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The house looked like a fire-department statistic just waiting to happen. Either that or the trigger for a power outage the likes of which southern Indiana had never known. Jenna Scott couldn't decide which as she tromped up the walk toward the redbrick colonial, passing a riot of Christmas lights and a holiday amusement park along the way.
On one side of the walk, a half-scale crèche rested serenely on the lawn with animals, shepherds and wise men focused on the Christ child. On the other side, a trio of plastic carolers sang a scratchy version of "O Little Town of Bethlehem," and a herd of mechanical reindeer bent to munch on artificial snow.
Could someone say "over the top"?
Her mother hadn't been exaggerating when she'd mentioned that the Warrens' Christmas display was "a sight to behold." The celebration was also another excuse for best friends and matchmakers Trina Scott and Amy Warren to force their adult children together.
They'd been campaigning for an event like this ever since the Scott-Warren matrimonial merger six months before. Jenna figured that whatever the evening held in store for her personally, it promised to be entertaining.
As she stepped to the door, decorated in green-foil gift wrap, a hum of voices spilled from inside, competing with Elvis bellowing "Blue Christmas."
"So much for a quiet Christmas at home," she told the life-size Santa doll that smiled at her from a wicker chair on the porch.
Suddenly that bah-humbug spirit filled her again, making the winter wonderland feel claustrophobic. It was only the second Christmas since her father died, and she doubted it would be any easier than last year.Visiting Markston wasn't like coming home for the holidays, anyway. Markston wasn't her home. Nowhere was, really.
Someone yanked open the door before she had the chance to knock, and Jenna found herself wrapped in a hug warm enough to cut through the December freeze.
"Jenna, dear, you finally made it," Mrs. Warren said.
She stepped out of the woman's embrace, glancing back at the outdoor decorations. "Wow. This is great."
"I'm glad you like it. Now come in out of the cold before you catch your death." Already Amy Warren was pulling Jenna into the entry where the rest of the Scotts and Warrens were gathered. Just being in the house again made butterflies flutter in her stomach.
Her mother gripped her in a tight hug. "We thought you'd never get here."
"I told you my flight would get in after dinner, and I came straight from the airport." Jenna gestured toward the deep-blue airline-attendant uniform she'd been wearing since she'd left her apartment that morning in Romulus, Michigan, and headed to Detroit Metro.
"It doesn't matter now because we're all here together again," Trina told her.
"All here?" Jenna asked.
She scanned the faces of the other guests waiting to greet her. Newlyweds Matthew Warren and her younger sister, Haley, smiled over at her, Matthew's four-year-old daughter, Lizzie, resting on his hip. Jenna's other sister, Caroline, stood next to them, and the youngest Warren brother, Logan, was there, as well, but appeared to be inching toward the door.
They were not all there—the one member of the Warren family she'd hoped most to see was missing: Dylan. He was the whole reason she'd agreed to participate in this joint holiday celebration in the first place. The whole reason she hadn't canceled the trip and stayed in Michigan.
"Am I missing something?"
Jenna startled at the sound coming from behind her, butterflies continuing their mad dance inside her belly. Taking a deep breath, she turned toward the gruff voice she would have recognized anywhere. Leaning over the staircase railing with his wavy brown hair falling forward on his forehead was the best friend she'd ever had. The one who'd left a hole in her life when he'd removed himself from it.
For the space of a few breaths, she could only look up at him, following the lines of his face and settling on his warm chocolate eyes. Those eyes were amazing. If he were anyone else besides Dylan Warren… Jenna blinked, surprised by the strange path her thoughts had taken. But this was Dylan, even if the passing years had put more granite in the chiseled cheekbones, which had always contradicted his teddy-bear personality. His smile probably would look as friendly and unassuming as it always had…if he was smiling. He wasn't.
"Hey, Dylan," she choked out over the knot that had formed in her throat. "Oh, I mean, Dr. Dylan." Now that he'd finished his doctor of optometry degree at Indiana University and had joined a local optometry practice, he'd earned that title, even if he didn't look much like a medical professional now in a tan flannel shirt and jeans.
"Hi." He cleared his throat. "Dylan's fine."
