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Veronica Cearley stood in the swanky Camellia Avenue Boutique, located in the beautiful North Georgia town of Hidden Mountain, holding a black leather purse for at least ten minutes while she remembered another Christmas and another purse.
Paris. Dinner. Wine. And a Louis Vuitton Speedy for Christmas. Her husband had gone to the store that afternoon and bought her a certified Louie. It had the dated verification serial number on the inside label. She’d checked only because it was such an extravagant gift. A gift she still had in her closet. Her messy, open closet that stood beside the neat, quiet closet that still held her husband’s clothes.
When she heard a huff and a grunt nearby, Veronica glanced up to find several of the holiday-entrenched customers staring at her. Marcy Whitaker, the flamboyant owner of this popular establishment, came walking toward Veronica, her bright, babbling earrings swinging like ornaments, her heavily mascaraed eyes full of a cautious concern.
“Veronica, honey, are you okay?”
Veronica couldn’t speak. If she uttered one word, she’d burst into ugly tears. I will not have a panic attack.
Not here. Not now. Not with some of the town’s prominent citizens staring at her with looks of pity. Oh, how she hated being pitied.
She took a deep breath, and another. But the panic tasted like bile in her throat and her brow heated with a cold sweat that moved like a lit fuse down her spine. She’d been doing better lately, but she should have stayed home and shopped online.
“If you’re not going to buy that, would you please put it down so the rest of us can look at it?” Freda Clark, a woman known for spreading gossip like farmers spread fertilizer, asked, her expression as pointed and comical as the Elf on the Shelf staring at them with an impish dare from the children’s section.
Aware of glimpses of intense interest, Veronica straightened her spine and felt something snap deep inside where she’d hidden her pain. Something that dried her unshed tears and sent a deep rebellion through her battered, bruised heart. A rebellion that brought her head up and gave her enough energy to take back the breaths she’d lost.
She needed to make some changes in her life.
Enough of trying to pretend Christmas would be better this year, enough of hiding her puffy eyes behind dark shades, and telling people she was fine, really.
She wasn’t fine. She wanted to boycott Christmas—all the fluff and stuff and tinsel and good cheer, and especially the creepy blow-up snowmen and swaying Santa figures lining every yard in town. Enough. She’d had enough of the over-the-top trappings of what should be a quiet, simple, peaceful time.
Peace. She wanted peace.
She took a breath and instead of being her usual determined, kind, controlled self, she stared Freda down.
Then she said in a loud voice, “Up until now, I hadn’t really decided, Freda. Thanks for helping me make up my mind.”
Doing a spin with the black leather envelope clutch, she announced, “I’m buying this purse, everyone. I’m not buying it because I really want it, but I’m in the mood to make Freda here mad and give y’all something to talk about. How about that?”
Whirling back to the counter, she said, “Marcy, ring this up and throw in some of that new night cream, because we all know I need something to help me snap out of my sad attitude, right?”
Marcy took her by her arm and hurried her to the cash register while everyone else pretended to be shopping. “I think you’ve made a wise decision, Veronica. This will be a classic. It can go dressy or casual, depending on . . . your mood.”
Mortified, Veronica nodded, wishing again that she’d stayed home this morning. She’d had enough of people pitying her and shushing her because they didn’t know how to deal with raw, deep-cut grief. Turning with a big smile, she shouted, “I hope you all have the best Christmas, bless your little hearts.”
Then she’d turned and walked off with the purse, but not before she heard Freda calling her an ugly word again underneath her breath.
“Yeah, I’m all that and more,” she said in parting, the waves of panic rolling over her like one of the waterfalls crashing down the mountain.
When she got to her car, she threw the reindeer-embossed shopping bag that held the purse onto the passenger seat, hit the steering wheel with her hands about ten times, and had herself a good cry.
She looked up a few minutes later and spotted a man with dark, shaggy hair and deep-blue eyes staring at her from the sidewalk in front of the shop. Right by her car.
Their gazes met for a brief moment, and something close to a fizzle that felt like a sparkler burning hit Veronica in her gut. He nodded as if he understood her frustrations, then lifted the collar of his black peacoat and took off walking.
“Great, now even strangers are sending me pity stares.”
The chill of December penetrated her bones, along with the weary kind of tired that could only come from trying to put on a good front when she still screamed inside.
Without thinking, she cranked her SUV and drove straight to the old cemetery near Wisteria Way. Tugging her scarf and jacket close, she walked to the spot she knew so well.
