Gracie Singleton Saylor brushed a wind-whipped strand of blonde hair from her eyes, pulled her red knit cloche over her ears, and rubbed her gloved palms together. The first day of December was nippy, and if the Indianapolis weatherman wasn't mistaken, snow would soon fly. The house she'd purchased just two months ago was decorated from top to bottom, with candles in every window, mistletoe in the doorways, and a nativity scene in the parlor. Snow on the ground would add the final holiday touch to the outside of her "Victorian Christmas card".
Standing back to admire the fragrant wreath she'd just hung on her front door, she smiled. Merriest Christmas, Gracie. The words were a self-promise, one she intended to keep.
All she needed now were two very tall trees, one for her stairway landing, and one for the parlor.
Ducking into the house, her house, Gracie studied the front room ceiling. Ten feet high if it was an inch, and the landing could accommodate a tree just as big. Allowing for stands and stars for the tops, she jotted "buy two nine-footers" on her "to do" list, and picked up the keys to Old Blue, her aged but beloved car.
Heber's Gas Station and Christmas Tree Lot lay clear across town in the neighborhood where Gracie grew up, but Will Heber needed the money the same as his father had, and she liked to help her own. Pop used to buy their tree at Heber's on Christmas Eve, after the final price markdown. It was always a scraggly, Charlie Brown type tree, but after the Singleton sisters decorated it with homemade paper chains and added the star, they thought it was beautiful. That star was the loveliest thing their family owned.
Parking her ten-year-old Mustang next to a late model Jeep, Gracie longed to open its door and inhale its new car smell. She'd ridden in a new car once. "Grace!" Will Heber rushed up to pump her hand. "We have a fine selection of trees this early in the year."
After a moment of small talk, Will's attention was drawn to a male customer with his back toward them. Gracie, following his gaze, was somewhat distracted herself. The man was tall, with dark hair, long legs, and lean thighs, and when he bent over to examine a tree's lower branches, his jeans tightened enticingly over backside. She excused herself quickly, and while Will went to help the man, moved down a row of trees that blocked him from view.
When she was younger, she'd been a fool for swarthy sex appeal and a winning smile. Now, she'd prefer a man with clean-cut good looks who was ambitious and dependable. If she was in the market for a relationship, which she wasn't. She had a new business and home, and was starting life over in the town she'd left twelve years ago.
Lingering over an expensive white pine, Gracie inhaled its aroma and fingered its soft needles. She didn't want to overspend, but Christmas was special. Maybe if she bought just one tree...no...the Larrabys had two when they owned the house that was hers now. And she loved traditions.
Moving to another section, she circled each tree, checking for bare spots and comparing her height of five and a half feet to theirs. She found one the right size with a lower price tag that would do for the stairway landing, but she really wanted that first white pine for her parlor. Returning to circle it again, she looked up into its graceful branches.
Smack. Her face hit cold leather, and her head cracked against a firm chin. She swayed from the impact. Strong hands steadied her, and she looked up into jade green eyes, and gasped. It couldn't be... He raked his hand through his hair in a gesture she remembered well. "Merett."
"Merett Bradmoore." She had to say, taste, savor his name. His face was thinner, making the high planes of his cheekbones more prominent, but otherwise, he'd barely changed in fifteen years. His dark hair, parted on the side, still tumbled onto his forehead, begging to be pushed back.
He lowered thick lashes to narrow his gaze on her, and she blinked, hoping he approved of what he saw as much as she did. "Gracie."
He looked even more handsome than in high school, and a nervous laugh caught in her throat. "I can't believe we ran into one another again."
"Literally." Merett's voice was warm and husky, but his dimpled smile was slow in coming and didn't quite reach his eyes. She'd loved the way his ready grin, bracketed by dimples, lighted his face. His eyes and voice had sparkled with fun and laughter. He'd changed.
"Daddy." A little girl ran up to tuck her hand in his.
Merett was married, with a child. He was the catch of his class, super athlete, and topnotch at everything he tried. So, why was she surprised?
His daughter, stubbing the toe of her shoe in the dirt, studied Gracie with huge brown eyes. Her waist length hair was darker than Merett's, almost black. Dressed in all pink with black patent Mary Janes, she was pretty, with long coltish legs. Her shoes didn't look appropriate for the chilly day or task at hand.
Gesturing with her left hand clasped in his, Merett introduced them. "Kirsten, this is Gracie Singleton. Gracie, meet my seven-year-old daughter."
"I'm almost eight." The little girl looked at the white pine Gracie had been circling. "We're going to buy this one. I hope you didn't want it."
Gracie swallowed her disappointment. Merett had, after all, been circling the same tree. "I was thinking about it, but I can find another."
Kirsten politely thanked Gracie before scampering off to pet Will Heber's old hunting dog.
Merett shook his head. "Kids." His eyes went to her gloved left hand, which told him nothing, and she felt oddly pleased.
