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Peace. Quiet. Tranquility.
That was what Olivia Perkins had been picturing when she'd returned to Riverbend, Indiana, at the beginning of December. For the past year, Livia had thought of Riverbend often, missing the calm she had found in the little Indiana town in a way she'd never missed anything before.
A native New Yorker, Livia had always considered herself a city girl. Until she'd spent three amazing, wonderful weeks in Riverbend last New Year's Eve, helping her boss Jenna plan a birthday party. And now, she'd gone and done it.
She'd bought a little house on a quiet side street, loaded all her possessions into the back of a U-Haul, secured Piper in her car seat, then driven out here and settled injust in time for her first Christmas in the sleepy little town. She'd bought a tree from the Methodist Church's lotafter a long, chatty conversation with Earl Klein, who took a personal interest in every tree and customer. He'd helped her tie it to her car and waved off the bills she tried to hand him as a tip. As soon as Livia got home, she'd set the tree up in her front room, before she'd finished unpacking the stack of boxes in the kitchen.
Now Livia stood in that very kitchen and watched across the street as the neighbors draped strings of multicolored lights over a trio of thick, squat shrubs. It was the perfect complement to the herd of lighted reindeer on the right side of their lawn and the blinking wreath adorning their front door. Nearly every house on this street had the same Christmas touch, a neighborhood medley of red and green.
Livia sighed. It was all so perfect. Like images on a holiday postcard. She wished she'd moved here earlier. In time to see the trickor-treaters dashing up and down driveways, or the straw bales stacked on lawns for Thanksgiving.
She'd definitely lingered too long in New York. Understandable, she supposed. Change wasn't something she'd been very good at. At least not until a bright fall day in September that turned Livia's life upside down. In a good way.
Livia smiled at the thought of her three-month-old daughter, asleep just down the hall in the nursery. Amazing how one little baby could transform a grown woman's life. The moment she'd held her newborn daughter in her arms, Livia realized there was no other place on earth she wanted to raise her child but in Riverbend. The town had the perfect blend of hokey charm and Midwestern values that would wrap around Piper like a thick blanket.
She could just imagine Piper riding a bicycle down the town's quiet side streets while the neighbors waved and shouted a how-ya-doin'. She could see herself taking Piper downtown on Saturday afternoons for an ice cream cone where Mr. Duval would undoubtedly overindulge his youngest customer. Livia was already anticipating the delight in Piper's face the first time she saw the rainbow of Christmas lights at the annual Riverbend Winterfest and heard Santa's hearty ho-ho-ho.
Yes, Riverbend was perfect for raising a child. For beginning a family, even if it was a family of just two.
Livia exited the kitchen and headed down to the nursery, her hips swaying in time to the beat of the Christmas music spilling from the stereo's speakers, adding a Norman Rockwell air to the house. Piper slept soundly, her tiny chest rising and falling with each whispered breath. God, she was a beautiful baby. A wave of gratitude and love washed over Livia.
Piper had changed Livia's life in a hundred waysa hundred wonderful ways. Never for a second did she regret the choice to raise her child alone. She'd do it better, she vowed, better than her own father had, and certainly better than her absent mother. Livia would make sure Piper never knew that painful hole of losing a parent. But even as Livia made that silent promise, a part of her whispered doubt.
Was she really saving Piper pain? Would Piper miss what she had never had or known?
Livia tiptoed out of the nursery and tugged the door shut. At the top of the stairs, she paused and thought of the man who had unknowingly blessed her with Piper.
The owner of a nationwide chain of event venues, including the now closed Riverbend Banquet Hall, Edward had swept her off her feet when she'd been here last year and whisked her into one of those heady, unforgettable romances. When she'd finally come up for air, she'd realized the one thing their whirlwind relationship had been missingsubstance. Edward was all about the charm, less about the long term.
