Christmas At Seashell Cottage
Jewell Cove Digital Exclusive
It’s Christmas in Jewell Cove…
And local doctor Charlie Yang finds her quiet, steady life disrupted by both an abandoned baby in the nativity manger, and a real-life mystery man. Sure, she’s always wanted a family of her own, but she didn’t imagine it coming from a baby that wasn’t hers and a man who was more interested in living day by day than making long-term plans.
Ex-SEAL Dave Ricker hadn’t planned on making Jewell Cove his forever home, but the talented and tender-hearted Charlie has him reconsidering his position on settling down. Can a beautiful woman, adorable baby and a small-town full of holiday spirit change his mind for good?
Fall in love with Donna Alward’s holiday romance, Christmas at Seashell Cottage, exclusively in e-book.
Bonus Free Read: THE GIFT – an epilogue revealing what the future holds for Baby Daniel!
Out IN PRINT in October 2016, in the IT MUST BE CHRISTMAS anthology!
Charlie Yang had never considered herself much of a joiner. So it went without saying that she was surprised to find herself in the middle of setting up a nativity scene in front of the Jewell Cove church, stuffing scratchy straw into a crudely constructed manger. They’d had an early snow, and the layer of white covering the ground and the branches of trees and shrubbery added to the feeling of holiday spirit that had taken over since Thanksgiving.
Like a well-oiled machine, Gloria Henderson and her army of church ladies had taken charge of the volunteers and had assigned jobs to everyone. The men were tasked with anything requiring a ladder and heavy lifting—including lugging three wise men, Mary and Joseph, the shepherds and sheep and every last bit of the nativity to the front yard. Right now Bill—Charlie had forgotten his last name—from the service station was positioning the figures in the proper places, which were the exact same spots they occupied each and every year, apparently. Charlie gave a dry chuckle. You could always count on small towns, and Jewell Cove, Maine, was no different. It was practically steeped in saltwater traditions.
Still, it stung a little that the committee had taken one look at Charlie’s attempt at the red-and-green velvet bows and suggested she might be better suited to helping with something else. She was a doctor, for heaven’s sake. She could suture a wound and leave barely a trace of a scar. Surely her bows weren’t that bad . . .
She’d been sent off to the front of the church with specific instructions: set up the manger, uncoil and string the lights, and put Baby Jesus in place. Charlie huffed. She’d been number three in her graduating class from med school. She could set up a nativity scene with one hand tied behind her back. She shivered against the cold, zipped her puffy jacket up the last three inches, and wished she’d thought to wear a hat to keep her ears warm.
“Manger, check.” She wrestled the wooden structure into position by inches until it was in the middle of the nativity. “Straw, check.” She took off her gloves for a minute and padded the bottom of the manger with a small brick of synthetic straw, pulling the pieces apart and fluffing them up. As soon as it was done, she hurried to put her gloves back on. “Now for Baby Jesus.” Charlie looked around at the boxes of Christmas decorations that surrounded her. “Aha! Baby Jesus, check!” She retrieved a doll from a box, already wrapped and safety-pinned into swaddling clothes, and stared down at the straw padding the bottom of the crude manger. “This doesn’t feel right,” she murmured to the doll, whose eyes were closed. She looked in the box for a blanket or fabric of some sort. “I can’t just put you down on the prickly straw. Surely the new Messiah deserves something softer to lie on.”
After a few minutes of digging through the boxes for something that might suit, Charlie sighed. “Well, Baby Jesus, we’ll just have to wait to put you in your manger until I can think of something to use to cover the straw. Until then, I need to get these lights untangled.”
She sat down on the cold, wooden platform the church had set up to house the nativity scene. It was a lonely, solitary task and she found herself carrying on a one-way conversation with the doll just to break the silence. “I have skills, Baby Jesus. Specific skills. Skills that I should be using right now with my patients. Not sitting in the cold unraveling tangled lights.” She sighed in frustration.
God, she was talking to a doll. A doll who was, at this moment, staring at her with unseeing, unblinking eyes. It was a little bit creepy, so she turned her attention back to the task at hand, working away at a stubborn knot, muttering to herself. Once again the gloves came off; there was no way she could straighten the knotted wires with the material in the way. She blew on her fingers and started again.
“You know,” she continued, “when I agreed to help out, I’d thought it would be a good chance be a part of the community. Outside of work, I mean. And . . . here I am alone. As usual.”
