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Grace Penrose peered through the window of Tubb's Cafe, squinting behind her horn-rimmed glasses to see the patrons who had packed the place for breakfast that morning, spying the subject of her frantic search, she shoved her glasses up the bridge of her nose and sighed in relief. Thank goodness enos Harrington, the oldest resident of Cooper's Corner, was a creature of habit. Most mornings he could be found either chewing the fat with Philo Cooper over at the general store or sharing a cup of coffee with Felix Dorn, a retired doctora man Enos referred to as a young whippersnapper, even through Dr. Dorn was eighty-four years old.
The door opened and Grace waited while Clint Cooper stepped out, his morning latte clutched in his hand. ''Hello, Gracie,'' he said with a smile. ''How are the plans for the festival coming along?''
That was the question everyone asked over and over again until she was tempted to tear her hair out and run screaming down the street. It would serve them all right. They just assumed that planning the town's annual Christmas Festival was easy, that after eight successful festivals, the endlessly energetic and compulsively cheerful Grace Penrose could plan the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade with one clipboard tied behind her back. Little did they know how close her carefully maintained competent facade had come to cracking over the past week.
It wasn't that she couldn't be organized. She just never seemed to have the time, some disaster always came along and threw her personal or professional life into utter chaos, and she usually managed to extricate herself just as another disaster was looming on the horizon. First there'd been the moth-eaten elf costumes that would take hours of mending before the parade. Then came the gallons of free cider that had turned to vinegar last week, and snow that refused to appear on schedule.
Grace returned his greeting with a tight smile of her own. ''Everything's right on schedule,'' she lied.
Clint stared up at the sky, a brilliant blue, not a cloud in sight. ''Sure wish it would snow. I can't imagine a Christmas Festival without snow.''
Up until a few weeks ago, Grace might have stood on the steps of the cafe and chatted with Clint. After all, he was one of the town's most eligible bachelors, handsome, sophisticated, the co-owner of Twin Oaks Bed and Breakfast with his sister, Maureen. And Grace hadn't had more than a handful of dates since her husband had walked out on her seven years ago. She and Clint had plenty in commonthey were both single parents, and his son, Keegan, and her son, Bryan, were great friends.
But Clint was not the kind of man who'd be attracted to a perpetually disheveled single mother like Grace Penrose. She glanced down at her feet to make sure her shoes matched today, then sighed inwardly. She was thirty-six years old and her first priority was her children. Her second was her job. Her social lifeand mencame in somewhere around tenth or eleventh on the list, behind a pint of premium ice cream and an Audrey Hepburn video. Even if she had time to think about dating, she certainly couldn't spare a few moments to flirt with Clint Cooper. Right now, she had business to discuss with Enos Harrington.
''There'll be snow,'' she reassured him, smoothing her tangled hair. ''There always is.''
She went inside and made a beeline to the empty stool at the counter beside Enos, her steps short and purposeful. She slid her ever-present clipboard onto the counter then nodded to Lori Tubb, co-owner and chief waitress at the cafe, who poured Grace's usual large coffee in a to-go cup.
''So?'' Grace said, leaning over to gaze at Enos. ''How's your bursitis today?''
Enos's bursitis had long been known as the finest indicator of meteorological events in this northwest corner of Massachusetts, better than Doppler radar or weather satellites or even the Weather Channel. Enos could tell just by the ache in his joints whether there would be rain on the fourth of July or sleet on Easter morning. Farmers depended on him for the proper planting time and he was a favorite of the local gardeners. Grace had even heard of a few June brides who had consulted with Enos on their choice of a wedding date.
But right now, Grace was interested in just one thing. Would there be snow for her Christmas Festival? Already, the weather had caused consternation for the owners of the many ski resorts that dotted the Berkshires and southern Vermont. An early snow followed by a December thaw had left the countryside gray and dreary. At least the resorts could manufacture snow. Grace didn't have that luxury. Even if she wanted to haul in one of those huge snow-making machines, her budget could never absorb the cost.
Enos considered her question for a long moment, scratching his white beard as he worked each one of his joints then evaluated what he felt. He pointed to his left shoulder. ''Temperature's going to drop,'' he said. ''That's a good sign.'' He worked his right elbow. ''And there's moisture movin' up from the south.''
