One Charmed Christmas
Book Excerpt :: Chapter 1
“Your kids are twits,” Catherine Pine’s friend Denise informed her. “They shouldn’t be leaving you at Christmas, not after what you’ve been through.”
“It’s been a rough year,” Catherine admitted.
Coping with widowhood and then, right after her sixtieth birthday, getting hit with uterine cancer. Not the best year of Catherine’s life, for sure. And chemo and radiation awaited her in the new year.
“All the more reason they should be with you,” Denise said.
“They have lives of their own,” Catherine said in her children’s defense.
Denise gave a snort and took a gulp from her latte. “Which they’re happy to make you a part of when it suits them.”
Catherine frowned. Denise was her best friend and best friends were like sisters. Not that Catherine had a sister – only a brother who’d never bothered to marry – but that was what she’d always thought. Still, there were times when best friends and probably even sisters needed to keep their mouths shut. Morning lattes together at Starbucks and diet accountability didn’t give a woman the right to diss her friend’s children. Even if they were twits sometimes. Denise’s daughter wasn’t so perfect. She’d gone through two husbands in twelve years.
Denise pointed an acrylic nail-tipped finger at Catherine. “They were barely there for you after your surgery.”
“They both had to work.”
This inspired an eye roll. “And now they’re both abandoning you at Christmas? They should be buried up to their necks in lumps of coal.”
Catherine had so hoped to have her children with her. “Mom, last year was torture,” her daughter Lila had informed her when Catherine brought up the subject of the family gathering for Christmas. As if Catherine were planning to give them a repeat performance.
No, their celebration the year before hadn’t exactly been a happy gathering. Not a We Wish You a Merry Christmas moment anywhere in sight. It had been their first one without Bill, and Catherine had cried through everything, starting with the opening of presents and going clear through Christmas dinner. Her misery had infected her daughter, making Lila cry as well. William’s wife had teared up, too, and poor William had looked miserable and at a loss for what to say or do. Even the grandkids had been miserable. Catherine’s youngest grandchild, Mariette, had sat under the tree and sobbed, and Aaron, the oldest grandboy had muttered, “This sucks.”
Yes, it had sucked. Catherine had tried not to turn on the waterworks again when the kids and grandkids gathered their presents and put on their coats to go home, but she’d failed. Ho, ho, ho. They’d all left like people anxious to leave a funeral.
But this year Catherine was in a better place, and she’d wanted to make new memories. Still regaining her energy from her hysterectomy, she hadn’t felt up to preparing a big meal at Thanksgiving. But now, with the year coming to a close, she’d been feeling more energetic and ready to ring in the holidays. She’d never imagined doing that by herself.
“We’re going to Park City with James’s parents for Christmas,” Lila had said when Catherine called her. Where there would be skiing and spoiling aplenty. James lacked for nothing and, after marrying him, neither did Lila.
Not that she’d lacked for much of anything growing up. Catherine had done her best to make sure of that.
“You’ll be fine for a few days, won’t you?” Her daughter’s tone of voice added, “Of course, you will.”
“Yes, but what about your presents?” Presents were always a good lure. Maybe they could get together beforehand.
Sadly, no. Lila had sooo much to do. “You can send them along with us,” she’d offered.
William had beaten Catherine to the punch, mentioning when she’d checked in on him that he and Gabrielle were taking the kids to Cabo for the holidays. “We need to get away,” he’d said.
So did Catherine. Nobody had offered her the opportunity to get away with them. But then, who liked a tag along, anyway?
“You spoil the kids,” Bill used to say. He’d especially said it whenever Catherine went over to Lila’s house to help with the babies or unpleasant cleaning chores. “Lila can clean her own house. Hell, she can afford to hire someone to clean her house. And she sure can afford to pay a babysitter. It doesn’t always have to be you.”
Yes, but Catherine had wanted to help her daughter. Wasn’t that what you were supposed to do when you got older, help the younger generation? And, besides, she liked spending time with the grandkids.
If Bill had been alive to witness her loaning their son that chunk of money for the bathroom remodel six months earlier he’d have had a fit. William now had a new position in his company and was making a boatload of money. So far there had been no mention of paying her back. He would though. Eventually. Hopefully.
