December 2016 Calendar Wallpaper

Bringing you a hot cowboy on this month’s desktop wallpaper to warm up those cold December nights. It is in honor of COWBOY BLUE,  the reissue of one my favorite stories I ever wrote (A Cowboy for Christmas) featuring one of my favorite heroes, Bonner Blue Boud. It’s got a fresh new cover look, and a new title, and a new lower price, but it’s the same great story so if you own the original eBook, no need to buy the reissue. What is new is that now for the first time it’s also in paperback!

Get Cowboy Blue at Amazon  ~ BN  ~  iBooks  ~ Google ~ Kobo  ~ ARe

Feel free to download the below hot cowboy wallpaper for your use and share with a friend. As usual, available with or without the December 2016 calendar page.

dec-2016

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And for your Christmas desktop needs, there are two oldies but goodies… Naughty is Nice and Let’s Talk About This Naughty List, Santa.

Naughty Santa

Download “Naughty List Santa”

Free Christmas Desktop Wallpaper

Download Naughty is Nice 

Need stocking stuffers for the cowboy loving reader in your life? May I recommend the mass market paperback editions of my Midnight Cowboys or Oklahoma Nights Series?

You had me at bourbon: the cranberry recipe from That Mistletoe Moment

The story behind the story of the cranberry recipe… If you read my novella, “A Boyfriend by Christmas” in the multi-author holiday anthology THAT MISTLETOE MOMENT from Kensington, which released in September of this year, you might remember the opening scene. The heroine, Noelle, was in the middle of cooking her famous cranberry sauce to bring to her boyfriend’s parents’ house for dinner when disaster strikes. She is forced to run out to the food store for more ingredients, which is where she meets the hero, Nathan. They exchange recipes, which leads to so much more…

Noelle’s recipe is really my real life friend Donna’s recipe. She makes it every year and trust me it is INCREDIBLE! It is our pleasure to bring you the actual recipe, just in time for your holiday cooking.cranberry recipe

The recipe is in the photo of this post, and also on the RECIPE page, as well as pasted below. And, in case you missed the cranberry scene in my story, it follows the recipe for your reading pleasure. Enjoy!

Drunken Cranberry Sauce

As seen in “A Boyfriend by Christmas” by Cat Johnson in THAT MISTLETOE MOMENT

3 bags cranberries (fresh, whole)

1 ½ cups bourbon

½ cup orange juice (good quality)

2 cups brown sugar

1 tsp. cinnamon

½ tsp. cloves

½ tsp. allspice

½ tsp. nutmeg

2 Tbsp. orange peel (grated)

  • Rinse and pick through 3 bags of fresh cranberries discarding any berries that are split, soft or discolored. After sorting you might end up with only 2 bags worth of usable berries.
  • Put cranberries into a medium bowl and cover with 1½ cups of bourbon and ½ cup of orange juice.
  • Cover bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 24 hours.

The next day…

  • Pour the marinated cranberries and all liquid into a medium saucepan and add all remaining ingredients.
  • Bring just to a slow boil and then lower heat.
  • Simmer until mixture reduces and gels (about a half hour), while stirring occasionally.
  • Cool and serve

 

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EXCERPT

As seen in “A Boyfriend by Christmas” in THAT MISTLETOE MOMENT

mistletoemoment-cartoonNoelle drove directly to the big megastore where she’d most likely be able to find the cranberries.

After parking in the first spot she saw in the lot, she ran to the entrance and breathed in relief when the automatic doors slid smoothly open. At least they were open.

One worry down. One more to go. She made a beeline for the produce and stalked up one side of the aisle and then down the other searching for whole bagged cranberries.

If she’d needed Brussels sprouts she’d have been fine, but the cranberries were eluding her.

Just when her hopes were beginning to wane, she spotted a tall, dark-haired man in front of her. He was so broad and muscular she would have noticed him anyway. But the fact that he had not one but two bags of cranberries in his hand had her running toward him.

“Oh, thank God.” She realized she’d said it aloud when he turned to level golden-brown eyes on her as he cocked up one dark brow. “Sorry. I just really need cranberries and I was afraid they’d be out.”

