The battered journal sported several places where pages had been tipped back in with washi tape. Still, Aggie flipped back and forth from her hand-printed index to the coordinating pages, comparing original Christmas ideas with the shopping list she’d created.
Luke popped his head in the door and gave a low wolf whistle. Though her cheeks pinkened, just as they always did, she stuck her tongue out at him and threatened to burn his dinner if he didn’t shut the door. “I swear those kids can smell just how much ink I used to write something and that tells them what I chose. It’s the only way they always guess.”
He kicked off the indoor dock shoes she’d finally bought to keep the dirt at bay and scooted up on the bed beside her. With an arm around her and a kiss to her cheek—one that managed to find willing lips just a moment later, of course—he leaned back, hands behind his head, and grinned.
“It wouldn’t have anything to do with the way you grill them for months on end about whether they just…” His voice rose to a ridiculous falsetto that sounded nothing like her. “‘…like that or do you actually want to own it. There’s a big difference, Laird.”
That chuckle—it still did delightful things to her heart. “He’s sixteen. If he doesn’t know it by now, telling him isn’t going to help.”
Luke did have a point… that she had to admit. “Still, I’ve gone over and over these…” She dropped the journal and capped the pen. Arms folded over her chest, she turned to him. “I’ve just proven, without benefit of smartphone, laptop, encyclopedia, or Tavish’s uncanny ability to recall trivia that no one else would ever know…”
“That’s impressive. What’d you prove?”
“A man wrote ‘Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.’”
A cock to his head and a shrug hinted that he wouldn’t argue. “Okay. I’ll even go so far as to guess you’re right. But what makes you say that?”
“That whole line about double checking the lists? Yeah. Only an optimistic guy would think you could get by with only checking a list twice.”
A shiver prompted him to grab the throw blanket from the end of the bed and tuck it around her shoulders. “Okay… I’ll even give you that. If it were up to me, I’d put each kid in charge of shopping for another and done.”
“So Ronnie could tell Vannie all about the Lego castle he got her, and if she didn’t want it, he’d build it—as part of her present?”
“You have a point…”
She passed shopping lists. “Before I call in Vannie and Laird, do you see anything wrong with what is on there? Did we get any boxes from Mom that I’m not remembering or did Vannie suddenly decide that vintage clothes are boring and she wants to go medieval or something?”
The minute Luke pronounced them fine by him, Aggie sent a text message to Laird. “Best thing in the world, cellphones. No more shouting across the house. I swear the noise level goes down ten percent every time a new kid gets a phone.”
“Last week you were complaining they spent too much time on them.”
“They do, but for killing the noise level, nothing can be beaten.” A knock told her Laird must have been in his room. She shoved all but Vannie’s list under the covers, waved the air in hopes of dispersing any lingering ink scents, winked at Luke, and called the boy in. “I need gift approval.”
Tall—the boy had shot up three inches in the past twenty-four hours if the length of his jeans meant anything. Handsome, too. “Allie would be so proud of you…”
Laird rolled his eyes at Luke. “Do you think she’ll ever look at me and say, ‘Your mother would be so disappointed in you?’”
“Don’t make her do it, son, and we’ll never know.”
An understanding passed between her husband and her oldest ‘son,’ but Aggie chose not to pursue it then. It probably had something to do with the military discussions they thought she didn’t know about—the ones she chose to pretend didn’t occur on a semi-weekly basis.
With a flourish, she presented Vannie’s gift and stocking stuffer list. “Is there anything on there she has, doesn’t want, or will likely buy before I can?”
It took less than thirty seconds for him to shake his head and pass it back. “Good idea on the seamed stockings for the stocking. And the Kohls gift card. Kohl in the stocking. She’s been a bad girl?”
“Very funny.” Aggie accepted the list, gave it one last glance, and reached for the journal. “Done.”
“If you’ve got that hiking backpack on mine, you should take it off. The club just got a chance to buy them in bulk—saved twenty dollars, so I bought it myself.”
Scowling, and only somewhat exaggerated for effect, Aggie reached for his list, found the hiking backpack with built in water pouch, and scratched it off. “Anything you’d like to replace that with?”
“I could use new jogging shoes.”
