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THE CHRISTMAS TRAIN
November 17, 2014
Anna Spano is on the train to meet her father while she befriends Eva Stephens, an older woman who occasionally thinks she’s traveling to her home village in pre–World War II for the holidays. Recognizing Miss Eva’s disorientation as the same dementia her late grandmother experienced, Anna isn’t sure who is actually taking care of whom on the journey.
At the far end of the journey, Tom Thurston is anxious about what to expect when his daughter arrives. So he’s doubly shocked when a teary old woman embraces him, convinced that he is her long-lost brother.
At Anna’s insistence, he reluctantly agrees to bring the woman home with them and try to locate her family. And as Anna clings loyally to her new friend, and Tom struggles to be who Miss Eva needs him to be, both father and daughter begin to understand one another. And through Miss Eva, they learn the true meaning of family, and of love.
Rexanne Becnel is the USA TODAY bestselling author of more than twenty books, including Thief of My Heart, A Dove at Midnight, and Dangerous to Love. She lives in New Orleans.
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Tom Thurston stared at his phone in shock, then dropped it on the kitchen counter as if it had burned his hand. Like a ghost from the past, Carrie calls him and tells him she’s sending Anna to live with him? She’d said, “I’ve raised her for the first ten years. It’s your turn now.” Into his stunned silence she’d added, “I’ll let you know when she’s arriving.” He sank onto a bar stool and stared blankly. What
was he supposed to do with a ten-year-old girl? Groaning, he raked a hand through his hair. He
should have known this day would come—that his one big mistake would eventually come back to haunt him. He’d met Carrie Spano in his senior year at the University of Texas. A freshman, she’d been a beauty. Faced with her dark, flashing eyes, her killer body, and her devil-may-care approach to life, it had been easy to overlook her youth. By November they’d been an item. But by April, with graduation and a new job on his horizon, she’d started pushing for them to get married. Married? At twenty-two?
Then she’d dropped the bomb: she was pregnant.
It was painful to remember his panic and her stunned response. Backed against a wall, he’d blurted out that he was too young to get married; they both were. But if she wanted, he would help her get an abortion.
Carrie, always fun-loving but often intense, had gone ballistic, screaming and ranting that he was a son of a bitch and every other foul name she could think of. And she’d been right. He knew that now, but at the time he’d thanked his lucky stars to be rid of her. In a fit of rage she’d vowed to keep the baby and make him sorry that he’d ever messed with her.
That was the last time he’d seen her. But as he’d started his professional life as an engineer here in Iowa, the shadow of Carrie had hung over him. Carrie and her baby. His baby. He’d expected to hear from her once the baby was born, but when there was no word he got anxious. Did she have the baby or not? Did she keep it or put it up for adoption?
He’s finally researched the births in Carrie’s hometown and discovered that Caroline Spano—no
father listed—had given birth to Anna Rose Spano on October 2, 1991.
He had a daughter.
And now that daughter was ten years old, and coming here to live with him.
“Damn it!” How was he supposed to fit her into his life? But even more difficult would be explaining her to his parents and sister. What would they think of him, their golden boy, who, as far as they knew, had never screwed up. Even worse, how could he justify keeping such a huge secret from them?
He braced his elbows on the counter. He supposed they would forgive him eventually. And they would
accept Anna, he knew that. His mother was eager for a grandchild and made no bones about it, especially to his recently married sister.
But what about Joelle? Would she be able to forgive him? Or would she dump him and his surprise daughter like a load of bricks?
Muffling a curse, he dropped his head into his hands. This could not be happening. Not this fast, with no
warning whatsoever. Surely he and Carrie could come to some sort of compromise. What if he offered her money to keep the child? After all, she’d cashed the check he’d sent her right after he found out the baby was born. Although she hadn’t acknowledged them, she’d cashed all the checks he’d sent that first year.
Then one of the envelopes came back marked unable to deliver. He’d done a cursory search for her with no success, and decided that if she’d moved and couldn’t be bothered to contact him, then so be it. And if he’d ever felt guilty on October 2 every year, he’d told himself that he’d done all he could do.
Now, though, he was in a quandary. He could no longer ignore the situation.
He stared at his phone. Taking a deep breath, he reached for it and pressed *69. “Pick up, Carrie. Pick up
the damn phone,” he muttered as it rang and rang. He wasn’t ready to be a father. A kid would ruin everything. He would not let Carrie wreck his life without even giving him a chance to make some counteroffer. But when he finally hung up after twenty rings, he knew he was wrong. Carrie could wreck his life. She already had.
Anna rolled up her favorite nightgown, three pairs of socks and underpants, and three changes of
clothes—her favorites, just in case her mother didn’t get around to sending the rest of her clothes and other things she’d packed into two big cardboard boxes. Even with the boxes full, there were so many things she loved that she had to leave behind. Her teddy-bear collection. Her shelf of Goosebumps books. Her school papers, and the art projects that Nana Rose had posted on the refrigerator. And then there was her bike, and all her Barbie stuff.
Her mother said it cost too much to send so much junk all the way to Iowa. If her father wanted to drive
back and get it, fine with her.
