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📚Read an Excerpt
📚Read an Excerpt
Two days before Christmas
The cool metal in his hands was a welcome contrast to the hot thoughts swirling in his head. He turned it over and over, noticing how lightweight it was. He rolled open the chamber and checked to make sure the bullet was there and then had to bite back the bile rising in his throat. Images came unbidden to his mind—sick children lying in hospital beds, their tearful mothers never leaving their sides. He thought of his own mother. How disappointed she would be if she could see him now, God rest her soul. He would give his healthy body to one of those sick kids if he could, but unfortunately it didn’t work that way.
His mind flitted to other things—driving to work in traffic; getting a soda from the vending machine at lunch; trying to pretend it was just another day, knowing all the while that it would be his last. He tried to imagine his co-workers when they heard the news. There would be confusion and pinched expressions. “To come to think of it, he has been a little sad,” they would say after the fact.
Isn’t that what everybody says when they learn that someone they know has taken their own life? “Then again, he never was the same afterwards … so withdrawn … so angry.”
His hands began to shake, and then cool precision took over. It would all be over soon. He wondered if it would hurt too terribly. With any luck, he wouldn’t feel a thing.
He lifted the pistol to his temple. His hand started shaking again. “Oh God, please forgive me,” he mumbled.
The doorbell rang.
He swallowed hard. Cocked the pistol.
The doorbell rang again.
He cursed and closed his eyes tight, willing himself to shut out all outside distractions.
The doorbell rang a third time. This time, it was followed by a hard knock.
He let his hand fall to his side. He was sweating profusely now and didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d had a visitor. He disengaged the pistol before placing it on his bedside table and then went to answer the door. Whoever it was had better have a good explanation!
He threw open the door, ready to jump down somebody’s throat, but no one was there. He was baffled at first, but then he looked down and saw the large box wrapped in red Christmas paper. He looked past the box and out into the night to where the sidewalk and street were empty. “Who are you?” he yelled into the darkness.
He stood looking at the box for one long minute before picking it up and taking it inside where he deposited it in the middle of the living room floor. He examined the package and was disappointed to learn that there weren’t any tags identifying the giver. There were various containers of Christmas cookies, nuts, popcorn, fruit, a large ham, a can of cranberry sauce, and a plastic container of stuffing. Underneath the food, he was surprised to see a winter coat, wool scarf, and matching hat. Someone had gone to a lot of trouble. The absurdity of the situation struck him as funny in light of the pistol resting on his bedside table. He could see the headlines now: Man shoots himself after receiving anonymous Christmas gift. If he went into the bedroom and finished what he’d begun right now, whoever had left this might feel responsible. As much as he wanted it all to be over, he couldn’t leave this dangling. He cursed and then kicked the now empty box across the room. Wait. There was something else still inside. He walked over and looked. A present the size of a shoebox was hidden underneath the tissue paper so that he’d not been able to see it before. Whereas the other items had been placed unwrapped in the box, this one was done in silver paper with an elaborate bow tied around it. He turned it over, examining it before carefully shaking it. The contents moved from side to side. He went to the couch and sat looking at the box on his lap, wondering again who it was from. He removed the bow, tore off the wrapping, and opened the box. When he saw what was inside, he was more confused than ever. It was a star, made out of various sizes of cut glass that shimmered when he held it up to the light. Judging by the cone that was attached, it was meant to go on top of a Christmas tree. One of the points of the star was broken, no doubt caused from when he’d kicked it across the room. He was about to put the star back into the box when he saw the envelope underneath. His heart picked up a notch. It had his name on it. Until this point, he’d been thinking that some do-gooder had randomly picked his house to do a charitable deed, but whoever this was knew his name. He opened the envelope and began to read:
We hope this package finds you well. We wanted to give you a few small items to let you know that you’re in our thoughts and prayers this Christmas season, but most importantly, we wanted to share the gift of the Christmas Star with you. It has special significance in our home, and we hope it’ll mean something to you.
On that most important of all nights in an event never to be forgotten.
The star was placed to point the way to the greatest gift the world was ever given.
A babe lying in a manger,
A mother kneeling by his side,
Some call it the North Star, but there are those who know its real name—the Christmas Star—given on that special night to light the way for all to see.
If you ever lose your way, look up to the Christmas Star—your friend in the night—the one that will give you sight.
You’ll never stray too far to catch sight of the star. If you look to it long enough, it will lend you strength to be that flicker in the night—guiding those around you.
So be fixed like the star and remember who you are.
No matter where you roam, it will always guide you home.
All you have to do is believe … and its peace from you will never leave.
