A Home for Christmas
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by Deborah Staley
Description: In the tradition of acclaimed storyteller Debbie Macomber, this sweet holiday romance is warm, sentimental, and set in a small town filled with likable characters. A Home For Christmas is author Deborah Grace Staley's second novel in her Angel Ridge series (see Book One, ONLY YOU.) The heroine, a cynical doctor, comes home for the holidays, never expecting to fall in love with one of the town's most handsome and rakish bachelors. Visit the author at deborahgracestaley.com and bellbridgebooks.com
eBook Publisher: BelleBooks/Bell Bridge Books, 2004 Trade Paperback
eBookwise Release Date: November 2009
2 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [323 KB]
Reading time: 205-287 min.
"A feel-good community tale."--Romance Junkies "Charming."--Fallen Angel Reviews "Great."--Roundtable Reviews "Absolutely delightful."--MyShelf.com "A delight."--Romance Designs
They say you can never go home.
Janice Thornton glided up to the curb in front of the old two-story Victorian and killed the engine. It looked much the same--gingerbread trim in the eaves, wide wraparound porch with wicker furniture. The house was huge, but in the short time she'd spent here as a child, it had felt cozy to her.
Sitting here looking at it through adult eyes, she realized the appeal had never been the house itself, but the home her grandparents had made in it. Their house had been her ideal of what a home should be. A home she'd longed for as a child. A home she'd never had with her own parents.
Janice slid her sunglasses off and laid them in the empty passenger seat next to her. She always got sentimental around the holidays. She didn't know why. Her formative years had been spent at exclusive boarding schools. Christmases always involved a trip, either with her parents, or more often, with school friends. Each year, her grandmother had invited her to spend Christmas break in Angel Ridge, but her mother wouldn't hear of such a thing. She'd always been embarrassed by her humble roots and didn't want her daughter revisiting them.
Janice hadn't been in Angel Ridge, Tennessee since she'd gone behind her parents' backs and borrowed a friend's car when she was sixteen to come during her spring break. It hadn't changed much. Tall, old houses lined one side of a street that ran high above the Tellassee River, with church steeples just visible a few blocks over. It was a sleepy little town that time seemed to have forgotten, but for some reason, it burned in Janice's memory like a warm, inviting fire on a cold winter morning.
A movement in her peripheral vision made her refocus on the old Victorian. She noticed that a man had appeared from behind the house carrying a ladder. The sun glinted off a pile of tangled Christmas lights, bunched near the steps of the porch, drawing her attention. Janice smiled. She was glad to see that this man, whoever he was, continued her grandfather's tradition of decking the house out in grand style for Christmas.
The man leaned the ladder against the house. As he turned toward the mound of lights, he noticed her and smiled. Her breath caught and hung inside her chest. It was an easy smile, full of good humor that enticed a person to come sit a spell on the porch and enjoy the unseasonably warm, late autumn sunshine.
Tall and lean with whipcord muscles, he wore faded and well-worn jeans with a T-shirt that looked like it had once been black, but now was more a soft charcoal dotted with paint stains. A tan leather tool belt slung low across his narrow hips. A lock of thick, dark hair fell across his tanned forehead as he bent to retrieve the lights.
Janice shifted and the leather seat creaked. A sheen of sweat misted her forehead, and she cracked the window.
What must the home's owner be thinking? But he acted as if seeing a strange woman in a new, silver BMW parked outside his house was an every Saturday morning occurrence. He turned, and without giving her a second glance, started up the ladder. Stopping about eight rungs up, he leaned to his right, toward one of the bay windows on the ground floor.
Shifting the lights to his other hand, he reached out to pull at something above the window. He teetered. One foot went up in the air as he tried to shift back to find his balance. But the ladder tipped sideways with the movement, and Janice watched in horrified disbelief as he began to fall.
Years of medical school, emergency room rotations, residency, and private practice had honed her instincts so that she didn't even give it a conscious thought. She was out of her car and at his side almost before he hit the boxwoods and rolled to the ground.
