A couple grieving for their son is snowed in with a stray puppy and a little boy. Is there room in their hearts for a Christmas miracle?
Meet Jeremiah Martin, Juliette and Gabe's son.
Read an Excerpt from Christmas Stray:
The little cabin was almost perfect. Remote, tucked beneath fir and pine trees, rustic, and private. Snowdrifts piled on each side of the plowed driveway, and the snow-covered tin roof was sloped at a steep angle just like in the Alps.
As soon as her husband, Gabe, shut off the ignition, Juliette Martin pounced out the door of their Mercedes Benz. She hadn’t spoken to him the last two hours of the drive, not since he mentioned the Christmas tree.
Sure enough, there was a tree twinkling with lights in the window of the cabin. Juliette pulled out her cell phone to call the management company.
“Ah, it looks quite lovely, don’t you think?” Her husband massaged her shoulders.
“Lovely or not, I specified no Christmas decorations. They need to remove the tree.”
She spoke to the management company while Gabe retrieved the key from the lockbox.
“Let’s go in and warm up,” he said. “I still don’t see why you don’t want the tree. It’s not as if it has any of our own ornaments on it.”
A pang of grief caught in her throat. Gabe really didn’t understand. Either that, or he was tired of her being an emotional wreck. This getaway was supposed to revive their marriage. From the looks of it, it was more like the last gasp of a beached whale.
“I just don’t want a tree. No decorations. Nothing.” She followed Gabe into the cabin. “I thought you told them.”
Which was why she was so angry with him. He’d meant for them to have a tree. He knew about it when he mentioned it two hours back, and darn it all, he knew exactly how she felt.
He feathered his fingers down the side of her neck and peered into her eyes. “Hey, I thought it would cheer you up. Us coming here to create new memories.”
Juliette melted, a little. Her husband was a kind man, a tad insensitive, but his forehead was creased with concern, and face it, he was as gorgeous as they came. Except nothing, but nothing would take away Jeremiah’s death. Nothing.
“No memories will replace Miah.” She lowered her face before he could see the sprinkling of tears in her eyes.
Last Christmas Eve had been Jeremiah’s last one—spent in the children’s hospital. He’d been so weak with leukemia he couldn’t lift his head when they trimmed the spindly little tree in his room. But he’d still smiled at the ornaments she’d made for him. And she’d been stupid and thought God would grant her prayers and give them a miracle.
She well remembered the star she’d placed on the top. One that she’d named the miracle star. It was a silly little thing, of course. One made of cardboard painted white and sprinkled with silver glitter.
“You’re thinking about the miracle star, aren’t you?” Gabe caressed her cheek, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear.
She tore away from him. She didn’t deserve his attention and care. Not when her heart was crushed under the weight of guilt. She hadn’t wanted Jeremiah when she first discovered she was pregnant. The time hadn’t been right. She’d actually hoped for a miscarriage. But by the time he was born, she was head over heels in love with her little Miah. Too bad God had other plans for him, plans that included striking him with leukemia when he was four and letting him linger two years before his body gave out the day before Christmas.
“Just get this crap out of here.” She attacked the Christmas tree, knocking the star from the top. “I will never, ever celebrate Christmas again.”
“Whoa, whoa, don’t break anything.” Gabe pulled her from the tree and into his arms. “We won’t celebrate Christmas, but you need to get control of yourself.”
“Let me hibernate all December and wake up after the New Year when all the trees have been composted and people are thinking income taxes instead of eggnog.”
Juliette couldn’t help the sobs of another impending breakdown. The last few days of Jeremiah’s life had been full of fake holiday cheer. He’d made his Christmas wish list, been greeted by Santa and his elves, all of them wearing face masks, and was even allowed to pick one gift to open.
He’d chosen a stuffed dog, a black and brown wiry one with pointy ears and large sad eyes.
Juliette hastily wiped her eyes and pushed herself out of Gabe’s bear hug. He was right. She should pull herself together. And she would, if only she could stop the regret and the layers of guilt. She’d continued working at her law practice after Jeremiah was born, taking only a six-week maternity leave. Since Gabe’s schedule was filled with business travel, she’d left Jeremiah at an expensive extended daycare which allowed her to drop him off as early as six in the morning and pick him up as late as eight in the evening.
Stomping out onto the snowy drive, she retrieved her purse and a large shopping bag from the car. A pickup truck drove up and a man jumped out.
“Ma’am, I heard there was a problem with the Christmas tree?”
“No problem. I don’t want it. We don’t celebrate Christmas.”
“Okie doke. I’ll get it removed. Did you guys find all the food we stocked? Is there anything else you need?”
“I haven’t had a chance to check it out, but I’ll let you know.” Juliette couldn’t wait to retire to the bedroom and soak in the jetted tub. “I’m going to unpack now.”
“Sure, we’ll get that tree removed right away.” The man tipped his baseball cap, but she couldn’t help noticing the wry face he wore and the certainty that he thought her to be a Grinch to end all Grinches.
If it takes being a Grinch to have people leave me alone, so be it. Juliette hurried to the bedroom while Gabe chatted with the man. She really should get her head together if she wanted to return to her practice after three years leave. For one, she’d have to stop the tears and settle her heart rate to a steady beat. She’d have to be able to sit still and go back to the orderly world of precedents and statutes. She’d need her composure to stand in front of judges and speak calmly to clients. And then there was Gabe. He’d practically threatened her with divorce to get her to come to this trip—this getaway which was supposed to mend their marriage.
Juliette let her eyes adjust to the candlelit room. The four poster bed was covered with a homey looking quilt and enough throw pillows to start a fight. The room was equipped with a small gas fireplace dividing a jetted tub on one side and the foot of the bed on the other. Someone had filled the tub with water and sprinkled rose petals on it. No doubt, Gabe had arranged all of it. If only he hadn’t tried to sneak in the Christmas tree. He was a good man, though, and he’d stopped traveling after Jeremiah’s leukemia diagnosis, and took more than his fair share of the hospital duties. She owed him an apology and a genuine try at attending to his needs.
A few minutes later, Gabe poked his head into the bedroom. “Here are your suitcases.”
“Thanks. And about that tantrum I had, I’m sorry.”
“Let’s try and have a good time.” He placed the suitcases on the rack. “Tree’s gone. They even vacuumed up the needles.”
“It’s just that it triggers memories.”
“You don’t have to explain.” Gabe patted her back. “Why don’t we unpack and then relax to some of that wine and cheese they left in the kitchen. The larder is stocked with fruits and vegetables, and we even have a whole Virginia ham. I also brought the best of our own wines.”
“Let’s make sure we have everything in case we have to make a run to the drugstore.” Juliette unlatched her vanity case. “I guess I can endure one more round of ho, ho, ho’s and holiday cheer for a week of peace and quiet.”
“Very funny, but I think we have everything. I checked and double checked before packing the car.” Gabe shut her vanity case and took her hand. “The caterers are bringing dinner in tonight, and I’m dying to open that bottle of Bordeaux I’ve been saving since our wedding.”
Gabe always knew how to sweep her worries away. Yes, a bottle of wine with a man who still lit her sparks, despite the gloom of the past few years, was the right prescription for moving forward.
Before leaving the bedroom, Juliette opened her suitcase and extracted the stuffed dog. She kissed his nose and set him on the pillow. She never slept anywhere without him.
“You give him a name yet?” Gabe gave her a lopsided grin.