Love comes full circle when a child’s Christmas wish arrives special delivery.
Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work; if one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up.
~ Ecclesiastes 4:9-10
Gravel chomped and spat beneath the wheels of Riley Harper’s Escalade as he swung into the long, winding drive off Cardwell Lane. Majestic white oaks, their leafless branches like gnarled fingers, formed a canopy, blocking a sky ripe with angry gray snow clouds. A gust of wind howled as it whipped dried leaves into a frenzied dance along a blanket of brown grass stunted with frost. Thankful he’d beaten the storm, Riley drew close to Gran’s stately white-frame house that sat like a sentinel on a gentle knoll at the top of the drive. Its massive porch invited guests to linger and, even now, a quartet of rocking chairs swayed in a slow, even cadence against the wind as if ghosts from the past communed together sharing a late-afternoon story while the storm prowled over the mountains.
Riley rounded a curve and pulled alongside the detached garage that had, back in the day, doubled as Gramps’s workshop. He killed the SUV’s engine and leaned back in the seat, and sighed. He’d made it—he was back in Maple Ridge for the first time in nearly a year. This time, he planned to stay for more than a few nights. How much longer, though, he wasn’t sure. He stretched his legs and the knots of tension from his spine, as the wind whispered and tree limbs sang a mournful melody, mirroring the state of his heart.
Gramps was gone for good. It was hard to believe, nearly impossible to grasp. Riley still pictured him, strong and tanned, with a subtle blend of gray through his jet-black hair, ambling toward the woods with a fishing pole in one hand and the lunch Gran had packed in his other. Where had the days, the months—the years gone?
Riley sighed once more, deep and full, and then grabbed his duffel bag and slipped from the car. The sweet scent of pine caressed as the first snowflake of what promised to be a monster of a storm splatted the bridge of his nose. He brushed it away and pulled the collar of his wool jacket tight against the bite of a frigid gust. He wound his way over frozen earth toward the wide front stairs, flanked on each side by pillars thick as century-old oaks, and paused at the welcome mat to brush dirt from his shoes. Music drifted through the door, mingling with laughter and a child’s high-pitched giggles. Gran must have the TV on; it was the only explanation for laughter so close on the heels of Gramps’s death. Gran, who’d filled her days with caring for Gramps during his extended and heart-wrenching battle with Alzheimer’s, must miss him terribly.
Riley sucked a single deep breath, tamping back a stab of regret that he’d missed the funeral nearly a month ago, and had only now been able to break away from his responsibilities as a prosecution attorney in Jacksonville to pay his condolences to Gran. He raised his fist to knock on the weathered wooden door, but stopped just short of contact. No need to ask for permission to enter. This was his home.
Home—the single word hit Riley like a sucker punch. Even now, nearly a decade after he’d left, he thought of this old place and the acres of sprawling meadow that surrounded it as home.
He grabbed the knob, gave it a quick turn before pushing the door open. A gust of wind followed him into the living room, rustling the pages of a newspaper splayed across the coffee table beside one of Gran’s dog-eared word search magazines. She devoured puzzles, so he sent her a subscription to the large-print edition every year for her birthday.
The scent of cinnamon drifted from the kitchen’s doorway, making his belly yowl in protest to the fact that he’d filled it with nothing but tepid gas-station coffee since the pre-dawn hours of that morning. He’d worked late the night before, tying up the loose ends of a case, and today’s drive had been brutal, with gusts of wind tossing even the powerful Escalade while he motored down the interstate as a cold-front swept in. He shrugged from his jacket, tossed it across the arm of the couch. The TV screen stood dark, the living room a sprawling menagerie of colorfully embroidered throw pillows, hand-sewn quilts draped along the back of the couch, and collages of black and white snapshots. Warmth embraced as flames flickered from a fireplace framed in a sweep of river rock while light spilled from a bay window that covered the wall overlooking a ridge of woods beyond the meadow. How many afternoons had he spent exploring the grounds beyond, playing straight through lunch and sometimes, much to the chagrin of his mother and grandparents, even dinner and on into the twilight? An array of framed photographs nestled together along the fireplace mantel stood as a testament to his childhood years here.
