A Merry Bramble House Christmas
Book 2 in the Bramble House Chronicles Series
Bramble House B & B is booked for the Christmas season and new owner Amy Arden and her husband Chet Hardwick are excited to spend their first Yuletide season as a married couple. To spread the joy of the season, they have carefully selected their guests for the week before Christmas including two very special people.
Oliver Rivers is coming to Marietta to fulfill his mother’s deathbed wish…to locate the daughter his mother gave up when she was fifteen. When that doesn’t go as planned, he finds himself gravitating to another guest at Bramble House.
Everyone calls Gemma Granger the runaway bride, but they don’t know she was deceived by her fiancé and fled to Bramble House to nurse her broken heart. Instead, Gemma finds herself feeling an instant connection with Oliver and helping him bond with his long-lost family.
Oliver suspects Gemma is taking on him and other projects to avoid dealing with her heartbreak. But the truth is that with each passing day, Gemma is discovering that her real life and her real love might not be where she thought it was.
A Merry Bramble House Christmas
Book 2 in the Bramble House Chronicles Series
A Merry Bramble House Christmas
I was (understandably!) excited the day I learned that a movie was going to be made based on my book A Bramble House Christmas, to be premiered on the Hallmark mysteries and movies channel in 2017. Since then, the support for this book (and the wonderful movie) has inspired me to continue the stories in a new series: Bramble House Chronicles.
A Merry Bramble Christmas, is the second in this series. The first, Promise Me Please Cowboy, was released in September 2023 and features the love story between Amy Arden (the new owner of Bramble House B & B) and rodeo cowboy Chet Hardwick.
But to fully appreciate the history of Bramble House (which deviates in some respects from the movie) you need to go back to a book published in 2014, Snowbound in Montana, where we meet the original owner of Bramble House (great aunt Mable) and her great niece (Eliza Bramble) who convinces Mable to convert the historic family home into a bed-and-breakfast. In this book Eliza falls in love with rugged ski guide, Marshall McKenzie, and when they decide to get married, Marshall agrees to move into Bramble House and help Eliza keep her business going.
The next big development in Bramble House’s history occurs in a novella I published in 2018, Carrigan Christmas Reunion. Here dramatic events force Eliza and Marshall to put Bramble House up for sale…a decision which led me to the creation of the Bramble House Chronicles series, and the afore mentioned Promise Me Please Cowboy.
It’s complicated, I know, but these books have been so much fun to write and with the support of my readers I look forward to continuing the series in the years to come. Thank you for visiting Bramble House B & B. I hope to see you again soon!
Wishing you Peace and Joy,
A Merry Bramble House Christmas
Amy Arden didn’t understand the magic of Christmas, but she believed in it. For weeks she and her husband Chet Hardwick, with the help of their staff, had been decorating Bramble House bed-and-breakfast for the holidays. Chet and their handyman Robert had strung lights along the roof and the porch and the thirty-foot evergreen outside. Inside, Amy, and her part-time housekeeper Ella, had decorated themed trees for each of the main rooms: a literary tree for the library, a copper-themed tree in the breakfast room, a Bramble family tree for the sitting room, and a fifteen-foot, Montana-themed balsam for the foyer.
There were pine-scented bowls of potpourri in every bedroom, boughs of cedar and pine on the mantels and railings. Meanwhile, Jo, in the kitchen, had been baking beautiful shortbread and sugar cookies while a specially curated, so as not to become annoying, mixture of holiday favorites played quietly on the main floor from seven in the morning until nine each evening.
All these efforts had succeeded in making the historic brick house a treat for the senses, visually, aromatically and acoustically.
But the transformation didn’t stop there, for the end result was more than the sum of its parts. How else to explain why everyone seemed happier, kinder, more generous than usual? Amy was seeing and experiencing this every day, not just in herself, but in those around her. After the doldrums of November, people had a spring in their step again. Snow was no longer an inconvenience to be shoveled away or trudged through but a gift of sublime beauty.
“There.” Amy hung up the phone with satisfaction. “We have a full house for Christmas.”
