Christmas of Love
Long Valley Romance Novella – Book 5
Ivy McLain’s grand scheme of making it big? Yeah, it’s going nowhere fast. Every day, her dreams of a fabulous art career are fading a little more. And just when she didn’t believe things could get any worse, her parents plan their huge 40th anniversary party.
In cold, snowy Podunk, Idaho.
It’s been five years since Ivy’s stepped foot in her hometown, and that was on purpose, thankyouverymuch. The oversized wide spot in the road holds nothing but truly awful memories for her.
All right, fine.
She’s stuck having to return, and she’s stuck playing the part of a dutiful daughter, but that doesn’t mean she has to like it.
All of that changes the moment she meets a rugged cowboy with a slow and sexy smile.
Okay, bowls him over and spills his drink everywhere. Details, details…
Up next: A girl to tear your heart apart…
Austin Bishop is hiding from the world in the small, mountain town of Sawyer, Idaho.
Okay, maybe not from the world, but definitely from the females of the world.
It isn’t that he thinks they have cooties. After all, he’d had a childhood sweetheart who he’d loved with all of his heart and soul for five years…right up until she dumped him. Receiving her engagement ring in the mail wasn’t exactly the Christmas present he’d been hoping for that year.
That’s all behind him, though. He is girl-free, and thrilled to be that way. Never better. Couldn’t be happier, actually.
All the way up until he runs, quite literally, into the most beautiful, curvy redhead he’s ever seen in his life. Suddenly, canoodling under the mistletoe seems like the best Christmas activity this side of eating homemade snickerdoodles. A fling with no strings attached? There’s no better way to celebrate the holidays.
Except, partway through the twelve days of Christmas, it stops being a fling and starts feeling like a whole lot more.
But Ivy is hiding secrets, and so is he.
When their secrets unravel, can their relationship last? Or will their Christmas romance fizzle once the eggnog runs out?
Christmas of Love is the fifth novella in the Long Valley world, although all books in the Long Valley world can be read as standalones. It is a sweeter romance with minimal sex and mild language. Enjoy!
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Well, this party was exactly as exciting as Ivy McLain thought it was going to be.
Which was to say, not very exciting at all.
Of course, this was Sawyer, Idaho. What else could she expect?
She sighed. Only this, unfortunately. A bunch of old farmers, standing around and jawing about how their crops didn’t bring in enough money and there wasn’t enough water this past year, or maybe there was too much water, and the combine broke down in the field again…
It was enough to make Ivy’s head hurt. Why people intentionally chose to live this way was beyond her. Especially the cold part. She shivered, pulling her woefully inadequate jacket tighter around herself. Ugh. A little over two weeks before Christmas in Sawyer freakin’ Idaho. She should be grateful it wasn’t snowing, but she couldn’t find it in herself to be that saintly.
It was too cold to be grateful or saintly.
Her mom looked up from her discussion with Mrs. Frank about plans for next year’s garden, and waved. Ivy smiled as cheerfully as she could – which was to say, not cheerfully at all – and huffed out a breath. If she didn’t love her parents so much, she never would’ve made herself come back here. Thank God it was just a weekend visit. To actually live in Sawyer again…
Another shiver ran through her – from disgust or cold, she couldn’t tell – and she spun on her heel to head towards the refreshment table. She’d make herself some hot cocoa and—
“Oof!” she gasped, when she ran into a brick wall.
She looked up to see…
Well, the cutest brick wall she’d ever laid eyes on. The phrase “tall, dark, and handsome” was definitely appropriate. Thick brown hair just long enough to run her fingers through, and the most piercing emerald green eyes she’d ever had the pleasure to see. Whiplash quick, he reached out a hand to steady her, gripping her elbow to keep her upright.
“Howdy,” he said, pushing his cowboy hat a little further up on his head. In his hand was a mug of mulled apple cider.
An empty mug of mulled apple cider, because she’d spilled it all over him with her clumsiness.
The world froze as she realized what she’d done. Dammit all, she was a waitress! She knew how to navigate in tight spots. What on earth was she doing, running people over like that? A painful silence stretched between them, a chasm as she stared at the damage she’d wreaked.
And then the dam broke, and the words came tumbling out.
“So sorry!” she gasped, looking at his jacket, covered in a brown liquid that was now dripping off onto the frozen ground. “So, so sorry. I wasn’t watching where I was going and then you were there and…let me help clean you up. It’s the least I can do.” Not waiting for his response, she began dragging him towards the refreshment table, thankfully only a few feet away. She’d get him cleaned up and on his way, and then she’d run and hide in her parent’s broom closet.
