Christmas Homecoming

Molly has returned to Serenity for Homecoming…but will she stay forever?

Beau Julander, a single father of two, is having trouble juggling the responsibilities of career, home and family. And his work for the Homecoming Week Committee makes this time of year really busy–but not too busy to get reacquainted with Molly Shepherd, a girl he barely knew in high school.

His attraction to Molly and her obvious interest in him soothe the damage done to his ego when his ex-wife walked out on him, but he’s keenly aware of how his kids have been hurt by the divorce, and he doesn’t want to make things worse for them by becoming involved in a relationship that’s only temporary. But Beau and his kids soon find out that Molly is not a temporary kind of woman–she’s in for the long run.

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Also released as The Christmas Wife

The Christmas Wife


(copyrighted material)

CHAPTER ONE

“Has anybody seen another blue sock?” Beau Julander straightened from the basket filled with clean, unfolded clothes and closed the dryer with his hip. “Anybody?”

Late autumn sunlight streamed into the renovated kitchen of the old farmhouse he’d inherited from his grandparents, spotlighting last night’s dishes stacked by the sink, still waiting to be washed. Leaves from the huge oak trees in the yard fluttered past the window, and the autumn colors on the foothills surrounding Serenity gleamed in the warm Wyoming sunlight.

Beau kicked at the mound of unwashed laundry at his feet and turned toward the table where his twelve-year-old daughter scowled at the pages of an open notebook. “Brianne? Did you hear me?” It was an unnecessary question since he was standing less than ten feet away, but she’d been giving him the silent treatment for days, and he was growing tired of it.

Brianne slowly turned a page in her notebook and rolled her eyes toward the ceiling where footsteps thundered overhead. Eight year-old Nicky must still be searching for the missing math worksheet Beau had sent him to find. Brianne let out a sigh weighted with pre-teen attitude and big-sister irritation, brushed a lock of wheat-blond hair from her eyes, and rolled her gaze back toward her father. “When Gram was taking care of us, we always knew where our socks were.” One eyebrow arched meaningfully. “That’s because they were always clean.”

Beau congratulated himself on getting a few words out of her and pretended not to notice the gauntlet she’d tossed. Before the divorce she’d chattered at him endlessly, sharing news of her day, talking about her hopes, dreams, joys, and disappointments. She’d changed since her mother left, and things had taken another turn for the worse two weeks ago. Now if she wasn’t ignoring him, she was starting an argument.

He’d been struggling to hold things together for a year since Heather walked out on him. He’d been sinking fast since the night two weeks ago when he’d decided it was time to do the job on his own. All he wanted was for life to get back to normal. For Brianne to greet him with a smile once in a while. To get through just one morning without an argument.

“These clothes are clean,” he pointed out. “At least some of them are. And if each day would just come with three or four more hours attached, they’d be folded and put away, too.”

Brianne’s only answer was an annoyed sniff, but that was better than some responses she could have made.

Beau was due at the air strip in less than an hour to begin a charter flight that would keep him in the air most of the day. He’d be home in time for supper and a last-minute meeting of the homecoming committee, but he didn’t have time to spare, and he wasn’t in the mood to explain—again—why things had to change.

He bent over the basket and dug until he found two boy-sized socks that were similar, if not exact matches. Tossing them onto the washer, he turned back to the eggs he’d left cooking.

Brianne slid a pointed glance at the stove. “Gram never burned the eggs, either.”

“Gram is a better cook than I am,” he said as he reached into the cupboard for plates. He flipped the mass of eggs that had started out as scrambled and turned off the burner. “But I can learn.”

Brianne made a face and looked away. “That’s doubtful.”

Struggling to hang onto his patience, Beau put the plates on the counter and opened the drawer for the silverware. “Get used to it, Brie. Gram isn’t going to be taking care of you anymore.”

“Well, she should.”

“I know you think so.”

The girl turned a page and shoved a stack of homecoming flyers out of her way. “You’re just being mean.”

“No, I’m being practical. Your grandmother was a great help after your mom left. But I’m taking care of us now. We have to expect that a few things will be different.”

