Have yourself a steamy little Christmas…
After three years in prison, freight train engineer Lacey Gallagher doesn’t expect this Christmas to be very merry and bright. At least chopping down trees for her brother’s Christmas tree farm will help her save money to get her life back on track. All her plans derail, though, when her new job puts her in territory patrolled by the man who haunts her dreams—the forest ranger who sent her to prison.
Austin Wilder isn’t thrilled about Lacey working in his forest—but he soon realizes he needs her help. His family is depending on him to restore an old steam train for a spectacular Christmas event, and train expert Lacey is his only hope of finishing in time.
Working together challenges every assumption Lacey and Austin have about each other, and they discover a desire hot enough to melt even the deepest Montana snow. But will the season of second chances be enough to mend the most hardened broken heart?
Publication date: November 1, 2020
Publisher: Agony and Hope Publishing
Ebook ISBN: 9789082295184
Audiobook ISBN: 9789083154053
(Please note that this book was originally published in 2015 by Tule Publishing. The book has been re-edited and re-released by Kat Latham’s company, Agony and Hope Publishing.)
“If you are looking for Christmas miracles and a book that will make you feel really happy, I’d highly recommend Three Nights Before Christmas!” —Harlequin Junkie, 5 stars
“Kat Latham is easily becoming one of my favorite authors. I don’t even need to read the blurb before I one-click.” —Fiction Fangirls, 5 stars
“Kat Latham is my new writing crush. Smart, funny, sexy contemporary romance that you simply can’t put down.” —Sarah Mayberry
“I was really blown away by this story.” —Guilty Pleasures Book Reviews
The lights in the unit went on at 5:45 a.m., but Lacey had lain awake on her hard prison cot for hours. In fact, she couldn’t be sure whether she’d even fallen asleep. She’d shut her eyes a few times and noticed that Charlene—who slept on the lower bunk of the bed next to hers—had flopped from her belly onto her back, but exhaustion made Lacey doubt she’d actually slept in those brief moments her eyes had been closed.
Just as she had every morning for the past 1,016 days, she rolled out of her bunk and rubbed the bleariness from her eyes. She rotated her shoulders and eased her neck from side to side, trying to work out the kinks, but, after nearly three years, they’d knotted themselves so tightly into her muscle memory she doubted anything could unravel them.
Grumbles and groans filled the air as the other fifteen women in the dorm-style cell reacted to the coming of another miserable day, a day of no surprises—at least, that was the best one could hope for in prison. Surprises here were never good.
But for Lacey, everything that came after breakfast would be a surprise. Oh, she knew the outline of her day’s schedule—it had been flashing in her brain like a beacon ever since her lawyer had given her the good news three weeks ago—but understanding a timetable of events was not the same as knowing how she would react to those events. Right now, trepidation warred with her exhaustion, but she had to get through two more hours in purgatory before the rest of her life could start.
“What do you think it’ll be today—rehydrated eggs and cardboard potatoes, or cardboard potatoes and rehydrated eggs?” Charlene asked, pushing herself out of her bunk.
“Forget today,” Monique called across the cell as she dropped trou and plunked herself onto the open-air toilet they all shared. “What about tomorrow? Turkey patty, obviously, but do you think we’ll get a Twinkie?”
“My cousin said they don’t sell Twinkies anymore,” Charlene shouted back. “Hostess went belly-up.”
“Yeah, the original company did,” Lacey said, “but some billionaire bought them out and started making them again.”
Charlene put her hand on her hip, her eyes narrowing. “How d’you know that?”
“Newspaper.” Her brother, Sawyer, had bought her subscriptions to the Copper Mountain Courier—their local paper—and the Washington Post. She’d really only wanted the Post, but it didn’t pay to look too uppity around here, so she’d claimed she did it for the funnies. Whenever she read the more serious sections, she hid them behind the Courier. “But they never give us the real-brand stuff, anyway. Just knock-offs. I’m guessing we’ll get—”
The words jammed in her throat. Not we. You.
“Lace?” Charlene’s dark brows pulled together.
