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Authors: Melody Carlson

Tags: #Romance

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BOOK: The Gift of Christmas Present
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“Do you recall that I said you'll be required to work some evenings?” Mrs. Daniels asked on Friday morning.

“Yes,” Christine said as she helped Mrs. Daniels from the shower.

“Well, I need you to drive me over to my stepson's house. It's my grandson Jamie's birthday party this evening, and I promised to come. And, if you don't mind, you could just stick around and then take me home afterward. I know it's an inconvenience for you, but I don't plan to stay late. Naturally, I will pay you extra. I don't expect you to work for nothing.”

“It's okay,” Christine said as she carefully rebandaged the injured foot. “And you don't need to pay me extra. I'm glad to do it as a favor.”

“Nonsense.” Mrs. Daniels firmly shook her head. “How do you ever expect to get ahead in this world if you talk like that?”

“Money isn't everything,” Christine said as she finished
the last wrap and pinned it securely. She stood up and smiled. “But I'm sure you know that.”

She frowned. “Goodness, I hope you're not going to preach a sermon at me now.”

Christine shrugged as she gathered the wet towels. “Sorry, I'm not much of a preacher.”

Due to the festivities planned for the evening, Mrs. Daniels decided they would have a quiet day at home. They'd gone grocery shopping yesterday, and Mrs. Daniels was still learning how to use her new computer. Christine had started her out by teaching her how to play some of the card games so she could get comfortable with the keyboard and mouse, and later on today she'd show her how to cruise the Internet.

“Would you wrap Jamie's gift for me?” Mrs. Daniels said that afternoon. “There are wrapping things in that high cupboard in the laundry room.”

“I'd be happy to,” Christine said as she picked up the empty teacup from the side table she'd moved next to the new recliner. “I love wrapping gifts.”

Mrs. Daniels seemed to consider this as she picked up her book. “I used to enjoy wrapping gifts too. Then my daughter took over for me, and, well, I guess I never really did it much after that.”

Christine felt an unexpected tightness across her chest, almost as if someone had wrapped a wide leather belt there and then suddenly cinched it. It was the first time Mrs. Daniels had made any mention of a daughter.

“You have a daughter?” Christine said, hoping to sound only mildly interested.

Mrs. Daniels sighed. “I used to.”

“Oh.”

Mrs. Daniels pulled out the footrest and leaned back. “I think I'll rest now. You'd better take care of that gift. And see if you can find a birthday card. I keep a box in the second drawer down on my desk.”

It was obvious that Christine wasn't going to extract any other information about Lenore just now. So she went on her way and discovered a very nice selection of gift wrap and bows in the cupboard above the dryer. She suspected these items had been there for a long time. Maybe even back when Lenore lived here. Christine selected a blue and white paper with sailboats. It seemed boyish, even if it was a bit old-fashioned. Then she carefully wrapped the box, taking time to neatly fold under the seams and create a large red and white bow to go on top.
Not bad
, she thought as she carried it into the kitchen.

Next she went to the desk where she usually sorted and set the daily mail. She'd never opened a drawer before. To her, a desk seemed a private place, and something a person should never go snooping in. As instructed, she pulled open the second drawer down and saw embossed stationery and envelopes and stamps and even some postcards and pretty note cards. But no box of greeting cards. She decided to try the next drawer down. Surely, this couldn't be considered snooping. But that drawer revealed only some old, yellowed typing paper and notepads with the university logo on them. Maybe the box was in the bottom drawer. She felt slightly guilty as she tried the drawer. She knew she was looking for more than birthday cards now, but she couldn't stop herself. The drawer stuck at first, but with a harder pull it came open.

There, lying face down in the mostly empty drawer, was what appeared to be a framed photo. She knew she should close the drawer immediately, that she had definitely crossed over the line and this would be considered snooping, but it was too late. Glancing over her shoulder once, she picked up the frame, then turned it over and stared in astonishment.

