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Casey Caravetta sighed with contentment.
"Being at the Gingerbread Inn with the two of you feels like being home," she said. She didn't add, "in a way that home had never felt like."
"Even with it being in such a state?" Emily asked, sliding a disapproving look around the front parlor. It was true the furniture was shabby, the paint was peeling, the rugs had seen better days.
"Don't you worry," Andrea said, "You are not going to recognize this place by the time I'm done with it. On Christmas Eve, Emily, for your vow renewal, the Gingerbread Inn will be transformed into the most amazing winter wonderland."
"I am so humbled that all the people Cole and I are closest to are going to give up their Christmas plans to be with us," Emily said.
"Nobody is giving up their Christmas plans," Andrea answered. "We're spending a magical Christmas Eve together, and then scattering to the four corners, to be wherever we need to be for Christmas."
Except Casey, who didn't need to be anywhere. And the inn, despite its slightly gone-to-seed appearance, would be the perfect place to spend a quiet day by herself.
The thought might have been depressing except for the gift Casey had decided to give herself .
Outside, snow had begun to fall, but the parlor's stone hearth held a fire that crackled merrily and threw a steady stream of glowing red sparks up the chimney.
Until she'd received Andrea's plea to take a little extra time off work and come to the Gingerbread Inn to make magic happen for Emily and Cole's renewal of vows, Casey had been looking forward to Christmas with about the same amount of anticipation she might have for a root canal.
In other words, the same as always.
Except, of course, for the gift, her secret plan to get her life back on track.
Now, here with her friends, cuddling her secret to her, Casey actually felt as if she might start humming, "It's beginning to feel a lot like Christmas ."
"That sense of home doesn't have a thing to do with looks," she said, wanting to share what she was feeling with her friends.
She had never felt it with her own family. At school, she had been the outsider, the too-smart geek. Her work was engrossing, but largely solitary.
But being here with Emily and Andrea, the Gingerbread Girls all together again, Casey felt hope.
Even though, sadly, Melissa was not here. Why did it take a tragedy for people to understand that friendship was a gift to be cherished, and not taken for granted?
Casey and Andrea had spent two days together here early in December, Casey seeking the refuge of friendship to try and outrun her latest family fiasco. Really, any given year she might as well block out all of December on her calendar and write "crisis" on it.
But before her meeting with Andrea it had been far too long since she and her friends, who'd always called themselves "the Gingerbread Girls," had been together.
After seeing Andrea, Casey had made her decision.
Now, she was loving the fact that they were as comfortable as if they had been together only yesterday. Sentences began with "Remember when " and were followed by gales of laughter. The conversation flowed easily as they caught up on the details of one another's lives.
"Speaking of looks, I can't believe the way you look," Emily told Casey for about the hundredth time. "I just can't get over it."
"You should be modeling," Andrea agreed.
"Modeling?" Casey laughed. "I think models are usually a little taller than five foot five."
"The world's loss," Andrea said with a giggle, and took a sip of her wine.
Casey sipped hers, as well. Emily, pregnant, her baby bump barely noticeable beneath her sweater, was glowing with happiness and was sipping sparkling fruit juice instead of wine.
Next year at this time, that could very well be me, Casey mused, and the thought made her giddy.
"How do you get your hair so straight?" Andrea asked. "You didn't have it like that when I saw you earlier this month. Remember how those locks of yours were the bane of your existence? All those wild curls. No matter what you did, that head of hair refused to be tamed. Remember the time we tried ironing it? With a clothes iron?"
Would her baby have wild curls? Casey hoped not.
"I always loved it," Emily said. "I was jealous."
"Of my hair?" she asked, incredulous. She touched it self-consciously. She had a flat iron that was state-of-the-art, a world away from what they had tried that humid summer day.
Still, her curls surrendered to the highest setting with the utmost reluctance, and were held at bay with enough gel to slide a 747 off a runway. And yet as she touched her hair, it felt coiled, ready to spring.
"I thought you were quite exotic, compared to Andrea and me." "Really?"
"Why so surprised?"
Maybe it was her second glass of wine that made her admit it. "I always felt like the odd woman out. Here was this wonderful inn, out of an American dream, filled with all these wholesome families, like yours and Andrea's. And then there was the Caravetta clan. A boisterous Italian family, always yelling and fighting and singing and crying and laughing, and whatever we were doing, we were doing it loudly. Next to you and Andrea, I felt like I was a little too much of everything."
