A Home for Christmas

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A Home for Christmas (Romance, Book Award 2023)
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An introverted flight attendant and her teen daughter invite a recently retired Marine to stay for the holidays, and together they learn the true meaning of "home."
First 10 Pages

Chapter One

The terminal shops glittered with colored lights, their reflection dancing and dazzling off dainty orbs hanging from the crisp evergreens displayed in the center of the walkway. Windows and doors were likewise covered with festive stickers and wreaths, encroaching on the various sale signs that served as brash reminders of how many shopping days remained.

Shelly Evans maneuvered through the crowded airport, ready for the last leg of her journey, which would take her home. She adjusted her uniform blazer as she walked, paying little heed to the glitz and glamour of the fast-approaching holiday. The last thing she wanted to worry about was gifts. Her purse had been feeling lighter and lighter over the last few months, and if she didn’t find a new tenant soon… well, she didn’t want to think about it. Instead, she focused on the mental checklist that always occupied her before each flight. It helped to keep her centered and focused when she was upset or worried.

First, she’d sign into the computer. ID badge? Check. Then she’d make the boarding announcement. She cleared her throat. No hoarseness. Good. Check. Third, she’d… no. This wasn’t working. Even now, Shelly’s thoughts were veering elsewhere—particularly toward her daughter, Lilly, who she was at odds with more often these days.

Shelly struggled to remember what had caused the argument this time. The usual suspects of grades, boys, and technology were potential culprits, but none of those explained Lilly’s change in attitude. Normally a reserved teen, she had been extra snappy, which was out of character for her. Shelly couldn’t put her finger on what had changed, but she knew the problem would not be resolved easily. It never was.

She sighed as she reached the check-in desk, where she was expected to assist the gate agents because of the anticipated increase in travel. Her best friend, Kylie, was already there with two harried gate agents, answering customer questions and checking seat availability for last-minute changes. The murmuring sea of weary passengers crowding the seating area confirmed the holiday travel season was in full swing, and a packed flight seemed inevitable.

Pushing thoughts of Lilly from her mind, Shelly adopted the cheerful demeanor she had developed over the years as a flight attendant. She pasted a broad smile on her face, pulled her shoulders back, and worked to relieve the tension in her hands. It was not her dream job, by any means, but it helped pay the bills and gave her a chance to travel, even if her enjoyment of her destinations was limited to hotels and restaurants within a few miles of the airport.

As she signed into the computer, she noticed a man standing near the counter with a bookbag slung casually over one shoulder. He gave off a calm and disciplined disposition, which was unusual for any passenger, but particularly rare this time of year.

Despite what Shelly assumed had been a long wait, he wasn’t staring at a smartphone or reading a book to while away the time. Instead, he stood almost at attention, with squared shoulders and a wide stance, looking straight ahead. In contrast, most of the customers were frazzled holiday travelers who often took their aggravation at any delays, perceived or actual, out on the gate agents, or Shelly and her fellow flight attendants.

Beyond his unusually peaceful persona, there was something familiar in the man’s appearance and posture. He was tall and broad- shouldered with short black hair and neatly pressed attire. She was about to ask him if she could assist him with something when Kylie tapped her on the shoulder.

“Wow, Shelly, cutting it a little close, aren’t you?” Kylie placed her hands on her hips. “It’s go time.” Waving a hand at the microphone, she reached up to fix her disheveled brown hair back into a bun. Taking in Kylie’s appearance, Shelly smoothed her own auburn hair, confirming her French twist was still intact.

“Connecting flight delays,” Shelly said. “The sooner we can get everyone on the plane, the sooner I can get home to Lilly.”

Kylie’s brows furrowed. “Everything okay with you two?

Shelly gave what she hoped was a nonchalant shrug. “Yeah, we’re fine. Have to be.” She turned away from Kylie to hide her face as she made the boarding announcement.

“Attention passengers of Flight 539, traveling directly from Atlanta to Baltimore; we are ready to begin boarding. Anyone needing additional assistance may approach the check-in counter now. First and business class passengers may line up behind the white line. Thank you.” Immediately, the once murmuring sea of people changed into a hurricane of activity as passengers collected their things. A few families with young children and an elderly couple approached the counter for priority boarding.

Shelly immersed herself in her duties, going through the motions until everyone had passed through the gate. She and Kylie logged out of the computers and closed off the jetway ramp before heading to the plane.

“Welcome aboard, Shelly!” Eric, the pilot, called out.

He winked at her, and she forced a small smile she hoped didn’t resemble a grimace. His open and friendly behavior had taken on a different tone as of late. There was no denying he was a handsome man, tall and lanky, with blond hair and blue eyes. However, he had a reputation for being a womanizer, particularly with the other flight attendants, and that was the last thing she needed. She boarded the plane and put as much distance between them as she could muster.