“I just bought you new ones a month ago.”
Laird winced. “I’ve put almost two hundred fifty miles on them already. They’re breaking down fast. I should have stuck with the old brand.”
“Got it. But they aren’t your gift.” Aggie flipped to a different shopping page in her journal and scribbled down the shoes. “That’s a P.E. expense.”
He might have argued. Lately, it had become a thing with him—trying to be a bit too independent for her comfort or his own good. Luke stepped in. “Aggie said she’d cover it. I don’t think an argument is the appropriate response, Laird.”
Luke’s quiet rebuke did more than her exasperated huffs and orders to back down ever would. Someday she’d learn. Obviously, not today.
“Can you call Vannie in? I need her input on your list… among others.”
He hadn’t even stepped out the door, when a shout rang out through the house. Aggie’s head flopped back and hit the headboard. “I told you…”
“You said to call…” Luke pulled her close and kissed the back of her head.
“I meant phone.”
A shift—ever so slight, but it made all the difference—allowed him to find her lips again. “Have I mentioned that I love you?”
“That was only the fourth time today. I’m feeling neglected.”
With a jerk of her head, Aggie’s gaze shot to the doorway. Vannie stood there, hands on hips looking rather put out. “You cannot be so amazing or I’ll never find a good enough guy, and if by some miracle I do, he won’t want a thing to do with me after he watches you two. It’s not fair!”
She’s already found a guy. Does she realize just how serious Josiah is? I should ask, but…
“Laird says it’s list day?”
List day. Aggie didn’t even know that was a thing, but it made sense. “Um, I guess. Do you have time to go over them with me? Are there any you want to pass off to Laird?”
“Ronnie. He’s better with Ronnie’s ideas.”
Luke nodded his agreement and asked, “What about Tavish?”
The question begged to be asked. Aggie complied. “Why not?”
“He always tries to get what he thinks Tavish should want. Christmas shouldn’t be about molding some kid into who you think they should be.”
That, Aggie couldn’t argue with. “Deal. I’ll pull out Ronnie’s.”
The moment Aggie set that sheet aside, Vannie settled herself at the foot of the bed and held out her hand. “I guess it wouldn’t hurt to look, though. In case I see something I know we don’t need.”
At that, the deliberations began. When Luke kissed her and left, Aggie couldn’t say. She vaguely recalled him telling her not to stress about it and promising to get Lania up and dressed for an afternoon jaunt to the park with the other kids.
“Christmas is only a month away. Can we get everything in time?”
Vannie had a point, but if Aggie had learned one thing in six years of running a large family household it was that. “We have to.”
“I still wish you’d shop earlier.”
“I wish I could. But since I can’t, since you guys have the nerve to keep growing into the people you’re supposed to be someday, I’m kind of stuck waiting until the chances of you changing what you’d want are slimmer.”
Cari’s list ended up thrust back in her lap. “You can’t get those beads. I was reading about it. Babies keep swallowing them and they get stuck together on opposite sides of the intestines and kids are dying. They’re trying to recall them.”
The idea of Lania having magnetic microbeads for lunch nixed it. “I thought we could keep them in the basement, but you’re right. It only takes a couple.”
“That kid would eat Legos if she could swallow them. If only plastic had nutritional value…”
After an hour of push and pull, and only five complete changes, Aggie could call her task done—for now. “I’ll start shopping tonight.”
“I can do some. Josiah and his mom wanted me to go to Rockland with them… They’re looking for advice on sweaters for a cousin.”
More like looking for which sweater you want, but okay… As much as she’d prefer to agree and pass off half the lists, most of what she’d chosen could be purchased through that wonderful little “stuff mart” called Amazon. “I’ve got a secret wish list that I just have to delete a few from, add a couple more, and hit buy the whole thing. Done.”
“Then you just have to wrap!”
“Which is why I don’t wait until two weeks before Christmas. It’ll take that long to do it all.”
Half the wish list failed. Out of stock, no longer available, in stock January 17th… the messages mounted as she tried to purchase everything in one fell swoop.
“One fail swoop is more like it.”
Asterisks, check marks, crossed-out items. The longer she worked, the bigger her “key” to what each thing she had to add meant.
