Finding Father Christmas & Engaging Father Christmas


By Robin Jones Gunn

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By beloved author Robin Jones Gunn, two timeless, heartwarming Christmas novellas bound together for the first time in an omnibus edition.

In Finding Christmas, Miranda Carson’s search for her father leads her unexpectedly to London with only a few feeble clues as to who he might be. Immediately welcomed into a family that doesn’t recognize her, and whom she’s quickly coming to love, she faces a terrible decision. Should she reveal her true identity and destroy their idyllic image of her father? Or should she carry the truth home with her to San Francisco and remain alone in this world? Whatever choice she makes during this London Christmas will forever change the future for both herself and the family she can’t bear to leave.

In Engaging Father Christmas Miranda Carson can’t wait to return to England for Christmas and to be with her boyfriend, Ian. She has spent a lifetime yearning for a place to call home, and she’s sure Carlton Heath will be it, especially when a hinted-at engagement ring slips into the conversation. But Miranda’s high hopes for a jolly Christmas with the small circle of people she has come to love are toppled when Ian’s father is hospitalized and the matriarch of the Whitcombe family withholds her blessing from Miranda. Questions run rampant in Miranda’s mind about whether she really belongs in this cheery corner of the world. Then, when her true identity threatens all her relationships in unanticipated ways, Miranda is certain all is lost. And yet . . . maybe Father Christmas has special gifts in store for her after all.


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Finding Father Christmas

"Come in! Come in, and know me better."

—Spirit of Christmas Present

from A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Chapter One

A string of merry silver bells jumped and jingled as the north wind shook the evergreen wreath on the heavy wooden door. Overhead a painted shingle swung from two metal arms, declaring this place of business to be the Tea Cosy.

As I peered inside through the thick-paned window, I could see a cheerful amber fire in the hearth. Tables were set for two with china cups neatly positioned on crimson tablecloths. Swags of green foliage trimmed the mantel. Dotted across the room, on the tables and on shelves, were a dozen red votive candles. Each tiny light flickered, sending out promises of warmth and cheer, inviting me to step inside.

Another more determined gust made a swoop down the lane, this time taking my breath with it into the darkness of the December night.

This trip was a mistake. A huge mistake. What was I thinking?

I knew the answer as it rode off on the mocking wind. The answer was, I wasn't thinking. I was feeling.

Pure emotion last Friday nudged me to book the round-trip ticket to London. Blind passion convinced me that the answer to my twenty-year question would be revealed once I reached the Carlton Photography Studio on Bexley Lane.

Sadly, I was wrong. I had come all this way only to hit a dead end.

I took another look inside the teahouse and told myself to keep walking, back to the train station, back to the hotel in London where I had left my luggage. This exercise in futility was over. I might as well change my ticket and fly back to San Francisco in the morning.

My chilled and weary feet refused to obey. They wanted to go inside and be warmed by the fire. I couldn't deny that my poor legs did deserve a little kindness after all I had put them through when I folded them into the last seat in coach class. The middle seat, by the lavatories, in the row that didn't recline. A cup of tea at a moment like this might be the only blissful memory I would take with me from this fiasco.

Reaching for the oddly shaped metal latch on the door, I stepped inside and set the silver bells jingling again.

"Come in, come in, and know me better, friend!" The unexpected greeting came from a kilt-wearing man with a valiant face. His profoundly wide sideburns had the look of white lamb's wool and softened the resoluteness in his jaw. "Have you brought the snowflakes with you, then?"

"The snowflakes?" I repeated.

"Aye! The snowflakes. It's cold enough for snow, wouldn't you say?"

I nodded my reluctant agreement, feeling my nose and cheeks going rosy in the small room's warmth. I assumed the gentleman who opened the door was the proprietor. Looking around, I asked, "Is it okay if I take the table by the fire? All I'd like is a cup of tea."

"I don't see why not. Katharine!" He waited for a response and then tried again. "Katharine!"

