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       All She Wants for Christmas, p.1

         Part #1 of Kent Brothers series by Jaci Burton
 
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All She Wants for Christmas


  All She Wants For Christmas

  By Jaci Burton

  Big Star, Small-Town Christmas

  Country singer Riley Jensen would never have returned to her small Missouri hometown if her publicist hadn't come up with the scheme to tape a Christmas special there. So she never would have known that the man who broke her heart at eighteen--causing her to flee to Nashville--was now a widower with a seven-year-old daughter. Riley has ten years of angst-filled hit songs and Grammy awards to prove she doesn't need Ethan Kent. But suddenly, she can't help thinking of all she gave up by running away...

  Ethan Kent knew Riley had the talent and the drive to make it as a singer. He also knew she wasn't going anywhere if she stayed in their nowhere town for him. Then one night and one huge mistake sent her running on the road to fame. Which doesn't mean he ever stopped loving her...

  But with so much separating them, can Riley and Ethan find their way back together one magical country Christmas?

  Dear Reader,

  There's something magical about the holiday season, whether you celebrate Christmas or Kwanzaa, Hanukkah or Diwali. The energy and excitement surrounding these holidays charges the air and our emotions, providing a perfect platform for romance and love. So I knew we couldn't let Carina Press's first holiday season pass without celebrating it with a collection of special novella releases.

  This holiday season, celebrate with our first collection of invitation-only novellas. We've pulled together eleven talented authors and author duos, all of whom have made their mark in their respective niches, and invited them to transport our readers with holiday delights. In Naughty and Nice, join Jaci Burton, Lauren Dane, Megan Hart and Shannon Stacey as they show you both the sensual and sweet sides of the holidays. Visit post-apocalyptic worlds and paranormal beings in an enchanted journey with authors Vivi Andrews, Moira Rogers and Vivian Arend in Winter Wishes. And celebrate the beauty of the season in His for the Holidays with m/m authors Josh Lanyon, Z.A. Maxfield, Harper Fox and LB Gregg.

  Through the talent of their writing and their captivating storytelling, I believe you'll find something in each of these special novellas to put you in the magic of the holiday moment.

  Wishing you the happiest of holiday seasons.

  ~Angela

  Executive Editor, Carina Press www.carinapress.com www.twitter.com/carinapress www.facebook.com/carinapress

  Acknowledgements

  To Angela James, a wonderful editor who understands me and knows how to push me to be better. Thanks, Angie!

  Dedication

  To Charlie. Every day is Christmas because of you. I love you.

  Contents

  Copyright

  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Chapter Nine

  About the Author

  Chapter One

  "This is your home town? This tiny little blip in the middle of nowhere?"

  "Yeah, this is it." Riley Jensen tensed as the tour bus pulled down Central Street. In ten years, nothing much had changed. The post office was still there and so was the hardware store, the clothing shop that was probably still owned by busybody Charlene Talmage, and the diner on the corner where her foster mother used to drag her on Saturdays so she could gossip with all her friends. The five and dime still stood in the center of all the chaos.

  "And you said people wouldn't come." Riley's publicist stretched her long, lithe body across the leather seats and peered out the darkened privacy glass. "The streets are lined with people." Joann turned to Riley. "See? Your town still loves you."

  Riley sniffed. "My town just wants to be on television and they know I come with photographers and a TV crew."

  Joann tsked. "So cynical for one so young."

  "I'm almost thirty, Jo. I'm hardly young anymore."

  Jo swiveled and gave her an eye roll. "You're twenty-eight, not anywhere close to thirty, and you're hardly headed for the rocking chair, so knock it off, put on your biggest smile and get ready to greet your hometown fans. It's show time."

  Show time. Hometown. She hadn't been home since she'd bought a bus ticket ten years ago and ran like hell from Deer Lake. And she'd never once looked back, come back or wanted to, until Joann and her agent, Suzie, convinced her--no, forced her--to make this trek in order to film part of the biography special in her hometown.

  That they wanted to do it during the Christmas holidays was ridiculous, but whatever. Not that she had any plans anyway.

