Title: Pining for Christmas
Published by: Jelly Bean Press, Co
Release Date: 11/30/2022
Contributors: Heather Tullis
Pages: 212
ISBN13: 978-1-63034-111-4
ASIN: B0BLPB1NKM

A Christmas tree farm with a hot single dad for the holidays? Yes, please!

I’ve always loved my family’s tree farm and after years apart I couldn't wait to surprise my family by coming home for the holidays! Showing up un-announced seemed like a good idea, until I ran into a few issues.

Problem #1:

They failed to mention this would be our last Christmas on the farm, because my high school crush, who is working there now, is buying it in January

Problem #2:

Said crush is a newly single dad and I’m just as attracted to him as I ever was. Not to mention his adorable daughter has me wrapped around her finger from her first candy cane coated kiss.

Problem #3.

When my sister suggested a competition between me and Cameron, my stubborn perfectionism had me falling right in line. I guess my competitive streak is just as long and wide as it was before.

Problem #4:

I've got a job and a life outside of Christmas tree farms and snow-covered mountains. So, with only six weeks to say goodbye, why is Cameron the only thing I can think about? When these pine trees remind me of both my past and the man who could be my future, it's going to be harder than I thought to keep my mind and my heart focused where it matters.

But is that my family and the home I grew up in? Or Cameron, the man I've been pining for all these years.

 

One

A LIGHT SNOW FELL, JOINING THE THIN LAYER ALREADY ON the pavement as Mackenzie maneuvered her rental car up and down the hills leading to her hometown. It had been years since she’d driven in snow—at least three since she had been home for the holidays. She passed the wooden sign announcing that she was entering the city of Sugar Creek, Vermont, population 30,406. She slowed the car at the lovely, old covered bridge as hundreds of childhood memories rushed into her mind.

She drove through town, noticing a few of the street light decorations had been updated since her last Christmas here, and took the road past the train depot out to her family home, located on the Sweet Pines Christmas Tree Farm.

Mackenzie wondered again if she should have told her parents she was coming instead of springing it on them. Perhaps, but she couldn’t wait to see the look of surprise in her mom’s eyes.

Anticipation thrummed through her as she turned left onto her family farm, driving past the large space that had been cleared with a wooden railing separating the parking area from the pre-cut tree sales area. The snow fell lightly on the car as she pulled around to the family parking spaces near the kitchen door at the back of the house. She grinned as she saw a figure hauling Christmas-colored totes from the back of the farm’s blue pickup truck—no doubt the lights for the annual sledding party the next Saturday. It took only a second for her to realize the figure was too tall and lanky to be her father, but all she could see were his legs and the top of a baseball cap until he set the totes on a table.

Definitely not her dad. The man was probably mid to late thirties, dark haired with a scruff of beard growth. Wow, he was hot! It took several seconds for her to realize she knew him because she had not expected to see him here.

No way. No. Way.

Cameron Navarro was the most clueless idiot she’d ever had the displeasure to know—and she worked in Hollywood, so she knew her idiots. Surely her dad didn’t hire him. Wasn’t he some hot-shot engineer now? Why would he be working on a farm after working so hard in college to escape his family farm? Not that she’d kept tabs on him or anything, but their parents were close, so she heard things sometimes—whether she wanted to or not.

A smile spread across that sickeningly handsome face when she slid into an empty parking spot not twenty feet from where he was working. By the time she opened the door, he was already coming around to the driver's side of her rental car.

“Hey, Mac. Haven’t seen you in a few years.”

He was the only person who had called her that. Once upon a time she had actually liked it. She automatically responded with her nickname for him before she could stop herself, “Cam.” When she stepped out onto the snow, Mackenzie was grateful she still had a pair of winter boots left from high school. She did her best to look unsurprised and unaffected by his presence. She took in a lungful of the beautiful Vermont air and smelled the pine fragrance that had always meant home to her.

