Monday, December 31, 2018

Goodbye 2018.....

The rest of that would, in my case, be...and don't let the door hit you in the arse! It's been no secret that 2018 continued my series of horrible, no good years after the debacle that was 2017. BUT -- as the year ends, I've been trying to concentrate on the happy and good things that happened or that I did this last year. You know, trying to get a sense of positivity in place before going into the new year tonight. So, I've decided to post some of my favorite places or experiences that I had this year... (with abject apologies for the placement of the photos!)

Ireland -- one of the very highest, most favorite places and times of this year and my life.  This year, we laughed like loons all the way through our visit. I needed that so much!

On the road from Cong to Leenane
Dun Aengus on Inis Mor
ALL the sweaters on Inis Mor
Driving the Gap of Dunloe in Killarney
Climbing Clogherhead - the Atlantic behind us!

 Chicago - we went along to babysit my granddaughter while my son and daughter-in-law attended the Pearl Jam concert. Chicago is one of my favorite cities...we took the architectural boat tour and enjoyed breakfast at so many great restaurants....and walked miles....

a WhiteSox game!
Iconic Wrigley Building
Yeah! Pearl Jam played here

The city from Lake Michigan

Hermit Week - each year I spend a week with 12 other writers in a house on the beach on Isle of Palms. It's a week of writing....and writing...and rejuvenation and relaxation among others of my kind....AND I get to meet with readers from a local library's romance group, too!

a panoramic view of the morning
Meeting with local readers and librarian!
Spectacular clouds over the ocean
Tumultuous clouds all week!

So, 2018 did find me in some rather amazing places....I'll just focus on those as I move into 2019. Resolutions? Nah....I'm just going to look...forward. Happy New Year to you all!

How about you? What good person, place, thing or event happened to you in 2018?

Terri did write (some) in 2018 -- her novella THE STORYTELLER, past of the GHOSTS OF CULLODEN MOOR, was released in September as an Amazon exclusive and is still available. More Harlequin Historical releases coming in 2019! Visit her website for more info or subscribe to her newsletter.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Ho Ho Ho Happy Holidays by Jenny Gardiner

Hey there!
This post probably catches you in the throes of the craziness of the holiday season, but I hope you've got a few minutes to read this funny little story that my family laughs about every year.
Here's wishing you and yours a very Merry Christmas, a Happy Kwanza, and belated Happy Hanukkah, a Happy, healthy and safe New Year, and any other thing you might be celebrating, may it be full of love and laughter and family!

    I’m a sucker for the Christmas season. Always have been. Don’t know if it’s the deluded optimism the holiday thrusts upon us, or just a strange affinity for otherwise maudlin songs dressed up as cheerful seasonal chestnuts. I mean, let’s be honest, at any other time of year, who would actually listen wistfully to a yawner like “The Little Drummer Boy”?
    Whatever it is, I have always ensured that my family gets into the holiday spirit, starting with finding the perfect Christmas tree.
    When I was a kid, the search for the ultimate yuletide tree took us to the nearest gas station: hardly a romantic venue from which to choose the centerpiece of our holiday decor. We’d pile into the station wagon for the three-block drive to Buck’s Esso station, spill out onto the oil-slicked parking lot, mull over three or four already-netted spruce trees, and then dad would haggle down the price. End of story.
    Ah, so I was determined to rewrite that tradition with my own family. Early in my marriage, we decided the most festive tree-acquisition could only be achieved by cutting down our own (plus you get the added benefit of the needles actually staying onthe tree all month rather than littering the floor). Because we lived in citified Northern Virginia, the cachet of escaping to the “country”--i.e. the closest remaining patch of farmland untainted by greedy developers--only added to the allure.
    But one year, I found myself almost wishing for the chance to just pop down to the local gas station to buy a tree…
    That year, my husband and our three children, all under the age of four, trekked to the Clifton Christmas Tree Farm, where awaiting us were candy canes, hot chocolate, homemade wreaths and the typical abundance of forced holiday cheer that we craved.
    I had whipped my kids into a tree-chopping frenzy, and so they took their task quite seriously. For forty minutes, we foraged throughout the whopping half-acre “farm” until we found the perfect tree: seven feet of holiday splendor, as wide as it was tall, perfect to fill our cathedral-ceiling’ed living room and flood us with the Christmas spirit.
    The kids took turns on the ground with the saw while my husband supervised the chopping honors. Their excitement was palpable. We dragged the tree back to the cashier stand where the farmer’s son coiled the netting around our white pine. The kids stood by, sucking on candy canes, sipping hot cider and petting the farmer’s dog, who’d recently wandered over. I was just about to retrieve the car to load on the tree, when Fido lifted his leg.
    “No!” I shouted in what seemed like a frame-by-frame slow motion, as a steady stream was released onto our perfect tree.
    For a moment we stood stupefied, not knowing what to do. But we weren’t about to keep a tree covered in dog wee, so we grabbed the kids’ hands to head back into the wilds to hunt for a replacement one.
    Until our kids let us know in no uncertain terms, that this tree was the one, the only. They threw themselves on the ground, flailing and crying, thrashing and moaning, like something from a Greek tragedy. They wanted their special tree, and nothing else would suffice.
    Their wails did not subside until we relented, and agreed to load up the tainted tree.
    The farmer found a makeshift bucket, filled it from a nearby stream and doused the offending urine from the tree. We loaded it onto the roof of the car, and went home.
    I have to admit, I sort of detached emotionally from the tree that year. Couldn’t quite get over the psychological hurdle of having a tree the dog peed on in my living room. Somehow it clashed with the whole festive notion.
    But for my kids, the tree was just about perfect, despite its incumbent flaws. And maybe that’s exactly why I like the holidays so much: because at this time of year, we’re all a little more likely to forgive the small things in order to see the bigger picture.

