Home, Hearth, and the Holidays
With holidays approaching in the charming town of Appleton, and Daphne Ballinger’s deadline to “get hitched” drawing closer, Daphne finds herself happily distracted with the unexpected tasks of “motherhood.” Young Olive is enjoying the attention, but the clock is ticking and unless love comes her way, Daphne’s delightful life will start unravelling by spring.
With Thanksgiving behind her, Daphne Ballinger was almost ready to start thinking about Christmas. However, she was not as ready as her neighbor across the street. Sabrina Fontaine had started putting up colorful lights two days before Thanksgiving. Daphne’s new charge, seven-year-old Mabel, thought it was wonderful, but Daphne felt it was a tad premature.
She decided on Friday afternoon, though, that it wasn’t too soon to start baking Christmas cookies. Her Aunt Dee had always made cutout cookies right after Thanksgiving. It was a tradition she and Daphne had enjoyed for years while Daphne was growing up. They would bake dozens of them. Then they would layer them between wax paper and freeze them unfrosted. About week before Christmas they’d get them out and have a cookie decorating party.
After Daphne explained the process to Mabel, they both donned aprons and went to work. To be honest, part of Daphne’s motivation was to distract Mabel from the fact that Daniel had relocated down the street that morning, back to his mother’s slightly dilapidated house.
“I don’t see why Uncle Daniel didn’t want to stay here with us,” Mabel said as Daphne poured sugar into the measuring cup.
“Maybe he needs more space.” Daphne watched as Mabel dumped it into the bowl, then handed her the butter to put in. She didn’t want Mabel to know that she’d been secretly relieved when Daniel announced he was going to stay at his mother’s house. Not because Daniel Myers wasn’t a nice guy and well-mannered houseguest, but simply because it had started to feel a bit awkward. For one thing, he was so good looking. That in itself was a bit disconcerting. She just wasn’t used to having a tall, dark, and handsome marine pop around a corner in her house, greeting her with a hearty good morning! Especially when she was still blurry eyed, in her bathrobe, with her red hair suffering from severe bed-head. Like this morning.
“Okay.” Daphne handed Mabel a brown egg. “Try to get it into the bowl.”
Mabel cracked it so hard that it split in half, sending gooey egg down both sides of the bowl. “Oops.”
Daphne grabbed a paper towel to sop up the mess. “It’s okay.” She got out another egg.
“I liked having Uncle Daniel in our house,” Mabel said as Daphne picked up the egg carton. “And I don’t even care that he wakes me up sometimes.”
“What?” Daphne stopped from getting the next egg, staring at Mabel with concern. “Uh, why does he wake you up, sweetie?”
“I forgot.” Mabel covered her mouth with her hand. “It’s a secret.”
Daphne set down the egg carton, watching Mabel closely. “Well, it’s a secret I need to hear, Mabel. Especially since Uncle Daniel has been staying in my house. Please, tell me why he woke you.”
“It’s not his fault, Aunt Daphne. He just has really bad dreams. I heard him yelling the first night. It was weird.”
“I can imagine.” Daphne was surprised—why hadn’t she woken up too? “Did it frighten you?”
“At first. I went to see what was wrong, but it looked like he was asleep. I told him about it in the morning.”
“And what did Uncle Daniel say?” Daphne wondered if the ex-marine might be struggling with a little PTSD.
“He told me he had a bad dream. He said not to worry about it. And he asked me not to tell anyone.” Mabel looked concerned. “You won’t, will you?”
“The secret is safe with me.” Daphne handed Mabel another egg. “Try it again. More gently this time.”
With an intense expression, Mabel gave the egg a careful crack before she dumped the contents—as well as some shell shards—into the confines of the mixing bowl.
“Perfect.” Daphne extracted the eggshell pieces from the sugar and butter and handed her another egg, watching as she cracked this one neatly into the bowl. “Nicely done.”
