It's time for mistletoe and merrimentfor everyone except Robin Frazier. As Jasper Gulch's centennial celebrations reach their festive conclusion, her guilt is only mounting. The shy historian is hiding somethingsomething that will affect everyone in town. And the more time she spends with pastor Ethan Johnson, creating an old-fashioned Christmas for his church, the more she realizes what this secret is costing her. He's just the kind of man her heart longs for, and his kind brown eyes seem to say he might feel the same. Can she take a chance this Christmas and reveal who she really isand what her heart is longing to say?
Big Sky Centennial: A small town rich in history and love
About the Author
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The first day of December in Jasper Gulch, Montana, sparkled like diamonds. Pastor Ethan Johnson stood in front of the small, weathered parsonage that had been his home these past five months and inhaled early-morning air sharp enough to cut his California-born lungs to shreds, but not even the cold could dim his joy in the day. The snow from November's freakish storm had finally melted, power had been fully restored and the distinct aura of Christmas permeated the atmosphere.
Ethan was excited to celebrate his first real Christmas as the pastor of Mountainview Church of the Savior. He loved the Lord. He loved being a pastor. He loved the people here in Jasper Gulch. He loved the beauty of Montana. He even loved the church building itself.
The unorthodox log-plank structure had taken on the shape of a cross over the years. It wasn't at all what one expected or usually pictured when thinking of a church, and yet it fit its purpose supremely well. The belfry contained two brass bells, sadly no longer in use, and four large speakers through which the recordings of bells were played daily. Ethan admired everything about the place, from its broad plank walkways, to its steep, wood-shingled roofs, perhaps because it was his first pastorate or perhaps because it truly was a special place.
The town, though small with just nine hundred or so residents, was certainly unique. Jasper Gulch had been engaged in a six-month-long celebration of its centennial, starting on the Fourth of July and ending on the last day of this year. It seemed to Ethan that the Christmas services should reflect that motif. The idea had come to him the previous night as he'd prayed over his preparations for the holidays, and he knew just where to get the information necessary to make his first Christmas in Jasper Gulch a success in keeping with the centennial theme.
Casting a last fond look at the church building, Ethan swung down into the seat of his dependable nine-year-old dark green Subaru Forester. He could walk over to the museum, but he didn't know what he might be bringing back with him, books, papers or other media, so he drove. Already many Christmas decorations were out, thanks to Faith Shaw, the mayor's eldest daughter.
Dale Massey, a fabulously wealthy scion of one of the town's two founding families, had come out from New York City to participate in last month's centennial Homecoming celebration, only to find himself stranded in Jasper Gulch by the unexpected storm. Faith, a daughter of the other founding family, the Shaws, had convinced the community's residents to pitch together to give Dale a taste of a small-town Montana Christmas. As a result, Faith and Dale were now engaged to be married on Christmas nightand Ethan had started thinking in earnest about the true Christmas celebration to come.
Mayor Jackson Shaw seemed pleased to have his eldest daughter marry. For a time, he'd appeared determined to foster a romance between her and Ethan. Apparently, everyone in town wanted to make a match for the new pastor. Much to Ethan's dismay, they'd thrown every eligible female within traveling distance at him. Thankfully, Shaw seemed less eager to marry off Ethan than he did his own children, for the man had gotten his way with three of the five. Ethan had found that the mayor usually did get his way, but his future son-in-law was bucking him on reopening the Beaver Creek Bridge.
From what Ethan could gather, the bridge had been closed since a Shaw relative had driven off it to her death in an automobile accident nearly ninety years earlier. Apparently, Jackson's grandfather had promised his father that the bridge would never be reopened, and Jackson had renewed that pledge when he'd first assumed his place as mayor, an office that the Shaws had held for generations.
Other, more forward-thinking citizens pointed out that, with the bridge closed, Jasper Gulch could be accessed by only one road, but Jackson Shaw had repeatedly beaten back attempts to repair and reopen the bridgeuntil Dale Massey had magnanimously offered to underwrite the project on his own.
Personally, Ethan thought it a shame to let an eighty-eight-year-old tragedy dictate public policy, but he couldn't help feeling some sympathy for Mayor Shaw. The man was trying to pull off six months of centennial celebration that had been missing its centerpiece from the beginning. On the very first weekend, the time capsule that the whole town had gathered to open had gone missing. Since then, the town had suffered several instances of vandalism and more than one cryptic note hinting that the capsule had contained a treasure and was connected with the initials L.S.
