Home for Christmas


Can they overcome their past and make a home for a family of three?

Maureen McClain didn’t believe in love at first sight until the night of her cousin’s art gallery opening. That’s when she met Damien Phillips. Their first touch was electric, and in the next few weeks their relationship blossomed. But that all ended when she showed up at his Nashville home and witnessed his argument with a pregnant woman who said that her child needed its father. Maureen is concentrating on growing her business, McClain Events, and has put Damien firmly into her past.

Damien Phillips hopes that if he can finally complete painting a portrait of Maureen, he’ll be able to let her go. His life changed the day he and Jamie were arguing, and Maureen overheard. Now he’s full-time dad to Emma, who looks like the mother who died so tragically. When he’s about to lose his Nashville apartment, fate hands him an opportunity in Legend. Being near Maureen will help him finish the painting, and a small town upbringing, even with a single dad, is his best option for Emma.

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Prologue
ON THE OPENING night of McClain Art Gallery, Maureen McClain dipped champagne punch for adults and its non-alcoholic counterpart for the few underage guests and occasional teetotaler. Her sister Janelle and their cousin Catherine moved through the crowd serving finger sandwiches and petit fours.
The three of them had their dark hair pulled back in severe ponytails and were dressed in black pants and black shirts. They hoped to look a bit classy yet still blend into the background. This night was all about their cousin Chloe, the owner-artist, whose glorious paintings of the Great Smoky Mountains covered the walls of the renovated building in their little hometown.
Maureen saw the distinguished man enter the gallery and watched surreptitiously as he made his way along the first wall of paintings. When he arrived at the punch table, her breath caught as his pale blue eyes locked with hers. Sounds reverberating in the room full of people faded into the background.
He extended a hand. “Hi. I’m Damien Phillips.”
Maureen’s hand rested in his for a long moment. When it returned to her side, the shock of the electric surge faded slowly.
His friendly smile displayed perfect white teeth. The five o’clock shadow took the buttoned-down edge off his close-cropped brown hair, expensive suit, and well-shined shoes.
She picked up a glass punch cup, her hand only shaking a little from her weird reaction to this man. “Hi. What would you like?”
The sparkle in his eyes did a number on her thundering heart. “More than anything, I’d like to take your hand again and find a quiet corner where we could get to know each other. After that, I’d love to paint your portrait. Have you ever sat for an artist?”
Maureen laughed, grateful for the stress release his little joke provided. She tipped her head toward the only artist she knew. “Chloe is my cousin, but I’ve only ever sat on her when we were kids and played rougher than we were supposed to.”
He laughed with her, and they talked for a couple of minutes. When she handed him the cup, their fingers brushed—accompanied by another electric shock—and their eyes locked again. Recovering, he took a deep breath and turned slightly, surveying the crowd. “And where is our celebrated hostess?”
Chloe walked toward them, her pantsuit resembling molten bronze as the various lights reflected off it. She didn’t immediately greet her guest but walked behind the punch table and slid an arm around Maureen’s shoulders. “Hi, sweetie. Doing okay here?”
Maureen smiled at her then at the guy she’d been talking to. “Doing great. Chloe, have you met Damien Phillips? He came down from Nashville for your show. I guess he’s a big fan. Right, Damien?”
Chloe’s smile slipped briefly, and her brow creased as she greeted him.
Damien chuckled over a quick handshake. “Let’s say I wanted to see what Ms. McClain’s work has evolved into. It’s been a few years.”
Maureen was confused. “Um. You do know each other?”
Chloe shifted on her stilettoes. “Not exactly. I guess you could say we crossed paths once a few years ago.”
“Pleasure to finally meet you in person, Ms. McClain.” Damien smiled again.
“Just call me Chloe. Saying ‘Miz McClain’ around here could result in half a dozen women answering you.”
“Really? How delightful!”
Chloe didn’t seem to like his comment and looked ready to tell him off. Maureen spoke up to break the unexplained tension. “I’m Miz McClain too. Maureen.” In her initial overwhelm, she’d forgotten to say that. She wasn’t usually such a dweeb.
Damien faced her again. “Maureen. That’s such a lovely old-fashioned name. Does it have a family history?”
“Um, no. My dad really liked Maureen O’Hara.”
Damien laughed again, focusing entirely on her. Chloe disappeared into the crowd.
Maureen had never felt so captivated by a man, and the feeling seemed mutual. At some point, he told Maureen he was an art critic, and she learned afterward that his first report on Chloe’s early work had been less than complimentary. Damien eventually excused himself to make a slow, thorough appraisal of the rest of her paintings and the plexiglass case of Little Legend buildings and its miniature inhabitants that lined the perimeter of the room.
The article Damien later wrote for the Nashville paper about the opening of McClain Art Gallery glowed with praise for Chloe’s maturing talent. His review promised a great future for Chloe’s career.
His continued attention to Maureen seemed to promise a future for the two of them as well. Until the day she showed up unexpectedly at his house and discovered Damien Phillips was the worst kind of liar and cheat.
Chapter One
MAUREEN AND JANELLE sat on low couches in the center of McClain Art Gallery. Chloe had invited them to discuss a business project. The white-walled, hardwood floored gallery was beautiful and elegant, but every time Maureen walked through the front door, she had to push aside thoughts of Damien Phillips. What a rat! She could not believe she had let herself get taken in by him. But as they say, there’s a fool born every minute, and no two ways about it, she had been a fool.
