Hello and happy greetings, all!
I’m super excited this week because after a long year of much work, planning, dreaming, and, of course, writing (not to mention editing and editing and proofing and proofing), launch day for CHRISTMAS DREAMS is just one month out! To celebrate the start of the 30 day countdown to its book birthday, I thought I’d share a sneak preview.
I hope you have a great time meeting Stevie and enjoy these first chapters, immensely,
Stevie glared at the most recent text message then jabbed her phone with angry thumbs. She was aware even as she responded that the fury flooding through her was merely a cover for the wave of deep, desperate sadness threatening to drown her. “Are you sure?” she typed.
A response came immediately. Three frowning faces and one word. “Absolutely.”
Then. “I’m sorry.”
Stevie’s stomach churned. Her sister Jo was the most level-headed, loyal, dependable person Stevie had ever known except for their adoptive mom, Maddie. She would never in a million years lie or stretch the truth or tease about something like . . . this. “Have to go,” she finally typed. “Will msg soon.”
No reply, but Stevie hadn’t expected one. She set her phone down on her RV’s little dinette table, and for the first time ever, its vintage laminate surface—cream with gold stars—failed to cheer her.
She pressed her clenched fists into her tightly closed eyes, hard. “Do not cry,” she muttered. “Do. Not.”
She forced some deep breaths—hard work over the choking lump in her throat—then slowly, resolutely got back to her feet.
People always asked what her glitch was. Why she was so jaded. Well, this was why. This was what hoping got you. This was what trusting did.
Jed was supposed to be one of the good guys. He’d gotten past her defenses. Gotten past all their defenses.
She pivoted and took one step to reach the custom-built chest freezer with its lid that did double duty as counter space when she needed to roll out dough. Opening the freezer, which held very little except for one precious thing taking up almost all the room, Stevie’s eyes swam despite her iron resolve.
Looking down, it was like the fondant creation of doves and ribbons mocked her. She lifted the cake out and moved to the RV’s door. It was slightly ajar because she’d been airing the RV after simmering three different sauces all morning. Kicking the door open with one foot, she lifted the cake high above her head, then heaved it forward.
It dropped heavily and smashed open on the frozen snow-packed earth. Destroyed layers of decadent chocolate and soft vanilla cream revealed a sweet, delicate fruit and custard center. A murder of crows—what an appropriate name, Stevie thought, darkly amused—scattered in shock from their perch in the barren arms of a nearby tree, then settled on the ground close by and hopped over to feast.
Nowhere near finished, Stevie went back to her tiny design marvel of a kitchen and opened a cupboard to pull out the “surprise.” Easing the box top off, she stared down at Jed and, more importantly, Alissa—in perfect miniature detail. Taking in her little sister’s beaming heart-shaped face, with her wide brown eyes and pretty bobbed hair—so open, so trusting, so deserving of so much better than . . . Jed, Stevie’s breathing was once more threatened by burning outrage and tears she wouldn’t let escape.
A tiny bride and groom smiled up, hands clasped, and arms lifted in joy and victory. They were an exact replica of Alissa and Jed, created by a genius cake topper designer from photos Stevie had taken when they’d announced their engagement.
Stevie reached forward, about to grab Jed by the neck—but suddenly couldn’t follow through. What if she accidentally damaged mini Alissa somehow? Even if Alissa didn’t know this item existed, Stevie couldn’t bear hurting her even by accident, effigy or not. She resealed the box, slid it back into the cupboard, then did the next best thing.
She rummaged for the generic cake topper—Plan B, purchased in case the special order didn’t turn out or arrive in time. Grabbing her sharpest paring knife and a cutting board, she plunged the blade through Jed’s plastic core. How apt. He’d fooled everyone into thinking his heart—and affections—were real.
She snapped pictures of the impaled groom, withdrew her knife, and strode to the doorway. Throwing Jed onto the wrecked cake, she took a few more photos. The majority of the crows flapped off in a tizzy of black wings, cawing and shrieking in annoyance. Two crows weren’t scared off by the falling groom, however, and continued to greedily devour the cake around him. They were a particularly good, if macabre, addition to the photos.
