By Sandra Orchard © 2011
Rick set to work scrubbing the wooden floors of his mother-in-law’s former bedroom. Cleaning out the house was not how he’d hoped to spend the first weekend home since his and Ginny’s honeymoon, but the buyers had offered the full price in cash if they could move in before Christmas. It was ideal, really. Even if it meant having his mother-in-law and Lori move into the granny suite sooner than anticipated.
The scrub rag caught on a loose board inside the closet. Examining the board more closely, Rick found a foot-long section that had been cut from the rest of the wood and then reinserted. A secret hiding place?
He wedged his pocketknife along one edge and levered up the loose board. In the gap between the floor joists sat a shoebox. Lifting it out of its hiding place, he debated whether to peek inside before calling Ginny. The contents could be private mementos that she wouldn’t appreciate him looking through without permission.
Ginny appeared at the bedroom door. “Look what I found.” She waggled a plastic mistletoe ball, her lips smiling temptingly.
He rose and glanced over her shoulder. “Where’s Lori?”
“Packing up the last of the pantry items.”
“In that case.” He curled his free arm around her waist and captured her lips, soft and yielding beneath his. She tasted of peppermint and chocolate and a thousand tomorrows. Her fingers teased the hair at the back of his neck, fueling his desire for more time alone than a stolen kiss in his mother-in-law’s soon-to-be-sold house.
Her lips smiled against his. “I missed you.”
“Oh, yeah?” He tilted his head back just enough to look into her gorgeous green eyes. Flecks of red and yellow and brown glowed like embers of a welcoming fire on a cold winter’s night. They’d been married less than a month, and he couldn’t imagine ever tiring of basking in the warmth of those eyes. He leaned his forehead against hers and smiled. “Stealing kisses could be kind of fun.”
She chewed on her bottom lip. “I hope you still feel that way after a week with Mom and Lori underfoot.”
“We’ll adjust.” He hoped.
Her gaze dropped to the shoebox. “Where’d that come from?”
“Under the floor.” He pointed to the hole in the bedroom closet.
“Cool. I didn’t know Mom had a secret compartment. No wonder I could never find her stash of booze in her drinking days.”
Rick shook the box. “Sounds more like papers. Shall we open it?”
“Sure, Mom must have forgotten about it, or she would have asked us to grab it.”
Faded photos filled the box. Rick lifted them out one by one and laid them on the floor.
“They seem to be photographs of the same boy at different ages. Here he’s riding a trike, and in this one he’s on one of those old banana-seat bicycles with the spider handlebars.”
Rick glanced at the back of the photos, but there were no dates or names recorded. “From the look of the clothes, I’d say this kid grew up in the sixties and seventies.” He handed her a photo of a guy with dark curly hair sitting astride a Harley with a grinning young woman’s arms clamped around his waist. Rick pointed to the gas station sign in the background. “We’d be happy to pay that price for a liter of gas these days, and that was per gallon. Could these be of your dad?”
Ginny squinted at the photo of the couple. “Dad loved motorcycles, but that doesn’t look like him. His hair was lighter, and I don’t ever remember it being curly.”
Lori barreled into the room in her usual bull-in-a-china-shop fashion and sent the pictures skittering across the floor. She squatted to inspect the faces.
“Dis Billy?” She tilted her head and squinted at the photo of a boy holding a soccer trophy.
“Who’s Billy?” Ginny asked.
“Yes, but how do you know him?”
Rick chuckled, but Ginny let out a groan.
Rick took over. “Where did you see Billy?”
“Picture on locker.”
“You saw a picture like this on a locker at work?” Ginny interpreted.
“Whose locker?” Rick pressed, although given the age of the photo, he doubted that there could be a connection.
“Billy locker,” Lori repeated as if Rick was the one who was a bit slow. She crawled into the closet. “Hole.”
“Yes, we know, hon. Rick will fix it.”
Lori put her face to the floor and peered inside the hole, tilting her head one way and then the other. “Pretty,” she squealed and shoved her hand clear down to her armpit along the stretch between the floor joists. A moment later she tugged out a bundle of pink stationary tied with a ribbon.
“May I see those?” Rick asked
Lori handed them over and clapped her hands. “I found.”
“You did great.” Ginny’s cell phone rang as he untied the bundle. “We can,” she said into the phone. “But we still have probably another hour’s work to go before we’ll be ready to leave.” She closed her phone. “Mom wants us to pick up takeout for dinner. Maybe we should wait until we get home before we delve into those.”
“They’re letters that were never mailed.” Rick showed her the neatly printed page he’d opened. “It’s signed ‘mom’. Do you recognize the handwriting?”
“I’ve never seen Mom print that neatly. I wonder if these were left by the previous owner.”