  Why Deer Lake agreed to it considering she hadn't once stepped foot in this place in the ten years she'd been gone wasn't because they loved their long lost home town gal. They should hate her for turning her back on them, for never coming back, for never once giving back to the town that had raised her.

  Yet here they were, lined up on the streets as if she were Santa in the annual Christmas parade. And she knew why. All the smiles and waves and banners and screams outside the bus were for one thing and one thing only--exposure for the town that sat on the outskirts of the Ozarks. Deer Lake had its quirky charm and a few interesting attractions. The lake for one thing, which was a hotspot in the summer. Tourism would benefit from the exposure, and so would the town.

  Jo held Riley's jacket in front of her. "You ready?"

  "Ready as I'll ever be." She slid into the warm suede and took another look at the woman in the mirror. She was so different from the girl she'd been when she'd left ten years ago. Back then she'd been scared out of her mind when she'd bought the one-way ticket to Nashville with nothing but a few clothes in her suitcase, her guitar and the money she'd saved working at both the movie theater and the restaurant.

  "They're proud of their hometown girl, Riley. Grammy Awards, ACMs, CMAs. You name it, you've won them all. They know that and they want to celebrate you."

  "They know that and they want to capitalize on me."

  Jo cocked her head to the side, her dark hair pulled back in a loose ponytail, her lips painted a deep, dark red Riley could have never pulled off. "Girl, you are so mistrustful of your town. Get a grip."

  Riley swallowed past the lump in her throat. She was never nervous on stage. She lived for the spotlight. But facing down a few hundred townsfolk--people she'd known since she was a kid--yeah, that got her knees shaking.

  At least she could take comfort in the fact there was a less than zero chance Ethan Kent and Amanda Richfield would be out there. She was positive neither of them would want to see her any more than she'd want to see them.

  "Let's just get this meet and greet over with, okay?"

  She took a step toward the door, but Jo put up her hand. "As soon as all the cameras are in place."

  Ugh. She liked doing concerts just fine, loved playing for her fans. But this television stuff was a whole lotta nonsense. And a biography already? Riley thought you had to be old to get a biography. That way you actually had a life story to tell.

  Apparently not. One of those true story television shows wanted her biography, claimed she had a rich life history and people wanted to know about it. They'd already filmed some concert footage as well as face time with her at her home in Nashville. She thought the whole thing was ridiculous. She was still single, had no kids, hadn't been on drugs or been to prison, didn't hang out at the clubs and party, and spent most of the year on the road. When she wasn't touring she was in the studio writing and recording music.

  Which would make for a pretty boring biography, in her opinion.

  But the producers and Jo and Suzie thought where she came from was interesting. Sure, her daddy had died when she wa
s a baby and her momma had run off not long after that, leaving her in the custody of foster care, but that wasn't much different than what a lot of kids went through. Didn't make her special. She'd had nice foster parents. No one beat her or abused her. She'd had an okay childhood, and she'd been a damn lucky adult so far, which still in her mind didn't make for interesting television.

  Whatever. They knew better about that kind of stuff than she did.

  "Cameras are in place, now, Riley. Ready to rock and roll?"

  No. "Sure."

  The bus doors opened and the sounds of screams and applause rose up, filling the bus. Crowd noise typically made her smile and jazzed her up, because that meant performance time.

  But today she'd be giving a different kind of performance. Today she'd have to pretend she was happy to be back home again.

  Jo went first and moved out of the way and Riley stepped forward, her heart pounding so fast all she could hear was the buzzing of a thousand bees in her head. She gripped the side rail, dizziness making her feel lightheaded.

  If she passed out would she still have to do this? Maybe if she fainted they'd drag her back onto the bus and she could go home. The bio producers would rethink this whole thing. They'd call her a silly diva, not worth their time.

  Excellent.

  Jo gave her an expectant, move-your-ass-off-the-bus look.

  You can do this. These people don't know you anymore. All she had to do was play to the crowd like it was a concert in any city.

