Their Christmas Carol

By: Jessica Gilmore

“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.

Chapter Two

This wasn’t how it was supposed to go. Everyone knew the rule for bumping into any ex, significant or not, was that they should look effortlessly and casually beautiful, successful and, most of all, happy. Not dressed in an Olsen’s Apples sweatshirt, unflattering navy slacks with unwashed hair. Not makeup-free with huge shadows under their eyes after another three a.m. stress session about the business accounts. Not right where they were ten years ago when they were supposed to have graduated from Yale and become a resounding success.

Linnea knew all too well how capricious fate could be, but this was kicking a woman when she was well and truly down.

It didn’t help that Nat looked better than ever, maturity adding gravitas to his wholesome good looks. And he’d always been dangerously handsome.

“Okay. We’d better…” Linnea gestured at the bottles stacked up behind the bar. “Just give me a minute.” She was glad of the opportunity to gather her thoughts as she opened the hatch to the bar and slid through it, bending down to pick up the crate of bottles put aside for Crooked Corner. With a grunt, she heaved it onto the counter. “Here you go, the ones with the screw top are normal cider, these with the foil are alcoholic. Don’t get them mixed up.”

“Thanks.” But Nat made no move to take the crate, leaning against the counter, his navy eyes fixed on her with that the same old inquisitive gleam.

That was what had thrown her back in high school. The way Nat had always looked further, delved beneath the surface—and the way she’d always allowed him to. It had been so unexpected. She had been putting on a front for so long it had almost been second nature, the high-achieving, organized, responsible, reliable girl, a credit to her parents, her community, her school. The last person she’d expected to see beyond that persona was laidback Nat Hathaway. But then, he’d turned out to have unexpected depths too, if anyone cared to look beyond the guitar, the quips, and the string of dates.

Linnea looked down at the crate of bottles, her fingers tightening on the handle. High school was a long time ago and she couldn’t afford to look back. The only way to manage was to keep marching on. There was no time to question herself. No room for doubt. Too much depended on her, too many people needed her to stay strong. She straightened, pinning on a professional smile, pushing the crate over to Nat, a clear hint that good as it had been to catch up, she really had to get on now.

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