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Homemakers' Christmas


by Jill Piscitello

Homemakers Christmas by Jill Piscitello' A recent error in judgement has deposited Cricket Williams, her daughter, and a son spiking a high fever into a homeless shelter. A touch of Christmas magic is sprinkled upon her family when an eccentric volunteer invites them into her New England farmhouse. Blindsided with the proposition of a contractual living arrangement, Cricket is seized with renewed hope for her future.

Boris Glynn is in town visiting his grandmother but harbors a secret that will impact her life and the lives of his dearest friends. Complications arise when he is unable to restrain himself from pursuing his grandmother’s beautiful new neighbor.

As Cricket begins to succumb to Boris’s attention, her new world is shaken by a series of events that have the potential to destroy her plans for a fresh start.


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Release Date: October 20, 2020
Genre: Contemporary Holiday Romance

A White Satin Romance


Excerpt

Chapter One

Cricket stifled an involuntary gag at the sight of the balled-up sheets in the corner. Visible stains made it clear that they were the source of the stench. Her eyes watered, and she wondered if she was supposed to do something with them, or if someone else would come and exchange them for new ones. The bed was completely bare—one bunk bed for three people. She and Max slept on the bottom bunk, and Ashling took the top.

Better than no bed, she supposed.

The kids hadn’t said much since they had arrived a week ago. She assumed they were in shock. December had just begun, and this was the last place she wanted to be with her family as the Christmas season got underway. She couldn’t envision a less festive place to spend the holidays than a homeless shelter.

No way to sugarcoat it, far as she could see: They'd be here for a while, so they better get used to it. Cricket figured it didn't make much sense to stand around staring at the depressing sight any more than necessary and herded everyone out to the dining hall with hopes of finding someone to help remedy the bedding situation.

Scanning the crowded tables, she wished they could grab trays and head back to their room, but that wasn't allowed. This meant Max would eat absolutely nothing. She'd once again be forced to hide his sandwich and a cookie in her pocketbook and encourage him to eat it later. Her mop headed six-year-old picked at his food in the best circumstances. He was more than reluctant to try what they served here.

After sitting down in three recently vacated seats with their full trays, Cricket scooped a forkful of bland mashed potatoes into her mouth. Ashling nibbled at her meatloaf and green beans. Mature for her thirteen years, she knew better than to complain about the food on her plate.

Although the meal lacked taste, it was the thought of staying here that Cricket couldn’t stomach. They hadn't left much behind, but it had been theirs.

They certainly hadn’t been ousted from a palace. The freezer had housed a full-blown sanctuary of cockroaches, for crying out loud. However, the place had had a small kitchen, a living room where Cricket slept, a bedroom for Ashling, and another for Max (though it had technically been a closet). Despite its obvious shortcomings, it had been home. For years, they celebrated birthdays, holidays, and life in general in that apartment.

Cricket's appetite evaporated as her eyes scanned the packed room, and she reflected on her two choices: Allow herself to be swallowed up in despair or make do with what they had and try to move forward. She had been struggling to choose the moving forward option, but no one was looking to hire someone without references. The supermarket didn’t want her. The convenience store didn’t need any help. The local fast food restaurants didn’t even want her cleaning their toilets. Hard not to take that personally.

She stared at her daughter’s half eaten plate, willing her to finish up. The common room television beckoned. The same channel with family friendly programs seemed to be on every night, but Cricket couldn’t care less. The kids were entertained, and she was spared from hearing the questions that were growing more and more impossible to answer.

The next morning greeted Cricket with a wave of exhaustion. Max had developed a high fever overnight. With substantial effort, she dragged herself out of bed and shuffled to the restroom. One glance in the mirror sufficiently quenched any curiosity regarding her appearance. A shadow of a woman who’d once been pretty stared back at her, with prominent cheekbones that had become angular. Once delicate features turned sharp due to weight loss. Her appetite always disappeared when stress took over. The dull, lank hair dusting her shoulders no longer held a hint of shine. She swept away the stringy pieces falling into her eyes.

Although she struggled to keep it together, panic set in as she joined Max on the bunk. He needed to be seen by a doctor. Cricket carried his scalding, lethargic body out of their room and surveyed the facility for help. As she considered the possibility of obtaining a voucher for a taxi, Cari Montgomery, one of the shelter volunteers, breezed through the front door unbuttoning her coat. Her skin glowed, scrubbed clean of any make-up. Her auburn hair had been pulled back off her face to reveal a flawless complexion. Jeans and a vibrant pink cheetah print cardigan complimented her figure. Although her smile was slightly crooked, it grew to a mile wide when she spotted Cricket. Unlike everyone else zipping around the dining room, Cari hadn't had a chance to dive into the breakfast routine yet.

