Cruise Photos

We left for Galveston on the 4th of July. It was a long drive through torrential downpours almost the entire way. We were a little cramped in my car, but it was alright. The hotel was OK. I expected a little bit more, but we didn’t splurge. I was surprised we got such a great deal at the last minute. We did venture out to see fireworks. I love fireworks. We missed most of it. Only saw about 10 or so minutes.

We were up and getting on the boat by 11:00 the next morning. I was nervous that it was going to be crazy and confusing getting parked and on, but the Port of Galveston has their shit together. I dropped all my people and our crap, drove alongside the boat to the lot, and got shuttled back. We went in and zoomed through all the beginning stuff and then waited to board.

My mom and youngest brother and friend went, but we were part of a larger group of my mom’s classmates and other 80s alumni from our high school. Most were couples, a few parents and their children, a couple people brought a friend like I did. One of my classmates came with her family and brought her husband. It was really nice to see and chat with her. I did not get seasick, but my brother did a little bit.


I loved all of the options on board – both food and activities. We went to a movies music trivia (apparently I suck, BTW), Harry Potter trivia (also suck at), and a facial pampering party. There were more things, but we kinda came back to take naps, and well, just slept. I really wanted to go to the towel folding and the married couple game show. Apparently that is funny as hell and you have to see it if you’re ever on a cruise and they do one.

Dinner each night was nice. As my brother said, you get treated like a king. Our waiters Omar, Rolando, and Adita were SUPER fabulous. LOVED them! Rolando was very personable and quite a hoot. I didn’t try anything adventurous, but I did enjoy the desserts!

We spent about half the day in Cozumel after actually getting through debarkation. We were about 10 or so people away from making it to the stairs down to the crew deck to debark when this crew member was like “There is a shorter line this way.” We went backwards and rounded by the elevators and the line was already down that whole corridor parallel to the one we just walked down and wrapped around to the interior of the ship. We turned around and went back. And she came back and tried to get us to go over there again. Pffft. Lady needs some eyeglasses and a ruler.

We walked through the pier shops and to the taxis and went straight to one of the resorts that was reported to us to be very good. (Not really, y’all.) In hindsight, I wish we had actually gone on an excursion when in Cozumel. Several people from our group went to do the swimming with the dolphins. Lesson learned for next time. I am disappointed my legs are still white as can be. I got some sun in my face and a little burn on my shoulders while at the resort beach. I also got a henna tattoo! I think my mom felt bad that I was the only one who wanted one, so she got Snoopy on her arm. My friend ruined her phone in the ocean and that was a big downer. On the way back to the boat, we visited select shops to pick up free items. Most were charms for bracelets. And my mom and I also bought birthstone rings! My mom got this beautiful opal cracked ring for only $45! While we were in a shop picking up one of the free charms, I saw a ring that caught my eye. I got the guy down to $125 on the first “ehhhh”. I could have gotten him lower (y’all, they are willing to bargain!), but we wanted to get out and get all our stuff and get back on the ship.


Getting off the ship was the worst of it. It was a little ridiculous and of course I came up with a better protocol and operation. We had to vacate our staterooms at 8:30, but could not get off until after 9:30. We had to lug all our luggage around while everyone else on the entire ship was doing the same thing. So we leave our rooms at 8:30, wait forever to get up to the 9th deck (we were on 2), park our stuff and I go to get in line for breakfast. They were shutting it down! As I was trying to go through the line, they were pulling everything off! Jackasses. So I ended up with six pancakes thinking I needed to share with everybody because they were still at the table. Turns out they all went separate ways and got something, but I thought that was hella rude. Especially since it said breakfast would be served until 10:30.

We again drove home in torrential downpours. I was quite peeved with my friend because she was sullen and snappy the entire day getting off the ship and coming home. While in the many lines and checkpoints getting off, she kept purposely falling way behind. We were about 40 miles away from my dad’s work on the way home and I asked my mom if she wanted to stop and see him. He did not go because he is terrified of water. My friend snapped “I’d like to get home as soon as I can.” I get that she was phoneless, but she already had said she wouldn’t be able to do anything until her mom got off work that evening, so what did it matter if we stopped for 10 minutes? I wasn’t real happy on the way home. :/

I will be doing another post about things I learned on my first cruise because I feel like I become quite wise while in the midst of some of these things. And some of them are funny.

The day after getting back, the spearhead of this whole cruise posted about an Alaskan cruise in 2020. You know where I’ll be! 🙂


Where in the World???


Aloha! I’m back!

You guys, it has been a ROLLERCOASTER ride since the last real post I did. I had a few scheduled, but you haven’t seen me around since my official hiatus on April 4th.


I have moved …. twice! 

You guys already knew about the big break-up. I don’t get why people keep asking me if I still talk to him??? Like, no! WHY would I!?! I had to call the cops on him – a cop! Just STAHP, right nowUH. So I packed up all my crap, put most of it in a storage unit (new expense), and was stuck living in my “temporary” rented one bedroom. My roommates were very amiable, but I HAD to move for several reasons:

  • I was super cramped and felt a little claustrophobic.
  • It took nearly 50 minutes to travel to or from work.
  • The fence was unreliable and the neighbor’s dog was aggressive.
  • I could not really invite guests over besides family.
  • I was tired of dirty dishes literally ALL over the house.
  • Whatever my body-building roommate threw away in the kitchen trash started attracting never-ending bugs.
  • My landlord’s two sons were not very nice to Baby – and she ADORED them.
  • I wanted to be able to walk around half-dressed or looking like a hot mess hobo and not care.

I was not planning to move again right away. I was going to wait it out and pay crap off (y’all, I’m seriously in debt now, not quite sure how this is going to go). My work partner K had her BFF’s apartment locator husband on the hunt for me, and then my SPED teacher from my first year of teaching sent me a screenshot of this potential rental coming on the market – right around the corner from my old house, and even closer down the street to her house! I couldn’t pass up the 2 bedroom for the price. It was less than the rent my new landlords were jacking up my one bedroom to down the street (also large factor in why I moved out of my little bungalow down the street).

Moving was painful, I’m not going to lie. I think I’ve mentioned about 339087497 times how much I HATE moving! I was moving EVERYTHING out of my room to the new place by myself. One day I almost passed out. I had to go cool myself with a cold cloth for about 10 minutes. I moved everything except the bed and two dressers, but I did take all the drawers out and move those. In the process, I found several new pieces of furniture large and small for my new house because remember when I was supposed to move in with that asshat and spend the rest of my life with him? Why would we need two couches and two microwaves and this huge ass desk? So I had to buy some things for the new house. I had movers move the bed and dressers, and then I hired them a few days later to bring everything out of my storage unit.

We are 90% settled in. I am still waiting to get my kitchen table out of my parents’ storage unit. Of course it is in the very back! That probably won’t happen until mid-July. I also have not put up any of my wall decor yet, but I should do that soon. I have 2 boxes of picture albums, frames and other photos I don’t quite know what to do with, so it’s still all boxed up. The only thing I am not sure about is my inversion table. Right now it is in a corner out of the way, all taped up so it can’t come open. I have no idea where I am going to store it after use. That’s also a July problem.


