Copyright © 2019 by Leah Atwood
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the HCSB®, Copyright © 1999, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2009 by Holman Bible Publishers. Used by permission. HCSB® is a federally registered trademark of Holman Bible Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
Cora Mullikan lifted the lid off a candle from that morning’s Parcel Post shipment. She inhaled the festive scent, letting the blend of balsam, cedar, and berries fill her with Christmas cheer. “Exactly as I imagined.”
After sampling the other new scents, she moved the shipment to the empty spot on her candle display and arranged them in an enticing manner. Candle demand had increased this year, and she’d sold out on Saturday, prompting her to take advantage of the free overnight shipping promotion from a new supplier.
She stepped back and observed the display. Deciding something was missing, she wrinkled her nose and pondered. What could she add to make the presentation pop?
“Marie, can you come here for a minute if you’re not busy?” Her only full-time employee had a keen eye for merchandising, and Cora often delegated those responsibilities to her.
Red ribbon adorned with white snowflakes dangled from Marie’s arms. “I’m wrapping the last of the package; s to send out today, but I have a few hours before the mailman runs. What do you need?”
“Can you work your magic with these candles? The entire display is lacking oomph.”
Before Cora had finished the sentence, Marie grabbed a candle snuffer, pulled a thin red ribbon from her apron pocket, and was tying it around the pewter handle. “Give me five minutes, and I’ll have it done.”
“You’re the best.” Cora walked away, knowing she didn’t need to supervise. Marie’s maturity and work ethic couldn’t be topped.
She returned to the shipment, continued to unpack the boxes and replenish the shelves between assisting customers. Compared to the chaotic weekend that carried into Monday, business was slow, and for once, Cora didn’t mind. She needed the time to recoup her store’s aesthetics. After all, when people shopped a Christmas-themed store, they expected a winter wonderland inside.
Another smile danced on her lips. Not everyone was lucky enough to live their dream, but hers had come true when she opened Mistletoe Mercantile five years ago. Nestled between a bakery and souvenir shop on Main Street, the store in downtown Overlook, Tennessee offered a gorgeous view of the Great Smoky Mountains from the top floor.
Within a week of first leasing the building, she’d transformed a small storage closet upstairs into her office simply because it had an out-of-place window that granted photo-worthy nature scenes while she worked on administrative tasks. With that thought, she remembered she had to file a claim on a box of ornaments that arrived broken.
She let Marie know she’d be in the office for a few minutes, grabbed a cup of apple cider they kept warm as a courtesy for customers, then retreated upstairs. Her sketches for this year’s yard decorating marathon were spread over her desk. Typically, she spent the week before Thanksgiving transforming her yard, but she was a week behind and this year, she’d have to settle for the Wednesday after.
Tomorrow would be the first day she’d taken off in a month—she’d even come in on Thanksgiving to prepare for Black Friday—and that was only because Marie threatened to quit if Cora didn’t take care of herself. She didn’t think her friend and employee would follow through, but she wasn’t about to take that chance.
Stacking the drawings in a neat pile, she stared outside. A light dusting of snow covered the bare branches of the maple and hickory trees that had shed their leaves last month. The meteorologist said another dusting would come overnight. Cora prayed it wouldn’t be more than that. As much as she loved snow, she didn’t relish setting up her entire outdoor display with several inches of the precipitation on the ground.
After tomorrow, let the snow come. She’d learned that short of a blizzard, her shop did well when the snow came—it tended to put people in the mood for Christmas. Setting up in a tourist town helped as well, since there were many hotels along Main Street. Even if driving conditions weren’t favorable, people would roam the sidewalks.
She tore her attention from the scene outside and logged on to the supplier’s website. After she filed her claim for the ornaments, she checked the tracking on several shipments that hadn’t arrived yet. With the coming month predicted to be her busiest, it was imperative that she had ample stock on hand.
Her cellphone buzzed in her pocket. She withdrew it and answered the call from her mom.
“Good afternoon, Cora.” Eileen Mullikan’s voice didn’t possess its typical chipper tone. “How are you?”
“Busy, but good. What about you? You don’t sound yourself.” Thirty different thoughts assailed her. Dad hadn’t looked so well at Thanksgiving. Had something happened to him? Was her pregnant twin Flora okay?
“I’m fine.” Eileen cleared her throat. “There’s something I’d like to ask you, and before I do, please promise me that you’ll keep an open mind about it.”
Curious, she arched a brow, though no one could see. “What is it?”
“Flora would like to host Christmas dinner this year.” The words rushed from her mom’s mouth in a quick push of air.
Cora sucked in a breath, didn’t answer right away. “I’ve always hosted Christmas, ever since I graduated from college.”
“I know, dear, and I know how important it is to you and how much you love doing it, but this is important to your sister.”
“Why didn’t she ask me herself?” Cora bit her lip to keep from saying more.
“She was worried about your reaction.”
“That hurts.” Her bottom lip protruded out. “Flora and I talk about everything.”
“Then you don’t mind passing the torch this year?”
“I didn’t say that.” She had an argument on the tip of her tongue but stopped herself from voicing the protest when she realized her sister had a valid point. If a person could be possessive over a meal, then Cora fit that bill. “Did she say why?”
“Not exactly, but with the baby coming, I think she wants to prove to herself she can be a domestic wife since she and Ryan decided she’d be a stay-at-home mom while the baby is young.”
Cora laughed. “Flora was born with the domestic gene. Other than cooking, it skipped me. Why would she doubt it?”
“Pregnancy hormones can mess with a person’s mind.” Eileen’s voice came through soft and gentle. “If you really don’t want to relinquish the responsibility, she’ll understand, but it would mean a lot to her to host Christmas dinner.”
“It’s fine, Mom.” She had to choke out the words because hosting dinner was her second favorite part of the holiday, second only to celebrating Jesus’s birth. However, she couldn’t deny her sister happiness, especially not when Flora was expecting the first baby of her siblings.
“Wonderful. I’ll call her now and let her know.”
“If you don’t mind, I’ll tell her myself. I planned to drop by her house with a gift after I close anyway.”
“Thank you. I know it’s not easy for you to give it up, and I’m proud of you.” Eileen hung up without letting Cora comment further, likely afraid she’d change her mind.
A heaviness hung over Cora. She dug to the bottom of her paper pile and pulled out the menu she’d perfected for this year’s dinner. For months, she’d pored over recipes and tested them until she’d found the perfect dishes.
She crumbled the paper and tossed it into the wastebasket. It didn’t matter who hosted Christmas dinner, as long as she spent it with her family. If she repeated it a hundred times, maybe she’d believe it. She shouldn’t be so upset, but she couldn’t stop the ache in her stomach.
Regretting her rash action, she pulled her menu from the trash and smoothed it out. There was always next year. And for now, she had her yard and store to keep her in the Christmas spirit.
Gabe Newton pulled off the road, onto a constructed overlook. He stepped out of his decade-old sedan and breathed in the fresh mountain air. The sun descended quickly, and soon, he’d have to wait until tomorrow for more views of the Smokies.
After living on the Kansas plains for all of his thirty-one years, he’d pulled up roots and moved to Tennessee. Or was moving. He hadn’t gotten to his new home yet, but according to his GPS, he only had a half hour until he arrived.
What condition would the house be in? The last time he’d been to Overlook was as a senior in high school when his family had spent Christmas with his great uncle. He wished he’d spent more time getting to know him.
Two months after his uncle’s death, Gabe still didn’t understand why Frank had left him his home and property on Main Street. There had been no explanation with the will, and Uncle Frank’s lawyer couldn’t provide any insight. Whatever the reason, his uncle’s death aside, Gabe was grateful for the inheritance.
He’d finally be able to open a photography studio. Initially, he’d thought to sell the two properties, but his conscious nagged at him. Uncle Frank hadn’t left him a home and storefront to turn around and sell it. After much discussion with God, his parents, and lawyer, he decided to uproot his life and move to Tennessee.
Mom had cried and pleaded with him to wait until after Christmas. Dad had told him to follow his dreams. His sisters were neutral, wanting him near but also wishing him the best in his new endeavor. Their only stipulations were that he invite them to the mountains for visits. In the end, he’d compromised and stayed for Thanksgiving with plans for his family to join him for a Tennessee Christmas.
Excitement pulsed through him. Most photographers focused their studios in Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge, and not in the lesser known, but just as beautiful, Overlook. He’d have little competition in the town, and while he established a local clientele base, he’d also market to tourists wanting a special memory of their time in the Smokies.
Reluctantly, he left the picturesque view and returned to his car, a long-ago-given college graduation present. Once he settled into his new life, he’d see about getting a new vehicle more suitable for driving mountain passes. Until then, he’d enjoy the last months with his trusty Toyota.
The town of Overlook came into view, and it appeared exactly as he remembered it from all those years ago. A wrought iron banner with the town’s name stretched across both entrances of Main Street. Lights and supersized candy canes adorned the streetlights, and a large fir tree stood tall and proud in the town square with a gold star at the top of its decorated limbs.
Impulse took over, and he drove to the empty store his uncle had left him. Confusion crinkled his brows when he saw that a store occupied the address, and he stroked his jaw. He’d been under the assumption the business property was vacant.
Though he had the address memorized, he doublechecked his papers and glanced a second time at the brass numbers above the store’s door. Sure enough, they matched. He ran a hand through his hair, debating his next move. There had to be a logical explanation. Someone—the lawyer—would have mentioned this small detail to him.
He took a second to see what kind of a store filled the premise. When he saw Mistletoe Mercantile hanging on a shingle, it all made sense. It must be a seasonal store with a short lease for the holiday season, and that’s why the lawyer didn’t mention it to him.
But who received the rent? Unless the merchant had prepaid before Frank passed, the funds would be Gabe’s. He didn’t care about the monetary aspect—he still struggled to reconcile in his heart gaining financially from his uncle’s death—rather, he wanted to know the full situation. As the owner of the building, he could be held liable for anything that went on within the property limits.
Curiosity got to him, and he pushed open the car door. A little investigating before he called the lawyer tomorrow wouldn’t hurt. He buttoned his coat after a strong gust sent a chill through him. When he opened the door, bells jingled above him.
The store smelled like…Christmas. A woodsy scent mixed with the sweet aroma of berries and, maybe, vanilla. He couldn’t put his finger on the exact undertones. His eyes shifted from shelves of decorations to racks of stockings. He’d walked into a winter wonderland.
A middle-aged lady with an apron and red hair approached. “Welcome to Mistletoe Mercantile. Are you looking for anything in particular?”
“Browsing.” His gaze landed on a ceramic creche. “I’m moving into a new house here and left the few Christmas decorations I had behind.”
“Are you from this area?” The lady reached behind her and straightened an out of place stocking holder.
“No, ma’am. Lived in Kansas all my life until now.”
