The Christmas Dilemma


Sarah Vance-Tompkins

Skipping Christmas is easy. But it’s impossible to deny your heart…

Eli Adair is the first call whenever his family and friends need a hand. But this Christmas, he has no obligations, so he’s taking a break from the stress of big family celebrations. No presents under the tree. No stockings by the fireplace. No twinkling lights.

All he wants is to be home alone at Hillcrest House.

Travel nurse Audrey Elliott is returning to Christmas Tree Cove hoping for a big holiday celebration like the ones on her grandparents’ farm—all she has left of happier times before her mom’s condition lost those memories. Candy canes. Gingerbread houses. Holiday carols.

All Audrey wants is a place to call home for Christmas.

When a high school friend assures her there’s plenty of room at Hillcrest House, it seems like all her Christmas dreams are coming true until she discovers she’ll be living with Eli, the boy she’s never forgotten. Or the first kiss they shared.

Eli and Audrey are about to discover whether December is about reliving traditions—or making new ones.

Enjoy an Excerpt →

Other Tule AuthorsYou'll Also Love:

More Tule TitlesYou Might Enjoy:

Start reading this book:

Chapter One


Audrey Elliott celebrated Thanksgiving in the Chicago O’Hare airport gobbling up a slice of lukewarm pizza. She washed it down with a glass of red wine that tasted like cough syrup. It was not the first holiday she’d spent alone. Nor the worst food she’d ever had on Thanksgiving. The vending machine burrito she’d inhaled at Mass General last year was still the big winner by a landslide.

A seasoned traveler, Audrey was grateful she’d finally found a table overlooking the tarmac while waiting on the standby announcements for the next leg of her long-delayed flight.

She’d anticipated crowds and endless lines getting through security at San Francisco International on one of the busiest travel days of the year, but she was taken aback by the chaos created by the mash-up of infrequent fliers and winter weather delays from coast-to-coast. And her air travel experience had transformed into an overcrowded circus of people behaving badly.

Twenty-four hours later than expected, she arrived in Chicago after spending a sleepless night on the floor near the gate. As soon as the plane came to a stop, the disheveled passengers got to their feet and acted like surly offensive linemen crowding the aisle to be the first at baggage claim and rush off to their Thanksgiving dinners.

Audrey had no reason to hurry. No one was keeping a plate of turkey and stuffing warm for her. She waited patiently while others deplaned, then strolled through the peaceful corridors of Chicago O’Hare at an easy pace. Tall and capable, no one ever worried she’d blow away in a good breeze. Unlike her mom, who was petite and feisty until she lost her battle with early on-set dementia. Then she’d melted like butter into a small and fragile person Audrey wanted to protect twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

Audrey took another big glug of the wine for courage before she phoned her mom.

“Hello?” Her mom’s confusion was immediately apparent. The same loving voice that had comforted Audrey when she was a child, didn’t show any signs of recognition. Every time her mom treated her like a stranger, it was as if a jagged edge of glass cutting through her heart.

“Hi, Mom. Happy Thanksgiving.”

“Who is this?” Mom was immediately brittle and defensive.

“It’s me. Audrey.”

“Oh, Audrey,” she said, her voice softening. “How nice of you to call. I have a daughter by the same name.”

Audrey swallowed hard. It was going to be one of those days. “Yes. I remember you told me that. How are you feeling?” she asked.

“Same as ever. But what am I’m doing here?” Mom asked. “My children picked this place. What did I do to deserve this? The people here aren’t nice to me.”

“They aren’t?” Audrey’s superhuman nurse senses started tingling. She needed more information. “What’s going on?”

“I want to see Red Trillium Farm. I need to finish the floral border. And they won’t let me leave,” Mom said in a tone of dazed exasperation.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Audrey said. “Do you want me to talk to the nurse?”

“What can you do?” Mom snapped. “I don’t even know who you are.”

Audrey kept the conversation going for a few more minutes before she said goodbye and clicked off. Her stomach clinched tight. She took a deep breath, relaxing enough to let her memories of Red Trillium Farm to fill her heart.