She should have known something that started so fast would end up in flames. Edward had been a handsome but mysterious and private man who had let her into his bed but never fully into his heart. Like a fool, she'd hoped for more and stayed in Riverbend that winter for another week, waiting for him, before she finally realized he'd meant it when he'd said he was done with her, with their relationship, with the town. That he was never going to be marriage material, or anything even close to that. She'd returned to New York and buried herself in her work, running the New York branch of Jenna Pearson's party planning company.
Until she saw a tiny plus sign in the window of the pregnancy test.
That day, she'd thought of calling Edward, then stopped herself. Livia had heard through the grapevine that Edward had come back to town only long enough to sell his house, pack up his car and leave Riverbend for good. Without a word to her or to anyone else.
What had she expected, after the way they'd ended things? Still, it had hurt.
Not a little. A lot.
Now here she was again, in the town that had changed her in so many ways. Livia walked through the house, straightening this, arranging that.
Everything was perfect, exactly the way she liked it. The house was clean and neat, the decorations hung just so. The little house practically gleamed, as shiny as the gold star atop the tree that stood patiently in the corner, waiting for Piper's first Christmas. A half-dozen gifts for Piper sat under the branches, but Livia didn't need or want anything. She had Piper. And
The front door flew open. "I hate this place!" A slam punctuated the sentence. The door shuddered in its hinges.
Livia shot a glance at the baby monitor on the counter, but there was nothing more than the whisper of air coming across the airwaves. Her heavy sleeper daughter hadn't stirred. Phew. "Why do you do that? You could have woken up the baby."
"Sorry." Melody dumped her coat and bag on the floor, then toed off her boots and kicked them aside. "I had a really bad day. You know how worked up I get when things go wrong."
"Yes I do." Too well. Livia retrieved Melody's things from the floor, giving her sister a hint-hint wave, which Melody ignored. Livia lined the shoes up by the door, put Melody's bag on the counter, and hung her coat up in the closet before returning to the kitchen.
Melody plopped into one of the kitchen chairs with a dramatic sigh. "I don't know why you thought living in this godforsaken town was a good idea. If I'd known this place didn't even have a Starbucks, for Pete's sake, I never would have come to visit."
So much for peace, quiet and tranquility. None of the three were words that she associated with her little sister. Who had, for some insane reason, decided to follow Livia to Riverbend. An afternoon visit had turned into an overnight stay, and was now verging on a permanent relocation.
"If you hate it so much, why do you stay?" Livia asked.
Melody crossed her arms over her chest and pouted. "Because I'm not going back to Boston until Carl gets a clue."
Carl, Melody's fiance, who it turned out, had been engaged to, and pledging his eternal love to, a woman named Jackie at the same time. That hadn't gone over well with Melody, who had thrown a suitcase in her car and driven straight to Livia's new house. Livia had been tempted to give her sister a lecture about her tendency to choose every Mr. Wrong on the planet, but Melody had been crying so hard, Livia didn't have the heart. Instead, she made up the spare bed and ordered a large double-cheese pizza.
She'd figured Melody would cry for a couple days, then do what she always didgo back to the city, to her friends, her busy life and to yet another man. Instead, she'd stayed. And stayed. And stayed.
And complained nearly every single minute.
"Maybe you should look for a job," Livia said. "I'm sure it'll help take your mind off things. There's probably plenty of people in need of an interior decorator in this area."
Melody huffed. "Home stager, not interior decorator. They're two entirely different things."
Livia bit her lip. "Either way, I'm sure you could"
"My car broke down right in the center of town," Melody interrupted. "I swear, this place hates me. Good thing that Earl guy was there. He towed it to his shop and gave me a ride home. I bet it's broken forever. It was making this whining noise and"
"I'm sorry to interrupt, Melody, but I need to run an errand." Truth was, Livia had no interest in hearing the latest drama in Melody's life. There'd been the eyeliner meltdown first thing this morning, the stuck waffle in the toaster at breakfast and the too-small sweater in the dryer. And that was all before ten.
