Chapter 1: December 1st
“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.”
Chapter 2: December 2nd
Clarke woke up to the smell of Christmas trees.
Her room was lovely, high-ceilinged and open but still cozy, its walls and floor built of lush golden-grained planks worn smooth as polished glass. The huge picture window across from her bed, curtained in heavy snow-white cotton, looked out onto the back of the property where the grounds of the inn sloped downward into an ocean of green. At the farthest end sat a merry red barn in the center of a huge paved lot where Clarke could see a bustling crowd of people and cars; the tree farm was open, and doing a brisk business.
Mom wasn’t awake yet (a lifetime in hospitals had taught her to seize the opportunity for extra sleep whenever she could get it, and they’d had an exhausting day yesterday on many fronts), so Clarke pulled on her jeans and sweater, laced up her boots, dug her warm coat and scarf out of the pile she’d dumped unceremoniously on her floor before bed, and made her way downstairs. The dining room was full of breakfasting patrons, and the scent of pancakes was a powerful lure, but she didn't quite feel up to another run-in with Marcus Kane just yet after the disaster of their arrival; so she poured herself a huge cup of black coffee from the gorgeous silver coffee and tea station in the lobby, grabbed a chocolate chip cookie from the tray (Really? Not even gingerbread?, she thought, rolling her eyes somewhat. Maya wasn't kidding, he really is a Grinch) and set out to explore the farm.
The trees were planted in tidy straight lines in order of age, so they began at the top of the hill at about the height of Clarke's knee, then increased in size as she walked, giving her the unsettling feeling of shrinking like Alice in Wonderland as a forest rose up around her, made even more magical by the scents of pine and coffee and the crunch of snow underneath her feet. It was a walk of about fifteen minutes from the lodge down to the barn, and the overwhelming attachment Clarke had instantly felt towards Eden Tree Farm only heightened as she meandered lazily through the orderly rows of pine, ascending in height as she got closer to the lot. By the time she hit the bottom of the slope and arrived at the chain-link gate, the trees were so tall that only the grandest living room would accommodate them, though clearly that wasn’t a dealbreaker here in Arkadia; even among the nine- and ten-foot rows she saw more than a few clean-cut stumps where a tree had already been claimed.
“You’re not supposed to come this way,” said a voice, startling her, and she turned to see a tall, freckled young man watching her enter through the gap in the fence. “You have to check in with Octavia and get a number.”
“I’m not a customer,” said Clarke. “I’m staying at the lodge. I was just taking a morning walk.”
He stared blankly. “At the lodge?” he repeated. “Are you new? We were there for breakfast yesterday but you don't look familiar. Did you check in last night?” Clarke nodded, and suddenly the man’s eyes lit up and he flashed her a crooked grin that seemed born for making trouble. “You must be Abby Griffin’s daughter.”
Clarke stared, wondering if they’d met, struggling to place him. “How do you know my mom? You’re too young to remember her before she left, aren’t you?”
“Your mom?” came a sharp female voice over the tall young man’s shoulder and a petite girl about Clarke’s age bounced up beside him. “Are you the new inn people?” She looked at the freckled young man, eyes sparkling inquisitively. “Is this her?”
“I’m Clarke Griffin,” she said, still puzzled. “Who are you? How do you know my mom?”
“We don’t,” said the girl, “but we’ve heard a lot about you. We’re the Blakes. I’m Octavia, this is Bellamy. We help Indra over there” - gesturing to the woman hauling a fir tree over her shoulder to strap onto the roof of a customer’s car - “run the tree farm for Marcus.”
“We’ve never met your mom, but Thelonious told Indra and Indra told us."
"Word travels fast in small towns, apparently," Clarke observed, amused and alarmed that apparently her entire life story was known by strangers before she'd even finished her coffee on her first day in Arkadia.
“Anyone Diana Sydney hates is a friend of ours,” added Octavia, grinning at Clarke’s visible wincing. “I take it they met,” she said dryly.
“Oh, Lord yes,” Clarke sighed. “They certainly did.”
It had not been an auspicious beginning.
When she looked back on it later, after everything that happened, Clarke reflected that she should have seen the whole thing coming when she first walked into Eden Tree Lodge, arms laden with overnight bags and piles of clothes they’d dug out of the packing boxes in the shed. It all should have been clear to her from the moment she looked up to see her mother, a few paces ahead of her, freeze in her tracks halfway to the wooden desk marked “RECEPTION,” staring at something on the other side of a doorway that Clarke couldn’t see.
Clarke set the heap of luggage down on a nearby wooden bench and walked up to join her, but Mom didn't even notice her. She was rooted to the spot, staring through an open door with an “EMPLOYEES ONLY” sign that led to a narrow hall with a handful of other doors, one of which was open and led to what was clearly the manager’s office.
With the manager still in it.
Clarke never forgot her first impression of Marcus Kane, forever linked as it was with the memory of her mother’s face as she stood watching him. She'd seemed okay in the car, and Clarke hadn't been anticipating anything worse than a few moments of mild social awkwardness. But Mom looked stricken, like the past had all come rushing back to her in a flood as she stood there and stared, unseen, at her husband's best friend who she'd barely spoken to in twenty years.
Something here is very wrong, thought Clarke, with a little shiver of premonition. The Griffin women did not keep secrets from each other, not ever, not about anything. Which meant if there was more to Mom's feelings than Mom had told her, it was something Mom didn't even know she knew.
He was tall, she could tell even though he was seated, and bent over a desk. Big and broad-shouldered with thick brown hair the same color as the glossy wood of the lodge’s walls and floors, and a dark beard peppered with white and gray. He wore a blue and gray flannel shirt with the sleeves rolled up to reveal the powerful arms of a man who’d grown up working the land, and even though at the moment he was sitting in front of a laptop in a pair of tortoiseshell reading glasses, buried in what appeared to be a mountain of paperwork, Clarke felt she had never seen a man and a building appear so inextricably connected to each other as Eden Tree Lodge and Marcus Kane. Rustic and spare and unfussy, though a little rumpled around the edges. Warm. Comfortable. Pine and flannel and brown eyes and and the sound of a crackling fireplace and something elusive in the air that made her think of her father even though she couldn't quite put her finger on what it was. Home, she thought inexplicably, the word appearing in her mind out of nowhere, even though she had never seen this place before in her life, or even known it existed before today. The house on the other side of town, with its shed full of boxes and its caved-in roof and its complete lack of cell phone service, evaporated from her memory, and from the moment she got her first real look at Eden Tree Lodge she never wanted to leave it.
“Hi!” she said, startling all three of them (herself included), and then everything changed.
Marcus Kane looked up from his work and saw Abby Griffin for the first time in more than twenty years. He was startled to his feet by the sight of them and it took him a long, long moment to compose his face; uncertainty flashed in his eyes as he looked at Abby, followed by something dark and sad, as he turned his gaze and Clarke realized with a start that he wasn’t looking at her mother.
He was looking at her.
“My God,” he murmured under his breath, voice low and full of emotion. “You look just like him.”
Clarke felt the sting of tears in her eyes, and didn’t know what to say. Mom was frozen too, and offered no help; her jaw was set in that expression Clarke knew meant she was fighting back tears as well. No one said anything, for far too long. They just stood there miserably, the three of them, triangulated around the ghost of Jake Griffin, each thinking their own sad, private thoughts, looking from one to the other. Clarke had only just begun to wonder if there was any possible way to recover from this opening or if they should just flee and sleep in the car, when the moment was both salvaged and destroyed at once by the unexpected appearance of a fourth person, breaking the walls of the triangle.
"Abby," came a sharp female voice as a figure rose from her seat in the corner of Marcus Kane's office and glided forth to greet them, revealing herself to be a tall, lovely blonde woman in a suit Clarke thought far too posh for a place like this, who leaned in to kiss Mom on both cheeks before taking Kane's arm in a way that could only be described as proprietary. “My God, it’s been years. You look terrific.”
“You remember Diana Sydney,” said Marcus rather gratefully, snapping out of his reverie and returning to the present. “From Arkadia High. My . . ."
The pause went on just a hair too long before Diana finished “... fiancee” for him, and extended her hand to shake Clarke’s. “Very nice to meet you, Clarke. He’s right. You look just like your father.”
But the words that had ached with loss and heartfelt emotion when Marcus Kane had uttered them, almost involuntarily, rang false in Diana’s cool, pleasant tone, and made everyone more uncomfortable than not. Still, the ice had been broken, and they could proceed more normally from there.
“Darling,” said Diana, laying a hand on his arm, “the Griffins must be exhausted, they’ve been driving all day. They probably want to check in.”
Marcus shook himself slightly and nodded abruptly. “Yes,” he muttered, “of course,” and came around the desk to enter the lobby and take his place behind the reception desk. Abby followed him. There was a brief tussle over check-in - Marcus insisting that Vincent Vie had already settled the bill for her and Abby insisting that she was perfectly capable of paying for it herself, then Marcus handing her two room keys and Abby insisting she and Clarke would be fine sharing because they must be busy over the holidays, and Marcus rather stiffly insisting that there was plenty of room. Clarke wandered away to examine the black and white photographs on the walls, framed in the same glossy dark wood as the walls. Diana followed her.
“That’s his mother,” she said, pointing to the kind-faced older woman. “Vera. She was the manager before. They used to run the place together.”
“Family business,” said Clarke. “That’s cool. Have you lived here your whole life, Marcus?”
“Arkadia’s native son,” Abby answered for him. “This tree farm is part of the fabric of this town. It wouldn’t be Arkadia without a Kane behind this desk.”
She’d meant it to be kind, but Marcus stiffened visibly. “Yes,” he agreed in a terse voice, “not all of us ran off to the big city the second they had the chance to escape. Some of us stayed and made our lives here.”
Clarke looked at her mother, worried, afraid she would see a hurt look on Abby’s face, but instead, bizarrely, her mother appeared to have relaxed. It was as though the blatant rudeness of the insult had swung the whole world back into focus and she’d found, finally, the man she had expected to find. A man she didn’t like, had very little to say to, and with whom she was simply participating in an unwelcome but necessary business transaction.
For a few moments, in the doorway, she’d felt something - Clarke was sure of it - and she was relieved, now, that she didn’t have to feel it anymore.
False alarm, Clarke could feel her mother thinking as palpably as if the words were written in neon above her head. He’s still an asshole.
“Well, that’s what happens when you grow up in a town without a medical school,” she said easily. “Sooner or later you have to run away from home. You should try it sometime.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing. Just that you haven’t changed a bit.”
“He’s changed more than you give him credit for,” said Diana a little defensively. “He’s planning on selling the land, in fact. We’re thinking of moving to L.A.”
This got Abby’s attention, all digs forgotten. “What?” she exclaimed. “You’re going to sell Eden Tree Farm?”
“I haven’t decided yet,” Marcus grumbled, glowering from one woman to the other as though he couldn’t decide which of the two he was most irritated at - Abby, for so blatantly judging him, or Diana for bringing it up. “I’m considering it.”
“We’re considering it,” Diana amended, a trifle possessively. “Since we’re getting married, it’s a decision we’ll be making together, of course.”
“Isn’t it his land?” Clarke asked before she could stop herself, and Diana’s friendly smile evaporated.
“Of course,” she said rather snappishly, “but once we’re married it will be ours together and we need to do what’s best for both of us.”
“I can’t imagine Marcus Kane in L.A.,” said Abby. “Good God. What would you do there? You’d be bored out of your mind. You’d hate it. You didn’t even like New York when we went there for five days on our eighth grade field trip. You thought there were too many people.”
“There were too many people.”
“How’s L.A. an improvement over Manhattan, then? It’s the same number of people, plus all their cars.”
“Yes, but I’d never have to look at another damn Fraser fir as long as I live.”
“You’d miss it.”
“Not a chance.”
“I can’t imagine you growing palm trees. Or avocados. Vera Kane would roll over in her grave.”
Diana stiffened, as though bracing for Marcus to take offense at Abby’s casual mention of his mother, but he didn't even blink.
“I think if she were here she’d tell me I’m doing a poor enough job running her business that I might as well pack it in altogether,” said Marcus, and even though his tone was sarcastic there was a sting of bitter self-recrimination inside it that made everyone uncomfortable.
“I think it’s really nice,” said Clarke helpfully. “Though I see you don’t have your Christmas decorations up yet. Do you need help with that?”
“No,” Kane said with great force.
“You sure? We’re here all month anyway, and we’ll be bored out of our minds.”
Diana’s face went white. “A month?” she repeated, staring wildly from Kane to Abby and back again. “A month . . . here? At the inn?”
“Why?” asked Abby. “Is that a problem? We were told there was plenty of room.”
“That’s just . . . a very long time to be living out of boxes,” the other woman finally managed, convincing no one. Marcus seemed confused, Abby irritated, and Clarke both defensive on her mother’s behalf - really, how insecure was this woman that she couldn’t handle her boyfriend’s inn having female guests? - and amused at how easy it was to provoke her.
“Oh, we don’t mind,” Clarke said breezily. “It’s a big repair job, and it takes longer in the winter, Maya said. Freezing temperatures affect the equipment. And Vincent is paying for it, because their insurance covers the damage and all the expenses. So we told him to take his time, you know, however long it takes to do it right. We can handle a month or two of living out of suitcases, can’t we, Mom?”
“A month or two?” Now Diana was positively green around the gills. Abby raised her eyebrow at her daughter as if to say Please don’t give the lady a heart attack on my behalf, so Clarke didn’t push her luck any further.
“Well,” said Marcus, not looking at anyone, “hopefully if we’re lucky it won’t take nearly that long.”
Then he handed Abby a pair of keys, curtly informed her that breakfast was served between seven and nine, returned to his office (Diana following behind), and closed the door with something that was just barely not a slam.
They had not seen him again.
Clarke relayed the bare bones of this to Bellamy and Octavia, adding in a brief sketch of her conversation with Mom in the car about Marcus getting drunk at the wedding, an anecdote which astonished the Blakes.
“You don’t understand,” said Bellamy. “I’ve never seen him drunk once. I’ve never seen him have more than like two beers at a staff barbecue. This doesn’t sound like him at all.”
“Well, it’s what happened.”
“I hope you do end up staying for two months,” said Octavia frankly. “Anything to annoy Diana Sydney. And maybe drive her away if we can.”
“What’s her deal?”
“None of us like her. Not just because she’s terrible for Marcus -”
“- though she absolutely is terrible for Marcus -”
“- but because he would never even be considering selling the land if it weren’t for her.”
“That came up yesterday,” Clarke informed them. “Diana wants them to move to L.A.” The Blakes both shuddered. “Well, look,” said Clarke reasonably, “if he wants to sell it he should be able to sell it. Let someone else with dreams of running a small-town inn come in and take it over. There must be someone in this town who would jump at the chance to sell Christmas trees for a living.”
The Blakes looked at each other. “Diana doesn’t want to sell the farm and the lodge,” said Octavia finally. "She wants to sell the land. The other end of the farm comes right to the Arkadia city limits, and the county wants to put a freeway in. Which would make this land ripe for real estate developers to come in and raze the whole thing to the ground, for condos or strip malls or something."
"What?" Clarke was aghast. "We cannot let Diana turn this farm into a strip mall."
Bellamy opened his hands in a gesture of surrender. "Hey, we're with you," he said. "Any ideas you got, we're happy to consider. We're at our wits' end over here. Everyone's contracts run out on December 31st and nobody knows if they'll still have jobs after that."
"I'm here for a month, with nothing to do," said Clarke. "And I can't sit in a hotel room all day. Even a very nice one. I'll go crazy if I don't have a project. I'm in for whatever you need."
"You want a job?" asked Bellamy. "It's not glamorous work, I know you were in art school or whatever, but if you're around through the holidays anyway and you want something to do . . ."
"Oh my God, please say yes," said Octavia, "he needs a partner to help him manage the delinquents so bad."
"Come meet Indra," said Bellamy. "I'll explain on the way. You're saying yes, right?"
"I'm saying yes."
"It doesn't pay much."
"I don't need much. I just need something to do all day long besides watch Marcus Kane and my mom awkwardly avoid each other."
"Great," said Octavia, "then it's settled. You're hired. You'll co-manage the kids, and in between, we're going to figure out a way to keep Eden Tree Farm once and for all, and get rid of Diana while we're at it."
"I don't suppose we can just like . . . make Kane fall in love with your mom," said Bellamy dejectedly. "It would be so convenient."
"Unlikely," said Clarke with a laugh as they made their way towards the barn. "You should have seen them last night. I'll be surprised if they can even stand to be in the same room with each other. It's gonna be a long month."
Clarke had no idea that, back up at the inn, Marcus Kane was thinking the exact same thing.
It's gonna be a long month, he muttered irritably to himself as he carried out a fresh pot of coffee for the dining room sideboard and watched Abby Griffin make effortless conversation with their only other long-term guests for the season, a pair of Indra's nieces named Niylah and Luna. At the moment, she was buttering a scone and being funny about the various travails of their road trip from Boston, and the girls were laughing, and he was irritated afresh every time she mentioned living in the city. Well, sorry we don't have Korean barbecue or five-hundred-dollar hair salons here, he thought to himself. Sorry this is just the place you were born where we only have one barber and the most exotic food is pizza, but everyone actually knows each other and people actually care about the town. Sorry we're not cool enough for you.
This was the root of his most regular and consistent argument with Diana, and which he'd not been at all pleased to have her bring up again so casually last night for Abby Griffin to unerringly put her finger on. Marcus did not, in fact, want to move to Los Angeles. California he was fine with. Warm weather sounded nice. It would be strange learning to live someplace that didn't have four distinct seasons, but up north, in the redwoods, you got fog and chilly autumn mornings and things were green and towns were smaller, and that California sounded perfectly manageable. But he would never be a beach person or a downtown person or a condo person, and most crucially, he would never be a city person, and that was the piece Diana struggled to grasp. Because Diana was a city person, and he knew as well as she did that there was a career ceiling for her here in Arkadia and eventually she would leave to go someplace else where she could do the work she wanted, and Marcus would have to either move with her or break up and stay here alone. And Eden Tree Farm was a two-person job, at minimum; it had been best with three, when Callie and Vera had both been here, but managing it himself with no company but their ghosts was a wearing business that made even Los Angeles, at times, seem tempting.
The problem was that he did not know what he wanted. And Diana did know what she wanted, and most of the time it seemed easier to just believe that what he wanted and what she wanted were the same, because often they were, and because that saved him from being forced to ask himself some questions he'd decided on the whole it was easier to leave unanswered.
She'd been more amorous than usual last night, which was unlike her, and which ordinarily would have been a pleasant surprise but which for some reason he couldn't sort out had been met with more confused emotions than usual. She rarely slept over at his apartment, preferring her own sleek chrome-and-glass condo on the far end of Arkadia, in the town's one newly-built housing development. Marcus' apartment on the top floor of the inn was a bit too rustic for her; the HVAC system didn't reach up there all the way, so he heated it with the same old iron woodstove his grandparents had used when they lived here, and most of the furniture was what Diana politely referred to as "quaint," from the four-poster bed his great-grandfather had carved to the big leather armchairs worn buttery-soft with age where he used to read by the fire with his mother. Diana claimed she never slept well in the inn - too much noise from the guests below, from the crackle of the old woodstove, the creak of the floors, the wind whistling at the rickety single-paned windows which were cold to the touch all winter long. And she liked her own expensive memory foam mattress better than Marcus' far more ancient one, with its telltale squeaks every time either of them rolled over. She did not like to make love in his bed.
But she had last night, and Marcus had been surprised to find himself, if not resistant, or even ambivalent, at the very least a trifle more uncomfortable about it than he ordinarily was. Diana had been there when he checked the Griffins in, after all, so she knew as well as he did that Abby was in the room directly below Kane's apartment. The first and second floors were full, the third completely empty, and Vincent Vie had paid for the two corner suites. He had put Clarke on the north end, divining with the unerring instincts of a man who'd run an inn since he was twenty that she would want the view of the trees, and put Abby on the south end, down the hall, on the assumption that she would rather have the one with the bathtub. He'd been right on both counts, because he was very good at his job, and they'd both found their accommodations unexpectedly perfect; but it meant that he'd been unable to avoid the knowledge that her bedroom was situated directly below his. And since Diana knew it too - and since the creaks and squeaks of the mattress had been a deterrent to lovemaking dozens of times in the past - he was more than a little surprised when she followed him upstairs after he finished the accounts and told him to unzip her dress.
It wasn't bad, with Diana. It was never bad. She was a bolder and more confident person than Callie had been, and that carried over in bed; with Callie there had been sweetness, intimacy, decades of affection, and the part of Marcus that might once have yearned for something more raw, more passionate had long since gone quiet by the time Diana arrived. And so if, with her, the sweetness was gone, perhaps that was the tradeoff for finally experiencing the heat of being wanted by someone very, very badly. He'd ceased to believe it would be possible to have both, so he taught himself to stop missing the feeling of Callie curling up trustingly against his chest to fall asleep in his arms (Diana preferred to get dressed afterwards, and drive home to her own bed).
So it had been good - not great, not amazing, but definitely good, and more affectionate than usual, and after awhile he managed to push out of his mind the picture of Abby Griffin lying in her bed directly below, listening to every creak of the mattress or thump of the bedposts against the wall and knowing exactly what they meant.
But it had been easier to push that awareness out of his mind last night, while it was happening. Much harder in the cold clear light of day, as she held out her coffee cup for a refill and looked at him with something in her eyes that seemed to mingle amusement with patronizing disdain. She had never liked Diana Sydney, dating back to their particularly brutal runoff election for sixth grade class president, and Marcus knew that he'd diminished somewhat in her esteem from the moment Diana had announced to Abby last night that they were engaged.
But they were engaged, and he'd been perfectly fine with it before Abby showed up, and there was no reason for him to feel differently about it now than he did twenty-four hours ago, so he was profoundly irritated at himself that her arrival had changed anything whatsoever. But it had. Why should he be embarrassed about it, if Abby had overheard him in bed with his fiancee? So what? It wasn't like they were teenagers anymore, they were halfway through their forties for God's sake, there was no reason for him to feel awkward or for that awkwardness to make him defensive, except that it was somehow all tied up with the way she talked so airily about the big-city amenities she missed and the fact that he'd had to make budget cuts in the kitchen staff which left him helping out with the breakfast service himself and couldn't avoid having to wait on her and the way she'd always been the first one with her hand up every time the teacher asked a question in every class from kindergarten through senior year.
Superior. That's what she was. Or what she thought she was, anyway. She might look at him with something that felt like condescension, for the fact that he'd never left the town - or even the house - where he was born, but she was the one who hadn't changed at all.
The girl, he didn't think he minded so much, despite how alarmingly she resembled Jake. But a whole month of Abby Griffin underfoot was going to kill him.
Maybe if he bribed Vincent Vie he could speed the roof repair process along. Maybe Diana could find them a house. Maybe she'd hate it here and move back to Boston.
Yes, that was it. Of course, that was it. Abby wasn't built for a place like this, any more than Diana was. She'd leave on her own soon enough. He just had to give her a push. Then, once she was gone, everything would go back to normal. Once she was gone he'd get her out from beneath his skin.
He'd spent twenty years forgetting Abby Griffin existed; he could certainly do it again.
He just couldn't do it with her sitting in front of him.
Chapter 3: December 3rd
She was only four minutes early to the meeting, which to Diana Sydney counted as being late.
