It’s finally here! A very special Zoe Donovan Christmas Mystery published today.
A sneak peek is provided below.
Friday, December 15
I wasn’t sure exactly when the fog had rolled in, but I was having the darnedest time trying to figure out where I was and what it was I was supposed to be doing. Even though the fog was so thick I couldn’t clearly define the images surrounding me, I could see red and green blinking lights overhead. I closed my eyes as nausea gripped me. I tried to focus and figure out what was going on, but the sound of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” blaring through loudspeakers was so jolting it caused my head to pulsate in time to the music. I had pretty much convinced myself I was trapped in some sort of Christmas nightmare when I heard the voice of my best friend, Ellie Denton.
“Zoe, are you okay?”
I tried to focus on her voice, but it seemed so far away.
“Come on, sweetie. Wake up. The ambulance is on the way.”
Ambulance? Maybe I really was trapped in a nightmare.
“I think she’s coming to,” Ellie assured someone as the fog began to lift. I realized I was lying on my back on a hard object. Maybe the floor. I didn’t have a clear sense of where I was or how I’d come to be there, but I could feel Ellie’s hands stroking my hair as I made my way through the murky landscape toward the voice that was pleading with me to open my eyes.
“She’s opening her eyes,” Ellie screeched.
I cringed. My head felt like I’d partied way too hard and Ellie’s happy chirps of relief weren’t helping.
“Are you okay?” Ellie’s brown eyes looked directly into my blue ones. “Do you feel any pain?”
“I’m fine. What happened?”
“You tripped over the elf with the candy canes and fell face first into Santa’s lap. You have a huge bump on your head, but I think the baby is okay.”
Baby? I reached down and touched my swollen stomach. Oh God, Catherine. “Are you sure Catherine’s okay?” I croaked, barely able to find my voice.
“I think so. You tripped and fell to your knees. When you fell forward your face hit Santa’s chair, but he caught you by the shoulders. You didn’t hit your stomach. There’s an ambulance on the way. Just lie still until it gets here.”
As it turned out, lying still was all I felt up to, so I happily complied. I could hear people moving around, but it seemed like too much of an effort to open my eyes, so I simply allowed myself to drift into the space that exists between sleep and wakefulness. As I waited for whatever would come next, I let my mind wander wherever it chose in an attempt to block out the chaos around me.
I’d been Christmas shopping with Ellie and baby Eli. We’d been marveling at the lavish holiday decorations the department store had set out this year when Ellie noticed a Santa sitting in a big red chair listening to the wishes of the boys and girls who’d been waiting in line. Ellie wanted to get a photo of Eli with Santa, so we’d headed in that direction. I remembered being a little sad that Catherine wasn’t with us this Christmas, while at the same time being excited about what the new year would bring. I remember being worried, but for the life of me I couldn’t remember why. I do remember the fear in my heart had caused me to become distracted, which is probably how I tripped over the elf in the first place.
“The ambulance is here,” someone said.
I could hear rustling and shuffling but decided it still wasn’t worth the effort to open my eyes, so I just lay there and waited.
“The ambulance is going to take you to the hospital,” Ellie said. “I can’t go with you because I have Eli with me, but I called Levi and he’s on his way. We’ll meet you there.”
Ellie took my hand in hers. “Zak isn’t here, sweetie. Remember the accident?”
I cringed as my eyes closed tighter. Suddenly, I remembered what it was I’d been distracted by.
I wasn’t sure how long I’d been asleep, but when I next opened my eyes Ellie was sitting in the chair next to the bed I was lying in. I was hooked up to so many monitors I couldn’t begin to figure out what they were measuring, but I felt a lot better, so I hoped everything was fine.
Ellie set down the book she’d been reading and smiled. “Oh good, you’re awake.”
“Is Catherine okay?”
“Catherine’s fine. You are as well. The doctor said you have a mild concussion and he wants to keep an eye on you overnight, but you should be fine to go home tomorrow.”
I put my hand on my stomach and was greeted with a strong kick. There was no doubt in my mind that my daughter was going to be a soccer player. “What about the kids?”
