Whiskey Creek Series
Release Date: October 28, 2014
STARRED Review from Library Journal
4.5 Stars TOP PICK from RT Book Reviews
2015 Maple Leaf Awards Favorite Novel and Cover Winner
Just call her Christmas Eve…
Eve Harmon has always enjoyed Christmas, but this year it reminds her of everything she doesn’t have. Almost all her friends are married now, and that’s what Eve wants, too. Love. A husband and kids of her own. But the B and B she manages, and even Whiskey Creek, the small Gold Country town where she was born and raised, suddenly seem…confining.
Eve’s worried that her future will simply a reflection of her past. There’s no one in the area she could even imagine as a husband – until a handsome stranger comes to town. Eve’s definitely attracted to him, and he seems to have the same reaction to her. But his darkly mysterious past could ruin Eve’s happily ever after – just when it finally seems within reach. And just when she’s counting on the best Christmas of her life!
“Novak is always a go-to author for sassy romance set in small towns loaded with charm. Her latest in the Whiskey Creek series is naughty and nice, and readers will fall in love with the magic of the season portrayed throughout. Eve and Rex are a hoot when they’re together, and the supporting characters are fun to follow too; you never know what they’ll do next!”
~4.5 stars, RT Book Review Magazine
Be ready for some drama with lots of emotion in this well written novel…If you are looking for a holiday read, this festive Christmas setting will be the read for you. I highly recommend this story.
~Night Owl Reviews, 5-Stars Top Pick!
“Series fans will rejoice to see Eve find her happily ever after in this engrossing holiday hit that has more than its fair share of suspense.”
~Library Journal, Starred Review
“Welcome to THE HEART OF CHRISTMAS — a holiday story done with Novak’s panache.
Rule number one — never underestimate the story telling prowess of Brenda Novak. Rule number two — anything by Novak is going to surprise you. Rule number three — Novak’s books should be on your must read list and if you need convincing just refer to rules number one and two.
THE HEART OF CHRISTMAS is simply put — spell binding…not a cookie cutter entry into the seasonal holiday book list. It’s a welcome addition to a wonderful series which will inevitably leaving you wanting more and more.”
…a great story, full of suspense, good friends, sexy encounters and a story ending that you wanted but had to take quite a ride to get to. I love Ms. Novak’s romantic love stories, and this is a really good one, with Christmas and what the holiday truly means taking a prominent role. A recommended Christmas romance, for sure.
~USA TODAY on THE HEART OF CHRISTMAS
There was a naked man in her bed.
Eve Harmon’s stomach tensed, and her heart skipped a beat—but she was pretty sure she’d invited him. From the way their clothes were strewn carelessly around the room, it was obvious that, not long ago, she’d been happy to have him with her.
She nearly groaned as her eyes swept over him. What had she done? She didn’t have a boyfriend and she never slept around. She hadn’t been with anyone since Ted Dixon—an old friend who had briefly turned into more a year ago. And before him, it had been much longer. Most people, at least those younger than her parents, would consider her extended periods of celibacy rather pathetic for a woman her age. But she lived in a small town, cared about her reputation and had been holding out for the kind of love that came with a white picket fence.
She just hadn’t found the right guy, and she was beginning to think maybe she never would. The odds weren’t in her favor. Now that most of her friends were married, she didn’t get out all that often.
But she had a lot to be grateful for in spite of her dismal love life, she quickly reminded herself. Although she’d never been the type who wanted work to become her sole focus in life, she liked her job. She ran Little Mary’s, a B and B in a converted Victorian owned by her retired parents. They lived in the house a hundred yards in front of her own small bungalow—when they weren’t traveling in their RV like they were at the moment. Thanks to them, and the quaint, bucolic area where she’d been raised, her life had always been pleasant and safe—and predictable. Absolutely predictable.
God, she hadn’t even slept with someone she knew. And since there were only about two thousand people in Whiskey Creek, it was hard to find someone she didn’t.
Shifting carefully so she wouldn’t wake the man lying next to her—she needed to regain her bearings before confronting him—she tried to get a look at his face, but a thunderous headache made it difficult to sit up. That headache also explained how she’d ended up in this predicament. Last night she’d made the mistake of going out to celebrate her thirty-fifth birthday even though her friends weren’t available until tonight, and she’d drunk too much. She’d been determined to do something wild and fun and completely out of character before reaching such a significant age, the age at which some doctors advised against getting pregnant.
Now she was paying the price for her out-of-control evening.
Had they even used birth control?
