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The 24 Days of Christmas
By LINDA LAEL MILLER
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2004 Linda Lael Miller
All rights reserved.
The snow, as much a Thanksgiving leftover as the cold turkey in the sandwich Frank Raynor had packed for lunch, lay in tattered, dirty patches on the frozen ground. Surveying the leaden sky through the window of the apartment over his garage, Frank sighed and wondered if he'd done the right thing, renting the place to Addie Hutton. She'd grown up in the big house, on the other side of the lawn. How would she feel about taking up residence in what, in her mind, probably amounted to the servants' quarters?
He turned to see his seven-year-old daughter, Lissie, framed in the doorway. She was wearing a golden halo of her own design, constructed from a coat hanger and an old tinsel garland filched from the boxes of Christmas decorations downstairs.
"Does this make me look like an angel?"
Frank felt a squeeze in his chest as he made a show of assessing the rest of the outfit — jeans, snow boots, and a pink T-shirt that said "Brat Princess" on the front. "Yeah, Lisser," he said. "You've got it going on."
Lissie was the picture of her late mother, with her short, dark and impossibly thick hair, bright hazel eyes, and all those pesky freckles. Frank loved those freckles, just as he'd loved Maggie's, though she'd hated them, and so did Lissie. "So you think I have a shot at the part, right?"
The kid had her heart set on playing an angel in the annual Christmas pageant at St. Mary's Episcopal School. Privately, Frank didn't hold out much hope, since he'd just given the school's drama teacher, Miss Pidgett, a speeding ticket two weeks before, and she was still steamed about it. She'd gone so far as to complain to the city council, claiming police harassment, but Frank had stood up and said she'd been doing fifty-five in a thirty, and the citation had stuck. The old biddy had barely spoken to him before that; now she was crossing the street to avoid saying hello.
He would have liked to think Almira Pidgett wasn't the type to take a grown-up grudge out on a seven-year-old, but, unfortunately, he knew from experience that she was. She'd been his teacher, when he first arrived in Pine Crossing, and she'd disliked him from day one.
"What's so bad about playing a shepherd?" he hedged, and took a sip from his favorite coffee mug. Maggie had made it for him, in the ceramics class she'd taken to keep her mind off the chemo, and he carried it most everywhere he went. Folks probably thought he had one hell of an addiction to caffeine; in truth, he kept the cup within reach because it was the last gift Maggie ever gave him. It was a talisman; he felt closer to her when he could touch it.
Lissie folded her arms and set her jaw, Maggie-style. "It's dumb for a girl to be a shepherd. Girls are supposed to be angels."
He hid a grin behind the rim of the mug. "Your mother would have said girls could herd sheep as well as boys," he replied. "And I've known more than one female who wouldn't qualify as an angel, no matter what kind of getup she was wearing."
A wistful expression crossed Lissie's face. "I miss Mommy so much," she said, very softly. Maggie had been gone two years, come June, and Frank kept expecting to get used to it, but it hadn't happened, for him or for Lissie.
I want you to mourn me for a while, Maggie had told him, toward the end, but when it's time to let go, I'll find a way to tell you.
"I know," he said gruffly. "Me, too."
"Mommy's an angel now, isn't she?"
Frank couldn't speak. He managed a nod.
"Miss Pidgett says people don't turn into angels when they die. She says they're still just people."
"Miss Pidgett," Frank said, "is a — stickler for detail."
Frank looked pointedly at his watch. "You're going to be late for school if we don't get a move on," he said.
"Angels," Lissie said importantly, straightening her halo, "are always on time."
Frank grinned. "Did you feed Floyd?"
Floyd was the overweight beagle he and Lissie had rescued from the pound a month after Maggie died. In retrospect, it seemed to Frank that Floyd had been the one doing the rescuing — he'd made a man and a little girl laugh, when they'd both thought nothing would ever be funny again.
"Of course I did," Lissie said. "Angels always feed their dogs."
Frank chuckled, but that hollow place was still there, huddled in a corner of his ticker. "Get your coat," he said.
"It's in the car," Lissie replied, and her gaze strayed to the Advent calendar taped across the bottom of the cupboards. Fashioned of matchboxes, artfully painted and glued to a length of red velvet ribbon, now as scruffy as the snow outside, the thing was an institution in the Raynor family. Had been since Frank was seven himself. "How come you put that up here?" she asked, with good reason. Every Christmas of her short life, her great-aunt Eliza's calendar had hung in the living room of the main house, fixed to the mantelpiece. It was a family tradition to open one box each day and admire the small treasure glued inside.
Frank crossed the worn linoleum floor, intending to steer his quizzical daughter in the direction of the front door, but she didn't budge. She was like Maggie that way, too — stubborn as a mule up to its belly in molasses.
"I thought it might make Miss Hutton feel welcome," he said.