"But you weren't like that," Emily said. "You were always so quiet and contained. If you were too much of anything it was way too smart, Doc. Thinking all the time."
Casey dismissed the comment with a wave of her hand. "I didn't mean that. You were both tall, reed thin and fair, while I was short and plump, and had skin that came straight from the olive grove. You had well-behaved blond ponytails. I had dark tangles and coils that did whatever they wanted. You both have that all-American look, Emily, with your eyes like jade, and Andrea's like sapphires."
"There is nothing wrong with your eyes!" Andrea declared.
"Ha! My grandmother used to look at my eyes and say they were so dark she could see the devil in them. And then she'd cross herself."
Would Casey's baby have her eyes? Did she get to choose the eye color of the father? So much to learn!
"The devil? That's ridiculous, especially given how studious you were. But still, I always thought you were unusually striking, and faintly mysterious," Emily insisted.
"A model," Andrea reiterated. "I think you should be a model."
"A model," Casey snorted. "Believe me, I'm quite happy doing research at the lab."
"As noble as medical research is, Casey, isn't that a tad dull?" Emily asked.
"I love it," she said honestly. "I have such a sense of purpose to my days, a feeling I could make the world a better place."
"Isn't it a little, well, depressing? Childhood cancers?" Andrea pressed.
"My twin brother died of nasopharyngeal cancer when he was six," Casey said. And so a family unravels.
"I'd forgotten," Andrea said. "I'm so sorry."
"It was long before I met you," Casey said. "Don't worry about it." Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Emily give her little baby bump a protective pat. "And don't you worry about it, either. Childhood cancers are extremely rare," she assured her pregnant friend.
Casey was aware she might have chosen her work in some effort to make right all that had gone wrong in her family. But regardless of her motives, the order of science, after the unfolding chaos in her family, appealed to her. The wine hadn't, thankfully, loosened her tongue enough to tell them why she'd chosen the vow renewal over spending Christmas with her widowed mother.
"Maybe you could model on the side," Andrea said hopefully.
"Why would I want to?" Casey asked. "Talk about dull. Good grief. Hours on hair" well, okay, her hair took nearly that long, anyway "and makeup? I'd expire of pure boredom."
"Men," Andrea said knowingly. "You'd meet a zillion guys. How many do you meet in your dusty old lab?"
No sense pointing out there was not a speck of dust anywhere in her lab!
"And then," Andrea continued dreamily, "you could meet the right one. Look at how much Emily loves being married. Renewing her vows! And Rick and I will probably have a spring wedding. If you could find the perfect guy, all our kids could grow up together here in the summers, the same as we did."
How quickly things could change! Just a few weeks ago Andrea had been as determined not to fall in love as Casey herself was. Her friend was no weakling, so Casey inadvertently shivered at how love could overpower the most sensible of plans.
Emily shot Andrea a warning look that clearly said, Careful, Casey is recovering from a broken heartlast year's Christmas crisis. Then she tactfully tried to guide the conversation in a different direction. "Anyway, the inn is for sale."
Andrea appeared pained for a minute, but then shrugged it off. "I don't know. I've seen how Martin Johnson, the electrician, looks at Carol. I think he's a man capable of restoring the Gingerbread Inn to its former glory. And it seems it would be a labor of love."
"Carol is resisting him," Emily said. "I'm afraid I overheard a bit of a shouting match between them."
"Well, I'm going to help things along. I've already asked him to come and help with the lighting for the vow renewal, and he seemed very eager to say yes!"
"Good for you," Emily said, but doubtfully. "Honestly, while Cole and I were working things out we bonded over a few cosmetic repairs around the place, but every single thing we did has made us so aware of what else has to be done. Poor Carol, on her own, could not keep up. It may have deteriorated too badly to be saved."
They all sadly contemplated that.
The Gingerbread Inn was special. It always had been, and there could never be a replacement in Casey's heart. The walls held memories: laughter and love, families coming together. The ghosts of their younger selves played out there on the waters of Barrow's Lake, swimming, canoeing, sunning themselves on the dock, playing volleyball on the beach.
There would never be another place like the Gingerbread Inn. It was a refuge of simplicity in a complicated world.
"We could find a different place to spend family summers together," Andrea suggested tentatively. "Wherever it is, or whatever it is, the three of us will be there with our soul mates. I think that's what Melissa would have wanted us to learn. That this is what is important. Love. And I hope someday it will include all our babies. Babies who will grow into toddlers as love deepens all around us. Rick and I plan to adopt someday. Tessa would love a little brother or sister."
