Authors: Melody Carlson
Tags: #FIC042000, #FIC053000, #Orphans—Fiction, #Amish—Fiction, #Family secrets—Fiction, #Forgiveness—Fiction, #Christmas stories
© 2013 by Melody Carlson
Published by Revell
a division of Baker Publishing Group
P.O. Box 6287, Grand Rapids, MI 49516-6287
Ebook edition created 2013
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means—for example, electronic, photocopy, recording—without the prior written permission of the publisher. The only exception is brief quotations in printed reviews.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is on file at the Library of Congress, Washington, DC.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, incidents, and dialogues are products of the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Rachel Milligan had given up on Christmas years ago. Back when family dysfunction and personal disappointments had permanently jaded her attitude toward the holidays for good. However, for the sake of her only niece—a starry-eyed six-year-old who still believed in Santa—Rachel feigned enthusiasm for the upcoming season.
“Don’t you just
Christmastime?” Holly said happily as the two of them lugged and tugged the man-sized evergreen into the elevator with them.
“Oh yeah,” Rachel muttered as she stood the tree upright, jamming it into the corner. Then, balancing the hefty greens with one elbow, she brushed pine needles off her new Michael Kors coat, hoping pine pitch wasn’t too difficult to remove from ivory cashmere.
“And both of us have our birthdays at Christmastime,” Holly reminded her as she peeled off her red mitten and reached up to press the button for the forty-ninth floor. “Yours comes first, doesn’t it, Aunt Rachel?”
“Uh-huh.” Rachel didn’t care to be reminded that she
would turn thirty-five soon. Somehow this wasn’t where she’d expected to be at this stage of life—just recently some archaic labels like
had begun to flash through her head without warning. She pushed a wayward strand of sleek chestnut hair away from Holly’s eyes. “And you will turn seven on Christmas Eve,” Rachel said cheerfully. “Lucky girl.”
Holly ran a hand over a tree branch. “Mommy and Daddy will be so surprised when they see we already got the Christmas tree.” Her brown eyes twinkled with mischief, as if she thought the two of them were pulling off a high-level heist. “Can we decorate the tree too, Aunt Rachel? And put on all the lights? Can we do it all by ourselves before Mommy and Daddy get home?”
Rachel shrugged. “I don’t see why not.” Although in truth she was a tad uneasy about Holly’s impulsive suggestion they bring home a tree today. What if Michael and Miri felt as if Rachel had stolen some holiday tradition by doing this? However, it did seem a fair trade. After all, Michael and Miri were down in the Caribbean soaking up sunshine right now. Meanwhile Rachel had sacrificed her vacation time to remain here in Chicago with Holly, where the temps, combined with the wind-chill factor, had dipped into the low teens this week.
Besides that, how was Rachel supposed to say “no” to Holly’s hopeful brown eyes and charming persuasion? It didn’t help that the Christmas tree man and his big yellow dog had cheerfully greeted them every single time they’d walked past his tree stand this past week. Christmas, after all, was only three weeks away, and according to Holly,
in her first-grade class already had their Christmas trees up.
The friendly tree man had also helpfully pointed out that the selection would only diminish from here on out. Really, Rachel decided as they tugged the tree out of the elevator and down the hallway, she was doing her brother and sister-in-law a favor. Never mind that the shape of this tree, fat and full, was not what Miri would’ve picked out. Their usual Christmas tree was tall and thin and “elegant,” reaching nearly to the ten-foot ceiling.
As Rachel fumbled to retrieve the apartment key from her pocketbook, she noticed the trail of needles from the apartment door to the elevator. Maybe she should come back out and sweep it up . . . or perhaps the maintenance man would take care of that too. It never ceased to amaze her what chores he was willing to do for the tenants in this high-rise. In the house she shared with three other roommates, you cleaned up your messes.
“Let’s put the tree by the windows,” Holly suggested eagerly. “That way people can see it from outside.”
Rachel wasn’t sure how many people would look up to the forty-ninth floor to see anything, but as she recalled, it was where Michael and Miri usually positioned their tree anyway. She carefully balanced it against a column in the spacious apartment. “So, Holly, do you know where your parents keep the Christmas decorations and the tree stand and all that kind of stuff?”
Holly’s mouth twisted to one side as she thought. “Maybe in the closet, down there in the hallway,” she suggested as she peeled off her coat. But, naturally, there was no such luck. Together they hunted in vain throughout the spartanly furnished apartment. Every closet and storage place was neat
as a pin, with crates labeled, but no Christmas decorations or tree stand were to be found.
“I’ll bet those things are being stored somewhere else in the building,” Rachel told Holly. She’d heard there was storage in the basement, although she had no intention of burrowing down there.
“But the tree man said we need to give the tree some water right away,” Holly reminded her. “So it doesn’t dry out. Remember?”
Rachel nodded, recalling how he’d cut the bottom of the tree for them, saying it would help it to soak up water. “You’re right.” She went to the kitchen and took out the largest mixing bowl and filled it with water, then stood the tree in it, hoping it would do for the time being. After dealing with a large puddle, which Holly sopped up from the maplewood floor with a thick white bath towel, Rachel decided she and Holly needed to make a quick trip to the corner store.
An hour later, they returned with a brand-new tree stand and three strings of multicolored twinkle lights. By the time it was getting dusky outside, they had the tree securely in the stand with the three strands of colorful lights garlanded around and around. Rachel knew the colorful lights would be a problem for Michael and Miri, since they normally had only white lights, but for now it was fun.