He cringed. “They are out now. These are the last two bags.”

She looked at the shelf and saw the empty place where the cranberries used to be, right between a big display of oranges on one side and a row of boxed figs on the other.

Sure, figs they had plenty of, but except for the two bags the hulking hottie held captive in his hands, there were no more cranberries.

It was irrational, she knew, but Noelle suddenly felt close to tears. “Oh. Okay.”

She’d turned to go when he said, “Wait.”

Spinning back, she watched him draw in a deep breath, expanding his broad chest to even greater proportions beneath his U.S. Navy sweatshirt. “Take one.”

She resisted the urge to grab the bag out of his hand. “Are you sure?”

“Yeah. Mom always makes much too much cranberry sauce anyway. She’ll be fine with just the one. It’ll save my poor dad from eating it on everything for the next month. To be perfectly honest, her cranberry sauce is not very good.”

“Oh no. I’m sorry.”

He dismissed her concern with a wave of one hand. “It’s all right. We humor her and pretend we like it.”

Noelle considered for barely a second before she said, “You know what? I have a really good recipe for cranberry sauce. It’s got orange and bourbon and brown sugar. Would you like me to send it to you?”

“Yes! Definitely.”

She laughed. “That was enthusiastic.”

He smiled until it crinkled his eyes in the corners. “You had me at bourbon.”

“Yeah, that part usually wins over the men.” She punched the ingredients and quick instructions into a new text in her cell phone and held it out to him. “Here. Put your cell number in there and hit Send. That will text you my recipe.”

“Great. And I’ll thank you in advance on behalf of my father and all of the others attending today’s dinner who won’t be subjected to my mother’s cranberry sauce.” He punched in the numbers and handed the cell back.

She took the phone. “It’s the least I can do, considering you’re giving me one of your bags.”

“It’s my pleasure . . .” He extended his hand and frowned. “I’m sorry, I don’t even know your name.”

“Noelle.” She juggled the cell to her left hand so she could grasp his right one.

“I’m Nathan.”

“Nathan,” she repeated as she felt how strong and warm his grip was.

Read more in THAT MISTLETOE MOMENT in eBook & Print

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Too Much Black Friday Madness? Read an excerpt instead of ads!

I love the movie “You’ve Got Mail” where rich megastore owner Tom Hanks secretly woos struggling small bookshop owner Meg Ryan. If you love it too, then check out the excerpt below from my story Mr. December from my Trilogy Collection NICE & NAUGHTY. Grab something soothing to drink, curl up in your favorite reading spot and escape from the holiday madness for at least a couple of moments. Enjoy! Cat

Nice & Naughty

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“MR. DECEMBER” from NICE & NAUGHTY

 Chapter One Excerpt

Jason Bryant knew two things with absolute certainty. First, working in retail during the holiday season was absolute insanity and second, he wouldn’t want it any other way. Although glancing around the already frazzled faces of his store employees, he had to wonder if he was the only one who felt that way.

Sheesh. It was only the day after Thanksgiving and they all already looked like they’d been to war and back. He’d seen happier faces in photos taken during the Great Depression.

Meanwhile, Jason couldn’t be happier as the post-holiday sale adrenaline rush surged through his body. Black Friday, the day retail institutions went from running in the red to the black often with the highest one-day intake of the year. Just the phrase took his breath away.

He rubbed his hands together and then checked his watch. Six-thirty. He clapped his hands to get the attention of the large group assembled in the break room. “People. We open in half an hour.”

There was a collective groan over the extra early opening and the extended holiday hours. He decided to continue his inspirational speech undaunted, hoping his personal contribution of fresh hot coffee and donuts would help to boost morale.

“Come on. You know the song. It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Smile. We love our customers and we want them to love us. Get some coffee, meditate, do whatever you have to, but get yourselves merry by the time those doors open in thirty minutes.”

It wasn’t exactly Shakespeare’s Saint Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V. Hell, it wasn’t even the win one for the Gipper speech from that old Ronald Reagan movie, but it would have to do.