Charlie cursed under her breath as the knot let go only to reveal another. A burst of laughter drew her attention away for a moment, and she watched as a couple strolled along the sidewalk holding hands.
“Wanna hear something stupid, Baby Jesus? The closest thing to a romantic relationship I have right now is an infatuation with the man who works on the docks. You know?” She paused, studying the glassy eyes of the doll next to her. “Of course you don’t know. You’re a doll. And the Savior of all mankind, right? You have bigger fish to fry than my nonexistent love life.” She laughed to herself. “I’m pathetic. But let me tell you, that man is hot. Tall, dark, and rugged.” In her mind she could picture the look of him, long legs and broad shoulders, his strength evident even beneath work pants and the navy jacket he typically wore. She sighed. “I don’t even know his name. How dumb is that?”
“Um, excuse me, but who are you talking to?”
She jumped at the sound of a deep voice behind her, a muted squeak bursting from her mouth, then spun around to find a giant of a man standing there, feet planted, arms crossed, and an amused expression on his face. Not just any man. The man.
Her cheeks flamed with embarrassment. “Baby Jesus?” she suggested weakly. Busted talking to a doll. She felt about three years old.
He chuckled. “Really?” He nodded at the bundle in her arms. “What were you going to do? Brain me with him?”
What? It took a few seconds before she realized that she’d grabbed the doll like a weapon and was currently holding it like she was a quarterback ready to go long. Charlie looked down at the doll’s face and then tucked it more securely in her arms. “You startled me, that’s all,” she replied, emitting a breathy laugh. Holy crap. From afar he’d looked big, but her dream guy was over six feet for sure, probably closer to six four, big feet in big boots, faded jeans, and one of those plaid quilted jackets she’d seen a lot of the men around here wear when the weather was cold but not downright frigid. His arms were crossed, and the stance accentuated the muscles in his arms and shoulders. His hair was thick and dark, highlighting a face that sported a stunning set of brown eyes with long lashes, a strong jaw, and good cheekbones.
“I’m Charlene,” she offered, only stammering a little, holding the doll in one arm and extending her other hand. “Charlie, actually.”
“Dave,” he replied, stepping forward to shake her hand. The contact sent a ripple of pleasure down her arm. “Do you always talk to dolls?” He grinned openly now, a slight dimple popping in one cheek.
“Only when I’m trying not to freeze to death.” She smiled back, her pulse hammering. Don’t say something dumb, she warned herself. Like blurting out that she’d watched him working each day from the wide windows at Breezes Café. The last thing she needed was to seem all . . . stalkerish.
“You’re one of the doctors in town, aren’t you?” he asked, dropping her hand. “I’ve seen you around.”
He had? And if he knew she was the doctor, he had to have asked about her, right? As she wrapped her mind around that astounding fact, she tried to remain cool. “That’s me.”
“I’m working down at the boatyard for the time being.”
Damn it. Why couldn’t she bite her tongue?
His eyebrows went up and she offered a smile that she hoped wasn’t too goofy-looking. “Small town,” she reminded him, and he chuckled, sending a warm shiver over her. It seemed her rugged mystery man was just as attractive up close. Lucky for her. Perhaps she’d been neglecting her love life for a little too long.
Dave smiled at her. “I’m pretty new around here. The guy I work for is helping out today and mentioned they needed some help. I thought I’d lend a hand. Maybe meet some people.” His eyes were warm. “Looks like I’m off to a good start.”
She hoped she wasn’t blushing, because she got the feeling he was flirting. She blinked, then smiled back. “I think you’re off to a very good start.”
Their gazes held for a few moments and Charlie held her breath. This was something she wasn’t exactly used to. To have her mystery man standing before her, in the flesh, making conversation . . . surreal. To say the least.
“Anyway, sorry about the manger,” he apologized, breaking the spell. “It’s kind of crude, but I didn’t have much time to put it together.”
She looked down at the rough wood. It wasn’t fancy, but it was solidly constructed. “You built this?”
“Apparently the one they had was falling apart. Time to replace it.” He shrugged. “I’m more used to working with boats and engines than carpentry, but I borrowed some tools, got some scrap wood from my landlord, and gave it my best shot.”
“Aren’t we lucky that you’re so . . . handy.” And hot. And friendly.
“I’m not sure about that. Anyway, you seemed to be standing around the manger for a long time and I wondered if something needed fixing.”
