His Christmas Family

Publisher: Cardinal Press, LLC

Formats: eBook, print 

ASIN: B07J5N2LS7

ISBN: 978-1944777180

 

Attraction soon flares between Grace and Bill, but she won’t gamble her heart on another hero and he doesn’t consider himself husband material. Can a little Christmas magic show them love and a family are worth the risks?

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His Christmas Family


Two and a half years after Grace Wilcox’s husband died a war hero, the hole in her heart and life remains. She wants to start over with their young son, but a snowstorm thwarts her plans, stranding them in Hood Hamlet. When Grace knocks on a stranger’s door in search of help, a handsome firefighter comes to the rescue.

Bill Paulson invites the two wayward travelers into his home. A relationship and family aren’t on his radar, but something about the widow and her son touches Bill’s heart. While Grace’s truck is being repaired, she wants to give her son a special Christmas. An overgrown kid who loves the holidays, Bill decides to do the same for Grace.

Attraction soon flares between Grace and Bill, but she won’t gamble her heart on another hero and he doesn’t consider himself husband material. Can a little Christmas magic show them love and a family are worth the risks?

Previously published as A Little Bit of Holiday Magic
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Read an Excerpt


“No worries. I have power, Mom.” Bill Paulson walked out of the kitchen holding a bottle of beer in one hand and the phone against his ear in the other. “This is your third call tonight. It’s late. Go to bed. I’ll be by tomorrow to plow your driveway. I have to check the rental properties, too.”

“Unless the snow keeps falling.”

Her hopeful tone was not unexpected. His mom preferred him stuck inside and safe, rather than on another outdoor adventure. She seemed to forget he was thirty-three, not thirteen. Though, admittedly, he sometimes acted more like a kid than an adult.

“It better stop snowing.” He sat in his favorite chair—a comfortable, oversized leather recliner. Sports highlights played on the TV with the volume muted. Flames danced, and wood crackled in the fireplace. “I didn’t get to ski today. I want to go tomorrow.”

A drawn-out, oh-so-familiar sigh came across the line, annoying him like a tickle in the throat before a full-blown cold erupted. He loved his mom, but he could recite from memory what was coming next.

“There’s more to life than climbing and skiing,” she said.

“You don’t climb or ski.”

“No, but you do.”

“My life rocks.” Bill took a sip of beer. “I enjoy helping people in trouble and carving the first tracks in two feet of fresh powder.”

“You’re headstrong like your father. Always off doing your own thing.”

Bill knew that disapproving-mother tone all too well. He’d grown up hearing how much he was like his dad, a man who was never around to support and love her. But this was different. His mom didn’t understand the pull of the mountain. The allure of the adrenaline rush. The satisfaction of a successful mission. She was too worried Bill would end up hurt or dead. That could happen one of these days, but still…

Time to change the subject before she laid another guilt trip on him. He didn’t want to end up disappointing her again. “This morning, I put up the Santa you brought over. Got the lights strung outside, too.”

“Wonderful. Is the tree decorated?”

Two ornaments—a snowboard and a snowshoe—hung from the branches of a seven-foot noble fir. Bill had a box full of ornaments, but he’d gotten bored while trimming the tree. Decorating with a sexy snow bunny for a helper would have been more fun than doing it alone. “The tree’s coming along. I’ve got a present under there.”

He wasn’t about to tell his mom the gift was a wedding present for Leanne Thomas, his paramedic best friend, and Christian Welton, a fellow firefighter, who were getting married on Saturday. Soon, Bill would be the only member of their friend group still single.

He didn’t mind.

Marriage was fine for other people. Somehow, his parents had remained together in spite of spending so much time apart. Maybe when Bill hit forty, he would reconsider matrimony. Then again, maybe not. He didn’t need another woman dependent on him.

“I’m happy to finish decorating your tree,” Mom said.

He had no doubt she would happily decorate his whole house, while wearing an embroidered Christmas sweater with jingle bells dangling from her earlobes. With her husband away most of the time, she focused her attention and energy on Bill. Always had. After she’d miscarried during a difficult pregnancy, she’d become a hovering, overprotective mom. His turning eighteen, twenty-one—even thirty—hadn’t lessened the mother-hen tendencies. She’d been a helicopter parent before the term existed.

