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Dearest Dahlia, Magnolia, and Rose,
I know we haven’t spoken in many years, but I’m sending you these packages in hopes that we might finally reconnect after all this time. When your mother decided to stop visiting me, I suppose she was doing what she thought best. Maybe she thought things would be easier for all of us. It hasn’t been for me. I can hardly believe it’s been eighteen years since we last played in that old camping trailer you took over here at the inn. It still sits near the pond, full of your old dress-up clothes and jewelry and the many stuffed animals we invited to our parties. Oh, what fun we always had when you would come visit. Do you remember? The fancy afternoon teas and the cookie baking, and the magical Christmas extravaganza we would host at the inn every year? Those memories are some of the very best moments of my life, and I hope you think of them fondly, too.
As another Christmas draws near, I have been thinking more about you, about the love and the laughter you brought into this old place. I know you’ve all grown into beautiful young women, but not much has changed at the Juniper Inn. All of the cozy cottages remain tucked among the pines, which are already covered with a healthy dusting of snow. The mountain peaks still stand guard to the west, looking almost like an ice castle hovering on the horizon. You three always swore the inn was really part of a fairy world, even though no one else could see the magic as clearly as you girls could. I always saw it though. I still see the magic. Even as it’s aged, there’s always been something enchanting about this place. Do you remember how we would sing and dance around the Christmas tree? How we would bundle up in soft woolly layers and gather outside on Christmas Eve for s’mores at the campfire? I wanted to remind you of those simple, cozy days, so I’m sending you each a piece of Christmas from the Juniper Inn.
Dahlia, for you I chose the snowflake music box that always sat on the mantel. You used to wind it up over and over again, singing along to “Let It Snow!” at the top of your little lungs. When it broke the year you turned seven, you spent hours working to fix it—making it sing sweetly again. Even back then there was no problem you couldn’t solve.
Magnolia, for you I chose my Christmas tree rolling pin. What fun we had baking all those cookies for the hordes that would come to the Christmas extravaganza! You had such a gift for baking with love, and I’m thrilled to see you’ve followed one of your greatest passions.
Rose…sweet little Rosie…for you I chose the angel that sat atop the Christmas tree. You used to call her the princess angel, and spent hours admiring every detail of her dress and the flowered halo circling her blond curls. You always had such a sense of style, my dear. It’s no wonder you’ve gotten to where you are today, starting your own design firm. I’m sure your upcoming wedding to Gregory Cunningham will be the most beautiful event Savannah has ever seen. (I know how to use the Internet!)
Time passes so incredibly quickly. I remember the days you were all born. You have grown into beautiful young women, and I am nearly bursting with pride over each of you and your wonderful accomplishments. Though I haven’t been part of your lives for a very long time, I still love you as though you are my own daughters and I hope these keepsakes will spark memories of our Christmases together, just as they did mine.
I must admit I’m not only writing to reminisce. I am also hoping that you will come to see me, to spend Christmas with me at the place we all loved so. I know you are all busy—Dahlia with your children, Magnolia with your bakery, and Rose with your upcoming wedding, but I would love to see you again, my dears. I would love to share the magic of Christmas with you one last time. Please come. It would mean so very much to me.
One last Christmas? Oh, God.
Dahlia leaned into the counter where the open package sat, the music box playing an out-of-tune rendition of “Let It Snow!” Aunt Sassy only had one more Christmas? She was dying? It seemed impossible. She couldn’t quite imagine the vibrant redheaded beauty as a sick old woman. Dahlia set down the letter and lifted the dainty music box so she could admire it closely. The sparkly silver snowflakes now turned slower than they once had, and the song skipped. Parts of the glitter had chipped away from the snowy base, but somehow the music box’s flaws seemed appropriate. Relatable, even. The years had chipped away some of her sparkle, too.
Especially this last year.
Dahlia turned the box over to examine the underside. When Rose had accidentally knocked the music box off the mantel the Christmas she’d turned three Dahlia was sure her heart had shattered, too. The dancing snowflakes were one of the most beautiful things she’d ever held in her hands—something she looked forward to seeing each year. Her aunt had assured her they could find a new music box, but Dahlia spent the entire day gluing pieces back together and tinkering with the wires, determined to save the trinket. That’s what she did—she fixed things. That’s what she had always done.
