I’m excited to be a part of the Christmas Wishes and Cowboy Kisses boxset. It features 23 clean, cowboy, holiday novellas that are sure to bring a smile to your face and a sigh to your heart.
★★ Curl up with a cowboy this Christmas! ★★
Ring in the holiday season with 23 heartwarming sweet contemporary romances from USA Today and Top 100 Kindle Unlimited All-Star bestselling authors!
Discover second chance romance, love at first sight, small-town Christmas cheer, swoony single dads, enemies to lovers, snowed-in with the cowboy, and many more stories featuring the cowboy next door. Fall in love with the hunky heroes of this limited-edition Christmas cowboy romance collection. CHRISTMAS WISHES & COWBOY KISSES features brand new clean and wholesome romances by:
USA Today Bestselling Author Liz Isaacson
USA Today Bestselling Author Shanna Hatfield
USA Today Bestselling Author Lacy Williams
USA Today Bestselling Author Carolyne Aarsen
USA Today Bestselling Author Melissa McClone
USA Today Bestselling Author Kit Morgan
USA Today Bestselling Author Laura Ashwood
Macie St. James
Hannah Jo Abbott
Amelia C. Adams
Parker J. Cole
My contribution to the set is called Blame it on Mistletoe.
The book releases on October 25th, and the release price is just 99 cents! If you’d like to preorder just click here!
And here’s the first chapter of
Blame it on Mistletoe if you’d like a sneak peak at what’s coming:
Hope Callahan sat in stunned silence as Jerald Crawford animatedly chattered on and on, outlining the brilliant idea for a marketing campaign for Buford Hotel’s grand reopening next spring. The Buford executives smiled and nodded, enthusiastically agreeing with every word that fell from Jerald’s lips. Hope knew he was passing someone else’s idea off as his own. She knew because it was her idea.
She’d spent hours laboring over each and every word, every sketch. She’d poured her entire heart and all of her creativity into this project. Whoever came up with the idea that would land this account for the firm was all but guaranteed a promotion, and Hope had been sure her idea was a winner. Now, she knew it was.
The Buford Hotel was an important Chicago historical landmark. Hope lost track of how much time she’d spent in the basement of the town hall looking through old newspapers and documents for information about the hotel and its history. She’d come up with a marketing plan that was a perfect blend of honoring the old while highlighting the hotel’s new, updated renovations and high-level amenities.
Jerald had somehow gotten ahold of her binder and stolen her notes. That was the only possible explanation. Now he was the one being congratulated on her brilliant idea. Hope’s stomach churned and she pressed her lips tightly together in an attempt to keep from screaming “fraud” at the top of her lungs. How could this have happened? She carried that binder everywhere, which is how Jerald must have been tipped off she’d hit upon something to wow the Buford executives with.
Hope slumped in her seat as Jerald’s moment of opportunity dawned on her. They were both junior account executives with HMG, Inc., although Jerald had been at the firm much longer than Hope. He’d stopped in her office late last week, asking if she was prepared for the presentation. He looked anxious and his eyes kept flitting to the open binder on her desk, as if he were trying to catch a glimpse of her plan. Then Mr. Harold had called, summoning her into his office for a meeting, and she’d left the binder on her desk. It was the only time she didn’t have it with her. That had to have been when he copied it, it was the only possible explanation.
Landing this account for the firm would be a huge stepping stone for her career. She’d be able to finally afford to get her own place and move out of her sister’s basement. Not that she minded living with Olivia, but it was time for her to stand on her own two feet. Olivia had taken care of her long enough. A lump formed in the back of her throat as she thought about the sacrifices her sister had made for her. Yes, it was time.
Someone from the Buford team asked her for her input on the idea, snapping Hope’s attention back to the presentation. She had input all right, but all she could do was grip the useless binder in her lap even harder and give a slight shake of her head before they moved on. Jerald’s triumphant gaze caught hers for a moment and she saw the slightest twitch at the corner of his upturned mouth before he headed out of the conference room, his head high.
Hope escaped to the quiet of her small office. It was hardly bigger than a cubicle, but it was hers. She’d made the industrial beige walls shine with a collection of painted street scenes she’d bought from a local street artist. She brought in fresh flowers to place in the cut glass vase on her desk every Monday, and kept a cozy, warm throw blanket to spread across her lap when she was working. The building was cold no matter what season it was.
She tossed the now useless binder onto the center of her desk and plopped into her chair. She ran her fingers through her hair and fumed, wondering what her next step should be. She’d find a way to fix this. She was smart, had two degrees under her belt, for goodness sake.
