Read an Excerpt
A Family Under the Christmas Tree 1
Sophie Griffith brought her rented car to a stop in the driveway of her grandmother’s house. The midday gloom of a rainy December tinted the world in shades of gray. She turned off the engine and looked toward the front door, and smiled as she spied Grandma sitting on the porch, wearing a red and white Santa hat. Little tufts of silver hair peeked out from under the hat, and a green fleece blanket was tucked around her. She waved as Sophie climbed out of the car.
A surge of affection hit her, and Sophie waved back. It had been too long since she’d made the time to visit Grandma. She missed this place. She missed Grandma. She was frustrated that it had taken this for her to make the trip.
Then, she blinked with surprise as she realized Grandma had company. There was a man on her porch. Well, there was a man on a ladder in front of her porch. A man with dark hair and long lean legs, wearing jeans and a black weatherproof jacket, clung to a ten-foot-tall ladder, stringing a strand of icicle lights along the eaves. Shouldn’t he be tied off with a safety harness or something?
She held her breath, sure any second he’d topple over as he reached for the little hooks attached to the house.
Sophie returned her narrowed gaze to Grams. Hmmm. Two days ago Grandma had called saying she’d fallen and needed Sophie’s help. But she seemed okay now. What was up?
Movement on the lawn drew Sophie’s attention. A small boy of about five wearing a blinding yellow beanie streaked across the fenced-in front yard. A muddy dog chased him, close on his heels. Wait, were those reindeer antlers on the dog’s head?
The child’s sweater could compete in any ugly Christmas sweater contest. His jeans and rain boots were caked in mud. Who was this kid?
The scene reminded her of something from a Hallmark Christmas card. The handsome man, the child and dog playing, Gram supervising it all. . . . She ached to grab her camera and capture the image, but her equipment was out of reach inside hard-sided cases in the back of the SUV.
Sophie grabbed her purse and closed the car door, breathing in the fresh air scented with an earthy musk from a recent rainfall. The cool, damp air seeped through her pink cashmere sweater, but she didn’t mind. Hard to believe twenty-four hours and two flight layovers ago she had been baking in the tropical sun. She’d just wrapped up a job photographing the spectacular wedding of one of the year’s hottest actors and his makeup artist bride on the island of Gran Canaria, one of the smaller and most popular of the Canary Islands. The average temperature peaked at ninety degrees with high humidity there this time of year. As usual, Grandma’s timing was impeccable. Had she called a week earlier, Sophie wouldn’t have been available to make the trek to Bellevue, Washington.
Sophie grabbed her suitcases from the trunk. As she tugged the cases up the drive toward the walkway to the house, the man climbed down from the ladder and rushed over.
“Here, let me take those.” His voice was rich and deep, and she was surprised to find her stomach flip at the sound.
Not one to turn down help, especially from a handsome man, Sophie relinquished her hold on the bags. “Thank you.”
She tilted her head up to meet steel gray eyes fringed with dark lashes. Okay, now that she was seeing him up close, handsome didn’t quite cover it. He wasn’t beautiful like the Hollywood types she frequently photographed. Some of those guys were prettier than their costars. This man had a square jaw shadowed by day-old scruff and a mouth that tipped upward at the corners in a faint smile.
No, this man’s face wasn’t pretty, but it had character and strength. And if she wasn’t mistaken, there was a hint of melancholy, balanced by an appreciative gleam in his eyes. Her pulse ticked up a notch. She envisioned him within the frame of her lens. The camera would love him. “Nice job with the lights.” She tried to make her voice sound natural.
He grinned. “Thank you. My first time.”
She blinked. “First time?”
“Putting up Christmas lights.”
That explained the lack of safety equipment. “Did Grandma know that when she hired you?”
He laughed, a deep, delicious rumble that Sophie felt in her chest. “We live next door. Louise has been so good to us I offered to put them up.”
Ah. A family man. No doubt his wife would be as beautiful as he was.
Now, why did she feel a prick of disappointment at the thought? It was silly. Get a grip, Soph, she silently chided herself. The last thing she needed in her life right now was a man. And definitely not a married one.
Sophie had big plans, goals to fulfill. A pending job that she’d been after for a long time. She almost couldn’t believe it was really going to happen after all this time. She was not about to get sidetracked. Besides, she didn’t do well in the romance department.
