Love: purer than Colorado snow, deeper than a Louisiana bayou.
The Colorado Rockies have always been home to journalist Kelly Shepherd, but after the death of her father, and facing her first Christmas alone, she accepts an assignment that leads her deep into Louisiana’s Cajun country.
Since his wife’s death, Denny Labouve has focused his attention on his ten-year-old daughter and the family business, but Kelly sparks the dying embers of his heart even as a Christmas cold front moves through his beloved Cajun country.
Will Denny and Kelly be able to trust God to bridge the span between the Colorado Rockies and the Louisiana bayou?
Kelly Shepherd followed the bustling passengers through the New Orleans terminal and toward the signs to baggage claim. Colorful posters of boiled seafood advertising famous restaurants lined the walls and the faint sound of jazz drifted to her ears. Regret rolled through her stomach, along with her meager in-flight snack.
Lord, why did I agree to do this?
As she descended the escalator, her gaze scanned the sea of awaiting faces. She noticed the sparkle in a young man’s eyes when he spotted the beautiful blonde standing on the step below her. When they embraced, longing filled Kelly’s heart. The person waiting for her was an editor who had volunteered to share his home and family for eight days while she wrote her Cajun Christmas story.
Kelly searched the crowd, but failed to see a brown-haired man with a receding hairline. At least that was how Carroll Labouve had described himself over the phone.
“Miss Shepherd? Miss Shepherd?” The high-pitched child’s voice echoed above the hum of conversation in the busy airport. Kelly followed the sound to a little girl standing on tiptoes next to a row of chairs. She seemed to be about ten and held a brightly wrapped package. Mr. Labouve hadn’t mentioned a daughter. Kelly’s heart leapt at the sight of the candy cane taped on top the gift. Even though they didn’t know what the candy cane meant to her, it was a comfort.
A tall, muscled man stood next to the child. Although, his full head of dark hair didn’t match the receding hairline description, he held a small poster with her name written in red print. His dark eyes searched the group of arriving passengers until his gaze settled on hers. He mouthed, Shepherd?
As she approached, the corners of his mouth tilted. More on the left than the right.
“Miss Shepherd.” He tossed the poster into a nearby trashcan then extended his hand—a solid masculine hand. “Denny Labouve, I’m Carroll’s brother. He sends his apologies for not being here. His father-in-law was rushed to the hospital this afternoon.”
“I’m so sorry.” She shook his hand. “Is he all right?” Even at five-nine, she had to tilt her head back to meet his brown eyes. A scar interrupted the smooth hair of his left eyebrow.
“Heart attack. He’s in surgery right now. Our whole family has been praying. Carroll will call when they have more information.” He turned toward the child standing next to him. “This is my daughter—”
“I’m Chelsea Labouve.” With an erect posture and brilliant smile, she extended one hand toward Kelly.
Kelly smiled and leaned toward the girl. “It’s nice to meet you, Chelsea, I’m Kelly Shepherd, but you already know that, don’t you?” Chelsea’s small hand warmed her own for the brief moment they touched. Either this child resembled her mother or she was adopted because with her fair hair and blue eyes, she looked nothing like her father.
Chelsea pointed toward the trashcan where Denny had ditched the hand-made poster. “Yes, ma’am, Miss Shepherd, I do.”
Kelly cringed then smiled. She’d never been called ma’am before. Suddenly, at thirty she felt old.
“This is for you.” Chelsea extended the package toward her.
Kelly accepted the gift and paused to rein in her emotions. If only this child knew what the candy cane meant to her. She stole a glance toward Denny Labouve. The loving look and gentle smile he showered on his daughter melted Kelly’s heart. Her father used to bathe her with the same smile whenever she went home for Christmas. An ache too deep to dwell on pressed her heart. Each Christmas morning started with a peppermint candy cane from her father. Thank you, Lord, for this small gift. You know just what I need.
“Thank you, Chelsea. This is so sweet of you. I love candy canes.”
“You’re welcome, Miss Shepherd.”
“Please call me Kelly.”
Chelsea shot her father a questioning look.
His right eyebrow darted upward.
“Uh…how about Miss Kelly?” Chelsea asked.
Kelly nodded then smiled.
“OK, Miss Kelly it is.” Chelsea placed her hand into her father’s as though the act settled everything, and it was now time to leave.
Denny turned toward Kelly and grinned. “Does that count for me, too?”
She paused, not sure what he meant but decided to have a little fun. “Oh, yes. You can call me Miss Kelly, too.”
He laughed. A deep, throaty, genuine laugh. “OK, Miss Kelly it is.”
“Just kidding. Please call me Kelly.”
“Only if you call me Denny.” His eyes twinkled when he smiled. At the baggage carousel, he hefted her overstuffed suitcase.
Chelsea nodded then grabbed Kelly’s hand as they walked through the double-doors and into the afternoon heat toward the parking garage. Perspiration formed in her palms. How would she ever get into the Christmas spirit in this heat and humidity? A stark contrast to the crisp air she’d left in Denver barely three hours ago.
The little girl chatted nonstop about her family, especially her Mawmaw Eula and her Mameré Milla. “That’s short for Camilla. You’ll love her, she’s eighty-six years old but doesn’t act like it.”
