I’m so excited to be part of Sweet Christmas Kisses 5!
Sweet Christmas Kisses 5 brings you contemporary romances that celebrate the joy of the season around the world, including snowy Maine and the sun-kissed skies of Florida, the mountains of Colorado to small-town Illinois and Virginia, New York to San Francisco, and even the glittering lights of Paris and the old-world charm of Florence. The Sweet Christmas Kisses 5 bundle features all-new, standalone novellas that will make you smile and warm your heart with the Christmas spirit.
Today, I’m sharing an excerpt from Chapter One of my contribution, Sweet Peppermint Kisses:
Chiara Johnson sat on a chair near the chrome table in her kitchen, inhaling the enticing scents of vanilla and almond wafting from the oven as her cookies baked. Sighing, she peered around her modest apartment. Although she categorized the first day of December as the beginning of the holiday season, it didn’t feel much like Christmas.
“Sugar cookies,” her mother had always said, “were the answer to all life’s problems.”
Well, maybe they were.
Nostalgic images of baking with her mother and sister brought misty tears. These pangs of nostalgia erupted at the oddest moments, although in December, homesickness was justifiable.
Of course, she would volunteer at the women’s center. Chiara believed in giving back, especially to an organization that had indirectly affected her. Adeline, one of her co-workers, had been homeless for a while until she secured a job. The shelter had enabled her to get back on her feet.
Besides, Chiara thought, volunteering gave her a sense of purpose.
It was just … well, … she hadn’t imagined herself still living in Turning Point, Virginia after three years.
Sure, she’d made friends. Adeline had even launched a book club that met in town every Friday evening, and the women were a delight to be around. However, with Chiara’s work schedule, she had attended only a couple times.
She turned the volume louder on her cell phone as “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” the 1943 version sung by Bing Crosby, came on. One of her favorite holiday tunes, she sang along to the last few bars: “If only in my dreams.”
Dabbing the tears from her eyes, she stood to check on the sugar cookies.
Her cellphone rang and she answered, recognizing the incoming caller’s ID.
“Hi, Emma,” she said as she settled back in her chair.
“Are you sure you can’t move home by Christmas?” her younger sister asked.
“You read my email? Yes, I’m positive.” Chiara cradled the phone to her ear. “I accepted a full-time job for December to help pay off my last tuition bill.”
“Couldn’t someone else in your nursing agency work instead of you?”
Emma was a typical nine-year-old girl. She had a lot to say about every subject, couldn’t see any side of the story except hers, and regarded Chiara as the world’s best sister.
Chiara smiled. It was wonderful to feel adored.
“Everyone else in the agency either has a significant other or children or both,” she replied. “And they all had holiday plans. I didn’t, and I was available. Plus, the agency was scrambling to fill the position on such short notice.”
“Mom and Dad said you’re an awesome nurse. They say you genuinely care about people.”
“Thank goodness parents put us on a pedestal, right?” Chiara laughed. “Between classes and other expenses, I’ve worked hard to make ends meet. Right now this job is necessary.”
Wasn’t that the understatement of the year?
Obviously, she couldn’t ask her parents for money. Due to the recent economic downturn, they struggled financially. The Midwest had been hit particularly hard.
However, Chiara was determined to succeed. She’d studied hard to earn her RN degree at a high-quality Virginia university and planned on securing a stable, well-paying position.
“So, you start your new job right away?” Emma asked. She was chewing on something, presumably a fruit snack. The little girl ate fruit snacks endlessly.
“Monday is my first day, and it’s a live-in position above a garage, so I’ll be saving rent money,” Chiara said. “My client is a woman recuperating from a fall and a concussion.”
“Did she trip or something?”
Chiara went to the sink to run water into the mixing bowls. “She was riding a horse. The woman lives on a horse ranch.”
“Horses? Lucky you! I want a brown and black pony for Christmas.”
“Umm, horses are way too big for my liking and can be extremely dangerous. Also, it’s not my ranch, and I won’t be riding any horses.”
“Maybe Santa will bring me a horse from the ranch. Tell him.”
“I’ll be staying in a guest apartment over the garage, and I probably won’t run into Santa.”
Chiara wondered if the over-the-garage apartment would be an improvement over her current home. The bland beige walls in the galley kitchen screamed for a colorful face-lift, and the bland vinyl flooring was outdated. A dose of Christmas decorations should have been on her to-do list. Unfortunately, between her classes and home-nursing appointments, she was beyond exhausted.
“Doesn’t Santa come to Virginia?” Emma asked.
“I’m sure he does, although I’ve never seen Santa ride a horse.”
Emma paused. “Do you think you’ll see one of his elves?”
“You never know.”
“Well, one of his elves riding a horse is almost as good as the real Santa.”
“Just in case, I’ll tell Santa I want a pony when I see him at the mall.”