Available at another store
Out of stock everywhere
Reviews suddenly all bad.
Out of size
Mid mental rant, Luke appeared with a sleepy Lania. “She’s not going down without nursing. I think she misses Mama.”
Shame filled her. Gifts for tomorrow aren’t more important than the people before me today. The words pierced. “Hey, Luke?”
“Does your mom say something about gifts and tomorrow not being as important as the people right with us now?”
He snuggled in beside her, cradling both his girls in his arms as Aggie adjusted her shirt and settled Lania in for a feed. “It sounds like her, but I’ve never heard her say anything like that.”
Vannie knocked and burst into the room the minute she got the okay to come in. “I found it. The perfect dress for Elspeth. She’ll love it.” With the door shut and locked, Vannie dug into a bag and pulled out a red dress that would definitely look stunning on the girl. “Isn’t it amazing. Did you get that one yet?”
Discretion might be the better part of valor, but it’s also the key to a drama-free life. Something Aggie knew and forgot—much too often. “No. Actually, none of Elspeth’s gifts are available. Neither are two of Kenzie’s, one of Luke’s, and one of Lania’s. Feels like Laird is missing two as well, but I might just be panicking.”
“That’s it!” Vannie tossed the dress on the bed and gripped the footboard with both hands. “I refuse—absolutely and irrevocably—to celebrate Christmas when I’m a mom. Find me a guy who is anti-Christmas and arrange a marriage before I change my mind.”
“Trust me, I’ve considered it.” Only the tiniest of movements told her Luke didn’t like the sound of that. “But I realized that wasn’t going to solve the problem.”
Maybe she was tired after a long day, perhaps she just didn’t want to think about a future anymore—Aggie didn’t know what it was. However, Vannie shoved the dress back in the bag, tossed it all under the bed, and waved. “Tell me about it tomorrow. They’re playing Apples to Apples down there, and it sounded like things were getting heated.”
Left alone, with a baby hanging on to wakefulness by one, thin, sleepy thread and a husband who would happily sit there and hold them all night, Aggie stuffed back the sigh that tried to form and hummed.
Good gifts from the Father—the best of all His Son…
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By the end of the week, Vannie was frantic. She’d gone shopping with the Wares three times, always coming home with a dozen ideas and not a single purchase. Josiah had grown concerned enough to stop and ask Luke if his mother could take over the hunt for Christmas gifts.
“I just think it’s a bit more than she can handle right now. I respect that she has responsibilities to her family, but…”
Caught unaware, Luke stood there, waiting for something more to work with, but Aggie, standing in the kitchen and just out of sight, heard what Josiah hadn’t said. She stepped into the dining room, wiping wet hands on her skirt, and moved to stand by Luke. “I couldn’t help but overhear. Um—”
“I don’t mean to be disrespectful, Mrs. Sullivan. I—”
Aggie, broke in before he embarrassed himself. “I have not asked Vannie to do any of the gift hunting. This is her choice, and she is free to stop at any time.”
“Furthermore,” Luke added, now that foggy confusion had been blown away. “If she keeps up the frenetic panic, I’ll be putting my foot down. It’s wearing on Aggie, too. She just hasn’t figured that out yet.”
A protest formed, but truth stomped it back down. “You’re right. Okay…”
Lost in thought and prayer, Aggie turned to go upstairs. Luke’s gaze followed, concerned. Right up to the moment he heard her sing, “… peace be still…”
He’d imagined this day when he was a kid of Josiah’s age—some young man calling him mister. It had sounded much more respectful and less old back then.
Luke glanced up. “Sorry. And yes, Luke’s better.”
Shuffling his feet, not able to meet Luke’s gaze, Josiah looked miserable. “Um, may we go for a walk?”
Why is it that when Ronnie asks with may first, I feel like we’ve accomplished something, but Josiah makes me want to remind him that I’m not his father?
The boy’s face turned a bit green standing there, and after a few dragged-out seconds, Luke realized Josiah waited for him. And he’s not a boy. He’s a man. Understanding sent shockwaves through him. “Yes, I think that would be a good idea.”
