After his very public break-up from his fiancé, Chad Fletcher is convinced that a healthy marriage and his rising political career won’t mix. Christmas at his Aunt Nell’s home in White, Arizona is a great way to start fresh. Political watch dogTessa Conway plans to spend her Christmas vacation enjoying her grandparents’ ranch before they must sell it. So she is not pleased with Grandma Sophie and Aunt Nell’s efforts to throw her and Chad together during White’s Christmas celebrations. Chad begins to believe Tessa may be the perfect antidote to his unhealthy relationships of the past. But when he decides to take support from a company with questionable ethics, his perfect bubble is burst. Fearing Chad is not the Godly man she believed him to be, Tessa ends their budding romance. Will Chad find the strength and courage to do what’s right even if it costs him his career?
“I don’t know why you insist on wearing those ridiculous things. How can you see?” Aunt Nell asked, rubbing her hands against the cold evening air.
Chad Fletcher pulled his baseball cap lower and pushed the large, black-framed lenses further up his nose. “These were the biggest, ugliest, glasses I could find in the store,” he said, studying the nearby Christmas carolers dressed in scarves, mittens and matching earmuffs. “People usually don’t recognize me when I’m wearing them.”
Nell made a sound that, if Chad didn’t know his proper little white-haired great-aunt better, sounded almost like a snort. “If you spent more time focusing on your job as state assemblyman and less time in the social pages, you wouldn’t have to disguise yourself.”
“Ex-job, Aunt Nell, ex-job. My term has ended, remember? I’m a free man, here to rest, relax, and recuperate before I get back to real life.”
“Real life,” she said. “As if we don’t live real lives here in White.” She made the sound again and Chad smiled.
The small rural Arizona community was as far removed from the high profile life he lived in Phoenix as it could be. Even as a child, visiting his mother’s aunt had been his favorite way to spend the summer. Time with Aunt Nell and working as a teenager for the local ranchers had taught him more about life than all of his family’s country club years in Tucson.
His aunt knew how he felt, so when he took her arm and squeezed, she smiled and patted it back.
“Come on,” he said. “Tell me about the festivities. I’ve been hearing you talk about White’s Twelve Days of Christmas for so long, I can’t wait to see it.”
“Well, as you can see, this is the kick-off event. Main Street is blocked off. We’ve got carolers on this side, a brass combo over there, and Santa Claus right next door. He’ll be giving out bags of treats and hot chocolate. The line started forming to see him about five o’clock.”
“I don’t remember those Victorian light posts.”
“They weren’t here last time you were. At first, I thought they were an expense we didn’t need but when they put them up, well, I’ve grown quite fond of them. They remind me of my childhood.”
“Which wasn’t such a long time ago,” Chad said.
“Hush! It’s a wonder they let you talk at all on the chamber floor. You’re so full of nonsense.” This time she slapped playfully at his hand and he grabbed it.
“You’re freezing,” he said, worry for his seventy-year-old aunt filling him. “Why don’t you put on your gloves?”
“I left them in the car.”
“It’s cold enough to snow. I’ll go back and get them.”
“No, don’t worry about it. I don’t want you to miss the lighting ceremony. They turn everything on at the same time. The lamp posts, the giant snowflakes attached to them and those two huge Christmas trees over there. All the houses for blocks around Main Street turn on their lights, too. It’s my favorite part.”
He turned to see the two trees, situated in the large plaza called Pioneer Square. The trees were well over fifteen feet and decorated with lights and multi-colored bulbs. “You said they start at six? That’s ten minutes away. I’ll be gone and back before then.”
“You might miss it. Just wait a few more minutes.”
Chad studied his aunt’s face and realized she was searching the crowd for something…or someone.
“Aunt Nell, what are you up to?”
Suddenly, her face lit up and she smiled. “Look, there’s Sophie and Jim Conway. Their grand-daughter’s here for Christmas, you know.”
“Aunt Nell, you promised. No more matchmaking.”
“I didn’t promise. I know myself better than that. Besides, you need a good, small-town girl who will keep your feet firmly planted on the ground.”
“I’ve had enough romance to last a lifetime,” he said, his tone tight.
She shook her head. “Your engagement wasn’t a romance. It was a circus complete with performing monkeys and paparazzi.”
He winced, thinking of the things he and Carly had endured before she called off what the media had dubbed “the match of the decade.” Carly was the daughter of a prominent Phoenix businessman and they had become social fodder for newspapers across the country. The pressure had been incredible and Carly simply hadn’t been up to the challenge. He wasn’t sure any woman would be.
“Circus or not, Aunt Nell, I learned a very valuable lesson. A career in politics and marriage don’t mix. At least, not my career.”