Ten was her minimum, but fifteen was better. More than fifteen and you became an inconvenience; people always felt obligated to hurry through whatever they were doing to accommodate you, so by the time the meeting actually began they already felt rushed and annoyed. Less than ten, and inevitably the person waiting for you would experience at least one moment of subconscious questioning (Are they really coming? What if they don’t come?) and the anxiety followed by relief when you finally arrived could make introductions awkward. No, ten to fifteen minutes was the ideal window, perfectly calibrated to ensure that every time Diana showed up for a meeting she was received on the best terms possible. Little things made all the difference. This was one of the many tricks that made her so good at commercial real estate, a job which so often required explaining to clients that what they actually wanted didn't exist and convincing them to buy something else instead. She’d never been a woman who could effortlessly get people to like her, she had to work for it, but over the years she’d developed a set of learned behaviors that smoothed over the harsh edges as much as possible to create something that, if it wasn’t quite natural charisma, was at least a carefully-calculated sort of charm.
But this morning she’d almost blown it, she’d missed her own window and arrived to find everyone already seated in the conference room, forcing her to make a more conspicuous entrance than she liked and appear actually late even though she wasn't, and she was irritated at Abby Griffin even though rationally she understood that it was hardly directly the other woman’s fault.
It would all have been so much easier if she’d slept at her own apartment last night, like usual, and she still wasn’t entirely sure why she hadn’t. Marcus’ mattress was horrible. The whole apartment, really, was a disaster - Vera’s taste was nothing like her own – and Diana’s only comfort was that it would be far easier to persuade him to get their own place once they were married. (In L.A., if all went well. Someplace modern and open and airy, big sunny windows and clean white walls and furnishings actually made in this century which she wouldn’t be embarrassed for friends to see.) Diana hated spending the night at the inn. How vast it was, this piece of Marcus’ emotional landscape that would never include her. Every square inch of it, from the lodge to the woods, belonged to him in a way that would always be his alone. If she married him and they stayed in Arkadia, he'd never leave this place and she would simply be . . . absorbed into it. But she would never live here, she would never have a share in this piece of Kane family history. She would always be a guest.
But while sleeping over in Marcus’ dark, cluttered apartment gave her no pleasure, and would throw off the whole rhythm of her morning, he’d been up working on the accounts until nearly midnight – far too late to coax him into driving across town to join her on her far superior mattress. Not to mention that she wasn’t quite ready to tell him the truth yet if he’d happened to ask her who her 8 a.m. meeting was with; spending his whole day immersed in the inn’s financially precarious state always made him anxious and sensitive. So while tonight was not the right moment, perhaps, to bring up her plan to rescue him from all of this, it did suddenly feel like a good time to remind him that she was the partner he could rely on, the person he would be spending the rest of his life with.
(Why did she feel like that was something he suddenly needed reminding of?)
Ridiculous, for a person like herself to be jealous of a person like Abby Griffin. Still, after all these years. They weren’t in school anymore, for God’s sake. But from the moment the other woman had walked in the door her presence had somehow expanded to fill the entire space, as though she had permeated the very air moving through the rooms. She’d just . . . taken it over. As she always had. As she’d done with everything that mattered to Diana, since middle school. Abby’s presence in the suite upstairs itched at her, a palpably physical sensation that left her on edge with a jittery irritation she couldn’t quell.
Marcus seemed immune, she noted with a relief she didn't want to examine too closely, as she sat in the faded old armchair beside his desk, tapping away at her iPhone and watching him work. He’d closed his laptop and was working in the battered old leather accounts book Vera had used, and which despite every protest from Diana he refused to get rid of. (He used Quickbooks too, he wasn’t a Luddite; but he did everything by hand first and then transferred it into the system, claiming he could only think onto paper and not a screen, something Diana found insane.) With the computer put away, the only light in the room came from the old brass lamp on his desk she’d tried half a dozen times to get him to replace in favor of something less clunky with higher wattage that wouldn’t strain his eyes so much. But the lamp had been his grandfather’s, so Diana didn’t have a chance.
If Clarke, the artist, had been there, she’d have said Marcus looked like a Rembrandt – a solitary man reading an old leather book, alone in a pool of dim amber light which set his rich mahogany hair aglow with flickers of bronze and gold, snow falling in the windowpane behind him.
If Abby, the widow, had been there, she’d have seen something else - that inside Marcus’ expression of thoughtful concentration lurked a hidden sadness, something connected to the way he caught himself from time to time idly turning the pages back to the entries for past years, where profits and losses were tallied in very different handwriting.
But no one was there except Diana, who thought only of her continual distaste that none of the upholstery matched, and how soon she could convince him to come upstairs to bed.
She hadn’t packed her nightclothes or toothbrush, though she’d had a drawer of her own in the upstairs dresser since they’d begun sleeping together which contained the bare essentials, so she knew it had taken him by surprise that she’d decided to stay instead of going home. But there was something in the knowledge that Abby was sleeping just downstairs that made her feel curiously reluctant to leave Marcus unsupervised. Though he’d seemed impervious, working for several hours in total silence after the Griffins had gone up to their rooms; the prickly irritation she couldn’t shake didn’t seem to affect him a bit, which was a relief.
Abby was no threat to her upcoming marriage, Diana was sure of it, but she might well be a threat to the larger plan; she had a way of casually ruining things that Diana had never quite gotten over, and on the whole it was better to be safe than sorry.
So she’d spent the night. And even though it was borderline impossible for her to find anything sexy about the environment of Marcus’ mother’s drab old apartment, and she was working without her far better-outfitted bedroom or even any decent lingerie, she made do, and they both fell asleep satisfied. She slept a few hours and rose early, dressed in the dark, and crept out silently before he woke, like a guilty one-night stand instead of his fiancée, to avoid questions about where she was going. Then she drove home to shower and change before her meeting at Frost & Sons, to which she’d made it only just in time.
The “and Sons” was a bit of a misnomer, since there was just the one, seated in the conference room next to his mother, but it looked better on signs than "and Son." Both Frost and Son and the dark-haired young woman sitting beside them rose to their feet as Diana pushed open the glass doors.
“I’m so sorry I’m late,” she said with as much charm as she could possibly muster, extending her hand to the older woman first, as was proper (it was still her company, after all, she'd announced her retirement but hadn't actually set a date yet) before greeting the other two and taking her seat.
“Not at all,” said Nia Frost agreeably, “you’re right on time,” though there was a flicker of something in her tone of voice that indicated to Diana that this was at least partially a lie. Diana suspected the other woman held the same punctuality standards she did. This was not an auspicious beginning.
“You had kind of a drive,” offered her son Roan, taking his seat again and reclining back to drape his arm over the back of it. Roan was less chilly than his mother, though his casual air didn't fool Diana; he was sharp as a knife, and she could sense him watching her appraisingly. “Arkadia’s, what, hour? Hour and a half?”
“Closer to two today, with snow on the roads."
“Well, we appreciate you making the trip,” said Nia graciously. “Ontari will bring you some coffee if you’d like.”
“Lovely, thank you,” said Diana, as the pretty young woman beside Nia rose obediently to her feet and moved over to the chrome-and-glass sideboard where a sleek white ceramic coffee service stood waiting. Nia rather liked to play off the family name, so everything in Frost & Sons was white or chrome or glass. It might have come off as an affectation in the hands of someone less imposing, but Nia Frost was a woman you couldn’t help but take seriously.
Ontari served them all coffee, polite to both Diana and Roan but deferential to the point of subservience to her boss. Diana had met the girl a few times before and Ontari’s bearing had always struck her as less like a personal assistant and more like a religious acolyte. Nia inspired that in people.
And right now, she was holding Diana Sydney’s entire career in her hands.
Roan spoke first. “So where are we at?” he asked in a tone that wasn’t quite a demand and wasn’t quite bored, but contained mild notes of both. “He signed the papers yet?”
“I haven’t had the opportunity to bring it up yet,” said Diana, carefully keeping the defensiveness out of her voice. “This has to be handled delicately.”
“The L.A. office is scheduled to open on March first,” Nia reminded her gently. “We’ll need staff in place by the end of January. You do still want the job, don’t you?”
“Of course I do.”
“Then we really must come to an arrangement about the farm.”
“The New York guys are getting antsy,” Roan chimed in. “They wanna break ground as soon as shit thaws.”
Nia flashed her son a single raised eyebrow which appeared to rebuke him for defiling her pristine conference room with casual profanity; but Roan, who was used to it, didn’t flinch.
“We’ve assured them that the deal is in motion,” said Nia, “as you encouraged us to do. Obviously if something goes wrong at this stage, it will reflect poorly on Frost & Sons, and we have a long, productive relationship with this hotel chain, which we would like to maintain.”
“He’ll sell,” said Diana confidently. “I just need a bit more time.”
“He’d better,” Roan told her. “Not just for us, for him. This thing’s gotta be a millstone around his neck. We ran a credit report. Without a major change, he’s got maybe another two years before he goes under. And he doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who makes major changes easily.”
“No,” Diana agreed, “he isn’t.”
“I like Kane,” he added frankly. “Always have. I don’t want to have to screw him over if I don’t have to. But this hotel’s getting built, Diana. Either we do it the nice way, where you’ll be cruising down Sunset Boulevard in a red convertible within three months, or we do it the not-so-nice way, which involves a couple phone calls to Kane’s bank that won’t be pleasant. Make this easy on us.”
“Believe me,” said Diana, “we have the same goal. And I usually get what I want.”
“You do indeed,” said Nia with a hint of a smile. “It’s why I’ve always enjoyed working with you. You’re excellent at your job, Diana. We’ve had our eye on you for years. You’re far too capable to be stuck in a small-town firm for the rest of your life. This could be your legacy. A massive hotel and resort right on the edge of the Arkadia city limits that will push the mayor to finally approve the freeway construction project. You could turn the whole town around. You could change Arkadia forever. All you have to do is persuade your own fiancé to sign a piece of paper that will make him exceedingly rich. I’m a little surprised it’s taken this long already, quite frankly; you don’t usually work quite so down to the wire.”
“I'll have it settled by Christmas,” said Diana with more confidence than she felt. “That’s a promise. You can tell the hotel people that. It’s as good as done.”
“It’ll be done when I have that signed paperwork in my hand,” said Nia. “If you want this job in L.A., you have to prove to us that you can land us this deal. And the window is closing.”
Those were the words that haunted Diana, ringing in her head over and over as she drove the seventy miles back from Azgeda to Arkadia.
The window is closing.
The window is closing.
Why did they feel so charged with portent? Why did it feel as though Nia were trying to tell her something about her entire life? Why did everything, suddenly – Los Angeles, her job, Marcus – feel like she was caught in a race against time?
But she could do this. She could close this deal. She knew she could.
Vera Kane had been a naïve, sentimental old woman, with no idea what kind of asset she’d really had; but her son, though more sentimental than Diana would have liked, was not naïve. No one would ever have been able to get Vera to sell her family estate to a billionaire New York hotelier to knock down the farm and lodge and turn the entire property into a massive destination resort complex that would singlehandedly revitalize Arkadia into a tourist destination. But Marcus, she thought, could be persuaded. He felt the same disgust about the proposed freeway construction through town as everyone else in Arkadia did, and he’d probably see the resort as garish; but she wouldn’t have to tell him all of that. Not at first. She could just tell him that Frost & Sons had a buyer, present it to him as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that had dropped suddenly into their laps, apply a little pressure, and then it would be done. He would see reason, she knew he would. After all, what could possibly be keeping him in Arkadia?
If Diana was set on moving to Los Angeles, there was no one left here for him to stay for.
No, Marcus would come with her. Marcus would say yes. She was sure of it.
. . . Almost.
Chapter 4: December 7th
Hi, I'm back! I know it's been like a YEAR. I'm going to try to get this finished by Christmas, though! Thanks for being patient and putting up with me!
Clarke Griffin was her father’s daughter, with her father’s irresistible and tenacious charm, which meant it had taken her less than a day to find herself co-managing the tree lot kids with Bellamy Blake and befriending every employee in the process. Abby was relieved to see this – she’d worried, a bit, that the town would be too small for her ambitious, world-traveling daughter – but in the short-term she couldn’t help envying Clarke's effortless social ease, or how quickly the girl had found seemingly infinite ways to fill her time.
They’d allotted themselves a month in the new house before Abby’s job started, under the expectation that it would take them at least that long to settle in. As she packed up her old house, Abby had worried periodically that even a month might be insufficient; moving was such an endless sea of hassles, so much to do, so much to buy, so many boxes to put away, so much furniture to reassemble, so many things you think you’ve crossed off the list and then you remember you’ve forgotten laundry detergent or lightbulbs or shampoo, so back to the store you go, sometimes three or four times in one day. And the nearest Target was a three-hour drive from here, so hunting down anything she couldn’t obtain on Arkadia’s tiny, quaint Main Street would be an all-day errand. And they’d wanted to be as settled as possible by Christmas. "I don't want to be stuck stringing lights around a stack of moving boxes," Clarke had said. "At least the downstairs has to be livable by then."
So they’d left themselves a full month to make sure they had plenty of time; only now they were living in a hotel, with their boxes and furniture in storage, which meant Abby had a completely blank calendar and absolutely nothing to do.
She’d tried twice already to go down to the hospital and offer her services, and been politely turned away. They couldn't pay her until her contract actually began in January, she was told. When she offered, voice tinged with the urgency of the desperately-bored, to volunteer her services free of charge, just to get started early, she learned that the present hospital administrator she'd be replacing was up to his eyeballs preparing for his retirement, and the dates he'd scheduled for her training were the earliest time he had available. He didn't turn her away at the door, he invited her in and asked her to take a seat on his sofa and told her he'd be with her in a moment; but after fifteen full minutes of watching him answer ringing phones and page through files an endless line of assistants were carrying in and out, with barely a moment to spare to answer her inquiries which he was politely attempting to tolerate, it became abundantly clear to Abby that she was only in everybody's way.
Next she'd tried making her way around the hospital, hoping for the chance at least to meet and get to know some of her staff and get the lay of the land, but was surprised to find how quiet it was. Her new assistant Dr. Jackson, one of the few surgeons who was on duty that day, found the whole process endlessly amusing. "Are you just wandering around trying to get into a pickup surgery?"
"I'm living in a hotel. I'm going to go crazy with nothing to do for the next month."
"Well, you won't find it here. Not in December. Things are usually really slow around this time."
“Slow? Really?” She gave him a look, arms folded, eyebrow raised. “Because I just came from the administrator’s office and he’s moving so fast he’s a blur. He hardly set down the telephone receiver the whole time I was there.”
“Well, yeah. He’s worked here fifty years and he’s got ten days to close everything out before he and his wife go on Christmas vacation. Lots of paperwork."
"He's taking a vacation right before he retires?"
"Things move a little differently here than you're used to in Boston, Dr. Griffin."
"So it seems."
"You'll find most of the staff gets to take it pretty easy over the holidays. Light shifts, very few emergencies. If it’s a particularly action-packed Christmas season, we might have two babies and a round of flu. Sometimes we get a kid down from Eden Tree Farm who got stupid with a hacksaw when Indra wasn’t looking. Bumps and bruises from falls on the ice. Things like that. But you’re not in the big city anymore, Doc. We haven’t had so much as an emergency C-section in at least eight years.” He grinned at her. “It’s a low-drama job,” he cautioned her. “I hope that’s what you wanted.”
And it had been what Abby wanted. It had been what she wanted when she took the job, and it had been what she wanted when she sold the house in Boston, and it had been what she wanted when she and Clarke packed up all their possessions into approximately one hundred thousand cardboard boxes, loaded them into a U-Haul, and drove across the town border to return home to Arkadia for good, and it had been what she wanted right up until the moment she realized she was going to be stuck for four full weeks under the same roof as Marcus Kane with no work or projects or distractions, at which point she would have given every dollar in her bank account for a nice subway collision.
Or an e. coli outbreak.
Or a serial killer.
Anything to keep her out of that damned inn, and keep Marcus Kane out of her head.
But annoyingly, Arkadia was as sleepy and idyllic as she and Jake had left it, with zero serial killers to distract her. So no boxes to unpack or bookshelves to assemble, no surgeries or staff orientation. She'd even have been happy to have some HR paperwork to fill out, but no such luck. The few visits she had to pay around town took less than a day; they had dinner with the Jahas once, and met with Vincent Vie to go over some insurance forms, but that filled up the social calendar as much as could be reasonably be expected.
Clarke, however, had fallen rapidly into a very busy routine; Abby saw her at breakfast and dinner, but that was it. She'd taken to spending the bulk of her day down the hill at the tree lot, where there were so many other people her age. At night, the kids all congregated at El Sombrero on Main Street, where the $5 margarita pitchers, unlimited chips and salsa, and inexplicable heavy metal soundtrack were unchanged from Abby’s own youth. (She wondered if Marcus ever joined the kids there; once upon a time he'd been better at nailing the bulls-eye on their Corona-branded dartboard than anyone in town except Jake.) Clarke always invited her, but Abby never went; she had no interest in being the mom crashing the kids' party, of doing tequila shots with people half her age and trying to be "cool." Still, she found herself in the rather amusing position of being just a little bit envious of her more extroverted child, who made friends instantly wherever she went. Abby had hardly had such luck herself with Diana or Marcus, and time did not seem to be improving the situation much at all.
If Marcus had thawed towards her at all, it was imperceptible; at this rate, perhaps in a hundred and seventy years, he might say good morning to her in the hallway and mean it, but until then, it was very much Clarke who was having all the fun.
By the end of the first week, Abby had unpacked everything that could conceivably be unpacked (which wasn't much), run every errand that could be run, visited everyone who could be visited, and seen everything that could be seen, so she set out to accomplish the one thing which she had not quite yet been able to drum up the courage to do: namely, explore the inn itself.
Abby had grown up with Marcus, and Arkadia was a tiny place. It was a given that, by the end of high school, every kid in town had visited the house of every other kid in town, probably more than once. For birthday parties, for group math projects, for Sunday dinners with your parents, for trick-or-treat. So Abby was no stranger to Eden Tree Lodge. She'd always liked Vera Kane, and her parents had bought Christmas trees from her every year for as long as Abby could remember. They'd come to the lodge to eat sometimes too, for special occasions - Easter brunches and birthday dinners and big Fourth of July cookouts on the rolling lawn. Once, she'd considered it a place she knew well.
But it was different now, under its new master's hand. Abby could not tell whether it was simply that it disoriented her to see the place so barren of its rather legendary holiday cheer, or whether it had more to do with the presence of the building's very particular ghosts, but something about it felt . . . wrong.
Thoughts of Callie were, and had always been, very nearly as painful as thoughts of Jake, so Abby had developed careful disciplines to avoid them. But it was impossible to do that here. Eden Tree Lodge had been Callie's home, and filling it with love and warmth and happy guests had brought her tremendous joy for the duration of her too-short life.
First his mother, then Jake, then the only woman he’d ever loved. So many losses, in such a short time. If she’d liked him more, Abby would have felt desperately sorry for Marcus Kane, alone in his childhood home, haunted by memories, with no one for company but Diana Sydney. She wished she were a kinder person, she wished she were more like Clarke or Jake, to find room in her heart for compassion.
But drunkenly hijacking a wedding to cause a humiliating scene was the kind of act for which Abby thought it perfectly reasonable not to forgive a person, even twenty years later; and though deep down, if she were really honest with herself, she knew that half the fault for the erosion of the two men’s friendship lay on her husband’s side (it’s not like he had extended an olive branch in the last two decades either), it was a little more difficult to hold Jake accountable for his mistakes now that he was dead.
Still, she'd spent her first six days at the lodge ping-ponging between her bedroom and the dining room and back again, when she couldn't come up with a pressing excuse to find somewhere else to go, and she was starting to feel stifled. They'd had grand balls and celebrations here, once, and at its peak capacity the place could hold fifty guests; surely there was a room with a half-decent card table where Clarke could draw, and an armchair where she could read (though that would require another trip back to the garage of their new house to dig through the boxes for one of the several dozen marked "BOOKS"). Anything to avoid the feeling of spending an entire afternoon cooped up on her bed.
Clarke was already out the door by the time Abby made it down to the dining room - Bellamy, it seemed, had decided she was ready to learn how to operate the wood chipper, which was always assigned to the morning shift, and training with Indra began promptly at eight - so Abby took her breakfast alone. Spiced apple compote over a cornmeal waffle, today, dusted thickly with nutmeg and cinnamon. (Neither Griffin was much of a cook, and both were dreading the inevitable January letdown of being left once more to their own culinary devices, with nothing but PowerBars and cold cereal in the mornings.) Abby finished her breakfast, poured a steaming mug of coffee from the sideboard to take with her, and made her way swiftly out the dining room's side entrance, the one that led to the lesser-used back hallway instead of the grand French doors into the lobby. This was deliberate, the result of scientific analysis and experimentation; she'd observed immediately that keeping breakfast brisk and short was one way to minimize her run-ins with Marcus.
On weekdays, it was slow enough that Charmaine, the head chef, ran the breakfast service herself; there were no waiters to speak of, as far as Abby had seen. Abby liked Charmaine - dry, sarcastic, tattooed, ex-military, and heavily pregnant, she was a supremely unlikely hire for someone like Marcus, and the fact that he’d taken a chance on someone like her almost made Abby like him better. (Especially when she considered how uniquely suited the woman was to annoy Diana Sydney.) But no matter how slow it was, Marcus always popped in every hour on the hour for a few minutes to check on the guests. Abby had determined that if she arrived promptly at ten minutes after eight, she could order, eat, and get the hell out before Marcus returned to make the rounds again. If Charmaine noticed this pattern, she did not remark upon it, though her silently-raised eyebrow said plenty as she cleared away Abby's plate and watched her slip out the side door with her coffee just as Marcus was entering from the lobby.
Eden Tree Lodge was a vast, sprawling estate, four stories high and hewn by hand from the pine trees that had once grown where it now stood, worn by wind and weather and generations of hands to a glassy rounded smoothness inside and out. The top floor of the lodge had always been the Kane family's private residence, and the second and third floors housed the guest rooms. But the main floor, which from Abby's childhood recollections had once been entirely open to the public, was now a labyrinth of quiet hallways and closed doors. Once you made it past the lobby and the dining room, there was nothing to see.
Abby wandered idly with her coffee down the longest hallway, which ran from the back of the lobby's grand staircase all the way to the south wing on the opposite side of the building. From time to time, she passed doors labeled “STAFF ONLY” in elegant hand-lettering she recognized, with a pang, as Callie’s. One of these was Marcus’ office, to which he would be returning in just a few minutes, so she hurried past it without lingering. She tried the unmarked doors; some were locked, some were closets or rooms clearly used for storage, two were bathrooms. Very little of interest. But across from the office, three or four doors down, she stopped short in front of an ornate pair of double doors, carved with looping garlands of vine around the frame.
Curious, she tried the handle, which opened with no resistance. The door swung open before her, and as she stepped across the threshold, her breath caught in her throat.
Oh, it was beautiful. And it was so Callie it hurt.
She had stumbled into a kind of parlor-turned-library, crowded with deliciously comfortable and pleasantly-mismatched furniture designed for leisurely reading. Buttery-soft leather club chairs circled the fireplace, while a gleaming mahogany table anchored the other end of the room. In the center, two pine-green velvet sofas faced each other over a low coffee table Abby thought might have been carved from the same wood as the walls of the lodge. A deep, comfortable windowseat was tucked into a floor-to-ceiling bay window, graced at the top by a border of stained glass. An elegant writing desk, plucked right from Jane Austen, sat beside it. And everywhere, books. Books on shelves so high Abby could not reach the top, books on the mantel sandwiched between marble busts of Shakespeare and Galileo, books stacked on the mahogany table as though waiting to be reshelved by an owner who never came back for them.
It was freezing cold, thanks to a vast wall of frost-covered windows and a fireplace no one had used in years, and the faint whiff of artificial lemon in the air combined with the faintest layer of dust on every surface told Abby everything she needed to know. Marcus cared enough about this room that he paid for it to be kept it in order, but no one ever came in here except the cleaning staff.