"The lady who lived in our house when she was a kid?"
Frank nodded. Addie, the daughter of a widowed judge, had been a lonely little girl. She'd made a point of being around every single morning, from the first of December to the twenty-fourth, for the opening of that day's matchbox. This old kitchen had been a warm, joyous place in those days — Aunt Eliza, the Huttons' housekeeper, had made sure of that. Putting up the Advent calendar was Frank's way of offering Addie a pleasant memory. "You don't mind, do you?"
Lissie considered the question. "I guess not," she said. "You think she'll let me stop by before school, so I can look inside, too?"
That Frank couldn't promise. He hadn't seen Addie in more than ten years, and he had no idea what kind of woman she'd turned into. She'd come back for Aunt Eliza's funeral, and sent a card when Maggie died, but she'd left Pine Crossing, Colorado, behind when she went off to college, and, as far as he knew, she'd never looked back.
He ruffled Lissie's curls, careful not to displace the halo. "Don't know, Beans," he said. The leather of his service belt creaked as he crouched to look into the child's small, earnest face, balancing the coffee mug deftly as he did so. "It's almost Christmas. The lady's had a rough time over the last little while. Maybe this will bring back some happy memories."
Lissie beamed. "Okay," she chimed. She was missing one of her front teeth, and her smile touched a bruised place in Frank, though it was a sweet ache. Not much scared him, but the depth and breadth of the love he bore this little girl cut a chasm in his very soul.
Frank straightened. "School," he said with mock sternness.
Lissie fairly skipped out of the apartment and down the stairs to the side of the garage. "I know what's in the first box anyway," she sang. "A teeny, tiny teddy bear."
"Yup," Frank agreed, following at a more sedate pace, lifting his collar against the cold. Thirty years ago, on his first night in town, he and his aunt Eliza had selected that bear from a shoebox full of dime-store geegaws she'd collected, and he'd personally glued it in place. That was when he'd begun to think his life might turn out all right after all.
* * *
Addie Hutton slowed her secondhand Buick as she turned onto Fifth Street. Her most important possessions, a computer and printer, four boxes of books, a few photo albums, and a couple of suitcases full of clothes, were in the backseat — and her heart was in her throat.
Her father's house loomed just ahead, a two-story saltbox, white with green shutters. The ornate mailbox, once labeled "Hutton," now read "Raynor," but the big maple tree was still in the front yard, and the tire swing, now old and weatherworn, dangled from the sturdiest branch.
She smiled, albeit a little sadly. Her father hadn't wanted that swing — said it would be an eyesore, more suited to the other side of the tracks than to their neighborhood — but Eliza, the housekeeper and the only mother Addie had ever really known, since her own had died when she was three, had stood firm on the matter. Finally defeated, the judge had sent his secretary's husband, Charlie, over to hang the tire.
She pulled into the driveway and looked up at the apartment over the garage. A month before, when the last pillar of her life had finally collapsed, she'd called Frank Raynor and asked if the place was rented. She'd known it was available, having maintained her subscription to the hometown newspaper and seen the ad in the classifieds, but the truth was, she hadn't been sure Frank would want her living in such close proximity. He'd seemed surprised by the inquiry, and, after some throat clearing, he'd said the last tenant had just given notice, and if she wanted it, she could move in any time.
She'd asked about the rent, since that little detail wasn't listed — for the first time in her life, money was an issue — and he'd said they could talk about that later.
Now she put the car into park and turned off the engine with a resolute motion of her right hand. She pushed open the door, jumped out, and marched toward the outside stairs. During their telephone conversation, Frank had offered to leave the key under the doormat, and Addie had asked if it was still safe to leave doors unlocked in Pine Crossing. He'd chuckled and said it was. All right, then, she'd said. It was decided. No need for a key.
A little breathless from dashing up the steps, Addie stopped on the familiar welcome mat and drew a deep breath, bracing herself for the flood of memories that were bound to wash over her the moment she stepped over that worn threshold.
A brisk winter wind bit through her lightweight winter coat, bought for southern California, and she turned the knob.
Eliza's furniture was still there, at least in the living room. Every stick of it.
Tears burned Addie's eyes as she took it all in — the old blue sofa, the secondhand coffee table, the ancient piano, always out of tune. She almost expected to hear Eliza call out the old familiar greeting. "Adelaide Hutton, is that you? You get yourself into this kitchen and have a glass of milk and a cookie or two."
Frank's high school graduation picture still occupied the place of honor on top of the piano, and next to it was Addie's own.
Addie crossed the room, touched Frank's square-jawed face, and smiled. He wasn't handsome, in the classic sense of the word — his features were too rough cut for that, his brown eyes too earnest, and too wary. She wondered if, at thirty-seven, he still had all that dark, unruly hair.