Great news! I've got another free book for you to try! Falling for Mr. Wrong from the Falling for Mr. Wrong series is now free here:

Google Play

Also Red Hot Romeo is free! A hot Italian, a gorgeous supermodel, and fabulous wines…what’s not to love?!
You can check out the first book in the Royal Romeo series for free here:

Lastly, don't forget, book one of the It's Reigning Men series, Something in the Heir, is free here!

I hope you'll have a chance to check out my Royal Romeos series, which is a spin-off of my wildly popular It's Reigning Men series--please do check them out!

Skirt ChaserBoy Toy and Cabana Boy are available!

Happy reading!




Saturday, December 15, 2018

Discover the Origins of Christmas Traditions: Michelle Styles

Where do Christmas traditions come from? Some we can date to specific events such as the publication of Dr. Suess’s When the Grinch Stole Christmas or Dickens’s  A Christmas Carol. Other traditions have been acquired from other cultures or are lost in the mist of time. Some last a few years or even several generations but a special few stand the test of time, until sometimes the original meaning is long forgotten.
When I first started writing Sent as the Viking’s Bride (to published 18 December 2018), I deliberately set it during the Jul season which was roughly the same as our Christmas season. Jul lasted from November to 20 January. The Christmas season used to end on Candlemas, the presentation of Jesus at the temple  or 2 February (even though today it tends to be on Epiphany or 6 January or even on the 1st) so you can see why it was easy to roll the two into one.
  I knew in order to make it easier for people, they co-opted some of the Jul traditions into the Christmas festival. You can hear in  some of the names – yuletide or yule log. The tradition of having ham/pork also goes back to the Viking culture because the boar was a sacred animal, particularly for swearing oaths and Jul was a time of renewing oaths. In Scandinavia, marzipan pigs are still considered lucky at Christmas and many children find them in their stocking.
 Food and drink along with the festivities were important parts of the celebration (there are reasons why Cromwell banned Christmas celebrations as not being Christian!). In common with many Germanic people, the Vikings would sacrifice some of the Jul ale to the fruit trees. We still get this with the tradition of wassailing.
Wreaths of evergreen were fashioned and put a blaze to help bring the Sun Maiden. In Norse legend, every mid-winter, the Sun maiden is swallowed by Fenrir the Wolf and is rescued through the efforts of Thor. You can see how a festival of light and re-birth  lent itself easily to being refashioned.
The Scandinavian goat (not a reindeer) – the red and white figurine is because Thor’s chariot, the one he used to rescue the Sun Maiden was pulled by two goats. They still play a prominent part in many people’s Christmas celebrations in these countries.
The nisser or house-elf who ensures good fortune still has a part to play in  Scandinavian celebrations. In Norway people put out rice pudding or porridge on Christmas eve for the nisser to ensure they will get good luck. If you happen to have a gnome looking Santa, it is probably a nisser rather than a Santa.
The Vikings brought the concept to Britain and it is where we get the term elf, pixie or brownie from. And because I happen to like the idea of having a house-elf  very much,  I made sure they played an important part in my latest novel.
It was fabulous being able to learn about Jul and its traditions and how those traditions have been passed along.
You can read the first chapter of Sent as The Viking’s Bridefor free here.
Michelle Styles writes warm, witty and intimate historical romance for Harlequin Historical in a wide range of time periods. Her next book Sent as the Viking’s Bride will be published on 18 December 2018 in the US, 27 December in the UK. Learn more about  Michelle and her books at

Friday, December 14, 2018

Christina Hollis: More Good News About Books!
Find out more at
“‘Twas two weeks before Christmas…” but I’m not only here to wish you a happy holiday season (though of course that takes pride of place!)

Today I can let you into a couple of  secrets I've been keeping for a while. 
The first is about my non-fiction book, Struggle and Suffrage—Women's Lives in Bristolwhich features true-life stories about women from the English port city of Bristol. My second snippet of news is about cut-price books—and you really can’t afford to miss that during the holiday season! 

