The Christmas Cottage/Ever After
By Samantha Chase
Sourcebooks, Inc. Copyright © 2015 Samantha Chase
All rights reserved.
"... And any couple that spends the night in the Christmas Cottage shall have love everlasting."
Lacey Quinn stifled a groan as she listened to her best friend and bride-to-be retell her family's fairy tale of a house that was the key to a successful and happy marriage. Lacey had been hearing the story her entire life; the Quinns and the Callahans had been friends long before Lacey and Ava were born. The story wasn't anything new. What was new was that Ava was the one getting married in seven short weeks and would get to experience the fairy tale for herself.
If Lacey didn't strangle her first.
"Yes, yes, love everlasting, blah, blah, blah." Lacey sighed as she reached for the last Chinese dumpling. "Honestly, don't you ever get tired of saying it?"
"Never," Ava replied adamantly. Standing, Ava took the clip out of her long blond hair and shook it out as she went to stand in front of the full-length mirror by her front door. "I'm thinking of wearing my hair up." Doing a quick twist, she turned and faced Lacey. "What do you think?"
A quick gulp of wine fortified Lacey for the conversation they'd had at least a dozen times before. "You know your hair looks fabulous in an up-sweep. Plus, with the tiara you picked out, it will look stunning. Positively princess-like," she added just to stroke Ava's bridal ego.
"Of course, if I wear it long and loose, I can have some fabulous curls done. Mason loves it when my hair is down."
There wasn't enough wine in the universe to make Lacey want to continue this conversation. "Then you should wear it down," she said as she stood and took the now-empty wine bottle to the kitchen and prepared to make an exit and head home.
"Well, which is it, Lacey? Up or down?" Lacey didn't have to see her friend to know Ava was pouting; it was there in the tone of her voice. Taking her time to rinse her glass and place it on the drain board, she silently counted to ten before heading back into the living room.
"You will look beautiful no matter how you wear your hair. Mason is going to be the luckiest man in the world, and it won't matter one bit about your hair. We'll see how you feel on your wedding day." There, that sounded comforting and diplomatic, didn't it?
"I know you're right," Ava said, sighing with relief as she released her hair and turned to face Lacey. "Before you go, there's one last bit of the wedding details I need to talk to you about."
So close, Lacey thought to herself as she looked longingly at the door. What more could there possibly be to discuss? The weddings in the Callahan family were traditional; no one strayed from the formula. They owned a massive ranch outside Asheville, North Carolina, where the family spent every Christmas. Lacey loved the old ranch and had spent many a Christmas there herself. The weddings were almost always done on Christmas Eve with the entire family in attendance. Then, the beaming bride and groom would head to the guest cottage, tucked a discreet distance farther up the mountain, for their wedding night.
The Callahans had been having wedding celebrations like this since the Depression. From the pictures Lacey'd seen, the cottage was a cross between a gingerbread house and a house you'd see on Christmas cards. Charming and inviting — those were the words that always came to mind when the pictures were brought out. But even charming old houses need to be renovated from time to time.
Ava had been distraught over the thought of the cottage being "wrecked" before it was her turn to stay in it. Luckily, most of the work seemed to have to do with bringing the wiring and plumbing up to date and some minor cosmetic changes. Everyone had assured Ava that none of the cottage's charm or "magic" had been tampered with.
Noticing that Ava was still standing there looking anxious, Lacey realized she'd let her mind wander for a moment. What were they talking about again? Oh yes, more wedding details.
For the life of her, Lacey couldn't imagine what else in the world there was to cover. The wedding ceremony would be held in the Callahan home, the caterer had been booked, their dresses had been ordered, and all of the fittings were done. Invitations had been sent and all of the RSVPs had been received. Flowers had been ordered, bouquets designed, and the groom and his groomsmen had been taken care of as well. As far as Lacey could tell, all that was left was for the darn day to finally get here so she could get some peace.
"Right, details," Lacey said. "What's up?"
"Well, there is this one last little tradition that needs to be taken care of," Ava began, practically bouncing on the balls of her feet.
"Okay, shoot. What is it?"
"As my maid of honor, it is up to you and Mason's best man to take care of getting the cottage ready for us."
That was it? Score! Easy-peasy. "No problem," she responded, anxious to get home. "I'm sure we'll have time to slip out during the reception and light some candles, sprinkle some rose petals, and whatnot. No worries, Ava, I'm on it!"
"No!" Ava cried, despair written all over her face. "This is no ordinary honeymoon suite, Lace. You have to get the cottage ready for us, and not just with that silly, clichéd romantic stuff."
Of course not. Why had Lacey even thought for one second that this was going to be easy? "Okay then, what is it exactly that I'm supposed to do?"