She would never show these pics to poor Alissa, of course. But Jed? She’d send them to him, all right—with the wish she could land a hard punch to somewhere tender at the same time.
“How could you?” she typed. “Alissa is worth a billion of you. You . . .” Stevie had no more words, but that didn’t matter. Actions spoke more honestly and clearly than any of the most eloquent speeches. Jed would get her point. She hit send. Then went to each picture and hit send and send again.
Finally, still buzzing with stress, she replied to Jo again, as promised. First, with the pictures.
To which she received a flurry of texts, including one that said, “Do not, under any circumstances, send those to Alissa, or Hailey, or Mom.”
“Of course not. Unlike Jed, I’m not a callous idiot or worse.”
Before Jo could agree or disagree with that statement, Stevie got to the real guts of the matter. “What are we going to do? What does Alissa need?”
Waiting for Jo to reply with a concrete plan, Stevie spent some time beating herself up and second-guessing her recent choices. If only she was parked and living in their hometown Granite Ridge right now, the way she so often was. Instead, she was just returning from an extended season cooking at a fishing lodge in British Columbia. When the wedding was on, meeting up with everyone at the venue instead of going to Granite Ridge first made sense and saved her some travel hours. Now she wished she’d done everything differently. If she was in town, she would’ve shown up at her mom’s house to help out.
She could, of course, call her mom or Hailey to get instructions about what to do next herself, instead of depending on Jo for guidance, but she didn’t want to distract them from helping Alissa in whatever ways they could.
Pacing her RV’s narrow space, Stevie perused the photos she’d taken of the demolished wedding cake. Her response to the news that Jed had broken up with Alissa and called off their Christmas Eve wedding was justified. Yet reviewing the destruction of that iconic symbol of love and hope for the future didn’t give her any satisfaction. If anything, it made her feel worse. She prayed awful Jed wouldn’t message Alissa about the cake and his murdered mini-him. It would only make kind, tender-hearted Alissa even sadder.
Dang it! Why hadn’t Jo messaged back already? What was keeping her? Not being able to do something, anything, was maddening. Unconsciously, Stevie glanced toward Ed’s bed, which she hadn’t been able to bring herself to part with yet. If he was still around, at least she’d have him to talk to or take for a walk or something to get her mind off . . . everything.
With that thought, the tears Stevie had been fighting since Jo’s first text earlier that afternoon won. She cried silently, her body rigid and still. It was something she’d learned how to do too many years ago to count: let her emotions escape without a telltale sound or movement. No one who happened to walk past her home on wheels and glance in the window would know she was sobbing.
Some of her tears were for herself. She had to be honest and admit that even if it showed what a selfish jerk she was. She couldn’t help it. Alissa and Jed had been a couple who’d given her hope that good guys existed, and love could be real. Proof that no matter how crappy your background was, you could rise above it.
Most of her tears were genuinely for Alissa though, triggered by deep sorrow for what her sister must be feeling, frustration at being powerless to fix anything for her, and worry. Stevie knew Alissa had all the grit she needed and then some to get through this. She just hoped Alissa could see past her pain and know it as well.
It wasn’t fair. Little Alissa had already gone through enough loss for a lifetime. Little Alissa. Stevie almost smiled, seeing the eye roll Alissa would give if she’d heard that thought. But she couldn’t help thinking of her that way. Even though her sister was twenty-five-years-old now and a certified teacher to boot, she was somehow still the innocent, no-idea-how-great-she-was kid Stevie had first met all those years ago, when Alissa was ten and Stevie, thirteen. Just like how Hailey was perpetually eight in Stevie’s mind, and Jo would always be a super cool fifteen to her awkward, lame thirteen. It was weird with siblings how that happened, you all grew up—or mostly did, Stevie thought, making a face at herself. Yet, you all stayed kids around each other too in that way siblings do, for better or worse.
