Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Read Chapter 1 Christmas Wishes by Judith Stacy



A historical romance novella from USA Today Bestselling author Judith Stacy.

Pennsylvania farm girl Abbie Doyle arrives in Southern California shocked to learn that the bookkeeping job she expected to have is no longer available. Abbie is forced to accept the position of personal secretary to Mrs. Merchant, the city’s grand dame of society. Abbie has no training for the job, and to make matters worse, she’s expected to plan the demanding Mrs. Merchant’s annual Christmas ball, the city’s premiere social event.

With her job hanging in the balance, Abbie turns to Jack Graham, the handsome owner of a construction company, to handle the renovations to Mrs. Merchant’s home. Jack refuses. He won’t work for the difficult woman. All Jack cares about at the moment is his young daughter. He’s desperate to know what she wants for Christmas.

To convince him to take on the project—and save her job—Abbie offers him a deal he can’t refuse. If Jack will do the renovation, she will find out what the child wants. 

Abbie and Jack soon realize the little girl isn’t the only one with a secret wish. But on Christmas morning, will those wishes come true?

Chapter One 

San Bernardino, California
December, 1895


How could it be this blasted hot—in December?

Abbie Doyle glanced at the windows of her little office. Both were thrown open wide and had been all morning, but nothing resembling a breeze floated in.

December, and it was hot.  It just wasn’t natural.  It wasn’t normal.

Abbie sighed.  Nothing about her new home was normal.  At least, not to her way of thinking.

Determinedly, she turned back to her cluttered desk trying to make some sense of the chaos. She pressed her wrist to her forehead, fearing she might perspire. A lady never perspired, her employer, Mrs. Merchant had informed her.

Abbie jerked her chin. That haughty old heifer was a fine one to talk—she didn’t move around enough to work up a sweat.

Grumbling to herself, Abbie sorted through the piles of pa­pers, folders and books that littered her desk. Last evening Mrs. Merchant had left her yet another list of items requiring Abbie’s attention. She’d risen early to get started but found herself savoring Mrs. Merchant’s absence this morning in­stead.

As the widow of one of San Bernardino’s wealthiest busi­nessmen, Mrs. Merchant lived in a three-story mansion, a beautiful home painted green and trimmed in yellow and white, with a wrap porch, and topped with an onion dome. She’d given Abbie a room on the third floor with the other servants, and an office in the back corner of the house.

Not even a month had passed since Abbie had moved from her parents’ farm in Pennsylvania to accept The Merchant Company’s offer of employment. It had been an opportunity Abbie couldn’t resist. At age twenty-two she was raring to see new things. Leave the farm. Learn the ways of gracious ladies living in the city.

With a certificate in bookkeeping, and a referral from a friend of a friend, Abbie had secured a position with The Mer­chant Company, said goodbye to family, friends and Pennsyl­vania, and come west to California.

And her dream had turned into a nightmare.

Abbie plopped into her desk chair and gazed glumly at her cramped little office. Green wallpaper, heavy drapes on the large windows, Oriental carpet on the floor, walnut desk, credenza and cabinet all overrunning with things requiring Abbie’s immediate attention.

This was the life she’d asked for, even if it wasn’t turning out as she’d planned.

When she’d presented herself to the office manager at The Merchant Company, Mrs. Merchant happened to be there at the time and had bridled at the prospect of a young woman working for the company. This was not, Mrs. Merchant had informed everyone, surely within a three-block radius, what her dear departed husband would have wanted.

So instead of being assigned the job of bookkeeper, for which Abbie was trained, Mrs. Merchant had reluctantly taken her on to act as her social secretary.

As if she were doing Abbie a favor.

Mrs. Merchant was the cream of the city’s upper class, which meant Abbie’s duties now demanded menu planning, organizing teas and social functions, handling correspondence, as well as anything else Mrs. Merchant assigned her. All to the woman’s exacting standards.

But the problem was that Abbie had been raised on a farm. She’d been trained as a bookkeeper. She didn’t know the first thing about entertaining high society.

