Their Christmas Carol

by

Jessica Gilmore

Linnea Olsen never thought she’d be back in Marietta for good. But when her parents ask for help with the family orchard and cider making business, she packs up her bags and heads to her hometown with her daughters in tow. Determined to settle in to the community, she plans a Christmas charity concert. She soon realizes she’s in over her head, so when she hears that her singer-songwriter ex is back in town, she enlists his help.

Uninspired by life on the road, singer-songwriter Nat Hathaway has quietly returned to Marietta to pen his new album. But his high school girlfriend, Linnea, has other ideas–she’s already volunteered him to co-organize a charity Christmas concert with her. As they spend more time together, Nat is drawn to the warmth and comfort that he sees in Linnea and her girls.

Linnea knows that this is only a holiday-romance because Nat will be back on the road soon and she needs stability for her girls. Still, as the holiday season begins to wind down, she hopes that a Christmas miracle will inspire Nat to put roots down in Marietta for good.

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“It’s just like old times,” Lacey Hathaway said, squeezing her brother’s arm enthusiastically. “You, me, and Dad, riding in the pickup, ready to choose our Christmas trees.”

Nat tried not to wince as Lacey tightened her grip. “What old times? We always spent Christmas either in a hotel or back at the grandparents’ ranch. We have literally never picked out trees together. And,” he added, warming to his point, “why on earth are we doing it today of all days? It’s only Thanksgiving, isn’t it a little early to be starting Christmas?”

“Bah, humbug.” Lacey tossed her blonde ponytail as she finally relinquished her hold on Nat. “Details, details. Thanksgiving is the official start of Christmas. Isn’t that right, Dad?”

“It’s never too early to start Christmas,” Ted Hathaway agreed as he turned the pickup off the highway into Olsen’s Apples and began the scenic drive through the orchards. The last of the autumn leaves had been stripped away, the trees bare and cold under the dark grey skies, the mountains rising into the horizons behind them. “Besides, I promised your great-aunts we’d collect the cider they ordered for their Thanksgiving party so this way two birds, one stone.”

A steady stream of cars crawled along behind and before the pickup, evidently the Hathways weren’t the first to think of starting Christmas before they had eaten their Thanksgiving turkey. Nat stared out of the window at the still-familiar scene. He hadn’t set foot on Olsen land for a decade, but little had changed. The Olsens’ main business was growing apples—and other fruit trees—but at this time of year the evergreens took precedence. Their Christmas tree plantation rose into the lower reaches of the mountain, at the far end of the orchard, behind the shop, café, and distilleries. Nat closed his eyes and remembered how the ordered lines of the orchard became curved and random as soon as he had stepped into the pine forests, how much more mysterious, how much more private it had been under the tall, dark trees. Another world, another time.

“Mom is so excited about having Christmas in her own home for the first time; she wants the tree up as soon as possible. As do I, especially as I’m only around half the week. The longer we have it, the more I get to enjoy it.” Lacey said, interrupting his wander down memory lane with another squeeze of his arm. “I’ve been collecting decorations for months. It’s going to look amazing.” She clapped her hands together, her face shining. “Zac has never really done Christmas; I can’t wait to make this really special for him.” Her face shone, just like it did every time she mentioned her fiancé.

Nat’s chest squeezed, a bittersweet reaction. He was honestly delighted his sister had found someone she loved, someone who loved her, honestly delighted to welcome Zac Malone into the family, but the radiance on Lacey’s face was a stark reminder that his sister and he had chosen very different paths. Nat wasn’t sure he had ever been so demonstrably happy, except when he was on stage.

And recently even that hadn’t felt real, more like he was faking it.

“I can’t believe you’re both so domesticated. Trees, decorations, planned menus and table décor. My wild, roving family, tamed and house-trained.” Nat pushed the disquieting thoughts away.

Truth was he had no call to be feeling anything but pretty darn radiant himself. His career was practically flying, the years of hard work finally paying off. So what was this rumbling of discontent he couldn’t quite quell?

“Who are you calling domesticated?” his father retorted. “This rolling stone will still be rolling as will your mom, don’t let her hear you call her house-trained—we’ll just be rolling shorter distances and with a place of our own to stop at in between times. But older stones are allowed a little moss, you know.”

