The Christmas Baby Bargain

The Christmas Baby Bargain

Pam Mantovani

November 2019 $14.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-980-3

Christmas in Big Sky country…

 
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Christmas in Big Sky country…

Christmas has never been a big deal to event planner Emily Henderson. Holidays were for kids with families, not a girl whose big brother was the only thing keeping her out of a foster home. But now, her brother and his wife are gone—and the only family she has left is their little girl, Natalie. And Emily’s determined to give the child everything she never had. There’s only one problem…Natalie’s sexy maternal uncle.Stockbroker turned lodge owner Carson McBride isn’t letting Emily take his niece anywhere. But it’s Christmas, so he offers a truce—Emily can spend the holidays at the lodge with him, his father, and Natalie, and they’ll figure out custody in the New Year. He’s sure Emily will realize that Montana is the best place for their niece to grow up. Only, during the next week, the one thing Emily and Carson realize is that they can’t keep their hands off each other! But even as they grow closer—much, much closer—they’re still at an impasse. Will Emily leave with Natalie or will she give her niece up to Carson? Or will this unconventional family get a true Christmas miracle?

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: As an Army Brat, award winning author Pam Mantovani frequently had to leave friends behind. But no matter where she lived, romance novels were her constant companions. Then she met the man of her dreams on a blind date, and after she married her hero, Pam started writing her own love stories. Now she has more friends, imaginary and real-life, than she can count. She's still happily married to the man who swept her off her feet and gave her the romance of a lifetime. She loves writing about strong women and men who find each other and quilt the fabric of their lives together.








"Big city meets small town in this perfectly sweet and heartwarming tale of family, loss and the healing magic of love and Christmas. Beautifully written, The Christmas Baby Bargain is one of those books that will remain on any romance lover's keeper shelf. Including mine!"—Naima Simone, USA Today bestselling author

"A winning combination of emotion, strong writing and wonderful characters.”—Joan Johnston, NYT and USA Today bestselling author



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Chapter One


WEAK WINTER moonlight illuminated the room where Emily Henderson rocked her three-month-old niece to sleep. A quick glance at the neon numbers on the alarm clock confirmed it was almost two in the morning. Though she should put Natalie in the crib and try to get some rest herself, she continued to rock. She couldn’t find the will to let the baby go.

This warm bundle of sleeping innocence was all the family she had left.

"I’ll never leave you,” she whispered even as she sadly acknowledged it wasn’t a promise she could guarantee.

Swallowing down the threat of tears, Emily leaned against the back of the rocker and closed her eyes. Five days ago, she’d been in sunny Los Angeles weighing the next potential phase of her career, debating the merits of looking for an event planner position with another company versus taking a leap and buying the business from her current employer. Now, she battled grief in unfamiliar surroundings, where thigh-high snow and frigid temperatures were considered normal.

"You’re going to spoil her,” Carson McBride said as he squat­ted down beside the rocker.

Emily felt a shiver that had everything to do with the source of the interruption and nothing to do with the freezing Montana temperature.

This wasn’t the first time she’d been surprised by her basic female appreciation for the man. He had all the qualities any woman would notice—long legs, broad shoulders, luxurious golden-brown hair that went so well with ice-blue eyes. And a confidence that bordered on cockiness. Tonight, barefoot, in fleece pajama bottoms and a plain T-shirt, he looked more ex­posed than when he wore his everyday flannel shirts, jeans, and hiking boots.

His features also showed signs of sleepless grief.

It was hardly surprising, since they’d buried his sister and her brother two days ago.

Eight weeks earlier, they’d stood side by side as godparents at Natalie’s christening. Now, three weeks before Christmas, they shared the terrible bond of each having lost a sibling in a plane crash. Her brother and sister-in-law had left the baby in Carson’s care while they took a few days for themselves, a short vacation to simply be a couple rather than parents. Instead, their small plane crashed, killing them both instantly and leaving their daughter an orphan.

"Natalie deserves to be held as much as possible right now,” Emily said, her hands instinctively closing tighter around her niece.

"Don’t we all,” Carson said as he sat and leaned back on his arms while he extended his long legs before him.

It tugged at her heart to hear his exposed feelings. Few men she’d known would ever allow such a personal glimpse into what some would consider a weakness.

From what Emily knew about Carson’s past, he’d been focused and intense when he’d been a successful stockbroker in New York. Although he now owned and managed a hunting and fishing lodge, he’d been every bit as driven as he handled all the arrangements and details since the plane crash. Event planning might be her profession, but this was one time she’d willingly al­lowed someone else to take control—to handle the details while she’d stayed here at his lodge with her niece and his father.