Riley dropped his duffel bag and stepped over to the hearth to toss a log on the fire and stoke the flames. The tinderbox was full, and he wondered how Gran managed to stock it on her own, with her ever increasing flare-ups of arthritis. Guilt tugged again that he’d stayed so absent, for so long, as he wound his way toward the kitchen, where laughter mingled with Christmas music and that little girl’s chatter once again. His curiosity piqued, he wondered who Gran had for company. Most likely someone from church. As he neared the doorway, Moose sauntered out, blocking his path. The mild-tempered golden Saint Bernard had always been a better lug nut than a guard dog…so much for home security.
“Hey, buddy.” Riley dropped to his knees, wrapping his arms around the loveable mutt. His muzzle was sprinkled with a touch of salt-white, marking his advancing age, and he moved just a bit slower than Riley remembered. “How’ve you been?”
Moose nestled against him as if it had been decades instead of months—now closing in on a year— since the last time they’d seen each other, pushing his meaty jowls into Riley’s chest. The burly mutt wore a generous red velvet ribbon, tied into a large bow at the top, around his neck. It was adorned with an oversized jingle bell that chimed as Riley gave him a good rub. “Yeah, it’s great to see you, too. Have you been taking good care of Gran?” Riley smoothed a hand down Moose’s massive back, burying his fingers in the bristly fur. “You look ready for Christmas. It smells like Christmas around here, too. What’s Gran got baking in the kitchen?” Moose turned back toward the doorway, his tail thumping against the floor as his head cocked to the side as if to say, “Follow me.”
“I’m on it.” Riley stood to flank him as the dog lumbered forward. ‚Smells like something good to eat. Maybe Gran made enough for all of us. Let’s go see what’s up.”
“Can I help you put them into the boxes, Mom?” Rosie asked as she scrambled onto her knees in the chair at Kaylee McKenna’s side. She propped her elbows on the wooden table. “I’ll be careful.”
“That sounds like a good plan.” Kaylee thought about correcting the child, reminding her that she should be addressed as Aunt Kaylee, not Mom, as Rosie had taken to calling her lately. But, what would it hurt for Rosie to use that particular term of endearment? After all, she had been under Kaylee’s care for nearly a year now. “Here you go.”
Kaylee handed Rosie a stack of small boxes from the Chinese take-out place. The owner had been gracious enough to donate a hundred—more than enough for the animal shelter project—and Rosie had spent several afternoons during the course of the past week decorating them with colorful drawings of candy canes, bells and ornaments. Kaylee smiled. Rosie had done a pretty good job for just turning six, and the pictures were colored with a fairly steady hand. Sometimes she thought of Rosie as a little professor— serious and wise beyond her years. She guessed it was to be expected with all the heartache and upheaval the child had been through at such a tender age.
“Here’s another batch.” Ruth Harper turned from the oven, holding a baking pan filled with canine cinnamon bun bites. Her salted hair was brushed back into a bun and wisps curled around a heat-reddened face. “Oh, they smell heavenly!”
“Let me take those.” Kaylee grabbed a pot holder and took the pan from her, setting it onto a trivet on the counter. “You’ve done way too much already.”
“Nonsense.” Ruth removed an oven mitt and wiped her hands on her flowered apron. “I’m only getting started. We’re sure to have a huge crowd tomorrow.”
“I pray it’s so. But no one will make it out if this storm lingers like the meteorologists are predicting. No one will be able to get out of their driveway.”
“Don’t fret, Kaylee,” Ruth soothed. “The road crews will plow. It will be fine.”
“Will Santa still be able to fly his sleigh through the air, Mom?”
That word again. The single syllable tugged at Kaylee’s heart. “Christmas is still two weeks away.” She tweaked Rose’s nose, leaving behind a smudge of flour. “So, no worries in that department, honey.”
“But what about all the puppies, and old Sammy and Digger and Scout?” Rosie peered up, her blue eyes huge and rounded. The fact that she’d named the mutts at the no-kill shelter was a telling sign. How long would Kaylee garner the strength to resist her niece’s pleas for a puppy of her own? “Does Santa visit them, too? Will he give them a new home for Christmas?”