The room had a strange hush to it that made Abby feel as though she were intruding - not the soothing quiet of a library, full of warm human sounds like breath and pencil scratches and the flip of pages, but a musty silence that caused her to look over her shoulder almost guiltily as she stepped inside, like the presence of a living body had disrupted the room's very air.
But after all, how much trouble could she be in? This place had obviously once been meant for guests, and the door wasn't locked, and there was no sign, and the thought of having something resembling a living room for the next three weeks instead of bouncing from bedroom to dining room and back again was too compelling to resist, so this couldn’t really be considered trespassing. Could it?
She found herself increasingly grateful for the hot coffee in her hands as she made her way around the room, the sound of her footsteps disappearing into the plush carpets - both to ward off the library's heavy chill, and as an anchor to reality. The sharp aroma and the heat seeping into her bones through her palms kept her grounded.
Traces of Callie everywhere.
Here, a vase she would surely have spotted as a hidden treasure at the Tuesday flea market, and carried home to Marcus crowing with delight over having bargained the seller down to three dollars; there, a copy of Sense and Sensibility with a grocery store receipt as a bookmark (Callie was forever pulling random pieces of paper out of her purse to use as bookmarks, dog-eared envelopes and grocery lists and the stubs of old train tickets, because she was always reading between three and six books at a time and never carried bookmarks with her, something that had always driven the more fastidious Marcus mildly crazy).
He’d closed the door when Callie died, she realized, and never gone in again.
It was impossible to hate Marcus Kane in this room. Abby felt twenty years of anger dissolve and drain out of her body, so swiftly that the sensation left her feeling oddly hollow. They’d both loved Callie Cartwig, and they’d both lost her, but Abby got to work through that loss in Boston, in the middle of the life she'd built with no traces of this town or the people she'd left behind. Meanwhile, Marcus slept every night above an untouched shrine to his wife's death.
It was a little easier, now, to wrap her head around the appeal of Los Angeles and Diana Sydney. Not to say she'd changed her mind that both of them were terrible ideas, but it was hard to fault the man for wanting the kind of clean slate that she and Jake had given themselves.
The kind of clean slate she'd hoped returning to Arkadia might be, since every corner of Boston was full of Jake.
Then “What the hell are you doing in here?” boomed an irritable voice behind her, and the compassion Abby had been feeling - compassion which had very nearly begun to approach something resembling friendliness - evaporated as quickly as it came.
“Hi,” she said cheerfully, turning around to see Marcus glowering at her from the doorway. “I was just taking a look around.” She pointedly refused to apologize, or yield any ground, but remained rooted to the spot, casually sipping her coffee. It was plain to see how much this infuriated him. "Nice library."
“We don’t use it anymore.”
“So I see."
“If you need to borrow a book, you can take it up to your room.”
"There was no 'STAFF ONLY' sign on the door," she pointed out reasonably. “If it’s off-limits for guests, you should say so, and lock it. And maybe move the books someplace where guests can actually find them.”
“It’s not . . . exactly off-limits,” he conceded rather grudgingly, though she could tell with some amusement he’d been briefly tempted to lie. “But I’d appreciate it if you didn’t use it, all the same.”
“Well, that makes no sense.”
“If you need to borrow a book, like I said, you can -”
“For the love of God, Marcus, I’m stuck here for a month,” she interrupted him, exasperated. “The bedroom is lovely, but it’s a bedroom. I cannot live in a bedroom all day. This was not my first choice either, you’ll recall, I am here at the mercy of an enormous tree that crashed through my roof. We were supposed to be moved into an actual house by now, with multiple rooms and everything, but instead, we are here. I am not trying to be difficult. I promise, when I am trying to be difficult, you will know.”
Something that might have been a ghost of a smile tugged faintly at the corner of his mouth, though he swiftly repressed it, but it was encouragement enough.
“It smells like Lemon Pledge in here, so you’re obviously paying to keep it clean anyway,” she went on, “and it’s not like the extra expense of firewood will be wildly burdensome, since we are surrounded by literally nothing but trees."
It would cost you nothing, and it would make my life easier, and quite frankly, I imagine I’m hardly the only guest who would enjoy the use of a room as nice as this.”
“You could move the coffee service in here, to get it out of Charmaine’s way,” she suggested. “That way she could turn over the dining room faster, because she wouldn’t have guests sitting in there with their coffee and crossword puzzles for three hours.”
He started to protest again, reflexively, then stopped short mid-"Abby" as though actually considering it. This was an idea that plainly hadn’t occurred to him. She could feel him softening, so she took a deep breath, steeled herself, and played her ace.
“Callie would hate to see it like this,” she told him gently, “and you know it.”
His head snapped up sharply, eyes meeting hers with a palpable jolt, and suddenly she wondered if she'd gone too far . . . if speaking his wife's name aloud had been a mistake. Marcus looked at her for a long, silent moment, his face completely unreadable, mouth parted as though he were about to speak, but nothing came out. Finally he simply gave up, turned on his heel, and walked away. She heard the door to his office latch shut behind him.
Well, so much for that, she thought wearily, and went back upstairs to her room. Lesson learned, I guess.
But after dinner, as Charmaine came around to collect their dessert plates, she nodded over towards the sideboard, and both Griffins noticed suddenly that it was bare. “Coffee’s in the library tonight, if you want any,” she said, arching that expressive eyebrow at Abby. “Seems someone talked the boss into opening it back up.”
“There’s a library?” Clarke exclaimed.
Charmaine nodded. “Nice one, too. Never been open to guests all the time I’ve worked here, but it sure is pretty. And there’s a fire in the fireplace, too.”
“I’m so happy we have somewhere to hang out besides just lying on our beds,” said Clarke, pleased.
Charmaine grinned at her. “‘We?’” she repeated. “Kid, you’re never here. You’re down at the tree lot with the Blakes any time you’re not eating. I don’t think he did it for you.”
Clarke rolled her eyes at this, and missed the flush that swept over her mother’s face. But Charmaine’s keen eye did not.
I don’t think he did it for you.
She’d thought, at the time, that she was asking for such a simple thing - the use of a room that deserved to be used, that was all. But it was so obviously more than that, she could see that now, it was certainly more than that to Marcus, and it was more than that to Charmaine, and now suddenly there was a kind of gravity orbiting around the library that Abby hadn’t asked for or expected and for which she was entirely unprepared.
He’d done it for her.
He’d closed a door when his wife died, and he’d opened it again for Abby.
Because she’d asked him to, and because she was a paying long-term guest requesting a fairly straightforward accommodation, and because she’d given him a very good reason which happened to make meal service more efficient, sure. All of that was true. But when you stripped that away, there was simply the fact that he had given Abby something that felt very much like a gift.
She was not entirely sure how she felt about that.
The library was so blissfully lovely after dinner - warm and cheerful and full of people, with a fire blazing in the hearth and an elderly couple pulling a puzzle out of an old cupboard and books in every pair of hands - that even Clarke could not be pulled away from it, and texted Octavia to take a rain check on late-night margaritas because she needed some “mom time.” Clarke picked up a battered and much-loved copy of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca with “VERA KANE, 1966” written inside it in neat teenage handwriting, while Abby pulled a slim paperback titled Galileo’s Daughter off a shelf of books about science she suspected were probably Marcus’ own collection. They claimed the two armchairs closest to the fire, sitting opposite each other, sharing a low, plush ottoman, and for the rest of the evening they read and sipped their coffee in contented silence, lulled into a warm stupor by the crackle of blazing logs and the low whistle of wind outside the windows and the quiet voices of people all around them, turning pages and clinking teaspoons, rummaging for puzzle pieces, shuffling a beat-up old deck of cards for solitaire.
That’s what it felt like.
That’s what had been so strangely missing from the place.
The building was beautiful and the rooms were perfect and the food was delicious and the view was breathtaking, but there had been something ever so slightly hollow about it, and Abby could sense from the peaceful joy in the room around her that she was not the only person who had felt it.
“We’ll be back in the spring with our son and daughter,” Abby heard the couple with the puzzle remarking quietly to the man playing solitaire next to them. “We were considering it before, but this convinced us. We always like a place to read together after dinner.”
“I was thinking that myself,” said the man playing cards. “I’ve never been to Arkadia before, but now that I know about this place, I’ll definitely be back. I don’t much care for staying in a place where you’ve nowhere to linger all day except your room.”
“Good work, Mom,” Clarke murmured under her breath. “Between the two of us, I think we just might be able to turn this place around.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Abby stiffly, without looking up from her book.
But at breakfast the next morning, the dining room cleared out promptly by nine, causing Charmaine to give Abby a wink and mouth “nice work” as the whole crowd made their way to the library for coffee, and it was clear that things were turning around already. The library was full of newspaper readers all morning, and an impromptu game of bridge all afternoon, and only the slightly devious maneuver of leaving her cardigan draped over the back of it during dinner allowed Abby to reclaim her premium fireplace-adjacent seat that night.
The room was utterly transformed, like this. The fireplace made the dark wood seem to glow from within, burnishing the leather bindings of the oldest books as though they were dusted in gold. It kept the chill of the snowy wind at a pleasant distance, and the scent of paper and coffee and wood smoke had long since driven away the musty, antiseptic air she’d first walked into yesterday.
This, surely, was how Vera and Callie had always meant this room to be used. Strangers becoming friends over a deck of cards, well-loved books being discovered and enjoyed all over again.
“Only thing missing’s a Christmas tree,” Abby heard the man on the sofa behind her say to his husband, a remark which she happened to mention to Clarke the next morning over breakfast. But she was busy spooning blackberry jam onto a buttermilk biscuit as she said it, and missed the look on her daughter's face.
A look which said that Clarke Griffin was cooking up a plan.
Chapter 5: December 9th
“So how’s the curmudgeon?”
“Curmudgeonly,” Abby replied dryly to the voice on the other end of the phone as she pulled a faded brown sweater out of the bureau, thought about it, changed her mind, pulled out a green one that suited her eyes better, immediately hated herself for caring, put it back, and took out the old brown one again.
“Has he apologized yet? Or thawed out, at least?”
“No apology, but maybe a little thaw.” More than a little, murmured a treasonous inner voice, reminding her of the library, but she shushed it firmly, tugging the brown sweater on over her head.
“Keep your voice down, Raven, you’re on speakerphone,” Abby ordered hastily, cheeks flushed, despite the impossibility of anyone overhearing. “And how do you know what he looks like, anyway?”
“I Googled him. He’s very stalkable. Does he smile, like, ever ? Because in all the pictures on the Chamber of Commerce website he looks like he’s trying to set something on fire with his eyes.”
“He used to,” said Abby, surprising both Raven and herself. The setup for another casually dismissive quip about what an asshole the inn's owner was had been perfect, and even she didn't quite know why she hadn't risen to the bait, except that it was somehow more difficult to mock him than it had been when she'd arrived a week ago. Neither of them had warmed to the other much, but the library had changed something between them, opening a heartbreaking window into how lonely his life had become in the years since last they'd seen each other. On balance, she thought he was probably still rather more an asshole than not, but he was at least a human being now, with faintly perceptible traces of the Marcus Kane he’d been before any of the terrible things had happened. True, he still barely acknowledged her, and true, she still briskly evaded him at breakfast; but when they were unable to avoid bumping into each other in the hallways, he at least made eye contact now, which seemed an encouraging sign.
“You’re too quiet,” said Raven, cutting through the silence. “What are you thinking? You’re thinking about how cute he is, aren’t you?”
“Want me to hack into his phone and see what he’s saying about you?”
“He’s not saying anything about me. And stay out of his phone.”
“Come on, Abs, you know light cybercrime is my love language. And no offense but he seems like the kind of guy where it would take me three minutes to figure out his password.”
“I know that voice. That’s your matchmaking voice. Stop it.”
“If you marry him you wouldn’t even have to move. How’s that for convenient?”
“I’m hanging up now.”
“I love you too,” the girl said irrepressibly, and Abby could hear the teasing grin in her voice. “Even though you’re an asshole for moving.”
“You could come visit us. We’ll have a spare guest room once we’re moved in.”
“You’ve got like twenty now,” Raven pointed out, “another point in favor of marrying the grumpy inn guy.”
“Seriously, come visit. It would make Clarke so happy.”
“The new family moved in this weekend,” said Raven, a little glumly.
“Yeah. I know.”
“Two kids, it’s a good house for kids.”
“It always was.”
“I thought about walking over to say hi but instead I just watched them out of my window from behind the curtains like a serial killer.”
“Why in God’s name -”
“I don’t know, I was feeling a lot of stuff, the whole thing’s just so . . .”
“You’re acting like we moved to space instead of to Vermont.”
“Well, maybe I’m experiencing delayed emotional reactions.”
“Maybe you’re a pain in the ass.”
“Maybe that’s also true.”
“Come visit,” said Abby, voice suddenly serious and sincere. “We miss you too.”
“Are you glad you moved home?” Raven asked, perceptive and shrewd as always, unerringly putting her finger on the question circulating around Abby’s mind.
“I’m not sure yet,” Abby confessed. “I’ll let you know when it feels like we really live here.”
“Once you aren’t stuck in a hotel room all day, you mean?”
“Well, it’s not so bad anymore, Marcus gave me a library, so -”
“Wait, what?” Raven exclaimed, wild with delight. “Like Beauty and the Beast ?”
“It’s not like that,” Abby assured her quickly, immediately annoyed at her own choice of words. “That came out all wrong. I didn’t mean . . . it’s just, there was this library no one was using and I asked Marcus if he could open it back up again, and - never mind.”
“I can’t believe he gave you a library.”
“He didn’t really -”
“This is the most romantic shit I’ve ever heard.”
“He’s engaged to someone else, and I’m not interested, so don’t get any ideas.”
“We’ll see,” Raven said, unconvinced. “I’m just saying.”
“I lived across the street from you for eight years, Raven, I don’t need you to tell me you think I should start dating again. I already know.”
“Fine. But I do, and you should.”
“I’m hanging up now,” Abby sighed, “for real this time.”
“Love you too,” Raven said again, voice merry with mischief, and hung up immediately before Abby could get the last word.
Down the hill, Clarke and the Blakes were, rather surprisingly, on much the same topic.
“He’s letting you use the library?” Octavia’s voice was incredulous.
"I don't know. Mom asked him, I guess. But everyone seems to be really enjoying it."
“I wonder if that’s why business is picking up," said Bellamy.
“Yeah, Charmaine was here before opening to bring the staff some extra cranberry muffins and she said that they’ve already had an uptick in reservations. It sounds like there were a bunch of people who booked repeat visits when they checked out. And others sounded like referrals from current guests. She didn’t mention the library, but if people are using it, I bet that’s why.”
“You know what I was thinking. Mom says someone said they wished there was a Christmas tree in there.”
The silence that met this remark was deafening.
Sister looked at brother.
Brother looked at sister.
“What?” Clarke demanded.
“Marcus is . . . how can I put this nicely,” Bellamy began.
“He’s a dick about Christmas,” Octavia cut him off helpfully, earning her a raised eyebrow but no other real protest.
“He and Octavia have the same fight every year,” Bellamy explained. “He lets us do whatever we want because his apartment looks out over the other side of the hill, so he doesn’t have to see it. That’s why we have lights and the wooden reindeer sleigh. But he has very strict rules about not putting decorations anywhere he has to look at them.”
“Well,” said Clarke reasonably, “what if we didn’t put them anywhere he has to look at them? He hasn’t set foot in the library once. He could be as big a Grinch as he wants about it, up in his apartment, and we could just close the door.”
Bellamy hesitated, but Octavia didn’t. “She has a point,” she said to her brother. “If the rule about decorations doesn’t extend to the tree lot because Marcus can’t see it, then technically -”
“I’m just saying, by the same logic -”
“You know he’s not going to see it that way.”
“If he gets mad, blame me,” said Clarke. “He won’t yell at a paying guest. And he still seems a little scared of my mother. If he sees it, and gets mad, we can tell him it’s my fault.”
“You don’t have to -” assured Bellamy, and “Deal!” pronounced Octavia, at the exact same moment, which was the end of the discussion.
If Indra thought anything of it, as she watched them load a tree into the back of the pickup and make their way up the service road to the inn’s back entrance, she kept it to herself, and her thoughts rarely registered on her face unless she wanted them to. But she was quick enough to put the pieces together - the library, the Griffin girl with a scheming expression on her face, the changes in Marcus Kane’s demeanor that were almost imperceptible to any except those who knew him best - and astute enough to wonder what would happen when the ever-growing circle of stubborn women in his orbit finally began to collide with each other.
Diana Sydney, she thought to herself, with more than a little amusement, was not going to be pleased.
They settled on a corner between the fireplace and the windows, where the tree’s glow would be visible from the outside as well as to everyone in the room, no matter where they were sitting. Octavia and Clarke took on the task of shoving all the furniture out of the way as Bellamy anchored the tree into the stand, filled it with water, and swiped a vacuum from the maintenance closet to erase the incriminating trail of pine needles they’d left everywhere from the back porch to the library carpet
With no access to real decorations, they'd been forced to improvise, and had pilfered whatever they could find, which wasn’t much; there were a few strands of leftover white lights, missing some bulbs, from the tree lot’s supply shed, and a smattering of other odds and ends Octavia had deemed potentially usable: half a roll of the white plastic twine they used to bale the trees, a stack of printer paper, some wire hooks, a silver Sharpie, scissors and tape, some clear plastic icicles Bellamy found at the bottom of a crate, and a bag of cranberries they swiped from Charmaine’s pantry on the way in.
“It’s not much,” Bellamy said dubiously, handing the grocery bag full of junk to Clarke. “You might not be able to do much with it.”
“I was an art major,” she reminded him with a grin. “I’ll be fine.”
“That's true,” said Octavia. “I think she’s got this.”
“I got this,” Clarke agreed, settling down at the big wooden table, spreading the contents of the plastic grocery bag out in front of her. “Just you wait. If Marcus won’t give us anything to work with, we’ll just have to show him what we can come up with ourselves.”
Then she shooed them off back down to the tree lot so they wouldn’t be late for their next shifts, closed the door to ensure a little privacy (Marcus would probably find out sooner or later, of course, but if her luck held she wouldn't be in the room when he discovered what they'd done), and set to work.
The snow fell, the fire crackled, and Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite floated lightly through the air in the background (she’d snuck a few of Mom’s holiday albums into the stack by the library’s CD player, something else Marcus had not yet discovered), as Clarke sat happily alone with a pile of nothing waiting to be turned into art, just as she loved to be. She’d begun with the cranberries, fashioning a makeshift needle out of an old wire ornament hook to thread the white plastic twine through them and create a garland, which she’d draped over the tree to add a little pop of cheery red to the glossy green branches. Next, she’d turned to a craft her father had taught her as a child at their kitchen table in Boston: tracing folded-paper snowflakes.
But these, even Jake Griffin would have admitted, went far beyond his own skill set. These were dazzlingly intricate, carefully cut out with a deft artist’s hand to create impossibly delicate confections which hung from the pine branches like cotton candy, or lace. The white lights peeked through the whorls and diamonds and seemed to glow; even more so once she hung the handful of little clear icicles, strategically placed to catch the most light, and a few paper stars she’d colored silver with the marker Octavia swiped from the tree lot's junk drawer.
For an improvised Christmas tree decorated only with office supplies and random crap from a storage shed, she was extremely pleased with herself.
She was just setting herself to the task of coming up with some kind of tree topper when she heard the door open behind her, pulling her out of her reverie.
Here we go, she thought, steeling herself, heart speeding up a little as she began to mentally rehearse her defense to Marcus. But when she turned around she was surprised to find Diana instead.
“My goodness, you’ve been busy,” she said in a tone Clarke couldn’t quite read, casting an appraising eye over the Christmas tree. Clarke found herself suddenly self-conscious of her plain, homemade ornaments, seeing them as Diana must and reading something that might have been displeasure in the woman’s eyes. But it passed so quickly she wondered if she had imagined it, and when Diana finally met her eyes, she was smiling. “Lovely,” she pronounced approvingly, with a small nod. “It’s certainly a change - all of this is," she added, gesturing expansively at the library, "but I think a rather nice one. Though I’m surprised Marcus agreed to it.”
“Well, he hasn’t yet, exactly,” said Clarke a little awkwardly. “He’s . . . not here.”
She didn't actually know if this was true, but one could hope.
Diana waved it off. “Don’t give it a moment’s thought,” she said airily, “I know how to handle him. If he gets cross, you call me, and I’ll talk him down.”
Clarke thanked her for this, politely, as she was clearly supposed to, but found the woman’s possessive tone impossible not to resent.
“Strange, to see this room in common use again,” Diana observed, looking around it. “Though you’ve got it to yourself today, I see.”
“It’s Tuesday,” said Clarke, “there aren’t many guests in the middle of the week. A lot of people checked out yesterday morning.” She was not quite sure why she was so defensive.
Diana nodded. “That’s the trouble, I think, with these notions,” she said, gesturing expansively to take in the entire room. “It might seem like a good idea, on a weekend when things are already crowded, and sure, maybe one or two new guests come out of it, but it’s hardly the kind of thing that can turn a business around."
Diana's nonchalant puncturing of Octavia and Bellamy's new-blossoming hopes - and Clarke's own, if she was being honest with herself - make the girl's cheeks flush with annoyance and embarrassment. Everything Diana said always sounded so polite, so friendly, yet somehow you always came away feeling as though you'd been ripped to shreds, though you could never quite identify how or why. She seemed to have an unerring sense for other people's vulnerabilities.
"People who haven’t run their own businesses don’t really understand the difference, of course, and who can blame them," Diana went on, and she was so very obviously referring to the Blakes that Clarke felt her face redden even further. "A cozy atmosphere is pleasant, of course, but so often illusory. Everyone checks out on Monday, as you say, and by Tuesday once again it’s a big empty room that just costs more to clean now.”
“If it makes people happy when they’re staying here,” said Clarke brusquely, “then I’m not sure what the problem is.”
“There’s no problem, darling,” Diana assured her casually, perching on the arm of the sofa and crossing her legs with an unhurried air. “None at all. It’s only that such things have got to be kept in their proper proportion. No harm in opening up an old musty room, or bringing in a few holiday ornaments, to make the stay more pleasant for guests. But that doesn’t change the fact that running the Lodge is a burdensome undertaking for one person, and little luxuries for guests often create extra work for staff.”
“I think you’re wrong,” said Clarke, surprising both of them with her boldness. “I think if Marcus really wanted to, if he made the place really Christmasy, if it felt homey like this all the time, I think he’d be booked solid from Thanksgiving to Valentine’s Day and could make enough just from that season to end in the black every year.”
Diana raised an eyebrow. “That’s a cute idea,” she allowed graciously, “and who knows, perhaps whoever buys it from him will take that under consideration.”
“Not if they only want the land because it’s adjacent to the freeway,” said Clarke, steel in her voice, “and were planning to tear down the lodge anyway.”
Diana was silent for a moment, and Clarke watched her struggling to keep her composure. The only indicator of her anger was a slight tightening of her jaw. When she finally spoke, her voice was remarkably collected, but Clarke could not mistake the seething rage inside it.
