“Lukas comes home today, Snowball.”
At the sound of Miss Tilly’s voice, I blink my eyes open. I’ve been sleeping curled up on my favorite chair in the kitchen, where it’s warmer. The one that’s extra soft because one of my two favorite humans sits there often. Waking up requires stretching. Half listening to her talk about this Lukas person she’s been gushing about for days, I push my paws out in front of me with a big yawn that makes me squeak and then sneeze.
Miss Tilly chuckles as she stares out the window. “Do you think he’ll stay longer this time?”
I don’t know this Lukas person, other than listening to Miss Tilly talk to him on the phone, so I proceed to give myself a tongue bath, paying particular attention to my paws. My white fur is beautiful. At least I think so. My mama cat taught me how to keep it clean before I lost her.
Or she lost me. I don’t remember.
Tilly glances around the kitchen. “Do you think he’ll notice?” This she almost whispers to herself.
I pause in my bath to see what she’s looking at. Notice what? I get to my feet and knead the seat cushion with satisfying little pops of sound as my claws catch.
“No, no, no,” Miss Tilly says in a singsong voice before she scoops me up under my belly.
Except she doesn’t swat me on the nose like the cat who lives in the stable says she should when I do bad things. Instead, she tucks me in close and tickles me under my chin. I lean into her touch, a purr vibrating my body. The rumble means I’m happy.
My second favorite human breezes into the room, shaking her head at Miss Tilly. “I heard those little pops. You shouldn’t let her get away with that, or she’ll ruin the cushions.”
Like I would. I purr louder, and Miss Tilly cuddles me. “Oh, Emily. Snowball’s so tiny, what could she do?”
Emily reaches out to run a hand over my fur. “She’ll get bigger and more destructive.”
I don’t know what she’s talking about. I’m an angel. Everyone says so.
“I need to get to my deliveries, or I’ll be late.” One more pat and Emily turns away, placing her gigantic purse on the kitchen table before moving to put on her thick winter coat along with gloves, hat, and scarf. As soon as that white stuff that makes my paws feel funny covered the ground, all the humans started wearing those weird clothes.
Why don’t they just grow fur coats, like me?
Miss Tilly places me back on my cushion and moves to the sink. “I wish you didn’t feel obligated to bake into the small hours of the night to help me make ends meet.”
Emily pauses, then crosses the room to kiss Miss Tilly on the cheek. “I’m doing this to grow the business I’ll have one day. People will be more likely to come to my shop if they’ve already sampled my food. Besides, Weber Haus is doing fine. We’re bursting from the seams through Christmas and even into New Year’s.”
“With one guest room out of use,” Tilly reminds her.
That’s another thing they talk about a lot. Christmas.
While their backs are turned, I pop my head up over the kitchen table and eye Emily’s purse. I love that purse. It’s big enough for me to crawl into with tons of funny things to bat around, but she never lets me play in it.
I sneak a glance at the two women, who are still talking about Emily’s new bakery and the inn Miss Tilly runs. “Maybe when Lukas gets here, he’ll help fix things up,” Emily suggests.
“I wouldn’t ask him to do that.” Tilly shakes her head. “He has his own career and needs to travel.”
Miss Tilly doesn’t see it, but Emily rolls her eyes. Does she not like this Lukas human? I’m pretty sure Miss Tilly loves him. Her voice goes all soft and warm when she talks about him.
“How hard could it be for him to take a little time off to help the woman who raised him?” Emily asks.
With the two of them distracted, I focus on the purse. I’m going to make it this time. With a butt wiggle for added spring, I pounce. Up and over the edge of the table, across the dark wood, then, with a jump my littermates would’ve been jealous of, I plop into her purse with hardly a sound.
Ha! I made it.
Now I’ll stay quiet and still for a minute to make sure Emily didn’t notice.
Lukas navigated the streets of Braunfels with care. It had been a while since he’d driven in snow, and this was fresh. Not icy or slushy, though, which made it easier. The town had hardly changed since the last time he’d visited. The same Christmas decorations adorned lampposts, doors, and the tops of the buildings. Main street bustled with shoppers heading into all the small local businesses, which included everything from toys and ice cream to luxury home decor. The same businesses that had been there when he’d been a boy.
Which reminded him. He had yet to shop for Aunt Tilly beyond a few trinkets picked up on his travels.
