The Drifter's Gift
The Drifter's Gift
Table of Contents
“Sam Mclean, I could kiss you for what you did for my son tonight,” Dani began.
Sam went absolutely still. The air between them whispered madly with electricity.
Dani flushed. “I mean, it was…I was…”
Sam’s eyes glowed. “I like the way you put it the first time.”
Moving slowly, he came to her side. His powerful shoulders gave the impression of strength and command, but the hand that reached out to touch her cheek was infinitely gentle.
As she stood in the living room, with the house redolent of the aroma of dinner and echoing with the sound of a child’s bedtime prayers, Dani looked into this mystery man’s eyes—the same man who poured ketchup on her roast beef hash and dried her dishes and made her heart race every time she looked at him—and realized something.
This must be what it’s like to be married.
The holiday season is a time for family, love…and miracles! We have all this—and more!—for you this month in Silhouette Romance. So in the gift-giving spirit, we offer you these wonderful books by some of the genre’s finest
A workaholic executive finds a baby in his in-box and enlists the help of the sexy single mom next door in this month’s BUNDLES OF JOY, The Baby Came C.O.D., by RITA Award-winner Marie Ferrarella. Both hero and heroine are twins, and Marie tells their identical siblings’ stories in Desperately Seeking Twin, out this month in our Yours Truly line.
Favorite author Elizabeth August continues our MEN! promotion with Paternal Instincts. This latest installment in her SMYTHESHIRE, MASSACHUSETTS series features an irresistible lone wolf turned doting dad! As a special treat, Carolyn Zane’s sizzling family drama, THE BRUBAKER BRIDES, continues with His Brother’s Intended Bride—the title says it all!
Completing the month are three classic holiday romances. A world-weary hunk becomes The Dad Who Saved Christmas in this magical tale by Karen Rose Smith. Discover The Drifter’s Gift in RITA Award-winning author Lauryn Chandler’s emotional story. Finally, debut author Zena Valentine weaves a tale of transformation—and miracles—in From Humbug to Holiday Bride.
So treat yourself this month—and every month!—to Silhouette Romance!
Joan Marlow Golan
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The Drifter’s Gift Lauryn Chandler
With deep gratitude to Lynda Curnyn, editor, for her kindness and
care in helping me finish this book.
Dedicated to Tim Blough—old friend, new husband!—whose arms
are the warmest place I know.
And to Laura Lea Seidenberg Warren, 1930-1997. You gave me
life and, with the courage of a lion, the gentleness of a lamb, showed me how to live it. How I miss you. L’chaim, Little Lady. To life.
Originally from California, Lauryn now lives in the beautiful Pacific Northwest, where she can look out her window and see deer walking down the street. She holds a B.A. in Drama, and when not writing, she enjoys spending time with her family and husband, going for long hikes with her dogs and finding new ways to cheat at Crazy Eights.
Lauryn is the recipient of the 1995 Romance Writers of America RITA Award for Best Traditional Romance.
Prologue San Bernardino, California
“Look, Daddy, Teacher says every time a bell rings another angel gets his wings.”
“That’s right. That’s right! Atta boy, Clarence.”
The last lines of It’s a Wonderful Life competed with the phlegmy hiss of a decrepit heating unit in the corner of Sam Mclean’s motel room.
Sam gazed inexpressively at the black and white TV as Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed and a gaggle of Hollywood extras gathered around a Christmas tree for a rousing chorus of “Auld Lang Syne.”
Shifting on the lumpy, coarse motel mattress, Sam grunted. TV programmers were a sadistic bunch. Barely through one holiday, and they couldn’t wait to remind you there was another panting in the wings.
Reaching for the small plastic bottle on his night stand, he glanced at the digital clock—the most modern gadget in the room—and sighed. Four hours to go until midnight. Officially, it was still Thanksgiving.
Holding the vial of pills in his right hand, he used his thumb to pop off the plastic top. He was getting good at this—could hold, open, hang on to the top and even close the bottle again with just one hand. It was a little game he played with himself, a talent he’d perfected with lots of practice and which left his other hand conveniently free for the water chaser.
Shaking two oblong white pills into his mouth, he reached for the glass of tap water he kept by the bed, swallowed and set everything on the nightstand. Leaning on his left hip, he winced. And swore. Once again he’d waited too long to take the painkillers.
The fact that the meds were supposed to be ingested with food could not persuade him to return to the dinner he’d abandoned two hours earlier. Pressed turkey, gravy that was the same bright yellow as the bugs smashed on his windshield, and cubes of damp bread that tasted like they’d been stuck together with Elmer’s White Glue—the turkey special from Hungry Harry’s Country Diner made mess hall slop look like five-star cuisine.
Gripping the handle of the handsome walnut cane his outfit had given him the day he was discharged from the base hospital, Sam sat up and carefully lowered his feet to the floor.
Every move made him feel like he was being stabbed from the inside out.
He stood, gained his bearings and walked—or rather limped—to the window, passing the small round table that held his aborted meal as he went. Lying open next to a cup of piss-poor black coffee was the letter his friend Joseph Lawson had sent one week before Sam’s discharge.
Come to Idaho, Joe had written. Hang out for awhile. Take some time before you make any major decisions. And remember, there’s a job waiting at Lawson’s. Lawson’s, the family store Joe had taken over when his father passed away. Mom and the girls would love to see you again. Hell, why spend the holidays alone?
Sam adjusted his body, leaning his shoulder against the wall so his better, right leg would bear most of his weight. He ignored the remaining pain as best he could while he stared at the hazy moon.
Starless. There were too many streetlights, too much residual pollution to see the heavens here, even at night. He reached up to rub his eyes, then passed his hand over his cheeks and chin. Both were stubble free. Out of sheer habit he’d shaved this afternoon.
As a sergeant first class in the United States Armed Forces, he had spent his holidays on base or, when he hadn’t been able to avoid it, at the home of another officer. On those occasions, he’d been surrounded by laughter, good food, bright conversation.
He hadn’t felt any less alone then than he did right now.
Across the street, a red neon light blinked Bar. Sam felt his leg throb in cadence with the pulsing light, the pain an ever-present reminder that his days as a platoon leader were over. For thirteen years of service, he had belonged. If not to someone, then at least to someplace, something.
Now what? A desk job, pushing paper all day?
