My contribution to the Love Christmas box is a 23,000 word novella.
Here is the book cover revealed for the first time.
When I wrote the first book of the series, CHRISTMAS BABIES, I started with the story of the eldest Ramsay daughter, Dr. Madelyn Ramsay. The mother of the clan, Barbara Ramsay, is already a widow and her daughter #3, Heather, is married and has several children.
Holly Jolly Christmas takes place when Heather is only eighteen-years old and the father, David Ramsay, is still around but quite sick. Enjoy the first chapter.
“Hi babe.” Jeff’s joyful greeting morphed into a puzzled grimace and a worried frown at the sight of Heather’s puffy eyelids and the smear of mascara shadowing her sky-blue eyes. “You’ve been crying. What’s wrong? Your dad? Is he worse?”
With Kentucky’s July temperatures soaring in the nineties, she’d sported a strapped blouse flowing over white shorts that offered him an enticing view of her long tanned legs.
A sniffle and a shudder answered him before she averted her gaze. “No, not Dad. He’s okay. I mean, not worse, but I… I…”
She’d been upset, all right. And she’d tried to hide it under a layer of makeup—something she rarely used with her healthy complexion and lovely features. Eager to gather her in his arms, Jeff led her inside the small foyer of his lodge and closed the door behind them. With infinite care, he drew her against him. Heather’s head burrowed against his shoulder. Her silky ponytail draped over his chest and sobs shook her.
“I know it’s hard, especially when it’s your own dad. But you have to be strong.” He stroked her blonde tresses and brushed her temples with soft kisses.
After heaving a deep breath, she eased away, dabbed her eyes with the back of her hand and faced him. Dismay still puckered her forehead.
To cheer her up, he decided to share his good news right away, instead of waiting until a more appropriate time for celebration. “Babe, listen to this.” Impatient to see her reaction, he cupped her face. “I’ve been accepted to MIT for a Master in Agricultural Engineering. With a scholarship.”
That was it? No smile, no hug?
“When are you leaving?” Her mournful tone of voice damped his elation.
“In September.” Something didn’t click. Where was his sweet and passionate Heather always ready to support him and nestle into his arms? “Honey, I thought you’d be happy. We can become engaged right away, and marry in two years. If you start college in Boston we’ll be together.”
“No,” she said, her tone suddenly frigid. “I can’t go to Boston.”
“Oh, because of your dad? Let’s be optimistic and hope he’ll improve.”
“It’s not about my dad. It’s about us.”
Jeff squinted. “Us?” There was nothing wrong with them. They had loved each other forever. Puppy love, his brothers and sisters teased. But Jeff knew he would never love another woman as long as he lived. And he knew Heather wouldn’t.
In the last two months, studies and finals had kept them busy. They had seen each other only a few short times in his lodge, though long enough to kiss, make out, and run back to their desks. Had Heather met someone else?
Suddenly apprehensive about their future together, he held her at arm’s length and peered into her eyes. “What’s going on? Shoot.” Had it been puppy love for her?
“Who?” The single word whizzed through his lips, carrying denial and pain as he tightened his hold.
Her eyebrows shot up. “I’m expecting a baby. A baby, Jeff.”
Not sure he understood, he continued to stare. “A…”
His arms dropped to his sides and he froze, eyes wide open, throat clogged, mind blank.
“I’m going to have a baby.” She tapped his chest with her finger and touched her belly. “Your baby.”
“Oh God. A baby. Oh God. Oh God,” he muttered, his voice hardly audible. He fixed a wild look on her tiny waist and flat belly and rubbed his forehead with a shaky hand. “How? When?”
“How?” The word came in a shriek and her lips curled to one side. “You should explain. Especially when you insisted we were safe. Apparently not that safe. The baby will come in five months.” She lowered her head as if the whole world weighed on her delicate shoulders.
Guilt pummeled him. She’d been dealing with her secret for four months. All alone.
He pulled her down onto the sofa, and wrapped an arm around her to show his support. “Sweetheart, why didn’t you tell me earlier?”
