Each book in the series is a standalone, but read them all to fully enjoy the journey of these seven best friends, who return home for Christmas, and their emotional reunion with their mentor, an incredible woman who changes their lives and helps save a small town community forever.
Now, I’m going to share a sneak peek of Forever Yours in Christmas Falls with you. So put your feet up, relax, and happy reading!!
Forever Yours in Christmas Falls
Copyright © 2017 by Susan Hatler
All rights reserved.
As I drove down the highway toward my hometown of Christmas Falls, my heart fluttered with anticipation—a second later, however, an ice-cold feeling of anxiety rushed through my veins. I was coming home to Tennessee on my own terms to live my own life, but as soon as my mom found out about my change in career paths a war would ensue. You can go to my site to check out more info.
My mouth went dry thinking about the impending conversation with my mom. I’d tell her the truth. She’d be disappointed in me. I’d feel bad. Then I’d revert back to pleasing her. . . .
Except, no. Not this time.
I gripped the steering wheel hard. I was twenty-six years old and entitled to make my own decisions. Besides, it’s not like I could keep my new beauty salon a secret in our small town even if I wanted to. While I’d lived in Florida, I’d kept my secret running on two years now—the ginormous fact that I’d passed on the MBA program and used my inheritance money to attend the beauty academy instead.
I couldn’t keep living a lie, though. It wasn’t fair to my parents or to me. And it certainly wasn’t fair to my brother, Connor, who I’d told after swearing him to secrecy. Plus, I was excited about opening my own beauty salon and wanted to share that joy with my family. The decision had been made: I’d tell my parents the truth at dinner tonight.
My stomach roiled. Never in a million years would my mom approve of me becoming a cosmetologist. She’d rather set her eyelash extensions on fire, watch her Cadillac Escalade do a high jump off a cliff, or trade her 5500-square foot cabin with its breathtaking views of the Great Smoky Mountains for a tent.
I wasn’t exaggerating, either.
Actually, if my mom had things her complete way, I would’ve married my high school sweetheart, Thomas Brand IV, worked a few years at Reed Bank—which they owned outright, all three locations—popped out a couple of children and then joined my parents’ country club. It took her months to recover when Tom dumped me right before high school graduation. I’d been hurt over the unexpected breakup, but ended up having to console my mom instead of the other way around.
Ever since we lost my older sister, Grace, in a terrible accident when I was young, I’d felt like I had to be twice the daughter for my parents—especially for my mom, who held my big sister in the highest regard, one that I never seemed able to reach. My stomach knotted thinking about that tragic day by the cliff, so I quickly pushed it from my mind.
In my defense, I’d tried it my mom’s way most of my life in order to make her happy. But if I’d gone for my MBA like she’d pushed me to do, then something inside me would’ve shriveled up and died. I needed to come home and come clean. It had been eight years since I’d left for college and I couldn’t stay away from my beloved hometown forever.
I’d missed Christmas Falls.
And I’d received a sign that it was time to come home.
At the end of October, I received a letter from my high school choir teacher and mentor extraordinaire, Miss Anna Cate. In her own handwritten words, she’d revealed the devastating news that she was terminally ill due to a kidney disease. I’d cried myself to sleep that night. I mean, Miss Anna Cate couldn’t be more than sixty years old. Way too young to die. My eyes started to burn from imagining a world without that vibrant woman still in it.
I dabbed at the corners of my eyes, before returning both hands to the wheel. I needed to concentrate on the road or I wouldn’t be arriving home shortly or anytime thereafter. But two minutes later, I felt my mind drifting back to my brave mentor.
Miss Anna Cate had always been there for me and my besties from the high school choir team. And if her final wish was for the seven of us to sing “I’ll be Home for Christmas” together once again for her at the annual Christmas pageant? Well, I for one would not let her down.
Guilt kicked me in the chest as I thought of my besties from the choir team: Ashley, Piper, London, Lexi, Caitlin, and Olivia. Even though we’d sworn to be best friends forever in our bracelet ceremony by the Falls in sixth grade, I hadn’t seen any of them since we’d been arrested after high school graduation (long story). Well, Lexi and I used to keep in touch over the phone, but it had been years since I’d talked to her. That was crazy to think about. She probably thought I went into the MBA program liked I’d planned. Shudder.
