It figures I would get the apocalypse, doesn’t it?
And just a few days before Christmas, too.
But assuming we’re all still here to read this…
I was told we were doing Naked Heroes Under the Christmas Tree this month, and to that end, I’d like to share a page or two of my Christmas novella, Contingent On Approval, which falls between book 5 (which was released last Christmas) and book 6 (which comes this spring) in my Cutthroat Business mystery series.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the series, it took Savannah Martin, Southern-Belle-and-Realtor, five books to get her guy: Rafe Collier, the boy her mother always warned her about. That happened on what was basically the last page of the 5th book, A Done Deal. I thought I was done… until people started begging for more. So I wrote this little Christmas novella to tide everyone over until I can get the next full-length book done and out in the spring.
It’s “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” Sweetwater-style – and yes, for Savannah’s sainted mother, Margaret Anne Martin, it really is the end of the world, or pretty damned close to it.
The morning after finds Savannah in the arms of Rafe Collier – upstairs in the Martin mansion, under the roof of her overbearing and none-too-pleased mother. As if winning her home-town bad boy wasn’t hard enough, now she faces the monumental task of winning his acceptance by her family.
Will Rafe survive Christmas dinner with the Martins? Will their relationship survive some tough conversations they’ve been avoiding? Will Savannah finally get to eat dessert?
I woke up on Christmas morning with the same kind of anticipation I used to feel as a little girl, when I knew that Santa had come during the night and downstairs in the parlor were a whole lot of presents with my name on them.
The only difference was that this year Santa came early, and my present was lying next to me, one muscular arm thrown across my waist and his steady breathing ruffling the hair at the back of my neck.
He’d shown up last night, in the middle of the shindig my mother always hosts at my ancestral home, the Martin mansion in Sweetwater, every Christmas Eve. Everyone had been there: my brother and sister, their kids, my brother-in-law, my aunt and uncle. Mother’s best friend. Mother’s boyfriend, the sheriff. His son, my brother’s best friend: the man my mother wanted me to marry.
In the middle of it all, the doorbell rang.
There was nothing unusual about that: the citizens of Sweetwater—a small town in Middle Tennessee, and hour and a little more south of Nashville—had been coming and going all night, stopping in for a glass of eggnog and to pay their respects to the lady of the manor. My mother’s a Martin—by marriage, true, but a Martin nonetheless—and there have been Martins in Sweetwater since the early 1800s. The mansion itself was built in 1839, but the family has been here longer than that. I know it isn’t true, but sometimes I feel like there’s always been Martins in Sweetwater.
Anyway, the doorbell had rung. My brother had gone to answer it, and had come back with presents for his girls, five-year-old Abigail and three-year-old Hannah.
When I saw the contents of the colorful gift bags—Police Barbies—I knew that the new arrival had to be Tamara Grimaldi, my friend from the Nashville Police Department. She and Dix had met during the investigation into my sister-in-law’s murder a month or so before, and they had stayed in touch. I think she liked him. It was much too soon for him to consider dating again, of course, but I knew they spoke regularly, and I hadn’t questioned the fact that she’d driven all the way to Sweetwater on Christmas Eve to give his daughters Christmas gifts.
When he said there was something for me in the foyer, I didn’t think anything of it. I’d put down my glass of wine and walked out of the parlor, only to come face to face, not with Tamara Grimaldi, but with the man now lying in my bed. A man I loved with all my heart, in ways didn’t realize I could love anyone, and a man I’d almost lost numerous times, to death and to my own stupidity.
Now he was here, he was mine, and I wasn’t letting him go again. Ever.
Carefully, without disturbing the arm holding me close, I twisted so I could look at him. And as usual my heart lurched and my breath went. Not just because he’s beautiful, although he is, but because I love him, and I almost lost him, and I didn’t think I’d ever get him back, and now that I had, the feelings were so big I couldn’t breathe.
But he’s beautiful, too.
For the past couple of months, whenever I’d seen him, he’d had longer hair, perfectly gelled, and a little goatee he’d cultivated to pretend to be someone he isn’t. Literally. It’s a long story.
When he showed up last night, he was back to looking like himself again. His hair was shorn into the barely-there crop he’s been wearing since he grew out of the cornrows he had in high school, and his face was smooth-shaven. The only thing remaining was the small stud in his ear. He hadn’t had a pierced ear before. Jorge Pena, the man he’d been pretending to be, did. And since that particular likeness had been easy to emulate, Rafe had pierced his ear too.
The dragon tattoo Jorge had had on his back was a different matter. It would have taken too long to have that done, and it would have looked too new, so Rafe’s had been a fake. It was gone now, or mostly gone. There was still a faint outline, but it would fade over time. The only tattoo of his own that he has, is a viper wrapped around one bicep. It was looking at me, sticking out its little forked tongue.
I stuck mine out in return, and was rewarded with a low chuckle. “Morning, darlin’.”
“Good morning.” I blushed. Not exactly the sultry, seductive image I wanted to present, that one.
