His Christmas Miracle
BOOK 5 in the Love in Montana Series
Countdown to Christmas…
Quincy Ryan was just handed custody of a son he didn’t know existed. He knows how to be an architect, not a dad, so he looks to his own father for guidance, but that means moving with Pops to Marietta, Montana. Quincy knows he has to get over his shock and give Atlas the Christmas he deserves, but how? He needs a miracle.
Struggling actress, Nicki Darren, will take any job as Christmas approaches, even babysitting for a withdrawn, workaholic, single father. She lost her mom as a child, too, and identifies with four-year-old Atlas, wanting to give him a real Christmas.
An advent calendar of activities soon has Nicki pulling Quincy out of the house to get a tree and ice skate with his son. She wants Quincy to open his heart to Atlas, but begins to fall for the Ryan men herself. It makes the countdown to her last day, Christmas Eve, bittersweet. If only the miracle he is looking for included her…
His Christmas Miracle
is BOOK 5 in the Love in Montana Series
The full series reading order is as follows:
He definitely couldn’t hire her. She was way too pretty. Pretty enough to be an actress and definitely too pretty to be a nanny.
— Quincy on meeting Nicki, His Christmas Miracle
When I started plotting His Christmas Miracle, I knew Nicki wanted to help Quincy and Atlas bond by doing Christmas activities together. She’s hired for the month of December, so I started plotting with a pencil on a calendar page various things she could do with them each day.
Along with Get a tree and Visit Santa, I wrote, Make an Advent Calendar. Once I thought about Nicki making one and counting down to Christmas with Atlas, I realized the whole book could be plotted as a countdown to Christmas. (In retrospect, I should have tagged each chapter, “Ten days ’til Christmas.” Only took me a year to realize that.)
However, the Advent calendar idea led to me thinking it would be a cool Christmas craft for you, Dear Reader, to have a calendar you could print, color, and assemble with your little elves. Look for it under Extras!
share this excerpt!
His Christmas Miracle
Nicole Darren pulled her hatchback into the address on the outskirts of Marietta and let out a relieved breath. That drive through icy passes and swirling snowflakes had been a nightmare—and she had splurged on good snow tires.
Well, she had spent her father’s money on them, but she wouldn’t have arrived in one piece if she hadn’t. And she was going to pay him back.
Right after she landed this job.
With another cleansing breath, she tugged her hat onto her head, pulling hard enough to bring the pink-and-yellow tails under her chin, then tied them off. As she stepped outside, her nose pinched and her eyes watered, stung by the fierce, biting wind.
I missed you, too, Montana. Ugh. Maybe she should have waited until May to leave California.
After slamming her car door, she pocketed her keys, then zipped her consignment-store ski jacket, taking in the farmhouse as she started toward it. It was two stories with a single-story addition wrapped in a covered porch off to the left. The east side, maybe? She was terrible with directions, but she knew pretty when she saw it.
In the waning light of afternoon, surrounded by the blowing snow, the house looked surprisingly sweet. It was in good repair, obviously restored by loving hands that had a flair for “quaint”. She adored the bold eggplant with teal trim and yellow rails. On a sunny day, it would be bright and welcoming, making any passerby smile. There was even an old washtub next to the stairs, sleeping under a layer of snow, but with a few ice-coated, brown stalks poking through, promising to greet visitors with a riot of blooms come spring.
Delighted by the idea of working for someone with such a warm, artistic bend, she clomped up the steps, rang the bell, then looked for a broom to sweep her footprints.
The door opened and a man was backlit through the screen. She saw more silhouette than expression. He was tall and had wide, strapping shoulders beneath a white-and-blue striped button shirt. No hat, cowboy or otherwise. He wore a neatly trimmed beard the same color as his dark brown hair.
He did not look like he needed a nursing aide.
She smiled as if he were her new boss. “Am I at the right house? Are you Ryan Quincy? I’m Nicki Darren.”
“Quincy Ryan.” He started to push the screen toward her.
“I’m sorry.” She stepped back, then loosened her boots and stepped out of them, leaving them on the welcome mat as she entered. “I thought the recruitment site got it backward, and Ryan was your first name.”
“That happens a lot.” He didn’t smile. In fact, he was doing a great imitation of the arctic outflow wind that he locked outside as he closed the door behind her.
Now she was in the foyer and could properly see him, she realized he was really good looking. Her inner spinster warmed and fanned herself. The aspiring actress who had been around that many pretty boys for the last seven years said, Oh, please.
But he was really good looking. He was a head taller than she was, fit and trim with dark brown eyes, brows that were on the stern side, and a jaw that was wide enough to be strong. It was beautifully framed with stubble grown just long enough to make her want to touch his cheek, suspecting it was smooth, not scratchy. He was one of those quietly powerful types of men who were natural leaders because people couldn’t help but look up and defer to him.
At the same time, he gave off such an attitude of aloof superiority, she had to catch back an exasperated chuckle. She had left L.A. precisely to distance herself from this sort of arrogance, and to get back to being around real people who were nice to one another because it was the decent way to behave.
Do. Not. Blow. This.
“You have a beautiful home.” Compliments were always a good start, right? She tugged off her hat and flashed another friendly grin at him. Maybe her face hadn’t opened as many doors as she would have liked, but her smile usually prompted an answering one when she offered it.
“It’s not mine. My father grew up here and just bought it again. We had nothing to do with this.”
The jerk of his head disparaged the crown molding, the polished hardwood floors, and the glossy white wainscoting under cornflower-blue wallpaper with white polka dots. Each of the stair treads was carpeted in blue while the risers were painted white. She would bet any money the kitchen was buttercup yellow.
“I see.” She didn’t. She instantly loved everything about this house and wanted to tell him how lucky he was. She’d been sharing rooms with cockroaches and starving actors. She hadn’t had her own space in years, let alone anything so dollhouse perfect.
“I just drove in from California. That was a shock to the system.” She thumbed toward the window draped in white curtains held open with bands of blue. Outside, flakes continued to swirl in the dusk.
“It was like this in Philly. And all the way across.” He frowned as he led her into a living room where the furniture was off center on its area rug. Boxes were stacked against the wall. In the empty, adjoining dining room, a gray modular desk was coming together, a handful of pieces still wrapped in shrink film. “We got in late last night. I thought your resume showed a Montana address?”
“My father’s place. One way or another, I was giving up my room in L.A. Since Glacier Creek is where I was born…” She shrugged as she removed her jacket and draped it across her thighs as she lowered to perch on the sofa across from him. “It’s where I’m headed if I don’t take a job elsewhere.”
She tried to make it sound like she had options other than this one.
He took the wingback, seeming to weigh her words. Did he think she was dishonest? Misrepresenting? Her palms began to sweat. She needed this job so bad.
A laptop stood open on the coffee table. Thankfully, there was only one file folder beside it, with her name on it.
