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When her phone rang at three in the morning, ripping her from a desperately needed sleep, Maggie's first thought was bad news.
Her mind raced through the possibilities, starting with the worst-case scenario. Death, or at least life-changing injury. Police. Ambulances.
Heart pounding, brain foggy, she grabbed her phone from the summit of her teetering pile of books. The name on the screen offered no reassurance.
Trouble stalked her youngest daughter.
"Rosie?" She fumbled for the light and sat up. The book she'd fallen asleep reading thudded to the floor, scattering the pile of Christmas cards she'd started to write the night before. She'd chosen a winter scene of snow-laden trees. They hadn't had a flake of snow in the village on Christmas Day for close to a decade. They often joked that it was a good thing their last name was White because it was the only way they were ever going to have a White Christmas.
She snuggled under the blanket with the phone. "Has some thing happened?" The physical distance between her and Rosie made her feel frustrated and helpless.
Everyone said global travel made the world smaller, but it didn't seem smaller to Maggie. Why couldn't her daughter have continued her studies closer to home? Oxford, with its famous spires and ancient colleges, was only a few miles away. Rosie had done her undergraduate degree there, followed by a master's. Maggie had loved having her close by. They'd taken sunlit strolls along cobbled streets, past ancient honey-colored buildings and through Christchurch Meadows, golden with daffodils. They'd followed the slow meander of the river and cheered on the rowing crews. Maggie had hoped, privately, that her daughter might stay close by, but after Rosie had graduated she'd been offered a place in a US doctoral program, complete with full funding. Can you believe it, Mum? The day she'd had the news she'd danced across the living room, hair flying around her face, twirling until she was dizzy and Maggie was dizzy watching her. Are you proud of me?
Maggie had been proud and dismayed in equal measure, although she'd hidden the dismayed part of course. That was what you did when you were a parent.
Even she could see it was too good an opportunity to turn down, but still a small part of her had wished Rosie had turned it down. That transatlantic flight from the nest left Maggie with email, Skype and social media, none of which felt entirely satisfactory. Even less so in the middle of the night. Had Rosie only been gone for four months? It felt like a lifetime since they'd delivered her to the airport on that sweltering summer's day.
"Is it your asthma? Are you in hospital?" What could she do if Rosie was in the hospital? Nothing. Anxiety was a constant companion, never more so than now.
If it had been her eldest daughter, Katie, who had moved to a different country she might have felt more relaxed. Katie was reliable and sensible, but Rosie? Rosie had always been impulsive and adventurous.
"I'm not in hospital. Don't fuss!"
Only now did Maggie hear the noise in the background. Cheering, whooping.
"Do you have your inhaler with you? You sound breathless." The sound woke the memories. Rosie, eyes bulging, lips stained blue. The whistling sound as air struggled to squeeze through narrowed airways. Maggie making emergency calls with hands that shook almost too hard to hold the phone, the terror raw and brutal although she kept that hidden from her child. Calm, she'd learned, was important even if it was faked.
Even when Rosie had moved from child to adult there had been no reprieve.
Some children grew out of asthma. Not Rosie.
There had been a couple of occasions when Rosie was in college when she'd gone to parties without her inhaler. A few hours of dancing later and she'd been rushed to the emergency department. That had been a 3:00 a.m. phone call, too, and Maggie had raced through the night to be by her side. Those were the episodes Maggie knew about. She was sure there were plenty more that Rosie had kept to herself.
"I'm breathless because I'm excited. I'm twenty-two, Mum. When are you going to stop worrying?"
"That would be never. Your child is always your child, no matter how many candles are on the birthday cake. Where are you?"
"I'm with Dan's family in Aspen for Thanksgiving, and I have news." She broke off and Maggie heard the clink of glasses and Rosie's infectious laugh. It was impossible to hear that laugh and not want to smile, too. The sound contrasted with the silence of Maggie's bedroom.
A waft of cold air chilled her skin and she stood up and grabbed her robe from the back of the chair. Honeysuckle Cottage looked idyllic from the outside, but it was impossibly drafty. The ventilation was a relief in August but froze you to the bone in November. She really needed to do something about the insulation before she even thought about selling the place. Historic charm, climbing roses and a view of the village green couldn't compensate for frostbite.
Or maybe it wasn't the house that was cold. Maybe it was her.
Knocked flat by a wave of sadness and she struggled to right herself.
"What's happening? What news? It sounds like you're having a party."
"Dan proposed. Literally out of the blue. We were taking it in turns to say what we're thankful for and when it was his turn he gave me a funny look and then he got down on one knee and — Mum, we're getting married."