Lacey gave her a brief smile. “My money’s on a donut—not chocolate or jelly filled. Something beige and so dry it makes you choke.”
“Happy Thanksgiving to us,” Charlene said, her voice dripping with irony.
The cell door slid open, and several women filed out on their way to the chow hall. Charlene took a step to follow them, but Lacey laid her hand on her friend’s arm and Charlene stopped, giving her a curious look.
“I need to tell you something,” Lacey whispered.
Charlene threw her hands in the air. “Oh, shit. No, you don’t. I don’t want to know anything.”
“Yeah, you do.”
“No, no, no, no, no. No. I really don’t. Knowing something was how I ended up here. Nothing good comes from knowing something.”
Lacey snorted. “Nothing good comes from not knowing something, either. Believe me.” Ignorance was how she’d ended up here. The unforgiving voice of the forest ranger who’d arrested her vibrated through her memory, telling the jury, “She’s either guilty of transportation of a controlled substance or of criminal stupidity.”
She’d certainly been guilty of one of those. The jury had convicted her of the other.
“This isn’t something that’ll get you in trouble.” Lacey reached for the well-worn books and box of third-hand art supplies she kept on the shelves next to her bunk. “Here. These are for you.”
“Oh, no.” Charlene blinked. “You’re kidding.”
Lacey shook her head, her throat suddenly swelling to the point it made words impossible.
“When did you find out?”
She cleared her throat once. Twice. “Um…” And again. “Three weeks ago.”
She didn’t need to make excuses to her old friend. Charlene had already been here for two years when Lacey had arrived and had taken Lacey under her wing, explaining how things worked inside. If you get paroled, don’t tell anyone you’re going till the last possible minute. Some people in here will be so jealous they’ll want to mess things up for you. Mess you up. And especially don’t tell me. After all my years working in a beauty parlor, I gossip better than I cut hair.
“So you’ll be home for Thanksgiving.”
“And Christmas,” Charlene said, her voice tinged with wistfulness.
“Yeah.” Lacey struggled to work up enthusiasm for the holidays. It would just be her and Sawyer, since their parents had moved to Florida a few years ago in search of warmer weather to relieve Dad’s arthritis. They’d booked a Caribbean cruise before she’d found out about her parole, so they wouldn’t even be contactable until almost Christmas. Considering Sawyer spent this time of year running their family’s Christmas tree farm, and since one of her parole conditions was that she be teetotal, she doubted the holidays would be very festive.
But she would at least be free.
“Shit, you’re gonna have a real turkey,” Charlene said.
“God, I hope so. I never even used to like turkey, but I’m craving it now.” So badly her mouth started watering. “Even Brussels sprouts sound good.”
“But no potatoes.”
Lacey pretended to gag.
“When do you go?”
“I’m gonna miss you.” Her old friend threw her arms around Lacey’s shoulders, and they held each other close. Lacey buried her stinging eyes in Charlene’s shoulders. This woman had not only explained the unspoken rules of prison life to her but had saved her life when another inmate had targeted her. In their life outside, they never would’ve met. Charlene had been a hairdresser in Billings, and Lacey had been a freight train engineer based in Whitefish but spent most of her time chugging between there and Spokane.
But in here, social hierarchies crumbled and rebuilt themselves in weird ways.
Charlene sniffed and pulled away, straightening her shoulders. “Let’s go eat and celebrate.”
A couple hours later, with the chemical taste of powered eggs still making her tastebuds tingle, Lacey followed a burly female prison guard into a barren room she knew too well.
“Clothes off,” the guard said.
Lacey’s brows shot up. “Seriously? I’m going out, not coming in.”
The guard shrugged. “Got to make sure you’re not carrying any messages or contraband out.”
Lacey sighed and pulled her burgundy top off, then pushed her khaki pants and underwear down to her ankles, kicking free of them. She spread her legs and pressed her palms to the back of her head, waiting patiently as the guard examined her. This process had stopped being humiliating and started being routine about five hundred strip searches ago, but the fact she had no choice but to get naked at any female guard’s command still made her gut burn with indignation.
