Santa Claus is coming to town, and so are the Tucker sisters.
Never mind a pony. The Tucker girls have inherited their father's horse farm for Christmas. Make that a run-down horse farm. It needs some serious TLC in order to make it sell-ready. Joanna knows that by recruiting her sisters and one handsome ranch hand they can fix up the place and even celebrate one last Christmas while they're at it. However, to Isabella, returning to their home in Kentucky bluegrass country for Christmas seems like an impossible hurdle. Can her Chicago boyfriend make life merry and bright again?
One thing's for sure: nothing is peace on earth for Sophia as a new beau brings up old wounds. And when the fate of the horse farm is put in jeopardy because Amy accidentally fraternizes with the enemy, tensions rise. But it's not like the land developer stole Christmas . . . just her heart.
Can the Tucker sisters have themselves a merry little Christmas?
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.90(d)|
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Joanna had intended to sleep in past seven, especially now that she had the option — an unusual occurrence for a Thursday morning except for her recent state of unemployment. But her internal clock had gone off at ten minutes before the hour just to irritate her. The voices in her head simply refused to shut up, and she finally surrendered and climbed out from under the multiple quilts layered over her.
She padded to the kitchenette in bare feet, still wearing her drawstring, pink-flannel pants and long-sleeved Henley. She pressed a folded paper towel into the brew basket and spooned some coffee into it before running water into the carafe. By the time she produced a mug from one of the hooks under the shelf, the fragrance of freshly brewing coffee tickled her nose. After filling her mug, she noticed a few grounds floating around in the cup and scooped them out with the back of the spoon before stirring in the creamer. She nearly dropped the spoon when someone pounded on her door three times.
Joanna squinted at the clock. "It's not even eight o'clock in the morning," she bellowed as she made her way across the room. Peering through the peephole, she grimaced at the distorted image of a young twentysomething with wire-rimmed glasses. The collar of his coat stood upright against the wind howling through the narrow passageway. After a moment, he thumped his gloved fist against the door again, twice this time.
Joanna left the security chain in place and unlocked two deadbolts and the doorknob. She pulled the door back a few inches and looked out through the opening.
"What do you want? My husband is sleeping," she fibbed.
The guy narrowed his eyes for a few beats before answering. "Miss Tucker? Joanna Tucker?"
"Who wants to know?"
The hiss of the wind through the outdoor passageway turned to a roar, and all of his sandy hair blew to one side of his head. His small frame nearly toppled over.
"I'm Stephen Sample," he shouted. "I work for Hanks and Stern."
"I'm sorry. Who?"
"The Law Offices of Hanks and Stern."
She glanced over at the overflowing, metal bowl on the table next to the door, the place where she dropped all of the bills and unopened collection notices awaiting her attention. She thought she remembered a logo bearing those names on at least one of the envelopes in the bowl. Or maybe two of them. There wasn't a handwritten address in the lot of them — just various business fonts spelling out Ms. Joanna Tucker. Or in the case of Fort Wayne Medical Center's invoice, Joanne Rose Tacker. It seemed nothing ever came to her mailbox anymore without metaphoric extended hands and raised palms, seeking funds she simply didn't have.
"We've been trying to make contact with you on behalf of Robert Tucker."
Joanna's entire body froze, more from the mention of the name than the frigid winter wind slithering in through the small opening. "I don't know anyone by that name," she lied and started to push the door shut.
"Ms. Tucker," he objected, pressing his palm against the door so he could slip his business card through. "Please. Can I come inside and speak to you? Five minutes, and I'll be out the door again." When she didn't reply, he added, "It's really cold out here."
"Wait there," she snapped and closed the door. She studied the card as she rushed to the bathroom. She grabbed the plaid, flannel robe from the back of the door and slipped into it, burying the man's card in the pocket as she returned to snow-boy waiting outside. "Five minutes," she told him as she belted the robe. "No more than that."
"Thank you." Panting, he hurried inside, brushing the snow from his thick hair. "This weather is ridiculous."
It's winter. And we live in Indiana. It's not all that surprising, is it?
