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A Home For Christmas

Jackie Hobbs loves the job that lets her travel the world attending comic conventions and playing games until it prevents her from reaching her mother before she passes away. As an only child with no core group of friends to depend on, she dreads a lonely Christmas. The last thing she wants is to go to Vermont as her mother planned, but it's the only way to get the letters her mother left her.

Austin Fletcher has lived in Sugar Creek, Vermont his entire life. He’s dedicated to his family’s cabin rental business even though he’d rather be in the mountains on an adventure. This Christmas he’s tasked with leading a tourist on a special scavenger hunt. It’s not snow-shoeing or cold-weather camping, but he’s soon captivated by the kind-hearted woman.

Jackie never thought Sugar Creek would be the perfect place to say goodbye to her mother, but with Austin's help, she's learning to smile again. And who knows, he might be the one to give her heart a new home this Christmas.

Chapter One

Jacklyn 'Jackie' Hobbs moved her body to the beat. A bead of sweat trickled down her back, but she took even breaths as her arms zipped through the patterns in the game. Her feet were shoulder-width apart for balance, but they often popped up as she bounced and danced to the music. With her knees loose, her hips moved to the rhythm with ease and flair. This was her comfort zone, and the cheering crowd spurred her on.

The Virtual Reality headset shifted as she dodged a wall. She ignored it, willing it to stay in place as one of her favorite songs pounded in her ears. Using it to wipe the cocky grin off the self-centered jerk in the free-play gaming section of the convention center was the highlight of her day. 

Jackie had just finished checking one of the presenter's audio and video feeds before heading out for a lunch break. As she walked through the mass of cosplayers, she was drawn to a large group surrounding a big guy dressed as Doctor Strange. He bragged loudly about how he was the king of a particular game. She watched a few challengers fall to his full combos, but his precision wasn't as good as hers.

When she stepped forward to challenge him, he took one look at her slight five-four frame, the streak of blue in her chin-length black hair, lack of costume or heavy makeup, and underestimated her. That was his first mistake. His second was choosing a super popular song.

She glanced at the scores. There was one minute left in the game, but Jackie led by almost twenty thousand points. She smiled and put a little more swag into her movements. The tricky part was coming up. It was her favorite sequence of the song. She tuned out the crowd growing louder around her and became one with the music. Muscle memory took over as she hummed along.

Her hands and arms moved quickly through the virtual world's blocks, walls, and bombs flying at her. Left, right, criss-cross, double left, double right, criss-cross, in, out, in, out, dodge left, dodge right, down left, down right, flutter, flutter, slash left, and swish to the right. She continued to move quickly as she cut and dodged.

The crowd oohed and aahed as they watched the showdown on the eighty-inch screen above the VR table. Some laughed and cheered at the fact the king of slash was getting taken down by a girl. That's what he got for looking at her as another easy mark. Why guys thought girls couldn't toast their scores in video games was beyond her. She loved proving them wrong.

Thirty seconds and she was home free as the chorus pattern repeated. She hadn't missed a single block, and her cuts had been clean. Most of her scores had been at max points as well. She sliced the last block and struck a pose for dramatic effect.

Finally, she removed the headset and ran her fingers through her hair. Her avatar, with the matching blue streak of hair and brown eyes, rose above the other guy's icon on the TV screen. Jackie took the Saber Surgeon award for the best precision, combined with a perfect combo, which ensured her win.

The guy faced her. "You only beat me because I was tired."

Jackie rolled her eyes as she set the borrowed equipment on the table. "I'll be here all weekend. You pick the song and time. I'll rematch anytime, big boy."

She blew him a kiss while he scowled, waved to the onlookers, and resumed her search for lunch before she returned to work. The energy all around her kept a smile on her face. These were her people. Geeks and nerds. Some got a little overzealous, like the guy she'd just competed against, but most were simple fun-loving fans. As her gaze swept the crowd, she noted cosplayers from almost every fandom she could think of and many she had no clue of origin. She loved it.

Traveling worldwide was a bonus to working in sound and lighting with International Events. She was assigned to comic cons as soon as they learned she could handle the craziness of the crowds. This weekend she was in London for the MCM comic con to wrap up her busy year of travel. She loved seeing the world but traveling made it challenging to have a life outside work. Over time, she accepted that her only friends were coworkers who would change with every job. And boyfriends? Who had time for that?

