BRINGING HOME CHRISTMAS
©2019, Vicki Hinze
Lauren Holt punched at her pillows, her phone in her hand. In three years, she’d moved twice to get away from the traffic noise but discovered there were no apartments in the City of Atlanta that offered an escape. At least school was out for the holidays. Her third-grade class had been so excited, and they had loved the wooden-reindeer clothespin ornaments she’d made for them.
Christmas at home in Holt Ridge, Tennessee, had been her favorite time of year. But living alone in Atlanta left her with no family nearby and no festivities to celebrate. That, of course, brought to mind the reason for her isolation—David Decker.
So close. She’d come so close to marrying him. Then in the week before their wedding, he had shattered her world. Why had he done that?
Still having no idea, she rested back against the pillows then tapped her phone screen, hoping somehow she’d hear something in his last voice mail she hadn’t heard in the past three years.
“Lauren, it’s David. The negotiations are going well to resolve the last-minute dispute. I should wrap up tomorrow morning and be on a flight tomorrow night. I’m the luckiest man alive. In three days, you’ll be my wife. I love you. We’re going to build a great life together. I can’t wait. Night, angel.”
She let out a wistful sigh. His eager tone. No hint of cold feet or of anything being wrong. A great life together. Love. Her heart hitched and a lump swelled in her throat. How had so much changed in just two days?
As baffled now as then, she stared at the screen. Tapped the messages and scrolled to his last text. The one he had sent her the night before their wedding…
Lauren, I’m sorry about the timing on this, but I’ve decided our marriage would be a mistake. I can’t do that to either of us. I hope you will be happy and find the right man for you. When I return, it will be to Nashville, not Holt Ridge.
A mistake. From love and a great life together to a mistake. How? Why?
Having no answers, she sighed her frustration. Her chest tight, her heart weary, she set the phone on the bedside table and clicked off the lamp, inhaling deeply the fresh scent of the cool, sun-dried sheets. Just like every other night in the past three years, she had listened and found no answers. Not in his voice mail. Not in his text. Not in her broken heart.
Her mother advised Lauren repeatedly to move on, to fall in love again. But how could she even try? Why would she want to try? The costs of loving were steep. A broken heart incapable of healing, constant haunting memories of all the good that had been lost. Logically, she knew she should move on. Realistically, it was impossible to do.
She was stuck. Torn between imagining what their life together would have been like and wondering if she’d ever really known David at all. He’d deserted her the night before their wedding in a text message. A text message. What kind of man did that?
* * *
The phone rang.
Lauren startled awake and snagged it, checked caller ID. Caroline? Why would her sister be calling her at this time of night? Had to be bad news. “Hello.”
“Lauren, it’s me.” Caroline’s voice cracked. “It’s Mom.”
Lauren sat straight up in bed, bunched the covers in a closed fist. “What’s wrong with her?” She’d had surgery a couple days ago. Routine, Caroline had said. And it had gone well.
“She’s developed a post-operative infection.” Caroline paused. “It happens sometimes, they say, but she’s not responding to treatment.”
“Did you ask Jessica about it?” Lauren asked. Jessica Weaver had been Lauren’s best friend all her life. She was an excellent nurse.
“I did. She’s taking care of mom, just like you asked,” Caroline said. “Lauren, it’s bad. Really bad. Jessica says they’re doing all they can, but nothing is working. She said we’d better be prepared.”
Lauren tried to swallow a gasp, reminded herself to breathe.
“Mom said to call you.” Caroline sniffled, exhaled a sharp breath that blew static through the phone. “She said she wants to see you…one more time.”
One more time? Lauren swung her feet over the edge of the bed, toe-seeking her slippers. “I’ll see if I can get a flight.”
“A week before Christmas?” Caroline grunted. “That’s going to be impossible.”
“Maybe, but I’m going to try,” Lauren said. “I have to try.”
“We’re having heavy snow storms, too.”
“It always snows there this time of year,” Lauren let her impatience seep into her voice. “Stop worrying, Caroline. One way or another, I’ll get there. You tell Mom, I’m coming.”
“I will.” Caroline cleared her throat. “Lauren, I’m scared.”