Even as her marriage had fallen apart over the last several years, she’d fixed everything around it, desperately trying to hold her little family together right up until her husband walked out the door and into another woman’s arms. And she’d spent every day since his abandonment trying to make it okay. Okay for her kids, okay for her. Okay in the eyes of everyone else. It’s for the best, really, she’d told all the other PTA moms. We’re better friends than we are husband and wife. We’re going to be great co-parents.
It was strange the lies you told when you were going through a crisis, when you didn’t know what to say so you said what you knew people wanted you to say, what they wanted to hear. I’m doing great. The kids are fine. No, we don’t need anything. As if it were all simply a speed bump on their straight-and-narrow road through life. No one had wanted to hear the truth—not even her own mother. No one wanted to hear that instead of hitting a speed bump, the divorce had been more like careening off a cliff—sending her spiraling downward, the car around her in flames. She’d always excelled at putting out fires, but the divorce had left her feeling like she was trying to spit on an inferno.
The front door banged open, bringing with it a whoosh of frigid air that seemed to make the music box drone even slower. Minneapolis had experienced a bitter start to winter—which seemed appropriate this year, too.
Dahlia set down the music box before it toppled out of her hands, and turned to greet Maya and Ollie, who were supposed to be with their father this weekend since she’d had them most of Thanksgiving week.
“Hello, my loves.” She gave them each a squeeze, not even needing to ask what they were doing home. She’s seen the email about the Christmas bake sale from the school and had already anticipated they would show up since their father couldn’t bake his way out of a paper bag.
“What’s this?” Ollie snatched up the snowflake music box in his grubby hands. In kindergarten, he still hadn’t grasped the concept of regular handwashing, and always came home with paint and dirt from the playground sealed into the creases of his skin.
Dahlia gently took the music box away before he dropped it. “It’s a gift from my aunt,” she said, setting it on the higher shelf where she kept her cookbooks. Maybe it was silly to try to protect those snowflakes when they were already old and decrepit but holding a memory from her past had given her back a small piece of herself, and she couldn’t bear to risk seeing it broken again.
“My aunt Sassy sent it to me for Christmas.” Along with a request. And somehow Dahlia wasn’t surprised. She’d lived enough to know that sometimes fate stepped in. This year, more than any other year, she needed to go back to the Juniper Inn for Christmas. She needed to see her sisters who lived so far away, and she needed to be there for her aunt.
“Aunt Sassy?” Maya rose to her tiptoes as though trying to get a better look at the music box. “Is she your sister like Aunt Rose and Aunt Mags are?”
“No.” Holding back a sigh, Dahlia lifted the music box off the shelf, wound the knob, and set it in front of the kids so they could get a better look. They were dying to examine it, to touch it—she could tell from their eager little expressions, and she remembered how the music box had once entranced her. “Aunt Sassy is Grammy’s sister.” Though she doubted her mother would claim her. Dahlia had no idea what had happened between the two of them eighteen years ago. Her mother had refused to tell her, so Sassy had remained almost an enigma from Dahlia’s past.
“I didn’t know Grammy had a sister.” Ollie had quickly lost interest in the singing snowflakes, opting instead to rifle through the pantry until he found a bag of gummy snacks.
Dahlia tsked at him, carefully took the package away, and handed him a clementine from the bowl on the counter instead. He peered up at her from underneath his long lashes, his dark eyes so full of light as he offered her the sheepish grin that brought hope blooming in her heart all over again. For all the struggles they’d endured over the past year, her children were pure tangible joy. “Grammy does have a sister,” she told him. “But they don’t talk.”
“How come?” the boy asked, ripping off pieces of the orange peel and letting them fall on the floor. Yes, her children were pure tangible joy and they were also a whole heck of a lot of work. “Grammy and her sister had some problems years ago.” Dahlia handed him the broom along with a look that told him he’d best clean up his mess.
“You always tell us to work out our problems.” Maya was still gazing at the music box. “Dad’s in the car, by the way. He’s on the phone,” her daughter informed her as though she couldn’t resist the temptation to remind Dahlia of the one problem she hadn’t been able to solve. The poor girl. Even at eight years old she was so like Dahlia—always taking more on her shoulders than she should. Always aware and informing and orchestrating. Dahlia would have to remember to bring that up with their therapist next time. She didn’t want Maya to become a mini her.
