Natalie Pearce padded into the kitchen in her new velour robe and fuzzy orange-and-white slippers that looked like little foxes. They were a Christmas present from her husband, Daniel, just three weeks ago. The gift tag had read: “To one foxy lady!”
First thing in the morning, straw-blonde hair still tangled from sleep, she felt anything but foxy. Still, her cheeks warmed as she considered inviting Daniel back to the bedroom for a few more minutes of snuggling. Then she remembered this was Saturday—her day to play “coach’s widow.” After nearly fifteen years of marriage she still hated her husband’s erratic schedule. On Christmas Eve her parents had celebrated their forty-eighth wedding anniversary, a legacy of love Natalie hoped she and Daniel could emulate. But was such a dream even possible when the two of them seemed to operate in different time zones?
She paused at the breakfast table and set her hands on her hips. As usual, he’d left the newspaper in shambles, the comics pulled from one section and the sports page decimated after he’d clipped all the articles covering Putnam Middle School’s athletic teams.
Daniel breezed into the kitchen, sneakers squeaking on the ceramic tile floor. “Hey, hon, sorry about the paper.” He planted a toothpaste-flavored kiss on her parted lips. “I’d sort it out for you, but I’m already running late. I’m meeting Carl at Casey’s Diner to carpool to the tournament.”
Natalie fought to keep her smile in place as she gave him a playful punch in the stomach. “What’s new? Get out of here before I decide not to let you go at all.”
“Promises, promises.” He wiggled his dark eyebrows. “Seriously, before you go . . . ,” she said in her sexiest voice. She clutched the lapels of his red Putnam Panthers jacket and pulled him toward her.
With a seductive grin, Daniel drew her into his arms. “Sweetheart, I told you, I’m already running late.”
She chuckled and bit his ear. “Sorry, Coach, I just wanted to ask you again what time your parents will be here.”
“Woman, you break my heart!” He slammed a hand to his chest as if he’d been shot. “Ah, now I get it. You want to know exactly how much time you have to clean the house.”
So she wasn’t the world’s greatest housekeeper—one trait she didn’t inherit from her mother. Who cared about a little clutter on the kitchen counters, or last night’s pizza pan still soaking in the sink? So what if she hadn’t dusted since Thanksgiving? Hard to do with Christmas decorations covering every flat, dusty surface in the house.
Daniel seemed to read her thoughts. He tilted her chin until she reluctantly met his gaze. “Next weekend. Promise me, okay? The Christmas decorations need to come down.” She pushed out her lower lip. “Only if you stay home and help. It’s depressing to do it all by myself.”
“I’ll check my schedule.” He gathered up his car keys and canvas briefcase and then slicked a hand through ash-brown hair still damp from his shower. “Mom and Dad won’t get here before three at the earliest, so you’ve got plenty of time to enjoy your coffee.” He glanced at his watch. “And I don’t. I’m out of here, sweetie. With any luck, I’ll be home in time for dinner.”
“That’ll be the day.”
The door to the garage banged shut behind him, sending a puff of wintry air into the kitchen. Moments later Natalie heard the ancient green Bronco grumble a couple of times before starting up. The poor thing must have nearly 200,000 miles on it. How Daniel kept it running, she hadn’t a clue, but what with paying the mortgage on their dream home and keeping their thirteen-year-old fashionista daughter in designer jeans, replacing a vehicle wasn’t in the budget. She sent up a quick prayer for Daniel’s safety on the road and hoped the weather held. The last she’d heard, the predicted snow wouldn’t arrive until tomorrow morning.
Her chest caved. Much as she enjoyed the visits with Daniel’s parents, Alice Pearce was an even more meticulous housekeeper than Natalie’s mother. No way around it—the cleaning had to get done. Maybe Natalie could bribe her daughter into helping. After all, half the mess was Lissa’s school books, art supplies, and discarded shoes dropped haphazardly between the kitchen door and her bedroom upstairs.
So much for getting back to the watercolor landscape Natalie had begun last weekend. At least her freelance graphic design assignments had tapered off now that the holidays had passed. The extra income supplemented Daniel’s small-town coaching salary, but Natalie dreamed of making her living as a fine artist—thanks to her mother’s teaching and inspiration. She’d much rather pursue her own creative visions than those of her finicky clients.
She poured a glass of orange juice and a mug of coffee and then dropped an English muffin into the toaster. She’d barely sat down to spread the muffin with her mother’s homemade apricot jam when Lissa flounced into the kitchen, her long blonde hair pinned up with mismatched butterfly clips. Natalie suppressed a laugh and lifted her hands in mock surrender. “Is this the part where you say, ‘Take me to your leader’?”
“Oh, Mom, how juvenile!” Lissa swiped her finger through the jam jar and licked off a sticky, amber glob. “Have you seen my pink sweater—the one with the gray stripe across the front?”
