Updated: Oct 28, 2021
Blessings on State Street
Operation Cancel Christmas would begin as soon as Abby Preston tossed her bags into the trunk of her silver sedan and sped away.
She couldn’t wait to see her tires fling the sun-scorched sands of the Mojave Desert into the spiteful sky as Edwards Air Force Base shriveled in her rearview mirror.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” Although an unwilling participant in her Scrooge-like scheme, her best friend and roommate, Nadia Chopra, folded a white T-shirt and placed it on the pile with the rest of Abby’s hastily packed wardrobe.
“I’m sure.” Abby tugged the handle of her suitcase with as much force as she could muster.
Straining against the bulging sweaters, the stubborn lid sprang open.
Determined, Abby leaned all 115 pounds of her petite frame against the bulging exterior, but it barely budged. “A little help?” she grunted.
“Fine. But I still think this is a terrible idea.” Nadia put her exquisite curves to use and sat squarely in the center of the soft-shell suitcase, giving Abby just enough wiggle room to yank the zipper closed.
“Duly noted.” In truth, Abby expected nothing less. As a professional product reviewer, Nadia shared her opinions as effortlessly as offering someone a stick of gum. But her blunt nature was offset by her big heart. Last year, she’d gathered Abby into her arms—and her stylish apartment—the moment she’d learned about Donnie’s accident. The moment Abby became a widow while the rest of the world overindulged on Thanksgiving turkey and pumpkin pie.
Nadia’s boyfriend was also one of the rigorously trained test pilots on base, and while both women knew the risks, Abby never expected to lose her husband of only two years in the same amount of time it took someone to order a peppermint latte.
Death, though always cruel, had been particularly heartless that day.
Abby dragged the suitcase to the door where the rest of her belongings waited. Then she turned, surveying the room she’d inhabited for the past year but had never truly made her own.
A comforting ache coiled around her heart, stealing her breath as it cinched tighter. The ever-present pain had arrived the day Donnie died, like a distant family member who’d come to pay their respects but never left. Over time, she’d gotten used to it, both anxious and afraid for the day it finally faded.
If it ever faded.
She reached for her throat, her fingers finding the cool metal chain perpetually draped around her neck. It served as a memento—a poignant reminder—she’d never remove.
“You’re really going to do this?” All the disapproval had evaporated from Nadia’s voice, unveiling her sadness.
“I have to, Nadia.” Whenever she thought about spending another Christmas without Donnie, panic flooded her veins, fueling her impulse to flee like a primal survival instinct she couldn’t ignore.
Daily life without Donnie was unbearable, but the holidays? She couldn’t handle the haunting memories attacking her at every turn.
No one loved Christmas more than Donnie Preston. He’d made Clark Griswold from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation look like the Grinch. Not only had he insisted they attend every festivity within a fifty-mile radius, he’d created their own traditions, from snowman-shaped cinnamon rolls on Sunday morning to special notes tucked inside handmade keepsake ornaments.
Which only made losing him during the so-called Most Wonderful Time of the Year all the more painful.
Nope. She couldn’t do it. She couldn’t hang around waiting for her heart to crumble like the walls of a stale gingerbread house, forgotten long after the festivities had ended.
Hiding in Blessings Bay until the new year was her only option.
The single-stop-sign town on the Northern California coast would be the perfect escape. After all, how Christmassy could the coast be? Sandcastles instead of snowflakes? Crab cakes instead of Christmas cookies? The decidedly unfestive locale was exactly what she needed.
Plus, the fully-furnished home Donnie’s aunt left him in her will would afford her some much-needed privacy and seclusion. The only downside? She’d finally have to face the ugly reality that he’d kept the home a secret from her their entire marriage—an unpleasant truth she’d long been avoiding.
“Abby,” Nadia said softly, sympathy shimmering in her dark eyes. “I understand why you want to get away. Honestly, I do. But you don’t even know if the house is vacant. It’ll take several hours to drive there, and leaving this late, you’ll probably arrive in the middle of the night. What if it’s occupied?”
“I’ve looked into it. Donnie hasn’t received any rent money since his aunt passed. As far as I can tell, he hasn’t done a single thing with the property except pay taxes.”
Which also meant he probably hadn’t sold off the furniture or other possessions, either.
“What about electricity and water?”
“I’ll figure it out when I get there. It can’t be too complicated.” Abby slipped on her coat, avoiding the obvious—her impromptu trip lacked planning. But Nadia didn’t understand what it felt like to wake up on December 1 faced with the incessant hope and cheer of the holidays, without the man she loved, the man whose death had robbed her of every ounce of joy she once possessed.
She’d worry about the details later. For now, she needed a haven where she could be alone with her heartache without well-meaning friends trying to make her feel better, as if such a thing were even possible.
Besides, she wasn’t being completely irresponsible. She could ghostwrite cookbooks for D-list celebrities and quirky entrepreneurs from anywhere in the world. She’d just turned in the final draft of Cooking with Cocker Spaniels: Dietary Deliciousness for You and Your Dog and didn’t expect edits until the new year.
A mixture of concern and something deeper flickered across Nadia’s flawless features. “I still wish you’d wait until after the holidays so I could come with you.”
Abby swallowed, her throat suddenly as dry as the desert air outside, as though an unspoken question had passed between them.
What if the house wasn’t the only thing Donnie hid from her?
“I would, but that would defeat the purpose. Besides, I’ll be fine.” Her words carried a confidence that belied the telltale tension in her shoulders. “I really need to get on the road before it gets too late.” She strode toward the bed and knelt on the floor, retrieving a small package wrapped in gold paper—the only festive leniency she’d allowed herself. She handed it to Nadia. “Don’t open it until Christmas, okay?”
Tearfully, Nadia drew Abby into a hug that felt painfully close to a permanent goodbye.
And for the first time since packing her bags, a tiny pang of doubt pierced her heart.
Was she making a big mistake?
Logan Mathews grabbed the plastic elf by the throat and yanked the goofy-looking lawn ornament from the soggy soil.