I’ve gone on dates … and almost got kidnapped! 

I’ve gone on a few dates. All fizzled. It seems that we are living in a first date culture. I don’t get that. I am also SUPER surprised at the number of couples looking for a third partner or a partner for just them or just for their wife. I guess I’m too naive?

My first date was with a German engineer. He was very knowledgeable and extremely talkative. I liked him, but I felt a little ashamed of myself that in his 3 years in the US he has traveled more extensively than I have! He was going back to Germany this summer, so it wouldn’t have been a lasting thing anyway.

Then there was the ADT head honcho. His voice was like silk. Makes sense that his degree was in musical production. That lasted a week and a half.

Then there was the Indian guy. We went to a really nice place close to downtown Austin. I had just started my keto diet, so I was sticking to water, salads, and meats. I understand there are people who feel awkward or whatever when they are the only one drinking. I don’t understand that because you do you, so I thought he was just trying to be nice. He already had champagne for himself when I arrived. He asked a couple times if I wanted a drink and I declined every time. We had a really great conversation as we ate. As the dinner wound down, he wanted to go see Deadpool. I was interested exactly 0%. I agreed. The theater was sold out, of course, with opening weekend. I found this cute little drive-in theater that was showing The Goonies! We actually got a spot. I was so excited. We couldn’t keep the radio on without turning off the car, so he was fussing about all the displays. I didn’t care. After that was fixed, he all but attacked me. I told him to cool his jets because he was making me feel very uncomfortable. He was as far onto his door as could be. After about five minutes, he got out. I thought he was going to the concession stand. He got back in and started the car. As we pulled out of the theater, he was FLYING. He almost got us T-boned on my side. We got back down to the main street we’d come in on, and he was turning the wrong way. I asked him several times where we were going and he wouldn’t answer. Finally he said he was taking me to my car. He plugged his phone in and set his maps and the GPS said “Going home.” I started panicking, for good reason. He was going 60-65 down a residential street. I started reaching for my purse – to get my phone and call 911. All of a sudden, he swerved into this super shady convenience store with no gas pumps and started yelling at me to get out. He told me I could get an Uber to my car and shoved me out and took off. In hindsight, I think the only reason he stopped and dumped me is because he thought I was reaching for a gun. It cost nearly $50 to get back to my car. I was so shaken I cried. My (male) Uber driver was ultra nice. He let me cry and then when we got to my car he went on this angry tirade about men like that giving all men a bad rap, nothing was wrong with me, hoped I would find a nice guy, etc.

After a few weeks, I went out with this guy who lived in my hometown. Instant connection. We had a great night. Ate at Olive Garden and then went to play putt-putt. He made a few holes-in-one. He was old school country and I really liked him. Again, after a week and a half, it died. He totally ghosted me. If I ever run into him around town, I guess I’ll ignore him and pretend I don’t know him either.


I’ve been recognized at work…finally! 

My principal hand-delivered the yearbooks to me when they arrived. He was waiting for me to crack open a box. He poured over one and congratulated me on a job well done. Considering he has no idea what we do or how hard or stressful it is, this made me feel really good. He legitimately was interested in what our books looked like.

My principal also complimented my partner and I in a sit-down with him (about other department stuff) and then in a meeting with other teachers present. He is proud of the fact that we actually work together, plan together – and that we get along and like each other. We told him we’re joined at the hip. Seriously, at this point we share a brain. I also felt so validated because my partner K said if I had left this year (because that was the plan before the break-up), she was going to approach our principal and ask to move to the writing elective because she couldn’t work with anyone after me. Awwww. I hope we’re together for many years to come.

We have also been approached to try TWO new things next year. The first is from our principal. He wants us to completely change our teaching methods to blended classrooms. The upside is we have more individualized instruction with small groups of students and can really target skills. The downside is it is less control over the classroom and who knows if those kids over there are actually working? They look like they are….and then you grade the work and they were 94% goofing off. He specifically said it could crash and burn horribly, but we are failing forward. At this point, what could it hurt? The second came from our instructional specialist (which came down from the district). We are going to do a Texas Lesson Study with the state education agency. It is a long process that involves several sessions where they come in and film. Last year there were 216 educators in Texas who piloted this program. NONE were language arts teachers. My partner and I will be the first that we know of. It’s quite daunting.

Lastly, I received my five year service pin this year! I was so happy to hit this milestone, especially since it almost didn’t happen. This also means I can now apply for federal loan forgiveness! My loan will almost cut in half after everything goes through. It will be so nice once that’s paid off.

On another note, my yearbook staff next year is going to be awesome. I have a great core group of veterans returning and a stellar leadership force. And they are a force – to be reckoned with! We went to our spring workshop in April and got some good stuff going. I also got to lock up our principal in jail at our carnival.


I’m teaching summer school

Lord knows, I need the money right now. I am seriously a bazillion dollars in debt at this point (how??) and while I am panicking over here in this one corner, in the other three I’m totally ignoring and not caring. We’ll always have bills. And I have a plan! However, my living arrangement costs have drastically increased, so I’m not sure yet what the new monthly bills will look like. It’s going to be tight for a while. This summer school money will only alleviate a little.

31432470_10155503651062643_6359687550018867686_nThe kids are too much. I like a lot of them, and then there are the 3 or 4 that are absolute turds. (I’ve been using the word “turdie” a lot lately.) I tried choosing activities that would be engaging and fun. They LOVED the murder mystery at the end of the first week. Even though it’s work, I’m enjoying it. The kids have proclaimed that me and my partner K are the most likeable and favorites. I’ll take that.

The summer school principal has taken note of that, so hopefully I’ll have a fast-track in for next year. We have two more days of instruction and then they take the third administration of the state reading test. I have been assigned to an oral administration group, so I will at least not go crazy out of my mind being bored for 4 hours because I’ll have to be reading questions and answers to every student.



The cruise is coming up

35932269_2089212971121098_5229359833794215936_oThe cruise is coming up! Things are starting to get finalized and all the details put into place. I just ordered our group shirts and excursion yesterday. I’ll have to get our parking ordered and hotel booked this week. It’s fast approaching and I’m realizing I need a new swimsuit (the elastic is out on my old one) and I have no water shoes (never have) and who knows what else I’ll think of. I am going to soak up this experience – AND SWIM WITH SEA TURTLES!!! After this, I plan to pick dates to head down and watch a release of Kemp Ridley sea turtle hatchlings.


The brothers

My oldest brother has deployed. He is currently in El Paso doing whatever they’re doing before they leave the states. He will be going to Africa and I’m a lotta nervous about it now that it’s closer and weird shit has been happening over there. He kept telling my mom, “Don’t worry, you’ll be a rich woman if I die.”

My middle brother came home for leave and then went to his new base in Kentucky.  Just a few days later the Red Cross was sending him home when my grandfather died. He is back up there and loving it, although he doesn’t send much word back home. I learned from my oldest brother that my middle brother is also deploying in January to the Middle East. My oldest brother choked up a bit when he told me and he stressed that he was the one to go, that it was his job. Maybe he is growing up a little bit.