The man easily carried the bags to the front porch and set them by the front door. She liked the way he moved, with athletic grace. He was nearly as tall as the doorframe. Not that she should be noticing that kind of thing. She hurried up the porch stairs to her grandmother’s side.
“Sophie, my dear, it’s so good to see you,” Grandma said, her arms spread wide. Her beautiful face beamed. Even at seventy, Grandma hadn’t lost her glamour or the twinkle in her blue eyes. Sophie moved into her embrace, relishing the comfort a hug from Grandma could still bring.
Growing up, Sophie had found refuge from her parents’ chaotic life at her grandparents’ house. Here, Sophie was seen and heard. Here, she wasn’t a nuisance. This was the only place Sophie had ever felt like she really belonged.
Sophie owed her grandmother so much. She’d been the one to give Sophie her first camera, when she was twelve. Grandma had seen how hurt she’d been when her older brothers had ditched her to go off on an adventure, as they often did, and Grandma had thought she might enjoy having adventures of her own taking pictures. At the time, she’d had no idea how that one gesture would shape Sophie’s future.
Sophie pulled back to look into her grandmother’s face, searching for signs of pain. Then she realized Grams wasn’t sitting in a normal chair, but an electric wheelchair. “You said you’d fallen. Are you okay?”
Grandma grimaced and moved the blanket covering her legs to reveal a black ankle brace on her right foot. “Sprained it good.”
Her stomach clenched. At least it wasn’t broken. “What happened?”
Grandma fussed with the blanket. “Oh, well, that’s a long story, and one we’ll discuss later.” She patted her arm. “Where are my manners? Sophie, dear, this is my new neighbor, David Murphy.”
David tugged off his glove and held out his hand. “Hello, Sophie.”
She slipped her hand into his, and his big hand engulfed hers. Their palms fit together, and his fingers curled over hers firmly. “It’s nice to meet you, David. Thank you for getting the lights up for my grandmother.”
His gaze never left her face. Nor did he retract his hand. “You’re welcome. Louise has told me a great deal about you.”
“All good, I hope.” Sophie slid a glance to Grandma, who winked. Sophie did a double take. Grandma’s smile was pure inno-cence.
Sophie’s gaze narrowed. She hadn’t imagined the wink. What was Grandma doing? The man was taken. Maybe Grandma’s mind was impaired along with her foot.
David chuckled. “Yes, all good. She’s very proud of you and your talent.”
Touched by his words, Sophie smiled. “Well, she’s the one who sparked my interest in photography.”
“I’d like to see your work sometime.”
An image of them sitting cozily in front of a roaring fire, clicking through the pages of her portfolios, flashed into her mind. Her cheeks heated. There was no reason why what he’d said should sound so intimate. Maybe it was the way he held her gaze or the interest flaring in the depths of his stormy eyes.
Stop it, she told herself. Stop it now.
Heat continued to bloom in her cheeks and she realized she was still holding his hand. He followed her gaze to their joined palms. He took in a sharp gasp of air and quickly slipped his hand away, then shoved both of his hands into the pockets of his jacket and stepped back.
“Troy!” David called to the boy on the lawn.
David’s son pounded up the stairs and came to a skidding halt next to him. The dog, which on closer inspection was a large black, brown, and white puppy, bounded up the steps and nudged himself between David’s legs. The antlers snagged on David’s knee and slid sideways. She wished once again she’d had her camera ready.
Sophie had to force herself not to tell them to freeze while she went to grab it. She needed to keep it close if she wanted to catch opportunities like this one.
“Riggs.” Grandmother snapped her fingers to get the puppy’s attention and then motioned the dog to her side.
Sophie stared as the dog obeyed and moved to sit beside Grandma’s chair.
David put his hand on his son’s shoulder. “This is Troy.”
Sophie shifted her attention to the child and smiled. “Hello, Troy. I’m Sophie.”
The kid stuck out his hand and gave her hand a quick shake. “Nice to meet ya. You’re pretty just like Grandma Louise said.”
Sophie arched an eyebrow at her grandmother. Grandma smiled serenely, as if telling strangers she had a pretty granddaughter was the most natural thing in the world. Turning back to Troy, Sophie asked, “How old are you, Troy?”
He puffed up his chest. “I’m five. I’m in kindergarten.”
“Nice.” She lifted her gaze to find David watching her.
“We’ve got to get going.” David tugged at the collar of his coat. “I’ve work to do.”
