Music and Moonlight

Book Cover: Music and Moonlight
Part of the Mistletoe Kisses series:

When Christmas dreams come true...

Jillian Simpson loves Christmas, but she loves Graham Rogers more. She prays when he returns he will see her for the woman she is and not the little orphan girl he left behind. When that day finally arrives, her hopes are dashed when he doesn’t seem to notice her at all.

Graham Rogers used to believe Christmas was magical, but living with his uppity grandfather while attending school in Philadelphia has changed him. Upon his return home, his plans to woo Jillian are ruined when a woman from his past arrives claiming to be his fiancée, and his promised job in a prestigious law firm falls through.

With Jillian’s heart breaking, she announces she’s leaving Saint Charles, but will the magic of Christmas be strong enough to bring these two together again before she leaves?

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Prologue

Saint Charles, Missouri, Christmas Eve 1867

Ten-year-old Jillian Simpson gripped the window ledge with her small fingers and pulled herself up to see into the brilliantly lit mercantile. A cold wind gust blew over her from behind and she shivered, but her frozen digits held onto the cold bricks. She refused to budge from her precious spot. The yellow light from inside cast a warm glow over her as it poured through the wide glass pane, blending with the gas lamps on the sidewalk behind her. If she imagined hard enough, she could feel the room’s heat surround her like a cozy blanket.

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The giant rocking horse, which was painted as white as the snow covering the world around her, took up most of the space in the window. Its large brown eyes seemed to hold her gaze no matter where she moved. She had never seen anything so beautiful. The overhead gas lamp shone down on his long, white mane, the pale strands glistening. Underneath the pretty red and black saddle lay a green blanket, its edge lined with small brass bells.

She let out a soft sigh, wishing she dared to go inside and touch it. In the back of the shop, several people moved about, and she could see the shopkeeper’s wife helping Miss Peebles, the old school teacher, reach for something just above the counter. Never having known someone so old, she easily recognized the teacher’s heavily wrinkled face. Another oddity, the teacher wasn’t much taller than Jillian, who was only ten years old and not tall herself.

The old woman’s rich purple dress coat and matching hat stood out among the darker, more somber colors worn by the other women in town, but the bright color suited Miss Peebles’ oddness. Jillian liked hiding in the school’s coat closet, listening to Miss Peebles’ lectures. Not only were they interesting, but the closet sat near the wood-burning stove, so Jillian stayed warm.

Of course, Miss Peebles hadn’t let her stay there, insisting she attend school with the other students. It never mattered that Jillian was an orphan. The caring teacher never asked questions about her family and made sure she had at least one meal.

A movement from the inside of the shop caught her attention, and she dropped down onto her heels. Before she could turn to jump from the porch, she found herself staring into the dark green gaze of a boy she recognized from school. He stood in the middle of the window, just behind the horse. He stared back at her, holding a wide broom in his hands. He pointed to the door, and she shook her head and turned to run.

Before she could blink, he’d opened the door and was glaring at her, his arms wrapped over his thin chest in the cold wind. “Why don’t you come inside where it’s warm?” Graham Rogers asked.

She dropped her gaze to the snow-covered sidewalk and squirmed, her numb fingers pulling on her tattered jacket. “I just wanted to see the horse.” She glanced down the empty street at the long line of gas lamps along both sides of the street. The pale yellow light winked through the holly wreaths draped around them as icy fog wrapped its white fingers around the thick black bases.

He smiled. “I like looking at him too. He’s great, isn’t he? My dad carved him from a big chunk of wood when I was little.” He tilted his head. “It’s cold out here, and my mother is getting ready to holler at me to stop letting out all the heat, so why don’t you just come inside for a few minutes? I’ll even share my cup of hot cocoa...”

Her eyes widened. “You’d share with me?”

He nodded. “Sure I would. We have plenty, and I like sharing.” He stepped back and held the door open a little wider. “Come on. It’s better when it’s hot, you know. My name’s Graham. What’s yours?”

The boy had a nice voice. A smiling voice. From his height and slight frame, she guessed he was only a few years older than her own ten years, but other than that, they came from two different worlds. She’d seen him in school but stayed to herself. There was no way someone like him would notice someone like her.

Jillian wondered if she would ever fit in. Since her parents’ death from cholera two years before, she had been sent from one family member to another. But after the last place...she shivered and pushed away the horrible memory of her aunt’s husband and the way he always watched her. The way his fleshy hands lingered on her back or arms when her aunt hadn’t been looking. Running away had been her only option...