Briefly squeezing her eyes shut, she sent up a silent prayer that she’d had the presence of mind for that at least. It would be entirely too ironic for someone like her—someone so cautious—to get pregnant because of a one-night stand.
What have you done? And what should she do now? Should she wake him? What would she say when he was looking back at her? She’d never been in this situation before. But she couldn’t let him sleep much longer. She needed to get rid of him so she could shower for work.
Thank goodness her parents had had engine trouble and hadn’t made it home from her brother’s house yet. She’d lamented that yesterday, when she’d been bored and lonely while setting up her little Christmas tree. Today she was glad.
Moving slowly to compensate for her hangover, she managed to prop herself against the headboard and, once there, frowned at her bedmate.
Who the heck was he?
She had no idea, but she was relieved to see that he was no bum off the street. He wasn’t even one of those “he looked a lot more attractive last night” kind of pickups everyone joked about. This guy was so far above average that she began to wonder why he wasn’t already taken. Heaven forbid that was the case! She didn’t see a ring on his left hand, which rested on the pillow above his head. But he had to have some story. If he looked this good sleeptousled, she could only imagine what he’d be like once he had a chance to clean up.
It was his bone structure, she decided. Those pronounced cheekbones. The narrow bridge across his nicely shaped nose. The distinct ridge of his upper eye sockets. He also had a strong chin and a manly jaw, which certainly didn’t detract.
So maybe she couldn’t point to just one or two features. With his long, sandy-colored hair spread across his pillow, he resembled a fallen angel—and his body further enhanced that image. Although bedding covered his lower half—thank goodness—she could see his torso. He was built like a greyhound or panther, lean and sinewy and ideally proportioned with very little body hair. What body hair he did have was golden and downy, as appealing as his tanned skin.
He’d make a nice subject for a painter, she mused, someone looking for refined masculine beauty—a man who could even be called elegant.
But not everything about him was elegant. When she looked closer, she could see that he had some very unusual scars….
What types of injuries could’ve caused those? she wondered. It seemed to her that he’d been shot, and more than once. Several round, bullet-size marks dotted his chest. Then there was a long, jagged scar on his side that must’ve come from something else….
Out of nowhere—he didn’t open his eyes first, so she had no warning—he grabbed her wrists in a crushing grip and slammed her onto her back.
Eve gasped as she stared up at him. Gone was the image of an angel, fallen or otherwise. Shocked at being so easily and unexpectedly overpowered, she couldn’t even scream. His fierce expression, as if he was intent on causing her bodily harm, made it worse.
Had she brought home a homicidal maniac? Was he about to kill her?
The terror that surged up must’ve shown on her face because he suddenly came to his senses. He gave his head a shake. His expression cleared and, letting go, he eased off her and slid back onto his side of the bed.
“Sorry about that. I thought…” His words trailed off, and he covered his eyes with one arm as if he needed a moment to pull himself together.
Her heart was now pounding in unison with her head. But once she could speak somewhat normally, she prompted him to finish his sentence. “Thought what?”
His lips turned down. “Never mind. I was dreaming.”
She pressed a hand to her chest as though she could slow her galloping pulse. “It couldn’t have been a pleasant dream.”
“They never are,” he muttered.
He dropped his arm and looked over at her, and—intriguing as that statement was—she was too concerned about her nudity to pursue more of an explanation. She drew up the blankets, but he didn’t seem interested in ogling her. His gaze circled the room, taking in the gauzy fabric that wound around the top of her canopy bed, the Christmas gifts she’d already wrapped and stacked in the corner, the many photographs of friends and family scattered across her dresser and the plantation shutters she’d recently had installed. He seemed to be taking stock of everything, weighing it, evaluating it—especially the closet and the door leading into the hall—as if he might encounter some threat.
“Where am I?” His voice, although more commanding than before, hadn’t quite lost the rasp that came from having just awakened.
He held three fingers to his forehead. She guessed he had a headache, too, although, suddenly, she could scarcely feel hers, thanks to that recent burst of adrenaline.
“I can remember the town,” he said wryly. “It’s not like I think I’m in China.”
Fortunately, he sounded as normal as he looked. “Really? Whiskey Creek is where you’re supposed to be? Because I’ve lived here my whole my life, and I don’t ever remember seeing you.”
“You say that like you know everyone.”
“I do. Or just about.”
As he proceeded to rub his face, she wished he’d cover up. The bedding had fallen away when he rolled on top of her. She could see far more of him than she wanted to—at least now that she was sober. But he didn’t seem to notice or care about his state of undress.
“I’m new here,” he said.
“When did you move in?” she asked.
“I didn’t. I should’ve said I’m visiting.”
