Dear Santa

A GIFT FOR ALL SEASONS
Book 2 in the Summer Sisters series
Special Edition #2223
October 20, 2012

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Now available for Nook and Kindle


 

Emotionally and physically scarred from his service in the Iraq War, Patrick Shaughnessy is a true hero – especially to the toddler daughter he barely knew before his wife walked out on them both. And learning how to be the dad Lilianna needs him to be means there’s no time or energy for romance – especially in the form of cute-as-a-button April Ross, his new landscaping client. But the recent widow’s heart is far bigger than her shoe size, and exactly what both Patrick and his hurting little girl need to heal theirs…if only Patrick finds the courage to accept April’s game-changing gift.

 

 

EXCERPT

Chapter One

  

REVIEWS

4.5 stars — "With its wounded warrior hero, optimistic heroine, witty narrative and touchingly emotional love scenes, Templeton’s tale is a gift indeed."
Romantic Times

A weeper by nature, April Ross was the type to keep tissues at hand in case a coffee commercial moment took her by surprise. And, granted, the past several weeks had been an emotional roller coaster ride of reunions and massive renovations and reassessments of what she wanted from life. But to find herself nearly in tears – April dug in the only real designer purse she’d ever owned for one of those tissues, blew her little ice cube of a nose – over a bunch of plants?

Beyond pitiful.

Especially since she’d been the one who’d said, “What’s the big deal? You go to a nursery, you pick out some trees, hire a couple dudes to stick ‘em in the ground, done.”

No wonder her cousins had rolled their eyes at her.

Now, huddled inside her thick cardigan against the nasty bay wind shunting through the garden center, she turned on the heel of her riding boot and marched past a mess of pumpkins to the check-out area, where the bundled-up, gray-bearded black man behind the register released a soft chuckle.

“Somebody looks a little overwhelmed,” he said in the relaxed Maryland shore drawl that immediately evoked memories of those childhood summers. “Not to mention half frozen. So first off, step closer to the heater – go on, I’ll wait – then tell me how I can help. I reckon I know pretty much everything about whatever’s in stock. You got questions, you just go ahead and ask.”

April’s eyes welled again, both at his kindness and the lovely heat waves rippling from the nearby metal obelisk. “What I’ve got,” she said as she removed her gloves, stretching her cramped fingers toward the heat like some poor Dickensian waif, “is three acres of dirt and renovation mess that needs landscaping. By the middle of December, when my first guests arrive.”

The man’s eyebrows rose, pushing up the cuff of his knit hat. “You the gal who’s fixing up the Rinehart place?”

“That would be me.” April tucked her wind-ravaged hair behind her ear, then extended her slightly warmer hand. “April Ross.”

“Sam Howell. It’s a real pleasure, young lady.” Sam shook her hand, then crossed his arms high on his plaid-jacketed chest. “Three acres, you say—”

The child’s excited squeal cut through their conversation. Grinning, Sam hustled from behind the counter a moment before the tiny, dark-haired blur slammed into him. After a fierce hug, the little girl backed up, all bright-eyed, pink-cheeked adorableness in bright blue tights and a puffy purple jacket, and April’s breath left her lungs.

“Daddy said I could pick out a punkin for Halloween!” she said, beaming, then planted a mittened hand against the front of the counter to awkwardly lift one glittery-sneakered foot. “An’ I got new shoes! See?”

“Those are some rockin’ shoes, Miss Lili. Your daddy pick ‘em out for you?”

“Nope,” she said with a vigorous head shake. “I choosed ‘em all by myself. Mommy’ll like ‘em, huh?”

“Oh. Yeah. I’m sure she will…”

She turned her baby-toothed grin on April before letting her foot drop, twisting it this way and that to admire it. “Daddy says they’re my princess shoes.”

April laughed. “They certainly are,” she said, as a toe-curling chuckle behind her sent the breath she’d barely pulled back into her lungs whooshing out all over again. Especially when the man – tallish, nicely-shouldered, his face partially obscured by one of those silly hats with flaps covering his cheeks – scooped up his daughter and pretended to munch on her shoulder, making her giggle and sending April into a freefall.

Shoot. Shoot, shoot, shoot.

Automatically her left thumb went to her wedding rings, twisting them around until the diamonds dug into her skin, the sensation oddly soothing. Steadying. Yes, she should take them off, already. But they made her feel…safe. Like the sweetest, most generous man she’d ever known was still watching over her, standing in the wings and cheering her on.