Employees shuffled at a zombie-like pace toward the coffee as Jason considered getting an inspirational sign to hang above the door of the break room. Something like the sign that hung in the locker room at Notre Dame to inspire the football team before a game. Something to consider. He’d add it to the already lengthy list of things to do currently entered in his smartphone.

It was hard for Jason to even imagine that the seemingly living dead who were his employees didn’t share his holiday excitement. Admittedly, he may have different feelings about the day after Thanksgiving than the others in the room. He was sure all they could think about was the leftover turkey waiting in their fridge and the football games they were missing on television. While all Jason could think about was the energy that positively radiated from this old building at Christmas, until the bricks and mortar seemed to possess a life force all their own.

Bryant’s Department Store was like a gracious lady bedecked in her gayest finery during the holiday season, and every tourist and local came to admire her. Jason had loved Bryant’s at holiday time ever since his Grandpa Bryant first brought him here to sit in Santa’s lap. That was before Jason had even learned to walk. Since his grandfather’s retirement, the store was now Jason’s ship to steer, and he intended on navigating the staid local institution into an even brighter future.

Jason bounced on his toes, as if a giant ball of energy trapped in his body was trying to get out. If only he could send some of his vigor the way of those around him. He was considering some options when his assistant came up and tapped him on the shoulder.

He smiled at the older woman. “Peggy. You look festive.”

She did, dressed in a dark green pantsuit with a red berry pin. He recognized both items as being store stock and smiled. Peggy was a loyal store employee, he’d wager right down to her Bryant’s private label underwear.

Peggy, who had assisted his grandfather for over twenty years and now belonged to him, raised one painted-on eyebrow. “We’ll see how festive you feel after I tell you what’s happening.”

Jason frowned. Whatever it was, he was not going to let it ruin his first Black Friday at Bryant’s helm. He hadn’t worked his way up from stockroom clerk, to floor associate, to manager, to Chief Operating Officer to let anything get in his way now. He gripped Peggy with one hand on each of her bony shoulders and stared deeply into her eyes. “What is it, Peggy?”

She released a loud cackle. “Well, Jesus. It isn’t that bad. No one’s dead. I just got a call from the Santa who’s supposed to be here today.”

Jason nodded. “Mmm, hmm. One of the local firemen promoting the charity calendar.” There was a stack of calendars for sale at every register in the store.

“Yup. Mr. December, Troy O’Donnell, Ladder Company No. 3. Six feet tall and two hundred pounds of solid muscle, from what I can see.”

“Yes, Peggy. I get it. What about Mr. O’Donnell?”

“He ain’t coming. His girlfriend or somebody called.” Peggy waved a dismissive hand, seeming far less interested in Mr. O’Donnell’s dating status than she was in his physical attributes. “She said he’s been throwing up for hours. They’re not sure if it’s the full-blown flu or just a little stomach bug, but he was apparently up and getting dressed between bouts of vomiting. He was trying to come here for his shift when she called me so I could tell him myself, officially, that he should stay the hell home.”

He agreed, but hoped Peggy hadn’t actually used the phrase stay the hell home. “Of course he should stay home. It wouldn’t do to have Santa vomiting on the children, or spreading a stomach virus to our customers and staff.”

“That’s what I told him. But now what do we do about getting a Santa last minute?”

“Have you called the firehouse to see if they have a spare?”

Peggy laughed at that. “Have you seen those firemen in that calendar? If they do have a spare, they can send him over to my house.”

Yes, Jason had seen the nearly nude fireman calendar, all twelve months of it. Aside from selling it at his store, Peggy had it hanging in her office for almost a month now even though it didn’t officially start until January of next year. The item seemed to be very popular with the ladies. Apparently from her rundown on Mr. December, Peggy had memorized all of the hunky firemen’s stats already.

He rolled his eyes and had to smile. Peggy was seventy if she was a day.

“Stop rolling your eyes at me. I’m old. I’m not dead. And yeah, I called. They got nobody for us today. All of their fireman Santas are either on duty at the firehouse or spoken for elsewhere. They got them playing Claus all over town, you know, not just here. The children’s hospital, the library. They said they might be able to swing somebody for tomorrow if he’s still not better.”

