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Authors: Melody Carlson

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BOOK: The Gift of Christmas Present
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His eyes grew wide. “Cool.”

Soon she met the other child, a little girl named Casey. And despite their grandmother's less than favorable description, Christine thought they were sweet kids, even if they were fairly rambunctious. Casey had blond hair and blue eyes like her mother, while Jamie resembled his dad. And both children insisted on showing Christine their rooms. Maybe it was because she was the closest to their age group, or maybe they just assumed she was the babysitter. As it turned out, she spent more time with the kids than the adults, which was perfectly fine with her.

She sat next to Casey at dinner. The other guests consisted of Felicity's parents, Janet and George, and her newly married sister, Amber, and Amber's husband, Rick.

“Do you go to college here?” Amber asked.

“Yes. I'm a junior,” Christine said.

“I graduated from here,” Amber said. Then, more proudly, “But Rick went to Stanford.”

“I went to school here too,” Jimmy said. “It's a great place to go.”

“What was your major?” Christine asked, only because it seemed the conversation had come to a lull.

“Secondary education,” he said. “I'm a P.E. teacher at Edison High.”

“And a coach,” Felicity added.

“I'm majoring in education too,” Christine said. “Elementary ed.”

“Good grief,” Mrs. Daniels said with a frown. “You seemed like you were smarter than that to me. What's wrong with these young people wanting to waste their lives being teachers?” She seemed to direct this comment to Felicity's parents. “Don't young people care about making a good living anymore?”

“Thanks a lot, Mom,” Jimmy said. “But don't forget that my dad was in education and so were you.”


Upper
education,” Mrs. Daniels corrected him. “I was an English professor, and the head of my department before I retired. And don't forget that your father had his doctorate. As did my first husband.”

“And I'm sure they're terribly thankful about that now,” Jimmy teased.

Christine thought she saw her grandmother wince slightly at that.

“Sorry, Mom,” Jimmy said quickly. “I guess I'm just saying that everyone's got to do what makes them happy. Life isn't just about making money, you know.”

“My father's a teacher too,” Christine said quickly, hoping
to smooth over whatever had just transpired. “Actually, he retired from public school last spring. But he's volunteer teaching down in Brazil right now.”

Fortunately, that took the conversation into a whole new realm as Felicity's parents enthusiastically shared their latest trip to Mexico.

Soon dinner was over and it was time for the gifts to be opened. Naturally, all this attention for her older brother was upsetting to Casey, and before long she was in tears.

“It's been a long day,” Felicity explained, “and she never got her nap.”

“Would you like me to help her get ready for bed?” Christine offered.

Felicity looked surprised then relieved. “Would you?”

“Sure, if she doesn't mind.” She turned to look at the little girl's tear-streaked face. “Would you like to show me your room again, Casey? And where you keep your jammies?”

Casey nodded, and Christine took her hand and walked her up the stairs to her bedroom. It didn't take long before she was ready for bed, and although she looked pretty tired, Christine asked her if she'd like to hear a story.

“A book?” Casey's eyes grew wide as if this were a special treat.

“Yeah. Want me to read to you?”

She nodded and leaned back into her pillow, tugging a stuffed bunny closer to her. Christine took the bunny as a cue and picked out a rabbit story. Casey listened happily but was fast asleep before the story was half finished. Christine set the book down and pushed a stray blond
curl off the little girl's forehead. She knew this child was no relation to her, but she felt an inexplicable sense of kinship just now. Maybe it had to do with Christmastime or missing her father. Or maybe she was just longing for a family of her own, people who loved her and really belonged to her.

“How'd it go?” a male voice whispered from the hallway.

She looked up to see Jimmy with his son in his arms. “Good,” she told him. “Poor thing, she really was tired.”

“So's the birthday boy.”

Christine smiled. “Do you want me to put him to bed too?”

Jimmy shook his head. “I got it covered. Thanks though.”

So Christine went back downstairs to where the adults had gathered in the small living room.