More than a little quirky, and always sweet with a quick smile, Cari had quickly become one of Cricket’s favorite people in this dreary place over the past week. It was well known that she had recently inherited a popular farm and orchard. Another person would have dodged Max with his endless questions about honeybees, but Cari encouraged his curiosity.

Cricket held her breath as she approached. Limitations often restricted what volunteers could do regarding expenses. As Cricket described Max’s symptoms, Cari nervously tucked a stray strand of hair behind one ear, feebly attempting to reassure her by cracking a joke about kids making it their job to get sick.

Cricket didn’t find the humor in that and ignored the effort to cheer her up. “Do you know if there are any transportation vouchers available?” she asked. “I've tried everything, but this fever won’t break, and it’s over one hundred and four.”

“You don’t need a voucher. I'll take you. Get what you need, and I’ll find Ashling.”

Cricket gathered up their few belongings and, within a half hour, they sat in the waiting room of a crowded emergency room. Germs floated through the room, almost palpable with the coughing, sneezing, and groaning filling it. Cricket wondered why gloves and masks weren’t there for the taking in the same way boxes of tissues lined the magazine table. The ticking of the clock droned on as they waited for Max’s name to be called. Cari chatted with Ashling while Cricket held her son on her lap.

The relief that had surged through her at hearing his name in the waiting room faded as she perched on the edge of a chair next to the hospital bed while he slept. By the time the doctor stepped behind the curtain, she was also half asleep. After a brief examination, the doctor diagnosed Max with the flu and a double ear infection. Dehydrated, he needed to be hooked up to intravenous fluids. The doctor wanted to keep him for a few hours of observation and expected he could go home later that afternoon if his fever was under control and the fluids did their job.

Go home. To a homeless shelter. Not ideal for a sick little boy. But this wasn’t the doctor’s problem, so Cricket swallowed her fear. She returned to the waiting room and shared the doctor's advice.

“I don’t want to take up your entire day,” she finished. “We’ll be fine. I can’t thank you enough for driving us here.”

Cari's eyes flashed back and forth between Ashling and Cricket, clearly unsure as to what she should do next.

“I don’t have anything going on today and had just planned on spending the afternoon at St. Agnes’s,” Cari finally said. “I’ll stay here with you to make sure everything is okay.”

“You don’t have—” Cricket started, but Cari interrupted her.

“I know for a fact that none of you had anything for breakfast today. Ashling and I will go check out the cafeteria and bring back something to eat. You keep Max company.”

Ashling’s face lit up at that.

“My treat,” Cari added, recognizing the source of Cricket's hesitation.

“That’s really kind of you. Maybe just something for Ashling. I don’t have much of an appetite.” Her stomach twisted with nerves. “The nurses offered to bring something for Max when he’s up to it.”

Ashling reentered the exam room almost an hour later, fidgeting with an elastic in her hair. Her head of curls, growing more unruly by the day, had been tied up in a bun. Cricket paused to gaze at her daughter’s lovely face that had been hidden for the past few days. Moving her eyes to Ashling’s other hand, she saw that she had taken advantage of Cari’s generosity. A cardboard tray laden with a cheeseburger, fries, soda, and an ice cream lay clutched in her palm. Cari rounded the corner and passed Cricket a chicken salad sandwich and a cup of coffee, “In case she changed her mind”.

Hours later, Cricket stood in the waiting room, insisting that Cari go home, when the doctor emerged from behind swinging doors and said he’d determined that Max could be discharged with a prescription. They were to come back if his fever spiked again. Not ideal, considering his mother had no idea where their next ride would come from if they needed it. She stared wide eyed while he talked and watched him briskly walk off, assuming all was well with the world. His world maybe.

“I’ll—I’ll go after him. Maybe I can convince them to keep Max overnight.” Visibly shaking and on the verge of tears, Cricket clasped her hands together trying to still them.

Cari spoke before her brain caught up with her words. “Cricket, wait. Would you consider coming home with me? I can’t stand the thought of you taking Max back to the shelter while he’s sick. Even if they keep him ‘til tomorrow, how much better will he be?” She glanced at Ashling. “And Ashling shouldn't spend the night here. She’ll be the next one sick.”

Stunned and at a loss for words, she knew Cari must have interpreted her silence to mean she was afraid to bring her children into a stranger’s house. That’s where her mind should have gone. Instead she struggled to process whether she’d imagined what had been said. Had she misunderstood?