Brianne glowered without actually making eye contact. “I don’t want things to be different.”

“I realize that, too.” Beau pulled juice from the refrigerator, found three clean glasses in the dish drainer, and carried everything toward the table.

“Gram never left dirty dishes around either,” Brianne pointed out needlessly. She brushed a piece of lint from her pale pink sweater and swept a lock of hair over her shoulder.

Beau put a glass in front of her and filled it with juice. “Gram’s had more experience taking care of a house and kids than I have. I just need to get organized, that’s all. Once Homecoming Week is over, I’ll have more time.”

“You won’t have more time,” Brianne said sullenly. “As soon as Homecoming’s over, you’ll start getting ready for Christmas.”

“Not immediately.”

“Almost.”

“I might not help with Christmas this year.”

“Yes you will, because if you don’t you’ll just worry about where they put the banners and whether those wire deer decorations on Front Street are lit right.” She reached for a napkin and wiped her mouth with it. “You like doing all that stuff. Mom said so.”

He’d heard that accusation more than once. Coming from Heather it had always made him feel slightly guilty—as if volunteering to help his community was something to be ashamed of. It didn’t sound much better coming out of Brianne’s mouth.

“Serenity’s a small town,” he reminded her. “Without volunteer help, there would be very few things going on around here. But you’re not the only one who has to make changes.”

Brianne’s face twisted in disbelief. “Bet you’ll do Christmas. You always do.”

“Bet I won’t. I already told the mayor to find someone else. And he will.” He’d better, anyway. Mayor Biggs hadn’t sounded convinced that Beau needed to step down. “I’ve told him I’m staying just until I can get a replacement up to speed.”

Another skeptical roll of the eyes met that promise. “I still don’t see why Gram can’t come back and take care of us. That way you could do stuff like Homecoming and Christmas and you wouldn’t have to worry. We wouldn’t get in your way, and Nicky wouldn’t be so sad anymore.”

“You don’t get in my way,” Beau said evenly, “and Nicky doesn’t seem all that sad to me. And has it ever occurred to you that Gram might have other things to do?”

“Like what?”

He leaned against the counter and crossed one foot over the other. “Okay, fine. Gram would have kept coming over here every day for the rest of her life if I’d let her, but that wouldn’t be fair to Gram.”

“Why not? She likes doing it.”

“I know she does, but taking care of us is my job, not hers. Gram’s already raised her family—”

We’re her family. She says so all the time.”

“Well, of course we’re her family.” At least, the kids were. Beau shifted uncomfortably and tried to find a way to explain the subtle nuances that seemed to be lost on his daughter. The initial shock of Heather’s decision had worn off, the divorce had become became final in July, it felt more and more wrong to give his ex-wife’s mother free rein over his house.

It wasn’t that he didn’t appreciate her help, but he didn’t appreciate the way she watched and judged every step he took, her belief that Heather would “come to her senses” one day and return to Serenity, or her repeated insistence that Beau should be waiting for that day with open arms. He didn’t like thinking that Doris was filling the kids’ heads with unrealistic expectations about their mother, either. But how to explain that to a child who didn’t really understand why her mother left?

“Gram’s been great to help us,” he admitted, “and you know how much I appreciate what she’s done. But I’m starting to feel like I’m not doing my job.”

“That’s dumb.”

Beau sat at the table and filled the other two glasses with juice. “That from the girl who keeps pointing out everything I don’t get done?”

“You’re no good at housework, Daddy. That’s why Gram has to come back.”

Her lack of faith stung, but the “daddy” took some of the sting away. Beau went after the plates and decided to skip that second cup of coffee. “I’m not saying you can’t see Gram, sweetie. You and Nicky can visit her any time you want.”

Any time?”

“Within reason. You can’t just disappear without asking me, and you should make sure Gram’s home first, but if you want to stop by after school once in a while, I won’t say no.”

Brianne kicked the back of her chair rhythmically. “That’s not even the same as having her here.”

