EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is an excerpt from Christine Lynxwiler’s Forever Christmas (Barbour Publishing).
Besides Jesus, I’ve had three real loves in my life. I married the first one, the winter we turned ten, in a Christmas wedding at the top of Snowy Mountain. In exchange for my heart, the sweet, green-eyed boy gave me a pop-top ring. But the sun came out, the snowman preacher melted, and I lost the ring in the slush. After that, my heart remained unscathed for thirteen years, a record I blew when I fell madly in love with a starving artist during my second year in law school. The ring he gave me wasn’t made from a pop-top, but it might as well have been when I caught him kissing his old girlfriend the night before our wedding.
Other than a whirlwind summer romance with my best friend’s brother—can you say rebound relationship?—I’ve never even been tempted to risk it all again. Well, technically I guess I risked it all again this year when I ditched law school and inherited a new hometown, my true true earthly love—Jingle Bells, Arkansas. Which works perfectly, because how can a town break your heart?
So at twenty-six, I’m done with runaway-bride excitement and planning my life to suit other people. I’m content to live out my days in my favorite place in the world, where the spirit of Christmas lives in our hearts all year long. Yes, that’s straight off the Jingle Bells welcome sign out on the main highway. And it’s corny. But true.
It’s especially true here in my shop—aptly named Forever Christmas. The front is the store section,about fifteen hundred square feet of all things Christmas. But in the back, I have my workshop— just call me Santa—where I paint, sculpt a little, and make ornaments. And upstairs is the three-bedroom apartment, where my grandmother babysat me during most of my childhood. Now it’s mine and filled to overflowing with happy memories. Other than wishing I could pay the bills the postman brings every day about this time, who could ask for anything more?
I sift through the mail. Everyone around here still sends out Christmas cards, so this time of year the cards tend to outnumber the bills, which is nice. Today, though, nestled amid the bright colors, a white business envelope catches my eye. It’s addressed not to the shop but to me—Kristianna Harrington, Town Council Member— and the return address is Mayor Augustus Harding, City Hall.
In Jingle Bells, we conduct town business with meetings and phone calls, or even a holler down the street, but the United States Postal Service isn’t normally involved. Few things are important enough to warrant a stamp. Wouldn’t it be nice if Uncle Gus were officially confirming the rumor going around about a new business buying the old Banning Building out on Crystal Lake? The economy has gone downhill since the distribution center closed. Maybe this is the news we’ve been waiting for.
Propping my hip against the counter, I snag a snowman letter opener from my pen-and-pencil cup and rip open the letter.
Dear Town Council Members:
As you all know, Jingle Bells has been steadily losing tourist trade and employment opportunities since the distribution center closed a year ago. A new opportunity. . .blah, blah, blah. . .Online company Summer Valley Outdoors is interested in acquiring the empty Benning Building and opening their first brick-and-mortar store in our fair town.
Yep. I called that one, didn’t I? An early Christmas present for Jingle Bells. “Investor surveys”… blah, blah, blah ... His letters are just like his speeches—a lot of words to say a little.
We would do well to set aside sentimentality for the sake of the people we represent and consider their petition to change the name of Jingle Bells to Summer Valley.
Change the name of Jingle Bells? I sink to the stool at my workbench and stare blindly at the words.
Please let this be an elaborate practical joke.
Another examination of the envelope reveals the mayor’s official seal beside his name. No one would dare to forge that.
I spin the stool around, the letter clutched against my paint smock.
My best friend, Ami Manchester, stands in the doorway of my workshop, holding two steaming coffees. “Girl, you look terrible.”
“Thanks,” I mutter.
She hurries over to me. “Bad news?”
“The mail came while you were gone.” I trade her the letter for one of the coffees, grateful to inhale the calming aroma.
She reads the paper, then looks up at me, her hazel eyes puzzled but reflecting none of the panic currently twisting through me. “Change the name of the town? Has Uncle Gus lost his mind? Why would he even consider such a thing?”
