“Oh, for the love of God, Octavia, we could do this all day,” Marcus Kane sighed wearily, rubbing his temples and closing his eyes to ward off the headache that always seemed to appear like magic when his stubborn young employee wanted something and didn’t get it. “We have this conversation every year. Can't we just save ourselves some time and fast-forward straight to the part where you finally realize I’m not going to change my mind and you stomp off in a temper so I can go back to work?”
She didn’t say anything right away, but it was too much to hope that she’d given up so easily. He opened his eyes to see that the slight, dark-haired, angular girl standing in the doorway of his office was currently glaring at him in ferocious displeasure, arms folded across her chest. Octavia Blake was not a tall young woman, but what she lacked in height she more than made up in sheer inexhaustible tenacity.
This could go on for awhile.
“You realize this is a Christmas tree farm,” she began pointedly, once she had his attention.
“Is it? Really? I wondered what all those Fraser firs were doing there. I thought it was just someone’s very overgrown backyard.”
“It’s my family’s business, Octavia,” he reminded her, returning to the stack of receipts he was entering into their accounting software and refusing any longer to give her the satisfaction of knowing she was distracting him. “I’ve been working here since before you were born. I do, in fact, know that this is a Christmas tree farm.”
“A Christmas tree farm which you refuse to decorate for Christmas.”
“You won’t even put up one of your own trees.”
“That’s not entirely fair,” he corrected her. “I let you decorate the farm. You can have all the festive holiday hullabaloo you want down there. Have at it. Stick a giant inflatable sleigh on the barn roof for all I care. The farm and the tree lot are Indra’s turf. She makes the rules. If she wants to wear a Santa suit all day and hire a troop of damned carolers I won’t stop her.”
“But you're not going to decorate the lodge.”
“No. For the thousandth time. I am not going to decorate the lodge.”
“You’re being an idiot,” Octavia snapped at him, also for the thousandth time. “Think of the holiday revenue you could generate if this place was a little more festive. The lodge could do a ton more business.”
“It does plenty of business. We’re at 65% guest capacity for the month.”
“You could be at 100%.”
“You could have a waiting list.”
“I don’t want a waiting list.”
“Octavia, I said no. I like the lodge the way it is.”
“You’re a Scrooge.”
“That’s rather an improvement,” he said mildly, “I think last year you decided I was a Grinch.”
“I’m really not. I’m a very nice person once you get to know me.”
“A very nice person who hates Christmas.”
“I don’t hate Christmas. I just hate fuss.”
“Careful,” he chided her. “Scrooge still signs your paychecks.”
She made a derisive little grumbling sound, which managed to simultaneously convey a grudging acknowledgment of his tyrannical hold over her (in the form of her salary), while still registering her immense displeasure at every single thing about him in this current moment.
Marcus repressed a smile as he went back to pretending to ignore her. Octavia Blake only loved about five people in the entire world, and Marcus Kane was one of them, so their arguments never really stuck (though many of them, like the current one, did tend to repeat themselves). He was perfectly aware that his employees found him a baffling and paradoxical creature, a Christmas tree farm owner who didn’t enjoy Christmas. But it was complicated to explain, even to someone like Octavia, tangled up as it was with so many aspects of his past he preferred not to revisit.
Besides, he liked Eden Tree Lodge just as it was, the way his mother had left it. Spare and clean and open, warm dark wood and plaid flannel upholstery, exposed beams and brickwork. He liked it tidy. He liked his space. The notion of cluttering it up with trees and wreaths and bells and ornaments gave him a feeling of something rather like claustrophobia which he preferred not to examine too closely.
“Compromise?” suggested Octavia finally. “Just a tree and a wreath. Nothing on your floor” (the whole former attic of the house was Marcus’ private residence) “and nothing fussy. Just some greenery, so it smells like Christmas.”
“If they want to smell pine trees they can open a window,” he retorted. “No tree, Octavia. You’re not going to wear me down this year.”
Ungraciously conceding defeat, Octavia huffed an exasperated teenage sigh (exaggerated for dramatic effect, since she was actually twenty), and stomped out of the office, leaving her boss in blissful peace and silence for approximately thirty seconds before the next intruder came calling.