“Damn.” Sam whacked his cane against the wall with enough force to chip the plaster. An overwhelming sense of fruitlessness, an awful, gnawing emptiness assailed him. Without his work, who was he?
Once more his gaze fell to the letter he’d been carrying around for three weeks. There’s a job waiting at Lawson’s.
He rubbed his temples. Maybe. At least it would be somewhere to go. A way to pass the time while he figured out what to do with the rest of his life.
For a moment, he closed his eyes. The pain that washed through him this time had little to do with his leg.
When the wall heater gave a particularly nasty belch, Sam lifted his head and stared out the window, disappointed by the filmy clouds that veiled the face of the moon. Tired, he laid his forehead against the wall and came to a decision, if only to end his infernal waffling.
Maybe there would be stars in Idaho.
“Play the petunia game!”
Wriggling into the bottoms of his favorite superhero pajamas, Timmy Harmon fell back on his soft bed and thrust his bare feet in the air.
“Pick a petunia, Mommy.”
Grinning, Dani tugged her son until he was lying with his rump snuggled against her thigh, his rosy toes close enough for her to kiss. Timmy folded his hands on his belly and giggled. The petunia game was one of his favorites. It made the ritual of a nighttime bath almost worthwhile.
Bending toward her smiling five-year-old, Dani wiggled each little toe in turn. “One petunia for Timmy’s mother to pick. Two petunias for Mommy to pick…” She remembered her mother playing the silly, simple game with her. She’d loved it then as much as Timmy did now.
When she’d wriggled the last toe, Dani bent to place a noisy kiss on the arch of each child-size foot. Curled lovingly around his ankle, her fingers lingered a bit longer than usual tonight
From the first booties she’d put on him to the new blue and red sneakers he’d chosen himself for kindergarten, Dani always felt a bittersweet stir of anticipation when she looked at her little boy’s feet, so small, so wonderfully, restlessly eager. And growing so quickly.
Patting the soft skin of his instep, Dani released her hold and reached for a pair of socks still warm from the dryer. She held them up. “It’s cold tonight. You want socks?”
Timmy nodded. In the glow from the teddy bear lamp on the nightstand, her son’s hair was as russet as her own.
Dani rolled the blue cotton socks over his feet, tickling the arches as she went, filling with pleasure when he dissolved into giggles.
When the socks were in place, Timmy sat up on his knees. “Okay, Mommy, you go out now.”
“You haven’t said your prayers yet.”
“I know, but I’m going to do it myself tonight.”
I can do it was becoming an increasingly common refrain around their house, but rarely at bedtime. Resisting the urge to show her disappointment, Dani smiled and stood.
“Okay, pup.” She bent, kissing his downy cheek. “Lights out when you’re through.”
A stack of clean, folded towels awaited her atop the dryer, and more laundry tumbled inside, so Dani decided to busy herself with hausfrau duties until her own bedtime.
On her way to the hall closet, she glanced into the living room and saw her pop sitting on the couch, just as she and Timmy had left him, head back against the cushion, neck arched, mouth open wide as he snored. His hands lay on his lap, palms up—an unconscious yogi.
From the TV came the sound of voices raised in song. “Auld Lang Syne.” Dani grinned. The last scene in It’s a Wonderful Life. He’d watched that weepy old flick twice already this holiday season, and if she knew her father, he’d watch it twice more before Christmas. He saw things so simply, her sweet dad. Jimmy Stewart was still the best actor going, Donna Reed was the cutest girl, pumpkin pie with whipped cream turned a meal into a feast and…it was a wonderful life.
Pressing her face against the top towel of the stack she carried, Dani let the material absorb her deep sigh. She stood a moment longer, watching her father’s glasses slip by tiny degrees as he snored, then she moved down the hall.
When she reached Timmy’s door, she stopped. Prayers usually lasted all of thirty seconds—forty if there was a pet frog involved—so the muffled sounds coming from her son’s room drew her like a magnet. Sidling alongside the door, she peeked in. The teddy bear lamp was turned off. A night-light provided the only illumination. Timmy spoke to a group of toy figures he’d assembled.
“One more glass of water, that’s all.” He lowered his voice to as deep a register as he could manage—a child’s version of a baritone.
“You were a good boy today.” He jiggled one of the toys, making it speak. “Tomorrow you can have a treat. We’ll go see Santa Claus. Would you like that?” he asked a figure lying on his pillow and in his own voice responded, “Oh, boy! And Mommy will make cookies. Them ones Santa likes.”
“Yes, pup,” he answered in the deep, manly voice again. “Now go to sleep. Mommy and I will watch you.”
Mommy and I? Dani leaned farther around the door. Timmy returned to his normal register. “Kiss Mommy,” he commanded the toy in his right hand—the father. Bringing the two figures together until they clacked heads, he made a noisy sucking sound. “Now tell Mommy you love her.” And once more in the baritone, “I love you. Now go to sleep.”
Walking his makeshift family across the bed, he seated them on the nightstand, positioning the plastic figures so that the two parents were standing protectively over their son.
Tucking himself beneath the quilt, Timmy curled up on his side, eyes open, curly head craned, watching his “family” watch him.
Frozen in the doorway, Dani forgot she was holding towels until the stack began to topple. Making a quick, noiseless save, she backed into the hall. Her steps to the closet were so automatic she barely registered she was taking them.
In the living room, her father’s snoring intensified to buzz-saw decibels. Dani stowed the towels, her hands shaking, her movements clumsy. Jelly seemed to have replaced the bones in her knees.
She remembered the promise she’d made her son the day they’d left the hospital together—she lonely and scared at twenty-three, he a tiny, defenseless bundle wrapped in her arms. We’ll be a family, you and I. I promise.
Pressing her palms against the oft-painted panel of the closet door, Dani touched her forehead to the wood and squeezed her eyes tight. Oh, God, had she failed? They were a family, weren’t they? She hadn’t blown it too badly yet, had she?
She certainly hadn’t meant to wind up broke in the boondocks of Idaho, in a house that was a paint job away from dilapidated, on a farm that barely supported itself. She hadn’t meant for them to be alone on Thanksgiving or Christmas or New Year’s.
Hearing the sudden snort that signaled her father wakening from his nap, Dani pushed away from the closet, wiped her eyes and hurried into her bedroom. She closed the door softly behind her, moving toward the window without flipping on the light.