My youngest brother, my baby, graduated high school! He is spending his summer at home until we go on the cruise and then he’ll be shipping off to basic training soon after that. Because he now has his license, he is wanting to drive everyone’s vehicles everywhere. (The bleached hair is for baseball playoffs…it’s a tradition.)


I’ve spent a lot of time with my family and friends and Baby. Yes, she is french fry wasted in that photo. This time, I didn’t fall apart. I just moved forward. Thanks for all the love and support these past two months.

I am back and I’ll be working on getting things back up and running around here. I have not read a book since mid-March, so I am anxious and excited about diving back into reading this summer now that I’m mostly settled in. I can’t wait to hear from you guys and go around visiting!


I’m sure this doesn’t come as a surprise, right?

I’ve decided to take a temporary hiatus. After the shit storm that was my life in March and adjusting to my new life (and dating – y’all – I’ve gone on DATES!…OK, two…two dates) and dealing with losing my grandfather and the maelstrom to come, I am struggling to find time to read, let alone work on the blog. When Baby gives me the “Seriously? Another screen?” face, it makes me feel like a horrible dog mom. I have to make time for her, too. She’s my Baby.

So…I will be slowly working on things behind the scenes while I’m hiatusing so that things are ready to roll when I come back…which I’m hoping is the end of May?? You can follow me afar from Instagram. @sissybearla

Annual End Of Year Survey – 2017 Edition

Best books of 2017

This is the 8th annual End of Year Book Survey created by Jamie @ The Perpetual Page Turner.

The survey is for books you read throughout the year, no matter when they were published. Please link back to this post and go check out other bloggers’ surveys.

Number Of Books You Read: 52
Number of Re-Reads: 2
Genre You Read The Most From: Romance



1. Best Book You Read In 2017?


My two favorite books of the year I read so close to one another and both have the word blue in the title with blue covers. Blue Like Elvis by Diane Moody was all about Cadillac Jack’s daughter and her sightings and relationship with Elvis. Blue Steal by Marnie St. Clair is the incredible story of a woman searching for infamous lost jewels in the hotel her grandfather died in decades before, but something isn’t quite right about his twin’s account from that night.

Check out the rest of my favorites list here.

2. Book You Were Excited About & Thought You Were Going To Love More But Didn’t?


I thought I was going to love Home at Last. I had just read the book prior to this in the series and adored it. And this book focused on Quinn, the spunky darling of the island who’s also a bit of a luluhead. The plot line drove me crazy and I hated the antagonist. He was making everyone’s lives worse. I didn’t find it as redeeming as I’d hoped.

 3. Most Surprising Book You Read?  (in a good way or bad way)


I think I was expecting something much different from this recounting of Malcolm X by his daughter. I don’t know what exactly I was thinking it would be like. Less…criminal, I suppose. I guess you could say I was uneducated and learned a lot in reading about his younger life.

 4. Book You “Pushed” The Most People To Read (And They Did)?


I really pushed my students to read this. I had a group of 26 or so who read it with me and they went out and talked about the book and got other sixth graders interested. I even had a science teacher come get one to read!

 5. Best Series You Started In 2017?


I have really enjoyed The Rakes of St. James series so far. I’ve read the first two books in the series so far, Last Night With the Duke and To the Duke, With Love. The last rake is Rathburn, so the next book will be about him.

Best Sequel Of 2017?


The best sequel I read was The Piper’s Price by Audrey Greathouse. I loved it!! Gwen faces some dilemmas in her journey back to the real world and she meets Tiger Lily, who has been living in plain sight in the real world.


 6. Favorite New Author You Discovered In 2017?


My favorite new author is Donna Alward. I loved her Darling, VT series and just read a holiday book in the Jewell Cove series. She was my most read author of the year. It just so ended up working out that way. I would like to read the rest of the Jewell Cove series.


7. Best Book From A Genre You Don’t Typically Read OR Was Out Of Your Comfort Zone?


I don’t read very much nonfiction, I’m sure to my own detriment, and I also don’t read a lot of books that have a heavy religious tone (probably even more to my detriment). The Hiding Place had both.

 8. Most Action-Packed/Thrilling/Unputdownable Book Of The Year?


Blue Steal was riveting. I don’t think I’ve ever said that about a book, but it truly was. The main plot line drew me in right from the start. Searching an old hotel for a famous sapphire necklace? The same hotel her grandfather died in as a teen, leaving behind his twin? The story of that night just doesn’t add up to the P.I. also looking for the necklace…

When the original cop on the Holloway scene and a childhood acquaintance turn up, the mystery of what happened the night Andrew Holloway died intensifies and starts crystallizing into a third story than the two previously told.

 9. Book You Read In 2017 That You Are Most Likely To Re-Read Next Year?

I don’t plan on doing much rereading. I think the only book I’d reread would be the ones I teach: Trouble River and The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.

10. Favorite Cover Of A Book You Read In 2017?


11. Most Memorable Character Of 2017?

33574182Samantha Masters grew up in America’s Wild West. After her parents’ death, she was taken in by a family that worked her hard. She married to escape that life and dreamed of the coast of Oregon. That’s what her husband has promised her…after the Masters Gang pulls their last train heist. When her husband steps into her car and shoots a man dead, Sam makes a decision to save a life and is thrust an opportunity to start over and lay low in Scotland at the behest of Alison Ross. She is to live and work the family land for one year so that Alison can legally retain. Only thing is, Sam enters Scotland as Alison Ross.  There’s cussing and LOTS of it. Particularly the f word, used mostly by Sam. She makes it quite clear that Gavin St. James should stay clear off her land, being very handy with her pistols and a better shot than any man.

 12. Most Beautifully Written Book Read In 2017?


I thought Hope at Christmas was such a beautiful, sweet book with so many great messages. I loved all the characters except Sydney’s ex-husband, and even he did show some character growth after many episodes.

13. Most Thought-Provoking Book of 2017?


 Without Borders is a story that speaks to so many topics, and I found the title fit like a glass slipper. This story set in Nicaragua and features adopted Nicaraguan brother and sister working with their mother to provide medical care in their country. The jungle is a dangerous place, and it is a true mission getting to the people. And then there is the fragile and tentative trust of the villagers that Felipe’s mother has established over many years.

14. Book you can’t believe you waited UNTIL 2017 to finally read? 


I thought for years that I would love the intrigue and mystery and suspense and thrill of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I’ve had it on audio for a few years now and finally got around to it in 2017. I didn’t like it.

15. Favorite Passage/Quote From A Book You Read In 2017?


16. Shortest & Longest Book You Read In 2017?


 17. Book That Shocked You The Most?

31454815I was shocked the the most by Blue Steal. I was left all throughout the book with these little tidbits as Jack Tierney, P.I., continues to investigate Lewis Holloway and his account of the night the the famous Petrovsky sapphire collection disappeared from the Empire Hotel – and the night his twin brother died.

While trying to riddle out the still-missing necklace’s possible hiding places, Jack and Selina both discover the mystery surrounding her grandfather’s death due to the Petrovsky sapphires. It just doesn’t add up. And Jack’s not going to let that go. MIND. BLOWN. Plus, the ending was explosive!