No answer came.

"She must have gone upstairs. She'll be back around." His grin was engaging, his eyes clear. "I would put the kettle on for you myself, if it weren't for the case of my being on my way out at the moment."

"That's okay. I don't mind waiting."

"Of course you don't mind waiting. A young woman such as yourself has the time to wait, do you not? Whereas, for a person such as myself…" He leaned closer and with a wink confided in me, "I'm Christmas Present, you see. I can't wait."

What sort of "present" he supposed himself to be and to whom, I wasn't sure.

With a nod, the man drew back the heavy door and strode into the frosty air.

From a set of narrow stairs a striking woman descended. She looked as surprised at my appearance as I was at hers. She wore a stunning red, floor-length evening dress. Around her neck hung a sparkling silver necklace, and dangling from under her dark hair were matching silver earrings. She stood tall with careful posture and tilted her head, waiting for me to speak.

"I wasn't sure if you were still open."

"Yes, on an ordinary day we would be open for another little while, until five thirty.…" Her voice drifted off.

"Five thirty," I repeated, checking my watch. The time read 11:58. The exact time I'd adjusted it to when I had deplaned at Heathrow Airport late that morning. I tapped on the face of my watch as if that would make it run again. "I can see you have plans for the evening and that you're ready to close. I'll just—"

"Che-che-che." The sound that came from her was the sort used to call a squirrel to come find the peanuts left for it on a park bench. It wasn't a real word from a real language, but I understood the meaning. I was being invited to stay and not to run off.

"Take any seat you want. Would you like a scone with your tea or perhaps some rum cake?"

"Just the tea, thank you."

I moved toward the fire and realized that a scone sounded pretty good. I hadn't eaten anything since the undercooked breakfast omelet served on the plane.

"Actually, I would like to have a scone, too. If it's not too much trouble."

"No trouble at all."

Her smile was tender, motherly. I guessed her to be in her midfifties or maybe older. She turned without any corners or edges to her motions. I soon heard the clinking of dishes as she prepared the necessary items in the kitchen.

Making my way to a steady looking table by the fire, I tried to tuck my large shoulder bag under the spindle leg of the chair. The stones along the front of the hearth were permanently blackened from what I imagined to be centuries of soot. The charm of the room increased as I sat down and felt the coziness of the close quarters. This was a place of serenity. A place where trust between friends had been established and kept for many years.

A sense of safety and comfort called to the deepest part of my spirit and begged me to set free a fountain of tears. But I capped them off. It was that same wellspring of emotion that had instigated this journey.

Settling back, I blinked and let the steady heat from the fire warm me. Katharine returned carrying a tray. The steaming pot of tea took center stage, wearing a chintzquilted dressing gown, gathered at the top.

Even the china teapots are treated to coziness here.

"I've warmed two scones for you, and this, of course, is your clotted cream. I've given you raspberry jam, but if you would prefer strawberry, I do have some."

"No, this is fine. Perfect. Thank you."

Katharine lifted the festooned teapot and poured the steaming liquid into my waiting china cup. I felt for a moment as if I had stumbled into an odd sort of parallel world to Narnia.

As a young child I had read C. S. Lewis's Narnia tales a number of times. In the many hours alone, I had played out the fairy tales in my imagination, pretending I was Lucy, stepping through the wardrobe into an imaginary world.

Here, in the real country of Narnia's author, I considered how similar my surroundings were to Lewis's descriptions of that imaginary world. A warming fire welcomed me in from the cold. But instead of a fawn inviting me to tea, it had been a kilted clansman. Instead of Mrs. Beaver pouring a cup of cheer for me by the fire, it was a tall, unhurried woman in a red evening gown.

An unwelcome thought came and settled on me as clearly as if I had heard a whisper. Miranda, how much longer will you believe it is "always winter and never Christmas"?

Chapter Two

I ignored the mysterious whisper that had caught me off guard and quickly took a sip of the steaming tea.

