A Very Mossy Christmas

Dear Readers and Honorary "Creekites,”

We hope you enjoy this complimentary yuletide story, A Very Mossy Christmas. It's a snowy holiday in Mossy Creek, the town that "Ain't goin' nowhere, and don't want to,” and Patty Campbell is obsessed with giving her recently adopted son, Clay, the perfect Christmas. There's only one problem—Patty's supremely annoying, endlessly meddlesome Aunt Fanny is snowbound at the Campbell home. Santa better bring Patty an extra dose of patience.

Be sure to visit the web pages included in the story's footnotes, which will lead you to recipes for the delicious food on Patty's holiday menu, and will also take you to an excerpt from the next book in the Mossy Creek Hometown Series, A Day In Mossy Creek, available in February 2006.

While you're visiting, check out the "Mossy Creek Almanac” section. You'll find town gossip, more recipes, and all sorts of fun.

Happy Holidays from the "jingle belles” of BelleBooks!



All Theodore from The Chipmunks wanted for Christmas was his two front teeth. All I wanted was perfection worthy of a Norman Rockwell painting.

I'd built up a few too many dreams over the years, I realized, as I waited for my snail-like dial-up to load the UPS main page. One dream was that I would have lots of kids in coordinated pajamas ripping paper and bows Christmas morning, while my lawyer husband, Mac Campbell, captured all the excitement digitally.

As fate would have it, Mac and I weren't able to have children. We did, however, take in nine-year-old Clay Atwood as our foster son when his father abandoned him several months ago. Thanks to Mac's dad, a judge, the adoption went through quickly, and Clay officially became ours right after Thanksgiving. After years of waiting, I finally had a child to spend Christmas with.

More than I had ever wanted perfection for me, I wanted it for Clay. And perfection was tied to the big gift that hadn't yet arrived.

At long last, the homepage finished loading. I typed in my shipping number for tracking, prepared to wait again, and prayed no one called, which would bump me off-line. It was three days before Christmas, and I had to find out where the PlayStation 2 with digital surround sound, DVD playback, and cordless controller, was. I feared it had been shipped to some other frantic mom.

"Yes!” I said, pumping my arm when the information appeared on screen. The system and games, which had been put on backorder since the second week in December, had been sent and would arrive Christmas Eve.

The weather report on WMOS radio was predicting a dusting of snow that day, but a little snow didn't have me worried. There was nothing more perfect than a rare white Christmas in Mossy Creek. I'd stocked up on every wintry beverage I could think of, from wassail to cocoa. Clay liked the powdered Swiss Miss with mini-marshmallows, so I bought the big, family-sized box. I also bought the ingredients for a cookie recipe I got from Jasmine Beleau. She calls them her ‘New Orleans Crunch Cookies*,' but, to entertain Clay, I'd renamed them ‘Reindeer Poop.' I also bought cookie cutters in tree, angel and stocking shapes. Clay and I were going to bake and decorate the cookies together.

*The recipe for New Orleans Crunch Cookies may be found at http://www.bellebooks.com/BubbaRice.html

I had Clay's perfect Christmas planned out.

1. Watching the old, 1951 "Christmas Carol,” starring Alistair Sim.

2. Sledding and snowball pelting.

3. Hanging the stockings on the fireplace mantel.

4. Aunt Fanny arriving on the twenty-third and leaving promptly on the twenty-fourth.

5. Going to the live nativity at Mt. Gilead Methodist Church.

6. Attending an open house at the Sanders', who really should be called Mr. and Mrs. Santa.

7. And, of course, an old-fashioned, homemade turkey dinner on the big day with Mac's best friend, police chief Amos Royden, and Mac's dad, now deemed Grandpa Campbell.

The PlayStation's late shipping date should have clued me that this year, everything might not be checked on my list. That and the fact that Clay had developed a toothache and I had to take him into the dentist on the twenty-third. A visit to the dentist's office meant my Aunt Fanny, who always stopped by on her way to her daughter's house in Knoxville, was going to have to let herself into our house.