18. OTP Of The Year? (You will go down with this ship!)

29875915Darling, Vermont is known for their famous Kissing Bridge. Local legend says that a kiss on the bridge brings everlasting love, and it is perpetuated by the city and local businesses for tourism. Despite that, Darling is a fairly small town with the traditional small town mindset.

Aiden Gallagher and Laurel Stone were photographed on the Kissing Bridge when they were five years old, dressed for a relative’s wedding. Ten years later, they date in high school…until word gets around to Laurel about a bet Aiden made in the locker room. Their break-up scene is still whispered about to this day, and Laurel still carries this anger and almost hatred for him. Now that she is back home and rebuilding her new life – alone – there is now avoiding him.

19. Favorite Non-Romantic Relationship Of The Year?

I loved Mac, the local high school history teacher and baseball coach, and his college coworker. There are an elite few in town (the mayor, Miss Bea) who know Mac plays the local Santa every year at their winter wonderland. He has since his son Seth was in the womb, and he has quite a knack for it. His coworker plays his elf and they work so well together! Ironically, the first year she worked with Mac she rolled her eyes and was an ungrateful jerk. Mac took her under his wing and taught her the spirit of grace and thoughtfulness, and ever since they have been the exclusive Santa-Elf pair.

20. Favorite Book You Read in 2017 From An Author You’ve Read Previously?


This year I read Never Trust a Pirate by Valerie Bowman. It is the seventh book in the Playful Brides series. I previously read the fifth book in the series, The Untamed Earl, in spring 2016.

21. Best Book You Read In 2017 That You Read Based SOLELY On A Recommendation OR Peer Pressure?


I was pressured (ahem, told) to read The Phantom Tollbooth with my not-really homeroom students last year. We also had two different packets to complete with each chapter, so it literally took us from the beginning of December to almost the end of March to finish reading.

22. Newest Fictional Crush From A Book You Read In 2017?

31752357I don’t have many fictional crushes. There are few who get that honor. But I did have one this year to add to my list. Hunter the hot fireman from King of the Friend Zone. I loved three things about Hunter the most: his realism, his humor and fun nature, and his conviction and determination to stand for what he believes in. Hunter’s reactions and inner dialogue were so on point. He thought – and sometimes said – what everyone else was thinking. Sometimes it wasn’t the best time or place, but he was honest with himself.

Hunter and Esme have grown up their whole lives with one another and are best friends. Esme keeps up with all of the calls for service Hunter is dispatched to, competes with him for steps on her FitBit, and constantly keeps up by texts. They are integral parts of each other’s lives, which they quickly learn the hard way after being ripped apart by jealousy – Esme’s jealous fiancé, that is. Jon is a straight up douche that goes for the jugular and single-handedly cuts all communication between the lifelong best friends and manipulates Esme into making decisions she later regrets. Hunter adopts a NOT TODAY SATAN armor toward Esme in order to get on with his life and follow Esme’s wishes.

23. Best 2017 Debut You Read?

I don’t think any of the books I read in 2017 were debuts.

24. Best World Building/Most Vivid Setting You Read This Year?


I loved the setting and some of the scenes – especially those describing Willow’s home – in Someone to Love. The scene of Ethan’s young son cuddled with Willow in her swinging hanging chair, both fast asleep, still sticks with me.

25. Book That Put A Smile On Your Face/Was The Most FUN To Read?


The Best Christmas Pageant Ever is HILARIOUS! I crack up throughout the entire thing, and my kids this year LOVED my reading of it. They all did really well on their test over it, too.


26. Book That Made You Cry Or Nearly Cry in 2017?

I think the better question is, which books didn’t make me cry in 2017? I distinctly remember these books making me cry: Someone to Love, Last Night with the Duke, Close to Home, The Bad Luck Bride, The Master of Strathburn, The Scandalous Flirt, and Deck the Halls.


27. Hidden Gem Of The Year?


April Vedora has physically healed and recovered from a terrible accident, but she is still in an emotionally fragile state. She avoids listening to any songs with lyrics and hasn’t gotten over what happened. She is a spunky, talkative young woman who owns her own business, a candle shop called April’s Glow, and has a great group of girlfriends.

When Zac Masterson moves in next door, he is furtive and secretive. But he is kindhearted, leaving a mystery flower on April’s porch for her birthday. As much as April tries to ignore it, he is a hunk of a man. She also discovers he’s a bit on the strange side, a different kind of bird, and she winds up liking him after their many backyard over-the-fence talks, drop-in visits, and texts. Like her, Zac is also suffering from his past and he uses poetry on his anonymous blog as an outlet.

28. Book That Crushed Your Soul?


There are two heavy subjects that come up in Someone to Love. A semicolon is a very well-known mark, and has now become a stamp forever as a reminder and as hope for many people who battle depression or other mental health issues. The second heavy subject revolves around a woman’s right to choose for herself and her body, which is somehow a controversial topic in what is supposed to be such a progressive time.

Willow and Ethan slowly grow close to one another, neither wanting to admit what they have. But life takes its natural course, and all of the reason behind Willow’s semicolon tattoo forces her to make a different choice at this point in her life – not the choice she made before. Not the choice Ethan wants her to make. Willow chooses not to allow someone else to force her into making a choice she does not want, so she chooses her own path. When an innocent bicycle collision happens in front of her store, it propels Willow into an entire situation she and Ethan are not prepared to handle. On the flip side, as Ethan points out to Willow, she has also robbed him of his right to choice in the matter. It is a fine and delicate line, and in the end, Willow made the best decision for herself.

29. Most Unique Book You Read In 2017?


The Scandalous Flirt was the most unique book I read, but please don’t let the cover fool you. About the only thing accurate on the cover are the red slippers. The main character is Aurora Paxton, Rory for short. After being exiled eight years ago following a scandal that near ruined her family, Rory is now tricked into returning to London after learning her stepmother is being blackmailed and her younger sister is engaged to an old codger of a duke. Rory receives ruby red slippers from Lady Milford, the bearer of the bad news.

Upon her arrival in London, Rory discovers her stepmother hasn’t changed a lick, despite the years that have passed and the death of Rory’s father. Her stepmother is steadfast that Lucas Vale, the Marquess of Dashell, is the blackmailer, holding a packet of secret love letters between his father and Rory’s stepmother. Rory strikes a deal – if she can return the stolen items that are the source of frantic scandal – Rory will receive a third of her dowry, money she desperately needs to sustain her and her aunt in their cottage in the country.

Rory immediately sets out to become the companion to the Marchioness, reputed to be incorrigible and going through companions like fresh knickers due to her horrendous nature and behavior.  It will be easy to recover the scandalous letters if she’s under the same roof where they are hidden. During her search for the mysterious letters and to stop the impending blackmail, Rory finds herself embroiled in a bitter battle with Lucas Vale.

And the love letters reveal some shocking information – quite a different story than the one Rory’s stepmother tells. And the exact same thing she was exiled for all those years ago.