"Thank you for taking care of everything,” she whispered.

"It helps to have something to do.”

"So, what now?”

"I’d like to sleep for a week.”

Emily glanced over as Carson stretched out on the floor, pillowed his head on his hands, and closed his eyes. As her gaze tracked the length of him, the numbness she’d lived with for the last five days faded a little.

"You’d be more comfortable in your bed.”

His slow-curving grin formed a shallow dimple on the right side of his mouth. "Trying to get rid of me, Sunshine?”

A small quiver fluttered in her belly. She hated the way her body responded every time he used the endearment he’d tagged her with upon their first meeting more than two years earlier. It made her feel vulnerable, something she didn’t like as a general rule and definitely not something she wanted to feel around this man. And she certainly wasn’t ready to think about anything more complicated than leaving this remote area of western Montana and taking Natalie back to Los Angeles with her.

"Just trying to make sure you don’t wake Natalie with your snoring.”

"I don’t snore.”

"That’s what every man says.”

One eye opened so he could stare at her. "I’ll have to take your word on that.”

If things had happened differently, if she hadn’t put a halt to one memorable kiss, initiated by her own curiosity, she’d have first-hand knowledge of whether or not he snored. She’d felt a tingle at their first introduction. Thereafter, whenever their paths crossed, she’d been supremely aware of him, especially when she’d turn to discover him staring at her. Then, the weekend of Natalie’s christening, Carson had been the one to drive Emily to the airport for her flight home. During the trip, they’d exchanged little conversation. That’s why she’d been so surprised when, after he’d removed her luggage from back of his SUV, he’d pulled her close and covered her mouth with his.

To this day, she could recall how his kiss had somehow managed to stir an outrageous desire balanced by a tenderness that had tempted her to change her travel plans. In the end, her sanity had prevailed and they’d parted. Thank God he hadn’t apologized. Nor had she. Instead, they’d stared at one another until a baggage handler had approached and assisted her in checking in for her flight. All the while Carson had stood silent, watching.

And she’d never forgotten the taste of him.

She often wondered what she would have done had he asked her to stay a little longer.

Uncomfortable with the direction of the conversation, blaming it on fatigue and uncertainty, Emily rose from the rocker. In a swift but smooth move, Carson was in front of her, holding out his arms.

"I’ll take her.”

She wanted to say no, but he had just as much right to hold the baby as she did. She might not believe it was in her niece’s best interests to grow up in such a remote setting, but she accepted that Carson was also Natalie’s family.

She could find no fault with the way he cradled the little girl. Apparently neither did the baby as she only sighed softly and snuggled closer to his warmth. Carson leaned down to tenderly kiss Natalie’s forehead.

"She’ll never remember them,” he said, his voice vibrating with suppressed emotion. "She’ll never know her mother was a terrific doctor, or that her dad yelled at the television while watch­ingfootball.”

"What are we going to do?” Emily felt her throat constrict when Carson looked at her. "How do we share her?”

"You’ll always be welcome here.”

"Here?”

"You’ll be welcome whenever you want to visit Natalie.”

"I’m not visiting her. I’m taking her back to Los Angeles with me.”

"No.”

Shocked by the single denial, not to mention the uncom­pro­mising tone of Carson’s voice, Emily closed her hands into tight fists while he settled the baby in the crib and then turned back to look at her.

"Natalie will live here with me and Pop,” he said, naming his father. "It’s what Suzanne would have wanted.”

"And Daniel would have wanted her to be with me.” Her chest burned with the struggle to keep her breathing level and her voice from rising. She was afraid if she let go of what little control she clung to, she’d scream until her throat was raw. "You can’t raise her. You’re a single man. What do you know about raising a little girl?”

"Probably as much as a single woman living and working in Los Angeles.”

EMILY’S BLUE EYES filled with tears, making Carson instantlyregret his harsh tone of voice and declaration. He wanted to blame fatigue, grief, or even fear at the thought of his niece being so far away. He considered reaching out, taking her hand in apology, but knew it wasn’t smart. Once he touched her, he’d have a harder time denying this insane attraction he felt for the woman standing before him. Just as it had been impossible for him to deny, or forget, the taste of her ever since the kiss they’d shared at the airport months ago. In his deep solitude later that night, he’d even considered going to L.A. on the pretense of meeting up with a business associate, just to see her again. Thankfully, his better sense had arisen with the dawn.

He didn’t understand why she appealed to him.