Jason pursed his lips as an idea struck him. He’d often wanted to be a fly on the wall in the store, see what his employees were up to when he wasn’t around, hear unsolicited comments from customers. But his face was too well known in the store. This little misfortune could turn out to be a perfect opportunity.

“Peggy. We’ve got the Santa suit here, correct?”

“Yup. Up in my office. Just got it out of the dry cleaners.”

“Excellent. I’ll arrange for a Santa. Oh, and I’ll be out of touch for the day, so if anyone calls for me, just take a message.”

Peggy cocked an already sharply arching black brow at him. “What are you up to?”

He winked at her and held one finger up to his lips to indicate she should keep quiet.

She shook her head. “You’ve got the devil in you, just like your grandpa.”

Jason smiled and laid an arm around her shoulders, steering them both out the door of the break room. “And you’ve worked for us both, for over twenty years now. So what does that say about you, my dear Peggy?”

She let out a loud crackling laugh. “It says that I know I’ll have a lot more fun working for a devil than a saint, that’s what. Come on. I may have to find more padding for the suit. You’re in better shape than last year’s guy.”

He grinned at her. She knew him too well, the mark of a great assistant.

Santa Claus for a day, this was an unexpected treat. He was feeling jollier by the minute. He may not be a hunky fireman calendar model, but in the world of retail, Jason considered himself to be Mr. December. Maybe he should print his own calendar. Hunky men of retail…something for the list.

Five hours and what felt like countless hundreds of children later, Jason was reconsidering his initial opinion about the merits of the Santa Claus business. He experienced a veritable rainbow of behaviors when it came to the children, with the emphasis on naughty rather than nice. A few skeptics pulled his beard, others ran screaming in fear, and some were struck speechless in the overwhelming presence of the great Mr. Claus. There were the criers, the pants-wetters, the whiners and the demanders. Children who didn’t know what they wanted, children who wanted everything, and parents who had waited on one line too many and were ready to take it out on anyone, Old Saint Nick being no exception.

If his little walk on the jolly side served any purpose, it was to help him understand the haggard looks on the faces of his employees. And as for wanting to be a fly on the wall and listen to unsolicited comments about the store, he must remember in future to be careful what he wished for. Apparently, according to the mothers in line, Bryant’s prices were too high and the clothing too, in the words of one customer, farty. How in the world was he going to convey that comment tactfully to the buyers?

The end result was that Jason used his entire whopping fifteen-minute break entering notes and ideas for improvements into his cell phone’s organizer application. Things like more cash registers, reserved time slots for seeing Santa and fashions that were…what exactly was the opposite of farty? Hip. Stylish. Phat? He’d have to ask one of the younger female sales associates for a term relevant to today’s buyer.

Jason sighed. He was only in his thirties himself, but he was a man, not a woman. He kept up with retail trends. Hell, they had the best clothing money could buy in the men’s department. He’d thought he had his finger on the pulse of the buying public, but apparently, he was falling short in women’s fashions.

He had already taken the step to lure in younger female buyers by allowing the firemen from the charity calendar to play Santa at Bryant’s for the week after Thanksgiving this year, as well as agreeing to host their charity bachelor auction and cocktail party at the store. Jason was on the board of directors of the local children’s hospital and since the proceeds from the sales of the firemen calendar were going directly to the hospital, of course Bryant’s would help promote it. And if events like the auction attracted a younger female consumer into Bryant’s, it was a win-win situation for all.

But it appeared that simply luring a younger customer base into the store wasn’t the problem. Having something they’d be interested in purchasing, besides the hunky firemen, was. Jason would have to get out, shop the competition and see what was hot or Bryant’s was a grand old lady doomed and on the brink of extinction.

Feeling rather less than jolly, Jason took his seat—actually, his golden red velvet throne—for the afternoon round of precious little ones. The coffee he’d consumed during his break hadn’t helped revive him any, and he felt embarrassed for offering it up as inspiration to his employees that morning as if it was a cure all. Perhaps a bottle of Irish Whisky would work better. No, he could never actually do that, but at the moment, it was a tempting thought.