One magical Christmas Eve when she was in elementary school, her mom tucked her in under a pile of antique quilts and blankets under the gabled roof of the old farmhouse. She was the youngest cousin staying with her grandparents for the holidays and the last of Santa’s true believers in the family.

“I’m too excited to sleep,” she whispered.

“Why don’t you listen for Santa’s footsteps on the roof?” Mom suggested.

“Do you think he’s really coming?” she asked.

Mom smiled. “If you listen very carefully, I’m sure he’ll be here soon.”

Audrey had fallen asleep filled with the joy only the anticipation of Santa could give a small child.

Growing up in Christmas Tree Cove was idyllic until her world turned upside down when she and her mom moved away during her senior year of high school. She left for nursing school shortly after and wasn’t aware of her mom’s struggles with short-term memory loss.

She was in the middle of finals week in nursing school at Emory when Will called to tell her their mother was struggling with cognitive issues. Audrey was blindsided by the news. Unable to focus on her classwork, she returned home to discover her older brother had put their mom in the first facility he found with a memory care unit. On her first visit, Audrey was immediately aware it wasn’t up to her professional standards.

She stepped in and did her due diligence, finding a place with excellent marks from healthcare professionals. It was more expensive than the facility where her mom had been living.

Will was ten years older than Audrey and considered himself very sophisticated having grown up in Chicago. He wasn’t impressed with the changes Audrey made to their mom’s living arrangements. He was only concerned about the bottom line. “The doctors can’t get her memory back,” Will explained, his tone condescending as if she wasn’t a medical professional. “Half the time she doesn’t know where she is. Why does she need to be in a state-of-the-art facility?”

“This is what is best for Mom,” Audrey insisted. “I won’t worry about her as much while I’m three thousand miles away if I know she has good care.”

“Why don’t you find a job at a hospital in Detroit?” he suggested. “Then you could be here for Mom and take care of her in your free time.”

Audrey didn’t respond.

I don’t want to settle.

The truth was the idea of making a long-term commitment of any kind made Audrey uncomfortable. She wasn’t interested. Not even when Jamie Dawson, her contact at the travel nurse agency said, “San Francisco General wants to make you a part of their emergency department permanently.” There were offers from other hospitals, too.

Audrey always demurred.

“You’re more likely to meet someone if you’re not moving from one side of the country to the other every thirteen weeks for work,” Jamie said. She worked at the travel nurse agency and had been assigned to play professional matchmaker for Audrey. Despite Audrey’s frequent protests, Jamie was also on high alert to find romance for her.

“Who are you waiting for? The perfect man doesn’t exist,” Jamie insisted. “You need to date more. Get out and mingle. It’s a numbers game.”

“You don’t know that for sure,” Audrey said. “The perfect man for me is out there somewhere. I’m willing to wait.”

“You have unreasonable expectations for a relationship.”

“Maybe,” Audrey said. “Or maybe I have very high standards.”

“For example?” Jamie asked.

“First kisses,” Audrey said. Her first kiss made her heart flutter. Still did.

“Tell me more,” Jamie said.

Audrey shook her head. “Let’s just say someone set a very high bar. And I’m not settling until I have those feelings again.”

Free of romantic entanglements, Audrey was the perfect candidate to be a traveling nurse. Every thirteen weeks, she packed up her belongings into boxes and suitcases. And moved to a new place often thousands of miles away.

She liked to be needed and preferred the challenges of short-term assignments at overcrowded and understaffed hospitals in mostly urban areas. She made friends quickly and worked hard to seamlessly blend into each new team of hard-working medical professionals.

Thirteen weeks in San Francisco had gone in a blink of an eye. She swore she had just unpacked, then she was standing at her kitchen window saying goodbye to the Golden Gate Bridge the twin towers appearing to float in the fog, like the turrets of a fairytale castle.

Audrey was thrilled every member of the emergency department at San Francisco General Hospital had gathered to raise a glass or two to send her off to her next assignment. She’d formed tight bonds with her crew where life and death was on the line every day.