“I didn’t know you were coming home,” Cameron said as he walked over.

She almost made a snide comment about her parents keeping a lot of secrets—for example, his presence—but since even her parents had no idea she was coming home, and it would be easy enough for him to find that out, it wasn’t worth the effort. “Spur of the moment decision.”

“I’m sure your parents will be glad to have you here for Thanksgiving. Your mom is inside. Your dad is out doing tree stuff.” He waved toward the rows of trees that stood like a vast arm across the land, some inter-planted with the honeyberries and lingonberries that provided summer and fall harvests.

“Thanks.” She wrangled her two large suitcases out of the back seat, and started dragging them toward the house. The gravel and new snow did not make an ideal rolling surface.

“Whoa, how long are you planning to stay? A year?” he asked.

“Not quite.” Mackenzie wanted her parents to be the first to learn about her plans.

“Need a hand?” Cameron asked.

“I’ve got them. Thanks.” Of course, as soon as the words were out of her mouth, one of the suitcases got caught up on a larger rock, and she had to tug, causing her feet to slide a couple inches in the snow and nearly landing her on her butt before she got her balance back.

“You always were stubborn,” Cameron said as he picked up the larger suitcase and hauled it onto the back stairs as if it weighed only a few pounds. It had been very near the max weight allowed at the airport.

“It’s part of my charm,” Mackenzie ground out, trying not to snap at him. She could tell herself that it was the long flight, the endless drive, and hunger, but she knew better. He had annoyed her beyond words since they were teenagers, even without trying. They had made a game of annoying each other all through high school despite the fact that they had been friends for years before that.

Cameron grinned. “Right, your charm is overwhelming.” He reached out and grabbed the second suitcase that she had been about to pull up the two stairs, depositing it near the first one. “Good to see you again.”

“I’m sure it is.” Just because he had big farmer’s biceps, and she had wimpy computer nerd biceps didn’t mean he had to be smug.

“I’m sure I’ll see you around.” He headed back to the totes he’d been carrying.

Mackenzie maneuvered her suitcases inside, making a mental note to avoid him as much as possible. It even smelled like home—the scent of something baking in the oven, the cinnamon in it wafting toward her. Her mom loved classical music, and Debussy streamed from the sound system that piped all over the main floor. Though the farm already wore its holiday finery—tree sales had kicked off the previous weekend, as per usual—Christmas decor inside the house wouldn’t be set up until after Thanksgiving dinner, continuing for several days. It would be their busiest Christmas-tree-selling weekend of the year.

“Honey, could you come help me with this?” Her mom’s voice came from the other side of the island.

Mackenzie came around the cabinets, grinning. “I sure can. What do you need?”

Pat Vandenberg looked up from the island cupboard she had been peeking into. She sucked in a breath of surprise. “Mackenzie! I swear, I never expected! You came!” She gave up on trying to form sentences as they crossed to each other, hugging tightly.

“You didn’t tell us you were coming. How long have you known?” Pat asked.

Mackenzie squeezed her tight, desperately glad to be home. “About a day.”

“How long can you stay?” Pat asked, pulling back far enough to see her face. “You look exhausted.

“I am, and I’m staying until the end of December. Missy and her new boyfriend are vacationing in Europe with his family, and can you believe they didn’t want me tagging along?” Mackenzie joked. “She said I could work remotely until New Year’s Eve.”

“I’m so glad she let you could come home,” Patricia said. “We have over a month with you! That’s wonderful. Tell me everything.”

“You needed a hand with something?” Mackenzie gestured to the cabinet door that was still open.

“Oh, yes. Your dad put away my stand mixer after I finished with it this morning, but he didn’t think about how much more baking I have to do this afternoon.”

“Let me get it.” Mackenzie pulled the stand mixer out of its spot in a lower cabinet. It was heavier than she remembered. “I don’t know why you haven’t put a drawer in here to make accessing this easier.”