I could only assume that Lexi and the rest of the team were returning to sing for Miss Anna Cate, as well. Not that I’d talked to any of them yet. I’d been too busy planning my own return. But I remembered our best friends bracelet ceremony like it was yesterday. I also remembered after graduation, I’d made a big speech to my friends about how I was going to face my mom, refuse to major in accounting, confess my real dream to her, and ask that she finally accept me for who I am rather than as a disappointing substitute for Grace.
But, nobody stood up to Ivy Reed and won.
So I’d caved like a coward.
Driving along the highway, I fingered the pink, hand-woven-out-of-string besties bracelet on my left wrist that was safely tucked under the Rolex my parents had sent me for my birthday in August. I’d vowed in sixth grade never to take this bracelet off and I never had. Even though we’d been apart for years, my friends still meant the world to me. My vision blurred as my mind flashed back to our bracelet ceremony by the waterfall and the sacred vow we’d chanted:
“Ties That Bind
Friendship is a precious thing.
It’s made and woven out of strings.
The kind of ties that can’t be seen
But last in life through everything.
Made from the heart are strands of love,
A thread of kindness from above.
Knit together they create a bind,
Friendship that stands the test of time.
Because the world cannot see
This bond between you and me,
We’ll take some string to weave together
In a band we’ll wear forever.
Upon our wrists, these strings we’ll place,
Giving our friendship a physical face.
A sign of friendship, strong and true,
These forever ties that bind me and you.”
My heart squeezed as a hot tear slipped down my cheek. I swiped it away and shook my head so hard that my dark hair fell behind my shoulders. I missed my high school besties and wished I’d kept in touch after I went off to college to get a degree in accounting (snooze). I hoped they knew that the words we’d chanted that night still held a special place in my heart.
As if feeling my pain, my SUV let out a low groan at the incline, but I figured it was more likely a reaction to not being used to these steep mountain roads. I cleared the lump in my throat and patted the dashboard. “Don’t you dare die on me,” I warned. “If you can handle Florida humidity and salty air then you can deal with some uphill climbs.”
Christmas Falls, Tennessee sat just over the next foothill and Miami was far behind me. My heart drummed in my chest. Almost home. I’d loved Miami for many reasons—the sun, the beach, and the electrical pulse of the place—but I’d never felt rooted there.
I drove up the next rise then downward into a little dip and then the small town of Christmas Falls spread out before me, surrounded by the Great Smoky Mountains. The road wandered around the side of the sprinkled-snow-topped mountain like a slim gray ribbon. The trees held glorious color and I picked out oak, pine, and stately elms. The side of the mountain towered over the road as it weaved through a series of turns until I came to a relatively flat stretch.
The downtown section of Christmas Falls came into view and looked only slightly different despite the years that had passed. The road became a broad avenue that was separated by a center divider, which was decorated with neatly trimmed bushes. Wooden benches sat on the sidewalks and I knew if I kept driving past downtown then I’d run into the Community Center, home of the annual Christmas pageant where my besties and I had performed for years.
Quaint shops lined the quiet street beneath cheerful awnings. I passed the feed store, antique store, bookstore, florist, coffee shop, and more. My mouth watered as I spotted the barbecue place on my left. There’s nothing in the world like good barbecue and that place made some of the best chopped pork and Brunswick stew I’d ever eaten, served with sliced bread and a sauce that would light your face on fire if you took too large a bite. Yum.
Speaking of dinner, my parents were probably wondering what had happened to me since I was running so late. But I’d be at their house shortly and then I’d tell them about my career change. My stomach clenched. Or, not.
No, I couldn’t keep this secret from them any longer.
As if on cue, up on my right I spotted the former home of Coraline’s Classic Beauty Salon, soon to be replaced by my very own C.F. Salon where I’d offer full hair services, manicures, pedicures, and facials. My heart rate kicked up and my gaze flew to the window of the business space I’d rented. Pride and joy hit me hard. I checked the time, sighed, and found myself pulling the SUV into a parking spot out front.
Dusk had fallen and I rationalized that my parents had better things to do on a Friday night than hold dinner for me. I definitely wanted to tell them about the salon, but it suddenly seemed better to wait until I fixed it up a bit. The more professional the salon looked when I showed my mom, the more likely she’d be at ease that I’d made the right decision.