First, news about my next title. Publishers Pen and Sword Books will be releasing Struggle and Suffrage—Women's Lives in Bristol on 28thFebruary, 2019. 

I've loved working on this project, and it’s got something for everyone. I was born half-way between Bristol and Bath, and Bristol was the city we visited most often as a child. I’d always considered it to be a great place, but I never realised it was such an incubator of female talent until I started my research. That was way back in 2016. I’ve discovered a new fascination for the place and its people.  From the woman who inspired transport genius Isambard Kingdom Brunel and the young women who took a road trip in the days when men were usually welded to every vehicle's driving seat, to a pioneer of premature-baby care, they all star in my book.  

Find out how the other half lived in dear old Bristol by ordering your copy of Women’s Lives in advance here.
Find out more at
My next bit of news is that the third romance in my Princes of Kharova series, Heart of a Hostageis on special offer right now. Princess Maia is fed up of being overshadowed by the lives of her two older brothers. She’s determined to make her mark. Find out how she exposes the secret hidden in her kidnapper’s hideout for the offer price of only $3.36 (£2.59 in the UK) That's a whole 70% off! But be quick—this offer won't last forever. Grab yourself bargain here!

As well as non-fiction, Christina Hollis writes contemporary fiction starring complex men and independent women. She has written more than twenty novels, sold nearly three million books, and her work has been translated into twenty different languages. When she isn’t writing, Christina is cooking, walking her dog, or gardening.

You can catch up with her at, on Twitter, Facebook, and see a full list of her published books at

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Advent Calendar with Kate Walker

Do you have an Advent Calendar in your home? One that you hang on the wall and open a numbered door each day marking off the dates from the 1st of December  up to the 24th – and Christmas Eve – to countdown the  days until Christmas?

I always loved to choose one of these when my son was small and it really helped him wait more patiently for the big day to arrive. At  least he knew when it was getting nearer and that there were -  twenty – fifteen – ten days left before he could put out his stocking and  leave a mince pie for Father Christmas, together with a carrot for Rudolph the reindeer to eat when they visited.  (There was always just a few crumbs left on the mince pie plate and the end of the carrot – nibbled by strangely human shaped teeth!) Opening the day’s door on the calendar became a special little ceremony  just before he went off to bed  - to dream of Santa’s sleigh and the sound of reindeer hooves.

So in the past I have tried to plan a book Advent Calendar to share  with friends and readers who visit my web site, my blog page, my Facebook page.  I   had planned to do this again this year but  several things got in the way. It has been a difficult week with sad news reminding me that not everyone will be celebrating a happy and joyful occasion just because it’s Christmas.

As a result, my planned posting of the Advent Calendar giveaway got shortened into a 12 Days of Christmas giveaway instead. And I’ll be hoping to post the 12 Days giveaway  for each day (or at least every couple of days) from now on.  But  because I’m well aware of the fact that not everyone is enjoying the  lead up to Christmas  and for some it is a very difficult and even sad time, I want my first 12 Days of Christmas post to be a traditional one that I’ve posted in the past and been able to bring just a little bit of brightness into someone’s life.   So this is what I’m going to do today.

What happens is this – you can nominate someone you know and care about who needs a little treat to bring some light into their days right now. Let me know who you would like to send an extra little gift to – a giveaway of a book that I’ll donate in your name. And I’ll include an extra little Christmas gift in the parcel to hopefully bring some lightness into their day as well.

So – in the comments-  post the name of someone you’d like to treat – and add the reasons why you have chosen this person – and I will get Charlie the Maine Coon (who  has his own Advent Calendar to open with treats in the pockets ) – to pick out a winner or two to send them a book from you – and from me.

I have a selection of books that  I have sorted out from my backlist stocks to share with  readers and friends over the next 12 days.

And I hope that you are all looking forward to Christmas and will have your family round you as you prepare for the event.

You can read more about me and my books on my web site and my blog -  and catch up with me too on my Facebook page

Sunday, December 09, 2018

Merry Christmas to all! - Kandy Shepherd

Wherever you are in the world, I’d like to wish Tote Bags ’n’ Blogs readers a very Merry Christmas and for those who don’t celebrate a very happy holiday season.

I haven’t got my tree up yet, or even thought about the festive menu, but I know I’ll get it done as I do every year with the help of my family! (My kitties do their best to “help” with the tree, too.)

I have a new book out in February 2019. Second Chance with the Single Dad is a friends-to- lovers reunion story, with an adorable baby girl in a supporting role. Oh, and a cat and a few horses too in this emotional, feel-good story from Harlequin Romance! 

 Christmas is a time of sunshine and outdoor living in Australia where I live. Whether summer or winter,  I hope you’re having good weather to get into the festive season!

Thank you to everyone who has read my posts throughout the year and a big thank you to Lee for having me as a contributor. 

