Deck the Halls – A Darling, VT Christmas Novella
Darling, VT Series Book 3.5
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With shades of It’s a Wonderful Life, one man must face his past to find his future this Christmas.
In the last year, George’s life has drastically changed. The formerly homeless veteran now has a job he likes, a family in the residents of Darling, VT, and for the first time in years, a home. But while his present is good, he’s still haunted by the past, a past that appears shortly before Christmas when the older sister of his brother-in-arms hunts him down and finds him in Darling, working at the Ladybug Garden Center.
Amy’s looking for closure for her family after her brother’s death in the Middle East, but the serious man she finds working in Vermont doesn’t resemble the soldier she remembers from years before. This man is hardened and yet somehow fragile, too, and in her desire to find out what really happened to her brother, she learns more about George than she ever expected.
With a little Christmas magic and the whole town supporting them, can these two bruised hearts make a future together?
George Reilly twisted the wire on the back of the red velvet bow, anchoring it to the wreath frame. He frowned, looked at the bow, and adjusted it so it was even on the front of the cedar-and-spruce wreath.
This morning he’d arrived at The Ladybug Garden Center before anyone else. The clock on the cash register had said 7:10 a.m. He’d had a whole hour and twenty minutes before his boss, Laurel, arrived. Pregnant and beaming, Laurel worked nearly every day, waiting on customers, ordering stock, and doing the accounting for the business. George was there to do the heavy lifting, and a college student who’d worked for her over the summer was putting in some hours over the holiday break. Between the three of them they managed just fine.
Now it was after four, and he was finishing his eleventh wreath of the day. This time of year, they opened at nine and closed at five, and traffic was sporadic. In the summer, the greenhouse was filled with flowers and shrubs and vegetable plants, bags of soil and mulch, and fertilizers and pest control products. The interior store held gardening accessories, fresh produce, and small gifts.
Right now the whole inside of the store was decorated for Christmas. There were lights, and three different Christmas trees, and all kinds of decorations made by local artisans. Ornaments, signs, table linens . . . not to mention the section of holiday baking that was supplied by two local businesses. George hadn’t celebrated Christmas in thirteen years. This year he was going to change that . . . somehow. The wreath making seemed like a good start. The past year had been filled with new starts, it seemed. He was still getting used to it all, but it felt good to look forward to the future.
He sat on a stool next to an apple bin filled with evergreen boughs, the stack of wreaths beside him. Laurel had brought some of the greenery in from suppliers, but most came from the supply of Christmas trees on the lot, standing in tilted rows where the shrubs and fruit trees sat in the spring. The idea had come to him as he’d collected errant branches rather than throwing them away or into the compost. Then he’d looked at a wreath hanging on the door at the Sugarbush Diner and got an idea of how it went together. When he’d mentioned it to Laurel, she’d zipped off, in typical Laurel fashion, and returned with a half-dozen wreath forms, floral wire, and spools of wired ribbon. A few failed tries later, he got the hang of it and started a little side hustle.
He sold them on consignment and added a little extra money to his bank account. More than that, though, he enjoyed doing it. Especially days like this, when it was cloudy and gray. A weekday, too, so the tree lot wasn’t running the brisk business it would on the weekend. Laurel was inside marking new stock. George gathered more branches, bundled them together, and pressed them into the frame. The only sound was the cars going by, people on their way home from work, and the snip of his cutters as he trimmed branches and cut wire. He liked working with his hands. He liked the quiet. And though he wouldn’t say it out loud, he really liked the idea of adding something of beauty to the world, even if it was just a potted plant or holiday wreath. He’d seen enough ugliness to appreciate beautiful things, no matter how small.
A car pulled into the lot and he looked down at his watch. 4:20 p.m. Someone looking for a poinsettia, perhaps, or some ivy sprigs. Maybe a gift for an office party or a neighbor. He looked up as a dark-haired woman stepped through the gate, and her heeled boots clicked dully on the stone floor. He frowned. She hadn’t noticed him sitting amongst the trees and greenery, but something about her looked familiar. Maybe he’d seen her around town before. Or maybe she was from Montpelier. He’d certainly spent some time there over the years. On the streets, so it was unlikely anyone would recognize him. Even in the rare cases when people had made eye contact, they tended to see what he had been and not who.
