A FLURRY OF REIGNITED PASSION IS IN THE FORECAST!
What would the holidays be without joy and cheer? A regular Christmas for Mack Lawless. Along with the first snow come regret and confusion when his ex-wife, Darcy Kramer, returns to Holden's Crossing. Even seven years later, her abrupt decision to file for divorce burns deep. And it doesn't help that he's practically forced to bump elbows with her at a Christmas tree farm during the most festive time of year
Why did she leave? Darcy's deeply buried secrets still hurt, just as much as seeing Mack again does. But time and distance have done nothing to help her forget about their love. Now, with the holiday spirit on her side, she can try to make amends. Can a sprig of mistletoe lead to a real forever family?
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The grim tone of his brother's voice told Mack Lawless all he needed to know, and his heart gave an unwelcome thump. Still, since he hadn't heard from the she in question in almost a decade, he deliberately uncoiled more of the pine garland he was hanging on the front of his veterinary practice and kept his voice level. "Who's back?"
Chase moved so he was at the periphery of Mack's vision. Even out of the corner of his eye, Mack could see the tight set of his brother's mouth. Damn. He willed his hands not to shake. He refused to let on that the mention of hereven indirectlycould still affect him. He came down the ladder, leaving the boughs hanging and ignoring the sting of the snow that pelted his face. "Chase?"
Chase met his gaze. "Darcy."
Darcy. Her name was a hard punch to his gut. Still. After seven freaking years. He'd gotten over her, and yet
And yet hearing her name tore the lid off the memories he'd worked so hard to bury.
He forced himself to hold Chase's gaze and not show anything but indifference. "Are you sure?"
Chase nodded. "Saw her at the gas station a bit ago. Thought I'dthought I should be the one to tell you."
The wind kicked up and the tail of the abandoned garland lashed Mack in the face. He winced, caught it and turned back to the ladder. Mack and Chase were planning to buy her family's tree farm after Christmas. He hadn't thought it would matter to Darcy. She hadn't been back since their divorce, even to visit her aunt and uncle.
His brother angled so the wind was at his back. "You okay, man?"
Irritation flared, but Mack tamped it down. Chase meant well. They all would mean well. As if he was still the heartbroken mess Darcy'd left in her dust all those years ago. "Yeah. It was a long time ago." He fitted the garland over the next hook and pretended the acid in his stomach was because he'd had a burrito for lunch and not because the only woman he'd ever really loved had returned to Holden's Crossing. The woman who'd broken him into shards when she left.
But his damn heart had never fully let her go.
"All right, then. Let me know if you need anything."
In spite of the tension coiling through him, Mack laughed. "Like what?"
Chase shrugged. "Whatever you need. We can talk to her."
"Oh, no. No talking." He could just imagine how that particular conversation would go. He could almost pity Darcy. Almost. "Leave her alone, Chase. I'll deal with her when I have to."
"If you say so." Chase jingled his keys, then walked away. Mack heard his brother's truck start up and forced himself to focus on his task. Now he felt exposed. Anyone who'd seen Darcy, anyone who knew the storyor thought they didcould be driving by right now, staring at him, whispering.
He hated the whispers.
He looped the last of the decoration over the final hook and secured it so the winter winds wouldn't rip it free. Since the weather was steadily getting worse, he opted to leave the Christmas lights for another day. He hoped the wind wouldn't rip them downthe way Darcy had ripped his heart.
He closed the ladder and tried damn hard to ignore the mental picture of his ex-wife, with her long coppery locks and golden brown eyes. Damn it. Now he'd have Darcy on the brain after he'd been so successful at getting her out of it. He forced himself to turn away and haul the ladder back inside, banging it hard on the door. He swallowed a curse as pain radiated up his arm.
"All done?" Sherry's voice was cheery and he relaxed for a moment. His office manager didn't know anything too personal about him, thank God. At least not yet.
"Weather's getting worse," he said as he lugged the ladder down to the hall closet. "Wind is picking up, so I'll finish tomorrow."
She gave a quick nod. "You've had a bunch of calls in the past half hour," she said. "Your family, mostly."
She held the messages out, her attention back on the computer screen.
"Ah. Thanks." He took them and beat it back to his office. He skimmed through them quickly, then dumped them in the trash. Mom. Chase. His sister, Katie. How sad was it to be a thirty-two-year-old man and have your entire family band together over an ex-wife? Had the whole thing really been that bad?
He closed his eyes, then opened them.
Well, yeah, actually it had. Worse, probably.