If you knew Aunt Fanny, you'd understand why that was another bad omen.

By the time Clay and I left the dentist's office down in Bigelow with a nice filling and a supply of bubblegum-flavored floss, the temperature had dropped and the light flurries that had been falling earlier had morphed into big, wet flakes. Not a good sign. A dusting of snow meant none of the mountain roads around Mossy Creek would close. But heavy, wet snow meant Aunt Fanny might be spending the holiday with us. And if ever there was a "Perfect Christmas” kill-joy, it was Aunt Fanny.

I love my aunt. Really, I do. But I can't stand how she's always measuring and comparing me. Why didn't I get my cards in the mail until December seventeenth? Why didn't I make turkey and dressing like her daughter, Deanne?

It was only two in the afternoon, but the sky was turning a deeper gray. Most everyone had their lights on, so Clay asked me to drive around looking at the displays. "Of course,” I said, as any good mom would. Any good mom who preferred oohing and ahhing with her son to hurrying home to her Aunt Fanny.

On the way back to the house, we passed by Ernest King's, and I noticed his nephew, Russell, had left the icicle lights attached to the house but hadn't plugged them in. Ernest left those lights dangling year ‘round, much to the consternation of people like me, but he'd died a few weeks ago, and seeing them hang unlit during the one time of the year, when it made sense to turn them on, saddened me. I wondered if Russell would sell the lights with the house or if he'd let them go for a bargain price at the estate sale he'd scheduled for January.

"Wow, look at all the snow,” Clay said, as I pulled my SUV into the driveway right behind Aunt Fanny's Crown Victoria, which had an inch-deep blanket of snow covering its metallic gray paint. I promised myself I wouldn't let her get under my skin this visit. And I wouldn't. I hoped.

The snow covering the grass and sidewalk crunched under our feet as I followed Clay, who was running at full speed, only to receive a static-electricity shock when he touched the doorknob.

He grinned at me. "I beat you.”

"Yes, you did. I must be getting slow in my old age.” I walked into a house that smelled faintly of evergreen and dog. The kitchen television was blaring. Aunt Fanny had turned it to WMOS-TV, our local-cable access channel. I heard Bubba Rice's low-country drawl saying his ‘Auntie's Beef Stew,' done right, was the perfect accompaniment to a cold, winter day. Suddenly the volume went up. I heard a commercial for Bubba's restaurant, then one for his Cooking with Bubba Rice cookbook.

"Where are the dogs?” Clay asked. We hadn't been greeted with the usual barking, licking, and tail wagging that the owners of three large dogs are accustomed to. Aunt Fanny must have put the dogs outside. They were probably freezing.

A doggie whine and scratching drew Clay to the kitchen. I followed. He let the dogs in right at the same time I realized what Aunt Fanny had been up to besides sending Dog, Maddie, and Butler to the frigid wastelands of the backyard.

Steam and the smell of hot starch rose like a cloud around Aunt Fanny, who stood behind the ironing board as she pressed…my sofa slipcovers!

"What are you doing?” I asked, even though I could plainly see what she was doing was ruining my decor. I adjusted the television volume to a reasonable level so I could hear her explanation.

* The recipe for Auntie's Beef Stew may be found at http://www.bellebooks.com/BubbaRice.html

"Well, I'm ironing, sweetheart. Wrinkles are what you get for buying cotton and linen. What you need is a good polyester or Herculon fabric for your couch. Then you won't need to iron these slipcovers.”

"Aunt Fanny, my style is ‘shabby chic.' The slipcovers aren't supposed to be ironed.”

"I don't care what you call it. It's still ‘wrinkles' to me.”

Clay returned without the dogs who, from the sound of toenails scrabbling on the kitchen floor, were too busy slurping their water and crunching kibble to greet me. "Hey, Aunt Fanny. Merry Christmas!” he said.

"And a Merry Christmas to you,” she replied. "Come give me some sugar. My, my, you have grown in a month. You're near about as tall as me.” She hugged Clay, then lifted the hair from his forehead to plant her kiss on what she called ‘the sweet spot.' He made a show of not wanting the affection, but I knew that he liked her. And she was likeable when she wasn't being irritating.