“Welcome to Outlook. It’s a great little town, and a good place to raise a family.” A subtle wink followed her grin. “Do you have a wife and kids?”
He shook his head. “It’s only me.”
The lady’s eyes lit with delight. “Perhaps you’ll find that special gal in Outlook.”
Sure, he would. A relationship was exactly what he didn’t need while building a business from the ground up. His manners kept his response civil. “I’ll be too busy to think about that for a while.”
Her eyes twinkled. “Tis the season for miracles.”
“So, I hear.” He chuckled and swept an arm over the store. “Nice place you have.”
“Oh, it’s not mine. My friend, Cora, owns the mercantile.”
Cora. He committed the name to memory. “These displays are fantastic. It seems a lot of work to set them up for a few months.”
“Thank you.” Pride reflected in her smile. “Most of the displays stay up year-round, but we do vary a handful.”
His stomach twisted. “Year round?”
Her head tilted subtly to the right. “We’re open all year. Tourists love Christmas-themed stores.”
At a loss for words, he choked out something he hoped conveyed he’d browse around.
“If you need anything, give me a holler. My name’s Marie.” She pointed to the front left corner of the shop. “Help yourself to a cup of apple cider. It’s made locally at an orchard five miles out of town.”
“Thanks.” He walked the aisles of the store, but he didn’t take in much. Under different circumstances, he’d find the Mistletoe Mercantile charming, but worry preoccupied his mind.
Its presence on his property didn’t make sense. Marie unwittingly shattered any hope he’d had of the store being on a seasonal lease. Worse yet, the way Marie spoke, neither she nor Cora, the proprietor, knew that ownership had changed hands.
He couldn’t throw them out.
But neither could he let them stay if he were to open his studio.
Which was the entire reason he’d moved to Outlook.
He maintained his composure until he returned to his car. Raking his hands through his thick brown hair, he contemplated his next steps. Before he could make any decisions, he had to speak with the lawyer who took care of the estate. Reaching into his wallet, he pulled out the business card that had come with the paperwork.
The address showed the attorney’s office as one street away, and Gabe drove over on the chance that Mr. Winston would be there. A small wooden sign hung from a wrought iron post, announcing the law office of Harold S. Winston.
Gabe walked slowly toward the door, still trying to process the information. He grasped the doorknob, twisted it, and pushed it open. The door opened to a reception area empty of anyone. Papers in uneven piles covered a desk. A computer monitor showed no sign of activity in the office.
“Be right there,” a weary voice called from a side room.
Shrugging to himself, Gabe stood with his hands in his pockets. He busied himself reading the multiple diplomas hanging on the wall, stating where Mr. Winston had earned his degrees.
Several minutes later, an older man with snow white hair sticking out in all directions hobbled from the other room. His thin frame leaned heavily on a cane. “May I help you?”
“Yes, I’m here to see Mr. Winston.”
“You’ve found him.” The old man extended his free hand. “I know your voice. Mr. Newton, correct?”
“Yes.” Considering the state of the office, the man’s perception surprised Gabe. “I’m sorry for dropping in unannounced, but I’ve just arrived in town and ran into a predicament.”
“Come into my office. It’s nice to put a face with the name.”
Gabe followed Mr. Winston into an office that was in further disarray than the reception area. Every attorney’s office he’d ever been in—albeit not many—had been meticulously kept. The condition of Mr. Winston’s area cast doubt in Gabe’s mind of his competency, but he kept an open mind. He had a habit of giving everyone and everything the benefit of the doubt—oftentimes much to his own annoyance.
Mr. Winston lowered himself slowly into a leather executive chair. “Pardon my mess. My assistant quit last month, and my secretary is on vacation. To be honest, I couldn’t spare her time away, but she and her husband have had this cruise planned for a year. I couldn’t in good conscience take that away from her just because my assistant ran off to New York with a good-for-nothing actor from Gatlinburg.”
A chuckle slipped from Gabe’s mouth before he could stop it, but the man’s expressions reminded him of his grandpa who put on a cranky appearance but had a soft heart. “I’m sorry.”
“Not your fault.” Mr. Winston cleared a spot on his desk by swiping his arms outward, then leaned forward. “Have you been to the house yet?”
“No, I stopped by the storefront first.”
“Then you got to see Cora’s place? Isn’t it wonderful?” A wistful expression tore across the man’s face. “My beloved Gertrude would have loved it.”
“It’s a lovely store, but…” He took a breath and folded his hands in his lap. “The thing is, I was under the impression that the building was vacant. I came here with plans for my own business.”
“Oh dear.” A genuine frown marred Mr. Winston’s face. “The lease agreement should have been included with all your paperwork. I had it in there when I gave it to Alicia.”
“She was my assistant, and not a very good one, I might add.” Mr. Winston stopped abruptly and sighed. “No matter, the responsibility was still mine. I should have verified the packet she sent out and the papers you sent back. My mind’s not as sharp as it once was. My children have been on me to retire, and I finally agreed to step aside come spring.”
Despite his frustrations, Gabe had to admire the man and felt a pang of sympathy for him. “Can you tell me the details of the lease?”
“I’ll grab a copy of it for you.” The man stood and walked in short steps without his cane to a filing cabinet. “Cora Mullikan signed a five-year lease with your uncle. If I recall correctly, that time is up in February.”
“Then I’m free to move in?”
“Yes.” Mr. Winston pulled out a file folder. “Here it is.”
Gabe stood and took the paper, saving the man extra steps. He sat down again and read through the lease agreement. His brows furrowed when he saw the monthly rent. “Is this amount correct?”
“Your uncle knew Ms. Mullikan from the time she was a baby, attended the same church as her, and considered her family a part of his.” Mr. Winston slowly lowered himself into his chair and leaned forward. “He believed in her store but knew that most businesses take five years to see a profit. Since he didn’t need the money, he cut her a deal to help her succeed, but did so anonymously.”
Rubbing his temples, Gabe growled under his breath. “Why the secret?”
“Ms. Mullikan is a proud woman. She never would have accepted your uncle’s special treatment. I suppose coming from a stranger it wasn’t as big of a deal.”
“Is her business doing well now? Can it survive paying the going rate of rent elsewhere in town?”
Mr. Winston grazed his teeth along his upper lip. “I’m not privy to her financials, but Mistletoe Mercantile has a solid reputation. That’s a question you’d have to ask her though.”
His mouth hurt from gritting his teeth. “Does she know that ownership has changed hands?”
He drew in a long breath. “I suppose I need to pay her a visit and straighten out these issues.”
“I’m truly sorry, Mr. Newton. I’ve dropped the ball on you, and, however unintentional, it’s not acceptable.”
“We’ll call it a miscommunication.” His aggravation ran deep, but he couldn’t find it in him to harbor ill-will toward the attorney.
One way or another, he’d find a way to work this out.
Cora stared out the window in dismay. Outlook got a dusting of snow all right—if a dusting consisted of six inches and counting. She could fight the wind and cold to put out her decorations, or she could call Marie and see if she’d come in tomorrow instead of today.
Noel, her orange tabby cat, rubbed against her ankles. “Meow.”
“I know. It’s a good day to stay in and watch Christmas movies, isn’t it?” She bent down and scooped Noel into her arms. “Too bad that’s not an option. Too much to do.”
The cat pressed her nose against the window, then jumped down immediately after her skin made contact with the cold. Cora chuckled and went to the stove, put the kettle of water to boil. She pulled a tin of cranberry tea from the cabinet and dropped a bag in her favorite mug.
Her phone rang from the living room, and she ran in to answer the call. “Good morning, Marie.”
“Good morning.” Marie’s tone sounded mildly stressed. “I have a huge favor to ask. The school system closed today, and my daughter needs me to watch the girls. I know you had plans for today, but is there any way we could switch our schedules?”
Cora laughed. “I was debating asking you the same thing. The weather’s too bad to work outside today. Stay home and enjoy a snow day with those grandbabies.”
“You’re the best.” Relief echoed in her statement. “I wish I could chat longer, but I need to run next door before Amber leaves for work.”
“Be safe.” Cora’s mom only lived twenty minutes away, but there were times Cora wished she lived next door like Marie and Amber did. She was blessed to have a great relationship with her parents and siblings, and she would spend time with them every day if possible.
Once the call ended, she returned to the kitchen and poured the hot water into her mug. While she waited for the tea to steep, she took a quick shower, keeping her hair dry and opting for dry shampoo instead. She’d have to leave early to accommodate for the snowy roads, which wouldn’t leave time to dry her hair.
After her quickest shower ever, she dressed in warm clothes and went to finish preparing her tea. She stirred in a teaspoon of sugar, then poured it into a travel mug. “Want to come with me today, Noel?”
The cat ran under the table, making it clear she had no intention of leaving the confines of her toasty warm home. Cora smiled and grabbed her coat from a peg in the mudroom. She didn’t blame the cat. As much as she loved snow, she didn’t like driving in it, especially when the storm hadn’t yet ended.
There was a chill in the garage, though not as harsh as the biting wind outside. She opened the door, shoveled a quick path while her car engine warmed. Out of breath, she sat behind the driver’s seat. She considered herself in good shape, but she hadn’t shoveled snow in nearly a year and was out of practice.
She began to back out. Slow and steady wins the race. She tapped the remote on her visor to close the garage door before driving into the road. Her tires lost traction and slipped. The road was deceptively icy under the sticking snow. She inched her way into town, heaving a relieved sigh when she reached the shop.
Main Street was a ghost town. Between leaving her car and unlocking the door she didn’t see a single person. Once the snow stopped falling, more people would venture out. She secured the door behind her until it was time to open. She went upstairs to the office and checked for any messages.
One of her part-time employees called out with a sincere apology. Cora didn’t fault him. He was a college student from Florida, unaccustomed to driving in these conditions, and she’d rather him be safe.
Marie had left the closing reports on the desk for her, and Cora reviewed the numbers. By the looks of them, the store had been busy after she’d left, a fact that made her happy. She’d close out the year with a nice profit if December maintained November’s trend. She filed the reports and made sure they had also transferred to the accounting program on her computer.
Bending over, she keyed in the safe’s code. The deposit bag stared her in the face, daring her to take a trip to the bank. “You can wait until tomorrow.”
She slid out the cash register tray with the petty cash in it and walked downstairs, performed the morning routines. The last task was her favorite. She went to the mini fridge in the rear room and grabbed a bottle of apple cider, poured it into a warming carafe. She’d never tire of the fruity scent mixed with hints of cinnamon and nutmeg.
A man at the door caught her attention. She didn’t officially open for another fifteen minutes, but he looked on a mission, so she opened the doors. He appeared younger that she’d first thought. Maybe two or three years older than her twenty-eight. His hair was a rich mahogany, and she was jealous that her honey blonde tresses weren’t nearly as thick.
