When Emilee Lancaster’s aunt calls her home to Hope Creek for the holidays, Emmy readily agrees to assist with a charity event at the family theater—until she finds herself front-and-center stage with her high school flame, Jayson Taylor. She’s not thrilled about the pairing, but she’s made a promise to her aunt, and unlike Jayson, she keeps her promises.
Jayson Taylor makes his living building sets for Dahlia Brewster's Family Theater. When the Christmas show's emcee falls ill, Dahlia asks Jayson to step from the backstage and into the limelight. He's more comfortable working behind the scenes, but the country-singing superstar has always treated him like a favorite son, so Jayson reluctantly agrees. Center-stage at Christmas—especially beside dream-chasing Emmy Lancaster, who once ran off and broke his heart—is not where he planned to be.
But God has other plans, and what happens when the curtain falls and the stage lights dim truly reflects the heart of this holiday season.
Emmy Lancaster settled back in the leather seat of the posh limousine her aunt Dahlia had sent to fetch her from McGhee-Tyson airport. The fuss hardly seemed necessary—a simple rental car or even a taxi would have sufficed for the short ride into Hope Springs. But Aunt Dahlia wouldn’t hear of such a thing, insisting on only the best for her favorite niece. So Emmy embraced the kindness.
The next several weeks would present a flurry of activity and challenges. Emmy would take on the lead entertainer role in Aunt Dahlia’s holiday show, slated to benefit a new pediatric wing at the local hospital. The week-long stretch of rehearsals, followed by a series of a dozen shows, would lead straight into Christmas.
Holiday tunes that filtered through the limo cemented the fact that Christmas was well on its way. Currently, Bing Crosby’s warm bass-baritone yearned for a cheerful blanket of white. Emmy hoped for snow, too. In Hope Creek, it seemed almost mandatory at Christmas time.
“Are you there, Emmy?” Aunt Dahlia’s signature, upbeat southern twang came through the cell phone pressed to Emmy’s ear. “Are you listening?”
“Yes, I’m here.” Emmy fought the urge to hum along with Bing. She could hardly help herself. Like Aunt Dahlia, singing had proved to be her passion from the moment she realized she could use her vocal chords to string notes together. “What were you saying?”
“My driver, Louis, will take you to Christmas Inn, where I’ve booked a room for you on the second floor—room eight, I believe.”
“Right. Room eight.” Emmy filed away the information.
“You should be off the road and settled in soon.”
“Yes. Traffic’s not too bad tonight, and we’ve traveled the roads in record time, thank goodness. I think we’re almost there.” Emmy peered out the window as snowflakes drifted through the air to kiss the polished car. Along the parkway, Christmas lights twinkled across a black-velvet canvas of sky. Their merry dance of illumination bolstered Emmy’s mood as well as her ability to fight off the ache that had pitched a tent along the small of her back. The flight from California, with its layovers and unexpected delays, had proven grueling and had stolen Emmy’s energy while putting her behind schedule a solid six hours. “I’m sorry I missed rehearsal this afternoon.”
“It couldn’t be helped, but we’ll get an early start in the morning and go until we can’t dance another step or sing another note.”
“Now, auntie…you know I never grow weary of singing. The dancing, though, is another story altogether.” In reality, Emmy sometimes felt as if she had two left feet. She’d worked tirelessly through a decade of ballet and jazz classes to counteract the curse. “I’ll do my best, though.”
“You always do, my dear. I’m not a bit worried about your part in the show. But Harvey, on the other hand…” Aunt Dahlia’s voice trailed off. “Well, let’s just say that the theater is closed to the public—no shows on Mondays and Tuesdays this week—so we’ll have plenty of time to put things in order.”
“I’ll wear my dancing shoes and bring along a supply of potato chips and juice.” Salt was good for strained vocal chords, a trick Emmy had learned early-on from Aunt Dahlia. “I’ll be ready. I’ve heard Harvey is a fine dancer, and I was able to tell through the demo clip you sent that our voices blend nicely. A bit of practice together should make the harmony shine. You mentioned that he’s been working hard on the show’s choreography, so I’ll simply follow his lead and—”
“Emmy, dear…about Harvey…” Aunt Dahlia cleared her throat and, after a lengthy pause, continued in an uncharacteristic monotone. “There’s been a slight change in plans due to—”
“Oh, Aunt Dahlia...” Emmy interrupted as the limo crested a slight hill and Christmas Inn came into view along a backdrop of ethereal, moonlit mountains. “Oh, oh, oh…it’s gorgeous!”