The pretty brunette girl in the picture had to be Lenore. Christine had never seen a picture of her birth mother before (her father had explained that Lenore had claimed to be camera shy and never allowed them to take even one photo). Just the same, Christine instinctively knew this young woman had to be her birth mother. It was probably a high school graduation picture. And it wasn't so much that the woman in the photo looked like Christine, although she sensed a familiarity in the eyes. They were brown and big and had another quality she couldn't even be certain of. But everything else about the two young women seemed to be different. Where Lenore's hair was dark and straight, Christine's was auburn and much too wavy. Their faces were entirely different too. Lenore had a sweetly rounded face with a cute little nose, where Christine's face was more angular and her nose straight and narrow and, in her opinion, slightly too long. Not so unlike Mrs. Daniels's. Christine heard a sound and quickly replaced the photo, closed the stubborn drawer, then stood up with heart pounding fast.

She waited a full minute before she moved. Then, walking casually toward the living room, she prepared herself for Mrs. Daniels's accusations and questions. But the old woman was still asleep in her recliner, snoring peacefully.

Probably as an act of penance, Christine got out the mop and bucket and gave the kitchen floor a good cleaning. She felt guilty and nervous about her snooping, but at the same time she didn't completely regret it. Even though it was unsettling to look into the eyes of the woman who had birthed her, it seemed right too. After all, Lenore was her mother. Didn't she have every right to know what the young woman had looked like? She knew so little about her short and tragic life. Suddenly Christine felt hungry to know more. But how could she find anything out when her grandmother was so reluctant to talk? And how could she go around snooping and still live with herself?

Christine scrubbed hard as she considered ways to find things out and how she might get her grandmother to open up and talk about her daughter. She paused as she rinsed out the mop. When had she quit thinking of that old woman in there as “Mrs. Daniels” and begun considering her a grandmother? Perhaps it had to do with seeing the photo of Lenore. Or maybe Christine was actually becoming fond of the cranky old woman. Whatever it was, she decided not to think about it too much. She poured out the dirty mop water and turned to see the tile floor gleaming as a result of her energetic scrub down. Perhaps this would help cleanse her conscience a bit too.

It was almost five now and the time when she usually set out her grandmother's dinner and then said good-night and headed back to her dorm. But since she was taking Mrs. Daniels to the birthday party, she was unsure as to what she should do. After her mopping spree, she suddenly felt as if she really should run back to her dorm and change before the party, but then she wasn't sure what
time they needed to leave, or even how far away the house was. Why hadn't she thought of this sooner?

“What are you doing in there?” Mrs. Daniels called from the dining room.

Christine poked her head out of the swinging doors. “I just finished some mopping. Don't come in here though, the floor's still damp, you might slip.” She put the mop and bucket back in the laundry room closet and went back to check on her grandmother.

“Mopping?” the old woman said as she sat up straight in her chair.

“It looked like it needed it.”

“I suppose it did.”

“Do you want me to fix you a bite to eat before I leave?”

“Leave?” she looked alarmed. “Where are you going?”

“I thought maybe I could run back to my dorm and change before it's time to go.”

“But we should be leaving for the party in about twenty minutes, and I need you to help me change.”

“Well, do you want me to fix you something to eat, then?”

“Didn't I tell you it's a dinner party?”

“A dinner party for a seven-year-old?”

“Well, they had the kiddy party this afternoon,” she explained. “They always invite their grown-up friends and relatives over in the evening for another party.” She laughed in that cynical way. “Ensures the kids get more gifts that way.”

“Oh.”

So Christine stayed and helped Mrs. Daniels get dressed
in a pair of black knit pants and a burgundy velvet jacket. “You look really nice,” she told her when they were finally done.

Mrs. Daniels patted her hair. “Best I can do under the circumstances.” She frowned at Christine. “Is that what you're wearing?”

Christine looked down at her gray sweatshirt and jeans. “Well, I thought maybe I'd have time to go home and change, but then the party was earlier than I thought . . .”

“Well, it just won't do. Felicity is, shall we say, a bit of a snob.” She rolled her eyes. “She likes for people to dress and act right. Especially at her little parties. Now go in there and look in my closet. I'm sure my trousers would be too big for you, but see if you can find a different shirt to wear. Something that looks respectable. Choose whatever you like, I don't care.”

