Every Christmas Eve from the time she was eight years old; Sarah Collier baked kismet cookies, slept with a handful under her pillow and dreamed of her one true love.
She couldn’t wait to fall asleep as the lights on the eaves twinkled a prism of colors through the sheer lace curtains of her bedroom window, and the piney smell of fresh-cut Douglas fir filled the house with Bing Crosby crooning “White Christmas” from her grandmother’s record player.
On that most magical of evenings, in her cozy little lakeside cottage in Twilight, Texas, Gramma Mia would trot out the flour and sugar and vanilla and creamy, rich, honest-to-goodness butter (that Sarah’s mother would never let her eat) and assemble the ingredients on the shiny white tiles of her kitchen counter. Even though they both knew the recipe by heart, Gramma would unfold the yellowed piece of notebook paper to reveal the faded blue ink written in spiky, cursive lettering and gently prop it against the tea canister. Eager to get started, Sarah’s excited fingers tangled the strings of her apron and pulled her wavy caramel-colored hair into a haphazard ponytail.
In seven years the dream never changed. Soft-focus, misty-white lace stretched out like wedding veil trains. A dark haired man wearing a sharp black tuxedo, stood waiting at the end of a pink rose petal strewn path, his back to her, while gentle snowflakes drifted from a gun metal gray holiday sky.
Heart pounding, she glided closer to him until the sound of her own rushing blood was a wild cacophony of jungle drums in her ears. Then he turned, smiled and held out a hand.
That’s when she saw his face.
Travis Walker, the handsome older boy who lived next door to Gramma, but all grown up now.
Sarah slept blissfully, happily, her hands curled underneath her cheek, never guessing the tumult her annual dream would soon bring.
On the morning of her fifteenth Christmas, Sarah woke with the sweet taste of fantasy in her mouth. Smiling, she ran the tip of her tongue over her lips.
Her budding young body felt raw and achy and instead of jumping from the bed and running to see what lay under the Christmas tree as she normally would have, Sarah snuggled deeper into the pillow, closed her eyes, ignored the smell of bacon and waffles wafting in the air and tried to chase down the fragments of her fading dream.
But Gramma’s gentle knock at the door ruined all that. “Sarah, honey, get up and get dressed, your folks just called. They’ll be here within the hour.”
Sarah sighed and sat up on the edge of the bed. It didn’t seem fair that her parents barely had time for her but when they put in an appearance; she was expected to give them her undivided attention. Drs. Mitchell and Helen Collier sent her to stay with Gramma every summer and during the Christmas holidays. The rest of the year, she resided at Chatham Academy, a boarding school in Dallas. They were too busy being renowned heart surgeons in Houston and jetting around the globe as guest lecturers to bother raising their own daughter.
Stop feeling sorry for yourself. You’ve got more than most people.
That was true, but it didn’t stop her from longing for a close-knit family. She wrapped her arms around her pillow and squeezed it to her chest, leaving a trail of kismet cookie crumbs scattered across the flannel sheet.
It didn’t help that she was shy and prone to an exaggerated fantasy life. She wasn’t popular at school and didn’t fit in. English was the only subject she excelled at. Her parents were practical, brilliant, scientific people and they didn’t understand her at all. Sometimes, she imagined she was adopted, but she looked so much like her father, with his wild light brown hair and stark blue eyes, it was impossible to deny the lineage.
Sighing, she got of bed, changed the sheets stained with butter from the cookies and then took a shower. She dressed in a red plaid skirt with red leggings, black ankle boots, a white silk blouse underneath a green sweater vest, (with jangly jingle bells on it that Gram had knitted for her) and just to be whimsical, she donned a headband adorned with reindeer antlers that she’d won at Dickens on the Square. Her mother would loath the headband. Reason enough to wear it.
She wandered into the kitchen and Gramma waved her to the table. She slid a mug of hot chocolate in front of her along with a plate of Belgium waffles and thick slab bacon.
“Did you sleep well?” Gram asked with a twinkle in her eye.
“Very well.” Sarah grinned.
“Did you dream of your true love?”
“I did.” Sarah couldn’t tell Gram who her true love was. You weren’t supposed to tell or you’d jinx the kismet cookie prophecy.
“Same as last year?”
“And the year before and the year before that and the year before that.”
Gram nodded. “Then it’s for real, Sweet Pea. He is your destiny.”
A happy shiver rushed over her arms, and she hugged herself tight. Travis Walker. Her one true love. She hadn’t seen him since she’d been back in town, even though each time she stepped out on her grandmother’s front porch she glanced over at his house, hoping to see his battered Ford pickup in the driveway. She didn’t ask Gramma about him. She was afraid to give away her secret crush.
Not a crush, she reminded herself. Destiny.
