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"A cozy small-town Christmas story." --Library Journal
One final Christmas wish could change their lives forever. . .
Nora Connors Rainer has returned to her hometown, Linden Corners, to tend to her elderly but spunky mother--and to nurse a broken heart. To keep busy, Nora opens "A Doll's Attic," a consignment shop where locals can unload their unwanted heirlooms--or search for new treasures....
"A cozy small-town Christmas story." --Library Journal
One final Christmas wish could change their lives forever. . .
Nora Connors Rainer has returned to her hometown, Linden Corners, to tend to her elderly but spunky mother--and to nurse a broken heart. To keep busy, Nora opens "A Doll's Attic," a consignment shop where locals can unload their unwanted heirlooms--or search for new treasures. And eighty-five year old Thomas Van Diver hands Nora her first challenge: track down a rare, vintage item that holds powerful childhood memories of his father and their very last Christmas together. Soon, with the help of new friend Brian Duncan, and his irrepressible young charge, Janey, they'll uncover the mysteries of Christmas past--and create a Christmas present that just might restore their hope, and fulfill everyone's deepest wishes. . .
Praise for Joseph Pittman's Linden Corners novels
"A wonderful Christmas story of moving on beyond grief and loss." --RT Book Reviews, 4 1/2 Stars on A Christmas Wish
"This gentle read is big on heart." --Library Journal on A Christmas Wish
"How come it's snowing ... it's only October."
"Because, honey, we're in the thick of Upstate New York and in this neck of the woods they only have two seasons, winter and August."
"That makes no sense, one's a month and the other is a season."
No argument there. She nodded agreeably. "Welcome to Linden Corners."
The boy looked dubiously at his mother. "Am I going to like living here?"
Good question, she thought. Was she? Did she ever like it?
The drifting snowflakes falling all around the fire-red Mustang were only the first hint that she was nearing the tiny village of Linden Corners, but it wasn't until she crested over the rise in the highway and came upon the spinning sails of the old windmill that she knew she was truly home. Home, she thought, afraid to taste the flavor of the word on her bitter tongue. What other notion instilled such a juxtaposed sense of both comfort and failure? Being back here was reason enough to sigh, and not in a relaxed way. Her name was Nora Connors Rainer, and she wasn't pleased by any of this, not the snow and not the sight of that windmill, not to mention the idea of Linden Corners itself. Returning to the place of her childhood meant only one thing: Her adult life was an utter disaster, and given the fact that her car was overstuffed with her belongings—what some might call "baggage"—a jury would render a verdict within minutes of deliberating. Guilty, Your Honor, of grossly mismanaging her life, as well as that of her twelve-year-old son. She was a lawyer by trade, unable to even win her own case. How she wished she could just continue driving through the village, it was small enough it would only take a minute or so. A one-blink-and-you-miss-it kind of town.
There was also a sense of claustrophobia about the town, too, or so thought the worldly Nora, who had traveled the globe and seen many beautiful sights, now seeing the world spit her out from whence she originated. Just when she needed her street smarts the most, home was calling, the comfort and security and understanding that you could only find inside the walls of your parents' house, now just a mile away and creeping ever closer. No doubt a couple pieces of her mother's famed strawberry pie awaited them both. With the windmill now fading to small in her rearview mirror, Nora felt her heart beating with nervous anticipation. Home meant many things to many people, but at this moment Nora needed its sense of reassurance. Knowing those old walls came complete with a supportive mother to hold you tight and tell you everything was going to be just fine, her mind told her maybe all would be okay.
But then she knew it wouldn't be, not initially.
Her homecoming would no doubt be seen as an occasion for her mother. So she had to assume the house would not be empty, since the sweet-natured Gerta Connors enjoyed having company. And said company would ask questions, and said company would expect answers. Suddenly Nora saw a houseful of guests, all of them stuffing their faces with pie, their smiles sweeter than sugar, but digesting gossip at her expense.
