Christmas Kisses is a collection from five bestselling and award-winning authors. Set in the snowy town of Echo Ridge in upstate New York, these inspirational romances are sure to delight while you sip cocoa by the fire and listen to Christmas carols.

 

One Winter Night

Jonah Owens thought moving to Echo Ridge to open his art gallery would solve all of his problems. The need to sell his grandma’s house adds an unexpected complication. It would be easier if his neighbor didn’t have all those farm animals.

Kaya Feidler’s family has owned their land for nearly a hundred years–long before the neighbors were there. There’s no way she’s giving up the animal therapy business she’s been struggling to make profitable. She gets a temp job helping Jonah in the gallery. Spending time together is a recipe for romance, but can they overcome their own hangups to be more than friends?

 

 

Chapter One

JONAH OWEN SMILED AT MRS. CHESTER, the prospective buyer for his grandmother’s house. He saw the dispassionate way she studied the layout, the slight disdain in the lines of her mouth when she looked at the wheelchair lift in the bedroom, and the sneer that overcame her features when she gazed out the back window and focused on the next-door neighbor’s house. “How many horses do they have?”

“Three or four I think. I’m not sure. She’s very conscientious about cleaning up after them and the other animals.” His grandmother had talked incessantly about her neighbor, Kaya’s, animal therapy business, but he’d only met her briefly once or twice over the years. When the prospective buyer turned and looked at him with disbelief, he realized he’d said the wrong thing.

Mrs. Chester—the only name she’d offered him—narrowed her dark eyes at him. “What other animals? All I see are horses. How did she get zoned for farm animals anyway? I thought this was a residential zone.”

“I believe she has a couple of goats, some chickens and maybe some rabbits. I’m not sure exactly. She does animal therapy with children, so she rarely has more than one other car over there at a time.” He didn’t really know as he hadn’t spent much time at the house since he’d moved back to town. “Her family used to own all of this land once, for the entire subdivision, plus the Fieldstone Manor subdivision. Since they’ve had horses and other animals for over one-hundred years, her property was grandfathered in under the old rules.” That had been a burr in his side since he’d started trying to sell his grandmother’s home.

Mrs. Chester wasn’t the first potential buyer to object to living next to The Red Star Ranch. He had the feeling she wouldn’t be the last, either. She didn’t seem all that thrilled with his Gram’s house in general, but he tried to salvage things anyway. “She’s very respectful of the neighbors, keeps the noise and smell down, and isn’t the type to have crazy parties or anything.” He needed to get the woman’s focus off the ranch and onto the house itself. “What do you think of the sun room? It’s my grandmother’s favorite room in the house. Warm and toasty in the winter, not too hot in the summer thanks to the tree that shades that part of the house.”

“Yes, very nice.” She barely glanced at the room as she headed for the front of the house. “The house layout is nice enough. I could deal with removing the wheelchair lifts, but I don’t like animals. I’m afraid this won’t work for us. Thank you for taking the time to show me around.” She was on the porch in seconds, not pausing to say goodbye on the way to her car.

Jonah wanted to growl. This was the fourth buyer who had objected to the ranch next door. When he pointed out the lack of smell, two of them had reminded him that it was December in ski country, not July, and the smell would be far worse when it was hot outside. He couldn’t dispute that, though he’d rarely noticed a hint of smell during his visits. Kaya Fiedler may have inherited the place rather than earning it, and she might have her quirks, but she took good care of the animals. He supposed she would have to if she wanted to keep her animal therapy license.

He’d seen up to six horses over there at a time before, but not recently. He wasn’t sure if she had sold one, or if some were just inside when he looked over. He didn’t spend that much time checking out the ranch.

Between his grandmother’s health and all of the time he spent working to get his business off the ground, he had enough on his mind. If he didn’t sell the house soon, he might have to rent the space over the gallery where he was living now, so he could pay the mortgage here. His grandmother couldn’t afford both the mortgage and the assisted living center where he was trying to move her.

He watered the ficus before he double-checked the locks on the doors and windows and headed out. It was breaking his grandmother’s heart to sell her home, but she couldn’t live here alone anymore and he worked too many hours to be here as much as she would need. Ora Owen was a proud woman, and determined to be independent—which is why she broke her hip and was currently in a rehab center. If only she had moved to assisted living two years ago when he first urged her to do so.

He checked his watch—Mrs. Chester had been thirty minutes late. That was thirty minutes he couldn’t afford to have missed from the gallery today. He’d have to put off that trip to fill his grandmother’s Christmas list until later in the week instead.

“I can’t believe you call this organized. Start over.” Cecilia’s strident voice rose loud enough for Kaya to hear her from the next department. Kaya felt a pang of empathy for Anika, who was a hard worker. If the place was a mess, chances were it was because of a customer, not because Anika had done anything wrong. Then again, Cecilia sometimes freaked out over the smallest disarray, even if the rest of the department was flawless. She was one miserable woman.

