All seventeen-year-old Samantha Owens wants for Christmas is a working car, a miraculous improvement in her grades, and a boyfriend who sees her as more than just a friend with benefits. But with a single mom who’s struggling to make ends meet, presents seem unlikely, and with legal troubles looming over her head, she’ll be lucky not to be spending the holiday in juvenile detention. When she’s forced to do community service at the local church, she finds that wishing her life was different won’t make it so, and that avoiding her past may be what’s standing in the way of her future.
It doesn’t help that Travis Vance, a freshman in college and intern for a teen drug and alcohol treatment program, is hanging around and pushing her buttons at every turn. Or that her friends are all going through their own dramas—most of which seem far worse than her own. Can Sami bring everyone together to save the church in time for Christmas? Or is hoping for a happy ending one more wish that will never be granted?
The next day, Mom drove me to the church early on her way to work. Despite my pleading with her not to, she was determined to check in with Sister Mary Margaret and make sure I wasn’t causing any trouble. When we pulled up in front, Travis was in deep conversation with a tall, broad shouldered man with silvery blond hair and a stern expression that raised the hairs on my neck. From the similarities in stature and the chiseled jawline of both men, it was obvious Travis was in a heated exchange with his father. I paused before getting out of the car.
“Who’s that?” Mom asked.
“Travis Vance,” I said, my ears heating up. I went on to explain Travis’s role as Pastor Tom’s helper during Christmas break and his work at the teen center.
“You seem to know a lot about him,” Mom said suspiciously. “He looks way too old for you. I hope you aren’t going after him.”
“You make me sound like a pit-bull. He’s only nineteen, and it’s not as if I routinely hit on dads at the playground or anything. We’re just friends.”
Mom and I observed the interaction between Travis and his father for another few seconds.
“Whoever he’s talking to isn’t at all happy with your friend Travis.”
A gust of cold wind hit me when I stepped out of the car. I wrapped my scarf tighter around my neck and pulled on my hat, making my way around a snow bank to get to the narrowly shoveled sidewalk. Another four inches had come down overnight, and there seemed no place left to pile the snow.
As my mother and I approached, and Travis saw us coming, he stopped talking and his gaze dropped to his feet. The knot forming in my gut made me wonder if I wasn’t at the center of the discussion.
“Is this the girl?” The hard edge in the man’s voice matched his expression.
My mother stiffened beside me. “Excuse me?” she said as she stepped onto the landing at the top of the church steps. “Is there a problem with my daughter?”
To his credit, the man’s face flushed. “I’m sorry, ma’am…I…”
“Did you just call me ma’am?” Now Mom’s face flushed, and I sensed the take no crap waitress side of my mother was about to show. The wind howled and whipped my scarf.
“I didn’t mean…” The man fumbled over his words and glared at Travis, who seemed to be reveling in his father’s discomfort. “This is exactly why I wanted you to stay in California. You could have been at Stanford right now instead of freezing your…” he glanced at my mother and continued. “…freezing in the middle of nowhere.” He blew on his ungloved hands and pulled the collar of his coat up around his ears.
“Why, so you can dictate every minute of my life in person? It’s bad enough you’ve got someone checking up on me.” Travis, fuming, met his father’s gaze head on, the men remarkably equal in stature.
Mr. Vance shifted his gaze from me to my mother before responding to Travis, his jaw tight. “I only want what’s best for you, and we agreed that if you came to Connecticut, you would focus on your studies.” He turned his attention to Mom and forced a not unattractive smile. “It’s nothing personal. I’m sure your daughter is very nice. But she’s young, and from what I understand, she’s been in some…trouble recently. I’m sure you’ll agree she and my son are…” he glanced at Travis as if plotting his next words carefully. “…not a good idea.”
Mom’s signature tell when she was about to say something the other person didn’t want to hear was her chewing the inside of her cheek. Her eyes glazed over as if she were a Doberman about to spring.
“Tell me, Mr.…?
“Vance. Phillip Vance.” He extended a hand to my mother, who studied it for a second before reciprocating.
“Tell me, Mr. Vance…”
“Phillip. And your name?”
Mom looked as if she’d forgotten what she wanted to say. Then she cleared her throat. “Carolyn Owens,” she said dismissively. “My daughter’s troubles are not your concern, but for the record, she’s a great kid. I just want to know if the reason you don’t want your son dating my daughter is because of their age difference, or because you don’t think she’s good enough for him.”
Phillip Vance’s jaw dropped. “I didn’t say that. I just think…”
Before he finished his sentence, a gust of wind produced a loud creak from above. We all followed the sound, craning our necks to peer upward. A second later, the steeple released a thunderous groan, toppled, and crashed onto the roof. Screams echoed from inside as another crack of dried wood vibrated through the air and the roof gave way.