Thirty-two-year-old Amy Denison volunteers at Glory’s Place, an after school program where she meets seven-year-old Maddie, a precocious young girl who has spent her childhood in foster care. Unbeknownst to Amy, Maddie is a mini-matchmaker, with her eye on just the right man for Amy at Grandon Elementary School, where she is a student. Amy is hesitant – she’s been hurt before, and isn’t sure she’s ready to lose her heart again – but an unexpected surprise makes her reconsider her lonely lifestyle.
As Christmas nears and the town is blanketed in snow and beautiful decorations, Maddie and the charming staff at Glory’s Place help Amy to see that romance can be more than heartache and broken promises.
In The Christmas Star, Donna VanLiere delivers yet another sweet, joyous story that is sure to capture readers' hearts.
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|Publisher:||St. Martin's Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.30(w) x 7.20(h) x 1.00(d)|
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Gabe Rodriguez opens an air return in the second-grade hallway and pulls out the filter. He has worked in the facilities and maintenance department of the Grandon Elementary School for the last six years, repairing everything from a broken window, wobbly desk leg, and faulty window air-conditioning unit, to painting hallways and classrooms, pulling out dead shrubs and trees, and fixing out-of-order plumbing in the school kitchen and every bathroom. It's a job that has kept him busy from morning until sometimes the early evening, but he doesn't mind the long hours. It keeps his mind occupied, driving away thoughts of another time and another life.
"Hi, Mr. G."
He turns from his work and sees seven-year-old Madeleine. "Good morning, Maddie. Are those new glasses?"
She shakes her head. "Nah. They probably just look new because I cleaned them today."
Gabe throws his head back and laughs. Sometimes these kids have no idea how funny they are. Maddie's right foot and leg were braced when she started kindergarten at Grandon and although she's now brace-free, her walk is gaited; she can't move as fast as other students. "Are you busting out of class?"
"No. I just need to get a book out of my backpack," she says, heading toward a locker. She opens her locker and tugs at the bright pink backpack, pulling it onto the floor. Her sandy-brown hair is up in pigtails and she's wearing a red Christmas sweatshirt with a snowman sporting a Santa hat on the front of it.
"You look awfully festive today," Gabe says, setting the old filter aside.
"We're doing presentations. I forgot my report," she says, pulling a paper from her backpack. "Mrs. Kurtz said if we look nice for our presentations that she'd give us extra points." She looks down at her shirt. "I don't know if this is nice enough."
He stops his work, smiling at her. "What?! Once you go to the front of the classroom Mrs. Kurtz is going to give you those points right away." He uses his hand and pretends to make checkmarks on it. "Does Maddie look nice? No doubt! She's picture-perfect!" She grins, hanging the backpack on the hook inside her locker. "What's your presentation on anyway?"
"Is she the woman on the pool and hot tub commercials?"
She giggles. "No! She was the one who started nursing."
He grabs the new filter. "That's right! That was going to be my next guess."
She walks toward her classroom. "See you later, Mr. G."
"Tell me how you did!" He begins to put the new filter into the air return. "And if you have time I want to actually hear your speech about the gymnastic lady."
"She was a nurse!" Maddie says, shaking her head and opening the door to the classroom.
When he was young, Gabe worked with his dad mowing lawns and doing landscaping work, and because his dad felt insecure about his English, he acted as translator when they spoke to customers. His father moved to the States when he was twenty-six and fell in love with Molly, his English-as-a-second-language instructor, a fair-skinned white girl from Alabama, with light brown hair, blue eyes, and a molasses-thick accent. Gabe and his sister are the first Rodriguezes to be born in the United States; most of the relatives on his dad's side of the family still live in Guatemala. While he has his mom's nose, his other features seem to have come from his dad: dark, wavy hair, and dark eyes and skin. Here at the elementary school he often finds himself speaking Spanish to several of the parents who also struggle with English. After years of working outside, Gabe thought he would go to college right out of high school and get a degree in business or finance. Growing up, he had watched his dad struggle to pay the bills, trying to find jobs as a landscaper throughout the winter, and knew he didn't want to be in landscaping forever. When this job at the elementary school opened up, he jumped on it, hoping his landscaping experience would help and it did. He never thought that when he was thirty-four he would still be in Grandon, but here he is. He closes the air return and makes his way down the hall to the next one.
At the end of the school day, Gabe lowers the American flag at the front of the building and folds it. Walking to the doors, he notices Maddie waiting on the sidewalk with a few other children. "So how did it go?" he says, tucking the flag under his arm.
"I got a ninety-eight. I forgot to say when she died. But then I got extra points for being dressed nice and got a hundred."
"That's what I'm talking about!" He raises his hand and she high-fives him. The wind picks up and he pulls the hood of her jacket up over her head. "Do you have time to tell me about Miss Nightingale or is your van about to get here?"
She smiles. "It's always late so I have time. Do you want to hear the whole speech or just the highlights?"
"Whatever you want to give me."
