Christmas Curveball Excerpt

Christmas Curveball


Chapter One

Rachel Tanner pulled up in front of her parents’ house, the lights from their Christmas tree in the living room window giving off an ethereal glow through the pouring rain.

Her school kids had been wired all week long, the excitement of Christmas vacation too much for them to handle sitting still in class, listening to her lessons. She was as mentally drained from trying to keep their attentions focused as they had been trying to talk about nothing but the presents they might be getting.

She got out of her car and made the mad dash to the protection of the porch. It wrapped around to both sides of the house from the front. As she opened the door, she was greeted with the smells of her mom’s cooking. Even though they got together as a family most Friday nights, Rachel hoped she never took her mom’s meals for granted. During her marriage, Rachel had missed the sense of home the food gave her, and after her separation and subsequent divorce, those meals had brought her comfort. They still did. Fresh bread was the overwhelming aroma tonight, with a hint of cookies that must’ve been baked earlier in the day.

She hung her wet coat and hat on the hooks by the door, and slid her wet shoes off, pushing them under the shoe bench located on the same wall as the hooks.

A noise from the living room had her turning around, and she saw her brother working on something. Perfect. Just the man she wanted to see.

“Why didn’t you send me a text or something to let me know Kevin was back in town?” It hurt that her brother hadn’t told her this little tidbit. So what if he didn’t know her every spare thought was devoted to Kevin? He still should’ve told her.

“What? Shhh. Keep your voice down.” He was practically hissing the words at her. “And what are you talking about?” His body went rigid, defensive. Weird.

“Why should I keep my voice down?”

“What makes you think Kevin’s back in town?” His voice was barely above a whisper now.

“Are we playing Questions Only?”

“Could you answer my question first?”

Rachel let out a huff of frustration. “Fine. On the way here, I stopped to get my windshield wipers replaced. While I was waiting, I saw a brand-new pickup truck pull out of the gas station next to Gary’s Garage. No one else has a BASEBALL license plate. By the time it registered it was Kevin’s license plate on a new vehicle, he was already long gone.”

Tim swore under his breath.


He shook his head. “Kevin doesn’t want anyone to know he’s back in town yet—not even his family. And if Mom finds out he’s home, his mom will find out soon after.”

“Not even his family? That makes no sense.” If there was one thing she knew about Kevin Ganlin, it was that he loved his parents more than anyone else in the world. “His mom’s going to want to see him. Why wouldn’t he want his parents knowing? And for that matter, if he doesn’t want anyone knowing, why would he tell you?” And not me?

Tim sighed. “I’m going to be helping him out with his recovery, so I needed to know. It’s not for very long. He just needs to work through some things and wasn’t ready to bother them yet.”

“What on earth could you possibly do to help him with an arm injury? Unless that’s a euphemism for being his usual wingman.”

“We haven’t gone out together in ages, and it’s been even longer than that since I’ve been his wingman.”

“Right. Because he wasn’t fishing for girls last winter.”

Tim opened his mouth to respond, then shut it again, looking like he was really pondering something. After a few moments, “Actually, we did stuff together while he was home, but we didn’t go out like that. I don’t think we’ve been out cruising for girls since you moved back to Winston.”

Now Rachel was confused. Kevin Ganlin was the very definition of womanizer. Being a major league baseball pitcher meant he had groupies at every game ready to sleep with him. She’d seen them at the entrance to the team tunnel, holding signs or wearing shirts offering to do whatever the players wanted.

Which meant only one thing—her brother’s memory was going now that he was in his mid-thirties. Sad.

“That still doesn’t explain why he doesn’t want anyone to know he’s back home. Especially since he had to miss Thanksgiving because of the physical therapy.”

“He needs a chance to work through some things and he can’t do that with everyone giving him their opinions on what he should or shouldn’t do.”

“Should or shouldn’t do about what?”

“I’ve already said too much. Stop asking questions that I can’t give you the answers to.”

