November 1, 2014
Home is where the love is—especially at Christmas!
Commander Jonas Scott got through his tough deployment by thinking about his family home on Whidbey Island. The same home his deceased stepmother, Dottie, had promised him. His Navy Homecoming turns sour when he discovers Dottie left his house to a stranger named Serena Delgado.
Serena, an Army widow with a young son, is fixing up her house. But as Christmas approaches and she gets to know Jonas, Dottie’s plan becomes clear. It wasn’t about fixing up the house, it was about fixing up Serena and Jonas!
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Friday after Thanksgiving
SERENA LISTENED AS Pepé sang along to the music from Walt Disney's Frozen while she drove them back on island. They'd spent Thanksgiving Day at Beyond the Stars as planned.
Since they'd lost Dottie this past summer, she and Pepé were alone on Thanksgiving. She could have taken them back to Texas, but she wasn't ready to face her extended Mexican-American family at a big holiday. Not yet. She and Pepé needed time to forge their own traditions, their own family way of doing things. She sent up a silent prayer of gratitude that Juanita had been so gracious about her decision to stay on Whidbey through the holidays. Otherwise, it would have been hard to fight her mother's pleas to come home to Texas for Christmas.
Pepé had made many friends in his school on Whidbey and their families had in turn befriended Serena, so she never felt alone.
But when Val Di Paola, the director of BTS, had sent out the Thanksgiving invitation, Serena had jumped at it. Pepé had been excited to go back to San Juan Island, too, where he'd learned to jump off a diving board into the deep end of a pool.
Serena smiled. She could still hear Pepé's squeal of delight when he found out that Val kept the BTS pool and sauna tub heated and running year-round, at her husband Lucas's insistence. Pepé had frolicked in the water, and made Serena stay in the pool, as well, until they'd resembled the dried cranberries that had been in the turkey stuffing.
The air was crisp and clear and she was glad to be off the ferry after their rough crossing. Ferries were a necessity in Puget Sound, but Serena was a land girl through and through—Âgive her a four-by-four truck any day. She drove the crossover hybrid, a fuel-conserving SUV that she'd traded in her truck for, off the ferry with care. The water was beautiful but bouncing around on it when the gales blew wasn't her idea of fun.
Black Friday—Âthe American shopping holiday. Back home in Texas she'd be standing in long lines as she and her sisters strategized which department stores had the best deals for Christmas gifts. She'd be tired and annoyed that she wasn't back home with Pepé, who'd be curled up with her mother, his beloved abuela, while Serena shopped. A prick of guilt made her realize how much Pepé needed his family, all of it. She'd planned to spend this Christmas with Dottie, and her step-cousins. Paul Scott had been wonderful to her from the minute she'd met him at his law firm. The other brothers hadn't completely warmed up to her but she'd hoped they would, in time, and with their shared memories of Dottie's magic smile.
It hadn't turned out as she'd hoped, but in some ways it was better. She and Pepé were cementing friendships all over the Puget Sound area, and she'd made strides toward mending her relationship with Juanita.
Nevertheless, Serena needed to figure out what to do to make her Christmas with Pepé extra special.
She pulled onto the long drive to the house.
It had been only been six months but she was proud of the progress she'd made on the property. Dottie had been a skillful gardener and landscaper, but her age and busy social life meant the grounds had taken a backseat during the past few years, at least since she'd been widowed. Serena knew that was eighteen years ago. Her stepson and Jonas's older brother, John Scott, was Dottie's personal landscaper but the grounds required more regular care, in Serena's opinion.
The flower beds were covered with mulch and leaves for the winter, but in the spring they'd burst with daffodils and tulips, if squirrels didn't eat the hundreds of bulbs that she and Pepé had planted last month.
The fir trees were naturally Christmassy and the way they lined the drive was so attractive. She'd found twinkling lights at the dollar store that she planned to wind around the lower trunks of several this weekend.
Doing everything on her own wasn't easy, but she didn't mind it, either. Serena was happy to spend time with herself. Dottie had understood—Âthe first person to “get it” since Phil died.
That was another thing she and Dottie had shared—they'd both been unexpectedly widowed. Dottie's only husband had died of cardiac arrest with no warning. Dottie had never married until she met Louis Scott, a real estate colleague who'd been widowed with four sons to raise. Dottie had kept her name, Serena's biological father's name, Forsyth.
