When Faith O' Fallon’s best friend ropes her into attending a popular reality show audition, the last thing she expects to find at the studio is the love of her life.
Ben Ward resents his family for coercing him into holding auditions to snag a date for the holiday episode of their reality show, Poolside Oasis. But when a studio mishap accidentally matches him with the lovely, rambunctious Faith O'Fallon, he finds that sometimes family knows best.
This holiday season is filled with the perfect blend of heartwarming surprises splashed with a dose of sweet romance.
Faith O’Fallon flipped through a notebook on the cluttered desk of her office at the Mountain Light Children’s Home as beads of perspiration collected along the nape of her neck. A box fan set to high speed in the window chased a sticky note from the scribble-splattered blotter, and Faith fell to her knees to retrieve it as it flitted across scuffed tile toward the foot of the file cabinet.
Snatching the slip of paper, Faith sucked in a deep, ragged breath. This task she’d recently bulldozed into seemed beyond impossible to accomplish. Yes, indeed…that’s what planning Mountain Light’s Christmas party while knee-deep into the humidity-clad days of Indian summer, with the office air conditioning stubbornly on the fritz—again—seemed to be. But Faith stood determined to see this task through to the end despite all the good, the bad, and the ugly that it brought along.
The Bad: check—she’d been turned down now at least half-a-dozen times by supporters who’d opened their pockets during previous years without so much as a flinch. The Ugly: check—the heat and oppressive humidity which lurked around every corner did little to nudge her or others in the community into the Christmas spirit.
The Good? Faith had nothing going in that area. That particular quality appeared to be AWOL at the moment.
Faith lowered the speed of the box fan as she collected the last of the scattered sticky notes and settled back into the desk chair. The sound of voices drifted…laughter mingled with shouts of glee and the light spatter of an argument here and there as children played with water toys on the side lawn. One of the counselors had, to the boundless delight of the kids, set up a few sprinklers to combat the sweltering September heat since the kids were out of school due to a teacher in-service day.
Faith couldn’t remember such a string of warm September days. The meager shower of water from the sprinklers wasn’t much in the way of recreational activities; a pool would certainly prove an all-around much better option. But said pool seemed a flight of fancy and stood purely out of the realm of financial possibility for the children’s home as Faith still struggled to procure so much as the tiniest bit of funding for the in-house holiday party and modest Christmas gifts for the kids.
She needed to secure a few compassionate and willing donors with deep pockets, and quick. Christmas loomed just a little more than three months away and the shopping and planning would require every bit of those precious days.
Faith smoothed a wrinkle from her linen skirt and readjusted the strap of one sandal, wishing she’d thought to don more sensible footwear this morning. The generous heels nipped and pinched with each step, and she longed to kick them off and join the carefree kids who ran through lush grass that beckoned from the yard beyond her office window.
No time for that. Focus, Faith, focus...
Faith was in her first year as the recreation director here at the children’s home, and she’d quickly come to love every one of the kids, aged five to seventeen, with whom she crossed paths on a daily basis. They’d grown to be the family she’d never belonged to and had always longed for. Having spent the better part of her childhood at Mountain Light herself, she knew good and well the importance of even the smallest gestures of kindness. Now, she refused to let the kids down when it came to hosting the Christmas party they eagerly looked forward to all year…even if it killed her.
And it might…heatstroke was an option, or she simply might just melt to death. The tune “Frosty the Snowman” suddenly danced through Faith’s head and a stab of sadness pierced her heart as she imagined Frosty slowly dissolving into a shadowy puddle.
Faith forced the image from her mind and pushed through to the happy ending when Frosty returned with hearty singing, gleeful dancing and hopes for what might come the following year.
Yes, that’s what she needed to make it through to the other side of the Christmas party…a strong dose of hope.
Faith brushed a wavy wisp of long, cinnamon hair that had escaped its ponytail from her eyes. She wished for the umpteenth time that her hair was more controllable—a wave that fanned sleek and stylish much like the manes that models in the latest fashion magazines possessed instead of the mass of unruly curls that refused to cooperate whenever the humidity rose above forty percent.