  She lifted her head, took in a deep breath, and stepped down, becoming Riley Jensen, superstar of country music. She lifted her hand over her head and waved, and the crowd went crazy.

  Okay, maybe she could do this as long as she didn't make eye contact with anyone. She looked over the crowd, not at them.

  She was invisible. She wasn't really here. She was at home watching reruns of Bewitched.

  "Riley! Riley! Riley! Can you see me?" Reality intruded and she couldn't help but hear the high-pitched squeals in front of her. She focused her gaze on the little girl in the front row. Wow, there was a tiny explosion of pink. Bundled up in her pink down coat with her pink hat and pink gloves and matching pink boots, her dark pigtails contrasting against the cotton candy color of her coat, the little girl looked like a tiny fan girl maniac. Riley grinned.

  She was such a sucker for kids. She nodded at security, who let the little girl come through. Riley squatted down as the kid catapulted herself into her arms.

  "Hi, Riley Jensen! I love your music, Riley Jensen! My daddy and me waited all day for you." She pulled back and gave Riley a big, brown-eyed grin. "Gosh you're pretty. I got my nails painted just for today." The little girl pulled off her glove. "Aren't they pretty, Riley Jensen?"

  And that's why Riley loved kids. She examined the child's fingers. "Wow, those are awesome. Pink's my favorite color, you know."

  "That's what my daddy says. He knows you. Says you two went to school together."

  "Is that right?" She scanned the crowd and settled her gaze on a man standing just beyond the little girl, her heart jerking in response.

  This--this was why she hadn't wanted to come back.

  Or rather he was why she hadn't wanted to come back.

  He was why she'd run ten years ago. She straightened and looked into the deep amber eyes of the one man she'd never hoped to see again.

  Ethan Kent, the first guy to break her heart. Okay, the only guy to break her heart, and the only guy she'd ever loved.

  She felt the tug on her coat and looked down at the little girl, who grinned up at her. "Riley Jensen, that's my daddy."

  Oh, hell.

  Chapter Two

  Ethan should really learn to say no to his daughter. If he had, he wouldn't be standing in front of what was essentially the entire town of Deer Lake while facing down the woman who'd left him ten years ago in what had been the biggest scandal of the town. Because Riley had found him in bed with her then best friend, Amanda, who he'd subsequently married, and who had become the mother of the adorable but precocious little minx who'd managed to wriggle her way to the front of the line this morning in order to get the best view of country singing superstar Riley Jensen.

  Yeah, hadn't that been a fun time in his life ten years ago? Scandal, drama and tears, and he'd brought it all on himself.

  Despite screwing it all up, though, he'd gotten Zoey out of it, and she was definitely the right thing. He'd never regret her.

  But facing Riley again? That he hadn't planned on. When she got her record deal and hadn't come home to celebrate it, he figured he'd dodged the big bullet. He'd long ago given up hope of ever seeing her again.

  'Til now. And staring at her until she turned tail and ran again probably wasn't gonna happen, so it was time to man up and say something.

  "Riley."

  She managed a bright smile that he knew was totally for the cameras. "Ethan. So great to see you again. This is your daughter?"

  "This is Zoey, yes."

  "How...awesome." She looked down and grinned at Zoey, and he was happy she didn't plaster on a fake smile for his daughter, because Zoey had a bullshit meter that was good for about ten miles. "Nice to officially meet you, Zoey."

  Zoey slid her hand in Riley's and shook it up and down. "Nice to meet you too, Riley Jensen. I have all your music on my iPod. I'm seven years old. My favorite song is the one you did for the cartoon movie, The Princess Bee." She looked around Riley to meet Ethan's gaze. "Daddy, what's the name of that song?"

  How about a nice earthquake to swallow him whole? No? Gee, thanks. "The Girl of My Dreams."

  "Yeah. That one. Daddy likes that one, too. He sings it around the house all the time, don't you, Daddy?"

  It was a damned shame it was December and a tornado couldn't come sweep him away right now. "Sometimes."

  "He sings it in the shower. Really loud. I can hear him with the door closed."

