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Lieutenant Travis McCall had never had what most people would call a merry Christmas, and it was the last thing he wanted this year. The glossy door of the Southern colonial house bore a huge Christmas wreath, and the sight was nearly enough to make him turn tail.
Almost, but not quite. He'd promised his buddy, and he never went back on his word.
The moment's hesitation proved just enough. A discordant bray pierced the air of Mt. Pleasant, the quiet Charleston suburb. He glanced toward the driveway, which swept around the house, and blinked. A horse trailer had been pulled there, its ramp down. On the ramp, all four feet planted firmly, stood a small gray donkey.
A lead rope disappeared into the back of the trailer. Someone out of Travis's sight in the trailer was apparently trying to pull the donkey in. Just as plainly, the donkey didn't intend to go anywhere. Travis had loaded horses and cattle enough times as a kid to know the signs.
Even as he thought it, the animal jerked back. In a minute it would be free, running into traffic as likely as not. He'd have to go give that idiot a hand.
A few quick strides took him across the lawn. Just as he reached the ramp, the donkey reared, yanking the lead rope. A slight figure hurtled out of the back of the trailer, stumbled on the ramp and barreled into Travis.
He grasped it, his mind registering several things at once. This was not a teenage boy, as his first startled glimpse had made him think. And the donkey, managing to free himself, bolted.
"Are you okay?" He grasped the woman under the elbows, setting her on her feet.
"Never mind me. Help me get that foolish beast before he gets himself hit by a car." Even the sharpness of the command couldn't deprive the woman's voice of a soft Southern drawl, reminding him of Luke Bodine.
He let go of her. "I'll get between him and the street."
"Good. Don't scare him." Deep blue eyes were focused on the donkey, not sparing a glance for him.
"I'm not the one who lost him," he reminded her. The donkey had dropped his head to crop at the grass. Travis moved a few steps to the side, to be in a position to intercept him if he should take a notion to head for the street.
The woman grinned, not taking offense at his words. "True enough. I thought the hay in the rack would be enough to tempt him in. Guess I was wrong." She pulled a carrot from the pocket of her denim jacket. "Maybe this will do it."
This obviously had to be Annabel Bodine, Travis decided, watching as she crooned to the donkey, coaxing him with the carrot. Luke often talked about his twin sisters. Amanda was a reporter while Annabel ran some kind of animal shelter.
Annabel, with her faded jeans, scuffed boots and denim jacket, fit the part. Long blond hair was pulled back into a single heavy braid, and her heart-shaped face was innocent of makeup. The smattering of freckles on her cheeks made her look like a kid.
"There, now, you silly boy. Nobody's going to hurt you ever again."
The donkey's white muzzle extended toward the treat, and he sniffed cautiously.
If it were up to Travis, he'd have made a grab for the rope already, but he had to admit Annabel seemed to know what she was doing. She continued to talk softly to the donkey as he chomped at the carrot, running her hand down his neck and finally taking hold of the rope.
"There, now. That wasn't so bad, was it?" She led him toward the trailer.
Travis moved in behind, ready to jump into action if the animal showed signs of trouble, but the donkey—apparently having decided this woman was a friend—moved into the trailer and began to eat hay as if that had always been his plan.
Annabel slipped out the side door of the trailer. Together, they shut the tailgate.
"Sorry." She looked up at him with a quicksilver smile that reminded him of his friend. "That wasn't exactly the welcome we had planned for you. You must be Travis McCall. I'm Annabel Bodine, Luke's sister."
She extended her hand, seemed to remember the donkey had been eating the carrot from it and wiped it on her jeans instead.
"I figured that. Luke said you worked with animals." He glanced at the donkey as he spoke, and his eyes narrowed. "That animal has been abused."
"Yes." Sorrow deepened the blue of Annabel's eyes. "That's why he's going home with me. It won't ever happen again."
He nodded. In his book, there wasn't much worse than a man who'd abuse a helpless animal—unless it was a man who'd do that to a child. He shut that thought away with a forcible slam.
Annabel brushed some gray fur from the sleeve of his dress blues. "Sorry again. But you didn't need to get all dressed up to come see us, you know."
