For those of you who are visiting, welcome to my blog. For regular readers, welcome back! Today, I’m pleased to share “My Christmas Angel.” This short story appears as an “added extra” to my second Angel Ridge Novel, A Home for Christmas.
If you enjoy this story and think you might like to read other Angel Ridge Novels, there are four: Only You, A Home for Christmas, What the Heart Wants (2011 Winner of the Holt Medallion-Honoring Outstanding Literary Talent for Single Title/Contemporary fiction), and I’ll Be There. All are available at Amazon.com and BN.com in trade paperback and for electronic download. A Home for Christmas is currently an Amazon Bestseller in Contemporary Romance. A link will be provided at the end of this post for you to go to either Amazon or Barnes & Noble to purchase.
Additionally, today for those who comment on this blog AND “like” my Facebook fan page, I will select a winner who will receive an autographed copy of an Angel Ridge novel. Winner’s choice!
So, sit back with a mug of hot cocoa, read, and enjoy!
My Christmas Angel
A Story of Angel Ridge
Angel Ridge, Tennessee
Christmas Eve, 1853
I smoothed my hands over the soft, red velvet dress Grandma had made me, admiring my reflection in the dresser mirror. It fit perfectly and had transformed a schoolgirl into a poised young woman.
“Mary! Let’s go. We’re late!”
“Coming, Mama.” I took a deep breath, trying desperately to slow my pounding heart.
Moments later, wrapped in our warmest coats, we all climbed into the wagon and settled in for the short ride to the church. My mind raced with possibilities as snowflakes swirled about my head. Would he be there? Seated with his parents in the back pew just like he had been every year since I could remember? Please God, I prayed, I have to find a way to meet him this year.
Christmas Eve was the only time he and his family ever came to church. I didn’t know who they were and didn’t dare ask. He was too special to even speak of. I secretly called him my Christmas angel. Sometimes I wondered if I hadn’t conjured him up every year, right out of my imagination . . . my hopes. . . my dreams.
Because we always sat in the third pew from the front, one good look at him was all I ever got. Last year, while the preacher was going on with one of his typical long prayers, I turned around to steal a look at my angel. All I caught was Mama’s sharp elbow in my ribs. I swear, that woman has eyes clear around her head. Even on her eyelids!
When our wagon at last rolled to a halt in front of the church, winking candles in the windows invited us to come worship. But I had other things on my mind. My hands began to shake when my brother helped me down, and I nearly fainted as a cold breeze stole my breath. Somehow, I made it all the way to the front porch. Papa held the door as Mama walked inside, but my feet seemed frozen in place when I heard the organ music filter out into the crisp, winter night air.
“I . . . I . . . ”
“Close the door,” Mama said sternly. “You’re letting all the warm air out.”
I had to do something quick. I didn’t want this Christmas Eve to be like all the rest. “I . . . left my Bible . . . in the wagon.”
“I’ll get it, honey.” Papa patted my gloved hand. “You come on inside where it’s warm.”
“No! I mean, I’ll get it.” I dashed off before Papa had a chance to argue. Of course, my Bible wasn’t in the wagon. I had to go in by myself, or I’d be doomed to only another brief glimpse of my angel as Mama ushered me to her pew.
Had he ever paid me any mind as I made my way up the aisle with my parents each year? Probably not. I must have seemed like a child to his older eyes. But tonight would be different. I was a woman now, almost eighteen, and nearly finished with school. He’d notice me in my new red velvet dress that Grandma said brought out the color of my hair and eyes like never before.
Leaving my coat in the wagon, I hurried back to the church. I hid from Mama’s searching eyes just outside the sanctuary doors. The choir softly hummed Silent Night as Miss Ruth made her way to the front of the stage for her solo. Miss Ruth had the best voice of anybody, and I knew when she started singing, no one would see me slip in. I’d have scant time to put my plan in motion, which was good. That way, I wouldn’t have time to change my mind.
I slid into the little space at the end of the pew, right beside my Christmas angel. He seemed surprised, then scooted over to make room. I shivered, not from cold, mind you, but from at last catching his attention.
