The Little White Christmas Lie

Millie and Carson's story began as a novella for my Christmas on Main Street anthology. I had agreed to write a novella, but as I wrote, I fell more and more in love with Millie, Carson, the inn in Chickory, New York, and eventually I knew that my little novella really wanted to be a novel.

Maybe it was selfish to publish a teaser in the Authors of Main Street boxed set, but since my goal is to publish the story here for free, I hope no one will mind, even if I beg you to be patient as I write.

For those of you who are new to the story, here's the whole kit and caboodle. For those of you who read the beginning in the Author's of Main Street Christmas book, skip ahead to the October 16th heading and the first update. Thanks for dropping by. Comments encouraged and welcomed. If you'd like to be notified when a new segment is posted, drop me a line at kristyswords@yahoo.com


TO GRANDMOTHER’S HOUSE WE GO
Millie sat at the window of her Brownstone apartment, watching the shoppers scurry down New York’s busy streets. Head-lights, streetlights, and the just-hung Christmas lights sparkled on the slowly drifting snow.
“Meow,” Byron cried as he jumped into Millie’s lap. He settled down with a purr.
“It’s just you and me this year.” Millie ran her fingers through the cat’s thick fur. She tried telling herself she needed the solitude, that she deserved a respite from her demanding career, and she didn’t have the time or the energy to devote to cultivating meaningful relationships, but the longer she sat at the window watching everyone else pursue their Christmas with such purposefulness and pleasure…
No, that couldn’t be right, could it? There had to be a few Ebenezers in the crowd. She couldn’t be the only one wishing Christmas would pass her by. Leaning back into her wingback chair, feet propped up on the ottoman, she closed her eyes. It was just so embarrassing
How could she, one of the world’s most beloved romance writers, be alone for the holidays? Again? She’d taken a cruise to the Holy Land last year, thinking what could be more spiritually uplifting than Christmas in Bethlehem? But it had been a tour full of senior citizens complaining about their food and hotel beds. At least it had been better than the Christmas the year before with Liam in Monaco.
Refusing to think about Liam, Millie stood, knocking the sleeping Byron to the floor.
He complained loudly while arching his back and stalking away.
“Maybe this year we’ll just stay home,” Millie announced to no one since Byron had twitched his tail and disappeared into the next room.
Her landline’s shrill ring broke the silence. She studied the phone. She’d been meaning to shut off the service for months, but just hadn’t gotten around to it. Or at least that’s what she told herself. The truth was, it was her mom’s voice on the answering machine, and Millie couldn’t bring herself to throw it away, even after all these months.
Millie listened to her mom ask the caller to leave a message. No one who really wanted to talk to Millie ever used the landline. Her friends and business associates always called her cell…well, they usually texted, or just sent her an email. No one, other than scam artists and telemarketers, called her landline. Millie stood in the center of the apartment where she’d lived as a child, waiting.
“Hello? Camille? Hello?” An elderly woman’s voice warbled through the room. “You probably don’t remember me, but I was a friend of your Grandmother LaDonna. My name is Joy Baker.”
Joy Baker. Millie didn’t recall her grandmother ever mentioning a Joy Baker, and that was the sort of name she would have remembered because she really liked baked goods, and a joyful baker seemed like a good person to know.
“Anywho, I was hoping you’d give me a call. LaDonna told me you are a writer, and I have a little business proposition for you.”
Millie frowned at the phone, debating. Her head told her this happy baker person was probably a crook, but her lonely heart urged her to pick up the line.
Joy heaved an audible sigh. “I know you don’t know me…but I also knew your Grandpa Horace and your Uncle George. I run a little inn out here in Chickory, New York and, well, it could use some publicity. I just thought maybe if you’d like to come and stay—” Click.
The answering machine only allowed a few seconds per message, which often took the callers by surprise. Millie smiled, wondering if this joyful baker person was on the end of the line, still yammering, completely unaware she’d been silenced mid-sentence.
Millie honestly couldn’t remember her mom, grandparents or her Uncle George ever mentioning this Joy Baker, or Chickory, but the information tickled in the back of Millie’s mind. She settled down on the sofa and pulled her computer onto her lap.
Seconds later, images of an upstate village with a church on every corner flashed on the screen. A springtime shot showed the town green’s gazebo surrounded by tulips and crocus. Another image had the gazebo decked in autumn’s bright fallen leaves. At this time of year, Millie knew there would be a blanket of snow. And sure enough, she soon found images of Chickory, New York in full Christmas glory. It looked like a picture perfect place to spend the holidays…if you had someone to share it with.
Millie closed her eyes against the flashing recollections of her grandparent’s home in upstate New York. Sledding with her bright cheeked mom and dad, hanging the lights with her Uncle George, Aunt Helen, and little Midge.
Ring. Ring.
The phone. Millie poised her fingers above her keyboard waiting. Once again, her heart told her to pick it up, but her sensible side told her to stay put.
“Oh dear,” Joy Baker’s voice floated back into the room, “I must have been cut off. Now, as I was saying, I have this darling inn. The old house belonged to my grandparents and their parents before them and I’ve recently converted it into an inn. And it’s just beautiful, if I do say so myself. My niece, Lorraine, is an artist and she’s made the whole thing just as cute as a button from the attic to the basement, but the thing is—” Click.
Millie typed in lodging, but the closest place to stay was a Motor Motel fifteen miles down the parkway.
If Joy Baker didn’t even have a website no wonder her inn was failing. A place could be cute right down to its cement foundation, but if no one knew it existed, it would always be empty.
The word empty made Millie cast a glance at her calendar. She had half a dozen parties penciled in, but not one of them filled her with anything other than dread. And the most dreadful one of all was happening tomorrow night. The annual Book Bash. Simone Shusterfield hosted it every year at her South Hampton mansion. Simone liked to collect writers and artists the way some rich old ladies collected designer purses and pedigree poodles. Her publisher insisted she attend, barring raging illness or a family calamity. But Millie didn’t have any family…or did she?
Could this Joy Baker count as an old family friend? And could her failing business be called a calamity?
Millie smiled. Of course, she wrote fiction for a living. She could make up anything she wanted to. She did it every day. And she got paid for it. And if she could think of a reasonable excuse to avoid Simone’s party and not have to watch Liam kiss his beautiful fiancé beneath the mistletoe, then she would go to Chickory, or just about anywhere.
Ignoring the frantic be-sensible-voice in the back of her mind, she googled the distance. If she took the early morning train to Scranton, she could rent a car from there and be in Chickory by noon. She didn’t even have to stay the night. She’d just stay late enough to ensure she’d miss the party.
Her sensible voice scrambled for reasons to stay in the city. What if there’s a blizzard and she’s trapped there for weeks? What if this Joy Baker is a serial killer? Who’s going to take care of Byron if something should happen?
Telling her sensible self to shut up, Millie reserved a rental car in Scranton. Picking up her phone, Millie shot her friend and neighbor, Dorie, a quick text. Dorie’s daughter, Amber, often cat-sat Byron when Millie traveled. Then she headed for her closet, pulled out her overnight bag, and dusted it off.
She had to run to catch the nine-fifteen train. With her bag slung over her shoulder and banging against her side, she slipped into the train seconds before the doors slid shut. Taking a deep breath, she headed for the one available seat. At this time of the morning, most of the commuters were students, retirees, and mothers with children.
The only vacant seat was next to a man about her age, early thirties, with wavy brown hair. He had a strong jaw, a thick dossier in one hand and a red pen in the other. Unless he abandoned his place on the aisle, she’d have to crawl over his long legs to get to the window seat.
Their eyes met, and for one small moment, the world around her froze, like a black and white photograph. The train lurched, sending Millie onto the man’s lap.
“I’m so sorry,” Millie said, scrambling over him and pulling her bag with her.
“It happens,” he said, “although not very often, and almost never unless I’m wearing a Santa suit.”
But something like this had never happened to Millie before, and she wondered if he had experienced the same time-stopping moment. Pulling down her navy sweater, she adjusted her pea coat, and to cover her flushed cheeks, she tucked her bag beneath the seat in front of her, refusing to meet his eye again, and wondering what would happen if she did.
“Do you often wear Santa suits?” she asked, finally raising her gaze to meet his. His eyes struck her again, they were the color of chocolate, but this time the world continued around them. The train clacked away from the city. Lower Manhattan’s gritty landscape flashed by the windows. Mothers hushed crying babies. Conversations filled the air.
“No. Almost never,” he said, his voice thick with humor, “but I will be tonight.”
“Are you going to work at a mall?” He didn’t look like the plump bearded guys who sat at Macy’s this time of year.
“No. I—never-mind.” In a decided effort to change the subject, he nodded at the book in Millie’s hand.
“My grandmother reads her books.”
Millie flushed with pleasure. She loved hearing from her readers. “Then she must have excellent taste.”
The man chuckled, his laugh as warm as eyes. “No. Quite the opposite, in fact. She’s a connoisseur of The Helping Hands Thrift store. She loves the hunt and the kitschy.” He wore a luscious camelhair coat, so soft that Millie longed to touch it. He had a Burberry scarf draped around his neck and a gold watch on his wrist. He didn’t look like the sort of man who frequented thrift shops. 
“Sounds like my kind of gal,” Millie said.
His lips twitched. “That sappy writer’s books fill my grandmother’s shelves and her movies are all over the Hallmark station.”
Millie bristled and tucked the book in her pocket, praying he wouldn’t see her picture on the jacket cover and realize she was the sappy writer his grandmother loved.
“What takes you out of the city?” Millie asked, taking her turn to change the subject.
“My grandmother. She told me she had a Santa emergency.” He sighed and shook his head. “I hope this isn’t another one of her ploys.”
“Ploys?”
He nodded. “She’s a schemer.”
“A schemer and a thrift store shopper. I like her already.”
“How about you? Why aren’t you headed to work?”
“Who says I’m not?”
He laughed, and something about the sound filled Millie in a way she couldn’t describe. It was as if she’d been hollow inside, but this man’s laugh filled a space she hadn’t even known existed.
“What do you do?” he asked.
Millie’s thoughts scrambled. Come on, you write fiction. She thought up something close but not quite the truth. “I’m a travel writer.”
She was a writer, and at the moment she happened to be traveling. Good one.
“Oh yeah? That’s great. I love to travel. Where have you been?”
“Hmm, lots of places, of course.”
He smiled. “Of course. But where are you traveling to now?”
“There’s a brand new inn in Chickory, New York. I’m going to check it out.”
His face paled, his lips pressed together, and a calculating look filled his eyes. “Is that so? What magazine did you say you work for?”
“I freelance.” Sometimes.
“Ah.” He cleared his throat, a low, grumbling unhappy sound. “So, you’re coming all this way to see this new inn.”
She nodded. “The Snowfield Inn. I even love its name.”
“But will you still love it in July?”
“Why wouldn’t I?”
“When it’s sunny, no one wants to stay in a snowfield.”
She raised her eyebrows. “I think that depends on how sunny it is. There’ve been plenty of melting hot summer days where I longed for a good snowfield.”
“It’s a ridiculous name for an inn,” he said in a tone that made her wonder why he should care.
“Do you know it?”
“I’ll be playing Santa there tonight.”
“Really?”
“Yes, you should come.”
