Moving to Chestnut Grove was the best thing to happen to Mom and me. It's so neat that a few months ago Mom didn't know she had a half brother—you! And I can tell she likes Jonah Fraser, this really cool carpenter. I always tell Mom she's got to believe in the power of prayer. But now I have my own special prayer—that mom and Jonah get together to make this the best Christmas ever!
Jillian Hart grew up on the original homestead where her family still lives, went to high school where Twin Peaks was filmed, earned an English degree, and has travelled extensively. When Jillian’s not writing her stories, she reads, stops for café mochas, and hikes through the pine forests near her home in Washington State.
"Mom, are you even listening to me?"
"Sure I am, kid." Debra Cunningham Watson was too busy navigating her SUV down the small Virginia town's unfamiliar and icy streets to do more than shoot a quick glance in her thirteen-year-old daughter's direction. "I'm just trying not to crash into the car in front of us."
Did they have to hit the noon-hour rush? Things had not been going according to plan for this entire trip, which was why they were running late. The long line of slow-moving traffic through the town's main street didn't help. Nor did the knowledge that the appointment she had to keep was a personal one—meeting with Ben Cavanaugh, the half brother she didn't know she had until six months ago. Talk about being thrown for a loop. She still couldn't quite believe it.
"Mom, aren't the decorations awesome?"
Mia was at the age where everything was either awesome or tragic. Since the line of cars ahead of her had stopped inching forward due to a red light, Debra relaxed back into the leather seat, took her eyes from the road and considered her daughter. Talk about high hopes. Meeting her cousins from Ben's side of the family, along with his wife, her new aunt, was about all Mia could talk about during the morning-long drive on wintry roads from their home near Baltimore.
Mia leaned against the restraint of her seat belt to point across the dash. "Is that like the biggest Christmas tree ever? They're using the fire truck's ladder. Look!"
"So I see." Debra hadn't noticed, she'd been too busy stressing over the compact snow and ice on the road. But since the traffic was still stopped, she took a moment to scan up the street, where two city workers were mountingChristmas lights in the shapes of giant candy canes and Christmas stars and silver bells on the utility poles.
Beyond the block of quaint shop-lined street, she spotted a city park, where snow blanketed a stretch of grass and mantled picture-perfect evergreens. In the center of the square was an enormous spruce, probably as old as the town itself, long graceful boughs holding up strings of fat, lit bulbs. What would it be like to live in such a postcard-perfect place?
Impossible, that's what. It was like a Currier & Ives scene, with the morning's snowfall fresh on the ground and crisping the roofs and awnings and trees along the row of shops. It could even make someone as driven as she was wish for a quieter life. Then again, a quieter life often came with a less impressive paycheck, and that meant no Chesapeake Bay-view home and no prestigious private school for Mia. No top-of-the-line luxury SUV.
And it wasn't only material things at stake, Debra thought with a heavy heart as the traffic began to creep forward and she eased her foot back onto the gas pedal. There were the family obligations to consider. Obligations to those living and those gone.
Debra's throat ached with sorrow and she forced down the grief that still felt too immense to handle. It had not been easy to lose her mother. To make it all worse, coming to this adorable little town was like digging up all that grief and hurt and confusion and feeling it anew.
But not for Mia. No, learning about Ben had seemed to help the girl with her burden of grief, for she and her grandmother had been tight. Practically joined at the hip. Mia was lit up as she took in every detail. "Mom! Don't you see it? It's a sign."
Uh-oh, here we go again, Debra thought. "You mean, the sign that says, Welcome to Chestnut Grove?" She couldn't help but tease a little because she knew it would make her daughter smile or at least roll her eyes in the way of teenagers everywhere. But did it divert Mia? Not a chance.
"Mom, really. You know I meant a sign from heaven, not a physical signpost." Mia pursed her lips in ladylike disapproval, thirteen going on forty-three. "This sign can only mean one thing."
"I'm afraid to ask what."
"That God is about to answer my deepest, most secret prayer."
There she went talking about God again. It took all Debra's effort to snap her mouth shut and keep it that way. Thankfully, the street she needed to turn left onto came into view and she pulled the SUV into the icy turn lane. When she eased onto the brakes, the vehicle skidded to a safe stop. "If I had a prayer, it would be to arrive at Ben's business in one piece."
