Kate Pearce

Coming Home for Christmas
Heat Level: 3
Coming Home for Christmas

A B&B owner and her sexy cowboy high-school crush meet again—just in time for a snowstorm and a Christmas romance, in this holiday tale from the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author. Perfect for fans of Linda Lael Miller, Jill Shalvis, and Maisey Yates.

Lucy Smith thinks Santa has outdone himself when Caleb Erickson shows up at her B&B. In high school, Caleb was oblivious to her crush. But times may have changed . . .
While the two wait out a snowstorm, Caleb is discovering that Lucy may be the gift he didn’t realize he was wishing for all along . . .

Released on September 26, 2023
ebook: 978-142015-58-0-8
Chapter One
Quincy, Northern California
Caleb Erickson gripped the steering wheel as his truck gave another death howl and veered to the side of the snowy highway as if looking for a place to die.
“Don’t you fricking dare,” he growled as he wrestled for control on the ice. “Just eight more miles and we’re home!”
Home . . . that wasn’t the right word anymore for the place he’d been born and raised, especially not since his mother had passed away. Now he was an occasional and reluctant visitor to a man who barely bothered to acknowledge his existence. He breathed a sigh of relief as the lights of the town appeared ahead of him. He could stop at the Gonzaleses’ place and see if Mike could take a look at his truck and get him out to the ranch. Even as he had the thought, the engine gave a death rattle and gave up on him. Caleb steered toward the snow-banked pavement so he wasn’t blocking the through street before he gave in to the inevitable. The sudden silence after the horrendous clanking of the past few miles was almost a relief. Snow fell around the cab, blurring the holiday lights strung along the shop fronts as it melted on the windscreen.
Caleb got out of the cab and tried to orientate himself in the biting wind. Most of the shops were dark or boarded up for the winter, which wasn’t encouraging. There were lights on in the coffee shop, but when he trudged over to try the door, it was locked. He got out his cell phone only to realize he’d forgotten to charge it during his all-night drive down from Seattle and it was as dead as the town.
“Dammit,” Caleb muttered as he shoved it back in his pocket. Now he’d have to walk to the mechanic’s shed at the end of the street and see if Mike was around. He pulled his knitted hat further down over his ears, zipped up his collar, and headed down the center of the deserted street because it was easier to walk on than the sidewalk. Even before he reached the premises, he realized he was on a fool’s errand. The huge barn doors were closed, and all the lights were off. He turned a slow circle, his teeth chattering as he viewed his hometown. He had no phone so he couldn’t call anyone and no truck to get anywhere anyway. He couldn’t even turn and run because he’d end up dead in the snow.
His glance passed over and then came back to a familiar old-fashioned house opposite the coffee shop. It was double fronted and four stories high with a wide covered porch all the way around it. He squinted through the snow. There were lights on and it looked almost welcoming. Caleb sighed, his breath frosting in the freezing air.
He retraced his steps past the hulking shadow of his truck. There was no one else out, but that wasn’t surprising. In conditions like this the best thing to do was hunker down at home and wait for the worst of it to pass. He opened the gate of the white picket fence and approached the steps up to the porch, where a lighted sign next to a brightly lit Christmas tree proclaimed:




Caleb grunted as he ascended the creaking steps. If Mrs. Smith had been here that long it might explain why she was always so cranky. She’d never liked the local kids and had chased them out of her yard and away from her fruit trees with a dedication and speed that had defied her age.
The front door opened just as he was about to knock, and he was confronted by a smiling vision in a ruffled pink apron covered in blobs of chocolate.
“Good evening!” she trilled. “I’m so happy you are here!”
Caleb almost took a step backward. He wasn’t used to being met with such enthusiasm, being broad, well over six feet tall, and having a natural disinclination to smile.
“I was expecting Mrs. Smith,” Caleb said.
Her smile dimmed. “I’m afraid she passed away last year.”
“Sorry to hear that.” Caleb half turned away. “And I apologize for disturbing you.”