Expressive eyes, a shade darker than his hair, stared at her. “Are you Cora Mullikan?”
Taken aback that he knew her name, she blinked. “Yes. Can I help you with something?”
He twisted his fingers in front of him, then freed them and extended his right arm for her to shake his hand. “I’m Gabe Newton.”
She racked her memory for any recognition of the name. It sounded vaguely familiar, but she couldn’t place from where. “Nice to meet you.”
“I’m afraid you might take that back in a few minutes.”
Her heart lurched. Was he a danger? She quickly dismissed the thought. If he meant to harm her, he wouldn’t have offered a name, real or fake, nor would he have waited for her to unlock the doors. But what did he mean? “Pardon me?”
“Is there somewhere we could have coffee and talk?” He rocked on his heels, shoved one hand in his coat pocket.
“I open in fifteen minutes, and I’m sorry, but I don’t know you.” She patted her pocket, reassured she had her phone if she needed to call for security.
“Fair enough.” He sucked in a long breath and his features contorted to a tortured expression. When he exhaled, his face returned to its previous countenance. “Like I said, my name is Gabe Newton, and I’m the new owner of this property.”
She took several minutes to process his statement and coughed. “New?”
“My uncle passed recently and left this building to me. I just moved here to start a new business, unaware anyone rented the location.”
The implications made her head spin. “Are you saying you’re kicking me out?”
“Then what are you saying?” She crossed her arms, indignant to give him a smile or appearance of being welcome.
“Can we go somewhere on neutral ground where we can discuss this? I realize you have a store to open, but the likelihood of customers coming in during this snowfall is slim.”
Against her better judgement—and perhaps for her own sanity to sort this out—she found herself agreeing. “There’s a coffee shop on the other side of the bakery. We can go there.”
“Thank you.” He waited by the door while she ran upstairs for her coat and wallet.
She paused briefly to stare at the view from her office. Would this all come to an end? Would she lose her beloved scenic view and store? This Christmas was turning out nothing like she had expected, and it had only begun. Her stomach twisted into tiny knots that couldn’t be easily undone.
Each step downstairs thudded in her ears. Her heart sped at an erratic rate, wanting answers but not if they meant she had to leave. In a matter of minutes her world had been turned on its axis, and she felt strangely out of balance.
She stopped at the counter and wrote a sign for the door stating that she’d open at nine-thirty. She taped it to the glass and locked up. Taking a step back, her feet landed on a patch of ice she hadn’t seen.
Gabe’s hand flew to her elbow and steadied her. “Are you okay?”
“Fine,” she replied with curtness born from a bruised ego.
“One day when I was in sixth grade, my mom dropped us off at school. I stepped onto the sidewalk and slipped on a patch of ice in front of the entire car rider line. Fell flat on my backside and my books went flying everywhere.”
She wanted to dislike him, but he had a genuineness about him that wouldn’t allow that. Offering a temporary truce, she smiled. “You’re only saying that to make me feel better.”
He groaned. “I wish. That’s not even the worst of it.”
“It was Valentine’s Day, and I’d worked all night making a card for a girl I had a crush on.” He held his hands out wide. “It was massive. I wanted to be sure she’d love it.”
“She never got the chance to see it. Morgan Seibold, the school bully, saw it fly out of my bag. He snatched it off the ground and read it aloud to everyone before crumpling it and throwing it in the trash.”
“That’s terrible.” She shook her head, recollecting the bullies in her school. They’d been cruel to a select few kids and left her alone, but she’d had one other girl make her high school years terrible.
“It was, but it saved me a different form of embarrassment.” He looked at her and grinned. “My crush had her eyes set on someone else. They became inseparable and ten years later, they married after graduating from college.”
“I’ve heard of high school sweethearts, but not middle school ones.”
“They were lucky to find each other early in life.”
An unbidden pang of jealousy of a couple she’d never met struck her. Everyone had a turn at romance but her. She dated, but she’d never experienced a strong connection with any of those men. I’d rather wait for the right man than marry the wrong one. It was an argument she repeated often, but it didn’t fill her loneliness.
Unwilling to linger on that train of thought, she dropped the conversation and pointed to her side. “There’s the coffee shop.”
Gabe sat on a wooden chair, cradling a plain white ceramic coffee mug in his left hand. Now that they had their drinks and had found a table, the easy conversation they briefly shared had died.
When Mr. Winston said Uncle Frank considered Cora the daughter he’d never had, Gabe had pictured a lady near his parents’ age, not his. He’d been unprepared for the beautiful woman who’d greeted him at Mistletoe Mercantile.
She was average height and build but had wavy hair that reminded him of wheat fields blowing in the wind. She had a cute nose that twitched when she was nervous, and pink lips free of artificial color. Light brown eyes showed every emotion she felt, and he’d already seen an array of them in the short time he’d known her.
He imagined she didn’t care much for him, simply on the basis he now owned her building, but she was polite enough to hear him out. If he ever started talking.
“Who is your uncle,” she asked, breaking the silence.
A bittersweet smile stretched her lips. “I should have known. Now I know why your name sounded familiar.”
“I wish I’d had the chance to know him better.” It would be one of the regrets of his life. “He came to Kansas a few times, and we came here occasionally.”
“The world lost a treasure when Frank passed.” Cora’s soft words bespoke a deep fondness of Frank. “Sunday afternoon dinners and holidays almost always included him, and if he wasn’t there, it wasn’t for lack of an invitation.”
“I should have reached out to him more often.” He pinched his lips, feeling the weight of what he’d lost. “Honestly, I’m not even sure why he left me his house and the property on Main Street.”
“One thing I know for sure about Frank is that he had a reason, even if you never find out this side of Heaven.”
“What else can you tell me about him?” He crossed his arms on the table and leaned forward in eager anticipation. “What were his hobbies? What made him tick?”
Cora laughed, a pleasant melody to his ears. “Frank was a character. He hated bugs and would walk ten feet out of the way to avoid a spider, but the idea of killing one was unfathomable. He hated injustice, wouldn’t tolerate rudeness or disrespect, and had a sweet tooth, especially when it came to jelly donuts.”
“Mom’s side of the family loves all animals, big and small. We adopted countless strays growing up, and whenever we had mice in the house, Mom insisted Dad use traps that kept them alive.”
“That was Frank.” Cora stared off for a second and chuckled before bringing her gaze back to him. “He found an injured baby squirrel while out shooting photos one Sunday morning and ran late for church. Wouldn’t you know he brought that thing right into the service and flagged the vet down immediately after the closing hymn.”
“Did the squirrel make it?”
“Yes. Frank nursed him back to health according to the vet’s instructions, then set him free.”
Her earlier statement clicked. “When you said he was out shooting photos, did he do that often?”
She bobbed her head eagerly. “He always loved photography, but after he closed his insurance business, he really delved into it. If you stop at City Hall, you’ll see several of his prints on display.”
“Wow. I’d love that.” He sipped his coffee, contemplating this tidbit of information. “My dream has always been to open a photography studio.”
“Did he know that?”
His shoulders sagged under feelings of unworthiness. “I don’t know. Mom could have told him, or I might have mentioned it in passing. I’m ashamed to admit I didn’t keep up with him much the last few years.”
The featherlight touch of her hand on his took him by surprise. She seemed to realize what she’d done and jerked it away. “Don’t be hard on yourself. Frank loved his family and understood dynamics changed when miles separated. He knew all of you loved him even if you didn’t talk often.”
“I wonder if he did know my dream, and that’s why he left me the inheritance.”
“If I were a betting woman, I would wager he did.” A mixture of emotions flickered across her eyes. “You can honor him best by following through with that dream and making it come true.”
He hated to bring up the obvious and ruin their camaraderie, but they were here to discuss the predicament. “My studio will go where your store is now.”
She blinked several times and swallowed. “Frank gave me a precious gift by allowing me to lease that building for so long at an incredible rate. I’ll be forever grateful for that.”
“You have until February. I won’t make you leave earlier.” His chest tightened, none of this sitting well with him. “I honestly didn’t know anyone rented the building. There was an oversight with the papers.”
Her calm acceptance rattled him. “I wouldn’t have made plans had I known, but I uprooted my life and gave up my job. I’m sorry.”
“No apologies are needed.” Resignation hoarsened her voice. “You have every right to take possession of the building.”
This would be much easier if she got an ugly attitude with him or cursed him out. Her kindness made it ten times more difficult. “Regardless, I wish the circumstances were different.”
Her lips quivered. “Me too, but we can’t often help what life hands us. We have to accept it and move on.”
“Will…will your store be okay if you have to move elsewhere?”
“I can’t afford another prime location on Main Street, but I’ll survive.” Somehow, seemed to be added to her statement, but only in her eyes.
“Maybe we can figure out a compromise,” he found himself offering.
She shook her head. “I couldn’t ask that of you.”
She cleared her throat and pushed back in her chair. “I have to open the store. I’ll make sure to be out by the end of my contract.”
Her sudden departure left him no time to respond. He wanted to rush after her and assure her all would work out in the end, but he didn’t have an answer as to how, short of packing up and going home to Kansas.
Still, he couldn’t let the morning end as it had. There was something about Cora that got under his skin—not in a bad way but one that made him uncomfortable, nonetheless. In his mental absorption, he bumped his mug with his hand, and it clinked against the table. He drank the last swig, usually the sweetest but it tasted bitter in his mouth.
What do you want me to do, Lord? Why should I feel bad for using what rightfully belongs to me? Why was I given this gift if it meant destroying Cora’s dream? I’d never want it like that.
The impromptu prayer poured from his soul. He sat silent, waiting for an answer, not fully expecting one. Ten minutes passed and he stood to leave. He dropped the empty mug in a bin by the trash and walked out the door.
Go to her.
“Huh?” His reply to the voice in his head caught the stares of a customer about to enter the coffee shop. He offered a sheepish grin and took a step toward his car.
Go to her.
Stronger the second time, the nudge overpowered his senses and his feet led him to Mistletoe Mercantile on their own accord. He didn’t know what else there was to say, or why God prompted him back to the store. He only knew he had to obey.
The sign read Closed, and he tried opening the door. Locked. That worried him since she’d been in a rush to open. He knocked on the door but couldn’t see her coming. At a loss, he pulled out his phone and googled the shop’s phone number. He made the call, but no one answered.
He was about to knock again when he spotted her walking toward the door. Her face was red, as though she’d been crying, and wet, as if she’d splashed water to wash away the tears. He couldn’t handle tears. With two sisters, one would think he’d have learned to deal with a crying female, but he never had. Avoidance was his mode of operation.
Only, this time he couldn’t make himself leave, even though he knew it would make it less awkward for him and Cora.
Cora stopped in her tracks. Why was Gabe Newton standing at the door? When she’d heard the knock, she’d thought it was a customer. Not him.