“Why don’t you come with me on my cruise?” Denise suggested.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Catherine hesitated.
“Come on,” Denise urged. “This Christmas cruise is going to be fabulous. We’ll hit all those European Christmas markets, drink Glühwein, eat gingerbread…”
“Blow our diets.”
Not that Denise needed to worry about that. She never went more than five pounds over svelte. Catherine, on the other hand, rarely made it within twenty pounds over her ideal weight. If only she didn’t like to bake… and eat what she baked.
“We can get back on them in the new year.” Denise pointed out the coffee shop window at the gray Seattle sky. “Don’t you want to get away?”
Catherine did, indeed, want to get away, not just from the Seattle rain but from her life. But you were stuck in the skin you were in, and no matter where she went she’d still be going through what she was going through.
“I don’t know,” she said with a sigh and shoved away her to-go cup and the last half of her muffin.
“I really don’t want to be in a stateroom all by myself. That darned Janelle, backing out at the last minute.” Denise shook her head. “It won’t be half as much fun if I have to go by myself.”
She wouldn’t be by herself for long. Unlike Catherine, Denise instantly made friends wherever she went.
“And who’s going to keep me from eating too much Kuchen?”
“Cake. German pastries are the best, trust me. Just think, Amsterdam, Heidelberg, men in Liederhosen.”
Catherine raised an eyebrow. “In December?”
“Okay, maybe not. But who knows who we might meet?”
Denise the merry widow. She’d been on her own for ten years. Carlisle, her dead husband, had been her one true love, but that didn’t stop her from enjoying a string of boyfriends or traveling with girlfriends. Denise had adapted well to being on her own. Catherine wasn’t sure she ever would.
Denise brought out her brochure with pictures of the towns and cities where the ship would stop. “Isn’t it magical?”
It did look magical. The brochure showed her town centers with fountains and cobbled streets, stately ancient churches with their spires piercing the sky, pictures of the Christmas markets all lit up and thronged with happy shoppers. And there was a picture of the boat, all decked out in lights.
It was, indeed. And tempting.
“We can split the cost of the room,” Denise continued, “and I’m sure my travel agent can work things out with the cruise company to get you on the plane since Janelle only pooped out on me yesterday. Your passport’s up to date, right?”
“It is.” Catherine had been looking forward to using it after Bill retired. She’d never gotten the chance.
“Then dust it off and let’s go. After we get back you can have Christmas with me and Carrie and the girls.”
A trip down the Rhine River, checking out scenic towns and bustling Christmas markets or sitting home alone, yearning for the past, being miserable in the present and worrying about the future – decisions, decisions.
“All right,” said Catherine. Why not? “You talked me into it.” Suddenly, the month of December was looking much brighter. Almost merry.
“Should you be traveling?” asked her daughter when she mentioned it during a phone conversation later that night.
Lila had called to see if Mom could come stay with the kids the night of James’s office Christmas party and had been shocked to hear her mother wouldn’t be around.
“I think I’ll be fine. I’m feeling pretty good.”
“It’s only been three weeks since your surgery.”
“I know. But my energy’s starting to come back. I’m fine. Anyway, it will have been over a month by the time we go.”
“You shouldn’t be traveling halfway across the world all by yourself,” Lila said firmly.
“I won’t be by myself. I’ll be with Denise. Anyway, I want to do something fun this December.”
There was a long moment of silence. Did Lila think Catherine was guilting her? Hmm. Maybe she was, just a little.
“I still think it’s a bad idea, but it’s your decision.”
No kidding. “Yes, it is.”
Lila heaved a sigh. “I’d better start calling around for a babysitter.”
“Yes, you had.” Because Catherine was going to have a life.
Fifty branded Christmas ornaments successfully ordered online and shipped to the office of Tilly’s Timeless Treasures for their annual Christmas party; holiday chocolate sampler boxes found for a wedding planner who needed them for an upcoming wedding; twelve special gifts bought for Harry Davis, realtor, for his upcoming office party … and a partridge in a pear tree.
