A heartwarming, hilarious Christmas story with a Southern twist.
Like most things in Ellery, Tennessee, this year’s Drive Thru Nativity is a little unconventional. The Dollar General parking lot doubles as a Bethlehem stable, and widowed writer Ivy Long, who’s been roped into playing Mary, sure as heck isn’t a virgin. But then comes an unexpected development: a genuine, real-life baby left in the manger, with only a brief note. And somehow, in the kerfuffle that follows, Ivy finds her life is about to change . . .
The holidays are a bittersweet time for Ivy—filled with memories of her beloved late husband and reminders that life doesn’t always offer the happily-ever-afters her readers expect. So when Ivy ends up with custody of the baby, she can only chalk it up to a Christmas miracle. She doesn’t know if it will be forever, but with help from family, she’ll make little Zuzu’s first Christmas a good one. The nativity’s Joseph, aka Gabe Ledbetter, has a pediatrics background that’s coming in mighty handy. In turn, Ivy is helping Gabe find his place in the quirky community. If that place turns out to be somewhere near Ivy, well, maybe this particular Christmas story will turn out to be merry and bright after all . . .
Praise for Sally Kilpatrick’s Previous Novels
“Do yourself a favor and grab this book and hide away with its laugh-out-loud and cry-out-loud moments all mixed up in one place.”
—Patti Callahan Henry, New York Times bestselling author
“Don't miss this quirky, fun love story. I couldn't put it down.”
—Haywood Smith, New York Times bestselling author on Better Get to Livin’
“A pleasantly engaging take on Romeo and Juliet.” —Library Journal on Bittersweet Creek
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
And it came to pass in those days, that a decree went out from my mother that I would be playing the Virgin Mary in the Dollar General drive-through Nativity whether I liked it or not. Never mind the fact that my name was not Mary, that I was not a teen, and, most importantly, not a virgin. Still, decrees from my mother were similar to those from Caesar Augustus: both had to be obeyed. Thus I found myself in flowing robes with a demure head covering as I knelt by a manger while the yellow and black of the Dollar General sign illumined my face like a commercialized Star of the East.
"How much longer?" asked my faux husband through gritted teeth. He, like Joseph, sported a beard but his had been meticulously clipped and he smelled faintly of an expensive woodsy aftershave. Those tasseled loafers peeking out from under his robes definitely weren't Bethlehem issue.
"An hour or two. Maybe?"
We held our pose as cars drove slowly by, sometimes pausing to take a picture. I didn't know about him, but my legs were starting to cramp, and I had an itch on the back of my neck that I would've paid someone to scratch. Heck, the llama a couple of feet behind me could've scratched it and left behind llama slobber for all I cared.
"Miss Idabell tell you to take off your watch?" I asked.
He chuckled, and the corners of his eyes crinkled because we were both far too old to be bossed around yet, here we were. "She told me it would 'distract from the miracle of Christmas.' Told me to leave my 'fancy phone' in the car, too."
"And did you?"
He snorted, and I knew that fancy phone was still in his pocket. It might be worth calling him just to watch him try to get to it underneath his robes. Unfortunately, I didn't know his name much less his phone number, and, no matter what my sister Holly said, I had no intention of asking for phone numbers.
Phone numbers led to sweaty palms and wondering why people didn't call. Then those sweaty palms and paranoia gave way to a date. That date would lead to acid reflux–inducing anxiety about a first kiss. Then something more. Then a relationship. Possibly marriage. Nope. Been there, done that, got the airbrushed T-shirt from a Gatlinburg souvenir shop to prove it. Once upon a time, I had believed in not only happily-ever-afters but also being open to the signs of the universe, something my first husband used to tease me about. Then he'd inadvertently taught me all about richer, poorer, sickness, health, and the parting powers of death.
I hadn't seen a single "sign" since, and, if I had women's intuition, she wasn't telling me a blasted thing. At least Mary had an angel visit her and tell her what was what.
Canned Christmas carols danced on my last nerve. Our Nativity scene organizer claimed good instrumental hymns, like good men, were hard to find. If I hadn't already been working full time in addition to my ill-advised stint as Mary, I might've made it my personal mission to prove her wrong. Maybe next week I would look up instrumental songs for the sake of the next Mary and Joseph.
Thank the Lord my stint would only be one week.
Finally, just as I thought the cramp in my leg would be listed on my death certificate, Brother Leon from Grace Baptist Church gave a benediction and sent us all on our merry way.
"I'm Gabe, by the way," my Joseph said as he extended his hand. I'd heard the name, but I couldn't place it. I would've remembered him, too, with those warm brown eyes that crinkled at the edges.
HIs hand enveloped mine and was softer than I was used to but large and reassuring nonetheless.