She’d fantasized about it, of course. Herself dressed in a beautiful gown, escorted by a handsome man in a fine tuxedo, descending a grand staircase somewhere into a room filled with gracious women and well-mannered gentlemen. The vi­sion had filled many long hours on the farm. But Abbie never expected she’d be thrust into that life completely unprepared, with no training whatsoever.

Another flash of heat wafted through Abbie and she dabbed at her forehead with the handkerchief in her skirt pocket. It was hot. So dreadfully hot. How could it be this hot in De­cember?

With a heavy sigh, she walked to the window and took in the lovely view of blooming flowers, lush green grass and swaying palm trees. In the distance, mountains rose to the heavens, capped with cloaks of white snow.

Snow. While it frequently blanketed the tops of the moun­tains, snow came to the valley only every few decades, or so everyone had told her—after they’d laughed at her question, of course.

Abbie straightened her shoulders and turned away from the window. Somehow, she would have to make a life for herself here in California. So far she’d failed to live up to Mrs. Mer­chant’s standards. Already she’d made several mistakes and Mrs. Merchant was displeased. So displeased, in fact, that she’d told Abbie she’d be dismissed if she bungled anything else.

Abbie didn’t have enough money to get back home to Penn­sylvania, and if she was fired from her position as social sec­retary to the most well-known woman in the city, who else would hire her?


The word tumbled from Abbie’s lips in a most unladylike fashion. She gasped and whirled, then relaxed seeing that she was still alone in the room. A lady did not curse, Mrs. Mer­chant had decreed.

Mrs. Merchant was always decreeing something.

With a resolute sigh, Abbie headed back to her desk. She was trying so hard to fit in, to learn, to be a part of this grand life here in the city. And she was determined to succeed at this job, too. Somehow.

Even though the thought of a working woman was frowned upon by most of society, some people had turned their eye toward the future and embraced the idea. Luckily, Abbie had found a few friends here in the city who supported her. The others were busy trying to marry her off.

Irritated, Abbie tossed files and papers across her desk. Two would-be suitors had been presented to her at church by some well-intentioned acquaintances. Another had conveniently showed up at the home of a friend with whom she was having dinner. Abbie had declined the attention of each and every one of them.

Gracious, a man in her life. The very last thing she needed.

Her goal right now was to keep her job. Nothing else—absolutely nothing else—mattered to Abbie.

Deep within the house, a clock chimed the hour, jarring Abbie from her thoughts. She hadn’t realized so much of the morning had passed. Mrs. Merchant would return soon.

Abbie pawed through the clutter on her desk searching for her latest list of instructions. It wouldn’t do for Mrs. Merchant to return and learn that she hadn’t even begun today’s work.

A lady was always in control of her day, Mrs. Merchant had told her. A concise plan led to a day of leisure.

“Day of leisure, my foot,” Abbie grumbled. “Of course it’s leisurely when someone else is doing all the work and she’s sitting on her lazy—”

“Miss Doyle?”

Abbie gasped and jerked upright. A stack of papers slid from the corner of the desk. She scooped them up, hugged them to her chest, then whirled toward the door.

The figure filling the doorway was Mrs. Walsh, the house­keeper, looking down her long nose at Abbie. Tall—terribly tall for a woman—Mrs. Walsh always dressed in black and drew her gray hair back in a severe bun. She ran the house with an iron fist, disapproving of everything, suspicious of everyone.

Mrs. Walsh’s eyebrows drew together and her lips curled down. “You have a gentleman caller.”

“A gentleman...?”

With great show, Mrs. Walsh removed a small tablet from her skirt pocket, checked the time on the mantel clock, then jotted down a note.

Abbie cringed. Mrs. Walsh kept records of everything the household staff did. She passed it on to Mrs. Merchant—ev­erybody said so.

Mrs. Walsh tucked the tablet into her skirt pocket and folded her hands in front of her.

“Mr. Jack Graham is here to see you,” she said, then spun around and disappeared.

Abbie’s knees quivered. Darn that Mrs. Walsh. She’d tell Mrs. Merchant a gentleman had come to call on her during business hours. Mrs. Merchant wouldn’t be pleased. And Ab­bie knew her position with Mrs. Merchant wouldn’t bear up under much more of the woman’s displeasure.

