A Convenient Christmas Proposal

Book Two of the Shannon Sisters Series

She’s the Christmas light in a world that seems so dark…

When Patrol Officer Kelly Shannon answers a suspected DUI call that results in the suspect’s death, she has to deliver the grim news to his young family, including his brother—her friend and crush, Mick. Kelly convinces herself that she’s only making amends when Mick begs for help looking out for his niece and nephew as his sister-in-law grieves and neglects her young children. But as Christmas approaches, Kelly admits the truth. She’s falling in love.

Journalist Mick Mizzoni spent his life trying to keep his younger brother out of trouble. When he gains temporary guardianship over his niece and nephew, he crosses the professional line he drew years ago and turns to Kelly Shannon for help. As she embraces him and his new family, she gives him hope that this Christmas could be different.

With their happiness hanging by a thread, Kelly hopes for a Christmas miracle, but Mick, who’s not as jaded as he thought, wants so much more.


Book Extras

A Convenient Christmas Proposal
Dear Reader,
Almost twenty years ago I published the Shannon Sisters trilogy with Harlequin Superromance. When I revisited the stories early last year I was hoping to love them. I did not. But I did see many ways that the stories and the trilogy as a whole could be improved. I wanted to add more heart, a bigger sense of community and smooth out some rough edges in the plotting. I hope I have succeeded in all these goals. If you've read the original books, I beg you to replace your copies with these new releases. And if you've never read the originals--please don't. I guess if I can take any solace in this whole process, it is this: I've actually learned a few things in my 25 year career. And that, at least, is a good thing.
Warmest wishes,
C. J.

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Chapter One

Kelly Shannon could remember every face and name of the victims she’d had to deal with in her eight-year career with the Whitefish Police Department, but she knew none would weigh on her as much as Danny Mizzoni.

And here she was, about to meet with Danny’s older brother Mick, at Mick’s request. She took a deep breath then pulled open the door to Grizzly Grounds. The addictive aroma of espresso pulled her into the queue at the counter. Most of the tables were occupied and twinkling lights and garlands of juniper seemed to be everywhere.

Though it was early December she wasn’t in much of a holiday mood. She’d just as soon skip Christmas this year. Though her supervisors assured her she’d acted ‘by the book’ and Danny’s fatal motor accident wasn’t her fault, she still felt lousy about it. Especially since Danny had left behind a wife and two very young children.

“Hey, Kelly!”

Recognizing Mick Mizzoni’s voice she turned and spotted him at a table close to the potbellied stove at the back of the café.

As always, her heart did a little skip when she saw him. Mick had olive-toned skin, dark wavy hair, sensuous lips and warm brown eyes. He had the physique of a Navy SEAL—tall and broad-shouldered—which was totally wasted on his job as editor and journalist at the Whitefish Journal. That combination of brain and brawn got to her every time.

They’d known each other since they were kids and before Danny’s death they’d had an amicable relationship. He often came to her for information when he was working on a story for the Journal. They crossed paths now and then in social settings, too. Last year they’d attended—separately of course—the wedding of a mutual friend. And she saw him occasionally when she was skiing on Big Mountain. Usually she’d be with a friend and he would be alone. A bit of a lone wolf was Mick.

In the back of her mind lived a hope that he might ask her out one day. But his banter was always casual, never flirtatious. Maybe he still saw her as Maureen and Cathleen’s baby sister. Or maybe she just wasn’t his type.

“Thanks for meeting me,” Mick said as she took the chair across from him. His voice was polite, but tense, and he didn’t look her directly in the eyes. “I ordered you a latte and huckleberry scone—did I get that right?”

She nodded, not sure what it meant that he remembered her standard order. Probably just that he had a good memory. A helpful trait for a journalist.

A closer look at Mick revealed lines of exhaustion around his eyes and mouth, and a heartbreaking sadness in his eyes. Grief and regret clamped hold of her heart. No matter what her superiors said, she still felt it was her fault Mick was going through this.

“I’m sorry about Danny. But I’m not sure there’s much more I can tell you about that night.”