With the curtains drawn, moonlight cast silver beams into the room. Dani stood close to the cold glass, arms wrapped around her waist, staring out.
I should have moved to Los Angeles, some city where the local chapter of Parents Without Partners is bigger than the PTA.
This time her sigh was ragged and tired. It fogged the glass. Everywhere she looked, stars seemed to be winking.
“Whatever the joke is, I wish you’d let me in on it,” she whispered to the cosmos.
Somewhere under this very same sky were people who still made wishes, people who still believed. She’d been like that once, dreaming with her eyes wide open. That’s what she wanted for her son—enough innocence to believe that dreams came true. Five was too young yet to learn about life’s disappointments.
Shivering inside her thick sweater, Dani hugged herself more tightly. What, she wondered, could this nighttime sky with its moon and its stars and its mystery have to offer a not-so-young-anymore single mother who’d stopped believing in wishes long ago?
Letting her hands drift up until they were linked beneath her chin, she closed her eyes. And then, because she had no idea what else to do, for the first time in more years than Dani could remember, she prayed.
“Girl, you are out of your gourd!”
“Shh, Pop, Timmy’ll hear you.” From the kitchen doorway, Dani glanced into the living room to check on her son, who was still engrossed in running his dump truck up and down the legs of their sofa. His pliant lips sputtered as he made engine sounds.
Turning toward the oven, Dani removed a pan of oatmeal-coconut crunch cookies.
“Want coffee?” she asked her father. “There’s one cup left in the pot.”
Eugene Harmon shook his head. “Nope. I had three cups already. Too much caffeine.” He watched Dani cross to the fridge to pour herself a glass of orange juice. “’Course, I don’t want it to go to waste if you’re not going to have any.” He rose with his mug. “Pour it in there.”
Blinking rapidly behind his glasses, Gene hitched his trousers higher on his waist—his characteristic gesture when he anticipated something enjoyable. Dani smiled. Timmy had adopted the same habit of late.
“Want one of these?” Reaching for the giant cookies, she pulled her hand back abruptly and affected an innocent look. “Oh, sorry, Pop. I forgot, you’re cutting back on sugar, too, aren’t you?”
Gene pulled a dish from one of the cabinets. Brown eyes shining as he acknowledged the gibe, he tapped the center of the chipped china dessert plate. “Just put it right there.”
They settled at the breakfast table, and Dani began to fidget, plucking at a piece of orange pulp that was stuck to the rim of her glass.
“You know, it’s not such a bad idea when you think about it,” she said hesitantly, easing back to the topic at hand. She raised her eyes to her father’s. Behind wire-framed glasses, Gene regarded his daughter stonily, and Dani squirmed with the need to defend the decision she’d come to during the night “Pop, how many great marriages do you know of? I mean really great ones. Love affairs. Name three off the top of your head.”
Gene popped a piece of cookie into his mouth, taking an excessively long time to chew. “Antony and Cleopatra.”
Reaching for his coffee, he frowned.
“See?” Dani countered. “Bet you can’t name even one.” Digging peanut butter from a groove in the pine table, she smiled sadly. “Me, either. Except for you and Mom.”
Rubbing his nose where long ago his glasses had left a permanent indentation, Gene nodded. He spoke infrequently of his late wife, but Dani knew he thought of her often.
“You and Mom used to laugh so much. I remember thinking you were telling her jokes.”
Gene smiled. “Sometimes I was.” They sat quietly a moment, then he offered, “You could have that, too. You’re so pretty, honey. And smart. Maybe I never.told you that enough.”
“Yes, you did.” Dani hated the look of uncertainty on her father’s face. “You did everything just right, Pop.”
“Then don’t rush into anything,” he cautioned, referring to the plan she’d related to him this morning. “Marriage is hard work. Without love—”
“I’d rather have commitment without love than love without commitment. And don’t tell me I can have both.” Already primed to utter exactly those words, Eugene’s mouth snapped shut. “I’m twenty-eight years old, and I have a child. I don’t have the time to chase rainbows. I don’t have the energy.”
“You could still meet someone…the natural way.”
Wincing at the clear implication that what she was about to do was highly unnatural, Dani countered, “Where am I going to meet someone in Rockview?”
Fewer than a thousand people lived in the historic mining town, most of them married. Or incontinent “Face it, Pop, when we went eeny-meeny-miney-mo with that map, we landed in a town that makes Noah’s Ark look like a singles’ cruise.”
“You could get out more. Take a girlfriend and drive into Boise. Maybe there’s someplace there you could go dancing.” His inflection rose with hopefulness.
Dancing. After nine or ten hours of work every day, Dani’s feet hurt just thinking about it. “I don’t want to pick someone up at a dance. Or have them try to pick me up. I like my idea better.”
She splayed her hands across the scarred top of the pine table. There was a business-size white envelope next to the ceramic salt shaker. Gene’s gaze followed hers, and his expression grew more troubled. With an effort, Dani steeled herself to proceed even in the face of her father’s uneasiness. Even in the face of her own.
Inside that envelope was her chance to create a family for her son. Mentally, she reviewed the words she’d written and had read to her father early this morning.
A home for the holidays Small family on small farm seeks man willing to make our house his home. Must love kids and hard work. Clean living, solid background with work and personal references required. Ninetyday trial period leading to legal union. Serious inquiries only.
“I got most of my cars through the newspaper,” Gene grumbled. “Half of ’em were lemons.”
Dani mustered a smile. “That’s why I’m insisting on a trial period. It’s like a three-month test drive.”
Gene found little humor in the situation. He shook his head, then stood. “Well. We better get going if we’re going to make it to Lawson’s in time to see Santa.”
The abrupt change in topic threw Dani off stride. She’d intended to talk until Pop saw things her way. But he’d always been the kind of father who let his daughter make her own mistakes. And she’d made some dillies. Praying this wasn’t going to be another of them, Dani picked up the envelope and tucked it in the pocket of her cardigan. Later, she would ask Pop to run the ad over to the Tribune office while she did the grocery shopping. That way she’d have no chance to get cold feet. The County Trib was circulated all over the state. Her ad would get a lot of play.
“I’ll get Timmy. Thanks for coming with us, Pop. These outings with you mean the world to him.”
Gene waved her gratitude away. “He’s my grandson, isn’t he? Better make him put on his mittens. Looks like it may snow again.”