“Awww, Uncle David, not yet,” Troy said, looking up at David. “Me and Riggs are having a good time.”
So. Not father and son, as she’d assumed. Her pulse skipped a beat. She glanced at David’s ring finger. No shiny band.
Uh-oh. Now Grandma’s wink made sense. Sophie wouldn’t put it past her grandmother to try setting Sophie up for a holiday romance. Not going to happen.
Sophie liked her nomadic lifestyle, roaming wherever the jobs took her. She had no inclination to make a change now. Or anytime in the future. She’d imagined she’d found The One more than once and the relationship had failed each time. Miserably. Much to her mother’s chagrin.
Better to not try again than find herself with another broken heart.
But even if David was off-limits, she was curious about Troy.
Was the boy visiting his uncle? Had the child’s parents dropped him off, too busy with their own lives to care for their son?
Old resentments sparked deep inside Sophie and she quickly quashed them. Not all parents chose their careers over their children. Hadn’t her therapist warned her often enough not to project her past onto others?
David’s jaw tightened and his voice was measured when he answered. “I understand. But it’s time to go home.”
“I don’t want to go!” Troy stamped a foot.
Sophie pressed her lips together and waited to see how David would react.
David leveled a stern look on the child. “Troy, remember our deal.”
Troy’s expression turned mutinous as he held his uncle’s gaze in a classic power play. She’d seen her brothers do it with their father numerous times over the years.
Neither flinched. Then Troy’s tiny shoulders sagged. “Yeah. I can play in the mud with Riggs as long as I don’t make a fuss when it’s time to go home.” Troy blew out a frustrated little breath. “Okay.” He turned and hugged Grandma. “ ’Bye, Grandma Louise.”
Sophie’s heart melted a little at how sweet the child was to her grandmother. Troy met Sophie’s gaze. “ ’Bye, Sophie.”
“Good-bye, Troy. It was nice to meet you.”
He smiled and gave Riggs a hug before thumping down the stairs and across the driveway toward the house next door. The beige and dark brown exterior of the charming single-story home blended well with the older residences on the street. Brick accents along the foundation added an interesting visual touch, and the evergreen bushes and trees in the yard were well groomed.
David sighed and watched him go. “Does it ever get easier?” he asked Louise.
“It will, David. Be patient.” Grandmother adjusted the blanket on her lap. “He’s a great kid. He just needs some time to adjust.”
Sophie felt awkward standing there listening in as this man sought advice from her grandmother. She shifted and stepped back a bit.
David nodded and flashed a quick glance at Sophie. “Good-bye. I hope you enjoy your stay.” He turned back to Louise and smiled. “Thank you for your help.” He hurried after Troy.
Sophie watched the two disappear through a hole in the row of hedges that separated Grandmother’s house from the newer one next door. At one time, Grandma and Grandpa had owned the adjacent lot. Back then it had been a wooded wonderland, the perfect place for Sophie and her brothers to play when they came to visit. She cried her eyes out the day the trees had been cut down and dragged away.
Sophie heard a door close. “Where are Troy’s parents?”
Grandma hesitated a moment before she spoke.“There was a car accident this past summer,” she finally replied. “Both parents were killed.”
Sophie’s heart twisted. So that explained the melancholy she’d noticed in both David and Troy. “That’s so sad.”
“Yes, it is.”
Sophie waited for her to go on, but she didn’t say anything more.
Something wet nudged Sophie’s hand. She glanced down to see the puppy staring up at her with big brown eyes. He was still wearing the crooked antler. She squatted down and dug her fingers into his soft fur. There was something so soothing about petting the pup.
“Oh, my. He’s so cute.” She looked at Grams. “Riggs, uh? That’s an interesting name. What kind of dog is he?”
“Bernese mountain dog,” Grandma said. “He’s ten months old and already so big.”
Riggs licked Sophie’s face. She laughed and wiped off a glob of slobber. “Who does he belong to?”
When Grandma didn’t answer, Sophie’s gaze shot back to Grandma. There was a gleam in her blue eyes.
Grandma sighed. “He’s mine. But I was hoping that maybe you’d like to have him.”
Sophie jerked upright. “Uh, that would be a no. Grams, I can’t take on a dog. I’m never in one place long enough to care for an animal. Let alone a big one like this guy.”
Riggs leaned into her legs and licked her hand. Sophie stepped away. He was cute, but there was no way she was going to let the puppy worm his way into her heart. “Why did you get a dog, anyway?”