Christine tried not to show her displeasure at this task. The last thing she wanted to do right now was to don some fuddy-duddy old lady shirt. But she felt bad that she hadn't planned ahead better and decided that she should at least be cooperative. She hunted for a bit until she found a rust-colored turtleneck sweater that wasn't too bad. She held it out to show Mrs. Daniels, who was waiting comfortably in the easy chair by the window.

“How about this?”

“That should look good on you. Will go nicely with your hair.”

Christine went back into the closet and slipped it on to discover it was quite soft and cozy. She emerged with a self-conscious smile. “It fits okay.”

“Better than it fits me, I suspect.” Mrs. Daniels pushed
herself up from the chair and fumbled for her crutches. “In fact, you should just keep it. That color makes me look too sallow anyway. Something I don't need at this stage of life.” She chuckled. “I will say this for you though. For a girl without money, you certainly have good taste.”

“Huh?” Christine was walking behind her down the hallway.

“Cashmere,” Mrs. Daniels said. “Imported from France.”

Suddenly Christine felt terrible. “Oh, I'm sorry. You should've told me. I can't keep this, I'll go—”

“No. Like I said, the color does nothing for me. My late husband got that for me for Christmas one year when rust was all the rage.”

“Are you sure?”

“Positive.”

Mrs. Daniels stopped by the large coat closet by the door. “And while we're at it, there's a coat in there that you might like to have too. As I recall it went nicely with the sweater. Go ahead and open it. It's a suede jacket in a brownish gold tone that looks awful on me.”

Christine looked in the mostly empty coat closet, then spied a caramel-colored suede jacket behind a hooded rain parka. She pulled it out. “Is this it?”

“Yes. I've been meaning to give it away. Can't stand how it makes me look. Go ahead, try it on.”

Christine slipped on the jacket. The suede was so smooth that it felt like butter. And she suspected by the luxurious satin lining and fancy label that it must've been very expensive. “It's beautiful.”

“It's yours.” She looked at her watch. “We better go. Doesn't do to keep Felicity waiting.”

Christine almost felt like a princess as she drove Mrs. Daniels's Jaguar, dressed in the cashmere sweater and suede jacket. She wondered what Brianna, or even her dad, would think of her right now.

“That's the housing development,” Mrs. Daniels said. “Aspen Grove.”

Christine didn't say anything, but she was surprised. This didn't seem like a very impressive neighborhood for the way her grandmother had described Felicity. It was nice, of course, and probably much more expensive than the neighborhood Christine had grown up in. But even in the night, with only the streetlights to illuminate, all the houses appeared to look alike, and they were so close together it seemed like neighbors could reach out their windows and hold hands. Of course, she didn't mention this.

“You're here,” said a tall man as he opened the door wider. “Come on in, Mom. Is that your caregiver with you?”

“Housekeeper,” Mrs. Daniels corrected him in a stern voice.

“Let me help you,” he said as he tried to usher her inside.

“No, you just stay back, Jimmy. I can do this better on my own.”

“Getting pretty feisty with those crutches, aren't you?” He turned and winked at Christine. “She's a handful, isn't she?”

Christine wasn't quite sure how to respond. So she stuck out her hand and said, “Hi, I'm Christine Bradley.” She stopped herself from saying,
Lenore's long lost daughter
.

“Well, welcome to our humble abode, Christine. I'm Jimmy. I hear that you've already met my wife, Felicity, and—”

“Who's that?” asked a little boy peering out from behind his dad. He had curly red hair and was eyeing the large gift in Christine's hands.

“This is Christine,” Jimmy said. “And this is the birthday boy, Jamie.”

She smiled. “Hello, Jamie. Happy birthday. Kind of a bummer having a birthday so close to Christmas, isn't it?”

He grinned to reveal a missing tooth. “Yeah. Some people give you only one present and say that it's for both.”

“Well, this is for you from your grandma,” Christine said as she handed him the large box.

BOOK: The Gift of Christmas Present
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