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MAGICAL HOLIDAY ROMANCES, BOOK ONE

SECOND CHANCES

SECOND CHANCES

Carter Reed goes to bed on Christmas Eve wishing for a different life — and wakes up on Christmas morning married to Kenzie Monroe, the woman who got away! Now all he has to do is find a way to keep the life he always wanted… A heartwarming holiday romance.

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He wakes up Christmas morning with a wife he never married.

Yeah, that’s a weird way to start the day.

On Christmas Eve, Carter Reed sits in a bar and regrets the decision he made ten years earlier that tore the love of his life from him. Mackenzie Monroe was his everything, but he left her behind to follow his dreams. Now those dreams all revolve around her. The one who got away.

Or so he thinks.

A not-so-chance encounter with a mysterious stranger sends Carter on a mystical journey to fix the mistakes of the past. He goes to bed, alone and lonely, but on Christmas morning, he wakes up on a couch that isn't his . . .

in a town he hasn't visited in years . . .

and with Kenzie as his wife.

But the life he's wished for isn't all smooth sailing, and Carter quickly learns marriage and family come with their own challenges. He has a tough road ahead in his strange, new world.And if he doesn't find the key to Kenzie's heart, he could lose her all over again.

Second Chances is a story about a man who gets a peek at what his life could be, if only he'd walked a different path. In the tradition of It's a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol, it's a heartwarming romance sprinkled with a touch of magic that's sure to become a holiday favorite.

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Carter had no idea how long he wandered the wintry streets, avoiding eye contact with anyone he encountered, and ignoring the happy sounds of Christmas around him. A passing car hit a slushy puddle, splashing icy water up his leg and Carter barely noticed.

She was gone.

Gone.

He was such an idiot. If only he’d had an ounce of courage, he’d have proposed ten years ago. They’d be together today. He’d be the one with his hand at her back. He’d be the one bringing her champagne and making her laugh.

He’d be the one loving her . . . being loved by her.

The sound of angry voices brought Carter out of his bout of self-loathing. He looked up and realized he had arrived back at the bar where he’d started off the evening. A group of men hovered in the shadows of an alley next to the bar, and it took a moment for Carter to comprehend what was happening. Two large men dressed in black were standing over another, smaller man cowering on the ground. As Carter watched, one of the men pulled his leg back and kicked the smaller one in the stomach. The man cried out in pain, clutching his abdomen.

“Hey!” Carter called out on instinct. “Hey! What do you think you’re doing?”

The men turned to him, and to Carter’s surprise, took off running down the alley. Carter hurried over to the man lying on the ground, glancing up to see the attackers had disappeared around the corner. He crouched down over the victim.

“Are you all right?” he asked, reaching for his cell phone. “Don’t move. I’ll call an ambulance . . . and the police.”

“No. It’s all right,” the man said, sitting up and running his hands through his hair and over his rumpled shirt. “I’m fine. You scared them off before they could really hurt me.”

Carter watched the man warily as he stood up. “Are you sure? That big guy kicked you pretty hard.”

The man grinned and patted his stomach. “I’m tougher than I look,” he replied.

Carter hoped so, because the guy didn’t look tough at all. Fair-haired and baby-faced, he looked young, but for some reason his blue eyes had an air of wisdom that made Carter believe he was older than he thought. He was dressed in a white shirt and faded blue jeans—no coat—and Carter was surprised to find there was not a speck of dirt on him.

Weird.

“I’m Henry,” he said with a smile, holding out his hand. Carter shook it gently.

“Carter,” he replied automatically. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

Henry waved a hand. “I’m fine, thanks to you. Not a lot of people would have intervened in a situation like that.”

Carter shrugged, a little embarrassed by the praise. “I’m sure anyone would have.”

“You don’t know people like I know people.” Henry looked up at the neon sign in the bar window. “Can I buy you a drink? It’s the least I can do.”

Carter started to refuse. The last thing he needed was more alcohol in his depressed state. But Henry was watching him with such a look of gratitude and enthusiasm, he found himself accepting the offer.

They walked into the dimly lit bar and Carter took a seat on the same stool he’d had before. Henry sat down next to him and held up a finger to the bartender, ordering two whiskeys on the rocks. Carter blinked in surprise that the guy would know his drink of choice.

Henry grinned. “Lucky guess,” he said. “So, Carter,” he continued, ignoring Carter’s mystified expression. “What are you doing wandering around the city streets on Christmas Eve? Don’t you have somewhere to be?”

