Stella couldn’t believe her ears when she heard her father had gotten a job. She was a bit embarrassed when she learned that he’d landed employment as Max’s replacement at Teaberry Farms, but her stepfather needed the job too badly for her to question Drew Teaberry's generosity. She’d learned her lesson when she’d argued about her Christmas bonus.
But on Christmas Eve, when Max put out the lights around the trees for the final time of the season at the same time that her parents’ car drove up the lane, suspicion tightened her limbs. They parked and got out. Her brother Mark waved to her, but Allison and Julie huddled around her parents’ knees, shy in the way little girls tend to be when going to a new place.
She walked over, lifted Julie and said, “What’s up?”
“Oh, didn’t Gwen and Drew tell you? They’re having a special Christmas Eve celebration. They’re going to toast Max’s retirement and announce that your father now has the job as caretaker for the farm and Drew’s driver.”
“Oh.” Not sure what else to say, Stella stood frozen. Her stepfather turned her in the direction of the house.
“Let’s not keep my new boss waiting.”
She hesitated. She wanted nothing more than to leave. Being around Brody these past weeks, watching him give trees to families he could see were struggling, watching him laugh with his younger sisters, had gotten to her in a way that made her heart yearn for something she knew she couldn’t have. He was a Teaberry. She was poor. Struggling. Losing her dream of med school. Now her father worked for his father. They couldn’t be farther apart if they tried.
As much as she wanted to go into that house, to share Christmas Eve with him, she couldn’t. It would make her all the sadder when the time came to leave for good.
And she had the perfect excuse. “I can’t go to a party in the clothes I’ve been working in all day.”
Her mom waved a small brown bag. “I brought clean jeans and a sweater.”
Glancing at the house, richly decorated with red and white lights, garland wreaths and candles in the window, Stella swelled with need. Maybe she could have a night, just one night when they could be together. Something she could tuck in her memory banks and think about when she felt particularly cold and alone.
She took the bag. “Okay.”
As the Lindstrom family trooped into Teaberry mansion, Drew welcomed them with open arms, introducing them to Gwen, who invited them to join the group in the living room. Stella made her way back to the kitchen, to the small bathroom she knew was in front of the old maid’s quarters, where she washed up and changed into clean jeans and a beautiful fuzzy red sweater. Realizing it must be a Christmas gift from her parents, she pressed it to her face, mentally thanking them for understanding how much she wanted to look good tonight.
The three families decorated the tree together. The Teaberrys, the Peabodies and the Lindstroms. Stella’s little sisters hit it off with Brody’s little sisters and they giggled as they hung ornaments. Stella found a tiny pair of bronze baby shoes and as she looked for a sturdy branch to hang them, Brody came up behind her.
“Finding it hard to believe my feet were ever that small?”
Surprised the shoes had been his, she pivoted around only to find herself nearly pressed up against him. Her breath shivered a bit at his nearness. Her eyes longed to take in every feature of his face. Instead, she stepped to the side, smiled shakily and said, “These were yours?”
He took them from her hand. “Yep. After my mom remarried and shipped me off to live with my dad, she sent a few things.” He paused, studying the little bronze shoes. “I think she was trying to make me feel better about kicking me out of her life, but all the keepsakes did was serve to remind me she didn’t want me around.” But as quickly as he’d gotten sad, his mood lifted. “But they make Claire giggle.”
He leaned around the tree. “Hey, Claire Bear. Whose shoes are these?”
Just as he predicated, she giggled. “Yours!”
He pretended to try to put them on. “Wow, they must have shrunk.”
Claire cried, “You grew!” Then giggled again before she reached into the trunk for another ornament to hang.
Stella’s heart twisted. Everybody always believed Brody’s life had been perfect. She now knew it hadn’t been.
Dinner was formal, yet comfortable. Seated beside Brody, Stella wished she really did belong. All night she’d seen him looking at her with longing and the corresponding yearning would rise up in her.
The first stirrings of misgiving trembled through her. What if she was giving up something wonderful? What if she was walking away from something great? The love of her life? But she knew it was foolish. Brody might understand trouble, but she’d never fit into his world.
Sunny rose. “Okay, let me get these dishes into the kitchen then I’ll get the pie.”
But Brody reached across the table and caught her hand. “No dishes for you! This is your retirement dinner.” He glanced at Stella and grinned. “We’ll do the dishes.”
Gwen rose. “And Jenny and I will get the pies.”
“Well, my goodness,” Sunny said, pressing her hand to her chest. “I feel so pampered.”
“You deserve it,” Stella said as she helped Brody gather the dishes and take them to the kitchen.
“I’ll scrape,” Brody said. “You stack in the dishwasher.”
“Okay,” she replied, feeling weird. When Gwen and her mom came into the kitchen giggling like school girls as they gathered the dessert plates and pies, the weird feeling shifted into a kind of awe. Her mom and dad had no problem fitting in with the Teaberrys. The relationships developing weren’t mere kindness. They seemed to be real friendships.
Addison and Claire came running into the kitchen, holding hands. “Can we have the ice cream?”
Brody stopped, crossed his arms on his chest and faced Claire. “Really? No please?”
“Please!” Claire and Addi cried together.
He retrieved the ice cream from the freezer and handed it to Claire. “Does your mom need the scoop?”
“Yes…please,” Claire said, then she giggled.
When they were gone, Stella quietly said, “You’re very good with her.”
“I love her. I also love Emma and I’m going to love the new baby.” He paused, smiled at her. “We’re family.”
“A normal family.”
“Did you expect that we had horns and tails?” He stopped, studied her face. “You did…Well, maybe not horns and a tail, but you thought we were somehow different. Thought you didn’t fit.”
“And now you see you do.”
She nodded. A million sensations bombarded her like stars twinkling in a midnight blue sky. She felt like an idiot, but she also felt shy. She suspected he liked her as much as she liked him but she couldn’t be the first to say it. He had to be first.
He grinned. “And you like me.”
For that she swallowed, caught his gaze. “I can’t say it first.”
“I can’t. You have to say it.”
“Okay. I like you first.”
She laughed. “And I like you too – even more than I thought I did the night we skated.”
“Well, thank God because I got a job at a bank in Pittsburgh.”
“The location of your med school?” He laughed, walked over and wrapped his arms around her waist. “You really don’t think I was going to let you give up? Or leave as if there was nothing between us?”
“I wasn’t sure.”
“I had every intention of finding you and simply showing up everywhere you went until you admitted you liked me. I’d wished on a tree for some direction--”
Her head snapped up. “You wished on a tree?”
“The day I drove back. I didn’t know what to do with my life or even where I wanted to live, so on the way into the house, I brushed my hand up against a pine and there you were.”
She laughed. “I couldn’t find money for med school so I wished on a tree and asked for direction and suddenly there you were.”
“Do you think we should have been more specific with our wishes?”
“I think we did just fine.” She picked at the button on his shirt. “I already admitted that I like you. So this might be a good time to kiss me.”
That was how Gwen and Jenny found them when they pushed open the swinging door. Gwen stopped, pressed a finger to her lips to make a “shh” noise and she and Jenny backed out.
Seven years later, Dr Stella Teaberry set up her family practice in an old building on Main Street in Towering Pines. Brody had taken his experience at the bank and used it to start an investment firm, which he simply moved to his hometown when Stella was ready to start her career. They had three children. Two boys and a girl.
And Gwen and Drew became very happy grandparents, running the tree farm with the Lindstroms, making sure the people of Towering Pines always had a chance to get a Christmas wish.