“Oh, well, I’m so used to it now,” Pat said with a wave of her hand, “and I don’t use it that often anymore. It’s just that Thanksgiving is in two days, and we have all those pie orders, plus the rolls and other Thanksgiving food.”

“I know, and a thousand other things to do,” Mackenzie agreed. She was looking forward to helping her mom make dozens of her famous lingonberry pies—something dozens of locals pre-ordered for Thanksgiving. “Let me take my stuff upstairs and I’ll be right back to help.” She grabbed her luggage and thought of her laptop bag out in the car. She would grab that later. When Cameron wasn’t standing close enough to tease her about how much she had packed. Five weeks at home required more than one suitcase, especially since she had so many Christmas gifts to bring with her.

She was almost to her bedroom door when her mom called up the stairs, “I forgot to tell you, you’ll have to use Holly’s old room.”

Mackenzie came to a stop at her old bedroom, which was bursting with more than a dozen bins and boxes—some with a thrift store’s name scrawled on the side in black marker, others marked “Keep Storage.” “I see.” Except it was odd that her mom would be digging through personal items at their busiest time of year. How long had the room looked like this? She had been home for a visit that summer.

“I’ve been using your room to sort out a few things when I have extra time. It’s amazing how much we’ve accumulated over the decades.”

“I’m sure it is. And I didn’t exactly give you notice that I was coming home,” Mackenzie added in disappointment. Not that she had a right to be upset about what they did with her old bedroom. Her mom was right—living on the opposite side of the country meant she only made it home once or twice a year. She had met her family in New York City for nearly a week the previous spring, and had flown her parents out to California for a tour of Hollywood and a couple of days at amusement parks, but she had only been home twice since her last Christmas here.

Pat explained, “Holly’s room has clean sheets on the bed. I changed them after your Uncle Rob visited last month.”

“It’s fine.” But it didn’t feel fine as Mackenzie rolled her bags to the next room. She had been looking forward to everything being the same as always, but already Cameron Navarro was here and her room wasn’t available. She shook it off, deciding to make the most of it. If she helped her mom with the boxes, maybe she could move into her room the next week. “I am a grown woman who can deal with minor disappointments,” she muttered to herself as she tucked the luggage in the corner by the dresser. This room didn’t have her usual view of the farm, with its big expanse of Christmas trees, but it was a little bigger than hers with nice morning light.

Mackenzie flicked back the curtains and looked down at where Cameron was stringing Edison lights around the large fire pit they would use on the sledding night. That was different, too. They used to have large-bulbed, colored Christmas lights strung around the seating area. She wondered when they had changed to the new style. She wondered how he had ended up as a farm hand in his thirties. Why did she care anyway? They had been fierce competitors on the high school bowling team all four years, and he’d won the title in the end. It should have been hers. Would have been if Gina hadn’t screwed around with her ball. Gina had cost her more than a trophy.

But that was in the past and she wouldn’t let it ruin her holiday season at home.

Maybe it was stupid to hold a grudge after so long, but Mackenzie wasn’t done with it. And look at where they were now—Cameron was a farm hand, and she was a personal assistant to one of the hottest stars in the business. She knew all the movers and shakers. She had been to the Emmy Awards and Golden Globes. She had met hundreds of major stars, been backstage at The Tonight Show and Saturday Night Live.

And none of that really mattered—it was all surface, just her job. It had plenty of perks, but it also had plenty of drawbacks. Missy was a good boss, but dealing with wardrobe, directors, producers, studio execs, household issues, and still finding some kind of life balance was harder than she had ever expected.

Harder than either of them had expected, honestly. Missy struggled to find balance between her public persona and her real self, which was probably how she’d ended up dating Ryan, the co-star from the movie she had recently finished shooting. Mackenzie didn’t like him at all. He was nice enough to her, but she’d seen his snobby side more than once when he dealt with other people who were just doing their jobs.

