Authors: Barbara Edwards
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Contemporary, #Contemporary Fiction, #Holidays, #Romance, #sweet, #Christmas
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales, is entirely coincidental.
Journey of the Magi
COPYRIGHT © 2013 by Barbara Edwards
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission of the author or The Wild Rose Press, Inc. except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.
Contact Information: [email protected]
Cover Art by
The Wild Rose Press, Inc.
PO Box 708
Adams Basin, NY 14410-0708
Visit us at www.thewildrosepress.com
First Sweetheart Rose Edition, 2013
Digital ISBN 978-1-62830-007-9
Published in the United States of America
Journey of the Magi
“With a deft touch of her brush, word artist Barbara Edwards paints an endearing story that showcases the true meanings of Christmas—love, sacrifice and the wide-eyed hopes of children. Her attention to detail, her ingenious stroke of the brush breathe life and love into this delightful story.”
~Vonnie Davis, award winning romance author
Praise for Barbara Edwards
“Barbara Edwards writes with passion and conviction.”
~Maggie Toussaint, mystery and romance author
“Barbara Edwards writes engaging and fun stories.”
~multi-published author Stephanie Burkhart
To Andy and Dawn
Thanks for the many happy hours playing
Ms. Santa at the Christmas Tree Farm.
“Christmas? Same as last year. Shut the place and go to bed,” Dan Longstreet answered his portly customer.
Ernie’s out-of-shape belly hung over the last stool at the café counter. The mingled odors of frying grease, wet wool, and disinfectant sat heavy in the heated air of Dan’s place. Sleet rattled on the frosted windows.
“That’s a shame, Dan. You need a wife and a couple rug-rats. You should have more holiday spirit, what with Thanksgiving in three days.”
“It’s not the right time, Ernie. So how about finishing up so I can close?”
“I ain’t in no hurry to drive home in this storm. Seems every year these Minnesota snows get earlier in the season.” Ernie smoothed his full white beard before he gestured at the frosted window.
Dan grinned at his friend’s twinkling blue eyes and wheedling expression. “In a few hours these roads will be impassable, and I don’t want you bunking here again. You snore like an asthmatic bull.”
An Arctic blast from the opening door fluttered napkins on the deserted tables in the darkened café, extinguished the two remaining candles, and ruffled the sawdust spread on the floor to absorb the melting snow. Dan casually checked the baseball bat hooked under the counter. Only trouble arrived this late.
His gaze latched onto the petite female and he swore he smelled spring flowers. And sunshine. He couldn’t take his gaze off her as she undid the knitted green muffler wrapped three times around her coat’s up-turned collar to reveal a thin pinched face.
His chest ached with the urge to cradle her in his arms; she looked so cold. Even with her knit hat pulled down over her ears, her high cheekbones and the up-tilted tip of her nose flamed as bright red as a cheap statue of a Christmas elf. She blinked in the bright light.
Dan’s pulse leaped like a startled deer. He knew everyone who frequented the Deer Run Lounge and Café. She was no local wife searching for an overdue husband or one of the three women who made a living, if you could call it that, picking up the lumberjacks and mill workers for an hour or two.
His blood heated, but he managed to control his urges by slowly polishing a clean glass and setting it in the rack for the next day’s trade. He nodded hello.
Her oversized man’s winter coat trailed to her ankles, but she visibly shook. He wanted to tell her to take off her coat and get warm. She removed her gloves, pulling the fingers off one by one until her white hands shone in the dim light. A pale circle around her ring finger marked the recent removal of a band.
“Is that sign in the window still good? Do you need an experienced waitress?” She returned Dan’s stare. Her flat, emotionless voice didn’t match the way her fingers twisted round and round her gloves. His palms itched to cover hers until she calmed.
“Yeah.” He nodded slowly, his mouth dry. Something in him yearned for her to be more than a passing stranger. His breath hitched. “Pine Rapids, Minnesota, isn’t jumping with help. The last girl quit without notice.”
He knew better than to expect a gift to blow in the café door, especially one that made his blood pound. “Your husband outside?”
“What?” She followed his gaze to her bare finger. “No, I’m a widow. I traded my ring for a tank of gas and a tire yesterday.”
His heart pinched. Life was hard everywhere.
“This place gets really busy, especially with the holidays coming.” He nodded again. She glanced at Ernie and a self-engrossed couple huddled in the last booth before giving Dan a disbelieving look.
“Doesn’t look busy. Do you serve meals, too?” Her brows rose questioningly.
“Not this late.” He gestured at the Budweiser clock with its prancing horses. A laughing Santa drove the barrel-loaded wagon. The hands read 10:43.
She held his glance. He longed to step closer, know what color those direct eyes would be before he warmed her lips. He shook his head to clear his wayward thoughts.
The woman didn’t question him further. She waited like the stray hound who hung around outside the kitchen door, hungry for scraps. The animal had been kicked so often it froze when the light came on, expecting more abuse.
He sighed and wiped his cloth over the polished walnut surface. This unexpected attraction mattered. He needed a waitress, not a lover or sweetheart.
“Experienced, huh? Can you take orders quickly without messin’ up? How about adding the check? I don’t have a calculator for you to carry. My last waitress, Thelma, complained she needed one when I told her to double-check her addition.”
“I can add.” When her lips curved slightly upward his breath hitched at the way her face brightened. “I worked in a restaurant for years.”
“Where was that?” Dan couldn’t drag his gaze from her restless fingers. For a split second he wondered how they would feel on his bare skin.