30. Book That Made You The Most Mad?

29962807The Master of Strathburn is the one book that made me see red this year. I wanted to kill off the two antagonists myself, a mother-son duo. Jessie Munroe and her father have come to Lochrose Castle. Jessie takes a liking to the elderly Earl of Strathburn, although his wife and half-son, Simon, are not cut from the same cloth. They are snobbish and devious. The Earl pines for his long-lost son, Robert, who took part in the Jacobite uprising. With a price on his head, a near fatal injury, and his brother hounding the Dragoons to steal him away to the gaol, he fled the country.

Jessie flees the castle to protect herself against the wretched and lecherous Simon Grant. He is an ugly, vengeful, borderline demented young man. She is his Jezebel. She won’t get away.  She flees the castle for the nearby coach station and travel to a relative’s home for safety.

Robert’s warrior instinct vows to shield her. He is a stark contrast to his villainous brother, Simon. Those two play large parts in moving the plot onward,  and it is utterly despicable. The gooseflesh will rise on your arms. I wanted to wrap Jessie up in bubble wrap and hide her away somewhere.


1. New favorite book blog you discovered in 2017?

I don’t remember exactly when I started following Latte Night Reviews, but I have loved keeping up with Gen in Puerto Rico and now Victoria.

2. Favorite review you wrote In 2017?

31553350My favorite review was The Piper’s Price. I spent a lot of time perusing my review of the first book in the series, The Neverland Wars, and really thinking how to review the book without giving away vital spoilers.

3. Best discussion/non-review post you had on your blog?

I had two non-review discussions on my blog. One was a personal, My Personal First Aid Kit. The core of the personal first aid kit is to be an emotional toolkit to treat, comfort and heal emotional injuries. The other post was a recent one, How Dare You Goodreads!

4. Best event that you participated in (author signings, festivals, virtual events, memes, etc.)?

Author Jason Reynolds came to my school in September! I loved his talk and getting to spend a minute with him. Then I saw him again (and a bunch of other authors) at Texas Teen Book Festival at St. Edward’s University in Austin.


5. Best moment of bookish/blogging life in 2017?

The best moment of my bookish and blogging life in 2017 was when Texas Teen Book Fest shared my IG photo!

6. Most challenging thing about blogging or your reading life this year?

The most challenging thing about reading and blogging this year was the time and motivation. I have been SO exhausted and took most of the summer to just veg out and kind of check out. It took a toll on my creativity content, reading time, and getting things done on time.

7. Most Popular Post This Year On Your Blog (whether it be by comments or views)?

Most Popular by Views (OLD) – Top Ten Tuesday: Books For Readers Who Liked Dead Poet’s Society and First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros: WONDER

Most Popular by Views (NEW) – How Dare You Goodreads! and My Bullet Journal: Things That Didn’t Work

8. Post You Wished Got A Little More Love?

My Bullet Journal: Fall – August & September


9. Best bookish discovery (book related sites, book stores, etc.)?

Honestly, I try to stay away as much as possible. I spent more money this year on bullet journal supplies than books. Journal This Now is one of my faves.

10.  Did you complete any reading challenges or goals that you had set for yourself at the beginning of this year?

I wrapped up all my challenges in my December Chit Chat. Sadly, the ONLY one I finished was my Audiobook Challenge. I was only one book away from meeting my Goodreads Challenge, but I just couldn’t squeeze one more in.


1. One Book You Didn’t Get To In 2017 But Will Be Your Number 1 Priority in 2018?

I have a few that are currently on my list…


2. Book You Are Most Anticipating For 2018 (non-debut)?


3. 2018 Debut You Are Most Anticipating?


Middle school hasn’t been going well for Colin. His teenage sister teases him mercilessly, his autistic brother lashes out at him, and he has a crush on his best friend, Andy. But after the tragic night when his father commits suicide, none of that matters. Diane, his mother, seeks solace in therapy. Colin is awash in guilt, and casts about for someone to confide in: first his estranged grandfather, then a predatory science teacher. But nothing helps as much as the strange writing his father kept in a series of notebooks locked in his study. Colin looks for answers there—in fragments about disaster scenarios, the violence of snow, mustangs running wild in the West—but instead finds the writing infecting his worldview. Diane, meanwhile, has a miserable fling with a coworker, and leans more heavily on Colin for support as things go from bad to worse. But spring is unfolding, and a road trip to Los Angeles gives them a tantalizing glimpse of what the future might hold. 

4. Series Ending/A Sequel You Are Most Anticipating in 2018?


5. One Thing You Hope To Accomplish Or Do In Your Reading/Blogging Life In 2018?

My NetGalley ratio is horrible…because I have 600+ books on my approved list. My big reading/blogging goal I want to accomplish this year is to increase my NetGalley feedback ratio to at least 20%.

6. A 2018 Release You’ve Already Read & Recommend To Everyone:


I’m currently reading Saturday at Sweeney’s and I’m loving it! I was sad to learn it is the fifth book in the series, though. I think it can be read as a standalone, but now I want to go back and read them all.

Spotlight: Grigori

Today I’m excited to share with you the Book Promo of ‘Grigori: A Royal Dragon Romance’ by Lauren Smith. This is a Paranormal Romance and the first book in the ‘Brothers of Ash and Fire’ series. ‘Grigori’ was published on October 18th. 

About the Book:

He’s one of the last of a powerful but vanishing bloodline …

Grigori Barinov is the eldest in an ancient line of dragon shifters and the guardian of his family’s lands and fortune. Sworn to protect their history and magic, he won’t rest until he neutralizes any threat to their existence. When he discovers an ancient manuscript that exposes his family and their dragon lineage has fallen into a mortal woman’s hands, he knows he must get the book back by any means necessary. If that means seducing a nosy American woman with an intoxicating scent, he is more than willing to carry her off to his palatial home deep in the heart of Russia. 
She’s the one woman who could expose him to the world…


Madelyn Haynes has never fit in. As an adopted child she grew up in a loving home but never felt as though she belonged. Plagued by mysterious dreams she’s had of a silver scaled beast ever since she was a little girl, she is convinced dragons are real. While in Russia working on her PhD in mythology in order to escape the ridicule from fellow professors, she unexpectedly crosses paths with the sexy and dominating Grigori, and after just one night with the man whose eyes seem to burn, she starts to change inside. Isolated in the Russian wilderness Grigori calls home, Madelyn can’t help but fall under his sensual spell, yet something deep inside her calls out that she can’t trust him. She has to show the world dragons are real to salvage academic reputation, even if it means costing her the heart of the dragon she’s falling in love with.