Only Dylan didn't appear to be fine. He didn't even make eye contact with her as he shuffled down the stairs and joined the others in living room. Her heart sank.
Jenna didn't know what she'd expected. That when he saw her, the four years of distance and the misunderstanding that caused them would fall away so they could resume their friendship as if it had only been a pause in their conversation? Hadn't the awkwardness between them last summer at Matthew and Haley's wedding clued her in that it wouldn't be so easy? But she'd wished, anyway.
She couldn't allow herself to be discouraged, though, not when she'd prayed for a chance to try to make it up to Dylan for the day she'd treated his feelings so cavalierly. This visit might be the chance she'd hoped for.
Four years ago, she'd excused her actions by telling herself she hadn't realized that their plans had been firm, let alone that he'd thought it was a real date, instead of just hanging out. Now she saw that situation—saw a lot of things—through new eyes.
Before she could say anything, Jenna was swallowed in one of those Warren-Scott hug fests where she couldn't distinguish one form from the next in the crush. She couldn't be sure, but she didn't believe Dylan was among those who hugged her.
"Now that we're all here," Amy Warren began after all the greetings ended, "we need to get started on the Christmas festivities."
"Yeah, we'd better hurry up and get started before Easter comes and we've missed it," Logan piped up, earning a frown from his mother and a few chuckles from the others.
Jenna realized she was looking again at Dylan and quickly began to scan the indoor holiday decorations. Too much of a good thing was the only way she could describe the pine garland that was draped over every stair railing, curtain rod and windowsill.
The coffee table had been transformed into a miniature Christmas village. Several manger scenes and a Madonna figurine covered other tables and shelves. The individual pieces were lovely, but when compiled this way, they created a frenzied feeling in the room, which did nothing to help Jenna calm her nerves.
"The only thing missing is a tree," Jenna breathed.
Logan tapped his head as if she'd just given him a great idea. "Good thing we're going to the Christmas-tree farm to cut one down."
Jenna turned to her mother and raised an eyebrow.
Now the way Dylan and the others were dressed and the line of hiking boots by the door made sense.
"Didn't I mention we'd be tree hunting tonight?" Her mother wore a sheepish grin.
"No, you didn't. Anyway, didn't you look at the weather forecast?"
"The rain isn't expected until after midnight."
Caroline stepped closer to Jenna. "Mom didn't warn me, either. She only said we would be participating in the Warren family's Christmas traditions this year to celebrate the new connection between our families."
Jenna nodded, having heard the same story. She hadn't been thrilled with the idea of sharing in another family's holiday traditions. Her own family's celebrations had been portable at best because of her father's frequent corporate relocations. She'd needed no reminder of how their wreaths and ornaments had hung in different family rooms every year or so.
Jenna glanced over to where the middle Warren brother stood. Dylan would understand those bittersweet memories. He'd been her only constant after each of her family's moves—only a phone call or a text message away. But as she watched him now, his attention was focused on something in the family room, as if he hadn't heard the conversation. Or didn't care.
"Come in here," Amy Warren said as she ushered them into the room where Dylan had been looking. "Then I'll give you our agenda."
Jenna followed gamely as Amy led them toward the huge sectional sofa. She took her place on one end, noting that Dylan sat at the opposite end.
Amy stood in the center of the L-shaped couch as if leading a class. "Okay, we'll begin with tonight's tree cutting. Reverend Boggs and his wife, Lila, were supposed to join us, but he called to say something came up at church."
"Did he say if everything was okay?" Matthew asked. As an attorney who also worked as the weekend music minister at Community Church of Markston, he was usually in the loop regarding most church matters.
"He only said they would catch up with us here later." Mrs. Warren sent a glance Jenna's way, noting her outfit. "We have clothes for you upstairs."
"See how well they outfitted me?" Caroline modeled a red flannel shirt with sleeves that hung off her hands.
"Is that how Dylan's shirt fits you?" Trina asked her daughter, a secretive smile playing on her lips.
"Quit it, Mom," Caroline warned in a low voice.
"I'm not doing anything."
"Keep it that way."