Kaya thought Cecilia could really use a cat to snuggle up with and take the edge off.

“Isn’t that display finished yet?” Cecilia snapped, now standing behind Kaya.

Kaya turned to look over her shoulder at the older woman, her dark gray hair seemed to crackle with her bad temper. “I had to stop to assist a few customers.” She kept her tone apologetic, though she wanted to growl and snap back. She had worked holidays at Kenworth a few times over the years, but never under Cecilia Grange. The woman was impossible. If Kaya didn’t need the paycheck so badly, she would kick the woman in the shins and walk out. And to think she had once considered herself lucky to get the job.

Then again, a temporary, part-time position had been pretty lucky. The horses would run out of feed if she didn’t get more holiday hours in. She had always liked this job in the past. It was a change of pace from her struggling equine therapy business, and since she had lost a few clients thanks to the rising prices of gasoline and the winter weather, she had to work on the side so the horses would have food. Otherwise she would have to sell one of them. Or both goats. And she desperately didn’t want to do that. She had thought that nearly three years into her animal therapy business she would be making enough money to get her through the year, but it had been a tough fall.

Cecilia’s beady eyes glared over the tops of her glasses. “You’re all just full of excuses. Get back to work, and don’t get so distracted. If you’re going to take breaks while you’re on duty, I’m going to start counting them as your scheduled ones.” She turned and marched off.

Kaya bit her tongue and turned back to the display. She didn’t know why the board of directors didn’t kick the woman to the curb; she was so unprofessional. Not only could the neighboring employees hear, but several customers as well. And Kaya hadn’t been taking breaks on the job, she’d been working hard. Which is more than Kaya could say for Cecilia, who seemed to do nothing but walk around, take two-hour lunches, and complain.

Biting back her anger, Kaya acknowledged that the woman must do something worthwhile or why would they keep her on staff? It was just not clear what she actually accomplished besides making all of the employees miserable.

This job only ran through New Year’s Day, Kaya reminded herself. She could put up with anyone for another month. Especially since the alternative was losing one of her horses.

It was only a few weeks and then the holidays would be over and the job would be gone, so she would suck it up and deal with it, for now. But she was going to tell Keira what she thought of the old bat before she left. Keira may not be over Cecilia, technically, but it was her family’s store, so she had to have some kind of pull with the board.

Someone needed to get rid of Cecilia before she chased off all of the good employees.

Chapter Two

KAYA SMILED AS THREE OF HER favorite people walked up to the barn in her backyard late that afternoon. Her life may not have been ideal, but the Shoemakers came to her place, rain or shine, through all but the worst blizzards. “Hello, how are you all doing today?”

“Great, I can’t wait to see how my girls are doing.” Shyanne said from her wheelchair. She was nearly fourteen now and had fallen in love with Kaya’s dairy goats—Jet Star and Morning Star. Their mother was the show-winning Yellow Star, and she hadn’t been able to keep from buying goats whose names worked with her ranch. Kaya had been teaching Shyanne to milk the goats, since milking time was during their session, and she’d shown an interest.

Sasha, Kaya’s Great Pyrenees, a livestock-guardian dog, gamboled over, greeting the three visitors happily.

Shyanne’s younger brother, Chad had physical and social disabilities, though he wasn’t wheelchair bound. He had fallen hook, line, and sinker for the horses the very first time their mother had brought them to check the place out.

Their monthly fee didn’t hurt either. Their mom, Evelyn, had even recommended Kaya’s services to several of the other clients who now came regularly to the ranch, which had been a huge blessing in the beginning when Kaya had been living on credit cards and income from her graveyard shift stocking shelves at the local Target.

Even without that, they would have been some of her favorite people—they were each a ray of sunshine in their own way. She ushered them into the barn.

Shyanne didn’t even have to call to the goats. When they heard her voice, they came running through the door into the protected area in the barn, bleating a welcome. She rolled her wheelchair over and rubbed their heads through the fencing. “Hey, there, girls. How are you today? I brought you treats.” Her hands went into her pockets and came out with a few twisty pretzels—one of their favorite snacks.

“I’ll get her settled,” Evelyn said.

“Thanks.” Kaya walked over to Chad, who was looking down and brushing the toe of his shoe over the cement floor. “Are you ready to see the horses? Pepper is anxious to see you.”

He nodded, stammering. “I saw her when we were outside. She was running around the paddock. She likes to run.”

