Blurb: At the request of her brother, Lyndsay Williams reluctantly returns to the home she grew up in despite her icy relationship with her foster mother. She’s mortified to realize that her brother’s best friend is also joining them for Christmas. Lyndsay’s been in love with Aaron most of her life, but after making a fool of herself at her brother’s wedding, she hasn’t been able to face him again.
Lyndsey Williams pulled to the side of the driveway and stopped the car, needing a moment to gather her nerve for the ordeal ahead. She switched off the radio, which currently blasted Bing Crosby’s White Christmas, and stared at the ugly old Victorian house.
A scattering of snow lay on the ground around it, but no decorations festooned the place. None ever had—that she could recall, anyway. She tried to visualize the building with lights lining the porch and wrapping the shrubs along the front, but her imagination couldn’t overcome the weight of the past.
Drawing a deep breath, she put the car back in gear, drove up to the side of the house and found a parking space on the grass at the side, next to a large new pickup truck and an SUV. Farther back, the shabby green Chevy sedan Marnie used to drive sat rusting into oblivion. No sign of Dale’s beat-up old Ford pickup. Lyndsay wouldn’t be mourning over that.
She’d just gotten out of the car when the front door of the house opened and a group of people surged out onto the front porch. Josh Sanders led the way. For a moment, he was the only one she saw. They weren’t blood relatives, but she could never think of him as anything but the most wonderful big brother any girl ever had. He was the sole reason she’d made the trip.
He wrapped her in his arms, enveloping her once more in his warmth and strength and whispered, “Thank you for coming.”
Lyndsay stared back at him. “You asked.” She smiled at the petite brunette beside him. “Jenny, you look…” She stopped for a moment. “Fabulous. Is this what I think it is?” She nodded toward Jenny’s midsection.
“Well, I’m not a mind-reader,” Josh answered, “but if you’re thinking that we’re expecting, then you’re right.”
“Ohmigosh, that’s so exciting.” She embraced both of them. “When?”
“May.” Jenny said. “I’m just getting past the constant nausea phase.”
“You’re going to be great parents.”
Josh drew a sharp breath. “I don’t know. I hope so.”
Lyndsey looked behind him and froze. The middle-aged man was a stranger, but the tall young man with sandy blond hair was…someone she’d hoped to never see again.
She should’ve known better. Aaron Hampton had been Josh’s best friend for a long time. He’d also been her main crush for years while growing up. The last time she’d seen him was at Josh’s wedding, where, fueled by too much champagne, she’d made a complete fool of herself. Even now she felt the heat rising in her face, but she ignored it to greet him with hard-won self-possession.
“Hello, Aaron. It’s been a while.” She reached out a hand to shake his.
Maturity had only added to Aaron’s good looks, refining the lean strength of his features. The wavy light brown hair, blue-green eyes, and dimples in his cheeks hadn’t changed, but he’d added some muscle to his rangy frame.
“You’re looking good, Lyndsey,” he said. “Josh tells me you’re now a licensed architect. Congratulations.”
“Thanks.” She couldn’t think of anything more to say.
“I’d like to hear more about it,” Aaron added.
Josh saved her the need to reply when he broke in to introduce her to the older man, his father-in-law Tom Farrell, Jenny’s only surviving parent. Tom shivered as they shook hands and Josh added, “Let’s get Lyn’s bags and go inside before we all freeze.”
Josh and Aaron each took one of her suitcases, rolled them into the house and carried them up the stairs to her old room. New curtains, bedspread and rug made a brave attempt to cheer up the otherwise bare space.
Once Aaron left them, Lyndsay sank onto the bed and turned to Josh. “You know I’m thrilled to see you and Jenny again and delighted for you, but what’s this really about? Where’s Marnie? And why are we making an effort to have Christmas here? She’s never been interested in celebrating it before.”
He turned the wooden desk chair to face her and sat. “Marnie’s in bed. We’ll go see her shortly. Lyn…Marnie has cancer. Pancreas. Doc says she has a few weeks more, at most. They wanted to put her in a hospice unit at the hospital, but she refused and insisted on coming home. They’ll be sending people to treat her regularly. But I thought…” He stopped and looked around the room. “I wanted to do a real Christmas celebration this year. We’re the closest she’s ever had to family, and this is the only chance she’ll ever get.”
“She’s never wanted one before. Why do it now?” Lyndsay studied Josh’s demeanor. “She didn’t ask for this, did she? You just decided to go ahead and do it. Why?”
“Because she never really had the chance. Living with Dale…” He looked down at his well-worn Nike sneakers. “It was really Jenny’s idea and you know…”
“You’d do anything in the world for Jenny,” Lyndsay said. “I totally approve.”
A quick grin flashed on his face and disappeared. “Jenny has taught me so much about happiness and the importance of family. I wanted to share that with Marnie, and we’re the only family she has.”
“You want to show her what she’s been missing all this time?”
“All right. Yes, that’s part of it. Not the most worthy part, perhaps.”
“Josh, you know I’d do anything in the world for you, but I’m not sure I know how to do this.”
“I understand. I’m no expert either. But Jenny is, and her dad is, and they’ve promised to help us figure it out. Aaron said he’d help, too.”
Something twisted in her chest, just hearing Aaron’s name. “He’s staying here through Christmas?”
“Yup. His folks decided to treat themselves to a cruise to Jamaica and his sister said it was their year to go to the in-laws for the holiday. Do you mind?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know. Your wedding…I…this whole thing is kind of mind-boggling.”
