“Silver Bells” by Fern Michaels
For years, movie star Amy Lee wondered what it would be like to leave her shallow Hollywood life and go back home to Apple Valley, Pennsylvania. This Christmas, she plans to find out. And Hank Anders, her high-school boyfriend, is now ready to give her a welcome she’ll never forget . . .
“Dear Santa . . .” by JoAnn Ross
Mystery author Holly Berry’s SUV has broken down in the little hamlet of Santa’s Village, Washington. Holly hates the holidays—that is until lodge owner Gabriel O’Halloran and his five-year-old daughter rekindle her belief in passion, magic, and Christmas wishes . . .
“Christmas Past” by Mary Burton
Photographer Nicole Piper just received a very unwelcome Christmas gift—a letter that holds clues to an elusive killer’s identity. Uncovering the truth means enlisting homicide detective David Ayden’s help, and embarking on a road trip that will take them both into the heart of danger and desire . . .
“A Mulberry Park Christmas” by Judy Duarte
Every Christmas, the folks living on Sugar Plum Lane pull out all the stops when decorating. After a bitter breakup, Alyssa Ridgeway’s heart just isn’t in it this year. But running into her first love, James “Mac” MacGregor, fills her with memories of the tender Christmas kiss they once shared . . .
|Product dimensions:||4.10(w) x 7.40(h) x 1.30(d)|
About the Author
New York Times bestselling author JOANN ROSS has written ninety novels and has been published in twenty-six countries. A member of RWA’s Honor Roll of bestselling authors, she lives in Tennessee. Visit JoAnn at www.joannross.com.
MARY BURTON lives with her family in Central Virginia. She is an avid hiker and enjoys the occasional triathlon. She can be reached by e-mail at www.maryburton.com.
JUDY DUARTE lives with her family in Oceanside, California. Readers can visit her website at www.judyduarte.com.
Hometown:Summerville, South Carolina
Place of Birth:Hastings, Pennsylvania
Read an Excerpt
Amy Lee stood at the railing on the second floor of her palatial home in Malibu, staring down with quiet intensity at her guests, mostly employees and a few acquaintances. The occasion was her annual Christmas party. Why she even bothered she had no idea.
It had taken a crew of four three whole days to decorate the house from top to bottom. Another crew of three to decorate the outside. Christmas trees in every room, huge wreaths with red satin bows over all the mantels. Gossamer angels floated from ceiling wire, while a life-size stuffed Santa complete with a packed sleigh and a parade of elves circled the floor-to-ceiling fireplace that separated the great room from the dining room. The focal point of all the decorations.
The mansion was festive to the nth degree, and she hated every bit of it. She could hardly wait for midnight, when she handed out the gifts and bonus checks, at which point the guests would make a beeline for the door, having done their duty by attending the festivities.
Amy rubbed at her temples. She'd had a raging headache all day, and it looked like it was going to stay with her throughout the night. She knew she had to go back downstairs, paste a smile on her face, and somehow manage to get through the next hour. For the hundredth time she wished she was anywhere but here. Here was California. While she lived in Malibu, she worked in Hollywood, where she and all the other movie stars worked. Phony and superficial Hollywood — just like most of the people she worked with. But she'd learned how to play the game, and it was a game. If you wanted the star status that she had, you learned quickly what the rules were. And then you stuck to them.
Amy always told herself she would know when it was time to get out. She wasn't sure, but she suspected the time was now. At thirty-three she was fast approaching has-been status. New, rowdy, outrageous, flamboyant starlets were giving the paparazzi a run for their money in their bid for stardom, and it was working. It seemed like the world couldn't live another day unless they read about one of the starlet's underwear or lack thereof, or getting busted for drunk driving while underage or of age, then signing autographs for the arresting officers or going to jail for ignoring the law. Autographs to the highest bidder as they were being fingerprinted. Translation — big bucks at the box office.
She wasn't a prude, but she'd always prided herself on a certain decorum befitting her celebrity. She didn't flit from affair to affair, she didn't drink and drive, she didn't do drugs, and she absolutely refused to do nude sex scenes in her movies. One of the tabloids recently called her dull and said she wouldn't know what excitement was or an adrenaline rush if it hit her in the face. They were right.