She jumped when the intercom on her phone buzzed, the harsh sound echoed in her quiet office. She lifted the receiver. “Hello?” Her voice sounded strained to her own ears.
“Hope, I need you to come to my office. Now,” Mr. Harold demanded. While his tone was polite,
Hope could hear the steel coating the words. “Yes, sir,” she managed, then rose on shaky knees to face her boss. She walked past the offices of her coworkers with her head high as the door to Mr. Harold’s office seemed to get farther away with every step, as if it were at the end of a tunnel. A flutter of butterflies danced in her stomach as she approached. Her fingertips tingled, cold in contrast to her sweaty palms. Mr. Harold’s administrative assistant gave her a sympathetic smile and waved her to go through the door and into his inner office.
It was a large space, holding a huge glossy black desk. A matching credenza flanked one of the walls, while floor to ceiling windows offering a dazzling view of Chicago’s skyline lined the wall behind the desk where Dwight Harold sat, a frown on his face. Stern green eyes under a thatch of white hair flicked over her before he pointed a long finger to one of the black leather chairs situated in front of his desk.
Hope sat, her heart pounded so loud she was sure he could hear it. She laced her frigid fingers in her lap, and waited.
“As I’m sure you guessed, we secured Buford Hotel as a client. They are looking forward to implementing what was presented during the meeting.” He paused and lifted a bushy white eyebrow. “A meeting you assured me you were prepared for, Ms. Callahan. Yet you didn’t open your mouth beyond saying hello. I have to admit, I had higher hopes than that. Would you care to explain what happened?”
With her throat as dry as sawdust, Hope licked her lips and straightened her shoulders. Somehow she had to make him understand. “Sir, I did have an idea. I kept all the notes, the sketches, everything I had on it together in a pink binder. I’ve been working on this for weeks.”
“A pink binder?”
“Yes, sir, Mr. Harold. Pink. Jerald Crawford presented my ideas from that binder this morning. It was my idea, Mr. Harold, that everyone is so pleased and excited over.”
His thick brows rose as he leaned back in his chair, tenting his fingers under his chin. “Ms. Callahan, are you accusing someone who’s been a member of this company for over ten years of stealing intellectual property?”
Hope’s voice was quiet, but it rang with truth. “Yes, sir. I am.”
“That’s a very serious accusation, especially coming from someone who’s only been with the company a mere nine months. Quite frankly, I expected better of you. To accuse a long-standing employee of theft simply because he presented an idea that was well met—”
“Mr. Harold,” Hope interrupted, her cheeks flaming hot. “It wasn’t his idea, it was mine. Every bit of it.”
Mr. Harold scrubbed his hand across his jaw as he studied her. She held his gaze, unflinching, even as she wilted inside. Everyone knew Jerald Crawford was a shirttail relative of Mrs. Harold. The fact that he’d been a junior associate for ten years without a promotion said enough about his performance at the firm, but that family tie kept him employed and he knew it. She worked hard to get this job and yes, she’d only been there for a short time, but she’d landed several small accounts in that time.
“Ms. Callahan, I spoke with Mr. Crawford earlier this morning. He said you’d been asking him a lot of questions about his pitch for the Buford executives.”
A tight knot formed in Hope’s stomach. That little weasel.
“He expressed concerns that you were going to try to pass off his ideas at the presentation this morning.”
“You can’t be serious,” Hope blurted, before she could stop herself. “I spent weeks putting this idea together.”
Mr. Harold leaned forward and rested his elbows on the shiny surface of his desk. He let out a weary sigh. “I’m sorry, but based on your performance in today’s meeting, coupled with your accusations against a valued employee of this company, I’m afraid I have no choice here but to let you go.”
Hope’s mouth fell open. She had to have heard him wrong. “Excuse me?”
Dwight Harold gave her a patronizing smile before continuing. “I realize this is your first job since obtaining your marketing degree, and I think the pressure of tackling a high profile project like the Buford Hotel was a bit too much for you. I’m going to ask you to clear out your office by the end of business today, and I’ll authorize the standard severance package for you. Our legal department will have the paperwork messengered to your address by noon tomorrow. Additionally, we will offer a good recommendation to any other firms who happen to call and ask – you did fine work on the smaller campaigns.” The compliment was tacked on as an afterthought, like a consolation prize.
Hope tried to control her breathing while she processed Mr. Harold’s words. He’d just fired her. She’d never been let go from a job in her life, not that she’d had many, but still. She rose to her feet and gripped the edge of the desk. Mr. Harold’s bushy white eyebrows blended together as tears blurred her eyes. She struggled to blink them back. She wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of seeing her cry.
