I'm so pleased to introduce you to Karen Templeton whose holiday novel Santa's Playbook got the coveted Top Pick Gold review rating. This is one of those novels that will stay with you long after the end and one that you'll bring back for a re-read every holiday season. Karen is graciously sponsoring a giveaway for the novel US ONLY on today's edition of Ho Ho Ho Harlequin Holiday Extravaganza! Giveaway details below. Karen HI!
High school football coach Ethan Noble works wonders with his players. But at home, the handsome widower is just trying to keep four adorably unruly kids in line. He definitely isn't looking for love or so he thinks. When his oldest insists her drama teacher, Claire Jacobs, is perfect for him, it's all Ethan can do to resist Claire's bright smile and infectious laugh.
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Read an Excerpt:
Today would have been his sixteenth anniversary.
Only half hearing the kids' thudding and slamming and yelling from downstairs, Ethan Noble glanced out his bedroom window, where a pair of chattering squirrels chased each other through an oak tree, the bare branches thickly webbed against a pale November sky. It'd been cold and windy that day, too, the mottled clouds occasionally spitting on everybody's windshields as they made their way to All Saints.
But nobody'd cared. About the weather, about the indisputable fact that Merri's stomach bulged a little underneath her high-waisted wedding dress. So things'd happened slightly out of order. Since it'd all worked out like they'd always planned anyway, what difference did it make—?
His cell buzzed—an incoming text message. Only one person who'd call this early. And for only one reason. Ethan scooped the phone off his nightstand.
Thinking of you.
If anyone would understand what he was feeling today it'd be the man who'd adopted Ethan when he was a toddler. Also a widower for some years now, Preston Noble had set an example of strength and loyalty and fairness that Ethan could only hope to emulate, especially as a parent. And his father had adored Merri .
God, she'd been beautiful. And so fricking happy. Same as he'd been, even if Juliette's precipitous appearance hadn't been in the playbook. Merri, though She'd been a part of his playbook since they were fifteen.
Juliette's age, he thought as his daughter appeared in the doorway, her wavy, warm brown hair streaked with some god-awful color. At least it was only chalk, it washed out, but still. Lime-green?
:'Um the others had breakfast, sorta. Cereal, anyway. So I'm ready to go—?"
"Sure," Ethan said, smiling. "We're good."
Jules came over, standing on tiptoe to give him a hug, a peck on his scratchy cheek. Shaving was strictly optional on the weekends. Then she released him, eyes full of concern, and Ethan's stung. He didn't make an issue of the anniversary, so the younger kids were oblivious. But Jules She knew. In fact, she already had her eye on Merri's wedding dress, packed up safe in the special heirloom box in Ethan's closet. Never mind she was already three inches taller than her mother.
"You know, I don't have to go—"
"It's only another Saturday, honey. So get outta here," he said in an exaggerated Jersey accent. "Do your mom proud, okay?"
"Okay," she said, and started off, only to spin around at the door. "I'll do a real breakfast when I get back. How's that?"
"Whatever," Ethan said, loving her so much it hurt. And not only because she was the spitting image of Merri, except for her eyes, more green-blue than purple-blue. But because he'd look at her and think, How 'd I luck out to get one this good?
Unlike the twins, he thought on a brief chuckle as the boys bellowed downstairs. Then Isabella had arrived, a surprise after a six-year dry spell, to more than outshine her brothers in the Tasmanian devil department—
Briefly, resentment stabbed that his youngest daughter would never know her mother.
But like always, he shrugged off the memories, the self-pity and anger and—even after all this time—the disbelief as he slowly descended the stairs, his palm lightly raking the dark wood banister's numerous dings and gouges that long preceded his and Merri's buying the house four blocks from the high school, right after the twins were born. At the bottom he flexed his knee, willing the ache to subside: coaching peewee football was a lot more physical than high school varsity.
He'd no sooner reached the kitchen than the three remaining kids accosted him about a dozen things needing his immediate attention—hell, even the dog whined to go outside. But Ethan found the bombardment comforting, even reassuring, in its life-as-usual normalcy. So, as he let out the dog and returned the kids' verbal volleys and poured more milk for Bella and double-checked the schedule on the fridge so they wouldn't be late for the twins' game, he gave silent thanks for the day-to-day craziness that kept him sane.
That kept him focused, not on what he'd lost, but on what he still had.
Even when his gaze caught, prominently displayed on the family room wall twenty feet beyond the kitchen, the wedding portrait of those two crazy-in-love twenty-two-year-olds, grinning like they had all the time in the world to figure life out.
Happy anniversary, babe, he silently wished the only woman he'd ever loved.