Charlie looked up at him, feeling her cheeks heat again beneath his honest gaze. Good heavens, where was her confidence? “There’s nothing wrong with the manger. It’s silly, really. I . . .”
“You?” he prompted.
She swallowed. “I put in the straw but I was wondering if there was anything to put over top of it before I put down the, uh, baby.”
“You know.” She gestured with her free hand. “Like a blanket or something. Because the straw is so scratchy and rough.”
His gaze softened and she felt a little bit embarrassed and a little bit melty.
“I don’t think it’s going to matter to the doll, Charlie.”
He finally said her name and it sounded so nice in his deep, smooth voice she wondered if she was really looking at Dave, the Christmas angel.
She let her eyes meet his, felt the connection to her toes. “It’s not just a doll,” she said softly. “It’s Baby Jesus.”
And there was that smile again, and a hint of perfectly white teeth. “You’re right,” he responded, taking a step forward. Charlie held her breath as he came closer, peering over her shoulder at the wood and straw. He smelled good too. A little like lumber, but more like man. The kind of scent that made a woman want to burrow her face into the soft fabric of his shirt and just breathe deeply . . .
He took a step back and she let out her breath. Okay. Granted, her time in Jewell Cove had been a significant dry spell, but this was getting ridiculous.
“I might have something in my car that would work. I’ll be back in a minute.”
“Okay,” she replied, feeling dumb, but enjoying the view as he walked away toward the church parking lot.
Dave strode away toward the parking lot feeling a little bit off balance after the encounter with the good doctor. The men on the dock called her Dr. Pit Bull, and Dave thought they must be thinking about two different people. Charlene—Charlie—seemed quiet, and, well, cute. She’d blushed when they’d talked and stammered a little too. In fact, she’d looked adorable, standing there with the doll and surrounded by tangles of Christmas lights.
He reached his SUV and opened the trunk. Inside the plastic tub containing extra windshield washer, oil, and jumper cables was a crumpled pile of rags, mostly comprised of old T-shirts. He grabbed a beige one, closed the tailgate again, and headed back toward the nativity scene where Charlie waited. She was a tiny little thing, maybe five foot four or -five, her build slight. She rather reminded him of a ballerina, with a dainty strength about her. Her black hair was braided precisely, highlighting the porcelain smoothness of her skin, and a set of exotic brown eyes that a man could lose himself in. She was absolutely stunning.
The doll was still in her arms when he reached the nativity again, and he grinned at the strange sight. He held out the shirt. “This is clean, and nice and soft. Will it work?”
The smile on her face made the day worthwhile. “That’s perfect! Plus, it’s almost the same color as the straw. It’ll blend in really well.”
It was cute how she was worried about authenticity. And the comfort and welfare of a plastic doll.
Dave folded the cotton and draped it over the bumpy straw. He watched as Charlie lay the doll down as carefully as if it were a real baby, then stood back. “That definitely looks better,” she said, hands on her hips.
He considered pointing out the cold Maine weather and paltry covering on the doll, but was afraid she’d take that to heart too and insist on covering the manger with heavy blankets, which he was sure wouldn’t have been found in Bethlehem.
“Much better,” he replied, but he couldn’t take his eyes off of her. Petite and pretty, pit bull doctor, sentimentalist. Which was she, or was she all those things? It had been a long time since he’d been this intrigued by a woman. It wasn’t exactly an unwelcome feeling.
“Hey, are you all right?”
Charlie’s voice interrupted his less-than-pure thoughts. “Yeah, sure. Sorry.”
He got the feeling Charlie was going to say something more, but one of the church ladies came bearing down on them like a woman on a mission. “Charlene, we could use your help in the sanctuary. We’re putting together the caroling booklets for the tree lighting tomorrow night.”
Ah yes. Dave looked at Charlie’s face and saw it transform into a polite, welcoming mask, and he nearly laughed. He’d bet ten bucks that she adopted the same expression when she walked into an exam room and greeted a new patient.
“Sure thing, Mrs. Henderson. I think the nativity is all done. I’m still working on the lights . . .”
The older woman’s lips pursed a bit in disapproval. “Well, maybe Bill can finish that up. He knows how we display them.”
Mrs. Henderson moved on to fuss about the figures, muscling a shepherd and staff about two inches to the right before declaring herself satisfied. “There. That’s wonderful. We’re nearly done inside as well. The ladies’ group has provided lunch for the volunteers. Soup and sandwiches, which should be on in exactly . . .” She checked her watch. “Thirty-six minutes.”