I shot my mom a text that the trip took longer than expected, so I’d meet up with them tomorrow instead. This new plan would work much better. Plus, I should get to my friend Ruby’s townhome—the place where I’d be living—at a reasonable hour. But, I mean, no harm in taking a quick peek at my business space, right?
I jumped out of the car, my feet landing on the sidewalk.
I’d played a kind of Tetris while packing my belongings into the back of my SUV and should probably get home to unpack everything, but I ignored the responsible side of my brain and hurried toward the building, my smile growing wider with each step.
Mine. All mine.
I fumbled in my purse for the keys Coraline had mailed to me after I’d leased the place from her. Then I unlocked the door. The hinges squealed, making me grimace. I had to get that fixed before opening day in two and a half weeks. I also had to put up my “coming soon” sign in the window for advertising.
But first, I needed to check out my dream space in person. I flipped on the light switch, but nothing happened. Huh. Bulb must’ve burned out. No matter. The streetlights from the outside sent enough light through the front window for me to look the place over.
I crossed my fingers, hoping the photos Coraline emailed me hadn’t done the closed-salon justice. My gaze darted around the wide and long room, confirming the photos had indeed been accurate. Ick. I added “changing the décor” to my mental “to do” list because there was no way I could leave the scratched-up black-and-white checkered tile flooring or the orange—yes, orange—salon chairs in place. The heavy, old-fashioned gilt-trimmed mirrors made me chuckle, but the drooping and dusty plastic plants were certainly no laughing matter. Yikes.
I drifted through the front room to the stockroom in back, trying to envision the changes I’d make. The faint scent of disuse filled my nostrils as I eyed a shelf filled with abandoned hair products that looked like they’d escaped from the nineteen-fifties. I stared at the bottles, wondering if it would be safe to toss them into the trash or if I’d need a hazmat team to dispose of them.
Suddenly, I heard a squealing noise coming from the front of the business space. My body tensed. Had I locked the front door after I entered? I couldn’t remember. This was a sweet small town, not the big city, but still. My gaze flew to the stockroom door and I listened hard. Nothing. Maybe I’d imagined the noise. I let out a breath just as a second squealing sound ensued.
The definite timbre of footsteps followed.
Oh, no. Someone was here.
Next came a strange high-pitched scraping sound, and goosebumps prickled up my neck. What could that be?
I squatted in a defensive stance and looked around, hoping to spot a broom or something I could use as a weapon. Coraline was an older, single woman. Surely she’d kept a baseball bat handy, right? But there weren’t any makeshift weapons in sight. With no other options, I grabbed a dusty bottle of toner and uncapped it. Maybe I could toss the liquid into the intruder’s eyes and blind him as I raced out. Why, oh why, hadn’t I taken martial arts as a child?
But I refused to be killed in the stockroom of a sadly out-of-date beauty parlor. I had to make an escape. My heart pounded in my chest as I shadowed the wall and tiptoed out front, holding the toner bottle like a missile ready for launch. It was now or never.
Sucking in a deep breath, I peered around the corner into the dim room just as the lights flashed on illuminating a well-built man in cowboy boots sauntering casually toward a ladder in the center of the room. My eyes took in the tight-fitted jeans over muscular legs and the broad build beneath a gray t-shirt, with sinewy arms to boot. At least the man—intruder or not—wasn’t wearing a cowboy hat or I’d have to yell, “Yee-haw!”
Instead, the toner bottle slipped from my grip and dropped against the floor, bouncing with a thud-thud-thud. The man’s head whipped in my direction and familiar caramel-brown eyes met mine. Then the corner of the man’s mouth slowly curved upward.
“Morgan Reed,” he said, his low husky tone a statement and not a question.
“Dallas Parker?” I asked, my belly doing a flip. I knew that look he was giving me. It had set my heart racing back in high school and it seemed to have the same effect eight years later.
“Now we’ve gotten the names out of the way.” He chuckled, moving away from the ladder and walking toward me. He took me in, shaking his head. “The last time I saw you it was plaid skirts and headbands. I almost didn’t recognize you.”
“It’s me,” I said, lamely. Then I glanced down at my dark-washed jeans and high-heeled black boots. Yeah, a definite outfit change from my days at Christmas Falls High. Dallas looked different, as well. He was still tall, toned and trim, but wisdom flashed in those caramel-brown eyes now. His dark hair was much shorter these days and he looked older, but it was definitely Dallas Parker—my older brother’s best friend, my secret childhood crush, and the man my mother blamed for our family’s greatest tragedy. “W-What are you doing here?”