“No, it’s not. But that’s how it has to be.” Beau checked his watch and groaned aloud. Once, he’d been a stickler about punctuality. Lately, it seemed as if he was always late. “How about running upstairs to see what’s keeping your brother? The school bus will be here in ten minutes.”

“I don’t think it’s fair that I have to babysit because you don’t want Gram here.”

“That’s enough, Brianne. I’m not asking you to babysit. I’m asking you to contribute to the family. Now go.”

She let out another deep sigh, rose majestically to her feet, and disappeared with one last dramatic roll of the eyes. Beau spooned cold eggs onto plates with a grimace, and made a silent bet with himself about how much the kids would choke down before they ran out the door. He knew exactly how much he’d eat.

Brianne was right about one thing, he thought with a frown. Housework wasn’t his strong suit. But that was going to change. He just needed time. A chance to focus. Then the piles of laundry would disappear and the dirty dishes would vanish. His relationship with Brianne would get back to normal, and he’d prove, once and for all, that he was more than capable of raising the kids on his own.

Twenty minutes later, Beau stood in his cluttered study and tried to remember where he’d left his car keys. Thankfully, the kids had made it to the school bus on time, but he’d be late if he didn’t walk out the door in two minutes. He dug through a stack of old mail, patted the desktop beside his computer monitor, and swore softly under his breath.

He had to get more organized. That’s all there was to it.

He’d just lifted a stack of mail that still needed sorting when the telephone rang. He thought about ignoring it, but one glance at the Caller ID box changed his mind. He snagged the receiver from its cradle and snapped, “Gwen? What’s wrong?”

“Well, that’s a nice greeting,” his sister returned. At thirty-one, Gwen was two years his junior, solid and dependable and, thankfully, willing to take up the slack while he adjusted to the world without his mother-in-law underfoot. “What are you doing home? I’ve been trying to reach you at the office.”

Beau frowned and cradled the phone against his shoulder. “I have a better question. Why are you trying to call me?”

“Why shouldn’t I?”

“Call me paranoid,” he said, “but a call at this hour of morning isn’t a good sign—especially on a day when you’ve promised to pick up the kids after school.”

Her indrawn breath and soft sigh as she let it out again confirmed his suspicions. Her response cinched it. “Don’t kill me, okay?”

“Gwen…”

“It’s Riley’s mother’s birthday. We’re supposed to take her to Star Valley to visit her sister. I forgot all about it until five minutes ago.”

Beau tossed the stack of mail back onto the desk. “You don’t have to pick up the kids until three-thirty.”

“We won’t be back that early. We’re taking Riley’s brother and his family with us, and they have the whole day planned. I’m really sorry, but we’ll be gone until late.”

Beau stared out the window but he barely saw the autumn foliage on the hillside in front of him. “You’re leaving me in the lurch because of a birthday party?”

“I have to. We’re committed.”

“You’re committed to me, too, Gwen. What am I supposed to do now? I’ll be in Jackson when the kids get out of school.”

“I know, but can’t they take the bus home just this once?”

“They take the bus home every day unless Brianne has karate and Nicky has soccer practice.” Beau turned away from the window and rubbed the back of his neck. “I can’t believe you’re doing this. I have to take off in just a couple of minutes. People are waiting for me in Grant’s Pass—”

“I know, and I’m really, really sorry. Riley feels horrible, too. Usually, one of us remembers things like this, but somehow we both spaced it this time.”

Beau checked his watch and swore again. “Fine. Whatever. I’ll call Mom and see if she can help.”

“Don’t bother,” Gwen said quickly. “I’ve already called. Lucas says she left for King’s Junction half an hour ago.”

Beau growled in frustration, shoved aside a teetering stack of junk mail, and finally spied his keys beneath a picture Nicky had brought home from school the previous afternoon. He stuffed the keys into his pocket so he wouldn’t lose them again and carried the cordless phone with him into the kitchen where the scent of over-cooked eggs still hung in the air. “Did you ask Lucas what he’s doing?” Their younger brother wasn’t nearly as responsible as Gwen, but he’d do all right for a few hours.

“He’s scheduled to work until seven.”