Mayor Augustus Harding isn’t blood kin to either of us, but like most Jingle Bells natives, he might as well be. I sigh. Just like with real relatives, I know his weak spot. “Easy enough. He owns that empty building. He probably had a hard time typing this letter for the dollar signs in his eyes.” Can’t fight city hall. The old phrase flits through my mind and hits me like a punch.
“Well, he’ll have to sell the building without changing the town name. People won’t go along with a crazy plan like this.” Ami calmly spoons sugar into her coffee, then holds another spoonful over my cup until I nod for her to dump it in.
“Not if I have anything to say about it.” I pick up my phone, run my finger down the ragged list Scotch-taped to the wall, and punch in the number for city hall.
While it rings, Ami retrieves the half-and-half from my tiny fridge and pours creamer in our drinks, then stirs them. I’m amazed by how unrattled she is. I’m a Jingle Bells resident by way of inheritance and love. But she was born here. Where’s her outrage?
She passes me my doctored coffee. “There’s no way people will go for this.”
I appreciate her confidence, but as the daughter of two hardball lawyers, I’m also a realist. Money talks. Jingle Bells has been hard hit by losing the Benning Distribution Center. Our unemployment rate is atrocious. People are vulnerable.
“Open Monday through Friday,” I growl the message aloud and push the Off button. “Why did I think he’d be there on a Saturday?”
I give the list on the wall another quick scan. Next to the city hall number, I find the words Augustus Mobile with a local cell number scribbled beside them in Gran’s handwriting. With any luck, he still has the same number. Things change slowly around here.
I glance at the hateful letter lying on top of some half-finished Christmas ornaments. The call goes to voice mail, and I slam the phone down. “Let’s go.”
“To deal with Uncle Gus.”
“You going to make him an offer he can’t refuse?” Ami says in her best raspy mobster voice.
“Hey, if the concrete shoe fits ... ” I reach for my coat. “Seriously, come on.”
“Kristianna, wait.” Her voice is soft, but I spin around. “You know this whole name-change thing isn’t going to come to anything. Why don’t you just wait until Monday? We’ve got some wedding favors to finish.”
“I’ll get the favors done. But we have to take care of this.” Tears prick my eyelids, but if I’ve learned one thing from my parents, it’s that crying is a weakness. I blink hard. “Now.”
She shakes her head. “This is Jingle Bells. It’s always been Jingle Bells. It’s always going to be Jingle Bells.”
When she says that, I feel so stupid. Surely she’s right. I raise my shoulders and relax them to try to stop the jitters that are coursing through me. “Maybe so.”
“Definitely so.” She pushes my cup toward me. “You’re just in a no-caffeine haze.”
I offer a wobbly grin and take a sip of my coffee. Definitely the best part of waking up today. “Okay, for now the ornaments. Later, Uncle Gus is going down.” I sigh and retrieve a snowpeople bride-and-groom ornament from the counter.” What do you think?”
Ami grins, a perfect white smile. A bride smile. “I think you’re going to a lot of trouble for me. They’re beautiful.”
“You know I love doing it. Passing out ornaments to all your wedding guests is such a cool idea.” With my paintbrush, I start shading in the details, determined to ignore the uneasiness inside me.
“Way cooler since you’re hand making them. Everyone in town will show up for the ceremony just to get a Kristianna original. Especially since you’ll be in the wedding party ...”
Is that doubt I hear? Just because I can’t make it down the aisle for my own weddings doesn’t mean I’ll do something stupid at hers. Does it? “You don’t have to butter me up. I already told you I’d make as many as you need.” I pause and meet her gaze. “And you know I’ll be there.”
“Yeah, I know. So what’s up with the mistletoe back here?” Ami points toward the little green sprig above the counter.
I laugh. “It’s not Christmas without mistletoe, but since no one ever comes back here, I figure I’m pretty safe.”
She smiles. “I should have known. You and your relationship safety nets.” She ducks her head and touches the back of her hair in a way I recognize.
Something in her tone makes me set the ornament on the work counter. “Yeah?”
“Are you sure you’re okay with being my maid of honor?” Her eyes bore through me with the penetrating power of Superman’s X-ray vision.