“Looks like we have ourselves a mystery.” Rick refolded the page, returned it to the envelope and set it, along with the rest of the letters and photos, in the bottom of the shoebox. An hour later he stowed the shoebox in the back of his truck along with the last of the boxes from the kitchen. The frosty December air nipped at his bare arms. Snatching up his jacket, he inhaled the crisp, clear scent of a coming snowfall.
An older lady ambled up the street with her dog. “Evening,” Rick said, as he shut the tailgate.
“Oh.” The woman’s hand flew to her hair, and she fussed over her gray curls. “Hello, young man, you must be the fellow Ginny married.”
“Yes, ma’am. We’ve moved her sister and mom into our home and are selling the old place.”
“I thought Lori was going to the group home.”
“It won’t be ready until spring.”
Ginny joined him. “Hi, Mrs. O’Grady. Do you happen to remember who lived here before my parents moved in?”
“Why yes, the Wagners. Moved to Florida when they retired. A nice couple. Although their daughter was pretty wild in her teen years.” Mrs. O’Grady glanced at the house and shook her head. “Of course, the accident put an end to that.”
Across the street, a man stuck his head out the door. “Elma! Your sister’s on the phone.”
“Oh my, excuse me,” Mrs. Elma O’Grady said to them. “I need to go. Don’t be strangers now.”
The next morning, the smell of coffee lured Ginny from her dreams. She’d hoped to rise before Rick and make a hearty breakfast, but he must have risen extra early. He’d probably been curious about the letters. By the time they’d finished unloading boxes last night, and sharing dinner with Mom and Lori, they’d been too tired to show them to Mom or read them. She snagged her robe and peeked out the window.
Snow crystals sparkled in the grass and trees, as bright and exuberant as she felt for the big day they had planned.
Finding Rick sitting at the kitchen table with his coffee, she snuck up behind him and gave him a big hug. “Have you eaten?”
“Not yet.” The wink of his dimples said he was hoping for something special.
She kissed his cheek. “Good.” Seeing the pink stationary spread out before him on the table, she gave his arm a playful pinch. “You haven’t told your old girlfriends yet that they have to stop writing you?”
Rick’s lean, strong fingers enfolded hers and brought them to his lips. “I tried to let them down easy, but you know how it is.”
She giggled, painfully aware that not so long ago, she would have worried he wasn’t kidding. He pulled her into his lap. Snuggling against his chest, she twirled a few strands of chest hair peeking above his half-buttoned shirt. “I won’t get any breakfast made this way, you know?”
“I won’t complain.” His breath was warm on her cheek as he grinned down at her.
“Oh, no, we can’t!” She sprang from his lap, but his grip on her fingers tightened. “I promised Lori she could help us pick a Christmas tree this morning.”
He nodded, but still holding her hand, rose and covered her lips with a warm, tender kiss. “And then later…”
The tingle of his kiss lingered on her lips as she fried the bacon and sliced mushrooms and tomatoes. Friends had warned her that the giddy-can’t-keep-my-hands-off-you feeling would wear off soon enough, but she hoped they were wrong. She had never felt so happy as these past few weeks being married to Rick.
Rick cleared the letters from half the table and set out a couple of plates and cutlery and put bread in the toaster. “The letters are from a mother to her son. My guess is that he died.”
“Oh, how sad.”
“The earliest letter had a newspaper clipping of a curly-haired boy in a stroller watching a Christmas parade.”
“Read it to me.”
Powdered with age, the paper had turned a golden pink. “Dear Billy—”
Ginny chuckled. “Hey, maybe Lori does know the boy in the photo.”
“That boy would be your mom’s age now.”
“Yeah, I know. But it’s funny that she got the name right. Don’t you think?”
“Hmm.” He resumed reading. “Dear Billy, I saw a photo today of a boy watching a parade and imagined it was you. He had my brown eyes and the same unruly dark curls as your daddy.”
Ginny smiled, wondering whether their children would have blond hair and green eyes like her, or Rick’s dark hair and blue eyes.
“I so wish we could have taken you to parades and watched you take your first steps and heard your first words and seen your first smile.”
A lump lodged in Ginny’s throat. She turned off the frying pan and turned toward Rick.
His voice quieted as he read on. “You would have been three today, the same age as the boy in the picture. You were born so impossibly small. They wouldn’t let me hold you. They rushed you to NICU and my arms ached for you. Please know that your mommy never ever stopped loving you or wanting to hold you in her arms.” Rick cleared his throat. “Love always, your mommy.”
Tears stung Ginny’s eyes.
Rick folded her in his arms and buried his face against her neck. Was he thinking of the brother he’d lost at a young age, or had his thoughts, like hers, gone to the child they hoped to have one day?