A tension headache began to pound behind Beau’s eyes. He ran quickly through a short list of friends close enough to ask a favor on such short notice, but he couldn’t think of anyone who’d be home at that hour. “This is one helluva time to leave me hanging,” he snarled. “I can’t afford to ask another pilot to fly this trip. Property taxes are due in two months, and canceling at the last minute would shoot holes in my reputation.”

“Well, of course you can’t cancel. I know that. But I can’t cancel on Riley’s family, either.” Gwen’s voice trailed away thoughtfully, then brightened again. “How about Doris? I’m sure she’d be glad to watch the kids.”

Beau laughed harshly. “I don’t think so. She’s still upset with me.”

“But she’s their grandmother.”

“A grandmother who’s convinced that I’m going to fail with the kids and who’s just waiting for me to prove her right.”

“This isn’t failure,” Gwen said reasonably. “This is a scheduling conflict. Besides, you shouldn’t let her bother you.”

Beau jammed his shirttail into his waistband. “We’re talking about Doris Preston, right? My mother-in-law? The woman who can turn stone to dust with just a glance?”

Gwen laughed. “I’ll admit she’s a little obsessive, but she’s not that bad. Her feelings are hurt, but she’ll get over it. If she knows that you really aren’t going to keep the kids away from her, maybe it’ll help heal the rift between you.”

“I doubt it.” Beau tugged open the fridge and pulled out two cans of cola, two apples, and a seal-a-bag filled with grapes. “I saw her at the gas station yesterday,” he said as he stuffed the snacks into his knapsack. “She pretended I didn’t even exist. She’d like nothing better than to have me begging for help today.”

“Oh please. You’re a good father. You were a great husband. Heather’s the one who decided she wanted a different life and Doris feels responsible for some reason. You’ll get used to caring for the kids on your own. You just need time.”

Beau smiled ruefully. “Thanks, Sis. Some days I need a cheerleader.”

“Whatever you say. Just be realistic okay? What other choice do you have?”

Beau kneaded his forehead and tried like hell to think of another solution, but Gwen was right. Doris was his only option. “Go,” he said as he checked to make sure he’d turned off the stove. “Eat cake. Open presents. Have a grand time. I’ll call Doris and grovel.”

“Don’t grovel. Just ask.”

“Right. I’ll ask.” He disconnected a few seconds later, but even with the minutes racing past he couldn’t make himself pick up the phone again immediately. He didn’t think Doris would turn him down, but asking a favor of her so soon sure felt like he was losing ground.

Beau had never learned how to admit defeat easily—not on the football field in high school, not in his marriage, not in any other aspect of his life. Only the balance in his checking account got him to dial Doris’s phone number. Only the certain knowledge that Doris adored the kids and the hope that a visit with her might even soften Brianne’s mood kept him from hanging up when she answered.

“Hey, Doris. It’s Beau. Am I catching you at a bad time?”

He sensed a slight tensing on the other end, but that might have been his imagination. “Well, Beau. This is a surprise. What do you need?”

Nope. Not his imagination at all. He kept a smile on his face and hoped it would carry through to his voice. Anything to take the chill off Doris’s tone. “I’m in a bind,” he forced himself to admit. “I’m calling to ask a favor. If you don’t want to, or if you have other plans, just say so. I’ll understand completely—”

“You need help with the children?”

“Just for this afternoon. I have a charter. Gwen was going to pick them up for me, but she forgot a family obligation.”

“And you need me.”

If the sun hadn’t been streaming through the dirt on his window, he’d have sworn he’d stepped into one of Wyoming’s famous January freezes. “It would help a lot if you could get the kids from school. Brianne has karate and Nicky has soccer—”

“I remember their schedules. It hasn’t been that long.”

“Of course you do.” Beau concentrated on keeping his tone even. “If you don’t mind, I’ll pick them up from your house about five.”

“You don’t want me to take them to your house?”

And see everything he hadn’t done? Not a chance. “No. Thanks. I don’t want to impose, and I’m sure you already have plans around home.” He kept talking so she couldn’t disagree with him. “I won’t be late. You don’t even have to worry about giving them supper. I’ll be home in plenty of time for that.” Even if it was just fast food from the Burger Shack.