"Ah, jeez . . ." he groaned.
Janice had already clicked into professional mode. "Don't worry, I'm a doctor. Try not to move." She ran her hands down his arms, checking for broken bones. "Where does it hurt?"
The man chuckled. It was a low rumble that had a crazy effect on her. And that smile . . . it should be registered as a lethal weapon.
"If I said everywhere, would you keep doing that?"
Her hands froze on his hard, muscled thigh. Get a grip, she told herself. The man had fallen at least ten feet. He needed to be checked out. Thoroughly. She gave him what she hoped was a look that conveyed that this was a serious matter and continued down his leg. Firm muscles contracted and bunched beneath the soft, nearly threadbare denim.
Janice cleared her throat and tried to speak around the knot that had formed there. "That was quite a fall. Does anything feel broken? Strained? Any pain at all?"
The man tried to sit up, but she restrained him with a firm hand at his shoulder. "You really shouldn't move."
"Dr., um . . ."
"Thornton. Janice Thornton."
"Dr. Thornton, I'm fine. Really," he insisted, grabbing her hand as she began checking his other leg. "I'd have to fall further than that to hurt anything other than my pride."
Janice frowned. She was almost completely distracted by the crinkles at the corners of his eyes that said a smile came easy to him, but she knew that often one could have injuries that didn't present with pain after a fall like that. She turned her attention to his head. "You could have a concussion."
She sank her fingers into his thick, dark hair at the place where a nearly indiscernible sprinkling of gray fanned out from his temples. His scalp felt warm, and her fingers tingled as she checked for knots. She faltered when she looked into his eyes. Fringed by incredibly long, inky eyelashes, they were a striking silvery blue that stood out against the framing of his dark hair and skin.
He propped himself up on one elbow so that his torso almost touched hers. When she felt his breath, warm and enticing against her cheek, she stopped breathing. He reached out to touch her face, but Janice sat back on her heels.
"There doesn't seem to be any knots. No bruising or contusions." She couldn't stop herself from removing a sprig of rich, green boxwood leaves from his hair. "Um, what about your neck? Does it hurt?"
Before he could answer, she slid her fingers around to the back of his neck and grasped his chin with her free hand. He had a strong jaw. She'd always been a sucker for guys with strong jaws. "Gently," she whispered, as she turned his head from one side to the other. "Any pain?"
She felt a sensual web forming around them, powerless to extricate herself from its seductive weave. Janice watched in fascination as the Adam's apple bobbed in the tanned column of his throat.
He wrapped a big, callused hand around her wrist and said, "I wish, because despite the fact that I know your interest here is purely professional, I'm enjoying having your hands on me...too much." He turned his head then, and with his fascinating mouth slightly opened, pressed a warm kiss against the pulse point at her wrist.
She stood and shoved both hands into her pockets.
He stood as well, immediately contrite. "I'm sorry. I--I don't know what got into me."
Ignoring that and the tingling spot on her wrist that his lips had just touched, she said, "You're lucky those boxwoods broke your fall. You could have been seriously injured."
A lopsided grin lent his chiseled features a boyish charm. "Happens all the time in my line of work."
"What would that be?" Janice found herself asking.
"I'm a carpenter, but I make a living as a contractor."
He was the most physically appealing man she'd met in . . . Well, she'd never felt this sort of sudden, intense elemental attraction. He also had her feeling off-balance. She couldn't remember not being in control of a situation since she'd reached adulthood.
He nodded towards her car. "I thought when I saw you sitting over there that you must be an insurance salesman. They like to make their rounds on Saturday mornings when folks are usually home."
She felt herself blushing. She couldn't remember the last time she'd blushed either. "I hope you don't mind. I have an appointment in Angel Ridge later today. I came early because I wanted to see this house. My grandparents used to live here."