“From the look on Octavia’s face,” said Indra, the farm manager, her always-dry voice tinged with amusemennt, “I take it she was here to make her annual plea for you to decorate the lodge and the guest rooms for Christmas.”
“Oh, good grief,” Marcus sighed. “Not you too.”
Indra shook her head. “It’s nothing to do with me,” she shrugged. “The lodge is your department. I just run the tree crew. I’m not here to tell you how to do your job.”
There was a faint pause. “Except . . .” Indra began cautiously, her tone shifting slightly as she seated herself in the chair opposite his desk, and his heart sank. She noted the look of resignation on his face and arched her eyebrow slightly. “You look like you already know what I'm about to say,” she remarked.
“I'm fairly sure I do, yes,” he sighed, leaning back in his chair and meeting her eyes squarely. This conversation wasn’t likely to be any easier than the last one. “All right. Out with it.”
“Is it true you finally decided to sell the land?”
“I haven’t decided anything. Where did you hear that I had?”
“And where did Bellamy hear it?”
“From your girlfriend,” Indra replied, her voice pressing ever-so-slightly too hard on that last word to make certain Marcus registered her distaste. The staff had been . . . well, “resistant,” to put it mildly, after Marcus had gotten engaged earlier this spring, and their collective refusal to adopt the word “fiancée” was one of their recurring minor acts of rebellion. Marcus had tried to mend fences where he could, but the downside of dating a woman who didn’t give a damn whether people liked her or not was that he found it rather difficult to motivate either side to put in much effort toward getting along.
“Well then, she’s putting the cart before the horse a bit. Or sleigh, if that makes you feel more festive.”
“I haven’t decided.”
“Your family has owned this land for a hundred and twenty-seven years.”
“I know that.”
“And I need to be able to tell my crew whether they still have jobs.”
“They’re all on contract through the 31st, Indra, I would never go back on that. Everyone’s payroll is banked, everyone’s job is safe, we’re set through the winter sales season. Nothing to worry about right now.”
“Sales is just one piece of it,” Indra reminded him. “This may be our busy time, but it’s not our only time. They want to know whether their contracts are going to be renewed for next year, to tend the trees and plant the new ones and work the land.”
“You’ll know when I know.”
“I’m not going to tell you what decision to make,” she said frankly. “That’s your business. But a lot of people’s livelihoods are hanging in the balance while you wait to figure out what to do.”
“It’s not that simple, I’m afraid,” he responded, rubbing his temples wearily again. “There are a number of factors to consider.”
“Money, you mean.”
“The money’s part of it, yes, but there’s also . . .” Marcus stopped short, not quite sure how to go on.
He was fond of Indra, always had been, and over the past six years since she’d taken over as manager of Eden Tree Farm she’d become one of his closest friends, but there were so many things he couldn’t really talk to her about.
Or his mother.
Or all the reasons why Octavia’s simple request to string a few Christmas lights and put up a tree was met with such implacable resistance.
Or why the possibility of selling the family land and disappearing to somewhere else, a new place with no memories, had struck him as so wildly tempting when the aforementioned girlfriend, of whom Indra clearly thought so little, had first brought it up.
Marcus Kane was born in Arkadia. So were his parents, and their parents, and their parents before. He’d gone away to college in New York, with some adolescent notion of possibly studying history or world literature or languages – something where he’d get to travel – but had been forced to drop out in the middle of his sophomore year when his father died, so he could return home and help his mother Vera run the family business. The Christmas tree farm itself was only half of it; Eden Tree Lodge was also Arkadia’s only inn, and between the two it was a full-time, year-round job to keep the place afloat. So Marcus dutifully put his dreams of travel on the shelf, stepped into his father’s shoes to serve as co-manager of the farm, married his high school girlfriend Callie, and settled back into small town life. Together, he and Vera and Callie had kept the place thriving, and life was, if not exciting, at least reasonably content.
Then, ten years ago, his mother died, followed by Callie seven years later. So now there was no one.
There was only Marcus, alone.