Fat raindrops pelted his face, blurring his vision and sliding, uninvited, down the collar of his jacket.
One elf rescued, only a thousand more to go.
He should let the unsightly horde of Santa’s helpers fend for themselves, considering he loathed the eyesores. In all the years he’d lived across the street from Verna Hoffstetter, she never failed to litter her lawn with the ugly little devils every December, like the holiday version of plastic pink flamingos.
The next elf he came across lay prostrate in the mud, upended by the turbulent wind that seemed personally ticked off by Verna’s tacky Christmas decorations.
Blinking against the curtain of rain that careened down his forehead, trying to drown him where he stood, Logan tucked the tiny toy maker beneath his arm with his fallen comrade.
Why exactly had he left the comfort of his home in the middle of a torrential downpour on some misguided rescue mission?
Heck if he knew.
He supposed he wanted to avoid seeing the crushed look on Verna’s face when she emerged the following morning to find an elfin massacre on her front lawn.
Okay, so she wasn’t his favorite person, always intruding on his solitude with invitations to play backgammon or to borrow some sugar—and one oddly specific request for a whole pineapple. But in some ways, she reminded Logan of his grandmother, and watching her lawn display be decimated by daggers disguised as raindrops seemed unnecessarily callous, even for him.
Although a self-proclaimed recluse, he was a decent enough neighbor. Unlike some clichéd curmudgeons like Mr. Wilson from Dennis the Menace, he’d found a healthy balance between privacy and common courtesy.
The wind came at him sideways, knocking him to his knees in disagreement.
His palms sank into the sludge, his nose pressed against the cheek of an elf with a painted-on smile that appeared to be mocking him.
Ha-ha. Very funny, wind.
Okay, so maybe he wasn’t well-balanced. On the teeter-totter of life, he’d sunk his heels pretty deep into seclusion and self-pity.
But it suited him.
Plus, it seemed reasonable considering the crummy discount-store playing cards he’d been dealt for thirty-five years.
First, losing his parents at an age when transitioning to the second grade should’ve been the most traumatic event in his childhood. Then, when he’d finally built a decent life for himself as a fighter pilot in the Air Force, a neck injury ripped everything away, including what little dignity and self-worth he had left.
It wasn’t bad enough that he’d had to move to a dinky backwater town like Blessings Bay, which was basically the coastal version of Mayberry. He’d had to rely on a friend’s generosity to make ends meet, the equivalent of rubbing salt and lemon juice in a gaping wound.
Sure, some people rose above the hard knocks and toured the country giving perky TED Talks on overcoming adversity.
Frankly, he found those people more irritating than inspirational.
He’d gone the other direction, embracing the title of town hermit—a respectable role in the ecosystem.
After all, it took all kinds of people to make the world go round.
And he was perfectly content with his choice.
Abby squinted against the persistent raindrops pelting the windshield, struggling to keep her eyes open after an entire day of driving with minimal breaks.
Thankfully, she’d arrive at her destination any second now.
At least, she desperately hoped so.
She couldn’t find the adapter to charge her cell phone, and before the battery died, the squiggly line on the GPS leading to Blessings Bay looked relatively short.
If only she could stay awake.
She tightened her grip on the steering wheel, prying her eyelids open with sheer willpower.
During the last few hours of her drive, the stunning coastline had kept her alert. Like peeking into another world, she’d witnessed towering redwoods on one side and rugged cliff faces on the other. The vibrant cobalt waters had stretched toward the invisible horizon, a breathtaking blank slate of endless possibilities.
That is, before nightfall and an unexpected storm plunged everything into a pitch-black void, leaving her disoriented.
To make matters worse, the rhythmic pitter-patter of raindrops pinging against the roof of the car threatened to lull her to sleep.
She flicked on the radio, scrolling through crackling static until the velvety croon of Judy Garland’s “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” stilled her hand.
Donnie used to love the sultry classic, and had added it to his Christmas Kickoff playlist, along with an eclectic mix of Bing Crosby and Burl Ives.
Abby always thought the song sounded a little sad, as though a tear hid behind each dulcet note.
She should have changed the station or turned off the radio altogether, but she leaned against the headrest, letting the music wash over her.
Her own silent tears slid down her cheeks, the sadness in the song—real or imagined—more palpable than ever.
Lost in the melancholy melody, Abby nearly missed the sign welcoming her to Blessings Bay.
Snapping out of her reverie, she jerked the wheel, veering off the highway down a narrow lane.
Rain pounded the windows even harder now, and the violent wind battered the compact vehicle with shocking force.
With every muscle in her body clenched, Abby searched the darkness up ahead, expecting to see light from the town—a street lamp, glow in a shop window, something.
Although her wipers worked tirelessly to whisk away the waterfall cascading toward the hood of her car, she couldn’t make out anything save for murky shapes and moonlit shadows.
Had she stumbled upon a ghost town?
A subtle weight of regret settled in her stomach. Why had she been so impulsive? Nadia had tried to warn her, tried to stop her….
She should’ve listened.
Suddenly, her headlights bounced off reflective paint, and she stomped the brake.
Her heart vaulted into her throat as she lurched forward, the unexpected stop sign glaring down at her with a disapproving glint.
Where had that come from?
Gathering a deep, shaky breath, she steadied her erratic pulse as she eased forward.
She murmured, “1109 West State Street,” searching for house numbers within the limited radius of her low beams.
A quick glance at the clock on the dash told her it was almost midnight.
She allowed herself a brief whimper, then bolstered what little energy she had left, determined to see this through. But she wasn’t sure how much longer she could last…
On the verge of pulling off the road and crawling into the back seat, she nearly wept when 1109 leaped off the curb in blocky white lettering. She couldn’t make out much of the home in the gloomy abyss, but at this point, curb appeal wasn’t high on her priority list.
She eagerly turned into the driveway. “Please, please have a warm bed and soft pillow.”
Fishing inside the glove box, she found the key that had been included with the paperwork from their lawyer. Clutching it tightly in her palm, she grabbed her purse and overnight bag from the passenger seat, braced herself, and exited the car.