For every one of Nat’s twenty-eight years his parents had been on the move, traveling throughout the US and Canada, spending entire years in Europe and Asia and even Australia, bringing their own unique brand of folksy-blues to the masses—and just as often the few. Not that they cared, they would much rather a small audience of true aficionados than a large one of philistines. That was practically the family slogan.

Lacey had always hated the constant change and movement, but Nat had loved starting a new school every few months, living in a different town and city before he got a chance to get bored with the current one. It was the way things had always been; travel was essential for creativity, his parents said—that was the second family slogan—nothing atrophied the creative spirit like settling down and routine. And yet here they were, happily ensconced in a neat little white ranch house at the end of Bramble Lane, just a short walk from his father’s two aunts at Crooked Corner and from Lacey herself, who lived with her fiancé in a huge old Victorian house they had bought earlier that year.

“You should get a base in town, Nat, now we’re all settled. Don’t you want a place of your own? You liked living here for senior year, you still have friends around. Think how lovely it would be to have a home to come back to.” Lacey coaxed, wistfulness in her voice, just like always when she tried to convince Nat to settle down, preferably right next door.

“Hey, you’ve got almost the entire Hathaway clan living within ten miles of Marietta; when Fliss gets back from Scotland it’ll be everyone but me. One of us has to uphold the family traveling tradition. What would our pioneer ancestors think if we all settled down in one place?”

But although his voice was light and his smile genuine, Nat was uneasily conscious of feeling like an outsider in his own family for the first time. The wider Hathaway family could usually be divided into the travelers and the settlers, but suddenly Nat had become the last wandering Hathaway—at least he would be when his cousin, Fliss, returned to Three Pines, the family ranch, in the spring. And with a US tour already lined up for next year and meetings set up in both Nashville and LA in the new year, there was no danger of Nat staying in one place any time soon.

His phone buzzed and he shifted, pulling it out of his pocket, raising an eyebrow when he saw who the SMS was from.

“Something interesting?” Lacey was as incurably curious as usual.

“No,” Nat lied, pocketing his phone, the message unread.

He had no idea why Piper Flynn would be messaging him on Thanksgiving, the global superstar had been quite unequivocal when they’d said goodbye Labor Day weekend at the end of her tour. Thanks for the memories and have a nice life—oh, she hadn’t put it quite like that of course, but Nat had known exactly what she meant. He’d just been relieved she’d been the one to say it. She was a beautiful girl, extremely talented too, but even the most down-to-earth superstar still existed on a whole other plane of reality and Nat had been glad to return to his own world when the tour and their on-off relationship had come to an end.

It took a while to find a parking space, the parking lot full of cars and trucks of all sizes. A large sign proclaimed that Santa would be on site daily from December first, another pointing the way to the yard where the pre-cut Christmas trees were stacked up ready for buyers. Nat swung out of the truck and the distinctive scent of pine and sweet apples hit him. It had been a long time since he had smelled that particular combination. Not since he had given Linnea Olsen a ride home his last day of senior year. They had parked right there, under the huge oak tree and he had kissed her goodbye for the last time.

His mouth curved into a reminiscent smile. Now that had been a goodbye kiss to remember, he’d driven away as close to heartbroken as he had ever been, his worldly belongings in the back of his car as he’d headed straight out of Marietta to join his parents on tour as one of their session musicians. But good as the kiss had been, he hadn’t looked back, in such a hurry to get away, to start his adult life and career. He sometimes thought he’d left his youth right under that oak with Linnea Olsen.

Not that she’d hung around for much longer. Unlike him, she’d attended prom—after all, she’d organized it—and graduated, before heading straight to Yale. Linnea’s eyes had been as firmly focused on getting on and getting out as his had been. It had been the only thing they’d really had in common.

Would she be home for Thanksgiving? Last he’d heard she was living just outside New York, married to a guy she’d met at Yale and working for his family’s business. Not that Nat had ever deliberately sought out the information; he hadn’t needed to. Lacey was a walking, talking school reunion, she knew the destination, marital status, and employment history of practically every one of their classmates. She was wasted as a community broadcaster; if the FBI ever snapped her up, she’d probably replace every super computer they owned.

“Hey, Nat, did you hear that Linnea Olsen has settled back in Marietta?” Lacey zipped up her winter coat, pulling on her gloves against the late autumnal chill.

Nat stared at his sister. Had she read his mind? She’d always been far too good at doing that.

