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Once in a while, if a woman is really lucky, the perfect day she envisioned turns out to be just that. This was going to be one of those days, Cass Wilkes thought as she set the platter of carved turkey on her dining table.
She surveyed her handiwork with a smile. Everything was Martha Stewart-lovely from the china and crystal to the Thanksgiving centerpiece she'd bought at Lupine Floral, and her old Victorian home was filled with the aroma of herbs and spices. The dining room window framed a greeting-card-worthy winter sceneher front lawn with its trees and shrubs draped in frosty white and the snowcapped mountains looming beyond.
The snow had done what all good snow should do; it had stopped in plenty of time for road crews to clear the way for travelers. Unlike Thanksgiving last year, the town of Icicle Falls was humming with visitors looking for a holiday getaway. Great for business, especially when you owned a bakery. This weekend, gingerbread boys and girls would march out the door of Gingerbread Haus in droves and money would march right into Cass's bank accounta good thing since she suspected she was going to have a wedding to pay for in a year or so.
A whoop of male excitement came from the living room, followed by cheers. The football game on TV was nearing its end and obviously the favored team had scored a touchdown.
"Okay, that's everything from the kitchen," said Dot Morrison, Cass's mentor and former boss, as she placed a serving bowl heaped with stuffing, along with another full of mashed potatoes, on the table. Normally Dot would have been celebrating with her daughter, but Tilda was on patrol, keeping Icicle Falls safe from
who knew? Their town wasn't exactly a hotbed of crime.
Dot had dressed for the occasion, wearing jeans and a white sweatshirt decorated with a turkey holding a sign that said "Think Outside the Box. Serve Ham." Dot, who owned the town's most popular pancake place, Breakfast Haus, had encouraged Cass to think outside the box years ago, even lent her money to start her bakery. Cass owed her Thanksgiving dinners for life.
"Get those clowns in here," Dot said. "There's nothing worse than cold food."
Cass could suggest a few thingstaxes, yeast infections, exes.
Oh, no, she wasn't going to ruin a perfectly good holiday with even a hint of a thought about her ex-husband. That man, that self-centered, undeserving rat who'd tried to lure the kids away this weekend with a trip to Vail, who
No, no. No thoughts about Mason. It was Thanksgiving, after all, a time to count her blessings.
Three of those blessings were sitting out there in the living roomher kids Danielle, Willie and Amber. Dani's boyfriend, Mike, was there, too, tucked beside her in an overstuffed easy chair.
Twenty-year-old Dani was Cass's oldest and her right-hand woman at the bakery. She'd inherited Cass's passion for creating in the kitchen, and after a year of community college had opted to work full-time at the bakery. Cass had hoped she'd put in at least another year, but she'd had no interest. "I can learn more from you than I can from any college professor," she'd told Cass. When it came to baking, well, what could Cass say? Dani was right.
Amber, her youngest, sat curled up on one end of the couch, texting. A few months earlier she'd been adding to Cass's gray-hair collection, hanging out with the kind of kids no mother wants her child to be with or, worse, become. Thank God (and, possibly, Cass's pal Samantha Sterling) Amber had changed direction and found some new and improved friends.
Willie, Cass's high school jock, was sprawled on the floor, holding the favored stuffed toy of high school boys everywherea football. The only trouble she had with Willie was keeping him full. The boy was a two-legged locust.
Then there was her younger brother, Drew, who'd come over from Seattle. Recently divorced (was this tendency toward divorce something in their genes?), he'd been more than happy to spend the weekend hanging out with her family. He'd never had kids of his own, so she'd shared. He made a great uncle and a better father figure than her ex.
No, no, no. Not giving him so much as a thought today.
Cass stood in the archway like a lady butler and announced, "Dinner, guys."
Of course, no one was listening. Another touchdown happened in TV Land. "Yeah!" whooped Mike.
"My team sucks," Willie muttered, giving his football an irritable bounce.
"My dinner's going to suck if you don't get out here and eat it now," Cass warned.
"The game's pretty much over, anyway," Mike said, demonstrating good boyfriend etiquette. He stood, pulling Dani up with him. He was a big boy, a former football star and her son's new hero. Mike was currently employed at the local hardware store, which, as far as Cass was concerned, was ideal. Once he popped the question, he and Dani would get married and live in Icicle Falls, near family and friends, a win-win for everyone.