The moment she left cover, merciless raindrops besieged her on all sides, soaking her hair and clothing in a matter of seconds. Sprinting toward the house, she sloshed through several puddles before stumbling up the slippery steps, finding a modicum of refuge on the expansive front porch.
She fumbled with the key a few moments before bursting inside, slamming the door against the maniacal wind that seemed to have a personal vendetta.
Panting, she leaned against the doorframe in the darkness, collecting her wits as water dripped from her shoulder-length hair, pooling by her wet sneakers.
In the dim moonlight, she could barely make out the ghostly outline of a staircase a few feet ahead. She opened her purse for the flashlight on her phone, then remembered the battery died.
She fought against tears of exhaustion—tears that would affirm she’d made a terrible mistake.
Nadia was right. She’d been so focused on running away, she had no idea what she’d run toward.
So far, the trip was shaping up to be a colossal disaster.
After dropping her duffel, she peeled off her drenched jacket.
A loud thump, then a clatter came from somewhere upstairs.
Abby froze, fear gluing her feet to the floor.
Was someone in the house?
Her breath remained lodged somewhere in her lungs as she dug inside her purse for her Taser.
She’d heard of squatters moving into vacant houses, but the possibility hadn’t occurred to her until this moment. Inching toward the bottom of the stairs, she switched off the safety feature, tucking herself against the wall.
Growing up in a not-so-great part of Chicago, Abby wasn’t a stranger to taking care of herself. Plus, Donnie had made a point to teach her combat maneuvers. But the reality of executing the self-defense techniques in an actual life-and-death scenario sprouted beads of sweat on her already damp forehead.
More than anything, she wanted to go home.
She wanted Donnie.
A creak on the staircase sent her heart scrambling into her throat, and she fought the urge to squeeze her eyes shut.
Stay calm. Stay focused.
The dark figure slowly descended the steps, and her fear ratcheted with each imperceptible sound—another creak, the thud of a weighty gait.
This was it… the intruder was almost upon her.
No time to back out now.
When the shadow drew within arm’s length, she inhaled a sharp breath and lunged forward, ramming the Taser against bare flesh.
A man’s guttural cry ricocheted off the walls and a heavy body hit the ground.
Logan wasn’t sure which hurt worse, the cattle prod to the rib cage or his face getting cozy with the hardwood floor. Either way, he wouldn’t let his attacker get away with the cheap shot.
His fingers curled, prepared to fight back.
“Who are you? And what are you doing here?” a strong yet feminine voice demanded in the darkness.
His assailant was a woman?
He hadn’t seen that coming. But then, he hadn’t seen the electrified metal prongs before they’d zapped him, either.
Whoever this woman was, she had gumption.
Detecting the faintest warble of fear in her words calmed his self-preservation instincts and he uncoiled his fist.
“Logan Mathews. I live here. Who are you?” He rolled onto his back, but didn’t get up, in case the movement provoked her again. While he was pretty sure a standard-issue Taser couldn’t cook his vital organs, he didn’t want to risk it.
“Abigail Preston. I own this house.”
He squinted, straining to glimpse her features in the shadows. But although he couldn’t see her face, a clear picture formed in his mind.
Abigail Preston… Donnie’s wife.
In all the years they’d served together in the Air Force, no other man had been prouder of his better half than Donnie. Even in boot camp, he’d taped a photo of her above his bed for everyone to see. Nothing crass or inappropriate, like some of the other guys posted.
I n fact, all things considered, the snapshot had been fairly simple—a dark-haired woman at some restaurant, but Donnie couldn’t remember which one. She held a glass of ice water in one hand, her head thrown back, laughing at something Donnie said. As he told it, late afternoon sunlight had hit her just right, creating a halo effect. She’d looked so beautiful, so captivatingly blissful, he’d snapped a photo to preserve the memory.
What had stood out to Logan the most was the woman’s smile—the kind that lit up the world, but also seemed to belong only to you.
While it was a pleasant visual from the past, he had a feeling Abigail wasn’t smiling right now.
“I’m a friend of Donnie’s. We were in basic training together.”
“Really?” She didn’t bother hiding her skepticism, and he envisioned her dark eyebrows raised, her lips scrunched to the side. “I’ve never heard of you.”
He sighed inwardly, suppressing a groan.
Of course she hadn’t.
“What about Nugget?”
“The one and only.” He rose, stretching his full six foot two frame, hoping to regain some dignity.
He’d loathed that call sign every single day of his service. If he’d been smart, he would’ve participated in some good-natured bribery, which was how one of his buddies wound up with the name Shooter.
But no, he’d taken the moral high ground, and they’d named him after the sugary, walnut-laden dessert bar his grandmother sent him in regular care packages. But hey, at least they were delicious.
Besides, if he had a choice, he’d give anything to be back in the cockpit of an F-16, even if it meant reclaiming a call sign as humiliating as Nugget.
“Donnie used to talk about you all the time. And weren’t you the one who sent the box of desserts the day of the funeral?” Her words blended with a mixture of gratitude and something softer, something close to affection.
At the time, he’d wondered if he should’ve sent flowers instead, but the homemade Nevada Nuggets seemed more fitting, somehow. At least, Donnie would’ve gotten a kick out of it. “They’re an old family recipe. I hope you liked them.”
“I did. They were wonderful. So much better than flowers.”
Her tone carried a hint of a smile, and he was surprised by how badly he wanted to see it. “Why don’t we move into the sitting room? The power’s out because of the storm, but there’s a fire in there and I can scrounge up a couple of battery-operated lanterns.”
As she followed him into the next room, Logan mentally rehearsed half a dozen ways to ask the awkward yet all-important question—what was she doing here? And how long did she plan to stay?
But no matter how he phrased it, he couldn’t bring himself to form the words, realizing his future hung on her response.
After all, she owned the place. If she wanted to kick him out, she could.
The smoldering embers cast a peripheral glow, allowing Logan to glimpse Abigail for the first time.