Second Chance with the Single Dad is a February 2019 release from Harlequin Romance in North America; Mills & Boon True Love in the UK; and Mills & Boon Forever Romance in Australia and New Zealand.

Kandy Shepherd is a multi-published, award-winning author of contemporary romance and women’s fiction. She lives on a small farm in the Blue Mountains near Sydney, Australia, with her family and a menagerie of four-legged friends.

Visit Kandy at her website

Connect with Kandy on FacebookTwitterPinterest and Instagram

Sunday, December 02, 2018

An Odd Thing Happened on the Way Home...Susan Sands

I left early this morning to drive two hours to Milledgeville, Ga to attend my daughter's sorority tea.
We visited with her "sisters" and their moms for a couple hours, and I hopped back in the car for the drive home. This is one of the many excuses I'll give for being late with my blog post today.

As I drove on I-20 headed back into Atlanta, pushing eighty miles an hour, a car with two large men in the front passed on my left. The passenger was unapologetically snorting what I assumed was cocaine. I tried not to look, but I was obviously surprised by the sight. As they continued around me, I noticed a very large and sparkly pageant crown displayed in the place of honor in the back window. Not a tiara, a full-out CROWN, like Miss America or Miss USA might wear. Or any small-town peanut, pecan, or fruit festival first-place winner in the South. Have you seen the size of those crowns?

Anyway, I digress. All I could think was, "Is there a body in the trunk?" I know that's macabre, and a large stretch, but the writer in me goes nuts when I see something the least bit interesting during a boring drive and it gets my imagination revved up for a good storytelling.

Too bad I don't write suspense--yet. LOL!

Readers always ask where we get our ideas from. I get mine everywhere! Today I got one on I-20 headed west.

I hope everyone had a lovely Thanksgiving and is looking forward to more fun and festivities with family throughout the holiday season.

Merry Everything, y'all!

Susan Sands

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Cooking with the Seasons

Pull up a chair while I fix dinner! I’ve been cooking non-stop lately, so it’s only fitting that I write my blog post while I work on tonight’s meal. My favorite time of year to cook is September through December, so it’s no surprise that I’ve been in the kitchen often lately. But I’m also feeding two of my grown sons and my husband while they work on a major house renovation, so I’m trying to pour some extra love into my cooking efforts as small way to thank them for all the manual labor.
My future office is part of the home renovation project

Tonight, it’s soup for dinner. I’m merging a recipe for turkey noodle soup and corn chowder so I get a turkey corn chowder. There’s bacon in it, so that’s always a win. Plus potatoes, noodles, corn and turkey. It’s a good post Thanksgiving meal because it puts the turkey carcass to work! I could live on soup because I like the taste, and the chef in me appreciates a one-dish meal.

My favorite soup recipes are for butternut squash and sweet potato (heavy on the ginger… I love ginger!), roasted tomato soup, and a ham and navy bean soup. I would have never imagined I’d like roasted tomato soup since I wouldn’t go near a tomato as a kid—(so sad since my father grew mostly tomatoes on our vegetable farm in my youth). But I’ve grown fond of tomatoes and I always make homemade croutons for that one, which takes the soup to a whole other level.

For tonight though, I’m working on my turkey corn chowder and find I have to make all kinds of substitutions since I haven’t been to the grocery store in awhile. Do you do this when you cook on the fly? No Worcestershire sauce, so in goes some soy sauce instead. No soup noodles, so get creative with the pasta element.

In the next few weeks, I’ll put a soup in the dinner rotation about once a week. And it’s a good thing to balance out some of the rich meals we’ll have all December long! Maybe that’s why I simplify my cooking tremendously once January comes. I’m back to grilled fish and chicken, lighter vegetable prep, and less sauces. The nice thing about living in Florida is I can cook on the grill all year long, and I take full advantage.

Win my January book
But for now, I’m unapologetically cooking with more calories (for my hard working laborers! They need it, right?!). My Christmas dinner goes all out with a standing rib roast and Yorkshire pudding. If we go to a family member’s house on Christmas Day, I’ll just rotate my own Christmas meal a day or two, but I don’t skip the chance to make those dishes that I look forward to all year long.

Free for a limited time
What about you? What’s on your menu most often through the fall and into the holidays? Do you change up your menu seasonally? I’ve got an advance copy of THE RANCHER’S BARGAIN, my January Harlequin Desire for one random commenter. And for everyone, please download my FREE book LAST CHANCE CHRISTMAS while it’s still free through 11/29.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Free Sample Chapters of Cabana Boy by Jenny Gardiner

hi guys!
I'm on deadline so thought I'd post two chapters of Cabana Book, book 3 of my Confessions of a Chick Magnet series which I'm writing right now. Hope you enjoy it and you can pre-order if you do! I'll post links below.
'Have a wonderful Thanksgiving if you're in the States!

