The phone rang in the distance. Unwilling to answer it and risk breaking the mood, Rachel let the answering machine pick up.

“Ms. Pendergast, this is Cedar Cove Realty,” a man’s voice said. “Could you return this call at your earliest convenience? We have a renter for the house and need the exact date you plan to vacate.”

Jolene stared at Rachel, eyes wide. “The house has already been rented?”

“Sounds like it,” Bruce responded, looking far more pleased than he should.

“If Rachel doesn’t marry you now, she won’t have anyplace to live.” Jolene’s voice was horrified.

“That’s not true—” Rachel started to say, before Bruce cut her off.

“Guess so.”

“Bruce!” Rachel wanted to jab him in the ribs and would have if he’d been sitting beside her instead of Jolene. “I can stay with friends.” She could bunk down in Teri’s huge house for a couple of months. It would be an imposition, but Teri was the kind of friend who wouldn’t have any objections—who’d insist on it, for that matter.

“Then…you and Rachel should get married this week,” Jolene said after a moment.

“I say we wait,” Rachel returned decisively. She needed to let her soon-to-be stepdaughter know that she heard her concerns and took them seriously.

Bruce glared at her. “I want to marry you now. You want Rachel with us, too, right, Jolene?”

Jolene met Rachel’s eyes. After a long pause she slowly nodded. “Right, Dad.”


Olivia was gradually regaining her strength. She sat in the sunny kitchen and soaked in the warmth as she sipped a cup of green tea.

Justine was coming by later and Grace had just left. As little as two days ago she would’ve taken a nap but Olivia didn’t feel she needed one now. That was encouraging. She really was recovering from the surgery and the infection. Her chemotherapy would start soon after the holidays, as originally scheduled. She’d joked that it was a late Christmas gift—the gift that kept on giving—and to her surprise Jack had looked at her with somber eyes. “Yes, Olivia, it is. It’s giving me you. Your life, your health—to me that’s the greatest gift.” He usually joked and bantered his way through everything, so his emotional statement had moved her deeply.

She heard the sound of a car pulling into the driveway and immediately recognized it as Ben’s. Ever the gentlemen, he parked, climbed out and came around to open her mother’s door.

Charlotte seemed to sense that they were being watched and glanced up at the kitchen window. Seeing Olivia, she smiled and waved.

Olivia waved back. She stood up and went to the back door.

“We have company,” she called out to Jack who was walking on the treadmill. He’d made a habit of exercising ever since his heart attack. Olivia enjoyed finding small ways to reward him for his diligence.

“Who…is…it?” Jack called back from the master bedroom, panting between each word.

“Mom and Ben.”

“Give me…five…minutes.”

Her mother and stepfather approached, and Olivia swung open the door. Charlotte carried a white wicker basket with a sprig of holly and a bright red bow attached.

Olivia bent to kiss her mother’s cheek and then Ben’s.

“My goodness, Olivia, you look wonderful! There’s color in your cheeks and you’re looking much more like yourself.”

“I’m feeling better, Mom. Come and sit with me. Want some green tea?”

“Lovely.” Charlotte set the basket on the table. “I’ll get the tea. You and Ben take a load off your feet.”

“Mom,” Olivia protested, “I can do it.” Her mother refused to listen, and Olivia realized that ever since her diagnosis, Charlotte needed to wait on her. It was one of the few ways she could feel any sense of control—by taking care of her daughter. That typically involved food.

“What’s in the basket?” Olivia asked.

“Dinner for you and Jack.”

Everyone had been so kind and thoughtful. Grace had brought over a taco casserole the night before. She’d made it from scratch, using her homemade salsa and lots of cheese in hopes of tempting Olivia to eat. The fact was, Olivia had lost ten pounds in the last two months. Those were pounds she could ill afford to lose. Her clothes hung on her.

Jack, on the other hand, still struggled with his weight and all these delicious things around the house tormented him. He’d had two helpings of Grace’s casserole while Olivia had barely managed a few bites. They’d frozen the leftovers.

“What’s for dinner?” Olivia asked as she removed the layer of foil covering the basket.

“Soup,” Charlotte answered. “Chicken noodle.”

“Oh, Mom, that’s perfect!”

“And fresh-baked bread.”

“Any Christmas cookies or candy?” Jack wanted to know, stepping into the kitchen. He’d draped a towel around his neck and his face was red.


“Hey, it’s Christmas.” He poked around inside the basket and triumphantly brought out a plate of decorated sugar cookies.

“My favorite!” he cried delightedly. “Sugar cookies.”

“Every kind of cookie’s his favorite,” Olivia told Ben under her breath.

