“4 . . . 3 . . . 2 . . . 1 . . .” The small crowd’s voice rose in pitch and trembled with the chill as the lights flickered into life on the eighteen-foot tree in the small park in Hollings, North Carolina. Along Main Street, lampposts and white lights popped to life and bathed downtown in a warm glow.
Taryn McKenna shoved her hands deeper into the pockets of her coat to keep from blowing on her fingers again. It only made them colder in the end. What global warming? It felt like every year was colder than the one before. The wind coming off the mountain tonight had a particular bite to it, like it had heard the same news as Taryn and wanted to make sure she felt it inside and out.
“Have you seen him yet?” Her younger cousin Rachel leaned close and did her best to whisper, though over the small crowd it seemed more like a shout.
Even Ethan, Rachel’s recently-adopted thirteen-month-old son thought his mom’s voice was too loud. He pressed four chubby fingers against her mouth with a wet, “Shhh . . .”
For a minute, Taryn forgot she was supposed to be vigilant. She arched an eyebrow so high she could almost feel it touch the knit cap she wore over her shoulder-length dark hair. “It’s pretty bad when the baby tells you to keep it down.”
Rachel flicked honey-blonde hair over her shoulder and planted a smacky kiss on the little boy’s cheek, eliciting a high-pitched squeal. “Come on, Mr. Manners. Let’s go down to the fire station and see if we can find Daddy.” She headed off to walk the three blocks out of downtown. “And we’ll get Aunt Taryn out of the crowd before she can have an uncomfortable moment.”
Taryn shoved her hands deeper in her pockets and planted her feet. After Rachel’s comment, she should stay right here and let Rachel make the trek back to find her EMT fiancé all by herself. She looked over her shoulder toward her own house, two streets over from the park defining the center of Hollings. If she started walking now, she could have hot chocolate in hand and It’s a Wonderful Life on the TV in under ten minutes.
Not as if she’d be hiding the way Rachel implied. She’d just be warm and comfortable and out of the crowd jostling her as they headed for the community center where the county’s Christmas craft festival was cranking up.
The craft festival. She winced. “Rach?”
Several feet ahead of Taryn, her cousin miraculously heard her and turned around. “You coming?”
“I promised Jemma I’d come over and help with her craft booth.” Jemma. The name was warm on her tongue. Born of the time her tiny toddler mouth couldn’t quite get the grandma to work like it was supposed to. Her Jemma. The constant love in her life. As much as she wanted to go home and tuck in under a quilt, Taryn had promised and she wouldn’t let her grandmother down. “She’s got some quilts she’s selling in the community center.”
Rachel’s gaze bounced between the small brick building at the edge of the park and the fire station, invisible down the street and around the corner, where her fiancé probably waited for her to show up with his chicken and pastry dinner from the little church on, yes, Church Street. “I’ll come with you and visit your grandmother for a second. I need to thank her for the cute little fireman quilt she made for Ethan’s bed. I can’t wait until he sees it on Christmas morning.” She hefted her son higher on her hip without missing a step. “Mark is hoping the house will be ready by then so we can take Ethan over after he wakes up and have our first Christmas morning as a family in our own house, even if it’s empty of everything but a tree.”
“That’s the single sappiest thing I’ve ever heard. And maybe the sweetest.”
Ethan giggled like he knew exactly what Taryn had said.
Taryn knew better than to offer to take the boy for some snuggles of her own. This was all still new and joyful to Rachel. Give it a month. She’d be begging for a babysitter, and Taryn would be more than willing to oblige. The way her arms ached to snuggle the wiggling, giggling bundle told her so. She shoved the longing aside and slid sideways between two people. “Excuse me.”
“Where did all of these people come from, anyway?” Rachel fell a half step behind her as the crowd thickened to funnel through the double doors into the community building.
“It’s Christmas in the mountains and it’s tree lighting night. Half of them are tourists.”
“Sure enough,” said an older gentleman with a Boston accent. “Cold down here is a lot better than cold up north.”
“Cold is cold.” Taryn smiled into his kind face.
“But here, with all the evergreens and the rolling hills . . .” He breathed in deeply. “Feels like you ought to be able to catch Christmas in a bottle up here. Sell it maybe. It’s like Christmas magic.”
Okay, right. Because there was such a thing as Christmas magic. Where all your dreams came true. Taryn fought the urge to screw up her lips. Never going to happen. She scanned the crowd again, wanting to spot a familiar face and yet dreading it at the same time. It was miserable being torn in two by your own emotions.
“I know what you’re thinking.” Rachel was right on top of her, one hand holding Ethan’s head to her shoulder protectively. “It will happen for you, too. Who knows, maybe with what you heard tonight . . .” She wiggled her eyebrows.
Taryn knew her expression hardened, just from the way her jaw ached. “No. Don’t start.”
“You can’t hide forever. Especially helping Jemma. If he’s looking for you, this is the first place he’ll go.”
