Sample text for Yuletide hearts / Ruth Logan Herne.

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Complete and utter desolation.

Peering through a driving November downpour caused by remnants of Hurricane Karl, Matt Cavanaugh surveyed what might be the biggest mistake he ever made as sheeting water sluiced from unprotected roofs. Wind-driven storm rains pummeled gaping window openings. Expensive, irreplaceable topsoil washed down unprotected berms, each muddy water trail sweeping centuries of rich, organic soil into the watershed.

Basically he was watching a large share of his life savings wash away. What had he been thinking? "I see merit here, son."

The memory of his grandfather's reassuring voice eased the tension snaking Matt's back, crowding his neck. Simple words from a gentle man, an industrious construction worker unafraid to lift a hand to any task, great or small, including the gift of unconditional love to his bad-boy grandson.

Matt clenched his jaw, then realized that would only fuel headache potential. Surveying the muddy mess he'd just purchased with significant help from the bank, he fought the urge to run hard, fast and long when a banging screen door drew his attention to the left.

A boy raced out of the faded farmhouse facing the neglected subdivision. A dog chased after him, a black-andwhite spitfire, his non-pedigreed look perfect for the place and the boy, a pair of mutts enjoying the tempest.

Within seconds they were soaked, the rain blurring their features, but the combined excitement apparent even from this distance.

The boy aimed for the uncompleted subdivision, the dog racing alongside. Too late, Matt realized their intent. The kid dived through a window opening. The dog followed.

The kid emerged from a door opening. So did the mutt.

Then back in another window, a little higher this time, the crazy game of follow the leader probably not the smartest of ideas for a kid and a dog around a construction site. Matt left his truck at the now-unnecessary roadblock and raced downhill. "Hey! Hey, you! Kid. Stop."

Visions of leftover two-by-fours, nails, screws and abandoned tools raced through his head, the innocence of youth unfettered by the hazards of life. As the new owner, Matt didn't have the luxury of relaxation. Construction insurance rates skyrocketed with a claim, and the kid and the dog were a hospital visit waiting to happen. "Kid. Stop! Now!"

The driving rain swallowed his voice and the thickening mud did a similar number on his feet. The dress shoes he put on for the bank closing weren't meant for tromping around construction sites.

He lost visual of the quick-paced pair as he neared the skeletal houses, his descent and the rising rooflines blocking his line of sight. He wasn't sure if the storm made it impossible to hear the kid and the dog or if they were just unusually quiet. Since unusually quiet might mean unconscious, Matt increased his pace. "Kid! You hear me? Come out of there!"

No answer.

Matt continued along the road, mud-slicked shoes slowing his progress. The graveled areas would have been inconsequential in his boots. In worn dress shoes, the rough curves and sharp points of stone reminded him that if new shoes hadn't been on the list before, they'd gain a spot now, and all because some fool didn't have sense enough to keep their kid out of harm's way.

Kind of like his mother.

He refused to flinch at the memory. His mother was no June Cleaver, but he hadn't been a choirboy either. He had the juvie record to prove his stupidity before Grandpa Gus realigned him with old-fashioned hard work, faith and fishing.

A movement drew his attention left. He darted between two incomplete houses, saw the kid about a house-and-a-half away, yelled again and took off in pursuit. The boy appeared fairly savvy about dodging among the half-built homes, so Matt ducked through a window and raced across the sub-flooring to the front door of the house, burst through and collared the kid just as he angled toward the house Matt had cut through.

"Hey! Hey! Let go! Let me go!"

"Not until we've had a few words, kid."

"Let me go! Let me go!"

Matt held tight.

The dog raced into the fray, tail wagging, obviously unconcerned about his young owner's welfare. "Jake? Jake? Where are you?"

The dog's tail flagged faster. He dashed to the front door of the house, barked a welcome, then raced back, his gaze expectant, his angled doggie look wondering what was going on.

Which reflected Matt's feelings to a tee.

A disheveled woman strode through the nonexistent front door, her hair a mess, her shoes not quite as bad as Matt's, her jeans rain-spattered, her fleece pullover soaked.

"In here, Mom! Someone's got me!"

