A Seagrove Christmas by Rachel Hanna

A Seagrove Christmas

Chapter One

There was just something about Christmas.

It had always been Julie’s favorite holiday, and having a new son had only made it more special this year. Even though she had Vivi too, a son was different than a granddaughter.

She could watch her new son grow into a man every day. She fed him, cleaned up his skinned knees, and made him do his homework. Being a grandmother was a part-time job, and it was usually only the fun stuff. Being a mom meant doing the hard stuff, too.

She watched as Dawson held Dylan on his shoulders next to the Christmas tree. They had to get an artificial one because Dylan was allergic to the real ones, and she had to admit she kind of liked the big fake one. It was perfectly symmetrical and didn’t drop needles all over her floor. Plus, it had given her an excuse to go out and buy a bunch of Christmas ornaments to inaugurate the new tree.

This year, she’d gone with a blue and silver theme. Dawson said it reminded him of a Christmas tree Elvis might’ve had at Graceland, but Julie didn’t let it bother her. She was full of joy this holiday season, and none of her husband’s teasing was going to get her riled up.

“Reach higher,” Dawson said, rising up on his tiptoes so that Dylan could put the flashy silver star on the top.

“Don’t you boys knock my tree over, or I’ll throw those freshly baked chocolate chip cookies right into the ocean out there!”

Dylan giggled. She loved the sound of his laughter. After seeing him those first few times at the camp, she’d wondered what it would take to see him happy again. He’d gone through so much in his brief life, with his mother’s abandonment and the death of his father. All she wanted now was for him to live a long, healthy, happy life, and she would do whatever she had to to make that happen.

“Got it!” Dylan said, out of breath from reaching as far as his little arms would take him. Dawson lowered him to the ground, and Dylan dramatically fell back onto the floor, splayed out like he’d just run a marathon.

“Now, go grab that box of ornaments from the attic,” Dawson directed. He was firm with his new son, which was a different side of Dawson she hadn’t seen before. He wanted to grow him into a good, solid man and upstanding citizen. He was the kindest father Julie had ever seen. Sometimes, she found herself wishing she’d raised her children with him instead of Michael, but then she wouldn’t have had Colleen and Meg. Regrets were useless anyway.

“Do you think he can carry that big box down the stairs?” Julie asked as she craned her head, watching him run up the stairs.

Dawson chuckled. “I wouldn’t have sent him otherwise. Besides, I needed a minute alone with my hot wife.” He grabbed her hand and pulled her close, pressing his lips to hers. That just never got old.

“Yeah, we don’t get a lot of alone time anymore, do we?” she said, smiling.

“No, but it’s so worth it. I know he’s eight years old, but I feel like he’s always been my son.” Her heart swelled when he said things like that. Dawson gave Dylan all the attention a father should give, and she knew what a blessing that was for both of them.

“He’s almost nine, you know,” she said. It was the day after Thanksgiving, and Dylan would turn nine on Sunday. They had a big family dinner planned, and she couldn’t wait to see the look on his face when he got the video gaming system he’d wanted so badly. Dawson had already said he was going to impose limits on it. He didn’t want his son to stare at a screen all day. The environment outside was way too rich and beautiful to ignore and stare at a fake world.

Julie heard Dylan bounding back down the stairs, breaking their intimate moment. “This thing is heavy!”

“Use those muscles, boy!” Dawson said as he walked over and met him at the bottom of the stairs. He took the box from Dylan.

“Can I go get a snack from Miss Lucy?”

“Miss Lucy is with her family this week, remember?” Julie said, reminding him. Lucy loved cooking for Dylan. She often said he reminded her of her grandson. Dawson had given her the week off to go spend time with him and the rest of her family in Mississippi, so they’d had to fend for themselves on Thanksgiving.

Dawson had done an outstanding job with the turkey, while Dixie had brought the most delicious stuffing. Janine, the world’s worst cook, had smartly brought a pre-made cake from a bakery. SuAnn brought pound-cake, of course, and Julie had cooked the sides. It had been the most fun Thanksgiving she’d ever had. Every person she loved was sitting around the table, and that was more than she could ever ask for in her life.

“I forgot,” Dylan said.

“But there are some snacks in the fridge. Just don’t eat too much before bed, okay?”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said before he scurried off into the kitchen.

Dawson opened the box and looked at Julie. “How are we supposed to get more ornaments on this tree?”

“We aren’t putting them all on there. This box has some family ornaments that I’d like to put up, though. Like this one,” she said, pulling one out of the tissue paper and smiling. “Colleen made this in third grade.”

“Aw. A cute little doggie,” Dawson said, taking it from her hand.

Julie stared at him. “It’s a snowman.”

Dawson laughed. “Glad she didn’t become an artist.” She smacked him on the arm playfully.

“And look at this. My grandmother knitted this little stocking ornament when Meg was born.”

He smiled. “You know what I love about this Christmas?”

“What?”

“That it’s now our family. Not yours and not mine. Ours.”

She smiled and kissed him on the cheek. “Forever.”

