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Authors: Jean C. Gordon

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BOOK: Holiday Homecoming
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Connor caught a note of sadness when Paul said his twin's name. “Are you going to be able to use Skype to talk with her?”

“Yep, we're planning to Christmas morning.”

“Here we are. Take your pick,” John said when they'd reached the far end of the farm.

“Natalie, why don't you help Connor? It'll give you two time to catch up,” Claire said. “I'll make sure these two guys don't go overboard on tall.” She motioned to her dad and brother.

Connor glanced at Natalie. She quickly turned the grimace her sister's words had caused into a facsimile of a smile. He crushed an ice ball from one of the trees that had fallen in his path. Her stifled displeasure affected him far more than it should. What did he care if she didn't want to come with him? She had no hold on him. He was over her, had been for years.

* * *

“Sorry about that,” Natalie said as soon as her family was out of hearing range. From his expression, Connor might be even less happy about her family throwing them together than she was apprehensive about it. Not that she blamed him.

“I'm used to it,” he said. “People are always trying to match me up with single women.”

And that's all she was, one more potential match pushed at him. She shivered despite having bundled up for the weather. Had any of those matches worked? She hadn't heard he was seeing anyone. Unjustified jealousy shot through her. She shook it off. Any chance she'd had of being anything to Connor, even friends, had died five years ago when she'd chosen her career over his proposal. They'd been so young. She felt decades older and knew now that it hadn't had to be an either/or.

“What kind of tree are you looking for, long or short needle?” she asked.

“You're the expert.”

The lopsided grin that had replaced his frown went straight to her heart. How many times had she succumbed to that grin and agreed to watch the movie he wanted to see or eat out at his favorite restaurant or help him clean his apartment?

“Well, the short-needled trees tend to hold their needles longer. But if you like the looks of a longer needle...”

He touched the sleeve of her navy peacoat. “It's okay. I was teasing. I know you're as uncomfortable as I am.”

Uncomfortable
. He sounded so clinical. And she was being oversensitive. Connor was handing her the olive branch she should be giving him, the branch she didn't even know how to offer him. Memories flooded her head. Them in the parking lot of the big-box store near her apartment in Syracuse looking at the meager selection of trees left for sale. They'd chosen a long-needled white pine that had started shedding its needles before they'd even set it up. Her making him laugh with stories of tree mishaps she remembered from her childhood as they decorated the tree.

She nodded, afraid that if she spoke, she'd give away emotions she didn't want Connor to see, that he probably wouldn't want to see.

“Since the tree will have to make it through at least a month, I'd better go with something with short needles,” he said.

“The short-needled balsam firs are to the right.” She pointed in the direction her family had gone, thankful that Connor was back to business. They walked over to the row of trees.

Connor stopped in front of the first one. “This one looks good.” He started to squat to cut it.

“No, wait.” She should let him go ahead and be done with it. But she couldn't without walking around it to inspect the tree from all angles. Too many tree-cutting trips with her mother stopped her from letting him cut the tree.

“What?” A note of impatience sounded in his voice.

She walked around the tree, telling herself this was the parsonage tree. She was being fussy because it needed to be right for the church, not because she wanted it nice for Connor.

“No good,” she said as she rounded back beside him. “It lists to the side. You'll have trouble keeping it up, and I noticed some holes in the branches in the back. The trees at the end of the row are probably less picked over.”

He straightened. “Lead on.”

She stepped in front of him and walked slowly down the row, eyeing each tree, the scent of pine bolstering her spirits. Picking out a perfect Christmas tree was something she'd always liked, enjoyed sharing with her mother. Natalie stopped at the far end of the row.

“This one?” Connor asked.

“No.” Her gaze traveled to the next row. “There.” A twinge of excitement bubbled as she pointed. Without thinking, she grabbed his arm to pull him over.

He stilled for a moment, his blue eyes clouding.

She dropped her hand to her side.

“Which one?” he asked with what sounded to her like forced enthusiasm.

“Next row, second one in.” Natalie rushed over and circled the tree. “It's perfect.”

Connor laughed, sending a ripple of remembrance through her.