Spurred on by the expression on Ashling's face, Cari strode over to Cricket, pulled her into a nearby seat, and stared directly into her eyes. “I know it sounds like a crazy idea. You don’t even really know me. But I promise I’m not some wacko psychopath. I live alone and have plenty of room. Please, just think about it.”

Cricket stared down at her lap and shook her head trying to comprehend the insanity of the idea, then jerked her neck up. “What’s there to think about? You have more to worry about than I do. For all you know, my daughter and I might rob you blind!” She smiled for the first time that day.

“I’ll take my chances,” Cari grinned back.

* * *

That was unexpected, but a blessing for sure. Not that Max getting sick was something to be grateful for, Cricket considered, but it led them to one heck of a house for the night. A more careful mother might have thought twice about the situation, but Cricket had always been too impulsive. Still, Max needed a comfortable place to spend the night. Pulling into a lengthy driveway lit with decorative lamp posts on either side, Cricket decided Cari’s place looked more than comfortable.

The driveway resembled a private street, leading up to an expansive parking area with a magnificent, white gabled farmhouse. Acres of farmland fanned out in all directions. Lights twinkled on the trees scattered across the front lawn, where life-like reindeer wearing giant red bows simulated nibbling at leaves. Walking up clean-swept steps onto the wraparound porch, Cricket could see a Christmas tree lit up through the picture window. This home looked postcard perfect.

Double doors led into an impressive foyer with gleaming hardwood floors and a grand staircase as the focal point. The dining room sat to the left, a generous living room to the right, and a kitchen spanning the full width of the house stood directly ahead through a wide hallway. As she entered the foyer, the sweet smell of vanilla tickled Cricket's nose.

“Were you baking this morning?”

“No, why?”

“It smells wonderful in here!”

“Oh, that's the candles,” Cari said with a laugh. “They’re all over the place. Along with the house, I inherited two cats. I'm not used to having pets and am always worrying about the house smelling like a giant litter box. I'm glad to hear the candles are doing their job even when they're not lit!” She reached down and began to pull off her boots.

Cricket didn’t miss a beat and removed her shoes as well, while giving her children a clear signal to do the same.

“Thanks,” Cari smiled. “I have a thing about shoes in the house. Normally I don’t ask company to leave them at the door, but since you’ll be staying the night...” She trailed off as Ashling arranged the shoes neatly on the floor mat, then gestured up the stairs. “How about we take a look at where you’ll be sleeping?”

Without waiting for an answer, she led them up to a suite with two bedrooms and a common area. The guest bathroom resembled a spa, featuring floor to ceiling marble, an elevated jetted tub that could pass for a piece of furniture, and a glass enclosed shower with two rain head fixtures. Cari cracked open the closet and vanity allowing them to see she kept both stocked with enough essentials to attend to the needs of ten houseguests.

“Please help yourself to whatever you need. Don’t be shy.”

“Thank you,” Cricket said, scanning the shelves.

“Don’t thank me. It was all my Uncle Otto. He loved having family and friends stay.” Cari walked back into the common area and flung open the door to a closet. “You can hang your coats in here, freshen up, and meet me in the kitchen for something to eat.”

Cricket didn't want to keep her waiting and quickly put the coats away. Kneeling to meet Max at eye level, she asked him if he felt well enough to go downstairs.

“You'll carry me?”

He was getting too big for her to carry, but she also felt uncomfortable leaving him alone so soon. One trip up that staircase had probably wiped him out. Kissing his warm cheek, she scooped him up.

Minutes later, they found Cari rinsing a pan. She had already whipped up a can of chicken noodle soup for the patient and tossed a ready to go casserole into the oven for the rest of them. The kitchen was a chef’s dream, with white cabinets, quartz countertops, a farmhouse sink, rustic exposed beams and a matching wooden door to the pantry. An oversized island provided an additional sink and seating for four. The double oven and pot filler were added bonuses. Floor to ceiling windows overlooking the sweeping backyard surrounded three sides of a breakfast nook. Centered in the nook sat a large round table with a dainty chandelier overhead.

Desperately trying to appear unfazed by her surroundings, Cricket hustled her children to the table. Ashling helped herself to the cheese and cracker tray Cari set before them. Max didn’t eat much and asked for a can of ginger ale. Although sick, this little treat excited him because he so rarely drank soda. Once she’d made him eat a bit, Cricket brought him upstairs, and he fell sound asleep by seven. He still had a fever but looked much better.