He rested his hands lightly on his hips. "No kidding? The Prescotts were your grandparents?"
"Really? Man," he said softly, "it's been a while since they passed on."
"Yes." She inclined her chin and sucked in a deep breath. The thought of never seeing them again still brought pain, even after all these years.
"Oh, I'm sorry." He reached out and gently squeezed her shoulder. "I could have handled that better. Guess the fall addled my good sense." He smiled.
She smiled, too, to put him at ease. "Did you know them?"
"No. We were just passing acquaintances. I grew up just outside of town, so I didn't know the folks up here too well."
She nodded her understanding. "Well, I don't want to keep you." She took a couple of steps back. "Be careful on that ladder," she called over her shoulder as she retraced her steps to her car.
"Wait. Why don't you stay awhile? I mean, you drove all this way."
Turning, she squinted into the bright morning sun to look at him.
"That is, I'm guessing you drove a long way."
"I drove in from Knoxville," she confirmed, "but I don't want to trouble you. I can see you're busy."
He took a step forward. "You live in a house there?"
Janice frowned. What did her living arrangements have to do with anything? "I live in a condominium," she heard herself saying.
"See there," he said. "You won't get a chance to hang lights at your place unless you do it from the inside. I bet it's in one of those big high rise complexes."
"Yes." Her smile widened.
He got a mock serious look on his face then. "Everyone should get a chance to help hang out Christmas lights, don't you think? It just isn't Christmas without 'em. And besides, I'd like to hear about your grandparents. Your memories of the place must be strong to bring you back here after all these years."
She looked up at the house, remembering. "Yes." As a little girl, Janice had desperately wanted to meet the grandparents who'd cared for her despite the fact they'd never met her.
"Good. So, you'll stay."
It wasn't a question. He gathered up a jumbled mass of lights and held them out to her. "Think you could straighten this out?"
Blake gave the woman standing on his front lawn a sideways glance as he busied himself righting the ladder. She was the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen. A cool, green-eyed blonde wearing expensive dark slacks, leather loafers, and some kind of a silky, loose white blouse that shimmered in the soft breeze and caught his imagination, starting all kinds of forbidden fantasies spinning around in his head.
She laughed. "Don't you think we should be properly introduced first?"
"Oh, sorry. Blake Ferguson."
He held out a hand, and she shifted the lights to her other arm so she could extend hers to him.
"It's a pleasure," he said, and meant it. It was pure pleasure standing there holding her soft hand in his. He wondered what her hair would look like hanging loose around her shoulders instead of pulled back in a long ponytail . . . She gave a gentle tug, and he reluctantly released her hand.
She looked at the tangled mess in her hands. "I don't know how to break this to you, but I'm not a surgeon."
Blake chuckled. "You'll manage. Feel free to go sit on the steps while you work at it. Would you like something to drink?"
"No, thank you. I'm fine."
Such a proper response. Unless he'd missed something, she hadn't been feeling so proper a few moments ago. The doctor had been good and rattled. He was still feeling a little rattled himself with her sitting at least twenty feet away.
"So, tell me," he began as he repositioned the ladder and started back up it, "has the place changed much over the years?"
"Not a lot. I remember there was always paint peeling somewhere on the house. My grandfather seemed to continually be scraping or painting a portion of the place. It was yellow then instead of white. The color of sunshine," she said softly as she looked up at it.
He'd go out tomorrow and buy yellow paint if it would make her happy. There was just something about her. She had a melancholy, faraway expression that made her seem so . . . sad. She must really miss her grandparents. Still, with them being gone so long, he wondered what had brought her back to their home after so many years.
"But the yard was always immaculate." She touched the boxwoods near where she sat with the tips of her fingers. "Grandmother loved planting flowers and trimming the bushes." She looked up, "And those trees, they seemed perfectly round. I think they must have had men come every spring to prune so they'd stay that way."
"Did you come here often?" He righted the hook he'd been trying to reach earlier.