Not to say he had no help, of course. Indra was invaluable, and she led the tree crew with an iron fist. She managed the entire farm year-round, not just the sales but planting and maintenance too. Octavia was her second-in-command, managing the staff and general operations. Octavia’s boyfriend Lincoln was the primary field hand, and her brother Bellamy managed a new program they’d started a few years ago for seasonal volunteer help. Bellamy didn’t work at the lodge year-round like his sister – he was, in fact, currently pursuing a masters in Greek, something for which his sister ribbed him endlessly – but every December he returned to supervise a team of what Octavia had lovingly nicknamed “the delinquents” – a motley crew of young people participating in court-ordered community service to avoid juvenile detention. Marcus had been skeptical at first; the idea of turning his land over to a hundred teenage convicts struck him as potentially fraught with peril. But Bellamy had a knack for keeping them in line, and more than a few of them had turned out to be diligent, hardy workers the crew planned to keep around.
Marcus was fond of his staff, but it wasn’t the same. At the end of the day, they all went back to their own lives, and there was no one left but him. With Callie there, with his mother there, this place had been home. The only home he knew. Now it was just his job - except that he also lived here, which meant he couldn’t escape it. But it had stopped being “home” a long time ago.
“If she’s pressuring you to sell the land,” Indra began, but Marcus shook his head.
“Because she seems much more enthusiastic about it than you are.”
“I’m . . . not unenthusiastic. I’m just still deciding.”
“Deciding on what, darling?” came a crisp, elegant female voice from the hallway, and Indra did not even bother to conceal the grimace that flickered over her face as Marcus Kane’s fiancée strode into the room, chic and lovely in an impeccable gray suit.
Diana Sydney had had her eye on Marcus Kane since high school, and it was the triumph of her life that she’d finally gotten him. She was a tall, distinguished-looking woman with a wardrobe of designer suits that always looked a bit out of place in a town like Arkadia, and especially at a place like Eden Tree Farm, where everyone wore boots and jeans. Diana worked in commercial real estate, which meant she had very little business in her own hometown and spent the majority of her work week traveling all over the adjoining counties where suburban sprawl was beginning to creep towards the pristine little hamlet of Arkadia. She’d brokered a massive deal for twelve strip malls a few weeks ago, a career high, and Marcus felt guilty that his congratulations were tinged with a faint hint of nostalgic sadness for all the small-town businesses that would soon be put out of work just so his fiancée could score a six-figure commission.
He was pretty sure he did not love Diana, but he liked her very much. She was quick and clever and could be excellent company, and he found the presence of another human’s breath and heartbeat beside him at night immeasurably reassuring. He was not alone if she was there. Perhaps that was not much of a grand, glorious love story – perhaps his staff had failed to warm to her because they could sense that there were still pieces of himself that Marcus was holding in reserve from the woman he’d decided to marry – but after all, Callie had not been a fairy tale romance either. She’d been his best friend, the only woman he’d ever imagined he would spend his life with, and even after fifteen years of marriage he was still as fond of her as he had been the day they met. It wasn’t a raging inferno of passion, but Marcus suspected he simply wasn’t built that way. And Diana, blissfully, did not expect that of him. She had never asked him for any level of intimacy he did not feel comfortable offering her. It wasn’t a perfect relationship – he wished she was a little more at ease around the farm staff, and she wished he would be more diligent about shaving, since she didn’t like him with a beard – but on the whole they managed very well.
Marcus rose to greet her, kissing her cheek.
“Hello, Diana,” he said, rather formally, more politeness in his voice than genuine warmth; he found himself acutely aware of Indra’s keen gaze focused on the two of them, and felt awkward displaying any attention more overt than this in front of her.
“I’m so sorry,” Diana chirped, “did I interrupt?”
“Not at all,” said Indra evenly, the hint of frost in her tone so subtle that both Marcus and Diana chose to pretend they didn’t hear it. “I was just leaving.”
“Nice to see you, Indra,” the other woman responded politely, which was clearly a dismissal. So Indra rose from her seat to depart, but could not resist taking the opportunity for one last parting shot, in the hopes of knocking Diana off-balance and, if at all possible, ruining her day.
“Oh, by the way,” she remarked casually. “Congratulations are in order for your firm, I believe. I heard the Wallace house finally sold.”