But for now, aside from a few hours of work a day to deal with Missy’s business, she was going to have a long break to do what she wanted. To recenter herself. And hopefully, to figure out how to find better work/life balance going forward.

Cameron had nothing to do with any of that, though. He was her past, and maybe a small part of her present, definitely not her future.

Mackenzie let the curtain fall back into place. She had six weeks to find answers—and to make a lot of Christmas cookies and Thanksgiving pies with her mom. She heard the mixer start up and grinned. The holiday season was underway.

 

Two

CAMERON SWUNG BY THE BABYSITTER’S HOUSE ON HIS way home from work that evening to pick up Phyl. He hadn’t spoken with Mackenzie again that afternoon and was still trying to process seeing her again after so long. Her parents said she hadn’t been home for the holidays for years, so he hadn’t expected to see her anytime soon.

When they had been kids, they were friends, running around his family farm, or hers, bowling on kiddie teams, or bowling with their families. Their fathers had been tight since childhood, and he and Mackenzie followed suit. Somewhere along the way, that all changed. She pushed him away when their bowling competitions went from friendly family games to being on the high school’s team. Though he tried several times to figure out why she’d grown so distant, she never explained what was wrong.

Knowing he wouldn’t find answers that night, Cameron dismissed those questions from his mind as he knocked on the sitter’s front door.

Phyl opened it, her bright blue eyes and brown curls glowing with happiness. “Dad, you’re here!”

“I did think about leaving you here all night, but then I realized Whiskers would get lonely without you.” He scooped her up and set her on his hip as he went inside. The scents of meat, tomato sauce, and spices permeated the air, indicating spaghetti or maybe lasagna were on the family’s menu.

Phyl shot him a knowing look. “You wouldn’t leave me here all night.”

He tapped her nose with his index finger. “You’re right. I wouldn’t do that because you are my funny Phyl.” He emphasized the F sound, which made her roll her eyes.

“Well, your funny Phyl had a pretty good day,” Nancy said.

Cameron smiled at the redhead who had been two years ahead of him in school and now had six- and four-year-old sons. “Glad to hear it. You guys heading out tomorrow?”

“Yeah, we’ll be back Sunday night.” She looked worn out from the long day.

He pulled the check for that week’s babysitting from his pocket. “Have a good time.”

“Thanks, we will.” She slid the check into her back pocket without even looking at it.

Cameron set Phyl down. “Go get your boots on, munchkin. And clean up whatever you were playing with. We’re making cookies tonight if there’s time.”

“Cookies!” Phyl hurried off to the corner where she had apparently been playing with the miniature kitchen setup near the front window. She loved to cook.

“You heading to Burlington to see your folks?” Nancy asked.

“Not this time.” Cameron tucked his hands in his back pockets. “They decided to fly to Phoenix to spend Thanksgiving with Brock. He can’t break away from work long enough to come out here this winter. His surgical residency is crazy, and Dad said it would be a nice break from the snow.”

Nancy chuckled. “I bet. We’ve definitely been getting our share of it.”

The silence between them was starting to stretch into awkward when Phyl rushed back. “Done!”

Cameron looked at the kitchen set up. The dishes and fake food were piled haphazardly in their container on a nearby shelf, but it looked like they all made it inside. Good enough. “You must really want to make cookies. That was fast.” He snagged her coat from one of the pegs on the wall.

“Like the wind?” she asked.

“At least as good as a summer breeze,” he said.

“No, like a blizzard wind!” she insisted as she shrugged into the coat.

“Hmm, maybe like an incoming rainstorm,” Cameron teased.

Phyl sat on the floor to pull on her boots. “Dad!”

“I’m calling it like I see it.” This was a recurring joke between them, as she tried to get him to admit she was super fast at something.