"I just made some coffee." She padded over to grab a second mug. "How do you take it? I have creamer but no sugar."
"Black is fine. Just something to warm me up would be great."
Joanna set the cup on the small table and nodded toward the second chair. He sat, wrapping his now-ungloved hands around the mug for warmth. She retrieved her own coffee and folded one leg beneath her before lowering into the chair across from him.
"What's your name again?" She clutched the warmth close to her face.
"Stephen Sample." His hand left the coffee long enough to produce an envelope from the inside pocket of his coat, and he slid it across the tabletop toward her. "Robert Tucker retained our firm ..."
Again, her father's name stopped her from breathing. As the young guy nattered on, she opened the envelope and retrieved a small packet of papers. On top, a crisp letter of introduction on embossed letterhead bearing the name of the law firm.
Dear Ms. Tucker:
On behalf of your father, Robert Tucker, we would like to inform —
"— and I'm sorry to say ... it was cancer."
Stephen Sample took a slow, clueless sip from his coffee as Joanna's heart lurched against her chest, and she jerked her head up to look at him. "I'm sorry. What did you say? He's dead? The father I hardly knew I still had ... is dead?"
"How?" she stammered. "What was wrong with him? What kind of cancer?"
Stephen Sample set his coffee mug on the table. "Lung."
Sudden memories of cherry pipe tobacco swirled through her mind, and Joanna swallowed all of the other thoughts so that she could ask just one question. "How long did he know?"
"A month, possibly. Six weeks at the outside."
Her voice softened. "And how long have you known?"
"We've been trying to make contact with you for quite some time. We've sent at least four letters. And we couldn't find a current phone number ..."
Joanna glanced again at the metal bowl near the door. Why hadn't she opened one of the letters? She'd never imagined that correspondence from the Law Offices of So-and-So could have been anything except a series of collection notices. She never dreamed ...
"... so I finally decided to try stopping by this address on my way in to the office to see if I could make contact in person."
"How did you even find me?"
The young man belched out a chuckle and shook his head. "It sure wasn't easy, I'll tell you that."
She took a sip of coffee and slowly swallowed it. "What do you want with me? I mean, if he's already gone. Is this some sort of notification thing then?"
"There's a letter there from him." He pointed to the papers she held. "The second page, right after the one from the firm."
Joanna turned the first page facedown on the table. The next — a short, handwritten note on lined, yellow paper — caused her vision to blur. No mistaking it. Tuck's handwriting. She blinked several times to bring the words into focus.
The final line of his note choked her: I'm truly sorry for all the years we lost.
The years they'd lost? How about the years he'd stolen when he walked out the door and never came back? All the birthdays he'd missed — hers and the ones of her three older sisters. She'd spent so many years watching out the window in the hope that he might happen by to give his youngest daughter a birthday hug.
And what was this addition at the bottom of the note? A Scripture verse? Oh, that was rich. Biblical reference from the guy who lived off his wife's faith instead of developing some of his own.
"My darling, my faith won't do your soul any good," she remembered her mother telling him one Sunday morning as the rest of his family assembled in the great room. "Come to church with us."
"Say a prayer for your old man, will you, Jo-Jo?" he'd asked as he tugged her toward him and finished buttoning her coat.
"Sure, Daddy. But I wish you'd come with us. Just once."
Forcing back her tears, Joanna sniffed as she packaged the paperwork together again and folded it back into the envelope.
"Have you contacted my sisters?"
"Our investigators are still trying to reach Isabella."
"Amy and Sophia already know then?" She swallowed her dismay with a gulp of air.
"I believe so, yes."
Joanna narrowed her eyes and stared at the door over the slope of Stephen Sample's shoulder. Why wouldn't either of them have called her? Sure, they didn't talk all that often, but being told that their father had died certainly warranted a special effort. And what about Jed? Why hadn't he or his mother let her know? Jed Weatherly couldn't pick up and dial a phone?
"If you can help us to get in touch with Isabella —"
"She travels a lot," Joanna muttered. Then, when the young man's curious stare poked her, she shook her head. "I'm sorry. I'll call her today and tell her to look for your correspondence."