Passing the time in the O’Hare Airport she flipped through the photos on her phone of her wild and raucous going-away party. She snorted out loud over the photo of conservative anesthesiologists Bram and Phil showing off their matching med school tattoos. And the pic of all the RNs gathered to form a rainbow of matching surgical caps brought tears to her eyes. She’d made every single one as going-away gifts from vintage fabric she’d found in thrift stores using her grandmother’s pattern.

She was still flipping through photos when a man seated at a nearby table attempted to take a selfie of him and his wife in front while balancing his carry-on luggage, and two Styrofoam cups of coffee in a cardboard carrier.

“Here, let me help you.” Audrey got to her feet and crossed the room.

She smiled at the couple posing in front of her, eliciting the same response from them. Their smiles were broad, their faces open and friendly. The background didn’t matter. It was obvious they were madly in love.

“How do they look?” he asked.

“They’re all Christmas-card worthy,” Audrey said, returning the phone.

“Thank you,” the woman gushed.

Audrey smiled even though she was certain she looked like roadkill. Her hair was in wild disarray, falling over her shoulders and into her face. For work, she usually secured her hair into a no-nonsense bun. She slicked back her strays with a pomade without any hint of face-framing curls. A few lazy swipes of black mascara on her long, dark eyelashes were the only indulgences she gave to her vanity.

Audrey found a hair tie in the bottom of her bag and pulled her hair up into a messy top knot. Then she moved up to the counter and put herself on the standby list for the next available flight. She was slumped in an uncomfortable chair near a gate listening to an eclectic playlist on her iPhone when Jamie called.

“Where are you?”

“Chicago. My flight out of San Francisco was delayed. I’m flying standby. And my luggage is no longer in the tracking system.”


“Ugh is right,” Audrey agreed. “Why are you calling me? Why aren’t you celebrating Thanksgiving with your family?”

“The food has been eaten. Leftovers put away,” Jamie said. “And calling you is how I’m getting out of doing the dishes.”

Audrey laughed. “I’m glad I could help.”

“Yeah. Well. I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but there’s been a slight change of plans. You’re not going to Traverse City.”

“What?” Audrey sat up straight, knocking red wine down the front of her sweater. She stood up to clean off with a napkin but made the mess even worse. “Dammit.”

“I’m sorry,” Jamie said. “The rental we reserved for you cancelled at the last minute.”

“But I’ve been dreaming of a white Christmas,” Audrey said. “How did this happen?”

“Northern Michigan is a big-time tourist destination. Short-term rentals have eliminated almost all affordable housing in the area. Despite the healthy per diem, they’re offering to cover the cost of housing and food, there isn’t anything available. Don’t worry. You won’t miss a day of work. I’ll find you another assignment. Some place warm and sunny.”

Audrey wasn’t interested in a placement in a tropical climate. “The truth is, I grew up in a little town near Traverse City called Christmas Tree Cove. I wanted to be there for Christmas. And visit my mom on weekends.”

“You have a connection to the area? Why didn’t you mention this before?”

“We were too busy talking placements and contracts.” She tossed her caramel-colored shawl around her shoulders to cover her wine-stained sweater.

“Christmas Tree Cove is where I learned to ride a bike. Became interested in science and made my first bomb with a Bunsen burner and hydrochloric acid. And my first kiss…” Audrey stopped. She’d said too much.

“Wait. What? Your first kiss? Where? Who??”

“Under the crab apple tree. Eli Adair.” His name tumbled off her lips in a rush. And as soon as it did, her stomach flip-flopped.

“Captain of the football team?”

Audrey laughed. “Not a chance. He called himself a Star Wars enthusiast. Tall. Skinny. Glasses. Super smart.”

“Is he single? Does he still live in the area?”

Audrey shrugged. “Doubtful. He went to University of Michigan. He probably lives in Silicon Valley with all the other tech bros who played too many video games in their free time in high school.”

“You haven’t kept in touch?”

“There was a misunderstanding.” Audrey swallowed hard. “Feelings got hurt. His. Mine. It was unfortunate.”

