- Pub. Date:
From the first, Maddie Carlton felt that she'd met mysterious Rory March before. Now, he'd appeared on her doorstep when she least expectedand vanished just as swiftly.
Yet, at each visit, Rory brought Maddie and her boy the warmth of joy their lives had been missing for so longever since the tragedy that had taken her husband.
But who was "Rory" really? And could the man who'd restored her faithand saved Christmas for her sonteach Maddie to love again?
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About the Author
Award-winning author Deb Kastner writes stories of faith, family and community in a small-town western setting. Deb’s books contain sigh-worthy heroes and strong heroines facing obstacles that draw them closer to each other and the Lord. She lives in Colorado with her husband. She is blessed with three grown daughters and two grandchildren. She enjoys spoiling her grandkids, movies, music, reading, musical theater and exploring Colorado on horseback.
Read an Excerpt
Father, I cannot see tomorrow,
Father, I find it hard to pray,
Father, feeling these tears of sorrow,
Carry this weight Show me the way.
Open up my eyes, Open up my ears,
Open up my heart.
Father, hear my prayer.
An ocean of masked partygoers washed toward the Brown Palace Hotel, their laughter echoing in the cold evening air. Maddie closed her eyes, trying to recall the feeling of gurgling laughter caught in her chest, bubbling up into her throat.
Her heart felt void of any emotion but a sense of apprehension at being in the public eye, of being recognized as the Wealthy Widow, as the newspapers had dubbed her.
Country-bred bumpkin was more like it, party clothes or no party clothes.
She stared in awe at the majestic exterior of the historic Brown Palace Hotel, a landmark sandwiched between office buildings in the heart of downtown Denver.
God help me. She sent up a silent prayer. This isn't going to work without Your intervention. She reached inside herself, searching for a snippet of peace that would make this night easier, but found nothing. Nothing. She was little more than an empty shell.
It had taken her years to adjust to being a suburban housewife on the outskirts of a big city, used as she was to her small hometown in eastern Colorado. No way would she ever fit in among an ostentatious crowd of silver-lined philanthropists. Even with a mask she was bound to give away her small-town roots.
Happily-ever-after storybook endings didn't exist. She was hard proof of that. Perhaps her sparkling Cinderella satin gown and glass slippers were more appropriate than she'd imagined. That irony crowned her, just as sure as the faux-diamond tiara she wore.
She wasn't looking for Prince Charming. She'd already had her one true love. Memories would have to be enough to bolster her through the remainder of life.
She ought to turn right around and go home where she belonged. She glanced back at the street, but the taxicab that had dropped her off in front of the hotel had long since vanished.
Maddie decided to walk back to 16th Street, where she could catch a bus back to her own neighborhood. She didn't really want to be alone in a crowd. Alone at home was easier to handle. She was still too used to having Peter by her side. Single was not her style.
And maybe it never would be.
She was looking at her see-through, plastic "glass" pumps, and didn't see the crowd approaching her until it was too late. A festive jumble of costumed people whirled her into their midst and, seeing she was also incognito, whisked her along with them into the hotel.
She fought to be released, but an older woman with a dozen glittering rings on one hand looped her arm through Maddie's, giving her little choice but to follow the others into the dark, panel-floored atrium. She sighed. "'Nothing ventured, nothing gained,'" she quoted to herself.
"Exactly, dear," said the old woman with the rings, who stood at Maddie's side. Maddie had forgot that she wasn't alone, or she certainly wouldn't have spoken aloud. The gray-haired woman put a hand to Maddie's back and gave her a gentle nudge in the direction of the music. "Might as well take a peek, dear heart, since you've come this far."
The voice was filled with such authority that Maddie swiveled to catch her expression, but the woman was already tottering toward a group of friends, waving her arms enthusiastically at a big black bear.
She could see the second floor of the hotel through broad arches, and again felt a quiver of dismay at finding herself among a class of people who would frequent such a place. She felt like a church mouse in a grand cathedral.
Courage, Maddie, she mentally coaxed herself. These people put their pants on the same way you do. Get a grip on it.
She wandered tentatively into the ballroom, which had been transformed into a winter wonderland. Billowy cotton clouds hung from the ceiling, sequins glittering from their depths, and many-faceted paper snowflakes graced the walls. Pillarlike lamps wrapped with festive, pungent pine boughs surrounded the dance floor, giving the room a candlelit kind of glow. A twelve-piece orchestra played a lively Chopin waltz in one corner of the ballroom. Already, couples were whirling around the dance floor in time to the music.
The effect was magical, and Maddie experienced the temporary giddy feeling that she'd been transported to another time and place. Was this how Cinderella felt when she walked into the prince's palace? She took a deep breath and smoothed down the satiny folds of her opaque silver gown. Cinderella. Would it hurt to pretend? Just a little? And just this once?
Just for tonight, she promised herself. She was in a mask, after all, and had her hair and face made up. No one would recognize her. If the night went well, she might not even recognize herself.
Groups of chattering people mingled around the perimeter of the hall, while others sat at tables before plates mounded with food from the buffet in the next room. Everyone she saw was lavishly costumedfrom a portly lion and his chair-wielding lion-tamer wife to Santa and Mrs. Claus.
What if one of the masked men in the room is Neil March? The unspoken question hit her with such sudden force that she nearly reeled. Her stomach tightened as she fought the nausea she felt every time she saw or heard his name.
It was Neil March's fault that she was here tonight. Alone.
Irrational though it might be, Maddie blamed Neil March for Peter's death. There was so much anger, so much pain. It had to be channeled somewhere and Maddie had, whether consciously or not, transferred her negative feelings to Neil March. He was, after all, the owner of the department store, and in her mind, that made him responsible.
