She made cookies again the next day. Brody was tempted not to take one. But when she thanked his dad and explained that she was simply surprised by his generosity that was why she hadn’t properly thanked him the day before, his heart swelled for her.
He might not know what it was like to be poor, but he did understand struggling, looking to find your place. The first year he and his dad had come to Teaberry Farms, he’d been an angry, rebellious teen. A kid whose mom had unceremoniously dumped him on his dad, so he couldn’t believe his dad actually wanted him. Drew Teaberry had not only wanted him, but so had Gwen. And Claire. And the Peabodys, Max and Sunny.
But it took him a while to accept that. So he knew all about pride. And right now hers was stinging. He waited two hours for a time when she was alone at the cash register, ambled over and snagged a cookie.
“I’m surprised they lasted this long.”
She glanced down shyly. “Me too.”
“They’re very good.”
“So you said yesterday.”
He sighed. She really had it bad. Pride so strong she couldn’t even forgive herself. He reached out. Tipped her face up with two fingers beneath her chin. “We should skate again tonight.”
“Hey, you owe me for yelling at me last night.”
She glanced off in the distance. “I’d rather you forgot about that.”
“I’d rather you make it up to me. Tonight, after work, by the light of the silvery moon.”
She laughed. “Your parents make you listen to old songs too?”
“Nope. Max sings that one.”
She laughed again.
“So under the moon, tonight after work.”
“It’s a da—“
She stopped. But he knew she had been about to say it’s a date and realized her mistake. He grinned. “Want it to be a date?”
“Want to live to see tomorrow?”
He laughed. “You are a little badger, aren’t you?” On a whim, he leaned across the table, beside the cash register, and close enough that he could brush his lips across hers. “Think about that today then tell me tonight if you want it to be a date.”
Brody pulled away and strode into the row of trees behind Stella who stood frozen at the cash register. That kiss might have been nothing but a brush of his lips, but warmth flooded her. Tingles of unexplainable joy pirouetted through her like snowflakes in a streetlight.
Twenty minutes later, Brody returned with a customer. James Murphy. He had been the town’s doctor for fifty years, but when he reached eighty, he’d thought it best to retire. Wearing a gray overcoat and black leather gloves, he looked like the worldly guy he was. But the character lines on his face and the slowness of his movements told the real story.
“So how are you today, Dr. Murphy?” Tree buying traffic was slow because it was a weekday. So Stella had plenty of time to fuss over him.
He batted a hand. “You know how it is. Holidays are always busy. Kids are coming in this weekend for an early celebration. I want the house to look like it did when Frannie was alive.”
Brody let the tree relax on the cash register table. “So you’re sprucing it up yourself?”
He winced. “I’ll try. These old bones don’t let me do the things I used to be able to do.”
Stella glanced at Brody. Brody nudged his head as if to tell her to simply follow his lead.
“You know, it’s slow today here at Teaberry Farms.”
“Sure is,” Stella said, not quite sure what he was leading up to.
“I’ll bet if I asked my dad, he’d let me and Stella take a few hours off and we could come down off the mountain and help you.”
Stella clapped her hands together. “What a great idea! My mom does all our decorating, so I never get to be in charge.”
Brody’s eyebrow rose. “In charge?”
“As the only woman in the group, I’m just about certain my taste will be better than either of yours.”
Doc Murphy laughed. “I don’t doubt that.”
“Okay, then,” Brody said, heading off in the direction of the house. “Let me clear it with my dad.”
He was back in under five minutes. Walking over to grab Doc Murphy’s tree, he said, “We have three hours.”
“We’ll make it enough,” Stella said, sliding from behind the cash register. “I already told Max to keep an eye on the register.”
They loaded Doc Murphy’s tree on the top of Brody’s SUV and followed Doc down the mountain to the beautiful yellow brick house he called home. Three stories high, it boasted stain glass windows above and beside the brown front door and huge picture windows, perfect for Christmas tree placement.
Brody wrestled the tree from the SUV, while Stella entered the old house with Doc. To her surprise it was sparkling clean.
“I hired a maid service.”
Stella laughed. “Good idea.”
Brody brought in the tree and a small tussle ensued as they installed the tree stand. Doc had already brought his decorations from the attic so while the men strung lights and tinsel, Stella went to work on the rest of the house.
She’d found three framed pictures of Christmases past on the fireplace mantle. They not only showed the pretty green garland accented with fat red velvet ribbons strung on the stairway banister, but also tinsel around archways between the rooms, candles on end tables, a Victorian village scattered on a buffet.
As casually as possible, she took the pictures and used them to guide her as she strung garland, hung tinsel, and placed candles and old Victorian pieces including an old firehouse and malt shop. When Brody and Doc were finally done with the tree, Doc turn around, saw the tinsel above the archway, the bows and garland on the stairway and the old Victorian village on the buffet and his eyes filled with tears.
“My God. It’s just like Frannie would have done.”
Stella’s eyes filled with tears too. She remembered his wife. A wonderful woman who always had cookies and cocoa for Christmas carolers.
“It’s beautiful. Thank you.”
One of her tears spilled over. “You’re welcome."
Brody said, "Our pleasure.” Then he glanced at his watch. “Opps. We better get going!”
Seeing that only a little over an hour had passed, Stella almost argued, but Brody was the boss’s son, so she didn’t.
They stepped out into the ever-falling snow. “That was nice.”
She smiled. “I know.”
As they walked to his SUV, he caught her hand. Something like happiness trembled through her. Which was wrong. She tried to yank her hand away, but he held fast.