“I know your new friends” - accenting the last word with a faint air of distaste - “down the hill have a lot of very strong opinions about what is, or isn’t, best for Marcus. Or for Eden Tree Lodge. But they aren’t the ones who have to make the hard decisions. He is. And he does it alone. He takes his own paychecks late to make sure theirs are on time. He works twelve, sometimes fifteen-hour days. He keeps the books and manages the staff, but he also fixes things when they break and shovels snow out of the parking lot and helps Charmaine with the breakfast service when it’s busy. Bellamy Blake, who pops in for a few weeks every Christmas vacation before going back to grad school, is not a reliable source of information on what it is like to live with that kind of stress and anxiety year-round. But I am. Because I’m the one who is here. I am the one who is trying to free him from the weight of a burden left to him by his family. If you have a better idea, please. By all means. We would both be happy to consider it. But if you think you can come in here with some scissors and paper and string up some cranberries and save the inn, as though that’s a solution neither Marcus nor I have thought of, then you’re as naive as your mother.”
Clarke had no idea how to respond to this, except to bite her lip to force back the mortifying sting of tears. It felt, for all the world, like being called to the principal’s office. She felt scolded and small, and defensive on Bellamy's behalf, and it was almost a relief to realize that, even though everything Diana said made logical sense, Clarke was now done making any attempt to like her.
Sensing, perhaps, just how very unwelcome she was, Diana rose gracefully from her perch, twisting the knife one final time on her exit by patting Clarke’s head as though she were a child. “Now, you know I don’t mean any offense by it,” she said kindly, making her way to the door. “The tree is really very sweet. I’m sure this week's guests will enjoy it very much. And besides, it’s always good to have a hobby.” Then she sailed out the door, leaving it wide open behind her.
Clarke did not get up to close it - though she wondered, later, how things might have turned out differently if she had.
Instead, she set down the scissors in her hand (which she had indulged more than one idle fantasy of hurling at Diana) and walked over to the tree, regarding it thoughtfully. She tried to see it as the Blakes would see it - no doubt thrilled she’d managed to come up with anything at all from the bag of random crap they’d given her. She saw it as her mother would see it - a dazzling display of her brilliant daughter’s creativity, the way she’d seen everything Clarke ever made from the first time she dipped her chubby baby hands into finger paint. She even saw it as her father would have seen it, amazed that she’d taken the simple trick he’d taught her with scissors and construction paper to turn it into real art.
She saw it as Diana Sydney had seen it - tacky, homespun, a little desperate.
Reflecting poorly on the elegance of the establishment.
She tried to see it as Marcus Kane would see it, but she could not figure him out at all.
Though as it turned out a few moments later, she didn’t have to.
Footsteps on the carpet caused her to turn around, where she saw the man himself standing, arms folded, face impassive, regarding the contraband tree in the corner of the room with an expression she could not read.
"Ah," was all he said. "I see you've met the Blakes."
“Don’t be mad at them,” she said immediately. “It was all my idea. I wasn't trying to get them in trouble. Don’t fire them.”
He sighed, scrubbing his hands over his face and running them through his hair with a gesture of weary exhaustion, causing her to wonder if today was one of those twelve-to-fifteen hour days too. “I’m not going to fire them,” he said, drawing in closer to the tree to stand by her side and look at it more closely. “I’m not an asshole, Clarke.”
“Well -” Clarke began to protest, then cut herself off immediately, vexed at herself for saying too much. But it seemed to crack some kind of wall between her and Marcus, and she heard a faint chuckle from beside her, though she didn’t quite have the nerve to turn and look.
“Okay,” he conceded, as though she’d managed to complete her extremely impolite thought. “That’s fair. Knowing the things you probably know about me.”
“I know hardly anything about you,” she said, surprised at her own bluntness. “I didn’t even know about the thing - the wedding thing - until we were driving over here from the house. I remembered your name from stories my parents told about Arkadia, but usually as like . . . a side character in a story about Mom and Callie. Or about them and Thelonious. I had no idea what you would be like before I met you.”
“And what am I like,” he said softly, “now you’ve met me?”
She gambled on direct honesty, made easier by the fact that they were both looking at the tree and not each other. “I think you don’t add up,” she told him frankly. “Nothing about you says you’d have any interest at all in moving to Los Angeles. Nothing about you says you’re the kind of man who would get drunk and ruin a wedding where you were the best man. Nothing about you says you really think selling this land for some developer to swoop in and raze it to the ground for condos is a good idea. And yet apparently, all of those things are true.”
There was a long silence. “A thing can be both true, and a great deal more complicated than you understand it to be,” he finally said. “There’s more to all three of those stories than you think, Clarke.”
“I’m sure there is.”
“I don’t -” he began, then stopped himself. The silence that followed was desperately uncomfortable, but Clarke's curiosity won out, and she waited, somehow sensing that if she let the sentence hang in the air long enough, he'd eventually come back to finish it.
When he did, the words tumbled out in a rush, as though he'd surprised even himself, and startled her into finally turning to look directly at him for the first time.
“I don’t want to be the man your mother thinks I am,” he finally said.
There was no possible response to this, but fortunately, he didn't seem to expect one. He simply reached into his pocket, pried a dented brass key labeled “STORAGE” off his key ring, and pressed it into her hands. “Fourth floor, top of the stairs,” he said with no preamble. “The shelves on the right-hand side.”
“Marcus, what are you -”
“Can’t have a Christmas tree without a star at the top,” he said, and before she could ask him anything else, he was gone.
Chapter 6: December 12th
“So I heard a rumor,” said Roan, dropping casually into the red vinyl booth across from Diana and jolting her into very nearly dropping her tea.
“What the hell are you doing here?” she hissed, casting a frantic, hasty glance over her shoulder. The cafe was nearly empty, save for a few people on laptops or reading books, who enjoyed the lull after the dinner rush as Diana did. The service here was terrible during the busy hours, waitstaff chatting with seemingly every customer as though they had all the time in the world, and Diana was plainly the only person who minded it, so it always made her feel like she was going crazy. But her office, across the street, was having the heat fixed today, so she’d been working from this booth since seven this morning, and what it lacked in style or efficiency or avocado toast, it made up for in peace and quiet. Nobody in this town cared for Diana, particularly, so nobody bothered her.
Which was why Roan’s unexpected arrival startled her so badly.
“Came to say hi,” he said, leaning back against the booth and draping his arm over the top with an insouciant air that didn’t fool her. “You haven’t been returning my calls.”
“Things are busy.”
“Sure they are,” he agreed easily. “That’s what we figured. And not that you’ve been avoiding me.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” retorted Diana, who had absolutely been avoiding him.
Roan waved the waitress over and flashed his most charming smile. “Coffee, cream, two sugars, on Ms. Sydney’s tab,” he said to her. “Thanks, doll.”
“To go,” said Diana firmly, “he’s not staying.”
Roan raised an eyebrow at this, but didn’t say anything until the waitress had departed. “If I didn’t know better,” he said, “I’d think you didn’t want to be seen with me.”
“I just don’t think -”
“And the only reason you wouldn’t want to be seen with me, far as I can see it anyway, is if you still haven’t told your boyfriend about our deal and you’re afraid of it getting back to him. Which is interesting. Because, like I said. I’ve heard some rumors.”
“What on earth are you talking about? What rumors?”
“That Kane’s changed his mind about selling.”
“He hasn’t changed his mind, nothing’s changed,” she insisted. “We’re still moving forward.”
“Set a wedding date yet?”
“I think that question’s rather of a personal nature, Roan.”
“All right, let me try another. Set a date for moving to LA yet?” Diana was silent. “Has he bought a plane ticket? Has he packed a single box?”
“It’s a slow process, everything takes forever with Marcus.”
“You told me you’d talked him out of doing anything like advertising or promotions for future bookings,” said Roan. “The fewer customers we have to disappoint when we tell them the lodge is going out of business, the less bad press we’ll get when the resort opens. The new owners want to be able to roll his customer base right over into theirs. If he’s suddenly out there trumpeting the appeal of his rustic, local, homegrown log cabin aesthetic - “
“Roan, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I’m talking about you promising me that Kane wasn’t putting any effort anymore into drumming up future business, and now suddenly the inn’s filling up spring travel dates left and right. Out of nowhere. What’s going on up at the lodge, and why the damn hell didn’t you stop it?”
Diana’s blood went cold.
She hadn’t been back to Eden Tree Farm since that run-in with Abby’s daughter the other day, which had left her a bit more rattled than she cared to admit. The girl’s naive optimism was maddening, so like both her parents. But Marcus had come over for dinner yesterday and, though he hadn’t stayed the night despite her best attempts at seduction, he had apologized sincerely for neglecting her lately, and when she’d asked how things were at the inn, he’d hesitated before simply answering, “Complicated,” and pouring them both more wine to change the subject. This had seemed so promising to Diana - surely he was finally remembering the importance of her role in his life, surely he knew now that the inn was a burden he didn’t want - that she hadn’t risked it by pushing it further. She’d simply patted his hand, spent the rest of the evening being increasingly affectionate, and pressed harder than normal to coax him to sleep over. But Charmaine had an 8 am ultrasound, so he was on breakfast duty alone, and he never liked driving back from her place in the mornings, so she let him go with nothing more than a longer-than-usual goodnight kiss. Overall, though, she’d been quite pleased with her work.
Which is why Roan’s words came as such a shock.
“I can see you getting pissed at me for being the bearer of bad news,” he said, taking the coffee the waitress handed to him with a flirtatious wink and another “thanks, doll” before waving her away, “and I just want to state again for the record that this is all your own fault, for listening to Mother instead of me. I told you from the start, Di -”
“Don’t call me that.”
“I said, there’s a direct way to do this and a sneaky way to do this, and the direct way saves us all a lot of uncertainty and time. It also has the side benefit of probably being better for your future marriage, though let’s be honest, that’s not really my concern. Mother was the one who said to work on him with whispers and manipulation so he’d think the whole thing was his idea and then once he’s ready you could present the deal on a silver platter and be the hero. Mom was the one who said you should get into his head, psych him out, keep reminding him how hard this job is, how tired he is of this town, and how nice it would be to just torch the whole thing and walk away with no baggage. I was the one who said, ‘for Christ’s sake, woman, just tell him you already found a buyer and made an offer.’ I was against that shady contract from the beginning.”
“I don’t want to talk about the contract,” she hissed under her breath, frantically gesturing him into silence as she cast another furtive glance over her shoulder again. “It’s still in his desk drawer. It won’t come to that.”
Roan shrugged. “It’s up to you,” he said, sipping his coffee. “But you’re in too deep to pull out of this now without bringing the whole house of cards tumbling down. So it sure would make everyone’s lives a lot easier if you could get a ring on your finger by the first of the year in case we need to use it.”
“Stay out of my personal life, Roan.”
“Believe me, I’d like to. But right now your personal life is jeopardizing a seven-million-dollar corporate investment and the future of my mother’s company. Mt. Weather Holdings won’t wait around forever, Diana. They’ve got three other sites, all in New Hampshire. It’s not just city council leaning on us to close this deal, it’s the statehouse and the governor. This is the only chance to get them to start developing in Vermont.”
“I’m aware of that, Roan, I did my homework too.”
“Then I’d suggest you put whatever penny-ante clients you’re working on today on hold,” he said, gesturing distastefully at her laptop and papers, “the blacksmith selling the back of his lot to the Ye Olde General Store or whatever -”
“It is in fact 2018 here, I’ll have you know.”
“ . . . and trot on up to Eden Tree Farm to have a word with your boyfriend and get him to cool it on hustling for spring bookings. I heard three separate conversations about it while I was running errands yesterday, and that’s three too many. If this place becomes a success again?”
“I know, Roan.”
“We need to control this narrative. ‘Shabby former landmark, a shadow of its old self, replaced by glamorous and exciting opportunities, bringing in new jobs and transforming the town.’ That, I can sell. ‘Fading inn abruptly turns around thanks to the power of community spirit, only to be razed to the ground and replaced by a soulless corporate development?’ What is this, a Hallmark Christmas movie?”
“I know, Roan.”
“I don’t want us to be villains here, Diana,” he said, taking a final sip of his mug before rising to depart. “We’re just people doing our jobs. Show us you can handle this, and we’ll know you can handle Los Angeles. Screw this up, and there’s no place for you at our company.” He patted her on the shoulder. “Not trying to be an asshole. Just think it’s always best to be direct about things. Thanks for the coffee. Pick up the phone when I call next time, and I won’t have to stalk you again.”
Then he flashed one final “thanks, doll” at the waitress and departed to the cheerful sound of the sleigh bells hanging from the diner’s door.
Abby returned from her nighttime walk, pink-cheeked with cold and desperate for tea, only to find the pump pot full of hot water at the library’s coffee station empty. Charmaine had had a busy day, so Abby decided to take the liberty of carrying it back to the kitchen and filling it herself to save the pregnant woman a trip, in exchange for a cup of the decaf Earl Grey she knew the cook secretly hoarded for herself in the pantry.
When she knocked on the kitchen door, though, the voice saying “Come in!” wasn’t Charmaine’s.
It was, inexplicably, Clarke’s.
Abby pushed the door open to find the kitchen surprisingly full of people, none of whom were Charmaine. At the massive butcher-block table sat her daughter along with Bellamy and Octavia Blake, and Marcus Kane - who, against all probability, was currently sprinkling gold glitter onto a Christmas cookie.
“Hi,” said Abby. “Did I fall down and hit my head on something? Am I hallucinating this?”
“Marcus is really good at baking,” said Clarke. “Look, we’re making gingerbread angels with all the guests’ names on them to give them at breakfast tomorrow!”
“That is a wildly optimistic interpretation of what’s happening here,” said Marcus. “We did make gingerbread angels, and we have been attempting to put names on them, but currently we have a plate of twenty-six which Clarke has deemed of subpar quality which cannot be given to guests, and a plate of three she has deemed acceptable.”
“Two,” said Octavia. “I ate Abby’s.”
“One,” said Bellamy. “I ate Clarke’s.”
“So really you’re just decorating cookies and then eating them,” said Abby. “And this has nothing to do with the guests at all.”
“It’s not my fault that they all have terrible frosting skills, Mom.”
“Oh, I’m not blaming you,” said Abby, “I’m reserving all my judgment here for the person who should be providing adult supervision.”
“They’re adults,” said Marcus. “Everyone at this table is an adult. And I’m not the one being difficult. Your daughter here seems to think that just because she was an art major, that writing perfect calligraphy in royal icing is a basic skill that everyone should have, and she is a very impatient teacher.”
“It’s basically an assembly line system now,” explained Octavia. “We got tired of getting yelled at. I cross the names off the list, hand the cookie to Clarke, she decorates it, Marcus puts on the glitter and sprinkles, Bellamy ties on the ribbon, and we move on to the next one.”
“You’ve been at this how long?”
“Two, three hours,” said Octavia.
“And you’ve produced one usable cookie?”
“I didn’t say it was a good system.”
Abby sighed. “Shove over,” she said to Bellamy, who was seated on the bench opposite Marcus. “I’m tagging in. Clarke, baby, I need you to lower your standards from 100 to somewhere between 65 and 70 so we can get thirty-six cookies finished before bed. I promise you, no one will die if they get smudged frosting.”
“No one will die.”
“Fine,” Clarke huffed, far more theatrically than necessary, as Abby tossed her scarf and puffy vest onto the chair in the corner and slid onto the bench across from Marcus. His eyes met hers with a wry, amused grin, and something inside her cracked open, just a little, at the thought of the change just a few weeks had wrought in him.
She watched him work for a moment, flannel shirt rolled up to his sleeves, brow furrowed in concentration as he sprinkled delicate pinches of edible gold dust onto the white royal icing with which Clarke had festooned the cookie in his hand. “DAVID,” this one said. Marcus gilded the angel’s swirling halo with the gold flakes, then took a pinch of blue sugar crystals to drop over the curlicued letters, before handing it to Bellamy who carefully strung a ribbon through the hole at the top of the halo.
“I think this could be a nice tradition,” said Clarke absently. “Everyone who visits in December gets a cookie ornament when they check in.”
“Speaking of traditions,” said Bellamy suddenly, “did you guys hear about the pageant?”
“What about it?” asked Marcus.
“They’re canceling it.”
“Canceling what?” asked Diana Sydney, sailing into the room and regarding them all with an expression of intense and mildly irritated curiosity. “And what on earth are you doing?”
“The Christmas pageant, apparently,” said Abby. “What a shame.”
“Indra ran into Thelonious at the hardware store and he told her and she told us,” said Bellamy. “The county inspectors came by St. Agatha’s and apparently the choir loft failed some earthquake safety rating test and they have to do a ton of repairs before it’s cleared for public use again.”
“What are they going to do about Mass?” asked Marcus. Octavia raised an eyebrow at him.
“When was the last time you went to Mass?” she asked skeptically.
“I’m just saying, it’s Christmas, people are going to want to go to church.”
“The Lutherans are sharing,” said Bellamy, “they’re doing their morning service at 10:30 instead of 10 so St. Agatha can borrow their church and have theirs at 9. But the church is already booked on Christmas Eve so they can’t do the pageant there.”
“Well, that’s a pity,” said Diana absently. “But nothing lasts forever, I’m sure the kids will be fine. Marcus, darling, can I speak to you for a moment?”
“Is it urgent?” Marcus asked. “We’re right in the middle of a bit of a mess, as you can see.”
Diana hesitated. “No,” she finally said. “It can wait.” As she turned to go, it was Abby, surprising even herself, who stopped her.
“Come sit,” she said, gesturing at the empty seat next to Marcus. “Join us. Have a cookie.”
Diana hesitated, as though assessing whether or not this was a trap, before finally electing to shed her elegant wool coat and seat herself next to her fiance, moving her chair slightly closer to his as she did so, subtly enough that only Abby seemed to notice the proprietary gesture.
“You know what you should do,” Abby said to Marcus. “You should have it here.”
“The church Christmas pageant.”
Everyone stopped what they were doing and turned to look at Abby, Marcus included. His face was difficult to read, as it always was, but he seemed to be giving the idea genuine consideration.
“What?” exclaimed Diana. “Abby, you can’t be serious.”
“I’m perfectly serious. The town would love it, the guests would get a kick out of it, and you’d win the parents’ gratitude for life. All good things for a local business owner.”
“That’s true,” said Octavia. “Plus there’s that huge ballroom you never use, we could fit the whole town inside it practically. Like, you might be the only other person in Arkadia who actually has enough space.”
“Nonsense,” said Diana briskly, “it’s not Marcus’ responsibility to open up his doors, spend a huge amount of money on food and drink, and inconvenience the staff, just so the children can perform for a larger audience. They can do it in a classroom or something.”
“Oh, relax, Diana,” said Abby, dismissing her protests with a hand wave. “You’re just mad that your days as the star of the Christmas pageant are behind you.”
“Really?” Octavia exclaimed. “Diana was Mary? That seems so . . . unlikely.” Then she winced as her brother kicked her under the table.
Abby laughed. “Mary doesn’t have any lines,” she said. “Nobody in the stable actually gets to sing or speak. The real plum part, the ones the older girls fought over, was the Christmas Angel, because the Christmas Angel is the only one who gets to sing a solo.”
“Diana was the Christmas angel every year in high school,” said Marcus. “She has a beautiful singing voice.”
This was the first genuinely warm thing Abby had heard him say about Diana - so often, his insistence on her better qualities rang hollow, defensive - and it made her like him better. She felt so kindly towards him, in fact, that she swallowed back every sarcastic comment she could have made about teenage Diana’s titanic ego, or the smug self-satisfaction that had led the other girls in choir to refer to her as “Princess Di” behind her back. Instead, she bit her tongue and nodded in agreement, which by Abby standards amounted to a sizeable concession.
“What did you sing?” asked Clarke politely.
“I’m sure I can’t remember, dear,” said Diana dismissively, at the exact same moment that both Abby and Marcus said, in unison, “The Sussex Carol.”
Diana looked from one to the other and back again. “How odd, both of you remembering that,” she said, plainly torn between her instinctive distaste for anything that unified the two of them against her - no matter how infinitesimal - and the implied compliment to the quality of her singing.
“You got the good verse,” Abby said, “I always remembered. The middle school choir did the first two, and then they parted in the middle like the Red Sea and out came the Christmas Angel with her glitter halo and her glitter wings.”
“The wings you got when you were in middle school choir did not have glitter on them,” Marcus explained. “So getting promoted to glitter wings was a very big deal.” He looked at Abby and smiled. “And that was my favorite verse too. ‘All out of darkness, we have light.’ I always liked that line.”
“Marcus, were you in the choir?” asked Bellamy, carefully managing to maintain an entirely straight face. “Did you get to wear glitterless wings?”
“Oh, no, there were no boy angels,” said Marcus, shaking his head in mock sorrow. “We took traditional gender roles very seriously in those days. The girls were angels and the boys were shepherds. We all had to shuffle around in our dad’s bathrobes, with kitchen towels tied to our heads, and then we had to sing 'While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night,' which always went very badly.”
“Now, wait a minute,” Abby interjected, “you’re forgetting the most important part of this whole story. I can’t believe you’ve neglected to mention that you and Callie played Mary and Joseph four years in a row.”
The words tumbled out laughingly, but time stopped for a moment as they landed, causing Abby to immediately wonder if she’d made a mistake. Bellamy and Octavia had never heard anyone bring up Marcus’ dead wife so casually, particularly in the presence of Diana, who plainly did not like it.
All eyes swiveled to Marcus, to see how he would take it, and the gaze of both Abby and Diana was particularly keen. He seemed to hesitate for a moment, as though weighing whether he wanted to shut the conversation down or not, but it was Clarke who stepped in to save him.
“What a pity,” she said brightly, “that you’ve only grown into the perfect beard for Joseph now that you’re too old to play him.”
Diana shot the girl a horrified look, but Marcus burst out laughing.
“I’ll have you know,” he retorted with great indignation, “that that Joseph beard was made out of only the finest fake fur from the craft store, and made me feel extremely adult.”
“Oh my God, that’s so sad,” said Octavia. "How incredibly embarrassing for you."
“If this is the first you’re learning that Marcus was not cool in his youth, I’m very sorry to be the means of disillusioning you,” said Abby. “But it’s time you learned the truth.”
“In my defense, I only auditioned because Callie was doing it, and she didn’t want to be married to a boy she didn’t know.”
“And you were so good at standing there in a brown burlap sack and saying nothing while staring at a plastic baby that they kept you on all through high school.”
“Better that than a Wise Man,” Marcus shuddered. “They had to wear those mothball-smelling old silk robes that we all thought were so cool when we were seven, and then by the time you’re old enough for the role you’d rather set yourself on fire than be seen in public wearing them.”
“Oh, yeah, nobody ever wanted to be Wise Men,” said Abby. “They always had to just randomly pick three boys who had hit puberty so their voices had dropped low enough to sing ‘We Three Kings’ without sounding ridiculous.”
“Not that it mattered,” added Diana, “they never sounded good anyway. Teenage boys can’t sing.”
“Well, they can’t sing as well as you could sing,” Marcus conceded, “but Jake got promoted from Shepherd to Melchior senior year, and he honestly wasn’t bad.”
“He's not here, you don't have to lie," said Abby, "Jake was terrible and you know it. I almost broke up with him, I was so mortified."
Clarke looked up sharply at her mother, and was stunned by what she saw. They were grinning at each other, laughing even, Callie and Jake’s ghosts so near they felt palpable and yet bringing only the joy of fond memory, not the bitterness of loss.
Clarke hadn’t heard her mother say her father's name like that since the day he died.
“The bar was low,” Marcus admitted, “and there weren’t very many good options, so I feel like you have to at least concede that Jake wasn’t the worst of the lot.”
“The only reason there were never any good options is because the boy with the best singing voice in our class kept re-upping for the non-speaking role,” said Abby pointedly. “You’re full of shit that you auditioned for Joseph because of Callie. You did it to escape having to sing the weird creepy myrrh verse of ‘We Three Kings,’ which frankly should have been your fate, since you had the deepest voice. And the best.”
“Yes, but playing Joseph requires gravitas,” said Octavia, “and Kane definitely has that.”