“But you haven’t told me anything except to confirm that he’s back in town.”

“Good. Now don’t go saying anything to Mom because she’ll go straight to Marian.”

“How is it you’re supposed to help him with his recovery?”

“Not saying a word.”


“I promised.”


“So please, I’m begging you, don’t mention this to Mom. Like I said, she’ll be on the phone to Kevin’s mom in a heartbeat.”

Rachel didn’t know what was going on, but she could keep her mouth shut until she could find out. Especially with Tim begging her. He never did that unless it was extremely important. “My lips are sealed.”

“Thanks, kiddo.”

“I’m not a kiddo.”

“You’re shorter and younger than anyone else around here.”

“Fine.” She turned to walk away, but stopped. “Hey, can you at least tell me why he’s driving a truck now? What happened to his car?”

At first she thought her brother wasn’t going to answer her, he took so long thinking about his response.

“A truck better suits his needs now.”

Oh good. Another puzzle piece. “Whatever.”

“Rach, let this go. You’ll understand soon enough.” He studied her. “I see that look. This isn’t a mystery for you to solve.”

Stupid face, giving her thoughts away yet again. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I’m serious. Let him figure stuff out in peace, without you bugging him.”

“Bugging him? You make it sound like I’m a teenager.” She stopped herself in time from adding on who has a crush on a guy. What she felt for Kevin went so far beyond crush, it wasn’t even funny. Crush was the stage she was at during her preteen and early teen years. In love except for the womanizing part of him stage had been going on for more than a decade.

“That look on your face says you’re ready to stir up trouble.”

Close, but he didn’t need to know that. “Once again, I have no clue what you’re talking about.” Her stomach chose that moment to growl loudly. “I’m going to check out what all Mom’s made that smells so good.”

She took off for the kitchen, and as she rounded the corner, she heard, “Brat.”



The drive to Kevin’s mountain house wasn’t the prettiest Rachel had ever seen, not with all the trees bare, except for the evergreens, of course. The peacefulness, though, was incredible. There hadn’t been much traffic since she’d turned off the highway to follow one of the only roads available to get to Brown Mountain.

Her GPS beeped at her and told her to turn left. The driveway appeared, but if the navigation system hadn’t told her there was a driveway there, she would’ve missed it. His mailbox was on the opposite side of the road, and that’s where she’d been looking.

A mixture of loblolly pines and hardwoods made walls lining Kevin’s gravel driveway. The sprawling branches of majestic old oaks, their dead brown leaves hanging tight to the branches, intertwined their limbs above the driveway, creating a tunnel and blocking out what little light could be seen on the cold, dismally rainy day.

The driveway had gravel missing from some spots, which created pot holes for rain to gather and form mud puddles that splashed Rachel’s car body every time she hit one. The unevenness reminded her of an amusement park ride as the riders have no idea which way to lean their bodies while trying to ride out the jerkiness.

Even though he still had his townhouse in Winston, if he was spending any kind of time at a mountain house this winter, she could see why he needed a truck to get around.

The trees disappeared and in front of her was what looked like an open meadow, laid out before a beautiful one-and-a-half-story house. The meadow masqueraded as a front yard, and there were small green plants lining a small raised path from the front steps to the driveway. Lining the length of the front porch were even more plants, tucked against the trellis that dropped from the base of the porch to the ground. Unless Kevin had been in town a lot longer than she realized, he must’ve hired someone to work on the landscaping.

The driveway came up on the left side of the house, and a two-car garage sat before her. The front porch wound around the right side of the house and disappeared from sight. The left side ended at the garage, which jutted toward her.

The house used a mixture of stone and rustic wood to make its walls, with the wood making up the outlines of the house frame. Four windows on the top floor faced the front, while the right side of the first floor was lined with windows. Two chimneys rose above the roof line, one on the left of the house and the other on the right.

It was beautiful.