Sarah swallowed a mouthful of waffle, dripping with real maple syrup, and bit into a crisp slice of bacon. She wanted to get her breakfast eaten before her mother got there and started in on her about her weight. Gramma told her she was just the right size, but Helen Collier would whip out her calculator, tap in some numbers and tell her that her BMI was 25.4 and that qualified as overweight. Size fourteen. Her mother would shake her head while her disappointed eyes said chubby chug-butt. Sarah took another bite of waffle and wondered if Travis thought she was fat or looked geeky with braces.
A knock sounded at the door.
“Come in,” Gramma said, getting to her feet as the back door opened.
Dotty Mae Densmore, who was her grandmother’s age and lived down the road, popped into the room, a basket of fresh baked blueberry muffins dangling from her upturned elbow. “Merry Christmas!”
“Merry Christmas, Mrs. Densmore,” Sarah said.
“My, don’t you look festive,” Dotty Mae said. “I love the reindeer antlers.”
Sarah raised a hand to finger the antlers made from brown felt and stuffed with cotton batting. “Thanks.”
Dotty Mae, her cheeks flushed red from the cold, set the muffins on the sideboard and turned to Gramma Mia. “So, I guess you’re not going to the wedding?”
“Wedding?” Gramma wrinkled her forehead. “When is it?”
“You didn’t get an invitation?” Dotty Mae pressed three fingers to her lips. “Um…I’m sorry, I just assumed you’d gotten one.”
Gramma shook her head.
“I just got mine day before yesterday. Talk about last minute.” Dotty Mae shook her head. “But seeing as how it’s a shotgun situation…”
Sarah wasn’t sure what they were talking about. What did a shotgun have to do with getting married? Surely someone wasn’t planning on giving the bride and groom a shotgun for a wedding gift.
“I’ve been so busy with Christmas preparations I haven’t even checked my mail. I hope I got an invitation. Even though it’s too late to attend, I do want to send a gift. You’re not going?”
“I can’t. My boys and their families are driving in to spend Christmas Day with me.”
“It is bad timing. Helen and Mitchell are on their way as well.”
Dotty Mae arched an eyebrow, reached into the bottom of the muffin basket and produced a bottle of peppermint schnapps. “Want to add a little holiday cheer to that hot chocolate, Mia?”
“I thought you’d never ask.” Gram grinned and went to the tea kettle on the stove to pour hot water into a cup of powdered hot chocolate mix for Dotty Mae. “Dealing with Helen is always easier with a little fortification.” Then to Sara she said, “Sweet Pea would you mind running down to the end of the road and getting what’s in the letter box?”
“Sure.” Sarah pushed back her chair, got her jacket from the coat rack beside the front door, and stepped out onto the porch. Immediately, she peeked over at Travis’s house. His pickup wasn’t in the driveway. Did he still live there? He was twenty now. Maybe he’d moved out and gotten a place of his own. Hmm. She’d have to find a covert way to ask Gram about it.
She strolled along the cobblestone path leading to the road abutting the lake front. Lake Twilight shimmered blue and shiny in the crisp, cool early morning sunlight. She thought of the time Travis had taken her fishing off the dock. How he’d baited her cane pole with minnows and acted as if she’d snagged a giant tuna when she’d reeled in a palm-sized sun perch. She’d been ten. He’d been fifteen. The same age she was now. He always had Super Bubble in his pocket that he’d share with her, and every Fourth of July they climbed on Gram’s roof together to watch the fireworks and once he scared off some bullies who’d backed her into the alley and demanded her allowance money.
Her dream had been a little different this time. It hadn’t stopped with Travis taking her hand. This time, he’d pulled her into his arms, dipped his head and kissed her. A red hot sizzling kiss that made her entire body tingle.
Sarah had never been kissed. Not for real. But in that dream kiss. Whew! It was everything she imagined a kiss would be. Firm and moist and sensual.
Remembering, she licked her lips. How long would she have to wait until she could kiss him for real? How did she make him see her for the woman she was becoming and not the little girl who wore braids and braces and begged him to tell her ghost stories? She poked at the problem with her mind, anxious to make some forward momentum on the cookie prophesy.
If he was her one true love, shouldn’t he start recognizing that fact soon? Maybe she should bake him some kismet cookies and tell him to sleep with them under his pillow. Except that Gramma said kismet cookie magic only worked on Christmas Eve. She would have to wait another whole year. Disappointment pulled her shoulders into a slump.
Sarah reached the mailbox painted black and white spots to resemble a Holstein cow and pulled down the flap. Only one piece of mail lay inside. It was a thick, cream-colored, square envelope. Apparently, Gramma had been invited to a wedding.
She pulled out the envelope, shut the mailbox and glanced at the address. It read: To Mrs. Mia Martin and Miss Sarah Collier. She was invited too. A Christmas wedding. How beautiful. Then her gaze shifted to the name on the return address: Mr. Travis Walker and Ms. Crystal Hunt.
