“Mommy?” Sleepy, warm, the soft voice pulled her from the memory.
Lifting her gaze to the mirror, Leanne smiled. “Hi, baby. Have a good nap?”
“Are we there yet?”
“Not yet, a few more minutes. Is Mr. Tickles awake too?”
“Yep, we’re hungry, Mommy. Can we have something to eat?”
Leanne smiled, even in the face of disaster, some things never changed. Reaching into the diaper bag she’d packed, she pulled out a small plastic bag and opened it with her teeth before setting in on the arm rests of her daughter’s car seat.
The smell of apples filled the car as Leanne pulled off the highway at the turnoff to her hometown. Her stomach twisted into knots as she got closer to the edge of town. She’d run from town five years before, alone, scared, broken-hearted after her boyfriend had dumped her. Running hadn’t eased the pain of knowing he hadn’t really been into her, it had only made it worse. Now she was back, maybe this would be the last visit she had with her folks, with those she’d grown up with. She was determined to make the most of it. She wouldn’t hear back from the lab until Boxing Day, and there was no point in spoiling Holly’s Christmas.
Leanne glanced up at the first fat flake hitting the windshield. Five more minutes and she’d be in the warmth of her parents’ house. Relief flooded her as she saw the familiar frame of her childhood home. She forced herself to resist the urge to press the accelerator harder. Keeping to the speed limit, she pulled in behind an unfamiliar black suburban, her brows drawing down in confusion.
“Who at Gwamma’s, Mommy?”
“I’m not sure.” Leanne debated moving the car, then she shrugged. Whoever was there would let her know if she needed to move it. She slid the gearshift into park and turned off the engine. She sat in the car listening to the pop and hiss of the engine as it cooled, only the mindless chatter from the backseat got her out of the haze she was in. A smile pasted on her face, Leanne opened the driver’s door and stepped out into the cold December air.
“Leanne, darling. So glad you made it. I was just about to send your father out to see if you’d gotten a flat or something.” Her mother rushed from the open front door, her arms opened wide to hug her as she stepped from the car.
Grinning at the exuberance of her mother, Leanne shook her head. “No flat. The weather was the hold up. Hit snow out by the bay. With Holly getting bigger, we needed more room than the apartment in Vancouver.”
“What bay?” Deep, rich, the baritone washed over Leanne like a warm waterfall.
Turning, she met the laughing green eyes of her longest friend and confident, Jay Locke, and her father, a round, robust man with gray at the temples.
“Hey, Jay.” Leanne gave him a tight hug before stepping back. “Give me a hand with the bags. I’ll get Holly. We moved last year. We live out at Cross Bay now. I work at the resort.”
“Why on earth didn’t you say something? We’d have helped you out if Vancouver wasn’t meeting your needs.” Sharon hovered by her elbow, a hand pressed to Holly’s back as she stood with her daughter wrapped in her arms. “Jay, help Robert get the bags please.”
“Sure thing, Mom.” Jay winked at her and dug into the back of the car.
Leanne grinned at the reminder of a long-held habit. Sharon had always allowed Jay into her home, into the family, even though he’d only been a neighborhood boy. With a shake of her head, she followed her mother toward the house, her gaze darting back to the man standing with her father. Neither man looked impressed with the old battered car she now drove, but she had bigger worries than concern for her choice of a car.
Stepping inside, she shivered with delight at the heat and began undoing her daughter’s coat. She glanced up sharply at her mother’s impatient wave of her hand. “What? She’ll get too warm.”
“I’ll manage. You get yourself out of those winter clothes. Your room is still free. You look tired, Leanne, you’re working too hard.” Sharon eased the sting of her words with a kiss and a smile. Tucking a strand of Holly’s hair behind her ear, she stared into Leanne’s gaze. “Get some rest. Holly and I are going to make cookies.”