Mabel wiped her fingers on the paper towel. “Is Uncle Daniel going to stay in Appleton forever?” Her question sounded hesitant. Was she perhaps fishing for information?
Daphne handed her a teaspoon. “I don’t think he knows for sure yet.” She suspected Mabel had overheard the adults’ conversation this morning. Daphne had been surprised to hear that Daniel was interested in returning to the Marines and being based in North Carolina—about a thousand miles from Appleton.
“He showed me his fancy Marine uniform. He’s going to wear it to Grandma’s memorial next week. It’s really nice.”
“Uh huh.” Daphne poured vanilla into the teaspoon, then watched as Mabel slowly poured it into the bowl.
“Is Uncle Daniel still a marine?”
“Not exactly. He’s kind of on a break, but he could go back to the Marines if he wanted to.”
“Does he want to?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think he knows for sure either. I’m sure it’ll take a while for him to figure everything out.”
“You mean about me?” Mabel tipped her head to one side with a quizzical look in her dark brown eyes. In many ways this little girl was much older than seven. “Does he have to figure out if he wants to keep me?”
“Well, yes…that’s a very big part of it. As you know, your grandmother planned for your uncle to care for you. I already explained about her will making him your guardian.”
Mabel bit her lip as she set the teaspoon on the table.
“And, really, sweetie, it’s not for you to worry about these things. Everything is going to work out just fine.” Daphne smiled as she handed her the big wooden spoon, hoping to convey more confidence than she felt. This wasn’t easy for any of them.
“I really do love Uncle Daniel.” Mabel struggled to stir the stiff ingredients. “But I love you too, Aunt Daphne.”
Daphne gave Mabel a squeeze. “And I love you too, Mabel. But just like your grandma, I want what’s best for you.” She took the wooden spoon from her. “How about I get this softened up a little, then you can really stir it up.” Daphne put her whole arm into it, stirring vigorously in an attempt to distract herself from this uncomfortable conversation…that she had known was coming.
As they sifted dry ingredients into a separate bowl, Mabel grew very quiet. Daphne wasn’t sure if it was because she was concentrating on the measurements or something more. But by the time they had rolled out the cookie dough, cut a couple dozen Christmas shapes, and put the first batch into the oven, Mabel finally spoke up again.
“I want to be here with you, Aunt Daphne,” she declared as she reached for the rolling pin.
Daphne made a stiff smile. “You are here with me.”
“I mean for always.” She looked up with misty eyes. “I do love Uncle Daniel…but I want to stay here.”
Daphne pursed her lips, trying to think of an appropriate response. “I want you to stay here with me too, Mabel. But it’s not really our decision.”
“It’s a grownup thing.” Daphne tried to think of a simple explanation for child custody laws and came up empty. “But I have been praying about it, Mabel. A lot. I’ve been asking God to make sure you get to live in the place that’s the very best for you. But we don’t really know where that is…yet.”
“I know the best place.” Mabel reached for the angel cookie cutter. “Appleton is best.”
“I have to agree with you on that.” Daphne picked up the tree-shaped cutter, sinking it into the dough.
“Your house is the best too. And my school is the best. I didn’t used to like it, but now that I have friends I like it a lot. And I like my teacher too. Miss Simmons is really nice.” Mabel reached for a star shape now. “And I love my BFF Lola.” She pointed to a lopsided angel on the cookie sheet. “That cookie is for Lola. See, I put an L on it.”
“I’m sure she’ll like that.”
“And I love you, Aunt Daphne.” She pointed at the cats sitting in the sunshine by the window. “And I love Ethel and Lucy. And I love Sabrina and Tootsie. And I love going to church. And I love this house. And—”
“And you are just so full of love.” Daphne laughed as she wiped a smudge of flower from Mabel’s nose. “Isn’t it wonderful to have so much love to share? You’re a blessed girl, Mabel Myers.”
