The front door slammed and Beth Morehouse hurried out of the kitchen. Three days before Christmas, and her daughters were home from collegeat last! Her foreman, Jeff, had been kind enough to pick them up at the airport while Beth dealt with last-minute chores. She'd been looking forward to seeing them for weeks. Throwing her arms wide, she ran toward Bailey and Sophie. "Merry Christmas, girls."
Squealing with delight, they dropped their bags and rushed into her embrace.
"I can't believe it's snowing. It's so beautiful," Bailey said, holding Beth in a tight hug. At twenty-one, she was the oldest by fourteen months. She resembled her father in so many ways. She was tall like Kent and had his dark brown hair, which she'd tucked under a knitted cap. Her eyes shone with a quiet joy. She was the thoughtful one and that, too, reminded Beth of her ex-husband. Three years after the divorce, she still missed him, although pride would never allow her to admit that. Even her budding relationship with Ted Reynolds, the local veterinarian, paled when she thought about her life with Kent and their history together.
"My turn." Displacing Bailey, Sophie snuggled into Beth's embrace. "The house looks fabulous, Mom. Really Christmassy." This child was more like Beth. A few inches shorter than her sister, Sophie had curly auburn hair and eyes so blue they seemed to reflect a summer sky. Releasing Beth, Sophie added, "And it smells wonderful."
Beth had done her best to make the house as festive and bright as possible for her daughters. She'd spent long hours draping fresh evergreen boughs on the staircase leading to the second-floor bedrooms. Two of the three Christmas trees were loaded with ornaments. The main tree in the family room was still bare, awaiting their arrival so they could decorate it together, which was a family tradition.
A trio of four-foot-tall snowmen stood guard in the hallway near the family room where the Nativity scene was displayed on the fireplace mantel. Decorating had helped take Beth's mind off the fact that her ex-husband would be joining them for Christmas. This would be the first time she'd seen him in three years. Oh, they'd spoken often enough, but every conversation had revolved around their daughters. Nothing else. No questions asked. No comments of a personal nature. Just the girls and only the girls. It'd been strictly business. Until now.
They both loved the holidays. It was Kent who'd first suggested they have several Christmas trees. Always fresh ones, which was one reason Beth had been attracted to the Christmas tree farm when she started her new life.
"I've got lunch ready," Beth said, trying to turn her attention away from her ex-husband. He still lived in California, as did the girls. He'd stayed in their hometown of Sacramento, while Bailey and Sophie both attended university in San Diego. According to their daughters, Kent had asked to come for Christmas. She'd known for almost two weeks that he'd made reservations at the Thyme and Tide B and B in Cedar Cove. The news that he'd be in town had initially come as a shock to Beth. He hadn't discussed it with her at all. Instead, he'd had their daughters do his talking for him. That made everything more awkward, because it wasn't as if she could refuse, not with Bailey and Sophie so excited about spending Christmas together as a family. But Kent's plans had left her with a host of unanswered questions. Was this his way of telling Beth he missed her? Was he looking for a reconciliation? Was she? The questions swarmed in her head, but the answers wouldn't be clear until he arrived. At least she'd be better able to judge his reasons. His intentions. And her own
"Just like it used to be," Bailey finished. Beth had missed whatever she'd said before that, although it wasn't hard to guess.
Just like it used to be. These were magic words, but Beth had recognized long ago that the clock only moved forward. Yet the girls' eagerness, Kent's apparent insistence and her nostalgia for what they'd once shared swept aside her customary reserve.
"Mom?" Bailey said when she didn't respond. "We're talking
. Where are you?"
Beth gave a quick shake of her head. "Woolgathering. Sorry. I haven't had much sleep lately." Exhausted as she was, managing the tree farm and getting ready for Christmas with her daughtersand Kentshe'd hardly slept. She couldn't. Every time she closed her eyes, Kent was there. Kent with his boyish smile and his eyes twinkling with mischief and fun. They'd been happy once and somehow they'd lost that and so much more. Beth had never been able to put her finger on what exactly had gone wrong; she only knew that it had. In the end they'd lived separate lives, going their own ways. Their daughters had kept them togetherand then they were off at college, and suddenly it was just Kent and Beth. That was when they discovered they no longer had anything in common.
