When Muriel Sterling released her new book, A Guide to Happy Holidays, she felt like the queen of Christmas. She's thrilled when the new tree she ordered online arrives and is eager to show it off—until she gets it out of the box and realizes it's a mangy dud. But rather than give up on the ugly tree, Muriel decides to make a project out of it. As she pretties up her tree, she realizes there's a lesson to be learned: everything and everyone has potential. Maybe even her old friend Arnie, who's loved her for years. Except, she's not the only one seeing Arnie's potential…
Meanwhile, Muriel's ugly-tree project has also inspired her friends. Sienna Moreno is trying to bring out the best in the grouchy man next door, who hates noise, hates kids and hates his new neighbors. And while Olivia Claussen would love to send her obnoxious new daughter-in-law packing, she's adjusting her attitude and trying to discover what her son sees in the girl. If these women can learn to see the beauty in the "ugly trees" in their lives, perhaps this might turn out to be the happiest holiday yet.
“This is the time of year to give thanks for all the wonderful people in our lives.”
- A Guide to Happy Holidays by Muriel Sterling
Thanksgiving, a day to spend with family, to give thanks for all your blessings, to … have a close encounter with your cranky neighbor’s shrubbery. Oh, yes, this was how Sienna Marks wanted to start her day.
Why, oh, why, had she ventured out in her car on an icy street to go to the grocery store for more milk when she could have asked her cousin Rita Reyes to bring it? Rita’s husband Tito worked at the Safeway meat department. He could have picked up a gallon.
But oh, no. She had to go out on her cheap no-weather tires. She should have stretched her budget a little further and gotten those snow tires like Rita had told her to do. “Here in the mountains you want snow tires,” Rita had said.
Yes, she did, especially now as she was skidding toward Mr. Cratchett’s front yard.
“We’re gonna die!” her nine – year old son Leo cried and clapped his hands over his eyes as they slid up and over Mr. Cratchett’s juniper bush. Sienna could hear the branches crunching under them, the bush equivalent of breaking bones. Madre de Dios!
The good news was, the bush brought her to a stop. The bad news was she was stopped right in front of Mr. Cratchett’s house.
Maybe she hadn’t damaged the bush too much. “It’s okay, honey. We’re fine,” she assured her son, and got out of the car on shaky legs. She probably couldn’t say the same for Mr. Cratchett’s landscaping.
She was barely out of her car before her neighbor stormed down the walk, an ancient navy pea coat thrown on over pajama bottoms stuffed into boots, a knitted cap pulled over his sparse gray hair. He was scowling. Great.
“What have you done to my juniper bush?” he demanded.
“I’m so sorry, Mr. Cratchett. “I hit a slippery spot.”
“You shouldn’t be out if you don’t know how to drive in the snow,” Cratchett growled.
She wasn’t sure how she’d learn to drive in the snow if she didn’t get out in it but she decided this wasn’t the time for that observation.
He leaned over the bush like a detective examining a corpse. “This thing will never come back. You’ve damaged it beyond repair.”
“I’ll buy you a new one come spring,” Sienna promised.
“You certainly will,” he snapped. “If you don’t, you’ll be hearing from my lawyer. You’re becoming a real nuisance.”
“So are you,” she muttered as she got back into her car.
“He’s mad,” Leo observed.
There was an understatement. “It’s okay,” she said as much to herself as her son. She put the car into gear, held her breath and inched toward their driveway. The car swayed as they turned in. Ooooh.
“I want to get out,” Leo said.
“Stay put. We’re fine.” She bit her lip as she braked – oh, so gently – and the car fishtailed to a stop right before she hit the garage door.
She let out her breath. There. Something to be thankful for.
She could see Cratchett standing on his front walk, glaring at her. “You shouldn’t be driving,” he called.
Yeah, well, neither should he. She’d seen him behind the wheel and he was scary even when there wasn’t snow. Honestly, what had she ever done to deserve inheriting him?
“Just lucky, I guess,” teased her cousin Rita later as Sienna recounted her day’s adventures to her family over their evening Thanksgiving feast.
There were plenty of people present to enjoy it – Rita, her husband Tito and their toddler Linda were present along with Sienna’s tia, Mami Lucy and Tito’s sister and brother-in-law and their two small children. It was Sienna’s first holiday celebration in her new house and she loved being able to fill it with company.
Especially on Thanksgiving, which was her favorite holiday. The food – turkey and pork, tamales, Mami’s arroz con gandules, coquito and flan for dessert, the music – salsa, merengue, and bachata, and, of course, time with family. With her parents and two brothers still in L.A. it was a comfort to be able to have her aunt and cousin living in the same town. It was also nice to have them right here to complain to.