“If he was looking for me, he would have found me before tonight. Frankly, I told Jemma I’d help her before I knew he was in town, and had I known, I’d be home right now avoiding a scene.” Maybe she should make an appearance, tell her grandmother she wasn’t feeling well, and leave fast. It wouldn’t be a lie. Her stomach was tying into deeper knots by the second. If she wasn’t careful, the country-style steak Jemma had cooked for dinner might just make an encore appearance. “He won’t look for me. He’s home to see his family. And I’m not his family.”
“You could’ve been, if you hadn’t been so stubborn.” Rachel may have meant to mumble under her breath, but it came just as a lull in the crowd’s conversation dropped, making it a loud and clear indictment.
Taryn stopped right in the flow of traffic just inside the door and turned to look Rachel hard in the eye. It was a mantra she’d stopped telling herself a long time ago, but hearing it now from her cousin, out loud for the first time, the words fired anger and released pent-up emotions Taryn thought she’d tamed long ago. “What did you just say?” The words bit through the air, hanging with icicles.
“Taryn . . .” Rachel’s eyes widened like the eyes of a deer Taryn had once hit heading down the mountain into Boone. She looked just as frozen, too. “I never should have spoken out loud.”
“So it’s okay to think it?” Was it how everyone saw Taryn? As the poor girl who let the love of her life get away? Waving a dismissive hand, Taryn turned and stalked off as best she could, leaving Rachel frozen in the crowd. Good. She deserved it. All those years she’d had Taryn’s back, now the truth came out. The whole mess was Taryn’s fault, and even her cousin thought so.
By the time Taryn arrived at Jemma’s tables, she was angry and over-stimulated. The crowd was too loud, the lights too bright, and the air too stuffy. More than anything, she wanted to pack a bag, hike up to Craven Gap, and pitch a tent for a week. She huffed into a spare metal folding chair and crossed her arms over her chest, garnering a warning glance from her grandmother, who was chatting with their preacher. Taryn sat up straighter and dropped her hands to her lap. She might be thirty, but Jemma still knew how to put her in her place.
Taryn let herself scan the room, filled with familiar townspeople and stranger tourists alike, but no jolt of adrenaline hit her at the sight of any of the faces. It disappointed and relieved her. Over the past dozen years, she’d managed to bury every emotion about the year deep down, so deep she hadn’t realized how badly she wanted to see Justin Callahan.
Despite the longing, a conversation with him couldn’t end well. Still, her eyes wouldn’t stop searching, even though something told her she’d know if Justin walked in, whether she spotted him or not. From the time she was a child, her heart had always known when he was nearby.
Rachel stood on the far side of the room at Marnie Lewis’s booth, which overflowed with all manner of jams and jellies. If she could, Taryn would slip over there and lay her head on Marnie’s shoulder, unburdening herself of the tense anticipation knotted in her stomach. Where Jemma was all practicality, her best friend Marnie was the soft shoulder for Taryn’s many tears. There had only been once when she’d had to refuse Marnie’s comfort, because the secret of those tears would have been too much for the older woman to bear.
But there was no time for pouring it all out now. Taryn shoved out of the rusting metal chair and busied herself straightening the quilts hanging from curtain rods hooked to a painted black peg board. Her fingers ran down the stitches of a red and white Celtic Twist, one of Jemma’s latest creations. This one was done on the trusty Singer machine in the upstairs sewing room at the white house in the center of the apple orchard. Tourists loved Jemma’s work, so she packed up the quilts she stitched by day and brought them to large craft fairs around Asheville and smaller ones in tiny valley towns like their own. The more tiny Hollings made its mark on the map as a North Carolina mountain tourist spot, the more out-of-towners discovered they had to have Jemma’s work. Her Celtic designs practically walked out the door right by themselves.
Taryn ran her hands over a complicated Celtic Knot to smooth the wrinkles as a shadow fell over the fabric. “This one’s a beauty, isn’t it?” She angled her chin up, ready to put on her selling face to the latest tourist.
Instead, she met all too familiar hot chocolate brown eyes. His brown hair was shorter than she’d ever seen it, though the top seemed to be outpacing the sides in growth. His shoulders were broader under a heavy black Carhartt coat, his face more defined. Every muscle in her body froze even as her stomach jumped at the heat of seeing him. She’d known this day would come, knew he was in town now, but still, she wasn’t ready.
Clearly, neither was he. He looked at her for a long moment, opened his mouth to speak, then was jostled by a tourist who stopped to peruse the lap quilts on the small plastic table. “This was a bad idea.” Justin shook his head and, with a glance of what looked like regret, turned and blended into the crowd, leaving Taryn to watch him walk away. Again.
“What exactly was that all about?”
When Jemma offered Taryn a ride home as the craft show wound down for the evening, Taryn figured she was safe. After all, Jemma hadn’t said one word about Justin’s awkward appearance and rapid disappearance. Maybe she hadn’t even noticed the entire exchange. In the bustle of answering questions and selling quilts, all she’d asked was if Taryn would come over tomorrow and spend part of her Saturday decorating the Christmas tree and working on Rachel’s wedding quilt with her.
But now, as she pulled Taryn’s kitchen door shut behind her, Jemma revealed just how much patience she had. About three hours’ worth.
