Season of Wonder

By: Marta Perry

Chapter One

It was his angel-girl. David Caldwell stopped dead, letting the waves wash over his feet. He hadn’t seen Allison March in fifteen years, but he knew her instantly, with the kind of bone-deep knowledge that didn’t require explanation. Once again, Christmas had brought Allison back to Caldwell Island, South Carolina.

He waded out of the surf, his footsteps marring the smooth wet sand as he walked toward the two figures on a blanket near the weather-worn cottage in the dunes. He didn’t have to think twice about the identity of the child. The little girl must be about six, the age Allison had been that first Christmas, and she looked the way Ally had then—hair the pale platinum of the sea oats, a delicate heart-shaped face, and huge blue eyes. Just like the angel on their Christmas tree.

“Allison.” He stopped short of the blanket. “Merry Christmas.” It was what he’d said then.

She shaded her eyes against the December sunshine with her hand. “Hello, David.”

He grinned. “You’re supposed to say, ‘Hello, boy.’”

Her answering smile was as cool and brittle as a shell washed up in the tide. “You’re not a boy any longer.”

She’d changed. Fine lines spelled worry on her face, and her lips were stiff. Even her hands, thin and elegant, seemed clenched for battle.

David squatted, careful not to track sand on the blanket. “What happened to you, Allison?” That was blunt, but he and Allison had always been able to speak their thoughts, as if they’d known each other forever and always would.

She didn’t answer. Instead, she turned to the child. “Kristie, this is David Caldwell. He lives here on the island. David, my daughter, Kristie.”

“Hi.” He held out his hand. The child hesitated, then nodded and put her small hand in his. It was like holding a sand dollar, soft and quivering on his palm.

He didn’t let his gaze stray toward the heavy brace on her leg, nor the child-size wheelchair at the edge of the blanket. But maybe he understood what had wiped the sense of wonder from Allison’s blue eyes.

“So you’ve come to spend Christmas at the beach, just like your momma used to do when she was your age.”

Her eyes lit. “Did you know my mommy when she was little?”

“I sure did. I taught her everything she knows about the ocean.” He glanced at Allison. No wedding band on her left hand, only the faintest pale line. “Didn’t I?”

“I’m afraid I’ve forgotten most of it.” Her smile brushed him off as coolly as a sweep of her hand would a sand fly. “It’s too long ago.”

He lifted an eyebrow. “Is it?”

“Yes.” Her mouth clamped shut on the word, dismissing their friendship as if it had never been.

Well. He sat back on his heels. Allison clearly didn’t want to go back to the way things had been.

But as for him—

He hadn’t changed. He wanted to see his angel-girl again.

Chapter Two

David didn’t look as if her rebuff had had much effect on him, Allison decided. He sat barefoot in the sand, much as he had at ten or twelve.

He was sun-browned, as he’d been years ago; his hair streaked to a sand color, and his eyes the changeable blue-green of the ocean. And he still had that easy lopsided smile that had once lodged itself in her heart.

But he wasn’t that boy any longer. The height and breadth of him startled her, as if some trick of photography had taken the boy she knew and turned him into a man.

David sifted sand through his fingers, apparently content to laze on the beach all day. A spurt of irritation hit her. Was that what he’d turned into—a beachcomber?

“What brings you back after all this time?” he asked.

It had been a lifetime, but he didn’t need to know that. “I promised to show Kristie the island. What are you doing these days?” Besides walking on the beach. She didn’t add that, but he probably caught the implication in her tone.

His eyes crinkled, as if he laughed at her on the inside. He’d always done that when she’d betrayed her ignorance of this natural space between mainland and ocean that he called home.

“A little of this, a little of that. I help at the inn, run dolphin tours for the tourists.”

Exasperation filled her. “You’re a bright person, David. You could have done anything with your life.”

The moment the words were out, she regretted them. Her own track record wasn’t exactly stellar.

“This is what I want to do.” His voice was gentle. “Maybe you and Kristie would like to go with me one day to see the dolphins.”

“I’m afraid we won’t have time for that.” She glanced at the cottage, her only tangible asset she’d held on to since the divorce. It was a wonder Richard hadn’t tried to take that, too. “I’ll be too busy getting the cottage fixed up.”

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