We'd skipped the introductions at the beginning because I'd been running late. I'd been running late because my mother and I were arguing. My mother and I had been arguing because she didn't tell me about my evening stint as Mary until ten minutes before I walked out the door.
"So," he said awkwardly.
"You back tomorrow, too?"
I laughed. "Oh, yeah. I'll be here all week. Try the veal. Don't forget to tip the waitstaff."
He chuckled at my lounge singer imitation, and I had to give him some credit for laughing at my very bad joke. He jabbed a thumb in the direction behind him. "Better not tell her that."
I looked behind me to see Star, Romy and Julian's black cow with the white face. Everyone knew Star because she didn't really think she was a cow and so didn't think fences applied to her. She'd calmed down some now that she wasn't a spry little calf, but she still got out every now and again just to keep us all on our toes. At least she was gentle enough that whoever found her could put a halter on her and lead her back to the Satterfield place where she belonged.
And to think I thought I wouldn't get anything useful out of completing the 4-H Heifer Project with my uncle Edgar.
"This old girl? I would never!" I said as I scratched the little black star on her forehead. "Besides, she's too old to be veal. Aren't you, girl?"
The cow snuffed and butted my hand off her head.
"I deserved that," I admitted.
"Hey, now. Don't mess with my wife's cow," Julian McElroy yelled. He'd been one of the shepherds and was ushering a swaybacked palomino into a trailer. "You gonna pull your weight, City Boy, or are you going to make goo-goo eyes at Ivy Long?"
Gabe rolled his eyes but grabbed Star's halter.
The cow didn't move.
Since she weighed over a thousand pounds, Gabe didn't budge, either.
"Don't let her step on your toes," Romy said, rushing in with her black curly hair bouncing everywhere. "I'll take her."
Star followed her eagerly, and Gabe looked at me dumbfounded.
"Cows," I said with a shrug.
Julian, meanwhile, spoke to one of two donkeys. "Look here, not a one of us wants to be here all night."
The creature dug in her feet and protested with a hee-haw that reminded me of that television show my grandparents used to like so much.
"Yo, get those goats, will ya?" Julian asked Gabe before whispering something to his recalcitrant jenny. She finally walked forward. Julian McElroy had always attracted asses. And women. But mainly asses.
"Mister Gabe, see my rabbit?" asked Portia, Julian and Romy's adorable little girl, who'd showed up for the last fifteen minutes of the night. So my Joseph was now on one knee talking to the little girl.
Oh. That Gabe.
He was Lester Ledbetter's son. According to all of the local authorities on such things, Gabe said he'd left his job as a pediatrician to come home and learn about goat farming. Also according to those authorities, someone had sued him in Memphis and he'd come home to lick his wounds.
Portia had skipped off, but the goats crowded around Gabe, nosing into the pockets of his jacket. He could handle children, but he didn't seem particularly well suited to kids. They danced around him, almost tripping him. Then one of the goats, the one with the yellow plastic chain around her neck, jumped up on the back of the remaining donkey, putting her front feet on the donkey's rump. The donkey looked over her shoulder in disgust.
"Elizabeth, get down from there! That poor donkey doesn't want any of your mess tonight," Julian said, as he took control of the goat situation.
"Elizabeth?" I couldn't help but ask.
Gabe shrugged. "Dad says he names the animals after his favorite people."
"More likely he named them after old girlfriends."
Before he could respond to that, the goat ran past us with Julian hot on her hooves. "Come back here!"
"Maybe I'd better help," Gabe said with a grin.
"Maybe." A figurative butterfly fluttered around in my stomach. I told my stomach acids to eat it and headed to the back of the building.
About that time Gabe cussed, and I looked over my shoulder just in time to see him checking the soles of his tasseled loafers. I giggled at the thought that he had a bit of farm animal souvenir on his shoes. Served him right for wearing something so fancy where livestock would tread.
The goat ran around the side of the stable as the llama ambled past me. Gabe looked at one animal, then another, but Julian headed after the goat so he finally darted after the llama. We could've charged extra for this show, maybe play that Benny Hill saxophone song instead of carols.
A nicer woman would've offered her assistance in catching the animals, but I'd used up all of my niceness by playing the Virgin Mary against my will. So, I moseyed around the corner of the Dollar General building to sneak a cigarette before driving home. I'd have to bathe in mouthwash before I arrived, but it would be totally worth it.
Once safely in the shadows to the back lot and far from prying eyes, I lit my cigarette. I held it just in front of my mouth for a couple of seconds, reveling in the anticipation before closing my eyes and inhaling the nicotine goodness. Well, not goodness per se. My mother would have a conniption if she knew I still snuck two cigarettes a day. I could almost hear her admonition, "It wasn't enough for us to lose Corey to cancer, are you trying to kill yourself, too? What do you think he would say about it?"
