Photographer Mitch Carson is tired of big city life. He just wants to settle down in a quiet town with his daughter, Angie. Even that doesn’t quell his fear of losing his daughter to his scheming mother-in-law. Sophie Gardner wants to be a screenwriter. She's ready to leave small-town Zutphen, Michigan, and go to Hollywood. With a theater degree under her belt, she's busy writing scripts while helping out her sister Joanie, who's bedridden with a difficult pregnancy. Unfortunately, Joanie has somehow coerced Sophie into directing the Christmas pageant at Zutphen Community Church. When Sophie and Mitch meet, the attraction is instant and mutual. But each wants what the other is trying to get away from. Can they deny their feelings and pursue their dreams? Or will the holiday prove to them that their true wishes might not be what they'd thought?
MITCH CARSON STUDIED the nutrition labels on the boxes of cereal in front of him, wanting to choose wisely, but six-year-old Angie kept pulling on his arm.
“Daddy, I have to go to the bathroom.”
“There’s no bathroom here, sweetness. You’ve got to wait.”
“I can’t wait, Daddy. I need to go now.”
Mitch threw a box of cereal into the cart, hoping it wouldn’t taste too much like cardboard. He took Angie’s hand and headed toward the checkout lanes. “I’m sorry, honey, but I can’t go in the bathroom with you, and you’re not going in there alone. Besides, we’ll be home in just ten minutes.”
“Daddy, I can’t wait ten minutes.” She hopped up and down, her face strained with discomfort.
Mitch grimaced. Why did this always happen when they were out of the house? He was searching for the words to reassure her again when a gentle feminine voice spoke.
“The bathroom is right over here, behind the meat counter.”
Mitch looked up into a pair of wide green eyes. Exotic and enticing, yet capable and compassionate. The eyes were set in a small heart-shaped face and surrounded by a cloud of honey blonde hair. He closed his mouth before he embarrassed himself by drooling. And he tried very hard to keep his voice from squeaking as he answered.
“Thanks, but I can take her home.”
“Daddy, I need to go!” Angie continued her hopping, clearly uncomfortable.
“It’s a nice bathroom, and they keep it very clean,” the blonde told him. She disappeared into the doorway she’d indicated and then came right back. “No one’s using it now, so you can go in and help her if you want.”
“Daddy? Please?” Angie’s face was starting to turn red. “I can do it myself.”
Mitch swallowed. If the restroom was empty and he stood outside the door, nothing bad could happen to her, right? “Okay, sweetness. I’ll be right here.”
Angie dashed into the restroom, and the blonde started to take off.
“Uh, thanks for your help,” he called after her.
The blonde curls tossed as she turned back to him with a grin. “No problem at all. I’m Sophie Gardner, by the way. Are you just passing through Zutphen, or are you new here?”
“New, I guess. We moved here in August. Mitch Carson.” He held out his hand.
She placed a tiny hand in his. “You’ve been here over two months and I haven’t met you until now? The small-town grapevine must be rusty. Welcome to Zutphen. You have an adorable daughter.”
“Thanks. I can’t argue with that.” He’d been welcomed by other residents, but for some reason, the words from this particular woman made him feel almost giddy with pleasure. He turned when the bathroom door opened, and Angie came out, much happier than when she’d gone in. Her gap-tooth grin made his heart swell with pride.
Strange, but his usual apprehension when his daughter was out of his sight hadn’t seemed so intense with this lady by his side. It would be so nice to share the parenting responsibilities with someone. No, he reminded himself, I’ve got to do this myself. At least, I’ve got to try.
The blonde — Sophie, she’d said her name was — went on her way, and he fought off the urge to call her back. In a town as small as Zutphen, he’d run into her again.
Mitch took Angie’s hand and grimaced at her wet palm. “Um, did you wash your hands, sweetie?”
Angie nodded. “Yes, but I didn’t dry them, ‘cuz I couldn’t reach the paper towels.”