Questions…Kaylee remained continually amazed by the relentless stream of queries Rosie posed and her own, nearly constant inability to answer them. “It’s hard for Santa to be everywhere, honey, so he’s asked Miss Ruth and us to stand in for him.” She glanced at
“That’s right, sweetheart.” Ruth patted Rosie’s head. “So, we’re Santa’s helpers. That’s pretty special, don’t you think?”
“Yeah.” Rosie gathered a handful of dog treats in her tiny fist. “But, how will we have the party at the shelter if it snows so hard?”
Kaylee sighed. She wished there was no need for animal shelters and that every dog and cat had a home where they were loved. She wished the same for people—that everyone had a safe place to call home and a family who loved them. No one should be alone in the world. Even so, sometimes she feared that, at twenty-eight and having gone years without so much as a single attraction to any of the eligible men in town, she was destined to become the eccentric spinster on the hill who lived by her lonesome and owned a million cats. She certainly wasn’t on the path to marriage. That path required dating, and she hadn’t cared for any man since Riley—he’d ruined her for that.
Anyway, she’d take all the abandoned animals in a heartbeat, if she could. But the fact that she and Rosie resided in the modest guest house at the far side of the meadow meant there was little room for the addition of animals in their close quarters. They barely had room themselves, yet Kaylee was thankful for the space she and Rosie called home. If it weren’t for Ruth’s kindness, they may very well be out on the street.
“We’ll find a way, even if I have to cross-country ski into town with you on my shoulders.”
“That’s funny, Mom. And when did you start skiing?”
“I haven’t—ever. But I’ll give it a go tomorrow if I have to.”
Rosie giggled. “Where would you get the skis?”
“I…um…I’ll fashion them out of those cardboard boxes.” She motioned to the cartons the Chinese takeout containers had come in. “They’ll work.”
“They’d get all wet.” Rosie’s blonde hair bobbed as she shook her head. “That’s silly, Mom.”
“Not as silly as having a Christmas tea party for homeless canines and kittens, but it works for us, right?”
“And for the shelter,” Ruth added. “It needs the donations to keep things operating for those poor little guys, and to hopefully heighten awareness and find the animals homes.”
“’Cause the animals are counting on us, right?” Rosie nestled the handful of the canine cinnamon buns into a container before closing the flap and reaching for one of the ruched satin bows Kaylee had fashioned.
“That’s right.” Kaylee took the bow, fastened it to the container’s thin metal handle. “All of Moose’s friends.”
“Is that where Moose came from, Miss Ruth?”
“It certainly is…” Ruth’s rheumy-green eyes glazed over with memories, her look listing faraway for the slightest moment. “Jacob and I adopted him more than a decade ago.”
“How long is a decade?” Rosie’s lips bowed with the question.
“Tell me the story again, Miss Ruth, about how you and Gramps found Moose.” Rosie glanced up from the box she filled, her blue eyes wide with wonder. “And then you brought him home to Mr. Riley, who became his bestest friend in the whole, wide world. I love that story.”
“I love that story, too,” a deep, male voice murmured from the hallway, like a low, murky whisper from the past.
Kaylee’s head snapped up at the unexpected sound. One palm splayed across her chest as she drew in Riley Harper’s dark hair and even darker, russet eyes as he leaned against the door jamb. His jaw, shadowed with a hint of beard, clenched into a tight, powerful line as the breath rushed out of her. Barely able to speak, she murmured, “Oh my…Riley!”
“Kaylee.” A veil covered his eyes, guarded and careful, which brought a wave of horrible memories rushing back. Her father—Riley’s mother—the horrible accident that altered the course of everything. “This is certainly unexpected. I need a minute here, to catch up.”
“I suppose I do, as well.” Kaylee’s heart stammered while the satin bow slipped from her clammy fingers. She remembered Riley’s mom…her laughing blue eyes and quick smile and wondered once again what it was like for her in her final moments, as river water swirled into her submerged car and she struggled to cry out for help, to even breathe. And Kaylee thought of her father—how could he be the cause of such a travesty and then simply drive off? The questions, buried for years now, resurfaced to strangle her like a noose.
