Izzy Fontaine was up to her elbows in family photos when the doorbell rang. The sound echoed, joined by two sharp barks and the clicking of nails on the hardwood floor as Bogie rounded the corner, bounded across the room, and slid to a stop in front of the door. The Jack Russell terrier did the same thing anytime someone rang the bell. And every time the door opened and he saw it wasn't his owner, he slunk out of the room with his head down.
Izzy looked down at the dog. "I miss her, too, Boy."
Letting out a sigh, she dropped the eight-by-tens from her hands, pushed her chair away from the table, and trudged across the room. Who would stop by unannounced? A list of the usual suspects flitted through her mind: Students selling magazine subscriptions? Local proselytizers unnecessarily worried about her soul? Or the man with the pickup truck full of gardening tools who kept offering to rake the leaves from her yard? What she didn't expect to see through the fisheye lens of the peephole was a senior citizen standing on the porch.
She opened the door wide enough to stick her head through but blocked the bottom of the opening with her body to keep Bogie from running outside. "Can I help you?"
The man smiled. "Are you Isabella Fontaine?"
The rational part of her brain, the part that took copious mental notes whenever she watched TV crime dramas, warned her against divulging personal information to a stranger. But the other part, the part that usually found the best in everyone, couldn't believe this sweet old man held any danger.
"Yes, I'm Isabella. But no one calls me that."
"What do they call you?"
The sides of his wiry white mustache rose in a smile. "Well then, Izzy it is. I'm Virgil, and I believe I'm the one who can help you." With a bit of difficulty he produced a huge ribbon-tied box from behind his back and held it up in front of him.
"What is that?"
"A present for you. From your grandmother."
Izzy pulled back as if the box had grown teeth and snapped at her. Two days ago, alone at the assisted living facility, Grandma Isabella had passed from this world to the next. Guilt still gnawed at Izzy for not being there when her grandmother needed her. This unexpected gift only made things worse.
"Can I bring it in?"
Virgil's hopeful question reclaimed Izzy's attention. She hesitated, but the crack of thunder, followed several seconds later by a flash of lighting across the cloud-filled sky, made up her mind. "Oh. Of course." She stepped back and opened the door wider. "Come in."
With slow but steady steps, Virgil entered the house. His eyes took in the dark wood and built-in cabinetry so typical of a craftsman house. "It's just as beautiful as Isabella described it."
"Gran loved her house." Only it wasn't Gran's house anymore; it was Izzy's. Six months ago, when Gran fractured her hip and decided to move into the assisted living facility, Izzy convinced herself she was just taking care of Gran's house, Gran's dog. Just temporarily. But she couldn't keep telling herself that. Not anymore.
Virgil pointed to the heavy oak table in the dining area, strewn with photographs. "Are any of those of Isabella?"
"They all are." Izzy shut the door and followed Virgil, passing him and going to the table. "I'm making a photo display for Gran's funeral and I can't decide which picture to use. I narrowed it down to these." She grabbed two photos from the table and held them up for Virgil to see.
One was a black and white of a young Isabella in a classic dance pose. She balanced on one leg, satin-clad toes stretched into perfect pointe, her other knee drawn up, arms held out in front of her. The rapturous expression on her smooth, unblemished face and the extension of her fingertips gave the impression that she was reaching for her one true love.
The other picture was much different. It was a headshot, probably taken the last time her church updated the picture directory. She wore a burgundy sweater with a silk flower pinned to it, her silver hair pulled back into a tidy bun. This was an Isabella mellowed by time, her skin etched with lines, her smile content.
Two pictures representing two very different sides of the same woman. Izzy looked from one to the other and shook her head. "I'm just not sure how she'd rather be remembered."
Virgil lowered himself into a hardback chair, leaning the box against one leg. "I think she'd like to be remembered both ways." He reached out and took the photo of young Isabella. "I know I could never forget her."
Just how well had Virgil known her grandmother? Izzy pulled out another chair and sat in front of him. "Were you and Gran ... close?"
Virgil chuckled and waggled his finger at her. "Yes, but not in the way you're thinking. We had a lot in common. And believe me, when you live in a place like Vibrant Vistas, it's an accomplishment just finding someone who remembers enough about their past to compare notes."
Izzy laughed. "So if you two were such good friends, why didn't I ever see you when I was there?"
He swatted his hand in her direction. "You came there to see her, not to meet her doddering friends. I would have been in the way."
"Somehow, I doubt that." Izzy's eyes drifted back to the box at Virgil's side.
His eyes followed hers and he jumped in his chair. "Oh yes, the present. I'm sure you're dying to get a look at it."
"I am curious."
He held it out to her. "Careful. It's heavier than it looks."
He wasn't kidding. She took it in both hands, glad for the warning. Laying it across her legs, she pressed her palms flat on the lid, as if doing so and concentrating would tell her what was inside. The last time she saw Gran, they'd decorated her room for Christmas, even though it was only the first of November. "If Walmart can put up their decorations months early," Gran had said, "then so can I. Besides, I'm not getting any younger. Christmas is my favorite holiday and I want to enjoy it as long as I can." She enjoyed it for a week, and then she was gone.
Had Gran known how little time she had left? If so, why hadn't she given Izzy the gift then, when they'd been together? Heat pushed against the back of Izzy's eyes as she looked down at the loosely tied, red satin ribbon, no doubt secured by Gran's arthritic fingers. Just one more experience Izzy had missed.
