Monday, December 23, 2013

Spotlight - The Year the Cat Saved Christmas *and* Mrs Scrooge by Barbara Bretton

The Year the Cat Saved Christmas
by Barbara Bretton
Genre: Contemporary romance
Publisher: Free Spirit Press
ISBN: 9781940665009
Number of pages: 80
Word Count: 22,000


Book Description:
Christmas used to be the happiest time of the year in the big house on the hill. But this year when the clock strikes midnight on Christmas Day, it will all be over. Can Sebastian, a wily Maine Coon cat, find a way to bring his people back home or will this holiday be their last?

Previously published as "Home for the Holidays" in Penguin Berkley's anthology "The Christmas Cat."

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Prologue The Year the Cat Saved Christmas
   As a rule, Sebastian endured Christmas with the good grace for which the best cats were known. He never indulged in merrymaking. His self-defined role as elder statesman precluded such a loss of dignity. Instead he held himself aloof and watched with great indulgence as his humans did the strangest  things.

    Once a year, around the first snowstorm, they opened the front doors wide and dragged in a big pine tree from outside. The same people who scolded him when he came in with muddy paws ignored bugs and dirt and sap and set the tree right smack in the middle of the living room carpet. They hung round, shiny objects from the branches and strung twinkling lights from top to bottom. Then, when that was all done, they placed boxes tied up with bows underneath the lowest branches.

   Everyone who came to visit gathered around the tree to sing songs and drink something called eggnog and to give each other presents that weren't half as much fun as catnip or a ball of yarn. All things considered, it was a most puzzling time of the year.

   At Christmastime a cat had to learn how to cope or he'd find himself with a Santa Claus hat on his head and a ribbon around his neck, posing for some stupid holiday card picture that would embarrass him for the rest of his days. The dog and the parrot were perfectly happy to make fools of themselves and wear all manner of ridiculous outfits to make their humans laugh, but not Sebastian. The first person who tried to make him wear snow boots or a bow around his neck would find himself picking kitty litter out of his teeth for a year.

   Sebastian did not suffer fools gladly. Christmas was not his favorite time of year. He preferred Thanksgiving, thank you very much, with that big juicy roasted bird on the table and lots of leftovers. When Christmas got too loud and confusing, he retreated to his hiding place in the Girl's room where a cat in his golden years could sleep in peace and quiet until things got back to normal again.

   This year, however, something was wrong. There was no tree, no beribboned packages, no friends and relatives gathered around singing songs to torment the ears of innocent cats. The Boy and Girl moped around in their rooms and not even talk of Santa Claus could make them smile. And what worried Sebastian most was that their parents weren't smiling either.

   When it all began, the Man slept downstairs on the sofa while she had the big bed all to herself. Sebastian, with the sensibilities of a diplomat, had tried to divide his attentions between the two of them but his twelve-year-old legs weren't what they used to be. The stairs took their toll on his rickety knees and made him wheeze like a bulldog, so most of the time he slept on the landing so he could be near them both.

   Finally the time came when he didn't have to do that any longer, because the Man packed his bags and moved to something called a hotel.

   The dog refused to believe anything was wrong. The parrot thought Sebastian was making a mountain out of a molehill, but Sebastian knew in his ancient bones that change was in the wind. He had been around since the beginning and he knew how it used to be when they were happy. There had been so much laughter in the little cottage that he couldn't hear himself purr. Now he couldn't remember the last time he'd even seen them smile.

   He found himself dreaming about the little cottage where he'd first lived with them and how happy they'd been. It was as if the cottage itself were somehow calling him back home. The Woman used to sing while she cooked dinner and sometimes the Man came into the kitchen and drew her into his arms and they danced around the floor. Sebastian would even get into the act. He'd wind his way between their ankles until, laughing, they would bend down and stroke his fur just the way he liked it. Ah, those were the days....

   He'd been young then and fast. A better mouser never lived than Sebastian in his prime. He'd bring his treasures home proudly and place them on the front porch but she never seemed to appreciate them the way Sebastian thought she should. As far as Sebastian was concerned, it didn't get much better than dead mouse.

