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If not for the call from the hospital, nothing could have induced Krista Novak to return to this tiny slice of Pennsylvania she'd left behind eight years ago.
With eyes gritty from eighteen hours of traveling, Krista stared out the backseat window of the taxi cab at the modest neighborhood of mostly ranch houses.
Winter had robbed the trees of their leaves and frosted the barren ground and cars parked in the street. From almost every home shone Christmas lights, some hung haphazardly, others arranged in neat, colorful patterns.
"Which house?" the taxi driver asked, two of the few words he'd spoken since picking up Krista outside baggage claim at the Harrisburg airport. Not that he'd been silent. He'd hummed along to "White Christmas," "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire" and Alvin and the Chipmunks.
"The tacky place with Santa and his reindeer on the roof and the Christmas animals in the yard," Krista mumbled.
She didn't bother to add he couldn't miss it. If there were life forms in outer space, they'd be blinded by the blaze from the lighted yard decorations and the tiny multicolored lights that covered every inch of her parents' house.
"I love it!" The driver, who was probably in his late sixties, wore a red knit cap similar to the one outlined in lights on the candy-cane cat. "That animated dancing penguin is my favorite!"
The penguin was new, as were the seals that were tossing a wrapped gift back and forth. Krista had seen most of the other animals many, many times before. Her family had been collecting them for years.
"Are you kidding me?" Krista asked. "Don't you think the display is excessive?"
The driver pulled up to the curb, turned his head and peered at her. In the darkened cab at nearly seven o'clock in the evening, it should have been hard to see his face. The glow from the yard illuminated his widened eyes. "Hell, no! It's three days before Christmas, lady."
Krista felt herself bristle. Not for the first time, she wished she'd thought to call ahead and reserve a rental car. This close to Christmas, none of the rental agencies at the airport had anything available until possibly tomorrow.
"I'm not as into the season as the rest of my family," Krista said.
The decorations had probably gone up the day after Thanksgiving. Yard art, Krista's grandmother called it. It used to take Krista's father two full days to create the monument to the season. Krista's heart clutched. This was somebody else's handiwork. Since the accident, her father couldn't so much as string lights.
Krista banished the harsh reality from her mind. She couldn't think about her father now, not when her mother was the one who was ill, not even to note that he hadn't bothered to call and tell her about it.
She let herself out of the cab and came face-to-beak with a flamingo wearing earmuffs. Swallowing a sigh, she met the driver at the trunk of the taxi.
"Home for Christmas, eh?" the driver said.
"Yeah." Krista didn't elaborate. She certainly wouldn't tell him she hadn't been home in eight years. Krista wouldn't be here at all if her mother's phone call hadn't woken her up last night in Prague.
Her mother's voice had sounded thin, reedy and very far away. "Krista, I'm in the hospital."
Krista had bolted to a sitting position, coming jarringly awake. Her heart had thumped so hard it felt like the bed in her one-bedroom flat was shaking. "What's wrong?"
"I was, um, bleeding," her mother said.
A memory of Krista's father lying bent and broken flashed in Krista's mind. She imagined her mother tumbling down a flight of stairs, slipping on a patch of ice, accidentally gashing herself with a cooking knife.
"Are you all right?" Krista heard the panic in her own voice and tried to tamp it down. "Was it an accident?"
"No, no. Nothing like that," her mother said. "It was, um, internal." Internal bleeding!
"Do you need me to come home?" Krista asked.
Her mother hadn't hesitated. "Oh, yes, dear. That would be wonderful."
A nurse had entered her mother's hospital room then, cutting their conversation short. As soon as Krista hung up the phone, she'd booted up her computer and booked a flight to Pennsylvania that left at six that morning. Then she'd contacted one of the friends she was supposed to meet in a few days' time for a skiing trip in the Swiss Alps to let her know what was going on.
The cab driver swung Krista's suitcase from the trunk and told her how much the fare was.
