The bus door opened with a pneumatic whoosh, alongside the Mega-Pumper gas station, and expelled my twelve-year-old stepdaughter Marlie and me on the exhale. Marlie juggled her backpack and fashionably tiny purse while I schlepped a weekender and my tote bag.
We were the last two passengers, arriving in a place where neither of us wanted to be—my hometown of Bent Tree Creek, California—and as we stood there on the asphalt, our ears stinging from a snow-laced breeze and our most recent scathing argument, my heart attempted a swan dive and belly flopped instead.
“It so seriously sucks that we don’t even have a car,” Marlie said. Toes curled over the edge of the precipice between childhood and raging adolescence, she’d recently morphed from a sweet and very girly girl into the reigning mistress of hormonal contempt.
I raised the collar of my too-thin coat against the bitter cold and stifled a sigh. These days Marlie did enough sighing for both of us, but it wasn’t as if she didn’t have reason. Her dad and my husband, Craig Wagner, had been killed in the crash of a small private plane eighteen months before. Since then, we’d lost a lot—the beach bungalow in San Diego, the family printing business, two cars, and a lot of illusions.
At least I’d lost my illusions. Marlie was still clinging to hers, and who could blame her? She was so very young, and the world she’d known before Craig’s death had collapsed around her.
Her Real Mother—recently, Marlie had taken to capitalizing the words every time she uttered them, lest I think for one moment she was talking about me, mama non grata—worked as a pole dancer in some second-rate club in Reno, when she wasn’t in rehab for alcohol and/or drugs. Brenda, stage name: Bambi, was a subject we mostly avoided.
“Yes,” I agreed, remembering my vintage MG roadster with a pang. “It sucks that we don’t have a car.” My eyes burned, but it wasn’t an opportune time to cry. I had two rules about shedding tears: I had to be alone, and I had five minutes to feel sorry for myself, max. At first, when I’d found out Craig had let all but one of his life insurance policies lapse, lied to me about our financial situation in general, and left us with a pile of debt, I’d actually set one of those little electronic kitchen timers to make sure I didn’t go over the time limit for helpless weeping.
Of course there had been good times with Craig—he’d been handsome, funny, and full of life, but now those things seemed more like half-forgotten dreams than reality.
While the bus driver unloaded the rest of our earthly belongings—stuffed into four large suitcases and two moving boxes sealed with copious amounts of duct tape—Marlie took in her new surroundings.
It was 4:30 on a late-November afternoon, and Bent Tree Creek wasn’t exactly the western version of a Norman Rockwell village, the way I remembered it. The town is rimmed by pine forests on three sides, but between the exhaust fumes from the bus and the gasoline odor from the Mega-Pumper, I couldn’t catch even a whiff of evergreen.
“Is somebody coming to get us or are we just going to stand here all night?” Marlie pressed, peevish. I knew she was tired, hungry, and scared, and I wanted to reassure her, not let her see that I was pretty much in the same uncertain place at the moment.
I moved to touch her shoulder, but then thought better of the gesture. Seven years before, when Craig and I got married, following a too-short courtship, Marlie was only five, a gawky little thing with moppet eyes and a lisp. After an initial and entirely natural period of wariness, she’d accepted me as an understudy for the role of Mom, but now I wasn’t even in the running for the part.
Don’t call us, we’ll call you.
Lately, it seemed she blamed me for everything, from the federal deficit to our present situation. Oh, yes. If it hadn’t been for me, Marlie Rose Wagner would be living the perfect life.
“I want to go to Reno and move in with Mom,” Marlie said.
I bit my lower lip and refrained from pointing out the obvious flaws in that fantasy. Brenda/Bambi had abandoned Marlie when she was two—Craig had come home to find his daughter wailing in a playpen in their apartment, wearing a soggy diaper and waving a long-empty bottle. Brenda hadn’t been back since, and except for the odd email, phone call, birthday card, or box of Christmas candy, she never initiated any sort of contact.
Emotionally, I was on the ragged edge. Once I’d been so sure of myself—singing all the time and indulging in one of my favorite hobbies, trying new recipes. Converting standard comfort foods to low-fat, low-calorie versions, much to the delight of my friends, who were all busy career women on diets.
Where had those friends gone?
Where had the joy gone?
When had I stopped singing?
“You know you can’t go to Reno,” I said, bringing myself firmly back into the present moment, difficult as it was, and with hard-won moderation. It would have been easier to point out that Bambi wasn’t exactly in the running for Mother of the Year, or offer the kid a ticket and wish her a good trip, but in the first place, I loved Marlie, even if she wasn’t particularly fond of me, and in the second, we both knew it was a spindly threat. Brenda was too busy being Bambi to bother with a twelve-year-old.
The bus pulled out, flinging back a biting spray of slush.
Cars came and went from the Mega-Pumper.
Families strolled in and out of Roy’s Café, across the street. Old-fashioned bulb lights edged the windows at Roy’s, and maybe it’s an indication of my state of mind that I noticed several of them were burned out.