“My father always told me that having integrity was the most important trait a person could have. It’s too bad Mr. Crawford didn’t learn that. I’ll see myself out.” She turned on her heel and strode out of the room, her chin high.
Hope walked back into her office without really seeing anything. She was in shock, her mind numb, her body moving by rote around her desk and dropping in her chair. Tears clouded her eyes, and she furiously blinked them back. She would not cry.
She swiveled her chair to face the window. The weather outside matched her mood. Fat raindrops fell from a bruised and bloated sky, sliding down the windowpane and causing the people scurrying along the sidewalk below to hunch their shoulders and duck under umbrellas. That’s how she felt. There was a storm gathering inside of her, one she was fighting back, because if she unleashed it she was afraid she’d drown everyone with her tears and temper.
How could Jerald have copied her notes and been so brazen as to pass them off as his? How could she have been so foolish to have left something so important out in the open? How could Mr. Harold just fire her without launching some sort of investigation?
Her mind raced. What am I going to do?
When her eyes blurred again, Hope shook her head and took a bracing breath. No, no, no. She would not break down in the office. She wouldn’t give them the satisfaction.
Standing quickly, Hope made her way to the supply room and retrieved a couple of empty boxes. Her street scenes filled up one box. Sketch books, her pink binder, a day planner, a small bag of cosmetics, and her throw blanket went into the other one. She added pens and markers and, after dumping the flowers she’d brought in only two days before, wedged the cut crystal vase alongside her cosmetics bag.
There was a soft knock at the door. Hope turned and let out a sigh of relief when she saw her friend, Angie Wilkins in the doorway. Angie’s concerned gaze slid to the boxes on Hope’s desk, then back to Hope.
“So, it’s true? He really fired you?”
Hope suppressed a groan. Did everyone know? Her throat tightened and her nose began to tingle. Not trusting herself to speak, she merely nodded. She was determined to hold it together. At least until she got home anyway.
“You’re one of the best junior associates the firm has, is he crazy?”
Hope shrugged. She and Angie had started at HMG at the same time and quickly became friends. She filled Angie in on what had happened.
“That snake,” she said when Hope was done. “Everyone knows the only reason he’s managed to stay employed here is because of his mother. What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know. Mr. Harold said they’d give me a good recommendation, but how am I supposed to explain why I left one of the most prestigious marketing firms in Chicago after less than a year?”
Angie’s brows dipped. “You could explain what happened…”
“You see how far that got me here.”
They both stared out the window for a moment as the rain ran in thick rivulets down the pane.
“He won’t be able to follow it through, you know,” Angie finally said, turning back to Hope. “Jerald may have sold the idea as his, but he’ll never be able to pull off implementing it. Mr. Harold will see the truth then.”
Hope sniffed. “Mr. Harold doesn’t care about the truth.”
Angie lifted a shoulder. “Oh, I don’t know about that. He’s always struck me as a straight shooter. I think he’s stuck between a rock and a hard place with his wife. Doesn’t make it right though. Not good business.”
“Yeah, maybe–,” Hope trailed off. “I better go before they send the security guard to escort me. I don’t need that on top of everything else today.”
“It’s not going to be the same here without you.” Angie frowned. “Let me at least help you carry your stuff out to your car.”
“Thanks,” Hope forced a smile. She tugged on her raincoat, slung her crossbody bag over her shoulder and hefted one of the boxes, while Angie grabbed the other. Head held high, Hope ignored the stares of her colleagues–make that former colleagues–as they made their way out of the building and into the parking garage. Once the boxes were deposited in the trunk, Angie gave Hope a quick hug.
“Call me,” she said. “We’ll go out for drinks, my treat.”
“Sounds good,” Hope replied, sliding behind the wheel. She gave Angie one last wave as she pulled out of her parking spot and headed out of the ramp.
Forty minutes later, she was home. Deciding to leave the boxes in her truck, she made a dash to the door and let herself inside. She made sure the door was locked behind her, then stepped out of her black heels. She hung the dripping raincoat on one of the pegs next to the door and headed down the stairs toward her room.
She stepped into the bathroom and slid out of her dress, leaving it in a heap on the floor. Twisting the water so it ran hot, she stepped under the spray of the shower and closed her eyes as the steam pumped around her.
She let go. A short scream of frustration exploded from her throat before tears of rage and sorrow poured down her cheeks. What was she going to do now? How was she going to face her sister?