“Josh, I made a spectacle of myself in Marcy’s boutique. Over a stupid purse.” She touched her husband’s gravestone, the cold granite matching her dark mood. Then she turned to the other grave. “And Jay, you would have either been totally embarrassed, or you would have cheered me on. Either way, you’d have whispered, ‘Okay, Mom. Let’s get outta here.’”
She sank to her knees, the morning grass cold and damp against her jeans, the crisp winter wind slapping at her cheeks. “I miss you both so much. So much.” Heaving a breath, she said, “I’ve tried. Really, I have. I’ve been going through the motions, but some days are hard. Today is one of those days.”
Touching her hand to the date of their deaths, Veronica let out a sob.
Christmas Eve. Three years ago. A horrible car wreck on their way to get a last-minute gift for her. People kept telling her it would get better with time. Statistics showed grief would mellow and change over the years, and soon things would be tolerable.
Well, statistics didn’t see her little boy’s baseball glove lying on his dresser in the room she hadn’t changed. Statistics didn’t grab her husband’s wool overcoat and curl up with it just to smell the spicy scent of his aftershave.
Statistics could kiss her where the sun didn’t shine. Grief had its own agenda, a cruel, sneaky one that clutched at her chest and took her breath right out of her body. Like what had happened there in the sweet-scented boutique full of privileged women and overpriced clothes. Standing there, holding the purse, she’d left the sound of a jazzy Christmas tune to return to a quaint restaurant with soft piano music, in a place that shouted romance and love, with the glittering lights of Paris shining all around her.
Then the glitter of twinkling Christmas lights intruded once again, glaring at her, spotlighting her pain.
She’d tried so hard to hide her grief, but she’d failed. She’d turned away from her friends because she hated the unsolicited suggestions and the awkwardness of their comments. She hated how they were still one-half of a couple, and she’d become one-half of what was left of herself. Now, at any event from church to dinner parties, she was the one who sat staring at all the laughing couples, a solid smile pasted on her face.
Now they had nothing to say to her. The awkward hurrying by with “Good to see you. Got to go,” made her pain twice as difficult to hide.
She used to walk with the other moms almost every morning, but after she began to ignore their calls or didn’t answer their knocks on the door, they’d given up on her. She could see the pity in their eyes, followed by the absolute relief that it hadn’t been them. They hadn’t lost part of their family. They were still happy and intact and while they cared, how could they handle such deep, obvious grief? Who could?
Platitudes came so easily when she really needed someone to listen while she shared memories of her husband and son. Even her daughter, Elle, now grown and out of college and in love for the first time, found it hard to deal with Veronica. They barely talked, the effort too much for both of them. The unspoken things hung between them, clutching with a mossy grip.
She’d received a text from Elle early that morning:
“Mom, I’m serious. If you don’t do something, I’m done. Chase invited me to spend Christmas with his family. BTW, he proposed, and I said yes. I hope you’ll help me plan the wedding next year. I need my mother. I wish you could remember how much Christmas once meant to our family.”
Time to reclaim what little dignity she had left. Time to make some changes in her life.
After kneeling there until her knees started hurting, Veronica got up, touched each of the headstones—one with a Little League glove etched on it, and the other with a law book etched underneath the name and dates—wiped her eyes, and headed back to her vehicle. She’d take Lulu, her golden retriever mix of a dog, for a walk. She needed some air after the humiliation of her very public meltdown in the boutique.
Which would be the topic of discussion around dinner tables and through text messages. Freda probably snapped a picture or videoed the whole thing to share with the same friends who were now awkward around Veronica.
That and the Coming Soon real estate sign in front of her house would make her the hot topic in this town steeped in tradition, over-the-top Christmas celebrations, and the latest juicy tidbits of life. But the irony of that sign was not wasted on Veronica. A lot of new things would be coming soon in her life.
After parking her SUV in front of the garage, she walked around front instead of going through the back kitchen door. She unlocked the door and let Lulu out. The big golden retriever danced and woofed, then took off to do her business and chase squirrels.
Veronica needed to get a good look at the house because Betsy Blair, the Realtor she’d hired, had told her it needed ‘editing’ before she could really get any buyers. “We can list it now, but Veronica, Christmas is not the best time to try and sell a house.”
Veronica needed the sign in the yard to force her to do something. Else she’d slip back into her cloistered routine.