The heavenly chorus surely was smiling on Miss Ruth, for her voice reached every corner of the candle-lit room, filling it with that special glow only a Christmas carol can bring. Or maybe it was my angel, so close that I could feel his warmth, smell his clean scent. I chanced another look at him then, and stopped breathing. He had the unearthly beauty of an archangel who’d just left the presence of the Almighty. His long golden hair hung in silken waves to his shoulders. And when his clear blue eyes met mine, the tender look he gave me went straight to my heart.
For an endless moment we stared at each other, then he smiled hesitantly and shifted his gaze back to the cap crushed between his hands. I trained my eyes on Miss Ruth and took a shaky breath. Two things registered: he’d smiled at me; and he was alone. In fact, there wasn’t a single person nearby. The church was always filled to capacity on Christmas Eve. But tonight, it was as if God had dropped two empty pews between the Joneses’ six squirming kids and the last row where we sat.
As Miss Ruth began another verse, he leaned toward me and whispered, “Why aren’t you sitting with your parents?”
Unable to come up with a proper answer, I asked a question of my own. “Why aren’t you?”
His focus returned to the cap, which he had wrung into a mangled line. “They died…back in the summer.”
“I’m sorry.” Without thought, I reached out and covered his hand with mine.
His cap fell to the floor as he enfolded my fingers in a warm, tight grip. “Will you come out with me, Mary?” he asked softly as Miss Ruth launched into the third verse.
“Now?” Lordy, Mama surely would see the two of us sneaking out the back like a couple of thieves. I looked up to where she sat with Papa, my brothers, and my sister. They seemed to be in some kind of trance. As did everyone else, I realized suddenly as I looked around. Even the Jones children had ceased their fidgeting. Except for Miss Ruth, the entire congregation remained perfectly still.
He stood, and I did as well. We moved soundlessly through the doors into the still night. Strange, I thought, it wasn’t nearly as cold now as it had been earlier. I didn’t even feel the need to fetch my coat from the wagon.
He took my hand and placed it in the bend of his arm as we walked toward the deserted town square. Though a layer of snow crunched beneath our feet, the flakes had stopped falling. I looked up to a sky filled with more stars than I had ever seen in my life, and thanked God for suspending the snow and replacing the dark, gray cold with an ideal night.
“How did you know my name?” I asked at last.
He gave me a shy, sideways look. “Everyone knows the name of the prettiest girl in Angel Ridge.”
I blushed at his compliment. My heart beat so loudly, I feared he must surely hear it. “Thank you,” I managed. “What’s your name?”
John. Such a common name. His name should be Michael or Gabriel, I thought. For this man was far from common.
When we reached the center of town square, he invited me to sit on the park bench near the bronze angel monument. I did and spread out the skirt of my dress. He watched me and smiled. “You look very fetching tonight, Mary. Your grandma is the best seamstress in Angel Ridge.”
I frowned. “How’d you know my grammy made this?”
He shrugged. “All the folks who can afford it hire her to make their dresses at Christmas and Easter, don’t they?”
“Yes. That’s how she manages to give all her twenty-seven grandchildren Christmas presents.”
“She’s a good woman. You’re blessed with a fine family, Mary.”
I thought he must be missing his parents somethin’ fierce tonight. “Would you like to come back to my house for dinner? Mama always puts out a big spread on Christmas Eve.” One more would hardly even be noticed.
“Thank you, but I’ll have to be gettin’ on.”
“Where do you live, John?”
“Up in the tall pines.” He nodded to the hills just north of town.
“You know, it’s strange. I’ve lived here all my life, but the only time I’ve ever seen you and your family was on Christmas Eve.”
John smiled sadly. He slid his arm around behind me, resting it against the bench. “My pa didn’t like comin’ into town or goin’ to church. But my ma, she always said that as long as we were alive and able, we ought to honor the Creator at least one day a year.” He turned away then, but not before I saw the wistful look in his pale eyes. “Christmas was her favorite time of the year. She so loved seein’ the town all gussied up. It was nice livin’ with them these past years.”
He made it sound as if he wasn’t really a part of their family. “Were you adopted?” I asked.
“I guess you could say they took me in,” he said evasively. “Come on. There’s somethin’ I’d like to show you.”