"Patty, sweetheart, I have a special surprise for you. Come, follow me.”

Leaving the iron on, she headed down the hall toward my lovely, white-on-white, old-fashioned bathroom. Two years ago, I'd found its claw foot tub at an estate sale in the next county; it was one of my treasures I called ‘visionary pieces.'

Clay trotted after Aunt Fanny, and I lagged behind, dreading what I might find. I came to a halt behind him, not looking yet, just praying that whatever she'd done would be something I could pretend to like.

Aunt Fanny flipped the hand-painted china light switch. "Merry Christmas!”

My normal, plain, white, everyday toilet seat had been replaced with a bright-orange, psychedelic-flower, cushioned seat. I put a hand to my throat. "How…why?”

"Oh, now, don't get all teary-eyed on me. The last time I was here and I mentioned that your toilet seat wasn't cushioned, you said you couldn't find one that was. Well, it became my mission to get one for you. After all, I never disappoint my favorite niece.”

Clay glanced from the hideous toilet seat back to Aunt Fanny, then to me. Like maybe he didn't know me so well after all.

I'd have to explain later that I hadn't wanted to hurt Aunt Fanny's feelings. And sometimes not wanting to hurt peoples' feelings leads to other problems, like psychedelic orange toilet seats. I shrugged, and he smiled.

"That nice Mr. O'Neal at the Fix-It shop came over here and installed—” Aunt Fanny started to explain.

"You mean McNeil,” I corrected.

"Yes, Dean McNeil.”


"You know, I don't think I've ever met such a happy handy man. He grinned the whole time he was working on your commode seat.”

I bet he did. Dan had probably spread the word all over town by now. Amos and Mac's dad were going to have a ball teasing me about the toilet seat when they came over. Unless I could get Mac to change it back. The Home Depot down in Bigelow would be open tomorrow.

"Aunt Fanny, you didn't happen to notice if Dan saved the old seat?”

Aunt Fanny's gray eyebrows met in a frown. "He certainly tried to. But I threw it in the trash. It'd just breed bacteria in storage. Luckily, I got it in your can right before the garbage men came down the street.”

I chewed my tongue. Aunt Fanny, pleased that she had managed to save me from myself yet again, headed back to the ironing board. I followed her, determined to change the TV to The Weather Channel. I needed just a glimmer of hope that all this snow would be ending soon. Of course I felt guilty for wishing the snow to end. Everyone else, my son included, seemed ecstatic about it.

"I hope you don't mind about the toilet seat,” Aunt Fanny said, working the hot pointed tip of the iron into the corner of a box pleat. "I gave those nice garbage men of yours a couple of Mac's beers from the fridge and told them ‘Merry Christmas.' I looked around for gift bags to put the beer in, but you don't have any. You know, Deanne keeps gift bags of frosted sugar cookies and gift cards to restaurants and bookstores on her table near the front door. She's always prepared for an unexpected gift-giving moment.”

"Thanks. I'll keep that in mind.” I made a mental note that a certain handy man wouldn't be getting any cookies or gift cards from me, again. Ever.

I located the TV remote, not in the handy basket I put all the remotes in, but underneath the living-room coffee table, or, as Mac likes to call it, "the shin buster.” I checked all three major Atlanta channels. The Storm Alert scrawling across the bottoms of their afternoon programs predicted the whitest Christmas north Georgia had seen in recorded history. I returned to WMOS, local cable channel 22, just in time for Bert Lymon's special weather bulletin. Our local broadcaster broke into Bubba's cooking show to announce the same darned thing.

When he cut back to the show, Bubba was saying that tonight was the perfect time to start a pot of his special beef stew, so it would be ready for tomorrow afternoon.

I wondered if a shot or two of bourbon would add a little extra kick to Bubba's recipe.

The front door opened, setting the dogs into barking and toenail-scrabbling action. They all vied for a pat on the head as Mac shook the snow off of his wool coat.