A curious expression settled over his features, and he stared at the star and the paper as if they were alien relics from another planet. He felt something … something he’d not felt in a very long time. And it hurt! A single tear rolled down his cheek before landing on the paper. Memories from Christmases past rushed through his mind—sipping hot cocoa by a cozy fire, the fragrant smell of citrus and peppermint, the glow of friendship and warmth, the comfort of family. How dare these people—whoever they were—barge into his business with some drivel about a star! A searing rage cut through him. He crumbled up the paper and threw it across the room. Then he took the star and hurled it against the wall where it splintered into unrecognizable pieces. Having nothing else left on which to vent his anger, he fell to the floor and wept.
From USA Today Bestselling Author Jennifer Youngblood and Sandra Poole comes a romantic thriller that will having you sitting on the edge of your seat and feverishly turning the pages to get to the end.
🔥Find out why this is one of Jennifer's most popular books of all time!
Believe in miracles … believe in hope … believe in love.
It's Christmastime! Chancy Hamilton can’t bear the thought of spending the holidays without her late husband Max who died in a plane crash. When Chancy and her teenage son, Travis, have an argument, Travis storms out of the house and ends up in the wrong part of town where he is attacked by a group of thugs. When a homeless man comes to his rescue, he invites the man home to have a meal with his mom and little sister.
Gabe Jones is not like any other homeless man Chancy has ever seen—he’s confident, intelligent, and devastatingly handsome. Jake, Chancy’s boyfriend, takes an instant dislike to Gabe and warns Chancy to stay away from him. Nevertheless, their lives become intertwined, and Chancy is soon thrown into nightmarish events caused by a betrayal of trust and a chilling deception where nothing is as it seems, bringing a terrifying aftermath that threatens not only her but the lives of her children.
Read the First Chapter
Read the First Chapter
One year later …
Chancy raked her bangs away from her face with the side of her forefinger and put the last tray of Christmas cookie ornaments into the oven. She'd intended to skip the tradition this year, but when she told the kids, Travis had almost burst into tears. "That was one of Dad's favorite things to do," he exclaimed.
She turned to the counter and caught a glimpse of one of last year’s ornaments that had fallen out of the box. Tender emotions lingering just below the surface overflowed, sending tears streaming down her face. She picked up the ornament and examined it with shaky hands. Her breath came in short bursts, and she could feel an attack coming on. Experience had taught her that the harder she fought it, the worse it got, so she concentrated on letting the air fill her lungs. Breathe Chancy. Breathe Chancy. In through the mouth … out through the nose. She’d promised herself that she wouldn’t do this. It was all she could do to put on a happy face while doing normal tasks. Reliving old memories would do her in for sure. Even as she thought the words, the memories flowed like water gushing out of a faucet, and there didn’t seem to be a cut-off switch. Was it just last Christmas that they’d spent the holidays together? It seemed like a lifetime ago—a lifetime divided between when Max was here and then after. Everything had been so different last Christmas—so normal. If she’d known it was going to be their last Christmas with Max, she would’ve savored the small moments and would’ve spent less time shopping and fretting over the senseless details and more time on the things that mattered. She would’ve spent time doing the things that Max had wanted them to do together as a family.
Max had always insisted on helping her and the kids make salt dough ornaments even though she argued that it was cheaper and easier to just buy ornaments. His hands were so big. They always laughed at his clumsy attempts to paint bells and glue sprinkles on stars. Susie especially had given her dad a hard time last Christmas when he'd dropped the bell ornament she was now holding in her hand and broke off the top.
“Daddy, you ruined it,” Susie said, her eyes wide.
Max laughed and ruffled her hair. “No princess, it’s not ruined. We just gave it some personality.”
“Oh, Daddy.” A look of disgust came over her rosy face as she held up the ornament she was working on for his inspection. “Look, mine’s not broken,” she said with a touch of pride.
He reached for it. “Well, I can fix that.”
Her eyes went wide like she couldn’t believe he’d had the audacity to suggest such a thing. “No!” She jerked it back and squealed.
Max laughed and starting tickling Susie, which of course led to a tickling fest with him chasing her around the room and her giggling with glee. How Chancy missed the sound of Max’s easy laughter. It was one of the things she’d loved most about him. It had been a long time since they’d had laughter in the house. Too long.
She sat down on the bar stool, cupping the dough bell in her palm as if it were a precious stone. Their first Christmas without Max. She felt a twinge of horror, thinking about future Christmases, all strung together in a long black line that stretched so far in the distance that she couldn’t see the end of it.