At another phase of his life, yes, she would have. Living and working in New York, he’d been around plenty of beautiful, career-driven women striving for success. Hell, he’d been the masculine counterpoint to all that slick sophistication. Until the night he realized that no matter how far or high you climbed, you were one slippery step away from losing everything that truly mattered.

If he’d stayed in New York, working like a dog scrambling for every promotion, every sale, every damn dollar, he might well have ended up lost and alone. It had taken the near death of his boss’s son from an overdose to show him that he’d lost control of his life. So, he’d left behind a lucrative career and a lifestyle many would envy—along with an ex-wife—to come home to Montana. It had taken time and back-breaking days of hard labor to get the run-down lodge into shape and build the business. But he had absolutely no regrets for the choice he’d made.

"It makes sense for Natalie to stay here,” he said, gentling his voice. "You’ve got a busy career. When would you have the time to spend with her?”

"Plenty of single mothers find a way to balance work with raising children.”

"I’m not talking about other mothers. I’m talking about you. When would you have the time?”

"When would you?” she countered. "You run a busy hunt­ing and fishing lodge. How are the demands of my career any different than what you’d have to juggle if you keep Natalie?”

It didn’t surprise him that she used a counter argument about his business. If anything, it supported his belief that she was a workaholic. Until he recalled the image of her sitting in the near dark, her exhausted face paler than the moonlight, holding their niece with patience and care.

As if sensing the distress, Natalie whimpered in her crib.

"Why don’t we discuss this somewhere else,” Carson said. He extended a hand, gesturing for Emily to leave the room before him. She hesitated, but eventually her concern for their niece won out.

"Fine,” she said and walked out of the room, stopping just outside the door to wait for him.

He softly pulled the door closed behind him. Once in the large living space, he scooped up the baby monitor, changed directions, and headed for the kitchen. "We’re going to need some help to get through this conversation.”

"What do you mean?”

He’d been avoiding this talk. In his defense, part of the reason was simple timing. The other reason had more to do with indecision and uncertainty. Carson scowled as he opened the freezer door. He preferred having a better handle on the end result before he started any negotiations.

"We’re going to have to hash this out ourselves.” He set a pint of Double Fudge Brownie ice cream on the kitchen island. He flipped off the lid and ate a spoonful of the dessert right out of the carton. After he swallowed, he pinned his gaze on Emily.

"There wasn’t a will.”

On top of the island, her hands closed into tight fists. "Of course there was a will,” Emily said. "Daniel had experience with commercial real estate contracts. There’s no way he wouldn’t have a will.” Her lips trembled. "He would have made sure Suzanne and Natalie were taken care of. I know it.”

"No,” Carson insisted. "I spoke with his attorney in Los Angeles.”

He spooned up another cold mouthful. He pushed the other spoon in Emily’s direction, watching as she bit down on her bottom lip rather than give in to temptation. It wasn’t the first time he’d seen this particular woman deny herself an indulgence. But, if he’d learned little else in the past few years, it was that life was too short and unpredictable to go without something you wanted.

If the circumstances had been different, he’d be having a very different late-night conversation with this woman.

"Sunshine, you’ve lived on little more than coffee for the past five days.” He nudged the spoon closer. "I realize it’s a store brand and not the organic stuff you’re no doubt used to,” he said, hoping to goad her into eating a little. "Still, it’s not bad.” He took another mouthful, as if to prove his point.

Slowly, almost as if she were reaching out to a coiled snake, Emily gripped the spoon. Using just the tip, she scraped a tiny bit of ice cream onto the spoon. Carson clamped his jaw tight when she slipped the spoon between her lips and closed her eyes. She said nothing. In fact, she made no sound whatsoever.

She looked like a woman tasting heaven.

His gaze skimmed down her, over the handful of breasts, to the narrow waist and hips, down the thinly elegant legs. In his previous career, he’d known far too many women obsessed with their weight and appearance, to the point where they’d done physical damage to their body.

To his eye, Emily Henderson’s body was perfect.

It had been easier to ignore her and this low-level hum of attraction whenever she’d come for visits in the past. Not only had the visits been short, but she’d spent the bulk of her time with Daniel and Suzanne. Even when Emily first arrived after learning of the tragedy, it had been easy to peg her as a stiff, beautiful woman more focused on her career than her rela­tion­ships. After all, he’d seen her on her cell phone and had over­heard enough conversations to learn she was working on a deal to buy out her current employer’s event planning business.

Except, the last two days, she’d been different. She wore jeans and casual, though good quality, sweaters rather than her usual professional uniform of skirts and blouses. Her hair was loose, and she laughed easily with baby Natalie.

