Veronica Spears knelt by the small bed and looked underneath. There were various items shoved under, but none that would cause an invasion of critters like mice or ants. Mostly shoes and clothes that needed to be washed. Why the little boys in the orphanage needed to push their clothes under the bed instead of in the wash bin where they belonged was beyond Ronnie’s comprehension. And it was the boys most of all. The girls typically wanted to wear clean clothes. Since they had only a few to wear in the first place, they liked to keep them clean. The boys didn’t seem to care whether their clothes were clean or not.
She giggled, pulling the two crumpled shirts from under the bed and crossing the room a few steps to put them in the basket. She turned and looked back. Four beds in that room were occupied (but not currently) by four rambunctious boys of varying ages. The oldest was twelve, and thank goodness he was a respectful, kind little boy because the other three were very much under his influence.
Ronnie liked all the children in Blue Star Orphanage. She’d been an orphan there herself, left there a baby on the doorstep after her parents died in a house fire. That’s what she’d been told, anyway. She’d had no reason not to believe what Mrs. Banker told her. She’d grown up there and was now working in the house of the ranch owners upon whose land the orphanage had been built. It was time for the Christmas decorations to go up, which always put the children in a good mood.
She approached the frosty window and looked out at the main house. It was within vision, though partially blocked by trees that currently had no leaves or very few, but it was like a wall during the spring and summer when in full bloom,
Ronnie gazed at the house. It was beautiful inside. It reflected the attitude of the people who lived there. The Talbot family. Max and Beatrice Talbot were a powerful couple, raising three powerful and influential children in Blue Star, Texas. They were extremely wealthy, though Ronnie had heard it was earned and not inherited, which made her admire Max Talbot more than ever.
Max and Bea treated the orphans on their property like extended family. They threw holiday and Independence Day parties and all kinds of parties, reserving a large room in their mansion to accommodate the children. They set up games that offered prizes and regularly had cotton candy on demand.
They had three children, Andrew, Bunny, and Topher. Andrew and Bunny were good friends of Ronnie’s. She and Bunny were the same age and had discovered as little girls that they had the same birthday. This resulted in Bunny insisting she shared in the birthday festivities her parents put on for her every year. Although Ronnie was treated with great respect and love, she’d still grown up feeling out of place, as if she’d been put in a spotlight she didn’t want.
As a little girl, though, she delighted in the fun, the chocolate candy, and the happy times. As she grew, she realized those fun times wouldn’t last forever. That money and influence weren’t hers to claim. She was an outsider looking in, even though she was, at the same time, already in.
This confusion didn’t interfere with her friendships with Andrew and Bunny. Bunny never stopped treating her like a sister and even at nineteen, she still included Ronnie in all birthday celebrations. Andrew, who had been just like her big brother while they were growing up, had turned into something else. She was fully aware he wasn’t really her brother. He had grown into an extremely attractive, honorable, respectful gentleman with a ready smile and a quick joke to break the tension. He got along well with everyone and now – as they went into the Christmas season – his mood would only brighten.
That was one of the things Ronnie liked so much about him. He was good-natured and kind. At Christmastime, that aspect of his personality shone like a Christmas star. He was always smiling, holding his hand out to help whoever might need it. It didn’t come down to money with Andrew. That’s not what Christmas was about to him.
He was generous, of course. But when it came to the general spirit of the season, Andrew already had it year-round, and it only grew during the actual month of December.
Ronnie often wished she could feel like that. She struggled often. Her circumstances weren’t the same as Andrew’s. He had very few cares other than business and didn’t have to worry about his survival. He didn’t have to wonder if he was loved or cared about. Ronnie had no one. No brothers or sisters or parents.
She tried hard not to feel that way, but it was very hard not to.
