Excerpt for Home in Time (Book III in the Christmas Village Trilogy) by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

A Christmas Village to Call Home

Smashword

Copyright 2016 by Lisa Pendergrass



Home in Time

Chapter 1

Oh, Christmas isn't just a day, it's a frame of mind...” … Kris Kringle

“Don’t you remember? You love Lexington, Florrie! Do you remember the last time we were here, and we went to that amazing restaurant?”

“No.” Florrie bit, staring disinterestedly out the window. Her mother was trying to cheer her up. It wasn’t working. She refused to be cheered up.

“They’re expecting record breaking crowds at this festival.” Her dad said. “We should clear a lot of money, and be able to take some time and just have fun.”

“Sure.” Florrie responded doubtfully. At ten years old she, along with her parents, had spent more time on the road than off. They made things… her mother was a master crafter of hand-pressed jewelry and her father was a wood worker. They both were talented and successful; successful enough to own a home in Inner Harbor and two thriving internet businesses based out of Baltimore. But this was their passion; loading up their truck and setting off for fairs, festivals and flea markets to mingle with consumers and other artists.

That would have been all well and good if they hadn’t had a ten-year-old daughter who was lucky she was gifted because otherwise she’d never have finished kindergarten. As it was, the posh private school she attended continued to pass her because she was smart, but if they graded on attendance and class participation, she’d still be in preschool.

“If we have some free time before we meet the organizers, how about a quick stop at Kentucky Horse Park?” Mom asked hopefully.

“I don’t care. I’ve seen it.” Florrie pouted.

“Honey, we know you had to miss a sleepover…”

“I never get invited anywhere because no one from school even knows me well enough to invite me, but Janie did, and I can’t even go! It’s not fair!” She cried, and then…

Squealing brakes, a scream she later realized was her own voice and crunching metal… for the rest of her life those would be the three things she remembered; the last three things she remembered about her mother. Squealing brakes, a scream she later realized was her own voice and crunching metal… she’d never forget it. She’d never forget that or the fact that the last thing she said to her mother was spoken in anger.

A kid in an SUV scrolling through his favorite tunes on Bluetooth and doing 85 on I68 hit the guard rail, over-corrected and spun into mom’s door, driving dad’s side into the concrete partition. Mom died on impact. Dad died nine months later after multiple operations to correct a major spinal injury; but in Florrie’s mind, he died that day with mom. He was never the same afterwards anyway. He couldn’t work. He couldn’t travel. He couldn’t even make breakfast before school.

That first Christmas was the worst. The Callahan’s were nice, but they were strangers. And this place… Snowy Pines… it felt like another planet and not in a good way. All she remembered from that first year was arriving at this ridiculously quaint “village” where everyone smiled and said Merry Christmas. And all she wanted to do was cry… until the night they took her to carnival.

She was afraid it would make her sad because her parents loved carnivals, but this wasn’t like the traveling shows where they’d set up and sell their merchandise. This was something else. For lack of a better word… it was magical. And the magic all began when she followed seven-year-old Lola to the lemonade stand. Lola was talking excitedly to people who knew her, and Florrie was looking on with dark, wary, eyes when a flash of Raven’s purple and gold disappeared around the stand and caught her attention.

She walked away from Lola, promising she’d be right back, and went in search of the jacket that was just like her dad’s. Instead she found a boy; a boy who looked a little older than she, with shaggy blonde hair and sullen green eyes… the greenest green eyes she’d ever seen.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to interrupt.” She said, backing away.

“It doesn’t matter.” He barked.

“Oh… okay.” She said nervously, and then blurted out, “I’m Florrie. I like your jacket.”

“Thanks. It was a Christmas gift from my mom. She gave it to me right before she dumped me here with my grandparents, so she could flake out with some guy in the Bahamas.” He sneered.

“Oh.” She said, wondering if she should tell him that her mother was dead, and her father was listed as stable, but still wasn’t even able to speak to her when last she’d visited him. But she didn’t want to tell him that. She didn’t want to be that girl.

So instead she said, “I’ve never been to the Bahamas.”