“Miss Ross,” Sam said after the man untwined his little girl’s hands from around his neck and set her down to go check out the pumpkins, “This here’s Patrick Shaughnessy. And this young lady,” he said with a wink in April’s direction, “needs you bad.”

So much for being cold. Heat swept across her face as she gaped at Sam, who – clearly enjoying her discomfiture – chuckled. “The Shaughnessys run one of the best landscaping outfits in the county.”

“County, hell,” Patrick said, turning just far enough for April to see his eyes, a bluer blue than hers, like lasers in a face still mostly hidden in the cap’s shadows. Eyes that inexplicably dimmed when they met hers. “On the whole Eastern Shore.” After a moment’s hesitation, he offered his gloved hand, giving hers a quick shake before slugging it back into his jacket pocket. Canvas, no frills. Not exactly clean. His gaze shifted, presumably to keep an eye on his little girl, who was meandering along the rows of pumpkins like a finicky customer in a used car lot, her face scrunched in concentration. “So I take it you need some work done?”

Deep breath. “I’d thought I could, you know. Just buy some trees and things, hire someone to plant them. Until I got here and remembered I can’t even grow a Chia pet.”

She thought his mouth might’ve twitched. “So how big’s the lot?”

“Three acres or thereabouts.” Another nippy breeze speared through the heater’s warmth, making April wrap the sweater more tightly around her. She’d never been here in the fall, had no idea how brutal the damp cold could be. Brr. “I’m turning my grandmother’s waterfront house back into an inn, so it needs to look halfway decent.”

Another twitch preceded, “The Rinehart place?”

“Yes. How do—”

“Small town.”

It was beginning to bug her that he kept his gaze averted. Especially since, as Sam had wandered out to help the Lili select her pumpkin, the child was obviously okay. Patrick straightened, his arms crossed. “Got a budget?”

“Not really.”

His eyes zinged to hers and she felt like she’d been burned. All the way to her girly bits. So inappropriate, on so many levels—

“A couple hundred bucks?” he said, once more focused on his daughter. “A couple thousand…?”

“Oh. I see. Sorry, I honestly don’t know. Even though… money won’t be a problem.”

The shock still hadn’t completely worn off, how well off Clayton had left her. She’d had to have the lawyer reread the will three times, just to be sure she’d heard correctly. Clay’s accompanying letter, however, she’d read herself:

“Yes, it’s all yours, to do with however you like. As you can see, I kept my promise, too…”

“And yet,” Patrick said, “you were thinking of handling the project yourself?”

She laughed. “I think it’s pretty clear I wasn’t thinking at all. So anyway – I’m pretty much always around, so…maybe sometime in the next week you could come out, take a look?”

“I’ll have to check my schedule. But sure.”

“Great. Here.” April set her sunglasses and gloves on the counter to dig inside her purse for a business card, handing it to Patrick. He studied the card as though memorizing it, then pulled his own from his pocket.

“And here’s ours—”

“Daddy! I found one!”

“Be right there, baby,” he said, and April saw the tension slough from his posture…only to immediately reappear when his eyes once more glanced off hers before, with a curt nod, he walked away.

Odd duck, April thought, hiking up her shoulder bag as she tramped back out to her Lexus, a car that only five years ago she couldn’t have dreamed would be hers. She’d no sooner slid behind the solid walnut wheel, however, than she realized she’d left her sunglasses on the counter. Honestly. This was why, despite her much improved financial circumstances, she never paid more than ten bucks for a pair. Because she left them everywhere.

Shaking her head at herself, she trudged back to the nursery, plucking them – and her gloves, sheesh – off the counter as she heard Lili’s musical, and irresistible, giggle again. Curiosity nudged her closer to the pumpkin display, where Patrick teased his daughter by pointing back and forth between two of the biggest pumpkins, saying, “This one. No, this one. No, this one. On second thought…I think it has to be this one…”

Fortunately, his back was to her so she could watch unobserved, finding some solace in the sweet exchange, even though it scraped her tender heart. He’d ditched that silly hat, so she could see his dark, barely-there hair, almost a military cut—

He abruptly turned, his smile evaporating when he saw her, his gaze crystalizing into almost a challenge…

…in the midst of the puckered, discolored skin hideously distorting the entire right side of his face.

And God help her, she gasped.

Loudly.

Mortified, she stumbled out of the nursery and across the graveled parking lot to lean against her car, trying to quell the nausea. Not because of his appearance, but because….

Oh, dear Lord – what had she done?