The next time I get naked in front of someone, it’ll be my choice. Mine.
Of all the aspects of life outside she’d taken for granted, control over who got to see her naked was one of the greatest.
When the guard was satisfied Lacey hadn’t squirreled anything away, she handed her a package with the distinctive logo of the catalog the inmates and their families were allowed to order from. It had been opened. “Congratulations. Someone really likes you. Got you the good stuff.”
Blood rushed to Lacey’s cheeks as she pulled a heap of new clothes from the package. Her old clothes were probably a size or two too small, so she’d needed release-day clothes. In here, it never paid to have the best of anything. She’d had to tell Sawyer long ago to cut down on the number of care packages he sent, since other women were becoming jealous—or even despondent from the fact their own husbands hadn’t visited, much less ordered them luxuries like candy and comfortable clothes.
But Sawyer hadn’t bought her these clothes. Jenna, her lawyer, had. And Jenna had awesome taste. Black jeans, faded and distressed in places that would draw attention away from the fifteen pounds Lacey had packed on through years of carb overload and little activity. A hunter-green Henley that would match Lacey’s eyes. And an oatmeal-colored winter sweater that felt snuggly warm without being bulky. None of it matched Jenna’s impeccable style; these clothes could’ve belonged to the old Lacey, the one who repaired faulty freight train engines instead of clogged prison toilets. The outdoorsy young woman who barreled through the northern states at a hundred miles an hour, not the pallid woman whose every step seemed to take tortoise-like determination.
Lacey had just bent over to step into the plain cotton underwear when the shriek of an alarm split the air and a red light strobed across the room. Surprise flashed on the guard’s face as she laid her hand on her gun and rushed to the door. “Don’t move,” she shouted at Lacey on her way. “Not a single muscle, understand?”
Jaw practically unhinged, Lacey watched the door slam and heard the click of the deadbolt as she was left alone—doubled over with only her ankle decently covered by the underwear. “God,” she muttered, “if you’re up there, this isn’t funny.”
By the time the guard returned, Lacey’s back had seized up. She’d given up on staying completely still, but she hadn’t wanted to risk ticking the guard off so she’d sat down naked on the metal bench bolted to the wall, using her new clothes as padding because she didn’t want to think about how many other nekkid butts had sat on this bench. When the guard came back in, she made an exasperated noise that sounded like it cleared a hell of a lot of gunk from the back of her smoker’s throat. “Gone two hours and you couldn’t even bother to get dressed? Get your lazy ass moving. I don’t have all day.”
Lacey nearly choked, holding back her response. Freedom. So close. Don’t screw it up.
Once Lacey was dressed, the procedure for securing her freedom whizzed past in a blur of paperwork. She was given a check for $327.32, told to call her parole officer within twenty-four hours, escorted through a series of gates, and wished the best of luck.
“Someone coming to pick you up or you need a ride to the bus station?” the guard asked.
“My lawyer’s coming.”
The guard nodded and slammed the final gate closed behind Lacey with a threatening clang that made her jump. Don’t ever come back, its echo across the snowy parking lot seemed to say.
Her head jerked around at the sound of her lawyer’s voice coming from a distant end of the parking lot. Jenna Macintosh waved as she slammed the door of her SUV closed and strode toward her, looking savvy and oh-so-cute in her pointy glasses and feminine suit with her breath frosting the air. It took Lacey a second to remember she was actually allowed to cross the lot herself, but then her feet were moving, taking her first steps in the journey toward home. Before she knew it, she was engulfed in her second hug of the day. The unexpected contact froze her for a second until she could coax her arms to return it.
“Hope you haven’t been waiting too long,” she said. “There was a situation in one of the pods and it slowed everything down.”
“I got some work done, no problems.” Jenna’s tremendous smile lit up the grayness of the sky, the asphalt, the prison walls. Lacey hadn’t seen anyone smile like that—so genuinely, so openly—in a hell of a long time. Not unless they were planning something violent. Weird strands of discomfort slithered through her.
