What does a girl do with a Christmas present that’s too good to be true?
This year’s Christmas is worse than ever. Candice Cane-Bryant (don’t call her Candy Cane) is stressed by her job, exhausted in her role as surrogate parent to her three younger siblings, and angry with her carefree adult sister, Jane. And all of that has her feeling guilty for not appreciating God’s gift of keeping her family together.
When Jane brings home another new guy, one more weight is added to Candice’s oversized burden. She’s lonely and wants a man to love. Not just any man—she’s in love with Dean Harlowe, Jane’s boyfriend, and no matter what she does, her feelings for him won’t go away. But this year, Jane has a present for her sister, and when Candice unwraps this one, Christmas will never be the same.
Candice shoved the car into park, turned off the engine, and rested her face against her hands. When she finally raised her head, she took a long look at the house. Outlined in sparkling white lights, it glowed against the twilight sky—such a cold blue, like the color itself should snap with the chill.
Anyone else would call the homemade wreath on the cranberry door and the planters stuffed with Cedar and red-berried Mountain Ash branches picturesque. Anyone else was not her. Anyone else didn’t recognize it as a prettily disguised jail.
With that cheerful thought, Candice crunched and cracked her way across the frozen driveway to the back door.
She walked into chaos. Jackets and footwear, enough to shod an army, lay everywhere. She added her purse to the smallest mountain, but hung up her red jacket. On a hanger. Imagine. Perhaps she should do a how-to-put-away-clothes tutorial for her cleaning-challenged siblings.
“I’m home,” she called in almost a whisper, but the volume didn’t matter. The whole place seemed primed for her return. The blare was instant and demanding.
“Did you get my H4 pencil? If I don’t get one, my drafting teacher is going to fail my butt.” Matthew. She practically didn’t bother to correct his language anymore—or rather, she tried to focus on the mountains, not the molehills. “Butt” was pretty tame. She tossed him a package and nodded when he—miracle of miracles—said thanks.
“What’s for dinner? I’ve got to be at work in fifteen minutes.”
“You could’ve made yourself something to eat.”
“There is nothing to eat!”
“There are eggs, cheese.”
Michael made a face that clearly said she was trying to starve him. “I’ll eat at work. Can I get a ride?”
She groaned. “Where’s Jane?”
“I don’t know.”
“OK. Give me five minutes and—”
“I’m going to be late!”
“Two then, two—I have to pee.”
“I’ll be in the car.” The door slammed behind Michael, and she ran to the bathroom, relieved in more ways than one to find it empty. She had him dropped off at the gym in record time and was home again. Take two.
“Candy!” The word was an explosion rather than a nickname, but it made her smile. A tiny stream of energy dripped through her as her little sister Kaylie flying-tackle hugged her.
“Hiya, babycakes,” she said. “How was your day?”
“Great!” The word came out sounding like grrrr-eight and a little bit more energy flowed through Candice. Her twin brothers, Michael and Matthew, were so busy it was draining. But Kaylie? At ten years old, she was pure sparkly fun—at least for now. Puberty would hit inevitably though.
“Want to help me make dinner?”
“Yes!” Yeh-ess. Kaylie pretended to think. “Can we have pierogies and brussels sprouts?”
“Brussels sprouts, again?” Candice teased.
“Yes, again. I love those baby cabbage things!”
Amazingly, the kitchen wasn’t a complete toxic waste site. Candice gave the counter a wipe and then pulled butter and bacon from the fridge.
“OK, squirt, go get the veggies and a bag of pierogies.”
Once their dinner was simmering, Candice ducked upstairs and slid into velour sleep pants and a matching hoodie. Her siblings called it her “cat suit” and other far less flattering things, but Candice didn’t care. Finally, she pulled her hair into a loose ponytail.
Kaylie had set the table and even poured milk for everyone.
Candice smiled. “Dinner’s ready. Come and get it!” She turned to grab the sour cream and ran straight into someone’s hard chest. Someone male. Someone entirely unfamiliar. He smelled freakishly good, like spices and sunshine—and then she looked up. Into the face of what was possibly the best looking man she’d ever seen. Tousled dark hair, a day or two of rough stubble, and amused hazel eyes in a face with one of those deep-tanned and healthy-looking skin types.
Just great—exactly what she needed right now. Another one of Jane’s imbecilic treats-of-the-week.
She pushed past the man without a word, ignoring the little voice inside that muttered she was being rude. Of course she was being impolite; she was furious. Sometimes Jane really wasn’t the role model Candice wanted for Kaylie.