Diana shook her head. “No, the Wallace house is a rental,” she corrected the other woman rather coolly. “It’s managed by a property company we work with, but it wasn’t up for sale. It may have new tenants, but I haven’t heard anything about it. That isn’t really my department.”
“Interesting,” said Indra, in a tone of voice which plainly conveyed that there were very few things on earth she would find less interesting than the intricacies of Diana Sydney’s professional life. “I assumed you would have heard because of who the tenant is.”
Now she had their attention.
“Thelonious came by to pre-order his tree today,” she went on, as she made her way to the door, “and he told me to tell you that an old friend of yours is moving back to town.”
(That was not precisely what Thelonious had said. It was, in fact, close to the opposite. His exact words had been, “For God’s sake don’t tell Diana Sydney while she’s anywhere near sharp objects or mechanical equipment.”)
“Really?” asked Marcus, brow furrowed, running down the list of fellow classmates Thelonious had kept in touch with, and trying to puzzle out which of them was the most likely to return home to the cozy small town most of them had fled from to make lives for themselves in the city. “Did he say who?”
“Her name is Abby Griffin,” Indra tossed casually over her shoulder as she sailed out the door. “She’s arriving this afternoon.”
She did not spoil her exit by lingering, though she did indulge in a brief moment to enjoy the mingled horror and rage that instantly contorted Diana Sydney’s elegant features, before closing the door and leaving them alone again.
The expression on Kane’s face, though – shock, followed by a kind of heavy sadness shadowing his warm brown eyes – took her a bit more by surprise, and as she walked away she found herself wondering what it could mean.
Diana waited until it seemed clear Indra was out of earshot before rounding on Marcus and glaring at him with her arms folded, leaving him on the receiving end of an angry woman’s scowl for the third time in less than an hour.
If this was going to keep up, he would need a drink.
And it was still only ten in the morning.
“Did you know?” Diana began without preamble, and he found himself immediately irritated.
“How would I possibly know, Diana?”
“That isn’t an answer.”
“Of course I didn’t know. You don’t think I’d have said something to you if I had?”
Diana gave him a long, searching look, lips tightly pinched in displeasure, and the intensity of her gaze left him feeling a trifle disconcerted, as though she were snooping through rooms that didn’t belong to her. It was silent for a long moment before she finally gave a curt nod, apparently satisfied that he was telling her the truth, and her tense posture relaxed a bit.
“I wonder what on earth she can be doing back in Arkadia after all this time,” she finally said, breaking the silence and dropping into the seat across the desk which Indra had recently vacated, crossing her perfect legs so the red soles of her pricey (and antique-hardwood-floor-destroying) Louboutin pumps were visible to him. “You’d think after so many years in Boston, this town would feel too small for her.”
“She must be taking over the hospital administrator position.”
“Oh,” said Diana, surprised. “Yes, you must be right. Do you think that means she’s here to stay? I mean for good?”
“I’d imagine so, yes,” Marcus agreed absently, returning to the stack of papers on his desk from which Octavia had first interrupted him. “Do we have to talk about this right now?”
“I’ve never liked that woman.”
“Jake was a different story, of course.”
“Of course,” Marcus murmured, feeling a cold little needle of grief pierce his chest and swallowing hard to repress it immediately. “Everyone liked Jake.”
“You couldn’t help but like him, really,” mused Diana thoughtfully, as Marcus realized with some irritation that his fiancée was not about to let the topic go anytime soon, no matter how hard he pretended to be going over the receipts and ignoring her. “He had a warmer energy. Don’t you think?”
“Very much so.”
“And Abby isn’t warm at all. I mean I’m sure she has many sterling qualities, but I wouldn’t call that one of them.”
“Mmm-hmm,” Marcus muttered noncommittally.
“Really clever people rarely are, I’ve found. She’s certainly smart, she was always smart, but I never found her very easy to be around.”
“How a man like Jake Griffin managed to stay married for so long to the most stubborn know-it-all in the entire town, I’m sure I don’t know.”
“They were in love,” said Marcus, a little too sharply, without looking up. “We can’t help who we do or don’t fall in love with.”