I checked my wristwatch. Four in the afternoon. "Why are you home early?”

"Our ‘light dusting' has turned into a major snow jam. Amos called and told me I'd best head home from the courthouse before the roads close.” He spotted Aunt Fanny, who hurried out of the kitchen with her arms wide. "Hey!” He leaned over to hug her, his big, burly frame dwarfing her. "Glad you made it here before the weather got too bad. How about if I build a fire once I change out of my office clothes?”

"I'll get the wood!” Clay shouted and ran toward the back porch.

"Put your shoes on,” I called, knowing he wouldn't listen and would come back inside with soggy, cold socks and feet.

As I headed down the hall to Clay's room to get dry socks from his dresser, I heard Mac's "whoa” from the vicinity of the bathroom. "Hey, Patty, since when does bright orange go with shabby chick?”

I didn't respond to his teasing. I was too upset. If I believed these dire weather predictions, it meant something far worse than Aunt Fanny staying longer than anticipated. Clay's big present wouldn't arrive in time. I returned to the empty family room.

"Patty, sweetheart?” Aunt Fanny called from the kitchen, providing me with a moment of pure panic until I remembered that I hadn't put anything in the oven yet.

You see, Aunt Fanny lives under the misconception that there is something wrong with the thermostat in my oven. In order to compensate, she constantly turns up the dial when I have something roasting, which results in the food being either dried out or burnt. She views such disasters as proof that there truly is something wrong with my oven.

"Patty, where did you get that McCoy pottery in your cupboard? Was it Grandmother's? You know, I always hoped I'd get her pottery collection, seeing as how I'm the one who collects McCoy, and your mother didn't really want it.”

"I'm sure Grandmother gave you something else equally special.”

"Nothing as nice as this.”

My choices were to ignore the jibes or divert Aunt Fanny.

She found her own diversion as she came back into the family room with the ironed slipcovers and was nearly run over by Clay carrying an armful of wood and racing alongside the dogs.

"Your cousin Deanne got herself a Dustbuster for dog hair. It helps her keep her house immaculate,” Aunt Fanny said.

I flipped to the weather channel. Surely the forecast had changed.

Snow. Snow. And more snow.

I sank down on the sofa next to Aunt Fanny, who was now rifling through the basket of cards I had displayed on the coffee table. She picked up the folded newsletter from her daughter. "Deanne writes her newsletter while watching the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, once she's got the turkey and fixin's in the oven. I think that's what they call ‘multi-tasking.'”

Bragging and exaggerating is what I call it, I thought.

I groaned and headed toward the kitchen, where I could feed my misery with a little sugar-cookie dough.

It was Christmas Eve. Clay loved playing Santa for the dogs. When he told me he was bored indoors, I suggested he fill the dogs' Christmas stockings with the squeaky toys we'd bought.

"I'm bored again,” Clay shouted from the family room where Aunt Fanny was crocheting and watching Bubba Rice make figgy pudding, rather than adjusting the oven I was guarding in the kitchen. I was trying to finish baking the pigs-in-blankets I'd promised the Sanders I'd bring to their open house. We were due to leave in less than an hour.

"How about watching A Christmas Carol?” I called. "We could start watching it now, then finish when we get back from the party.”

"He doesn't want to watch that old movie,” Aunt Fanny said. "Don't you have the musical? With that Kirkley Graham fella.”

"You mean Kelsey Grammar?” I asked.

"Deanne just bought that version. It's much more entertaining.”

Mac rescued the conversation. "Who wants to run off some energy outside with the dogs?”

"Me!” Clay said.

Maddie heard the word "outside,” found her leash, and brought it to Mac before Clay scrambled up from his Legos and ran to find his mittens and snowboots.

"You'll catch your death-of-cold!” Aunt Fanny yelled. "It's too cold for that boy to go playing outside, Patty. You need to put your foot down.”

"Fresh air is good for him, and he won't stay out long. Will you, Clay?”

"No, ma'am. I'll come in as soon as Mac says to.”