“Jane!” she hollered. No answer.
“She’s home. I don’t know why she isn’t responding,” the man said—oh so helpfully—and followed her into the minuscule kitchen. Even better. Now the big lummox would be in her way while she tried to pull food off the burners.
“I’m Dean. Dean Harlowe,” he said. “Can I help you with anything?”
“No, Dean Harlowe, you can’t.” She drained the pot filled with brussels sprouts then banged it onto the burner and clanked its lid back in place.
He took a step back and his friendly, amused expression turned to something closer to concern. “Is everything OK?”
“No, I mean, yes. Yes, I’m fine. Thank you.” Arrrrggghhh! Just because Jane was an idiot, Candice shouldn’t stoop to rudeness. It wasn’t the guy’s fault that Jane drove her nuts. “I…here, if you really don’t mind helping, you can take these out.”
She passed him a ceramic bowl of steaming pierogies smothered in chunks of bacon and fried onions. Then she thought of her velour pants and the size of her derriere. Suddenly the comfort food seemed like a neon sign: This is the sister who’s given up on herself. This is the sister who’s not like the other.
Of course the latter wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. So there. Candice plucked a pierogi from the bowl and bit into it.
“It smells wonderful.” Dean said. “I’m starved.”
An embarrassing bit of butter dribbled down Candice’s chin. She moved to grab a napkin to keep herself from snapping, “She invited you for dinner, too, did she?”
Finally, the family sat at the table and linked hands. Candice glanced around at her siblings—her family, plus Dean—and took a deep breath. In the end it came down to this: the work and stress involved with being a social worker, the evenings of running around and dinner prep, dishes, homework, and bath and story time for Kaylie, were worth it every time they gathered at the table and ate together as a family.
“Do you want to pray, Matt?”
There was a second of hesitation, then, “Sure. Lord, thank you for this food and for all the good things in our lives. Please help it to snow again soon.”
It wasn’t the deepest, most thoughtful prayer in the world, but Candice figured God probably appreciated Matt’s sincerity.
A few minutes of quiet passed as plates were filled and everybody took their first hungry mouthfuls. Eventually conversation started again, including the one Candice had been dreading, Jane’s simpering introduction of Dean. Apparently he was a nurse at the hospital where Jane worked. Well, good for him. The upper-body strength was probably helpful in the profession.
“Dean’s great, but we’re not dating,” Jane crooned more than once. Candice refrained from saying that she wasn’t an idiot and neither were their younger siblings. Jane could call her relationships whatever she wanted. It didn’t change anything.
“Is there any dessert?”
Candice looked at Kaylie in surprise, then down at her own plate. Yes, they’d already finished their meals. She wondered where she’d zoned. “There’s pineapple and strawberries in the fridge if you want them.”
Matthew rushed to get the fruit, and Candice was reminded of his younger days and how she used to refer to him affectionately as a fruit bat.
“I wanted ice cream,” Kaylie said.
“Not tonight, sweetie.”
Jane sat back in her chair. “Do you have plans tonight, Candy?”
“Wait. Your name is Candy and your last name’s—” Dean’s eyes widened.
Candice grimaced and felt her cheeks flame.
“Yeah, Cane. Candy Cane!” Kaylie exclaimed. “Isn’t that perfect?”
“Perfect if you’re a stripper.” Jane laughed.
At least that was one thing Candice and Jane agreed on. What on earth had her mother been thinking? It was wrong to think ill of the dead, but seriously—
“What’s a stripper again?” asked Kaylie.
“No,” Candice interrupted and spoke to Dean. “I go by Candice, and my last name’s actually Cane-Bryant.” If she said her name smoothly enough, with a stop after Candice and no break between the hyphenated last name, people almost never made the corny Christmas connection. It was only her silly family that gave her away.
“How’s the Bryant come in?” Dean asked.
“She uses a blend of our mom’s and our father’s names.”
“Oh, I wondered if it was a married name.”
“No, she dodged that bullet,” Jane answered again before Candice could say a thing. “She came close once, but after Mom died—and Candy changed from sister to mama of the Addams family here—the loser bailed.”
The big meal that had been so comforting twisted like snakes in Candice’s belly.
“Rough.” Dean studied her. “Are you all right?”
“No, no, I’m not. Can you guys do the dishes?”
“Sorry, Janie. I trump your plans. I’m going to be sick.” Candice rushed from the room just in time, heart thumping, sweating, but free to be miserable all on her own.