The wind howled outside, sounding lonely and shrill. She’d been so caught up in the memories that she hadn’t realized how dark it had become. She looked out the window to where black sooty clouds were gathering. She shivered and glanced at the clock on the microwave. The kids were due home from school in twenty minutes or so. She had a fleeting thought that maybe she should check on Jill, but then again, Jill would never let anything like a simple snowstorm get in her way. Her younger sister by three years, Jill was the mother of four children—three girls and the caboose, Taylor, who was rowdier than all of his sisters put together. Logic would dictate that Chancy, as the older sister, would be the one who looked after Jill, but that was not the case. Jill had come to her rescue too many times to count—particularly after Max’s death. The wind picked up again, causing the windows to rattle. Chancy walked over and looked up at the sky, allowing herself to get lost in the swirling clouds above. It had been a day like today when Max died. February 16—just two days after Valentine’s Day. Max had taken his Cessna on a business trip to Denver and was on his way back to Salt Lake City when something went wrong. His plane went down, and he was killed.
It was a few hours later when Jill found Chancy, huddled in a fetal position and rocking back and forth near the base of the kitchen cabinets. Chancy didn’t remember much about the rest of February or March for that matter. Jill took things in her capable hands and somehow managed to stitch some normalcy back into their lives. As a matter of fact, she’d been living off of borrowed Jill power all year long. She only hoped it would last long enough to get her through Christmas.
“Mom, we’re home!” Travis’s voice echoed through the foyer.
Chancy put the ornament on the counter. She stood, grabbed a napkin, and blew her nose. “I’m in here,” she called, grabbing a sponge from the sink where she commenced scrubbing an imaginary spot on the immaculate kitchen counter.
Travis burst through the door and slung his overstuffed backpack on the desk in the kitchen. "Whoo-hoo! School’s out for the holidays!”
Chancy forced a smile and punched her fist through the air. “All right.”
He rushed past her and opened the fridge. “I’m starved.”
If only she had a dollar for every time she heard that. At fourteen, Travis was a bottomless pit when it came to food. He was tall and lanky like his dad but had a smattering of freckles across his nose like her. It wouldn’t be long before he looked exactly like Max with the same brown, compassionate eyes and unruly dark hair.
“What ya been up to?”
Chancy wiped her hands on a dishtowel. “I thought I’d get a head-start on baking the salt dough ornaments.”
He shrugged. “Cool.”
“She’s coming.” He rolled his eyes. “She and Taylor were fighting over some Lego toy, and Aunt Jill’s givin’ ‘em both a good talking to.”
Chancy shook her head. “Is Jill comin’ in?”
“Nah, Danielle’s late for piano lessons.” He pulled out the milk and took a long swig out of the carton.
Chancy put her hands on her hips. “Travis Maxwell Hamilton!”
He gave her a sheepish grin. “Sorry, Mom.”
She took the carton from him but couldn’t help but grin, and Travis saw her. She reached for a glass and poured the milk while he retrieved a plate from the cabinet and piled on three pieces of leftover pizza from the night before and put it in the microwave.
“You’re gonna ruin your appetite,” she said, knowing that was impossible these days.
“Nah!” He kissed her on the cheek. “Love you, Mom!” He glanced around the room, and she knew he was looking for the boxes he’d painstakingly searched out and dragged in this past week. “Where’d the boxes go? Did you put them in the garage? Those two that I found are perfect. I mean, we may have to all work together to drag them to the doorsteps. Even you and Susie will have to get out of the car and help with these, but that’s okay.”
Susie came bounding into the room with all of the exuberance of a normal six-year-old. Chancy gave her a big hug and ruffled the top of her hair. “How was school today, Sus?”
“Great! Miss Perkins let us eat doughnuts and watch Up instead of doing our math. And then I got this bag of Santa pencils.” She waved it in the air and grinned at the amazement of it all.
“Hey, speaking of the boxes, when are we gonna do Ding Dong Ditch?” Travis said, polishing off a piece of pizza.
Chancy swallowed hard, hearing the question she’d dreaded since the start of the holidays. Ding Dong Ditch was a tradition that Max had started. He’d given it that silly name, and it had stuck. Every year, they would scout out one or two needy families and decide what to get them. They would cut off the tops of large cardboard boxes and cover the remaining sides with Christmas wrapping paper before loading them full of the goods. Then they would haul the boxes to the designated doorsteps, ring the doorbell, and run like mad. In the old days, Chancy accompanied Max and Travis, but after Susie was born, she would sit in the car with her. It had been rewarding enough to hear the breathless excitement in Travis’s voice as he filled her in on the details of the escapade. “I don’t think we’re going to do it this year,” she said quietly.
“What?” Travis’s jaw went slack and he turned to face her. “Mom! It won’t be Christmas if we don’t do Ding Dong Ditch. You know what Dad always said. ‘We can't have Christmas until we've helped other people.’”
The longing on Travis’s face was almost enough to make her change her mind, but she just couldn’t! Not this year. It was too much. Too many painful memories. She shook her head. “Travis, please. I just don’t think I can do it now that your dad’s gone.”
Tears filled his eyes. She reached for him, but he balled his hands into fists and turned away from her.
