Bonus: Don’t Miss This Prequel Chapter to Secret Christmas Twins by Lee Tobin McClain
We have a very special surprise for you today. In anticipation of Lee Tobin McClain’s upcoming release, Secret Christmas Twins, we have a never before seen prequel chapter right here for you to enjoy. Don’t forget to pick up a copy of this touching read on Harlequin.com!
About Secret Christmas Twins:
Christmas came early for Erica Lindholm! Suddenly a mom to adorable twin baby boys and part owner of a snowy small-town Pennsylvania farm, Erica is living her dream. Until the boys’ estranged uncle, Jason Stephanidis, comes home to celebrate the holidays. The handsome, brooding detective turns out to be a natural with the babies…and with Erica’s wounded heart. But if Jason knew the truth about their identities, her picture-perfect life could melt away. She’s finally found the warm home, the loving family and the cozy Christmas she always wanted. Will Erica’s secret cost her everything?
Erica Lindholm hung the last ornament on the Christmas tree and scooted back to sit between Mikey and Teddy, clad identically in diapers and white side-snap t-shirts. “Pretty!” she said, pointing to the tree.
The ragged, silver-foil tree actually was kind of pretty. Which was fortunate, considering it was the best the Goodwill Store had to offer.
Teddy pointed at the tree. “Da-da-da-DA-da-da,” he said, leaning forward to look at Mikey.
“Da-Da-da-da-da!” Mikey waved a hand as if to agree with what his twin brother had said.
Teddy burst out with a short laugh, and that made Mikey laugh too.
Chuckling at their conversation, Erica put an arm around each of the fifteen-month-old twins. Touch was the most important stimulation, according to everything she’d heard and read. Talking and listening was next, so she spoke to the boys as much as was humanly possible, and tried to encourage their pre-speech babbling as well. “Pretty tree!”
Teddy laughed again.
Mikey toppled over and wailed.
“It’s okay, buddy, it’s okay.” Hastily, she lifted Mikey back into the straight-legged sitting position he liked best, but he continued to cry.
Teddy, a little more developmentally advanced, rocked and scooted his way over to his brother. He babbled a question in the twin language they shared so adorably.
Mikey stopped crying and seemed to answer, and Teddy patted his twin’s leg. As they continued to carry on a conversation only they could understand, complete with inflections, smiles, and gestures, Erica’s heart melted. She fumbled for her phone, wanting to capture the moment’s sweetness.
But before she could click the camera icon, Teddy spit up. A lot. He started to cry, and that set Mikey off again.
Erica ran for a cloth to wipe Teddy off. She tripped over a stacking cup—she had to clean up around here—and windmilled her arms for balance. She lurched into the small dining table and managed to stay upright, but a whole stack of leftover lunch dishes crashed to the floor and shattered.
Erica stared at the glass shards mingled with the chicken noodle soup the twins’ mom hadn’t felt like eating. Her ears rang from the twins’ continued cries. Nothing wrong with their lungs. For just one second, she sank onto a dining room chair and let her head drop into her hands. No way, God. I’m not equipped for this.
But then again, she’d always wanted a family of her own. Kimmie and the twins were rapidly becoming that, and even in the midst of the chaos, she felt a deep sense of satisfaction at being able to help them.
Kimmie’s hoarse voice brought her out of her momentary meltdown and she hurried toward her friend, who was wrapped in a blanket despite the Arizona heat. As Erica approached, Kimmie doubled over in her wheelchair, coughing her terrible cough.
Erica knelt beside Kimmie and rubbed her back. Thin. So very thin. “I’m sorry we woke you up.”
Finally, the coughing fit ended. Erica went for a glass of water, picking up Mikey on the way. She grabbed a straw and hurried back. Kimmie drank, coughed a little more, and then leaned on the arm of the wheelchair, looking exhausted.
Teddy stopped crying and scooted toward the Christmas tree.
“Thanks for trying to make a Christmas,” Kimmie rasped. “I don’t know what I would do without you.”
“There’s nowhere else I’d rather be.”