Even so, she'd raised the Scott boys as her own. Jonas must have been particularly close to her as the youngest. Dottie had mentioned Jonas to Serena time after time, saying he and his brothers were the children she'd never had, and how grateful she was to have been able to be a mother to them. She'd told of how Jonas had taken to her and started calling her “Mom.” Serena blinked back the tears that the memory of the warm conversation with Dottie evoked.
But it was difficult to imagine Jonas Scott as anything other than the devastatingly, annoyingly handsome man with the surly attitude she'd met last week.
He hadn't had an easy life from the bits she'd pieced together. His biological mother had died when he was two years old, and his father married Dottie within eighteen months of that. Louis, his father, had died when Jonas was still a teen—Âbefore he'd left for college. It had obviously been a crushing blow, yet Dottie and the stepsons Serena had met seemed to love one another and be happy in their lives.
Unlike Serena's mother, who'd always been bothered by the fact that she'd gotten pregnant by a stranger in her small Texas town. She'd never forgiven herself, and this had passed the sense of shame down to Serena.
Serena thanked God every day that she'd gotten out of that Podunk town to go to college and then ended up married to a military man whose job took her around the country. She'd hoped to see more of the world, but so far Whidbey Island was as far as she'd come and she was happy enough with that.
Jonas had looked chagrined when he'd realized that she and Pepé had heard his harsh words to Dr. Franklin.
She really should have announced their presence sooner. It wasn't fair of her. He'd just returned from his deployment, and Serena remembered how tired and scatterbrained Phil had been after long months downrange. It always took a few weeks to wake up to the reality of a more civilized lifestyle.
But Jonas had been such a “butt” as he'd said himself. He'd stirred her anger to a froth she hadn't experienced in what felt like forever.
Once he made the connection he'd been much nicer, charming even. Of course he had; he wanted the house and he had to go through her to get it.
A jolt of awareness made her sit up straight. She'd thought of Phil without the usual sense of longing, of sorrow. It was the second time in the past few weeks.
Dottie had told her that one day her deep grief over her husband's death had lifted and she saw life in full color again. She'd said it would happen for Serena, too.
Jonas Scott's male energy certainly hadn't been lost on her.
She looked in the rearview mirror at Pepé's sleeping form in the backseat.
“Wake up, sleepyhead.”
Ronald barked at her as if the request was a command for him and not Pepé. The fawn-colored Weimaraner/Labrador-mix puppy they'd rescued last spring was coming into his own as a full member of their family.
Pepé didn't stir as she maneuvered the SUV into the driveway. Even though it was almost noon, the lull of the ferry and motion of the drive always made him sleepy.
“I'm hungry, Mom!”
Serena laughed. “How do you go from sound asleep to full-throttle in less than a heartbeat?” She roughed up his hair with her hand.
“Quit it, Mom.” He unsnapped his seat belt and was out of the back car door before she had time to turn around again, Ronald racing ahead of him.
She watched their forms streak across the fog-dampened ground toward the front door.
And the tall man who stood in front of it, his back to her. They weren't used to drop-ins.
She felt a stab of fear and scrambled out of the seat.
The recent headlines across the local paper roared in her memory. The island was having a rash of break-ins, often motivated by an addict's search for prescription narcotics.
She should have had the dead bolt installed as she'd planned.
“Pepé, wait! Ronald!”
But Pepé didn't turn back toward her, didn't acknowledge he'd heard her. Ronald skidded to a halt in front of the man and she heard the dog's strident bark.
Who was the stranger at their door? What if he wanted to hurt Pepé?
“Pepé!” Her voice was sharper, the edge of fear stoking her anger.
“Mom, it's Jonas!”
Breathing hard, she stopped running before she got too close. Close enough that anyone would see the fear and anger on her face.
“Jonas.” She welcomed the relief that it wasn't a complete stranger.
“More like your sort-of cousin, isn't it?” He shot her a lopsided grin and just like that her hormones were off to the races. She really needed to start thinking about dating again. Then she wouldn't have such an overreaction to Jonas, the last man on earth she wanted to be aroused by.
“Sorry—we don't usually get surprise visitors. Ronald's protective of Pepé.”
“You mean unannounced visitors. I would have called, but it's against HIPAA for me to look up your number in your records and use it for personal business. You didn't give me your phone number yourself.”
