Wednesday, November 10, 2010
A Baby Beneath The Christmas Tree
For as long as Gwendolyn MacKenzie could remember the old timers in the tiny town of Towering Pines, West Virginia had whispered that Teaberry Christmas Tree Farm was enchanted. The rumor was that if you touched one of the Teaberry trees while wishing, your wish would come true.
Driving up the fir-lined mountain road that took her to the farm, Gwen glanced around in amazement, understanding why the legend had formed. Majestic evergreens punched into a vast indigo sky. Fat fluffy white snowflakes pirouetted around the green pine branches, falling heavily, like frosting on sugar cookies, creating a magical world.
But when she reached Teaberry mansion, Gwen’s mouth dropped open in dismay. Two rows of tall windows with thin black shutters dominated the huge red brick home, but the shutters tilted drunkenly from age and neglect. The Teaberry family hadn’t even visited for at least a decade. It didn’t surprise her that the house was in disrepair. But she’d thought Andrew Teaberry, her new boss, would have called ahead to have the place prepared to be used. If the house was this bad on the outside, she feared it would be worse on the inside.
Still, a wisp of smoke rose from the red brick chimney, disappearing into the inky sky, proof that the caretaker, Max Peabody, had started a fire in preparation for the owner’s return. At least she and her daughter wouldn’t spend their time shivering, while they waited for Drew Teaberry to arrive.
She got out of her beat up little red car and opened the back door, reaching in to unbuckle the car seat of her three-month-old baby. When she’d gotten pregnant by a boyfriend who’d bolted the very second she told him, Gwen and her twin sister Gill had both worried that she might fall into the same trap their mom had. Ginger MacKenzie had married the man who had gotten her pregnant. But when twins were born, he’d panicked, saying one baby was difficult enough to handle, two was impossible, and he’d left town. Leaving Ginger to raise the girls alone, watching out the window, longing for him to come home.
Six months after her mom’s sudden death, finding herself in a position very close to Ginger’s, Gwen had quickly shaped up. She didn’t want to be one of those women who wasted her entire life pining after a man who didn’t want her. She stopped believing in miracles. She stopped believing wishes came true. She packed her dreamy side away. And she now only dealt in facts.
Which was why she was at this rundown old house, about to start a job as the assistant for a man she’d never met. She had to pay her own way, support a child and finish her degree. This job might be temporary, but it paid enough money that if she watched how she spent, she could keep herself and Claire through her last semester of university.
“Hey, Claire-bear,” she said, lifting the little girl and rubbing noses. Bundled in her thick pink snowsuit, with the white fur of the hood framing her face, chubby, happy Claire really did look something like a stuffed pink bear.
Using the key sent to her by Andrew Teaberry, Gwen unlocked the front door and stepped inside. A huge curving mahogany staircase greeted her and Claire. But so did cobwebs. A layer of dust coated the banister and the stairs.
“Wow. We could be in big trouble, Claire-bear.”
Walking from room to room, her dismay grew. Though the lights worked, the sinks had water and the kitchen appliances had been plugged into electrical outlets and hummed with life, the house was filthy. Drew Teaberry might have instructed the caretaker to get the utilities turned on and the furnace working, but he’d forgotten about cleaning.
Discovering a suite in the back that had probably at one time been maid’s quarters, Gwen set Claire’s baby carrier on the dusty bare mattress of the single bed but lifted it back up again. She’d arrived an hour early, hoping to make a good impression but Drew Teaberry hadn’t yet arrived. If she hurried, she could race home for a vacuum cleaner, mop, broom, soap and dust cloths, and still have time to clean this suite enough that Claire could sleep here.
Two hours later, Andrew Teaberry pulled his shiny black SUV into the circular driveway in front of his family’s old homestead and his face fell in disgust. Pressed for time on this spur-of-the moment trip, he’d thought ahead enough to hire an assistant and have the caretaker open the place, but he hadn’t considered that Teaberry mansion might not be habitable.
“So this is the fabulous Teaberry Farm.” In the passenger’s seat of the SUV, Drew’s sixteen-year-old son Brody glanced around and snorted with derision. “Looks like a rat hole to me.”
Drew nearly squeezed his eye shut in frustration. As if it wasn’t bad enough that he had to move into this old monstrosity while he negotiated the purchase of a local manufacturing company, his ex-wife decided to get remarried, forcing Drew to keep their son for the entire month of her honeymoon. So while he negotiated to buy the business of crusty old Jimmy Lane, a West Virginia entrepreneur who only wanted to sell his business to someone who lived in West Virginia, he was saddled with a sassy sixteen-year-old.