“I'll have to move all of the furniture out of the living room and cut a hole in the ceiling to fit it in,” he teased.

“No, you won't. All you'll need to do is trim some of the wide branches on the bottom and take a foot or so off the trunk, like you had to with the tree at my apartment.”

Connor's stance stiffened. Why did she have to go and say that when they'd finally reached a friendly comfort?

Without a word, Connor attacked the tree trunk with the saw he'd brought. Natalie watched his shoulders work as he pulled back and forth, and she lifted a silent voice rusty with disuse.
Dear Jesus
,
I
know I have to talk with Connor
,
clear the air between us if we're going to work together on the pageant to glorify Your birth.
But I have no idea how to do it.

Chapter Three

W
hen Connor got back to the parsonage, he stuck the tree in a bucket of water in the far corner of the garage. No need to have it in the house until the church women came to decorate.

His cell phone pinged. It was a text from Josh:
Got done early. You still up for some demolition?

Definitely
, he texted back. Ripping out wallboard with his bare hands sounded like just what he needed to work the memories Natalie had dredged up this morning out of his system. He grabbed his toolbox and headed over to Josh's place.

A while later, his little sister, Hope, skipped into the room of the cottage he and Josh were gutting. “Hey, Connor, I'm going to hang out with you tonight.”

“Hope, hon.” He stopped her halfway across the debris-covered floor. “It would be better if you stayed back in the other room. I don't want you to get hurt.”

Jared appeared in the doorway. “Hope,” he said in a much sterner voice than Connor had used. “I told you to wait for Brendon and me.”

She blew her bangs off her face. “But I didn't want Connor to make other plans before I told him I was having a sleepover at his house tonight. If he has his cell phone, someone could have called him while I was waiting.”

Connor couldn't argue with her seven-year-old logic.

“Hope,” Jared repeated.

Connor brushed the plaster dust off his jeans. It bothered him that Jared often ended up playing the bad guy to their sister because she lived with him and Becca, while he and Josh got to be the fun brothers. Although Jared was Hope's legal guardian in their missing father's absence, they'd agreed to share responsibility of the motherless girl when her guardian grandmother had died last year.

Hope retraced her steps back to the doorway where Jared stood. “So is it okay, Connor?” she asked. “You're not doing something else?”

“Not a thing. What do you say we pick up subs on our way home for supper?”

“Can I pick out my own kind? At home, Ari and I have to take turns choosing since we always have to split one.”

“Life is tough at the Donnelly household,” Jared commented.

Not anywhere near as tough as it had been at theirs growing up.

“As long as it's not the veggie one, since I'm the one who'll have to finish the other half if you can't.”

Hope wrinkled her nose. “Never. And I brought some games and stuff to do.”

“Great.”

Her expression turned serious. “Josh, don't feel left out. I can come to your house next Saturday.”

Connor had to work at not bursting out laughing as he watched Josh struggle to keep a grin off his face.

“It's a date,” Josh said. “We can go to the Strand and catch a movie.”

“Bro,” Jared said, “you've been spending a lot of time at the movies. Or is that a lot of time with the theater owner?”

Josh shrugged him off. “What can I say? She lets me watch the movies from the projection room.”

“Cool! Can we do that next week?” Hope asked.

“I'll check with Tessa,” Josh said, “but I don't see why not.”

“Hey, guys. I thought we were here to work, not discuss Josh's love life,” Connor said in an effort to deflect Josh before he decided to move on to him and Natalie. Connor had ignored, not missed, the gleam in Josh's eye when he'd filled in Jared on his and Natalie's former relationship the other night.

“Yeah,” Josh said. “I want to get this room walled in today. It's Saturday, and some of us who aren't old and married have plans for the night.”

Connor guessed Josh's plans were more adult than his. His insides hollowed. Maybe he should start taking up some of his parishioners on their matchmaking, if for no other reason than to get some woman other than Natalie in his thoughts.

“Brendon, set Hope up with her art stuff in the other room,” Jared said, “and we'll see what Uncle Josh has for you to do.”