"Very nice." I nodded to Katharine, who still stood near the table as if waiting for my next request.

"Did you come to Carlton Heath for Christmas?" Her voice was soothing.

"Yes. Well, no. Not for Christmas. I'm just… I was trying to find… I'm…"

"Just visiting?" she finished for me.

"Yes. Just visiting."

Now that I was inside the teahouse, I felt much less intimidated by the reason for my journey than I had when I stood alone outside. With my guard down, I looked up at gentle Katharine and said, "May I ask you a question?"


"I was trying to find the Carlton Heath Photography Studio on Bexley Lane. I walked up and down both sides of the street as far as I could go, but I didn't find it. Do you know where it is?"

She shook her head.

"I have the name printed on the back of a photo." I lifted from my big purse the plastic sandwich bag in which I'd carefully placed the photograph. I handled it cautiously. That single photo was the precious piece of evidence that had driven me here to Carlton Heath on a whim after a very long time of indecision. Removing the wallet-sized photo from the clear bag, I turned the picture over, pointing to the name stamped on the paper: "Carlton Photography Studio, Bexley Lane, Carlton Heath." I handed the photo to Katharine carefully.

She looked mystified. "This is the only Bexley Lane in Carlton Heath. I don't know of any photography studios along the road. Perhaps they went out of business."

"That's what I was afraid of."

As she tilted her head, her silver earrings caught the light from the fire. "If they were in business here, I'm sure someone around town would know about them. I've only lived in Carlton Heath for a few years, so I'm not too helpful when it comes to the comings and goings of the past. My husband would know."

She paused before turning over the photo and asked, "Would you mind if I had a look at the picture?"

"No. Please do. And tell me if you recognize either of the people in the photo. I was hoping someone at the photo studio might have an idea who they were."

The image she gazed at was ingrained in my memory. I had stared at the photo so long in my adolescent years that every detail of the two people was familiar, including the nasty, faded green shade of the sweater the little boy was wearing. He appeared to be four or maybe five years old and was seated precariously on the lap of a man who was dressed in an odd-looking Santa suit. The boy was wailing, mouth open wide, head tipped back. His short arms were rigid at his side as if he was being a brave little soldier about the situation, but he wasn't too afraid to let his voice be heard.

I knew every line in the face of the man who was playing Santa Claus. His outfit resembled a Bohemian-style dressing robe rather than the usual red velvet Santa suit. Nor was his red cap typical Santa attire. Instead, it rose to a point before tipping to the side, and it was trimmed sparingly in black piping rather than the customary wide band of white fleece.

The whiteness in the photo was found in the man's long, flowing beard and in his thick eyebrows. He seemed to be trying to keep a straight face, yet his eyes merrily revealed his mirth as well as his age. The exposed laugh lines around his clear blue eyes put him past fifty, by my estimation. His large left hand, visible around the boy's middle, displayed a gold ring on the third finger and the edge of a gold watchband around his wrist.

"What a charmer," Katharine said as she looked at the photo. A smile grew on her lips.

I nodded. The photo couldn't help but bring a smile to any viewer.

"Curious," she said, tilting her head. "I believe I've seen this picture before."

My heart rose to meet the sip of hot tea I had just swallowed. I put the cup back in the saucer, not completely on target, and kept my eyes fixed on Katharine. "You have? Here in Carlton Heath? Do you remember where?"

"No. I'm not sure. I do remember the photo was in a frame, though. An ornate frame. It was lovely. I can't quite remember where I saw it."

I waited eagerly as she stared again at the photo and pursed her lips.

After a full minute she said, "I have a suggestion."


"I'm not able to place where I've seen this photo, but someone in town might know. Others who have lived here longer than I have would also know about the photography studio. One of them might possibly recognize the man or the boy in the photo, as well."

"Whom should I ask?"