Grandma plucked at the fuzz on the blanket. “I was lonely. And Simon suggested I get a pet. A cat might have been a better choice, but I saw Riggs at the Humane Society and fell in love with him.”
Sophie’s heart clutched. Of course Grandma was lonely living here alone. She should have thought about that. The rest of the family lived in Southern California, and Grandpa had passed over a decade ago. Guilt slithered through Sophie. She should have made more of an effort to visit more frequently. She’d have to tell her brothers they also needed to make the effort to come see Grandma.
But one thing Grandma had said confused her.
Sophie narrowed her gaze. Was that a blush tingeing Grandma’s cheeks? Or was it just the cold air giving her a rosy hue? In this light it was hard to tell.
“He’s a friend from church,” Grandma said. “We serve together on the Helping Hands committee.” Grandma fiddled with the controls on her wheelchair. The wheels hummed and spun, and the chair turned so that she now faced the front door. “It’s getting chilly out here. Shall we go in?”
Hmmm. Definitely a blush. Interesting. She’d need to find out more about that soon. For now, she hurried to open the door.
“Riggs will need to be wiped down. Do you mind? I’m not sure I could manage it. I can barely get myself bathed and dressed on one good foot,” Grandma said as she pushed her chair inside the warm house. “There’s a bucket for water and towels in the laundry room.”
Sophie eyed Riggs. The white and tan parts of his coat were crusted with mud and they nearly matched the black parts of his fur. His head tilted as he watched her, waiting patiently, as if he’d been trained to anticipate the need for a bath before entering the house. Surely Grandma hadn’t summoned her just to care for the dog?
No, Sophie had a strong feeling that Grandma’s intentions weren’t that pedestrian. Sophie believed that she did need help after her fall, but she was pretty sure that wasn’t all she had in mind.
With a little huff, Sophie went to fetch the bucket and towels.
The stunning Sophie Griffith was one more distraction David didn’t need. He stared at the charcoal etching with frustration. Louise had mentioned on more than a few occasions that her unmarried granddaughter was coming to visit.
He had the distinct impression Louise was hoping something might kindle between him and Sophie. He suspected that was why she’d asked if he’d put up her lights yesterday at the exact time Sophie was to arrive.
He’d been amused by her meddling until he saw the leggy blonde step out of her car and he’d felt a visceral reaction in his gut. She was tall, which he liked, and her clear blue eyes had missed nothing. She seemed to stare at everything at once and he’d wondered if she was imagining what the world would look like with the perfect lighting and the correct angle for her camera lens.
Louise had said Sophie was pretty, but “pretty” was such a mild word. She wasn’t model gorgeous in that surreal way that some women had. No, Sophie’s beauty was natural. Her golden skin spoke of other places, warm and sunny places. Her blond hair had hung loose about her shoulders and framed an oval face that he’d itched to draw the second he’d returned to his desk. Now that drawing stared back at him, pulling his mind away from his work.
He pushed the sketchbook aside. He couldn’t let anything or anyone divert his attention. Operating a million-dollar company and raising a child—especially one you hadn’t planned on—was hard enough. The last thing he needed was to add a complication such as romance into the mix. Romances, he’d found, took energy and effort that he didn’t have right now. He’d discovered early on that along with love came heartache. It was a state of being he didn’t want to experience ever again.
He refocused on his computer, which he’d set up in the dining room so he could work and keep an eye on Troy. Juggling the sudden demands of single parenthood and the company he’d built from the ground up was taxing not only his energy but also his emotional reserves.
After his brother and sister-in-law’s tragic deaths, David had been granted custody of his nephew, a fate David had never expected. Why had Daniel and Beth appointed him guardian of their son?
David and Daniel had had such different lives the past few years. They hadn’t seen eye to eye on many things. David had been focused on building his company, Daniel on taking care of his family. Daniel had been clearly disappointed that David had devoted himself to work instead of family and faith. He’d said as much to David on more than one occasion.
Guilt ate at David for allowing a wedge to develop between him and Daniel. A wedge that had been shattered by Daniel’s death.
And now, six months into fatherhood, David still felt like he was walking through a minefield. To say it was overwhelming would be an understatement.
There was no class to prepare someone to become a parent overnight. David was not only struggling with his own grief over his brother’s passing, but he was trying his best to help Troy cope as well. Some days were better than others.