“You were friendly with her in high school, weren’t you?”

Friendly? That was far too tame a word for what they had shared. Sometimes, when he least expected it, Nat could still smell the scent of her hair, remember every one of the feverish kisses they had exchanged, every heartfelt confidence.

“We knew each other,” he said gruffly. “I thought she was married and living out East?”

“Her husband died a while back. It must be nearly three years ago now, some kind of climbing accident I think. They have two little girls. I can’t imagine how hard it must have been, dealing with all that on her own. Anyway, Vika and Andreas have been struggling looking after the orchard. They were over forty when they adopted Linnea, so they must be nearing seventy now. Last I heard, she decided to move back permanently and give them a hand, arrived back in town a few weeks ago. If she’s anything like she was in school she’ll be running this place single-handedly while joining every committee in town. I know I’m a joiner-in and a doer, but Linnea always made me feel totally inadequate. I don’t see how she ever slept back in high school.”

Nat blinked at the stream of information. “How on earth do you know all this?”

“Because I talk to people, brother mine, you should try it. Okay, Dad, why don’t you and I go and pick out our trees while Nat collects the cider. We’ll see you back here, Nat. Have fun,”

Nat stood stock-still for a long moment as Lacey looped her arm through their dad’s and pulled him off toward the tree yard, chattering all the time.

Linnea Olsen was back in town.

Back in town, a widow with two children. A stark reminder of how much time had passed, how they were two different people now. Had been different people back then, living on borrowed time.

His feet followed the well-worn path without Nat even being conscious of where he was treading until he found himself in front of the big timber building which housed the shop, café, and offices. Like the orchards themselves, nothing had changed. The shop was still a large, cheerful space, selling all things apple and fruit related from Swedish apple cake to pickles to the fruit juices and ciders produced on the premises. The shop opened directly into the glass-fronted café and function rooms with views out over the orchards on one side and the mountains on the other, whilst at the back of the shop a shut door led into the strictly over twenty-one store which sold the alcoholic ciders and fruit wines distilled in the sheds at the back of the building. That room had been the Holy Grail during senior year, but ever-responsible Linnea had never once let her friends anywhere near.

It was all so familiar, but maybe the shelves were a little dingier, the décor a little more dated than he remembered. The store was plenty busy though, people buying up jellies and pickles and cakes like the shop’s early closure for Thanksgiving meant they would be cut off from apple-based goods for eternity. He picked up a jar, the large italic writing on the label, the watercolor drawing the same as they had been a decade ago. A lot had changed in Marietta over the last decade, but it seemed as if Olsen’s Apples had stayed firmly rooted in the past.

“Hi, is there anything I can help you with today?”

Nat’s pulse jumped at the well-remembered voice. He turned, the jar of jelly still in his hand.

“Nat Hathaway? I didn’t know you were back in town. It’s good to see you.”

“Hey,” Nat said softly, rooted to the spot, trying not to stare and failing badly.

There she was. The dark-eyed girl who still spun around his dreams during the longest nights. Linnea had barely changed since high school. Thinner—too thin, compared to the strong, athletic build he remembered—but the same thick, dark hair tumbling around her shoulders, the same intense dark eyes looking into him as if searching for his soul, the same full, tempting mouth. His throat dried; it was like stepping back in time, standing here in her parents’ store, aiming for casual while emotions whirled unseen through the air around them.

He swallowed, produced the old easy smile. “It’s good to see you too, Linnea.”

“Wow, Nat”—she shook her head as if disbelieving her eyes—“it’s been forever. What on earth are you doing here?” She glanced down at the jar in his hand and raised elegant brows. “A sudden craving for bramble jelly for Thanksgiving?”

Nat put the jar back on the shelves. “Not today, I’d never be forgiven if I took shop-bought jelly into Crooked Corner, even Olsen jelly. I have a shopping list from the aunts. A short shopping list,” he added, “cider, both varieties.”

“For Crooked Corner? Their usual Thanksgiving order? I have a crate aside for them. And a bushel of our late-blooming apples. Your aunt Patty always likes them for canning and baking. Come on through to the back room and I’ll get them for you. They have an account so no worry about paying.”