He stared at his beer. “Give me another week.”

“We’ll talk tomorrow.” She made a smacking sound, her version of a goodnight kiss over the phone. “Sleep well, dear.”

“Will do.” Too bad he’d be sleeping alone. Stormy nights were perfect for cuddling. But the Christmas dating deadline—the second Monday in December when men stopped seeing women in order to avoid spending the holidays with them—had passed. “’Night, Mom.”

He placed the phone on the end table and took a long pull of beer. This year’s seasonal brew, Rudolf’s Red Ale from the Hood Hamlet Brewing Company, went down smoothly.

He glanced at a photograph hanging on the wall—of Jake Porter, Leanne, Sean Hughes, Nick Bishop, Tim Moreno, and himself at Smith Rock during a sunny day of rock climbing in central Oregon. He raised his bottle in memory of Nick, who’d died nine years ago during a climb on Mount Hood’s Reid Headwall at Christmastime.

Wind rattled the windows.

Storm, storm, go away. Billy Paulson wants to play.

He finished the rest of the beer.

Game highlights gave way to a sports talk show.

He flipped through the channels, not bothering to unmute the volume. News. Chick flick. Syndicated comedy. The same boring programs.

Bill heard a knock.

No one would be out tonight. Must be a branch against the house.

Another knock.

He stood.

The knocking continued. Rapid. Loud.

Not a branch. More like someone in trouble.

Bill ran and opened the door.

Frigid wind slammed into his body. Bits of ice pelted his face. Swirling snow blinded him.

He blinked. Focused.

A woman stood on the porch, holding a bunch of blankets. Snow covered her.

Bill ushered her inside and then closed the door.

Wet hair obscured her face. Her jeans and jacket were soaked. So were her gloves.

As he brushed the snow off her jacket, icy wetness chilled his palms. “What’s going on?”

Her teeth chattered. “S-slid into a s-snowbank.”

He tried to assess her condition, but with all those blankets in her arms, he couldn’t see much. “Were you buckled up?”

She nodded.

He led her closer to the fireplace, careful to stay near her in case she fell or passed out. “Did you hit your head?”

“No. Air b-bag.”

That was a plus. Still, her jerky speech concerned him. “Back or neck pain?”

“No.”

Her answer didn’t ease his concern. “Does anything hurt?”

“F-f-face was b-burning. H-hard to breathe. B-but that’s better now.” She shivered. “Just c-c-old.”

Bill pushed the wet hair off her face to see her better.

Wide amber eyes. Flushed cheeks. Runny nose.

Full, generous lips.

The kind a man, at least this man, dreamed about tasting and kissing and…

Her mouth trembled.

Focus, Paulson. “Let’s get you out of that wet jacket.”

She held out the pile of blankets. “M-m-my s-son.”

Adrenaline shot through Bill. He grabbed the child, hurried to the fireplace, and then laid him on the rug in front of it. “Is he injured?”

“I d-don’t think so.”

Bill peeled away the sodden top layer. “How old is he?”

She removed her gloves before struggling out of her pink fleece jacket—nothing more than a waterlogged sponge now. “Three.”

Another blanket came off, this one drier than the last. “What’s his name?”

The woman slipped off canvas sneakers. She wasn’t wearing socks. Not exactly dressed for the weather. What in the world was she doing driving around in a snowstorm? And how had she wound up on his street?

“Liam.” She stepped away from the puddle of water pooling by her shoes. “I’m G-Grace. Grace Wilcox.”

“Bill Paulson.”

“Mommy,” a small, scared voice said from beneath a blue fleece blanket.

Grace kneeled next to the boy. She wore a short-sleeved T-shirt. Goose bumps covered her arms. “R-right here, honey.”

Bill raised the blanket. “Liam?”

A small boy with dark hair and pale skin stared up with quarter-sized blue eyes. He wore red mittens and forest-green footie pajamas.

Bill gave the kid his best fireman smile. “Hello, little dude.”

Liam’s lips quivered. “Mommy.”

Grace pulled his mitten-covered hand onto her lap. “It’s okay.”

Okay? Only if she were talking about them being out of the storm. Perhaps she had hit her head or maybe she was drunk.

