Series: The 12 Loves of Christmas #3
Published by: Jelly Bean Press Co
Release Date: 11/28/2021
Contributors: Heather Tullis
Genre: Christmas Romance, Romance
It may take a Christmas miracle.
Taylor has more than enough on her hands right now running the family business, the huge Christmas festival the company hosts every year, and caring for her mom who is just out of surgery. When the college boyfriend who broke her heart suddenly shows up on her doorstep, she is not happy, especially when she learns Chris has moved to town and is her mother's physical therapist.
Chris isn't sure how to explain what really happened a decade earlier, but he hasn't been able to fully relegate Taylor to his past, no matter how much time or distance was between them. Moving to her home town is a risky decision, but Chris is hoping he and Taylor can get a Christmas miracle of their own.
Also in this series:
Rubber soles squeaked across parquet floors as Chris watched the twelve- and thirteen-year-old boys running down the basketball court, practicing their layups at the community center. The scent of sweat hung in the air like the summer fog hugging the coast even though the boys hadn’t been practicing long enough to smell yet.
Chris had come on as assistant coach the previous week as a favor to one of the center's administrators, but the head coach hadn’t arrived yet. After another few minutes, he checked his watch and wondered what was going on. He sent a second text message asking if Clark was okay. The practice had started nearly twenty minutes ago and while he knew what he was doing, trying to run herd on a bunch of boys was a little outside his scope of practice.
He tried to remember the name of the kid with the ball and came up short. “Hey, focus on where you want the ball to go all the way through the motion,” he called out in correction.
Why doesn’t the team roster include pictures? He looked at names on the team roster and then back to the kid, hoping he wouldn’t screw up. “Brian, right?”
The kid nodded and passed the ball to the next in line.
“That was better. Keep your focus.”
Brian got into line again with the others in his group and Chris turned his attention toward the second group of boys who were practicing layups at the other basket.
“Where’s the other coach?” one of the boys called out after his ball hit the board and bounced away.
Chris shrugged, but caught sight of the activities director, who was entering the room and heading his direction. Stan Reynolds smiled at him, but it looked a little forced. Stan’s wife, Stacie, was one of Chris’s physical therapy patients and the reason Chris had gotten sucked into this position to begin with.
“Looks good. You’ve got a good handle on this,” Stan said when he came to stand beside Chris.
“Yeah, I’m doing okay. I wish I knew where Clark was. He never showed up today.”
“Yeah, about that.”
Chris turned toward the other man, eyes narrowing. “What?”
“Clark called a little while ago and said his schedule has changed and he can’t coach after all. I tried to get out here to talk to you before the boys arrived, but I got caught on a phone call.”
“So you’re saying that now I’m the head coach?” That was not great news.
“Head and only, unless you can recruit some help. I’m tapped out and haven’t found an assistant coach for one of the other teams, either.”
“All right then.” Could he really handle the group of boys? He remembered being a kid that age and how much trouble you could get into in the blink of an eye. It didn’t matter that most of them were great kids who focused in and did the work…most of the time. It was a lot to handle, and the couple of boys who were more difficult to manage took a lot of extra attention.
As a case in point. “Lars, the ball is supposed to go through the hoop. This isn’t dodge ball.”
“Sorry, Coach.” The boy acknowledged his rogue maneuver with a grin, though the boy he’d thrown it at glared at him.
“So, if that’s everything, I’ll let you focus on work again.” Stan ducked out before Chris could formulate any response.
He’d taken the volunteer spot because he’d wanted to make a difference, to maybe give the kids a reason not to head down the idiotic road he’d taken at their ages. This would give him more of a chance to step up right?
He hoped he didn’t make things worse.
When he ended practice and had returned the balls to the closet where the equipment was kept, Chris pulled out his phone to check the message that had buzzed in his pocket during the last few minutes of class. A new patient had been added to his list with an appointment in the morning before she was released from rehab.
As a physical therapist, he mostly worked with patients from their homes, traveling around Dos Fuentes, Fort Bragg, and a few other small towns on the Northern California coast. However, he did sometimes meet with them in the hospital or rehab center the first time.
He noted the time he was scheduled to meet up with her in the morning before her release and calculated he would have just enough time to see her between patients.
And then he noticed the name. Linda Campbell. He’d overheard snippets about the woman after arriving in the area three weeks ago, though he’d only moved into his apartment the weekend before. When he heard she’d had knee surgery, he figured he would get her as a patient before too long, but it didn’t make the coming meeting less awkward. Or the one that would follow with her eldest daughter.