Chapter One
When Fletcher Campbell first interviewed for the production assistant job with revered film producer Justine Gaynor, he was super excited at the prospect of attending poolside meetings as a perk of the job. After a succession of crap jobs waiting table while trying to break into the film business, he figured this was merely payoff for his hard work and persistence.
“Everyone out here does them out here,” she’d told him, arms spread wide at the outdoor café where she’d interviewed him. “No reason to waste this sunshine and warm weather!”
Which suited him just fine. After all, he loved spending time in nature. Having grown up in Montana, the outdoors was practically his middle name. He’d only moved out to L.A. after college to try his hand in the film industry, but he had to admit he greatly missed all that time he used to spend hiking and biking and kayaking and fishing. In L.A. it seemed he devoted most of his time to sitting in traffic sucking in exhaust fumes, which was kind of painful for someone accustomed to the wide-open spaces around his hometown of Bristol, Montana, where a hike in nearby Glacier National Park was as likely to yield a grizzly bear sighting as an outing in L.A. would involve a glimpse of a Kardashian or two. He’d take a bear over a Kardashian any day.
But he recognized that this was the cost of pursuing a career he’d gotten hooked on after being hired as an extra in a film that was shot on location in Glacier when he was home for summer break during his freshman year of college (even if he did end up on the cutting room floor). That was a memorable summer not only for his “star turn”, as it were, as one of two hundred people in a crowd scene in the park, but also because it was when he and Cricket Ferguson called it quits, after having dated exclusively since the ninth grade. Ugh, but he didn’t want to think about that—no matter how much time had passed, it still felt raw to him, so many words left unspoken. But he was in L.A., now, with a new life, big dreams, no need to waste time dwelling on what was. Or could have been.
At today’s production meeting, scheduled at his boss’s sprawling Beverly Hills mansion, he ended up being the only one in attendance besides his boss, who weirdly insisted on wearing a bikini even though she was well past the age—and youthful vigor—that one would expect with someone voluntarily exposing so much flesh in a revealing bathing suit. It sort of screamed unprofessional, but who was he to know how things were out here? Oh well, he figured if she was happy in it, that’s what mattered.
Her pool—one of those sprawling, dark bottomed Gunite types—boasted a waterfall and an actual bridge which bisected the whole pool, and was obviously so large you needed a damned bridge to get to the other side, otherwise you’d be exhausted navigating your way around it. He’d never seen something like this in a backyard pool. Clearly he wasn’t in Montana any more. She had a wait staff of three who she’d dismissed just as soon as they’d delivered drinks to the two of them. Which was weird—day-drinking during a business meeting? How very Mad Men of her! Good thing he cdould hang with the best of them after imbibing several drinks.
Fletch tried not to gawk at Justine as she perched, cross-legged on the overstuffed sofa beneath the shade of a massive umbrella, a floppy wide-brimmed hat cocked at an angle atop her head. Man, in the short time he’d been in L.A., he’d never seen so many women so overwrought in an effort to attempt to defy aging, and Justine fit that bill perfectly. First off, bikinis weren’t exactly forgiving when it came to hiding what nature hadn’t gotten quite right. Or what time had betrayed on a person. So while her surgically-overhauled face was pulled so taut you could probably bounce a quarter off of her cheeks, her neck was encircled with telltale sagging flesh that reminded him of the rings around a tree trunk that told you how old the thing was. 
Granted, her arms were a testament to her personal trainer, who was usually leaving the office just as Fletcher was arriving each morning. Whatever that man was doing, he was making sure her guns were tip-top. Same with her long legs, which he knew—because he’d been the one stuck scheduling the expensive appointments—had been CoolSculpted into as cellulite-free an existence as was technologically possible, as was her belly. Her hair was the bleach white of those dying reefs you see in National Geographic specials about global warming. Her false eyelashes were so unnaturally long they could’ve derived from legs plucked from a daddy long leg, and she was spray-tanned to within an inch of her life. 
Yet with all that work, well, with the right clothing, you could maybe shave off ten years from your age, appearance-wise. But half-naked in a skimpy bikini? It all just looked the opposite of young. Not that he was judging her. He was, however, kind of getting the vibe that she had designs on him, and he wanted to be loud and clear that he had no plans to tangle up any sheets with his boss, even if hers were the gold-karat-threaded, silk jacquard Charlotte Thomas ones, which cost more than his beat-up clunker of a truck did. He should know, because he was tasked with ordering her sheets, natch.
