Three Christmas Wishes
Book Excerpt :: Chapter 1
Riley Ericsson’s life was perfect. Happily, there was no other way to describe it. She was engaged to a perfect man – good looking, easy going, kind to little old ladies, liked her friends – and they were getting married during her favorite time of year. (Christmas weddings were the most beautiful.) She had an equally great family – generous, fun-loving and supportive (now that she and her bro and sis had outgrown the sibling-rivalry stuff) – and a job she loved, teaching fourth grade at Whispering Pines Elementary School. Kids still liked their teachers at that age, so it was fun to go to work. And you couldn’t beat the vacation time since teachers got summers off as well as spring and winter breaks… which made getting married in December, well, perfect.
Riley smiled as she took the small ceramic turkey off her desk and substituted a snowman. The wedding was only three weeks away. By Christmas she and Sean Little would be hanging their Christmas stockings side by side. Humming Christmas carols as she worked, she took down the rest of the Thanksgiving decorations in her classroom and put up her Christmas-themed ones. The children would return from their Thanksgiving weekend to find the classroom all ready for the holidays.
Once her decoration was finished, she took a moment to admire her reindeer and Santas and candy canes. Yes, it looked very festive here in Ms. Erickson’s fourth-grade classroom. It was oh, so satisfying to be organized.
Speaking of being organized, she wondered how her friend Emily was doing. Riley knew Emily was getting ready to visit her family in Portland for the weekend. Maybe she could use some helping putting her classroom in order. Riley wandered down the hall to Emily’s room.
Emily Dieb was new to the school, new to the town of Whispering Pines, Washington, in fact. But settling in well. The other teachers liked her and so did her students. Actually, all the boys in her fifth grade class had a crush on her. This was hardly surprising, since Emily looked like a Victoria’s Secret model.
Having a pretty friend was no threat to Riley. Granted, she’d never be mistaken for a model. She certainly wasn’t as glam as her sister, Jo, the fashionista, whose hair was always styled and highlighted, but with her round face, freckles and long, light brown hair, she was cute enough. Cute enough for Sean Little to fall in love with, anyway, and that was all that mattered. Sean thought she was cute, adorable even, and had told her so on plenty of occasions.
Besides, it was hard to be jealous of Emily when she was so nice. Like Riley, she loved to read and watch old movies. Unlike Riley, she enjoyed working out and had the size-four body to prove it. She was going home to Oregon for the holiday, where she’d spend the weekend playing indoor volleyball and hitting the gym.
After Jo had gotten pregnant she’d resigned from her position as matron of honor, so Riley had upgraded her best buddy, Noel Bijou, to maid of honor status and brought Emily on board to step into Noel’s bridesmaid shoes. “I’d love to be a bridesmaid,” Emily had gushed.
Emily didn’t seem as gushy about being in Riley’s wedding lately, but hey, Thanksgiving was coming, and Riley was sure that Emily was preoccupied with her looming family drama. Her parents were divorced and she was going to have to deal with parent rivalry and eat two Thanksgiving dinners – no easy feat for a size four.
She entered Emily’s room to find her friend perched on her desk, looking gorgeous in a red knit dress and high boots, talking on her cell phone. Her cardboard Pilgrims and turkey were still hanging on the wall, and there was no sign that Christmas was right around the corner. Good thing Riley had stopped in.
Emily gave a start at the sight of her and said to her phone, “I’ve got to go.”
“Sorry. Did I interrupt something?” Riley asked.
“Oh. No. I’m, just, um, getting ready for the weekend.”
“I thought you might be in a hurry to get on the road so I came by to see if you needed any help setting your room up for Christmas,” Riley said.
“Oh. Well. Thanks.” Emily seemed distracted.
“Is everything all right?”
“Yes. Um, everything’s fine.”
Poor Emily. She was obviously trying to make the best of her upcoming family visit. “Must be hard having to go home and try to keep everyone happy,” Riley said.
“I wish you were going to be around. I’d sucker you into going out and getting something to eat tonight. Sean has to work at the gym.” Sean owned a Fit and Fine franchise, and when you owned a business, it actually owned you. Of course, once they were married it would own both of them. Sean was giving Riley a membership as a wedding present. She could think of better ways to work up a sweat together but oh, well. She’d learn to love treadmills. Maybe someday she, too, would be a size four.
“Yeah, I’m afraid I’ll be busy tonight,” Emily said.
“I hope your mom doesn’t try to match you up with someone again.”