There was something in his tone that Diana found she did not quite like, causing her to steer them into rather safer waters, but it left an unsettling sensation she could not shake.
“The daughter must be a teenager by now, right? Or in college?”
“Twenty,” Marcus replied without thinking, “she’s the same age as Octavia.”
“I always forget what she’s called. It was some kind of strange masculine name. I don’t remember exactly.”
“Of course,” said Diana, watching him closely with narrowed eyes. “Clarke. That’s right.” There was a frosty little pause before she added in an elaborately nonchalant voice, “You do seem rather up to date on the details of the Griffins’ lives for someone who claims not to care much about them either way.”
“The Jahas have stayed in touch with them,” said Marcus stiffly, not sure why Diana made him feel so defensive. “Wells and Clarke were always close. I pick things up when I’m over there for dinner.” Diana didn’t answer. “For God’s sake,” he sighed, a tiny bit more snappishly than he meant, “I’m not withholding anything from you. I didn’t find out she was moving back until you did. Just now. From Indra.”
Diana gave him a long look. “You and the Griffins used to be very close, once upon a time. And Abby Griffin was quite good friends with . . . your wife, I recall.” (Diana generally avoided saying Callie’s name out loud.)
Marcus looked away. “That was a long time ago,” he muttered, busying himself with the paperwork on his desk. “We were kids then. People grow apart.”
“That’s true,” Diana allowed graciously, pleased by this answer and by the utter disinterest in his tone.
“This town’s small, but it’s not that small,” said Marcus flatly, without looking up. “I don’t imagine we’ll see very much of Abby Griffin at all.”
“You’re right,” Diana agreed, fully reassured now, and reached out to pat him on the hand, admiring the glimmer of her engagement ring beneath the glow of his office lamp. “I don’t imagine we will.”
“Mom, what is it?” her daughter yelled from inside the giant U-Haul trailer hitched to the back of their car, her voice muffled by boxes.
“No,” said Abby Griffin again, rubbing her eyes. “No. This cannot possibly be happening.”
“I can’t hear you! Yell louder!”
“Clarke, stop what you’re doing and get over here.”
“Hang on, I’m looking for the file with the rental paperwork in it.”
“That won’t be necessary,” said her mother grimly, her tone finally getting her daughter’s attention. There was a loud succession of thumping noises as Clarke climbed back over the wall of boxes to hop down from the trailer onto the snowy street, dusting off her hands as she made her way to the sidewalk where her mother stood gazing up with an expression of disbelief at the two-story brick townhouse that was meant to be their new home.
“Um,” said Clarke, temporarily at a loss for words as mother and daughter stood for a long moment in silence.
“CLOSED FOR REPAIRS,” announced the wholly unnecessary sign taped onto the front door, as though the Griffins couldn’t see the massive tree branch the size of a small car which had broken off under the weight of an unusually heavy snow and caved in a corner of the roof.
“Well, unless one of those eight thousand boxes marked ‘miscellaneous’ that came out of your room contains a spare roof, I’m not quite sure what to do here,” Abby said, pulling out her cell phone. “Maybe the landlord has some answers.”
The utter magnitude of her shock was so vast that she found herself remarkably calm. She and her daughter had packed up their entire lives, sold their house in Boston, and driven all day through the snow, hauling a giant trailer behind them, to the town where she had grown up, and where a furnished rental house was waiting for them to move in at 4 pm today. And here it was 4 pm on the dot, because the Griffin women were relentlessly punctual, they had more than held up their end of the bargain, and the deposit check had already cleared, but the house in front of them was very clearly unlivable.
I could so easily panic right now, Abby thought to herself, pressing the sensation downward. But I won’t. Because we have to handle this. I have to handle this. I don’t have time to panic. First things first. Call the landlord.
But this turned out to be almost immediately unnecessary, as a small blue car sped around the corner and screeched to a halt in front of the house. Abby paused mid-dial, attention caught by the sound, and turned to see a dark-haired, rosy-cheeked girl who could hardly be more than Clarke’s age leap out, leaving the motor still running.