“I want to hold them. Take a Christmas picture.”
“Of course.” Erica placed Mikey gently in her friend’s lap and then wheeled her toward the tree. Teddy was reaching for a shiny branch.
“Oh, man. I’ve got to baby-proof that.” Now that Teddy was getting more mobile, he could pull the tree down on himself or eat the foil scraps that served as needles.
She picked Teddy up and placed him beside his brother in Kimmie’s lap. “Let’s fix your hair.” She grabbed a brush from the clutter on an end table and ran it through Kimmie’s thick, mahogany strands. “It’s still so gorgeous.”
“I knew there was a reason not to do chemo.”
Erica forced out a laugh at Kimmie’s effort to be funny. They both knew the real reason: it wouldn’t have done any good. “Big smile,” she said.
“Thank you.” Kimmie produced a watery smile as she cuddled her sons close, kissing their heads.
Erica took a video and then picture after picture until her own eyes got too blurry to focus. “I’ll make sure the twins see it,” she said, although she didn’t know how she’d keep the promise.
A pounding at the door brought them both to attention. It wasn’t the best neighborhood and visitors usually didn’t bring good news.
“Hey, in there!” Ugh. Kimmie’s landlord. “I called the cops on you druggies! Had enough of your noise and dishes breaking and people in and out!”
People in and out? Oh, no. Erica looked at Kimmie,. “You haven’t been using again, have you?”
“I… ah…” Kimmie looked away. When she looked back, there was fire in her deep sunken eyes. “I need you to take the babies and go.”
The landlord pounded again. “Fine, don’t bother opening the door. Cops are on their way!” He stomped down the stairs.
Kimmie sat up straight. “I’m not having my boys raised in the system. Here.” She gestured for Erica to get the twins off her lap, and when Erica had one on each hip, Kimmie maneuvered her chair toward the bedroom. “Come on back. Hurry.”
Numb, Erica followed her friend. Kimmie was like an older cousin to her, ever since she’d lived in the same post-rehab halfway house as Erica and her mom. They’d stayed in touch, and when, all these years later, Kimmie had gotten pregnant, Erica had moved heaven and earth to help her stay clean so the babies wouldn’t be damaged.
Unfortunately, Kimmie had relapsed when the babies were six months old, while Erica had been busy with work and school and trying, fruitlessly, to help her own mother. What Erica hadn’t known was the reason: Kimmie had gotten a terminal diagnosis. Lung cancer, stage four. The twins’ father had bailed out immediately. Kimmie’s family was estranged, and she had stubbornly refused to get back in touch with them in her hour of need.
For months, Kimmie had partied away her pain, avoiding the few non-drug-addicted friends she had. And the twins had been terribly neglected.
When Kimmie had called Erica a few weeks ago, in tears and begging for help, Erica had dropped everything and come. Except for a few visits back to her own apartment for supplies, she’d stayed on Kimmie’s couch. Caring for her friend and trying to give her all possible time with her babies meant Erica had lost her own job, but she’d figure out how to manage that when the time came.
When Kimmie wasn’t around to care for anymore.
Kimmie had opened a dresser drawer and was shoving something into a drawstring bag. When Erica looked closer, she was shocked to realize it was cash. Lots of it.
“Kimmie, what… where did you get all that?”
“You don’t want to know.” Kimmie wheeled over to her bedside table with a manic energy she hadn’t shown in days. She wrote something down on a small pad of paper and dropped it into the bag, on top of the cash. “Go to the address on this paper. It’s my grandparents’ farm in Pennsylvania. Take the twins. I want you to raise them.”
“I can’t just take them! I don’t have custody or—”
“I know it’s a lot to ask. You’re so young, you’ll find a husband…”
“No, I won’t. But that’s not what’s important now.”
Kimmie gripped her arm. “You have time, you can get over your past.” Kimmie pulled a lock of hair out of Erica’s ponytail. “You could be beautiful if you’d stop hiding it. And you need to realize that there are a few men out there worth trusting.”
The attempt at mothering, even at this horrible moment, brought tears to Erica’s eyes.