A lot of tourists came through. The quaint shops beyond the graveyard next door to her B and B catered to them, particularly in the summer. So an unfamiliar face in town, even in the first part of winter, wasn’t remarkable enough for anyone to make a fuss.
“Where are you staying?”
He hesitated. “I don’t remember the name of the place,” he muttered. He had to be at her competitor’s or one of the small inns or B and Bs out in the country. She hadn’t seen him at her place.
“How long will you be in town?”
“A short time.”
His answers were clipped, terse and noticeably skimpy on the details. She might’ve asked what had brought him here. But he was being so evasive she didn’t see the point. Was he putting her on notice not to expect any follow-up to their night together?
Eve told herself she didn’t care that the first romantic encounter she’d had since her big mistake with Ted Dixon wasn’t shaping up to be any more promising than the false starts she’d experienced before. She just wanted to make sure that her “no way am I going to stay home and watch TV on my birthday” mutiny hadn’t left her with an STD. As soon as she felt reasonably assured that she hadn’t ruined her life, they could part ways—and she’d try to forget that she’d felt desperate enough to sleep with a stranger.
“I don’t see anything in here that belongs to a man,” he said.
She gave him a curious look. “A man?”
“I’m safe to assume you’re not married? You aren’t wearing a ring, but not everyone does.”
Particularly a woman hoping to pick up a guy in a bar. Now she understood. She’d been too busy berating herself to clue in, or his meaning would’ve been clear from the beginning. “Do you make a habit of sleeping with married women?”
“Not when I can think straight. But last night I wasn’t using a great deal of discretion. I don’t even remember how I got here.” He lifted a hand. “Wait, yes, I do. There was some waitress from that hole-in-the-wall honkytonk who—”
When his eyes flicked to her, she noticed that they were a startling shade of green, far lighter than the more common hazel. His eyelashes and eyebrows matched the darker streaks in his hair.
“That’s the name of the bar,” she clarified.
He shrugged. Apparently he found that information irrelevant— as though a bar was a bar and he’d frequented many. “Anyway, I have this vision of some waitress driving us over here and dumping us on what appeared to be a very long driveway, and that’s about it.”
When Eve’s mind conjured up the same memory, she barely managed to stifle a groan. “Noelle Arnold.” That Noelle, of all people, would know what they’d done made it so much worse….
“You don’t like her?”
Her tone had revealed more than she’d intended. “Not a great deal. Not since she seduced her sister’s boyfriend, then claimed she was pregnant so he’d marry her.”
She didn’t like the way he said that. It seemed to imply that they were too backward to behave with as much sophistication as city folk. “I happen to be close friends with Kyle, the man she duped. Of course I’d feel defensive.”
“You can feel defensive all you want, but this Noelle person did us a favor. She could easily have left us to our own devices. I certainly deserved it. I haven’t gotten that wasted in—” without bothering to ask, he rummaged on the nightstand and helped himself to one of her elastic ties so he could pull back his hair “—a couple of years.”
She could’ve pointed out that if Noelle had really been looking out for her, she would’ve seen to it that she got home safe and alone. But then she remembered making out with this man in the backseat of Noelle’s car. No wonder Noelle had dropped them off together. Now she was probably running around, telling everyone she could think of that Eve Harmon, of all people, had picked up a stranger and taken him home to bed.
His eyes narrowed. Something about her had caught his interest. “What’s wrong?” he asked.
She combed her fingers through her hair in an attempt to untangle it. While she had far bigger concerns than her appearance, she couldn’t entirely resist her female vanity. Because her hair was jet black and her eyes blue, people often told her that she reminded them of the Disney version of Snow White. Some red lipstick added to the effect; she’d often capitalized on that when she needed a costume.
But maybe he didn’t find Snow White all that appealing. He didn’t seem too impressed.
“No, I’m not.”
“You absolutely are,” he said. “Did I say something to embarrass you?”
She stopped trying to act as if discovering him in her bed was no big deal. “This whole situation embarrasses me,” she admitted. “I’ve never taken anyone home from a bar before and, unlike you, I won’t be leaving this town any time soon. That means I’ll have to face all the people who witnessed my licentious behavior.”
He raised one eyebrow. “Licentious?”
“Promiscuous, debauched. Whatever you want to call it. Waking up with a total stranger isn’t something that’s normal for me.”
He studied her, his gaze…thoughtful. “Last night you told me it was your birthday.”
“Quit being so hard on yourself. From what I could gather, it was a rough one. And with the holidays coming up, and knowing you’re going to spend another year alone, you said it wasn’t likely to get any easier.”