It didn't matter what Corey said about my smoking because he had already shuffled off his mortal coil. He was in the clouds playing air guitar with Jimi Hendrix, having left me to pay off the bills and try to figure out how to move on without him. My hand inadvertently traveled to the side of my purse to pat the sealed envelope I kept there.
Okay. So it's possible Corey did have something to say to me about my smoking, but I couldn't bring myself to open the letter he'd handed me two years ago, so I would never know. As long as I didn't open that letter, then I still had a part of my husband with me. I used to tell myself that one day the pain wouldn't be so bad. Then I would open the letter, find my closure, and move on. But day dragged on after day and the acute stabbing pain of grief settled into a dull ache with the occasional sharp pang, so I left the letter alone, afraid I'd read something there that would open up the wound all over again.
Besides, the man had been delirious from morphine there at the end. His letter was probably an enigmatic haiku:
Buy flashlights and pie Give yourself a fluffy pup Cancer sucks skunk balls
I once asked him why "skunk balls." He had this convoluted thing about stink and suck, the latter of which he couldn't say around his mother — at least not until the end when he said whatever he pleased. But, in general, everything bad stank like skunk balls for him.
I still missed that man's way with words — even if he did tell me that smoking was a nasty habit that made my breath smell like skunk balls. Since so many things nauseated him, I got in the habit of gargling so much Listerine I could've been a spokesperson for the stuff. Still didn't get all of the smell or taste.
Looking down at my orange-tipped cigarette, the only light behind the Dollar General, that old familiar calm washed through me. I missed the heady early days when I got the calm along with a preternatural alertness. Oh, well, it was fun while it lasted. Now I survived on copious cups of coffee and my two cigarettes a day.
Ironically, I picked up the habit while Corey was getting treatments. Sometimes a treatment would run long, and I'd get cabin fever. Sometimes, my poor husband got tired of looking at me and sent me out of the room. One day — I can't remember who was sick of whom — I wandered past the smoking area. One of the nurses offered me a cigarette. It was one of those days when I wanted to feel something, anything. It was also one of those days when I wanted to be done with hospitals and tubes and bills and the smell, always the smell. So I took the cigarette, coughing my way through the first few drags but then feeling that nicotine rush that was kinda like coffee but not. Once I knew I could drink some coffee and have a cigarette to cut through the fog of my fatigue? There was no turning back.
Maybe subconsciously I had been thinking of following him into the great beyond. I certainly didn't want to keep taking down his notes for the impending funeral. He wanted pimento cheese finger sandwiches and Jack Daniels on hand — not that the two of those went together in the least. He suggested I see if Beulah Land could play show tunes, especially songs from Chicago. I didn't think "When You're Good to Mama" would play well at the Anderson Funeral Home, but I smiled and nodded and wrote it down anyway. Then he had the best idea: I needed to get several de-scented skunks as therapy animals for the mourners.
I took him home and reread the notes after he'd fallen asleep.
First, I laughed. Then I wept. Then I laughed again.
In the end, we went with a simple closed casket service. No skunks and no Chicago, but plenty of pimento cheese and some Jack on the sly.
I was down to the filter and wanting another cigarette, but no way was I going to give in. It was a point of pride that I now limited myself to only two a day. I tossed the butt on the ground and stomped on it to be on the safe side. I had my hand in my purse searching for my keys when I sensed a presence. I turned my head to see a creature with a long neck and pointed ears peering at me.
Slowly the animal approached, her head held high. She stopped a foot in front of me and turned her head to the side as though studying me and finding me lacking.
"What are you doing here?"
I reached for the lead.
She took a step back.
The llama turned toward the voice and I jumped forward to grab her lead. We'd backed into the beam of the security light, and I noticed her ridiculously long eyelashes, and how her mouth pursed into a coy smirk. "Aren't you a lovely creature."
She lowered her head regally as though accepting a compliment from a peasant before sniffing in my general direction, snorting when she didn't find anything of interest.
Gabe ran around the corner, winded.
"Gabe, you are going to have to do a better job of corralling these animals," I said, hardly able to keep my expression stern. Deanna the llama gazed at Gabe with what could only be described as llama judgment.
"The livestock learning curve has been steep," he admitted.
I would've sworn he was blushing, but I couldn't tell for sure. To soften my teasing, I added, "I'm sure you'll get the hang of it."
"Yeah. Good thing you were skulking back here ready to stop her."
"I was not skulking!"
I crossed my arms over my chest. "No lectures from you."