No, wait. No complaining on Thanksgiving. She was simply venting. Justifiably venting. “I mean it’s not like I meant to run over Mr. Cratchett’s juniper bush.”
“You didn’t exactly get practice driving in snow down in L.A.” Rita said consolingly.
“That man.” She shook her head in disgust as she helped herself to more fruit salad. “Neighbors should come with a warning label.”
“This one should have,” Sienna said. “He shouldn’t be allowed to have neighbors. He should be hermit. Actually, he’s already close to one. He hardly ever comes out of that big, overgrown house of his except to yell at me.” Okay, maybe that was a slight exaggeration.
“Mr. Cratchett’s mean to me, too, Mommy,” put in Leo.
Tito shook his head. “Threatening to call the cops over a baseball through the window.”
“I didn’t do that,” Leo declared hotly. “It was Tommie Haskell. Tommy said it was me.”
Poor Leo had taken the fall and Sienna had bought Mr. Cratchett a new window.
“Culo,” muttered Tito. “I should have come over and taken a baseball to the old dude’s head.”
Tito’s sister pointed her fork at him. “Then he really would have called the cops.”
“He’s been there, done that,” Sienna said. “Remember?”
“Yes, making such a stink when we had your housewarming party,” Rita said in disgust. “Too loud my ass. It was barely nine.”
“Maybe that’s what got us started on the wrong foot,” Sienna mused.
Tito frowned and shook his head. “No. The dude’s a cabrón.”
“Oh, well. Let’s not think about him anymore,” Sienna said. There were plenty of nice people in town to make up for her un-neighborly neighbor. She liked Rita’s boss, Charley Masters, who owned Zelda’s restaurant, and Bailey Black, who owned a teashop, was quickly becoming a good friend. Pat York, her boss at Mountain Escape Books was great, and Pat’s friends had all taken her under their wings.
“Good idea,” agreed Rita. “Pass the tamales.”
Venting finished, Sienna went back to concentrating on counting her blessings. So she didn’t have husband. (Who wanted a creep who walked away when the going got tough, anyway?) She had her family, new friends, a wonderful job and a pretty house. It wasn’t as big as Cratchett’s corner lot mansion – nobody’s was – but it had three bedrooms, two baths, and a kitchen with lots of cupboard space, and it was all hers. Or it would be in thirty years. And she had the sweetest son a woman could ask for. Her life was good, so more complaining, er, venting.
Olivia Wallace’s feet hurt. So did her back. For that matter, so did her head. Serving Thanksgiving dinner to all her guests at the Icicle Creek Lodge was an exhausting undertaking, even with help.
Thank God she’d had help. Although one particular ‘helper,” her new daughter-in-law, had been about as helpful as a road block.
“I was a waitress at the Full Table Buffet,” Meadow had bragged. “No problemo.”
She’d showed off her experience by setting the tables wrong, spilling gravy in a customer’s lap and then swearing at him when he got upset with her. She’d capped the day off by leaving halfway through serving the main course.
“Meadow doesn’t feel good,” Olivia’s son Brandon had explained.
Meadow didn’t feel good? Olivia hadn’t felt so good herself. She’d been nursing a headache for days. (Perhaps it had something to do with the arrival of her new daughter-law?) But running an inn was not much different than show business. The show must go on.
And so it had, but Olivia was still feeling more than a little cranky about the performance of one particular player. “Whatever did he see in her?” she complained to her husband as James rubbed her tired feet. Besides the obvious. The girl was pretty – in a brassy, exotic way. Brandon had always dated good-looking women.
James wisely didn’t answer.
Olivia had been longing to see her baby boy married for years, but she hadn’t expected him to sneak off to Vegas to do it. She certainly hadn’t expected him to commit so quickly, before anyone hardly had a chance to get to know her. Before he hardly even had a chance to get to know her!
Brandon had met Meadow when he was skiing. She’d been hanging out at the ski lodge at Crystal Mountain after her first ski lesson and there was poor, unsuspecting Brandon. They’d wound up having dinner together and then spent the night partying. That had been the beginning of private ski lessons followed by private parties for two. And then it was, “Oops, I’m pregnant.” And that was followed by, “Surprise, we’re married.” Of course, all this had taken place quite clandestinely. He’d only known this girl a few months. Months! And never said anything about her. Now, suddenly, here they were married. And, well, here they were.
Not that Olivia wasn’t happy to have her wandering boy home again, ready to help run the family business. It was just that the woman he’d brought with him was taking some getting used to. Actually, a lot of getting used to.
