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Waiting for Christmas by Judith Stacy
Marlee Carrington has never had a place to call home.
Arriving in Harmony, Texas, she is thrown together with Scrooge-like Carson Tate. Amazingly, he reveals a seductive sense of fun—and Marlee begins to hope that Christmas has finally arrived!
His Christmas Wish by Lauri Robinson
Morgan and Cora Palmer are married on paper, but in reality they're like strangers. Taciturn rancher Morgan's demons have barricaded his heart against his wife's love. Until a kiss ignites the fire between them....
Once Upon A Frontier Christmas by Debra Cowan
Presumed dead, rancher Smith Jennings returns home and will do whatever it takes to claim the woman he loves. But Caroline Curtis isn't the same woman he left behind....
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For Judith Stacy, working full-time and taking care of her growing family wasn’t quite enough, and writing soon became her passion! Story ideas come to Judith in a variety of ways at any time, the most alarming being when she's driving. She's also got ideas while waking from a nap, but is having trouble convincing her family these are serious plotting sessions! Judith loves to hear from her readers and can be contacted via her website at: www.judithstacy.comExcerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Harmony, Texas, 1889
Five weeks. Just five weeks, then she could leave.
Marlee Carrington gripped the handle of her carpetbag and reminded herself that five weeks wasn't so very long. She'd certainly managed to live longer than that in places far worse than this wild, uncivilized land called Texas.
Around her on the platform the passengers she'd spent the long journey with hurried to meet friends and loved ones, their expressions bright with joy despite the gray winter sky. Porters carried luggage from the baggage car. The locomotive hissed, shooting steam into the cold, crisp air.
Marlee stepped away from the crowd, keeping to herself.
The town of Harmony, what little she could see of it from the railroad station, spread westward. The wide dirt street was bordered by watering troughs and covered boardwalks, and lined on both sides with wooden buildings, a few of them two stories tall. She'd expected as much, but seeing it sent a tremor of uneasiness through her.
The arrival of the train had attracted a great deal of attention. Townsfolk flocked to the station. Young boys and girls raced through the crowd. Several dogs followed them, barking.
All manner of people moved about. Rugged-looking men dressed in coarse clothing, some with long, unkempt beards. They hustled about, intent on their work, driving horse- or mule-drawn wagons to the train station, yelling, cursing. And all of them had pistols strapped to their sides. Some carried rifles—right out in the open, in broad daylight.
Marlee gasped. Good gracious, what sort of place was this?
Four weeks. Maybe she would only stay four weeks.
Shouts drew her attention to a group of men near the baggage car involved in a heated discussion over something. Marlee glanced at them, then looked away, not wanting to draw their attention by staring, afraid—
Well, she didn't know what, exactly, she was afraid of. She was just afraid.
In the crowd of people still streaming toward the train station, Marlee spotted a number of men who, judging by the nicer clothing they wore, were probably merchants and businessmen. They joined the fray around the platform, shouting directions to their drivers and the porters unloading the box cars.
Clutching her carpetbag tighter, Marlee ventured to the edge of the wooden platform and craned her neck, searching for a familiar face in the crowd. She expected her aunt and uncle to meet the train. She'd hoped her cousins, Audrey and Becky, would come, too.
A jolt of unease shot through Marlee. Would she recognize them? Years had passed since she'd seen them—she'd been only a child when they'd made the trip to Pennsylvania to visit.
The sea of strange faces seemed to double, the shouting intensified, the children raced faster, dogs barked louder. A wave of anxiety crashed over Marlee.
What if her aunt and uncle had forgotten she was coming? What if they'd left town? What if they hadn't really wanted her to visit them, after all? What if they were just being nice when they'd invited her here? What if they'd changed their minds and fled, leaving her stranded here in this frightening place amid a town full of strangers?
Marlee drew in a quick breath, forcing herself to calm down.
No, of course her aunt and uncle hadn't left town. They simply were late arriving at the train station to meet her. That's all it was.
They'd asked her to come here and spend the Christmas holiday with them. That meant they truly wanted her here. Didn't it?
"Oh, dear.." Marlee mumbled and turned away.
Her heart beat faster in her chest, racing along with her runaway thoughts. She'd only been here a few minutes but already she didn't like it. She didn't belong here. She didn't fit in. No one—not even her cousins, probably—would accept her.
An idea struck her.
She could leave sooner than planned. Much sooner. In a week. She could make up a story about receiving a telegram from Mrs. Montgomery stating that Marlee was desperately needed during the Christmas holiday after all, and she could tell her aunt and uncle and cousins that she was leaving.
For a moment, Marlee let the vision play out in her head. She could return to Philadelphia, to her home—though it wasn't her own home, of course. Yet the Montgomery mansion in which she had a small room was the closest she'd come to feeling as if she had a home in many years.
