Authors: Marian P. Merritt
Tags: #christian Fiction
Compassion flooded Leona's heart and a rush of emotion threatened to choke her. She swallowed the rising lump and tried not to let Marissa see her struggle. She didn't want the actress to think she felt sorry for her. She understood Marissa's battle more now than ever. Hurting people hurt. Plain and simple.
This woman was here at Christmas with people who adored their Christmas memories. When she should have memories to look back on with fondness, all she had was pain and neglect. She felt certain Marissa had no idea who Jesus was and why Christmas was so important.
She gave Marissa's hand a gentle squeeze. "You're doing Christmas now, and that's important. We'll make this Christmas the best you've ever had. A true celebration of Jesus's birthday."
Marissa smiled and cast her gaze toward the mountains. After a while she said, "They certainly are beautiful."
"They are. God's creation in all its glory."
Marissa paused and whispered, "Godâ¦" She closed her eyes and seemed to drift far away. Had she returned to the non-Christmases with her mother?
Leona started to say more, but something stopped her. Sensing that the timing was wrong, she shared the remaining moment in silence with Marissa. A prayer for Marissa filled her heart.
After a while Marissa stirred in her chair and turned to Leona. "I hope you weren't upset with me for talking to Bryan this afternoon."
Leona didn't understand. "Why would I be upset?"
"Aren't you interested in him?" Marissa sipped the last of her tea and then pulled the blanket further around her shoulders.
"In Bryan Golby? No. No way. I wanted to ride a snowmobile, and he offered. That's it. Right now my primary interest is in learning how to manage a restaurant and in making enough money to open my own."
Marissa smiled. "Really? Your own restaurant?"
"Yes. It's been my dream since I was a little girl." Leona told her about
and the legacy her grandmother had begun. "What about you? Has acting always been your dream?"
Marissa creased her brows. "Nah, can't say that is was. It's a means to an end for me. I love the attention and the money. I swore I would never be poor, and acting makes that a reality."
Leona examined Marissa for a moment and began to comprehend the life the actress had led to bring her where she sat today. She wanted to ask about Cameron but didn't know how.
Marissa continued, "Even being here was a business decision."
"Really? I thought you came here with Cameron." Leona tucked her feet under her and made sure the quilt covered her shoulders. As the night progressed, the temperatures dropped and the deck became colder.
"I did come here with Cameron. His dad is thinking of having me in his next movie project. Cameron would be a good catch, don't you think? With all his connections, he'd be perfect for my career and not too bad to look at. I may have to make many trips down to New Oryleens." She smiled a sly grin. "Who knows? I might be interested in investing in that restaurant of yours."
Leona's heart dropped. The Marissa she'd gotten a glimpse of earlier this evening had disappeared. She'd started to like that Marissa. She didn't want to partner with this Marissaâone who would use someone like Cameron to advance her career.
Cameron awoke early, dressed quickly, and headed down the stairs.
Julian was already in the kitchen making coffee. "You up early." Julian turned to him.
"Couldn't sleep anymore. I'm gonna take a snowmobile out. Want to come with me?"
"Who me? On dat thing. No way. You mus be off your rocker."
Cameron put his arm around his shoulder. "C'mon, Julian. It'll be fun. Maybe you could take Miss Coco out." He jabbed Julian's belly.
"Whoa, don't go gettin' fancy ideas, boy."
"C'mon. Leona did it. You should have seen her. She's a natural."
"Yeah, that girl is special." He turned to Cameron and met his gaze head on. "It's time some nice fella realized what a gem she is."
Cameron raised his brows. "Me?"
"Someone who deserves to have her in his life. If dat's you, then yes. If not, then no. Simple as dat." Julian poured hot coffee into Cameron's mug and then filled his.
Cameron slid onto the closest stool while Julian gathered items for breakfast. "Julian, how do you know her?"
"Her papa was a good friend. We hunted together when we were young. Grew up on the bayou. We reconnected when the family moved closer to N'awlins. He and his wife were good to me when my wife and daughter disappeared. Leona is the same age as my daughter. She has a special place in my heart. I would hate to see anybody do her wrong." He lifted his right brow and gave Cameron the Julian death stare.