   Sebastian didn't do much mousing anymore and his birding days were a thing of the past. He hadn't gone exploring in longer than he could remember, content instead to stay close to home in case he was needed. Sometimes he thought he caught the mourning doves laughing at him as he lay on the back steps and sunned himself. He pretended he didn't notice them waddling by, but he did. It was a sad day when a proud cat like Sebastian couldn't catch a mourning dove but time marched on and, like it or not, there wasn't anything he could do about it.

   Not long ago a sign appeared in the front yard and every day strange people marched through the house. Sebastian refused to acknowledge their presence as they peeked in closets and peered under the beds. He didn't know exactly what was going on but he knew enough to understand his life was about to change.

He hadn't seen his people together in a long time. The Man hadn't been around much since the sign appeared. The other day Sebastian had heard his voice through the answering machine and he'd winced as the dog danced about with delight. Poor Charlie just didn't understand the difference between a machine and the real thing. For a minute Sebastian had wished he didn't either. He wanted to believe that his people would be together again and things would be the way they used to, but he was starting to suspect it never would.

   When the big long truck pulled into the driveway that morning, Sebastian knew it was all over. He sat in the foyer and watched with growing dismay as the televisions vanished into the truck, along with the piano and dishes and even the paintings on the walls.

   A snowy boot nudged his flank. "Move, fatso."

   Sebastian aimed a malevolent look in the human’s direction but he didn't budge an inch. It was his house. Let old Snow Boots move.

   "Hey, tubs." The brown boot nudged a little harder. "I got a twelve foot couch to move. Get your furry ass out of my way."

   Sebastian considered turning the human's pants into confetti but thought better of it. Instead he leaped onto the sofa with a surprising display of agility and curled up in the corner as if he hadn't a care in the world. He was having trouble catching his breath but he refused to let on.

   "Hey, lady!" the human bellowed. "Do something about this cat, will you?"

   "Sebastian!" She appeared in the doorway. "Scat! Stay out of the moving man's way."

   Sebastian arched his back and hissed. Scat? Since when did she tell him to scat? She'd never embarrassed him in front of strangers before and he didn't like it one bit.

   "Bad cat!" Her voice shook as if she'd been crying. "Don't you ever do anything right?"

   Her words cut him to the quick. He jumped down from the sofa, landing hard on his paws. Pain shot up his legs and along his back. He was getting too old for gymnastics. He waited for her to come see if he'd hurt himself but she turned away as if she'd forgotten he was even there. That hurt most of all.

   "You gonna stand there all day, fatso?" the human asked, aiming that boot in Sebastian's direction one more time. "You heard what the lady said. Now scat!"

   Sebastian couldn't help himself. There was only so much a cat could take before he defended his honor. With one graceful swing of his paw, he turned the moron's right pants leg into a windsock and then he marched out the front door, tail held high. Maybe next time the human would think twice before insulting an innocent feline who was just minding his own business.

   He strutted out onto the porch and surveyed his domain.

   Snow was everywhere he looked: on the porch, the driveway, all over the yard. Sebastian's whiskers quivered with distaste. He hated snow. It was cold and wet and reminded him of baths and other indignities. Maybe if he looked pathetic enough, she would come out and rescue him. An apology would be nice but he wouldn't insist.

   He waited patiently, watching as tables and chairs and beds and tables disappeared into the big truck parked in the driveway. It seemed a very strange thing to do and he was pondering the mystery when he suddenly remembered the last time something just like this had happened to him.

   The Boy and Girl had been babies then, too little to do anything but sleep and eat and cry. Sebastian would have suggested they leave the babies behind but his people had a strange fondness for the little roundheads, a fondness Sebastian learned to share only after they were out of diapers. In his opinion, litter boxes made a great deal more sense.

   He remembered that summer as if it were yesterday. All of their furniture had disappeared into a truck that time, too, only back then there hadn't been quite as much of it, and most of what they had boasted claw marks.

   "Don't look so sad, Sebastian," the Woman had said, chucking him under the chin. "You'll love the new house!"

   "Wait until you see the backyard, old boy," the Man had said with a laugh. "Slower birds and plumper mice and lots of shady places to take a nap."

   Was that the last time they'd all been happy? The Man worked harder than ever and was home less and less. She worked harder too, sitting alone at the computer late at night while the Boy and Girl slept. Sebastian never saw them curled up side by side on the sofa or dancing in the kitchen or heard them laughing together in their room late at night.

