Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Brody Gets His Wish -- Intallment 1

Brody Gets His Wish tells the story of Drew Teaberry's son, Brody from the Harlequin Romance A BABY BENEATH THE CHRISTMAS TREE. In the book, Brody was a sort-of-bad 16-year-old. He's 22 in Brody Gets His Wish, and about to find the love of his life in the most unlikely place -- hs family's Christmas Tree Farm, where wishes come true in the most unexpected places.

Enjoy! And feel free to leave a comment!

Installment 1

HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS

Brody Gets His Wish

Brody Teaberry maneuvered his car along the snow slicked mountain road to Teaberry Farms. His home. He might not like the cold, snowy, West Virginia mountain winters, but he liked Teaberry mansion. A lot. It was big and roomy, and always smelled like muffins because his stepmom, Gwen, loved to bake for his incredibly spoiled dad.

He loved the squeals that Gwen’s now six-year-old daughter Claire made as she ran through the house, chasing his two-year-old half sister, Emmalee.

Now, there was another Teaberry baby on the way and pretty soon there’d be even more noise on Christmas mornings. His car slid on the ice and he quickly corrected, getting himself back on the road. It was too bad he couldn’t pack them up and take them back to California with him.

The last half mile of the trip was a winter wonderland of snow-covered fir trees and icy electric wires that glittered in the midday sun. When he finally pulled his car into a spot beside Teaberry mansion, his entire body relaxed. He told himself he was just happy to be off the slippery roads, but, truth was, he was home. And he knew it.

He got out of the car, stuffed his sunglasses into his jacket pocket and looked around. The place hadn’t changed much since he’d left for college almost five years ago. Snow covered the pool and the swing set that hadn’t been in the yard back then, but bundled trees still leaned against the weathered boards of the outbuilding where Mary Alice Burkett made holiday wreaths. Customers milled about, some examining the precut trees, while others walked back the long sleek rows between the shimmering pines looking for the special tree that would bring light and life to their holiday this year.

“Hey, lazybones! Come help with the customers.”

That was Max Peabody. Caretaker for Teaberry Farms for as long as anyone could remember. With his white hair and beard, twinkling blue eyes, and tummy that really did shake like a bowl full of jelly, Max could have been Santa.

“At least let me go inside and tell everybody I’m here.”

“Ack!” Max batted a hand. “College kid. Wants to see his mommy.”

Brody laughed. Max was a bit of a task master, but he had a heart of gold. He’d taught Brody more about life in their few weeks of working together selling Christmas trees every year than Brody had learned in four and a half years of college. And that was the problem. He was graduated now. The money train from his dad had pulled into the station. There’d be no more paid apartment, no more food allowance, no more clothing allowance. He had to make his own way and he had no idea how. Or where. Or even what he wanted to do.

He walked the short sidewalk to the front door of the red brick house. Black shutters trimmed in snow and tall pine trees that stood like sentinels gave the mansion the look of a gingerbread house, even if it was the wrong color.

He stopped short of the door, flanked by the two sentinel trees. Teaberry Farms wasn’t just pretty. It wasn’t even just home. According to legend it was a magical place where wishes came true with a mere wisp of your hand across a soft pine branch. In six plus years of living in this house, he’d never once wished. Not because he thought it was a lot of malarkey, but because he’d always believed wishes were for people who truly needed them.

He was a young, healthy, twenty-two-year-old, college-educated guy. Did he really need a wish to get a job? Wasn’t that sort of lazy of him?

Not in this economy.

With a laugh, he brushed a black-leather-gloved hand across the soft pine. “I have to figure out my life.” He said it aloud. No one was within twenty feet of him. “So if you could just point me in the right direction, I’d appreciate it.”

The words weren’t out of his mouth before a snowball slapped into his back. He spun around and there stood the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen.

Blond hair swung in the wind that whipped snow from the ground and tossed it back into the air. A soft blue coat accented equally soft blue eyes. Her cheeks were pink from the cold air. And her hands currently wrapped around the arm of a kid who looked to be about nine.

“No snowballs. Or I find your mom and you leave.”

“Aw, crap. This place is a rat hole.”

Brody couldn’t help it. He laughed. “I thought the same thing about six years ago.”

Shrugging out of the girl’s hold, the kid said, “Who cares about you, dip stick,” and scrambled off.

The girl brushed her hands together as if saying good riddance, then smiled. Brody swore the Alleluia chorus played. Her lips were full and pink. Her smile as warm and sweet as his stepmom’s hot chocolate.

“Don’t mind him. He’s a customer’s kid. Doesn’t want to be here. Thinks he’s too old.” She stepped over and caught Brody’s arm. “And you shouldn’t be here either.” She flashed him another smile. “At least not this far away from the fields. These two trees aren’t for sale.” She pointed to the rows beyond the outbuilding. “Those are the ones you choose from.”

“But I don’t want a –“

Her gaze met his and he stopped. Swallowed. She was just so God blessed beautiful.

“I know. You don’t want an ordinary tree. You want one of the ones that grant miracles. You’ve heard the story that Gwen and Drew both wished on trees on the way into the house, so you want one of those trees. But that’s exactly why those two trees aren’t for sale. They’re personal, private stock of the owners.”

“I know.” He held out his hand for shaking, finally having realized who she was. Stella Linstrom, this year's cashier. “I’m Brody Teaberry and you must be Stella.”

She took a step back, pressed her hand to her chest. Brody braced for the forthcoming apology, so he was completely taken aback when she said, “Well, of all the stupid things. Letting me run my mouth while you stood there knowing who you are.”

With that she turned and flounced away.

Snow floated around him in the whipping wind. Flooded by equal doses of annoyance that she’d yelled at him and enchantment, he stood silently. She was so pretty that he kind of felt like a man who’d been hit by a truck. But that was ridiculous. He actually knew Stella Lindstrom. They’d gone to high school together. True, she’d been a year behind him, and also true high school versions of people looked and behaved very differently than adult versions…but he couldn’t like her…could he?

