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Jennifer Youngblood

Christmas in Comfort (Ebook)

Christmas in Comfort (Ebook)

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📚Read an Excerpt


Almost time. I bring my hands together and glance at the clock on the microwave—five fifty-one p.m. Hayden should arrive at six. I turn my attention to the table setting. The floral centerpiece looks nice. My gaze moves to the pair of milky-white candles perched in silver candlesticks. The one on my left is slightly crooked. I step forward and adjust it. There. Perfect.

You know that moment when all aspects of the universe shift into place, and you finally get everything you’ve ever wanted? That’s how I feel tonight. My high school graduation went off without a hitch. Now Hayden and I can turn our sights to the future.

To think, my plan actually worked. Way back in junior high, I joined the track team so that I could have a closer association with my biggest crush—Hayden Morelli. I only lasted a month in track before dropping out. However, it was long enough to catch Hayden’s eye. Now, years later, here we are. I love it when a plan comes together!

I smooth a hand over the bodice of my new sapphire dress that I bought for tonight’s occasion. I hope Hayden likes it. I grin picturing his reaction when he learns that we’ll be eating pizza by candlelight. I did make a salad to go with it. That was a lot for me. Cooking is sooo not my thing.

The doorbell rings, sending me into a flurry. I fluff up my hair and moisten my lips. My pulse thumps against my neck like a fat-footed rabbit. I chuckle at myself for getting so worked up. That’s how it is with Hayden—all sparks and dynamite. Straightening my shoulders, I force myself to go at a normal pace through the hall and living room. When I reach the door, I pause with my hand on the knob and suck in a quick breath.

“Hello,” I say brightly as I throw open the door. My smile drops when I see Hayden’s jeans and t-shirt. I’ve been talking about our special dinner for weeks. Surely he didn’t forget. No, of course he didn’t. He’s here. Irritation prickles down my spine. Good grief, the least he could’ve done was to throw on a collared shirt.

His gaze flicks over me. “You look beautiful.”

“Thanks,” I murmur demurely, my eyelashes brushing against my cheeks. Maybe I can forgive him for not dressing up. After all, he looks fabulous in everything that he wears. I trace the outline of his wide shoulders, appreciating the definition of his cut biceps.

An awkward silence passes. Whoa! What the heck? We don’t normally have awkward silences between us. I search his handsome face, noting the faint shadows beneath his eyes. Hayden has these piercing blue-gray eyes that have the power to see straight into the center of my soul.

Everything about him lights my cells on fire. Hayden was my first crush. My first everything. There’s a sadness about him that tightens my stomach. My throat constricts to the size of a coffee straw. “What’s wrong?”

He motions past me. “Let’s go inside.”

“Sure.” I move back to let him enter. He steps in, closing the door behind him. Hayden loves to banter and joke. He’s rarely ever serious. Whatever this is must be a doozy. “Is your mom okay?” I squeak. Hayden’s mom had breast cancer. After going through chemo and radiation, she’s cancer free. While Hayden doesn’t talk a lot about it, I can tell that he lives in constant fear of the cancer returning.


“Is your dad okay?”

He nods.

My brain starts at the top and prepares to go through the list of Hayden’s siblings. “What about Luke?”

He gives me a funny look. “He’s good. Why do you ask?”

Odd reaction. Hayden almost sounded offended that I would ask about his older brother. “Are your other siblings okay?” Hayden has five siblings. Being an only child, I’ve always appreciated and have been a little envious of the hustle and bustle that comes from a big family.

“Everyone’s fine,” he clips.

I rock back. Bumbling bumblebees! What’s his deal? “You’re acting so strange. I just want to know what’s going on,” I harrumph.

His jaw tightens. “We need to talk.”

Sucking in a quick breath, I let it out slowly and make a conscious effort to remove the angst from my tone. Tonight is supposed to be dreamy. Where is this funky tension coming from?

“Okay. Dinner’s ready.” I jut my thumb toward the kitchen as I force a chuckle. “I can’t promise you how good the salad will be, but the pizza will be amazing. Compliments of Life by the Slice, of course.” My voice is high pitched. A dead giveaway that I’m trying too hard. My words come faster. “You know Mom and her cooking. I wanted a supreme, but she insisted on making your favorite—chicken ranch.”
I roll my eyes mimicking Mom, “Whatever Hayden wants, Hayden gets.”

“Mom thinks you’re the greatest thing since buttered biscuits. Let’s hope she never has to pick between me and you because if she did … well, let’s just hope it never comes to that.” I figured my attempt at humor would at least earn me a courtesy smile, but it seems to have sunk Hayden deeper into his gloom.