“We're getting our Christmas tree tomorrow,” Felicity announced. “Jimmy doesn't like getting it before Jamie's birthday. But it always feels late with only a week left until Christmas. Most people have had their trees up for ages by now.”

“And you're still planning on having everyone over for Christmas Eve?” Janet asked. “It'll be quite a full house for you.”

Felicity sighed. “Well, you guys don't have much space since you scaled down to the condo and motor home. And Amber and Rick's apartment is pretty tiny. So I guess it's up to me.”

“Is Jimmy's aunt still planning to come?” Janet asked.

“What?” Mrs. Daniels looked somewhat shocked.

Christine studied her grandmother, curious as to why she would be upset by this news.

“Aunt Hattie,” Jimmy explained. “She wants to come visit during the holidays. She hasn't seen the kids in a couple of years.”

Mrs. Daniels groaned. “My, how time flies.”

Christine noticed Felicity nudging Jimmy with her elbow. It was a small gesture and probably not noticed by anyone else. But the expression on Felicity's face looked urgent.

Jimmy cleared his throat. “In fact . . . ,” he said, “we were wondering if you might be able to put the old girl up for a couple of days—”

“What?” Mrs. Daniels demanded.

Jimmy smiled hopefully. “Otherwise she'll have to sleep on the couch, and that's not very comfortable. You have so much room, Mom. Surely you could let bygones be bygones this one time. You know, you ladies aren't getting any younger. Besides that, it's Christmas.”

“You honestly think Hattie would be willing to stay at
my
house?” Mrs. Daniels narrowed her eyes. “You know that the last time we spoke was at your father's funeral.”

“People often say things they don't mean during times of grief,” Janet offered, obviously trying to smooth things over.

“I suppose Jimmy has told you the Aunt Hattie story,” Mrs. Daniels said in a droll tone. “I suppose the whole town knows the Aunt Hattie story.”

Christine wanted to raise her hand and say,
I don't
. But she wisely kept her peace, knowing it would look suspicious for Mrs. Daniels's housekeeper to be curious about
some estranged aunt. Just the same, she did wonder if this woman might be related to her.

“I told Felicity's family only so they could be prepared for any fireworks between you two.” Jimmy smiled at Christine now. “You probably wonder what on earth we're talking about, don't you?”

She shrugged. “Oh, that's all right.”

“Aunt Hattie is my dad's sister. And she said some things to my stepmom at his funeral that Mom's never forgiven her for.”

“That's enough,” Mrs. Daniels snapped.

“Please, Mom,” Jimmy pleaded. “Couldn't you consider having Aunt Hattie for a few days? I mean, she is Dad's sister. Doesn't she deserve a little respect for that?”

Mrs. Daniels rolled her eyes. “Fine. She can stay at my house. But she better not expect me to cater to her. I'm not exactly in tip-top form, you know.”

“But you have Christine,” Felicity said hopefully. “I'm sure she can do whatever it takes to help make Aunt Hattie feel welcome.”

“Of course,” Christine said. “That's no problem at all.”

“Any other surprise visitors you'd like to spring on me?” Mrs. Daniels glared at Jimmy.

He laughed. “No, Mom, that's it.”

“Now if I can just figure where we'll put everyone for the Christmas party,” Felicity said. It seemed an obvious hint.

Janet frowned. “That's too bad about your foot, Esther. Otherwise, you might want to have been able to host the gathering at your house.”

Christine glanced at Mrs. Daniels in time to see her bristle.

“Yes, it's a shame. But as you can see, I have difficulty doing much of anything these days. A Christmas get-together would be completely out of the question.”

“That is, unless you wanted to put me to work,” Christine offered. She instantly wondered what on earth had prompted her to make such a bold offer. She saw her grandmother's eyebrows lifting and knew she'd stepped way over the line this time. But after seeing how small Felicity and Jimmy's house was, she could almost understand their dilemma. “It was just an idea,” she said quietly.

“It's a great idea,” Felicity said with a bright smile. “And I would help with everything too.”