As expected, Josiah said nothing until they reached the end of the drive. Far from the possibility of being overheard, the words tumbled out. “I’d planned to wait until after Christmas to talk to you and Mrs. Sullivan—”
“Aggie.” Luke winced at the bite in his words. “I suspect she’d prefer it as well.”
“Right…” The proffered familiarity seemed to buoy Josiah’s spirits. “Well, as I said, I’d planned to wait until the New Year—after all the busyness and distraction is over.”
“Very wise of you.”
It wasn’t cold enough for Josiah’s ears to bur from that. “I should have known you’d figure me out. I’ve been praying about a courtship with Vannie ever since I met her. She’s—”
Luke cut in—determined to make quick work of an ill-advised plan. “An amazing young lady.” At Josiah’s nod, he added, “And one who is worthy of a courtship focused on more than saving her from herself.”
“Well, I already planned—”
“Yes, and yet I know if Aggie learned that I stepped up my plans because I didn’t like how she handled something and wanted to distract her from that, she’d lose respect for me.”
The words convicted himself as Luke spoke them. How many times had he brought her the baby or asked her to make a quick run to the store for him to separate her from stressors? Then again, I’m giving her a momentary break rather than changing life-altering plans to prevent another spiral into depression.
Something pricked his heart again. As if I could.
“I suppose you’re right. Dad suggested waiting until April—six months before she’s eighteen. What do you think of that? Would after New Year’s be preferred or April. My parents disagree on this one.”
A smile formed—one he couldn’t repress despite every effort to try. “And you went with the one you liked best?”
He nodded. “If we began a focused courtship in January, I could propose on her birthday, and we could have a small, intimate wedding in December.”
The words spun in his mind with dizzying speed. One year? I could lose my Vannie to this boy—man—boy-man in just a year? Is she ready for that? It wasn’t the right question, and he knew it. Vannie could take over running their home that night if necessary—Lord, no… The succinct prayer always followed any reference to Vannie’s capabilities.
No, it’s more a matter of I’m not ready for it.
“Josiah, I’d prefer you didn’t say anything about this until after Christmas. I’ll speak to Aggie then, and we’ll give you our opinion then. Of course, everything is up to Vannie. We’ll counsel, but I’ve no interest in being responsible for making a decision like that for her.”
The boy’s habit of deferring to any respected adult’s opinion had lulled Luke into a nice comfortable sense of security. Josiah shattered it with, “And I’ve been researching the long-term success rates of arranged marriages. It seems like Indian culture, in particular, has a high rate of—”
Luke couldn’t take any more. “That’s wonderful for them. I am not interested.”
“Of course… I’ve just been studying—trying to understand where wisdom should mingle with preference.”
“And I would argue,” Luke said, turning back down Last Street to return home. His foot slipped into one of the many mud puddles left by the recent warming that had left them bereft of snow and with a superfluity of mud. “I would argue that a wise person doesn’t choose just marriage but chooses wisely the person he enters that marriage with. Preference may not be the only consideration, but forty, fifty, sixty years is a long time to spend with someone just because she looks good on paper.”
“Well, this is Vannie we’re talking about. She looks good in any regard.”
It might have been Josiah’s words, although Luke suspected the boy’s expression prompted just as much, but he found himself laughing and relaxing as Josiah chuckled, too. Okay… now that feels real.
One end of their bedroom looked like Santa’s workshop. Vannie’s pile—complete right up to the shoebox full of stocking stuffers. Laird’s needed only the jogging tights that would keep him warm under his nylon running suit. A glance at her journal reassured her—just three more days.
Tavish—only one gift and a shoebox full of stuffers in his pile. “At least that’s done. But his gifts…” The journal page remained empty. Nothing planned, nothing ordered, nothing doing.
Elspeth’s pile—full. Kenzie’s pile, also full. The younger twins… equally half full—for once. “At least we don’t have everything for one and nothing for the other this time. If necessary, I’ll buy matching helmets for their bikes. Silly, when they have perfectly good ones already, but they did want them.”
Hands at her waist sent her halfway to the ceiling before she realized Luke was there. Her squeal brought Kenzie into the room. “What’s wrong?”
“Uncle Luke just scared me.”