Caroline was the older sister but her being the protective one in real life had never worked. Since their father’s sudden death when they were twelve and ten, Lauren had been the one to step up and try to right the wrongs and fix whatever happened to break to keep them and their mother glued together. Their dad had made a hairpin turn on an icy mountain road and slid into a ravine. Caroline, who had always been closer to him, had been devastated by his death. She’d become a semi-recluse, hidden away with her books, and she seemed content to stay that way. The truth was Caroline, while genuinely devastated, also liked nature and animals more than people. If she had to feign devastation indefinitely and being inept to get more time alone and less with others, she had no qualms with doing it.
How their mother hadn’t seen through Caroline’s convenient ineptitude was beyond Lauren, though honestly, Mom never had seen what she chose not to see in anyone, including in her daughters.
Little sobs crackled through the phone. Lauren’s heart tugged. “Caroline, it’s going to be okay. Hold yourself together, all right?”
“All right.” She paused. “I’m so glad you’re coming home.”
“Of course, I’m coming home. Have either of you ever needed me and I haven’t come?”
“Well, no, but I worried this time might be different.”
“Because of David.”
Lauren stilled at her bedside. “What has he got to do with this?”
Caroline hesitated. “You know. You haven’t been back home once since you left. Your leaving was all about him and we all know it.”
David was the last thing Lauren wanted to talk about right now. “I’d better get busy trying for a flight. Tell Mom we talked and what I said. I’ll be there as soon as I can…”
Holt Ridge, Tennessee
The community hospital was decorated for Christmas. Visiting hours were over, but Lauren entered through the Emergency Room and headed straight for the surgical wing on the second floor and then walked on to the nurse’s station. Becky Grayson sat behind the desk, charting and looking the same as she had when Lauren had been ten. “Mrs. Grayson?”
“Lauren.” She smiled and stood up. “Oh, I’m glad you’re here. Your mom has been so excited about you coming.” She dropped her voice. “She was afraid, I think, you wouldn’t.”
Again? Just like Caroline. “Why wouldn’t I come? My mother is ill.”
“David, of course.” The unflappable Mrs. Grayson shrugged. “I told her, if she needed you, wild horses wouldn’t keep you away. But she still worried.”
They moved down the hall as they spoke, and she stopped outside a room. Lauren stopped beside her. “Is she doing any better?”
“Not yet.” Empathy shone in Mrs. Grayson’s eyes. “But seeing you might be just the thing she needs.”
“Is she going to…” Lauren couldn’t make herself say the word die. But her mother’s one more time had reverberated in her head over and again since Caroline had first relayed it.
“The antibiotics will kick in. Sometimes it takes a while,” Mrs. Grayson avoided giving an easy yes or no answer. “I know it’s hard, but this kind of infection is hard on her heart and her kidneys, Lauren. We’re just going to have to wait and see and hope.”
Hope. Lauren could hope. She nodded. “Thank you.” She meant it sincerely.
Mrs. Grayson nodded and pushed the door open. “Vanessa, look who’s here.”
Lauren stepped into the hospital room and tried to hide her shock. Her mother, always pristine and particular with her appearance, looked like a shadow of her former self. Her dark hair was loose and unbrushed, her cheeks sunken. She looked old and frail and dark shadows circled her intelligent eyes. “Hi, Mom.”
“Lauren.” She lifted her hand. The other rested on a pillow at her side, an IV hooked to a stand behind her head with three bags of fluids that steadily dripped through the tube and into her arm. “I’m so glad you’re home.”
Lauren bent and dropped a kiss to her mother’s forehead, struggled to control her emotions at seeing her mother in this condition. “I got here as soon as I could.”
“Caroline told me you’d come. I wasn’t sure, but she said you would even if you had to walk.”
Lauren smiled. “She was right.”
“She was.” She patted the mattress beside her. “Sit.”
“Better not,” Lauren said, dropping her handbag to the floor. She stepped over to the sink and washed her hands with hot water and lots of soap. “I’ve been on a plane most of the day. No telling what kind of germs were on it.”
“You’re right.” Her mother paused. “I guess the last thing I need is more germs.”
“Exactly.” Lauren grabbed two towelettes from the dispenser and dried her hands, then tossed them into the trash. “So how did this surgery go from a simple little procedure to a raging infection?”
“If I knew the answer to that, would I have let it happen?” Her mother arched a brow.
“No, I guess you wouldn’t.” Lauren smiled.
The door opened. “I’m sending down for sandwiches,” Mrs. Grayson said. “Don’t bother telling me you’re not hungry, Vanessa. I’m not having it. Lauren’s got to be half-starved and she has never liked eating alone so you’ll have to eat with her.” Mrs. Grayson winked at Lauren. “What kind would you like?”
