Authors: Toni Blake
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary
A Destiny Novel
To my dear friend, Renee, who makes every day a holiday
“What right have you to be merry? What reason have you to be merry?”
A Christmas Carol
he car barreled around a curve next to Blue Valley Lake, tires squealing, barely staying on the pavement. Sue Ann gripped the wheel tight, trying to see the headlight-illuminated road through tears and hoping she wouldn’t go plummeting into the water at any second.
I shouldn’t be driving right now.
I’m someone’s mother.
I’m supposed to be more careful than this.
But it was difficult to think about things like being careful at the moment. It was difficult to think at all when she felt like someone had just plunged a dagger into her chest.
But no—not just someone. Jeff. Her husband. This was a nightmare. And she wanted desperately to wake up. She couldn’t breathe.
And—oh God, poor Sophie! She was only seven. Home asleep in her bed, she had no idea what was going on, no notion that her perfect little life was about to change forever.
Sue Ann swung the sedan into Jenny’s driveway, slamming on the brakes just in time to avoid rear-ending Mick’s pickup. It was the middle of the night, but instinct had led her here. And if you couldn’t show up at your best friend’s house at three in the morning, whose house
you show up at?
Only when she felt the cool grass of Jenny’s yard beneath her toes did she realize she was barefoot. And in pajamas. But she’d simply had to get away—the only thing she’d grabbed walking out were her keys.
She didn’t hesitate to bang on the door. Her chest still felt like it was about to explode and everything inside her hurt. This didn’t feel real—couldn’t be real. But it
real. Painfully, sickeningly real.
When Jenny’s husband, Mick, yanked the door open a minute later, he at first looked perturbed—but then his expression transformed into one of worry. “Sue Ann?”
She must look awful—or maybe crazed. She suddenly felt very fragile. And embarrassed for Mick to see her this way. “I need Jenny,” she said, her voice coming out small and desperate. She knew her cheeks were tearstained, her eyes red.
“Come inside,” Mick said, reaching for her elbow, guiding her toward the couch. “I’ll get her.” Then he took off up the cottage’s narrow staircase.
To think—I once thought he was the bad one, the one who couldn’t be trusted
. The irony rose thick in her throat, nearly gagging her.
When Jenny came rushing down the stairs in a flowy white nightgown, something about the mere sight of her friend made Sue Ann burst back into fresh tears.
Now I have to tell her this.
And I’m not even sure I can bear to say the words.
“Sue Ann?” Jenny blinked, her gaze fraught with concern. “What is it? What’s happened?”
“It’s Jeff,” Sue Ann managed, even though her throat threatened to close up at any second.
Jenny’s jaw dropped. “Is he hurt?”
Yet Sue Ann just gave her head a short shake. The area behind her eyes throbbed. “No, I am.”
“He’s—He’s . . . there’s another woman.”
The news literally knocked the breath out of Jenny, just as Sue Ann had known it would, making her sag onto the couch as well. Because Sue Ann and Jeff, they were . . . solid. They were the couple everyone wanted to be. High school sweethearts. Happy and in love. Always. Jeff was the good, handsome, dependable man every woman in Destiny wished she had. They all envied Sue Ann.
They wouldn’t anymore.
Jenny whispered in horror. “Are you sure? Because . . . because . . . ” Yes, because this didn’t sound like Jeff. Sue Ann knew that. She knew it to the marrow of her bones. And it made this all the more devastating.
“He admitted it. He told me all about it. It’s someone he works with.” Sue Ann felt as if she could barely draw air into her lungs. Now she’d said it. And giving voice to it had made it even more heartbreakingly true.
“Is . . . is the affair over?” Jenny asked.
Oh God. The question forced Sue Ann to expel a rough, deflating breath. Because Jenny didn’t even know the really bad part yet. “It’s . . . much worse than just an affair, Jen. He . . . ” It felt as if something clawed at her stomach from the inside. “He
her. And he . . . he hasn’t even actually cheated on me yet—technically, physically. But he’s
with her. And that’s much worse than just some affair. Much, much worse.” She dissolved into new tears at the raw reality in her own words. Jeff had always been in love with
, devoted to
. She’d never had any doubt that it would be that way forever, until the day they died. But now, suddenly, without warning, he loved someone else. As her heart seized anew, she found herself reaching out, clutching at Jenny’s shoulder, leaning over onto her.
