To Grandmother’s house we go,
“Over the River and Through the Wood” by Lydia Maria Child, American
Millie sat at the window of her brownstone apartment watching the shoppers scurry down New York’s busy streets. Headlights, streetlights, and just-hung Christmas lights sparkled on the slowly drifting snow.
“Merrow,” Byron cried as he jumped into Millie’s lap. He settled down with a purr.
“It’s just me and you this year.” Millie ran her fingers through the cat’s thick fur. She tried telling herself she needed the solitude, 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, the more she wondered.
Mothers with children bundled in knitted stocking caps and mittens juggled shopping bags. Businesswomen in furs swinging their briefcases strode past. Men sporting red and green ties walked while talking on their phones. Shoppers carrying colorful, overflowing bags paused at the window displays. There had to be a few Ebenezers in the festive crowd, but she couldn’t spot one. Was she the only one wishing that Christmas would pass her by? Leaning back into her wingback chair, feet propped on the ottoman, she closed her eyes. It’s just so wrong…
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 a while, but just hadn’t gotten around to it. Or at least that was what she told herself. The truth was, with her mom’s voice on the answering machine, 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.
“Anywhoo, I was hoping you’d give me a call. I know you are a writer, and I have a little business proposition for you.”
Millie frowned at the phone, debating. Her head told her that 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 that maybe if you’d like to come and stay—” Click.
The answering machine only allowed a few seconds per message, which often took callers by surprise. Millie smiled, wondering if this joyful baker person was on the end of the line, still yammering, completely unaware that she’d been shut off midsentence.
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 on the sofa and booted up her laptop.
Seconds later, images of an upstate village with a church on every corner popped up on the screen. A springtime shot showed the town green’s gazebo surrounded by tulips and crocuses. Another image had the gazebo decked out 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 them with.
Millie closed her eyes against flashing recollections of her grandparents’ 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.
The phone again. Millie poised her fingers above her keyboard, waiting. Once again, her heart told her to pick it up, but her sensible side said 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 old house that belonged to my grandparents and their parents before them, and I’ve recently converted it into an inn. 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 to Chickory 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 Southampton mansion. Simone liked to collect writers and artists the way some rich old ladies collected designer purses and pedigree poodles. Millie’s editor had insisted she attend, barring raging illness or a family calamity. But Millie didn’t have any family…or did she? Her parents, her aunt and uncle, and even little Midge had long since passed.
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 fiancée 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, Millie pulled up an online map. If she took the early morning train to White Plains 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 tossed out reasons to stay in the city. What if there’s a blizzard? You could be trapped there for weeks. This Joy Baker might be a serial killer. Who’s going to take care of Byron if something should happen to you?
Telling her sensible self to shut up, Millie reserved a rental car in White Plains. Picking up her phone, Millie shot her friend and neighbor, Dorrie, a quick text explaining her sudden travel plans. Dorrie’s daughter, Amber, often cat-sat Byron when Millie traveled for book signings and conferences. 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 and a strong jaw. He had 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. Actually, almost never unless I’m wearing a Santa suit.”
But something like that 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 hide her flushed cheeks, she tucked her bag beneath the seat in front of her, refusing to meet his eyes 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, the color of chocolate, struck her again, 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,” 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 his 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 that looked so soft 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 the movie adaptions are all over the Hallmark station—my grandmother’s favorite.”
Millie bristled and tucked the book into her pocket, praying he wouldn’t see her picture on the cover-jacket and realize that 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.”
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 spun in circles. Come on, I write fiction. She thought up something else. “I’m a travel writer.”
She was a writer, and at the moment she happened to be traveling. Good one. Not really even a lie.
“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 a 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.”
“Yes, we’ll see each other again.”
“I won’t be staying that long. This is just a day trip.”
“You’re going 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 fiancée.”
“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 Scarlet McFaye?
“Wait, your ex is marrying Scarlet 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’re still at 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 and 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 that the chances of her ever seeing him again after today 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 her grip on her bag and turning away.
She didn’t look back.