A single father who yearns to be a family man, Logan O'Donnell is determined to create the perfect Christmas for his son, Charlie. The entire O'Donnell clan arrives to spend the holidays in Avalon, a postcard-pretty town on the shores of Willow Lake, a place for the family to reconnect and rediscover the special gifts of the season.
One of the guests is a newcomer to Willow LakeDarcy Fitzgerald. Sharp-witted, independent and intent on guarding her heart, she's the last person Logan can see himself falling for. And Darcy is convinced that a relationship is the last thing she needs this Christmas.
Yet between the snowy silence of the winter woods and the toasty moments by a crackling fire, their two lonely hearts collide. The magic of the season brings them each a gift neither ever expecteda love to last a lifetime.
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Logan O'Donnell stood on a platform one hundred feet in the air, preparing to shove his ten-year-old son off the edge. A light breeze shimmered through the canopy of trees, scattering leaves on the forest floor far below. A zip line cable, slender as a thread in a spider's web, hung between the tree platforms, waiting. Below, Meerskill Falls crashed down a rocky gorge.
"There's no way I'm going off this." Logan's son, Charlie, drew his shoulders up until they practically touched the edge of his helmet.
"Come on," Logan said. "You told me you'd do it. The other kids had a ball. They're all waiting for you on the other side, and I heard a rumor about a bag of Cheetos being passed around."
"I changed my mind." Charlie set his jaw in a way that was all too familiar to Logan. "No way. No W-A-Y-F."
Logan knew the shtick, but he went along with it. "There's no F in way, dude."
"That's right. There's no effin' way I'm going off this thing."
"Aw, Charlie. It's almost like flying. You like to fly, right?" Of course he did. Charlie's stepfather was a pilot, after all. Logan crushed the thought. There were few things more depressing than thinking about the fact that your kid had a stepfather, even if the stepfather was an okay guy. Fortunately for Charlie, he'd ended up with a good one. But it was still depressing.
Charlie spent every summer with Logan. During the school year, he lived with his mom and stepfather in Oklahoma, a million miles away from Logan's home in upstate New York. It sucked, living that far from his kid. Being without Charlie was like missing a limb.
When he did have his son with him, Logan tried to make the most of their time together. He planned the entire season around Charlie, and that included working as a volunteer counselor at Camp Kioga, helping out with the summer program for local kids and inner-city kids on scholarship. The zip line over Meerskill Falls was a new installation, and had already become everyone's favorite feature. Nearly everyone.
"Hey, it's the last day of camp. Your last chance to try the zip line."
Charlie dragged in a shaky breath. He eyed the harness, made of stout webbing and metal buckles. "It looked really fun until I started thinking about actually doing it."
"Remember how you used to be scared to jump off the dock into Willow Lake? And then you did it and it was awesome."
"Hel-Zo. The landing was a lot different," Charlie pointed out.
"You're going to love it. Trust me on this." Logan patted the top of Charlie's helmet. "Look at all the safety features on this thing. The harness, the clips, the secondary ropes. There's not one thing that can go wrong."
"Yo, Charlie," shouted a kid on the opposite platform. "Go for it!"
The encouragement came from Andre, Charlie's best friend. The two had been inseparable all summer long, and if anyone could talk Charlie into something, it was Andre. He was one of the city kids in the program. He lived in a low-income project in the Bronx, and for Andre, it had been a summer of firstshis first train trip, his first visit upstate to Ulster County, where Camp Kioga nestled on the north shore of Willow Lake. His first time to sleep in a cabin, see wildlife up close, swim and paddle in a pristine lake and tell ghost stories around a campfire with his buddies. Logan liked the fact that at camp, all the kids were equal, no matter what their background.
"I kind of want to do it," Charlie said.
"Up to you, buddy. You saw how it's done. You just stand on the edge and take one step forward."
Charlie fell silent. He stared at the waterfall cascading down the rocky gorge. The fine spray from the rushing cataract cooled the air.
"Hey, buddy," Logan said, wondering about his son's faraway expression. "What's on your mind?"
"I miss Blake," he said, his voice barely audible over the rush of the falls. "When I go back to Mom's, Blake won't be there anymore."
Logan's heart went out to the kid. Blake had been Charlie's beloved dog, a little brown terrier who had lived to a ripe old age. At the start of summer, she'd passed away. Apparently Charlie was dreading his return to his mom's dogless house.
"I don't blame you," Logan said, "but you were lucky to have Blake as your best friend for a long time."
Charlie stared at the planks of the platform. "Yeah." He didn't sound convinced.
"It sucks, losing a dog," Logan admitted. "No way around it. That's why we're not getting one. Hurts too bad when you have to say goodbye."
"Yeah," Charlie said again. "But I still like having a dog."
"Tell me something nice about Blake," Logan said.