This book is available at Amazon


Madelyn woke slowly, bit by bit, stretching the muscles here and there and enjoying the warmth of the bed she was laying in and the hard body that she was half sprawled out on. 
Hard body… 
She tensed and opened one eye to peek at the man in the bed with her as memories of last night came flooding back. She’d had a terrible nightmare, and then Grigori Barinov had made it snow and held her until she fell asleep. She wasn’t sure what shocked her more, having fallen asleep with a stranger after her nightmares, or that she watched him take a vast thunderstorm over Moscow and make it snow.
Just for me.  
A smile curved her lips and she tried to hide it. Men didn’t even open doors for her, but this man had made it snow. It was the most romantic thing that had ever happened to her. 
She enjoyed her moment to study him. The sensual lips and pale gold brows. He was gorgeous. She knew she kept thinking about it, but damn, he was beautiful. It almost hurt to look at him.  
One of his arms curled around her waist. The other lay against his stomach. The tattoo on his forearm was in open view and she examined it. The tattoo was stunning. More symbolic of a dragon than lifelike, she could see the dragon was clearly in a curled position. One of its eyes was closed, but the other was open and fixed on her. Her attention turned to the signet ring on his hand. The serpent biting its tail. A symbol for eternity. The ouroboros. The jeweled eyes of the serpent were made of tiny bright sapphires.  
“Did you rest well?” Madelyn jumped at the sound of his voice, her body clashing against the arm wrapped around her waist. Her eyes flew to his and her knees weakened at the sight of his soft, indulgent smile.  
“Er . . . yes.” She stammered, trying not to think of how many women over the countless years he’d seduced with a look. It was a look that promised whispers in the dark, glittering jewels and naked bodies entwined on beds of furs. But when she looked at him she could see a future unfurling like a new flower, a future that his bright gleaming eyes and strong hands hinted at as they held her captive against him in bed.  
“Good.” He suddenly flipped them so she lay beneath him on the bed. A gasp escaped her and she tilted her head back to look up at him.  
“What are you—” 
With a wicked smile he dipped his head to hers. The kiss burned and sizzled, sparking part of her to life that she hadn’t even known existed. It seemed in the last day her body had completely changed inside, making her aware that she wasn’t as in control of herself as she’d always believed. She should not be turned on by a stranger’s kiss, but she was.  
Oh yes, hell yes. She tried to wrap her arms around his neck, but he caught her wrists and pinned them into the bed on either side of her head. His large, strong hands curled around her wrists, making her feel small, helpless . . . She strained against the hold, struggling just enough to test his power.  
His blue eyes flashed with molten fire. “My bed, my woman,” he purred in a low seductive rumble that seemed to ripple through her entire body. She was hyper-aware of him, from the wisps of his hair brushing against her neck as he nuzzled her throat to the scrape of the faint shadow of a golden-brown beard along his jaw. He may have worn an expensive suit and looked like an Armani model, but he acted like an ancient warrior—one who took what he wanted. God help her, she liked it.  
His natural dominance frustrated and aroused her at the same time. She should have been scared, kissing a stranger in a foreign city in his bed. But bit by bit, Grigori was becoming less a stranger to her.  
He tugged on her bottom lip. The weight of his body on hers was thrilling and yet she felt safe. How was that possible? She’d never had sex before, had never been all that interested in the whole idea of sex, but right now all she could think about was having him take her and make love to her, wildly, roughly. Her body was in total overload with all of the sensations and new hungers. 
“I can feel you thinking.” He teased before he moved his lips in a trail of kisses down her neck. 
“Not thinking,” she panted. “I promise.” She rolled her hips, inviting him to lay deeper into the cradle of her thighs. It was time to get rid of that pesky virginity.  
Grigori’s warm laughter on her neck made her quiver. He lifted his head, their gazes locked. His body still trapped hers, his hand still holding her wrists captive.  
“I have so little control around you,” he whispered. 
“Is that a bad thing?” she asked, loving the way his lips twitched. He was trying not to smile and for some reason she adored that. It was a challenge. What could she do to make him lose that control and grin at her?  
“It can be. You are untouched and I might be too rough.” 
Every muscle in her tensed, her body going rigid. “You, you know that I’m a . . .” the word failed to come out.  
“A virgin? Yes.” His eyes hardened and he frowned.  
Suddenly she couldn’t breathe, her lungs seized in panic and she struggled. How did he know? How the hell could he know she was a virgin?  
“Let go of me,” she demanded.  
Grigori slid off her at once, as though he’d expected this.  
She grabbed the top blanket off the bed and dragged it around her like a protective shield. Being a virgin had not been something she wanted him to know. Didn’t it freak out guys to be with a virgin? That’s what she’d heard, anyway. And just how had he figured it out? Was she a bad kisser? Was it because he was a dragon? Had he sensed something or was she acting like a virgin? Maybe she . . .  
“Madelyn, do not be angry with me.” 
She lifted her chin. “I’m not. It’s just . . . How did you know?”  
He slowly skirted the bed and when she retreated, he paused leaning against the nearest bedpost, his blue eyes changing to liquid amber.  
“Your scent. It’s like a potent aphrodisiac.” He licked his lips, the action seductive and a little frightening.  
“My scent?” She kept the blanket wrapped around her and continued to retreat until her back bumped into the wall.  
Grigori smiled crookedly as he seemed to realize he had effectively cornered her. 
“It’s like Georgian wine with a hint of berries . . . and rain.”  
Madelyn stared at him, trying to process that before she lifted a lock of her hair up and took a sniff. Nothing but a faint scent of the shampoo she’d used a day ago. She didn’t smell like a thing. He was creeping closer, his long elegant fingers trailing along the bedspread and she was momentarily distracted by imagining those fingertips gliding along her skin, sliding into her. Her body quivered with new hungers and Grigori’s nostrils flared.  
“It’s almost impossible not to touch you. From the first moment I picked up Barrow’s book back at the Russian State Library your scent has been torturing me with its sweetness. Madelyn,” he growled her name in a subtle warning.  
“My sc—scent?” She couldn’t believe she’d stuttered. It wasn’t like her at all, but neither was she the type to tremble and quake at a man’s touch, let alone a scorching look. Not that she’d honestly had much experience with men sending scorching looks her way.  
“You know a fair bit about dragon mythology, don’t you?” he asked, taking one step closer. 
She nodded, suspicious.  
“And what do dragons love to eat?”  
The moment she realized the answer, Grigori’s wicked grin grew.  
She didn’t stutter this time, but her heart was pounding wildly.  
“Virgins . . .”

About the Author:

USA Today Bestselling Author Lauren Smith is an Oklahoma attorney by day, author by night who pens adventurous and edgy romance stories by the light of her smart phone flashlight app. She knew she was destined to be a romance writer when she attempted to re-write the entire Titanic movie just to save Jack from drowning. Connecting with readers by writing emotionally moving, realistic and sexy romances no matter what time period is her passion. She’s won multiple awards in several romance subgenres including: New England Reader’s Choice Awards, Greater Detroit BookSeller’s Best Awards, and a Semi-Finalist award for the Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley Award.

For more information about Lauren please visit her website. Or visit her on Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook and Twitter. 

This event was organized by Maureen’s Books Promotions. 

Holiday Story Prompt Challenge ~ Ho-Ho-Ho Read-a-thon 2017

Aleen @ Lampshade Reader is hosting one of the challenges for HOHOHO Readathon that involves writing. She has a list of holiday words to use in your writing. My story ended up being immensely long. I did not intend this, so I created a post to share it. I didn’t want to stifle the story that started flowing out, so I just kept going. I bolded the words Aleen outlined for the prompt in my story.