Don’t send me crawling back to Glacier Creek. Please.
She had left anything that didn’t fit in her hatchback in California, then had barely slept in Utah, afraid her few remaining possessions would be stolen overnight, even though the couple she had found through a B&B app had assured her their neighborhood was very safe. She hadn’t detoured to stay with her father and stepmother on her way here either. Telling them she was back in Montana could wait until she had aced this interview. That was what she kept telling herself.
If she didn’t get the job, well, she could already hear her stepmother, Gloria, saying, “I told you so.”
“You didn’t list previous experience.” Quincy Ryan lifted his gaze from studying her file. He sounded skeptical. Looked dubious.
“I completed my certification earlier this year and did a practicum at an assisted-living home in Santa Monica. I was able to stay on at the facility a few extra months to cover for someone on leave. I’ve been working in the field all this time.”
She had to force herself not to blurt the words out too fast, but she was anxious to impress on him that she wasn’t completely green. Squishing her palms together between her knees, she fought to keep her voice measured and warm.
“But the cost of living in California is, well, prohibitive. And I was ready for a change. Montana always felt like home, so when I saw this position, I was really excited. I love the idea of being back here.”
Too much enthusiasm? She didn’t know how to read that blank stare of his and kept getting distracted by the stark beauty of his sculpted features.
He dropped his attention back to the folder. “No experience with children, either.”
“Well, babysitting, of course. When I was a teenager.” Everyone had that, didn’t they? “I also have CPR and the first aid that was part of my training. Plus, I took an elective certificate on diet and nutrition, so I can prepare meals along with, you know, spoon-feeding if he isn’t feeding himself. But I understood from the posting that the boy is four and there were no specific health concerns. Is that right?”
His lips went tight. He kept his gaze on the open file folder in his hand. “Yes.”
“But there’s a senior who is diabetic?”
“My father. Yes. He has an insulin pump and takes blood pressure medication. If it were only him, I could monitor that myself, but with Atlas… It’s too much to ask my father to watch him all day, and I have to work.” His gaze came up, flat and unreadable. “The position is more nanny than nurse. Full days of child minding and housekeeping, cooking and laundry. Whatever they both need, every day until Christmas. Preschool starts in January. I have someone arranged to help out then.”
Whatever they need, not him. Something about that struck her, but she was concentrating more on keeping her hand from waving wildly in the air as the words, Pick me, crowded her throat. She didn’t care if it was only for a few weeks. She needed the money.
“Atlas is your son?”
“Yes.” He didn’t say it with as much conviction as she would have expected.
“And you’re not married?” She wasn’t being sexist, assuming his wife would take care of everyone, but he hadn’t mentioned a spouse.
“His mother and I weren’t together. She passed away last month. Car accident.”
“Oh.” Wow. She had a lot of questions about each of those bullet-point statements, but she was overcome with such a wave of empathy for little Atlas, her chest grew tight.
“I’m so sorry,” she said with deep sincerity. “I lost my mom when I was eleven. He must be having a very rough time.” Her eyes welled before she could even try to stop it, old loss hitting afresh. And it was coming up to Christmas, too.
She looked around for the tike, wanting to hug him. That was all she had wanted when she’d been in his shoes—for someone to hug her. A little love went a long way when your world had completely shattered.
“I, uh…” Quincy did the man-panic and quickly stood to snatch a box of tissues from where it poked from an open box. He offered it to her. “Here.”
“I’m sorry. I’m fine,” she hurried to insist, forcing an abashed smile as she quickly dabbed and pulled herself together. How to not make a great first impression. Sheesh.
It struck her that Quincy had only mentioned his father. “Your mother isn’t with you?”
“Gone twelve years.” His face spasmed very briefly, the first sign of emotion she’d seen in him. “Cancer. Hit me hard at twenty. I can’t imagine at four.” He didn’t look at her, only seemed to take great care centering her single-sheet resume in the crease of the folder.
“I’m so sorry.” She meant it.
Quincy lifted his gaze. They sat in the shadow of grief for two slow heartbeats while the disquiet in his expression eased.
Then, as if he remembered they were strangers, he quickly re-enshrined his thoughts and feelings into their tomb. He glanced away. When his gaze came back, it was cool and unreadable.
“What were you doing before taking your certification?” It seemed a deliberate change of topic.
“Deluding myself.” She went for good-natured self-deprecation to hide the fact she wanted to shrivel into a ball every time she confronted her spectacular failure in California. See, Gloria? I can act.
Quincy’s brows went up.
“I, uh, had aspirations to star in movies. Apparently, so does the rest of Montana and every other state besides.” She scratched her brow, shrugging off years of heartbreak and struggle as if they were inconsequential. They were. No one cared. Only her. “You can only survive on ramen noodles for so long, right? I was flat out told I was getting too old. I’m twenty-five.”
She still couldn’t believe those words had been spoken to her and railed on with the subdued outrage she’d been trying to exorcise since it happened.
“My agent said she was cutting her list down to people under twenty. She only wanted talent who had the potential to pay back the investment of her time. Basically, she was saying even if I landed a good part tomorrow, I was already over the hill. My chances of building a career had passed. Isn’t that horrible? I was already tired of living hand to mouth, but still.”
She had fought against giving up. She had fought against accepting reality, so Gloria wouldn’t be right.
She sighed, still blue, but determined to believe the universe had a plan. “What she said got me thinking, though. About people who are actually in their golden years and dismissed by society. I looked into jobs in nursing homes. Then, when I actually started volunteering with seniors… I didn’t realize how depressed I was from all those years of rejection.”
Her heart lightened just thinking about those early days. She’d wondered if she was being punked, she’d been so astonished by the change in attitude.
“People were happy to see me and eager to chat. They thanked me for the smallest things. Like taking their blood pressure or pouring a glass of water. It’s my job. Why would I need thanks for that? But it made me feel so good. Such a nice change. And I remembered that people used to be friendly and sincere back home, so I decided to move back here. I’m over-sharing, aren’t I?”
She halted as she realized how badly she was running on. Dear Lord, the man was a robot. Stare, stare, stare, like he was cataloguing her brain with his laser vision.
“I’m just saying that it feels good to do something that helps people. I took the training so I would have marketable qualifications and more opportunity, but I’m eager to work wherever and however I’m needed. That’s why I applied for this job, even though it’s temporary and involves more childcare than senior care.”
Even if it would only allow her to pay her father back for the tires when she saw him at Christmas. The ledger sheet between her and her father was heavily in the red on her side. Please let her start balancing it out and prove she was amounting to something.
“So…” She swallowed, unable to stand the suspense. “What do you think?”
He thought she was a parakeet.
Par for the course, Quincy supposed, since he was residing in a house colored up like a peacock.