She glanced at the squeaky white wrought-iron gate to her front steps—the gate that needed cleaning and painting. She stopped and looked up at the house she had inherited, along with a hefty life insurance policy and the Cearley old money.
A pale, creamy yellow trimmed in white, the two-story wooden house had been built in the 1920s as a stylish Craftsman, but it had been remodeled, and a second floor with a huge master bedroom and den had been added. With the wraparound porch and the wide double windows up in the master bedroom suite, it had once been grand and ladylike. Geraniums and ferns used to be placed across the gray, planked porch, along with white rocking chairs clustered near white wicker furniture and a wooden swing covered in bright pillows. Now the undecorated house looked washed out and out-of-place amid the too-bright multicolored twinkling lights that lined the trees in the neighbors’ yards on both sides.
No puffy green-and-red wreaths graced the double front doors of the Cearley home. No nativity scene shined from the corner near the porch. No Santa Claus grinned from the front yard and none of those blow-up figures stood eerily waving to curious pedestrians and passersby.
It seemed to grieve its losses, like the woman who’d tried to keep up her own façade along with that of the house. In her effort to celebrate, she’d bought two large poinsettias and placed them by the front door. But she’d forgotten to water them or bring them in from the sometimes below-freezing temperatures.
They were not all bright and shiny.
Dry leaves pranced like skeletons across the old walkway, reminding her that she had to continually sweep them away. Even the weeds had abandonedthe fight and curled up, dry and dusty, to die a slow death.
But today, Veronica had had enough of the fragile façade she’d tried so carefully to maintain. This year, with her daughter planning Christmas with her now-fiancé, Chase, and his family, Veronica had made a few decisions. Today’s episode only solidified her determination.
Lulu returned and hurried to Veronica, her tongue hanging out in friendly support.
Whispering to her dog, Veronica went down her list: “One, I have to make things right with my daughter. I can’t mess up her wedding. Two, I will sell this behemoth of a house and find myself a nice condo overlooking the mountain streams and thick woods.”
She picked at the sad poinsettias and lifted crackling leftover fall leaves off the wicker chair.
“Three, when the New Year rolls around, I will find fulfilling work, whether it’s paid work, or even volunteer work. I have to get out more. And four, I’m not going to do Christmas. I still believe in Christmas, but I can’t take the excess of decorating and smiling and be all merry and bright.”
Glancing up and down the street to make sure The Walkers (her nickname for the friends who now walked past her house without her) were not out and about, she was glad to see the street empty.
“I just can’t do it anymore.”
Maybe God would hear her declarations and understand her grief. She’d surely ranted to him over and over during these last few years.
She’d tried putting on a good front during the holidays the last couple of years, but this year it felt wrong on so many levels. Maybe because Elle wasn’t coming home and, to prove that point, had given Veronica that strongly worded ultimatum.
That text, along with the Realtor putting up the sign this morning, had catapulted Veronica into driving into town in a mad dash to find some Christmas cheer. But that hadn’t gone very well, had it?
Now it all settled in. She’d decided to list the house so she could get a new start after Christmas. She’d seen the sign—giving a hint of something big, making it so final, and then she’d seen her daughter’s text. If Veronica didn’t find a way out of her grief, she would truly be alone, really alone, for Christmas.
She’d be okay. She had to be okay.
She’d enjoy a quiet Christmas with her faithful dog. Maybe she’d go on a trip to somewhere tropical and have a mojito or two. Maybe. Or maybe she’d bundle up and stay in over the next few weeks. She could get through Christmas with old movies, popcorn, and hot cocoa laced with Godiva liqueur. Maybe this year would be better. Maybe she’d have a chocolate martini instead of coffee.
That had been her go-to treat once upon a time. But then, her life had been a wonderful life, once upon a time too.
Having decided what she needed to do in the next few weeks, she checked the mailbox and hurried to get Lulu’s leash, so they could at least get in some exercise and be seen by the neighbors, to prove she was up, out and about, and functioning.
“Ready for our walk?”
Lulu nudged her leg. Lulu—her only companion now. She’d adopted the dog at the local animal shelter two years ago, on the advice of her then-therapist.
“Do I need a therapy dog?” Veronica had asked, shocked.
“No, but you need something to pour out your love on and something, someone, who will listen to anything you say or feel without judging. In that regard, all dogs are therapy dogs.”
