Susan Mallery, author of the Fool’s Gold romances, cheerfully invites you to Wishing Tree, where Christmas comes to life…
The Somerville sisters believe in love, but they’ve lost faith it will happen for them. Reggie hasn’t been home since the end of the world’s shortest engagement. When her parents decide to renew their vows, she buffs up her twinkle to help with the Christmas wedding. Unexpectedly, Toby, her first love, is back too, and the spark between them shines as brightly as ever. In the spirit of the season, will they let go of past hurts and greet the New Year together?
Done waiting for the one, Dena is pregnant and on her own — on purpose. But then a gorgeous, sad-eyed songwriter checks in to a room at her inn. Micah, unable to write since he lost his wife, finds inspiration in Dena’s determination to be a mum. One snowflake-speckled kiss and he’s a goner. But Dena is afraid to believe that a rock star could fall for a cookie-cutter small-town girl like her.
As the Christmas wedding draws closer, these two sisters just might unwrap the most treasured gift of all — love.
“It’s a vacuum,” Reggie Somerville said, trying to sound less doubtful than she felt. “You reinvented the vacuum?”
Gizmo stared at her, his hurt obvious, even behind his thick glasses. “It’s a smart vacuum.”
“Don’t we already have those round ones that zip across a room?”
“They’re not smart. They’re average. Mine is smart.”
Reggie was less sure about the vacuum’s intelligence than her client’s. Gizmo had a brain that existed on a different plane than those of average humans. His ideas were extraordinary. His execution, however, wasn’t always successful. A basic knowledge of coding shouldn’t be required to work any household appliance—a fact she’d tried to explain to him about fifty-seven thousand times.
She eyed the triangular-shaped head of the vacuum. The bright purple casing was appealing, and she liked that it could roam on its own or be a regular stick vacuum if that was what she wanted. The printed instructions—about eighteen pages long—were a little daunting, but she would get through them.
If the trial went well, she and Gizmo would discuss the next steps, including her design suggestions. Once those were incorporated, they would start beta testing his latest invention. In the meantime, she would be doing a lot of vacuuming.
“I’ll get you my report in a couple of weeks,” she said.
Gizmo, a slight, pale twenty-year-old who lived with his extended family just north of Seattle, offered her a small smile. “You can have until the first of the year. I’m going to be busy with Christmas decorations for the house. We started putting them up just after Halloween, and it’s about to get really intense. I’ve worked out some of the kinks from last year, so the animatronics look more real. It’s taking a lot of time. My grandma’s really into it.”
“Sounds like fun.”
“We’re launching the Friday after Thanksgiving, but we’ll be upgrading everything through December. Come by close to Christmas. You’ll be blown away.”
“I can’t wait,” she said with a laugh.
She and Gizmo talked for a few more minutes before she walked him out of her home office. When the door closed behind her client, Belle, her one-hundred-twenty-pound Great Dane, poked her large head out from behind the desk.
“You didn’t come say goodbye to Gizmo,” Reggie said. “I thought you liked him.”
Belle shifted her gaze to the purple vacuum sitting in the middle of the area rug, obviously pointing out that potential death still lurked.
“It’s not going to hurt you,” Reggie told her. “It’s not even turned on.”
Belle’s brows drew together, as if she wasn’t willing to accept the validity of that claim. Reggie tried to keep from smiling. Belle made a low sound in her throat, as though reminding Reggie of Gizmo’s last invention.
“Yes, I do remember what happened with the dog walker robot,” Reggie admitted.
The sturdy, odd-looking robot had started out well enough—walking a very concerned Belle around their small yard. Unfortunately, about ten minutes in, something had gone wrong with the programming, and the robot had started chasing her instead. Belle, not the bravest of creatures, had broken through the screen door in her effort to escape the attack, hiding behind Reggie’s desk for the rest of the day.
Gizmo had been crushed by the failure and had needed nearly as much reassurance as the dog. Sometimes, Reggie thought with a sigh, her job was the weirdest one ever.
“I’m going to leave this right here,” Reggie told Belle. “It’s turned off, so you can poke at it with your nose and get used to it.”
Belle took two steps back toward the desk, her body language clearly saying she would never get used to it, and why couldn’t Reggie have a regular job that didn’t threaten the life of her only pet?
“Or you could sit on it,” Reggie pointed out. “The robot weighs about ten pounds. You’re more than ten times that size. You could probably crush it like a bug.”
The dog’s brown eyes widened slightly, filled with affront.