Alissa struggled with abandonment and self-worth issues like they all did in various ways. No matter how much you grow as a person or strive to work through them, some things are so deeply formative that even when you no longer let them define you, they’re forever a shadow side of you, shaping your view of the world and your place in it. With her deep fear of loss, letting herself love Jed had been a big deal. That he knew Alissa lost her parents and bounced around from home to home before she arrived at Maddie’s, yet still took all her trust and selfless, generous care, and promised her forever, only to reject her and throw it back in Alissa’s face? Well, as the cake and plastic groom incident might’ve hinted, it made Stevie want to—
Her phone buzzed, and she snatched it up with relief. Too much time in her head was never good. She read Jo’s text and replied. “You got it. I’ll be there.”
Another message popped back almost immediately. “I’m so sad about the change in circumstances surrounding our visit, but at least our whole family’s going to be together again. I can’t wait to see you!”
Stevie didn’t waste time wondering if going up to Cedar Mountain Lodge as originally planned was a good idea or a terrible one. If that’s what Alissa wanted and needed, to make what was supposed to be a celebratory getaway into a journey of mourning and saying goodbye—and hopefully a cathartic, healing time with her sisters—she and the rest of her sisters, her family, would make it so.
She closed her eyes briefly. Even though this Christmas marked the fifteenth anniversary of Maddie bringing them together, the miracle of it never lost its shine. No matter what else happened in her life, no matter how she’d probably never scrounge up the courage to take a romantic risk herself—regardless of how she sometimes dreamed of a husband and children to love and take care of—she had this. Had them: Jo, Hailey, Alissa, Maddie, and Maddie’s mom, Nan Claire. It was the kind of thing Stevie always imagined as a lonely kid, nose constantly in a library book, waiting on her mom who so seldom—then never—came home. Imagined, but never dreamed actually possible. She was blessed in so many ways, and she knew all too well that the nuclear family she sometimes fantasized about and yearned for was often just that: a fantasy. That the reality of family was, if you could forgive the pun, all too often nuclear. What you loved could blow up and be lost forever, damaging you irreparably. It was exactly why she didn’t want to take chances or rock the boat she’d found herself in.
She shook her arms, then stretched, eyes wide open again. All this lollygagging wouldn’t do. There was a plan now! She had to get her butt in gear. Lists of all that needed to be done before she hit the road in the morning filled her head, but most importantly—
“Exactly how I feel, Jo!” she typed and sent.
Then, wracking her brain for something, anything, she could say to Alissa that might be of comfort or cheer—and feeling extra terrible when she came up empty because Alissa, like Hailey, was a words girl—she settled with sending a string of heart emoticons, the promise she’d see her the next day as originally scheduled, and the suggestion, “We can spend the week planning his slow and painful death.” She nodded with satisfaction once the last bit was sent. Maddie would be level-headed and eternally supportive. Jo would be logical and comforting. Alissa would be all heart. Stevie would rein in her rage the best she could, but someone, she thought, should let Alissa know revenge was an option. She was only half-joking.
But now, Stevie had food to make. She’d lived through puberty, first crushes, date disasters, and tons of other silly, serious, and sublime moments with Alissa. “Crazy comforting cheesy mac”—so named by Alissa when she was sixteen or so and doing remedial work one summer so she wouldn’t be held back in school—was definitely on the menu.
# # #
The mountains and trees hugging the highway were blanketed in white, and while the roads were in decent shape, fresh snow was falling. Stevie hoped it would let up before Maddie and Nan started their drive up.
Turning into Cedar Mountain Lodge’s huge parking area and following the signs toward a designated area for overnight parking, Stevie couldn’t help gawking. Even though the next weeks would no doubt be excruciating in a lot of ways, the surrounding scenery was magical. So pretty it almost hurt. Towering cedars draped in white robes stretched into a gorgeous purple-blue sky. The ancient mountain ranges formed a protective bowl around the magnificent lodge and surrounding ski village, which were lit up with a dazzling array of Christmas lights and twinkled like Santa’s workshop. And the snow! The snow! It sparkled in the bright winter sun like a blanket of diamonds as far as the eye could see, a white so clean and pristine it was almost startling.
Stevie pulled to a stop at a gate and lowered her window to show the attendant her ID and the reservation number on her phone.
The guy, big and bearded, looked about her age and had a friendly smile. “I haven’t seen your rig before. Work or play?”
Stevie grinned. She’d expected some variation of a similar question. No doubt, many of the folks camped up here were seasonal workers who moved around the country, working at this lodge or another, as she often did.
