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A spunky Southern baker, Corrie Bennington has her heart set on winning a gingerbread house contest in Vermont. Her masterpiece: a replica of the old inn where her estranged parents met. And where Corrie hopes to find the father she's never known. But when she arrives in Mt. Piney, Vermont, the inn is closed—and being restored. Handsome carpenter Andy McFarland offers to help Corrie find her dad and build her candy house. But Andy's matchmaking little sister has her own sweet holiday wish—helping Andy and Corrie ...
A spunky Southern baker, Corrie Bennington has her heart set on winning a gingerbread house contest in Vermont. Her masterpiece: a replica of the old inn where her estranged parents met. And where Corrie hopes to find the father she's never known. But when she arrives in Mt. Piney, Vermont, the inn is closed—and being restored. Handsome carpenter Andy McFarland offers to help Corrie find her dad and build her candy house. But Andy's matchmaking little sister has her own sweet holiday wish—helping Andy and Corrie find a little romance this Christmas.
"I'm out of time, nearly out of money, and if you look at what I'm trying to accomplish—completely out of my mind." Andy McFarland, his heart so heavy he could hardly breathe, stood in front of the two-story picture window in the old Snowy Eaves Inn and began a prayer that he had no idea how to finish. What did he want, really? What did he need?
If he had the answers to those questions then he'd do as he always did, collect the pieces, analyze the situation and do what had to be done. But at this point
He looked around the nearly sixty-year-old inn where he was living as he restored it to its former charm and character. The lobby was rough but in good shape. So were the parts of the inn unseen from where he stood—the upstairs bedrooms and completely remodeled kitchen. But the dining room, currently little more than a large, lodge-like gathering room, stood in several stages of disarray. The old water-warped hardwood floors had been pried up leaving recently smoothed-over concrete in their place. The walls that had been harboring mold, poor insulation and potentially unsafe wiring—a fun little surprise they didn't find until deep into the renovation—had been demolished. Now only the wooden framework remained, leaving the room looking skeletal, almost desolate. It was
Hopeless? A lost cause? Impossible? He turned again to the large windows that overlooked the secluded woods of his beloved and familiar Mt. Piney, Vermont. He shook his head, unable to find the right words.
A brilliant flash of lightning illuminated the abandoned tools left earlier in the day when the weather had gone foul and his workers left because they couldn't get anything done with electricity going in and out. A gust of wind rattled the windows. Andy felt the power of that gust through every inch of his six-foot-two-inch frame, but knew it was his predicament, not the weather, that had him shaken to the core.
The place that he had thought would be a showcase for his work and provide for his family for years to come had taken all his time, talent, a handful of construction loans and most of his savings. Two weeks after it was supposed to have opened for the season, the Snowy Eaves Inn and his life seemed stuck in an unfixable fix.
He shut his eyes and whispered the only kind of prayer he had left within him, "Please help me."
Lightning tore across the winter sky. The flash illuminated the huge windows, casting his reflection back at him. Gone was the boyish twenty-seven-year-old with the cocky I-can-handle-whatever-life-throws-me attitude that he wore in his ready smile, the angle of his shoulders and his eagerness to take on tasks that others backed away from. Looking back at him was the image of a man who had planned so well, promised so much and now stood on the brink of failure.
The lights flickered and the expansive lobby went pitch dark.
"Great," he groaned and rubbed the heels of his calloused hands into his weary eyes. "I ask for help and get—"
"Andy? I don't like this, make it better!"
The power came back with a rumble and a hum. Andy turned to find his ten-year-old sister wearing pink pajamas and clutching her beloved sock monkey running down the sweeping stairway that emptied into the space designed to welcome guests into the inn. Her coal black braids flew behind her and her bare feet slapped over the polished concrete floor.
"You're supposed to be in bed," he told the child his mom had adopted from China as a toddler when Andy was nearly seventeen years old.
"Can't sleep. I'm scared." She threw her arms open wide and came sliding in to grab him around the waist and bury her face in his side. The dangling arms, legs and tail of the old stuffed toy that Andy had given her, one of his own childhood favorites, batted against his leg. "Buddy Mon-Kay is scared, too."