Mabel sighed happily as she peeled the star off the dough board, setting it onto the cookie sheet. Daphne wasn’t sure these shapes would be very recognizable when they came out of the oven, but at least they were having fun. And it was good to see Mabel happy—despite the uncertainty of her situation. Although, from what Daphne knew, Mabel’s situation had been fairly uncertain since birth.
As she removed a sheet of cookies from the oven, Daphne recalled the first time she’d met Mabel. Back in early October, she’d spotted the scraggly little girl attempting to abduct one of the cats. When questioned, Mabel had claimed it was because she was lonely and “wanted a friend.” And so Daphne had offered her friendship—and pumpkins. It was a perfect arrangement. But as they wheeled the wagon of pumpkins down the street, Daphne had begun to understand what a poor lost waif this child was. With a dad in prison, a mother who’d died of an overdose, and a grandmother with terminal cancer…Mabel’s sad little life had seemed almost hopeless.
“I’m going to pray for God to let me stay here forever,” Mabel declared as Daphne placed the hot cookies on a cooling rack. “Because this is the best place in the whole world.”
Daphne suppressed a feeling of guilty sadness as she put the next cookie sheet into the oven. Perhaps she’d been mistaken to create such a comfy haven for Mabel. Turning the guest room into a little girl’s dream room, getting her a whole new wardrobe, new toys and activities. She’d only done these things out of love, trying to make up for the abundant losses in the child’s life. But perhaps she’d set Mabel up for heartache. Especially if Daniel decided to relocate the little girl to North Carolina.
“There’s the doorbell,” Mabel called out. “Can I get it?”
“Sure.” Daphne peered out the window to see Lola on the front porch. Wearing a zebra-striped helmet, she tugged on one of her blonde pigtails with a hopeful expression as her pink scooter leaned expectantly against the porch steps. As Daphne set cooled cookies on a plate, she could hear Mabel’s happy shrieks reverberating through the big old house. She imagined the girls hugging, like they always did, acting as if they hadn’t seen each other for weeks instead of a couple of days.
“Can I ride my scooter with Lola?” Mabel asked with excitement.
“Put on your jacket and helmet.” Daphne held out the plate of unfrosted cookies. “Maybe you girls should take some cookies along in case you get hungry while you’re scooting about.”
They gratefully agreed, and Daphne used paper napkins to make two little bundles, helping them to tuck them into their jacket pockets. As the girls hurried outside, Daphne followed. From the front porch, she reminded Mabel of the scooter rules that they’d established after Sabrina had presented Mabel with the flashy purple scooter and matching helmet a week ago. “To help her get past losing her grandmother,” Sabrina had said apologetically to Daphne. “I hope you don’t mind.” Of course, she didn’t.
“And you can go all the way around the block since Lola is with you. But no crossing any streets. And make sure you watch for cars backing out of driveways.” She always felt like a “real mother” when she said things like this—and that felt nice. So nice, in fact, that it troubled her. After all, she was not a mother. She wasn’t even an aunt.
As the girls took off down the sidewalk, Daphne remained on the porch, just watching…and thinking about what Mabel had confided to her. She wasn’t too surprised that Daniel had nightmares. It seemed like many servicemen who’d seen active duty suffered from some sort of PTSD. Hopefully Daniel was getting help to deal with it. And it was a relief that he’d been honest with Mabel about it. Another good sign that he was up for the task of parenting. It should’ve been reassuring to her.
Daphne could hear the girls shriek as they reached the corner. Feeling concerned, she leaned over the railing, peering down the street to see if someone had fallen, but it turned out to be a happy shriek, and now they were tearing around the corner. She glanced across the street at Sabrina’s elaborate Christmas decorations. “I’m pulling out all the stops,” she’d happily told Daphne yesterday. “For Mabel and me—it’s our first Christmas in Appleton.”
Daphne sighed to think it might also be Mabel’s last Christmas here. Not that she planned to let Mabel in on this. But Daphne wondered which of them would be hurting more if Daniel swooped Mabel off to North Carolina. Mabel would get a new home, a new school, a new teacher, and before long she’d probably find a new BFF as well. But Daphne would never get another Mabel.
