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Authors: Kimberly Rose Johnson

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BOOK: A Holiday Proposal
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Chapter 3

M
atthew bowed his head as Mr. Miller blessed the food. After the amen, Mr. Miller looked up and said, “Let’s eat. I’m starving.”

The table came to life as food passed from one hand to the next. Matthew took a moment to check out the room. Holly’s parents had a nice place. Soft yellow walls held photos of Holly and Jessica along with an oversize mirror. A little old-fashioned for him, but it made the smallish room feel larger.

Pleasant conversation flowed between April and Jessica. Ava sat to Matthew’s left with Todd on his right. The man couldn’t stop talking about how he’d helped someone who couldn’t walk due to an injury take his first step, then he went on to boast about some other accomplishment. Evidently Todd had a high opinion of himself and was hung up talking about work.

A foot nailed Matthew’s shin and he jumped. His gaze slammed into that of Holly, who sat across from him.

Holly’s eyes widened, and she mouthed
sorry
. A second later Todd jumped and glared across the table. Holly sent him a look, and if Matthew had to guess, she was signaling Todd to be quiet.

Tempted to applaud, Matthew instead focused on cutting his meat then looked at Holly. “What have you been up to since high school?” He took a bite of the perfectly cooked roast.

A pretty pink blush covered her cheeks. “I worked for a couple of years then went to college. Did a little traveling, too, which was fun, but for the most part it’s been work and school. I actually haven’t been back in town long, just since this past winter.”

He did the math and realized she’d come back about the same time he’d opened his bakery. No wonder they’d never run into each other—he’d spent almost every waking minute working. But that was about to change. April and Ava were visiting and he planned for time away from the business. It might not be the best time to be pulling back his hours, but he had complete faith in his small staff. “I’m sure your family is glad you returned to Leavenworth. I’m not much of a traveler and have to live vicariously though others. Where have you gone?”

She set her fork down and paused a moment. “Well, most of the time they were just road trips to places here in Washington, but once a friend and I took the train over to Seattle and went on a cruise to Alaska.”

“Now
that’s
something I’d like to do.”

Her face lit and her green eyes sparkled. “You should go there. It’s so beautiful. The glaciers were breathtaking. Someday I want to return.”

“Yes, our Holly enjoys traveling.” Mrs. Miller beamed a smile his way. “But we’re happy she’s finally finished school and settled into a real job.” She looked pointedly at Todd. “So, how did you and Holly meet?”

Todd told the story of how she’d gotten lost at the hospital.

Holly kept her gaze on her plate, clearly embarrassed by the retelling.

“Holly has always been directionally challenged.” Jessica shot everyone a smile, then pushed back her chair and stood. Her husband followed and grasped her hand between his. “We have an announcement to make.” She paused and looked around the table, demanding everyone’s attention. “We’re pregnant!”

Holly gasped. The shock on her face mixed with something akin to anger...no, frustration. But why?

Mrs. Miller screamed and jumped from her seat. She pulled the couple into her arms.

“Congratulations! I’m going to be a grandma. Wait until I tell Evelyn. She will be so jealous. Oh, Jessica, I’m so pleased. You’ve made me the happiest mother on the planet.”

Matthew watched Holly sink low in her chair and tried to catch her eye, but she stared at her plate. Why wasn’t she celebrating with the rest of her family? He cast a quick glance at Todd, who seemed nonplussed by the excitement around him. What was the deal with this guy, anyway? Didn’t he see how uncomfortable Holly was? The least he could do was shoot her a sympathetic look, but he was oblivious to his girlfriend’s distress.

Mr. Miller stood and disengaged his wife from the couple. “Have a seat, dear. We don’t want to upset the baby.”

Mrs. Miller blanched. “Oh, no. I didn’t hurt you, did I?” She rested a hand on her daughter’s abdomen.

Jessica laughed and patted her mother’s shoulder before sitting. “I’m fine, and the baby is, too.”

Mrs. Miller sent a pointed look in Holly’s direction. “Isn’t this exciting? You’re going to be an aunt. You need to hurry up and get married and start making grandbabies, too, so the cousins will be close in age.” She clapped her hands together. “Imagine this house filled with grandkids.”

Holly’s face reddened. She looked everywhere but to Matthew’s side of the table. If anyone asked
him
, she’d be better off without the arrogant man sitting to his right. But no one was interested in his opinion.

Holly pushed back from the table. “Congratulations!” She flashed a forced smile. “Will you find out what you’re having?”