“Thank you, Octavia.”
“Gravitas means the same thing as ‘humorless,’ right?”
“I retract my thanks.”
“Wait, Marcus can sing?” asked Bellamy. “Are you serious?”
Abby stared at him. “You’ve never heard him sing?”
“This is all news to us,” said Octavia.
“It’s not like I have a lot of opportunities for live performance, Abby,” he said, rolling his eyes.
“I wish you did. I haven’t heard you sing since you and Jake were in that stupid band together senior year. I hated all your songs and I also hated your hair, but you had a very nice voice.”
“You’ve lost none of your graciousness over the past decades, I hope you know that.”
“Wait, Mom, what were you in the pageant?” asked Clarke. “You must have been in it too, right?”
“Um,” said Abby, hesitating. “Not exactly.”
“There was . . . an incident,” said Diana primly.
“Your mother had a problem with authority,” said Marcus to Clarke, eyes twinkling with mischief. “She did not, then as now, take direction well.”
“Well, I didn’t want to be the stupid innkeeper’s wife anyway,” said Abby irritably. “All she did was stand there with a lantern and point while the innkeeper got all the lines. So I very politely made some suggestions for additional dialogue, to flesh out her character a little bit more, and I got vetoed.”
“And demoted,” said Marcus. “To wrangling the baby sheep. A job for which you were far better suited. Even at the age of fourteen, you were very good at telling people what to do.”
“You have to admit, we never had well-organized baby sheep until I took them in hand,” said Abby, grinning back. “They just needed discipline.”
“They were terrified of you. Sure, they marched in perfect straight lines, but every year at least three of them cried the whole way through ‘Away in a Manger.’”
Abby waved this off. “Builds character.”
“You just keep telling yourself that,” said Marcus, causing Abby to swat him playfully, which was when everyone else at the table except for Marcus and Abby suddenly realized that Marcus and Abby were flirting with each other, and enjoying it.
Diana began to tense up at this, but the Blakes, united in their desire to shove the unpleasant woman out of the picture all together, and Clarke, who was astonished and pleased to see her mother light up like this, were excessively pleased at this new development . . . which gave Octavia an idea.
“Hey, speaking of using the ballroom,” said the girl, “you know what tradition we could bring back? The Christmas Ball.”
“Marcus hasn’t even agreed to the first huge inconvenience, and you’re already demanding a second?” exclaimed Diana, perhaps more harshly than she’d intended, but it had the desired effect of causing Marcus and Abby to remember she was there and draw back from one another slightly.
But Octavia was determined to press her case. “The Christmas Ball always charged admission, in your mom’s day,” she pointed out hopefully. “So as a potential new revenue stream -”
“I know, Octavia,” said Marcus wearily. “I’m just not sure what difference it would make.”
“It wouldn’t cost much to run either of them,” added Bellamy. “I think you’d have a lot of volunteers. They’re both traditions that mean a lot to people.”
“I think we’re all getting a little ahead of ourselves,” Diana interjected, rather desperately. “Marcus is not an event planner, this is asking quite a lot of him, and it seems rather cruel to the town to relaunch a set of local traditions that won’t continue after this year.”
“‘Won’t,’” repeated Octavia, glowering at Diana. “That sounds pretty definitive.”
“I just don’t think there’s any point in pretending that throwing a party or putting up a Christmas tree or opening up the library again are going to make the difference between this inn being a success or not.”
“No, you’re right,” said Octavia, “the thing that would make a difference would be if Marcus had a partner who would help him run it so he didn’t have to do it all by himself, a partner who actually cared about what was important to him, but instead, he only has you.”
“That’s enough, Octavia,” said Marcus, rising from his seat and shooting the girl a dark look. “Go home, all of you. It’s late and we all have to work in the morning. I need to think. You too, Diana,” he said before she could protest. “I’ll call you in the morning. You can tell me what you needed to tell me then.”
Bellamy shoved his sister unceremoniously out of the room, followed by a worried-looking Clarke, as Marcus picked up Diana’s coat and purse, handed them back to her, and walked her out the back door to her car. Left alone in the quiet of the kitchen, Abby suddenly remembered she’d wanted tea, and took advantage of the peaceful interlude to put the kettle back on and begin to tidy up the table to save Charmaine a headache in the morning.
When Marcus returned, fifteen or twenty minutes later, she had found a tupperware container for the cookies, a ziploc bag for all the icing and decorations, and was wiping down the table of scattered sprinkles, dried frosting and gold dust glitter.
“Everything okay?” she asked carefully, not quite able to look at him.
“I don’t have any idea how to answer that question,” he said, voice dull with exhaustion. “I need a drink. Would you like a drink?”
“I’ve already looked,” she replied lightly, trying to ease the tension, giving the table one last swipe before tossing the sponge back in the sink and washing her hands. “Charmaine’s got nothing in her cupboards but cooking sherry.”
“I meant upstairs,” he said, and something in his voice made her stop moving for a moment. She turned to him slowly.
“Upstairs?” she repeated, and he flushed a little.
“I didn’t mean . . . I wasn’t - “
“No, I know.”
“I wasn’t coming onto you. I just meant I have bourbon and Charmaine doesn't.”
“That sounds lovely,” she said. “Thank you.”
The tension didn’t lift as she followed him down the quiet, darkened halls, past rooms full of sleeping guests, to the apartment at the top of the stairs Abby hadn’t seen since they’d been chemistry lab partners their sophomore year.
“It’s just like I remember it,” she said in a low voice, running her fingertips over the gleaming, seasoned wood of the wall paneling, worn smooth as glass by generations of Kanes, as Marcus made his way over to the neat little kitchenette in the corner of the living room and rummaged around for glasses. She'd always liked this place. So little seemed to have changed.
The door to his bedroom was open, on the other side of the living room, and she couldn't keep herself from noticing that his bed was neatly made, with the same heavy, handmade quilt she remembered from his childhood. He'd brought it with him when he moved from the smaller bedroom, where he'd grown up, to the larger one he'd taken over after his mother died. The quilt was stitched with green triangles that looked like Christmas trees; she'd liked it as a kid because it always felt like Christmas in the Kanes' apartment, even in the middle of summer.
She wondered if the quilt had lain on that bed when Marcus and Callie slept beneath it together, or if he had left it in his childhood bedroom and only claimed it back once they were both gone.
“Is this weird for you?” he asked over his shoulder suddenly, as though reading her mind. “Because of Callie, I mean. I didn’t think. I should have asked.”
“She was so happy here,” said Abby. “She loved this place. I think I just . . . don’t always let myself think about how much I miss her.”
“Something we have in common,” said Marcus, making his way over to her and handing her a glass before taking a seat on the cozy, plush sofa. “Neither of us handle loss particularly well.”
“It isn’t that I don’t get it,” she said, taking a seat beside him. “Selling the place and moving, I mean. I’m not judging you.”
“I know,” said Marcus. “You were the only one sitting at that table that wasn’t.”
“I couldn’t stay in Boston either. I packed up and skipped town too.”
“Too many ghosts?” he asked, and she nodded.
“Just the one,” she responded dryly, with a smile that didn’t reach her eyes, “but God, he was everywhere.”
“And that was in a huge city,” said Marcus, nodding. “Imagine it in a town like this.”
“It’s not that I don’t care about this place, or that I wouldn’t miss it.”
“I know that.”
“But Diana has a very clear picture in her head of what she thinks our life should be, and, I don’t know, sometimes it’s very compelling, sometimes I think I can really see the appeal of it, but other times . . . I’m not sure.”
“What do you want, Marcus?” Abby asked him gently. He took a long swig of bourbon and leaned his head back against the worn leather of the sofa.
“Another drink after this one, and then a good night’s sleep. That should do it.”
She kicked him gently. “I’m being serious,” she said, causing him to turn and look at her. “Octavia and Bellamy and Indra know what they want from you, and Diana knows what she wants from you, but I don’t think you know what you want.” She reached out and placed her hand over his where it rested on the faded couch cushion. “What do you want, Marcus?”
He was silent for a long, long, long time, his coffee-brown eyes fixed on hers. “You know something,” he murmured, “you might be the first person in my whole life who’s ever asked me that.”
“Tell me the answer, then.”
“I don’t have an answer. I wish I did. All I know is that when I look at all the choices in front of me, none of them feel right.”
Does that include your marriage? Abby thought, but couldn’t bring herself to say. Instead, she squeezed his hand and said, “Let’s start small, then. We don’t have to decide your entire future right this minute. What about the Christmas pageant?”
“I think . . . I think, yes,” he said. “Don’t you?”
Abby smiled at him. “Absolutely yes.”
“The kids should get to have their pageant. They’ve worked hard. Wrangling baby sheep is no joke.”
“Neither is standing there in a brown robe trying to emote at a fake baby,” said Abby. “Don’t sell yourself short.”
Marcus laughed. “God, I’ve missed you,” he said, almost absently, as though he was hardly aware of the words as they came out of his mouth, but they both went immediately still.
Abby met his eyes with a long, searching gaze, and gently drew her hand back from his - not a rejection, not exactly, but a moment of needing more space.
“I missed you too,” she said, her voice coming out in a whisper. “You were my friend. You were always my friend, and then one day you weren’t.”
“Abby,” he said, sitting up, turning to her and setting down his drink, face somber, “there’s something I need to tell you, about that day, it’s been weighing on me for so long and I -”
“Stop,” she said, cutting him off with a shake of the head. “Stop, Marcus. Don’t. We can’t rip all that open again now. It’s taking everything I have to keep all of that locked up and if we open that door now, we’re never going to be able to do this again. Sit here and drink our bourbon on the couch in peace and quiet, like we’re old friends. I’m so tired of being angry at you. I’m so tired of hating you. Can’t we just put all of that behind us, and pretend none of it happened?”
Marcus looked at her for a long silent moment as though he were weighing something else he wanted to say, but finally he nodded and leaned back against the sofa again, closing his eyes.
“The pageant is one thing,” he said, “but Diana had a point about the Christmas Ball.”
“The pageant will be back in the church next year, no matter what else happens, the pageant is just a one-time thing. If I bring back the Christmas Ball and then next year I’m in Los Angeles and the lodge is getting turned into, I don’t know, a bunch of condos or something . . .”
“Octavia also had a point, though,” Abby reminded him. “If part of what’s tempting you to sell the place is that the financial end of it is a struggle, bringing back arguably the inn’s biggest-ever moneymaker could be a big step in the right direction.”
“It’s not just the money,” he said. “I mean, that’s part of it. That’s a huge part of it. But one person isn’t enough. This place needs a family to run it. It needs more than one pair of hands. It needs to feel like a home. It worked, when it was me and my mother and Callie. But I’m not enough on my own. I never have been.” He took another long swig of bourbon. “Sometimes, when you’re the kind of person who destroys everything you touch,” he said, voice sharp with bitterness, “it’s best for everyone to just make a clean break, and let the ghosts lie.”
“Marcus,” she said, astonished at the raw pain in his tone. “Marcus, come on. That’s not who you are.”
“I’m driving my family’s legacy into the ground, and I lost my two best friends,” he said. “There’s no one to blame for either of those things but myself. And if I’m not careful, I might -”
But he stopped himself before he could go any further, and set the glass down on the coffee table before standing up and holding out his hand to Abby to help her up.
“Maybe I just need to get some sleep.”
“I think so, yes,” she agreed, taking his hand and letting him pull her to her feet. A slight stumble against the edge of the coffee table caused her to lose her balance slightly, pitching her into his arms with more force than either of them had intended. Marcus caught her and set her back on her feet with a small chuckle, but his hands lingered on her arms for a long moment before letting her go.
She looked up at him, meeting his dark eyes, and suddenly realized how close they were standing.
If he leaned down, just a bit, he could -
“Goodnight, Abby,” he said abruptly, stepping back from her and letting all the air back into the room. “I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Goodnight, Marcus,” she said, as he closed the door behind her.
Chapter 7: December 18th
Raven’s breezy voice on speakerphone always seemed loudest at the most inconvenient moments, as though she timed it to seem like she was shouting every time she said things Abby desperately hoped wouldn't be overheard.
“That’s what I said!” Clarke exclaimed, as her mother dismissed both girls with an irritated handwave.
“There’s nothing to be jealous of,” she repeated, for the hundredth time. “You're both insane. Diana and I have never been that close, but even she must know that there’s never been anything between me and Marcus and there never would be. She’s not as insecure as you're giving her credit for.”
“You’re so full of shit,” said Raven bluntly. “I can hear it in your voice.”
“I have no intention of coming between Diana and her prize, so both of you can just lay off.”
“Maybe it isn’t intentional,” Raven conceded, “but you have to admit, it sure does seem like you showing up has thrown a wrench in her plans a little bit. Even if she doesn’t think you want to bang her fiance -”
“Eeew, Raven!” Clarke exclaimed. “There’s a kid in the room!”
“ . . . but still, it looks like he’s been rethinking some things she might not want him to be rethinking. Maybe it’s not even about you, romantically. Just that you’re planting ideas in his head that weren’t there before, and she’s getting territorial.”
This notion made a bit more sense to Abby than the wildly implausible one of Marcus harboring a secret crush, and she found herself beginning to genuinely consider it.
It had begun with the library, which had been all her, and then the Christmas tree - which had been Clarke. The gingerbread had also been Clarke. The pageant was her suggestion and the Christmas ball Octavia’s. But really, wasn’t it all of a piece?
Hadn’t it been her, a week ago, on Kane’s living room sofa, asking him - for the first time in all his life, he'd said - to think about what he really wanted?
What if he had, and it didn’t include Diana?
Was she resisting so hard because she truly believed Raven was mistaken, or because some part of her recoiled at the notion of being responsible - even indirectly - for breaking up their engagement?
“It’s not the same, Mom,” said Clarke’s voice, startling out of her reverie, and she realized she hadn’t even heard the girls exchange goodbyes as Raven hung up. “I know what you’re thinking, but it’s not the same.”
“What's not the same as what, honey?”
“If he doesn’t get married to Diana because of you - or because of us - because of the inn, or whatever - that’s not the same as what he did to you,” said Clarke, startling her mother as always with her perceptiveness. “Helping him realize that maybe this wasn’t going to make him happy is one thing. Getting drunk and crashing a wedding is different. So if you’re worrying that you’ve turned into a hypocrite, knock it off.”
Her voice was so firm and bossy that Abby had to laugh. “Tough love time, huh?” she said. “Did we pull a Freaky Friday? Because now you sound like the mom.”
“Well, sometimes I have to,” said Clarke wryly, “when you’re acting like a child.”
“Marcus meant a lot to Dad,” Clarke cut her off before she could protest again, and it wasn't a question. “I mean before. Before it all went wrong. When you guys were young. Dad loved him a lot.”
Abby was silent for a long, long moment. “Yes,” she said finally. “Yes, we both did.”
“Well, I think Dad would want him to be happy. And you know something, I think he would want Diana Sydney to be happy too. Even though it sounds like she was a real dick in high school.”
“She was. But yes, he probably would. He was a much nicer person than I am."
“Okay, so clearly they aren’t making each other happy. I mean this is a relationship that is not working. They don’t want the same things. It’s so obvious. They should just break up, so she can go off to LA and he can stay here and turn the lodge back into what it’s meant to be.” Clarke hopped up on the bed beside her mom, wrapped one arm around her shoulder, and flopped them both onto their backs to obtain a better cuddling position. “And maybe it’s because we arrived here, in the right place at the right time,” she went on happily, head resting on her mother’s shoulder, “that they’re both going to realize that. That’s good, don’t you see, Mom? That means we helped. You didn’t mess anything up. You’re helping them. Both of them.”
Abby stared up at the wood beams of the ceiling. Somewhere over her head, Marcus Kane was moving around in his bedroom, thinking complicated Marcus Kane thoughts that remained incomprehensible and opaque to her; they’d become something resembling friends again, the coldness of their first meeting now long gone, but he still had not told anyone what he planned to do after the pageant and the Christmas ball were over, and she had not been able to bring herself to ask.
“You’re young,” Abby finally said, arms tightening around her daughter, pulling her close. “And you want things to be simple. It feels simple to you, that two people you don’t think are right for each other should just . . . stop being together.”
“It is simple.”
“No, it isn’t. Nothing about relationships is simple. And nobody can ever really see what’s going on inside one, except the two people in it.” She pressed a kiss on her daughter’s forehead. “Now, I would never marry Diana Sydney, and you would never marry Diana Sydney -”
“Because she’s like twenty years too old for me. And you’re straight.”
“ . . . but it doesn’t necessarily follow that if someone else married Diana Sydney, he would automatically be miserable, just because we would. People are different, and they’re messy, and what they want is complicated, but I think . . .” She paused, trying to figure out the best way to phrase it. “I think when people reach a certain age,” she went on, choosing her words carefully, “they’ve become who they are, and you have to take them, to a certain extent, at face value. If Marcus decides he wants to marry Diana, then it’s because as a rational adult man who is almost fifty years old, he can be trusted to know his own mind better than you do.”
“You don’t even know you’re doing it, do you?” said Clarke, something peculiar in her voice that sounded almost like a realization.
Abby rolled over onto her side, propping herself up on her elbow, to meet her daughter’s eye. “Doing what?”
“Talking yourself into it,” Clarke said, as though it were obvious. “You don’t want him to marry Diana, and you don’t think he should, but you’re trying to convince yourself you’re okay with it in case he actually does.”
Abby stared at her, swallowing hard, heart inexplicably speeding up. “No, honey,” she said uncertainly, “that’s not - I didn’t mean -”
Clarke kissed her mom’s head and sat up. “It’s okay,” she said, somewhat cryptically. “We’re taking care of it.”
“You’re what? What? Who’s we?”
“Me and Octavia."
“Oh no,” said Abby, sitting bolt upright. “No, no, please no, honey, tell me you and the Blakes aren’t cooking up some kind of -”
“He’s not going to marry Diana,” said Clarke. “You can relax, Mom.”
“You and Octavia planning some kind of secret wedding-ruining scheme is not helping me relax.”
“We’re not going to ruin a wedding,” Clarke retorted, wounded. “We would never do that. It’s not going to get that far.”
“Clarke Eleanor Griffin, don’t you dare -”
“I’ll see you at dinner!” Clarke sang hastily, and bolted out the door.
“You’re not listening to a single thing I’m saying, are you?”
Bellamy’s impatient voice cut through the muffled din of the bar - and the fog of his thoughts - as Kane shook himself a little and returned to earth.
“I’ve been talking for like ten straight minutes about organizing the volunteers for the Christmas Ball and you’re not paying attention to any of it. Should I just email you?”
Kane rubbed his temples and ran a hand through his hair. “I’m sorry,” he said honestly. “I’m a little . . . distracted. I apologize.”
“Big evening plans?” Bellamy couldn’t keep himself from asking, tone a little more snide than he’d intended. Kane raised an eyebrow, but didn’t respond, and Bellamy relented immediately. “Sorry,” he said. “Turned into my sister for a minute.”
Kane snorted. “You’ve made very little secret of your own feelings about her over the years,” he said, taking a long swig of his beer, and despite his casual tone there was a flash of real hurt inside it, which made Bellamy feel suddenly guilty. True, none of them could stand Diana, so none of them cared particularly about her feelings. But he realized for the first time how painful it must be for Marcus, having decided to marry her and spend the rest of his life with her, that the people who cared about him could not even put on a decent facade of pretending they were happy for him.
Not that it wasn’t deserved - it was hardly pleasant watching her strut around like she owned the place, sizing it up not for what it gave back to the community but for how big a commission it would bring her when the land finally sold. But for whatever reason, Kane loved her (or Kane thought he loved her, which had netted the same end result so far), and it suddenly felt cold and mean and ugly to punish him for Diana’s behavior anymore.
“I’m sorry,” said Bellamy, more sincerely this time. Kane raised an eyebrow and took another long drink, but didn't answer. “Hey. No. I mean it. I’m sorry. I won’t do it anymore. And I’ll talk to Octavia. You’re an adult, I don’t get to tell you who to marry. We can’t control who we fall in love with.”
Kane’s eyes snapped up sharply. “What did you say?”
Bellamy stared at him. “I said, we can’t control who we fall in love with,” he repeated patiently, a little confused.
“You mean Diana."
“Right.” This was weird. “Sorry, I thought you knew that’s what I meant. When I was apologizing.”
“Apology accepted,” said Kane, thawing slightly, breezing past the strange moment without explaining himself any further. “Though . . .” he hesitated. “I don’t know,” he said finally, voice suddenly heavy, and he seemed to crumble a little bit, right before Bellamy’s eyes. “Maybe I’m the one who should be apologizing," he went on, though he didn't seem to be speaking to Bellamy anymore. "To everyone. To her, to you, to the town . . . to my mom . . . to Callie . . . to Jake and Abby -”
“That’s a lot of apologizing,” said Bellamy carefully, not sure how to respond, “and we only have time for two beers before you have to go meet Diana for dinner. And a couple of those people are dead, so I don’t quite know how to help you there.”
"That's fair," said Kane, and took a long drink of his beer, and then no one said anything for a very, very long time - long enough for Bellamy to wish he'd brought Octavia, the compulsive silence-filler, instead of forcing her to close out alone so he could have what she sarcastically referred to as a "bromantic evening" with Kane.
“What would you do, if you were me?” Kane suddenly asked him, breaking the silence unexpectedly. “I don’t mean what you, right now, want me to do," he clarified, holding up a hand, before the boy could answer. "I know what you want me to do. I’ve always known. The Blakes don’t mince their words,” he added dryly, causing Bellamy to chuckle and wince a little at the same time. “But I mean, if you were me. My life, my circumstances. My responsibilities. My hometown. My past. My ghosts. What would you do, Bellamy? Which life would you choose?”
Kane had never asked him this before - had never spoken to him this way, ever. Like he was a friend, not a boss who gave occasional Dad Lectures. Like they were just two men in a bar, and one needed advice, and trusted the other to give it. Bellamy felt a strange flush of pride at this, affection blooming inside his chest, and he took a long drink of his beer to hide the sudden rush of emotion.
Oh Jesus, Bell, don’t make it weird, he heard his sister’s sardonic voice in his mind.
Kane had asked a serious question, and it deserved a serious answer.
“I think,” said Bellamy finally, “that I like the Marcus Kane you’ve been since the Griffins arrived a whole lot better than the Marcus Kane you were before.”
Kane stared at him blankly, jaw twitching as though Kane was holding something in. “That’s not an answer.”
“Yeah it is. It’s just the answer to a different question. It’s the answer to the thing you didn’t ask me.”
“I don’t want to talk about the Griffins.”
“It has nothing to do with selling the land,” Bellamy said, all restraint evaporating completely. “Why none of us get along with Diana. To be honest, it kind of hurts that you still haven't figured that out yet. We like our jobs, we want to keep them, but we also care about you being happy. And if you were genuinely happy about selling the lodge and moving to Los Angeles - if it seemed like that was what you really wanted - we’d throw you a huge Bon Voyage party, and invite the whole town, and O would bake you, I don’t know, gluten-free hippie vegan kale brownies or something, and we’d fly out there for summer vacation and drag you to Disneyland, or Venice Beach, or someplace else you’d hate, and we’d all miss you, but life would go on, and everybody would be fine. But the reason it's not fine, Kane,” he said pointedly, “is because you don’t want that, and everybody knows it except for you. We all saw it coming a long time ago, and that’s why Diana gets under our skin. Diana’s figured it out, which is why she starts spiraling into crazytown every time she comes up to the lodge. And Abby Griffin figured it out in thirty seconds, after not having seen you in twenty-five years, which is the part that’s sending you into a tailspin. Hell, Clarke figured it out, and she’d never even met you. Everyone’s just waiting for you to figure out what’s actually going to make you happy, Kane. Sell the land, if that’s going to give you the life you want. Or keep it. Marry Diana Sydney, or don’t. But Jesus fucking Christ, man, do something.”
