“Hannah?” her mother asked softly.

Hannah glanced toward her parents. All her life she’d done as they wanted. She’d been a good daughter, an obedient child.

“Oh, Carl,” she whispered.

Her mother dabbed at her eyes. Carl’s mother sniffled.

“I couldn’t be more honored than to be your wife.”

The tension in the room evaporated as Carl’s and her parents leapt to their feet and hugged each other. The only two not embracing were Carl and Hannah.

Carl moved to her side and knelt on the floor next to her chair. His eyes held hers captive. “I’ll make you a good husband, Hannah.”

She lowered her gaze. “And I’ll be a good wife.”

Joshua glanced at his watch and was surprised at the time. He’d been held up in court earlier that morning and been playing catch-up the rest of the day. Earlier he’d decided to stop off at the deli and be sure Hannah had received his gift. Frankly he’d been surprised not to hear from her before now.

It came as something of a surprise the way Hannah had filled his mind and his heart. For too many years he’d been whizzing down the fast lane of life, building his career and making a name for himself.

Then one morning, out of the blue, he’d woken with a hollow feeling in the pit of his stomach. This feeling, this emptiness, was something his grandmother’s cooking wasn’t going to satisfy.

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It was then Joshua realized that what he was missing was a wife and family. He knew his mother had been wanting him to marry for a good long while. Only he had a certain type of woman in mind, and he didn’t know if such a woman existed in this modern age.

First and foremost he sought a woman who shared his faith. One who would stand devotedly at his side through the years. A woman who would make his dreams hers and allow him to be part of hers. One who was kind and gentle. Loving and tender. Sensible.

He’d searched for months for this paragon of virtue, until he was convinced a woman such as this no longer existed.

Then he’d met Hannah.

After their first afternoon together, he’d realized she was exactly the type of woman he’d been longing to meet. To think all this time she’d been right under his nose. The local deli owner’s daughter.

Joshua reached for his coat, and after telling his secretary where he’d be, he headed toward what many in New York considered to be the best deli in town.

When he was less than a block away from the deli, Joshua spied Hannah. She was walking with an older woman, whom he assumed must be her mother. It was hard not to raise his arm and attract her attention the way he had at their previous meeting. But since she was advancing toward him, there didn’t seem to be much point.

Joshua frowned when he noticed Hannah wasn’t wearing the gloves he’d had delivered. Then he noticed her eyes. How easy she was to read. Whatever she was doing didn’t please her. Even from this distance he felt her resistance.

Just then she looked up, and he caught her gaze. Briefly her eyes widened with alarm and she gnawed on her lower lip as though she weren’t sure what to do.

Without her saying a word, Joshua received her message. She didn’t want him to greet her. Silently she pleaded with him to walk on past. It offended him, but he didn’t question her request.

Without a word they strolled past each other like total strangers. Three steps on the other side of Hannah, Joshua turned, hoping for some telltale sign that would clue him to what was wrong.

She glanced over her shoulder, and in that briefest of seconds, Joshua read her eyes. She was grateful. Later, when she could, she promised silently, she would explain everything.

It probably had something to do with what she’d told him the day of the parade. Her parents had been involved in a frivolous lawsuit. The fact that her family didn’t take kindly to attorneys wouldn’t dissuade him. He was very much interested in knowing Hannah better. Once her family had an opportunity to know him, they’d be willing to overlook the fact that he was an attorney. Joshua smiled to himself.

He would be patient, because Hannah Morganstern was well worth the effort. After all, he’d been looking for her most of his adult life.

“This must be old home week,” Michelle said as she walked into the apartment and tossed the mail on the kitchen table. “There’s another letter with a postmark from Custer, Montana.”

“There is?” Dressed in her slip and standing in front of the ironing board, Jenny set aside the iron and walked over to the table. She reached for the envelope and read the return address. “It’s from my mother.”

“At least you hear from your mother,” Michelle complained as she shucked off her coat and scarf. “It’s been three months since my mother last wrote me.”

“But she calls once a week.”

“True.”

But Jenny understood what her friend was saying. It was a relief to get something in the mail other than bills.

She opened the envelope and withdrew the letter. It was exactly what she expected. Her mother had broken her silence and joined Trey to ask her to come home for the holidays.

It hurt more than words could voice, having to explain that she couldn’t leave New York. Jenny had long since run out of money, out of excuses, and, worse yet, out of ideas.

“What’d she say?” Michelle asked. Her roommate stood in front of the open refrigerator and stared at its meager contents. Rather than explain, Jenny handed the single sheet of stationery to her friend. Michelle scanned the page, then raised her eyes to Jenny.

“Your mother wants you to come home for Christmas.”

