Five years later
Julia took a deep breath, shutting off her ignition and headlights as she stared at the red-brick Georgian home. Her mother-in-law had loved the Georgian architecture that she had grown up with from her childhood back east, and they’d had the home custom built years ago. Even though it wasn’t typical in their rural area of Montana, the home was lovely. It hadn’t changed at all. Stately, with black shutters and double-hung windows, and a matching black door, the house beckoned. A large, round boxwood wreath with a red ribbon adorned the front door. The front hall light glowed through the arched transom window, and Julia could still picture the delicate crystal chandelier inside. Towering ponderosa pines flanked the driveway, the tips of the branches almost forming an arch. Snow lined each limb, as though they had been meticulously painted on, one by one.
Five years. It had been five years since she had visited her in-laws. She owed them a visit much earlier. She closed her eyes and leaned her head back. She should have come when her father-in-law had been diagnosed with prostate cancer, but she hadn’t. By that time she’d uncovered the disturbing truth about Michael and she couldn’t deal with coming back here and facing all of them. But Shadow Creek had also been her home, and these people were her family.
She opened her eyes again and gave a little nod. Well, she was here now for Christmas. She wrapped her hands around the leather handle of her small tote and clutched her purse. The crisp, cold winter air greeted her as she stepped outside her car, cooling her flushed face. It smelled the same—fresh, pure. There was nowhere in the world that smelled like Montana. The driveway and walkway had been shoveled and salted, and her boots crunched against the large granules.
Warmth spread through her body as the front door opened even before she’d made it to the front porch. She clamped down hard on her back teeth in an attempt to rein in the tears as Cassandra and Edward appeared.
“My dear, you are here!” Cassandra Bailey called out, the break in her voice audible.
She dashed up the walkway and steps, outrunning the memories of all the times she’d been here with Michael and Matthew. She ran into the arms of the people that had treated her like their own from day one.
Comfort, the kind that could only be offered from a mother, enveloped her. She held on, squeezing Cassandra, restoring the bond they’d had between them. Edward folded her into his arms, and he kissed the top of her head gently before releasing her.
She had come home.
Edward Bailey gently ushered her through the doorway. “Come in, come in.”
Julia noticed the lines around their eyes had deepened, and creases that weren’t there years ago had claimed their residence. Edward was still tall with a slightly rounded stomach and maintained his aura of dignity. Cassandra, always thin, had now put on weight, making her seem even more maternal.
They each held on to one of her hands and she looked around the entryway. The deep sage colored walls with the crisp white wainscoting were exactly as she remembered; the grand staircase with its dark wood banister had been dressed for the season with fresh cedar roping and luxurious velvet ribbons.
“Cassy, you still have the nicest Christmas decorations I’ve ever seen,” Julia said, squeezing her hand.
“Julia, is that you?” Her sister-in-law Gwen walked down the corridor, drying her hands on a dishtowel. A brown, medium-sized dog bounded past her and up to Julia. Julia laughed as she looked down into the eager face.
Gwen nudged the dog aside gently by her pink collar. “This is Lola. Don’t even ask about that name,” she said with a frown before wrapping Julia up in a big hug.
Lola nudged Julia a few times until they broke off the hug and she patted the dog’s fluffy head. “You are so cute, Lola.” The dog, as if agreeing, tilted her head to the side before giving her hand a lick. “I had no idea you had a dog now.”
Edward chuckled. “She’s Gwen’s. We didn’t want a dog but she twisted our arm.”
Gwen frowned at him. “I read about dogs and how beneficial they are especially when people are sick.”
“Well, there are no sick people around here,” Edward said with a shake of his gray head. “Now enough of this standing in the hallway like some stranger. Come in the kitchen. You ladies can do all that hugging once we’ve had a piece of that pie.” He ushered them all down the hallway. Lola trotted dutifully along behind him.
Gwen whispered to Julia as they walked, “He says she’s my dog, but those two became the best of friends. She even went to each treatment Dad had at the hospital.”
“She watched over him every day when we’d come back too.” Cassy inhaled sharply and plunked her hands on her wide hips as they stood in the doorway of the kitchen. Edward had a knife in his hand and was ready to slice into the pie on the kitchen counter.
“Edward Bailey, put down the knife.”
Edward sighed and did exactly as his wife told him, though a few grumbles did escape his mouth.
Julia laughed. “I’m glad to see your appreciation for pie hasn’t changed.”
“It’s gotten worse,” Cassy said, marching over and snatching up the knife. “Dr. Hart says he needs to watch how many sweets he eats.”
“Well, it’s the holiday season and it’s not every day a man’s favorite daughter-in-law comes home,” he said with a wink. His weathered face crinkled slightly as he chuckled and settled himself at the head of the table. Lola rested at his feet. Edward patted the place setting beside him and waved Julia over.