The silence that followed was awful, and once the adrenaline rush of finally getting it all out in the open had faded, Bellamy was left with the feeling that he’d crossed a line he couldn’t come back from. The first time in their whole lives that Kane had come to him for counsel - like a real friend - and he’d fucked it up.
Then, “How in the name of God did you get so wise?” Kane said unexpectedly, and when Bellamy finally looked up from his beer to meet the man’s eyes, Kane wasn’t angry at all.
He just looked tired, and twenty years older than he had when he sat down.
“I’m just making shit up as I go along,” said Bellamy. “Just like everybody else.”
Kane shook his head, his dark eyes suddenly sad. “No," he said. "I think I haven’t been giving you credit for being able to see . . . things I suppose I hoped no one could see. Because if someone could see, then at some point they would point it out.”
“And then you’d have to see it.”
“Exactly,” said Kane wearily. “Damn you.”
But it was warm, and kind, and resigned, and there was no malice in it, so Bellamy hadn’t broken anything.
“What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know,” said Kane. “I suppose . . . I’ll know when I see her.”
“Which one?” said Bellamy, before he could stop himself, and regretted it immediately as a look of raw pain flashed across the older man’s face.
“Diana,” he said tightly. “There’s only Diana. There’s no one else.”
“No, that’s good,” said Bellamy hastily, reassuring him. “You have to figure out where you are with her before you think about . . . anything else. That’s the only way that’s fair to either of them.”
“You’ve got this the wrong way round, kid,” said Kane, standing from the table and pulling a five out of his wallet to toss on the table. “This isn’t a conversation about choosing between two different women. There’s one woman. And I have to decide what my future is with her. There is no future for me with -” and he was so very nearly about to say Abby's name before he stopped himself that Bellamy was stunned.
“Hey,” he said, misreading the man’s discomfort. “You don’t know that.”
“Yes, I do,” said Kane grimly. “And if you knew the things I’ve done, you’d know it too.”
Then he grabbed his jacket from the booth, and was gone.
“He’s changing his mind,” said Nia tersely. “You had one job.”
She was more civilized than her son - as well as busier - and she’d phoned instead of plunking herself casually into a diner booth. But even at a distance, she was by far the more alarming one, and Diana’s heart had dropped into her sleek patent-leather boots when she’d seen the woman’s number pop up on her iPhone.
“It’s all over town, Diana. The Christmas Ball? Really?”
“It won’t happen,” said Diana, with far more confidence than she felt, turning over her shoulder to look back from the frosty sidewalk where she’d stepped out to take her call, to the table inside where Marcus was patiently waiting for her.
“That contract is legally binding,” Nia reminded her. “This could be over tomorrow if you’d held up your end of the plan.”
“I’m working on it.”
“If you think you can sell him on eloping, we have a very nice luxury resort condo tower on the Las Vegas strip. I would throw one in for free if it would close this deal more promptly.”
“I’m already struggling to sell him on LA, Nia. He would never get married in Vegas.”
“Why?” asked Nia. “Because he’s emotionally attached to this town, and doesn’t really want to leave it? Because if I find out you oversold this to me from the beginning, just to get this job -”
“Of course I didn’t,” snapped Diana, who had done literally exactly that, and was now watching her carefully-laid plan spiral entirely out of control. “Don’t be absurd.”
“We’re more than halfway through December, with no progress to show the investors,” the other woman said, disapproval etched into her frosty voice. “This is not an ideal situation, Diana.”
“One more week,” Diana pleaded. “I can lock this down by then and we can close the deal once everyone’s back in their offices on the 26th. Plenty of time to get everything sorted before the end of the year.”
Nia thought for a long moment. “Fine,” she said coldly. “One more week. But if we’re still having this same conversation by the 25th -”
“We won’t be.”
“All right, then. Go finish your dinner. Get me a sale agreement, or get yourself a ring on your finger. I can work with either, but the first one is tidier.”
“In the meantime, some tactful attempts to sabotage the ball wouldn’t hurt. See what you can do to slow the train down, at least, before he gets the whole town on his side.”
“There’s not going to be any Christmas Ball, Nia. He doesn’t have the staff for it.”
“You’re underestimating his charisma, I think. That could be dangerous.”
“Nobody in this town knows Marcus Kane like I do,” snapped Diana feelingly, thinking at this moment of a small, laughing face framed in soft brown hair, trading casual jokes about the past over a kitchen table stacked high with gingerbread angels. “Nobody.”
“Prove me wrong, then,” said Nia agreeably. “I would love for that to be true.”
Then she hung up.
“Everything okay?” Marcus asked her carefully, as she made her way back inside, dropping her phone back into her purse and sliding into the seat across from him.
She forced a smile, though her heart was still pounding. “Fine,” she said briskly. “Work.”
“I got you a glass of Pinot Grigio, is that okay? They’re out of the Riesling you like.”
“That’s fine,” she said absently, taking a sip and barely tasting it. “Thank you.”
Marcus watched her thoughtfully for a long moment, as though weighing something before saying it out loud. “Diana,” he began hesitantly, “do you ever wonder -”
“So sorry for the delay!” chirped their young waiter, arriving at that precise moment and cutting off Marcus mid-thought. They’d had this waiter before, and Diana found his attitude grating, but she’d never been more grateful for it than she was now, for derailing Marcus’ train of thought. “Your husband asked me to wait for you before I came back with the specials.”
“Not quite yet,” Diana corrected flirtatiously, smiling at the waiter and taking Marcus’ hand firmly in hers across the table, “but I like the sound of ‘husband’ a great deal more than ‘fiance’, don’t you?”
“Well, congratulations,” said the waiter, “when’s the big day?”
“I think there’s something very romantic about a Christmas Eve wedding,” said Diana, a plan dawning in her mind. “Don’t you?”
“Absolutely,” agreed the waiter. “Very romantic.”
“Diana, maybe we should -”
“And we’ll both have the steak frites,” she said, interrupting him smoothly, “since we’re celebrating.”
Marcus looked, for a moment, like he was about to object, but finally he just nodded. “Sure,” he said. “That sounds great.”
“I’m sorry, darling, you were saying something,” she said to him, giving his hand a squeeze as the waiter departed. “What was it?”
“Nothing,” he finally said. “We can talk about it later.”
Chapter 8: December 20th
If you had asked her directly, Diana would have breezily laughed off the suggestion that, in going nearly forty-eight hours without calling or visiting the farm, she was technically avoiding her fiance; still, the fact remained that she very conveniently happened to find herself too busy all day Thursday and Friday to see him, or even return his messages with anything more than a hastily dashed-off text . . . conveniently preventing him from pursuing whatever foreboding train of thought he had begun the other night at dinner, before they were mercifully interrupted by the irritating waiter. She did not quite know what he had been about to say, but she knew she had no interest in hearing it; much better to just continue quietly pressing forward with her own plans, and present them to him fully-formed and complete. The Christmas Eve wedding, for example. He hadn’t said no, which she felt quite confident translated to yes, and once the thing was in motion there would be too much momentum for Marcus to try and stop it.
He wasn’t an obstinate man, not really; he was only procrastinating. But that was her fault too, a little, because she hadn’t wanted to overplay her hand. He was vulnerable to the pernicious influence of all the people around him, and she wasn’t drowning them out as forcefully as she could be. But when she pushed hard enough, he always gave in. He’d done it before - the first time she asked him out, the first time she invited him to spend the night, the weekend trip they’d taken to New York where she’d tactfully pointed out the exact ring she wanted at Tiffany’s - and he would do it again.
No, she wouldn’t need to use the contract. She still had time to do this all the way she’d planned, the way that would leave Marcus feeling grateful, more devoted to her than ever before, rather than furious and betrayed and potentially (though she tried not to think about this) even willing to end things.
More than anything else in the world, Marcus was terrified of spending the rest of his life alone at Eden Tree Farm. That fear had proved useful in the past, and it was useful now.
It was not without risk, of course, to leave him unsupervised for two days with the Blakes and the Griffins and God knows who else, filling his head with nonsense; but after the way he’d looked at her in the restaurant when he’d tried to start a sentence she knew she could not let him finish, it felt, on the whole, less dangerous than seeing him again until her plans were closer to completion.
She had no idea, as she sipped her Friday morning latte and sent his latest call to voicemail again, just how wildly her plans were about to spiral out of control.
The thunder of footsteps down the hallway rattled the framed pictures on his walls, as Marcus hung up the phone (Diana, apparently, was still too busy to talk) and waited - half exasperation, half intrigued amusement - for whichever Blake was about to storm in with some kind of Christmas emergency.
He was rather surprised, therefore, when the visitor turned out to be Clarke.
She burst into the office in a whirl of color - red scarf, green coat, golden hair, pink cheeks - and he observed, with a pang of regret for the cleaning staff, that she had not even stopped long enough to scrape the snow from her boots, about which she was always unfailingly conscientious.
“The Jahas are coming, the Jahas are coming!” she exclaimed breathlessly, nearly vibrating out of her skin with excitement.
“I think it’s ‘the British,’” said Marcus dryly, taking an elaborately casual sip of his coffee, amused at her barely-restrained tempest of youthful energ. “But excellent delivery overall.”
“Maybe go back and try your entrance again, with a bell?”
“They’re coming now, there’s no time for dad jokes,” she declared impatiently, and he could tell she was this close to stomping her foot. “This is important. We just ran into them at the diner and rushed back to tell you. They’ll be here at three, for check-in.”
Now she had his attention. “For check-in?” he repeated blankly. “They’re . . . staying here?”
“They’ve never stayed here.”
“I mean, for dinners and things, back in the old days when we had dinners, but never overnight even then.”
“I don’t believe this. They’re staying at the lodge tonight?”
“Not just tonight,” she said, blue eyes sparkling with glee, now that he was finally giving her the response she had clearly been hoping for. “They’re staying through the 26th. And so are a lot of other people.”
“What are you -”
“Marcus, you should have seen the crowd around the diner bulletin board when everyone saw the flyers for the Christmas Ball. It’s working. The library, the tree, the pageant, the ball, all of it. Everyone wants to be here for the holidays.”
Marcus rose to his feet, suddenly restless, numbers adding and multiplying in his head, and came around the desk to face her. “How many?” he demanded.
“I don’t know exactly. But I know at least four more rooms for tonight. Thelonious and Wells, that’s two, and then there was another couple who said they’d be up after dinner, and their son and daughter were going to drive down and join them. The kids were going to stay at their parents’ house but now the whole family is going to spend the week here instead. And we heard at least four or five other people say they thought they might check in for Christmas Eve and stay the night after the ball.”
“Four rooms for tonight means we’re sold out,” he said, almost blankly.
“Maybe for the whole weekend. Maybe for the whole week.”
“We haven’t been sold out in three years. Not even on a Friday night.”
“I know!” Clarke exclaimed happily. “I ran right home to tell you.”
She was grinning at him with such unabashed delight that he realized she hadn’t even caught it herself. She didn’t know she’d said it. The word had just tumbled out.
Even Marcus didn’t always think of it that way. Sometimes it was just the place he worked and lived, sometimes it was the millstone around his neck, sometimes it was the dwelling place of his dead wife’s ghost; but “home” was something fleeting and ephemeral, something which came and went at unpredictable intervals and had been absent a long, long time.
She’d been at the diner with her mother, he suddenly remembered. That was the “we.”
He shut down the question in his mind before it could coalesce into a concrete form, and wound him.
He already knew the answer anyway. Clarke might use the word, maybe, but Abby never.
Well, that was all right, wasn’t it? They’d be moving out in a few weeks anyway, to that house on the other side of town. And sure, maybe he could talk them into coming back to stay next Christmas, but in the meantime -
He froze, suddenly.
Good Lord, when had that happened?
When had he begun thinking, even a little bit, even abstractly, about a future that would keep him here at the lodge?
For the past six months, as Diana began to press him more seriously to make a decision, Marcus had decided nothing about what he really wanted to do with his life except the sure and certain knowledge that he could not spend one more year alone in this house. So Diana’s choice, in the end, was easy, because it was a choice between leaving, or . . . nothing, really. Any ambivalence he might feel about abandoning the lodge was more guilt at disappointing his mother than anything else. No, the thought of remaining here another Christmas had begun to feel oppressive, claustrophobic, and the notion of escaping it altogether a relief.
But then, the thought of Los Angeles was no better, was it? Hot, noisy, crowded, a chaotic and overwhelming place built for a completely different type of person than him, a Diana type of person who loved Korean food and was indifferent to traffic jams and in forty-six years had never trusted either of Arkadia’s two salons to cut her hair.
So no good options, really.
Well, except one. Because hadn’t he, in a way, only been stalling in the hopes that Diana might be persuaded to try another city? Portland or Seattle, maybe, at least it was green there. He could have been happy even in San Francisco, at least he’d be able to drive north to the redwoods if he needed to be alone among trees again. It was only L.A., and the kind of relentlessly urban life Diana would want them to lead there, which had stopped him from packing his boxes a long time ago. He would have been ready to leave, if he’d had somewhere exciting to go; he just knew he couldn’t stay here.
It had been a long, long time since Marcus Kane had imagined a life for himself here at this town - here on this farm - that he might actually want.
Not since Callie.
Maybe longer ago even than that.
“Hey.” Clarke snapped her fingers in front of his face. “Wake up. Did you hear anything I just said?”
“I asked if you had a piano in the ballroom, or if the church was bringing in their own for the pageant.”
Marcus raised a puzzled eyebrow. “Why?”
“You’re sold out on the Friday before Christmas,” she pointed out, the words still sending a little flicker of astonishment pulsing through his body. My God, could it really be true? “Some of these people might stick around. For sure they might think about coming back next year, for a longer stay. But you have to give them something to do. We need some holiday entertainment.”
“Clarke, my budget is already tighter than I’d like, I can’t handle five nights worth of balls.”
“You don’t have to,” she said firmly. “You don’t have to do anything, Marcus. I’m going to take care of all of it. I just need your blessing, and probably your keys, and maybe your truck, but I promise you that whatever we spend on a little bit of extra Christmas cheer the next few nights will be more than covered by the ticket sales from the Christmas Ball.”
She pulled a crumpled piece of paper out of her back pocket and held it out to him.
“We’ll start tonight with after-dinner drinks in the library,” she began. “O talked to Charmaine and she’s going to do a hot cranberry and almond cocktail and some cookies and maybe a cheese plate. Nothing expensive, just an hour or so for everyone to drop in and have a nightcap. Saturday afternoon, tree-trimming. Don’t get mad,” she added hastily, “that one was Bellamy’s idea. But really, it’s such a good one. The ballroom will need a really good big tree for the Christmas Ball anyway, won’t it, and this way if we make it a little party then we’ll have like fifty people helping instead of it just being us. And once it’s all decorated and lit, we can do another little cocktails thing in the evening, just to let people come in and out and enjoy it. Maybe with caroling. You don’t have to worry about music. Did you know Lincoln plays the piano? He can tune it for you too, if it needs to be tuned. Then Sunday night, this one actually Wells and Mom came up with at lunch, what if we encouraged people to buy a gift to donate to the families in the shelter, where he works, and we could have a little cookies-and-eggnog party on Sunday to wrap them and then drive them down on Monday? Maybe with a Christmas tree, if you thought you had an extra one kicking around that you wouldn’t miss,” she added dryly. “I’m going down there on Monday anyway to hang out with Wells and we thought we’d help the kids make some ornaments. And then Monday and Tuesday we could just do something simple, like cookies and eggnog in the library in the afternoons. Then on Wednesday there’s the pageant and the ball, of course, and then Thursday we thought maybe a big Christmas Day feast. People might be doing breakfast with their families, you know, if there are kids and stockings and gifts or whatever, and maybe some people will have family get-togethers for dinner, but some won’t, and if we did it in the ballroom, and set up tables, we could fit so many more people than just the dining room.”
“And before you tell me it’s too much work,” she went on, a little desperately, “I have twelve volunteers who are already willing to get the room turned over in time, and since the diner is closed on Christmas and Charmaine is friends with the owners, they offered to help with food. You could charge separate admission for the dinner, people would totally pay, and I bet a lot of locals who want to do something festive with their families but maybe don’t want to roast a whole turkey would be perfectly willing to just bring their celebrations here. So you see,” she finished triumphantly, “it won’t cost you in labor, because everyone’s volunteering, and it won’t cost you in cash, because the expenses will be more than covered by the time you process all the ticket sales for the ball, and it’s already getting local business owners and people in the community excited - the church is so grateful they’re willing to do anything you need, and most of the Main Street businesses support the shelter so that will be a big hit too. So you’re diversifying your revenue streams, adding value for customers, and building relationships in the community, all three of which are very important for a successful business.”
This was where she finally ran out of words, and the breathless torrent gradually slowed to a halt.
For a long moment, neither of them spoke.
Marcus stood still, arms folded across his flannel-clad chest, looking down at her, into those bright blue eyes full of energy and life that she had so clearly inherited from her father, and he felt something deep inside his heart begin to quicken, like a tiny pine seedling cracking open and tentatively extending its first little root into the soil.
Something he hadn’t had in a long, long time.
Because what if she was right?
What if it worked?
What if the things he’d thought were dead and turned to dust had been only sleeping, and could still be brought back to life?
But still, whispered Diana’s steely, practical voice inside his mind.
It’s all very well to have dreams, darling, but you know you can’t possibly do this alone.
And about that, at least, Diana was right.
“What are you doing right now?” he said unexpectedly.
Clarke blinked at him in confusion. “I’m - right now? Nothing.”
“Good,” he said, pulling his coat off the hook beside the door. “Take a walk with me.”
The afternoon sun was high and gold in the sky as they tromped in companionable silence - Marcus seemingly wrapped in his own thoughts, Clarke curious and a little surprised - down the hill to the tree line. Usually, when she walked this way, she turned left, down the shortest path which led straight down the hill to the barn; but Marcus turned right instead, taking them toward a corner of the lot where the trees grew to massive heights, some fifteen or even twenty feet tall. Once they entered the neat, tidy row, the tops of the trees were so high they partially blocked the sun. It was shady and crisp and the pine scent was intoxicating, and the grove was nearly silent; these trees were claimed so rarely that the only footprints in the clean white snow were their own.
“I can’t decide if this feels more like the world’s most symmetrical forest,” Clarke offered lightly, finally breaking the silence, “or the world’s easiest hedge maze.”
Marcus looked at her sharply, one eyebrow raised. He wasn’t smiling, but she’d finally begun to recognize that look when it crossed his face; he was less of a puzzle to her now than he had been three weeks ago, when they’d first arrived.
“I sounded like my dad just then, didn’t I?” she asked, but it wasn’t really a question.
Marcus didn’t answer immediately, and it looked as though he was pacing a little, sizing up the row of firs and running practiced fingertips over the branches, plucking and sniffing the needles. She wondered if he had always been more comfortable with trees than people, or if that was something new, something grief had done to him.
She wondered if that was something she could ask her mother, or whether she would get a real answer if she did.
“I’m getting used to it,” he said finally. “It’s just . . . a little painful, sometimes.”
“I’m sorry,” she said, though it was such a hopeless thing to apologize for.
“Don’t be,” he said quietly. “Not for that, not ever. Sometimes it hurts, but it’s also a gift. I didn’t think I would ever get him back again. And now there’s at least a piece of him that has -”
He stopped suddenly, unsure how to continue, and busied himself with the trees again for a long moment before figuring out where to go next.
“There’s something I think I want to ask you,” he said suddenly, voice low, not looking at her. “And I’m worried that the only reason I’m putting off asking you is because just the act of speaking the question out loud will, by necessity, force some things to change that I think I’ve been resisting. It’s a decision for me, too, I mean. And I’m not great at making decisions. And it opens up some territory that might . . . well, might risk putting you in a position where -”
“Yes,” Clarke interrupted. “I think she does. And I promise, if she does, I would be thrilled.”
“I think,” he began carefully, after a pause so long Clarke started to worry, “that we’ve gotten our wires crossed somewhere.”
“Have we?” Clarke tilted her head and regarded him in some puzzlement. “I just assumed . . . you took me out for a walk to the most remote part of the whole property with the least chance of being overheard. I figured this was about . . . well, you know.”
She was smiling as she said it, and she’d been prepared for any number of different possible reactions, from embarrassment to relief. She was not, however, prepared for the look on his face when he turned to her, his eyes dark with something that looked to her more like grief than anything else.
“There are things you don’t know about me, Clarke,” he said in a low, heavy voice. “There are reasons why that is simply . . . not on the table, now or ever. Sometimes people only love one person their whole life.”
Clarke nodded. “And that’s how it was between you and Callie,” she guessed, but again the flash of emotion across his face surprised her.
“I was talking about your parents,” he said stiffly. “I meant the way Abby loved Jake.”
“Anyway, there are things that are better off left in the past," he said briskly, and she could almost see him locking his unruly emotions back up, putting some box of painful memories away where he wouldn't have to think about it again. "But in a way, you’re right that it’s . . . well, I suppose in some way it really is to do with Callie. At least a little.”
“Clarke,” he said, “how would you like a job?”
She stared, the pieces taking just a little too long to slide into place. “I have a job,” she reminded him. “I mean for the next few weeks I do. Down at the lot, remember?”
Marcus shook his head. “No,” he said quietly. “That’s not what I meant.”
“What did you mean?”
“I meant that the inn needs more than one person to run it,” he said. “Octavia was right. She was being cruel when she said it, but she was right. I do need a partner. Someone who loves this place. Who understands it. Callie loved it here. She was always coming up with new ideas, she would be so happy to see the Christmas Ball coming back again, and I just . . .” He sighed, running a weary hand through his thick, dark hair, the flashes of white at his temples showing in stark relief. “I closed the door, after she died,” he confessed heavily. “It was all just too much.”
“I get it."
“And it never occurred to me that I could find anything left in this place to make me happy, until that snowstorm blew the Griffins in through my front door.”
Clarke laughed. “You didn’t seem terribly happy at the time.”
“Things have changed since then,” he insisted. “I’ve changed since then. Clarke, I think . . . Listen, I know it isn’t a very glamorous offer, and I realize now I’ve never even asked you what your long-term plans were, if you planned on heading back to the city one day. And I would never want to make you feel trapped, or tied down, or for this place to be a burden to you; I know what that'd like. I would never wish this place on someone who didn’t truly, truly love it. But I think maybe . . . if you were interested, if you thought you were here to stay, I think we could turn this place into something extraordinary.”
“‘We?’” she repeated, eyes wide. “Marcus, what are you saying?”
“I’m saying you’re right, Clarke. About everything. About all of it. The Christmas Ball and the dinner and the shelter and getting Lincoln to tune the piano. It’s time to throw the doors open again. They’ve been closed too long.”
“You’re going to stay,” she whispered, suddenly realizing the momentous impact of the thing he wasn't saying. “You’re not going to Los Angeles. You want to stay and make the inn work again.”
"But I can't do it alone," he cautioned her. “Clarke, I need a partner. You’re young, creative, full of energy, full of ideas, and the kids listen to you. You’re willing to think of things I couldn’t think of, try things I would never try. You’re what this place needs. What I need.” He stepped in closer to her and placed his hand on her shoulder. “I need someone to help me save this place,” he said in a low, serious voice. “And most importantly, I need someone I can leave it to.”
Clarke was stunned. “Leave it to?” she repeated blankly.