She looked up at Virgil, blinking quickly to keep the tears at bay. "Why did she give it to you?"
"She knew I'd keep it safe."
"Safe from what?"
"Not what. Who." Virgil's voice was low. He leaned forward, elbows to knees, eyes darting back and forth as if he expected to find covert operatives skulking in the shadows. "There are a lot of people who would like to get their hands on that."
She lifted her hands from the box. What in the world had Gran given her? "I don't understand. How could she have kept something valuable at the home without anybody finding out about it?"
"Not everybody recognizes true value when they see it." He nodded, impressed by the weight of his words.
"But what is it?"
He sat up straight, head slightly inclined. "It wouldn't be much of a present if I told you. Go on and open it."
Izzy grabbed one end of the satin ribbon, then froze. Maybe she should wait. It was a Christmas present, after all. Maybe she should save it until Christmas Day, just so she could share one last holiday with her grandmother.
But then that wouldn't honor Gran's spirit, would it? Gran never could wait to open gifts. She would have ripped into the package then and there.
The ribbon fell away with a yank, trailing down her legs and brushing the floor. Wanting to make the moment last, she slowly lifted the white box top. Beneath it were neatly folded sheets of tissue paper. She peeled them away, one after the other, until her gift was revealed.
"Well," Virgil asked, "what do you think?"
"It's a quilt."
Izzy didn't mean for her voice to sound so flat and uninterested. But after the workup Virgil gave it, she expected something a little flashier.
"It's not just a quilt." A hint of scolding tinged his tone. "It's a family heirloom. That was one of Isabella's most prized possessions."
Izzy looked back down at the quilt. Triangles of different colors, mostly faded and worn by age, seemed to chase one another in geometric patterns, up one side and down the other. Izzy thought back to all the years she'd spent with her grandmother: long summer visits as a child, when she would pack her tiny pink suitcase and stay for a week at a time; so many weekends in her teen years, after her mother moved Izzy and her brother back to California and close to Gran; and those months after Izzy's accident, when Gran took her in and mended not only her body but her spirit as well. In all that time, Gran never mentioned this quilt. Izzy had never seen it. How important could it really have been? For that matter, how had she managed to keep it hidden from her at Vibrant Vistas?
Izzy reached across the box and squeezed Virgil's hand. "It's lovely. Did she tell you anything about it?"
His face nearly glowed at the prospect of sharing his knowledge. "Oh yes. This is what you call a Wild Goose Chase pattern." He ran one finger carefully down the middle of a row of triangles. "According to Isabella—"
Virgil was cut short by the pealing of the doorbell. Bogie dashed around the corner, nearly crashing into Izzy's legs as she crossed the room. Then the bell rang again. The dog barked and turned in a circle. By the time the bell rang a third time, he'd added a little jump to the barking and circling.
"All right, already. I'm coming!" She dropped the quilt box on the coffee table, scooped Bogie up in one arm, and then lunged for the door before the button-happy person outside could strike again.
Maybe happy was the wrong word to use. The man standing outside, shoulders hunched against the gentle rain that had begun to fall, was anything but happy. Izzy decided to cut him off before he could launch into a sales pitch and become even more disgruntled when she didn't bite.
"Whatever you're selling, I'm not buying. Have a nice day."
His palm slapped against the door before she could shut it. "I'm not selling anything. I'm looking for my grandfather."
"Your grandfather? What makes you think ... oh." Izzy looked over her shoulder. "Virgil, does this man belong to you?"
Virgil sighed as he pushed himself out of the chair. "How did you find me, Max?"
"I got a call from Vibrant Vistas. Something about you paying the shuttle driver to drop you off here."
"Who needs Big Brother when you've got Nurse Bauer and her minions?" Virgil mumbled as he ambled toward them.
The rain came down harder, and Max ducked his head as fat drops plopped on him from the roof's overhang. The soggier he got, the less imposing he seemed.
Izzy stepped back. "Come in out of the rain."
"Thanks." He swooped into the room, and a glimmer of a smile flashed at her, exposing a dimple in one cheek.
She closed the door and put Bogie down on the floor. "Stay out of trouble," she said, scratching his ear. He scampered across the room and settled into a wingback chair facing the door, keeping watch in case any other unexpected visitors decided to show up. Izzy turned back to Max, ready to ask why he'd tracked down his grandfather, but the question died on her lips. He stood in the middle of her living room, staring down at the boxed quilt in shocked silence.
He pointed, his face reverting to its former unhappy self. "How did you get that?"
"Virgil brought it. It's a present from my grandmother."
Max shot her a look. "Isabella Randolph is your grandmother?"
"Yes." Izzy spoke slowly. "She gave me the quilt."
Max shook his head sharply, sending a fine spray of water in her direction. "Sorry, Miss, but she gave it to me first."
Virgil groaned. "Don't, Max."
Izzy's eyes swung from one man to the other. "Look, I don't know who you think you are, but—"
"I'm Max Logan, curator of the California Pioneer Museum. And that quilt," he said, stabbing his finger at the Wild Goose Chase, "is mine."
Excerpted from A Wild Goose Chase Christmas by Jennifer AlLee. Copyright © 2012 Jennifer AlLee. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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