He’d had a fantasized notion of production assistants actually doing something involving something like producing, but if he had to be honest with himself, in the few months since he’d been out here, the only thing he’d done was his demanding boss’s bidding, whether that meant chauffeuring her around L.A.—she said it was because he was far more handsome than her regular driver (Fletch could only thank goodness for GPS, since he hardly had committed the geography to memory since arriving here, or they’d have been lost in the Hollywood Hills on more than one occasion)—or scheduling her weekly Brazilian wax, which he felt bordered on TMI but he was trying to be a cooperative employee so what was he to do?
Speaking of Brazilian wax, her thong bikini bottom was cut high enough on her thigh and down toward her crotch that there was no question she’d made it to her appointment with Brigitte this week to ensure not a stray hair was to be had. Normally that would have turned him on upon getting a teasing glance like that on a woman, big time. After all, he’d helped Cricket do the honors—albeit with a razor—back when they were together. It was the most erotic thing he’d ever done, shaving her there. But with Justine, ugh, he simply mentally shuddered. It would have been like lusting after someone’s nana. In fact, she was pretty much old enough to be his grandmother. He squeezed shut his eyes against the thought.
“Fletcher, be a dear and help me get some sunscreen on,” she said, waving the bottle of suntan lotion at him. “Must fight these damaging UV rays.” She winked at him and he winced, steeling himself to just put sunscreen on her back and get out, soul intact. But in his gut he knew that wasn’t what she’d planned. He scraped his fingers through his wavy dark hair, knowing he just had to suck it up and do it.
He stood up from his seat and walked to where Justine sat on the sofa, and he wondered where he was supposed to sit while doing this. It would be one thing if she were laying on her stomach. He’d squirt some lotion, politely dab it around, and then beg off when it came to what to do with her exposed butt cheeks. That was hers to figure out. But no. She was sitting there, her legs now extended, even spread a bit, to his great dismay. Her ample fake tits—you could tell they were fake, not just because she was too old to have breasts perched so unnaturally high atop her chest, but also because of the telltale line that ridged her chest where a pouch of saline rested inside of each one—jutted out like the peaks of Everest, and were just as threatening to the uninitiated. And while her fabricated tits would look downright spectacular on someone half her age, on her they kind of smacked of desperation, a woman grasping at straws in the hopes that she could fool the general public that she wasn’t as old as she was.
Yuck. It was all so icky. He wondered why women didn’t grow old gracefully out here. He thought about how pretty his own mother was, with her salt-and-pepper hair, which she wore in a bob cropped to her shoulder, and the laugh lines that life had given her lighting up her face with joy. 
He didn’t want to think about his mother’s boobs, but he was certain they weren’t parked on her chest like a diving board urging all comers to take the plunge. Geeze, he’d take ten aging-gracefully women over one in-massive-denial-of-Father-Time version any old day. Of course his mom was a grandma now and he saw how her grandchildren loved to press up against her soft body and snuggle into her loving warmth. Besides, every man knew that a little meat on the bones was an added bonus. Skin and bones ladies like Justine, where her hip bones jutted out like the jagged lines on a heart rate monitor, and her zero percent body fat was just a bit extreme; they just didn’t appeal to him.
He took a deep breath, squeezing shut his blue eyes—the ones Cricket once said reminded her of precious sapphires. He almost wanted to plug his nose, as if his mom was forcing the five-year-old version of him to down a forkful of stinky cauliflower. Okay, Fletch. You can do this. Unpleasant work have-to’s were part and parcel to climbing the ladder in Hollywood. Not that he would succumb to a little slap-and-tickle with the woman to get his way—no way, no how—but capitulating when your boss coerces you into applying sunscreen didn’t seem too far out of the ordinary.
“Uh, er, where did you want this?” he squirted some of the sunscreen into his hand, then leaned over her, figuring he’d go for the arms, which seemed a safe bet. How much trouble could he get into there? He stared at her wrist—far, far from even a hint of erogenous zones (although didn’t Cricket love it when he stroked her wrist with his thumb?)—and began massaging in the lotion.
Justine let out a tiny moan.
Shit. Was this turning her on? He accelerated the application pace, moving his palms up her forearms, speed-slathering toward her bicep, hoping to the good lord above that he could be done with this and get down to business. Of course he knew he’d have to lean over get the other arm, so he sucked it up and did it, gnawing on his cheek the whole time, and averting his eyes so as to not come in close contact with those prominent boobs that seemed to be climbing toward him. When done with arm number two, he placed the bottle on the sofa next to her, hoping to return to his own seat, a safe several feet away.