“You want to grab something to eat? Maybe some real coffee? There’s a Starbucks nearby.”
Oh, my God, I can go to Starbucks. Starfreakingbucks! Lacey slowly let her own smile break free. “Is it too early for a pumpkin spice latte?”
“Are you kidding? I’ve been mainlining those puppies for weeks. Come on.”
Jenna led her to the car, where Lacey tossed her bag of old clothes on the back seat. “Thanks for the new clothes. I really appreciate you ordering them for me.”
“You’ve got clothes and things at your brother’s place, right?” Jenna reversed out of the parking space.
Lacey’s attention snagged on the prison walls, growing more distant as they pulled out of the lot. How strange that they looked the same on both sides but filled her with entirely different emotions. “Yeah. I think so. I didn’t think to ask.” Sawyer had packed up her apartment after she’d been convicted, so she figured her stuff was probably in his attic. She glanced down at herself. “I hope my winter coats still fit. I porked up a bit. Then again, maybe the extra layer of fat will keep me warm.”
“Are there places you can pick up gear locally in Marietta, or should we try to find you a coat before we head down there?” Jenna asked, neatly avoiding commenting on Lacey’s weight.
“Marietta’s not exactly a one-horse town,” Lacey replied, relaxing a little as the conversation slipped toward inconsequential things. “We have electricity and running water and all the mod cons.”
“I didn’t mean it like that. I’ve just never been there. It could be one of those places with nothing but feed stores and flannel shirts and men who chew tobacco and whittle.”
Lacey’s smile grew. “Careful, city girl. That hole you’re digging just keeps getting bigger and bigger.”
They hit a Starbucks not far from the prison, and Jenna bought Lacey a venti pumpkin spice latte, since they hadn’t passed a bank where Lacey could cash her megabucks prison earnings. Lacey cradled the to-go cup in both hands, letting its warmth seep through her cold fingers. How in the world would she rebuild her life on just over $300? A hundred of that was a parting gift from the state so she wouldn’t be utterly destitute—only partly destitute. The rest was the sum total of her earnings working as a mechanic for the janitorial office for nearly three years. She’d earned sixty cents an hour; the prison had taken most of that back to recoup what they spent on her “room and board.” They’d put some in an account for her to spend through the prison catalog. The last few cents an hour went into this release-day check.
Good thing Jenna had taken on her case pro bono.
When they made it to the outskirts of Billings, Jenna grabbed her phone from the center console and handed it over. “Feel free to call your brother or anyone else if you like.”
Lacey stared at the phone. She’d faced Sawyer and his silent disappointment in the visitors’ room plenty of times. Today would be different. She didn’t want to forge their new relationship over the phone. She wanted to be able to judge his facial ticks, to get and give a hug. To meet him on equal footing.
She slid the phone back into the console. “Thanks, but we’ll be there soon enough.”
The drive to Marietta lasted a few hours, and Lacey pressed her face against the window for every second of it, drinking in the passing trees and snowdrifts. Feeling the brush of warm air from the Volvo SUV’s heater against her cheek. Sinking in to the luxurious seats, so much more comfortable than the hard plastic chairs at the prison. Listening to the familiar chants of “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” over the radio.
Once upon a time, it would’ve ticked her off to hear Christmas music before Thanksgiving. Now it lightened her spirit.
No more frozen meat patties. No more instant potatoes. No more taking on the worst jobs because someone else is too lazy to. No more guards on power trips.
If that wasn’t enough to make someone ding-dong merrily on high, she didn’t know what was.
“So, did they give you the contact details for your parole officer?”
Damn. There went her nascent holiday high. “Yeah, and they told me to get in touch with him in the next twenty-four hours.”
“I’d do it as soon as you get home, since tomorrow’s Thanksgiving. You don’t want to risk your freedom just because he’s out of the office and forgot to turn on his voicemail.”
Lacey’s heart leapt to her throat. “They can be that petty?”
“Depends who you get.”