Dani rose. Instead of proceeding to the living room, she laid a hand on Gene’s arm. “It won’t be just anybody. If the right person doesn’t come along, then we’ll just keep doing what we’re doing. But I have to try, Dad. For Timmy.”
Gene covered her hand with his and nodded.
Turning, Dani called out to her son. “Grab your coat and your mittens, pup. We’re going to visit Santa!”
In all his thirty-two years, Sam had never seen so many runny noses.
Seated on an oversize armchair of cheap black vinyl and wood that was spray-painted gold, he gazed at the ocean of children before him and felt like he’d been sacrificed to an alien nation.
They were lined up in an endless stream, dozens of them, not a one taller than its mother’s hip and as far as Sam could tell, each doing the same thing—wiping its nose on its sleeve and waiting to sit on his lap.
The minute—the very instant—he saw his old friend Joe Lawson, he would tell the back-stabbing lummox exactly what he could do with this “job.” Come to Idaho, buddy…. Always a place for you at Lawson’s, pal…. Sam’s gloved hand clenched. Wiseacre, joking son of a—
“We’re ready, Santa!” A woman dressed in a short green tunic, green tights and ankle boots gave him an enthusiastic thumbs-up. Sam winced on her behalf. She looked like a cross between an elf and the label on a can of peas. Behind the stiff, scratchy beard the Lawson’s Superstore management had. handed him, Sam gave a brief, sorry shake of his head. He doubted he looked any more dignified than she.
“Testing…” The woman tapped a microphone. She whispered, but her voice carried. “One, two, three, testing…” Satisfied the PA system was up and running, she motioned for quiet—got none—and proceeded.
“Greetings, shoppers!” she boomed into the mike. “Welcome to Lawson’s Superstore’s third annual holiday extravaganza!” Scattered applause. “A month-long schedule of sensational seasonal events designed to make your holiday shopping spectacular!”
Unbelievable. Sam scanned the crowd while Ms. Elf held for cheers. A few people clapped. A baby cried. Undaunted, she continued. “Only three weeks to Christmas, shoppers, and you know what that means. All throughout the store today and every day between now and December twenty-fifth, you’ll find super-phenomenal savings on a wide variety of products, everything from bulk carrots in our produce section—” she pointed east “—to holiday tablecloths and place mats in housewares, aisle four. And while you’re shopping, shoppers, don’t forget that we have a special treat for little customers.” She grinned. “That’s right, he’s here—”
Oh, brother. Beneath the mountain of foam padding that covered his stomach, Sam felt his gut clench. I swear to God, the next time someone offers me work—
“—in Lawson’s Holiday Village—” the elf warmed her audience like a veteran Ed McMahon, and this time the children screamed with pleasure “—straight from the North Pole—”
Joe, you son of a bitch.
“Moms and dads, boys and girls—” she flung out an arm “—the one, the only…Santa Claus!”
Trapped, gulled, conned into playing a part as foreign to him as Bermuda shorts to a polar bear, Sam raised a white-gloved hand. His smile felt as frozen as his vocal cords, his lips barely moved, as he attempted that immortal refrain.
“Ho. Ho. Ho.”
Three hours later, the line of children had dwindled considerably, but both of Sam’s legs were killing him. He’d been seating the kids on his uninjured right thigh, which was now almost as sore as his left.
At present, a little girl named Sarah Jean was running through a list of requests that would bankrupt her parents within an hour.
“…and a Malibu Barbie, Hunchback of Notre Dame lunch box—I don’t like Pocahontas anymore…”
Sam nodded. Discreetly, he thought, he lifted his gaze to where the elf stood, checking the flash on the camera she used to capture these special holiday moments—for three bucks a pop. It was her job to signal when a kid’s five minutes with Santa were up. Sarah Jean, he was sure, had to be pressing the limit.
“Are you listening?” The pigtailed girl caught him shifting his focus.
Sam returned the malevolent stare. “Yeah. You don’t like Pocahontas.”
Looking at him suspiciously, Sarah Jean resumed her request concert. With each new mention of a toy, she swung her patent-leather shoes into Sam’s shin. He’d asked her twice already not to do that.
“Sarah Jean,” he said once again, “I told you, don’t kick Santa.”
The little girl glared at him. “I don’t like you. The other Santas are better. I went to Boise and that Santa told me I’d get everything I deserved for Christmas.”
For the first time that day, Sam allowed a genuine smile beneath the bushy mustache. “I’m sure he’s right.” At last his co-worker gave him the high sign. Thank God. “Okay, kid. Turn around and face the elf.”
A bright flash caught them both, then Sarah Jean hopped off his knee and scurried toward her mother, casting suspicious glances at Sam.
Mildly repentant, he sighed. He was probably ruining Joe’s business, giving dozens of innocent Idaho youths a fear of Santa Claus—and their parents a fear of shopping at Lawson’s.
Ten children remained in line. Rubbing his leg, Sam resolved to be as Santalike as possible for the next fifty minutes. The next child up, a little boy, approached and stood at his knee.
For several moments—long ones, Sam thought—he and the kid just stared at each other.
Thick, wavy red hair hugged the boy’s head like a woolly cap. Freckles splattered the bridge of his nose. Dressed warmly in crisp, neatly pressed clothes and brightly colored tennis shoes, he was just the kind of kid Sam remembered his friends picking on in grade school. The kind of kid who looked wellmothered.
Thrusting out a flannel-covered arm, the little guy held up a paper lunch bag. “These are for you. My mommy made ’em. She says they’re the kind you like.”
Accepting the bag, Sam opened it to examine the contents. The aroma of butter and brown sugar drifted up. Four very large, very thick golden brown cookies that begged tasting rested inside.
“The kind I like?” he murmured. He didn’t doubt it for a minute. Breaking his own rule—the less contact with parents, the better—he glanced up, searching almost unwillingly for this boy’s mother. She was easy to find.
“I asked her to put in extra for the reindeers, but she says no dessert for them because they can’t brush their teeth. Do reindeers have very big teeth?”
Her hair was like fire, as red as her son’s. It waved thickly back from her forehead, exposing a gentle widow’s peak and skin as creamy and subtly toned as her hair was bright. She stood next to an older man, too old, Sam thought, to be the boy’s father. Her gaze was all for her son.
She would stand out in any crowd. Tall and slender, with refined features he could easily imagine on the cover of a magazine, she looked like a woman who belonged in a city—at the theater, in an elegant restaurant, dressed to the nines.
