Their Christmas Carol

By: Jessica Gilmore

“You should listen to your elders, Thanksgiving is too early,” Nat said.

By the way Lacey elbowed him Linnea guessed that this was a long-running argument. Her chest tightened as Nat elbowed his sister back. It must be lovely to have a sibling, someone to have inside jokes with. Someone to share the load with as well as the joys. Someone to confide in without fear of being judged, of found wanting.

“We don’t put ours up until the week before Christmas, Swedish tradition,” Linnea said. “But Dad says people want them earlier and earlier every year. He started opening Thanksgiving morning a few years back and it seems to be an established tradition for people to come on out before lunch. Talking of which, I’d better not keep you, you’ll be wanting to get home and have yours.”

“We’re due at the ranch in an hour so we’d better get going,” Nat’s father agreed. “Nice to meet you, Linnea.” He nodded at her as he swung into the truck.

Lacey moved to follow him and then paused, one foot inside the truck cab. “The aunts always hold an open house at Crooked Corner on Thanksgiving evening. You should come, Linnea. Bring your family. Everyone is always welcome. There’s always plenty of children.”

It was a tempting offer. Linnea had had no opportunities to do anything remotely resembling socializing since moving back. “I couldn’t intrude…”

But Lacey clearly wasn’t taking no for an answer. “You said yourself you need to start getting out more, it’s never family only at Crooked Corner, and there is always enough food to feed the whole town. Come along, do.”

Linnea glanced at Nat, seeking a clue as to whether to agree or not. Was running into her as odd for him as it had been for her?

“The aunts would love to see you,” he said, heaving the cider into the back of the truck before taking the barrel of apples off the cart. “It’s very short notice so you probably have plans, but if not then it would be good to catch up properly.”

She could actually wash her hair and apply some lipstick. Try and regain a little pride in her appearance. “We haven’t planned a lot for the holiday, not while Dad is still so unwell, the girls could do with a treat,” Linnea admitted, tugging the unflattering sweatshirt down over the even more unflattering slacks. “Maybe it’s just what we need.”

Just what Elsie needed to start integrating into the town. No wonder her daughter was finding it hard to settle. So far, she’d only really spent time at school or in the orchard. An outing, the chance to socialize with other kids was the kind of opportunity Linnea had been looking for. The thought of her daughter’s unhappiness made her mind up for her. “Thank you, Lacey, that’s really kind of you. If you’re sure it’s okay then I’d love to come. Bye, Nat, it was really good to see you again. I’ll see you both tonight.” She lifted a hand in a brief farewell and turned away, pushing the cart in front of her, her thoughts racing as fast as her treacherous pulse.

Chapter Three

Linnea locked the door of the center behind her, after triple-checking that the alarm had been set. Her mind hadn’t exactly been focused on work over the last thirty minutes.

Of all the cider stores in Marietta, he had to walk into mine.

It was most unfair. Nat Hathaway hadn’t changed at all in the last decade. Still tall and lean, the same blond hair flopping boyishly over his forehead, the same laughing blue eyes, the same wicked smile. Once that smile had been the only thing that had ever deviated Linnea from her duty. Not that she had ever let anyone know it. Fooling herself that if they kept their relationship secret she somehow maintained some control. Over her life, over her feelings for him.

Of course she had been fooling herself. Nat had set the pattern. After all, the next blond, handsome guy she’d fallen for she’d ending up marrying. “Damn you, Logan,” she whispered, looking over at the Copper Mountain. “It’s Thanksgiving. You should be here.” But there was little heat in her words, not anymore. Just weary acceptance. Each holiday, each special day was a little easier once they were no longer the first without him. She could barely remember Thanksgiving two years ago, still numb with early widowhood, surrounded by Logan’s grieving family, his absence the ghost at the feast.

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