I began to wonder if Delores had forgotten we were coming.
Delores Sullivan was my dad’s only sister, and my sole living blood relative, but she and I weren’t exactly close. When she’d called in a panic just a week before and asked if I’d come back to Bent Tree Creek and help her run Barrels of Carols, I’d reluctantly agreed. My latest dead-end job had just fizzled and I didn’t have another one on the line—plus, all my friends had either left Southern California or dived into new relationships, leaving me with just acquaintances, so I was at loose ends in more ways than one. Marlie and I had been camping out in a neighbor’s guest house while the family was in Europe, but now the Brittons were back, with a couple of exchange students in tow, and they needed the space.
Meanwhile, back here in the Present Moment, it was getting colder, and darker.
I got out my paid-in-advance cellphone, the last vestige of my old life, and struggled to remember Delores’s number. Like I said, we weren’t close.
The little panel read No service.
I hoped that wasn’t a metaphor—an omen for the way things would go between Delores and me.
“We ought to at least move our stuff,” Marlie said, as the snow began to come down in earnest.
“Good idea,” I answered, injecting a lot of false cheer into my voice, and moved to pick up one of the big suitcases. I tend to think in allegories, and just then, those Vuitton knockoffs seemed like more than containers for my clothes. They were symbols of my personal baggage. I’d gone to college. I’d fallen in love with a man and built a life, made friends. Refined my cooking skills and sung in a community choir.
How could it all have come down to this?
The largest of the bags didn’t have wheels and lifting it was out of the question. I was just starting to drag the thing toward the door of the Mega-Pumper when a blue van whipped into the lot and came to a stop about three feet in front of Marlie and me.
The window on the driver’s side whirred down.
A square-jawed man with ebony eyes and dark hair pulled back into a ponytail looked me over pensively. I felt a visceral zap when our gazes connected and immediately took an inner leap back. Once I’d trusted my instincts, but no more. Craig had cured me of that.
I motioned for Marlie to stay behind me.
“Are you Sarah?” asked the van man. There was something tender and knowing in his eyes, but I saw caution there, too.
I nodded. “Yes.”
Nothing could have prepared me for the sudden flash of his grin. Like a supernova, it transformed his whole face and set something quivering deep inside me. He shoved open the van door and bounded out, one hand extended. Lean and muscular, with an air of controlled power, he wore jeans, a polo shirt, and a battered leather jacket.
“Joe Courtland,” he said. “Delores sent me to pick you up.”
I hesitated, then shook his hand.
He looked past me, grinned at Marlie.
Inside the van, a dog barked, and the faces of two small boys appeared in the window, curious and somehow hopeful.
“Are you a serial killer?” Marlie asked.
“No,” Joe Courtland answered, suppressing another nuclear-powered grin. “I’m a music teacher.”
Serial killers and music teachers weren’t necessarily exclusive, I reasoned, and he was, after all, driving a van. Plus, there was the electricity, a sort of invisible charge in the air that made me want to chase after the departing bus, get back on, and keep going.
“Where’s Delores?” I asked. There might have been some suspicion in my voice. Like I said, my aunt and I hadn’t exactly bonded. I barely knew her, and when I needed her most, she’d shuffled me out of her life so fast it took my breath away.
Joe looked me over thoughtfully, as though taking my measure and finding me a few light-years short of whatever standard he’d had in mind, then rounded the van and pulled open the rear doors. “She broke her ankle yesterday,” he said, tight-jawed, returning and gripping the handles of the two large suitcases. “Then there was a crisis with one of the carolers.”
Delores provided singers for malls, hospitals, office parties, and the like. It was a thriving operation, as I understood it, and with Thanksgiving only a few days away, the heat was probably on. I knew she auditioned people, had them fitted for Victorian costumes, and rented them out. Though the performances were seasonal, the crew rehearsed year-round.
I almost said, “I used to sing.”
“I see,” I said instead, with a corresponding twinge of sympathetic pain in my own ankle. Not to mention my heart. I wondered what Delores had told him about me.
Joe came back for the boxes, one by one.
“I guess if he were a serial killer,” Marlie speculated, whispering, “he wouldn’t have a couple of kids and a dog in his van.”
“Probably not,” I replied.
And so it was decided. We would risk life and limb by accepting a ride.
I sat in front, while Marlie climbed into the back, buckling in beside a German shepherd. The kids, identical twin boys about eight years old, looked nothing like their father. They had thick red hair, copious freckles, and both of them wore glasses.
“My sons,” Joe explained, after getting behind the wheel again. “Ryan and Sam. The furry one with his tongue hanging out is Dodger. He won’t bite, though I can’t make the same promise where the boys are concerned.”
The heat spilling from the vents in the van’s dashboard was bliss. I wondered distractedly where Joe’s wife was and if the kids took after her. Maybe she was home baking pumpkin pies or thawing out a turkey. For some reason, the image made my throat tighten.