Lauren guessed this had to do with her mother not eating since Lauren lived and ate alone all the time and had for three years. Truthfully, she did still hate it. At first, she’d had to make herself eat. Then she kind of got used to it. But she still hated it. She glanced at her Mom. “Turkey?”
Her mother nodded. “Fine.”
Lauren savored the small victory. “Turkey with mayo for me. Mom loves turkey with cranberry, if there’s any in the kitchen. Mom can’t abide mayonnaise.”
“Well, that’s a handy piece of information to know,” Mrs. Grayson said. “You should have told me, Vanessa.”
“I didn’t want to be a bother.”
“Be a bother.” Mrs. Grayson frowned. “You must eat to keep up your strength.”
“Then strengthen me with some potato chips, too.”
“I can make that happen. Low salt.”
Lauren grinned. “She’s not a fan of low salt, but if you throw in a piece of pie…”
“Pumpkin or apple?”
“Apple,” Mom said.
“No ice-cream,” Lauren added. “A little melted cheddar. It’s her favorite.”
“Got it.” Mrs. Grayson nodded and withheld a smile that touched her eyes. “Be right back.”
As soon as the door closed, her mother reached for Lauren’s hand. “I hate seeing you look so worried.”
They had always been blunt and brutally honest with each other. Seeing no reason to change that now, Lauren admitted, “I am worried.”
“It’s bad. I can feel it.”
“How bad?” she asked. “Are you going to die, Mom?” Lauren looked her mother right in the eye. “Or are you going to fight this infection and live?”
Her mother reached for her hand and squeezed her fingers. “I’m going to fight.”
“Good.” Lauren shuddered relief. Her mother might not commit to living, but she had committed to fighting. That’s all Lauren could ask. “What can I do to help?”
“This is a battle I have to fight alone, but there is something else weighing on my mind. If you could do something about that, it would stop me worrying about it.”
“What is it, Mom?”
“The annual Christmas dinner and dance. I’m chair again this year.”
“You’re chair every year.”
“Exactly,” she said, as if that explained her concern. “No one else knows what to do, except for you. You helped me with it for years.”
The Christmas dinner and dance was for adults and kids, a big fundraiser in the community that benefited the school’s music program. Music had always been a big part of her mom’s life. She was determined to keep it available for the kids. “I did help you with it.”
“Often, and Caroline, well, bless her heart, she’s just not organizationally gifted.”
She was a librarian and extraordinarily organized, when she wanted to be. “Not if it means she has to interact with other people.”
Her mother nodded. “Especially then.”
She knew exactly what Caroline had been doing.
“Lauren, you know how important the dinner and dance is to the community.”
“I know. The music program is totally reliant on it.”
“Exactly,” her mom said. “I’m afraid this medical nonsense has interrupted my work.”
“You need me to step in and take care of it for you,” Lauren said. The majority of the work was typically done by Thanksgiving. It couldn’t be that bad. “Well, I am off from school until after the holidays. I can do that for you. You stop worrying about any of it, and just focus on getting well.”
“Thank you, sweetheart. I appreciate it.” Her mom seemed genuinely relieved. “You’ll have to oversee the parade, and the bonfire, of course, but Barbara and Kenneth Pope will help.” Her face clouded. “And there are others.”
Barbara Pope had been her mother’s friend and florist forever, and her husband, Kenneth, was the best caterer in the county. How many times had she told Lauren that she and David reminded Barbara of her and Kenneth at their ages? At least a couple dozen. “Others?”
The door opened and Mrs. Grayson entered with a tray. “Here we go.” She passed a tray to Lauren and set the second on the bedside table, then raised the head of Vanessa’s bed. “Do try to get this down,” she said. “You haven’t eaten enough to keep a bird alive in three days.”
“I will,” her mom promised. “I have to. If I don’t, Lauren will accuse me of not fighting.”
Mrs. Grayson looked pleased with that answer. “Then let’s don’t disappoint her,” she said. “Poor lamb has been disappointed enough.”
Lauren’s face burned at the reminder of David’s desertion. Three years, and no one had forgotten. They’d killed her with kindness and unintended barbs before she’d gotten enough of it and left for Atlanta. Now it seemed she was in for another round.
But her mother was eating.