Carter took a gulp of his drink, relishing in the burn as it made its way to his stomach. “Nope.”

“No? Me neither. Just hanging out, enjoying the atmosphere,” Henry said brightly.

Carter raised an eyebrow. “Didn’t look like you were enjoying it much.”

Henry shrugged. “Oh, well . . . that’s in the past. No point in dwelling on it,” he replied cheerfully, swirling the ice in his own drink. He had yet to take a sip of it, and when he noticed Carter had already drained his, he slid it across the bar to him. “Help yourself,” he said. “I’m not really much of a drinker.”

Carter nodded in thanks and lifted the glass to his lips. He absently noticed familiar dialogue coming from the TV above the bar and looked up to see the same scene from It’s a Wonderful Life playing again—when George was about to jump from the bridge. Carter assumed they were running a Christmas Eve marathon or something.

“Great movie,” Henry said quietly.

Carter just drank his whiskey, letting the cool liquid warm in his mouth before trailing down his throat. He could feel the slight numbness move through his body, slowing his movements and relaxing his muscles. He watched the old black and white movie silently, listening to the familiar lines.

“I’m worth more dead than alive,” George lamented.

“Now look, you mustn’t talk like that,” the angel, Clarence, said reproachfully. “I won’t get my wings with that attitude. You just don’t know all that you’ve done. If it hadn’t been for you . . .”

George interrupted, “Yeah, if it hadn’t been for me, everybody’d be a lot better off . . .”

“Sad, isn’t it?” Henry drew Carter’s attention. “To be so full of regret.”

Carter said nothing. The warmth of the room combined with the whiskey caused him to sway slightly on his stool, his eyes still focused on the screen.

“So you still think killing yourself would make everyone happier, eh?” Clarence asked.

“Oh, I don’t know,” George admitted. “I guess you’re right. I suppose it would have been better if I’d never been born at all.”

“You ever feel like that, Carter?” He turned to see Henry studying him intently.

“Like I want to kill myself?” Carter scoffed. “No.”

“No, that’s not what I meant,” Henry replied softly. “I meant, have you ever felt like you’ve failed? Like if you could go back and do things over again, you’d make different choices?”

Carter shrugged, draining his glass. “Who hasn’t?”

“What would you change, Carter?” Henry asked as Carter squirmed slightly under his scrutiny. “If you could fix one mistake in your past, what would it be?”

Carter considered the question for a moment. He didn’t know why he felt compelled to answer such a personal question posed by a stranger. Perhaps it was the alcohol . . . or the emotional turmoil of the evening. Maybe he was just feeling sorry for himself. Whatever the reason, he found himself saying just one word.

“Kenzie.”

Henry smiled and patted Carter on the shoulder. “I need to go,” he said abruptly, getting off his barstool. “Thanks again for your help tonight, Carter.” He reached into his pocket and placed a shiny metal ball on the bar in front of him. It took a moment for Carter to recognize it as a jingle bell. With a wary eye on Henry, he picked it up, the bell tinkling slightly.

“If you ever need me, just give that a jingle,” he said seriously. “It only works three times, so make sure it’s really important, okay?”

Carter was confused, and wondered if he was drunker than he thought . . . or if Henry was some kind of lunatic. “What are you talking about?”

A huge grin split Henry’s face. “I’m talking about second chances, Carter. An opportunity to set things right.” He slapped the bar beside him to emphasize his words.

Carter stared at him blankly for a moment before erupting in laughter. The guy was obviously crazy. “Okay . . . right . . . yeah,” he said, putting the bell in his pocket. “Thanks for the drink.” He lifted his nearly empty glass in salute.

“Don’t lose the bell, Carter,” Henry warned, suddenly solemn. “If you do, there won’t be any way for me to help you.”

Carter stared at him for a moment, his smile falling as a slight shiver raced up his spine. “Who are you?”

Henry smiled softly, turning for the door. “Go home and go to bed, Carter,” he suggested. “There’s a cab outside. It’ll all make more sense in the morning.” He walked out, the door drifting shut silently behind him.

Carter stared after him for a moment, then turned back to the TV, finishing his drink as he watched a little more of the movie. He set the glass on the counter, along with a five dollar tip, and headed outside. Sure enough, there was a cab waiting at the curb. Carter got inside and slumped against the seat, tugging his tie loose as the driver pulled away from the bar.