“Nonsense again, Chad. It’s a good thing you’re staying for a month. It’ll take me that long to knock some common sense back into that brain of yours. Besides, Sophie’s girl is in politics. She’ll know what to expect.”
Chad doubted it, but he wasn’t going to waste time arguing with Nell. He knew of only one way to put a stop to her efforts. “I need time to heal, Nell. A guy just doesn’t jump back into the playing field after getting his heart broken.”
“Broken?” she said and one eyebrow rose in a quirk.
“OK, maybe not broken. But definitely damaged. I really do need some time to recover. So,” he said, wrapping her long red scarf tighter around her neck. “You go over and visit with your friends and I’ll run back to the car for your gloves. I’ll meet you by the Christmas trees in Pioneer Square and we’ll watch the lighting together. Deal?”
“Deal,” she said with a heavy sigh.
Chad jogged down the blocked-off street, moving around folks crossing back and forth. He couldn’t help but smile as he heard friends calling to each other and joking. The comfortable, friendly attitude was just what he needed. He congratulated himself on his decision to spend the holidays with his aunt.
She called it hiding out, and she was probably right. He needed time to regroup. He couldn’t think of a better place to do that than right here where the pace was slower, and the important things like family and friends were everyone’s priority. He was even looking forward to the peaceful services in Nell’s little church. In spite of what she thought, he did need some healing after his very public, very painful break-up.
As he left the crowd behind and ran into the quieter, cooler part of the street, he shivered. He’d forgotten about the cold. During the summer months, the cooler temperatures of the White Mountains were a welcome break from the blistering heat of Phoenix. In the winter, however, those same higher elevations could lead to snow. As he thought about it, not such a bad image. White, Arizona covered in snow.
It felt good to stretch his legs out. He’d missed his daily run and the short trip back to the car actually helped work out some of the kinks. He found Nell’s red gloves on the front seat and jogged back in less than five minutes. Nell had not yet returned to Pioneer Square so he waited, watching the people gathered around the tree.
One young woman was surrounded by four or five children. Something about her struck Chad as familiar. She had long, strawberry blonde hair and it curled, uncontrolled beneath her purple knit cap.
Naturally curly. He smiled, seeing the way it tried to frizz around her face in the cold damp air. It gave her an uninhibited quality he liked. She turned at that moment and caught him staring. Though she was a red-head, he could only see a sprinkling of freckles across her heart-shaped face. Even from a distance of ten feet, a pair of the brightest blue eyes he’d ever seen sparkled back at him.
He returned the smile before lowering his gaze. Now that was exactly the kind of small-town girl Aunt Nell wanted him to meet. Glancing back at her laughing face and bright eyes, the idea didn’t seem half bad.
She chose that moment to glance his way again and they caught each other’s gaze. Another half-smile and Chad turned away, feeling his momentary pleasure slip away. The last thing he needed was to give this young woman any ideas. Besides, the two- or three-year-old standing next to her had the same curly, strawberry-blonde hair. Probably her daughter.
He looked around, hoping to see his aunt, but she was nowhere in sight. His gaze drifted back to the young woman and once again, she looked at him, this time with a slight frown between her eyebrows.
Great. She’d recognized him. Sooner or later, she’d work her way to his side and casually introduce herself. He looked around again. Where was Nell?
With his back to them, he heard the children around the woman say, “Santa.” One little girl squealed and clapped her hands.
Fortunately for Chad, he turned just at that moment, because the little girl spun and charged right into him. She bounced off his legs and landed flat on her bottom.
Sitting splayed out with her hands behind her, she stared up at him with blue eyes wide. Her hair curled rebelliously around her navy-blue knit cap. She looked so adorable, Chad bent to pick her up before he remembered her mother had recognized him.
“Emma!” The other children came running up. “Say you’re sorry,” said the oldest girl, who looked to be about ten.
“Sorry,” mumbled little Emma, who ducked her head and looked up at him through the longest, darkest eyelashes he’d ever seen on a blonde, let alone a red-head. Did her mother have the same eyelashes?
“It’s all right, Emma,” he said. “It was an accident.”
She nodded and strawberry curls bounced. “We’re going to see Santa,” she exclaimed and flashed a smile that captured Chad’s heart. “He’s going to be so glad to see me!”
Chad almost laughed out loud, but thought better of it. “Well, than I guess you need to get over there.”
He looked up in time to see the woman joining them.
“It looks like the Santa line is finally moving,” she said to the oldest girl. “Why don’t you take the kids back?”
“OK.” The girl started towards the road.
“And hold Emma’s hand while you cross the street. I don’t want any accidents on my watch.”
Chad couldn’t help noticing that her eyelashes were as long as Emma’s. Even with the dark mascara covering them, they looked luxurious. He was so amazed by them, he spoke without thinking. “Your watch?” he asked.