“Mom, she doesn’t need to be in the kitchen. You’re probably up to your ears in baking, she doesn’t need to be underfoot. Besides, she’ll want to see the Christmas lights.”
“Don’t argue with your mother.” Robert nudged her past the door with the front of her suitcase. “It won’t help you any. Now go on with you. Get some rest. It’ll be a while before dinner’s ready.”
“Should I move my car?”
“No, Jay’s staying for dinner.” Robert nodded at the stairs. “Go on with you.”
Exhaling, Leanne finished shedding her outerwear and headed up the stairs. She smiled at the faint creak in the fourth one up. How many times had that stair gotten her into trouble for breaking curfew? The banister was warm, smooth beneath her touch, the familiarity like a hug after a long, hard day.
“She’s working herself to death, Robert. I don’t like it.” Her mother’s concerned voice drifted up the stairs as Leanne paused before her bedroom door.
Leaning her head against the cool wood, she closed her eyes to stop the burning tears that threatened to overwhelm her. “It’s not the work that’s likely to kill me, Mom,” she whispered and twisted the doorknob.
The door clicked shut behind her with a sense of finality that struck Leanne as she took in the pale pastels of her bedroom. A hand sewn quilt covered the bed, the colors and design making Leanne want to cry. She remembered when her mother had given it to her...the day Holly was born. The mattress dipped beneath her weight, and her hands smoothed over the blanket. Leanne stared at the mirror hanging on the back of the door and exhaled.
“Please, please, let me beat this. I don’t want to leave my Holly.” She curled up on the bed, her hands wrapping around herself tight to ward off the chill that seeped from within. Her eyes closed on the prayer.
* * * *
Jay frowned, the bag held in his grip as he stared at the door of Leanne’s bedroom. She’d aged since he’d seen her. He’d watched her grow up, watched her mature into the woman he’d been looking forward to seeing. Growing up in the same neighborhood, Leanne had grown to be his best friend through high school. She was a tough kid, smart, fun to be around. He’d bitten his tongue when she’d taken up with John Barthelemew—the bastard was no good and had broken more than one heart by sleeping with a girl and then dumping her. Was it the idea of running into John that had Leanne looking like she’d gone ten rounds with a bat?
The battered bag hanging from his hand, Jay knocked gently. When no response was forthcoming, he opened the door and stepped inside. Leanne lay curled on the bed, her long blonde hair in a messy knot at the back of her head. Dark shadows colored her cheeks along with the fresh tracks of tears.
“Oh Lee, what’s going on?” he whispered as he set the bag beside the small desk and backed out of the room. Jay closed the door and headed downstairs. He’d get what was wrong out of her before Christmas, she’d never held any secrets back from him.
“Well?” Sharon wiped her hands on the dish towel.
“She’s out like a light.” Jay forced a lightness to his tone he didn’t feel.
“She’s working two jobs to support them.” Sharon shook her head. “Needs a man around to help out. John shouldn’t have abandoned her.” Her sharp eyes locked on Holly’s frame playing train with Robert by the Christmas tree. “She should have him around to help her with his daughter.”
“You don’t know that John’s the dad.” Jay squeezed Sharon’s shoulder. He knew as well as anyone that Leanne was a grown woman who could do whatever she wanted. Holly’s father wasn’t up for discussion, Leanne had made that clear more than once. “And if she wants help, she’ll ask us.”
“Why couldn’t she fall in love with you? You’re the kind of guy she deserves.”
“Sharon, matters of the heart aren’t something to be discussing. Especially when they’re the type where Leanne can get hurt.” Jay turned and walked away before she caught the look on his face. He’d spent more than one night wondering the same thing.
Pouring a cup of coffee, Jay wandered from the kitchen to the living room and stood before the massive window. Having Leanne home revived old feelings, giving him something to hope for this time. Was it their time yet? Could he win her this time? Sipping at the dark brew, he offered a quick hope to the magic of Christmas that this time was going to be what he’d always hoped for.
* * * *