Read an Excerpt
Twenty-two gallons of hot chocolate.
Ten of mulled wine.
Four hundred and sixty-two painstakingly decorated Christmas cookies.
And no one was coming.
The storm battering the windows of the White Pond Inn— Emma White had rechristened it the White Christmas Inn just this morning—was being compared by the radio announcer to the Great Ice Storm of 1998 that had wreaked havoc on this region of Atlantic Canada, not to mention Quebec, Ontario, New York and New England.
Christmas was clearly going to be ruined.
"Just like always," Emma murmured out loud to herself, her voice seeming to echo through the empty inn.
Her optimism was not in the least bolstered by the fire crackling cheerfully in the hearth, by her exquisite up-country holiday decorations in the great room, or by her bright-red Santa hat and her lovely red wool sweater with the white angora snowflakes on its front.
In fact, speaking the thought out loud—that Christmas was going to be ruined, just like always—invited a little girl, the ghost of herself, to join her in the room.
The little girl had long, dark wavy hair and was staring at an opened package that held a doll with jaggedly cut hair and blue ink stains on its face, clearly not Clara, the doll she had whispered to Santa that she coveted, but rather a cast-off of one of the children her mother cleaned houses for.
"Shut up," Emma ordered herself, but for some reason the little ghost girl wanted her to remember how she had pretended to be happy. For her mother.
Her mother, Lynelle, who had finally agreed to come for Christmas. Emma could not wait to show her the refurbished house that Lynelle had grown up in but not returned to since she was sixteen, not even when Grandma had died.
Emma tried not to think that her mother had sounded backed into a corner rather than enthused about spending Christmas here. And she had agreed to come only on Christmas Eve, taking a miss on the seasonal celebrations at the inn: the ten-day pre-Christmas celebration, Holiday Happenings. But still Lynelle would be here for the culmination of all Emma's hard work and planning, Christmas Day Dream.
Lynelle's lack of enthusiasm probably meant she was distracted. In Emma's experience that usually meant a new man.
It was probably uncharitable—and unChristmaslike—but when Emma sent the bus ticket, she was sending fare for a single passenger.
The radio cut into her thoughts, but only to add to her sense of unease and gloom. "This just in, the highway closed at Harvey all the way through to the U.S. border."
Emma got up and deliberately snapped off the radio, thoughts of her mother and her memories. She tried to focus on the facts, to be pragmatic, though the inn was plenty of evidence that pragmatism did not come naturally to her. The inn was the project of a dreamer, not a realist.
Okay, she told herself, visitors would not be making the scenic drive up from Maine tonight. Maybe it was just as well. Her aging neighbor, Tim Fenshaw, had already called to say he couldn't bring the horses out in this, so there would be no sleigh rides. The phone line had gone dead before he had said good-bye.
And just before the last light had died in the evening sky, Emma had looked out her back window at her pond and seen that it was being covered with snow faster than she could hope to clear it. So, no skating, either.
"Holiday Happenings is not happening," Emma announced to herself. Or at least not happening tonight, which was to have been the opening night of ten days of skating and sleigh rides right up until Christmas Eve.
It was all adding up to a big fat zero. No sledding, no sleigh rides, no skating, no admission fees, no hot dog sales, no craft sales, no cookie sales. All the things Emma had counted on finally to bring the inn firmly into the black.
And to finance her Christmas Day Dream.
"Would one little miracle be so much to ask for?" she asked out loud, sending an irritated look heavenward.
The Christmas Day Dream was Emma's plan to provide a very special Christmas for those who did not have fantasy Christmases. The disappointments of her childhood had not all occurred at Christmas. But somehow, at that time of year in particular, she had waited for the miracle that didn't come.
Last year she'd thought she had left all of that behind her. She was an adult now, and she had looked forward, finally, to the best Christmas of all. Her then fiancé, Dr. Peter Henderson, had invited her to spend Christmas with his family. The very memory tasted of bitterness. Was it possible last year had been worse than all the rest combined?
Emma had learned her lesson! She was not putting her expectations in the hands of others, not her mother, and not a man!