Mrs. Banker, the mistress who ran the orphanage, had picked up on Ronnie’s feelings a few years ago after she’d returned from a birthday celebration for herself and Bunny. She remembered it like it was yesterday. She’d been on the verge of tears. Even now, she could see Bunny’s happy face, laughing and dancing around the room, telling everyone thank you for their presents.
She’d insisted Ronnie dance with her, too, saying she looked like she was at a funeral instead of her own birthday party.
Mrs. Banker had asked Ronnie why she looked so sad when she’d come from a party, and Ronnie had burst into tears. She knew Bunny meant no harm. She knew her friend only wanted her to be happy and involved. But it felt strange and awkward to her now because no one was there for her. She had friends there, yes, but they were Bunny’s friends, and she was the extension friend.
Ronnie could see in her mind Mrs. Banker giggling at the term she’d used and hugging her tight, telling her she was a good girl and to keep remembering Bunny loved her like a sister.
But she still felt like she was invading Bunny’s space. She couldn’t help it.
Andrew Talbot rode his horse down the long path toward the mansion. He turned his head to see the orphanage in the distance. He expected to see Ronnie today. He hoped so.
Of all the people he knew – and he felt like he knew quite a lot of people – Andrew had never found anyone more deserving of good cheer than that girl. She had always been such a sensitive girl, big green eyes, curly auburn hair kept back in a ponytail or a bun, tall and slender. Her physical beauty rivaled what he sensed was underneath.
They’d been friends since they were children, and he’d always tried to protect her as a big brother would. Bunny was the one who latched onto the girl in the first place because of their shared birthday, but Andrew had quickly seen how Ronnie needed a family. She wasn’t different from the other orphans in that aspect. But she was different in his eyes. Even as a child, he knew she was special.
He let his horse slowly trot to the front of the house, not in any hurry. He was returning from a meeting where he’d successfully negotiated a new toy line just in time for the Christmas season. A line of nutcrackers that would fly off the shelves once they were available. He was sure of it. Their toys were almost always best sellers.
He slid out of the saddle, glancing at Tom, the groom, who was hurrying toward him to fetch his horse.
“Afternoon, Mr. Andrew,” the groom said, nodding at him.
“Afternoon, Tom. Take care of him for me, will you? He’s moving a bit slowly. I think his leg might be hurting him.”
“I’ll check on it, Mr. Andrew,” the groom replied, nodding, a look of concern coming to his face. Andrew liked that. It showed the man cared about his job and the animals under his charge.
Andrew bounced up the steps to the porch and crossed quickly, humming under his breath. He removed his hat just before entering and took off his gloves and jacket, leaving them by the door for the housekeeper to get and put away.
He strolled into the parlor, where he could hear his father’s voice booming something about the next presidential election and his mother shushing him.
“I don’t want you boys talking politics while I’m in the room,” she was saying as Andrew entered. “I find it a very uncomfortable topic.”
“This is an important election, my dear,” Max said, shaking his newspaper in front of him as if it had dust on it.
“I don’t care. I don’t want to hear about it.”
“Why would you?” Andrew turned his head to see his younger brother, Topher, standing by a window facing the property’s east side, where there were mostly trees and a winding stream that scurried off into the distant mountain, disappearing somewhere in its crevices. “You can’t vote anyway.”
“Exactly my point, Topher,” their mother replied coldly.
“It sounds like this family needs some Christmas cheer!” Andrew announced a little surprised none of them had noticed him come in.
His mother’s eyes snapped to him, and her face brightened. “Andrew! You’re home!” She lifted her arms and straightened up in her chair. He went to her and hugged her, kissing her cheek.
“Yes, here I am, the bearer of great news,” he replied cheerfully, grinning at his father. He slid his eyes to Topher, but his brother had already turned toward the window and was staring out again. “I don’t want anyone in a bad mood. We had a great meeting, and the nutcracker line is going ahead as planned just in time for Christmas. The toys will be on the shelves on Monday.”
