Authors: Kat Latham
Tags: #Romance, #Fiction
A Montana Born Christmas Romance
Three Nights Before Christmas
Copyright © 2015 Kat Latham
The Tule Publishing Group, LLC
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
For Sarah Mayberry, whose humor, wisdom and friendship got me back on track whenever it felt like this story was derailing.
You are such a joy!
It’s not easy to write a book. It’s even less easy when you have a toddler, and it’s a ridiculous undertaking when you have a toddler and you’re pregnant. I owe massive thanks—and a lot of chocolate—to all the people who made it possible, because I certainly couldn’t do it on my own.
First, foremost and always, to my husband, who sacrificed so many date nights so I could finish this book. I promise our life will be more like a romance novel now the dang book is finished.
Thank you to the incredible staff and authors at Tule Publishing for being unfailingly flexible, supportive and encouraging. Meghan Farrell, Lindsey Stover, Danielle Rayner and Sinclair Sawhney, you are all fabulous!
Sarah Mayberry, thank you a million times over for not only agreeing to write a connected story but for making it such a fun experience. This book is all the stronger for your insight and brainstorming skills—and I’m all the stronger for your friendship. Thank you!
Thank you to my agent, Laura Bradford, for the best breakfast conversation I had all summer and for always steering me in the right direction.
Thank you to my mom, who took on a load of administrative tasks for me, even though she had a broken wrist. You are my biggest hero ever, Mom.
This book required me to draw on expertise from lots of people far more clever than I am, and I owe them so much for taking the time to explain their lives to a stranger. Trish Wallis, thank you for sharing the insight you’ve gained as a prison social worker. I can’t even begin to imagine doing the work you do. Thank you also to Jane Litte for helping with legal details regarding Lacey’s case—her future would’ve been bleak without you; to Sierra Lewis for her insight into national forests and the kind of work Austin would do; to Scott Mayberry and the locomotive engineer who wished to stay anonymous but still spent hours helping me understand Lacey better; to the steam-train experts at Brecon Mountain Railway in Wales, for explaining how steam locomotives work and for taking my family on a stunning journey; and to Rachel Beck and Barbara Ankrum for putting me in touch with a couple of these amazing people. You all made this story come to life, and I hope I did your work justice. Any mistakes are most definitely my own.
And to the readers who loved
One Night with Her Bachelor
Two Nights with His Bride
and asked me for Austin’s story—thank you! Your messages encouraged me more than you could know. I hope you enjoy the story!
he lights in
the unit went on at 5:45 a.m., but Lacey had lain awake on her hard prison cot for hours. In fact, she couldn’t be sure whether she’d even fallen asleep. She’d shut her eyes a few times and noticed that Charlene—who slept on the lower bunk of the bed next to hers—had flopped from her belly onto her back, but exhaustion made Lacey doubt she’d actually slept in those brief moments her eyes had been closed.
Just as she had every morning for the past 1,016 days, she rolled out of her bunk and rubbed the bleariness from her eyes. She rotated her shoulders and eased her neck from side to side, trying to work out the kinks, but, after nearly three years, they’d knotted themselves so tightly into her muscle memory she doubted anything could unravel them.
Grumbles and groans filled the air as the other fifteen women in the dorm-style cell reacted to the coming of another miserable day, a day of no surprises—at least, that was the best one could hope for in prison. Surprises here were never good.
But for Lacey, everything that came after breakfast would be a surprise. Oh, she knew the outline of her day’s schedule—it had been flashing in her brain like a beacon ever since her lawyer had given her the good news three weeks ago—but understanding a timetable of events was not the same as knowing how she would react to those events. Right now, trepidation warred with her exhaustion, but she had to get through two more hours in purgatory before the rest of her life could start.
“What do you think it’ll be today—rehydrated eggs and cardboard potatoes, or cardboard potatoes and rehydrated eggs?” Charlene asked, pushing herself out of her bunk.
“Forget today,” Monique called across the cell as she dropped trou and plunked herself onto the open-air toilet they all shared. “What about tomorrow? Turkey patty, obviously, but do you think we’ll get a Twinkie?”
“My cousin said they don’t sell Twinkies anymore,” Charlene shouted back. “Hostess went belly-up.”
“Yeah, the original company did,” Lacey said, “but some billionaire bought them out and started making them again.”
Charlene put her hand on her hip, her eyes narrowing. “How d’you know that?”