“Don’t you want to come in?” He frowned as she pushed the door open even wider. “Do you need something?”
“I need somewhere with a phone so I can call Mike about my truck.” He gestured behind him. “It’s broken down.”
“You can do that here,” she offered. “I really don’t mind. It’s not as if I have any actual guests to look after right now.”
There was something disconsolate behind the brightness of her tone, but that wasn’t his problem. He needed to get to a phone and if she was willing to let him in, he’d accept her offer.
“Okay, thanks.” He wiped his boots on the mat and stepped into the wide hallway. From what he could see nothing had changed in the place since he was a kid. There was a glass chandelier in the center of the ceiling and the wide planked flooring was good local redwood that was probably original to the house. The only difference was that the whole place was decked up like a Christmas wonderland with blinking lights, holly, and at least two more fully decorated trees.
She directed him toward the reception desk to the left side of the hall.
“The landline is there.” She paused, her blond hair illuminated by the light from the chandelier. “Can I get you some coffee? On the house, obviously.”
“That would be great.” He walked over to the desk. There was a list of local numbers right beside the phone, including the one and only taxi service, the hair salon, and the mechanic’s shop.
He called the number, and when no one answered he left a message about his truck and hung up. His gaze swept the ornate furnishings in the front parlor and the heavy fringed drapes that blocked the view of Main Street. It was deadly quiet inside the house, apart from the sound of someone humming as they approached his space.
Little Miss Sunshine smiled brightly as she set the mug of coffee on the desk in front of him.
“Did you get what you needed?”
Now that he thought about it, there was something naggingly familiar about her.
“Nope. My truck stopped running and I can’t get hold of Mike.”
She sighed. “That’s terrible. How are you going to get home?”
“You know who I am?”
“Of course, I do, Caleb.” She looked slightly hurt. “Didn’t you remember me?”
He studied her face and frowned. “Uh, yeah, I guess . . .”
“It’s nothing to worry about.” Her smile dimmed. “I suppose I’ve changed quite a bit, although we have met several times over the years when you came back to visit your parents and I was here with Gran. Obviously, I’m quite forgettable.” She drew herself up. “I’m Lucy Smith.”
* * *
This wasn’t quite how Lucy had envisioned meeting Caleb Erickson again. She’d had dreams—many dreams of how he’d see her walking through town, and he’d be struck dumb by her beauty, fall to his knees, and kiss her feet for being such a little shit to her when he was a teenager. Not that he’d been any worse than the other boys, she’d just cared more because she’d always had a horrendous crush on him.
“Lucy Smith?” His brow creased as he considered her. She knew exactly when he remembered her because his expression changed to one of horror. “Little Lucy?”
“I’m five foot four. Just because you’re overgrown doesn’t make me short.”
He angled his head, his gaze dropping from her face to her toes and then back up again.
“Nice apron.”
Her cheeks heated. “It’s one of Gran’s. I borrowed it while I was baking my holiday cookies.”
In fact, she’d hoped some of her grandmother’s legendary cooking magic would rub off on her while she attempted to replicate her recipes. It was Lucy’s first holiday season without her gran, and she was missing her badly.
“Oh!” She pressed her hand to her cheek. “I forgot to put the timer on.”
She ran back toward the kitchen, where the smell of burning already permeated the room. “Darn it!” She grabbed a towel and opened the oven door to discover she’d rolled her gingerbread too thin, and the edges had started to scorch. She set the cookie tray on the side and went to open the window.
“I’ve got it,” Caleb said as he reached right over her head and released the catch on the frame.
“You’re not supposed to be back here,” Lucy pointed out as she hastily removed the failed batch of gingerbread people from the tray before they engraved themselves on the surface forever.
“I’m not a guest.” Caleb was looking around the kitchen as he leaned against the sink. “Not a lot has changed in here.”
“Why change things when they still work?” Lucy asked as she quickly rolled out a new batch of dough and cut the shapes. She couldn’t afford to do anything to the place anyway.