“Did you hear me?” a feminine voice echoed over his car’s speakers. His agent had the bit so firmly between her teeth it would take a crowbar to remove.
Lukas gripped the wheel. “I heard, Bethany. However, I can’t say I’m all that interested in a job that requires me to travel over the holidays.”
“But this is for Geographic International,” she reminded him. “They loved the work you did at the Berlin Beer Festival this summer. They want the same type of feel for images in Lithuania, focused on how they celebrate the season. Particularly the International Christmas Charity Bazaar at Rotuse and the Cathedral Square Christmas tree in Vilnius.”
“But they want me there in a week and through the New Year,” Lukas pointed out his biggest issue.
A year ago, he would’ve snapped up this opportunity. Geographic International had been his ultimate goal as a photographer, and that opportunity last summer had been a godsend. Working with them had open doors he’d only ever dreamed about, skyrocketing his career.
But the constant travel was starting to wear. He had no home base. No close friends. His fault there, friends had never been high on his priority list. An on-again, off-again girlfriend who’d wanted more had once complained that, for a man who took such beautiful pictures of humanity, he sure didn’t like people. Then she’d gone all amateur psychologist on him and informed him that his parents’ sudden deaths had traumatized him and made him avoid deep connections.
Except she’d been wrong.
He had Aunt Tilly. His father’s aunt, Lukas’s great-aunt, who’d never married, had taken in a shocked and lonely ten-year-old boy and given him a home and all the love he could ever need.
And you haven’t seen her in a few years, a small accusing voice reminded him.
That realization had hit him with the force of a stampeding bull when he’d been in Pamplona to capture the event on film. Sure, he tried to call her almost every day, when he had cell service. He’d even got her to video-chat. But so long between visits? What kind of nephew did that make him? A horrible one, and he intended to make up for it. Tilly was all he had in this world, and he was all she had.
He’d start by spending this Christmas with her. Regardless of the opportunities thrown his way.
“At least think about it,” Bethany urged, still on the phone.
Lukas grimaced, not that his agent could see. “Fine. I’ll get back to you at the end of the week.”
They ended the call about where cell service started getting spotty anyway. The road bent in a familiar way that had memories of driving it, past rolling, snow-covered hills, to the Victorian inn his aunt owned on the outskirts of town. The place where he’d done most of his growing up after his parents died.
Lukas blinked at a new sight, his foot moving to the brakes even as he stared. “That wasn’t there before,” he murmured.
Someone must’ve bought the Turnstill property, because the big hill that ended in a nice flat field at the side of the road had been converted into a sledding hill. Not just a “haul it up yourself” kind of hill, either. A motorized rope pull had been installed at the far side, a small parking lot paved over near the road, and a permanent structure put in place at the top of the hill. The wood siding painted red, the building sported a sign that read, “Tickets & Food.” Smoke curled lazily out of small chimney on the roof, and several people stood inside a closed-in room with floor-to-ceiling windows. Allowing parents to watch their children in the comfort of warmth? Smart thinking by whoever put this here.
That wasn’t what caught Lukas’s eye, though. What had him slowing and pulling into the lot, even before he consciously decided to do so, was the idyllic picture the scene made. A Norman Rockwell painting come to life in the modern era. Not wanting to miss a second, Lukas didn’t even bother putting on his coat as he hopped out and pulled a camera from one of several bags on his front seat, fiddling with the lens and settings almost unconsciously as he walked closer.
The lighting was perfect. Slightly overcast, allowing the colors to pop.
Within minutes he’d situated himself at the bottom of the hill on one knee, uncaring of how the snow soaked through his jeans, snapping away, pausing to check the images on the digital screen. Children and families shot down the hill in a multitude of contraptions. The traditional wood sled on metal runners had been replaced by one- and two-seater plastic disks, black inflated tubes, long flat boards that looked more like bodyboards for the ocean, and other things.
Despite the modern rides and modern clothes, the scene carried an aura of nostalgia his camera couldn’t resist.
A new layer of pristine snow covered everything, weighing down the limbs of the trees. Every time a sledder fell, a ploof of white went flying into the air, covering the tangle of limbs. Couples wrapped up in thick jackets, hats, and scarves stood at the top of the hill, calling down to their children. Moms or dads would ride behind small toddlers, trying to slow their speed with their feet. Those who’d reached the bottom would hook their sled onto the pully, if they could, and then tromp back up the hill beside it, their breathing crystalizing in the cold air in rhythmic puffs.