Putting aside my frustration over his strange behavior, I step up to him and cup his jaw in my palm. My voice goes soft and imploring as I search his face. “Hey. What’s wrong?” What is it that he’s not telling me? Normally, I can reach him, but there’s some sort of wall between us tonight that I can’t seem to scale. A dart of panic shoots through me when his eyes darken with anguish. “Tell me,” I demand, my voice going hoarse.

This isn’t us. We don’t have secrets between us. Hayden is my other half—the very air that I breathe. Whatever this is … I refuse to let it come between us.

Taking his face in my hands, I pull him close. I can feel his surprise as my lips move coaxingly against his. He allows me to take the lead, stoking the flame until it burns bright and hot, licking through my blood and infusing me with a pulsing energy.

The wall between us crumbles as he pulls me into his arms with a forcible movement. His lips are demanding as he deepens the kiss. I meet him measure for measure, holding nothing back. My spirit tumbles and soars, secure in the knowledge that Hayden is mine as surely as I’m his. When we pull back, our chests rise and fall in rapid succession, and my heart pounds like a rock band.

“I love you,” I utter.

He blinks as if coming out of a daze. Then, his eyes narrow. It’s at that moment I realize with a stab of alarm that the wall is back up—stronger than before. Confusion slams through me when he releases my waist and backs away.

“I can’t do this,” he mutters.

“Do what?”

“This. It’s over.”

It’s not just the words, but how he speaks them with such finality that whooshes the air out of my lungs. The floor falls out from underneath me as I stumble. “W—what do you mean?” Tears spring to my eyes. “I don’t understand.” This isn’t happening, my mind screams.

He gives me a look filled with such agony that it tears my heart to pieces. “I’m sorry.”

Anger flares through me with the force of a blowtorch. “What’re you saying?” I nearly shout.

He shakes his head as he turns on his heel, marches to the door, throws it open, and storms out.

For a second, I’m frozen. Then, I force my feet into action as I run after him. “Hayden,” I scream. “Stop! Please.”

He doesn’t even look back.

Hurt throbs through my body. Then, a sob breaks through my throat as my knees buckle.

Just like that, my entire world implodes.

Will a fresh start bring two searching hearts back together or will the hurts of the past destroy any chance for happiness?

Three years after the untimely death of her husband, Caroline and her teenage son are struggling to find their new normal. When an accident leaves her mother incapacitated, Caroline must move back home to Comfort, Alabama a few weeks before Christmas to run the family pizza restaurant.

Cooking is sooo not Caroline’s thing. To make matters worse, Hayden Morelli is back in town. Not only did Hayden break her heart, but the situation has gotten far more complicated—Hayden is her former brother-in-law and her son’s uncle.

There’s no way Caroline can open up her heart to Hayden again! Or can she? Is it possible to learn to trust again? Or to find love after loss?

If you enjoy the heartfelt tradition of Debbie Macomber and the magic of Hallmark then USA Today Bestselling Author Jennifer Youngblood invites you to travel home to Comfort where you’ll discover the power that comes from family connections and rekindling love.

Once you enter the town limits of Comfort, you’ll never want to leave.

Read the First Chapter

Chapter 1

Mom always says that life is like pizza … it’s much more enjoyable if you take it by the slice.

You have your dough, which is your foundational years. The sauce is all the sticky stuff that we might not always like, but it holds everything together and adds the spice. The cheese is the good stuff we can’t live without. As for the toppings … well, we can choose to heap them on or opt for none at all.

You’re a responsible adult, I remind myself. You agreed to go on the stupid date, so you need to see it through. A picture of my old fourth grade class flashes through my mind, and I see my former students.

I can’t count the number of times that I lectured them on the importance of being responsible. Back then, I was so certain of my words—smug even. My Pinterest-perfect life was neatly wrapped in a designer paper of my choosing and tied with a stylish bow.

I had a happy marriage, a beautiful house in the suburbs, and a rambunctious but adorable son. The future was spread gloriously before me like one of those feel-good movies where, although you expect to encounter a few minor bumps and hiccups along the way, the predictable happily ever after is a guarantee.

How could I have guessed, several years later, my world would be turned upside down? I only thought I was living a romantic comedy when I was actually living a tragedy.

Everything changed the day that my husband Luke died. I went into survival mode, and my respectful son grew into a headstrong teenager who finds trouble as surely as conditioner follows shampoo. I never thought I’d be dating again at the age of thirty-six. I suppose dating is a loose term. You have to actually follow through with an actual date to label it dating.