Then she smiled at her child, and Sam had no trouble picturing her in jeans in her kitchen, making snacks for Santa.
All of a sudden, he had the overwhelming urge to taste one of the cookies, just so he could tell her how good they were.
A light tug strained his sleeve. “Should I get on your lap now?”
“Yeah.” Rolling up the bag, Sam looked for somewhere to stow it, settling for behind his chair, next to the cane he was still using. “Thanks,” he said. “Tell your mom…thanks.”
“Okay.” The youngster nodded, then climbed onto Sam’s lap.
“What’s your name?”
“How old are you, Tim?”
“Five.” Sam nodded. “Pretty big for five, aren’t you?”
It wasn’t true, not by a long shot, but it puffed Timmy Harmon up like a helium balloon in a Thanksgiving parade.
“I guess,” he answered proudly, his teeth showing in a white line interrupted by a couple of empty spaces, like missing slats in a picket fence.
Sam smiled a little. This kid was easy to please. Remembering his Santa dialogue, he asked, “Have you been a good boy this year?”
Timmy considered the question. “Uh-huh. I think. ’Cept I forgot to pick up my building blocks.”
The other half of Sam’s mouth joined his smile. “That doesn’t sound too bad. So, what do you want Santa to bring you for Christmas?” The words rolled more easily than they had all day.
Most of the other children had answered that question immediately, but Timmy merely sat on Sam’s knee, studying him. “Does your beard hurt?” Timmy reached up to pat the white whiskers and frowned. “Feels like the sweater Mrs. Richter gave me.”
“She lives on our block. I have to say thank-you even if I’m never gonna wear it.” Gently, he poked at the space between Sam’s lower lip and the top of the beard. “How come your beard’s not stuck to your face?”
From the corner of his eye, Sam saw the elf give him the speed-it-up signal.
“Listen, Tim. I want to make sure you get what you want for Christmas, so why don’t you tell me what’s on your list?”
The boy continued to look at him quizzically. “Are you the for-real Santa?” He sounded doubtful.
Not sure whether to be insulted or relieved, Sam allowed himself a second to think. Getting two dozen troops to march in a straight line was nothing compared to this Santa stuff.
What if he admitted he was just a guy in a cheap velvet suit? Would he ruin the kid’s psyche forever?
Another glance into the candid auburn-lashed eyes, and the answer seemed to come out unbidden. “No, I’m not the real Santa.” Disappointment flashed across Tim’s face. “But I know him.” Oh, jeez! Did I really say that?
“Are you guys friends?”
“Yeah. We’re friends. We…raced reindeer together… in Alaska.” Oh, boy.
Timmy seemed more interested in Sam’s having lived in Alaska than he was in the concept of reindeer racing. Sam answered eager questions about Eskimos and igloos, then saw the elf give him an emphatic wind-it-up. He ignored her.
“Where’s the for-real Santa right now?”
“Right now?” Sam frowned. “He’s at the North Pole. Resting. He’s got to be up all night, you know, on Christmas Eve, and…well, he’s not getting any younger.”
“Like my granpop.” Timmy nodded. “He goes to bed at night sometimes even before I do. How old is Santa Claus?”
“Older than anyone I’ve ever met,” Sam acknowledged. “If you tell me what you want for Christmas, I’ll make sure he hears all about it.”
Timmy got quiet then, plucking at the broad brass clasp of Sam’s belt, looking up with wide, achingly innocent eyes.
Before the little boy could respond, the lady elf approached with a strained smile. Placing both hands on her jutting green-stockinged knees, she leaned forward and spoke to Timmy. “You’re getting along so well with Santa, aren’t you? And I hate to interrupt, but there are lots of other little boys and girls who want to speak with him, too. We can’t take all his time.” Her syrupy voice merely underscored her irritation.
Immediately, Timmy looked like he was afraid he’d done something wrong. Sam felt a surge of very un-Santalike anger.
“Give us a moment, would you, please?” he requested, more politely, he thought, than she deserved.
“Oh, now—” she wagged a finger at Sam “—it isn’t fair to the other children in line to make them wait.”
“We’ll be done in a minute.”
Smiling wider, the elf moved to stand directly in front of them so the parents could not see their exchange. “My lunch hour was thirty minutes ago. I have signaled you three times. I know you saw me—”
“Hey! Elf Lady,” Sam interrupted. “We’re not done yet. When we are, I’ll signal you.”
Timmy watched with openmouthed awe as the woman blinked several times, recovered enough to glare at Sam, then turned and stalked to her station.
“She’s mad,” the little boy breathed.
“Forget about her,” Sam instructed. “She’s not a real elf. So what is it you want this year?”
Timmy’s little legs began to swing nervously. Sam winced when the boy connected with his shin. Gently, he placed a hand on Timmy’s knees. “What do you say, champ? What do you want? Some of the kids have been asking for Power Rangers. They were about your age, I think. You want one of those?”
Timmy shook his head.
“No, huh? Got something else in mind?”
Hesitantly, the boy nodded.
“Okay. Let ’er rip.”
Gaze lowered, Timmy Harmon mumbled something Sam couldn’t understand. “Say it again?”
Timmy raised his eyes. “I want a daddy.”
Oh, how Sam wished he’d listened to the damn elf. Feeling his throat freeze, he wondered what he could say. I’m sure your mommy will get you one?
Involuntarily, his eyes fastened on the boy’s mother. The soft smile was still in place. She was standing near the exit, too far away to hear what was being said, particularly with the piped-in holiday Muzak, but she looked curious, apparently aware that he was taking more time with her son than he had with the others.
“Where’s your daddy?”
Timmy folded his hands neatly in his lap. His cheeks were pink. The small shoulders lifted in a shrug.
Well, you had no business asking that, Mclean, none at all. But he wondered. He definitely wondered.
A woman who made cookies for her son to give to Santa, who had hair like autumn, skin like winter and—if they were anything like her son’s—eyes green as summer leaves…had someone walked away from that? And from this boy?
Keep your mind on the job.
“Listen,” he began. He no intention of implying that Santa could dish up dads for Christmas. “Fathers… you know, they aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. I mean, without one you only get yelled at half as much, right?” The smile he attempted fell flat.
His logic made no impression on Timmy, who shrugged again, then asked, “Will you tell Santa?”
