Josh Teague has dark memories from his time in Iraq. While he longs to share the burden of those memories with someone, he is afraid they will scare his girlfriend. Unwilling to risk losing her, he keeps the memories to himself and tries to keep a cheerful attitude despite the holiday season threatening to bring his mood down.
Leann Robak has her own set of memories causing trouble. Abandoned by her father when she was ten, she is devastated when her mother announces she’s taking a month-long trip to Europe over Christmas. Although Josh’s invitation to spend Christmas with him at his parents’ house holds exciting prospects, Leann can tell he’s hiding something from her. That knowledge leaves her wondering how well she truly knows him and whether he even wants to be in a relationship with her.
Can Josh and Leann learn to trust each other fully, or will their insecurities drive them apart?
Music filled the air as Josh Teague unlocked his apartment door, and he dug his cell phone out of his pocket as he stepped inside. After dumping his backpack on the floor by the secondhand brown leather couch, he opened the text from his girlfriend.
Call me when you have a minute.
Josh smiled and carried his phone into the kitchen. Leann probably needed reassurance he wasn’t going to break up with her at the end of the week. Never mind how many times he had told her how much he would miss her during the winter break, or the fact that they already had plans to go out as soon as she came back to Whitcomb University in January. The woman had abandonment issues, and the stress of finals week only made it worse.
He grabbed a bottle of water out of the fridge and took a drink before calling Leann. Two rings later, she picked up.
Something was wrong. She never sounded that subdued when he called. Heart racing, he managed to keep his tone light. “Hey, Leann. What’s up?”
“My mom—” A sob cut off the rest.
“What about your mom?” He tried to quell his concern, but the effort was in vain. Please, Lord... “Is she okay?”
“She’s great.” Leann sniffled. “So great, in fact, that she’s leaving me.”
Josh set his water on the counter and combed his fingers through his hair. Since Leann’s issues had been caused by her father suddenly leaving and divorcing her mother, getting abandoned by her mother would devastate her. But there had to be more to the story. No parent would actually abandon a child, even an adult child, so close to Christmas... would they?
“Where are you?” Josh asked, already heading for the door. “I’ll come, and we can talk.”
“I’m in my room, but Cindy’s going to be here soon with Danny to watch a movie.”
“Meet me downstairs, and I’ll bring you back to my place.”
He stepped outside and locked the door. “I’ll be there in less than ten minutes.”
“Okay.” Her shuddering breath ended with another sniffle. “What am I going to do?”
“That’s one of the things we’ll talk about. All right?” He kept his voice calm and soothing, hoping to keep her from completely losing it before he got to her dorm. “You’re not alone, Leann. I’m here for you, and we’ll figure this out together.”
“Thanks, Josh. I’ll see you in a few.”
He sighed as he shoved his phone in his pocket and opened the car door. Just when he thought things would go smoothly, this happened. He couldn’t blame his girlfriend, but he’d hoped to keep finals week as stress-free as possible. Obviously, that wasn’t going to happen.
During the short drive to campus, he prayed for patience and the strength to do whatever Leann needed him to do. He longed to call someone from the student veterans’ group and let them help out, but he didn’t even know what the situation was, other than Leann feeling abandoned by her mother. Passing off his girlfriend to someone else to deal with until finals ended wasn’t his style anyway. Once he knew what was going on, he could decide on the best course of action. If that meant calling in backup, so be it, but he would make sure he took care of Leann, no matter what else was going on in his life.
He pulled up to the curb in front of Wyatt Hall and hoped he wouldn’t get a ticket for leaving his car there long enough to go in and get Leann. The downward spiral of his mood bugged him, but he couldn’t shake it. December was always a difficult time for him as Christmas drew closer, and with it came reminders that some of his friends from the army would never see their families again. He hadn’t yet confided his holiday struggles to Leann, and he certainly wasn’t going to do it now. She needed him to be the strong man so many people saw him as. Once her crisis was over, he’d see about letting her in on some of the darker parts of his life.
As soon as he stepped into the dorm lobby, Leann ran over and threw her arms around his neck. He held her tightly as she cried. Maybe he’d been wrong to assume her mother hadn’t actually abandoned her.
Leann finally released him and stepped back, wiping the tears from her blue eyes. “Can we go? I don’t want to risk Cindy seeing me right now. I haven’t told her yet.”
She hadn’t told her best friend and roommate about her mother’s abandonment? Josh raised an eyebrow but kept his thoughts to himself. “Sure. My car’s right outside.”