Natalie sipped her coffee. “Did you check the laundry hamper?”
“The floor of your room?”
“How about the closet? Any chance you actually hung it up?”
Lissa clenched her fists. “Mom, I need some help here. Jody and her mom are picking me up in twenty minutes.”
Natalie gave her daughter a blank stare.
“Earth to Mo-ther.” Lissa rolled her eyes.
“Oh, rats, the youth group skating party.” No help cleaning from Lissa today. With a sigh, Natalie bit into her English muffin. “Sorry, honey, but I have no idea where your sweater is. Can’t you find something else to wear?”
The ringing telephone halted whatever sarcastic retort Lissa was about to spit out. She squinted at the caller ID on the kitchen extension and grabbed the receiver. “Jody! Did I leave my sweater over there when I spent the night last weekend? Great! Bring it with you. I’ll put it on in the car.” She hung up and dashed through the den, yanking clips out of her hair and tossing them on the sofa.
“Sorry, Mom. I’ll get them later, I promise!” Lissa’s bedroom door slammed with finality.
Right, when pigs fly. Sure, Natalie could insist Lissa pick up after herself before leaving for the party, but a battle of wills with a headstrong preteen? No-brainer—it was guaranteed to ruin the entire day for both of them. She made a promise to herself, though, that one day very soon she and Daniel would sit down with Lissa and lay out some ground rules— before Lissa’s adolescent self-centeredness got completely out of hand.
Natalie refilled her coffee mug and carried the remains of the newspaper to the den. Fifteen more minutes and she’d have the house to herself and maybe a little time to work on that watercolor before she got serious about cleaning.
Lissa had been gone barely five minutes when the phone rang again. Natalie, settled in the recliner under a snuggly fleece throw, was tempted not to answer it—probably another of Lissa’s perky seventh-grade friends calling to ask what she planned to wear to the party.
Then the answering machine picked up, and after Natalie’s recorded greeting and the beep, she heard her mother’s voice. “Hi, Natalie, just me. Guess you’re out running errands. I’ll call later—”
Natalie shook off her annoyance and jumped up to grab the kitchen extension. “Hey, Mom, I’m here.”
“Oh, good, glad I caught you.” Her mother’s cheery voice turned cajoling. “It’s that time again, sweetheart. Can I twist your arm to help?”
Apprehension propelled Natalie into the nearest chair. Her mother didn’t even have to speak the words. “Oh, Mom, does it have to be today? Taking down Christmas decorations is my least favorite chore in the world. Daniel’s already on my case about ours.” She gave a weak laugh. “You know me. I’d leave them up year-round if I could.” Someday she’d do just that and hire someone to come in and dust them off once a month.
“I know, and I’m sorry to even ask.” Mom sounded genuinely sympathetic. “But your dad went to that horse auction, and it’s my turn to host the church ladies’ book club tomorrow afternoon.”
“Did you try Hart and Celia?” Natalie’s brother and sisterin- law lived just a few miles from the farm.
“Hart went with your dad to the auction, and Celia’s taking Kurt and Kevin to their basketball game.” Mom paused. “I’ll make apple dumplings and hot cider.”
“Bribery—that is so not fair.” Natalie patted her stomach. “I already need to sweat off at least five pounds of Christmas goodies.”
“Lifting Christmas boxes is good exercise.”
Obviously, Mom wasn’t going to give up. Natalie stared out the bay window. She needed to come up with some logical reason why Mom should postpone this depressing annual chore. Her gaze settled on the bank of gray snow clouds looming on the horizon. She shivered just thinking about venturing out on this frosty January day.
She offered an idea. “Think of how much the ladies would enjoy the decorations. It wouldn’t hurt to leave them up a little longer, would it?”
“Natalie, the tree is completely dry and dropping needles all over the carpet. It really must come down today.” A note of apology tinged her mother’s voice. “I should have asked your father to help me earlier in the week, but the time got away from us.”
“You know I’d do anything for you, Mom, and if it were any other weekend—” Yes, come to think of it, she had a ready-made excuse. She tried not to let the rush of gratitude creep into her tone. “Remember I told you Daniel’s parents are driving over this afternoon? Daniel’s at a tournament in Fielding to scout basketball teams, and Lissa’s at a skating party. I need to clean house and shop for groceries before they get here.”
Not that she actually intended to do all that much. If her mother had asked her help for anything else—rearranging furniture, washing windows, even shoveling snow off the front walk—she’d have driven out to the farm on a moment’s notice.
But taking down Christmas decorations?
Her mother gave a wry laugh. “It’s okay. Don’t worry, I’ll manage by myself.”