Mitch groaned. He went into the restroom and pulled a few sheets of paper towel out of the dispenser, used one for his own hands, and passed another to Angie. With Angie’s needs taken care of, he paid for his groceries and got them home. He still had to figure out how to make this stuff into dinner.
Back in his previous life, they’d had a cook and a housekeeper. He hadn’t had to worry about meals — they just appeared on the table in front of him at a specific time. Or, if he was off on assignment, they’d be in the refrigerator when he got home. But in Zutphen, cooks and housekeepers weren’t knocking down the walls looking for a position. People did their own cooking and cleaning. Besides, his income wasn’t nearly as large as when Sarah had been alive. While he’d enjoyed a measure of success as a news photographer, Sarah had been the one who’d brought home the bacon, so to speak. Her on-camera persona had paid for the high-rise penthouse, the vacation home, the live-in maid, a nanny for Angie, and all the other goodies. Now they had to live on his income alone.
After Sarah’s death, he’d decided he’d had enough of the big city life and had come to the tiny town of Zutphen, Michigan. His uncle had sold him the property, and he’d decided to settle there. The people were friendly, the air was clean, and the house was in decent shape. There was enough room for a portrait studio, and with the settlement from Sarah’s insurance policy, he’d done the renovations. He’d figured that would allow him to spend more time with Angie. But he’d underestimated all the skills it would take to raise a six-year-old girl. Pigtails had been the special challenge of the morning. Coordinating outfits had been the previous day’s struggle. And now, he had to deal with dinner. They couldn’t go out to eat every single night of the week.
Maybe he wasn’t cut out to be a single father. His mother-in-law had made no bones about her belief that he was incapable of raising a daughter alone. “Who will teach her how to behave? How to dress appropriately? Who is going to show her how to be a part of society?” Mitch had been eager to prove he was equal to the task. Every barb had convinced him more that he didn’t want his daughter to be a clone of Melinda Lester Billingsworth.
Back at the house, he stared at the food on the counter. He had a pound of ground beef. The easiest thing to do would be to make hamburgers. He split the meat into four equal parts and threw them into the frying pan on the stove. He turned the heat up to high, figuring that would make the meat cook faster.
“Can I be in the Christmas pageant at church? Mrs. Feenstra said practices are gonna start next Wednesday.”
“Okay. I suppose that would be all right. When is the program?”
“It’s on the Sunday before Christmas. They’re going to have practices every Sunday after Sunday School, and on Wednesday nights, too. My friend Jennie told me during Sunday School.”
“Oh. Okay.” Jennie’s family, the VandenBergs, were friendly people and he’d come to trust them enough to let Angie go to church with them. It had been a challenge, establishing himself in the tight-knit community. He’d learned that the area had been settled by Dutch immigrants in the last century, which accounted for the predominance of family names starting with the last five letters of the alphabet.
“I think I might need a costume or something.”
“A costume?” How would he manage that?
“Yeah. Last year Jennie was an angel and her mom made her a costume. Will you make me a costume?”
“Um, probably not, but maybe we can pay someone to make one for you.”
“Okay. Jennie’s mom sews really cool stuff. She made Jennie’s Halloween costume. She was a princess and she had a really pretty dress.”
“Did my mommy know how to sew?”
“I don’t think so, sweetie.”
She didn’t have to. That’s what servants were paid to do. “Uh, she just usually bought the stuff she needed.”
“Oh, yeah. Grandma Billingston does that, too.”
“Billingsworth. Grandma Billingsworth. Nana.”
“Right. Nana. She doesn’t like me to call her Grandma. Daddy, what’s that smell?”
Smell? Oh shoot, the hamburgers! He grabbed a spatula and pried the patties off the smoking frying pan. He’d have to scrape off a thick layer of black crust from that side. Better pay attention on the second side, or they wouldn’t have dinner.
I really need help with this cooking thing.