Why couldn’t he go away, Forever.
She rarely lost her composure, but the tears had fallen against her will. This Christmas was not the one she’d envisioned. First, she lost the meal, then she still couldn’t decorate, and now, worst of all, she’d lose her shop.
Her job. Career. Dream.
She might have told Gabe a lie. Or two. It was true she couldn’t afford rent on another Main Street location. Mistletoe Mercantile did well and turned a profit, but that was largely in part due to her minimal rent payment. She could rent a storefront elsewhere, but she’d lose a substantial portion of her foot traffic.
Her savings and careful planning could carry her through six months if needed, but what then? She fully acknowledged how blessed she’d been to have the rent advantage for so long, but in light of today, she realized she’d taken it for granted, subconsciously assumed it would be renewed for the same rate.
She’d never anticipated the building changing ownership, a fact that blindsided and upended her. One way or another, she’d keep Mistletoe Mercantile open, but she needed time to think and strategize.
And she absolutely did not need to talk to Gabe Newton anymore.
Even as she thought it, she caught herself. If she were honest, she liked the guy, despite being on opposing sides. He was attractive, though she hated to admit it, but more so, he was a genuinely nice person who seemed to care about the future of her store.
Most people wouldn’t have bothered trying to console her or offer sympathy beyond meaningless platitudes. Gabe was different, a man of honor struggling to do the right thing. She’d seen the battle in his eyes, and as much as she wanted to use that to her advantage, she couldn’t.
Integrity mattered, even if it meant losing her store. She’d have to trust that God had a bigger plan for her.
Squaring her shoulders and steadying her nerves, she went to unlock the door. “Yes?”
“I wanted to check on you.” Gabe stared at her, the sides of his eyes etched with concern.
“That wasn’t necessary.” Especially because she didn’t want anyone to know she’d been crying.
“Yes, it was. If not for you, then me.”
She arched a brow. “For you?”
He shrugged. “I upset you, and I need to make it right somehow.”
A bitter laugh slipped out. “Nothing about this week has gone right. Your news was just the icing on the cake.” She stopped, ashamed of herself. This wasn’t typical behavior for her, but the discouragement had momentarily won. “I’ll be okay. Promise.”
Peering at her through narrowed eyes, he cleared his throat. “Would it be okay if I look around?”
The request was odd considering it had the potential to upset her more, but she gestured her arms wide, granting permission as a form of apology. “Have at it.”
“I appreciate it.”
She reached into her pocket and pulled out a key ring. “You’ll need these for the storage rooms and the upstairs areas. Each key is labeled so you shouldn’t have any trouble.”
He walked away, and she turned the sign from Closed to Open. She wiped her eyes and ran a hand over her hair. If this would be her last Christmas owning Mistletoe Mercantile, then she would make the best of it.
Outside, the snow had ceased falling. She took that as a positive sign the storms in her life would also stop. With a clearing head, she realized it wasn’t as bad as she’d made it seem in her head, at least not regarding Christmas dinner and being late decorating. Considering today’s news, those were small potatoes.
Customers began to trickle in. By eleven, it became a steady stream, and Cora wished she had one of her part-timers to help. In the few minute breaks she had between assisting guests, she went down her list of employees, but none of them could make it in on short notice.
It wouldn’t be the first time she managed a crowd on her own. Her only concern was that she wouldn’t provide adequate customer service and she prided herself on delivering above and beyond what other stores offered for service.
All went well until a patron bought a set of glass ornaments—enough to decorate an entire eight-foot tree. Each one had to be individually wrapped for protection. While Cora worked on that, a man wanted to special order stockings with his grandchildren’s name embroidered on them, and a young family wanted a personalized ornament to commemorate their baby’s first Christmas.
Overwhelmed, she worked diligently, praying for the customers to show grace.
She felt something bump against her arm and looked up to see Gabe. She’d forgotten he was exploring the shop.
He reached for the ornament in her hand. “I’ll finish these. You help the next person.”
A protest formed on her lips, but wisdom accepted his help. “Thanks.”
She hurried to the next customer, and had the man write down each name, exactly as he wanted them on the stockings, along with choosing a font for the names. “I’ll have them done for you in an hour. You can browse around, or stop back in. We’re open until eight tonight.”
“I’ll stop in after lunch with my wife if that’s okay.” The man’s white brows wiggled when he smiled. “These are a surprise for her. She’s wanted them for the grands ever since the first one came along. This will be the first time we’ve ever had them all in for Christmas, so I thought this would be a nice treat.”
“That’s very sweet. I’m sure she’ll love them.” Cora smiled, taking a second to watch the man walk away. Customers like him were a large part of why she loved this store. Everybody had a story to share, and she loved hearing them.
With little time to spare, she moved on to the next group. The young mom and dad had chosen one of her favorite ornaments—a bear cub with a stocking cap asleep on a rocking chair. “What’s his name?”
“Aiden,” the mom answer before dusting her son’s head with a kiss.
“We’re leaving town today and with the snow and all, we weren’t sure we’d get here today for the ornament. Thank goodness the snow and wind stopped.” The dad squeezed his wife’s shoulder. “I have an ornament almost identical and knew we had to get Aiden one, but of course, I’d left my wallet in the hotel room that day we saw it.”
Cora listened carefully and made conversation with them while she neatly wrote Aiden’s First Christmas and then the year. After the ink dried, she wrapped the rocking horse in layers of tissue paper then stored it in a box. She cashed out the family. “Have a safe trip home. Enjoy Christmas with your sweet boy.”
There was a lull in customers needing assistance, and Cora went to the counter where Gabe continued wrapping ornaments. She didn’t see Grace Tebow, the customer who’d purchased them, anywhere. “Do you know where Grace went?”
Gabe continued wrapping as she spoke. “She ran next door to the bakery and said to take my time, she’s not in a rush.”
“She dropped over a grand on those ornaments. I can’t keep her waiting.” Cora claimed a spot beside Gabe and worked to finish the ornaments. “Thanks for your help. I didn’t expect you to step in.”
He shrugged and tossed a casual grin her way. “What else do I have to do?”
“My part-timer on the schedule for today called out due to the weather and I tried calling in another, but none were able.” She had an irrational urge to prove she could run her business well. “It’s rare that I’m by myself, especially during peak hours.”
“I’m impressed how well you handled it.” He reached for another ornament. “Even with the backup, you took time to speak with each customer and listen to them without rushing them through for the sake of getting to the next sale.”
“If I save a sale only to have another customer leave feeling unvalued, then I’ve failed.”
“That’s an interesting comment from a retail point of view.” Gabe tore a piece of tape from the roll and secured the tissue.
“I didn’t open Mistletoe Mercantile to become rich.” Finished with the last ornament, she turned and pressed her hands against the counter. “I love Christmas and all it stands for. During this season, when we celebrate Christ’s birth, hope comes alive and the world’s darkness dims. If I can bring a fraction of that comfort and joy to people year-round, then I’ve accomplished my goal.”
“This is a calling for you, isn’t it?” A bulb of understanding lit in his eyes.
“Yes.” A lob of emotion in her throat stopped her from saying more.
Do not let him see you cry. Do not let him see you cry. It was no use. Each time she thought about the possibility of losing the store, her eyes welled with tears. She turned around so he couldn’t see her grief.
A gentle but firm hand on her shoulder spun her to face him. Before she understood what was happening, she was wrapped in his embrace. It didn’t make sense—practically speaking, he was the enemy and a stranger—yet she craved the comfort he offered.
Every ounce of reason in her head screamed to pull away, but her heart and emotions had a mind of their own. Just this once, she’d indulge in impulsiveness. Reality would hit soon enough.
He rubbed his hand over her upper back, sending calming sensations through her. Bending his head, he whispered in her ear. “You won’t lose your store. I promise I’ll find a solution.”
For reasons she couldn’t explain, she believed him.
The pastor ended his sermon, and the invitation hymn began. Gabe sang along, not needing to open the hymnal to follow the words on the screen. He’d been singing Have Thine Own Way, Lord since he was old enough to sit in the Sunday morning worship service.
His mind drifted as he sang. He liked this church more than the one he’d attended last week. The combination of modern worship songs and traditional hymns suited him, and he enjoyed the pastor’s sermon that had Bible passages to support each of his points. The church he’d visited last week had only mentioned one scripture and that was in passing.
When the song ended, the pastor returned to the pulpit and made announcements. “Remember our annual bake sale for our Christmas Co-op will be next Sunday. If you have any questions or wish to donate, please see Cora Mullikan after the service. Cora, could you raise your hand please.”
Gabe’s ears perked, and his eyes searched for her, spotting her in the center aisle of pews. She sat beside a lady who looked identical to her apart from the other woman’s auburn hair. On the other side of her sat a woman who appeared to be an older version of Cora, and then an older man. Her parents, he presumed.
His heart performed somersaults in his chest. He hadn’t seen her since that first day they’d met. He might never know what had possessed him to take her into his arms, but it had fundamentally changed his world. The connection between them sparked fast and furious, and he didn’t know what to do with it.
So, he did what any man would do. He avoided her.
He hadn’t forgotten his promise, though. Between setting up home, he’d been investigating. He’d spent hours with realtors, visiting business properties all over Outlook and the surrounding areas. Only a few had leases within a budget he estimated Cora could afford. Of those, after touring the facilities, he realized only one had the feasibility of becoming her store. Before he could present the opportunity to Cora, the space had already been rented.
Now that he saw her, he didn’t want to avoid her anymore. Yet he was scared to approach her. Surely, she’d told her family about him, and they probably hated him, saw him as the death sentence to their daughter’s dream.
“Before we dismiss, I’d like to introduce our visitors.”
When Gabe heard the Pastor’s statement he froze and wished he hadn’t filled out that card in the lobby. He slunk in his seat, vainly wishing it would make him disappear.
Unfortunately for him, the pastor looked directly at him. “Gabe Newton joins us today as a new citizen of Outlook, all the way from Kansas. Please welcome him and make him feel at home.”
The pastor moved on to the next visitor, but Gabe didn’t notice. His gaze was locked with Cora’s who’d turned around to see him. That same magic that had shot between them ignited again from twenty feet apart.
Despite the odds against them, and the absolute terrible timing, he knew he had to see her, talk to her again, explore this unexplainable bond they had shared in that moment. Maybe the spark was the result of two people in a vulnerable position and that’s all it was. Maybe they’d spend time together and realize that connection was superficial and didn’t have any depth.
Or maybe they’d discover more.
The thought both terrified and excited him. Romance had been the last thing on his mind when he moved to Outlook, but didn’t most things happen when they weren’t expected? Did Cora have these same thoughts?
He didn’t have to wait long to find out. As soon as the service dismissed, she made her way through the exiting crowd to reach him.