The drive back to the hotel was quick and filled with flashes of Kenzie—memories of their time together . . . laughter and tears . . . always interspersed with the new, troubling images of her with the tall, dark man.

Kenzie . . .

If only . . .

“Hey, buddy, is this the place?” The cab driver’s voice jarred him out of his thoughts.

Carter looked out the window at his hotel and nodded at the driver, handing him a twenty before getting out. He took a deep breath, focusing on walking a straight line through the lobby and into the elevator, giving in to his inebriation and leaning against the wall once the doors shut. He managed to make it down the hall and to his room, getting the door open after three attempts. He shrugged out of his jacket as the door closed, toeing off his shoes before falling into bed, fully dressed. He felt a digging in his hip and reached into his pocket, pulling out the little bell with an irritated moan.

He fell asleep with it clutched in his hand, finally succumbing to the oblivion of a dark, dreamless sleep.

***

A loud whirring sound pounded its way into Carter’s brain. He moaned, pulling the pillow over his head and wishing whoever was stabbing ice picks into his eye sockets would please stop.

Immediately.

The whirring paused, only to start up again and Carter rolled over, giving up on any hope of sleeping off his hangover. Maybe there was construction going on outside the hotel . . . or someone had ridden a Harley into his suite. At any rate, sleep was apparently off the table.

He frowned at the feel of rough fabric under his cheek. He’d thought he made it to the bed last night, but maybe he’d fallen asleep on the floor. Without opening his eyes, he reached out to touch whatever he was sleeping on.

Huh. A couch.

But he thought the couch in his suite was leather . . . white leather, if he recalled correctly.

Fighting the pain throbbing in his skull, Carter opened his bleary eyes slowly, blinking them to focus on his surroundings. He stared unseeingly for a moment, unable to rationalize the vision before him.

He wasn’t in his hotel room. He was in a house . . . in a living room. He scanned the room slowly, taking in the overfilled bookshelf . . . the large-screen TV in the corner partially blocked by the Christmas tree . . . the two matching arm chairs positioned across a low coffee table from the couch where he was lying.

Where in the world was he?

“Morning,” a raspy voice said on a yawn as the owner of the voice walked across the room in front of him toward the kitchen. “I made some coffee if you want some.”

Carter sat up slowly, squinting at the man talking to him. He wore loose pajama pants and a ratty t-shirt, but he was familiar—the olive skin and short-cropped black hair pinging a memory. “Noah?”

He hadn’t seen Noah Collins since he left Seattle . . . barely spoken to him since then. And he was in his living room?

“What are you doing here?” Carter asked in shock.

Noah laughed, taking a sip of his coffee as he leaned against the kitchen counter. “It’s my house, jerk. How much did you have to drink last night, anyway?”

Before Carter could answer, a bouncing blur swept through the room toward Noah.

“Merry Christmas, handsome,” the blur said once she’d stilled, planting a kiss on Noah’s waiting lips.

“Lydia?” Carter said, finally realizing he must be in some crazy dream. A dream where his former best friend and his sister were apparently involved. And he slept on their couch.

Lydia ignored him, easily jumping into Noah’s arms and wrapping her long legs around his waist. Noah caught her with one arm, not even spilling his coffee, and returned her increasingly passionate kisses.

“Ugh. I don’t need to see that,” Carter complained, clenching his eyes shut at the sight of his sister, dressed only in a t-shirt and underwear, mauling a guy right in front of him.

Without missing a beat, Lydia said over her shoulder. “Then go home, Carter. That’s where you should be anyway. It’s Christmas.” She slid down Noah’s body, kissing him once more before turning to her brother as she tugged her long blond hair into a bun, securing it with a band from around her wrist. “Did you even call Kenzie last night and let her know where you were?”

Carter blinked at her. “Kenzie?”

Lydia rolled her eyes. “You didn’t, did you? Well, lucky for you, I did. Otherwise, she would have the police out looking for you. You should be grateful we even let you in last night after Kenzie tossed you out.”

Carter’s head was swimming. “She tossed me out?”

Lydia leaned in, sniffing him slightly. “Ugh. You smell like a brewery. You really don’t remember last night?” At Carter’s blank look, she continued. “The Christmas party? Getting drunk as a skunk and going home? Kenzie telling you to get your act together or not bother coming back?” Lydia shook her head in a mix of pity and frustration. “Seriously, Carter, when are you going to get it through that thick head of yours that Kenzie’s the best thing that ever happened to you?”

Carter couldn’t argue that point. “I know,” he said quietly.