Even dripping wet and a little worse for wear, she did something to his insides that closely resembled internal combustion. Only, in this case, it was ignited by striking hazel eyes instead of jet fuel.
Abruptly looking away, he rummaged through a desk drawer for a flashlight, then moved to the closet and retrieved two lanterns.
Clicking them on, he set them both on the coffee table, turning to look at her again.
Her eyes were fixed on his bare chest, and when he caught her staring, she flushed, quickly averting her gaze.
“The fire feels nice.” She stepped toward the hearth, stretching out her hands to gather warmth. And maybe mask the sudden rosiness in her cheeks.
“There’s a fireplace in the master bedroom, if you’d like me to build one in there for you….” He intentionally let his words trail off, hoping she’d fill in the blanks with her plans for the foreseeable future. When she didn’t, he added, “My room is upstairs, so you’re not putting me out or anything.”
He didn’t want to go into the morose psychological reasons of how he’d chosen the smallest room in the house over the large master suite because he didn’t feel he deserved it.
And thankfully, she didn’t ask.
She stood in an uneasy stance, kneading her lips together as though massaging the right words out of them. “I’m sorry to intrude like this. I had no idea you were living here. How, uh, how long has it been?”
“A couple of years. Donnie didn’t tell you?”
Something flashed in her eyes. Embarrassment? Sadness? Perhaps a mixture of the two. She shook her head.
Guilt clawed at Logan’s stomach. Why hadn’t Donnie told her? Was he worried she wouldn’t approve of the arrangement?
Logan always knew his friend had been far too generous. Sure, he paid the utilities and maintained the property, which wasn’t exactly easy considering large historic homes needed a ton of work. But Donnie would have made a small fortune selling the place. Maybe he hadn’t told his wife to avoid the conflict.
Logan hated the thought of being a wedge in their marriage even more than he hated being a burden.
“I’m sorry for the… mix-up tonight,” he said, putting it mildly. He’d likely have a nasty burn on his side in the morning. “This is your house. If you need me to leave, just say so. Only, I’d prefer to wait until after the storm, if that’s okay. Otherwise, the moving boxes might get a little soggy.” He grinned, hoping to add some levity to an all-around uncomfortable situation.
The corner of her mouth lifted, giving him a small taste of the smile he remembered. “That won’t be necessary. Honestly, I don’t really know what I plan to do with the place long-term, but for now, I was just hoping to get away for the holidays. Or more accurately, get away from the holidays.” She hesitated, slicking a strand of damp hair behind her ear. “I suppose we could work something out for the next few weeks. Find a way to coexist without getting in each other’s way. Would that be okay with you?”
She met his gaze, and his heart rate skyrocketed like the first time he experienced g-force. Coexist? As in, live within the same four walls? He wasn’t used to sharing his space with anyone, let alone someone like Abby.
His brain shouted, Eject! Eject!
But the rest of his body didn’t heed the warning. “Sure. We can make that work.”
“Great. I just have one… request,” she said in a tone that indicated it was more of a nonnegotiable. “I’m skipping Christmas this year. Which means no decorations, no tree, no holiday music, nothing festive whatsoever. Is that going to be a problem for you?”
He could handle nixing Christmas.
The real question was whether he could handle living with his attractive new houseguest.
Sunlight teased Abby’s eyelids open, and her gaze settled on the unfamiliar surroundings.
Tasteful and elegant, the spacious room bedecked with antique furniture and a stately marble fireplace reminded Abby of the boutique inn they’d splurged on for their honeymoon. Somehow, the space managed an air of luxury while still being incredibly comfortable and homey. And although the sheets smelled a little musty and dust coated the mahogany four-poster bed, Abby couldn’t remember having a more satisfying night’s sleep.
Not since Donnie died.
If she didn’t miss him so much it hurt, she’d be angry at him for keeping secrets. Not only had he neglected to tell her about the house, but he hadn’t mentioned Logan—aka Nugget—had been living in it, either. Didn’t he trust her?
No excuse she manufactured could explain her husband’s behavior. Last night, she’d met reality face-to-face and couldn’t hide from it anymore.
Donnie had lied to her.
At least, a lie of omission, which wasn’t much better than outright deception.
When she first found out about the house shortly after Donnie’s funeral, she couldn’t bring herself to deal with the news. The wound on her heart had been too fresh, and piling on more pain and grief would’ve only made things worse. For a time, she wanted to pretend that everything between her and Donnie had been perfect, so she could hold on to her memories like some flawless dream.
Then days turned into weeks and weeks turned into months. Until the necessity of needing somewhere to go—somewhere to escape—had lifted the blindfold, whether she was ready or not.
She closed her eyes, sinking against the plush pillow. Was she strong enough to stay in this house, faced with even more tangible evidence of her imperfect marriage?
Maybe she should admit defeat and go home. Logan would probably prefer for things to go back to normal, especially after their less-than-ideal introduction.
Piecing together the events of last night, she groaned, burying her head beneath the covers as Logan’s pained outcry reverberated in her ears.
She’d actually tased him. Hard.
No doubt he’d have a decent welt this morning to remember her by.
She’d have to make it up to him somehow.
Whenever she and Donnie had a huge fight, she’d apologize with one of her over-the-top breakfasts. What man could resist homemade pecan rolls with thick cream cheese frosting? Or Belgian waffles with honey-infused cinnamon butter melted on top?
While she planned to keep to herself during her stay, she could bend the rules for one apology breakfast. After that, they’d go their separate ways.
At least, as much as two people could while cohabiting in the same living space.
Luckily, the master suite had its own bathroom and spacious sitting area, plus a cozy nook with a vintage writing desk and well-stocked bookcases with a wide selection ranging from Agatha Christie to Debbie Macomber. If she could find a small secondhand TV, she’d never have to leave her corner of the house except to use the kitchen.
Slipping out of bed, she padded into the large bathroom, coveting a long soak in the claw-foot tub. But for expediency’s sake, she’d clean up quickly and head to the market to get started on breakfast.
Besides the fact that she wanted to make up for her gaff as quickly as possible, Logan Mathews intrigued her.