“Levi picked Alex and Scooter up at school and took them home. Alex’s working on the Santa’s sleigh project and Scooter is finishing up a project for school. Levi, Eli, the dogs, and I are going to stay at your place for a few days. We don’t want you to be alone while Zak’s away.”
“Does he know?”
Ellie shook her head. “I wanted to talk to you first. On one hand, Zak’s your husband and should be informed of your little accident, but on the other, I felt like he already had a lot on his plate and didn’t want to send him totally over the edge.”
“I’m glad you waited to tell him. If you told him he’d only worry, and he really needs to focus on his mom right now. I’m fine, and with you and Levi to help me, I’m sure everything here in Ashton Falls will be back to normal in no time.”
“Whatever you think is best. The doctor is on his way in to speak to you, so I’m going to go call Levi to let everyone back at the house know you’re awake.”
“Okay. And thanks, Ellie.”
The doctor came in to do an exam as soon as Ellie left. I lay quietly, trying not to worry about my husband and the internal struggle we’d both been dealing with since we’d learned of his mother’s accident. Any way you diced it, it was my fault Zak’s mother was lying in a hospital in Paris, France, with serious injuries. No, I hadn’t been driving the automobile that had run her down, but the only reason she was in Paris and not here, safe in Ashton Falls, was because she’d wanted to spend Christmas with us, I hadn’t wanted her to, and Zak had wanted to make me happy. He knew reasoning with his mother wouldn’t work, so he’d sent her to Paris for Christmas as some sort of a bribe.
Had there ever been a worse daughter-in-law than me?
“Are you feeling any pain?” the doctor asked.
“No. I’m fine.”
“Your whole body just tensed up.”
I let out a breath. “Sorry. I was just thinking about my mother-in-law. She was in a serious accident overseas and I guess I’m worried.”
The doctor took off his gloves and took a step back. “That’s understandable, but it’s important that you try to relax. Your baby has been through enough stress for one day.”
“I know. I’ll try harder. Is everything okay?”
“Everything should be fine. I want to keep you overnight for observation, but you should be able to go home tomorrow. Your friend told me she’d be there to help you until your husband returned.”
“She will. I’ll have a lot of help.”
“Okay, then. Get some rest and I’ll check in on you in the morning.”
I noticed my cell phone on the nightstand next to the bed. I picked it up and checked for messages. Although it was after six, I realized I hadn’t checked my phone since before Ellie had picked me up for lunch and shopping. There were eight texts and two voice messages, but nothing from Zak. I figured he should have landed in France by now and would have called, but I supposed he had more important things on his mind.
The first text message was from my mom, asking me if I had any news on Zak’s mom. I texted her back, letting her know I hadn’t heard anything, but I’d let her know as soon as I did. I considered telling her about my own elf accident, but I knew she’d just worry, so I decided to wait until I was safely home before mentioning anything about it.
The next text message was from a woman named Stella Green. I’d gone to high school with her, but we hadn’t stayed in touch, so I didn’t consider her to be a close friend. The text just said Call me, so I skipped it and went on to the next.
The third text was from the Christmas store in town, letting me know the custom ornaments I’d ordered had come in and I could pick them up at my earliest convenience. I was excited to see how they’d turned out, so maybe I’d ask Ellie to pick them up for me.
The fourth text was from Stella again, asking me to call her and adding the words it’s really important to the end. I once again skipped over it, figuring I’d call her after I got home.
The fifth text was from Scooter, asking if his friend Tucker could spend the night. I realized he’d texted before he knew I was in the hospital, but I decided to text back anyway, letting him know I was doing fine but he’d need to take a rain check.
The sixth text was from my grandfather’s girlfriend, Hazel Hampton, asking if I was planning to participate in the cookie exchange this year. Knowing Ellie, she’d already made cookies for us both to bring, so I texted back to let her know I planned to attend and wanted to confirm the exchange was still scheduled for Tuesday.