"Please, do me this one favor and don't let her have anyone over, I can't deal with ... this, not now," Nora said aloud. "Don't let her think my homecoming is a celebration."
"Uh, Mom, are you talking to me?"
"Sorry, honey, Mom's weirding out."
Her son's sarcasm, which had been coming on strong in the past six months, actually produced a rare smile on her tight face. Normally she'd reprimand him for his tone, but not today. He'd earned the right to vent as much as she deserved its wrath, she'd turned his life upside down. Still, Nora knew her mother, just as much as she recognized the friendly confines of Linden Corners, both the good and the bad. Having grown up here, she was well acquainted with the village's quirky tendency toward parties and parades, the happiest of holidays and heart-spun happenings, her mother, Gerta, oftentimes at the center of planning the numerous, joyous celebrations. Heck, it was only the end of October and the fallen snow already had a layer of ice beneath this fresh coating of snow, no doubt the residents had a name for such an occasion. "Second Snowfall" or something cheekily homespun like that. Winter in this region came early, stayed often, and you needed the patience of a saint and good driving skills to navigate its literal slippery slope. This year, Nora herself would be like the ever-present season, setting up roost for some time to come, though even she didn't know for how long. She could one day decide to leave, then a storm inside her could erupt and she'd be trapped. Again. Nestled in the lush Hudson River Valley, cocooned from the outside world, she could easily lose herself.
That part she liked.
Of course cocooned was just a nice word for hiding.
Nora Connors Rainer and her one son, Travis, had left the flatlands of Nebraska five days ago, enjoying the long drive and each other's company, if not necessarily looking forward to their final destination. They could have easily flown to Albany, had the car shipped or just sold it and bought a new one when they arrived, but Nora wasn't ready to sell off everything from her past life. Call her shallow, but she'd worked too hard to buy her sporty red Mustang. Too bad she hadn't worked as hard at her marriage. But hey, a car allows you to just turn on the engine and steer it to where you wanted to go. A husband tended to have his own ignition, liked to drive by himself, go off on his own, embracing the unexpected surprises around winding curves. So then why was she the one on the open road, heading into the tiny downtown of a village whose future best existed in a rearview mirror?
Not that the village was all that empty at four o'clock in the afternoon. She recognized several stores like Marla and Darla's Trading Post—twins she'd gone to school with, inseparable then, business partners now, sisters forever—and guarding the storefront, under the porch and seemingly oblivious to the snow, were two golden retrievers who lay quietly, sleeping the afternoon away in that lazy, entwined way shared only by our canine friends. Of course, too, there was the Five O'Clock Diner, run by the sharp-tongued, quick-witted Martha Martinson, plus the reliable Ackroyd's Hardware Emporium and George's Tavern, which she had known her entire life as Connors' Corners. It was where her father had happily toiled for much of his adult life. She'd heard about the renaming in e-mails and phone calls and how that wonderful Brian Duncan continued to honor George Connors's traditions and she'd seen pictures of the new sign, but the sight of it now made her heart ache for the loss of her father, for her still-living mother who had to live with the daily memories of her late husband.
But the store that most caught Nora's attention was darkened, a CLOSED sign posted on the locked front door. The building was in need of a paint job, flakes peeling off its sides. Elsie's Antiques it was called and had been for the better part of her life. But that was about to change.
Even in Linden Corners, change occasionally happened.
"Yeah, baby?" Nora said, her eyes drifting away from Elsie's shop with reluctance.
"You know what today is?"
"It's Thursday, I think. Wait, what day did we leave ...?"
"No, not day. Today. It's Halloween."