How many more times will we go over this? “Yep.” I retrieve the ornament and start painting again.
She snatches a stool from the counter and perches beside me. “You still having … the Dream?”
Sigh. So much for her taking the hint. Ever since I caught my first fiancé kissing his ex-girlfriend at the wedding rehearsal, I’ve had the Dream at least once a month. It didn’t go away even when I was engaged briefly to Ami’s older brother, Nathan. And it’s been more frequent since we mutually broke off our obvious—to everyone but us—rebound engagement. One day, in a weak moment, I told Ami about the Dream—how everything seems perfect until I get halfway to the front of the church; then I turn and sprint back down the aisle. I always wake up out of breath and shaking. And I just had it again a couple of nights ago. “Why yes, Dr. Phil, I am. But I’m ignoring it.”
She gives me her best Dr. Phil grin. “And how’s that working for you?”
I pretend to spill my coffee on her, but she doesn’t even move. “Fine. It’s working just fine for me.”
She holds up her hands. “Okay, subject dropped. Other than worrying about the Dream, do you really want to be in the wedding?”
“Who else is going to be your maid of honor? Garrett?” The three of us have been best friends since early childhood. But I picture six-foot-two, former-football-player Garrett holding a bouquet and smiling. “Mark’s already claimed him as the best man. Besides, he’d look pretty funny in that gorgeous green dress. It would match his eyes perfectly, wouldn’t it?”
She gives me the look—the one she uses on her third graders when she wants the truth and she wants it now.
Am I dreading standing by my best friend as she marries the man she loves? No way. Does my crazy recurring dream have me a little paranoid about messing up Ami’s wedding? Um, yeah. Is there a small part of me that wishes I was the bride walking down the holly-lined aisle, without reservation, to meet my perfect guy? Oh, come on, I’m human.
But Ami is way more important than silly jealousy or irrational fear. “Are you kidding? We’re Lucy and Ethel, Monica and Rachel, Thelma and Louise.” When will I ever learn to stop the analogies while I’m ahead? “Okay, forget Thelma and Louise. But do you really think I’d let you get married without me by your side?”
Ami drains her coffee. “You’ve always wanted a Christmas wedding, though. I could have waited until June.”
I carefully place the snowcouple on the counter and look at her sparkling eyes. “Yeah, right. The wedding’s just a week away, and with every breath you’re wishing you were married already.”
Her cheeks turn pink. “It’s that obvious?”
Only if you’re not blind. “Maybe just a little. I’ve had my chance, Ami. This is your moment.”
“You know, now that Garrett’s moved back, the two of you might—”
I put my finger to her lips. “Shh. Every few years, you come up with this crazy theory.”
“You did marry him once.” Ami raises her chin stubbornly.
“We were ten. I hardly think that qualifies for a successful trip down the aisle. Besides, Garrett and I are best friends. Just like you and me. I’m not desperate.” Well, not desperate to get married, anyway. If people saw my bank account, they might see why I’m a little desperate about the whole town issue. “If you don’t drop this subject, I’ll paint a mustache on every snowbride and Garrett can be your maid of honor.”
“I just think—”
I raise my paintbrush toward the ornament, and Ami fakes a flinch, then sighs. “Look at the bright side, when you do find the perfect man, you already have a dress.”
My wince is not fake. “Two dresses, if we’re counting.” Although as soon as Garrett shows me how to do more than just buy on eBay, I plan to rectify that. “With my track record, I’d better quit while I’m ahead. Two broken engagements make me quirky. Three would cross over to pathetic.” Some things in life I can’t do anything about. But in spite of what Ami says, I intend to fix the things I can. I push to my feet and yank off my paint smock. “Let’s go.”
I wave to the ornaments. “I’ll work around the clock on these, but I have to get this settled today. Right now. Please go with me.”
She looks like she wants to argue, but I guess she sees something in my expression that convinces her it’s hopeless.
She sighs. “Okay, I’m in. We’re off to beard the lion in his den.”
I give her a quick hug. “Thanks.” I grab my jacket off its hook and toss Ami’s to her. “He’s not in the office. But that doesn’t mean he’s untouchable.”