"Do you know what your problem is, Mom?"
"I'm afraid to know the answer to that, too."
"You don't believe in the power of prayer."
Where had she heard this exact phrase before? Oh, yes, constantly, the entire time she was growing up. Debra didn't know if she believed in heaven anymore, but she knew beyond a doubt that her mother had. And if her mother were there, then surely she would be looking down rejoicing in the fact that her granddaughter was carrying on her life's work to save as many people as possible, especially Debra.
Resigned, Debra turned at the break in traffic and crept through the intersection. The temperature was dropping, confirmed by the gauge on the dash and the fact that the passenger compartment felt colder. Snow clouds hung overhead, gathering momentum. With any luck, they'd finish seeing Ben and be able to get back to the bed-and-breakfast before more of the white stuff fell. Debra turned up the heater.
"I'll have you know that prayer works." Mia gave her curly brown hair a flip. "I know it does because we're here in Chestnut Grove right now. Together. It's proof."
"We're here because we agreed to meet Ben."
"But we're meeting Ben because I prayed for more family to love and God answered me. He had to take Grandmother Millie from us, but He saw fit to give us Ben."
How did she tell Mia that God and prayers had nothing to do with it? That a carpenter had been renovating a wall in some mansion here in this town, and had discovered original birth certificates and records of adoptions that had been falsified. Ben Cavanaugh's birth information had been part of those discovered records and that's how he had found them.
It was not God's handiwork, she thought sensibly, but the result of someone renovating a house. Debra was on her way to touch bases with her half brother not because of some grand design by God. Really. It was happenstance—mere chance—that they'd even learned about Ben at all. That was why they were here. The only reason they were here.
But she didn't say that to Mia, not when she knew those words would dampen her daughter's happiness. Debra cut her eyes from the road long enough to take in Mia's dear face. She had a light scattering of freckles across her perfect nose and a peaches-and-cream complexion. Dimples bracketed her bright smile, and she radiated hope and life.
When was the last time she saw her daughter so bubbly? Her dark eyes glinted with a joyful brightness that had been missing since, well, Debra realized with a heavy heart, since her mom's passing. There was no way she would take an ounce of Mia's hope away, but larger questions had plagued her since all of this came to light.
What if it was a mistake getting involved with Ben and his family? They were strangers. They'd only met Ben once, when he'd made a short trip to Maryland to meet them. He'd been nice—but so were a lot of people on the surface. What if once his curiosity about them was satisfied, Ben cut off all ties? What would that do to Mia?
Debra had plenty of other doubts and concerns, but that was the greatest one. Which was why her stomach was becoming a tighter knot with every click of the odometer. She checked the cross street at the corner signpost adorned with Christmas lights and realized they were a block away. One more block and they would come face to face with Ben. With all her uncertainties and questions and doubts.
Don't think about them now, Debra, she told herself. She was here for Mia. To make this a good experience for her daughter. Goodness knew, they'd had enough bad ones lately and it was taking its toll.
"A Christian bookstore, Mom! Cool. We'll have to stop there later, promise?" Mia seemed enchanted by the town's streets, which did have a certain charm. "Oh, and that's a school. A junior high. That would be better any day than my yucky school."
"The Stanton School is one of the best in the country." And also their biggest source of conflict, Debra thought, but decided to keep her tone light. "I went there. Your aunt Lydia went there. Your grandmother Millie went there."
"I know." Mia rolled her eyes. "I'm a Cunningham and a Watson. There would be nowhere else I could possibly go. Family tradition is so-oo important."
Normally Debra would comment on the sarcasm, but this wasn't the time. She had enough on her mind, and did she dare break Mia's wonderful good mood? Absolutely not. It had actually lasted all morning long. A record for recent times. Debra pulled the SUV to a stop in front of Cavanaugh's Carpentry and cut the engine.
"We're here! I can't stand it." Mia hit the seat-belt release. "I'm so excited. I'm glad we're seeing Uncle Ben and all, but I don't know if I can wait much longer to meet Aunt Leah and Cousin Olivia and baby Joseph."
"You'll manage." Before Debra could pull the keys from the ignition, Mia was already out the door, the frigid gusts of wind tangling her hair and blowing her coat open. Her hand-knit, designer sweater might be made of wool, but it was hardly protection against this kind of weather. "Zip up and pull on your hood, sweetie."