"Could you wait for me? I need you to drive me to the hospital, too." Krista's mind was so fuzzy after a full day of traveling, she couldn't be sure if she'd mentioned it. Although it wasn't yet 7:00 p.m. in Pennsylvania, it was nearly 1:00 a.m. body time. "It'll only take me a few minutes to drop off this suitcase."
"The hospital?" the driver repeated, but Krista was already rolling the suitcase up a sidewalk lined with toy soldiers and past a hippo with a red bow tied around its neck.
Krista supposed she could have asked somebody, possibly her grandmother, to make the twenty-minute drive to the Harrisburg airport to pick her up when no rental cars were available. With her parents' house in Jarrell en route to the hospital, though, it seemed to make more sense to hire a cab. Especially because Krista had discovered her cell phone was dead as she dashed to make her second connecting flight in Philadelphia.
Once Krista dropped off her luggage, the cab driver should get her to the hospital in plenty of time for visiting hours. The last she'd checked on her mother's condition, during the layover that morning in Frankfurt, her mother was stable. Krista expected her family to be at the hospital although somebody was obviously home or the lights wouldn't be blazing.
Krista dragged her suitcase up the handicap ramp and stopped in front of a door partially obscured by an enormous wreath. The doorbell was doubling as a snowman's button nose. Should Krista ring it? What was the protocol when you were the prodigal daughter?
A blast of wind almost blew Krista over. She shivered, deciding she was being ridiculous. Drawing in a deep breath of pine-scented air, she pushed open the door and stepped onto the tiny tiled foyer that opened into the living room.
It was empty aside from a floor-to-ceiling Christmas tree wrapped in gold garland and cloaked by twinkling lights and ornaments. Holly and a strand of lit plastic Santa heads outlined the fireplace. About the only tasteful thing in the room was a gorgeous framed photo Krista had never seen before of a field of wild-flowers under a clear blue sky.
The scents and sounds of Christmas past assaulted Krista: honey ham, freshly baked bread, apple cider, instrumental Christmas carols, voices drifting from the kitchen.
"Hello? I'm ho" Krista stopped midshout. Pennsylvania hadn't been home in a very long time. "I'm here."
Nobody answered, which wasn't surprising considering the noise level. Krista pulled her suitcase into the living room and headed for the large kitchen at the back of the house, her high-heeled winter boots clicking on the hardwood.
She passed under the mistletoe hanging from the archway leading to the kitchen and stopped dead.
Krista's grandmother, considerably older and possibly even shorter than when Krista had last seen her, was at the stove stirring a pot of soup. Grandma had moved in with the family after she was widowed two decades ago to help care for Krista and her younger sister, Rayna, and never left.
Sitting on a chair at the butcher-block table overseeing the entire operation was Krista's mother. For a moment, Krista couldn't speak.
"Mom!" she finally blurted out. "What are you doing out of the hospital?"
Both women turned at the sound of her voice. Grandma gaped at Krista as if she'd materialized out of thin air. Her mother smiled and clapped her hands.
"Krista! You came!" Her mother opened her arms but didn't get up. She looked wan, and a crocheted shawl covered her shoulders.
Krista crossed the room and bent down to embrace her mother, relief making her knees weak. Unshed tears burned the backs of her eyes. "Of course I came."
Her mother hugged Krista tight, enveloping her daughter in warmth. A few seconds passed before it dawned on Krista that her mother's grip was not that of a sick woman. She drew back, examining her mother more closely.
Aside from the paleness of her complexion, Krista's mother seemed much the same as she always had. A tall, big-boned woman with dark hair showing no trace of gray, Eleanor Novak had always filled up a room with her presence.
"I thought you were bleeding internally," Krista said.
"So that's how you got our Krista to come home, Ellie." Krista's grandmother addressed her daughter-in-law but hurried from the stove to Krista's side. At about five feet tall and one hundred pounds with hair that was completely white, Krista's grandmother had an elfish charm. She added to it by wearing a Rudolph-the-reindeer shirt.
