A Christmas Wishby Joseph Pittman
This Christmas, the greatest gifts can't be found beneath a tree. . .
Eight-year-old Janey Sullivan has had a difficult year, between losing her mother and adjusting to life with her guardian, Brian Duncan. But with the holidays approaching, her one Christmas wish is to find the perfect gift for Brian--if she can learn to trust him first./b>… See more details below
This Christmas, the greatest gifts can't be found beneath a tree. . .
Eight-year-old Janey Sullivan has had a difficult year, between losing her mother and adjusting to life with her guardian, Brian Duncan. But with the holidays approaching, her one Christmas wish is to find the perfect gift for Brian--if she can learn to trust him first.
Reeling from the loss of his soul mate, Brian is determined to give her daughter, Janey, an extraordinary Christmas. But he struggles to read her irregular moods, and when he catches her in a lie, he begins to doubt the future of their new little family. Yet with the help of their friends in Linden Corners, and a bit of Christmas magic riding on the wind, they may be able to preserve Janey's mother's traditions, perhaps even start some new ones--and discover that the life they hadn't planned on can still bring the happiness they've always wished for.
"This gentle read is big on heart." --Library Journal
"A wonderful Christmas story of moving on beyond grief and loss." --RT Book Reviews, 4 1/2 Stars
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A CHRISTMAS WISHA Linden Corners Novel
By JOSEPH PITTMAN
KENSINGTON BOOKSCopyright © 2011 Joseph Pittman
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIf tradition dictates the direction of your life, then it was inevitable that my mother called me two weeks before Thanksgiving to ask whether I would be joining the family for our annual dinner. Every year she makes the same call, every year she asks in her deliberately unassuming way, and every year I respond in my expected fashion. Yes, of course, where else would I be? This year, though, so much had changed—in my life and in my parents' lives, too—that I had to wonder whether the notion of tradition belonged to a bygone era, appreciated only by thoughts of the past, no longer put into practice. How I answered my mother on this day proved that indeed change was in the air, a first step toward tomorrow. Because I informed her that before I could give her an answer, I needed to consult first with Janey.
"Brian, dear, that's very sweet, but you don't ask children what they want to do. You tell them," she stated matter-of-factly.
"No, Mother, Janey and I, we're a team. We make decisions together."
"Brian, dear, you have so much to learn about children."
Actually, I thought my mother had a lot to learn about her son.
I had been in the kitchen at the farmhouse, mulling over dinner. I hung up and was left to brood the remainder of the day while I cooked, even when Janey came home from school filled with an undimmed light that usually brightened me. I put on my best front as she busily talked about her day. We ate a bland chicken, turkey's everyday fill-in, and still I didn't bring up the idea of the holiday. I waited until bedtime to ask Janey her thoughts on the subject of the coming holiday.
"Thanksgiving? Away from Linden Corners?"
I nodded. "It's your call."
"Do you want to go, Brian?"
"I will if you will," I replied.
"That sounds evasive."
"Where did you learn such a big word like that?"
She rolled her eyes. Vocabulary had never been an issue with Janey. "See, evasive."
I laughed. "Okay, okay. Yes, I'd like to go."
"Good. Then I will if you will," she said, her smile uplifting. "Funny, I get to meet your family. I never thought about them before. That you have parents ... do you have a big family? Where are they? Do they have a dog...."
"Slow down, slow down. All in good time."
"I'm just curious. Up until now you've always been ... well, you've been Brian."
"We all come from somewhere."
She thought about that a moment, and I feared it would lead the conversation down a path she wasn't ready for. I certainly wasn't ready for it. But then she just innocently stated, "I can't wait."
Her sudden pause had me wondering what else she was thinking. You could always see the wheels of her mind turning, almost as though they spun her eyeballs.
"Is your mom like mine?"
No, my mind said. I chose not to answer that one directly. "Everyone is their own person."
"Evasive," she said.
I couldn't help it, I laughed. "So, it's agreed, we go. You and me, hand in hand."
"Hand in hand," Janey agreed.
That's how it worked with us.
As night fell and Janey slept, I phoned my mother back and told her to add two plates to the Duncan family's dinner table, that the Linden Corners faction of the family would join them.
"You know how much this means to me, Brian."
Yes, I did.
And while accepting the invitation may have been a relatively smooth process at the time, now, as we turned the corner off Walnut Street in Philadelphia and were only two blocks from my parents' stately new home, anxiety and trepidation ran through me like a monsoon. Sweat beaded on my brow, nerves taking control once I'd parked. The trip had taken us six hours (with a dinner break), but really, it had been an even longer time coming. Nine months had passed since I'd last seen my parents, and during that elapsed time my world had drastically changed in a way none of us could have predicted, myself at the top of that list. I had quit my well-paying job as a thankless corporate drone, sublet my tiny New York apartment, and left behind the supposed woman of my dreams. Setting out on a journey of self-discovery, I had landed in a place that was not far from all I'd known in terms of miles, yet worlds away. I'd met Annie Sullivan and I'd loved her and then I'd lost her, we all had, and as a result I had been given the care of her only daughter, eight-year-old Janey Sullivan, a wonder of a girl, the true one of my dreams. Since then, I'd been very proprietary in terms of exposing Janey to new things. I hadn't allowed any visitors, not friends or family from beyond Linden Corners, wanting this time of transition between me and Janey to take shape without any further disruption. Even now I had my concerns about taking this precious girl out from the safe confines of her life, but realized, too, there was a time for everything, even for moving forward.