Heaven forbid the lunch be a minute early or late.
“Mr. . . ?” Mrs. Henderson looked up at him suddenly, and he got the strange feeling that she was taking stock of him.
“Ricker,” he supplied with a nod.
“Yes, you just moved here, didn’t you?”
Nosy. Bossy and nosy. She had a way of talking that reminded him of the military. Sharp and precise. “Yes, ma’am. From Virginia.” He tried another one of his smiles on her, thinking that perhaps he and Dr. Yang really weren’t that different after all. “I built the manger.”
“Right.” She eyed him curiously. “You’re working for George Adams down on the docks. Hope he’s got enough work to keep you busy.”
Now it was his turn to be embarrassed and he hoped the raw bite to the air covered any flush in his cheeks. He wasn’t rolling in it but he could make ends meet. Besides, this was just a temporary job until he figured out exactly where he wanted to settle.
“I don’t know about you, but I think I can smell that soup all the way out here. Are you coming in with us, Dave?” Charlie jumped in with the attempted save.
As much as he might enjoy spending more time with the pretty doctor, he wasn’t sure he was up to the sheer volume of hen clucking that was likely to happen over lunch. “No, but thanks for the invite. I’ve got to get back home. I’m running low on wood and should probably split a bunch to tide me over for a few days.”
He waited for lightning to strike through the leaden sky. He’d just flat-out lied, in front of the church with the steeple and cross directly in front of him.
“Well, thank you for all your help,” Mrs. Henderson said. “You be sure to come to the tree lighting tomorrow night in the square. The choir’s leading the caroling and there’s free hot chocolate for everyone.”
“Sounds great,” he responded, giving that automatic smile again.
He looked down at Charlie. She was watching him curiously, as if trying to puzzle him out. Her gaze burned into his, and he thought for a moment he saw a devilish twinkle in their depths. “Oh yes. Everyone comes out for it,” Charlie said. “It’s one of the highlights of the season.” Her voice sounded exactly like an advertisement and he had a hard time not laughing at what he was certain was false enthusiasm.
“Everyone?” he asked.
Mrs. Henderson didn’t miss the skeptical tone in his voice. “Oh, the whole town shows up,” she insisted. “You’ll be there, won’t you, Charlene?”
“Of course. I wouldn’t miss it.” Again with the too-bright enthusiasm. Was Charlie also a bit of a wallflower?
“Maybe I’ll know someone, then,” he offered. Had he really just agreed to go? He had to be off his rocker. Christmas carols? He couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket. And hot chocolate? He’d much prefer a couple fingers of whiskey in front of the fire back at the cottage.
“Right. Well, Charlene, we really need those booklets done up. Thanks for your help, Mr. Ricker.” Mrs. Henderson got right back to business and began stomping her way to the front steps of the church.
“I’d better go,” Charlie said quietly, looking up at him. “That woman means business.”
“She’d be a great drill sergeant,” he remarked.
Charlie laughed lightly, the sound dancing in the crisp air.
“So will I see you tomorrow night?” she asked, a hopeful note to her voice. “I get the feeling we’re both kind of like the new people in town. Welcome to join in, but still a little on the outside. Sometimes I think everyone in Jewell Cove has known each other forever.”
“I’ll probably make it,” he answered. “Not much else to do but sit out at the cabin and stare at the fire.”
She laughed again. “That sounds pretty nice to me.”
And just like that he imagined her sitting there with him, perhaps a glass of wine in her hand, and that silken black hair loosened from its braid while the fire snapped and crackled behind them . . .
Get ahold of yourself, man. Dave swallowed and shoved his hands into his pockets. “Aw, it won’t kill us to show up, will it?”
“So I guess I’ll see you then.”
“Guess so.” He pulled a hand out of his coat. “Nice to meet you, Charlie.”
She took his hand again, but there was more holding than shaking happening and he felt the pull to her through the innocent contact.
“You too.” She pulled her hand away. “See you around.”
He watched her walk away. She didn’t look back at him, just made a straight line through the snow to the church doors. He let out a breath. He’d come to Jewell Cove to start over, to be closer to his daughter, Nora.
Meeting the pretty doctor hadn’t been on his agenda, but he wasn’t about to complain. After all, he’d learned long ago that sometimes the best things happened when you least expected them.