Donnie had spoken highly of the man, although he’d only referred to him as Nugget.
What on earth had brought him to a place like Blessings Bay?
Was he hiding from something, too?
Logan crept downstairs, careful not to wake Abby. She must be exhausted after last night.
He subconsciously grazed his side where his hoodie hid her unexpected greeting and made a mental note to grab some burn cream at the store.
As their unusual encounter replayed in his mind, he couldn’t help a smile. He liked a woman who could handle herself in a tough situation.
Not that he liked Abby. He barely knew her. Not really, anyway. He knew of her, from all the things Donnie used to brag about ad nauseum back when they were dating. In fact, his incessant and sappy oversharing had earned him the call sign Romeo. But it couldn’t all be true. No one was that perfect.
Logan cringed, recalling the first time he’d met his ex-fiancée, Kelli Clayton.
Boy, had he been a sucker. He thought he’d found his Abby. He’d even proposed after a year of dating. Too bad she’d turned out to be more like the replicas at the Combat Air Museum—pretty to look at, but hollow on the inside.
Curtailing the unpleasant trek down memory lane, Logan dug through the basket by the front door for a canvas shopping bag. While he did need groceries, he mostly wanted an excuse to get out of the house. He’d already cleaned up all the fallen tree branches and begrudgingly replaced Verna’s lawn elves after the storm. He was running out of things to keep him busy—and away from Abby.
He wasn’t used to having someone else around, let alone the alluring widow of a close friend.
He’d instantly felt drawn to her, probably because of her connection to Donnie, and he didn’t want to cross any lines.
Especially since she’d made it clear that she wanted to be left alone.
Which was exactly what he wanted, too. Although, he had to keep reminding himself of that fact.
Logan turned to find Abby standing behind him in the foyer, looking all kinds of distracting in snug blue jeans and an oversize sweater that reached halfway down her thighs. Her voice still had the throaty quality of early mornings.
Which he tried not to fixate on when she asked, “Going out?”
“Picking up a few groceries.”
“Oh.” Her gaze flickered toward the door, her forehead wrinkled as she tucked a shiny strand of hair behind her ear.
He noticed it tumbled in loose waves, falling just above her shoulders. It looked touchably soft, which was an observation he really shouldn’t be making.
Spouses of squadmates—widows, exes, or otherwise—were off-limits.
Plus, dating in general made about as much sense as standing behind a jet engine with its afterburner on.
“If you need to do some shopping, we can walk into town together and I can show you around. But next time, you’re on your own.” He raised both palms in a hands-off gesture, to illustrate his point.
She smiled, broader this time, though it still didn’t reach her eyes. “That sounds fair.”
He held the door open for her, then followed her onto the porch.
She turned, both eyebrows raised. “You’re not going to lock it?”
“No, ma’am. It’s not that kind of town.”
Her gaze swept the broad, tree-lined street dotted with stately historic homes and well-kept yards. “It does look rather idyllic.” She perked up as a particularly loud wave crashed in the distance. “Is that the ocean?”
“Yep. It’s right behind us. Wait’ll you see the backyard. Best view in Blessings Bay.” He grinned, remembering the first time he laid eyes on the sprawling lawn and lush garden with front-row seats to the Pacific Ocean.
Then, he realized his mistake. He shouldn’t be talking up the place. It would only incentivize her to sell.
Or keep it for herself.
“Truthfully, I haven’t even seen the house properly,” Abby admitted. “It was so dark when I arrived, I couldn’t make out much of anything.” She skipped down the steps and headed to the curb for a better vantage point.
Logan’s heart sank.
Based on her expression, he might as well go inside and pack his bags right now.
Abby gaped, unprepared for the stunning beauty that stood before her.
It was easily the prettiest building on the block, the architecture closely resembling Victorian mansions of the late 1800s, but with a more understated elegance. Striking yet welcoming at the same time, like a true home away from home.
She couldn’t quite place the shade of the shingles—a soft, romantic blue with a hint of pale aquamarine, as though in honor of both the sea and sky. Delicate white trim traversed each graceful line and curve, from the pitched roof to the palatial wraparound porch.
“It’s gorgeous.” She could easily see herself living here. Long-term.
Hold on. Where had that thought come from?
Unsettled, she spun around and retreated toward the road, determined not to succumb to the whimsy and charm. There had to be downsides to residing in such a rural, secluded area. “Do you like it here? I imagine it’s not easy being so removed from real life.”
“Interesting choice of words.” Logan fell in step beside her. “It’s remote, but I don’t mind. I mostly keep to myself, anyway.” He gestured over his shoulder. “If you walk the other direction, you’ll reach the end of State Street. It dead-ends into a walking trail along the bluff. I go on runs, surf during the warmer months. It’s not a bad life.”
“What do you do for work?” Although innocent enough, she regretted her question when a dark shadow distorted his features.
“Odd jobs, mostly online. Some transcription, data entry, that sort of thing. And I get disability from the Air Force.” His jaw twitched as though it pained him to admit it.
“I’m so sorry.” She recognized the haunted look in his eyes. She saw a similar one in the mirror every morning. “Donnie never mentioned your injury.”
His gaze met hers, hesitant and conflicted, as though wrestling with his next words. The muscles in his jaw flexed again. “When I was discharged, I had nowhere to go and no one would hire me. Donnie offered me this place. Said he needed someone to look after it for a while. He did me a solid, and I’ll never forget it.”
The unexpected affection in Logan’s voice, and the way he spoke about Donnie with such respect and gratitude, softened the bitter edges around her heart. Her fingers found the familiar silver chain at her throat.
She didn’t know why Donnie never mentioned the house or Logan. And she still didn’t like that he’d kept it from her. But she did know her husband was a good man. And the reminder offered both comfort and renewed heartache in equal measure.
They walked in silence for a few minutes, listening to the rumble of the ocean in the distance.
Knowing the background behind how Logan had come to live here, Abby couldn’t imagine asking him to leave. Donnie had wanted to look after his friend, and as far as she was concerned, Logan could live in the house for as long as he wanted. She didn’t need the money.
