ALL RIGHTS RESERVED: Sharing of this story is suggested, encouraged and applauded, but the author’s name IS NOT to be removed from it for any reason whatsoever. Please do not offer it for sale; it is a free read story for CJ England’s fans and designed only for those who are 18 and OLDER.
All characters in this story have no existence outside the imagination of the author and have no relation whatsoever to anyone bearing the same name or names. They are not even distantly inspired by any individual known or unknown to the author, and all incidents are pure invention.
“Oui.” Givré pointed to where two couples were sitting at a group of gaily lit tables. Candlelight and tinsel made the area festive and bright. “I saw it there.”
“You’re kidding, right?” Lara glowered at Givré. “We do not have rats on board The Lucky Lady.”
“Do not worry,” Givré said encouragingly. “This rat, it is very tame. It even gives the kisses to the pretty redhead.”
“Givré—” Amy shook her head at him. “What are you talking about?”
Suddenly, Callie laughed. “Oh, my God. He’s talking about Mandy Hinshaw. She brought her pet ferret, Crikey.”
“Did I not say so?” Givré looked puzzled. “She says she writes the sensual stories just like our CJ.”
“Isn’t she the one who met her lover by buying a hot tub?” Jordon asked. “Man, when I heard that story I wanted to buy a Model Three Thousand myself.” He sucked in his breath when Callie punched him in the stomach. “Hey. I would have shared it with you.”
“So the man with her is Sawyer Hedon?” Heather gazed over at the couple. “He reminds me of that really hot actor on TV. The one on the show where the plane goes down on the mysterious island.” She sighed. “He’s not dark, but he is tall and handsome.” When Dustin gave a growl, she rolled her eyes. “Okay. Forget I said anything. I like your looks much better.”
Keeton grinned. “There are a few of us attractive blonds around.”
“Yeah,” Jordon agreed, still rubbing his belly. “It’s not all dark meat out there.”
“But why did she bring a rat to the party?” Lara wailed. “Rats and food do not go together well.”
“It’s not a rat,” Favor admonished. “It is a ferret. And Crikey helped bring the two of them together.”
“I do remember hearing about them,” Amy said slowly. “They’re going to be in another holiday story. For Valentines Day. When Mandy gets dumped by her boyfriend, she makes herself feel better by buying a hot tub. And when Sawyer comes to install it, they fall for each other.”
“But,” Callie picked up the story, “like a lot of men, Sawyer is afraid of commitment and even though he cares about Mandy, he tries to ignore what he feels. So they have to work through his issues, a misunderstanding about money and a huge fight in the hot tub show room before they find each other again.”
“So somehow the ferret helped get them back on track?” Lara stared at the tiny grey and black animal that was curled up on Mandy’s shoulder. Crikey stuck his nose in his mistress’ ear, making Mandy giggle. “I mean, I know there are some animal shapeshifters around here, so I should be okay with this, but geesh.”
“It doesn’t matter what kind of animal, real or supernatural,” Favor said quietly, “CJ loves them. So of course they will be welcome.”
“All creatures great and small, you know,” Keeton chimed in.
“Great.” Lara gave a little huff of annoyance. “I just hope our cat Gypsy doesn’t mistake him for a rat, too. Things could go really bad then.”
They all laughed.
“Who’s the other couple,” Dustin asked curiously. “The guy makes me want to snap to attention and salute him.”
Lara giggled. “You’re right on track. That’s Ross Cannon. He used to be in the military. A captain in the United States Army Rangers if I remember right. He told me he was so good at blowing things up in the army he figured he’d do it in civilian life.”
Givré laughed at Dustin’s incredulous face. “This Ross, he tells me he has his own company now. He wishes to build things to give happiness to people. So he designs the fireworks displays in a small town called Bass Lake in California. They are what he blows up.”
“I guess we’ve run out of tall, dark and handsome,” Amy quipped, glancing up into Givré’s coal black eyes. “Ross is another tall, blonde and handsome.”
