Unable to believe the news, Tess clung to her cell phone long after Father Mark hung up. He’d offered the church’s basement for her fundraiser. When she pointed out she wasn’t a member of St. Mark’s, he said the community helps each other.
Quickly, she lettered a sign to add to the “closed indefinitely” notice on the front door, instructing those who came for the fundraiser where to go. With Eric’s help, they brought up the food from the basement. He insisted on carrying the stock pots of chili and told her to bring the muffins. Before she could head downstairs again, a knock on the back door stopped her.
After Dean Rider’s announcement about Gabe saving Miss Nickleson’s life, she’d wondered what he’d been doing since he left Far Haven on his Harley to see the world. She’d envied his freedom back then, while knowing she couldn’t live like he wanted her to.
Regrets that she hadn’t left with him? Some, though she’d never admit it.
“Did you want something?” she asked.
“Stopped by to see if you need any help?”
“No, that’s okay, We can—”
“Man, am I glad to see you.” Eric panted as came up out of the basement. “I need help. There’s one more pot in the refrigerator.”
“Good.” Gabe’s grin caught her unawares. Despite the fact that they were twenty-five years older, that so much had happened to them during that time, his infectious smile still made her heart flutter.
While he and Eric trooped downstairs, she started loading up a rolling cart with the food to take to the church.
“Good God, woman. What are you doing?” Gabe stopped her from lifting a stock pot. “Leave that for us.”
“Yeah, Ma. Leave the heavy lifting for us guys.”
“Smart aleck.” Tess ruffled Eric’s hair.
“Now what?” Gabe asked.
“Now, we load my van.”
Once the food was loaded in her truck, the cart as well, Eric looked from Tess to Gabe. “See you guys at St. Mark’s.” Then, he took off on his bike, pedaling like crazy.
“He could’ve ridden with us,” Gabe said as he slid into the passenger seat. He looked behind him. “Oh.”
Tess chuckled. “Yeah. No seat.”
At the church, where Eric waited, they again loaded the cart. She thanked the church’s congregation for installing an elevator.
When they returned to the van for the next trip, a truck from the local grocery store pulled up.
“You Tess Visser?” the driver said. “Where do you want this?” He pointed to crates of produce.
“This is a mistake. I didn’t order—”
“No mistake. Sign here.” He handed her a clipboard.
Meanwhile, Gabe talked to another man who wheeled the crates inside.
“My invoice?” She wasn’t sure how she could pay for the much needed produce.
As soon as that truck left, another truck from the largest mega-store in the area with more food. Again, no mistake. No invoice, either.
“I can’t believe this,” she said to Gabe downstairs. “We have fruit, vegetable, drinks, desserts.”
“Word gets around. What can I do to help now?” While she protested, he looked around. “Give me an apron.”
“Ma, do you need me? I got something I have to do.” Not waiting for an answer, her son took off.
“Now you really need me.” Gabe grinned.
Overwhelmed by the donations of food, Tess could only hand him an apron and tell him how to clean vegetables. While pots of chili heated on the stove, they worked together in companionable silence in the enclosed church kitchen with its metal tambour shutter covering the serving window.
“Are you really a doctor?” she asked.
“I am, indeed, but I still know my way around a kitchen. By the way, they caught the vandals. A couple of kids who live at the homeless shelter.”
“What?” She stopped chopping veggies. “The fundraiser was for them. And all the families at the shelter. Why would they destroy all the good work people had done for them?”
“Deputy Dawson got them to admit they were mad at their parents for losing their jobs and then their homes. Anger and resentment had festered until they exploded and took it out on the café. They’ll be doing a lot of community service, including helping serve the dinner.”
As they worked side-by-side, she learned where he had been since they parted all those years ago. At first, he’d been reluctant to talk about his life until she shared hers. Whether it was the intimacy of the warm kitchen or his nonjudgmental manner, she told him about life with her former husband, her joy when Eric was born, her grief when Ken died, and her anger at him for his foolish disregard for them.
“He didn’t give you the stability you wanted.” Gabe’s voice was neutral, no hint of smugness. Without asking, he began washing fruit.