"Someone's got you all right." Matt sent the kid a look meant to quell and refused to relinquish his grasp, despite the fire-breathing mother striding his way. Her purposeful gait seemed militaristic even though she wore somewhat impressive heeled boots, which meant she'd most likely served at some point in time. If that assumption proved true, she should know enough to keep her kid where he belonged. He raised his chin, noted she almost matched him in height with the shoes on, met her glare and stood his ground, refusing to scowl, letting his stance make his point. "This your kid?" "Let him go."

Matt ignored the command. "Do you have any idea how dangerous it is to have a kid running around a construction site? The things that could happen to him?"

The woman's gaze returned his look, one on one. "I'm well aware, thank you very much, although Jake knows his way around construction sites. Usually." She leveled a tough, knowing look to the kid, shoulders back, feet braced, her posture adding evidence to Matt's guess that she'd been in the military at one time. "Were you supposed to leave the house?"


"And what if something happened to The General?"

The General? Matt frowned, followed her glance to the dog and realized it must be the dog's name.

The boy snorted, a pretty gutsy act for a kid being collared by an absolute stranger while his mother reamed him out from a few feet away. "The General knows all the enemy hideouts. He's trained to sniff out snipers and UXBs."


The woman kept her gaze on the boy, her profile taut, worry lines marring a perfect forehead over sea-green eyes. Light brown hair fell to her shoulders, a side clip meant to keep the bulk of it out of her face, but the storm had out-maneuvered the clip's potential. She shoved the errant hair back, obviously irked. "Unexploded bombs. London. The Luftwaffe."

"I get the war reference." Matt switched his gaze from her to the kid as he released the boy's collar. "What I don't get is how he gets it. You're what? Seven? Eight?"

"Almost nine."

"Which means eight."

The kid's glare matched his mother's, obviously a genetic trait. "You can't play around these houses. It's off limits," Matt told him, his voice stern. He turned his attention to the woman, realizing she was probably chilled through, the November day wretchedly wet and cool. "You'll keep him out of here?"

"Yes." Something in her look told Matt she didn't say things lightly. That quality reassured him. She turned and hooked her thumb toward the door. "Jake, let's go. The banker's got better things to do than chase you around where you don't belong."

Her words registered as she neared the door, the kid following, head down, chin thrust out, forehead furrowed. "I'm not a banker." Matt strode forward and yanked down a bill of foreclosure notice attached to the front window. "I'm the new owner."

Her head jerked up. She stared at him, then the house, then him again, utter disappointment painting her features. Wet, bedraggled, rumpled, cold and wickedly disappointed.

Her look grabbed a piece of him, the air of disillusionment needing comfort and joy, but at the moment, confronted with the enormity of what he'd undertaken less than two hours ago, Matt's personal comfort level had nose-dived into incredulity.

'"Seek and ye shall find. Knock, and the door will be opened, son."

Gus's wisdom reminded Matt that he wasn't in this alone, that despite Gus's death while Matt served in the desert sands of Iraq, he'd never be alone again, not in spirit anyway.

"You bought this house?"

The reality of the recent transaction tightened his neck, his look. "I bought the subdivision."

"All of it?" The kid's air reflected his mother's again, a shadowed starkness making Matt feel like a crusty headmaster, cold, cruel and crotchety.

The cold part was accurate, his wet clothes and the brisk wind a chilling reminder of what was to come. He met the kid's eyes and nodded. "All of it. Yes."

"But, Mom-"

"Stop, Jake. It's all right."


"I said stop."

The kid's baffled look made Matt feel like scum, but why? Why should it matter if..

"You bought Cobbled Creek?" A new voice entered the fray. Matt swung around.

Three older men stood at the back door opening, backs straight, heads up, their posture definitely not at ease.

Military men, despite the paunch of one and the silver hair of another.

The man in the middle stepped forward, drew a breath and extended a hand. "I'm Hank Marek."

The name sent a warning bell of empathy. Hank Marek of Marek Home Builders, the now-defunct contractor that started this project over two years ago.

Matt wasn't a sympathetic person by nature. He'd hard-scrabbled his way up the ladder of success despite illegitimate beginnings followed by a fairly miserable upbringing, but coming face to face with the man who lost his dream so that Matt could have his, well…

He hauled in a breath and accepted Hank's hand. "Matt Cavanaugh of Cavanaugh Construction."

