back with a loaded plate.

“Thanks,” he said, grabbing a bell-shaped cookie off the top. He didn’t have much of a sweet tooth, and these confections looked almost too pretty to eat, with silver accents and delicate icing. But they tasted like a dream, light and almond-y. “Mmm.”

He was about to wish them a Merry Christmas and take his leave, along with a handful of those delicious cookies, when the girls’ mother appeared. The moment she stepped on the scene, the cookie lodged in his throat.

She was wearing a short towel, secured over her breasts. Her skin was wet, her dark hair dripping on her bare shoulders.

Brian did a double-take, startled by her near-nudity. He couldn’t help noticing that she had a great figure. He hadn’t registered that before, but he’d never seen quite so much of her. She always wore shapeless clothes and big sunglasses.

“What are you doing?” she gasped, staring at him. She had frantic blue eyes and a smattering of freckles across her nose.

Brian tried to chew the bite of cookie, which had turned to sawdust in his mouth.

“You opened the door to a stranger?” she asked the girls.

Mandy set aside the cookies, appearing stricken.

“Go to your room,” she said, clutching the towel in a white-knuckled grip. “Both of you!”

“Can we keep the presents?” Alyssa asked.

“No!”

They ran away, little faces crumpled in dismay.

Risky ChristmasBrian managed to swallow. “I’m sorry. I had no idea this would be a problem—”

“Get out,” she said, pointing her finger. Although her stance was strong and self-assured, her lips trembled, betraying her fear.

He retreated in surprise, unaware that he’d stepped over the threshold. “I’m sorry,” he said again, tugging the fake beard down his chin. “I didn’t mean to scare you. I’m Brian Cosgrove, from next door.”

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