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High above Snowglobe, Montana, Amy Caldwell's blue Ford Focus wound round and round the narrow road as she made her way into the valley nestled snugly between two snowcapped mountains. As if the creative hand of God had reached down and given the earth a loving shake, snow swirled upward in a constant circle so the small picturesque village of tiny stores and houses was forever captured in time and space like a snowglobe.
The colorful scatter of buildings and snow-kissed evergreens rested inside a bowl of milk-white snow. Smoke curled from rooftops and pulled Amy in like a long-lost friend. Her heart leaped at the sight.
"Home." The word tasted foreign on her tongue. If all went as planned, she was home to stay.
Time and distance and a growing faith may not have healed the heartache she'd left behind, but it was time to let go, to come home, to do this one thing that her mother asked. At least she would no longer have to face Rafe Westfield and his betrayal.
When her car reached the village, she turned onto Main Street and headed straight for The Snowglobe Gift Shoppe. She parked in a slant at the curb and slammed out of the car, eager as her boots crunched on fresh, powdery snow. Before she reached the glass-fronted shop, a slender woman in dark slacks and a red scoop neck pullover rushed out the door, her shoulder-length black hair flying.
"Mom!" Amy said just as she was enveloped in a hug that smelled of hothouse roses and potpourri. At fifty, Dana Caldwell's Spanish rose beauty still made Amy wish she looked more like her mom and less like her absentee father, the golden boy who had turned out to have brass feet.
"You made it. I was starting to worry."
Amy smiled. Her mother always said that. "Safe and sound. And excited."
"Are you? Oh, honey, I'm so ready to retire."
"Semi-retire. You're not leaving me alone with this store."
Dana laughed. "Well, not yet. But you know the retail gift business as well as I do. Better. You have a degree!"
The degree in marketing meant more to her mom than it did to Amy or to her employers in Spokane. Former employers, she thought with a happy little step as her mom looped their arms together and tugged her into the shop.
Gently played symphonic Christmas music practically sucked her inside, alluring and lovely. Amy closed her eyes and breathed deeply of the warm, welcoming scent of Christmas past and present. "I love this smell."
For as long as she could remember, cinnamon and pine, snow and flowers, and this shop with snowglobes and poinsettias in the vast picture window had meant Christmas.
"Christmas is the best smell of the year."
They both giggled and hugged once more, a spontaneous action Amy knew would be repeated time and again. Her mama was a hands-on kind of woman.
Amy stepped away from her mother's embrace to survey the gloriously decorated store.
"The shop looks amazing." She turned a slow circle, examining every detail. "I don't think I've ever seen it look bet"
The word died an abrupt death, jammed down into her throat like a fist.
"Hello, Amy." The gently masculine voice was as familiar as Christmas and as unwelcome as a lump of coal.
Amy's heart jerked against her rib cage.
Rafe Westfield, the man who'd taken her heart and then handed it back again, leaned against the glass-topped counter. Bundled to the ears in a sheepskin jacket, and out of place amidst the singing Santas and dainty angels, he was handsomer than ever. His brown hair had grown out from the last time she'd seen him, after the recruiter had buzzed him bald, and now lay in gentle waves above a forehead no longer smooth and boyish but creased with fine worry lines. If anything they made him more rugged, more delicious.
Like his mouth. He had the most perfect lips a man could have, the bottom full and curved with the top a long, low M like the mountains surrounding Snowglobe. She remembered the feel of that mouth, the kisses they'd shared when he'd loved her. Or claimed to. He never really had; she knew that now. If he'd loved her, he would not have joined the military against her wishes.
She licked her own lips, gone bone-dry.
"Rafe?" she managed. "What are you doing here?"
She'd worked hard to let go of the bitterness, to forgive and move on, but in one moment, the old feelings came rushing back like a tidal wave.
