Unforgettable Christmas - Gifts of Love (The Unforgettables Book 3), page 1
GIFTS OF LOVE
New York Times and USA Today Bestselling Authors
Nikki Lynn Barrett
Susan Jean Ricci
Heat up your holiday with nine Unforgettable Christmas stories of love and giving, hope and desire. Created by the same bestselling, award-winning authors who brought you the popular Unforgettable Romances and Unforgettable Heroes, this festive bargain boxed set will bring the joy of Christmas to your heart. Grab your favorite Kindle e-reader and cozy up to these amazingly romantic tales that are guaranteed to be… UNFORGETTABLE.
Mimi Barbour: Can love bloom when SHE'S NOT YOU?
Donna Fasano: Sometimes AN ALMOST PERFECT CHRISTMAS is the best you can hope for.
Mona Risk: She doesn’t have to choose between her TWO LOVES FOR CHRISTMAS, her faithful dog and the man who saves her.
Patrice Wilton: Snuggle up and KISS ME SANTA.
Nikki Lynn Barrett: And for the high-spirited animal lovers, WE WISH YOU A FERRET CHRISTMAS.
Dani Haviland: To KIT KRINGLE: AN ALASKAN TALE, romance is not part of her plan.
Traci Hall: SANTA, BABY… hurry down the chimney tonight.
Susan Jean Ricci: Celebrate a Holiday Surprise in CHRISTMAS WITH NIAGARA
Leanne Banks: They find happily-ever-after during CHRISTMAS IN MISTLETOE.
TABLE OF CONTENT
She’s Not You
Please Keep Me
AN ALMOST PERFECT CHRISTMAS
A Beautiful Stranger
TWO LOVES FOR CHRISTMAS
A BRIDE FOR PRINCE PAUL
KISS ME SANTA
A HEAVENLY CHRISTMAS
We Wish You A Ferret Christmas
The Secret Santa Wishing Well
Kit Kringle: An Alaskan Tale
Little Drummer Boy
Holiday By The Sea
Christmas With Niagara
Falling For Niagara
Christmas In Mistletoe
THEN CAME YOU
Also by the Authors’ Billboard
She’s Not You
Book #1 – Elvis Series
NYT & USA Today Best-selling author
Copyright © 2013 Mimi Barbour
Sick and alone with her three-year-old daughter at Christmastime, Belle Foster needs help. When her neighbor’s brother gets involved, she welcomes the soft-spoken good-looker into her world. Rescuing her kidnapped daughter isn’t part of the deal, but any man willing to babysit his sister’s menagerie of pets and cares that much about a stranger’s baby is a guy she wants to get to know much better.
Jesse has only loved one woman in his life. Years ago, she left him with a broken heart, a crippling dependency and too many poignant memories. No one can replace her. No other woman has ever come close. So why does this loving mom continually sneak into his head? And why can’t he shake her loose? One needy girl in his life, a sister who expects him to live on a pedestal, is enough for any man.
Praise for Mimi Barbour
“Barbour spins a difficult story with ease. Her prose is smooth. Her characters rich and her plot fast paced. She delivers the well-deserved happily ever after ending perfectly.”~ Reviewed by Jo-Ann Carson
“With all of the terrible things that are happening in this world, sometimes you just need a shot of happiness. I’m glad that Mimi realizes that this need exists and is able to create this happiness to share with us.”~ Reviewed by Leandra Hanes
This first book of the Elvis Collection is dedicated to my childhood heartthrob who I’ll never forget or replace, Elvis Presley.
From the time I first started dreaming of sweet romance, you were my hero. For the many hours of incredible listening enjoyment, I sincerely—and with love—thank you. Because your songs resonated with me, the stories hidden in those blues and the emotion you brought to the words, I’ve decided that I wanted to bring some of those very songs to life.
And so the series begins…
And it’s breakin’ my heart, ‘cause She’s Not You.
Elvis Presley (1962)
Jesse Parker stepped out of the apartment’s elevator into the dimly lit corridor where the wall light flickered, warning all of its impending demise. He stopped dead. She was there again, the little girl who tore at his heartstrings.
Same as she’d done the last couple of days, as soon as the pixie-like child saw him, she wiped her wet face, jumped up from where she huddled on the hallway’s green carpet and beelined for her apartment door. Only, this time she hesitated before she opened it. Her little back faced him, a wall of antagonism shielding her body slapped at Jesse until he felt his insides sinking.
Why he frightened her, he didn’t know. So he waited, not wanting to make things worse. Speaking as softly as a deep male voice can, he said, “Is there something I can help you with, sweetie?”
He’d seen her tears. In fact he’d seen them every time she’d run away. And they drove him crazy.
“My mommy’s sick.” The tear-streaked side of her still baby-faced cheeks was all she showed him. Somewhere between the ages of four to six, he thought—until she spoke and then he wondered if she were even younger.
