Owen Shepard is a fallen hero, wounded in action rescuing three of his fellow soldiers, but after a whirlwind of media attention, all this charismatic Army Ranger wants is to get back on his feet and make it to Sanctuary Island to be with his daughter in time for Christmas. What he didn't expect was to be put on a crash course with a columnist hiding her past. Will the magic of Sanctuary Island at Christmastime allow them to find healing together?
Home for Christmas ~ EXCERPT
Libby sat with her fingers poised over her laptop keyboard, her deadline looming over her shoulder like a stern, demanding schoolteacher.
You could excel if you’d work a little harder, she imagined Mrs. Deadline saying. Are you stupid or just lazy, Ms. Leeds? Why don’t you apply yourself?
Libby sighed in the dark silence of her small home office. Another week, another column for Savor magazine . . . another shame spiral.
Imaginary Mrs. Deadline was right, Libby told herself firmly. Why did she put herself through this every time? She ought to buckle down, grind out a few sentences, and see what she came up with. If it sucked, she could fix it later! She wasn’t curing cancer, here. All she was doing was describing a Thanksgiving feast—and that should be easy! The main course was predetermined. It had to be turkey! So what was she waiting for?
Nothing. She was going to start typing. Libby rested her fingertips on the smooth keys and took a deep breath in. The blank white page glared back at her, painfully bright in the dim room. Any second now . . .
Without conscious thought, Libby’s right hand twitched and her pinky hit the button that maximized her internet browser. Before she could get her rogue fingers under control, they’d clicked her mouse and restarted the video that she—and more than a million other people—had been watching on repeat since the clip first aired on the Good Morning Show.
“And how are you recovering from your ordeal?” The talk show host’s platinum blonde bob quivered with sympathy as she leaned over the hospital bed’s railing.
Libby held her breath, her gaze eating up the details of this image she’d already viewed at least fifty times. The man being interviewed didn’t shift a single hard muscle. Copper glinted from his short-buzzed hair under the fluorescent lights. His broad chest was barely contained by the plain white hospital gown, his muscular shoulders straining the material where he sat propped against several flat pillows.
Even with his right leg in a cast and raised slightly in traction, he sat at attention, looking ready to spring from the bed and into action at the first sign of danger. His left arm was in a sling that held it immobile across his chest, the tanned skin dark against the pristine fabric.
Next to the hospital bed was a small open box framing a bronze medal hanging from green and white striped ribbon. It was the Army Commendation Medal for distinguished service and valorous conduct, usually awarded to those who had risked their lives above and beyond the normal duties of combat.
Libby knew, because she’d looked it up yesterday after the first time she’d watched the video.
When Sergeant First Class Owen Shepard finally spoke, it was with quiet authority, his rough voice stroking over Libby’s skin like a callused palm. “Recovery is slow but steady.”
Rhonda Friend, the premier network morning show host, blinked big blue eyes at him. “And was it just awful?” she asked in hushed tones. “The explosion that nearly took your life?”
It was only because Libby had basically become a PhD-level expert in Sgt. Owen Shepard’s facial expressions that she caught the miniscule tightening of his sharply angled jaw.
“I can’t speak about that,” he said, clipped but polite.
“Of course, of course,” Rhonda rushed to reply, still simpering. “An active military operation—we wouldn’t want you to compromise it. But you can share a few teensy little details with us, can’t you?”
Something shifted behind Sgt. Shepard’s blue-green eyes, and suddenly he smiled. Bright, charming, effortless—but Libby’s gut told her it was fake.
“I’d rather talk about the future,” he said. “Rehab is hard work, but I’m committed to getting back on my feet and going back to my men. They tell me it might not happen, but I’m not good with accepting limitations. I’ll get there, even if it takes a few months.”
Rhonda, who hadn’t seemed to notice anything off about her interview subject’s easy smile, gave him another smile dripping with sympathy. “It will be wonderful to have some time off, I’m sure! Time with your family, to reconnect, before you return to your unit overseas to fight for our freedoms back home. And speaking of home, where is that for you?”
For the first time in the interview, a hint of something real and joyful warmed Sgt. Shepard’s weary eyes. “My sister, Andie, and my daughter. Caitlin. Wherever they are, that’s home.”
Libby’s heart skipped ahead two beats, the way it had every time she’d watched the clip.
Obviously sensing the nearby presence of gold, Rhonda dug deeper. “Your sister is a small-town sheriff, isn’t that right? Heroism must run in the family.”
“I don’t know about that—but Andie is pretty great. Her town is lucky to have her standing watch over them.”
“And what about your wife? Is there a Mrs. Shepard waiting for you at home?”