"Hey, Grandma." Krista bent down to hug the older lady while trying to make sense of her comment.
"I missed you, sweet girl," Grandma said. "We all did."
Krista felt her eyes grow moist except things weren't adding up. She drew back from the hug and swung her gaze to her mother. "I don't understand. Why aren't you in the hospital?"
Her mother's eyes shifted.
"Ellie was discharged this morning," Grandma said. Great news, but Krista couldn't make sense of it. "We're having a celebration dinner. Now the only one missing will be Rayna."
Krista's sister had only been thirteen when Krista moved away. Krista wondered where Rayna was, but another question was more pressing.
"What about the internal bleeding, Mom?" Krista asked.
Her mother still wouldn't meet Krista's eyes. "It stopped a few days ago. The medication they have nowadays is amazing."
"Most people with bleeding ulcers recover fast," Grandma said. "The doctor told Ellie this morning she's already almost as good as new."
"This morning? But last night, you made it seem like you were really sick." Krista collapsed into one of the kitchen chairs. "How could you do that? I thought you were dying."
"Okay, so it wasn't my finest moment." Her mother did not sound sorry. "But it's been eight years, Krista. How else was I supposed to get you home for the holidays?"
"You could have asked," Krista said.
"I ask every year," her mother said. "You never come."
The radio tuned to the station that played all Christmas carols, all the time, was between songs. In the rare moment of silence, Krista heard the unmistakable sound of wheels rolling on hardwood. Krista's body tensed.
Her father maneuvered the wheelchair into the kitchen, a blanket thrown over his useless legs. Although he was only five years older than his wife's fifty-seven, what hair he had left was completely gray and visible wrinkles creased his face.
"Krista?" His thick gray brows drew together. "What are you doing here?"
Krista swallowed, aware those were the first words he'd spoken to her in years. The few times he'd answered the phone when she called, he immediately handed her off to her mother. She tried not to let it hurt that he didn't seem glad to see her. "I thought mom was sick."
"Ellie called Krista from the hospital and told her she was dying," her grandmother said.
"That's not so, Joe!" her mother cried. "I told her I was bleeding."
Krista's father set his mouth in a tight line. "You shouldn't have done that."
"Why not?" her mother demanded. "Don't you think it's past time our daughter came home?"
"Our daughter can" her father began.
"Ho, ho, ho. Merry Christmas!" The greeting was loud enough to drown out all sound.
A stranger about her father's age came into the kitchen wearing a Santa hat, a fake white beard and red suspenders that were visible through his open overcoat. He was about five-nine with a wiry build, lessening the effect.
"Welcome home from the hospital, Eleanor," the stranger said to Krista's mother. "You look fantastic!"
"Thank you, Milo," Ellie said. "You look great, too. I never get tired of seeing you in that get-up."
"One of the fringe benefits of being a mall Santa." Milo snapped the suspenders, then turned his attention to Krista. "And who is this pretty young lady?"
"Our daughter Krista. She's the interpreter who lives in Europe," her mother said. "Krista, this is our next-door neighbor, Milo Costas."
Costas? Krista didn't remember anybody named Costas living next door. She only knew one person with that surname, an unusual one for central Pennsylvania. Was this a relation?
"Nice to meet you, Mr. Costas." Krista tried to convince herself she must be wrong. Not everybody named Costas was connected to each other.
"It's my pleasure, young lady." Milo Costas commented at the same time another male voicea familiar male voicecalled out, "Where is everybody?"
"In the kitchen," Krista's father yelled, his scowl vanishing.
Alex Costas strode into the kitchen, a bottle of red wine in his right hand, a bottle of sparkling apple cider in his left. A good five or six inches taller than Milo, Alex had thick black hair, an athlete's build and strong, classic features. The first time Krista had seen him, she'd sworn her heart had skipped a beat. Right now it sped up.
"Did you know there's a ca" Alex's voice trailed off midquestion, his dark gaze swinging to Krista.