Expelling a harsh breath, April slowly turned back, her eyes stinging from the ruthless wind, her own hot tears, as several options presented themselves for consideration, the front runner being to get in the car and drive to, say, Uruguay. Except…she couldn’t. And only partly because she didn’t have her passport with her. So she sucked in a deep breath, hitched her purse up again and started her wobbly-kneed trek back toward the nursery. Because those who didn’t own their screw-ups were doomed to repeat them. Or something.

Sam chuckled when she walked into the office. “Now what’d you forget?”

“My good sense, apparently,” April muttered, then craned her neck to see into the pumpkin patch. “Patrick still here?”

“Just left,” Sam said, adding, when she frowned at him, “He was parked out back.” At her deflated grunt, he said, “Need anything else?”

The name of another landscaper?

But since that would have required far more explanation than she was willing, or able, to give, she simply shook her head and returned to her car, hunched against the stupid wind and feeling like the worst person on the planet.

* * *

Yeah, that was about the reaction he expected, Patrick thought with the strange combination of annoyance and resignation that colored most of his experience these days. What he hadn’t expected, he realized with an aftershock to his gut – not to mention other body parts further south – was his reaction to the cute little strawberry blonde. Which, while equally annoying, was anything but resigned.

A humorless grin stretched across his mouth. Guess he wasn’t dead, after all. Or at least, his libido wasn’t. Dumb as all hell, maybe, but not dead. Because, given how she’d recoiled, he was guessing the attraction wasn’t exactly mutual. And even if it had been, those rocks adorning her ring finger may as well have been a force field, handily zapping any wayward, libidinous thoughts. Not even gonna think about another man’s woman, no way.

What he did have to consider, however, was whether to follow through on the job bid himself, or hand it off to his dad or one of his brothers. God knew he didn’t need the temptation. Or the frustration. On the other hand, he thought with another perverse grin, who was he to turn down the opportunity to get up the gal’s nose? Yeah, he was one ugly sonuvabitch these days, but  you know what? The world was full of ugly sons of bitches, and the pretty little April Rosses of the world could just get over it.

At the four-way stop that had come with the new development south of St. Mary’s Cove, Patrick laboriously stretched the fingers of his right hand, the muscles finally loosening after four years of physical therapy and innumerable surgeries. But at least he had his hand—

“Daddy?”

And at least his little girl had a father, pieced back together like a cross between Frankenstein’s monster and Dorothy’s Scarecrow though he might have been. A lump rising in his throat, he glanced in the rearview mirror at the main reason he was still alive. Not that he wasn’t grateful for the dozens of burn specialists and therapists and psychologists who’d done the piecing. But whenever the physical agony had tempted him to check out, he’d remember he had a baby who still needed him – even if her mother didn’t – and he’d somehow find the wherewithal to make it through another day. And another. And one more after that…

“C’n we give the punkin a face tonight?”

Patrick spared another glance for his daughter, out of habit taking care to avoid his reflection. Not that he’d thought of himself as particularly handsome before – the running family joke was that, to save time and trouble, the Shaughnessy boys all came with their noses “pre-broken” – but he’d yet to completely come to terms with the zombie-makeup look.

“Not yet, baby,” he said, focusing again on the flat, field-flanked road occasionally broken by a stand of bare-limbed trees. “It’s too early. If we do it now, it’ll be all soft and sorry-looking by Halloween.”

“When’s that?”

“Five sleeps.” He grinned in the mirror at her. To her, he was just Daddy. What he looked like didn’t matter, only what he did. And what he’d done, since her mother left, was make sure his daughter knew that he wasn’t going anywhere, ever again. “Think you can wait that long?”

“I guess,” she said on a dramatic sigh that reminded him all too much of Natalie, which in turn reminded him of Nat’s brave-but-not expression after he was finally home for good, as they watched their marriage sputter and die. Not really a surprise, after what had happened. As opposed to his ex’s decision to give Patrick full custody of their daughter, which had shocked the hell out of him.

“Where are we going?”

“Back to Grandma’s.”

The silence from the back seat was not a good sign. Patrick preempted the inevitable protest by saying, “Sorry, honey, I’ve gotta go back to work.”

One of the blessings of being one of seven kids, most of whom lived within a few blocks of each other, was that there was always someone to take care of his. In fact, his mother and oldest sister Frannie – at home with her own four offspring, anyway – usually fought for the privilege. His child was in no danger of neglect. But over the past few months – he pulled into the driveway of his parent’s compact, two-story house in St. Mary’s – Lilianna had become clingy and anxious whenever Patrick left. Especially since his ex’s rare appearances only confused Lili, rather than reassuring her.