"I hear you, Julian." Cameron raised both hands. "Don't worry. I would love to get to know her better, but I don't think she wants the same."
"Why you say dat?" Julian placed bulk sausage in a stainless steel pot.
"I've tried to talk to her, but she brushes me off." He fiddled with the handle on his coffee mug. "Does she have a boyfriend back home?"
Julian snickered. "No, she don't. She's too busy for a boyfriend. But, my boy, it's like dis. She's not gonna pay attention to another woman's man."
"You heard me. You and Marissa." He crossed his index finger and middle finger together. "Like this."
Cameron grabbed his head. "Ah, man. The kiss. She thinks Marissa and I are together?"
Julian nodded. "I think Marissa thinks dat, too."
"You've got to tell her that I'm not dating Marissa."
Julian shook his head and began chopping an onion. "No way. I'm not gettin' in the middle of dis. You have to tell her."
"Are you kidding? She won't believe me after what she saw." Cameron hung his head.
"Seems to me you better get creative and in a hurry. You got less than a week before we leave." Julian finished the onion and added it to the pot of cooking pork sausage. He rolled out pie dough for two quiches.
Leona entered the kitchen tying her apron around her waist. "Chef, you started without me. I thought you said we'd start at six thirty."
"Uhâhuh, I did. But I couldn't sleep. Neither could my boy, Cameron, here. So we been drinking coffee together. And you know me. I can't be in a kitchen without cooking somethin'."
"What can I do?" she asked.
He pointed to the coffee brewer on the counter. "You can go over to that coffeepot and pour yourself a big mug of coffee and sit right there and drink it." He pointed to the stool with his wooden spoon.
She narrowed her eyes toward him and then did as he asked. Or rather commanded. As Julian had always done. She slid into the stool on the far end of the counter.
When Cameron had lived in Louisiana during his fifth and sixth grade years, he'd been so intimidated by Julian. His dad and Julian had become good friends when his dad had invested in his restaurant. He and his dad had helped paint the place and get it ready for the grand opening. That summer is when Julian had taken Cameron under his wing to teach him to cook after Cameron had confided in Julian that he dreamed of doing just what he was doingâbecome a chef and open his own restaurant.
Julian and Leona were doing what they loved. Not pretending to be something they weren't. Cameron hated his job. It was the pretending that had gotten him into the situation with Marissa. It was time he started living his own life and not his father's. After all, he turned thirty next month. It was past time.
Leona tried to avoid Cameron as best she could in the following days. Although during those moments they met in the hallway, or Cameron came to the kitchen, she found it hard to avert her gaze from his vibrant blue eyes. And even harder to resist his warm personality.
Working helped. On Christmas Eve, Leona opened the large oven door and slid that evening's dinner, Chicken
into the waiting warmth. The day had gone quickly.
Cameron had made a couple of attempts to spend time with her, but she'd been too busy to welcome him. She needed to distance herself from him and keeping busy in the kitchen was the best way to do that.
She'd spent the day making Cajun Candied Pecans, Buttery Cajun Popcorn, and Caramel Popcorn. Containers were filled and placed around the lodge for guests to enjoy.
They'd started tonight's dinner early because the guests were taking an evening snowmobile ride after dinner.
For dessert, Leona packed graham crackers, marshmallows, and chocolate bars into an insulated bag so the group could make s'mores at the fire ring CG had waiting on the mountain.
"You sure you don't want to go tonight?" Chef wrapped bacon around fresh asparagus spears and layered the small bundles on a cookie sheet.
"No, I'll stay here and get the oysters when the chopper comes in."
Chef shot her a confused look. "I'll be here for dat."
"Not if you go with the group. Miss Coco needs someone to ride with her."
He shook his head. "Not me. She can ride with CG."
"Nope. He's going up early and hauling all the gear."
"What about Bryan? She can ride wit' him."
"I think she'd rather ride with you." She poked her elbow into his rib.
Julian's cheeks heated to a pale rose. "Nah, what would she see in an old chef like me? I think you're drinking your bath water."