Yesterday had been good. Troy and Riggs had played hard for a couple of hours, and Troy had been exhausted by the time they’d returned home, which allowed David some focused time at his computer.
David hoped today would be good too, but Troy hadn’t slept well. Ever since Daniel and Beth’s accident, Troy had been struggling with nightmares—night terrors, the doctor called them—that left him screaming and afraid. The next day, they would both be cranky. But they’d managed to make breakfast together, do their laundry, and make their beds without any meltdowns. He considered that a success.
With school out for the holiday break, Troy was in the living room watching a cartoon. The volume crept up to a deafening level and grated on David’s already tightly strung nerves.
He was working to develop a sensor for smartphones that would determine a person’s hydration level. The sensor would be able to read the saturation in their skin when a finger was pressed against the sensor, and it would be connected to an app that would track and monitor this.
The idea came after a reporter for a national online newspaper had issued a challenge to software designers to develop a number of seemingly outlandish apps. Every software developer in David’s sphere had been abuzz about the list of wished-for apps. Some were too ridiculous to contemplate, while others had merit.
Like an app that detected when someone was dehydrated.
As David had done research into the negative effects of dehydration, he saw how useful such an app could be. He’d begun working on it nearly a year ago, and was now at the final stages. This project could be the one that set his company up for life. So much was riding on getting it right. And rolling the app out before anyone else got wind of it was paramount.
But to succeed, David needed time. Uninterrupted, focused time.
He rose and strode to the archway of the living room. Troy sat on the floor with his legs crisscrossed as a set of animated superheroes saved the world.
“Hey, buddy, can we turn the volume down a couple of clicks?” David asked.
Troy ignored him. David stepped over a dump truck to pick up the remote from the coffee table and decreased the sound. Troy seemed not to notice.
Shaking his head, David returned to his project. His hands flew over the keyboard of his computer. He made notes on a yellow legal pad. He was so close. This app could save lives if he could get it to run correctly.
Ten minutes later, Troy raced into the room and jumped on David’s back. The chair squeaked with the extra weight. David took a deep breath and tried to summon as much patience as he could. Then David lifted his hands from his keyboard and took a deep breath. “Troy. I’m working.”
“You promised we could go to the park!” Troy jumped down and twirled in a circle. “I want to go to the park.”
“You’re right. I did say we’d go to the park. Later. But I need to work now.”
“All you do is work,” Troy said, his face set in a mulish look. This didn’t bode well. “I want to play.”
“Troy, we’ll go to the park after lunch.”
“No! I want to go now!” he shouted.
Cringing from the high decibel noise coming from the small child, David grit his teeth. “Do not yell at me.” He tried to keep his voice even and calm, like the books had told him to.
“You promised,” Troy said in the same tone of voice.
Again, David took a deep breath and answered calmly. “Do not raise your voice at me.” His hands gripped the chair, and he noticed that his knuckles were turning white. “We will go to the park when I am done here.”
“Well, I’m going to go now,” Troy said. His voice was quieter, but laced with challenge.
“You are not going to go to the park on your own. We will—”
“You can’t tell me what to do!” Troy screeched. “You’re not my daddy!”
David’s heart sank. The accusation shredded his insides. He’d been warned that Troy would act out in his grief. David was barely processing his own sorrow at the loss of his brother; he couldn’t imagine how hard this had to be for Troy.
Patience, he told himself. He knelt down and gripped Troy’s slender shoulders. Looking into his face, David saw his brother in the jut of Troy’s chin, in the shape of his eyes. Sadness swamped him, making his eyes burn. “I know I’m not your father. I can’t replace Daniel. But, Troy, you and I are all either of us has in this world. We have to figure out how to live together.”
“I don’t want to live with you anymore.” Troy wrenched free, and he ran toward the front door.
“Troy, no!” David raced after his nephew. David’s feet tangled in the Thomas the Tank engine tracks that lay in the middle of the living room, and he fell to his knees as Troy ran out of the house into the wet, cold, rainy day. Without a hat or coat.
Pure panic gripped David. All sorts of horrible scenarios played through his head. “Oh, Dear Father in Heaven, please don’t let anything happen to him.” The prayer slipped out, surprising him. He wasn’t really sure where he stood with God, but he’d been raised to believe. Apparently in a crisis, default mode was to turn to Him.
He jumped to his feet, grabbed his and Troy’s jackets, and chased after his nephew.