“I see.”

She sounded so much like Heather, Beau closed his eyes and reminded himself why he was calling Doris in the first place. “I know it’s a lot to ask, but it would really help me out.”

“It’s not a lot to ask,” Doris said firmly. “That’s the whole point. I’m glad to do whatever those children need—and heaven knows, they need plenty. It just seems wrong to me, having to schedule time to spend with them. I don’t understand why you’re being so stubborn when it’s obvious you can’t handle them on your own.”

“I can handle the kids. I’m just in a bind this afternoon, that’s all.” He could feel his irritation rising, so he took a couple of deep breaths and watched the neighbors across the street driving away to start their day. “I need a favor,” he said when he could trust himself to speak, “but I’m not going to argue with you. It’s time for me to get back on my feet, but that doesn’t mean you and the kids can’t spend time together. It’s not as if I’m trying to separate you from them.”

“Well, it sure feels like it.” She sighed heavily and he could almost see the scowl on her face. “Is it all right if I give them an after school snack?”

When had that ever been an issue? She really was trying to make this difficult. Beau closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead. “You can give them an afternoon snack,” he said. “You can let them watch TV if they don’t have school work, just like always. I’ll be home by five.” And then, because he could feel a tension headache starting, and because he didn’t have the patience or the energy for more, “Thanks a lot Doris. If you need to reach me, I’ll have my cell phone on when it won’t interfere with the instruments. If I don’t answer, leave a message and I’ll get right back to you.”

He disconnected before she could argue, rubbed his forehead with both hands, and let out a world-weary groan that probably would have frightened small children and animals if there had been any around. He had to get his life under control.

He knew he could do it. Like training for football season or learning how to fly. He’d keep distractions to a minimum and focus on the goal. It had worked for him before. He’d just have to make it work again.

Molly Shepherd absently tapped her fingernails on the rental car counter at the Jackson airport while she waited for the clerk to locate her reservation on the computer. She was just two hours away now. One-hundred-twenty minutes—give or take—before she drove into Serenity for the first time since her mother’s death. Not for the first time, she wondered if coming back was a mistake. But after spending most of the day on an airplane, and a significant chunk of money to get here, it was a little late to be having second thoughts.

She tugged the strap of her purse onto her shoulder while the clerk concentrated on the screen in front of him. A soothing feminine voice paged passengers over the public address system. Soft music underscored the noise of the crowd and should have calmed the nervous energy of the airport, but every sound added to the tension in Molly’s neck and shoulders.

The card announcing Serenity’s Homecoming Week Gala had reached her mailbox at a vulnerable time. One year after her divorce from Ethan, six months after her father’s funeral, one month after being downsized out of the job with the graphic design firm she’d held for five years. She’d been at loose ends for weeks and searching for some way to tie those ends together again when the invitation arrived. So she’d jumped first and saved questions for later.

The man behind her bumped into the trolley holding her luggage. She wheeled it out of his way and glanced out the window at the towering Teton Mountains that created the valley known as Jackson Hole. They already wore a cap of snow though it was only the first of October. It wasn’t that she hadn’t wanted to come back to Wyoming before now, just that there had never been a real opportunity before. Her father had never wanted to come back, and Ethan had never been interested in her past. Neither of the men in her life had understood how much the missing pieces of her memory bothered her.

The young man behind the counter clicked fingers over the keyboard and glanced at her through hooded eyes. “We’re out of compacts. Mid-size okay with you? It’ll be the same price.”

“Mid-size is fine.” She forced a smile and tried to shake off her uncertainty. So it had been fifteen years since she’d seen or heard from anyone of her old school friends. So she couldn’t remember most of her senior year. There were things and people she could remember. Most importantly, she had a chance to find answers to questions that had been haunting her for years.

“Do you want insurance?”

“No,” she said, making a conscious effort to stop worrying. “Thank you.”

“Are you sure?” A concerned smile quivered across the young man’s lips. “You’re taking quite a risk. You want to make sure you’re fully covered.”

