Their Christmas Carol

By: Jessica Gilmore

“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.

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