The town of Hollings, North Carolina, nestled in a valley of the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina, is preparing for Christmas. Taryn McKenna, however, is feeling anything but festive. Her grandmother Jemma, the only love in her life since her mother died and her father abandoned her, is facing a medical crisis. As her cousin’s New Year’s wedding draws near, Jemma asks Taryn to finish the quilt that is traditionally hand sewn for brides in their family. She finds herself reluctantly accepting help from Justin Callahan, the man she would have married… until one mistake cost them more than their relationship. Taryn has a secret that could derail not only Justin’s life, but the life of a total stranger. When Justin learns the truth, will he continue to stand by Taryn’s side, or will her life unravel one stitch at a time?
“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. All that did was serve to make them colder. What global warming? It felt like every year the temperature dipped lower 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 simply be warm and comfortable away from 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 those months 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.
About The Author
Jodie Bailey is Tarheel born and bred. After fifteen years as a military spouse, she's proud to be a retired military spouse settled in North Carolina with her husband and daughter. Jodie loves to camp, ride Harleys, and fish the Outer Banks. You can visit at www.jodiebailey.com.
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