She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, watching as it came out in a white puffy cloud in front of her. “My name is Jillian. I can’t stay long...or buy anything.”

“That’s all right. My parents won’t mind, if you keep out of the customers’ way.” He leaned against the broom handle, his hand clutching the top. “You’ll freeze out here dressed like that. Don’t you have a warmer coat?”

She shook her head. “I’ll be all right,” she muttered and drew the worn jacket tighter around her thin body. “I’m used to it.”

He grinned and swept his hand in front of him. “Welcome to Rogers’ Mercantile—where you’ll find everything you’ve ever dreamed of.”

Her eyes widened. “Really?”

He shrugged. “Nah. It’s just something my dad tells everyone so they’ll want to buy something.” He led her to a small alcove between the display window and the floor-to-ceiling shelves. “Sit here and I’ll be back before you can miss me.” True to his word, he came back carefully carrying a mug filled with steaming cocoa, which he handed to her. “Drink it slowly, and don’t forget to blow on it. It’s hot.”

She set the cup on the floor and curled up in the corner, pulling her knees to her chest and wrapping her arms around them as the warmth from the room seeped into her cold body. Her fingers and toes tingled painfully as they thawed. She wiggled each digit, tears filling her eyes. To keep her mind off the pain, she stared at the small lamps lining the floor of the window display. The small red and green glass jars placed in front of the lamps gave off the pretty Christmas lights seen from outside. When the tingling finally stopped, she reached down and picked up the cocoa and took a small sip, savoring the delicious chocolate flavor.

“Here we are,” the boy said as he squatted beside her and handed her a sandwich. “We had one leftover ham sandwich from lunch.” Her hunger must have shown on her face because his smile widened. “If you finish it, I’m fairly certain I can find a piece of apple pie. My mother is an amazing cook, you know. I’ve had fourteen years of experience sampling every dish she’s made.” His smile widened, showing a slightly crooked front tooth and the hint of a dimple just to the right of his mouth.

He reached behind him and pulled out a small box with a crushed bow on top and held it out to her.

She stared at it a moment then glanced up at him, frowning. “What’s that?”

He shrugged and thrust it at her again. She reached out and took it, holding it reverently in her hands. “I’ve never been given a present before.”

He tilted his head to one side. “That’s kind of sad. I just thought, well, maybe you might like that. It’s not much.”

She gave him a hesitant smile and touched the smashed bow with the tip of one finger.

He chuckled. “You gotta open it if you want to see what’s inside, silly.”

She continued to stare at the pretty paper-covered box, savoring the moment so she could remember it for as long as she lived. How could this amazing boy understand what it felt like for her to hold such a treasure in her hands?

“Come on, Jillian! Open it—just take the lid off!”

She pulled her lips between her teeth to keep from smiling at his exasperated tone and eased the box top off. Nestled inside was a smaller wooden box with inlaid wood flowers in the center of the lid. She traced each outline with her fingertip.

“It’s beautiful,” she whispered.

“Do you even know what it is?”

She shook her head, uncaring if he thought her stupid. It was the nicest thing anyone had ever given her.

He reached over, pulled out the box, and raised the lid. On the right side were two silver switches. He flipped the bottom switch from stop to start and the tinny strains of music filled the small space. It was the most beautiful sound she had ever heard. Her eyes filled with tears as she listened to the rise and fall of the notes.

“It’s Mother’s favorite carol, O Holy Night.”

Jillian leaned back against the wall, the music filling the empty spaces inside her. She bit into the sandwich, relishing the amazing flavors of the food on her tongue as she chewed, especially the tangy taste of the mustard coating each slice of bread. It had been several days since she’d eaten more than scraps, and she wanted to savor this meal as long as she could. She took another bite and closed her eyes and leaned her head against the wall behind her. She swallowed. “You’re wrong, you know.”

He cocked his head to one side and raised one brow. “I am? About what?”

She stared at the two half-moons in her sandwich. “Your shop is a place where dreams come true,” she whispered. Raising her gaze, she looked into his dark green eyes and knew she would love him for the rest of her life.

Chapter One

Saint Charles, Missouri, December 1875

Jillian Simpson scooted the hand-carved horse forward in the window of Rogers’ Mercantile, then back again, closer to her. She stepped back, staring at her handiwork, then pushed the horse forward once more and placed her hands on her narrow hips to keep from fidgeting.

“Darling, it doesn’t matter whether that horse is two inches closer to the window or two inches further back. The display looks beautiful, as it has every year since you took over decorating the shop for the Christmas holiday.”

