HOLLY AND HEARTS IN CHRISTMAS TOWN
CHRISTMAS TOWN ROMANCE SERIES (BOOK 5)
Bethany Sheridan tried not to worry. “Don’t borrow trouble” had been one of her mother’s favorite sayings, and Bethany had adopted it as part of her life philosophy along with her dad’s off-quoted scripture, “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” She’d found that to be true as well. Each day brought enough problems of its own without worrying over what might come next. Yet when her neighbor Emily said, “We saw something this morning we thought you should know about” and described a man peeking in Bethany’s windows, she couldn’t help feeling concerned.
“When we confronted him, he made some strange excuses, but he wouldn’t give us his name or say why he’d come,” Emily reported, referring to herself and her housemate Amanda. “He scrammed out of here.”
“Did you get his license plate?” Bethany asked.
“I wish we had. He left so fast. I could describe the guy, though, and his car. If you want to call the sheriff.”
Bethany had opted against calling in law enforcement—at least until she knew more. There was only one deputy for the Sierra Nevada town of Bedford Falls, and she didn’t want to bother her unnecessarily. But she had called her landlord, Ben Scarge, asking for new locks on the doors and windows. Alarmed, Ben had installed a security camera as well. That had been a week ago and there had been no repeated incidents, but that hadn’t kept the matter from percolating on her worry burner despite Bethany’s self-promise.
Had a would-be thief known she’d be gone that morning? If so, how? She would normally have been at home, but she’d chosen that day to drive down the mountain to the county seat. She’d hoped to meet the new director of her daughter Gracie’s program for adult respite care. After that lengthy drive, she found out he’d been out that day. Wouldn’t you know it?
Now Monday had come again. Gracie and her service dog Dot had once again caught the bus for their ride to respite care, and Bethany, caught up on her clients’ bookkeeping, had almost decided to try again to meet the new director by driving down to the county seat. This time she’d call first to be sure he was in.
What she really wanted was a soak in the bathtub and a nice, long nap. Maybe she’d even skip the soak. Though she loved Grace with her whole soul, caring for her daughter required a great deal of strength and stamina every day. Bethany had sacrificed her marriage and twenty years of daily service to Grace, and she’d do it all over again in a heartbeat. But she was grateful beyond words for the break she got from the respite care program.
Which brought her back to meeting the new director. “Better see if he’s there,” she mumbled. She was reaching for her phone when it began to chirp.
“Bethany Sheridan.” She gave her professional answer, aware it could be a client.
“Mrs. Sheridan, this is Richard Hale from county adult r-respite care. Do you have a few m-moments? I’m in Bedford Falls and I’d like to vi-visit if you’re available.”
Moments later, Bethany clicked off the call and began buzzing around her living room, moving the box of puppies she and Grace were fostering until they were old enough for adoption, tidying the magazines on the coffee table, putting a new pot of coffee on to brew, and spraying the room with air freshener to diminish the odor of dog.
A bright cover drew her eye back to the magazines. Most were about caregiving or ways to embrace life when living with a disability. The two she got just for herself were National Geographic and Travel and Leisure. They allowed her to indulge vicariously in the dreams she’d had before her disastrous marriage—that is, when she found time to read them. Should she hide those or move them forward? If the respite care director was making the effort to do home visits, she wanted to make a good impression. Not sure what might impress, she left the magazines as they were.
She still hoped for a minute to vacuum when the knock came. Bethany answered the door to find a well-dressed, distinguished-looking man in his mid-forties, his dark hair graying at the temples. Bethany stifled a jolt of awareness. She met good-looking men frequently through her work and chose not to respond to any of them since caring for Grace was her priority. Still, there was something about this man that got past her defenses. Most women would find him attractive, but she was attracted, and that was an important distinction. “Mr. Hale?”
“Please, c-call me Richard.”
“Of course. Come in, Richard.” Bethany urged him to have a seat and offered coffee. He accepted, asking for it black, and she used one of her two best mugs, serving herself in its twin. “Now, what can I do for you?”
Bethany watched as Richard struggled through an answer, working past a serious speech deficit. He said he wanted to meet the families and see the homes of his clients, the people like Grace in the county’s respite care program for disabled adults. He told her he understood his people better—she liked that he considered them his people—when he saw where they came from and the support systems they had at home. As he spoke, Bethany had a sudden thought. “Did you come up here before? Maybe last Monday?”