“No, it’s my little sister’s wedding—” The words died on her tongue. What an idiot she was! What if she made an insensitive slip like that in front of Alissa? “I’m here to, I mean as, a guest,” she finished haltingly after an awkward beat.
The man looked curious at her weird delivery but shrugged. “Well . . . enjoy yourself, all right?”
Stevie nodded, then eased toward the spot where she’d been directed. The sites had full service. Bonus. Her vintage motorhome—1986 Toyota Sunraders for the win, baby!—was set up for off-grid living and had a generator. Considering the nightmare the next twelve days were likely to be, it was a relief that she could just plug in and be set.
Before she got out of her vehicle, she leaned forward and rested her forehead on the steering wheel. Seeing Alissa heartbroken and not being able to do a darn thing about it was going to do her in. She wasn’t like her sisters. She had none of Jo’s deep, calming competence. None of Alissa’s sweetness or gentle, naturally soothing demeanor. Not a drop of Hailey’s uncanny ability to read people in a glance and know intuitively exactly what they needed.
As always, no matter how she tried to fight it, when thinking about all her inadequacies, especially in light of her talented, brilliant, warm, and sensitive sisters, icy fingers of fear and self-loathing poked tender inner bruises. One day they’d realize that all the strengths they insisted she had were merely projections from their overly kind hearts—qualities they wished for her, not any that she actually possessed. And then they wouldn’t love her anymore. Maddie still would—because she was a softie for a lost cause, obviously.
For a moment, the temptation to restart the motorhome’s engine and retreat the way she’d come almost overpowered her.
The worst part of her desire to bail was that her stupid, lovable sisters would be so understanding if she did. Alissa would muster a smile, despite her grief, and say she totally “got it.” Jo would sigh resignedly—but with sympathy—and say Stevie should do whatever she needed for her own mental health. And it wouldn’t just be passive-aggressive bullshit. She’d actually mean it. Hailey, ever the peacemaker, would nod at whatever Jo and Alissa said, then step up her game and help Alissa in every possible way, always trying to make up for other people’s failings.
Maddie would encourage her to reconsider—but would ultimately affirm Stevie’s choice and tell her she’d love and support her no matter what.
Stevie banged her forehead lightly against the steering wheel. Running the minute something was hard—or heck, just not fun—was something her mother would do. She was not her mother’s daughter! Or she was, but she was also Maddie’s. She was Maddie’s daughter too. She was.
And if Maddie had taught Stevie anything, it was that the only real way forward in hard times was to help others and focus on trying to be the good in the world. It was hard to imagine someone as inconsequential as herself having any real power, but still . . . she would persevere, do what she could, and hope it was enough.
Not necessarily feeling better, but definitely feeling resolved again, Stevie climbed out of her home, plugged it in, and turned the stove, heater, and pump on inside. Then filling a bag to bursting with goodies for Alissa—but keeping the Christmas presents she had for everyone else stashed where they were, so they’d be secrets until the big day, or quiet day, maybe—she set off to find her sisters. They should all be there by now.
Even though it was a relief for Stevie to be with her sisters again, to see that they were fine and that no one had disappeared or become unalterably changed in her absence, dinner was a sad affair. So sad, in fact, that she felt bad for the wait staff.
The handsome guy serving them had, understandably, thought four young women dining at a place like Cedar Mountain Lodge would mean a festive mood, friendly flirting, quite-possibly tipsy laughter from their end. He realized his mistake with shame-faced speed and quickly matched their somber tone. While his service remained impeccable, he assumed an almost embarrassed air around them.
If only Maddie was there. Her soothing presence would’ve made things much better straightaway. As it was, the way everyone picked at their meals, herself being the only exception—she practically inhaled the seafood pie she’d ordered—they probably should’ve stayed in Alissa’s suite and just shared the cheesy mac Stevie had brought for her. However, none of them had wanted to gobble up Alissa’s “treat.” Although Alissa had been her gracious self when she accepted the abundance of comfort food Stevie had made for her (the pasta being only the start) and put it into her room’s mini-fridge, Stevie was kicking herself. She’d brought a ton of food. Food! Yes, it was a great solace in hard times and maybe the best way of bringing people together in good times . . . but in light of what Alissa was suffering, it was meaningless. She wished she could do . . . more. Just always. More.