* * *

Colleen stared at the computer screen, trying to get her eyes to focus. Thanksgiving had been so much fun, but she’d eaten too much, couldn’t sleep, and she was still exhausted. Besides, who wanted to work at all during the holiday season?

“How’s it coming?” Tucker asked, walking up behind her. Everyone else in the office was off today, but they had work to do if his new toy was going to take off this holiday season.

“Well, I just sent the report to Ted, and the numbers are looking great. You know we’re on the best toy list for this Christmas season?”

Tucker grinned. “Seriously? Oh, Colleen, I think this might be our big break!”

She stood up and faced him. “I’m so proud of you, Tuck. All the hard work is paying off.”

He pulled her into a tight embrace. “I couldn’t do any of this without my best friend. Thanks for believing in me, Colleen.”

“Always.”

As they stood there, hugging in her cubicle, she was so thankful to have found a man like Tucker. Some days, she didn’t know what she did to deserve him. He was always kind to her and everyone else. He went out of his way to help people. He loved his career, and he was a kid at heart. Being around Tucker was pure joy.

“What do you say we go get some lunch?”

Colleen rubbed her stomach. “Great idea. I’m starving.” She picked up her purse just as the phone on her desk rang. Sighing, she reached over and picked it up. “This is Colleen. How can I help you?” She listened for a moment, and then her mouth dropped open. “Can you hold just a moment, please?”

“What’s wrong?”

“Tucker, that’s Jamison O’Malley.”

“What?”

“He wants to set up a meeting with you.”

“Jamison O’Malley wants to meet with me? About what?” The CEO of the largest toy manufacturer was hanging on the line to talk to her boyfriend, and Colleen felt like she couldn’t breathe. This was like the President of the United States calling.

“I don’t know, sweetie. But I don’t think keeping him on hold is the best idea.”

Tucker nodded quickly and took the phone. As he answered, his voice vibrating slightly at the beginning, Colleen felt her heartbeat quicken. This was a big deal, and she knew it. Tucker deserved all the good things, and she was certain this was the start of something big.

* * *

Hen pinched off a piece of the cinnamon apple pound-cake that SuAnn had given her and stuffed it into her mouth like she hadn’t eaten in days. “I swear I’ve gained ten pounds since we stopped hating each other.”

SuAnn rolled her eyes. “Would you rather we went back to hating each other then?”

Hen thought for a moment. “No. I’m too addicted now.” She wiped her mouth and took a sip of her sweet tea, the rush of sugar surely flying through her veins. “So, I actually came today because I have some news for you.”

“What kind of news?” SuAnn asked, biting into her piece of pound-cake and realizing that it needed more cinnamon. She made a mental note and then went back to listening to Hen prattle on about whatever it was she was talking about.

“Are you listening to me?”

“What? Yes. I’m just thinking about a recipe.”

Hen rolled her eyes. “I said that the Seagrove Christmas Festival is coming up in a couple of weeks, and my husband wants you to have a big table there. There’s also going to be a cakewalk game, and we want you to provide some cakes. What do you say?”

Hen’s husband was the mayor, and she had grown to like him pretty well, although she didn’t see him nearly as much as she saw Hen.

“Of course. Just give me the details, and I’ll bake whatever we need.”

Hen finished her cake and stood up. “Well, I’d better get out of here. I have a meeting at the botanical gardens, and then my book club meets tonight. Are you sure you don’t want to join? It’s a hoot!”

SuAnn rolled her eyes and laughed. “Hang out with a bunch of old biddies and talk about books? No, thank you.”

Hen waved her hand at SuAnn as she walked toward the door. “You’re so silly! I’ll see you later, you irritable old bird!”

As SuAnn watched Hen walk down the sidewalk and around the corner, she couldn’t help but be thankful for their new friendship. It seemed like no one really “got her”, but Hen did. They were two of a kind, and she wasn’t always sure that was a good thing.

“Sorry I’m late!” Darcy said as she breezed in through the back door of the bakery. Her hair was flying all over the place, her purse falling off her shoulder. “My son was sick all night, and then my sitter was late showing up. I got no sleep, but here I am!”

“Well, you look dreadful, dear. Maybe you should go clean yourself up a bit in the bathroom? Don’t want to scare the customers.”

Darcy glared at her. “Wow, thanks, SuAnn. You know how to make a girl feel good about herself.” She put her purse under the cash register and turned toward the bathroom.

“Honesty is the best policy!” SuAnn called to her as Darcy slammed the door.

* * *

Dixie scurried around her house, trying to get everything as clean as possible. She felt like the Queen was coming, but it was only Harry’s daughter, Carrie. Although she’d been married to Harry for months, she had yet to meet his one and only child. Carrie traveled a lot for her work, and she hadn’t come to see her father since Dixie had met him. Although he spoke with her on the phone quite often, Dixie had never formally met her.