“Oh, Sue Ann,” Jenny said. Just that. Because they both knew there were no words to console her now, or make it better. “And you’re sure? That he . . . still feels that way about this woman?”
Sue Ann just nodded.
“Oh Lord,” Jenny whispered.
“How can this be?” Sue Ann burst out then. “I mean, how could this happen? How is it even possible?”
“I don’t know,” her best friend murmured as her arm came around her in a tight hug. “I don’t know.”
Sue Ann simply shook her head once more, as if doing so could somehow take this all away, take her back to the safe little world she’d lived in so happily until just a few hours ago when she’d innocently asked her husband if something was wrong because he’d seemed oddly withdrawn the last few weeks. She’d never in her wildest dreams expected to hear that he’d spent the recent months falling in love with someone else.
“I’ve . . . never felt so empty, Jen. Never. Like one day you’re loved and the world makes sense—and the next day, the love you thought you’d have forever is just . . . gone.”
“Bah,” said Scrooge. “Humbug!”
A Christmas Carol
ue Ann trudged through the department store, feet tired, shopping bags in hand, and the spirit of Christmas nowhere to be found despite—or maybe because of—the sound of “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” echoing through loudspeakers overhead.
Oh God, it was only the day after Thanksgiving—she had a whole month of this private hell to go. Or a lifetime, depending upon which particular private hell she chose to focus on. The private hell of this first Christmas without Jeff would last a month, but the private hell of losing her husband and their life together would keep right on lingering.
One day at a time.
Just take one day at a time.
That was the advice in the divorce self-help guide her bookstore-owner friend, Amy, had foisted on her. And the truth was, it was a simple but good rule to live by during tough times. So she resolved not to look ahead to all the potential problems she’d face in the future, and not to even let herself anticipate all the awkward, sad moments she would experience at holiday events in the coming weeks—
just get through today.
Finish your shopping, then get the hell out of Dodge.
Dodge, in this case, was her hometown of Destiny, Ohio, where she’d been born and raised and had lovingly refurbished a big Victorian house with Jeff on Holly Lane, just a few blocks from the town square—a house that suddenly felt much emptier since he’d left nearly six months ago. So now she was escaping the house and everything else, just for the weekend—she’d rented a cabin on nearby Bear Lake to sort of just . . . collect herself, center herself, and gear up for the coming holiday season.
To her surprise, she’d learned that even in a small town where everyone knew you, it was possible to keep a low profile if you tried. Somewhat, anyway. And that was exactly what she’d instinctively done since Jeff’s departure. But Christmastime brought invitations to all sorts of parties and events, and she had a child whose happiness meant the world to her—and all things considered, she knew it was time to face her loss and start living her life again, as best she could. Whether she felt ready for it or not.
It was her friend Tessa who’d suggested the cabin for Thanksgiving weekend—and Jenny and Amy, as well as their other friend, Rachel, had all thought it sounded like a good idea. Tessa had actually
a cabin out in the woods when she’d been looking for some peace, and not only had she found it—she’d also inadvertently stumbled across the love of her life there as well. And though a man was the last thing Sue Ann sought, the peace and solace sounded good. Like one final retreat inside her sorrows, and a time to gather enough courage to break out of this lonely shell she’d built around herself.
She headed for the department store’s side door, thinking of the cooler full of Thanksgiving leftovers in the trunk of her car just outside. She was already in Crestview, the larger nearby town where Destinyites came for any significant retail needs, and Bear Lake wasn’t far away. She’d also tossed Christmas cards and her real estate study guide in the car, just in case she got in the mood for such tasks. But mostly, her plan was to relax. Read a book. Sit by the fire. Maybe bundle up and take a walk outside to enjoy the scenery.
And perhaps it was all just some grand test she was giving herself—maybe she thought a woman who could enjoy a weekend alone in a cabin was a woman who was stronger than she’d felt these last months. But whether it was about relaxing, or gathering courage, or proving something to herself, she was ready to make her way to the lake and leave all the shoppers, music, and early holiday stress behind.
