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Leandra Flanagan didn't know how her life could have changed so completely in just a few days. One day, she'd been a top advertising executive at a major Houston firm, making more money than she'd ever dreamed possible, and the next day, she was back in her hometown of Marshall, Texas, applying for the job of Christmas Pageant Coordinator for the city of Marshall.
She'd come full circle.
And she wasn't too happy about it. "Ah, now, honey, don't look so glum," her mother, Colleen, told her, a hand on her arm.
That gentle hand was dusted with flour and cinnamon from the batch of Thanksgiving cookies Colleen was making for the church. That gentle hand brought some measure of comfort to Leandra, in spite of her own misgivings. "Sorry, I was just thinking about the strange turn of events in my life," Leandra said, pivoting away from the kitchen window to help her mother with the leaf and turkey shaped cookies. "I'm just worried, Mama. I never thought I'd wind up back here in Marshall. I still can't believe I let you talk me into coming home."
""The Lord will give grace and glory," Colleen quoted, her smile giving enough grace and glory to make any gloomy soul feel better.
"Mama, I appreciate that, but what I need along with any grace or glory is a good job. I had a good job and I guess I messed up, big time."
Colleen huffed a breath, causing her gray-tinged bob of hair to flutter around her face. "Sounds like you made the right decision to me, a decision based on your own values and not what your boss at that fancy advertising firm expected you to do."
In spite of the pride shining in her mother's eyes, Leandra didn't feel as if she'd made the right choice. But in the end, it had been the only choice she could make. She'd quit a week ago, and at her mother's insistence, had come home for an extended holiday, hoping to work through her turmoil before going back to Houston after the new year.
And now, her mother had gone and gotten the idea that Leandra could "fill in" down at city hall, just for a few short weeks.
"Well, no sense in worrying about it now," she said, spinning away from the long counter where her mother had baked so many batches of cookies over the years. "I guess I'll just go and see what this pageant job is all about, at least earn some money through the holidays and keep myself busy."
"That's my girl," Colleen said, a bright smile centered on her round, rosy face. "Then come on back for lunch. Your brothers will be here and they're all anxious to see you."
"I suppose they are, at that," Leandra replied, grabbing her wool coat and her purse. "They probably can't wait to rub it in—about how I had to come home with my head down—""
"I'll hear none of that kind of talk," Colleen retorted, her words gentle as always, but firm all the same. "Your brothers are proud of you, and glad to have you home, where you belong."
"Oh, all right," Leandra said. "I'll try to pretend that I planned it this way."
Colleen beamed another motherly smile at her. "Maybe you didn't, but maybe God did.""
As she drove the few blocks to city hall, Leandra had to wonder what her mother had meant by that remark. Why would God in all of His wisdom bring her back to the small-town life she'd always wanted to get away from? Why would God want Leandra Flanagan to wind up back in Marshall?
Her mother would tell her to wait for the answer, that it would come soon enough.
But Leandra was impatient. She didn't want to wait.
"I can't wait for you to get started on this," Chet Reynolds told her an hour later as he shoved a stack of folders in her arms and directed her to a small, cluttered office in the corner of the building. "And first thing, ride out to Nathan Welby's place—it's the big Victorian-style house just out on Highway 80—and hire him on to build the set. He's the best carpenter in town—a single father of three. He works full-time in construction, but he's off for Thanksgiving this week, and he needs the extra cash. Only he's kinda stubborn and prideful, hard to pin down. Can you get right on that for me, Leandra?"
"Am I hired?" Leandra asked, still in a daze. They'd barely conducted a proper interview, mainly because Chet Reynolds had never been one to talk in complete sentences. He just rambled on and on, merging everything together.
"Why, sure." Chet, a tall man who wore sneakers and a Tabasco sauce embossed polo shirt, in spite of the cool temperatures, bobbed his balding head over a skinny neck. "Known your mama and daddy all my life, watched you grow up into a fine, upstanding young woman—that's all the credentials I need. That, and the fact that my last coordinator had her baby three weeks early—won't be able to come back to work until well after Christmas—if she comes back at all. I'm trusting you to do a good job on this, Leandra."
So, just like that, Leandra had a new job. A temporary job, but a job all the same, based solely on her parents' good name and a little baby's early birth. The hiring process had sure been different from all the interviews and questionnaires she'd had to endure to land her position back in Houston. And the salary—well, that was almost nonexistent, compared to what she'd been making in the big city.