What the heck did he know about kids? Standing there, trying not to frighten the little cherub, plans scuttled through his head like mice at the smell of a cat.
Instincts kicked in and he crouched down to her level. “Has she seen the doctor?”
“Uh huh! He’s dumb.” The child used her arm to wipe the mess off her face and a small sob escaped. “All he tells her is to take pills but she mostly bawfs them up. She bawfs a lot.” Before Jesse could say anything else, the tiny sprite opened her door and disappeared.
Now what the hell am I supposed to do? Jesse knew he couldn’t leave it alone. He stood with his hand raised to knock and then slowly lowered it when a sudden thought changed his mind.
He’d try and contact his sister, Kim. After all, it was her apartment he was staying in and knowing how gregarious she was, Jesse had no doubt that she most likely knew these neighbors and could tell him something about their situation.
The thought of doing nothing had disappeared the moment he’d picked up the scent of the child’s fear and heard her husky, frightened voice.
A short way down the hall, Jesse stormed into his sister’s apartment and flicked on the lights and caught his breath. He’d forgotten how she’d rigged the switch to turn on all the holiday decorations she’d set up around the place.
Her oversized Christmas tree sat in front of the main set of windows in the large room and blazed its magic at him, flashing twice. The windows behind did a great job of reflecting the splendor. The hundreds, or most likely thousands, of lights twinkled from both inside the branches and around the outer edges.
The theme of the tree had to be angels or maybe fairies since Kim had hundreds of tiny feathered creatures in all colors poking out from every space. Then there were ribbons inter-woven between these sprites gleaming with the sparkling surfaces of silver and pearl.
Bah! The girl might be his sister
The sound of claws scraping the floor for leverage warned him that Sam had heard him enter. A chubby canine, with bright black eyes and flopping ears, hurled itself straight for him, expecting he’d break the momentum of this unrestrained dash.
This time it didn’t work. Unprepared, Jesse couldn’t catch Sam and he tumbled ass over teakettle up against the wall. Obviously unhurt, the silly dog stood up with a wobble or two and then made a second attempt.
Quickly, Jesse removed his jacket, scooped up the frenzied pup and sat in the only chair in the place that would accommodate his size comfortably.
Once he’d settled the four-legged pest to chewing on the small rawhide bone he carried around in his packet, Jesse dialed Kim’s cell number and she answered at once.
“Kim, it’s me. I’ve just had an encounter with this kid in the hallway for the third day in a row and each time she sees me she runs away. Today she was bawling and said her mommy is sick. Do you know these people two doors down from you?”
“Oh no! Belle must be getting worse. I guess Yaya is fretting. She gets scared, poor little tyke. Usually, she comes to get me. But she knows I’m away. Jesse, you’ve got to do something.”
“Hey, brat. You’ve got me here looking after your herd, keeping your plants and now you want me to babysit your sick neighbor. Sorry, I draw the line at barfing mommies. She must have someone I can call to help her.”
Kim laughed at his grumpiness as he knew she would. She never took him seriously, probably because he frequently wasn’t. “Come on, there are only two cats and one little puppy and admit it—they’re all beautiful. To answer your other question, no. Belle hasn’t anyone to help. Yaya’s father is dead, killed in Iraq and as far as I know, the girls are on their own. I help out when I can.”
To cover up the ping his soft heart just delivered, he asked. “Yaya? What kind of crazy name is that?” He scoffed, couldn’t help it.
Kim laughed again. “Her real name is Layla but she couldn’t pronounce it when she was younger, and called herself Yaya. It stuck. Belle adores her baby so it must be difficult for her to see Yaya so scared.”
“Does she have a doctor or a boss, someone to help her?”
“Belle had to take a medical leave from her job at the playschool where she worked. The pain in her stomach gets so severe that she’s bent over a lot of the time. Plus, she says she lives in a fog and can’t seem to concentrate. Being a war widow, her medical coverage helps some but there are still certain procedures they’ve refused to pay for and she can’t personally afford the costs for these tests. I know she’s terrified it might be cancer and that scares me too. It’s a real tangle, Jesse. I feel so helpless most of the time. I know you’ll help though and it makes me less worried.” Her theatrical sigh, heavy and heartfelt, wrenched at his strength of will.
Okay, now that’s what got to him. His sister figured Jesse was one step down from God; that he could do anything. Most of the time he tried to disabuse her of this idea but she wouldn’t accept the truth. So Jesse invariably found himself trying to live up to her expectations.
You’d think after all these years of jumping to do her bidding, he’d be able to let the hero status go, make her wake up and see the real world. He just couldn’t. She’d look at him with those big green eyes so very like the mother he’d adored, and poof, there went his resolutions.
Weakness sifted into his attitude and he felt the moment his back-bone dissolved, and he flipped to his role of being her big, weak-kneed, fix-it brother. As her voice coerced, softness filtered through his determination.