Bill didn’t smell alcohol. She didn’t show any obvious signs of impairment, except for driving late at night in a blizzard. “Was Liam in a car seat?”

Her do-I-look-like-a-bad-mother glare hit Bill like an ice pick in the forehead. “Of course my son was in a car seat. He was in the back seat.”

“Just a question.” Bill didn’t see any cuts or bruises. “No offense intended.”

He touched the boy’s shoulder.

She grabbed the top of Bill’s hand, her fingers, as cold as Popsicles, dug into his skin. “What are you doing?”

“Checking your son.” Bill knew the anxious mother was watching his every move. “I’m a firefighter with Hood Hamlet Fire and Rescue. I have EMT training. I’m a wilderness first responder with OMSAR, too.”

“OMSAR?”

Definitely not from around here if she didn’t know what that was. He shot her a sideways glance. Nervous but attractive, with high cheekbones and a straight nose. Mid-twenties, if that. “Oregon Mountain Search and Rescue.”

Her expression went from distrustful to relieved. “Guess I picked the right house.”

“Da-arn straight.” Bill didn’t want to curse in front of the kid. “No visible signs of trauma. Does anything hurt, buddy?”

The little guy sniffled. “P-nut.”

Bill cocked his head at Grace. “Huh?”

“Peanut is right here.” She handed the child a stuffed animal. “Tell Mr. Paulson if anything hurts, okay?”

The kid’s eyes glistened. Tears would fall in 3…2…1.

“Tummy.” Liam’s voice cracked.

Internal injury? Bill’s throat constricted. “I need to check Liam’s abdomen.”

Color drained from the woman’s face. She rubbed her hands over her mouth. “Maybe we should call 9-1-1.”

“I am 9-1-1, minus the truck, flashing lights, and uniform.” Bill grabbed the pajama zipper and pulled. “Relax. I know what I’m doing. If he needs help, we’ll get it.”

“Hungry,” Liam said.

Bill’s hand stalled. “You want something to eat?”

The little boy nodded.

“Wanting food is a good sign.” Bill examined Liam. No redness or marks from where the car seat straps may have dug into his body. No signs of distress, shock, or concussion. The kid seemed fine. “How does a cookie sound?”

A grin brighter than the lights on the Christmas tree erupted on the little boy’s face. “Cookie! I want cookie, puh-lease.”

Bill’s throat relaxed, allowing him to breathe easier. The kid was going to be okay. But the mom was another story. Not quite panicked, but cold and suspicious.

The dark circles under her eyes told only half the story. Exhausted, check. Stressed, check. Nervous, two checks. Her gaze darted back and forth, unable to focus on one thing for too long. But with each pass, her gaze lingered on him a second longer than the last. Her wariness bothered him. She seemed to forget she’d knocked on his door tonight.

“Do you want a cookie?” he asked. “Chocolate chip. My mom made them.”

Grace gnawed on her lip. “No, thanks.”

Bill rose. He grabbed two chocolate chip cookies from the snowman-shaped cookie jar on the kitchen counter before returning to the living room. He handed one to Liam, who’d removed his mittens, and the other to Grace, who looked as if he’d given her a grenade with the pin pulled.

Her mouth slanted. “I didn’t want one.”

“You need one.” He watched Liam munch his treat. “Nothing wrong with his appetite.”

“Unless I’m trying to feed him veggies.”

Grace’s lighthearted tone surprised Bill, but hearing her sense of humor emerge was good. “Who wants to eat icky green and orange things?”

The kid nodded, the stuffed animal he held bobbing as if in agreement.

“Green and orange things”—Grace emphasized the last word—“help a person grow to be big and strong. I’m sure Mr. Paulson didn’t become a firefighter by eating junk food and drinking soda.”

Grace sounded like a mom. Duh. She was one. He wasn’t helping her out here. “Your mom’s correct, Liam. Eat lots of vegetables, fruit, and protein if you want to grow up to be big and strong like me.”

She stared down her nose at Bill. “Modest.”

Her tone screamed not interested. That only piqued his. “Humility is a virtue.”

Grace opened her mouth but didn’t speak. She took a bite of her cookie.

Bill knelt next to her. Wet hair dampened her shirt. She smelled good, a mix of vanilla, cinnamon, and something he couldn’t place. “Let’s see how you’re doing.”