He was also the guy who had punched my boyfriend in the jaw at the end of senior year when he’d caught us making out at Lover’s Bench right next to the waterfall.
“The question is what are you doing here?” he asked, stopping inches in front of me. “Other than dropping a bottle of . . . what is that, anyway?”
“Hair toner.” I glanced at the bottle sheepishly. Then my gaze shot to the ladder in the center of the room, which I now noticed sat beneath a light fixture. He’d changed the light bulb. That was the noise I’d heard, not that of someone I needed to douse in the eyes with toner. Wait, why was Dallas changing the light bulb in my new salon? Maybe he’d become some sort of property manager, or something. “I heard a strange noise and thought you were an intruder. I guess you were just changing the light bulb in my shop.”
His brows rose. “Wait a minute. Did you say your shop?”
“Yes,” I said, my voice tight since I could see surprise written on his face. Why was he so shocked? I was perfectly capable of running my own business, thank you so much. And why did his sexy vibe affect me after all this time? So infuriating. I cleared my throat, determined not to let him see how he affected me. I picked up the bottle from the floor, dropping it into a nearby garbage can. “I’m opening my own beauty salon, so I leased this space. I assume you’re the, um, property manager? Thanks for changing the light bulb for me.”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” he said, his tone suddenly condescending as he held his palms up and shook his head. “You must be in the wrong building. I’m the one who rented this place. I’m opening up a furniture store.”
Chills vibrated through me. What the . . .?
Visions of opening my own beauty salon evaporated before my very eyes.
“Um, I don’t think so.” My hands thrust to my hips. “No way, you must be in the wrong place. I rented this beauty salon from Coraline of Coraline’s Classic Beauty Salon and look around you, Dallas.” I gestured wildly. “This is clearly a beauty salon, not a furniture store.”
“I don’t see that much beauty in it, to be honest.” He looked around at the garish décor. “Those chairs are the same color as the antacid I usually drink after a plate of ‘cue and slaw. Coraline clearly wanted me to make my mark on this place.”
I sucked in a hard breath. He wasn’t wrong with his antacid description, but those orange chairs were mine to use not his. “Let me worry about the color of my chairs.”
“They aren’t your chairs, Morgan. I rented this business space, not you.”
I choked and grabbed the purse I’d dropped on a small counter next to one of the antacid-colored chairs. I dug around in it. “You must’ve had too much beer with your ‘cue and slaw, Dallas. You didn’t rent this place. See, I have the lease right here.”
“Let me read that.” He took the papers I thrust at him, his fingers brushing against mine and sending tingles up my arm. His gaze met mine as a shiver rolled through me that I hoped with every fiber of my being he didn’t notice. The corner of his mouth hitched up. “Missed me, huh?”
“You wish,” I said, kicking myself for not having a better retort. Whatever. Anyone with eyes could tell the man was attractive. Not my body’s fault for reacting that way. Not like I was going to throw my arms around him and kiss him.
Although the thought wasn’t exactly unpleasant. . . .
“Maybe I do wish.” His gaze simmered as I glared at him, but this only seemed to make him more amused. Finally, he unfolded the pages and scanned them. His forehead creased. Then he handed me my papers and dug around in his back pocket. “Check this out.”
“What?” I asked, making sure not to let my fingers graze his as I took the papers from him. I skimmed through quickly, my heart sinking with every word. The address was correct. The dates were correct. Which meant we’d both rented the same place from Coraline. “This isn’t possible.”
“It’s clearly possible.” He shrugged and then sauntered over to a shelf sitting on the floor and resting against the wall. He picked up a hammer and began banging nails into the wood.
Was he seriously decorating my salon?
“Stop that,” I said, marching up to him. “You can’t put that shelf up in my salon.”
“It’s my furniture store,” he retorted between hammer blows. “Look, I don’t know what happened here, but my store opens in two and a half weeks and it’s going to take a lot of work to get it done.”
“My salon opens then, too,” I said, my heart sinking. I tapped my toe tapped against the floor as he finished hanging the shelf on the wall. “Fine, I’ll use that shelf to display products. Hair gel and shampoo and conditioner.”