But instead she pointed the toes on her right foot and extended her leg and foot toward his thigh, dragging her gelled toenails (he should know: he made the appointment) up his thigh till he thought he might scream.
Fletcher never thought the idea of a woman dragging a toe up his leg toward his dick would be a turn-off, but damn, when a granny-substitute—and a bad one at that—was doing it, boy was it ever.
“You forgot these,” Justine said, flexing and pointing her foot, as if that provocative move had any effect on him. Christ, what could he say? If he told her that was inappropriate, she’d fire him on the spot. If he proceeded on demand, well, then his hands would be sliding up her muscled thighs, eventually practically smoothing over her pudenda. Ha! He hadn’t thought of that term since the test on female anatomy in his middle school sex-ed class. He could still picture an awkward Mrs. Rayburn with her pointer stick aiming at the illustration of the female anatomy on the board and cringed at the thought. He sure as hell couldn’t mentally refer to this woman’s thing as a “pussy”. If he did, he’d never think of a pussy the same again. Although he sure as hell wanted to think of a positive pussy to purge what he was doing from his mind. So he pretended he was slicking the sunscreen along Cricket’s thighs, strong and sturdy from a lifetime of riding and living an outdoor life of hiking and running and biking.
He closed his eyes. Remind me again why I left Cricket for this?He squirted some more lotion in his hands and raced his fingers along his boss’ legs and thighs, rapidly doing what he had to, just to get the chore over with. Now he really understood that phrase, lie back and think of England.
Justine moaned again and suddenly ground her hips toward his hand, causing his fingertips to slip dangerously close to the thigh-edge of her bikini. He feared he would throw up in his mouth. He was certain that real nanas didn’t force guys young enough to be their grandsons to finger their twats. He pulled his hands away as if he’d touched a hot stove and dusted them off as if to segue to more important business.
“Okay. Well, then, weren’t we here to brainstorm about the release of Icicle Man?” 
This was Justine’s latest film, something to do with some dude who froze to death in the mountains while searching for some elusive clues to his own past. Right about now Fletcher was putting his current fate up there with Icicle Man in the sucky outcomes department. Freezing to death almost sounded preferable to his own current fate.
Just then Justine reached out her hand and pressed her palm to the crotch on the outside of his Chubbies trunks—the ones with the silverback gorillas all over them. If only he had the strength of a silverback, he’d knock her out of the way and run, far from this whacked-out woman. He tried to stick his butt out, away from her, removing proximity so she couldn’t grab his nuts next. 
“Oh, have some fun,” Justine said, dragging her Shellacked sanguine nails along his thigh, making the hair stand on end. And not in a good way. He could feel his balls shriveling.
He had to think quickly, or this would only deteriorate into something even worse.
“It’s just that my girlfriend—”
She lifted an eyebrow. “Girlfriend?” She waggled an admonishing finger. “And here I thought you were unencumbered.” She thrust out her lower lip in a pout like she was a ‘tween told she had an eleven o’clock curfew.
He sucked so badly at lying, especially thinking on his feet like this. “Well, my girlfriend from back home, we decided to give it another go. And, well, I’m about to ask her to marry me.”
Justine looked up, cocking her head like a cat toying with a mouse before killing it. “Marriage? How very provincial,” she said. “Is that what they do wherever you’re from?”
He squinted at her. “You mean get married?”
She nodded, once again dragging her daggers up his thigh, which made his abdomen contract from the chill it induced. “Aren’t you too young for such adult things?”
Now that pissed him off. Too young to get married but not too young for a cougar thrice his age to come onto him like he was a slab of raw beef thrown at her? Yeah, right.
“I’m plenty old enough, thanks,” he said, wiping the spare sunscreen off on his trunks as he delicately stepped back away from her.
“Where is this place you’re from, where your girlfriend pines away for you?” she said it in such a way that she clearly felt his life was some sort of amusement for her to play with, a toddler obsessed with the shiny bow on her Christmas present.
“I’m—we’re—from Montana.”
She turned her head upward toward him. “Oh, really? One of those places with snow-capped mountains?” 
He nodded and knit his brow, not knowing where she was headed with this. “Why do you ask?”
“Well, I think we’ve just found where we’re going to premier our film!” she started to laugh. “We’re going to Wherever-You’re-From, Montana, and maybe then I can even have a word with that fiancé-girlfriend of yours.”
Fletch’s face fell. Shit. Fiancé-girlfriend. How was he going to get out of this—bringing his horny boss back home to size up what she saw as competition from a non-existent now former lover (and never fiancé) who could give a half a shit about anything to do with Fletcher Campbell at this point and would assuredly never cover for his lies. And to think he thought he’d been making progress professionally. Sonofabitch.