She touched him on the back. “Honey, don’t act this way.”
“What’s wrong with Travis?” Susie said.
Travis spun around and faced her. “What’s wrong with me?” he yelled, his voice hoarse with emotion. “It’s not me! I’m the only one who has any sense in this freakin’ house.”
Susie’s eyes went wide and then she started to cry.
“Control your voice,” Chancy ordered.
Travis smirked and then took the plate of pizza and dumped the remaining piece in the garbage.
“Son, if you would just try to understand—”
“It’s you who doesn’t understand, Mom. You just don’t get it! What are we supposed to do? Stop living because Dad's gone?”
Tears blurred her vision. “Oh, Travis, I—”
He stormed out the backdoor, slamming it behind him before she could get out the rest.
* * *
Travis didn’t know how long he’d walked blindly down the sidewalks. His one thought was to get as far away from his mother and the situation as he possibly could. He glanced up at the dark, smoky clouds that looked like their bottoms were about to split open. It was funny how a few weeks could make such a difference in the weather. A puff of cold wind shot a chill through him, and he pulled the hood of his sweatshirt over his head. He should’ve worn a coat.
He hadn’t meant to get so angry. It just came out before he could call it back. If only he could make his mom understand how he felt. He’d always heard that time was the great healer, but it wasn’t true. With each passing month, the hurt seemed to grow larger—a black canyon that was too deep to cross. Why couldn’t she understand? He had to keep doing the things they would have done together if Dad were here or he might forget him. At first, the image of his dad had been right there in his mind, but now sometimes it was a little fuzzy. He kept a picture by his bed so that he could study it, fixating his dad’s features in his mind. How could his mom have forgotten so quickly? Ever since she’d started dating Jake, things had changed. His mom met Jake at a singles activity at church, and while she’d been leery about going out with him, Aunt Jill insisted that dating might help the family overcome their grief. But Travis had no intention of getting over his grief, nor did he intend to accept Jake. Tears stung his cheeks, and he brushed them aside, glad that it was now sleeting so that nobody would know he’d been crying. On and on he trudged, welcoming the cold air that was swirling around him. In the cold, he couldn’t feel the hurt as much. Ten minutes later, the sleet was now mixed with snow. Normally, he loved the snow and how it blanketed everything in white, but now all he could think about was that his hands were starting to throb; he shoved them deep into his pockets and shivered. It was coming down harder now. Time to turn back.
A trash bag landed on his foot, and he kicked it out of the way. For the first time, he glanced around at the buildings surrounding him. Most were abandoned, but the ones that were occupied had bars over the windows. He could see a neon sign from a liquor store flashing in the distance through the snow. Empty beer cans and trash littered the sidewalk. He’d been so absorbed in his thoughts that he hadn’t realized that he’d gotten into the bad part of town. His pulse quickened, and he started walking faster. The sky was darker now. Why hadn’t he thought to bring his cell phone?
Several yards ahead, Travis could see a figure leaning against a garbage can. He guessed from the ragged clothes and the way the man was hunched over that he was a homeless man. His first impulse was to run, but he kept walking at the same pace—keeping his eyes fixed straight ahead. Think about how Dad treated homeless people, he ordered himself. What would Dad do in this situation? What would Dad do? He was almost past him. Almost past.
“Evening,” he said, his voice sounding squeaky and out of place.
The man didn’t answer, and Travis wasn’t even sure that he’d heard him. The sound of crunching ice sent his heart jumping into his throat. The man was coming up behind him! He turned and looked through the snow and didn’t take a breath until he saw that the man was still where he’d been—huddled against the garbage can. He looked frantically around, trying to figure out where the sound had come from. Seeing no one, he quickened his pace to a jog and rounded the corner, trying to put as much space between himself and the man as possible.
The figure came at him so fast, that he didn’t see anything until it hit him full force. He fell to the ground, stunned. Three boys a few years older than he surrounded him. One of them caught hold of the front of his sweatshirt and yanked him to his feet.
“What do we have here?” he said, jerking Travis’s hood off of his head.
Travis looked wildly at the boys encircling him.
“Tommy Hilfiger,” a boy said, pointing to the sweatshirt. “Rich kid.”
“Wonder if he’s got any money.”
Before Travis could react, they were on top of him—grabbing in his pockets for a wallet.
One of the boys cursed. “Nothing! He ain’t got nothing.”
A peculiar glint shone in the eyes of the leader. It made Travis’s blood run cold. “That’s all right, boys. We’ll just take it out of his hide.”
They all laughed.
A rush of adrenaline surged through Travis, and he kicked the boy closest to him as hard as he could in the groin. The boy went down, giving Travis the precious seconds he needed to bolt. He took off running down an alley with the boys close on his heels as he skidded on the slick pavement and dodged mounds of garbage. He let out a cry when he saw the tall metal fence stretched across the opening at the end.