I don’t know why I let Mom talk me into going on another blind date. Am I a glutton for punishment? I guess part of me hopes that maybe this time, I can muster up the intestinal fortitude to stick around and get to know the guy instead of bolting. I used to roll my eyes when watching Julia Roberts in Runaway Bride. I was like, leaping lizards woman, either make a decision or cut the poor guy loose.

Now, I understand all too well the brokenness that Julia’s character felt.

I pull into the parking lot of the upscale Italian restaurant and turn off the engine. My hands are oozing sticky perspiration. Gross! I’m such a wreck. My heart feels like it’s two steps away from galloping out of my chest. The frantic clopping reminds me of one of those old Westerns where the horses run full speed like they’re coming off the screen and charging the audience.

I take in a long breath, willing myself to get a grip. It’s just dinner. I don’t know why I’m freaking out. I shift my focus to the stately brick exterior of the restaurant. I haven’t eaten here before, but I’ve heard good things about it. My date has expensive taste. I glance down at my coat, thinking of the black pants and cream sweater beneath it. I should’ve dressed a little nicer. Between subbing today at the elementary school and ordering Dakota a pizza for dinner while making sure he did his homework; I didn’t have much time to get ready.

Panic blitzes through me as I search my brain. What is my date’s name? I knew it before leaving the house, but it’s like my brain has taken flight right out of my skull. Jack? Or is it John?

With shaky hands, I reach into my purse to retrieve my phone so I can check my texts. I scroll through the thread. No mention of the guy’s name. Mom has tried to get me to download the dating app to my phone, but I didn’t want to bother with it. I figured looking at the site on my computer was sufficient. Now I’m wishing that I’d listened to Mom so I could check my account and look up the guy’s name. Hot needles prickle over me. Is it Joe or Jeff?

My phone buzzes. It’s Mom. Swift relief pours over me. Thank the stars above! I can get Mom to log into my account and look up the guy’s name. After all, it was Mom who got me into this mess. Unbeknownst to me, she set up my account and profile on an online dating site. She didn’t breathe a word about what she’d done until I started getting matches. When I balked, she put me on a guilt trip saying that it was time I got back in the saddle. I told her that I’m not the horse riding type, thank you very much, but no matter how hard I blustered and fussed, Mom kept pestering. I swear the woman could disarm an assassin with her lethal tongue. So, here I am.

“Hello,” Mom breathes, her voice husky with eager anticipation. “Where are you?”

“I just pulled into the parking lot of the restaurant.”

“Oh, good.” A touch of concern sounds in her voice. “What’s Dakota up to tonight?”

“Just hanging out at home.” He wanted to invite a few friends over, but I told him no way. Having a house full of unsupervised fifteen and sixteen year olds is a recipe for disaster, especially if those kids are anything like Dakota. It irks me that Dakota would have the audacity to ask if he could have friends over. He’s in so much hot water that he’s lucky I even let him use his phone or leave the house for anything other than going to school.

“I’ll call and check on him after I get off the phone with you,” Mom assures me.

“Thanks, that sounds good.” Dakota has been more of a pill than normal. Last week, he had words with his science teacher. I got called in for a parent teacher conference and was informed that Dakota hasn’t been handing in his assignments. If he can’t or won’t get his grades up, he’ll be benched from the basketball team. Basketball is the only thing that Dakota seems to care about these days.

Hopefully, the threat of not playing will motivate him to step it up. I sure hope so because nothing else is working.
I get that Dakota is acting out because he lost his dad. However, it has been three years since Luke passed. Dakota can’t keep using the excuse of grief forever.

Neither can you, my inner voice asserts. I need a win tonight. I need to prove to myself that I can see the date through. I’ve only loved two men in my life … Luke was the second.

Mom keeps insisting that I need to find someone, not only for me, but also for Dakota. “He needs a male role model,” Mom keeps saying. I know she’s right, but it’s not like I can just snap my fingers and presto! The right guy will appear. Being a single mom is excruciatingly tough. I’m always falling short.

I tighten my hold on the cell phone as I pull my thoughts away from my shortcomings. “Hey, can you do me a favor?”


“Would you mind logging into my account and looking up the name of my date?”

Mom’s voice goes high in disbelief. “You don’t remember? Lickin’ licorice, Caroline, you’ve been texting back and forth with the guy for a week.”

Lickin’ licorice? That’s a new one. Mom loves her pseudo swear words. I suppose I do too. Like mother like daughter. I roll my eyes. “I’ve had a lot on my mind.” This was a mistake. I can feel it clear to my bones. Why did I agree to this? Why?!

“Caroline Quinn Morelli, what am I gonna do with you?”