He turned, ready to go into the house and his hand brushed across the branch of the tree again.

His wish.

He’d forgotten that he’d made a wish. He spun around, his gaze seeking Stella as she slid behind the cash register on the checkout table, and his heart did something totally weird. It felt like a cartwheel. But that was wrong. She couldn’t be part of his future. Plus, he hadn’t wished for a woman, or a romance, or anything sappy like that. He wanted a job—

Still, he hadn’t said job. He’d made a vague wish like point me in the direction of my future.

Thinking he should have been more specific, he took the branch in his hand again, ready to very clearly state that he wanted a job, but the wind whipped up, tossing him away from the tree.

Damn, it was cold. And he hated cold much more than he believed he needed to correct a wish. He yanked open the door.

Warmth hit him first. Then the scents of pine and cinnamon. Shiny gold ribbon laced between the banisters of the long cherry wood staircase. Red ornaments nestled into the bows tied on each rung. Green fir branches accented it all.

“Brody!”

Gwen saw him first. Standing at the top to the stairs, with one hand holding six-year-old Claire’s hand and the other balancing two-year-old Emmalee on her hip, Gwen looked like an angel mom. Her pretty blond hair gleamed. Her smile could light the room. And her nearly nine-months-pregnant belly only added to the picture.

“Well, if it isn’t my wicked stepmother.”

Racing down the stairs, Claire giggled. “She’s not wicked.”

Brody scooped her into his arms and tickled her. “Then you’re the wicked stepsister.”

“Only Cinderella has wicked stepsisters!”

He deepened his voice to make himself sound scary. “Seems to me, I have one, too.”

By that time Gwen had reached the bottom of the steps. He slid Claire to the floor, hugged Gwen and snagged Emmalee. “And how’s my second favorite girl?”

Emma smiled shyly then burrowed her face into his neck.

“It’s a phase,” Gwen explained.

“And she’ll come around by the time you’re ready to leave.” That was Brody’s dad. Six-foot-something and broad shouldered from the work of the Christmas tree farm, Drew Teaberry was the kind of dad every kid aspired to be. “Then you’ll go back to California and we’ll start the whole shyness thing over again at Easter time.”

But that was part of the problem. His dad was rich, successful, a family man. It was hard for a twenty-two-year-old to even consider stepping into those shoes.

“I’ve told you before, Dad. I can’t move here. I can’t handle the snow anymore.”

“He’s been Californized.” That came from the last, but not least, resident of Teaberry Farms, Sunny Peabody, Max’s wife. Short and well padded, with white hair pulled into a bun and little wire frame glasses, she could have been Mrs. Santa. “Let’s hope he still likes cookies.”

He slid Emma to the floor. “He loves cookies!”

* * *

Installment 2

The next morning, Stella Lindstrom arrived at Teaberry Farms and stalked to the checkout stand, still in a sulk. She didn’t know why she’d been so snippy with Brody Teaberry the day before–

Actually, yes, she did. The guy was a walking GQ cover. Tall and lanky, he wore his J. Crew coat and sweater like a man so accustomed to money it had no meaning for him. Add blue-gray eyes and hair that had darkened from yellow to a shiny ash brown over the years since high school, and Brody Teaberry was the kind of luscious a girl like Stella would simply love to sigh over.

But she couldn’t. Not only was she smart enough not to get involved with the guy everybody wanted but absolutely couldn’t have, but also she had plans that were – even as she stood manning the cash register for a Christmas tree farm that promised miracles – crumbling before her very eyes.

She was pre-med. In one semester she’d graduate. County bumpkin that she was, she’d spent her college years believing that money for med school would simply fall from the sky when she needed it the way scholarships had materialized for her basic studies. Instead, money had dried up. She barely got enough grants and scholarships to finish her Bachelor’s degree.

And for what? So that she could have no options, no opportunities for med school? It didn’t seem fair –

No, fairness had nothing to do with it. What it was was cruel. Fate had dangled a new life for herself and her family in front of her and now it was snatching it away.

“Why so glum?”

Forcing a smile, she turned to Max Peabody. He and his wife Sunny were like two loveable Christmas bears. Smiles and cookies, Christmas carols and surprise gifts were their passion. Only a curmudgeon would be grumpy with them.

“I’m just thinking.”

“About?”

She sighed. “About med school.”

Max’s already big smile grew into a face-wide grin. “You’re family’s so proud.”

She said, “Yeah,” happily enough, then swallowed and turned away, glad for the customer who’d stepped up to claim the tree Max carried. That was another thing. She was disappointing her family. Not just losing her dream, but disappointing her parents, her sisters, her brother who planned to follow in her footsteps as soon as he was out of high school.

She walked over to the customer’s tree and eyeballed it to get an approximate size, since the trees were priced by the foot. This one was a beaut. At least seven feet and bushy with thick, pine-scented branches, it smelled like heaven.

"That’ll be—" she paused. Turned to the tree again.

All right. She knew that the legend that Teaberry trees brought miracles was only a legend. But some days, when a woman was feeling a bone-deep disappointment in herself, even a legend was better than nothing.

She faced the customer with an apologetic smile. “Just let me get one more measurement,” she said, pretending to be eyeballing the tree’s size again, even as she brushed her gloved hand over a thick, happy branch, and squeezed her eyes shut. “Please,” she thought. “I’m not a picky, greedy woman. I just want to help my family. Point me in the right direction.”

She didn’t think it was necessary to say, “Point me in the right direction for scholarships and grants.” That was a given.

She faced the customer with another smile and quoted the price of her tree. The well dressed woman reached into her designer bag to pull out a leather wallet and produced the cash.

Stella smiled at her as she took it. Ridiculously, her wish on the tree had given her hope again.