As much as she loved being on the go, she was looking forward to the end of this particular job. Next week she'd head home for Thanksgiving and enjoy an entire month of vacation with her mom, Evelyn. She should call home and beg for clues. Their annual December reunion was some big secret this time around. A month away from home instead of staying in Nashville. It had something to do with giving Jackie an old-fashioned, white Christmas and something more, but that's all her mom would say.

Whatever it was, Jackie couldn't wait. Her mom was her best friend, and they hadn't had much time to hang out in several months. Jackie had been too busy traveling.

"Jackie Hobbs, please come to staging area two." The overhead speakers grabbed her attention.

She pulled out her phone to check the time. She still had forty minutes of lunch break left, but she also had several missed calls from her mother's friend and lawyer, Garrett Benson. A chill ran over her. Garrett didn't call during her work hours. He was practically family, and he knew her schedule better than she did most days. If he was calling, something was up. Should she call him? He hadn't left a message.

"Repeat, Jackie Hobbs, report to staging area two immediately."

"Ugh,” she grunted and spun on her heels. First, she'd better find out what was needed at the staging area and then call Garrett.

Staging area two was near the back of the convention center, close to the staff room. It was really just a place they could leave their coats and umbrellas for the day and hide during their break if they wanted. Her manager waited for her by the staff room door.

"Jackie, thank goodness you heard the announcement. Come inside, please." Mr. Smith wrapped an arm around her and motioned to the room.

He'd never so much as touched her before. The somber look on his face added to the strangeness of the situation. That foreboding feeling she'd sensed earlier returned.

"Is everything alright?" she asked.

"There's been an accident. You need to call home."

* * *

"I'll get there as soon as I can." Jackie tried not to lose it. "When you see her, tell her I love her."

"I will, Teacup. Hang in there, travel safe, and I'll see you when you get here," Garrett said his goodbyes.

His nickname for her made the tears well up despite her best efforts. Her mom had been hit by a drunk driver and was in surgery. There was nothing either of them could do, but Jackie had to get home. Her boss called a cab and sent her off with a hug and enough mumbled sorries that she never wanted to hear the word again.

It took almost two hours to get to the hotel, pack her suitcase, and get to the airport. Once there, she discovered all the flights for the next two days were already full. She booked the first available flight, then asked for standby seats for all three flights leaving before hers. Nothing would entice her to leave the airport until she got on one of those planes. 

After sleeping overnight in a hard chair, she almost made it onto the morning flight. She'd been third on standby, but only the two people in front of her made it on.

Her phone remained plugged into a charging station so she could text Garrett for updates. He told her that her mom had come out of surgery, but the doctors didn't think she'd pull through. She hadn't regained consciousness yet.

Jackie wished she didn't know that. Not when she couldn't get home.

"Miss," an airline employee beckoned her to the desk.

Jackie grabbed her bag and hurried over. "Yes?"

"We've had a cancelation and can get you on the two-fifty flight this afternoon," he said.

"Thank you. I'll take it," Jackie almost sobbed with relief.

The man asked for her passport again and typed on his keyboard. "I'm sorry about the circumstances taking you home. I hope everything works out."

Jackie simply nodded. She was scared to hope, and yet she did. No matter what the doctors said, her mom would be fine. She was a fighter, and she'd always been there for Jackie. There was no way Evelyn would give up and leave her only child alone.

Keep fighting, mom. I'm coming, and I won't leave you again. She was determined to find work in her field that would let her stay closer to home and travel less. It would be worth it just to be near her mom.

Hours later, Jackie boarded the flight and did her best to get some sleep. It was fitful at best. She hated not knowing what was happening at home. When she landed in Boston, she hurried to a desk to get on the next plane to Nashville. There were no direct flights, but she couldn't stand to sit still, so she took something that would get her closer to home just to keep moving.

She landed in Charlotte, North Carolina, after eleven that night. There were no flights home until the following day, but she booked the first one without any problems. Instead of finding a hotel, she curled up in a chair and plugged in her phone. She dialed Garrett.

"Jackie, where are you?" he whispered.

"North Carolina. I'll be home in the morning."

"Good. Good." He fell silent for a long time.

"Garrett?" Jackie scooted to the edge of her chair. The phone gripped so tight in her hand that her fingers could feel the edge of her screen protector.

"I'm sorry. She's gone." He spoke softly, but his words slammed into Jackie like a freight train.

"No, I'm coming," she whimpered as the phone clattered to the floor. "I'm so close."