Marina had carefully planned this year’s Christmas affair at the lodge. Nestled at the base of the Rocky Mountains, the large and luxuriously glamorized structure sat on extensive grounds covered in fresh powdered snow. The early morning sun winked off icicles decorating the wrap-around porch. Smoke curled up from the chimney. Out front in the large circular drive sat a glossy red sleigh, complete with intricate silver inlays, she had commissioned over a year ago. Life-like reindeer stood at attention in front of the sleigh as if ready for take-off. The hand-tooled harnesses matched the intricate designs on the sleigh. Her request for 31 custom jingle bells along each harness had been met. Anything was met when you flashed enough cash, Marina had come to learn.

This day had been on her mind for the last few years. She had waited painstakingly to pull off the perfect holiday vacation for the people she cared about most. An out-of-state catering crew had come highly recommended following one of her now ex-fiancé’s business dinners was already on staff and planning delicious fare. Marina practically begged for the classic and quintessential holiday treat she was accustomed to during the Christmas season but had long given up after her first Christmas with Ian. Unlike Sheldon, her favorite character from The Big Bang Theory, she only took her hot chocolate with four marshmallows. Sipping the warm concoction brought back the memory of her younger brother, Benny, pouring marshmallows into his steaming mug directly from the bag. They had cut such a large hole that the small white missiles ended up everywhere that cold morning. It always brought back a chuckle, remembering three-year-old Benny scrambling around the table, standing in his long-johns in the kitchen chair.

Marina mused on her initial misgivings about her sudden inheritance. Despite the two years of misery living in New York, attending social functions with Ian and committee meetings scheduled by his secretary, Marina supposed it was nice to come into her sizeable wealth. At least Ian hadn’t been a Grinch with his money. He’d created a sizeable financial portfolio that Marina significantly benefited from after his sudden death. She’d never want for anything in life. Except love. Surely that was what Ian was buying when she found the arms of a street sleaze snaked around his pale body in his office suite. Such naughty behavior from such an upstanding businessman of the community.

The tinkling of glass brought her back to the present. Marina glanced at the eight-foot Christmas tree, neatly arranged in the corner. Decked out with glass ornaments and strings of lights, Marina walked across the double living room to stand in front of the tree, looking at the angel on top. Silver strands of tinsel fluttered on the branches at her approach. A lone silver strand slithered to the floor to lay next to a pile of presents.

Feeling vulnerable and alone despite the impending avalanche of family, she turned her back to the tree and took in the scenery. Yards of garland decorated the doorways and beautiful cherry banister leading up to the second floor. Huge gossamer bows decorated the railing along the upstairs landing.

Just then she heard the chime of the front door. “Oh, they’re here!” she said aloud to the empty room.

Rushing to the door, she was greeted with the sticky fingers of her toddling nephew. His twin sister was squalling, trying to rip herself from her father’s steadfast arms. “It’s been a rough trip,” he says before Karina launched herself at Marina. Sticky fingers grasp both cheeks as Karina plants an open-mouthed kiss on Marina’s pert nose.

“That boy dropped the damn candy cane on the carpet, James!” she heard her sister yell from the depths of the minivan.

Marina raised a brow. “It was just shampooed,” James whispers while rolling his eyes. “Honestly, Mar, I don’t understand her. We have three children under the age of seven. Two dogs, a pot-bellied pig -”

“And a partridge in a pear tree!” screeched Kevin, zipping through the doorway while inadvertently dodging his siblings’ sticky fingers. He had grown inches since Marina had last seen him, but his face was still round and innocent as a babe’s. He proudly brought in a sackful of presents, boasting his immense strength while marching directly to the tree.

James chuckled. “He just learned that song at school for the pageant. We’ve listened to it all the way here,” he said as he walked in. Taking both hands of his fiendish twins, he hustled them to the downstairs bathroom.

Sabrina rushed up the front steps breathless. “Oh, Mar, it’s so beautiful. You didn’t have to…” she let her voice drop off at seeing the dark look cross her sister’s face. A conversation best left for later, she thought as she tucked away her next words.

“Alright, Kevin, go get the last few things,” his mother told him.

His eyes widened. He glanced in horror at Marina. “You mean the le-”

“Kevin! We talked about this,” Sabrina said in a panic.

Kevin stood dumbstruck, staring at Marina. He gulped. “Oh, yeah.”

He raced out the door, leaving Marina to stare in his wake. Then she turned to her sister, carefully making herself up in the hall mirror. She placed her purse and phone next to the bronze bowl spruced with sprigs of holly. Marina instantly knew something was not quite right with her own twin. Classic deflect move. Sabrina had done it ever since they were girls.

“Sab, what was that all about? What was Kevin talking about?” she peered around her sister’s bustling form.

“Hmmmm?” her sister purred. She leaned into the mirror to preen over an already perfectly coiffed up-do. “Oh, it’s some little leggy chicken thing he brought to show Parker.”

Marina stilled. Sabrina’s comment had hit its mark and she knew it. She looked into the mirror at her sister as their eyes met.

“Parker?” Marina asked.

Sabrina faked a wince. “Oh, dear! Didn’t James tell you? He came into town. Ever since his mama passed – bless her soul – he’s been this lone drifter type. James invited him weeks ago. I thought he’d told you,” Sabrina pursed her lips and applied a fresh coat of Rapscallion Red.

“No,” Marina whispered. “He didn’t mention it.”

Sabrina swirled around. “Oh, Mar, I didn’t know. Honest,” she said. Marina could see the fingers crossed behind her back in the mirror, another vestige from childhood her sister had never been able to give up.

“I’m sure it will be fine,” Marina huffed.

“Mar, it was ten years ago,” Sabrina says quietly.

“Please don’t remind me,” Marina retorts. Grabbing a trenchcoat from the coat rack, she flees the foyer to find what was keeping Kevin.

Out in the drive, the minivan sits glinting in the sun, all doors open. The bags were abandoned by a front wheel.

“Kevin, what the hell are you up to now?” Marina muttered as a blast of cold air hit her full in the face. She marched around the side of the lodge, head down and buttoning her coat as she rounded the corner. To run full into a steel wall.

Strong hands reach out to grasp her arms to keep her from toppling over backward. “Whoa, careful there,” a familiar voice says.

Marina looked up after regaining her balance. She blanched, then quickly recovers. “Sabrina just told me you were coming.” She tries to shake his hold and move on, but he doesn’t loosen his hands. She glances around him. Where did that kid get to this time?

“Well, Merry Christmas to you, too. You near bulldozed me over running around the corner like that. You ought to give a man some warning,” he drawled.

Just like there should be a flashing neon billboard above your head warning a poor girl, Marina thought. The man was pure sex on a stick.

Parker lets his hands drop to his sides. Still prickly after all these years, he thought. What would she say if she knew tomorrow night he’d be playing Santa himself? Deck the halls with holly, he couldn’t contain his grin at the thought of her sculpted bottom sitting across his lap.

Marina frowned. “Have you seen Kevin? He was supposed to bring the last bags in, but he’s run off.” She scanned the hillside. Kevin’s red jacket was just a speck in a cloud of white.