Sam looked at the little fellow, so hopeful, so tentative. To say he was out of his element didn’t begin to describe the ineptitude Sam felt. What could he say? “I’ll tell him.”
Timmy stared at Sam a long time. Probably wondering if he should trust a’guy who admits to wearing a fake beard.
Sliding off Sam’s lap to stand at his knee, the child issued a very polite thank-you, then turned and ran off.
The exit from Santa’s Holiday Village was a green runner between two rows of painted cardboard pine trees. Timmy got about halfway down the twenty-five-foot walkway before another child approached for an audience. Sam smiled absently at the little girl, lifting her to his knee. He kept his eyes on Timmy.
At the end of the makeshift aisle, Timmy jogged right, running headlong for his mother and the man Sam guessed was Granpop. The woman received her son by holding out her arm, pulling him in for a quick hug and bending low to speak to him. When she straightened again, she looked directly at Sam and smiled.
It was a thank-you, nothing more, nothing less.
It turned her face into a work of art.
Sam continued to stare after she and her family had walked away. He spent the next forty minutes uttering Santa-isms and a half hour after that had changed out of his costume. He exited the employee lounge, then halted as abrubtly as his bum leg would allow.
Facing him on the opposite side of the wide hall was a community bulletin board crowded with notices about lost dogs, skis for sale and jobs wanted. Standing in front of the board were Timmy Harmon and his grandfather.
“Put on a blue one,” Timmy instructed, bouncing with approval when his grandfather stabbed a colored thumbtack into the corkboard.
“All right, that’ll do it.” Nodding, the older man stood to study the three-by-five card he’d posted. “She’s going to thank me for this. Eventually.”
He put a hand on top of Timmy’s red head. “Let’s see if your mother’s through shopping yet. She’s happier in a market than a gopher in a hole.”
Timmy giggled, and they moved off. Sam wondered if the little boy would recognize him as they passed, but he was chattering up a storm and didn’t even glance Sam’s way. Apparently, out of the red suit Sam was just a stranger with a cane—and Timmy’s mother’s cookies in a brown paper bag tucked in his hand.
Thinking of the cookies drew a growl from his stomach.
Thinking of Timmy’s mother drew him to the bulletin board.
He felt like a voyeur, looking at a board in which he took no interest except for the small card with the blue thumbtack at the top. His eyes first widened, then narrowed as he read the message.
WANTED Man to work on small organic farm. Able to relocate and live on premises for room, board (good food!) and small stipend with potential for future partnership. Must like children. Please reply to Gene, 555-1807
Sam leaned on his cane, staring at the notice. Seemed Timmy wasn’t the only one who thought they needed a man around the house.
Gazing down the hall, he felt a stirring of interest he hadn’t felt for anything in a long while.
When his stomach spoke up again, he unrolled the bag of cookies, reached in and extracted one thick, uniformly browned circle. He planned to have a late lunch or early dinner in the coffee shop next to his motel room, but in the meantime—
The first bite nearly brought a tear to his eye. He tasted oats and brown sugar. He tasted coconut and pecans and…home.
Standing in front of the bulletin board, he chewed slowly, letting the taste—and the feeling—linger.
Home. It had been a long time. It seemed like forever.
Sam stayed where he was until a couple of employees emerged from the lounge, arguing about which of the town’s two movie theaters they should visit Coming back to his surroundings, he pretended to scan the board. But his gaze never strayed, really, his attention never shifted, from the card stuck to the board with a blue thumbtack.
Leaning back in a desk chair barely large enough to support his big frame, Joe Lawson pointed a finger at his old buddy Sam and nodded. “You look good in a full beard. The white tended to age you, but…” He shrugged and a slow, deliberate grin spread across his amiable features.
Closing the door behind him, Sam entered his friend’s office with an expression more befitting the Grim Reaper than Santa Claus.
“Now, Sammy—” Joe held up a hand as Sam limped into the room “—if I didn’t know better, I’d say you were peeved. And that can’t be, because Old St. Nick is a jolly old soul.” Clasping his hands behind his head, Joe kicked his feet up on the desk and frowned. “Or is that Frosty the Snowman?”
One hundred percent certain now that the Santa job had been Joe Lawson’s pathetic attempt at a practical joke, Sam shook his head.
“Neither,” he corrected, approaching the desk. “Old King Cole was a merry old soul.” Smiling, he cocked his head. “I don’t suppose you remember the one about Humpty Dumpty?”
“Humpty Dumpty?” Joe looked bemused.
“Yeah. How did that go?”
“No.” Resting his cane against the desk, Sam folded his arms. “Recite it.”
Shrugging at his friend’s sudden interest in nursery rhymes, Joe recited, “Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall, Humpty Dumpty had a great—Hey!”
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall, but not as great as the spill Joe took when Sam lifted his feet off the desk and shoved him backward. The cushy leather chair in which Joe liked to rock back listed all the way, right down to the floor, with Joe in it.
The big man’s hard belly bounced. Laughter rolled from his barrel chest.
Sam took a seat in a chair on the opposite side of the desk and let a genuine—albeit reluctant—smile curve his lips. “I should have known better than to put that suit on this morning. When they said you wanted me to play Santa, I thought it was a real job offer. I didn’t want to insult your sorry carcass by refusing.”
“It was a real job offer.” Joe climbed out of the fallen chair, righted it and sat down. “Our regular Santa has the flu.” When he grinned, his full mustache hugged his mouth like an upside-down U. “Good to see you, buddy.”
Sam shook his head and smiled. “Yeah, good to see you, too.”
“Seriously,” Joe said, “I know you’re ticked, but you did a good job today. I hid behind the canned pears display and watched. You’re good around kids. You want to do it again tomorrow?”
Sam grimaced. “I’d rather face a court-martial.” Tossing a paper bag on the desk, he said, “Here. Some kid’s mother actually made cookies for Santa. Can you believe that?”
“Yeah? What kind?” Joe reached for the bag. “My sisters always put a plate of oatmeal cookies and a glass of milk near the chimney on Christmas Eve.” Humor pushed his cheeks into rosy apples. “I left M&M’s. I didn’t think he could get them at the North Pole.”
“No. Didn’t you ever do that when you were a kid?” Unrolling the top of the bag, he peered inside. “Don’t tell me you didn’t try to stay up all night to catch Santa when he came down the chimney, ’cause everyone I know did that.”