"You’re absolutely certain there’s no will?” she asked, while licking another small taste of the ice cream.

Carson followed the delectable dart of her tongue, and his body responded as if she’d traced her tongue over him. He had a vivid, and erotic, memory of her doing just that during their one explosive kiss.

"I’m sure,” he said. He gulped down another spoonful of ice cream, hoping the cold would freeze his thoughts. And a very heated part of his anatomy. "I checked with the local attorney, and I searched through their cabin when I boxed everything up.”

"What about your business partnership? Daniel told me he’d invested in your lodge. No way would he have overlooked a provision for the business.”

She stared at him, waiting.

"There’s a clause in the partnership agreement,” he said. "If something happens to either partner, the remaining partner becomes the sole owner.”

"I don’t get it,” she said. "How could they have overlooked something so important?”

"Do you have a will?” He shook his head when she just look­edat him, her silence giving him the answer. "I sure as hell don’t. Who thinks about doing something like that at our age?”

"Parents.”

"Of a three-month-old baby girl? I don’t think during any of those late-night sleep-deprived marathons of Natalie’s first month they considered not being here for her.”

"And now we’re the only ones here for her,” Emily said in a hushed tone.

"And Pop,” he said, using the name he called his father. He shrugged when she stared at him. "You have no intention of staying here. And you’re about to take a financial and profess­sional risk.” Putting away the ice cream, he filled two glasses with water.

"Wait a minute.” She stiffened and narrowed her eyes. "You listened to my telephone conversations?”

"I caught snatches, not intentionally. But I heard enough to figure out what’s going on. Besides, Daniel told me about it.” He kept his eyes on her as he drained his water glass. "If you buy the company, you’ll have even less time to spend with Natalie. It’s one more reason why she should stay here with me.”

"I haven’t made a decision.”

"Sunshine, it’s just a matter of time. You and I both know you’ll buy out your boss.”

She made a show of studying her surroundings. "And as a boss yourself, you of course have all the time in the world.”

"The difference is I’ve established a good reputation here, while you’ll be trying to re-build a failing one.” And he held an ace card that he had yet to reveal.

"Apparently you’ve done more than eavesdrop on my tele­phone conversations.”

"I told you. Daniel talked to me about the possibility of you buying the business right after you called him about the offer. He worried about whether or not it was a good decision for you, so he asked my opinion.”

Emily closed her eyes a minute as she considered this bit of information. "And?” she finally asked, her eyes opening to look at him.

"From what Daniel told me, you’ve pretty much run the busi­ness the last year as it is, so I imagine you’ll bring it around. I’m more worried about how that kind of time investment will impact Natalie.”

"I’ll be working for her future as much as mine.”

Carson braced his hands on the island and leaned toward her... then wished he’d kept his distance.

"Will Natalie live surrounded by people she knows, people who will look out for her? Or will she be locked in a daycare or your apartment with a nanny until you get home at night?”

Her cheeks flushed pale rose even as she kept her gaze firmly on his. "I can hardly be blamed for where I lived before all of this happened.”

"You’re right. But my questions stand.” He pushed away to refill his glass. "Here in Montana, Natalie will be able to run and play. Me, or Pop, will be available for her throughout the day.”

"So I’m to be penalized because I have no family other than Natalie left.”

Her words, not to mention the restrained tears he glimpsed in her eyes, made him feel like a heel. He considered, and rejectedfor personal and self-protective reasons, the idea of settling his hand over hers.

"No,” he said as gently as he could. "I’m just trying to look out for Natalie’s best interests. I’m not saying,” he added before she could argue, "that you’re not doing the same.”

"Think of all that life in a city like Los Angeles could give her.”

"Smog?” he asked, hoping to lighten the mood.

"How do you do that?” She blew out a frustrated breath. "Swing back and forth between being serious or silly?”

"Smog is very serious.” His lips twitched. "You haven’t had enough silly in your life, Sunshine.”

"You know nothing about my life.”

"I know you work hard, spending long hours at the office, most of them in the evening. I know you eat barely enough to keep you going throughout the day. I know you loved your brother. And I know you want what’s best for Natalie.”

Carson gave in, covered Emily’s hand with his. He felt her flinch, then tremble. Still, she held steady, and a part of him wished she’d let go and let him see—and comfort—her sadness.

"We’ll figure out a way to do this,” he softly said.

When she slipped her hand free of his, she gestured at the kitchen. "How are we going to do that when everything—how we live, our viewpoints and the distance between our homes—separates us?”

"We’ll find a way because Natalie needs us.”





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