Katy Sullivan has brushed aside past hurts to make a name for herself in the small town of Holly Haven. Her Main Street Boutique is a successful showplace, while her sugar cookies are destined to repeat blue-ribbon fame at this year's Christmas festival. All is well...until Caleb Kendrick rides back into town.
Caleb returns home to help his sister rebound from a flare-up of Multiple Sclerosis. He's thankful to find high school sweetheart Katy Sullivan unattached, and hopes for a second chance to win her love. But Katy won't easily forget that he broke once her heart, even though that was a decade ago.
Christmas is a time for miracles, and Caleb aims to claim his. But will Katy block the blessing?
Katy Sullivan bobbled double-stacked bins of sugar cookies as she navigated the crowded school hallway. Holly Haven Elementary School’s Christmas Family Night was cranking up to full-speed-ahead, and she wondered once again how her sister had talked her into spending the better part of a busy work day baking her special recipe cookies for this event. It wasn’t as if Katy didn’t already have enough to fill her to-do list; managing her Main Street Boutique kept her especially busy this time of year, with holiday shoppers hunting for the perfect gifts.
“Oh, good…you made it.” Liz rushed up to greet her, and snatched one of the plastic bins from Katy’s arms. Liz lifted the lid, inhaled appreciatively. “Oh, these smell heavenly, and just when I was beginning to worry you’d burned the sweets.”
“Me…burn my soon-to-be-famous, top-secret-recipe cookies?” Katy blew out a breath, desperately trying to move the strands of hair that spilled across her forehead to tickle her cheek. “Never. Surely you know better that that.”
“Well…the thought did cross my mind—for a second or two. After all, we all have our off days.” Liz rolled her eyes. “I had one yesterday, and I hope I’ve fully recovered.”
“You had an off-day? Impossible. You are never less than perfect, sis.” Indeed, Katy had spent the better part of her life trying to live up to the standards her twin sister had set. Liz had penned a life plan by the age of fourteen, and she’d spent the last decade-and-a-half conquering it. She’d graduated college a full year early while Katy opted for the five-year plan. By twenty-two, even before Katy donned a graduation cap and gown, Liz was happily engaged to Curt.
By Liz’s twenty-third birthday, the couple had married, and by her twenty-fourth they’d built and moved into Liz’s dream house—a whopping three-story deal near the outskirts of town. Merely a few months later, Janie came along; and following half-a-decade of teaching, Liz had been named the principal of Holly Haven Elementary School.
Now, five years later, Curt captained trans-continental airline flights while Liz had been named Holly Haven School District’s Administrator of the Year for two years running. Katy’s head spun simply trying to keep up with all the details of their busy lives.
“Never mind about my faux pas. It’s getting dangerously close to time to open our doors for this fundraiser, and right now there are still a million-and-two things left to do.” Liz glanced at her wristwatch as impeccably neat, cropped blonde hair framed her face of perfectly-arched cheekbones and porcelain skin. You’d never know she’d already put in a ten-hour workday. Unlike Katy, who chose to wear her natural curls in their true strawberry blonde color—a sign of her Irish heritage—whose hair constantly looked as if she’d just stepped out of wind storm.
Unlike Katy. That seemed to be Katy’s mantra when it came to Liz. It wasn’t a bad thing in Katy’s mind. They were just different where everyone expected them to be…well, identical. Liz, unlike Katy, was minus a smattering of freckles across the bridge of her nose. When the two were young children, before hair dye and make-up, those freckles—or lack of them—were one of the only ways the teachers at school could tell them apart. That led to a shipyard of laughs and one very memorable phone call to their parents.
“I need you to take these down the hall to the fishing game in the Janie’s classroom, at the far end of the kindergarten wing, Katy.” Liz directed without missing a beat. “I’ll help the others get set up and ready for the crowd forming in the foyer. Janie can show you the way.”
Unlike Katy, Liz’s mind didn’t wander all over the place while escorting cookies down the school hall.
