After her husband's death, Holly Bancroft Cole knows
Christmas won't be the same this year. Still grieving,
she decides to complete the renovations on her North
Carolina farmhouse and hires a construction worker.
Drawn to his piercing eyes and gentle manners, Holly
can't shake the feeling that secrets lie behind the
handsome stranger's warm smile.
Haunted by memories, Matt Rankin can't remember the joy
that simple pleasures bring until he meets Holly. When a
harrowing attempt is made on her life, Matt realizes he
can't live without this beautiful angel. Now he must
protect the woman he loves at all costs--even if it
means risking his own life.
Awards and Honors
- Finalist - RWA RITA for Best Romantic Suspense
- 1st place -- Daphne Du Maurier Award
- Finalist -- National Readers Choice Awards
"...kept me entertained. Holly and
Matt are both very likeable people, and the
suspense plot kept the story humming along at a
good clip. There’s also a nice bit of Christmas
flavor to the story, that would make this one an
ideal holiday read – with an added bit of
excitement as Holly unravels the mystery of her
husband’s death. It’s a good, solid start to a
new series, and future books are planned for
Holly’s two sisters." --
The Good, The Bad and the Unread
"This book is one of my favorites! I have never
rooted for a man so much in my life. You really have to
read this book to feel the intensity of the story and
see how murders are solved and loose ends tied. An
absolutely beautiful story." --
Read It or Weep
4 Stars! "The first of the Bancroft
Brides series is an uplifting, heartfelt story about two
people who have experienced unimaginable tragedies
finding a chance for a new and unexpected beginning."
-- Sandra Garcia-Myers,
RT Book Reviews
"This is the first book by Beth Cornelison that
I've read and I am impressed. I will definitely read
more of her books now. I love romantic suspense and
The Christmas Stranger did not disappoint." --
"If you love romance and love suspense this book
will be an exciting read for you. It has an unsolved
murder, an attempted murder, lies, deceit, love,
uncertainty and suicide all mixed up in a really good
story. Although there were a couple of times I worried
about Holly and the choices she made but there wouldn't
have been as good a story if she hadn't made the
This book is the first of a new trilogy by Beth called
"The Bancroft Brides" about three sisters~Holly, Paige,
and Zoey." -- Ellen Too,
"It takes tremendous skill to juggle a love story,
a suspense plot, and an ongoing series question all in
one book. But in THE CHRISTMAS STRANGER, Beth
Cornelison makes it look easy." -- Christine
Ryan's killer was most likely a vagrant.
brother-in-law's assessment echoing in her head, Holly
Bancroft Cole suppressed a shiver. Rubbing her arms, she
cast an appraising glance around the Halloween party at
the Community Aid Center in Morgan Hollow, North
New faces dotted
the crowd. But were any of them killers?
A loud cheer
turned her attention to the festivities. The center's
volunteers had all dressed up in goofy, creative and
occasionally creepy costumes to entertain the city's
homeless and underprivileged children. At the moment,
two clowns led the kids on a wild scavenger hunt for
candy, while Holly, wearing her bridal gown, oversaw the
refreshments. The children's parents hovered along the
walls, as well as a few men who were regulars at the
donated clothing room or the center's soup kitchen.
While the party was billed as a children's Halloween
bash, no one had been turned away.
Flipping back her
bridal veil for a better view, Holly scanned the
unshaven, bedraggled faces of the vagrants who'd
gathered this Friday for free hot cider, entertainment
and a warm place to pass the chilly October afternoon.
Could one of these men have killed Ryan for his watch,
wallet and Reeboks?
suspicion crawled up her spine.
had been collected at the crime scene just over a year
ago when her husband had been murdered and robbed. The
local police, including her brother-in-law Robert,
called Ryan's death a tragic, random attack. Robert held
out little hope that Ryan's killer would ever be caught.
gloomy outlook didn't sit well for Holly. She wanted
resolution to the many mysteries concerning Ryan's
attack. Shewanted justice. And she needed closure. While
she'd come to grips with Ryan's death and had begun
picking up the pieces of her shattered life, she hated
all the blanks in the account of what happened the night
Ryan was killed.
Maybe the police
wouldn't ever have enough evidence to bring a suspect to
trial, as Robert projected. But any tiny shred of
understanding would go a long way in settling the
nagging questions she had.
"You know, you should have smeared some blood on your
face or worn a scary mask."
Carol Hamburg's comment yanked Holly from her morose
"That wedding dress is great, but you could have come
as the Bride of Frankenstein or something."
Tucking a stray
wisp of her blond hair behind her ear, Holly shrugged as
she faced the Community Aid Center's petite director.
"I'd considered fake blood, but I really didn't want to
risk getting makeup on the dress. I wore this gown when
I married Ryan, and I've worn it every year since for
Halloween. It's a tradition."
"Really? How'd that get started?"
wistfully. "After our wedding, I complained to Ryan
about how much the dress cost, to be worn only once. So,
frugal and practical man that he was, he dared me to use
it every Halloween as my costume." She paused and
sighed. "I almost didn't put it on today. But I'm glad I
did. It makes me feel closer to him."