"Several residents, actually. My husband, for one. He and the others will be at the performance this evening. Why don't you come with me?"

"The performance?" I repeated.

"Yes, the Dickens play, A Christmas Carol. I should warn you, though, it's a rather wry version. But the resident thespians have kept up the tradition for more than forty years. Mind you, the play is an abbreviation of the original, and the adaptation of the characters is, shall we say, loose. But it is wonderfully entertaining."

I bit my lower lip and felt a sickening knot tighten in my stomach.

"Would you like to come, then?" Katharine asked. "As my guest, of course."

"I… I don't know."

"Ah." She handed back the photograph. "Perhaps you have plans. It is Christmas Eve, after all."

"No. I mean, yes. I do have plans. I need to get back to London. To my hotel room."

"Che-che-che. London is close enough. You won't have difficulty returning later in the evening."

I scrambled for an appropriate response while Katharine stood tall and graciously patient before me, hands folded across the front of her lovely evening dress, waiting for my reply.

"I don't have the right kind of outfit with me for the theater," I said.

She smiled. "I don't think anyone in attendance tonight would even lovingly refer to what you'll see as 'theater.' What you're wearing now is entirely appropriate. I'm dressed as I am because I've a part in the production. In the concessions, actually."

I stalled, looking down at the untouched scones on the china plate.

"Well, then," she said, easing my silence. "Perhaps I'll leave you to enjoy your tea, and you can take a moment to consider the invitation. If I can bring you anything, do ask."

As she turned to leave, I unexpectedly blurted out the reason for my indecision. "I don't go to plays."

Katharine's expression appeared unaffected by my strange declaration.

I added a little more information. "I stopped going to plays a long time ago and…"

The resolve that had fueled my boycott when I was nine years old now waned in the light of this room where all my logic and defenses seemed unnecessary considering my hostess's elegant grace.

"… I don't go to plays," I finished lamely.

She stood still, a few feet away. After a pause, she spoke. "What I have always loved about decisions is that you can make a new one whenever you like."

Then she slid behind the curtain that cordoned off the kitchen area from the half a dozen open tables covered in their crimson cloths and dotted with flickering votives. I sat alone by the comforting fire.

Yet I didn't feel entirely alone. A select convoy of early childhood memories gathered in the empty seat across from me. They rose to their full height, leaned closer, and stared at me, waiting to hear whether they still held power over my decisions.

Chapter Three

In the silence and safety of the Tea Cosy, the echo of my gloriously odd childhood bounced off the sooty hearth and returned to me.

All the memories began with my mother. She was an actress. Not an actor. Please. An actress. She introduced herself as "Eve Carson, the actress," and people responded with a hazy nod of vague familiarity. The truth was, none of them had ever heard of her.

Each summer Eve Carson, the actress, cavorted about the stage, embodying some immortal character or other at the Shakespearean theater in Ashland, Oregon. The rest of the year she packed our forest green Samsonite suitcases into the hatchback of our little blue car, and we traveled up and down the West Coast, calling on her string of theatrical connections.

In Santa Cruz, my mother went to work wearing a Renaissance costume that was sewn by a bald woman who had seven cats and no television. In San Diego, our hotel room was right next to the dinner theater where my mother sang and danced every night in a sailor suit. Performances were twice on Saturdays, and the food was plentiful, if I didn't mind eating at midnight, which, of course, I didn't.

I was a gypsy child. An only child. As such, I believed everything my mother said, including her embellished account of how, one moonlit night, she slept beside a lake on a feathery bed of moss.

"Silently, so silently, the Big Dipper tipped just enough to drop one small yet very twinkling star into the hollow of my belly. That tiny star sprouted and grew like a watermelon until…"

Her deep, midnight blue eyes would widen as she declared that one day, without warning, I popped right out and peacefully went to sleep in her arms.

