"Ms. Ashgrove knows how to write a story that grabs you immediately and
holds you until the very last word."
NIGHTOWL ROMANCE REVIEWS - 5 Stars, Top Pick
“A Christmas to Believe In is an amazing novel in an excellent trilogy. Readers
are not let down at all.”
THE ROMANCE REVIEWS - 4 Stars, Top Pick
“Claire Ashgrove weaves in happenings from the first two books of this
series, but the major focus is on Clint and Jesse and their incredible,
sacrificial love that brings forth a much stronger, all-encompassing
love that thrills the heart.”
LONG AND SHORT REVIEWS - 4 Stars
Snow crunched beneath the Chevy pickup’s tires as Clint King navigated around a turn. In the silent dark, his blinker clicked a steady beat that tempered his nerves. In the rear-view mirror, he checked that the two-horse trailer on his bumper didn’t slip in the light sheen of ice. The last thing he needed was a wreck.
As if today wasn’t bad enough.
He mumbled as he glanced down at the gas gauge. A few more miles and the warning light would come on. Thank God Mom’s house lurked just around the next bend. He could finally get off the snow-covered highways between Brandenburg, Kentucky and the Kansas City Northlands. Eight hours of treacherous roads was enough strain to turn a saint into a sinner.
Then again, if his mother hadn’t dosed out a heavy round of guilt, he’d be happily tucked into his couch, watching the latest DVD release. Even a saint couldn’t stand up to Mom’s masterful manipulation. He could still hear her heavy sigh. The carefully chosen words echoed in his head. But Clint, you missed your father’s last Christmas.
He had. Certainly not intentionally, but he’d missed it all the same. None of them had foreseen their father would die the following summer. This last summer. When Clint had been too busy prepping for the track to come home for the Fourth of July.
Guilt rose up to curdle his stomach and compressed his chest. He tightened his hands on the wheel. Damn, he didn’t want to do this. Coming back here stirred up all kinds of memories. Each mile he crossed brought pictures of the past. Dad taking him and his brothers sledding. Dad holding the camera as they all opened gifts. Even the last Christmas Clint had spent with his family his father had maintained the specific role of photographer. Who would take the pictures this year—Alex?
Clint shook his head. No, he was the eldest. That should be his responsibility. Alex had other things on his mind. More important things like a long-lost sister none of them had known about until a few weeks ago. Alex also had new triplet daughters to worry about. News Clint would have loved to see Alex’s high and mighty fiancée hear. That ought to be quite the twist to Alex’s Christmas Eve wedding.
Heath would be too caught up in the festivities. Hell, for that matter, Heath probably hadn’t even thought to bring a camera. Even if Dad’s sat in the closet, Heath would be goofing off. He’d always gotten away with it too. As the peacemaker of the family, he’d never been on the receiving ends of Mom’s down-the-nose looks, or Dad’s stern, “I expected more from you” frowns. No, Heath fixed everything with an innocent expression and humor.
Letting out a heavy sigh, Clint steered around a slow left hand curve. Up the hillside, pale blue lights dangled from high gables. White strands wound around the porch beams. Even from this distance, the deep red glow of his mother’s Christmas wreath shone from the front door.
Home. Five years later, and he was home.
Further off in the distance, he observed the festive red and green bulbs that always decorated Jesse Saurs’ folks’ barn. Some things never changed. Odd though, Mom had mentioned something about the Saurs moving. Did that mean Jesse still lived in that old house on the hill?
His spirits brightened at the thought. If Jesse were around, things would be like old times. Too bad they were all too old for car-hood sledding—she’d been the best driver out of the whole gang. They weren’t, however, too old for a good, old-fashioned snowball fight. And if his memory served, he still owed her for an ice-ball in the nose.
A grin quirked the corner of his mouth. That girl knew how to throw. His nose had bled for almost an hour.