Shelly followed Kylie to the back where they would begin getting the galley carts ready. Two other flight attendants were handling the safety lecture, and she wanted to stock up the carts before they got underway. She passed the same man she had seen by the counter earlier. Their eyes met, and an unexpected jolt of recognition ran through her, though she was certain she had never seen him before.

As she reached the galley, she pulled out her compact mirror to check her hair and make-up. Her brows furrowed as she scrutinized her reflection. Her critical green eyes swept over her deep auburn hair and the smattering of freckles on her nose. Satisfied the brisk walk through the airport had caused no unruliness in her appearance, she put the compact away and prepared the refreshment carts for the flight.

Eric’s voice came over the loudspeaker, announcing they would taxi to the runway in a few moments, and Shelly joined the other flight attendants in the last safety check. She made her way down the aisle, checking everyone had their seat belts fastened and loose items stowed. The routine was a comfort. She was so absorbed in her role, she didn’t watch where she was going and crashed into something warm and solid. “Whoa!” said a deep voice, and a pair of firm hands grasped

Shelly’s shoulders, steadying her as she started to topple. “Oh! I’m so-sorry!” she stammered.

She stared at a broad chest and had to tilt her head back until she met a set of deep blue eyes. It was the man, the one from the counter, but her assessment of his height and stature seemed woefully out-of-place now that she was standing close to him. He was at least a foot taller than she was, and after their collision, she was even more aware of his muscular build.

“No, it was my fault. I should have been in my seat.” His smile was kind and open. “Are you all right?”

Looking into his eyes, Shelly was surprised by how familiar he was, which made her more unsteady. She shifted her weight, and the man released her shoulders.

“I’m f-fine,” she said.

“Well, I’m sorry to have interrupted your work.” He stepped out of the aisle and sat in his seat. “Let me buckle myself in so I don’t get into any more trouble.” His smile grew wider, and she couldn’t help smiling in return, her unease fading.

“I appreciate that, sir.” She checked to make sure he was fastened in then continued her walk down the aisle. Every seat was full, and many other customers gave her tight smiles in what she perceived as an attempt to hide weariness or flight jitters.

Safety check finished, she sat in her flight seat and buckled in for takeoff, happy to have a moment to herself to gather her thoughts. At her core, she preferred quiet solitude; however, her job required an outgoing, friendly persona, and she often assumed this pretense as part of her professional demeanor. Sometimes the strain of working in customer service necessitated quiet time to recharge her batteries, and this was definitely one of those moments.

As the plane lifted into the air, her mind drifted to when she ran into the man in the aisle. She couldn’t remember the last time she had been drawn to a passenger, or if it had ever occurred before. The sense of familiarity he caused haunted her, and the memory of his intense blue eyes floated around in her head.

The plane soon reached cruising altitude, and the captain announced it was safe to move about the cabin. Shelly and the other flight attendants headed to their respective locations to pass out refreshments. Her heartbeat quickened as she anticipated another interaction with the man. It took additional effort to maintain her calm and friendly attitude as she made her way down the aisle of passengers. The closer she got to him, the more her palms sweated, and her stomach tightened into knots.

Finally, she arrived at the man’s seat. Once she had taken the orders of the others in his row, she gestured toward him.

“What can I get you?” she asked, shifting her weight from foot to foot.

“I’ll have a coke, with a little extra ice if you don’t mind,” he said, with a twinkle in his eye. “I’m a bit tender after our encounter earlier.”

She laughed. “We have a first aid kit, if it’s that bad.”

“No, no, it’s not quite to that level.” He chuckled and then gave her a quick once over. “Although I’m surprised you aren’t bruised from the collision. I’m a pretty sturdy guy.”

“No harm, no foul,” she said. “I’m stronger than I look.” She grinned at him and handed him his coke with extra ice. His fingers were warm when they brushed hers, and his kind blue eyes held a hint of mischief in them. “Tell me if that’s not enough ice for you.”

He winked at her, his eyes crinkling as his grin broadened. “I’m sure this will do fine.”

She began to move on to the next row when he cleared his throat. “Before you go, what’s your name?” the man asked, then hesitated. “You know, in case I need to contact you for insurance purposes.”

Shelly laughed again and introduced herself. “And you are?”

“Master Sergeant Brad Collins.” He bowed his head slightly. “At your service.”

“O-oh, um, t-thank you for your service,” she stammered, as she realized why he had seemed familiar to her before. The way he carried himself, his posture and mannerisms all reminded her of her father, who had also been a Marine.

He put out his hand, and she took it, anticipating the firm handshake she was accustomed to from members of the armed forces. Instead, he held her hand for a moment and gave it a gentle squeeze.

“It’s nice to meet you, officially,” Brad said. He released her hand and waved toward the remaining aisles. “But I don’t want to keep you from your work.”

“Right, I should get on with this.” She maneuvered the cart to the next row, a smile pasted on her face, but her mind whirled. The man’s stance, haircut, and overall disposition were large enough clues on their own, but it hadn’t sunk in until he introduced himself by rank.