Driving without extra insurance felt like a minor risk compared to the other risks she was talking. “I’m quite sure. Thank you.”

“Will there be any other drivers besides yourself?”

“No.”

“And you want unlimited mileage…?”

“Yes, please.” Maybe she’d want to do some sight-seeing while she was here. The butterflies made another round in her stomach and nervousness made her hands clammy. She silently chanted the mantra she’d been reciting all day. It didn’t matter if none of her classmates remembered her. It didn’t even matter if she spent the entire week alone. She had to take advantage of this opportunity or she’d regret it the rest of her life.

“You want the car for how long?” the young man asked without looking away from his screen.

“Two weeks, maybe less. I don’t know for sure.”

His eyes left the screen reluctantly. “You don’t want the weekly rate?”

He seemed confused, but she didn’t want to elaborate. “Two weeks,” she said firmly. “I’ll bring it back on the seventeenth.”

“Of October.”

“Yes.”

“You’re sure? I can recalculate if you need me to.”

The man behind Molly groaned in protest over the extended delay and she felt a prickle of nervousness. She hated imposing, even on a stranger. “I’m quite sure. Two weeks is perfect. No early return.”

The kid behind the counter typed a bit more, and Molly let her gaze travel across the crowd. Slowly, she became aware of a deep male voice edged with tension coming from the corridor behind her. A heartbeat later, she identified the speaker as a tall blond man wearing jeans and a sage-colored shirt who maneuvered through the passengers crowding the baggage claim turnstiles as he set a steady course toward the car rental area.

“Excuse me.” He turned sideways to sidle past a young mother with three children and came up short behind a hefty woman weighted down by several bulging bags. “Pardon me.”

Annoyance pinched his face, and it was easy to see that he was having to work to hang onto his patience. “I’m sorry, ma’am, would you mind—?”

Molly started to turn away, but something about him worked through the haze of nervous energy around her and brought her around again. Maybe she was imagining things, but the voice, the face, even the way he moved seemed hauntingly familiar.

Did she really know him, or was she just jumping to conclusions now that she was in Wyoming?

“Okay. I think we’re set.” The clerk tapped the counter to get her attention. “Here’s your key, and here’s your contract. You’ll need to keep that in your glove box at all times…”

Molly nodded absently and took another look at the man who towered over most of the people around him. Broad shoulders, narrow hips. The muscular legs of an athlete… He put his hands on an elderly woman’s shoulders as he slipped behind her, then pivoted toward the rental counter.

Molly’s gaze flew to his face again and the niggling feeling took form. This time she knew it wasn’t her imagination. In fact, she couldn’t decide why she’d even wondered. His was a face she would have sworn she’d never forget—not even for a second.

Beau Julander. High school jock, senior class president, every teacher’s favorite student, every girl’s dream. He was hands down the hottest guy Molly had ever seen in her life—and that list included Ethan when she’d been in love with him.

Her breath caught and her hands grew damp. Her heart raced and her stomach knotted uncomfortably. Fifteen years dropped away as if they’d never been, and she felt young and foolish and hopelessly self-conscious, just as she’d been the last time she remembered being in Serenity.

She whirled back toward the clerk and pretended to pay attention to his final instructions as Beau came to a stop at the back of the line behind her. She tried to swallow, but her throat was parched and her mouth dry. She resisted the urge to look back at him and nodded in all the right places as the clerk talked. But even with her back to him, Molly was all too aware of Beau.

Time had been good to him. No surprise there. He’d always led a charmed life. He was still tall and solidly muscled, still better looking than any man had a right to be. She touched one hand to her cheek, realized how silly she was acting, and gave herself a stern mental shake.

So, he was Beau Julander. So what? He probably wouldn’t even remember her.

She stole one last peek at him and looked away again. Yes, of course, she’d expected to see him at Homecoming. Homecoming probably couldn’t even take place without Beau Julander there. But she hadn’t expected to see him so soon. Not while she looked as if she’d been sleeping in her clothes. Not when her breath reeked of garlic from lunch on the airplane.

And most importantly, not alone.

(copyrighted material)


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