From award-winning USA TODAY bestselling author Sarah Morgan comes this heartwarming, emotionally rich new novel, brimming with her trademark Christmas sparkle!
The McBride sisters all have different reasons for finding the holiday season challenging, but their adoptive mother is determined this year will be different. As the countdown to Christmas Day begins, arguments, connections and secrets start bubbling. The McBride family was made, not born—but will they be able to make this the magical family Christmas their mother has always dreamed of?
|Product dimensions:||5.30(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.10(d)|
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There are good anniversaries, and bad anniversaries. This was a bad one and Suzanne chose to mark the moment with a nightmare.
As usual, she was buried, her body immobile and trapped under a weight as heavy as concrete. There was snow in her mouth, in her nose, in her ears. The force and pressure of it crushed her. How deep was she? Which way was up? Would anyone be looking for her?
She tried to scream, but there was nothing, nothing ... "Suzanne ..."
Someone was calling her name. She couldn't respond. Couldn't move. Couldn't breathe. Her chest was being squeezed.
She heard the voice through darkness and panic.
She felt something touch her shoulder, and the movement catapulted her out of her frozen tomb and back to reality. She sat up, her hand to her throat, gulping in air.
"It's all right," the voice said. "Everything is all right."
"I had ... a dream. The dream." And it was so real she expected to find herself surrounded by ice crystals, not crumpled bedding.
"I know." The voice belonged to Stewart, and his hand was on her back, rubbing gently. "You were screaming."
And now she noticed that his face was white and lines of anxiety bracketed his mouth.
They had a routine for this but hadn't had to use it in a while.
"It was so vivid. I was there."
Stewart flicked on the light. A soft glow spread across the bedroom, illuminating dark corners and pushing aside the last wisps of the nightmare. "You're safe. Look around you."
Suzanne looked, her imagination still trapped under the weight of snow.
But there was no snow. No avalanche. Just her warm, cozy bedroom in Glensay Lodge, where the remains of a fire danced in the hearth and the darkness of the endless winter night shone black through a gap in the curtains. She'd made the curtains herself from a sumptuous tartan fabric she'd found on her first visit to Scotland. Stewart's mother had claimed it was their clan tartan, but all Suzanne cared about was that those curtains kept the cold out on chilly nights and made the room cozy. She'd also made the quilt that was draped across the bottom of the bed.
On the table near the window was a bottle of single malt whiskey from the local distillery, and next to it sat Stewart's empty glass.
There was her favorite chair, the cushions plumped and soft. Her book, a novel that hadn't really caught her attention, lay open next to her knitting. A new order of wool had arrived the day before and she'd been thrilled by the colors. Deep purples and blues lay against softer hues of heather and rich cream, ready to brighten the palette of white and gray that lay beyond her windows. The wool reminded her of the wild Scottish heather that grew in the glen in early and late summer. Thinking of it cheered her. When the weather warmed, she liked to walk early in the morning and see the heather as the sun burned through the mist.
And there was Stewart. Stewart, with his kind eyes and infinite patience. Stewart, who had been by her side for more than three decades.
She was in the Scottish Highlands, tens of thousands of miles from the icy flanks of Mount Rainier. Still, the dream hung over her like a chilling fog, infecting her thoughts.
"I haven't had that dream in over a year." Her forehead was damp with sweat and her nightdress clung to her. She took the glass of water that Stewart offered.
Her throat was parched and the water soothed and cooled, but her hand was shaking so much she sloshed some of it over the duvet. "How can a person still have nightmares after twenty-five years?" She wanted to forget, but her body wouldn't let her.
Stewart took the glass from her and put it on the nightstand. Then he took her in his arms. "It's almost Christmas, and this is always a stressful time of year."
She leaned her head on his shoulder, comforted by human warmth. Not snow and ice, but flesh and blood.
"I love this time of year because the girls are home." She slid her arm round his waist, wishing she could stop shaking. "Last year I didn't have the dream once."
"It was probably that call from Hannah that triggered it."
"It was a good phone call. She's coming home for the holidays. That's the best news. Not something to trigger a nightmare." But enough to trigger thoughts and memories.
She suspected poor Hannah would be having her own thoughts and memories.
Stewart was right that this time of year was never easy.
"It's been a couple of years since Hannah, Beth and Posy were here together."
"And I'm excited." Anticipation lifted her mood. "It will be all the more special because Hannah couldn't make it last year."
"Which increases the expectation." Stewart sounded tired. "Don't put pressure on her, Suzanne. It's tough on her, and you end up hurt."
"I won't be hurt." They both knew it was a lie. Every time Hannah distanced herself from her family, it hurt. "I want her to be happy, that's all."
"The only person who can make Hannah happy is Hannah."
"That doesn't stop me wanting to help. I'm her mother." She caught his eye. "I am her mother."
"I know. And if you want my opinion, she's damn lucky to have you."
