“Remember what I told you about Madame Frederick and her crystal ball.”

“I remember. It’s just that you and Dad really do seem perfect for each other. Madame Frederick couldn’t have known that.”

“I’m pleased you think so.”

“If I were to pick someone to be my mother, I’d choose you.” Her eyes grew dark. “My dad needs you almost as much as I do. You’re perfect for both of us. I’d rather spend time with you than anyone, except for Les Williams.” She sighed deeply. “But then, Les doesn’t know I’m alive.”

“Don’t be so sure of that.”

“Are you two ready?” Jason called from outside the dressing room.

Carrie drew in a breath. “Ready as I’ll ever be.”

Mackenzie handed her the bouquet and Carrie opened the door. Jason was working his black tie back and forth in an effort to loosen it. He stopped in midaction and his jaw sagged.

“You…..you look lovely.”

“Don’t act so surprised,” Carrie teased.

“You look so much like your mother on our wedding day, it’s hard to believe. I can’t get over it…...”

Mackenzie threw her a smile and hurried to join the wedding party for the procession down the aisle.

“Be happy,” Jason said, his voice suspiciously low. He tucked her hand in the crook of his arm.

When Carrie glanced his way, she noticed a sheen of tears in his eyes.

“You’ll always be my daughter,” he murmured, fidgeting with his tie again. “I couldn’t be prouder of you than I am right this minute.”

“Thanks, Dad,” she whispered.

They stood at the back of the church and waited for their cue, which came when Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March” began. Carrie took a step forward. Toward Philip. Toward love. Toward their life together.

 

THE PERFECT HOLIDAY

Sherryl Woods

 

Dear Friends,

 

Christmas is one of my very favorite times of the year. Any time I’m asked to write a story about this season of joy and great hope, I’m eager to do it. “The Perfect Holiday” was written a few years ago, and I’m absolutely delighted it’s going to find a whole new audience in the company of two of my favorite authors, Debbie Macomber and Robyn Carr.

 

For many years now I’ve spent my own holidays in Miami, which doesn’t exactly fit the image of an ideal holiday setting. Yes, for you doubters, we do have Christmas here, but it’s definitely not the white Christmas of my dreams. So where better to set a Christmas story than an inn in Vermont? Add in the workaholic owner of a toy factory who’s never really learned how to play and a single mom struggling to get back on her feet. Then stir in a bit of matchmaking by a doting aunt—from beyond the grave, no less—and you have the makings of a very romantic holiday….the perfect holiday, in fact.

 

I hope you’ll enjoy spending time with Savannah and Trace this holiday season, and that your own holidays will be touched by magic, as well.

 

Merry Christmas to all!

 

 

One

“Mom, it’s snowing,” Hannah shouted from the living room.

Savannah heard the pounding of her daughter’s footsteps on the wood floors, then the eight-year-old skidded to a stop in front of her, eyes shining.

“Can I go outside? Please?” Hannah begged. “This is so cool. I’ve never seen snow before.”

“I know,” Savannah told her, amused despite herself. “We don’t get a lot of snow in Florida.”

“Wait till my friends back home hear we’re going to have a white Christmas. It is so awesome. I am sooo glad we moved to Vermont.”

Though she could understand her daughter’s excited reaction to her first snowfall, from Savannah’s perspective the snow was anything but a blessing. Since her arrival a couple of days ago, she’d discovered that the furnace at Holiday Retreat wasn’t reliable. The wind had a nasty way of sneaking in through all sorts of unexpected cracks in the insulation, and the roof—well, the best she could say about that was that it hadn’t fallen in on their heads…..yet. With the weight of a foot of damp snow on it, who knew what could happen?

It had been three weeks since the call had come from the attorney informing her that she was a beneficiary of her aunt Mae’s estate. The bittersweet news had come the day before Thanksgiving, and for the first time since her divorce the year before, Savannah had thought she finally had something for which to be thankful besides her feisty, incredible daughter. Now that she’d seen the inn, she was beginning to wonder if this wasn’t just another of Fate’s cruel jokes.

Holiday Retreat had been in the family for generations. Built in the early 1800s as a home for a wealthy ancestor, the huge, gracious house in the heart of Vermont ski country had become an inn when the family had fallen on hard times. Savannah could still remember coming here as a child and thinking it was like a Christmas fantasy, with the lights on the eaves and in the branches of the evergreens outside, a fire blazing in the living room and the aroma of banana-nut bread and cookies drifting from the kitchen. The tree, which they cut down themselves and decorated on Christmas Eve, always scraped the twelve-foot ceiling.

Aunt Mae—Savannah’s great-aunt actually—had been in her prime then. A hearty fifty-something, she came from sturdy New England stock. She had bustled through the house making everyone in the family feel welcome, fixing elaborate meals effortlessly and singing carols boisterously, if a bit tunelessly. It was the one time of the year when there were no paying guests at the inn—just aunts and uncles and cousins all gathered for holiday festivities. To an only child like Savannah, the atmosphere had seemed magical.