Jillian glanced over her shoulder and smiled at her boss. Miranda Rogers was the closest thing she’d ever had to a mother. She and her husband, John, and taken her into their home when she was ten, not long after their son found her peering through their display window on Christmas Eve, and treated her as their daughter. It was a gift she could never repay. “You’re just saying that because you hate decorating this window.”

At forty-five, Miranda was still a beauty. Her auburn hair showed no signs of gray, and the only wrinkles on her face were barely visible around her hazel eyes and her full mouth when she smiled, which was often, especially when her husband teased her. Jillian hoped she looked as young at Miranda’s age. The older woman moved closer, hovering just over her shoulder.

Miranda chuckled, her eyes twinkling mischievously. “You may be right, but the patrons love what you do. Each year is something more special than the last. You have such a loving touch in your designs. So tell me, what are you creating for this holiday?”

Jillian stepped sideways and picked up the nutcracker and set it beside the fake fireplace she painstakingly made the week before out of scrap lumber. She scooted the nutcracker in front of the spot where she couldn’t get the bricks to look quite realistic enough and hoped no one noticed how crooked they were. She’d repainted them three times, but there was no fixing them.

Miranda peered around, her eyes widening. “Oh, Jillian! You have outdone yourself this year, child. This is wonderful! You’ve recreated an illustration from the Christmas poem Visit from St. Nicholas.’” She clapped her hands in front of her mouth, and Jillian noted their slight trembling. “So remarkable... John will love this. As will all of our customers. Once word gets around, this will bring in even more people than last year. You wait and see.”

Jillian pulled in a deep breath. “I hope so. We need to bring in quite a bit of money if we’re going to make this month’s and last month’s mortgage payments. The only thing that saved us in October was when I sweet-talked the banker into purchasing the five turkeys for the orphanage, convincing him they needed them for the upcoming holidays. Otherwise—”

“Don’t say it.” Miranda shook her head. “I don’t want to hear anything morose right now. Christmas is in one week, and I need happiness around me right now.”

Jillian swallowed, her brows drawing together in worry. She laid her hand on Miranda’s arms, which were crossed over her narrow waist. “What’s wrong? Is it John? Has he worsened?”

Miranda patted her hand. “No, my dear. I’m sorry if I scared you. John is just fine. The doctor left an hour ago and declared him in better health than he’s been in the last few weeks, so there has been improvement. His symptoms have lessened enough for him to begin soft foods again instead of broths and soups, which he is heartily tired of.”

Jillian grinned. “I’m glad. He’s asked me to sneak him forbidden goodies. I’ve refused, of course, but I have felt sorry for him. He so loves this time of year, and the delicious smells of baking cinnamon rolls and cookies can’t have been easy for him to ignore.”

“Pooh. He needed to lose a bit of weight anyway. Abstaining from sweets for a few weeks has done him good—for his gastritis as well as his waistline. He’s fitting into pants he hasn’t been able to wear in years. I like him this size. I can wrap my arms around him in a hug.”

“Miranda! What a thing to say.”

“What? I quite like hugging my husband.”

Jillian hung up the last of the stockings along the mantle on the fake fireplace and straightened a few of the presents under the decorated tree as several people walked past the store window and waved. She smiled, recognizing the dressmaker and her husband, and waved back. Another storm had rolled in during the afternoon, covering the blue sky in dark gray clouds. Thick snowflakes hit the window, and she noticed the streetlights were already on. It must be later than she realized.

Glancing back at her handiwork, she thought about the orphans’ reactions when they opened their gifts the night of the party. She looked forward to the shop’s Christmas Eve party every year. It had been her first creation when she began working in the mercantile. She wanted to give something to the lost children of Saint Charles. Lost, like she had been.

She would be forever grateful to the Rogers for taking her in and caring for her, not just as an employee but more like their daughter. Her parents died so long ago, she only remembered brief snippets of them—a glimpse of her mother’s face, a man’s shadowed profile. They were nothing more than fading memories. The love John and Miranda Rogers gave her filled all the empty spaces, and it meant the world to her.

“Miranda, you never told Graham about John’s illness, did you?” She turned and leaned against the end of one of the stocked shelves. “That’s why he never came home, isn’t it?”

