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Authors: Jean C. Gordon

Holiday Homecoming

BOOK: Holiday Homecoming
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The Pastor's Christmas Match

Pastor Connor Donnelly is done with romance. After proposing to his high school sweetheart, Natalie Delacroix, five years ago—and being turned down—he's putting all his time and energy into his community. He's determined to make the Christmas pageant he's directing a success. But family and friends are set on fixing up the good-looking bachelor in time for the holidays. And now that Natalie is back in Paradox Lake—and helping with the pageant—they might just succeed. Because working so closely with Natalie stirs up old feelings…and Connor starts to hope for a second chance with the one who got away.

“You don't want to work on the pageant?” Connor asked her.

Natalie avoided his gaze. “It's just… Isn't it awkward for you? Wouldn't you rather be working with someone else?”

“We're both adults. Anything between us ended a long time ago. I agree with your mother that you're the best qualified person to step in for her.”

“You didn't answer my question,” she reminded him.

He wasn't sure he could. “I want the best person we can get for the choir director. You're good.”

He lifted her chin with his forefinger. “What happened?” he asked suddenly. “Why are you really back?”

Connor was uncertain whether he thought it would help to talk about the elephant in the room.

Her eyes clouded. “This isn't easy to talk about.”

“You don't have to. That was just counselor Connor kicking in. You know, all that listening and conflict resolution training I had at seminary.”

“No, you're right. Talking will help us start over—as friends—so we can work together on the pageant.”

Something in him rebelled at the way she emphasized
as friends
.

Jean C. Gordon
's writing is a natural extension of her love of reading. From that day in first grade when she realized
t-h-e
was the word
the
, she's been reading everything she can put her hands on. Jean and her college-sweetheart husband share a 175-year-old farmhouse in Upstate New York with their daughter and her family. Their son lives nearby. Contact Jean at
facebook.com/jeancgordon.author
or PO Box 113, Selkirk, NY 12158.

Books by Jean C. Gordon

Love Inspired

The Donnelly Brothers

Winning the Teacher's Heart

Holiday Homecoming

Small-Town Sweethearts

Small-Town Dad

Small-Town Mom

Small-Town Midwife

HOLIDAY
HOMECOMING

Jean C. Gordon

www.millsandboon.com.au

“For surely I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord, “plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”

—Jeremiah
29:11

To my family for being the anchor of my life
and putting up with my love of
celebrating holidays, any holiday.

Chapter One

I
f one more person tried to play matchmaker with him, Connor Donnelly didn't know what he'd do, but it might not be pastorlike.

Connor flipped his jacket collar up against the cold night air as he left the parsonage for the Christmas pageant practice he was supposed to be directing. Even his older brother, Jared—the man least likely to marry—had gotten into the matchmaker act since his wedding last summer. Connor shuddered at the memory of last weekend's blind double date.

Jared and his wife, Becca, had set him up with the younger sister of her college friend, who was in Ticonderoga on business. Becca had failed to tell the woman he was a minister. When it came up at dinner, she'd clammed up and made her exit as quickly as she could without being blatantly rude. It wasn't that Connor would mind being married. He'd just rather do the choosing and hadn't found a woman he cared strongly enough about, except...

Pushing that thought from his head, he drove the short distance from Hazardtown Community Church to the Sonrise Camp and Conference Center, where the practice was being held. He had more immediate things to occupy his time than his lame love life, like finding a replacement for Terry Delacroix, his church organist and the music director for the Paradox Lake churches' annual Christmas Eve pageant and ecumenical service. His church was sponsoring the service this year, making him the production director. Acing the production would help to solidify his standing with the small faction of his congregation who still weren't convinced Jerry Donnelly's son was the right pastor for Hazardtown Community.

As he opened the door to the newly built camp auditorium, he caught the end of a conversation between the twelve-year-old Bissette twins, who were standing in the hallway off the entry.

“She deserves a nice Christmas present, especially since Mom says she's getting her act together now. I think Pastor Connor would be perfect.”

“Ye-e-es!” The second twin fist-bumped her sister.

Terrific, now the kids were getting in on it. He wasn't even going to speculate who the girls thought he'd make a perfect gift for.

Piano strains of “What Child Is This?” drifted from the auditorium, lifting Connor's spirits. It sounded like Drew Stacey, Sonrise's director, had gotten him a replacement. He owed his friend big-time. Connor strode into the auditorium anxious to see whom Drew had found.

“Pastor Connor,” the twins called in unison, waving him to the front.

“Do you know our aunt Natalie?” Amelia asked.

“She's going to take Grandma's place for the pageant,” Aimee finished for her sister.

The music stopped abruptly with a discordant sound. Natalie turned slightly on the piano bench and looked out at Connor, an anxious expression on her face. When her gaze caught his, he tripped, grasping one of the seat backs to keep his balance.

