Brody wondered into the house. His hands were freezing. His feet tingled with cold. He needed a hot shower and maybe a beer. Instead, he found himself walking into the family room where he saw his dad, his stepmom, and Claire and Emma, both dressed in matching red Christmas-theme pajamas. Poinsettias had been strategically placed around the room. Tinsel and garland draped across the fireplace mantle. Because Gwen liked to decorate in stages, to make the season last, the real decorating had only just begun. They wouldn’t put up their tree until Christmas Eve. It was a family tradition.
His dad glanced over. “Hey, what’s up?”
He fell to an overstuffed red velvet chair, something Gwen had brought down from the attic every Christmas for sentimental reasons. “I think I could use some wise counsel.”
Drew laughed, but Gwen rose from her seat. “I need two minutes to get these two into bed. Don’t say a word until I get back.”
Pretty blond-haired, green-eyed Claire whined. “But I wanna hear too.”
Gwen caught both Claire and Emma’s hands. “Not tonight! You can pester Brody at breakfast.”
Claire groaned and whined some more but within seconds the family room was clear.
“If you want two minutes for private man talk, this is your time. When Gwen says she’ll be back in two minutes, she means two minutes.”
“Actually, it’s about Stella.”
“Figured as much.”
“We had the perfect day…” He paused, not knowing what to say.
“But she’s standoffish?”
“She’s not standoffish. She out and out told me that we’re not good together.”
“And you disagree.”
He sucked in a breath. “I think she might be The One.”
Drew said, “Oh…”
But standing in the doorway, Gwen clapped her hands together with glee. A pretty red sweater covered her mound of tummy. Her green eyes sparkled. “That’s fantastic.”
“Not if she doesn’t want me.”
Gwen waved a hand. “Don’t be ridiculous. I’ve seen the way she looks at you. You simply have to persevere.”
Over the next few weeks he tried. She would talk with him. She was even pleasant, sweet. He saw the longing in her eyes sometimes, but she was strong, stubborn. She’d made up her mind that they were a bad pair and she was sticking by that opinion. And as she grew stronger, Brody fell a little more in love everyday. Her heart of gold showed through in the way she treated customers. Her love of Max and Sunny made him smile. He was falling in love with a woman so strong, so determined, he had no doubt that he’d lose her ten minutes after Teaberry Christmas Tree Farm closed on Christmas Eve.
Drew watched his son with his heart in his throat. He knew what it felt like to be in love and to feel there was no way that love could be reciprocated. He’d fallen hard for Gwen, but he’d believed she deserved better. Luckily, Gwen disagreed and she’d forced him to see they belonged together.
But there was no one around to help Brody and it put an ache in Drew’s heart. So on Stella’s day off, he warmed up the SUV and drove into town. Since there was no one else to help Brody, he would.
With Stella’s home address keyed into his GPS, he navigated the narrow streets of Towering Pines, smiling at the big red bows tied on the old fashioned streetlights. The tinsel strung on sturdy pines in front yards. The silver bells that decorated mailboxes.
Finally, he arrived at Stella’s house. Convinced he needed to talk to her, he didn’t hesitate as he walked to the front door, but after he knocked, a wicked wind of common sense whipped through him. He would have lambasted his father for interfering in any of his romances. Especially when he was a head-strong twenty-two-year-old.
He prepared to pivot to go just as the door opened. A pretty blond woman of about forty smiled at him. “Can I help you?”
He turned with a smile. “I’m … Um…”
“You’re Andrew Teaberry. Stella’s boss.”
“And you must be her mom.”
She nodded. “Yes. Jenny. It’s nice to meet you. What can we do for you?”
He swallowed, feeling foolish, knowing Brody was going to kill him. “Is Stella here?”
“No. She’s out shopping.” She laughed lightly. “That bonus you gave her is going to make her Christmas very merry.”
“I’m glad.” He should have simply turned and walked away, but he couldn’t stand to see Brody so miserable. Still, Stella wasn’t here. He should just go home.
Stella’s mom wrapped her robe more tightly around her against the cold. “Why don’t you come in?”
“Please. I just made a pot of coffee and some cinnamon rolls. I’d love a minute to chat with you.”
He walked inside the clean, but sparsely furnished house and followed Stella’s mom into the kitchen that smelled the way his kitchen smelled after Gwen spent a morning baking.
Jenny waved her hand around the table that was filled with cookies and pies, and, of course, cinnamon rolls. “This is all thanks to you. We’re going to have a very special Christmas.”
A forty-something man entered from the back door. Stomping snow from his boots, he glanced at Jenny, then Drew. “Mr. Teaberry,” he said, “Is something wrong? Did Stella do something?”
“No.” He winced. "Actually, she’s doing great. I just was—"
“Curious?” Stella’s dad asked.
Drew said, “My son is so smitten with your daughter that I …” He winced. He sounded like an idiot. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be,” Jenny said, offering him a chair and a cup of coffee. “This is my husband Mark, by the way.”
Drew said, “It’s nice to meet you,” but now that he'd come this far, he didn’t want to end the conversation about Stella. “It’s just that she’s such a great worker, but we can see something is wrong.”
Jenny sighed. “Something is wrong. She’s been denied for every scholarship she’s applied to for med school.” She offered Drew a cinnamon roll. “She can get some loans but not enough. And she can’t work. Classes will be too intense. We don’t have any money to help.”
Mark took the seat across from Drew’s. “Since I lost my job, it’s been a lean couple of years to say the least.”
Drew’s head snapped up. “You lost your job?”
“Yeah. I broke my leg four-wheeling with Stella’s younger sisters. It took longer to heal than we’d thought and by the time I could come back to work my company had replaced me.”
Jenny squeezed his hand. “He’s been looking for a job, but hasn’t had much luck.”
“Well, today that might be changing,” Drew said with a laugh. “My caretaker, Max Peabody, told me today that he’s retiring. If you’d like the job, you can have it.”