Then something more tempting stepped into view and Jason nearly pulled off his white wig and fake spectacles to make sure he was seeing correctly. Perhaps he was delirious because she cut the line of kiddies still being held back behind the “Feeding the Reindeer—back in 15 minutes” sign and perched her shapely behind right on his knee.

“Don’t you look cute. Can I tell you what I want for Christmas?” She treated him to a gorgeous smile, followed by an immediate frown as she hopped off his lap. “Oh my God. You’re not Troy.”

No, he wasn’t, but right then, Jason sure wished he were. He did manage to shake his head to indicate to the woman that indeed, no, he was not Troy.

“I apologize. I must have gotten my signals crossed. I thought Troy O’Donnell was supposed to be here today.”

He finally found his voice. “No apology necessary. Your friend,” at least he certainly hoped they were only friends and nothing more, “was supposed to be here today, but he’s ill.”

She frowned. “Oh. I’ll have to call him. But, I sat in your lap. I’ve gotten friendlier with you than I did with my last date. I’m so sorry.” She cringed and covered her reddened face with her hands.

He stored away that information about her unfriendly last date for later use. “No apology needed for that either. Compared to what I’ve endured today, it was my pleasure.” Jason smiled. His pleasure, indeed. He took in the tall strawberry blond and her bottomless blue eyes.

The woman of his future dreams stuck a hand out. “I’m Troy’s sister, Tessa O’Donnell. I don’t recognize you from the fireman calendar. I was the photographer. Are you from the firehouse?”

He shook her warm hand and pondered his answer. “Um, no. The store brought me in last minute.” There, that wasn’t exactly a lie.

She smiled and shook her head. “I still can’t believe stuffy old Bryant’s is holding the Hunky Firemen Bachelor Auction here.”

Hmm. Farty and now stuffy too. Jason stifled a sigh. Instead, he opted for damage control. “I actually heard that the new COO is trying for a younger image for Bryant’s.”

Tessa screwed up her face. “The new COO is still a Bryant, isn’t he? Born with a silver spoon in his mouth and a maid, nanny, butler, chauffeur and chef up his butt from the day he was born. I wish him luck, but I don’t think there’s any hope of changing Bryant’s image after all these years. Particularly for a man who has no clue what life is like in the real world.”

Jason swallowed. She’d forgotten the private tutor and the gardeners that came with his upbringing, and also that he’d moved out of the house—all right, mansion—the moment he was old enough to escape that life and prove to himself and his family he could make it in the real world. But he had been born a Bryant and was now in charge of Bryant’s. That would represent nepotism at its best in Tessa’s eyes. Forget he had worked his way up from the bottom to get where he was today. He was still his grandfather’s heir and always would be.

She glanced over her shoulder at the growing line of irate mothers and irritated children that he’d been trying, and failing, to ignore as he concentrated on her. “Looks like the crowd is getting restless, so I better get to business before they rebel. I’m actually the photographer for the auction too, so I came by to check out the site. I’m taking press shots for PR. They promised us coverage in the local paper.” She frowned. “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name.”

“It’s Ja…um, Jay Bee.” Jason nearly groaned. He’d never been a good liar, particularly not on the fly.

She smiled and repeated, “JB, nice to meet you. You better get back to work before the big boss fires you.”

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Fall For Romance November 2016 Calendar Wallpaper

New desktop wallpaper for November, available for free download with or without the November 2016 calendar page. And if you’re looking to decorate your computer for Halloween, I’ve included an oldie but a goodie, my Something Wicked This Way Comes hot guy and spooky landscape image. Enjoy!

November 2016 Calendar

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FALL FOR ROMANCE image

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Halloween Desktop Wallpaper Wide Screen

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New Release Excerpt! Rescued by a Hot SEAL #HotSEALs

Rescued by a Hot SEALHe’s a SEAL. She’s the woman his team is sent to rescue.

Navy commander Grant Milton was well prepared to fight Somali kidnappers to save American aid worker Jennifer Anderson. What he wasn’t ready for were his feelings for her.

EXCERPT

Noise, unfamiliar, distinguishable from the usual sounds, caught Jen’s attention and had her wondering what it could be. It did not, however, make her wonder enough to lift her head to try and look.