"Not as often as I would have liked."
She had spoken so softy, he barely heard the words before she bent to the task before her.
"You know, I think they make plastic things to wrap lights around so that they don't get in this kind of mess."
"Yeah, but that sucks the fun right out of it, don't you think?"
She smiled up at him. "I don't know. I've never helped put up Christmas lights."
"Come on. You mean your folks didn't decorate for Christmas?"
She shook her head. "Not with outdoor lights. My mother thought it was tasteless."
"But you helped decorate the tree, right?"
She shook her head again. "Mother had a decorator do the tree. That is, when we spent Christmas at home. Otherwise, she wouldn't even bother with one."
"Where'd you grow up?" he asked, trying hard to keep disbelief from lacing his words.
"My parents had a home in Connecticut, but I didn't spend much time there."
Blake scratched his head, trying to follow. "Why not?"
"I lived at boarding schools."
Why would anyone want to send their child off to live in boarding schools? "But you came home for the holidays, right?"
"I see." A picture formed in his mind of her as a little girl. A princess locked away in an ivory tower who wasn't allowed to play or do any of the fun, traditional things that made holidays special.
"What about here? Didn't you ever come here for Christmas?"
"I did once. Mother had planned a trip to Switzerland, but I got sick and couldn't go. So, she sent me here to stay with Grandmother and Grandfather because I begged her to let me come. Since she couldn't find a nurse to take care of me on such short notice with it being the holidays, she agreed." She laughed. "Getting sick that year turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to me."
"What was it like?"
Her face lit up, and he was glad to see that she had at least one happy Christmas stored in her memory. "There were lights everywhere. All around the house, in the bushes, along the walk. Inside," she pointed, "a Christmas tree stood in that bay window. Grandfather cut it himself and brought it in from the woods at the edge of town. The tall pines, I think he called it. Anyway, some of the branches had fallen off from where he'd dragged it through town and the shape wasn't perfect, not like the trees Mother had. But I thought it was beautiful.
"Grandmother made popcorn and taught me how to make a garland out of it. She let me help her bake shaped cookies and decorate them. And after I went to bed on Christmas Eve, she wrapped the presents herself and put them under the tree."
Sounded like typical things families did at Christmas. He got the feeling nothing about her upbringing had been typical.
Blake studied her more closely then. The wistful look on her face went straight to his heart, creating an irrational yearning to give her fifty or so Christmases like that one she'd had with her grandparents. The thought should have scared him senseless. After all, he knew nothing about her. But instead, for some reason, it just felt . . . right.
"She knitted me a green scarf. I thought it was the most wonderful gift I'd ever received."
The softness playing about her mouth vanished, replaced by an affected look of indifference. "Mother wouldn't allow me to wear it. She said it was the ugliest thing she'd ever seen. When we arrived back at home, she took it from me and threw it away."
"That's cruel!" The words were out before he could stop them.
A slight smile lifted the corner of her luscious mouth. "I sneaked out that night and rummaged through the garbage until I found it. I took it up to my bathroom, washed it out, and hid it in my closet to dry. I still have it."
"Good for you."
He hadn't noticed that while she spoke, she had arranged the lights she'd been untangling into a neat circle at her feet. "Well, there's plenty more where that came from." He tipped his head toward the pile in front of the bay window.
She stared at it a moment, considering.
"Or you could string those you just did around those bushes there in front of the porch."
"I don't know how," she admitted.
Finished with his task, he backed down the ladder and said, "I'll let you in on the secret of putting out Christmas lights if you promise you won't tell anyone."
She stood as he approached. "Cross my heart."
He looked over his shoulder as if making sure no one eavesdropped on the quiet, tree-lined street. "There's no real method to it. You just throw 'em on there, plug 'em in, then spread 'em out so the lights aren't too bunched up in any one spot."
She nodded, a mock-serious look etching her lovely features. "I had no idea."