The front door opened again, the sound automatically putting steel into her spine. She always braced herself when Jeff walked into a room—not out of fear, but out of a need to prove to him she was fine, that he hadn’t broken her with his betrayal.
“Hey there.” Her ex-husband walked into the kitchen from the hall, a sheepish grin etched into his handsome features. As had become her custom, Dahlia greeted him with a bright, capable smile.
“Hey.” She quickly busied herself with unpacking the kids’ lunch boxes from their backpacks. Being busy took the edge off just about anything, she’d learned. That was how she’d ended up on the PTA and the healthy school lunch committee and the school accountability team. That was how she’d been named Volunteer of the Year at the kids’ school. As long as she kept busy, she could keep moving forward and eventually she wouldn’t feel so much like she was spinning her emotional wheels.
“Soooo, I was hoping these two rug rats could stay with you this weekend.” Jeff leaned into the counter across from her, his smile as boyish as their son’s. That smile had done wonders for her once, but now it brought a cold hollowness that reached into the deepest part of her stomach.
“We have to bring three dozen cookies to the bake sale on Monday,” Maya explained, always the informant. “And I told Dad we were absolutely not going to buy them at the store. They have to be homemade or I’ll be the laughingstock of the entire third grade.”
Even with each painful pound of her heart, she kept her smile intact. Doesn’t Jade bake? She fought the temptation to voice the question. It would only be to make a point. Jade didn’t bake. Jade was a personal trainer. She’d been Jeff’s personal trainer when they’d met. The woman had helped him lose over forty pounds, and then had also made sure he lost his 130-pound wife.
And yet…Jade wasn’t nearly as useful as Dahlia, which was why Jeff always showed up or called when he needed something. In some ways, Dahlia felt like she was still his wife—managing the kids’ schedules, taking care of them when they were sick. He’d even asked for her help in organizing the three-week European vacation he and Jade had planned with the kids over Christmas, since this was his year to have them. You know the kids the best, he’d told her. I need you to help me figure out where to stay with them, what they’d like to see.
So, she’d helped him. She’d made hotel reservations for him. She’d put together a list of the best restaurants that could accommodate Ollie’s dairy allergy. Because she wanted her kids to be okay. Because it was something for her to do—a way to keep busy, a way to be useful. It was a way for her to be part of a once-in-a-lifetime trip they were taking without her…
“I wanna make those frosting cookies!” Ollie was still slurping his way through the clementine. “The ones with lotsa sprinkles.”
Grasping for the joy, Dahlia went to the sink and wet a paper towel before handing it to him. “I think that can be arranged.”
“Do we still have the snowflake sprinkles?” Her daughter had wound the music box again and was humming along.
“I believe we do.” Dahlia went to the pantry and pulled out the Tupperware container of sprinkles she’d stocked up on for an occasion exactly like this one. “I’ll tell you what. Why don’t you two go change out of your uniforms and we’ll get this cookie-baking party started.”
“Yes!” Ollie pumped his fist in the air, sending the rest of his orange flying. Giggling, he scurried over, snatched it off the floor, and popped it into his mouth before Dahlia could stop him. “Ten-second rule!”
Dahlia decided not to remind him that it only took one second for germs to cling to a juicy orange.
Maya followed him out of the kitchen telling him how gross it was to eat off the floor.
“You’ll get Ebola,” her daughter said in her know-it-all tone.
Jeff chuckled as the two of them argued their way up the steps, but Dahlia finally let her smile slide. How long could she keep this up? Playing the role of Jeff’s personal assistant while he loved another woman?
“Thanks, Dal. I really appreciate this.” He started to turn, but she slammed her palms into the counter. “Wait.”
She couldn’t let him walk away without saying something. Maybe because Christmas was getting closer and he was taking her babies away from her for three weeks. Maybe because he used her every chance he got, and she let him. Maybe because she was tired of putting out fires, so she’d finally let one consume her.
“Yeah?” He turned back to her with a glance at his watch.