Lacey fished the business card out of her jeans pocket. “Uh…Chester Robinson.”
“Ah, he’s ace. Ex-Marine so he doesn’t take any shit, but he’s also pretty good at figuring out what’s important and what’s not. Still, call him when you get home and see if he needs anything from you. He’ll probably just go over the rules with you. You know them already?”
“No alcohol. No firearms. Check in on whatever schedule he gives me. Call him immediately if I ever have a run-in with anyone in law enforcement. And no associating with other ex-cons.”
Ex-con. I’m an ex-con. She’d never said the word out loud before. No matter how many times she rolled it around in her head, it didn’t feel real, as if it belonged to someone on TV instead of a label she could own.
She hoped it never felt real.
By the time they drove through Marietta and made it to the farm a few miles past the town’s outskirts, Lacey’s stomach had knotted so hard it could’ve been tied by a sailor. Every piece of familiarity seemed to underlie how very different she was than the teenager who’d left home with the prospect of a big career and a chance to make her own way in the world. They passed the weathered sign she’d helped her dad make about two decades ago, Gallagher’s Christmas Tree Farm freshly painted in red with an arrow pointing left down the side road. Jenna slowed as the paved road turned into gravel, and even the sound of it hitting the SUV’s undercarriage took Lacey back to the nights she’d broken curfew to hang out with Dave, inching her mom’s car carefully over the drive in the hopes she wouldn’t wake her parents. If she had, they’d never confronted her about her tardiness. Sawyer, on the other hand, always seemed to know where she’d been, and after a couple of years he hadn’t even needed to voice his thoughts; she’d heard the criticism of her boyfriend enough to know how Sawyer rated him. Loser. Waste of time. Not good enough.
Damn it, but she still hated how right he’d been.
The gravel ended at a parking lot next to the log cabin she’d grown up in, the one her grandparents had built and her parents had extended. The outside was decorated for Christmas, something she knew Sawyer did only because it added to the farm’s festive feel and made customers more excited about buying the perfect tree. He’d strung bunting and flashing white fairy lights around the barn near the house, and he’d lit fires in a couple of forty-gallon drums flanking the barn’s door, brightening the ever-shortening winter day and providing some heat.
“Why don’t you go ahead and find your brother, and I’ll park the car,” Jenna suggested.
“Thanks.” Lacey couldn’t keep the gruffness from her voice, no matter how hard she swallowed. She slid out of the SUV, closing the door behind her and making her way across the lot. The chilly air bit through her sweater and shirt. She crossed her arms, pretending to warm herself up instead of giving herself a hug. She wandered through the cut firs and pines and spruces, displayed like a fragrant forest in their stands. She found Sawyer on the other side of the lot, feeding tree after tree through the baler, slimming them down with plastic wrap so families could get them in their cars and trucks. When he glanced up, his face ticked through several emotions so quickly she couldn’t catalog them. Her feet stopped moving. She’d been given two hugs today, one by Charlene and one by Jenna. Now she realized she wanted only one, a bear hug from her big brother that would make words unnecessary. An embrace that would sweep away all the disappointment she knew he felt even though he refused to come out and say it. One that would let her know they could start over, as fresh as seeds that hadn’t yet grown roots, much less fungus.
He straightened away from the baler, his gaze shifting over her just as hers did to him. How strange to stand and look at him after years of sitting uncomfortably across from him at a table and chairs too small for her, much less his carrying-sycamores-is-easy body. His face was hard, inscrutable and chiseled into sharp planes, but in the two months since she’d seen him his beard had grown unruly and hid most of his lower face. She was tempted to tell him he looked more like an ex-con than she did. He probably wouldn’t find the humor in that, though.
“Was beginning to think they hadn’t let you out.”
Well, shit. So much for that hug. “There was some stuff going down at the prison.”
She glanced at the ground, disappointment just about crushing her. She’d been stupid to expect anything effusive from him. Hell, he’d seemed more comfortable visiting her in prison, where strict rules regulated their interactions. Deciding it was better to keep things on the surface than to hope for something more, she asked about the scout groups that had come for their trees. “How did the big pick-ups go?”