The report by the fire department had cleared March's of any wrongdoing, but she clung stubbornly to her own suspicions. Authorities could be paid off to keep their findings a secret, and if there was one thing Neil March had plenty of, it was money. Hadn't he tried to buy her off, as well?
Her stomach clenched and she scanned the room in earnest.
What if he was here? Maddie gasped, fighting the waves of panic.
No. Neil March wouldn't be here. He was a playboy, not a philanthropist. What he'd paid her at Peter's untimely death had been nothing less than blood money. Not offered out of generosity. And definitely not offered out of compassion. Of that she was certain.
Though she knew him to be a practiced businessman, she pictured Neil as a young, arrogant preppy, complete with khaki pants and a designer polo shirt with the collar flipped up on his neck. He'd have a tennis racket slung over one arm and a gorgeous blonde on the other.
She didn't recall seeing any preppy tennis players here tonight mingling among the guests.
She snorted at her own joke. It was the closest she'd come to laughing since Peter had died. The sober thought dropped the smile from her lips.
Neil March was certainly nothing to laugh about.
"Excuse me." She flagged down a passing waiter. "Do you have water?" She realized she sounded like a dehydrated camel after days in the desert, but the waiter remained straight-faced. "Of course, madam."
Moments later she was gulping down a glass of water, coughing and sputtering when it went down wrong. She pounded a fist against her chest to dislodge what felt like a boulder. "Maddie, you have to relax!" she muttered under her breath.
"Hey! Check it out. Now that's a costume and a half!" a young blonde in a tennis outfit said, grabbing Maddie by the elbow.
There went her theory that there were no tennis players here tonight. The young woman was the gorgeous blonde half of her Neil March scenario, with white culottes that put the short in shorts. Bleach-blond hair and a knockout tan in the dead of winter?
Intrigued, Maddie looked to where the blonde was pointing her tennis racket. Something had clearly captured her attention.
Standing in the doorway, his feet braced and hands on his hips, was the Phantom of the Opera, handsome despite the fact that the upper half of his face was masked in stark white.
She was immediately struck by his impressive bearing and thick, broad shoulders. His black cutaway tuxedo was covered with a many-caped greatcoat, fastened at the neck amid snowy-white ruffles. His presence was intense and powerful, and Maddie could see that she wasn't the only woman inexplicably drawn to his mask and the thick black hair curling down around his collar.
He appeared to be looking for someone, his strong, thin lips turned down at the corners in just the shadow of a frown.
His gaze passed where she stood, then moved back again, as if he were taking a second look. No doubt he was, since Ms. Short-shorts was still holding on to Maddie's elbow. She was exactly the sort of woman to make a man do a double take.
Maddie wasn't surprised when he strode toward them. The young woman dropped her tennis racket to her side and stood with one hand on her hip, greeting the Phantom with a brilliant smile.
Oddly enough, Maddie had the peculiar sensation that he was watching her, coming for her, as if he'd picked an old friend's face from a crowd. And it sent shivers down her spine. But of course that was nonsense. He was coming for the blonde.
With unconscious grace, he unhooked the cape and swung it around, folding it across a chair. Maddie's heart leaped to her throat, and she nearly dropped the water glass that she held in her hand. This man was definitely not an old friend.
She would have remembered such a compelling gaze, the way his dark eyes burned through the stark whiteness of the mask and especially that confident swagger that caught the attention of every woman he passed.
Her head spun as the man grew nearer. She was vaguely aware of the sound of her own breath heavy in her ears, the pounding of her heart in her head.
Now he was in front of her, looking straight at her. As if he knew her. But there was no way he could recognize her through her mask. And even if he could see her face, it was improbable that he'd know her. How could he? She wasn't part of this crowd.
Perhaps that was the problem. Did she stick out like a weed among orchids? Maybe she looked like the grungy suburban housewife that she was, as out of place as a child at a grown-up party.
He grinned then, the smile starting at his lips and emanating from his obsidian-black eyes behind the mask. His smile encompassed both Maddie and the primping blonde at her side.
So that was it. He was being polite, figuring Maddie was Ms. Short-shorts's friend. And he was probably wondering how to get rid of her.
Well, she'd make it easy for him. She didn't know why Goldilocks had latched on to her in the first place, and she had no qualms about bowing out when she wasn't wanted. She dislodged her elbow from the blonde's grasp just as the Phantom held out his hand and gestured toward the dance floor.
Let's move it, sweetie. He's obviously asking you to dance, and he isn't going to wait forever, Maddie thought uncharitably, wondering why the woman's grip on her elbow had tightened. What was this woman's problem? Not a tough decision, especially for one as used to society charity balls as this girl seemed to be.
She glanced to her side. The young woman stared at Maddie with a mixture of disbelief and pique, then glanced at the Phantom. She swung her astonished gaze to Maddie and, with an unladylike snort, flounced away in a huff.
Either the woman was crazy, or a complete idiot. And the Phantom had just been jilted. She turned to the man and offered a regretful shrug and a tentative smile.
The dark-haired man combed his fingers through the curls at the back of his neck. "Well?"
Maddie cocked her head. "Well?" she repeated.
"Dance with me."
His voice was as low and rich as she'd imagined it would be. And she had definitely imagined the words.
His eyes lit with amusement at her hesitation. "Weren't you asking Goldilocks to dance?" she blurted.
"Who?" The Phantom looked genuinely perplexed.
"You know." Maddie tipped her head in the direction the blonde had disappeared. "The tennis player."
The Phantom chuckled. "Not a chance. She's a little young. And definitely not my type. I was asking you to dance."
He was asking her to dance. And the orchestra was breaking into a slow ballad even as they spoke.