“We haven’t decided yet.” Jessica’s face glowed.

“That’s okay. You have time to decide. Well, Todd needs to head out. He has an appointment. I’m going to walk him to his car.”

“That’s right.” Todd stood. “Thanks for keeping track of the time for me.” He thanked the Millers for the meal and slid into his jacket.

Holly walked outside with him as everyone else pushed back from the table. The women cleared the dishes, which left him, Mr. Miller and Jessica’s husband to watch football. The Seattle Seahawks game had started at one and was in the middle of the second quarter.

Matthew strolled into the living room and looked out the window. He pulled back when Holly looked over her shoulder and spotted him. Great, she probably thought he was spying on her.

Well, maybe he was. She looked out of sorts, and he was concerned for her. He glanced out the window again and saw Todd drape his arm across her shoulders. He quickly turned away, unable to watch the girl he’d once had a crush on in the arms of another man.

* * *

Holly walked beside Todd to his car with his arm draped across her shoulders. “Did you see how happy my mother was with Jessica’s announcement? No matter how hard I try, Mom is never that happy about anything I do. I think the only way she will ever be proud of me is if I get married and start a family.” But she could never have a family of her own. Well, there was no medical reason she couldn’t, but what if the baby died? She closed her eyes on the memory of that day so long ago—the day that changed the course of her life.

“I thought you were focused on nursing and didn’t want to settle down with a husband and kids.” Todd leaned against his car and faced her. He grasped her hands and warmed them between his. “Don’t worry about your mom. She’s just excited. Things will calm down and everyone will go back to normal.”

She took comfort from his touch. “I hope you’re right. I wish my mom understood I don’t desire that life. You heard her. I was so humiliated. What must Matthew think?” She ducked her head and rested her forehead against his chest.

Todd circled an arm around her and tipped her chin up, forcing her to look at him. “Who cares what he thinks? He’s nobody.” Todd ran his thumb across her cheek. “You, however, are somebody special. Don’t let your mother or anyone tell you differently.” He lowered his head and closed his eyes. His lips brushed hers ever so slightly.

Holly took a step back and broke free of his arms. “What was that for?” She shouldn’t have invited him to lunch. But Todd had never acted as if he was interested in her in that way. “You know this is all pretend. We’re friends—that’s it.”

He caught her hand. “I think we’ve moved beyond that. I really care for you, Holly. I know you want to focus on your job, and I’m fine with that. But I’d like to see where this is going between us.”

“I can’t.” He was ruining everything. The whole point was to pretend to be a couple, not actually become one. She pulled away. “I like you, Todd, but—”

He touched a finger to her lips, stopping her words. “Just think about us.”

She nodded, too emotionally spent to argue. “Fine. Thanks for coming. I’ll see you at work.” She turned and ran back inside, barely able to keep tears from streaming down her face. She rushed through the family room, where the men were watching football, and past the women visiting at the cleared-off dining table. How had everything become so complicated?

Holly fled into the kitchen, where she could be alone, and pulled on a pair of yellow rubber gloves. She rinsed the dishes and stacked them on the counter. Cleaning always helped her feel better.

“Hey,” a soft voice said, too close for comfort.

She jumped and tensed. “Hi.” How had Matthew come in without her noticing?

“Want some help?” He opened the dishwasher and began loading plates. “Are you okay? I noticed you were upset when you came inside.”

Holly caught the concern in his eyes and released a shuddering breath, unable to hold in the tears a second longer. “Why are you so nice to me when I was mean to you in high school?”

He shrugged. “Just a nice guy, I guess.”

She pulled off the gloves and wiped at her tears. Shame at her treatment of him hovered close, making her feel even worse. “You shouldn’t be. I don’t deserve it. I’m not worth it.”

“Who told you that?”

“Isn’t it obvious? I hurt people. It’s what I do. Not intentionally, of course.” She slipped the gloves back on. “Look at my mom, for example. She’s disappointed in me. No matter what I do it’s never enough. Plus, I’m... It doesn’t matter.” She met his gaze, embarrassed by her outburst, and the compassion she saw there about did her in.

“Is there something else? I’m a good listener.”

Yes.
But she couldn’t tell him about Todd. Matthew would never understand that fiasco. She didn’t understand what she’d done to cause Todd’s forward behavior. Then there was her mother. Holly sighed. “Let’s just say, in my mom’s opinion I don’t measure up to Jessica.”