Dog waited patiently for Clay to get bundled up, as did Maddie. Butler, on the other hand, decided it was time to run in circles again.

"It's okay, Aunt Fanny,” Clay said as I wound an extra long scarf around his neck, covering his nose and muffling his voice. "We won't stay out long enough to get hyperthermia.”

Watching Mac and Clay making snowballs and throwing them at each other, while the dogs ran through the drifts, made me smile. I could put another couple of checks on that perfect Christmas list.

Sooner than I expected, my boys came in all red-cheeked with shining blue eyes. The dogs ran to spots near the fire, and Clay and Mac threw their wet gloves and scarves on the floor. I didn't mind. A few strands of Clay's brown hair remained standing on the top of his head after he pulled off his stocking cap. He snuffled his nose.

"See, he's already sick,” Aunt Fanny said.

"He's fine.”

"I'm just saying he doesn't need to be outside on the coldest day of the year.” Aunt Fanny dug in her sweater pocket and handed Clay a pack of tissues. "Here. Use these, sweetheart.”

"Do I have to?” Clay asked as Aunt Fanny marched back to her spot on the sofa.

"Yes,” I conceded. I knew Aunt Fanny would much rather be with her daughter than stuck at my house on Christmas Eve. I could at least support her efforts when it came to nose-blowing.

"You know Deanne has a mudroom at her house,” Aunt Fanny called. "Each child has a cubby hole, pegs, a place for his back pack and shoes or boots. Even hooks to hang wet scarves.”

I glanced at the wet pile on the floor and smiled. "I'll keep that in mind.”

"How about some hot chocolate?” Mac said.

I grabbed one of my special Santa mugs and turned on the tap to pour a cup of water.

"What are you doing?” Aunt Fanny asked. She was now standing in the middle of the kitchen with her hands on her hips. I placed the mug on the tray in the microwave, pressed the beverage button, and grabbed a packet of Swiss Miss from the pantry. "Last time I checked, I was making Clay some hot chocolate.”

"Since when don't you make homemade? It's not that difficult.”

"But I like this kind,” Clay said, hair still standing up on the top of his head as he pulled a chair out and sat at the kitchen table. "Daddy used to make it for me.”

My eyes welled up. Even though his biological dad had neglected him and was big on hitting and yelling, I'd suspected Clay might miss him. The cocoa was confirmation.

"Well, you don't know what you're missing, young man.” Aunt Fanny said. "Patty, next time you make it homemade, you might want to try adding a little cinnamon and nutmeg to yours. Then Clay would like it better. That's what Deanne does. And you'd better crank that oven of yours up or those hors d'ouevres will never be ready in time.”

The doorbell rang, and I was never so happy to see Amos in my life.

Dog woofed a low hello as Aunt Fanny gave the temperature dial on the oven a good twist.

"What brings you here?” I asked, then turned the oven temp back down.

"There's no crime to fight. Everyone's being good.”

"Since you're here, I was wondering if you'd do me a favor.”

"Depends. Are you willing to tell me what Ida's planning for next month?”

"What makes you think I know?”

He pointed to my wall calendar. "That fat red circle on the second Saturday in January just happens to be the same day as the meeting the governor's scheduled with Reverend James.”

I knew Ida had a plan in the works to save Mossy Creek's historic ‘Sitting Tree*' from the governor and his cousin, the reverend, who had bought the tree and its surrounding property for a amusement park. But I didn't know the details, and I sure wasn't sharing what I did know with Amos. Ida would never forgive me. "That circle's for the King estate sale and the Mt. Gilead fundraiser. Sorry to disappoint.”

"Hmmm. Okay.”

"Come on, Amos. Have some cocoa. Stop obsessing about Ida.”

*The story of Mossy Creek's historic Sitting Tree may be found at http://www.bellebooks.com/ADayinMossyCreek.asp#Excerpt

The timer buzzed, and I took the perfectly browned pigs-in-blankets out of the oven.