* * *

Jackie pressed her face toward the airplane window, desperately trying not to draw attention. Her mind couldn't settle. One moment the chatter around her felt distant and surreal, as if she were in a bad dream she could wake from at any moment. Her mom wasn't gone. She was waiting for her at home, ready to play games and ask a million questions about Jackie's latest trip.

The next minute, every hiss of air, every squeak of a moving seat, every whispered conversation, or ding of the fasten seatbelt signal was painfully loud. And real. In those moments, Jackie knew that no matter how fast the commercial jet flew, she was already too late to say goodbye.

A sob escaped, and Jackie shrunk deeper into the seat. She swiped at the tears and hugged the airline pillow tighter. Cold air pelted her from the nozzle overhead, and the steady drone of the engines made her head hurt even worse. It had only been forty-seven hours, but her mother was gone. They did everything together when Jackie wasn't traveling for work. She'd never resented her job until that moment.

Don't, love. Her mom's voice sounded in her head. It made Jackie cry harder. Her shoulders shook with the swirl of emotions. She knew exactly what her mom would say at a time like this. And yet, she would never hear her voice again.

Don't let my passing take the joy out of something you've always loved. Let it hurt for a time, then move on.

"But how will I do that, mom?" Jackie whispered to the clouds.

"Attention, ladies and gentlemen," the captain said over the loudspeaker. "We are on our final approach to the Nashville, Tennessee airport. Wind conditions are good. We should have a smooth landing this morning. Thank you for traveling with us, and we hope your stay in Nashville is pleasant. We should have wheels on the ground in twenty minutes."

"Miss?" The older man sitting by the aisle tapped her shoulder. Jackie wiped at her face and turned to meet his concerned gaze. He held out a package of tissues. "You look like you need these."

"Thank you." She took the offered gift and blew her nose. Her ears popped in the process.

The next few minutes passed in a blur as she went numb again. Eventually, her tears dried up, and somehow she managed to gather her things and exit the plane. She followed the other passengers, barely thinking about where she needed to be, until she stepped on the escalators leading down to the baggage claim area. Garrett waited for her at the bottom. His gray hair, top-notch suits that she loved to make fun of, and extra-large round glasses had never looked so good.

"Jackie," he murmured her name as she hurled herself at him.

She dropped everything at his feet and fell into his arms, the sobs once more wracking her body.

"Was she…alone…at the end?" she asked.

"No. I was with her," he answered.

"Thank you." That was all she could manage.

Garrett squeezed her tightly and let her cry while the stream of people flowed around them. Jackie didn't care. She'd held in so much during the days it had taken to get home. Garrett was the closest thing to a family she had left; at this moment, she needed him more than her dignity.

Eventually, he relaxed his hold on her and shifted so he could look into her face.

"She woke up once. She tried to wait for you…fought hard to hold on." His eyes teared up as he spoke. "Jackie, there will be many things we need to talk about, but let's get you home first. You need breakfast, a shower, and rest."

"No. I want to see her."

"Sweetheart. There will be time for that later." He reached down and grabbed the backpack and purse she'd dropped beside him.

Jackie shook her head and barely refrained from stomping her foot. "I want to see her now, Garrett. Please. Take me to her first."

He bent over and kissed her forehead. "Alright. We'll get you something to eat on the way."

"I don't feel like eating," she mumbled as she took her purse.

They headed for the carousel to gather her luggage.

"When was the last time you ate?" he asked.

"I don't remember."

"Evelyn would roast me alive if I didn't take proper care of you. What color are your bags?"

Jackie pointed. "I think those are mine."

"See, things are going to work out. Your mother is already watching over you from heaven." Garrett handed the backpack to her before moving to grab a large black hard-sided suitcase with travel stickers on it from the conveyor belt. He checked the tag and then grabbed the matching smaller case before it moved too far away. He shifted in her direction. "That it?"

"Yes." Jackie turned his comment over in her head.

She didn't want her mom watching over her. She wanted her waiting at home, ready with a hug and one of her homemade apple pies. They'd sit at the kitchen counter and share everything that happened while they were apart as the vanilla ice cream melted into the warm fruit. Later, her mom would challenge Jackie to a game of virtual tennis. It was one of the things she could actually beat Jackie at. Mostly because Jackie thought it was dull compared to some of the other games.

"Hey." Garrett handed her a tissue from his pocket. "Let's get you out of here. I know it hurts, but your mom left you some surprises. She hoped it would help you smile again after the funeral."