“I won’t be staying long. This is just a day trip.”
“You’re coming all the way to Chickory for just the day?” He nodded at her bag. “Then what’s that for?”
“I have my computer and just a couple of things in case I decide to stay the weekend.”
“So, there’s hope.”
“Not really. I’m mostly trying to avoid a party tonight.”
“Not a party person?”
“I like parties, but this one…” She took a deep breath, looked out the window, and relived the pain. “My ex is going to be there with his fiancé.”
“You’re divorced?”
“No, but Liam and I…we’d been together a long time.” She didn’t know what made her open up to this man with the chocolate-colored eyes, maybe it was because she thought she’d never see him again, or maybe it was because she hadn’t told anyone for so long about how badly she’d been hurt, or maybe because she just liked the way his gaze touched hers, but she found herself telling him all the sordid details: the purple panties under the sofa, the anonymous posts on her writing blog asking her why if she was such an expert on romance was her boyfriend partying with Scarlett McFaye.
“Wait, your ex is marrying Scarlett McFaye?” His eyes widened. “Wow, just wow.”
“Yeah, I guess that’s what Liam and all the rest of mankind think, too.”
“Hey wait, don’t lump me into Liam’s camp.”
“I can’t believe I told you all of this.” Millie flushed and looked out the window. “I don’t even know your name.”
He reached out and took her hand as if to shake it, but he didn’t. Instead, he held it in his own. “I’m Carson Trent, but tonight, if you come to the inn, you can call me Santa.”
When she didn’t respond, he gently squeezed her hand. “This is where you tell me your name,” he said.
“I’m Millie Cruise.” But most of the world knows me as Camille Harper, AKA the sappy writer.
They parted at the train station. Millie had a ridiculous desire to give Carson a hug, even though she had just met him. Her sensible voice told her to shoulder her bag, casually wave, turn, and get her rental car, but her feet shuffled and she stuttered over saying goodbye.
“Are you sure you want to rent a car?” Carson asked. “I’m going there anyway, and it’s a three-hour drive.”
“That’s really nice of you, but how would I get back?”
“You ride back with me on Sunday night.”
“Mmm, no.” For once, she agreed with her sensible voice.
“Do you know how to get to Chickory?” Carson asked.
“My phone does.”
“Of course.” He looked deflated. Taking her hand, he said, “If I’m lucky, I’ll see you again.”
She left her hand in his. “Do you believe in luck?”
Pain flashed in his eyes. “Not really. Do you?”
“I want to…but it often lets me down.”
“Then let me give you my card, just in case you…” His voice trailed away, but after he cleared his throat he added, “In case you need anything or get lost.”
“Thanks.” She scanned the card. It was heavy, cream colored with bold navy print. Carson Trent, Principal, Trent and Tavenor Investors, Your Business Partners. She pocketed the card, thought about giving him hers, but quickly changed her mind.
Her sensible voice told her she couldn’t hide her identity from this man forever, but Millie was getting pretty tired of her sensible voice. Besides, she knew the chances of her ever seeing him again were very small.
Why do you think that? A less sensible voice demanded to know. After all, they both lived in New York. Why not meet? Why not date?
Millie shut down all the voices in her head because she now realized they had all stopped being sensible the moment she had first seen Carson.
“Nice meeting you,” she said, tightening the grip on her bag and turning away.
She didn’t look back.
CARSON
Carson watched Millie disappear through the crowded train station. He didn’t even know her, and yet he wanted to follow her. Taking his keys from his pocket, he jingled them. The happy noise reminded him he’d see her soon at his grandmother’s inn, the only bright spot on the weekend looming before him.
He winced, thinking of how the rest of his weekend would go. He foresaw heaping helpings of guilt, maybe even a few tears, and a lot of stubbornness with balking thrown in.
He found his car in the garage, pressed the button, and slid inside. Turning over the ignition, he blew on his hands to warm them. The steering wheel felt like ice, and the heater shot a frosty blast to his face. The car would take a few minutes to warm, but Carson knew it might take a lifetime for his women-folk to wise up.
His phone rang. Carson pulled it from his pocket and stared at it. His mom had a spooky way of showing up every time he thought of her.
“Hey, Ma,” he said.
“Carson, love, are you on your way?”
“Yep. Just landed in Scranton.”
“Oh good. Your grandmother is so excited about tonight!”
“The Twelve Days of Christmas thing, right?”
“Yes! Every day a charitable event. It’s just brilliant.”
Brilliantly costly, Carson thought. He couldn’t let his mom, aunt, and grandmother dominate over common sense. How could they forget what it’s like to be cold? To have the electricity shut off? To be hungry?
“Ma,” he began.
She cut him off. “I don’t want you bringing any of your David Downer attitude around here. What with Emily and her kids showing up—”
“Emily’s there? Is she staying at the inn, too?” And not paying for a room, of course. “Is Jackson with her?”
His mom sighed. “No-o.”
“How long will she be staying this time?”
“Poor Ems, and my sweet babies, of course we love having them stay with us.”
“Ma, is Emily leaving Jackson?”
“Now, how would I know that when Emily doesn’t even know?”
Carson pulled the car out of the garage, silently cursing his mom, her mom, and his flakey sister, knowing that when Jesus said the poor you always have with you that he was absolutely right. Some people, and by some people he meant his family, if you gave them a million dollars, they would spend a million and one.
All the warm fussy happy tingles he had felt during his brief exchange with Millie melted beneath his frustrations.
“Now about the food for tonight,” his mom began. “We had a mishap with the maple bars and we were wondering if you’d mind stopping at Costco.”
“Just text me what you need.” Knowing he could afford to buy a few pastries, he stopped listening. But the inn…it wasn’t just his money. That’s what his grandmother didn’t understand.
“Ma, you get it’s not just my money, right? You understand I have business partners and investors counting on me. I have to make sound investments.” He had to be accountable. He couldn’t afford to throw Trent and Tavenor Investors money down an inn-sized hole.
“Sweetie, don’t start.”
A tiny red Fiat pulled out in front of him, and Carson caught a flash of blond curls and a red sweater hiding beneath a navy pea coat. Millie. Carson followed, his jaw clenched, his grip on the steering wheel, determined. He promised himself two things: this weekend he would not lose another penny over the inn, and he would not lose Millie Cruise again.
And Carson always kept his promises.
MILLIE
Millie slipped in an audio disk and soon the raspy, grandmotherly voice of Lenora Lamb filled the car as she read The World’s Worst Christmas Pageant Ever. Her mom and dad had read her this book as a child, and Millie had listened to it every holiday season since. It made her sad that neither of her parents’ voices had ever grown old the way that Lenora Lamb’s had.
The story was of the Calvin children—the worst children ever to perform a nativity play. Millie still laughed at all the Calvins’ craziness, despite the hurt that she didn’t have children of her own.
And that’s a good thing, her sensible voice said. Millie really hated her sensible voice. Liam didn’t want children, the sensible voice continued. And being a single parent is hard.
Millie had learned how hard it was to be a single parent from watching her mom trying to cope with grief, crippling finances, and a moody teenager. Cancer had not only stolen Millie’s dad, but it had also taken her mom’s joy.
Determined not to relive her mother’s life, Millie had worked hard to put herself through school. She got her BS in business and a law degree from Columbia. But before she even took the bar, she had published her first book with Wild Hearts press. A second bestseller quickly followed the first, and she’d been pumping out two to three bestsellers a year ever since.
She read only slightly more than she wrote, and sometimes Millie felt as if she didn’t live her own life. Her interior world was so much bigger and brighter than the quiet one inside her Brownstone. She rarely took moments like this where she just enjoyed the rolling snow-covered countryside, the icy blue sky, the—
COW!
The creature blended so well into the snow, Millie hadn’t even seen it until its snout was inches from the windshield. She slammed on her brakes and the Fiat spun on the slick and icy road until it hit the gravel-lined road and flipped into the ditch. The impact pounded Millie’s head against the window. The airbag punched her in the gut. Hanging upside down, tightly secured by her seatbelt, Millie faded away into a cloud of pain.
*CARSON
If the Fiat had been any other color he might have missed it. The four tires pointed in the air, the black underbelly exposed, with just a triangle of red sticking out of the snowbank like a beacon calling to him. Carson slammed on his brakes, but his big black SUV didn’t have the same skidding power has the Fiat. It remained firmly on the road until Carson pulled it alongside the Fiat.
He scanned the snow for foot prints, not finding any, he dashed to the driver’s side door. Inside, Millie hung upside down, her long caramel colored hair hiding her face like a shroud.
With trembling fingers, Carson reached for his phone. He nearly dropped it as he punched the numbers, and his voice shook as he relayed the situation and location to a motherly sounding dispatcher. “Should I try and move her?”
“Is she breathing?” the kind voice asked.
“I…don’t know.”
Carson reached for the door. The handle felt like ice. How long had she been this way? Could people die from hanging upside down? Could it cause a brain hemorrhage? His questions filled him with panic, and he dropped the phone as he wrenched the door handle. But it wouldn’t budge. He brushed off the snow and saw it had been smashed in. He ran around to the other side, slipping on the icy pavement, only to find that door wasn’t in any better condition.
“Sir? Sir?” the dispatcher on the line squawked at him.
Carson ignored her,and headed for the hatchback. It opened easily, and Carson climbed in. Picking up one of Millie’s dangling wrists, he felt her pulse. Its reassuring thrum beneath his fingers brought tears to Carson’s eyes.
Climbing out, he returned to his phone. “She’s alive,” he breathed. “But she’s out cold. What should I do?”
“Just stay with her, sir. Don’t try and move her. The paramedics should be there in less than three minutes.”
He found her bag and pulled it out. In the distance, an ambulance started to wail while Carson found Millie’s phone. He pulled it out. He should call someone and let them know. Of course, he needed a password for her phone.
The only name he knew was Scarlett McFaye, but how could he get in touch with a super model? If he knew that, he could sell his secret to millions of love-starved men. And did Scarlet McFaye even know Millie? Well, even if she didn’t, she obviously knew Millie’s ex, and seeing as how he and Millie had been together a long time, he would know how to contact her family.
In what he considered at the time to be a brilliant move, he pulled out his own phone and sent a tweet.
@ScarletMcFaye Millie Cruise involved in auto accident. Please notify her family.
*MILLIE
Millie woke to find a little face just inches from her own. The two blue eyes blinked at her seconds before the child began to scream. “She’s awake! Uncle Car! She’s awake!”
Millie raised her hand to her pounding forehead and closed her eyes against the blinding pain. “Who, or what, was that?” she asked no one.
Familiar laughter tinged with relief rang out. The sound hurt, but not as unbearably as the child’s voice. Millie peeked open an eye to see Carson beside her bed and a cluster of people crowding behind him.
Millie willed her eyes to focus on them, but they swam in and out of a cloudy haze. “What happened?”
“Your car went in the ditch!” the little girl at Carson’s side piped up. She had dirty blond hair tied up in two haphazard pig tails.
“Yeah!” a child nearly identical to the first, but with fewer teeth, said. “You got to ride in an ambulance.”
“I got to…” Millie muttered. She counted the children. Three if you added the one in the pregnant woman’s arms. Four if the one in the woman’s belly counted. Or possibly five, because the woman looked big enough to be carrying twins. Who were these people? “Are you the Calvins?” Millie asked.