According to Emily, last Thanksgiving her mom had tried to set her up with her yoga instructor. Emily had just broken up with her boyfriend and had been in no frame of mind for a new man. The fact that the man had been fifteen years older could’ve had something to do with it. Emily’s mom wasn’t a very good matchmaker.
Neither was Riley. She kept trying, though. “Sean’s friend Guy is going to be in town this weekend,” she said causally. Maybe Emily would like to come back early. They could all go out on Saturday night.
Emily was already shaking her head. “I appreciate the thought, but …”
Riley sighed. “I know. You’re not interested. But, Em, you don’t want to wind up alone, do you?” Honestly, Emily was even trying to fix her love life.
Emily blushed and bit her lip.
Now Riley had made her uncomfortable. “Sorry,” she said. “I guess I just want everyone to be as happy as am.” Maybe Noel and Guy would hit it off. Noel needed someone new in her life.
“You’re such a good friend,” Emily said, her pretty blue eyes filling with tears. “I don’t deserve you.”
That seemed a little over-the-top but it was Thanksgiving. Everyone got sentimental at Thanksgiving. ‘You’re right,” Riley joked. “Come on. I’ll help you get your Christmas stuff up. Then you can enjoy yourself this weekend without that hanging over you.”
Emily stood up. “Thanks, but I need to get going.”
“Okay, if you’re sure.”
Emily nodded. “I’m sure.”
They walked o the parking lot where a few of the teachers’ cars were still parked, and Emily got into her snazzy Honda Fit (even her car was fit!) and zoomed away. Riley got into her Toyota and went home by way of her sister’s house.
She found Jo busy putting together a cranberry salad for the family gathering.
“That’s enough to feed a multitude,” Riley said after they’d hugged (not easy to do around Jo’s current baby belly).
“We are a multitude,” Jo said.
Yes, it would be a big gathering. In addition to a couple of aunts and uncles, some cousins and a grandma, Riley’s brother, Harold, would be there with his wife and daughter. And, of course, so would Jo, a Wilton by marriage but forever an Erickson at heart. However, she’d be minus her husband. Mike, who was in the navy, stationed on a sub, which was out at sea.
Jo rubbed her back. “This kid needs to come soon.
It was her constant lament lately. Understandable though. The baby was due any day.
“First babies always take their time,” Mom liked to say.
“Well, this one’s taking enough time for two babies,” Jo would respond. “At the rate i’m going, it’ll be Valentine’s Day before I have this kid.”
Then Mom would say, “Maybe she’s waiting until her daddy comes home.
Jo never found that remark cute. “Mike won’t be here until the middle of December. Don’t say stuff like that, Mom! If I don’t have this baby pretty soon I’m going to explode!” Jo was a little dramatic these days.
But Riley wasn’t going to point fingers. She’d spent some time on the drama-queen throne a few months ago when Jo backed out of being her matron of honor. “Thanks a lot,m” she grumbled like a true loving sister. “You couldn’t have waited a few months to get pregnant?” She’d been all excited about the baby – until Annabelle Rose upset her wedding plans. Not one of her finer moments, she had to admit. It became easy to kill her inner Bridezilla, though, after Jo asked how she’d like it if her matron of honor went into labor in the middle of the wedding ceremony.
Everything had worked out just fine, anyway, and she had her two BFFs to stand up with her.
“Have you made your pies yet?” Jo asked her.
“I’m doing them tomorrow so they’ll be fresh.”
“Ms Organized,” Jo teased.
“I want them to be good.”
“They will be. You’re the queen of the kitchen, for crying out loud.”
“We all have to be the queen of something,” Riley said. As a personal stylist her sister had the clothes market cornered. She claimed that since this was her business she had to look good. But really, she’d look ready for an ad in Vogue no matter what she did. Jo had flair.
“So, are you and Sean doing anything tonight?” Jo asked.
“No.” Riley shrugged. “He has to work at the gym.”
Jo frowned. “He sure seems to work a lot of overtime lately.”
“He has his own business,” Riley reminded her. “You know what that’s like.”
“I do, but I still make time for the important people in my life.”
“Sean makes plenty of time for me,” Riley insisted.
Jo shrugged and changed the subject. “Want to stay for dinner?”
“What you making?”
“I was going to ask you the same thing,” Jo said with a grin.
“I should’ve known there was a catch,” Riley said, but she was grinning, too.
She dug a couple of frozen chicken breasts out of Jo’s freezer and baked them with an orange sauce, then put together a tossed salad to go with them. It was what she’d planned to make for Sean. Before he informed her he had to stay at the gym. Sigh.
