In her life, Sara Matchett had committed three huge, earth-thumping, wildly stupid mistakes. She planned to confront them, wrestle them to the ground and, in the process, probably commit a whole swarm of new and even more idiotic screwups.
Then leave her hometown for the last time.
Why not? At nearly fifty, she’d reached the perfect age to turn her world, and everyone else’s, upside down.
“I think that’s a worthwhile goal, regardless of which secrets you plan to unload,” said seventy-one-year-old Aunt Jewell, clear-wrapping a plate of cookies in her kitchen. “In fact, I’m dying to hear about them. What would Christmas be without a soap opera?”
“And I have a lot of experience in the field,” Sara conceded as she snapped a lid atop the cranberry-orange stuffing casserole she’d prepared.
She wished the kitchen had a mirror so she could check whether her green velvet dress was too fussy. Were the stars she’d embroidered ridiculous on a grown woman? “If I ever write my memoirs, I’ll call them, I Was a Teenage Drama Queen.”
“Why limit yourself to the past when you have such talent?” deadpanned her aunt, who sported her own original outfit, red with sparkles cascading along the bodice and skirt. She’d tucked a glittery comb into the dyed jet-black hair. Sara hoped that, in another twenty years, she’d have as much panache as her aunt.
“I’m not sure I’m as gifted as that.” Hearing the quaver in her voice, Sara swept into the living room, ready to head out the door. Might as well get it over with.
Until this moment, she hadn’t allowed herself to dwell on exactly what might happen when she arrived at the family celebration and set the record straight with her sisters. Not that Sara wished to dampen anyone’s holiday, but they deserved to learn why she hadn’t been part of their little world in Rancho Allegro, California, for thirty years.
Above her aunt’s sofa, family photos had been rearranged to feature two new portraits. Her gaze went first to her flamboyant oldest sister, Mandy, wearing a wedding dress that Aunt Jewell had designed. Beside her, mystery novelist Richard Forbes gazed lovingly at his bride.
He and Mandy, the nursing director at the local medical center, had strolled to the altar a couple of weeks ago. Although Sara had been invited, notice had been short. With this trip already planned for Christmas, she hadn’t been able to join them.
In the next photo stood their serious-minded middle sister, Dr. Cody Matchett, with her second husband at their marriage ceremony six months ago. The hospital’s attorney, Ben Wright, had been a longtime acquaintance, but the pair had only recently fallen in love.
Sara had congratulated Cody by phone. Over the years, they’d met for lunch on a few occasions when her sister was attending medical conferences near Sara’s homes, in Atlanta and then, after her divorce, in Tennessee.
But she’d skipped that wedding, too. She hadn’t been prepared to face the judgments of other attendees.
However, she didn’t plan to miss Jewell’s upcoming marriage, which was the main reason for her extended visit. After a decade of widowhood, her aunt was remarrying and had requested that Sara, the only one of her three nieces to share her artistic talents, help prepare for the event in late January.
Sara sighed. Faced with these images, she regretted her absence from her sisters’ special days. If she ever did write her memoirs, she might have to add those deficiencies as subheadings under Mammoth Mistake #3, Blowing Off My Family When I Should Have Faced Up to Them.
Maybe it should rank higher on the list. But her other two mistakes were so overwhelming, they scarcely bore thinking about.
Sara yanked her thoughts back to today’s planned gathering. This would involve people new to her, including the bridegrooms and their offspring from previous marriages. Well, she could tolerate having an audience. Just as long as she didn’t have to see the one person who knew too much, and had hurt her more than almost all the others put together.
Although Dr. Nate Patton shared a medical practice with her sister, Cody, there was no reason for Sara to run into him. Not today, at least. He’d no doubt be celebrating the holiday with his relatives.
“How wonderful!” Jewell, who’d pulled a lacy shawl around her shoulders, stood at the front window gazing out.
“What is?” Sara shifted to stand beside her.
Across the street, a few white flakes drifted past the palm trees. “That is unusual. In Southern California, anyway.” Snow was far from rare in Nashville.
“I’m not sure how my little car would function in this kind of weather,” Jewell fretted.
Sara glanced with curiosity at the normally fearless woman. “Why should this be a problem? The snow isn’t sticking to the ground.” She’d offered to rent a car at the airport, since she’d be staying for a month, but her aunt had insisted they could share one vehicle. There’d been no reference to inconvenient quirks.
“No matter.” The older woman waved a hand airily. “One of the other guests will be driving us.”
“A family friend.”
Outside, a flash of movement drew Sara’s attention. A fluffy white dog raced across the yard. “What a dear little scamp.”
“Agreed,” Jewell said. “His owner’s not bad-looking, either.”
In pursuit of the fleeing pooch strode a tall, dark-haired man in crisp slacks and a tailored jacket. A man whose erect posture and solemn eyes were engraved in Sara’s memory.