Damn. She’d shared that? Hadn’t she revealed enough when she took off her clothes? “My birthday was fine. Spending another Christmas as a single woman is fine. Everything’s fine.” How could she complain when she’d always had it so good?
She could hear the scrape of his beard growth as he ran a hand over his chin. “What’s that saying about protesting too much?”
“I’m not protesting.”
“If you say so.”
Holding the sheet in place, she slid a few more inches away from him, but she couldn’t go far. She was about to fall out of bed. He wasn’t bulky, but he had wide shoulders and he didn’t seem to be concerned about giving her space. “If you know it was my birthday, you remember more than getting dropped off here,” she said.
“It’s coming back to me.”
Bits and pieces were coming back to her, too. How she’d noticed him watching her from where he sat alone at the bar. How she’d danced for him in such a seductive manner, reveling in the appreciation she kindled in his eyes. How he’d eventually gotten up and walked over to join her. How he’d danced with her, so cautiously and respectfully even though the sparks between them felt like they were about to burn the place down.
How she’d slipped through the crush of bodies on the dance floor to catch her breath outside and he’d followed….
There were still things she couldn’t recall, however, and his name was one of them. Had he ever told her what it was?
“Who are you?” she asked.
Without even a stretch or a concluding peck on the cheek, he climbed out of bed and started to dress.
At least she wouldn’t have to ask him to leave, she told herself. It looked as if he planned on walking into the sunset—or sunrise since it was early—as soon as possible. But this wasn’t New York or Los Angeles. He couldn’t just hail a taxi. She lived in the Sierra Nevada foothills of Northern California in one of the many mining towns along Highway 49 that had sprung up when gold was discovered a century and a half ago. It was a community that hadn’t changed as much as one might expect in such a modern, technologically advanced world. And if the lack of urban conveniences in Whiskey Creek wasn’t enough of an obstacle, she lived several miles outside town. There was very little traffic out here and no buses or other public transit.
He’d have a long hike if he intended to make his way back to Whiskey Creek without catching a ride from her.
Or maybe he planned to call someone. He had a cell phone and, for the most part, there was service.
“You won’t answer?” she asked.
“What difference does my name make?” he finally responded.
That set off alarm bells, since one of the other things she couldn’t recall was whether they’d used any birth control. He wasn’t one of those weirdoes who went around purposely infecting people with HIV, was he?
“You don’t want me to know who you are?”
Having donned his boxers, he jammed one leg and then the other into a pair of well-worn jeans. “I don’t see any purpose in exchanging personal information.”
So he’d already decided he wasn’t going to see her again. She hadn’t been entirely sure she wanted to see him. He hadn’t been that friendly so far, but she felt a measure of disappointment all the same. She had enjoyed what she could remember of last night— and what she remembered more than anything else was the way he kissed. It was so good, so completely bone-melting, that she grew warm just thinking about it. A man who really knew how to kiss a woman seemed like a nice place to start a love affair.
“What if I need to reach you?” she asked. To tell him he’d given her herpes, for instance.
He lowered his voice. “I’m sorry, but last night…I shouldn’t have let it go the way it did. I knew better and…I wasn’t going to, but…God, you can dance.”
“So you do have one nice thing to say….”
“I told you not to take what we were doing seriously, but…I’m sure that’s all forgotten. So I’ll say it again. I’m not interested in a relationship.”
He couldn’t even take her to dinner before calling it quits?
Obviously her luck with men wasn’t improving—even when she opened herself up to a random encounter.
“Why?” she asked. “Are you married?” At this point, his rejection was so unequivocal she almost hoped he was. Then she wouldn’t have to credit it to some failing on her part.
“No.” He didn’t even look over when he responded.
“You have a girlfriend, then?” Jared. She was almost certain he’d said his name was Jared….
“No. I might be a lot of things, but I’ve never been a cheater.”
Great. She must’ve acted like a desperate idiot last night. Or maybe she wasn’t nearly as good at kissing—or other activities— as she was at dancing.
“Was it something I did?” Normally, she wouldn’t have asked. It was difficult to lower her pride. But if he was going to brush her off anyway, what could it hurt to learn the reason? Maybe that information would help her know why she couldn’t seem to find Mr. Right.
That was it? That was all the feedback he was willing to give her? “You’re far too generous. Thanks for the reassurance.”
He glanced up at her sarcasm. “At least I meant what I said. It’s not you. It has nothing to do with you.”
But he still wasn’t interested. Why? “Just tell me we used some protection, Jared,” she said. “Then you can take off.”