Chloe placed mugs of steaming coffee on the table and dropped to a couch. She ran a hand through her spiky blond-and-dark hair. “Thanks for agreeing to come over. Business is good, and it’s hard to guess when I can sneak out and not miss a customer.”
“Chloe, you’re glowing,” said Maureen. “Could you turn it down a notch? I don’t carry sunglasses in November.”
Chloe laughed. “Can’t help it. So far, so good on being married to the most difficult man I’ve ever known. We have all his stuff from the duplex moved into my apartment upstairs. Most of it even fits.” Chloe’s husband Greg Andrews was the contractor who had renovated this derelict building into the showplace it was today.
Janelle sipped her coffee. “And whatever doesn’t fit can be shuttled over to Deluxe Home Improvements.”
“Mmm. If necessary, but I don’t think that will happen. I’ll make space. If Greg stored personal things in the attic above his business, they’d be lost forever. He has many talents, but organization isn’t one of them. It’ll work. Compromise is part of marriage, you know.”
Janelle’s eyes rolled. “Sheesh. You’re already using the C-word, and you’ve just been married a little while.”
“With Greg and me, the C-word has been in use for a long time. Believe it or not, compromise can be fun.” Her cheeks flushed, and the sisters both grinned. “Thanks again, girls, for making our wedding day so perfect. It was wonderful not to have any worries, knowing you would take care of every detail.”
Maureen smiled. “Fabulous memories brought to you by McClain Events. Taking care of details is what we do.” Their thriving event planning business had started here. After helping with the gallery grand opening, Maureen and Janelle realized that growing up doing chores together had helped equip them to seamlessly plan and execute events as a team. Over the next several months, they had worked with myriad clients in an ever-expanding territory to create one of a kind, memorable celebrations. They now lived in a building they’d bought in downtown Legend. The first floor contained a long-established laundromat, and behind it, the office of McClain Events. Upstairs was their airy, shabby-chic apartment.
Janelle leaned into the soft cushion behind her, jerking a thumb toward Maureen. “Event planning is the perfect career for my OCD sister.”
Chloe cradled her mug, apparently too excited to drink. “Believe it or not, I have another gathering for you to handle. I really hope you’ll do it, because Greg and I have plans to be out of town that evening, and it wasn’t possible to switch the dates. We’re taking a belated honeymoon, since he was in the middle of that big home reno project up on the mountain when we got married.”
Maureen pulled her phone out of her bag and opened the calendar app. “Sure, Chloe. You know we’ll help you out if we can.”
“Awesome. It’s an exhibit by another artist—my first time to host one of them, so I’m nervous. It has to be amazing, and I know you’re the ladies to make that happen.”
Maureen felt her foot start to tap in eagerness to get the date down and move on to a discussion of what Chloe wanted them to do. Chloe gave them a late-November date.
Maureen accessed the November calendar. “We’re open,” she said, entering Chloe art show to their schedule on the specified date. “How about specifics? Time, food, number of people, what kind of set-up you have in mind.”
Janelle pulled a notebook out of her bag and clicked her pen, ready to take notes while they discussed Chloe’s requirements.
Chloe took a deep breath and set her untouched drink back on the table. “I have to tell you before we go further. The artist I’m hosting is Damien Phillips.”
Maureen’s breath caught, and Janelle dropped her pen to the floor. As she retrieved it, Chloe rushed on as if she needed to get everything said before she lost her nerve.
“He’s doing some beautiful work, and because of his history as an art critic, it’s hard for him to get showings in the usual places. He sort of made some enemies over the years. So Damien contacted me, sent me some shots of his stuff. It’s nice. Really nice. I don’t know why folks can’t put the past behind them and give the guy a chance. I did.”
Maureen understood, at least to some extent, that Chloe felt compelled to help Damien in his art career since his good review had been the turning point for her. But when had he changed from writing about art to creating it?
She didn’t want to care when or why. He had played Maureen for a sucker. The day she found out the truth about him, she had returned home to Legend and announced to her family that she was done with Damien Phillips. No amount of prying got any details from her. Even Janelle didn’t know everything.
Maureen agreed with the gallery owners who refused to host him. She wouldn’t give Damien another chance. She put a hand on Chloe’s. “You know I love you, but I don’t want to spend time around that guy. Maybe there’s a way we can do the prep work and not be present when he is.” She shot a look to Janelle. “Or Janelle could be onsite for the event and Catherine could help her.”
Janelle slid Maureen’s phone from her hand and re-opened the calendar app, holding it up to show her sister. “You know Catherine’s taking that trip with friends from Nashville. That’s on here too—see? As a reminder so we wouldn’t schedule a massive job we’d need her for.”
“This won’t be massive,” Chloe assured. “You know what an art showing is like. Pretty quiet. Low key. I’m sure the two of you can handle it. But I’ll understand, Maureen, if you don’t want to deal with it. I know Damien broke your heart.”
Maureen’s face heated. “No, he did not break my heart. We hung around a punch bowl one evening, had a couple of dates… I’d just rather avoid him, that’s all. I’m sure we can find a way to take care of this for you, Chloe.”
Expelling a long breath, Chloe smiled at both her cousins. “That’s great. Let me think what all I’m going to need you to do.”
Maureen’s heart sank even as she nodded agreement. But despite what she knew about Damien, what he had done to her, even after all these months, he seemed to have settled inside her for the long haul. She wondered if getting him out was even possible.
 
~End of Excerpt~
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