He bent to pick up the lights at her feet then took her hand and led her to the boxwoods. "Well, it's top secret. If you tell anyone, I'll have to shoot you."
Janice laughed and smiled up at him. He now knew how it felt to be pole-axed. Lord, she was stunning.
With fingers that felt like five thumbs, he grabbed the plug at the end of the lights and said, "We'll drop this here in back so it'll be easy to get to."
"Where's your family?" she asked as she, despite his instructions, methodically wrapped the lights around the first bush.
He frowned. "In their homes doing the kind of stuff families do on Saturdays, I guess."
"Oh." She seemed surprised. "You live here alone?"
"Yep. Just me and the mice." He smiled. "They're too smart for traps. I'm in desperate need of a cat."
"It's an awfully large place for just one person."
He leaned an arm against the porch railing as he watched her move to the next bush. "Well, I hope to fill it up with about half a dozen kids some day."
There was that surprised look again, except this one held an element of shock. "Do you have someone lined up to supply those for you? Or were you planning to adopt?"
"Well," he rubbed the stubble lining his chin wishing he'd shaved, "I'd like to fall head over heels in love first. Then get married. You know, manage it the old-fashioned way."
She didn't comment or look up at him, and he wondered . . . "How 'bout you? Do you have kids?"
He wanted to ask about a husband, but figured that would be too forward. She didn't wear a wedding band or engagement ring. That was encouraging, but she could be one of those modern types who didn't go for the sort of relationship where the woman wore her man's ring and took his name.
"I guess being a doctor keeps you pretty busy." Probably too busy for a relationship of any kind. He thought of Doc Prescott, the town's doctor. He'd never married. Doctors had a lot of demands on their time.
"Yes," she agreed, still working at the lights.
"What's your specialty?"
"I'm an internist. Finished."
He'd been watching her face again and not paying any attention to her task. "Great." He straightened away from the railing. "Let's plug 'em in."
Stepping up onto the porch, he retrieved a long, green extension cord, plugged it into a receptacle, and unwound it as he carried it down to the bushes. He found the end of the cord and plugged in the lights. The miniature, multicolored bulbs twinkled against the dark green bushes.
Janice's smile told him she was pleased with her effort. "Perfect," Blake confirmed.
"Can I do those over there, too?" She pointed to the bushes across the sidewalk.
"Sure. Use the lights in that pile."
She retrieved the lights and primly sat on the steps untangling them as she had before. He shook his head. She'd probably never slumped a day in her life. He left her to it as he concentrated on getting the lights up on the house. Plain white lights in strings around the windows and icicle lights in the eaves. His progress was admittedly slowed by frequent glances in his guest's direction.
After they'd been working for some time, he noticed that Janice had allowed herself free rein in the placement of the lights. She'd finished the bushes and had started looping some of the strands with large multicolored bulbs around the porch railing. He didn't mind, but wondered if she was putting lights in places she remembered seeing them when she was a kid.
A car stopped in front the house, and he turned from watching Janice to see who it was. Great. Just what he needed. His brother, Cory. Did the guy have radar or what? He stepped out of his red Mercedes sports coupe, dripping designer clothes and pricey cologne.
"Hey, big brother. I see the annual day after Thanksgiving hanging of the lights is under way. Who's your charming assistant?"
Here we go, Blake thought. He backed down the ladder and made the introductions when he reached the bottom. "This is Dr. Janice Thornton. Janice, this is my brother, Cory Ferguson."
Cory took Janice's hand and held it entirely too long. "A doctor. Well, now, they sure do make them younger and prettier these days, don't they?"
Blake watched fascinated as Janice pulled her hand away from Cory's and rubbed her palm down her thigh as if trying to remove the feel of him. Blake smiled. He couldn't remember ever meeting a woman who wasn't affected by his brother's good looks and charm.
"What are you doing in town, Cory? I thought you were skiing this weekend."