After dinner the sisters watched a movie. Actually, Riley watched it and Jo napped through most of it.
In spite of her evening nap, Jo was looking pooped so Riley cleaned up the kitchen then said her goodbyes and went home to her apartment. It wasn’t all that late. Maybe Sean would like to come over for a while now. Surely he could leave the gym by nine.
She tried his cell but it went to voice mail. “Hi. It’s me. Just thought you might like to come over when you’re done working. Call me,” she added.
She tried again an hour later and got his voice mail. “Oh, well. I’ll see you tomorrow. Mom wants us there at three so we’ll need to leave by ten to. Love you.”
She ended the call with a frown and plugged her phone in to recharge. Leaving a voice mail was so unsatisfying when you were in love. She turned on her electric fireplace and plunked down on the couch. A fire in the fireplace was romantic, even if the fireplace was electric and mainly for show. Too bad Sean wasn’t here to cuddle with her and enjoy it. Well, tomorrow night he would be. The gym would be closed on Thanksgiving, and she’d have him all to herself. Tomorrow was going to be wonderful.
The day certainly started out that way. Her pumpkin pies – the first she’d ever made, thank you very much – came out beautifully. She decided to celebrate with a homemade eggnog latte. (If she kept doing that she’d be a size ten forever, but so what? Sean loved her just as she was.)
She as taking a sip when her cell phone rang. “Let’s Hear it for the Boy,” Sean’s ringtone.
“Hello there, Mr. Little,” she answered.
And now he’d say, “Hello there, future Mrs. Little.”
Except he didn’t. He said, “Riley, I need to talk to you.” He sounded serious.
Oh, boy. She knew what that meant. He was going to weasel out of going to her parents’ for Thanksgiving. For some reason, lately he didn’t like having out with her family. He’d actually canceled on attending her brother’s birthday party the month before. When she’d asked him wha that was about he’d used work as an excuse. “Anyway, I don’t think your brother likes me,” he’d added.
Which was ridiculous. Harold liked him just fine. Okay, Harold thought he was a tool. But what did Harold know?
“You don’t want to go to Mom and Dad’s,” she guessed.
“It’s not that.”
“I should come over.”
“You’re coming over in a few hours,” she pointed out. Not that she’d mind seeing him now, but it was only ten in the morning and she’d been busy baking and hadn’t gotten around to shower yet, and she hated it when Sean didn’t see her at her best.
“I know, I know,” he said, but not to her.
Now she heard a voice in the background. Who was he talking to? “Sean, what’s going on?”
“I’m not sure how to say this.”
Riley felt the blood start rushing from head. Something bad was about to happen. She could feel the impending doom buzzing in the air around her. She fell onto the nearest bar stool, bracing herself.
There was that voice again, decidedly female. Riley suddenly felt as if she’d swallowed a block of ice.
“I am,” Sean said, again not to Riley. “Riley…”
“Yes?” Her voice came out in a whisper.
“There’s no easy way to say this. We need to break up.”
“But… we’re getting married in three weeks. And two days,” she amended. Three weeks and two days to go and Sean wanted to break up. Now the ice was melting and pouring out of her eyes.
“I’m really sorry. But if we get married it’ll be a big mistake.”
It would? This was news to her. “What do you mean? I don’t understand.” She had to be asleep. That was it. She was asleep and this was a nightmare. She pinched her arm. Yowch!
“I’ve met someone else.”
“Three weeks before the wedding?” Three weeks and two days, but who was counting?
“No, I met her before that. Things have been, uh, growing between us. Our feelings.”
Three weeks before the wedding? Only a year ago he’d gotten down on one knee in front of all the other diners at Bella Bella’s Italian restaurant, produced a diamond ring and declared he’d love her forever. What had happened to forever?
“How could you do this? We were in love.” At least one of them was. “You thought I was adorable.” Didn’t adorable count for anything these days?”
“You are. Shit, Riley. I hate to hurt you like this. I feel awful.”
He felt awful? “Who is it?” Who had stolen her groom three weeks before the wedding?”
“This is awkward.”
Awkward? This was a catastrophe. “Who is it?” she demanded.
“It’s, uh, Emily.”
“Emily? My bridesmaid? This is a joke, right?”
But Sean wasn’t laughing. He wasn’t even there anymore. Now someone else was on the other end of the call. Emily herself. Emily, Riley’s fellow teacher, lover of small children, friend. Bitch.