I cringe at the disappointment in Mom’s voice. “I know it starts with a J,” I say lamely. My tongue darts over my parched lips. I applied lip balm over my lipstick before leaving the house, but it’s not working. I glance outside at the gray-cast sky. The frigid temperature isn’t helping matters. I can’t remember the last time it was this cold at the end of November. I would love to be home right now, sitting in front of a crackling fire and sipping herbal tea. A chill runs through me as I start the engine and blast the heater.

“It’s Jack,” Mom immediately fires back.

A shaky laugh leaves my throat. I really shouldn’t be surprised that Mom knows more about the guy than I do. “Maybe you should be the one going out with him,” I say dryly.

Mom’s silence lets me know that she’s not amused by my snarky attempt at humor.

“Jack,” I say aloud, committing the name to memory. It’s a solid, respectable name. Hopefully, the guy will be decent. It’s just dinner, I remind myself again. Jack was one of the half a dozen matches the dating site paired me with. Supposedly we’re compatible, for whatever that’s worth. So far, Jack is the only guy who has reached out to connect.

With any luck, I won’t hear from the other five. I know Mom means well, but I’m not ready to jump into the dating pool. I’m not sure if I ever will be. Life is stressful enough dealing with Dakota’s drama. Christmas is coming in a month. I don’t need to add a guy into the mix.

“What time is your date again?” Mom prompts.

“Six thirty.”

“Oh, wow. You got there early.” Mom’s voice goes peppy. “Maybe there’s hope for you yet.”

I glance at the clock on the dash. It’s two minutes after six. My arriving early has more to do with my anxiety than anything else. “I wasn’t sure how long it would take to get here with the holiday traffic,” I say defensively. I don’t want to come across as over anxious, so it’s better not to go into the restaurant until right before six thirty. I wanted some time to collect my thoughts, hence my getting here early. Life has been so busy lately that I need time to catch my breath.

Dakota and I went to Alabama this past weekend and spent Thanksgiving with Mom. I figured it was good to spend time with Mom while we could because with Dakota’s basketball season ramping up and the holidays, life will get even busier. Well, providing that Dakota is allowed to stay on the team. I sure hope he can get his grades up … for his sake and mine. I actually don’t mind life being busy. It helps keep my mind off my problems.

My neighbor, Anita, teaches high school English. She’s going on maternity leave and asked me to substitute her class. The assignment will last three months. I prefer subbing at elementary schools, but I don’t mind helping Anita out. Also, I’ve been contemplating going back to teaching full time. After Luke’s accident, I quit my job to stay home so I could be there for Dakota. Not that it seems to be helping. He’s determined to keep pushing me away.

My sub job starts on Monday. The one perk of subbing at the high school is that I’ll be with Dakota. He’s not happy about having his mom at the school, but he’ll get over it. Subbing will be a good way for me to keep an eye on Dakota to make sure he stays out of trouble. I’m considering hiring him a tutor for science and math. Hopefully, I can put some feelers out with the teachers to make sure and get someone good.

“Guess what?” Mom bubbles.

“What?” I ask dutifully.

“I got three tickets for me, you, and Dakota to see A Christmas Carol. I know how much you love that one.”

“I do. Where’s it playing?” I’m touched by Mom’s thoughtfulness.


“That sounds great. Thank you.” Dakota won’t be happy about attending a play, but I’ll enjoy it. Mobile is the closest large town to Comfort. I have wonderful memories of taking weekend getaways there when I was a kid.

“Maybe the play will help feed your imagination and get you writing again,” Mom suggests. “I was cleaning out the basement and came across a box with some of your short stories. You were quite good.”

“I don’t know about that.”

“I do,” she says with such conviction that I can’t help but grin.

“Aw, thanks, but as my mom, you have to say that.”

“No, I don’t,” she says practically. “You really should start writing again.”

I wrinkle my nose. “I’ll think about it,” I say evasively. Growing up, I aspired to become a writer. Then life happened, and it seemed more practical to go into teaching.

“It sure has been quiet here since y’all left,” Mom pouts. “This big ole’ house is silent as the morgue.”

My dad died when I was in college and Mom has never remarried. It’s ironic that she keeps hounding me to date when she never has. Mom tries hard to be positive, but I can tell that she’s lonely. Maybe that’s why she’s so adamant about me dating … so I won’t end up like her. I’m an only child, and now, like it or not, I’m following in Mom’s footsteps—a widow with one child. Dakota consumes my attention now, but one day he’ll become an adult with his own life, and then I’ll be left alone. A cold ball forms in my stomach. I can’t think about that right now. Dakota will be home for several more years, thankfully.