He used his thumbnail to scratch the line of his beard at the corner of his jaw, then turned over the single sheet in the folder he held. Surprise, surprise, very few people wanted to relocate to map-speck Montana for the month of December. The woman he’d hired briefly in Philly hadn’t wanted anything to do with such a big move to such a small place for such a short time.
Quincy had made inquiries here in Marietta a few months ago, when Pops had first announced his intention to move back here. At that time, he had only needed someone willing to look in once a day. His father was quite capable of living on his own, but things were different now.
Still, it was only one month. Three weeks, really. Once Atlas was in the all-day preschool, Quincy figured he could handle most of the daily stuff. Other parents did. At that point, they could settle for having a housekeeper come in once or twice a week.
He just needed help through December, while they got settled and he finished up some work projects.
He needed time to get used to all of this.
But he wasn’t even given time to decide if he should introduce her to his father. The swing door near the bottom of the stairs squeaked. Pops and Atlas came through from the kitchen.
“Oh. I didn’t realize we had company.” Pops redirected Atlas from the bottom of the stairs into the living room. “We were going to find a clean shirt, but hello.”
“Hello.” Nicki Darren stood.
Pops was carrying too much weight, which contributed to the diabetes, but he came forward with enthusiasm.
“Maurice Ryan. Call me Maury.”
“Nicki.” She shook his hand and offered a big smile.
House, meet fire. His father had spent most of his life in sales and got along with everyone. Quincy had already noted that Ms. Darren didn’t exactly hold back, either. They quickly covered the weather, driving conditions, and the ‘excitement’ of a big move.
Atlas hung back, his blue shirt stained with a few dribbles of tomato soup. The battered stuffed dog he liked to cart around hung from his grip.
“You have a son,” the lawyer had said, after asking if Quincy had once dated Karen Ackerman.
“Five years ago,” he replied. He didn’t like to talk about it because he still felt blindsided by the entire thing. After they met online, things had progressed more quickly than he had expected. He had thought that meant they were serious and started looking for rings.
They had burned out just as fast—on her side, anyway. He hadn’t understood the break up. It had been a slap when he thought things were going well.
They definitely didn’t have a son, though.
They hadn’t, maybe, but she had.
“He’s staying with his maternal grandparents,” the lawyer said. “But you’re identified as the father on his birth certificate. No one else has been designated for custody.”
One paternity test later, Quincy knew his Y chromosome had created this boy, but being a biological father hadn’t made him feel like a dad. He didn’t know how to be a parent.
That hadn’t mattered to Karen’s parents. They were finished raising their own children. They hadn’t approved of their adopted daughter having a child out of wedlock and keeping Quincy in the dark about him. They had not only insisted he be informed, but that he take responsibility.
Quincy privately believed they were holding him to account for something he hadn’t even known he’d done.
He had been sleepwalking ever since. This wasn’t real. How could it be?
Now he was trying to hire some help and his best shot was a failed actress. Nicki Darren was way too freshly minted with her ‘new’ career to take this job seriously.
He started to cut short the conversation before Pops took too much for granted, but Pops was already drawing Atlas forward.
“And this is Atlas.”
Pops was so proud to have a grandson, so taken with him. Quincy had gone to his father with the news the moment he’d hung up from the lawyer. Where else would he go with a shocker like that? He hadn’t known what to do, how to react.
His father had stared at him as if he couldn’t believe he had to spell it out for him. “You take him and raise him, son.”
Quincy was damned grateful he had his father, a man who knew the ropes of parenting, since he didn’t have a clue what to do with a boy that age himself. On the other hand, his father’s reaction put so much pressure on him. Love him, Pops seemed to urge relentlessly.
How? Quincy could barely stand himself, let alone anyone else. His father was the only person he would admit—internally, mind you, and without any flowery language—that he loved outright. He couldn’t simply look into a pair of brown eyes that yes, were disconcertingly similar to the ones he saw in the mirror every day, and fall in love. It was narcissistic, for starters.
He wasn’t dad material. He had never intended to become one. Karen had known that. Which put another wrinkle of confusion into how this had come about.
“Hello, Atlas.” Nicki knelt in front of him and shot a quick glance up at Quincy. “You look just like your father.”
A jolt went through Quincy each time he met her gaze. The zing carried the adolescent pow of electric excitement that used to happen when the head cheerleader tossed a surprise smile at the trig nerd he’d been.
He definitely couldn’t hire her. She was way too pretty. Pretty enough to be an actress, for sure, and definitely too pretty to be a nurse. She was noisy, too. Not just chatty, but he could already tell her personality was loud. She had been wearing a tacky hat when she first came in, a knitted pink-and-yellow thing with a big yellow pom-pom and earflaps that had trailed down into a pair of Technicolor Pocahontas braids.
She had popped it off and rich brown waves had tumbled around her face, hints of caramel and dark coffee giving the mass some depth. Fine strands had lifted with static and she had smiled so big his stomach had tightened with male reaction.
Now her jacket was on the sofa, allowing him to take in the snug pink turtleneck she wore. Her chest was as perfect as a woman could be made. Little glints of dark bronze caught the light as her hair shifted around her shoulders. Her hips flared above narrow thighs encased in skinny jeans. Her face had a sun-kissed California tone, or maybe she had some Latina heritage that gave her that soft glow. She wasn’t wearing makeup and didn’t need it. Those blackstrap molasses eyes of hers were sticky enough, practically gluing his gaze to her features, mesmerizing him.
Maybe he was using her as an excuse not to look at his son.
Son, son, son. He had to get over the shock and deal with it. He knew he did. But how? Hiring this woman couldn’t be the answer. He needed a miracle.
“It sounds like a lot of things have changed for you lately,” Nicki was saying to the boy. “Does it feel strange to be in a new house?”
Atlas brought the stuffed dog up to his chest and hugged it close. His expression grew even more shy than it usually was.
Who named a kid Atlas? He was a boy, not a titan. It made Quincy think the kid was being forced to carry too much. Damn it, if he could only have five minutes with Karen to ask how she’d become pregnant. Why?
He watched Atlas shift his little eyeballs up and down, between Nicki and him, weighing. Like he knew Quincy was making a decision that would affect him.
He’d been giving Quincy that same look since his grandparents had said, “This is your father. You’ll be living with him now.”
Quincy probably wore one just like it. He hated change, too, and always wanted some kind of warning.
“I’m Nicki.” She offered her hand. “Nice to meet you.” After a second, she said, “You’re supposed to shake my hand.”
Atlas did, gingerly.
“Good job.” Nicki’s voice held a warmth that made Quincy uncomfortable. It eased the tension in him a few notches. He needed resistance against her, not reassurance. He didn’t know why, but he did.
The barest hint of a smile touched Atlas’s mouth. Apparently, he wasn’t immune to her star power either.
“I’m excited for Christmas. Are you?”
Atlas shrugged his bony shoulder.