Ancient floorboards creaked underfoot in the overheated Queen Anne as Claire Jacobs methodically assessed the leavings from someone's life. She yanked off her heavy knit hat, shaking her curls free. Poodle hair, her mother had called it. Smiling, Claire lifted a lovely cut-glass bowl to check the price. Only to nearly drop it. This was an estate sale, for cripes' sake. Not Sotheby's.
As if reading her mind, some prissy old dude in a tweed jacket squinted at her from several feet away. Ignoring him, Claire replaced the bowl and glanced around at the jumble of furniture and accessories and tchotchkes, all moping like rejected props from Mad Men. And for this she'd dragged her butt out of bed on one of the few mornings she could actually sleep in—?
Wait She scurried across the room to practically snatch the leaded-glass lamp off the table. Okay, it was hardly Tiffany, not for twenty bucks, but it would look terrific on that little table by her front door—
Clutching her prize, Claire twisted around and grinned. "Juliette! What are you doing here?"
Sporting a denim jacket, a blinged-out hoodie and preppy shorts worn over patterned tights, Claire's student flashed a mouthful of metal punctuated by hot pink ties. "We live a few houses down," she said, and Claire's stomach pinched. Since "we" included Hoover High's ridiculously good-looking, widowed football coach, the object of probably most of Maple River's postpubescent female fantasies. Except Claire, of course, who was above such folderol. Stomach pinching aside. "So I figured I'd check it out," the teen said, "see what was good."
"Not sure there's much that would appeal to a teenager," Claire said even as Juliette zeroed in on a demitasse collection, carefully picking up one of the cups and holding it to the light.
"Oh, I'm not looking for myself." She scrutinized another cup. "It's for my business."
"Used to be my mom's. She'd buy stuff at estate sales and flea markets, then sell it on eBay. She was pretty good at it, too." This said matter-of-factly as the girl sidled over to a stash of old books. "She taught me what to look for, how to price things and stuff. So a few months ago I decided to try selling some pieces myself."
"And is it working?"
"It is." Juliette selected a couple of the books, tucking them to her side. "Which is great, since it'll help pay for college. Depending on where I go, of course." Another sparkling grin accompanied her words. "I'd have to sell a boatload of stuff to afford Yale."
Claire's heart twisted. Although she'd only been teaching a few months—a fork in her life path she could have never predicted—she knew it was wrong to have favorites. And truthfully she loved all "her" kids. Not only her drama students, but even the less-than-motivated ones in her English classes who groaned every time she made them dredge correctly spelled words from their iPodded/Padded/ Phoned brains and write them down. By hand. On paper.
But this one was special, for many reasons, not the least of which was her plucky, wide-eyed determination to not only succeed at something at which few did, but also her refusal to feel sorry for herself. Or let anyone else feel sorry for her either, despite losing her mother so young. A stroke, she'd heard. At thirty-five. No prior symptoms, no warning How scary must that have been? For all of them. Claire had been a little younger than Juliette when her dad died—suddenly, like Juliette's mom—and she'd been stunned by how tenaciously the pain had clung. And yet, if Juliette was suffering from bitterness or resentment, Claire sure as hell couldn't see it.
"There are plenty of drama programs besides Yale's, you know," she said as Juliette carted two of the delicate cups and saucers to the table. "And it would definitely be cheaper to go to school in-state." Claire's sole option, when her mother had barely made enough to keep them housed and fed, let alone fund her only child's college education.
"Yeah, I know." Juliette meticulously stacked books, a few old toys, other odds and ends that Claire wouldn't have thought worth squat next to the cups. Mr. Tweed frowned, but Juliette seemed unfazed, returning to poke through the offerings on another table. "But not a lot of schools that people will actually take your theater degree seriously."
Except—as Claire knew only too well—when you're one of a gazillion actresses auditioning for the same part, the invisible director sitting in the dark theater doesn't give a damn where you got your degree. Or even if you have one. However, she was hardly going to burst a fifteen-year-old's bubble.
Juliette carted over a few more cups. "And, yeah, I know I'll have to keep my grades up like crazy, and that's not even counting the audition. But it's dumb to admit defeat before you've even tried, right? At least that's what Mom always said."
Claire paid for her lamp, which seemed to slightly mollify old Tweedledee. "Very true. And your dad? Is he on board with your plans?"
"Sure," Juliette said quickly, poking her hair behind an ear only slightly less studded than Claire's. "And anyway, I've got a couple years to figure it out, so " She stopped, frowning at her growing collection. Tweedy glowered. "Problem, young lady?"