He reminded himself that he’d come to town for a reason, and it was about time he started working on it.
When he got into his car, he pulled out the tablet he used for work and checked the patient’s file. Linda’s emergency contacts were Taylor Campbell and Jill Campbell. Would he run into Taylor at one of the appointments, or would he need to orchestrate a meeting? And how would he explain why he had stopped contacting her nearly a decade earlier?
Taylor arrived at ten o’clock to pick up her mom from the rehab center. It had been a rough two weeks for Linda since her surgery, but she was finally able to get around enough on her own to go home. Not that she would be alone there.
Before coming to pick up her mom, Taylor had moved into her house for the next little while. Linda would still be alone for much of the day, but Taylor would be there when she wasn’t at work, plus Campbell Hot Springs and Spa—the family business her mom had semi-retired from and that Taylor and her sister Jill ran now—was less than a mile from the family home. They could easily pop over to check on her during the day as needed.
The rehab staff bustled through the halls and Taylor made her way past people in wheelchairs and resting in beds to the far-too familiar room at the end of the west hall. “Hey, Mom, you about ready to bust out of here?”
Linda smiled. “Oh yeah. My new PT has already been here to meet me and talk with my current one about my progress and they’re finishing up the paperwork now.”
“I guess that’s good.” Taylor was glad she didn’t have to watch her mom struggle through physical therapy appointments. It was bad enough seeing her in pain when she wasn’t working to heal. Thankfully, it was obvious the therapy was working already since she was being released a few days earlier than expected.
They got through the release paperwork and directions from the nurse and Taylor hurried out to get the car before the nurse pushed her mom out in the wheelchair.
When they were pulling away from the curb a few minutes later, Taylor dropped the bomb, carefully focusing on the road instead of on her mom. “So, I moved into the house with you this morning. Plus, I checked on the chickens and fed them.”
“You didn’t have to move in.”
“I know you like your independence, but I agree with the doctor. You’re not ready to be completely alone yet. You’ll have most of the day to yourself, but that’s no reason not to have a little extra help if you need it in the mornings and evenings.”
“Like you and Jill won’t check in on me all day long.”
“Isn’t it great to be loved?” Taylor pulled onto the main road and shifted to the right lane so she could make the turn in a couple blocks.
“I do appreciate your willingness to help me. I just don’t want you feeling like you have to be my babysitter.”
“I’m leaving that to your three French hens and Petunia.” By this she meant her mom’s pet cat and trio of hens. Faverolles—a French breed that she had purchased from a private breeder up the coast. Linda had the coop and pen built in the perfect place to watch them from the family room window. She was a little obsessed.
“They can be nosy.”
“Yes, they can. But I doubt they’ll criticize you for pushing yourself too hard, so you’ll probably survive.” Taylor worried about her mom, but she did her best to keep the tone upbeat instead of stressing them both out. She wondered if she was being at all effective in the attempt.
Linda was officially still the head of the family business, which had started out as a therapeutic hot springs business nearly two hundred years earlier with cabanas for changing clothes into what had been the long, drapey swimming costumes of the era. Today it included the original upper pools, plus lower pools that were cemented in, and a cooler temperature for families with smaller children. They had over a dozen cabins, each with hot tubs that used the spring water, and a day spa, which Jill oversaw. Taylor managed the day-to-day running of the springs and cabins, but her mom kept her hand in by reviewing contracts and promotions, consulting on major projects, and anything else that appealed to her. She generally let Jill and Taylor run things the way they wanted at this point, however, which made things much easier on them all.
They talked on the long drive home from Ukiah to the two-story monstrosity Taylor’s great grandpa had built for his wife a hundred years earlier. It was elegant and lovely with tidy gardens and mullioned windows. It was also a bear to heat and cool, and maintenance was no small thing.
They pulled into the garage and Taylor carried her mom’s things, staying close enough to help if asked, while trying valiantly not to hover, though she doubted she’d managed that last one. Petunia met them at the door—she’d been extra anxious for visitors since she’d been living in the home alone for two weeks.
When Linda was settled on the family room sofa with a remote, snacks, and drinks, Taylor didn’t think there was anything more to do—and she’d tried to come up with something, uncomfortable with leaving her mom home alone.
“You can go to work. I know you have a lot on your plate before the end of the day.”