“I’m fine on my own. I’ve been walking in snow more than you have recently.”
“I know. But I decided we should make this a date.”
Her heart stuttered. “A date?”
“Yeah, I’m going to take you to lunch.”
This time her voice stuttered. “Lunch?”
“Yeah. You know food shared by people getting to know each other.”
Had he said anything else, phrased it any other way, it might have offended her. But the truth was, they were getting to know each other. And she liked that they were getting to know each other.
They walked around his SUV, headed down to Main Street and the diner which was less than a block away. In a booth, they took off their gloves, shrugged out of their coats.
“I think it’s a day for some good hot soup.”
“Or chili,” Stella said. “I haven’t had their chili since…”
She batted a hand. “Since…awhile. It’s just boring stuff.”
He caught her hand. “I don’t think anything about you is boring.”
The waitress came over and they both ordered chili, hot coffee, corn bread.
When she was gone, Brody said, “You know if you don’t tell me anything about you, then this date is a bust.”
She shrugged. “I know. It’s just that the story of my life is a little…well, not happy.”
“It’s still part of who you are. It’s what makes you who you are. Tell me.”
“Everybody thinks my family is broke, but they’re not. They’re poor.”
“There’s a difference?”
“Yeah, broke is a short-term thing. Poor feels like forever.” She toyed with a salt shaker. “My biological dad doesn’t pay child support. My stepdad isn’t educated.” She glanced up at Brody. Saw he was listening. Not with pity or judgment, but simple interest. She tugged in a slow breath and decided to continue. “He had a good job until he broke his leg, and had to take time off. But things didn’t mend well, and he had to take so much time off that out of necessity his company had to replace him. When he finally healed enough to go back to work, he couldn’t find another job. My mom can only work part-time because I have a younger brother in high school and two sisters still in elementary school. What I’m making now is the only money we’ll have for Christmas gifts.”
Still holding her hand, he eased back on his booth seat. “Well, it looks like the bonus you earned will certainly come in handy.”
She smiled. “Yeah. It will. Thanks.”
“And something’s still troubling you.”
She said nothing. She’d already told him so much and this was her great heartache. Something she didn’t share with anyone.
The urge to talk, to share her burden bubbled up inside, tightened her chest. She didn’t know why she trusted him so much. Maybe because she’d wrongfully distrusted him and hurt him. She sucked in a breath.
“I can’t afford to go to med school.”
“I thought you had scholarships and grants.”
“I went through college on scholarships and grants. I thought it would be the same for med school.” She smiled ruefully. “Turns out it isn’t.”
The chili arrived and they ate with gusto, talking about him this time not her. Careful to keep the conversation centered on the things he did, not how much all of his escapades had cost, Brody entertained her for an hour. Then they returned to Teaberry Farms. A little fatter. A little happier.
Still full from lunch, when it came time to close the Christmas tree farm, Brody reminded her they’d agreed to skate again. His heart knocked against his ribs when it looked like she might make an excuse to leave, then trembled with something he was afraid to define when she finally said, “Okay.”
They skated around the frozen pond in silence. The moon bathed them in silvery light as they locked their hands, stretched out their arms so they could look at each other and began to make a circle. The world became a blur of snow covered pines, glistening stars and a moon that hovered as if smiling down on them, but Brody couldn’t take his eyes off her face. Such a beautiful face, but such sad eyes.
After a few minutes, he stopped them, cupped her shoulders with his mittened hands, bent his head and …
He might have kissed her before but this was their first real kiss. This was the one they’d both remember. So he breathed in the scent of frosty winter, made note of the full moon, the snow, the way her eyes widened in both hope and fear, the way her lips parted in anticipation…
Then he pressed his mouth to hers.
Stella’s head spun. The world whittled down to just the two of them. The warmth of his mouth, the fire in her blood, the need that was more than physical, more than emotional. It was an instinctive yearning that told her this was the one. He was the man. The guy she was supposed to spend the rest of her life with.
And wasn’t that a shame. Because not only was it the wrong time; they were the wrong people. She’d been smart enough in high school not to make too much of the crush she had on him, but it appeared that as an adult she hadn’t exercised as much common sense. She’d let him lure her into something any poor girl knew wasn’t smart.
She’d absolutely fallen in love with him. Not just his looks or his antics. But his kindness, his understanding…and the way it made her feel to know somebody genuinely cared.
It was a shame.
She pulled back. Slowly. She couldn’t have him. So she’d take second best. Pull away slowly. Memorize the sights and sounds. The silver moon. The glitter of the ice. The way her breath formed a wispy white river between them as she said, “I’m sorry.”
He blinked. “Wow. I’m not.”
She smiled. God, how she wished all this could be real. But it wasn’t. She didn’t think she was his college break fling. She knew he was feeling what she was. It simply wouldn’t work. Poor girl. Rich guy. Even if money wasn’t a problem, there was the matter of her upbringing. She’d never fit into his world.
She pulled back a little more, let her hands slowly drift from his shoulders until she’d completely separated them.
“I’ve gotta go.”
He reached for her. “No. Come on. What’s going on?”
She turned and began to walk away. “I like you.” For that she decided she should face him. “A lot. I might even be on my way to loving you and we don’t work. I’m either going to med school or about to find a job that uses the degree I have. I can’t have entanglements.”
He watched her drive away, his heart weeping with longing for her. He wanted her to succeed, to have her dream, but he also just wanted her. He’d never been more confused.