She made change, said, “Merry Christmas,” and waved as Max hoisted the customer’s tree and led her to her shiny SUV.

Glad for the temporary reprieve in her mood, she faced front again only to be looking directly at Brody Teaberry.

“What?”

Damn! The sulk was back.

But he looked so good in the thick blue sweater that made his eyes look more blue than gray, with the wind blowing his hair around, and the grin on his lush mouth. Since high school, he epitomized everything she wanted and everything she couldn’t have.

“I see you’re your usual chipper, happy self,” Brody said, then cheerfully patted her cheek. “Customers must love you.”

“The customers do love her,” Max said, returning from tying the tree to the customer’s SUV. He caught her by the shoulders and squeezed. “And we love her.”

With that he scampered off and Stella raised her eyes to meet Brody’s assessing gaze. “I’m usually much nicer.”

“Right.” He turned to the field. “Does it still work the same way?”

“Does what still work what way?”

“I follow customers back into the field of trees and then cut the one they choose?”

“You’re working?”

He laughed. “Do you think I got through college on my looks?”

He probably could have, but she wasn’t going to be the country pumpkin to mention that.

“Okay, look. My dad did pay for most everything, but I had to find my own spending money. I know how to work.”

“Poor baby,” she said, then wished she could cut out her tongue. If she didn’t stop antagonizing the boss’s son, she’d end up fired and then not only would she not go to med school, but there’d be no gifts for her brother and little sisters under the tree for Christmas.

He snorted and strode past the checkout stand. “I’ll just assume we’re working the same system.”

With that he was gone and Stella squeezed her eyes shut in misery. Why was she so mean to somebody she’d always liked so much. Jealous?

She sighed. Probably.

Twenty minutes later, Brody came to the checkout with an older couple and she made a concerted effort to be nice to him.

“That was a lovely tree. You have a good eye.”

He shook his head. “Nah. They picked it. I just cut.”

“Still, you did a good job.”

He flushed a bit and Stella relaxed.

The next two days, she managed to be very nice to Brody. But with every passing day scholarship denials mounted in her mailbox. She wasn’t surprised. Desperate, she’d applied for things way out of the realm of possibility.

Day three, she worked the noon-to-seven shift at the tree farm, able to stave off her grief and sadness. But when it came time to go home, when frigid darkness had settled in and a full moon had risen over the black rise of trees on the horizon, she couldn’t go home.

She’d pretended all day that her life was fine. But it was easier with strangers. At home, where everyone knew her so well, it would be so damned hard to keep her fa├žade in place. So as Max turned off the strings of lights that lit the square where precut trees huddled and the cash register sat silent, she didn’t go to the door of her car. She headed for the trunk, rummaged a bit, and pulled out her skates.

“Oh, gonna hit the pond a bit?”

She smiled at Max. “Yeah. I need a minute or two to clear my head.”

“You could come in for supper first.”

Her stomach growled. Supper would be so nice right now. But she was as proud as her parents. The Lindstroms didn’t take handouts. And an offer of supper on a day when her station in life was weighing down on her definitely felt like a handout. She pretended to be busy with her skates.

“I’m not really hungry. More in the mood for a little alone time.”

Max said, “Got it,” waved and headed to the house.

When he opened the back door, the scents of chicken and dumplings wafted outside to her. Her stomach rumbled again, but she resolutely headed for the pond.

* * *

In the warm, chicken-and-dumplings-scented kitchen, Max shrugged out of his coat. “Stella went back to the pond to skate.”

Gwen turned from the stove. Her round belly got bigger every day and Brody had to school his features to keep from gaping at her. “It’s freezing out there! At least before she skates, she should get some warm food in her.”

“Told her exactly that,” Max said as he took a seat at the round table where the family would soon dive into chicken and dumplings. “But she’s a proud one. Plus, I think there’s something wrong.”

“Like what?” Brody’s dad asked, taking his seat between Emmalee and Gwen.

Max scratched his beard. “I don’t know but something’s up.”

Stretching to place a tray of homemade rolls beside the piping hot chicken, Gwen said, “I’m going out there to talk to her.”

A chorus of “Oh, no, you’re not,” erupted from the table.

Sunny added, “There’s a foot of snow to trudge through. You don’t even have boots that high.”

Gwen planted her hands on her hips. “Well, we can’t leave the poor girl out there alone in misery.”

Brody rose. “I’ll go.”

*******

Section 3

The bright full moon looked like a shiny new dime on a bed of black velvet. A sprinkle of stars surrounded it like diamonds. Brody hitched his skates over his shoulder and navigated the small patch of woods that separated his family’s backyard from the pond they kept for skating.

When he reached it, he saw Stella sitting on an old wooden bench. Her skates lay drunkenly beside her, forgotten as she stared up at the silvery moon.

“If you’re looking to make a wish, I’m told you should be touching trees, not staring at the moon. No matter how pretty.”

She turned, gave him a sad smile. “Yeah, I know. Already tried that.”

He walked over and plopped down beside her on the bench. “Are you gonna tell me what’s wrong or keep pretending you’re fine?”

She reached for her skates. “Let’s keep pretending I’m fine, please.”

Shaking his head, he toed his first foot out of its boot. “Okay, whatever. But you’ve gotta give me a story to take back to my family for why you’re so upset.”

She shrugged. “Just normal girl stuff.”

He paused, peered over. “Got your heart broken, did ya?”

She laughed. “I wish.” She pressed a mittened hand to her mouth. “Not that I want my heart broken. Or never have boyfriends who could break my heart.” She sighed gustily. “I say the stupidest things around you.” She sighed again. “And now would be as good of a time as any to apologize for always seeming like I’m mad at you.”

She peeked over. “I’m not, you know.”

His skates on, he rose, then stooped in front of her. With one hand he slipped off her well worn boot, as he grabbed one of her skates with the other. Sliding it on, he said, “I never thought you were mad. Just figured you didn’t like me.”