Faith gave up the fight. She tugged the elastic band from the tail, releasing her hair to spring free over her shoulders and tumble down to the middle of her back. She raked her fingers through the curls as she drew another deep breath, inhaling the scent of lilacs that bloomed outside the office window. The sweet and slightly musky scent wasn’t exactly the key to nudging her into the Christmas spirit either.
She spun in the rolling chair and grabbed a small box filled with trinkets that sat atop the file cabinet. A quick turn back toward the desk, and she dumped the contents onto the blotter. Out spilled a half-burned jar candle she’d found at the bottom of her junk drawer at home. Next, a Bing Crosby CD, and a vintage ceramic light-up snowman with a snowflake belly that had once belonged to her great-grandmother followed suit.
Faith removed the CD from its case and inserted the disc into the player atop the file cabinet. Soon, the soft strains of Bing Crosby’s rich and throaty caramel voice filled the office with dreams of a white Christmas. The candle, once lit, sent aromatic whispers of pine drifting. Finally, the snowman found his place front and center atop Faith’s desk. The jolly, bright glow from his belly added the final touch of Christmas warmth.
I can do this…
Faith closed her eyes and breathed deeply, sending a quick but heartfelt prayer to the heavens above.
Lord, please help me find the funding to have a Christmas celebration for the kids. It will mean so much to them and they’re counting on me. They need me…and I need them.
The staccato click of heels signaled someone’s approach. A shadow crossed the doorway, momentarily blocking muted rays of sunlight that spilled into the hall from double-paned glass entrance doors across the way. “Faith, get a move on…we’re running late and we have to go—now.”
Faith’s head snapped up to find Avery Daniels, her best friend since the fifth grade, poised with one hip pressed against the door jamb. Avery worked a piece of gum between her jaws, snapping it smartly as was often her habit.
“Oh, hi, Ave.” Faith sighed and raked a hand through hair that refused to cooperate. “Is it noon already?”
“Five past—no, ten now.” Avery’s brow furrowed as she tapped the screen of the cellphone clutched in one fist. “And I’m parked in a tow-away zone. I’ve texted you at least half-a-dozen times. Don’t you check your messages?”
“Not when I’m neck-deep into work.” Faith tossed the crumpled sticky note onto the blotter as her belly did a convoluted little dance. She hated to let Avery down, but duty called. She snatched a curl that obscured her vision and twisted it around her index finger as she spoke. “Look, um…I really should stick around here and work through lunch instead of heading to that audition with you. There’s so much on my plate right now.”
“Oh no you don’t.” Avery waggled a finger capped by a scarlet-tipped nail. “We’ve had this gig set for a month now and you promised, Faith. You can’t back out on me this late in the game. I can’t do this alone.” She slipped one hand into the pocket of crisp, white jeans coupled with a V-necked black T-shirt that accentuated every ample curve. “Besides, there’s ten thousand dollars on the line.”
“Ten thousand?” Faith grabbed a pen and tapped it along the desktop. “I thought it was five.”
“I thought the same until I read the small print in the audition instructions.” Avery stepped through the doorway and her perfume did battle with the pine-scented candle and a glimmer of lilac that wisped through the window. “If I’m selected to co-star alongside Ben Ward in today’s first round of auditions—which I thoroughly plan to be—I’ll be awarded a cool ten-grand for my efforts. It’s a win-win situation, since Ben is a hearty slice of heaven in steel-toed boots. It’s no secret that he carries the bulk of the ratings for the Poolside Oasis show virtually singlehandedly. And the thought of filming a show with him…of sharing a romantic date with him—”
“It’s not a date, Avery—and there’s absolutely nothing romantic about this circus he and the producers are bent on staging. What’s being offered is simply the opportunity to sit beside Ben Ward in a trumped-up, made-for-TV episode at the poolside of one of his backyard creations.”
“Is that so?” Avery’s gaze darkened to storm status as she plucked the gum from her mouth and wrapped it in a tissue before tossing it into the trash can. “Well, aren’t you a dark cloud raining on my parade today?”
“I’m simply attempting to keep it real. This audition nonsense that’s stuck in your craw is nothing more than a far-reaching ploy to increase the show’s ratings.”
