Sunnyside Christmas

Chapter One

Sunnyside, Illinois didn’t live up to its optimistic name on the day of Bert Marshall’s funeral. Forbidding November clouds blocked the sun and poured buckets of cold rain on the procession of cars lined up behind the hearse.

As soon as the Uber driver stopped under Jameson Funeral Home’s covered portico, a black-suited Junior Jameson hustled out to open the passenger door, retrieve Jillian Marshall’s wheeled suitcase, and escort her inside.

“I’m sure sorry about your father.” Junior ushered her into the hushed foyer, decorated, as it had always been, in drab beige with accents of gold and green. “His sudden death is a sad loss for us all.”

Handing her raincoat over to the mortician, Jillian’s stomach rebelled against the cloying mix of lavender potpourri, lilies, and Pine-Sol cleaner. The same nauseating scents that had permeated her mother’s funeral fourteen years ago. “Thank you, Junior.”

His long, sad Eeyore face creased in sympathy. “Too bad the storm caused your flight to be delayed last night.”

“I didn’t get in to Springfield until almost midnight.” The thought of arriving at her father’s empty house in the middle of the night and trying to settle in with so many ghosts surrounding her had been overwhelming. Since she’d already missed the visitation, she’d opted to stay in Springfield and come straight to the funeral home this morning.

Junior nodded. “My father, the mayor, and Barb have everything under control, but everyone will be happy to see you today.”

“Happy” was a dubious word choice. Her arrival would generate a fair amount of curiosity, eagerness, bitterness, or annoyance, but happiness? Not so much.

“You’re here at last.” Censure colored Barbara Gentry’s strident voice. The councilwoman’s stiff-hat brim grazed Jillian’s nose as the two women pressed cheeks. “Good to see that you arrived in time to attend your father’s funeral. Before we start the service, you need to decide what will happen afterwards.”

She blanched at the thought. Impossible to imagine the world without her father in it.

Surely the decisions about his business enterprises could wait another day. “Decisions about…?”

Barb’s sigh broadcast her disapproval. “The funeral dinner.” An implied of course rang out loud and clear. “I assume you want to host it at the house. We’re set up there, but we can have it here, at the church, the diner, or the Old Barn.”

Mr. Jameson, Senior, funeral director and father to Junior, joined the discussion. “The old barn is the new fitness center.”

Jillian knew that. Far be it from Sunnyside citizens to change the way they referred to a place just because a new business had moved in and might want to change the name. Despite that, neither the old barn nor any of the other options would do. “We’ll have it at the house.” Much as she dreaded the ordeal. “Ask the minister to announce it after the service.”

“It’s already in the bulletin.” Senior handed her the program with her father’s formal portrait on the front. Her heart wrenched at the sight of his handsome face, smiling eyes, and welcoming smile framed in ominous black with the words In Memoriam spelled out in bold type beneath it.

Holding the official announcement in her hand made his sudden death more suffocatingly real. The final conclusion for a man she had always believed was bigger than life.

An avocado-sized lump rose in her throat, but Jillian swallowed it back. With a wave of nausea and blurred vision, she pressed her hand to her stomach and made a sharp turn toward the visitation room.

“Everyone’s looking forward to the meal and seeing the house again,” Junior told her.

Of course, they were. “So, asking me where I’d like to have it was just a formality?”

“You weren’t here, and Barb thought…” Senior cleared his throat. “We were prepared to change the location if that was your preference.”

She had no reason not to go along with the plan. They were right, she hadn’t been here. It would be petty to object now. “My father would want to have it at the house.”

Barb sniffed in a manner that grated against Jillian’s already frayed nerves. The woman was an old friend of both of Jillian’s parents, the mother of one of her high school buddies, and she’d always been congenial enough before. Better get used to the cold shoulder in case everyone in town reacted to Jillian’s belated return in the same disapproving way.

Junior gripped her elbow and guided her forward. “The service will begin as soon as you take your place.”

Pausing at the arched doorway of the packed-to-overflowing room, she gathered her composure. She hadn’t set foot in Sunnyside in twelve years, but these people were her father’s friends and neighbors. Everyone in town had some connection to Bert and had come to pay their last respects. And to see how she reacted to being back in Sunnyside. How she was taking the loss. How she looked. The various groups—church-lady guilds, politicians, employees, customers, golf buddies, and her own former friends—turned to stare and judge her appearance.

Both Jameson men flanked her. She squared her shoulders, bit her lip, and marched forward. The muted conversations ceased. The crowd parted to allow her passage.