“Sure. Of course.”
Watching Joe inspect one of the large cookies Timmy’s mother had made, Sam wondered why he’d just lied. He was not dishonest by nature, but suddenly he’d had such a strong image of Joe and his sisters secretly awaiting Santa’s big entrance, of their parents peering in from a doorway, smiling in the background, that a myriad of confusing feelings rumbled through him—envy, regret and a strange, discomfiting inadequacy, ludicrous but powerful. Sam couldn’t remember even believing in Santa Claus.
“Not bad.” Joe nodded after taking a bite of cookie. “But we’re running a special on iced molasses bars—one dozen for a dollar ninety-nine in the bakery. Now that’s a good deal, my friend.”
Sam frowned. “These are homemade,” he said, incomprehensibly annoyed that Joe would compare store-bought to the cookies the redhead had made.
Joe shrugged. “You want homemade? My sister Carol is a whiz in the kitchen. She bakes all the time.”
“Carol’s smart, too, and funny. You’d like her. Did I ever show you her picture?”
Sam quirked a brow at the man who had been his first friend way back in boot camp. “Are you trying to set me up with your sister?”
“Sure.” Joe grinned. “That’s what big brothers are for. Are you interested?”
Sam grew hot and prickly with the sudden urge to escape. He opened his mouth to decline, then closed it without speaking. He met Carol Lawson years ago and liked her. But she had Family written all over her even then, and Sam had the ethics not to start something he had no intention of finishing.
He shifted on the hard chair, both his leg and his conscience making him uncomfortable. If he was being honest with himself, he would have to admit that he’d come here looking for more than a job. He remembered the Lawson family, their boisterous meals, their easy way with one another, Joe’s comfortable home.
He wanted to be around it. For awhile. But as a spectator, not a participant. He could close his eyes and imagine what it would be like to sit at a table that wasn’t part of a mess hall. A small table, maybe, small enough to reach across and pour a drink for somebody else. Working together to set the places, smiling and laughing as you handed around the plates. There would be evidence of caring in the simplest ways. Did you get enough potatoes? Yeah. Do you want more gravy? Sure.
Looking out for each other. Appreciating that someone had bothered to make potatoes just because you liked them. Appreciating that someone knew you liked them.
Suddenly he wanted it so badly, he felt almost embarrassed, as if he’d been caught with his fly down. The muscles in his jaw tightened with resentment. He was like an ex-smoker who had to breathe the aroma from someone else’s cigarette to get through the night. When he’d decided to come to Idaho, in the back of his mind had been the notion that he could be around Joe’s family for a brief time and take the experience with him, like a secret, when he left—one final deep inhalation of someone else’s smoke to store up for the years of deprivation that lay ahead.
Sam gave a sharp, reproachful shake of his head. The fact was, no matter how much he craved a glimpse of that life, he wasn’t about to mislead anyone to get it.
To Joe he said, “I’m a bachelor. You know what they say about old dogs.”
Joe grimaced. “Yeah, I know. I’m an old dog myself.” Finishing the cookie, the big man brushed his hands. “Where are you staying tonight, Fido?”
“The Park Motel, outside of town.”
“That dive? I wouldn’t let my pet spider stay there.”
With a brief smile, Sam said, “It’s fine.”
Joe pointed a finger. “You’ve been living with men too long. So listen, you’ll come to dinner tonight Tomorrow you can move your gear to the house. We have plenty of room.”
Sam held up a hand. “Thanks, but I—”
“No, don’t give me any crap.” Pulling a piece of paper from the mess he called his in box, Joe muttered, “Besides, you’ll be doing me a favor. My mother’s all over me to get married. Give her someone new to torture.” He grabbed a pen. “Here, I’ll give you directions.”
“Thanks, you’ve convinced me. I’ll stay at the motel.”
“What? Naw, seriously—”
“Seriously, Joe, I’ve got plans tonight. But soon.” Sam reached for the bag of cookies, rolled the top of the paper sack and stood, relying on the cane more than he wanted to after a long day of sitting. And he did have plans. He just hadn’t realized it until this moment.
Wanted, man to work on small organic farm…room, board… Plus, he amended silently, the kind of cookies Santa likes. And no strings.
All they wanted was a worker. Testing his bum leg, he decided that as a worker, he could come through just fine.
Rising, Joe held up a sheet of computer paper. “I had personnel print up a list of the jobs available in the store.”
Leaning on his cane, Sam raised a brow. “What are they?”
Joe snapped the paper with a flourish, then cautioned, “Remember, this is only a preliminary list.”
“Uh-huh. Is there anything on that page that involves wearing a giant crow costume and waving people into your parking lot?”
Eyes widening, Joe lowered the list. “That’s not a bad idea. Not a crow, though. What’s that Froot Loops bird?” He fished around for a pad of paper. “We could do a tie-in with breakfast cereals. Sugar-sweet savings. How does that sound? I—Hey, where’re you goin’?”
“Get the elf to do it. She’d make a great bird.” Sam tossed the words over his shoulder on his way to the door. He knew where he was headed. “I’ll call you tomorrow.”
“What about dinner?”
Raising the bag of cookies, Sam smiled. “All I need is a quart of milk. I’ll call you.”
“You’re going to break my sister’s heart?” Joe put a hand over his chest.
Grasping the office doorknob, Sam paused long enough to answer. “No. I’m not going to break anyone’s heart.”
Moving carefully, Dani lifted a steaming apple-raisin pie from the oven. She could feel the heat of the deep-dish Pyrex through her oven mitts and saw that some of the juice was still bubbling up through the heart-shaped vent she’d cut into the crust.
Setting pie number twelve atop a baking rack on the crowded counter, she tallied her creations—four apple-raisin, two cranberry-pear and six pumpkin pies, dozens of cookies, cooled and ready for boxing, in five varieties—molasses-ginger, milk chocolate chip, honey-nut peanut butter, the oatmeal-coconut crunch she’d given Timmy yesterday for Santa Claus, and the buttery Russian tea balls that sold so well around the holidays.
Sweet Dreams, the baking business she ran to earn extra money during the winter, was doing surprisingly well for a home business, but she was pooped. She’d been baking since four this morning. It was now one in the afternoon, and she still had a half dozen sour cream banana breads and her popular cinnamon-streusal orange coffee cake to go.