Carol blinked her surprise. "I'm just jealous you're
still the same size you were when you got married."
could reply, a loud cry rose over the chatter in the
room. She and Carol exchanged a concerned look before
moving together in the direction of the commotion. The
crowd of curious children, startled mothers and homeless
men shrank away from a little boy in superhero pajamas
lying on the floor unconscious.
His lips were
Icy horror washed
through Holly in concentric waves as the reality of what
was happening sank over her.
"Call 9-1-1!" she
shouted to Carol as she dashed to the boy's side and
dropped to her knees.
breathing!" the child's mother screamed. The woman
dragged the child up by the arms and began pounding on
"Don't do that!"
One of the unshaven men separated from the others and
rushed forward. He placed a hand on the frightened
mother's shoulder and met her eyes. "Let me have him."
hesitated only a second before relinquishing her son to
the dark-haired man. "Please! Save him!"
"I'll do my
best," he replied, his voice deep and calm. He gently
laid the boy back on the floor. After feeling for a
pulse in the boy's neck, he leaned close to listen and
look for signs of breathing.
Glancing at Holly, he said, "Watch his chest for me.
Tell me if it rises."
Nodding, Holly scooted back to give the man room to
work as he angled the boy's head and blew two breaths in
the boy's mouth.
Holly shook her head. "I didn't see it move."
The man frowned. "Something's obstructing the
Quickly he moved to straddle the boy's legs and
stacked his hands on the child's abdomen. "Come on,
sport. Stay with me," he mumbled as he gave five sharp
upward thrusts with his palms. Crawling to the boy's
side, the dark-haired man did a visual check of the
boy's mouth then swept his finger inside. With a deep
sigh of relief, he withdrew a piece of hard candy and
tossed it aside.
But the boy didn't move, didn't draw a breath.
Pressing his lips in a taut line, the man glanced up
and drilled a hard glare at Holly. His sky-blue eyes
were clear and intense. "You, the bride. Help me."
Holly blinked, rallying from her fear-based daze.
"Give him two full breaths in his mouth, five seconds
apart, every time I say now."
She nodded her understanding and scrambled closer as
the man started chest compressions. Adrenaline spiked
her pulse as she watched the man working to save the
"Now." His clear blue eyes met hers, echoing his
Holly bent low and covered the boy's mouth with hers.
Blew. Counted five and blew again.
"Good. Just like that." Jerking a nod, he resumed
Holly studied the boy now. His lips had regained a
bit of their color, but he remained unconscious. She
glanced up at his panicked and crying mother. "He's
going to be okay. I promise."
Why she was so certain, she couldn't say. It was
risky to assure the mother when she didn't truly know
how this rescue effort would go. But a strange assurance
and confidence in the man working on the little boy
flowed through her, calming her own frayed nerves.
Holly moved her gaze to Carol, who held a cell phone
to her ear. With a look, Holly asked for an update.
"An ambulance is on its way. The operator is still on
the line," Carol said softly.
Holly met the man's eyes briefly before dipping her
head to give another breath. Count five. Breath.
As she raised her head from the last puff, the boy
coughed, gasped in air.
"Tommy!" his mother cried and tried to hug him.
"Give me a minute," the boy's rescuer instructed,
sidling between the mother and child. Again he checked
the boy's pulse, lifted his eyelids to check his pupils,
examined the child's fingernails. "Tommy, can you hear
me? Can you talk?"
"I want Mommy," the boy whimpered.
The man smiled, flashing a set of perfect white teeth
as he backed up. "She's right here, sport."
Holly dropped back on her heels, her muscles going
limp with relief. She stared at the man who'd saved the
boy, mulling the inconsistencies in his appearance.
While she knew better than to judge anyone by how they
looked, little about this man fit the profile of the
average homeless client who came to the Community Aid
Center. Though his cheeks and chin were covered in a few
days' growth of beard like many of the other men the
center served, his hair was much cleaner, his beard
shorter and his skin healthier. In fact, despite needing
a shave and a haircut, the square cut of the man's jaw,
sharp angles of the man's cheeks and straight nose gave
him an ironically patrician appearance.
"Thank you," she said, laying a hand on his arm. He
turned from watching the mother hug her son. "You saved
Again his bright blue eyes burrowed deep with their
cool intensity, stirring an odd swirling in her belly.
"No. We did. Together. Thank you."
Holly shook her head. "I didn't—"
He wrapped a large hand around hers, and at his
touch, the rest of her reply caught in her throat. A
warm ripple of sensation skimmed over her. "Yes, you
She dropped her gaze to his tanned hand and wet her
lips. "Really, you're the one who—" Again her words
stalled as she focused on the watch peeking out from
under the sleeve of his flannel shirt.
She knew that watch, hadn't seen that watch since the
last morning Ryan left for work. That watch had been
stolen from her husband the day he'd been attacked,
murdered in an abandoned church not far from the
Community Aid Center.