Amy looked down at the dress she was wearing. It was a plain Armani scarlet sheath befitting the holidays, with a slit up the leg. It draped perfectly over her body. Just the right neckline, just the right amount of sleeve. She'd walked the red carpet enough to know she looked glamorous in her sparkling gown. Just like all her female guests looked glamorous. Once she'd heard a rumor that if you wanted to attend an Amy Lee party, you had better dress down. At the time she'd thought it funny. Now, it wasn't funny. Why was that?
Her head continued to throb each time she put her foot on one of the steps. Thank God she'd made it to the bottom without her head splitting open. She walked among her guests, chatted, patted arms, smiled, and even giggled at something one of her employees said. She risked a glance at her watch. Fifty minutes to go. Three thousand seconds. It felt like a lifetime.
It dawned on Amy that she'd been so busy with the party details that she hadn't eaten a thing all day. Maybe if she ate something, the headache would go away.
Amy made her way over to the buffet table. Earlier in the evening it had looked gorgeous, with a Christmas tree ice sculpture nestled in a circle of bright red poinsettias. The matching red candles had long ago burned down. Red candle wax pooled on the white tablecloth. The lobster and shrimp in their ice bowls, what was left of it, looked watery. The turkey and roast beef looked dry. The champagne fountain was as dry as the turkey and roast beef. She felt a surge of anger. Where were the people she'd hired to take care of the table? Outside smoking cigarettes, that's where. Did it even matter? When the last guest left, maybe she'd scramble herself some eggs.
Forty minutes to go. Two thousand four hundred seconds. What she should do was go to the sleigh, pretend her watch was fast, and start handing out the presents and the bonus checks. There were expensive token gifts for the other guests, so they wouldn't feel left out. Boy/girl gifts. Tomorrow it would be all over TMZ, Page Six, and anywhere else the gossips gathered. It was all part of playing the game.
Amy moved closer to the sleigh, touched her secretary's arm, and whispered. Word spread, and the guests started to mince their way toward the sleigh.
Twenty minutes later it was all over, and she was standing at the door wishing the last guest a Merry Christmas. Two weeks early, the last guest pointed out. "But then, my dear, you always were ahead of the curve." Amy forced a smile and stood in the open doorway until the last car pulled away from the driveway. The valet boys waved and walked down the driveway.
Amy turned to go inside when she looked at her oversize magnificent front door. She loved everything about the house, but the front door was special. She'd had it made of mahogany and gone to great lengths to find a lumber mill to round it out so that it looked like a cathedral door. Anytime she had been interviewed at home, the reporters had taken pictures of her front door. A memory. She was going to miss it. Her eyes burned when she looked at the huge silver bells attached to a glorious red satin bow. The bells were hammered silver, specially made. The tone was so pure, so melodious, it always brought tears to her eyes when they rang. Another memory. Maybe she'd take the bells with her.
Amy closed the huge door and locked it. Now she could relax. First, though, she walked about, turning off lights. The buffet table had been cleared and carried away. There was still noise in the kitchen, but she ignored it. She kicked off her heels and made her way to the sofa. She sat down, leaned back, and closed her eyes. It took a full minute to realize her headache was finally gone.
The multicolored lights on the artificial tree winked at her. How pretty it looked in the dim light of the great room. In broad daylight it looked like just what it was — a fake tree with a bunch of junk hanging off it.
As a child, back home in Pennsylvania, there had always been a floor-to-ceiling live tree that scented the entire house. Until that fateful Christmas when she was fourteen and allowed to go to the mall alone. Three days before Christmas, she'd gone to the mall with two of her friends. An hour into her shopping the police had come for her to tell her a gas explosion had rocked their house and killed her parents.
The days afterward were still a blur. She knew she'd gone to her parents' funeral, knew she stayed at her friend Katie's house until her aunt Flo, a writer of travelogues, could be found. A week later she'd been located in Madrid, Spain. She'd rushed home, swooped Amy into her arms, then swooped her out to California, where Amy had lived ever since.
