The next morning, Stella Lindstrom arrived at Teaberry Farms and stalked to the checkout stand, still in a sulk. She didn’t know why she’d been so snippy with Brody Teaberry the day before–
Actually, yes, she did. The guy was a walking GQ cover. Tall and lanky, he wore his J. Crew coat and sweater like a man so accustomed to money it had no meaning for him. Add blue-gray eyes and hair that had darkened from yellow to a shiny ash brown over the years since high school, and Brody Teaberry was the kind of luscious a girl like Stella would simply love to sigh over.
But she couldn’t. Not only was she smart enough not to get involved with the guy everybody wanted but absolutely couldn’t have, but also she had plans that were – even as she stood manning the cash register for a Christmas tree farm that promised miracles – crumbling before her very eyes.
She was pre-med. In one semester she’d graduate. County bumpkin that she was, she’d spent her college years believing that money for med school would simply fall from the sky when she needed it the way scholarships had materialized for her basic studies. Instead, money had dried up. She barely got enough grants and scholarships to finish her Bachelor’s degree.
And for what? So that she could have no options, no opportunities for med school? It didn’t seem fair –
No, fairness had nothing to do with it. What it was was cruel. Fate had dangled a new life for herself and her family in front of her and now it was snatching it away.
“Why so glum?”
Forcing a smile, she turned to Max Peabody. He and his wife Sunny were like two loveable Christmas bears. Smiles and cookies, Christmas carols and surprise gifts were their passion. Only a curmudgeon would be grumpy with them.
“I’m just thinking.”
She sighed. “About med school.”
Max’s already big smile grew into a face-wide grin. “You’re family’s so proud.”
She said, “Yeah,” happily enough, then swallowed and turned away, glad for the customer who’d stepped up to claim the tree Max carried. That was another thing. She was disappointing her family. Not just losing her dream, but disappointing her parents, her sisters, her brother who planned to follow in her footsteps as soon as he was out of high school.
She walked over to the customer’s tree and eyeballed it to get an approximate size, since the trees were priced by the foot. This one was a beaut. At least seven feet and bushy with thick, pine-scented branches, it smelled like heaven.
"That’ll be—" she paused. Turned to the tree again.
All right. She knew that the legend that Teaberry trees brought miracles was only a legend. But some days, when a woman was feeling a bone-deep disappointment in herself, even a legend was better than nothing.
She faced the customer with an apologetic smile. “Just let me get one more measurement,” she said, pretending to be eyeballing the tree’s size again, even as she brushed her gloved hand over a thick, happy branch, and squeezed her eyes shut. “Please,” she thought. “I’m not a picky, greedy woman. I just want to help my family. Point me in the right direction.”
She didn’t think it was necessary to say, “Point me in the right direction for scholarships and grants.” That was a given.
She faced the customer with another smile and quoted the price of her tree. The well dressed woman reached into her designer bag to pull out a leather wallet and produced the cash.
Stella smiled at her as she took it. Ridiculously, her wish on the tree had given her hope again.
She made change, said, “Merry Christmas,” and waved as Max hoisted the customer’s tree and led her to her shiny SUV.
Glad for the temporary reprieve in her mood, she faced front again only to be looking directly at Brody Teaberry.
Damn! The sulk was back.
But he looked so good in the thick blue sweater that made his eyes look more blue than gray, with the wind blowing his hair around, and the grin on his lush mouth. Since high school, he epitomized everything she wanted and everything she couldn’t have.
“I see you’re your usual chipper, happy self,” Brody said, then cheerfully patted her cheek. “Customers must love you.”
“The customers do love her,” Max said, returning from tying the tree to the customer’s SUV. He caught her by the shoulders and squeezed. “And we love her.”
With that he scampered off and Stella raised her eyes to meet Brody’s assessing gaze. “I’m usually much nicer.”
“Right.” He turned to the field. “Does it still work the same way?”
“Does what still work what way?”
“I follow customers back into the field of trees and then cut the one they choose?”
He laughed. “Do you think I got through college on my looks?”
He probably could have, but she wasn’t going to be the country pumpkin to mention that.
“Okay, look. My dad did pay for most everything, but I had to find my own spending money. I know how to work.”
“Poor baby,” she said, then wished she could cut out her tongue. If she didn’t stop antagonizing the boss’s son, she’d end up fired and then not only would she not go to med school, but there’d be no gifts for her brother and little sisters under the tree for Christmas.
He snorted and strode past the checkout stand. “I’ll just assume we’re working the same system.”
With that he was gone and Stella squeezed her eyes shut in misery. Why was she so mean to somebody she’d always liked so much. Jealous?
She sighed. Probably.
Twenty minutes later, Brody came to the checkout with an older couple and she made a concerted effort to be nice to him.
“That was a lovely tree. You have a good eye.”
He shook his head. “Nah. They picked it. I just cut.”
“Still, you did a good job.”
He flushed a bit and Stella relaxed.
The next two days, she managed to be very nice to Brody. But with every passing day scholarship denials mounted in her mailbox. She wasn’t surprised. Desperate, she’d applied for things way out of the realm of possibility.
Day three, she worked the noon-to-seven shift at the tree farm, able to stave off her grief and sadness. But when it came time to go home, when frigid darkness had settled in and a full moon had risen over the black rise of trees on the horizon, she couldn’t go home.
She’d pretended all day that her life was fine. But it was easier with strangers. At home, where everyone knew her so well, it would be so damned hard to keep her façade in place. So as Max turned off the strings of lights that lit the square where precut trees huddled and the cash register sat silent, she didn’t go to the door of her car. She headed for the trunk, rummaged a bit, and pulled out her skates.
“Oh, gonna hit the pond a bit?”
She smiled at Max. “Yeah. I need a minute or two to clear my head.”
“You could come in for supper first.”
Her stomach growled. Supper would be so nice right now. But she was as proud as her parents. The Lindstroms didn’t take handouts. And an offer of supper on a day when her station in life was weighing down on her definitely felt like a handout. She pretended to be busy with her skates.
“I’m not really hungry. More in the mood for a little alone time.”
Max said, “Got it,” waved and headed to the house.
When he opened the back door, the scents of chicken and dumplings wafted outside to her. Her stomach rumbled again, but she resolutely headed for the pond.
* * *
In the warm, chicken-and-dumplings-scented kitchen, Max shrugged out of his coat. “Stella went back to the pond to skate.”
Gwen turned from the stove. Her round belly got bigger every day and Brody had to school his features to keep from gaping at her. “It’s freezing out there! At least before she skates, she should get some warm food in her.”
“Told her exactly that,” Max said as he took a seat at the round table where the family would soon dive into chicken and dumplings. “But she’s a proud one. Plus, I think there’s something wrong.”
“Like what?” Brody’s dad asked, taking his seat between Emmalee and Gwen.
Max scratched his beard. “I don’t know but something’s up.”
Stretching to place a tray of homemade rolls beside the piping hot chicken, Gwen said, “I’m going out there to talk to her.”
A chorus of “Oh, no, you’re not,” erupted from the table.
Sunny added, “There’s a foot of snow to trudge through. You don’t even have boots that high.”
Gwen planted her hands on her hips. “Well, we can’t leave the poor girl out there alone in misery.”
Brody rose. “I’ll go.”