Hope knew the truth, knew the people who counted would believe her. But that wasn’t the point. The point was she had been fired over telling the truth, for standing up for herself and not letting the theft of her idea go unmentioned.
Her fingers curled into her palms, and she beat her fists against the shower wall. She cried until she felt hollowed out, then raised her face to the spray. After washing away the salt from her tears, along with the makeup she’d applied that morning. She then shampooed and conditioned her hair, watching as the suds washed down the drain, before turning off the water.
She dried off, wrapped her long hair in a thick towel, and applied moisturizer to her face. After slipping into a pair of soft cotton pants and an oversize sweatshirt, she tugged thick woolen socks over her feet and pulled the towel off her head, letting her hair hang down her back, a sodden, mahogany-colored mass. Too tired to care, Hope crawled into bed and checked the time on her phone. Barely two in the afternoon. She wouldn’t normally be home until almost six.
When she felt tears threaten again, she simply closed her eyes and willed herself to sleep. Two hours later, the cheerful Cantina Band ringtone of her phone woke her. She cleared her throat before answering hoarsely, “Hello?”
“Hope, you sound terrible. Are you sick?” The always optimistic, bubbly voice of Hope’s best friend, Nicole McBride, filtered into Hope’s ear. “Is it the flu?”
Hope scooted up in bed until she could rest her back against the headboard. “No, I’m not sick. I took the afternoon off and fell asleep.” She decided quickly this would be her cover story until she could face speaking her truth. She just needed a little more time to adjust. Besides, Nicole was in Mistletoe, so it didn’t really matter.
“You took the afternoon off? Like for personal time?” Nicole’s voice turned suspicious. “Are you sure you’re not sick?”
“I promise. What’s up with you? Why are you calling me so early if you thought I’d still be at work? Is everything all right?”
“Yes.” A giddy, breathless laugh floated over the phone. “Oh, Hope, Garrett proposed! I’m engaged! I’m going to get married?”
Genuine pleasure zipped through Hope. “Nicole! That’s amazing! Congratulations!”
“Thank you, so much. You’re the first person I’ve told, well after my parents of course. And, Hope, I want you to be my maid of honor. And to help me plan it.”
“What? Me? I mean, of course I’ll be your maid of honor. But you want me to help you plan your wedding?”
“I really do. You have a degree in hospitality, a minor in event planning, and a degree in marketing. You’re the trifecta. You’re what I want. Of course, I do have some ideas. . .”
Hope laughed. “Oh, yeah, I know you do. What date are you thinking about?”
Nicole made a noise before answering. “Saturday, December twenty-fourth. Christmas Eve morning, just like I’ve always planned.”
Hope waited a beat. “Of next year, right?”
“Well, no. This year.”
“Nicole!” Hope all but wailed it. “That’s only five weeks away. Come on. Don’t you want time to plan the wedding of your dreams?”
Nicole laughed. “Any day I can marry Garrett would be the wedding of my dreams, but waiting isn’t necessary. Not really. You remember all those times we’d plan our weddings during sleepovers? What I want hasn’t changed much from that at all. I just need your amazing skills to help me pull it together.”
Hope bit her lip. She did remember all those sleepovers, all those wedding planning talks. She remembered everything about Mistletoe, including things she wished she could forget. Nicole must have picked up on her thoughts, because she spoke again.
“I know it will be hard.” Her voice was gentle. “I know you haven’t been back since the accident. And if it’s really too much for you, Hope, I’ll come to you and we’ll make other arrangements for the location of the wedding.”
Hope pushed her welling emotions to the side. This wasn’t about her, not at all. This was about Nicole, and her best friend needed her. She’d make it through somehow. And maybe it was time to face the past. Maybe getting fired was a sign.
“I’ll come to you. Of course I will. I can actually be there at the beginning of next week, if that’s all right with you.”
“You know it is,” Nicole replied, surprise tinging her voice. “But what about work? What’s going on? Tell me the truth.”
“I’ll tell you when I see you, okay? I promise you I’m fine, and I’ll fill you in on everything when I see you.”
“That’s a promise I’ll hold you to. I’ll let Ma and Pop know you’re coming, and we’ll get a room ready for you.”
“Thanks, Nicole. See you Monday.”
Hope clicked off the call and rolled her shoulders. She’d heard her sister get home while she was talking to Nicole. Now was as good a time as any to fill in Olivia on the turns her life had taken today. And besides, it was Wednesday. Wednesday was Chinese night. Hope was more than ready for some egg rolls and a glass of wine while she told her big sister everything.
© 2022 Laura Ashwood
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