"Excellent. Then if she'll just call our offices —"
"I'm sure she will."
He sat there for what seemed like forever before he finally stood and put on his gloves. "Well, thank you for seeing me. And for the coffee." Glancing at the envelope on the table, he added, "You have my card. And there's also contact information inside. Have a nice day, Miss Tucker."
A nice day? This guy had just broken the news that Tuck was dead and then wished her a nice day?
After she bolted the door behind him, Joanna stalked to the table and stood over the envelope for several heartbeats before grabbing her half cup of coffee and heading straight back to bed.
* * *
"Jedediah? Are you listening to me?"
Jed's neck snapped as he jerked toward his mother. "Sorry. What did you say?"
"Would you like a little more stew before you head home?"
He'd nearly forgotten where he was. He glanced up at his mother standing on the other side of the island and sighed. "Oh. No thanks, Mom. I've had plenty. It was great."
Sarah walked toward him and placed her hand on his shoulder. "Did you hear back from any of the girls?"
Jed ran a hand over the stubble on his cheek and sighed. "I've probably called Jo-Jo's number a dozen times since Tuck passed. But I haven't been able to catch her, and there's no voice mail on her phone. I don't even know if I have the right number anymore because her emails are bouncing back." He groaned and ran his hands through his hair. "I just hope the lawyer in Fort Wayne has better luck than I did."
"It's a shame they all four missed out on attending the services." Sarah picked up the empty stoneware bowl in front of him. "I have to believe they'd have come to the old coot's funeral if they'd known."
"I can't speak for the others," Jed told her, "but Jo-Jo would have been here. I'm convinced of that."
"It's late in the day. She should be home from work by now, don't you think?"
"Depends. I don't even know what she's doing these days," he replied.
Sarah picked up Jed's cell phone from the counter and handed it to him. "Why not give her another try."
Jed searched his contacts for Joanna's number and clicked on it. Once again, a string of unanswered rings with no voice-mail pick-up.
"Nah," he commented before disconnecting and tucking the phone into the pocket of his denim shirt. "I'm headed home for the night. Anything need doing around here before I go?"
"You could kiss your mama."
He chuckled and planted a kiss on her cheek. "Thanks for the grub."
Jed slipped into the double-breasted, dark-brown peacoat he'd discarded on the chair and buttoned it on his way to the door. "I'm due over at the Triple Z before nine in the morning. I should be back by early afternoon."
"I'm going over to Josie Emerson's around ten so we can cook up a week's worth of meals and drive them out to the Barrett clan. Todd's on his own now with those six kids of his."
Jed cringed and shook his head at the thought. "Be careful heading out there, Mom. The road washed out last week, and they're rebuilding the retaining wall on the east side."
"Yes, Son. I've been out to Todd's place twice since Miranda's funeral."
He knew better than to play the overprotective son with his independent mother. Still, it never seemed to stop him. He kissed her cheek a second time before turning up the collar of his coat and heading out into the bitter cold.
The November chill clocked at twenty-one degrees on the oversized thermometer on the outside wall, and the stones beneath his boots crunched out the noisy soundtrack of his departure. He dug the key ring out of the pocket of his jeans before he crossed the front porch that used to be the converted bunkhouse where he'd grown up. Now ... his private sanctuary. Home.
He poked the key into the deadbolt and groaned in relief when he crossed the threshold and pushed the door shut behind him.
Jed removed his gloves and stuffed them into the pocket of his coat, which he hung on the steel rack. Sliding an armful of logs out of the top shelf of the built-in, he carried them over to the fireplace and sat on the stone hearth. Once he'd stoked the fire into a full blaze, Jed ambled over to the leather sofa and dropped onto it. Propping his boots on the arm, he folded a throw pillow, jammed it into the curve at the back of his neck, and closed his eyes.
"Long day," he muttered just as sleep whirled in like a sudden storm and carried him away.CHAPTER 2
Joanna glanced at the dashboard clock: 1:42 a.m. The last leg of her trek from Fort Wayne had taken longer than anticipated. Under the cover of darkness, she found it difficult to discern whether time had taken a toll on the house, but she leaned forward and surveyed her old Kentucky home through the frosted windshield.