She'd worked as the personal secretary to the wealthy and socially prominent Mrs. Montgomery for several months now. It was a job she was lucky to have gotten immediately upon graduating from the Claremont School for Young Ladies, with an education she was lucky to have received.
Girls with her background—no father, a working-class mother, a childhood spent shuffling from one distant relative to another—seldom received so golden an opportunity. Mrs. Montgomery had taken a chance in hiring her. Marlee had not—and would never—give her one tiny reason to regret her decision.
Another wave of anxiety washed through Marlee, this one stronger than the last, remembering how circumstances had forced her into the journey that had landed her in this place.
Mrs. Montgomery had decided to spend the Christmas season with friends in Canada. Marlee had assumed she would accompany her, as she always did to handle correspondence, schedule social events and organize her charity work. For a few hopeful days, Marlee had thought the dear old woman would take her along, that this Christmas might somehow be different from all the rest.
But Mrs. Montgomery had decided that this holiday visit would be for enjoyment only and had informed Marlee that she would not be needed.
Marlee paced the platform as the vision filled her mind of what awaited her in Philadelphia, if she cut short her visit here in Texas.
Mrs. Montgomery's grand home would seem awfully sad and lonely at Christmas. A few of the servants had been left behind, but they had families nearby to spend the holidays with. One of them would surely invite Marlee to their home. But she wouldn't feel wanted or accepted there. Wouldn't that be the same as spending the holiday here in Harmony? How would that be different from all her other Christmases?
Well, for one thing, Marlee told herself, there wouldn't be any gun-toting men in buckskins. Or dogs roaming the streets. Or children unaccompanied by nannies. She wouldn't be forced to live with family members she didn't really know, in a town that surely had strange customs, with no friends, nothing that would make her feel welcome, wanted or accepted.
Marlee's heart soared as another thought struck her.
She could leave. Now. Right now.
She could go inside the station and buy a ticket back to Philadelphia. She could make up a story about receiving a telegram from Mrs. Montgomery stating that Marlee was desperately needed over the Christmas holiday after all, and she could ask the station master to notify her aunt and uncle that she was returning home. And she could leave.
Marlee turned and headed toward the ticket window when the roar of the crowd seemed to dip and the chaos around the station diminished. She spotted a man striding toward the railroad station. Heads turned. People moved aside and let him pass.
He was tall—good gracious, he was tall—dressed in dark trousers, a crisp white shirt and a dark blue vest. Though the air held a chill, he wore no coat, just a black Stetson pulled low on his forehead.
He carried no gun. Was he unafraid here among all these men who brandished weapons? Maybe he was simply arrogant. Or was it confidence?
The man moved with great purpose through the crowd, then vaulted onto the platform with practiced ease. The men gathered there hurried to him. He turned, and for an instant, faced in Marlee's direction.
Was he looking at her?
Her breath caught and her heart raced—but for an entirely different reason this time.
Handsome. A strong chin, thick brows and blue—they were blue, weren't they?—eyes that seemed to slice right through her. Marlee's heart raced faster, somehow. Her knees trembled, sending a strong quake through her. She stood mesmerized, unable to take her eyes off him.
Her thoughts scattered.
Was he simply looking in her direction? At something behind her? Or was he gazing at her?
Another thought jolted her back to reality.
Good gracious, she probably looked a fright. She'd spent days aboard the train. Her dark green traveling dress was limp and wrinkled. She'd done what she could to freshen up as the train neared the station, but she no doubt looked pale and drawn. Was her hair disheveled? Her hat straight?
The man shifted his weight drawing attention to his wide shoulders, his long legs.
A few days wouldn't be too long to stay here in Harmony, would it?
Marlee watched as the man turned back to the men who crowded around him. He spoke, and they quieted. He spoke again and one of them answered, then they all nodded in unison. He pointed and they turned, and with one final word, the men headed off to do his bidding.
A longing, deep and strong, bloomed in Marlee. Such command. Such presence. Such power and strength.
The man, whoever he was, was important. Very important.
And everyone in the town of Harmony knew it.
She watched as he moved down the platform, talking to the train conductor.
Two weeks. Two weeks here wouldn't be bad—not bad at all. In fact—
Squeals of delight jarred Marlee from her thoughts, forcing her back to reality as two young women raced through the crowd and dashed up the steps onto the platform.
"Marlee!" one of them cried.
"We're so glad you're here!" the other said.
Her cousins. Audrey, only one year younger than Marlee's own twenty years, and Becky barely a year younger still, wearing gingham dresses and matching bonnets. Both girls threw their arms around Marlee and hugged her tight. Becky pulled the carpetbag from her grasp.
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