Read The Christmas Bell Tolls Online

Authors: Robin Caroll

The Christmas Bell Tolls

BOOK: The Christmas Bell Tolls
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The Christmas Bell Tolls

Robin Caroll

 

Copyright
© 2015 Robin Caroll

All
Rights Reserved

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For
Heather:

Because
you deserve the dedication

<3

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One

 

A knot caught in
Darren’s throat as his daughter twirled around the kitchen in her poufy skirt.
How was his baby five years old already?
Five.
It
seemed like only yesterday he and Georgia had brought the little baby girl
home. They’d been so in love with her wide, blue eyes fringed with long, dark
lashes that seemed to study their every move. Darren had let her wrap her
fingers around his, and in doing so, she wrapped him around her little finger.
He’d had an idyllic life…until—

“Is it gonna snow,
Daddy? Can I build a snowman if it does? I’ve never built a snowman. Will you
help me?” Savannah’s voice dragged him from his musings.

“If it snows, I’ll
help you build a snowman, doodlebug, but right now, you need to hurry up. Aunt
Maddie will be here any minute now.” Darren used his stern voice, but couldn’t
keep the smile off his face as his daughter twirled around the kitchen in her
elf dress. “You want to be ready, don’t you?”

“Am I pretty,
Daddy?” Savannah’s blonde curls framed her angelic face as she whipped the red
and green skirt around. Her smile lit up her whole face, looking so much like
Georgia. The resemblance didn’t hurt his heart anymore. Savy might look like
her mother, but she was definitely forming her own personality.

“Daddy?
Do you hear me?” Savannah tugged on his hand, jerking him from his thoughts.

“What? Oh, yes,
sweetheart. You’re very pretty.” He swept her up into his arms. “You’re the
most beautiful girl in the whole wide world.” He spun her around in swooping
circles while dancing toward the living room. “You’re always my beautiful,
sweet-and-sassy, Savy.”

She wrapped her
little arms around his neck and planted a loud kiss on his cheek, followed by
her contagious giggle. “I love you, Daddy.”

Warmth filled his
chest. “I love you, too, doodlebug.” He gave her a final hug,
then
set her down. “But if your Aunt Maddie gets here and
you aren’t ready, we’ll both be in big trouble. Now go get your shoes.” She’d
just conned him into buying some new, very sparkly shoes this week.

“Boots, Daddy. I’m
wearing my boots.” She rushed toward the closet, and Darren sat on the couch to
help her put on her shoes.

Boots.
So much for the sparkly shoes she just
had to have
.

The doorbell
chimed just as Savannah plopped down on the floor in front of him with her
boots.

“Come on in,
Maddie,” he called out as he held out the right boot for Savy. “Hurry, before
she sees you aren’t ready,” he whispered.

The door opened.

Savannah shoved
her left foot in its boot before she stood and twirled. “Look at my dress, Aunt
Maddie.”

“My, you do look
festive, sweetie.” Maddie Baxter might not be related to Darren and Savannah by
blood, but she certainly was by love. Darren’s best friend, Rafe Baxter, had
become like a brother to him before he even met Georgia. Through that
friendship, the whole Baxter family had become Darren’s family. Maddie was
Rafe’s little sister, but Darren thought of her his sister, too.

“Daddy says I’m
pretty.” Savannah did another twirl for good measure.

Maddie laughed,
full out and filled with happiness. “Your dad is right about that. Now, run and
get your coat because it’s really cold out there. We don’t want to be late.
Riley and Remington are waiting on us.
As well as a few bell
ringer choirs for us to decide which we want to play at the wedding.”

Although Maddie
had been a part of Darren’s life for several years, she was about to be married
to his boss. The dynamics of that situation hadn’t quite been determined yet,
but today, the ladies of the Baxter clan were taking Savannah with them to a
wedding-party pre-party. Darren wasn’t real sure what all that meant, but he’d
heard something about coordinating flowers with fingernail polish, which was
enough for him to know he didn’t want the details.

Savannah half
walked, half skipped down the hall to her bedroom. His heart ached at the
memory of all the times he’d nearly lost her.

“She’s growing up
so fast.” Maddie’s words jerked him from his thoughts.

He nodded. “She
certainly is. I blinked and she started school on me.”