Something flickered through Sgt. Shepard’s gaze, and his smile dimmed a bit. “No. Caitlin’s mother passed away . . . almost a year ago, now.”
“Tragic,” breathed Rhonda, clearly delighted. “I’m so sorry for your loss.”
“All that matters to me now is Caitlin.” A muscle ticked in the wounded soldier’s jaw, and he glanced past Rhonda’s startled face to stare directly into the camera as if making a vow to his little girl. “All that matters is getting home to her in time for the holidays. I want to give my daughter the perfect Christmas.”
The moment held, intense and riveting. Libby’s lungs seized, her throat tightening and eyes burning. He was so intent, his fierce need to be there for his young daughter was almost palpable.
With a jerk of her chin, Rhonda gestured for the cameraman to re-focus on her tight smile. “I’m sure you will.”
Sgt. Shepard shrugged, sinking back into the pillows. “Thanks for the vote of confidence. The doctors tell me I’ll be recovered enough to get out of the hospital and down to Sanctuary Island in time—but whether I can manage anything approaching a good Christmas is less certain. I’m not even sure I’d know a good Christmas if it ambushed me in the desert, much less how to make sure Caitlin . . . well. I’ll figure it out.”
“There you have it, ladies,” Rhonda purred, turning back to the camera and flicking her hair over her shoulder. “He’s single, handsome, and a real-live hero—and he needs you. Send us your holiday ideas and help a genuine American hero give his daughter the Christmas she deserves.”
With only seconds left on the video, Libby ignored the talk show host’s babble in favor of staring at Owen Shepard’s handsome, angular face. There was a bone-deep confidence to him—not arrogance, exactly, but a deep assurance in his own strength. The only hint of vulnerability was the way he softened over his daughter . . . and the pain that hardened his mouth when he shifted his weight against the hospital bed.
Libby noted the sharp slash of his cheekbones as he glanced down, one hand dropping to massage the muscle above his leg cast. Even partially veiled by his dark chestnut lashes, his eyes were an extraordinary color, a blend of blue and green that she’d spent way too long trying to come up with the perfect word to describe.
And when he looked up, Libby paused the video right before it cut out, her breath catching in her throat at the way his gaze burned through the screen and into her soul.
She stared, caught up in the unfamiliar feeling of connection. For a girl who spent most days hiding out in her living room in yoga pants, not speaking to anyone other than her impatient editor and the coffee shop guy on the corner who supplied her caffeine needs, what she felt when she looked at Owen Shepard defied understanding.
Libby wanted to know him. Everything about him. And she wanted him to know her, the way no one had since . . .
Enough. Huffing at the silly fantasy, Libby determinedly clicked out of the video and shut off her internet connection for good measure. It was time to get to work. This Thanksgiving piece wasn’t going to write itself. Unfortunately.
Libby rested her fingertips on the keyboard and stared at the blinking cursor at the top of the screen. This was good. She was working.
She sighed, her mind as blank as the page in front of her. When she closed her eyes, her imagination betrayed her with visions of Owen Shepard’s strong, weathered face. Cracking her knuckles in frustration, Libby forced herself to focus.
I sometimes think I must have done something especially wonderful in a past life to deserve the riches of this one. Not the material things—although I’m grateful for every stick of furniture and every crumbling brick holding up the walls of this old house—but our wealth is in the air. So sweet and clear it almost sparkles in the morning sun.
Our wealth is in the deep blue of the ocean stretched under the horizon and the swaying boughs of the pinewood trees leaning over our back porch.
Our wealth is in the warm, friendly community of Sanctuary Island, where wild horses thunder across the sandy beaches and autumn shades everything in tones of russet and gold. This Thanksgiving, I’m grateful for so many things, especially—
When the phone rang, she jerked in surprise. Cursing silently at the distraction just when she’d been getting into a good rhythm, Libby didn’t even check the caller ID before answering. She knew who it had to be. No one but the sweet, caring nurses at Uncle Ray’s assisted living center ever called her.
Bracing herself for bad news from Sunnyside Gardens, Libby was startled by the brisk masculine voice asking, “Is this Elizabeth Leeds?”
“Yes,” she replied cautiously. “May I ask who’s calling?”
“This is Hugo Downing.”
Libby’s blood froze. The publisher of Savor magazine.
“Your boss,” Hugo continued, as if Libby might not recognize the name. “And first of all, I want to say how glad we are to have you at Savor.”
Keeping her voice calm and pleasant, Libby tried to contain her panic. “Thank you so much, Mr. Downing. I appreciate that more than I can say.”