Mick had arrived at the scene, prepared to do his job and report on the accident. He’d had no forewarning that the victim in the single-vehicle accident was his brother. Kelly hadn’t spoken to Mick that night—she’d been too busy.

But she’d seen him react upon hearing the news from Sergeant Springer—folding over like he’d been punched in the gut. When Springer put a hand on Mick’s shoulder, he’d jerked away from the sergeant, then began pacing tight circles in the middle of the closed highway.

Mick either didn’t hear her, or didn’t believe her. He rested his elbows on the table and leaned in. “I’ve read the reports. But I want to hear it from you. Can you start at the beginning?”

Kelly’s throat thickened. She did not want to go through those events again. The only reason she’d agreed to meet Mick was out of the vague hope that she could help him come to terms with his brother’s death.

But how could she deny him?

And so she let her mind go back. She was in the cocoon of her patrol vehicle’s driver’s seat, sipping from the thermos of coffee she’d brought from home and listening to late-night radio as she cruised the streets of her sleepy little city.

It had been a Thursday night, quiet—the ski hill still wasn’t open this early in the season so there weren’t many tourists in town. When the call came over the radio, her adrenaline had kicked in, but only moderately. She’d been expecting to hand out a speeding ticket or maybe a DUI. She’d never guessed how serious it would turn out to be.

“It started with a call from dispatch,” she told Mick. “They got a complaint of someone driving a Land Rover erratically just west of town on the 93. So I went to investigate.”

“You didn’t know it was my brother?”

Kelly waited while the server came with their coffees and treats. She adjusted the position of the mug and the plate, not sampling either. She noticed Mick wasn’t paying any attention to his black coffee or muffin either.

“I didn’t know it was Danny. When I came up from behind, he was driving eighty miles an hour and weaving. I hit the lights to pull him over, but he reacted by speeding up.”

“Did you, too?”

Kelly hesitated. She knew Mick was trying to figure out if she had provoked Danny into the accident by giving chase. “Everything happened so fast at that point, I didn’t have time to react. When Danny accelerated, he must have hit a patch of black ice at the same time.” In one dreadful and fatal moment, the Land Rover had gone careening off the highway, full speed into the trunk of one of the ancient larch trees that lined that stretch of the road.

Kelly wrapped her arms around her body, remembering the violent shakes that had overtaken her immediately after it happened. Somehow she’d forced her trembling fingers to call in the accident, then gathered the courage to step out into the dark, cold night and go check on the occupants of the vehicle. Only to discover a single occupant. Clearly dead.

“He went instantly. He didn’t suffer.” The picture was there, in her mind, something she’d likely never forget. The impossible angle of Danny’s neck, the blood trickling from his mouth, the glazed look in his eyes. “He looked—and the autopsy later confirmed—like his neck had broken. I forced open the door and checked his pulse to be sure. But he was…he was gone.”

“Did you consider CPR?”

“His injuries were too massive. I’m sorry.”

And she was. Danny had been her age, and like her he’d grown up in the small mountain city of Whitefish, Montana. As a kid, he’d been a bully. He’d even stolen her bicycle when she was ten years old. As an adult, he’d lived up to his early potential by amassing a record of drug-related arrests and charges, and even spending some time in prison.

He and Mick had the bad luck of growing up with a single mother who had serious problems with alcohol. But while Mick had risen above his circumstances, putting himself through college and avoiding legal problems of any kind, Danny had sunk lower.

But Kelly had never considered him beyond hope.

“My brother had some issues and made some pretty stupid mistakes,” Mick said. “But he wasn’t all bad. He was an amazing fly fisherman. And when he was sober, he was a good husband and father.”

When he was sober, was a pretty big caveat. But this wasn’t the time to bring that up. “How are Sharon and the kids doing?”

Mick frowned, the expression not diminishing his attractiveness one iota.

“Not good. I’m worried about Sharon, whether she can cope without Danny. Like I said, he had his flaws, but he loved his children and he made sure they had the basics. Whereas Sharon…”

Kelly was familiar with Sharon, too. Several years younger than her husband, she also had alcohol and drug issues. Just a few months ago Kelly had been forced to contact child protective services out of concern for the children. “You think she’s neglecting the children?”