She lifted her head to look into his eyes. Moisture made them shimmer a purer blue than ever. His lips quirked at his being caught out. He lowered his mouth to hers.
Then a knock sounded at the door.
“Yoo-hoo, can we come in?”
Rick pressed a kiss to Ginny’s brow. “Come on in,” he called out to his mother-in-law.
The door to the breezeway that separated her suite from theirs opened, and Lori skipped in with a grin that would make Oscar the Grouch smile. “Me pick tree!”
“Sorry.” Mrs. Bryson trailed behind her daughter. “She couldn’t wait any longer.”
Ginny dished their breakfast onto plates and carried them to the table. “That’s okay, but we still have to eat breakfast. Did you want anything?”
“You sit down. I’ll get myself a coffee.”
Lori flitted around the room, examining the Christmas decorations. She picked up the snowman made from a tin can and Styrofoam ball wrapped in batting. “Me made Gin’.” She wiggled the ornament, making the googley eyes jump about.
Rick tousled her hair. “You did a good job.”
Lori beamed as she carefully set the snowman back on the end table. Next she skipped over to the nativity scene nestled amid a bed of twinkle lights on the ledge of the bay window.
Mrs. Bryson, Mom—it was going to take a while to get used to calling her that—joined them at the kitchen table. Her hand fluttered toward the stack of letters. “Are these what Lori’s been chattering about?”
“Me find,” Lori announced proudly, not looking away from the baby Jesus in her hand.
“What are you going to do with them?” Mom thumbed through the photos as she sipped her coffee.
“We haven’t decided yet,” Ginny said, between bites.
“It sounds as though they’re letters from a grieving mother to the child she lost,” Rick explained.
“So, not the kind of memories the owner likely wants dredged up after all these years. You should just throw them out.”
Rick didn’t miss the tic in Ginny’s cheek at her mother’s thinly veiled message. “This breakfast is delicious,” he declared, hoping to distract Ginny from her and her mother’s ongoing disagreement over whether Lori should be told the truth about her father.
The upturn of Ginny’s lips said she knew what he was trying to do.
He winked. “I’d like to finish reading the letters before we decide.”
Ginny shoveled a forkful of eggs into her mouth and picked up an unopened envelope. As she drew out the letter, a fine gold chain looped through a wedding band and tiny beaded bracelet fell to the table.
Ginny set the letter aside and studied the bracelet.
Rick touched her hand for a better look. Baker was spelled out in tiny, white-lettered beads, flanked by blue ones.
“This must be her baby’s bracelet.”
“Baker?” Mom said. “We bought the house from the Wagners.”
“But they had a daughter. The baby could have been hers.” Ginny stroked the tiny beads. “Mrs. O’Grady mentioned she was in an accident. Maybe that’s what caused the premature birth.”
Rick unfolded the yellowed stationary. “The baby wasn’t all she lost. Listen to this.”
I can’t believe it’s already been thirteen years. I didn’t think I’d ever find someone I could love as much as your daddy, but I have. He’s a widower with a little girl. I hope one day—
Ginny looked up. “Why’d you stop?”
“That’s all there is.” He turned the letter for her to see.
“She must have been interrupted in the middle of writing it, and never bothered with it again.” Mrs. Bryson gulped back the last of her coffee and rose. “And neither should you. No need to lance open old hurts.” She walked stiffly around the island counter that separated the kitchen from the dining area and set her mug in the sink. Her chronic pain was evident in the wince that accompanied each footfall, but at least her arms weren’t as rail thin as they’d been six months ago.
“But what about the wedding band?” Ginny lifted the chain with the ring and bracelet attached. “We should return these if we can.”
Mom hobbled toward the door. “If she’d wanted them, she would’ve come back to the house for them long ago. Don’t you think?”
“That one!” Lori pointed at the saddest-looking Charlie Brown tree Rick had ever set eyes on.
He looked to Ginny and lifted an eyebrow.
Ginny chuckled. “You said the choice was hers.”
Ginny clasped Lori’s mittened hand. “Come on, Lori. We need to find a bigger one for all those ornaments we’re going to make.” Ginny led her on a merry chase through the snow-covered field.
Rick was glad to see she’d let her mother’s cool edict slide for now. Later they’d see about returning the wedding ring to its rightful owner. In a town the size of Miller’s Bay, tracking her down shouldn’t be that difficult. He eyed a perfect tree two rows over. “How about that one?” He cut through the trees as Ginny and Lori raced up the path.
Lori clapped her hands. “Yes, like.”
Rick flashed Ginny a victorious smile. “That one, it is.” He put his saw to the base before the two women could change their minds.