Chapter Two
Cricket Ferguson had just finished mucking the stalls in the barn and decided to take a few minutes to enjoy the late-day sun as it cast its melon-hued light across the fields. Today was one of those days that reminded her why she wanted to spend the rest of her life in this amazing little hamlet she called home.
First she’d risen well before dawn, roused her Australian cattle dog, Dingo for a four-mile run, a practice that cleared her mind and helped her plan her day. After returning home for a quick shower, she slipped down a flight of stairs to the pâtisserie she’d opened a year ago, and got to work on the array of pastries and café food she’d planned to offer the good folks of Bristol today.
She and her good friend and assistant, Darby Cunningham had such fun working side-by-side it was a wonder that what she did was considered a job. After a couple of years of working for a succession of imperious pastry chefs, it took coming home and opening Pâtisserie Cricket to really feel like what she was doing was what she was meant to be doing. Yeah, yeah, Pâtisserie Cricket was hardly the most French of names. But she decided that she needed to name her shop something as no-nonsense and basic as she was. Besides, this was Montana: not like anyone out here would be flocking to a shop with some hoity-toity French name. Here in Montana, folks wanted things to be simpler, and she was happy to offer that.
After spending the day creating and baking, she’d headed back to her parents’ ranch and took a late-afternoon ride with her horse, a paint named Bunny, with Dingo running loops around them as they rode out past the hay fields and meadows and into the lush forest surrounding the farm. Riding in the woods during these autumn afternoons took her breath away, with the sumptuous palette of colors Mother Nature showed off, as leaves prepared to fall in anticipation of the first snowfall. This was God’s country, so beautiful it almost hurt, and she loved every moment she could take in the splendor of it all. Despite her time in the cosmopolitan city of Paris while she trained, and then briefly in the East Coast afterwards to get experience under her belt, this was the place that called to her. Sure, she’d needed to get away for a while after Fletch bailed on her. But now she’d wrestled with those demons, carved out a new life for herself, and at last, everything was falling into place.
While she leaned against the split-rail fence, her cowboy hat cocked on her head over her long, streaky blonde hair, gnawing on a piece of straw, gazing out on the horizon, her phone dinged. She pulled it out to find a most unexpected email. It was from a big L.A. production company, wanting to place an order for an obscene amount of food for a film premier that was going to happen right here in little ol’ Bristol, which could be a fantastic boon for her business. She’d talk to Darby first thing in the morning to plot out a strategy to handle this order before she replied to it in detail. While her business had been doing quite well, this could put her on the map—not that she was looking to be put on a map. But still, anything like this could get word of mouth about her baking skills going beyond the borders of Bristol, and you never knew how that could benefit her fledgling pâtisserie.
After returning to Bristol last year, Cricket had been stuck for while living at home, far past the point at which she’d hoped to be under her parents’ roof. Finally this past summer, she and her dad had taken a sledgehammer to the room above the pastry shop, and then got to work creating a cozy apartment she could call her own. It made her heart sing each night when she went upstairs to her very own space. It was all she needed in life and she was finally feeling content.
Which had taken a while, since Fletcher Campbell had crushed her hopes and dreams by blowing out of Bristol in pursuit of some pie-in-the-sky dreams of Hollywood fame and fortune. For the life of her she didn’t understand it, but she also couldn’t stop it. Even though they’d talked for years about their future together — they’d even named their kids! — all of a sudden, poof, he was gone, leaving not a trace behind.
It had hurt at the time, and was part of the reason she took off for Paris to learn to bake, but she learned the hard way that with pain comes growth, and finally she was starting to feel that she’d gotten over him, and practically grown ten feet tall in the process. And now she was perfectly content not to have any man getting in the way of her happiness. She had her shop, her apartment, and Dingo. Her life was full, and there wasn’t room for another man in it even if she wanted one, which, after Fletcher, she decidedly didn’t.
As Cricket read the email, she wondered for a moment if she was picking up some snark in between the lines.
“Cricket,”it said. “What a charming name. One of those names the boys probably love to bits.”
Whatever the hell that meant. What a weird comment for someone to make in a professional context.
“But I bet you don’t even think about that, what with your fiancé and all. I’ll look forward to sitting down with you and findin out everything about you.”
Cricke squinted. Fiance? Huh? And why would she have any reason to find anyting out about her? Maybe she was talking about her menu options? Or how she planned to serve it all at the film opening?
She shook her head. If ther was one thing she’d learned since leaving Bristol for a while, it was that people were strange. Plenty were nice and normal and all that, but there were some weirdos out there, and she was just going to chalk the comments up to that. After all, those rich Hollywood types would no doubt be more likely to be a little more eccentric than your average Bristoller. Or was it Bristollian? She never did get that right.
Cricke thought about her name, which she always kind of liked, even though she never really wanted to think about the genesis of it. The story was, she was conceived in a hayfield, with crickets trumpeting their horny mating call to the accompaniment of her folks doing the same damned thing. A factx that always made her roll her eyes. It’s one thing if you’re the one doing it in the hayfield, but your parents? Puh-lease. That is so need-to-know basis. Nevertheless, she always thought the name Cricket had a nice ring to it.
Well, she’d just dismiss the weird line of questioning about her name. And the fiancé reference. That woman—Cricket glanced down at her phone to see: Justine Gaynor—well, then, Justine Gaynor, she must have had that information flat-out wrong. She wondered why she surmised that, but then just figured it wasn’t relevant. As long as she got this kick-ass order in and could fulfill it, the woman could call her the Queen of England.
She gave a whistle for Dingo and hopped into her truck, securing her dog into her seatbelt before fastening her own. She had a huge event to plan for, so she wanted to get home to her mystery fiancé and get started on it, she thought with a small laugh.

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