She smiled. “I love my oldest sister to death but she’s a safety Nazi. I always feel like I’m on duty when I’m watching her kids. Frankly though, I don’t blame her. Emma can be a handful.”
“She looks so much like you I thought she was yours.” Again he spoke without thinking, something he’d learned as a politician never to do.
“No, poor baby,” she replied. “She just inherited her aunt’s willful hair and pasty complexion.”
There was nothing pasty about the peaches and cream complexion he saw in front of him. In fact, it was so creamy that it tempted him to run his fingers along it just to see if it was real. But he didn’t and he didn’t say anything out loud. He was beginning to get his wayward thoughts under control and he certainly wasn’t going to give her anymore openings for conversation. He just nodded and looked up at the trees.
He groaned inwardly. Here it comes. The questions. The comments good and bad…usually bad…about the job he was or wasn’t doing as an assemblyman. Or the fawning attention, the one he found the most annoying, because his face had been in the gossip columns so much.
“But aren’t you Assemblyman Fletcher?”
He clenched his teeth and pulled the brim of the cap down lower. “Yes, I am, but promise me you won’t tell. I’m trying to escape notice.”
The sound of her soft laughter caught him off guard. He glanced up and she leaned forward.
“It’s not working,” she said in a near whisper. “Every single woman on the street has already noticed you. And frankly it wasn’t working in Phoenix, either.”
Now he was really surprised. “You saw me in Phoenix?”
“We’ve actually met, several times. I’m with CPR, Citizens for Political Reform. We worked with you on your farm bill. I did the research.”
He studied her face, wondering how he could have missed her even in a crowd. “I thought you looked familiar, but I don’t remember….” He faltered, realizing how unflattering he sounded.
“You weren’t supposed to remember me,” she interjected. “You were supposed to be concentrating on a very important bill and it passed, thanks to your hard work and diligence. If you’d been paying attention to anyone, or anything, besides that, I wouldn’t have half the respect I have for you.”
Chad took a deep breath and straightened. “Thanks…I think.”
She laughed again. “Yes, it was a compliment. I don’t do double-speak and I do have tremendous respect for you. I know from personal experience you’ve earned your reputation as the Assembly’s fair-haired boy.”
He shrugged one shoulder. “I wasn’t so fair-haired with my last bill. It failed miserably.”
“Yes, but you got it to the floor,” she said. “Do you know how many assemblymen tried and failed to get it that far? You crossed party lines and got support from the most unlikely people. You really get the job done.”
“That’s pretty decent praise from one of Watchinski’s Watchdogs.”
She winced, wrinkling her pert little nose.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to offend you. I think CPR is a great organization.”
“Gene Watchinski is a fearless leader and he loves the nickname for our group. So does everyone else. I just have a little personal thing about it.”
She turned back to the Christmas tree as if the subject was closed. Chad leaned forward, studying her face until she turned back to him.
“Oh, all right,” she said. “I’ll tell you. I’m not very good at keeping secrets.”
He grinned. “That’s a good thing. Watchinski’s Watchdogs are supposed to be open and straight-forward.”
She turned and frowned, the same thoughtful frown he’d seen a few moments ago. It wrinkled her forehead and made her seem very serious.
“We’re watchdogs, right? So we’ve assigned each other dog personalities.” She tilted her head one way and the other and shrugged. “So I’m Tessa the Terrier.”
Tessa. It suited her. Sort of exotic and simple at the same time. Totally irrepressible. He frowned. “A Terrier because Tessa starts with a ‘T’?”
“No, a Terrier because once I get an idea it’s like a bone, I won’t give it up.” She sighed. “I talk to the Lord about changing that little problem all the time. But he seems determined to give me reminders of how stubborn I can be.”
He started to chuckle and she looked away, catching her lower lip with her teeth.
Now he remembered her. She always wore her hair tied back in a bun and secured with combs. She’d been so business-like, so informed and capable. Her curls and her embarrassment over the nickname made her human and real.
“Your secret is safe with me,” he said, laughter still in his tone. “I won’t remind you or rub it in. Especially after all the nice things you said about my work. I want to keep you on my side. In fact, I’m thinking of asking you to be my campaign manager.”
Suddenly, the laughter left her eyes and she gazed up in all seriousness. “Will there be a campaign? Is that why you refused another term in the assembly so you can run for Senator Rizzi’s seat when he retires next year?”
Chad caught his breath, wondering how he’d let that happen. He never spoke out of turn or let information slip. But they’d been talking like old friends and it just happened. What was it about this young woman that made him so comfortable? Before he could gather his thoughts and come up with a reason, she held up her hand.
“Don’t answer that,” she said, closing her eyes. “I’m sorry I even asked it. That’s none of my business and I don’t know why I said it. I−I just feel like I know you.”