   The moving men bellowed something behind him. Sebastian scampered down the icy stairs and darted under the porch, just in time to avoid being flattened by work boots and the big couch from the den. Snow brushed against his belly and made him shiver. He hated the cold almost as much as he hated the three-cans-for-a-dollar cat food his people sometimes foisted on him. At his age he should be curled up in front of a roaring fireplace with a platter of sliced veal and gravy, claiming his rightful place in the family.

Wasn't it bad enough that the Man didn't live with them anymore or that sometimes she cried herself to sleep when she thought no one could hear her? Now they wouldn't even have a home and everyone knew you couldn't be a family if you didn't have a place where you could be together.
   The cottage on Burnt Sugar Hill.

   For days Sebastian had felt the pull of the old place until the need to see that old house again was almost irresistible. And now he finally thought he knew why: the secret to being a family was hidden within its four walls and somehow Sebastian had to lead his people back home before it was too late.

Mrs. Scrooge
Rocky Hill Romances,
Book One

by Barbara Bretton
Genre: Contemporary romance
Publisher: Free Spirit Press
ISBN: 9781940665023
Number of pages: 240
Word Count: approx. 65000 
Book Description:
Single mother Samantha Dean doesn't have time for Christmas. Or romance, for that matter. She is weeks away from opening her own catering business, the most important part of her plan to provide her certified genius daughter Patty with all the wonderful things she deserves.

Except Patty doesn't want to go to a fancy boarding school. She wants a father and when she meets bartender Murphy O'Rourke at her fourth grade Career Day presentation, she knows she's met the man of her mother's dreams!

But can she convince her Mrs. Scrooge of a mom that it was time to give Christmas -- and love -- a second chance?
Originally published in print by Harlequin American
Book #2 is also available now: BUNDLE OF JOY