“I’m confused.” He turned to face me, the corner of his mouth lifting. “How exactly are you opening a beauty salon? Didn’t you go to school for accounting?”
Yikes! I’d been back in Christmas Falls for all of half an hour and I was already being asked the questions I dreaded most. Wait. He knew what I’d majored in? My heart fluttered in my chest. I’d be lying if I denied the massive crush I’d had on him most of my teenage years. But I was a grown woman now and his sexy smile wouldn’t work on me.
I crossed my arms. “Yes, so?”
His eyebrows rose. “Why are you opening a beauty salon if you got a degree in accounting?”
“I . . .” I dragged in a breath and then sighed. “None of your business. Okay?”
“I don’t have time for this.” He blew out a breath and turned away again. I couldn’t help noticing how well his jeans fit. He bent over to pick up another shelf and I lost my breath. The ring of the hammer against a nail snapped me back to my senses.
“Stop hammering,” I said, my fists balling at my sides. “This is my life you’re playing with. My salon opens on the eighteenth of December. I’ve already paid for advertising and everything.”
He set the hammer aside. “It’s money I can’t afford to lose either.”
“I don’t know what to do,” I said, racking my brain. “I mean, clearly I need this particular space more than you do. This doesn’t look anything like a furniture store. And since when did you get into furniture? I heard you were in the military.”
Oh, no. His sexy smirk was back.
“You’ve been checking up on me, Morgan?”
I spluttered. “No. Of course not.”
He gave me a wicked grin. “You sure? It sounds like you’re carrying a torch for me.”
“The only thing I’ve been carrying for you is toner, which I’d planned to throw in your face. I obviously should’ve done that. You’re . . . a menace.”
His brows came together. “Name one time I was a menace.”
“How about the time you punched my boyfriend in the face?” I blurted.
He paused a moment and then shrugged. “He deserved it.”
My jaw dropped open. “Tom was a straight-A student, a good athlete, and the entire town liked him. Maybe you were jealous.”
He didn’t seem the least bit perturbed by my accusation. In fact, he looked amused. “Would you have liked it if I’d been jealous?”
“No, of course not.” Well, maybe a little.
“I’d like to say this has been fun, but the scowl on your face tells me you don’t feel the same way. But I can’t afford to delay fixing up my furniture store. So, you’ll have to scowl at me while I work.”
“You’re impossible,” I said, as he turned his back to me again. What was he doing opening a furniture store, anyway? Well, that actually did make sense considering he and most of the men in his family had worked in the sawmill until that terrible incident happened with his uncle. I pushed that out of my mind, though. “You can’t open your furniture store here.”
He faced me again, letting out an audible breath.
“Well?” I asked. Then we stood there staring at each other for what had to be several minutes. I wasn’t going to budge on my dream, but I was beginning to feel exhausted.
“It’s late.” He pulled a cell phone out of his pocket and checked the time. “But this is Coraline’s mix-up, so we’d better just call her and she can sort this out.”
“Good idea.” I hoped she’d side with me once she realized the mistake. Taking the lead so she’d hear my voice first, I whipped out my own cell phone, tapped on her phone number, and then turned on the speaker. The phone rang and I held my breath as we waited for her to pick up.
A click sounded. “This is Coraline. I’m sorry I can’t take your call, but I’m retired now and on the adventure of a lifetime. An African safari. Feel free to leave a message. I’ll be back in town Christmas Eve. Cheers!”
This was not good.
I glanced at Dallas. He looked back at me.
“There has to be some solution here,” I said, biting my lip.
He raked his hand through his hair. “I can think of one.”
“You’re willing to concede and leave me to my salon?” I laced my hands in prayer position, put on my cutest smile, and nodded my head causing my hair to fall against my cheek.
“Not going to happen.” He shook his head, reaching out and tucking my hair behind my ear. His fingers grazed my jawline, leaving a wake of tingles along my sensitive skin. Then the corners of his mouth curved upward. “We’re going to have to share the space for now.”
“We are?” I asked, watching him nod. I wanted to disagree, but with Coraline gone until Christmas Eve the obvious solution was to open our businesses together. I’d just have to ignore his sexy smile and make some rules, like no tucking my hair behind my ear.
Then on Christmas Eve, one of us would get the boot.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this sneak peek into Morgan’s story, Forever Yours in Christmas Falls, which releases on Monday, October 23rd. I hope you have a fabulous weekend!!