“Me either.” He said with a shrug. “I’ve never been anywhere but Baltimore and here. My grand-poppa and grand-mama own the tree farm.”

“That sounds…”

“Lame.” He filled in the blank for her. “I hate this place with its stupid decorations and stupid carnival. It’s like… not even close to a real place.”

“Seriously.” Florrie said, relieved at last to find a normal person.

“I’m Gabriel by the way… Gabe. Do you want to ride the swings?”

Seven Years Later

The Callahans arrived in Snowy Pines on December 22nd just like most every year. As soon as the car was unpacked at the cabin Florrie started for the door. “Can I go to Gabe’s?”

Kellany wrinkled her brow and said, “I’m going back into town to pick up groceries in a few minutes. Don’t you want to wait and ride with me?”

Florrie fidgeted. She was anxious to see Gabe for the first time since summer. It seemed the older they got the more she wanted to see him and the longer she had to wait between visits. They texted a lot and talked on the phone occasionally, but it wasn’t the same. Of course, it didn’t help that last time she’d seen him things had been strained. She was determined to get back on track this time.

“It’s just down the road. I can walk it in a few minutes.” She insisted.

“Can I go too?” Fourteen-year-old Lola asked.

Florrie could tell that Kellany was just about to refuse when she jumped in. “She can come too. Please.”

“Okay, but don’t you want to go buy groceries with me?” Kellany asked.

Lola had inherited her mother’s love of cooking, if not her gift for it. Florrie was a natural, but she often resisted it out of some sense of denial.

Lola was clearly torn so Florrie suggested that Kellany come in a few minutes and pick Lola up. That would make Lola happy because she’d get to tag along with Florrie; and it would make Kellany happy because it meant Florrie and Lola were bonding, she’d get to see with her own eyes that Florrie was safely at the Patrick’s farm, and she’d have Lola to accompany her to the store; and it would make Florrie happy because she’d get to spend uninterrupted time with Gabe.

Kellany pondered it for just a moment before finally agreeing.

“Florrie?” Kellany said, reaching for her hand as they started out the door. “I’m glad you’re with us this year. It’s just not Christmas without you.”

Florrie offered a mumbled thank you before racing off down the road with Lola talking happily beside her. She loved Lola and was thankful to have a little sister… after a fashion. She loved all the Callahans and couldn’t imagine better foster parents than Josh and Kellany. But it didn’t change the fact that they weren’t her real family.

She and Lola reached the Tree Farm in just a few minutes and Lola took off exploring to choose a tree for later. In the past, Josh and Kellany always chopped down their tree in the woods, but somewhere along the way Kellany decided it was better for the environment if they left those untouched and chose from the one’s the Patricks grew especially for Christmas.

She spotted a truck loaded down with several wreaths and rolls of garland. It was December 22nd and she couldn’t believe that, other than their cabin, there was anywhere in Snowy Pines that hadn’t already been smothered in evergreen. Perhaps some of the folks who decorated days before Thanksgiving were coming back for round two already.

And then she saw Gabe helping the customer close his tailgate and secure his purchases, and her heart did that strange little flip it always did when she saw him. The flip would be more pronounced when he came face to face with her and she got her first glimpse of his eyes. In some ways, he still looked so much like the shaggy blonde boy she’d met seven year ago, but in other ways he’d grown up. He was almost twenty after all and starting to look more like a man than a boy.

When he finished with his customer, she was just about to approach him when Lola beat her to it. But it was okay. She liked the way he smiled down at her little sister, and she even sort of liked the starry-eyed look that Lola gave him. It gave her a zing of pride to know that someone, even if Lola was only fourteen, might be jealous of her.

Once he greeted Lola he knew that she must be close by. She watched from a distance when he started searching for her and she slipped into a row of trees hidden from him. She could see him walking up and down the rows of trees until he came to hers. She slipped between two trees and waited till he walked down hers calling her name. When his back was turned, and he was just about to turn down the next aisle, she tapped him on the shoulder and covered his eyes with her burgundy mittens.

“Guess who?” She whispered, close to his ear.

He turned quickly with a big smile and dragged her into a hug that was just long enough and just warm enough to be deemed more than friendly.