If the house had been in a state of disrepair then and if the furniture had been shabby, she hadn’t noticed it. Now it promised to be one of the world’s worst money pits.

“Mom, did you hear me?” Hannah said again. “I said it’s snowing.”

“I heard,” Savannah said glumly.

Hannah’s blue eyes were alight with excitement. “Isn’t it great?”

Savannah tried to work up some enthusiasm to match her daughter’s, but all she could think about was the probability that too much snow would make the sagging roof plummet down on top of their heads as they slept. Still, she forced a smile.

“There’s nothing like a white Christmas,” she agreed.

“Can we get a tree and make hot chocolate and sing carols like you used to do when you were a kid?” Hannah pleaded. “Then it won’t matter if we don’t have any presents.”

Savannah cringed at the realistic assessment of their financial plight. The divorce had left her with next to nothing. Her ex-husband hadn’t yet been persuaded to send even the paltry child support payments required by the court. As for alimony, she had a hunch hell would freeze over before she saw a penny of that. Since their divorce had hinged on her objections to his workaholic tendencies, Rob clearly saw no reason she should benefit from the income derived from those tendencies.

Last night, after Hannah had gone to bed, Savannah had sat for hours with her checkbook, a pile of final bills from Florida and a list of the repairs needed before the inn could be opened to paying guests in the new year. Her conclusion had left her feeling more despondent than ever. It was going to take more than a glistening snowfall and a few carols to brighten her spirits.

No matter how hard she tried telling herself that they were better off than they had been, she still wasn’t totally convinced. Maybe if they’d stayed in Florida, she would have found a better-paying job, something that wouldn’t have left them scraping by after making house payments and buying groceries. At least they wouldn’t have had to worry about the kind of exorbitant heating bill from last winter that she’d found in a kitchen drawer here. Maybe selling the heavily mortgaged house that had been her home with Rob had been another error in judgment. It had given her barely enough cash to make the trip and to make a start on the repairs the inn needed.

“Mom, what’s wrong?” Hannah asked. “Are you afraid we made a mistake?”

Seeing the concern that filled her daughter’s eyes and the worried crease in her forehead, Savannah shook off her fears. Hannah deserved better than the hand she’d been dealt up to now. For the first time since the divorce, she was acting like a kid again. Savannah refused to let her own worries steal that from her daughter.

“Absolutely not!” she said emphatically. “I think coming here was exactly the right thing to do. We’re going to make it work. How many people get to live in a place that looks like a picture on a Christmas card?”

She gave her daughter a fierce hug. “How about some hot chocolate?”

“Then can we go out in the snow?” Hannah pleaded.

“Tell you what—why don’t you bundle up in your new winter jacket and go outside for a few minutes so you can see what it feels like? I’ll call you when the hot chocolate’s ready.”

Hannah shook her head. “No, Mom, I want you to come, too. Please.”

Savannah thought of all she had to do, then dismissed it. It was only a few days till Christmas. Most of the contractors she’d spoken to said they couldn’t come by till after the first of the year. Until she and Hannah made a trip into the small town at the foot of the mountain, she couldn’t strip the old wallpaper or paint. Why not think of this as an unexpected gift of time?

“Okay, kiddo, let’s do it,” she said, grabbing her coat off a hook by the door. “Only for a few minutes, though. We’re going to need some heavy boots, wool scarves and thick gloves before we spend much time outside. We don’t want to start the new year with frostbite.”

“Whatever,” Hannah said, tugging her out the door, seemingly oblivious to the blast of icy air that greeted them and froze their breath.

There was an inch of damp, heavy snow on the ground and clinging to the towering evergreens already, and it was still falling steadily. With no chains or snow tires on the car, they’d be lucky if they got out of the driveway for a couple of days, Savannah concluded, sinking back into gloominess.

Then she caught the awed expression on Hannah’s face as she tilted her head up and caught snowflakes on her tongue. She remembered doing the exact same thing the first time she’d visited Aunt Mae and seen snow. She’d been even younger than Hannah, and for several years the Christmas trips to Vermont had been the highlight of her life. She couldn’t recall why they’d stopped coming as a family.

She’d come on her own several times after she was grown, but those visits had dwindled off when she’d met, then married, Rob. He was a Florida boy through and through and flatly refused to visit anyplace where the temperature dropped below the midfifties.

Now that Aunt Mae was gone, Savannah deeply regretted not having done more than write an occasional letter enclosing pictures of Hannah. Her aunt had never once judged her, though, and she’d been totally supportive when Savannah had told her about the breakup of her marriage. She’d sent one check explained away as a birthday gift and offered more, but Savannah had turned her down. She’d lied and said they were getting along okay, but she knew now that her aunt had seen through her. She had done in death what Savannah hadn’t permitted her to do while she was living.

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