Still holding the cookie, she crossed her arms tight over her chest. “I’m okay. The snow washed away the powder from the air bag.”

“Examining you won’t take long.”

She scooted away. “I’m good.”

He cut the distance between them. “Let me make sure.”

Grace stood. Moving took effort. A battle of fatigue, stress, and shock, one she was losing. “You’ve done enough.”

He scanned the length of her, checking for obvious injuries. He didn’t see any. “Show me where the seat belt straps hit you.”

“It’s not necessary. I told you, the air bag—”

“If you stiffened prior to impact, you’re going to be sore.”

“I’m—”

“I’m trying to do my job here. That’s all. Please let me examine you.” He was losing patience. “I have to determine if you need to go to the hospital tonight.”

She nibbled on her lip.

“Would it make a difference if I put on my uniform?” he asked.

“None whatsoever.” Her firm voice left no doubt she was serious. “I appreciate you letting us get warm, but I need to find a place to stay tonight.”

“You’re not going anywhere unless it’s the hospital.”

She peered out the window. “But—”

“The weather’s wicked. You’re staying here. I’ll keep an eye on you.”

Forget a deer in the headlights. Grace’s expression made her appear as if she’d been flattened by a semi. “That’s—”

“Your only option.”

Her mouth twisted.

He wasn’t deterred. “I have two spare bedrooms. Use one or both.” Bill pointed to her coat. “You may feel warmer without your wet jacket and shoes, but you need to change clothes.”

Grace rubbed her neck.

“Sore?” he asked.

“Fine.” She moistened her lips. “All my clothes are in the truck.”

“I have something you can wear.” Bill sprinted to his bedroom, riffled through his drawers, and grabbed a pair of flannel pajamas, a Christmas gift from his parents last year. Well, from his mom. His dad usually arrived home on Christmas Eve and was out the door on the twenty-sixth, leaving Bill to become his mom’s entire world again. Maybe if he’d had a sibling, a little brother or sister, things would be different. Better. But Bill hadn’t called for help soon enough. His mother had lost her baby and couldn’t have another.

He handed the pajamas to Grace. “They’ll be big on you.”

She stared at them as if he’d handed her a French maid outfit to wear, complete with fishnet stockings and a feather duster.

Her jaw tensed. “You want me to wear your pajamas?”

He pressed his lips together to keep from smiling. “They’re practically new. I’ve only worn the bottoms a couple of times. Flannel is warm. You might be hypothermic.”

Her suspicion targeted him once more. A good thing she wasn’t armed, or he would be a goner.

“You’re really a firefighter and mountain rescuer?”

“Check the pictures on the mantel.” He pointed to framed articles and photographs. “And the walls.”

As she surveyed his home, Grace held the pajamas in front of her like a shield.

Okay, he got it. Got her.

No wedding ring and a kid had made her cautious. That was smart. She didn’t know him. Didn’t know that her having a child meant he considered her off-limits, a look-but-don’t-touch modern-day leper.

“My job is to help people in trouble. I do that when I’m on the mountain, too,” he explained. “That’s all I’m trying to do here.”

“It’s just…” Grace focused on Liam, who was playing with Peanut. She touched the boy’s head. “I’ve never been stranded—with a stranger.”

“No worries. I understand. But you’re safe here. If it makes you feel any better, the bedroom doors lock.”

“From the inside or outside?”

That would have been funny if she hadn’t sounded so serious. “I have an idea. I’ll call the sheriff’s office. Let them know about your truck, so they can get it towed. Then you can talk to the sheriff or a deputy. They’ll appease your concerns about staying here tonight.”

“The sheriff and his deputies will vouch for you?” Only a deaf person would miss her please-someone-tell-me-he’s-not-psychotic plea.

“I’ve lived in Hood Hamlet my whole life. I know everybody.”

Grace took in the articles and photographs hanging on the wall again. The tension in her face, especially around her mouth, lessened. “Okay. Let’s call the sheriff. I doubt there’s more than one black pickup stuck in a snowbank around here, but in case there is, mine has Georgia plates.”

“Long way from home.”

She shrugged.

Must be a story there. Not his business.

Even if he was curious….