He put an arm around her and guided her out into the cold air. Snow hadn’t fallen yet, but the forecasters predicted it before the weekend. Hopefully it wouldn’t make the roads too slick as students headed home for winter break. The thought of possibly running across an accident and having to put his training as a medic to use was more than he could handle at the moment. He had majored in business because he figured it would lead to a career least likely to require him to give anyone first aid. He’d treated more than enough injuries while deployed, and these days the idea of facing bleeding wounds made him cringe.
Once Leann was settled in the passenger seat of his car, he went around and slid behind the wheel. She remained silent on the way to his apartment, and he wished he knew how to help her. They’d only been dating a few weeks, and he was still trying to learn her moods and what she needed from him when she was upset or stressed. Normally, a shoulder to cry on and a listening ear were all she needed, but this time was different. He’d never seen her hesitate to pour her heart out before.
As soon as they sat on his couch, she turned to him with tears rolling down her cheeks. “My mom called and told me she’s going to Europe with some of her friends. She’s leaving this weekend and won’t be back until after I come back here.”
“Leann, I’m sorry.” Josh scooted close and wrapped her in a hug, remembering the Christmases he hadn’t been able to spend with his family. Of course, for most of those his family had been at home and he’d been stuck in some other part of the world with his unit, but the loneliness and longing for family were the same.
“She has never missed Christmas before. And she won’t even be home when I get there. The one month we could spend together, and she’s going thousands of miles away!”
His mind raced as she wept on his shoulder. With her insecurities, spending a month alone in her mom’s house, especially over Christmas, would devastate her. He couldn’t ask her to stay with him — his apartment only had one bedroom — and most of his friends in the student veterans’ group who might be able to put her up for a while were planning to scatter as soon as the semester ended.
He leaned back and smoothed strands of her light brown hair away from her face. “You need to talk to Cindy about this.”
“But she’ll be all sympathetic and ask me to stay with her, but she’s going to be busy with Danny.” Leann sniffled and swiped at her eyes. “And I won’t see you, either, because you’ll still be here in New Castle and I’d be over in Pendleton.”
Josh smiled and kissed her forehead. He loved his girlfriend’s lack of logic. “Pendleton is only half an hour from here. We could see each other every day.”
“It’s not the same and you know it.” She blew out a breath and leaned against the back of the couch. “Spending the break at Cindy’s house would just make me feel worse. I mean, Cindy gets to see her parents any time she wants since they live so close, and they’re looking forward to having her stay with them for the whole break. I haven’t seen my dad since I was ten, and I hardly ever see my mom because she lives four hours away. I thought she’d be happy to have me for a month, but it’s like she can’t wait to get away from me. Why does she want to abandon me, too? What did I do to make my parents hate me?”
“I doubt they hate you.” He drew in a breath, his mind searching for a way to help her see that the whole situation likely had very little to do with her. Give me the words I need, Lord. Please? “Chances are your mom sees you as the grown woman you are and figured you don’t need her as much as you did when you were younger. Maybe she’s going on this trip because she wants to do something for herself.”
“That’s what she said, but really? Over Christmas?” Leann shook her head and leaned against him. “Families are supposed to be together for Christmas, not on different continents.”
“I know the feeling, but sometimes there’s nothing you can do except get through the holiday and look forward to the next time you’ll see your family.”
“Oh, Josh, I’m sorry!” Leann kissed his cheek and laid her head on his shoulder as he put his arm around her. “I didn’t even think about the fact that you had to miss Christmas with your family when you were in Iraq. My mom going to Europe can’t possibly compare to what you went through.”
“It’s not a contest.” He gave her a hug, a plan forming and lifting his spirits. “But I do appreciate what you’re saying. I hope you can appreciate what I’m saying, too. You don’t have to be alone for Christmas or with Cindy’s family. You can come with me when I go to my parents’ place. I know they’d love to meet you.”
“Really?” She sat up and faced him, her eyes wide. “You want me to spend Christmas with your family?”
He considered the possible ramifications of his invitation, that she might realize how much he cared about her, and smiled. “Yeah, I do. I wasn’t looking forward to not seeing you for a month and missing the opportunity for our first Christmas together. I know you’re upset about your mom’s trip, but she did give us a way to be together for the holidays without depriving her or my parents.”
“I hadn’t thought of it like that.” She stared at the miniature Christmas tree sitting on top of his stereo. After a moment her gaze shifted to him, and his heart melted at the sight of the glimmer of joy in her eyes. “You’re sure your family won’t mind me being there?”
“Positive. The last time I talked to my mom she asked when she’d get to meet you.” He remembered the most recent conversation with his older brother and grinned. “You just have to promise to ignore any teasing from my siblings.”
“I’ll do my best.” Worry clouded her gaze. “But what am I going to do for the rest of the break? I don’t want to spend it alone.”