"Yeah. My eyes are bigger than my arms. Um if I pay for everything now, would you mind if I take it in several trips? Since I walked over here—"
"I could give you a lift," Claire said.
Big blue eyes met hers. "You sure?"
"Okay, then. Thanks!" Juliette dug her wallet out of the worn Peruvian-style shoulder bag she always carried as the guy added up her purchases. "Guess this is what you'd call serendipity. See—I remembered from that vocab list last week. I am so gonna rock my SATs." Then she sighed. "The language part, anyway. Because I totally suck at math. Like Mom did. It's like a genetic curse."
Claire smiled. "What about your father?"
Rolling her eyes, the girl handed over a wad of cash to Tweedsie as a woman wearing a matching scowl wrapped the breakables in tissue paper, placing them in a cardboard box that had once housed cans of little Friskies. "He did his best when I was in middle school, and I didn't flunk, so that's something. But there's a reason he teaches PE."
And clearly the girl had also inherited her mother's sense of humor, since from what little interaction Claire'd had with Juliet's father, she doubted he had one. "Then, maybe you should start working with a tutor. Get a leg up before it gets any harder."
"Omigod—it gets harder? "
This said with a twinkle in those blue-green eyes, a flash of dimples. Shaking her head at the teen's giggle, Claire hauled a bag of unbreakables off the table and started toward the front door, holding the lamp aloft like Lady Liberty's torch. Juliette followed with the first of three boxes, which they loaded into the trunk of the ten-year-old Ford Taurus that had belonged to Claire's mother. A few minutes later they pulled up in front of a dignified but slightly weathered twentiesera Tudor and Claire fell immediately in love.
Not that she felt inclined to two-time her adorable apartment, wedged under the eaves of an even older Queen Anne on the other side of town. It was quirky and funky and all sorts of other y words, and she adored it. But this house, with its dark wood trim and gabled roof and ivy scrambling up one corner to tickle one of the windows Wow. Of course, three weeks before Thanksgiving the forty-foot oak on one side was bare, but a pair of frosted spruces glistened in the sun, and a little curl of fireplace smoke teased the bright blue sky, hinting at the warmth inside.
And this charming house was where Ethan Noble lived.
Claire popped the trunk and got out, figuring she'd help Juliette haul her loot inside, then scram. Except before they got through the slightly scratched up front door, adorned with a slightly sorry fall wreath, not only did the cutest, fuzziest, little white dog trot over to say hi, but Juliette said, "Hey—have you had breakfast? I make awesome omelets. And I'm sure Dad put coffee on, there's always coffee when he's home. Or I could make hot chocolate?"
Yes, Claire could smell the coffee, singing to her like it was auditioning for The Voice. But again, getting overly chummy with a student. Not a good idea under the best of circumstances. Getting chummy with one whose father practically gave Claire the evil eye whenever they ran into each other.
"That's lovely of you to offer, but—"
"Pleeease?" Juliette said, and the coffee crooned a little more sweetly, and Claire's stomach growled, and she thought, Oh, what the hell?
"You really make good omelets?" she said, and the girl squealed and clapped her hands, yeesh, and the dog did a little dance on its hind legs, and then an absolutely adorable little squirt wearing half her closet barreled down the stairs and right into Juliet's thighs, prattling on aboutstupid Harry and dumb Finn and how much she hated, hated, hated boys, and Claire got a little dizzy.
Juliette, however, calmly set her box on a nearby table and crouched in front of her baby sister, brushing back a tangle of pale blond hair from a very pissed-looking little face. "So what'd they do this time?" she asked, and the child rattled off a litany of offenses, which were then interrupted by a very masculine but somewhat weary "Bella. Enough."
Followed by a silence thick enough to slice.
"Hey, Dad," Juliette said, standing, then twisting her baby sister around in front of her like a shield. "Look who I ran into at the estate sale! And she gave me a ride home. So I invited her to breakfast. I didn't think you'd mind."
Oh, dear. Was that adolescent defiance rearing its pretty little head? Only, before Claire could process that little tidbit, a certain steely blue gaze rammed into hers—speaking of pissed—and a thousand ancient insecurities tried to rear their heads, and she thought no.
Or, more exactly, Hell, no.
Hey, she'd survived an ever-changing cast of roommates in more New York apartments than she cared to count, not to mention pointless cattle call auditions and insane directors and leering weirdos on the subway, capped off by caring for her dying mother back here in Maple River for nearly a year. A weenie, she was not. Not now, anyway. So no way was a pair of hot blue eyes slinging her back to that hellacious era when she hated her hair/body/ clothes and a cute boy's smile would render her a blithering, klutzy idiot.
Welcome to The Reading Frenzy
Thanks so much for inviting me, Debbie!