He blushed—flushing deep red in a way that came across as endearing. “W-well, yes. I m-met your neighbors, I-I’m afraid.”
Bethany let out a long, relieved sigh. “They caught you peeking in the windows.”
“Y-yes. G-Gracie, um, said you sometimes are in the back. She said I shouldn’t g-give up easily.”
“The women next door told me about that meeting. I wish I’d known it was you. I’ve been nervous about it.”
“I d-didn’t think.”
The poor man looked so downhearted, Bethany hurried to reassure him. “All’s well that ends well, right?” She didn’t realize she’d laid her hand on his until he startled, looking down at their hands, hers over his, and then quickly into her eyes. She instantly withdrew, her face heating. “Sorry.” To change the subject, she added, “The irony is that I was away that morning because I drove to the care center to meet you.”
He offered a bright smile. “And n-now we’ve f-finally found each other.”
“Yes,” Bethany answered, and the air seemed to ring with a deeper meaning than either of them had intended.
Since she’d already embarrassed herself by placing her hand on his, Bethany decided to ask the obvious. “May I ask about your difficulties with speech?”
“I, uh, I-I-I…” He stalled, his face as red as the apples in her fruit bowl.
“I’m sorry.” Bethany spoke quickly. “It’s none of my business. I just thought—”
This time he laid his hand over hers. “It’s, um, okay.” Slowly, he explained that he struggled more when he was nervous or overtired. “I c-can tell you s-slowly, if y-you like.”
“Yes,” she said, more pleased than she wanted to be, even when he drew his hand away.
Richard began what was clearly a well-rehearsed speech. Speaking distinctly, each syllable measured, he told Bethany of a traffic accident, a head injury, and lasting brain damage that affected his ability to process language. “I hear the w-words in my head,” he told her, “but I c-can’t make them come out of my m-mouth clearly.”
“That must be frustrating.” Bethany resisted the urge to touch him again.
“Yes,” he said, still in that distinct, slow speech, “and hard for others to understand. And I don’t just m-mean understanding what I s-say. My then-wife kept s-saying, ‘Just spit it out, Richard. Just s-s-say it.’”
Bethany felt that like a hit to her breastbone. “She didn’t recognize it was a disability, something you couldn’t help?” She pretended she hadn’t felt a happy jolt at the words, ‘then-wife.’
“Everyone t-told her,” he answered, “but she s-said she hadn’t s-signed up for that. She l-left during my s-second year of r-rehab.”
Bethany paused before asking the next delicate question, and then decided to go for it. “Have you found someone else who does understand?”
He smiled, apparently pleased that she’d asked. “N-no. But, um, I’ve found that’s c-common in households with d-disabilities. Often one p-partner leaves when the g-going gets tough.”
Bethany saw that as a lead-in. “That’s what happened to Gracie and me. My ex-husband gave me an ultimatum, my marriage, or our child. I knew he could find someone else, but Grace had only me, no one else, and she was my baby. I’d already fallen in love with her.”
“Those m-months that you c-carried her,” Richard said. Then he paused and Bethany could almost see him summoning his courage. “Have you f-found someone e-else who understands?”
“No,” she said, “I haven’t either.” For a moment, they sat quietly, smiling at each other.
A puppy whined. “You have a d-dog?” he asked.
“I have five dogs,” she answered. “Six when you count Dot, who’s with Gracie.” She told him about the pups she and Grace were fostering. “I hope you aren’t allergic.”
“N-not at all,” he said. “I l-love dogs. Haven’t had one since I, um, was a b-boy, but m-maybe one d-day…”
Bethany heard his stutter increase and realized he was becoming stressed. “Would you like to see the pups we’re fostering now?”
“Y-yes. I’d l-like that.”
She led the way to the utility area behind her kitchen and the box full of hungry puppies. They were beginning to mill about, scrambling over one another. “Would you like to hold one?”
“I’d l-love to,” Richard said, “but d-don’t get them out.” He explained that he still had one home visit to make and didn’t want to arrive there smelling of dog or covered in puppy hair. Then he added, “Grace talks about p-puppies. N-now I understand. Thank you.”
Bethany answered, “Please. I need to thank you. I can’t tell you how much Gracie enjoys your program. She needs the social interaction and the chance to see and do more than can happen here in Bedford. You give her so much more than I can provide for her and I’m grateful.”