“Newspaper.” Her brother, Sawyer, had bought her subscriptions to the
Copper Mountain Courier
—their local paper—and the
. She’d really only wanted the
, but it didn’t pay to look too uppity around here, so she’d claimed she did it for the funnies. Whenever she read the more serious sections, she hid them behind the
. “But they never give us the real-brand stuff, anyway. Just knock-offs. I’m guessing we’ll get—”
The words jammed in her throat.
“Lace?” Charlene’s dark brows pulled together.
Lacey gave her a brief smile. “My money’s on a donut—not chocolate or jelly filled. Something beige and so dry it makes you choke.”
“Happy Thanksgiving to us,” Charlene said, her voice dripping with irony.
The cell door slid open, and several women filed out on their way to the chow hall. Charlene took a step to follow them, but Lacey laid her hand on her friend’s arm and Charlene stopped, giving her a curious look.
“I need to tell you something,” Lacey whispered.
Charlene threw her hands in the air. “Oh, shit. No, you don’t. I don’t want to know anything.”
“Yeah, you do.”
“No, no, no, no, no.
. I really don’t. Knowing something was how I ended up here. Nothing good comes from knowing something.”
Lacey snorted. “Nothing good comes from
knowing something, either. Believe me.” Ignorance was how
ended up here. The unforgiving voice of the forest ranger who’d arrested her vibrated through her memory, telling the jury,
“She’s either guilty of transportation of a controlled substance or of criminal stupidity.”
She’d certainly been guilty of one of those. The jury had convicted her of the other.
“This isn’t something that’ll get you in trouble.” Lacey reached for the well-worn books and box of third-hand art supplies she kept on the shelves next to her bunk. “Here. These are for you.”
“Oh, no.” Charlene blinked. “You’re
Lacey shook her head, her throat suddenly swelling to the point it made words impossible.
“When did you find out?”
She cleared her throat once. Twice. “Um…” And again. “Three weeks ago.”
She didn’t need to make excuses to her old friend. Charlene had already been here for two years when Lacey had arrived and had taken Lacey under her wing, explaining how things worked inside.
If you get paroled, don’t tell anyone you’re going till the last possible minute. Some people in here will be so jealous they’ll want to mess things up for you. Mess
up. And especially don’t tell me. After all my years working in a beauty parlor, I gossip better than I cut hair.
“So you’ll be home for Thanksgiving.”
“And Christmas,” Charlene said, her voice tinged with wistfulness.
“Yeah.” Lacey struggled to work up enthusiasm for the holidays. It would just be her and Sawyer, since their parents had moved to Florida a few years ago in search of warmer weather to relieve Dad’s arthritis. They’d booked a Caribbean cruise before she’d found out about her parole, so they wouldn’t even be contactable until almost Christmas. Considering Sawyer spent this time of year running their family’s Christmas tree farm, and since one of her parole conditions was that she be teetotal, she doubted the holidays would be very festive.
But she would at least be free.
“Shit, you’re gonna have a real turkey,” Charlene said.
“God, I hope so. I never even used to like turkey, but I’m craving it now.” So badly her mouth started watering. “Even Brussels sprouts sound good.”
“But no potatoes.”
Lacey pretended to gag.
“When do you go?”
“I’m gonna miss you.” Her old friend threw her arms around Lacey’s shoulders, and they held each other close. Lacey buried her stinging eyes in Charlene’s shoulders. This woman had not only explained the unspoken rules of prison life to her but had saved her life when another inmate had targeted her. In their life outside, they never would’ve met. Charlene had been a hairdresser in Billings, and Lacey had been a freight train engineer based in Whitefish but spent most of her time chugging between there and Spokane.
But in here, social hierarchies crumbled and rebuilt themselves in weird ways.
Charlene sniffed and pulled away, straightening her shoulders. “Let’s go eat and celebrate.”
A couple hours later, with the chemical taste of powered eggs still making her tastebuds tingle, Lacey followed a burly female prison guard into a barren room she knew too well.
“Clothes off,” the guard said.
Lacey’s brows shot up. “Seriously? I’m going out, not coming in.”
The guard shrugged. “Got to make sure you’re not carrying any messages or contraband out.”
Lacey sighed and pulled her burgundy top off, then pushed her khaki pants and underwear down to her ankles, kicking free of them. She spread her legs and pressed her palms to the back of her head, waiting patiently as the guard examined her. This process had stopped being humiliating and started being routine about five hundred strip searches ago, but the fact she had no choice but to get naked at any female guard’s command still made her gut burn with indignation.
The next time I get naked in front of someone, it’ll be