Lucky? There had been nothing lucky about the girls' early life. At the beginning Suzanne had been terrified that Hannah's life would be ruined by the events of her childhood, but then she'd realized she had a responsibility not to let that happen.
She'd done everything she could to compensate and influence the future. She wanted nothing but good for her daughters and the burden of it was huge. It weighed her down, and there were days when it almost crushed her. And she'd made him carry the burden, too.
"I worry I haven't done enough. Or that I haven't done it right."
"I'm sure every parent thinks that from time to time."
Suzanne slid her legs out of bed, relieved to be able to stand up. Walk. Breathe. Watch the sun rise. She rolled her shoulders and discovered they ached. She'd turned fifty-eight the summer before and right now she felt every one of those years. Was the pain real or a memory? "The dream was bad. I was back there."
Suffocating in an airless, snowy tomb.
Stewart stood up, too. "It will fade." He reached for his robe. "I'm not going to ask if you want to talk about it, because you never do." And this time was no different.
She couldn't stop the nightmares, but she could prevent the darkness from creeping into her waking hours. It was her way of taking back control. "You should go back to sleep."
"We both know there's no going back to sleep after you have one of your dreams. And we have to be up in an hour anyway." His hair was standing on end and his eyes were rimmed with fatigue. "We have a group of twenty arriving at the Adventure Centre this morning. It's going to be busy. I might as well make an early start."
"Are they experienced?"
"No. School party on an outdoor adventure week."
Anxiety washed over her. Her instinct was to beg him not to go, but that would have meant giving in to fear. It also would have meant asking Stewart to give up doing something he loved and she wouldn't do that. "Be careful."
"I always am." Stewart kissed her and walked to the door. "Coffee?"
"Please." The thought of staying in bed held no appeal. "I'll take a quick shower and then start planning."
"Only a man would ask that. You think Christmas happens by itself?" She belted her robe, knowing from experience that activity was the best way to drive the shadows from her head. "It's only a few weeks away. I want to do all the preparation beforehand so I can spend as much time as possible with our grandchildren. I thought I'd buy a few extra games in case the weather is bad. I don't want them to be bored. They have so much to do in Manhattan."
"If they're bored, they can help with the animals. They can feed the chickens with Posy, or round up the sheep. They can ride Socks." Socks was Posy's pony. Now eighteen, he was enjoying a wellearned, hay-filled retirement in the fields that surrounded the lodge.
"Beth gets nervous when they ride."
Stewart shook his head. "A lot of things make Beth nervous. She is overprotective, we both know that. Kids don't break that easily." "As if you weren't the most protective father ever. Particularly with her."
He gave a sheepish grin. "Posy was like a little ball. She bounced. Beth was a delicate little thing."
"She's always been a daddy's girl. And if she is an overprotective mother, then we both know why."
"I didn't say I didn't understand, but you've got to let kids have some fun. Explore. Make mistakes. Live life."
"Easier said than done." Suzanne knew she was overprotective, too. "I'll talk to Beth. Try to persuade her to let the girls ride. And if the weather is bad, they can help in the kitchen. We can do some baking."
"Here's a radical idea ..." Stewart picked up his empty whiskey glass from the night before. "Instead of planning everything and driving yourself crazy with stress, why don't you keep it relaxed this year? Stop trying so hard."
Suzanne's mouth dropped open. "You think food magically appears? You think Santa really does deliver gifts already wrapped?"
But the comment was so typical of him, it made her laugh. To an outsider they probably seemed ridiculously traditional, but her life was exactly the way she wanted it to be.
"I'll have you know that the key to relaxation is planning. I want it to be special." The fact that it was the only time the three girls were together increased the pressure for it to be perfect. She walked to the window, pulled back the curtains and leaned her forehead against the cool glass. From the window of her bedroom she had a view right down the glen. The snow was luminous, reflecting the muted glow of the moon and sending flickers of light across the still surface of the loch. Framing the loch was snow-dusted forest and behind that the mountains rose, dominating everything with their deadly beauty.
Even knowing the danger waiting in those snowy peaks, she was still drawn to them. She could never live anywhere that didn't have mountains, but she no longer did any winter climbing. She and Stewart took low-level hikes in the winter, and longer, more ambitious hikes in the spring and summer when the weather warmed and the snow receded.
"Was it selfish of us to move here? Should we have lived in a city?"
"No. And you need to stop thinking like that." His voice was rough. "It's the dream. You know it's the dream."
She did know. She loved living here, in this land of mist and mountains, of lochs and legend.
"I worry about Hannah." She turned. "About what being here does to her."
"I'm more worried about what her being here does to you. Maybe I'm being haunted by the ghosts of Christmas past." He put the empty glass down and rubbed his fingers across his forehead. "You need to let her be, Suzy. You can't fix everything, although I know you'll never give up trying." The light softened the hard angles of his face, making him seem younger.
His job kept him fit and lean and there were days when he barely looked fifty let alone sixty. The only clue as to his age was the touch of silver in his hair, the same silver that would have shown in hers if she hadn't chosen to avail herself of a little artificial help.
