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“He’s not like any man I’ve ever known,” she told her mother. “He’s resourceful and resilient, quick-witted and generous. He has the most wonderful subtle sense of humor. I can laugh with him more than I have with anyone else I’ve ever met. And he’s incredibly intelligent. Everyone looks at us and all they see are the differences, but beneath it all we share the same values, the same sense of what’s important. He told me over Thanksgiving how much he envies me my family, and if he ever had one of his own he’d make sure he would be the kind of husband and father my own dad has been.” She paused, remembering the night they’d stood out and gazed at the heavens. “And while he’d never openly admit it, he loves Christmas. He helped me put up decorations without a word of complaint. He has a Nativity set from when he was a kid and admitted he sets it up every year. I don’t think anyone else knows he does that.” She smiled, remembering how she’d amused herself while he was gone from the cabin. “When I was with him in Alaska, I hung paper snowflakes from the ceiling of his cabin.”
Her mother laughed. “I can only imagine what he thought of that.”
“The truth is, Mom, I don’t think he minded. For all I know, they are still up. They should have been stars, though, instead of snowflakes.”
“After the snowstorm had died down, we stood outside under the stars. Oh, Mom, you can’t imagine how beautiful the night sky is in Alaska. All those stars—I’ve never seen anything that could compare to it. They were like fairy dust sprinkled across the heavens. I think it was on that starry night that I realized I was falling in love with Finn.”
He’d felt it, too, Carrie knew. Everything had changed between them from that moment on. It’d been magical, wondrous, with his arms around her. He would never admit it, but those few minutes under the stars had shaken Finn. They’d deeply affected her as well.
“What about his family?” her mother asked.
“His mother is wonderful, and she loves her son and wants to be reunited with him. Finn is struggling with that.” He’d never come out and say as much, but Carrie could sense it from little things that had happened, things he’d said and done. He wanted to ignore the fact that he had a mother, but try as he might, he still cared.
“He seems to be struggling with a great deal at the moment,” her mother said.
“He is,” Carrie agreed, and like her, he was hurting. She wondered if he thought about the things they’d discussed when he’d been with her over Thanksgiving. He’d told her his dreams and she’d shared her own, and while they lived in different worlds, they’d found common ground and a deep connection.
Perhaps she was being unreasonable about all this, Carrie mused. If Finn wanted to clear his conscience and be done with the relationship all in one fell swoop, she shouldn’t stand in his way. This was what he wanted. No one could write about him the way she could. Carrie suspected that outside of Sawyer, few knew Finn better than she did.
“I’m afraid, Mom—afraid I will never love anyone as deeply as I do Finn.”
“Oh, honey, you can’t see it now, but in time you’ll be able to remember him without pain. Love doesn’t die.”
“Loving someone shouldn’t hurt like this.”
“True,” her mother whispered, and placed her arm around Carrie’s shoulders. “And in the future, when you’re able to look back, I promise you it won’t hurt as intensely as it does now. You’ll feel sad for what might have been, but the pain will be gone.”
Later, after all the salads had been made and the dishes washed and put away, Carrie retreated to her childhood bedroom. She sat on her bed, rehashing the conversation with her mother. It’d been a good talk, and while she didn’t hold out much hope, she couldn’t help reaching for her phone, longing for a text or call from Finn.
There wasn’t one.
In a couple of hours, Carrie would be joining her family for Christmas Eve services at their church. She wasn’t much in the mood, but she wouldn’t disappoint her family by staying home. Church was exactly where she needed to be. This was Christmas, with or without Finn.
Before she could change her mind, she reached for her phone and sent a brief message to him.
Merry Christmas. Look at the stars tonight and remember me.
Christmas morning, Carrie woke and waited for the dark cloud that seemed to hang over her head to return. It didn’t. She sat up in bed with a deep sense of peace. She’d followed her heart, and while she would always love Finn, she was ready to move forward. Today was Christmas, and she wasn’t going to allow her current sorrows to mar the day.
Hearing movement in the kitchen, she knew her parents were up. They enjoyed their morning ritual of having coffee together. How fortunate she was to have parents who continued to love and care for each other. Carrie didn’t want to disturb their special time, and so she gathered her clothes together and headed into her tiny bathroom for a shower.
Her mother noticed the change in Carrie’s attitude right away. “I feel better,” she said, hugging both her parents. “I’m going to be okay now.”
“I know you will be,” her mother said, hugging her back.
“I’d like to give that young man a piece of my mind,” her father insisted. “If I had my way, I’d string Finn Dalton up by his thumbs for hurting my little girl.”
“Oh, Daddy,” Carrie chided, loving him for wanting to make things right for his daughter.