His brothers would probably laugh if they knew how much he liked Becca's son and her daughter, Ariana, calling him Uncle Connor instead of Pastor Connor. It gave him a feeling of family that he hadn't had growing up in their too-often chaotic household.

“Josh, don't you have something I can do, too?” Hope asked.

“No, you're too little,” Brendon said in the true fashion of an older brother, even though he actually was Hope's nephew by marriage.

“It just so happens I do,” Josh said. “The box with my nails and screws and bolts is a mess. You could sort through them and put the ones that are alike together in the different compartments.”

Jared gave a thumbs-up behind Hope.

“Brendon, it's in the back hall where you came in,” Josh said. “You can carry it for Hope.”

“Thanks, guys,” Jared said after the kids had headed to the hall. “Ari went home with a friend after play practice this morning, and Brendon's staying over at his friend Ian's tonight. Hope was feeling left out.”

Jared didn't have to add what the three brothers were all thinking.
I
know how that feels
. Connor learned young that because of their father, they couldn't have friends over. His behavior was too unpredictable. And not being able to ever reciprocate made for fewer invitations to other kids' houses.

“And I'll have you know, Josh,” Jared said, “since us old marrieds are kidless tonight, I have some Saturday night plans, too.”

Josh threw up his hands in mock surrender. “I concede, maybe you aren't all of the way over the hill. Yet.”

Connor grabbed the broom from the gutted wall beside him. He swept a section of the floor large enough to roll out and cut the batt insulation. If not for his little sister, he'd be left out—again.

Brendon popped back in the room. “So, what can I do?”

“You can help Uncle Connor measure and cut the insulation.” As usual, Jared took charge. “Josh and I'll staple it up.”

Relegated to the easy job as he always had been, being the youngest. Connor stalked across the room, heaved a roll of insulation on his shoulder and crossed back to the spot he'd swept. He let the roll drop to the floor.

“Think fast.” Josh shot a tape measure at him. By reflex, Connor reached his hand above his head and caught it. He was acting as childish as Hope, only she had reason to. She
was
a child. He pulled out the tape and let it snap back in. He was a grown man, secure in his profession, secure with who he was. Or he had been until Natalie had returned.

She'd caught him by surprise, and that surprise had somehow stripped him of all the confidence he'd built in himself at seminary through prayer and hard work. It had also washed away the foundation of the wall he'd put up to keep her out of his thoughts. Natalie was seeping in them all too often.
Like now
.

“I don't get to use tools or anything?” Brendon complained.

“Hey, bud, you don't need hammers and staple guns to do a man's work. Our part of the job is the thinking man's part. Jared and Josh's is just grunt work.”

Brendon eyed him.

“If we don't measure and cut the insulation right, it won't work right and the room will be drafty.” Connor sliced the roll open with a utility knife.

Brendon probably bought that as much as he bought his plan to keep Natalie out of his head by avoiding her as much as possible outside of the pageant. Look at how well that had worked this morning.

* * *

“Nat, you have to do me a favor.” Andie had started the phone call without even saying
hello
. “You have to fill in for me this afternoon decorating the parsonage for the open house. Robbie is sick.”

Natalie's nephew had seemed okay an hour ago at church service. Was her sister purposely trying to make her uncomfortable by pushing her to go help Connor decorate his house?

“He's had the sniffles, but now he's spiked a temperature. If it goes higher, I'm going to have to take him to urgent care.”

Natalie twisted her hair around her finger, her throat tightening with concern for the four-year-old. She was doing what Andie often accused her of—making it all about herself. “Sure. What time?”

“Two thirty.”

That only gave her an hour to prepare herself. “Will Connor be there?”

“I don't know. Probably. You're not still carrying a torch for him after all these years, are you? You lost your chance when you let him get away in college.”

No, no torch. Only regrets for her callousness. But leave it to big sis to go right for the jugular without even meaning to. “I need to check a couple things with him about the pageant music.”

“Oh. Thanks for doing this. The twins were going to come with me, so I'll have Rob drop them off at the parsonage. That way you don't have to come out of your way to pick them up. You'll just have to drive them home. Dad was right when he said having you here for the holidays would be a help for us all.”