“Fridays are always a bit of a bear,” Taylor acknowledged, but she could do some of the work from home, if she needed to.
“I’ll be fine here. If I need anything I’ll call. I promise.” Linda’s reassurance made no change on Taylor’s anxiety.
Not having any reasonable alternative, she nodded. “Jill will come home for lunch today. She’ll bring you something to eat and help you to the bathroom or whatever you need.”
“Thank you. Now go.”
Taylor chuckled and said goodbye. This wasn’t going to work if she couldn’t trust her mom to be alone for an hour or two at a time. She had already missed nearly half a day’s work, but she could bring the extra home with her to do after dinner.
Linda had tripped on the stairs and messed up her knee two months earlier, necessitating surgery. It had taken forever to get her on the OR schedule, but the repairs were finally made. Taylor wondered often if her mom’s injury would have been less severe if she hadn’t been stuck on the cold floor for nearly two hours before someone came home and helped her. Though the doctor had said no, since she had been late to pick her mom up that night, Taylor couldn’t help feeing responsible. She tucked away the guilt for the hundredth time and headed to work. Second guessing her actions would drive her crazy. At least everything would get back to normal soon.
Taylor was a woman on a mission the next Monday. She hurried down the stairs of her mom’s house with her purse in hand. Getting everything ready for her mom that morning had taken more time than she’d planned on. Petunia, Linda’s calico cat, cried out for attention and Taylor leaned over to run a hand down the feline’s back as she rubbed up against Taylor’s leg.
“She’s always looking for attention,” Linda said.
“You’re sure you’re ready to be left here alone?” Taylor asked, though they had already canvassed this question. With the electric wheelchair they had picked up on Saturday, Linda was getting around just fine, but Taylor worried anyway.
“You have to get out of here before I kick you out,” Linda said. “I don’t need to be mother-henned every minute of every day.”
“I know. I know.” She did, but Taylor still worried. Sure, the physical therapist was due any moment, and her aunt would be by at lunchtime to hang out for a while. And Taylor’s sister, Jill, would probably swing by in the afternoon.
Okay, so maybe her mom did have it all under control. “Fine, I’ll stop buzzing around you. You know how to reach me if you need anything. You promise to keep your cell phone handy so you can call for help.”
Taylor couldn’t quite forget finding her mom injured. Nightmares about it happening again kept coming back. “Okay, fine, I’m leaving. Have a good day.”
Taylor grabbed her jacket on her way to the garage but stopped when the doorbell rang.
“That’s probably the physical therapist. He’s such a handsome young man.” Her mom had mentioned him a few times since meeting him, hinting not so subtly that both of her daughters were far too single. Though she didn’t harp constantly like some mothers Taylor knew, Linda Campbell wasn’t the least conflicted about whether or not she wanted her daughters to settle down with “a nice young man.” Linda had been a widow for a dozen years with no apparent interest in dating again, but she was all about her daughters getting out and finding Mr. Right.
After some of the experiences she’d had, Taylor had given up on such a man even existing.
“I’ll let him in.” At least then when she told her mom she wasn’t interested, Linda wouldn’t be able to say that she hadn’t even met the man yet.
Taylor moved through the house to the large foyer with its glistening chandelier to open one of the double doors that fronted the building. Taylor couldn’t imagine her mom selling it.
She opened the door and smiled in greeting until her hazel eyes met slate blue ones. Very familiar slate blue eyes. Her smile fell as she stared at the man standing on her porch. Was she seeing things? “Chris?”
He flashed her a grin. “Hi, Taylor. It’s been a while.”
Her first reaction was relief and joy that he was alive after she had worried and wondered about what had happened to him for years. She pulled him into a tight hug, clinging to him for a long moment. “I wondered if you were dead. What brought you by after all these years?”
“I’m sorry I worried you.” He held her back tightly, his familiar embrace and the same woodsy after shave he had favored before clung to him.
Taylor pulled back after a long moment, sliding from the embrace to look at him. Now that the shock had hit and was starting to dissipate, the first wash of pleasure moved past, and other emotions started to surface. His tone had been so casual, and his smile was relieved. “Why did you come here?”
“I missed you.” Chris paused and his expression shifted to uncertainty. “And I’m your mom’s new physical therapist.” He wore a blue polo shirt with a company logo on the left side that indicated he worked in health care.