"If I'm calling on a superior officer, I dress accordingly," he said. The Bodines were a military family. Luke's father was a senior officer at the U.S. Coast Guard Base in Charleston, South Carolina, where Travis had just been posted, coming from the base in Kodiak, Alaska, where he'd met Luke Bodine.
Annabel took his arm, her hand small and capable. "Come on, then. Let's get you introduced to Mamma and Daddy. They'll be thrilled you're here. And I warn you, they'll want to know every little bitty thing about what Luke's been up to since he left here."
She led him across the veranda and threw open the door, tugging him into a wide center hall. Could she sense his nervousness? If so, she seemed determined not to let him give in to it.
"Mamma! Daddy! He's here!" She brushed the long braid of honey-blond hair back over the shoulder of her denim jacket.
She glanced up at him, and again he noticed the spray of freckles across her cheeks. Luke had called her his tomboy kid sister. She was that, but there was a grown-up appeal in her wide blue eyes and generous mouth.
He jerked his mind away from those thoughts. This was his buddy's sister. And those were his parents, hurrying toward them from somewhere in the rear of the house.
He might prefer to spend his Christmas alone in his quarters, safe from people pitying him, but there was no getting away from it now. Like it or not, he'd be having this Christmas with the Bodine family.
Annabel didn't miss the stiffening of Travis's already erect military bearing as her parents approached from the family room at the back of the house. Was he that much in awe of a superior officer?
Daddy was just well, Daddy. Still, he did have a quick temper, paired with an expectation that anybody around him would always do his or her best. She could see the brand-new Coasties being a bit afraid. But Travis was an officer, a helicopter pilot and a good friend of Luke's to boot.
Having him here for Christmas wouldn't be like having her brother home. That thought lay behind the introductions she performed. She allowed herself a wistful look back at last Christmas, when Luke had kept her too busy to think about her own problems. About the fiancé who'd dumped her and the Christmas wedding that hadn't happened.
Travis seemed to thaw as Mamma chattered away to him in that soft Southern voice of hers. Annabel watched, keeping a determined smile on her face. Anybody would think her pain and humiliation would have disappeared by now, but she could still feel it, nibbling at her heart as the holiday approached. Well, she wouldn't let it in.
"Sugar, what are you frownin' about?" Mamma turned to her with one of her quick movements. "Is that donkey stowed away where he can't get into any trouble?"
"Yes, ma'am, he's in the trailer, eatin' his way through the hay. I reckon he'll be all right until I get him to the farm."
"Not that I mind finding an abandoned donkey in the back garden when I get up in the morning," Daddy said, his humor hiding behind the mock glare he directed at her. "But he was chowing down on the wisteria we put in last spring."
"Good thing it wasn't the holly," she said, "or we'd have one sick donkey on our hands."
"We wouldn't want that," Daddy said, the smile reaching his voice. "But really, sugar, if folks are going to start dumping their strays here instead of out at the farm—"
"Now, Daddy, you know that's the first time it ever happened, and I'm sure it will be the last." She hoped. "You ought to see what shows up at the farm sometimes."
Travis was looking a little bewildered.
"The farm I own is an animal refuge," she explained. "The humane society can manage the dogs and cats that people dump off, but they really don't have the facilities for anything any bigger. So those animals come to my farm."
He nodded. "Luke did mention something about that when he was telling me about you."
She couldn't help wincing, hoping that her big brother hadn't seen fit to tell his friend all about her. "I can imagine what he said. ‘It's easy to tell the twins apart, because Annabel's the tomboy.'"
"That's just about it." Travis smiled, the somewhat stern cast of his face relaxing with the words, sun lines crinkling around his chocolate-brown eyes, and her heart gave an unexpected little thump.
"We want to hear every single thing about Luke," Mamma interrupted. "But sugar, if you're going to get that donkey settled at the farm and make yourself presentable for supper, hadn't you best get moving?"
She glanced at her watch. "I will, Mamma. Don't worry. Sam will help with the donkey, and I'll be back in plenty of time for supper." Since her teenage helper lived at the farm, he could take over.
"Dress up a little, sugar." Mamma patted her cheek gently. "It is a party, after all." She glanced at Travis. "Nothing too elaborate, mind. Just some of the family coming over for supper and to help us trim the tree. To welcome you to Charleston."