He glanced back. They were only a few steps behind. He rushed at the fence and started climbing, but one of the boys caught his foot. He kicked, making contact with the boy's face. Blood squirted from the boy's nose, forming black spots against the snow.
"You're gonna pay for that! Get him!” he screamed, holding his nose.
Travis climbed higher, but there was no way over the thick rope of rusted barbed wire at the top. He made a split-second decision to jump to the ground and try to outrun them, but the boys were faster. Before he could regain his balance, the heaviest of the three boys was on top of him. The blow to Travis’s nose was debilitating, sending pain shooting through his face, and then he felt the warm liquid flowing out. He tried his best to shield his face from the onslaught, but it was no use. And then just like that, it stopped. Dazed, Travis tried to get his bearings. The boy was off him, and there was another voice—the deep baritone voice of a man.
"Take your hands off him. Now!"
“We don’t want no trouble,” the leader said, backing away. A minute later, they turned and ran.
Travis sat up, his head spinning. His hands went to his nose.
He looked up to see whom his rescuer was and was startled to learn that it was that homeless man he’d seen huddled against the garbage can.
The next thing he knew, the man was helping him to his feet. Then Travis got a good look at him. He was big—well over six feet tall, and his clothes were ragged. A layer of stubble covered his jaw, and his eyes were hidden in shadows.
"Son, what are you doing in this area?”
Travis gingerly touched his nose, which was still bleeding. His voice quivered. "Wrong turn." He looked around, suddenly conscious of the fact that he was in a dark alley with a homeless man. “T-thank you,” he stammered.
"No thanks necessary. Just stay out of this area. It's not safe this time of the evening, especially when you're alone." The man turned and started walking away.
Travis would never know what made him call the man back. "Hey!"
He stopped and turned.
Travis blurted out the first thing that came to his mind. “You hungry?” He started searching through his pocket for some change and then realized how ridiculous that was. If those vultures that attacked him hadn’t found anything, then there obviously wasn’t anything there.
A deep furrow formed between the man’s brows. “You don’t need to be letting anybody in this area know you have money. That’s a good way to get yourself killed.”
Travis took his hand out of his pocket and looked around nervously. “Well, are you hungry?” he asked again.
“Yeah, I’m hungry,” the man admitted.
“Come on. My mom has plenty of food.”
“I don’t think your mom would appreciate you showing up with me. Where does your mother live?”
Travis motioned. “Follow me.”
* * *
Chancy glanced out the window for the fiftieth time, keenly aware of the large amount of snow accumulating on the windowsill. Travis had been gone for over an hour, and she was beginning to panic. She’d tried texting and calling repeatedly and then heard the ringing coming from his bedroom. That’s when she discovered his phone, laying on the bed. She would give him fifteen more minutes before calling Jake and the police. The scent of roast cooking in the crock-pot filled the kitchen and made her stomach growl. She remembered she hadn’t eaten lunch.
“I’m hungry, Mommy,” Susie said.
“I know, honey.” Chancy absently smoothed down Susie’s long, silky hair. “We’ll eat as soon as Travis gets back, I promise.”
* * *
The man hesitated at the edge of Travis’s yard and stared at the large craftsman style house situated on the corner lot on one of the more prominent streets of the Avenues. Lights from the house reflected a golden hue on the snow-covered yard. He could see into the home to where a slender blonde was hugging a little girl. An overwhelming emptiness enveloped him. It had been a long time since he’d allowed that sense of loss to invade his senses, but standing here, looking at the woman hugging her young daughter was almost more than he could take.
“You go on in, Son,” he said, pulling the flimsy coat around him to block out the cold wind. “I’ve got to go.”
“No, please,” the boy pleaded. “Mom will want to thank you."
Thank him? That’s hardly the reaction he would expect from the attractive blonde in the window. No, she’d take one look at him and want to have him arrested.
“Look, you’re a good kid. But I’ve gotta go.” The words came out gruffer than he’d meant for them to, and he was surprised to see that the boy looked crestfallen. He figured that the boy had used the excuse of food in order to entice him to walk him home as a bodyguard. Surely he couldn’t be serious about inviting him in. “You’re home now, kid,” he said a little softer, stealing one more glance at the window. He shook his head and turned to leave, but the boy caught hold of his thin coat.
“Please, sir. It would mean a lot.”
Sir? That’s not a word he heard very often on the streets. He couldn’t help but smile at the reference. He willed himself to step away before he changed his mind. He wanted to feel the warmth of the house, the sound of laughter, the Christmas spirit that he so longed for every year at this time.
“I don’t belong here,” he said quietly. "You go on in. No one will bother you now."