It was too dark to see what was making that strange scratching anyway.

Besides, her captors would protect her from being mauled by wild animals. Even though negotiations hadn’t been going their way, the potential of a big payday meant she was too valuable for them to let die.

They’d starve her, let her wallow with fever, dehydrate her until she was near death, but no, they wouldn’t let her die because that would cost them their ransom.

That the kidnappers still had hope of a payout after all this time was pretty amazing since she’d given up on the idea long ago.

A twig snapped. That noise joined the rustling she still couldn’t pin down the source of.

It had to be an animal. The bugs here were big, but not big enough to make that much noise.

None of it mattered anyway. On her sleeping mat, under the one filthy blanket she was allowed, and ringed by nine guards to make sure she didn’t escape in the night—as if she had anywhere to go or the strength to walk there—no animal or bug would be able to get to her easily.

Her thoughts on the mysterious noise would have ended there if one of the men guarding her hadn’t reacted to it so strongly.

The guard closest to where she and Adam were sat up and grabbed his gun.

She heard others moving and one shout.

Jen opened her mouth to whisper to Adam to ask if he had heard the sound too when the world exploded around her.

Her question was replaced by her own screams as rapid gunfire seemed to come from all sides with her trapped in the middle.

She pulled the blanket up and shielded her head with her arms.

This was it. She’d wished for death and here it was.

Surprisingly death would not come at the hands of her kidnappers, or from the elements she’d been ravaged by, or the infection she’d fallen victim to.

This was worse.

Now she’d be taken by whatever opposing group was attacking their camp. Some warring faction who would kill her captors, take her and then pass her around to be used by the fighters. A war prize.

If she were lucky she’d die in the firefight before being taken, but she couldn’t count on that. So far, her luck had been severely lacking.

As she prayed for God to put an end to her misery, the gunfire stopped as suddenly as it had begun.

As loud and horrifying as the firefight had been, the silence was worse. It allowed her to hear the footsteps pounding toward her.

Still cradling her head she struggled to not breathe, to not make a sound.

It was dark. Maybe they wouldn’t see her. Or they could think she was one of the dead.

Strong hands gripped her through the blanket, searching until they finally located her arm. They pulled her upright as she screamed, struggling and fighting for her life.

Maybe she wasn’t ready to die just yet. Her mind might have given up on her, but her fight or flight instinct was still strong.

“Jennifer! Jennifer Anderson.” Whoever had her knew her name. He said it as he continued to hold her in an unbreakable grip.

She stopped struggling. As the panic resided enough for her brain to process things, she realized the deep male voice had sounded distinctly American.

Why were there other Americans here?

Not to get her, surely. She was a nobody. A teacher. A volunteer who didn’t even get paid. Not some politician or world leader.

Her fuzzy reasoning couldn’t comprehend any of it. “You’re American?”

Get it today in ebook or paperback!

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Hot SEALs Series

CATCH UP WITH ALL THE HOT SEALS!

October 2016 Hot SEAL Desktop Wallpaper

This month’s free desktop wallpaper download features not only a seasonal autumnal scene but also Hot SEALs’ Grant Milton in honor of the new release of RESCUED BY A HOT SEAL (Hot SEALs Series) in eBook and paperback on Tuesday, October 11th. As usual, the wallpaper is available with and without a calendar page. Feel free to grab it for yourself or a friend. Enjoy! ~Cat JohnsonOct 2016 Calendar

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Cat Johnson's Hot SEALs Grant Wallpaper

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New Release Excerpt from That Mistletoe Moment

That Mistletoe MomentTHAT MISTLETOE MOMENT (a multi-author anthology from Kensington featuring my story, “A Boyfriend by Christmas”, as well as two other great new stories by two fabulous authors Kate Angell and Allyson Charles) is available today in eBook and print. Read an excerpt from my story below. Enjoy! Cat

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“In Johnson’s charismatic ‘A Boyfriend by Christmas’, a chance meeting on Thanksgiving and a text sent to the wrong contact lead to alluring romantic possibilities…” ~ Publishers Weekly

EXCERPT

 

Nikki sat perched on one of the bar stools at the kitchen island, focusing on her cell phone. “So, I downloaded this app . . .”