“I know the way.” Katy had visited the class for show-and-tell day just a few weeks ago, when Janie begged her to come and share cookies for her classmates to decorate. Hence her invitation to this Christmas Family Night event—word of her delicious cookies had spread like wildfire through the halls of Holly Haven. And, just last week, Janie’s teacher had invited her back for the class’s Career Day, where Katy had shared an assortment handmade jewelry, scarves, and handbags she’d fashioned for her boutique. She’d brought inexpensive baubles and allowed every child to create his or her own art design. The girls had practically squealed with delight and even the boys had loved the activity.
“I can help you carry those.” Janie swooped in beside Katy, her cheeks flushed with excitement as she reached for a cookie container. “Mama says I’m strong.”
“That you are.” Katy handed a smaller tub that held decorating supplies to her niece, who balanced it carefully in tiny hands. At five years old and nearly halfway through kindergarten, she already had the take-charge attitude of her mother that made her seem older and wiser than her years. Katy supposed she came by it honestly. Both Curt and Liz proved headstrong. “You lead the way.”
“OK, follow me, Aunt Katy.” Blonde pigtails bobbed as the heels of Janie’s black patent leather shoes clacked across polished tile. She was dressed in crisp evergreen holiday velvet and white tights…a miniature fashionista. “Mr. Caleb—he’s Billy Kendrick’s uncle—has been waiting for you.”
Katy knew well the Billy whom Janie spoke of. He was the son of Mariah Kendrick, one of Katy’s closest high school friends, and he had been full of questions during both of her visits to the school, practically talking her ear off with chatter about the treasures his uncle Caleb had scored during his many cross-country treks. The kid was a firecracker for sure, and with his tousled dark hair and eyes the intriguing color of sea foam, he’d proved the spitting image of his uncle Caleb Kendrick…the same Caleb Kendrick who’d broken Katy’s heart.
“Caleb?” Katy’s heart did a weird little two-step as his name whispered from her lips. She already knew the answer, yet she had to add, “It can’t be…it isn’t possible…I never imagined he’d be here tonight. Are you sure it’s Caleb Kendrick…the Caleb Kendrick?”
“Are there two Caleb Kendrick’s?”
“I don’t think so.” The world couldn’t possibly handle two.
“Then yes, that’s right. Billy’s uncle just opened the antique store next to yours. Mr. Caleb volunteered to help with our fishin’ game when Mrs. Onsteen got the flu.” Janie peered over the decorating bin, her gaze narrowed with a sort of confusion that said all the puzzle pieces weren’t fitting together for her. “You look upset, Aunt Katy. Why?”
“I’m just…it’s just…” Why, exactly, was she upset? It was an inevitable fact of life that she and Caleb would run into each other again, eventually, especially in a small town like Holly Haven. She just didn’t expect it to be this soon.
It’s been ten years, Katy…more than ten years. And you’ve spent the better part of that decade dodging him. The gig is finally up…
“Mama says you and Mr. Caleb used to be kind of special friends when you were in high school. What does ‘kind of special’ mean?”
“Umm…hmm…” She wasn’t often rendered speechless, yet Katy paused as a worried frown caused her lips to sag at the corners. She managed, “Caleb and I were…we were…I was…”
“Yes.” Katy swallowed hard as the thought invaded. “For a while.”
“But you’re not now?” Janie hugged the box tighter to her chest, as if trying to squeeze an answer from it. “Why?”
“I…we…” Katy couldn’t manage an adequate explanation. Even she still failed to understand what, exactly, had transpired that final day…in those last heart-wrenching moments when Caleb had ridden off, literally, into the sunset.
“Mama says Mr. Caleb still likes you. She says his eyes lit up when she told him you’d be here tonight to help, and that you were makin’ cookies. Are you gonna go out with him again—maybe to the Christmas tree lighting or for a sleigh ride along Main Street to see all the pretty holiday displays?”
“I don’t think—” Katy paused, had to catch the door jamb to steady herself. Her breath wouldn’t seem to come. “No…I have no plans to do any such thing with Caleb.”
“Hey, are you OK?” Janie bobbled the decorating crate as she tugged at Katy’s shirt hem. “You look like Mama did yesterday when she told Daddy she backed the car into the garage door.”