Reggie held in another smile. “I’m not commenting on your weight. You’re very beautiful and way skinnier than me.”
She settled on the sofa and patted the space next to her. Belle loped all of three strides before jumping up and leaning heavily against Reggie. The soft rose-colored sweater Belle wore to protect herself from the damp cold of mid-November looked good on her dark gray fur. Reggie put an arm around her dog and pulled her phone out of her pocket. A quick glance at the screen told her she’d missed a call. From her mother.
She tried to ignore her sudden sense of dread. Not that she didn’t love her parents—she did. Very much. They were good people who cared about her. But they were going to insist she come home for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and she couldn’t think of a single reason to refuse.
Last year had been different. Last year, she’d stayed in Seattle, with only Belle for company, enduring the holidays rather than enjoying them. She’d given herself through New Year’s to mourn the breakup and subsequent humiliation that went with the man of her dreams proposing at the Lighting of the Trees on the Friday after Thanksgiving, arranging an impromptu celebration party on Saturday and then dumping her on Sunday.
After sharing her happiness with nearly everyone she knew, having her friends coo over her gorgeous ring and ask about wedding plans, she’d had to explain Jake had changed his mind. She assumed. His actual words, “I can’t do this. It’s over. I’m sorry,” hadn’t given her much to work with.
Hurt and ashamed, she’d buried herself in work and her life in Seattle. She hadn’t returned home to Wishing Tree even once since it had happened, preferring to lick her wounds in private. She’d told herself she was healing, but Reggie knew the truth was less flattering. She was hiding, and it was time to suck it up and get over herself. She’d worked hard to put Jake behind her and move on with her life. Thanksgiving was next week, and she was going home, like she did every year. Besides, it wasn’t as if she was still mourning her ex-fiancé. She’d gotten over him, and now it was time to demonstrate that to her hometown…and possibly herself.
“At least, that’s the plan,” Reggie told her dog and pushed the button to phone her mother.
“Hey, Mom,” she said when the call was answered.
“Reggie! It’s you. You’ll never guess. It’s so wonderful. Your dad and I are getting married.”
Reggie blinked a couple of times. “You’re already married. Your thirty-fifth wedding anniversary is coming up next month. I thought we’d have a party or something.” She and her sister had talked about the possibility a couple of weeks ago.
Her mother laughed. “You’re right. Technically, we’re married. We eloped and I have to tell you, I’ve always regretted not having a big wedding. Your father pointed out I’ve been upset about that for the last thirty-five years, so maybe it was time to do something about it. We’ve decided we’re renewing our vows with a big wedding and a reception afterwards. It’ll be the Wednesday before Christmas.”
“You’re having a wedding?”
“Yes. Up at the resort. We’re inviting everyone. It’s been so much fun, but the planning is getting out of hand. I was hoping you could help me.”
“With your wedding?”
“Yes, dear. Are you feeling all right?”
“My head’s spinning a little.”
“I know it’s a surprise, but I’m so happy. You’re coming home for Thanksgiving, aren’t you?”
“Good. So I was thinking you could just stay through Christmas. There’s plenty of room down in the basement for you to work. You could handle your business in the morning and help me in the afternoon. It’s only five weeks, Reggie. You have a job that lets you work from anywhere.”
While that was technically true, Reggie wasn’t thrilled at the thought of packing up her life and moving in with her folks for over a month.
“What about Belle?” she asked, hoping bringing up that subject would help shift things.
“You know we love her.”
“She’s afraid of Burt.”
“Oh, they’re fine together. It’s all a big game.”
Reggie thought about how Belle quivered with fear every time she saw her father’s small dachshund in the room. Burt was normally good-natured, but he’d never taken to Belle and spent most of his time running after her and biting her ankles. Belle, for her part, tried to keep out of his way, frequently traversing a room by going from tabletop to sofa to chair, often with disastrous results.
“I want her to be a flower girl,” her mother added. “We’ll get her an adorable dress and she can have a basket of rose petals hanging around her neck.”
Reggie rubbed her dog’s back. “She’d look good as a flower girl.”
“See? Say you’ll come home and help with me with my wedding, Reggie. I need you. Dena’s busy with school, and she’s developed terrible morning sickness. I have no idea where she got it from—I was fine with both my pregnancies, but she’s wiped out. You’ve been gone too long. It’s time to come home.”
Almost the exact words Reggie had told herself, minus the wedding guilt.
“Mom,” she began, then held in a sigh. Why fight the inevitable? Once she was home, she would be happy she’d done the right thing. Plus, it was Wishing Tree at Christmas—nowhere else in the world came close to that little slice of magic.
