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“Hello!” A shriek that sounds like an opera singer doing a full-on soprano scale breaks through my early Saturday-morning shower reverie. My scrubbing hands still on my soapy scalp. I know it’s Ralph who cried out. Ralph is my ten-year-old Amazon parrot—think the green bird on a pirate’s shoulder—with exceptional vocal skills. He’s also a spectacular watch bird. He’s in his cage in the family room, which means there’s a stranger nearby. Maybe knocking on the door of our second-and-third-floor home, above my shop. But most likely on the street one floor below. Nothing to get worked up over.
I go back to shampooing my hair, reveling in the Christmas shampoo’s peppermint scent. It’s still two weeks before Thanksgiving, but I’m all about the season this year—spiritually and commercially.
“I said ‘helloooo!’” Ralph’s tone is more strident, his volume full blast. I swear I feel my adrenals squeeze out heart-pumping hormones. There’s somebody either outside the front door, or—gulp—in my apartment.
What if it’s a robber? Or worse?
It’s not a robber. This is Stonebridge, Pennsylvania, not Highway 101 in Northern California. Where seemingly sleepy bedroom communities—
No. I stop my overactive brain before it trips into a neighborhood I should never go. The one that shows up after I binge three Netflix true-crime documentaries. As I did last night. And maybe the night before.
Okay, I admit it. Since I dropped the girls off at college a few months ago, I’ve been spending the nights with some of the most notorious serial killers of all time. And I believe I have the real Jack the Ripper identified, someone never discovered—
Another ear-shredding shriek from Ralph, imitating my cry when he occasionally nips me. It’s Ralph’s code for I mean it, Mom!
Is someone in the apartment?
I shut off the water and stand stock still, assessing my options. A first glance around the newly renovated bathroom yields a sucky arsenal. The best weapon I have that would knock someone out cold is a solid linden wood carved Santa figure, but it’s perched on a curio table next to the front door. A serial killer—no, not a serial killer—is between Santa dude and me. I’ve got to find something in the bath—
“Bad bird!” Ralph’s voice, able to mimic any human voice with eerie accuracy, sounds exactly like my very angry, very serious self. His cry is followed by a distinct thump.
As in a heavy footfall.
My heartbeat trips into clanging. Someone’s definitely in my apartment. I’m hot and cold all at once.
My second, frenzied gaze lands on the gargantuan bottle of salon-quality shampoo from Costco, shoved into the corner for the season as Candy Cane Locks takes center stage. The huge economy-sized bottle seemed like a treasure find after years of limited shampoo choices while I was stationed overseas. My bow to consumerism may be all that saves me. Will a plastic bottle weighing five pounds do it?
Of course it will. I’ve been to war and back. I’ve flown Navy helicopters through treacherous missions. I can make a large bottle of discount shampoo from Costco work. I bend over and reach for the bottle with soapy hands, clutch it to my—
“Don’t worry, Angel, it’s just me!” Mom’s shout reaches me inside the shower and triggers the scream I’d shoved down moments earlier. The shampoo bottle slips from my hold and slams against my big toe. I yelp, the pitch higher than my first scream.
“Angel, what on earth?” Mom’s in my bathroom, on the other side of the glass shower door, still holding her purse.
“Mom! Turn around. Please.”
To her credit, Mom’s quick on her feet and complies, but now she’s facing the wide mirror which, yeah, reflects me behind the glass door. In all my sudsy glory.
“I’m sorry, Angel, I rang the bell and knocked several times. And I thought you’d hear Ralph.”
“I did hear Ralph.” Talking through clenched teeth has become more regular since I moved back to my hometown. Especially with Mom. The well-meaning not-an-intruder. Kind of.
“Why don’t I make a pot of coffee while you finish up? Take your time.” Mom no doubt feels waves of my ire through the tempered glass. She leaves, and I lean against the shower wall to catch my breath.
But the tile is cold, soap is dripping in my eyes, and I’m shivering. I turn the water back on and let the heat wash away my annoyance.
I love my Mom. I love my Mom. I love my Mom.
Five minutes later, I walk into the kitchen, dressed in jeans and a sweater with JINGLE JINGLE in glitter cursive written across the chest. Mom’s at the table, looking at her phone and sipping from my RUNWAYS ARE FOR BEAUTY QUEENS mug, a memento of my helicopter days when the only runway that mattered to me was onboard an aircraft carrier. I grab a white porcelain mug imprinted with holly leaves that I bought at the Luxembourg Villeroy & Boch outlet for one euro. It might only be mid-November, but with my shop opening soon, I’d committed to Christmas, 24/7 in September. I figured if I’m going to launch a new business, a new life, at the height of the season, I needed the long warm-up.
Mom’s face lights up the minute she sees me, as if I’m the sole source of her happiness. Since I’m the youngest of three and she adores my brother and sister, I know it’s not true, but for now I’ll take it. Ignoring any lingering annoyance from her break-in, I drop a kiss on the top of her head. She’s dressed in a cute white-and-blue-striped button-down, worn over her jeans with the sparkly threads.
“You look great, Mom.”
“Thank you. You know I try. You slept in a bit today, didn’t you? Good for you. Rest won’t be easy to catch once the store opens.” People have asked me over the years how I survived the rigors of the Naval Academy. They wouldn’t ask if they’d met my mother. She’s a bundle of energy from the moment her feet hit the floor before dawn.
Mom’s bright amber eyes match mine, and I suspect that if I ever decide to stop dying my hair—chestnut number ten—I’ll have her striking silver streaks, which she shows off in a shoulder-length bob.
“I’m fine, Mom.” I purposefully overlook the jab about sleeping in. It’s not yet eight on a Saturday, and my shop isn’t open for business yet.
“Sit down with me.” She motions to the kitchen table.
