The Soldier's Gift
Just in time for Christmas, a tall, dark and handsome Scrooge visits Holly Stanwyck's holiday shop, threatening eviction. But once landlord Ethan Pelligrino sees the single mom's plight, the former soldier becomes her protector instead. Suddenly he's helping her with her struggling business and bonding with her troubled son. A wounded veteran come home to heal, Ethan is no stranger to sorrow. But something about the pretty widow fills him with hope. Will Holly be able to let go of her own painful past to see her future by his side?
About the Author
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Another Christmas carol drifted through the airwaves and settled on Holly Stanwyck's shoulders as she sat in her deserted shop. Normally the music would soothe her, but not today. She needed some customers to walk through the front door of 'Tis Always the Season and buy enough merchandise to pay for the day's overhead expenses. Without being able to put out new offerings in the past few weeks, though, the odds of that happening were nil.
Taking a break from the computer, she opened her mail and stared at another past-due notice before she placed it in the manila folder with the others. The real meaning of Christmas and the reason for the store had died two years ago, along with her dreams of a happily ever after.
"Bah, humbug." Holly never thought she'd utter those words. Fisting her palms, she rested her chin against them and stared out at the tree behind the wrought-iron fence, its bare limbs scarcely darker than the clouds spitting snowflakes. Even the cold marble pillars and structure of the courthouse in the center of the square seemed to shrink under the weight of the early November storm. She blew her wispy bangs from her eyes.
She missed her husband. The store had been his idea; a way to keep Christmas in their hearts all year round and a way to sell the hand-carved wooden crosses, ornaments, figurines and creches he made in the workshop behind their bungalow, along with other Christmas merchandise. Only one of his masterpieces remained, and with Jared dead, no new ones would grace the shelves.
In a few moments, she regained her composure and breathed in the scent of cinnamon wafting from the candle on the shelf behind her head. It reminded her of her grandmother's house in the suburbs of Chicago, and she envisioned Nana Marie's soft arms cocooning her in comfort. There is nothing in life that you can't handle, child. Just put your trust in the Lord, and everything will be all right.
Easier said than done. She didn't believe anymore and only went through the motions for her twelve-year-old son, Cameron. Still, Holly Stanwyck was no quitter. She would not lose everything she and Jared had worked so hard for. The new business venture she'd thought of last night would work. Refocusing on the words on the computer screen, she felt hope blaze through her. She'd get caught up on her bills and give Cam the Christmas he longed for.
Where was Cameron anyway? She glanced at her watch and her heart sank. School had ended an hour ago. If he didn't show up in the next few minutes, she'd have to close up the shop and go searching for him again.
The bell above the door jingled. Quickly stuffing the folder under the counter, she stood and plastered on a smile, hoping her customer wouldn't see the desperation lingering in her eyes. "Welcome to 'Tis Always " Her words died in her throat as the door shut.
A tall, dark-haired stranger stood behind her son, and the scowl on the man's face didn't bode well. Cam had obviously forgotten their numerous talks about stranger danger, even in the small town. But then again, from first impressions, she guessed Cam didn't have much of a choice. Knots formed in her stomach. This wasn't a social visit. What had her son done now?
The man's drab olive military-style coat did little to hide his muscular frame and only accentuated his height. Snowflakes clung to his cropped dark hair and dusted his jacket, but a few hugged his long eyelashes, outlining incredible but unsettling sapphire-blue eyes. His lips had yet to break into a fraction of a smile. She straightened her shoulders, refusing to be intimidated by him as she concentrated on her son.
"Cameron." She glanced at her watch again. "Where have you been?" Trying to keep the censure from her voice and keep her tone light, she failed miserably. "Thank you for bringing him back, Mr ."
"You're welcome. It's Pellegrino. Ethan Pellegrino." He spoke as if she should recognize his name. His lips formed a straight line and fatigue bracketed his eyes. He took his left hand off her son's shoulder and put it in his pocket, but not before fisting and then flexing his fingers.
Holly racked her brain but came up empty. She would remember meeting him, although his name did sound vaguely familiar now, as if she'd seen it written down somewhere in the recent past.
"Holly Stanwyck." Holly had enough manners to jut her hand out. The man didn't reciprocate. He stared at her outstretched hand and shifted his weight. How rude. Holly let her hand drop back to the counter.