He grabbed a handful of white pine and picked up his clippers, snipping the boughs to the right length.
Then the heels clipped on the stone again and he looked up. The woman was staring at him now, and the curious look in her eyes hit him right in the chest. He’d seen those eyes before. A long, long time ago, and the breath froze as he came face to face with Ian Merck’s twin sister.
“George?” she asked, her voice soft. “It’s me, Amy.”
His tongue felt swollen; thick and clumsy. It had been close to fifteen years since he’d seen her, and she’d changed a lot. People changed from when they were twenty-five to when they were forty. She wore a tan wool coat that covered her from neck to mid-thigh, and a soft-looking scarf around the collar. Expensive looking trousers, too, and those fancy boots that had tapped on the concrete floor of the greenhouse. It was her face that was the most different, though. There was a maturity to it that he understood. A loss of innocence, or a deeper knowledge of reality, perhaps, that had put the tiny lines at the corners of her eyes. A strain around her mouth that spoke of troubled times. Guilt piled on top of guilt when he considered he might have been able to prevent at least some of that stress.
“Amy Merck,” she clarified, taking a single step forward.
“I remember,” he finally said, despite the tangled mess that was his tongue.
Silence fell between them and he gripped the boughs tighter. A pucker formed between her brows. “And?” she asked. “Is that all you have to say?”
His fingers tightened so much that the rough ends of the boughs dug into his palm. He welcomed the pain. It was a touchstone in a situation that felt surreal and very unwanted.
“What are you doing here?”
It was hard to keep the grit out of his voice. Amy had her brother’s dark hair, which only served to highlight the blue of her eyes. It was like looking at an older, female version of the man he’d failed so horribly. The man he still thought of every day—George’s best friend. Ian had been more than that, even. He’d been family.
Her lips dropped open in response to his curt question. “Uh . . .” Her cheeks flushed, two dots of color on the crests as words deserted her. George’s stomach tangled and turned, wondering how five minutes ago he’d been contented making holiday wreaths and now he was face to face with his worst nightmare.
He’d never wanted to see any of Ian’s family again. He’d spent years trying to put it all behind him. There was no way it could be a coincidence. Somehow she’d found him. Why? He was just starting to really move on.
“I came to . . . that is, I found out you were here, and I . . .” Despite her polished appearance, which he actually found a bit intimidating, she was stammering over her words. It made him more nervous rather than putting his mind at ease.
She took a deep breath. “You look different.”
He spared her a glance. “I am different.” And he jammed the boughs into the frame, grabbed some more, and ruthlessly started clipping. This wreath wasn’t going to be fit to sell, but he had to do something with his hands.
“Have you . . . have you lived in Darling long?”
It wasn’t exactly the truth. He’d been in Darling off and on for several years, but not at any particular address. Ending up here had been entirely by chance. He’d been drifting around Vermont, hitchhiking from place to place and a truck driver had been making a delivery to one of the local businesses. George spent a few days and found he didn’t really want to leave. Darling had been, for the most part, a safe little town, and he’d been tired of running.
He’d spent the coldest and wettest nights at the homeless shelter. It was only because of Laurel and her new husband, Aiden, that he had this job, VA assistance, and a tiny apartment across the bridge, in the older part of town.
“Have you worked here a long time?”
He looked up again, wanting desperately for her to go away. The little tremor of her lips reminded him of the last time he’d been at Ian’s house in Brooklyn. Ian had a great family, so different from how George had grown up. A mom and a dad and a sister who’d thought the sun rose and set with him.
“No,” he answered. Grabbed another set of boughs. Ruthlessly trimmed them . . . too short. He fought back a sigh. He was mangling the hell out of the wreath, trying to create some order to the maelstrom of emotions running through him. Most confusing of all was that there as a part of him that was happy to see her. She’d meant the world to Ian, and she’d always been smiling and laughing when he’d visited her family. Like a ray of sunshine.