“You gotta have some light threads in the tapestry to make the dark ones stand out all the better,” Dustin said with a grin. “That’s all you pale guys are good for. Making dudes like Givré and I look good.”
“This is so.” Givré nodded seriously, but his face lit with laughter.
“Ha Ha. Funny,” Jordon said sourly. “So what’s this Ross’ story?”
“He moved to Bass Lake after he got out of the military,” Lara explained. “When the town mayor asked him to design and run the Founder’s Day fireworks display, Ross agreed, thinking it would be a good way to give something back to his new home. But then Stacy Jackson crashed into his life.”
Keeton glanced again at the tinseled table. “That’s the blonde woman that looks like a college cheerleader? She’s quite pretty, isn’t she?”
Lara smothered a giggle when Favor frowned at her husband. “Ummm, yes, that’s Stacy. But she wasn’t happy about the fireworks. She had a horrible tragedy in her past that made her terrified of them and she vowed to stop Ross no matter what it took.”
“And did she?” Amy whispered.
“Nope. Just the opposite. Instead of fighting with Ross, she found herself falling in love with him.” Lara sighed, remembering going through much the same thing with Justin. “But even then, it was hard for Stacy to trust him. It wasn’t until another tragedy almost happened that she understood for Ross it was all or nothing. She couldn’t love him and not have faith in him.”
“Hmm…” Dustin glanced down at Heather, whose cheeks had gone pink. “I think I can understand that.”
“But they figured it out, right?” Favor asked. “They both learned how to trust each other.”
Lara nodded. “Yes. It’s one of my favorite of CJ’s free reads. Love conquers all among skyrockets and hot summer nights.”
“And this Stacy, she tells me Bass Lake is one of the places where our CJ grew up.” Givré smiled broadly. “So, it has the special meaning, no?”
“No, I mean yes.” Lara glared up into Givré’s laughing eyes. “You know what I mean.”
Heather giggled into her hand. “I’m so glad I met you guys. I wasn’t sure I was going to come, but now I’m glad I did.”
“You were coming even if I had to sling you over my shoulder to bring you here,” Dustin growled.
“From what I heard, mate,” Keeton said with a snicker. “It wouldn’t be the first time.”
“Ummm, Lara, I hate to bring this up—” Callie was looking across the room to the door opening to the bow of the ship, “—but if you were so worried about rats, why aren’t you freaking out about that huge spider and that flea over there?”
They all turned around to see where Callie was looking. “Oh. My. God.” Lara rubbed her eyes and looked again. “I’m not really seeing that, am I?”
“Who are they?” Favor whispered. “Why all the critters?”
Across the room, gathered protectively around a beautiful young woman with rich auburn hair and eyes the color of a storm cloud, were a cluster of beings so amazing, so bizarre it made everyone stop and stare.
All the size of men, there was a hairy eight-eyed spider, a tall skinny hare, and a sleek black puma. There was also a translucent flea, a red kangaroo, an elegant gazelle, a croaking frog, an energetic grasshopper, a brightly colored macaw and even a bottlenose dolphin balancing on his strong tail flukes.
And behind them, peering over the animals’ shoulders, were three more couples, all dressed in their holiday finery.
“I take it you didn’t know they were coming?” Jordon asked dryly.
Lara shook her head. “I have no idea who—”
“That’s because I just got the phone call myself.”
Whirling around, Lara saw Justin standing nearby. Going to him, she grabbed his arm. “Justin? I don’t understand. Who are those creatures? And the others?”
He motioned with his chin at the people streaming into the room. “CJ just called. Seems this group was going out of print on December first, but the publisher asked to keep them active until after Christmas. Since they are all Christmas stories, it just made sense to do that.”
“Christmas stories?” Givré asked, his brows drawn together. “They too are for the holiday?”
“Yeah. They’re in an anthology that came out a couple of years ago. I guess each of them stands for one of the Twelve Days of Christmas.”