The only niggling concern was how quickly she’d become enamored with the place herself.
Perhaps she should tell Logan right now that she didn’t plan to kick him out. Then, she’d be obligated to keep her verbal agreement, regardless of her increasing fondness for the house.
She’d almost formulated her offer when they reached the end of the road. Suddenly, she lost the ability to string two words together.
In all her life, she’d never seen anything so breathtaking.
As though putting on a show just for her, the spirited ocean waves splashed against the rocky coastline, tossing frothy white spray into the air like confetti.
Beneath them, tucked into the crescent bay, a white sand beach glittered in the sunlight, and a few ships bobbed contentedly beside a narrow pier.
As if the picturesque scene wasn’t perfect enough, a charming lighthouse winked at her from the tip of the cape as if to ask, Are you sure you don’t want to stay here forever?
The trouble was she wasn’t sure.
Not one little bit.
And the realization caught her completely off guard.
Logan couldn’t help analyzing every minuscule flicker of emotion that crossed Abby’s features, as if his entire future depended on the tiniest flutter of her eyelashes and imperceptible parting of her lips.
In a way, he supposed it did.
She was clearly falling for Blessings Bay and its unavoidable charm.
His only hope rested in the fact that Abby hated Christmas.
Which meant she was in for an unpleasant surprise.
He watched her closely as they turned onto Main Street, a long thoroughfare with shops on one side and the oceanscape on the other.
While burnished rays of sunlight bathed the Victorian-style storefronts, showing them off in a far too flattering light, he wasn’t worried. The Christmassy explosion drenching the town in decorations counteracted the otherwise appealing effect.
At least, he suspected it would to Abby.
“You’ve got to be kidding.” Her nose wrinkled as she took in the yards of evergreen garlands, brightly colored bunting, and wreaths adorning every window and doorway. A twenty-foot Christmas tree stood in the center of the grassy promenade lining the bluff, and festive music spilled onto the sidewalk. “Are you guys trying to win the title of most excessively decorated town?”
“I wasn’t aware such a competition existed, but I did hear Santa Claus has a beach house here.”
To his surprise, she laughed, shaking her head with an expression of amusement and incredulity. “This is exactly the kind of overzealous Christmas spirit Donnie would’ve loved.”
As realization dawned, Logan could’ve kicked himself. Or gone another round with the Taser. “That’s why you’re skipping Christmas, isn’t it? Because of Donnie.”
She stiffened as though morphing into self-defense mode. “I realize it might be an overreaction to some people, but—”
“Hey, who am I to judge your grieving process? I’m sure even Tiny Tim and Cindy Lou Who would cut you some slack.”
This evoked another smile, and he tried not to stare. But it wasn’t easy.
“How come you don’t like Christmas?” she asked.
“Who says I don’t?”
“Well, you gave it up pretty quickly. Don’t you usually celebrate?”
He shrugged, lengthening his stride. Why did the market have to be at the far end of the street? “My grandparents raised me. They both died while I was serving overseas. Since then, I haven’t really seen the point.”
“I’m so sorry, Logan.” Her tone exuded genuine empathy, which he found oddly comforting, considering she was essentially a stranger.
“You learn to get by.”
“You do?” They stopped in front of the quaint general store, and Abby glanced up, searching his face as though he could offer some sort of tangible hope.
The only problem? He couldn’t. He didn’t even know why he’d said that, except it seemed like the right thing to say in the moment—a coddling cliché. How could he tell her the aching void never went away?
“Absolutely,” he lied, forcing a smile as he held open the door for her.
She slipped past, and he remembered a second too late that he probably should’ve warned her first.
Abby glanced over her shoulder at the exit, reassessing her whereabouts. Had she stepped into a grocery store or a portal to the North Pole?
A plethora of paper snowflakes hung from the ceiling and elaborate displays decorated the tops of the tall shelves, each one representing a different Christmas-themed vignette.
And instead of normal aisle markers, the signs designated sections like Comet’s Canned Goods, Prancer’s Produce, and Dasher’s Deli. Even Blizten’s Liquor, a departure from the alliterative pattern for a mildly uncouth play on words.
Donnie would have loved it, which only made Abby miss him more.
“You okay?” Logan asked in a voice low enough for no one else to hear.
Swallowing the lump in her throat, she nodded. “Uh-huh. But I might keep my items under the limit for the express lane.”
“Unfortunately, there’s only one cashier. Archie, the store owner. And I don’t think he’s going to be your favorite person.”
He nodded toward the checkout line where a bearded man stood in a full Santa suit of crimson velvet and shiny gold buttons.
“Oh no,” Abby groaned.
“It gets worse. He’ll probably try to hand you a candy cane, too. Unless you request the complimentary carrot instead. The kids like to feed his pet reindeer, Tinsel.”
“Wow.” Abby had no words. This town took Christmas to a whole nother level. And to think, she’d come here to get away from it all.
“Stay close,” Logan said, gently cupping her elbow. “I’ll shield you from the truly horrendous displays, like the ten-foot snowman made out of stacked toilet paper rolls.”
He grinned, trying to ease her discomfort with levity, but she couldn’t focus. Something about the feel of his fingertips on her skin short-circuited her brain, cutting off communication to her extremities.
When she didn’t move, he leaned in closer, only making the situation worse. “Are you sure you’re okay? We can leave if it’s too much.”
She bit down on her lip and the sharp pain seemed to reboot her system. “I’m fine. Thanks. Let me just check my list.” She used the opportunity to extricate her elbow from his grasp and reached into her purse.
As they strolled the aisles, her pulse slowly returned to normal, but she couldn’t help noticing the other shoppers’ less-than-subtle glances in their direction.
“Logan,” she began quietly, when he paused in Frosty’s Frozen Food section. “Have you noticed the way people keep staring at us?”
“I hadn’t.” He frowned, glancing over his shoulder. “But now that you mention it…”
“Is it because I’m new in town?” While she found that hard to believe, especially in an area that seemed to cater to tourists, she couldn’t think of another explanation.
