A Family Under the Christmas Tree

BOOK: A Family Under the Christmas Tree
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In loving memory of my mother, Dorothy Louise Westfall, April 1, 1938–October 15, 2015

CHAPTER
1

S
ophie Griffith brought her rented car to a stop in the driveway of her grandmother's house. The midday gloom of a rainy December tinted the world in shades of gray. She turned off the engine and looked toward the front door, and smiled as she spied Grandma sitting on the porch, wearing a red and white Santa hat. Little tufts of silver hair peeked out from under the hat, and a green fleece blanket was tucked around her. She waved as Sophie climbed out of the car.

A surge of affection hit her, and Sophie waved back. It had been too long since she'd made the time to visit Grandma. She missed this place. She missed Grandma. She was frustrated that it had taken this for her to make the trip.

Then, she blinked with surprise as she realized Grandma had company. There was a man on her porch. Well, there was a man on a ladder in front of her porch. A man with dark hair and long lean legs, wearing jeans and a black weatherproof jacket,
clung to a ten-foot-tall ladder, stringing a strand of icicle lights along the eaves. Shouldn't he be tied off with a safety harness or something?

She held her breath, sure any second he'd topple over as he reached for the little hooks attached to the house.

Sophie returned her narrowed gaze to Grams. Hmmm. Two days ago Grandma had called saying she'd fallen and needed Sophie's help. But she seemed okay now. What was up?

Movement on the lawn drew Sophie's attention. A small boy of about five wearing a blinding yellow beanie streaked across the fenced-in front yard. A muddy dog chased him, close on his heels. Wait, were those reindeer antlers on the dog's head?

The child's sweater could compete in any ugly Christmas sweater contest. His jeans and rain boots were caked in mud. Who was this kid?

The scene reminded her of something from a Hallmark Christmas card. The handsome man, the child and dog playing, Gram supervising it all. . . . She ached to grab her camera and capture the image, but her equipment was out of reach inside hard-sided cases in the back of the SUV.

Sophie grabbed her purse and closed the car door, breathing in the fresh air scented with an earthy musk from a recent rainfall. The cool, damp air seeped through her pink cashmere sweater, but she didn't mind. Hard to believe twenty-four hours and two flight layovers ago she had been baking in the tropical sun. She'd just wrapped up a job photographing the spectacular wedding of one of the year's hottest actors and his makeup artist bride on the island of Gran Canaria, one of the smaller and most popular of the Canary Islands. The average temperature peaked at ninety degrees with high humidity there this time of year. As usual, Grandma's timing was impeccable. Had she called a week
earlier, Sophie wouldn't have been available to make the trek to Bellevue, Washington.

Sophie grabbed her suitcases from the trunk. As she tugged the cases up the drive toward the walkway to the house, the man climbed down from the ladder and rushed over.

“Here, let me take those.” His voice was rich and deep, and she was surprised to find her stomach flip at the sound.

Not one to turn down help, especially from a handsome man, Sophie relinquished her hold on the bags. “Thank you.”

She tilted her head up to meet steel gray eyes fringed with dark lashes. Okay, now that she was seeing him up close, handsome didn't quite cover it. He wasn't beautiful like the Hollywood types she frequently photographed. Some of those guys were prettier than their costars. This man had a square jaw shadowed by day-old scruff and a mouth that tipped upward at the corners in a faint smile.

No, this man's face wasn't pretty, but it had character and strength. And if she wasn't mistaken, there was a hint of melancholy, balanced by an appreciative gleam in his eyes. Her pulse ticked up a notch. She envisioned him within the frame of her lens. The camera would love him. “Nice job with the lights.” She tried to make her voice sound natural.

He grinned. “Thank you. My first time.”

She blinked. “First time?”

“Putting up Christmas lights.”

That explained the lack of safety equipment. “Did Grandma know that when she hired you?”

He laughed, a deep, delicious rumble that Sophie felt in her chest. “We live next door. Louise has been so good to us I offered to put them up.”

Ah. A family man. No doubt his wife would be as beautiful as he was.

Now, why did she feel a prick of disappointment at the thought? It was silly.
Get a grip, Soph
, she silently chided herself. The last thing she needed in her life right now was a man. And definitely not a married one.

Sophie had big plans, goals to fulfill. A pending job that she'd been after for a long time. She almost couldn't believe it was really going to happen after all this time. She was not about to get sidetracked. Besides, she didn't do well in the romance department.

The man easily carried the bags to the front porch and set them by the front door. She liked the way he moved, with athletic grace. He was nearly as tall as the doorframe. Not that she should be noticing that kind of thing. She hurried up the porch stairs to her grandmother's side.

“Sophie, my dear, it's so good to see you,” Grandma said, her arms spread wide. Her beautiful face beamed. Even at seventy, Grandma hadn't lost her glamour or the twinkle in her blue eyes. Sophie moved into her embrace, relishing the comfort a hug from Grandma could still bring.

Growing up, Sophie had found refuge from her parents' chaotic life at her grandparents' house. Here, Sophie was seen and heard. Here, she wasn't a nuisance. This was the only place Sophie had ever felt like she really belonged.