A wave of sympathy swept through Annabel when she saw Travis's expression. If he was this shaken by meeting Mamma and Daddy, he'd be downright flattened when he encountered a whole big mess of Bodines, all overflowing with eagerness to welcome him to an old-fashioned low-country Christmas.
"No, thanks." Annabel disentangled the tinsel her twin, Amanda, was trying to wrap around Annabel's braid. "I don't care to look like a Christmas tree."
"Come on, sugar." Amanda put a silver bell on the tree and considered the effect. "I was just trying to make you look a little more festive for our guest. We want to make this a good Christmas for him, don't we?"
Recognizing her twin's matchmaking talent coming to the fore, Annabel forced herself not to react. That would only encourage her. Amanda and Mamma had spent much of the past two years introducing her to a parade of eligible men, aided and abetted by every other member of the Bodine clan.
Only her grandmother, Miz Callie, seemed to understand that Annabel wasn't ready to risk her heart again. Maybe she never would be.
"I'm sure everyone is making Travis feel welcome," she said. "You ought to be worried about your own beau, shouldn't you? Ross and Daddy are over in the corner, and the chances they're agreeing on anything are pretty slim, don't you think?"
"Goodness, I'd best get over there before they start arguing about politics." Amanda shoved a Christmas ornament into Annabel's hand and darted off toward the two most important men in her life.
Annabel had been fairly sure that would divert her twin. Since Amanda had fallen in love with Ross when he'd been investigating Daddy in his role as newspaper editor, it wasn't surprising that Ross and Daddy acted like two dogs with one bone over Amanda from time to time.
She shifted her gaze to Travis. He was talking to Hugh, her other brother, probably about Luke. Travis had been putting on a good front, but she could see that he wasn't entirely comfortable with the festivities. At least Mamma had had sense enough not to invite the whole clan. Still, just her siblings, Miz Callie, Great-Uncle Ned and a couple of cousins made an intimidating enough bunch.
"Are you trimming or daydreaming?" Her cousin Georgia's voice held laughter. "You've been holding that same ornament for ages."
"I was just waiting for Lindsay." She smiled at Georgia's eight-year-old. "It's so pretty with the stars on it that I thought she'd like to put it on the tree."
Lindsay took the ball carefully in two hands. "Can I really, Mamma? It's beautiful."
"You surely can, sugar." Georgia's face lit with the pleasure she always showed when her stepdaughter called her Mamma.
As they decided on the proper place for the special ornament, Annabel glanced toward Travis again. Her fingers clenched. Hugh had brought over the stepladder, and he seemed to be expecting Travis to climb up it to hang the kissing ball from the chandelier.
Didn't he remember that Travis was just off the sick list? She moved toward them quickly as Travis put one foot on the ladder.
"What are you doing, Hugh? Trying to foist your job off on someone else?"
"He wants to, Bel. Honest." Hugh, laughing, held his hands up as if to defend himself against an attack.
She touched Travis's arm, to find it resembled nothing so much as a steel bar. "You don't have to climb—"
"I'm cleared for duty." The snap in his voice told her that was a sensitive point.
"Sorry," she said softly. She started to turn away, but his warm clasp on her hand brought her gaze back to his face.
"No, I'm the one who's sorry. Guess I hate being reminded."
His fingers lingered on hers a moment longer, and her heart gave a silly little thump that startled and dismayed her. She couldn't she didn't want
She took a firm hold of herself and managed a smile. "Well, the truth is that Hugh shouldn't go scampering around on ladders anyway."
Hugh tugged her braid in retribution. "I'm fine, half-pint."
"That's men for you." Miz Callie, her grandmother, entered the fray. "Always think they can't admit being less than strong, but let them get sick, and they act like babies. Now, you two big strong men hold that wobbly stepladder and let Annabel put up the kissing ball. It's her turn anyway."
"Right." She scampered up before they could argue, reaching down for the mistletoe-and-holly confection and hooking it into place. "Does that look right?"
Posted July 23, 2012
I love Marta Perry as an author, and I love her series on the Bodine family. Mistletoe Prayers was a wonderful book to end the series.
Although I have never read a book by Betsy St. Amant, I truly enjoyed her way of writing and the characters in The Gingerbread Season! It was a wonderful holiday love story!
Posted April 26, 2012
No text was provided for this review.
Posted July 26, 2011
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Posted July 21, 2011
No text was provided for this review.