“When did you get here? I’ve been dying!” He said happily.

“Just now. Lola and I left as soon as the car was unpacked. So, are you really glad to see me?” She teased.

“What do you think? Come on. I’m working. Are you here to help?” He said, grabbing her hand and pulling her back towards the barn that served as the Patrick Tree Farm offices.

Most people don’t know that running a Christmas Tree Farm is a year-round venture. It starts with planting in the spring, and then through the summer the trees must be watered to survive the hot temperatures and regularly trimmed to achieve a desired shape. Autumn begins advertising, supply ordering, additional shaping as well as using the discarded portions to wire into wreaths and garlands which are then stored in cooling rooms inside the barn. Finally comes Christmas and the onslaught of customers and then January and February are inventory, taxes and more supplies to start it all over again. Each spring they plant between 750 and 1200 trees, in the summer they employee an average of twenty people and at least a dozen in the fall and more from Thanksgiving on. It takes eight to ten years to grow an actual Christmas tree and at any given time the Patrick’s Farm has between ten and twelve thousand trees in various stages of growth.

“So, how’s school?” Florrie asked as they walked back together. Gabe was in his first year at the University of Maryland after spending his freshman year at a junior college. Florrie was a senior in high school with a 4.0 and looking forward to joining him at UM next year.

“It’s fine.” He said evasively.

“That wasn’t very convincing.” She questioned.

He sighed. “Fine. It’s not fine. I… I’m not going back.”

“What do you mean you’re not going back? You have to go back! It’s school. We were…” She stopped herself before she reminded him that she was following him there in just one more semester. They weren’t dating… exactly. Actually, other than several years ago when they’d
“accidentally” ended up under the mistletoe, he’d never even kissed her. But she always thought it was sort of understood. She’d always been too young. And then last Christmas she’d blown off coming to Snowy Pines in favor of tracking down some of her family. That was a disaster. That led to the past summer when he was anything but forgiving after her Christmas betrayal. But she’d felt certain that this time they’d finally move in that direction.

“I know that school is important to you. You’re smart and you want to do things.” He reasoned.

“You’re smart!” She argued, feeling herself sliding dangerously close to tears.

“But I’m not good at school. I never have been.” He stated certainly. “And I’m wasting time and money there, when I could be here working.”

“You’re not wasting time if you’re learning to do something that will lead to a career.” She protested before reality dawned. “This? This is what you’re planning to do for the rest of your life? Tell me I’m wrong.”

“You’re not wrong.” He admitted guiltily. “This is our family business; grand-poppa and grand-mama's legacy. They’ve worked and sacrificed for forty years to build this place. People come from all over and say it’s part of their family's Christmas tradition. They started all of this from nothing.”

“Great! It’s the American Dream! Go to college, get a good job and hire someone to carry on the tradition.” She argued vehemently. “But don’t throw your life away on this place.”

Gabe took a deep breath and said, “This place is my life... or at least where my life is going to happen.”

“Oh.” Florrie said softly before clearing her throat. “When we met you said this wasn’t even a real place.”

Gabe shrugged. “I was twelve. My mom had just ditched me for good. I was scared and mad and about to cry… and trying desperately to look cool in front of the cute girl from the city. But this place is my home. And this farm is my future.”

“OK.” Florrie breathed, afraid to say more for fear of breaking into tears. Instead she turned on her heels and started away, biting her lip to keep the sobs in, but Gabe grabbed her hand and pulled her back towards him.

“Talk to me Florrie.” He pleaded. “Someone will be here in a few minutes to cover for me. Just give me a second. I want to hear your thoughts, and I want to help you see my point.”

“I have to go.” Florrie said waving to catch Lola's attention. “Kellany is on her way to get us. We’re buying groceries.”

“Stay with me.” Gabe begged. “Tell Kellany I’ll bring you home later. I’ve really missed you.”

“I can’t.” Florrie refused, ignoring the stricken expression on his face or the sadness that immediately filled his clear green eyes.

“I’ll be at the carnival tonight. I’ll see you at the swings?” He asked hopefully.

“Sure.” She agreed hurrying to the car before Kellany left her.