"Your lungs, if you want to blacken them," he said over his shoulder as he led the llama around the corner of the building.
Lot of nerve he had.
Gabe pointed his head around the corner. "Also, I don't think cigarettes are any more biblically accurate than cell phones."
I looked down at the long robes I still wore. "Why do you think I was smoking back here? But, fine. Next time I'll bring wine."
"Excellent. My devious plan is falling into place." He disappeared around the corner, but I heard, "Hey, don't spit at me!"
The giggle bubbled up, then an idea. In my mind, I saw a Regency romance heroine sneaking out to the stables to smoke a cheroot. She could befriend a llama. Then the ginger hero with a beard would surprise her and scold her because smoking was decidedly not ladylike but —
Llamas didn't arrive in England until the Victorian Era.
Sure. That was one glaring problem with this scenario. It had nothing to do with the fact that I had imagined Gabriel Ledbetter as a hero.
Oh, what harm could it do to imagine?
At least I was finally daydreaming again. Sometimes I worried myself with how I could get through a day of stocking shelves and ringing up purchases without ever once slipping into a flight of fancy. Every other report card from my childhood had warned my mother I was prone to daydreaming, yet I'd lost that ability when Corey got sick. He'd told me not to, but my imagination didn't listen to him any better than I did. It was as though I'd had a lifetime quota of good story ideas, and I'd used them all up during the first quarter or so of my life.
I patted my cheeks. They ached ever so slightly from my smile because I wasn't in the habit of smiling all that often. As I drove home, my imagination returned to the last story I'd been writing. My most recent heroine would definitely be one to sneak a cheroot, and Gabe — because he'd taken over as the hero of the piece — eyed her suspiciously because he suspected she might have poisoned her first husband. As fictional characters did.
The story points rolled around in my brain, mixing and changing. My tiny smile remained.
No harm had ever come from a daydream.CHAPTER 2
"Why are you grinning like a jackass eating saw briars?"
"No reason," I said, even though I wanted to smack Julian for his ridiculous expressions.
At least no reason I'm going to discuss with you because it's illogical. Spock might even qualify that illogical with a "highly."
There was just something about my worldly Mary with hazel eyes and a penchant for smoking.
Nasty habit, but I couldn't help but think of her dry-witted "try the veal" and her amusement at our menagerie run amok. She wore no makeup, hardly smiled, and I loved how Ivy Long didn't present herself as something she wasn't. Heck, I'd let all of the animals run away again just to see her smile even if Julian had cussed a blue streak all the way back to the barn. Good thing his wife and daughter had ridden home in their own car.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Oh My Stars"
Copyright © 2018 Sally Kilpatrick.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Also by Sally Kilpatrick,
Chapter 1 - Ivy,
Chapter 2 - Gabe,
Chapter 3 - Ivy,
Chapter 4 - Gabe,
Chapter 5 - Ivy,
Chapter 6 - Gabe,
Chapter 7 - Ivy,
Chapter 8 - Gabe,
Chapter 9 - Ivy,
Chapter 10 - Gabe,
Chapter 11 - Ivy,
Chapter 12 - Gabe,
Chapter 13 - Ivy,
Chapter 14 - Gabe,
Chapter 15 - Ivy,
Chapter 16 - Gabe,
Chapter 17 - Ivy,
Chapter 18 - Gabe,
Chapter 19 - Ivy,
Chapter 20 - Gabe,
Chapter 21 - Ivy,
Chapter 22 - Gabe,
Chapter 23 - Ivy,
Chapter 24 - Gabe,
Chapter 25 - Ivy,
Chapter 26 - Gabe,
Chapter 27 - Ivy,
Chapter 28 - Gabe,
Chapter 29 - Ivy,
Chapter 30 - Gabe,
Chapter 31 - Ivy,
Chapter 32 - Gabe,
Chapter 33 - Ivy,
Chapter 34 - Gabe,
Chapter 35 - Ivy,
Chapter 36 - Gabe,
Chapter 37 - Ivy,
Chapter 38 - Gabe,
Chapter 39 - Ivy,
Chapter 40 - Gabe,
Chapter 41 - Ivy,
Chapter 42 - Gabe,
Chapter 43 - Ivy,
Chapter 44 - Gabe,
Chapter 45 - Ivy,
Chapter 46 - Gabe,
Chapter 47 - Ivy,
Chapter 48 - Gabe,
Chapter 49 - Ivy,
Chapter 50 - Gabe,
Chapter 51 - Ivy,
Chapter 52 - Gabe,
Chapter 53 - Ivy,
Chapter 54 - Gabe,
Chapter 55 - Ivy,
Chapter 56 - Gabe,
Chapter 57 - Ivy,
Epilogue - Ivy,