“You’re going to his house?”
“We’re going to his house.” I push against the double doors that open from my workshop into the store and holler toward the back corner. “Sarah!”
“Yes?” In her midforties, Sarah’s a quietly serious woman who has an amazing talent with fabric. Gran rented a corner of Forever Christmas to Sarah for her quilting years ago, and since I’m not an idiot who wants to change things that don’t need changing, I kept the arrangement when I became the new proprietor. When she’s out, I sell her quilts for her. When I need to be gone, she minds the store for me. It works for both of us.
“I need to go out for a while. Will you watch the store?”
“Is it going to do tricks?”
“Was that a joke?” I mouth to Ami.
“I think so,” she mouths back.
“That was a joke,” Sarah calls in a wry voice. “I’m a little rusty but thought I’d give it a try.”
I laugh. “I like it!”
“I’ll be glad to mind the store.”
I drag Ami out of the shop and into the cold air. Gray clouds hang low in the sky today, matching my mood perfectly.
As we walk down the sidewalk, I point at the shop we’re passing. “Just think, Blizzard Barbecue would probably have to change to Sandcastle Sandwiches.”
Ami gives me a puzzled look.
“If this stupid name change goes through. What do you think they’d call Reindeer Games and Toy Store?” I shake my head. That’s such a cool name.”
“Wouldn’t you hate for it to become Fun in the Sun Toys?”
“That would be awful.”
“Are you being sarcastic? Look over there. I don’t even want to think about what Snow Place Like Home Pet Boarding would be renamed. But I bet it wouldn’t be pretty.”
Ami smiles. “Actually I’ve always wondered about that name. Doesn’t it kind of indicate that you should keep your dog at home instead of leaving it in their kennel?”
I shake my head. “You’re missing the principle.”
“Because I really don’t see this as a possibility.”
“Just the idea of it should terrify you.”
She doesn’t look terrified, but I keep up a running commentary, unable to stop imagining the horrors that would come with the name Summer Valley.
I don’t shut up until we stand in front of the huge white manor. Each of the four columns is as big around as a good-sized tree. Beautifully filigreed lattice borders the second-story balcony. It feels like we’ve been transported back to the days of hoopskirts and lemonade on the porch.
“Does the town own this place, or is it personal property?” Ami whispers.
“I’m not really sure. Uncle Gus has been the mayor ever since I can remember. And his daddy was the mayor before him.”
“Your drawl seems thicker here.”
I nod. “Yours, too.”
“I never noticed how huge the house is,” Ami says, still whispering. “Remember those watercolor paintings you did of the mansion and the grounds when you were first learning to paint?”
I nod. I still have them in the back of my closet, to be honest.
“You used to want to be married here.”
“I had good taste.” A new flare of anger raises my voice to normal and gets me back in the real world. “And Uncle Gus should be ashamed. Willing to sell out his heritage—our heritage.” I grab her arm. “C’mon.”
At the front door, I bypass the doorbell button and grab the handle on the lion’s head door knocker, happy to bang it against the door several times. Somehow the loud, hollow knocking suits my mood more than a delicate chime.
Inside the house, we hear a familiar male voice yell, “Where’s my jacket?”
“The lion is in his den,” I murmur.
A minute later, Mrs. Harding opens the door. “Can I help you?” For every ounce that Uncle Gus is a “good ol’ boy,” Mrs. Harding is “high society.” I always thought the phrase “looking down her nose” was just an expression, but she really does it, her beady eyes glinting.
I give her my own glare. “We need to see the mayor.”
“I’m sorry, but he’s not here,” she says, beginning to close the door.
© 2007 by Christine Lynxwiler
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without written permission of the publisher. This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any similarity to actual people, organizations, and/or events is purely coincidental. For more information about Christine Lynxwiler, please access the author’s Web site at the following Internet address: www.christinelynxwiler.com.
Cover Illustration: Donna Nelson
Published by Barbour Publishing, Inc., P.O. Box 719, Uhrichsville, Ohio 44683,
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