She would be up most of the night tonight, baking and packaging, but Pop would make the deliveries for her tomorrow and Timmy would be in school, so perhaps she’d grab a nap then.
Closing the oven door, Dani decided to give the reliable old workhorse a twenty-minute breather while she sat down with a cup of coffee. It was warm in the kitchen, pleasantly so, given the chill outside. Pouring a mug of coffee from the pot she’d been nursing all day, Dani felt her stomach contract with hunger.
Bypassing the fresh cookies that represented her profits, she helped herself to one of the giant oatmeal-coconut crunch cookies she’d made yesterday and plunked herself into a chair at the table. Every muscle in her shoulders and back groaned in protest at the change in position, but her legs, relieved of the pressure from standing so many hours, thanked her.
Working so hard made her body feel old before its time, but in some ways she didn’t care. She was working for her son, so a sore muscle was no more resented than one of the permanent silvery stretch marks she’d acquired during her pregnancy.
These things—sore muscles, stretch marks—were just battle scars. As long as she won the war, who cared if she emerged a bit dog-eared? And the war in this case was raising a happy, well-adjusted child on her own.
Taking Timmy to see Santa yesterday had made her aware all over again how lucky she was. Watching her little boy poke at Santa’s white beard, seeing him politely hand over the cookies he’d asked her to bake, her heart had swelled with love. How could a father not want to be there? She would never understand it, not if she lived to be a hundred, not if she had twelve more children!
Obviously Brian had regretted his relationship with her, but that shouldn’t have precluded a relationship with his child. Her ex-Mr. Right hadn’t cared about either of them. He’d never even seen his son.
Timmy had an eager little heart and arms that hugged like nobody’s business. He deserved so much more than a father who was nothing but a name.
Dunking the cookie into her coffee, Dani took a careful bite.
Pop had dropped her ad off at the newspaper office yesterday. She’d experienced a few trickles of anxiety since then over what she was about to do, but she wouldn’t let fear stop her. Placing that ad gave her hope. It gave her a chance, at least, to ensure that the next time her son wanted a daddy’s kiss, it wouldn’t have to come from a toy father.
She glanced out the window, where the world seemed to be moored permanently in winter. Somewhere out there was a man who knew how to love a little boy, how to make him feel special and safe and strong in his own right. A man whose hugs were given free.
Just one decent man with the heart to stick around. That’s all she needed.
And who cared if they never had a lot of money? If she had to, she would work hard every day of her life. As long as he pulled his own weight, fine.
She doubted he’d be especially handsome, but that was okay, too. Timmy’s father had been ambitious, smart and charming. Especially charming. His attention had made her feel special. Being in a relationship with him had made her feel…
So alone she’d thought she might die.
She and Brian—and this had occurred to her only recently—had never really talked, not about anything important. She had tried too hard to please him, terrified of rocking the boat, shutting her eyes to the fact that it was already sinking. Then she’d gotten pregnant, and Brian had jumped ship.
Now she knew she would never again beg for a man’s attention, and she would never, ever let anyone hurt Timmy. When she chose a man to join their lives—if she did—it would be someone who needed and wanted them as much as they wanted him.
The peal of the phone jolted Dani to attention. Break time was over. Finishing the cookie, she crossed the kitchen and grabbed the receiver before the machine could pick up. “H’lo?”
“Hello. May I speak with Gene, please?”
“He’s not—” She covered the mouthpiece, finished chewing and swallowed. “Excuse me. He’s not here right now. May I take a message?”
There was a pause during which Dani brushed her fingers on her apron, plucked a pen from the cup next to the phone and held it over the scratch pad, waiting.
The next time the deep voice rumbled, she leaned on her elbow and just listened.
“I’m calling in regard to the position you have open. My name is Sam Mclean.”
The voice on the other end of the line was measured, rich as a truffle, smooth as caramel.
“A want ad was posted—”
“Want ad? Oh!” Dani straightened, her attention sharpening. Good heavens! Had the ad appeared in the Sunday paper already? Pop had only dropped it off yesterday. She’d expected to have several days, a week….
“You, um, asked for. my father?”
“If your father’s name is Gene.”
She frowned. “The notice gave his name?”
Yes, ma’am. He said it politely, automatically, in a voice comfortable showing respect.
Dani clutched the phone in a death grip, using her other hand to draw dozens of tiny boxes on the pad in front of her. He was calling about that ad, but why had the paper listed Pop? Someone must have messed up and used the name of the person who dropped the materials off, or…
Or her father had deliberately used his name so he could screen-prospective sons-in-law himself. Pop! she groused silently, I’m not a little girl anymore.
Taking a breath, Dani spoke with all the authority and confidence she could muster.
“I placed the ad, Mr.—”
“Sam. I’m doing the—” she couldn’t call it hiring “—interviewing.”
Another pause, more brief this time. “I’m sorry, ma’am, I didn’t catch your name.”
“Oh, forgive me. It’s Dani. Dani Harmon.”
“I’d like an interview, Ms. Harmon. That is, if you’re agreeable.”
Such a reverently polite tone. Dani twined the telephone cord around her fingers. Was she agreeable? She longed to rely on her instincts, but instinct was a hard thing to trust when you had no track record. And this was happening so quickly!
Taking a deep breath, she closed her eyes, crossed her fingers and prayed for intuition. “I’m agreeable,” she said after a protracted moment.
“Good. I realize it’s Sunday, but I’m free today if—”
Swiftly, she scanned the kitchen. Every inch of available counter space was covered with pies, cookies, pans and utensils. Glancing at herself, Dani realized she wasn’t in much better shape than her kitchen. Jeans, an old fuzzy sweater, her hair pulled back in a riotous ponytail—the editors of Cosmo would never approve.
On the other hand…
A candidate for husband and father might as well see right up front what he was getting. This was a working kitchen, and she was a working mom. Back in the days when she’d been a well-paid legal secretary in Los Angeles, she would have worn a skirt and heels for a daytime appointment, silk pants and sandals for evening. Now she was a twenty-eight-year-old single mother with a cesarean scar hiding beneath her jeans and no time.for makeup. The last time she had used mascara, it was to fill in a chip on her coffee table.
So she had a choice. She could either put Sam Mclean off until tomorrow, scour the house, run out to buy a tube of lipstick and pretend she was Jane Seymour—Who, me, perspire? It was only twins
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