“Hey neighbor!” Sabrina waved from the sidewalk.
Daphne greeted her from the porch, watching as her petite blonde friend scurried up with her little dog scampering at her heels. The brown Chihuahua was sporting a hot pink jacket with white fur trim. Never mind that Tootsie was a male dog—just one reason his name was fitting. But Sabrina, being Sabrina, dressed Tootsie however she liked. Often to match her own colorful outfits, although she was wearing an aqua velour jogging suit today. The rhinestone bedazzles down the front of her jacket sparkled in the sunlight as she came onto the porch. Daphne chuckled to remember how Sabrina considered outfits like this casual wear.
“How are you two doing?” Daphne smiled brightly, hoping to cover her melancholy thoughts.
“We just had our little walk. And Tootsie got three compliments from three different ladies.” She grinned. “He’s the talk of the town.”
“I’m surprised you aren’t hitting the mall today.” Daphne knew how Sabrina loved to shop. Even burdened downed with multiple shopping bags and four-inch heels, this fashionista could outlast Daphne by hours. She was like the Energizer bunny on triple shot espressos.
“Oh, I never shop on Black Friday,” Sabrina said in her honey-coated Southern accent. “Goodness—can you imagine little ol’ me grubbing around with a bunch of greedy bargain hunters? Or camping in a parking lot just to get a big screen TV?” She wrinkled her nose. “That is not my style, thank you very much.”
Daphne nodded as she bent down to pat Tootsie. “Nor mine.”
“Although I must admit I found a couple of great deals on HSN.” Sabrina winked. “Wait until you see the Christmas dress I just ordered for Mabel. Her favorite shade of lavender too. It’s velvety velour with lots of lacey trim. She’ll look like an angel in it.”
“It sounds perfect. Mabel just took off with Lola—on their scooters.”
“I saw them.” Sabrina nodded.
“They look so cute together. I’ll have to snag some pictures when they come back.” Daphne frowned to realize that she should be gathering lots of photos of Mabel…that might be all she’d have before long.
“I also observed that hunky marine of yours a couple hours ago. He was toting his big duffle bag down the street.” Sabrina’s brow creased. “Don’t tell me you gave him the old heave-ho?”
“Not exactly.” Daphne shrugged. “I’d only meant to invite him to stay with us for his first night here. And that was because Mabel insisted—and the next day was Thanksgiving. But after three days and two nights, I think it was time.”
“If it were me, I’d be thinking of excuses to keep that boy around.” Sabrina giggled.
Daphne glanced at her watch. “Yikes. I need to run before our cookies are toast.” She whipped open the door. “Time for tea?”
“Tea and cookies?” she asked hopefully.
“Let me go put Tootsie in the house and I’ll be right back.”
Relieved that Sabrina wasn’t bringing Tootsie inside, which always sent the two cats into a dither, Daphne made a beeline for the kitchen where the timer was dinging impatiently. She was just putting the darkened cookies on the cooling rack when Sabrina returned.
“I’ll clear this off.” Sabrina started gathering up the baking supplies, setting them on the counter. She paused to examine the cookies. “Interesting.” She pointed to a dark misshapen one. “That one looks like a gorilla.”
“It’s supposed to be an angel.” Daphne chuckled. “I guess it’s a gorilla angel.”
“Seems a little early for Christmas cookies. Unlike decorations, they go stale.” Sabrina rinsed the washrag and started wiping flour from the table.
“We’re going to freeze most of them to decorate later. That’s what my Aunt Dee always used to do with me.”
“Good idea.” Sabrina sat down.
“It makes the decorating day more fun because you’re not worn out from making so many cookies. We used to get pretty creative with our frosting.”
“For a single girl you’re really quite domestic,” Sabrina told Daphne.
“And I must say, Thanksgiving dinner was fabulous,” Sabrina said. “I’m so grateful you included me. Which reminds me, I have a thank-you card to bring over to you.”