“That’s wonderful!” his mother exclaimed with laughter in her voice. “You are so good at your job.” She spoke with the affection of a doting mother, and Andrew loved it. He was still bent over her, and she tapped his cheek with her hand, smiling wide.
“Excellent,” his father said, looking over his newspaper at Andrew with pride. “Keep up the good work, son.”
“Has Ronnie come to the house yet?” Andrew asked, glancing toward the orphanage even though the view was broken by the many barren trees in the way. “I thought she was coming to help put up the decorations.”
“She hasn’t come yet, no.” It was his mother who answered him. He had stood up straight but was still standing next to her. “She had to clean the orphanage this morning, so I didn’t expect her until the afternoon.”
“I don’t understand why you are always so concerned about where the help might be,” Topher spoke up, immediately irritating Andrew. His brother was the only one who was good at killing Andrew’s efforts to keep things light and cheerful.
“Ronnie is not ‘help’, Topher, and you know it. She’s our friend.”
“She’s just another orphan from the orphanage. So what if she has the same birthday as our sister? That doesn’t make her special.”
“She’s not just celebrating the same birthday,” Andrew retorted hotly. “They are the same age, too. Kind of even look the same, I think.”
Topher snorted. “That would mean she looks like the rest of us, and no, Andrew, she does not. You just want her to be part of the family. Probably think you’re gonna marry her or something.”
“Why are you so difficult?” Andrew asked, frowning. This was not how he wanted to feel this afternoon. He wished his brother would not be so crass and rude all the time. “She’s our friend. She might not be your friend, but she’s our friend.”
“Boys, boys,” their mother spoke up. “That’s enough. Your father and I don’t want to listen to the two of you bickering. Andrew’s just come in with some wonderful news.”
“I don’t want to be unhappy, Mama,” Andrew said, shaking his head. “I’m sorry.”
“I know you don’t, dear. Topher?”
Topher just snorted through his nose and headed for the door. “I don’t consort with the help,” he said in a cold voice. “They are not on my level.”
Once he was out of the room, Andrew sat near his mother on the couch and leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. “I’m real proud of the nutcracker line. I think we’re gonna make a lot of money from those toys, and they’re gonna bring a lot of joy to the children. That’s what it’s all about.”
“Yes, that’s right.” His mother reached over to him and patted his hand, smiling. He placed his hand over hers.
“So the Christmas festival is coming up,” Andrew mentioned, turning his eyes to his father to include the man in the conversation. “Where’s Bunny? She’s usually the one to tell me what I’m in charge of for that.”
“She went to town to talk to the ladies about it, I think,” his father answered from behind his newspaper, which he had lifted again.
“Either that or she went for a ride,” his mother added. “I think she said something about going for one after she talked to the ladies’ club in town. I’m sure you’ll be doing the same thing you usually do, hanging the decorations and banners once they are finished being made.”
“Or pulled out of some dusty storage somewhere,” his father mumbled, still from behind the newspaper. He lowered it after a moment and grinned at his wife and son.
Andrew’s good feeling had returned after the momentary disappointment of Topher’s rebuke. He wished his brother wouldn’t be such a sad sack. Hopefully, he would cheer up as Christmas drew closer, but Andrew doubted it. It was difficult to make Topher happy. Andrew knew. He’d been trying to make his brother smile for most of his life.
Ronnie watched as Andrew rode up to the house and handed his horse over to Tom. She saw the smile he gave the groom, which made her heart warm. She hesitated to go so far as to say she was in love with Andrew. It wouldn’t do her any good to admit such a thing. He was an extremely wealthy and handsome man who could have any woman on the planet. It certainly wouldn’t be her.
She was just an orphan, a friend of his, yes, but nothing more in status than that. His parents, as wonderful as Max and Bea were, wouldn’t allow a courtship between them.
Of course, she didn’t know if these things were actual facts, but she felt them strongly in her heart.