Chiara chuckled. “You do that.” Homesickness welled again. She blew out a breath and kept her voice light. “I’ll Skype all of you on Christmas Day, okay?”
She envisioned her parents and Emma attending the festival of lights exhibition in Kansas City. Oh, how her family delighted in the festivities, marking off the four Sundays before Christmas on the Advent calendar, skating every weekend on the city’s outdoor rink. Emma would be the first one on the ice, gliding fearlessly, not afraid to fall.
Her chest squeezed. Family togetherness was the most significant part of the holidays, and she’d once again miss those days with the people she treasured most.
As she listened to Emma’s excitement about the cool Harry Potter book she was reading, Chiara opened the oven to an eruption of heat. According to the recipe, the cookies were done. According to her eyes, they weren’t. However, the last time she baked cookies, she had burned them until they were unrecognizable.
To be prudent, she removed the raw-looking cookies from the oven and set the trays on the stove. Hopefully, they didn’t taste the way they looked.
“Are you still there? Did you hear what I said?” Emma asked.
“Yes. I’m overjoyed you’re liking the Harry Potter books.” Chiara nodded into the phone. “I’m baking sugar cookies for my agency’s holiday party and had to take them out of the oven.”
“Remember how we try out different recipes for our gingerbread houses?” Emma giggled. “And how they always collapse?”
“We’ll experiment with another recipe this year, an easier one.” Chiara bit into a cookie before realizing it was burning her tongue. Gingerly, she chewed, swallowed, then groped for a glass of water. “Royal icing will stick the pieces together like cement.”
“When? If you’re not here, we won’t be able to build a gingerbread house.”
“I’ll be home by New Year’s Eve. This nursing gig is only for December.”
If she lasted that long. The last wealthy family she’d worked for had treated her poorly. She remembered them well—five people residing in the same home, each settled into their separate spaces and hardly conversing with one another, disregarding her as nothing better than invisible hired help. Defensive, she’d managed her job professionally and kept to herself.
What gave some people the right to be so dismissive to others just because they had money?
She pushed away the memory and finished the cookie. It had hardened already and tasted delicious even without icing and sprinkles.
“Promise?” Emma was asking.
“And if you see Santa at the horse ranch—”
“I’ll mention your pony request.” Chiara glanced at the clock. “I should get ready for my agency’s Christmas party, so we’ll talk soon. I love you.”
“I love you too and I’m giving you a cyber cuddle.”
This was Christmas, Chiara wanted to say. She needed more than a cuddle. She needed to be with people she cherished.
“Be good and tell Mom and Dad I send my love.” She returned Emma’s blown kisses and then ended the call.
That squeeze in her chest again, an ache of loneliness. Lips pressed tight, she moved to the counter where her laptop sat and switched her computer on. Quickly, she scrolled through the job listings on the nursing agency’s website.
There it was. Her one-month gig.
Home Nurse. Temporary live-in position assisting a woman with self-care, companionship and everyday tasks. Immediate opening.
The agency’s report stated the patient was recovering from a concussion and broken ankle after missing a vault in a high-stakes horse competition.
Just like Kevin.
Despite her efforts to never think about him, her mind brought up an image of her ex-boyfriend. Of course, his concussion and broken wrist hadn’t been the result of a horse show. It had been the result of a bar fight.
Why, why, why were his violent tendencies so clear in hindsight? Fortunately, he’d never hit her. But if only she’d had that knowledge beforehand, had understood that a man’s online dating profile didn’t necessarily reveal who the man really was. Despite her parents’ reservations, she had left home and relocated to Virginia to be near him. A few months after their relationship began, she realized he wasn’t the guy for her and broke it off.
Although she longed for all things Kansas, by that point she’d enrolled in a nursing degree program and had secured a full-time job.
So here she was, three years later. Overdrawn on her bank account, in a town she didn’t consider home, not so much as a hint of a boyfriend, and celebrating Christmas by herself.
Focus on the future, not the past, her favorite pastor had once preached, and bring your views on life into context. A home was more than a building, more than a place. A home was where she was a participant, not a consumer who followed from the sidelines.
As she contemplated this, a message popped into her inbox:
“Miss Johnson, a change in plans. My sister has a late morning doctor’s appointment. Please report for your position on Monday afternoon after lunch.”
“Is four o’clock okay?” she quickly typed. “It would be better for me and give me more time to pack my things.”
She pressed send, then felt her body freeze in place.
Since when did a person who’d just gotten a job tell her employer what hour was best to meet?
An immediate reply appeared.
“Make it five. The front gate will open when you drive up. Thanks. Vance Thatcher.”
Sometimes the best gifts are hiding right under your heart.
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Josie Riviera is a USA TODAY bestselling author of contemporary, inspirational, and historical sweet romances that read like Hallmark movies. She lives in the Charlotte, NC, area with her wonderfully supportive husband. They share their home with an adorable shih tzu, who constantly needs grooming, and live in an old house forever needing renovations.
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