A local teenager by the name of Lilibeth Shoemaker had fallen under suspicion, but she insisted that she'd had nothing to do with the notes or the disappearance of the time capsule. Though she'd been officially exonerated, a few still harbored suspicions of her based on her initials alone, but Ethan certainly wasn't about to judge her guilty on such flimsy evidence. Most believed that a local man named Pete Daniels was to blame because he'd suddenly left town without explanation.
The time capsule had finally turned up, opened. It contained some historical documents, photos and mementos, but nothing of any market value. Ethan doubted they'd ever know the truth about the time capsule's contents or who had taken it, and he, for one, did not really care. He would be glad to see the centennial celebrations come to an end on New Year's Eve with the burial of a new time capsule, the official opening of the museum and the reopening of the Beaver Creek Bridgeunless the mayor found some way to prevent the latter. Again.
After parking in front of the museum, Ethan took a moment to enjoy the new building. A few folks had complained that the structure was nothing more than a brown sheet-iron pole barn with an Old West-style front attached, complete with hitching rails, but Ethan figured that a town the size of Jasper Gulch was blessed to have a bona fide museum of any sort. He got out of the car and, finding the front door unlocked, went inside.
A wide reception area, with an unattended Y-shaped desk, branched off into two hallways. Hearing the unmistakable sound of a copy machine at work in the distance, Ethan dumped his down coat, wool muffler and gloves on the desk and walked along the left hallway toward the sound.
The slender feminine figure at the copy machine jolted him. She wasn't Olivia Franklin McGuire, the curator, though the purple sweater and black slacks seemed vaguely familiar. The long, straight tail of wheat-colored hair, caught at her nape with a black barrette, swung between the curves of her shoulder blades as she caught the papers shooting from the end of the machine.
He put on his best pastor's smile and said, "Excuse me."
She whirled around, pale hair flying. Her peaked brows, several shades darker than her hair, arched high over rich blue eyes as round as marbles. He spotted a tiny flat dark mole just under the tip of her left brow, which she reached up to touch with one finger, calling attention to her perfect nose and lips the color of a dusky rose, the bottom fuller than the upper, with a little seam in the middle as if God had created it in two perfect halves and knit it together.
"Ah, yes. Robin Frazier."
They'd met more than once. She'd been attending church semiregularly for months now, and they'd spoken on several occasions, but never more than a few passing words. She seemed a serious, studious sort, despite the youthfulness of her face. He'd first seen her at a distance and taken her for a teenager, then wondered why he didn't see her with the other kids. Someone had finally told him that she was a graduate student visiting Jasper Gulch on some sort of project.
"Pastor Johnson," she said, several seconds having ticked by. "Can I help you?"
He waved a hand at the papers she held. "Material for your " He couldn't remember exactly what her project was. "I'm sorry. Something to do with genealogy, isn't it?"
She stared at the papers in her hand as if resigning herself to speaking to him. Then her deep blue eyes met his, and a funny thing happened inside his chest. At the same time, she spoke.
"This has to do with the centennial. I've been hired to help out here at the museum."
Since he'd moved to Jasper Gulch, all the eligible females in town had cast lures of one sort or another in Ethan's direction, but this one seemed reticent, almost wary of him. He should have felt relieved about that. Instead, he felt disappointed, even a bit irritated, though God knew he wasn't in the market for a wife.
"Really?" He put on a smile. "That's great. I hope it means you'll be joining the church."
She just looked at him without answer for several heartbeats before asking again, "Can I help you with something?"
"It's about Christmas," he said, not at all put off. He was used to people stonewalling, hedging, even outright prevarication when it came to the subject of church attendance. He took his openings when, where and how he found them and left the results to the Lord. "I'm hoping to have a historical kind of Christmas this year. You know, sort of do my part for the centennial. The thing is, being from California and fairly new to the area, I have no real idea what Christmas might have been like around here a hundred years ago."
"Well," she said, "let's see what information we can find for you then."
Ethan grinned. It looked as if he had come to the right place. And maybe, when all was said and done, he'd find himself with a new congregant, as well.