Buy Links:
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Patricia Mary Elizabeth Dean knew all about biology and how marriage and babies didn't always go hand-in-hand the way they did in old movies and television sitcoms. She'd heard stories about the days when a young girl had to leave home if she became pregnant out of wedlock but those days were long gone by the time it happened to her mother Samantha.
Sam had stayed right where she was, safe and secure in her parents' house in Rocky Hill, New Jersey. She finished her senior year of high school and, nine months pregnant with Patty, she marched up to get her diploma then marched back out of the auditorium and headed for the hospital in Princeton. Five hours later Patty was born, and it seemed that from her very first breath she had been looking for a man to be her father.
Her best friend Susan couldn't understand it at all. "My dad is always telling me I can't stay up to watch Letterman," Susan had complained just last week. "He won't let me wear nail polish or get a tattoo or even think about going to the movies with Bobby Andretti until I'm twenty-one. You're really a whole lot better off with just your mom."
Patty knew her mom was pretty special. Sam was independent and ambitious and she had always managed to keep a roof over their heads and good food on the table, even while she juggled school and work and taking care of Patty. But there was one thing Sam wasn't very good at and that was romance.
Her mom said she didn't have time for boyfriends and dating and maybe that was true but it seemed to Patty that it wouldn't be long before she ran out of time. Patty had heard women her mother's age talking about their biological clocks and how all the good men had been snapped up while they were busy building careers and she hated to think her mom would end up old and lonely with a dozen cats.
Not that Patty didn't like cats but . . . 
And so it was that she decided to take over the quest.
There had been a few good prospects but nobody she could imagine becoming part of her family until the day Murphy O'Rourke walked into the classroom to give his career-day presentation, and she knew her search was over.
Murphy O'Rourke wasn't handsome, although his sandy brown hair was shiny and his hazel eyes held a friendly twinkle. He wore a brown polo shirt with a corduroy sport coat that was frayed at the elbows—and Patty couldn't imagine him sewing on those wimpy patches Susan's dad had on his corduroy sport coat. He didn't have a fistful of gold rings or ugly puffs of chest hair sticking out of his shirt, and his voice didn't go all oily when he talked to women. When Mrs. Venturella introduced him to the class he didn't try to be funny or cool or any of the thousand other things that would have been the kiss of death as far as Patty was concerned.
He smiled at them as if they were real live people and said, "Good morning. I'm Murphy O'Rourke," and something inside Patty's heart popped like a birthday balloon.
"That's the one!" she whispered to Susan. "He's perfect."
Susan's round gray eyes widened. "Him?" The girl looked down at the fact sheet in front of her. "He hasn't even been to college."
"I don't care. He's exactly what I've been looking for."
Susan wrinkled her nose. "He's old."
"So is my mother. That's what makes him so perfect."
"I liked the fireman," said Susan. "Did you see those muscles!" The girl sighed deeply and fluttered her eyelashes, and Patty could barely keep from hitting her best friend over the head with her math notebook.
"The fireman was stupid," said Patty. "He didn't even understand the theory behind water-pressure problems encountered fighting high-rise fires."
"Patty, nobody understands things like that except you."
"The nuclear physicist from M.I.T. understood."
"Then why don't you think he's the right man?"
"Because he called me 'little lady' when he answered my question on the feasibility of nuclear power near major urban centers."
"But he was cute," said Susan. "He had the most darling red suspenders and bow tie."
"I hate bow ties."
Susan made a face. "Oh, you hate everything, Patty Dean. I think you're about the snobbiest girl I've ever—"
"Patricia! Susan!" Mrs. Venturella rapped her knuckles sharply against the chalkboard at the front of the room. "If your conversation is so fascinating, perhaps you'd be willing to share it with the rest of the class."
Susan's cheeks turned a bright red and she slumped down in her chair. "Sorry, Mrs. Venturella," she mumbled.
Patty found herself staring up at the twinkling hazel eyes of Murphy O'Rourke and suddenly unable to speak.
"Patricia," warned Mrs. Venturella. "Do you have something to say?"
Murphy O'Rourke winked at her and before she knew it, the words came tumbling out. "Are you married?"
All around her the class was laughing but Patty didn't care. This was important.
O'Rourke looked her straight in the eye. "No, I'm not."
"Do you have any kids?"
"No kids."
"Do you—"
"That's enough, Patricia." Mrs. Venturella turned to O'Rourke and gave him one of those cute little "I'm sorry" shrugs Patty had seen the woman give Mr. MacMahon, the phys ed teacher with the hairy chest. "I apologize, Mr. O'Rourke. Patricia is one of our advanced students and she has an active curiosity."
"I make my living being curious," he said, then crossed his arms over his chest and leaned back against Mrs. Venturella's desk. He looked straight at Patty. "Go ahead. Ask me anything you want."
"On the newspaper business," said Mrs. Venturella, with a stern look for Patty, who still couldn't speak.