Maggie sat down hard on the edge of the bed, the freezing air forgotten. "Married? But you and Dan have only been together for a few weeks —"
"Eleven weeks, four days, six hours and fifteen minutes — oh wait, now it's sixteen, I mean seventeen —" She was laughing, and Maggie tried to laugh with her.
How should she handle this? "That's not very long, sweetheart." But completely in character for Rosie, who bounced from one impulse to another, powered by enthusiasm.
"It feels so right, I can't even tell you. And you'll understand because it was like that for you and Dad."
Maggie stared at the damp patch on the wall.
Tell her the truth.
Her mouth moved but she couldn't push the words out. This was the wrong time. She should have done it months ago, but she'd been too much of a coward.
And now it was too late. She didn't want to be the slayer of happy moments.
She couldn't even say you're too young, because she'd been the same age when she'd had Katie. Which basically made her a hypocrite. Or did it make her someone with experience?
"You just started your postgrad —"
"I'm not giving it up. I can be married and study. Plenty do it."
Maggie couldn't argue with that. "I'm happy for you." Did she sound happy? She tried harder. "Woohoo!"
She'd thought she'd white-knuckled her way through all the toughest parts of parenting, but it turned out there were still some surprises waiting for her. Rosie wasn't a child anymore. She had to be allowed to make her own decisions. And her own mistakes.
Rosie was talking again. "I know it's all a bit fast, but you're going to love Dan as much as I do. You said you thought he was great when you spoke to him."
But speaking to someone on a video call wasn't the same as meeting them in person, was it?
Maggie swallowed down all the words of warning that rose up inside her. She was not going to turn into her own mother and send clouds to darken every bright moment. "He seemed charming, and I'm thrilled for you. If I don't sound it, it's because it's the middle of the night here, and you know what I'm like when I've just woken up. When I saw your name pop up on the screen, I was worried it was your asthma."
"Haven't had an attack in ages. I'm sorry I woke you, but I wanted to share my news."
"I'm glad you woke me. Tell me everything." She closed her eyes and tried to pretend her daughter was in the room with her, and not thousands of miles away.
There was no reason to panic. It was an engagement, that was all. There was plenty of time for them to decide if this was the right thing for them. "We'll have a big celebration when you and your sister are here for Christmas. Would Dan like to join us? I can't wait to meet him. Maybe we'll throw a party. Invite the Baxters, and all your friends from college and school." Planning lifted Maggie's mood. Christmas was her favorite time of year, the one occasion the whole family gathered together. Even Katie, with her busy life as a doctor, usually managed to beg and barter a few days at Christmas in exchange for covering the busy New Year shift. Maggie was looking forward to spending time with her. She had a niggling suspicion her eldest daughter was avoiding her. Every time Maggie suggested meeting up, Katie made an excuse, which was unlike her because she rarely refused a free lunch.
Christmas would give her a chance to dig a little deeper.
In her opinion, Oxford was the perfect place to spend the festive season. True, there was unlikely to be snow, but what was better than a postlunch walk listening to the peal of bells on a crisp, cold winter's day?
It promised to be perfect, apart from one complication. Nick.
Maggie still hadn't figured out how she was going to handle that side of things.
Maybe an engagement was exactly what they needed to shift the focus of attention.
"Christmas is one of the things I need to talk to you about." Rosie sounded hesitant. "I planned to come home, but since Dan proposed — well, we don't see the point in waiting. We've chosen the day. We're getting married on Christmas Eve."
Maggie frowned. "You mean next year?"
"No, this year."
She counted the days and her brain almost exploded. "You want to get married in less than four weeks? To a man you barely know?" Rosie had always been impulsive, but this wasn't a soft toy that would be abandoned after a few days, or a dress that would turn out to be not quite the right color. Marriage wasn't something that could be rectified with a refund. There was no reason for haste, unless — "Sweetie —"
"I know what you're thinking, and it isn't that. I'm not pregnant! We're getting married because we're in love. I adore him. I've never felt this way about anyone before."
You barely know him.
Maggie shifted, uncomfortably aware that knowing someone well didn't inoculate you against problems.
"I'm excited for you!" Turned out she could fake excitement as convincingly as she could fake calm. "But I could never arrange anything that quickly. Even a small wedding takes months of planning. When Jennifer Hill was married in the summer her mother told me they had to book the photographer more than a year in advance. And would everyone stay? It's Christmas. Everywhere will already be booked, and even if we managed to find something it would cost a fortune at this time of year." How many could she accommodate in Honeysuckle Cottage?
And what would Dan's family think of Rosie's home, with its slightly crooked walls and its antiquated heating system? Could English country charm compensate for frozen toes? In the summer the place was picture-perfect, with its walled garden and profusion of climbing roses, but living here in winter felt more like an exercise in survival. Still, Aspen was in the Rocky Mountains, and that had to be a pretty cold place in winter, too, surely?