When her boots were on, he scooped under her arms to help her stand and grabbed the pink sparkled backpack she carried almost everywhere. It held an extra set of clothes in case she got soaked playing in the snow, emergency medications in a small lock box, and a book or two for quiet time. Checking inside to ensure nothing important had been left behind, he slung it over his own shoulder. “Thanks, Nancy. See you next week. Have a good Thanksgiving.”

“See you!” Phyl chimed in as she turned the round doorknob with both hands.

“Bye. Drive safe. Happy Thanksgiving!” Nancy called as they exited.

Cameron lifted Phyl into the back seat of his truck.

“Can we do peanut butter cookies with chocolate chips? They’re my favorite,” Phyl asked as he buckled her in.

“I know. And yes, we can make them.” They were his favorite too, so it was no hardship.

On the drive home, Phyl told him about playing with Nancy’s youngest son, Kenneth, who attended the same preschool class three mornings a week. They had played in the snow, watched shows, and played what sounded like a dozen or more rousing games of Go Fish considering the number of stories it had generated.

After they unloaded their winter gear in their tiny two-bedroom apartment, and given Whiskers her deserved helping of petting, Cameron and Phyl headed for the kitchen.

“Pizza?” Phyl asked.

“Leftover taco meat. Do you want it with chips, with tortillas, or on a salad?” he asked.

Phyl’s mouth pursed and shifted from side to side as she considered. “Chips.”

Cameron nodded. “Chips it is. Right after you eat a salad.”

“Ah, Dad!” she complained.

“Or you can have taco salad.”

“Taco salad, I guess. Plus chips.” She turned on the tablet he kept in the kitchen and called up Christmas music.

“Done.” Cameron pulled the leftover spiced hamburger from the fridge and set the microwave to heat it at half power. He grabbed an apple and orange from the fruit basket and the apple slicer. He prepped the taco salads, apple slices, and some orange segments, plating everything up while she twirled in the empty space meant for a kitchen table.

Cameron hadn’t bothered to replace the one his ex had kept in the divorce. The apartment he’d moved into had an island with a small eat-in bar, so he’d bought bar stools instead. He’d worry about a real table after their next move.

“Set the dishes,” he said as he cleared away the apple core and orange peels.

Phyl danced over, like the ballerina she was at heart. “Cookies after?”

“If there’s time.”

She huffed. “You always say that.”

“Sometimes you dawdle, and then there’s no time.” He poured the milk and slid the taller of the two bar stools away from the bar for her. When she had finished setting the dishes at their places, he snagged her around the waist and lifted her onto her seat.

“What did you do today, Daddy?” she asked after a few bites.

“I put up lights for the sledding party,” he said, knowing she was excited to participate. “I cut a couple trees for a business, checked the pond to see if the ice is thick enough for the Zamboni—not quite yet—and worked on business stuff. You know what happened, though? Something you’ll never guess.”

“What?” She stabbed into her salad, lifting it to shove way more lettuce into her mouth than could handle at one time.

“Mrs. Vandenberg’s daughter came home.”

She chewed for several seconds and then spoke around the food in her mouth. “The doctor or the office lady?”

Cameron considered reminding her not to talk with her mouth full, but realized that would make dinner take twice as long and decided to skip it this time. “Neither. It’s Mackenzie. She’s the one who works for the movie star.”

“I don’t know her.” Phyl poked at more of her dinner, supremely unimpressed by Mackenzie’s job.

“I know, but you’ll get to meet her now. She’s staying until after Christmas.”

That caught Phyl’s attention. “For Thanksgiving too?”

“Yep.”

“Does she like to do snowball fights?” She turned, focusing on him instead of her food.

Cameron remembered one in particular when they were around twelve and smiled. “She used to. I guess we’ll see if she still does or not.”

“Mrs. Vandenberg said she would let me help make pies tomorrow,” Phyl said. “Lingberry, and honeyberry and maybe pumpkin too for Thanksgiving.”