They'd fallen in love when they'd worked together as mountain guides, when life had seemed like one big adventure. All they'd cared about back then was the next climb. The next summit. They'd been together ever since and, for the most part, their life had a comfortable rhythm. A rhythm that was rocked at this time of year.
The past never went away, she thought. It faded, and sometimes it was little more than a shadow, but it was always there.
"I'm going to make the lodge as welcoming as possible. Hannah works so hard."
"So do you. Your life isn't all about the kids, Suzanne. You run a successful business and this is one of your busiest times of the year in the café."
The source of her anxiety shifted. "And now you've reminded me that I still have forty stockings to knit to raise funds for the local mountain rescue team. Thank you for stressing me."
Stewart grinned and scooped up his clothes from the chair where he'd left them the night before. "Now, that's something I'd like to see. The rest of the guys wearing stockings. I'll be taking a photo of that and posting it on the team Facebook page."
Suzanne pulled a face. "They're not for wearing, you idiot, they're for stuffing with presents. We sell them for a good profit. And before you mock, I should point out that the profit from last year's Christmas stockings bought the team a new avalanche transceiver and contributed to that fancy stretcher you use."
"Then why —"
"I like teasing you. I like the way you look when you're mad. Your mouth pouts and you have these cute little frown lines and — Ow!" He ducked as she crossed the room and flung a pillow at him. "Did you really just do that? How old are you?"
"Old enough to have developed perfect aim."
He threw the pillow back on the bed, tossed his clothes back on the chair and tumbled her underneath him.
She landed with a gasp on the mattress.
"We have things to do."
"We do indeed." He lowered his head and the last thing she saw before he kissed her were his blue eyes laughing into hers.
By the time they got out of bed for the second time, the first fingers of weak sunlight were poking through the curtains.
"And now I'm late." Stewart dived into the bathroom. "I blame you."
"And it's my fault because ...?"
But he was already in the shower, humming tunelessly as the water splashed around him.
Suzanne lay for a moment, her brain fuzzy and contented, the dream all but forgotten.
She knew she ought to make a start on those stockings.
Knitting was the perfect form of relaxation, although it had taken her years to discover it.
She hadn't knitted a thing until she was in her thirties.
To begin with it had been her way of showing her love for the girls. She'd clothe them and wrap them in warmth. When she'd picked up her needles and yarn, she hadn't just been knitting a sweater; she'd been knitting together her fractured, damaged family, taking separate threads and turning them into something whole.
Stewart came out of the shower, rubbing his hair with a towel. "Did you want me to sort out a Christmas tree on the way home?"
"Posy said she'd do it. I thought we'd wait a few more days. I don't want the needles falling off before Christmas. How many trees should we have this year? I thought one for the living room, one for the entryway, one in the TV room. Maybe one for Hannah's room."
"Are you sure you don't want one for the boot room? How about the downstairs bathroom?"
She studied him. "There are still plenty more pillows on this bed that I can fling."
But he'd distracted her from her nightmare. She knew that had been his intention, and she loved him for it.
"All I'm saying is that maybe you should leave a few in the forest." He threw the wet towel over the back of the chair and then caught her eye and put the towel in the bathroom instead. "Every year you half kill yourself turning this place into a cross between a winter wonderland and Santa's workshop." He dressed quickly, pulling on the layers that were necessary for his job. "You have big expectations, Suzanne. Not easy to live up to that."
"It's true that things can be a little stressful when the girls are together —"
"They're women, not girls, and 'a little stressful' is an understatement."
"Maybe this year will be different." Suzanne stripped the sheets off the bed. "Beth and Jason are happy. I can't wait to have the grandchildren here. I'm going to hang stockings above the fire and bake plenty of treats. And Hannah won't need to do a thing, because I plan on getting everything done before she arrives so I can spend time with her. I want to catch up on her news." She held the sheets to her chest. "If only she would meet someone special, she'd —"
"She'd what? Eat him for breakfast?" Stewart shook his head. "I beg you do not mention that to her. Hannah's relationships are her business. And I don't think she's that interested."
"Don't say that." She refused to believe it might be true. Hannah needed a close relationship. She needed her own family. A protective circle. Everyone needed that.
Suzanne had craved it. At the age of six, she'd dreamed about it. Her early years had been spent with a mother too drunk to be aware of her existence. Later, when her mother's internal organs had given up fighting the relentless abuse, Suzanne had been placed in foster care. Every story she'd written at school involved her being part of a loving family. In her dreams she had parents and siblings. By the time she was ten, she was resigned to the fact that it was never going to happen for her.
Eventually she'd ended up in residential care, and that was where she'd met Cheryl. She'd become the sister Suzanne had longed for, and she'd poured all the surplus love she had into their friendship. They'd been so close people had assumed they were related.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Christmas Sisters"
Copyright © 2018 Sarah Morgan.
Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.
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