Making her way back to the family room, Cricket overheard Cari blabbing on about how they should make themselves at home. Cricket suspected she rambled to fill the air, because they were all speechless. Even Ashling, who never shut her mouth. Spotting her mother, she seized the opportunity to pick up the remote control and distract them all with some television. Cricket sank down on the couch next to her daughter and was beginning to feel more at ease when Cari handed her a glass of wine.

When Cricket hesitated, Cari said, “I know you probably won’t drain the bottle because you want to be alert for Max, but a little bit won’t hurt. I promise not to even have so much as a sip just in case we need to go back to the hospital.”

Less than thirty minutes later and after several failed attempts at small talk, exhaustion set in.

“I'm really sorry,” Cricket said. “I know this may be rude, but I can barely keep my eyes open.”

“Don't apologize,” Cari reassured her. “You get some rest. Ashling, the TV is all yours. I think I'll grab a snack and go up to my room and read.”

“Ash, try not to drift off with the TV on.”

“Okay,” she replied, eyes still glued to the screen. “Night, Mom.”

Cricket dragged herself upstairs and changed into an old t-shirt and pair of sweatpants of Cari's. Leaving the extra bedroom free for Ashling, she climbed into bed with Max and fell asleep before her head hit the pillow.

* * *

Disoriented when she first woke up, it took Cricket a moment to remember where she was and why her bed felt so comfortable. Gently slipping out from under the down comforter, she tiptoed over to the window.

What a simply gorgeous street, she thought.

The side with Cari’s house lacked neighbors as far as Cricket could see. The farm stretched seemingly forever in both directions. Across the street were several other homes, none of them as large as the farmhouse, but they all possessed character befitting a storybook.

Movement at the house directly across the street caught her eye. She spotted an old woman slip-sliding her way down her driveway with trash cans in tow. Moving slowly and stopping several times to regain her footing, she wasn’t getting anywhere very quickly. Cricket threw on her coat and sneakers and went downstairs to see if she could be of any help.

Jogging across the road, she waved to her and called, “Ma’am! Can I help you with that?”

The woman stopped for a moment, clearly trying to figure out who she was.

“I’m fine. Do it every week,” she replied gruffly.

As Cricket reached her, she placed a hand on one of the barrels and smiled. “Let me take one. I wouldn’t want you to fall.”

“Don’t you listen? I said I can do this.” The volume of the woman's voice neared shouting.

Her front door opened and closed as a man with dark hair came bounding down the steps.

“Fiona, let me get those! You should have told me it was trash day.”

“I should have told you no such thing!” she yelled. “You’ve been here three days, and I’ve been doing this every week for many years. I haven’t needed your assistance in all that time, and I don’t need it now.” She turned to face Cricket. “And I don’t even know who you are. Thank you, but no thank you.”

“It’s the least I can do while I’m staying here,” he pleaded with her. With that handsome face tilted to the side and those big brown eyes staring down at her, her posture softened.

“Suit yourself,” she said with a huff before trudging back to the house.

Cricket stared after the ill-tempered woman.

“I’m really sorry about that.”

Distracted and wondering about the woman’s behavior, it took her a moment to realize he was talking to her.

“Don’t be. She looked like she needed help, so I came over. No harm done.”

“Fiona’s a feisty one,” the man said with a grin. “She refuses to admit that some things are getting more difficult for her to do on her own.” He grabbed the barrels and walked toward the end of the driveway. “I get it, she’s growing older and doesn’t want me thinking she can’t manage on her own.”

“Moms are used to doing for their children, not the other way around.” Cricket then remembered the woman’s age. “Oh, wait. She couldn't be your mother.”

“Grandmother. But she raised me.” He set the barrels at the curb. “I moved in when I was eight, after my parents passed away.”

“I'm sorry.” Scrunching up her face, Cricket asked, “She’s your grandmother? Didn’t I hear you call her Fiona? Why not Grandma or Nana or something?”

He cracked a smile at the question. “When I was born, she told my parents that she didn’t feel old enough to be a grandmother and preferred to be called by her name instead.”

“You’re kidding!”

“I’m not. What’s funnier is that I have cousins in Florida who have always called her Gram. They’re all five to ten years younger than me, though. Maybe by the time they came around she was starting to feel her age.”

Before Cricket could respond, a shrill voice rang out. “Mom!”

Ashling half hung out of the front door. “You gotta come in here! Cari and I made pancakes! From scratch!”

“I’ll be right in!” Cricket hollered back. “She’ll wake the rest of the neighbors for sure, if they’re not already up,” she said. “I better get in there before she starts shouting again.”

Hearing him laughing as she left, Cricket wished they’d exchanged names, before reminding herself that there was probably no point to that.

 

 

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