Chet, who was up on the stepladder changing the hallway light bulbs—there’d been an incident during Amy’s first summer, when a guest tripped in the dark and sprained her ankle, and now he changed the bulbs every six months, whether they were burnt out or not—grunted. “Full is good, but what’s your sense of the guests themselves? Will they get along? I don’t think I could take another Christmas like last year.” He started chuckling.
Amy penciled in the squares for her last two rooms, blocking them out until December twenty-fifth, which was when they closed for the season. Some things were modern at Bramble House—the Wi-Fi and the espresso maker, for instance. But she enjoyed going old-school in other areas. She recorded all their bookings manually, and had beautiful old-fashioned keys for each room, which she stored in an antique apothecary cabinet. The cabinet, as well as her desk and chair, were tucked into the alcove under the grand staircase that led to the upper two stories.
“Stop laughing. How was I to know those families would be so…militant…about their dietary choices?” She tucked away her reservation book, then went to hold the ladder steady as Chet climbed down.
When he reached the floor, he kissed her lightly on the lips. “Can’t help it. The war of the roses had nothing on the feud between the vegans and the carnivores.”
Now she had to laugh, remembering the fierce verbal battles that had gone on between the two families during every, single meal. Poor Jo, who always went to so much effort to satisfy the dietary requirements of all her guests, had been quite offended.
“None of this year’s guests listed any allergies or dietary preferences,” she said. “As long as we keep conversation steered away from politics, religion and sex, we should be fine.”
Chet pulled her into his arms. “I’d like to keep sex on the table if I could. But only if it’s just you and me talking.”
“Duly noted.” She gazed into his warm eyes, still not over the miracle that this amazing, handsome and incredibly handy man was now her husband.
They’d been married in July, a beautiful ceremony that had included their new friends in their new home of Marietta, Montana, as well as her newly discovered father and his wife and sons.
Part of the reason Amy had moved from New York and purchased this bed-and-breakfast was to find her birth father, and in that she’d been more successful than she’d dared dream. Legendary rodeo cowboy and local rancher D. W. Wilcox had booked into Bramble House not guessing it was owned by the daughter he’d never met. A daughter he hadn’t even realized he had.
Some men might not react well to having a daughter sprung on him that way. But D. W., his wife Mary Beth, and their three adult sons, had been great. They’d made Amy—and Chet—feel so welcome. Visits to their ranch near Yellowstone were highlights of every month and they’d be going down soon to celebrate the New Year. They’d been invited for Christmas, as well, but both Amy and Chet felt they wanted to create their own traditions around that particular holiday. Traditions that included Bramble House and the life they were building together here.
Chet moved a strand of Amy’s blonde hair back behind her ear. As usual, his touch gave her a delicious shiver.
“I just thought of one Christmas decoration we forgot to put up,” Chet said.
As if reading his mind, she said, “Mistletoe.”
“Yup.” He looked down the hall. “Should we hang it in the entrance by the front door?”
Amy considered. “I think it should be by the front door. But outside, not inside.”
“You sure? Why?”
“It’s just a feeling I have.”
Gemma Granger had planned to fill the nine and a half hours of driving between Denver, Colorado, and Marietta, Montana, alternating between her Taylor Swift playlist and the stress-reducing podcasts she’d downloaded for the trip. But her phone would not stop ringing.
The first call came over her hands-free system when she was hardly out of the city limits. It was from her best friend, Hannah, her supposed-to-be maid of honor.
Gemma are you crazy? A guy like Josh Barnett? I would kill to marry a guy who was that sweet, that good-looking, and—face it—loaded. Remember when we used to talk about what we were looking for in a guy? Josh ticks all the boxes. All of them. I think you’ve gone temporarily insane and as your best friend it’s my job to talk you off the ledge. Because this is just nerves, right? You know you love Josh.
That was the thing. Gemma didn’t love Josh. She liked him a lot, and for a while she had thought she loved him. But the truth had come crashing down two days ago. And now she understood that she had been deceiving herself.
Looking back, she should have realized sooner. Like when he’d proposed and instead of feeling excited, she’d been nervous. As she’d watched him slide the ring on her finger, she’d told herself they would have a long engagement, during which time her doubts were sure to disappear. But she hadn’t counted on Josh’s mother. Who had also called her about an hour and thirty minutes after Hannah.