“Why don’t we go back to your room and talk to Cindy? She should know what’s going on anyway, and like you said, she’ll probably invite you to stay at her house.”
Leann sighed. “I wish I could stay in town so I’m closer to you.”
“Trust me, I would love to have you stay here, but that wouldn’t work.” He drew her close for a kiss and then looked into her eyes. “But having you thirty minutes away would definitely beat having you four hours away.”
“Good point.” She gave him a hug then straightened with determination shining in her eyes. “Let’s go talk to Cindy.”
* * * *
Leann walked into her dorm room after her last final and flopped onto her bed with a sigh of relief. As difficult as it was to face the uncertainty of a month-long break without knowing for sure where she’d be staying until she returned to school, she was glad the semester was over. Knowing she’d be spending Christmas with Josh and his family brought an extra bit of joy.
With thoughts of her boyfriend running through her mind, she dug her cell phone out of her pocket and tapped out a quick text to him to let him know she was free. He’d taken his last final that morning, and he’d promised to take her out to celebrate the end of the semester when she finished her last final.
She sat up and removed her coat, then pulled her suitcase out of the closet to pack. Thanks to Josh providing a calming influence and encouraging her to talk to Cindy, she would be spending the first part of the break in Pendleton. Then on the twenty-third, she’d be going with Josh to his parents’ place in Illinois. After that... she refused to consider that uncertainty, although she’d probably end up back at Cindy’s until they returned to the dorm.
As she set a sweater in the suitcase, her phone chimed with a text. She opened it and smiled as she read Josh’s reply.
Party at my place tomorrow night. Wanna come?
She clicked reply and entered her response. Consider me there. Are you busy right now?
His reply came a moment later. Nope. Just chillin. Wanna do something?
As if he had to ask. Always.
Be there in ten.
Leann set her phone on her desk and tossed a few more clothes into her suitcase. At some point she needed to do some Christmas shopping, but she still had to figure out what to get Josh. Most of the guys she knew loved video games, but Josh didn’t play them often. A movie seemed too impersonal, although he’d probably enjoy it. Maybe she could convince Cindy to let her steal a few minutes of Danny’s time to pick his brain about gift ideas. The two men were good friends, so he might be able to think of something.
A quick glance at her alarm clock revealed Josh would be there any minute. Leann grabbed her coat and phone then headed downstairs. As she stepped into the lobby, she spotted Josh coming through the glass doors leading outside. His smile when his gaze fell on her sent her heart into a frenzy. How lucky could a girl get, with a guy that gorgeous caring so much about her? His short blond hair, hazel eyes, and fit body attracted a lot of female attention, but he never seemed to notice. That lack of awareness of his good looks made her like him even more.
“Hey,” he said as they met in the middle of the lobby. He gave her a quick kiss. “What do you say to going to a movie?”
“Is the theater showing something good?” Leann took Josh’s hand as they headed for the exit.
“Surprisingly, yes. It’s that new holiday comedy you said you wanted to see.”
“Cool!” She briefly laid her head on his shoulder. “I was hoping we could watch it together. I bet you’ll enjoy it.”
“Probably. It looks pretty good.” Josh glanced at her as they reached his car. “I talked to my mom earlier. What do you think about going out there on the twentieth and staying for a week or so?”
“I’m fine with whatever you want to do,” Leann said, trying not to worry about spending so long with his family. What if they didn’t like her? She forced the thought away. “The only plan I have at this point is getting through the break and moving back into the dorm in January.”
He hugged her and then opened the passenger door for her. “My family’s going to love you.”
“That doesn’t make me any less nervous about meeting them.” She kissed his cheek then slid into the seat and smiled up at him. “But I’m sure I’ll love them, too.”
Josh chuckled and closed her door. Once he sat behind the steering wheel, he reached over and stroked her cheek. “I couldn’t be happier that I get to spend Christmas with you instead of having to settle for some phone calls and texts.”
“You and me, both.” Leann settled back in the seat as Josh pulled out of the parking lot. As much as she looked forward to spending more time with Josh, she still wished she could see her mom. She’d never experienced a holiday without at least one family member, and being forced to do it so suddenly this year hurt.
She shoved her depressing, anxiety-inducing thoughts to a back corner of her mind and gazed out the window as she prayed for the strength to keep them there. Somehow, she would find a way to make this Christmas special for Josh. He’d admitted to missing last year with his family because of a snowstorm that left him stuck in an airport. The year before that, he’d been in Colorado for a friend’s funeral. Before that, his military service had kept him from going home more often than not. The end result was that this would be his fourth Christmas with his family in ten years, and Leann was determined to help him enjoy every moment.
Now, if she could shake her worry that his family wouldn’t approve of her, everything would work out beautifully.