"I never needed an alarm to get up for school in the morning. She'd just come into my room and burrow under the covers, like a rabbit, and she'd squirm until I got up." He smiled, just a little. "She got old and quiet and gentle. And then she couldn't jump up on the bed anymore, so I had to lift her."
"I bet you were really gentle with her."
He nodded. After another silence, he said, "Dad?"
"I kinda want another dog."
Aw, jeez. Logan patted him on the shoulder. "You can talk to your mom about it tomorrow, when you see her." Yeah,, he thought. Let Charlie's mom deal with the mess and inconvenience of a dog.
"Okay," said Charlie. "But, Dad?"
"Kids were telling ghost stories in the cabin last night," he said, picking at a thread in the webbing of his harness.
"You're at summer camp. Kids are supposed to tell ghost stories."
"Andre told the one about these people who committed suicide by jumping off a cliff above the falls."
"I've heard that story. Goes way back to the 1920s."
"Yeah, well, the ghosts are still around."
"They won't mess with the zip line."
"How do you know?"
Logan pointed to the group of kids and counselors on the distant platform. "They all got across, no problem. You saw them." The other campers appeared to be having the time of their lives, eating Cheetos and acting like Tarzan.
"Show me again, Dad," said Charlie. "I want to see you do it."
"Sure, buddy." Logan clipped Charlie to the safety cable and himself to the pulleys. "You're gonna love it." With a grin, he stepped off the platform into thin air, giving Charlie the thumbs-up sign with his free hand.
His son stood on the platform, his arms folded, his face screwed into an expression of skepticism. Logan tipped himself upside down, a crazy perspective for watching the waterfall below, crashing against the rocks. How could any kid not like this?
When Logan was young, he would have loved having a dad who would take him zip-lining, a dad who knew the difference between fun and frivolity, a dad who encouraged rather than demanded.
He landed with an exaggerated flourish on the opposite platform. Paige Albertson, cocounselor of the group, pointed at Charlie. "Aren't you forgetting something?"
"Oh yeah, my only son. Oops."
"Why is he staying over there?" asked Rufus, one of the kids.
"I bet he's scared," said another kid.
Logan ignored them. On the opposite platform, Charlie looked very small and alone. Vulnerable.
"Everything all right?" Paige put her hand on Logan's arm.
Paige had a crush on him. Logan knew this. He even wished he felt the same way, because she was great. She was a kindergarten teacher during the school year and a Camp Kioga volunteer during the summer. She had the all-American cheerleader looks, the bubbly, uncomplicated personality that most guys couldn't resist. She was exactly the kind of girl his parents would want for himpretty, stable, from a good family.
Could be that was the reason he wasn't feeling it for her.
"He's balking," said Logan. "And he feels really bad about it. I thought he'd love zip-lining."
"It's not for everybody," Paige pointed out. "And remember, if he doesn't go for it, the world won't come to an end."
"Good point." Logan saluted her and jumped off, crossing back to the platform on the other side, where Charlie waited. The zipping sound of the pulley and cable sang in his ears. Damn, this never got old.
"Just like Spider-Man," he said as he came in for a landing. "I swear, it's the coolest thing ever."
Charlie shuffled across the wooden planks of the platform. Logan reached for the clips to attach him to the pulley. "That's gonna be one small step for Charlie," he intoned, "one giant leap for"
"Dad, hang on a second," Charlie said, shrinking back. "I changed my mind again."
Logan studied his son's posture: the hunched shoulders, the knees that were literally shaking. "Seriously?"
"Unhook me." Beneath the helmet, Charlie's face was pale, his green eyes haunted and wide.
"It's okay to change your mind," Logan said, "but I don't want you to have any regrets. Remember, we talked about regrets."
"When you have a chance to do something and then you don't do it and later on you wish you had," Charlie muttered.
Which pretty much summed up Logan's assessment of his marriage. "Yep," he said. "At the farewell dinner tonight, are you going to wish you'd done the zip line?"
Logan unhitched himself. Charlie studied the cables and pulleys with a look of yearning on his face. Okay, Logan admitted to himself, it bugged him that Charlie had conquered the jump off the dock with his mom, but Logan couldn't get him to push past his fear of the zip line. He had a flashing urge to grab the kid, strap him in and shove him off the platform, just to get him past his hesitation.
Then he remembered his own pushy father: get in there and fight. Don't be a chickenshit. Al O'Donnell had been a blustering, bossy, demanding dad. Logan had grown up resenting the hell out of him in a tense relationship that even now was full of turmoil.
The moment Charlie was born, Logan had made a vow. He would never be that dad.
"All right, buddy," he said, forcing cheerfulness into his tone. "Maybe another time. Let's climb down together."
The final dinner of summer at Camp Kioga was served banquet-style in the massive dining hall of the main pavilion. There was a spaghetti feed with all the trimmingsgarlic bread, a salad bar, watermelon, ice cream. Awards would be given, songs sung, jokes told, tributes offered and farewells spoken.