Inserting the key into the back door lock, he glanced behind him at Brody, who was so engrossed in whatever he was doing with his cell phone that he didn’t even watch where he walked. Wearing a black knit cap over his yellow hair and a thick parka that seemed to swallow him whole, Brody was the complete opposite of his dark-haired, dark-eyed, always observant dad. The kid was going to step into traffic one day.
Brushing up against one of the pine trees beside the kitchen door as he pulled the key out of the door lock, Drew prayed that they both survived this month. He pushed open the door, stepped into a kitchen that looked like something out of a horror movie and froze.
“Mr. Teaberry!” The woman standing by the dusty kitchen counter winced. “I’d say welcome home, but I’m not sure that’s exactly appropriate, given the condition of the place.”
Drew blinked at yet another surprise this morning. Unless she was Max Peabody, the caretaker, this had to be his temporary administrative assistant, Gwen MacKenzie. In their phone interview, she’d told him she had one more semester of university to finish, so he’d pictured her as being a petite blonde sprite, someone who’d look only a little older than his son. Instead, he’d hired a classically beautiful woman with thick dark hair and catlike green eyes, who was built like every man’s fantasy come to life. A bright red sweater accented her ample bosom. Dark, low riding jeans caressed her perfect bottom. Her shoulder-length hair swung gaily when she moved.
He slid his laptop to an available counter, glancing around at the nightmare of a kitchen. The oak cabinets were solid, but coated in dust, so were the kitchen table and the four chairs around it. But, like the cabinets, the furniture and the ceramic floor tiles looked to be in good shape. The house wasn’t really falling apart, just dirty.
“Good morning. Sorry we’re late. We couldn’t get on the road until hours after what we’d planned.”
She batted her hand in dismissal. “Not a problem.”
Brody pushed into the kitchen behind his dad, not caring that he’d bumped into him. “Hey, babe, thought for sure you’d have muffins and coffee waiting.”
Drew blanched at his son’s disrespect. “Not only is Gwen not our cook, but we don’t call employees babe.”
“All right. Great. No babe.” Brody pulled his sunglasses down his nose and peered over the rim at Gwen. “Sorry about that, sweetie.”
“We don’t call employees sweetie, either!” Drew said, his temperature rising. If he didn’t know better, he’d think the kid was deliberately antagonizing him. “How about an apology?”
Brody glared at his dad. “Fine. I’m sorry. Why don’t you just write a list of rules so I know what the hell I can and can’t say this next month!”
With that he stormed through the kitchen, all but knocking the swinging door off its hinges as he punched through it.
Though Drew knew he should go after him, he had no idea what to say to this new version of Brody. That was part of the problem. Sixteen years ago, when his ex had moved herself and their son to Colorado, two thousand miles away from Drew, he’d protested. But in the end she hadn’t budged and his visits with Brody became something like two-week vacations spent on tropical islands or ski resorts.
They’d always gotten along well. Until this trip. Now, Brody was suddenly obnoxious. Drew had absolutely no idea what the heck was he going to do with him for the entire month of December. One-on-one in a house so far out in the country that it didn’t get cable, they were going to be miserable. Especially since Drew wasn’t even sure when or why Brody had turned into such a mouthy kid or where to start with discipline.
He did, however, know exactly what to say to an embarrassed employee. He turned to Gwen. “I apologize for my son’s behavior.”
“Not a big deal,” she said with a laugh. “He’s what? Fifteen? Sixteen? He’s testing the water. All kids do it.”
A steamroller of relief rumbled through Drew. At least the relationship with his temporary administrative assistant would be normal. Then she smiled at him, her pretty green eyes shining, her full lips winging upward, and everything male inside of Drew responded. Her thick, shiny dark hair framed a heart-shaped face with bright eyes, a pert nose and generous lips made for kissing.
Involuntarily, his gaze swept down the red sweater and tight jeans. He rarely went out and, when he did, the women he dated were nothing like Gwen. They were tall, cool blondes. Sophisticates. Models. Starlets. But there was no denying that this gorgeous brunette ignited a spark inside him, made him wonder what it would be like to kiss her--
He groaned inwardly. He wanted a normal working relationship with this woman! Plus, even if he was the kind to dabble in affairs, she was too young for him and an employee. If those weren’t enough, he had responsibilities as the Chairman of the Board of his grandfather’s conglomerate. The pressure of holding the top position in a global company left him no time for anything but work. That was why he’d only spent vacations with Brody. Why Brody had had time to change without Drew even realizing. Why he had to figure out how he’d handle him for the four long weeks in December.
“I think I’ll grab Brody and get our bags.”