Gemma dear, Josh’s father and I are trying to be patient, but this has really gone too far. You’ve missed your final dress fitting, but I can pull some strings and reschedule another if you turn around now. Where did you say you were? Cheyenne? Oh my God, you’re already in Wyoming! Jack, she’s already in Wyoming. You do remember we’re all going for mani-pedis tomorrow?
Forget about the mani-pedis, Gemma wanted to say. The thing was, she hadn’t exactly said yes to Josh’s proposal, which had happened publicly during her last birthday party with all their family and friends watching. Josh came out of the kitchen with a cake. Instead of the usual Happy Birthday, the piped icing asked, Will You Marry Me?
She’d blushed and smiled and kissed him and said something along the lines that yes, one day it might be nice to get married. And then Anne and Jack got involved, throwing an engagement party a few weeks later and even booking a wedding venue—because you can’t leave something like that until the last minute. A date was selected twenty-four months in the future, far enough away that Gemma sort of put it out of her mind. By then, she was sure she would feel more confident about this marriage business.
Only there’d been a cancelation in October and a Christmas date became available, just two months away. Didn’t Gemma think a winter wedding would be lovely? Next thing she knew she and Josh—and their mothers—were meeting with a wedding planner.
“It’s too rushed,” Gemma said, meaning she wasn’t ready.
“No, we can do it,” said the mothers and the wedding planner, meaning something entirely different.
There were many times Gemma could have and should have put her foot down and stopped the proceedings. Looking back, she didn’t understand why she hadn’t. It was probably a character flaw, the way she hated to rock the boat. In a family of strong-willed people, she was usually the one who compromised, who made peace, who went along to get along.
Also, she couldn’t deny that in the beginning the wedding planning had been kind of fun. She didn’t hate being the center of attention for a change, trying on beautiful dresses, choosing colors (from those offered by Anne and her mother), selecting china patterns, and picking favorite love songs. It had been like a game until two days ago when she’d opened that door and—
No. She wasn’t going to think about that. Not yet.
A light snow started, and Gemma tightened her grip on the steering wheel. She wasn’t normally an airhead. She was twenty-eight years old. For six years she’d held down a job teaching developmentally challenged children and she was good at it. She paid her bills on time, kept up to date on her car maintenance, and when she made a promise, she did her best to keep it.
Not an airhead.
Though her brother didn’t agree. His call came just before she reached Casper. What the hell is wrong with you? Our parents are going nuts right now. And you just ride off into the sunset? Leaving me to deal with this?
Yup. This is all about you, Steven. Steven, the prodigal son who had dropped out of college to become a ski bum, only to return to the fold—and a plum position in the family real estate development business—five years later.
The hardest call came from her mother, about ten minutes after Steven’s.
Look, I know it’s scary, taking a big step like marriage, but I’m afraid you’re making a mistake running away. One you’ll regret all your life. Come home. Spend Christmas with your family. It isn’t right to be with strangers over the holidays. In fact, have you seen your doctor lately? Maybe you should see your doctor because this behavior just isn’t like you.
For over twenty minutes the call had gone on like that, with helpful interjections from her father.
Never mind about the money—though it was a hell of a lot of money. You shouldn’t be driving alone in the mountains at this time of year. Did you check your tire pressure? Candace, tell her to stop at the next gas station and check her tire pressure. There’s a gauge in the glove box.
Soon after that call, which had prompted more tears, Gemma stopped in Buffalo, Wyoming, for gas—and yes, she’d checked her tire pressure. The winter wind howled through her thin sweater and once her tank was full, she went inside to buy another bag of chips.
Before she could even try to load a podcast, however, another friend had called. Then a cousin. Then her favorite aunt.
Phone call, after phone call, after phone call.
Mile, after mile, after mile.
By the time she pulled up to Bramble House bed-and-breakfast at eight in the evening, Gemma felt as if she’d talked to pretty much every person she knew in the world.
Except the one who should have called her. But hadn’t.