She laughed. He snagged her second skate and slid it on. Grabbing both of her hands, he lifted her from the bench. They wobbled over to the pond. He glided on first, then eased her on. She wobbled again, but he caught her. She felt like moonlight in his hands. Sort of wistful, sort of sorrowful, and maybe too beautiful to hold for long. He gazed down. She glanced up. The desire to kiss her pulsed through his veins.

Shaking his head, he stepped back a bit. She’d probably deck him if he tried.

They skated a while and when she got her legs, she slid away from him, her hand releasing his inch by inch as she eased away.

She turned, her arms spread, as if she were taking it all in. “It’s a pretty night.”

He skated around her. “Yeah. It is.”

“And you don’t have to stay. You can tell your family I just wanted some time alone.”

“What if I want to stay?”

She laughed softy, throatily, and Brody’s heart did a funny leap in his chest. “You’re as tired and hungry as I am. Why would you want to stay?”

“So you admit you’re hungry.”

She shook her head.

“There’ll be plenty of chicken and dumplings left.”

Her chin rose. “Don’t want any.”

“I think Sunny would be offended to hear that.”

She sighed, skated away, then faced him again. “I don’t eat what my family can’t have.”

With that she skated over to the edge of the pond. Back to the path that had brought them to the ice. “But you’re right. I am tired. And hungry. I should go home.”

Brody watched her as she quickly divested herself of her skates, put on her boots and hurried off.

He had the feeling he was watching Cinderella leave the ball and shook his head. She was pretty. Sweet, too, when she was being honest with him. But she was also upset. In high school she’d never been angry or angst-ridden over her station in life. Yet tonight for some reason she was.

The next morning, Stella made a concerted effort to be cheerful. To prove to the Teaberries she was fine, she brought a dish of homemade chocolate oatmeal no-bake cookies, so fudgy and sweet the customers drooled over them.

Brody caught the last one before his dad could snag it. He bit in and groaned. “You are an excellent cook.”

She laughed. “Not really. That’s the only thing I can make.”

Brody’s dad stepped in front of him and caught Stella’s attention. “Can we have a minute to talk?”

Fear gripped her. The night before Brody had all but said his family had shipped him outside to see what was wrong with her. What if he’d told them?

Still, she cheerfully said, “Sure.”

He guided her inside the weathered shed where Mary Alice sat at a table in the back creating one of her holiday wreaths.

“I had a minute to look over the books for the tree business and we’re doing about ten times better this year than we have in the past.” He reached into his jacket and pulled out a check. “So, this is a bonus.”

Her heart stopped. A million potential happy Christmas scenes – scenes where she bought her sisters much needed shoes and coats, dresses and dolls – danced through her head like sugarplum fairies. Then she remembered that Brody’s entire family had suspected something was wrong the night before and pride tightened her chest, clogged her throat with tears.

This was charity. They knew her family was broke and they felt sorry for her.

Licking her lips, she took the check, swallowed the lump in her throat, then cleared it. “I can’t take this.”

Drew laughed. “Of course you can. It’s a bonus. Found money for all of us.”

He walked away as if there was nothing wrong, but fury with Brody burned in her veins. She racked her brain trying to think of what she could have said to him the night before that would have clued him in on the fact that she needed money and she realized she’d told him she never ate what her family couldn’t.

When the crowd thinned and closing time approached, Max turned out the lights as Stella balanced out the cash register. She handed him the bag of money, which he took inside as she headed for her car. Once again, she didn’t want to go home quite yet, but skating was out. What she really wanted was to give Brody a piece of her mind. She knew he hadn’t gone in. So she waited, leaning against her old rattle trap car for him.

When he walked out of the shed, he smiled, ambling over to her. “Hey, are we going to skate again?”

“Not hardly.” She took the check from her coat pocket and shoved it at him. “What I told you last night was personal, private!” Tears burned her vision but she plugged on. “I’m pissed that you talked to your dad, that he’d give me five hundred dollars—"

He didn’t catch the check she’d all but thrown at him and it drifted to the snow between their feet.

He caught her by the shoulders. “You little snot.” From the fury in his eyes, it was clear it was everything he could do not to shake her silly. “I didn’t tell my family anything about what we discussed yesterday. Mostly because we didn’t really discuss anything. And even if we had, do you think my dad could generate a check overnight from a business account? There are procedures we have to go through. That check,” he said, glancing at the green slip between their feet, “Was generated a week ago. It’s a bonus. Unbristle your pride and take what you’ve earned.”

With that he released her and stormed off to the house.

Stella bent, picked up the check. Biting her lower lip, she fought back tears. A bonus.

The trees around her rustled in the wind. “Yeah. I get it. You guys went to work for me and I didn’t appreciate it.” She sniffed back her tears. “I’m sorry.”

*****

She made cookies again the next day. Brody was tempted not to take one. But when she thanked his dad and explained that she was simply surprised by his generosity that was why she hadn’t properly thanked him the day before, his heart swelled for her.

He might not know what it was like to be poor, but he did understand struggling, looking to find your place. The first year he and his dad had come to Teaberry Farms, he’d been an angry, rebellious teen. A kid whose mom had unceremoniously dumped him on his dad, so he couldn’t believe his dad actually wanted him. Drew Teaberry had not only wanted him, but so had Gwen. And Claire. And the Peabodys, Max and Sunny.

But it took him a while to accept that. So he knew all about pride. And right now hers was stinging. He waited two hours for a time when she was alone at the cash register, ambled over and snagged a cookie.

“I’m surprised they lasted this long.”

She glanced down shyly. “Me too.”

“They’re very good.”

“So you said yesterday.”

He sighed. She really had it bad. Pride so strong she couldn’t even forgive herself. He reached out. Tipped her face up with two fingers beneath her chin. “We should skate again tonight.”

“No, I—“

“Hey, you owe me for yelling at me last night.”