Parker turned. “Oh, yeah, he took himself down to the old campfire.”

Marina stood staring, lost in another time. The campfire. It was the first place she’d met Parker as a gangly girl of eight. She thought he was the most interesting person on the planet. That summer had been an awakening for Marina. She finally understood what all the girls in her class thought when they dreamed up their wedding days.

As the years passed, the campfire was the one place Marina always seemed to find herself at. The night she had the worst fight with Sabrina, she ran down the hillside. The night she learned her best friend was moving overseas, Marina had found herself at the campsite. Parker had been there too. That night.

The night of their first kiss. The gentle way Parker had talked to her, held her. Memories flooded Marina.

“I was surprised it was still here after all these years,” Parker mused.

Marina jolted back to the present. A flush that had nothing to do with the cold crept up her face. “I…I had it maintained,” she said stiffly as she started down the hillside.

Of course she did, Parker thought. She had bank vaults full of money now.

“Quit being an ass, Parker,” he ground out. Watching the black swatch of cloth sway in the arctic blast, he made his way after her. “I think there are still some coals down there!” he called out to her swiftly retreating backside.

Maybe spending a week ensconced with Marina was a bad idea after all, Parker thought as his large feet filled the tiny prints Marina’s had left in the pristine snow.

By the time he reached the bottom of the hill, Marina already had Kevin rounded up.

“Tia! Did you leave room for our stockings? Mama packed all of them in the twins’ suitcase. The new ones you sent us as an early present!” Kevin crowed. His gap-toothed grin spread from ear to ear. Christmas was his favorite time of year.

Marina nuzzled him into her side. “Of course I did, you rascal. Now, let’s go get those bags. You can hang your stocking right on the mantle next to mine,” she declared.

“Uncle Parker! I didn’t know you were coming!” Kevin exclaimed, racing up the hill and launching himself at Parker.

“Yeah, it seems that’s the general theme around here,” he said wryly, glancing up at Marina as he hefted Kevin in his arms.

She smiled conspiratorially. “Come on, Kev.”

He placed his small mittened hand in hers. She latched on to the warmth, chiding herself for running out the door in such haste.

Parker picked up the bags by the van while Kevin ran around shutting the doors, and they walked up the front steps together. Once inside Kevin melted out of his jacket and mittens, leaving them in a puddle on the floor. Parker followed him just as quickly, leaving Marina to pick everything up and sort it out in the coat closet.

Soon she heard laughter and giggles from the kitchen. “My gingerbread didn’t turn out right, Mama,” Kevin whined.

“It didn’t? I thought you were going for Rudolph?” she said between bites. “Here, put a Red Hot for his nose.”

“It’s just a fat cow with a runny nose, now.” A lot of huffing and puffing followed Kevin’s declaration.

“I’m sure it’s a tasty fat cow,” Sabrina prompted.

“Here, I’ll eat him,” Parker said.

Marina realized she was standing outside the kitchen doorway eavesdropping. A part of her felt compelled to join them in the kitchen, while another had her rooted to the floor.

“Parker, we brought the letter. Mama says we’re going to send it to the North Pole. Maybe Santa will bring some extra toys when he comes to visit.” Kevin was such a hopeful kid.

“Did you write and tell Santa what you were looking for?” There was the hint of a laugh in Parker’s voice.

“Yeah, Uncle Park. We told him Tia Marina needs a man!” Kevin yelled at the top of his lungs.

“Oh, this is going to be good,” Sabrina chortled. “This is your brainchild, I assume?”

There was a silence. “Uh…yeah,” Parker admitted.

“Mom! Uncle Park brought a Santa suit and everything! It’s going to work.” Kevin’s enthusiasm didn’t reach the living room.

Marina stood rooted to the floor. Her mouth hung open.

A small noise had Marina swirl around. James stood there with a sleeping Karina on his shoulder. The look of horror on his face told Marina he had heard everything, too.

“Were you a part of this?” Marina whispered traitorously. She felt sheathed in anguish.

James paused, thinking over his next words carefully. “Mar, I think we should sit down,” he said levelly.

Marina stepped toward him, then stopped and seemed to think better of it. He hitched his arm higher, settling the prone Karina higher up on his shoulder.

Kevin’s laughter drifted in from the kitchen.

“Hey, there you guys are. We were just looking for….you,” Parker’s words slow to a halt. Kevin grasps onto him like a monkey, giggling into the silence.

Marina stands there in the center of the room, directly in front of the grand staircase. He can see the rigid lines in the set of her shoulders. Something just went south.

“Well, St. Nick,” she whirls around, her raven hair whipping around her face. She advances on him, finger raised. Just like when they were kids. “You thought Santa needed to bring me a man? A man!” she shrieked.

Warning bells went off in Parker’s head, so he did the first thing he could think of to distract her. When she came near enough, poking her finger against the muscled wall of his chest, he grabbed her to him. He could instantly feel Kevin let go and drop to the ground.

Parker molded her to his chest. She looked up at him with a speechless expression, yet there was spitting fire in her eyes. Before the next string of words could get out, Parker slanted his mouth over hers.

For a brief moment he felt Marina go limp against him. Then gathering her courage to buck up again, she wrenched free of his hold. Hot anger welled in her eyes.

They were doomed. All of them.

“Wheeeewwwweeeee. I think we need some eggnog to put out that fire,” Sabrina drawled.

Marina spit bars. Then she rounded on Parker. “Just what do you think you are doing?” she yelled, punching his chest again with her finger, punctuating each word.

Kevin tugged on her arm. “But Tia, look!” Kevin pointed up to the chandelier.

Everyone inclined their heads, following Kevin’s finger. There, tied to the chandelier and dangling down, was mistletoe.

“It was the mistletoe, Tia Marina,” Kevin pronounced the Spanish flawlessly. A

James gave his wife a meaningful look. Crossing the room, he placed Karina couch. “Come on, Kev, let’s go eat some more of those cookies.”

“They’re reindeers, Dad,” Kevin corrected.

“Come on, my little elves,” Sabrina said in a sing-song as she followed them into the kitchen.

Marina stood glaring at Parker. “I can’t believe you would do this. Sabrina I can understand this from, but to drag James and Kevin into this. What the hell were you thinking?”

Parker glared right back. That cold, hard kernel inside of him was back. The feeling he had all those years ago with a ring burning a hole in his pocket.

“Don’t make me into the Krampus, here, Marina. If I could have you wrapped in that sparking damn wrapping paper and tied with a curly bow, I would. I deserve it at the least. You owe me that much,” he bit out.

Marina sucked in a breath. “I owe you? I don’t owe you any damn thing, Parker Blake.”

Parker gave an arresting stare. Anger flashed across his face. “No? I was going to ask you to be my wife that night, Marina. I had the ring in my pocket.”

He could see the shock sink in. Marina never knew.

Well, now she does.

He could see she didn’t know what to make of this new information. “Suck on that, sugar plum. You can feel just as badly as I did ten years ago. I’ll see you later for the caroling.”

Marina reeled back onto the couch. Well, figgy pudding! This vacation was not going at all as planned.