“They went. Sorry I couldn’t reschedule them.”
Lacey shrugged. “It’s nearly Christmas. I get it.” It wasn’t as if he could spread the sale of Christmas trees across the year. Plus, her parole date had moved a few times. Until the gate had slammed closed behind her, she hadn’t fully believed it would happen today.
“Your room’s all ready and there’s plenty of food in the fridge if you’re hungry. I won’t be able to stop for long, not today.”
“I’ve had lunch. I’ll just get a coffee for Jenna, then I can pitch in and help out.”
“You don’t have to jump right in,” he said.
The hell she didn’t. He needed her help, and she’d needed a job offer to increase her chances of parole. Not for the first time in her life, Sawyer had pulled through for her. This time, she was determined to return the favor. “I want to get back into things. I want to work.”
But she also needed a buffer. She scanned the lot till she found Jenna warming her hands over one of the fire barrels. “Jenna,” she called. “Come meet my brother.”
After an introduction made painfully awkward by Sawyer becoming even less chatty than usual, Lacey suggested they go inside for some coffee. She needed a bit of warmth.
Sawyer had lived alone in the house for a few years, since her parents had moved to Florida, but he hadn’t made any changes. The interior looked just as it had when they were children, all country comfort and hearty welcome, with its cozy nooks, dormer windows and a stone fireplace mantle filled with pictures. Not the biggest or most luxurious house around, but not steel beds and open toilets either. If she closed her eyes she could imagine Grammy Gallagher cooking up a Thanksgiving feast. The memory was so strong she could even smell Grammy’s molasses cookies, a sure sign Christmas was just around the corner.
Needing to feel at home again, she led them into the kitchen and offered Jenna some food, which she turned down. So Lacey did what came naturally and raided the ceramic cookie jar. “What about some cookies? We’ve got chocolate chip and—” She spun to stare at her brother as he measured coffee grounds. “Oh, my God, Sawyer. Did you make molasses cookies?”
He shrugged, the blush spreading across his face the only sign he’d intentionally baked her favorite cookies.
“Thank you,” Lacey whispered, but all she got was another shrug.
Keep trying to change the men in your life, Lace. Good plan. It’s never failed you before. Talk about criminally stupid. Her shoulders sinking, she put a handful of cookies on a plate. “You have to have one of these cookies, Jenna. They’re Grammy Gallagher’s secret recipe. Not that there’s much secret to the ingredients—sugar, sugar, and more sugar. Oh, and don’t forget the butter.”
Babble, babble, and more babble. And don’t forget the awkward.
Damn, but she needed some fresh air. She drew in a deep breath. “Sawyer, have you thought about offering some of these to the customers?”
His brows crinkled. “Uh, no.”
“We should. Y’know, a special treat just before Thanksgiving. Half of them are probably just scoping out the trees at different farms before deciding where to buy from in December. Why don’t I go sweeten them up?”
She emptied the cookie jar onto another plate and tried not to look like she was fleeing the kitchen. The burble of percolating coffee was the only sound that followed her.
The air outside was so fresh, so crisp, it slapped her cheeks and pulled her attention to the sun dipping below the white-capped mountains to the west of the farm. Okay, so she’d had some expectations about what coming home would be like, and so far reality hadn’t lived up to the fantasy. But when did it ever?
Pasting a smile on her stinging face, she approached a man and woman warming their hands over one of the barrels. Time to start making herself useful. “Hey, there. Anyone want a molasses—”
The man turned, his grin slowly turning to confusion before freezing as her soul did the same. Her breath caught painfully in her chest, and the plate tumbled from her numb fingers.
Officer Austin Wilder, the man who’d sent her to prison and, as if that weren’t punishment enough, haunted her dirtiest dreams.
And just like three years ago, he was wearing his forest service uniform and leveling her with a hard look full of his intent to make her pay for her crimes.
Panic hit her hard.
No. I can’t go back yet. I just got out.