"You're not sleeping?" Bailey's eyes widened with concern.
Sophie elbowed her sister. "Bailey, think about it. This is the busiest time of year for a Christmas tree farm. Then there's all this decorating. And, if we're really lucky"
"Mom made date candy?" Bailey cut in.
"And caramel corn?" Sophie asked hopefully, hands folded in prayer.
"Yes to you both. It wouldn't be Christmas without our special treats."
"You're the best mom in the world."
Beth smiled. She'd had less than three hours' sleep, thanks to all the Christmas preparations, her dogs and
her incessant memories of Kent. Traffic at the tree farm had thinned out now that Christmas was only three days away. But families were still stopping by and there was quite a bit to do, including cleanup. Her ten-man crew was down to four and they'd coped just fine without either her or Jeff this morning. While he drove out to the airport, she'd been getting ready for her daughters' arrival. However, as soon as lunch was over, she needed to head back outside.
Beth and the girls had booked a skiing trip between Christmas and New Year's, and after the hectic schedule of the past two months, she was counting on a few relaxing days with her daughters. Their reservations were made and she was eager to go. Ted Reynolds, good friend that he was, had offered to take care of her animals, which reminded her of the one hitch in her perfectly planned holiday escape.
"Before we sit down to eat, I need to tell you we have special guests this Christmas."
"You mean Dad, right?" Bailey led the way into the other room, where there was more greenery and a beautifully arranged table with three place settings.
"Well, yes, your father. But he's not the only one
"Mom." Bailey tensed as she spoke. "Don't tell me you have a boyfriend. It's that vet, isn't it?"
"Ten guests, actually," she said, ignoring the comment about Ted, "and they aren't all boys."
"Puppies?" Sophie guessed.
"Puppies," Beth confirmed, not surprised that her daughter had figured it out. "Ten of them."
"Ten?" Sophie cried, aghast.
Without asking, Bailey went straight to the laundry room off the kitchen. "Where did you get ten puppies?" The instant she opened the door, all ten black puppies scampered into the kitchen, scrambling about, skidding across the polished hardwood floor.
"They're adorable." Sharing Beth's love for animals, both girls were immediately down on the floor, scooping the puppies into their arms. Before long, each held at least two of the Lab-mix puppies, the little creatures intent on licking their faces.
Unable to resist, Beth joined her daughters and gathered the remaining puppies onto her lap. One curled into a tight ball. Another climbed onto her shoulder and began licking her ear. The others squirmed until one wriggled free and chased his tail with determined vigor, completely preoccupied. They really were adorable, which was good because in every other way they were a nuisance.
Sophie held a puppy to her cheek. "Where'd you get them, Mom?"
a gift," she explained, turning her face away to avoid more wet, slurpy kisses.
"But why'd you take all ten?" Bailey asked, astonished.
"I didn't have any choice. They showed up on my porch in a basket a week ago." Beth didn't say that discovering these puppies had been the proverbial last straw. They'd literally appeared on her doorstep the same day she'd learned Kent was coming here for Christmas. For an insane moment she'd considered running away, grabbing a plane to Fiji or Bora-Bora. Instead, she'd run over to the Hardings' and ended up spilling her heart out to Grace. Under normal conditions, Beth wasn't one to share her burdens with others. However, this was simply too muchan ex-husband's unexpected visit and the arrival of ten abandoned puppies, all during the busiest season of the year. The Hardings had given her tea and sympathy; Ted had been wonderful, too. Beth was grateful for his willingness to watch her animals but she refused to leave him with these ten additional dogs. So she'd made it her goal to find homes for all of them before Christmas. Which didn't give her a lot of time
"How could someone just drop off ten puppies?" Bailey asked as she lifted one intrepid little guy off her shoulder and settled him in her lap.
"Who could do that and not be seen?" Sophie added. "I mean, you have people working all over this place."