“Damn, Kim! What do you expect me to do? I don’t even know the woman and Layla runs from me every time we meet.” Not quite the truth, but his nosy sibling didn’t have to know about their latest encounter.
Jesse had learned his lesson a long time ago to keep certain personal information from Kim who dedicated herself to trying to bring him happiness in the form of a wife.
After the last debacle, she’d backed off, swearing she had no idea that the girl she’d forced him to date had been a recovering drug addict who hadn’t quite recovered… as he’d soon found out when he’d had to rescue her from a ladies room of the restaurant where she’d gotten into some bad stuff and needed an ambulance. Talk about a mess! The night in the emergency ward hadn’t helped his temper. When Kim had called the next morning anxious to see if her matchmaking had worked, for the first time she’d suffered his wrath.
He’d hung up on her and she’d done everything she could to wiggle her way back into his good graces. Since then, she’d stayed out of his personal life and left well-enough alone. Until now.
Out of the blue, she’d come begging, wanting him to stay at her condo for the holidays. Because one of her three stores had a huge problem, Jesse was needed. She’d pleaded in the exact way she’d done as a girl growing up under the protection of a doting brother.
The manager she’d installed in her Christmas store in Olympia had been in a car accident and would be hospitalized for at least a month. Since the shop had just opened that summer, there was no one trained yet to take over responsibility.
Seeing that December brought in huge profits in her business, Kim couldn’t afford to let just anyone step into the spot. She’d have to go herself. And that meant leaving her place in a huge hurry, along with her two furry white Persians, one very spoiled golden Lab named Sam—a puppy who thought himself a warrior—and a bowl full of exotic fish.
She needed an all-purpose petsitter. At Christmas, all her many friends had plans. Lucky for her she had a soft-hearted, soft-headed brother.
Jesse couldn’t claim work as an excuse because Kim knew he’d just put the For Sale sign up on the latest house he’d built. Therefore, he had a break until he found the next property to buy in the coming year. Guess the week of skiing he’d planned in Aspen took second place to a little sister with a shattered voice full of tears.
Before he could stop her flow of words, a loud pounding on the door got his attention. “Someone’s at the door, Sis. I’ll call back later.”
Jesse hung up. Then made his way over and opened the door. A tiny tornado flew past him screaming. “Kimmy, you gotta come. Mommy’s dead!”
Jesse felt as if he’d been shot. A crying three-year-old was one thing. A dead woman was completely not acceptable. What the hell was he to do?
He watched the screamer run frantically from the entrance of one room to the other, calling for Kimmy with a hysterical puppy jumping up and down alongside.
The only way he could stop the child was by swinging her up into his arms. Not knowing what to expect, when her arms wrapped a choke hold around his throat, it utterly destroyed him.
She buried her wet face into his neck and hiccupped her words, “I want Kimmy.”
“Sweetheart, Kim’s away for a few days. I’m Jesse, her big brother. Now, tell me what’s happened.” He kept his voice soft yet firm. While he talked, he carried her toward the apartment she’d just left.
“Mommy fell down and won’t move.” Anxious eyes, globby with tears, wrenched at his heart. Green! They were the same green as Kim’s babied Persian cats. Deep, dark irises surrounded by velvet.
Jesse’s heart thudded into higher gear without him being able to do a thing to stop it from happening. His arms tightened instinctively around the small body as if to protect her from any horrors awaiting them. Once they arrived, he lowered her onto a chair nearby and patted her head. “Stay here while I help your mom.”
Then he ran to the woman’s body on the floor.
Reaching toward her neck, he jumped when she groaned and moved. Thank the good Lord! The woman was alive.
Not stopping to think about the right or wrong of the situation, Jesse gathered the slight woman in his arms, lifting the lightweight as if he carried a fragile parcel too precious to be manhandled.
In the meantime, Yaya pulled back the cover on the sofa and waited for Jesse to lay her mother down. Then the precocious sweetheart covered her groaning mother, tucking the hand-made afghan around her body.
Her tiny hand reached to pat her cheeks and Jesse watched as the woman took the hand and gave it a kiss.
Her voice throaty and wobbling, she said. “Mama’s okay now, Layla. I’m sorry I scared you, honey. I shouldn’t have tried to stand up when I was so dizzy. I guess I fainted.” She pushed the wildly unkempt hair from her daughter’s face. “Who’s your friend?”
Layla crawled up beside her mother on the sofa and cuddled. She sniffed and said, her little-girl’s voice heartbreaking, “Jesse’s weally not a stranger, mommy. He’s Kimmy’s brother.”
Jessie watched the byplay, amusement filling up the space where fright had resided only moments earlier.
He braced himself to be interrogated. But he didn’t ready himself for the effect of the biggest, cat-like eyes of soft emeralds highlighted by diamonds he’d ever seen—like mother, like daughter. The surrounding face appeared colorless which, no doubt, greatly enhanced the beauties under her thick lashes. The woman’s feverish appearance worried him, which had him reaching for his cellphone.