“But you just said thank you. You don’t need to give me a card.”
“It’s how we Southern women are trained. Mannerly-ness is next to godliness.”
“I thought that was supposed to be cleanliness.”
“Trust me, etiquette supersedes hygiene—at least where I was raised.” Sabrina laughed. “Anyway, that’s how it is in my family.”
“Well, Thanksgiving was fun for me too.” Daphne put the teakettle on. “It was the first time I’ve ever really done it myself. I mean cooking everything and having a traditional sit-down dinner. It was a challenge, but fun too.”
“Everyone had a great time.”
“I actually thought I’d made too much food. I figured we’d be eating leftovers for days. But there’s hardly anything left.”
“That’s because it was all so delicious.” Sabrina patted her midsection. “I have you to blame for the fact that I’m wearing sweatpants today. I needed the expandable waistband.”
“So, I’m dying to know, Daphne. What do you really think of Daniel?” Sabrina asked with unveiled curiosity. “You’ve had plenty of time to get acquainted now.”
“I think he’s a nice guy. And I can tell he’s quite fond of Mabel. They really hit it off.” Once again, Daphne considered how she’d feel if he took Mabel to North Carolina.
“But what?” Daphne turned away, focusing on putting a spoonful of Earl Gray tea leaves into the teapot.
“Something is troubling you. I can tell. What is it?”
“I’m fine,” Daphne said lightly as she dipped the spoon in the tea canister again.
“You can’t fool me. I saw you standing on the porch, looking like you’d lost your best friend. What’s going on?”
Daphne took in a deep breath. “Oh, I suppose I was just wondering how it would be if Daniel took Mabel away.”
“Took Mabel away?” Sabrina sounded truly alarmed. “What on earth are you talking about, Daphne Ballenger?”
“Well, despite his early discharge, Daniel’s not sure he’s ready to give up the Marines yet. And, really, you can’t blame him. He hadn’t finished his twenty years, and it sounds like the benefits get significantly better the longer you stay. Anyway, there’s a Marine base in North Carolina and he was talking about taking Mabel there with—”
“He cannot do that,” Sabrina exclaimed. “We won’t let him take our little girl away from us.”
“She’s not our little girl.” Daphne placed a pair of cups on the table with a grim expression.
“But we rescued her. And Vera was truly grateful for our little intervention. I bet if you’d asked Vera—before she passed on—she probably would’ve given you custody of Mabel. She really liked you, Daphne. She trusted you with Mabel.”
“Maybe…but I don’t know that she would’ve handed over Mabel like that. Family is family, Sabrina. And as dysfunctional as Vera’s family might’ve been, she probably wanted Mabel to be with blood relatives—like her only son. Besides, as you can see, Daniel is really a great guy. And Mabel loves him. And like he was telling me, a Marine base isn’t such a bad place for kids to grow up.”
“But Mabel needs a mom. She needs a woman’s touch. Remember what a mess she was when you first found her, Daphne. Good grief, I couldn’t even get a brush through that tangled up mess of brown hair on her little head. That’s why I had to cut it all off, although I must say she’s adorable in the pixie cut. Still, my point is—Mabel needs a mother’s touch.”
“I know. But it’s not up to us to—”
“Call your lawyer,” Sabrina commanded. “See if Jake can fix things for you. Didn’t he get you temporary guardianship? Maybe you could prove that—”
“Sabrina,” Daphne said firmly but gently. “I appreciate your concern, but really there’s nothing we can do. We need to let it play out. It’s possible that Daniel will realize that a single man in the military doesn’t make for the best parent.” She sighed. “At least that’s what I’m hoping.”
“I was hoping that you and Daniel would hit it off,” Sabrina confessed. “He’s so good looking, Daphne. I can’t believe you let him get away like that.”
Daphne couldn’t help but laugh as she poured hot water into the teapot. “I did not let him get away. He simply went to stay at his mother’s house.”