In her usual cold-weather attire of leggings, fisherman’s sweater and fleece booties, a grinning Kate O’Hearn Shaughnessy greeted them at the front door, hauling her grumpy-faced granddaughter into her thin arms. If you looked past the silver striping Ma’s bangs and ponytail, the fine lines fanning out from her still bright blue eyes, you could still see the little black-haired firecracker who’d rendered Joseph Shaughnessy mute the first time he laid eyes on her at some distant cousin’s wedding forty years before. What his mother lacked in size, she more than made up for in spunk. And a death-ray glare known to bring grown men to tears.

“Go see Poppa,” she said, bussing Lili’s curls before setting her on her feet. “He’s in the kitchen.” Then she lifted that same no-nonsense gaze to Patrick he’d seen when he’d come out of his medically induced coma at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. If there’d been fear or worry, he imagined they’d been kicked to the curb before he’d even been airlifted from Landstuhl. “I made vegetable soup, you want some?”

“Sure.”

Feeling like a burrowing gopher, Patrick followed her down the narrow, carpeted hall to the eat-in kitchen, careful not to let his wide shoulders unseat four decades’ worth of baby pictures, school photos and wedding portraits plastering the beige walls. Like most of the houses in St. Mary’s Cove proper, the house had built in a time when people were smaller and needs simpler. That his parents had raised seven kids in the tiny foursquare was amazing in itself; that they’d never seen the need to upgrade to something bigger and better was a living testament to the “be content with what you have” philosophy they’d crammed down their kids’ throats right along with that homemade vegetable soup.

Not that flat-screen TVs, cell phones and state-of-the-art laptops weren’t in the mix with seventies’ furnishings and his grandmother’s crocheted afghans. His parents weren’t Luddites. But their penchant for shoehorning the new into the old had, over the years, shaped the little house into a vibrant, random, collage of their lives.

This was also the home, the life, he’d returned to in order to heal, the safety and stability it represented restoring his battered psyche far more than the damn lotion he applied every single day kept his skin supple.

Joe Shaughnessy glanced through dark-framed glasses perched on his hawkish nose, still-muscled shoulders bulging underneath plaid flannel. Like Ma, there was no sympathy in his eyes, ever. Or in his voice. At least, not now. But his brothers had told Patrick how, when Pop heard, he’d gone out into the postage stamp of a yard behind the house and bawled like a baby.

And for damn sure he’d hang them all by their gonads if he knew they’d ratted on him.

Already seated on the booster seat that had been a permanent fixture for years, Lilianna schlurped her soup, dimpled fingers curled around her spoon. For her grandmother, she’d eat vegetable soup. For him, no way.

Patrick released a tense breath, then plopped beside her at the scarred wood table that had seen many an elbow fight over the years. Sunlight flooded the spotless room, gilding maple cabinets scrubbed so many times the original finish was but a memory, flashing off the same dented, decaled canister set that’d been there forever. Even the minimal updates they’d done ten or so years before – changing out the laminate counters, the cracked linoleum floors – had somehow left the comfortable shabbiness undisturbed.

He pulled April’s card from his shirt pocket, handed it to his father. “Got a lead on a job.”

“Yeah?” Joe telescoped the card until it came into focus. Time for new glasses, apparently. “Where?”

“The old Rinehart place.”

His father’s eyes cut to his. “Somebody bought it?”

“One of her granddaughters decided to turn it back into an inn. Sam hooked us up.”

His forehead knotted, Pop returned the card, broke off a piece of homemade bread and sopped up the broth left in the bottom of his bowl. “Last I heard, Amelia Rinehart had let the place go to rack and ruin. I’m surprised the girls didn’t just unload it—”

“We had our wedding reception there, you know,” his mother put in, setting a bowl of soup and two thick slices of bread in front of Patrick, then sitting at right angles to him. “Back in its heyday.”

“Not to mention ours,” Pop added with a chuckle.

Patrick frowned. “You did?”

Ma swatted at him with a crumpled napkin. “Go look at the wedding pictures on your way out, that’s the Rinehart. Or was. It’d been in Amelia’s husband’s family for years, they turned it into an inn right after the War. Was quite the destination in these parts for some time. But after he died she stopped taking in guests. Except for her three granddaughters, every summer—”

“C’n I be s’cused?”