Lori plopped onto the snow-covered ground and swished her arms and legs into a snow angel.
Rick caught the tree before it fell then hiked it over his shoulder. “All set. Let’s go.”
“Wanna see goats first!” Lori scrambled up and raced off toward the pair of miniature goats penned near the garage where shoppers paid for their trees.
Ginny headed to the garage. “You go ahead and tie the tree to the roof while I settle up.”
He made short work of securing the tree and joined her in the garage where she was admiring the handmade wreaths the owner had for sale. He loved to see her so enthusiastic about decorating their new home.
The smell of pine and cinnamon and apple cider brought back happy childhood memories of similar family expeditions. It’d been more than a decade since he’d decorated a tree. It wasn’t as though it had anything to do with the true reason for the season, but the tradition of traipsing out together to choose exactly the right tree and then spending all afternoon decorating it together, while Christmas carols played in the background, held a special place in his heart. He was glad to see Ginny enthused about carrying on the tradition.
An elderly woman ladled cider from a crockpot and held the cup out to him. “Do you want some?”
Cocking his head to take a closer look at the woman, Rick accepted the cup. “Mrs. O’Grady, right?”
“Oh.” Her hand flew to her hair and fluffed. “Yes. You’re Ginny’s young man.”
Ginny turned at the sound of her name and joined them. “Hi, Mrs. O’Grady. Here to get your tree?”
“Yup, the first Saturday of December, every year. You can set your calendar by us. Only now I stay and visit with Martha in the warmth while the young uns do the picking.”
The white-haired woman manning the cashbox nodded in their direction.
“Sounds like a wonderful tradition.” Ginny smiled at Rick. “One I’ve always longed to have.”
“Well, hopefully Martha and Bill will keep up this place for a few years yet. They’re long past any kind of regular farming, but selling the Christmas trees makes it so they can afford to stay.”
Rick drew closer and lowered his voice. “Um, when we were talking yesterday, you mentioned that the Wagners had an accident?”
Mrs. O’Grady shot a sideways glance at the woman counting out change for a customer. “Not the Wagners.” She lowered her voice. “Their daughter Hannah.”
“What happened?” Ginny asked, matching Mrs. O’Grady’s whisper.
Curious why Mrs. O’Grady seemed reluctant for Martha to overhear, Rick watched the woman from the corner of his eye.
“Hannah was in a motorcycle accident the summer after she finished high school. Hurt bad, too. She was sent to a rehabilitation hospital for quite a few months. The poor dear.”
Martha waved cheerily to her last customer and then turned a caustic scowl their way. “Poor dear, nothing. If it weren’t for that girl, my son would still be alive.” She stomped into the house.
Mrs. O’Grady frowned. “I shouldn’t have said anything.”
“What did she mean?” Rick wasn’t about to let the story go when it was just getting really interesting.
“Martha’s son died in the accident.”
“He was driving the motorcycle?” Rick pictured the photo of the couple on the Harley.
“Yes, Billy was crazy about bikes. And wild. The Wagners forbade Hannah to date him. Unfortunately she didn’t listen.”
Ginny’s gaze shot to Rick’s. “Billy Baker?”
“That’s right.” Mrs. O’Grady sent a worried glance in the direction Martha had disappeared. “It’s only natural for Martha to resent Hannah. She’s really a good person at heart.”
“Was Hannah…” Ginny hesitated.
Rick shook his head. If Hannah’s parents were so set against Billy, Rick doubted they’d have wanted their daughter’s fated pregnancy to become common knowledge. He suspected her stay at a rehabilitation hospital was really at a maternity house. It would explain why she kept the photos and letters hidden. “Do you know where Hannah Wagner lives now, Mrs. O’Grady?”
“She’s Hannah Easton now. She and Fred own the flower shop on Second Street.”
“Next to the bakery?”
“Yes, that’s the one. They still have a few acres out behind, where Fred grows some of the flowers.”
A young boy raced into the garage. “Gra’ma, some girl let the goats out!”
Rick and Ginny exchanged a look, set their cider down on the table, and raced outside.
Lori stood wagging her hands, watching the goats prance away.
“You take the white one. I’ll get the black one,” Rick called to Ginny, circling around to head them off. He quickly got between the goats and the road, but had no idea how to steer them to the pen. This was not the kind of memorable outing he’d been hoping for.
An older man in a bright-red plaid jacket whirred up to the pen on a four-wheeler and cut his engine. He said something to Lori who then took off her mitts and clapped her hands.
The pair of goats instantly turned and trotted toward her. The farmer threw some hay inside the fenced area, and the goats followed Lori right on in.
Rick slung his arm across Ginny’s shoulder and laughed. “This tops any tree-hunting trip I’ve ever been on. How about you?”