"Scared? Are you kidding me?" He cupped her delicate chin and cheek in his palm to protect her freshly washed face from his work-dirtied flannel shirt. "Greer McFarland, you're the bravest kid I know. You can't make me believe a little storm—"
"It's not the storm. It's this place." Her tiny, worried voice rose and echoed slightly against the vaulted ceiling.
"It's all echo-y down here and upstairs in my room, my night-light is going off and on by itself. Besides that, we're all alone out here in the woods. Something could get us!"
"First, we're never all alone," he reminded her. "God's always with us. And as an added bonus, you have me here to protect you."
"And pray with me?"
His chest ached at the thought of the desperate prayer he had just uttered. He was in this mess deep and that had him more scared than anything this sweet, sheltered child might dream up, even in a half-finished old landmark inn, deep in the Vermont woods. Still, he had just prayed for help to keep his commitments, what greater commitment could he have than to care for his family? He would not fail at that.
He exhaled slowly then knelt beside her. "And pray with you."
She grinned and held her hand out for him to take.
His large hand engulfed her small one.
She gave a sideways glance toward the limp sock monkey slumped over her arm.
Andy hesitated a moment. He shook his head then placed his other hand on the head of his old pal, Buddy Mon-Kay. That completed the prayer circle.
In her innocent way, Greer asked the heavenly Father to watch over them and to keep them safe. When she finished each sentence she gave Andy's hand a squeeze, and he repeated after her in his own fashion.
"And also bless Mommy and bring her home as soon as possible," Greer said.
"Bless Mom, bring her home safe." He avoided mentioning just how soon, or how long it might be before his mother could return from her latest overseas trip helping fellow adopting parents. He loved his mom with all his heart and he really believed in her cause, but her timing left something to be desired. Just thinking of that made him huff out an agitated sigh.
"And make Andy less grouchy," Greer added.
"Make " The kid got him. He'd been standing in prayer with her and thinking, not about her needs or about submitting to the Lord, but about his own petty inconveniences. He managed to dredge up a smile, even as he kept his eyes closed and head bent and repeated the request, "Help me be less grouchy."
"By giving him a girlfriend before Christmas!"
"By hey!" That far he wouldn't go. He could hardly cope with his responsibilities as they stood right now, adding a romantic interest?
Greer giggled. "Amen."
"Amen." He gave her nose a tweak then stood. "Now back to bed. The storm is almost over."
As if to defy him, the whole sky exploded with a light as bright as day followed immediately by a booming roll of thunder.
Greer hugged Buddy close to her chest.
Andy reached out to take her by the shoulder but before he made contact, the lights went out again.
Another slash of lightning and then another sent long, eerie shadows dancing over the front desk and the furniture draped in canvas drop cloths. Thunder shook the windows. The front doors rattled as if someone was trying to break them down.
Only maybe that wasn't from the thunder, Andy realized, when he looked that way and the door swung open.
A dark figure loomed in the frame.
The lights came on again.
"Story of my life, I tell you. I came all the way to Vermont in December to see a real, honest-to-goodness snow for the first time in my life and I get a thunder storm." A small woman in clunky fur-trimmed boots and a well-padded hot pink coat staggered over the threshold into the lobby proper. "And there go my glasses fogging up."
She whisked off a pair of trendy cherry red glasses and gave them a shake, flinging droplets of cold rain as far as Andy's cheek.
He wiped his face with the back of his hand. "Excuse me, miss, but—"
She parted her wind-blown, chin-length chocolate brown hair down the middle like a curtain and looked up. Mascara smudged her cheeks. She squinted in his direction. She tried furiously, and pointlessly, to dry her glasses on her sopping wet, lime green polka-dot scarf.
Andy would have offered his shirttail or sleeve but he was covered with drywall dust and only would have made matters worse. At this point, not making matters worse seemed like a giant step forward, so he held his ground and asked, "Excuse me, miss, I know the article in the Vermont Travel Monthly said we expected the inn to be open the week after Thanksgiving, but we've had some setbacks. I'm afraid we can't take guests yet."
