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The Christmas Promise



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About The Author

Donna VanLiereDonna VanLiere

Donna VanLiere is a New York Times and USA Today best-selling author. Her much-loved Christmas Hope series includes The Christmas Shoes and The Christmas Blessing, both of which were adapted into movies for CBS Television; The Christmas Secret; The Christmas Journey; and... More

photo: © Sheri O'Neal Photography

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EXCERPT

Chapter 1

I peeked through the kitchen drapes that morning and rushed to grab a bucket and rag. Looks like a nice one, I said to myself, straining to see out the window. Someone had left a refrigerator in my driveway. I squeezed dishwashing liquid into the bottom of the bucket and filled it with warm water, splashing my hand till it disappeared in suds. I tied up my running shoes—the sassy pink neon ones with the green stripes—and slipped a bottle of household cleaner into my coat pocket. A blown porch light stopped me on the steps and I looked up at it. “Good grief. That bulb didn’t last very long. I need to get one of those bulbs that last a year.” I stepped into the kitchen and reached to the top shelf of the utility closet. Back on the porch, I unscrewed the old bulb from the bottom of the light casing. “There you go,” I said, screwing in the new one.

I turned to the refrigerator in the driveway, sizing it up. “Not too big. Twenty cubic feet, I’d guess.” I opened the door and backed away, holding my hand over my nose. “I’ll have you cleaned and find a new home for you by lunchtime,” I said, slipping on a pair of bright yellow latex gloves. I was used to talking to myself; I’d been a widow for seven years. I was never concerned about talking to myself; what worried me is how I answered myself, and I was really troubled when I argued with myself! I pulled out one shelf after another, soaking my rag and scrubbing at unrecognizable globs of petrified food. I sprayed down the inside and tackled the back wall with a vengeance.

“There is a junk law, you know!” I cringed at hearing that familiar voice and closed my eyes. Maybe if I couldn’t see her she wouldn’t actually be there. “The city has mandated codes.” I scrubbed harder. “Gloria Bailey, I’m talking to you.”

How I despised that tone. I took a breath and lifted my head to see my neighbor standing on the other side of her fence. “Good morning, Miriam.”

“Gloria, does anyone ever bother to let you know that they’re dropping this rubbish off?”

I shoved my head inside the fridge, scrubbing at the walls. I once told my friend Heddy that there wasn’t enough room in the cosmos for Miriam’s ego. Her affected British accent was as real as her blond hair and her name. Miriam Lloyd Davies. Come on! “It’ll be gone by noon, Miriam,” I said, wringing out the rag.

“I doubt it, by the looks of it,” Miriam said. “But if it’s not gone I’ll need to have it hauled out of here. I don’t pay taxes to live next to a junkyard.”

It’s amazing how perfect your posture becomes when you’ve been insulted. Every vertebra in my back straightened to supreme alignment as I walked up the driveway. “I don’t pay taxes to live next to a junkyard!” I said, whispering.

When I moved into my home six years ago a lovely young couple with two small children lived in the house next door. They were always polite, smiling and waving each day, even leaving a present on my doorstep each Christmas. If my work annoyed them, they never showed it. Miriam moved in three years ago when the young couple found themselves expecting a third child and in need of a larger home. She was graceful and statuesque—fitting for a stage actress and professor’s wife—but I found her to be cold and distant, although her husband, Lynn, was always gracious and warm. Lynn died a year after moving into the home. I tried on several occasions to befriend Miriam, assuming our widow status would assure some sort of bond between us, but just because someone is plopped into your life doesn’t mean a friendship will be forged.

I often felt pasted together, compared to Miriam’s refined look. I looked my age (sixty and proud of it) while Miriam denied hers (fifty and holding). I’ve never been what you could call fashionable, but I take pride in my appearance. I like my clothes to match and am most comfortable in cotton and jersey (but no belts). I don’t wear anything that hurts! Miriam preferred slacks with a designer blouse or cashmere sweater and she was always neat, nothing disheveled about her. Her hair was the color of golden honey and framed her face in a chic bob. She promptly made her next appointment at the beauty salon for five weeks to the date of her last cut and coloring. My hair was salt and pepper (more salt than pepper) and hung in soft, or rather, annoying curls around my face. When it got too long I simply bobby-pinned it back until I found the time to give myself a trim.

I walked into the kitchen and dialed a number on the phone, listening as it rang in my ear. I was about to hang up when the line clicked on the other end. “Hello! Heddy?” I said. “I’ve got a fridge. Can you look through the list and see who needs what?”

I heard Heddy rustling through papers. Dalton Gregory was the retired school superintendent and his wife, Heddy, was a nurse at the hospital who was on duty when I had my gallbladder taken out four years ago. We’ve been taking stuff from you ever since, Heddy once said. I couldn’t do my work without them. They had the organizational skills that I sorely lacked. I relied on sticky notes and miscellaneous paper scraps to remind myself of appointments or calls, and my idea of filing was stacking things on the kitchen table. Dalton and Heddy kept everything on computer and could pull it up with the touch of a finger. I still wasn’t entirely sure how to turn on a computer.

