Jump to the first story
Marlee closed the door behind Ben and rested her forehead on the back of her hand. You did it. You saw Ben Granger again, and you didn’t cry. Two fat tears rolled down her cheeks.
Over the years, she’d thought up dozens of things she wanted to say to him, from angry accusations to pleas for attention, but when she finally got the chance, she’d said none of them. Those things had been all about her, about her feelings, her loss. As soon as she saw the pain and self-blame clouding Ben’s dark eyes, her concern for her own feelings had melted away. She’d spent five years brooding over personal hurts without truly considering what Matt’s death must have meant to Ben. Maybe it was a Christmas miracle, but seeing him again had loosened the chains binding her to the past. Now, she needed to find a way to return the gift.
A Stitch in Time was closed the next day for Christmas Eve, so Marlee spent the morning baking a double batch of Berta’s famous German Chocolate Cookies for the party that afternoon. She sifted and stirred, chopped and baked until the heavenly aroma filled the house. When the kitchen became too warm, she opened a window to share the scent with passersby on the sidewalk.
A little before three o’clock, she stacked the cookies and loaded them, along with the box of knitted ornaments, into her car and drove up the hill to the hospital. When she turned into the parking lot, Evelyn Barlow and Mary Duckworth pulled in right behind her in Evelyn’s trusty old Toyota. They popped out and Mary took the box of ornaments, while Evelyn balanced two big plastic containers.
“What did you make this year?” Evelyn asked Marlee as they picked their way across the thin layer of snow covering the parking lot.
“The usual—Grandma Berta’s German Chocolate Cookies. What about you?”
“I experimented—anise flavored Snickerdoodles. It’s no good to let yourself get in a rut, you know.”
Marlee grimaced. Evelyn was no better at baking than she was at knitting. Anise flavored Snickerdoodles? However, she had to admire the woman’s attitude. She charged through life cheerfully seeking out new challenges. Some succeeded, some didn’t, but she seemed to take every experience in stride.
Like most of the town, the dark brick hospital was well over a hundred years old. It had been remodeled inside to keep up with the demands of modern medicine but still retained a few charming features of the original building, such as the large parlor where the annual holiday party was held. When Marlee followed Evelyn and Mary through the heavy wooden double doors, she saw several of the other Knit Wits already at work making punch and arranging the cookie table. A few patients had gathered, and others were making their way down the corridor, helped by nurses.
The party had started years ago as a way to lift the spirits of children who were forced to spend the holidays in the hospital, but soon older patients joined in decorating the tree and singing carols to the accompaniment of the tinny old piano in the parlor. Eventually, it became a tradition for the whole town. For one night, the doctors even relented and allowed cookies for everyone who was able to eat them.
While she unpacked her cookies onto the big silver trays, Marlee glanced around to see if Ben and his mother had arrived. He’d better show up as promised, or she would drive to his house and drag him out. But first she had to find Dr. Wiley. An idea had been burrowing in her brain since last night.
Thirty minutes later, the party was in full swing. The ornaments hung from the tree, music filled the air, and half the cookies had disappeared. She’d managed to corner Dr. Wiley for a short chat, and now all she needed was Ben. Where was he?
A finger tapped her shoulder from behind, and she jumped.
She spun around to find Ben and his mother. Angela Granger offered a tentative smile, while her son’s expression remained sober.
“It’s nice to see you, Marlee.”
“You, too, Mrs. Granger.” Marlee shook her hand. She didn’t remember the deep creases marking Angela’s skin and the hollows beneath her eyes and cheekbones. Ben’s absence had taken a toll on her, too.
“I told you I’d come,” Ben said.
She raised her gaze to his, searching for a clue to his thoughts. “Yes, you did. Thank you.” His eyes remained a dark mystery. She turned to his mother. “Why don’t you get some punch and a cookie, Mrs. Granger? I know Evelyn would love to show you the ornament she knitted this year. I’d like to borrow Ben for a minute, if you don’t mind.”
Angela smiled and patted Ben’s arm. “I’ll see you later, sweetie.”
Marlee watched her make her way through the crowd to join Evelyn and several other Knit Wits at the punch bowl. “You mom’s glad to have you home.”
I’m glad to have you home.
Ben frowned. “I should have come sooner.”
“Maybe you weren’t ready.”
His frown eased, and a smile teased his lips as he met her gaze. “How did you get to be so wise? You were just a kid the last time I saw you.”
“It’s been a long time. I’m not a kid anymore.”
“No, you’re not.”
The warm undertone in his voice kindled a corresponding heat in her middle. She reached for his arm. “I have a surprise for you.”
Ben raised his brows but allowed her to half-drag him across the room to where Dr. Wiley sat talking with a young man in a wheelchair.
“Dr. Wiley, this is Ben Granger.”
The older man stood and shook Ben’s hand. “Glad to meet you. Marlee tells me you were a corpsman in the Navy.”
Ben shot her a skeptical glance before replying. “Yes, sir. I’ve just finished my tour.”
“She also tells me you worked in PT.”
“Any experience with spinal cord injuries?”
“Yes, sir. Between combat injuries and accidents, I’ve pretty much seen it all.”
“Good. There’s someone I’d like you to meet.” Dr. Wiley stepped back and gestured to the young man beside him. “This is Mark.” They shook hands. “He’s just about the age you were when you left Porter’s Landing. About a month ago, he was hit by a drunk driver and lost the use of his legs. We hope it’s temporary, but only time and hard work will tell.”
Ben smiled at Mark. “It isn’t easy and it isn’t fun, but don’t give up. I’ve seen amazing things happen.”
“You know, you might be able to help Mark with his recovery. We’re short-staffed in PT and could really use an experienced therapist. Would you be interested?”
Ben slowly turned to Marlee. “Was this your idea?”
Heat rose in her cheeks, and she lifted her chin a fraction. “You said you weren’t sure about your plans. I wanted you to have plenty of options.”
“You don’t have to decide right away,” Dr. Wiley added.
“Thanks, I’d like to think it over for a couple of days.”
The doctor clapped him on the shoulder. “No problem. The new year’s a good time to start a new life.”
“Yes, sir.” He turned. “Marlee, could I speak to you in private?”
She summoned a brilliant smile. “Of course.”
Ben took her hand in a firm grip and led her to a spot near the doorway, away from the crush of partygoers.
Every nerve in her body jangled. “Now before you say anything,” she began.
He slid one arm around her, pulling her close, and raised a finger to her lips. “Hush.”
She stilled and scanned his face. He looked different, lighter, as if a crushing weight had been lifted. His eyes held a new spark.
“I want to thank you.”
“Mmm. You’re welcome, I guess.”
He leaned forward and pressed a soft kiss to her forehead. “Thank you for being you, for interfering, for caring about me.” He kissed the tip of her nose.
“I’ve always cared about you.”“I care about you, too.” He pulled her closer and tipped his head up to glance at the sprig of mistletoe dangling from the arched opening above their heads. “The doctor was right; the new year is a good time to start a new life.” Then he bent his head and met her lips in a kiss filled with all the promise and hope the holidays could offer.