She waved her hand as if to dismiss Jillian’s question and walked to the back of the shop. She picked up a bag of peppermints, moved behind the sales counter, and began filling the empty glass candy dish. “I saw no reason to worry him. It wasn’t as if his father suffered from apoplexy or something equally as serious. It’s only gastritis, which he is recovering from nicely. Once John is back in the shop, the sales will shoot back up and we’ll be in the black again, just you wait and see. He has such a way with the customers.”

She folded the bag and placed it on the shelf beneath the counter with the other candy bags. She then pulled out the register book and the receipts from underneath the money drawer and began tallying the day’s sales. She stopped and met Jillian’s steady gaze. “Besides, Graham will find out soon enough. He’s coming in on today’s last train.”

Jillian’s heart stopped then started again with several painful thuds. As casually as she could, she rested her hands on the countertop and pulled in a deep breath, hoping the dark spots in her vision weren’t a prelude to embarrassing herself by passing out. She wasn’t prone to histrionics like swooning at the mention of a man’s name, but right now, she definitely felt lightheaded and a bit giddy. After four years, Graham was coming home.

Would he even remember her?

What a silly thought. Of course he would remember who she was, although he would probably only recall an annoying young girl who followed him around all the time. She hadn’t gone with Miranda and John on their two trips back East, which, according to Miranda, had been just as well. John’s father was a crotchety old man, who did nothing more than complain about money spent on frivolousness. So much so, in fact, they returned home earlier than planned.

She smoothed a few creases from her woolen skirt, thankful she’d worn her oldest skirt to work in the drafty window. Not only had it kept her warmer than her usual cotton dress, but the lighter material would have looked horrible after spending all afternoon crouched down, moving things around in the cramped space.

Glancing across the store at her display, her gaze settled on Miranda’s approving expression. “Do you think John will like it?”

The older woman rolled her eyes and walked around the counter. “Are you kidding? He loves your designs.” She wrapped her arm around Jillian’s. “It’s beautiful, my dear. Everyone will love it, especially the children. Now, let’s go get John so he can enjoy your creation too.”

 

 

Saint Charles, Missouri

 

With his arm thrown over the top of the suitcase nestled in the seat beside him, Graham Rogers fiddled with the handle on his small case. Thankfully, the train car was almost empty, with only a few passengers left. A harried-looking young mother sat at one end of the car, cradling an infant against her shoulder. Several strands of her straight brown hair had pulled from her somewhat crooked bonnet. She’d buttoned her coat wrong, having completely missed the top buttonhole in her hurry. She never looked away from the window as the scenery flew by in a blur of white and brown, and he couldn’t help but wonder where her husband was. Why would such a young, attractive woman be traveling alone so close to Christmas?

An older gentleman slumped in his seat near the other end of the car, dressed in black from head to toe. His arms lay crossed over his thin chest, his legs outstretched, and his hat was slung low over his face as he slept. Neither passenger had spoken one word since they boarded the train.

He sighed and let his attention drift out toward the flat landscape zooming by. Several of the tall building spires in downtown St. Louis were now visible. His lips curled up in a smile. Once he reached the station at Chesterfield, a short carriage ride through several neighborhoods, then a quick jaunt over the Missouri River Bridge was all that remained of his trip. He enjoyed the time he’d lived in Pennsylvania immensely, but Saint Charles was home.

He wasn’t, however, looking forward to telling his father he wouldn’t be helping out in the shop now that his education and internship were finished. Thanks to his grandfather’s dogged persuasiveness, he’d studied law after finishing business at his family’s alma mater and wouldn’t be returning home to work in his father’s mercantile. With this being the mercantile’s busiest time of year, he knew his parents would expect him to step in and help. He would never admit it to his grandfather, but Graham had missed the steady stream of customers—the people he’d known his entire life.

His father’s long-time plan of Graham eventually taking over the mercantile was about to be dashed, and Graham couldn’t help but feel a bit conflicted. He no longer wanted to stand behind a counter and fetch items for people or order goods and stock them every week, worrying whether they would make enough at the end of the month. At least he didn’t think he did. There were times, though, where he enjoyed helping people find things for other people, like at Christmas.

He would make more than enough money as a lawyer to support himself and, someday, his own family once he signed the papers making him a partner. His grandfather had assured him the elder Dobson was ready to retire and, now that the second son refused to return to Missouri to take up the family business, the job was all but assured. All his plans were falling into place. At least he hoped they were.