With that, Ava grabbed both of Lacey's hands and dragged her back over to the couch. "Well, I have a bunch of ideas."
Of course she does. Before Lacey even had the opportunity to ask what they were, Ava reached down next to the sofa and pulled out a large three-ring binder and placed it in Lacey's lap with a big grin.
"All of this is about the cottage?"
What have I gotten myself into? "Am I re-siding the cottage? Putting on a new roof? I mean, look at the size of this binder, Ava!"
"I know it looks big, but if you would just open it, you'll see what I want to do."
Not trusting a single word Ava just said, Lacey sat back and opened the binder and hoped that her jaw hitting the floor was not noticeable. Re-siding the house and putting on a new roof would have been easier than what was detailed in this mammoth book.
There were notes, descriptions, pictures, drawings ... on and on it went for seventeen divided sections. "Seventeen sections, Ava? The cottage isn't all that big, how in the world do you expect to have all of this done?"
"You're focusing far too much on the number of pages in the book and not enough on what's on them." Taking the binder from Lacey, Ava began to describe the "perfect" setting for her wedding night.
"First of all, there needs to be the right lighting. I want to make sure the lighting is soft, and yes, I know I said it was clichéd, but I do want candles. Lots and lots of white candles. There's a fireplace as well, so there will need to be enough wood stocked to keep the fire burning all night."
"Didn't they just update ..."
"Yes, yes, they did, but a roaring fire would be so much more romantic." She sighed. "I'll want flowers — poinsettias — and greens, the kind that are particularly associated with Christmas — holly and mistletoe," she began, scanning the flower section of the binder. "There's a Christmas cactus that I would love to have here, and there's even a Christmas rose, or the snow rose I'm sure a florist can help you find."
"You're only going to be there for one or two nights, Ava. Don't you think ...?"
"I know we'll have eaten at my parents' place, but food will need to be stocked. Champagne, chocolates, strawberries, whipped cream — the real stuff, not the stuff in the tub — and then maybe some 'normal' stuff like a fruit and cheese platter, some oysters on the half shell, an assortment of cookies, and then something for breakfast." More flipping through the binder quickly followed.
"Why don't I have a chef hang out on the front porch just waiting to take your order?" Lacey said dryly.
Ava shot her a sharp glance. "A girl only gets married once," she said emphatically before adding, "Hopefully." At Lacey's arched brow, Ava quickly rambled on. "There is nothing wrong with wanting my wedding night to be perfect. It has to be perfect, Lacey!" she cried as she reached over and grabbed her friend's hand.
"What has gotten into you?" Lacey asked cautiously. "I have known you my whole life, and you have never been like this. I understand that it's your wedding, but honestly, you're about to enter the bridezilla zone and it's starting to worry me."
Lacey had been friends with Ava her whole life, and she knew something wasn't right. Looking at Ava now, Lacey was concerned that something was clearly wrong. "What's going on, Ava? Are you having second thoughts?"
Gently closing the binder, Ava placed it on the coffee table and turned to face Lacey, her big blue eyes filling with tears. "Not exactly. It's just that, as the time gets closer and Mason and I start talking about the future, well, we're just not ... you know, on the same page on some things."
"Well, he wants to have kids right away. He's hoping for me to get pregnant on our honeymoon! I want kids, Lace, you know I do, but I just don't want them right away. I want to settle into being married and have the time to adjust to living together before we have kids. Is that so wrong?"
"No, no, sweetie, of course it's not. What did Mason say when you told him?"
Ava pulled her hands away and looked at them as she clasped them in her lap. "I kind of mentioned it and he said I was just nervous and it was all going to be okay."
"That's it? That's all he said? So basically he thinks the issue is settled, but it's not?"
"You have to tell him the truth. This isn't a disagreement over something trivial, this is a major life-changing situation."
"Don't you think I know that? But that's why it's so important that everything at the cottage be perfect. If it is, then everything's going to be okay."
"I know you drank just as much wine as I did and I have to tell you that you are making no sense whatsoever. How is the way the cottage is decorated going to fix the fact that Mason wants to have a baby right away and you don't?"
"Don't you see? Sheesh, you've been complaining about me rambling on and on about the legend of the cottage and yet you still don't get it? Any couple who spends the night in the cottage ..."
"... will have love everlasting. Um, yeah, got it. I hear it in my sleep. That still doesn't answer my question."
Ava gave a long-suffering sigh before looking at Lacey as if she were a child. "Once we spend the night in the most perfect cottage ever, we'll be guaranteed to have love everlasting. We'll agree on the right time to have a baby ... and some other things ..."