“I didn’t know you came here.” If slapping his forehead wouldn’t have made him appear lamer than his statement already had, he would have. “I mean, I wasn’t stalking you or anything.”
Yeah, like that was any better.
Her eyes danced with laughter. “There are only three churches in town. The odds of meeting were high.”
“Fair enough.” Put at ease, he smiled. “What’s this bake sale about?”
“Every year, the church hosts a massive bake sale in the town square. All proceeds go to buy Christmas gifts for families in need.”
“That’s a great idea. I can’t bake, but I can donate money or premade goods.”
“Any help you want to give would be appreciated.” She paused, opened her mouth, then closed it again. “I don’t suppose you’d be willing to lend a hand setting up next week. We usually have an abundance of volunteers, but the high school scheduled a performance for the same day, and many of our helpers will be there.”
“Sure. Tell me what to do, and I’ll be there.” She could have asked him to run a dunking booth in high winter and he would have agreed. Anything to bring that smile to her face.
“Why don’t you join my family for dinner? We’ll be finalizing the plans afterward.”
He shook his head. “I couldn’t intrude.”
“You wouldn’t be. They’d love to meet Frank’s great-nephew.” That bittersweet smile crossed her mouth. “It would almost be like old times when he would come over.”
“I don’t know.” He raised a shoulder, hedging his answer. “They probably hate me for taking the building.”
She cast her eyes downward. “They don’t know.”
“You haven’t told them?” He furrowed his brows, surprised by her quietness on the matter.
“If I tell them, it will make it real. I’m not ready to face that yet.”
He tipped her chin, allowing his finger to linger ever so briefly. “I promised you I’d find a way to keep the store open. I won’t let that happen.”
“I appreciate that, but it’s not your problem.” A forced smile returned. “My family would agree. Even once they know, they wouldn’t hold anything against you. Please say you’ll come.”
The auburn-haired lady who’d sat next to Cora appeared, and Gabe noted she was heavily pregnant. “Mom and Dad are heading out. Travis’s battery died up on the mountain and they’re going to get him. They wanted me to tell you dinner’s pushed back an hour.”
“Thanks.” Cora looked at the lady then him. “Gabe, this is my twin sister Flora. Travis is our younger brother.”
He extended a hand. “It’s nice to meet you.”
“You too. My husband, Ryan, is running the sound booth, but I’ll have to introduce you to him. He was stationed in Kansas for several years before we met.” She hesitated, as though questioning herself. “That is where Pastor said you’re from, right?”
“Yes, ma’am. Right outside Salina.”
“Gabe’s joining us for dinner today.” Cora shot him a wink. “He’s going to help with the bake sale.”
“Thank goodness. We’ve never been so stressed about having volunteers.” Flora rested a hand on her protruding belly and grinned. “Ryan’s made it clear I’m not to lift or move anything heavy. Normally I wouldn’t let him boss me around, but I’ll make an exception for this little one’s safety.”
If all of Cora’s family were like her and Flora, he might make it through dinner after all.
Cora tugged his arm. “Guess what else, Flora. Gabe is Frank Dawson’s great-nephew
“No way.” Flora’s mouth gaped and she stepped back to appraise him. “You have his eyes, and his smile. We all miss your uncle. He was one of a kind.”
“So, I’ve heard.” He swallowed the sorrow that rose from his chest. “I wish I could have spent more time with him, but I’ve enjoyed hearing all the stories about him. Maybe I’ll hear more over dinner.”
“I’m sure you will.” Flora chuckled. “If Travis doesn’t tell you about the time Frank saved him from a bear, I will.”
“I can’t wait.”
“It was so nice meeting you.” Flora clasped his hand and shook it again. “I have to meet Ryan, but I’ll see you later this afternoon. If I can find them, I’ll even bring some old photos I have of Frank.”
Flora hurried away, leaving Cora and him alone in a crowd of people.
Emboldened by Cora’s invitation to dinner, he made one of his own. “Do you have any plans before you go to your parents?”
“No. Usually I’d go early and hang out, but since they won’t be there, I’ll go home for a while.”
“Any chance I could borrow you for an hour or two?”
Her eyes widened. “For what?”
“I picked out a tree last night, but it’s completely bare.” He frowned, playing his cards. “It’s not much fun decorating it by myself.”
“Do you have any ornaments?”
“A few. I found a box of Uncle Frank’s in his attic.” Emotions overcame him. “The last time we came here was for Christmas and we made salt dough ornaments. They’re all in that box.”
Her hand caressed his arm in a featherlight touch. “You were meant to find them.”
“It’s not enough to fill the tree.”
“Are you forgetting I own a store full of ornaments?”
“No, but you’re closed on Sundays.”
She pulled a set of keys from her purse. “Being the owner has its advantages.”
“You don’t have to do that. We can stop by the discount store and pick up a handful.”
Her eyes narrowed and she propped a hand on her hip. “Gabe Newton, take that back right this second, or I’ll change my mind about you being a decent person.”
“Okay, okay.” He chuckled and held his hands out in defeat. “We’ll stop by Mistletoe Mercantile.”
“Good. I’m glad you see it my way.” She tossed her hair behind her head and displayed a satisfied grin. “For the record, I have no problem with the discount store, but I have the perfect assortment in mind for you.”
“You’re the expert.” He held out his hand, angled to the door. “Lead the way.”
Cora stood in the living room of Frank’s house. Gabe’s house, she corrected herself. Her eyes skimmed the area, taking note of all the changes.
The clutter Frank was known for had disappeared. She doubted that Gabe had tackled that task, and she assumed it had been done before Gabe’s arrival. Frank had entirely too much stuff crammed in his house for any one person to clean it out in less than two weeks.
In place of the tartan plaid sofa set Frank had loved, a new brown leather sectional sat in the center of the room with a simplistic stained oak end table at each end. A handful of framed prints adorned the walls, several she recognized as Frank’s.
The others she could guess. She walked to one of a wheat field at sunrise, the golden rays of daylight only separated from the crop by a thin layer of fog. “Did you take this one?”
Gabe nodded. “It’s one of my parents’ fields. Of all the pictures I’ve taken around their farm, this one best captures the essence of its understated beauty.”
He came alive as he spoke, leading her from frame to frame, explaining the significance of each. Lingering longer at one of his family, homesickness crept into his voice. “They’re coming for Christmas. All my siblings, and my parents.”
“That will be nice. How many brothers and sisters do you have?”
“No brothers. Two younger sisters, Natalie and Alexa.”
“Are they married?”
“Oh no.” He laughed and shook his head with a fierce denial. “There’s a large age gap between me and them. Alexa is twenty and Natalie is eighteen. Both are in college and have sworn off serious relationships until they graduate.”
“The focus on their studies will serve them well.”
“Both are premed and determined to succeed. I have complete faith they’ll accomplish anything they want in life.”
She nudged his shoulder. “A supportive big brother always helps.”
“See, you get it. They call it being overprotective.”
Laughter tumbled from her. “Travis is younger than me and Flora, but it didn’t stop him from brotherly duties. Nobody messed with us and got away with it.”
Gabe’s eyes darkened. “I can’t imagine anyone causing you trouble.”
“A popular girl in high school decided she didn’t like me after Sam Lawton asked me to homecoming sophomore year. She made up lie after lie about me and Flora, making our high school years miserable at times.”
“I can’t stand petty people. Did she grow out of it?”
“Remember the lady who sang this morning?”
His eyes widened. “Her?”
“She went away to college in South Carolina, got involved with a Bible study group, and came back a different person.”
“What about Sam?” His gaze locked with hers, energy charging between them.
“Sam?” Lost in his eyes, she couldn’t think.
“The kid who asked you to homecoming.”
“Don’t know.” Was her breath as airy as it sounded to her? “Didn’t go with him and he moved later that year.”
He stepped closer to her. “Is there anyone to ask you to dance now?”
“No one,” she whispered.
His hand brushed against her cheek, so briefly she might have imagined it. “Good to know.”
He turned and walked away, leaving her bereft. Confused by emotions that didn’t make sense, she remained where she was for several seconds before catching up with him.
As if nothing had transpired, he tossed her a box of lights. “Think three of these boxes will be enough?”
She searched the label for the light count. “Should be.”
“Let’s stretch them out, and connect them, make sure they all work.” His hands worked to untangle the strings before he’d finished speaking.
Thankfully the new packages made the untangling easy. He plugged one end into the outlet behind the tree.
Cora lowered her gaze, admiring the line of multi-colored lights. The fanciful side of her was pleased he’d went for color over sophistication. Sure, all white lights were beautiful and ethereal, but the varied colors sparked joy and invited whimsy to Christmas.
Working together, they wrapped the lights evenly around his six-foot tree which looked smaller under the cathedral ceiling. Arms spread wide, she tugged the strand to her other side, then handed it over to Gabe to circle his side of the tree.
They kept the bulbs lit while they hung ornaments, stopping at each stage to admire their handiwork. Once all the new decorations had been added, including the replica ornaments of a time gone by, Gabe reached for the box of salt dough disks with a ribbon looped through each.
He clutched them to his chest before sitting on the sofa and taking them out one by one. “Natalie made this one. Princesses were her obsession at the time, thus the tiara.”
“It’s cute.” She took it and hung it from a bare branch. “Where’s yours.”
A sheepish smile appeared. “We don’t need to see mine.”
“Yes, we do.”
He stood up, sweeping the ornaments into his arms. “No, we don’t.”
Laughing, she reached to grab them from him. Their shoulders collided, and that trembling shock arced between them again. The laughter died, and their eyes met.
“What are we doing?” His husky voice reached down and warmed her cheek.
“I don’t know. I’m not sure I want to know, but I think I need to know.” She stopped her rambling, felt the heat crawl up her neck. “This isn’t like me.”
“Me either.” He set the box and ornaments down, then pulled her to him. “But I can’t ignore what’s happening.”
“The store will always be between us.”
He jerked away, and she wished she’d kept quiet. She’d ruined a perfect moment by bringing up the issue out of her control and indirectly placing blame on him. Busy berating herself, she didn’t realize he’d come back to her.
Soft strains of Christmas jazz played, a new addition to the scene.
She swallowed. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”
“Dance with me.” He held out a hand, waiting for her to accept.
“Forget about the store and any other reason this doesn’t make sense.” His fingers folded over hers, and he gave them a pointed stare before locking gazes with her. “I don’t have all the answers, but I know this—you and me—is right. And if we have to take our time to explore it, then so be it, but don’t cut if off before it begins.”
Her head spun and her heart leaped. Convinced she’d fallen asleep and entered a romantic dream, she took full advantage of the situation before she could awaken. She moved closer to him, leaving her hand in his. When she leaned her head against his chest, she felt his relieved sigh, then the beating of his heart.
