“She’s right,” he whispered. “She’s so right.” He’d been given this chance. The most wonderful gift of his life was within his grasp and he was rejecting it. He could allow what Aimee had done to taint the rest of his days, or he could move forward.

Christmas Eve, and he was alone. But he didn’t have to be.

He could spend Christmas with Julie.

Christmas and every other day.

A surge of joy rushed through him. He wasn’t waiting a moment longer.

Twenty-Five

For her father’s sake, Julie was trying to make this first Christmas without her mother as cheerful as she could. For dinner on Christmas Eve, she served the meal Darlene had always prepared. A big pot of homemade clam chowder simmered on the stove and a loaf of freshly baked bread waited on the counter. Although she didn’t have much of an appetite, Julie was determined to sit down, smile and enjoy their evening together. Emily had phoned earlier, and Julie had done her best to sound optimistic. She didn’t know how well she’d succeeded.

“Something smells mighty good,” her father said as he stepped into the kitchen. He lifted the lid from the large pot and gave Julie a smile. “Your mother’s recipe?”

She nodded.

Her father closed his eyes and breathed in the scent of the chowder. “I feel that she’s with us.”

“I do, too, Dad.”

“For the first time since she died, I feel her presence more profoundly than I do her absence. I’m sure it has to do with Christmas.”

“I’m sure it does, too.”

“She was such a Christmas person.”

Her father wasn’t telling Julie anything she didn’t know. The house was always beautifully decorated for the holidays. Her mother spent endless hours seeing to every detail. Even her Christmas cards were special—because she wrote individual messages to each person. She baked and cooked for weeks beforehand, and every December she presented their neighbors with gifts of homemade cookies and candies. Julie had made an attempt to do the same, but she didn’t have the time, the patience or the skill to match her mother’s efforts. Her lone batch of fudge was a humbling experience and she ditched it before her father got home to see what a mess she’d made.

“Everything’s ready,” she announced. Instead of eating in the kitchen as they routinely did at night, they were using the dining room. After dinner and the dishes, they’d leave for Christmas Eve services at church.

“I’ll bring out the chowder,” her father said as the doorbell rang.

Julie frowned. “Are you expecting anyone?”

Her father shook his head. “I’ll get it.”

While her father dealt with whoever was at the door, Julie ladled soup into the tureen her mother had saved for special occasions. The bread, a recipe handed down for more than three generations, was a holiday tradition, too. Julie remembered how her mother had called Emily and Julie to the kitchen table and taught them the importance of kneading the dough. They’d loved doing it.

“It appears we have company,” her father said from behind her.

Julie turned around. Had there been anything in her hands, it would have crashed to the floor.

Roy Fletcher stood beside her father, his arms full of gifts, which he arranged under the tree.

“I’ll set an extra place at the table,” Dean said as though it was a foregone conclusion that Roy would be joining them.

Julie was cemented to the floor. Had her life depended on it, she couldn’t have moved. “What are you doing here?” she choked out.

“I read your letter.”

Better late than never, she wanted to tell him, but speaking had become rather difficult.

“Oh.”

“It was a beautiful letter.”

Her father walked past Julie. “The two of you can sort everything out after dinner. You will stay, won’t you, Roy?”

“Yes. Thank you, Dean….” He nodded, although the entire time he was speaking, his eyes were on Julie.

“Come on.” Her father urged them toward the dining room.

As if in a dream, Julie left the kitchen. Roy held out her chair for her, and her father set the soup tureen in the middle of the table, moving aside the centerpiece of fir branches and silver bells Julie had created. He hurried back to the kitchen for the bread. When they were all gathered at the table, they joined hands for grace.

Julie bowed her head and closed her eyes. She’d prayed for this, prayed Roy would feel her love, prayed he’d know she was sincere. Still, there was a sense of unreality about tonight. Her father’s words, asking God to bless their meal, barely registered in her mind. At the sound of his “Amen,” she lifted her head to discover Roy watching her. Her breathing stopped at the unmistakable love she saw in his eyes. She didn’t understand what had happened to him, but whatever it was had completely changed him. Or, more accurately, made him the person he was meant to be. The person he really was.

“Your coming by is a pleasant surprise,” her father said conversationally as he stood and reached for Roy’s bowl.

“I should’ve called first,” Roy said, and his gaze, which had been on Julie, moved to her father. “I hope it isn’t an imposition.” His eyes returned to her.

“Not at all. Julie made plenty. You do like clam chowder, don’t you?”

“Yes, very much.” Again his eyes briefly left her. “Julie and I had clam chowder the first time we went to dinner.”