Quincy bit back a groan. He didn’t care about the holiday one way or another. After his mother had passed, he and his father always spent the day together, exchanging a gift of game tickets or hand tools and going out for a decent meal, but that was as far as either of their investment in celebrating went.
This year, Pops seemed to think it all had to be a big hoopla. Atlas didn’t even know his days of the week, as far as Quincy could tell. Did he even understand what Christmas was, let alone why he should be counting days in anticipation?
“My favorite part is making cookies and decorating them. What do you like to do?”
“Pops is diabetic,” Quincy reminded her.
His father shot him a look that told him to ease up, knotting Quincy’s shoulders even further.
“I would love for this house to be full of the smell of ginger snaps and shortbread. My wife used to make them this time of year. So did my mother, come to think of it.”
Nicki rose. “Quincy said you grew up here.”
“I did. I left to make my fortune, as young men do, but I’ve always missed Marietta. When I saw the house had been restored and was for sale, I decided to buy it and move back. That was before we knew about Atlas. I thought I’d be living here alone. Now I have both my boys with me.”
Quincy saw Nicki Darren’s expression sharpen with curiosity, but Pops didn’t give her a chance to ask what he meant by, Before we knew.
“We’ll have to get a tree,” Pops said. “You’ll have to take us shopping, help us with the wrapping. Are you up to all of that?”
“Of course. Does that mean…?” Nicki clasped her hands under her chin. “Do I have the job?” She seemed to have more teeth than normal people. They were straight, pearly, and couldn’t stand not to be seen because there they were again.
“What? Did I get that wrong? I thought you were hiring her?”
“There’s a lot of unpacking still to finish,” Quincy warned her. “I have to work. That’s why we need someone to…” He nodded at Atlas.
I don’t know what to do with him.
In his periphery, he saw his father’s chest rise and fall in subtle disappointment. It hit Quincy hard, every single time.
“If you’re up to that, fine.” Desperate times called for desperate measures. Maybe, given what she’d said about her own mom, and how she’d grown so sad and wistful mentioning it, maybe she understood where Atlas was at and could help the boy settle in. “Start as soon as you can. I need to finish building my desk.”
He went back to the living room.
Despite three days of driving across the country, Quincy’s body clock was still on East Coast time. He was up at five and fine with it. Better to get something done before—
Was that the toilet flushing? Pops?
He finished pulling on his T-shirt and sweats and opened his bedroom door, catching Atlas standing at the top of the stairs, peering through the uprights in the rail, down into the dark.
Atlas glanced back at him and shrank a little, like he thought he was in trouble.
Quincy wasn’t used to looking out for anyone but himself. As far as being intuitive, reading body language and other subtle social cues, he had always been a little on the slow side. Math and structure were his bailiwick.
But since his own stomach was growling, Quincy had an idea what Atlas was looking for.
“Are you hungry? Do you want some breakfast?”
Atlas’s nod was barely perceptible. He wore blue-and-red pajamas with a superhero emblem on the chest. Quincy hadn’t really taken stock of what Karen’s parents had packed for the kid, but the pajamas were tight and showed his ankles and wrists. His feet were bare, one stacked on the other while his toes curled. He looked expectantly up at Quincy, making Quincy even more aware of the void in his stockpile of life skills.
How did you take care of someone else, especially a child?
“Are you cold? Do you have a robe? Slippers?”
Atlas shook his head.
“Put on socks then. And a sweater.” He would turn up the heat, but it would take a while for the house to warm up.
Atlas scooted back to his room. Quincy fetched his own plaid, shrugging it on and returning to the top of the stairs.
As he stood there, he could see Atlas sitting on the floor of his bedroom, working a pair of socks onto his feet. It was a bit of a process. Quincy almost went in to help, but he held back. He just wasn’t sure.
He hated not being sure. Once he’d found his confidence in work and his handful of social relationships, he had stuck to his lane until it was rock solid. Now he was slogging around in uneven terrain, tripping and stumbling with every step. It was a horrible feeling.
Atlas tugged on the pullover he’d been wearing yesterday, the one stained with soup. His head popped through and his fine brown hair stuck up with static as he walked toward the door.
It made Quincy think of rubbing a balloon on his head as a kid, trying to make his own hair stand on end. Maybe he smiled at the memory because Atlas’s mouth pulled in a very quick, very tentative little smile.
At that moment, Pops let out a giant snore behind his bedroom door across the hall, startling them both.
Atlas’s eyes widened, and Quincy found himself chuckling.
“It’s easier to sleep when we’re not sharing a room with that, isn’t it?” Quincy was referring to the hotel rooms from their cross-country trip, but Atlas only gave him a wary look and started down the stairs, looking back at Pops’ door like he was afraid another dinosaur noise would emerge.
Quincy bit back a sigh. He was not used to being the one to carry a conversation. On the flip side, if he’d had any doubts that Atlas was his son, the kid’s reticence pretty much clinched it.
In the kitchen, which was a painfully cheerful yellow with white Shaker cupboards and a backsplash in robin’s egg blue, Quincy set out the boxes of cereal he’d grabbed on a quick grocery run when they’d arrived in town.
“Which one do you like?” They were all adult and boring, Quincy realized. Not that he should feed a kid chocolate and marshmallows first thing, but maybe something with raisins?
He reached to start a grocery list and saw Nicki had already written ‘supplies for cookies’ and ‘xmas lights’ on the little pad of sticky notes. She had stuck around quite a while yesterday, unpacking Atlas’s room and cooking breakfast for dinner. She had eaten with Pops and Atlas while Quincy had brought his own into the dining room where he was assembling his new desk.
Her handwriting was the opposite of his own. Hers was cursive and feminine, slanting this way and that, not quite closing her Os, and she crossed her T well after the upright line. Quincy added ‘cereal’ with the precision of the draftsman he was. Then added slippers, robe, and pajamas.
Atlas picked a flavor.
Quincy poured two bowls, then sat across from the boy to eat. Crunch, munch, crunch. Clink. Slurp. Munch.
Don’t talk my ear off, kid.
“Listen.” Quincy felt like an idiot having an adult conversation with a boy this young, but he had to get it off his chest. He realized with a start this was the first time he’d been alone with the boy. He’d been keeping Pops as close as Atlas kept his toy dog.
“I, uh, didn’t know I had a son. That’s why I didn’t come to see you before. Before you had to go live with your granny and gramps, I mean.”
Karen’s parents had said Karen wanted to be a single mother. He knew she’d been adopted, but she had told him she didn’t want kids. That was how they’d been matched by the online site.
Had she targeted him deliberately? Had her plan been to find herself an unwitting donor? Not a conversation he had wanted to have with her parents while they were grieving, but that was the impression he formed from the few details they had volunteered.
He frowned into his cereal.
Maybe she’d accidentally turned up pregnant and made the choice not to tell him. Maybe she simply hadn’t wanted the complication of a man in her life.