“What’s Nate doing here?” she burst out, and immediately felt foolish. He’d grown up in the house next door to her aunt’s, but surely at some point he’d moved out. A casual check on the Internet had indicated he’d been married and divorced, with no indication of children. Surely he hadn’t stayed in the family home, so why was he back?
Not that it mattered. Or ought to matter.
“His mother recently went into assisted living, and he bought her house,” Jewell explained.
Sara’s chest squeezed. Why did a single man need a whole house, even a modest-sized cottage in this beach community? “Has he remarried?”
“Nothing like that,” her aunt assured her. “But he did adopt two dogs as a favor to a friend of his mom’s who’s also in assisted living. Her children were about to dump them at a shelter.”
“Cute pooches.” She spoke by rote, while straining to assimilate the fact that, for another month, she’d be living next door to the one person she most wanted to avoid. “I mean, cute pooch, singular. The other one could be ugly as far as I know.”
“Don’t split hairs.”
“They’re only dog hairs.”
Jewell chuckled. “I’ve missed your sense of humor. It’ll be fun having you here.”
Sara had arrived the previous day in a flurry of luggage, mostly containing handmade garments, plus her laptop and peripherals. Thank goodness a graphic arts business was portable. While she still dabbled in fabric design, that didn’t come close to paying the bills.
A dark suspicion formed. “This family friend who’s driving us to Cody’s house wouldn’t be ...?”
“He has a nice car,” her aunt replied. “They call the color blue pearl. Isn’t that lovely?”
Sara gritted her teeth. If she protested too strongly, Jewell might wonder why.
On the sidewalk, Nate scooped the dog into his arms, laughing as it licked his chin and neck. How rare to see him let go of his stern self-control. Inside Sara, something turned over, or overturned, or simply expanded.
Then he glanced toward the window. She registered the instant he saw her, how his muscles tightened and his lips parted and, for a flash, he stared directly into her eyes. Despite the flecks of gray in his hair and the grooves around his mouth, thirty years vanished and he was the boy she’d played with and counted on and turned to when her world fell apart.
He’d stood by her. But not in the way she’d hoped.
Not in the way she’d needed.
He favored them with a slight wave of the hand, the best he could manage while holding the squirming dog. Funny how Sara zeroed in on that sturdy hand with its square-tipped fingers.
The hand of a surgeon, a man who’d saved lives and delivered babies all these decades, and who’d once held her while she cried. More than once.
He knew I’d be here today. He must have heard, since he didn’t appear taken aback. But he had no idea what she planned to reveal. He wasn’t going to like it, especially if his name got dragged into the tale.
“Why is he spending Christmas at Cody’s place?” Sara asked as Nate and the dog disappeared into the next house. “Surely he’d rather be with his own family.”
“Doris insists on eating with her friends at the retirement home.” Doris, Nate’s mother, was an old friend of Jewell’s.
“What about his sister?” Sara was almost afraid to ask, in light of the abyss that had formed between her and Kiri, once among her closest pals.
Jewell shrugged. “She’s not exactly the sociable type. Plans of her own, I guess. Hey, if this storm doesn’t let up, we might get snowed in at Cody’s! Wouldn’t that be cozy?”
The notion of being snowed in around here was absurd. But also, under the circumstances, troubling. Perhaps Sara’s growing uneasiness was the reason she blurted, “I’m not comfortable riding with Nate. Let’s take your car.”
“Nonsense! It’s just...” She halted, unable to dream up a plausible excuse.
The older woman leveled her an uncompromising look. “Doris and I both felt there was something between you two. It’s no secret that you were dating right before you pulled that stupid stunt and ran off.”
“My marriage wasn’t a stupid stunt.” Honesty forced Sara to admit, “Maybe in retrospect. But Nate and I didn’t really date.”
“Don’t give me that we-were-just-friends crap. You spent all your free time together. And I saw how you looked at each other.”
You mean how I looked at him. “He was covering for me.” That was among the things Sara hadn’t told anyone, including her aunt.
Mistake #3 was obvious and about to be corrected when Sara faced her family en masse today. And Mistake #2, running off with a man more than twice her age who was almost a stranger, was also well-known.
As for Mistake #1, Jewell was in for as big a shock as the others. It was too complicated for Sara to drop hints. “You’ll find out along with everyone else.”
“Would it kill you to provide a sneak peek?”
The best defense was a good offense. “Did you ask Nate to drive us in order to throw us together?”
“What if I did?”
“You admit it?”
“In the immortal words of practically every T-shirt on the Internet, I admit nothing,” her aunt said. “Better grab your jacket. He’ll be bringing the car around any minute. Nate’s nothing if not punctual.”
With no other reasonable options, Sara yielded. She should have realized she wasn’t the only one in her family with a flair for drama.
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