For her mother to eat and get strong and fight to live, Lauren could take another round. Even more…
Lauren entered the home office that once had been her father’s. The scent of old wood, lemon oil polish on the desk, the high-back wing chair across from it, and the leather sofa against the far wall brought back vivid memories of her standing at the door, peeking in, seeing Caroline leaning back against the sofa arm, her legs curled up and her nose buried in a book, and their father sitting in his office chair, his nose buried in paperwork. Lauren could still hear the tip of his pen scratching slashes of red across the pages.
The two of them would stay in his office for hours and hours. And now and then, Lauren would stand at the door and look in and then go on her way to do whatever it was she needed to do that evening. Dad and Caroline had been two peas in a pod. Lauren hadn’t fit in with them. She loved them, and they loved her. She just wasn’t like them.
She and her mother always had more in common. They’d bake and garden and do craft projects together in her studio out in the backyard. And they’d work on her mother’s charitable projects, like the Christmas dinner and dance. Vanessa Holt took those responsibilities very seriously, and she always had. Whether that was due to Dad’s grandfather being the founder of Holt Ridge and her mother maintaining his standing in the community though he was long gone, Lauren had never asked. But knowing her mother, it was her family duty to assure that the Holt name was honored and respected. She’d always been protective of it, reminding her girls that their behavior reflected not just on them but the family and the community. Caroline shrugged off those lessons, but Lauren took them in deep. There was something comforting in them. A sense of purpose and belonging.
She moved to the desk and pulled open the bottom left drawer, where her mother said the file on the dinner and dance could be found. Lauren pulled it out, thinking it was awfully thin. Typically, her mother had done the majority of the work for the dance before Thanksgiving, and she documented everything. This close to Christmas, the file was usually a half-inch thick.
Lauren opened the file on the desktop and looked inside, scanning the mostly blank pages. “What is this?” Nothing. The plans were not even all there. Not a word on the volunteers. Nothing on the annual sleigh ride or the Critter Christmas Parade which culminated with the community bonfire and caroling—all traditions that took place the afternoon and evening before the Christmas dinner and dance.
Caroline came in and sat down, her pajamas a soft blue flannel. “What are you doing in here? I thought you’d be dead on your feet tonight.”
“I am, but I’m too wired to sleep.” Lauren looked over at her sister, sitting in the wingback chair. “Mom asked me to help her with the Christmas events.”
“She asked me, too.” Caroline groaned. “I wisely reminded her I was the last person she wanted to do any of it.”
Convenient ineptitude. “You invoked the family reputation, didn’t you?”
“I did.” Caroline shot Lauren a cheeky grin. “Whatever it takes.” She lifted a hand and wagged a finger at the file. “You know this stuff is not my thing.”
“She’s sick, Caroline. See-you-one-last-time sick.”
“I know that. I didn’t want to make her sicker by upsetting her. You know how crazy she gets about this stuff—perfection on steroids—and I really am lousy at it.”
Lauren couldn’t disagree. Instead, she sighed. “She’s usually a lot further along in the planning. There isn’t a single checklist in her whole file.” A thought struck and stayed. “How long has she been sick?” Must have been a lot longer than Caroline had told Lauren before the surgery.
“Since late September. But not straight through. She had attacks now and then but otherwise, she was doing okay, or I would have told you.”
Not looking her in the eye. She’d been sworn to secrecy about it. “So, if she was doing okay most of that time, why is nothing done on the planning?”
“I can’t answer that.” Caroline hesitated. “But maybe her co-chair can.”
“Mom has a co-chair?” Her mother had never had a co-chair on this project or any other.
Caroline nodded, licked at her lips, far from comfortable. “She thought it might help him integrate into the community—and apparently she was right. It has.”
Deliberately avoiding disclosing his identity. Typical Caroline. She ran from confrontation as if demons were chasing her heels. But she wouldn’t lie, if asked the right question in a direct manner that left her no wiggle room. “Who is the co-chair?”
Before answering, Caroline stood and moved halfway to the door. “Um, David.”
Lauren searched her memory, but she couldn’t think of anyone in the community named David. Wait. Caroline had said integrate. “David,” she repeated. “David…who?”
Caroline inched closer to the doorway. “David Decker, Lauren.”
Lauren’s jaw fell open. Her ex-fiancé? Why? And why would her mother help him integrate into the community? Her mother hadn’t been crazy about David when he and Lauren had been engaged. He was an outsider and she feared he’d take Lauren away from Holt Ridge. “What is David Decker doing here?” The last Lauren had heard from her best friend, Jessica, he was working for a security firm out of Nashville.