“Well then act like it!” she exclaimed, slapping him on the back of the head and causing the relentless pounding to intensify. He heard Noah chuckle.

“Go home, Carter,” Lydia said on a sigh. “We’ll see you back here at six for dinner, right?”

Carter hesitated, but decided that in a dream it was usually best to play along. “Six. Right.”

“Okay.” Lydia leaned in and kissed his cheek. “And take a shower, for heaven’s sake.”

The next thing he knew, he’d been all but shoved out the door. He turned to the long gravel driveway, huddled in his jacket, and wondered what to do next. Then he was hit by something strange.

No snow.

It had been snowing the night before. Snowing hard. But in the gray light of dawn, a light drizzle fell from the sky and water dripped from the eaves on the house and the trees around him. Carter pulled his hand from his coat pocket, finally realizing he was holding something.
Uncurling his fingers, he recognized the little bell that Henry had given him the night before.

Shoving it into his pants pocket, he also noticed he was not wearing the clothes he’d gone to sleep in. Instead, he was dressed in a pair of dark jeans and boots, a blue button-down over a white thermal, and a heavy denim jacket. He rubbed a hand over his face, surprised to find it mostly covered by hair. He’d never had a beard before. His job had always required him to remain clean-shaven, except for the occasional rugged five-o-clock shadow when he was embedded in a war zone or something.

What a weird dream. Lydia and Noah were together. He and Kenzie were apparently together, although having some issues. And evidently, he was some kind of lumberjack.

Or an Eddie Bauer model.

Or maybe just a denim addict.

Carter sighed and stepped off the front porch and walked down the little path to the driveway where two small cars and an SUV were parked. He turned back to the little A-frame, trying to determine if he recognized it.

He didn’t.

He looked down the driveway toward the street, wondering where he was supposed to go. On a hunch, he searched his pockets, letting out a victorious chuckle when he found a cell phone and a set of keys. He pressed the button on a key fob and was rewarded by the sound of a door unlocking. He approached the little sedan parked next to the SUV and opened the driver’s side door.

Carter looked over the little black car. It was a Honda Civic . . . late 90s, he guessed, with a creased rear quarter panel streaked with a bit of yellow paint. He wondered what he’d hit. With a heavy sigh he folded his tall frame into the driver’s seat and tapped his fingers on the steering wheel, again wondering what to do next.

Where to go?

Normally, in a dream, it was pretty obvious what to do. Actually, now that he thought about it, normally things just kind of happened around you and you went along for the ride. The quiet around him was strange. There was nobody else around, and the only sound was the dripping rain and his own breathing. Once again he looked around, still unsure of where he was.

It sure didn’t look like New York.

Smoke curled from the chimney of Noah’s little house, twisting through the towering pines and cedars to the gray skies overhead. No, it didn’t look like New York at all. It almost looked like . . .

Carter reached into his back pocket and pulled out a worn leather wallet. He flipped it open, absently noting a handful of credit cards and about twenty bucks in cash. He examined the driver’s license behind a sheet of clear plastic, his bearded face staring back at him, unsmiling. He looked at the address.

Woodlawn.

Woodlawn, Washington. His hometown . . . a town he hadn’t been back to but a handful of times since he’d left for New York.

Carter could only assume that seeing Kenzie the night before had sparked the rather strange dream he was having. He found himself unwilling to wake up, however. At least, not until he’d seen Kenzie.

He concentrated, wondering if he could make it that far. Usually, it wasn’t long after you realized you were dreaming that you were already half-awake. Studying the address on his driver’s license, he decided he might as well try.

He started the little car, or at least tried to. It took three attempts before the engine finally caught and he pulled out of the driveway. Once he made it to the main road, things started to look familiar. He realized that Noah had built his house on a piece of land they all used to hang out on when they were in high school. If Carter recalled correctly, there was a swimming hole about a hundred feet beyond Noah’s house. They’d had a lot of fun at that pond over the years.

It had been fun growing up in Woodlawn. Established as a logging town, Woodlawn had prospered until the early nineties when the endangered Spotted Owl forced the end of logging in old growth forests in the northwest. Some said it was only a matter of time, anyway—the loss of those forests would have come sooner or later—but it was a blow to the little town. The mills shut down, jobs were lost, families moved away. But those that stayed became a tight-knit group. And Woodlawn had survived, transforming into a tourist stop for those heading to the Washington coast with its cafes, antique shops, and quaint bed and breakfasts.