He shrugged his wide shoulders, his cool gaze now on her. “I remember you at school.”
“Yup, I was that annoying little kid who followed you and my brother Dan around all the time.”
“Yeah, you were definitely annoying.”
Lucy tried not to roll the dough too hard or accidentally throw the rolling pin in his general direction. Caleb had always been a straight talker, so why was she surprised that he spoke the truth?
“We’d do anything to get away from you.”
“I remember.” Lucy put the new cookies in the oven. “You tied me to a tree in the backyard with my jump rope once.”
Caleb frowned. “That wasn’t nice.”
“No, it wasn’t, especially as it started raining.”
He shoved his hand through thick reddish-brown hair that matched his tight beard. “I guess I should apologize.”
“It was probably Dan’s idea.” She offered him an out as she washed her hands.
He winced. “No, that one was all me.”
“Then I accept your apology.”
He’d brought his coffee through with him and sipped it as he stared at her. She considered what to say next. As a hotelier she shouldn’t ask any personal questions, but as a resident of Quincy, she felt some responsibility for his personal safety—or that was what she was going to tell herself.
“Did you call your dad?”
He set his mug down by the side of the sink. “Not yet.”
“Won’t he be worried?”
“I didn’t tell him when I planned to arrive, so he’s not exactly expecting me.” He hesitated as he pulled his phone out of his pocket. “My cell’s out of battery.”
“You can charge it right there.” She pointed at the electrical outlet. “It looks like the same brand as mine.”
“Thanks.” He plugged it in and turned back to her.
Lucy made herself meet his gaze. “I’m sorry about your mom.”
“Me, too.”
“You must miss her.”
“Yeah.” He picked up his mug. “Is there any more coffee?”
“Help yourself.” Lucy pointed at the dresser. “There’s a whole pot right there.”
“Thanks. You can put it on my tab.”
“As I said, coffee’s free,” Lucy reminded him, her gaze fixed on his broad shoulders and long jeans-clad legs as he turned his back on her. He’d certainly filled out since high school. She’d seen him occasionally when he’d come into town, but she’d never had much opportunity to talk to him without blushing and stammering like a fool. It wasn’t surprising he’d erased her from his memories. But it was definitely a setback when she’d given him her heart when she was nine and decided she was going to marry him.
“Stupid . . .” Lucy murmured to herself before addressing Caleb again. “Shall I see if there’s a taxi available to take you out to the ranch?”
He turned to look at her, his expression guarded. “I’d rather wait for my truck to be fixed.”
“You know what it’s like here. That could take a while and Christmas is less than a week away.”
“As I said, Dad isn’t expecting me, and I’d rather have my own transport.”
“I suppose that makes sense,” Lucy said cautiously. “But wouldn’t you rather be home than stuck here with me?”
“You don’t want guests?” He raised his eyebrows.
“Of course, I do.” He had no idea how much she needed them right now.
“Then you’ve got one.” He nodded. “Is it okay if I get my stuff from my truck while you sort out a room for me?”
“Absolutely.” She nodded like she was in a trance. Caleb Erickson was staying in her house. Voluntarily? And he was even willing to pay for the privilege?
“Great.” He drained his mug.
She froze as he walked over and paused to look down at her. He leaned in so close she could smell the coffee on his breath and flicked her nose.
“You’ve got cookie dough on your cheek.”
“Thanks.” “I’ll get going before the snow buries my truck.” He nodded at the back door. “I’ll come in this way, so you don’t have to leave those cookies again.”
A minute later he was gone, leaving Lucy gawping at the door like a fool.
The timer pinged, making her jump, and she checked the cookies, and reset it. If she hurried, she could get Caleb’s room prepared and be back down to take the cookies out. With that thought she ran

up the wide staircase and stood on the landing. Where to put him? She turned toward the rear of the house and selected door number three. There was a king-sized bed, and a walk-in shower big enough to accommodate his tall frame.
