Hope for the Holidays by Kelsey Browning cover

Chapter 1

Tessa turned the lock on the front door of her tidy little Victorian and held her face up to the last of the December sunshine. This time of year, it wouldn’t be long until full darkness fell and that would be magical. But for now, she took a few seconds to just absorb the beautiful adventure of her life.

A man she loved, a small town she adored, and work that filled her soul.

She and Jonah had established several at-risk women’s shelters in Western North Carolina. In addition, Tessa had her own small counseling practice here in Steele Ridge. She’d purchased this little house to create a headquarters for the Sarah’s Smile Foundation and her office. Jonah had been slightly skeptical about the ramshackle appearance, saying they might be better off to ’doze it and start from the ground up.

Tessa had other ideas, ones Jonah’s brother Britt had helped her bring to life. He’d taken a dilapidated wooden structure and created a house filled with hope. He’d shored up the foundation and refinished the heart pine floors. Together, they’d found replacement gingerbread trim, installed stained glass, and painted it a gorgeous lilac with green trim. Everything that made a Victorian a Victorian.

Tessa stroked a hand along the railing swagged with beautiful evergreen boughs as she descended the painted steps. At the bottom, she turned and gave her lovely sanctuary one last look. A bay window in her office, a creamy yellow door, and the holiday wreath, a gift from her mother. It was a twine of dried grapevine and magnolia leaves, decorated with frosted ornaments and a tapestry bow.

The Victorian couldn’t be more different from the modern home she shared with Jonah up on the ridge above the expanse of land he’d purchased for his family.

She loved them both equally.

Santa had already given her everything she wanted and more. Tonight’s annual holiday parade would just add a little tinsel.

Jonah was representing Santa on the big fire engine, and she’d be riding shotgun.

Even more wonderful, the families from Sarah’s Smile in Asheville would be attending. Some of those kids had never in their lives seen a true-life parade down Main Street. Never caught holiday treats being thrown from floats. Never told Santa what they most wanted because to hope was too painful.

Not tonight. Tonight would be perfect.

Tessa and Jonah had made sure of it.

The quickly darkening sky was clear, and stars were appearing one by one, popping onto the inky canvas like tiny silver champagne bubbles. Since the weather was more than cooperating and the main fire station wasn’t far, she decided to walk. No need to drive in the snarl of small-town traffic that was sure to accumulate on Main Street tonight. From what she’d been told, people came from all the surrounding counties to see the parade.

As she strolled, she pulled her sweater duster closed across her chest. She still remembered the day that Brynne Whitfield Steele had sent it to her. The piece of clothing—with an embroidered dragonfly on the back—had been far from Tessa’s buttoned-up style at the time. Today, she’d paired it with dark-wash skinny jeans, a clingy silk turtleneck, and bright red boots. Definitely less buttoned-up than she’d been BJ. Ahem… Before Jonah.

When she’d walked into the bedroom this morning, Jonah had tried to show her exactly how much he appreciated the sassy red boots and the rest of her outfit. She braced a hand on his chest to keep him back, but leaned in to give him a lingering kiss on the lips. “I’m already running late and have a million things to do today.”

His brown hair messy and his grin more than a little naughty, he said, “Let’s say a million and one, and I’ll make it worth your while.”

“I have no doubt,” she replied, rubbing her cheek against his. “But you’ll have to make it worth my while tonight. After the other million things are done.”

He grumbled good-naturedly and rose from the bed, naked and knowing. She watched his tight butt flex until he entered the bathroom and ruined her view by shutting the door. Damn the man.

She contemplated a different kind of BJ all day.

Smiling at the thought and what it meant for later, she now breathed in the cool evening air as she walked toward the fire station. Along the way, she waved at people who’d welcomed her into the Steele Ridge community.

Community service first.

Personal pleasure later. And there would be plenty of it.

Although she’d picked out what appeared, to the casual observer, to be a demure Mrs. Claus costume, Tessa had a few tricks up her sleeve. When Jonah got a look at her silky thigh-high stockings and sleek bustier, he would be soooo appreciative.

He was an excellent appreciator.

Tessa’s skin tingled at the thought.

When she approached the fire station, it was illuminated with multicolored lights, from the eaves to the roofline to a perimeter around the grassy yard area. Someone had rigged it so that a massive blowup sleigh appeared to be descending to the roof. Rudolph and two other reindeer were hoof-down on the building top, with the other sleigh-pullers and Santa still in the air. On the grass, they’d constructed a sort of Arctic scene with a snowman, a couple of polar bears, and a bevy of penguins.