Amos nabbed a few before I could smack his hand. "I've gotta get going,” he said, blowing on the hot food. "See you tomorrow around noon.”

After he left, Aunt Fanny turned to me. "Aren't you going to change your clothes?”

I looked down at my nice jeans and navy, snowflake-patterned sweater. "Let me guess, Deanne only wears red on Christmas Eve and knits her own fabulous sweaters.”

"She embellishes them beads, too, so they twinkle when the lights hit them.”

"Thanks, I'll keep that in mind,” I mumbled.

I grabbed my covered Pyrex full of warm pigs-in-blankets, slipped into my coat, forgoing gloves since we were only crossing the street, and was about to usher along Aunt Fanny, when she stopped me a second time. "Aren't you going to put on some lipstick, sweetheart?”

"I have on lipstick.”

"I mean some lipstick with some color to it.”

"I believe I'll stick with the colorless lipstick, Aunt Fanny. Let's go. Clay and Mac are already halfway across the road.”

I did feel a moment of peace and joy as we approached the Sanders' house. Their lights were perfect. Little plastic lit snowmen lined their shoveled walkway in symmetry. And the snow was gorgeous. Numerous footprints on the front walk promised a big party with our friends and neighbors, inside.

"Patty,” Aunt Fanny said. "I think you should know. About half of the twinkle lights on your Christmas tree are out.”

I looked back at the tree in my picture window. She was right.

"Deanne buys the kind of lights that the whole strand doesn't fail if just one bulb is out. I can call her for you and find out where she bought them.”

"Thanks,” I said.

Clay went up on the Sanders' porch with Aunt Fanny. Mac stayed behind, with me. "Are you okay?” he asked.

"Aunt Fanny's driving me loco. Who gives someone a toilet seat for Christmas? And all this snow, and Clay's PlayStation didn't arrive. I wanted everything to be perfect for Clay.”

"I'll fix the lights on the tree,” Mac said.

"It's not the tree. It's the gift.”

"He'll be happy with whatever.”

"No, he won't. He'll pretend to be happy because he's a good kid.”

"Stop being so critical of yourself. That's Aunt Fanny's job.”

I almost smiled.

"And look at Clay. He's happy.”

He and Aunt Fanny were already inside the house. I looked through the Sanders' storm door. A smile on his freckled face, Clay was engrossed in some handheld electronic game with his pal, John Wesley McCready. If only I'd ordered the PlayStation sooner. Deanne never would have waited.

She probably had all her gifts bought and wrapped by Halloween.

Christmas morning went well, considering. I outmaneuvered Aunt Fanny and slipped the cinnamon rolls and the turkey into my double oven without her changing the temperature on either. The snow had stopped. The dogs loved their stockings. So far, Clay liked the gifts we'd given him. My plan had been to present the PlayStation last, as a grand finale.

He made a face as he ripped open a box from Aunt Fanny to reveal Sponge Bob underwear. Mac handed him another box.

Clay shook the rectangular box wrapped in penguin paper. The pieces jumbled around inside. He sat on the floor and tore the paper to reveal Clue.

"It's a board game,” I said. "It was mine when I was a little girl, and I thought you might like to have it.”

Clay nodded, but said nothing. He stared at the pictures on the scuffed, cardboard top, then opened it and touched the dice and the tiny metal rope, candlestick, and worn cards.

He returned to the tree and went through the motions of being excited about the other game I'd dug out of the attic. Monopoly. At least that garnered a "Look at all the money!”

Recalling the let-down I'd felt as a child when I hadn't gotten my Dancerina, I hid my empathy pains in a false cheerfulness. "Wasn't that fun? But I think there's something else you forgot, Clay.”

He looked at me, at the empty space under the tree, then back to me.

I pointed to the mantel.

His mouth broke into a wide grin as he bounded over to his bulging stocking. I nursed what little hope I had that he'd like those trinkets more than the board games. Suddenly, I sniffed the air. My cinnamon rolls were burning. Aunt Fanny, bless her heart, had turned up the oven when I wasn't looking.

"See, I told you that thing doesn't work right,” she said.