Natalie Delacroix
. The woman who'd broken his heart when she'd chosen her career over him and his marriage proposal.

That was five years ago. Ancient history, he mused as he walked the rest of the way down the aisle to the front of the auditorium.

“Hello, Natalie.” The cool tone of his words surprised him, considering the battle of emotions that was going on inside him.

“Connor.” Now that he was at close range, she wouldn't meet his gaze.

“You guys already know each other,” one of the twins—Aimee, he thought—said.

“We went to high school together.” And a lot more.

He glanced sideways at Natalie. She was staring at the sheet music in front of her as if the pages would disappear if she turned from them.

The other twin, Amelia, rolled her eyes. “We should have figured that.”

The auditorium door opened. The girls squealed the name of one of their friends and went to join her, leaving him and Natalie alone.

“Are you visiting for the holidays?” he asked, again surprised at how calmly polite he sounded. The conflict-resolution training he'd taken in seminary was proving its worth.

Natalie gathered the sheet music and tucked it in a folder on the piano music stand. She was every bit as beautiful as she'd been that Christmas Eve five years ago, with her jet-black hair curling against her fair skin. Except something was missing.

“Dad and
Mémé
asked me to come and help Mom.” She lifted her shoulders in a Gallic shrug he'd seen her French-Canadian grandmother use many times. “You know how much work the farm is for Dad and Paul, and
Mémé
isn't that well herself. Andrea's busy with her family and part-time job. Dad wanted someone with Mom during the day.” Natalie tapped her fingers on the piano bench as she ticked off the reasons her other two sisters couldn't help. “Claire has her work at the research farm and she's taking grad courses, besides having used up most of her vacation time for the year. And it's not like Renee could take off from the mission in Haiti.” She stopped tapping. “I had time. I'm between jobs. The station I was working at changed formats and didn't have a spot for me anymore.”

Natalie spoke the words in a monotone. That was what was missing. Natalie's spark was gone. He looked at her more closely. Her features were sharper. She was thinner. Too thin. Faint slashes of blue under her eyes emphasized the tired look they held. His heart ached, as he wondered what was behind the changes. If she was simply one of his parishioners, he'd say something, see if she wanted to talk later. But with their history, he didn't know if he could help, or—even more—if she'd want him to.

He put on his professional face. “We've all been praying for your mother's speedy recovery. I'm sure she really appreciates your being here to help out.” Like he would have appreciated Terry telling him Natalie was coming back to Paradox Lake for the holidays when he'd visited her in the hospital the day before yesterday.

“Thank you,” Natalie said, holding herself straight-backed on the bench. “I'm glad I could come and help.”

Connor shoved his fingers in the front pockets of his jeans. “Is she home from the medical center? I know she and your dad had a real scare with the postsurgical infection that caused her to be readmitted.”

“Yes.”

He could almost hear the silence following her terse reply. This was the same girl—woman—who used to chatter to him for hours, punctuating her words with animated hand motions?

“Connor,” Drew Stacey called from the back of the auditorium, relieving him of having to try and make any more small talk. “I see you've met Terry's replacement.”

The note of helpful pride in Drew's voice was unmistakable.

“From what Terry said, you and Natalie are old friends.”

Connor nodded.
Were
friends, and a whole lot more.

In the silence, Natalie seemed to shrink into the piano bench.

“People are arriving. I'll get out of your way so you can get started,” Drew said. “I'll be in the utility room working with the youth group on the stage settings. Give me a yell when you're done, and I'll lock up.”

“Sure thing,” Connor said. Drew's words made Connor aware of the din of people talking and moving in the auditorium behind them.

Drew turned to Natalie before he left. “The production is a little behind schedule. Practices usually get started the week before Thanksgiving, but your mom probably told you that. You still have a month. I'm sure the two of you can pull it off.”

Natalie looked from Drew to him, her eyes full of question. Evidently, her mother hadn't told Natalie he was directing the pageant. Connor swallowed the lump that had formed in his throat. He'd worked hard to forgive and forget Natalie. Now here she was, her mere presence scratching through the top layers of self-protection he'd built. He had a feeling this December might be the longest month of his life.

* * *

Connor Donnelly.
Her breath hitched. At one time, she and Connor had been so attuned to each other she could practically read his thoughts before he voiced them. Either he had become a lot better at controlling his expressions or she'd lost her touch. She had no idea what was going through his mind, except that she didn't think it was anything good. She waited for him to say something.

“I take it your mother didn't tell you that I'm directing the Christmas pageant,” he said.