She wondered how she had missed the outfit when she opened the door. Whatever air had been in her sails a moment earlier disappeared. “I’m celebrating that you’re alive, and you’re really here to take care of my mom.” Even now he hadn’t come for her. It figured.
“So, you really thought I might be dead?”
“What was I supposed to think when you just disappeared and stopped answering any phone calls.” It had been years, but the pain and worry flashed back as if it was only a few weeks after he hadn’t returned from spring break.
He looked sincerely repentant. “I’m sorry, I should have found some way to let you know.”
Those words hit her like a body blow, knocking out what remained of her surprise. She pulled her hands away and took another step back. “Right. Because I’m sure it was so hard for you to pick up the phone or shoot me an email. Obviously, it would have been too taxing for you to answer one of the dozens of text messages I sent or to return any of my phone calls.” Angry all over again, she shoved his shoulder. “I didn’t even know where your grandparents lived or what their names were so I could ask about you.”
He caught her hand as she moved to push him again and clasped it in his warm, gentle ones. “I’m sorry about that. Things were a little crazy, and well, I don’t have any excuse. You’re right, I totally messed up, and I’m really sorry about that.”
She wasn’t sure if she wanted to believe him or not. “What are you doing here?” For the first time her gaze moved away from his angled face and strong jaw and she removed her hand from his.
“I’m your mom’s new physical therapist.” He stood with his arms hanging lamely by his sides. “I’m really sorry you had to wait and wonder.”
Could she believe him? This was the guy who whined incessantly about their biology homework and then pulled a Houdini days before their group project was due.
“Is that Chris?” Linda came through the dining room and into the foyer. “Well, let the man in. Don’t make him stand on the doorstep all day.”
Taylor stared at her mom in surprise. He really was here for her mom’s PT. Seeing her mom’s raised brow, she realized how close they were standing and took a big step back.
“Come on, Taylor, you know you want to let me in,” Chris cajoled.
Cajoled. Yes. This was the same Chris, all right. Taylor stepped back and let him into the house, though as he moved past her, she muttered loud enough for his ears only, “You’re lucky I didn’t shut the door in your face.”
Though she was running late and had to get to work so she could prepare for the staff meeting that morning, Taylor followed Chris back through to the family room where the treadmill and hand weights lived.
“This space will be perfect,” he said as he set down the gym bag he’d carried in. The stretchy material of his pants pulled over his very fine butt as he leaned over to unzip the bag and Taylor had to make herself turn away. She caught her mom’s knowing smile.
“Mom, did Chris mention that we knew each other already?” Taylor asked. She had told her family about the guy over spring break, of course—things had been so promising, that first blush of young love and stars in her eyes. Though they had known each other all semester, they had been practically inseparable for the three weeks leading up to spring break.
Surprise registered. “No, he didn’t. Has he been to the springs? I thought he said he hadn’t.”
“No, he hasn’t, as far as I know. We met in college.” They’d see how inviting Linda was when she realized who he really was.
“We did,” Chris said. “We were study buddies in biology class.”
Study buddies? She had thought they were so much more than that.
Linda’s eyes widened as she made the connection and she looked at Chris again with curiosity and then back at her daughter, as if in confirmation.
Taylor nodded decisively. So now they were all on the same page.
Chris pulled a few things from his bag that she couldn’t identify. He looked at Taylor. “I always felt bad about leaving you high and dry like that.”
“Sure, you did.” Because someone who felt bad would keep that to himself and never call or write. That was his idea of friendship, apparently. “I guess I better get to work; I’m running behind.”
“I’ll take good care of her. You can relax.”
“Thanks for your permission. You better take good care of her. I don’t disappear so easily.” She turned and stalked out of room, through the kitchen and to the garage for her car. Fuming. She hadn’t been this angry since the day she realized he wasn’t returning to school after spring break, and they would fail their big project if they didn’t pull an all-nighter. Not that the extra time had helped their grades much. Anger, pain, embarrassment, shame. It all piled on Taylor as she tried to focus on the steep, winding roads on the way to Campbell Hot Springs, the springs that Dos Fuentes had been built around and named for two hundred years earlier.
She passed her cousin Quinn, who was up in a boom on his landscaping truck, hanging Christmas lights, and they exchanged waves. Thanksgiving was creeping up on them in two weeks, and there was enough work to go around. More than.
Still, she seethed her way through parking the car, greeting everyone she crossed in the offices, and behind her closed door. She seethed on the way-back burner as she held the weekly meeting and thought she had managed to keep it all down out of sight.