This year she was in charge. She was devoted to eradicating Christmas disappointments. She was determined to make Christmas joyous, not just for herself, but for a world she knew from personal experience was grimly in need of a dose of true Christmas spirit.
In collusion with several area churches and a homeless shelter, a dozen of the neediest families in this region had received invitations to spend Christmas Day at the inn.
The invitations targeted families with nothing to hope for, families who could not have Christmas, or could not have it as they dreamed it should be.
On Christmas Day Emma was throwing open the doors to fifty-one confirmed guests who would arrive on a chartered bus.
Emma knew the people coming: the oldest a seventy-six-year-old grandmother who was the sole guardian of her three grandchildren, one of whom was the youngest, a nine-month-old baby whose two siblings were under age five. The largest group was a family of eight whose father had been hurt in an accident early last year, and had not been able to work since; the smallest was a single mother and her handicapped son.
And, of course, her mother, who understood Christmases with nothing—one year they had not even had a tree—would be there to share in the joy. There would be gifts for everyone. Brand-new. No hairless ink-stained dolls. But more than gifts, the feeling would be there. Emma had been collecting skates, and having them sharpened in anticipation of skating, Tim was hooking up the Clydes to give sleigh rides.
His daughter-in-law, Mona, and two granddaughters, Sue and Peggy, who were staying with him while Tim, Jr., served with the Canadian Armed Forces overseas, had practically been living here preparing for Holiday Happenings and the Christmas Day Dream.
Not even last year, anticipating Christmas with the Hendersons, had filled Emma with this sense that by giving this gift to others, she would know the secret of the season, would share in its universal peace.
Now, her dreams felt precarious. Naive. She could hear Peter's voice as if he stood next to her.
"How am I going to pay for everything?" she whispered. How was she going to pay the Fenshaws for all the time they had given her? And, indeed, for Christmas Day Dream? And the stacks of wonderful brand-new gifts she'd been foolish enough to put on credit, her optimism had been so high? She hadn't been able to see how Holiday Happenings could possibly fail. She'd been having a dozen calls a day about it since she'd put the posters up in mid-November.
The St. Martin's Church youth group had sent her the admissions in full for thirty-two kids—who were supposed to come tonight. She remembered how gleeful she had been when she had used their money to make a deposit on the chartered bus for her Christmas-Day guests.
Emma could feel a familiar headache pulling between her eyebrows, knotting above the bridge of her nose.
She'd inherited White Pond, the neglected house and overgrown eighteen acres from her grandmother last spring. It had quickly become apparent to her she couldn't afford to keep it.
By then Emma was committed to keeping it. There was something here of her family and her history that Lynelle had scorned, but that Emma needed. So, she'd used her life savings, not huge on her wage as a medical receptionist, given permanent notice to the job she had taken temporary leave from, and risked her engagement, which had already been on the rocks since last Christmas, and which had well and truly washed up on shore when she'd made the decision to come home and care for the grandmother who had been a virtual stranger to her.
And then on a shoe-string budget, with endless determination and elbow grease, Emma had done her best to refurbish the house. She had opened as a bed and breakfast last summer.
It had soon been woefully obvious to her that the B and B business was as tricky and as full of pitfalls as her old house. Still, she had hoped to repair all the foibles of her first summer season with Holiday Happenings.
Again, Emma could sense her former fiancé and boss, Dr. Peter Henderson, his thin face puckered with disapproval, his arms folded over the narrowness of his chest. "Emma," he was saying, "you don't have any idea what you are getting into."
She hated it that with each passing day, his predictions of doom and gloom seemed to be just a little closer to coming true.
And if I had known the full extent of what I was getting into, would I have— She wasn't allowing herself to think like that.
Emma turned an eye to the inn's tree, a Fraser fir, magnificent in completely white ribbons and ornaments and lights, the angel's wings brushing the ten-foot ceiling. Emma let her eyes rest on that angel for a moment.
"One miracle," Emma said quietly. "I wanted a perfect Christmas. I wanted to give the best gift of all, hope."