She curved her arm around his waist. “The best.”
“Now?” Lori squealed, the light plug poised over the outlet.
Ginny grabbed her mug of hot apple cider, and cuddled next to Rick on the sofa. “Okay, now.”
Lori inserted the plug and the tree’s colored lights twinkled to life.
“It’s beautiful.” The wistfulness in Mom’s voice warmed Ginny’s heart.
Rick pressed a tender kiss to Ginny’s temple and whispered for her ears alone. “So are you.”
She tilted her head back to see his face. The lights danced in his eyes. She grinned. “Flattery will get you everywhere.”
He glanced from the clock to Lori rearranging a strand of garland on the branches. “I suppose it’s too soon to shoo them home?”
His whispered words so close to her ears sent tingles rippling down her spine.
Apparently oblivious to their desire to be alone, Mom sipped her cider, her gaze traveling the room and resting momentarily on the various decorations Ginny had set out. “Where did you get the poinsettia?”
Ginny silenced a groan. She should have known Mom would notice it, and if she knew why they went, wouldn’t approve of their meddling. “We stopped by the florist shop on the way home.”
She gave Ginny a strange look. “The florist is the opposite direction.”
Rick chuckled. “Not when you’re coming home from the bakery next door.”
“Oh.” Ginny sprang to her feet. “I forgot all about the pastries we bought.” She put the coffee on and arranged the pastries on a plate. On their roundabout way home from the tree farm, they’d stopped by the flower shop to see if they could meet Hannah. Unfortunately, the Eastons were visiting her folks in Florida.
Rick left his business card with the clerk, and giving a brief explanation, asked her to have Hannah call him when she returned.
Rick’s cell phone rang.
Ginny tensed. He wasn’t due back to work for two more days. But if there was a serious crime that needed investigating… She handed Mom and Lori dessert plates, while trying to listen in on Rick’s end of the conversation.
“Yes, that’s right.” Rick said into the phone, then paused, listening. “He didn’t? …I see. Yes, we’ll bring the box by when she returns.”
Mom looked from Rick to Ginny. “The shoebox? You found the owner?”
“Sounds like we did.” Ginny looked to Rick for confirmation.
“Yes. That was her stepdaughter. The clerk mentioned our visit to her.”
Ginny squirmed under her mom’s inquisitive glance.
“We were wrong about the boy,” Rick went on. “He didn’t die. Hannah’s parents convinced her to give him up for adoption. She eloped with Billy Baker two days before the accident that killed him. By the time Hannah realized she was pregnant, her parents had already squashed rumors of the elopement and decided to send her away to have the baby.”
Ginny swiped at a tear. “Oh, the poor woman. To lose her husband and then to have his child torn from her arms.”
“Her stepdaughter said that Hannah had always hoped to be reunited one day. She wrote the letters so he’d know that she never stopped loving him.”
“What a wonderful Christmas gift those letters would make to the boy. With your resources at the police station, couldn’t you track him down? Reunite them?”
“This person isn’t a boy,” Mom interjected. “He’s a grown man. And sometimes you’re better to leave well enough alone.” She glanced askance at Lori.
“Mom, this situation isn’t like that. Her son deserves to know he had two parents who loved him and wanted him.” Ginny looked to Rick, silently appealing for support.
Mom clunked her dessert plate on the side table. “If the son wanted to be found, he could have contacted the adoption registry after he turned eighteen.”
Rick squeezed Ginny’s shoulders. “Your mom has a good point.” He didn’t mention that Hannah’s stepdaughter was also a cop and had tried to search for the half brother without success. Short of hacking into the adoption files, Rick didn’t see what else he could do.
Ginny deflated. “Maybe his adoptive parents never told him he was adopted. Or maybe he was afraid of hurting their feelings.”
“Whatever the reason”—Mom whisked aside the suggestions with a wave of her hand—”It’s not your place to interfere.”
Monday afternoon Ginny passed the flower shop on her way to the chocolate factory to pick up Lori from work. Her thoughts instantly went to the woman who never had the joy of watching her son grow up. It couldn’t be an accident that God had allowed them to find that shoebox now, after more than two decades of living in that house.
Ginny pulled into the factory’s rutted back lot. Yesterday’s pristine snow had melted into dirty slush, and the cloudless sky showed no sign of gracing them with a fresh blanket anytime soon. Ginny maneuvered around the potholes and parked next to the back door, wishing navigating the rules of the adoption registry were as easy.
Lori burst out the back door and skipped through the puddles to the car. She couldn’t have sloshed through more if she tried…which she probably had.
A tall man with dark, curly hair followed Lori out and came around to the driver’s side of the car.
Ginny thumbed down the window. “Is there a problem?”