Her father was killed in action, right before Christmas, when she was eight years old. Since the uniform brought painful memories, she had made it a point to avoid military personnel most of her life. She continued down the aisle, shaken, her heart hammering in her throat, the beat slowing only after she put some distance between them. When she was far enough away, she could no longer sense his eyes on her back, her shoulders loosened.

After drink service was over, she returned to her flight seat to rest for a moment and gather her thoughts. She couldn’t pinpoint the exact reason for why she was so unsettled. There were thousands of Marines flying home for the holidays, but there was something about Brad that caused her anxiety.

Was it the way he appeared calm and collected despite the chaotic holiday travel occurring around him? Or perhaps it was the way he seemed to see her as an actual person instead of only through her position with the airline. He was attractive, to be sure, and she often found herself a little tongue-tied by attractive men. However, she had sworn off men after her marriage ended the year before. She had enough on her plate raising her daughter on her own.

Shelly was so distracted she didn’t realize Kylie was talking to her until a hand waved in front of her face.

“Hello?” Kylie called. “Earth to Shelly! Are you still with us?” “Oh!” Shelly did her best to hide how unsettled she was after her conversation with Brad. “I’m sorry. I was in my own world.”

“Your thoughts wouldn’t happen to be on that handsome man you were talking with earlier, would they?” Kylie teased.

“N-no.” Shelly protested, wincing as she stammered. Kylie smirked, and Shelly rushed on to hide her embarrassment. “I mean, obviously, he’s attractive, but I’m not interested in starting anything with anyone, particularly a passenger I doubt I’ll ever see again.”

Kylie snorted. “Who’s talking about starting anything? What’s wrong with a little harmless flirting?”

“I wasn’t flirting with him!”

“Really? Well, whatever you were doing, I’m just happy you genuinely smiled for a change.”

Embarrassed, Shelly stared at her hands. She hadn’t considered anyone at work, even someone she was close to, would see through her pretense.

“Let’s go do our favorite pastime.” Kylie stood and headed toward the back of the plane.

Shelly followed, wiping her clammy hands on her uniform. Her nerves heightened in anticipation of interacting with Brad again, but she took a deep breath and headed down the aisle to collect trash. It wasn’t her favorite part of the job, but it often meant the flight was nearing its end. As she approached his row, he was not in his seat.

The warring feelings of relief and disappointment were overwhelming and caught her by surprise. She shook her head at her ridiculousness. After all, he was just a passenger, and there was no reason she should treat him any differently.

She sensed a presence behind her, and a throat cleared. Startled, she glanced back. Brad stood in the aisle, waiting patiently to return to his seat.

Shifting, she made a move to step out of his way. “Oh, I’m sorry."

He laughed. “I don’t think the aisle is quite large enough for me to move by you. Please, take your time. I’m in no rush.”

Her nerves rattled once more as she went clumsily down the aisle, dropping the trash multiple times and becoming more agitated as she went. She thrust the bag at the other people in Brad’s aisle before she scurried away.

“Excuse me, Shelly?” he called.

Her body stiff, she turned. He lifted an empty cup and gestured toward her trash bag.

“I’m sorry, I missed you.” She opened the bag, and he dropped in the cup. Her eyes met his, and his brows furrowed.

“Are you okay? You seem…” He bit his lip. “Distracted.”

“Oh yes, I’m fine.” She gave what she hoped was a reassuring smile and moved on.

The rest of the flight passed without further incident, and Shelly exhaled at the announcement they would land soon. She and the other flight attendants began landing prep, including a final trash service. Thankfully, Brad didn’t have any additional trash, so she avoided looking like a fool again, though he gave her a cheerful grin. She responded with a hesitant smile then returned to her work area to secure the carts before heading to her seat for landing.

Once the plane was safely on the ground, she was too busy with disembarking procedures to give much more thought to Brad and the way his presence had unsettled her for the entire flight. She finished cleaning and checking the cabin for any forgotten items.

As she wandered back down the aisle during her final check, a black wallet peaked from between the seats. She pulled it out and opened it to check for identification. Brad’s blue eyes stared back at her from the Maryland license. Curious, she checked his address, and her heart swelled in surprise when she discovered they were from the same area.

Wow, small world! She put the wallet into her purse to take to the lost and found. I wonder if he still has family there.

Eric was waiting for her at the front of the plane. “Welcome home, Shelly!”

“Thanks Eric.” She reluctantly fell into step beside him as they walked up the jetway into the airport. “Are you sticking around for the holidays, or are you flying out again?”

“I’m not scheduled to fly again until the new year, but I am hoping to find a jump seat for a flight home to Maine before Christmas,” he said.

“I’m sure your family would love to see you for the holidays,” Shelly said. She took a small step to the side as they walked as he kept bumping into her.

“Though, I was hoping, while I’m in Maryland, maybe we could—”

Shelly stopped short.