“You’ll have kids of your own one day, but you have such a big heart, you could love mine as well. Please, take care of my boys.”
Erica wouldn’t get over her past, wouldn’t have kids of her own, as Kimmie would realize if she weren’t half delirious. “You know I’ll help any way I can. I already love them like they were mine.”
“Then hurry! Grab some things for them and get them out of here. The cops will take them if they find them here.”
Erica knew that was likely, once they saw Kimmie’s condition, especially if there were drugs in the house or in Kimmie’s system. “But if you had grandparents with a farm, why didn’t you go back there yourself? Before…” She trailed off because she knew the likely answer. If Kimmie had gone to her family, they’d have made her get off drugs.
“They wouldn’t have helped me.” Kimmie hauled a big suitcase out from under the bed and started throwing in baby gear, wheezing. “You’ve got their car seats in your car, right?” She doubled over in a coughing fit.
Hardly knowing what she was doing, Erica set the twins down in front of the colorful sit-to-stand walker she’d been trying to teach them to use. Then she picked up where Kimmie had left off, loading clothes and supplies into the suitcase, her mind spinning.
Could Erica hurry up and get certified as a foster parent? She and Kimmie had been looking into options, thinking they had months to figure it out. Kimmie’s drug use had exacerbated her health problems, but she was young. She was on a timeline that extended at least a little while into the future.
Today, for the twins, the timeline was ending abruptly. Once the police came, Teddy and Mikey would go into the system. And having been there herself, during her mother’s bad years, Erica would do anything to prevent that from happening.
Kimmie recovered from her coughing fit and choked out some words. “Take the suitcase down. Grab some food and bottles on the way. Then come back up and get the twins.”
Was that a siren she heard in the distance? Erica did as Kimmie said, her heart pounding as she tossed the supplies into the trunk of her subcompact and rushed back up the stairs. She’d have to get to her own apartment, grab her things. She’d leave a note for the landlord and enough cash to cover her rent.
When Erica got back to the bedroom, she saw that Kimmie had managed to get herself down on the floor with the boys. She leaned back against the bed, one on each side of her, kissing them and stroking their hair. It was coming in thick and brunette, just like Kimmie’s.
“Ma-ma,” Mikey cooed.
Erica gasped. “Has he said that before?” In addition to their physical challenges, the twins were also delayed in their language skills.
Kimmie shook her head, her eyes filling with tears. “Not like that,” she choked out.
Erica sank to the floor, kneeling in front of her friend. “I can’t leave you!”
“I’ll get help, once I know the twins are safe.” Kimmie straightened up and gripped Erica’s hand, hard. “Please. Do this for me.”
“But what will you do if I’m not here to take care of you?”
“I’ll call the rehab center. Hospice when it’s time. I promise. Go!”
Teddy half scooted, half fell into his mother’s lap and sprawled there, happily oblivious, kicking his legs.
“Ma-ma,” Mikey said again. “Ma-ma.”
Erica held back a sob and tried to focus on practical things. “Your grandparents don’t know me. Why would they take me in?”
“There’s a cabin on the property. It’s nice. Tell them you’re going to use it, or even just go directly there. It’s easy to find. I used to send my friends there all the time.” She shook her head. “Good place to dry out, good place to party, is what everyone always said.”
Erica studied Kimmie for a few seconds, then nodded. Her heart hurt as she reached out to hug her friend. “Jesus will be with you,” she choked out. In the past few weeks, they’d read the bible and prayed together, talked about heaven. Erica hoped against hope that Kimmie had accepted the truths she’d shared.
“He’s with you, too, sweetie.” Kimmie’s voice was surprisingly strong. “Now, please, take them and go.”
Her throat impossibly tight, tears streaming from her eyes, Erica picked up the twins and turned toward the door.
“Stay away from my brother, Jason,” Kimmie called after her. “Knowing him, if he finds out about the twins, he’ll go after them. Controlling jerk.”
“But how can I… Does he live near the farm?”
“Never even visits. He’s a detective in Philadelphia. Go!”