Good thing she had a substantial savings account and some stocks and bonds to fall back on. Listening to her father's advice, she'd built herself quite a little nest egg. And a good life as a happily single city woman who'd enjoyed pouring all of herself into her work. That is, until she'd gotten involved with the wrong man.
But that life is over now, she told herself as she squeezed behind the battered oak desk in the pint-size office.
"Must have been a closet in another life," she mumbled to herself. Dropping the folders on the dusty desk, she sank down in the mismatched squeaky wooden swivel chair. She hadn't seen furniture such as this since—
Since she'd left Marshall five years ago. Putting the size and spaciousness of her plush, modern office in a high-rise building in downtown Houston out of her mind, Leandra spent the next two hours organizing the haphazard plans for the pageant. It was going to be a combination of songs and stories that would tell the miracle of Christ's birth, complete with a live manger scene—which meant that someone had to start building the elaborate set right away.
She couldn't put together a Christmas pageant without a proper set, and the entire production was already weeks behind schedule, and now with just a short month until Christmas, too. Well, first things first. She called her mother to say she'd have to miss lunch after all.
She was back at work and she aimed to get the job done. Her parents had taught her that no matter your job, you did the work with enthusiasm and integrity, and she needed this distraction right now to take her mind off her own worries. She would put on the best Christmas pageant this city had ever seen.
With that thought in mind, she hopped up to go find Nathan Welby.
It was the biggest, most run-down house she'd ever seen. And Nathan Welby was one of the tallest, most intriguing men she'd ever seen.
The house must have been lovely at one time, a real Victorian treasure. But now, it looked more like a gingerbread house that had been half-eaten by hungry children, a total wreck of broken shingles and torn shutters and peeling paint. An adorable wreck that begged to be restored to its former beauty.
And the man—was this the best carpenter in town? Someone who lived in such a sad place as this? He was sure enough a big man, a giant who right now was wielding a very big ax and using it to slice thick chunks of wood into kindling.
"Chet, you've sent me to find Paul Bunyan," Leandra muttered to herself. "Hello," she called for the third time.
The big man chopping wood in the backyard had to have heard her. But he did have his back—a broad, muscled back—turned away from her. And there was lots of noise coming from inside the dilapidated house.
Leandra had shuddered at all that noise. It sounded too familiar. Being the baby and only girl of a large family had taught her that she didn't want a repeat in her own adult life. She had no desire to have a large family and she certainly had no desire to stay at home and bake cookies and cart kids around to various events the way her mother had.
That was why her relationship with William Myers had seemed so perfect. No commitments beyond companionship, no demands about marriage and a family. William hadn't wanted any of those things, either. But he'd certainly asked for a lot more than she'd been willing to give in the end.
But she refused to dwell on that mistake now. No, Leandra thought as she waited impatiently for the man to turn around and acknowledge her. She only wanted to get back to her own plans, back to her civil, peaceful, working life in the big city, minus William's domineering influence.
And yet, here she stood, out in the middle of nowhere, about to hire a man she'd never met as carpenter for a one-month project.
Why had she ever let her mother talk her into taking this job?
She'd knocked on the heavy double doors at the front of the house several times before working her way around back. Music, giggles, screams, dogs barking, cats screeching—had she only imagined this house of horrors, or was it real?
Was he a real man?
He turned then, as if just now realizing someone was calling to him, and Leandra saw that he was very real, indeed.
Real from his golden blond wavy hair to the blue-and-red-plaid flannel shirt he wore, to the faded, torn jeans covering his athletic legs to the muddy hiking boots on his feet.
Real from the intense, wary look centered in his hazel, catlike eyes, eyes that spoke a lot more than any of the other noises coming from this carnival fun-house.
"Hello," she said again on a much more level voice, now that she was standing about ten feet away from him. "I'm Leandra Flanagan, from city hall—"
"I paid the light bill, lady," he said in a distinct East Texas drawl that sounded almost lazy. Dismissing her with a frown, he turned to center the ax over a wide log.
Leandra watched as he lifted his arms in an arc over his head, the ax aimed with calculated precision at its target, and in a flash of muscle and steel, went about his work.
The log split in two like a paper box folding up on itself. A clean split, with hardly any splinters falling from either side.
There was nothing lazy about this man, except that enticing accent.
Leandra swallowed back the shocked awe and justified fear rolling into a lump that felt as dry as that split log in her throat. "No, I'm not here about the light bill," she said, stepping over an old tractor part to get closer. "I'm here because—""
"I paid the gas bill, too." He turned away again, his head down, then reached to heave another log up on the big stump.