Taryn pulled two chunky diner-style coffee mugs down from the white wood cabinets and thunked them onto the ancient butcher block countertop. “What’s all what about?” It was a long shot, but maybe the question had nothing to do with Justin at all. Maybe this was more about how she’d stalked into the booth and plopped into her chair like a three-year-old in full pout. Taryn rolled her eyes heavenward. Please, God? I’m not ready to have the Justin conversation yet.
“The little two-second exchange between you and a man who looked an awful lot like Justin Callahan all grown up.”
Nope. It was exactly what Taryn had feared it was about. She yanked open another cabinet and dug out a plastic container of Russian tea. Every year, when the first breath of winter blew along the valley, Taryn mixed instant tea with dried lemonade, orange drink, and spices just like her mother always had. It kept her close, made Taryn feel like she could close her eyes and have her mother reappear whenever she needed her. Boy, did she ever need her tonight. “Want some tea?”
“It was him, wasn’t it, Taryn?” The voice wasn’t demanding, just gentle, maybe even a little bit concerned.
Demanding would have been better.
Taryn turned and leaned against the counter to find Jemma still by the back door, arms crossed over her red and green turtleneck sweater. “I asked you to come in for something warm to drink, not to answer questions, well, I don’t have answers to.” She threw her hands out to the sides. “But yes, it was Justin. And why he came over to speak to me, I have no idea.”
Jemma nodded, one gray curl falling out of place over her temple. “Looked to me like he wanted to talk to you and thought better of it once he looked you in the eye. Can’t say I blame him. You looked scared to death.”
Yeah. Because she didn’t want him reading her mind and ferreting out all of her secrets. She might have done the right thing for him nearly twelve years ago, but it didn’t mean he ever needed to know about it. “I was surprised.”
“You always knew he’d come home someday. I’d have never thought it would take him this long. The Army’s kept him pretty busy, I’m guessing.”
“He’s been stationed overseas a lot. Too far to come home often. When he has been home, he’s kept to Dalton on his side of the mountain. I’m pretty sure he hasn’t been to Hollings since we were in high school.” The minute the words left her mouth, Taryn wished she could pull a Superman and make the world spin backwards just long enough to stop herself from saying them in the first place.
Jemma’s eyebrow arched so high it was a wonder it didn’t pop right off of her forehead. “You kept track?”
“I’d run into his mom occasionally. Rarely. Every once in a while.” Awkward encounters for Taryn, because Ellen Callahan was always so friendly, so open, as though Taryn and her son hadn’t flamed out in a screaming match in their front yard the night before he left for basic training. While she told Jemma almost everything, she’d kept those brief conversations a secret. The less they talked about Justin, the better, because talking about him kept her from pretending anything ever happened.
“I’ll have some Russian tea.” Jemma finally answered the long-asked question, then pulled a spoon from the drawer by the sink and passed it to Taryn. “You’re going to have to talk to him sooner or later.”
Taryn dug the spoon into the fall leaf-colored powder and dumped it into a mug. “I never plan to talk to him. At least not the way you’re implying. And aren’t you the one who told me for years not talking to him was the better option?”
A car hummed by on the road in front of the house, loud in the sudden silence of the kitchen. Jemma didn’t move, then she shook her head. “Opinions change. Maybe . . . Maybe I was wrong.”
“No, you were exactly right. Besides, he’s home for Christmas this year, and then he’ll be back off to parts unknown in the world. If history is any indicator, he won’t be back in Hollings for another dozen years, and by then . . .” She shrugged a no big deal. By then, she’d probably still be Taryn McKenna, schoolteacher, living in the small green house on School Street, except maybe she’d have half a dozen cats for company. It was what she deserved, and it was likely what she’d get.
With a long-suffering sigh, Jemma pushed herself away from the counter and ran light fingers down the back of Taryn’s dark hair. “It’s your choice, but I’ll be praying.”
Something in her tone froze Taryn’s fingertip on the button for the microwave. “Why?”
Jemma let her touch drift from the crown of Taryn’s head to the tips of her shoulder-length hair, just like she had when Taryn was a child, then planted a kiss on her granddaughter’s temple. “Because I had a little chat with Marnie while you were taking down the booth tonight. You know how she knows everything about everybody.”
“And you’re nothing like her at all, are you Jemma?” Taryn smiled in spite of the dread. If anyone knew the business of everybody on the mountain, it was her grandmother.
“Don’t be cheeky, hon. Your mother and I taught you better.”
The spoon clinked against the ceramic of the coffee mug as Taryn stirred her grandmother’s tea, the spicy orange scent like a much-needed hug from her mother. The restlessness in her stomach settled. In a couple of weeks or so, Justin would be gone again and she wouldn’t have to worry about running into him, wouldn’t have to worry about the split in half feeling of wanting to see him, yet wanting to hold him at a distance. “What did Marnie say?”
Jemma pulled Taryn close to her side and pressed her forehead to Taryn’s temple. “Justin’s not home for Christmas. He’s out of the Army. He’s moved home to Dalton for good.”