“Did you get Rory’s gift? The party—”
“Is on Saturday. I know. And he’s going to love it.”
She flashed a sparkling grin at Aggie and dashed from the room. “I’ll go make a card!”
Aggie tossed the journal on the bed and turned to wrap her arms around Luke’s neck. “She’s going to marry him, isn’t she?”
“Probably. They’re like every ‘met him in kindergarten and married him the night of our graduation’ story I’ve ever heard,” Luke agreed.
“Note right now. I’m totally opposed to combining wedding and graduation.”
“Mac for a father-in-law. She’ll be cherished more than any woman I’ve ever known—her daddy, her grandpa, her Uncle Luke, Rory, Mac…”
Luke just held her tight and whispered, “My heart can’t take that right now. Let’s shelve it for her sweet sixteen, okay?”
“Deal. But you have to tell her when he invites her to his homecoming.”
Gazing at her, Luke sighed. “I’ll just tell them they have to take the twins.”
A kiss derailed the conversation until a knock and a cleared throat interrupted that, too. Laird winced as they looked his way. “I know it’s all Santa and Mrs. Claus in here, but um, Vannie is ready to turn evil Scrooge any minute now. I um…”
Luke promised to be right there, but Aggie shook her head. “Nope. I’ve got this. I learned this lesson the hard way last year. It’s time to share it before she learns the opposite lesson I want her to.”
At the door, Luke called her name. She glanced back, and realized Laird had a point. In his dark jeans and red sweater, packages, ribbons, and wrapping paper strewn everywhere—he did rather look like Santa. Especially since he’d left his ‘no-shave’ November beard unshaven. There was just enough hair on his face to hint at Santa—a young one, anyway.
“As far as the twins at homecoming with Kenzie?”
“Does it matter which ones?”
She winked and slipped through the door. That’s right. It absolutely doesn’t. Two chaperones are better than one.
They found Vannie in the basement. The sewing machine was set up, a laptop at the ready, and stacks of printouts waiting. The minute she heard the door open, she’d called out, “Get out. This is off limits until further notice.”
Aggie squeezed Laird’s arm and pushed him back to the stairs with a silent message. I’ve got this.
She’d made it halfway down when Vannie snapped, “I said—”
Their eyes met. “Oh, sorry. The kids keep trying to sneak down.”
“What’re you doing?”
“Gifts. I finally figured out what we can do for all the missing ones. So—”
At Vannie’s side, Aggie pulled the girl into a hug. “I love you.”
“I love you, too…”
A ‘but’ was forthcoming. Aggie headed it off. “No buts.”
“Vannie, sit down.”
“I don’t have ti—”
She jerked out a chair and indicated, once again, that Vannie needed to sit. Gorgeous fabric distracted her—gold on suede. It must have cost a fortune. “Coat? For Elspeth?”
“Duvet cover. I found out she really doesn’t like hers anymore.”
“You couldn’t have bought one?” A green plush fabric so soft Aggie ached to take it upstairs and wrap herself in it caught her attention next. “What’s that one for?”
It happened—that spark that came alive in Vannie when her creativity and drive met in one fireball of brilliance. “You know how tactile Kenzie is. She loves everything crazy soft. She’s been begging for sweatshirts for weeks, but all the ones she wants don’t match anything but jean skirts, and Uncle Luke gets sick of those.”
Impressive that she noticed.
“So, I finally found out why she wants them. They’re the ones that are super soft inside. So, I thought I’d make reversible ‘sweatshirts’ for her. Two of them. It works out to four different looks but super soft no matter what color she wears.”
“Genius! I hereby place my order for one, too. I’ll get the stuff next time I’m in town. How much fabric?”
Though she’d kicked herself for getting distracted, in hindsight, it turned out to be a blessing. By the time Vannie finished sharing all the gift ideas, her schedule for getting each thing done, and the cost of materials, she’d calmed into only a half-crazed lunatic. And that opened the way for Aggie to speak her heart.
“Do you know what I see hear in your voice?”
Vannie pulled out the gold and suede and began measuring. Without even looking up, she muttered, “What?”
That brought a pause—brief, but a definite pause. “Well, of course! I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t love them!”