“Moving back home would be a great thing for Dakota,” Mom continues. “It would give you both a fresh start. You’re always saying how Dakota’s friends are a bad influence.”

“They are,” I punch out with conviction.

“Well, the best way for you to separate him from them is to move.”

“I guess,” I mumble.

“You could help me at the restaurant.”

“You know how helpless I am in the kitchen,” I quip with a dark chuckle. “I could burn water.”

“I can teach you how to cook.”

“That’s okay,” I say nonchalantly. Cooking has never been my thing. Even back when I was a teenager, I preferred to run the cash register and seat the patrons rather than work in the kitchen. Mom owns and runs Life by the Slice, a pizza place. It keeps her busy and helps stave off her despondency over missing Dad.

The last thing I want to do right now is open up the same worn-out conversation we’ve had numerous times. Mom has been trying to talk me into moving home to Comfort. I’ve tried to talk Mom into moving here to Sandy Springs, but she won’t have it. She grew up in Comfort and has no intention of leaving. Her restaurant is her life. Truth be told, a part of me is envious. I used to have so much passion for teaching, but when Luke died, I lost my zeal for nearly everything. The only thing that kept me going was knowing that I had to be there for Dakota. I’m certainly trying, but he’s determined to shut me out of his life. Maybe I should start writing again. That way, when he does eventually leave the nest, I’ll have something for me.

“When are y’all coming back into town?” Mom presses.

I smile thinking how we just got back from Comfort a few days ago. “Dakota’s last day of school is December sixteenth.”

“Is that on a Friday?”


“Will you head out that evening?” Mom asks eagerly.

It’s a six-hour drive from Sandy Springs, Georgia to Comfort. “We’ll probably wait until the following Tuesday or Wednesday to leave. Between my new subbing job and Dakota’s basketball schedule, I’ll need a few days to recoup and get packed.”

Mom lets out a long sigh. “I really wish you would consider moving back home. Dakota could work at the restaurant. It would be good for him … teach him some responsibility.”

“Yeah, I guess it would,” I say evasively. While I have fond memories of growing up in Comfort, I don’t want to move back there. Luke and I were happy here in Sandy Springs. I like the hustle and bustle of suburban life. Luke had a thriving medical practice. We had lots of friends, many of which I still keep in touch with.

“This is changing the subject, but guess what I heard through the Comfort grapevine?”

Hearing the juicy tone in Mom’s voice curls a grin over my lips. “What?” Mom loves her small-town gossip.

“Mr. Hargrove and his family are moving to Arkansas.”

I search my brain. “Mr. Hargrove? Who’s he?”

“David Hargrove,” Mom inserts with a hint of exasperation that suggests she can’t believe I don’t remember him. “He teaches history at the high school.”

“O—kay.” I still have no clue who Mom is talking about. It’s not like I keep up with the roster of teachers at Comfort High.

“His wife’s name is Sally.” Mom groans. “Come on, Caroline, you’ve got to remember Sally Pennington.”

A mild irritation taps down my spine. “Sure, I know Sally. I just wasn’t connecting the two.” Sally and I graduated high school the same year.

Mom rushes on. “Mr. Hargrove is telling everyone that he quit to take a better job, but word on the street is that he was fired.”

“Oh, wow.” Even though I don’t know Mr. Hargrove, I immediately feel a tug of sympathy for him and Sally.
“Maybe he’s trying to save face.”

“Probably. Here’s where it gets interesting …”

I hate to burst Mom’s bubble, but I’m really not all that interested in the happenings of Comfort High. However, I don’t want to be rude, so I hold my tongue.

“Are you ready for this?”

“Sure,” I punch out with more enthusiasm than I feel.

“A new history teacher has been hired. Any guesses as to who it is?”

“No, not really.”

The instant the words leave my mouth, Mom exclaims, “Hayden!”

The air whooshes out of my lungs. I gulp in a quick breath to recover. “Are you talking about Hayden Morelli?”

Mom laughs. “Of course. Who else?”

“Wow,” I utter, “that’s unexpected.” An image of Hayden flashes before my eyes, causing my heart to do strange things. I see the intensity of Hayden’s piercing smokey-blue eyes. His dark messy hair and rugged features. I’m unprepared for the longing that wafts through me. With that longing comes a hot stinging dart of guilt.

When I was married to Luke, I was so blissfully happy that I naively assumed my feelings for the younger, reckless Morelli brother had shifted safely into the friend zone where they would forever remain.

Hayden was my first love. The world was our oyster. I was going to write the Great American Novel. Hayden wanted a career in the military. We were going to travel the world together.