Mick looked at her assessingly, as if deciding if she could be trusted with the truth. Then he nodded. “I’ve been over almost every day since Danny died. Half of the time she’s wasted. If I didn’t bring groceries, there wouldn’t be enough food for Billy and Amanda. I’m doing all the laundry, as well. And some cleaning, though it’s hard to keep up with.”

Kelly sucked in a breath. This sounded worse than she’d expected. “Is Sharon abusive?”

“She doesn’t hurt them, at least I’ve never seen any signs of that. But she’s neglectful. For sure.”

Kelly’s hopes for the small family plummeted. “Does she have any family for support?”

“Nah. Her parents live on the East Coast. They don’t visit much. Sharon has a sister who lives with her boyfriend in Kalispell, but she’s a party girl. Which leaves me.” Mick finally took a drink of his coffee, then looked at Kelly squarely. “I told Sharon I’d take the kids for a while, while she gets back on her feet, but so far she’s resisting.”

“It sounds like you need to involve child protection.”

“No.” Mick’s voice was firm. He glanced across the room, eyes unfocused as if he was looking back on a different time. “You may or may not know that Danny and I were removed from our mother’s care for a few years.”

“I—don’t remember that.”

“Yeah, well, you would have been young. I figured out early how to look after myself and my brother. And I knew how to manage our mother, too. The do-gooders working for government meant well, I’m sure, but those two years in foster care were the worst of my life. I won’t put Billy and Amanda through that.”

“But they wouldn’t be placed with strangers. Not if you, their uncle, are willing to offer them a home.”

“Are you sure? I have a crazy-busy life, no wife or partner to help me. I can’t take the risk that those social workers decide I’m not an appropriate caregiver.” He planted his right hand on the table. “Here’s my bottom line. I don’t want strangers messing around in my family business.”

Kelly shook her head. She understood his issues. But she was a cop, and there was a legal process to follow in these cases. “If Sharon doesn’t release custody voluntarily, you don’t have any recourse but to go through legal channels.”

“I damn well do.” For the first time Mick looked at her directly. Unwaveringly. “And you are going to help me.”

It was easy to read Kelly Shannon’s emotions—worry, concern, caution—by merely looking at her face. Mick found that was true with most honest and essentially kind people. Not that he knew very many of these. Kelly was special, which was why he usually went to her for information when he was working on a story that involved the police department.

But despite all the times they’d met for coffee and discussed a case, despite having grown up less than eight blocks apart, and having attended the same schools, they were far from friends.

The Shannon sisters were favorites in town. Their mother had been the school principal for fifteen years; the girls were all smart, talented, popular. While there had been just eight blocks separating their homes, it might have well been eight miles for all the difference between their neighborhoods.

Their home had been a double-wide while he and Danny had been the equivalent of white trash. Even after he got his degree and his dream job at the local paper, Mick still felt the stigma of his family and his upbringing, especially when dealing with the older, more “respectable” citizens of this town.

He had no doubt Kelly had done everything by the book the night his brother died. But she still felt badly about it. He could see it in the way her bottom lip trembled when she told him Danny hadn’t suffered. And in the worried lines on her pretty forehead. And the nervous movements of her hands as she avoided drinking her latte and eating her scone.

Kelly was the sort of cop who cared, and he was trying to take advantage of that. Maybe it was wrong. But he was so damn angry. Danny had behaved irresponsibly, yeah illegally. But lots of people drove under the influence of alcohol or drugs without paying the ultimate price. Why did Danny have to be the unlucky one?

To Mick had fallen the horrible job of telling the news to Sharon and Billy and Amanda. Mandy was too young to understand, but Billy was a very mature five and he’d taken the news so stoically and silently—unlike Sharon who had cried and railed—that Mick worried all the more for him.

He saw a lot of himself in Billy. The older brother, trying to take care of a younger sibling and dealing with a volatile, alcoholic mother.

“I want my nephew and niece to have a stable home where they can focus on sports and friends and school, instead of making sure they have enough food to eat and warm clothes to wear. All I’m asking is for you to help me make that happen.”