“Sure. I’ll be there. Belle and I will drive over the day after tomorrow.”
“I’m so happy,” her mother squealed. “Thank you. We’re going to have fun, you’ll see. We haven’t had the first snowfall yet. Maybe you’ll be home for that, and you can go to the big town party. All right, now that I know you’ll be home for the holidays, I have yet another favor to ask you.”
Reggie wasn’t sure if she should laugh or moan. “What did you do?”
“It has to be something or we wouldn’t be talking about it.”
“Yes. Good point. Dena’s class is going to do a knitting project for their holiday charity. Normally I’d be happy to manage it for her, but this year with the wedding and all, I just don’t have time. I was hoping you could do it for me.”
Reggie closed her eyes. “Mom,” she began, then stopped, knowing she was going to say yes in the end, so why fight it?
Every year students at the local elementary school came up with several charity projects to do in December. Since Dena, Reggie’s older sister, had started teaching there, the family had also gotten involved. For the past couple of years, Reggie’s mom had been in charge of that project, organizing supplies and students, paving the way for their good deed.
“This is why I’ve avoided coming home,” Reggie said weakly.
“No, it’s not. You avoided coming home because Jake Crane was too stupid to realize what he had with you. I hope he spends the rest of his life regretting his decision and fighting a very painful rash.”
Her mother laughed. “I can be supportive.”
“You always are.” Reggie smiled. “Fine, I’ll be the knitting queen.”
“Wonderful. I’ll email you the information you’ll need to get up to speed. You’re going to have a great time with the kids. In the meantime, be thinking about wedding favors. Something we’ll make ourselves, so it will be really special. I was playing with the idea of painted coasters, or we could make soap. I’ve always wanted to learn how to do that. We could go botanical or floral.”
They were going to make soap? “You know you can buy really cute little soaps, Mom. They sell them online.”
“I’m not buying the favors. I want this to be a project for us to do together. Anyway, I’ll see you soon. Let me know when you leave Seattle so I can start worrying when you’re not here on time.”
“How about if I just show up unexpectedly so you don’t have to worry at all?”
“Where’s the fun in that? I can’t wait to see you. I’ll give Dad your love.”
“Thanks, Mom. And congratulations on the wedding.”
Dena Somerville had known being single and pregnant would offer challenges, but she’d never thought she would be sick every second of every day. Her mother had always talked about how easy her pregnancies had been and the fact that the women in their family popped out babies with barely a pause in their days.
Sitting on the floor in her bathroom, leaning against the wall, while wondering if she was done throwing up for this hour, Dena decided either her mother had been lying or Dena had been adopted.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this, she thought, turning over the damp washcloth on the back of her neck and wishing she could magically transport herself eight weeks into the future, when her doctor had promised the nausea and subsequent vomiting would finally end. Alas, she had yet to figure out how to move through time at will, so she was stuck with the unpleasant reality of knowing that in an hour or two, the waves would return, and three times out of five, she would oh, so elegantly puke with little or no warning.
What really got her was the fact that she’d had a plan. A good plan, a sensible plan. A plan that could almost be called superior. She’d always been the girl with a plan, and she’d always done the work to make it happen. She didn’t believe in luck or fate—she put in the time and effort required, even when it was hard.
She’d fulfilled her childhood dream of being a teacher and she loved her job even more than she’d thought she would. When her Grandmother Regina had passed away, dividing her estate between her two granddaughters, leaving stocks and bonds to her namesake, Reggie, and the Wishing Tree B and B to Dena, she’d moved into the spacious apartment above the old carriage house and had spent her summers updating the place.
Although Dena had been less than successful in the romance department, she’d kept putting herself out there. She’d signed up for a dating service and had traveled to Seattle every other weekend for five months in an effort to meet the one. She’d used three different dating apps, had told anyone who would listen she was in the market. She’d gone on group dates, blind dates and double dates.
After two years of honest effort, she’d accepted that she wasn’t likely to find Mr. Right, or even Mr. Good Enough. At that point, she’d had to start asking herself the hard question—did giving up on love also mean giving up on having a family? The answer had come quickly enough, and it had been a big fat no. She loved kids, and she wanted kids of her own.
Being a logical, fact-driven person, she’d taken an entire year to research IUI—aka intrauterine insemination, or what her sister referred to as the turkey baster method of getting pregnant—and another six months to make the decision to have the procedure. She’d scheduled it such that her due date would align with the end of the school year, thereby giving her the whole summer to spend with her baby.