“Mmm-hmm.” Noelle sat too, reached for a second cookie, and took a good-sized bite out of it.

“I signed you up.”

Her sister was always doing stuff like that. Signing her up for mailing lists and websites without her permission. Noelle pulled her mouth to one side. “Great. Now I’ll get a bunch of e-mails because they have my address. What’s it for, some store?”

“Uh, no, not a store.” Nikki put her own cell down just as Noelle’s phone vibrated with a text alert. Nikki eyed the phone on the countertop, where Noelle had tossed it. “You gonna check that?”

Suspicious, Noelle put down her mug and picked up the phone. There was a new text from a number she didn’t recognize, but it was from her local area code. She frowned at the screen as she hit the button to read it.

Hello, beautiful! Reply to this number to start chatting with your new boyfriend.

“What is this? What did you do?” Noelle glared at her sister.

Nikki’s face lit up with a grin. “I got you a boyfriend.”

“A what?” Noelle’s voice rose high.

“Not a real one. Relax. It’s the Build-A-Boyfriend app.” Nikki held up her phone as if that would explain it all. “Remember, I told you about it at Thanksgiving?”

Noelle grabbed her sister’s phone and glanced at the screen. “But I don’t understand. Who is this text from?”

“Actually, I’m not really sure. That’s kind of proprietary information. I read an article about the app in the Wall Street Journal before I signed you up, and the owners of the company were pretty secretive about how they actually generate the texts.”

“Oh, well, that’s comforting.” Noelle rolled her eyes.

Ignoring the sarcasm, Nikki continued, “The exact process and technology is kept under wraps, but there’s speculation it might be a combination of computer technology and real-life human interaction.”

“So basically the nicest compliment I’ve gotten in recent memory is from either a computer or someone being paid to text me.” Noelle twisted her mouth unhappily.

“Yes. But that’s the beauty of it. You get to pretend you have the perfect boyfriend for the family at Christmas without dealing with any of the problems of a real man.”

“None of the problems but also none of the fun,” Noelle reminded her overly jubilant sister.

Nikki dismissed that complaint with one flick of a wrist. “Oh, seriously. When was the last time you had fun with George? I mean real fun, where he didn’t criticize you or act like a stick in the mud?”

It was a knee-jerk reaction to defend George to Nikki, but just the mention of his name raised a horrible realization that had Noelle gasping. “George’s parents will be at the Christmas party.”

Nikki nodded. “I’m sure they will. And I think you’d better prepare yourself that George could very well come, too.”

Noelle widened her eyes. “You think he would?”

How could she face him? And what if he came with a date? He wouldn’t have the nerve—would he? She had the bad feeling he might.

“Yes, I do. And I think you need to be ready. Which is why we’re setting you up with a new boyfriend.”

“I don’t think a couple of possibly computer-generated texts are going to convince anyone I have a boyfriend.”

“The app does more than just text. You can get e-mails. Even a real handwritten letter. And you can set up for flower and gift deliveries, too, but that’s an extra charge.”

All of that sounded expensive. “How much is this thing going to cost me?”

“Nothing. There’s a free trial. For the basic membership during the trial period you get a limited number of texts, and we can design a complete boyfriend. We name him. Give him an occupation. We can even download photos from their database.” When Noelle continued to look skeptical, Nikki continued. “I’m telling you, this will work. We post a couple of status updates and pictures online, and you’ll have what looks like a completely convincing relationship.”

“No. I’m not posting pictures of a made-up boyfriend. That’s too much. Then what happens when I meet a real guy and there are these pictures of my fake boyfriend all over the web?”

“Fine. No guy pics right away, but we’re going to revisit that idea before the party. Okay?”

Noelle sighed, too beaten down to fight her sister. “Okay.”

“Even without pictures of a guy, we can fabricate a complete relationship online starting right away.”

“How in the world are you going to do that?”