“I know. And we’re making cookies tonight. It’s like a week of baking fun. If you finish eating in time,” he reminded her of the food on the plate in front of her.

“Oh yeah!” Phyl giggled and got back to eating. She was generally a good eater—when she didn’t get too distracted by other things.

The phone rang and Cameron glanced at the readout. Ellen, his ex. Since she rarely called solely to speak to their daughter, he wondered if she was trying to change visitation. Again. “Hello?”

“Cameron, glad you answered.” For a change was implied by her tone of voice.

“You got me. What do you need?”

“I have to go out of town this weekend for work. I won’t be able to take Anna for the weekend. We’re leaving tomorrow,” she said, as if she was saying she couldn’t pick up the dry cleaning.

He bristled at the fact that Ellen still refused to use his daughter’s preferred name. While he was always glad not to have to send Phyl away, she would be sad not to see her mom, who found reasons not to use her scheduled visitation far too often. Cameron wondered what he would do with Phyl as this would be an especially busy weekend at work, and he didn’t have anyone else to watch her. It was a good thing the Vandenberg’s never seemed to mind having her around, but he worried about her safety while he was cutting trees. She would definitely get tired of traipsing around the farm with people who were picking out their trees before they got halfway through the first day. “Would you like me to pass her the phone so you can tell her?”

“I really don’t have time to deal with it now. You can tell her. I’ll call on Thanksgiving, of course. Ciao.” She hung up.

Cameron seethed. Of course, she left him to deal with this. “Goodbye to you too,” he muttered.

“Who was that?” Phyl asked.

Determined not to say the very uncomplimentary things that were rolling through his mind, Cameron set down the phone. “Your mom. She only had a minute, so she couldn’t talk tonight. She said she had a business trip come up this weekend, so you get to stay with me and go to the city tree lighting.”

Phyl poked at some lettuce with her fork, thinking about that. “She doesn’t want to see me?”

“Of course, she wants to see you,” he lied, wishing it were the truth. “She loves you. It’s just that she has things to do for work.”

“You have work, but you still want to see me.” The fork rested in her hand on the countertop, limp with rejection.

Cameron slid back his stool and pulled her onto his lap. “But my job is much more Phyl friendly. Besides, I always want to see you. It makes me so happy that I get to keep you all weekend instead of having to be here alone while you’re with your mom.”

Phyl sat sideways on his lap and set her head on his shoulder. “She’s no fun, anyway.” Her frown said this comment was sour grapes, even though Ellen often dumped Phyl on her parents, spending only a few hours per weekend with her on the rare occasions when she followed through on visitation.

Cameron suspected Ellen only took Phyl when her parents demanded time with their granddaughter. It broke his heart every time she came back and said she’d barely seen her mom. “Am I fun?”

“Sometimes.” Her lips curled at the corner. “When we get to have pizza and watch My Little Pony.”

“Well, since we have extra time this week, we should definitely watch My Little Pony. And maybe we can fit some pizza into our schedule between the Thanksgiving leftovers.”

“K.” But Phyl stayed in the circle of his arms for nearly a minute before sitting up straight. “Can we make cookies now?”

Cameron eyed her still half-full plate. “Take three more bites of taco salad and finish your fruit, and then we’ll pull out the cookie ingredients.” He returned her to her stool.

“Okay.” She took the required bites with less enjoyment than before, but she ate enough to ensure she wouldn’t be filling up mostly on cookies tonight, and that would have to be good enough.

Even though it had been more than a year since the divorce finalized, Cameron still couldn’t understand how his marriage had gone from what he’d thought was good, to nonexistent. More than anything, he would never understand how Ellen had suddenly decided she didn’t care about being a mom when they had both anticipated their daughter’s birth with joy. He couldn’t help feeling that it was all somehow his fault and wondered what he could have done to make things work.

The music changed to a bright tune that had Phyl singing along, and Cameron focused back on the present. Right now, he had cookies to bake. Heaven help them both.