Release Tour, Exclusive Excerpt & Giveaway:
The Best Gift
By Eli Easton
With help from a Christmas miracle, two bruised hearts find joy again.
Greg Cabot is the third generation to run Cabot’s Christmas Wonderland and tree farm in rural Vermont. But this year will be his last. Since the death of his son, Sam, in Afghanistan, Greg no longer has the heart to run a business based on holiday cheer. When he picks up a hitchhiking soldier on a snowy night, he finds the help he needs to get his farm through the holidays—and maybe much more.
Sergeant Robbie Sparks doesn’t have much to be thankful for this holiday season. Badly wounded in Afghanistan, he’s spent the last eight months in recovery and was discharged after ten years of service. When fate lands him at Cabot’s tree farm, he feels like he’s fallen into a snow globe reality. Friendly people, gorgeous trees, lots of Christmas kitsch… and Greg Cabot.
Greg believes he’s too heartbroken for romance, but those we love never truly leave us. A little nudge from heaven may help build a bridge for these two men trying to heal. If only they are willing to take that first step.
This stand-alone, long novella is a small town, Christmas cornucopia, May-December, hurt/comfort , ex-military romance stuffed full of family and holiday feels.
Exclusive Excerpt from The Best Gift:
I put on my hoodie and coat, slung my duffel bag over my good shoulder, and went out the front door. Greg’s pickup truck was there under a mantle of snow but no footprints. I found those around the side of the house where a snow-mounded sidewalk led through a stand of holly bushes. And there was the tree lot.
It was Christmas-themed chaos. The sunny weather had drawn people out, as it always did. And, I realized, it was a Saturday in early December. Apparently half of New England had decided today was the day to get their Christmas spirit on, and Cabot’s was the place to do it.
Christmas trees of all kinds, gorgeous green trees, were arranged in clusters divided by aisles, like standing regiments. To the left was the store—a one-story building painted white with green trim that reminded me of a country produce stand. Rectangular windows were outlined with green shutters and white fairy lights. A life-sized sculpture of Santa, his sleigh, and reindeer stood to one side of the store and was swarmed with children. Beyond the store was a food stand—Santa’s Milk & Cookies, according to the hand-painted sign—where a long line stretched out, waiting their turn.
The biggest line, however, was to the right, at least twenty families. At the head of that line was Greg Cabot at a baling machine. I watched as he sent a large tree through a red plastic funnel. It came out the other side with plastic netting around it, compacting its branches upward and making it easier to wrangle. Then Greg took the tree, hauling it up over his shoulder—fuck, he was strong—and followed a customer toward the parking lot while the people in line waited.
Greg looked focused and chill, but not so the people in line, who were looking around as if wondering why there wasn’t more help.
Damn it. I should just go. Leave some money on the kitchen counter and take off. Greg Cabot would think nothing of it. But… shit. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t just swan off and ignore the need right in front of my eyes, especially given how kind Greg had been to me. Walking away would rip my guts out with guilt, and I had enough of that for a lifetime.
I went over to the baling machine and dropped my duffel bag to one side. The next customer, an older couple, turned to me eagerly and held out a plastic tab that said 18. “It’s a big Douglas fir.” The man pointed into the mass of trees. “Over there.”
So Greg was not only baling the trees and carrying them to cars, but he had to go and fetch them as well when the customers didn’t want to wrangle them. No wonder there was a long line.
“Yessir. Can you show me where?” I asked.
The older man led me through the rows to a huge tree. I looked it over. A simple wooden X was attached to its base to get it to stand. I reached between the branches to grab the trunk, picked up the tree, and followed the man back to the baler.
Greg was just returning from the car. He looked confused for a moment when he saw me carrying the tree. I sat it down next to the baler. “This gentleman’s tree.”
Greg looked at me, then at the long line. His face was suddenly weary and he looked ten years older. I didn’t like that look on him. “Thank you. We’re short-staffed today.”
“Well, now you’re less short-staffed. I can carry them out to the cars too.”
Greg frowned. “Don’t you need to be on your way? I don’t want to hold you up.”
I shrugged. “I’m in no rush.”
“I can pay you to work today. Or for however many hours you wanna stay.”
“Trade for the room and breakfast sounds about right.”
Greg looked like he was about to argue, but a woman in a gold coat pushed her way up to me and held out a plastic number tab. “Can you get mine? Please? I hate to be a bother, but I have to be home in an hour when my kids get dropped off.”
I took the tab and went to work.
The sun was straight overhead sooner than it had any right to be, and then it started back down again. It was simple, repetitive work, which suited me fine. It didn’t require more of me than I was capable of at the moment. My left shoulder complained, but when I carried the baled trees on my right side, that was okay. My back ached and my limp got worse, but it also felt damned good to be doing something productive for a change. All those months of PT had been worth it.
Besides, I was in paradise—a world full of Christmas trees. The little kid in me was over the moon. The place was beautiful, and the people cheerful. And why shouldn’t they be? They were safe and cozy in the midst of Vermont snow, not in a war zone, and they were kicking off the Christmas season. For a little while, I could enjoy it too.