Nat hadn’t exactly spent the last decade wondering what he’d say if he ran into Linnea Olsen again; if he had then groceries and accounts would most likely have been at the bottom of his list. But his usual easy air had deserted him. It always had around Linnea; that was what had made her so dangerous. But what was there to say? You didn’t keep in touch? Neither had he. I hear you got married? Nice and smooth, since he’d just heard she was also widowed.

Linnea led the way to the closed door, pushing it open and gesturing for Nat to precede her in. The forbidden room, forbidden no longer.

“This is real nice,” he said looking around.

A wooden bar ran the length of the far end of the room, wooden casks stacked on the shelves lining the wall behind it. More shelves lined two walls of the room, one filled with bottles of various alcoholic ciders, the other with bottles of fruit wine and liquors. Square tables were dotted around the interior, big white menus lay on each one. Light streamed in from big skylights, the winter sun slanting onto the golden wood floors.

“Isn’t it? Sometimes we hold tasting evenings and we usually do it in here, it has such a nice intimate atmosphere. I’m hoping to expand so we can offer more than cider and wine. Gin is very trendy right now, as is flavored beer. I’m in talks with the Flintworks to see if we can work together.” Linnea pushed her hair back with one hand, her mouth snapping shut. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to give you the marketing spiel; as you probably remember I talk too much when I’m nervous. I didn’t expect to see you, there’s been a lot of blasts from the past over the last few weeks, but I didn’t think you would be one of them. Last I heard, you were out on the road.”

She’d kept up with his career? Or was it just town gossip filtering through, just like Lacey casually kept him filled in on Linnea’s whereabouts. “I was, have been pretty much since I last saw you, but the last tour I was on finished at the end of summer, I was recording in Nashville through most of fall.”

“That’s amazing, you made it, Nat.” Linnea’s smile had always been a thing to behold, lighting up her whole face, her eyes, giving her everyday prettiness a twist of rare, real vivacious beauty.

Nat’s breath caught in his throat. The first time he had seen Linnea really smile he had been utterly smitten. Her smile still had that same power.

“I’m so proud of you, a real proper singer-songwriter, just like you always wanted.”

Just like he’d always wanted. All those nights he’d stayed up late sharing his dreams with Linnea. She’d been so sure he would make it, had believed in him so hard it was impossible not to believe he would succeed. It had taken several years longer than he had planned, true, but at least he could say he’d justified her faith in him.

“The new album is pretty much there so I decided to come home for Thanksgiving. I owed Lacey a visit, I didn’t make it back last Christmas, and then I promised I’d come back in February for a charity fundraiser she organized and had to drop out of that too.” His conscience panged.

He’d been so intent on building his career, it was all too easy to forget how much he’d let down the handful of people who really cared for him. Was that really who he wanted to be? Like Piper, expecting the whole world to march to his beat?

“How long are you in town for?”

“I haven’t decided.” The words surprised him as he said them. “I need to head back to Nashville to work with the marketing and PR people, but there’s nothing scheduled until the new year. Maybe I’ll stay around until then.” His label wanted him back sooner, wanted him to start building his public profile back up after the quiet few months he’d spent in the studio.

He and Piper had never gone public with their not-quite-a-relationship, but there had been plenty of speculation about the popular singer and her support act’s friendship. The PR team at Nat’s record label were keen that he spend the next few months building on that brief public interest in him, that he was seen out and about, preferably with a gossip-worthy woman—or two—on his arm before the first single from the new album dropped.

It shouldn’t be a hardship, attending a few parties, dating women in the same position he was in, up-and-coming stars who needed the exposure of a media-friendly relationship. It was what Nat wanted, wasn’t it? No more being a session musician on other people’s tours, playing other people’s music, saving to rent studio space to lay down his own tracks and hope they got a play somewhere other than in his parents’ truck, or when he was in between jobs and joined them on stage. Next up was his own headline tour, playing his music, with his own team making sure his path was smooth. He still had a ways to go, he hadn’t fully made it yet—one reasonably successful album and spot on a high-profile tour wasn’t enough to cement a career, but he was very close. He was starting to live the dream, his dream, and he had sacrificed everything for it. So why was he still feeling so hollow?

It had been a long time since all the Hathaways were in one place. Maybe his surprising suggestion he might hang around in Marietta for a few weeks wasn’t that surprising after all. Maybe he needed a few weeks reconnecting with his family, with his roots—and then he would be ready to head back onto the road where he belonged.

End of Excerpt