“Well, there you go,” Janet said with a twinkle in her eye. “Looks like you're fresh out of excuses, Esther.”

Mrs. Daniels scowled at Christine, but then to everyone's surprise she said, “Oh, I suppose I might as well give in. You're all ganging up against me anyway. But don't expect me to lift a finger.”

“Oh, you won't have to, Mom,” Felicity gushed. “Christine and I will handle everything. Won't we, Christine?”

Christine nodded, wondering what she'd gotten herself into. She hadn't really intended to coerce the old woman into opening up her home for the holidays. She knew it could totally backfire on her. But perhaps it had simply been her subconscious mind at work, making sure that she was included in this odd family during the holidays. Of course, she had no idea if they would even want her around. It seemed more than likely that they would simply expect her to play the role of housekeeper and then
make herself scarce. Well, whatever, she'd already stuck her foot in her mouth.

“I hope you know what you've gotten yourself into,” her grandmother said as they drove home.

“I'm so sorry, Mrs. Daniels,” she began. “It just slipped out. And if it makes you feel any better, I don't want you to pay me for anything I do to get ready for Felicity's party. I want it to be my gift.”

“First of all, I don't want you to keep calling me
Mrs
. Daniels. My students always called me
Professor
Daniels, and my friends just call me Esther. I've never been too fond of
Mrs
. Daniels, it sounds so matronly. Please, just call me Esther.”

“Well, okay.”

“And the second thing. I don't like hearing all this talk about not being paid. I am not a charity case, Christine. And I've never cheated anyone out of what is their just due. If you do a job well, you should be paid well.”

“What if I mess it up?”

Esther laughed, but it was her cynical laugh. “Then I suppose you'll get what you deserve.”

“That's what I'm afraid of,” Christine said in a quiet voice. So quiet that she suspected her grandmother hadn't even heard.

To her own surprise, Esther wished Christine was around to help her prepare for bed. Not that she'd had too much trouble with that lately. It had helped a great deal when Christine had started laying out her bed things, everything right where she could reach it after she sat down. Why, the girl even went to the effort of placing a glass of ice water on her bedside table, along with a pain pill on a little china saucer, just in case she needed it. Which she usually did not. Not only that, but the girl had even begun turning down her bed for her lately. Just like in a nice hotel. Next thing, she'd probably be putting a chocolate on her pillow. Esther chuckled to herself as she pulled on her pajama top.

And yet, despite all this good service, there was something about the girl that disturbed Esther. She couldn't quite put her finger on it. But something just didn't feel right. It was like the old adage “If it sounds too good to be true . . .” Somehow Esther suspected this might be the
case with this Christine Bradley. If that was her real name. One couldn't be too careful these days. She had just read about an elderly woman getting swindled in a bank deal. The old lady had been befriended by a young handyman who had worked for her a few days. After gaining her trust, he'd told her that his father was trying to transfer some money to him so he could rent an apartment, but the bank wouldn't accept the transfer unless he opened an account and deposited enough money to cover the transfer. Naturally, “enough money” had amounted to several thousand dollars. Several thousand dollars the poor old woman would never see again. People prey on the elderly, Esther reminded herself as she eased into bed.

Still, Christine didn't exactly seem like a scam artist to her. Although you can never be too sure, she told herself. Kids were sharp these days, and everyone has an angle. She just wished she could figure out what Christine's was. She seemed too smart of a girl to be stuck living in a college dorm during the holidays, then working as a housekeeper, of all things. Why, other kids her age were probably off doing exciting things like skiing in the mountains or sunning down in Florida or whatever it was that college kids did these days. More and more it seemed that young people had become a bit of a foreign commodity to her. The last young person to live in her home had been Lenore. And even she'd been something of a mystery. Then, to make matters worse, just consider what her own daughter had done to her. Well, maybe she'd better watch out for herself with Christine. Maybe she just shouldn't trust young people at all.

BOOK: The Gift of Christmas Present
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