Beth had certainly asked around. "Jeff saw a woman with a huge basket at my door. He thought he recognized her from his church, but when he asked her, she denied it. Then later, Pete, one of the drivers, claimed he saw a man on my porch with a basket. I talked to five different people and got five different stories. All I know is that I've got to find homes for these puppies before we leave for Whistler." And preferably before Kent arrived, although that was highly unlikely.
"Have you found any yet?" Bailey asked.
but I've put out the word."
"You'll do it, Mom," Sophie said confidently. "I know you will."
"How old are they?" Bailey stroked a soft, floppy ear.
"Ted thinks about two months. Between six and eight weeks, anyway."
"They're irresistible. You won't have trouble finding homes," Sophie said.
Beth wished she had even a fraction of her daughter's faith. In October, she'd found homes for four part-golden-retriever puppies. Coming up with those homes had been hard enoughand now ten more. She hoped the season would help.
She'd offer assistance with training if the new owners wanted itand she'd push the all-important spay-and-neuter message. Ted had promised to give the owners a break on the price, too.
Working together, Beth and the girls corralled the puppies and got them back inside the laundry room. Then they washed up for lunch. Thankfully the girls' favorites didn't require much effort; the tomato basil soup and toasted cheese sandwiches were on the table within minutes.
"Now I truly feel like we're home," Bailey said, spooning up the thick soup.
Sophie sighed contentedly. "This place is starting to feel more like home all the time."
Beth had moved to Washington State following her divorce. For fifteen years she'd taught business and management classes at an agricultural college outside Sacramento. After she and Kent had split up, Beth felt she needed a change. A big one. An escape. She'd read about this Christmas tree farm for sale while browsing on the internet and had become intrigued. As soon as she'd visited the property and toured the house, she was sold.
Her general knowledge of farm life and crop cultivation had come in handy. She knew just enough about trees not to be intimidated. Besides, Wes Klein, the previous owners' son, had helped the first couple of years. She'd soon picked up everything else she needed to know. She hired the same crew each season and was pleasantly surprised by how smoothly things had gone this year, the first year she was on her own.
In addition to Christmas trees, she sold wreaths and garlands, which were created by three members of her staff who devoted all their time to this endeavor. The Kleins used to have only a handful of orders for holiday wreaths. Beth had turned that into a thriving aspect of the business. Plus, overseas sales of Christmas trees had doubled in the past three years. Beth had always enjoyed the season, but never more than now. She felt she was actively contributing to a lot of families' happiness this Christmas.
The girls cleared the table and put their plates and bowls in the dishwasher.
"I've got to get back outside, but before I go, I need you to tell me what's going on with your father." From the girls' startled expressions Beth realized she should have led into the conversation with a bit more finesse. But subtlety wasn't exactly her strong suit and she was short on time.
"Dad wanted to come for Christmas," Bailey answered, as if that was all the explanation required.
"Did he give you any particular reason?" she asked suspiciously.
Sophie shook her head. "None that he mentioned."
That wasn't too helpful; still, Beth persisted. "But why this year?"
Bailey shrugged. "Don't know. All I can tell you is that he said he missed us and asked if he could join us for Christmas. We couldn't say no. You wouldn't want us to, would you, Mom?"
"Of course not." Beth looked from one daughter to the other. "He didn't say anything more than that? You're sure?"
"Positive." Both girls widened their eyes, expressions innocent as could be.
Convinced there was more to this sudden desire to be with themand remembering Grace's suggestion that the girls might be more involved than they were letting onBeth hesitated. She wanted to probe deeper but really needed to get to work. As it was, she'd lingered with her daughters well into Jeff's lunch hour.
"You'll be okay without me?" Beth asked, abandoning all inquiries for the moment.
"Mom, it isn't like we're six years old!"
"I know, I know, it's just that I hate leaving you so soon after you got here."
"Go," Bailey said, ushering her toward the door. "We'll be fine. We'll unpack our suitcases and put It's a Wonderful Life in the DVD player."
"I want to watch it, too," Beth protested. It was their favorite Christmas movie.
"Okay, we'll hold off until tonight. Now go."
Walking out the door, Beth blew them a kiss, the same way she had every time she left for work when they were youngsters.