She tried hard not to look back at him. She gave it her best effort. But just as she opened the car door she turned. He was leaning against the wall of the barn, his arms crossed defensively. He looked exactly like the twelve-year-old boy she met so long ago. He held up his hand and waved, and so did Florrie.

She made an excuse to miss the carnival that night, and ignored Gabe’s texts. When she got back to Baltimore she sent him an upbeat message telling him she was happy he’d found his place in the world and now it was time for her to do the same.

After that, no more texts or calls came from Gabe except every year a week or so before Christmas. Around the middle of December every year he’d text and ask about her Christmas plans. She always answered him, but he never made any effort to see her, and whenever Florrie was back in Snowy Pines, she made a point not to visit the tree farm.

Three Years Later

Florrie Gentry looked at the phone as if it was somehow offensive instead of acknowledging that the problem wasn’t the phone, but in the words coming through it; mostly on her end.

“You look a little shell shocked.” Said Tabitha, her roommate of two years, as she passed through on the way from class to work. She and Tabitha had started out at Georgetown as freshman in the same room and had stayed together, not so much because they were friends but because they both led fairly separate lives and neither of them expected more from the other.

“Yeah I just told my mom I’m going to Boston with Devon for Christmas instead of coming to Snowy Pines.” She said dismally.

“Snowy what?” Tabitha asked with wide eyes.

“Surely I’ve talked about Snowy Pines. It’s the little town where my dad was raised. It’s like a real live Christmas village… even in the dead of summer.” She said disgustedly.

“Nope. I’ve never heard you mention that. Of course, you’re short on details when it comes to your personal life anyway. I gotta go. I’m late. BYE!”

Florrie watched her disappear into the hallway and then fell back on her twin bed. Tabitha was right. She was very short on sharing her personal details. And the ones she shared were usually not entirely accurate. For instance, to her friends at school she always referred to Josh and Kellany as her parents and Lola, Paxton and Crawford as her sister and brothers. But to their faces she never acknowledged it, even though she’d been with them more often than not since she was ten.

They’d tried multiple times to make it legal and become her adoptive parents instead of just a foster home, but she always found some reason to stop it. After all these years, she couldn’t begin to say why. She loved them all and couldn’t imagine her life without them, but it didn’t change her reluctance to accept them fully.

She stared at her phone again with the same look on her face. But this one wasn’t because of her conversation with Kellany. This one was because of the text she’d gotten two days ago. She’d ignored it while she tried to work up her courage to tell Kellany and Josh. Now that it was done she had no excuse not to respond to Gabe.

She sighed and typed out the simple message that she was going to Boston with her boyfriend. She supposed she didn’t have to include the boyfriend part, but, why shouldn’t she? Gabe was the one who had pulled the rug out from under her three years ago when he quit school and let her know without a doubt that she didn’t figure into his future-plans. Why he persisted in acting as if she mattered to him was beyond her. Besides, she was sure that he’d seen evidence of Devon on social media. They were “friends” there, if not in real-life.

She hit send and then went about the business of getting ready for her job at the bookstore. She had one more final before they could leave, and then she and Devon would be hitting the road. She was excited about a trip to Boston. She hadn’t been there since she was a child traveling with her parents, but she remembered it as a favorite city. But she was also nervous. She knew there were certain expectations that came with traveling with a boyfriend. Those expectations hadn’t been realized yet, and she wasn’t sure if she was ready for them; but she questioned whether her relationship would recover from her refusing him now.

It was enough to make her nervous, but not enough to make her refuse to go. She smiled at just the thought of it, just as her phone dinged.

She picked it up expecting something from Devon. Instead it was from Gabe; the first time he’d responded to her in three years. She read it through three times and still didn’t know what to make of it.

Enjoy your trip and let me be the first to wish you a Merry Christmas. If you need anything, I’m here.

Chapter 2

I believe... I believe... It's silly, but I believe.” … Susan Walker

Forty-five minutes into her romantic holiday get away with Devon, and Florrie found herself watching his taillights disappear down a deserted highway while she stood on the shoulder of the road; more surprised than angry.