“I appreciate your professionalism, uh, Commander Scott—or was it Captain?”
“I'm a Commander.” His mouth twitched.
“I didn't want to demote you. I'm not familiar with medical practitioners for the most part, and then when you add the Navy, I get even more confused. We're used to being around Marines. Well, we were.”
She took a step closer. “Ronald, it's okay.”
Her words were superfluous as Ronald had already deemed Jonas safe with an invisible doggy stamp of approval. He lay at Jonas's feet, his belly exposed for a rub. Jonas obliged and she didn't miss how nice his hands looked against Ronald's silver-brown coat.
Couldn't the dog at least pretend to have more of a vicious edge around strange men? Step-cousins included?
“We're not blood relatives, not cousins, by the way.” There. It was out; let him go after her about the house.
“You mean like you, Pepé and Dottie.”
He looked up at her as he spoke, continuing to stroke Ronald's underside. When he stood she had to look up. He was at least a foot taller than she was. And his gaze—a girl needed to watch how she interpreted his attention. Why couldn't Jonas look more like a toad?
“I didn't let you off the hook at the clinic. I'm sorry.” She owed him that much.
“Don't be. I earned your wrath. And although I don't deserve it, I'd like to start over with you.”
Jonas responded with a grin and held out his hand. “Jonas Scott, Dottie's youngest stepson. Pleased to meet you.”
His hand was warm and strong as it enveloped hers. She liked his firm handshake—certain but not overbearing.
“Serena Delgado. Dottie's biological niece.”
She met his gaze at the same moment a spark seemed to travel from where their hands joined up her arm. Judging from the interest in his eyes he'd felt it, too.
This wasn't what she'd bargained for, this instant attraction she was experiencing with Jonas.
“Hey, what about me?” Pepé stuck out his hand in front of Jonas.
“Nice to see you again, buddy.” Jonas shook Pepé's hand with the solemnity reserved for equals.
“Mom, can I go inside and play?”
“Sure, but no computer or television. Keep it to your toys or books.”
“But it's a holiday vacation, Mom!”
“Take it or leave it, mi hijo.”
Pepé ran back inside, Ronald on his heels.
“You're good with him.”
“Hmm.” Serena shifted on her feet, not sure where to go next. She didn't remember ever feeling so completely exposed with another person.
Jonas was practically a stranger, yet he knew her life. He knew her father had abandoned her before she'd even been born, that she was a widow and single mother. He'd drawn conclusions about how she'd come to have the house. He probably thought she'd finagled it out of Dottie.
Yet she knew so little about him. Except for what Dottie had told her. Dottie had made Jonas out to be perfect.
Serena knew that wasn't possible.
At the clinic he had played the straight man, the professional. He didn't dare comment on her role in his family's business in that setting.
Except for the venting session that she'd overheard, he'd behaved.
“You know who I am, Jonas. You know my family situation. You might even think you've figured me out. But I don't know a whole lot about you.”
His blink indicated she'd hit her target. She hadn't meant to sound so harsh but it felt good, if just for a moment. Let him judge her; she had as much right to be here as he did.
They might be unofficial cousins, of a sort, but the attraction between them glittered. Maybe she had too much Christmas on the brain, but she was mesmerized by the vision of a long, gold tinsel garland wrapped around both of them and drawing them closer.... Who needed mistletoe?
“Mom, is Jonas related to Auntie Dottie, too?”
“I thought you were playing inside, Pepé. This is an adult conversation.”Â She studied Pepé, his eyes wide. If he could raise his ears like a dog to listen better, he would. Her little sponge was taking it all in.
Pepé held up an apple and a cheese stick. “Can I have these?”
“Yes. At the table.”
“Auntie Dottie?” Jonas didn't have to raise his eyebrows; his tone of voice made clear that his judgment of her was as clichéd as the gesture. Let him add the assumption that she'd used Pepé to gain an inside track to Dottie's will and the house.
“We had a chance to get to know Dottie before...before last summer.” She stared at him.
“I never heard of you until six months before she died.” He shoved his hands in his jeans pockets. His nicely formed, masculine hands.
“No reason for you to.” She shrugged. “I didn't want Dottie to bother her family, your family, with what I came out here for— to find out about my biological family. It had nothing to do with you until...until she died.”
“And left the house to you.”
Anger grew from a curl of tension in her stomach to a python gripping her throat.