"You're right," Drew agreed. He shut off the TV and led the parade to the dining room table.
Cass only had to look at a cookie to gain five pounds. Her brother, lucky dog, was tall and reedy, and could eat anything. He was a better dresser, too, always had been. And better-looking. But he couldn't cook, and when he came to town he was her best customer. He was also her best friend, and she was glad he'd come here for the holiday.
The only ones missing as everyone settled around the table were Cass's mother and stepfather, who'd become snowbirds and were with his family in Florida. But Mom and Fred planned to come out for Christmas, and if Cass had to choose she'd rather have her mother with them for that holiday.
Drew reached for the turkey and Cass rapped his hand with a serving spoon. "Grace first, you heathen."
Willie snickered, which earned him the privilege of offering thanks. He barely had "Amen" out of his mouth before he was into the dressing, piling it high on his plate.
Normally she'd remind him that other people might actually want some, too, but not today. Thanksgiving was for feasting and she'd made plenty. Besides, she was going to have an extra serving herself.
For a while conversation consisted of comments like "Pass the rolls" and "Where'd the olives end up?" As plates and then stomachs filled, new topics arose: whose fantasy football team was going to win, how well Cass and Dani's new gingerbread necklaces were selling, Dot's upcoming bunion surgery.
Then it was time for pie. In spite of how crazy-busy Cass had been with work, she'd managed to bake pumpkin, pecan and her brother's favorite, wild huckleberry. "This will be enough for me," he joked, grabbing the whole pie.
With dessert came another tradition, one Cass had started when the kids were small.
"Okay," she said once everyone had been served, "it's gratitude time. Who wants to go first?"
Gratitude. Sometimes the challenge to be grateful had been as big as the word. Often she'd been a world-class hypocrite, encouraging her children to look on the bright side while she indulged in resentment.
It seemed like she'd spent most of her married life in that particular mental state. She'd resented Mason's decision to join the navy when they were engaged. They'd barely set up housekeeping when he shipped out the first time. He'd missed his daughter's birth; Cass's childbirth partner had been her mother. Better her mother than his, she'd told herself. That was something to be grateful for. And she'd been grateful when he got out of the navy. Not so much when he went back to school and neglected his family for his studies. Not so much when he carved out a career that seemed to keep him gone more than it allowed him to be home. Mason had been determined to find the path to success but that path had little room for his family. She was the one who'd always been there to soothe every heartbreak, puzzle over every math problem, cheer at every ball game. And what had he done?
Gratitude, remember? Okay, she was grateful she wasn't with him anymore.
"I'm grateful for something," Dani said. She reached into her jeans pocket and pulled out a diamond ring and slid it on her finger.
"Oh, my gosh, you're engaged!" cried Amber.
Cass set down her fork and gaped. Of course she'd known this was coming, but she was a little upset that her daughter hadn't told her before everyone else. "When did this happen?" she asked.
Dani's brown eyes sparkled with excitement. She looked at Mike and they shared the smile reserved for a couple in possession of newly minted love. "Last night. We wanted to wait and surprise everyone."
Well, they had.
"Don't know how surprised anyone is," Dot said, "but I think you made your mother's day."
Of course she had. Why was Cass sitting there like a turkey in a pan? She jumped up and went to hug her daughter and future son-in-law. "This is wonderful. You two are going to be so happy."
How could they not be? Unlike her mother at that age, Danielle had been wise and thoughtful when selecting a mate. She hadn't rushed into a relationship with her hormones on fire and her brain dead from smoke inhalation. She'd held out for the right man. They even looked perfect together, Mike with his dark hair and eyes and that big frame, Dani with her lighter coloring and sandy hair and willowy figure. In their wedding garb they'd look fit for the top of a wedding cake.
"This calls for more pie," Drew said with a grin, and helped himself to another piece.
"I'm going to be a bridesmaid, right?" Amber asked her sister.
"Of course," Dani said.
"You'd better dig out your Armani," Cass said to Drew. "Dani's going to need you to walk her down the aisle."
Dani's face lost some of its bride-to-be glow and she bit her lip.
"Hey, I'm cool sitting in the front row with your mom," Drew said quickly. "I don't have to be the one."
Oh, yes, he did. Who else was going to? Oh, no. Surely not.
"Actually, I was hoping Daddy would walk me down the aisle," Dani said.
