On Christmas Eve, Caroline made her traditional eggnog and drank a toast to the cats before settling down to read in front of the fire. The girls had both called earlier in the day, and she’d assured them she was fine and would attend early morning church service before helping with Christmas Day brunch at the local soup kitchen. She wouldn’t have time to miss them, though in her heart she knew better.
When the doorbell rang the cats scattered from her lap and Caroline peeked out to see who was at the door. Bundled against the cold, the Kendalls stood on her porch, and even from here she could see their pink cheeks and noses. She hurried to open the door.
The children held up two brightly wrapped packages to Caroline. She ushered them all into the house and when they were warming by the fire, she opened the gifts. Sharie and Joey watched her reaction. Two ceramic bells that the children had obviously painted themselves tinkled when she hung them on her tree.
“How sweet of you to think of me!” Caroline hugged them both.
“Our mommy liked Christmas bells,” Sharie said. “It was her most favorite thing. We noticed your tree looked a little empty. I guess ‘cause we broke your silver ornaments.”
Caroline had to swallow a lump in her throat.
“That’s not the only reason,” she murmured and brushed away a tear before it could slip down her cheek. “You see, when my girls were small, I always bought them each a new ornament at Christmas. I always told them that when it came time for them to leave and start homes of their own, they could take the ornaments with them, so they could decorate their first Christmas trees. I just never thought how it would leave me without any.”
“Aren’t they coming home for Christmas?” Sharie asked.
Caroline forced a smile and shook her head. “Nope. Jen is spending the holidays with her new husband’s family in Chicago, and Amy is working at a hospital in Detroit. She’s scheduled to work tonight and tomorrow both.”
“You could spend Christmas with us,” Sharie offered. “We’re alone, too.” Joey nodded his agreement.
Caroline remembered what Sharie had said about not liking Christmas, and she realized that in asking her to share the holiday with them, the children were giving her a very special gift—one of trust. It took a lot of courage for them to do this, and Caroline couldn’t help but wonder—was Joshua as willing as they to set aside his grief for the wonderment of Christmas?
She glanced at him and saw his uncertainty.
“When my girls were little, we started out the evening by stringing popcorn for the tree. Then we’d sing some carols and read aloud the story of the first Christmas. The last thing we’d do was to set out cookies for Santa before they went to bed. Of course you’d want to do that at your house, but we could do the other things here. I’d love to have you spend Christmas Eve with me.”
Just before she went into the kitchen to make the popcorn, Joshua drew Caroline aside. He looked worried. Had she overstepped her bounds?
“The way the kids were feeling about Christmas, well, like I said we weren’t going to celebrate it. But now things have changed, and it seems I have a bit of a problem.”
Caroline stood still, waiting for him to say he wasn’t ready for this. She could accept that, but at least let the children have their joy in Christmas back.
To her surprise he grinned sheepishly and shrugged.
“It doesn’t look like Santa will be visiting our house tonight because I failed to do any shopping. Got any suggestions for a wayward jolly old elf?”
Caroline smiled and in her happiness couldn’t resist standing on tiptoe to kiss Joshua’s warm rough cheek. She was astonished when his arms came around her swiftly and he placed a hard quick kiss on her mouth.
“Parrott’s Department store stays open till seven,” she said when he drew back. “I am pretty sure they still have some toy dinosaurs and a copy of the teddy bear book, but you better hurry. As for us, we’ll be here stringing popcorn when you get back.”
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