Jenny sank onto the sofa and tucked her feet beneath her. “Christmas has always been so special with our family. I don’t think I’ve met anyone who could put on a spread the way Mom does. She makes this incredible sage dressing for the turkey, and the scent of it fills the house.” She closed her eyes, and the memory was so powerful, she could almost smell the pungent herbs right then.

“Maybe there’s a way you could manage to make it home,” Michelle said sympathetically.

“There isn’t,” Jenny said, unwilling even to listen to suggestions. No one needed to tell her that she’d done this to herself.

Christmas with her mom and dad and little brother. A lump formed in her throat.

Christmas on the range. Snow glistening in the moonlight, sleigh rides every December. Decorating the tree together had long been a family tradition. Her father would set a pot of wassail to warm over the fireplace, and they’d sing carols while they strung the lights and added the tinsel. The ranch hands and neighbors would stop over for a cup of her father’s special brew. Trey came every year.

“Jenny?”

Her eyes popped open. “Sorry. I guess I got carried away there for a moment.”

“Why hasn’t your family come to see you?”

“Mom and Dad?” Jenny supposed she should have considered that a long time ago, but try as she might she couldn’t picture her parents in New York. To the best of her knowledge they’d never been more than three hundred miles away from the ranch. Their lives revolved around the care and feeding of a thousand head of cattle. It would be unheard-of for her father to leave the ranch unattended.

There’d been a time when Jenny hated the mere mention of the word beef. How eager she’d been to escape to the big city and find her way in the world. How eager she’d been to disassociate herself from the Flying L Ranch.

“Did you hear anything from Peterman?” she asked Michelle, needing to change the subject before she became downright maudlin.

“Not a word. Rumor has it he’s looking for a particular kind of girl.”

“Oh?” Jenny feigned interest. It went without saying that whatever character type the famous director sought wasn’t likely to be Jenny. She had lost count of the number of times she’d auditioned for John Peterman. He hadn’t chosen her yet, and she doubted he would this time.

She didn’t know when she’d started all this stinking thinking. About the time she’d told the first lie to her parents. Negative thoughts had crowded her mind ever since.

“I can’t shake the feeling you’re going to be offered one of the major roles,” Michelle said. “Mark my words, Jenny Lancaster. We’re both headed for Broadway.”

“This is the saddest thing I’ve ever seen,” Mercy told her two friends. “Jenny wants nothing more than to go home for the holidays, and can’t.”

“Surely there’s a way we can help her.”

“I’m convinced there is.” Goodness spoke with utter confidence. “All we may need to do is pull a few strings. That shouldn’t be so difficult.”

Mercy smiled. “We’ve been doing that for years, haven’t we?”

“Maybe we should make it impossible for Jenny to refuse her mother.”

Mercy looked to the former guardian angel. “What do you mean?”

Shirley pointed to the Thanksgiving card tucked in Jenny’s bedroom mirror. “Perhaps all we really need to do is give her a good enough excuse to head home.”

Six

Jenny didn’t want to do it. Her heart ached every time she thought about refusing her mother’s plea. The list of fabricated excuses was as long as her arm.

She waited until she had the apartment to herself and then sat down at the table. She bolstered herself with a cup of hot chocolate and a plate of butter cookies. With pen in hand, she wrote.

Dearest Mom and Dad,

You don’t know how it pains me to tell you I won’t make it home for the holidays. I love you both more than words can say. I think of you every day. Know that my heart will be with you, but this is the price of success. . . .

Jenny wadded up the letter and unceremoniously tossed it into the garbage. She tried again, and after six or seven lines the second sheet followed the path of the first.

A half hour later, the table was nearly obliterated with discarded attempts. It hadn’t been this difficult to answer Trey’s card. Her brief note to her former neighbor had been cheerful and witty when she’d sent along her regrets.

Anyone who knew her well might have been able to read between the lines of her lighthearted message. But not Trey, she decided. Her witty note would amuse him.

In the end, Jenny penned three short lines to her parents and left it at that. She couldn’t come. She was sorry, and she’d miss them terribly.

Not once did she mention the Off Broadway production she’d told them she was in. Jenny refused to perpetrate the lie any further than she had already.

By the time Michelle returned from her errands, Jenny was in a real funk. Depressed and miserable, she battled off a case of the blues, determined not to get caught in the trap of feeling sorry for herself.

“You know what we need?” her friend said.

“What?”

“A little fun. It’s the season of joy, and yet here we are, moping around waiting for the phone to ring.” Their agent hadn’t called, and Jenny didn’t care what people said. No news was not good news. No news was no news. And this time the waiting had never seemed more interminable.