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Christmas on Bellevue Lane Anna DeStefano

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Chapter One

“Grandpa,” Marsha Dixon’s granddaughter squealed, “you’re home!” Camille barreled across the Dixon living room toward her grandfather, her arms filled with an overflowing box of Christmas ornaments. Dru Hampton, one of Marsha and Joe’s grown foster children, snatched the cardboard carton out of her niece’s hands seconds before Camille launched herself into Joe’s outstretched arms. Joe’s chuckle disguised the way he winced. Almost. “And you look like a walking Christmas-in-July ad.” Despite the tightness and chronic pain Marsha knew her husband had felt since his bypass surgery, Joe lifted Camille into one of his trademark hugs. Marsha smiled at the beautiful sight. It was a precious moment. She and Joe were so very blessed. But it was also before noon. Her husband hadn’t been due home until that afternoon, after he finished his workday. And he looked even more exhausted than he had when he’d left earlier that morning. Her heart caught a little as their eyes met.


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Joe winked as if to say everything was going to be okay. “Are you checking up on us, Dad?” Dru asked. She handed Marsha the ornaments and held out her hands for Camille. She took the seven-year-old into her arms to spare Joe—even though Dru’s adorable baby bump was growing by the day now that she was well into her second trimester. “Brad’s heading over later to assemble the tree,” she told her father. “I didn’t think we’d see you before dinner. The family’s counting on you to be our pizza-delivery device.” Joe waved away the undercurrent of worry in her voice. “I called Little Vincent’s and placed the order,” he said. “They’ll deliver our pies. And everyone at the office understood my not wanting to miss a minute of Camille’s first Dixon family Christmas in July. It wouldn’t be July first if I weren’t wrestling our artificial tree out of storage and making sure the kids have something to hang things on.” He kissed Camille’s forehead and ambled away, heading toward the kitchen and the storage room beyond. He was noticeably limping when he passed Marsha. She set the box Dru had given her beside a stack of similar ones and snagged Joe’s hand. When he slowed to a halt beside her, she leaned in so only he would hear, knowing she shouldn’t say it. But she couldn’t stop herself. “Why don’t you let Brad take care of the tree?” she asked. She’d turned away from the others, not wanting to broadcast a replay of her and Joe’s quiet argument after breakfast. She felt him tense.


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“You’re tired and sore,” she rushed to add, “and Dru said Brad was happy to help.” Their soon-to-be son-in-law had cleared his afternoon work schedule. “Save your energy for when the kids get home from their days. The rest of us can handle things for now. Maybe you could take a—” “Nap?” Joe jerked away from her. “Like an old man?” He glanced over his shoulder at their audience, grimacing when he found Dru and Camille hanging on every quiet word. “If you’d had your way this morning,” he said to Marsha, “I’d never have gotten out of bed. I’m not going to collapse, Bird. I’m just assembling a stupid Christmas tree!” He looked instantly embarrassed, apologetic at the way he’d raised his voice. Shaking his head, he glanced at the girls again, and then walked away from the family room and the conversation with Marsha he kept refusing to finish. He made his way across the kitchen, every step visibly costing him. “Are we still having Christmas in July?” Camille switched from watching her grandfather’s retreat to waiting for Marsha’s answer. “Kid,” Dru answered, while Marsha stared down at a cardboard carton full of holiday cheer, regaining her composure. “Nothing’s gonna stop us from rocking your first Dixon holiday. This place will be packed in a few hours with family ready to get their party on.” Marsha nodded, shoving aside her shock at how much more frequently her husband’s uncharacteristic outbursts were coming.


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She carried Camille’s ornament box to the love seat that was positioned cattycorner to the fireplace. Later the family’s artificial spruce would be assembled there—the way it had been for thirty years now. “But why Christmas in July?” Camille asked. Marsha smiled indulgently as she sat. Their family’s quirky July tradition came with quite a story attached. One that could take the rest of the morning and half the afternoon to tell. “Because December is too long to wait,” she offered simply, “for a little magic to happen.” “Even more magic”—Camille plopped down on the love seat’s plump cushions. She pulled Marsha’s cardboard box into her lap and began looking through the colorful ornaments within—“than my mommy and daddy finally making me a Dixon?” Dru moved other containers of ornaments and twinkly tree lights to the fireplace while Marsha hugged Camille. Her granddaughter had been with them for such a short time. But she’d already brought so much sunshine into their family. “You’ve always been a Dixon, sweetheart,” Marsha said. Just as all the foster kids in her and Joe’s sprawling family would forever be Dixons, wherever they came from and wherever they went after they left or aged out of their group home. “Even when I didn’t know who any of you were?” Camille asked. “Especially then.” Marsha thought of her son, Oliver, and his new bride’s whirlwind second-chance romance.