She parked her car in front of the garage and started up the path toward the front steps. As she got closer to the porch, the gravel nearest the porch had been replaced with stone pavers, which she couldn’t see when she was in her car. It looked like progress on placing the pavers had been halted due to the weather, as there was a gap of a few feet between where the gravel stopped and the pavers began.

The design in the stone path was intricate and some of the plants were more mature than she’d realized. Was he going to use this as a mountain retreat for himself? Rent it out during baseball season? Whatever he decided to do with it, the outside—both landscape and house exterior—worked well together to form the perfect getaway.

After hopping over the gap, she noticed the front porch was even wider than she’d originally thought, and a double swing hung at the left corner of the house, placed diagonally to view everything from the driveway across the length of the meadow. The swing was tucked back just enough that the garage wall provided protection from strong winds. So cool.

The door swung open in front of her and she jumped.

“What are you doing here?” The words were practically growled at her, but the man behind the words was just as good-looking as he’d ever been.

Dressed in jeans and a flannel shirt hanging open over a henley tee, Kevin stretched his left arm along the door frame he leaned against. The man was sex on a stick. Of course, too many women knew he was sex on a stick and had gotten to experience—yeah, that was part of the problem. She pushed any jealous thoughts she may or may not be having aside.

“Wow. I think I need to tell your mom she’s got her work cut out for her with your manners. You seem to have forgotten all of her lessons.”

“Why are you here?” This time the words came out through gritted teeth and she hid the smile that threatened to give her away. She loved getting him all riled up.

“And a fine howdy do to you too. I just got here. I can’t possibly be on your nerves already.” Of course she could, but she wasn’t going to admit that to anyone but herself.

“Did Tim tell you I was here?”

“No. The dumbass kept your secret like a good best friend.”

“Then how’d you find out—”

“There’s only one vehicle in the state that has the license plate BASEBALL. The fact that it’s on a truck now instead of a car confused me for just a few seconds. You outed yourself.”

“I knew I should’ve gone a different route.”

“Please. You couldn’t possibly have known I was at Gary’s getting new windshield wipers.”

“What were you doing out there?”

“I work in Boyle’s Chapel now.”

“You’re not still teaching?”

“I am, but I got a first-grade position at their elementary school.”

“That’s great. Glad that worked out for you.” Uh-oh, was he actually going to drop the annoyed act?

“Yeah, I’m pretty happy.” She tilted her head to the side. “See how easy it is to be nice?”


“Why are you home and why don’t you want your family to know?”

“You haven’t answered my original questions, why should I answer yours?”

“You mean the rude ‘Why are you here?’ question?” She crossed her arms and gave him the look she gave her school kids when she was fed up with their mess.

Kevin groaned and dropped his head and arm. Haha, the look seemed to work on men as well as students. Or at least this man. Good to know.

“I need some time to work through some things.”

“So I heard. Now I’d like the non-baloney answer.”

“Why do you care?”

He had her there. She couldn’t exactly admit to being obsessed with him for too long, to being in love with him long before he became the Kevin Ganlin.

“You’re Tim’s friend. I followed the news about your injury—” he winced, “—and your mom really missed you at Thanksgiving.” That had him turning away from her.

“Let it go, Rach. Please.”

He sounded defeated. That wasn’t her Kevin. Not that he was ever her Kevin, but the Kevin she knew had never been defeated, at least not personally.

Seeing him like this pushed every protective instinct she had to the forefront. He was hurting, which in her world meant she had to do something.

“Aren’t you going to invite me in?”


“What do you mean no?”

“Just what I said. Get in your car and go back home.”

No way, no how. He wasn’t acting like himself, and she wasn’t going to let him get away with his behavior.

“I just drove an hour getting here. I’m not going to turn right back around and go back home. Forget it. Why are you being so rude? Is it just me in particular, or are you hiding here because you’ve lost all knowledge about how to act in a civilized manner?”

“You never did answer my question. How did you find this place?”

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