"Oh. I thought " She slid her glasses back on and peered at him. "Your website hasn't been updated. According to that, I should be able to get a quiet cozy room with the best view in Vermont."
"Web site?" Was she trying to lay the groundwork to argue her way into getting a room for the night? Coming from anyone else, he probably would have found that pushy. From this girl? He liked pushy. Pushy? Wrong word. Spunky. That was better. The difference, he decided instantly, was the unabashed optimism of her approach. "Yeah, well, I've been kind of busy and wait a minute, doesn't my website say to check back for an official opening date?"
"Can't blame a girl for trying." She gave him the most sincerely sheepish grin he had ever seen.
"Are you a robber?" Greer shifted her weight behind Andy but when he looked down he saw she had stuck the sock monkey out as though he were asking the question.
The woman did not hesitate. She bent down and addressed the toy as if it were the most natural thing in her world to carry on conversations with monkeys made from socks. "No, I'm not a robber. I'm a baker. And you are ?"
"Buddy Mon-Kay," Greer answered for the toy.
"Nice to meet you Buddy, can I call you Buddy?" She actually shook the monkey's hand.
Andy smiled. It shocked him a little, given the way the night had been going that anything could get that kind of response from him. Shocked him and sent up a signal flare. If he didn't act quickly, this baker in boots might just convince him to let her stay in the inn overnight. Not a good idea.
"Look, I hate to sound, uh, grumpy, but you can't stay the night here." He took a step toward the door. "There are two hotels in Hadleyville—"
"Are there? Do they have websites? I wonder if I have cell service out here." She fumbled around in her purse and pulled out a sleek new phone. "I could just look them up on the web and if you're sure you're not open?"
"If she's not a robber, then maybe—" Greer whispered.
"We are not open," Andy reiterated.
The young woman chewed her lip, clutched her phone close then smiled in a way of someone used to adapting her plans on a moment's notice, of making the best of a bad situation. "Okay. So I'll find a place in Hadleyville. No harm. I just thought since the door was open, I would stop in and see whatever."
"I'm staying here, getting work done, guarding against—"
"People like me?" She cocked her head and held her hands out as if presenting herself as exhibit A.
"I was going to say guarding against construction theft. I don't see how I could have planned for meeting someone like you." He laughed and shook his head, his mood suddenly lightened. No, Andy knew for sure he didn't know anyone like this. And her soft, southern accent reaffirmed that to him. "Just who are you and what brought you to the Snowy Eaves Inn?"
"I was gonna tell you that." Greer tugged at the hem of his flannel shirt and whispered, "I think she's the answer to your prayer."
Andy looked down at his sister, a little embarrassed by her remark and the subject of the prayer she was thinking of, and whispered, "That's not how prayer works. Her showing up now doesn't have anything to do with me or that prayer."
"Maybe it does this time. You don't know God's business," Greer shot back.
"My name is Corrina Bennington. But everyone calls me Corrie." The water-logged waif stepped forward, extending her right hand. "I came all the way from South Carolina to Vermont to find my father. But I came here to this inn tonight to find you, Mr. McFarland."
"Me?" Andy couldn't begin to imagine what this woman was talking about. Had he done something wrong? Was more trouble headed his way? Prayer was not a wish list, but he had submitted himself to the Lord and now this new wrinkle had appeared. He couldn't dismiss it out of hand. Even as his stomach tightened into a sickening knot, he found himself sort of smiling as he looked at the bright face of the young woman and asked, "Why me?"
"Because I have a unique problem that I believe only you can help me put right."
If she had used any other term, he might have told her he didn't have the time or energy. But putting things right was Andy's calling in life. To a man on the brink of total failure, a chance to do what he did best and for someone clearly in a lot of need, how could he turn her away? "If that's the case, well, I can't rent you a room, but I can offer you a place to dry off and warm up while you tell me what you have in mind."
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