The last few words were added in a mumble, but Lacey caught them just the same. "You mean there's more? What else are you not in agreement about?"
"Well, the baby is the main issue, but then there's my job."
"What about it?"
"Mason thinks it's a ridiculous job and that maybe I should quit and focus on helping him build his business."
"But you love working at the bookstore! Plus you get a discount on your tuition! How else are you supposed to finish school?"
Ava stared at her hopelessly.
Now Lacey was mad. "So let me get this straight. Mason wants you to quit school, quit your job, and help him with his business until you have a baby."
Ava merely nodded.
"That's ridiculous! Why is this all just coming up now?"
"To be honest, we moved up the wedding because I wanted the whole Christmas Cottage thing. Our original plan had been to wait until late summer or next fall, but the thought of finally having my turn at the cottage was too tempting to miss!"
"Then wait until next Christmas and take this next year to get to know one another better and iron out all of these issues."
"Mason doesn't want to wait. He's thirty-two, and apparently his biological clock is ticking. His law firm is starting to grow, and he feels that, at this point in his life, he needs to be married and having children to cement his image."
"You're joking, right?"
Ava didn't answer. Reaching over, she picked up the binder and handed it to Lacey. "Please, Lace. I really need your help with this. I know it's a little hard for you to understand the fairy tale, but I've seen it happen for generations and now it's my turn. I know that if Mason and I stay there, all of this other stuff is going to work out. It has to!"
"You're putting an awful lot of hope in a fairy tale, Ava."
"I know, but you know I've always been a dreamer. I believe in happily ever after. I wish you did."
"I haven't had a whole lot of reason to believe in it."
It sounded more dramatic than the reality, but Lacey was just more practical than Ava. Always had been. Where love was concerned, Ava led with her heart. Lacey lost count of all the great loves of Ava's life and had initially thought Mason was just one in a line of many. Something about him stuck, however, and it left Lacey scratching her head because the two were as opposite as could be. Sure, she knew the old adage "opposites attract," but this was more than opposites; it was like Mason didn't even know Ava, and that was a shame because Ava would give him the world and he wouldn't appreciate it.
"You have plenty of reasons to believe in it," Ava interrupted her thoughts. "Your parents have been married for over thirty years! Your grandparents have been married for fifty-five years! I know your family well enough to know they are not simply tolerating one another — they are still in love. That, my friend, is happily ever after."
"Oh please! Do you hear yourself? My parents fight plenty. They've struggled and yelled and screamed, and my grandparents are no different. It's not a matter of happily ever after. After a while, you settle into something comfortable and that's your life."
"You make me sad."
Lacey glared at her. "I'm not sad, Ava. I'm practical. There's a difference."
"Look, can we just agree to disagree and move on?" She took the blasted binder from Ava's hands and began to scan through it again. It all seemed ridiculous. "I can follow every instruction, re-create every diagram in this book, Ava, but until you and Mason talk, nothing is going to change. A magical cottage in the woods of North Carolina is not suddenly going to make Mason not want kids right away or make you be okay with quitting school. It's not possible!"
"Well, I think it is! I have to believe it!" Ava fell to the couch sobbing, and Lacey felt like crap for pushing her. She eased down beside her and pulled her into an embrace.
"Why can't you just believe?"
"I want to believe, for your sake, but I also don't want you to settle for someone who doesn't get how amazing you are," Lacey said. "I don't want you to make a mistake."
Ava straightened. "You think marrying Mason is a mistake?"
Open mouth, insert foot. Lacey thought for a moment and chose her words very carefully. "I wouldn't say that. I just think you need to be more honest with him about how you feel. If he loves you, then he will see that this relationship is not only about him and his feelings."
Ava seemed to consider the words. "I'm sure it's going to all be okay. The cottage has never let anyone down. It has a one hundred percent success rate!" Straightening, she wiped her stray tears and once again looked at her friend. "You mean the world to me, Lace. I wish you would find someone amazing who loves you and treats you like a princess, too. I don't understand why you don't date more! You're beautiful! How could men not be asking you out?"
"They do." Just not the one I want. "But this isn't about me, this is about your cottage and getting it ready. I have a little more than a month to plan and prepare." She gave another hesitant glance at the giant binder. "This is an awful lot for one person, you know."
"No, it's not just your, or rather the maid of honor's, job. The best man helps, too!"
Lacey wracked her brain for a moment to remember who Mason had chosen for his best man. Bill? Ben? Brian? Brian! "That's, um, Brian, right? His best friend from college?" (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Christmas Cottage/Ever After by Samantha Chase. Copyright © 2015 Samantha Chase. Excerpted by permission of Sourcebooks, Inc..
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