Her mind did not want to process what this meant. But her hands, her treacherous hands started shaking as they tore into the pretty cream colored envelope and fumbled to pull out the stiff paper card. Inside was a picture of a smiling Travis embracing a beautiful young blonde woman who Sarah didn’t know.
The card read: Mr. and Mrs. Albert Hunt joyfully announce the marriage of their daughter Crystal Ann Hunt to Travis Stephen Walker on Saturday, the twenty-fifth of December. Nine a.m. First Presbyterian Church of Twilight.
A cry of despair slipped from Sarah’s lips as the card fluttered from her hand. Travis? Getting married? It couldn’t be true. It was impossible. He was too young and…and…this woman. Who the hell was she? Travis belonged to Sarah. He was her one true love. The kismet cookies said so.
She glanced at her watch and saw that it was straight up nine o’clock. At this very moment, Travis was getting married.
She could not let this happen. He had to know that they were meant to be. He couldn’t marry this Crystal Hunt person. Simply could not.
Blindly, she turned and ran, a single thought pounding in her brain. Get to Travis. Tell him about her dreams. Stop the wedding.
She darted down Lakeshore Drive, headed for the center of town. She wasn’t in very good shape and she quickly ran out of breath. The stabbing stitch in her side forced her to slow to a fast walk.
Hurry, hurry. This was an emergency.
Her mind was a mad jumble. The cold wind gusted, swirling fallen leaves across the street in front of her. This early on Christmas morning, the roads lay bare. It was ten minutes after nine when she maneuvered past the cars crowding the parking lot outside the Presbyterian Church. Her heart reverberated like a cannon in her chest. Boom, boom, boom. Each beat jarring hard through her body.
She scrambled up the steps, wrenched open the heavy wooden door and staggered inside.
There, just as she’d dreamed, was the drape of sheer white lace over the pews. The center aisle was strewn with pink rose petals. People packed the room. Up front at the altar Travis stood looking incredibly handsome in a black tuxedo. Beside him stood the twig-skinny blonde from the wedding announcement photograph, dressed in a fluffy white chiffon dress. They looked like they belonged on top of a wedding cake.
Sarah’s stomach reeled. No. No!
A minister stood in front of Travis and his bride. “Into this holy union Travis Walker and Crystal Hunt now come to be joined. If any of you can show just cause why these two should not be lawfully married, speak now or forever hold your peace.”
She wasn’t too late! She could still stop this.
The minister paused.
“Wait!” Sarah shouted and sprinted down the aisle, the bells on her sweater vest jingling merrily as she ran.
Every gaze in the place swiveled off the bride and groom and onto her. A murmur of laughter rippled through the crowd and that’s when Sarah realized she still had the reindeer antlers on her head, but she didn’t care. This was too important. If she had to look foolish to stop this ceremony, then so be it.
Breathlessly, she dashed to the altar.
“Young lady.” The minister peered at her sternly from behind his glasses. “Do you have something to say?”
Sarah shifted her gaze from the minister to Travis.
Travis looked perplexed. “Sarah?”
“Who is this?” Crystal asked.
Sarah ignored her and stared straight into Travis’s stormy gray eyes. “Don’t marry her. You can’t marry her.”
He looked confused. “What do you mean?”
The words spilled from her in a heated rush. “I’m your soul mate. Your one true love. You’re destined to marry me. If you marry her, it’s all over. None of us will ever find the happiness we deserve.”
A kind smile tipped the corners of his lips. “Sarah,” he said and reached out to gently touch her arm.
His touch set her on fire. All the air left her body.
“You’re only fifteen,” he said. “You don’t know the first thing about true love.”
“But I do! I’ve been dreaming of you every Christmas Eve since I was eight years old. The kismet cookies are never wrong. You and I are meant to be together.”
“Good grief, are you for real?” Crystal Hunt snapped. “You’re a delusional little twit who’s read one too many romance novels. There’s no such thing as soul mates and one true love. Don’t kid yourself.”
The churchgoers dissolved into guffaws and in that horrible split second moment, Sarah stepped outside herself and she could see the whole thing unfolding like some hideous nightmare.
There she was, a chubby teenager with braces on her teeth and reindeer antlers on her head and jingle bells on her sweater vest standing between a bride and groom on their wedding day, professing her love to a grown man who clearly did not love her back, while almost the whole damn town of Twilight looked on, amused by her abject humiliation.
A jagged stab of raw pain jabbed her heart.
“Sarah,” Travis murmured, “maybe you should go on home now.”
Fool! He doesn’t want you. You’re embarrassing him.
Her face burned. Her stomach roiled. Her chest hurt. Tears spilled down her cheeks. She couldn’t see. Blindly, she turned, stumbling for the door, yanking the antlers from her head, tearing the jingle bells from her sweater, ripping up all her hopes and dreams and running as far and as fast as she could away from the raucous laughter echoing behind her.
And she vowed never, ever to put her heart on the line again.