Preferably for the next year or so.
“No worries!” he said with a low chuckle as he hurried along behind her. She stopped abruptly at the table and began grabbing the paper towels. “This jacket needs to be dry cleaned anyway,” he continued. “Kept meaning to take it on over to the Wash ’N Spin, but haven’t had—”
Which is when she started patting his face dry, and he had to shut up. Dammit, dammit, dammit. She’d gotten apple cider everywhere. How on earth did she get it on his earlobe?! She was patting him dry and trying really hard to ignore his strong jaw covered with a light dusting of dark brown hair and green eyes and—
Just get this done already, Ivy!
Her pats were coming a little slower, though, as she got caught up in his gaze. They were only inches apart from each other, and sure, her hands were filled with dirty paper towels, and sure, his jacket was sticky to the touch from the cider, but in that moment?
None of that mattered.
All she could do was stare at him. She caught her lower lip between her teeth, her breath uneven.
“My name is Austin Bishop,” he said, breaking the silence between them. “And yours is?”
She probably should’ve thought to introduce herself before she put her hands all over his body, but better late than never, right?
“Ivy McLain,” she said, proud that she could get her name out at all. She sounded breathless, but she was breathless, so there wasn’t much to be done about that.
“I thought you looked like Iris,” he said, with what was possibly the cutest grin she’d ever seen on a man’s face.
“People say I look like her,” Ivy said with a shrug, happy to note that her voice didn’t sound quite as breathless as it had before. “I don’t see it, personally.”
“You don’t see…” His voice trailed off and he cocked an eyebrow at her in disbelief. “You two could be twins,” he said bluntly.
Ivy threw her head back and laughed. It was sweet of him to say, of course. And she wasn’t going to be coy and demure and say that it wasn’t true – even though it really wasn’t – in an attempt to get him to give her more compliments.
But everyone knew that Iris was the prettier of the two, and there was no use pretending otherwise.
“So why the plant names?” Austin asked after her chuckles had died down a bit. His gaze was as intense as ever, like he was trying to memorize every curve, every freckle, every laugh wrinkle on her face. It was disconcerting to have someone look at her so…intently.
She tried not to read too much into it, though. He probably looked at everyone that way.
She shrugged. “My parents wanted us girls to remember ‘our roots,’ so they named us after plants. Mostly what ended up happening was they couldn’t keep our names straight. I kid you not – I thought my name was Iris-Ivy for the longest time.”
He chuckled, and a warmth spread through her that belied the brisk winter temperatures. She wanted to lean into him again, but this time, not be blotting up spilled apple cider. She wanted—
“Oh, there you are!”
The voice cut through the cold air like a whip – slicing through Ivy’s heart and sending spasms of pain through her. No, not her. She can’t be here! Iris promised me she wouldn’t invite—
And then Tiffany was draping herself over Austin, practically climbing up his side. Tiffany sent Ivy a sickeningly sweet smile that didn’t even vaguely reach her eyes, as she looked her up and down. Dismissing her, Tiffany turned back to Austin. “I didn’t realize you’d be here, darlin’,” she cooed. “I tried calling you about going to the ice skating show tomorrow night, but you didn’t answer.” She ran her fingers up his chest and to his face, bopping him on the nose playfully. If she was going to get any closer to him, she’d have to strip naked to do it.
Ivy began backing up, mumbling something that could’ve been, “Have a good time,” or “Good food tonight,” or “I hope you eat bugs and die…”
Really, it was quite mumbled, and even she wasn’t sure what she said, and then she was spinning on her heel and heading towards the house, the dirtied paper towels still in her hands. She began wringing them in her hands as she walked.
“Austin and Tiffany?” she muttered under her breath as she stalked, blinded by rage as she went. “Tiffany?!” She could forgive him for anyone but Tiffany.
Okay, maybe not Ezzy, either.
But anyone but Tiffany or Ezzy, she could understand. But those two…they just didn’t seem his type.
Not that she knew his type. She barely knew his name. But floozy, bitchy girls didn’t seem like they should be anyone’s type, if you asked her.
Not that anyone had, of course.
She tossed the dirty paper towels into a trashcan as she passed, and then stormed into the kitchen, muttering as she went. “Damn Tiffany, always ruining – Iris!” she yelped in surprise when she spotted her sister at the sink. Beautiful as ever, but a little more fragile than she used to be, Iris turned and shot her a smile.