There had been money, lots and lots of money that her aunt Flo invested for her. Huge insurance policies added to her robust nest egg. And the house was hers, too. The town had pitched in to repair the damage from the explosion, then closed up the house. Flo paid the taxes every year and said from time to time that they would go back, but they never did. Neighbors mowed the lawn in the summer and shoveled the snow in the winter. Kind people, caring people who had loved her parents. Flo said people in small towns looked out for one another. Amy believed it.
She'd cried a lot back then because she missed her parents. Not that Flo wasn't a wonderful substitute. She was, but it wasn't the same as having a real mom. Flo had enrolled her in everything there was to enroll in — gymnastics, soccer, choir, art classes, music classes, the drama club — everything to keep her hours full. But at night, when she was alone in her pretty bedroom, which Flo had decorated herself, she would cry.
Her world changed in her senior year when she had the lead in the school play. She'd given a rousing performance or so said the critics. A movie producer had shown up at the door five days later and asked her if she'd be interested in an audition with a photo op. Flo had raised her eyebrows and hovered like a mother hen in case it was some kind of scam. It wasn't. Flo continued to hover, saying college was a must. Amy had agreed, and the studio worked around her studies. Back then she did two movies a year, not little parts, not big parts, but big enough for her to get noticed. And then the plum of all plums, the lead in a Disney movie. Her career took off like a rocket. Flo still hovered until she convinced herself that Amy could take care of herself. The only thing Flo had objected to was the name change from Amanda Leigh to Amy Lee. But in the end, when her niece said she was okay with it, Flo stepped aside and continued on with her own career, which she had put on hold to take care of Amy.
Thanks to modern technology, aunt and niece stayed in touch daily. Time and scheduling permitting, they always managed at least one vacation a year together.
Amy closed her eyes again as she ran the last phone call with Flo through her mind. Flo had called just as she was getting out of bed. She'd flopped back onto the pillows, and they talked for almost an hour. The last thing she'd said to her aunt before breaking the connection was, "I don't want to do this anymore, Flo. I want to go home. I am going home. Tomorrow as a matter of fact. I bought my ticket two weeks ago."
"Just like that, you're throwing it all away?" Flo had said.
"Well, not exactly. I have two more pictures on my contract, and I don't have to report to the studio till April of next year. I don't know if I'm burned out, or I just need to get out of the business. Come April, I might be more than ready to go back. I will honor the contract, so that's not a problem. Before you can ask, I am financially secure. You know I never touched my inheritance. I've got fifty times that amount from my earnings, and it's all invested wisely. I'm okay, so don't worry about me."
"Mandy, I just want you to be happy," Flo said. She'd never once called her by her Hollywood name. "I want you to find a nice man, get married, have kids, get a couple of dogs, and be happy. It's all I ever wanted for you. I'm just not sure you're going to find happiness back in Pennsylvania."
"We should have gone back, Flo."
"Woulda, coulda, shoulda. I did what I thought was best. For you. So, you're going to open up the house and ... what ... put down some roots?"
"I don't know, Flo. Maybe I'm looking for something that doesn't exist, and you're right, if I had wanted to go back earlier, I would have made your life miserable until you took me. The best I can come up with is, I wasn't ready to go back. I'm ready now, and I'm going. It would be nice if you could find a way to join me. Hint, hint."
"Darling girl, I met a man! He has the soul of an angel, and don't ask me how I know this. I just know it. He loves me, warts and all. He's a simple man, never been out of Madrid. He lives on a farm. Owns the farm, actually. Never been on an airplane. I'll ask him if he wants to spend Christmas with my movie star niece. He's seen all your movies, by the way. He thinks you're a nice-looking lass."
Amy laughed. "You getting married?"
"The minute he asks me, I am, but he has to ask first. I have to run, Mandy, I have an appointment I can't break. I'll call you tomorrow."
"Love you, Flo."
"And I love you, too."
