One of the best things about writing for Mills and Boon readers, is their VORACIOUS appetite for Christmas books. Suits me to a T. I love them and I love Christmas. Two years ago a couple of weeks before the big Yulefest, I lost my beloved Bernese Mountain Dog. I was absolutely devastated. We weren’t lucky enough to have children so our pooches really were our children (No, they didn’t have their own bedrooms or anything, but they were family). The next Christmas we were down to one and it was tough. Then, a few months later, we lost our gorgeous chocolate lab. Time whipped forward at its usual frenzied pace and VOILA! Father Christmas came and visited us with this gorgeous little minx. I actually wrote the first few chapters of Making Christmas Special Again before we got this little one, but Skye has definitely made my Christmas special again. This year will be our first with her (she was only two days old last Christmas so was still with her mummy). I can’t wait.
Below is the opening chapter for Make Christmas Special Again. It is part of a quartet with the gorgeous Susan Carlisle, the wonderful Annie Claydon and the super divine Karin Baine. We love making up wonderful worlds we all want to move to. Immediately! And this time was no different. I hope you enjoy the teaser! Happy Holidays to one and all. xx Annie O’
HELL’S TEETH, IT was cold.
For once the all-consuming distraction of lungs vs arctic winds hurtling in
from the Highlands was welcome. Physical pain outweighed Max Kirkpatrick’s rage just long enough to remember that for every problem there was a solution. This time, though…
Trust the festive season to send him another blunt reminder that, no matter how hard he tried, the universe simply wasn’t going to let him put some good back into the world.
He’d genuinely thought he’d done it this time. He really had.
His eyes travelled the length of the scrubby inner-city hospital then scanned the former vacant plot. There’d been snow on and off for weeks and yet there were still patients wandering around with pets and still more in the greenhouse, fostering their plants as if they were their own flesh and blood.
He traced his finger along a frost-singed rose. The parents of a little boy who’d lost his struggle with cancer had planted it three years earlier when Max had only just started Plants to Paws. The lad had loved coming out here to play with the family mongrel. Golden moments, his parents had called them. Golden moments. They still came and tended it as if their son were still with them. In a way, he supposed, he was.
Max’s disbelief that someone was going to destroy the garden shunted through him afresh. Gone were the piles of rubbish, the burnt-out car, the thick layers of tagging on the side of the Clydebank Hospital walls. In their place were raised vegetable patches, benches with the names of loved ones on shining brass plaques dappled about the small wildflower meadow and, of course, the greenhouse and extra-large garden shed he’d built with a handful of other doctors. They’d recently installed a wood stove for added comfort. That would go, too. Along with the bow-laden wreath someone had hung on the door, despite his protestations that it was too early.
He crouched down to pop a couple of stones back onto the rock garden one of the Clyde’s long-term leukaemia patients had helped build. Her first ever garden, she’d crowed. She’d be gutted when she found out it was going to be demolished, all to help some fat-cat property developer.
As he nestled another rock back into place, a young Border collie ran up to
him with the tell-tale wriggle of a happy dog. She rolled onto her back for a tummy rub. He took a quick glance around and couldn’t place her with anyone within sight.
He gave her soft white belly a rub. ‘Hey, there, little one. You’re a pretty girl. Now, who do you belong to?’
‘Some would say they don’t belong to anyone.’
The female voice slipped down his spine like warm honey. Low and husky, it was the type of voice that could talk a man into anything if he didn’t watch himself. Good job he’d put the emotional armour on years back.
Max was about to say he was very familiar with the way canine-human relationships worked, thank you very much, when a pair of very expensive boots appeared on the woodchip path. Expensive boots attached to a public school accent. Still Scottish, but he would put money on the fact their schools had had a mixer dance. The military school his stepfather had deposited him in strongly encouraged shoulder rubbing with the ‘power makers’, as the school head had liked to call them.
‘Deal breakers’ would’ve been a better moniker if today’s news was anything to go by. He still couldn’t wrap his head round the hospital reneging on their word. Sure, they needed the money, but obliterating Plants to Paws to let a developer build a car park?
Bam! There went three years of hard work. Not to mention the slice of peace that came from knowing he’d finally made good on a years’ old vow to do what he hadn’t done for his mother: offer a refuge from a life that wasn’t as kind as it should have been. All for a bit of money they’d never see on the wards. Hello, cement trucks, sayonara Plants to Paws.
The puppy nuzzled against his hand.
‘What’s her name?’ He had yet to look up.
‘Skye,’ the voice said.