Nora looked out her driver's side window and wondered how she had missed them. Too focused on seeing the village her way, she failed to notice how her son's eyes would view it. Seemed the sidewalks of the village were currently peopled with tiny ghosts and goblins, witches with straw brooms, vampires with fangs and tight abs, bums (though, truth be known, that last one might have not been a disguise), all of them carrying orange plastic pumpkins, winter coats unfortunately partly covering their clever costumes. Adults accompanied them to ensure nothing untoward happened to their ghoulish charges, or that they got too cold while out trick-or-treating. The allure of Halloween had lost its appeal years ago, just another foolish pseudo-holiday. She remembered dressing up as a ballerina when she was a kid; but heck, it's not like she played the part of a ballerina. People today, they tended to embody their costume rather than just simply wear it. As though everyone was starring in their own movie, stopping at makeup before stepping before the camera. While Nora may not like it, Travis always enjoyed planning his costume.
"Sorry. You were gonna be Batman this year, right?"
"How can you have Robin without Batman?"
"Dad was going to play Batman."
Well, that comment shut her up but good. And she felt worse than before, a sharp pain stabbing at her empty gut. Not only was Travis missing out on one of his favorite holidays, but he was missing it along with his father. She hated disappointing her only child—taking him from his home and school and friends, all he'd ever known, to return to ... here. She looked again at the kids dressed in costume, one in particular covered in a white sheet with two eyelets. Ghosts indeed, they were all around, and not just on the sidewalks, but in the trunk of her car and inside her mind. Oh yes, those phantoms never left, did they? They never needed the arrival of a single day of celebration to come out and haunt.
"I'll make it up to you," she said.
"What, you'll be Batgirl?"
She smiled over at him, relieved to see he still had a streak of sweetness underneath all that almost-teenage sarcasm. "I promise to make the next holiday real special, okay, sweetie? I know how much you like Christmas, too."
"The next holiday is Thanksgiving."
She actually laughed, loud enough to rattle the windows inside the car. The sudden release felt good, and at last she allowed her shoulders to drop. For Nora Connors Rainer, this new life they were starting here in Linden Corners, it was going to be harder than she envisioned. Good thing her mother was there to help, and not just with Travis's expected adjustment. Nora knew she needed all the help she could get.
"Oh, and one other thing?" Travis asked.
She was concentrating on the snowy roads ahead, yet she managed to sneak a quick look at her young son. She felt an overwhelming sense of love, knowing she would do anything to ensure a happy childhood for him. She knew how lucky she was to have him at her side. It might have been different.
"Sure, love, what's that?"
"Can you just call me Travis from now on? All that baby, honey, sweetie stuff," he said, "it doesn't suit the man of the house."
Nora's easy laughter from moments ago dissipated, like she'd opened the window and let her joy grow brittle in the cold air. Now she just wanted to cry.
How was it that her son was growing up when she wasn't?
She turned off Route 20, which served as the village's main artery, and wound her way up Green Pine Lane, remembering each curve of the road as well as she knew herself. When she caught sight of the old house, Nora felt herself retreat back to Travis's age, a helpless twelve-year-old girl with brown pigtails and hand-me-down clothes from her three older sisters and a sour, uncertain expression on her face. Only the hairstyle and clothes had changed. Oh, and her age.
Forty and moving back in with Mom.
Good job, Nora, she thought.
"Mom, I know you're still talking to yourself ... even if I can't hear it."
"This is hard, Travis. Just give me a moment."
She pulled to the side of the road, tires crunching in the fresh snow. The house looked small, even though it had three floors, four bedrooms, and lots of space in the basement and attic. After all, her parents had raised four girls there—she the youngest, along with older sisters Victoria, Melanie, and Lindsay, so clearly the house had been big enough to accommodate them, big enough that if you wanted to hide you could. And Nora was a hider, even back then. Down in the basement or cuddled up on the old sofa, she could easily get lost in the fantastical world of whatever book she was reading, or the drama found in the pretend lives of her dolls. She wondered if her mother would insist that she take back her old room. Nora wasn't sure she could handle that, but also questioned where else she would hide. This was the first time she'd been back to the house since her father, George, had died, almost a year and a half ago. She took a deep breath. Yup, this was hard, harder than she'd anticipated.
"Okay, kiddo, you ready?"
"That's a new one."
"Uh, hello, kiddo?"