She turned her head, by force of will, to face her younger self. Brown hair, not as thick as she would have liked, blue eyes, good skin. Lord, she looked so innocent in that photograph, so painfully hopeful. By the time she graduated, two years after Frank, he was already working his way through college in Boulder, with a major in criminal justice. They were engaged, and he'd intended to come back to Pine Crossing, as soon as he'd completed his studies, and join the three-man police force. With Chief Potter about to retire, and Ben Mead ready to step into the top job, there would be a place waiting for Frank the day he got his degree.
Addie had loved Frank, but she'd dreamed of going to a university and majoring in journalism; Frank, older, and with his career already mapped out, had wanted her to stay in Pine Crossing and study at the local junior college. He'd reluctantly agreed to delay the marriage, and she'd gone off to Denver to study. There had been no terrible crisis, no confrontation — they had simply grown apart.
Midway through her sophomore year, when he'd just pinned on his shiny new badge, she'd sent his ring back, by Federal Express, with a brief letter.
Though it was painful, Addie had kept up on Frank's life, through the pages of the Pine Crossing Statesman. In the intervening years, he'd married, fathered a child, and been tragically widowed. He'd worked his way up through the ranks, and now he was head man.
Addie tore herself away from the pictures and checked out the kitchen. Same ancient oak table, chairs with handsewn cushions, and avocado green appliances. Even Eliza's antique percolator was in its customary place on the counter. It was almost as if the apartment had been preserved as a sort of memorial, yet the effect was heart-warming.
Suspended above the counter was Eliza's matchbox Advent calendar, the fraying ends and middle of the supporting ribbon carefully taped into place.
A powerful yearning swept through Addie. She approached the calendar, ran her fingers lightly from one box to another. Her throat closed, and the tears she'd blinked away earlier came back with a vengeance.
"Oh, Eliza," she whispered, "I'd give anything to see you again."
Pulling on the tiny ribbon tab at the top, she tugged open the first box, labeled, like the others, with a brass numeral. The miniature teddy bear was still inside.
She'd been five the night Frank came to live with his aunt, a somber, quiet little boy, arriving on the four o'clock bus from Denver, clutching a threadbare panda in one hand and a beat-up suitcase in the other.
Needing a distraction, Addie opened the cupboard where Eliza had kept her coffee in a square glass jar with a red lid. Bless Frank, he'd replenished the supply.
Addie started a pot brewing, and while the percolator was chortling and chugging away, she went downstairs to bring in her things. By the time she'd lugged up the various computer components and the books, the coffee was ready.
She set the computer up in the smaller of the two bedrooms, the one that had been Frank's. Other memories awaited her there, but she managed to hold them at bay while she hooked everything up and plugged into the telephone line.
In her old life, she'd been a reporter. She had done a lot of her research on-line, and kept up with her various sources via e-mail. Now, the Internet was her primary way of staying in touch with her six-year-old stepson, Henry.
The system booted up and — bless Frank again — she heard the rhythmic blipping sound of a dial tone. Evidently, he hadn't had the phone service shut off after the last renter moved out.
She was into her e-mail within seconds, and her first reaction was disappointment. Nothing from Henry.
Perched on the chair at the secondhand desk where Frank had worked so diligently at his homework, when they were both kids, she scrolled through the usual forwards and spam.
At the very end was a message with the subject line, THIS IS FROM TOBY.
Addie's fingers froze over the keyboard. Toby was her ex-husband. They'd been divorced for two years, but they'd stayed in contact because of Henry. She'd had no legal claim to the child — in the darkest hours of the night she still kicked herself for not adopting him while she and Toby were still married — but Toby had a busy social life, and she'd been a free baby-sitter. Until the debacle that brought her career down around her ears, that was. After that, Toby's live-in girlfriend, Elle, had decided Addie was a bad influence, and the visits had all but stopped.
Trembling slightly, she opened the e-mail.
MEET THE FOUR O'CLOCK BUS, Toby had written. That was all. No explanations, no smart remarks, no signature.
"Damn you, Toby," she muttered, and scrabbled in the depths of her purse for her cell phone. His number was on speed dial, from the old days, before she'd become a persona non grata.
His voice mail picked up. "This is Toby Springer," he said. "Elle and I are on our honeymoon. Be home around the end of January. Leave a message, and we'll get back to you then."
Addie jammed the disconnect button with her thumb, checked her watch.
She fired back an e-mail, just in case Toby, true to form, was shallow enough to take a laptop on his honeymoon. He was irresponsible in just about every area of his life, but when it came to his loan-brokering business, he kept up.
WHERE IS HENRY? Addie typed furiously, and hit Send.
After that, she drank coffee and paced, watching the screen for an answer that never came.
Excerpted from The 24 Days of Christmas by LINDA LAEL MILLER. Copyright © 2004 Linda Lael Miller. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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