“Yes, she does. Someday maybe you’ll be ready to run with her. Today, though, let’s just get you on her back and riding. Can you help me saddle her up?” When he first started coming, she had Pepper, a sweet, gentle, red chestnut, all decked out with saddle and blanket. After a few weeks, she had him help take the saddle off of Pepper and brush her down at the end. The previous month they had graduated to him helping saddle her and remove the saddle afterward. He was nearly twelve and taking the responsibility of caring for the horse was part of Chad’s treatment. Kaya sent monthly reports to his therapist so he would know how things were going on her end.

Chad walked over to the wall, collecting the heavy saddle with his wiry arms. She watched as he took it over to the gate into the paddock and laid it across the top, then returned for the bridle, blanket and other items.

Pepper met them at the fence and Chad climbed over, petting the horse, checking her for any injuries before he started to saddle her up. Kaya watched him go through the process making sure that he did it right, and then checked all of the buckles and connections herself when he finished.

She gave him a high five. “That was terrific. You did a great job. I didn’t have to tighten anything. You’re set. Mount up.”

Chad grinned. It was the first time he had done it all correctly by himself and she could see the joy the accomplishment gave him. He led Pepper closer to the fence and used it to mount her, then rode off around the paddock.

“He’s showing so much progress,” Evelyn said as she joined Kaya at the fence.

Kaya had to agree; it gave her so much satisfaction. “Are you seeing an improvement in other areas as well?”

“We are. His teacher commented on it recently. It’s helping him to deal with a lot of other areas in his life. He just needed the confidence.”

Confidence wasn’t the only area where he needed help. “How are things with the other kids at school? Is it getting any better?”

Evelyn let out a low breath of frustration. “No. I think we need to move so he can have a fresh start. I just don’t think we can get the help we need in that district. They’re doing fine with Shyanne—her disabilities are all physical and she copes well, plus she’s so social and friendly with everyone. But the teachers and programs just aren’t working for Chad. My parents keep trying to convince us to move out near them. Their schools are a little better, but it just feels wrong. I can’t imagine tearing them away from here.”

“Arizona is so far away.” Kaya’s heart sank at the suggestion. She would miss getting to see them so often.

“I know. But we can’t keep living at the apartment where we’re at now. Shyanne is getting so big. I’m afraid I’m going to hurt my back lifting her in and out of the wheelchair. She’s working out so she will be able to do most of it herself, but she’s not there yet, and may not be for quite a while. I knew we wouldn’t stay there forever, I just didn’t count on it being an issue so quickly. I can’t seem to find a flexible job—even part time—so I can qualify to buy a house that would be easier for her. My ex is settling down with a new wife and kids and can’t, or won’t, help out more than he already is.”

“I’d hate to have you go.” Kaya paused to call out a correction to Chad. Though she was talking to his mom, she kept her eyes on him at all times. “As soon as it warms up here, I have several families who’ve committed to group lessons. I think Chad is comfortable enough that he’s ready to work with other kids. I think it could be good for him socially, and the group will be small, no more than four at a time.” She’d miss the pay from his private lesson if he switched to group, but it was the next step, and he was nearly ready for it. Maybe she should try a group social with several of her private clients and see how they meshed. That might help with the transition. She’d have to think about that in January.

“Mom, we need a goat. I like their milk better.” Shyanne called from the pen. She brushed Morning Star, paying special attention to her flank, which, oddly enough, was the goat’s favorite place to be caressed.

“That’s another thing our apartment can’t handle.” Evelyn said it like a joke, but there was pain in her eyes. They needed a house with a yard and animals for the kids to keep advancing.

“You ever thought about moving closer to here instead?” Kaya asked. “I could use a full-time goat groomer, and my neighbor is selling.” Not that she wanted Ora to move to that assisted living center, but it looked inevitable.

Evelyn shot her a tired look. She was maybe in her late thirties, and with her sandy-colored hair, smooth skin, and blue eyes, seemed somehow even younger than that, though she seemed worn out at the moment. “More times than you can imagine. I’ve been online looking at places, but nothing really stands out. The kids would love it. I’ve even heard good things about the school system, but a mortgage is going to take more income than we’re getting from Glen plus Shyanne’s social security and it can be hard to find a decent job when I never finished my degree.” She sighed. “I’ll figure it out.” She lifted her voice again to call encouragement to her son.

Kaya wondered what Evelyn studied in school, but Chad waved that he was ready for the next step. Maybe they could talk more later. “Looks like he’s warmed up and ready to go.”

“I’ll help Shyanne set up to milk,” Evelyn said, heading away.

Kaya vaulted over the railing and into the paddock to join him. “Hey, you ready to try a canter?”

“I don’t know,” Chad said.

“Let’s give it a test and see how you like it. It’s jiggly, though.”

Chad looked a little dubious, but took to the faster speed like a pro.

Kaya ached when she thought of not seeing this kid again, but she had him for now. She’d have to do what she could while the opportunity was still there.

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