When he glanced up, she was studying him with a strange look on her face, sunshine under a cloud. “You . . .” She paused. “You’re very different.”
Of course he was. The last time he’d seen her, he’d been young and full of piss and vinegar. Full of confidence and bravado and sure he had life right by the balls. Ian had been all of twenty-two, three years younger, and the closest thing to a little brother he’d ever had. Ian had shown up in George’s company straight out of basic, still wet behind the ears. George had taken him under his wing and the bond between them had been forged. That had been before Iraq. Before deployments, before taking actual gunfire, before . . .
His brain shut out the memory. “People change,” he replied. “Time works that way.”
The frown deepened. “Did you forget how to smile, too? Or basic manners?”
He didn’t change his expression. Didn’t dare, though her words hit their mark. He did smile more lately. He’d started over, with this job, with a home, with friends. Having Amy in front of him seemed to erase all his progress and reduce him back to the man he’d been before. Someone he didn’t really want to be again. Plagued with guilt and hopelessness.
He sighed, looked up. Tears shimmered in her eyes. God, not that. They looked all big and bright and hurt. Her lower lip trembled the slightest bit. It cut right to the heart of him. This was why he’d never gone back to the house in Brooklyn. Why he’d never sent a note to Ian’s family. He had never wanted to see the pain on the faces of his best friend’s family, knowing he was to blame for it all. He’d been a coward, plain and simple.
“What do you want from me?” he whispered, hating that the rasp in his voice mirrored the pain he saw in her eyes.
“I want to know what happened,” she said, a tear spilling over her lashes. “What the hell happened to Ian, and to you?”
His fingers tightened on the wreath form, bending the wire frame. “You don’t have any idea what you’re asking, Amy.”
“You don’t know what it’s cost us!” Her voice was a strident hiss, laced with frustration.
And that was the point at which George lost his cool just a little bit. Didn’t know? Like shit he didn’t know. He’d been there. He’d come home and watched as his life imploded. He’d spent years on the streets, chasing away demons, trying to forget, sinking into a mental space that said he didn’t deserve any better. It had cost him plenty. And there was no way in hell he was going to say that to Amy Merck. Not when he knew he’d let her down, too. He hadn’t totally forgotten everything that had happened at that last visit to her home. Or the things he’d promised, when he hadn’t been in any position to promise anything at all. Perhaps his biggest lesson had been that there are never any guarantees and that promises can be wiped out in an instant.
“I’m sorry,” he said, stronger than he expected, because he was shaking on the inside. “I can’t go there, Amy. I just can’t. I just got my life back. I’m sorry you came all this way. There’s nothing for you here.”
Guilt at disappointing her yet again drilled into him, like an auger boring into a maple and the sap trickling out. He could only be tapped so many times before there was nothing left. He’d thought he was done disappointing the people in his life. Apparently not.
He set his jaw and looked down at the mangled wreath. He started removing the boughs to start over. He’d have to re-shape the frame, too.
This time he didn’t look up, even when she stood before him for a few minutes that felt more like an hour. Finally she turned and the click of her boots sounded on the floor again as she left. Ten seconds later the sound of her car starting gave him leave to breathe fully again. He cursed and flung the ruined boughs on the floor, then threw the wreath frame into the pile of odds and ends.
“Wanna talk about it?”
Laurel’s soft voice interrupted the cacophony of self-deprecation in his head. He looked up, aware that his body was shaking and that Laurel was watching him with a steady gaze that spoke of understanding and patience. The fact that she didn’t come closer also told him she was wary. It hurt a little bit, that she recognized there was a part of him that was unpredictable.
“The last thing I want to do is talk about it,” he grumbled. “Leave it alone, Laurel.”
His runaway train of hateful thoughts came to a surprising halt. “What?”
She smiled a little. “I said, okay. George, I remember the man you were six months ago. I’m smart enough to realize that that woman is tied to your past somehow. If you don’t want to talk about it, I’m not going to force you. You’re a man who does things on his own time.”
The quiet acceptance went a long way to easing the tension in his muscles. Slowly they started to unwind; all the coiled-up tension from keeping his composure let go and the shaking in his legs and hands stopped.