A knowing look filled his eyes.

Maybe Matthew did understand. Her heart warmed toward him. It felt good to have someone on her side.

“It’s clear to me your mom loves you both very much. I noticed you looked conflicted by Jessica’s announcement. Does your sister having a baby upset you? When Ava was born I was thrilled.”

She scrubbed a dirty pan. “I’m not upset about being an aunt. I’m happy for Jessica. I love my sister, but I just can’t compete with her for my mom’s approval.” She kept her voice low, aware her mother was in the next room.

“I’ve known your mom less than a day, but to me she seemed proud of both of you. You are probably just misunderstanding her. I’m sure she loves you both equally.”

Though spoken gently, Matthew’s words speared her to the core. What did he know? She yanked off the gloves. “Please tell everyone something came up and I had to leave.” She grabbed her purse from the counter.

“Hey, I’m sorry, Holly. I should’ve kept my big mouth shut. Please don’t leave because of me.”

She blinked back tears. What was with the waterworks today? She wasn’t a crier. “Don’t beat yourself up, Matthew. It’s just been one of those weeks for me. Take care of yourself. Tell my family I left, okay?” She hurried out the back door without waiting for a reply. So much for being on her side. Then again, maybe he didn’t mean it the way it sounded. She sniffled and dried her eyes. She’d give Matthew the benefit of the doubt. After all, he’d always been nothing but kind to her.

Chapter 4

M
atthew cradled a sleeping Ava against his chest and followed his sister up the steps to his house. He’d tossed out sand to keep everyone from falling. There’d been too much of that already.

April unlocked and opened the door. “Put her on my bed.”

Matthew walked into the guest room and stopped short. The normally neat and organized room had taken on a new appearance. Sheets were strewn across the disheveled bed, and the floor was littered with toys. He remembered remarking about how much stuff she’d brought, but wow. This gave a whole new meaning to
cluttered
. It looked as though his sister had had a rough morning.

He scooted toys aside with his foot as he walked cautiously to the center of the large room, placed Ava on the queen-size bed, then he turned the monitor on and closed the door behind him.

In the family room, April sat in a recliner with her legs raised. “Did she wake up?”

He shook his head and turned on the monitor’s receiver. “She’s out. I guess the past two days have caught up to her.”

“Probably, but this is a late nap. I didn’t think of that when I agreed to lunch this afternoon.” She worried her bottom lip. “We shouldn’t let her sleep too long, otherwise I won’t get her settled down tonight.”

Ever since April had arrived on Friday it seemed he hadn’t had a moment’s peace. This was the first opportunity he’d had to just be with his sister. The quiet of the house felt so good after all the craziness of having an active three-year-old in residence. “Ava didn’t take a nap yesterday.”

“I know. That was a mistake. I had a hard time getting her moving this morning and then all she wanted to do was play with her toys.” She winced. “I’m not usually such a slob.”

“I know. Don’t stress about it.” He looked at his watch, then wadded old newspaper and tossed them into the fireplace. “I need to head over to the bakery soon. Is there anything I can pick up for you while I’m out?” He placed kindling over the paper then added a dry log. Striking a match he lit the paper and watched the flames begin to dance before putting the screen in place and facing his sister from his position on the floor.

“No, thanks. You sure spend a lot of time at the bakery.”

Matthew didn’t hear condemnation in her voice, just curiosity. “Yes, I have to get up early and bake, then run the place most of the day. While you and Ava are visiting I’ve arranged for help, or I’d never have any time to spend with you. Until you arrived I barely escaped the confines of the bakery.”

“Don’t you find all work and no play makes life boring?”

He frowned. “Not yet. I’ve only been open six months. I’m trying to get my business off to a successful start, and it’s important that I be there to greet and serve my customers.” He chuckled drily. “Actually, now that you mention it, my life has been anything but boring. I’ve been so busy, I haven’t had time to come up for air. Let’s just say your timing is perfect—I could probably use a little time off before I overdo and burn out.”

“Well, then, I’m extra glad we’re here. By the way, I like your church, but why don’t you go to the one we went to as kids?”

“It’s not there anymore.” He missed the church they’d grown up attending, but as they say, time doesn’t stand still.

“Really? How sad. At least you found another great place to attend, which reminds me.” She waggled her brows and a silly grin covered her face.

“What?” He leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees.

“You and Holly?”

“What about us?”