He stared out his office window at the snow, which had changed from pellets to flakes. The radio station playing in the waiting area announced, between Christmas tunes, that three to six inches of the white stuff was expected by morning. It'd be a white Thanksgiving. Not uncommon in northern Michigan.
Darcy's uncle would be thrilled. And so should Mack.
Mack rubbed his hand over his face. Had Joe and Marla told their niece how he'd been helping out at the farm? Would she have come back if she'd known? He liked them. He enjoyed the labor of trimming the trees, mowing, whatever Joe needed done on the farm. They'd become friends, even with their shared history, but it was funny how the older man hadn't mentioned Darcy's imminent return. Mack was supposed to go out there tonight and help with some of the prep for the tree farm's official opening the day after Thanksgiving. He wanted to make sure this last year went off flawlessly.
Canceling wasn't an option. He knew Joe needed the extra hands more than ever.
Would Joe inform Darcy of the evening's plans?
A small part of him acknowledged the appeal of showing up and seeing her shocked reaction. Letting her see he was fine and completely over her. He'd moved on with his life. Seven years was a long time and he wasn't that man anymore.
Maybe she isn't that woman anymore, either.
It didn't matter. He didn't want to go there. He'd managed to compartmentalize his relationship with Darcy's uncle away from what he'd had with her. That part of his life was over. At least until now, when it looked as though the past had come back to haunt him.
Sherry appeared in his door. "Jim Miller and Kiko are here. Jennifer's not back from lunch yet," she said, then really looked at him and frowned. "You okay, Mack? You look as if you've seen a ghost."
She wasn't too far off the mark. In a way, he had.
"I'm fine," he assured her. "I'll be with them in a few minutes."
As she exited his office, he sighed and pulled up Kiko's chart on the computer. Kiko was one of many pets he'd see today. Jim and his wife were getting a divorce, and the older man had gotten Kiko, a Siamese cat, as company. Some marriages weren't meant to be, no matter how promising they started out.
Like his and Darcy's.
He filed the unhelpful thoughts away and went to get his patient, whom he could hear yowling from the waiting room. Still, in the back of his head, all he could think was She's back.
His ex-wife was back.
Darcy Kramer drove through downtown Holden's Crossing, her hometown until she'd fled after the bust-up of her marriage at the young age of twenty-three.
She'd always loved the town at Christmas. The cheery decorations, the snow, the old-fashioned charm of the buildings added up to magic for a young girl. Somehow there was comfort in knowing it hadn't really changed.
Had it really been almost eight years since she was here? She truly hadn't intended to stay away so long. Shame tugged at her conscience. She knew Mack's older brother, Chase, had seen her back at the gas station. The look he'd given her was far colder than the wind that whipped outside. Had he gone straight to Mack? Probably.
Pain bloomed in her chest. The Lawless family pulled together tight when one of their own was hurt. Except, apparently, those related only by marriage. Those weeks after the accident and the loss of their baby, as her marriage crumbled under the weight of shared grief and her guilt, they'd set themselves firmly in Mack's camp. And he'd turned to them for comfort, rather than her.
She inhaled deeply and forced the memories down. To get through these next two weeks, she had to keep Mack out of her mind as much as possible. Her focus was helping her aunt and uncle, who'd raised her after she lost her parents, with their last Christmas season with the farm.
She gripped the wheel a little tighter. One last Christmas before the tree farm went up for sale. Before he'd died, her father had asked his brother to include Darcy in the final season if they ever sold the farm. So she'd agreed to take two weeks' vacation from her PR job in Chicago and come home.
Even though she hadn't been here in many years, it was still her childhood home, entwined in her heart and her memories, both the good and not so good. She'd missed being here. But coming backand possibly facing Mackhadn't been an option. Until now.
She accelerated as she exited the town limits. The steadily falling snow wasn't yet sticking to the roads, though it was starting to coat the grass. Figured, she'd get up here just in time for the first real snow of the season. Good timing, really. The snow added to the festive holiday atmosphere Kramer Tree Farm prided itself on.
She flexed her fingers on the steering wheel. Two weeks. She could do it. Then she could go back to Chicago and her carefully ordered life. She'd worked so hard for some measure of peace.
She turned on the road leading to the farm. Right away she saw the fences lining the property by the road were faded, even broken in some places. She pulled over in one such spot and got out, zipping the down vest she wore over a fleece jacket to her chin as she walked over to examine the broken board.