Man, if he had to have a sister, why couldn’t it have been her? Instead, he had to deal with some stranger. Keeley Jacobs might be his father’s daughter, but Clint was pretty damn certain she didn’t know how to cheat at arm wrestling like Jesse did. He was also pretty certain neither of his brothers would put up with a strategically placed toe in the ribs from her either.
Guess he’d find out. As much as he didn’t care to meet his new half-sibling, Mom made it clear she intended to welcome the woman with open arms. Which meant this family get-together would come with strangers.
He shifted into second to climb the steep driveway. The trailer skidded, threatening to pull him back onto the road. Scowling, Clint dropped the truck into four-wheel drive, and gave it a bit more gas. The rig jumped as the trailer bounced forward. Slowly, he inched up the gravel drive.
At the top, he pulled straight into the yard. He still had to find stabling for his horse, and turning around up here wouldn’t be easy. Mom could deal with the tread marks. She’d wanted him to come. Insisted on it. She could deal with the fact his prize mare was due to foal any day. If he were lucky, the trailer ride hadn’t stressed her, and she wouldn’t choose tonight.
He opened the door to her sharp whinny. Jumping down into the snow, he tromped to the rear of the trailer and threw open the top half of the loading doors. She twisted her elegant neck around to give him an expectant look.
“Not yet, Angel.”
Clint closed the door and made his way around to the escape door. The hinges creaked as he pulled it open. He stepped inside, kicked his way through the loose bedding, and moved up to her head to give her an affectionate pat. She rode free, not tied to anything, in the event sudden labor set in. Not familiar with her foaling habits, he didn’t dare take the risk she might try to lie down, despite the unlikelihood.
“Eat your hay while I run inside. We’ll get you settled in soon.” He scratched her behind the ears, ran his hand down her mane, and patted her shoulder. “No foals, Angel. You gotta cook that one until January.”
She answered his order with a lazy blink.
Satisfied they were in agreement, Clint climbed out of the trailer and secured the door. He crossed behind his bumper, stepped over the hitch. His gaze fell on the house. Bright lights flooded the snow-covered porch with a warm yellow glow. The Christmas tree twinkled behind the front window. Through the frosty panes, he glimpsed Alex seated on the couch. Alex laughed at something, and though the sound didn’t filter outside, Clint could hear the rumble of his voice.
Maybe coming home wouldn’t turn out so bad after all. He hadn’t seen his brothers in years.
He made his way to the porch, stopped in front of the door to stomp the snow off his boots. Bells jangled as he opened the door.
A chorus of laughter greeted his ears. Alex looked up with a broad grin. But what caught Clint’s immediate attention was the flash of movement near the hearth. He glanced over in time to see a woman punch Heath in the arm. She tumbled back into her chair, giggling, then turned bright blue eyes on him.
“Clint!” Her excited greeting blended with his brothers’ hellos.
Her smile, however, made his breath catch. Something deep in his gut tripped as he took another step inside and Jesse eased to her feet. Long black hair tumbled to her waist, just as she’d always worn it. He’d seen those raven locks a thousand times, but they’d never shone quite like they did as she crossed the room.
To his shame, his gaze skipped down to her toes, taking in curves he’d never noticed and a waist so tiny he could span his hands around it. She wore jeans that hugged thighs he knew were muscular. Only, five years ago, they’d just been Jesse’s legs. Now, they belonged to a…
He caught the sweet scent of lilacs as she slipped her arms around his neck and hugged him tight. Soft curves melted against his chest.
When in the hell had Jesse grown up? She’d been thirty when they’d last spent any time together. Even as an adult, he’d still seen the tomboy she’d always been. His little sister. But damn… She felt good. All feminine.
He collected himself enough to return her hug. “I’ll be damned, Jesse. I didn’t expect to see you here.”
“Is that Clint?” his mother called from the kitchen.
“Yeah, Mom. I’m here.”
Jesse pulled out of his embrace, leaving his skin tingling where they’d touched. Good grief, what was the matter with him? He’d wrestled with her, for God’s sake, and hadn’t ever been affected by touching her. For that matter, they’d all skinny dipped in Longview Lake one summer. And those breasts hadn’t been anywhere near as compelling as they were beneath her light blue sweater right now.