"Which house is it?" Janey asked, pointing out the car window at the long row of houses lining both sides of the dimly lit street. This was Society Hill, where both Federal-and Colonial-style town houses prevailed, these classic, restored structures adorning each side of the tree-lined street. It was a sea of brick and white lattices. I didn't blame Janey for being confused; all the houses looked the same. Still, I indicated the building on the far left corner. "With the porch light on."
"Good thing they have that light, since it's so dark. How else would we find it?"
"Well, Janey, I do have the address."
"Oh," she replied with a giggle that made me grin, a good thing right now. Settled my nerves to see how relaxed Janey was.
We had parked on a side street, left the suitcases behind for now. We had enough baggage with us already. So, with Janey's hand in mine, our unlikely team made our way toward the upscale residence of Kevin and Didi Duncan. For years they had lived in the Philly suburbs (in the house I'd grown up in) and then had just this past summer done the opposite of all their friends. They had gone urban, selling the old house and instead buying this very nice home in this very nice section of the City of Brotherly Love. Some investments of Dad's must have really paid off. I had yet to see it myself, thinking this was a good thing, there were no memories of past holidays awaiting me behind those doors. Neutral territory. Though you can never really escape your memories, no matter the walls you've built up, your mind can tear them down when it wants, prompted sometimes by the simplest of senses. As we reached the steps, I looked down at Janey's freckled face and asked, "Ready?"
"You keep asking that," she said. "I think the question is, are you ready?"
"And I think the answer is: Not really."
"Silly—they're your parents, Brian."
As if Janey's words were a magic key, the front door opened and a bath of light from inside illuminated us, sending our shadows retreating to the sidewalk. Yet we stepped forward to where my mother waited in the entranceway. She was dressed in a simple navy skirt and white blouse, a string of pearls dangling from her neck. Perfume wafted in the breeze. Her familiar scent. See what I mean about memories? I had the picture of my mother from years ago, tucking me into bed before she and my father went out to dinner. She smelled the same then, now. What had changed was her hair—she'd allowed it to go gray, and it was salon perfect. She wouldn't be Didi Duncan if not properly attired, even at this hour.
"Well, who have we here?" she asked.
"Your son," I replied, and then Janey said, "And me, I'm Janey."
My mother moved off the top step and gave me an embrace that felt more like an air-kiss before bending down so her face was level with Janey's. "Well, you're a pretty thing, aren't you, Jane?"
"Janey," I corrected her.
She ignored me, keeping her focus on Janey. "That's such a childish name, now, don't you think?"
"I am a child," Janey remarked.
"Nonsense, dear. You've grown tremendously the last few months, haven't you? Come in, come in, the both of you."
And we did, shutting out the encroaching cold behind us. We entered a hallway crafted lovingly with antique wood, and then were ushered down to the living room, where a warm fire was blazing in the large fireplace. My father, Kevin Duncan, sat beside the crackling fire in a wingback leather chair, still dressed in his business suit, the tie still on, the top button to his shirt still clasped. That was the thing about my father. Still was a word that described him perfectly. He never changed. He was reading the Wall Street Journal and on the table near him was a tumbler filled with his traditional dry Manhattan, the successful entrepreneur in relaxation mode. When he saw us enter, he gently set the paper down on a nearby matching ottoman.
"Hello, son, it's good to see you," he said, shaking my hand with his strong, firm grip. His greeting was as efficient and businesslike as ever; it was just his way, all he knew. He was a tall man, six four and built strongly, and I imagined in his office, even if he hadn't been the boss he would still strike an intimidating pose. Yet a surprising feat happened on this evening. As Janey poked out from behind me, she craned her neck up high so she could see my father and that's when she exclaimed with wide eyes, "Wow, you're big." The stern businessman's face crumpled and a smile found its way to his ruddy face.
"What ho! Well, let's get a look at you, young lady," he said.
"You'd have to sit on the floor to do that."
Kevin Duncan was a big, barrel-chested man, with thick gray hair and a pair of glasses upon his nose, and right now the figure of the man who had always intimidated me actually laughed—something he wasn't exactly known for. Then, instead of bending down as Janey suggested, he lifted the little girl into those big arms of his and I realized that the impossible had been accomplished, Janey had softened the heart of a moneyed giant. I felt pent-up tension leave my shoulders and I realized then that maybe this Thanksgiving wouldn't be so bad. My mother had followed behind us, witnessed the entire exchange between her husband and her ... my goodness, I almost thought granddaughter. I would have to watch my words; Janey and I to this point had avoided all such labels, all such complications.