“Thanks.” He couldn’t smile yet, but he looked up at her and gave a nod. She rested her hand on her recently blooming baby bump, and something wistful wound its way around his heart. Laurel was his friend. At times he considered her a bit of a guardian angel. A lump formed in his throat when he realized all he might have had if he hadn’t driven his life off a cliff. Aiden was a lucky, lucky man.
She came forward and picked up the wire frame. “Wow. You did a number on this, though.” She laughed a bit, and put a hand on his shoulder. “Listen, it’s nearly five. I’m getting ready to close up. Why don’t you come back to the house for dinner with Aiden and me?”
“Thanks, but I’ll pass. I’m not very good company.”
“I was thinking we might be good company for you.”
“Don’t worry about me. I’m fine. I’m just going to go home, make something to eat, watch some TV, and go to bed early. Snow’s coming tonight, so I’ll come in before opening to clear the parking lot.”
“You sure?” The hand on his shoulder gave a reassuring squeeze. George wasn’t much into physical demonstrations of affection, but Laurel’s friendship was different. He’d made other friends in Darling, too, but Laurel had been the first one to take a chance on him, and he wouldn’t ever forget it.
“I’m sure.” He reached up and patted her hand. “I need to be alone, Laurel. But thank you. For everything.”
Her hand slipped off his shoulder and she started to walk away, but then turned back and faced him. “Just remember. You’re not the person you were then. You’ve come a long way since last summer. You’re a good man, George Reilly.”
His throat tightened at her words, though he didn’t quite believe them. Laurel only knew what she’d seen since last June. And the past six months were just a small part of the picture.
Still, there was some truth in what she said. It hadn’t been easy to trust someone again, or start working, or ask for help. It hadn’t been easy going through the process to get VA assistance, or to start the counseling he was doing now. His psychologist told him he needed to take credit for the positive things in his life. He’d finally started over. He wouldn’t let Ian’s sister derail him. Her appearance was . . . an ambush. A surprise attack. That was all. He’d had no time to prepare.
“You’re a good friend,” he answered, blowing out a breath. “And my focus is shot. I’m all thumbs now. Is there anything you want done before we lock up?”
“Naw. You sure you don’t want dinner? It’s spaghetti night.”
“Maybe another time,” he said, a little bit sorry to miss it. Spaghetti night was one of his favorites.
She accepted his answer and together they closed up for the night. When it was time to leave, the snow had started and nearly an inch was down. George took Laurel’s elbow and walked with her to her car. The last thing she needed was to slip and fall with that precious cargo she was carrying.
“You drive carefully,” he cautioned. “And if it’s bad in the morning, get Aiden to bring you to work. Or stay home until it’s better. I can handle things here.”
“Yes, big brother,” she joked, and laughed up at him. “Last chance. Spaghetti and garlic bread dripping with cheese.”
His stomach nearly growled thinking about it, but he shook his head. He needed to be alone tonight. “I’m good. Drive safe.”
He got behind the wheel of his old pickup and started the engine with a throaty rumble. It wasn’t much, but considering last winter he’d been huddled wherever he could find a warm spot, the idea of actually owning a vehicle was a big deal. It was responsibility and independence rolled into one.
The road was slick on the drive to the apartment building, and took him a few minutes longer than usual. He wondered about Amy; if she’d started the long drive back to New York or if she was staying in town for the night. Regardless of their awkward exchange, he hoped she was safe and off the roads.
He opened a can of soup and made a couple of grilled cheese sandwiches for his supper, imagining how good Laurel’s spaghetti was, still thinking of Amy. How had she found him? How long had she been looking? Just recently? A few years? Or since the beginning, when he’d come back home a few months after Ian’s body made the journey?
After the dishes were done he went to his living room, sat on his second-hand sofa, and turned on the TV. He looked around the room and realized that by most standards it was plain and unattractive. But it was his, and he was proud of it, regardless of Amy Merck and the memories her sudden appearance brought back.
He couldn’t change the past. He could only make sure he didn’t make the same mistakes twice.