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He and Selena had reconnected only a few months ago. It hadn’t been an easy reunion—seeing each other again for the first time since high school, and Oliver discovering he had a daughter he’d never known about. But love had prevailed. And now the forever connection Camille’s parents had always felt for each other was stronger than ever. Oliver and his childhood sweetheart had married two days ago at the county courthouse, with a handful of friends and family beside them as witnesses. Then they’d taken off to the mountains for a quick three-day honeymoon. “Your mommy and daddy,” Marsha assured her granddaughter, “were just waiting for the perfect time to bring you home to us.” Oliver might never have known about Camille—no one in their family would have—if Selena hadn’t moved back to Chandlerville from New York less than a year ago, after her marriage fell apart. Now Marsha’s son was a devoted, loving father. He’d dived headfirst into his instant family and the love he and Selena had never stopped feeling for each other. All of them were thriving—Camille most of all. “You mean,” Marsha’s granddaughter said, “so I could be here for Christmas this summer? And at Grandpa’s Father of the Year party last month?” “Exactly.” Marsha straightened one of Camille’s perpetually off-center pigtails, telling herself that their family could still have a wonderful day. She knew that’s what Joe wanted, too. She pecked a kiss onto her granddaughter’s button nose. “And now that school’s out, Grandpa and I have the whole summer to make up for lost time. Your parents better


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watch out. When they get home they’ll have to wrestle your grandpa and me to get you back.” Camille grinned at the thought of the grown-ups in her newly settled life fighting over her. “But we live just two streets over now,” she reminded Marsha. “And I’m still at Grammy Belinda’s next door all the time, ’cause she babysits me for Mommy and Daddy, too.” “But if you were over there now, who would help Dru and me pick which ornaments should go on the tree first?” Sorting through the Dixon family’s overflowing boxes of holiday decor had been Marsha’s master plan for keeping Camille occupied until Christmas in July officially began—when the rest of the family returned home in the afternoon. “Grandpa would,” Camille insisted. “’Cause he loves Christmas in July, too, right?” A crash and a curse from the direction of the storage room distracted Marsha from answering. “Of course he does,” Dru told her niece, helping shield Camille from Joe’s rapidly declining mood. He had actually mumbled something at breakfast that morning about canceling this year’s party—a tradition inspired years ago by his love for Marsha and their family. He’d apologized almost as soon as he’d said it. He’d just been tired and hurting, he’d assured Marsha. He was fine. Everything was fine. They were fine. And they’d have a blast tonight with the kids.


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But he was home from work early again, something that had been happening a couple days a week since he’d started back after his bypass surgery. And there was another crash and a fresh curse from the storage room—this one clear enough to widen Camille’s beautiful green eyes until they were as round as an owl’s. She glanced at Marsha. “Is Grandpa mad?” “No, sweetie.” Marsha wished anger were all that was ailing her husband. She wished there was more she could do to help Joe while she quietly panicked and worked double-time to insulate their kids, young and old, from how hard it had become for her husband to do the things he absolutely loved doing for their family. Even Christmas in July. “I think Grandpa’s just a little tired,” she explained. “And you saw how much we have in storage. Once he drags our tree in here, everything will be right as rain.” Dru’s unconvinced stare over Camille’s head confirmed what Marsha had suspected. Her older children were no longer buying Marsha’s assurances. Dru clearly knew that today at least, Joe was anything but fine. “Grandpa loves Christmas more than all the rest of us put together.” Dru smiled for Camille’s benefit. Camille’s silence begged Marsha to convince her. “We’ll have a tree up for decorating in no time,” Marsha promised. “You’ll see,” Dru said. “There’s a party going on here tonight, and you’re this year’s guest of honor.” “Yay!” Camille kicked her feet, her excitement returning. She dipped her hands into Marsha and Joe’s oldest box of Christmas things.


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“Does every kid in the family really have their own ornaments?” she asked. “How long have you been doing Christmas in July?” “Since forever.” Dru smoothed back the dark curls that passed for Camille’s bangs. “And you’ll have your own ornaments now, too. It’s part of the tradition.” “What’s this one, Grammy?” Camille picked up a large crush of aging tissue paper. She peeled back the brittle, glitter-flecked layers, slowly revealing the treasure within. “It’s so pretty. . . .” Marsha smiled at her granddaughter’s awed expression, tearing up a little at the memories. I want to give you beautiful things like this every day of our lives, Joe had said when he’d given it to her. “What is it?” Camille studied the fragile creation more closely. “It’s a hummingbird.” Marsha brushed her fingers across the tin ornament’s gilded surface. Its colors had faded over the years. But it was just as beautiful as the first day she’d held it. “Your Grandpa Joe gave it to me in college.” “College?” “That’s where they met,” Dru said. “Actually, your grandpa ran over your Grammy Marsha her first week on the University of Georgia campus.” Dru rubbed Marsha’s shoulder, comforting, reassuring, supporting. Then they both tensed as another frustrated growl erupted on the other side of the house.