“A family with three children called yesterday,” Heddy said. “Their refrigerator broke four days ago and the father is in the hospital. The mother hasn’t had any time to look for a new one.”

I peered through the drapes and watched Miriam nosing around the refrigerator. I shook my head, watching her. “Can Dalton come pick it up and deliver it?” I rapped on the window and Miriam jumped, making me laugh. She threw her nose in the air and marched to her own yard. “Sooner than later, Heddy. Miriam Lloyd Snooty Face is riding her broom again.”
 
 
Years earlier, I had been driving home late one winter night when, near the downtown bridge, I noticed a homeless man with a red hat who wasn’t wearing socks with his shoes. I couldn’t get the image of the man out of my mind. What if that had been my own son? Would anyone have helped? Days later I walked into Wilson’s Department Store and found socks for ninety-nine cents a pair in a discount bin at the back of the store. “What would it cost if I bought the whole bin?” I had asked owner Marshall Wilson.

“Tell you what,” Marshall had said. “I’ll donate all these and hats and scarves to your cause.” I hadn’t realized I was championing a “cause,” but when I delivered the clothes out of the back of my trunk I knew that the cause had found me. People needed help right in my own backyard. I had been slumping around and feeling sorry for myself long enough and needed to do something about it.

“Thank you, Miss Glory,” the man with the red hat had said. The name Miss Glory stuck. Since that time I’d taken in whatever I could get my hands on and given it out to the homeless and families in need, especially young single mothers with children. My husband and I had four children and I couldn’t imagine having raised them by myself.

I taught cooking in my home along with simple classes like how to make a budget and basic child care. Dalton taught computer and job interviewing courses, but all our classes were small. I didn’t have the space in my house for large groups.
 
 
“He’ll be there in a bit,” Heddy said. “Then Miriam won’t have anything to complain about.”

“I doubt that,” I said.

“Gloria?” Heddy’s voice changed and I wondered what was wrong. “We got word that Rikki Huffman was charged with drug possession last night.”

I fell into a chair at the kitchen table. Rikki was a single mom I’d been working with for the last two years who seemed to be getting her feet on the ground. “No! She was doing so great. Where is she?”

“They have her at County.” Heddy was quiet. “She’ll spend time in jail with this offense, Gloria.” I assumed that, but still hoped Heddy would say something else. “Are you all right?”

“Not really,” I said, rubbing my head. “Who has her kids?”

“DFS. The Department of Family Services will place them. Maybe they already have. You’ve done everything you could for Rikki. You know that, right?”

I sighed. “My mind knows that, sure.”

“Rikki just can’t break the cycle,” Heddy said. I was quiet. “Gloria? Gloria!”

I jumped at her voice. “Yes.”

“Don’t blame yourself.” That always proved to be easier said than done for me. “You can’t save everyone. It’s not your job.”

I hung up the phone and sat at the table, thinking about Rikki for the longest time. I nursed a cup of coffee before heading back outside.

“I’m going on holiday for five days, Gloria.”

I turned to see Miriam behind the fence. That sounded wonderful to me. After learning about Rikki’s arrest I wasn’t in the mood to have Miriam breathing down my neck at every turn. “That’s great,” I said. “It’s always good for you to go away.” That didn’t come out right. “I mean, good for you to leave.” I was making it worse, and put on the most sincere fake smile I could muster.

“It’s my birthday,” she said. “My daughter and her family have asked me to celebrate with them. One only turns fifty once, you know!”

A loud gust of air shot over my teeth before I could rein it back in. “Ha!” Miriam’s eyes narrowed, looking at me. “Fifty! Well . . . congratulations . . . again,” I added, under my breath.

“Would you watch the house for me?”

“Of course,” I said.

“Just keep an eye open and notify the police if anyone drops off any unsightly rubbish.”

I cringed. It was really hard to like that woman.
 
 
The bus was packed that morning. Several people had shoved their backpacks up against the window to eke out a few minutes of sleep between stops. Twenty-four-year-old Chaz McConnell sat next to a fat man who was somehow under the impression that he had rights to Chaz’s seat as well. Chaz spent the majority of the ride claiming his armrest and foot space while watching the snow fall outside.

The bus drove through the town square and pulled in front of the bus stop, which was nothing more than a small storefront a few blocks from town with a bench in front of it. Chaz grabbed his backpack and inched his way out of the seat; the fat man never bothered to get up. Chaz pulled the hood of his sweatshirt up and saw apartments just up the street. A one-bedroom apartment was available and he could move in after he paid a one-month deposit and the first month’s rent. He pulled out a wad of money and walked into the apartment with everything he owned stuffed into a backpack. Later in the day he saw a futon and its frame by the Dumpster and made his way across the parking lot to check it out. He noticed that the owner of the house across the road was replacing Christmas lights on the trees in front of his home.