"I live here," he said. Below a slash of dark brows, his winter-blue eyes were solemn and aloof. The sparkle was gone, the teasing glint, the ready smile. He had changed. But then, so had she. Amy was no longer the gullible little college grad who'd dreamed of nothing but being Mrs. Rafe Westfield and making a home in Snowglobe, Montana.
"No, you don't," she insisted. "You can't live here. You're in the marines. You're in the Middle East somewhere."
"Was. Now I'm home."
Home? He was calling Snowglobe home? The flutter of panic that had started way down in Amy's belly soared through her bloodstream. He couldn't be here permanently. Not if she was.
"What happened to your military career?"
The career that was more important than a life with me.
A muscle above one cheekbone flinched. It was the only indication that her question had hit a sore spot.
"Three tours was enough." Abruptly he turned to the counter and collected two giant pots of scarlet poinsettias. To her mother, he said, "I'll drop these off on my way."
"Thanks for doing that, Rafe. The shop's so busy, I'm not sure when I could get out there."
Then, exactly as he had five years ago, he turned and walked out the door.
"Mother!" Amy spun around, fingers gripping the counter's edge. "What is he doing here?"
With mild reproof Dana said, "You're repeating yourself, Amy. Rafe has lived in Snowglobe all his life, just as you have."
"That's not true. He left. He said he wasn't coming back. Why didn't you tell me?"
Her mother pretended to rearrange a lighted ceramic village behind the cash register. "If I recalland I doyou forbade me to ever speak his name again. You said the relationship was done and over with and you wanted to move on. And you did."
"You should have told me anyway," Amy answered, feeling unreasonable and petulant.
"Would you have come home? Would you have agreed to take over the shop?"
"No, I wouldn't have. I don't want to be constantly reminded of how he humiliated me. It's hard enough to come back to Snowglobe knowing that everyone in town pitied poor little Amy Caldwell when Rafe broke off our engagement to join the military."
"Oh, precious girl." Her mom repositioned a jingling reindeer before taking Amy by the shoulders. "That was a long time ago. You've enjoyed a nice career, friends, dates, travel. If you'd married so young, look at what you would have missed. I thought you'd forgiven and forgotten all about Rafe Westfield."
"I said I've forgiven him. I'll never forget. How could I? We were engaged. I'd picked out a dress!"
She'd loved him so much she thought she'd die when he chose the marines over her. Yet, he had, and there was no changing the past. After six months of feeling sorry for herself and dealing with the pitying stares, she'd taken the job in Spokane. She'd found a good church, made friends, had a great life.
So why was she letting Rafe get to her now?
The internal question shook her. Why indeed? Rafe West-field was nothing but a bad memory.
The tiny bell over the shop door jingled and two customers entered. Her mother moved into action, leaving Amy to wander through the beautiful Christmas displays. Maybe the sights and smells would calm her stress and bring back the excitement of being home.
She shucked her jacket, leaving the bright turquoise scarf to dangle over her long black sweater.
She didn't understand why she was so upset. She was completely over Rafe. He was old news. It wasn't like she hadn't had a boyfriend in the past five years. She had and yet, the old hurt had flown in her face like an out of control downhiller.
She rounded the corner of the greeting card display and heard someone say, "Amy? Is that you? I heard you were coming home for Christmas."
"Katie?" Amy's mood rose at the sight of her bouncy blonde friend from high school. With a squeal, the two women exchanged a brief hug. "It's so good to see you. What are you doing?"
"Trying to find the perfect birthday card for Todd." Katie had married a local boy right out of high school. "I'm having a little Christmas-style birthday party in his honor on Saturday. Why don't you come? It'll be a great way to see old friends again."
"I'd love to! Are you sure it's okay? I don't want to be a fifth wheel."
Katie made a noise in the back of her throat. "Stop. This is Snowglobe. No one is a fifth wheel here. Bring a little gift for the gift exchange if you want. It'll be fun."
"Are you playing Dirty Santa?"
