While I love anthologies, I have to say my favorites are often the ones where the authors choose a common theme or, better yet, really work together to have an overall story arc that ties the novellas together. In this excellent collection, all the stories are set in the same small Virgina town a few days before Christmas. The local historic landmark, the Price mansion, caught on fire and the town is in an uproar.
“Christmas Kisses” by Lori Wilde
One of the first people on the scene of the burned out mansion is police sergeant Noah Briscoe. The upcoming holiday dredges up bad memories for him and poking around the burned out former governor’s home only makes them worse. At least working all the time helps him keep his mind off the gorgeous redheaded defense attorney, Alana O’Hara, with whom he shared several hot kisses a year ago before she decided they were too different. But he’s not been interested in anyone since that, having to settle for his erotic dreams and near-constant daytime fantasies about her.
Alana knows Noah has walls around him that would rival Jericho and she didn’t think he could be more bah-humbug about the season until she gets notice that he’s arrested Santa Claus at the scene of the mansion fire. Arriving to defend the very sweet Christopher Clausen, their proximity stirs up all that delicious sexual tension. But Alana brushes it off as just that. She knows if she allows herself to sleep with Noah, she’s going to want him to open up and have a relationship with her and it’s all too obvious that’s not in his nature.
The best laid plans of mice and men….Of course, they can’t resist how much they want each other, especially when Noah knows that Alana has seen him at the cemetery putting roses on his mother’s grave. She can figure out what he’s been through and he hopes she knows what she’s getting. He wants to tell her the feelings she stirs up in him but can’t bring himself to do anything other than love her with his body. Seeing as he does that really well, Alana is thrilled but knows she’s also fallen for him. When he starts having morning after cold feet, she plays it cool and let’s him know that if he shows up at the Christmas Eve Firefighter Ball she’ll know he’s interested, otherwise not to worry about it, even if she’s dying inside at the thought of losing him.
I loved how tortured Noah is and yet Wilde makes clear just how much love he has to give, especially as Alana just tramples over his defenses with her Christmas cheer and understanding. The ending at the ball was wonderful (I love the present he gets her) and to finally hear Noah tell her what’s really in his heart is worth waiting for. I would have liked a couple more pages to expand upon his epiphany, but other than that, this was a terrific start to the anthology and lays a strong sense of place for the subsequent novellas.
“Baring It All” by Kathleen O’Reilly
EMT Eric Marshall might be the only son of the wealthy Marshalls in town, but he rejected his snooty family’s dreams and law school to become an emergency responder instead. He’s a jaded man who prides himself on being detached in all situations and the EMT motto of “treat, transport, take off” could be applied to women for him as well. In hanging out outside the shell of the historic mansion as the firefighters put out the flames, he figures the worst case he’s going to get is from one of the rescue workers, but he’s galvanized into action when one of them pulls a woman from the wreckage.
He’s even more shocked when he recognizes her. Chloe Skidmore, the daughter of the former caretaker of the Price mansion, is a blast from Eric’s past and while she might look different now (forty pounds lighter and a lot more vulnerable) he treated her so badly when she was sixteen that he’s ashamed of his behavior. When the wound on her head seems to have given her a temporary amnesia, it’s almost a relief, but his vision of a reunion where he can redress his wrongs crumbles upon seeing the ring on her finger. She’s married and while he might have cut a swath through almost every single woman in town, he doesn’t touch the married ones.
The woman caught in the fire opens her eyes to see a familiar man but she has no idea who she is or what happened. She’s frightened, but this handsome EMT with the deep gray eyes is enormously comforting. So why does she think of him in a tuxedo and be fighting the urge to hit him? As he helps her with a place to stay, all the while claiming it’s because he has to help her recover her memory so he can file the insurance claim for the ambulance, she knows that he knows who she is even though he’s not saying much. The more time they spend together the harder it is to resist the pull to touch each other, even with the elephant in the room of her marital status. As her memories slowly begin to come back, Chloe has to deal with the shame she felt growing up in a town that looked down on her, and on the secret relationship she and Eric had back when they were kids. Whether he’s willing to let everyone know he wants her now is still up in the air.
This was a VERY impressive story. Eric is such a cold customer and the more you find out initially, the less there is to like. But O’Reilly does a masterful job showing you how Eric was fighting his family demons and yet always had a thing for Chloe, even when she was heavy and from the wrong side of the tracks. The climactic scene in the hotel with the music was out of this world fabulous and I liked understanding the complexity of both the hero and heroine’s emotions as they dealt with the past. I’m going out to buy some O’Reilly stories ASAP after this one.
“A Hot December Night” by Candace Havens
Party planner and new transplant Kristen Lovejoy has been planning the Christmas Eve Firefighters Ball for months now and one of the best parts is having Assistant Fire Chief Jason Turner on the committee. He’s a gorgeous piece of eye candy but since she’s heard he’s a womanizer, she’s steering clear of him. Nevertheless, she can’t resist asking for a follow-up cup of coffee after the latest shouting match among the dedicated women volunteers of the town. The Price mansion fire has everyone anxious about making the fundraising party a major success.
Jason has been fantasizing about the voluptuous blond bombshell for months but not asked her out for fear of bringing small town scrutiny down on their heads. Even though this woman seems like she’s the type who would be looking for something long-term and that’s not been his MO in the past, he can’t help but blurt out a dinner invitation as they are sipping their coffee. To his relief, she says yes.
The date is an utter disaster, at least from Kristen’s standpoint. She botches her hair dye right before the date, can barely zip up her dress from the Christmas cookies she’s been eating (and then can’t get in his truck without assistance because of her pencil skirt), her bracelet catches on fire before the wine arrives (good thing Jason’s a fireman) and then she leans forward only to split her dress. After ditching him at the restaurant in utter shame, she comes home to her dog in labor and Kristen didn’t even know she was pregnant! That Jason handles everything with utter equanimity convinces her of how perfect he is.
There’s only one problem and it’s a big one. Jason’s job involves him putting his life in danger all the time and as the daughter of a military man who died in the line of duty, Kristen’s not sure she can handle that. It might be easier to cut this thing with Jason short now and save herself heartache in the end. But when Jason doesn’t take no for an answer, she’s got to confront her demons and figure out what she really wants for her future.
Candace Havens in a fantastic writer! I loved both Jason and Kristen (big surprise since Havens’ book, Model Marine, was one of my favorite Blaze titles read this year) and thought their relationship extremely well drawn with enough conflict to keep me guessing how this was going to resolve and lots of delicious heat between them. Havens has a talent for taking unlikely pairings and showing how there are enough commonly shared values under the surface for a relationship to work if both parties would just wake up and realize it! She’s also an extremely funny and authoritative speaker, if you ever get the chance to hear her.
Wilde, O’Reilly and Havens obviously coordinated well since the periodic appearance of a sage Santa helps prod the couples into the direction of Christmas romance. I think of all the books I’ve read for this Countdown to Christmas series, this one has the best injection of true romance for the season although I’m sure the small town setting and a higher than average hottie quotient per capita helps.
This anthology is an outstanding addition to the Blaze line and a great addition to anyone’s stack of holiday reads. Many thanks to these fine authors for giving us such a great Christmas present! 🙂