Maddie smiled.
“They do that. How’s she settling in to kindergarten?”

Because of her
medical condition, Savannah was quite a bit smaller than most children her age.

He adjusted his
holster on his hip. “Good. She’s made so many friends. I’m not sure that’s such
a good thing.”

“Oh, come on. It’s
a great thing for a girl to have friends. Especially…” Maddie dropped her gaze.
“Have they set the date for her surgery yet?”

“Not yet. They’ll
run the tests next week, but the doctor is hopeful she’ll be ready for the
surgery right after the holidays. He went ahead and started her on the
antibiotics to prevent
endocarditis. He’s more
concerned with getting her asthma under control.

“I know it’s got
to be hard to balance the two conditions.”

Darren nodded. “If
her asthma isn’t under more control, then he can’t do the surgery.”

“I’m praying.”

“I appreciate
those prayers. Even if medically she’s ready, this will be the first time she’s
really aware of what the surgery is and what all it involves. I’m trying to
prepare her, but...” He smiled against the awkwardness and changed the subject.
“Bell ringer choirs?”

Her face lit up
like Savy’s on Christmas morning.
“Riley’s idea, believe it
or not.”
She sighed. “At least three groups will play today for us to
decide which we want to play at the wedding.”

“Who all is going
to be there?” He really was interested—Maddie’s maid of honor, Eva, was someone
Darren had dated a couple of times. He really liked Eva, more than he liked any
woman since Georgia, but she seemed to enjoy the single life a little too much.
He couldn’t take a chance with his heart.

Or
Savannah’s.

Maddie flashed the
famous Baxter grin. “It started out just being me, Riley, Remington and
Savannah since Eva has to work, but it’s morphed to include the florist and a
couple of makeup artists, hairdressers and just about every other woman in town
my sister and sister-in-law could find to make the event.” Maddie pushed her
glasses back up the bridge of her nose, still grinning.
“And
the bell ringers.”

Darren couldn’t
help smiling in response. “Sounds fun, and a Christmas wedding is a cool idea.”
He pulled his jacket on and straightened his tie.

“We think so, too.
Hey, did you save the newspaper for me like I asked?
Our
official announcement?”

He chuckled.
“The one of all of us in front of the church Christmas tree?
That was a month ago.”

She shoved his
arm. “I keep forgetting to get it from you. I want it for my scrapbook.”

“Yeah.
I’ve got it.” He crossed to the desk in the living room, opened the top drawer,
and pulled out the newspaper. The Hagar/Baxter wedding party received a full
write-up and photo, which got quite a bit of exposure.

Darren handed her
the copy he’d saved.

“Thanks.”

“I’m ready.”
Savannah burst into the room, already wearing her coat and tugging at the big
green bow at the top of her hair. “See my new bow? It’s sparkly.”

“I love it. It’s
bright and beautiful, just like you.” Maddie pulled her keys from her coat
pocket.

“Hey, don’t forget
to give your poor old working Dad a hug.” Darren squatted and held open his
arms.

His daughter flung
herself against him and gave him a kiss.

“Do you have your
inhaler?”

“Of
course, Daddy.
In my pocket, just like I’m supposed to.”

“Have fun,
doodlebug,” he whispered against her cheek,
then
released her. He stood and nodded to Maddie. “Thanks for including her.”

“Hey, flower girls
are vital to the wedding party.” Maddie winked at Savannah, who giggled.

“It’s all she’s
been talking about for days. I think everybody in her class is sick of hearing
about the party.” He tapped the end of Savannah’s nose. “I’ll pick her up at
three, right?”

Maddie nodded. “Do
you need me to text you the address?”

Darren shook his
head. “I know where the community center is.”

“We’ll be there.
All day, I have a feeling.”

“I’ll see you at
three, then.” He ran a hand over Savannah’s soft curls. “Have fun.”

Maddie held out
her hand to Savannah. “Let’s go, little festive princess.”

Darren waved
goodbye once they were in Maddie’s car and seatbelts fastened, then grabbed his
own keys and headed out the door. The frigid wind snuck down the back of his
neck. He shivered as he climbed into his truck.

Winter had hit
Memphis, Tennessee harder than usual for early December, with temperatures
already dropping below freezing almost nightly. Savannah just might get her
wish of building a snowman. Warnings of sleet and snow were in the ten day
forecast, and the city was on alert.
Especially law
enforcement.

