Doctoral student Hannah Wagganer entertains dreams of teaching at a large university and leaving her hometown of Glen Arbor behind. That is until Jasper Morgan, the new mail carrier, arrives in town. Not only does he set Hannah’s heart a flutter, but he has an instant bond with her cat, Jingles.
Preparing for the church candlelight Christmas Eve service and running the family store, Hannah continues to bump into Jasper—and the prying eyes of the locals who suspect there’s more going on than business as usual.
Blessings and suspicions abound when an anonymous donor pays to have the church furnace repaired, and other locals suddenly find solutions to their problems. Is it coincidental, or the work of a secret angel?
HANNAH SCANNED SIDE to side, searching the trees and ground for movement. With every hurried step, billowing puffs escaped her mouth into the frigid December air. She sliced through the snow, pursuing the paw prints leading across her back yard in the direction of the lakeshore. Only last night, three inches of fresh powder had blanketed her hometown of Glen Arbor.
She continued trailing the tracks as her brunette curls whipped in the wind. A half zipped wool coat rustled against her hips, and flannel pajama pants failed to ward off an icy draft running up her legs.
“Jingles! You’re going to make us both catch pneumonia.”
Hannah paused briefly, hitching a ragged breath. Examining the ground, she spotted tracks from some of the local wildlife. One pair led in the same direction as Jingles’.
“Haven’t you learned not to chase the critters?” she mumbled, tramping forward along the trail. The faint sound of twigs snapping just ahead caught her attention. She was getting closer. Two minutes — and ten frostbitten fingers later — she found Jingles perched on a tree stump by Lake Michigan. Evidently, whatever he’d been chasing had gotten away.
Hannah scooped the orange tabby into her arms and swiped at the snow clinging to his fur and the small red bells attached to his collar. Soft purring cut through the cold air, melting her frustration.
“Come on, let’s get you home,” she said, trudging back toward the shop. Jingles snuggled against her chest as they crossed the church parking lot and climbed the wooden staircase leading into Deer Crossings — the store owned by her parents.
Hannah jolted to a halt, swallowing hard. Footsteps overhead in the apartment warned her it wasn’t a customer.
“We have an uninvited guest,” she whispered to Jingles. The cat meowed in response and jumped down, running in the direction of the store room. Hannah tiptoed over to the counter and retrieved one of her dad’s old golf clubs.
She hefted it to her shoulder, holding it like a baseball bat as the creaking sounds on the stairs grew closer. A large shadow appeared at the bottom of the steps. She gulped and swung the golf club, striking the banister.
“Put that thing away before you hurt yourself,” the stranger said, stepping into the light streaming through the bay windows. He adjusted the mail bag slung over his shoulder. “Do you always leave your front door wide open?”
Hannah lowered the golf club, staring into a pair of blue eyes matching the lake.
“M-my cat ran outside, and um, I didn’t want him to freeze out there,” she said, her gaze shifting to his blond hair, downward to the stubble shadowing his mouth. When his lips curled into a smile, she diverted her attention back to his bag and uniform. “I’m assuming you’re Henry’s replacement?” The words came out choked, which made his smile widen.
“I’m Jasper Morgan,” he said, extending his hand.
Hannah set the club on the counter and shook his hand. “Hannah Wagganer. I’m still getting used to the idea of Henry being retired. I’ll miss him,” she said as Jasper’s hand slipped away.
“From what I’ve heard, he’s a local legend around here.” He removed a stocking cap from his pocket and placed it on his head. “I’ll have to see what I can do to help you not miss him so much.” He grinned and edged past her. “Now that I know things are secure here, I better get back to work.”
Hannah followed, locking the door behind him. Moving to adjust a crooked painting of a piping plover, she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror mounted on the wall. She scrutinized her appearance all the way from the crusty gunk stuck on her nose downward to the childish cat pajamas. She cringed in disgust. Why couldn’t Henry have been on duty instead of Jasper? No wonder he couldn’t stop smiling.
“Meeow,” Jingles protested from the bottom of the stairs.
Hannah sighed at the pitiful expression on his face and headed upstairs to feed the orange ball of fur his breakfast before changing for work.
“I’M NOT SURE about this color,” Naomi, the preacher’s wife, informed Hannah. “I look like a wad of pink chewing gum.”
“No you don’t.” Hannah tied a brown snowflake scarf around the woman’s neck. The color brought out the richness of her dark eyes. “Lovely,” she said as heavy footsteps sounded on the wooden floor behind them. Turning, she spotted Jasper coming their way. “I’ll be right with you.”
“Take your time,” he said.
“Hmmm. I was wondering if you’d run into him yet,” Naomi said, backing into the changing area. “I’ll take the sweater and the scarf,” she announced.
“Pastor Amos will do a double take when he sees you at the candlelight Christmas Eve service.” She laughed, envisioning the older man letting out a low whistle for his wife. Married forty years, they still managed to maintain an endearing fondness for each other.
“Speaking of the service, you’re still planning to help us decorate the church, right?”
“I wouldn’t miss it,” Hannah said, strolling over to a small table where Jasper was thumbing through a stack of woolen socks. “See anything you like?”
He lifted his gaze. “As a matter of fact, I do.”
Hannah’s chest tightened while he held her stare. Swallowing hard, she noticed how his eyes sparkled like the water when the sun danced across the waves. And how the color of his skin resembled the sand dunes.