After a few uncomfortable seconds, she picked up a pen and twirled it in her fingers. Glancing past his broad shoulders, she noticed the steady stream of snowflakes increasing outside the front window. More anxiety tightened the knots inside her. If the snow continued, she'd have to drag out the shovel by nightfall and, worse, drive in it. But that was probably going to be the least of her worries. What had Cameron done now that this Ethan Pellegrino had to bring him to the shop?
"Pleased to meet you, Mr. Pellegrino." I think. She glanced at the frown hugging her son's lips. "What's going on?" Her words added another layer to the growing tension. Uneasy, she walked to the other side of the counter, put her arm around her son and pulled him to her. At the man's immobile expression, her nerves threatened to dislodge the glass of water she'd drunk earlier.
"Your son should tell you."
"Cameron?" Her son pulled away, hung his head and then kicked at an imaginary spot on the floor. "What have you been up to?" She clipped her words and tried to remain unemotional, but failed. Cameron had been getting into trouble a lot lately.
Who was this stranger residing in her son's body? He looked the same with his unruly dark blond hair and blue eyes, but his attitude had gone south. She needed to get a handle on it because in the next year or so, he'd be taller than she'd be. And more opinionated and more uncontrollable. The pen in her hand bent under the pressure.
"I took the long way here."
She ground her teeth as a scowl twisted Cam's lips.
"Why do you care who I walk with?"
Her son's new friend was bad news, but the more Holly brought that fact up, the more Cameron hung out with him instead of his other friends. Her grip tightened. She'd lost Jared two years earlier, and she was going to lose the store in a few months if things didn't improve. She couldn't lose Cameron, as well. "I care because I love you."
Her son's scowl deepened and he moved away when she tried to push his bangs from his eyes. "I don't see why you won't let me take the bus home after school. Everyone else does."
Holly sighed, refraining from the age-old saying of asking if everyone jumped off a bridge, would he follow? "Because I'm not there, I'm here, and you didn't want to go to the YMCA. And now there's apparently a good reason you're to come here, that's why."
"The YMCA is for babies. Why did Dad have to die?" Cam threw his backpack down and crossed his arms over his chest. "If he were alive, you'd be at home like Matt's or Tyler's mom."
At least she understood where the anger came from now. Communicating with her son lately had been harder than talking to the accounts-receivable people trying to collect on her past-due invoices. "CamI "
Ethan Pellegrino shifted his weight, reminding Holly they weren't alone. Her shoulders sagged. Now was not the time to have a heart-to-heart talk with her son about the fact that even if his father were alive, she'd still work outside the home as she'd always done. She had no choice now, and once she faced the reality that the store would be going out of business soon, she'd have to find another job to pay her bills. She'd been a bookkeeper before and could do it again, but she'd deal with that later. "What were you doing that Mr. Pellegrino felt compelled to bring you here?"
"Patrick and I were having some fun."
"Fun?" Holly sank against the counter and rubbed her forehead. Her shoulder muscles tightened, creating an instant headache. "You know I don't want you hanging around him. Thanks for bringing him to me, Mr. Pellegrino. I can take it from here."
The man crossed his arms, pursed his lips and glowered at her son. "Not until I hear him utter the truth about where he was and what he was doing."
"Excuse me?" Holly shoved her hands onto her hips and bit back her anger as she glared at Ethan Pellegrino. Somehow she'd lost control of the situation. "You don't trust that I can deal with whatever my son has done?"
"It's not you. It's him. I doubt he'll tell you the truth. I'm familiar with teenagers."
"It's not like we did much damage," Cameron shot back.
"Cameron. Show some respect." Holly corrected her son. "You will not speak to an adult that way no matter what the situation is. Understood?"
Cam nodded and stared at the floor.
"Now, what did Cameron and Patrick do?"
"They spray painted my garage door." The man scraped his hand through his short hair as his gaze penetrated hers.
Cam had picked the wrong person to mess with.
Bile caught in her throat. Cameron had gone too far this time. The chat with the principal this morning had confirmed her son was heading down the wrong path. Holly felt powerless and overwhelmed by his attitude and change in personality. Inhaling sharply, she fought for control.
She was out of ideas on how to break through the wall Cameron had built around himself lately. Where communication had been easy when he was young, the moment he turned twelve and hormones kicked in, he'd turned inward and quit talking to her other than a few grunts here and there or to ask for money. "You spray painted Mr. Pellegrino's garage? Why?"
"Because I wanted to." Underneath all of Cameron's bravado, Holly sensed him ready to implode. His eyes flashed with anger, hurt and panic, emotions she identified with on a daily basis.
