Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Bells of christmas


Chapter Four

            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.”

The End

Image courtesy of Kittisak at

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Bells of Christmas


Chapter Three


            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.”

Monday, December 8, 2014

The Bells of Christmas

Chapter Two

            Saturday, Caroline watched each group of children come through the door of the library. She’d just about given up on Sharie and Joey appearing when she glanced up from making a paper snowflake to see them leading their father into the room Caroline had stayed late to decorate the night before.

            Snow clung to the children’s caps and mittens and even, Caroline noticed, to Joshua Kendall’s eyelashes. They were incredibly long and fringed his dark eyes, giving them a sleepy, mysterious appeal.

            Caroline chided herself for noticing such a thing and gave the children each a snowflake to write their names on.

            “I’m so glad you came. We were just getting ready to start.”

            She led them to the corner where the other children had gathered and for the next hour kept them all entertained with Christmas and other holiday stories. Afterwards, she put on music while her assistant served punch and cookies.

            As she talked with some of the mothers, Caroline glanced around the room, wondering where Joshua Kendall had gone. Since it was mostly moms who brought their children today, he probably felt out of place. She finally noticed him standing behind one of the taller bookshelves. I guess I should have made more of an effort to make him feel comfortable.

            “Isn’t that the fellow who set up the new veterinary clinic just outside of town?” she heard one of the women murmured to another.

            “Betty says he’s really nice. She took her St. Bernard to him, and you know what a time she has getting that big brute to move. Seems Dr. Kendall just talked to him, coaxed him right out of the car and into the office before the crazy dog knew what was happening. He’s really such a nice-looking man, too. Betty said she heard he’s a widower with two little ones. Do you suppose they’re here?”

            The woman’s question was answered when Joey and his sister ran to the man behind the bookshelf.

            “Can we get some books today, Daddy?” Caroline heard the boy ask. It was the first time she’d actually heard Joey talk.

            Caroline went up to them. “Can I help you find anything special?” she offered.

            “Joey’s into dinosaurs,” Joshua said. “But Sharie, I don’t know.”

            Sharie looked solemnly up at Caroline. “The teddy bear book,” she whispered.

            “You’ll need to get library cards first, but we’ll take care of that in a jiffy.” Caroline went to the circulation desk and brought out information cards for Joshua to fill out. “I’ll enter everything into the computer, but we still like to have index cards, too.”

            While he did that, she went to look for the teddy bear book. Her heart sank when she didn’t find it in its regular spot.

            “It looks like it’s already checked out,” she told Sharie gently. “I’m really sorry, but when it comes back I’ll be sure and save it for you. How about a different book today? There are some nice Christmas ones on the table over here.”

            Caroline led Sharie to the display and helped her select one of Christmas stories from around the world. The girl took it, but the enthusiasm she’d shown so briefly had disappeared. Joshua seemed surprised at her selection.

            “Are you sure that’s what you want?” he asked.

            Sharie stared at the colorful storybook for a moment, then hugged it and nodded.

            Joshua looked wonderingly at his daughter, then at Caroline.

            “This is nice what you do for the children here. It means more to me than you know.”

            Caroline read the sadness in his dark eyes again, and this time she felt her heart turn over. She was glad when Joshua and his children left. She was fast beginning to feel something more than just a friendly interest in them, but something told her the interest would be one-sided.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Bells of Christmas

The Bells of Christmas


Chapter One



             The tree looked so bare without the girls’ ornaments. Caroline had always planned to give them to Amy and Jennifer when they moved away. She just hadn’t figured they would both leave at the same time.

            Her job at the Cedarville public library and volunteer work had kept her plenty busy in the months since they’d moved, and she had the cats, Callie and Chrissie, who were usually good company; but tonight the house seemed even more empty than usual.

            “What do you think?” She glanced at the two matching tabbies who dozed on the sofa. They peered at her through slitted golden eyes. “Oh, you’re no help at all.”

            She gave the naked fir tree one more glance before going to the hall closet for her coat. Good thing Parrott’s Department store stayed open late these last weeks before Christmas. She’d walk over and pick up some new ornaments and then maybe stop in town for a bite to eat. Cooking for one was something else she wasn’t quite used to.

            Outside snow fell, drifting in lazy crystals to the already-covered ground. Caroline pulled her hood up tight against the cold December night and walked briskly to the main street of Cedarville. She passed a few folk on the way, each one nodding to her in greeting. Everyone in town knew Caroline Prescott, but did any of them know how lonely she felt tonight?

            In the department store she picked out a box of blue satin ornaments and another of glass silver-frosted. They looked plain compared to the special decorations she had selected for the girls every year, but they would have to do. Besides, what did it matter? She would be the only one to see the tree on Christmas morning.