Then he went completely off script and broke up with me. Do you think he had the decency to tell me why? No siree. Not one word of an explanation. He joined the Navy and that was that.

How did I drown my sorrows? I made a life-size poster of Hayden and threw darts at it, drew horns on his head, added a mustache, scribbled over his face with a permanent marker. When that didn’t kill the pain, I ripped the poster off the wall and tore it into tiny bits.

Luke was my saving grace. He gave me a shoulder to cry on. Luke and I grew close, and our friendship turned into something more. I had always thought of Luke as Hayden’s older brother whose laces were tied a bit too tight for my taste. However, the more I matured, the more I came to appreciate Luke’s level-headedness. Luke chose a profession more conducive to family life. Whereas Hayden craved danger and wanted to make his mark on the world in a grand way, Luke was content to put Dakota and me first.

We settled into suburban life quite nicely. Luke was a wonderful father and husband. Tears prick my eyes as I blink fast to stay them. I would give anything to have Luke back … for us to be a family again.

“It’ll be so nice to have Hayden back in Comfort. I’ll bet Bela, Ari, and Liam will be thrilled to have their brother back home.”

“I’m sure,” I respond, noticing that Mom didn’t mention Marco—Hayden’s dad. Marco owns two Italian restaurants, one of which is located in Comfort. Mom has always considered herself to be in competition with Marco and his restaurants. However, truth be known, Marco’s restaurants are more upscale, serving a different clientele than Mom’s pizza place. I don’t dare say that out loud because Mom would be sorely offended. She thinks her pizza place is the greatest thing on the planet. It is tasty. However, it’s a mom and pop casual restaurant, not a fine dining establishment.

“Where is Rafe living now?”

“Charleston, South Carolina.”

“That’s right,” Mom says like her memory has been jogged.

“Is he still doing his YouTube channel with that Chasing fellow?” She pauses. “What’s the guy’s name?”

I search my memory. “I believe it’s Forge Chasing.”

“That sounds right,” she muses.

“I would think Rafe would still be doing his channel. It was a huge success. I haven’t watched anything of his in a while. You should ask Dakota. He loves Rafe’s videos.”

Mom grunts. “I don’t like the idea of Dakota watching all of those foolhardy videos. He doesn’t need his uncle putting crazy ideas in his head.”

I can’t argue with Mom there. However, Dakota watching Rafe’s YouTube channel is the least of my worries right now. Rafe is one of Hayden’s younger brothers. He followed in Hayden’s footsteps and became a Navy SEAL. He didn’t stay in the Navy as long as Hayden. After retiring from the SEALs, Rafe started a YouTube channel where he does stunts.

“I ran into Bela a couple months ago at the Piggly Wiggly,” Mom continues. “She was lamenting how that she rarely ever saw Hayden or Rafe with them living away from Comfort.” Her voice picks up its pace. “I’ll bet Bela is thrilled to have Hayden back home. Marco is a lucky fella to have nearly all of his kids back in town,” Mom says wistfully.

“I get what you’re doing … trying to make me feel guilty.”

“Is it working?”

“Not hardly,” I scoff.

“Oh, well. That doesn’t mean I can’t keep trying,” Mom sighs. Several beats of silence pass before she picks back up the conversation. “I take it that Bela has her hands full managing the restaurants now that Marco is busy with mayoral responsibilities?”

Amusement swirls in my chest. “You didn’t ask her when you ran into her at the grocery store?”

“Of course not. That would be poor form,” Mom harrumphs. “Like I was checking up on the competition.”

A smile stretches over my lips. Mom is something else. “She is running both restaurants. Things are going well.”

“Good,” Mom says a little too brightly. It’s kind of cute how territorial Mom is about her restaurant and the perceived competition from the Morelli’s.

Bela is seven years younger than me. I’ve always thought of her as the younger sister I never had. We talk on the phone every so often. I remember Bela saying that Hayden had gone back to school to get a teaching certificate after leaving the Navy, but it’s not like I keep up with him. I certainly never expected him to go back to Comfort. I’m surprised Bela didn’t say anything about it during our last phone call. Then again, why would she? Hayden and I are ancient history. The last time I saw him was at Luke’s funeral. He was sympathetic and kind, but we didn’t talk much. Both of us were too traumatized by Luke’s death to know how to act.

I’m still trying to figure out why I had such a strong reaction when Mom first mentioned that Hayden was back in Comfort. Grief is a strange beast. Maybe I’m feeling more inclined towards Hayden because I miss Luke so terribly. Yes, that has to be it. I’ve loved only two men—brothers—and I lost them both.