Katie fingered a particularly pretty birthday card before putting it back on the shelf and selecting one with a grinning mule on the front. "We play Nice Santa, sort of. All the gifts are decent, but some are great. No one loses, but it's lots of fun to see the guys in a friendly fight over a new snowboard and the girls bartering for a gift certificate to Molly's Massage."
"Mmm. Molly's Massage." Amy rotated her shoulders, tight after the unexpected confrontation with Rafe. "Sounds wonderful. I'm in."
"Last year I ended up with a set of deer antler salt and pepper shakers." Katie laughed. "Todd thought they were so cool!"
Amy laughed, too, feeling much better after reconnecting with her old friend. When Katie left, a steady stream of customers entered the shop, most of them people Amy knew, though a few tourists had already begun to gather for the annual Christmas ski race. Vacationers usually rented cabins and lodges in the countryside or stayed at the Snowglobe Bed-and-Breakfast, eager to catch the spirit of a small-town Christmas in the snowy Rockies.
Amy fell into the familiar rhythm of working the store, aware that business was brisk. But no matter how busy they were, she kept picturing her handsome, rugged ex-fiance leaning against the glass counter.
During a lull, her mother said, "There's mulled cider in the urn. Let's grab a cup while we can."
"Got any cookies to go with it?"
"Gingerbread from Porter's Bakery. Becka made it fresh this morning."
"Oh, yum." They headed to the back corner of the store where a silver urn brewed something year-round according to the season. For Christmas, the small table was draped with green linen brightened by red napkins and Spode Christmas tree China. The centered urn emitted the warm, cozy smell of spiced cider, and beneath a glass cake stand sugar-sprinkled slices of gingerbread tempted the shopper to linger. In the background, a recorded harpist strummed "White Christmas."
Dana Caldwell was a master at presentation.
"Aren't you glad you're home?" her mother asked, handing her a steaming mug complete with cinnamon stick.
"I am, Mom. Really," she said when Dana pressed her lips together in the mother's sign of concern.
"Goodness. After your reaction to Rafe, I was afraid you might back out on me. I can't wait to turn this shop over to you and kick up my heels a little."
"Mom? Kick up your heels?"
A rosy flush darkened her mother's cheeks. "I don't mean go wild, but I would like to travel and do some things while I'm still healthy and young enough."
Amy lifted the steaming mug to her lips and sipped, thinking. As a child, she'd never considered her mother as anyone but a mom and shopkeeper. Now, as an adult, she was a little taken aback to realize her mom might want something more, something for herself.
"I guess running the shop tied you down."
"Don't think I'm complaining. I love this shop. God provided a way for me to raise my daughter and make a living without shortchanging either, and working with beautiful things is right up my alley. But now, you need this place. And I don't. I'm so glad you're here to take over, and I pray this shop is as wonderful to you as it has been to me."
"You're incredible, you know that?" Wasn't it sad that she'd waited twenty-eight years to realize such a thing?
With a smile, her mother fluttered a hand. "You weren't thinking that a few minutes ago when Rafe was here."
"Not true. I've always known I have an exceptional mother." She stirred the cinnamon stick around in the mug. "Rafe was the past. I can't let his presence ruin this homecoming."
Dana took two thick slices of gingerbread and slid them onto China saucers. "That's my girl. No looking back." Exactly. She hoped.
As they settled into the dainty chairs with their snacks, Amy turned her thoughts from herself to her mother. After Amy's father had left, Dana Caldwell had thrown herself into the store without complaint, making it better than ever. She must have been devastated by Dad's betrayal, but Amy had been too young and heartbroken to consider anyone else's feelings. Now she saw things in a different light. Like King David in the Bible, her mom had grieved the loss. Then she'd wiped her tears, set her eyes on the future and moved on, never looking back at what she could not change.
Was that what God expected her to do? Even with Rafe living in the same town?
She took a nibble of the spiced bread, thinking about how she had changed in the past five years. She'd grown up, grown closer to the Lord. She'd been so ready to come home and take over the shop. She couldn't let her mother down.
But she hadn't reckoned on Rafe.