Authors: Roz Denny Fox
Tags: #Contemporary, #Romance, #Fiction, #Holiday, #Christmas, #Family Life, #Adopted Daughter, #Wishes, #New Father, #Rancher, #Marriage, #Headstrong, #Married Brother, #Affair, #Misunderstanding, #Determined, #Family Traditions, #Mistaken Belief
Holidays around the Fox household are always times of celebration. We love to decorate, make candy, read Christmas stories and see holiday plays. No matter where we’ve made our home, the family always tries to meet and explore some of the special holiday traditions there.
In the state of Washington, we loved to watch the parade of Christmas boats all decorated with colored lights. In Arizona we enjoyed the lighting of luminaries and the traditional candle-walk down Squaw Peak. In Texas we’ve joined in the reenactment of Christmas at Old Fort Concho, where we saw how soldiers and their families celebrated those early Christmases on the harsh and lonely plains. In California we loved the festivities on Olvera Street and the breaking of the piñata. Our first Christmas in Hawaii, Santa arrived in red swimming trunks on a surfboard. Kansas City decorates the downtown plaza buildings with millions of tiny white lights, and horse-drawn carriages meander through the streets. Growing up in Oregon, we cut our own Christmas trees and went sledding and participated in taffy pulls.
Each of those Christmases has been special. There’s something about this holiday, no matter where or how you celebrate it, that touches us in very profound ways.
It’s always seemed to me that one star shines brighter at Christmas than at any other time of the year. It’s the star on which people everywhere can pin their hopes and dreams. The Christmas Star.
Happy Holidays to you and yours!
Roz and family
sank gratefully into the warm leather cushions of Senator Harrison McLeod’s limousine. She shivered as mid-December fog obliterated the San Francisco skyline. Almost absently she brushed the moisture from her hair and watched the drops bead on the smoked-glass window, along with condensation from her breath. Beyond the window she caught a glimpse now and then of sparkling Christmas decorations. She should be making her own holiday plans, not worrying about how to combat her almost-adopted daughter’s compulsive stealing.
Starr sighed. The state senator’s unusual summons for lunch had come late today—the day from hell. Not only was she without her compact car, having taken it in for repair, but a sudden unscheduled conference at SeLi’s school had drained her of her normal vitality. Sinking back into the comfort of the aromatic leather, she closed her eyes.
The current incident involved an influential family. The principal at this latest in a long line of private schools had more or less issued an ultimatum: one more disturbance, and SeLi would be asked to leave.
Lord, Starr thought. She was running out of schools—and options.
She opened her eyes as the driver turned off California Street onto Powell Boulevard and pulled to a stop beneath the dripping awning of a prestigious old hotel. Ah, this was nice. She’d paid little attention to where the senator had said their luncheon meeting would be.
Starr smiled at the elderly chauffeur who handed her from the back seat. Whorls of fog swooped between them, and Starr automatically flipped up the collar of her wool coat and checked her watch.
“Yikes,” she muttered more to herself than to the doorman as she hurried inside. “It’s later than I thought. I’d better phone Blevins.” She hoped it wasn’t too late to have the manager at her condo complex catch SeLi after school to send her upstairs to Darcy Donnelly’s.
The sharp-eared doorman smiled and directed her to a bank of pay phones. On the way there Starr shrugged out of her camel-hair coat. Deftly she turned the lining out—to keep her linen suit dry. It was a trick she’d learned when she first moved to San Francisco.
Starr drummed nervous fingers on the phone’s casing while she waited for either Mr. or Mrs. Blevins to answer. At last Mrs. B. answered and said, bless her, that she’d be happy to pass the message along. Sagging in relief, Starr thanked her profusely. This wasn’t the first such favor she’d begged from the older couple.
As Starr ran to catch the elevator, she hoped fervently that Wanda Manning, the social worker appointed to oversee SeLi’s adoption, never got wind of her increasing lateness. Wicked Wanda, as SeLi usually called the woman, jumped on every transgression.
The gilded elevator was old and slow, and oddly relaxing. Starr’s gloom was dispelled when she stepped out into the sparkling room. A kaleidoscope of colors spilled from a beautiful chandelier and silver Christmas stars glittered on boughs of evergreen.
Busy as she’d been, Starr hadn’t had time to worry about what the senator wanted. No bad news, she hoped. His secretary had been vague.
After giving her name to the tuxedoed host, Starr followed him into the dining room, thinking it’d been almost six months since she’d seen Senator McLeod. Yet in spite of a thoroughly rotten day, she didn’t have to force a smile for the handsome older man who rose from a secluded table to greet her with a hug and a quick kiss on the cheek.
“Starr, if you aren’t more beautiful than ever, I’ll skip lunch and eat my hat. Let me look at you.” Tall and distinguished-looking, the man pulled back and studied her upturned face as he handed her still-damp coat to the hovering host.