“I’d like those things for Billy and Mandy too. But how can I help? I’m a cop. Not a social worker.”

“By keeping an eye on them, on Sharon and the kids. And make sure Sharon knows it. If you put a little pressure on her, maybe she’ll shape up. Or give me custody of the kids.”

Kelly took a few moments to consider. “I’ll gladly do that. To be honest, I’m already cruising by their house several times each shift. But if I see signs of Sharon neglecting her children, I’m duty-bound to report that.”

“Sure. All I’m asking is that instead of child protective services you report it to me.”

“Damn it, Mick.” Kelly glanced down at her mug of cooling coffee. Then back at him. “What if something bad happens? It’ll be on my head.”

“I won’t let that happen. But I can’t watch out for them twenty-four seven. That’s why I need your help.”

“I have a full-time job, just like you. How can we possibly guarantee the safety of those kids?”

“You think reporting Sharon will change that? Two months ago a social worker was called in. Danny and Sharon knew he was coming so they spruced up the home, put a chicken in the oven, and made sure they were both sober.”

Kelly sighed. “There is a process. Kids aren’t just removed from their homes at the first sign of trouble.”

“I’m telling you I have no faith in the process. The person I trust with those kids is me.” Losing Danny was something he’d never get over. But Danny had been an adult, responsible for his own decisions. Billy and Amanda were completely helpless.

The least he could do for Danny was protect his kids. And he was going to do it.

Chapter Two

Kelly walked out of Grizzly Grounds on trembling legs. She’d known meeting with Mick wouldn’t be easy, especially since she was already upset about Danny’s death. Facing Mick’s simmering anger, and hearing about the predicament of Danny’s kids hadn’t helped.

Safely in her own car, she started the engine, but didn’t touch the gear stick. Instead she got out her phone and called Maureen.

Her older sister lived with her teenaged daughter Holly over two hours away in Missoula. Newly widowed, Maureen had her own problems these days, not to mention a busy legal practice to manage, but there was literally no one else for Kelly to call.

Their mother had died ten years ago. Their father had been out of the picture for decades. And middle sister, Cathleen, was touring New Mexico with her new husband Dylan.

“Kelly, you okay?”

Hearing Maureen’s familiar, practical voice almost made Kelly cry.

“I’ve been better. I just had coffee with Mick Mizzoni.”

“Ah, honey. Why did you do that?”

“We’re sort of work colleagues. He wanted to hear what happened that night from my perspective. And I, well, I felt I owed him that much.”

“Let me guess how it played out. You told him about that night and he made you feel like you were partly responsible for Danny’s death.”

“Sort of.” She wouldn’t tell Maureen about Mick’s unorthodox request. As a lawyer, Maureen would flip out.

“Well, you aren’t responsible. You were doing your job, that’s all. Mick’s over his head in grief right now. I know what that’s like. In time I’m sure he’ll see things more rationally.”

“Your probably right. Thanks, Maureen. I just needed someone to tell me it wasn’t my fault. These days I can’t hear it enough.” Probably because somewhere in the simmering stew of emotions she’d been going through since that night was more than a small amount of guilt. It didn’t make sense. She’d been doing her job, protecting the public, but she had been part of a chain of events that had led to the death of a young man, a father, and she could not shed the feeling that she had to pay a price for that.

Which was why, in the end, she’d agreed to Mick’s stupid plan. She was going to help him keep an eye on Sharon and the kids. And if she saw anything amiss, the only person she would tell was Mick.

And if something bad happened to the kids as a result? Not only would she feel personally responsible, but she’d also probably lose her job for not following protocol and reporting the neglect.

“Next time you have days off you should come to Missoula. Not that Holly and I are a ton of fun right now. But it would be good to see you.”

“I’ll let you know,” Kelly promised. After ending the call, she sank back into the driver’s seat and studied the view out her window. At five o’clock it was already dark and Christmas lights added a festive cheer to downtown Whitefish. At some point it had started to snow, just a light dusting of flakes, the fat kind that tended to melt when they first hit the ground, then eventually piled up into moisture-dense blankets that took forever to shovel. The shoppers strolling along the snow-dusted sidewalks looked happy. All in all it made for a very pretty scene.