In her peripheral vision she noted dozens of familiar faces. Her high school English teacher, the former librarian, the head mechanic at the car dealership. The eccentric cat lady who owned and operated the local bed and breakfast. Zach Novak, one of Jillian’s true friends, stood beside an unfamiliar female that she assumed was Zach’s stylish fiancée and new librarian.

The faces blurred, but one tall body with familiar broad shoulders and a head of dark unruly hair stood out. Liam. Of course, he’d be here. Backed into a corner with a small cluster of women, his arm circled a curvy feminine form with long wavy hair cascading down her back. Well, sure. Why not? The female population had always found him irresistible. And even with the financial scandal and national headlines that trumpeted his downfall, some women would always find that bad-boy image attractive.

With faltering steps, she approached the rose-covered casket. Tears threatened to flood her eyes, but she blinked them back. That stiff lifeless shell couldn’t possibly be her warm, gregarious father. The handsome face was familiar, but the magnetic personality and loving spirit were gone. She didn’t want to remember him this way.

Junior handed her a tissue. “Do you want a moment with him before we proceed?”

Numbly, she shook her head and took the empty seat beside Mick Willoughby, Sunnyside’s mayor and her father’s best friend.

“After the service, stand by the casket and greet the mourners as they file out,” Jameson Senior stage-whispered. “When they’ve all left, you can say your goodbyes before the pallbearers convey him to the hearse.”

She nodded. There were no words that would do. No words that would adequately describe her sorrow. Her loss.

Section Brake

Jillian’s head throbbed as she opened the door of their house. Her father’s house. The house where she’d grown up. Her house now. Purposely coming in the front, she’d chosen to enter it like a visitor, through the neutral zone of the largely-unused foyer and formal living room. Not through the back door that lead to her father’s most-frequently used spaces and the rooms that would bring clear images of him to mind.

Pulling in a deep breath, she stepped inside, dragging her suitcase behind her. Déjà vu and vertigo struck simultaneously. Exhaustion and dehydration added to the mix as well.

She pressed her hand to her forehead, but it failed to stop the spinning. Maybe she shouldn’t have let Junior drop her off unaccompanied, but he’d been in a hurry to pick up his family and bring them back. And she’d wanted some time alone to get her bearings and check out the meal preparations before the hordes descended. She may not have been the greatest daughter in the world, the whole damn town might disapprove of her, but the one thing she could do well was oversee a meal, and she was determined to do this one last thing for her father. She owed him that. He deserved it, she thought, as her knees buckled.

Before she hit the floor, a pair of strong arms swept her off her feet.

Relief washed through her until realization slammed it away.

Oh, dear God, no. Anyone but him.

Liam Bowman was the one person she couldn’t deal with now. Hadn’t wanted to deal with again. Ever. She’d foolishly hoped to slip into and out of town without running into him.

But she opened her eyes, and there he was in all his heart-stopping glory. His long legs ate up the distance across the foyer, and he climbed the first few stairs.

“What are you doing?” The question squeaked out of her throat as her hands pressed against his rock-solid chest. “Where are you taking me?”

He hooked an eyebrow upward in a gesture she remembered too well. “Your room.”

“No!” She winced as the unintended volume and force of the word pounded against her temples. When the eyebrow remained quirked, she gestured toward the living room they only used for “good.” She probably hadn’t been in this room five times since her mother’s death. Extra folding chairs for the wake lined the walls. “Over there.”

Hanging on to her with one arm, he grabbed a throw pillow and stuffed it into the corner of her mother’s beloved velvet sofa. Gently laying her down, he skootched her hip over and sat too close beside it.

“Take this off.” His nimble fingers started down the buttons of her coat, bringing back way too many memories of times when he’d help her undress for more exciting reasons.

She brushed his hands aside to take over the task. When she finished, he pulled her arms from the sleeves and leaned her forward to slip the garment out from under her. Unprepared for such proximity, she closed her eyes.

Back in the day—when he’d been her everything—he’d been tall and gorgeous with a rangy, promising build, and an engaging smile that could coax her into skipping school, skinny dipping, slipping out of the house after dark, and much, much more. The strength of the powerful arms that surrounded her when he had scooped her up proved that the ranginess had solidified into a hard, chiseled body beneath an expensive suit. A holdover from his Wall Street days, no doubt.

His face and body barely resembled the young man who had been soft, but disciplined; easy, but determined. Outgoing, but kind; brilliant, but too ambitious for his own good. Now he was all hard-bodied man, with haunted eyes. Lean and hungry lines carved his face into interesting angles, bearing witness to the tough road he’d traveled. The emotional scars were as prominent as a new tattoo.