The undeserving absent father? The man who'd been MIA for most of Dani's life? Cass fell back against her chair and stared across the table at her daughter.
Dani's cheeks bloomed with a guilty flush and she studiously avoided her mother's gaze.
"Daddy?" Cass echoed. It came out frosted with scorn. Way to be mature and poison your daughter's happy moment, she scolded herself.
With her sunny disposition and eagerness to please, Danielle was generally easy to get along with, but now her chin jutted out at a pugnacious angle. "I know he'll want to."
Oh, he always wanted to be there, but he never had been.
Until lately. Now that their children were practically grown. He and his thirty-two-year-old trophy wife, Ba-bette, seemed to think they could have the kids come over to Seattle anytime he swooped in from his business trips and buy their affection with shopping expeditions and Seahawks tickets.
Obviously it was working, and that made Cass want to break the wishbone she'd been saving into a thousand pieces. This wasn't right. How to get Dani to see that, though?
She cleared her throat. "You know he travels a lot."
"I know," Dani said, "but we want a Christmas wedding and he'll be here for Christmas."
"Christmas Day?" Willie made a face.
Dani frowned at him. "What, are you afraid Santa won't come?" To the others she said, "We thought the weekend before."
"That's not much time to plan a wedding," Dot pointed out. "What's the rush?"
Now Mike was beaming like a man with a big announcement.
"Because Mike got a job as assistant manager at a hardware store in Spokane," Dani announced for him, "and when he moves for his new job I want to go with him."
Everyone at the table got busy offering Mike congratulations.
Except Cass, who was in shock. They'd be moving away. Her daughter would be leaving practically the minute after she got married. The vision of Dani raising her family here in Icicle Falls, of someday taking over the bakery, went up in smoke. It was all Cass could do not to cry. She pushed away the plate with her half-finished pumpkin pie and hoped nobody asked her what she was thankful for.
"Anyway, we just want a small wedding," Mike said. "Nothing fancy."
Nothing fancy? Dani had always wanted a big church wedding. What happened to that?
"And I know Daddy can come that weekend," Dani added.
"You already talked to your father?" Before you even shared the news with me? Hurt welled up in Cass, giving her the worst case of heartburn she'd ever had.
"Just to see if he's going to be around," Dani said. "I thought maybe everyone could come up and stay for the week."
"Here?" Cass squeaked.
"Whoo boy," Drew said under his breath.
"There's no room," Cass said firmly. No room at the inn.
Dot shrugged. "You could probably put them up at Olivia's."
Thank you, Dot. Remind me never to invite you over for Thanksgiving dinner again.
"Dani, you know how crazy it gets this time of year," Cass said. "I'm sure the B and Bs are booked solid."
"Olivia still has a couple of rooms," Dani said.
"You talked to her?" She'd told Olivia, too?
"This morning. I just called to ask if she had any left."
"Well, then, I guess that settles it," Cass said stiffly.
"You'll help me plan it, won't you?" Dani asked her in a small voice.
Cass was hurt and she was mad, but she wasn't insane. "Of course I will. And I'll make the cake."
"Well, duh." Amber rolled her eyes.
Dani ignored her sister and smiled happily. "Thanks, Mom."
Cass sighed. She'd even suck it up and be nice at the wedding. It would be wrong to spoil her daughter's big day with petty jealousy.
It's not petty, whispered her evil twin. Cass told her to shut up.
"I know it's a busy time of year," Dani said.
"'Tis the season," Dot cracked.
The season to be jolly. That was going to be hard with her ex-husband strutting around town, pretending to be the world's best dad. It was going to be hard to greet his bimbo trophy wife with good cheer. And she didn't even want to think about dealing with her ex-mother- and sister-in-law. If Santa thought this was what Cass wanted for Christmas, he needed to retire.
"This is going to be a pain in the butt for you," Dot said to her later, after the dishes were done and the kids were playing on the Wii.
Cass leaned against the kitchen counter and stared at the contents of her coffee mugblack, just like her mood.
"But you'll get through it."
Of course she would. Exes were a part of life. She'd put on her big-girl panties and cope. After all, it was only a couple of days. Anyway, they'd all be staying at Olivia's place. She'd hardly have to see them.
Cass managed a reluctant smile and raised her mug. "Well, then, here's to getting through."
Dot clinked mugs with her. "Merry Ex-mas, kiddo."