She considered him naked in that shower and almost tripped over her own feet.
“Be professional, Lucy,” she admonished herself as she made sure the gas fire worked, that there were warm towels on the heated rack, and that all the potions and lotions for the bathroom were present and correct. She’d aired the bed on the previous day and just had to turn down the covers.
Even as she smoothed a hand over the sheets where Caleb would soon lay his head, the timer went off in the kitchen and she hurriedly descended the stairs. A blast of cold air from the opening back door heralded Caleb’s return. She turned to smile at him as he set his bags on the tiled floor.
“Perfect timing.”
“It’s really snowing out there.” Caleb took off his hat and gloves. “I’d forgotten how bad it can get.”
“You don’t come back very often,” Lucy remarked as she transferred the cookies to a wire cooling rack.
“Maybe I don’t consider it home anymore.”
She looked up, saw the bleakness of his expression, and decided not to say a word.
“Seattle might be wet, but it’s not so remote.” He moved restlessly around the kitchen, his gaze everywhere. “The gingerbread smells like the kind my mom used to make.”
“Help yourself,” Lucy offered. “I’m making enough to feed a nonexistent army of guests.”
He took a piece, bit into it, and chewed slowly. “This is good.”
“My gran’s recipe.” Lucy smiled at him. “Have you eaten tonight?”
“I know it says bed and breakfast on the door, but I do offer dinner, and I haven’t had mine yet.” Lucy paused to check his expression, which didn’t help much because he’d always been hard to read. “It’s a chicken casserole with dumplings.”
“I could go for that.”
“Great!” She turned off the oven. “It’s been sitting on the bottom shelf cooking away all afternoon while I baked the cookies. I checked it just before you arrived and it’s ready to go.” She paused. “Would you rather eat by yourself in the guest dining room, or here with me?”
He frowned. “Here.”
“That makes life much easier.” She found plates and silverware and put them out on the pine table along with the casserole.
“Can I help?”
She glanced at him as she went by. “What would you like to drink?”
He shrugged. “Water’s fine.”
“I definitely have that, and there’s iced tea and lemonade in the refrigerator.”
She left him opening random cupboards looking for glasses while she went into the old washroom that housed the industrial-sized freezer, backup refrigerator, and extensive pantry. She decanted lemonade into a jug, found some ironed napkins, and came back into the kitchen to find Caleb had taken off his sheepskin-lined jacket to reveal a thick black sweater over jeans.
He’d always been the ideal man for her, and nothing had changed. She finally remembered to take off her apron.
“Nice to see you getting settled in.” She set the jug and napkins on the table.
“It’s warm in here.”
“I’m glad to hear it. We had to replace the whole heating system last year and it cost a fortune.”
“I guess it would.” He sat opposite her. The light brought out the red tones in his dark auburn hair. He nodded at the casserole dish. “Smells great.”
Lucy helped herself and let Caleb do the same. A comfortable silence fell between them, enhanced by the ticking of the kitchen clock and the patter of hailstones on the windowpanes. It felt like they were the only two people in the world and that she was living out her most personal of fantasies. Except, in her dreams, after dinner, Caleb would sweep her off her feet and carry her up the stairs to bed.
She took another peep at his face, only to find his gray gaze trained on her.
“What is it?” She touched her nose. “Is there something else on my face?”
“I was just looking.” He paused. “I’d forgotten how pretty you are.”
She took a hasty sip of her lemonade and ended up choking herself so badly that Caleb had to get up and slap her on the back.
After he resumed his seat, she jumped out of hers, and started collecting the plates.
“There’s apple pie and ice cream if you’re still hungry?”
“Apple pie would be good, but I’m avoiding anything with the word ice in it.”
“I hear ya.” Lucy nodded. “I’ll warm some up for you.”
He grimaced. “I guess I should try and call Dad while you’re doing that.”
“You go ahead.”
She determinedly turned her back as he held the phone to his ear and eventually started speaking.