Natalie was sure Andie's take on Dad's words wasn't exactly what he'd meant. “Hope Robbie feels better,” she said, then ended the call.

“Bad news?” her mother asked.

Natalie almost dropped her phone. “Mom! I thought you were resting.”

“I tried. It doesn't feel right, lying in bed during the day.”

“You need to be careful not to put too much stress on your knee. Sit down at least.” She helped her mother from her walker onto the couch.

“You're changing the subject. Something's wrong. You didn't get called back to work, did you? You said it was no problem to take family leave.”

No, no problem at all. Natalie didn't know how to start. “I don't have a job,” she blurted.

Her mother patted the spot beside her. “They called you on a Sunday afternoon to tell you that?” Outrage colored her words. “You're on family leave. I thought that gave you job protection.”

Natalie dropped onto the couch. “I lost my job several months ago.”

Her mother hugged her shoulder. “More downsizing?”

Good old Mom, always thinking the best of her, of all of them. It wouldn't occur to her that Natalie would be fired or quit a job without having another one lined up.

“Sort of,” she said. “This time, the station was sold and the new owners wanted a different format with different people.” Natalie scraped her nail against the knobby fabric of the armrest. Might as well get it all out. “I didn't lose the one before that because of downsizing. I was fired for not doing what was asked of me.”

Her mother knit her brows. “That doesn't sound at all like you,” she said, concern clouding her face.

“You don't know what was expected
.

“Tell me.”

Natalie's chest tightened until she could barely draw a breath. “I can't. I made a poor choice in my personal life, and I paid for it.” Connor's face flashed in front of her.
A
couple of bad choices
.

“We've all made bad choices, and God forgives us for every one of them.”

Natalie couldn't imagine her dear mother making the choices she'd made.

“How bad is it?” Mom asked.

She might as well tell all, at least as much as she could bear to share with her mother. “I had to give up my apartment a couple of months ago, and I used the last of my savings for my plane ticket here and some Christmas gifts.”

“You didn't have to bring gifts. Having you here is enough for all of us.”

“Thanks, Mom, but I wanted to, especially for the kids.”
And for you and Dad
.

“If I'm not prying, where have you been living?”

“A friend from the women's Bible study at church invited me to move in with her.”

Mom nodded. “I'm glad you've been able to hang on to your faith.”

“I've been trying, Mom. It hasn't been easy.”

“It often isn't. When I'm having trouble hanging on, I quote
Lamentations 3:24-25
to myself. ‘The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for Him. The Lord is good to those whose hope is in Him, to the one who seeks Him.' Waiting has always worked for me.”

She hugged her mother, feeling for the moment that she was safe from the ruthless world she'd left to come home, that she was somewhere she belonged.

Her mother patted her back as she drew away. “So why
were
you frowning at your phone when I came in?”

Natalie released a laugh that bordered on maniacal. “Andie called and asked me if I could fill in for her helping the women from church decorate the parsonage this afternoon. She thinks Robbie is coming down with something.”

“I hope not,” her mother said. “I'll call her later to check on him. And you'll have a good time helping decorate. It's a younger group of women than what you'd remember. Autumn and Becca and some other girls you may know from school will be there.”

“It's not that.” Natalie's voice dropped to a whisper. “It's Connor's house.”

Her usually perceptive mother cocked her head in question.

Natalie's throat clogged. “I treated him badly. Every time I see him, I feel like I should apologize, do something to make it up to him.” She waved her hands as if grasping for an answer. “But I don't know how, what.”

“You're not the only young woman who's turned down a marriage proposal, and you're not the only one who's had second thoughts afterward.”

Natalie chose to skip over her mother's last words. “But I wasn't nice about it. In my eyes, he'd become too small-town, and I had cities to conquer. I'm sure I made him feel that being a television reporter was more important than anything he could offer, that he and his proposal would get in the way of my career.”

A raw laugh caught in her throat.
Some career
. She'd been so naive. And in the far recesses of her mind, she'd harbored the thought that he'd always be there for her to fall back on. She hadn't seen him again after that Christmas Eve until the other night at the pageant practice.

BOOK: Holiday Homecoming
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