Until Jill followed her into her office after the meeting. “All right, what gives? Something’s bothering you.”
Like she’d ever been able to pull one over on Jill. Taylor set down the notes she had taken in the meeting and gestured for Jill to close the door to the small but tidy space.
Jill did so and took the seat across the desk from Taylor. “What is it?”
“Chris Harris.” She waited while Jill tried to place the name. When she didn’t seem to catch the connection, Taylor continued. “College biology class.”
“Oh, right. The fink you were in love with. What about him?”
“He’s mom’s new physical therapist. He waltzed right into her house as if everything was fine and the past was the past without so much as a mention of it.” Okay, a half a mention of it. At least he had acknowledged she had a right to shut the door in his face. That was too little and far, far too late, though.
“Wait, I didn’t think he lived around here anymore.”
“Who knows? Just because I haven’t seen him in nearly a decade doesn’t mean he hasn’t been living in Fort Bragg or Ukiah for most of that time. I just, man,” Taylor let out a huff and fisted her hands on the desk. “I want to strangle the man. I thought that whole situation was an annoyance well in my past until there he was standing on her doorstep, as if everything was perfectly normal. He didn’t even seem surprised to see me.”
“And you left this guy with Mom?”
“It was that or smash my fist into his face.” She hadn’t hit anyone since second grade when Vance Braun tried to kiss Katelyn behind the berm at recess. He had gotten a fat lip and she had gotten detention. After what Chris had put her through, he would deserve a fat lip.
“It has been a long time since I’ve seen this side of you,” Jill said.
True enough, Taylor had a nasty temper, and she did her best to avoid giving in to it, but today she was on the verge of losing her carefully learned control. “It’s been a long time since I felt this way.”
“Then now would not be the day to talk to you about the festival?”
The Campbell Hot Springs and Spa resort had been holding a Christmas festival every year since long before Taylor was born. The company and other donors paid all the expenses and all of the income went to various charities around town that helped people in need. It was the biggest project of the year, without question. “What about it?”
“I pulled the plan from Tara’s old desk to see if we needed to follow up on anything before the new PR person starts next week.” Jill opened the folder in her hands and set it on Taylor’s desk so she could look over it.
Taylor flipped through the few pages quickly. “Um, this isn’t a plan. It’s a doodle.”
“Tell me about it.”
“There has to be notes on the system from last year,” Taylor said as she flipped further into the paperwork.
“Yeah, you’d think so, but what I can find isn’t all that detailed. I added the printouts to the folder.”
It was practically empty, just a few papers from the previous years, notes they had given the PR person after the previous year’s event to consider while putting together the one this year. “I’m starting to see why she quit before Christmas.”
“We should have fired her months ago.” Jill ran the day spa end of the business and the PR manager handled the social media, print, radio, and other promotions for the springs, the spa, and the rental cabins they had on site.
“I know.” Taylor had been putting off firing Tara because it had been so hard to fill the position with someone reasonably qualified. Not that Tara had fulfilled even that minimal bar in the past six months. “At least we have Anna coming. She’ll be great.”
“Are you really going to dump this mess on her weeks before she has to pull it all off without a little more prep?” Jill asked.
Taylor slumped. As if her week hadn’t already started out too crappy for words. “No. I’ll write up some more notes and directions, at least give her a good place to start.”
“Good. After you finish, shoot it back to me and I’ll see if there’s anything extra I can add.” Jill stood.
“You could take it first, you know.”
“I could if you didn’t want it looked at for the next two days. We have that wedding booked and the whole bridal party is coming in for facials and mani-pedis and basically everything else we offer. I have my hands full.”
Taylor slumped in her chair. “You’re right. Fine, I’ll take care of it. You make sure those women go out of there dancing and singing. Otherwise, Daisy Albrecht is going to be very unhappy. Mostly because they’ve been pains in her butt and she recommended your illustrious services.”
“We are the best spa around.”
“You’re the only spa around.”
Jill grinned. “That’s because we’re so amazing no one else has a chance to make a spa work.” She blew onto her knuckles and shined them off on her shirt.
“Go on, get out of here before I thrust this extra work back on you.”
“Gone.” Jill followed suit.
And so was any free time Taylor expected to have this week. She set the folder on the side of her desk and reached for the to-do list that she had already compiled that morning. Time to rearrange her weekly goals.