“But that place is such a dump. Well, other than the room we fixed up for Mabel, and I can’t imagine him staying there—sleeping in the little princess bed.” She chuckled.
“He’s going to start cleaning it up,” Daphne explained. “To get it ready to sell. He hopes to get it listed next week, and to sell it before the New Year.”
“Who buys a home during the holidays?”
“I don’t know, but that’s his plan. I’ve already given him names of some of the guys who helped around here. He said he’ll call Tommy Troutman today. Wants to get the whole place painted, starting with the exterior before the winter weather sets in. According to the weather forecast, it’s going to get really cold next week. We might even see snow.”
“Maybe while he’s fixing his little old house up, he’ll discover that Appleton is a delightful town. Maybe good sense will kick in and he’ll decide to stick around,” she made a mischievous grin, “and maybe he’ll fall in love with you and the three of you will all live happily ever after—right here.”
“You sound just like Mabel.”
“Aha.” Sabrina pointed a pink polished nail in the air. “So that’s what Mabel wants too.”
“But like I told Mabel, I’ve been praying for what’s best. What’s best for everyone. Only God knows what that is. We have to be patient.”
“So are you saying you don’t like Daniel at all? There’s no attraction? You don’t think you could be romantically interested in him?”
Daphne let out an exasperated sigh as she filled their cups with steaming amber tea, inhaling the soothing sweet scent. It reminded her of lavender.
“It’s not like you can afford to be real picky,” Sabrina continued. “I mean, if you haven’t noticed, the clock is ticking. And, from what I can see, you’re determined to let all the available bachelors just slip through your fingers. And I hate to say it, honey, but you’re not getting any younger either.”
“Thanks so much.” Daphne rolled her eyes as she sat down across from Sabrina.
“Seriously, girlfriend. Your Aunt Dee’s generous offer to leave you everything will expire in less than six months.”
As she sipped her tea, Daphne regretted having spilt the beans to Sabrina. To be fair, Sabrina had pretty much figured it out on her own. And, really, it was a bit of a relief to have someone else in the know about her deceased aunt’s strange will. Someone besides Aunt Dee’s attorney, that is. Although Jake McPheeters was fairly laid back about it. But sometimes she wished Sabrina would get a mild case of amnesia—at least about this.
“I’m surprised you’re not giving me the day, hour, and minute count,” Daphne said wryly. “Maybe while you’re decorating your house for Christmas, you could put up a gigantic illuminated time-clock to remind me of my fate every time I look out my kitchen window.”
“You know, I’ve considered putting a special app on my phone to track it for you,” Sabrina said in all seriousness.
“Oh, puleeze.” Daphne rolled her eyes.
“You need someone to encourage you, Daphne. Honestly, you could lose it all. This beautiful Victorian house that you’ve worked so hard to fix up. And think about the fabulous garden Mick helped you to create. And that gorgeous old Corvette in the garage. What about your adorable cats? Not to mention your sweet little ol’ neighbor who loves you like a sister. You could lose everything! In less than six months too!”
“Thanks for the news flash.” Daphne grimaced.
“Well, time’s a wasting.” Sabrina made a dramatic shudder. “Honestly, with the holidays upon us, you couldn’t even start planning a wedding until after New Year’s. And four months is not enough time to plan a decent wedding.”
“I’m not planning any kind of wedding, decent or indecent, Sabrina.”
“But if you want to keep Mabel—and I know you do—maybe you should start planning a wedding—a wedding with a certain good looking marine. Before it’s too late.”
“I’m so glad you came over to lift my spirits,” Daphne said drolly. “Whatever would I do without you?”
“Well, somebody’s got to give you a reality kick in the behind from time to time. What’re friends for, anyway?”
“Here’s to reality.” Daphne attempted a brave smile as she held up her cup of tea.
“To reality.” Sabrina clinked her cup against Daphne’s. “Just don’t let it slap you in the caboose on your way out.”