The couple had started out living in Seattle and Brandon had settled down and gotten a job working for large company that was slowly taking over the city. The benefits were great, but the hours were long, and Meadow had complained. So he’d called Mom and suggested coming back. The lodge would be passed on to him and Eric anyway, so of course, she’d gotten a little suite ready for them, one similar to what her older son Eric and his wife had, making them all one big, happy family.
With a cuckoo in the nest.
“She tricked him into marrying her, I’m sure,” Olivia muttered.
Olivia’s second son had always been a bit of a ladies’ man, but she’d never known Brandon to be irresponsible. The idea that he’d gotten someone pregnant – someone he barely knew and who so clearly was not his type – didn’t make sense to her at all. It was just so unlike him, In fact, the more she thought about it after hearing the news the more she couldn’t help the sneaking suspicion that the whole pregnancy thing had been a ploy to pin Brandon down. Olivia’s suspicion only grew when, a few weeks after they were married they told her the pregnancy had ended. It was a terrible thing to think, and yet Olivia couldn’t shake the feeling that there probably hadn’t even been a baby – only a trashy girl looking to snag a good-looking man and some financial security. How had she been able to afford ski lessons, anyway?
Okay, she had to admit that Brandon did seem smitten with Meadow. So there had to be something hiding behind the trashy clothes, the lack of manners, the self-centeredness, and haze of smoke from her E-cigarettes. Such a filthy habit, smoking, and so bad for your health.
“I’d rather smoke than be fat,” Meadow had said to Olivia when she had – politely – brought up the subject.
Olivia was a little on the pudgy side. Was that a slur?
Not only did Meadow appear to disapprove of Olivia’s looks, she obviously disapproved of her decorating skills. The first thing out of her mouth when she’d seen the lodge had been, “Whoa, look at these granny carpets.”
Granny carpets indeed! Those rose patterned carpets were classic, and they’d cost Olivia a small fortune when she first put them in. Plus, they complemented the many antiques Olivia had in the lobby and the guest rooms. Well, all right. So the girl had different tastes. (Obviously she wouldn’t know an antique if she tripped over one.) But did she have to be so … vocal?
She’d hardly raved over the small apartment that Olivia had given her and Brandon. She’d walked into the bedroom and frowned. “Where’s the closet?”
Olivia had pointed to the German antique pine armoire and said, “This is it. It’s a Shrank.”
“For your clothes.”
“I’m supposed to fit all my clothes in there?”
Taking in Meadow’s skimpy skirt and midriff-bearing top, Olivia had doubted that her clothes would take up much room. “I’m sure Brandon can remodel for you,” Olivia had said stiffly.
“I hope so.” Meadow had drifted over to the window and looked out. “Wow, that’s some view.”
At least she’d appreciated the view.
“It’s gonna be really cool living here,” she’d said, and Olivia almost warmed to her until she added, “Once we fix this place up.”
“So what do you think of Meadow?” Brandon had asked after the first he brought her home to meet Mom.
By then they were already married. It had been too late to say what she really thought. “Wasn’t this a little fast? I always thought we’d have a wedding.” I always thought you’d pick someone we wanted you to marry.
That was when he’d blushed and confessed that they were pregnant. They’d wanted to get married anyway, so what the hell.
What the hell indeed.
“Dear, this isn’t like you,” James said, bringing Olivia out of her unpleasant reverie. “You’re normally so kind-hearted and welcoming.”
“I’ve welcomed her,” Olivia insisted. She’d given the girl a home here at the inn with the rest of the family. That was pretty welcoming.
But you haven’t exactly taken her in with open arms.
The thought gave her conscience a sharp poke and she squirmed on the sofa. Her cat Muffin, who had been happily encamped on her lap, meowed in protest.
“If only she was more like Brooke,” Olivia said as if that excused her attitude. “At least Eric got it right.” Brooke was refined and well educated and loved the lodge. Not only did she truly want to be helpful, she actually was. She and Olivia were on the same wave length.
James couldn’t help smiling at the mention of his daughter. It had been Brooke who was responsible for James and Olivia meeting. “No one’s like Brooke,” he said proudly.
“She is one of a kind, just like her daddy.”
James, who had spent most of his life playing Santa Claus, was as close to the real deal as a man could come. With his snowy white hair and beard, husky build and caring smile, he embodied the very spirit of Christmas.
“Thank you, my dear,” he said, and gave her poor, tired foot a pat. “But, getting back to the subject of Meadow, I’m sure she has many redeeming qualities. All you have to do is look for them.”
“With a magnifying glass.”
“Olivia,” he gently chided.
“You’re right. I’m just having such a hard time warming to the girl.”
“I know. But this is the woman Brandon has chosen.”
Olivia sighed. “Yes, and I need to make more of an effort for his sake.”
And she would. Tomorrow was another day.