It was dark when Oliver Rivers stopped his car across from the little bungalow on Church Street in Marietta, Montana. He was tired after the long drive from Spokane and hadn’t yet checked into his bed-and-breakfast three blocks from here, but he put his vehicle into Park and stared at the house, trying to pry out its secrets. For a small home it had a lot to say. The sled left carelessly on the front yard spoke of a young child and also the relative safety of this town, where you could leave a sled outside overnight and not worry about it being stolen.
Most of the other houses on this street had sidewalks cleared of snow, with Christmas wreaths on their front doors as well as cheerful outdoor lights of red, green, gold and blue. In contrast, no one had shoveled at this house and the dead flowers in the pots by the front door suggested these residents were too busy to keep up with the changing seasons.
Though the front curtains were drawn, a light glowed within, and the shadow of a woman could be made out walking from one room to the other.
Oliver swallowed. Was that his sister?
The report from the investigator he’d hired claimed that it was. Oliver glanced at the dossier strewn over the passenger seat beside him. It was too dark to see the photographs that had been included in the report, but he had the images of the woman and little boy memorized. Trish Mahoney, forty and widowed over two years ago, had the auburn curly hair and green eyes they had both inherited from their mother. Her son, Sawyer, aged six, had the same hair and eyes, but also a snub nose and large grin that must have come from his father.
Oliver had never met his sister before. Never even knew she existed, until his gravely ill mother had told him the story, just hours before she died.
“I was only fifteen,” she’d begun, before telling him about a boyfriend, about careless sex and real-world consequences.
“Find her for me please, Oliver. Make sure she’s okay. I’ve set aside some money for her in my will. Tell her I’m sorry I didn’t try to find her. I never told your father anything about that part of my past, you see, and I, well, I never wanted him to think less of me.”
Oliver thought she should have told his father. He would have understood. If not right away, then eventually. His dad, who’d died only six months before his wife, had been an incredibly patient and kind man. Oliver knew he’d won the lottery where parents were concerned, but his father’s inherent goodness had made it extremely difficult to confess when he had done something wrong—like breaking the neighbor’s window while playing catch with a friend.
Oliver felt a wave of sadness wash over him. Losing both his parents in the same year had been tough. They’d been a close family. Which was why discovering his mother had been keeping such a big secret had been such a shock.
He probably should have waited until morning to drive by this house. He was bone-tired and a little strung out from all the roadside coffee. Tomorrow he’d have to decide on the best way to approach his sister. Knocking on her front door at eight in the evening wasn’t likely the smartest way.
He started his car and took the long route back to Main Street. Marietta was a charming town all dressed up for the holidays with Christmas lights and garlands and festive displays in the shop windows. He’d have lots of time to explore places like the Copper Mountain Chocolate Shop and the Main Street Diner during the week he’d be staying here. A week during which he hoped to forge a bond with this new branch of his family—the only family he had left.
The Graff Hotel looked pretty fancy. Maybe that would be a nice place to take his sister and her son out for a meal while he was here. It was fun imagining the things they could do together. Skating and sledding and making snowmen. Oliver liked kids and dreamed of having his own one day.
At almost thirty he had hoped to have found the right woman already. He’d thought his last girlfriend might be the one. But it turned out she wasn’t. Since their breakup seven months ago, he hadn’t had the heart to try dating again.
At any rate, that recent breakup, plus the deaths of his parents, had left him alone for the holidays and in the perfect position to make this trip. Oliver was looking forward to getting to know his sister. They were only half-siblings, but he wondered if they would feel a connection. They’d certainly chosen different professions. He taught literature to high school students while Trish worked at the post office, and also as a home cleaner for a handful of clients.
Her husband had been a heroic firefighter, killed while battling the wildfires in northern Canada two summers ago. So now Trish was raising their son alone. No wonder she didn’t have time to put up Christmas lights and shovel snow.
Turn right at the next intersection, Siri told him. Then turn left and in one hundred meters you’ll reach your destination.
He followed the instructions blindly, too exhausted to think for himself, and soon he was driving on a road next to a river lined with stately, historic homes, almost all of which were decorated beautifully for the holidays. Though, when he reached it, it seemed to him that Bramble House stood out from the rest. A welcoming beacon to a tired man. Thankfully he wouldn’t have to ask if they had a room—he’d booked ahead.