"Do you make a lot of money?" Craig Haley, class treasurer, asked.
"Enough to pay my rent," said O'Rourke.
"Did you ever go to China?" asked Sasha D'Amato.
"Twice." He grinned. "And I was thrown out once."
Danielle Meyer held up a copy of the New York Telegram. "How come I don't see your name anywhere?"
"Because I quit."
Patty was extremely impressed: he didn't so much as bat an eye when Mrs. Venturella gasped in horror. "What do you do now?" Patty asked.
"I'm a bartender."
The only sound in the classroom was the pop of Susan's bubble gum.
"Look," he said, dragging his hand through his sandy brown hair, "I didn't mean to misrepresent anything. When you guys called and asked me to speak at the school, I was still a reporter for the Telegram. This is a pretty new development."
"Why'd you quit?" Patty asked. If there was anything her mom hated, it was a quitter. She hoped Murphy O'Rourke had a good reason for giving up a glamorous job as a New York City reporter and becoming a run-of-the-mill bartender, or it was all over.
"Artistic freedom," said Murphy O'Rourke.
"Bingo!" said Patty.
She'd finally found her man.
* * *
MURPHY O'ROURKE had faced hostile fire in the desert war. He had stared danger in the face everywhere from the subways of New York City to the back alleys of Hong Kong to the mean streets of Los Angeles and never broken a sweat.
He'd been lied to, cursed at, beaten up and knocked down a time or two but he'd never, not ever, encountered anything like facing sixty curious New Jersey school kids on career day at Harborfields Elementary School in Montgomery Township.
All in all, it made running naked down the Turnpike backward in a blizzard seem like a day at the park.
They asked him about passports and phone taps. They asked him about deadlines and drug busts and protecting his sources. Those kids had more questions than the White House press corps and he had a hell of a time keeping up with them.
Why had he let his old man talk him into this, anyway? His father had always been big on community participation and had agreed to this command performance a few months before the massive heart attack that laid him low. When Murphy stepped in to take care of things for Bill, he hadn't expected his job description would include a visit to Sesame Street.
Funny how quickly it all came back to you with the first whiff of chalk dust. The pencils and the rulers; the big jars of library paste and gold stars for perfect attendance; blackboards and erasers and the unmistakable smell of wet boots on a snowy morning. Of course today there was also the hum of computers and the friendly LCD glow of hand-held calculators, but except for a few different trappings, it was still the same.
Even though it had been over twenty-five years since he'd been in the fourth grade, he found that a few things never changed. It wasn't tough at all to peg that dark-haired boy in the first row as the class wise guy, or the pretty little blonde near the window as the class flirt. The clown and the jock and most-likely-to-end-up-at-trade-school were just as easy to pick out.
But that serious-looking girl with the bright red hair and big blue eyes—damned if he could figure out where she fit in the scheme of things. She didn't ask the usual questions about the glamorous life of a reporter. Instead of giggling when he told his best "I interviewed Justin Bieber" story, she asked him if he'd ever been married. Hell, even after he told her he'd never taken the plunge, she went right ahead and asked him if he had kids, and she never so much as blushed. In fact she seemed more interested in knowing the details of his after-hours life than the details of his headline-making rescue of an Iranian hostage last year.
When Mrs. Venturella introduced the lawyer—"Anne Arvoti, divorce specialist"—Murphy breathed easily for the first time since he entered the classroom. He nodded at Mrs. Venturella, then was making a beeline toward the door when a small hand snaked out and grabbed him by the coat tails.
The red-haired girl with the ponytail. He should've known.
"You can't leave," she whispered, her freckled face earnest and eager. "There's a party afterward."
"I've got a bar to run," he whispered back, wondering why he felt like he'd been caught playing hooky and she was the truant officer.
 "You have to stay," she insisted, clutching his coat more tightly. "I have to make sure that you—"
"Patty!" Mrs. Venturella's voice sounded to his right. "A bit more respect for Ms. Arvoti's presentation, if you will."
He had to hand it to the kid. Her cheeks reddened but not for a second did she look away. "Please!" she mouthed, turning her head slightly so her teacher couldn't see. "You have to stay!"
Murphy hesitated. He hated schools. He hated school parties. He hated the thought of answering a thousand questions while he juggled milk and cookies and longed for a stiff Scotch. He had to get back to the bar and take over from Jack so the guy could grab himself some dinner. There was a meeting of the Tri-County Small Business Association at 7:00 p.m., then back to the bar for the usual late-night crowd. The last thing he had time for was playing Captain Kangaroo for a roomful of ten-year-olds.
But this kid was looking up at him with such unabashed eagerness that the rock that had passed for his heart for longer than he cared to remember thawed a bit.
"Christmas cookies," she whispered, her blue eyes eager and bright behind her wire-rimmed glasses. "My mom made them."
"It's only December first," he whispered back. "Aren't you rushing things?"