Ben chuckled and whispered back, “That’s how I feel. Anything Charlotte bakes is instantly my favorite.” He smiled at Olivia’s mother as she puttered around the kitchen, making a fresh pot of green tea.

“Thanks, Charlotte,” Jack said. He peeled back the plastic wrap and grabbed a cookie. On his way out of the kitchen, he kissed his mother-in-law’s cheek.

Once the three of them were sitting around the table, Olivia asked, “So what’s new with you?”

Ben glanced at Charlotte. “We leave for our cruise in the morning.”

Olivia gasped. “Already?” With so much else happening, she’d completely forgotten about the cruise.

Charlotte placed her hands on the table. “I’m still not sure we should leave you.”

“Mom, you’re going.”


“Not only are you going on that cruise, I absolutely demand that you have the time of your lives.”

“But…” Charlotte frowned. “You might need me. You’ll be starting your treatment soon and—”

“I have Jack,” she broke in.

Her mother sighed expressively. “Jack is a man. Don’t get me wrong, I love him dearly, but no matter how much he loves you, he’s not your mother. And when you’re sick, that’s who you need,” she said.

That Charlotte and Ben would even consider not going at this late date nearly brought Olivia to tears. “I’m going to be fine, Mom. Before you know it, this will all be behind me.”

Olivia clung to that belief. This was the longest stretch of time she’d spent away from the courthouse since she’d become a judge. She’d had no choice in the matter but she missed her work and her colleagues.

Her mother still seemed worried. “I just don’t feel right about it.”

“You’re going, Mom, and you have to promise me you’ll enjoy every minute.”

Before Charlotte could argue anymore, Jack walked back into the kitchen and reached for another cookie. A bell-shaped one this time, with white frosting. He hesitated almost as if he expected Olivia to slap his hand.

“You aren’t going to stop me?” he asked.

“Consider that cookie your reward for working out.”

“My only reward?”

She raised her eyebrows and nodded.

Jack shook his head morosely and set the sugar cookie back on the plate. “In that case one cookie will do.” He took the chair next to Olivia.

Olivia did her best to suppress a smile, but didn’t succeed. With some effort she returned her attention to her mother. “Just think about lazing away your days in the Caribbean sunshine.”

Charlotte reached across the table and entwined her fingers with Ben’s. “Being in the sunshine over Christmas does sound wonderful,” she said in a wistful voice.

“The warmth will do our aging bones good,” Ben told her.

“Yes, I know…but the thought of leaving Olivia bothers me.”

“Hey,” Jack protested, “what am I? Chopped liver?”

“You’re just a man.” Olivia repeated what her mother had said, her mouth twitching.

“You’ve never complained about that before,” Jack muttered.

Looking benignly at her mother, Olivia kicked him under the table.

Jack, being Jack, doubled over and grabbed his ankle, grimacing as if she’d injured him.

“Will you cut it out?” she said when he popped back up.

Ben laughed. “I think we can rest assured that Olivia is well on the road to recovery. Jack, now, might need intensive therapy for that ankle.”

Charlotte rolled her eyes.

“A car’s coming for us first thing in the morning,” Ben told them. “Our flight for Fort Lauderdale takes off at eight and the cruise starts on December eighteenth. We’ll be back home a week later on Christmas Day.”

“Seven days never seemed so long,” Charlotte murmured.

“Mom, a week in paradise and you’re complaining?”

The lines between her mother’s eyes relaxed and Charlotte smiled. “I sound like a silly old woman, don’t I?”

Jack leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms. “Go. Your daughter’s in my capable hands.”

“That does it!” Charlotte burst out. “I’m not leaving.”


Ben laughed, and Charlotte’s laughter joined his.

“I was just teasing,” she told them.

“Will has a key to the house,” Ben went on to say. “He said he’d check in every couple of days. And Justine will be coming by, as well, to look after Harry.”

“What are you doing Christmas Day?” Charlotte asked.

“I’m taking care of dinner,” Jack announced proudly.

This seemed to impress her mother and stepfather, and Olivia felt obliged to explain. “He’s ordering in a meal.”

“This isn’t just any meal,” Jack insisted. “Our dinner’s being catered by D.D.’s on the Cove.”

“Jack,” Charlotte said, clasping her hands. “How romantic.”

“Which is exactly what I want for you and Ben,” Olivia told her mother. “I want you to fall in love all over again.”

Ben’s fingers tightened around Charlotte’s. “We don’t need a cruise for that.”

“We don’t, either,” Olivia whispered, smiling at Jack.

Her mother and Ben stayed only a few minutes longer.

By the time they left, both seemed reassured and eager for their trip, promising to come back refreshed.

The sound of the car had yet to fade when Jack turned to her. “I believe you owe me.”

“Owe you?”

“My reward, remember?”