“No, this is my family,” Carson, the man she’d met on the train, said. “Remember I told you about them.”
No.He’d mentioned his grandmother, but not all of these people.
Millie closed her eyes. Maybe when she opened them, they would all disappear.
“Okay,” an officious female voice said.
Millie peeked open an eye to watch a tiny nurse with spikey black hair bustle in the room and push her way to Millie’s bedside. “The lot of you, outside.“ She jerked her thumb at the door before nodding at Carson. “You can stay.”
Carson’s smile wavered, but he sat on a chair and folded one leg over the other.
For the first time, Millie noticed a giant bouquet of red roses in a silver vase on the window sill. Her gaze traveled back to Carson, and she noticed a flush rising to each of his cheeks. He bent over to whisper in her ear. “I’ll explain, I promise. Welcome to Chickory.” He squeezed her hand.
“Byron,” Millie whispered.
“Ryan?” Carson asked.
“BYRON,” she said more loudly.
The nurse watched the exchange with slanted, suspicious eyes.
“My cat,” Millie said. “I have to let Dorie know.” She swallowed against the pain. “How long have I been here?”
“A few hours,” the nurse said.
“And when can I go home?” Millie asked.
“We’ll have to see what the doctor says,” the nurse told her.
Millie rolled her head to gaze at Carson. “I guess I should have let you drive.”
“Next time,” Carson said.
“Is the car okay?” Millie asked.
“No, it’s totaled.”
“How about the cow?”
“The cow?”
“The creature in the road?”
Carson’s lips twitched. “I assume it’s fine.”
“That’s good,” Millie said right before she drifted off to sleep.
CARSON
Carson hung out in the cafeteria at a far table in the corner, as far away from anyone as he could get. Pale moonlight streamed through the windows. Carson knew it was late, but he didn’t know where to go or what to do. There was a bed made up for him in Millie’s room, but it seemed presumptuous and intrusive to stay with her. And it wasn’t as if he hadn’t already been presumptuous and intrusive already. But that was before he knew who she was. Back when he thought he was rescuing a damsel in distress and not a mega-millionaire in a jam.
His buzzing phone surprised him. He pulled it out. Derrick.
“Hey. Where were you tonight?” Derrick asked. “You were supposed to be playing Santa at your granny’s inn, and the next thing I heard is you’re engaged and your beloved has been in an accident.” Derrick paused. “Dude, how come you have a beloved that I don’t know about?”
Carson blew out a long breath. “Okay, weird story.” He related the whole thing in a matter of minutes. “I just thought she was this great girl, a travel writer on her way to my grandma’s stupid inn. And then she…her car slid off the road.” He closed his eyes against the memories, letting the horror of that moment wash over him like a wave of seasickness. “I didn’t think they’d let me go with her in the ambulance if I wasn’t family or something, so I lied.” He swallowed hard. “Hey, don’t lecture me. I didn’t know who she was until much later.”
“Who is she?”
“Oh, you don’t know? That’s probably good. Who told you about it anyway?”
“Lisa Malcolm. She’s a nurse in the ER. I’m surprised you didn’t see her.” Derrick paused. “You gotta tell me who she is.”
“Camille Harper. She told me her name was Millie Cruise. If your mom’s not a reader then you might not recognize her name, but I’m telling you—”
Derrick interrupted him. “Just googled her. It says here she grosses an estimated ten million a book, and she publishes like three a year.”
“I know,” Carson said. “She’s a rock star of the romance industry.”
Derrick laughed. “How’d she end up with a loser like you?”
Carson hung his head. “I don’t know what to do. Before I knew who she was, the only personal thing I knew about her is her ex is engaged to Scarlett MacFaye.”
Derrick whistled.
Carson listened while Derrick’s fingers clicked on his keyboard.
“Liam Hart,” Derrick said after a moment. “Who is Liam Vasco?”
“I don’t know,” Carson said, “but we hate him.”
“Because he broke the beautiful Millie’s heart?” Derrick asked.
“Damn straight,” Carson said.
“What are you going to do when she finds out you told everyone you’re engaged?”
“I don’t know. Hide?”
Derrick laughed. “Man, it’s so spectacularly funny to see you screw-up! I mean this never happens!”
“Okay, I’m hanging up now,” Carson said.
“And it’s huge! Not just a little screw-up, not just a tiny oops, but HUGE!”
Carson hit the end button, shut off his phone, and returned it to his pocket. Then he made his way back to Millie’s room.
He had made his bed and now he had to lie in it.
MILLIE
Millie sat in a wheelchair, her bag and the giant bouquet of roses sharing space on her lap. Because her own clothes were torn and bloody, she wore a T-shirt splattered with paint and a denim skirt two sizes too big, both belonging to Carson’s sister.
“Em was going through her Jackson Pollock phase when she made the shirt,” Carson told her. “She has several more just like it. She sells them at craft fairs.”
“That’s too bad,” Millie said, before she caught herself, realizing how rude she sounded.
Carson laughed as he pulled her chair up to the curb next to his waiting car. “I bet you have a lot of questions that have nothing to do with T-shirts.”
“I do.” Millie transitioned from the chair to the SUV without help. Ignoring the stabbing pain in her ribs, she gave the attending nurse a brief smile before clicking into her seatbelt and closing her door.
Carson climbed in behind the wheel and put the car in gear. “I have questions, too, but first let me try and answer yours.” He cleared his throat and steered out of the hospital parking lot. “When the ambulance came, I guessed they wouldn’t let me go with you unless we were related, so I lied and said we were engaged. I honestly didn’t think it would go any further than the hospital ride, but it turns out my sister’s friend happened to be on duty when you were admitted and she called Emily to ask about you and, well, as it often does with my family, everything escalated.”
Millie smiled. “It’s fine, right? Not a big deal. We’ll break up, and I’ll go home.”
“Okay,” Carson said. “I can take you to the train station if that’s what you want, but after what the doctor said, I really think you should come and stay with me, at least for the weekend.”
“With you? No. But there is that inn. The Snowfield? It’s owned by a Joy Baker.”
Carson paled and tightened his grip on the steering wheel. “Joy Baker is my grandmother.”
“Your grandmother? The one who likes that sappy writer?”
He flinched. “Listen, I didn’t—“
Millie laughed. “It’s alright. I read reviews. I’ve been called much, much worse.”
Carson ran his finger around the collar of his shirt. He’d changed out of his wool overcoat and business clothes into a pair of well-worn jeans, a soft blue cotton button down shirt and a supple leather jacket. He had a knack for wearing clothes that Millie wanted to touch.
“Are you hungry?” he asked. “Do you want to stop and get something to eat? There’s a waffle house just outside of town.”
“A waffle house?”
“Would you rather find a coffee shop?” He shot her a quick glance. “I thought we could take a few minutes, talk things through…I could try and explain my family. Although, honestly, they’re not easy to explain. It might take a while.”
“That might make things easier…” Her voice trailed away. “It must be nice,” she said.
“What’s that?”
“Having a family.”
“You met my family, right?”
“It would take me less than a minute to explain my family,” Millie said.
“Okay, you’re on.”
“What?”
Carson glanced at the clock. “It’s now ten-eleven. Can you explain your family by ten-twelve? Go.”
“Okay. I haven’t a family. My mother died last year and she was all I had.”
Carson winced.
“You’re lucky,” Millie said, looking out the window at the snow covered pastures and distant hills, “even if they’re hard to explain.”
“Sometimes I forget how lucky I am,” Carson said.
Millie laughed. “I can’t wait to get to know them. Especially the Joy Baker grandmother.”
“Wait—how did you know my grandmother?”
“She called me. Left a message on my phone. We didn’t actually speak, but she said she knew my mom, and invited me to the inn.”
“That must have been before Emily and the pigtail team showed up,” Carson said.
“Why do you say that?”
Carson didn’t answer, but turned off the highway and into the parking lot of a small building pretending to be a Swiss chalet. A wooden sign read, Waffle Haus.
“They don’t just serve waffles,” Carson told her, as he helped her from the car. “This place hasn’t changed since I was a kid, same menu, same décor, and same owners.”
“In some ways, that must be comforting,” Millie said, as they picked their way through the sludgy-snow filled parking lot.
“I never thought of it that way,” Carson said. “I just thought the Johansson’s were too lazy and cheap to try something new.” He held the door open for her.
“Why try something new?” Millie took in the open beamed ceilings, the collection of beer steins, and the oil paintings of mountainsides.
“New can be nice,” Carson insisted.
“Hello there, darlin’.” An overweight woman in a dirndl greeted Carson. “I heard you got yourself a girl!” She tucked a pad of paper in her apron so she could pull Millie into a hug. “I’m Elsa.”
Elsa was soft all over and smelled just like her waffle house: coffee, baked goods, and a touch of hairspray. She grabbed Millie’s two arms and leaned away so she could look her into her eyes. “I just feel like I know you already. Have we met?”
Carson laughed, but it sounded wrong, forced. Taking Millie’s hand, he tugged her out of Elsa’s reach.
“This is Millie Cruise,” Carson said. “I’m sure you haven’t met. This is her first trip to Chickory.”
“But not her last!” Elsa nudged Carson, making her gray curls bounce. “It’s the darnedest thing. I’m certain we must have known each other in some previous life.” She gave herself a little shake. “Well, you two be wanting a special table?”
“Anywhere’s fine,” Carson told her, impatience in his voice.
“As long as you’re together, right?” Elsa said, leading them to a corner booth.
Even though only a few other people sat in the scattered tables and booths, Millie kept her voice low. “We have to tell them what really happened. I’m not comfortable lying to your family and friends,” Millie said after they’d sat down.”
Carson sucked in a deep breath. “You’re right. It’s just…”
“Just what? You don’t want to admit you lied?”
“Yeah, that, and they’ll be disappointed. I think they already love you.”
“They like me because they love you.”
They stopped talking when Elsa returned with their coffee.
“Your grandmother must know already,” Millie began, wrapping her hands around the mug, warming her hands. She opened her mouth to say something more but was completely drowned out by a screaming blond woman hurling herself at Carson.
The blond scooted into the booth, wrapped her arm around Carson’s neck, and beamed at Millie. “I heard the news! I just couldn’t believe it! Carson Trent engaged to Camille Harper! You have to introduce me!”
The blond was pretty in a mannequin sort of way. Painfully thin and looking like she’d never eaten a waffle in her life, her brash makeup stood out against her pale skin. Leaning forward, she stuck her hand out across the table. “Debby Banning. You probably recognize me from the Scranton Morning News Show.”
Millie smiled, took the woman’s hand, and felt as if the lies were piling up on top of her and if she didn’t do or say something soon she’d suffocate from the weight of them. She dropped Debby’s hand and wondered how Carson knew her.
Debby launched into a conversation with Carson about their high school friends, answering Millie’s question, but also completely ignoring her.
Elsa appeared from the kitchen with a tray laden with food. Moments later, plates of waffles covered every square inch of their table.
“But we haven’t even ordered yet,” Millie said.
Elsa shook her head. “No need. I told Jake to whip up everything we make. Our treat.”
“What? No,” Millie said.