“Of course we used protection.” He scowled, but she couldn’t tell if that was in reaction to her remembering his name or the nature of her question. “I wouldn’t leave either of us vulnerable to what could happen without it.”
She clutched the sheet tighter. “How do I know you’re telling the truth?”
“Condom wrapper’s on the floor. I’ll leave it for you to throw away, if that makes you feel any more secure. And just to reassure you, I’m clean.”
Seeing the wrapper he’d mentioned peeking out from under her nightstand, she breathed a sigh of relief. “Not that you seem worried but…just in case, so am I.”
“What?” He was searching for the rest of his clothes.
“Clean. Well, to be totally honest I’ve never been tested. I wouldn’t even know where to go to get tested. But I’ve only been with three other guys, and one of them was clear back in high school, when we were both virgins.”
He got down to peer under the bed and came up with a missing sock. “Going by what you told me last night, they were all from around here.”
“What difference does that make?”
“This place doesn’t strike me as a hotbed for venereal disease.”
She watched as he sat down and pulled on his hiking-style boots. He stood without lacing them. “Don’t tell me I gave you my whole sexual history,” she said.
“Why? You don’t have much of one. It didn’t take long.”
“Sounds as if I was a bit of a blabbermouth.” That wasn’t appealing. She probably wasn’t experienced enough for him.
“You were trying to explain why you were so hungry for a man.”
There was no judgment or accusation in his tone. It sounded as though he was merely trying to jog her memory. But she didn’t want to be perceived as sexually aggressive. Most people didn’t consider that a positive trait, especially when it was associated with a woman.
“I’m sorry if I was too…uninhibited or—or overeager.”
“You were honest about your needs, which is why I thought I could fulfill them. Our exchange was simple. Straightforward. Nothing wrong with that.”
“I’m glad you’re satisfied.”
He reached for his shirt. “You’re not?”
She knew he was referring to the many orgasms he’d given her and changed the subject. “Why are you here? In Whiskey Creek, I mean. What brought you to this area?”
“I wanted a change of pace. Heard it was pretty up this way.”
“So it’s not because of your job.”
“I’m taking some time off.”
She noticed another scar, this one on his back. “Were you in a car accident or something?”
He didn’t seem surprised by the question. She could only assume he heard it every time he bared his upper body.
What she saw didn’t look like a shark bite. It looked like he’d been cut by a knife, or maybe he’d been caught in barbed wire. “Really?”
For whatever reason, he didn’t want her to know anything about him. “Are you like this with all women—or is it just me?”
He didn’t answer. After shrugging into his shirt, he buttoned it and then paused at the foot of the bed. “Last night was—” he seemed to be putting some effort into choosing the right words “— a welcome diversion. Thank you.”
“And thank you for making me feel like a worthless piece of trash you tossed aside.” Those words rushed out of her mouth before she could stop them. She was offended that he wouldn’t even tell her his name, that she’d had to remember it without any help from him, but she could only blame herself for this situation. She was the one who’d extended the invitation. Actually, she’d done more than that. She’d enticed him. She’d never acted so wanton in her life.
She thought he’d walk out on her. But he didn’t. As he stood there, staring at her, a muscle moved in his cheek. “Do you ever have any thoughts that don’t come out of your mouth?”
She raised her chin to let him know she didn’t care if he approved of her or not. The fact that last night really hadn’t meant anything to him, not even enough that he’d want to have a cup of coffee together, stung and she’d reacted. She wasn’t going to beat herself up over it. “Not often. Why, does my frank approach wound your sensitive nature?”
“Some things are better left unsaid.”
The disappointment and anger he inspired bubbled to the surface again. “If I was as good at feeling nothing as you seem to be, I wouldn’t have any trouble divorcing my mouth from my heart. Maybe not caring is something you get better at with practice.”
“This isn’t my fault,” he said. “You needed an escape last night as badly as I did.”
As his gaze moved over her, she got the impression he was speculating on whether she needed another escape now. There was a flutter in her stomach, her breath caught in her throat and it seemed as though time stood still. As though…she wasn’t sure what. She didn’t like him, resented how he’d treated her this morning, and yet…the sizzling attraction that had brought them together in the first place hadn’t disappeared. That was suddenly obvious.
The intensity on his face made her think he might return to the bed. But then he reined himself in, hard, and that hungry expression was hidden by a stoic mask. “Just because I don’t say everything you want me to doesn’t mean I feel nothing.”
It took a moment for her to collect herself, but as he started down the hall, she called out, “It’s a long walk to town. And it’s December. Are you sure you don’t want me to give you a ride?”
“No, I’ll make my own way back,” he replied.