Anna swallowed hard and began to shove the nightgown into her backpack. If her father did want her
and all her stuff, he would’ve said so a long time ago. All the things her grandmother had scrimped and saved to buy her were as good as gone.
Except for the Christmas present.
Wiping away her tears, Anna knelt down and pulled the box out from under her bed. She’d found it in Nana Rose’s closet when her mother told her to pick out a dress for Nana Rose to be buried in. Even though it had only been October, the box had been wrapped in pretty Christmas paper with a wide red ribbon and a gift tag with Anna written on it in Nana Rose’s neat, familiar handwriting.
Setting the gift on her bed, she studied it and the rest of the clothes that had to fit in her backpack.
When she first found it, she’d wanted so bad to open it. Even now, just looking at it, knowing Nana Rose had wrapped it up so nice for her, made her want to open it. But she had to wait. This was going to be the worst Christmas of her life, but at least she had this present. When she opened it on Christmas morning, it would be almost like Nana Rose was there with her. Almost. Frowning, she emptied her backpack, wedged the box safely on the bottom, then repacked her clothes on top of it.
She wasn’t sure where she would be on Christmas Day, but at least she could look forward to opening this one last gift from Nana Rose.
The train depot was festooned for Christmas.
Garlands looped above the ticket counter. A huge wreath hung over the wide arched entrance to the
station’s platforms, and a pair of lighted trees, flocked white and laden with shiny red ornaments, flanked the information and security booth.
Eva Stephens clutched the handle of her bag. It held no presents, but she hoped her surprising visit after so long an absence would prove present enough for her family. Her heart fluttered in her chest, an unwelcome symptom according to her doctor. But she preferred to think of it as butterfly wings beating eagerly for release. She was going home! After more years than she could remember, she was going home for Christmas.
She coughed three times, like the nurse had taught her, and felt the flutter subside. Then shifting her
carpetbag from her right hand to her left, she set out for the ticket counter. How long since she’d been on a train? She couldn’t recall. But some things never changed: the busy excitement of so many people rushing everywhere; the low rumble of the massive engines that permeated even inside the station building. And through the glass doors, the view of people queuing up to board.
Unfortunately people didn’t seem to dress as nicely as they used to. She tried not to stare at a man in worn tennis shoes and a stained sweatshirt. And behind her in line a woman dressed in painted-on jeans, knee-high stiletto boots, and a sweater meant to emphasize her generous breasts held the hand of a little girl, all the while reeking of cigarette smoke.
Eva wrinkled her nose. I hope they still have separate smoking cars.
The child at least was properly dressed in corduroy slacks, some sort of puffy blue jacket, and a matching
blue and white muffler and stocking cap. She was a pretty little thing with straight blond bangs hanging over striking blue eyes. She didn’t look very happy, though.
“Where to? Ma’am? Where to?”
“Oh.” Eva looked up with a start. “Am I next?”
“Yes, ma’am.” The ticket seller raised his brows, then returned his attention to his computer screen. “Where to?”
“Let’s see.” She pulled out the slip of paper with the town’s name on it. Not that she needed it to remember the name of her own hometown. Still, every now and again she got these annoying little lapses of memory. Better to be safe than sorry.
“Yes, yes. I want a ticket to Ennis. If you please.”
“Ennis.” He stared at his screen, a faint frown on his face. Then he smiled. “Here it is. Ennis, Iowa. Right?”
Eva faltered. Ennis was in Germany, not Iowa. She looked around her, at a loss suddenly for where she was.
“Ennis,” she repeated, tightening her grip on the handle of her carpetbag. “I want to go to Ennis.”
“Okay, okay,” the man said. “Ennis it is. “Will that be a round trip?”
“No.” Eva smiled at him, restored by overwhelming joy at the thought of her hometown. “No,” she repeated, beaming pure happiness at the ticket seller. “I only need a one-way ticket.”
“One way it is.” He glanced up at her. “Looks like you’re pretty happy to be going.”
“Ach, so I am.”
“That’ll be one hundred forty-eight dollars. Cash or credit?”
Eva lifted her chin. “I deal only in the cash, young man. Buying on credit gets a person into trouble.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he agreed, taking the eight twentydollar bills she slid into the tray beneath the glass
partition. “But, ma’am,” he added, leaning nearer and lowering his voice. “Don’t say too much about carrying only cash, okay? There’s people who’d love to fleece a nice lady like you. You know what I mean?”
Eva nodded, taking the change he slid back to her and folding it into her purse. “I will be very careful.”
She patted her purse and as added precaution hooked the long strap over her head and shoulder. “But I thank you for your concern.”
“You’re boarding at three fifteen on platform seven. Merry Christmas and have a good trip.”
“Thank you, and a Merry Christmas to you, too.”
As Eva turned away she nearly collided with the cigarette-scented woman in the revealing sweater. “Oh,
my. Excuse me.”
“No problem,” the woman muttered, giving her a hard stare.
Eva nodded and headed toward the gates to the loading platform. It was too cold to wait outside, so she
found a seat near the arched doors. Not long now. In less than an hour she would be on her way home at last. Smiling, she settled her purse and her carpetbag on her lap and folded her hands over them. This would be the happiest Christmas ever.