Dahlia simply studied him for a minute. While the years had taken a toll on her, he’d hardly changed at all. They’d met their junior year in college. In the business school. He was good-looking with that thick black hair, perceptive dark eyes, and a slight dimple in his right cheek, but it was his charisma that had drawn her in. She hadn’t planned on seriously dating anyone, and she hadn’t planned on getting married right after they graduated, but Jeff had swept her up with his energy and optimism and enthusiasm. That’s what he did. He made people get carried away. But he didn’t sweep her up in his charm now. She didn’t love him anymore. Maybe she’d never really loved him as much as she’d loved the idea of him, the idea of who they could be together. But she’d still given up everything for him, for their family. And she couldn’t keep doing that for the rest of her life. Not when they were no longer a family.
“The kids can stay here. And I’ll bake cookies with them.” She steered her gaze to the snowflake music box, which had gone silent. “But you’ll have to pick them up on Sunday.”
“Ohhhh…” He drew out the word with concern. “I’m afraid Jade and I have plans Sunday. It would work better for us to pick them up Monday night since we’re heading to the airport early Tuesday morning.”
Why wasn’t she surprised? This whole cookie-baking situation was really just a way for him to find free childcare. “Well that won’t work for me.” Her heart thumped harder, pushing heat through her veins. “You come pick them up on Sunday. Because I’m leaving town.” She wasn’t going to do it anymore. She wasn’t going to let him take advantage of her love for her children like this. He’d wanted this divorce and now he had to learn to do things for the kids on his own.
“Leaving?” His smile tightened into confusion. Ah, yes. Because what life did she have outside of her kids? None. But that had to change.
“Where are you going?” he demanded.
“I’m going to spend Christmas with my aunt Sassy in Colorado. Not that it’s any of your business. In case you’ve forgotten, we’re not married anymore.” And it was past time to stop acting like they were.
Rose’s nerves kicked in the second Gregory pulled up in front of the high-end bridal boutique with its intimidating stone façade and sleek glass windows. “Keep driving,” she told him, only half joking. “We could drive all the way to Tybee Island and spend the afternoon in bed.”
Her loving fiancé glanced at his watch. “Wish I could, but I have a meeting on the other side of town in twenty minutes.”
When they’d first started dating, he would’ve gladly canceled a meeting to steal some time away with her. In those days, they were constantly sneaking out to his parents’ beach house on Tybee Island, but these days…well, between all of his meetings and the constant wedding plans, she couldn’t remember the last time they’d been spontaneous.
“It’ll be fine.” Gregory leaned over and brushed a quick kiss across her cheek. “Go pick out your dress. I can’t wait to see it.”
“I’m just not sure I want to go with anything fancy.” She eyed the storefront that Wedding Bliss had labeled the only place to purchase a dress in all of Savannah. “I was hoping I could make my own dress.” She’d even sketched out a few different designs and had gone to look at potential fabrics. But when she’d shown them to Gregory’s mother, the woman had simply laughed and told her she couldn’t possibly make one that would fit such a grand occasion.
“You don’t have time to make the dress,” Gregory said, sounding an awful lot like his mother. He sat up straighter, staring at something down the block. “Oh, good. Sydney is here.” Relief loosened his frown into a relieved smile. “You two have fun. I’ll see you later tonight.”
“Right. See you tonight.” At nine o’clock when he finally got home from work. Rose pushed out of the car and had barely gotten the door shut before Gregory peeled away from the curb.
“Sheesh. Did he rob a bank or something?” Syd asked, watching the Mercedes take a hard right.
“He has a meeting.” A meeting that was more important than spending the afternoon in bed with her apparently, but she didn’t want to talk about that. Instead she faced the massive glass door in front of them. “We’d better get in there.” They were only five minutes early, which, in Evaline Cunningham’s world, meant they were ten minutes late.
Sure enough, the second Rose and Syd walked in, both Evaline and Rose’s own mother Lillian ambushed them. “Good, you’re finally here. We found you the perfect dress.”
A horrified gasp hurtled up from the very center of Rose’s chest, but she caught it in her throat and gave her mother and Evaline a practiced smile. “I’m not sure it’s the right style.” That was Southern speak for There is no way in hell you will ever see me wearing that. Especially at her wedding.