She let her eyes linger a moment on his charismatic smile, then she laughed. “Harrison, you old flatterer. Ever the politician. I’ll bet you say that to every woman in your district old enough to vote. But you know, considering the day I’ve had, I’ll accept your blarney.”
He seated her at the table, then sat across from her. “Job getting you down?” he asked after the water goblets had been filled. Scanning her taut features, he murmured, “I do believe you’ve lost weight since I last saw you, young lady.”
Starr blushed. She didn’t like talking about herself. “Are you planning to make my job more interesting?” she asked bluntly. “Otherwise, why the cryptic summons?” She rested an elbow on the table, braced her chin in a palm and waited.
The senator laughed. “As if you and I would have a clandestine meeting.” His amused gaze followed the water glass to her lips. “Matter of fact, I have a small favor to ask.” He unfurled his napkin. “A project I think is right up your alley.” Leaning forward, he lowered his voice. “The State Department needs a good, discreet biochemist. I’ve been asked to commission you at any cost.”
“Really?” She arched a brow several shades darker than her auburn hair. “Hey—I knew this meeting wasn’t personal,” she said. “I was only teasing. The society pages are full of how much in love our newest candidate for governor is with his pretty wife. By the way, good luck in your campaign. Now,” she continued more briskly, “about this project. It sounds...ominous.” She tipped her head. “Well, at least more ominous than my eating lunch with a happily married man.”
In the middle of her speech the smile faded from the senator’s eyes. Instead of answering, he motioned the wine steward over and selected a bottle of Napa Valley Riesling. Then he picked up a leather-bound menu and appeared to get lost in it. When the silence stretched between them and Starr continued to study him with curiosity, he cleared his throat and said softly, “I guess I’d better tell you before you hear it someplace else, Starr. Vanessa and I are having marital problems.”
Harrison’s eyes, which hesitated meeting hers, were dark with pain. Starr straightened, unable to disguise her shock. “Because of the political campaign?” she asked once she’d found her voice.
He shrugged. “Certainly it’s gotten worse now that I’ve been drafted to run. Vanessa feels she’s raising our son alone. I’ll admit, lately I’m practically living out of a suitcase. But what can I do? Tell my backers to chuck it all?” His tone grew more guarded. “They’ve invested more than money, Starr. And I’ve plowed a lot into this race. Family money, which makes matters worse.”
“Family money is always touchy.” Starr’s sympathy was genuine. Few knew her background better than the senator, a long-time friend of her movie-mogul father, Sam Lederman. The wealthy Hollywood genius tended to think he could manipulate his family the same way he could his actors—with demands...and money.
Harrison looked bemused. “You know, Starr,” he went on, “the most ironic thing in this whole deal is that Vanessa runs to my younger brother for every little thing—whether or not I’m home. She claims Clay is
that he listens to her. More and more, I see him taking my place.” His voice sounded bitter, and he fell silent as the wine was served.
When the steward had left, Starr took a sip of the chilled wine to ease a suddenly dry throat. Her voice remained thick. “So what are you saying? Not that your wife and your brother are having a...an affair.” She glanced around, lowering her voice.
Harrison’s shoulders slumped. Every one of his fifty years showed in the deep lines etched in his face. “Put like that, it sounds so sordid. But I’m afraid it’s true. During our last big fight, Vanessa plainly said she wants a man in her life and she wants him at home, not running around the state handling other people’s problems.” Bowing his head, he swirled the wine in his glass. “Maybe she’s right. Politics
demanding. I’m torn between obligations to the state and those at home. But, dammit, she knew this when we met.”
He drained his glass and continued to talk, but his musings seemed more random, less for Starr’s benefit. “If Vanessa had turned to Clay early on, I would’ve understood. Barclay—Clay’s a nickname—is fifteen years my junior, and a handsome devil. I doubt you two have met. He dislikes the city. Anyway, he and I met Vanessa at a fund-raiser. I was used to women falling all over him. Was shocked—puffed up, really—when she showed interest in me.”
Harrison refilled his wineglass; Starr covered hers, still half-full, with a palm. Apparently her silence encouraged his ramblings.
“I don’t know what Van wants!” he burst out, thumping the bottle down. “She says I don’t spend enough time with Morgan. Thing is, when I
home, she keeps him tied to her apron strings. Won’t even let him play ball. Says he’ll get dirty.” Harrison gripped his glass so tightly his knuckles turned white. “I’m sorry for dumping this on you, Starr. Truth is, I haven’t been able to tell anyone for fear it’ll creep into the news.”
Starr smoothed her napkin. She knew Vanessa McLeod only slightly. Though nearer Starr’s age than Harrison’s, Vanessa seemed older. All cool, blond elegance. Somewhat aloof. “You think it’s a phase?” she ventured.