Shoot, he hadn’t even known she’d had breasts back then.
Well, he’d known, but there was a distinct difference.
“Clinton, come give your mother a kiss.” His mother’s call jarred him back to sense.
Thankfully, it also offered a means of escape. He glanced about the room, offered a short nod, and said, “Be right back.” Avoiding eye contact with those disturbingly unsettling blue eyes, he followed the aroma of apples and cinnamon into the kitchen.
Stunned, Jesse curled into her chair with her feet tucked beneath her and trained a smile to her face. Though she pretended interest in Heath and Alex’s conversation, her gaze followed Clint’s retreat. Loose blue jeans pulled around firm buttocks, tapered down thick thighs to bunch at the neck of his tan hiking boots. He ducked his head as he stepped under the doorframe, and thick dark waves touched the neck of his beige sweater. Wide shoulders hunched to shorten his long frame.
She could not be staring at the same Clint who she’d grown up with. That Clint’s one-dimple grin made her want to poke her finger in his cheek. This Clint’s lazy grin had temporarily stopped her heart.
Where had this one come from?
“Dontcha think, Jesse?” Alex gestured her way, his look expectant.
She blinked. Not knowing what to say, she stammered, “Oh. Ah, yeah.”
“See, little brother?” Alex tossed a rolled up paper at Heath. “No way can Arizona beat K-State. Don’t you know Jesse’s never wrong about football?”
Once upon a time, maybe. But until right now, she hadn’t even known her Alma Mater had made it to the bowl. Or which one for that matter. However, now wasn’t the time to clue the King brothers in on the fact she’d given up her tomboy ways years ago. That would require conversation. Until her heart stopped this ridiculous hammering, she didn’t dare brave her voice.
Clint’s deep laughter rumbled from the kitchen. Her gaze pulled back to the open doorway. A strange tingling sensation tripped down her spine. Somehow, he’d changed his laugh too. It no longer made her want to join in. Instead, the urge to giggle set in. Giggle, for heaven’s sake.
How come that hadn’t happened when he came back earlier this year for his father’s funeral?
Because he wasn’t laughing, dummy.
Well that logically explained the prickling of her skin. Yet, it didn’t reason why she hadn’t noticed the man in July. He’d worn a suit and tie, but even all dressed up, she hadn’t really seen him. What did jeans and a cable-knit sweater have over formal wear?
Why in the world did she care? This was Clint. Clint, who lived in Kentucky. Clint, who liked horses, and she didn’t know the first thing about them. Clint who knew the embarrassing secret that at sixteen, she’d let Mark Hammond, the school nerd, put his hands up her shirt in exchange for the right to copy off his Algebra quizzes.
Of course, she hadn’t told Clint. He’d found out when Mark asked if Clint could barter up a better payment for answers. Still. Clint knew things about her no man should.
His heavy heel squeaked the board just inside the kitchen doorway. He stepped through carrying four small plates of homemade apple pie. His gaze flicked to her, and to Jesse’s shame, her stomach clamped into an anxious ball.
Lord, he was handsome.
Amelia King hobbled to her chair beside the twinkling Christmas tree, her recently broken ankle slowing her usually quick pace. She bent over to set her plate and a coffee cup down on the end table and paused. With a tip of her head, she peeked out the front window. “Sweetheart, is that a horse trailer in my front yard?”
His arm half-extended to offer Jesse her plate, Clint froze. His amber eyes locked with hers. A touch of color flushed his cheeks as he answered, “Ah, yeah.”
Amelia sat down and frowned at her oldest son. “Why?”
“Well…” Clint handed Jesse the plate. Their fingers brushed, sending a jolt of pleasant energy rippling up Jesse’s arm. Clint’s gaze flashed with something she couldn’t define. He pulled his hand away so fast he nearly dropped the pie in her lap. She caught it at the last moment, then dropped her gaze to stare at the sugar-dusted crust.