Sophie Miles set aside her laptop and stretched. All in a day’s work for a professional shopper. She sneezed. Was she coming down with something? This would not be a good time to catch a cold, with the holidays right around the corner. Not that she had any big plans other than hanging out at her parents’ house for Christmas.
Of course, hanging out at her parents’ was a good thing. Hanging out by herself, well, at this point in her life it wasn’t exactly what she’d planned. She’d figured she’d at least have a boyfriend in tow.
Being thirty and single at Christmas, with no hubs, no kids, sucked. Being thirty and single sucked, period. She was pretty, she knew that. Blonde, blue eyed, nice butt. She didn’t have the biggest boobs in the world, but they were okay. She had good teeth. She was kind. She liked kids and football and wasn’t too bad in the kitchen. Or the bedroom. Yet here she was, still single. Just because she had some health concerns sometimes.
“Sometimes?” her last boyfriend had echoed. “Everything’s an emergency with you, Sophie. You’ve always got something. Or you think you’re getting something. Or you’re worried you’re gonna get something.”
That was an exaggeration.
“He does have a point,” her sister Sierra had said when Sophie tried to cry on her shoulder. “You can get a little squirrelly. That’s scary to some guys. I mean, I get it, but – “
“I am not a squirrel,” Sophie had insisted. “I’m just in touch with my body.”
“Right. That’s why you thought you had throat cancer last year when all you had was acid reflux. Then there was the time we all stayed at that cabin in the mountains and you were sure you’d been bit by a tick and had Lyme disease, and the time you swallowed that corn nut and…”
“Never mind,” Sophie had said, cutting off her sister before the list could grow any longer.
Just because a woman was vigilant about her health, it didn’t make her squirrelly or a hypochondriac. Cuts could get infected. So could insect bites. Colds could turn into bronchitis and bronchitis into pneumonia. You could pick up the flu virus simply by touching an elevator button. (Which was why Sophie always pushed those buttons with her knuckle. Or better yet, her elbow.) It was important to be aware of your environment. That wasn’t squirrelly. That was preventive medicine.
Speaking of, she went to the shelf in her kitchen cupboard dedicated to her many bottles of vitamins, minerals, and herbs, and took out her chewable Vitamin C. Sneezes turned into colds in a heartbeat.
Her work was done for the day and her immune system was now boosted, which meant there was no putting it off any longer. She had to go to Costco and purchase those food supplies for her friend Camilla, the caterer. Camilla almost always did her own shopping but she was swamped and one of her employees was out sick, so she’d begged Sophie to help her out. The big warehouse store would be a zoo, full of people carrying all kinds of germs. This time of year people were walking petri dishes. No one stayed home when they were sick anymore. She’d take more Vitamin C before bed.
She was reluctantly moving toward the closet to get her coat when her sister called. “Are you working?” Sierra asked.
She usually worked straight through lunch, eating an apple (an apple a day and all that) and some yogurt (probiotics, good for the digestion) while she surfed the Internet on behalf of her clients. Today she’d gotten done early and once she’d braved Costco she was going to curl up on her couch with a cup of Rooibos tea and stream a Hallmark movie.
“Just finished,” she said. “You on your lunch break?”
“Yeah. Thought you might have a minute to talk.”
A minute to talk. Obviously about how Sierra’s plans for the night before had gone. There wasn’t any excitement in Sierra’s voice. That wasn’t a good sign.
“Sure,” Sophie said cautiously. “What’s up?”
“Oh, no. Mark didn’t like his Christmas surprise?” How could he not?
“He can’t go.”
“Can’t go on a cruise? Are you kidding me? Why not? Is the Grinch holding him for ransom?”
“He says he doesn’t have enough vacation time left and, anyway, he’s swamped.”
Sophie frowned in disgust. Really, Mark was such a waste of man sometimes. “Why can’t he, like, talk to his boss, borrow from next year’s vacation time or something?”
Could you do that? Sophie had never been Miss Corporate America. Before she turned her shopping passion into a business her jobs had been the kind that involved plates of food and tips. So what did she know?
“I don’t know. I talked to his boss months ago, told her what I was planning. She said she’d be fine with it.”
“Maybe his boss forgot about your conversation and needs him. Maybe he really does have too much work to do.”