Nothing else mattered. She’d found the one with whom she belonged. No matter the circumstances, the obstacles they faced, this was the beginning of a beautiful relationship. She’d never been more certain in her life.
They swayed to the hum of saxophones and pianos. Silent words spoke in their steps as they moved in perfect rhythm. The lights from the tree twinkled, more pronounced as the sun lowered and darkened the room.
Reality set in. As much as she’d love to stay where she was, her family expected her at dinner. She broke away with great reluctance. “What time is it?”
His gaze shifted to a clock above the mantel. “Six.”
“Oh no.” She pressed a palm to her cheek. “I should have been at my parents’ an hour ago.”
“I’m sorry, I should have paid attention.”
“Don’t be.” She smiled shyly. “It was worth every second of being late.”
His mouth curled into a grin. “I’m glad.”
He grabbed their coats and held hers while she slipped her arms through the sleeves. “Ride with me?”
She didn’t have to think twice. She zipped her coat and followed him to his car.
He paused by the passenger door before opening it for her. “A Jedi.”
“That’s what’s on my ornament. I loved Star Wars. Now you know.”
She burst into laughter and dropped a kiss on his cheek before sliding into the seat. Getting to know Gabe would keep her on her toes.
Gabe ran a hand through his hair. His muscles tensed with mounting frustration. He’d promised Cora a solution, but he hadn’t found one yet. Even though it had only been three weeks, he wanted to present the answer as a Christmas present.
Her lease didn’t end until February, and they hadn’t discussed it further, but February loomed ahead of them, threatening to shatter their new relationship.
He wanted to believe it wouldn’t matter, but it would, even if she said it didn’t. His inheritance was the elephant in the room. Could he give it up to save her business and their fledgling relationship?
After a lot of prayer, he didn’t think so. Uncle Frank left the building to him, when he could have easily left it to Cora. For whatever reason, his uncle wanted him there, and he would honor those wishes.
If it came to Cora not understanding that, then they weren’t meant to be.
He only prayed it wouldn’t come to that.
Sitting at the kitchen table, bemoaning his circumstances, wouldn’t do any good. He’d traded his car in for a truck yesterday and had an entire cab and bed of studio gear to unload from his trip to Knoxville.
He’d made a day of it, also stopping by a furniture store to purchase beds for the guest rooms. His sisters could share one for the week, but he also bought a futon just in case. Only ten more days until they arrived, and he couldn’t wait.
His life was busy preparing to open his studio. Making friends came easily to him, and in the short time since he’d moved to Outlook, he’d made several acquaintances he’d soon consider friends. Plus, he had Cora—kind of. He was building a good life for himself in Outlook, but he missed his family.
Standing up, he stole a glimpse of the Christmas tree. He didn’t consider it solely his, but his and Cora’s. It was as much a part of her as him. His memory slipped to two weeks ago when they’d spent the afternoon decorating it. He remembered the delight in her eyes when the bulbs first lit, her peals of laughter when she tried to see his salt dough ornament.
Most of all, he remembered how she felt in his arms as they slow danced around his living room. Those moments were the closest he’d felt to home since he’d moved.
A strong desire to see her welled in his chest. They’d had dinner before Wednesday night service, and he’d pick her up before church tomorrow morning, but that wasn’t soon enough. He glanced at the clock, saw he had just enough time to unload the truck and then meet her as she closed for the day.
Rushing through, he set all his purchases directly inside the doorway, vowing to himself he’d sort them properly when he got home. He changed out of his shirt, dusty and grimy from all the boxes he’d carried, and put on a navy thermal. On the way out the door, he added his leather coat to the ensemble and wrapped a scarf around his neck. Another storm was on its way, dropping the temperature rapidly.
Please hold off until after church tomorrow. Selfishly, he didn’t want to miss time with Cora if the storm became too fierce. He also enjoyed church services, and always left with insight from the pastor’s sermons.
Cars lined the streets of Outlook. As Christmas approached, the stores drew larger crowds, even at closing time. He squeezed into a parking spot, making several attempts as he adjusted to the larger vehicle. Though accustomed to driving trucks around his parents’ farm, he’d never had to park them in narrow spots.
Mistletoe Mercantile had a line of customers waiting to check out when he walked in, even though the sign had been flipped to Closed. Marie stood at the register, scanning barcodes. One of the part-timers helped package items.
When he didn’t immediately spot Cora, Gabe strolled through the store, He straightened messes left behind by customers, and picked pieces of trash from the floor.
Cora came to his side. “You don’t have to do that.”
“Thought I’d help while waiting for you.”
She squinted. Confusion scrunched her features. “Did we have plans?”
“No, but I came in hopes of enticing you to a late dinner.” He flashed his best smile, then lowered his lashes and gave her puppy dog eyes.
The effect worked, and she laughed. “I’d love to.”
“Breakfast for dinner?”
“Perfect.” She removed a broken bulb from the tree next to them. “Give me a half hour, and I’ll be done here.”
“What can I do to help?”
She opened her mouth, to protest he was sure, then stopped. “If you want, I could use help restocking for Monday morning. I’d planned to pop in tomorrow, but the weather might not allow that.”
“Point the way.”
Stepping away, she waved over her shoulder. “I have boxes of merchandise staged in the hallway.”
He followed her behind the door and listened to her instructions. While he waited for her to finish the closing tasks, he filled bins with small gifts for children, then hung stockings from pegs on a cardboard chimney.
Marie and the part-time employee left, leaving him alone with Cora. He stopped stocking and watched her run the closing reports on the register. She had a pen tucked behind her ear, and she bit her lip while she worked. A smile pulled on her lips, and he prayed that meant it had been a good sales day.
“Once I run these to the office, I’ll be ready to leave,” she called out.
He finished the box he worked on, then broke it down and stacked it on the other flattened cardboard. Lifting the entire pile, he carried them out back and deposited them into the compactor shared by multiple stores. When he returned inside, Cora had her coat.
She fastened the buttons on her coat. “Want to walk?”
“Sure, if you don’t mind the cold.”
“My car won’t have time to warm between here and there.” She pulled a knit beanie over her head. “I’ve got layers.”
He admired her energy level after being on her feet all day, though he did see she wore practical shoes, not fancy heels. “Does Tennessee usually get this much snow?”
“Not this much, and not so early in the season.” She locked the door and pulled her scarf tighter. “Brr, it’s cold.”
“Maybe we’ll have a white Christmas.” He slid his arm around her shoulder, offering an added layer of warmth as they walked.
“Wouldn’t that be wonderful.” Snuggling into him, as much as walking allowed, she sighed.
“You know what I’d like? For a big snowstorm to come and strand my family with me for longer.”
The breath from her laughter turned into fog. “You might regret that if it’s too long. I adore my family, but I don’t know about being snowed in with them indefinitely.”
“Maybe, but I’ve never been away from them this long. Even in college, I came home frequently on weekends.” A harsh gust blew, and he pulled her closer. “I caught a lot of flack from my buddies, but my sisters were young, and I didn’t want them growing up with an absent brother.”
“That’s really sweet.” She broke away from him and clapped her hands in an excited gestured. “You all should join my family for Christmas.”
His mouth formed an O. “I don’t know…”
A frown surfaced. “I’m sorry. You probably want them to yourself, and bringing our families together would lead them to conclusions about us, and-”
He cut her off with a finger to her mouth. “It’s none of that. I’d love for our families to know each other, and I don’t care what conclusions they draw, especially if they think we’re crazy for each other.”
“Oh.” Pink dotted her cheeks. From the cold or embarrassment, he didn’t know. “Then you will bring them?”
“Your family won’t mind? I don’t want to intrude.”
“Goodness no.” She moved to his side, allowed his arm to circle her. “We’ve never had a Christmas without guests. The more the merrier is Mom and Dad’s motto.”
“I’ll talk to my family tomorrow. I’m sure they won’t mind, especially when I tell them your family’s friendship with Uncle Frank.”
They came to Brenda’s Pancake House and rushed inside for warmth. Brenda’s was the happening place to be that night, according to the thirty-minute wait for a table. Gabe went to the To-Go counter and ordered them each a coffee to take off the chill from outside. By the time a waiter sat them, they braved removing their outerwear.
“Do I want sweet or savory?” Cora’s gaze skimmed the menu. “I really want French toast, but a Colorado omelet sounds just as amazing.”
His stomach rumbled. “We can order both and split them.”
“I knew I liked you for a reason.” Her brows wiggled, and she set the menu aside. “One day I’ll remember to stop and eat while working.”
“I never had that problem.” He sipped from the fresh mug of coffee the waiter brought. “After college, I worked as an accounts manager. For the first several years, it was making call after call from my cubicle. I looked forward to lunch for a chance to escape.”
“That sounds miserable.” Even if she hadn’t made the comment, he would have known her opinion from the look of disgust on her face.
No, his Cora would never be happy behind a desk all day. She thrived on person-to-person interaction.
“It was, but after three years I was promoted to Senior Account Manager and the job got fun.”
“How so?” She stirred a teaspoon of sugar into her coffee.
“I broke out of the office.” He winked. “I traveled around the state, visiting our clients and making sure they were happy. If they had complaints, I’d find a way to fix them.”
She nodded slowly. “Now it makes sense.”
“You’re a natural problem solver. Helping people keeps you ticking, which is why you’re determined to find a solution to the store space.”
Her ability to read him startled him, but further convinced him they shared a special connection. “Sweetheart, it’s more than that. Maybe at first, but my motives now lean more toward the beautiful, smart, hardworking shop owner.”
She tucked her chin to her chest, a trail of pink showing from her neck. Her arm stretched over the table, and she laid her hand on his arm. “You’re a good man, Gabe. No matter what happens, I won’t let it affect us.”
His mood sobered. “What if I can’t find a workable solution and your store closes—can you honestly tell me that you won’t hold that against me?”
“How can you be sure?”
She slid out of the booth and came to sit next to him. “When I first met you and found out why you were here, I was angry. Not at you, but at the situation.”
“Completely understandable.” He looked her in the eyes. “You’re not anymore?”
“I’m concerned for the future, but I’m not angry.”
“I stopped being a brat.” A self-deprecating chuckle escaped her. “That week you showed up, I was already annoyed.”
“Why?” He vaguely remembered her saying something of the sort, but she hadn’t elaborated, and he hadn’t realized how much she would come to mean to him a short time later.
She wrinkled her nose. “I’m embarrassed to say, but since you confessed to loving Star Wars, I’ll tell you.”
“You’re funny.” He squeezed her hand. “You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to.”
“It’s okay. In case you haven’t noticed, I love Christmas.”
His exaggerated gasp drew stares from the table next to them. “You don’t say.”
“Shocking, right?” Cute dimples appeared when she smiled. “It started when my mother told me my sister wants to host Christmas dinner this year. I’ve done it every year since graduating college. I agreed to let Flora host, but it was extremely reluctantly and not without pouting to myself.”