Quiet cabin, here I come.
The deep male voice had come from somewhere nearby—but she was the only person currently in this part of the store. Taken aback, she stopped, looked around, and wondered if she was losing her mind.
And she was just about to continue on her way—when she heard it again. “Over here.” It made her flinch. Then look around once more. And this time her eyes caught on a wooden structure to one side of the store aisle—with a life-size fake furry reindeer head protruding from it.
“What’s wrong?” The reindeer’s mouth moved as it spoke, and its head even tilted pointedly, as if challenging her. “Haven’t you ever talked to a reindeer before?”
Oh brother, this felt weird. Because someone was in there who she couldn’t see, but he could see
. It didn’t seem quite fair and left her feeling oddly intimidated. “Um . . . no,” she finally said. Quietly. Because she didn’t really want to be seen conversing with a reindeer.
“I mostly talk to kids,” the reindeer said.
“Then . . . um . . . how did
get so lucky?”
“Because you’re pretty.”
“Oh.” Dear God, was she blushing? Because a reindeer had told her she was pretty? She felt like an idiot. And yet . . . still oddly flattered. She hadn’t felt anything remotely close to pretty in a long time.
“And I’m supposed to tell you the Cub Scouts are doing free gift wrapping by the Customer Service desk,” the reindeer added. “I’d help them, but when it comes to scissors and tape, I’m all hooves.”
“I see,” Sue Ann replied, unwittingly amused but still wary. “Well, I’m on my way out.”
“My loss,” said the reindeer.
Which made Sue Ann blink, then pull in her breath. This was ridiculous. A reindeer
making her blush.
“Wanna come back to my stable for a while?” he asked then—and this time she had to stifle a laugh. “We could have an eggnog or two. Then maybe, you know, play some reindeer games.”
Her cheeks heated up all over again. Over reindeer games? Or was it that the reindeer’s antlers now slanted at a jaunty angle that somehow actually felt suggestive?—even though that made no sense at all. And she wanted to be offended that the reindeer was being so forward—but she couldn’t. Because he was funny. And sounded cute. And was making her feel . . . like a woman, a desirable woman, for the first time since Jeff had announced he’d fallen out of love with her.
“That’s, um, flattering,” she finally said, unable to hide a small smile now, “but I really have to go.”
“You’d break a poor reindeer’s heart? At Christmastime?”
She tilted her head and couldn’t believe she was still having a conversation with a fake deer. “I’m sure some cute doe will catch your eye when you get back to the North Pole.”
The reindeer actually managed to shrug, as if to say:
Maybe, maybe not.
And Sue Ann tried to suppress a grin as she turned to go.
“Merry Christmas,” called the reindeer.
“You, too,” she said with a last glance in his direction, then headed for the door. She was still eager to get out of the store, away from the music, away from the crowds, away from everything.
But as silly as it seemed, that reindeer had made her day.
even rustic log cabins lined the arm of Bear Lake that cut through Snow Valley, and Sue Ann sat in the third one, making out Christmas cards. It hadn’t taken her long to fall back on needing an activity. After she’d carried in her cooler and overnight case, started a fire, and put on some pajamas—even though it was just now getting dark—she’d realized she felt at loose ends. As a young mom used to being on the run, she was accustomed to staying busy.
But you came here to relax, unwind, and maybe—finally—get over the divorce. You don’t have to keep busy every second.
So she stopped writing out the card in front of her and set it aside on the small coffee table she was using as a desk. Then she pushed to her feet from the braided rug where she sat, walked to the cooler, and pulled out the bottle of chardonnay she’d packed, in hopes of bringing on that relaxation. She listened to the crackle of the fire behind her as she maneuvered the corkscrew and poured some into a wineglass from home. After which she settled into one of the two easy chairs facing the stone hearth, stared into the almost hypnotic fire, and allowed herself to . . . think.