“At first, yes. Later . . .” She wobbled her hand. “Looks like I chose the wrong guy.”
“No. I had to grow up, as you put it when we parted.”
Like trying to get her son to divulge his “secrets” Tess eventually got Gabe to talk about his stint in the Marines, tours in Afghanistan, being a medic, eventually becoming a doctor—just like his father wanted.
“Your dad has never forgiven me for throwing you over,” she said.
“He thought you would cure my wildness.” That grin again, gray eyes twinkling.
“He told me I made a big mistake rejecting you. Then he never talked about you in front of me.” She’d wondered about that as she learned more about Gabe. “I’m surprised he didn’t brag about you becoming a doctor.”
“He was angry at me for not coming straight home and joining his practice.” He cleared his throat. “What’s next?”
“Hang on. Why didn’t you?”
“He didn’t understand my need to be independent. You know how it is to work with your parent.”
She did, indeed. From a young age, she’d worked in the family restaurant. Responsibility without authority grated on her until her dad retired.
As they talked, she became aware of noise in the outer room. At first, she thought people were setting up tables and chairs. When it sounded like more people, her curiosity got the best of her.
“What is going on out there?” She wiped her hands on her apron.
“Wait a sec.” Gabe lifted the tambour shutter.
She ran out of the kitchen. She couldn’t believe what she saw.
“Isn’t this great?” Eric waved at stacks of gifts under a decorated tree. He named several stores. “They donated toys to replace the trashed ones. And clothes for kids and grownups.”
The decorations made the basement festive. The owners and staff from the other two restaurants had brought serving stations. The managers told Tess she was in charge. They were ready to help.
Word of mouth, the local newspaper, flyers posted everywhere advertised the free holiday meal plus a visit from Santa himself.
“H-How . . .” She stepped back into Gabe.
He held her elbows and drew her closer. “The community thought so much of your idea everybody pitched in.”
“Thanks to you, big guy.” Alex O’Hara, who’d taken over her dad’s investigation agency, punched him in the arm.
Tess turned to face him. “You organized this?”
While heat crept up Gabe’s neck, Alex said, “He is a great arm-twister. You shoulda seen him earlier. Who could say no?”
Father Mark came up. “We have hungry diners lining up outside. Let’s get this show on the road.”
With help from the other restaurants plus Tess’s crew, the food was set up and the lines began. Though happy that her dad’s fundraiser was helping so many, Tess was overwhelmed by everything Gabe and the others had done. She had to get away before she broke down in tears. She raced to find the restroom. Gabe followed her.
“Are you okay?” He stopped her outside the ladies.
That concern pushed her over the edge. Tears streamed down her cheeks. When a sob shook her, he pulled her into his arms. No words. He just held her as she soaked the front of his shirt. Finally, she got herself under control.
“I don’t know what to say, Gabe. You’ve done so much. You aren’t the man I thought you would be.”
“A wastrel?” His mouth curved into a wry grin. “Good-for-nothing? Ne’er do well?”
“I never called you those names.”
“No. Others did. And they were right, especially my dad.”
“Not now. You are a good man, Gabriel Summer. An angel in disguise.” She stroked his cheek.
“I wouldn’t go that far. I did what anyone would do, what others have done for a member of the community. A community I’m proud to be a member of.”
“You mean you’re staying?” she asked.
“Yep. I’m staying.”
“There you guys are.” Eric dashed up to them. “Hurry up. Santa’s coming.”
When they walked back into the dining room, Santa was “Ho-ho-ho-ing” and kids were cheering.
Smiling broadly, Eric hooked his arms into Gabe’s and Tess’s. “This is what a Christmas miracle looks like.”
~ End ~
I hope you enjoyed “A Miracle in Far Haven.” Come back tomorrow for R.E. Mullins’ story "All Holidays Matter."
Far Haven, Michigan is the location for Diane Burton's Alex O'Hara mystery series. Like the characters in her story, Diane and her husband live in West Michigan. They have two children and five grandchildren who all live nearby. For more info and excerpts from her books, visit Diane’s website: http://www.dianeburton.com