She glanced off in the distance. “I’d rather you forgot about that.”

“I’d rather you make it up to me. Tonight, after work, by the light of the silvery moon.”

She laughed. “Your parents make you listen to old songs too?”

“Nope. Max sings that one.”

She laughed again.

“So under the moon, tonight after work.”

“It’s a da—“

She stopped. But he knew she had been about to say it’s a date and realized her mistake. He grinned. “Want it to be a date?”

“Want to live to see tomorrow?”

He laughed. “You are a little badger, aren’t you?” On a whim, he leaned across the table, beside the cash register, and close enough that he could brush his lips across hers. “Think about that today then tell me tonight if you want it to be a date.”

***

Brody pulled away and strode into the row of trees behind Stella who stood frozen at the cash register. That kiss might have been nothing but a brush of his lips, but warmth flooded her. Tingles of unexplainable joy pirouetted through her like snowflakes in a streetlight.

Twenty minutes later, Brody returned with a customer. James Murphy. He had been the town’s doctor for fifty years, but when he reached eighty, he’d thought it best to retire. Wearing a gray overcoat and black leather gloves, he looked like the worldly guy he was. But the character lines on his face and the slowness of his movements told the real story.

“So how are you today, Dr. Murphy?” Tree buying traffic was slow because it was a weekday. So Stella had plenty of time to fuss over him.

He batted a hand. “You know how it is. Holidays are always busy. Kids are coming in this weekend for an early celebration. I want the house to look like it did when Frannie was alive.”

Brody let the tree relax on the cash register table. “So you’re sprucing it up yourself?”

He winced. “I’ll try. These old bones don’t let me do the things I used to be able to do.”

Stella glanced at Brody. Brody nudged his head as if to tell her to simply follow his lead.

“You know, it’s slow today here at Teaberry Farms.”

“Sure is,” Stella said, not quite sure what he was leading up to.

“I’ll bet if I asked my dad, he’d let me and Stella take a few hours off and we could come down off the mountain and help you.”

Stella clapped her hands together. “What a great idea! My mom does all our decorating, so I never get to be in charge.”

Brody’s eyebrow rose. “In charge?”

“As the only woman in the group, I’m just about certain my taste will be better than either of yours.”

Doc Murphy laughed. “I don’t doubt that.”

“Okay, then,” Brody said, heading off in the direction of the house. “Let me clear it with my dad.”

He was back in under five minutes. Walking over to grab Doc Murphy’s tree, he said, “We have three hours.”

“We’ll make it enough,” Stella said, sliding from behind the cash register. “I already told Max to keep an eye on the register.”

They loaded Doc Murphy’s tree on the top of Brody’s SUV and followed Doc down the mountain to the beautiful yellow brick house he called home. Three stories high, it boasted stain glass windows above and beside the brown front door and huge picture windows, perfect for Christmas tree placement.

Brody wrestled the tree from the SUV, while Stella entered the old house with Doc. To her surprise it was sparkling clean.

“I hired a maid service.”

Stella laughed. “Good idea.”

Brody brought in the tree and a small tussle ensued as they installed the tree stand. Doc had already brought his decorations from the attic so while the men strung lights and tinsel, Stella went to work on the rest of the house.

She’d found three framed pictures of Christmases past on the fireplace mantle. They not only showed the pretty green garland accented with fat red velvet ribbons strung on the stairway banister, but also tinsel around archways between the rooms, candles on end tables, a Victorian village scattered on a buffet.

As casually as possible, she took the pictures and used them to guide her as she strung garland, hung tinsel, and placed candles and old Victorian pieces including an old firehouse and malt shop. When Brody and Doc were finally done with the tree, Doc turn around, saw the tinsel above the archway, the bows and garland on the stairway and the old Victorian village on the buffet and his eyes filled with tears.

“My God. It’s just like Frannie would have done.”

Stella’s eyes filled with tears too. She remembered his wife. A wonderful woman who always had cookies and cocoa for Christmas carolers.

“It’s beautiful. Thank you.”

One of her tears spilled over. “You’re welcome."

Brody said, "Our pleasure.” Then he glanced at his watch. “Opps. We better get going!”

Seeing that only a little over an hour had passed, Stella almost argued, but Brody was the boss’s son, so she didn’t.

They stepped out into the ever-falling snow. “That was nice.”

She smiled. “I know.”

As they walked to his SUV, he caught her hand. Something like happiness trembled through her. Which was wrong. She tried to yank her hand away, but he held fast.

“I’m fine on my own. I’ve been walking in snow more than you have recently.”

“I know. But I decided we should make this a date.”

Her heart stuttered. “A date?”

“Yeah, I’m going to take you to lunch.”

This time her voice stuttered. “Lunch?”

“Yeah. You know food shared by people getting to know each other.”

Had he said anything else, phrased it any other way, it might have offended her. But the truth was, they were getting to know each other. And she liked that they were getting to know each other.

They walked around his SUV, headed down to Main Street and the diner which was less than a block away. In a booth, they took off their gloves, shrugged out of their coats.

“I think it’s a day for some good hot soup.”

“Or chili,” Stella said. “I haven’t had their chili since…”

She stopped.

“Since when?”

She batted a hand. “Since…awhile. It’s just boring stuff.”

He caught her hand. “I don’t think anything about you is boring.”

The waitress came over and they both ordered chili, hot coffee, corn bread.

When she was gone, Brody said, “You know if you don’t tell me anything about you, then this date is a bust.”

She shrugged. “I know. It’s just that the story of my life is a little…well, not happy.”

“It’s still part of who you are. It’s what makes you who you are. Tell me.”

“Everybody thinks my family is broke, but they’re not. They’re poor.”

“There’s a difference?”