Strong fingers curled around her wrist as he checked her pulse, but she pulled it from his grasp. Where his touch nearly scorched her skin, she could only imagine how fast her heartrate pounded.

“What’s the problem?” His hard, impersonal voice hit her like an anvil. “Anemic, diabetic, dehydrated? Pregnant?”

Pregnant! How dare he go there? A sharp pain sliced through her temples. She slammed her eyes against the memory of the last time they’d faced one another. “What do you care?”

That muscle clinching in his jaw was another familiar gesture. “You about fainted in my arms, and in about five minutes you have more than half the town ready to show up here. If you don’t want me to call Zach, tell me what the problem is.”

“Call Zach?” Just like old times. “You still call Zach every time there’s a problem?”

“When it’s a medical problem, yeah.”

She didn’t need their old friend Zach hightailing it over here to poke and prod, even if he was a doctor now. “It’s probably dehydration.” She swung her feet to the floor and sat up, but not for long. Nausea washed over her, causing her to slump back down.

“Maybe hunger, too. When was the last time you ate?”

Last night? No, more like mid-afternoon yesterday. She remembered pulling her suitcase with one hand and grabbing an apple with the other on the way out of her apartment. “Yesterday.”

He heaved a heavy sigh. “Wait here.”

Exhausted, her eyes drifted closed as he clattered about in the kitchen. She refused to ponder her unresolved feelings for Liam, or the puzzle he represented. Plenty of time for that later. If he needed to be pondered at all.

Firm footsteps returned to her side. He placed a tray on the coffee table. She struggled to scoot up, but he slid his callused hands under her arms and lifted her into a sitting position.

With his head bent toward her, so close she could smell his herbal aftershave, she could have drowned in the memories floating behind his dark brown eyes. With so much to be said, the words stuck in her throat. When her gaze slid away from his, he retreated.

He unscrewed a cap on a bottle and handed it to her. “Water. Drink.” He was a man of few words now, apparently, when he used to be a master of persuasion. Maybe that quality was part of what had gotten him into trouble. “Don’t gulp.”

She followed his direction, too physically and emotionally wrung out to object. The cold water soothed her throat and worked its magic. Like a parched philodendron, she began to revive.

“Sandwich first? Or banana.” He held up each item. “Which one?”

With a deep breath she detected the scent of fried chicken in the house, but her stomach rebelled at the thought of anything greasy. “What kind of sandwich?”

“Sliced chicken breast with the skin removed. On a scone. With honey mustard.”

“A scone? You mean a biscuit?” Who in Sunnyside knew how to make a proper scone?

He lifted his shoulders in a careless shrug. “They call them scones down at the diner.

You’re the expert. You decide.”

Curious, she lifted the top. Pinched off a corner to judge the texture. Sniffed it. Finally, she replaced the top, lifted the sandwich, and took a bite. And almost groaned with pleasure. An actual scone. She’d recognize Lenore’s signature fried chicken anywhere. But a scone? When had the woman added that to her repertoire? “Did Lenore make this?”

He responded with another shrug. “Could be her new cook, Tyrell.”

“Huh.” What were the chances of the diner having a new cook who could actually…cook? Maybe she’d have time to stop by there to see what else was new in local cuisine.

Liam half-peeled the banana and handed it to her. “Eat this, too.”

Breaking off the top half, she nibbled a few bites. A smothering silence settled around them, weighing them down. There were too many off-limit topics and too many words left unsaid between them. His eyes focused on her, studying her the way he used to in quiet times when they were alone and in tune with one another’s thoughts.

Reaching out, he placed the back of his hand on her forehead, testing for fever. “How do you feel? You’re not so green anymore.”

“Better. The food helped.” She pushed his hand away, before she did something stupid.

Like press it to her cheek. Or kiss his palm. Or lick his fingers. She gulped and shoved those thoughts to a different part of her brain. She didn’t like to admit that having him here helped. Like old times. He provided an interruption from her unending grief. A comfort. A distraction.

“You should cancel this shindig if you aren’t up to it.”

Tempted, she shook off the suggestion. “And disappoint half the town? Most of them are only coming to get a closer look at the prodigal daughter.”

“Not so prodigal. There was never a rift between you and Bert.” He dropped his gaze to his shoes. “And I still get most of the blame for your departure.”

They still blamed him for that? She couldn’t decide if that made her feel better or worse.

“But I never returned. The good people of Sunnyside haven’t seen me up close and personal in a long time.”

“They’ll forget all about that now. Plus, they’ll want to get in here, have one last meal at Bert’s expense, and see the kitchen renovations.”