Maddie crosses her arms against the cold and looks up at him. "Well, Florence Nightingale was born in 1820 in Italy and her parents wanted her to get married but she didn't want to be married. She wanted to be a nurse. So even though a man wanted to marry her, she didn't really want to marry him and studied to be a nurse. She was so good at it that she was asked to help lead nurses in the Crimean War and she made sure that the hospital was really clean and the patients were clean too. She'd walk from bed to bed holding a lamp and the soldiers called her the Lady with the Lamp. After the war she got a lot of awards and even some money for everything she did and she started a hospital and a training school for nurses." She shrugs, lifting her hands as if to say, that's it.
Gabe opens his eyes wide, looking at her. "That is the best presentation I've ever heard. And now I can say that I know all about Florence Nightingale and never think that she's the hot-tub lady ever again."
"You never did a presentation on Florence Nightingale?" Maddie asks. He shakes his head. "Have your kids ever done one?"
"I don't have any kids. Just all of you around here," he says, waving his arm toward all the other children. "All of you keep me really busy."
She folds her arms, looking at him. "Are you married?"
He shakes his head. "I was but I'm not anymore."
She squints as she stares at him, thinking. "You should be married. You'd make a good husband. I could find you a wife."
Laughter shakes him down to his work boots. "You know, I might just take you up on that. I could use all the help I can get."
She raises her finger high in the air. "Then I'm on it!"
"But what about you? Are you married?"
"No! Oh my gosh, Mr. G.! I'm too young!"
He smiles. "And there's no way your dad would want to give you away." Her face clouds over and Gabe attempts to explain. "You know, a dad often walks down the aisle with his daughter to give her away to her groom on her wedding day."
She's quiet as she looks at him. "I know. I've seen that in movies." She looks down at the ground and Gabe could kick himself. What a dumb thing to say!
"Here comes your ride," he says. A white van with the words GLORY'S PLACE, written on the side pulls to a stop in front of them. The driver jumps out of the van to mark each child's name off on the clipboard he's holding. "See you tomorrow. Congratulations again on your presentation."
"Bye, Mr. G."
He scolds himself for opening his big mouth as he walks back into the school. He is heading for the maintenance office when he sees Mrs. Kurtz at the end of the hall. He hesitates, wondering if he should speak to her but decides that he should. Mrs. Kurtz is one of the teachers in the school who has been there the longest and he has always seen her to be loving and kind toward her students. He pretends to be doing something with the flag as she approaches. "Did you have a good day, Mrs. Kurtz?"
"I did, Gabe! How was yours?"
"Good. Good. Maddie just did her presentation for me."
She stops in front of him. "It was so good. They all were just excellent today."
"Um ... she ... uh ... asked if I was married and then I teased her, asking if she was married and she of course laughed and said no. And I said that there's no way her dad would want to give her away." He sighs. "I could tell by looking at her that I said the wrong thing." Mrs. Kurtz nods, understanding. "I never ask the kids about a mom or dad. I know that many of them live with a single parent or a grandparent. It just slipped out today." He shakes his head, feeling stupid. "I never would do or say anything to make her or any of these kids feel bad about —"
She interrupts him. "Many children here are in one-parent homes." She's careful how she phrases her words. "Some don't have either parent in their life." She looks at Gabe and he understands. "I can assure you that Maddie does not hold a grudge against you and that tomorrow she'll be the same happy little girl that she is every day." She smiles. "I have to run." She begins to hurry down the hall. "Haircut appointment and Loralei hates tardiness!"
He opens the door to the maintenance office and places the flag on its shelf. He grabs the tools he needs in order to put a leg back on a library table and sighs, shaking his head. There was a time, years ago, when something as simple as a slip of the tongue would not have bothered him. As a matter of fact, he gloried in his anger and temper and fiery tongue. But today he hates the thought that he has darkened a little girl's day.CHAPTER 2
Lauren Gabriel drives through the town square, admiring the historic firehouse and the bank, and Betty's Bakery, which was originally the feed store back in the early 1900s. Some of the storefronts are already decorated for Christmas, with simple lights, evergreen swags, fake snow, or a wintry scene depicted in a store window. She's called Grandon home for a year, but by the way the townspeople adopted her as family, it feels as if all twenty-two years of her life have been spent here. Lauren stops at a red light and notices that a small group of people are decorating the three fir trees around the gazebo and the gazebo itself. The finishing touch seems to be a giant star on top of the gazebo. She cranes her neck to see it, realizing it wasn't there last year. She remembers everything about this gazebo and the town square and the moment she realized she was home, for the first time in her life. The star is high enough and big enough for the entire town to see. A young woman around her age and an older woman point up at the star, giving direction to the man on the roof of the gazebo. On closer look, she realizes that her boyfriend, Travis, is that man on top of the gazebo; he's hard at work with the Grandon Parks Department, and as Lauren pulls away from the light, she taps her horn, waving and yelling at him from the window.