So much for my plans to sit upstairs on the balcony with Ralph and my first cup of the day. I remind myself that it’s a blessing to be back in my hometown after twenty-plus years of globetrotting. Most importantly, it’s great to be near my family again. Isn’t this what I want to have with Ava and Lily years from now?
I won’t be a stalker mother, will I?
Sipping as I sit down, a sweet, spicy flavor hits my tongue.
“You put cinnamon in it.” Warmth rushes into my chest, and just like that, I’m grateful Mom busted in on my Saturday morning. I take a deep gulp. “Mmm.”
“Your father won’t drink it without a solid tablespoon over the grounds.” She started adding the secret ingredient years ago when someone told her it’d keep an hours-old pot of coffee from turning bitter.
“Is Dad golfing?” A rhetorical question. Dad’s always on the course on Saturdays. And any other day that isn’t snow-covered or rained out. Which in south central Pennsylvania equates to approximately two-hundred-plus days per year.
“Yes, but he’s going to wrap up at noon. We’ve got a date.” Mom smiles as if she’s sixteen instead of sixty-seven. “We’re driving down to Baltimore later for dinner.”
“Nice! But a long drive home after.”
“Oh, no. We’re staying at the Sagamore Pendry.” Mom glances away as blush crosses her cheeks, still smooth thanks to copious amounts of sunscreen, moisturizer, and Grandma’s genes.
“Oh.” We’re too close to TMI. I’m happy for my parents, grateful they are still enjoying…you know. But spare me the deets. “I’m glad you’re taking time for yourselves.”
“Me, too.” Joy emanates from my mom like the sunshine gleaming off the granite countertops. “Have you got all you need set for the shop’s first day? I was hoping we could go over your plans for the grand opening party.”
I smooth my hands over the table’s solid wood surface. “My goal is Small Business Saturday, I was hoping for a soft opening a few days sooner but decided to focus on one big day.” The Saturday after Thanksgiving is only two weeks away, but I remind myself it’s a target, not set in stone. I can open earlier, or later, if need be. One thing I want to do differently from my previous career is not put so much pressure on myself, not get backed into deadline corners. In the Navy, deadlines often mean life or death. In the civilian retail world, they mean being able to pay my employees and put food on my table. Important, absolutely. But not the same as having enemies put their crosshairs on you.
“Okay, then. It’s your store, of course.” It has to be killing Mom to not express her thoughts, not chastise me for ignoring any kind of formal schedule. She’s all about planning. “You know I’m here, ready to help. At least let me order the cake.”
“Actually, I was going to get an assortment of treats from different places. Baklava from Hellenic Café, Tiramisu cups from Ducci’s Dolcis, chocolates from Belgian Bites. And for the more traditional, I’ll get pies and such from Applebaum’s Farmers Market.” Supporting local business is the name of the game in Stonebridge. In turn, I hope they’ll send my shop some love in the form of customers. “I’m thinking of running out there this morning.” I wasn’t, really, but I knew it would calm Mom down if she thought I was on top of it.
“Great idea, Angel. I’ll put on my thinking cap to come up with a few more.”
Mom grins, and we sit in comfortable silence for a few heartbeats.
“I know you don’t like me to bring it up, but how are you really doing, honey, with the girls gone? You haven’t been alone since Tom passed. Not really.” Sure enough, Mom can’t keep her internal dialogue internal.
“I’m good, Mom.” No, I don’t want to talk about it. Do I miss Tom? Yes. Am I over the grief of losing him five years ago to a rare form of incurable cancer? Can one ever be? But I’m not not over it, either. Shop ’Round the World will allow me to keep him close, as we did so much curio collecting together. Our sentimental treasures are the inspiration for my stock.
“You need to talk about it, Angel.” Mom’s mistaken my quiet for angst.
“I appreciate your concern and support, Mom. I know you’re here, and it means a lot. If I need to talk, I will.” I focus on my coffee, which needs another pour of half-and-half.
Mom finally hears me and backs off, whistling at Ralph, who ignores her. His insouciant parrot attitude reflects in his deliberate silence, how he glares at Mom. Rude, but I get it. If she’s not breaking into the house, why bother?
“Have you met up with any of your local friends yet?” Mom can’t let go.
“There hasn’t been time.” When Mom says “friends” all I see in my mind’s eye are the several high school classmates who also own small businesses in town. All great folks, don’t get me wrong, but at this point another box to fill on my long to-do spreadsheet. They’ve been pressuring me to attend the local small business association, the Stonebridge Business Buddies, meetings. “I’ll have plenty of time to get with my friends once I get the store going.”
“Hmm.” Mom finishes her coffee and takes her mug to the sink. “I’ve learned that we have to make the time for fun, or it won’t happen. I understand that you’re under the gun while you set up shop, but you’re not in the Navy anymore, Angel. You’re in business for yourself. It’s okay to take some time off. You keep saying you’re going to get back to flying. And don’t overlook the networking opportunities friends bring.”
“I won’t. Thanks, Mom.” I don’t bother to remind her that while I have a private pilot’s license, I do not have my own plane and flight hours aren’t cheap.
We hug and she scoots off, on her way to Skeins and Baahls, the local yarn shop owned by my older brother Bryce and his husband Nico. I haven’t been in their quaint shop nearly enough these past weeks. I enjoy knitting, but I’m channeling all of my creative energies into the store. It’s going to have to be enough fun for now.
I finish getting ready in the quiet, and find it unhinges me. No matter how much I remind myself that I’m safe, that it was Mom who “broke in,” my sympathetic nervous system is still in overdrive. Not unlike the aftermath from a dangerous flight mission.
Yeah, I need to trade my Netflix serial killer binges for the home decorating channel.
End of Excerpt