“Absolutely, when I learned who you really are, I knew that finally I had the chance to repay you.” Using a pencil as a pointer, she identified each waffle. “Now this one here is my own creation, pumpkin-eater, I call it, made with pumpkin and nutmeg. And one there is made from my ma’s recipe, spicy apple—tastes just like hot cider. Over here we got one called the bacon bite—real bacon, by the way, not that canned trash.”
“Elsa, this is remarkable,” Millie said, interrupting her, “but what in the world are you repaying me for?”
Elsa used the corner of her apron to wipe away a tear in her eye. “When I think of how your books helped me through some long lonely nights...”
“What are you taking about?” Carson broke away from his conversation with Debby. “You and Jake have been married forever.”
Elsa pinned him with her gaze. “Like I said, long lonely nights.”
Carson barked his forced laugh again. “Well, thanks, Elsa. This is…something.”
“Yes, it is,” Millie said, eyeing all the food and wondering who would eat all of it. She thought for a moment. “Are you sure you won’t let me pay you?”
Elsa shook her head so hard her curls bounced.
Millie sighed. “Then there’s nothing else I can do but mention The Waffle Haus in my next book.”
Elsa squealed and clapped her hands. “You’d do that!”
“For all of this? I’m definitely getting a bargain.”
“Jake! Did you hear?” Elsa turned to the kitchen to share the news with her husband.
Millie smiled as she cut into a blueberry waffle.
“Does Angela know about you two?” Debby asked, using a pencil in her hand to wave it between Carson and Millie.
Carson went very still. “I thought Angela was in Chili.”
“She’s home for the holidays.” Debby elbowed Carson. “So, she doesn’t know.”
Carson shook his head, picked up a fork and tucked into a plate of the bacon bite waffles.
“What’s in Chili?” Millie asked. What she really wanted to ask was who was Angela, but as Carson’s fiancé, she thought that was something she was probably supposed to know.
“Beans, mostly, and cayenne powder,” Debby said, snorting at her own joke.
“Charity,” Carson said. “Angela is a doctor.”
“You’ll be here for the holidays, right?” Debby asked, turning so she faced Carson and excluded Millie. Without waiting for his answer, she continued, “I’ve got to get back to work.” She nodded at a group of people sitting at a large center table. “That’s our team.” After giving Carson a peck on the cheek, Debby smiled at Millie. “So nice to meet you!” She slipped from the booth and wiggled her fingers at Carson. “Talk soon!”
“I wonder what the news team is covering,” Millie said.
Later, she would realize that was a question she should have gotten an answer to much earlier.
CARSON
Carson tried to see the inn through Millie’s eyes. The classic colonial had lost a lot of its original simplicity over the years as a parade of Bakers expanded, bumped out walls, added dormers, and balconies. The best word for it now was hodge-podge.
“It’s charming,” Millie breathed.
Carson raised his eyebrows and pulled the car up the long gravel driveway. A light snow had begun to fall, dusting the gray lawn and the tall maple trees lining the road. The inn, a house that had been in the Baker family for generations, sat on top of a small hill an acre away from the main road. Christmas lights lined the split rail fence surrounding the property and hung from the house’s eaves. Holly filled urns flanked the front steps and pine wreaths hung on the double doors.
“It needs a sign,” Millie said, as the car rolled toward the house.
“A sign, like from heaven?” Maybe like a lightning bolt that would burn the thing to the ground?
“No, silly, a sign that says welcome to the Snow Field Inn.”
“That’s not all it needs,” Carson muttered.
Millie frowned at him. “What’s wrong with you?”
“I’m sorry. The inn makes me cranky.”
“Is it all inns, or just this one in particular?”
“Just this one,” Carson admitted, pulling the car into lot behind what used to be a barn for animals, but was now an art school in the summer and a general storage shed and catch-all other times of the year. His grandmother hoped to convert it, as well as two other outbuildings, into additional guest rooms and cottages, but until the inn could show a profit, the barn remained a great drafty place filled with easels, paints and students in the summer, and a mish-mash of odds and ends throughout the winter. Because his sister and the pig-tail team were here, Carson would probably have to sleep in the loft of the carriage house, the former home of some long ago ancestor’s groomsman.
He retrieved their bags from the trunk. The cold air cut through him, adding to his chill and tension. Knowing his family would most likely be congregating in the kitchen, he led Millie around to the front door. In the fourteen years since he’d left for college, he had brought home exactly zero women to meet his family. The clenching of his gut reminded him this had been a wise decision. Bringing home a pretend fiancé was a foolish decision. For a half a second his thoughts skittered to the possibility of Millie being his real fiancé.
I barely know her, he chided himself, slamming the trunk harder than necessary. He shouldered both bags and offered Millie his hand.
She looked beautiful in the dark red pea-coat that made her cheeks look pink, her lips crimson, and her blue eyes sapphire. Her hand felt cold in his. He gave her a squeeze to reassure her.
“Do you think they’ll be upset when we tell them?” Millie asked.
“No…disappointed maybe, but they’ll understand.” He paused at the front door, dread filling him. He wasn’t ready to face his family. Honestly, he was rarely ever ready to face his family, but today the hesitation ratcheted up. “Do you want to tell them now? Or maybe after you lie down?”
“Lie down?” Millie echoed him.
“The doctor said you’re supposed to rest.”
“Oh, I guess that would be nice.” He heard the hesitation in her voice.
Squaring his shoulders, he spoke even before he’d reached a decision. “You lie down, and I’ll tell my family.”
“Really?”
Carson turned the knob and pushed open the front door as quietly as he could. A bell attached to the door jingled, making Carson silently curse. He waited half a second, when no one came running from the kitchen he breathed a sigh of relief.
“Absolutely, it’s my lie, so I need to be the one to come clean.”
He watched the doubts fade from Millie’s expression as he led her into the foyer and front hall. He could tell she found the pastoral oil paintings, the antiques, hardwood floors, and scattered tapestry rugs more charming than country-cliché. Watching her, he realized that the inn would probably make a fitting backdrop for any of her novels. But could he be a hero?
No.
Pressing his lips together, he pointed up the stairs. “Don’t walk on the third step,” he said, lowering his voice.
Millie paused at the foot of the stairs. Red ribbons tied garlands of pine boughs to the banisters.
Carson shot a quick glance in the direction of the kitchen. Faint laughter and voices floated down the hall. Christmas carols played on the stereo. If they were quiet, his family wouldn’t hear them.
He caught Millie’s brief smile when she walked on the third step and it noisily complained. Fortunately, no one in the kitchen came rushing out. He motioned for Millie to follow him to the best guest room, never stopping to consider it might be occupied.
He was surprised to find all the upstairs rooms were locked. Doing an about face, he took her to the one place he knew would be free—his place in the carriage house.
Back down the stairs, he took her through the living room’s French doors to avoid the front door’s tattle-tell bells. He waited for Millie to follow. Their feet crunched through the snow, birds swooped around them, calling out, but neither Carson nor Millie spoke as they climbed the steps to the carriage house.
It was in desperate need of attention, but Carson knew he’d find his old room untouched by his sentimental grandmother and mom. With Millie behind him, they trooped through the cavernous dimly-lit ground floor and up the stairs. At the top, he pushed open the door to his old room. Relief swept through him when he saw it had remained unchanged since his last visit. A tartan blanket covered the bed, his cross country trophies lined the shelves, and a map of the world was pinned on the wall.
Millie hugged herself, and Carson noticed.
“It’s cold now,” he said, “but I’ll light the wood stove and you’ll be warm soon…probably too warm.”
“A wood stove?”
He read the wonder and nostalgia in her voice. Knowing she would never be the one to actually chop and stack the wood, he decided not to shatter her romantic ideals. “We call it the dragon.”
“Why?”
“You’ll see,” he said, setting down her bags.
“If this is your room, where will you sleep?”
He laughed. “Probably with the dragon. But don’t worry about me, you lie down. I’ll go and face my family.”
*MILLIE
After Carson disappeared out the door, Millie sat on the bed and looked around. On closer inspection, she saw little push pins stuck out of the map, highlighting a scattering of countries. She wondered what that was about. The books on his shelves were mostly nonfiction—a book on climbing Mount Everest, another on the stock market, a dozen puzzle books. She smiled, wondering if Carson was as uncomplicated as he seemed.
It was sweet of him to not only bring her to his home but also to offer his room. Her thoughts flashed back to Liam. His apartment in New York was all chrome and stainless steel. She had no idea what his childhood home had looked like since his parents had moved to Miami shortly after his graduation from Princeton years before she’d met him. And, of course, for all she knew Carson’s place in the city might be as functional and Spartan as Liam’s.
Without taking off her coat, Millie settled back on the pillows and pulled the quilt folded on the foot of the bed over her. Moments later, she was asleep.
*CARSON
Carson went to the kitchen with every intention of spilling his story to his family, but the only person he found was his grandmother. She had her gray hair tied up in a ribbon, an apron over her jeans and sweater, and a welcoming smile on her face. She held out her arms for a hug as soon as Carson walked in.
He gathered her against him, inhaling her warm scent. She always smelled of vanilla with a touch of cinnamon.
“You know Millie and I aren’t engaged, right?” Carson pulled away from her.
“Of course, darling.” She turned back to her rolling pin and dough on the counter. “I had rather hoped, of course…but it did seem too good to be true.” She flashed him a quick smile and a wink. “Did she tell you I called her?”
After Carson nodded she said, “Why don’t you tell me what really happened?”
Carson took a seat at the kitchen table and watched his grandmother use a cookie cutter on the dough while he filled her in.
After he’d finished, she said, “And now, what are we going to tell everyone else?”
Carson blinked. “We’re going to tell them exactly what I just told you.”
His grandmother tsked her tongue. “No. That’s boring. We need a story.”
“I think Millie would prefer boring honesty,” Carson said.
Using a spatula, his grandmother carefully transported a dough shaped gingerbread man from the counter to a baking sheet. “I don’t believe that for one second,” his grandmother said. “Have you even read any of her books?”
“Granny, I’m not really her target audience.”
“And why not?” She pinned him with her stare.
He lifted his shoulder. “If things work out, I promise I’ll read one of her books.”
His grandmother banged her cookie cutter on the counter. “You’re doing it all backward. You have to read the book first!” Sighing and shaking her head, she returned to her cookies. “It’s a wonder you ever made it through school.”
“Romance novels weren’t required reading in the business program.”
“Pity that.” She moved a few more gingerbread men to the pan.
“Granny…” It occurred to him his grandmother might be distracting him by talking about Millie so they didn’t have to talk about the inn’s dismal finances.
She cast him a sly look. “And what do you mean ‘if things work out’? Could it be that you’ve finally met your match?”
Carson flushed, and his shirt suddenly seemed itchy and too tight. He ran a finger around his collar. “I just…”
“Have I ever told you about the first time I saw your grandfather? Our eyes met and the whole world seemed to freeze and fade like a black and white photograph.”
Although Carson had heard the story many times, he didn’t stop her. He loved his grandparents and he longed for a marriage like theirs. Besides, he didn’t want to talk about Millie. He just wanted to be with her.
“He looked so handsome in his uniform,” his grandmother continued. “We were at the train station. I was heading for New York City and cooking school, and he was off for training in Fort Dix.” She sighed. “I miss him every day.”
Carson wrapped his arms around his grandmother and kissed the top of her head. “I do, too, Grandma.”