* * *
Thirty-two-year-old Amy Denison tucks her blondish-brown bob behind her ears and cleans a smudge off her glasses as she looks at the sign on the door:
Glory's Place A Place of Help And Hope
She opens it, stepping inside. The vestibule is filled with children, making their way to cubbies lined against the wall, in order to hang up their jackets and backpacks. Several adults greet them, leading them to games, to bookshelves lined with books, to tables where they begin homework, or to a doorway marked TUTORING. The place buzzes with activity and noise and Amy wonders if she is up for this, feeling inadequate. She had always assumed that she would have children of her own at this age but maybe this is as close as she will ever get.
"Are you Amy?"
An older woman with short salt-and-pepper curls is smiling at her. "I am. I'm here to see Gloria."
The woman's face lights up, and she moves toward Amy with open arms, hugging her. "That's me! So nice to meet you! Come on in." She leads her to a small office, pointing to a folding chair as she sits on one next to her. There's nothing fancy about this office but somehow Gloria makes it feel homey. Maybe it's her Southern accent or her warm smile, or maybe it's her open face that would delight anyone who walks through these doors that makes Amy feel instantly welcome. "We got all the background checks that we needed and you'll be happy to know that you are not wanted by the state or federal government."
"That is good to know!" Amy says, chuckling.
"I know you talked in depth with Heddy when you came in a few weeks ago but I always like to chat with volunteers before they begin. What brought you to Glory's Place?" Amy lifts her shoulders. "I don't know if I have a great answer for that, but I was at lunch one day thinking about what I would do that night, and what I would do that coming weekend, and I realized that my life pretty much revolves around myself. I've always liked children, I enjoy being with them, and the more I thought about my life the more I felt that I was supposed to be a foster parent. So I went through the training and all the paperwork. I'm just waiting for clearance with the state. I'm tired of the sameness of my life and thought that maybe you could use me here." For some reason Amy feels like crying and looks down at her purse before any tears form.
"We sure can use you and all of the kids will enjoy getting to know you." She glances down at her watch. "The van from Grandon Elementary will be here in just a couple of minutes and we can greet them together. You'll find that the volunteers do everything here. They greet the children, they help with homework, they play games with them, read to them, prepare snacks, help tutor them in a subject they're struggling with, help with the Christmas benefit, and clean the building. When I started this place many years ago with just a handful of friends we were doing the same things then that we are now." She laughs. "If you were looking for something glamorous then you've come to the wrong place!"
"I gave up dreams of glamour a long time ago," Amy says. She looks at Gloria, thinking. "Is the name on the door and your sign out front a misprint?"
Gloria shakes her head, smiling. "The kids call me Miss Glory. People have always called me Glory, with the exception of Miriam, who thinks Glory is a ridiculous name for a grown woman. You'll meet Miriam. I'll pray for you as you meet her. And you can call me whichever name is agreeable to you."
Amy looks up as a young Hispanic-looking woman with long dark hair and skin sticks her head inside the office door. "Excuse me, Glory?" Gloria turns in her seat. "Besides Trevor, did you want me to work with anyone else on math right away?"
Gloria jumps up. "Oh, Lauren! Come say hi to Amy. This is her first day."
Lauren steps forward to shake Amy's hand. "Hi! Glad you're here!"
Gloria puts her hand on Lauren's shoulder. "Lauren came last year to help us with our fundraiser and decided not to leave." Lauren shrugs, smiling. "She moved to Grandon and became a florist at Clauson's Supermarket, has a handsome beau at the parks department, and is like a big sister to a lot of the kids here."
"Great to meet you," Amy says.
"Just ask me if you need anything," Lauren says.
Gloria claps her hands together, thinking. "Now! Besides Trevor, take Ally as well. I think those two will work well together without being distractions to each other. After them, could you take Derek and Logan? Their teachers have said they're still not grasping division."
"Got it!" Gloria and Amy can hear Lauren calling for the first two boys as she exits the office.
"Are you working today, Gloria? Or is your day going to be filled with tea and crumpets?" Gloria shakes her head and, without looking, points her thumb over her shoulder. "That is Miriam."
Amy shakes her hand. "I'm Amy. A new volunteer."
"Oh, how wonderful," Miriam says, looking her over. "What do you do, Amy?"
"I'm an insurance adjuster."
Miriam scrunches up her face. "Oh my! That does sound terribly dull, doesn't it?" Amy is taken off guard and laughs. Miriam's English accent is so smooth and gentle that she can't tell if her comment was meant to be insulting or not. "Are you married?"
"No, I'm not."
Amy shakes her head. "No. But I love children. That's why I'm here."
"Where do you live?"
Miriam raises her eyebrows. "That's a thirty-minute drive! I wonder if you could have found any volunteer opportunities closer to your front door?"
Gloria steps forward, putting her hand on Amy's back. "I forgot! I need to show you the big room!" She leans in, whispering, "I'm rescuing you from Miriam," and leads her into the vestibule, pointing across the room filled with children. "We call this 'the big room.' Just go right across the big room and bring your purse and jacket through that door," she says, pointing. "Just pick any empty locker and I'll meet you right back here to greet the van."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Christmas Star"
Copyright © 2018 Donna VanLiere.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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