A gentleman caller? She wasn’t expecting anyone. In fact, she didn’t even know a gentleman who might call on her. Unless—

Anger tightened Abbie’s stomach. She plopped the stack of papers down on her desk. No gentleman would come to call unless he’d been arranged for by one of her well-intentioned friends from church.

How presumptuous of the man, Abbie fumed. How egotis­tical. To think she was so desperate for a husband that he could barge into her place of employment and introduce himself. That she, in turn, would be so pleased at the prospect of having a husband, she’d go to pieces, all happy and giddy that he’d chosen to turn a little attention her way.

“Oh!” Abbie tugged on the sleeve of her dark-green shirt­waist, her anger boiling. Maybe that was the way city women handled such matters, but it didn’t sit right with Abbie.

The stack of papers on the corner of her desk started to slip again. Abbie reached for them.

“Miss Doyle?”

A deep, mellow voice froze Abbie in place. She looked up to see the man who must be Mr. Jack Graham standing in the doorway, only vaguely aware of the papers cascading onto the floor.

Gracious, he was handsome. Quite tall—even taller than Mrs. Walsh. He had light-brown hair with strands of blond in it, and deep-brown eyes. His shoulders were wide and straight, barely contained in the brown suit he wore. The white turned-down collar of his shirt contrasted with the tan the sun had brought to his face.

Abbie’s knees quivered again and might have given out completely if she hadn’t realized that Mr. Graham was gawk­ing at her. Ogling her. Staring as if he hadn’t seen a woman in a year.

He was sizing her up, Abbie decided. Determining whether he’d been given a bum steer by the church ladies who’d sent him to call on her. And that sent anger racing up Abbie’s spine all over again.

Jack stepped farther into the room. “I was asked to come here today to—”

“Oh, I know why you’re here, Mr. Graham.”

He paused a moment. “Good. Then we should get down to business.”

“Business? Is that what you think this is?” Abbie rounded her desk and marched over to him. “Let me assure you, Mr. Graham, there is not now, nor will there ever be, any sort of business that will take place between you and me.”

Jack frowned slightly. “I was told this was an emergency.”

“Emergency?” Abbie’s spine stiffened. “Do I look like I’m someone’s idea of an emergency?”

He tilted his head. “I beg your pardon?”

“Do I look as if I’m in desperate need of a man in my life?” she demanded, spreading her arms wide.

Abbie knew she wasn’t a beautiful woman. She’d seen her­self in the mirror. But she wasn’t ugly, either. She had thick brown hair, eyes that had been compared to the blue summer sky, and a figure that had never given a dressmaker a mo­ment’s concern.

So she certainly wasn’t desperate. Hardly an emergency. Angry, Abbie stood with her arms flung out, glaring at Jack, daring him to differ with her.

Instead, he looked at her. Slowly, his brown eyes started at the tips of her high buttoned shoes, rose over her dark-green skirt to her waist, lingered for a moment on her bosom, then jumped to her brown hair coiled in a knot atop her head.

He looked away, and pulled in a deep breath, shuffling his feet.

“Well, no...” A wave of pink rushed into his tan cheeks. He swallowed hard, still not looking at her. “You don’t look... desperate.”

Abbie’s insides jolted. She lowered her arms as her breath came a little slower. She was having trouble holding on to her anger.

Abbie straightened her shoulders. “I’ll—I’ll have to ask you to leave, Mr. Graham.”

That brought his gaze to meet hers again. “Well, all right, if you’re sure...”

“If course I’m sure!” Abbie exclaimed. “I don’t know who you think you are parading yourself in here as if—”

“Ah, Mr. Graham, you’re here.”

Mrs. Madeline Merchant chugged into the room, gloved hand extended, and planted herself in front of Jack. He bowed slightly, seemingly relieved the older woman had arrived.

She clamped her hand around his forearm. “Oh, I’m so glad you came over right away. So glad, indeed.”