"Christmas can't come soon enough for me. Besides, I have a deal for you
Murphy O'Rourke knew when he had been bested and he was okay with it. She was probably a Girl Scout pushing chocolate mint cookies. He could handle that.
"Why not?" he said, shrugging his shoulders and taking a seat near the blackboard. A glass of milk, a few Santa Claus cookies, and he'd be out of there.
An hour, give or take. What difference could one more hour possibly make?
* * *
IT TOOK MURPHY exactly fifteen minutes to find out. The kid was some piece of work.
"Fifty dollars," Murphy said, meeting her fierce blue eyes. "Not a penny more."
"Sixty-five dollars a tray," Patty Dean stated in a voice Lee Iacocca would envy. "Anything less and we'd be running in the red."
Murphy threw his head back and laughed out loud. "I don't think you've ever run in the red in your life. You're one tough negotiator."
"Thank you." She didn't even blink. "But it will still be sixty-five dollars a tray. My mother is an expert chef, and food doesn't come cheap."
"Does your father have you on his payroll? You're better at this than most Harvard MBAs."
He caught the swift glitter of braces as a smile flickered across her freckled face. "My mother will be glad to hear that."
"And your dad?"
She shrugged her bony shoulders. "I wouldn't know. The last time I saw him I was two years old."
"Yes," she said. "My long-term memory is excellent and I remember him quite clearly."
Murphy wouldn't have thought it possible but his battle-scarred heart again showed signs of life. He'd grown up without his mother, and he knew that the emptiness never left, no matter how old you got or how successful. "Yeah, well, then tell your mom she has one hell of a businesswoman on her hands."
"Sixty-two fifty," Patty said. "Take it or leave it."
"Sixty-three," said Murphy, extending his right hand and engulfing the girl's hand in his. "Not a penny less."
Patty's auburn brows rose above the tops of her eyeglasses. "Sixty-three? Are you certain?"
"Take it or leave it."
"You're got yourself a deal, Mr. O'Rourke."
Patty gave him her mother's business card and promised that Samantha Dean would be at the TriCounty meeting later that evening to finalize the arrangements. Feeling smug and self-satisfied, Murphy grabbed an extra cookie and headed out toward his car in the rainswept parking lot.
It wasn't until he was halfway back to the bar that he realized he'd just made a deal with a ten-year-old budding corporate shark whose mother might take a dim view of handshake agreements with unemployed gonzo journalists who were now pulling drafts for a living.
And, all things considered, he wouldn't blame her one bit.
* * *
SAMANTHA DEAN stifled a yawn as the New Jersey Transit train rumbled toward the station at Princeton Junction. The railroad car was cold and damp and it took every ounce of imagination in Sam's body to conjure up visions of hot soup and a roaring fire. Before she knew it she'd be home with Patty, the two of them snug in their favorite robes as they watched Monday Night Football.
"One more day," she said to her best friend Caroline. "Twenty-four hours and I never have to ride this blasted cattle car again."
"Speak for yourself," said Caroline, eyeing the handsome businessmen sitting opposite the two women. "I rather enjoy riding the train."
Sam resisted the urge to kick Caroline in her fashionable ankle. "You wouldn't mind a trek through the Sahara if there was a man involved."
"Try it some time," Caroline said, her dimples deepening. "You might find you like it. Men are pleasant creatures, once you tame them."
Sam would rather tame a grizzly bear. At least grizzly bears hibernated six months of every year. She could never find time in her crazy daily schedule for a man, no matter how handsome. She turned and looked at her fluffy blond friend. "Do me a favor," she said, giving way to another yawn. "Why don't we just pretend you gave me matchmaking lecture number 378 and be done with it?" Caroline started to protest but Sam raised a hand to stop her. "It's not as if I haven't heard it all before."
Caroline leaned her head against the worn leather seat. Even at the end of a rainy, cold Monday she looked superb. If they weren't best friends, Sam just might hate the woman.
"You may think you've heard it all," Caroline said, "but I can tell you haven't paid attention. Patty needs a father, Sam."
Sam's jaw settled into a stubborn line. "Patty has a father," she snapped. "It's not my fault Ronald doesn't care that he has a daughter."
Caroline was as stubborn as Sam. "I'm not talking about Ronald Donovan and you know it. I'm talking about you, Sam. About your future."
"My future is fine, thank you. This time next month, I'll be open for business and from there the sky's the limit." For two years Sam had eaten, breathed, slept Fast Foods for the Fast Lane and she was finally on the eve of reaping the benefits of her backbreaking schedule of work and school and motherhood.
"There's more to life than your career, Sam."
"Easy for you to say. You already have a career. Mine hasn't started yet."
"There's Patty," Caroline said softly, tearing her limpid blue-eyed gaze away from the man in the gray flannel suit across the aisle. "You should think about her happiness."
Sam's fatigue disappeared in a quick blaze of anger. "That's exactly what I'm thinking about, Caroline. Patty needs more than I can give her waiting tables or typing envelopes. Fast Foods for the Fast Lane is my best hope."