I ran into the kitchen, jammed on my oven mitts, and pulled out the smoking rolls. After tossing them in the sink and spraying them with water so the smoke alarm wouldn't go off, I readjusted the temperature for the turkey. Then I slunk over to the kitchen table and sat beside Mac, placing my head in my hands. "I surrender.”

"It's okay, sweetheart.”

"No it isn't.” I was trying desperately to hold on to what was left of my dignity. Deanne wouldn't cry over burnt rolls and orange toilet seats and little boys' presents not arriving in time.

Clay rushed in to the kitchen holding his quilted, red-gingham stocking. "Look at all this cool old stuff!”

Clay showed Mac the Silly Putty and Slinky. He looped his finger into the string of the yoyo and smiled as the round plastic spun down, then back up to his palm. He grinned at the plastic water pistol. He set it on the table and reached inside the stocking again, his mouth and eyebrows puckering as he grasped something he couldn't identify by feel alone.

He pulled the object out and opened his fist. "Hey. A pocket knife! Cool.”

Dog woofed his concern, and I concurred. "Dog's right, Mac. He'll cut his finger off.”

"No, he won't,” Mac said. "Every boy needs a pocket knife.”

Clay dumped the rest of his stocking out onto the table and squealed with delight over a bag of red and green gummy worms, then cast sad, puppy-dog eyes at me.

"Go ahead,” I said. He ripped open the gummies. I sighed. "I'm sorry this wasn't a very good Christmas. And now, rather than the traditional Campbell family cinnamon rolls, you're eating gummy worms for breakfast. I wanted this Christmas, your first one with me and Mac, to be perfect.” Trying not to cry, I took Clay's warm, sticky hand in mine.

He put his other warm, sticky hand against my cheek and met my gaze. "This was my best Christmas ever. It snowed! A lot! Last night I beat John Wesley at Spiderman, and this morning I got all sorts of fun stuff. And—” he swallowed hard, trying to be manly as he looked from me to Mac. "This year I got the best present anybody ever gave me. A real family. It's okay, Mom.”

I nearly boo-hooed out loud. This was my present. My first "Mom.”

Clay didn't let Mac off easy, either. "Dad,” he said to him.

Mac got teary and grabbed Clay in a hug. Then I hugged Clay. Then the three of us did a group hug. The dogs got in on it, and we hugged them, too. We all pretended we weren't crying.

"Time for a water fight,” Mac yelled.

Clay grabbed the plastic water gun from the pile, ran to the sink to fill it up, and promptly began squirting Mac. Mac grabbed the toy and squirted him back. Then they both began chasing the dogs, squirting them. Dog, Maddie and Butler ran between my legs and I careened into Mac and Clay. All of us, dogs included, ended up in a pile on the kitchen. We laughed, and the dogs barked.

"Deanne doesn't let her boys play with water guns in the house,” Aunt Fanny called from the family room.

I grabbed the water pistol. "Get out of the way, boys. She's all mine.”

Laughing, Mac took the gun from me.

Clay threw one arm around my neck. "Hey, can we play Clue now, Mom? I want to be Colonel Mustard.”

"We sure can,” I said.

"I bet I'm the only kid in Mossy Creek who got an antique board game.”

And you'd be right, I thought. Tomorrow, no doubt, the PlayStation would arrive. But for today, we'd have fun the old-fashioned way.

"Deanne's children have all the latest video games,” Aunt Fanny called.

"Gimme that water gun,” I growled to Mac. But he just kissed me, then whispered in my ear, "What would you think about me buying Aunt Fanny a round trip plane ticket for next Christmas?”

I smiled. "Now, that will be the perfect Christmas.”

Copyright © 2005, BelleBooks. All rights reserved. A Very Mossy Christmas was written by Maureen Hardegree.

The Mossy Creek series, published by BelleBooks, includes Mossy Creek, Reunion at Mossy Creek, Summer in Mossy Creek, Blessings of Mossy Creek, A Day in Mossy Creek and Critters of Mossy Creek.