Richard nodded, though she noticed he colored slightly. “It’s m-my j-job.”
“But you enjoy it, don’t you?”
He beamed a smile at her. “V-very much.”
Bethany smiled back.
Then, at the same time, they both seemed to sense the awkwardness. Richard said he needed to get on with his next visit and Bethany walked him to the door. She watched until he was in his car and waved as he drove away. It wasn’t until minutes after he was gone that she realized she’d walked him through her kitchen and her breakfast dishes were still in the sink. So much for making a good impression.
Richard Hale tried not to worry. Hard life experiences had taught him that each day had enough troubles without summoning the specter of possible future threats. Still, when he went back to his office, his thoughts buzzing after meeting Bethany Sheridan, he couldn’t help feeling concerned. She’s the mother of one your clients. The fact that her neighbors considered him a Peeping Tom further complicated the situation.
“Finished your home visits?” Kasey, his motherly office manager who was also his cousin, had been helpful in getting Richard this job and in orienting him to the people of this mountain county. “They’re a different group than you knew in Sacramento,” she’d told him, and he’d found it to be true. People here were more open with one another, more likely to smile at a stranger or stop to help a stranded motorist, more genuine in saying what they meant.
“Yes,” he answered, his speech slow and distinct. “I met Grace Sheridan’s m-mother and the g-grandparents of George R-Roper, our one c-client from B-Blessing.”
“What did you think?” Kasey asked.
“G-good people,” Richard answered. “Our c-clients come from g-good homes.” Thinking warmly of Bethany and eager to change that line of thinking, he asked, “How have things been here?”
“Come and see.” Kasey opened the door into the recreation hall where a scene of happy, organized chaos played out before Richard’s eyes. Anna, his full-time assistant director, and two volunteers had divided their participants into three groups and created three stations. Anna led one group in gluing pumpkin seeds onto posterboard drawings of pumpkins. Ruben, who volunteered on Mondays and Thursdays, was reading to a second group from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.
Arlene, who came in most Mondays, had a third group using orange and black crepe paper to decorate the rec hall, making it festive for Halloween and Day of the Dead. The room buzzed with happy energy.
“Just what I like to see,” Richard said, noting with approval that they’d placed Grace Sheridan in the story group. Though Gracie had a keen mind, her body didn’t allow her to do much, even to paste pumpkin seeds or string crepe paper.
He left Kasey to order items for their upcoming holiday activities while he made the rounds of the groups. He chatted with various participants, added his own spooky voice to the classic story of Ichabod Crane and the headless horseman—he stuttered less when reading, and slipped into his office to work on the problem of bus transportation.
His clients ranged from eighteen to eighty-two. Most who participated in adult care came from the county seat or nearby. The bus that picked them up and took them home could do so in about forty minutes with minimal expenditure in gasoline. The problem was the bus that went all the way uphill to Bedford Falls, the farthest community they served, almost fifty miles away. The county’s obligation was to all its citizens, but with the increasing price of fuel, Richard had trouble stretching the transportation budget to reach the three clients in Bedford and the one in nearby Blessing.
Since the local board had approved his budget for the year before gas prices rose so steeply, he didn’t have much leeway for shifting dollars from one priority to another. He calculated they could manage until the end of the year if the bus maintained its same efficiency and prices didn’t rise more than a few cents per gallon. In the meantime, he’d need to revise his proposed budget for next year. He’d introduce it to the board at their mid-November meeting in roughly three weeks’ time.
Figuring out how to allocate funds occupied much of his mind. But not all. A large chunk of his thoughts remained in Bedford Falls at the home of Bethany Sheridan. She sparkled. Honey-blonde hair, sky-blue eyes, a lovely feminine shape… Richard thought she could light a room just by smiling. And those dimples! She reminded him of that actress.What was her name? R achel something. He pulled out his phone and googled a movie she’d starred in. Rachel McAdams. That was it. It surprised him how much Bethany reminded him of her. So lovely! Then, when she’d touched him—
“Mr. Hale? We’re ready for you to see the rec hall.”
“Thanks, Arlene. On my way.” Grateful to have that line of thinking interrupted, aware of the risks of involvement with the parent of a client in his program, Richard followed his volunteer to view the decorated recreation hall and offer still more compliments on the group’s work.