“You’d better get going,” Mom says, her voice going brisk.

“Yep, I guess so.” I glance at the clock on the dash as an army of butterflies fan my stomach. It’s showtime!

“Be yourself and have fun,” Mom chirps. “Remember … life is like pizza …”

“Much more enjoyable if you take it by the slice,” I finish with a roll of my eyes.

“You got it,” she chimes.

“Tonight is a slice I can do without. The things you get me into,” I mutter.

Mom laughs easily. “One day you’ll thank me.”

“Don’t count on it,” I snip.

“Call me in the morning to give a full report. Love you,” she coos.

“Love you too.” I end the call and drop my phone into my purse. I adjust the rearview mirror and peer into it, studying my reflection. My nerves are revved up to the point where I feel like I could puke.

I try to see myself as Jack will. Medium-brown, curly hair tipped with blonde highlights that falls just below my shoulders. My shaggy bangs are a tell-tale sign that I’m way overdue for a trim, and I could use a few more highlights. I stick out my lower lip and blow upward to remove the bangs from my eyes before turning my attention back to my reflection. I’ve always liked the flecks of gold in my brown eyes. A faint hint of freckles dust my slightly upturned nose.
I go back to my eyes. Luke always claimed they were my best feature, saying they were so expressive.

Do I have expressive eyes? I’ve never been great at hiding my emotions, so I guess Luke was right. For better or worse, my feelings are often plastered over my face like a billboard advertisement. I’ve been told that I look like the actress Jennifer Lopez with my high-boned cheeks. I consider that a compliment because I’ve always liked J. Lo.

I probably should’ve put on blush. I’m looking rather chalky—partly due to my state of mind and partly due to it being winter. Some time spent in the sun would do my skin wonders. Maybe I should plan a trip to the beach for Dakota and me during his spring break.

I’m getting off track here. I need to focus on the date. I take in a deep breath, berating myself for giving in to Mom’s demands. Everything in me wants to put the car in reverse, squeal out of the parking lot, and hightail it home. If I had to choose between a root canal and the prospect of sitting at a stuffy restaurant while trying to make polite conversation with some man I don’t know, I’d take the root canal every time. Heck, I’d even opt to do it without the happy juice.

Okay, time to stop wallowing in self-pity. As wonderful as the past was, I can’t keep living there. I need to move on with my life. Tonight is the first step. I turn off the engine as resolve fills me. I can do this! Maybe if I keep repeating the mantra long enough, I’ll start to believe it.

I reach for my purse, open the door, and get out. I gasp and fall back against the car when a gust of icy wind slaps me in the face. Bumbling bumblebees, it’s cold out here. I pull the tie of my coat tighter around me before locking the doors with the remote and dropping the keys into my purse. I should’ve worn a heavier coat. I tuck my chin into my neck, bracing myself against the frigid wind.

It’s all I can do to propel my feet forward, not because of the wind but because I’m freaking out. A prayer ripples through my mind. Please help me to get through the evening. I need a win. This isn’t as much about me connecting with Jack as it is about overcoming my trepidation.

I can’t run from this date the way I have the last three that well-meaning friends set me up on. I have to face this so I can move forward with my life. I loved Luke heart and soul and would give anything to have him back. However, wishing won’t make it so. I have a son to think about. Also, I’m tired of being alone.

The two large wreaths adorning the handsome wooden doors of the restaurant remind me that I need to put up my Christmas decorations. Normally, I get them up the day after Thanksgiving, but with us being gone to Alabama it didn’t happen. The past three Christmases have been brutal without Luke. Here’s hoping that this one is better. There’s a gaping hole in our family that neither Dakota nor myself knows how to fill.

I wish I knew a way to connect with my son. I don’t like the friction between us. Going to Comfort for Christmas will provide a good distraction. Comfort is known for its lavish Christmas celebrations.

When Dakota was younger, he enjoyed going to the library for story time and Christmas cookies. Also, he loved attending the tree lighting celebration where townsfolk gather and sing Christmas carols. And then Santa makes his grand appearance and hands out candy canes to the kids. Of course we won’t be home for the tree lighting as it takes place at the beginning of December. However, we can enjoy the other events which will be happening when we’re there. It might take some doing to get Dakota out to the events this year, but I’m up for the task.

In addition to spending time with Mom and me, Dakota will enjoy spending time with his Italian grandfather, aunts, and uncles on Luke’s side of the family. Marco Morelli is from a quaint town in Italy called Lucca. While on vacation in the US, he met Judy, a native to Comfort. The two of them got married and settled in Comfort. Marco opened his first restaurant in Mobile. When it became a smashing success, he opened a second location in Comfort.