“Ahem.” Naomi cleared her throat. “Sorry to interrupt, but I’m ready to check out.”
“Coming,” Hannah said, thankful for the distraction. She waved for the woman to follow her over to the counter. “Have you tried any of the new Christmas-themed soap?” She pointed at a cute red and green basket sitting next to the cash register.
Naomi selected a bar, breathing in the fragrant scent. “Mistletoe Morning. It smells delightful.” She smiled and chose another bar. “Ooh…Jolly Juniper. This captures the true essence of Christmas here in Michigan.” She placed the soap beside her clothes. “I’ll try these two bars.”
Hannah finished ringing up the order. “Your total is $79.48.” After bagging the items, she accepted the cash from Naomi and handed her the change. “Thank you.”
Nearing the exit, Naomi paused and spun around to face Hannah. “I almost forgot. Would you have time this afternoon to make a couple loaves of your famous pistachio bread for the bake sale at church tomorrow? I realize it’s last minute, but poor Mrs. Ashby has the flu and won’t be able to bring her pecan pies.”
“Sure,” Hannah answered, catching a glimpse of motion beside the rack of fleece jackets. Jasper eased forward, approaching the counter.
“Bless you, dear. Bye for now.”
“I’ll take these,” he said, handing her a pair of blue woolen socks and a twenty dollar bill once Naomi had gone.
Hannah placed the socks in a small bag and deposited the change in the palm of his hand. “I appreciate your business, but shouldn’t you be at work?”
He pocketed the change and tucked the socks underneath his arm. “I’m on my lunch break, so I thought I’d stop by and apologize for scaring you this morning.”
“Forget about it,” Hannah said, touched by his concern.
The sound of clanging bells and loud purring alerted her to the fact that Jingles had entered the room. Swishing his striped tail, he rubbed affectionately on Jasper’s legs.
“I think he likes you.”
“Hey there, little feller.” Jasper spoke in a gentle tone. “No more running out on your mom or Santa Paws won’t bring you any catnip for Christmas. Got it?”
Jingles meowed and wandered off behind a rack of sweatshirts.
“What are you? The Cat Whisperer?” Hannah teased, edging past him. She flipped the sign on the front door to “closed.” If you don’t have lunch plans, I have enough cherry chili and cornbread for two.”
Jasper smiled. “Sounds good,” he said, following her upstairs to the kitchen.
“Have a seat,” Hannah said, pointing at the cedar log dining table. She opened a cupboard and removed two large bowls, filling them with steaming chili from the crock pot. After warming the slices of cornbread in the microwave and pouring their cups of coffee, she joined him. Bowing her head, she prayed, “Bless the food before us, the family beside us, and the love between us. Amen.”
“Amen,” he echoed, reaching out to squeeze her hand.
She leaned in, losing herself in the warmth of his touch and the softened smile of his mouth. “H-How do you take your coffee?” she asked. “Or would you rather have something else to drink?”
He released his grip. “Coffee is fine.”
She exhaled quietly and took a bite of her cornbread. “Where are you staying?”
“I’m crashing at my grandparents’ cottage on Little Glen Lake,” he answered before downing a spoonful. “They live in Arizona during the winter months here.”
“Are you there alone?” Hannah asked. She blew on her chili, hoping the question didn’t sound too forward. Or like she was prying. Or shrewdly trying to find out if he was single.
“Yep. It’s just me and the deer in the yard.” He popped a bite of the cornbread into his mouth. “Delicious.” Shaking the crumbs off his hands he asked, “What about you? Do you run this shop by yourself?”
“No. My parents own the shop and run the business most of the year. When the snow starts falling, they escape to Florida to avoid the cold.” She sipped her coffee. “I like to have the shop open at Christmas time when I’m on break from school.”
“School? Teacher or student?”
Hannah wiped her mouth with a napkin. “Both. I’m a part-time professor at Traverse City Community College, and also a graduate student.” She paused, pleased by his rapt attention. “I’m waiting for my thesis to be approved to receive my Ph.D.”
“Wow. You’re going to be Doctor Wagganer. I’m impressed.” He finished the last bite of his cornbread and spoonful of chili. “What are you majoring in?”
“History. More specifically, Mesoamerican history.” Her shoulders slumped against the chair. “Of course, I only teach introductory history classes at the community college level. Maybe when I have my doctorate degree, I’ll be able to move away and teach at a larger university.”
He shifted his weight in the chair, leaning in. “Move where?”
The sincerity in his voice made her shudder. “Possibly Southwest Colorado University, but they haven’t responded to my resume yet.” She traced the rim of her cup with her finger. “So, in the meantime, I’ll continue living here and helping my parents run the shop when I have time.”
“Speaking of time,” Jasper said, checking his cell phone. “My break is almost over.” He rose from his chair and grabbed the bag containing the socks. “Thank you for everything.”
“I can see myself out,” he said. Waving goodbye, he disappeared into the stairwell as Jingles came barreling straight for Hannah.
“What’s the matter?” She scratched his head, thinking about Jasper and the kindness he’d shown the tabby. “He definitely liked you.”
She petted him another minute until he grew tired and retreated to his cat bed for a nap. Once the lunch dishes were cleared away, she began mixing the batter for the pistachio bread, hoping Jasper would stop by the sale tomorrow.