“It’s not you.” He raked his fingers through his thick, light-brown hair, his shoulders tense. “I should’ve thought of this earlier.”
“Thought of what?”
“You’re going to have to help me out here. I have no idea what you’re talking about.” She tried to ignore the two women peering at them over a pyramid of minced pie filling.
Logan ducked behind a wall of boxed waffle mix, gesturing for her to follow. “Verna Hoffstetter is the town gossip and our neighbor across the street. I should’ve figured she’d see us leaving the house together and jump to certain conclusions.”
Heat swept across Abby’s cheeks as she realized what he meant. “I didn’t think about how it would look, the two of us staying together.”
“It doesn’t help that I haven’t dated anyone since I moved here. The possibility of me having a girlfriend is prime time news.”
Her gaze darted to Logan’s face in surprise. With those distracting blue eyes and strong, sculpted features, she found his single status hard to believe. Not that she paid attention to that sort of thing.
“Don’t worry,” he continued. “I’ll go over to Verna’s as soon as we get back and set the record straight.”
“That would be great,” she said a little more emphatically than necessary.
She glanced at her ring finger, barely able to make out the faded tan line.
At least she wasn’t still wearing her wedding band and diamond solitaire. The rumor mill would have a field day with that detail.
She’d removed the white gold set a few months after Donnie passed, hoping to avoid the inevitable questions about her husband. It was easier if people didn’t know she’d ever been married. Otherwise, she’d be forced to relive his horrific accident over and over again every time she met someone new.
However, there was a downside to her bare ring finger. Men asked her out constantly, and she tired of turning them down as politely as possible. Plus, with each suitor she rejected, she had to deal with Nadia, who thought it would be healthy for her to get back in the dating game. The furthest thing from a romantic, her friend believed a year was a respectable mourning period.
But to Abby, the twelve months had passed in the span of a single second while simultaneously dragging on for an eternity.
How could you explain to someone who had never experienced a similar loss that moving on wasn’t an option?
Abby filled a loaf pan with thick, cinnamon-speckled pumpkin bread batter, dropping a few globs on the counter in her state of distraction. She cast another furtive glance out the large bay window in the breakfast nook.
Logan crossed the street toward a lilac-colored Queen Anne Victorian with a horde of plastic elves on the front lawn.
A strange sensation swam in her stomach as he mounted the broad steps and maneuvered around the oversize wreath made of ornaments and abalone shells and knocked on the front door.
When she’d left home less than forty-eight hours ago, she’d planned on spending the holidays alone with her heartache. But something about being with Logan made Donnie feel closer, somehow. Perhaps because he’d known her husband so well.
Maybe spending time together would be a blessing in disguise?
Her phone warbled on the white tile countertop and she slid the loaf pan in the oven before answering it. “Good morning.”
“Thank goodness you’re alive,” Nadia gushed, skipping the pleasantries. “I barely slept all night, worried you wound up in the Amityville Horror house or something.”
Abby laughed, pressing the phone between her ear and shoulder as she cracked eggs into a large bowl. “I survived. But not entirely without incident. You’ll never believe what happened last night.” Her gaze flickered out the window again, catching sight of Logan as he disappeared inside Verna’s house. With the coast clear, she filled Nadia in on the details.
“I knew someone would be living there,” Nadia said, half scolding, half enthralled. “Tell me everything. What’s he like?”
Abby hesitated, her whisk hovering above the creamy egg mixture. How could she describe someone who appeared to be a walking contradiction? Logan seemed both warm and guarded, open and mysterious, charming and unapproachable, attractive and—
She straightened, startled by her own thoughts. Attractive? Since when did she notice other men, let alone the finer points of their appearance?
Returning to her task, she answered casually, “He’s… nice.”
“Nice? Is that all I get?” Nadia cried. “Is he cute?”
Abby flushed, furiously whipping the poor eggs as if they’d personally offended her. Recognizing her unnecessary fervor, she set down the whisk.
Pull yourself together, Abby. It’s a simple question.
“Some people might think so.”
“What about you?” Nadia pressed. “Do you think so?”
Abby tugged on the collar of her sweater. The warmth of the oven engulfed the entire kitchen, and she stepped toward the window, seeking relief.
Still no sign of Logan. His talk with Verna was taking longer than she expected.
“Abby…” Nadia’s smirk traveled through the speaker. “Am I to infer by your silence that you find this Logan guy attractive?”
“No,” Abby snapped, surprised by the force of her own words. Her heart raced like a wild animal backed into a corner.
“I’m sorry,” Nadia said softly. “I know you need more time and I shouldn’t push you. I’m just worried you’ve got it into your head that in order to honor Donnie, you need to be alone forever.”
Abby lifted a finger, capturing a tear she hadn’t realized was there.
She knew Nadia meant well, but how could she explain herself to someone who didn’t believe in soul mates? To Nadia, relationships were pragmatic, not fairy tales. And it didn’t help that her parents had an arranged marriage in India before moving to the States, and they couldn’t be happier together.
“Donnie was my one great love, Nadia,” Abby whispered around the lump in her throat. “My person.”
“I know. It’s just—” Nadia paused. When she spoke again, her voice sounded softer, almost sorrowful. “I think you have more room in your heart than you realize.”
For a long moment, neither of them broke the silence. Abby wrestled with her friend’s words and the familiar ache that wrapped around her chest, siphoning her oxygen.
A loud crack brought the world back into focus.
Searching for the source of the sound, her gaze settled on the large oak tree in the front yard.
A scrawny boy, possibly seven or eight, scrambled down the massive trunk and plopped onto the ground.
The thought of him getting hurt climbing such an old, decrepit tree made her pulse quicken, but Abby resisted the urge to rush outside and lecture someone else’s child. After all, what did she know about such matters?
He caught her eye in the window for the briefest of seconds before scampering across the lawn and down the street toward the dead end.
“Abby?” Nadia asked tentatively. “Are you okay?”
“Uh-huh.” Abby blinked, wondering if she’d been imagining things.