She leaned against him. “I just don’t understand why your sister has been so unlucky in love.”
“Jackson’s a good man.”
“And your father…”
“Also a good man.”
“But not a faithful one.”
“He’s gone, now, grandma.”
“Don’t I know it,” his grandmother sighed.
Carson wanted to talk about his dad less than he wanted to talk about anything. “Let’s talk about the inn. I noticed all of the rooms are full.”
She perked up. “Yes, I invited everyone I know for the Twelve Nights of Christmas.”
“You invited…you mean, none of the guests are actual guests.”
“Of course, they’re actual guests!” She huffed.
“Is anyone paying?”
“Paying?”
He swallowed an inward groan. “You invited your friends…”
“Yes,” she said, defiance ringing in her voice. “It will be a lovely holiday season.” She slid a glance at him. “I even got you to come home, didn’t I?”
He opened his mouth to deliver a lecture, but she cut him off. “There’s going to be sleigh rides, a cookie exchange, a toy drive for the homeless shelter, a sing-a-long, a craft fair, and a reenactment of the Nativity.”
“And who’s paying for all of this?”
She kept her back to him. “None of this is going to cost a dime.”
“Granny! Who’s paying for the cookies? The hot chocolate? Don’t tell me you planned on inviting the town and everyone you know without feeding them something.”
She spun round to face him, holding the rolling pin aloft. The look on her face told him she wanted to smack him with it.
“It’s Christmas!”
“I know the date,” Carson said through clenched teeth, “but do you understand you have to live within the budget I created for you?”
She leaned her head to the side. “There are so many lonely people out there, and the children in the shelter—don’t you think they’d like to see Jed’s camels?”
“Camels? Jed? Who’s Jed?”
“Jed Forester. He bought the Neilson’s farm and opened up a camel ranch. Did you know camel’s milk is considered a power food? He ships his camel milk products all over the world! It’s really something. Besides drinking it, he also uses the milk to make shampoo, face cream, lip balm—”
Carson interrupted her. “What do the camels have to do with the inn?”
“Well, the wise men are going to be riding them, of course.”
“Of course.” Carson took a deep breath, feeling particularly unwise.
*MILLIE
Millie woke to find a small face peering at her. Again.
“Oh good, you’re awake. Now we can play.” This child was obviously one of the pig-tail team. She had dirty blond hair, blue eyes, a mishmash of teeth crying out for braces, and a scattering of freckles across her nose. She sat just inches away from Millie and held a pair of plastic horses in her hands.
“You can have Lancelot.” She put the darker horse down beside Millie’s hand. “I get Guinevere. I don’t like him as much as I like Guinevere because he’s a boy, but he is bigger, so there’s that. Besides, you might like boys, seeing as how you like Uncle Car and all. Not that I don’t like Uncle Car. I do. I really do. Did you know we’re both named after Grandpa Carter?” She leaned closer to whisper. “But he’s still a boy, and boys are gross.”
Millie tried to process this onslaught of conversation despite her aching head. She pushed herself onto her elbows and looked around, reminding herself of where she was and why she was here with this child.
“What’s your name?” Millie asked.
“Char. It’s really Charlotte, but no one calls me that. Last week I tried to get everyone to call me Lotty, but no one ever did, even though I reminded them like a million times. But then Zach, he goes to my school, started calling me the Lottery, and then I decided Char was better after all. It’s just Lotty sounds more fun, don’t you think?” She didn’t wait for Millie to answer. “Boys are so gross, right?” She stopped herself. “Except for Uncle Car. But we already stabilized that.”
Millie wished a few other things could be stabilized.
Char bounced her horse across the blanket. “When are you and Uncle Car getting married? Do you think I could be a flower girl?”
Millie opened her mouth, but couldn’t find the right words. Turned out, words weren’t necessary.
“Mom says it’s about time Uncle Car settled himself down with someone. She said all he cares about is money and cars.” The horse bounded across the bed and up the pillow. “Makes sense, though. He is named Uncle Car. If great-granny wanted him to be interested in babies, he would’ve had to be called Uncle Baby, and you’d get beat up with a name like that in third grade.”
“Are you in third grade?” Millie asked, her head swimming.
Char nodded. “No one ever picks on me, though, on account of Lester.”
“Lester?”
“The monster that lives with me.”
“You have a monster?”
“I think everyone should have a monster, don’t you?”
“I have a cat,” Millie told her. “He’s not very monstrous.”
Footsteps sounded up the stairs. A woman with blond hair and blue eyes that matched her daughter’s paused in the open doorway. Millie recognized her from the hospital.
“You must be Emily, Carson’s sister,” Millie said.
Em nodded and motioned for Char to join her. “Is she bothering you? I don’t know how she found you.”
“We’re staying in the basement.” Char emphasized the last word, making it sound comparable to a dungeon.  She picked up both horses and scrambled off the bed.“Cuz great-granny let out all the other rooms to guests.” She tugged on the hem of her mom’s sweater. “I liked it better when Great-Granny thought we were the guests. Why does she think all these other people are more important than us?”
“Hush,” Em said, smoothing down her daughter’s hair. “Millie doesn’t want to hear about the basement.”
“Well, no one does, do they?” Char said. “And no one wants to stay down there, either, ‘specially not me. It’s dark and smelly and the furnace roars.”
“Is that the dragon?” Millie asked, sitting up and swinging her legs over the side of the bed.
Char gave her a don’t be stupid look. “The dragon is the wood stove in the carriage house. We are staying in the basement.”
“Maybe Lester prefers the basement,” Millie said.
“No,” Char shook her head, “no one, not even monsters like the basement.”
“How do you know?” Millie asked. ”Did you ask him?”
Char gave her a don’t-be-stupid look. “Granny says we’re only staying until Daddy gets his fits together and I don’t even know what that means. Sometimes Daddy does have fits, but why does he need to get them together? I think it would be better if he didn’t have them at all, don’t you, Mommy?”
Em flushed a pretty pink and put her hand on top of her daughter’s head and tried to steer her out of the room.
Char dug the heels of her cowboy boots into the carpet.
“Sometime when it’s quieter we should talk,” Em said, pushing her daughter out the door. “I really want to hear how you and Car got together.”
Millie started to say that she and Car weren’t together, but Char stuck her head back into the room and rushed in to fill in the blank space. “It’s quiet now,” Char declared, and for a few seconds it actually was. “I want to hear how you met Uncle Car, too.”
More footsteps clattered up the stairs and moments later Carson swooped in. He plucked Char up and threw her over his shoulder. Her cowboy boots kicked in the air while she screamed and used her two toy horses to pelt his back.
“Is this creature bothering you?” Carson asked Millie.
“No, she’s…” Millie paused. “Her face is turning purple!” Millie eased off the bed as if she needed a closer look at Char. “And I do believe she’s growing polka dots!”
Char froze. “Uncle Car?” she squeaked.
He swung her over so she could see herself in the mirror. “Why yes, Millie, I think you’re right. Green polka dots.”
“Nu-huh!” Char said. “Mom?”
Em blinked a few times and studied Char’s face. “I don’t know, Carson, I’d say they’re purple.”
“No way!” Char said, resuming her kicking.
“I think we need to take her to the kitchen,” Em said. “Granny’s making some gingerbread cookies and they’re the best thing in the whole world for curing purple and green polka dots.’
Char stopped kicking and sniffed. “That sounds okay.”
“I don’t think you should let Granny hear you calling her cookies just okay,” Carson said as he headed out the door with Char draped over his shoulder. He set the child down at the top of the stairs and looked over his shoulder at Millie. “You coming, Millie?”
Millie nodded and raised a hand to her forehead. “I think I could use a gingerbread cookie, myself.”
The need for a cookie became increasingly dire as soon as soon as she stepped outside and spotted a familiar BMW in the driveway.
The cold air swirled around Millie, but instead of waking her, it made everything more surreal. She swayed on her feet, brushing Carson.
Grabbing her arm, he steadied. “All right?” he whispered, his breath fanning her cheek. “When everyone’s together, I’ll tell them what happened.”
“It’s not that,” she returned.
“Then what’s the matter? Are you sure you’re feeling all right? You’re suddenly pale, and you look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
The door of the inn opened and two figures emerged. Carson went still, his whispers fading into the cold air. Millie knew he probably didn’t recognize the dark-haired man on the porch, but that every man on the planet, including Carson, would probably know Scarlet McFaye.
*CARSON
Scarlet saw Millie first, and she bounded down the steps, arms extended. “Poor, Millie!” She swooped Millie into a tight embrace.
Carson found it interesting that Scarlet, in her white fur-trimmed parka, cloud of dark hair, and full red lips, had been stunning on the porch, but she lost her appeal as she drew closer. Carson took note of the tired lines around her eyes,  the small cracks around her lips, and the stiffness in her lacquered hair. She smelled of perfume and hair products.
The man trailing after Scarlet was almost as stiff as Scarlet’s hair. He hung behind, clearly uncomfortable, but also genuinely pained and concerned.
Liam stood straight, tall, his overcoat thrown over his pinstripe suit. From his wingtip shoes and lack of a bag, Carson guessed he must have come straight from work, which was strange since it was Saturday. Carson wanted to hate him, but…
“Millie, sweetie, what happened.” Grasping both of Millie’s arms, Scarlet leaned back and peered into Millie’s eyes.
“I’m okay,” Millie said, stepping away from Scarlet and edging closer to Carson.
Instinctively protective, he draped his arm around her shoulders and pulled her close.
“Just shaken up,” Millie said, her gaze darting to Liam before flinching away.
“I got an anonymous message saying you’d been in a terrible car accident!” Scarlet said.
“That was me, not exactly anonymous,” Carson said, extending his hand.
Liam grasped his hand briefly. “And who are you?”
Millie turned, lifted her face to Carson, and announced, “This is Carson Trent, the man I’m going to marry.”
Reading the expression in her eyes, Carson cupped her face and bent to kiss her lips. And for just a second, his world went still, as if frozen in a black and white photograph.


OCTOBER 16, 2015

Liam blanched, but Scarlet brightened and clapped her hands.
“Oh! I’m so happy for you!” Scarlet bounced on her toes.
“When…?” Liam stuttered.
Millie tucked her hand in Carson’s coat pocket and shivered against him.
“It’s new,” she said, her lips white.
“Well, if you’re okay,” Liam began, looking as if he wanted to get back in his car.
“Are you staying at the inn?” Em asked.
“Is there room?” Scarlet chirped.
“For you? Friends of Millie’s? Of course,” Em said.
“But…” Carson began, waiting for Millie to say something. But instead of speaking up, she studied the tops of her boots.
Em named a price four times the rate of a regular room, making Carson reconsider his estimation of his sister’s business skills.
Scarlet flashed Liam a hesitant smile. “What do you say? Should we stay?”
“My grandmother, she’s the proprietor, will be delighted to meet you,” Em continued, taking Scarlet’s arm and guiding her up the front porch steps.
Liam fell into step beside Carson and Millie. “I’m Liam Winslet,” he said. “Millie has probably told you about me.”
“Not that much, no,” Carson said, feeling mean.
“We dated for years,” Millie said, nudging Carson.
So, what happened? Carson wanted to ask.
“How did you two meet?” Liam asked.
Millie shot Carson a questioning look.