She clasped her temples and sighed, a long heart-wrenching sigh. “I didn’t realize for two months, because I’m not… Well, you wouldn’t know. It’s a feminine thing.” A blush covered her cheeks. “The third time I missed, I wondered if I was sick. The fourth time I was terrified and tried to grasp the situation.”
“Have you seen a doctor?”
“No.” She shook her head. “And I haven’t told anyone. Not with Dad going through chemo. We must spare him any stress.” Her eyes filled with tears. “It would kill him to hear that his daughter has…has misbehaved.”
“Babe, it’s not your fault. I take full responsibility.” He shouldn’t have touched her. She’d been only seventeen when they first made love in his lodge. He was four years older but he loved her so much and lost control after blazing kisses. Trying to think with a clear head, he scooted to the end of the sofa.
She tortured her lip and watched him.
What could he tell her parents? If he lived long enough to explain anything. The Ramsays had been his folks’ neighbors and good friends for twenty years, but David Ramsay wouldn’t hesitate to shoot him for taking advantage of his little girl’s innocence. To think of it, his own father would probably thrash him soundly at the first word and Mom would cry her heart out.
“Heather, you’re not alone anymore. This baby… Our baby is going to have a loving father and mother.” He spoke slowly to convince himself it was the right thing to do.
Forget the scholarship. Forget the MIT dream and plans for the farm.
The middle child of a family of three boys and two girls, he’d always done the right thing to satisfy his parents, always studied hard and excelled at sports. Until he started kissing Heather.
His mind still reeling from her incredible news, he stood and paced the eight by ten living room. He loved his small lodge—their love nest as Heather called it. Four years ago, when he’d joined the University of Kentucky and decided to commute, he’d transformed an old barn at the edge of his parents’ farm into a modern place.
They could live here, make love every night, and raise their child. “Heather, we’re going to get married right away.” Together, they would be happy anywhere with or without advanced degrees.
“Are you crazy? You have a scholarship waiting for you at MIT.”
“So? Our priority now is that ba…our baby.” Damn, he had to get used to the idea he was going to be a father at twenty-two.
Right now, he felt like smashing a fist into the wall. Fool, idiot, stupid. He knew exactly how she got pregnant. He’d always used a condom when they made love, but when he’d done a repeat performance in the throes of passion, he’d forgotten to protect them the second time around. And it had happened several times.
“No, Jeff. You can’t give up the MS degree and scholarship. It’s your dream.”
“And yours is to go to college in September at UK. Big deal. Meanwhile, we’ll fulfill another dream by getting married.”
“Stop it, Jeff. You can’t plan our future in a few minutes.” She stood and faced him, her eyes shining with a new maturity way beyond her eighteen years. A woman who meant what she said. “I spent two months evaluating my options. And I have everything organized in my head.”
What on Earth had she concocted on her own?
Seeing Jeff so rattled had somehow calmed Heather. He’d been her hero since she was five. At fifteen, she considered him the most handsome man in Lexington, and at sixteen she’d known without the shadow of a doubt that she would love him forever. And she’d multiplied the opportunities to make him notice her.
Of course, she couldn’t let him bear the responsibility of their passionate encounters when she’d been the one coming to visit him here—knowing she shouldn’t—and throwing her arms around his neck and sitting on his lap. How could he resist when she’d tempted him with reckless innocence? Although she’d never thought they would go all the way. Once they did, Jeff had promised that they would get married after graduation. Reassured that he loved her too, Heather had seen no reason to deny him, and herself, such ecstatic moments.
But she’d never ever imagined she would end up with a baby at the wrong time.
To give up a scholarship at MIT would devastate Jeff. He’d worked so hard to achieve his goal. Besides, she couldn’t tell her parents she was pregnant. The news would surely kill Dad. What lousy example would she set for her young sisters, Claire and Tiffany? Her older sisters had made Dad so proud, Madelyn graduating from medical school and Roxanne from Journalism school. Heather wanted to follow into their footsteps.
“Trust me. I have it all planned. Madelyn will help me. She’s a doctor and knows many people. Like all of us, she’d do anything not to hurt Dad now.”
A few lines wrinkled Jeff’s smooth forehead. “How would Madelyn help?”