The older man's face revealed nothing of what he must be feeling inside, the loss of his work, his livelihood, his well-designed subdivision the victim of overextended loans and the burst of the housing bubble.

The other men stepped forward, concerned.

Hank moved back, nodded and directed a look beyond Matt to the woman and boy. "There's stew just about ready and the temperature's supposed to dip lower tonight before coming back up tomorrow. Jake, can you help me fire up the wood stove?"

The boy scowled Matt's way, scuffed a toe, huffed a sigh, then trudged past Matt, the dog trailing behind, their mutual postures voicing silent displeasure.

"Callie? I'll see you at home?"

"I'm on my way, Dad." She pivoted, her mud-slicked heel tipping the move.

Matt started to lean forward to stop her fall, but she managed to right herself despite the wet floor and the mud. High, flat, wedged heels marked her departure with a tap, tap, tap as she hung a right turn at the door. She strode up the drive to her car, the soaking rain deepening the pathos of an already melodramatic situation.

Matt watched her go, then headed to the back door opening. The older men and the boy trudged in measured steps across the banked field, faded flag stakes symbolizing the wear and tear of waiting through too many seasons of sun, wind, snow and rain.

Matt watched their progress, his brain working overtime, the reality hitting him.

Hank Marek lived alongside the subdivision he had tried to create in the beautiful hillside setting, the curving road nestling the homes in the ascending crook of the Allegheny foothills.

It was that eye for setting that drew Matt to the initial showing, then the ensuing auction, his appreciation for the timeless, reasonably priced and aesthetically pleasing housing, a plan that not only fit the terrain but added to it, a rarity.

But he had no idea Hank lived in the quaint, small farmhouse on the main road, just steps away from the sign labeling Cobbled Creek a community of fine, affordable homes.

He pinched the bridge of his nose, muttered a prayer that combined a plea for understanding and a silent lament that he might be following the foolish imprint of the older man's footsteps, and headed to his truck, the cold, soaking rain a reminder that winter loomed, and he had an amazing amount of work to do in a very limited time frame.

Which was probably something he should have thought a little more about before papers were signed and money exchanged, but the delayed closing was the bank's fault, not his. Matt understood the time constraints he faced, but God had guided him this far. Someway, somehow, they'd get these sweet homes battened down for the winter.

As he crested the rise to his truck, the woman's car backed toward the roadway, a wise decision on her part. Mud-slicked shoulders weren't to be trusted in these conditions, and when she curved the car expertly onto the road, then proceeded to the farmhouse beyond, he recognized the meaning behind Hank Marek's words.

The woman and the kid probably hated him for who he was and what he'd done. On top of that, they appeared to live across the street from where he would take over Hank's dream because he was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.

The hinted headache surged into full-blown reality, a niggling condition spawned from a really nasty concussion while fighting in Iraq, a grenade explosion too close for comfort. But if occasional bad headaches were his worst complaint after a double tour in the desert, he really had no complaints at all.

Dad's dream is gone.

Callie steered the car into the drive, angled it between the catalpa tree and Tom Baldwin's classic Chevy, then headed inside, determined to put on a happy face despite what just happened. The smell of Dad's stew reminded her of how often her father had been there for her, supportive, honest, caring and nonjudgmental.

Returning that respect was imperative now.

The men trooped in, their footsteps heavy on the back porch. Callie pulled out a loaf of fresh-baked Vienna bread crusted with sesame seeds, placed it on the table and settled a plate of soft butter next to the bread, her mama's custom because cold butter seemed downright unfriendly.

Right now a part of Callie felt unfriendly, but not to Dad and the guys. Or Jake, her beautiful son, her one gift from a sorry attempt at marriage to a fellow soldier.

Hank dropped a hand to her shoulder. She looked up, sheepish, knowing he'd see through her thin attempt at normalcy. "It's okay, Cal. He's young. Looks competent. And he must have the numbers behind him because the bank signed off. Those homes need someone now, not next spring when things might look better for us."

He was right, she knew that; she'd been handling his books for three years, and truth be told she did as well with a nail gun as she had with an M-16 and a computer spreadsheet, but-

"The important thing now is to save the houses. I'm hoping Matt Cavanaugh and his crew can do that."

She nodded, not trusting herself to speak.

Library of Congress subject headings for this publication:
Christmas stories.
Man-woman relationships -- Fiction.