The chill that ran through her had nothing to do with the cold. The farm's financial situation must be much worse than her aunt and uncle had let on. Why hadn't he or Marla said anything to her? She'd offered help over the years as her career took off, but they'd always turned her down. She touched the jagged end of the wood, and tears stung her eyes. Her uncle and father had always been so adamant about the appearance of the farm. She swallowed hard as she looked out over the field beyond, with its neat rows of trees. Those, at least, looked well cared for. The wind bit through her fleece jacket and she folded her arms tight over her chest as she walked back to the car.
The farm entrance came into sight up the road and she turned into the drive with a sense of trepidation. She drove past the low-slung barn that housed handmade wreaths and other decorations, relieved to note at least here the fencing here was in good shape and the area was trimmed festively. There were a half dozen cars parked in the lot and she knew inside the barn would be four or five people making wreaths, grave blankets and other decorations. No doubt her uncle was out in one of the fields somewhere, when he should be taking it easy. The road forked just past the barn, and since her aunt had requested she come to the house first, she continued up the driveway.
The house, a white-painted bungalow with green shutters, already sported lights and garlands and little wreaths hung from wide red ribbons in every window. Smoke curled from the chimney and a sense of relief, of rightness settled in Darcy's bones. When she pictured home, this was exactly how she thought of it. She grabbed her purse and reached for the door handle.
But she couldn't open the door. She'd been gone for so long, for reasons that seemed to pale in light of the farm's plight. Even though she knew she'd done the right thing for both her and Mack, she couldn't stop the wave of guilt that washed over her.
Marshaling her courage, she got out of the car, pulled her bags out of the trunk and trudged across the drive, the snow falling on her face and stinging her cheeks. The weight of her luggage was nothing compared to the weight of the baggage she carried within her. She knocked on the back door and waited. She could see the lights in the kitchen through the curtains, see the shadow of someone hurrying toward the door. Her aunt, of course.
Her breath caught as Marla opened the door, a smile wreathing her ageless face. "Darcy Jane! So nice to see you, honey."
Darcy stepped through the door into her aunt's embrace, letting her bags slide down to the floor. "Hi, Aunt Marla," she said, breathing in her aunt's familiar scent of Jean Nate. She squeezed her eyes shut against tears. Thank God some things didn't change.
Her aunt gave her a squeeze and stepped back. "Let me look at you. My goodness, you don't look any older! You've got your mama's good genes. Come on in, let me shut the door."
Darcy stepped all the way into the kitchen and rejoiced in the smell of pot roast. She never cooked like that for herself. "Mmm. Smells wonderful in here."
Marla opened the oven and took a peek. "I try to have a hot meal for us after these long, cold days of getting ready for the opening. This roast is a bit of a splurge, since you're here. Normally, we don't eat red meat anymore. Trying to keep Joe on a better diet to help his heart."
Darcy toed off her boots. "How is Uncle Joe?"
"He's doing good. He needs to take it easy, which is very hard for him this time of year, but he restricts his working hours and we've got some wonderful employees who pick up any slack. Selling is going to be hard, but it's the right thing to do. It's time."
Darcy hesitated. "I see it needs a little work," she said softly.
Marla nodded. "We've focused on the trees, not that fence out by the road. We couldn't do it all, although" She stopped, and Darcy could have sworn guilt crossed her aunt's face.
Her aunt gave her head a quick shake. "Nothing. We've done what we can. Now it's time to turn it over to someone else." She nodded at Darcy's bags. "Why not take those up to your room, honey? It's all fresh for you. We'll eat shortly. I hope you're hungry."
Her stomach chose that moment to unleash a rolling growl. Her aunt cocked an eyebrow. Darcy gave a little laugh. "Guess that's your answer." She'd been too much of a wreck about coming back to Holden's Crossing to do much more than nibble on a protein bar in the car.
"Good thing, too. We've got a lot of food and I don't want your uncle to eat it all. Here, let me help you." Marla picked up one of her bags and Darcy grabbed the last two.
As she followed her aunt to the stairs, she noted the decor hadn't changed much, either. Clean, same plaid couch from when she'd left, same curtains. A large blue spruce stood in front of the big window, lit with hundreds of lights and covered in ornaments. A fire crackled on the hearth, which made the whole place seem homey and cozy.
Sadness gave a little twist under her heart. She'd miss this house when they sold it.
Marla set the small duffel on the bed. "I know it was hard for you to come. I just want you to know how much we appreciate it. And I wishI wish you hadn't thought you couldn't come home."
Caught, Darcy sank down on the bed. "You know why I couldn't."
Marla held her gaze and Darcy saw understanding and compassion there. "I know why you thought you couldn't. There's a difference."