“Or maybe he just doesn’t want to go with me.” Sierra’s voice was threaded with insecurity.
“What man in his right mind wouldn’t be working every angle to go on a glam holiday cruise? With his wife,” Sophie hastily added.
“Mine, I guess. I mean, I know things haven’t exactly been perfect these last few months, especially with him working so much, but we still love each other.”
Correction: they both loved Mark.
This conversation was going to take a while. Sophie took a bottle of juice out of the fridge and settled on her living room couch, put her feet on the coffee table and looked out the window. Her studio apartment had a great view…of the apartment across the street from it. That was what you got when you lived in Seattle and worked not at Amazon.
“I’m sorry, Sissy,” she said. Sorry your man is turning out to be such a sub-par husband.
Mark had a selfish streak that had been widening over the last four years. He was constantly frustrating Sierra by blowing their budget on expensive toys – a new car, that fancy watch he’d just had to have, pricey tickets to football games, which he attended with his buddies, a bigger and better TV. Sierra, the budget conscious one, had tried to rein him in, but they were now five years into their marriage and the reins were pretty much broken.
Which made it all the more mystifying why he wasn’t moving heaven and earth to take this trip. It should have appealed to him, considering his family’s German roots and his love of extravagance. Sierra had been paying for the cruise for months.
“I swear if I wasn’t such a good wife I’d poison him,” Sierra said, the insecurity replaced with anger.
“Well, there you go. He senses danger and he’s afraid to be alone with you in a stateroom,” Sophie teased in an effort to lighten the moment.
“He’s afraid to be alone with me in the bedroom, for sure,” Sierra grumbled. “Afraid I’ll poke a hole in his condom.”
“Sorry,” Sierra muttered.
“You guys talked about this stuff before you got married. Didn’t he say he wanted kids, or am I misremembering?” Sophie took a drink of her juice. Orange juice. A little extra Vitamin C never hurt.
“Yeah, eventually. But I’m thirty-four and he’s thirty-five. Eventually is here.”
“You still have time. Thirty-four’s not that old.”
“Yes, it is.”
“No, it’s not.” If thirty-four was old then thirty was middle-aged and Sophie wasn’t ready for that. “I’m sure you can convince him to change his mind.”
“I’ve been trying, believe me. He thinks we can’t afford a baby.”
Maybe not, with the way he liked to spend money. Poor Sierra.
“It seems like we’ve been arguing so much lately. I was really looking forward to us getting away. I thought he was going to love this.”
Sophie knew that Sierra had been excited to present her husband with the gift of a Christmas cruise the night before. She’d planned to make a recipe for Rouladen, a German dish she’d found online, and then serve him German chocolate cake for dessert as a warm-up for the big moment. She’d been so sure that this cruise was just what they needed to get back that honeymoon high.
“Not that things are that bad,” she’d insisted. “But we need more time together. We need to get on the same page.”
Sophie fumbled around for the right words. “Maybe he was just shocked. He needs time to process, figure out how to make it work.” Lame.
“He should have jumped at this.” Sierra’s voice began to wobble.
“What happened when you gave him the envelope?” Sophie asked.
“He stared at it and asked, ‘What’s this?’ Like I’d given him a raw onion or something.”
The rat. “That’s all he said?”
“No. He said he was really sorry. We can do something next summer. Blah, blah.”
Sierra let out a sigh. “Looks like this wasn’t one of my better ideas.”
It seemed that, lately, Sierra and Matt spent more time apart than they did together. He did have to work long hours. The price of success.
If you asked Sophie it was priced too high. She loved her work – what was not love about shopping for people? – but she also loved hanging out with family and friends. You had to make time for that. She could have understood Mark’s long hours better if he owned his own business or was doing something he was passionate about, but from what she could tell he was only a cog in the corporate wheel, working for a paycheck he could blow.
“What are you going to do?” she asked.
“Throw out the leftover rouladen.”
“No, I mean about the trip.”
“I’m going. I paid for this and I’m going. I can take the time off.”
“You’re gonna go without him?”
That sure didn’t seem like a good idea.
“He said I should since I already spent the money. He felt bad that he can’t come with me and he didn’t want the trip to be wasted. In fact, he even suggested I take you with me.”