Ivy scowled. Her sister had promised not to invite those two to the party. “You would not believe who is here!” she announced as she headed for the fruit platter on the counter. Yum – honeycrisp apples. They were her fav, and really only available in the fall and early winter. Which made them an even bigger treat when she could get her hands on them. She snatched one up and began crunching on it as she paced her parent’s small kitchen.
Iris grabbed another potato and gave it a light scrub. “Yeah?” she prompted. She looked like she was in the middle of making the infamous McLain potato salad, which was awesome. If Ivy was going to be stuck in Long Valley for a weekend, she might as well enjoy something amazing to eat.
“Tiffany and Ezzy! You didn’t invite them, did you?” Ivy asked around a mouthful of apple.
Iris turned, and without a word, sent Ivy a death glare.
That death glare. The patented Iris Blue McLain death glare.
Ever since they were kids, Iris had been able to kill with just a look, a look that always made Ivy feel about three feet tall.
Turns out, Iris hadn’t lost her touch when it came to her glares.
Ivy shrunk back. “I didn’t think so, I just thought I’d ask,” she mumbled sheepishly.
Iris just continued to glare, and Ivy continued to feel awful. On second thought, that was a really terrible thing to accuse her sister of doing. Iris knew just as well as anyone how miserable Tiffany and Ezzy had made her life all the way through school. She never would’ve invited them here on purpose.
Ivy knew that…when she wasn’t wrapped up in her own little anger-induced pity party.
When the silence extended out into painful territory, finally Ivy mumbled, “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”
Iris nodded her head – just once, regally, like a queen forgiving her subjects – and just like that, things were okay again. Iris began gathering the potatoes from the kitchen sink and moving them over to the table.
She probably needed to sit down. Ever since her car wreck three months ago, Iris had struggled with simple things, like standing. Or walking. Or staying upright.
It was painful for Ivy to see. Her sister had been the basketball star of Long Valley. She’d helped Sawyer win state championships. She was captain of the girl’s basketball team as both a junior and a senior. She had more athletic talent in her little pinky toe than Ivy did in her whole body, something the whole valley now knew.
When the high school coach had first welcomed Ivy onto the basketball court, his eyes had been bright with excitement. He’d been handed a gift – another McLain who’d help extend the Sawyer High School winning streak for another three years after Iris had graduated and moved on to college.
It was an excitement that quickly fizzled out when he saw Ivy’s ball handling skills, which were…nonexistent.
She’d ended up on the JV team all four years of high school.
That sort of thing just wasn’t what a soul could live down in a small town.
Ivy snapped her head up as Iris began to muse, “My best guess is that they heard about the free food and music, and decided to come on down and mooch off us. They’re the kinds of people who would think that’d be okay.”
Ivy considered that for a moment and then sighed. “You’re right.” She grabbed the last item – a bowl of washed potatoes – and carried them over to the table for Iris. She should’ve been paying attention instead of wallowing in her own insecurities, and helped Iris with more of the items. Iris smiled up at her with gratitude anyway, and Ivy forced herself to smile back.
Some days, Iris could be infuriatingly kind. It really wasn’t fair that she was that pretty and that talented and that nice.
“Thanks, sis,” Iris said cheerfully, oblivious to Ivy’s inner turmoil, and drew the bowl towards her, pulling out potatoes so she could begin chopping them.
Ivy headed back to the fruit platter on the counter. Those honeycrisp apples were some of the best she’d ever had, and she couldn’t seem to keep her hands off them.
“Well, they’ve ruined everything,” she informed Iris around a mouthful of apple.
“Everything?” Iris echoed skeptically.
“Yeah! There was this guy, and—”
“Hey, you guys, I need to know where you want this table,” one of the caterers said, popping his head around the kitchen door.
Iris started to struggle to her feet, but Ivy waved her off. “You sit and take a break and get the damn salad done already. There are rumblings in the ranks that no one has brought the famous McLain salad out yet. I’ll go.” It was about time she helped out, instead of just mooning over cowboys. She snagged another apple slice and headed out the door, listening as the caterer outlined the issue. She would get this straightened out, and then go hide in her parent’s broom closet. It was the least she could do for Iris, and for her parents.
It wasn’t their fault that returning to Long Valley was the disaster she knew it would be. That blame could be laid squarely at the feet of two women who’d spent years of their lives making Ivy’s life miserable…
And one hunky cowboy with terrible taste in women.
She was flying back to California tomorrow, and already, she couldn’t wait.