Judy Morelli was a wonderful person. She welcomed me into her home with open arms—first when I dated Hayden, and then as her daughter-in-law when Luke and I got married. Judy fought cancer three times before eventually succumbing to the illness. Sadly, Dakota doesn’t remember his paternal grandmother. She died when Dakota was a baby.

My thoughts ping to Hayden. I still can’t believe that he’s teaching history at the high school. He’s the quintessential adventurer, never staying in one place long enough to put down roots. What will it be like to have Hayden in Comfort for Christmas? The anticipation that spritzes through my veins fills me with horror. Why am I drudging up old feelings for Hayden? That ship sailed a long time ago, and I need to let it stay gone.

The scent of zesty tomato sauce tingles my senses as I step into the foyer. A pretty hostess wearing a cordial smile greets me as I go over to the stand.

“Hello,” she begins.

“Hello.” I shift my feet as I think of how to approach this. “Um, my name is Caroline.” Duh! She doesn’t need to know your name, my brain inserts. Jack’s the one who made the reservation. Everything is most likely in his name. “I—I’m meeting Jack—”

Croaking crickets, I don’t know his last name. Why didn’t I think to ask Mom that little tidbit? My cheeks burn as I try to figure out how to navigate myself out of this pickle.

The girl’s smile widens in recognition. “Your party is here. He said you would be arriving soon.”

“G—great,” I stammer in weak relief.

She motions. “May I take your coat?”

“Sure.” I remove it and hand it over. She takes it to an adjoining room and returns a second later. “Right this way,” she says with a congenial smile.

Tightening my grip on my purse strap, I follow behind the hostess as she leads me into the restaurant. Opulence is the word that comes to mind as I glance around the space. I feel like I’ve traveled to old-world Italy. And yet, everything looks pristinely new.

The walls are done in an elaborate brown and gold floral and vine wallpaper. My gaze travels up to the ornate molding, gleaming milky white. Evenly spaced jeweled chandeliers add the crowning touch to the soft blue ceiling that’s washed with hints of gold.

I wonder what Marco and Bela Morelli would think of this restaurant? Their restaurants are equally impressive, though not as ostentatious. I suspect the real reason why Mom feels so competitive with Marco is because he’s an Italian serving Italian food. In Mom’s defense, it would be tough to compete with the real deal. Although Mom’s pizza is fantastic … in a down-home, American Southern way.

My eye pauses on a table where an older couple is dining. The man laughs as the woman touches his hand. My heart squeezes at the tender love they exude for one another. That’s how Luke and I would’ve been. We would’ve raised Dakota together and created decades of beautiful memories.

Tears moisten my eyes. Don’t lose it now, I command myself. The couple is dressed to the nines. Gah! I feel underdressed and dowdy in my sweater and plain pants.

What am I doing? I don’t belong here. My throat constricts, making it hard to get a good breath. Alarm zigzags through me like a summer electrical storm as I go dizzy.

I wind my hand around my purse strap as I look beyond the hostess to where Jack is seated in a cozy corner of the restaurant. I recognize him from the one picture I’ve seen online. He’s tall and wiry—an intellectual type whose hair is thinning on top. He’s not a bad looking guy. Certainly no Morelli. More of an average Joe.

Feeling my gaze, a friendly smile curves his lips. This is all wrong! My heart races to a sprint as a cold sweat breaks over my brow.

“Here we are,” the hostess says in a graceful tone as she motions at Jack.

Trembles run through my body and a roaring akin to an airplane propeller beats against my eardrums with a relentless whoosh, whoosh.

Jack scoots his chair back and moves to stand as the hostess turns to leave. My knees wobble, and then knock together as a single thought rips through my mind. Run!

“Hello,” Jack begins tentatively as I turn and flee the scene.

The next thing I know, I’m running smack dab into a waiter. He grunts in surprise as we topple to the floor. I hear the clanging of a platter followed by the breaking of glass. I feel the icky goo of food as it spills over my clothes. My body shaking all over, I stumble to my feet and grab my purse. Clutching it in both hands and holding it to my chest like it’s a shield of armor, I scamper away.

It’s not until I’m outside of the restaurant that I allow hot tears to spill down my cheeks. I look down at my clothes that are wet and sticky. Chills ripple over my flesh, reminding me that I forgot to get my coat from the hostess.

No way am I going back in there to face those people. I’ll come back later to get my coat. Or most likely, just leave it.

More than anything, I want to go home and forget this night ever happened.

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