            Harry’s Soup and Sandwich Shop offered good comfort food and welcomed Caroline in from the sharp air. Evening shoppers filled all the booths, so Caroline headed for the counter draped with green and red garland. She claimed the single seat available and piled her purse and package next to her.

            She didn’t have to look at the menu. Harry’s potato cheddar soup was her favorite and she ordered that with a small salad. While she waited, she watched a group of junior high students packed into a booth, laughing and talking and texting on their smart phones. She smiled wistfully. It seemed Amy and Jenny should still be that age, going off sledding and skating and bringing their friends home for hot chocolate and Caroline’s special holiday cookies.

             A silly lump swelled in her throat, but the sound of a package slipping to the floor followed by the tinkling of broken glass brought her abruptly around.

            “Oh Joey, look what you’ve done!” a child’s voice groaned.

            Caroline looked down at her package and then up at the two children standing together beside it. A boy of about six with one arm in his coat clung to the hand of a girl only slightly older. They both stared at Caroline with wide brown eyes.

            “I’m so sorry, ma’am,” the girl barely whispered. “My brother didn’t mean to hurt anything. He was just trying to put his coat on.”

            “It’s all right.” Caroline leaned down to pick up the package and inspect the damage.

            In the moment it took her to pluck the package from the floor, someone else joined the children in staring at her, a tall man in flannel shirt and jeans who raked back unruly hair with his fingers.

            “What happened, kids?” he asked with a resigned sigh.

            “Joey didn’t mean it,”  “It was an accident.”  The little girl and Caroline spoke together.

            The boy just looked down at his boots, tightening his grip on the girl’s hand. The man gave them both a stern frown which quickly softened.

            “Okay. Let’s just apologize to the lady and see what we owe her.”

            “It’s all right. Really.” Caroline tried to protest, but the man insisted she check the contents of the bag.

            Four of the frosted ornaments were shattered into little silver shards.

            “Let me pay you for them.” He withdrew his wallet from the back pocket of his jeans.

            “Not necessary.” Caroline pointed to the blue satin ornaments. “These are just fine and there are still six of the others left.”

            He looked skeptical about letting it go.

            “I only left them to finish up their ice cream while I paid the bill.” His hand rested on the boy’s head in a loving gesture. “Joey is really a good boy.” He seemed to be trying to reassure the boy as much as Caroline. His gaze lifted to hers. “Are you sure we can’t compensate?”

            Caroline’s order arrived just then. Before she could shake her head, he asked the waitress for her bill.

            “At least let me pay for your dinner.”

            There was no sense in arguing, and Caroline gracefully gave in.

            When the man walked away to the cashier, the children still stayed, the girl staring intently at Caroline.

            “Aren’t you the lady from the library? The story lady?” she finally asked.

            “Why yes, I am.” Caroline took in the girl’s solemn expression that was far too serious for a child her age. She remembered that serious little face. Hadn’t both children come to the library last Saturday for Story Hour?

            “I’m Mrs. Prescott,” she volunteered and recalled how the two had sat together listening quietly to the books Caroline read but hadn’t joined in any of the songs the other children had later sung. “Did you enjoy Story Hour?”

            “I’m Sharie Kendall,” the girl said softly. “I liked one book ‘specially. The one about the teddy bear that came to life.”

            “Then you should have your dad bring you to the library again so you can check it out.” Caroline loved to encourage young readers. She looked at the boy. “What about you, Joey? Did you have a favorite story?”

            “My brother doesn’t talk much,” Sharie supplied. “Only to me and Dad.”

            Their father had returned from the cashier, and Caroline lifted her gaze to his. Deep brown and serious as the boy’s, his eyes spoke of pain and confusion.

            “I’m sorry to hear that,” she said. “I didn’t have any little boys myself, but I always figured they should be noisy and boisterous.”

            The man nodded, as if he agreed with her, but offered no comment, said only, “Name’s Joshua Kendall. We just moved here a few weeks ago, so we don’t know too many folks yet. Nice to meet you, though we’re sorry about the circumstances.” He took Joey by the hand. “Well, let’s leave the lady to her dinner. Time we got home.”

            Before they walked away, Caroline slid from the stool and crouched down in front of both children.

            “It’s really okay about the ornaments. They’re easily replaceable. But how about you both do me a favor and come to the Christmas party we’re having at the library this Saturday? We’ll have more stories and some special surprises. Refreshments, too. Your dad is welcome to attend with you.” Something told Caroline this family didn’t include a mother. Perhaps that was the reason for the children’s solemn expressions.

            “Could we go, Daddy? I like the library.” Sharie waited for his answer.

            “The clinic is open till noon.” He drew both children close to him in a protective gesture Caroline found touching. “Thank you for not being upset about the ornaments,” he said to Caroline. “What time does the party start?”

            “One o’clock. I’ll look forward to seeing you there.”

            Even Joey gave her a shy wave when they left.