No one could blame Caroline for being cautious after their mothers tried to arrange a match between Caroline and Matthew Warren last spring, only to have Matthew and Haley fall in love, instead. Caroline wouldn't appreciate any more shenanigans from their two moms with their ridiculous plan to arrange marriages among their children.
Their matchmaking attempt this time was particularly funny. Jenna's type-A, corporate-ladder-climbing-retail-executive sister matched with quirky, laid-back Dylan Warren? That was enough to pull the smirk right off her face: she didn't like the idea of Dylan being set up with Caroline.
It was a fleeting, silly thought, but as Jenna tucked it away, a more powerful musing settled into its place. Their meddling mothers had already enjoyed one success in their matchmaking scheme, which they'd always jokingly referred to as The Plan. Did their achievement mean they would up their games now? Would they be able to convince Dylan and Caroline that their mothers knew best, no matter what their initial objections? She tried to picture herself at Dylan and Caroline's wedding and almost had to leave the room. She didn't like this. She didn't like it one bit.
Tonight was even tougher than Dylan had expected it would be. The prospect of having Jenna Scott in town for an interminable two weeks had already scored high on his dread scale, but the combination of sitting in the same room as Jenna and listening to his mother tell them her plans for another dysfunctional Warren family Christmas had topped even that.
Both reminded him of things he could never have. Both evoked humiliating memories best left in the past.
"Remember, tree trimming is only the beginning," Amy told her captive audience, rubbing her hands together like a child waiting to open her Christmas presents. "Tomorrow we'll start the cooking and baking. First the treats and then the pierogi and cabbage rolls."
Dylan felt tired, and they weren't even elbow-deep in cookie dough yet. Christmas always had been a trying experience for Dylan and his brothers. Their mother had made each celebration bigger, better and brighter than the last as she tried to make up for her husband's absence in the boys' lives. Dylan knew from experience that nothing could make up for that.
Now his mother wanted to share the humiliating, sideshow event with the new in-laws. She acted as if the two families had been joined in marriage, instead of just his older brother and Jenna's baby sister. If only he could have found another optometry conference to attend, he could have avoided this year's festivities and the holiday guests with a legitimate-sounding excuse.
When his mother started describing the thirty or so goodie platters they would make for church friends and neighbors, Dylan cleared his throat.
"You know, Mom, maybe we should consider cutting back on the baking this year. Maybe make fewer platters. Or just give gifts from your bakery."
"Give gifts from the shop?"
From her incredulous tone, he would have thought he'd just suggested giving day-old bread from the supermarket as gifts rather than the scrumptious, designer cakes his mother created at her bakery, Amy's Elite Treats.
"And why would we cut back, anyway?" She waved away his suggestion with a brush of her fingers through the air. "We have more hands in the kitchen this year."
That's the point, he wanted to say. Fewer recipients would mean less baking and less time spent with all those extra hands. "Just a thought."
His mother rolled her eyes, turning back to the group. "Then Monday night we have tickets to the see The Nutcracker. Third row." She shot her arm into the air as if she'd just won a medal. "And then we'll take a car tour to see the Festival of Lights."
Dylan's frustration built with each event his mother listed. Why couldn't she see that all this busyness had nothing to do with the true meaning of Christmas? And of all the women in this world, why had Matthew chosen to marry a Scott sister? Okay, he would concede that point. Haley and Matthew were too perfect together for God not to have planned that one.
But if Matthew had married someone else, they could have been enduring these excessive Christmas festivities with another family. Instead of this one. Now he would have to spend a miserable holiday trying to avoid the one person who'd always been able to send his stable life crumbling into invisible fault line: Jenna. Always Jenna.
She represented his life's biggest disappointment— the person he'd always loved who'd always been out of reach. She'd made him question everything he knew to be true: his values and even his faith. How could he not when he'd always been so certain that God intended them to be together? Even now, after working as hard to forget her as he had to finish his degree, he could no more prevent his gaze from shifting her way than he could have given time a lunch break.
At twenty-six, she looked impossibly young with all that caramel-colored hair wrangled into a long ponytail. The only difference between the way she'd worn it in junior high and the style now was the longer bangs off to one side. Her face was thinner now, too, but that only magnified the impact of the high cheekbones and generous lips that were Scott family traits. She was painfully, perfectly beautiful.