He eased himself into the couch cushion closest to her and fixed his stare on his mother. “I was going to ask you if old man Jameson still ran that boarding stable on the north end of town. I had to bring my mare along. She’s due to foal any day.”
Jesse let her gaze stray sideways to his knee. It rested close enough that if she unwound her legs they’d touch. Solid, sturdy—she could almost feel the way his leg would lean into hers in a silent expression of affection.
She gave herself a mental shake. What was she thinking? Clint would never do something like that. At least not with her. She had no business even letting the thought register. He might be handsome, but he was still Clint, and she was still his little sister. The way he’d jerked his hand away said more about his thoughts on touching her than anything.
Blinking, she pushed aside the thoughts that clouded her mind and focused on the conversation. All three raptly discussed who might have a boarding stable, who might be willing to take on a pregnant mare on short notice, and how far Clint would have to drive to tend to his horse.
“Clint,” she began with a slight frown. His gaze pulled to hers so quickly she stumbled over her immediate thoughts. Swallowing, she willed her voice not to shake. “Why don’t you use Mom and Dad’s old barn? I put a new roof on it last year, so it should be watertight. I use half for storage but there’s a stall we could fix up. You’d be close to your mother and your horse.”
“Hey good idea. I can help you fix it up tomorrow, Clint,” Alex offered.
Clint’s gaze held Jesse’s, spreading unfamiliar warmth through her veins. The urge to move, to somehow extract herself from that rich, amber intensity, gripped fierce. A woman could get lost in those expressive eyes. Dangerously lost.
Many had too, she reminded herself. He’d always drawn the girls. All three had, frankly. And she’d gained more enemies for being close to them, than she’d ever gained friends.
“I might stop by and help you two out. I’ve got some things to do in town first thing in the morning though,” Heath interjected.
Jesse struggled to find her usual flippant humor. With a forced grin, she gave Clint a teasing wink. “Gee. Brotherly bonding. In my barn. Remind me to stay away. I get enough testosterone with Ethan in the house.”
A frown tugged Clint’s eyebrows together. “Who’s Ethan?”
Her smile widened with genuine fondness. “If things go right this week at court, he’ll be my son. I’m his foster mother.”
Those dark eyebrows shot up in surprise. “You? Little Jesse? A mom?”
She refrained from laughing, though humor bubbled in her throat. That made three who’d had the same reaction. “He’s thirteen. And I’m sure he’d love to see a horse in person.”
“Well then, in that case, I guess I can’t refuse.” His gaze shifted to the window.
Jesse took the opportunity to draw in a much-needed deep breath and forked a bite of pie into her mouth. Ethan required careful handling. Introducing him to these three would be tricky. But maybe the horse would be icebreaker enough. Lord knew Ethan needed a male influence. One who wouldn’t make him feel inferior.
“That sounds fabulous. Thank you, Jessica,” Amelia said.
As Clint stared out the window, his jaw tightened. He set his plate aside, having taken only a couple of bites out of the pie. “I should go ahead and move her. Mind if I go on up?”
Jesse shoveled the last bite of crust into her mouth, passed her plate to Heath, and stood up. “I’ll go with you. I should be getting back anyway. I promised Ethan I wouldn’t be late.”
Without another word, Clint stood up, crossed to the door, and stepped outside.
Perplexed, Jesse shot Alex a quizzical look. He shrugged his shoulders, as if to say, Hell if I know.
Outside, Clint’s truck roared to life.
“I guess that’s my cue to hurry.” Jesse plucked her coat off the rack behind the door and shoved her arms in. “Thanks for the pie, Mom.”
Amelia gave her a fond smile. “Anytime, Jessica. We’ll see you soon, dear.”
Jesse let herself out to find Clint’s truck already pulled around and idling in the drive. She frowned. What in the world had she said that pissed him off? Her head ducked to the crisp air, she pondered the possibilities as she rushed to her car.
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