“Let me talk to her first.” Not ready to share her ideas, Heather tried to soothe him with tenderness. She stroked his cheek and brushed his lips with a light kiss. “I promise I will tell you everything.”
“Before making any decision, I want to know what you have in mind. Heather, this is my baby too. And I plan to be a good father.”
Stunned by the direction of his thoughts, she backed up to the door and opened it. “See you later,” she threw over her shoulder and jogged away.
“Heather, come back,” he called from his patio, but she soon disappeared in the fields toward her home.
Instead of entering her house by the kitchen door and facing too many people, Heather slid into the open garage, and carefully padded through the mudroom that harbored the laundry machines. As soon as she walked inside the hallway, she found Madelyn in front of her.
“You look out of breath.” Her oldest sister gave her a blatant once-over.
Trying to calm her racing pulse, Heather inhaled and exhaled slowly. “I went jogging.”
“Through the fields?” Madelyn’s eyebrow arched. She’d often babysat Heather, Claire and Tiffany when they were young and ordered them around with the authority of a surrogate mother. “Maybe toward Jeff’s lodge?”
At first, Heather panicked, and then she remembered that she’d planned to enlist Madelyn’s support. There was no need to play innocent now. “Actually, I was jogging away from his place.”
“Can we go to your room?” No one dared to cross the threshold of Madelyn’s room without invitation. Mom had instilled in her daughters a deep respect for their eldest sister’s need for privacy to study in peace.
“Come,” Madelyn answered without hesitation, for a change giving more importance to a sibling than to her sacrosanct medicine.
Silently rehearsing the words she’d have to say to convince Madelyn to help her, Heather followed her sister to her bedroom. She hadn’t stepped into this place for ages for fear of disturbing Big-Sis.
“Have a seat on the bed.”
Heather flopped onto the edge of the bed covered with a brown comforter.
“We’ll talk soon, but first I want to examine you.”
“What?” Heather jumped to her feet.
“I’m worried about your health. You’ve been throwing up.” Madelyn dug into her medical bag and brought out a stethoscope and a blood pressure kit.
“I told you I had indigestion that day.”
“And two days ago? And yesterday again? Either something is wrong with your stomach or…” The end of the sentence hung in the air ominously.
Good God, Madelyn knew already.
Her hands fisted, Heather threw her a pleading look.
“Lie down and let me do my job.”
No need to argue. She obeyed.
“I’ll start by taking your blood pressure.” Dr. Madelyn put the BP cuff around Heather’s arm and checked her watch. “It’s too low.” She removed the cuff and put it aside, then slipped the metallic disc of the stethoscope under her blouse to hear her heart and lungs. “Lower your shorts.”
Heather sighed but did as asked. Madelyn pressed the disc on her belly and slowly moved it. Heather closed her eyes, waiting for the agonizing moment to pass.
“Do you want to hear the baby’s heartbeat?” Madelyn asked in a gentle but professional voice.
A punch in her face wouldn’t have hurt Heather more. “No.” She bounced up to a sitting position, her eyes filling with tears. “No. I don’t want to. And I don’t want to hear anything about that baby.”
“Heather, what are you talking about? Any mother would be—”
“I don’t want to be a mother. I’m too young and I’m not ready. Please, listen to me, Madelyn.” She dropped her legs to the floor and zipped her shorts.
“I’m listening. Go ahead.” Madelyn had abandoned her firm tone to speak very softly.
“Madelyn, I have been in love with Jeff forever.”
“We know, sweetie. And we know he loves you too. I’m sure you two will marry eventually.”
“Yes, but not now. Not because we made a mistake.”
“Ah, but isn’t it a beautiful mistake, easy to fix since you love each other?”
“No. Jeff has received a scholarship at MIT. His dream. And I am starting at UK in September. We can’t lose that.”
Madelyn crossed her arms and scowled. “What do you intend to do?”
“Don’t look at me like that. I don’t plan to abort.”
“Thank God. Not when I can hear the heartbeat. How far along are you?”
“Four month, I think. I will deliver the baby, but I want you to find a loving couple who would adopt him.”