Excerpt from All I Want for Christmas
Book #1 of the Halo Island Series
The ferryboat blasted its horn and slowly motored into Halo Island harbor. “Music to my ears.” Georgia Garwood, known to her friends as Gigi, beamed at Tina Morrell. “I can’t wait to get home.”
This was the first time since her hip replacement surgery ten days ago that she looked happy. After a lot of grumbling during the ninety-minute drive from Seattle to Anacortes, a painfully slow trip to the restroom, then a forty-five-minute ferry ride spent sitting in Tina's sedan, that smile was a pleasure to see.
Relieved, Tina reached across the bucket seats and squeezed the gnarled hand of the woman she loved like a mother. “You’re a real trooper. I only hope that if I ever need hip surgery, I’ll be as good a patient.”
“You’ve been wonderful to me.” Gigi squeezed back, then let go. “The surgeon and physical therapists say I need help for at least another few weeks, but what do they know? You don’t have to stay with me. If I need anything, I’ll ask one of the neighbors.”
Any of the residents on Huckleberry Hill Road would gladly lend a hand, but Tina refused to relinquish her responsibility. “After all you’ve done for me, I’m thrilled to finally have the chance to do something for you.”
“I appreciate that, but this job promotion is important.” Gigi’s gray eyes grew worried. “You should be in Seattle, fighting for it.”
Tina couldn't argue with that. Competition for creative director, a coveted position at Dunphy Marketing & Advertising, aka Dunphy, was fierce. Tina had a good shot at getting the job. Her only real adversary was Kendra Eubanks, a coworker who would stop at nothing to get what she wanted.
Unfortunately, the interviews had been delayed until after Thanksgiving, some two-plus weeks from now. Staying on top of things and keeping a vigilant eye on Kendra was crucial, and not so easy to do from the island. Or wouldn't be without Calinda, Tina's trusted assistant.
“Jason has always said family should come first. He didn't even blink when I asked to work from the island," she said. “Plus, Calinda and I will touch base several times a day. Everything will be fine.” She hoped.
Gigi didn’t look convinced.
“I haven't been here in early November in I don't know how long," Tina added. Normally, she visited for Thanksgiving and then again over Christmas. “Being home now means fresh apple cider from Lindeman’s Orchards.” She licked her lips in anticipation.
“I'm sure there’ll be a big jug at the potluck tonight, and I…” Gigi broke off, wincing.
Tina bit her lip. “Maybe you should take a pain pill.” Reaching into the backseat, she grabbed Gigi’s prescription container and a bottle of water.
“Put those things away. They make me feel like a zombie. What I need is to lie down. I can't climb the stairs yet. You’ll have to make up the daybed in the den.”
“That's the plan. Aspirin might help and won’t make you feel woozy.”
Gigi nodded, and Tina rooted through her purse for the bottle. As the older woman swallowed the tablets, the hum of the ferry’s motor cut off. “All passengers and vehicles may now depart,” announced a male voice over the public address system.
Along with Tina's car, the dozen or so other vehicles roared to life. With tourist season over until spring, the ferry was only half-full, which would cut the exit time. Tired herself, Tina yawned as she pulled forward.
“You need a nap, too,” Gigi said. “Between working long hours and visiting me at the hospital and rehab center every night, you’re worn out. And way too thin. If only I could cook for you.”
“Stop worrying about me! You know how much I like to cook. It'll be nice to have the time to do it.” Following a truck, Tina drove down the ramp. She turned onto the aptly named Treeline Road.
“Look at the trees,” Gigi said. “They’d barely started to change color when I left for my surgery. Those vivid reds and yellows take my breath away.”
“They're beautiful,” Tina agreed. No doubt she’d rake Gigi’s backyard once or twice before she headed back to Seattle.
“While you’re here, you ought to take a walk through the woods. You’re too pale, and the fresh air will put the roses in your cheeks. Help you relax some, too.”
“I’ll try to do that.” Though between telecommuting and Skype meetings, cooking, cleaning, driving Gigi to physical therapy, and dealing with whatever else happened, Tina doubted she’d have much spare time.
Not that she minded filling every minute with chores. Better that than free time to second-guess herself and wonder if…
No. Lips compressed, she signaled and then turned away from the water toward Huckleberry Hill Road, which was two and a half miles inland and smack-dab in the center of the island.
“By the way, if you need a printer while you’re here, Ryan Chase, that nice single father I told you about—the one who moved into Seda Booker’s place a few months ago—said you’re welcome to borrow his.”
Wondering why Gigi had mentioned the subject to the man across the street—was she trying to match make?—Tina eyed her. “I know you want me to start dating again."
After a bad breakup two years ago, she'd given up men to focus on work. At least, that was the excuse she used. The truth was, she had no interest in getting hurt again. “Right now, I'm not ready. I need to concentrate on getting the promotion.”
She glanced at Gigi to make sure she was listening. “As for Ryan Chase, I wouldn’t want to impose on a man I don’t even know. I doubt I'll need a printer, but if I do, I'll use the one at the office supply store.”