“Yeah, broke is a short-term thing. Poor feels like forever.” She toyed with a salt shaker. “My biological dad doesn’t pay child support. My stepdad isn’t educated.” She glanced up at Brody. Saw he was listening. Not with pity or judgment, but simple interest. She tugged in a slow breath and decided to continue. “He had a good job until he broke his leg, and had to take time off. But things didn’t mend well, and he had to take so much time off that out of necessity his company had to replace him. When he finally healed enough to go back to work, he couldn’t find another job. My mom can only work part-time because I have a younger brother in high school and two sisters still in elementary school. What I’m making now is the only money we’ll have for Christmas gifts.”

Still holding her hand, he eased back on his booth seat. “Well, it looks like the bonus you earned will certainly come in handy.”

She smiled. “Yeah. It will. Thanks.”

“And something’s still troubling you.”

She said nothing. She’d already told him so much and this was her great heartache. Something she didn’t share with anyone.

“Tell me.”

The urge to talk, to share her burden bubbled up inside, tightened her chest. She didn’t know why she trusted him so much. Maybe because she’d wrongfully distrusted him and hurt him. She sucked in a breath.

“I can’t afford to go to med school.”

“I thought you had scholarships and grants.”

“I went through college on scholarships and grants. I thought it would be the same for med school.” She smiled ruefully. “Turns out it isn’t.”

The chili arrived and they ate with gusto, talking about him this time not her. Careful to keep the conversation centered on the things he did, not how much all of his escapades had cost, Brody entertained her for an hour. Then they returned to Teaberry Farms. A little fatter. A little happier.

Still full from lunch, when it came time to close the Christmas tree farm, Brody reminded her they’d agreed to skate again. His heart knocked against his ribs when it looked like she might make an excuse to leave, then trembled with something he was afraid to define when she finally said, “Okay.”

They skated around the frozen pond in silence. The moon bathed them in silvery light as they locked their hands, stretched out their arms so they could look at each other and began to make a circle. The world became a blur of snow covered pines, glistening stars and a moon that hovered as if smiling down on them, but Brody couldn’t take his eyes off her face. Such a beautiful face, but such sad eyes.

After a few minutes, he stopped them, cupped her shoulders with his mittened hands, bent his head and …

Paused.

He might have kissed her before but this was their first real kiss. This was the one they’d both remember. So he breathed in the scent of frosty winter, made note of the full moon, the snow, the way her eyes widened in both hope and fear, the way her lips parted in anticipation…

Then he pressed his mouth to hers.


Stella’s head spun. The world whittled down to just the two of them. The warmth of his mouth, the fire in her blood, the need that was more than physical, more than emotional. It was an instinctive yearning that told her this was the one. He was the man. The guy she was supposed to spend the rest of her life with.

And wasn’t that a shame. Because not only was it the wrong time; they were the wrong people. She’d been smart enough in high school not to make too much of the crush she had on him, but it appeared that as an adult she hadn’t exercised as much common sense. She’d let him lure her into something any poor girl knew wasn’t smart.

She’d absolutely fallen in love with him. Not just his looks or his antics. But his kindness, his understanding…and the way it made her feel to know somebody genuinely cared.

It was a shame.

She pulled back. Slowly. She couldn’t have him. So she’d take second best. Pull away slowly. Memorize the sights and sounds. The silver moon. The glitter of the ice. The way her breath formed a wispy white river between them as she said, “I’m sorry.”

He blinked. “Wow. I’m not.”

She smiled. God, how she wished all this could be real. But it wasn’t. She didn’t think she was his college break fling. She knew he was feeling what she was. It simply wouldn’t work. Poor girl. Rich guy. Even if money wasn’t a problem, there was the matter of her upbringing. She’d never fit into his world.

She pulled back a little more, let her hands slowly drift from his shoulders until she’d completely separated them.

“I’ve gotta go.”

He reached for her. “No. Come on. What’s going on?”

She turned and began to walk away. “I like you.” For that she decided she should face him. “A lot. I might even be on my way to loving you and we don’t work. I’m either going to med school or about to find a job that uses the degree I have. I can’t have entanglements.”

He watched her drive away, his heart weeping with longing for her. He wanted her to succeed, to have her dream, but he also just wanted her. He’d never been more confused.

******

Brody wondered into the house. His hands were freezing. His feet tingled with cold. He needed a hot shower and maybe a beer. Instead, he found himself walking into the family room where he saw his dad, his stepmom, and Claire and Emma, both dressed in matching red Christmas-theme pajamas. Poinsettias had been strategically placed around the room. Tinsel and garland draped across the fireplace mantle. Because Gwen liked to decorate in stages, to make the season last, the real decorating had only just begun. They wouldn’t put up their tree until Christmas Eve. It was a family tradition.

His dad glanced over. “Hey, what’s up?”

He fell to an overstuffed red velvet chair, something Gwen had brought down from the attic every Christmas for sentimental reasons. “I think I could use some wise counsel.”

Drew laughed, but Gwen rose from her seat. “I need two minutes to get these two into bed. Don’t say a word until I get back.”

Pretty blond-haired, green-eyed Claire whined. “But I wanna hear too.”

Gwen caught both Claire and Emma’s hands. “Not tonight! You can pester Brody at breakfast.”

Claire groaned and whined some more but within seconds the family room was clear.

“If you want two minutes for private man talk, this is your time. When Gwen says she’ll be back in two minutes, she means two minutes.”

“Actually, it’s about Stella.”

“Figured as much.”

“We had the perfect day…” He paused, not knowing what to say.

“But she’s standoffish?”

“She’s not standoffish. She out and out told me that we’re not good together.”

“And you disagree.”

He sucked in a breath. “I think she might be The One.”

Drew said, “Oh…”

But standing in the doorway, Gwen clapped her hands together with glee. A pretty red sweater covered her mound of tummy. Her green eyes sparkled. “That’s fantastic.”

“Not if she doesn’t want me.”

Gwen waved a hand. “Don’t be ridiculous. I’ve seen the way she looks at you. You simply have to persevere.”