As he parked in one of the stalls between a vintage, turquoise pickup truck and a sporty red SUV, he noticed a woman getting out of the SUV. She had long, wavy hair, partially covered by a red woolen cap. The passenger seat of her vehicle, he couldn’t help noticing, was buried under a mound of crumbled chip bags and tissues. Either she had a terrible cold, or she’d been doing a lot of crying. Neither boded well.
After stuffing the papers on his sister back into the file, he got out of his car, stretching his back appreciatively. He glanced over at the woman who was now opening the back hatch of her vehicle. “Man, it feels good to get out of my car. I’ve been driving for about six hours. How about you?”
“I left Denver this morning. But honestly, it feels like I’ve been on the road for about a week.” She pulled on a thick, puffy coat and then hauled out a medium-sized suitcase.
He noticed she kept her face lowered, not even glancing at him as she spoke. He grabbed his own duffel bag, taking a moment to stuff the folder into a side pocket. The woman beside him seemed to be having some trouble with her bag. “May I help you with that?”
“I’m fine. Thanks.” She tugged again and this time the handle extended, and she was able to wheel her suitcase across the snow-cleared driveway then along the sidewalk toward the front porch entrance.
He followed her patiently, wondering if she’d throw any casual chitchat his way, but she remained quiet. Not even any sniffling or coughing. His money was now on the crying.
Snow was piled up about a foot on either side of the neatly cleared sidewalk, but there wouldn’t be any more snow coming tonight judging from the stars sparkling above. The air felt crisp and clean and carried the scent of a wood-burning fire, which brought to mind the image of a welcoming fireplace. From the pictures on the website, Bramble House had a good one and he was looking forward to relaxing in front of it for a bit before heading to his room.
He stepped up to the porch after the silent woman in the puffy coat and wool hat. The porch was decorated in keeping with the Christmas theme: urns of evergreen boughs and holly, some tall pillar candles—the battery-operated kind—and bowls of giant pinecones.
Bells chimed when the woman opened the door. He held it so she could get herself and her suitcase inside. No sooner was he on the welcome mat himself than he heard footsteps approaching along a hall from a room at the back.
“Hello! You made it! Welcome to Bramble House.” A slender woman in jeans and a gray sweater, her blonde hair back in a ponytail, gave both of them a big smile.
He smiled back, assuming this was the owner he’d spoken to on the phone.
“Yes, and you must be Oliver.” She glanced at her other guest. “And Gemma? Do you two know each other?”
“No,” Gemma said quickly.
The bright hall lighting revealed blotchy skin and swollen eyes, supporting the crying theory. Even with those handicaps she looked beautiful with thick-lashed eyes, a generous mouth and prominent cheekbones.
“Just happened to arrive at the same time,” Oliver elaborated.
“Well, that makes it easy for me. I’ll have my husband take your bags to your rooms and we can have a quick orientation in the sitting room. Please hang your coats on those hooks.” She pointed at the wall near the door. “And your boots go on the rack below. If you didn’t bring your own slippers, help yourself to a pair in that basket. You’ll find all sizes. They were knitted by one of the original owners of this home, Mable Bramble.”
As she was speaking a lean, muscled man had approached from the same hallway. His face was deeply tanned, speaking of hours spent in the out-of-doors, and the look he and his wife exchanged let Oliver know this was one happily married couple.
“Hey, Gemma and Oliver, I’m Chet. Glad you arrived safely. Now Amy can stop checking out the window every five minutes.” He grinned when Amy rolled her eyes, then grabbed the suitcase from Gemma and turned to Oliver.
“I don’t mind taking my own.”
“It’s no problem for me and it’ll save some time,” Chet said. “Amy likes to give a spiel to all our new guests.”
“Okay then.” Oliver handed over his bag.
“Come this way,” Amy urged, indicating open French doors leading off the foyer.
The room inside had the advertised stone fireplace, where a crackling fire invited them to sit in the comfortable-looking leather furniture. The lighting in this room was soft and indirect, and Gemma instantly seemed more at ease. She sank into one of the armchairs near the fire.
“Oh, this room is lovely. I can’t believe I’m really here.”