Lori clambered into the passenger seat. “Billy’s dad.”
Ginny’s heart jumped. She glanced at Lori and back to the man at her window.
He shrugged, but humor danced in his eyes. “I’m Matthew Benson. I think Lori wants me to show you my son’s picture. Not sure why. I’m afraid I can’t always follow what she’s talking about.”
“Oh.” The breath caught in Ginny’s throat as he passed her a school photo of a young boy that looked identical to the photo Lori had said was Billy. Could this man standing at her car window be Hannah’s son? Lord, could it be that easy?
She couldn’t very well blurt out her suspicions. What if she was wrong? Or worse, what if she was right and he had no idea he was adopted?
“Any idea why she thought you’d want to see it?” the man asked, slipping the photo back into his pocket.
“Um.” Ginny bit her lip. “Yes, actually. When we were cleaning out our house to move, we found a box of photos and one bore an uncanny resemblance to your son.” How coincidental was it that this man should’ve named his son after a father he knew nothing about? If he was Billy Baker’s son…
The man laughed. “That explains it. Here I thought maybe he got into some mischief I didn’t know about.”
“Did you grow up around here?” Ginny willed her racing heart to slow. What were the chances that an adoption agency would adopt out a child to a couple living in the same town as the birth mother?
“Born and raised.”
She drew in a deep breath. “You wouldn’t happen to be related to Billy Baker?”
“Sure, my mom was Billy’s older sister. Everyone comments on the family resemblance.” He skimmed his palm over his brush cut. “If I let my hair grow, it’d be mass of curls.”
Ginny swallowed her disappointment. “Yes, that would explain the likeness.”
Or did it? Ginny drove home on autopilot, only half listening to Lori’s tales of her day. What if fear, not anger, had prompted Martha Baker’s hostility toward them the other day?
Fear that they’d uncover a secret.
“You were right,” Rick said the instant Ginny picked up the phone. “Matthew Benson was born seven months after Billy Baker’s death. And the name on his birth certificate is William Matthew Baker. Grab the box of photos and letters. I’ll pick you up in ten minutes.”
“Where are we going?”
“You know,” Ginny said as she climbed into the car and settled the shoebox and a plate of cookies on her lap. “Matthew’s mom is a Baker. She might have had him out of wedlock and married later. Lots of people call their children by their middle name.”
Ginny smelled of gingerbread, and Rick couldn’t resist leaning over and stealing a taste. He backed out of the driveway and headed to the tree farm on the outskirts of town. “Short of a DNA test or bribing government officials to open the records, we can’t prove Matthew is Hannah’s son, but I checked the marriage records. Maggie Baker married three years before her brother died.”
Rick pulled into the rutted dirt driveway that meandered up a long hill to the ramshackle farmhouse. Grayed white paint peeled from the weathered siding, but rich green garland and bright red bows hung in welcoming splendor along the rails of the front porch.
Ginny grabbed his arm. “Wait. What will we say?”
“We’ll appeal to their sense of Christmas spirit and goodwill to men.” He climbed out of the car and circled to open Ginny’s door. He’d been praying for the past hour, uncertain whether he had any right to interfere. Yet, feeling compelled to do something. “Lord, your will be done,” he whispered before opening Ginny’s car door.
She handed him the shoebox. “What if they refuse to invite us in?”
“I’m sure the smell of those cookies will win them over.”
Mr. Baker answered their rap on the door. “Well, what do we have here?”
Ginny held up the plate of cookies. “I wanted to thank you for being so sweet to my sister after she let the goats out.”
He opened the door wide and waved them in. “That’s mighty fine of you. Thank you. Come in. Come in.”
The cozy warmth of a pot-bellied stove drew them to the sitting area where Mr. Baker returned to his recliner. Family photos lined every shelf and tabletop. “Martha, we have comp’ny,” he called toward the back of the house.
A door opened and a cold draft swept through the room sending an involuntary shiver down Rick’s spine. Martha Baker fitted wire-rimmed glasses over her ears and scrutinized them with a scowl. “What do you want?”
“Martha,” her husband said, shock registering in his voice. “Is that any way to welcome our guests? They brought cookies.”
The old man leaned forward and helped himself from the plate Ginny had set on the coffee table.
Rick joined Ginny on the loveseat and waited for Mrs. Baker to join them.
With a huff, she traipsed to the rocker opposite and plunked herself down.
Rick opened the shoebox and drew out the first letter Hannah wrote to her son, and passed it to Mr. Baker, sensing that he’d be easier to win over. “We wanted to show you some letters we found buried under the floorboard of my wife’s childhood home. We think you’ll find them fascinating.”