Amy did a quick count. “Oh. The odd looking animals. There are ten of them. So that means—”
“—the ten lords a leaping,” Heather finished. “But very interesting lords to be sure.”
Justin nodded. “The woman is Princess Kaylena. Her father thought she was too picky about choosing a husband so on Christmas Eve he gave her a choice. Pick from these ten lords or he would give her to someone he selected.”
Callie gasped in horror. “She had to choose one of these creatures to wed?”
“It is not so bad.” When Amy stiffened, Givré put his arm around her. “There is magic here, my friends, covering the reality of what is true. The princess, she will also find a real man, just as my Ami did.”
Amy relaxed against him. “You’re sure? You can see beneath the magic?”
Givré dropped a kiss on her forehead. “Oui, mon ange. This I promise you. When the night is over and Princess Kaylena makes her choice, what she finds will be most unexpected.”
“Wow!” Dustin patted his heart. “Look at that gal who just came in. She looks just like Marylyn Monroe. I wonder what day of Christmas she stands for.”
Heather rolled her eyes. “Down boy. If the man with her sees you drooling, you might not even see Christmas.”
Justin chuckled. “That’s Lee Ann Grayson. She works for Four Calling Birds Singing Telegrams and since she looks like the blond bombshell, guess what song she most often sings.”
Callie and Heather looked at each other and parroted, “Santa Baby.”
“Yup.” Justin tucked Lara under his arm. “That’s how Dorchester found her again.”
“Devon Dorchester?” Dustin’s eyes narrowed. “Of Dorchester Industries? The New York Dorchesters?”
Jordon’s eyebrow winged up into his messy hair. “You know him?”
Narrowing his eyes, the dark guitarist shook his head gently at his friend. “I…may have heard the name.”
“Wait.” Ignoring the byplay, Keeton scratched his chin. “Found her again? You lost me, bru.”
“Sorry.” Justin gave an abashed grin. “I guess Lee Ann and Devon knew each other in college, but something happened and they lost track of each other. Then she shows up to deliver him a singing telegram and this time he wasn’t going to let her go.”
“Didn’t she want to be with him?” Favor asked, her amber eyes wide with curiosity. “He is a very handsome man.”
“Tall and dark, too,” Lara muttered.
“Yes,” Justin answered as he gave his own wife a squeeze. “But apparently they had one of those BIG misunderstandings and it took a long time for them to work through it.”
“But they did,” Heather said with a sigh. “And on Christmas, too. How romantic.”
“Noël est l'un des temps les plus romantiques de l'année.” When everyone looked blank, Givré laughed. “Christmas. It is one of the most romantic times of the year.”
“At least four stories worth,” Jordon agreed. “So what about that studious looking guy with the glasses and the short cropped dark hair? He looks like an accountant or something in that suit.”
“The gal he’s with sure don’t look like an accountant.” Dustin let out a whistle. “She’s got good time written all over her.”
Turning, Dustin looked into Heather’s shocked eyes. “Not that kind of good time, honey. I just meant she looks like she enjoys having fun. She’s not so buttoned up and starchy.”
“That’s exactly right.” Justin snickered in agreement. “The man is Blake Partridge. He’s the owner of Partridge Pear Orchards and he has pretty much forgotten how to enjoy life since his grandfather died and left him to take care of his grandmother and her property. He left college and the one woman he loved to go take care of business.”
“A Partridge in a pear tree,” muttered Keeton. “Cute, CJ. Real cute.”
“And the pretty blond woman with the eyes like molasses is the one he left behind?” Favor asked.
Justin sighed. “Yeah. Jodi Bradford. She’s loved him for a long time, and never understood why he walked away from her. But Blake’s grandmother is worried he’s turning into a Grinch, so she talked Jodi into coming to Medford Oregon. She’s hoping Jodi can fan the flames and make Blake understand all work and no play can makes for a dull Christmas.”
“I hope so, too,” whispered Amy. “Not having someone to love at Christmas…” She shuddered. “It’s horrible.”
See you next week!
Follow Your Dreams