“We bumped into each other on the train,” Carson said, waiting for Millie to debunk the lie.
She remained silent.
Em paused on the porch and pointed to a plaque beside the front door. This house was here when the town of Chickory was established in 1720.
“My great-grandfather built this house. Of course, it’s been added onto several times. Many of the windows also have the original glass panes and the fireplaces are all from the eighteenth century.”
“No kidding!” Scarlet looked impressed. “I can’t wait to see it. Maybe Carson can give us a tour!” She threw a bright smile over her shoulder at him.
Carson winced as if she’d hit him. He trailed after Em, Scarlet, Liam, and Char, holding Millie’s hand. Somehow, his life had spun away from him and he wasn’t sure how to get it back. And maybe holding onto Millie so tightly wasn’t the wisest choice, but this woman he had just barely met seemed like the life-line he so desperately needed. How ironic that he had thought she needed him.
And yet, glancing from Liam to Millie, he decided that maybe she did. What was going on Liam’s head? If he had broken up with Millie, why was he here? And if he still loved her, as the expression on his face implied, why was he here with Scarlet?
And what was with Scarlet? Was she just one of those women who know what they want and chase after it, claim it, and subdue it? Is that what happened with Liam?
“I’m perpetuating the lie,” Millie whispered to him. “I’m sorry. I should say something right now. I need to fix this. It’s not fair to you.”
Carson tightened his hold on her hand, and raised it to his lips. “It’s okay.” He planted a light kiss on her knuckles. “I started it.”
“Then I should be the one to finish it.” Millie jutted out her chin. “I don’t know what got into me. You probably think I’m a terrible person, the sort that doesn’t pay her income tax, and flinches off tips in restaurants…and I’m not that way at all.”
He grinned. “Remember, I started this.”
“What are you two love birds whispering about?” Scarlet stood on the front porch, her hands balled into fists and planted on her hips, her lips pulled into a frown.
Beside him, Millie froze, and it occurred to Carson that she wasn’t good in the spotlight. His thoughts scrambled. “We’re just making plans.” He looked to his sister. “What’s on the docket tonight?”
Em brightened and squeezed Scarlet’s arm. “You are so in luck! My grandmother is the consummate party planner, and she has organized an incredible line up of festivities leading up to Christmas! Last night was the kickoff, but since Santa was a no-show,” she paused to send Carson a loaded glance, “he’s expected to ride in on a sleigh.”
“Ride in on a sleigh?” Carson echoed. “No one told me about this.”
Em pulled open the front door, sounding the bells, and letting out a waft of the baking gingerbread men. Her smile brightened. “Usually the sleighs are pulled by the Jerome’s Clydesdales, but this year Jed Forester’s camels are pulling the sleighs.”
“Camels are pulling the sleighs?” Carson didn’t like parroting his sister, but everything she said made so little sense that it all needed to be repeated so he could understand. “Why would camels be pulling the sleighs?”
“Granny thought it would be more fun, and she’s all about fun,” Em said, leading the small troop into the living room.
Fun. Right.
Em resumed her tour guide duties. “Now this piano originally belonged to my great-grandmother, Eva Harris.”
*MILLIE
While Em extolled the hardships of Carson’s grandmother and her quest to bring her piano to the states, Millie’s gaze wandered around the room, taking in all the family photographs and portraits lining the walls. She wanted to study the pictures. A part of her wanted to be able to say, why yes, that’s Cousin Betty, she has Grandmother Rosie’s eyes, or poor Sid, he was cursed with Uncle Leo’s nose and Aunt Mabel’s buck teeth.
Beside her, Carson stiffened. “My mom,” he whispered in her ear. His breath sent a chill down her back.
A beautiful brunette stood in the doorway leading to the kitchen, a platter of gingerbread in her hands. She looked far too young to be Carson’s mother. After placing the platter on the dining room table, she rushed forward, arms extended, and pulled Millie into a tight embrace.
“I can’t tell you how happy I am!” she gushed out loud before whispering in Millie’s ear. “I know your secret. My mom told me.”
Millie sagged in relief at the news. She didn’t believe in selective lying, or even lying at all since lying was a gateway to cheating. Liam and Scarlet had been the cheaters, so she could justify lying to them, maybe… But she didn’t want to lie to Carson’s family—especially his mom. Besides, if Carson’s mom was anything like her mom, then this lovely woman possessed a sixth sense when it came to her children—as all good moms should.
“Excuse me, Em,” Carson’s mom said, “I’m going to borrow these two.” Pulling away, Carson’s mom took possession of Millie and Carson’s hands and guided them into the kitchen.
On the way there, Carson snagged the platter of gingerbread men, which was good, because Millie knew she was going to need them.
 “I’m Bunky, by the way,” Carson’s mom said as she settled down at the giant oak table nestled in the breakfast nook.
Carson set the platter of cookies down, and Millie chose a seat right in front of them.
“I’m Millie.”
“I know who you are. The whole world knows who you are. What I don’t know is why you’re still here with this creature.” She affectionately patted Carson’s hand.
“What did Grandma tell you?” Carson asked.
Bunky related the story.
“That’s pretty much it,” Millie said.
Bunky shook her head. “No. If that was it, you’d probably both be back in New York.”
“The doctor said that Millie needs to lay low for a few days,” Carson said. “I thought that would be easier here than alone in the city.”
Bunky smiled. “Good answer. But now we have Millie’s friends, including Scarlet McFaye. Do they know the story?”
Millie flushed with embarrassment, and she found herself looking everywhere other than at Bunky’s face. Despite the state of the art industrial appliances, the kitchen retained an Old World feel. A checkerboard tile floor, sage green cabinets, creamy-yellow walls, window treatments covered in cherry blossoms. It was the sort of kitchen that you retired to after a hard heart-pounding snowball fight, and it belonged to Carson’s family. She shouldn’t feel so at home. She sternly reminded herself that didn’t have a family.
“I need to set them straight,” Millie said, painfully aware that until Scarlet had come along that Liam was supposed to have been her family.
A calculated gleam shone in Bunky’s eye. “Is that what you want to do?”
“It’s what I should do,” Millie said. “I don’t like lying, not even if…”
“They deserve it?”
Millie looked out the window. “There’s no excuse for my behavior. I should have told them the truth.”
Carson placed his hand over Millie’s. “No, I should tell them. It was my lie first.”
“There’s no harm done,” Bunky said. “You can tell them if you want, when you want.” She picked up a gingerbread man and considered him before biting off his head.
“Where did you get your unusual name?” Millie asked.
“My real name is Becky, but when I was a kid I had enormous buck teeth, so you think my name would have been Bucky. But, as it turns out, probably because of my teeth, I called myself Bunky, and it stuck.”
Millie laughed. “That’s a terrible story. You should have called yourself princess, or something.”
“I didn’t want to be a princess; I just wanted to be Bunky,” she said.
Millie knew then that Bunky had much more confidence than she would ever have.
Bunky finished off her gingerbread cookie. “Wikipedia tells me that you went to Columbia law school.”
Millie nodded. “But I’ve never practiced. I didn’t even take the bar.”
“That’s probably wise,” Bunky said.
“Mom’s an attorney, as well,” Carson said. “She does mostly pro-bono work, and represents a coalition of local churches and charities.”
“Oh, that’s awesome,” Millie said.
“Although, not very profitable,” Carson said.
“But that’s not the point, right?” Millie asked.
Bunky looked pleased with her response. Carson not so much.
^^
The front door bell tinkled, announcing arriving guests. Familiar voices sounded through the hall, but one rang out louder than the others.
“Oh my hell, what are you doing here?” Dorrie. And from the tone of her voice, she must have spotted Liam.
Millie bolted from her chair.
Carson quirked an eyebrow at her. “A friend of yours?”
“Dorrie.”
“The cat-sitter?
Millie nodded. “Although, technically, her daughter Amber is the one I pay.” Smoothing down her sweater, Millie tried to collect her thoughts. She didn’t want to lie to Dorrie, and she wouldn’t have had to if she’d just been honest with Liam. Why had she lied to him? Pride? Ego?
A better question, one he had yet to answer satisfactorily was why was he here?
“Do you want to introduce me to your friend?” Carson asked.
But Millie knew that wasn’t the real question he was asking. He was really asking was how was she going to introduce him—as a mistake and misunderstanding, or as her fiancé? She wasn’t sure, yet. She had about thirty seconds to decide. Pulling on Carson’s hand, she towed him into the living room.
*CARSON
Two women about his age greeted him with curious and frankly assessing stares. Although the brunette looked more open and friendly than the redhead, both of their expressions softened when they caught sight of Millie.
But what had happened to Liam, Scarlett, and Em?
The brunette pulled Millie into a tight embrace first. “I was so scared! Thank goodness you’re all right.” She pulled away to get a better look at Millie. “You are okay, right?”
Millie nodded, and moved into the redhead’s arms for a brief hug. “What are you guys doing here?”
“Well, we had to come,” the brunette said.
“What made you rent a Fiat?” the redhead asked. “Why didn’t you get an SUV?”
“There was just me,” Millie began.
The brunette shot Carson another glare. “There are way too many unanswered questions.”
Carson’s temper flared, but he tried to tamp it down. These are Millie’s friends, he reminded himself. One of the first rules of courtship is to make nice with the girlfriends. Which reminded him of Liam—why was he here, and where had he gone? He was probably avoiding these women. Carson wasn’t sure if that raised or lowered his opinion of him.
The redhead squared her shoulders and assumed what they called in the business world a power stance. If he had to guess, he’d say that the redhead was a friend from law school. He pegged the brunette as the neighbor, Dorrie.
“Are you going to introduce us?” the redhead asked, running her gaze over Carson and frowning as if she didn’t like what she saw. She stepped closer to Millie. “Two days ago you didn’t have a date to Simone Shusterfield’s party, and now you have this guy.”
Carson flushed and tightened his grip on Millie’s hand.
“It’s really complicated,” Millie began.
“We’re smart,” the brunette nodded at her counterpart. “We can figure it out.”
“Dorrie’s good at math,” the redhead said. “And I’m a legal wiz.” She directed her hostility at Carson. “Better not mess with her.”
“Guys,” Millie’s voice took on a wheedling tone, “this is Carson. He’s a life-saver, honestly.”
“Or a gold digger,” the redhead muttered.
“Jenna! Stop! What’s wrong with you?” Millie said.
“I don’t like this,” Jenna said in a huff. She leaned close enough to Carson so that he could smell her perfume. “I don’t like you.”
Millie laughed and placed her hand on Jenna’s chest, pushing her away. “You don’t have to like him. All that matters is that I do.”
“Please don’t say those words hastily,” Dorrie said.
Millie laughed again. “Carson, these are my two best friends. Dorrie has been my next door neighbor since we were in high school, and Jenna and I met at law school.”
Jenna folded her arms across her chest. “What’s Liam doing here?”
Confusion flitted across Millie’s face. “I’m not really sure.”
“I think he wants you back,” Dorrie said.
“Then why bring Starlet Scarlet?” Jenna asked.
“Ask me some questions I can answer,” Millie said.
“How did you meet him?” Jenna asked, nodding at Carson, but not meeting his eye.
“Hey, I’m right here,” Carson said, tired of being treated like a tree.
Millie stepped into the circle of her friends and lowered her voice. “We’re not really engaged.”