Harry had only told her that Carrie had been married at one time, to a doctor, and they’d divorced within three years of getting married. She’d been single for over a decade, with no kids, and was very focused on her career as an advertising executive. Most recently, she’d lived in Los Angeles and worked on some of the most famous advertising campaigns.

“What are you doing, woman?” Harry asked, shocked to see Dixie standing on a step stool, trying to clean the ceiling fan blades in the kitchen. He walked over and put his hand on her leg. “You’re going to fall!”

“Oh, I certainly am not! I’m not an invalid, darlin’,” she said, laughing. Of course, she wasn’t about to admit that she’d almost fallen twice already.

“Get down from there,” he said, picking her up around her legs and lowering her to the floor.

She smacked him playfully on the arm. Harry might’ve had Parkinson’s disease, just like she did, but he was still as strong as an ox. Physical therapy had helped him maintain his muscles so far. That was a good thing because she needed him to be strong so they could keep traveling in their motorhome.

“Harry, your daughter will be here in a few minutes, and this place needs to look nice!”

He put his hands on her cheeks. “Listen to me, Dixie. Carrie isn’t going to notice our ceiling fan blades or the dust bunny in the corner of the guest bathroom.”

Dixie’s mouth dropped open. “There’s a dust bunny in there? Oh, Lord!” She moved past him quickly, picking up the broom that was leaning against the refrigerator on her way to the bathroom off the foyer.

“Honey, I think you’re getting a little…”

Dixie’s head swung around. “A little what?”

He cleared his throat. “Well, now, don’t get your feathers ruffled when I say this, but you’re acting a little… nutty…”

“Nutty?” She squinted her eyes at him. “Harry, don’t you go getting on my bad side today.” She scooped up the dust bunny, tossed it into the trashcan and breezed past him to go back into the kitchen. Harry followed along like the devoted husband he was.

“Why are you getting so worked up over this, Dixie?”

She finally stopped and let out the big breath she’d been holding since she heard Carrie was coming to town. “Because she’s your daughter. And my new stepdaughter. I want her to like me.”

Harry poked out his lip and put his hands on her shoulders. “Darlin’, never in the history of this planet has there been a person who didn’t like you.”

She chuckled. “That ain’t even a little bit true.”

“Well, I sure can’t imagine it. And my daughter is going to love you. The real you. Not this worked up, crazy, dust bunny hunting version of you. Just be yourself.”

Dixie took in a deep breath and then blew it out. She knew he was right. There was no reason his daughter would hate her. She was just being dramatic again, something she did all too often. Everything would be fine.

Just as she was getting herself calmed down, there was a knock at the front door. She looked at her watch and knew it had to be Carrie, and her heart started racing all over again.

“Why don’t we answer it together?” Harry said, putting his hand on her lower back. She nodded and walked toward the door.

It’s funny, the weird things a person thinks to themselves in stressful situations. For some reason, all she could think about right now was what outfit she’d chosen to wear. Her favorite pair of white jeans, a colorful Christmas sweater with a red bird on the front and a pair of sparkly white tennis shoes she’d bedazzled years ago with her bridge club. Maybe it was too much, but it was a little late to think about that now.

Harry opened the door, a huge smile on his face. “There’s my beautiful daughter!” She stepped through the threshold and hugged her father tightly, not noticing Dixie yet.

“Daddy! I’m so glad to see your face in person! You look good!”

“Well, I feel as good as I did twenty years ago!” His deep voice bounced around the small foyer and caused Dixie to turn down her hearing aid a bit.

“You have Parkinson’s,” she said, laughing at what she thought was the absurdity of her father feeling good with a progressive disease.

“Honey, this thing doesn’t control me. And I also have an amazing wife to share my life with, so it doesn’t get much better!” He stepped back a bit and put his arm around Dixie like he was showing off his most prized possession. “Carrie, I’d like to introduce you to my wife, Dixie.”

Dixie smiled nervously. She didn’t get rattled easily, but she felt like she was meeting royalty or her favorite TV cooking show host.

“It’s so nice to meet you, Carrie. Harry has bragged on you so much that I feel like I already know you.”

Carrie, who looked like she just stepped out of a fashion magazine with her perfectly coiffed blond hair and her smooth, flawless skin, smiled. But it wasn’t a genuine smile. It was the smile of someone who was trying to play a part. A woman could tell when another woman was faking a reaction, and she was certainly doing that. The question was, why?

“Nice to meet you, Dixie. Dad has spoken highly of you.” She reached out her manicured hand, complete with French tipped nails, and shook Dixie’s. Now, Dixie had grown up in the south, where girls were taught how to have a firm handshake. Carrie’s handshake felt a bit like a dead fish, and she worried she might break the poor girl’s delicate bones.

Harry pulled Dixie close to him and kissed the top of her head. “She’s the best thing that’s happened to me in years. You know, we’ll start traveling again after Christmas, and we’ve got some big adventures planned!”

Carrie blew a quick breath out of her nose, almost imperceptibly, but Dixie noticed it, nonetheless. This girl had a problem with her, and she didn’t know what it was. Happy holidays, Dixie thought to herself.