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“UGA is where we fell in love,” Marsha said, slipping into that place in-between, where the best memories could take you. Where before and now and forever suddenly felt as if they were all the same. All the good and the bad. The dreams and the disappointments. The setbacks and the triumphs. Everything you’d been and were and ever would become could bind themselves together sometimes when you were remembering, showing you the story of your life. She and Joe were maybe facing the toughest setback of their relationship. His recovery was stalling out, and they needed their love to see them and their foster family through this challenge—the same as it had all the others they’d faced. “Mom?” Dru’s voice pulled Marsha back from her thoughts. “I think it’s time Camille heard your and Dad’s story.” Marsha smiled at her older daughter, silently thanking her for the distraction. Marsha and Joe shared their foster family’s history with each child placed in their home. It was the kids’ history, too—something to belong to and take with them for the rest of their lives. Those same stories belonged to Camille now. And Marsha couldn’t think of anything she’d enjoy better than indulging in a few more minutes of looking back. “Your grandpa gave me this ornament on the night he proposed to me,” she said. “I’d never seen anything so magical.” “You met at Christmas?” Camille asked.


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Marsha shook her head, realizing she’d have to start at the beginning. She felt the memory tumbling out as she cuddled her granddaughter close and Dru settled in next to them. “Not exactly, sweetheart . . .”


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Chapter Two

Fall 1980 University of Georgia Campus There was something about Joe Dixon that wouldn’t let me stay mad at him right from the start, when he literally ran over me because he wasn’t watching where he was going. Actually he was running, and I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Back then he was always rushing to get somewhere, all handsome and strong and on his way to making something important of himself. And my head was usually in the clouds. I guess because I’d grown up on top of a Georgia mountain near the North Carolina border, with sky all around me and the rest of the world feeling far away. The day I met Joe, I was already late for a study group at the UGA library. And yes, I was rushing. But I was minding my own business and walking down a perfectly good sidewalk, not in anyone’s way, when something that felt like a wall barreled sideways into me. I later found out that one of his buddies had thrown a football at Joe—even though he was


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carrying even more books than I was. Then suddenly my things and I and Joe and his books were airborne right along with that ball. I mean, look at me. I was even smaller in college than I am now. And he was running full-speed. So I went flying, the ground rushing toward me so fast I screamed. Then the strongest arms I’d ever had around me hugged me tight and turned me in midair. Joe’s body skidded into the grass first, with me on top cushioned against his chest, still screaming. At least until the air was knocked out of me and I couldn’t breathe at all. “Oh, my gosh.” He rolled over and took me with him, settling me into the soft green grass. He was leaning over me, this big, amazing-smelling blur blocking out the sun so I couldn’t see his face. “I’m so sorry,” he said. “I didn’t see you until the last minute, and it was too late to stop, and I was really moving, and, oh, my gosh. Are you okay? Did I hurt you? Is there anything I can get you? Say something, please.” “Strawberries,” was all I could get out, while I gulped to get air down and mostly failed. He smelled like strawberries, like he’d just eaten them or picked them. Or maybe our collision had addled my senses along with the rest of me. Because it turned out that Joe’s allergic to strawberries and has sworn up and down since that day that there wasn’t a whiff of my favorite fruit on him when we met. It didn’t matter, really.


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Right about then he rolled to his side, and the sun was no longer in my eyes, and then it wouldn’t have mattered if he’d smelled like the worst thing in the world. I would have wanted to get closer. All I could process were incredible blue eyes, a tanned smiling face, and a chuckle that had me laughing, too, as I pressed him back to the ground, practically lying on top of him again like I wanted to keep him all to myself. “Just for the record,” he teased me, “I’m not a strawberry. In case you were thinking of taking a bite to be sure. Not that I’d mind having the prettiest girl on campus give me a taste test. But then I’d be obliged to reciprocate.” That’s when I started to wonder if he’d run into me on purpose, maybe just a little. Especially when he pulled me closer instead of letting me go. His hands were so big, his fingers nearly stretched from one side of my back to the other. Even more of him came into focus, along with the crowd that had gathered around us. I shoved him away finally and somehow managed to get on my feet without falling back down again. I’d snapped the strap on one of my sandals, I realized, and there were leaves in my hair. Joe stood, too, and started plucking out the tree debris, making a show of it while everyone watched. “So,” he said, “no strawberry tasting?” I glared at him. I wanted the ground to swallow us both—him first. And I didn’t trust what might come out of my mouth if I said anything until he was gone and I could disappear back into the sea of other freshmen who’d descended on the university just a week before.