Maybe she hadn’t wanted him.
He cleared his throat. “I know this is strange. It’s hard for both of us, but I’m sure we’ll get to know each other. I didn’t know Pops when I first met him, but we get along great now.”
The joke was lost on the kid. Atlas only finished chewing, then licked the milk from his lips and finally spoke directly to Quincy for the very first time.
“When is Nicki comin’ back?”
Nicki had stayed at the house until seven last night, putting away Atlas’s clothes and noting that his collection of toys was sparse.
Christmas was coming, though, and it sounded like Maury intended to be generous.
She didn’t remember her own grandparents very well. They had passed when she’d been quite young. She hoped Atlas had Maury for a long time. The older man was obviously eager to dote on him.
Which was great since Quincy seemed rather withdrawn. He’d said he and Atlas’s mother weren’t together, and she’d caught that strange comment from Maury.
Before we knew about Atlas.
He couldn’t mean that Quincy had only discovered he had a son when Atlas’s mother had died, could he? It would explain why he was so closed off and distant—from everything, it seemed. The move. His son.
She got the impression he was turned off and tuned out. Maybe he was still upset about Atlas’s mom’s death, too.
Whatever the reason, the dynamic was off. It made her feel for the boy all the more. As ill equipped as her father had been to console her, at least she’d stayed in her old bedroom and saw her friends at school every day.
Poor Atlas. His entire life had been shaken up like a snow globe. Things were only now starting to settle and allow him to see the picture again.
After a bath and getting him into his pajamas, she had sat on his bed with him to read a story. He’d fallen asleep halfway through, but as she had started to leave the bed, he had jerked awake and tried to hang onto her, only letting go as he realized she wasn’t his mom.
He had welled up and she had gathered him into her lap where she had held him and rocked him, heart breaking into a thousand pieces as he sobbed inconsolably against her.
“I know, little man,” she had crooned, rubbing his back, transported to the endless nights when she had cried alone in her own bed. “I know you miss her. It will be okay. I promise you.”
It was a lie. She had never been okay with the loss of her mother, but she had learned to live with the absence. When the grief had been fresh, however, she had needed hope and hadn’t had any.
She didn’t want Atlas to feel the way she had—as though she’d been left abandoned in a big, awful world.
When he calmed, she said, “I’ll lie here until you fall asleep. Then I’ll be back in the morning. I promise. And we’ll make cookies. I want you to think about how much fun we’re going to have.”
She was anxious to get back to him after all those vows, but she had to wait for the grocery store to open. A cursory look in the Ryan cupboards had found them wanting of a lot, especially the essentials like flour and baking powder.
While she waited, Nicki finished settling into her small bachelor apartment above the garage of friends of a friend.
When the interview for a job in Marietta had come up, Nicki had put out a call on social media, asking if anyone could hook her up with accommodation on short notice. Her schoolmate in Glacier Creek, Jacqui Edwards, had known people here in Marietta. Jacqui’s deceased husband had stayed with the Tierneys years ago. The families had stayed in touch and now the Teirney’s daughter, Piper Bloom, and Jacqui were friends.
Piper had lived in this small, furnished suite above her parents’ garage until her marriage last year. The Tierneys weren’t actively looking for a renter, which was why the space was available, but they explained that they used to put up young travelers all the time. They were happy to let her use it.
They were very hospitable, calling up this morning to offer breakfast and coffee since she didn’t have her own groceries yet. She had joined them in their comfortable kitchen, meeting their ridiculously cheerful dog, Charlie. Then they had helped her to finish unpacking her car.
As Nicki told them about her new job, Mr. Tierney said he had probably played against Maury back when they were both on their respective high school basketball teams. The Tierneys had grown up in Livingston. The rivalry between the towns was fierce.
“I’ll invite him for coffee,” Mrs. Tierney said. “To bury the hatchet.”
“Maury would love that,” Nicki assured them, privately thinking, Quincy will decline.
Maury had unpacked his own room last night, calling across to Nicki at different times to ask for her help with holding open a garment bag and stacking a shoe box on a closet shelf. He was plainly excited by this fresh start in his old hometown, and even more eager to see his son and grandson settled here. Unfortunately, he was not physically capable of keeping up with his own ambitions. She had promised to finish his unpacking today, so he could take a bath last night and settle in for a well-deserved rest.
She was getting into her car, cringing from another biting wind under dull, flat clouds, when Mrs. Tierney came out of the front door and waved her down.
“Do they have a mixer and bowls? What about baking sheets?”
“Oh, you’re a lifesaver! I didn’t even think of that.”
“Come. Borrow mine.”
Minutes later, Nicki had a box of baking implements in the back of her car and slammed the hatch. She was ridiculously excited. She hadn’t celebrated Christmas properly in years. Years and years, if she was honest. After her mother passed and her father remarried, her father and Gloria had put up a tree and hosted family dinners, but Gloria had her own way of doing things. She didn’t have kids, but she was fond of her sister’s children. They had been about Nicki’s age and joined them for most holidays. It hadn’t been awful, but it hadn’t been the same as before.
Then, alone in California, Nicki had often wound up at misfit dinners where a handful of broke actors came together over potluck. It usually started out enjoyable enough, but it invariably turned into such hard partying she had been put off and left early. Worse, it occasionally became a passive-aggressive competition over who got what audition or part. Nicki had always left feeling battered and glum after those.
Now, for the first time in nearly fifteen years, she was anticipating the magic of Christmas. She was thinking about cookies, decorating, and music. “Jingle Bells” played in the empty grocery store as it opened. She hummed along as she picked up the handful of ingredients she needed for the shortbread recipe she’d looked up last night. As she headed to the cash register, she saw an Advent calendar and impulsively picked it up.
She hesitated, growing misty as she recalled the homemade one her mother had filled for her. She’d been so young when it started, she couldn’t remember not having it. Each carefully sewn fabric pocket had been numbered and matched to a space on a big, felt tree. The gifts inside hadn’t been extravagant, just a beaded bracelet or a pencil eraser shaped like an animal, maybe a wrapped candy or a rolled note that said, “I’m so proud of you!”
That first Christmas after her mother died, Nicki hung the calendar in her room like always, but Santa’s elves hadn’t filled it. When the second year rolled around, she left it in the box of her mother’s keepsake ornaments and let Gloria hang the decorations she preferred.
Nicki swallowed and returned the mass-produced calendar onto its shelf. She had a better idea.
Actually, she was going to have to come up with twenty-five better ideas.
At least she had today’s. Make a homemade Advent calendar.
Quincy’s first order of business once he had his desk and computer properly set up was to figure out which side of the house he would extend to add an office.
It was far too distracting to be this close to the kitchen, especially with Nicki Darren in the house.
Was the music really necessary?
With a short-tempered sigh, he opened his browser and ordered a pair of noise-cancelling headphones. He’d been meaning to buy some anyway, since he would be traveling more.