Maybe she and Dan's mother would bond over the challenges of heating a property in cold weather.
"You wouldn't have to arrange anything," Rosie said. "We're getting married here, in Aspen. I feel terrible about not having our usual family gathering in the cottage but spending the holidays here will be magical. Remember all those years Katie and I used to stare out of the window hoping for snow? There's more snow here than you could ever imagine. Christmas in Colorado is going to be heaven. The scenery is incredible, and it will be a White Christmas in every way possible."
Christmas in Colorado.
Maggie stared at the dusky pink curtains that pooled on the dark oak floor. She'd made them during the long nights she'd spent watching over Rosie.
"You're not coming home for Christmas?" Why had she said that? She was not going to turn into one of those mothers who buried their children in guilt. "You must get married where and when you want, but I don't suppose Aspen will be any different from here in terms of arrangements. To arrange a wedding in under a month would take a miracle."
"We have a miracle. Catherine, Dan's mother, is a wedding planner. She's amazing. This only happened an hour ago and she's already made some calls and arranged the flowers and the cake. Usually she handles celebrities, so she has tons of contacts."
"Oh, well — super." Maggie felt as if she'd fallen in a river and was being swept along, helpless and flailing. "She doesn't mind helping you?"
"She's excited. And she has flawless taste. Everything will be perfect."
Maggie thought of her own imperfect life and felt a rush of something she recognized as jealousy. How could she be jealous of someone she'd never met?
Maybe she was having a midlife crisis, but surely if that was the case then it should have happened years ago when Rosie had first left home? Why now? She was having delayed empty nest syndrome.
She blinked to clear her misty vision and wondered why she'd ever thought it would be easy to be a parent.
Focusing on the practical, she made a mental list of all the things she'd have to do to cancel Christmas. The cake would keep, as would the cranberry sauce, waiting in the freezer. She'd ordered a turkey from a local farmer, but maybe she could still cancel that.
The one thing not so easily canceled were her expectations.
The White family always gathered together at Christmas. They had their traditions, which probably would have seemed crazy to some, but Maggie cherished them. Decorating the tree, singing carols, doing a massive jigsaw, playing silly games. Being together. It didn't happen often now that her daughters were grown, and she'd been looking forward to it.
"Have you told your sister yet?"
"She is my next call. Not that she's likely to answer her phone.
She's always working. I want her to be my maid of honor."
What would Katie's reaction be? "Your sister doesn't consider herself a romantic."
Maggie sometimes wondered if working in the emergency department for so long had distorted her elder daughter's view of humanity.
"I know," Rosie said, "but this isn't any old wedding. It's my wedding, and I know she'll do it for me."
"You're right, she will." Katie had always been a protective and loving older sister.
Maggie glanced at the photograph she kept on the table next to her bed. The two girls standing side by side, arms wrapped around each other, their cheeks pressed together as they faced the camera, smiles merging. It was one of her favorite photos.
"I know you hate flying, Mum, but you will come, won't you? I badly want you all to be there."
Flying. Rosie was right that she hated it.
In company when conversation turned to travel, she pretended she was protecting the planet by avoiding flying, but in reality she was protecting herself. The idea of being propelled through the air in a tin can horrified her. It all seemed out of her control. What if the pilot had drunk too much the night before? What if they collided with another plane? Everyone knew that airspace was ridiculously overcrowded. What about drones? Bird strikes?
When the children were young she and Nick had bundled them into the car and taken them to the beach. Once, they'd taken the ferry across to France and driven as far as Italy (neveragain, Nick had said, as they'd been bombarded with a chorus of are we nearly there all the way from Paris to Pisa).
And now she was expected to fly to the Rocky Mountains for Christmas.
And she would. Of course she would.
"We'll be there. Nothing would keep us away." Maggie waved goodbye to her dreams of a family Christmas at the cottage. "But what about a venue? Will you be able to find something at such short notice?"
"We're going to have the wedding right here, at his home. Dan's family own Snowfall Lodge. It's this amazing boutique hotel just outside Aspen. I can't wait for you to see it. There are views of the forest and the mountains, and outdoor hot tubs — it's going to be the perfect place to spend Christmas. The perfect place to get married. I'm so excited!"
Honeysuckle Cottage was the perfect place to spend Christmas.
Maggie couldn't imagine spending it in a place she didn't know, with people she didn't know. Not only that, but perfect people she didn't know. Even the prospect of snow didn't make her feel better.
"It sounds as if you have it all covered. All we need to do is think about what to wear."
"Mm, I was going to mention that. It's pretty cold at this time of year. You're going to need to wear some serious layers."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Wedding in December"
Copyright © 2019 Sarah Morgan.
Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
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