“Why was it so important to you?”
“Because I wanted my family together.” She must have seen his mouth start to point out the obvious, but she stopped him with an explanation. “I had a friend in college whose parents were killed her sophomore year. After that, her siblings didn’t get together anymore for the holidays. In my mind, I thought I could prevent something similar from happening if anything happened to my parents by hosting it.”
“I can understand.” He’d seen it happen before, but she didn’t need stories right now, only a listening ear.
“Then, I was going to decorate my yard the next day—I was already a week behind—but the snow came and ruined those plans.” She sighed. “Again, I handled it with the maturity of a toddler who couldn’t have a cookie for dinner.”
“What changed?” He absently traced the outline of her hand.
She looked at his hand, then at him, and she smiled. “I realized my priorities were wrong. Here I was, talking about the Hope of Christmas, and I’d shoved it aside. God has a plan for my life, and I have to trust him.”
“So true, but easier said than done.”
“Oh yes, but when I thought about it, I realized His hand has been all over this Christmas season.”
Intrigued, he sat up straighter. “How?”
“Had I been able to decorate on my planned day, I wouldn’t have switched with Marie, and then I wouldn’t have been at the store when you came in.”
He took a sharp breath. “I have a confession. I was in the night before, but you’d already left for the day.”
Calmly and unfazed, she continued smiling. “Either way, God brought you into my life exactly when it was right.”
“I like how you think.” He dusted a kiss on her head. “For the record, I agree.”
“There’s more. I realized that if I had been in charge of Christmas dinner, I’d be tied up for days in advance preparing. Between that and the store, I wouldn’t have a minute of free time.”
“Or a second.” His mind spun thinking how busy she’d be.
“Don’t you see? God knew you’d enter my life and freed my schedule for me. He knows what we need long before we could ever dream it.” She tapped his arm. “That, my dear, is how I can be sure my feelings for you won’t change regardless of what happens with Mistletoe Mercantile. I have renewed faith that God’s plans are higher than mine.”
His heart exploded, and in that moment, he fell in love. He only wished they weren’t sitting in a restaurant booth so he could pull her into his arms and show her with a kiss.
Cora parked behind the SUV her realtor drove. She’d gone through half a tank of gas that morning traveling to storefronts that were either available to lease or would be shortly. So far, she’d seen nothing that impressed her.
Discouraged, but not defeated, she got out of her car and studied the curb appeal. Unlike most of the places she’d toured this building stood alone with no other stores within a two-hundred-foot radius.
On the plus side, it offered plenty of parking. On the other hand, she’d lose much of the foot traffic that had helped Mistletoe Mercantile turn a profit. She’d have to work hard at marketing the store as a destination, but she wasn’t afraid of hard work.
Liza Ambrose, her realtor, met her at the sidewalk’s end. “Any initial thoughts?”
“It’s a quaint location, warm and inviting from the outside.”
“Wait until you see inside. It’s much larger than it appears.” Liza spouted square footage facts as they walked inside.
A masculine scent teased Cora’s nostrils. She inhaled deeply, reminded of Gabe. The current tenant ran a leather goods store and all products were made by local artisans. Each product, even those of the same style, were unique and one-of-a-kind.
Cora walked the perimeter of the showroom. At each point, she pictured how she’d lay out her products, envisioned Mistletoe Mercantile in this location. Of everywhere she’d looked, this was the first place she could conjure that image.
She approached the store owner. “Would it be okay if I see the storage areas?”
“Sure.” He waved her back. “Take your time.”
The storage area was substantially smaller than what she had now, even accounting for the fact she didn’t use most of the upstairs space. She’d have to ask if placing a small shed out back would be allowed. The other option would be to store product at home, but that idea didn’t sit well with her.
When she returned to the front, she approached the store owner. “Do you mind if I ask why you aren’t renewing your lease?”
“Not at all.” A proud smile took over the man’s face. “Business has steadily increased over the last several years, and I decided it’s time to move. Come June, I’ll be moving the store to the plaza.”
Cora gulped. “June?”
“Yes, ma’am. Perfect time to catch summer tourists.”
“Congratulations. I hope it all goes well for you.”
She walked away, exited through the front door and found Liza on her phone. Waited politely for the realtor to end the call.
Liza turned around, an insincere smile plastered on her purple-painted lips. “Isn’t it lovely?”
Cora tried not to glare and show her annoyance. “It won’t be available until June. I can’t have three months of downtime.”
“I know, but this location is wonderful and it’s within your price range. It’s sure to go quick.”
“I’ll have to take my chances.” She sighed. “If nothing else comes up, then this place will work, but it’s not ideal.”
Liza’s nose pointed in the air. “With your situation, you’ll have to make compromises. It’s not feasible to expect the perfect storefront within your constraints.”
She’d had enough of the realtor’s haughty attitude. Too bad she hadn’t noticed it before signing a contract with her.
“If anything else comes on the market, let me know.” She turned on a heel and walked to her car with her head held high. The perfect spot would become available. She knew it in her heart, as certainly as she knew her name. If only she could see into the future and know where that would be.
Before she went to the store, she stopped by the grocery store’s salad bar and grabbed lunch. She sat in her car to eat, knowing if she waited until she got to work her salad would wilt before she ate.
She shot Gabe a text, letting him know this morning’s search had been unproductive, and she’d give him all the details later. A heaviness threatened to overcome her. As soon as she sensed it, she stopped and prayed. She wouldn’t lose the calm and peace she’d worked hard to restore. God would provide, and in the meantime, she had a store to run.
Christmas was five days away—they were in the homestretch. While November was her biggest sales month for Christmas décor, December remained her top month overall by far. Trinkets and gifts flew off the shelves faster than she could put them out.
All employees were scheduled for the maximum hours allowed. Cora would work from open to close every day until Christmas Eve. She was already tired thinking about it, but she knew that time would fly.
Somehow in the mix, she had to finish her Christmas shopping. Although she’d purchased gifts for all her family and wrapped them months ago, one very important gift remained to be bought.
A special gift for an extraordinary man who’d taken her life by storm. She’d laid in bed last night contemplating what to buy him. Every potential present she thought of didn’t seem enough to convey how she felt about him. A generic present of a wallet or scarf would not suffice.
She blew out a breath. An idea would come to her—she had five days still. Her stomach coiled. Five days amounted to the vapor of a breath in her mind, the girl who believed Christmas shopping was best completed in summer so one could enjoy the season without the stress.
Dipping her fork into the salad bowl, she hit plastic. She glanced down and realized she’d finished her lunch while daydreaming about Gabe. That had happened a lot lately. She threw her trash away in a nearby receptacle then drove to Main Street. Parking was sparse and she had to walk a block to Mistletoe Mercantile from the spot she found.
Faith, one of her part-time associates, greeted her with frantic waves. “Miss Cora, Miss Cora, the tree caught on fire.”
“What?” Her blood froze mid-stream and she darted her gaze around the store. She saw an empty spot where one of her display trees had been. “What happened.”
Marie came from the back. “Everything is under control. We had a minor mishap when a young man got bored and decided to play with his lighter while his girlfriend browsed, but it’s all taken care of.”
“Of all the stupid-” She broke off, remembering she had a reputation to uphold. “Was anybody hurt?”
“No.” Marie pointed to the vacant table. “Our tree was the primary casualty. The man did offer to pay for the damage. I have his information if you’d like to contact him.”
The spirit of Christmas fell upon her. “I’m sure he learned his lesson. Was any merchandise damaged other than the tree?”
“Three ornaments and I already marked them out of stock. I also wouldn’t trust the string of lights that was on the tree.” Marie handed her a slip of paper with the stock numbers on them.
“Thank you.” Her mind raced with new tasks added to her list. “There’s an old tree upstairs. The branches need tweaking, and it’s not as tall, but it will do for now.”
Marie lifted a brow. “I thought you got rid of that old thing?”
She shrugged and smiled sheepishly. “It has sentimental value.”
“Do you want me to bring it down,” Marie offered.
“I’ll take care of it. I know exactly where it is.” She swept one more gaze over the store, assuring herself the incident truly had been minor, before climbing the stairs.
She dropped her belongings off in the office, then went to the room on the far end of the hallway where she kept items she wouldn’t readily need. Piles of boxes, old fixtures, and things she didn’t remember greeted her. When had the room become such a disaster? Dear goodness, anyone coming in would think she was a hoarder.
Distracted by the mess, she began sorting her way through the room, from front to back. She created two piles, one to throw away and one to sort through later when she had more time. Finally, she reached the rear of the room and found the box that initially called her upstairs.
A framed picture behind the box caught her eye. She’d forgotten all about it. When she’d moved in, she tried to contact the owner but couldn’t find any information other than a business name. Now she knew that was a cover for Frank, and a clever one. His insurance company had been run from an office across town. Who would have known he also owned this building?
She carefully picked up the frame. The glass was cracked from top to bottom, but the print itself was in pristine condition. Taken in black and white, the photo showed the building when it was first built in the sixties. Since she never discovered the building’s owner—it was held as part of a trust—she’d planned to donate it to the city but had long forgotten about it.
Now it belonged to Gabe. With sudden clarity, she realized there existed a good possibility Frank had taken the picture in his younger days. She knew she’d found Gabe’s gift. Even if Frank hadn’t snapped the photo, it was a piece of art that Gabe would appreciate.
She carefully removed the broken glass before it could damage the paper and removed the print from the frame. Sandwiching it between two pieces of cardboard for protection, she caught sight of a signature on the back. A familiar one she’d know anywhere.
Frank had taken the picture.
Running downstairs, she nearly tripped over her excitement. Work called out to her, but she had a more important task. Customized framing took several days, and if she wanted to give it to Gabe, she had to move fast.
Mr. Winston’s office had been cleaned and organized since Gabe’s last visit. His secretary sat behind a tidy, well organized desk.
She glanced up from staring at a file. “Mr. Newton?”
“You can have a seat in Mr. Winston’s office. He had an errand to run at the courthouse but will be back any minute.”
Following instructions, he went into his attorney’s office and left the door open, for no other reason than he felt more comfortable that way. He didn’t want to give any illusion of secrecy or snooping.
He held his phone, checked his messages. His mom emailed the itinerary for his family’s flight tomorrow. Once they landed at noon, they’d rent a vehicle then head his way. What they didn’t know is that he planned to be at the airport and surprise them. He had room for his sisters to ride back with him in the crew cab of his truck. His parents would appreciate the hour of silence.
Mr. Winston arrived, announced by the hobble of his cane. “I’m sorry to keep you waiting, lad.”
“I haven’t been waiting long.”
“These old bones aren’t quite what they used to be.” The elderly man gave a pleasurable sigh when he sat down. “What brings you in today?”