“I can see how it would be hard to resist. It smells so good in here,” Julia said, settling in beside him. The long, black farmhouse table was set with quilted, holly and berry placemats and a bright red poinsettia sat in the middle. The country kitchen was toasty, the granite counters filled with canisters of flour and sugar and mixing bowls. They had all changed, but this house was exactly the same.
“I just pulled apple pie and cranberry muffins out of the oven,” Gwen said, flashing a smile as she arranged the muffins on a red Santa plate.
Cassandra poured coffee into matching Santa mugs and walked them over to the table.
“Can I help?” Julia asked, rising. Five years ago she would have been busy keeping Matthew away from the sweets until they were ready. She could think about that now without crying, if she didn’t think about it too long.
“Not at all. You’ve had a long drive, and we want you to sit and relax. You’re home, my dear, back in Shadow Creek,” Cassandra said, pausing in the middle of the kitchen. Her faded blue eyes shone with emotion and Julia swallowed past the lump in her throat as she smiled at her mother-in-law.
“We’ve missed you,” Edward said, leaning forward and patting her hand. She placed hers atop his, cherishing the warmth from his large, leathery hand. “Cassy couldn’t sleep all night. Kept tossing and turning, she was so excited.”
Cassandra handed them their mugs of coffee. “Oh I wasn’t the only one! How many times did you ask what time she was supposed to arrive today?”
Edward chuckled and Julia basked in their company. She was ready for this now.
“You have all been on my mind and there hasn’t been a day where I haven’t thought of you. Edward, I owe you an apology for not being here this past year.”
“Nonsense. We all did what we had to. We mourn in our own way and none of us begrudge you that. We’re happy you’re here now. I’m fine. I’m a tough old goat. It’s going to take a hell of a lot more than cancer to kick my old butt.”
Julia smiled at him. “I’m glad to hear that.”
“And how are your parents doing, dear?”
“They’re doing really well. Off to visit my mom’s sister on the East Coast. They haven’t been out there, since…since I went back to live in the city. But when I told them I was coming here this year, I twisted their arms to go.” The last few years her parents had been by her side constantly. Julia insisted that this year they get their lives back and do all the things they’d put on hold for five years. She knew they’d agree when they heard she was going back to Shadow Creek.
Cassandra smiled, sitting down. “Oh, that’s good. I’m glad your mom is going to see her sister. It looks like we might have another Christmas visitor.”
Cassandra smiled. “Jack.”
Julia gasped and tears filled her eyes automatically. Jack. Michael’s twin brother. She hadn’t been the only one who’d run from Shadow Creek after the accident. Jack had taken off, without warning, leaving only a note saying good-bye. He called and he wrote, but he hadn’t been home since.
Edward stared out the French doors into the back yard. White twinkling lights were wrapped around the deck railing. “About time that boy came home.”
Gwen groaned, sitting down at the table across from her. “I didn’t say he was coming home for sure. All I said was that I tried.”
Edward reached down to pat Lola’s head. “He will. I feel it.”
Julia watched as he took a sip of his coffee. Jack and Michael had been connected in a way that none of them could truly understand. They were different and the same. Twins. Best friends. Michael’s death had ripped him apart. As it had all of them. She would never tell them about Michael. It would only add new wounds.
Cassandra smiled, Julia giving her smile extra vivacity. “We can only pray, Julia. Now, why don’t we dig into some of this delicious pie and then you can get all settled in the guest room, dear.”
“Thanks, Cassandra,” she whispered, taking a long sip of the velvety coffee. She wrapped her hands around the mug and settled into the black ladder-back chair, trying to look at ease.
“Tell me what you think of that pie. No holding back, I can take it,” Gwen said, leaning forward.
Julia sliced through the flaky crust with her fork and lifted the pie to her lips. “You always were the best baker.” She closed her eyes for a moment and was greeted with a jolt of warm apples and cinnamon. “Omigod, good.”
Gwen tucked a shiny strand of brown hair behind her ear and then smiled, leaning forward. “Lily and I are finally ready to open our chocolate shop.”
Julia sucked in a breath. “Oh, I’m so happy for you!”
“We’re very proud of Gwen. She’s been saving and working like crazy to make this a reality,” Edward said, winking at his daughter. “Lily too. The two of them deserve it.”
Julia clutched the mug of coffee closer to her as she thought of Lily. When Jack had skipped town, it wasn’t just his family he’d abandoned. Lily had been his fiancée, the woman they all knew he would one day marry. “How’s Lily doing?”
Gwen frowned, stabbing her piece of pie a little too forcefully, apples oozing out of the sides. “She’s okay. Now. But it took her a while. And if my big brother does come home this Christmas, he’ll have a hell of a lot of apologizing to do.”