Jack threw a glance at Abbie. “You said it was an emer­gency.”

“Emergency, indeed,” Mrs. Merchant declared. “Now, did Miss Doyle explain everything to you?”

A little smile jerked the corner of Jack’s mouth as he looked at Abbie again. “Miss Doyle made herself perfectly clear.”

Abbie’s eyes widened. She gulped twice. Gracious, she’d perspire for sure now.

Mrs. Merchant turned to Abbie. “Very good. I’m glad you read my instructions this morning.”

Without wanting to, Abbie’s gaze jumped to the jumble of papers on her desk.

“So,” Mrs. Merchant said to Jack, “I trust everything will be handled?”

Jack smiled. “Miss Doyle has everything under control.”

“Excellent. I’ll leave it all in your capable hands,” Mrs. Merchant declared. “Good day, Mr. Graham. Miss Doyle, come to the music room. We have things to go over.”

Abbie stood rooted to the floor as Jack and Mrs. Merchant walked out of her office. Heavens, what had she done? She’d insulted a man sent for by Mrs. Merchant. A man who was supposed to handle some emergency for her. A man who’d assured Mrs. Merchant that Abbie had everything under control.

But she didn’t have anything under control. She didn’t even know what Mrs. Merchant wanted Jack to do.

Abbie pressed her lips together. Good gracious, she’d done it again. She’d bungled a task Mrs. Merchant had assigned her.

She had to find out why Jack had been summoned this morning, or she’d lose her job for sure.

Darting to her desk, Abbie riffled through everything, fran­tically searching for Mrs. Merchant’s list, tossing papers over her shoulder. It had to be here. The list just had to be here somewhere.

A little mewl escaped Abbie’s lips as she got to the bottom of the stacks. No list. Not today’s, anyway.

Abbie’s future flashed before her eyes. Mrs. Merchant firing her. No place to live. No job. No way to get back to Penn­sylvania. What would become of her, left to wander the streets homeless?

It was a small consolation that at least she wouldn’t freeze to death in this awful Southern California heat.

Abbie rushed out of her office and peered down the long hallway that led to the foyer just in time to see Jack accept his derby from Duncan, the butler. She had to talk to him. He was her only hope. Mrs. Merchant had sent for him. They knew each other. Surely he had some idea of why he’d been called here on an emergency.

Abbie crept down the hallway. She slipped behind a potted palm and watched as he left the house and the stoop ­shouldered butler ambled out of sight.

She glanced around. No sign of Mrs. Merchant or Mrs. Walsh. Abbie dashed across the marble foyer, yanked open the door and rushed outside.

Blinking against the bright morning sunlight, Abbie spotted Jack halfway down the walk. She hiked up her skirt with one hand and waved with the other as she hurried down the steps.

“Mr. Graham? Mr. Graham?” she called, running toward him.

He spun around and leveled his gaze at her. Abbie froze in her tracks. Gracious, the way he looked at her. A chill tingled up her spine and her fingers turned cold. But how could that be, in this heat?

He watched her, studied her, making Abbie achingly aware of the loose strands of hair fluttering against her neck, the press of her collar against her throat. Only moments ago she’d been willing to beg him for the information that would save her job. Now, she wanted to slap his face.

Abbie marched up to Jack and stretched herself up to her greatest height. Though it brought her nose only to his shoul­der, she looked him straight in the eye.

“Mr. Graham, I’m quite sure that you—”

He kissed her. Caught her arms, pulled her to her toes, and kissed her. On the mouth. With his lips open.

Abbie hung in his embrace, too stunned to move. Then, just as quickly, he released her and strode away. Dazed, Abbie swayed and caught herself. She pressed her palm to her chest as her breath came in great long heaves, and Jack disappeared around the corner.

How dare he? How dare he do such a thing? Kiss her in public, on the mouth, with such passion. Abbie’s knees shook but she wasn’t sure if it was from anger or from—

Of course it was anger, she told herself.

Trembling, Abbie tugged down on her sleeves and touched her hand to her temple.

Of all the nerve...

Jack Graham had kissed her.

And she still had to go after him.


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