At the time, she’d balked. Too tough to give in. Too strong to let go. But one look at Lulu, who’d been a hyper, scared puppy back then, and Veronica’s sealed-off heart had cracked open. Lulu had been abandoned too.
Now they were inseparable. Veronica almost felt sorry for the beautiful dog with the tan furry coat. Lulu must wonder why they never went to the dog park to visit the other humans and doggies. Or why her mistress would sit at the window and cry for hours on end.
But Lulu didn’t ask questions or whisper each time Veronica entered a room. No, her dog knew her moods and had become somewhat of an unofficial service animal. Lulu made Veronica smile and gave her the quiet attention she needed. They were the best of friends.
“Let’s go,” she told the dog after she’d put the leash on Lulu. “A quick walk while I try to get over the embarrassment of buying a purse I didn’t need, to make another woman mad and to get my point across. I need to find my Christmas spirit again, don’t I?”
As they walked, Veronica thought about the handsome stranger who’d caught her in a sobbing fit. New in town? Did she care? The way he’d looked at her indicated he might need to get away from it all too. Elle kept telling her to make some new friends—male-type friends. But each time Veronica thought about that option, she got all jittery and weepy and guilt poured over her like fake snow. He was probably just passing through; another tourist who’d heard about the spectacular Christmas decorations all over town, especially on the street where she lived. She’d never see him again.
But she couldn’t get those eyes out of her thoughts.
Blue black. Like midnight chasing the moon.
Stopping at the corner underneath a gaslight streetlamp with a wobbly, anemic-yellow twenty-four-hour flame, Veronica debated walking toward the historical section of downtown Hidden Mountain, where the Christmas decorations harkened back to the days of Dickens with all the zest and flare of a fireworks warehouse.
Glancing around to make sure she wouldn’t have to make small talk with anyone, she did a double take when she saw the tall man in the black peacoat again, his hair almost as black as the coat. He stood on the other side of the street, his hands in his pockets, his gaze on Veronica, looking as out-of-place as a pitchfork in a candy cane display.
Was he following her?
Lulu barked and tugged and then the wind picked up and a dark cloud covered the sun like a moth-eaten wool blanket. A white sheet of half-rolled-up paper floated out of the trees along the path, causing Veronica to step back. The paper fell in front of her walking shoes like a white flag calling for a truce. Fell and stuck to the brittle leaves.
Lulu sniffed and danced around it, her trusting gaze lifting to Veronica. What is this?
“It’s trash,” Veronica said, almost stepping over the paper. But she wasn’t the type who left litter on the streets while she mumbled to her confused dog. She glimpsed at the stark-white sheet. The bold black heading captured her attention and the blurb underneath held it:
You’re Invited to:
The X-Mas Club. We don’t do Christmas.
Tired of faking Christmas cheer?
Need a quiet, simple Christmas?
You’re invited to our first meeting:
Thursday, December 2nd, 7 PM
Hidden Mountain Lodge and Campground
“The Hidden Mountain Lodge is closed most of the time,” she said to Lulu.
The old lodge in the foothills above a beautiful lake, once a vibrant part of the community with summer camps full of excited children, now only opened for the rare wedding, anniversary, or family reunion. What had once been a destination venue had now become a struggling, and mostly vacant, run-down relic. Some of the good folks of Hidden Mountain wanted it torn down. Others wanted to fight to keep it and bring it back to its old glory. Veronica thought it would be nice to renovate it, but she wasn’t involved in all the council meetings and neighborhood boards anymore.
No one knew who owned the place now. It had always been there, but the original owners had sold it a few years ago and moved to Atlanta. Teenagers tended to trespass on the grounds and occasionally break into the lodge. The absent, anonymous owner did keep up the grounds and make repairs as needed.
She looked over the strange invitation again. This could bring out half the town, she imagined. Or maybe no one, because everyone loved the economic impact of tourist dollars that the Christmas festival brought in. Only the true Grinches would attend.
“Probably someone trying to play a prank on innocent people, to see who will show up. If I were to go, I might be the only guest there.”
Her dog barked and sniffed in agreement.
Veronica glanced around to make sure some kid wasn’t punking her. The man who’d been across the way had moved on, but she had to wonder why he’d been in her neighborhood. She quickly reached down and grabbed the offending flyer in one hand while she coaxed Lulu away from a squirrel trail. “Let’s go home, girl. I’ll recycle this.”
Because she didn’t want anyone else to find this and show up at a deserted old mountain retreat, only to be met with disappointment.
End of Excerpt