The ladder truck sat waiting outside the bay doors. It was draped with tinsel and streamers of all colors. Front right in blue and silver. Front left in black, red, and green. Back fenders in red and green.

The firefighters had covered Hanukah, Kwanzaa, and Christmas. No holiday left behind.

In the back of the truck, they’d somehow arranged two chairs the size of thrones side by side.

“Wow,” Tessa said as a handsome blond man strolled up, a wide grin on his face. “I sure hope those chairs have seatbelts.”

Cash Kingston, a firefighter/paramedic and Jonah’s cousin, gave her a quick hug. “Don’t you worry. We’re all about safety here. Besides, if Santa Steele falls off his sleigh, medical assistance is close by.”

“Very reassuring.” Tessa laughed. “Is Santa Steele here yet?”

“Is he here? Jonah’s been at the station all damn afternoon, asking to go on calls with us. He finally settled down about an hour ago and started in on his transformation. Brynne and Evie have been in there with him, fussing over God only knows what. Probably braiding his beard.”

And wouldn’t that be strange, to see her man with a full beard, white hair, and a belly? She was accustomed to dark scruff, bedhead, and abs that would support an elephant. “I sure hope they aren’t expecting me to wear a wig or powder my hair,” Tessa said. “Because I’m going natural tonight.”

Cash smiled at Tessa’s dark ringlets. “You’re gonna give every man in town multicultural Mrs. Claus fantasies.”

“As long as Jonah’s one of them.” Tessa’s hand flew to her mouth when she realized she’d vocalized her thoughts. She’d become much more open around Jonah’s family, but this… this was open. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to say that aloud.”

“Pretty sure my cousin would put you number one on his fantasy list if you were wearing a muumuu.” He waved her toward the open bay doors. “C’mon. Let’s get you inside so you can get dressed.”

Jonah, Brynne, and Evie had set up shop in the smaller locker room, the one that had been added for female firefighters and paramedics. When Cash and Tessa strolled inside, Jonah was obscured by the two women, one a curvy bombshell and the other more slender but no less a knockout. Then Brynne and Evie stepped aside and revealed not a pot-bellied jolly old fellow, but a full-on-fan-yourself-girl GQ-version of Santa Claus.


Brynne, with her perfect makeup and hair, held her clasped hands to her chest and asked Tessa, “What do you think?”

What did she think? She wasn’t sure she could think. At least about anything but that she wanted to rush everyone else out of the room and hop a ride on Santa’s sleigh.

And from the grin on Santa’s face, he knew exactly what she was thinking.

“I think he looks so hip that the adults will complain, the little kids will think he’s Santa’s younger brother, and even the teenagers will think he’s cool.”

They had worked some silver into Jonah’s hair and the scruff he’d let grow a little longer over the past ten days. Instead of a red coat stretched over a big belly and knicker-length pants, Jonah was sporting a body-hugging red velvet suit with black trim and leather harness boots. He had conceded on the hat, however, and wore the traditional red-and-white topper at a jaunty angle.

He stood, held his arms away from his sides, and turned in a circle to give Tessa the full effect.

The result was something between a hawt red-suited Eric Dane and a panty-melting holiday Tom Ellis.

Oh, yeah. Tessa was absolutely going to rock Santa Steele’s sleigh later tonight.

Tessa was staring at him with more greed in her expression than an eight-year-old boy mooning over the latest video game console. But if Jonah made a crack about her grabbing hold of his joystick, she might tell him they wouldn’t be getting around to that million-and-one task later tonight, just to make him suffer.

Still, he swaggered over to his girlfriend, lover, and in all honesty, his world and leaned in to kiss the corner of her mouth. And if he touched his tongue to the spot he knew made her crazy for half a second, no one but he and Tessa were the wiser. In retaliation, she skimmed her palm over the silver buckle on his Santa belt.

“We will finish this later,” he whispered. “After Joss Wynter’s concert.”

Tessa grinned and whispered back, “The holidays make someone horny.”

“Holidays have nothing to do with it.” He eased back and smiled down at the woman who’d been through so much in her life yet come out stronger and more determined than ever. It still blew his fucking mind that she was with him. Him. Jonah Steele.

“Your face went serious,” she said. “What are you thinking?”

“That you are the gift of a lifetime.”

Even as her eyes softened at his words, they heated, too. “You’re a sweet-talker.”

“No, baby, I’m a truth talker.” To lighten the mood, he patted Tessa on the ass. “And the truth is if you don’t get your beautiful butt in gear, Santa and his consort are gonna be late to the party.”

“Consort?” Her mouth twisted, which meant he would definitely pay for that comment. Perfectly okay with him as he enjoyed an edge of pain with his pleasure. “We’ll see who’s consorting with whom later.”