Amy sighed. Flo had a boyfriend. At sixty-five, Flo had a boyfriend. Here she was, at thirty-three, without a prospect in sight. How weird was that?
Amy gathered up the sequined shoes that matched her gown. She walked out to the kitchen to see if the caterers had cleaned up thoroughly. The kitchen was spotless. She locked the back door and turned out the light. The great room had a master switch that turned off all the tree lights as well as the overhead lights. The outside lights were set on a timer that would turn everything off a little before dawn.
As she walked up the stairs to the second floor she found herself wondering if Hank Anders still lived back home. Her first boyfriend. The first boy who had ever given her a gift. Hank had been the first boy to kiss her. On the lips. She hadn't had a chance to tell him good-bye. Where was he right now? What was he doing? If he still lived in Apple Valley, would he remember her? Not likely, thanks to Flo and her transformation from small- town girl to glamorous Hollywood star. She'd had her nose done, gotten braces, wore contacts, and her hair was a different color. Flo had seen to it that her past stayed in the past. She'd never been able to figure that out. As far as her bio went, she was born and raised in California. Went to UCLA. End of story.
Or was it the beginning?
Henry Anders, also known as Cranky Hank Anders, hefted his oversize suitcase off the carousel and looked around for his sister-in-law, who had said she'd meet him in the baggage area. When he didn't see her, he made his way to the closest EXIT sign. And then he saw her pushing a double stroller with the year-old twins, who were howling at the top of their lungs. He wondered if their high-pitched screams had anything to do with the way they were bundled up. Their mother looked just as frazzled as her offspring.
Alice Anders stopped in her tracks and threw out her arms. "Hank! I'm so glad to see you! I'm sorry I'm late. There was traffic, and my two bundles of joy here are overdue for a nap. I had to park a mile away. I'm sorry. I left hours ahead of time just so I wouldn't be late, and what happens, I'm late! Ohhh, I'm just so glad you're here. I was dreading going through the holidays without Ben. I had an e-mail from him this morning, and he warned me not to be late; that's why I left early. He said you hate to wait around for people."
Alice was a talker, he'd give her that. "No problem. Relax, Alice. I could just as easily have taken a cab or gotten a car service. I'm here, you're here, that's all that matters. The twins really grew since Easter. Ben said they're walking now." An anxious note crept into his voice when he said, "He's okay, isn't he?"
Alice shoved a lock of dark hair under the bright red wool hat she was wearing. "As right as someone who's in Iraq can be. He said you're the only one he trusts to step in for him at Christmas. He was supposed to come back in September, but they extended his tour. This will be our first Christmas apart." Tears welled in her eyes as she gave the stroller a shove to get through the door Hank was holding open for her.
A blustery gust of wind whipped across the walkway. The twins howled louder. Alice dropped a light blanket over the top of the stroller to keep the wind at bay. One of the twins ripped it away, one pudgy fist shaking in frustration. The wind picked it up, and it was gone, just like that. Hank was about to chase it down when Alice stopped him. "It doesn't matter, it was an old one. Like I said, I parked a mile away, so let's get going. The sooner I get these two guys in the car, the sooner they'll calm down."
Hank didn't know what to say. He was certainly no authority on kids, babies in particular, so he just walked along, dragging his suitcase. He wondered if the twins slept through the night. Probably not from the look of the dark circles under Alice's eyes.
Out of the corner of his eye he watched his sister-in-law. Once she'd been slim and trim. Once she'd worn makeup and had a fashionable hairdo and she'd dressed in designer clothes. Today she was wearing a down coat of some sort that made her look forty pounds overweight. She was wearing jeans and sneakers, and her hair was up in a ponytail, the tail sticking out of the back of the bright red hat. Maybe marriage wasn't all that wonderful. Maybe he was lucky after all, even though at the time he thought his world was coming to an end when his fiancée had left him standing at the altar on their wedding day. He looked down at the twins, who were trying to poke each other's eyes out. Yeah, yeah, maybe he had dodged the bullet.
Excerpted from "Silver Bells"
Copyright © 2008 Kensington Publishing Corporation.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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