“Well, I can certainly help with that.” Avery flashed the smile that drew men to her like a magnet draws coins. She knew the power of her self-confidence coupled with a personality more effervescent than soda-pop. “Besides, a girl can dream, can’t she?”
“I suppose so, but this girl”—Faith crooked her index finger and poked herself in the chest, wishing that she might, for once, live as care-free and fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants as Avery managed to do on a daily basis—“plans to keep both her feet planted firmly on the ground.”
“All work and no play can make a girl grumpy.” Avery slipped her cellphone back into the purse slung over one shoulder. “You, my friend, are living proof.”
“I’m sorry.” Faith reached for a list of potential donors for the party. Time was wasting and she had so much to do. Surely, Avery would understand. “But I have this Christmas party to plan. The kids—”
“I know…they’re counting on you.” Avery crossed the room and propped one hip on the corner of the desk. “Everyone is always counting on you, Faith, because you are steady as the thrum of April showers.”
“You say that like it’s a bad thing.”
“It’s not a bad thing, but sometimes you have to let loose…let go. The work will still be here, waiting on you when you return.”
“That’s exactly my point.”
“Stubborn…analytical…” Avery shook her head and crossed her arms over her chest. “Sheesh…you’re nearly impossible to bargain with, but I’ll give it one more shot. I’ll tell you what…you come and support me at this audition, and I’ll help you the rest of the afternoon—and tomorrow, too, since it’s my day off from the restaurant—to plan this holiday shindig for the kids. Plus, if I win Ben Ward over to my side, you can pencil me into your donor’s list with a cool thousand dollars—that’s a ten percent tithe by my estimation…the going rate, right?”
“That’s right. But—”
“Nope…” Avery held up a hand traffic cop style as she shook her head. “No but’s to be had here, Faith. Just tell me…how does my compromise sound?”
“It sounds doable.” Faith dropped the pen onto the blotter and smoothed her hands down the front of her skirt as she stood. Her feet wailed in pain as she found her balance, but she ignored the pinched cries of her polished toes. “But I’m not getting within ten feet of Ben Ward—or any of his brothers.”
“You can’t hold a grudge forever, Faith.”
“Watch me.” Faith nodded fiercely. “Ben promised to be the keynote speaker at our Mountain Light Spring Kickoff fundraiser this past March and then backed out just as tickets were going on sale. We—I mean, I—was left holding the bag because I couldn’t find a replacement on such short notice. I’d only been employed here a few months, and I was placed on probation when the dinner tanked and funding took an anemic nosedive. As a matter of fact, I’m still on probation, and it’s a miracle I didn’t lose my job. I’m not fond of sitting in the hot seat because someone else dropped the ball and, let me tell you, this seat is growing hotter by the moment.”
Avery pinched a strand of spiky black hair between two fingers. Her lips, outlined in a shade of red that might be used to perform a transfusion, pursed into a round little oh. On anyone else, the combination of colors might seem gaudy. But somehow, Avery managed to make the look work. She’d always been the bold one of the pair, outgoing and adventurous and oftentimes outspoken to a fault while Faith tended to be more selective with the thoughts she shared…more cautious and reserved. Through the years, their opposite personalities proved to forge a bond that, despite their differences, mirrored the strength of titanium. “I’m sure there was a good reason for the last-minute bailout, Faith. Give the guy a break.”
“Even if there is, by some stretch of the imagination, a valid reason, Ben Ward didn’t bother to share it with me. Obviously, the fame and wealth of his family’s wildly successful business has gone straight to his head…completely bypassing that steel-clad heart of his.” Faith leaned in to blow out the flickering candle. Even the cheerful scent of pine failed to chase away the chill that had suddenly swept into her heart. “I’ll attend today’s audition with you as I promised, Ave, and I truly hope you earn the chance to share an episode in his family’s crazy quest to find a ready-made companion”—Faith emphasized with air quotes—“for Ben Ward. But allow me to make one thing perfectly clear—I will never, ever forgive that heartless, uncompassionate, excuse for a man for letting me—as well as the kids who live here at Mountain Light Children’s Home—down.”