She sounded like a Christmas ornament. Angel? Whatever. Too damned nice was what she sounded.
Her leather boots moved in a bit closer. Italian? They looked handmade.
‘I think you’ll find her “love me tender” routine is an act. Skye’s always got an ulterior motive and, from the looks of things, you’re playing right into her paws.’
He didn’t even want to know what that meant.
‘Is she a working collie or one of those therapy dogs?’ They’d been trying to introduce the therapy dogs into the hospital but, as ever, stretched resources meant the lovable fur balls weren’t seen much on the wards.
‘Working. Though she’s still in training. Precocious. Just like her mother.’
Damn. This woman’s voice was like butter. Better. Butter and honey mixed together. If he was to add a shot of whisky and heat it up it’d be the perfect drink on a day like this.
‘What type of training?’ he asked, to stop his brain from going places it shouldn’t.
‘Search and rescue.’
That got his attention. He had been expecting agility. Maybe sheep herding. A voice like that usually came attached to some land. Land managed by someone else. As he tilted his head up, the sun got in his eyes and all he could make out was a halo of blonde hair atop a stretch of legs and a cashmere winter coat that definitely wasn’t from the kind of stores he shopped in.
Miss Boots squatted down to his level and the second their eyes met he stood straight back up.
Piercing blue eyes. A tousle of short curls the colour of summer wheat. A face so beautiful it looked as though it had been sculpted out of marble. For every bit of wrong she elicited in his gut, there was an equal measure of good.
‘Are you a patient?’ It was the only thing he could think to ask, though he knew the answer would be—
‘No.’ She put her leather-gloved hand out to shake his. ‘Esme Ross-Wylde.’
He kept his facial features on their usual setting: neutral. Though society papers weren’t his thing, even he’d heard of the Ross-Wyldes. Scottish landed gentry of the highest order. The Ross-Wylde estate came with about five thousand acres, if memory served. A couple of hours north of Glasgow. Before his mum had married The Dictator, as Max liked to think of his stepfather, she’d taken him there for one of their famous Christmas carnivals. Huge old house. A castle actually. Expansive grounds. Extensive stables. Skating rink. Toffee apples and gingerbread men. It’d been the last Christmas he hadn’t been made to ‘earn his keep’.
‘So.’ He clapped his hands together and looked around the sparsely populated garden. ‘Have you brought Skye along to meet someone?’
She unleashed a smile that could’ve easily lit him up from the inside out. Good thing she’d met him on a bad day. On a good one? He might have had to break some rules.
‘I was looking for you.’ She held up a familiar-looking scarf.
‘How’d you get that?’ He knew he sounded terse, but with his luck she was the developer. If she was trying to sprinkle some sugar in advance of telling him when the wrecking ball would swing, she may as well get on with it.
Esme was unfazed by his cranky response. She tipped her head towards the garden shed as she handed him his scarf. ‘A member of your fan club gave me this to give Skye a go at “search”.’
He glanced over at the shed and, sure enough, there were a couple of patients from the oncology ward waving at him. Cheeky so-and-sos. They’d been trying to blow some oxygen onto the all but dead embers of his social life ever since they’d found out the nurses not so discreetly called him The Monk. He rolled his eyes and returned his attention to Esme Ross-Wylde. ‘I presume that means you’re here for the “rescue” part?’
She shrugged nonchalantly. ‘If you’re interested.’
Skye’s tail started waving double time.
If he wasn’t mistaken, the corners of her rather inviting lips were twitching with the hint of a smile.
Something about this whole scenario felt like flirting. He didn’t do flirting. He did A and E medicine in Glasgow’s most financially deprived hospital. Then he slept, woke up and did it all over again. Sometimes he came out here and dug over a veg patch. There definitely wasn’t time for flirting.
When he said nothing she asked, ‘How do you fancy keeping Plants to Paws the way it is?’
His eyes snapped to hers, and something flashed hard and bright in his chest that had nothing to do with gratitude. It ricocheted straight past his belt buckle and all the way up again. By the look on her face, she was feeling exactly the same thing he was. An unwelcome animal attraction.
Oh, hell. If life had taught him anything, it was the old adage that if something seemed too good to be true, it usually was.
The Dictator had taught him that everything came with a price. Best to rip off the plaster and get it over with. ‘What’s the catch?’
STAY TUNED FOR MORE – OR RUSH OUT AND BY THE SERIES – BUT MOST OF ALL – TAKE CARE OF YOURSELVES AND LET THERE BE PEACE ON EARTH! xx Annie O’ (cue Jingle Bells…jing Jing Jing Jing!)