  Riley arched a curious brow but he was saved by his daughter, who never let a moment go silent.

  "Mayor Shims said you're gonna give a concert, Riley Jensen. Are you gonna give a concert?"

  "Shims is the mayor now?" Riley's gaze shot to Ethan. His lips lifted at the look of horror on her face.

  Stanley Shims had been the worst chemistry teacher at Deer Lake High School, and neither Ethan nor Riley had been particularly fond of him. The feeling had been mutual and their grades had reflected it.

  "Yeah. As a matter of fact, he's making his way to you right now."

  "Good God." She pivoted just as the mayor arrived. "Mr. Shims! Or should I say, Mayor Shims. Congratulations."

  "Well, thank you, Riley. And congratulations to you on your success. I guess we both reached the pinnacle, didn't we?"

  Ethan was certain being mayor of Deer Lake didn't compare to being a Grammy Award-winning musician, but Shims apparently couldn't seem to make the distinction.

  The mayor dragged Riley away to officially re-welcome her to Deer Lake and do some pontificating, which Shims did so well. Ethan grasped his daughter's hand and gently tugged her back toward the crowd. Now they could blend back into obscurity, where he'd have been the entire time, if not for the fact Zoey didn't have a shy bone in her entire body.

  "Come on, muffin. You got to meet Riley, and she's busy with other people now, so it's time to go to Grandma's. I need to get to work."

  "Okay."

  They started back toward the crowd but someone caught him by the sleeve of his jacket.

  "Excuse me. Are you Ethan Kent?"

  He turned around to face a gorgeous redhead with the longest false eyelashes he'd ever seen. She had on skin-tight pants and was wrapped in a thick coat and gloves as if she were expecting this to be North Dakota or something. It might be December in Missouri, but it wasn't that cold.

  "Yeah, I'm Ethan Kent."

  "And this is your lovely daughter, who obviously made quite the impression on Riley."

  Zoey smiled up at her. "You have pretty hair."

&nbs
p; "Thanks, honey." She held out her hand to Ethan. "I'm Suzie Mitchell, Riley's agent."

  "Nice to meet you."

  She handed Ethan a couple tickets. "Backstage passes to the concert tomorrow night."

  Zoey's squeal damn near burst Ethan's eardrums. Her eyes widened as she stared at Suzie like she was her fairy godmother. "Reallllly?"

  "Yes, honey. Really. Riley wanted you to have these."

  "Can we go, Daddy? We're going, right?"

  Ethan pondered that learning-to-say-no-to-his-daughter thing, then nodded. "Sure."

  Which resulted in more ear splitting squealing from Zoey and a wide smile from Riley's agent.

  "Wonderful. We'll see you tomorrow."

  "Great. Thanks."

  Ethan wandered away, wishing he'd never come today. Seeing Riley again had been bad enough. She looked beautiful. She'd always been beautiful, but she'd grown up, lost the roundness of her teen years. Now she sparkled like a woman, curved in all the right places. Her hair waved around her face and shoulders, still that honey-wheat blond. He was surprised she didn't color it since she was famous now. Didn't all women change their hair seemingly every month or so? Hers was still the same color he'd always loved.

  Her blue eyes still mesmerized and tongue-tied him. She didn't have on too much makeup like those rock stars and television people wore. She still looked like Riley, she'd just grown into herself more.

  And a minute with her had brought back a lifetime of painful memories.

  Now they'd have to go to her concert, where he'd have to listen to her sing all the songs she'd written about him.

  Live. Where he couldn't turn her off and walk away.

  Great. Just freakin' great.

  He took the shortcut through the drugstore's back door, knowing Missy and Bob wouldn't mind. They were all busy ogling Riley and nobody locked anything up around here anyway. Zoey's hand in his, he cut through the side streets and walked up the concrete steps of his parents' house.

  They had decided not to pay homage to Riley Jensen, mainly because his dad's knee was giving him trouble today and his mom said she had some pies she wanted to bake. Ethan figured the real reason was they thought it would hurt him if they went to see her.

 
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