“I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry!” she gasped, out of breath as though she’d run an entire mile to get to them, and a great deal of Abby’s irritation died down immediately now that there was someone there who needed mothering.
“Take a breath,” she advised wryly. “It’s okay. We’re not going anywhere, as you can see.”
“My dad got stuck doing a repair job for one of his other properties that’s ten miles out of town and he didn’t realize how late it had gotten so he called me and I raced over here from choir practice just as fast as I could to tell you that the house –"
“ . . . has an oak tree sprouting from the attic,” said Abby. “Yes, we caught that.”
“I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry, I’m so –"
“It’s okay,” said Abby, patting the girl’s shoulder. “Unless you actually struck the tree with lightning and split that branch off yourself, none of this is your fault. I just wish someone had called me.”
“We did,” said the girl breathlessly, “like ten times, but your carrier must not get reception on this side of the mountains."
Abby looked at her cell phone more closely and realized the girl was right. She'd had it in her purse in the backseat the whole drive from Boston, and she'd been too distracted by the roof damage to notice the "NO SIGNAL" warning as she had tried to dial.
"It's better on the other side of town," the girl said reassuringly, "it's just that the south side is mostly a dead spot."
“What’s your name?” Clarke asked her.
“Maya,” said the girl. “Maya Vie. My dad Vincent, he’s the property manager. He says to tell you that they’re going to put a brand-new roof in for you, no charge, because the insurance will cover it, and they even have a crew willing to get to work on it right away. Normally they’d wait to start until the temperatures were above freezing because it affects the equipment and the sealant and things like that, but Dad says they’re sure they can get you in by January 1st at the latest. Maybe even earlier.”
Abby looked from the girl to the roof to the U-Haul and back again, struggling not to lose her temper at someone who, after all, hadn't done anything wrong. “Maya, we’ve packed up our entire life,” she explained patiently. “We don’t have a house in Boston anymore. I start my new job on the 1st. If we can’t move in for a month, we don’t have anywhere else to go.”
“Oh, but that's taken care of,” Maya reassured her hastily. “Don’t worry. The insurance covers that too. We can book rooms for both of you.”
Abby froze. “Book us rooms . . . here in town somewhere?”
“Of course. To make sure you’re settled in time to start your new job.”
“Is there a new hotel in town, by any chance?” she asked, rather desperately. “Hostel? Bed and breakfast? RV camp? Anything?”
“No, but don’t worry,” Maya said cheerfully, “the Eden Tree Lodge is absolutely beautiful. And they have several rooms open, Dad called this morning to check and spoke to the manager himself, just to make sure.”
Clarke looked at her mother curiously, puzzled by the unreadable expression on Abby’s face.
“He talked to the manager,” Abby repeated numbly. “The manager knows we’re coming.”
“Well, no, Dad didn’t give him any information yet, he just asked if there was a pair of adjoining rooms available. He didn’t want to confirm anything until we’d spoken to you.”
“So he doesn’t know,” Abby said, taking off her glasses and rubbing her eyes wearily as the two girls watched her in puzzlement. “That might be worse, actually. Or better. Hard to say.”
“Mom?” Clarke asked, worried. “You okay?”
“It’s fine,” said Abby briskly, shaking it off. “The manager of the lodge is just . . . someone that I used to know. That’s all.”
“Really?” Maya exclaimed. “Did you know the Kanes before you moved?”
Abby nodded. Clarke stared.
“Marcus Kane?” she asked. “I remember that name.”
“Yes,” said Abby, carefully maintaining a neutral tone. “His name is Marcus. We used to know him. But I haven’t seen him in twenty years, except at weddings and funerals. We don’t really talk.”
“Should be fun living in the same building for a whole month then,” said Clarke dryly. “Don’t worry. I’m good at awkward silences.”
“It will be fine,” said Abby firmly. “I’m not worried about Marcus Kane right now, I’m worried about this trailer full of boxes, and what on earth we’re going to do with them.”
Maya brightened at this, realizing there was a problem she could actually help with, and was grateful for a subject change. “We took care of that too!” she announced. “There’s a pair of movers coming in the next ten or fifteen minutes, and they’ll help you haul everything into the garage, which is all weatherproofed and everything, and then you can take just the boxes you need and head to the lodge and get checked in. I’ll call Dad and let him know to go ahead and book the rooms.”