He shoved the rising guilt away, refusing to shoulder any of it. His father had always assumed he would take over the mercantile, but not once had he asked if that was what Graham wanted to do with his life. While he had grown up in the shop and knew every ding and scratch in the place—where every single can and spool of thread were stored—that didn’t mean he wanted to make it his life’s work. It had taken several years, but his grandfather convinced him of the benefits of becoming a lawyer over a shop owner. He found himself enjoying the sparring with men of like minds about court cases, both inside and outside the courtroom.

He pulled out the small frame he always carried in his inside vest pocket and gently swiped the pad of his thumb across Jillian’s pretty face. His mother had brought him the small albumin silver print on her last visit. Jillian had become a truly beautiful, both inside and out, according to his mother. He thought about her all the time. Her face haunted him. She’d looked so lost and alone that first Christmas, but then, when her gaze landed on the horse his father had carved, she turned into an angel before his eyes.

That night felt like it happened yesterday and also a lifetime ago. At first, his mother hadn’t approved of their friendship. At every turn, she tried to keep them apart, but his father stepped in and made sure Jillian had what she needed. By the next Christmas, the little girl was very much a part of their family.

Shy at first, Jillian took to the shop and his father like a starving kitten, and even his mother warmed up to her. By the time he went back east to school, the four of them were inseparable. He wondered if Jillian still lived there. He hadn’t heard anything from home in almost a year and was beginning to worry. It wasn’t like his parents to not write. In his last letter, he’d indicated he was overwhelmed with work. Maybe they felt he needed to keep his attention on his job and were being considerate to his needs? It made less and less sense as the months passed and his letters remained unanswered. With it now being their busy season, he refused to give in to his growing concern.

He refocused on the outside scenery as the train sped along the tracks traveling underneath the bottom of the cantilevered metal road spanning the Mississippi River. The Eads Bridge had taken seven years to complete and was a marvel of modern engineering with pneumatic caissons driven deep into the Mississippi riverbed. He pressed his forehead against the window glass and peered down at the icy water. Magnificent.

Exiting from the metal bridge, the coach’s interior brightened as they sped into town, the train’s speed gradually decreasing as it drew closer to the station. From the quick look he caught of the outside, the building was impressive and stately. Without anyone disembarking, the train jolted forward, making good time as it traveled through several more stations, finally arriving at Chesterfield.

With a satisfied sigh, he stood, one hand grabbing for the back of his seat as the train jolted to a stop, the other gripping his bag. Walking up the narrow aisle, he reached the door and walked down onto the platform before the other two passengers even began to stir.

Excitement at finally being home and seeing his parents gave his step a quick spring as he made his way through the station and out onto Washington Street. His steps slowed at the thought of the confrontation with his father and seeing Jillian after four years. He knew she’d cared for him, but was it love?  Pulling in a deep breath, the cold December air froze his lungs. He exhaled with a loud but contented sigh. He couldn’t change what was to come—it would happen soon enough. Snowflakes drifted down, landing on his upturned face and bringing forth a crooked grin. For now, he simply needed to enjoy the moment at hand.

Glancing this way and that, he tapped his boot on the brick walkway in front of the station as he waited for a carriage that would take him across the Missouri River and into Saint Charles proper. It wasn’t long until one slowed to a stop in front of him. He helped the driver load his trunk onto the back of the carriage and strap it in place.

He climbed inside, and as the carriage drove through the streets, he noticed quite a few new buildings had sprung up on this side of the Missouri River as St. Louis expanded west. The street lamps were decorated with holly branches, the same as they were every year, but it gave the town a festive air for the upcoming Christmas holiday, filling him with a sensation of nostalgia he hadn’t experienced since moving in with his grandfather.

As they drew closer to what had been the far edge of town four years ago, the once vacant land was now filled with row houses and businesses. Most had wreaths on their doors and a few even had garlands wrapped around their front step railings. In one block alone, they passed three cleaners, two furniture stores, four lawyers, and a mercantile, which was a bit worrisome since they weren’t far from his family’s shop. Rogers’ Mercantile had always had a good monthly profit because of their median location between Saint Charles and St. Louis, as well as being less than a mile from the Missouri River. He ignored the unease building in his chest. If things were bad financially, he was certain his father would have written to him. Not that he could have done anything to help, but he had saved a small amount of money. The mercantile was all his parents had. He’d been happy not to receive any correspondence from his parents during the last year. It had eased his own guilty conscience. But now, though, he wasn’t so sure it had been a good thing. What if his parents were keeping something important from him?

A fine mist fell and covered his wool coat, which kept him warm in the dropping temperatures of early evening. He pulled his hat down over his head as the light dusting of snowflakes thickened. In a matter of minutes, the mist turned into frozen fat flakes that coated the sidewalks and streets.