She frowned. “It’s been finished for almost a year. Why haven’t people seen it?”

Liam’s eyes narrowed. “He didn’t entertain much.”

“That doesn’t sound right.” Another spear of pain shot through her temples. “He told me he had his poker club over last week.”

“Except for his lady friend, poker club was the extent of his entertaining.”

A gasp escaped her. “Lady friend? One that he brought here to the house?” Her mother’s house. Although her mother had been gone a long time, he’d still been devoted to her memory. Hadn’t he? She was adult enough to admit he was entitled to female companionship. But no one serious. And not here. “Who?

His held up his hand to halt her questions while his blank expression revealed nothing.

She recognized the stubborn look that said she wouldn’t get any more out of him.

He slapped his hands on his thighs and stood. “I better go.”

“You aren’t staying for the meal?”

Dark shadows moved behind his eyes. “They wouldn’t want me here.”

Because of his treatment of her? His involvement in bilking thousands of people probability hadn’t helped his popularity either. Having had a sketchy upbringing, he’d always sought the town’s approval. Being snubbed by them now would be hard for him to bear.

He cleared his throat and shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “I wanted to tell you I’m sorry…”

Her skin prickled as if an important moment hovered in the air. For ruining my reputation? For breaking my heart? “For what?”

Raising his hand as if to reach out to her, he stuck it in his pocket instead, and his eyes shuttered. “I’m sorry about your dad.”

Indignation lodged in her chest. So, this little visit was a courtesy call? Sympathy with a dash of curiosity? There’d be a lot of that on display today, but she hadn’t expected platitudes from Liam. From everyone but him. “That’s what you came to say? To make yourself feel better?”

“He was always good to me. When I was a kid, when we were dating, and even after I came back. I think he knew I appreciated everything he did, but I needed to tell you, face-to-face, so we could get past any hard feelings. He wouldn’t want there to be animosity between us.”

She brushed aside the hurt, snorting with disdain. She’d thought Liam cared enough about her—about their past relationship—to come here today, but it was her father he cared about, not her. Important to remember that little detail while she was in town.

Standing, she ignored another bout of light-headedness and stalked to the door. With a wide gesture, she almost shooed him out. “Too late for that.”

Section Brake

Well, damn. That hadn’t gone well. Liam jumped into his truck and raced down the Marshall’s long driveway. And just in the nick of time, too. A parade of cars turned up the road and snaked toward the house, eager for the feast Barb, Lenore, and the church ladies had planned. The food may not be up to Jillian’s professional standards, but then she hadn’t gotten here in time to have a say, had she?

He probably shouldn’t have left her to face the mob on her own. But she’d made her preference clear. And he could barely tolerate being in her presence another second. As it was, he’d nearly apologized and spilled his guts with the truth about Leah and the baby. But when Jillian had looked at him with her big doe-eyes all sad and distraught about her father’s death, he’d known now was not the time to explain. The time for that was long ago. She hadn’t wanted to hear it then and probably didn’t want to hear it now either.

Being around her and remembering too much about their unintentional break-up and the desperation of that summer did him no good. Too much water had traveled under that bridge. Hell, the whole bridge had collapsed. Getting his life back in line after his most recent disaster was hard enough without getting caught up in what-ifs, could’ve beens, and things he couldn’t have.

And he couldn’t have Jillian. That was for damn sure.

He’d had her once and practically thrown her away. Big mistake, but he’d been young and stupid. Which didn’t let him off the hook for the gargantuan array of mistakes he’d made since then.

Even if she was going to hang around Sunnyside for a while—which she wasn’t—there was no future for them together. Despite what his dick was urging. This was a hell of a time for his sex drive to kick back into gear after months of not giving a damn. But one look at her on her front porch and desire had come roaring back. With a vengeance.

When she’d nearly fainted, he’d been half-glad to have an excuse to have her in his arms again, however, briefly. Swooping her up and heading upstairs to her bedroom had been like old times. But not quite. She hadn’t been the least interested in going there with him. Mentally or physically.

They had too much bad history between them. Her father had just died. Her culinary career consumed all her time and energy. Not to mention, he was pretty much public enemy number one and persona non-grata everywhere in the free world.

Aside from those details… They’d be getting back together any minute now. Yeah, right. He wouldn’t hold his breath. Or let his thoughts wander in that direction.

Pulling into the parking lot of the renovated old barn reminded him of the many things he should be thinking about. Things that didn’t include his high school girlfriend’s smokin’ hot body.

The most important thing he’d learned in rehab was in times of stress to keep his mind and body focused on productive thoughts and projects. Which was why he stayed busy seven days a week from first light until he dropped into bed at night.