“The Blakes don’t want it,” he explained. “I asked them years ago. Octavia is self-aware enough, God bless her, to realize she would be terrible as a boss. She hates compromise, and she’s far too stubborn. And Bellamy, well, I think he’ll end up back in Arkadia one day, but I suspect there’s seven years of a PhD between now and then where the last thing he’ll want to be worrying about is business plans and property taxes. But I don’t have children, and I don’t want to end up . . . well, making the same mistake my mother did. Not being prepared, I mean. She didn’t leave a will.”
“But you and Callie were her only family, right?” Clarke asked, puzzled. “I mean, wouldn’t it just have gone straight to you as next of kin? I don’t know how all this stuff works, but it seems pretty simple in this case.”
“It should have been,” said Kane frankly. “But there was an investor, years and years ago - some shell corporation, I think it was a scam - who apparently started making trouble with the lawyers, claiming to have a share in Mom’s estate. The money was real, it turned out; she’d taken a pretty hefty sum to fix up the roof and a bunch of upgrades to the wiring. Never told me about it, in a naive attempt I think to save me from worry. By then she’d already paid most of it back, but the investor claimed Mom still owed them and that in exchange they should get half the estate. It was about a year of tussling back and forth between their legal team - some big shiny firm from the city - and my legal team, which was technically just Thelonious. The whole thing got resolved finally when I was going through Mom’s things and unearthed a contract she’d drawn up and had notarized when Callie and I got married, an addendum to the deed to the farm, which stated very clearly that half of the property belonged to Callie and half to me and only she or I could sell it. I’d completely forgotten it existed until he found it again; neither of us had signed it. It had felt a bit at the time like tempting fate.”
“Oh,” said Clarke, realizing. “Because if you’d died first, Callie might have ended up with nothing. Vera wanted to make sure there was paperwork somewhere that Callie's name was on the property too.”
“Exactly. And it was legally binding, so it was as good as a will to Thelonious, and he managed to use it to scare the investor off, and then a few months later I managed to pay off the last of their investment so it all went away. But I never really forgot about it; I always had that voice in the back of my mind, whispering that if I didn’t find someone to leave this place to, someone I could really trust . . . then if anything ever happened to me, the whole place could just disappear.”
“It would disappear anyway,” said Clarke pointedly, “if you let Diana sell it.”
Marcus shook his head. "You still have her all wrong," he said, a note of defensiveness in his voice. "She isn't just being mercenary, Clarke. She was the first person who told me I didn't have to keep carrying this burden by myself if I didn't want to. She wasn't wrong about that. She knew I wasn't happy, and she wanted to help. It's just that her solution was to leave the place behind altogether and I think I'd rather try . . . well, just not doing it all by myself. Finding someone to share it with. But I don't blame Diana. She’s always had my best interests at heart.”
Clarke was unable to entirely restrain a small snort of disdain at this. Marcus heard, and raised an eyebrow slightly, but did not comment.
“The point is,” he went on, “that they were all right about one thing - Diana, Bellamy, Indra, your mother, everyone. Something has to change. I’ve been thinking about this for days, Clarke, I’ve walked every single inch of this land and I’ve touched every tree and I’ve thought about how I would feel if I packed my bags tomorrow and handed it over to someone else and let them raze the whole thing to the ground, and I don’t think I would feel free, like I used to tell myself I would. I think I would feel . . . hollow. Like Mother and Callie had died all over again.”
His voice was heavy and grave, and Clarke couldn't help taking a small step closer to him, putting a hand on his arm, as though human contact might help lift the dark cloud hanging over him at those words.
“Why are you telling me this?” she murmured.
Marcus gave a sad little shrug. “I decided to gamble that you had enough of your father in you to take a chance on what might turn out to be a disastrous idea,” he said frankly. “Because you understand this place better than anyone else ever has, since Callie died."
"But I don't -"
"And because you’ve only been here three weeks," he added, "but you called it ‘home.’”
Clarke looked at Marcus for a long, long time, tilting her head to appraise him with a slow, thoughtful gaze. She thought about the way she’d felt when she packed up her bedroom in Boston - adrift, rootless, tethered to nothing and no one except her mother - and she thought about the way she felt every day at the farm. Roping trees to the tops of station wagons with bungee cords, yelling at Jasper to go get more ones from the safe because they were out of change, sitting on snow-covered tree stumps eating picnic lunches with Bellamy.
She thought about the Christmas tree in the library, how it had felt to make something beautiful not to impress a professor or get a good grade but simply for the joy of making people smile when they saw it.
She thought about all the pieces of her father that were scattered around this town, which she would never find if she moved away again.
“Did you regret it?” she asked him suddenly. “Mom said you went to college in New York, for like five minutes, but then you had to drop out and come home when your dad died. Did you ever wish you’d stayed in the city?”
“Honestly? No,” he said simply. “Everyone I loved was here. The only reason I ever saw any appeal in leaving Arkadia, over the last year or so, was because . . .”
He trailed off, turning away from her to examine one of the trees again, and didn’t finish his sentence.
But he didn’t need to.
He’d come home with no regrets, because everyone he loved was in Arkadia. He’d only contemplated leaving because all of them were gone. But now suddenly, somehow, he’d decided he wanted to stay, and Clarke realized with a jolt through the heart that he’d accidentally told her something he hadn’t meant to say.
Maybe the appeal of Arkadia now was exactly the same as it had been almost thirty years ago, when he was Clarke’s age, when he’d left college and come back the first time.
Maybe it was because once again, someone he loved was here.
There was more to this story, Clarke was sure of it. There was something between Marcus and her parents that she still didn't know. And she was determined to find it out.
“You don’t have to decide now,” he said, not looking at her, still examining the massive tree in front of him, and she realized he’d mistaken her silence for hesitation, perhaps even discomfort. “And if it isn’t what you want, I won’t press it on you. This place is a big responsibility, and if you don’t think -”
“I’m in,” she interrupted him cheerfully. “When do we start?”
Marcus turned to look at her, startled, and after a moment a glow of pure joy spread across his face. It changed his whole appearance. He looked kind, like this. He looked like a man she could imagine a woman like Callie (at least Callie she imagined) falling in love with. He looked like the kind of man who would be Vera Kane’s son (at least the Vera Kane she imagined). He looked like the weight of years of sadness and anxiety and guilt had simply . . . melted, like snow.
“Right now,” he said, grinning at her. “What do you think about this tree?”
“For the ballroom,” he told her. “You can have whatever you want, Clarke. Tree-trimming and eggnog and carols and everything on your list. If we fail, we fail, but we’ll go down swinging. I’m not ready to give up on Eden Tree Farm just yet.”
Clarke gave the tree a keen once-over, admiring its glossy green needles, its perfect proportions, its majestic height. “Perfect,” she pronounced it finally, then turned to Marcus and held out her hand.
“Partners,” she said.
“Partners,” he agreed, and shook it. “Now let’s get this tree into the ballroom where it belongs.”
Chapter 9: December 21st
As though nervous that Marcus might suddenly change his mind, Clarke was suddenly the busiest person on the entire property. The lodge had, indeed, sold out for the whole week - an event celebrated by a champagne toast in the kitchen after dinner for the whole staff, from Bellamy’s delinquents (most of whom were still young enough to get stuck with sparkling cider) to the housekeeping crew to Diyoza’s part-time dinner service help - and word of the massive tree had spread through town like wildfire. So many people turned up to help decorate it that Clarke had been forced to start making up new tasks; in addition to the crew of dozens currently swarming the ballroom, now there were teams fashioning garlands to wind along the staircase banisters and down the halls, others standing on ladders stringing twinkling white lights along the lodge’s wraparound veranda, still others tying festive red bows on wreaths to hang in the front windows.
In less than twenty-four hours, she’d turned the whole building into a Christmas postcard, and everyone could feel a subtle change in energy running through the building. Bellamy and Octavia weren’t arguing with each other, Diyoza and Indra were laughing, Thelonious was being almost friendly.
It felt . . . right, suddenly. Like Christmas should.
Downstairs, the whole building was abuzz with merriment, with nearly every guest pitching in to help finish the decorations in time for tonight’s caroling. Marcus could hear the commotion from all the way upstairs, where he sat on the floor of his bedroom holding two small boxes in his hands.
He had been sitting here in silent contemplation for nearly an hour. He had told Clarke he was going upstairs to take a shower and change his clothes to get the pine needles off him before he had to make an appearance at the cocktail party, and because the building was so full of activity, no one had missed him. His crisp gray slacks and wine-red sweater lay neatly across the quilt on his bed, but once he emerged from the bathroom and realized he had nowhere to be for an hour and no one seemed to be looking for him, he felt curiously reluctant to put them on, opting instead for the comfort of a faded t-shirt, a pair of flannel pajama bottoms, a glass of bourbon, and one of his mother’s favorite records.
“Please have snow, and mistletoe, and presents round the tree,” sang Bing Crosby through the gentle crackle of Vera Kane’s turntable, as Marcus gazed down at the two items he had unearthed from the bottom of the cedar chest, which had not been touched in years.
In his left hand, a small cardboard box covered in peeling silver paper. Inside it, nestled snugly in a cloud of white tissue paper, was a star, its back etched with the words “BABY’S FIRST CHRISTMAS: MARCUS JOSEPH KANE.” The star was made of shiny brass, which little Marcus had believed was real gold, like the Wise Men had brought to Jesus, and every year it was the very last ornament hung on the tree. His mother or father would lift him up in their arms so he could reach, carefully threading the perfect branch - always selected with great deliberation and care - through the glossy blue ribbon, so the twinkling white lights could set the star aglow. Callie had kept the tradition going, even after Vera died; once the tree was trimmed and the ornament boxes stowed back in the closet and the floor swept of pine needles and the lights switched on to illuminate the whole room with a merry glow - then, only then, would she open the box with the gold star and hand it to Marcus to hang it upon the tree.
In his right hand, a tiny round box of black velvet, now more than fifty years old, faded and threadbare. Inside it, against a pillow of green silk, sat his parents’ wedding rings.
Callie had been buried with both of theirs. At the funeral parlor, during the open-casket viewing, after the hundredth well-meaning “so sorry for your loss” handshake, he could no longer bear the sight of his own ring on his own hand, and as the attendants arrived to close the coffin and take her away for the very last time, he tugged it off his finger and set it on top of the crisp blue silk of her dress, just over her heart.
It had been so swiftly and impulsively done that he assumed no one had noticed; not that it was something secret or shameful, of course, or even wrong, just that it was . . . complicated, and not a thing he felt particularly inclined to attempt to explain. Keeping the ring as a reminder of Callie was, as he understood it, what most people did. But Marcus already did not need reminders of Callie because she was everywhere, the inability to escape this grief was his daily torment, and if he had to look at that ring on his hand every single day, over and over again - every time he washed a cup in the sink, every time he reached across his desk for a pencil, every time he turned out a light - he would surely lose his mind in less than a week.
But when he turned around, as the funeral home attendants solemnly closed the coffin lid and took his wife away from him for the last time, Marcus looked over his shoulder to see Abby staring at him with fury and heartbreak in her eyes, glowering darkly at his now-empty hand.
It would have been so easy, then, to fix it. To explain. It’s not that I want to let go of her, I never want to let go of her, it’s only that I can’t bear the sight of that ring anymore because now, all it means is that I will be alone for the rest of my life, and I already have too many reminders of that.
Abby would have understood, he knew, if he had put it to her so bluntly. She would have seen it for what it was, not a betrayal of the person they both loved but simply a way he was choosing to attempt to deal with his own grief.
It would have been so easy to walk across the room to her and say, “It’s not what you think.”
So why didn’t he?
Was it because there were so many other things, bubbling below the surface between them, about which he did not trust himself to remain silent if he ever tried to have a real conversation with Abby Griffin again?
Or was it a kind of penance? Was he allowing her to hate him for something he didn’t do, to atone for the thing he'd really done?
It didn’t matter, either way, of course, because by the time he’d looked for her again she was gone.
So he had not kept the rings from his own wedding; but he had kept the ones that his mother left him, which had belonged to his grandparents. They were simple matching bands, neither gold nor silver, but steel, forged out of an old log-splitting wedge that had been used by the very first Kanes in Arkadia - the ones who built the lodge - to chop firewood, and passed down to Joseph and Vera. He had shown them to Diana, once, thinking that he might attempt to explain to her how much they meant to him, trusting that she would see the gesture for what it was: the first steps of opening a long-closed door and beginning to consider inviting someone new back inside.
“My goodness, how quaint!” she had exclaimed when he had opened the box. “Thank God you and I aren’t quite so strapped for cash. Don’t worry, darling, I won’t leave you to fend for yourself with nothing but a hunk of old scrap metal and a blacksmith. I’ll just point right to the one I want in the glass case, like a civilized woman. It is yes, by the way,” she added briskly, as Marcus slowly closed the black velvet jewelry box and put it away again, feeling inexplicably a bit hollow inside, and it took him several minutes to understand what she was saying and that without quite intending to, he had apparently definitively proposed to her.
But, well, he hadn’t not intended to, right? Wasn’t that the whole point of showing her the rings? Hadn’t they been discussing the possibility of marriage for some time, albeit indirectly, but both of them clearly seeing it as more of a “when” than an “if”? And so wasn’t it, perhaps, a bit petty of him to resent her for wanting a ring of her own which fit her personality instead of someone else’s rustic old hand-me-downs?
Diana was Diana, and he would never ask someone else to change who they were to fit what he wanted.
But those rings, he thought to himself, as he sat on the cool hardwood floor of his bedroom, leaning against the foot of his bed, staring first at one box, then the other, did not belong in Los Angeles.
Those rings belonged at Eden Tree Farm.
So what did that mean for him? Or for her?
When the first knock came at the door, at first it was so gentle that he couldn’t hear it, so tightly was he wrapped in his own thoughts. The second, too, went unanswered. He did not move until he heard someone say his name
“Your hair’s wet and you’re in your pajamas,” said Abby, leaning in his doorway with one eyebrow playfully raised. “My daughter is just gonna kill you.”
Marcus scrambled to his feet, setting both boxes hastily down on top of the chest. “Am I late?”
“Not yet. But she sent me up to nudge you. She was starting to get nervous that you wouldn’t be there right at the start to welcome everybody.”
“Tell her I’ll be down in five minutes,” he promised. “I just need to get dressed.”
“I’m afraid my orders are strict,” said Abby apologetically. “I have to stay until you are actually - hang on, how did she put it - ‘wearing actual grownup clothes, with his hair a little more Respectable Business Owner and a little less Wolverine.’”
“Did she actually say Wolverine?”
“She did, yes.”
“If I’ve made a horrible mistake hiring her for this, you’d tell me, wouldn’t you?”
Abby laughed. “Oh, honey,” she said wryly, picking up the slacks and sweater from his bed and holding them out to him. “There are so many things about Clarke Griffin you’re about to get the chance to experience all on your own, and I, for one, cannot wait to have a front-row seat.”
“Well, that’s foreboding,” he said, as he took the clothes and made his way over to the bathroom. “Thanks.”
“I should thank you,” he heard her reply over his shoulder from behind him. Even with the bathroom door discreetly closed most of the way, he could detect a sudden sincerity in her voice that intrigued him.
“Don’t be an idiot. You know exactly for what.”
“It was an easy decision. She’s perfect for this job.”
“How could it possibly have been an easy decision?” Abby demanded incredulously, and Marcus paused suddenly, in the middle of tugging his sweater on over his head, the implications of his words and her response to them suddenly, achingly clear.
Did she think he meant, it was easy to decide not to move to Los Angeles with Diana? Did she think he didn’t care about his fiancee at all? Was this the wedding ring all over again, did she think this is just the way he was with women, casting them aside and walking away without a single regret?
“I didn’t mean,” he began, stepping back out of the bathroom, but stopped short as he reemerged.
Abby was sitting on the edge of his bed, holding the black velvet box, staring down at the rings with tears in her eyes.
She looked up as he approached, and snapped the box shut, thrusting it back into his hands somewhat self-consciously and wiping her eyes on her sleeve.
“Oh God, I’m so sorry,” she said. “How unforgivably nosy of me.”
“They’re just so beautiful,” she said, causing his eyes to snap up sharply. “I always thought so. And such a romantic story.”
“You don’t think they’re . . .” He looked down at them, trying to see the rings as Diana had seen them, and now as Abby did. “Plain?”
“Simple isn’t the same as plain,” she said reasonably. “You’re a person with simple tastes. You like big open spaces and no clutter or fuss, but you also like everything to have a story. These have a story. You should put them out for display or something,” she added suddenly. “To let people see them. They’re a part of the history of this place. I hate to think of them being all cooped up in a trunk. Don’t you think your mom would like that better?”
“I think she’d say they were made to be worn,” he replied, before he could stop himself, and in the just-slightly-too-long silence that followed he heard Abby’s breath catch just a little bit.
“In a perfect world, sure,” she finally said. “But if Diana doesn't . . ."
"Well, then. Maybe they can go in a display case somewhere, at least? If no one is going to wear them again?"
"No one is going to wear them again," Marcu repeated, a little heavily, and then there was another excruciating silence. Finally, "I'll think about it," he said a little feebly, then abruptly busied himself pulling on his socks and shoes and running a comb through his hair, which gave him a long enough escape from her searching gaze to compose himself a little better.
By the time he finally followed her out the door and down the stairs, gold star ornament in hand, the moment had passed, and they felt more or less normal again . . . though neither of them could quite escape the pull of the rings, as powerful as gravity, like a planet they were both now orbiting around and could not escape.
Both of them felt something new and strange happening inside them. Both of them reasoned it away by telling themselves the rings just made them miss Vera.
Surely, that was all this was.
"By the way," said Abby, as they parted on the landing - him to make his way down to the ballroom, her to change her own clothes before joining the party - "I'm really glad."
He paused and looked back up at her. "About what?"
"That you're staying."
Marcus felt his heart skip a beat, and was immediately furious with himself.
For God's sake, don't be an idiot. That wasn't what she meant.
"Because you think one day of L.A. rush hour traffic would unhinge me completely and make me never want to leave the house again?" he offered lightly, trying to play the moment off, but Abby didn't take the bait. She stood there on the landing, bathed in the warm rose-gold light of the sun setting in the window behind her, gazing down at him with serious brown eyes, and then she said something that he never thought she would say.
"No," she answered simply. "Because I didn't want to lose you again."
Then she turned and left him there, stuck on the staircase, halfway between coming and going, staring after her in astonishment, until an anxious Clarke finally appeared to drag him off to the ballroom.
Upstairs, the rings sat, sealed back up again in their black velvet box, waiting - as everyone else around him was waiting - to see what Marcus Kane would do.
By the time Marcus made it to the ballroom, things were already on the verge of disaster, due to the one variable Clarke had not predicted or accounted for:
Diana was early.
She had grudgingly accepted the invitation to this stupid cocktails-and-caroling party, both in the hopes that it might give her an opportunity to announce to the town at large (and Abby Griffin, specifically) that she and Marcus had finally set a date for the wedding and would be getting married on Christmas Eve . . . and because Roan had texted her that afternoon to inform her that both he and his mother would be in attendance, and the thought of Roan and Marcus in the same room unsupervised made her blood run cold.
She had arrived to exactly the sight she most dreaded, a lavishly-decorated inn full of happy people in festive outfits, all happily murmuring to each other that it was wonderful to see Eden Tree Lodge back to its old self again, and all of this was bad enough; but when Octavia Blake saw her walk through the front door, staring around her in barely-disguised annoyance as she scraped the snow off her chic designer boots, an inner streak of chaotic mischief propelled the girl down the hall to take Diana’s coat and scarf with infinite politeness and lead her to the ballroom, breezily chattering away about the sold-out rooms and the week-long celebrations and oh by the way isn’t it wonderful that Marcus isn’t leaving after all and he’s hired Clarke to work with him full-time, this is the best Christmas ever, everyone is so excited, anyway here's the ballroom, goodbye!
She could hardly have hoped for a better, more explosive reaction. Diana stopped short in the middle of the hallway, seized Octavia by the shoulders (her talon-like nails dug into her flesh through the thin wool of her bright green sweater, but honestly this was so goddamn satisfying Octavia didn’t even notice) and demanded she repeat the words she’d just said. Which she did, perfectly innocently, with wide guileless eyes, heroically maintaining her poker face even as Diana turned pale as as ghost and stormed into the ballroom, shouting her fiance’s name.
“Nice work, O,” muttered her brother, who had been hanging mistletoe on the banisters and witnessed the entire thing. “Thanks for getting us both fired.”
“Is it my fault he didn’t tell her already?” she pointed out reasonably. To which Bellamy had no answer, because, actually, come to think of it, why hadn’t Kane told her already?
“Something’s going on with that guy,” he said.
“Yeah. He’s coming to his senses.”
“Do you think it’s about the Griffins?”
“I think it’s about one Griffin,” said Octavia, raising an eyebrow rather impishly. “And not the one he gave the job to.”
Bellamy did not reply to this, but privately he agreed with his sister, though both of them did an impressive job of keeping their expressions neutral and pretending to be busy when Clarke came thundering down the stairs a few minutes later, dragging a surprisingly dapper Marcus Kane behind her.
“Good luck,” muttered Octavia as they watched their boss disappear through the ballroom doors at the end of the hall, where Diana Sydney was still furiously waiting for him.
She suspected he would need it.
“Well,” said Diana frostily, after Marcus had finally managed to extricate her from the gathering crowds of merrymakers in the ballroom and lead her down the hall to his office, so she could yell at him in private. “You’ve certainly been making a lot of decisions without me in the past few days. It seems a lot has changed very quickly around here.”
“You have every right to be angry with me,” said Marcus gently, which was not at all the response she was hoping for, since it was impossible to rage at him when he was trying to be kind. “I have been trying to reach you for the past few days, though I know you’ve been very busy -” (causing a brief pang of guilt to flare up in her chest for all those calls she’d ignored) - “and it felt wrong to try to have this kind of conversation with you by email or text, because these things are too important. You’re too important,” he said, taking her hand suddenly, and Diana felt her entire body go cold.
Not now. Not four nights before their wedding. Not with Roan and Nia on their way to this very place. Not when everything she had ever wanted was within her grasp. She could not let him ruin this deal when everything was this close.
“I can’t go to Los Angeles with you, Diana,” Marcus said in a low, heavy voice, still holding her hand. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I know that’s what you want, I know that’s the only place you’ll be happy. And you deserve that, you do. But I’d be miserable there, I think we both know it, we’ve known it for a long time, and I think . . . I think what I really want is to give this place the love and attention that it’s been needing. I’ve closed myself off from it for too long, because it was so painful. But this place is in my blood, Diana. I can’t run away from that.” He took her hands in his, a gentle and sad expression in his eyes, and squeezed them tightly. “I’m staying in Arkadia,” he said quietly. “But you should still go to L.A.. Your work is important to you, and you’ve gone as far as you can go here, and I would never ask you to stay and give that up just for me.”
Diana Sydney did not think of herself as a bad person.
Her love for Marcus was genuine; it had begun in middle school and outlasted every other romance either of them had ever had. All along, she had told herself that she was doing what was best for him, too, that in the end he would be grateful, that her misdirects and obfuscations and strategic withholding of information weren’t really so bad. In every situation where it was impossible to tell him the truth, she did what seemed to her to be the next best thing, and simply stayed away, saying nothing at all.
Not once - she had been quite careful about this - had she really, truly, with cold and calculated intention, lied to his face.
Until right now.
“Marcus she said firmly, “if keeping the lodge is what you really want, then of course I’ll stay too.”
Marcus blinked, brow furrowed in confusion, and his hands retracted in hers ever so slightly, like he’d begun to pull away and then thought better of it, and suddenly the whole truth became brutally, horribly clear.
Marcus wanted to stay, and he wanted Diana not to. He wanted this to be over.
She was about to lose more than just the sale of the inn. She was about to lose everything.