The last time she’d laid eyes on Eli, he had walked away from her, one hand raking through his tobacco-brown mane of curls. He’d glanced back over his shoulder, his bluer than blue eyes shooting daggers at her. He had good reason. She’d broken his heart. And her own.

“He lived in Christmas Tree Cove, too?”

“Oh, yes. The Adairs had my favorite home in all of Christmas Tree Cove. Hillcrest House,” Audrey said, her voice bright with memories. “The most perfect Christmas house ever. High up on the hill overlooking the harbor. Every year for the holidays, his mother covered it in twinkle lights and put a candle in every window.” When she closed her eyes, Hillcrest House filled her imagination. “Eli’s sister and I were high school rivals,” Audrey said. “Competing to see who would get better grades and be class valedictorian. But my parents divorced. My mom and I moved to suburban Detroit over winter break. My dad died six months later. And I’ve never been back to Christmas Tree Cove.

“Sounds like a terrible way to end a rivalry,” Jamie said.

“The worst.” Audrey had been homesick and miserable.

“Do the Adairs still own Hillcrest House?”

“I don’t know. Dacey had plans for world domination when she enrolled at an Ivy League business school. I can’t imagine she’d still be living in Christmas Tree Cove.”

“It doesn’t sound very promising,” Jamie said. “I’ll tell you what. I’m going to put out my feelers and see if I can place you as soon as possible.”

“But I really want the Traverse City assignment,” Audrey said. “I don’t want to go anywhere else. Is there anything I can do?”

“Call Eli’s sister,” Jamie suggested. “See if she knows anyone with a short-term rental property in the area. The hospital administrators are asking applicants to have proof of housing before we submit their credentials for consideration. Or you can throw caution to the wind and call Eli.”

“No. Way. It’s Thanksgiving,” Audrey said. “And we haven’t spoken in over ten years.”

“Reaching out to one of them is your only hope to get what you want for Christmas,” Jamie said. “Listen. I’m going to send out some emails. If you find a rental in Christmas Tree Cove, let me know immediately.”

Audrey slumped back in the chair.

For weeks all she’d been dreaming about was returning to Christmas Tree Cove for the holidays. The happiest memories of her life were Christmases at Red Trillium Farm. Her grandparent’s little farmhouse was decorated with twinkle lights inside and out. Stockings were hung by the fireplace. A grand tree trimmed next to the fireplace. Her grandmother’s kitchen was scented with sugar cookies, gingerbread, and roasted turkey, and her grandpa made sure the pine tree at the beginning of the long driveway was covered in bright-colored lights.

“So Santa will know you’re waiting for him,” he’d said with a broad grin.

And when it was time to open presents on Christmas morning, and her cousins and second cousins gathered in the tiny living room, it was joyful mayhem.

It was Audrey’s secret wish. To return to Christmas Tree Cove. After spending so many holidays on the job or all alone, all she wanted was to be a part of a big holiday celebration like the ones she remembered from her childhood.

Audrey flicked through the contacts in her iPhone, stopping when she came to the one marked Dacey Adair. She didn’t have a number for her cellphone. All she had was the number for the old house phone that used to ring on the wall in the kitchen at Hillcrest House. It had always been the center of all activity in the Adair household. She doubted it was still in service, but she hit the button for one-touch dialing.

“Hello.” The timbre of his voice was lower, but no question it was Eli. Laughter and music in the background nearly drowned him out. Her breath caught. She couldn’t find words to respond.

“Hello.” Eli asked, practically shouting. “Is anyone there?”

“Is Dacey there?” she whispered, half hoping, half fearing he’d recognize her voice. And immediately they’d begin a conversation that lasted for hours and hours. They’d talk about nothing and everything. Like they did when they were teenagers and their hearts had never been broken. She held her breath.

“Hold on,” he responded crisply.

Then he was gone. Her heart skipped a beat. Was there a chance Eli Adair still lived in Christmas Tree Cove?

End of Excerpt

The Christmas Dilemma is available in the following formats:

ISBN: 978-1-961544-43-7

November 1, 2023

→ As an Amazon Associate we earn from qualifying purchases. We also may use affiliate links elsewhere in our site.