Robin didn't know why the young pastor set her on edge, but he had from the first moment that she'd met him almost five months ago now. He wasn't just handsome; he was a nice man, almost too nice. Something about him made a person want to confide in him, even when he wasn't wearing his clerical collar, like now, or maybe it was just that she wanted to confide in someone.
She hated being in Jasper Gulch under false pretenses, and the longer it went on, the worse she felt, but she dared not truthfully identify herself at this late date. Too much had happened. She couldn't step forward now and tell the truth without raising everyone's suspicions about her motives. After everything that had gone onthe theft of the time capsule, the vandalism and mysterious notes, the investigation and the disappearance of Pete Daniels, the sudden reappearance of the time capsule and all the mysteries that she and Olivia had uncovered about the past, not to mention the secrets that Robin alone kneweveryone would think that she was after something. It didn't help that a member of the extremely wealthy Massey family had shown up on the scene, either. Connections to wealth, as Robin knew all too well, inspired a certain type of grasping, clinging hanger-on.
Sometimes Robin thought it would be best if she just left town as quietly as she'd arrived in July, but she couldn't quite make herself go. Not yet. And go back to what? Her parents and grandparents had never disguised their disappointment in her. With her great-grandmother Lillian dead, she couldn't find much reason to go back to New Mexico, and Great-Grandma Lillian had known it would be that way, too. Why else on her deathbed would she have urged Robin to come here and find what other family she might have left?
"So the church was here even before the town was officially founded," the pastor said, laying aside the newspaper article she'd printed off for him. "Interesting. I wonder if any of the original building still stands."
Pulled from her reverie, Robin shrugged. "Apparently there were several homes and a small log church in the area when Ezra Shaw and Silas Massey decided to formally incorporate the town and draw up a charter. I'm sure I can find something about the church building, given enough time."
"I'd appreciate that, even though it's mostly curiosity on my part," Pastor Johnson told her, smiling warmly. "I'm most interested in the vestibule and the belfry."
"The rock part at the front of the church?"
"Exactly. Did you know there are actual bells up there in the belfry?"
"You mean they're not just for show?"
He shook his head. "I have to wonder why we never use perfectly good bells. I mean, recorded bells are fine for every day, but what a treat it would be to pull the ropes on real bells once in a while. I wonder why the church stopped using them."
"That is a puzzle. I can look into it, if you like."
"I'd love to know, but I hate to put you to any extra trouble."
She shrugged. "I don't mind. I like solving puzzles."
He would understand that about her if he knew what mysteries had brought her here to Jasper Gulch, but then perhaps it was best that no one here knew.
Her plan had seemed so simple in the beginning. Come to town under the guise of a graduate student doing research for a thesis on genealogy. Find proof to support her claims. Show the proof. Be greeted warmly by family who previously hadn't known she existed.
Five months into the project, she now realized that her proof wasn't likely to be any more welcome than she would be, that her motives could easily be questioned and that she could well come off looking like a schemer and a liar. She bitterly regretted the route she'd taken to this point. She had feared being jeered at in the beginning, but at least she could have conducted her research in the open, then once the proof had been found, all would have been well. Now now people trusted her, people to whom she must reveal herself as a liar. What a fool she had been.
"I appreciate any information you can give me," Pastor Johnson told Robin forthrightly, again breaking into her troubled thoughts.
He had the kindest brown eyes and the most open, engaging smile she'd ever seen. Everything about him exuded warmth, even on this first day of December. His California origin showed in the burnished brown of his short, neat hair and bronzed skin. In fact, Robin could easily picture him walking barefoot in the surf with his sleeves and pant legs rolled up, the tail of his chambray shirt pulled free of the waistband of his jeans. He looked younger without his ministerial collar, almost boyish, despite the faint crinkles that fanned out from the corners of his deep-set eyes. Something about the way his long, straight nose flattened at the end intrigued her, as did the manner in which his squared chin added a certain strength to his face.
"What?" he asked, his lips widening to show a great many strong, white teeth.
She shook her head, embarrassed to have been caught staring. "I, um, I'll see what I can find and get back to you."
"Excellent. Can I give you my personal cell number, as well as the numbers at the church and the parsonage? That way you're bound to reach me."
"Oh, of course. That would be fine." She pulled out her phone and tapped in the numbers as he gave them to her. When she looked up again, he had his own phone in his hand.
"Mind if I take your numbers, too? In case I have any questions?"