I thought I should be getting back, but couldn’t bring myself to leave him. Not yet, anyway. He drew me close. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. He seemed to radiate an inner light that made me all warm inside. Made me want to stay with him now, and always.
I stood and placed my hand in his. It was soft and warm, his fingers long and well-shaped, like a musician’s. I felt safe with John, despite the fact that I knew next to nothing about him, and instinctively knew I could trust him with my very life.
We entered the woods and followed a well-worn path to a clearing, where we stopped and gazed up at the starry night sky. Tall trees surrounded us on all sides, creating an opening that looked like it could take a body straight to Heaven.
“It’s beautiful,” I said reverently.
“Close your eyes.”
With my hand still in his, and my head tipped back, I did as he asked.
I tried, but heard nothing more than the sound of my own heart beating. He moved around behind me and wrapped his arms about my waist. I rested my head on his shoulder, my eyes still closed.
“Now, breathe in . . . deep and slow. Then breathe out.”
I placed my arms atop his and moved my fingers along the back of his hands. His cheek felt like the smoothest silk against mine. A sense of contentment came over me such as I had never known. Absolute serenity. Perfect peace.
“Do you hear it now?” I felt his lips brush against my ear when he spoke.
It was when I felt his breath on my face that I heard it… A chorus of perfectly blended voices singing praises. It floated down on us in a charmed moment suspended in time.
I wanted to open my eyes, to look into his and tell him of the joy I felt, but a pleasant lethargy that dictated I keep them closed overcame me.
The voices lifted to a distant hum almost like the sound of crickets in summertime. John’s warm, soft lips caressed my cheek, murmuring words of love that he wrote on my heart. His beautiful hand trailed up the curve of my neck to tilt my head slightly until his lips hovered above mine. When our lips at last touched, our souls eternally intertwined. In that moment, I knew I belonged to John. Then, and forevermore.
Wanting to share my feelings with him, I at last opened my eyes. To my profound dismay, I found myself alone in the woods, my hands holding nothing more substantial than a bough of mistletoe.
“John?” I called out, as I looked all about the clearing. The cold of the chill December night pressed in on me, making me shiver uncontrollably. “John!” I called again, but the sound of my voice echoed and fell into the oppressive silence that surrounded me.
Next year . . . the wind seemed to whisper the words from the tall pines. On Christmas Eve . . . always on Christmas Eve.
As I made my way back to the church on legs numbed by the cold, I puzzled over what had just happened. I should have been desolate, having found my one true love, only to lose him. But instead, the contentment and peace I had experienced while in the clearing with John, remained with me.
When I re-entered the church, I walked to the third pew and sat next to my father.
“Where’s your Bible, sweetie?” he asked just as Miss Ruth finished singing her carol.
I looked about the church and frowned. The Jones children squirmed as their mother scolded and their father just looked tired. The two pews behind them were filled. The back pew was filled as well, save the one spot at the end where John and I had sat.
“Did you leave it at home?” Papa pressed me when I didn’t respond.
I looked back to him and said, “Yes. I must have.”
He squeezed my cold hand and said, “That’s all right. You can look at mine. Where’d you get the mistletoe?”
“What? Oh.” I looked down at the rich green sprig I held in my hand. “Outside.” I smiled a secret smile and touched my fingertips to my lips as I remembered the kiss I’d shared with John just before…
The preacher stood and began to read the Christmas story. The sermon about God’s gift of love at Christmastime held a new meaning for me. I thank God for showing the world His love, and for giving me John’s.
He came to me again the next Christmas Eve, and every Christmas Eve since. The gift of John’s love has sustained me all the days of my long life. Although I only have him with me one day a year, he’s never far away. When I need him, his presence surrounds me like a comforting hug. When I long to see him, I catch a glimpse of him as he disappears around a corner. When I ache for him, he comes to me in my dreams.
He promises that someday we’ll be together for eternity. Oh, how I long for that time to come when, at last, our love will be complete. But until then, we’ll have Christmas Eve.
Published in 2009 by Bell Bridge Books,an Imprint of BelleBooks, Inc.
Copyright © 2009 by Deborah Grace Staley
All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages in a review.