Jenna made an ugly snorting noise. “We know that. What we don’t know is why the rest of the world—”
“Wait. What do you mean the rest of the world?”
“Your accident and Captain Hero here have been all over the news,” Jenna said.
Millie turned to Carson. “You’ve been on the news?”
“No! I--” Carson shook his head. “No. I haven’t told anyone—”
“Told anyone what?” Emily asked, coming from the hall with Char, Liam, and Scarlet trailing behind her.
Millie leaned into Carson, and he draped his arm around her shoulder, pulling her close. He wondered if he kissed her again would everything stop as it had before. Maybe he could make all these people go away, leaving him in a world with just Millie.
“We didn’t know there was news coverage of my accident,” Millie said through white lips.
“They showed the Fiat belly up,” Scarlet said.
“And then images of this guy,” Jenna said.
“And quite a lot about his hockey glory days,” Dorrie filled in. She reached out and grabbed Millie’s hand. “You don’t even like hockey.”
Millie tugged her hand out of Dorrie’s grip. “Just because I don’t like hockey doesn’t mean that I can’t like Carson.”
“It’s just so—” Jenna began.
“Exactly,” Liam said.
Millie’s cheeks turned a shade of red that matched her sweater, and her eyes flashed, but before she could say anything, Jenna spun to Liam.
The look on Jenna’s face made a wave of sympathy for Liam sweep over Carson.
“You don’t get a voice here!” Jenna said, jabbing her finger at Liam’s chest.
“Jenna, I get you hate me,” Liam began.
“You got that right. Now, what are you doing here?” Jenna demanded.
Scarlet stepped in front of Liam as if to protect him. “It was my idea.”
“Why?” Dorrie and Jenna asked at the same time.
“It’s something our therapist suggested,” Scarlet said.
“You’re seeing a therapist already?” Dorrie asked.
“I’ve been going to Helene for years, long before I ever met Liam,” Scarlet said.
Jenna raised her eyebrows, and Dorrie’s lips twitched.
“Helene thinks that we need to embrace and appreciate Liam’s long term relationship with Millie. We need to value the lessons Liam learned with her.”
Scarlet was making Millie sound like a personified military school. Carson shot her a quick glance to see how she was taking this statement. She looked white and shaken.
“Listen,” Carson said, “the doctor released Millie to my care, under the condition that she’d take things easy.”
“We’re easy,” Scarlet said.
“We know that,” Dorrie said.
“What is that supposed to mean?” Liam asked, puffing out his chest.
“You know the answer to that better than anyone else here,” Jenna said.
“Look, do you all need rooms?” Carson asked, stepping in front of Jenna, just in case she decided to start throwing punches. “Because the last I looked we’re all booked.”
“No, we’re not,” Emily sang.
Carson had nearly forgotten his sister.
“Uncle Joe and Aunt Mandy offered to move down into the basement with us,” Emily said, “and the attic room is now empty.”
“Uncle Joe and Aunt Mandy are here?” Carson asked, wishing he could sit down.
“Yep!” Char called out. She’d been so unusually quiet that Carson had thought she’d disappeared into the kitchen. “Uncle Joe can remove his two front teeth with his tongue.” When no one responded to this announcement, she said, “It’s a pretty cool trick. Almost as cool as Uncle Leo’s glass eye.”
“Uncle Leo’s not here, is he?” Carson asked.
“Not yet. But when he found out about Millie he said he’d leave as soon as he can find someone to feed the goats,” Char said. “He has a lot of goats. They make cheese. But then so do Jed’s camels and you can ride them. You can’t ride goats, cuz they’re not that big. Also, they’re kind of ornery.” Char paused. “Ornery is Aunt Mandy’s word. She’s always saying the goats have an ornery grin. I don’t know what that means.” Char tugged on her mom’s sweater. “How can a grin be ornery? Or a goat?”
The front door bell jingled as a cold breeze swept through the room and Uncle Joe, followed by Aunt Mandy bustled in the room. Although they were in their mid-sixties, with their ruddy skin typical of those who spend their lives outdoors, white hair, and Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus physiques, they looked much older.
 “Uncle Joe!” Char squealed, throwing herself at her great uncle.
He obliged by dropping his bags and sweeping Char off her feet.
Aunt Mandy gazed around the room, her eyes curious when they landed on Millie, and gentle when they met Carson’s. She took her turn hugging Char, before embracing first Emily, and then Carson.
“I can’t believe you’re here,” Carson said.
“Did you really think we’d miss our nephew’s engagement party?” Aunt Mandy asked.
“Engagement party?” Carson echoed.
Carson’s grandmother emerged from the kitchen, a platter of gingerbread men in her hands.
“Oh, I’m so glad you made it!” his grandmother said, setting down her platter on the dining room table and greeting her son and daughter-in-law. From the smile on her face, Carson suspected that this was all her doing.

Liam blanched, but Scarlet brightened and clapped her hands.
“Oh! I’m so happy for you!” Scarlet bounced on her toes.
“When…?” Liam stuttered.
Millie tucked her hand in Carson’s coat pocket and shivered against him.
“It’s new,” she said, her lips white.
“Well, if you’re okay,” Liam began, looking as if he wanted to get back in his car.
“Are you staying at the inn?” Em asked.
“Is there room?” Scarlet chirped.
“For you? Friends of Millie’s? Of course,” Em said.
“But…” Carson began, waiting for Millie to say something. But instead of speaking up, she studied the tops of her boots.
Em named a price four times the rate of a regular room, making Carson reconsider his estimation of his sister’s business skills.
Scarlet flashed Liam a hesitant smile. “What do you say? Should we stay?”
“My grandmother, she’s the proprietor, will be delighted to meet you,” Em continued, taking Scarlet’s arm and guiding her up the front porch steps.
Liam fell into step beside Carson and Millie. “I’m Liam Winslet,” he said. “Millie has probably told you about me.”
“Not that much, no,” Carson said, feeling mean.
“We dated for years,” Millie said, nudging Carson.
So, what happened? Carson wanted to ask.
“How did you two meet?” Liam asked.
Millie shot Carson a questioning look.
“We bumped into each other on the train,” Carson said, waiting for Millie to debunk the lie.
She remained silent.
Em paused on the porch and pointed to a plaque beside the front door. This house was here when the town of Chickory was established in 1720.
“My great-grandfather built this house. Of course, it’s been added onto several times. Many of the windows also have the original glass panes and the fireplaces are all from the eighteenth century.”
“No kidding!” Scarlet looked impressed. “I can’t wait to see it. Maybe Carson can give us a tour!” She threw a bright smile over her shoulder at him.
Carson winced as if she’d hit him. He trailed after Em, Scarlet, Liam, and Char, holding Millie’s hand. Somehow, his life had spun away from him and he wasn’t sure how to get it back. And maybe holding onto Millie so tightly wasn’t the wisest choice, but this woman he had just barely met seemed like the life-line he so desperately needed. How ironic that he had thought she needed him.
And yet, glancing from Liam to Millie, he decided that maybe she did. What was going on Liam’s head? If he had broken up with Millie, why was he here? And if he still loved her, as the expression on his face implied, why was he here with Scarlet?
And what was with Scarlet? Was she just one of those women who know what they want and chase after it, claim it, and subdue it? Is that what happened with Liam?
“I’m perpetuating the lie,” Millie whispered to him. “I’m sorry. I should say something right now. I need to fix this. It’s not fair to you.”
Carson tightened his hold on her hand, and raised it to his lips. “It’s okay.” He planted a light kiss on her knuckles. “I started it.”
“Then I should be the one to finish it.” Millie jutted out her chin. “I don’t know what got into me. You probably think I’m a terrible person, the sort that doesn’t pay her income tax, and flinches off tips in restaurants…and I’m not that way at all.”
He grinned. “Remember, I started this.”
“What are you two love birds whispering about?” Scarlet stood on the front porch, her hands balled into fists and planted on her hips, her lips pulled into a frown.
Beside him, Millie froze, and it occurred to Carson that she wasn’t good in the spotlight. His thoughts scrambled. “We’re just making plans.” He looked to his sister. “What’s on the docket tonight?”
Em brightened and squeezed Scarlet’s arm. “You are so in luck! My grandmother is the consummate party planner, and she has organized an incredible line up of festivities leading up to Christmas! Last night was the kickoff, but since Santa was a no-show,” she paused to send Carson a loaded glance, “he’s expected to ride in on a sleigh.”
“Ride in on a sleigh?” Carson echoed. “No one told me about this.”
Em pulled open the front door, sounding the bells, and letting out a waft of the baking gingerbread men. Her smile brightened. “Usually the sleighs are pulled by the Jerome’s Clydesdales, but this year Jed Forester’s camels are pulling the sleighs.”
“Camels are pulling the sleighs?” Carson didn’t like parroting his sister, but everything she said made so little sense that it all needed to be repeated so he could understand. “Why would camels be pulling the sleighs?”
“Granny thought it would be more fun, and she’s all about fun,” Em said, leading the small troop into the living room.
Fun. Right.
Em resumed her tour guide duties. “Now this piano originally belonged to my great-grandmother, Eva Harris.”
*MILLIE
While Em extolled the hardships of Carson’s grandmother and her quest to bring her piano to the states, Millie’s gaze wandered around the room, taking in all the family photographs and portraits lining the walls. She wanted to study the pictures. A part of her wanted to be able to say, why yes, that’s Cousin Betty, she has Grandmother Rosie’s eyes, or poor Sid, he was cursed with Uncle Leo’s nose and Aunt Mabel’s buck teeth.
Beside her, Carson stiffened. “My mom,” he whispered in her ear. His breath sent a chill down her back.
A beautiful brunette stood in the doorway leading to the kitchen, a platter of gingerbread in her hands. She looked far too young to be Carson’s mother. After placing the platter on the dining room table, she rushed forward, arms extended, and pulled Millie into a tight embrace.
“I can’t tell you how happy I am!” she gushed out loud before whispering in Millie’s ear. “I know your secret. My mom told me.”
Millie sagged in relief at the news. She didn’t believe in selective lying, or even lying at all since lying was a gateway to cheating. Liam and Scarlet had been the cheaters, so she could justify lying to them, maybe… But she didn’t want to lie to Carson’s family—especially his mom. Besides, if Carson’s mom was anything like her mom, then this lovely woman possessed a sixth sense when it came to her children—as all good moms should.
“Excuse me, Em,” Carson’s mom said, “I’m going to borrow these two.” Pulling away, Carson’s mom took possession of Millie and Carson’s hands and guided them into the kitchen.
On the way there, Carson snagged the platter of gingerbread men, which was good, because Millie knew she was going to need them.
 “I’m Bunky, by the way,” Carson’s mom said as she settled down at the giant oak table nestled in the breakfast nook.
Carson set the platter of cookies down, and Millie chose a seat right in front of them.
“I’m Millie.”
“I know who you are. The whole world knows who you are. What I don’t know is why you’re still here with this creature.” She affectionately patted Carson’s hand.
“What did Grandma tell you?” Carson asked.
Bunky related the story.
“That’s pretty much it,” Millie said.
Bunky shook her head. “No. If that was it, you’d probably both be back in New York.”
“The doctor said that Millie needs to lay low for a few days,” Carson said. “I thought that would be easier here than alone in the city.”
