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One Hundred Christmas Kisses (An Aspen Cove Romance Book 6) by Kelly Collins (1)

Chapter One

Evan Barkman was an asshole and an awful kisser. He was also Charlie’s boss, which made kissing him under the mistletoe the biggest mistake she ever made. It’s why she didn’t mix Christmas parties with alcohol. That was three days ago and she hadn’t spoken to him since. Well, she’d spoken to him because he was her boss, but their words were purely professional. They discussed puppies, bowel obstructions, and fleas.

“If I asked you to stay would you? I invited you on my trip,” Evan said.

While he locked up the pharmaceuticals, she walked around the operating table to toss the soiled linens into the laundry bag. They’d just removed a balloon from a beagle’s lower intestine and this would be the last laundry pickup before the holidays.

“No, I told you I’m going to Aspen Cove to visit family.” She had been on the fence about going home, but Evan’s badgering made the unpleasant thought of seeing her father more palatable. It had been ten years since they were together in the same room. That room had been the funeral home in Copper Creek. They closed her mother’s casket and she closed that chapter on her life. After eight years of schooling and two years working for an idiot, Charlie was ready to take a step back and re-evaluate everything. Changes needed to be made.

Evan walked around the table toward her, and she moved to the other side to avoid him.

“Why are you running from me?”

“I’m not running.” She made sure to keep at least a three-foot barrier between them. The damn man had long arms. “I told you the kiss was a mistake. It was too many spiced eggnogs mixed with poor judgment.”

The fact that he’d maneuvered her under the mistletoe was another story altogether. He’d been getting friendly over the last few months. Each time he passed her in the clinic, he found a reason to touch her. What started out as a graze of the hands across her back turned into a pat on the bottom or a brush of his arm across her breast. He had a sea of space to walk around, but he always chose the exact place she stood to crowd her.

“I don’t think it was a mistake. The kiss was perfect.” He made it around the stainless steel table before she could outmaneuver him. His hands gripped her shoulders and his lips covered her mouth. Cover was exactly right. Evan Barkman had a mouth the size of the Grand Canyon. It dripped saliva like Niagara Falls.

She pushed at his chest, but he held his position. He pulled back and said, “We’re perfect for each other, Charlie. It’s a match made in heaven.”

She knew that her next move would end everything, including her job. “We’re not a match. You’re a veterinarian and should know you can’t mate a water buffalo with a feline and come out with something good.”

“This could be good.” He pressed himself against her.

She positioned her knee for impact. When it connected to his groin, everything changed. His hands left her shoulders and dropped to his crotch. He stumbled back. “Why would you do that?” His voice had the pitch of a six-year-old girl.

“Because you’re an asshole, and I quit.” Charlie took off her lab coat and tossed it onto the table, walking out of Barkman’s Veterinary Clinic. Her job there had lasted two years. At least it would be a solid reference. She’d make sure to remind Mr. Barkman what a stellar veterinarian she was when she called to pick up her final paycheck and threaten to sue him for sexual harassment.

She stomped straight to her SUV and climbed inside. Her head fell to the steering wheel and she cried. Her tears flowed freely. Wasn’t it time to let all the anguish go? When she finished drying her cheeks with the hem of her pink scrub shirt, she started her car and took off toward home.

As if the universe was pushing her forward, Agatha Guild’s number popped up on her cell. She transferred the call to bluetooth.

“Hey, Agatha, how are you?”

“I’m finer than frog hair split seven ways, sweetheart. Just checking to see if you’ve decided to come for a visit?”

Agatha was her father’s new girlfriend and Charlie wasn’t sure how to feel about the woman who had stepped in to replace her mother. On one hand, she was grateful that her father wasn’t alone. Then again, she didn’t know how her mother could have been replaced. She had to give credit to the woman for being persistent in her quest to get Charlie Parker back to Aspen Cove. She’d called twice a week for the last six months.

“I’m in the car. I have to stop by my apartment and pick up my bag, and then I’ll be on my way. Please don’t tell my dad. I’d like it to be a surprise.” What she really meant was she didn’t want him to be disappointed if she got halfway and turned around because she lost her nerve.

“My lips are sealed. I can’t wait to meet you in person, Charlie. I’ve heard so much about you from your father that I almost feel like I know you already.”

“You do know me, somewhat. You’ve been like a dog with a bone trying to get me there with your calls.”

“There is that.” Agatha laughed. It was a soft trill of a sound that floated through the line.