Leona smiled while she pulled the smoked Gouda from the refrigerator. "We shall see. How much of this cheese do you need for your mac and cheese dish?" She wanted to spend time away from Cameron. Here alone she could update her journal and then go for a late evening walk to the gazebo.
"I need one-third pound of the Gouda and half pound of cheddar and one quarter pound of the sharp cheddar. All grated." Chef emptied the macaroni into a large pot of boiling water.
"Got it." Leona gathered the cheeses and the grater. She set up on the counter near the stove and began grating the cheese.
Marissa hadn't mentioned their little talk on the balcony several nights ago. The actress had avoided her all the next day and for the last few days. Had she been put off by a female friend showing kindness?
Leona prayed that the tiny seed she'd planted about God had made Marissa think a little differently. Twinges of guilt pricked throughout the day. Should she warn Cameron of Marissa's intentions?
Chef worked on the sauce for the mac and cheese. Once Leona had grated the cheese, he added it to the sauce. The final dish was a creamy pan of macaroni and cheese perfection.
Leona set the table, and Chef brought the dishes in serving bowls and placed them on the sideboard buffet style. Chef had accepted CG's invitation for him and Leona to dine with him and his guests. He'd tried to talk Chef into joining them on their snowmobile ride, and he still worked on him.
"You should go. It's really fun. When was the last time you did something fun?" Leona asked as Chef cut the homemade bread into pieces.
"I don't know." He layered a tea towel with a Christmas tree embroidered on the edges over the bread.
"I might do it. I'll think about it some more."
During dinner, Cameron sat on the other end of the table from Leona, so she'd been able to continue avoiding him.
Marissa had said little to her but had been polite.
When Coco sat next to Chef and encouraged him to take her for a snowmobile ride, he'd quickly agreed.
Leona's heart did a little two-step. She'd have the kitchen and the house to herself except for Max.
After they'd all left, she cleaned the kitchen, sidestepping around Max who lay on the floor at her feet. She kept pushing him out of her way so she wouldn't step on him. "It's you and me, buddy." She leaned over and patted his head.
of helicopter blades sounded in the distance. She went out to greet the pilot. Chef had left an ice chest on the porch for the sack of oysters they delivered. They would have oysters on the half shell and charbroiled oysters for Christmas dinner tomorrow.
She ran toward the chopper and was snow-blasted, so she backed up and waited at a reasonable distance.
The pilot remained in his seat, but his passenger disembarked and retrieved the oysters from the back. The tall, older man approached her. "One sack of oysters."
"Thank you. Can you put them there?" She pointed to the chest on the porch.
"Sure." He trudged through the blowing snow.
She lifted the lid so he could place the sack inside. "Can I fix you and the pilot a cup of coffee? Something warm to drink?"
"No, ma'am. We're good. There's a storm coming through tonight. We need to head back."
The gentleman returned to the chopper. The machine lifted into the air and within minutes was out of sight.
The stillness of the night, with the only sound coming from the rushing river, grabbed her and called to her senses. She stopped on the porch and retrieved a half dozen oysters.
Inside the kitchen, she found the oyster knife and small hammer for shucking, a pair of gloves, a bottle of hot sauce, and a sleeve of saltines. She placed the oysters in the sink and lifted one. With a whack of the hammer on the edge, she broke off a tip, slipped the dull round-tipped knife between the shells and twisted. The shells separated revealing a perfectly sized fresh oyster. The smaller ones were her favorite. She usually gave Chef the behemoth ones.
After a quick flick of the knife under the oyster to separate it from the shell, she tapped a few drops of hot sauce on top, ate the oyster, and then bit into the crispy saltine. Yum. Nice and salty. Hopefully, the guests would like them. Once she'd finished the oysters, she cleaned the sink, double bagged the shells, and put them in the trashcan in the back room.
"C'mon, boy. Let's go out and enjoy the night." She gave Max's head a quick rub, and then gathered her journal, warm clothes, and his leash.
She slid the journal in her pocket, attached Max to his leash, and walked out the back door. He yanked so hard; she almost fell face down into the snow. Once at the gazebo, she felt comfortable that he wouldn't run off so she disconnected his leash. He went nuts frolicking in the snow.