Jackie stumbled toward the door. Surprises? She couldn't think about that. "How do I start planning a funeral?"

"Your mom planned her funeral years ago. So you don't have to do anything."

"Oh." Jackie's entire body started to shake. "What do you mean by surprises? That word feels wrong. It feels happy or terrifying, but it doesn't fit how I'm feeling right now."

"I know. Evelyn came out of the surgery, but things didn't look good. She woke up once, like I said, and told me where to find a stack of letters she wrote for you. She planned to give them to you over the next month on your vacation together. However, don't worry about them for now."

The concept of letters from her mom didn't sink in. Instead, all she could focus on was the fact her mom was gone. "Why didn't they try harder to save her?"

"Doctors can't save everybody, sweetheart. Even when our hearts and minds are strong enough to want to stay."

"Why couldn't she stay, Garrett? I need her."

"I know."

* * *

A week later, Jackie sat at the kitchen island in her mother's townhouse. The last guest had finally left. Platters of half-eaten food covered nearly every square inch of the counter and table. What would she do with all of it?

Garrett joined her. He carried a white legal envelope in one hand and his phone in the other. After slowly perusing the room, he sat on the stool next to her.

"How are you holding up?" he asked.

"It doesn't feel real." Jackie pointed to the back door. "I keep expecting her to walk in from the porch and ask if I want something to eat."

He pulled her into a hug. "Worst Thanksgiving ever for both of us. I hate to do this, but I can't put it off any longer."

Jackie reluctantly let him go. "I know."

Garrett sighed and handed her the envelope. "This is your mom's will. She left you everything, but there are a few things you don't know about."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, this house, for example." Garrett paused and tapped the papers on the hard surface. "It's under contract to be sold."

"What?" Jackie stood up, her heart racing. "When? Why didn't she tell me? I don't understand. Where was she going to live?"

"Please sit down." Garrett rested a hand on her arm. "I'll try to explain everything."

Jackie did as he asked, but her pulse still beat rapidly. Why would her mom sell the townhouse? She loved it here. There was no maintenance, and she was close to all her friends. Evelyn had lived there for nearly ten years.

"She put it up for sale two months ago." Garrett held up a hand to keep Jackie from interrupting him. "She didn't tell you because it was part of the trip you would take next week. She planned to tell you everything then."

"Where were we going?" Jackie tried to calm down. She didn't want to think about the trip. It was supposed to be a month of exclusive time with her mom. Now it would never happen.

"Evelyn recorded a video about that when she woke up. She wants…wanted you to go on the trip." Garrett reached for his phone. "She made me promise to convince you."

"No." Jackie shook her head. "I can't go without her."

"Don't decide yet." He swiped until he brought up a video. "Watch first."

She didn't want to, but she couldn't take her eyes off the screen. Her mother lay in the hospital bed. She looked so frail and tiny compared to how she usually filled a room with energy. Cuts, scrapes, and bruises covered her face. A bandage wrapped her head and covered the entire left side, including her eye. Even her lips were swollen. She looked like she was in a lot of pain.

Tears streamed down Jackie's cheeks. She hadn't realized how much work the funeral home had done to make her mom look more like herself for the service. As awful as the viewing had been, it was easier than seeing her mom in the video. And then Evelyn spoke.

Her voice was soft and scratchy. Every word felt like it took enormous concentration on her mom's part to escape her throat.

"Jacks, if you're watching this, I didn't make it." Her mother's visible eye watered. "Sorry. Don't want to go, but if I have to—" Evelyn gasped for air, tilting her head into the oxygen mask a nurse held nearby. "Want you to know...I love you."

The nurse offered an ice cube. Evelyn closed her eyes as the frozen water melted in her mouth. She ran her tongue over her lips and continued, "Do something for me. It's hard, but you can. You're strong."

Evelyn paused to breathe into the mask again. "A special trip. Close to where I grew up--" Her voice trailed off.

The nurse shifted to check on her mom. "Ms. Hobbs, how is the pain?"

Evelyn struggled to lift a hand attached to more tubes than Jackie had ever seen. She waved the nurse away and then refocused on the camera.

"Go. Open your heart. Remember the good. Heal." Tears streamed from Evelyn's unbandaged eye. "Always be with you. I wish…" Her mother sobbed, and the video shut off.

Garrett set the phone down and let Jackie cry. He was good about that. Letting her cry without trying to tell her it would be alright. It wasn't. It would never be okay ever again.

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