“Would you like hot apple cider or cocoa?” Amy offered, standing near a sideboard at the back of the room. “I can also recommend the cookies. Cook Jo made the shortbread and sugar cookies, while our resident Santa Claus made gingerbread.”
“Just cocoa for me please,” Gemma said. “It sounds very comforting. And do you really have a resident Santa Claus?”
“Yes,” Amy said as she poured from one of the two thermoses. “Kris is actually the Graff Hotel’s Santa, but he prefers to stay here as it’s quieter.” She added a dollop of whipped cream and a grating of chocolate shavings to the cocoa then handed it over and looked at Oliver.
“The apple cider please.” Once he had his drink in hand, he went to examine the Christmas tree standing in place of honor by the large bay front window. Hanging from the branches were dozens of silver- and gold-framed miniature portraits dating back to the late eighteen hundreds.
“That is literally the Bramble family tree,” Amy said.
“Are you a Bramble?” Gemma asked. “I don’t remember you. I stayed here once about six years ago. I was on a camping holiday with friends and after the second day of solid rain we decided we needed a proper bed and a shower.”
The hot cocoa seemed to have relaxed her. Her voice had lost that high-strung edge and she was actually smiling, which transformed her face. Her skin, which had appeared blotchy in the harsher light, had taken on an apricot glow from the fire. And she’d removed her hat, revealing rich brown, silky textured, long hair.
Realizing he was staring, Oliver turned back to their host.
“How nice that you stayed here before, but no, I’m not a Bramble,” Amy said. “I moved here from New York City about a year and a half ago. I wanted a change and running a bed-and-breakfast in a charming mountain town seemed like a good idea. It took me a while to appreciate the history of this house and the important role the Bramble family played in establishing Marietta. If you’re interested in learning about them, check out the family photos hanging in the hallway. There’s also a book written by one of the Bramble cousins.” She indicated a slim volume on the coffee table.
“Will there be any other guests over the holidays?” Oliver wondered. According to the website, there were six guest rooms, but so far Amy had only accounted for three guests.
“Yes. Tomorrow I’m expecting the Caraways from Bozeman. The grandma will be staying in our accessible room on the main floor, her daughter and her partner on the second floor where both of you are staying, and the college-aged grandson in the room over our garage. So, we will be a full house.”
“Sounds fun,” Gemma said, not sounding convinced.
“Anyway,” Amy continued. “To get on with my orientation, this room is available to you at any time. You’ll usually find refreshments on the sideboard and, in the winter, we like to keep the fire going most of the time, but feel free to add a log if it’s getting low.”
“Speaking of refreshments,” Gemma said, “I think I’ll try one of those cookies.” Before she could uncurl from her armchair, Amy was passing the plate around and Oliver decided he’d have one too.
One delicious bite of the gingerbread told him he’d be wanting more of these cookies.
“On the other side of the hall is our library. Feel free to borrow any of the books. We’ve got a lot on local history and attractions, but there is a good assortment of everything. Just please return the books before you leave.”
As a high school teacher of literature, Oliver would definitely be checking out the library. Gemma looked interested too.
“Farther down the hall is the breakfast room and the kitchen. We serve breakfast between eight and nine, neither one of you mentioned any allergies or food dislikes…” She glanced at each of them for confirmation and looked relieved when they both assured her they had none.
“Here are your room keys. Gemma you’re in the Montana Sapphire Room and Oliver I hope you’ll be comfortable in the Copper Room.”
Oliver accepted the key, which was the old-fashioned brass sort.
“I’m not sure what you have planned for your stay, but Main Street is where most of the action happens in this town. I’ve got information about church services for Christmas, local hikes, and day trips if you want to venture out of town for a bit and explore the area. Miracle Lake is close and is a great place for tobogganing and ice-skating. We have sleds, snowshoes and skates in most sizes in the garage. Just let me or Chet know what you’re looking for and we’ll do our best to help.”
“Thanks, it all sounds fantastic.” Oliver’s schedule was going to depend a lot on his sister and nephew, but he hoped to do it all: sledding, snowshoeing and skating. He glanced at Gemma, wondering what had brought her back to this town, alone at this time of year, and obviously very upset about something. He really didn’t need any more drama this Christmas, but all the same, he couldn’t help being curious.