What should he do first? Some new equipment had arrived for the fitness center that morning. Someone needed to unpack that and set it up. With almost everybody attending Bert’s wake, there wouldn’t be much business today, leaving him with some free time for the installation. Then he had an email he needed to answer from Leah about the holidays. But that was another topic tied too closely into the things about Jillian he didn’t want to think about.

Even the paperwork piled on his desk appealed to him more than thoughts of Leah and Jillian. Payroll for both the gym and the strip club should be processed. If he was lucky, it would take him several hours to plow through that.

Since he’d told the girls they could have the night off, there wouldn’t be much traffic tonight either. But hard to predict. Some guys might come in to drink or play pool in the back room. He never understood why guys with wives and families found it necessary to spend their evening’s away from home, but hey, he’d take their money any time they wanted to give it to him.

And honestly, he hadn’t been much of a homebody either, back when he had a wife. Too caught up in working and partying. And the lack of kids that had been a sore spot between him and Amara, in retrospect, had been a blessing. No kid deserved to be part of the toxic brew their marriage had turned into.

A half hour later, after changing into jeans and a t-shirt, the company of Shelby, his mostly-Golden-Retriever rescue dog, and some manual labor had temporarily banished the unproductive, negative thoughts of his past. As he tightened the last bolts on a new rowing machine, feminine footsteps approached from the lobby.

“Hey, Liam?”

Shelby wagged his tail at the company, and Liam looked up from his spot on the floor. “What are you doing here? Didn’t I give you the night off?”

Betsy McDaniels, one of the strippers, shrugged, as she squatted down to scratch behind Shelby’s ears. “Rick got called in to work. We need the money for his mom’s dialysis, so he went. I called Lacey, and we decided to come here and cook up a big old-fashioned spaghetti feast for everyone in Bert’s honor. That all right with you?”

“You could go to the wake at Bert’s house. There’s plenty of food there.”

Wearing skinny jeans with the knees blown out and a midriff-skimming tee, the stripper’s hair hung in a long messy braid, and her fresh face was makeup-free. Except for the jumbo mammaries, she looked about twelve. No resemblance to the pole-dancing tease who drove men wild when she stripped down to a thong and heels. “And give that bitch a chance to throw us out? I don’t think so.”

“I doubt Jillian would throw you out, if that’s the bitch you mean.” His own experience notwithstanding. With him, Jillian’s response had been personal. What could she possibly have against Betsy who’d been about eight years behind them in high school? Since the stripper came from his side of the tracks, she and Jillian’s paths probably hadn’t crossed very often.

“If she didn’t, one of those cranky gossips would.” Betsy plopped down on the floor between him and his dog. “You saw how they looked right through us at the service. And we had as much right to be there as anyone. We’ll miss Bert as much as they will. Maybe more.”

True, the employees of the fitness center and the strip club would miss Bert. He’d been the financial glue that held them together. Not just them, but all of Sunnyside. What would happen now that he was gone was anybody’s guess. “Use the kitchen if you want to but stay out of sight. If any customers see you, they’ll want you to perform.”

Betsy bit her lip and tugged the end of her braid. “Don’t you want us to?”

“Suit yourself, but I thought you’d appreciate a break.”

“A break with paid time-off sounds good, but we need our tip money to pay the bills.”

“I hear that.” Returning a wrench to his toolbox, his knees creaked as he stood. Shelby sprang up, too. “Since I like the idea of having our own memorial service for Bert here, I’ll cover everyone’s tip money for tonight.”

“Thanks, Liam! I’ll tell the girls. And I’ll see if any of the fitness employees want to join us.” Betsy jumped up and gave him an enthusiastic hug. “You’re the best.”

The best what? Strip club manager in Sunnyside, Illinois? Fabulous. Just what he’d always dreamed of. But Betsy was a good kid and meant well. “Save me a plate of spaghetti.”

“Didn’t you eat at Bert’s house either?” She was half-way to the door but looked at him over her shoulder.

“Nope. Too stuffy out there for me.”

Her mouth dropped open. “You and Bert were close. I thought you and his daughter used to be tight, too.”

Used to be was the operative phrase. “Not anymore.”

She bit back a sly smile. “And now she’s you’re new boss.”

“I’m very aware.” The idea rankled. But the real question was, did Jillian know? She hadn’t given any hint of it earlier, but then, there’d been plenty of other stuff going on. He intended to stay out of her way, but would she stay out of his?

It seemed like an opportune time to remind Betsy of the ownership change. “She’s your new boss, too.”

The stripper’s smile slid away. “Crap on a cracker.

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