Over the next few weeks he tried. She would talk with him. She was even pleasant, sweet. He saw the longing in her eyes sometimes, but she was strong, stubborn. She’d made up her mind that they were a bad pair and she was sticking by that opinion. And as she grew stronger, Brody fell a little more in love everyday. Her heart of gold showed through in the way she treated customers. Her love of Max and Sunny made him smile. He was falling in love with a woman so strong, so determined, he had no doubt that he’d lose her ten minutes after Teaberry Christmas Tree Farm closed on Christmas Eve.

Drew watched his son with his heart in his throat. He knew what it felt like to be in love and to feel there was no way that love could be reciprocated. He’d fallen hard for Gwen, but he’d believed she deserved better. Luckily, Gwen disagreed and she’d forced him to see they belonged together.

But there was no one around to help Brody and it put an ache in Drew’s heart. So on Stella’s day off, he warmed up the SUV and drove into town. Since there was no one else to help Brody, he would.

With Stella’s home address keyed into his GPS, he navigated the narrow streets of Towering Pines, smiling at the big red bows tied on the old fashioned streetlights. The tinsel strung on sturdy pines in front yards. The silver bells that decorated mailboxes.

Finally, he arrived at Stella’s house. Convinced he needed to talk to her, he didn’t hesitate as he walked to the front door, but after he knocked, a wicked wind of common sense whipped through him. He would have lambasted his father for interfering in any of his romances. Especially when he was a head-strong twenty-two-year-old.

He prepared to pivot to go just as the door opened. A pretty blond woman of about forty smiled at him. “Can I help you?”

He turned with a smile. “I’m … Um…”

“You’re Andrew Teaberry. Stella’s boss.”

“And you must be her mom.”

She nodded. “Yes. Jenny. It’s nice to meet you. What can we do for you?”

He swallowed, feeling foolish, knowing Brody was going to kill him. “Is Stella here?”

“No. She’s out shopping.” She laughed lightly. “That bonus you gave her is going to make her Christmas very merry.”

“I’m glad.” He should have simply turned and walked away, but he couldn’t stand to see Brody so miserable. Still, Stella wasn’t here. He should just go home.

Stella’s mom wrapped her robe more tightly around her against the cold. “Why don’t you come in?”

"I—"

“Please. I just made a pot of coffee and some cinnamon rolls. I’d love a minute to chat with you.”

He walked inside the clean, but sparsely furnished house and followed Stella’s mom into the kitchen that smelled the way his kitchen smelled after Gwen spent a morning baking.

Jenny waved her hand around the table that was filled with cookies and pies, and, of course, cinnamon rolls. “This is all thanks to you. We’re going to have a very special Christmas.”

A forty-something man entered from the back door. Stomping snow from his boots, he glanced at Jenny, then Drew. “Mr. Teaberry,” he said, “Is something wrong? Did Stella do something?”

“No.” He winced. "Actually, she’s doing great. I just was—"

“Curious?” Stella’s dad asked.

Drew said, “My son is so smitten with your daughter that I …” He winced. He sounded like an idiot. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be,” Jenny said, offering him a chair and a cup of coffee. “This is my husband Mark, by the way.”

Drew said, “It’s nice to meet you,” but now that he'd come this far, he didn’t want to end the conversation about Stella. “It’s just that she’s such a great worker, but we can see something is wrong.”

Jenny sighed. “Something is wrong. She’s been denied for every scholarship she’s applied to for med school.” She offered Drew a cinnamon roll. “She can get some loans but not enough. And she can’t work. Classes will be too intense. We don’t have any money to help.”

Mark took the seat across from Drew’s. “Since I lost my job, it’s been a lean couple of years to say the least.”

Drew’s head snapped up. “You lost your job?”

“Yeah. I broke my leg four-wheeling with Stella’s younger sisters. It took longer to heal than we’d thought and by the time I could come back to work my company had replaced me.”

Jenny squeezed his hand. “He’s been looking for a job, but hasn’t had much luck.”

“Well, today that might be changing,” Drew said with a laugh. “My caretaker, Max Peabody, told me today that he’s retiring. If you’d like the job, you can have it.”

*****

Stella couldn’t believe her ears when she heard her father had gotten a job. She was a bit embarrassed when she learned that he’d landed employment as Max’s replacement at Teaberry Farms, but her stepfather needed the job too badly for her to question Drew Teaberry's generosity. She’d learned her lesson when she’d argued about her Christmas bonus.

But on Christmas Eve, when Max put out the lights around the trees for the final time of the season at the same time that her parents’ car drove up the lane, suspicion tightened her limbs. They parked and got out. Her brother Mark waved to her, but Allison and Julie huddled around her parents’ knees, shy in the way little girls tend to be when going to a new place.

She walked over, lifted Julie and said, “What’s up?”

“Oh, didn’t Gwen and Drew tell you? They’re having a special Christmas Eve celebration. They’re going to toast Max’s retirement and announce that your father now has the job as caretaker for the farm and Drew’s driver.”

“Oh.” Not sure what else to say, Stella stood frozen. Her stepfather turned her in the direction of the house.

“Let’s not keep my new boss waiting.”

She hesitated. She wanted nothing more than to leave. Being around Brody these past weeks, watching him give trees to families he could see were struggling, watching him laugh with his younger sisters, had gotten to her in a way that made her heart yearn for something she knew she couldn’t have. He was a Teaberry. She was poor. Struggling. Losing her dream of med school. Now her father worked for his father. They couldn’t be farther apart if they tried.

As much as she wanted to go into that house, to share Christmas Eve with him, she couldn’t. It would make her all the sadder when the time came to leave for good.

And she had the perfect excuse. “I can’t go to a party in the clothes I’ve been working in all day.”

Her mom waved a small brown bag. “I brought clean jeans and a sweater.”