“There,” Rachel proclaimed as she plugged in the lights. “How’s that?”
Holly clapped her hands and danced merrily in front of the tree. “It’s beautiful—beautiful—
Rachel stepped back to look, smiling at their
accomplishment. “It is pretty, isn’t it? Even with just the lights. I think we should leave it like this, don’t you?”
“No, we need
decorations,” her niece insisted.
“You’ll have to wait for your mom and dad to get home for that.” Rachel headed to the kitchen sink, where she hoped to wash the sticky tree pitch from her hands.
“Or else, we can make the decorations
,” Holly called out hopefully. “Like we did at school.”
So it was that they spent the rest of Saturday evening with all of Holly’s arts-and-crafts materials spread across the big glass table in the dining room. With the help of colored construction paper and pipe cleaners and glitter and stickers and all sorts of odds and ends, they managed to create some rather strange but colorful tree decorations, which they placed here and there on the bushy tree.
Although it wasn’t a school night, it was getting rather late, and Rachel wanted to be a somewhat responsible aunt by enforcing Holly’s bedtime. But Holly insisted they make cocoa first. “And we have to drink it sitting down on the floor by the Christmas tree,” she explained.
“Is that your tradition?” Rachel asked as she nuked their cups of cocoa in the microwave.
“Tradition?” Holly frowned.
“You know, the things you do every year with your parents.” Rachel removed a cup, cooling it down with a bit of milk. “Do you have cocoa together after you decorate the tree?”
Holly glumly shook her head as she reached for the cup. “Mommy and Daddy decorate the tree while I’m asleep.”
Rachel nodded as they returned to the great room. That
explained why Michael and Miri’s Christmas trees always looked so perfect, like something out of a decorating magazine. Rachel studied the chubby tree with its funky decorations and grinned. Well, they would just have to deal with this one when they got home.
“Let’s turn off all the lights,” Holly said eagerly. “Except for the tree.”
They extinguished all the other lights and, with their cocoa in hand, sat on the floor in front of the glowing Christmas tree. The image of the colorful lights reflected in the floor-to-ceiling windows was really stunning. Rachel couldn’t help but feel some pride in their accomplishment. As they sipped their cocoa, Holly begged Rachel to sing some Christmas songs with her.
.” Holly tried out the new word. “After decorating the tree.”
“Really?” Rachel said skeptically. “You and your parents have a tradition of singing under the tree?”
“No . . . not really.” Holly made a sheepish smile. “I mean you and me, Aunt Rachel. It’s
Well, who could reject that? Rachel agreed to this new tradition, and Holly led them in some songs she’d learned at school, traditional tunes that Rachel could barely remember from her own childhood, but she did her best to sing along.
Eventually their cocoa was gone and they’d sung “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer” twice and Rachel had managed to convince her enthusiastic niece that if Santa was watching, he’d be disappointed to see that Holly was up past her bedtime. To Rachel’s relief, her slightly diabolical tactic worked. After teeth brushing and one bedtime story, Holly was tucked into bed and kissed good night.
Feeling contented and tired, Rachel returned to the great room, where she made herself comfortable on her brother’s black leather Eames lounge chair. As she put her feet on the matching ottoman, she admired the product of today’s creative ingenuity. Okay, the tree did look a bit messy and chaotic and it was slightly crooked in the tree stand, and Michael and Miri would probably redo most of it when they got home next week, but in the meantime she knew Holly would enjoy it. And she would too.
In Rachel’s opinion, the chubby, funky tree provided a nice contrast to the crisp, clean lines of the modern apartment. Rachel loved Miri, but she sometimes wondered about her sister-in-law’s addiction to such extremely stark design. Whether it was the matching pair of white vinyl chairs or the sleek aqua blue couch or the glass-topped table with its pale blue crescent-shaped bowl filled with three white marble balls, everything was always in its place, and sometimes this apartment felt a bit staged. Really, what was wrong with a little well-placed clutter? She knew, however, that this was one of the things Michael appreciated about Miri.
Rachel remembered when she and Miri had been roommates more than ten years ago, back before Rachel introduced Miri to her brother and lost a favorite roommate but gained a sister-in-law. After having escaped her previous roommate, whom Rachel had secretly nicknamed Miss Piggy, she’d greatly appreciated Miri’s neat-freak habits. But studying this space now, she wondered how Michael and Miri could feel at home with these lean-lined furnishings. Did they really relax amid the shiny surfaces, bare floors, and oversized pieces of modern art? Or was this simply meant to be a showplace
for Michael’s clients and business associates? Rachel knew they entertained frequently.
Of course, she’d never question them on this. This was their place and they could do as they liked with it. If this were her apartment, though—and sometimes she wished she had an elegant downtown space like this—she would add some touches of warmth and color and texture and interest. Holly would probably like that better too.
Rachel didn’t like to tell anyone how to live their lives, particularly her older brother, Michael. He always seemed to have all the right answers. She’d always thought of him as the solution guy. She knew she would never have survived her childhood, and even parts of her adulthood, without Michael’s intervention. However, if she were to give her brother one piece of loving sisterly advice, she would suggest that he slow down his fast-paced lifestyle. Between working long hours, keeping multiple social commitments, and traveling for pleasure, he seemed to be overly busy.