From the time they left DC she couldn’t stop feeling claustrophobic. It wasn’t that he was getting on her nerves… exactly, but more like she just couldn’t shake the feeling that he was going to disappoint her somehow. Self-fulfilling prophecy was the story of her life. By the time she realized that she was the one picking a fight it was too late. He told her if she didn’t want to be with him then he’d leave her in Baltimore with her parents, and she replied that if he didn’t want her there he could stop the car right then.

She didn’t think he’d do it. When he did she had no choice but to get out of the car. She thought he’d beg her to get back in. She thought he cared enough to put up a fight. And now he was driving away, and she was alone. She had no cell service. She had no idea where she was. And it was almost dark.

She wanted to cry, not because she was sad but because she felt so stupid. How could she have wound up like this? She heard Josh’s voice over and over in her head, warning her and Lola about dating guys who treated you like a lady. She also knew he was adamant that any time you got in the car with a boy you were trusting him with your life. How many times did he tell them if a guy didn’t hold the door, pull out the chair and say yes ma’am then she should never get in the car with him? Devon was fun and cute and charming, but he never opened a door and certainly never pulled out a chair; and she’d not only gotten in the car with him, but she’d trusted him to take her all the way to Boston.

With no other options, she started walking, not sure which direction she should even go. With nothing else to go on she headed in the same direction of the taillights, and as she walked, she couldn’t stop her mind from wondering how Gabe was spending Christmas.

Chapter 3

You think I'm a fraud, don't you?” … Kris Kringle

Lola McCauley squinted in the distance and shook her head. What would possess a young girl to start off on foot on a deserted road like this? You could walk for hours and not see anyone. She heard Chris’s voice in her head telling her to speed past and not make eye contact, but then she thought of her mother and some of the reckless things that Alice had done in her younger years. She shook her head again, offered up a silent prayer and pulled the car over on the side of the road and rolled down her window.

“My husband would kill me if he knew I was doing this!” Lola said by way of explanation.

“My father would kill me too.” The girl replied, her eyes immediately filling with tears. Lola had the overwhelming feeling that she knew her from somewhere.

“Where are you headed?”

She shrugged. “Anywhere. My family is in Baltimore, but I don’t have any cell service. If I could just get somewhere where my phone would work I could call them.”

Lola nodded and popped the lock. “If you’re an axe murderer, not only will I be dead, but my husband will never forgive me. And furthermore, your father is 100% right because I could totally be an axe murderer.”

“I’m Florrie, and I promise I’m not an axe murderer and if you are, I’ll be dead, and my parents will never forgive me!” Florrie exclaimed, throwing her suitcase into the backseat of Lola’s Prius and then sinking into the front seat with relief.

“Florrie. That’s an interesting name.” Lola said, as the feeling that she knew her grew stronger. Then she continued with, “This road leads to almost nowhere, but there’s a truck stop about two miles from here. If we don’t have cell service there, surely they’ll let you use their land line.”

“Thank you.” Florrie said with a sigh.

“Well, as dangerous as this is, I’d hope that if I was in this situation someone would help me out. Did you have car trouble or…”

“No. It’s so much more tragic than that.” Florrie replied sarcastically. “I had this stupid idea that I should rebel against the forces of nature and go with my boyfriend to Boston for Christmas instead of with my family. And then literally 45 minutes outside of DC, I panicked so I picked a fight with him and ended up on the side of the road. How do you like that?”

“Well, if he left you on the side of the road, it sounds like you had good reason to panic. I’m Lola, by the way.”

“No kidding? My little sister’s named Lola, but you don’t hear that name a lot.” Florrie said and then turned to stare at her and said, “Wait a minute. Were you ever a nurse at UMMC?”

“Since I was twenty-two and I still am.” Lola answered and then she gasped. “Florrie! You were my patient when I had my accident!”

“What?” Florrie asked, clearly confused.

“I stayed late at the hospital with you. My husband and I were separated, and I was pregnant and just dealing with all this drama; but you were so sweet and… you needed me. So, I stayed late with you and then on the way home I got off the main road and ended up in a hold up at a gas station. The robbers left, and then I passed out and ended up in the emergency room. I cannot believe this! So, your dad made it through?” Lola said excitedly.