Livia grabbed her coat, flung her scarf around her neck, then swiped her car keys off the table. "Can you stay? Piper should nap for another hour. If she gets up, just call me. You don't have to do anything."
"That's because you don't trust me."
Melody arched a brow.
"Okay, maybe not entirely. But Piper's just a baby and you're "
"The irresponsible little sister." Melody sighed. "I have grown up, you know."
"I really have to get to the store before dinner. Can we talk about this later?"
"Where are you going?" Melody's face lifted in hope. "Are you going somewhere fun? Can I come?"
"Just the grocery store. For, uh, milk and stuff." And whatever number of purchases could give Livia a few minutes of peace. Shopping alone was about the only way she'd get some. She loved her sister but Melody had a way of making every little thing into a BIG DEAL, complete with capital letters, wild gesticulating and over the top shouting. "You know how you hate grocery shopping. Besides, you promised you'd help out more and staying here while Piper sleeps is helping. Because you are living here for free, remember?"
Melody detoured for the sofa. She reached for the remote and flicked on the TV. "Okay, fine. But get me some chocolate milk, will you? And cookies. Oh, and chips, and some of those pizza bite things. You don't have anything good to eat around here."
"Because that stuff isn't good for you. If you'd just"
Melody put up a hand to cut off Livia's argument. "Spare me the no-sugar life lecture. Geesh, Livia, you need to lighten up a little. Look at this place. You could eat off the floor. All five servings of vegetables and your whole grains, of course." She swiveled around to face her sister. A bright cascade of light from the television danced across her features. "A little fun won't kill you, you know."
"I gotta go. I'm not debating what I put in the cupboards or how often the house needs vacuumed. Again." Livia turned and headed out the door.
Winter had yet to breathe its snowy kiss over Riverbend. The air held a promise of snow, but over the last few days, there'd been nothing but one quick icy rainstorm. The cold world around her looked gray and bleak, not quite the postcard image of the holidays she'd had last year when she'd been here.
Livia drove the few blocks from her house to the main street of Riverbend. Melody's words ran through her mind. Yes, Livia liked things clean. And with a baby, it was doubly important to keep the environment organized, clean and healthy. Why couldn't Melody understand that?
Either way, Livia refused to let it get to her. Instead, she let the Christmas spirit filling Riverbend wash over her. Even without snow, it was a holiday oasis. What the town called "downtown" didn't even compare to a New York City block, but Livia loved it all the same. Small charming stores, all hung with Christmas wreaths and bright red bows, and friendly residents who had remembered her from last year and greeted her at every turn. Despite the gloomy weather, the town had Christmas cheer in abundance.
She parked in the side lot of the corner grocery store and headed inside. The electric-eye door whooshed shut behind her.
"Nice to see you again, Miss Perkins!" Cal, the store manager, sent her a quick wave.
"Thanks, Cal. How's business?"
"Busy as heck, thank the Lord. Seems everyone and their uncle is here in town for the holidays." Cal swung his wide frame out from behind the customer service counter. "How are things for you?"
"Just fine, just fine."
"Glad to hear it." A customer stepped up to the counter, so Cal sent her another wave and went back to work.
Livia grabbed a cart and started down the first aisle. She greeted Betsy Williams and Earl Klein, two lifelong Riverbend residents who'd been instant friends when she moved here. Most of the town was like thatfriendly and warm.
No wonder Jenna had chosen to settle here after she'd married Stockton Grisham, her childhood sweetheart and owner of the elegant Rustica restaurant. Once the holidays were over, Livia would go to work for Jenna, part-time at first. Once she'd moved to Riverbend, Jenna had switched her event planning business focus from birthdays and weddings to charitable events, and had found fulfillment and happiness that Livia could hear in her voice. That was the kind of life Livia wanted, the kind of example she wanted to set for her daughter.