Unfortunately, however, what she thought about was Jeff. More specifically, Jeff and Veronica—who he called Ronni and which made Sue Ann want to puke, not because she really disliked the nickname but because the two were so sickeningly into each other. And because as careful as Jeff had been about not sleeping with “Ronni” before separating from Sue Ann, once they’d officially split, he’d begun parading his new woman all over town. As if it were normal for him to be with someone else. As if it weren’t disrespectful to Sue Ann and potentially harmful to Sophie to be flaunting the chick he now lived with, hanging all over her everywhere they went. He’d brought her to the summer carnival in Creekside Park, Jenny had seen them at the fall Apple Festival, and they’d been spotted together everywhere from the Whippy Dip to Dolly’s Main Street Café. And they didn’t even live in Destiny—Jeff had moved into her small house in Crestview.
He’s like a schoolboy with her.
The way he once was with me.
But he wasn’t that schoolboy anymore—he only behaved like one.
So pretty much
thought having to do with Jeff and Ronni made her want to puke. Instead, though, she just took a sip of her wine.
“I feel like our whole relationship has been a lie, a sham, where I thought you loved me but you don’t. I feel like a fool.” That’s one of the many things she’d said to Jeff that horrible night he’d told her about Veronica.
“You’re not a fool, Sue Ann—I
loved you. I just . . . don’t anymore. Not in that way, I mean. You’re Sophie’s mom and you’ve been in my life forever, so I’ll
love you—I’m just not
love with you anymore.” That’s what he’d said. Like it would make her feel better. Idiot. She made the next sip of wine a bigger one.
And possibly the worst thing about Veronica was that Sue Ann couldn’t even hate her for being younger or silly or gorgeous—because she wasn’t any of those things. She was thirty-one, only two years younger than Sue Ann. And she was slightly plump with plain, somewhat frizzy hair and boring fashion taste. Which meant Jeff’s love for her wasn’t based on anything superficial—it was genuine, bone deep. And all the more agonizing for Sue Ann when she couldn’t blame it on anything physical or shallow. It was real, true love. One more thought that made her sick. Time for another swig of wine.
Okay, so working on Christmas cards had been better than this. She’d come here committed to shaking off all these hurtful thoughts that still haunted her—but so far, it wasn’t working very well. Maybe it was a real blessing that she led a busy life. Maybe coming to this cabin had been a stupid idea.
Wine in hand, she stood and padded to the window, glancing out on the serene lake across the narrow blacktop road. Oh, it was starting to snow. She hadn’t heard that in the forecast—but snow this early wasn’t the norm in southeast Ohio, so it would stop soon. Yet it was one more reminder that winter was here, and Christmas with it. Sophie’s first Christmas in a broken home.
Sophie had spent Thanksgiving yesterday with Sue Ann at her mother’s house with all the relatives—then Jeff had stopped by to pick her up, dumbly telling Sue Ann all the fun stuff he and Ronni were going to do with their daughter over the weekend.
Don’t you see how wrong this is, she’d wanted to say. You’re supposed to be
, with me, with us—and now we’re supposed to get in the car and go to your mother’s for pumpkin pie and Pictionary, like every year. We’re supposed to be a family.
And yet at the same time, she’d realized she could barely stand to look at him. Because he’d betrayed her. Broken their vow—and her trust. And now he kept walking around acting like it was all okay, like the divorce was long in the past, like they were all already adjusted to this new life they led.
Once, she’d respected Jeff’s easygoing social manner, the way he was always comfortable in any crowd. But now she sort of loathed it, because at the very least, she wanted him to be as uncomfortable as her when they saw each other. She wanted him to feel bad for uprooting their lives, changing everything. And he just didn’t seem to feel very bad about it at all. He was too busy flashing Veronica all over Destiny like a new—even if not very flashy—piece of jewelry.
But then, maybe the fact that she could barely stand to see him was a step in the right direction. Loathing him seemed healthier than missing him. Didn’t it?
Though, even if she was starting to loathe Jeff . . . well, at moments it was pretty easy not to like
very much, either. This whole ugly drama had forced her to start being more critical of herself than ever before.
Was it unappealing that she’d been perfectly happy with her part-time job at Destiny Properties and was otherwise fulfilled by just being a mom? Was she supposed to want more simply because so many other people did? Had Jeff’s feelings for her changed because she tended to laugh too loud, or because she brought home takeout too often, or because she sometimes couldn’t keep a secret? She was working on that last one, though, and had gotten better about it. God knew she was learning just how painful it was when your dirty laundry was hung out for the whole world to see.