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He smiled instead of collecting his books and moving on with his football friends. He held out his hand to shake. I didn’t move, but he took my hand anyway, as if we were already friends—me and this guy who was clearly an upperclassman and probably some big man on campus. And that’s when I realized how much trouble I was really in. Because as soon as my fingers tangled with Joe’s I couldn’t let go. In fact, I held on when his touch would have slipped away. I could still feel the impact of him tackling me. But there’s no way I was mad at him anymore. How could you stay angry at someone who felt somehow as if he’d always been a part of you? Joe looked a little stunned. And I could tell he felt it, too. That something was different. That maybe this was the right place and the right time for . . . I didn’t know what. He didn’t seem to, either. Or maybe neither of us was thinking about anything but how . . . right it was to be standing there on that hot August day while people stared at us, getting lost in our first moment the way I’ve lost so many more to Joe since then. His lips curved up at their corners, the way they do when life’s treating him right. But he was no longer laughing. His eyes sparkled with something serious, maybe a little determined. And that finally broke the spell for me. I backed up but kept staring. “Will you at least tell me your name?” He followed me step for step until I stopped. He was nearly whispering, keeping what we said private. I shook my head and looked around. His sweaty friends were finally wandering back to their pickup football game on the big lawn outside my dormitory.


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“I really am sorry.” Joe watched folks return to minding their own business. Until it was just him and me. “I’d like to check on you later, to be sure you’re okay.” I shook my head again, because I wanted him to check on me. I wanted it a lot. And I’d just met this guy! I glanced down at my watch. “I have to go.” It was the first Biology 101 study session of the semester, and it was no big deal if I was late. But I looked him over, all the way up to those smiling blue eyes. And I really had to get out of there, or this time I’d tackle him. When I tried to edge away, he caught my arm. “I’m Joe Dixon,” he told me. “I’m out here with the guys most afternoons once class is done. Unless I’m working—over at Pi’s. You know, the pizza place on Clayton Street? But I’m mostly only there on weekends. I’m trying to finish up my coursework this semester, so I’m carrying a heavy load. And . . .” He stopped talking. He seemed to realize that he was still holding on to me. He let go to run his hand through his hair. He was even more nervous than I was, I realized, so I stayed just a little longer. “I want to be sure you’re not hurt.” He sounded so sweet and worried and caring, just like he sounds now when he’s looking after all of us. He picked up our books, stacked mine, and handed them back. “I’m fine,” I finally told him. I most certainly wasn’t fine. I was clutching twenty pounds of textbooks to my chest as if they’d protect me. But from what?


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I hadn’t been hurt when he’d run into me. He’d made sure of that. The way he’s been so sure all these years to take care of everyone and everything around here. But that day we first met, I’d never felt so overwhelmed before. I guess every girl has the right to be spooked when she meets the man of her dreams. “I’m late for a meeting,” I insisted. He nodded and stared down at the tennis shoes he was wearing without laces. I stumbled on my way. I’d almost made it to the curb of the parking lot I had to cross to get to the library when he called after me. “Hey!” His voice spun me around, even though he’d said the word softly. Almost as if he weren’t sure whether he really wanted me to hear. But I had heard. And when I turned back to look at him, I was smiling. He nodded again, as if I’d settled some argument he’d been having with himself. “If you won’t give me your name,” he told me, “could you at least tell me something about yourself? So maybe I can ask around, talk to people who know you and make sure you’re still doing all right later tonight or tomorrow? Otherwise I’m going to keep worrying.” He was serious. He would have kept worrying. That’s just the way he is, and I knew it even then. Joe never stops caring or worrying until he’s sure everyone who’s important to him is taken care of. “Hummingbirds,” I told him.


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My favorite memories of my parents’ place in the North Georgia Mountains was watching this beautiful pair of hummingbirds that drank from my mother’s feeders. We never saw them alone. They always showed up and ate together. They seemed so happy, darting here and there with each other. They were old married folks, my dad would say while we watched them buzz around. A perfectly matched set. They wouldn’t be as beautiful or happy with any other bird. Just like my dad and my mom, he’d say. And that would always start me dreaming of finding my own perfect match one day. Someone I could learn how to love always. Someone just for me, to spend the rest of my life with. Not that I was thinking about any of that when hummingbirds popped into my mind that first day with Joe. But maybe I was, in some small way, while I lost myself in his concerned gaze. “I love hummingbirds.” I smiled up at him and the sky beyond that was bluer than any sky I’d ever seen on top of my parents’ mountain. “And my name is Marsha Crosby. . . .”


Christmas on Bellevue Lane