Mr. Baker held the delicate pink stationary at arms’ length, silently forming the words on his lips as he read. Moisture pooled in his eyes. He handed the letter to his wife, pulled a handkerchief from his pocket, and blew his nose.
Mrs. Baker’s expression remained stern, but she didn’t speak. She kept swallowing as if that might dislodge the boulder-size lump Rick hoped was clogging her throat. You’d have to be dead to read Hannah’s letters and not be moved. But Mr. Baker apparently hadn’t made the connection.
Ginny handed him the newspaper clipping of the curly-haired three-year-old at the parade along with the letter Hannah wrote her son that day.
Mr. Baker squinted at the picture and then turned it toward his wife. “Isn’t that our Matthew?”
“All these years Hannah has never given up hope that she might one day be reunited with her son,” Ginny said softly.
Mr. Baker sat up straight. “Who’d you say wrote these letters?” The pages crinkled in his trembling hand.
“Hannah.” Rick paused to let the name sink in. “Your son’s widow.”
Mr. Baker hunched forward, shaking his head. “We never should have sent her away. The poor child.”
“Hush, you old fool,” Martha hissed under her breath.
“She eventually remarried, had a stepdaughter to mother, found some measure of peace,” Rick offered. “But deep down I’m sure she still dreams of the day her son will walk through the doors of her flower shop and enfold her in his arms.”
“But if he doesn’t know he was adopted, he can’t make that choice. Can he?” Ginny blurted.
Silence cloaked the room. The fire spit and the glowing logs tumbled into a new alignment.
“He should have the choice, Martha,” Mr. Baker declared.
“Maggie’s the only mother he’s ever known and you want to sully his childhood memories with this now? At his age? He’s always been surrounded by family. He hasn’t wanted for a mother’s love.”
Mr. Baker slapped his hand on his thigh. “The boy deserves to know.” Meeting Rick and Ginny’s gaze, he said, “When Hannah told us her parents were pressuring her to put the baby up for adoption, we figured we could get custody, being blood relatives and all.” When Rick didn’t say anything, Mr. Barker raked his fingers through his white mass of curls. “You’ve got to understand. The girl was so wrought with grief. She honestly didn’t look fit to care for a child. And our Maggie had been trying for three years to have a baby. Kept miscarrying.”
Rick clasped Ginny’s hand, stilling her protest, and urged Mr. Baker to go on.
“When the adoption people signed little Billy over to us, Maggie claimed him as her own. No one ever questioned it. The family resemblance was obvious. Her husband was just relieved to see his wife happy.”
“I understand. You gave your grandson a precious gift—a family who loved him as their very own. Now you have a chance to give him another gift.” Rick set the shoebox with the remaining letters on the coffee table. “And you have a chance to make another daughter happy. The daughter-in-law your son loved with all his heart and hoped, I’m sure, you would love, too.”
Rick tugged Ginny’s hand and without another word led her outside.
Later that night, lying in Rick’s arms in bed, Ginny watched the snowflakes dance against the windowpane. “Do you think the Bakers will tell Matthew he’s adopted?”
Rick pressed a kiss to her hair. “I think we’ve done all we can. The rest is up to God and the Bakers.”
“But what if they don’t tell him, how can we keep this from her?”
“Let’s just wait and see what happens. The news will be a shock to Matthew. Better he hears it from his family than a stranger.”
“But we told Hannah’s stepdaughter we’d bring her the shoebox. She’s probably told her mom. They’ll be expecting it.”
“We can return the wedding band and baby bracelet.”
Ginny turned to face him. “But she’ll ask about the—”
Rick pressed a finger to her lips. “Patience.”
Knowing he was right, she let out a sigh. She wished she could do more. The wedding band and baby bracelet might be a bittersweet gift for Hannah, opening scarred-over wounds she’d have preferred to leave untouched. But reuniting her with her son…that would be the best Christmas gift they could give her.
Ginny’s stomach dropped as another thought struck her. “Do you think Hannah will be angry that we read her letters? That we dug into her private life?”
Rick stroked her back in a soothing rhythm. “She might.”
Ginny shuddered to think that Hannah might resent their interference when they’d only been trying to help.
Rick drew her head to his chest, and folded her in his arms.
Filled with gratitude for his sheltering love, Ginny ached for the years Hannah lost.
For the next week, each time Ginny picked Lori up from work, she watched for Matthew, hoping he’d come out and talk to her. But even if his grandparents had told him he was adopted, they probably hadn’t mentioned her and Rick’s role in bringing the truth to light.
Not that he’d want to talk to her about the unexpected revelation.
She glanced at the tiny gift bag containing his birth bracelet and Hannah’s wedding ring. Now that Hannah was back in town, Ginny and Rick planned to deliver the items to her at the flower shop just before closing. Ginny had so hoped to give her more.