“It's really none of your business. Dottie was my aunt and had information about my biological father that I couldn't get from anyone else, as all of their relatives are gone. As I'm sure you know, Dottie was the last one. And, as I'm sure you also know better than I do, genetic medical information is invaluable. I met with Dottie as much for Pepé as myself.”
Her throat ached even more and she wanted to punch the side of the house. She would not cry in front of this virtual stranger.
Jonas remained quiet, watching her.
“It didn't make sense to draw you and your brothers into my sordid family life.”
“Who said anything about ‘sordid’?” Jonas flashed that handsome smile again. Aware that Pepé could be within earshot, absorbing their entire conversation, she kept herself from shoving Jonas and telling him to shut up.
“Not to be rude, but why exactly are you here, Jonas?”
He shrugged. “I came out to introduce myself properly, and to see if there's anything you need for the house.”
“Anything I need?”
He had the grace to look away.
“My brothers have, um, indicated that you haven't asked for any help fixing up the place. We know Dottie wasn't able to keep up with it the past several years. And she wouldn't let us help out like we wanted to.” He looked up at the house. She followed his gaze and saw the peeling paint, the hole in the eaves where a bird had made a nest last spring.
Discomfort made her wiggle her toes in her faux shearling-lined boots. He wasn't going to get under her skin this way, no matter how hard he tried. She'd fix the house on her own.
“It looks worse than it is. This place is over a hundred years old. It's been through a lot. I've painted the inside and ripped up all the old carpets.” She'd found beautiful pine flooring underneath, which she'd refinished in October, thinking her family might come out from Texas for a visit.
Of course her mother hadn't been willing to make the trek, not even for Pepé. Not yet. She was still too raw about the fact that Serena had come west to learn about a man who'd never taken the time to know his daughter or provide child support to a teenage mother.
“I'm not criticizing anything you've done or not done to the house. Carpentry, woodworking, cabinetry— they're my hobbies. I know this place as well as Dottie did. It'd be my pleasure to help you get it in tip-top shape.”
“Is that a Navy expression?”
He looked at her questioningly. “What— tip-top? Yes, I suppose so. Look, I realize you don't know me, not yet. But I'm the one person who could give you a hand bringing this house back to its full potential.”
For the first time since she'd inherited the place, Serena felt a strong surge of possessiveness. This was her home. Hers and Pepé's.
“I've gone over it pretty thoroughly the past several months. I've got an extended list of what I'll update and when.” She crossed her arms. What was it about this man that brought out her defensiveness?
“No doubt you've made a great start, Serena. But an old place like this has secrets that are hard to find. For example, have you uncovered the buried treasure yet?”
His eyes twinkled. Serena clenched her hands as she heard Pepé's feet stomp on the floor inside. He appeared at the open front door.
“There's a buried treasure in our house?” Pepé's eyes were wide and Serena wished to heaven and back he didn't have that enthusiastic grin on his face.
Jonas nodded. “When I was a boy I found a special place to hide my treasures from my three brothers. Maybe you've found your own nook for your favorite toys?”
Pepé shook his head. “No, not yet. But I love my room!”
Now Pepé had twinkles in his eyes. Serena wanted to scream but instead pasted on a killer smile for Jonas. He was on her turf.
“Mind if I take a look inside?”
“Of course not.” She paused. Aside from his brothers and the contractors, Jonas was the first man she'd allowed in their home.
But it wasn't as though he was a man in that sense— she wasn't going to start anything with him. He was a sailor from the base and he was practically family. The drug-related burglaries on the island were definitely making her paranoid.
Would her fear of living out on this remote property ever completely vanish?
Jonas had even passed Ronald's appraisal.
It'd be easier if he hadn't. Then she could chalk up her body's response to him as nerves and not the blatant sexual attraction she knew it was.
She saw in his eyes what she'd felt in her heart too many times to count. Self-assurance with a hint of sadness.
Why was she being so tough on him? Jonas was no more responsible for her inheriting the house than she was. They were both surprised by Dottie's decision, and affected by it. One more happily than the other.
“I'm sorry, Jonas. This isn't easy for you, is it? You didn't get a chance to say a proper goodbye to Dottie. It all must seem surreal to you. Do you want to have some time alone in the house?”
“I appreciate it but I don't need to be alone, Serena.”
That she understood.
End of excerpt