“Just for a few minutes … please,” the boy begged again. “It’s dinnertime, and Mom always makes extra. We always feed lots of people during Christmas.”
He raised an eyebrow. “People like me?” He saw the hesitation on the boy’s face.
“Well sure. Do you know anybody that needs feeding more than homeless people?”
The man chuckled. He shook his head. “Goodnight.” This time, he did turn away, but it was too late. The door flew open, and the woman from the window rushed down the stairs and nearly tackled the boy.
“Travis! I’ve been so worried,” Chancy said breathlessly. Then she got a look at his face and the blood on his sweatshirt. “What happened to you?”
“I got attacked.”
“But this man saved me.”
Chancy looked to where Travis was gesturing, as if seeing the man for the first time. He could tell from the look on her face that she was shocked by his shabby appearance, but she did a good job of recovering. She looked back at the boy for affirmation.
“I was attacked by some thugs, and this man saved me. I told him that we would give him something to eat. He’s homeless, Mom,” he added quietly so that only she could hear.
She grasped the boy’s arms and looked up into his eyes. “I was so worried. I tried to call, but you didn’t take your phone … Don’t you ever do anything like this again.”
“I won’t,” he mumbled.
She gave him a fierce hug before turning to the man and extending her hand. “Thank you for helping Travis.”
The man was surprised that a woman like her would offer her hand to him. She was strikingly beautiful with honey blonde hair that framed her face in soft waves. Her eyes were green with specks of gold in them, and her prominent cheekbones added an air of sophistication to her appearance. She was about 5’5” tall, and he suspected that underneath the oversized sweater was a nice figure. The faint freckles on her nose gave her an innocent, girlish quality. He took her hand in his, careful not to squeeze too hard. The warmth of her was gone all too soon when she removed her hand.
“Nice to meet you. I just wanted to get your boy home safely. I’ll be leaving now.”
“No! You need to stay and have something to eat. Tell him, Mom.”
The man could see the indecision on her face as she looked back and forth between her son and him. An awkward silence passed before she seemed to make up her mind. “Travis is right. We can’t let you go without giving you something to eat. Won’t you join us for dinner … Mr.?”
“It’s Gabe. Gabe Jones.”
She turned and started walking up the steps. “Come on in,” she said over her shoulder.
He hesitated until the boy … Travis … tugged at his coat. “Come on.”
* * *
Why in the world did she invite a complete stranger, a homeless man into her home? Talk about a lapse in judgment! “Come on in and have a seat in the kitchen,” Chancy heard herself say. “Travis’ll get your coat.”
Travis moved to comply, and she felt a wave of compassion when she saw the holes in the man’s flannel shirt. Then she got a good look at Travis in the light. His appearance was even more unsettling than it had been outside. “Oh Son, what did those boys do to you?” She moved to touch him, but he jerked away.
“MOM! Don’t! It hurts!”
“You should put some ice on that,” Gabe said, causing Chancy and Travis to look at him in surprise like they couldn’t believe a man like him could contribute to the conversation.
“Good idea,” Chancy said, reaching for a dishtowel. She opened the freezer door and started filling the towel with ice. She pulled out a chair. “Sit down. Here,” she said, pressing the towel gently to Travis’s nose.
Susie, who’d been watching TV, heard the commotion and came running into the kitchen. She stopped short when she saw the man. She wrinkled her nose. “Your clothes are dirty, and you need a bath.”
Chancy’s eyes went wide. “Susie!” She looked at the man, horrified. “I’m so sorry.”
“It’s okay,” he said, looking down at his clothes.
“This is my daughter, Susie.”
“Hi, Susie, I’m Gabe.”
Rather than replying, Susie went and buried herself behind her mom. “Susie’s a little shy around strangers,” Chancy explained.
“Especially tall, dirty strangers,” he said.
She didn’t know how to answer that. Why had she let this man in her home? Why? “My name is Chancy,” she blurted.
He smiled. “Nice to meet you … Chancy.”
“Please, have a seat.”
He pulled out a chair and sat down at the table across from Travis.
“Come on, Sus, let’s get dinner on the table,” she said.
“I wanna watch the rest of Dora.” Susie skipped back into the living room.
Chancy put the roast onto a platter and spooned the gravy over it. She couldn’t help but glance at the man while she worked. What was his name? Gabe. Yes, that was it. He was a big man, tall with lean muscles like Max. His jeans and boots were worn but not nearly as dirty as the flannel shirt and thin, all-weather coat that Travis had taken from him. In another setting, she might’ve thought him handsome with his strong jaw and startling blue eyes; but seeing such a man reduced to his condition was heartbreaking. She wondered what had happened to make him choose a life of homelessness. It was a choice, wasn’t it? A fear seized her. Was he crazy? She knew from working at the soup kitchen that most homeless people had mental problems. And she’d let him into her house. For some reason, an image of Max flooded her mind at that moment. Max had taught her not to judge. This man didn’t seem crazy. In fact, he seemed perfectly at ease—more so than most normal people she knew.