“Do they see that? Do they hear that when you push them away?”
Aggie pulled the chair back to Vannie again and urged her to sit. Another chair, several shushes, and a half-murmured, half-silent prayer later, Aggie tried again. “Do you remember last year?”
“Can I forget?”
A chuckle escaped before Aggie could stop herself. “Right? It was horrible for you guys. I know it. Trust me. It was horrible for me, too.”
“But the baby. That does things sometimes.”
“It’s called sin, Vannie. Don’t blame the baby. I suspect hormones made it difficult for me to see clearly at times, but most of what was wrong with me was my desperately wicked and sick heart. I wanted things my way. I wanted no interference. I had plans and every time they got thwarted, I didn’t look to the Lord to direct my steps, I looked for something to blame.”
The third time Vannie glanced at the fabric, Aggie lost all patience. “If you’re not going to listen to the hard-earned wisdom I’m trying to impart here, I’m going to take those scissors and cut that fabric into itty bitty pieces.”
A gasp… followed by snickers. “You’d do it, too.” Vannie grabbed up a giant plastic bag and shoved everything in it. “Okay. Distraction gone. I’m listening. Is this where you tell me that I’m going to spiral into depression if I don’t give up my expectations for Christmas?”
Perhaps it had been among Aggie’s planned admonitions, but the heart of the matter came to her in a flash of brilliance. “Well, that is always possible, but I wanted to tell you something more important than that.”
That caught the girl’s attention. The nervous tucking of hair behind her right ear, the unconscious pushing back of cuticles—telltale signs that Vannie had finally decided to listen. Really listen. “What’s that?”
“Remember how I said I hear love?”
“Have you ever heard that old proverb, ‘Actions speak…’”
“‘—louder than words.’ What of it?”
“Your actions say that these gifts are a burden—that the people they are for are a burden.”
The protests began. The kids understood. They wanted a nice Christmas for each other, too. They’d asked if she could do it… and the excuses droned on.”
Aggie just waited until they died a natural death. Then, when the girl looked ready to burst into frustrated tears, she tried again. “If I made dinner by ordering everyone to get away, if I ran frantic around the kitchen trying to do more than we needed, if I snapped at people, slammed pots and pans, and finally sat at the table exhausted and unable to enjoy the meal for the sheer exhaustion and irritation of it all, would you feel loved?”
“If you asked for help with your schoolwork and I huffed, and sighed the whole way through—”
Vannie jumped up, hugged her, and shot up the stairs. “I still want the basement for a few days, but yeah. I’ve got some apologies to make.”
The girl hung over the banister and waited for a response.
“Be prepared. You’ll get there again. Just be ready to deal with it the minute you become aware. It’s harder to back down the longer it goes. Trust me.”
Their eyes met, gazes held. And in that moment, Aggie decided she didn’t just have a niece anymore. She had a friend, too.
Luke rolled over to snuggle up close to his wife and found the bed empty… cold. A glance at the bathroom showed it wide open. Not there.
The clock read 1:03. Maybe she got hungry… She didn’t eat much at dinner.
A shuffle downstairs showed all but the entry dark. A faint hum pulled him toward the basement door, and just as he cracked it open, a burst of laughter greeted him. Shusshing sounds and Aggie’s voice followed. “We’re going to wake the house.”
“There’s a whole floor to buffer us But, that’s an idea. We could put earplugs in everyone’s stocking.”
Snickers followed—for something not even that funny. He leaned against the door, listening, a smile growing.
“I think I sewed the wrong side to the right side.”
Vannie’s giggle warmed his heart. She hadn’t giggled like that in weeks. “So if we sew another wrong to it, will that make the whole thing right?”
“We could try…”
His smile transformed into a grin.
Vannie spoke up. “If you’ll iron this casing, I’ll rip that out.”
It might be after midnight. Lania might wake them up at five o’clock sharp, but Luke’s job was done. He twisted the knob, ready to push the door shut again, but Vannie’s next words gave him pause.
“You were right, Aunt Aggie. Having fun while you do stuff for people makes the gift even more special.”
That’s right, Vannie girl. And like your wise aunt said yesterday, “Gifts for tomorrow aren’t more important than the people before you today.”