Excerpt #2 (Chapter One continued)
Luke hung up the phone. He pushed his palm across his head, fingers dragging through disheveled hair.
Snatching his coat from the rack by the door, Luke swore again. He shoved his arms into the garment, the fabric still chilled from his recent trek among the douglas firs. Pulling the truck keys from his pocket, he headed back outside to his pickup.
“Where’re you going, boss?”
“Into town,” Luke muttered as he yanked opened the pickup’s door. He slid behind the wheel, pausing to take a steadying breath before turning the key in the ignition. It wouldn’t do any good to go tearing along the roads like a lunatic. Lydia was safe with the woman from the bookstore. But how the hell had she gotten there? Normally, when Lydia got it into her head to take off, she headed up into the trees and he’d always find her in short order. This time, he hadn’t even known she was gone.
“Lydia Hollis, you’re going to be the death of me,” he said as he put the truck into reverse and backed from the space in front of the house. Pausing before heading for the long driveway, he rolled down the window. “Frank!”
The sandy-haired man ambled up to the truck. “Yeah, boss?”
“Is your wife still out of work?”
Frank’s left brow twisted up toward his hairline. “Why are you asking?”
“Because I need some help with Lyddie. I can’t keep an eye on her all the time. I thought I could, working around the farm, but apparently I’m an idiot.”
“She take off again?”
“Sorry, Beth’s back at work. Started last week at the hospital. That eight-year-old of yours is going to turn your hair gray. If she’s this willful now, imagine what she’ll be like as a teenager. My girls—”
“She wants her mother, Frank. And I don’t know what to do about that.”
As Luke drove the winding roads, he understood he could do nothing about Lydia wanting her mother. It was a frustrating, heartbreaking situation. Luke wasn’t a fool. He’d consulted with professionals about what to do and basically received conflicting recommendations. Give her space; keep her close. Let her work through it in her own time; make her talk about the issue. The only thing consistent throughout was making certain Lydia knew he loved her. He thought he’d been doing that. Because he did. With his whole heart. Somehow, that wasn’t enough.
Moving slowly through town, the main street decked out with wreaths and lights and bright flags for the holidays, he considered his own dark living room. Thanksgiving had come late this year. The business of selling Christmas trees was in full swing, giving him little time for anything else. Lydia loved Christmas. Once again, he’d let her down. After a brief and suitable punishment for her reckless behavior today, he’d make sure they broke out all the boxes filled with decorations and together they would do the house up right. The way it used to be.
Finding a parking space, Luke maneuvered the pickup into it and got out. He shut the door and took a deep breath, filling his lungs with crisp air, doing his best not to swear again as he thought of the distance he’d driven from the tree farm to Connor Falls. How had a little girl with legs the length of his arm managed to make it all that way without him noticing her absence? Safely, thank God, but even so.
Shoving his hands into his coat pockets, Luke marched toward Connor Falls Book Emporium. He hadn’t been inside the bookstore in nearly two years. Lydia used to love to come here, especially at Christmastime.
Luke paused outside the large display window, surprised to find it empty at this late date. Obviously, it had been cleared in preparation for decorating, but shouldn’t that have been done days ago? He was a fine one to talk, with a little girl who loved Christmas and a house as bland and uninviting as a cardboard box. Luke strode up to the bookstore door and yanked it open.
Lydia barreled into his legs. With a grunt, Luke scooped his daughter into his embrace and held her close, breathing in the scent of her hair before holding her out again at arm’s length, her legs dangling. “Lyddie! Why did you run away again?”
As he spoke, he spotted powdered sugar on his daughter’s lips. She swiped at her mouth with her knuckles. Luke set her on the floor.
“Lydia, I’m serious. What you did was dangerous. How did you get here?” He still couldn’t believe she’d walked all the way into town, and yet he prayed she’d done exactly that, because the idea she might have managed to find someone to give her a ride, somebody without the sense they were born with, or worse, made his blood run cold. Lydia stared up at him through shining, tear-filled eyes.
“I walked, Daddy. My legs hurt. And I’m sorry. I’m really sorry. Can we go home?”
Luke took a deep breath and slowly released the air through his nose. Maybe this was the problem. She always accepted immediate responsibility for her actions, and he couldn’t bear her sadness. They’d developed a pattern that neither one could break.
“You can’t keep doing this. You could have been hurt, or gotten lost, or any number of things.” Yes, things the town of Connor Falls, despite its reputation, couldn’t guarantee wouldn’t happen.
“But I didn’t,” Lydia said. “And I found a friend.”
Luke frowned. “A friend?”
At the sound of a female clearing her throat, Luke glanced up from Lydia. Dressed in an oversized sweatshirt and jeans tucked into boots on slim legs, a woman stood behind his daughter. Her brown eyes gazed back at him from a small face framed by wispy, auburn curls. She looked vaguely familiar. He’d probably seen her around town, or picking up a tree. After giving him a quick onceover, she held out her hand.