Gasping, she jerked a startled frown up to the man as
her brother-in-law's words reverberated in her head.
Ryan's killer was most likely a
Matt Rankin knew that look well. Disgust. Accusation.
of having saved the choking boy evaporated under the icy
glare from the center volunteer. When he touched her
arm, the beautiful blonde bride who'd helped him
resuscitate the boy gaped at his hand, her joy and
admiration morphing suddenly into something ugly and
"Where did you
get that watch?" she demanded, her tone clipped and
accusing. As if he had no right to own something of
And maybe he
didn't. Maybe he should have sold the watch months ago
to help pay for food, his rent, his child support. But
he couldn't bring himself to part with the last thing he
owned that Jill had given him.
He tamped down
the swirl of emotions that still ravaged him when he
thought of Jill's death and the terrible repercussions
that followed. Keeping his tone even, he met the woman's
hard green-eyed stare. "It was a Christmas gift from my
wife a few years ago."
"Your wife?" She
narrowed her eyes skeptically, as if being down on your
luck and scrimping to make even a scant income meant you
could never have had a wife and children, a home and
career. A life to be proud of.
"Yes, my wife."
Matt sighed. He didn't have much to be proud of now, and
he couldn't really blame the woman for her snap
judgment. In her position, he might think much the same.
But the past few months had taught him how close every
person was to living on the street.
His golden life
had suffered a chain reaction of tragic blows and
An ambulance arrived, and the crowd of spectators
cleared a path as the rescue workers huddled around the
boy and his mother, checking the child's vital signs.
Matt inhaled deeply, and looking back at the blonde
woman, he pushed to his feet.
He dusted his hands off, then extended one to help
the bride to her feet.
She glanced at his proffered hand, hesitated, then
let him pull her from the floor.
"I'm sorry. I just… My husband had a watch like that
one stolen, and—"
"You thought I'd
stolen this one."
She turned away
guiltily. "It just startled me to see it. Your watch is
just like Ryan's and—" She huffed and smoothed a hand
over the skirt of her wedding dress costume. "Never
mind." She backed away one step, then forced a tight
smile. "Thank you… for helping with Tommy. You saved his
life." Her delicate brow furrowed, and she tipped her
head. "How… how did you know what to do?"
"Anyone can learn
CPR and the Heimlich maneuver. They are valuable skills
to have." Yes, he was being evasive, cryptic, not fully
forthcoming. But he didn't feel like explaining the
whole sordid story of his ignoble downfall—which he'd
inevitably have to. When he mentioned his medical
degree, his career, the question always followed.
How did a successful doctor end up
scavenging a meal from a soup kitchen on Halloween?
"Well, thank you. You saved the day." Her smile was
brighter now, more genuine.
kicked. Her smile transformed her already beautiful face
to nothing short of breathtaking. Not for the first
time, his own ragged appearance left him feeling awkward
and embarrassed. He nodded to the woman and turned to
make his way through the crowd. He needed air, and the
small room at the Community Aid Center had begun feeling
As he stepped out
of the building, the crisp autumn breeze nipped at his
lungs and bit his cheeks with a sobering reminder that
winter was mere weeks away. If he didn't want to freeze
at night, he'd have to continue renting his ramshackle
room at the Woodgate Inn. Which, in turn, meant he'd
have to find a new source of income.
The irony of his
situation appalled him. He had a medical degree, had
graduated top of his class. But thanks to his
appearance, his lack of transportation or a permanent
address, he couldn't find a job that paid enough to make
his child support payments and also get ahead. The
tanked economy didn't help, either. The few available
jobs were grabbed up by mill workers who'd been laid
off, or clean-cut, white-collar men taking second jobs
to cover their mortgages.
Pulling his collar up against the cold wind blowing
off the slopes of the North Carolina Smoky Mountains,
Matt squared his shoulders and headed down the street.
He was through feeling sorry for himself, finished
wallowing in his pain and failure.
He wouldn't let
the tragic turn of fate defeat him. He had to rebuild
his life. For his kids.
He'd pull through
this black period somehow and get back on his feet. He
wouldn't quit—even if everyone he loved had quit on him.
had rattled Holly, and seeing the watch, so much like
Ryan's, on the man at the center had destroyed her
interest in revelry. After making sure Tommy would be
all right, Holly had sneaked away from the Halloween
party and headed to her truck.
been giving a few hours each month to the Community Aid
Center when Ryan was killed. Knowing one of the people
she helped at the center could be responsible for the
attack on her husband disturbed Holly deeply. She'd
But the evil
actions of one person didn't negate the good she was
doing or the needs of the children she met at the
center. Besides, what if she heard something through her
volunteer work that could help the police catch Ryan's
Over the past
several months, she'd learned more about the homeless
than she'd ever imagined. And many of her conceptions of
who the homeless were and why they were on the streets
had been blown out of the water. Many of the people she
had helped had high school diplomas or professional
skills, but medical bills to treat an illness had
depleted their bank account. Or they'd been laid off a
job and couldn't pay their rent. Or they'd fled an
abusive situation and had nowhere to go.