He hated talking to strangers on a plane and didn’t particularly like flying, but he was now working remotely, on contract, for his previous employer. Some people would appreciate the freedom in that arrangement. Others would take it as a good sign that the president had been willing to make accommodations to keep Quincy working for their firm in any way he could get him.
Quincy wasn’t comforted. He liked predictability. Change irritated the hell out of him. Of course, changing up the Christmas carol would be nice. “Rudolf” again? Really?
Throwing himself to his feet, he pushed into the kitchen.
Today, Nicki wore a neon green T-shirt over a bright yellow long-sleeved body hugger. Her black pants were the clingy yoga kind. She had her head bent over her phone, loose hair falling in mahogany waves against her cheeks.
His father was nowhere to be found. Atlas stood on a chair at the kitchen counter, squishing cookie dough through his fingers.
“Are you paying attention to what’s happening over here?” Quincy moved behind Atlas to where the paper towels rolled off a holder beneath the cupboard. He pulled off a few sheets.
“Hmm?” Nicki stepped closer and peered into the bowl. “Oh, yes. Atlas is doing a great job. Are you tired of mixing?”
Atlas shook his head and dug into the dough with more intensity.
“We have a wooden spoon,” Quincy pointed out. “He shouldn’t be mixing with his hands.”
“Purist, are you?” Her tone held a light tease. She snapped off her phone, conceding, “You’re right. Most would say you shouldn’t handle the butter when making shortbread, but this is a special recipe for kids, so it’s okay. They also say you should make it in October, so it has time to cure. We’re breaking all the rules with this batch. We’re sugarplum rebels, aren’t we, Atlas? Do you have a bill?”
Her quick switch of topic threw Quincy off the food-safety lecture he was about to deliver. “A bill? For what?”
“Anything. Any sort of mail that proves you live here.”
“You need to show proof of residence to get a library card.” She wiggled her phone. “That’s what I was looking up.”
“I don’t need a library card. I have the Internet.” Which she knew, because she’d asked for his Wi-Fi code yesterday and had just looked something up.
Quincy’s first thought was that he could solve any lack of children’s books with a one-click transaction, but he’d heard enough news reports cautioning against kids having too much screen time to figure out just as quickly that books on a tablet might not be the best move.
“Can’t we order some to be delivered? How many does he need?”
“Kids are voracious. Frankly, I think you’ll appreciate the variety even more than he will.”
Quincy almost protested that he wasn’t planning to read them, but the penny dropped. He should be reading with Atlas. That’s what parents did. His parents had read to him.
He couldn’t remember when he’d last read a book aloud. Back in grade school, he supposed. He’d blocked those memories because speaking in front of the class had paralyzed him. The recollection made him balk at the idea of reading aloud to Atlas.
His father came in from the garage.
“What about this one, Nicki?” Pops had a big sheet of cardboard from the packaging on Quincy’s desk.
“Perfect! That’ll make a nice big tree and we’ll paint it green. Oh. Paint.” She picked up the pad of multicolored sticky notes and wrote on it.
Quincy noticed several squares had been stuck to the wall behind the kitchen table. Most held only a few words in her impulsive scrawl. One said, Get a tree. Another read, Bake cookies.
“The library has a special story time for kids tomorrow. We can bring Atlas to listen to that while we get him a card,” Nicki told Pops. “Then he can pick out some books and we’ll call that, ‘Visit library for Christmas Books’.” She scribbled a few words and stuck a fresh square to the wall. “We’re making an Advent calendar,” she told Quincy.
She might as well have spoken Swahili since he didn’t see how notes about libraries stuck to the wall translated to— “One of those chocolate things with the little flaps that you get this time of year?”
“Kind of. Except ours is going to be fun activities to get ready for Christmas. We have, ‘Get a tree,’ of course.” She used the clicker on the pen to point at the notes. “‘Write a letter to Santa’. We should do that soon. ‘Make sock puppets’? I’m still deciding if that’s a good one. And ‘Drive to see lights’. We’ll give people a little more time to set up their displays before we do that one. Maury said there used to be something called a Christmas Stroll in Marietta. I’m wondering if there’s a Santa Claus Parade or somewhere we can visit him. We’ll ask at the library. They’re sure to know all the community events. We’ll have this filled in no time.”
She kept saying, ‘we’ and ‘us’.
“You’re taking Pops and Atlas into town?” He glanced through the window where it was another bleak, icy day.
“I admit I felt rusty yesterday, driving the mountain passes, but I have really good tires. It’s all coming back to me. Also, it’s supposed to be sunny tomorrow. It will be okay.”
Quincy should have been relieved. He really needed to get some work done. The promise of a quiet house was a blessing, but he was oddly uncomfortable with his father and Atlas being out of his sight.
“I made a list of a few things.” He glanced around until he found the piece of paper with slippers and a robe on it. It had already occurred to him that he couldn’t pick out clothing for Atlas without taking him. He wouldn’t know the right size or color.
Strangely, he didn’t want to entrust the task to his father or Nicki. He wanted to see what the stores had to offer and ensure Atlas was given the best they had. Maybe he didn’t know how to be a parent, but after feeling judged so harshly by Karen’s parents, he was determined to be a good provider, even if he was the only one to know it.
“I could come with you. To get these for him,” he said.
“Oh. Ha! I thought that was your Christmas shopping list. I always got new pajamas when I was a kid. It was the gift we were allowed to open on Christmas Eve. Was that not a thing in your house?”
Quincy was insulted. He wouldn’t give his kid clothes for Christmas. He’d already started looking up train sets and Lego kits.
But he was suddenly accosted by a memory of his mother searching out a particular present, year after year, always taking her time selecting that special Christmas Eve gift. And yes, it had always turned out to be pajamas.
He scratched his hair, thinking back to the slight letdown of the gift being practical, not flashy or fun, but there had been something special about sleeping in those new pajamas. It meant the rest of the presents were only one more sleep away.
Now Quincy wondered if he should wait a couple of weeks to give Atlas his new pajamas and carry on that tradition. No, Atlas definitely needed new pajamas, but at least once Quincy knew the sizes, he could get another pair for Christmas Eve.
“He needs a robe and slippers regardless. It can’t wait when it’s this cold. I’ll come with you,” he decided.
“Okay.” She looked wary.
He hadn’t spoken too gruffly, had he? Some people found him dry and humorless, especially when he’d decided on a course of action and was ready to pursue it. He tried to find his most temperate tone.
“I have to get back to work. Is there a reason “Rudolf” is on repeat?”
“Atlas is learning the words.”
He glanced at the boy, who only blinked at him. The kid barely spoke. He wasn’t going to sing.
Quincy sighed and turned away.
“A bill for the Internet would probably do it,” Nicki said behind him. “For the library card.”