She removed the keys from the ignition and grabbed her purse and bulging overnight bag from the passenger seat before climbing out of the car. Joanna hesitated at the front door before inserting the battered, gold key into the lock and gingerly turning it. The gargantuan thermometer still graced the porch wall, and its reading of eighteen degrees sent a shiver up her half-frozen spine. She took care to enter as quietly as possible, assuming Sarah Weatherly still occupied the house. Of course, she couldn't be sure.
Joanna flipped on the crystal-based lamp on the table by the door, and its white light flooded the room as nostalgia deluged her emotions. Some of the furniture seemed new, and the nubby rugs that used to cover the aged, gray, French oak floors had been replaced by prettier ones ... but the place looked very much the same. She didn't know why that surprised her, really.
She inched toward the hub of the main floor — the kitchen — and could almost hear the clamor of four children and their mother moving around the island, packing school lunches, and arguing over who got the last green apple in the bowl. She ran two fingers along the edge of the black marble countertop ... the curved edge of the massive farm sink ... touched the gray, brick backsplash behind it ... twisted the brushed-nickel knob on the drawer. Someone had finally repaired it at some point, she realized. It didn't come off in her hand.
"Joanna? Is that you, Sweet Pea?"
She reeled at the unexpected intrusion to her reminiscence and looked into the aged face of Sarah Weatherly. Sarah had always been lovely, and the years had repaid her countless kindnesses. A few more wrinkles around the eyes and mouth, a slight sag at the jowls, considerably whiter hair, but time had been obliging and gracious.
"Sarah. I'm so sorry to wake you. I meant to arrive much earlier in the evening, but —"
"Nonsense. This is your home. You come and go at any time you see fit."
Joanna sighed. "Thank you."
"Did you drive all the way from Indiana? You must be exhausted. Are you hungry?"
The truth was ... Joanna was famished. She hadn't eaten since grabbing two tacos at a drive-thru before crossing over into Ohio. "A little. But you go back to bed. I can find something on my own."
Sarah ignored the suggestion and shuffled toward the refrigerator. "Jedediah and I had stew for supper. There's plenty left over."
The mere mention of his name pinched a corner of her heart that Joanna had all but forgotten. Her first crush. How she'd followed that boy around like a big-eyed puppy! And when her sisters filtered away to start their own lives and Joanna considered doing the same, she didn't have to wonder what to do about the homestead. Jed had loved the place almost as much as she had for most of his life.
Jed's father had come to work managing the ranch before she could even remember, bringing along his lovely wife, Sarah, and their young son, just six years older than Joanna. Tuck and his buddies had converted the original bunkhouse into a small home for them. By the time Mr. Weatherly passed away, Tuck was off somewhere in the Middle East and Jed took over where his dad left off.
Joanna was only twelve years old when eighteen-year-old Jed stepped into his dad's shoes. His first act had been to work with Marlena, Joanna's mother, to fulfill her longtime dream and add the presence of a rescue ranch of sorts, a haven for former racehorses to retire or be adopted out for non-racing purposes. To offset the cost of their care, Jed devised a plan so kids could come and ride them or take lessons and get an afternoon of a genuine ranch-like experience.
The clank of the bowl as Sarah set it on the kitchen island brought Joanna back to the moment. The savory fragrance of beef stew and warmed biscuits drew her to the counter-height stool in front of it, and she sat down as Sarah folded a paper napkin.
"I can warm some more if this isn't enough to curb your hunger." She placed the napkin next to the bowl and set a spoon on it.
"This will be plenty, Sarah. Thank you."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Sleigh Bells Ring"
Copyright © 2016 Sandra D. Bricker.
Excerpted by permission of Gilead Publishing.
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
All I Want for Christmas by Sandra D. Bricker,
Her Old Kentucky Home by Lynette Sowell,
I'll Be Home for Christmas by Barbara J. Scott,
Please Come Home for Christmas by Lenora Worth,