Read an Excerpt
Christmas was for families. Charlie McGraw glanced around the cheerfully decorated interior of the Waggin' Tongue Grill. A two-foot artificial tree sat at the corner of the counter by the cash register. Lighted garlands had been draped around the window opening that looked into the kitchen, and from the back Harry Ulrich's off-key baritone could be heard humming a tune that switched between "Jingle Bell Rock" and "Yellow Submarine" every other stanza. Finally Charlie's attention wandered to the other patrons.
Snippets of excited conversation drifted his way, making it obvious that Kevin and Lacy Bradford and their two kids had just returned from a shopping trip. Just in time, too, if the snow blowing across the nearly empty parking lot was any indication.
Heavy snow had been falling and drifting for most of the day. Charlie wouldn't have brought Meredith out in this weather without his four-wheel-drive Jeep Cherokee.
At another table, Forrest and Natalie Perry took turns picking up a spoon that their chortling baby girl threw onto the floor. Their son, Wade, chattered while finishing off a dish of ice cream. The Terrys lived within walking distance of the Waggin' Tongue.
Charlie glanced at his five-year-old daughter. That morning he'd wrestled her curly dark hair into a fabric-covered elastic band, but strands were trailing down her neck already. He should take her shopping when the weather cleared. Try to get in the holiday spirit. Have her pick out some gifts for her grandparents.
With school closed for two weeks and no kindergarten diversion, Meredith was bored and had taken to following him around his workshop, asking at least ten rapid-fire questions a minute. His re-sponder had been on autopilot most of the morning.
"If a doctor cut open your neck, could he see hiccups?" she asked now.
"He could probably see muscles moving or something. I really don't know. I think hiccups come more from your chest."
"If he cut open your chest, then could he see hiccups?"
"Maybe. But a doctor wouldn't do that."
"Where do French fries grow?"
"You cut potatoes into French fries, and potatoes grow in the ground. In Idaho mostly."
"Is Idaho far away?"
"It's in the United States."
She drowned another fry in ketchup. "When are we gonna get a tree, Daddy?"
"Hmm? Oh, soon. We'll get one soon."
"That's what you said the before time, and Christmas is almost here."
Charlie channeled his attention to this last real concern of his daughter's. He leaned over and dabbed a napkin at the corner of her mouth. "I know, honey, but I've had a lot of projects to finish so my customers will get their gifts by Christmas."
She gazed at him with wide blue eyes. "When my mommy was here and I was a baby, did we have a Christmas tree?"
Charlie prepared himself for another endless stream of mommy questions. "Yes, of course we did."
"Did we have a beautiful angel on top of the tree?"
"We have a star for the top, remember? Same one we've always had."
Meredith plopped another dripping fry into her mouth and reached beside her for the book she'd carried everywhere for the past two weeks. He'd picked it up for her at the Dime Store, and she'd insisted he read it to her several times a day.
"We could go over to the library and borrow some new books," he suggested. He knew that one by heart.
"Do they have angel books at the libary?"
"I don't know. We'll have to ask Miss Fenton when we get there. If it's still open. Take a bite of your burger."
Charlie's meal was nearly gone and Meredith was still munching fries and asking questions. He picked up her hamburger and fed her a bite.
She chewed and swallowed before asking, "Is my mommy a angel now?"
Charlie didn't believe people turned into angels, but he didn't want to destroy any belief that gave his daughter comfort.
"What do you think?"
"I think we should find a new mommy for me. You could marry Miss Fenton, Daddy, and she could come live with us."
"Meredith, I barely know Miss Fenton."
"What about my teacher, then, Miss Ecklebe? She's real pretty and she sings nice."
"That's Mrs. Ecklebe. She's already married."
Meredith frowned and her rosy lips puckered in displeasure. "Oh."
She'd become obsessed with wanting a mother and talked to him about it incessantly. Though he'd been widowed for several years, Charlie had no desire to find another wife. Just another flaw in his character, perhaps, but he didn't believe true love actually existed, and he couldn't live his life doing things just because other people wanted him to. He'd been down that road before and had no desire to revisit.
Charlie laid his hand on his daughter's dainty shoulder. "We don't really need anyone else. We've got each other."
Her dark lashes swept up and those blue eyes fixed on him as if to say, Maybe you don't need anyone else, bub. If she was fifteen, she'd have said, Yeah, right.
Why should he feel guilty? That was what this twinge in his chest was, right? No reason for guilt. None whatsoever. A man didn't go in search of a woman just to appease a lonely child. It would be different if he were lonely himself.