Josh stood. “I know. It’s an experiment. I hope it will work out okay. Let’s go see if Marnie’s awake.”
Lyndsay drew a deep breath. “Okay.” Josh probably knew she secretly hoped their foster mother still slept, so she could put off the meeting a bit longer.
“Don’t expect that being sick has improved her disposition,” Josh warned.
When they got to the hall, Lyndsay turned toward the master bedroom in the back, but Josh nodded the other way. “We moved her to the old den downstairs.”
On the way, they passed through the living room and found Aaron standing on a ladder, hanging garland over the fireplace with Tom’s help and Jenny’s directions.
Aaron glanced their way and smiled, reserving a particularly stunning grin for Lyndsay. Her gut did a peculiar tuck and roll which apparently still happened every time he looked at her.
Her breath caught and her heartbeat sped up. What his lanky frame did for a pair of jeans and a flannel shirt ought to be illegal. She hoped he didn’t know the effect he had on her, but after the events at Josh’s wedding, he must realize. She nodded in his direction as they passed.
The back den, which had been used mostly by Marnie’s husband Dale when he was alive, now held a hospital bed with a table beside it.
Marnie had once been a large, robust woman with long, dark hair and a personality that made the unreformed Grinch sound like a sweetheart. The shrunken old woman with the grizzled, tangled hair lying in the bed clashed with Lyn’s memories…until Marnie opened her near-colorless eyes and glared.
“Didn’t expect to ever see you again.” Marnie’s voice was too cracked and creaky to intimidate Lyndsay the way it used to.
“I didn’t really expect to see you again, either.”
Josh pushed a chair toward Lyndsay.
Marnie looked at Josh. “You brought her here. You looking for some kind of tearful reunion?”
She meant to antagonize him, but Josh said evenly, “Nope. Didn’t expect anything of the sort. Just giving everyone a chance to pay their respects.”
Marnie’s eyes widened. “Respects? To me?” Her wheezy laugh turned into a cough. She reached for the glass of water on the table beside her and took a sip. “Nobody’s got any respects to pay to me. Never needed it. Don’t want it.”
Lyndsay didn’t know what made her say, “Not true. I do have some respect to pay to you. You may not have been happy about it, but you did feed me, clothe me, and put a roof over my head. So, I owe you for that.”
“Sheesh, girl. I did what I had to. They’d have had those welfare people after me for sure if I didn’t make sure you were fed and had clothes.”
The food had been cheap and often not very plentiful, but Lyndsay hadn’t gone hungry often. The clothes had been used, sometimes well used, but usually clean. She’d stayed warm enough most of the time.
One of the social workers had told Lyndsay her birth mother died of a drug overdose in her early twenties, leaving her two-year-old daughter an orphan. If Lyndsay’s mother knew who’d fathered her child, she’d never said.
Lyndsay had always understood that Marnie and Dale didn’t love them, not the way some of her friends’ parents loved their kids. Marnie and Dale had fostered children mostly for the money the state offered for their care. Other foster kids had come and gone, but Lyndsay and Josh stayed. They’d grown close, especially after Dale died.
At fifteen, Josh started working landscaping and construction jobs to earn extra money. He took his position as Lyndsay’s big brother seriously and made sure she had everything she needed, particularly for school. He celebrated it as a personal triumph when she graduated high school at the top of her class and was offered several scholarships.
When Lyndsay had left for college, she’d vowed never to return. If she’d had any doubts about the wisdom of that decision, Marnie’s behavior at Josh’s wedding had confirmed it one hundred percent. The woman was as mean as a snake. Even knowing she was dying hadn’t changed her.
“Well, anyway, we’re here.” Lyndsay made no effort to take the woman’s hand or touch her. “Josh says we’re going to have a blowout Christmas celebration. I plan to enjoy it. I hope you can, too.”
They were the right words, but Lyndsay wondered if she meant them.
“Waste of time and money,” Marnie scoffed. “Useless.”
“No, it’s not,” Josh said. “But you’ll have to see for yourself.”
Marnie waved a bony hand. “Can’t stop you.”
“Nope.” Josh stood. “We’re doing this whether you like it or not.”
The old woman closed her eyes. Josh nodded at Lyndsay for them to leave.
One of the hospice workers came in as they went out. Josh took a moment to introduce her to the nurse and update the woman on Marnie’s condition.
They followed the sound of laughter back to the living room. Jenny, her father, and Aaron were dressed for the outdoors. The two men carried boxes and were heading for the porch.
“Let’s get our coats,” Josh suggested to Lyndsay.
“What are we doing?”
“Decorating. Aaron brought a bunch of outdoor lights. Jenny couldn’t resist a blow-up Santa.”
“Winter Wonderland, here we come,” Jenny said.
Over the next hour, they draped strings of light along the top of the porch, the front roofline and gable, and down the sides of the house. Aaron did most of the ladder-climbing to reach the high spots, with Lyndsay assisting by feeding him the hooks and the lines of lights.
Half an hour into the work, Jenny and her dad retreated inside to get dinner ready, leaving Josh, Lyndsay, and Aaron to finish the work.
Lyndsay couldn’t help watching as Aaron scaled the ladder and stretched to position the hooks. Nor could she resist returning his smiles as they worked together to wind strings of lights around the porch railing. His blue-green eyes still sparked in that devastatingly appealing way. She wondered that he didn’t seem to hold what had happened at Josh’s wedding against her.