“Easy. A close-up shot of two glasses of champagne with a status update that reads something like, Enjoying some bubbly at Sunday brunch with my new man. A pic of a Christmas tree lot with the post, Good thing my boyfriend is strong since I chose the biggest tree here. A few posts like that and George and the relatives will think you have the most active social life of anyone we know.”

Shocked, and admittedly a bit impressed, Noelle stared at her sister. “You do realize that if you put this much creativity and effort into your dissertation and building a career, you’d be making enough money to move out of Mom and Dad’s place, right?”

“Ugh. Work and school are no fun. This is fun. I can’t wait to create all sorts of dates for you and—wait—what are we calling him?” Nikki picked up her phone again. “There’s a place for all that info in the dashboard of the app. So, what do you want to call your new fake boyfriend?”

“First of all, can we stop referring to him as my fake boyfriend?” Noelle sighed with self-pity. “Other than that, I don’t know what to call him.”

“Just choose a guy’s name. Make it something strong and sexy.” Nikki waited, phone in hand as Noelle glanced around the room, looking for inspiration and not finding much that would work for a good name.

“Strong and sexy . . . Hmm. Ooh, wait. I got it.” She smiled in triumph as an idea struck. “Type in that his name is Nathan.”

“Nathan. Okay. Sounds good to me.” Nikki typed in a few things. “Where’d you get that name from?”

“He was this guy I met at the store when I ran out to buy more cranberries on Thanksgiving.” Back when she’d been happy and hopeful for a future with George. Apparently, also back when she’d been delusional that she and he were in the same place in their relationship. “Anyway, there were only two bags left and he was going to buy them both but he gave one to me.”

“That was nice of him.”

“Yeah. It was. I gave him my cranberry recipe as a thank-you.”

Nikki sucked in a breath. “You gave it to him and you won’t even give it to me?”

“Fine. I’ll text it to you.” Noelle scrolled to the outgoing text with the recipe and sent a copy to her sister. Nikki’s phone chimed a few seconds later and Noelle said, “There. You have it now. Happy?”

“Yes. Thank you.” Nikki continued to tap away on her phone before raising her eyes to Noelle. “Okay. I’ve put everything in your app dashboard. You’re all set up, or rather he’s all set up. Remember to save that Build-A-Boyfriend number into your contacts under Nathan. It will be good proof.”

“Proof for whom? Who’s going to see the texts on my phone?”

“Everyone you show them to at the Christmas party when you’re telling them about how great your new boyfriend, Nathan, is and reading them what sweet things he is going to text to you.”

Picking up her phone again, Noelle sighed deeply. She spotted the number with the local area code and hit the button to create a new contact. She narrated her actions aloud for her bossy sister. “Create new contact. N-A-T-H-A-N. Save. Anything else, boss?”

“Well, you’re going to have to text him back so he can respond. That’s how it works.”

“Stop saying ‘him’ likes it’s a real guy.” Noelle tried not to think that at best her texts would be from some bored Build-A-Boyfriend employee, and at worst from a computer.

“If you don’t start acting like he’s real, how do you expect anyone else to believe it?” Nikki cocked a brow and ignored Noelle’s pout. “Now, go put on something cute and festive. We need to go out and start faking some dates.”

Noelle wasn’t sure she had the ability to be cute or festive right now. “Why?”

“For the pictures. We’ll take some of you getting your Christmas tree. Oh, and bring an extra sweater and a scarf or hat with you so we can fake a few different dates to post all throughout the week.” Nikki stopped her planning long enough to shoot Noelle a glare. “What are you waiting for? Go.”

“Fine.” Rolling her eyes, Noelle slid off the stool and turned toward the hall.

“And put on some makeup. You look like death.”

“Thanks.” She shot her sister a glare over her shoulder.

Nikki responded with a broad grin. “You’re welcome. Ooh and mistletoe. We definitely have to buy some mistletoe. We can take a picture of it hanging up. It’ll be perfect.”

Nikki continued talking as Noelle walked away. Her only concession was to raise her voice louder.

In her bedroom, Noelle shook her head at this whole thing. Faking a relationship was a lot of work. It might be easier just to find a real man.

AMAZON US   ~B & N  ~ iBOOKS ~ GOOGLE ~ KOBO

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