“Like the terrible twos, you mean?” Harrison shrugged. “Van
spoiled. Again, my fault. Something to do with my damned ego. At first I found her dependence gratifying.” He settled a brooding gaze on Starr. “I wish she had your strength. Frankly I can’t see my wife arguing with Judge Forbes or that hatchet-faced social worker to adopt a half-wild dock child.”
He shook his head. “When you came to me for help dealing with all that red tape, I pictured Van—and didn’t give you an iceberg’s chance in hell of sticking it out.” His smile was brief. Reluctant.
Starr wrinkled her nose. “I haven’t won yet, and I didn’t
to ask for help, you know. Backlash, I guess, from Dad organizing my life and Mother following the advice of every guru, psychic and fortune cookie in Sausalito. But I wouldn’t have gotten to first base if you hadn’t vouched for me at the hearing, plus leased me a two-bedroom place I could afford on my salary.”
He said nothing.
“Maybe you’re selling Vanessa short. I’ll bet she
fight to take a bright, beautiful child like SeLi off the streets.”
The senator seemed so despondent that Starr impulsively reached across the table and clasped his hand. Compared to what he was facing, her problems with SeLi seemed minor. “Have you talked to your brother? You’re such a kind, caring man. Surely he’s not so different.”
Seeing his eyes blink rapidly, Starr averted her gaze. The senator’s thoughtless younger brother needed a good swift kick—and she’d love to be the one to administer it. What kind of man
he? Having spent her childhood in Hollywood, Starr had seen her share of rats. But to think of a brother sinking so low...well, it was unforgivable—even though she knew for a fact that people who did the unforgivable rarely considered the consequences to others.
By the time the waiter brought their salads, the senator had pulled himself together. As he mixed a cruet of vinegar and oil, he said casually, “I read your master’s thesis, Starr. Very impressive. Especially the part about testing the oxygen levels in the blood of bighorn sheep. Imagine. What you discovered has helped increase the breathing stamina of mountaineers.”
Her mouth fell agape. “Why would you be interested in a thing like that?”
He speared a pimiento-stuffed olive with his fork and brandished it in the air. “Because environmentalists are kicking the State Department’s butt over opening federal wildlife preserves to selective oil explorations.” He glared at the olive before popping it into his mouth. “Actually,” he confided after swallowing, “it’s a federal reversal of an old law. I initiated the movement in California. Now because some fool found a couple of dead bighorns in the San Jacinto preserve, they want to scrap the whole project.”
Starr laid her fork aside and stared at him. She barely acknowledged the arrival of a steaming platter of clams. “Why the State Department? Why not Fish and Game?”
The senator flushed as he carefully opened a hot clam. “I should have known you’d ask,” he muttered, dipping the succulent morsel in butter. “Considering how angry you were at the captain of that freighter who flushed a dirty cargo hold into the bay.” He gave a mirthless laugh and picked up another clam. “That little fiasco had a few state politicians in a tizzy. Those same men want you on this job. Mad as you were, you let the state handle the fines. And you didn’t run to the media.”
“But...” she began.
He leaned across the table and stuffed a juicy clam in her mouth. Starr was forced to swallow as he continued, “Damned if you still don’t look more like a Hollywood starlet than a research biochemist. In this case, that might be a hindrance.”
this case?” Starr persisted, reaching for her wine. “Why do I get the feeling I’m not going to like the bottom line when you finally reach it?” Her quiet gaze pinned him.
“Dammit, Starr! I’m responsible for the broader picture. You analytical types only ever look at details. You only see things in black and white.”
She held tight to her temper. “Well, you political types operate in the gray areas. When will you learn, Senator, that gray is where the sticky issues lurk? Listen, before this argument mushrooms out of control, let’s cut to the chase and talk sheep. What’s killing them?”
He shifted, glanced around, then tented his fingers. “Lower your voice, please. That’s what we want
to tell us. We hired a naturalist who ran some blood tests, but they came up negative.”
She straightened, all business now. “A virus? Some new bacteria? No, blood tests would’ve shown that. What
you doing in there, Senator?”
Harrison took a sip of wine, then leaned closer. “We, uh, we’ve sunk a petroleum test well. That’s all.” Brow furrowed, he met her flush of anger head on. “The team from Calexco swears their well isn’t to blame.”
“And I’m the Wizard of Oz,” she scoffed.
“It’s God’s truth, Starr.” He shoved a hand through his salon-styled hair. “The bottom line is...I can’t afford to have environmentalists or wildlife advocates get wind of this and go off half-cocked. They’ll kick my ass from Sacramento to Washington and back again.”
Starr frowned. Her brain was stalled on Calexco—a huge oil conglomerate that had been in environmental hot water before. Somehow they always came out looking clean. She drummed her fingers on the pristine tablecloth. “Since I’d class myself as an environmentalist, Harrison, I’m not sure what you expect from me. I’d advise handing it over to Fish and Game. Anyway, Christmas is too close. SeLi’s never had a real Christmas. I intend to make it extraspecial for her.”