Bunky smiled. “Good answer. But now we have Millie’s friends, including Scarlet McFaye. Do they know the story?”
Millie flushed with embarrassment, and she found herself looking everywhere other than at Bunky’s face. Despite the state of the art industrial appliances, the kitchen retained an Old World feel. A checkerboard tile floor, sage green cabinets, creamy-yellow walls, window treatments covered in cherry blossoms. It was the sort of kitchen that you retired to after a hard heart-pounding snowball fight, and it belonged to Carson’s family. She shouldn’t feel so at home. She sternly reminded herself that didn’t have a family.
“I need to set them straight,” Millie said, painfully aware that until Scarlet had come along that Liam was supposed to have been her family.
A calculated gleam shone in Bunky’s eye. “Is that what you want to do?”
“It’s what I should do,” Millie said. “I don’t like lying, not even if…”
“They deserve it?”
Millie looked out the window. “There’s no excuse for my behavior. I should have told them the truth.”
Carson placed his hand over Millie’s. “No, I should tell them. It was my lie first.”
“There’s no harm done,” Bunky said. “You can tell them if you want, when you want.” She picked up a gingerbread man and considered him before biting off his head.
“Where did you get your unusual name?” Millie asked.
“My real name is Becky, but when I was a kid I had enormous buck teeth, so you think my name would have been Bucky. But, as it turns out, probably because of my teeth, I called myself Bunky, and it stuck.”
Millie laughed. “That’s a terrible story. You should have called yourself princess, or something.”
“I didn’t want to be a princess; I just wanted to be Bunky,” she said.
Millie knew then that Bunky had much more confidence than she would ever have.
Bunky finished off her gingerbread cookie. “Wikipedia tells me that you went to Columbia law school.”
Millie nodded. “But I’ve never practiced. I didn’t even take the bar.”
“That’s probably wise,” Bunky said.
“Mom’s an attorney, as well,” Carson said. “She does mostly pro-bono work, and represents a coalition of local churches and charities.”
“Oh, that’s awesome,” Millie said.
“Although, not very profitable,” Carson said.
“But that’s not the point, right?” Millie asked.
Bunky looked pleased with her response. Carson not so much.
^^
The front door bell tinkled, announcing arriving guests. Familiar voices sounded through the hall, but one rang out louder than the others.
“Oh my hell, what are you doing here?” Dorrie. And from the tone of her voice, she must have spotted Liam.
Millie bolted from her chair.
Carson quirked an eyebrow at her. “A friend of yours?”
“Dorrie.”
“The cat-sitter?
Millie nodded. “Although, technically, her daughter Amber is the one I pay.” Smoothing down her sweater, Millie tried to collect her thoughts. She didn’t want to lie to Dorrie, and she wouldn’t have had to if she’d just been honest with Liam. Why had she lied to him? Pride? Ego?
A better question, one he had yet to answer satisfactorily was why was he here?
“Do you want to introduce me to your friend?” Carson asked.
But Millie knew that wasn’t the real question he was asking. He was really asking was how was she going to introduce him—as a mistake and misunderstanding, or as her fiancé? She wasn’t sure, yet. She had about thirty seconds to decide. Pulling on Carson’s hand, she towed him into the living room.
*CARSON
Two women about his age greeted him with curious and frankly assessing stares. Although the brunette looked more open and friendly than the redhead, both of their expressions softened when they caught sight of Millie.
But what had happened to Liam, Scarlett, and Em?
The brunette pulled Millie into a tight embrace first. “I was so scared! Thank goodness you’re all right.” She pulled away to get a better look at Millie. “You are okay, right?”
Millie nodded, and moved into the redhead’s arms for a brief hug. “What are you guys doing here?”
“Well, we had to come,” the brunette said.
“What made you rent a Fiat?” the redhead asked. “Why didn’t you get an SUV?”
“There was just me,” Millie began.
The brunette shot Carson another glare. “There are way too many unanswered questions.”
Carson’s temper flared, but he tried to tamp it down. These are Millie’s friends, he reminded himself. One of the first rules of courtship is to make nice with the girlfriends. Which reminded him of Liam—why was he here, and where had he gone? He was probably avoiding these women. Carson wasn’t sure if that raised or lowered his opinion of him.
The redhead squared her shoulders and assumed what they called in the business world a power stance. If he had to guess, he’d say that the redhead was a friend from law school. He pegged the brunette as the neighbor, Dorrie.
“Are you going to introduce us?” the redhead asked, running her gaze over Carson and frowning as if she didn’t like what she saw. She stepped closer to Millie. “Two days ago you didn’t have a date to Simone Shusterfield’s party, and now you have this guy.”
Carson flushed and tightened his grip on Millie’s hand.
“It’s really complicated,” Millie began.
“We’re smart,” the brunette nodded at her counterpart. “We can figure it out.”
“Dorrie’s good at math,” the redhead said. “And I’m a legal wiz.” She directed her hostility at Carson. “Better not mess with her.”
“Guys,” Millie’s voice took on a wheedling tone, “this is Carson. He’s a life-saver, honestly.”
“Or a gold digger,” the redhead muttered.
“Jenna! Stop! What’s wrong with you?” Millie said.
“I don’t like this,” Jenna said in a huff. She leaned close enough to Carson so that he could smell her perfume. “I don’t like you.”
Millie laughed and placed her hand on Jenna’s chest, pushing her away. “You don’t have to like him. All that matters is that I do.”
“Please don’t say those words hastily,” Dorrie said.
Millie laughed again. “Carson, these are my two best friends. Dorrie has been my next door neighbor since we were in high school, and Jenna and I met at law school.”
Jenna folded her arms across her chest. “What’s Liam doing here?”
Confusion flitted across Millie’s face. “I’m not really sure.”
“I think he wants you back,” Dorrie said.
“Then why bring Starlet Scarlet?” Jenna asked.
“Ask me some questions I can answer,” Millie said.
“How did you meet him?” Jenna asked, nodding at Carson, but not meeting his eye.
“Hey, I’m right here,” Carson said, tired of being treated like a tree.
Millie stepped into the circle of her friends and lowered her voice. “We’re not really engaged.”
Jenna made an ugly snorting noise. “We know that. What we don’t know is why the rest of the world—”
“Wait. What do you mean the rest of the world?”
“Your accident and Captain Hero here have been all over the news,” Jenna said.
Millie turned to Carson. “You’ve been on the news?”
“No! I--” Carson shook his head. “No. I haven’t told anyone—”
“Told anyone what?” Emily asked, coming from the hall with Char, Liam, and Scarlet trailing behind her.
Millie leaned into Carson, and he draped his arm around her shoulder, pulling her close. He wondered if he kissed her again would everything stop as it had before. Maybe he could make all these people go away, leaving him in a world with just Millie.
“We didn’t know there was news coverage of my accident,” Millie said through white lips.
“They showed the Fiat belly up,” Scarlet said.
“And then images of this guy,” Jenna said.
“And quite a lot about his hockey glory days,” Dorrie filled in. She reached out and grabbed Millie’s hand. “You don’t even like hockey.”
Millie tugged her hand out of Dorrie’s grip. “Just because I don’t like hockey doesn’t mean that I can’t like Carson.”
“It’s just so—” Jenna began.
“Exactly,” Liam said.
Millie’s cheeks turned a shade of red that matched her sweater, and her eyes flashed, but before she could say anything, Jenna spun to Liam.
The look on Jenna’s face made a wave of sympathy for Liam sweep over Carson.
“You don’t get a voice here!” Jenna said, jabbing her finger at Liam’s chest.
“Jenna, I get you hate me,” Liam began.
“You got that right. Now, what are you doing here?” Jenna demanded.
Scarlet stepped in front of Liam as if to protect him. “It was my idea.”
“Why?” Dorrie and Jenna asked at the same time.
“It’s something our therapist suggested,” Scarlet said.
“You’re seeing a therapist already?” Dorrie asked.
“I’ve been going to Helene for years, long before I ever met Liam,” Scarlet said.
Jenna raised her eyebrows, and Dorrie’s lips twitched.
“Helene thinks that we need to embrace and appreciate Liam’s long term relationship with Millie. We need to value the lessons Liam learned with her.”
Scarlet was making Millie sound like a personified military school. Carson shot her a quick glance to see how she was taking this statement. She looked white and shaken.
“Listen,” Carson said, “the doctor released Millie to my care, under the condition that she’d take things easy.”
“We’re easy,” Scarlet said.
“We know that,” Dorrie said.
“What is that supposed to mean?” Liam asked, puffing out his chest.
“You know the answer to that better than anyone else here,” Jenna said.
“Look, do you all need rooms?” Carson asked, stepping in front of Jenna, just in case she decided to start throwing punches. “Because the last I looked we’re all booked.”
“No, we’re not,” Emily sang.
Carson had nearly forgotten his sister.
“Uncle Joe and Aunt Mandy offered to move down into the basement with us,” Emily said, “and the attic room is now empty.”
“Uncle Joe and Aunt Mandy are here?” Carson asked, wishing he could sit down.
“Yep!” Char called out. She’d been so unusually quiet that Carson had thought she’d disappeared into the kitchen. “Uncle Joe can remove his two front teeth with his tongue.” When no one responded to this announcement, she said, “It’s a pretty cool trick. Almost as cool as Uncle Leo’s glass eye.”
“Uncle Leo’s not here, is he?” Carson asked.
“Not yet. But when he found out about Millie he said he’d leave as soon as he can find someone to feed the goats,” Char said. “He has a lot of goats. They make cheese. But then so do Jed’s camels and you can ride them. You can’t ride goats, cuz they’re not that big. Also, they’re kind of ornery.” Char paused. “Ornery is Aunt Mandy’s word. She’s always saying the goats have an ornery grin. I don’t know what that means.” Char tugged on her mom’s sweater. “How can a grin be ornery? Or a goat?”
The front door bell jingled as a cold breeze swept through the room and Uncle Joe, followed by Aunt Mandy bustled in the room. Although they were in their mid-sixties, with their ruddy skin typical of those who spend their lives outdoors, white hair, and Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus physiques, they looked much older.
 “Uncle Joe!” Char squealed, throwing herself at her great uncle.
He obliged by dropping his bags and sweeping Char off her feet.
Aunt Mandy gazed around the room, her eyes curious when they landed on Millie, and gentle when they met Carson’s. She took her turn hugging Char, before embracing first Emily, and then Carson.
“I can’t believe you’re here,” Carson said.
“Did you really think we’d miss our nephew’s engagement party?” Aunt Mandy asked.
“Engagement party?” Carson echoed.
Carson’s grandmother emerged from the kitchen, a platter of gingerbread men in her hands.
“Oh, I’m so glad you made it!” his grandmother said, setting down her platter on the dining room table and greeting her son and daughter-in-law. From the smile on her face, Carson suspected that this was all her doing.
Except he was the one who had started the lie in the first place. But then, why did he think his grandmother was somehow to blame?
Except he was the one who had started the lie in the first place. But then, why did he think his grandmother was somehow to blame?

2 comments:

  1. Where can I find the rest of the story? I'd rather read it in a novel if possible. Thanks, it's a good story.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Where can I find the rest of the story? I'd rather read it in a novel if possible. Thanks, it's a good story.

    ReplyDelete