Gabe was asking Travis about his school, and Travis was talking … really talking. How long had it been since that happened? She scooped the potatoes into a bowl and added a serving spoon before reaching for the bowl of green peas. She wiped her hands on a dishtowel. Now, she just had to set the table and they could eat.
“Dinner’s almost ready,” she announced. “Travis, you might want to go and clean yourself up before we eat.”
“Good idea,” Travis said.
Gabe scooted back his chair and stood. “Could I wash my hands?”
“Sure, I’ll show you where the restroom is.” She led him down the hall.
A few minutes later, the four were seated at the table. Chancy looked at Travis. “Would you say the prayer?”
He nodded and bowed his head. “Our dear Heavenly Father, we’re thankful for this day and for our warm home and for this food. We’re also thankful for Gabe and how he helped me this evening. Please bless him that he’ll be warm and safe this Christmas season. In Jesus’s name. Amen.”
“Amen,” Gabe said quietly, and Chancy could tell that Travis’s prayer had moved him. It was so cold outside. She couldn’t imagine what it must be like to live on the streets—not to have a warm place to go.
They passed around the bowls and filled their plates. In that small moment, they were simply two adults and two children, sitting around a table and having dinner. Chancy almost forgot she was entertaining a homeless man.
She looked across the table. “Where are you from, Gabe?”
“How did you end up here?” Travis asked, popping half a roll into his mouth.
“I came here for a job,” he said stiffly.
They waited for him to say more, but he didn’t. It was obvious that he didn’t want to talk about himself.
“Does Santa Claus know that you’re here?” Susie asked, her eyes going wide.
Gabe reached for his napkin and spread it over his lap. “Santa Claus always knows where you are.”
A lump formed in Chancy’s throat. Those were the same words that Max always said.
“My daddy used to say that,” Susie answered quietly as if she could read her mother's mind.
Silence settled over them, and Chancy wondered if Gabe could feel the tension.
Gabe turned to Susie. “What’s Santa bringing you for Christmas?”
Excitement brimmed in her eyes. “A new Barbie, some Barbie clothes, and a Barbie van,” she shouted. "And the van's gonna be pink!"
“What about you?” Gabe asked Travis just as the timer on the stove beeped.
“What was that?” Susie asked.
“The Christmas ornaments. I almost forget about them. Excuse me.” Chancy hurried to the stove and put on an oven mitt. She raked them onto a cooling rack and returned to the table.
“You bake Christmas ornaments?” Gabe asked incredulously.
Chancy nodded. “It’s a tradition. They're made from flour, salt and a little water. The trick is to cook them a long, long time."
"And we paint them," Susie added enthusiastically.
Travis took a sip of milk from his glass. “My dad started it when I was little. Then he got too busy, and Mom kept making them.”
Gabe smiled. “My mother used to bake gingerbread cookies for me and my brother when I was a boy.”
“My dad loved cookies,” Travis said quietly, looking at Gabe.
Chancy could tell from the admiration on Travis's face where this conversation was headed. A wave of panic nearly engulfed her. Inhale deeply, she told herself. The last thing she wanted was for her children to tell this man that their dad was dead. She had to get him out of their house before they invited him to spend the night or move in. She’d never seen them take up with anyone as quickly as they had Gabe. Then again, Gabe wasn’t a threat to Travis like Jake was. Travis was worried that Jake would try to replace his father, but this man was a passing face like the person you make small-talk with at the airport but then never see again.
“My daddy’s name was Maxwell Hamilton the Third.” Susie shoved a carrot in her mouth. “He’s dead,” she said, matter-of-factly.
Chancy nearly choked on her potatoes, and Travis looked like he wanted to strangle his little sister. Chancy looked across the table and saw the surprise written on Gabe’s face. It was evident that Susie’s outburst had made him uncomfortable.
“Um … it’s getting late.” She stood and placed her napkin beside her plate. “I …”
Gabe nodded. “You’re right. It's time for me to go.”
“I’ll get your coat,” Chancy said. She’d just handed it to him when the doorbell rang.
“The doorbell!” Susie shouted, running to open it. “Mom! It’s Jake,” she chimed, leading him into the kitchen.
Chancy bit her lower lip as she watched Jake’s expression harden when he saw Gabe. “What’s going on here?”
“Jake, this is Gabe …” She fought wildly to remember his last name.
“Jones,” he supplied.
“He helped Travis get away from some boys that were trying to rob him tonight, so we invited him to dinner.” The words came out in a rush the way they always did when she got nervous.
Jake’s expression didn’t change as he shifted his attention to Travis. “And just where were these boys?”