''Gosh darn it, Enos,'' Dr. Dorn said. ''A man your age shouldn't have to put up with all those aches and pains. You can buy yourself a good anti-inflammatory at any drugstore. One or two of them first thing in the morning will take care of the pain right off.''
Enos and Grace both gaped at the doctor as if he'd just suggested that Enos cut off his nose to keep it from itching.
''A man my age?'' Enos repeated. ''Are you callin' me old, Felix Dorn?''
''You're ninety-seven, Enos. If you got any longer in the tooth, you'd start looking like Bugs Bunny. But there are days when I figure you could run the Boston Marathon just to spite me. So I'm going to stop giving you free medical advice and finish my French toast.''
''So, what about my snow?'' Grace asked. ''I'm looking for big snow. The festival is two weeks away and I need at least a foot for the sleigh rides. Actually, two feet would be best. Those little mounds on the sides of the streets look so pretty. A nice, white fluffy snow so that everything looks like a picture postcard. But it has to pack well, too, for the snow sculpture contest.''
''Well,'' Enos said, ''my right ankle's been a little achy. And the last time that happened and my big toe went numb was that big snow we had in '78. Now that was a big snow. We must have had three or four feet in just a few weeks. One day it would snow like crazy, then it would stop for a day and start up again.'' He chuckled and nodded at Grace. ''I remember I had to ask your dear mother, God rest her soul, to loan me one of her sleighs so I could get the mail delivered. Silas Rawlings hitched up a pair of his Morgans and off we went.''
''Silas is lending us his horses again this year for the free sleigh rides,'' Grace said. ''The rides are a highlight of the festival. And I know you'll want your turn behind the reins, Dr. Dorn.''
Felix frowned, his fork poised over his plate. ''That's odd. I talked to Silas last week and he told me he's moving to Louisiana to live with his sister. He's supposed to leave any day now. He's already sold all his stock. The horses are going to some ranch in Montana.''
Grace gasped. ''What? He can't sell those horses. We always use his horses.''
The doctor shrugged. ''He's been planning to move since September. The cold winters are just too much for an old guy like him.'' He sent Enos a pointed glare. ''Didn't he mention this to you when you asked about using the horses?''
A warm blush crept up Grace's cheeks. She'd been so busy. Why, only yesterday she'd forgotten to pick Susan up from the library after school and she'd driven away from Bryan's basketball practice with his shoes on top of the car. As for the formal letter to Silas Rawlings, it had been pushed down her ''to do'' list until it fell right off the bottom.
''II just assumed it would be all right,'' she said. ''We've been using his horses for eight Christmases in a row, ever since the very first festival. His horses have been a part of the tradition.''
''Well, you better go see if you can stop your tradition from getting on a trailer and leaving for Montana,'' Felix said. ''I saw Silas walking toward the post office. I suppose if he's got business there, you might still be able to catch him.''
Grace grabbed her clipboardit wasn't adding much to her air of competencethen took a quick sip of her coffee before she jumped off her stool, the paper cup clutched in her hand. ''Enos, I'll talk to you tomorrow morning. And I want you to call me if that big toe stops hurting. If it's not going to snow, I might just have to bring in one of those machines.''
She hurried out of the cafe, calling to Lori Tubb to put the coffee on her tab. As she strode down Main Street, everyone she met asked her about the festival. But she was too preoccupied to bother with her usual cheery responses. How was the festival going? It was slowly turning into a disaster. No cider, no snow, and now, no sleigh rides.
The pressure for success had grown almost overwhelming. She'd planned the first festival as a favorand as a volunteer. Her father-in-law, Art Penrose, had been president of the village board, and he and his fellow board members had come up with the idea to draw more tourists to the village in December. At the time, Grace thought the project would be fun, a way to fill the quiet hours after three-year-old Bryan went to bed.
Her husband had been especially busy, working late nights at the new Penrose Hardware store in nearby Pitts-field, and Grace agreed to become the festival's official volunteer coordinator. That first year, the festival wasn't much more than a small parade on Christmas Eve day, a concert of Christmas carols at the church and free evening sleigh rides. When only a few tourists showed up, she'd assumed that the event would go down in history as the only Annual Cooper's Corner Christmas Festival.