“That’s expensive, and the store is only open from nine to six. What if you need a printer at night or early in the morning? Using Ryan’s will cost you nothing, and you don’t have to get in the car and drive someplace. So convenient.”
"You do know that Dunphy is in Seattle, and that Seattle is where I live now. And that someday I plan to run the company."
“Maggie Chase is so cute!” Gigi gushed, as if she hadn't heard a word. “She reminds me of you at that age—full of spit and spunk. A real handful, but lovable all the same.”
Tina smirked at that. Oh, she’d been a handful, all right. Not as bad in Gigi's kindergarten class as later on. A thirteen-year-old girl, orphaned, scared and alone.
Gigi had taken Tina into her home and raised her as her own, and she and the other neighbors had stuck with Tina through everything. She owed all that she was today to them.
“You were such a good kindergarten teacher,” she told Gigi.
“I loved teaching. Sometimes I wish I hadn’t retired. But at seventy-five, I just don’t have the energy or stamina to deal with twenty children all at once.”
“You’re still a dynamo.”
“I was better before this hip trouble. Norma Featherstone—did I mention she’s pregnant at last? Four months along—has been watching Maggie after school since I left town for my surgery. I suppose she’ll keep on until this new hip works the way it should.”
“You wouldn't need to watch anyone after school if you’d just let me help with the expenses…”
“I don’t need help.” Gigi’s mouth tightened as she raised her chin. “I manage quite well on social security and my teacher’s pension. Besides, I need something to do. Maggie lights up the house. And her daddy… Well, you’ll see for yourself how special he is.” She shot Tina a sly look. “They'll be at the potluck.”
“Of course they will.” Tina was sure Gigi saw her roll her eyes.
They were almost home now.
“Have I mentioned that he manages the Halo Island Bank?”
“Yes, and you also told me he started a bank in L.A., sold it for tons of money, and moved here.”
Though why he'd relocated from a bustling city to an island of roughly six thousand people was a mystery. Tina wondered just what Gigi had told Ryan Chase about her. No doubt, she’d find out.
“You’d never know he’s wealthy. He's not at all snobby, and he can cook, too. Wait'll you taste his brownies.”
Gigi shifted carefully, her face etched with discomfort. She needed to rest.
Tina gave her a sideways glance. “I know this dinner has been on the calendar for a long time, but couldn’t we put it off for a few weeks? Or maybe you could switch with the Rosses and ask them to host tonight instead?”
The question earned her a dirty look, as if she’d suggested stealing from the food bank.
“It’s their turn to host the New Year's Day potluck, and they’re so looking forward to that,” Gigi said. “I couldn’t ask them to switch. Tonight will be fine, especially with you here to help.”
Fifty feet ahead, the white-and-blue Huckleberry Hill Road—Dead End sign greeted them. Tina eased off the accelerator, and though there wasn’t another car in sight, she signaled.
“Everyone is looking forward to seeing you,” Gigi continued. “We’re all crossing our fingers that you get the promotion.”
For all their sakes, Tina hoped so, too. Not only had Gigi and most of the neighbors looked after her from the time she’d been orphaned, they’d also pooled their money and paid her college and graduate school tuition—despite the fact that several of them had children of their own.
Instead of expecting repayment, they expected her to climb the corporate ladder and make them proud.
Tina wasn’t about to let them down—even if she didn’t love her work anymore. She had no idea why or when advertising and marketing had ceased to be her life, but the magic was gone. Well, they'd never know.
Suddenly tense, she massaged the back of her neck.
“What’s the matter, Tina?”
“Nothing at all.” She forced a bright smile. “It’s been a long day. Are you sure you’re up to all that socializing tonight?”
“If I’m not, I’ll just go to bed and the neighbors can party without me.” Gigi started to laugh, but broke off and grimaced.
The people Tina had grown up with filled the main floor of Gigi’s modest bungalow. Not one of them was a blood relative, but she considered them family. Tina greeted them with warmth and hugs.
After nearly a year away from the island, being surrounded by people who loved her and soothed her frayed nerves. How long had it been since she'd let down and relaxed?
As laughter and conversation buzzed through the house she piled food onto Gigi’s plate from the platters on the dining room table.
If she craned her neck she could see Gigi seated in the black captain’s chair in the corner of the living room. When aspirin and rest hadn’t relieved her pain, she’d at last given in and swallowed a prescription pill. If she felt cotton-headed she didn't show it. Holding court with half a dozen neighbors, she seemed her usual lively, witty self.
Sidney Pletcher, a widower who lived down the block, welcomed Tina with a toothy smile followed by parental-like concern. “You’ve lost weight. You’re too scrawny.”
“Gee, thanks.” Tina cast a bemused eye at the portly seventy-eight-year-old. With his snowy beard, he could pass for Santa Claus, only he was way too grumpy. Except at Christmas, when he dressed the part and handed out candy.
She turned to Rose Thorne, ten years younger than Sidney, and another neighbor. “Do you think I’m too thin?”
Chin in hand, Rose, who was trim by nature and a weaver by trade, studied her from head to toe. “Maybe a little, although when you work hard sometimes you don’t have time to eat right. That’s true of me when I’m engrossed in a project. But scrawny? No.”