Another busy day. They’d be decorating the lodge for the holidays. Meadow had been excited over the prospect and assured Olivia she loved to decorate. Hopefully, she’d be better at that than she was at helping serve food.
The next morning, Eric was knocking on the door of Olivia’s little apartment in the lodge. “We ready to do this?” he asked James.
“Yep. Let’s start hauling up the holidays.”
There was plenty to haul up from the huge basement storeroom where Olivia kept the holiday decorations – ornaments to go on the eight-foot noble fir they’d purchased for one corner of the lobby as well as ones for the tree in the dining room, snow globes and red ribbons for the fireplace mantel and, of course, the antique sleigh which would sit right in the center of the lobby. It was a favorite with their guests and people were constantly taking pictures of it. There were stuffed Teddy bears and antique dolls to ride in the sleigh, mistletoe to hang in the hallways, and silk poinsettias to be placed on the reception desk. Decorating the inn was an all hands on deck day.
“Where’s your brother?” Olivia asked as he set down the box of toys for the sleigh.
“He’s coming. Meadow’s just now getting up. They closed down The Man Cave last night and she’s pooped.”
So, she’d recovered from her earlier illness. How convenient. “Maybe she’s too tired to help,” Olivia said hopefully. Playing pool all night could be exhausting.
No such luck. Fifteen minutes later Olivia and Brooke were sorting through the first bin of decorations when Meadow dragged herself into the lobby accompanied by Brandon. She was wearing tight, ripped jeans, complimented with a sheer blouse hanging loose over a low cut red camisole which perfectly matched the patch of hair she’d died red. The rest was a color of blonde that made Olivia think of lightbulbs. Olivia could just see the tip of the wings on the butterfly Meadow had tattooed over her right breast peeking over the top of the camisole. She made a shocking contrast to Brooke with her soft brown hair and tasteful clothes. Now almost eight months pregnant, she was wearing a long, gray sweater accented with a blue silk scarf over her black maternity leggings and gray ankle boots. Meadow even looked like a total mismatch with Brandon, who was in jeans and a casual, button down black plaid shirt.
“I feel like shit,” she confessed. “I think those fish tacos were off.” She shook her head. “Now I know what they mean when they say toss your tacos.”
The queen of refinement this girl was not. To think Brandon could have had sweet little Bailey Black for a daughter-in-law if only he’d gotten with the program. Bailey had carried a torch for him for years. Too late now. She was happily married. And Brandon was … trapped. So were the rest of them.
You’re going to have to make the best of it, Olivia reminded herself. Her son loved his new wife. He’d obviously seen something in her. She probably would too. If she looked harder.
James and Eric arrived in the lobby bearing more decorations. “You’re just in time,” Eric told his brother. “You can help me haul in the sleigh.”
Brandon nodded and followed the men back out.
Olivia pasted a smile on her face. “Well, girls, let’s get started.”
“All right. This is going to be fun,” Meadow said eagerly, and opened a bin.
Eager and excited to help, that was commendable.
Meadow pulled out a pink ribbon ball holding a sprig of silk mistletoe and made a face. “What the hell is this?”
“It’s mistletoe,” Olivia explained.
“Mistletoe.” Meadow said it like it was a foreign language.
“You’ve heard of mistletoe, right?” Brooke prompted and Meadow shook her head.
Both Olivia and Brooke stared at her in amazement.
“So, what is it?”
“You hang it up and then when you catch someone under it you kiss him,” Brooke explained.
Meadow shook her head. “Why do you need a plant for that? If you want to kiss a guy just kiss him!”
Good Lord. The child was a complete Philistine.
Brooke smiled. “It’s a fun, little tradition people enjoy.”
“Whatever,” Meadow said, unimpressed.
She was impressed with the sleigh though. “Wow, that’s epic.” The minute the men had set it down she climbed into it and tossed Brandon her cell phone. “Take my picture, babe,” she commanded and struck a rapper girl pose, complete with the weird finger thing and the pout.
An older couple was walking through the lobby, and the husband stopped to enjoy the moment. “Now there’s my kind of Christmas present,” he joked.
His wife, not seeing the humor, grabbed his arm and got him moving again. “Tacky,” she hissed.
Meadow flipped her off and Olivia’s cheeks heated.
Dear Santa, please bring me an extra dose of patience. I’m going to need it.
About the Author
USA Today best-selling author Sheila Roberts has seen her books published in multiple languages and made into movies. She lives in the Pacific Northwest, dividing her time between a waterfront condo and a beach home. When she’s not on the tennis courts or partying with friends she can be found writing about those things dear to women’s hearts: family, friends, and chocolate.
Her latest women’s fiction is Christmas in Icicle Falls.