But the next year, the village board gave her a $200 budget and Grace surprisingly returned $556.94 in profits from a hot cider booth she'd set up on Main Street for the two-day festival. Unfortunately, her professional success was tempered with personal upheaval. A few months later, she gave birth to Susan, and when the baby was six months old, Dan Penrose decided that he couldn't do ''the family thing'' any longer. He ran off with the nuts-and-bolts salesgirl at the hardware store. Completely humiliated, Grace soon learned that all her husband's long nights of inventory were actually spent at a cheap motel.
Grace wasn't sure when the festival finally became a Cooper's Corner tradition, but the third year she put her heart and soul into planning it and the profits soared. By the fourth year, she'd been officially given the title of director of tourism for Cooper's Corner, though her only job was the festival. But with the small salary came the pressure to deliver bigger crowds and higher profits year after year. Profits that now funded everything from new books in the library to playground equipment at the grade school to pothole repair on Main Street, and crowds to patronize the growing collection of shops and cottage industries that had popped up all over town.
Picking up her pace, Grace turned onto Church Street and headed toward the post office. She caught sight of Silas Rawlings just as he stepped out the front door.
''Mr. Rawlings! Mr. Rawlings!'' Grace clutched her clipboard to her chest and took off running. By the time she reached the spot where he stood, she was out of breath and could barely talk. Her glasses had slipped down her nose and she pushed them back up impatiently. ''Horses,'' she gasped. ''Sleigh ridestouristshave to stay. Please!''
Silas frowned, then patted her on the shoulder. ''Are you all right, missy?''
Grace nodded, swallowed hard, then patted her chest. ''The horses. Dr. Dorn said you're moving to Louisiana and that you've sold your Morgans. Please tell me this isn't so. I need those horses for the festival's sleigh rides.''
''I left a note for you months back. I slipped it in your mailbox in September. I figured that was plenty of time to line up some other horses.''
''But we can't just use any horses,'' Grace said. ''Your horses are accustomed to pulling the sleighs. They're calm and dependable. Can't you just let us use the horses for the festival and then sell them?''
''They're already sold,'' Silas explained. ''Some guy named McCabe from Montana will be here first thing tomorrow morning to pick them up. Maybe you can convince him to leave the horses here till after the festival.'' He gave her a sympathetic shrug. ''Good luck. And if he agrees, you can keep them in my barn. The farm hasn't sold yet so the place is all yours for as long as you need it.''
With that, Silas turned and ambled down the street toward his battered pickup. A tiny groan slipped from Grace's lips but she couldn't help calling out a cheery farewell. ''I hope you enjoy living in Louisiana!'' She slowly lowered herself onto a bench in front of the post office. Could anything else go wrong? Earthquake, tornado, landslide? Considering her luck lately, she wouldn't be surprised if a meteor dropped out of the sky right on top of Cooper's Corner the day before the Christmas Festival was due to begin.
She pushed to her feet, drew a deep breath of the crisp morning air, and forced herself to smile. This was all just a test. She'd faced adversity before. There was the year the ice carving contest ended prematurely when Harley Sawyer dropped a block of ice on Sarah Ann Perkins's foot. And the year when her Santa Claus, Charlie Parks, had a few too many hot-buttered rums at a Christmas party and fell out of the sleigh halfway through the parade.
This latest kink in her plans could easily be conquered. All she'd have to do was convince this man from Montana to delay his departure by a couple of weeks. After all, what could a rancher really need with four aging Morgans? The most it would cost her might be a round-trip plane ticket to Montana for the man, an expense that would probably wipe out most of her profits. But the festival had to go on and Grace could be very persuasive when she put her mind to it.
She'd appeal to his sense of fairness and understanding, his notions of charity. And if that didn't work, she'd beg and plead. And if that didn't work, she could always cry. But there was one thing she wouldn't do. She would never give up.
Because the ninth annual Cooper's Corner Christmas Festival was going to be the very best festival ever.