The four of us settled into the living room and talked genially, Janey enjoying a glass of apple juice and me a seltzer with ice, while my father and mother drank their Manhattans. Their attention remained focused mostly on Janey. They asked her questions about school and friends, nothing about her mother, Annie, or the difficult times this girl had already known in her life. There was no mention of the windmill that had brought us together. As they chatted, I sat on the edge of my seat, waiting anxiously for any misstep.
About ten o'clock, the excitement of the long trip and of Janey meeting my parents finally taking its toll, it was decided we had best get Janey to bed. I retrieved the suitcases from the car and attempted to get Janey settled into her room. She'd gotten her second wind apparently, so busy was she looking at the old photographs my parents had hung on the walls.
"Is that you, Brian?" Janey asked, pointing to a geeky teen posing for his high school graduation picture. I was seventeen. I looked twelve. When I told her it was, she laughed. "You look different now—better." As I thanked her, she pointed to the other two similarly styled portraits that hung above mine, one of a dark-haired, handsome young man, the other a young woman with eyes that dominated the frame. Again, high school graduation pictures. "Who are they?" she asked.
"Well, one is Rebecca; she's my sister."
"She's pretty. And who's the other guy? He doesn't look so ..."
"Geeky? Like me?"
"Yeah," she said, with an impish smile.
Before answering her question, I stared at the photograph that was up for discussion, thought of the memories his rugged good looks inspired. For a second I looked around for the trophies and awards, the ribbons and framed citations that adorned his walls, and then remembered this was no longer his room. Not even the house he'd grown up in, any of us, actually. Suddenly I was surprised that the photos had been placed on the walls here, not packed away like other memories. I wondered how my parents had felt packing up the old house, saying good-bye to a room that had remained fixed in time. Then I answered.
"That's my brother, Philip."
Our conversation was quickly interrupted as my mother came brushing through the doorway. She cleared her throat knowingly. Photographs were not something she wished to discuss. When she saw what little progress I'd made in getting Janey to sleep, she summarily tossed me out.
"Honestly, what do you know about caring for little girls, Brian?"
My mother liked to ask questions, but she seldom waited for answers. Tonight was one of those occasions, despite the fact I could have answered her with easy confidence. Because I knew a lot. Janey had helped me in figuring out the curious mind of a growing child, oh she had helped me plenty. But I let my mother enjoy her fussing over Janey, said my good nights, receiving back a huge hug from Janey and a polite smile from my mother, and finally retreated to the other guest room. And as I fought to find sleep that night, I hoped that tomorrow and in the coming weeks I would be able to reciprocate the feelings behind Janey's warm hug. She was in a strange house, meeting strange people, and even though they were my relatives, being here couldn't have been the easiest thing. And it was only the beginning of the holiday season. How much she would need me nearly scared me. How much I would need her terrified me.
Chapter TwoWe would be eight people for a four o'clock dinner, my mother informed us when we woke, and I didn't relish the idea of just hanging around the house all day, watching her cook and my father read. Eight-year-old girls need far more stimulation. So did I. We were also asked by my mother in her not-so-unsubtle way to "not be underfoot." Bundling up for the unseasonably cold November day, Janey and I escaped the house and spent a good portion of the morning touring the nearby historic district of Philadelphia, including the Liberty Bell and Constitution Hall, though most of the sites were understandably closed down for the holiday. Still, it gave us an opportunity to escape while preparations were made.
"Who's coming to dinner?" Janey asked me at one point.
It was a good question. I hadn't asked and my mother hadn't offered.
"Guess we'll have to wait and find out."
Janey gave me a querulous look. Wondering, no doubt, why I didn't want to know.
We returned at just after two to see the table had been set with my grandmother's fine china and flatware, crystal water tumblers and wineglasses, too, another Duncan family tradition. As kids, we were warned, "You break it ... you'll regret it." My mother meant it. Even back then she was not known for her warm and fuzzy moments. Also, we realized upon our return that we were not alone, the party of four had now expanded to six. The first guests had arrived, my parents' best friends and my father's business partner, Harry Henderson, and his (third) wife, Katrina, both of whom sat in the living room with glasses of wine and nibbling on cheese and crackers, both of them impeccably dressed. Both Janey and I changed into more suitable clothes for my mother's formal Thanksgiving, returning downstairs for proper introductions. I had met the Hendersons on numerous occasions, so this time it was Janey in the spotlight, and as she politely smiled at them, I wondered how much they'd been briefed on Janey's situation—and found out sooner than I had wanted.
"Why, you're very pretty," Harry said.
"Yes, it's very nice to meet you, Janey," Katrina Henderson said. "I bet Brian's just the best dad. You're very lucky."
A silence descended on the room, the crackling of the fire the only audible sound. My father looked at me with apology in his eyes and my mother put a hand to her mouth, trying in vain to keep the sharp "eek" from coming out. It was Janey, though, who took simple control of the awkward situation when she simply, innocently, and without judgment, said, "Oh, Brian's not my dad. He's ... he's Brian, and he takes very good care of me."
Excerpted from A CHRISTMAS WISH by JOSEPH PITTMAN Copyright © 2011 by Joseph Pittman. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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