“Is it?” His eyes were only half open, deep and dark under long, sooty lashes.
“Of course it is. You’re here.”
He stretched, hard muscles sliding against my body. “Did you think I’d sneak out in the middle of the night?”
I hadn’t. Now I wondered if I should have. “Would you?”
He settled back down into the pillows, his arm still snug around my waist. “I usually do. Avoids that awkward morning after.”
We’d had a few awkward mornings after, he and I. He’d never snuck out on me, though. Then again, we’d always been in his bed the next morning. But aside from that, it had usually been me who couldn’t wait to leave, shocked and appalled all over again once daylight came that I’d succumbed to temptation and slept with him.
There’d be none of that today. “This isn’t awkward.”
He smiled. “It’s a little awkward.”
“What’s awkward about it?”
He did a quick eyeroll, indicating the room. My childhood room, on the second floor of theMartinMansion. Virginal white sheets, antique four-poster, bed-hangings, and all. It hasn’t changed much in the time since I left it to go off to finishing school, and to be honest, it didn’t change much in the hundred years before that either.
“I’m in your mother’s house,” Rafe said. “Me. Your mother’s house. And not just that, but there’s a couple hundred years of history at work here.”
“Don’t be silly,” I said.
“I ain’t being silly, darlin’. It’s a fact. A hundred and fifty years ago, they’d lynch me for this.”
“No, they wouldn’t. My great-great-great-grandmother Caroline slept with the groom. They didn’t lynch him.”
“What?” Rafe said.
“It’s true. My aunt told me yesterday. It happened just after the War Between the States. If I remember correctly, my great-great-great-grandfather went off to fight the Yankees, leaving Caroline at home to hold down the fort. With the slaves. I’ve always known that. It’s a source of great family pride.”
“Of course it is,” Rafe said.
“Sorry. But when you’re from an old Southern family, it’s important to be able to prove you were on the right side in the conflict.”
“People still care about that?”
“Some people do. My ex-husband’s family did.”
A corner of his mouth curled up. “Thought I’d made you forget about Bradley.”
“You have. Totally. Anyway, Caroline had an affair with the groom, either before or after her husband was killed in action. She got pregnant.”
I nodded. “Haven’t you ever wondered why my sister Catherine looks different from Dix and me? We’re blonde and blue-eyed, but she has darker hair and brown eyes?”
“Yeah,” Rafe said, “so?”
“Dix and I take after mother’s family, the Georgia Calverts. Catherine looks like the Martins. And great-great-grandfather William was part black.”
I had no idea how big a part. I’d looked at his picture my whole life, and I’d never once thought he looked African-American. But he was definitely dark. Hair, eyes, skin tone. Chances were that a male Martin—or a friend—in an even earlier generation had also dabbled in the pool, and the groom might have been part white. That would make William only about a quarter black, maybe even less. Enough to pass as white, at least to someone who didn’t know the story.
Rafe was quiet for a minute. “Your mother know about this?”
“My aunt doesn’t think so. She had it from her father, who told Aunt Regina and my dad. But Aunt Regina doesn’t think dad ever told mother.”
“I can see why,” Rafe said. “She’d prob’ly leave him.”
“Surely not.” Although she wouldn’t be thrilled.
“You planning to tell her?”
“If I have to,” I said. “It depends.”
“How she treats you later today.”
“What happens later today?”
“Christmas dinner,” I said. “At my sister’s house.”
He stared at me. “You’re taking me to Christmas dinner at your sister’s house?”
I stared back. “You mean you don’t want to go?”
He did a sort of squirm, one I’d never seen him do before. “It ain’t that I don’t wanna go, darlin’…”
I didn’t answer, just looked at him, and he added, “OK, so it is that I don’t wanna go.”
“They’ll be nice to you. Most of them.” All except mother. She’d be excruciatingly polite.
“I ain’t afraid of what they’ll do to me,” Rafe said. “I’ve been in more uncomfortable spots than your sister’s house for Christmas dinner.”
No question about that. “What is it you’re afraid of, then?”
“I ain’t afraid,” Rafe said. “I just don’t wanna upset your family on Christmas. That’s why I wasn’t gonna stay last night, either.”
“I told you. You couldn’t drive all the way here to tell me I could have you, and then leave before I could actually have you.”
“You’ve had me,” Rafe said. “Couple of times.”
Yes, I had. But that was last night. “I haven’t had you this morning.”
“You can have me this morning. If you still want me.”
“I always want you,” I said.
* * *
So there you have it, a tiny tidbit from the Christmas novella. Happy holidays, y’all, and here’s to an awesome 2013… assuming we all survive the apocalypse.
(For any of you interested in reading more about Rafe and Savannah, the first ebook in the series, A Cutthroat Business, is free for Kindle, Kobo, iPad, etc., for the holidays. For Nook you’ll have to sideload from Smashwords or one of the other ePub sites, since BN won’t let me make it free on their site. Sorry.)