“Hi. I’m Allie Roberts.”
He grasped the hand in a brief shake. “Any relation to the Roberts who own the place?”
“They’re my parents,” she said. “They’re semi-retired these days, so I’m running the bookstore now.” She shrugged beneath the voluminous gray cotton of her shirt. “I bought Lydia a donut from the bakery. I hope you don’t mind. I asked her first if she was allowed to eat sugar. You know, some parents are particular about that.”
“It’s not a problem,” said Luke. “I appreciate you taking her in. I don’t…I don’t know what she’s thinking, running off like this.”
“Right here, Dad,” said Lydia in a comical adult manner. Allie reached out and ruffled her hair. Luke’s stomach flipped as if he’d dropped too fast in an elevator, the caress making him both sad and angry. Apparently, Lydia sensed his sudden mood shift, because she turned her head to gape up at Allie, blue eyes wide. Luke bent and grabbed Lydia’s fingers in his own.
“Well, thank you again, Miss Roberts—”
“Allie. Please don’t call me Miss Roberts.”
“Yeah,” said Lydia, “she likes Allie. Better than Allison, she told me.”
Allie, better than Allison. The phrase struck him with a brief flash of déjà vu. He couldn’t imagine why. “Okay. Got it.” He took a step backward toward the door. “And Lyddie, this is the final straw. I’m going to have to hire somebody to look after you. This is the busy season and I can’t keep worrying that you’re going to disappear. Do you understand me?”
Lydia hung her head, stealing a glance at Allie from beneath her bangs. “Allie said I could help her decorate the window.”
“That was if I did it today,” Allie explained. “As you can see, it’s still empty. At this rate, Christmas will have come and gone and there’ll be nothing in that window but dust.”
“What’s the problem?” Luke asked.
“I don’t know. Even before my parents decided to back away from the business, I always did the displays. This year I wanted to come up with something really incredible, and instead my mind’s a blank. I’m lacking inspiration, I guess.”
“So’s my dad,” said Lydia. “You should see our house. Not one single decoration.”
Luke bit the inside of his mouth. Yes, punishment, and then they would drag out the boxes and get to work.
“You could start with a tree,” Lydia suggested.
“Do you have yours?” Allie asked.
“Not yet,” Luke said. “You know the story of the shoemaker’s family? That’s me. But tonight. I promise,” he said to Lydia. “And you come by, too, Allie. I’ll give you a tree for the window, as a thank you.”
“That’s not necessary. I really didn’t do anything.”
“Yes, you did,” said Luke. “I’m just grateful Lydia ended up with someone who looked after her. Stop by after dinner. We’ll take flashlights and you can have your pick. I’ll cut it down for you.”
Allie hesitated. He wondered why. A free tree should appeal to anyone this time of year, especially somebody with an empty window three and a half weeks before Christmas.
“If you insist,” she finally said.
“I do. So does Lyddie, don’t you?”
“Yep,” said his daughter. “And maybe tomorrow Dad can bring me here to give you a hand? I won’t talk as much as I did today. I’ll let you concentrate.”
Allie laughed. The sound was shockingly infectious and, again, familiar. Smiling, Luke considered Allie more closely.
“Well, if you put it that way…” Allie jerked her head in the direction of the counter. “Don’t forget your coat, Lydia.”
As Lydia skipped across the store to retrieve her garment, Luke hastened to nip the plans in the bud. He couldn’t let Lydia inconvenience this stranger more than she had. “You don’t have to do that. Really. I—”
“It’s just that she misses her mother so much.”
“I know. She told me.”
Luke’s focus snapped from the antics his daughter was going through in putting on her coat back to Allie’s face. His shoulders tensed. “What did she tell you, exactly?”
Allie tucked her hands into her pockets. “That her mother’s in California. That she doesn’t see her.”
Luke compressed his lips, blowing a breath out his nose. His gaze strayed again to Lydia, still struggling into her coat beside the counter. He wondered if his daughter had said something more. He could tell by Allie’s expression, though, that she hadn’t.
“Okay,” he said. “You come by tonight and pick a tree, and Lydia and I will deliver it tomorrow after you open.”
“Deal,” said Allie.
Lydia returned and Luke took her fingers. Striding to the door, he paused and looked back, the knob circled in his left hand and Lydia tugging on the other one. “I’m sorry. I didn’t even introduce myself. I know we just spoke on the phone when you called, but I was a little agitated then. I feel like I’ve been rude. I’m Luke Hollis.”
Allie met his gaze. “I remember exactly who you are,” she said.
Stop back tomorrow for Excerpt 3 of Winter Light! Happy reading, and I hope these excerpts put you in the mood for the holidays!