Trudging up the street toward them were a few small, one-horse wagons. Each were driven by a single person hunched over in the driving sleet as they made their way home. At least that’s where he assumed they would be going at the end of the workday. Since his family’s residence was situated above the shop, their own journey home had always been a single staircase. He’d never known anything else until moving to Pennsylvania to live with his grandfather.

His stomach growled, and he hunched forward, trying to shield his hands and face from the falling snow as he pulled his hat lower. The tiny chunks of frozen ice stung any exposed skin as the breeze turned into a biting winter wind. This part of home he hadn’t missed. As they drove along south Main Street, which ran parallel to the Missouri River, the wind was always cold, and most times brutal.

Needing to walk off his growing anxiety at having to confront his parents with disappointing news, he leaned forward and tapped the driver on the shoulder. “Please pull over here. I’ll walk the last block.” He took out several bills and handed them to the man. “If you don’t mind, please drop the trunk off at the mercantile.”

The driver took the bills and stuffed them into his pocket then tugged on his hat. “Not a problem and thank you, sir. Happy Christmas.”

“Happy Christmas to you too.” Graham watched the coach pull away then tugged his coat lapel up to help block the wind and hunched his shoulders, his hands in his pockets. He continued along the brick sidewalk, passing familiar shops the closer he got to home. Walking under the shelter of the two- and three-story buildings helped block some of the wind, but it was better than riding in the carriage. Glancing up, he abruptly stopped.

“Hey! Watch what you’re doin’! Idiot...” a man muttered as he scurried around him. “Stopping in the middle of the sidewalk like he owns the place.”

Graham’s attention, however, remained focused on the building across the street. The red brick structure was three stories high with a tall veranda covering the front door. Not even the thick strands of evergreen garlands and festive red ribbons wrapped around the porch columns and the second-floor railings could cover up the peeling paint. Several of the shutters on the windows were missing, and those hadn’t seen any paint recently either. Not keeping things maintained wasn’t like his father, who believed in yearly touchups. He frowned, noticing the pristine white of the next-door neighbor’s woodwork and the stark difference between the two buildings. Other than the lack of maintenance, the shop was welcoming with a cheerful yellow light pouring through the large picture window.

He walked to the corner and crossed the empty street. Standing in front of the window, he smiled at the wooden horse, remembering every Christmas from his childhood, especially one in particular eight years ago. His gaze moved around the display, taking in every detail, amazed at the artistry he saw. He felt as if he were standing in the middle of an English country parlor.

A brick fireplace with real logs piled inside. Some kind of material or paper fluttered above them to resemble flames and did a very good job. He could almost smell the burning wood. A tall nutcracker stood as a silent sentry on one side, his uniform a dark blue, which was a beautiful contrast with the red and green lights glowing in the background. On the other side of the fireplace stood a high-backed chair with a white blanket draped across the back and a cat curled up in the seat.

He stared at the feline and leaned forward until his nose almost pressed against the glass, as he tried to figure out if it was stuffed or real. When it opened its yellow eyes and stretched, he took a step back in surprise. His parents never allowed animals inside the shop...

He glanced at the row of small stockings hanging from the fireplace mantel. Their crude design told him they’d been made by children. He smiled, noticing the last one. Whoever designed it had gone for simplicity because there were three different size buttons painted white and sewn in the middle, as if they’d fallen down from a stacked position. That was it, nothing else—no other design. Just the buttons that he assumed were meant to represent a melting snowman.

In the back corner of the window was a good-sized tree covered in homemade ornaments. There were also a few of the beautiful German glass ornaments he recognized from his own family’s tree. Someone had also taken long strands of twine and used buttons and large wooden beads to make a garland, which was draped around the tree from top to bottom. Placed underneath were quite a few wrapped presents with tags made out to people whose names he didn’t recognize.

“Graham? Is that you?”

He turned toward his mother’s voice. She stood at the end of the porch, wide-eyed, her mouth slightly open. In her arms, she held several brown paper-wrapped packages. He gave the woman standing beside his mother a quick glance, noticing she was young, pretty, and blond, but her hat shaded her face, so he couldn’t clearly make out her features. Was it Jillian? He strode across the porch and a mere few seconds before he reached his mother, and she shoved her packages toward the blonde, who grabbed them along with her own. He picked up his mother and whirled her around.

“I’m home, Mother! I’m finally home.”

 

 

 

 

 

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