By the time there was no one waiting at the baler, it was just after three by my watch. Greg took off his work gloves and walked up to me. “Thank you.” Held out his hand. “Looks like you rescued me today. I’m feeling pretty smart for stopping for you about now.”
The words were teasing, but the thought behind them sincere. I took off my glove and shook his hand. It was surprisingly warm considering that we’d been outside in thirty-degree weather all day, and it was strong. My heart rate ticked up, and it was suddenly mid-July inside my clothes. “No problem at all, sir.”
Greg gave me a funny look. “That sir stuff makes me feel old.”
“Sorry, sir,” I smirked. It was nice to feel a hint of my old smartass self.
Greg smiled. He had a wide mouth under that beard, with nice teeth—the two in front just slightly overlapping in a way that was endearing. The swoop in my belly was a warning. Or I was hungry. I rubbed the spot.
Greg’s smile faded. “Hey, you must be starved. Concessions has soup—usually chili—and a few simple sandwiches. Or you’re welcome to go back and help yourself to anything in the kitchen.”
“I love chili.”
Greg stuck a Be Back Soon sign up at the baler and led the way over to Santa’s Milk & Cookies. Like everything else on the grounds, it was over-the-top cute. It was a plain white rectangle made with horizontal bead board and painted with a snowman and Santa. A large wooden flap opened up vertically and hung on hooks above. Inside was a petite teenage girl, her dark hair mostly hidden under a fuzzy pink hat.
“Hey, Mr. Cabot,” she said brightly. “It’s been a rush all day.”
“I know, Lucy. Sorry you had to handle it by yourself.”
“Oh, that’s okay,” she said shyly.
“Is there any chili left?”
She looked behind her. “Not much. But I think I can get you men a couple of bowls.”
“What else is left?”
“Um… she placed her hands on the counter inside and looked underneath it. “The scones and cookies are gone, but I’ve got two egg salad sandwiches left.”
Greg looked at me and raised one brow.
“Sounds good to me,” I said. I’d already had four eggs that morning, but the thought of a sandwich still made my mouth water. I was starved.
“Get us two bowls of chili and two sandwiches, Lucy. And I’ll take a coffee.”
“Coffee for me too,” I echoed.
“Thank you, ma’am,” I said.
“After that, you can close up, Lucy. Sounds like we’re ’bout out of food anyway,” said Greg.
Lucy beamed at him, clearly not fussed about the idea of shutting down early. “Cool. Thanks, Mr. Cabot!”
Greg turned to me as Lucy bustled around. “A small business owner’s dilemma—trying to end the day with just enough food so none goes to waste. Days like this are hard to figure for.”
“Is it always this busy?”
Greg rubbed his beard and looked around. He didn’t meet my eyes for long—a fact I filed away. “Often enough, I guess. All weekends in December are busy, though today was a zoo. Nice weather, ya know.”
Lucy put two paper cups on the counter. Greg took his and walked to the end of the counter where creamers and sugar and stirrers waited. I grabbed mine and followed. One creamer for me. Greg put a packet of sugar in his.
“I thought about putting a cookie oven in the stand, and a freezer. That way we’d never run out and less would go to waste. But I never got around to it. Now….” He stirred his coffee, mouth pressed in a line.
“Now?” I prompted.
Greg let out a small, discontented grunt. “I plan to sell the place after this season. So no use in doing much in the way of improvements.”
Shit. Really? That sucked. I almost said so, but it wasn’t my place to give an opinion. I kept my voice neutral. “You said in the truck that this place has been in your family three generations.”
Greg sipped his coffee, looking away. “Well. Everything ends sometime.” His chin went up decisively. “Anyway, some new blood here’d be a good thing. Someone with fresh enthusiasm for the place. Make it into what it could be again.”
There was nothing wrong with the place now, as far as I could see. I wouldn’t change a thing. I liked the old-fashioned appeal, and nothing looked run-down. The paint on the old buildings was fresh and bright. The abundance of lights everywhere all worked cheerfully and relentlessly, not a bad bulb to be seen. And there certainly were plenty of perfect trees to be sold. But I didn’t argue with Greg Cabot.
As I looked around, I spotted a sign in the window of the store I hadn’t noticed before. HELP WANTED. Multiple positions. Apply within.
“Order up!” Lucy called.
Enter the Giveaway:
To celebrate the release of The Best Gift, Eli’s giving you a chance to win a $20 Amazon Gift Card!
Enter through the rafflecopter below!
Direct Link: http://www.rafflecopter.com/rafl/display/cc0f2a57350/?
About the Author:
Coming from a background in computer game design, Eli has written over 50 books in m/m romance since 2013. The Mating of Michael (2014) and A Second Harvest (2016) both won The William Neale Award for Best Gay Contemporary Romance, and Eli’s books have won many awards from the Goodreads M/M Romance Group’s Reader’s Choice Awards. She is best known for her Christmas romances, the Howl at the Moon series of rom coms featuring dog shifters, and the Nerds Vs Jocks series, co-written with Tara Lain.
Connect with Eli:
Facebook: Eli Easton
Facebook group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/164054884188096