“I noticed all the looks you sent her way over lunch and that you followed her into the kitchen later.” April tilted her head. “As I recall, you had quite a crush on her in high school.”

Matthew stilled. “How did you know?”

“You used to say her name with reverence, and your eyes got all dreamylike when you’d ask Jessica about her sister.” She shrugged. “I’m surprised Holly never knew. Or did she?”

He shook his head. “I asked her to prom, but she barely noticed I was alive.”

“Seems she’s noticed you now.”

“She has a boyfriend.” He didn’t want to be unkind, but Holly had horrible taste in men, which made him feel a little better since she’d rejected him as a teen.

“Who? That weasel at lunch? No way.” She clamped her lips together, and her eyes sparkled. “Sorry. That wasn’t nice. I’m working on only speaking if I have something kind to say. Guess I need to keep at it.”

Matthew chuckled. “I think there’s an exception to the rule when you’re right.”

His sister laughed. “Not true, but I wish it was.” She sighed. “This is nice. And for the record, I think you’re wrong about Holly. I didn’t see any sign that she’s a woman in love.”

A jolt of hopefulness surged through him. Could his sister be correct?

* * *

After returning home from the disastrous meal at her parents’, Holly held the phone to her ear and rested her head back on the chaise. “Hi, Keira.”

“What’s wrong, Holly?”

“What makes you think something’s wrong?”

“Your voice. Is everything okay at the candy shop?”

“I don’t know. I’m in my apartment. Do you want me to go downstairs and check?”

“Of course not. I just assumed... Never mind. What’s going on?”

“Nothing much. I had lunch at my parents’ today, and Jessica announced she’s expecting.”

“How wonderful! I imagine everyone is very excited, but that’s not why you called, is it?”

“Not exactly. I could use some girl time.”

“Pete and Cody are picking the last of the apples. You want to meet me at the ice cream shop? I could be there in twenty minutes.”

Holly pursed her lips. Todd loved that place, and they often went there together while on lunch. What if he was there? She really needed to figure out what was going on between them before she saw him again. “Would you mind just coming over here? I don’t want to go out.”

“Hmm, this is more serious than I thought. I’ll pick up ice cream on the way and be there in a little bit. Call Susan to join us?”

“Good idea. Thanks, and, Keira?”

“Hmm.”

“Get chocolate.”

“You got it.”

The phone clicked, and a dial tone sliced down the line. Holly called Susan, who promised to be right over, then placed the phone on the coffee table, curled her legs up and gazed out the window onto Front Street. The quaint village buzzed with activity, even on this early-November Sunday afternoon. People scurried back and forth across the street, and one of the town’s two horse carriages was parked across the way waiting for the next paying customer.

The colors of fall warmed the ground with a blanket of leaves, creating a cozy feeling even though the temperature outside was freezing. She choked on a laugh. Why was it that no matter how cold it was outside, chocolate ice cream always made everything better?

A short time later a knock drew her to the door. “Who is it?”

“Keira and Susan.”

Her breath came out in a whoosh, and she flung the door open. “Thanks for coming.” She drew her friends inside. “I’ve made a mess of things.”

Susan held up a hand. “Not until we each have a heaping bowl of my chocolate Sunday surprise.”

“What’s that?” Holly stepped into the kitchen and pulled down three bowls and the ice cream scoop.

“It’s a surprise.” Susan gently nudged Holly out of the kitchen.

Keira followed and sat beside Holly at the breakfast bar. “I’m glad you called. The three of us haven’t gotten together since my wedding and Susan’s elopement.”

“How’s married life treating you, Keira?” Holly asked as Susan plopped two large scoops of ice cream into each bowl then drizzled chocolate syrup over the top and finished with a generous squirt of whipped cream.

“Wonderful.”

The dreamy look in Keira’s eyes made Holly giggle. “I’m glad. How about you, Susan? Are you and Blake blissfully happy, too?”

“Of course. I still can’t believe we’re married. There’s something to be said for eloping.” Susan slid a bowl in front of each of them and stood at the other side of the bar. “Enough about us. What’s the emergency?”

Holly shuddered, then explained what had happened at her parents’ place earlier. “I don’t know what to do. I’ve really messed things up with Todd, and it’s not like I can avoid him. I see him at work all the time. I never should’ve agreed to pretend we were seeing each other.”

Susan waved her spoon in the air. “Take it from me, avoidance doesn’t solve anything. You need to figure out how you feel about Todd and have a heart-to-heart with him. It’s the only way.”