“I don’t want to hear any of that,” Cassy whispered, clutching her hands to the side of the table and leaning forward. “If my boy comes home this Christmas, we are all going to welcome him, hug him and—”
“I know, Mom. I want him home too. I can still be hurt for him leaving us and for ditching Lily. But, of course I want Jack home,” Gwen said, resting her fork on the table, the pie never reaching her lips.
“Hello,” a deep voice, an unmistakeable voice, boomed from the entrance and barrelled into her memories. The voice was followed by fast little footsteps. Lola stood and ran toward the guests. Julia looked first at the little girl she had only seen in pictures for the last five years. Then she looked up at the man that had remained in her thoughts every day since she left Shadow Creek.
Chase Donovan filled the kitchen doorway and every square inch of her mind.
A familiar, comforting, hot-chocolatey warmth billowed over her as his gaze landed on her. Waves of memories lapped in, one by one until her mind was flooded with Chase. He had saved her, repeatedly in the month following Michael and Matthew’s death. Chase, with his inky black hair and midnight blue eyes was even more handsome than when she’d first met him. All soft lines were replaced with beautiful angles and hollows. His features were clearly defined; the planes of his strong jaw contrasting with a surprisingly sensual mouth. It was almost unexpected, the only soft spot on his otherwise masculine face. The long, thin scar below his ear and down his jaw was the only flaw on an otherwise impossibly beautiful face. He was tall, and built like a man who knew how to fight. But Chase had only ever shown her tenderness. He’d always been a man who had the ability to make women’s pulses beat faster and their hearts swell with hope.
“Good to see you, Julia,” he said gruffly.
She stood, wondering why now it felt so awkward. She had cried on his shoulder what must have been hundreds of times. He’d held her in his arms. He’d carried her away from her darkest thoughts on her darkest days. And yet now, five years later, she hesitated a few seconds before rounding the table and then into his arms. He folded her up against his hard chest, and the weight of his arms around her sheltered her like no one else could.
“I’m so damn happy you came home for Christmas,” he whispered against her hair, and the raw emotion in his deep voice rapped quietly against all the closed doors inside her soul.
There was a tug on her sweater. “Auntie Julia, it’s me, Maggie!”
Julia stepped away from Chase and looked down at the little girl who looked very much like her daddy. She knelt down to give the little girl a big hug, her heart swelling as Maggie’s small arms wrapped around her neck. Julia pulled back to look at her.
“You have grown so much! You’re so much bigger than last year’s Christmas card!”
Maggie nodded rapidly. “It’s true, I’m growing up! I’m going to be as tall as Daddy.”
Chase chuckled, ruffling the top of her shiny head with his hand.
“I’m in grade two now,” Maggie continued, her eyes glued to Julia’s. Matthew would have been in grade two as well. Chase’s wife had gotten pregnant with Maggie a few months after Julia. Julia smiled at the little girl, silencing the voices of her memories. She had prepared herself for seeing Maggie again. It had taken a long time to be able to look at a child without wanting to curl back inside herself. But Maggie was different. Julia sensed everyone watching her, worried that seeing Maggie would sadden her.
She straightened up and smiled down at her. “And how’s grade two going?”
“Tough. There’s homework and stuff.”
“Maggie, I saved you a piece of pie,” Gwen called, placing a plate of pie and a glass of milk on the kitchen table. Maggie skipped over to the chair beside Gwen and sat down. “Thanks, Auntie Gwen.”
“She inherited my sweet tooth,” Chase said, shooting her a lopsided grin as they settled back into their chairs.
Cassandra passed Chase a plate filled with pie and a cup of coffee. “Thanks, Cassy, this is just what I needed.”
She patted his shoulder before sitting down.
“You better eat all that pie, Julia,” Cassandra said, wagging her fork at her. “You’ve gotten far too thin.”
She felt Chase’s eyes on her and she looked down at her plate. The weird, fluttery feeling in her stomach had nothing to do with wanting more pie. “I eat, I eat,” she said, picking up her fork. Of course she ate. But eating for one was different. Not having anyone to cook for, bake for, fuss for, took the joy out of eating. She hated cooking for herself.
“Julia looks great. I wish I had that problem,” Gwen said with a laugh. Julia caught the hint of embarrassment in her voice as she spoke. She had noticed that her sister-in-law had put on weight since she’d last seen her. But Gwen was as pretty as ever and she wouldn’t have guessed it was an issue. She had the same coloring as her brothers—brown hair with streaks of blond and hazelnut colored eyes. All three Bailey children were stunning, extra pounds or not.
“You’re as gorgeous as always, Gwen,” Chase said.
Gwen rolled her eyes and gave him a light punch on the side of his arm. “And you are as charming as always.”
“Guess what, everyone?” Maggie was sitting on her knees looking around the table and she clanked her fork against her glass.