No one on this hill was worried—right in this perfect moment—about bills, or jobs, or where the next meal was coming from, or how to protect their children in a world descending into madness. In his travels, Lukas had seen plenty of the madness. Too much maybe.
This, though . . . this was like a time-out from life. A chance to revel in simple fun.
That contentment showed on each face on the small display screen of his camera. Even the toddler, crying because he’d been frightened when the sled tipped over. All it had taken was the promise of building a snowman, and tears departed.
A strong breeze flew across the landscape, swirling the snow, and a shiver skated up Lukas’s back. He blinked and glanced down, realizing that in the rush of capturing these brief flashes of life with his camera, he’d forgotten his jacket and his knee was soaked. But he wanted to get a few shots from the top.
With an impatient huff, Lukas ran back to his car and grabbed his jacket, yanking a beanie over his black hair as well. Camera back in hand, he happened to glance up, and paused.
Parked a few spots over, a woman was bent at the waist, the top half of her buried inside the back of her shabby SUV. A nicely rounded backside encased in tight jeans. Not a bad view. Lukas idly wondered what the top half of her looked like.
A second later she awkwardly backed up and paused, and a swear word reached him over the laughter and screams coming from the sledding run, followed by a grunt. Then she backed out the rest of the way, balancing a bunch of pink boxes precariously in her arms.
“Can I help with that?” Lukas called across the top of his car.
She jerked her gaze from the boxes to him and blinked even as her tower wobbled precariously. Lukas smiled, interest stirring as he encountered wide chocolate-brown eyes in a pixie face and lips that made him think kissing her might be as fun as whooshing down a snowy slope.
“That’s okay,” the woman called back, her voice warm, making him think of hot chocolate or hot tea with honey. “I have it stacked just right, and I’m afraid if anyone tries to take it, I’ll drop the whole thing.”
Unless he was mistaken, Lukas was pretty dang sure his interest was being reflected right back at him. Blessed with dark hair and green eyes and a decent physique, he was used to the opposite sex taking notice. He didn’t take advantage often, not with his hectic travel schedule. Maybe this holiday would be enjoyable for more reasons than he thought. She had to be local, with all that stuff.
“You going up there?” He nodded toward the building at the top of the hill.
That spark turned more wary as she eyed him, then glanced around her surroundings before she seemed to come to the conclusion that she was safe enough here. “Yes.”
“Me, too.” He waved a hand for her to go ahead. “I’ll follow you, in case you drop something or need help.”
He couldn’t tell from her expression if she thought that was nice of him or annoying. Did she not care for chivalry in a man? Tilly had insisted on good, old-fashioned manners, now a habit.
Right behind her, they headed for a series of steps farther off to the side, crudely fashioned by logs planted in the ground, leading to the building up top.
Ahead of him, the woman with the boxes huffed and puffed her way up the hill, her massive purse smacking against her hip, threatening to unbalance her with each step. Lukas didn’t mind the view—those long, long legs gave him ideas. Ridiculous to be this attracted this fast. He’d been out of pocket too long. That had to be it.
A flash of movement caught his attention, and Lukas focused on her bag. Another flash of white and he had to swallow a laugh.
“Ummm, did you know—” Lukas cut himself off mid-sentence as inspiration struck, lifted his camera to his eye, and waited, his lips twitching.
A small, furry white head popped up out of her purse, then back down in a flash. A tiny kitten that could give the snow a run for its money in the pure-white-things market. Following the mystery lady, Lukas couldn’t help himself as he captured mischief personified on digital film.
With each step and each sway of her hips, her long, dark hair would bounce or swing. Every time it did, the kitten would pop up and bat at it with tiny paws. Fierce and adorable at the same time.
“Emily?” a male voice called from above them. “Let me help you with that.”
The woman, apparently named Emily, shook her head, seemingly unaware of her passenger even as the kitten snagged a chunk of hair and hung on like Scrooge held on to his money. She tugged her head and the silky-looking tresses slipped from the kitten’s claws. The animal ducked back down in the purse.
I should tell her. No sooner had the thought occurred and he stepped forward than she reached the top and went right inside as the man who’d talked to her held the door.
Lukas paused, then decided to wait. I’ll tell her when she’s done.
He set himself up where he wouldn’t miss her when she came out, then lost himself in capturing more of the joy happening in front of him.