A couple of hours later, fluffy snowflakes danced in the glow of the colorful lights decorating the flower shop windows. Rick squeezed her hand. “Ready?”
Ginny nodded, feeling strangely melancholy. A bell over the door tinkled, announcing their arrival. They were greeted by the rich fragrance of pine and roses and a stunning array of floral arrangements. The soft strains of “What Child is This” played in the background.
A smiling woman bustled out from the back room, wearing a shimmery caftan. Ginny vaguely recognized her from around town, but had never had occasion to stop by here for flowers, not even for the wedding, since Kim had made their bouquets.
“Rick, hello. Is this the new bride I’ve heard so much about?”
Ginny looked from Hannah to Rick. “You two know each other?”
Rick winked. “She’s the only florist in town.”
“Why didn’t you tell me you knew her?” Ginny whispered under her breath.
Hannah laughed. “I thought everyone knew me. Don’t worry, my dear. My daughter told me about your discovery, and Rick called me this afternoon to let me know you’d be by.”
Ginny held out the bag to her. “I wish we could have given you more.”
Hannah waved away her concern. “It’s in the Lord’s hands. I spent too many years grieving over what I couldn’t change, but He’s given me peace. He gave me another husband to love and a child to fill my arms. I’ve learned to count my blessings. I have to believe my son is happy, or else he would have looked for me, too.”
“Yes.” Ginny choked on the word, wanting to tell her what she knew.
Rick squeezed her hand.
“Yes,” Ginny repeated. “I’m sure you’re right.”
Hannah lifted the baby bracelet from the bag and laid it on her palm. “He was so tiny. I named him Billy after his father.”
A faint tinkle sounded behind Ginny, but Hannah didn’t seem to register it. She swiped a tear from her cheek. “And Matthew because it means a gift from God. He was due Christmas day, although he came two months early. Each Christmas I wrote him a letter, telling him what I was up to and wishing the best for him. I still pray for him every day.”
An older gentleman came from the back room and looped his arm across her shoulder.
“Fred, this is my wife, Ginny,” Rick introduced.
Fred extended his hand in welcome. “Pleased to meet you. I’m Hannah’s husband.”
He had a farmer’s hands and face, leathery and tanned. He gave his wife a sideways hug and looked at her with unabashed adoration. “You okay?”
She sniffled and held out her palm, displaying the tiny baby bracelet.
He gently curled his fingers around hers, closing the bracelet inside their joined hands, and cupping his other hand over top. “Deep down that boy knows you never stopped loving him, Hannah. God hears your prayers. He does.”
A cough sounded behind them. “Yes.”
Just inside the door stood Matthew Benson, his glistening eyes fixed on Hannah. His Adam’s apple bobbed in his throat. He wore a heavy wool overcoat, and under his arm, he held the shoebox they’d found under the floorboards. “He knows—” Matthew’s voice cracked. “He knows your arms ached to hold him.”
He was quoting Hannah’s letters, Ginny realized.
Hannah covered her mouth with her hand and stared at him as if he was an apparition that might disappear at any moment.
Matthew took a tentative step forward, freeing the box from under his arm. “He felt your love every day in a hundred different ways, in the caress of a gentle breeze, in the laughter in his own son’s eyes.” Another step. “He felt your prayers comfort him when he was sad, protect him when he was a rebellious teenager, celebrate with him when he found a woman who loved him as much as you loved his father.” Another step forward, and mere feet separated them.
Matthew smiled with quivering lips. “Your boy would have been here sooner, but he didn’t know you were waiting for him.”
Hannah launched herself into her son’s arms. “Oh, Billy.”
Billy Matthew Baker Logan swept her into his embrace. “Mama.”
Christmas morning, Rick watched Ginny standing at the window watching a squirrel scamper along their white picket fence. The sunlight glittered off a fresh blanket of snow that wrapped the countryside in a beauty only God could create. Wispy clouds streaked the vivid blue sky as a brilliant red cardinal lit from the nearby pine tree.
Rick looped his arms around Ginny’s waist and pressed a kiss to her neck. “Merry Christmas.”
She crooked her head, her sweet laughter filling his senses.
This was the first Christmas in over a decade that he hadn’t worked, preferring to let the guys with families have the day off. Now he was one of those guys, and he intended to cherish every moment. “I’m going to make us breakfast. When are your sister and mom invading?”
Turning in his arms, she curled her arms around his neck. “Not until I give the all clear.”
“Hmmm.” He nibbled on her lip. “Can I interest you in breakfast in bed then?”
A knock sounded at the door.
Ginny laughed. “Sounds like my family has other ideas.”