She’d picked out colors for the nursery, she’d investigated the best day care options, and she’d typed up notes for when she sat down with her family and told them what she wanted to do. She had a wonderful support system, including her parents, her sister Reggie, and the staff at the B and B, all of whom had become like family to her. She’d even managed to get pregnant right out of the gate.
She’d tried to think of everything, but she’d never considered the possibility she would be laid low by morning sickness.
The combination of the cool, damp washcloth and the cold tiles beneath her butt seemed to ease the nausea enough for her to risk standing. When she was on her feet, she paused to see if her stomach would punish her, but all seemed calm. With a little luck, she would get through the next couple of hours without the need to barf.
Tightening the belt on her robe, she walked to her balcony and stepped out into the freezing, dark morning. As always, the sharp, cold air shocked her lungs and made her shiver, but the last whispers of nausea faded in the chill.
It was barely six in the morning, and much of the world was still asleep. This far north and only a month from the shortest day of the year, daybreak was nearly two hours away. She looked up at the bright stars twinkling overhead. Although it was cold enough to snow, the weather had been remarkably clear. The mythical first snowfall had yet to occur.
Soon, she thought with a smile. Soon there would be snow and the celebration that went with it, because Wishing Tree was that kind of town.
She glanced toward the main building of the B and B and saw the kitchen lights were on. Ursula, their gifted but snarky chef, had already gotten to work on breakfast. Once that meal was done, she would put together box lunches for any guests who had ordered one. That endeavor was followed by batches of cookies, brownies and scones that they sold in the lobby every afternoon. Ursula’s last task before heading home was to create appetizers for their evening wine-and-snacks event.
Sometimes she made little quiches or put together a really great cheese plate. Her stuffed mushrooms were popular, as were the crab puffs. And the wine. All beautiful Washington wines from the great wineries: L’Ecole, Painted Moon, Northstar, Lake Chelan, Doubleback and Figgins.
“Ah, wine. How much I once loved you,” Dena murmured, then laughed. At least she could still eat the food—or most of it, when her stomach would cooperate. Soft cheeses were a no-no, and these days olives made her gag, but otherwise, she was all in.
A light clicked on, illuminating the back patio of the unit below. The ground floor of the carriage house had been split into a storage room for the B and B and a stand-alone suite for guests who preferred something more upscale and private. The space came at a premium, but they rarely had trouble filling it—especially during the holiday season.
The current resident, a ridiculously good-looking man who had arrived two days ago, was booked through the day after New Year’s. Dena was nearly as excited about the thought of all those weekly charges filling up her bank account as she was by the eye candy. Most of her guests were couples and families. Attractive single men didn’t often find their way to her B and B.
Not that his marital status mattered to her. She had accepted that love wasn’t in her destiny—and she was pregnant, so getting involved with a guy made no sense. Oh, and there was the added fact that based solely on looks, he was miles out of her league. Still, an expectant mother could gaze and admire, she thought with a smile.
So far he was a quiet neighbor who didn’t slam doors or turn up his TV too loud. Last night she’d heard guitar music coming from his place—a song played several times in a row. The soft rendition had lulled her to sleep, so she wasn’t about to complain.
The cold seeped through her bathrobe and made her shiver. Dena sucked in one more breath before heading inside to start her morning. She brushed her teeth, then dressed quickly. Once in the kitchen, she ate the only breakfast she was able to keep down these days. An avocado and egg salad sandwich on rye bread. Possibly gross in most circumstances, but her doctor had given it a thumbs-up.
She glanced longingly at her coffee maker, thinking how incredibly close the two of them had been, back before her life had been defined by something the size of a lima bean. Not that she had regrets—giving up coffee was so worth it for her baby’s sake, but at least she’d known that deprivation was coming. It was the morning-slash-afternoon-slash-early-evening sickness that was going to do her in.
But for now her tummy was quiet, so she filled her water bottle, retrieved her lunch from the refrigerator and headed downstairs to her car. If she could get a little cooperation from her body, she was going to have a good day—mostly because every day she was teaching was a good day. Plus there were so many things to look forward to. On Friday she would be announcing the charity project chosen for the third-grade class. Then, next Monday, they would have their monthly career day presentation. If she remembered correctly, they were hosting a plumber, a veterinarian and a Christmas tree farmer. So many possibilities, she thought as she walked to her car. She was, in every way possible, the luckiest person on the planet, and she had the life to prove it.
On sale 1st December 2021