Chase reached over with a groan, holding on to the glass as it tipped precariously to one side. “All right, Maggie, I think you have everyone’s attention now,” he said, his deep voice laced with laughter.
Maggie nodded. “Since I’m in grade two this year, I get to have a real serious part in the Shadow Creek School Christmas pageant! I get to be an angel!” she yelled out, almost toppling out of her chair. Edward leaned over to steady her, chuckling.
Everyone offered their congratulations as Maggie efficiently lapped up the pie and the attention with obvious delight.
Chase smiled, whispering under his breath, “I already heard the news on the drive over here, five times, complete with arm gestures and a rousing rendition of ‘O Holy Night.’”
Julia swallowed her laugh. “When is the pageant?”
“December first,” Chase said.
“You’re coming too, right, Auntie Julia?” Maggie asked, stuffing a forkful of pie in her mouth. A glob of apples slid down her face and onto the table.
Julia smiled at the little girl and leaned forward, wiping her face with a Santa napkin. “I’d love to, Maggie.”
“We’re all going. The night of the pageant is the highlight of the season at the stage in the park, followed by the candle and tree lighting in the town square,” Cassandra said. The candle lighting ceremony had been a Shadow Creek tradition dating back to the founding of the town. Each year, in December, people would gather in front of the old courthouse dressed warmly for the winter night. A candle would be lit by the mayor and then slowly, one by one, the flame would get passed until everyone had a lit candle. Choirs would stand on street corners, townspeople would stroll and shopkeepers would keep their doors open until midnight. Julia hadn’t been in six years but the ceremony held some of her dearest Christmas memories.
“And my dad is the sheriff so he has to go all dressed up in his uniform and everything,” Maggie said. “He’s really important around here. Catches bad guys and stuff.”
Chase was shaking his head. “Well, in a town like Shadow Creek, Maggie, there’s not many bad guys.”
“Not just this town, the entire surrounding area. Don’t go being modest on us, son. You’re the youngest sheriff in history for this area.”
Chase shrugged, almost looking uncomfortable with the praise. “Thanks, Edward. You can see I come here because of my fan club,” he said, a small smile tugging at one corner of his mouth. “And the food. Definitely the food,” he added, giving Julia a wink.
Julia smiled, the warmth from his stare a soothing balm on her conflicted feelings. “I came for the food too,” Julia said. It was good to laugh with these people again.
“Good. I don’t care what it was that brought you back, my dear. But we’re happy to have you home,” Cassandra said. The tears in her eyes drowned the laughter at the table.
Julia placed her fork down gently. “I’m here because of all of you. I’ve missed you so much,” she whispered, wanting to say more, but knowing that if she did, she would cry. But it was as though everyone knew because no one said anything.
“Don’t worry, Auntie Julia. We’re all here so you don’t need to miss us anymore,” Maggie said with a big grin. “And Daddy said he’s really happy you’re home. He even said it to the pretty picture of you hanging on our fridge. It’s right beside the Luigi’s Pizza delivery magnet so first I thought he was ordering pizza.”
Julia choked on her coffee while Chase attempted to reel in his daughter’s dialogue. A rush of heat flooded her insides. It shouldn’t have. The comment was innocent. Chase would never think of her in that way. But the blue eyes that connected with hers for a moment flickered with…something.
“That’s right. Happy you’re back. Love Luigi, he’s saved us many times.” He stood abruptly, his chair scraping against the floor. “We need to get going though, just wanted to stop in and say hi. Tomorrow is a school day, Maggie.”
Maggie nodded. “I have a spelling test tomorrow,” she said, jumping off her chair. Her dark hair bounced around her as she hopped out of the kitchen. Everyone stood and followed them to the door. Spelling tests and Christmas pageants. It all sounded so wonderful, so warm. Emotion constricted her throat as Chase crouched down and helped his daughter into her pink puffer coat and adjusted her Hello Kitty hat on her head. Then he stood and pulled on a black leather jacket and gloves.
Everyone said their good-byes and Julia stood there, watching as he and Maggie made their way down the front walkway. Cassy, Edward, and Gwen walked back to the kitchen chattering about the candle lighting ceremony. She looked down at Lola, who sat quietly by her side. Julia placed her hand on the doorknob, for a second feeling a connection to the man that had been holding it moments before. She watched as Chase made sure Maggie was buckled in and then shut her door. He rounded the front of his SUV and paused. She squeezed the doorknob, her palms turning sweaty as he made eye contact with her.
Chase stood there, stoic and tall, motionless as flakes of white snow drifted around him. He raised his hand a second later and gave her a wave before climbing in behind the wheel. She forced a smile on her face and awkwardly raised her hand. The image of him that day at the funeral tiptoed into her mind and dashed through her body, finding refuge somewhere in her heart.