Tessa was the six-year-old who would become Andrea's stepdaughter. She was hands down the most adorable little girl on the planet.
"It's what I want for this baby, too," Emily said tenderly.
That old feeling of being the odd one out whispered along her spine, but Casey reminded herself she was not going to be that for long! But she was going to do things her way.
For as happy as both Emily and Andrea were now, Casey had been a bridesmaid at both their weddings. How those beautiful days had fuelled her longing for romance! But Andrea's dreams had ended in a terrible tragedy on her honeymoon. And Casey had seen the cracks appear in Emily's relationship almost before Emily had seen them herself.
Oh, sure, Emily and Cole were like lovers again now, and Andrea was still in the over-the-moon stage with her new love, Rick, but it was too late for Casey to believe in love.
The pain interwoven with the love in those relationships had just helped cement Casey's resolve to wrestle her weakest point to the ground. And that wasn't her hair, either!
"Well, you girls can believe in fairy tales if you want. I'm done with that," she announced.
"I've been there," Emily said sympathetically.
"Me, too," Andrea said. "But the old saying is trueit's darkest just before the dawn." Catching Emily's warning look, she added, "Okay. Casey doesn't have to be with someone. She could come by herself."
"Actually," Casey said slowly, her heart beating hard, "I may not be by myself."
If she told them it was like committing. Like carving it in stone. And yet who better to share this gloriously happy decision with than her best friends?
"What?" Andrea squealed. "Have you met someone new? Why did you let me prattle on about your dusty lab if you have? I'm so happy for you! Really, a year is quite long enough to recover from a rascal like Sebastian. I told you when I saw you earlier this month that eventually you would see your breakup as a blessing. And I am a testament to the fact that things can turn around in an absolute blink."
It had been a year, almost exactly, since the rather humiliating disintegration of her relationship. Only these two women knew all the details: how a coworker had tipped her off that her fiancé, Sebastian, was seeing another woman, only days before they were going to make a Christmas announcement of their engagement!
"I haven't exactly met someone," Casey said cautiously, suddenly feeling vulnerable about saying it out loud.
"What is going on, Casey?" Andrea asked. "You asked me to join you here earlier in the month because you were down, but now you look great. So who is he?"
"It's not a he. I've made a decision to give myself the most amazing gift."
"What?" her friends asked in unison.
"I'm going to have a baby. I'm going to start investigating third-party reproduction and cryobanks right after the holidays are over."
Her friends looked stunned. "Cryo what?" Emily asked weakly.
"You mean you're going to raise a child by yourself?" Andrea finally asked.
"Why not? I'm well established. I'm financially able to afford the procedures. I'm ready. I think, on my own, I could provide as stable a family as most I've seen."
"That seems very scientific," Emily ventured. "Procedure as a way to make a baby?"
"I am a scientist!" And really, science had given her far more than her family ever had. "I'm done with romantic love. I'm saving all my love for my baby."
Her friends were very quiet.
"Hey," Casey said, trying for humor, when she was really disappointed they weren't more supportive of her decision. "You're both so serious. I said I was done with love, and that there could be a baby in my future, not that I was going to burn the Gingerbread Inn down!"
"You couldn't," Andrea said with dreamy satisfaction. "Rick would rescue it."
Rick, the adorable Tessa's father, was a fireman.
"I'm curing myself of romantic notions. I'm tackling my fatal flaw," Casey surprised herself by announcing.
"Your fatal flaw?" Andrea said, frowning.
"I believed in romantic love," Casey said. "Worse, I believed in love at first sight. It's done nothing but cause me grief, and I'm done with it."
"Love at first sight?" Emily said, puzzled. "I thought you and Sebastian worked together for some time before you agreed to go out with him."
But her secret, even from Em and Andrea, was that Sebastian had not been her first love. Her first love she had loved at first sight. He was the one who had made her so foolishly long for love that she had been willing to overlook her own family's history with passion, and imbue her former fiancé with characteristics he did not have.
"I'm done with love," Casey repeated, even more firmly than before.
"You are not!" Emily said, dismayed. "How can anybody just be done with love?"
"We buried Melissa," Casey said. "That's enough all by itself."
"I understand how you feel," Andrea said softly. "After Gunter died I wanted to give up on love, too.
But I'm so glad I didn't."