His comment could mean almost anything, and as he followed his daughter with his gaze, Gracie couldn't decipher his expression. "Do you have any?"
She shook her head.
"Kirsten was testing you. She does that to people. I don't know why, but she wants to see if she can get your goat. She often gets mine."
"Faithie used to do that." Gracie's younger sister seemed to delight in seeing how far she could push her. "I thought she wanted to make sure I'd love her, no matter what."
"Kirsten should know." Merett, watching his daughter crouch to examine the hound dog's paw, frowned, and Gracie smiled ruefully. Faith hadn't stopped testing her yet, but Merett didn't need to hear that.
He turned his attention back to her. "Hope, Faith, and Grace. I was always surprised your name wasn't Charity."
Grace often thought it should have been. She felt as if she'd spent her life giving to others what little she had to give. Love, care, devotion, and much of it...for what? First, Faith went astray, then Sonny. Had she given too much? Too little? Both had balked at her care-taking, then come back for more. Squaring her shoulders, she smiled. "How's your family, Merett?"
"So-so." He turned toward the tree she'd been considering, the one Kirsten had decided she wanted. He examined it carefully, and the awkward silence grew.
"I can find another." Gracie held out her hand. "It was nice to see you again."
Merett's grip was firm, and she wished their hands were bare so she could feel the warmth of his touch. He'd never felt that way about her, but there was that one time when he had kissed her. That kiss fed into her daydreams, but the next morning, he and Holly were together again.
He held onto Gracie's hand a second too long, and her heart hammered with hope. He might not be married now. But he had a child, and kids took more out of you than husbands did. She'd seen that with Mom.
"I didn't know you were in Ferndale." Merett folded his arms and looked down at her. A head taller and broad-shouldered, he'd always made her feel safe, somehow. "Are you living here?"
She nodded and wondered if he remembered the house where she'd lived before. "I came back two months ago and bought the old Larraby home."
Merett half-closed his eyes as if he was trying to remember something. Which he probably was. Gracie, biting back a smile, spoke quickly. "Living there is a dream come true."
"I'm happy for you." He used to look at her that way in high school, when they were working on the newspaper together, and she'd done something that pleased him. Gracie's cheeks grew warm. Her heart beat faster.
"I couldn't wait to shake the small-town dust from my feet, but I hated Chicago. Cold. Lonely." She shivered, then squared her shoulders and smiled. "I made a mistake moving there, but now, I'm back with a new business and new life."
She dropped her gaze to her watch. Enough said. Next, she'd be telling him about Sonny's behavior and their subsequent divorce, rushing on to explain it was all for the best. Then she'd describe Special Effects in glowing terms, and knowing her tendency to confide too much, tell Merett her mortgage worries, and what a chance she was taking.
"I lived in New York and liked city life, but Kirsten and I are staying with Dad for a while. Mama's in a...a nursing home."
"I'm so sorry." Gracie laid her hand on his arm.
He laid his hand over hers and flashed his dimples, and Gracie's heart raced the way it used to. She used to dream of becoming Merett's wife, but it was a foolish fantasy. His family was well-to-do, with a home on the gracious-living side of Ferndale. Hers lived in the outskirts, where houses were crammed in with factories, and people lived hand-to-mouth. Two different worlds that were too different.
"Daddy," Kirsten called. "Come here. This dog has a thorn in its paw."
"I'd better go."
"Me too. With the holidays coming, there's a lot to do." The mere mention of the holiday made Gracie feel better. "I'll bet Kirsten's excited about Christmas."
"Her and dad." Merett's face folded into lines she'd never seen. His shoulders drooped.
But not you? He'd loved Christmas. Shivering, Gracie hugged her arms to her waist. Christmas had been different for both of them fifteen years ago.
Gracie was fourteen, Hope was twelve, and Faith, four. Pop was out of work and the Singletons were so hard up, they couldn't afford even the spindliest tree on Heber's lot. Despair lay over the family like dust so thick that Gracie could feel it in her throat. Mom hadn't been well since Faith was born, so she was like Gracie's own, and the idea that the little girl would wake up to nothing, not even mittens or a cheap toy, was devastating. Then, on Christmas Eve, the doorbell rang, and there stood Merett Bradmoore. Dark hair falling over one eye, the handsome high school senior's arms were loaded with presents. Behind him stood his parents with a fragrant pine and a turkey with all the trimmings. But it was Merett that Gracie saw. She'd worshipped him from afar, and now, like a fairy tale hero, he'd come to her rescue. Looking up into his deep green eyes, she fell in love that night.
Today, watching her holiday hero, face sad, remove the thorn from the dog's paw, Gracie knew his kind heart was intact, and good things would happen for him again. Sometimes they took a while, but if you hung onto your hope, they always did. Merett's Christmas Eve visit had taught her that, and his precious gift of optimism had stood her in good stead.
Now, it looked as if Gracie needed to return it to him.