“She what?” Katy’s eyes grew wide and her thoughts came into focus. Liz had a perfect driving record…never so much as a speeding ticket or a fender-bender. “When did your mama manage to do that?”
“Last night. She called Daddy on the phone to tell him—he’s flyin’ his plane for the airline, you know—but Daddy wasn’t mad at all. He said it’s OK…it was just an accident…and he called the repairman for Mama. Daddy said we all make mistakes.”
“Yes, we do.” And as far as Katy was concerned, she wouldn’t repeat her mistakes, especially those she’d stumbled through with Caleb.
“So, you’re OK?” Janie’s brown eyes shone like a pair of newly-minted pennies. “Are you havin’ a headache like Mama does after a rough day at work?”
“Kind of…just a little.”
“Should I get Mama?”
“No, I’m fine. I just didn’t…” Katy sighed and glanced back at Liz, who’d not made her way down the hall yet seemed to hear every word of their conversation. Now, Liz simply waggled her fingers as she offered a lopsided grin along with a slight shrug as if to say, “Buck up little camper, where’s your holiday spirit? You act like you’re the one who plowed your SUV through the garage. It’s only Caleb. You’ll survive this.”
Easy for her to say. Katy grimaced and turned from Liz with a death glare.
“C’mon then, Aunt Katy.” Janie nodded toward a set of double doors sporting signage that read, Kindergarten Wing. “Mr. Caleb said if you didn’t get here soon he’d have to sing for the fishing game prize, and that’d be awful. Mama says he sounds like a walrus with a bad cold.”
“Is that so?” Katy’s trepidation segued to quivering laughter, because she knew Liz was teasing and Caleb’s singing voice was anything but abrasive. When Katy and Caleb were classmates at Holly Haven High he’d sung to her from the bed of his pickup truck on a stretch of warm, lazy summer nights beneath the stars. They’d even slow-danced a time or two while he serenaded. The gesture had made her feel loved and special beyond words. But that had been years ago…too many seasons ago to count. When Caleb left town following graduation, all but shattering her heart, Katy thought he’d stay gone forever. But he’d returned, and a couple of weeks ago, he’d opened an antique shop right next door to her Main Street Boutique.
Twelve days ago, to be exact. Katy knew, because she’d seen Caleb with her own eyes when he stopped by the boutique one afternoon looking for her. Of course, she’d closed the door to her back office and pretended to be busy—well, she didn’t really have to pretend that part because it seemed when it came to managing the boutique she was always busy—and said she couldn’t take visitors when her assistant Cassie buzzed in with Caleb’s request to speak with her. She’d managed to avoid him for a full dozen days, though he’d set up shop right alongside her, just to stumble into him here at Holly Haven’s Christmas Family Night.
Who would have thought?
“Yep, that’s so.” Janie’s response brought Katy back to the task at hand. “A singing walrus, that’s funny!”
“Well, we can’t have that.” Katy drew a long breath. She shook her head to clear memories of time spent with Caleb and the odd sense of longing that seeped like warm cider through her veins. She’d have to get past this train of thought and quick if she and Caleb planned to make their futures in the same town. And, from the chatter she’d heard through the grapevine, he’d returned for the long haul. Katy plastered on a smile and winked conspiratorially as she shoved open the doors with a swing of her hips. “We don’t want to scare away the customers.”
“Then we’d better get these cookies delivered to the fishing game quick.” Janie started off again, skipping to close the distance while her patent leather shoes clacked a staccato beat along the floor tile.
They rounded a corner that opened into a suite of kindergarten classrooms merrily decorated in handmade holiday crafts and strands of colorful, blinking LED lights. Christmas music spilled from a portable CD player on the counter. Above the upbeat tempo of piano chords and jingle bells, Katy heard the murmur of voices.
She recognized one of them as—
“Well, hello there, Katy.” Caleb glanced up from a where he sat in a chair that seemed impossibly too small for his broad, tall frame. He held an old-fashioned wooden fishing pole in one hand, the end adorned with a laundry clip instead of a hook and the handle graced with a generous red-velvet bow. Eyes the color of an ocean storm skimmed over her as an appreciate grin bowed his lips. “So, you’ve finally come out of hiding. You look…good.”