“California?” He gave a low whistle. “Minnesota is a long haul from there.”
“Not as far as Connecticut,” she added in a kitten-soft voice that purred through his gut. “I’ll be honest with you, mister. I’m not looking for a long-term job. I need to get some cash together. We’re going home for Christmas.
Dan swallowed his disappointment. He neatly arranged the gleaming glasses while he considered. He couldn’t keep working eighteen-hour days to keep the place open. She looked clean and sounded educated. She’d do until one of the local girls got fired or laid off after the Christmas rush ended at the stores.
“That’ll work out. I’ll need you to start in the morning.” He waved toward a shadowed arch in the side wall. “I serve breakfast and lunch to the paper mill crew.”
She sagged slightly and then straightened. “Can you recommend a place to stay? We pulled in to town tonight.”
“Pretty late to be drivin’.” Dan wanted to slap his forehead in disgust. She was tired and cold and he had kept her talking. He gestured at the frost-covered window. “The roads are getting bad.”
Grainy snow pelted the glass and moisture fogged the window as the heavy door opened again.
A small child peered around the edge and called, “Mom? Can you come? The baby’s crying.”
Dan’s gaze flew from the child to her mother.
“I have to go.” The woman hastily pulled on her gloves and wound the scarf around her head. Guilt dug claws in Dan’s soul when he straightened. He’d kept her chatting while her kids sat in the bitter cold.
He swallowed the concern lumped in his throat. She needed shelter, and he could help. “Bring the kids in here. The wind-chill factor must be pushing ten below zero.”
“Are you sure?” She paused with her hand on the door.
“Yeah, yeah. Bring in the family. I don’t mind.” He kept his voice business-like and silently promised to keep it that way.
“What about the owner?” She glanced at the kitchen’s swinging door.
He shrugged. “Like I said, I don’t mind.”
Ernie nodded slowly when Dan caught his interested gaze. “Thought you gave up collecting strays. You know you’re going to regret it,” Ernie mumbled.
“And you’re a Scrooge,” Dan muttered.
Dan blinked when less than five minutes later she struggled inside clutching a wailing baby, a huge diaper bag, and a square leather purse the size of a kitchen sink. Behind her the child awkwardly held a rumpled pink blanket. One corner trailed on the floor.
Dan started forward, but she waved him back. A vague disappointment welled up in his chest. He wanted to help.
“Thank you. We’ll be fine.”
She carefully placed the crying baby on one vinyl seat of the corner booth and spread the blanket on the other. She deftly removed the older child’s winter clothing and neatly folded it. Dressed in pink overalls and a white knit sweater with pink bunnies, the girl yawned sleepily and rubbed her eyes with her fists. Cute tyke was about five years old. In another minute, her mother had removed her wet boots and wrapped the girl snugly in the blanket. She turned to the baby.
Lifting the loudly complaining infant to her shoulder, she caught Dan’s gaze and gestured him over. “I guess I need your help after all. Can you hold the baby for a minute?”
Holding a baby wasn’t any different than holding a puppy or kitten, but this squirming bundle surprised him. The infant jerked and kicked, stretching out its arms to wave two tiny fists. He’d never felt anything more alive.
The crinkled little face wound up for another yell.
“What’s his name?” Dan laughed. Startled, the child opened wide blue eyes to stare up into Dan’s face. They studied each other until the baby glimpsed his mother. He let out a hungry scream loud enough to shatter crystal.
“He’s Nicholas and this is Holly.”
Dan turned to hand her the baby. She’d removed her coat and hat. His arms stilled and he couldn’t breathe.
Winter-wheat blonde, her thick hair curled onto her shoulders and was held behind her ears by two small combs. Her eyes shone the beckoning blue of a placid lake at sunset.
With her head reaching the top of his shoulder, she’d be the perfect height for dancing or cuddling. He managed to inhale.
She needed fattening up. She was thin to the point of skinny. He wondered if she didn’t eat enough, until his gaze dropped to her full breasts. When a rosy blush rose painted her cheeks, he silently groaned.
He swallowed again as she took the baby from his grasp.
“I need to feed him,” she whispered.
“Do you want me to warm his milk?”
She paused before her soft mouth turned up in a gamin curve that reminded him of pixies and elves: cute and delicate and other-worldly.
“I don’t think so.” She ducked her head while she arranged a receiving blanket over her shoulder and fumbled with the top button of her blouse.
Dan’s cheeks blazed with heat before he retreated behind the counter. She was breastfeeding the baby.
Noel Martin wondered if she’d blown the job she desperately needed. She snuck a sidelong glance at the tall man behind the counter and crossed her fingers.
He’d been nice and his warm smile set her at ease, but she’d embarrassed him. Men didn’t take well to being embarrassed. She sighed and turned Nicholas to suck noisily on her other breast.
Something about the male of the species, she decided. Her dead husband had been like that. Taking offense at little things that didn’t mean much to her at all. She hadn’t thought about his reaction. Another fault her husband had pointed out regularly.
A long distance trucker, he was gone more than home. Although he brought in a steady paycheck, he didn’t share his feelings or want to know hers. Maybe that was why she never felt a twinge of loneliness after his demise. Even six-year-old Holly rarely mentioned him.
Noel gazed fondly at the little girl leaning against her side. Her children were both her joy and the reason for her lingering resentment. Her husband hadn’t paid his life insurance and his death left them desperate.