His mother leaned over to wipe Lili’s soup-smeared face, then shooed her off. Only after they heard the clatter of toys being dumped out of the plastic bin  in the living room did his mother say, “Old gal was a strange bird, no other way to put it. Rumor had it she rarely talked to her three daughters, even the one who stayed here in St. Mary’s. But she loved her granddaughters. In her own way, at least.” She leaned back, the space between her graying brows creased. More toys crashed. “You went to school with one of them, didn’t you?”

“Melanie, yeah,” Patrick said, spooning in a bite that was more potatoes and carrots than broth. “For a while. But she and her mother moved away before she graduated.”

“That’s right, they did—”

“You really think the gal’s serious?” his father wedged in, clearly done with the small talk.

“Why wouldn’t she be?”

“Because she’ll probably go bankrupt in the process?”

“I’m guessing that’s not an issue,” Patrick said, which got a brow lift from his father. “In any case, you got some time later this week?”

“Me? What do you need me for?”

Patrick had learned a lot since coming on board almost a year before, but he was still a rookie. And it was still his dad’s business. “It’s looking to be a big job. I can design it, sure, but you’re the expert at discussing time frames and giving estimates. Besides, people trust you—”

“That’s a load of bull and you know it.”

“About people trusting you?”

His father gave him a hard look. “No.”

“Only trying to keep you in the loop,” Patrick said, focusing again on his lunch.

Joe snickered. “That’s what cell phones are for—”

“I remember those girls as all being such pretty little things,” his mother said, rising to clear Lilianna’s bowl and cup. “The one who’s sticking around – she grow up okay?”

“For God’s sake, Kate,” his dad said with a heavy sigh.

“What? I’m just making conversation, honestly! And you’re the one pushing the boy to handle this on his own!”

Shoveling in another bite, Patrick let them bicker. Really, God love them for encouraging him to put himself back out there, to find a girl smart enough to appreciate him for who he was, for their refusal to accept his appearance as an impediment to that goal. Too bad he had no intention of following their well-intentioned advice. He’d taken enough risks – and suffered the consequences – for a lifetime, thank you. But it wasn’t until he’d stopped fighting so hard to prove to himself, and everyone else, that nothing had changed that he’d finally learned to accept that everything had.

And with that acceptance came a kind of peace, one that had barely begun to release him from the guilt and the self-pity, the nightmares he’d thought sure would choke him for the rest of his life. That first morning he’d awakened and realized he’d slept through the night he’d wept with gratitude. So for damn sure he’d hang onto that peace with everything he had in him. Not only for his sake, but for his daughter’s, who deserved at least one coping parent.

One with both feet firmly planted in what was, not what should have been.

Or might be—

Patrick’s cell rang. He dug it out of his shirt pocket, only to frown at the unfamiliar number.

“Patrick Shaughnessy—”

“Mr. Shaughnessy, it’s April Ross.” There was more southern in her voice than he remembered, something sweet and smoky that tried its damnedest to get inside him. “Would tomorrow morning work for you to come out? It occurred to me, what with it already being the end of October, we should probably get going as soon as possible. Don’t you agree?”

This said as though her bolting like a scared rabbit had never happened. Interesting. Letting his parents listen in, however, was not happening. He pushed away from the table, muttering his name as he stalked out of the kitchen and down the hall.

“Tomorrow would be fine. Around nine?”

“Perfect. We’ll see you then.”

We.

Replacing his phone, Patrick continued into his parents’ jam-packed living room where Lili sat in front of the brick fireplace, holding a one-sided conversation with a bevy of beat-up dolls. At his entrance, she grinned up at him, and, as usual, he felt like his heart was too big for his chest. God, he loved this kid.

For her sake, he’d forced himself to smile again. To laugh. To appreciate the good in life and not give the bad the time of day. He thought that was called setting a good example, like his parents had done for him. He squatted beside her, cupped her head. “Gotta go, munchkin. Give me a hug?” She scrambled to her feet and threw her arms around his neck, and he inhaled her innocence right along with her baby shampoo. “You be good for Grandma, okay?”

He saw the flash of sadness in her dark eyes when she pulled away, but she only nodded and said, “’Kay.”

Patrick called his good-byes to his folks, then let himself out the front door, where the cold wind wreaked havoc with his face grafts, even for the short sprint to his truck. Sure, the idea of being around April Ross produced a kick to the gut the likes of which Patrick hadn’t experienced in long, long time. But after the hell he’d been through? A little lust was the least of his worries. Especially since this was a non-starter. What with her being married and all.

And thank God for that.

* * *

Copyright 2012, Karen Templeton Berger; cover art copyright 2012 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd. All rights reserved.

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