"Sorry, mother's instinct," she said. "Ready, Mr. Rainer?"
Travis just rolled his eyes.
"Got it, sorry, let's go," she said with another laugh; her emotions were a jumbled mess, there was no telling how fast her mood could turn. She guided them back onto the slick, snow-covered road, steeling herself for the final steps. It was just another three hundred feet before she would turn into the short driveway, their journey complete yet somehow also just beginning.
A blaring horn from behind caused her to slam on the brakes and that's when a loud smack jolted them forward.
"Shit," Nora called out, tossing the car into PARK.
They had been rear-ended.
"Sorry, honey. Are you okay?"
"Yeah. Just surprised me is all."
"Okay, wait here, let me see what happened."
Nora unclenched her seat belt, not her teeth, as she made her way out of her prized car to assess the damage and to confront the dumb idiot who had crashed into her. What she saw was a battered old farm truck, two people up inside the high cabin. As she made her way toward the driver's side door, she stole a look at the back of her prized Mustang. The fool had taken out a brake light, left a small gash on the side bumper. She could see the bright red paint on the grille of the truck.
"Hey, look what you did," she said, pointing to the damage.
The man behind the wheel stepped out, closing the door behind him.
"What I did? You just pulled out, didn't even look to see if there was traffic."
"Traffic? In Linden Corners? Not exactly two concepts that go together."
"You're Nora, aren't you? Gerta's daughter."
Nora blinked away the snow that was falling in her face, clearing her eyes. Who was this farmer and why did he know who she was? She looked over at the other passenger in the truck, saw a young girl with a scrunched-up nose peering over the high dashboard, and that's when she knew who he was, knew who the girl was, and what they were doing here just a short distance from Gerta Connors's house.
"Brian Duncan," she said, placing her hands on her hips for effect.
"You recognize me?"
"No. But one and one in this case still equals four. I'm guessing that's Janey Sullivan in the truck. My mom talks about the two of you all the time."
"Small world, huh? She talks of you often, too, especially lately," he said. "We were just heading to your mother's house to pick her up to take her to the annual village Halloween party over at the community center. We call it the Spooktacular."
Nora allowed a knowing smile to cross her lips despite herself; she'd guessed it right. Linden Corners would never let a holiday pass by without some kind of celebration; like its middle name was "annual." "How nice. But I don't get your costume," she said, assessing his faded jeans, scuffed boots, and red flannel shirt. "You some kind of farmer?"
"Ha ha, no, I haven't changed yet. Janey in there, she's a windmill."
Of course she was, Nora thought.
"I'm sorry about your car," Brian said, "but you did just pull out without warning. I tried to warn you, but ... you know, crunch."
"Yeah, crunch," Nora said.
Silence hovered between them, snow beginning to coat their shoulders.
Brian broke the quiet before it became deafening. "What do you say we get the kids inside where it's warm, then we can figure out what to do ... about this." He spread his hands before the damage to her car. The truck appeared fine, just old and apparently indestructible.
Nora had other ideas about what she wanted to do, high on the list was wringing this guy's neck. Her car! But she knew Brian was right, get the kids out of the cold, deal with things then. Mother mode before lawyer, she told herself. She could hear her mother's words ring inside her mind, telling her that Brian is very practical and wise, and he had an easy, calming nature to his six-foot frame. No wonder Gerta liked to be around him, he had soothed her during a difficult transition period. Now it was Nora facing one, but she didn't need his bit of calm. She had no need for the services of Brian Duncan.
She gave him one last look. Even after an accident he had an affable way about him, from the gee-whiz smile to the thick brown hair where snowflakes were making him gray. Then she couldn't resist taking one last look at the damage to her car, wondering if it could be repaired. She wondered if the same applied to her.
"What's that they say?" Brian was asking.
Nora realized Brian was still talking to her. "I'm sorry, I must have zoned out. What did you say?"
Excerpted from A CHRISTMAS HOPE by JOSEPH PITTMAN Copyright © 2012 by Joseph Pittman. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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