She didn’t expect to see them again so soon, but Sunday when she walked to the park, Joshua was there pulling the children on a toboggan. Sharie waved them over and Caroline fell in step beside them.
“Are you enjoying the books you took home?” she asked.
“Daddy read us some of the stories last night,” Sharie said. “They’re all about Christmas, and I don’t like Christmas much, but some of the stories are nice.”
The girl’s eyes held that solemn look again, and Caroline wondered why one so young wouldn’t like Christmas. The holiday had been her daughters’ favorite, not because of the gifts, because there hadn’t been many, but mainly because of the special closeness, the peace and joy, the season had brought. Caroline had taught her girls to appreciate and value these intangible things.
Joshua’s children seemed not to care much about Christmas. Maybe because he didn’t care either. Caroline glanced up at him and then wished she hadn’t. His gaze met hers for only a brief moment, but it was enough to set up a fluttering in her chest.
“I understand you’re the new vet in town.” Caroline quelled her racing pulse. “Since the closest one has been over twenty miles away, I’m sure you’ll have plenty of business.”
“I have already,” he assured her. “But I’m not answering farm calls yet. Not till I find a reliable person to stay with the kids while I have to be away.”
Caroline sensed again how protective he was of his children. Undoubtedly, losing their mother played a big part in that.
“There are a number of ladies in town who’d be glad for a housekeepers’ job. I could even give you some names.”
His somber expression brightened.
“I’d really appreciate it. I tried to talk my former housekeeper into coming with us, but she didn’t want to live so far away from her grandchildren.”
“Where did you live before you moved here?” Caroline hoped she wasn’t prying, but he didn’t seem to mind.
“Central Illinois. I had a good business there, but we needed a new start somewhere. When the kids were babies, my wife and I came up to Michigan on a camping trip. I always remembered how beautiful it was here—the forests, the lakes…”
“The snow,” Caroline added just as fluffy new flakes began to float in the air and settle to the already-covered ground. “We’ve plenty of that, too.”
“But it’s good for something.” Joshua grinned suddenly and began to pull the toboggan faster. “We’re headed for Kelly’s Hill. Heard it’s a great sledding spot.”
“Want to come along?” a small voice piped up.
Joshua and Caroline both looked down at Joey in surprise. His stocking cap sat perched atop his head, and he peered up from beneath the shock of curly brown hair.
“Why…I’m not sure.” Caroline hesitated. It had been years since she’d climbed aboard a sled, and besides, she didn’t want to intrude on their family time.
“It’s nice of you to ask,” Joshua came to her aid. “But I’m sure Mrs. Prescott wants to get home to her family.”
Caroline stopped walking the same time Joshua did.
“I…I don’t have any family at home,” she heard herself say. “My girls are both grown up and moved away. This is my first Christmas with them gone.”
“Then you can come with us,” Sharie said, giving Caroline a wistful smile.
“Well, if you don’t mind, I guess I could.”
Joey clapped his hands, and when they reached Kelly’s Hill, Caroline rode with him the first trip down. His small body pressed back against her as the snow and cold whipped past their faces. Without thinking, Caroline hugged him and remembered how sweet it felt to hold a child.
Sharie rode with Joshua, and then both children insisted their father and Caroline ride down together. Caroline sat in front of Joshua, trying not to lean into him as Joey had her, but it was impossible. Momentum pushed her back and she felt his strong arms close about her, felt Joshua’s warm breath tickle the back of her neck, and then she was assaulted by another sensation, another memory, of what it felt like to have a man hold her in his arms.
They reached the bottom of the hill too quickly. Snow had sprayed back in their faces, and they both laughed, as carefree at the moment as the children ought to be. Joshua dusted the snow from her eyes and nose and rested his hand briefly against her cheek. Caroline’s pulse quickened.
She scolded herself silently for the silly rush, but when his hand grasped hers to help tug her back up the hill, she didn’t protest.
“My house isn’t far from here,” she offered when they were exhausted and nearly frozen. “How about hot chocolate and homemade Christmas cookies?”
“Like the ones at the party?” Joey asked.
“The very same.”
“If you’re sure it’s no trouble.” Joshua put in.
Caroline flushed in spite of the cold. “To be honest, I’d be glad for the company. It’s just me and the cats.”
She had a chance to explain when she carried a tray with steaming mugs of cocoa and a plate of decorated sugar cookies into her living room and found Joshua holding the double photograph of Jenny in her wedding dress and Amy in her graduation cap and gown.
“My daughters,” she said proudly as she handed out the chocolate. “They both left home last summer, within a month of each other.”
“You hardly look old enough to have children this age.” Joshua placed the photograph back on the mantel. “But they’re lovely young women.”
“Thank you.” Caroline warmed at the compliments she knew were genuine. Joshua Kendall was not the sort of man to offer empty remarks. “My husband and I married quite young and had the girls right away. I always said we grew up with them.”
Joshua helped Sharie and Joey with their mugs and gave them each a cookie.
“How long have you been alone?”
She sighed softly. “Twelve years now. It was very hard at first, after the accident, but thank goodness I had my girls. They gave me a reason for living. It wasn’t always easy for us, but we managed and I sent them both to college. They’ve turned out quite well, if I must say so myself.”
Joshua took the mug she offered him and sat in the chair that had once been her husband’s favorite. He watched as the children ate the cookies and played with the cats who’d showed up looking for handouts.
“Does it ever get easier?” he asked. “As time goes on, does the pain go away?”
She knew then that his loss was much fresher than hers and that he’d not yet truly healed from losing his wife. Neither had the children.
Impulsively she reached over and pressed his big hand with her much smaller one.
“It does,” she promised with the conviction of one who had been there. “You may not believe it now, but one day the memories will all be sweet and the hurt will be gone.”
Right before the Kendalls left, Joshua confided in Caroline.
“Sarah died last year, right before Christmas. I guess that tells you why it’s so difficult for us to get caught up in the spirit of the season. We had kind of decided not to try and celebrate, but this has helped the kids, so thank you.”