Suddenly she felt like a stranger to Riley, an intruder in the house where she’d been welcomed as family for the past year—for nearly her entire life, truth be known. She shifted feet, crossing her arms over her chest as the doorway filled with the height and breadth of him. Riley had always been strong, powerful, but the years had chiseled his features similar to one of the bronze statues she’d observed in museums.
“I never imagined...” Riley stepped into the kitchen, confusion riddling his dark, brooding features. That’s how Kaylee had thought of him in the months before he left Maple Ridge—dark and brooding, as if the light inside him had dimmed to a nearly nondescript ember. He turned to Ruth, nodded, and with the next word, his voice melted to butter. “Gran…”
“Is it really you?” Ruth rushed around the table to gather him in. Riley dwarfed her by a full foot and as she hugged him, he rested his chin on the crown of her head. For the slightest moment, Kaylee watched light flicker through him, like a brilliant power surge. Her heart pitched as she wondered if maybe, somehow, they might find their way through the murky, painful past and move forward into the future—together. Then, just as quickly, the radiance faded, and Kaylee feared he’d never forgive her, though what had happened was hardly her fault. It had hurt both of them deeply, and forged a fortress between them that had only seemed to fortify itself over the years. Yet she missed him—missed the friendship they’d once shared. “You said you couldn’t come until summer— spring at the earliest. That’s still months away.”
“I was able to tie up the loose ends on my case, so I thought I’d head this way before the next round snares me.” He nodded toward the window over the sink, and Kaylee watched the sky begin to spit huge, sloppy flakes. “Storm’s moving in and I wanted to beat it. I hope it’s OK that I surprised you.”
“Oh, it’s more than OK.” Ruth pressed a hand to his face and planted a kiss on his cheek. “Oh, how I’ve missed you. This is the most wonderful surprise yet!”
“I never expected to walk in on this.” The softness fled from Riley’s voice as he disentangled himself from Ruth and turned to Kaylee. He reached for one of the canine treats while his gaze narrowed at her in what could only be described as raw scrutiny. “What’s going on here? What are you doing here? I didn’t see a car.”
“We’re renting the guesthouse.” Kaylee’s lips quivered as she motioned to Rosie. The shock of seeing Riley again, the way his eyes, like two dark stones, swept over her as his mouth bowed into a frown, turned her pulse to a pounding base drum. “Well, sort of renting it.” Since Jacob had passed on, she wasn’t sure what would happen as far as her living arrangements went. Neither she nor Ruth had broached the subject—yet. Just the thought of having to vacate the guesthouse sent little shivers of dread up Kaylee’s spine. She cleared the painful knot from her throat to continue. “And, today we’re helping Ruth with a holiday project—a fundraiser for the animal shelter.”
Rosie wiggled along the chair’s seat, sidling close in at Kaylee’s hip. She tugged at the hem of Kaylee’s blouse. “Mom, is this the Riley who’s friends with Moose?”
“The one who gave you those yellow flowers when you were younger, the ones you stuck between the pages of that Bible on your dresser?”
“Rosie, hush!” Kaylee spun, shook a finger sharply at her niece as a vision of the marigolds, once brilliant as summer sun, rushed to mind. “That’s private.”
“Just askin’.” Rosie’s lips dipped into a pout as her eyes clouded with tears, and a stab of guilt pierced Kaylee. She had no right to take such a sharp tone over the child’s innocent question.
“I’m sorry, honey.” She gathered Rosie close, stroked her cheek. “Yes, Riley gave me those marigolds.”
“Is that what they were called…marigolds?” Riley’s voice drifted while his gaze brightened with a flicker of recognition. “You kept them?”
Kaylee shrugged. Her cheeks flamed as Riley snatched a second warm treat from the table. “I—”
“Don’t eat that!” Rosie turned and pushed back from Kaylee, her startled gaze drinking in Riley as he bit off a piece of the canine cinnamon bun and began to chew. “It’s—” She burst into giggles, pressing a palm to her tiny mouth as he swallowed. “—a doggie treat.”
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