The families of the campers were invited to the event. Parents arrived, eager to reunite with their kids and hear about their summer.
A sense of tradition hung like the painted paddles and colorful woven blankets on the walls. The old Catskills camp had been in operation since the 1920s. People as far back as Logan's grandparents remembered with nostalgia the childhood summers they'd spent in the draughty timber-and-stone cabins, swimming in the clear, cold waters of Willow Lake, boating in the summer sun each day, sitting around the campfire and telling stories at night. In a hundred years, the traditions had scarcely changed.
But the kids had. Back in the era of the Great Camps, places like Camp Kioga had been a playground for the ultrawealthyVanderbilts, Asters, Roosevelts. These days, the campers were a more diverse bunch. This summer's group included kids of Hollywood power brokers and Manhattan tycoons, recording artists and star athletes, alongside kids from the projects of the inner city and downriver industrial towns.
The organizers of the city kids program, Sonnet and Zach Alger, pulled out all the stops for the end of summer party. In addition to the banquet, there would be a performance by Jezebel, a hip-hop artist who had starred in a hit reality TV series. The show had been filmed at Camp Kioga, chronicling the efforts of the outspoken star to work with youngsters in the program.
Tonight, the only cameras present belonged to proud parents and grandparents.
Charlie was practically bouncing up and down with excitement, because he knew he was getting a swimming award. Andre was next to him as they took their seats at their assigned banquet table.
Paige, who stood nearby, handing out table assignments, leaned over and said, "Those two are such a great pair. I bet they're going to miss each other now that summer's over."
"Yeah, it'd be nice if they could stay in touch. Tricky, though, with Andre in the city and Charlie off to an air force base in Oklahoma."
"Must be hard for you, too."
"I can't even tell you. But we deal. I'll see him at Thanksgiving, and he's mineall minefor Christmas."
At the moment, Christmas seemed light-years away. Logan wondered how the hell he'd keep himself busy after Charlie left. He had his work, a thriving insurance business he'd founded in the nearby town of Avalon. If he was being honest with himself, he was bored stiff with the work, even though he liked helping friends and neighbors and made a good living at it.
Initially, the whole point of setting up a business in Avalon had been to enable him to live close to Charlie.
Now that Charlie's mom had remarried and moved away, Logan was starting to think about making a change. A big change.
His sister India arrived to join in the festivities, and Logan excused himself to say hi. Her twin boys, Fisher and Goose, had spent the summer here. Charlie had had a great time with his two cousins, who lived on Long Island, where India and her husband ran an art gallery.
Red-haired like Logan and Charlie both, and dressed in flowing silks unlike anybody, India rushed over to her twin sons, practically in tears.
"I missed you guys so much," she said, gathering them against her. "Did you have a good time at camp?"
"The best," said Fisher.
"We made you some stuff," said Goose.
"Real ugly jewelry, and we're gonna make you wear it," Fisher told her.
"If you made it, then I'm sure it's beautiful," she said.
"Uncle Logan taught us how to light farts."
"That's my baby brother," India said. "Now, you need no introduction, but I'll introduce you, anyway." She indicated the woman behind her. "Darcy, this is my brother, who probably needs to be sent to the naughty corner, but instead, he's a volunteer counselor."
"And head fart lighter," said the woman, sticking out her hand. "I'm Darcy Fitzgerald."
He took her hand, liking her straightforward expression. She had dark hair done in a messy ponytail and a direct, brown-eyed gaze. Her hand felt small but firm, and she had a quirky smile. For no reason Logan could name, he felt a subtle nudge of interest.
"Are you here to pick up a kid?" he asked her. "Which one belongs to you?"
"None, thank God," she said with a shudder.
"Allergies?" Logan asked.
"Something like that."
"Then you came to the wrong place." He gestured around the dining hall, swarming with excited, hungry kids. To him, it was a vision of paradise. He liked kids. He liked big, loud, loving families. It was the tragedy of his life that he was restricted to summers and holidays with his only child.
"Except for one thing," said Darcy, turning toward the dais where the band was setting up. "I'm a huge Jezebel fan."
"You must be. We're a long way from anywhere."
She nodded. "I came along for the ride with India when she invited me to pick up her boys. Thought it would be nice to get out to the countryside for a weekend."
"So you live in the city?" he asked.
"In SoHo. I didn't have anything thing else going on this weekend. Yes, I'm that pathetic friend everybody feels sorry for, all alone and getting over a broken heart." She spoke lightly, but he detected a serious note in her tone.
"Oh, sorry. About the broken heart. Glad to hear you're getting over it."
"Thanks," she said. "It takes time. That's what people keep telling me. I keep looking for distractions. But hearts are funny that way. They don't let you lie, even to yourself."
"Not for long, anyway. Anything I can do to help?" He instantly regretted the offer. He had no idea what to do about someone else's broken heart.
"I'll spare you the details."