Charlie knew without a doubt that she’d like her. That made her guilt even worse.

“I’m staying at the bed and breakfast. I’ll call you in the morning when I get up.” She’d made the reservation last week. It broke her heart that Bea no longer owned the place, but people got old and change was inevitable. For those reasons alone, it was time to mend fences with her dad. He was no spring chicken and after he got injured in a fire, which was why Agatha called in the first place, she’d given their situation a great deal of thought.

“Drive safely, Charlie. There’s a storm moving in.”

Great. “No problem. I drive in the snow all the time.” Not exactly a lie, but the inches they got in Kansas City would never compare to the feet they got in Colorado.

She hung up the phone and zipped by her apartment to change, get her suitcase, and pick up her computer. She’d need it since she’d have to look for a new job. The weather channel put a fire under her bottom. If she hurried, she might be able to beat the storm coming in from Albuquerque. She remembered all too well how the storms from the south brought too much moisture with them.

She grabbed a box of Little Debbie Cosmic Brownies and headed out. If she was lucky, she’d make the near seven hundred mile trip by midnight. Maybe quitting her job wasn’t such a bad thing. It got her finished before noon. Then again, they were closing for the holidays, regardless. Thankfully, Dr. Barkman took two weeks off each year at Christmas to visit his mother in Florida.

Charlie wondered if she’d still get her Christmas bonus. While she wasn’t going to be homeless tomorrow, she would need to find a tenable situation soon.

Five hours into the drive, the flakes began to fall. She stopped for gas and pressed onward.

Had it really been ten years since she’d seen him? When her mother died she couldn’t forgive her father for not saving her. He was like a god in that region. People drove for miles to see Doctor Paul Parker because he always had the answers.

Her anger was the immature thought process of an eighteen-year-old girl who’d lost her mom. At fifty-eight, Phyllis Parker had been healthy as a horse. Not that all horses were healthy, but her mother had never had a health problem until the stroke, which was caused by a brain aneurism. How many people had her father saved and yet he couldn’t save his wife?

The guilt of her decision to pack up and go to college and never look back was what had kept her away. How could she make up for ten years of abandonment? She couldn’t.

The windshield wipers picked up their pace as the snow fell heavy and thick on the glass. Like an old lady, Charlie sat forward with her chin nearing the top of the steering wheel. She slowed to a sloth’s pace. She’d just made it past Denver when a red Mustang whizzed past her.

“Idiot,” she said aloud. “Even I know a front wheel drive won’t make it through the pass.”

It seemed that whoever was in that car was trying to race the storm that was already on top of them. Or he was the idiot of her initial thoughts. She said a silent prayer for the person because she wished no harm on anyone.

After a quick stop for a bathroom break and a coffee, she entered the pass that would take her through the winding mountainside. She halfway considered turning back but didn’t because she was almost there. Almost being a loose term meaning she had less miles to go than she’d already traveled. While the treacherous terrain of snowy, icy roads and idiot drivers were in front of her, there was nothing left behind her. She wondered if somewhere deep inside she’d created a situation where the only path left was forward.

She considered the future and what it might bring. At this point there were three things Charlie needed more than anything in the world. She needed a new job. She needed her father. She needed to forgive herself because, even though she’d blamed her father all those years ago, she truly felt responsible for her mother’s death. They’d fought that morning over where she’d go to college. Charlie wanted to attend college out of state. She wanted to experience life outside of a small town. Her mother had begged her to stay. That was part of the problem with being the only child of a couple who’d struggled to get pregnant. All their hopes and dreams landed on Charlie’s shoulders and it was a weight too heavy to bear.

She could still see her mother’s red face in her memory. And her last words would haunt her for life. She’d told Charlie that she’d just die if she was so far away. While realistically, Charlie knew it was a figure of speech, not more than an hour after their argument, Phyllis Parker was dead.

That was the minute everything changed. She knew that she could never be anyone’s everything. To do so put her heart at risk and she’d never survive anything so heartbreaking as losing someone else she loved. It was why she was on the fence about making up with her father. What if just as she entered his life again, he exited hers? She’d never survive.

Lately, she’d been hearing the whispers of her mother’s voice in her memory. Phyllis Parker was like a white, female Gandhi with all her quips and quotes. Charlie once asked her mother about finding love and was told that you don’t find love, it finds you.

She’d been waiting for years for it to find her. One thing she knew for certain was it didn’t come dressed in a lab coat and give sloppy kisses. If that were her only chance at love then she’d start filling her apartment with cats.

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