The next morning, Nicki was putting away the dishes from the dishwasher while Atlas ate his cereal when Maury came in, hair akimbo and face unshaven.
Since he had to check his glucose level before he ate, she took the opportunity to sit down with her notebook and learn more about his health, taking his blood pressure and reviewing his records herself.
He seemed very diligent, keeping a logbook of what he ate and when he took his meds, along with his readings. Until a few weeks ago, he’d been fairly stable.
“Your blood pressure has been spiking,” she observed. “It’s a little high today.” She recorded it for him.
“My sugar levels are off, too.” Maury looked tired. “It’s been a busy few weeks with the move and everything.”
He glanced at Atlas, who was watching intently as she gathered the blood pressure cuff to put it away.
“Do you want to feel it?” she asked the boy. “It’s like a big hug. I can do it on your leg.”
He shook his head and went back to chasing the last bran flakes in his bowl.
“If you change your mind, just tell me. Your Pops and I are going to do this pretty often for the next little while.” Glancing over Maury’s logbook again, she asked, “I don’t suppose you’ve had time to find a doctor here yet?”
“It’s not that bad, is it?” He brought the book back under his own nose and put on his glasses.
“No, but I’m thinking sooner than later is better. And maybe you should have a down day.” She patted his shoulder, feeling him sigh.
Maury nodded. “I was thinking the same thing. Until you showed up yesterday, I haven’t felt like I could.” He frowned, sidling a glance at Atlas, who was holding his bowl like a cup, draining the milk.
“All done?” Nicki asked the boy. “Did you have enough? Do you want more?”
Atlas shook his head.
“How about you get dressed, then? Call me if you need me. I’m going to make Pops some breakfast.”
Atlas climbed off his chair. He carried his bowl and spoon to the counter, then came back to push in his chair before leaving the kitchen.
“He’s a really sweet boy,” Nicki said, watching him go.
“Too quiet, though. I haven’t heard him laugh. Doesn’t even smile.”
“He’s sad. It’s understandable. Your blood pressure is up from this move, and it was your choice. He’s adjusting to a lot. Scrambled eggs okay?”
“I can make my own eggs.”
“But you don’t have to. This is what I’m getting paid for. Take it easy and let me do it. Tell me why you were so determined to move back to your old home.” She set out the non-stick pan, then went to the refrigerator for eggs. “You said you were planning to move back here alone. That’s a big decision if your son was in Philadelphia.”
“I asked him to come with me. More than once. He’s stubborn. And he had a very good job.” Maury rubbed his thumb and fingers together, indicating that Quincy’s job paid well. “I didn’t blame him for wanting to stick with it, but…” He shook his head. “The city was never the right place for him. My wife had family there, and she wasn’t one for change either. I tried so many times to talk her into moving here, but she wouldn’t. I always wanted to come back though. When this house came up and it was only me, I thought, well, I’ll move and my son will have to visit me. Maybe that will convince him.”
“Sneaky.” She wrinkled her nose and smiled as she whipped the eggs. “Then Atlas came to live with him full time, so he decided they would join you?”
Maury closed his logbook and slid it aside. “Quincy didn’t know about Atlas until a few weeks ago.”
“Oh.” Her gaze flicked to the door into the dining room. She suddenly felt like they were gossiping. She had speculated, of course, but now she took in what a shock that must have been for all of them. “No wonder he seems…” She searched for a nice way to say it. “Out of his depth.”
Yesterday, after the cookies were done, she had set two on a plate and held Atlas’s hand as they delivered them to his father.
Quincy had stared at the plate for several ticks of the nearby clock before taking in her expression, then Atlas’s. She had seen his reluctance. The boy’s hands had been in the dough, but he wasn’t obtuse. He wasn’t mean. After a moment, he’d said, “Thank you,” then picked up a cookie to take a bite.
Say, ‘Mmm good,’ she wanted to chide. Pick up the boy, hug him. Tell him you can taste the love. Say it’s the best cookie you’ve ever had in your life.
Instead, she’d been the one to crouch next to Atlas, to hug and praise him. Then they’d gone back to the kitchen to put away the rest of the cooled cookies.
Maury held a pained frown. “Atlas is so like him. Quincy doesn’t see it, but I do. It makes me feel as though I have a second chance. I traveled for work when Quincy was young. I missed so much. I let him down.”
“You’re being hard on yourself. Parents work. That’s reality. And grandparents are supposed to be the ones who have time for their grandkids. It’s good he decided to join you. Really good for Atlas.”
Maury snorted. “He tried to talk me into staying there with him. I showed him stubborn.” His sidelong look brimmed with self-satisfaction.
She shot him a grin, but he wasn’t looking at her. He was sobering into a frown of introspection.
“This is a second chance for all of us,” Maury said, as though reassuring himself. “I can be a better father to my own son, and maybe he’ll…” He didn’t finish.
Her heart caught at the dejection she read in him.
“He will,” Nicki assured him, thinking of the way Quincy had eaten both of the cookies despite his reservations. “He just needs time.”
She lifted her gaze off the eggs she was pushing around the pan and glanced at the notes for the Advent calendar still stuck to the wall.
Quincy started up the stairs and caught Atlas as he was coming down.
The boy was singing, “Woo-doff wiff yoh nose so bwight, won’ chew gwide my sway to—”
Atlas froze when he saw Quincy and bit his lips together.
Quincy’s first impulse was to correct him. Rudolf.
He flashed back to the years it had taken him to master that sound. He replayed Atlas’s rendition, heard all the soft Rs.
Damn. Would he need speech therapy, too?
On the heels of that came the voices of his grade-school tormentors, mocking, “Thah-WA-pee.”
Quincy bit his own lips together, not wanting to speak ever again in this lifetime.
His chest felt tight, while something ferocious roared awake in his blood. Something with claws and teeth that wanted to tear apart those who might even think of teasing Atlas, driving back anyone who might negatively impact the boy’s budding confidence.
Atlas stood with his enormous brown eyes fixed on Quincy’s face.
Quincy pulled himself together, pushing the anger back into its bottle and doing his best to find a calm, non-threatening expression.
“We, uh…” Quincy had to clear his throat. “We can listen to that song in the car if you want. When we go to the library.”
The interior of the Marietta library was decorated with colorful, blinking lights, cutout snowflakes, and red-and-green paper chains. One wall was covered in entries from the Draw Santa contest. The central table held a display of books about Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa.
Nicki took Atlas across to the small group of children gathered around the storyteller, a woman of retired age who introduced herself as Louise. She was reading The Grinch Who Stole Christmas and warmly invited Atlas to join them.
Nicki then searched out a scrap of paper and a pencil from the lending counter to make notes for her Advent calendar. Along with the homemade decorations they could replicate, she noticed the tree was decorated with little cards in the shape of angels. Each one was labeled with the age and sex of a child in need.
Donate a gift. Brilliant.