Keira nodded.

Holly pushed the bowl away, her appetite soured. “I really like Todd, but not romantically. He was doing me a favor today, and I guess he misunderstood or misread the situation. This has been the worst day.” She buried her head in her arms and felt a hand on her shoulder a moment later.

“It’ll be okay, sweetie.” Keira rubbed Holly’s back. “When do you work at the hospital again?”

She turned her head to face her friend. “Tomorrow.”

“Okay, then. Call him tonight and clear the air. You don’t want to have things awkward between you at work.”

Holly looked to Susan for her opinion.

“I feel like a hypocrite telling you to call him after I went to ridiculous lengths to avoid Blake this past summer, but it’s the right thing to do.” She twirled her spoon around in the ice cream. “Unless of course you really
do
have feelings for Todd.”

“No. I don’t. He’s a friend—period.”

Susan slid the phone across the counter toward Holly. “Then you know what to do.”

“Now?” Holly’s heart rate increased. She shifted in her seat and tried to ignore the churning in her stomach. Her friends offered encouraging smiles. What had she gotten herself into? Of course she knew they were right, but maybe she shouldn’t shut Todd out that fast. What if there was potential there?
Ack!
What was she thinking? She had no interest in a relationship with him—or anyone else. That was the whole point of bringing him along to lunch, so her mother would stop trying to set her up. “Okay.”

Keira and Susan took their bowls to the sink and moved toward the door.

“Don’t leave! I might need you when this is over.”

Keira looked out the window and frowned. “It’s looking like it might snow. Sorry, but I need to head out.”

Holly’s gaze shot to the window. Her friend had been terrified to drive in winter weather when they’d met last year. Her first husband had been killed when he hit black ice. She’d worked hard at overcoming the fear, but she was still nervous. “It’s okay. Go on, I understand.” Holly gave Keira a quick hug. “Thanks for coming over. I actually feel better.” Sure, she was not looking forward to the conversation with Todd, but her friends were right. This needed to be dealt with immediately.

“No worries, Keira. I’ll stick around. Blake is busy writing, and his sister is at her friend’s house.” Susan plopped down on the sofa and grabbed a fashion magazine Holly had left on the coffee table. Her friend must be desperate for something to do, because she was
not
into fashion at all. But at least Susan had started wearing colors again, instead of boring black, since Blake reentered her life.

Holly reached for the phone and dialed. Todd picked up on the second ring.

“Hey, Holly. What’s up?”

She ignored her rapid heart rate and concentrated on the task before her. “I wanted to talk with you about what happened between us earlier.”

“Okay.”

Holly tightened her grip on the phone. “You can’t kiss me again. Okay, Todd? I value your friendship, and I really appreciate you coming to lunch today, but that’s where it stops. I didn’t mean to lead you on, and I’m sorry.”

“Is this about that Matthew guy? Do the two of you have something going on? I saw how he looked at you.”

Holly blinked. Now, why would he think that? “Our friendship has nothing whatsoever to do with Matthew. I knew him in high school. His sister and mine were best friends.”

“Fine. Thanks for the call. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

The dial tone buzzed in her ear. She hung up and joined Susan on the sofa. “Well, that wasn’t as difficult as I expected.”

“Then what’s the frown about? Regrets?”

“No. He said something about Matthew.”

“Who’s Matthew? Oh, wait. That must be the guy from high school you mentioned to Todd.”

“Exactly.”
Men.
She crossed her arms and shook her head. “This is why I don’t want to get involved in a relationship. They’re distracting, and I need to focus on my job.” She’d made that mistake before. She couldn’t let a man get in the way ever again. Her supervisor’s threat rang clear in her mind. She needed to stay focused or she’d be looking for another job, and more than likely it wouldn’t be in the medical profession if she was fired from her first nursing position.

“Well, it sounds like you’re trying your best. I’m sure you’ll excel at work, and in no time you’ll be leaving our tiny town for a bigger hospital.”

Holly shrugged. She hadn’t considered leaving Leavenworth. It was home. Something about the music that virtually always played in the village and the festive atmosphere that surrounded the place made it warm and inviting, even when it was twenty degrees outside.

No, she’d like to stay put, but someday she wanted to be the charge nurse, and in order for that to happen she needed to maintain her focus. Matthew’s troubled blue eyes and tender concern flitted into her thoughts, but she quickly pushed them aside. No more thinking about men.

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