“Okay, you two,” Brynne said as she shoved an arm between them. “Back away now or this parade will turn into the kind of show Steele Ridge has never seen before. We need to get Tessa in her costume.”

The costume she hadn’t let Jonah have a single glimpse of. He’d torn through every closet in the house looking, but she’d just laughed and told him he’d never find it. He’d even tried to bribe Badger, Tessa’s dachshund, with an extra handful of treats, but the dog had just gobbled them and looked at Jonah with a superior expression.

Damn, he loved that wily little piebald dachshund. And speaking of, he should be around here somewhere. Jonah would round him up while Brynne and Evie were working on Tessa. The firefighters had all enjoyed having Badger around, even letting him ride on the fire engine for a call to rescue a cat from a tree in Barron’s Park.

The three women shoved Jonah out of the locker room.

He found Badger sharing a recliner with Sully. Pointy nose and bowed chest forward, the dog was sitting in the big firefighter’s lap, both of them staring at the massive flatscreen on the wall. They were watching an old episode of Meerkat Manor.

Jonah just shook his head. “Sully, did Badger get ahold of the remote again?”

“Shut up, man, it’s a good show.”

“Sorry, but it’s time for him to get into his costume.”

“Maybe he could just stay here while you and Tessa do the parade.” His tone hopeful, Sully glanced up at Jonah.

“Dude, you need a dog. Or a woman.”

“Maybe you could let me sit on your lap and put in a request for both.” Sully’s face lit up with a smartass grin. “Seriously, Steele, that getup is dope.”

It damn well should be for what he’d paid the tailor in Charlotte to custom make it. He’d tried to have something designed for Tessa at the same time, but that had been a no-go. She’d informed him that she was in charge of her own holiday wardrobe.

Jonah clapped his hands to get Badger’s attention away from the meerkat family on screen. The dog, ears slapping around his head, looked Jonah’s way and leaped from Sully’s lap. Mid-air, his velociraptor ears went full Dumbo and his mouth pulled back in a doggie grin. Jonah caught the daredevil just as he crashed into his chest.

He might not be so happy in a few minutes when he discovered he was going to the parade as Max from The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. Head tilted at a regal angle, Badger stoically allowed Jonah to wrangle him into his costume, but the doggie grin was gone.

“It’s not like the antlers are real,” Jonah told him. “They’re stuffed and lightweight.”

But Badger still wouldn’t look at Jonah. Well, they’d have to make up later. Jonah had some organic banana and peanut butter treats hidden in a kitchen drawer that would likely do the trick. Still crouched near the floor, Jonah glanced away from Badger to find Tessa walking into the TV room and forgot all about the disgruntled dog.

She’d gone traditional. Sort of. She wore a full red skirt trimmed in white faux fur that ended just above her knees. The matching jacket showed off the curves of her breasts, her very hand-filling curves. Instead of a Santa hat, she wore a little white beret that set off her jet hair and beautiful brown skin.

He let his gaze trail back down, and his heart arrested. Above the knee, Tessa was family-friendly, but the boots…

The boots were full-on fuck-me.

Knee-high, soft black leather with toes so pointed they could draw and quarter a man. And heels that were at least five inches. Even better than the ones she’d been wearing this morning.

He tried to say something complimentary, but it came out like a garbled mess.

“You dressed Badger as Max!” She laughed and held her arms out for her dog. Jonah picked him up and passed him to her, but he wasn’t yet able to stand. And that was a lucky fucking break.

Because from his vantage point near the floor, he had an excellent view up Tessa’s skirt. She was wearing stockings and garters, which left her upper thighs bare, and red panties edged in black. Mrs. Claus was very naughty.

“Fuck me,” he finally breathed.

Tessa jabbed him with the toe of one boot. “Santa,” she scolded. “Get control of your mouth, especially before the kids from Asheville arrive. They have enough bad influences in their lives. You’re supposed to be a good one.”

“Come back to the locker room with me.” He surged to his feet and grabbed her arm. “Leave Badger with Sully.”

Tessa’s wide smile was pure wickedness. “Not on your life. We have five minutes to get on that fire engine.”

As fired up as he was, he could do her against the turnout suits in about two. Which might be great for him, but it would suck for her. And one thing Jonah never, ever did was leave Tessa behind when it came to sex.

He wasn’t always gentle. He’d learned early on that she neither wanted nor needed that. But she always came first.


“Don’t count on getting any sleep tonight,” he told her. “Because I have other plans.”

She sashayed toward the door to the engine bay and said, “You know how I love a man with a plan.”

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