Mom’s disappointment tarnished Natalie’s brief glow of triumph and raised a moment of concern. Her stubborn mother would “manage” all right. She’d take on the whole project by herself, arthritis and all. Natalie pressed the phone against her ear. “Now, Mom, don’t you try to carry all those boxes out to the barn. You’ll aggravate your bad wrist again, and you won’t be able to paint for a week.”
“I mean it, Mom. Stack the decorations out of sight in the downstairs guestroom, and I’ll come by one day next week to help you pack everything away.”
After eliciting her mother’s assurance she wouldn’t take on too much, Natalie said good-bye. Just a few more days to psych herself up for the end of the holidays, that’s all she asked. Shrugging off the last twinges of guilt, Natalie snuggled into the recliner to finish her coffee.
Around ten, she finally talked herself into exchanging her comfy robe and those adorable slippers for paint-stained sweats and grungy sneakers. Like it or not, she needed to do a cursory cleaning before her in-laws arrived. She’d just finished loading the dishwasher and returned from the garage with the sponge mop when the phone rang again.
This time it was Daniel’s father, calling to say the winter frontal system had already hit their part of the state. With two inches of snow on the ground and more expected, they’d decided not to chance the drive.
A crazy mix of relief and disappointment flooded Natalie. Daniel didn’t get to see his folks that often, and Lissa had been planning an after-Christmas shopping trip with her grandmother ever since they’d first mentioned coming. But an excuse to postpone housecleaning? Definitely cause for celebration. Natalie loaded the stereo with her favorite Christmas CDs, set up her easel and paints in front of the bay window, and settled in for her version of the perfect Saturday.
Hours later, she was adding the finishing touches to a winter landscape when the phone startled her. The paintbrush skittered across the canvas, marring a stately pine with aquamarine streaks. Natalie mumbled a few choice words and glanced at the mantle clock as she wiped her hands on a paint rag. Five already? Where had the day gone? Daniel and Lissa would be home soon. She needed to wrap things up and figure out something for supper. Mentally sorting through the freezer contents for a quick and simple meal, she picked up the kitchen extension.
“Natalie?” her dad’s voice sounded ragged—choked with panic. “Come to the hospital right away. It’s your mother.”
Her stomach plummeted. She pictured her mother at the bottom of a ladder amidst a pile of Christmas decorations. “What happened? Is she okay?”
Sprained ankle? Broken hip? Oh, Mom, why couldn’t you wait?
“Just . . . get here.” Her father clicked off before she could press him for details.
Dread coiled around her heart. She threw a parka over her sweats and grabbed her purse and keys off the counter. When she gunned the engine to back out of the garage, her trusty silver Saturn screeched in protest. The side mirror nicked the doorframe, and she barely missed taking out the mailbox and the neighbor’s trash can. She drove like a maniac to Putnam General, all the while berating herself for ignoring Mom’s request for help. After everything her mother had sacrificed for her, she could only pray these new injuries wouldn’t cripple her mother for life.
Natalie burst through the ER entrance and scanned the faces in the congested waiting area. A mother holding an ice pack against her son’s forehead. An ashen-faced woman dozing against an elderly man’s shoulder. Whimpering babies. Frightened children. Anxious parents.
She spotted her father’s silver-gray head across the room, where he paced in front of a set of double doors. Her brother, Hart, stood close by with his hands tucked into his blue-jeans pockets, rocking on his heels.
Natalie rushed over and touched her father’s arm. “Dad, how’s Mom? Tell me it’s not serious.”
Her father turned and looked at her—looked through her. “They think it’s a stroke.” His face crumpled as his thin veneer of strength collapsed. He pressed a fist to his mouth and pulled her to him, squeezing her so tightly, she could hardly breathe.
Natalie struggled away and stared at him, not comprehending. A stroke? Ice-cold terror crackled through her veins. She spun to face her brother and seized his wrist. “Hart?”
“It’s bad, Nat. Real bad.” He drew her into his arms, and she felt her brother’s fear in every tense muscle of his body.
A tall, bearded man in hospital greens pushed through the double doors. “Mr. Morgan? I’m Dr. Wyatt.” He indicated a frayed blue sofa, the only empty seat in the waiting area. “Why don’t we sit down.”
Natalie blocked his way. “Just tell us, how is my mother? She’ll be okay, right?”
“I wish I had better news.” The doctor glanced at the chart he held.
“But there’s stuff you can do for a stroke these days. I saw it on TV.”
“It isn’t that simple. Please try to understand.” Dr. Wyatt attempted to explain her mother’s condition, tossing out phrases about blood clots and clot-dissolving medications and something about a three-hour time window before irreversible brain damage set in.
A sob tore from Natalie’s throat. “Are you saying she got here too late? That there’s nothing you can do?”
“We’ll continue to do all we can to minimize the damage, but under the circumstances . . . ” The doctor gave a oneshoulder shrug. “I’m sorry. I’m so very sorry.”