Not that Bunny or Andrew had ever given her a reason to doubt how they felt about her. She believed their friendship was genuine. Neither had done anything harmful to her in her entire life that she could remember. They treated her like just another rich kid, even though she was the opposite.
Once Andrew disappeared into the house, Ronnie turned away from the window and headed to the door, looking from side to side, making sure she’d cleaned the room properly.
She took a moment to straighten the four pairs of snow boots lined up against the wall. She remembered when she, Mrs. Banker, and Bunny had gone to town to get the boots for the boys. They’d taken them four at a time to have them fitted for those boots. Max Talbot had seen one boy without them the year before and was outraged. He’d ordered new boots for all the boys in the orphanage, which was sixteen new pairs of boots. The girls got snow boots, too; it wasn’t just for the boys.
Once the boots were straightened, Ronnie left the room behind and headed downstairs. Her chores were done, and it was time to head to the main house. She hadn’t exactly been waiting for Andrew to come home, but now that he was there, what better reason could she have to head over and start her chores there?
Now that she was an adult, she’d had to leave the care of the orphanage to open the bed to other needy children. The Talbots had several small cottages built near the orphanage for their staff, and Ronnie was privileged to get one of them. She thought her friendship with Andrew and Bunny probably had something to do with that since she was just a maid, and the cottages had been built for the senior staff.
The scent of ginger was strong on the main floor of the cottage. Ronnie couldn’t help going to the kitchen to see what was causing it. She had an idea, and a smile crept to her face when she pushed open the door and saw what it was. A half dozen children surrounded Mrs. Banker, who was round, plump, and full of good cheer, reminding Ronnie of what Mrs. Claus might be like. They were leaning over a table, and the older woman was concentrating mightily on the gingerbread house she was creating. She was trying to place one side of the roof while the children watched with anxious eyes. Ronnie giggled, noticing the tip of the woman’s tongue was sticking out slightly as she concentrated on what she was doing.
Ronnie stopped where she was, watching and staying silent. She realized she was holding her breath and let it out when Mrs. Banker placed the roof and pulled her hands back slowly, her eyes still on the little house.
When it didn’t collapse, all the children cheered, one of them giving Mrs. Banker a hug. Ronnie laughed, approaching the table.
“That looks so nice, Mrs. Banker!” she said excitedly. “You did such a good job.”
“The roof is always the hardest,” the woman replied, swiping her hand across her forehead as if she were sweating bullets. “And it still needs some more decorating, but at least the roof stayed on, and the whole thing didn’t fall apart.”
“You know,” Ronnie said with a laugh, “you say that every single time you make a gingerbread house, and it’s always successful.”
“Almost always,” the woman responded, holding up one finger. “Almost always.”
“When can we eat it, Mrs. B?” one of the boys said, his eyes on the gingerbread house. “It looks so tasty.”
“It’s going to look even tastier when it’s decorated,” Mrs. Banker replied, tapping the boy on his nose. “You know this, Teddy. We’ll eat it with our special Sunday meal this Sunday.”
“This month, we get a gingerbread house to eat every Sunday!” one of the little girls, Becky, stated with excitement.
Ronnie watched as the children followed Mrs. Banker to the other counter, where she had put out some candies and had made some icing for the house to make windows. She’d baked a small cake and would use bits of it to make the bushes and flowers around the gingerbread house. Mrs. Banker was full of interesting ideas for decorating, especially at Christmastime.
“You’re about to go over to the main house, isn’t that right, Ronnie?” Mrs. Banker asked, glancing over her shoulder and then turning to Ronnie. “You children don’t eat that house. I have cookies for you over here.” She pointed, and the children flocked to the table where the bowl of gingerbread cookies was sitting. Mrs. Banker got one herself and brought it to Ronnie.
“Thank you,” Ronnie said, taking the cookie. “Yes, I’m going over there now. I saw Andrew had come home, and I know they had an important business meeting today. I’d like to see how that went. I have to meet with Mrs. Talbot and Bunny to go over the schedule for the Christmas festival.”