Tina high-fived her. “Thanks, Rose.”
“You could stand to put on a few pounds, too,” Sidney told Rose.
The older woman pursed her lips and aimed a pointed look at his belly. “And you should lose some.”
Sidney sucked in his gut. “I’m not fat. And you’re not my doctor.”
“Never claimed to be. You need to get your eyes checked and buy a new scale. Because you're definitely overweight.”
They bickered like an old married couple, just as they had for years. Yet they’d toured Europe together and spent a great deal of time at each other’s homes. What they did there was none of Tina’s business. She knew only that they cared about each other. Even if at the moment their matching glares were hot enough to reheat the coffee.
Sidney turned to Tina. “It’s too bad Gigi can’t cook for you while you’re here. You’d gain weight in no time. Scrawny or not, I’m real proud of you. My own kids should be so successful. Someday you’ll be running that ad company in Seattle, and I can say I knew you when.”
“Won’t that be wonderful?” Rose agreed.
Insults forgotten and united by their pride in Tina, they smiled fondly at each other and then at her.
Tina’s stomach began to burn, a sure sign her ulcer was acting up. Or maybe she was just hungry. “I promise to do what I can to get there. I should finish getting Gigi’s dinner for her.”
Both neighbors beamed atta-girl smiles at her, then took their own plates to the living room.
Norma Featherstone, who was a few years older than Tina, gave her a knowing smile. “They’re certainly intense, aren’t they?” She patted her growing belly. “All I hear lately is, ‘Eat this… You shouldn’t be doing that.’”
Norma and her husband, Harry, had moved to Huckleberry Hill Road three years ago and immediately had been welcomed into the fold.
“It’s all done with love,” Tina said as she added a piece of fried chicken to Gigi’s plate.
“Yes, and isn’t this an amazing street?” Norma looked fondly around the room. “We love the neighborhood.”
“Me, too.” Tina popped a bite-size cheese biscuit into her mouth, then took two for Gigi. She was on her way to the living room when the front door opened.
“Ryan and Maggie are here,” Susan Ross said from the crowded sofa.
A little imp of a girl skipped inside, her blonde pigtails bouncing. Behind her, a big man entered the room. Tall, his dark hair curly, wearing jeans and a plaid flannel shirt, he didn’t look like a man who’d made a fortune from the bank he’d founded, let alone the manager of the Halo Island Bank.
He hung their coats in the closet, as if he’d been here a thousand times and belonged.
Gigi had sung Ryan’s praises, but she’d neglected to mention his rugged good looks. A woman couldn’t help but admire him.
People called out greetings. Ryan nodded and grinned. Of all things, the man had a dimple in one cheek, which deepened as he followed his daughter to Gigi.
“Welcome home,” He kissed Gigi's cheek. “We sure missed you.”
The older woman lit up. “Aren’t you two a sight for sore eyes. It’s good to be home.”
Tina handed Gigi her dinner and moved out of the way—or tried to. Gigi snagged her wrist in a surprisingly firm grasp, keeping her at her side.
“This is my Tina. Tina Morrell, meet Ryan Chase.”
The noise abruptly stopped. Aware that every person in the house was observing her, Tina hid her attraction under a polite smile. “Hello, Ryan.”
He towered above her, his gaze swiftly darting over her. By the sudden light in his gaze, Tina thought he might be interested. But the instant the thought formed, a flicker of something—wariness?—replaced the warmth she thought she'd seen and his expression became guarded.
He handed a foil-covered pan to his daughter, then engulfed Tina’s hand in his. “Pleasure.”
After a quick, all-business handshake, he nodded at the little girl. “This is my daughter, Maggie. Say hello to Miss Morrell.”
An adorable freckled face peered up at her. No wariness there. “’Lo, Miss Morrell.”
This time, Tina’s smile bloomed naturally. “Hi. Please, call me Tina.”
“If that’s what the lady wants.”
A dimple just like her father’s flashed on her cheek. “We gots the same color hair. Yours is short. I like it.”
Self-conscious, Tina touched her 'do. “Thanks. I like your pigtails, too, and those sparkly, pink ties are really nice.”
“Daddy bought ’em for me. Do you like pink?”
"Of course, but I also like blue and orange."
"Orange is a Halloween color. Halloween was last week!" Maggie practically danced with excitement. "I was gonna be a princess, but then I decided to be the number five ’cause that’s how old I am.”
Tina laughed. “That sounds very… original.”
“Daddy said that, too. Guess what else? A long time ago, Gigi was a kindergarten teacher.”
“I know. I was one of her students. That’s how we met.”
“You did? Did you hear that, Daddy?”
Tina’s cheeks felt hot, but then Ryan was staring at her. She focused on the little girl “I’ll bet you’re hungry.”
“Uh-huh. So is my daddy.”
A big man like Ryan probably ate tons.
“There’s plenty of food here,” Tina said.
Duh. Anyone with eyes could see the platters on the dining room table.
Ryan pulled his daughter’s pigtail. “Come on, Sunshine, let’s eat.”
Though Tina was famished, she decided to wait until father and daughter had served themselves. Ryan made her nervous, but she couldn’t have said why.