The seventh text was from my mom again, asking if I wanted her to make a Christmas stocking for Catherine. I texted back that Catherine wasn’t due until three weeks after Christmas, but if she had time and wanted to do it, we could always use the stocking next year.
The last text was from Alex, asking if I was okay. I guess Levi must have told her what was going on. I told her I was fine, but they wanted to keep an eye on me, so I was staying the night. I told her I’d call her later.
Both voice messages were from Stella. The first said she’d been getting strange emails and she wondered if Zak could help her track down the source. The second message sounded a bit tenser, as she asked me to please get back to her right away. I was about to call her when Ellie came in.
“So, everything went well?” Ellie asked.
“Yes. I can go home tomorrow. You don’t have to stay with me. Go home to your husband and baby. I’ll be fine.”
“I know you’ll be fine, but I’m not leaving until they kick me out.” Ellie noticed the phone in my hand.
“He didn’t call?”
I shook my head. “He must hate me.”
Ellie sat down on the side of my bed and took my hand in hers. “Zak doesn’t hate you. He loves you. It’s not your fault his mother was in an accident.”
“If I hadn’t been such a big, complaining baby she’d be safe and sound in Ashton Falls, making me crazy and not clinging to her life halfway around the world.”
“You might not have wanted her to come to Ashton Falls for Christmas, but you didn’t force her to go to Paris, and you certainly didn’t force her to walk down a narrow street late at night where a drunk driver ran into her. Why was she walking down a narrow street late at night anyway?”
“I don’t know. Zak doesn’t know. It is rather odd.”
“To be honest, Zak’s mother doesn’t seem the sort to walk anywhere.”
“She’s not. The whole thing makes no sense. Hopefully, she’ll regain consciousness and tell us what happened.”
Ellie squeezed my hand. “She will. She may already have. Chances are, Zak hasn’t even made it to the hospital yet. I’m sure he’ll call you when he has news to share.”
I wanted to respond that I was sure he would, but I really wasn’t so sure. I couldn’t get out of my mind the haunted look on his face when he’d first received the call from the hospital in Paris. He’d looked so lost and scared. I wasn’t used to my big, strong husband looking like a terrified little boy. I closed my eyes, fighting back my own tears.
“Are you okay? Should I call the nurse?”
“I’m just tired, and I can’t help but worry about Zak and his mom. Let’s talk about something else. Did Levi have a chance to talk to the guy who’s running the new tree lot in town?”
“He tried, but the guy’s being completely unreasonable. Despite the fact that his lot is right next door to the one Levi’s running for the high school sports program, he maintains it’s his right to sell his trees for whatever price he wants even though it’s killing the high school’s business.”
“What I don’t understand is how he’s selling the trees so cheaply.”
“It seems like he’s using the cheap trees to get people onto the lot and then he sells them baked goods, ornaments, photos with Santa, and a variety of other add-ons for an exorbitant price. Levi’s getting pretty frustrated, and I hear he’s not the only one who’s complained about the loud music and flashing lights, but it appears he has permits for everything, so there isn’t a lot Levi can do.”
“Poor Levi. It’s really going to hurt the high school if they can’t sell their trees.”
“Yeah.” Ellie sighed. “It really is. But I don’t want you to worry about that or anything else. The doctor said you need to relax.”
“It’s kinda hard to relax with so much going on.”
Ellie put her hand over mine. “I know, sweetie. But you need to try. If not for yourself, for Catherine.”
Ellie was right. The past twenty-four hours had been so hectic, and I knew I needed to create a safe and stress-free environment for Catherine, so I tried to focus on happy thoughts. “The ornaments I ordered are ready at the holiday store. I don’t suppose you’d mind picking them up on your way home?”
“I’d be happy to. And I love the idea of a custom ornament for each member of your family. I wish I’d thought of it, but it’s probably too late to order them now.”
“I was going to surprise you, but I ordered ornaments for you, Levi, Eli, and even Shep and Karloff.”
Ellie’s face softened. “Sweetie, that’s so nice. Thank you so much.”
“In addition to the ornaments I ordered for your family and mine, I also got ornaments for my parents and Harper,” I said, referring to my sister, “as well as my grandpa and Hazel.”