It was still early when they finished eating, and Hailey asked if anyone was interested in going for drinks at Granite Bar. Jo and Alissa begged off, but Stevie, who would’ve been happiest if they all gathered in her RV or in someone’s room to chat into the wee hours, quickly agreed. She’d take sister time, whatever it looked like.
As she and Hailey got their coats on, Jo apologized one more time for being too tired to visit longer. Stevie just laughed. “We’re getting old, hey?”
“Oh, yeah, ancient.”
“Wait, one more thing,” Stevie said before Jo made her getaway.
Jo smiled and raised an eyebrow. “What’s that?”
“Still work for me to use your bathroom every so often?” Stevie had asked to take advantage of Jo’s full-size shower and tub at the lodge before—but prior to the whole Jed dumping Alissa debacle. It would be totally understandable if it was the last thing on Jo’s mind, but Stevie hoped it would still be a go. It was the only part of RV living that occasionally got old. Her shower “stall” was incredibly narrow even for a dwarf like her, and the “tub” it sprayed into was really a small basin, only suitable for standing in.
“Absolutely. Any time.”
Stevie watched her stylish older sister depart, looking every inch the sophisticated lawyer she was, even in her casual outfit of well-cut jeans, a fitted sweater, and gorgeous boots. She glanced down at her own “signature” winter outfit—a gray hoodie and yoga pants. The only way it varied from her spring, summer, and fall look is that she sometimes sported a long-sleeve T-shirt instead of a tank top or wore jeans if she was feeling really dressy. What could she say? She liked to be comfortable and favored clothes you could work in for hours. Plus, there was the added bonus that clothes like this made you virtually invisible. With her hair scraped back in a messy topknot or tight ponytail and in her always clean but nondescript garb, no one gave her a second glance. Precisely what she preferred.
Granite Bar was crowded and loud, with a great band and delicious scents wafting from the kitchen. She was tempted to check out their menu, despite having just eaten. It was the kind of place Stevie would’ve usually enjoyed to the hilt. Now, however, though she’d been ecstatic that Hailey wanted to hang out, she realized she wasn’t in the mood for a party atmosphere. They chatted over a drink and caught up, both more than a little blue about Alissa’s situation.
A guy from the band named Nick, who Stevie knew from high school, wandered over to say hi. He expressed obvious interest in Hailey, who equally obviously returned it. Stevie had to smile at Hailey’s slightly starstruck expression—even while she felt more than a little shocked. How could Hailey think of romance when how badly relationships always went was so crystal clear at the moment?
Increasingly twitchy and desperately in need of a walk to burn off energy, after Hailey and Nick had danced a few times, Stevie asked if Hailey was ready to head out.
Hailey darted a glance toward Nick, and Stevie caught the look.
Normally, Stevie would never leave one of her sisters alone at a bar. Still, Nick was a known quantity—and a genuinely good guy—so when Hailey insisted Stevie go ahead without her, she did.
The rush of cold air, silence, and bright stars overhead that greeted Stevie as she emerged from the bar were a relief, but she knew without a sprinkle of doubt that sleep was hours and hours away. Usually, that wouldn’t bother her in the slightest, but these days all the solitude she enjoyed wasn’t as satisfying somehow. She shook her head. No doubt, the annoying itch of weird longing for something she couldn’t quite articulate (or didn’t want to, more like it!) was just a side effect of her sadness over losing Ed. Without him to curl up beside and read with, the call of her snug little home on wheels was less appealing than usual. She nodded to herself. Yes, that was it—and that was all it was.
She’d hoped that being clear of the bar’s hyper energy would mellow her out, but nope. She was still antsy and decided that the walk she’d mentioned to Hailey was still on the menu. Definitely. She’d explore the lodge grounds and surrounding ski village and hopefully burn off some of her anxious energy.