“I’m Marlie,” my stepdaughter piped up, evidently speaking to the twins, “and that’s Sarah. She was my dad’s wife until the Cessna he was riding in collided with the side of a mountain.”
A thick silence fell in the backseat and Joe slanted a look in my direction. “Marlie likes to shock people,” I said quietly, after an involuntary wince. If Delores and Joe were good enough friends that she could ask him to fetch a pair of shirttail relatives just spilled out of a bus at the Mega-Pumper, then he probably knew about Craig’s death. Delores had sent a sympathy card, but she hadn’t come to the funeral.
“It’s the truth,” Marlie said.
I leaned back in the seat and closed my eyes, weary to the marrow.
“Our mom died, too,” one of the twins remarked as Joe pulled the van out into the kind of light traffic you might expect in a town that size. Bent Tree Creek is far enough from Sacramento to be semirural, and close enough that it’s rapidly becoming a bedroom community. “She got sick and then she turned purple.”
This time, I was the one slanting the look.
“Hepatitis C,” Joe explained. He must have caught my glance out of the corner of his eye, but he was looking straight ahead. All traces of the grin were gone; the planes of his face seemed grim and angular and I noticed a slight stoop in his broad shoulders.
“I’m sorry,” I told him.
“Me, too,” he answered simply.
“My mother had hepatitis once,” Marlie said.
Yeah, I thought uncharitably, from a needle.
Fortunately, it wasn’t far to Delores’s two-story house.
My aunt was waiting on the covered porch when we pulled into the driveway, leaning on her crutches and looking as though the last thing on earth she wanted was company. Her gray hair was cut in a slanted bob and she wore a bulky pullover top and sweatpants with the right leg cut open to accommodate her cast. Even from a distance, I could see that the plaster had been much-autographed.
Delores had always had a lot of friends.
I just hadn’t been one of them.
She stumped as far as the steps, which looked icy.
“Stay where you are,” Joe ordered cordially, standing on the running board to address her over the roof of the van. “One broken ankle is manageable. Two will put you on bed rest for the whole season.”
Delores conceded the point with a nod and watched warily as I opened the passenger door and climbed out. Marlie followed, in no hurry.
“Cold enough for you?” Delores called. We’d always found it hard to talk to each other, and when we did speak, it was usually in clichés. Keep it superficial; that was the unspoken rule.
I tried to be philosophical. She’d offered me a job and she was taking Marlie and me into her home, and who knew where we’d be if she hadn’t. “Cold as a banker’s heart,” I said, keeping up the tradition.
Even though he’d been occupied unloading the luggage and now carried a suitcase in each hand, Joe still managed to get to the gate in the picket fence before Marlie and I did. He set one bag down to reach over and work the latch and stood back to let us go first.
“Interesting house,” Marlie murmured. It was the first positive thing she’d said since we’d left San Diego a day and a half before, and I was encouraged.
I looked up at the familiar frame structure.
Both Dad and Delores had grown up in that house, and when I was sixteen, and the latest in a long line of stepmothers had just cleaned out the family bank account, Dad and I moved in. My mother died when I was four and I don’t remember anything about her except that she cried a lot and smelled like freshly laundered sheets drying in the sun.
We lived happily in Bent Tree Creek for a couple of years. I went to school, studied hard, and sang with Barrels of Carols—second soprano.
Then it all collapsed. I was a senior, basically just marking time until graduation, since I’d already earned all the necessary credits. Delores and I were getting along, considering the usual teenage stuff.
Then, suddenly, Dad had a heart attack and died. Delores collected the insurance money, handed it over, and sent me off to college early.
I’d come back to visit, once or twice, and Delores was kind to me, in her busy, distracted way, but I didn’t belong. I was obviously in the way, though she’d never said so outright, and I’d been too uncomfortable to stay long.
“Come inside where it’s warm,” Delores urged quietly, snapping me back from the sentimental journey. “And you must be Marlie Rose,” she said, summoning up a smile for my stepdaughter. “It will surely be nice to have a young person around again.”
“We’re young persons,” one of the twins pointed out. They’d both materialized on the porch, along with the dog.
Delores ruffled the boys’ hair fondly. “Yes,” she said, “you are. But you live across the street, so I naturally don’t get to see as much of you as I’d like, and Marlie will be right under this roof.”
I should have been glad she was making Marlie welcome. Instead, I just felt shut out.
“If you people would move,” Joe said, with affable frustration, from the base of the ice-glazed steps, “I could bring in these bags.”
We all trooped into the house, Delores first, hobbling on her crutches, then Marlie, the dog, and the boys. I followed, pausing on the threshold to look back over one shoulder at Joe. Then I raised my eyes to the large but modest house on the other side of the road.
When I lowered my gaze, it collided with Joe’s. Something sparked, then sizzled, and we both looked away quickly.
Christmas of the Red Chiefs
In this bittersweet tale, a young woman can't hide her broken heart—or her past—when she returns to her hometown for the holidays. But a sexy widower may just help her discover the true meaning of home this Christmas season.