“I’m sure everyone will love them. It means a lot that you remembered us.”
“I figured I’m not good at cooking or baking like you are and I can’t sew like Mom can, but I can shop with the best of them and I wanted to do something special this year.”
“Well, I’m excited to see what you got.”
“Speaking of cooking and baking, Hazel texted me about the cookie exchange on Tuesday. I’m assuming you’ve made or will make cookies for both of us?”
“I’m totally on it. And we can go together, so you don’t need to drive.”
“Thanks, El. You’re a good friend.”
“I’m just trying to be as good a friend as my best friend.”
I frowned. “You do mean me?”
“Of course, silly. By the way, the kids and I plan to finish decorating tomorrow, if it’s okay with you. I don’t want to intrude on your space, but I figured you probably wouldn’t feel up to hanging the garland from the staircase or finishing the Santa’s Village Zak was working on for the front lawn before he left.”
“You’re right. I probably won’t be able to do it myself, but it would be nice to have everything done before Zak gets back. Alex knows where the garland for the stairs is stored and Zak had everything for the Santa’s Village in his shed. Oh, and tell Levi not to forget to feed the reindeer. I know Zak went over everything with him before he left.”
Zak had rented eight reindeer for the Hometown Christmas event that would be held from five p.m. on December 22 until five p.m. on December 24. The reindeer were in a pen on our property for the time being, but the events committee planned to truck them to a pen near the Santa’s Village, which was currently being erected for the annual event.
“I’ll make sure Levi feeds them using the notes Zak left. I don’t want you to worry about anything. Levi and I will take care of everything.”
“Thanks, Ellie. I feel like I should be home taking care of things, not lying here doing nothing.”
“The kids will be fine. The house will be fine.”
“I know. It’s just such a busy time at the Zimmerman household. Tell Alex the check Zak left for her shopping trip with the Santa’s sleigh committee this weekend is in the top drawer of Zak’s desk. I think they plan to go to the mall in Bryton Lake tomorrow to pick up whatever wish lists items weren’t donated.”
“I’ll tell her. And don’t worry. I have the impression Alex and her team have the whole thing handled.”
“I’m sure they do.”
“You look tired.”
“I guess I am.”
“Then I’m going to go and let you get some sleep. I’ll be back in the morning.”
“Okay. And thanks again.”
As I closed my eyes in an attempt to fall asleep, I tried to focus on all the good things in my life. My wonderful husband and three honorary children. Pi was Zak’s ward, or at least he had been before he turned eighteen. Currently, he was more of an assistant and would work full time for Zak once he finished college. He planned to come home for Christmas once he finished his last final on Wednesday. Scooter was thirteen and had first come to us when Zak agreed to babysitting duty after his mother died. Eventually, Scooter had come to live with us as well, and on a magical Christmas three years ago he’d brought with him his best friend, Alex, who had captured my heart the way no other child ever had. Alex was a brilliant and mature thirteen-year-old with a heart as big as creation. Last year she’d founded the Santa’s sleigh program, collecting toys and food for those in need and then distributed wrapped gifts and food baskets a few days before Christmas.
And then, of course, there were the four-legged members of the Donovan-Zimmerman household. My dog Charlie, Zak’s dog Bella, Scooter’s dog Digger, and my cats, Marlow and Spade. Alex seemed to have a revolving door of animals she fostered, but right now all the animals that had been in her care had found forever homes.
And last but not least, I was blessed with the best friends in the entire world, Levi and Ellie. They’d been my friends for most of my life and I considered them family. As I drifted off to sleep, my thoughts changed to baby Catherine, who would soon make her entrance into the world. I didn’t say so to Ellie, but even though Catherine wasn’t due until after the first of the year, I’d gone ahead and bought an ornament for her just in case she decided to make an early appearance. I’d been having a few contractions in the past week and the doctor has assured me Catherine was fully developed, so if she did decide to arrive a couple of weeks early everything should be fine. It was strange, because one part of me was anxious for her arrival and another was terrified.