I'm delighted to be here.
Tell my readers a little about Santa’s Playbook.
let the back blurb do that for me (I didn't write this, but I love it to pieces
-- it sums up what the book's about perfectly!).
Wanted: One mom for Christmas!
High school football coach Ethan Noble works wonders with his players.
But at home, the handsome widower is just trying to keep four adorably unruly
kids in line. He definitely isn't looking for love…or so he thinks. When his
oldest insists her drama teacher, Claire Jacobs, is perfect for him, it's all
Ethan can do to resist Claire's bright smile and infectious laugh.
Claire privately admits that she wouldn't mind Coach Noble making a
pass at her. But his family dynamic is as complicated as Hamlet's! For one,
Ethan is still grieving for his late wife. Besides, Claire knows she's not
meant to star as a stepmom, although the entire Noble clan warms her heart this
holiday season. Will Claire wait in the wings for Mr. Right, or make her
curtain call a very Noble happily-ever-after?
Karen this was such a heartwarming
and heartbreaking tale.
Where did the idea come from?
develop my stories very much the way I cook, which usually involves standing in
the kitchen frowning a lot as I catalog what I already have in the fridge or
pantry, what I might need to get from the store (which often means wandering up
and down the aisles until I get inspired), and what might happen if I toss
something unexpected into the mix. :) I'd already written the first two
books in the series about the Noble siblings, adopted out of the New Jersey
foster system as older children, so I already "knew" that Ethan Noble
-- the oldest -- had been the model son, wanting nothing more than to honor his
adoptive father, a retired Air Force colonel. Why I thought to make him a
former football player, I honestly have no idea -- I'm really not a sports fan
-- but after 40 books I've learned to not question the story ideas when they
show up! From that seed grew Ethan's backstory, that to please his dad he'd
gone into the Marines rather than accept a college football scholarship, figuring
he could play ball later...only that's not how things worked out. Then it came
to me that he was a widower, that he had a batch of kids (there are always kids
in my book. And dogs. Because that is my life.), and that the heroine was his
matchmaking daughter's drama teacher. Then I set it during the Christmas
season, and voila! Magic happened.
really is magic. Because, really, no matter how much I *think* I know about a
story before I start actually writing it, a good ninety percent of what actually
evolves is pretty organic...and involves a lot of trust and breath-holding. And
sometimes swearing and stomping about, yelling at the Muse to give it up,
Karen as far as I’m concerned and
I’ve said this often I think that Harlequin makes the world go round!
What is so important to you about writing for Harlequin?
that Harlequin provides so many different types of stories to match every
reader's preferences, and that Special Edition in particular gives me the venue
to tell those stories about family and community and everyday life that I love
so much, both as a reader and a writer. And then to see those stories go all
around the globe, in so many different markets and languages...it's thrilling.
I wouldn't have a career without them, and in particular my fabulous editor
Gail Chasan, who bought my first book for Yours Truly in 1997 and who still
keeps me growing -- and grounded -- today!
Karen the holidays are about family
and friends and good eating.
Is there a special holiday recipe you can share with us?
Chewy Noels, from the Fanny Farmer cookbook (these were my
husband's favorites, of all the cookies I used to bake every Christmas)
9x9 pan, melt 2 tbs butter.
small bowl, slightly beat 2 eggs with 1 tsp vanilla
broken nut pieces (I use walnuts)
the eggs and mix well. Pour into the pan. Bake at 350 degrees until firm to the
touch (about 25 mins). Turn out onto wax paper or foil, butter side up. Dust
lightly with confectioner's sugar. Cut into squares or bars.
in tightly covered container -- if they last that long!
Is there a special tradition you
and your family follow each holiday season?
our five sons were little, they were allowed to open one gift on Christmas Eve.
As you can imagine, with five kids there were a LOT of gifts under the tree, so
choosing ONE took DAYS, LOL. Also, we'd go to a trim-a-tree store and let them
pick one ornament every year for the tree...a tradition I'm continuing now with
my grandchildren. I love Christmas!
Karen thank you so much for being a
part of my Ho Ho Ho Harlequin Holdiay Extravaganza.
Here’s hoping you have a wonderful holiday and a Happy New Year!
you, Debbie, and best wishes to you and your family, as well!
Since 1998, three-time RITA-award winner (A MOTHER'S WISH, 2009; WELCOME HOME, COWBOY, 2011; A GIFT FOR ALL SEASONS, 2013), Karen Templeton has been writing richly humorous novels about real women, real men and real life. The mother of five sons and grandmom to yet two more little boys, the transplanted Easterner currently calls New Mexico home.