“No.” So much for her hopes that being in Paradox Lake for the holidays would bring her some peace so she could start putting her broken life back together. Working with Connor would be anything but peaceful. Her mother had to know that. “I guess I assumed that since the pageant was here at the camp, Drew was in charge.”

“Drew's just letting us use the camp auditorium. The local association of churches sponsors the pageant. The churches decided a few years ago that we'd get a better turnout for early Christmas Eve services if we combined forces with an ecumenical service for the young families, rather than having separate ones.”

“That makes sense. How's it working?” she asked, hoping making small talk would calm the wildfires leaping from nerve ending to nerve ending.

“Good.” His face became more animated. “We, the pastors, take turns directing.”

Natalie felt a pinch of envy at his statement. She didn't belong anywhere anymore, not even with her family. But she was glad he was part of something. Growing up with an alcoholic father who was frequently the center of local gossip, Connor and his two brothers had often felt they didn't fit in.

“It's my turn this year. We're going alphabetically by church.” Connor stopped his explanation. “If you don't want to do this with me, say so.”

Obviously, she'd failed in her efforts to pretend she could carry off a normal conversation with him.

“Your sister Andrea said she'd play if we couldn't find anyone else.”

“No, it's fine. I told Mom I would.”

Natalie searched his eyes to see if he'd thrown out Andie's name as a challenge. Quitting now and letting Andie swoop in to take over would be one more failure for Natalie in the eyes of her perfect oldest sister. But Connor wouldn't know that. He hadn't been around for her sister's regular phone calls lecturing her on how she and her lifestyle—or what Andie had pretty well perceived as Natalie's lifestyle—was hurting Mom and Dad. The calls hadn't started until after she'd broken up with Connor and followed her college mentor to Chicago to be a television news reporter.

“You know how I love Christmas music,” she quickly added.

His mouth twisted in a half smile she couldn't decipher.

“Natalie! Is it really you?” Her high school friend Autumn Hazard—Hanlon now—rushed up to the front of the auditorium, relieving Natalie of having to continue to face Connor alone.

“It's me,” Natalie said, glad to see Autumn, but embarrassed that she'd cut off contact with her the past couple of years. She only knew Autumn had married because her mother had told her.

“Aunt Jinx and Drew said you were filling in for your mother.” Autumn grabbed Natalie's hands and pulled her to her feet. “Why didn't you let me know you were coming for the holidays?”

“It was a last-minute decision. Dad called, said he and Mom needed my help, and I came.”

“I'm so glad to see you.” Autumn hugged her.

Over Autumn's shoulder, Natalie watched Connor move away to join a group of people congregating in the aisle. He hadn't changed much since she'd last seen him. His dark blond hair was respectably shorter, the shoulders she'd leaned on maybe a little wider, and his facial features were more chiseled, making him resemble his oldest brother, Jared, and his father, rather than his mother, whom he'd looked like when he was younger. In other words, he looked good.

She couldn't say the same for herself, Natalie thought as Autumn stepped back to look at her.

“It's been way too long,” Autumn said. “What, the summer after our sophomore year of college?”

“Probably,” Natalie agreed. “I had an internship at WTVH in Syracuse the next summer, and after graduation, I moved to Chicago for work.” The job she'd thought was her foothold into a career in television news that had turned out to be the path to the destruction of her career and personal life.

A loud whistle penetrated the din of voices in the room. “Time to get started,” Connor said. “Sunday school kids, you can go out into the hall with Mrs. Donnelly, and she'll explain the parts she has available. Parents, after tonight, Becca will be having rehearsals on Saturday afternoons and one day after school, rather than at night. She has information she'll give the kids about transportation provided by the participating churches for anyone who needs it.”

Becca led a swarm of kids and parents out of the auditorium. Natalie remembered her as Mrs. Norton, her high school history teacher. Strange to think she was Connor's sister-in-law now.

“Everyone else, up on the stage bleachers, bass in the back, then tenor, alto and soprano.”

“I'll catch you later,” Autumn said. “Our leader has spoken.”

Natalie sat back down on the piano bench and watched the way everyone responded to Connor taking charge. He had a quiet command about him that she hadn't seen before.

“Many of you probably remember Natalie Delacroix.” He pointed down at her and fifty or sixty sets of eyes followed his gesture.

Natalie forced herself to hold her head high and pasted her best onscreen smile on her face, wondering how much they knew about her and her fiasco in Chicago and what they might be thinking.

“Natalie has graciously agreed to take over as music director for her mother, who, for those of you who don't know, had emergency surgery the week before last. And be rest assured our music is in good hands.”

She kept her gaze on the sheet music as Connor proceeded to tick off her qualifications.

“Eastman School of Music offered Natalie a scholarship before she decided to pursue a degree in broadcast journalism, and she minored in music at Syracuse.”

BOOK: Holiday Homecoming
7.93Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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