Sophie owed her grandmother so much. She'd been the one to give Sophie her first camera, when she was twelve. Grandma had seen how hurt she'd been when her older brothers had ditched her to go off on an adventure, as they often did, and Grandma had thought she might enjoy having adventures of her own taking pictures. At the time, she'd had no idea how that one gesture would shape Sophie's future.

Sophie pulled back to look into her grandmother's face, searching for signs of pain. Then she realized Grams wasn't sitting
in a normal chair, but an electric wheelchair. “You said you'd fallen. Are you okay?”

Grandma grimaced and moved the blanket covering her legs to reveal a black ankle brace on her right foot. “Sprained it good.”

Her stomach clenched. At least it wasn't broken. “What happened?”

Grandma fussed with the blanket. “Oh, well, that's a long story, and one we'll discuss later.” She patted her arm. “Where are my manners? Sophie, dear, this is my new neighbor, David Murphy.”

David tugged off his glove and held out his hand. “Hello, Sophie.”

She slipped her hand into his, and his big hand engulfed hers. Their palms fit together, and his fingers curled over hers firmly. “It's nice to meet you, David. Thank you for getting the lights up for my grandmother.”

His gaze never left her face. Nor did he retract his hand. “You're welcome. Louise has told me a great deal about you.”

“All good, I hope.” Sophie slid a glance to Grandma, who winked. Sophie did a double take. Grandma's smile was pure inno-cence.

Sophie's gaze narrowed. She hadn't imagined the wink. What was Grandma doing? The man was taken. Maybe Grandma's mind was impaired along with her foot.

David chuckled. “Yes, all good. She's very proud of you and your talent.”

Touched by his words, Sophie smiled. “Well, she's the one who sparked my interest in photography.”

“I'd like to see your work sometime.”

An image of them sitting cozily in front of a roaring fire, clicking through the pages of her portfolios, flashed into her mind. Her cheeks heated. There was no reason why what he'd said
should sound so intimate. Maybe it was the way he held her gaze or the interest flaring in the depths of his stormy eyes.

Stop it, she told herself. Stop it now.

Heat continued to bloom in her cheeks and she realized she was still holding his hand. He followed her gaze to their joined palms. He took in a sharp gasp of air and quickly slipped his hand away, then shoved both of his hands into the pockets of his jacket and stepped back.

“Troy!” David called to the boy on the lawn.

David's son pounded up the stairs and came to a skidding halt next to him. The dog, which on closer inspection was a large black, brown, and white puppy, bounded up the steps and nudged himself between David's legs. The antlers snagged on David's knee and slid sideways. She wished once again she'd had her camera ready.

Sophie had to force herself not to tell them to freeze while she went to grab it. She needed to keep it close if she wanted to catch opportunities like this one.

“Riggs.” Grandmother snapped her fingers to get the puppy's attention and then motioned the dog to her side.

Sophie stared as the dog obeyed and moved to sit beside Grandma's chair.

David put his hand on his son's shoulder. “This is Troy.”

Sophie shifted her attention to the child and smiled. “Hello, Troy. I'm Sophie.”

The kid stuck out his hand and gave her hand a quick shake. “Nice to meet ya. You're pretty just like Grandma Louise said.”

Sophie arched an eyebrow at her grandmother. Grandma smiled serenely, as if telling strangers she had a pretty granddaughter was the most natural thing in the world. Turning back to Troy, Sophie asked, “How old are you, Troy?”

He puffed up his chest. “I'm five. I'm in kindergarten.”

“Nice.” She lifted her gaze to find David watching her.

“We've got to get going.” David tugged at the collar of his coat. “I've work to do.”

“Awww, Uncle David, not yet,” Troy said, looking up at David. “Me and Riggs are having a good time.”

So. Not father and son, as she'd assumed. Her pulse skipped a beat. She glanced at David's ring finger. No shiny band.

Uh-oh. Now Grandma's wink made sense. Sophie wouldn't put it past her grandmother to try setting Sophie up for a holiday romance. Not going to happen.

Sophie liked her nomadic lifestyle, roaming wherever the jobs took her. She had no inclination to make a change now. Or anytime in the future. She'd imagined she'd found The One more than once and the relationship had failed each time. Miserably. Much to her mother's chagrin.

Better to not try again than find herself with another broken heart.

But even if David was off-limits, she was curious about Troy.

Was the boy visiting his uncle? Had the child's parents dropped him off, too busy with their own lives to care for their son?

Old resentments sparked deep inside Sophie and she quickly quashed them. Not all parents chose their careers over their children. Hadn't her therapist warned her often enough not to project her past onto others?

David's jaw tightened and his voice was measured when he answered. “I understand. But it's time to go home.”

“I don't want to go!” Troy stamped a foot.

Sophie pressed her lips together and waited to see how David would react.

David leveled a stern look on the child. “Troy, remember our deal.”

Troy's expression turned mutinous as he held his uncle's gaze in a classic power play. She'd seen her brothers do it with their father numerous times over the years.

Neither flinched. Then Troy's tiny shoulders sagged. “Yeah. I can play in the mud with Riggs as long as I don't make a fuss when it's time to go home.” Troy blew out a frustrated little breath. “Okay.” He turned and hugged Grandma. “ 'Bye, Grandma Louise.”

BOOK: A Family Under the Christmas Tree
3.95Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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