Carter found himself smiling as he made his way through town. It hadn’t changed much, not that he’d expected it would. It made sense that it would look as he remembered it. He turned down Calawah Way, past the mobile home park, then up Trillium Avenue and onto Mayberry Street, searching the houses for the right number.

He pulled up in front of a white two-story house, with blue trim and a black door. A Big Wheel lay overturned in the driveway next to a gray mini-van, and the front lawn was thick, evidencing the weeks of rainy weather. Carter climbed out of the car, surprised to find his stomach in knots.

It’s only a dream. He told himself over and over, like a mantra. Still, he was inexplicably nervous.

He fiddled with the keys in his hand, wondering if he should knock or just walk in. He ended up not having to decide, however, because just as he stepped up onto the front porch, the door was thrown open and he was hit in the chest with a heavy duffle bag.

Carter staggered slightly, catching the bag before it landed on the wet ground. Before he could fully recover, another smaller bag hit him in the head.

“What the—” He stumbled back off the porch and lost his balance, landing on his butt with a grunt as another bag slammed into his stomach. He looked up into a familiar face glaring down at him like an avenging angel.

“Violet?” Carter’s voice cracked in surprise at the appearance of Noah’s younger sister. “What in the world is going on?”

“What’s going on?” she hissed. “Seriously, Carter, do you even have to ask? Kenzie called me last night in tears after what you pulled and you expected to come back here and all would be forgiven? Not this time. No way!”

Carter managed to get to his feet. “Where’s Kenzie?”

She crossed her arms over her chest and blew a strand of black hair away from her cheek. “She doesn’t want to see you.”

A chill ran over his skin at the thought. “Violet. I want to talk to her.”

“Too bad,” she retorted. “She had a feeling you’d stop by and I was more than happy to stick around to make sure you got your stuff.” She waved a hand at the bags. “Feel free to take them over to Noah’s or wherever you’re staying, because she doesn’t want you here.”

“Vi, it’s Christmas.” It was lame, but the only argument he could think of. He really had no idea what was going on, after all . . . and, dream or no dream, he wanted to see Kenzie.

Violet Collins was not one to succumb to pity, however. “You should have thought of that before you took off—on Christmas Eve, Carter—and acted like a drunken moron. You know it’s not just about last night. She’s tired of it all, Carter. She’s tired of you.”

With that, Violet walked back into the house and slammed the door, leaving Carter standing stunned at the bottom of the porch stairs.

A sickening feeling twisted in his stomach as he realized a few things. First, he hurt. His butt was sore and his hand was bleeding where he scraped it on the walkway trying to catch his fall. Second, the rain was falling harder and he was starting to shiver, his clothes cold and wet and his hair dripping into his eyes.

Which led him to a conclusion that was illogical . . . impossible . . . but twitching at the edge of his consciousness. One he didn’t even want to consider.

Carter closed his eyes, willing himself to awaken. He’d done it hundreds of times in the past when a nightmare got too frightening. All he had to do was concentrate and he’d open his eyes and be back in his own bed, this bizarre experience melting away into barely recognizable glimpses.

Just a few more minutes.

He waited.

The rain fell harder, thunder clapped, and he saw lightning flash through his closed eyelids.

Little while longer.

Any time now.

“Carter?” A quiet voice forced his eyes open. He inhaled sharply as her face came into view.

Kenzie. Her dark hair and warm, brown eyes. Her turned up nose and soft, pink lips. Lips turned down a little at the edges, tight with tension.

“Why are you standing in the rain?” she asked, her arms clutched across her stomach defensively as she stood in the open doorway. “I thought you left.”

Carter stared at her in silence for a moment, unable to find words. She was dressed in a pair of faded jeans and t-shirt under a red plaid flannel shirt with the arms rolled up. He wondered if it was one of his.

He found he liked that idea.

She took in the wet bags lying on the ground and Carter’s soaked clothes and sighed. “I’m sorry about Vi,” she said finally. “You know how protective she is, and after last night . . .” Her voice drifted off as she looked away, brushing at her cheeks. Carter’s heart sank as he realized she was crying.

“Kenzie . . . I’m sorry.”

She shrugged, looking into the distance again. “I know, Carter. You’re always sorry. That’s the problem, isn’t it?” She stepped back from the door. “You might as well come in and get dried off. We can talk about this later. I know the kids would love to see you.”

Carter’s step faltered as he moved forward.

Wait a second. What?

Kids?

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