Tagging was a minor offense in Dynamite Creek, Arizona, and usually had some kind of monetary finesomething she couldn't afford right now. "That's not a good enough answer. I believe both Mr. Pellegrino and I deserve to know the truth."
Out of the corner of her eye, she watched the man shift his weight and continue to flex his hand as if testing out its strength while he glanced around the store.
"Because I heard that he's going to evict us. This is Dad's place. He can't do that."
"What? Where did you hear that?" The gnawing sensation took hold in her stomach and refused to let go as the realization hit. Mr. Pellegrino owned the building. She'd never met her landlord because he was supposed to be in Afghanistan. Jared had set everything up, and the past two years she'd signed the contracts with someone named Nan Emrey on the owner's behalf.
She knew she'd have to deal with her rent issues sooner rather than later, but she'd thought it would be with Nan, not the six-foot male taking up more space in her shop than she was comfortable with. And now, thanks to Cameron, that time had probably come; not that her son was responsible for her failure to pay the rent. The place Jared envisioned all through college and during their early married lives was about to disappear. More sadness consumed her. 'Tis Always the Season was one of the few remaining ties they had to Jared.
She stared into Mr. Pellegrino's immobile expression and shivered before she broke contact and refo-cused on her son.
"I heard it from Delany Wilson." Anger choked his voice and emotion hovered in his eyes. "She told the whole class. She said we were going to lose everythingthe business, the house, our carand end up living out of a grocery cart in the park across the street."
"That's not true, Cam." They weren't in danger of losing the house yet, because Holly had paid her mortgage and her maxed-out home-equity loan before her rent. "Mr. Pellegrino is not going to evict us from our house. Only the bank can do that. I promise you, though, no matter what happens we will not be living out of a grocery cart."
Holly had no idea what the future held in store for them. She did know that even if they had to eventually walk away from the house, they would not be homeless; both she and Jared had family in Tucson. She'd refused to let Cam know about all the money problems because she wanted to let him remain a child for a bit longer. Maybe she was doing him a disservice.
Cam wiped his nose on his jacket sleeve. Holly didn't correct his actions, hoping he didn't realize that she hadn't mentioned anything about the store. A quick glance at her landlord confirmed he'd caught on to her son's words, and their gazes met and held a few seconds before he glanced away. She knew this conversation was far from over, but she hoped Ethan wouldn't bring up the issue in front of her son. She had enough to deal with. "Promise?"
"Promise. Why didn't you come to me, Cam?"
"Because I can't talk to you. You're always distracted. Or worried. Or busy." Cameron pursed his lips and flailed his arms.
Holly wanted to deny it, but she couldn't. Truth became claws of pain that ripped apart what remained of her heart. In spending so much time worrying about the house and the shop, she'd lost focus of her son.
Pulling Cam to her again, she put her arms around him and held him gently, cradling him. "I'm so sorry, honey. II don't I'm sorry." Holly just stood and held her son. A tear slid from beneath her closed eyes. Cam squeezed her back, his thin body reminding her that he was just a child who needed help in understanding what happened around him.
Ethan cleared his throat. Holly still had to deal with the situation that had brought him here in the first place. No matter what Cameron was going through, she couldn't condone his behavior and needed to get a handle on it quickly before it spun further out of control.
Releasing her son, she lifted his chin and stared into his unhappy eyes. "I'm still upset by your actions at Mr. Pellegrino's house. You know what you did was wrong."
"Yes," Cam agreed halfheartedly.
"Good. And you know there's going to be a consequence."
"No buts." After wiping her hands on her jeans, she glanced at her landlord, surprised to see such compassion before his expression closed. "We're going to Mr. Pellegrino's house this weekend to remove the graffiti. Patrick, too, as soon as I talk to his parents."
"That won't be necessary."
Holly took a step back and openly stared at the man. With his arms now folded across his chest and his legs spread shoulder-width apart, she deemed him another force to be reckoned with. The tick in his jawline and the immobile line of his lips didn't help, either.
"It is necessary." She placed her hands on Cam's shoulders and spun him around to face the man. "My son needs to be held responsible for his actions. Why else would you have brought him here if you didn't want some sort of resolution, Mr. Pellegrino?"
"Please, call me Ethan. Point taken. I'll stop by tomorrow to set up the details." He rubbed the stubble on his chin and stared at her baldly. But it was the words he didn't say that concerned Holly. Her gut told her that when Mr. Pellegrinono, Ethancame by tomorrow, he'd have her eviction notice ready to add to the pile of past-due invoices underneath her counter.