Very noble. Except Mark wasn’t that noble and his offer made Sophie suspicious. Did he have some selfish hidden agenda? Did he welcome the idea of a week away from his wife?
“I’m not sure that’s a good idea,” she said. “I mean, you guys are already having problems.”
There was a moment of silence. “I know,” her sister said in a small voice. “I thought this would be good for us. I’d been hoping all morning he’d text me that he got the time off after all. I finally texted him.”
Having to nag her husband to go on a trip with her. This was sick and wrong.
“He said he really can’t take off. My surprise sure backfired.”
“I’m so sorry, Sissy.”
There was lesson in this somewhere, like never spend a small fortune on a trip you didn’t plan together. At least, not if you were married to Mark.
There was another moment of silence, then Sierra said, “Maybe he’s seeing someone.”
Gaack! “Then you definitely shouldn’t go!”
“Like staying home would stop him? A man can always find ways to cheat. Anyway, he’s always working. When would he get the time?”
Sophie thought of the old saying, you always find time for what you really want to do. Mark was selfish, but surely he wasn’t downright evil.
“Maybe we need this time apart,” Sierra reasoned. “Maybe it will make us both realize how much we love each other.”
Or how much he doesn’t love you. Sophie frowned and set aside her juice, which suddenly wasn’t setting so well on her stomach.
The diagnosis for this tummy trouble was easy. She worried about her big sister. Sierra was a typical first born – a real care giver, watching over everyone, including Sophie.
Sophie still had the card Sierra had made her when she was nine and had to spend the night in the hospital after an asthma attack. The angel on the front showed the talent of a young, budding artist. Inside Sierra had written, I’ll watch over you. She’d kept that promise, telling Sophie stories at night to distract her when she was scared, worried that the invisible monster that had sent her to the hospital would come back and sit on her chest so she couldn’t breathe. In high school she’d gotten Sophie through Algebra and Geometry, shared makeup tips and clothes.
She still watched out for her sister and everyone else as well. She was always the first to offer to help their grandma decorate the Christmas tree and bullied Sophie and their brother into putting up the Christmas lights for their parents every year. When Mark’s mom had broken her ankle the year before it had been Sierra who took her to her doctor appointments and physical therapy. She loved with all her heart. Sophie didn’t want to see that big heart of hers get stomped on.
“Anyway, I was stupid and didn’t get trip insurance, so if I don’t go I’ll have spent all that money for nothing,” Sierra continued. “So I’m going.” She might as well have added, So there. “Want to come with?”
“On a cruise.”
It had all sounded so glamorous and romantic when her sister first told Sophie what she was planning, she’d actually been a little jealous. But not for long. She’d read about all the bad things that can happen on cruises.
“It’ll be fun.”
“Yeah, until some disease breaks out.”
“Nothing’s going to break out.”
“Have you never heard of norovirus?”
“Do you know what the odds of you getting that are?” Sierra countered.
“Microscopic. Come on. Think of it – quaint German villages, beautiful scenery, sister adventures. Shopping.”
The magic word.
“It’s all paid for.”
More magic words.
“I don’t want to go by myself,” Sierra confessed. “It’d be too depressing.”
“That would be hard. You’d look like the loser of the high seas.”
“We won’t be at sea. We’ll be on a river.”
“Oh, yeah. Right.”
“It really does look like fun and I know we’d have a good time. So what do you say?”
“Come on. The only time you’ve used your passport was when we did that family trip to Canada. Don’t you want another stamp in it?”
Actually, she did. And a week-long cruise with her sister would be a fabulous way to start the holidays.
Umm finally turned to yes and Sierra ended the call sounding happy instead of miserable. Sophie, too, was feeling a little swell of excitement. She and her sister always had fun together and she was sure they’d both enjoy this trip. Well, as long as neither of them got sick.
She went to Costco to shop for her friend. While she was there she bought a giant bottle of Airborne gummies. And on her way home she stopped and bought pills to prevent seasickness, several bottles of hand sanitizer (even though she already had three in her bathroom cabinet), and a mask to wear on the plane. Okay, let the fun begin.