"And that day, my darling," she would conclude in her winsome voice, as a plumpness rose in her high cheekbones, "was the happiest day of my life. You became to me the sun, the moon, the stars, and all my deepest dreams fulfilled. Never doubt the gifting of your being or the beauty of your light, my sweet Miranda."

Like a baby bird, I swallowed every juicy word that tumbled from my beautiful mother's mouth. We looked alike, with our dark hair, defined eyebrows, and slender legs. Her eyes were the deepest shade of blue before the color could be called black. My eyes, however, were the fairest shade of blue with the sort of transparency seen in a marble when held up to the sun. The lightness in my eyes and skin transferred to the feathery lightness of my logic, as well.

Until I was almost nine, I had no formed sense of reason. I was a child with delayed rational development. I didn't understand the peril of such an existence with such a woman. I didn't know a fine line existed between art and deceit. I couldn't tell when she was performing and when she was telling the truth. All of it was real to me. Every word, every smile, every tear.

My strongest memories begin with the day we drove into Ashland. The hillsides of southern Oregon were paling from green to yellow, and the hot scent of the drying grass came through the car window like a faint sweetness riding over the sticky smell of the eternal 5 Freeway's tar and asphalt.

We checked into our room at the Swan Motel on a Tuesday afternoon and ate pizza, sitting cross-legged on our bed. After that, we were living in the rhythm of her performance schedule. Every day seemed to be a Wednesday or a Thursday. It didn't matter. My mother only came back to our room to sleep for a few hours during the darkest part of the night.

Most days I would go with her to the theater, where I would find new ways to make myself invisible. For a nine-year-old I was fairly successful at my career as a phantom. When I wasn't so successful, the next day I always had a babysitter named Carlita, who brought me cookies made with pink coconut.

A few times I stayed by myself in the motel with the door bolted and the television turned up as loud as it would go. I never told anyone that my mother left me alone.

The best mornings were the ones when I would wake to the sound of water running in the shower. That meant she wasn't going to sleep for hours while I tried to stay quiet. On those mornings I would stay in bed, pretending to be asleep, and soon my mother would lean close with her long, black hair dripping tiny kisses on my face. She would say, "Awaken, my little bird! Let us fly away and dine on golden sunbeams."

Those were the mornings we crossed the street holding hands and ate breakfast at the small café with the purple flowers by the front door. We always sat next to each other, nice and close, in the red vinyl booth. I always ordered waffles. Waffles with strawberries that came cold and mushy and tasting of freezer burn. Over the waffles and strawberries I would hold up the small jug of maple syrup and pour a spinning circle of liquid gold. The first touch of golden syrup on my tongue tasted like joy.

Eve Carson, the actress, always ordered scrambled eggs, with tomatoes instead of hash browns, and a small grapefruit juice. As the waitress walked away, I would watch my mother slip six or eight packets of sugar into her purse. She nabbed them in one smooth motion without taking her deeper-than-the-Pacific blue eyes off of me. One time she took a spoon. My mother was very good at the small things.

Whenever we were cozied up to each other like that, I didn't feel neglected or jealous of the hours she spent doting on her other love, the theater. When I felt her close, I found it easy to believe that I was to her the sun and moon and stars. I believed everything she said.

Until the day I found the blue velvet purse with the golden tassels.

Chapter Four

Before I found the purse, I found the one-eyed dragon.

If I had believed in an ordered universe at that time, I would have understood why the one came before the other. But as I mentioned before, I was young in my logic and naive in all areas of theology.

The discoveries came close to each other while we lived in Ashland. On a beastly night during the second month of our stay at the Swan Motel, our air conditioner stopped working. It was too late to ask the front desk to call a repairman. And it was too hot to sleep.

My mother told me to lie still and imagine I was a snowflake, floating on an iceberg in Alaska. I tried, but it didn't work. My Method acting skills were sadly lacking.

"Then come with me, my little fish," she said. "We shall go for a swim."


"Yes, now."