By noon her brother and his family had stopped by for breakfast on their way to his in-laws’. All the gifts had been opened, and Carrie was busy in the kitchen, helping her mother get everything set up for their buffet, when the doorbell chimed.
“That’ll be Charlie,” her father called out from the other room.
“Uncle” Charlie Hines was a longtime family friend who’d remained a bachelor. He made sure he was one of the first to stop by for the feast, claiming he never ate better than Christmas Day at Nick and Patty’s.
Carrie and her mother had barely gotten the food displayed on the table.
“That Charlie,” her mother said under her breath, setting down a pitcher of water. “He comes earlier every year.”
“It’s probably the only decent dinner he eats,” Carrie added, as she followed her mother out to greet him.
Only it wasn’t Charlie who stood in the middle of the living room. Instead, it was Joan and Finn. Mother and son. Together.
Thankfully, Carrie had set down the last of the salads from the kitchen; otherwise, there would be lettuce and heaven knew what else tossed all across the carpet.
“Merry Christmas,” Joan said. “I hate to intrude, but I brought someone with me I thought you might like to see.”
Carrie’s mouth had gone completely dry. She couldn’t utter a word—not a single, solitary word.
“You’re not intruding,” Carrie’s mother assured her, as she stepped forward to clasp the other woman’s hand. “I’m Patty Slayton, Carrie’s mother.”
“Joan Dalton Reese, Finn’s mother.”
The two women hugged, and the introductions continued as Nick came in.
Finn’s intense gaze settled on Carrie. Everyone seemed to be watching them. Carrie wanted to welcome them both, but couldn’t because she found it impossible to speak. Never, in all her life, had she seen a more welcome sight than Finnegan Dalton standing in the middle of her parents’ living room early Christmas afternoon. He seemed to fill up the space, his eyes boring into hers, waiting, questioning.
Not knowing what else to do, Carrie did what seemed to be the only sensible thing—she rushed across the room and launched herself into Finn’s arms.
He caught her around the waist, lifting her off the floor. And then they were kissing. It felt as if the last few weeks boiled down to this one hungry, passionate kiss. It was as if they were starved for each other.
Carrie’s hands framed his face, his beautiful bearded face. The beard wasn’t as thick as before, but his whiskers were back. His beautiful, dark whiskers. It didn’t matter that they had an audience or that Joan was chatting animatedly with her parents. The only important thing was Finn, the man she loved.
“Come into the family room,” her mother was saying to Joan. “I have the feeling these two might appreciate a few minutes alone.”
“Before he leaves I want to talk to that young man,” her father objected.
“Not to worry,” Joan assured him. “I believe Finn wants to talk to you, too.”
And then it was just the two of them, as her parents and Joan left the room.
Finn lowered her until her feet were on the floor. Carrie kept her hands on his face, unable to stop looking at him. “You’re here,” she whispered. “You’re actually here.”
She led him to the sofa and then sat on his lap. His eyes were eating her up as if he’d been without water for far too long and she was a freshwater spring. “What have you done to me, Carrie Slayton?”
“Loved you,” she returned.
“I gave you the career opportunity of a lifetime, and you turned it down.” He shook his head as if even now he couldn’t believe that she’d refused. Carrie found it hard to believe herself, only it had been necessary.
“My career isn’t nearly as important as you are.”
“This is crazy, Carrie. We have everything going against us. You live in Chicago, and I’m in Alaska …”
“I’ll move,” she said, cutting him off, and then pulled his mouth to hers and kissed him in a way that left them both weak and breathless. “We’ll make it work,” she insisted, her eyes still closed. She reveled in the taste and feel of him holding her. It’d been far too long since she’d been in his arms. She hadn’t realized how badly she’d missed his touch.
“When you kiss me like that you make me believe.”
“Good.” She couldn’t keep from touching him. Her hands roamed over his neck and shoulders, savoring the feel of him. “You’ve reconciled with your mother?”
He rubbed his hand over his eyes. “I’d pushed you out of my life. I’d been alone before, but not like this, and then I remembered something you’d said.”
“Yes, you.” He leaned down and kissed the tip of her nose. “I asked if my mother needed anything, and you said the only thing she really needed was her son.”
“I was with her yesterday morning.” Carrie couldn’t believe Joan would hold back the news that she’d heard from Finn.
“I didn’t call her before I came. I wasn’t sure I had the courage to go through with it until I pulled up to her house late last night. I told myself I was coming to Seattle to make amends with her, but the real reason was I couldn’t stay away from you. Not for another minute.”
“Oh, Finn, this is the best Christmas of my life.”