“About six blocks east of the soup kitchen,” Travis volunteered.
“What were you doing over there?” Jake continued to focus all of his attention on Travis.
Before Travis could answer, Gabe stepped forward and extended his hand to Jake. Chancy noticed he was at least four inches taller and probably out-weighed Jake by twenty-five or thirty pounds.
Jake ignored Gabe’s hand and kept his eyes glued on Travis. “You shouldn’t worry your mom by going over there. You know that’s a bad area.”
Travis nodded and lowered his head.
Gabe’s hand fell to his side, making Chancy keenly aware that Jake had refused to shake it. She wondered what it had cost Gabe to break out of his barrier to actually make the gesture to shake hands. She could tell that he’d been surprised when she extended her hand to him. How long had it been since this poor man had enjoyed normal human interaction? For Jake not to reciprocate had to be a slap in the face.
“Thanks for dinner,” Gabe said.
For the second time that night, Chancy extended her hand to Gabe, and he grasped it in his. Was it her imagination? Or had she felt some sort of connection when they touched? “You’re welcome, and thanks for helping Travis.”
He nodded, his eyes briefly meeting hers before locking on Jake’s. The two men stood for a moment, sizing each other up. Then Gabe headed down the hall and out into the night.
When the door closed behind Gabe, Jake gave Chancy a curious look. “What was that all about?”
Her eyes sparked. “You didn’t have to be so rude!”
He raked a hand through his sandy hair. “What’re you talking about?”
“Gabe! He tried to shake your hand, and you ignored it. How dare you come into my house and berate my guest!”
Jake threw his hands in the air. “Your guest? For goodness sakes, Chancy! What were you thinking? He could’ve robbed and killed you and the kids and no one would’ve been the wiser.”
Her face reddened. “Just because he’s homeless doesn’t mean he’s a criminal. He was a nice man, he helped Travis.”
“Yeah, and then followed him home. Now, he knows you’re here alone with two kids."
Chancy caught a glimpse of Travis and Susie in her peripheral vision, running up the stairs toward their rooms. No one could clear a room faster than Jake. She chastised herself for the thought. That wasn’t fair. The kids would warm up to Jake once they got to know him better. She cleared the table and started loading the dishwasher while he watched her. When she finished, she turned to face him.
"No one told him we’re here alone,” she said defensively.
"Did he ask you where your husband is?" Jake demanded.
He didn’t have to ask because Susie blurted it out. “No, he didn’t ask.” Emotional exhaustion was beginning to set in. “It’s getting late. We’ll talk about this some other time.”
He bridged the distance between them and put his arms around her. “Look, I’m sorry. I worry about you, and it was a shock to come in and see a strange, dirty man in your kitchen.”
She leaned her head against his chest. “I know. It was a crazy thing to do. One thing led to another. If he hadn’t been there, I don’t even want to think about what might’ve happened to Travis.” Tears stung her eyes, and Jake lifted her chin so that he could see her face. He tenderly wiped the tears from her cheeks.
“Please don’t do anything crazy like that again, okay?”
She nodded. For all of his shortcomings, Jake made her feel safe.
* * *
The snow started again when Gabe stepped out into the cold December night. He pulled his flimsy coat tighter and allowed himself one more glance at the house with its warmth, spilling like a beacon across the snow-covered yard before heading back in the direction he’d come. The night seemed colder than before, and he fought off the shiver that was seeping into his bones. He shook his head. Maxwell Hamilton the Third. He certainly hadn’t expected that.
He allowed his mind to drift back to when he had a family. The dinner had been excellent, and it felt good to have a full stomach—especially on a night like tonight. Still, it had been a long time since he’d interacted with a family, and he wasn’t prepared for the onslaught of memories it had unleashed. Memories that had almost destroyed him. He’d fought too hard to put distance between himself and the past to let it overtake him now. He hadn’t meant to tell Chancy his real first name, but it slipped out before he could call it back. The ache that welled in his gut was as familiar as it was cutting, and he smothered it by forcing his mind to think about other things.
He focused instead on the acrid look the man had given him when he walked in and saw him in the kitchen. Gabe was used to people treating him like smelly garbage on account of his appearance, but somehow the sting was greater tonight in comparison to Chancy and her warm acceptance. She’d been leery at first, which was understandable, he conceded. But once she got past his outward appearance, she’d treated him like a normal human being. That man—Jake. Was he her boyfriend? A pang of jealously shot through Gabe, making him chuckle. The woman meant nothing to him. What did he care what the man was to her? The man … there was something familiar about him. Gabe searched his memory, trying to find a connection. It was a curse he had of never forgetting a face. The snowflakes were getting bigger, reminding him of swarming bees. Swarming cold bees. He quickened his step, hoping to get where he was going before the storm got worse.
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