As she started out, she was shocked by the temperature difference from when she’d arrived that afternoon and now. The sun hadn’t felt warm, but now that it was dark, it was obvious it had been giving off some heat, after all. She loosened her hair and let it fall around her shoulders to keep the back of her neck warmer. Then she buttoned up the wool pea coat she’d thrown on over her sweatshirt before leaving the RV for dinner. The pretty moss green jacket was too light a weight for this weather—or so she now knew, anyway—but it had been a gift from Maddie. She wanted her family to see her wearing it, so they’d know she appreciated it.
Kitty-corner from the lodge’s main entrance, soft music tinkled from a bar with an old-fashioned sign that announced, “Jackson’s Public House.” Warm yellow light shone onto the snow from its slightly steamy mullioned windows. Drawn by the cozy image, Stevie crossed the street and meandered toward it, sticking to the well-shoveled sidewalk that fronted a little row of specialty shops. Each was closed up and dark inside, but their exteriors were aglow with Christmas bulbs. Her breath formed huge feathery plumes of white in the night air, and—whew, it was brisk.
She decided that despite how pretty the night was, she wouldn’t venture about for much longer—would only go as far as Jackson’s front entrance to see if there was a menu posted by the door. She was curious about whether the quaint looking establishment actually offered good old school pub fare. She’d barely reached the rear corner of the building, however, when a sudden commotion stopped her in her tracks.
A big metal door—invisible until it slammed open and bright white kitchen light spilled across the dark courtyard—crashed against the pub’s brick exterior. A woman blasted out. Throwing off an apron and swearing a blue streak, she stormed past Stevie like she wasn’t even there.
An equally irate man in a black chef’s coat appeared in the doorway. Backlit by the fluorescent light pouring from behind him, his features were invisible in the darkness. He was like a furious shadow as he yelled, “Don’t bother to come back when you’re ‘sorry.’ You’re done!”
He took a few angry strides after the woman as if despite his big words, he already regretted her departure. The woman was long gone, though—and since she hadn’t been wearing a coat, Stevie understood her speed.
The man, evidently as oblivious to Stevie’s presence as the woman had been, raged into the night, “Are you freaking kidding me?”
Stevie smiled to herself. It was hard not to sympathize with a guy who, at the height of anger, used “freaking” as his curse word of choice.
The man locked his hands against the back of his head and stared out into the empty night, his bent elbows like rigid wings on either side of his face. Weirdly, there was something familiar about this position and his body language in general.
After a long minute, he dropped his clenched hands abruptly, and his shoulders sagged. “What am I going to do now?” he muttered.
Come to think about it, even the guy’s voice rang a bell.
“What?” he snapped, turning toward her like she’d said something—which she hadn’t. So maybe he’d seen her all along, had just been too preoccupied to acknowledge her. “Unless you’re trained kitchen help, bugger off.”
Knowing from personal experience that most cooks are at least partially mad, Stevie wasn’t put off by the rudeness. Had she worked with him somewhere before? If yes, it had to have been a good while back.
“That’s exactly what I am, actually.” She stepped out of the shadows and stuck her hand out, about to introduce herself—because, hey, connections in the culinary world were always good—just as he moved back into the full light streaming from the kitchen. And then they both went rigid with surprise.
What the— Now she wanted to be the one who swore! Was this some terrible cosmic joke?
He looked as face-punched as she felt—which made no sense. She, after all, was the injured party all those years ago.
“Stevie . . . Fox?” The voice that had seemed so familiar was now a dry, shocked croak.
She didn’t see how she could believably deny it. “Jackson Basset,” she replied. “What are the chances?”
Want (need?! LOL) to know what happens next? Not long to wait now. Pre-order Christmas Dreams today!
Available wherever eBooks are sold:
Amazon US: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08BX73L24
Amazon UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B08BX73L24
Amazon CA: https://www.amazon.ca/dp/B08BX73L24
Amazon AU: https://www.amazon.com.au/dp/B08BX73L24
KOBO all regions: https://www.kobo.com/en/ebook/christmas-dreams-3
Want to learn more about SOUL SISTERS AT CEDAR MOUNTAIN LODGE, the series Christmas Dreams belongs to? Excellent decision because I think you’ll find it’s like a box of your favorite chocolates. Why enjoy just one when you could devour the whole bunch?? 🙂 Check it out here.