Clearly having had enough small talk, Downing cleared his throat and barreled on like a jovial, speed-talking Santa Claus. “An incredible promotional opportunity has fallen into our laps, Elizabeth. May I call you Elizabeth? Ha, ha, ha, at any rate, I’m thrilled, absolutely thrilled, to inform you that you and your family will be hosting an extra guest at your holiday table this year. A famous guest, no less.”
Libby nearly fell off her ergonomic desk chair. “But Mr. Downing! I couldn’t possibly!”
The cheer dropped out of his voice, leaving only steel. “You can and you will. This is not a request, Ms. Leeds. I’ve already committed you.”
Mouth dropping open in shocked horror, Libby groped for the upper hand. “Mr. Downing, I’m so sorry but I must decline. My family, my privacy —”
“Are nothing,” Downing declared, “when weighed against the need of a true American hero.”
A true American hero. The phrase echoed in Libby’s swirling brain, familiar as her own name. Her fingertips prickled, and blood rushed to her head so quickly she felt faint. He couldn’t possibly mean . . .
“Sergeant Owen Shepard,” her boss said. “You’ve seen the video? Yes, you and everyone else in America. Well, it turns out that the man’s daughter and sister live . . . guess where? Sanctuary Island! Small world, eh? You can imagine how your many readers reacted when they made the connection. My assistant sifted through an avalanche of fan mail, and each one contained the same plea—that you and your husband host the Shepard family for Christmas. I know you would not want to disappoint your loyal readers, so obviously, you must give Shepard and his daughter the perfect Christmas.”
Or you will be fired.
He didn’t say it, but Libby heard it anyway. Loud and clear. There was just one problem . . . the truth.
Squeezing her eyes shut, Libby scoured her mind for a way out, any other option, but there was none. This was it. The moment she’d been dreading for two years was breathing down her neck.
She opened her eyes and stared around her. Instead of the spacious and homey living room she envisioned as she wrote her column, with handmade quilts draping comfy couches and a handsome husband contentedly tying fishing lures in the corner by the crackling fire, Libby saw her cramped, empty studio apartment. Outside, instead of the whisper of wind through pine boughs, she heard the loud rumble of the 7 train passing practically beneath her feet on its way to Flushing.
Libby thought of all the reasons she’d started this terrible deception in the first place—well, the one, single reason, actually. With a quick and silent prayer for her uncle Ray, who’d taken in a grieving orphan girl and raised her with love, Libby took the plunge.
“Mr. Downing. I have something to tell you. And you’re not going to like it…”
Home for Christmas by Lily Everett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Home for Christmas by Lily Everett is a 2015 St. Martin's publication. I was provided a copy of this book by the publisher and Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.
Home for Christmas is a sweet and emotional story of family, forgiveness, healing and hope.
Libby is a writer on assignment for the publication she works for and while she tried to weasel out of it, her boss has given her an ultimatum, so for better or worse, Libby returns home for Christmas. Her assignment? To give war hero Owen Shepard a heartwarming Christmas with his family on Sanctuary Island. Can she pull it off and still maintain her false persona?
I haven't read all the books in this series, but have immensely enjoyed the ones had to chance to read, thus far. This one is just a little bit different from the others, in that the characters featured here, Libby and Owen, only had familial ties to Sanctuary Island, and the story is more focused on the entire family and not just on the romance between Owen and Libby, making this one fall more into the women's fiction or chick-lit genres that some of the previous installments.
The storyline involving Owen's daughter, is very sad and emotional. Owen has only recently discovered he is a parent and is having trouble adjusting to that type of responsibility. I got very frustrated with him and his fixation on returning to the army, which would mean abandoning a little girl who desperately needed him.
Libby was sort of an enigma, living a lie, and struggling to cope with the reality of her situation. Her family dynamic is certainly interesting and creates a lot of drama.
Since the story deals with a lot of rather heavy family issues, the romance is not all that steamy, but that seems more fitting somehow in this case. I enjoyed the way Libby and Owen rose to the occasion to do the right thing for themselves and their individual families, and managed to forge a family of their own in the process. So, while this one was not exactly what I was used to from this series, I still thought it was a strong addition to the Sanctuary Island collection.
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ADD TO GOODREADS
Lily Everett grew up in a small town in central Virginia, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Although she’s lived many other places since, from college in Philadelphia to her first publishing job in New York City and her current home in Austin, Texas, she never forgot the beauty and warmth of her little hometown. She is thrilled to be writing the Sanctuary Island series full time because it allows her to combine her longstanding love of romance with the memories of her childhood home.
Lily’s alter ego is Louisa Edwards. Under that name, she is the author of the Recipe for Love series, sexy contemporary romances with hot chef heroes set in the high-stakes, fast-paced world of professional restaurants.
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