The angel gazed back at her with absolute serenity.
"Oh," Emma said, annoyed, "you aren't even a real angel. If I had glass eyes, and paper wings I could look serene, too!"
But then she cast her gaze around the room and her heart softened. The great room of the White Pond Inn had been turned into a picture out of a Christmas fairy tale. This scene was the payoff for all her hard work, and worth the crush of bills, the exhaustion that had become her constant companion.
A fire roared and crackled in the river-rock hearth, colorful woolen socks hung at the solid-slab oak mantle. Garlands of real holly were tacked to crown molding. White poinsettias shone like lights in the dark corners of the room.
Parcels wrapped in shades of white and festooned with homemade bows, containing brand-new dolls and fire trucks were already piled high under that tree, though she had to admit they didn't look quite as pretty when she wasn't sure how she was going to pay for them!
She forced her mind away from that, and finished her inventory of the room. Red-and-white cushions had replaced the ordinary ones on the sofas and chairs, vases held candy canes, the glowing dark planks of the hardwood floors were covered with white area rugs.
The room held a delicious aroma because of the continuous baking that had been happening in the house. The sweet comforting scents of cinnamon and nutmeg and pumpkin and apples had mixed with the smell of the occasional back puff of wood smoke to create a scent that could have been labeled and sold, Christmas.
Another great money-making idea from Emma White, she told herself sarcastically, but then she sighed, unable not to enjoy the pleasure of what she had done.
The inn was a vision of Christmas. It was going to bring great joy to many people. When her mother saw it, it would erase every bad Christmas they had ever spent together.
"Holiday Happenings and the Christmas Day Dream will still happen," Emma told herself stubbornly, but details from the ice storm of 1998 insisted on crowding into her head.
The six-day storm had caused billions of dollars in damage, left millions of people without power for periods that had varied from days to weeks. Roads had been closed, trees destroyed, power lines had snapped under the weight of rain turning to ice.
"I could not be so unlucky to have a six-day storm shut down Holiday Happenings completely," she muttered, but then she whispered, "Could I?"
The storm threw shards of ice up against her window and howled under her eaves in answer.
And then, above the howl of the wind, her doorbell chimed its one clanging, broken note, but still an answer to her question about her luck!
Emma's eyes flew to her grandfather clock. Eight o'clock! Just when people were supposed to arrive. They had come anyway! The miracle had happened! How was it she had not heard cars, slamming doors, voices?
She tried to rein in her happiness. Of course, it could just be Tim, checking to make sure she was all right in the storm.
The Fenshaws had invited her into the fold of this lovely small community as if she belonged here, as if she was one of them. Tim had been interested in the White Pond property for his son when he returned from overseas, but when Emma had told him she had decided to keep it, he and his daughter-in-law Mona had seemed genuinely pleased, as if they had waited all their lives for her to come home to them.
Now, what if she couldn't pay them after the hours and hours they had devoted to making her dreams become a reality? She couldn't have operated the inn for one day without their constant help and support.
A shiver went down her spine. Worse, what if all these dreams, her foolishness as Peter had called it, cost her the inn?
She went and opened the door, and despite the rush of ice-cold air, her heart beat hopefully in anticipation of guests, maybe locals from Willowbrook who had braved the weather.
Only it wasn't locals.
And it wasn't Tim.
A stranger stood there, the glow from the string of white Christmas lights that illuminated the porch nearly totally blocked by his size. He was tall and impossibly broad across the shoulders. The sense of darkness was intensified by the absolute black of a knee-length wool coat, black gloves, dark, glossy hair, shot through with snowflakes.
His features were shadowed, but even so, Emma could see the perfect cast of his nose, the thrust of high cheekbones, the strength in the jut of his chin.
The stranger was astonishingly, heart-stoppingly handsome, even though the set of his firm mouth was grim, and his eyes were dark, intense and totally forbidding.
Emma shivered under his scrutiny, felt the sweep of his cool gaze take her in from red socks to ridiculous hat, and saw his mouth tighten into an even grimmer line.