Okay, so maybe he was a little lonely. But not enough.
But what would he do when she was fifteen? The thought scared him senseless.
He glanced away from Meredith's assessing gaze to the Bradfords. Sure, they looked like the ideal little family: beautiful wife, one girl who looked like her mom, a little guy with a chin like his daddy's, but who knew what went on at home? Or what didn't. True and lasting love only existed in the movies and then you never actually saw past the credits to what happened when the bills rolled in and disagreements crept up. No, not enough.
Against his better judgment, Charlie glanced at Forrest and Natalie Perry holding hands on top of the table. If he didn't believe that, he'd have to believe it was a flaw in his character; other couples seemed happy.
Meredith's attention turned to the window beside their booth and he followed her gaze. A silver rig with blue detailing pulled into the lot, snow swirling around the cab and trailer as it rolled to a stop. The words Silver Angel were emblazoned on the door, a painted pair of wings adorning the S, a tilted halo floating above the A.
"What's that say?" Meredith's voice was laced with awe.
"Silver Angel," he told her.
She grabbed up her book. "Look! It's just like the halo on my angel book!"
"So it is."
They watched as the driver's door opened and a parka-bundled figure stepped down into the snow and trudged toward the cafe.
The bell over the door rang.
The driver of the rig stomped snow onto the mat and removed thick gloves, a blast of icy air snaking in and reaching Charlie's ankles.
A slender hand raised to push back the hood of the parka. A shiny waterfall of silver-blond hair spilled across the snow-flecked shoulders of the coat. The ethereally beautiful woman looked like no trucker Charlie had ever seen. Pink tinged her model-perfect cheekbones, and she stuffed the gloves into her pockets before rubbing her hands together.
Meredith inhaled audibly, but Charlie felt as though it had been him. He couldn't seem to fill his lungs, and his chest hurt.
The woman hung her coat on one of the pegs inside the door, revealing a slender shape in jeans and a soft-looking pale pink sweater that emphasized her tiny waist. She made her way to the counter, and as she did, every eye in the place was focused on her.
She glanced around, almost self-consciously, nodding a greeting to the families at the tables, before her gaze landed on Charlie and Meredith.
If he didn't take a breath soon, Charlie was going to pass out. He concentrated on breathing in and releasing the air slowly, inconspicuously. He would never admit he'd been waiting for her to look their way.
Her extraordinary eyes were the most translucent blue he'd ever seen, combining with her unusual hair and silver-hued brows for a dazzling prettiness. She smiled and gave them a little wave.
Meredith waved back, delightedly. "Daddy, she's so pretty!"
The young woman turned toward Shirley Rumford who handed her a menu and placed a glass of water in front of her. "What'll ya have, sweetie?"
The vision tucked her hair behind her ear while she looked over the menu, revealing a pearl earring in the lobe of her shell-shaped ear. "Something hot. It's freezing out there. What kind of soup do you have?"
Shirley chanted the short list of soups.
The Perrys called a goodbye to Shirley and left the cafe, bundling children out into the cold. A few minutes later, the Bradfords paid for their meal and followed. Charlie's gaze was drawn back to the young woman at the counter.
"Daddy, can I go see her up close?" Meredith whispered, none too quietly.
Charlie caught himself staring and turned his attention to the cup of coffee in front of him. "No, it's rude to stare, and we're going to mind our own business."
"Meredith, turn around and finish your hamburger so we can go see if the library's open."
His daughter plopped back onto the seat and crossed her arms over her chest. With a dejected pout, she stared at her plate. Five minutes later she still hadn't finished her food.
"You've only taken two bites," he said.
"You work on that while I use the rest room and pay our bill."
"Okay." She sighed and picked up the cold hamburger.
Charlie headed back to the rest room.
Meredith sneaked another peek at the angel lady who'd come in from the storm. She was the most prettiest angel ever, even prettier than the treetop angel who came to life in her book.
She flipped open to the page where the angel sprinkles the mommy and daddy with miracle dust and they kiss under the mistletoe. In the picture, all colors of lights twinkled on the beautiful Christmas tree, and three little kids with fuzzy slippers and happy smiles watched from between the stair rails.
If Meredith could get an angel to sprinkle her daddy with miracle dust, he would be happy again. Happy like he used to be. Happy enough to get a new mommy for her, and then they would be a family, just like the family in the book.
Daddy hadn't been happy for a long time.
She tucked the book under her arm, gave the semitrailer a long assessing look and turned her focus back to the angel lady who was paying Miss Rumford for her food. Meredith had an idea.