“Chelsea, honey, I think it’s time we give Miss Shep…er …Kelly a break. I’m sure she’s tired from her flight.” In a smooth move, he lifted her bag into the back of his white Suburban and headed for the passenger side of the vehicle where he opened the front door for her.
Kelly climbed into the truck and slid onto the beige leather seat. She tried to remember, in the four years they dated, the last time her ex-boyfriend, Brent, had opened her door.
Denny slid into the driver’s seat.
“My plans were to stay with Carroll and his wife—”
He swatted his forehead. “I’m so sorry. I forgot. Carroll wanted me to tell you that he’ll be staying at his in-laws’ house in Baton Rouge so they can be close to the hospital. He planned to bring you to our mother’s house for Christmas dinner, so my mother insisted you stay with her and my grandmother.” He navigated the Suburban out of the garage, paid the parking fee then merged into Airline Highway traffic.
“I don’t want to impose. Why don’t you just drop me off at the closest hotel, and I’ll stay there.”
“That’s a bit of a problem. Caneville is a very small town, and the one motel in town is… Well, let’s just say you would be much better off at my mother’s house. Besides you’re writing about the culture and food of the area and our Christmas traditions, right?” He glanced her way before exiting off the main road and onto a highway that towered above the swamp.
Along the highway, cypress trees hosted large birds and Spanish moss hung from the branches as though decorated for the holiday.
“Well, what better way to experience the culture and food than to stay with two of the nicest Cajun women you’ll ever find?” He flashed his radiant smile toward her.
“Really, I don’t want to be a burden.” She had agreed to do this story back in October when the thought of spending Christmas alone in her apartment had sent her senses reeling. Though her mother had died when she was ten, this would be the first Christmas without her father.
“It’s not an inconvenience. Trust me, these two love the opportunity to show off their cooking and culture. They can’t wait to meet you.”
She didn’t want to seem ungrateful by pressing the motel issue. Maybe she could spend tonight with his mother and then move into the hotel. How bad could it be?
Chelsea stuck her head between the front seats. “Yeah, and be prepared to eat a lot. They’ll feed you ‘til you want to bust open.”
Denny turned toward Chelsea. “Are you buckled in?”
“Yes, it just stretches real far. See?” She held the extended seatbelt in her hand.
“Chelsea Rae Labouve. Please sit with your seatbelt in place.”
“Yes, sir.” She leaned back and the belt retracted to its proper position.
Denny gave Chelsea a sideways glance then winked at his daughter. “Thank you.”
She crossed her arms. “You’re welcome, Dad.”
He leaned toward Kelly and lowered his voice. “She’s right. They do love to cook, so beware. They’ll shower you with every possible Cajun dish.”
“That’s what I came for—to experience the food and culture.” Although eager to write her story, she would much rather have her father’s baked ham and home-made cranberry sauce while sitting in her childhood home in the Rocky Mountains.
“Open your present, Miss Kelly.” Chelsea said.
“Oh, OK. I can’t wait to see what’s in here.” She tore the bright red paper from the gift. “Wow, A Cajun Night Before Christmas. I don’t think I’ve ever read this version.”
Chelsea leaned forward again. “Welcome to Louisiana.”
“Thank you so much.” She flipped through the colorful pages and noticed the accented words. “I’m not sure I can read this like it’s written.” She laughed and tried to imitate the Cajun accent.
“You have to let my dad do it. He sez the words how you’re supposed to.”
Kelly glanced toward Denny.
“I’ll read it Christmas Eve when everyone’s at Mawmaw’s.”
Denny steered the SUV along the highway that cut through the swamp. He enjoyed watching Kelly’s reaction to the moss-draped cypress trees. “Have you ever visited Louisiana before?”
“No, I did visit an aunt in Georgia once. I was six at the time. All I remember is how hot and sticky it was and that we ate the best peach cobbler and homemade ice cream.”
Chelsea leaned forward and tapped Kelly on the shoulder. “Are you married?”
“Chelsea, honey, manners.” Denny shook his head. His ears warmed.
Kelly laughed and reached around to show Chelsea her left hand. “Not yet.”
She leaned back and raised her voice. “Do you have a boyfriend?”
“Chelsea.” He would have a long talk with her when they got home.
“It’s OK. No, I don’t have a boyfriend.”
For some reason he didn’t understand, he enjoyed hearing that bit of news.
“Chelsea, tell Kelly about the Labouve family’s plans for Christmas.” He watched through the rearview mirror.
“O…K… Well, it’s like this. We have everybody over at MamMaw Eula’s house. Like five hundred people.” She rolled her eyes. “And we eat a gazillion tons of gumbo and fried shrimp then Mameré Milla tells her special Jesus story and hands out candy canes with dollar bills. Later the old people talk while the kids play hide-n-seek out in the yard and the boat house.”
Denny stole a look toward Kelly. Her eyes sparkled in the sunlight, making the brown glow like pieces of amber. When she smiled at Chelsea, the corners squinted just enough to allow tiny lines to form. She seemed amused by the theatrics of his drama-queen daughter.
“It’s not quite like that.” He laughed. “But she’s not too far off.”
“Sounds like a lot of fun. I’m looking forward to it.”
For the first time in five years, a spark of anticipation for Christmas stirred in his heart. Maybe the pain of past Christmases would begin to heal.