Having a genius for a daughter wasn't your everyday occurrence. Patty was quickly outstripping the ability of Harborfields Elementary School to keep up with her. Unfortunately Patty's nimble mind was also quickly outstripping Sam's financial ability to provide tutors, books, and advanced courses her little girl deserved but didn't have.
Sam had no college degree, no inheritance to fall back upon, no friends in high places. What she had was a sharp mind, common sense, and the ability to turn the simplest of foods into the most extraordinary fare. With the area around Princeton booming with two-paycheck families and upscale life-styles, Sam realized that all the modern conveniences in the world couldn't compensate for the lack of a home-cooked meal made to order and ready when you were.
From that simple idea came her brainchild, Fast Foods for the Fast Lane and with it the hope that she would be able to give Patty every chance in the world to achieve her potential.
The tinny voice of the conductor blared from the loudspeaker: "Princeton Junction, next stop!"
Caroline, elegant as always in her timeless gray silk dress, stood up and reached for her parcels in the overhead rack. "I should be imprisoned for grand larceny," she said, sitting back down next to Sam, her lap piled high with loot. "Three vintage Bob Mackies and a Donna Karan and I didn't have to empty my bank account."
"I take it business is going well?" Sam asked, collecting her books and papers from the empty seat next to her. Caroline ran an offbeat boutique called Twice Over Lightly, where one-of-a-kind designer dresses could be rented for a night by New Jersey CinderelIas.
Caroline's broad smile told the tale. "It's going so well I can afford to wear the Schiaparelli to the TriCounty Masquerade Ball. Jeannie Tremont will be green with envy."
"No," said Sam, searching her briefcase for her car keys. "Absolutely not."
"Absolutely not what?" Caroline asked.
"I am absolutely not going to the Christmas party."
"Of course you are," Caroline said. "Don't be silly,"
"I hate Christmas parties and I refuse to go to one where all the adults wear Santa Claus masks. I have better things to do with my free time."
Caroline's elegant nose wrinkled in disdain. "Spare me your Mrs. Scrooge routine, Sam. It was old last year."
"I don't ask you to forgo your mistletoe, Caroline," Sam said evenly. "Don't go asking me to run around whistling Jingle Bells."
"You used to love Christmas," Caroline persisted. "You used to start decorating before Thanksgiving,"
"I used to wear braids and watch Saved by the Bell, too."
"You even celebrated Christmas the year you were expecting Patty and we both know what a rotten holiday that was."
"I was seventeen." Seventeen and filled with hope and promise despite the fact that she was about to become a single mother. She had decorated her parents' house from top to bottom and even lit the dozens of tiny candles that illuminated the driveway on Christmas Eve. Had there really been a time when setting up those tiny white candles outside had seemed so wondrous, so important? "I didn't know any better."
Leave it to Samantha Dean to fall in love with a boy from the right side of the tracks. A high school romance with a girl from Rocky Hill was one thing; marriage to that very same girl was something else entirely.
There would be no marriage, said the illustrious Donovan clan, not even to legitimize the baby Sam carried. And so it was on Christmas Eve that Ronald was whisked away from the temptation and sent west where he ended up in the United States Air Force Academy, on the road to a bright and shiny future as a pilot.
And good riddance.
Sam had done fine by Patty up until now and, God willing, she would do even better once her catering business got rolling.
"You should get out more," Caroline continued, as the train rattled into the station. "Socialize. Christmas soirees are all part of doing business in this town, Sam."
"Well, the soirees will have to go on without me, I have ten weeks' worth of work and only four weeks to accomplish it. Trust me: I don't have time for Christmas."
"Everyone has time for Christmas."
Sam laughed out loud. "You don't even have time for the Tri-County meeting tonight."
"That's different. The store is open tonight and Jeannie has the evening off." She narrowed her eyes in Sam's direction. "I hope you're going."
Sam glanced out at the cold rain lashing against the train windows. "Not me. I intend to stretch out on the sofa and watch Sex and the City reruns while Patty tackles nuclear fusion."
"Not a very businesslike attitude, Sam."
"I'm not in business yet, Caroline."
Caroline waved her words away. "A mere technicality. You should be out there spreading Christmas cheer. I don't think you're being fair to Patty." Caroline looked altogether too pleased with her logic for Sam's taste.
"Just because I don't turn all warm and mushy when I hear 'Deck the Halls,' doesn't mean I'm going to deny Patty her fun."
"Well, thank God for that," Caroline murmured.
"I would have kidnapped that girl for the holidays."
"Wait until I'm established," Sam said. "In a few more years I'll have plenty of time for Christmas celebrations?''
"I certainly hope so. Christmas is a time for miracles, honey, and there aren't many of them around these days. Who knows? For all you know, your big break might be waiting for you at the Tri-County meeting." Caroline patted Sam's hand. "You just have to believe."
"Oh, I believe," said Sam as the train stopped and the doors slid open. "I believe in peace on earth, joy to the world, and that not even the promise of a weekend in the Bahamas could tempt me to go to that meeting tonight.”