There was a notice that the regular Family Game Night at the library was on hiatus until January. Those sorts of board games were probably too advanced for Atlas, but she would look in the thrift store for something age appropriate. The workshop for making a pinecone bird feeder had potential, too.
A poster hung on the door, advertising the Christmas Stroll. It included a Gingerbread House competition, but they’d missed the deadline to enter, darn it. They could still make one, she decided, writing it down with everything else. The Stroll was this weekend. When she read the list of events, she did a mental fist pump. Yes, yes, yes! Such a great activity for her calendar.
He was such a baffling man! He’d worn an expression close to grim as they had piled into the car, but he was the one who had put on the Christmas carols so Atlas could listen to “Rudolf”.
Now he wore a stern profile as he finished up the process of getting his lending card along with a child’s card for Atlas.
The older woman behind the counter smiled with dazzled attraction as she explained the fine points of reserving books online.
Nicki couldn’t blame her. Quincy was the definition of the strong, silent type, not even nodding in understanding as the woman stammered through her spiel. At the same time, he stood tall and commanding. His puffy winter jacket managed to showcase his broad shoulders and long legs. He had enough of a rugged look to seem like he belonged in Montana, but he was missing the cowboy boots and hat that were as common here as they were in Texas.
He dazzled her without even glancing in her direction.
Tingling, Nicki joined him and smiled as the woman finished up. “Do you happen to know where we can get a tree?”
“Oh, I’m sorry.” The woman grew even more flustered. “I didn’t realize your wife was with you. We should make her a card, too.”
“She’s actually my—” Quincy cut himself off, regarding Nicki with a perplexed kink in his dark brow.
Nicki could practically hear him running through the labels. Father’s nurse? Son’s nanny? Housekeeper?
“Christmas elf?” she suggested.
The flat way he said it swept all the air out of her sails. Nicki reminded herself she was a big girl who wasn’t living on approval any longer. She was his employee. Lucky her, that meant she still got a paycheck even if he didn’t like the way she played her role.
It still felt like a rebuff.
The librarian wasn’t sure what to make of them, Nicki could tell.
“I use a fake one,” the woman stammered. “But there’s a tree farm outside of town. I’ll look up the directions.”
“Excuse me,” a woman said from behind them. Nicki turned to see the newcomer. She was blonde and pretty, looked to be in her late thirties, and carried a toddler on her hip.
The little girl pointed at the children in the corner, and the woman said, “Oh, sure, honey. Go sit with the kids.” She lowered the toddler to the floor. “Here. Let me take your coat, first. Sorry,” she said as she straightened, tugging the sleeves of her daughter’s jacket. “I couldn’t help overhearing that you’re looking for a tree. My stepson works at Scott’s. It’s easy to find. In fact, I have the flyer.”
She tucked her daughter’s coat under her arm and dug into her shoulder bag.
“This is from when they were advertising for students to apply. Let me just get my grocery list.” She tore off a corner. “You still have the address.” She handed it to Nicki with a smile. “It’s a nice outing for kids. Horse-drawn sleigh, cocoa, and cookies. Music.”
“Are you in marketing?” Nicki teased. “Because that’s an excellent sales pitch.”
The blonde laughed. “No commission, just being neighborly. Are you new here?”
“We are. I’m Nicki Darren. This is Quincy Ryan and that’s his son, Atlas, in blue. His father was born here, though. Did you know the Ryans at all?”
“No, I’m from California. I still feel new to town myself, but everyone is always so friendly. I’m Liz Canon.”
“Oh, where in California? I was living…”
The women connected like a pair of magnets, sidelining Quincy—which didn’t bother him. It was very much his comfort zone. He didn’t want to talk or be talked to. At least Nicki wasn’t flitting all over the library anymore, like a budgie loose from its cage.
That allowed him to keep all his attention on Atlas. This was Quincy’s first time in public with the boy, without his father for additional support. It felt like a lot of responsibility. What if Atlas decided to throw a tantrum the way some kids did? What if he wandered off?
Judging by the lack of hovering parents in the story zone, people didn’t steal children here, but Quincy still wore a cloak of city caution.
Plus, ever since he heard Atlas singing this morning, he’d been worrying about the boy going to school and being around other children. Kids could be heartless about the smallest things.
Was Atlas having trouble with his speech? He wanted to ask the boy about it, but knew from experience that being forced to talk might be the kid’s worst nightmare. He could call Karen’s parents later— Except, damn. They’d gone to Australia for the holidays, to see their son. That was another reason they hadn’t wanted custody of Atlas. They had plans that didn’t include a child they only saw intermittently. Email, then, he decided.
“Oh, sorry about that,” Liz said as her daughter joined the group of seated children, toddling between them to set a familiar hand on Atlas’s shoulder and plunk herself beside him. “Lucy is still learning the ‘hands to yourself’ rule.”
Atlas didn’t seem to mind, only looked at her, then wiggled over to make room.
“Such a gentleman,” Nicki said with a warmth and affection that wormed into Quincy’s heart. He liked that she liked his son. He didn’t know why that pleased him so much. He couldn’t take any credit for how Atlas conducted himself, but it still gave Quincy a little kick of pride each time she showed approval toward the boy.
As Lucy sat down next to Atlas, legs stuck out straight before her, she turned her head and beamed at Atlas. It was a silent, Isn’t this great?
Atlas gazed at her for a long time. Slowly, a real smile, the first Quincy had seen, dawned on the little boy’s face. It wasn’t one of those friendly grins that Nicki and Pops knew how to throw around, either. It was heartfelt, welcoming, and sweet. The little boy’s heart opened up right there, innocently and completely, under the sunny expression of the little girl who had touched his shoulder.
“Oh…” Nicki sighed. “That is the cutest thing I’ve seen in my life.”
“I think we just witnessed an actual bloom of love.” Liz sounded almost reverent.
Quincy knotted up on Atlas’s behalf. Didn’t he know you had to keep your cards close to your chest?
Quincy wanted to stop what was happening before his eyes, to warn his son not to let any feeling ever be so strong, not to let his emotions show so nakedly. The kid might as well have been teetering off the edge of a building, given how suffocated Quincy felt by the impending danger of the boy’s unfettered reaction. He was helpless to save him.
“It’s nice to see him smile like that, isn’t it?” Nicki directed her question up to Quincy.
Quincy felt sick.
Atlas turned his attention back to Louise, but he wiggled his bum closer to Lucy.
“How long will story time take?” Quincy asked, hearing the abruptness in his tone, but unable to temper it. “I need to pick up an extension cord at the hardware store.”
“We’ll be here long enough for you to do that.” Nicki’s tone grew a shade cooler. “Atlas will need to choose some books to bring home after. And your dad wanted us to grab some Christmas lights while we’re out,” she reminded as he started to walk away. “You could probably find some there.”
The season of joy. Right.