“Thank you,” said Clarke sincerely. “You guys have seriously thought of everything.”
“I’m only sorry you won’t get to have a very Christmasy Christmas,” said Maya apologetically. “You’d think, since it’s on a Christmas tree farm, that the lodge would be a little bit more festive, but Marcus doesn’t decorate or do any holiday stuff.”
“What are you talking about?” Abby asked in some surprise, “the Kanes love Christmas.”
“Not Marcus, I guess,” said Maya. “They haven’t had so much as a wreath on the door for years.”
“Wow,” said Abby. “Things sure have changed around here.”
Clarke wanted to ask her more – there seemed to be something behind the story that her mother wasn’t telling her – but the movers arrived just then, and the next three hours were nothing but boxes, more boxes, a hasty dinner, and more boxes. The Griffins didn’t get a moment alone with each other until they were on their way to the Lodge with a trunk full of suitcases.
“Is he nice?”
Abby was startled out of her silent contemplation of the snowy road in front of her, and turned to her daughter in the passenger seat. “What?”
“Marcus Kane. Is he nice?”
Abby hesitated. “No,” she finally said honestly. “Not from what I remember. Maybe he’s changed, but the last time I spent any time with him, he definitely wasn’t.”
“But he was your friend, once, wasn’t he?”
Abby shrugged, the pain she’d felt twenty years ago now dulled into a sturdy, impenetrable armor. Nothing Marcus Kane did could hurt her, not now, after all this time. “He was your father’s friend,” she amended mildly. “Or, well, both I suppose, at one point, but really more his than mine.”
“Sometimes people just grow apart, honey.”
“Mom.” Clarke’s voice was insistent. She could always tell when there was something her mother wasn’t telling her.
There was a faint pause before Abby, too exhausted from the insanity of the day, finally sighed and gave in, too tired to withstand Clarke’s continued pressure.
“He was your dad’s best man,” she said finally. “Did you know that?”
Clarke shook her head, puzzled. “How come he’s not in the wedding photos?”
“Because he was drunk,” said Abby in a clipped voice. “He and your dad had been really close friends all through high school and college, and his wife Callie was one of my best friends too. Callie was my matron of honor, in fact. They were married before we were. He showed up at the church drunk, and in a foul mood. Nobody knew why, not even Callie. Lurching and stumbling and saying appalling things to everyone. Thelonious managed to rein him in enough to get through the ceremony more or less intact, without embarrassing everyone, but at the reception he kept drinking. Swiped a bottle of Scotch from the bar and just wandered off. He missed his toast,” she said in a rather terse voice, and Clarke could tell she was trying very hard to tell the story without feeling any of the emotions behind it, the way she did sometimes when she had to talk about her husband’s death with strangers. “I was pissed, mostly, but your dad was really hurt. He and Thelonious finally found Marcus in the parking lot outside, and tried to call him a cab, and he said some things to both of them that were apparently too unpleasant to repeat; neither of them ever told me. Jake thought Marcus had a drinking problem and wasn’t dealing with it very well, but Thelonious and I thought it was the opposite.”
“What do you mean, the opposite?”
“That he had a lot of other problems and when he wasn’t dealing with them very well, he drank.”
“Isn’t that the same thing?”
“I don’t know,” said Abby finally. “Maybe it is.”
“Was that the last time you saw him?”
Abby shook her head. “He came to your dad’s funeral,” she said. “He didn’t say anything to me – hardly looked at me, in fact, he sat in the back with Callie and Thelonious – but he did come. And I went to Callie’s funeral, and his mother’s. But we barely spoke.”
“I wonder if he’s changed,” Clarke mused thoughtfully. “That Maya girl seems to like him a lot. And she probably wouldn’t if he was still a mean drunk.”
“Well, it doesn’t matter,” Abby said, turning down the winding lane that led to Eden Tree Farm, gripping the steering wheel a little too tightly. “We’re just guests renting a room, and he runs the whole place plus the farm on the other side of the property. I don’t imagine we’ll see very much of Marcus Kane at all.”