Yet inside, Kelly felt nothing but her own personal despair.

She shifted to Park and automatically drove to the tiny bungalow where Sharon Mizzoni and her kids lived. Several months ago the family had been living on the McLeans’ Thunder Bar M Ranch. Danny had been hired by his recently discovered biological father, Max Strongman, to look after the property. Instead he and Sharon had pretty much trashed it. When Max’s illegal activities caught up to him the ranch had been reclaimed by Dylan and his mother, who had then helped move Danny and his family to this place.

It was a small house, but sort of cute. Certainly nicer than the double-wide trailer where Mick and Danny had been raised. Kelly parked her SUV on the opposite side of the street, down the block a few houses. Turning her key onto auxiliary power so she wouldn’t waste gas, she continued to listen to a talk show on PBS.

An hour passed. Maybe two. Light glowed from the small front window of the house, blending with the blue glare of the television set. The drapes weren’t drawn, and Kelly could see directly into the living room. Sharon sat in front of the set, a beer bottle in her hand. Two-year-old Amanda jumped on the sofa. There was no sign of Billy.

Kelly wondered if the kids had been fed any dinner. It was past seven. They should be having baths and brushing their teeth, getting ready for bed. Why wasn’t Sharon helping them?

With the heat off, the truck was cool and snow piled quickly over her windshield and hood. Every now and then Kelly ran the wipers and cleared two semi-circles from which she could view the little house and its occupants.

Kelly zipped up the down vest she wore over her fleece jacket then slipped on leather gloves.

She didn’t know what she was doing here. Her conversation with Mick had rattled her. She shouldn’t have agreed to help him, should have insisted he report to the authorities at the first sign of trouble.

Maybe she wasn’t tough enough to be a cop. She had to learn to handle the awful things she sometimes saw on this job. It might be easier if she worked in a big city, where she wouldn’t know so many of the people who got in trouble—who died—personally.

At seven thirty, Sharon finally got up from the couch. Good, she was putting the kids to bed, Kelly thought. But no. Sharon had just gone to get another beer. At eight o’clock, Billy came into the room and took his sister by the hand. Sharon just sat there, drinking and staring at the screen. Lights went on in a smaller room adjacent to the living room, which was probably the kids’ bedroom.

Before too long Sharon was up getting another drink and Kelly almost envied her. She could go for a beer or two herself. She wondered how many it would take to get rid of this heavy, achy feeling in her heart.

If only Cathleen was home. The middle Shannon sister had been born with an enviable confidence and self-assurance. If anyone dared tell her she’d done something wrong, she would immediately go on the offensive. She’d been brave enough to stand up for Dylan when almost the entire county thought he was guilty of murder. And she’d helped him prove his innocence.

Kelly could sure use a pep talk from Cathleen right now.

But she wasn’t going to interrupt Cathleen’s honeymoon to get one.

Kelly rubbed at the condensation forming on the inside of her car’s window. On the radio Shania Twain was feeling like a woman. Stuck here in her four-by-four, Kelly felt hardly human.

If she hadn’t tried to pull over Danny Mizzoni, those kids might still have a father, and Sharon wouldn’t be a widow. Like a roller coaster forced to travel the same circuit again and again, Kelly lived through those short seconds that had forever changed so many lives.

Spotting Danny’s Land Rover.

Putting on her lights, her siren.

Danny speeding up.

Had she too?

And then the Land Rover hitting ice, veering off the highway, crashing into the tree.

The noise. Would she ever forget the noise?

Kelly turned up the volume on the radio. Fifteen minutes later the lights went out in the smaller window. Inside the quiet house, Sharon went for another beer.

Billy and his sister must be asleep. They ought to be okay until morning. Kelly sent a short text message to Mick.

Thanks, he responded. Just finished an article for the paper. I’ll check on them before I go to bed.

Mick in bed, that was an intriguing thought. Did he sleep nude, or in briefs and a T-shirt? He didn’t seem like a pajamas-wearing guy.

“Stop it,” she ordered herself. Then drove away.

End of Excerpt

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November 17, 2020
Tule
Romance