Glancing at the house, richly decorated with red and white lights, garland wreaths and candles in the window, Stella swelled with need. Maybe she could have a night, just one night when they could be together. Something she could tuck in her memory banks and think about when she felt particularly cold and alone.

She took the bag. “Okay.”

As the Lindstrom family trooped into Teaberry mansion, Drew welcomed them with open arms, introducing them to Gwen, who invited them to join the group in the living room. Stella made her way back to the kitchen, to the small bathroom she knew was in front of the old maid’s quarters, where she washed up and changed into clean jeans and a beautiful fuzzy red sweater. Realizing it must be a Christmas gift from her parents, she pressed it to her face, mentally thanking them for understanding how much she wanted to look good tonight.

The three families decorated the tree together. The Teaberrys, the Peabodies and the Lindstroms. Stella’s little sisters hit it off with Brody’s little sisters and they giggled as they hung ornaments. Stella found a tiny pair of bronze baby shoes and as she looked for a sturdy branch to hang them, Brody came up behind her.

“Finding it hard to believe my feet were ever that small?”

Surprised the shoes had been his, she pivoted around only to find herself nearly pressed up against him. Her breath shivered a bit at his nearness. Her eyes longed to take in every feature of his face. Instead, she stepped to the side, smiled shakily and said, “These were yours?”

He took them from her hand. “Yep. After my mom remarried and shipped me off to live with my dad, she sent a few things.” He paused, studying the little bronze shoes. “I think she was trying to make me feel better about kicking me out of her life, but all the keepsakes did was serve to remind me she didn’t want me around.” But as quickly as he’d gotten sad, his mood lifted. “But they make Claire giggle.”

He leaned around the tree. “Hey, Claire Bear. Whose shoes are these?”

Just as he predicated, she giggled. “Yours!”

He pretended to try to put them on. “Wow, they must have shrunk.”

Claire cried, “You grew!” Then giggled again before she reached into the trunk for another ornament to hang.

Stella’s heart twisted. Everybody always believed Brody’s life had been perfect. She now knew it hadn’t been.

Dinner was formal, yet comfortable. Seated beside Brody, Stella wished she really did belong. All night she’d seen him looking at her with longing and the corresponding yearning would rise up in her.

The first stirrings of misgiving trembled through her. What if she was giving up something wonderful? What if she was walking away from something great? The love of her life? But she knew it was foolish. Brody might understand trouble, but she’d never fit into his world.

Sunny rose. “Okay, let me get these dishes into the kitchen then I’ll get the pie.”
But Brody reached across the table and caught her hand. “No dishes for you! This is your retirement dinner.” He glanced at Stella and grinned. “We’ll do the dishes.”

Gwen rose. “And Jenny and I will get the pies.”

“Well, my goodness,” Sunny said, pressing her hand to her chest. “I feel so pampered.”

“You deserve it,” Stella said as she helped Brody gather the dishes and take them to the kitchen.

“I’ll scrape,” Brody said. “You stack in the dishwasher.”

“Okay,” she replied, feeling weird. When Gwen and her mom came into the kitchen giggling like school girls as they gathered the dessert plates and pies, the weird feeling shifted into a kind of awe. Her mom and dad had no problem fitting in with the Teaberrys. The relationships developing weren’t mere kindness. They seemed to be real friendships.

Addison and Claire came running into the kitchen, holding hands. “Can we have the ice cream?”

Brody stopped, crossed his arms on his chest and faced Claire. “Really? No please?”

“Please!” Claire and Addi cried together.

He retrieved the ice cream from the freezer and handed it to Claire. “Does your mom need the scoop?”

“Yes…please,” Claire said, then she giggled.

When they were gone, Stella quietly said, “You’re very good with her.”

“I love her. I also love Emma and I’m going to love the new baby.” He paused, smiled at her. “We’re family.”

“A normal family.”

“Did you expect that we had horns and tails?” He stopped, studied her face. “You did…Well, maybe not horns and a tail, but you thought we were somehow different. Thought you didn’t fit.”

“Yes.”

“And now you see you do.”

She nodded. A million sensations bombarded her like stars twinkling in a midnight blue sky. She felt like an idiot, but she also felt shy. She suspected he liked her as much as she liked him but she couldn’t be the first to say it. He had to be first.

He grinned. “And you like me.”

For that she swallowed, caught his gaze. “I can’t say it first.”

“Really?”

“I can’t. You have to say it.”

“Okay. I like you first.”

She laughed. “And I like you too – even more than I thought I did the night we skated.”

“Well, thank God because I got a job at a bank in Pittsburgh.”

“Pittsburgh?”

“The location of your med school?” He laughed, walked over and wrapped his arms around her waist. “You really don’t think I was going to let you give up? Or leave as if there was nothing between us?”

“I wasn’t sure.”

“I had every intention of finding you and simply showing up everywhere you went until you admitted you liked me. I’d wished on a tree for some direction--”

Her head snapped up. “You wished on a tree?”

“The day I drove back. I didn’t know what to do with my life or even where I wanted to live, so on the way into the house, I brushed my hand up against a pine and there you were.”

She laughed. “I couldn’t find money for med school so I wished on a tree and asked for direction and suddenly there you were.”

“Do you think we should have been more specific with our wishes?”

“I think we did just fine.” She picked at the button on his shirt. “I already admitted that I like you. So this might be a good time to kiss me.”

He did.

That was how Gwen and Jenny found them when they pushed open the swinging door. Gwen stopped, pressed a finger to her lips to make a “shh” noise and she and Jenny backed out.

Seven years later, Dr Stella Teaberry set up her family practice in an old building on Main Street in Towering Pines. Brody had taken his experience at the bank and used it to start an investment firm, which he simply moved to his hometown when Stella was ready to start her career. They had three children. Two boys and a girl.

And Gwen and Drew became very happy grandparents, running the tree farm with the Lindstroms, making sure the people of Towering Pines always had a chance to get a Christmas wish.

copyright 2010 Susan Meier