“I don’t know, and that’s the truth. No one knows why he came here, only that he did.” Caroline leaned against the door frame. “If I were him, this would be the last place on the planet I’d come.”
Lauren was with Caroline on that one. “I don’t understand. He has no family or roots here.” Lauren didn’t like this. Not at all. Alarms blared inside her mind. “Of all the towns in the country, why did he have to choose mine?”
“There’s been a lot of speculation on that,” Caroline admitted. “Like you said, he has no family or friends here. And his ditching you the night before your wedding…well, that didn’t exactly endear him to people around here.”
All the gossip and tongue wagging had sent Lauren to Atlanta. She couldn’t take it anymore, or their pitying looks. She’d hoped their interest would die down, but it didn’t. It got worse. It all became just too much. Poor Lauren Holt. Dumped the night before the wedding, and the groom left not just the town or the state to get away from her, but the whole country. Her face went hot and her throat tight. When she could, she asked, “So he lives here now, and Mom has him as a co-chair on the Christmas festivities?”
Caroline nodded. “That’s about it.”
“No, that’s far from it.” Why was he here? Rubbing her nose in it wasn’t his style, but what else was left? What he’d done already hadn’t been enough to satisfy him? He wanted more? “How long has he lived here?”
With a lift of her shoulder, Caroline estimated. “About two years, I’d say. It was right before Memorial Day. I remember because it was the first time I saw him on Main Street. All the flags for the local soldiers who’d passed away while in the service were out. You know how they line the street at town circle.”
“Two years?” Shock rippled through Lauren. “And you didn’t tell me?”
“Mom didn’t tell you either.”
“Why?” A deep sense of betrayal swelled in Lauren. “How could either of you not tell me?”
“I didn’t because Mom said not to,” Caroline told her. “I don’t know what her reasons were, but I’m sure she thought she was protecting you.”
“You should have told me, Caroline,” Lauren said. “You’re my sister.”
“Sorry. She made me promise.”
And Caroline was slow to make promises, but she always kept them.
Her emotions in riot, Lauren stared off at a spot on the far wall and ordered them to settle down. “He’s a global security consultant. What does he do in Holt Ridge?” A community of a couple thousand people left only the wildlife, and they didn’t need his services.
“David has his own company. Red Cedar Global Security.”
This made no sense. None. Lauren feared asking but she needed to know. “Is he alone?”
“He is.” Caroline nodded. “It hasn’t been easy for him. Actually, he had a rough start. Everybody around here was pretty upset with him…well, you know.”
“About cancelling the wedding,” Lauren filled in the blanks.
“Well, yeah. They shunned him,” Caroline said. “But he kept coming back for more, inserting himself into the community, and he’s been very active. Mom helped with that. You know how she loves underdogs. Anyway, now he’s wormed his way in as a local.”
While Lauren remained stuck in isolation in Atlanta. No family, no friends, no home and nothing familiar. He’d ditched her. Why did he get her community and she get nothing? This was just wrong. Just wrong.
She shut the file and then stood up. “Well, you’re going to have to do the Christmas festivities for Mom. There’s no way I’m working with David Decker on anything.”
Lauren frowned at her sister. “What do you mean, no?”
“No means no. I’m not doing it. Mom asked you, you agreed, and that’s that.” Caroline turned into the hall and walked away. “Deal with it, Lauren.”
Lauren followed her. “I can’t believe you’re doing this to me. You know people are talking about this already. You know every bit of what happened is all back now and they’re gossiping about it all over again.”
“They are. But it’ll pass.” Caroline didn’t so much as look back. “I can’t do this for you. I’m horrible at this kind of thing and you know it. Mom and the kids counting on a decent music program deserve better than me. They deserve you.”
“You’re really going to do this to me?”
“I’m not doing anything to you.”
Lauren snapped her jaw shut. “This is not over, Caroline.”
“It is for me.” She turned the corner and disappeared from sight, leaving a flustered Lauren rattled and shaken and even a little angry at her family and her community. How could they betray her and embrace her biggest betrayer?
She slapped at the light switch. The lamp went out. There was only one logical reason David Decker would come here. To taunt her. And he must want to do it pretty badly. She hadn’t been back here in three years. One would think he’d have given up and left long before now. But not David. He was as tenacious as a bulldog.
Well, if he thought he was going to get a rise out of her, he had another thought coming. Her devastation days were over. His return had changed all the rules. It had changed everything…*
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