"I'm too happy to feel cold!" Mia argued, but did as she was told in an absentminded way, gawking about as if this were the most remarkable place on earth.
As the passenger door slammed shut, Debra buttoned her wool peacoat and wrapped a scarf over her head. In the two moments it took for her to pull her warmest gloves from the console, Mia had circled around and was opening the driver's door for her.
"Mom! Hurry up! You're taking forever."
Debra couldn't help laughing just a little. It helped with the mounting worries that just kept plaguing her. So much could go wrong.
Then again, maybe that only meant there were a lot of things to go right. After all, she'd already met her half brother once, right? Ben was a nice man—it was hard not to like him. Although months had passed since she'd found out this shocking news, she still couldn't quite grasp it. Her mind understood it, but her heart could not accept it.
"Snowflakes!" Mia held out her mittened hand, palm up, to let the first airy, dizzying flakes of snow land.
"Mom, it's a sign."
"How is that possible?" She climbed down from the seat and closed the door. "You think everything is a sign."
"That's 'cause everything is a sign. God is everywhere, watching over us. Grandmother Millie always said that and it's true. See?"
It looked like there would be no escaping Grandmother Millie or her religious influence on Mia—and although these things were thorns in her side, Debra decided to ignore the sting. She'd made a promise to her daughter and considering the difficulties they'd had lately, she wanted to put her best effort into this trip, into bringing them closer together.
"They are lovely," Debra said of the snowflakes. If one had an overactive imagination, like Mia, then, Debra conceded, the crisp, lovely fragile flakes could look like a sign of good things to come.
"Not lovely, Mom. Perfect." A gust of wind threw her hood back and Mia twirled, letting the snowflakes catch in her cloud of soft brown hair. "Everything's gonna be perfect. I just know it. This is gonna be a holiday to remember."
"I hope so, sweet pea."
If she were a religious woman, Debra would pray for it to be true. But why put her energies into something so unproven? Faith was like those snowflakes on the wind, dizzily falling where the air currents took them. She could catch one on the tip of her fingers if she wanted to, but what good would it do? It would melt away and she'd be left with nothing.
Besides, she had learned to rely on herself and nothing had been the same since Mom's passing. Now, with Ben, it could never go back to the way things were. Even the memory of her family—of her mother—was tarnished.
She beeped the door locked as the snowflakes swirled around her, not at all surprised to hear the thump of her daughter's fashionable boots on the shoveled front step.
The wind gusted, catching the fringe of her scarf and the hem of her coat. It felt like a touch against her face, turning her gently leftward. Her gaze aligned perfectly with a large window, offering a view inside the carpenter's workshop where a lone man was kneeling in a fall of soft gray daylight. Broad of shoulder, humble in appearance and deeply masculine, the man worked with his head bent, carefully brushing sandpaper over a corner of something made of wood—his big body blocked any view of it.
Who is he? The question filled her mind and stilled all the worries and cautions in her heart. She forgot to take a step forward and simply stood rooted in place with the snowflakes sifting through the icy air like pure sugar, unable to take her eyes off the man. He was so big and rugged looking, he could have been made of steel.
Not that she was prone to noticing men or how they were built. Maybe it wasn't him that held her attention at all, she rationalized. Perhaps what caught her attention was the unlikely contrast between the intimidating-looking linebacker of a man working so patiently at his craft. It seemed like a paradox.
"Mom?" Mia had retraced her steps to see what had captured her mother's attention. "That's not Uncle Ben. Who is it?"
"I don't know. Probably one of his employees." Before she could move, the woodworker stiffened, as if he sensed her gaze. The breath left her lungs when he suddenly stood, all six feet of him, and stared back at her. He was pure silhouette, backlit by the faint light spilling from above. Caught between darkness and light he looked almost unreal, a shadowed form and nothing more.
Even before he took a step forward and moved into the light, Debra felt the power of his protective spirit; how silly was that? She wasn't given to flights of fancy. She didn't have the luxury of it as a hardworking single mom.
He gestured to the side of the building, not the front door, and Mia took off at a fast clip, galloping toward what appeared to be a side door. It swung open and there he was, the man in flesh and bone, with thick brown hair, dark eyes and a strong, ruggedly handsome face. He wore a plain navy blue thermal Henley and sawdust-covered jeans.