“You know I love you.”
The concern in her friend’s voice drew her back to their conversation. For all her bluntness, Nadia really did speak her mind out of genuine care and concern. “I love you, too. And I promise to keep you updated.”
“You’re still coming back after Christmas, right?”
“Of course,” Abby assured her, ignoring the faint hum of hesitation in her heart.
Although he’d helped Verna with various tasks over the years, Logan couldn’t remember ever being inside her house.
The interior matched his expectations exactly—vivid wall colors, antique furniture recovered in funky fabrics, and framed photographs of Mr. Bingley, an English bulldog mix who had taken a liking to him for inexplicable reasons.
Even now, as Logan sat at the kitchen table nursing a cup of peppermint tea, the roly-poly pup wiggled by his feet, polishing the hardwood floor with his substantial backside.
“Okay, Bing, you little beggar. Here ya go.” Logan relented and bent to give the dog a few scratches behind his ear. “Happy now?”
The pup’s tongue flopped out of his mouth, giving his flat, squishy face a comical expression.
“I’m sorry, dear,” Verna cooed, sliding a tray of plump, golden snickerdoodles out of the oven, flooding the room with the distracting scent of cinnamon and sugar. “You had something you wanted to tell me?”
Logan’s mouth watered, but he tried to focus. They’d been sidetracked enough already. She’d initially invited him into the kitchen to check on the cookies, but had spent the last ten minutes telling him about the time she met Neil Diamond buying a Little Debbie in the back of a supermarket while she was on vacation in New York. And all because his version of “Joy to the World” happened to be playing on the radio the moment they walked in.
“Just wanted to let you know I’ll have a houseguest over the holidays. The owner wanted to check on the property.” Okay, so that was stretching the truth a bit. But how else was he supposed to explain it? “She plans to keep to herself for the most part since it’s purely a professional visit.”
He thought that last part was a nice touch, but Verna didn’t appear to be listening.
“She’s a pretty little thing, isn’t she? Reminds me just a skosh of Audrey Hepburn, may she rest in peace. Her features are a little more angular, I suppose, but remarkably beautiful, don’t you think?”
“Sure, I guess,” Logan said noncommittally. He really didn’t want to comment on Abby’s level of attractiveness. In fact, for his own sanity, he shouldn’t even be thinking about it.
“You guess?” Verna shook her head and gave a disapproving cluck. “Is there something wrong with your eyes?”
“No. I just—” He paused, glancing at Mr. Bingley for backup.
The dog merely gazed up at him with big, innocent brown eyes. Clearly, he’d never heard of bros before broads.
“I haven’t paid much attention.”
Okay, that time he felt a little guilty. He hadn’t planned on lying through his teeth when he came over here, but Verna sure knew how to put a guy on the spot.
Time to regroup.
“Anyway, I just wanted to give you a heads-up in case you spotted us coming in and out of the house together, on occasion. Although, as I mentioned, it shouldn’t be too often since it’s not a social visit.”
“Are you taking her to the Christmas tree lighting ceremony this weekend?” Verna asked, scooping the soft, melt-in-your-mouth cookies onto a cooling rack.
Logan frowned. Had she been listening to anything he said? “Definitely not.”
“That’s a shame. It’s one of the most romantic events in town, other than Bells on the Bay, but that’s not for a few more weeks.”
He suppressed a groan. She really wasn’t getting it. But rather than convince her that there was absolutely zero chance of anything romantic happening between him and Abby, he stood. “Thanks for the tea.”
“Anytime, dear. And take some cookies for you and your special guest.” She loaded a plate with an assortment of baked goods.
He eyed the sugar cookies warily. The snowflakes and Santa hats might go against Abby’s anti-Christmas rule.
But before he could respond, Verna asked, “Would you mind doing me one little favor before you go?”
“Sure,” he said, hoping she didn’t want him to hang any more Christmas lights. The twinkling bulbs on every tree, shrub, railing, and porch column already boasted a near-blinding effect.
Luckily, the favor consisted of an interior decoration Abby would never have to see—a sprig of mistletoe for the chandelier in the foyer.
“Thank you, dear,” Verna said as he climbed the six-foot ladder. “My old knees don’t work like they used to.”
“No problem.” He secured the sprig of mistletoe to the bottom of the light fixture with the glossy red ribbon, then tilted his head back to make sure it hung straight.
At the subtle gesture, a searing pain shot through his neck like an electrical current.
He wasn’t sure if he cried out or if the sound reverberated inside his own head, but within seconds he’d collapsed on the floor, and Verna crouched over him.
His vision blurred and he couldn’t make out more than a faint outline of her face as she said in a strangled voice, “Don’t move. I’m calling 911.”
“Wait,” he groaned, blindly reaching for her hand.
“Logan, you need a doctor.” A quiver hid behind her words, although she tried to steady them.
While he’d endured this a thousand times before, he hated putting her through the strain and worry, which was exactly why he kept to himself, preferring to deal with the spasms on his own.
“Don’t call. I’m fine.” The stabbing sensation now resembled hot coals heaped on his skin, but he knew it would pass. It always did. And this time, it seemed to be subsiding more quickly than his last episode.
He shifted his weight, groaning as his hip rebelled against the movement. He was going to be sore tomorrow, if not sooner.
“You shouldn’t move,” Verna told him. “I’ll call for some help. Maybe your new friend—”
“No,” he grunted, forcing himself to sit upright. The last thing he wanted was for Abby to see him like this. “I just need to go home and lie down.”
Making it across the street would be excruciating, but he could do it. He’d been through worse, fueled by adrenaline and survival instincts.
Beads of sweat dotted his brow as he struggled to his feet with only one thought in mind—get to the bungalow in the backyard without Abby spotting him.
To be continued...
You can read more about Abby, Logan, and the mysterious young boy in Blessings on State Street, one of 8 stories in A Keepsake Christmas, A Sweet Christmas Anthology.
Available anywhere ebooks are sold.
If you missed the story behind the story, and how Blessings on State Street was loosely inspired by one of my readers, you can find out more here.