"Yes, well, that was the plan." He eyed Janice like a choice piece of meat at the butcher shop. "Bebe's a little green around the gills and running me ragged fetching things for her. I'm thinking about hiring a nurse."
Wife number four was pregnant with his brother's first child. A child was the greatest gift a woman could give a man, but to Cory, it was just an inconvenience.
"You stop by for a reason, Cory? Or is this just a social call?"
Janice eyed the two men with open curiosity.
"Mom and Dad asked me to come by today so we could discuss their Will." Cory turned to Janice.
Here it comes, Blake thought. The pronouncement.
"I'm an attorney."
Janice didn't look particularly impressed. Blake's smile widened.
"So, I was driving by and saw you out here. I just thought I'd stop and say hello."
Blake nodded. If Cory was fishing for an invitation to stay, he was doomed to disappointment.
They all stood looking at each other for an awkward moment.
"Well," Cory finally said, "guess I'll get on out to the farm."
"Give Mom my best. Remind her I'll be by in the morning to help her with her decorations."
"Sure. A pleasure to meet you, Dr. Thornton."
Janice nodded, but didn't offer him her hand. Instead she slipped it into her pocket.
Cory slapped him on the shoulder and then turned to stroll back to his car. Janice and Blake watched until he pulled away from the curb.
"How many siblings do you have?" Janice asked.
"Five. I'm number three. Cory is number four."
"He looks much older than you," Janice commented.
He stood a little straighter at hearing her compliment. "There's only thirteen months between us. Mom had us all right together, except for my baby sister. She was a late-life surprise after all us boys."
"Your mother must be an exceptional woman."
He smiled down into Janice's upturned face. "She's pretty amazing. How 'bout some lunch?"
Janice glanced at her watch. "Oh, I didn't realize how late it was getting. I'd better be going. I have that appointment to get to, then I should call the hospital. I may need to do rounds later."
"On a holiday weekend?"
"Someone has to do it, and since I don't have a family, I feel sort of obligated to let my partners spend time with theirs."
Confirmation. No husband. "That's mighty considerate of you."
She shrugged and just stood there, making no movement toward her car. Despite her words, she didn't seem in a hurry to leave.
"Maybe you could come back later. I'd hate for you to miss the lighting ceremony after all the hard work you've done. I'm going to be finished in record time, thanks to you."
She looked up at the house, shielding her eyes from the sun. She wanted to. He could see it in her eyes and in the way she nibbled on her full, lower lip.
"I could make dinner." Now where had that come from? He should just let her get in her car and drive away. He didn't know much about her, but if he would just think rationally, he'd realize he knew more than enough. She was a city girl. She lived a couple of hours away. She had a demanding, time-consuming job. All that added up to no time for a relationship, especially with someone who enjoyed the laid back, slower pace of a small town. He was at a point in his life when he didn't want or need to waste time on a dead-end relationship based solely on attraction.
But he could dream. He hoped she was tempted. If circumstances were different, he wouldn't mind having the chance to get to know her a little better. To explore the feelings she evoked in him.
"I'm on call. I shouldn't be so far from the hospital."
Yet she'd spent the entire morning with him, hanging lights. He wondered again what had brought her here. It must have been something pretty compelling to pull her away from work when she was on call. Who in Angel Ridge would be important enough for her to drive all this way?
"It was a pleasure meeting you."
She looked up at him then. Her slow smile fired his already overwrought senses.
She turned to walk away, and he followed, appreciating the view. Her pants hugged her curves in all the right places. When they reached her car, he opened the door for her. She turned and, with her hand beside his on the top of the door, said,
"Thank you for letting me help with the lights. I really enjoyed being here again."
"Come back by any time." As the words left his mouth, he told himself that he'd made the offer strictly because of her family connection to the place.
She got into the car and turned the key in the ignition. When the engine purred to life, he shut the door and watched her drive away, unsure if he'd ever see her again. He returned to the task of hanging the lights, but his joy in it had gone with his unexpected visitor.