As a senior agent
with the FBI, Darren knew all too well how the threat of bad weather brought
out the worst in people. Most communities banded together to help one another
with heat, food, and water when the electricity went out, but then there were
the bad apples. Every city had the types of people would use the loss of
electricity and thereby the loss of security systems to their advantage.

Darren let the
defroster warm the truck while he locked his cellphone into its dashboard
holder. It synced through his truck speakers, and began streaming the morning
news. He backed the truck out of the driveway and headed to the Memphis FBI
office, less than thirty minutes away.

Even though it was
after eight-thirty on Friday morning, traffic was busy. Darren didn’t mind
traffic most times, but he was ready to get into the office today and get his
work done. He planned to take off work to pick Savannah up at three,
then
surprise her by taking her to see a special showing of
The
Nutcracker
. She’d loved that ballet since she’d been a baby, and it was
their thing to watch it on television together. He didn’t want their tradition
to get lost in all the wedding business, so he’d splurged on tickets for
tonight’s early performance.

Splurged was
right…who knew how expensive it was to attend a ballet. He was so in the wrong
profession, but he loved his job. He’d always wanted to be an agent, even when
he was just a kid, the only son of middle class working parents. He’d known he
wanted to be an FBI agent just like he’d always known he wanted to be a husband
and father. Finding Georgia had been a godsend, in more ways than one. Losing
her had nearly killed him.
If it hadn’t been for Savannah…

The local news
eased into the weather forecast. The projected sleet and snow had been moved up
in the forecast, possibly hitting at dark tonight. Darren could only hope the
wintry precipitation would hold off until after the ballet.

He parked the
truck in his usual spot and headed toward the building. Wind stormed across the
parking lot, pushing litter into the splotches of dead grass. It’d been an
extraordinarily hot summer, killing most grass and foliage. What remained was
hardy and could withstand the extreme spectrum of temperatures.

Ominous clouds
filled the sky as Darren ducked inside the FBI building, trying to shake off
the cold that seemed to have seeped into his bones.

 

“Why, hello, Eva
Langston!”

She didn’t have to
turn around to recognize the voice, but she forced a smile and turned to face
the doorway to the lab anyway. “Hello, Sarah. What brings you to our humble
lab?” Maybe Eva could stave off the woman staying longer than to just say
hello.

Sarah Newton was
one of Eva’s least-favorite people. The last time Eva had seen her was a year
ago when Sarah came to the TBI (Tennessee Bureau of Investigation) forensic lab
for one of Maddie’s RFLP training sessions. Seeing Sarah first thing this
morning was too soon for Eva, but she held the smile firmly in place.

Sarah smiled back,
revealing a row of capped pearly whites. She flipped her red hair over her
shoulder and cocked out her right hip. “As part of the state’s continuing
training program, I’ll be here for two weeks.”

Eva’s
stomach free-fell to her toes.
Two whole weeks?
She wouldn’t survive. Or Sarah wouldn’t.
“Really?”
Eva
eased herself into her desk chair and lifted her coffee cup.

“Apparently you
and Maddie will be bringing me up to date on CRISPR/Cas policies and
procedures.”

Eva actually
gritted her teeth. The gene-editing technique was new and cutting edge
technology that allowed unprecedented control over the DNA code. The technique
sparked a revolution in the fields of genetics and cell biology, raising
genuine hopes about new ways to cure many diseases and to unlock the remaining
mysteries of our human cells. Maddie and Eva had just completed their training
on the technique’s process themselves, now they were going to be training
others?

Training Sarah?

“It’ll be great
fun, don’t you think?” Sarah’s saccharin-sweetness made Eva’s teeth ache.

“Just
delightful.”
Eva couldn’t believe her luck. Of course Sarah had to show
up on Maddie’s day off. Eva was
on her own with the evil
incarnate
. Already the temperature in the lab had risen a good ten
degrees just by Sarah’s presence.

Or maybe it was
Eva’s blood pressure that had spiked.

Sarah leaned
against Maddie’s filing cabinet, tapping her fake nails against the metal. “I
heard Maddie’s getting married soon.
To some guy in law
enforcement.”

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