Baby Beneath the Christmas Tree
Gwen McKenzie is single, but she has a beautiful baby and has just landed a fantastic job. What she hadn’t counted on was her new boss also being gorgeous! Although he’s not mad about babies…
Christmas is a time for joy and love. The shops are packed, children are singing carols; we are all busy buying and wrapping presents, and arranging family feasts. In the midst of all this, take a little time for yourself and enjoy one of our short Christmas treats by some of our favourite authors.
FOR as long as Gwendolyn McKenzie could remember the old timers in the tiny town of Towering Pines, West Virginia, had whispered that Teaberry Farms was enchanted. The rumor was that if you touched one of the Teaberry Christmas 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 the Teaberry mansion, Gwen’s mouth dropped open in dismay. Two rows of tall windows with thin black shutters dominated the huge redbrick home, but the shutters tilted drunkenly from age and neglect. The Teaberry family hadn’t even visited for at least a decade, so 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 redbrick chimney, disappearing into the inky sky, proof that the caretaker must have 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 Andrew to arrive.
She got out of her beat-up little red car, opened the back door and reached 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’d told him, Gwen and her twin sister Gill had both worried that she might fall into the same trap their mom had. Ginger McKenzie 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. He 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’d stopped believing in miracles. She’d stopped believing wishes came true. She’d packed away her dreamy side. 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 to 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, she felt her dismay grow. 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. Her boss 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 the maid’s quarters, Gwen set Claire’s baby carrier on the dusty bare mattress of the single bed, but then lifted it up again. She’d arrived an hour early, hoping to make a good impression, but Andrew hadn’t yet arrived. If she hurried, she could race home for a vacuum cleaner, mop, broom, soap and dustcloths, 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 the Teaberry mansion might not be habitable.
“So this is the fabulous Teaberry Farms.” 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 eyes 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 had 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 McKenzie. 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 sprite, someone who’d look only a little older than his son. Instead he’d hired a classically beautiful woman with thick blond 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 when she moved.
He slid his laptop onto an available counter, glancing around at the nightmare of a kitchen. The oak cabinets were solid, but coated in dust, as 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 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