Gabe wrung his hands. “I have a dilemma.”
“By chance, does it involve a young lady named Cora?” Mr. Winston winked.
“Yes.” Gabe drew a breath, held it for calming purposes, then released it. “I’ve prayed and prayed for a solution. I know my uncle wanted me to have that building, but I can’t put Cora out of business in the process. We’ve both tried finding a reasonable place for her to relocate Mistletoe Mercantile to, but nothing has come up.”
“I see.” Mr. Winston tapped on his chin. “Would I be correct in assuming that you’ve fallen in love with Cora?”
Gabe broke out in a smile. “Is it that obvious?”
“Believe it or not, I, too, was young once. I’ve forgotten many things, but I still remember that day I met Gertrude, my late wife.”
“Is that her in the picture?” He pointed to a sepia framed print on the desk.
“Yes, taken on our honeymoon to Virginia Beach.”
“That’s a wonderful memory.” He wouldn’t mind making those with Cora.
“Does Cora feel the same about you?”
“I believe so.”
“I had a hunch this might happen.” Mr. Winston pulled out a drawer of his desk and withdrew an envelope. “Frank left this for you, but I was only to release it under specific circumstances.”
“Which would be?”
Mr. Winston handed over the letter. “Read for yourself.”
Curious, but wanting to savor the moment, Gabe slid a finger under the flap. Unfolded a single sheet of paper and read.
I’m sure you have many questions, and I’ll do my best to answer them all in this short missive. From the time you were born, you held a special spot in my heart. I saw many of my own qualities reflected in you, including a generous heart, a creative soul, but responsible to a fault.
Your mother worried you’d lose your heart if you stayed in your career too long, and I understood. I enjoyed working in insurance, but like you, photography is my passion. My prayer for you is that your inheritance from me will allow you to follow that dream before you retire. I’ve seen your work, and God blessed you with that talent. Don’t waste it.
Now onto Cora. Her family is my family though not by blood. I would do anything for any of them. I’m sure you’re wondering why I’d give you the building and suggest you open a studio if it means sending Cora and the mercantile on her way. Here is my answer, and take from it what you will.
Life is short. Maxine and I married young, believing we had the world ahead of us. We put off having children, thinking we had plenty of time. Sadly, that wasn’t to be as a car accident took her from me after two years of marriage. I was left with only memories of my time with her, and a lifetime of grieving.
I didn’t speak about her much because it hurt to do so. What I’d like you to know is that while I built my insurance business, Maxine set up a hair salon in a room off my office. I bet you didn’t know that did you? Working side by side with my wife for those two years was a blessing, and years later, I still treasure those memories.
If you’re reading this, that means I’ve gone to join her in Heaven. Don’t be sad, for I had a good life on earth. It wasn’t what I expected, but life rarely is. God blessed me immeasurably in ways I never imagined. It’s my honor to pass those blessings on to those whom I care about.
Your loving uncle,
Gabe stared at the letter, processing what his uncle had revealed. Frank had known he’d have to make a choice, but wait—was the solution there in the letter? Had it been that simple all along?
He lifted his gaze to meet Mr. Winston’s. “Is there any ordinance that two companies can’t share a building?”
“No. It’s all perfectly legal.” A knowing grin surfaced on the old man’s weathered face. “In fact, I can think of many benefits to setting up like that.”
“And I’m free to lease out part of it at any rate I ask?”
Joyful relief spread through him. A season of hope, indeed. “Can you do me a favor? Will you draw up a new lease, identical to the one my uncle offered, including the provision for my studio also being located there.”
A satisfied Mr. Winston nodded. “You can pick it up this afternoon.”
“Thank you for your help.” He jumped to his feet. “I’m sure I’ll have twenty more questions before the day ends, but I need to find Cora.”
He ran from the office, as fast as his feet allowed, and jumped into the driver’s seat. His mind spun with a dozen ideas, all related to Cora. Traffic was at a near standstill. Growing antsy, he took a detour and drove behind Main Street, parked several blocks away. Even with walking further, he’d get there quicker than trying to navigate last minute holiday shoppers.
Taking off in a sprint again, he ran to Mistletoe Mercantile and threw open the door. Unaware of anyone else, he went straight to Cora.
“I figured it out.” The words shot from his mouth in rapid succession. “The solution, it’s been here this whole time.”
Her eyes widened at his sudden appearance. “What do you mean?”
“This building is big enough for both of us. You’re not utilizing most of the room upstairs, and I can turn that into my studio. I have a little money set aside that I can have a separate entrance added.” He slowed down to catch his breath. “Mistletoe Mercantile is staying right here. My lawyer is drafting a new lease agreement for you as we speak.”
Her jaw dropped, and it took a second for her to recover. “Are you serious?”
“Completely.” He reached out and pulled her into an embrace. “I told you I’d find a way, and with the help of Uncle Frank I did.”
“I don’t understand.” She blinked twice. “I want to, but how did all this happen?”
“Let’s just say my uncle was a romantic at heart.” One day soon he’d show her the letter.
“You’ll really be satisfied only having the top floor?”
He frowned, not understanding her reticence. “Unless you don’t want me there.”
“I do, but this all seems too good to be true.”
“Believe it, sweetheart. Aren’t you the one who said this is the season of hope? We prayed, and God gave us an incredible answer by way of Frank.” He tipped her chin. “My uncle wanted me to follow my dreams, only I didn’t know when I came here that you were a large part of that dream.”
“I’d be honored to share this building with you. Thank you doesn’t seem adequate but thank you.” She raised her arms and locked them behind his neck. Lifting her head, she planted a kiss on his lips.
His voice dropped to a hoarse whisper. “A few more of those might suffice.”
She giggled softly and leaned in for another kiss. “Here’s one.”
“I was thinking a few more every day for the rest of our lives.” He slid his hand up her face and cradled her cheek in his palm.
“Are you proposing, Mr. Newton?” Her airy question tickled his mouth, leaving him longing for another kiss.
“Yes, I am.” He dropped to one knee and held her hands in his. He’d planned to propose on Christmas Eve, after his mom had given him his grandmother’s ring, but he didn’t want to wait. “I love you, and I’ve spent thirty-one years without you but can’t imagine another day without you by my side. Will you marry me, Cora Mullikan, and be my wife and best friend.”
“Yes, yes, yes.”
He stood and hugged her tightly, whispered in her ear. “I have a ring, but it’s in transport.”
“All I need is you.”
Applause erupted through out the store. He’d been so intent on his mission that he hadn’t thought about anything else, hadn’t notice the swarms of customers who’d since circled around them.
He watched Cora, saw the pink trailing along her neck though her smile never faded.
His cheeks twitched from trying not to laugh out of pure joy. “Did I really just propose in the middle of your store, in front of all these customers?”
She stood on her tiptoes and kissed his forehead. “Yes, you did, and it was perfect.”
Christmas Day-Two Years Later
Sixteen adults and a toddler crowded into the living room of Flora and Ryan’s living room. Piles of presents were stacked in haphazard piles, ready to be opened.
Cora eyed Gabe as he watched his sisters play with Tynley, Flora and Ryan’s little girl—more like he blatantly stared at the men beside them. Both of his sisters had serious boyfriends now and had invited them to Tennessee with them for Christmas.
She suspected one of her sisters-in-law might be engaged by New Year’s, but she kept that tidbit to herself. Her husband was still trying to come to terms with his sisters dating, let alone getting married.
Fortunately, she had firsthand experience with that from Travis’s engagement last year. It was odd to think of her baby brother all grown up, but his fiancée was a sweetheart and complemented him well.
She nudged Gabe. “Be nice.”
“I am, but I need to make sure my sisters are treated well.”
“Your dad’s already stated his approval. They seem like nice young men.”
“I know,” he conceded then relaxed and slid an arm over her shoulder.
Leaning into him, she offered her sweetest smile. “What will you do when our daughter starts dating?”
His nose wrinkled. “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”
“Hmm.” She pretended to count on her fingers. “If we allow her to date at sixteen, then you have just over sixteen years to think about it.”
“That’s plenty of-” He cut himself short and his eyes bulged. “Are you saying what I think you’re saying?”
A mischievous smile danced on her mouth, and she nodded. “It might be a boy, though. It’s too early to tell.”
His loud whoop brought stares from everyone in the room.
Gabe stood, and brought her up with him. She loved the feel of his embrace, the pride radiating from him with the news he’d be a dad. Their families, one big happy one now, celebrated the news with them.
Her eyes shifted around the room and landed on the manger scene, zeroing in on the baby Jesus. “Thank you, Lord, for unexpected blessings.”
Christmas Unexpected is the story that almost wasn’t. I began this year with high goals, convinced it would be better than last. But alas, life interfered bring new obstacles I hadn’t anticipated. Then my husband started a new job which brought changes to our life and also meant we wouldn’t be able to go home for Christmas this year.
I might have had a small pity party (or a big one). Much like Cora, I had to refocus and renew my faith that God’s plans are better than mine and that He sees the whole picture whereas I only see a small fraction. That’s why, despite being behind in everything, I knew I had to write this novella. It was as much of a healing process for me in coming to terms with life not being as I expected as I hope it is an inspiration to you this Christmas season.
Merry Christmas and God Bless!
P.S. If you enjoy heartwarming Christmas stories, continue reading for an excerpt from Come to Me Joyful.
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About the Author:
USA Today Bestselling Author Leah Atwood is a small-town girl at heart and currently lives in a rural town in the deep South, though Maryland will always be home. She graduated from the University of Maryland with a degree in International Business but gave up a career in sales and marketing to follow love, a decision she's never regretted.
From the old west to Cajun country, Leah infuses true-to-life characters with small-town charm to invite her readers into a world where faith and love will always prevail. In both her historical and contemporary works, she believes in delivering inspirational stories that will leave her readers with a smile.
When not writing, she's busy raising two kids and corralling three dogs (a three-legged, cancer surviving eighty-four-pound shepherd/lab mix, a pit-mix she found left for dead on the road, and a hound/lab mix who wins the most annoying dog award, but Leah couldn’t imagine her life without), or participating in a myriad of community and church events.
Looking for more inspirational reads to leave your heart happy? Check out other available novellas and books by Leah, followed by an excerpt from That was Then, Book One of the Always Faithful Series.
Come to Me Series
Come to Me Alive
Come to Me Free
Come to Me Again
Come to Me Joyful (Bonus Novella)
Modern Conveniences Series
Love In a Fix
Lost in Love
Waiting on Love (Bonus Novella)
Always Faithful Series
That Was Then
This Is Now
When It’s Forever
Jasper Lake Series
Not This Time
Born to Love
A Love This True
All That Glitters
What Matters Most (Fall 2019
Rescued Hearts Series (2019-2020)
Road to Love
Table For One (Novella