“Those lights have been up all year,” a neighbor woman said when she saw Chaz looking at them. “They keep them on all the time.” The neighbor woman kept talking about the lights but Chaz ignored her, examining the futon frame. One leg was broken but he knew he could just prop it up on something and have a suitable bed. He dragged it up the three flights of stairs to his apartment and put it against the pale beige wall in the bedroom. Days later he found a small black-and-white TV with poor reception by the Dumpster, and a few days after that a card table. He used milk crates as chairs for the table and drawers for the few clothes he owned. As far as he was concerned, he had all the furniture he needed.
 
 
When Chaz started the walk to Wilson’s Department Store on Monday it was barely drizzling, but when he approached the town square there was a deluge. The streetlamps had been wrapped with evergreen and topped off with red bows. Several of the storefronts were decorated for the Christmas season, including the barbershop, which had managed to put a waving Santa in the front window to announce the special cut and shave of the week. When he passed the church on the square, several people were coming out of the basement and darting for their cars. He meandered between them and pulled the hood of his sweatshirt over his head, making a dash for the entrance of Wilson’s. It was busy inside, but that was to be expected right before Thanksgiving. He took off his sweatshirt and held it away from himself, running his fingers through soggy hair.

“Good morning,” a sales associate said behind a stack of ladies’ sweaters she was carrying. “Can I help you find anything?”

“Mr. Wilson told me to come in this morning to fill out paperwork for a job.”

“The office is just up the stairs behind the purses.” The stack of sweaters tumbled to the floor but Chaz ignored them, walking past the salesgirl toward the small flight of stairs. The store was old: As he looked at the elevators, his guess was it dated back to the early 1950s, but they’d done a lot of remodeling over the years. The floor on the main aisle was made of bright white tiles. The cosmetics and jewelry counters faced each other on the main aisle, and oversized lit Christmas stars and bulbs dangled from the ceiling above each counter. The men’s and women’s departments were on either side of the main aisle, with carpeting in shades of burgundy and green. Beyond the cosmetics counter were shoes and ladies’ handbags, and the stairs leading to the office.

Chaz took the stairs by two and found the small office. A woman wearing a red sweater covered with green and silver beaded ornaments was on the phone. She had a small sign on her desk that read judy luitweiler. “I’m sorry,” she said when she hung up the receiver. “My daughter’s having a baby any day now and I keep calling her. Anxious grandma, you know!” She spun her hands in the air and Chaz tried to smile but was too wet to care.

“I’m supposed to start work today. They told me to come up here for the paperwork.”

“Sure. Sure,” Judy said, opening a metal file drawer behind her desk. “What’s your name?”

“Chaz McConnell.”

She rifled through the files like a squirrel after a nut. “And which department will you be in?”

“Security.”

“Sure. Sure,” she said, pulling a manila folder from the cabinet. “Do you have any children?” she asked, sorting the papers. “We love children around here.”

“No, I don’t.”

“Morning, Chaz.” Marshall Wilson stepped down from the office behind Judy’s, wearing jeans and a denim shirt. “How are you, son?” No one had called Chaz son in years and the word sounded odd to him.

“Fine. How are you?”

“Better than I deserve to be at my age, I’m certain of that,” Marshall said. “Did you get settled into a place?” Chaz nodded. “We’re ramping up for a busy Christmas season, so we’re glad you’re here.”

“You must be Chaz.” Chaz turned to see a black man dressed in dark pants and a gray shirt with a badge attached to the left side of his chest pushing his way into the cramped office. The man stretched out his hand and Chaz wiped his off on his jeans before shaking. “I’m Ray Burroughs. I’ll be training you.” Chaz summed him up: He was about his size, maybe a little heavier, but he knew he was going to look as dorky as Ray did in that uniform. “Come on down to the office. You can fill out the papers there and get something dry to put on.”

Chaz followed as Ray ran down two flights of stairs to the break room. He pointed to the time clock on the wall. “Clock in here when your shift starts.” He took the card with Chaz’s name on it and handed it to him so he could punch in, then led him down the hall. He glanced down at Chaz’s soggy shoes. “Did you walk here?”

“Yeah.”

“Don’t you have a car?”

“I did. It was stolen a couple of months ago.” The truth was, Chaz had owed some small gambling debts to a guy a few towns ago and the man had taken the car as payment. Chaz didn’t care; he thought it was a piece of junk anyway.

“Are you going to walk to work every day?” Ray asked.

“Yeah.”

“Then you’d better invest in an umbrella.” The top of the office door was etched glass. The word security was written in black block letters in the middle of the window. They stepped inside. The walls were brick, but someone had painted them off-white. Four video monitors sat on the large desk in the center of the room with images from select departments in the store. Ray pointed to a black vinyl sofa against the wall. “You can sit there if you want, or here at the desk. It doesn’t matter.” Chaz looked at the desk covered with papers, files, and cups of old coffee, and opted for the couch. Ray sat on the wooden swivel chair at the desk and leaned back. The thick spring whined beneath him. “So, word is that Mr. Wilson hired you away from another store?”

“That’s right,” Chaz said, filling out the first line.

“How long did you work security there?”

“I didn’t,” Chaz said. “I stocked shelves.”

“Then how’d you get hired for security?”
 
 
Copyright © 2007 by Donna VanLiere. All rights reserved.

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