“What’s gorgeous, honey?”
“The inn…oh, the inn!” Emmy leaned forward, craning her head to peer through the windshield as the wipers worked to clear flecks of snow. “It’s breathtaking…so much more majestic with holiday cheer than I remember.”
Grand turrets rose three stories high, flanking an expanse of brick and glass that shimmered against the night sky like magical starlight. A candelabra glowed from each window, as if guiding her home. The grounds along the entranceway seemed to dance beneath a whisper of shimmering snow. She’d always loved spending time here when she was in high school and later college, before she left for the West Coast. Exploring the undulating gardens for signs of the changing seasons had been an activity she’d treasured.
More often than not Jayson had been at her side. The memory gnawed at her. Where was he now?
“Yes,” Aunt Dahlia’s voice drew Emmy back. “The Christmas family has kicked renovation plans into high gear, working to restore the family inn to its legendary state of grandeur. I knew you would be enchanted by the progress, Emmy, that’s why I chose to book a room there for you. That, and—”
“We’re pulling into the drive now, Auntie.” Emmy’s gaze flitted from the stately turrets to the sweeping, circular drive as she drank in captivating details of illumination. Suddenly surging with Christmas cheer, she felt the urge to belt out the refrains of Jingle Bell Rock and Silver Bells all rolled into one. “Oh, oh, oh!”
“Yes, the inn is lovely,” Aunt Dahlia affirmed once again. “But, Emmy, dear, focus for just one moment. I have something to tell you about tomorrow…about the show.”
“Whatever it is, Auntie…whatever you need, I’m there for you. Yes.” Emmy gathered her purse, bobbling the cellphone as she slipped the strap over one shoulder. She recovered quickly and continued. “I know how important the hospital project is to you, as well as seeing to the children’s needs. Just share the details with me in the morning. I’ll be there with bells on, ready to kick up my heels and belt out a tune or two.”
“I know you will, dear, and I appreciate your generosity, but give me just a moment before you flit away again. This is important—”
Not to be deterred, Emmy reached for the overnight bag she’d dropped on the floorboard and prepared for a quick exit. “You mentioned earlier that Louis is going to pick me up tomorrow morning in the limo, right?”
“Yes. At eight o’clock sharp. But about the rehearsal—”
“Eight o’clock sharp.” Breathless with excitement, Emmy was unable to draw her gaze from the rooftop where a pair of ethereal angels welcomed visitors with trumpets formed of mesmerizing, golden lights. “Yes, right. Louis, eight o’clock…long rehearsal.” Snow crunched beneath the vehicle’s tires as it slowed at the entranceway to the inn. Emmy released her seatbelt and tugged at the door latch. She knew Louis would see to her luggage. “I have to go, Aunt Dahlia. I can’t wait to see the inside of this place again. It’s incredible, amazing… simply gorgeous.”
“If you must…go explore, then, while you still have a bit of energy left.” Aunt Dahlia sighed, seeming resigned to the fact that Emmy refused to be lassoed into further conversation. “Get a good night’s sleep, dear. You’ll need it.”
“Thanks, Auntie, for booking the room. I just know that I’m going to love it here, to the moon and back.”
“Yes, we’ll see.”
“I promise I will get some sleep as soon as I’ve checked things out a bit. I wonder if the inside is as grand as I remember. And the chapel, with its wondrous bells…”
Ah, the chapel…the bells…how long since they’d rung to signify love…?
Emmy had shared her first kiss on the chapel steps with Jayson Taylor, and they’d heard those bells toll at the affection. And though legend nodded toward the belief that the bells rang only when true love was found, they’d laughed and chalked it up to a breeze through the steeple…nothing more. That was eons ago, when she was young and naïve. She’d believed teenage love could last forever, and had thought Jayson did, as well. Emmy brushed away the memory and the hurt that filtered in. She would not allow such thoughts to dampen her joyful mood.
“I’ve heard the kitchen is undergoing some renovations,” Aunt Dahlia informed her. “But if you ask, I am sure Ari Christmas or her chef will see that you get something to eat. You’ll need your strength in the days ahead.”
“I’ll check on that.” In fact, Emmy’s stomach voiced a not-so-delicate growl. She’d taken her last meal before noon.
“Of course you will. Happy exploring, my dear. I’ll see you in the morning. ” Aunt Dahlia chuckled softly, and then added a cryptic, final statement. “You’ll want to talk with me more then, I’m sure.”
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