About the Author:
Oh, how I hate bios! All of that deadly dull information about name (Barbara Bretton) and date of birth (June 25) and geographical data (born in New York City; lives near Princeton, NJ), marital status (many years married), and hobbies (who has time??). How do you gather up all of those dull, dry facts and turn them into something interesting?
No wonder I tell lies for a living.
I considered weaving a story for you about life on a houseboat on the French Riviera. Or maybe my years as a concubine, hidden away in a golden pleasure palace in the shimmering desert. Then I decided to do the unthinkable and tell you the truth.
When I sold my first book and my life changed forever. I sent in my manuscript on Thursday February 21, 1982 and four days later the telephone rang and I heard the amazing words, "We want to buy your book." How I wish you could have seen me. I was standing by the kitchen door of our North Babylon house, the picture of cool sophistication, as I listened to Vivian Stephens explain the terms of the deal to me. You would have thought I'd sold a first book every single day of my life. Yes, I said. Sounds wonderful. Thank you so much for calling. I look forward to our association. That cool sophistication hung on until I hung up the phone, took a deep breath, then promptly threw up on my shoes.
I was thirty-one years old, unagented, unschooled, unfamiliar with anything to do with the business of publishing. To put it mildly, I was in shock. My husband was working in Manhattan at the time (and finishing up his degree at night) so it would be hours until I could break the news to him. This was too exciting to waste on a phone call. I wanted to see his face when I told him that my dream had finally come true -- and came with a $6000 advance!
He pulled into the driveway at midnight. I was waiting in the doorway, holding a bottle of champagne and two glasses. I didn't have to say a word. He knew right away and the look of joy and pride in his eyes warms me now, years later, long after the advance faded into memory.
A lot has happened to me in the years since that first sale. I've learned that this is a difficult and demanding business (it takes a tough writer to write a tender book) and that I am happiest when I am most ignorant. I've also learned that a good friend, a writer and pal who truly understands, is worth her weight in good reviews and royalty checks.
I fell madly in love with Skye O'Malley in early 1982 and wrote an unabashedly gushy fan letter to our beloved Bertrice Small. By the time Sunny answered, I had joined the ranks of the published and Sunny became friend and mentor, guide and confidant. She has held my hand through broken dreams, disappointments, family illnesses, and accepted my bizarre need to go underground from time to time with great affection and understanding. Over the years I've come to understand the difference between the writer and her work, that loving the book doesn't guarantee that I will love the author. But what a joy it is when you discover that the author of a beloved favorite is even more wonderful and witty and wise than the characters she creates.
So this bio is for you, Sunny, for being the best of friends during the worst of times and -- even more wonderful -- during the good times as well.
And now for the statistics:
Barbara Bretton is the USA Today bestselling, award-winning author of more than 40 books. She currently has over ten million copies in print around the world. Her works have been translated into twelve languages in over twenty countries.
Barbara has been featured in articles in The New York Times, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, Romantic Times, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Herald News, Home News, Somerset Gazette,among others, and has been interviewed by Independent Network News Television, appeared on the Susan Stamberg Show on NPR, and been featured in an interview with Charles Osgood of WCBS, among others.
Her awards include both Reviewer's Choice and Career Achievement Awards from Romantic Times; Gold and Silver certificates from Affaire de Coeur; the RWA Region 1 Golden Leaf; and several sales awards from Bookrak. Ms. Bretton was included in a recent edition of Contemporary Authors.
Barbara loves to spend as much time as possible in Maine with her husband, walking the rocky beaches and dreaming up plots for upcoming books.


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