“At an old college hangout of Roy’s,” she added.

Roy smiled.

“Julie baked the bread this evening,” her father said proudly as he reached for Julie’s soup bowl next. “It’s her mother’s recipe. She did an excellent job of it, too.”

Julie passed the bread basket to Roy.

“It’s an old German recipe. Her mother was of German ancestry,” Dean went on to explain.

“I’m sure it’s excellent.”

“It is,” her father said. “Julie’s mother was an exceptional woman.” He ladled soup into his own bowl and then sat down.

Her hands shaking, Julie offered Roy the butter.

Her father apparently wasn’t finished. “Darlene used to say it was a couple’s duty to keep their eyes open, their ears open, their hearts open and their mouths shut.” He laughed robustly.

Roy grinned.

Julie was following that bit of advice at the moment. She couldn’t possibly have carried on a civil conversation. All she could think about was the fact that Roy was in her home, having Christmas Eve dinner with her father and her. As far as she was concerned, this was nothing short of a miracle.

“I hope you’ll attend church services with us later.” Her father turned to Roy.

“I’d be delighted.”

“My wife had a lot of wonderful sayings,” he murmured, reverting to his previous topic. “She said interruptions were simply God’s appointments.”

“I interrupted you this evening,” Roy said.

“Now, Dad…” All this talk about her mother and God would probably confuse Roy. Christmas Eve was not the time to eulogize her mother. Then it occurred to Julie that her father needed to do this, that he wanted to remember and honor her by sharing her favorite expressions.

“Please go on,” Roy said. “I’d like to hear some of the other things your wife said.”

Her father grinned and put down his spoon. “My wife firmly believed that God sends pain into our lives for a reason.”

Roy frowned. “That’s an interesting thought. Most people don’t think of God in terms of pain.”

“I know,” Dean said. “Now, Roy, I realize from what Julie’s told me that you’ve seen more than your fair share of emotional turmoil. I don’t mean to discount that, but my wife always said we should lean into the pain, instead of running away from it.”

“Like driving into a skid in order to correct it?” Roy suggested.

“Exactly,” Dean crowed. “We have to use the experience. We can become either bitter or better.”

Julie wasn’t sure where her father was going with this conversation. “Daddy?”

“She only calls me that when she’s upset.”

“It’s okay, Julie. I want to hear this,” Roy said.

“Good, because I think it’s something you need to hear.” Her father had given up all pretense of eating. “Now it seems to me that you’re interested in my little girl.”

Julie knew her cheeks must be flaming. All this spiritual talk wasn’t like her father, who kept his faith private. She couldn’t imagine why he was saying the things he was.

“I care a great deal for Julie,” Roy confessed.

Julie nearly dropped her spoon. As it was, the utensil clattered against the china bowl.

Roy glanced at her. “Unfortunately, it took me a while to understand what I was doing.”

“So it seems.” Her father gestured grandly with a piece of bread. “But all’s well that ends well, right?”

“Right.” He turned to meet Julie’s eyes. “You’re the one who anonymously donated that twenty-five thousand dollars to the Salvation Army, aren’t you?”

Julie went very still. “Is that why you’re here?”

“No, but it was a catalyst. The bell—so to speak—that woke me up.”

“How did you know?” She’d done it anonymously for a reason.

“You haven’t seen the news, have you?”

Julie was aghast. “It was on the evening news?”

“Channel Four.”

“I watched Channel Four earlier and didn’t see anything about it,” her father said.

“It was there,” Roy insisted. “They interviewed a man by the name of Gary Wilson, a volunteer stationed at the Alderwood Mall.” He looked at Julie. “It was you who gave that check to the Salvation Army, wasn’t it?”

For a second, she considered misleading him, then decided against it. “Would it matter?”

Roy thought for a moment, then shook his head. “No. I don’t care what you did with the money because I know in my heart that you love me.”

“Those are mighty sweet words,” her father said, grinning from ear to ear.

“Dad!”

“Now, Roy, you say you care for Julie. Does that mean you love her?”

“Dad!” she cried again. She couldn’t believe that her father would ask such a thing, especially with her sitting there.

“I love her.”

“Good,” her father said nonchalantly, as if men regularly talked this way at the dining room table.

Roy chuckled, but Julie spoke before he could say anything else. “Would you two kindly involve me in this conversation?”

“She’s right,” Roy said.

“Now I’ll be the one to say those are some mighty sweet words,” Julie muttered. It was the first time she could remember Roy admitting she was right about anything.

“I should warn you,” her father said, leaning toward him. “She’s got a stubborn streak.”

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