“Are we going to be in a play again, Ronnie?” A little boy named Christopher gave her an anxious look. She couldn’t tell whether he wanted to be in the play.
She nodded. “Oh yes. There is always a Christmas play. And we will be starting the rehearsals very soon. You know tomorrow is the first day of December so rehearsals will start very soon. You will remember your parts from last year, though, won’t you?”
“I don’t want to be a sheep again!” one little girl cried out, sounding dismayed.
“You don’t have to be a sheep again,” Ronnie replied hurriedly in a comforting way. “We’ll get you into something else this time. And remember, kids, you don’t have to be in the play if you don’t want to be. No one is required to take part. If you want just to watch or help out behind the scenes, that’s okay. We can do that, too.”
“I want to be in it!”
“I don’t want to be in it!”
The voices raised up until Mrs. Banker shushed them all. “All right now, that’s enough. Can’t you see this woman has work to do?”
Ronnie laughed with her. “I’ll take care of it, don’t worry,” she assured the children. “Everyone will get to do what they want to do. Well, we’ll try to make that happen anyway. We can’t have two Josephs or two Marys, now can we?”
“Noooo …” The children laughed as they all answered at the same time.
“You hurry along now, Ronnie. I know you have work to do.”
“I do, thank you, Mrs. B. I’ll be back in two days with the play information. We’ll be rehearsing here again, I expect, or at the ranch house.”
Mrs. Banker nodded. “Yes, as usual, I’m sure. Give my regards to the Talbots. Let them know things are fine here, and we don’t need anything.”
“Will do. Thank you, Mrs. B.”
She left the orphanage behind, hurrying through the front yard, her eyes on the children to her right playing with a hoop and a stick, trying to see who could keep the hoop standing up straight the longest.
Ronnie didn’t miss the orphanage as much as she missed the family atmosphere Mrs. Banker had provided. If she’d been a cold woman, Ronnie felt she would have grown up feeling even more alone than she already did.
She was aware her feelings were influenced by the great love she saw in the Talbot family. They were close, all of them, even that sourpuss Topher. His parents loved him, even though he was almost always grumpy and disrespectful. The only one Topher really showed any care for was Bunny. She could usually make him toe the line.
Bunny’s love for Topher and the mutual respect the siblings had for one another only reinforced the fact that Ronnie didn’t have a family and never would. Even when she married and had children, she would still be alone on her “side of the church”.
She sighed, stepping out into the bright sunlight to see Bunny racing toward the house on horseback, a huge grin on her face. She had one hand up, holding her hat on her head, looking fresh as a daisy as usual.
“Following her Christmas Star” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
Ronnie Spears grew up in an orphanage and in her heart has always dwelled a strong feeling of abandonment. Although she has been welcomed as a member of the family by the Talbots, the orphanage overseers, she can’t help but feel lonely, especially at Christmas time. When she receives a mysterious letter that changes everything she used to know, she will turn to her childhood friend, Andrew, for advice and protection. With his support and a little bit of Christmas magic, her life can change forever…
Will she be able to follow her Christmas star to the end?
Andrew Talbot is the oldest son of a wealthy family and a close friend of Ronnie. His affection towards her is apparent but he has yet to admit that he has fallen in love with her. Things get even more complicated when his parents announce their intention to set him up for an arranged marriage, albeit his only wish is to make Ronnie joyful again. When she asks for his help he stands by her side, while trying to figure a way out of his own unsuitable match…
Can he resolve his dilemma without deeply hurting anyone?
Ronnie and Andrew will join forces to uncover the story behind the received message and will find themselves tangled in a spiral of secrets, deceit, and danger. The truth will not be hidden for long but will they be able to face it when they discover it? Will this common goal bring them together or will it drive them further apart?
“Following her Christmas Star” is a historical western romance novel of approximately 60,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.