What’s your favorite Christmas carol?
That was the question we posed in our Fresh Fiction contest. More than seven hundred people shared their choices with us, and from that we chose twenty lucky winners to give us the titles for our holiday novellas and the books will be dedicated to them in our Love, Christmas Collection.
Every week we’re featuring the first chapter of a novella in the collection. So here is a Sneak Peek at . . .
O Christmas Tree
A Holiday Luv Romance
Piper’s breath caught when Cody Campbell walked in the door of Catalyst, her soon-to-open cat cafe in the sleepy town of North Cove. His virile presence overwhelmed the room, and as she steadied herself she wondered if he had this effect on females wherever he went. When she’d first seen him working at the Christmas tree farm he’d struck her as one of those tragic heroes from legends—powerful and wild, with a wounded past. She’d chalked that impression up to her artsy imagination, until she later heard more about him from Reece and discovered it wasn’t so far from the truth.
Piper lifted the aging tabby that was curled up in her lap and set him on a high bookshelf where he liked to hang out and survey the younger feline residents playing or lounging on the carpet, tables, and benches below.
“Piper Cadence, right?”
She immediately liked his smooth deep voice. It fit her storybook hero perfectly. Piper nodded and walked toward him, telling her wobbly knees that his rep as a carpenter and the fact that Reece said he needed extra work were the reasons she’d hired Cody to build the maze of sleep cubbies for the cats. It had nothing to do with those desolate blue eyes in his magnificent face. Or the fantasies she had no business entertaining.
Shifting a large cardboard box to one arm, he held out a hand. “Cody Campbell.”
“Piper Ca—oh, you just said that. Um, nice to, uh, meet you.” What was wrong with her? At least he didn’t laugh, although his sultry silence unnerved her just as much.
She reached out and his large hand, calloused and warm, enveloped hers. Piper could swear an electrical spark shot through her at his touch, but when she glanced up to see if he noticed it, a mewing sound distracted her. It was coming from the cardboard box with holes poked in it that now rested on his shoulder. “Is that—?”
“A box of kittens.” His tone turned apologetic. “I hope you have room for five more.” He set the box on the floor and opened the folded lid. A squeaky chorus erupted.
Piper couldn’t suppress her giggle as she picked up one of the tiny gray-and-white fur balls. She expected the cuteness overload of kittens to ease the awkwardness between them, but Cody didn’t smile at the kittens. Instead his intense gaze remained on Piper.
Those haunted eyes of his studying her sent a jittery tremor through her. Was he merely curious? Could it be…? No, she wouldn’t delude herself into thinking a guy as hot as Cody would be attracted to someone as plain and simple as herself. Sure, she’d made a point of wearing her sleekest jeans and a flattering sweater today, even conditioned her mousey brown hair and let it fall to her shoulders instead of tying it into her usual ponytail. But Piper knew she was no beauty.
“Where did you find them?” she asked.
“In one of the outbuildings on my parents’ farm.”
“They’re awfully young, probably not past weaning.”
Suddenly a young girl came storming into the shop. She had the painfully thin long-limbed body of an adolescent. And striking blue eyes similar to Cody’s.
“Are those my kittens?” Her pitch heightened when she peered into the box. “Why did you bring them here?”
Cody turned to her. “Grandpa said he was going to get rid of them, and you know that wouldn’t mean giving them to a shelter.”
“You could’ve told me. I would’ve hidden them from Grandpa.”
“Now, Clari, you know that won’t work.” Cody ran a hand through his dark shaggy hair, looking like a baffled father.
Piper knew that Cody had lost his wife and son three years ago, and she could imagine how difficult it would be for a man like him to handle a teenage daughter.
He placed a surprisingly gentle hand on the girl’s shoulder, but she shook him off. “You can’t just take them away from the mother cat. She’s going to be frantic looking for her babies.”
“I didn’t see a mother cat. I thought—”
“No, you didn’t think at all,” she shrieked at him. “You never do. No wonder Uncle Dylan calls you a loser.”
A wince of pain flashed across Cody’s face, only to be masked a split second later.
Piper’s heart clenched and she stood up, saying, “Why don’t you go find their mother and bring her here?”
The girl looked around, her mouth in a grim pout. “But you have all these other cats here. The mama gets fierce when any cat gets near her babies. And I’ve heard the males will hurt the kittens.”
“I can put them in a private room upstairs. I planned on rooms for isolating problem cats or separating any that didn’t get along.”
Cody gave Piper a grateful smile that softened his sharp features—and brought a surge of heat to her cheeks that no doubt turned her face pink. She ducked his gaze and extended her hand to the girl. “My name is Piper, by the way.”
“Clarissa,” the girl said, accepting a brief handshake. “Will I be able to visit them?”
“Of course,” Piper said. “In fact, I could use a volunteer to help with the cats.”
“Sounds like a great idea to me,” Cody said.
Clarissa shrugged. “I can walk here from school, but then I’ll need a ride home, and you’ll be at the Christmas tree farm most days.”
“I’ve also got to come here to build the cat hutches,” he said. “We’ll work it out.”
Clarissa looked around again. “I don’t get what kind of place this is. The sign outside says cat cafe, but it seems more like a shelter.”
Piper nodded. “It’s both. People can buy drinks and snacks in the cafe and they have the option of carrying them into the cat lounge to enjoy some feline company.”
The girl actually broke into a small grin. “That’s kind of cool.”
“So do we have a deal?”
“Okay.” Clarissa stepped toward the door. “Let’s go, Dad.”
Piper sensed the heat of his gaze again and tried to keep her composure. “Thanks,” he said. “We were supposed to talk about the job you wanted me to—”
“No rush. Besides, right now I’ve got to prep a room upstairs for these little fur balls.”
“Let me carry them up for you.” Cody reached for the box.
She swatted his hand away. “I’m all right. Go find the mother cat before it gets dark.”
The memory of a time when she was too weak to carry a box like this reminded Piper that she had no business dreaming about possibilities with this man. No, she was just glad to be able to help out a guy and his daughter. That’s all this was about and all it ever could be.
But she also remembered that special Christmas when everything seemed possible. And as Cody turned and waved to her from the door, she could almost begin to believe it.
Love, Christmas Box Collection