“Dad? It’s me. I should be with you by Christmas Day. Anything you want me to bring from town for you? Call me back when you get a chance.”
He set the phone on the countertop and looked over at Lucy. She decided not to ask him why it would take him four days to travel the eight miles up to the ranch.
“He almost never answers his cell or landline.”
“My grandma was the same. She always answered the B&B number, but never her own phone. It’s probably a generational thing.”
“Did she leave you this place?”
“Yup.” Lucy smoothed a hand over the scarred surface of the pine table. “I think I’m the only one in the family who loved it as much as she did.”
“What about your parents?”
“Back in Seattle. Dad’s working at the hospital and Mom’s a tenured professor at the university.”
Caleb nodded. “I hear from Dan occasionally.”
“Nice.” She smiled. “Probably more than I do. He’s a terrible correspondent. He only calls when he’s stuck somewhere and needs money.”
“Sounds like Dan.” Caleb started on his apple pie. “This is good.”
“Thanks, I made it.” Lucy cut him another slice and indulged in a little fantasy about him coming home to her every night for pie and . . . other things maybe involving whipped cream.
“Have you ever left here?”
She set down the spoon. “Yes. I went to college at Humboldt.”
He half smiled. “That hardly counts.”
“Maybe not to you, but I enjoyed it.” Lucy deliberately ignored the many implications behind his words. “Not everyone gets into Stanford like you did.”
“Did you apply to anywhere except Humboldt?”
“Of course, I did. Caleb Erickson, are you judging me? I was offered a full scholarship there.”
“Hell, no.” He leaned back in his chair until it started to creak. “Nothing to do with me. You just always struck me as a smart little kid.”
“I’m only six years younger than you are.” Lucy pointed out.
“Yeah?” He studied her again, his hand smoothing over his mouth and beard. “I thought it was more than that.”
“I’m twenty-eight, and for your information I spent several years working for a multinational hotel chain before I decided to come back here and help Gran out. So, stop trying to treat me like a country hick.”
His eyebrows rose. “Still as feisty as ever then.”
“I had to be, growing up with Dan as a brother.”
“I bet.” He returned his attention to his apple pie.
Lucy waited for her temper to settle. She rarely got mad, but Dan and Caleb had worked out exactly how to yank her strings, and it seemed nothing had changed.
“Would you like some more coffee?” Lucy reverted to professional mode as she cleared the table.
“No, thanks.” He stifled a yawn behind his hand. “I think I’ll turn in. I drove down overnight.”
“Then I’ll show you to your room.” Lucy washed her hands and went to help him with his luggage.
“I’ve got it.” Caleb waved away her help and she didn’t argue. She walked back through to the main hall, ascended the stairs, and stopped at the door to number three.
“We still use old-fashioned keys here.” She unlocked the door and handed the key to Caleb, who went into the room. “As you’re the only guest, breakfast can be anytime you want. I don’t think I’ll be going anywhere in this weather, so just come down to the kitchen when you’re ready to eat.”
He had his back to her as he set his bags down and looked around the room. She stayed where she was and pointed out various things rather than intrude on his space.
“It’s a nice room.” He nodded.
“You’re welcome.”
He came back toward the door and looked down at her. “Thanks for taking me in.”
“It was my pleasure.”
He leaned in and dropped a kiss on the top of her head. “Night, little Lucy.”
“Night—” Before she’d even finished speaking, he shut the door in her face, leaving her standing there opening and closing her mouth like a goldfish. Eventually, she turned and went down the stairs to begin closing up for the night. Caleb Erickson was back in town for the holidays, staying in her B&B, and he’d just dropped a friendly kiss on her head like she was six . . .
Lucy sighed. Would he ever see her as an equal, or was she doomed to be his best friend’s little sister forever? She had a few days to make him see her in a different light and she was determined to take advantage of them. Fate had dropped Caleb on her doorstep for a reason. Now all she had to do was decide what to do about her unexpected gift.
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