Florrie looked down for a moment and then shook her head sadly. “No, actually, he hung on for a few months, but he never left the long-term care facility.”

“Oh…” Lola said, clearly confused. “You just said…”

“My foster family… the Callahan’s. I spent that first Christmas with them, and then I went to live with some friends of my parents when he went to the nursing home, but when he died they didn’t want me and the Callahan’s had kept up with my case. I’ve been with them most of my life since I was ten.”

“They never adopted you?” Lola asked, curiously.

“No… they wanted to, but it just never worked out.” Florrie sighed sadly. “I’ve been such a brat. It’s amazing they even want me!”

Lola nodded and said, “Good foster families are hard to come by, but when they’re in it for the right reasons, it’s a true blessing. That truck stop is just up ahead. No fears. We’ll get your family here in no time.”

“I can’t wait.” Florrie said, just as it came into view… and became very apparent that it wasn’t open.

“I can’t believe this!” She cried holding up her cell phone. “I still have no service! Where are we anyway?”

“Highway 330.” Lola answered.

“You mean… toward…”

“Snowy Pines.” They said in unison.

“You know Snowy Pines?” Florrie asked in disbelief.

“You know it?” Lola repeated.

“Yes! That’s where my family will be. That’s where we spend every Christmas!” Florrie said excitedly, feeling like her luck was changing for the first time that day.

“Seriously? My family goes there every year too; since my daughter’s first Christmas nine years ago. My husband and kids are already there, but I had a patient who had an emergency surgery scheduled. I’d been with him for days and just couldn’t make myself leave before he came through it.” She explained, feeling a strange prickle on the back of her neck. Finally, she took a deep breath and said, “Who are your foster parents?”

“Josh and Kellany Callahan.” Florrie answered.

Lola gasped and had to fight to keep from running off the road. “Kellany. Are you kidding me?”

“Do you know Kellany?” Florrie asked in disbelief.

“Yes! Since I was a little girl. I’m the reason Kellany has foster children!”

“You’re that Lola!” Florrie screeched.

“She’s talked about me?” Lola exclaimed excitedly.

“Of course, but we all thought it was just some kind of make believe! She had a car wreck and woke up in Snowy Pines where she met Josh, and a little girl named Lola who she thought would be my sister when she grew up, but then she wasn’t. And then like nine years later she just dreamed, on a regular night, that she was back there for a normal Christmas, but it was in the future and she saw you again and helped you fix your marriage.” Florrie finished without ever taking a breath to pause.

“Wow.” Lola said slowly. “So… she dreamed the future?”

Florrie shrugged. “I guess so?”

“So how old are Kellany and Josh?” Lola asked. “Because when I knew them when I was little, I was eight and she was twenty-nine, but then when I was older she wasn’t quite the same amount of age difference over me.”

“She’s forty-nine now.”

“She’s getting younger.” Lola said lightly. “I’m catching up to her. I’m thirty-four.”

“This is really weird.” Florrie said with a shiver that had nothing to do with the cold outside since Lola’s car was nice and toasty.

“Listen…” Lola said reaching for her hand. “Kellany taught me never to underestimate the magic of Snowy Pines. I’ll get you there and we’ll find them. When will they be in town?”

“Today, I think. Have you ever met her in real-life?”

“No.” Lola admitted, realizing how ridiculous it was that someone she barely knew could have such an impact on her life. “We normally visit Snowy Pines a few days before Christmas, but… we’re coming a little later this time. I always believed Kellany was real and hoped someday I’d meet her in real-life, but it’s bizarre to think that it could actually happen today.”

“She’ll be so happy. You were the first person she let herself love… even before Josh.”

Lola smiled at the memory of having her hair brushed and decorating a tree that the three of them cut down together. “Does she really make those cookies?”

Florrie smiled and said, “The best Christmas cookies in the world!”

“I have thought of you over the years Florrie.” Lola said seriously. “Some patients touch you more than others and I always felt like we were connected. Now I know it was Snowy Pines. I can’t wait till we get there and see your mom!”


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