I followed my mother down the stairs, both of us in our thin, cotton pajamas. The motel pool was small and separated from the parking lot by a chain-link fence lined with sheets of hard green plastic. All the outside lights of the Swan Motel glowed with a pale weariness as if they were too hot to shine their brightest and had turned themselves to dim.

"It's still hot out here," I whispered.

"Yes, it is," she murmured in the stillness. "Hot as dragons' breath."

My mother lifted the latch on the gate that led into the pool area. She walked right in as if the "Pool Closed After 9 PM" sign applied to everyone but us.

"They'll be looking for a cool watering hole this night." She dipped her foot into the shallow end. "When they come, you will allow the dragons to drink as much as they like, undisturbed, won't you?"

I nodded.

"Your movements in the water must produce only the tiniest of ripples."

I nodded again and lowered my thin legs into the water.

That's when I saw him. The one-eyed dragon.

In the darkness of the still waters, the smoldering light under the diving board appeared to be the half-opened yellow eye of a camouflaged dragon gazing back at us.

A shiver raced up my torso.

Ignoring the dragon, my mother demurely slipped her slender frame all the way under the water, submerging with barely a sound. I watched as her oversized pajama top billowed around her like a jellyfish.

Bravely lowering myself into the water only up to my neck, I kept a watchful eye on the dragon in the deep end of the pool.

He did not move. Neither did I.

The gap between us remained a flat distance of undisturbed, watery space.

My mother swam about freely, silently. I bobbed and blinked only when I had to. Then she motioned for me to follow as she slipped out of the pool.

We trotted as quickly as we could back to our room.

With a finger to her lips, she said, "We must hurry before one of them follows us into our room. Dragons are drawn in by the scent of chlorine."

She silently slid the key into the door and jiggled it once, twice, three times.

"Hurry!" my tiny voice begged. The legs of my cotton pajamas clung to me as the dripping pool water puddled at our doorstep, leaving more traceable chlorine with every drop.

"Open!" my mother commanded the doorknob. Suddenly the key worked. We pressed through together as I stifled my squeals.

My mother quickly shut the door, locked it, bolted it with the chain, and motioned for me to cautiously peek out the front window behind the closed curtain. I squinted at the submerged yellow eye that hadn't moved from the pool's deep end. We stood together, barely breathing in the darkness, reeking of chlorine. My heart raced deliciously.

A few days later I was in our motel room alone, waiting for Carlita to arrive. I had planted myself in a chair beside the window and was watching a girl in a flowered bathing suit as she squealed and splashed in the pool.

I wasn't on a vacation like she was. I lived there at the Swan Motel, and I knew all about the yellow-eyed dragon that came out on sweltering nights and breathed his fiery breath across the pool water. I wondered if I should tell her.

The blithe girl scrambled up on her father's shoulders, plugged her nose, and did a clumsy free-fall dive into the deep end. She did it again. And again. She had no fear.

I wanted to do that. I wanted to gallop down to the pool and join them. I wanted to be the next one to dive off the shoulders of the laughing girl's strong father into the pool. I wanted what she had.

Hurrying to put on my bathing suit, I returned to the chair by the window. As soon as Carlita arrived, I would convince her to take me down to the pool. I would finagle my way into the father-daughter diving contest somehow. Once I did, I would be the best diver of all. The girl's father would cheer the loudest for me.

Then something inside me said no. That would never be so.

The man in the pool was her father. He was not my father. He would always cheer the loudest for her. No father would ever cheer the loudest for me.

That was the first time I realized what a gift a father was. And I hadn't been given such a gift.


On Sale
Sep 6, 2016
Page Count
352 pages

Robin Jones Gunn

About the Author

Robin Jones Gunn has written eighty-two books over the past twenty-five years, with almost 4.5 million copies sold worldwide. She received a Christy Award for her novel Sisterchicks in Gondolas, and speaks at events around the US and Canada as well as in South America, Africa, Europe, and Australia.

Learn more about this author