She eyed the atrocity dangling from the padded hanger that Evaline held in front of her face. It looked like an owl had gotten tangled up in a roll of tulle. And the gems and sequins—good golly, Miss Molly. She’d have to hand out sunglasses to the guests.
Leave it to Gregory’s mother to pick the most ostentatious dress in the entire store. As the matriarch of a family that had virtually become royalty in Savannah, Evaline didn’t bother with subtleties. Normally the woman didn’t bother spending time with common folk either, but she hadn’t had much of a choice when it came to Rose.
Eight months ago, Rose had been minding her own business—going about her very ordinary, but happy, life, and—BAM. She’d fallen in love. She’d been cleaning the fourth floor of the Cunningham Enterprises high-rise downtown. Vacuuming, actually. Which happened to be one of her least favorite activities, but she’d taken the custodian job to increase her savings so she could keep her fledgling interior design business afloat. That evening, she’d put in some earbuds, and danced her way around a conference room with one of those industrial vacuum cleaners that had a long hose. After one too many twirls, she’d gotten a bit tangled and had nearly toppled over when, suddenly, strong hands had taken hold of her shoulders to steady her.
She’d turned around and there stood Gregory Cunningham in all of his tall, dark, and handsome glory. His tie had been loosened, and the top four buttons of his starched white shirt were undone, only adding to his charm. You’re a good dancer, he’d said. And you’re handsome and kind, she’d immediately thought. Because she was most definitely not a good dancer, as evidenced by the fact that her legs were still tangled in the vacuum hose.
Gregory had twirled her the opposite direction to free her and then he’d taken her out for a drink. The drink had turned into dinner and then dinner had turned into breakfast and before she knew it, she and Gregory were spending romantic weekends at his family’s beach house on Tybee Island. Within six months, they were engaged because Gregory said, and she quoted, It’s taken me my whole life to find you and I don’t want to wait anymore. So, they were getting married in only five months. Much to his mother’s staunch disapproval.
But the wedding would change Evaline’s mind. Rose would show her she could fit in with their friends and their family. She just wouldn’t do it wearing that hideous dress.
Chin raised, Rose looked into her future mother-in-law’s cutting blue eyes. “I think I should keep looking.” She had already decided there would be no feathers at her wedding. No gems either. It was going to be at Red Gate Farms, for the love of God. She needed something nostalgic and romantic. “Brown feathers simply aren’t right for a late spring wedding.” Or any wedding where the bride didn’t want to be mistaken for an owl.
Rose’s mother and Evaline shared the look. They stood shoulder to shoulder in a desperate unified force as though they’d already decided this was the dress before Rose had even arrived.
Rose tried to smooth over Evaline’s scowl with a bright smile. “It is a very…interesting dress. I guess I’ve always had my heart set on something else, that’s all.” The statement resonated with a subtle vibration in her heart, strumming unknown chords. It was that feeling again—the one that nudged at her hopes. The wonder of something else. Something more, something different, something…deeper. She loved Gregory—he was her fairy tale come true. The man she’d dreamed about since she was a little girl—but trying to earn his family’s approval had started to make her feel like someone she wasn’t sure she wanted to become.
- "Fill your favorite mug with hot chocolate and whipped cream as you savor this wonderful holiday story of family reunited and dreams finally fulfilled. I loved it!"—Sherryl Woods, #1 New York Times bestselling author
- "You'll want to stay home for the holidays with this satisfying Christmas read."—Sheila Roberts, USA Today bestselling author
- "Sara Richardson writes unputdownable, unforgettable stories from the heart."—Jill Shalvis, New York Times bestselling author
- "With wit and warmth, Sara Richardson creates heartfelt stories you can't put down."—Lori Foster, New York Times bestselling author
- "The pace is fast, the setting's charming, and the love scenes are delicious. Fans of cowboy romance are sure to be captivated."—Publishers Weekly on First Kiss with a Cowboy
- "Tight plotting and a sweet surprise ending make for a delightful Christmas treat. Readers will be sad to see the series end."—Publishers Weekly on A Cowboy for Christmas
- On Sale
- Sep 22, 2020
- Page Count
- 320 pages