And Diana knew exactly whose fault this was.
“What do you mean?” he asked uncertainly.
“I had no idea you felt so strongly about this place,” she replied smoothly, moving in closer to wrap her arms around him, the lies coming easier now that she'd overcome her initial resistance. “Of course, if I had, I would never have suggested we leave. It was only that it seemed to have become a burden you wanted to be rid of, and I wanted to help you with that. I was only thinking about what’s best for you, darling, surely you know that.”
“Diana, I don’t think -”
“We’ll have the wedding on Christmas Eve and we can announce it then,” she interrupted him firmly. “That we’ll be staying and continuing to run Eden Tree Farm together. You always said you needed a partner, and now you’ll have one. It’s perfect.”
“What about Clarke?”
“Oh, we won’t need Clarke,” said Diana cheerfully, feigning a casual breeziness she very much did not feel. “You know the Griffins, they never stay in one place. They’ll be out of our lives again before we know it, Marcus, just like the last time. Surely you don’t want to tie a twenty-year-old girl to a massive piece of property this early in her life? Why, what if she decides to go back to art school? Move to Europe? What if she grows tired of this place the same way her parents did?”
“Clarke is different,” Marcus insisted. “She was excited. She seemed so sure.”
“We all think we’re sure of things when we’re twenty,” said Diana, in a tone that seemed to mean many different things, “which we come to think better of later. Don’t we?”
Marcus pulled his hands out of her grip and took a step back, meeting her gaze squarely, genuine anger flashing in his brown eyes. He was no longer gentle and unsure, no longer pliable, to be molded by her into whatever she desired. This was a Marcus Kane with steel in his spine, a Marcus Kane who would not let himself be pushed around, and for the first time in their whole relationship Diana wondered if she’d gone too far.
“Not once,” he said coldly, “in all the years I have known you - not once, Diana, in our whole lives - have you thrown that in my face. I think it is singularly unkind of you to choose to do it now.”
Shit. Shit. Shit.
Fix this, Diana! She could hear Nia Frost’s icy voice in the back of her mind, and she scrambled for a way to make it right.
“You’re right,” she said hastily, immediately closing the distance between them with an embrace he neither resisted nor fully returned. “You’re right, darling, I’m so sorry. That was unforgivable of me. I only meant . . . I’m the one who’s here, Marcus. I’m the one who has been here all along. When everyone else leaves, it’s me who stays. It happened before, and it will happen again, and I’ll still be here no matter what.” She pressed a gentle kiss to his lips, pulled back to see how he would receive it, and when he seemed not to object, she kissed him again. “I am the only person in your life who will never, ever leave you,” she promised him fervently, thinking about the contract sitting in the bottom drawer of the desk behind them, cold hard proof in black-and-white that everything she was saying now was untrue. “I’m not going anywhere, Marcus. I promise.”
“Diana, you don’t want to run this farm with me,” he said wearily. “You’ve told me so a thousand times. You hate it here.”
She dismissed this with a casual wave. “I’ll learn to love it. People can learn to love anything.”
“Your work is your life.”
“You’re more important than work.”
“Diana . . .”
“Marry me on Christmas,” she insisted. “Marry me and we’ll figure everything out afterwards. I promise.”
“I’m not sure about anything anymore,” Marcus told her.
“I’m sure enough for the both of us,” said Diana, taking his arm in her own in a gesture that was both loving and possessive. "Now come on. Let's get back to the party."
Her grip on his arm was relentless, and she stuck to his side like glue as they wound through the crowds in the now-bustling ballroom, the chatter of voices bubbling over the light melody of “Jingle Bells” coming from the piano. Roan and Nia were standing in the far corner, champagne in hand, and Diana could feel their eyes boring into her as she discreetly steered Marcus as far away from them as she could, praying the Frosts would keep their distance, until they finally halted near the tree.
Marcus would often wonder, later, how differently things might have turned out if Thelonious Jaha - one of the only guests to whom even Diana felt obliged to offer at least a few words of polite conversation - had not approached them just then. Because Diana turned to greet him, causing her to let go of Marcus' arm, and leaving her back to the door a minute later when Abby Griffin walked through the door . . . which meant she could not see the look on his face.
So many things might have turned out differently if she had.
Even Marcus did not quite realize how nakedly expressive his dark eyes were as he gazed fixedly at the petite woman as she laughingly accepted a cocktail from Charmaine, and made her way over to the buffet table where her daughter, clipboard in hand, was sternly directing traffic. As she leaned in to kiss her daughter's cheek, she looked up suddenly, and met his eyes, and for a long moment there was no one else in the room.
Abby had spent the entirety of the past three weeks in jeans and boots, hair tied back in a serviceable braid, wearing very little makeup. That didn’t obscure the fact that she was as beautiful of a woman now as she had been more than two decades ago when she moved away, but the comfortable, ordinary way she presented herself made it a little easier for Marcus to be comfortable and ordinary around her.
But whether intentionally or not, she was not making it easy on him tonight.
Her dress was simple - a sleek wine-colored sheath of satin with a deep V-neck and no sleeves - and her hair was loose around her shoulders. She wore little jewelry. She presented a marked contrast to Diana, who had arrived in a flaming scarlet dress designed to flaunt every curve, and whose diamond ring, earrings and necklace sparkled like the crystal icicles hanging from the tree. Diana needed to be seen and admired, craved his undivided attention, and her beauty was as carefully calculated as everything else about her. She was undeniably sexy, and Marcus found her very attractive when she wasn’t
so hard, but he had never liked this red dress. The red dress meant that wherever she was, whatever she was doing, this social engagement was a competition with every other woman in the room; each detail of her outfit, from the perfect artificial blonde of her hair (no grays to be seen) to the pointed toes of her gleaming black boots, was a weapon.
Stupid of him to have taken so long to realize it, but it was suddenly so clear to him that Diana had dressed - and was, in some degree, performing - for Abby.
Abby, in contrast, dressed only for herself.
Abby was not trying to seduce him, she was not tense with jealousy, she was not screaming desperately for attention - and yet, ironically, Abby was the one he could not stop thinking about. From the day she had walked back through his door he had been unable to put her out of his mind for more than a few minutes at a time.
He watched her pull away from Clarke finally and move towards them, and he felt the force of her breaking eye contact with him like it was a palpable thing.
“Hello, Diana. Hello, Marcus,” she said, with perfect composure, lifting her glass toward them and clinked it lightly against each of theirs. "Isn't this lovely?"
It did not escape Marcus how carefully and respectfully she addressed them as a couple, nor how much easier she suddenly seemed to find it to meet Diana’s gaze than his own. In fact, she was hardly looking at him at all.
Perhaps it was this, the sudden shift from intense eye contact to distant coolness,
which first planted the idea in his mind. Maybe it was as simple as the desire to feel connected to her again, to feel that she was as aware of him as he always, always was of her, the way she so clearly had been before, in his apartment and then again on the landing. Maybe it was impulsive curiosity, the desire to see what would happen if he did the last thing in the world she would ever expect him to do.
Or maybe, just maybe, it could be now what it had been so many years ago: a way for him to say things there was no other way to say.
"Jingle Bells" drew to a close, followed by enthusiastic applause, and as Lincoln slid gracefully into the eight-bar introduction for the next one, Marcus met his eyes, and nodded, moving a step away from Diana, Abby and Thelonious, towards the piano, and then -
“Come quick!” Octavia, on the other side of the room, hissed to her brother, who was dawdling over bringing out more champagne. “Marcus is singing!”
"He's what?" Bellamy exclaimed, startled into very nearly dropping the whole case on the floor, as his eyes followed his sister's toward the front of the room, where a voice he had never heard before was filling the room with music. The Blakes watched, rapt with a fond combination of pride, delight, amusement and deep affection ("he's really good!" Bellamy hissed under his breath to his sister, who stepped on his toes to shut him up). Clarke, still at the buffet, turned in astonishment and set her clipboard down, forgetting her responsibilities for the moment to watch the remarkable moment unfold. Diana looked a little horrified, and it took everything she had not to turn around and check to see how Roan and Nia were taking this.
But no one in the whole room was more surprised than Abby.
The song was short, and he'd sung both verses all the way through before she began to sense that something was happening inside the words themselves, something she ought to pay attention to. But at first all she could do was watch, and listen, and drink him in.
The deep green of Marcus Kane’s sweater and the rich brown of his hair and eyes made him seem like a part of this room in a way she’d never seen him before. Behind him, the great and glorious tree rose up to the high vaulted ceilings, festooned with baubles of white and gold, and behind the tree, the snow fell softly outside the glass veranda doors. The perfect backdrop. His voice floated out through the room and hushed the chattering crowd like a magic spell, causing conversations to fade as everyone unconsciously drew closer to the piano to hear him better. It was rich and deep and smoky, like his speaking voice, but with a kind of warmth Abby couldn’t remember witnessing in him for years and years and years.
“I’ll be home for Christmas,” he sang, beginning the first verse again after a brief instrumental interlude from Lincoln, “you can count on me,” and as his gaze traveled around the room it alighted on Clarke, causing her heart to ache inside her chest.
“You can count on me.”
Could she? Could either of them? Abby had not quite believed Clarke when she’d heard her daughter breathlessly recount their peculiar conversation the day before; or, rather, she believed Marcus had offered Clarke a more substantial job, and that all of a sudden he had decided he did not want to sell the inn, but the part about needing someone to leave his family home to after he was gone felt like it must be somewhere on the spectrum of exaggeration to misunderstanding.
But suddenly, she wasn’t so sure.
Maybe this was real. Maybe he meant it. Maybe the Marcus Kane she remembered, before all the terrible things happened, was back now for good.
She had never wanted to believe something so badly in all her life.
"Christmas Eve will find me," sang Marcus, turning back toward where Abby and the others were standing, "where the love light gleams/ I'll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams," and for a bizarre, incomprehensible moment Abby thought he was looking at her, singing to her, before Diana suddenly reasserted herself at Abby's side and brought with her the blessed return of Abby's equilibrium.
Of course. Whatever she thought she had felt in the air, whatever he had seemed to be trying to communicate with this song, it was clear she'd imagined it. The room burst into applause as he finished, Diana surging forward to seize his arm again and make some kind of announcement of her own, and over the cheers and shouts of "Encore!", Abby could only make out a few words.
But she heard the three most important ones:
"Christmas Eve wedding."
He wasn't singing to Clarke, or to you, a voice in her head lectured her sternly. He's the same Marcus Kane he always was, just . . . maybe a little nicer. That's it.
Nothing, she decided, had really changed at all.
Chapter 10: December 24th, Part I: The Church Pageant
“Mrs. Abby, my halo is crooked and it won’t stay on!”
“Mrs. Abby, I can’t find my bathrobe!”
“Mrs. Abby, tell Becky she has to give me my wings!”
“Hold on,” said the Christmas pageant’s new stage manager (who had been forcibly conscripted by her daughter three hours ago when Clarke suddenly realized she could not be in two places at once), holding up a hand to silence the horde of wiggly, fidgety, costumed children hopping up and down in front of her. “What did we say about talking backstage?”
“No talking,” the crowd of children whispered in unison, at a deafening volume which entirely defeated the point.
“Your families and friends are already sitting out there waiting for us to begin,” said Abby, in a quiet but commanding tone honed by years of ordering nurses and interns around in the middle of a surgery, “and they can hear everything we say back here. Diego, honey, you forgot your bathrobe at home, your dad just dropped it off, it’s on the props table. Becky, give Sarah back her wings. No one touch anyone else’s costume."
"What if something gets breaked?"
"Then come to me. I'll fix it. Amy, come here, let me take a look at your halo. Everyone else, I need you to line up very quietly in your places, just like we practiced. Tyler,” she said to a middle-school boy wearing a shepherd’s robe and holding a huge fake scroll, “are you ready?” Tyler nodded. "Do you remember what to do if you forget a word?"
"Make something up?"
"Oh God, please don't. Dr. Jackson is out in front right next to the stage, and he has the whole script. If you need a prompt, you can look at him and he'll whisper it to you." (Eric Jackson, Abby's soon-to-be coworker and the pastor's nephew, had directed the pageant for the last three years, and was enormously amused that during this, his first opportunity to work with Dr. Griffin, technically he was her boss.)
Tyler shuffled off nervously to await his cue, while Abby fixed a few more loose halos and crooked shepherd robes, sent the three Wise Men through the rear exit to get to their places (for dramatic effect, they entered from the back of the audience and marched up the center aisle) before checking her watch and giving the kids their silent three-minute warning, causing a brief flurry of chaos as a mob of small bodies crammed into a small space collided with each other over and over and over again while attempting to get to their spot. The church had doors on both sides of the altar, so the children could enter from offstage areas both left and right; but Clarke and Jackson had only been able to hunt down enough spare black velvet curtains from the high school drama department to create something resembling wings on one side. Which meant that, apart from the three eighth-grade boys in stiff, dusty velvet robes she'd just sent around to the ballroom's main entrance, the entire cast of the pageant would spend the first few minutes of the program squashed into one confined space. Abby elbowed her way through the seething mass of giddy children to find the lightswitch panel Clarke had shown her earlier, and slowly dimmed the ballroom lights, cuing Clarke out front to hit the button to turn on the pair of borrowed spotlights - resting atop a pair of construction ladders borrowed from Indra - to illuminate the stage.
A hush gradually fell over the chattering crowd they could hear on the other side of the curtains, and the air around the fidgety children began to hum with anticipation. "Is everybody ready?" Abby whispered, getting four dozen eager head nods in return. "Okay. Here we go. Good luck, everybody."
"You're supposed to say 'break a leg,'" hissed one of the middle school angels, "otherwise it's bad luck."
"I'm a doctor," said Abby, "I don't want fifty broken legs," which caused the entire crowd of children to burst into barely-muffled giggles, followed by a round of "SHHHHHHH!" from some of the older and bossier children, which was even louder than the giggling it was intended to silence, forcing Abby to shush the shushers and get everybody back in line before they could begin again. Once the mob was stilled, she gave a nod to Tyler, who was standing at the front of the group just inside the wings; he took a deep, nervous breath, tiptoed carefully over the maze of extension cords running to and fro, tripped slightly on the hem of his dad’s bathrobe, almost dropped the scroll, looked back toward Abby in sheer panic, received her reassuring smile and head nod, took another deep breath, and finally stepped onto the stage.
“In those days, a decree went out from Caesar Augustus,” he began, in a voice which was impressively free of the cracks and squeaks which had plagued him all afternoon in rehearsal, “that all the world should be enrolled. This came to pass while Quirinius was governor of Syria.” He labored carefully over “Qui-RIN-ee-us”, which he had gotten wrong every time, and only after the word came out correctly without another hissed correction from Jackson did Abby finally let herself exhale slightly.
But the chaos was far from over. Tyler's solo narrator moment would be followed by the entrance of Mary and Joseph, who got to wander back and forth for several minutes during "O Little Town of Bethlehem." These two, unlike Marcus and Callie back in the day, were most decidedly not a couple, and Jackson had given up on attempting to get them to pretend to be married and settled for simply the hope that they would quit glaring daggers at each other. (According to the gossip Abby had picked up from the junior high angels backstage, something had happened between Joseph's best friend and Mary's older sister over the summer and the two were now on opposite sides of a very dramatic breakup that remained ongoing and made Abby very glad she would never have to set foot in a high school ever again.)
"Okay," she said to a glowering Joseph and a stone-faced Mary. "You're up."
"Tell him he can't put his arm around me."
"You're pregnant, I'm supposed to be helping you."
"I'm supposed to be, like, on a camel."
"Fine, then find a camel."
"I'm just saying, Joseph doesn't walk around with his arm around Mary."
"Then how am I supposed to show everyone I'm a good guy, or whatever?"
"Maybe you should have thought of that before you and Trevor went to Emily Smith's pool party and -"
"That's enough," said Abby sternly, and both of them shut up. "Todd, if she doesn't want you to touch her, don't touch her. Molly, can he just walk right next to you, so the audience can pretend that the two of you don't actually hate each other?"
“So Joseph too went out from Galilee," Tyler went on as the two grudgingly entered together, doing a reasonable job of at least keeping their faces composed, "to Bethlehem of Judea, because he was of the house and family of David, there to be enrolled with Mary his wife, who was with child.”
Finally, it was time for the makeshift backstage to begin clearing out a bit; the innkeeper and his wife entered next, followed by ten second graders playing barnyard animals, which gave the other children a tiny bit more breathing room. Abby signaled the tiny cows and horses and oxen, who entered crawling on all fours, and watched with relief as every one of them found their correct spot onstage and held it with very little fidgeting.
“She’s still got it,” murmured a low voice behind her, startling her into turning around, and as the baby animals onstage began “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” she saw Marcus standing in the farthest corner of the black velvet drapes, hidden in shadows not only from the audience, but from Abby and the children as well.
“Where the hell did you come from?” she whispered back, moving a few steps back to join him in the corner. “Don’t sneak up on me like that.”
“We’re in the Lord’s house,” he retorted under his breath, “you can’t say ‘hell.’”
“The hell I can’t." The baby animal chorus onstage finished the first verse and began the second, forcing Abby to pause and turn back to the rest of the group. "Shepherds! Does everyone have their sheep?” Five junior high boys in bathrobes began taking head counts of the preschoolers and kindergarteners, all draped in white plastic trash bags and sporting cotton ball ears, some of whom were shaking their butts at each other to make their cotton ball tails wag, causing the other sheep to explode into giggles.
"I'm delighted to see you have lost none of your gift for wrangling children into submission," he remarked, earning himself a light elbow jab in the ribs, which elicited a quiet chuckle.
"Did you come back here just to tease me?"
"That was one side benefit, yes. Also curiosity. And to see if you needed any help."
“And while they were there,” came Tyler's voice from the other side of the curtains, “the time was accomplished for her to be delivered, and she brought forth her firstborn son, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them at the inn.”
"That's the sheep's cue," said Abby, "so this is always right about where the wheels come off the wagon."
"What can I do?"
“Just make sure everyone wearing cotton ears ends up somewhere onstage. The shepherds are supposed to be in charge of their own flocks, but some of the sheep have been trading places with each other to stand next to whoever has a cell phone and hunt Pokemon during rehearsal breaks -"
“Ah, yes, just as they did in Biblical times."
" . . . so I'm not sure anyone really remembers who goes where.”
“There were in that region shepherds in the field, keeping the night watch over their flock,” proclaimed Tyler, who had been there for the afternoon's disastrous rehearsal where the sheep could not figure out where they were supposed to go, and therefore could be forgiven for breaking character slightly to look directly into the wings and mouth "come on, guys!" to the five hapless shepherds. The whole backstage was thus engulfed in temporary chaos as the shepherds, now suddenly worried that they were late, scrambled to herd thirty baby sheep onstage in something resembling actual lines. Abby found herself hastily fixing pair after pair of crooked ears as the children surged past her, while Marcus forcibly separated a pair of tiny squabbling twins by hastily reassigning one of them to a different group, to the protests of their shepherd ("Now I only have five sheep and everyone else has six!"). But by the time the opening notes of “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night” sounded from the piano, somehow, magically, everyone was where they were supposed to be.
"Whew," Marcus sighed, leaning back against the wall and wiping his brow with his sleeve, the clamor of a very off-key sheep chorus mercifully drowning out their conversation. "That was a very exciting ninety seconds."
"See, this is what you missed all these years while you were out there with Callie playing Mary and Joseph. You guys just had to kneel in one place and not laugh, while some of us were back here hustling to make sure an entire ecosystem's worth of fauna were lined up correctly.”
“I promise,” he said solemnly, “I will never underestimate the task of baby sheep wrangler again.”
“Sheep are nothing compared to angels,” she said, nodding towards the rapidly whispering cluster of preteen girls in gold paper halos. “The angels have not stopped talking for one minute since they got here.”
"They look very serious," Marcus observed.
"Apparently there was Big Drama at volleyball practice right before Christmas break," said Abby. "I haven't been able to pick up any details, though."
"Maybe we can find out. How long until the angels go on?"
"Now, sadly," said Abby, as the singing onstage ended, followed by applause, and with a snap of her fingers she managed to get the angels' attention. Guiltily, they scrambled into place, lined up behind their leader and soloist, a poised 9th grader with gold tinsel wound through her glossy black braids, sporting the much-coveted glitter wings. Under Abby's watchful eye, they straightened their robes and halos one last time and donned their most serene smiles. “Then the angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about, and they were filled with fear,” said Tyler, as the girls gracefully sailed onto the stage, white robes aflutter, to lead the whole ensemble - sheep, shepherds, baby animals and all - in “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen."
Wings finally emptied of children, Abby finally let herself exhale in relief, dropping wearily into one of the folding chairs tucked into the farthest back corner of the wings, her job now finished for the next half hour until the pageant ended and the hordes descended once again to tear off their costumes.
"What's next?" asked Marcus, who she had momentarily forgotten was there, as he took a seat beside her, and she suddenly realized how very few times over the past month she had ever been entirely alone with him.
"Nothing, for about twenty-five minutes. The whole group stays onstage until the very end."
“Oh.” Marcus paused for a long time, his tone unreadable. “So it’s . . . it’s just us.”
“Yes. It’s just us.”
They sat there in amicable silence for a long moment, each almost painfully aware of the other's presence, as well as their isolation from the rest of the world, concealed inside their quiet bubble of black velvet. Even the sound of fifty children scream-singing about tidings of comfort and joy was somewhat muffled, back here; at this angle, behind the second row of curtain panels, they could neither see nor be seen by audience or performers.
Abby was surprised to find herself so nervous all of a sudden, and attempted to quell her pounding heart by taking deeper breaths. Beside her, she could hear Marcus inhale like he was about to say something, then think better of it and fall back into silence again, at least twice before he finally spoke.
"I'm glad I let you talk me into this" was all he said, still not looking at her.
Abby dismissed this with a casual wave. "This was all Clarke," she said, "I'm just pinch-hitting. You and she get all the credit. Well, and Jackson. But I haven't done anything except boss some kids around."
"I think you know that's not true," said Marcus in a peculiarly intense voice. "I think you know you're the one who opened this door again in the first place."
"Do you mean the library?"
"Not just the library. I mean that you were the first person - the only person - who ever asked me what I really wanted. Who reminded me that I had a choice."
The children began humming "Away In a Manger," softly and lightly below Tyler's continued narration, and the sound made Abby feel suddenly strange, like she was floating.
"It's kind of magical back here," Marcus whispered, as though he was feeling it too, and Abby turned to look at him. There was no light backstage except the twinkle of the Christmas tree lights from above their heads (unable to move the massive base, they'd simply worked around it and were using it as a backdrop), which was taller than the hastily-rigged curtains, and cast a scattering of gold illumination over his face, like starlight.
They looked at each other for a long time, in silence, as the otherworldly hum floated through the air around them. Each of them felt suddenly that they had a million things to say, or ask, but neither of them could quite figure out where to begin, so they said nothing.
“But the angel said to them, ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy, which shall be to all people. For to you is born this day in the City of David a savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you - you shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.’”
“Didn’t it used to be ‘be not afraid?’” Marcus asked suddenly.
“They changed it. New Bible translation or something.”
“Is that allowed?”
“Wait until you hear what I learned about ‘Glory to God in the highest.'" I took a semester of Latin in college. Are you ready for this? Luke’s gospel doesn’t actually say ‘in excelsis Deo.’”
“Yeah, it’s not highest like, most lofty and exalted, 'excelsis,' it’s highest like physically. So it’s ‘altissimis.’ Like altitude. Apparently Saint Jerome claimed that was the most accurate translation from the Greek. ‘Glory to God who dwells in the highest places.’”
“You’ve officially blown my mind,” said Marcus.
“And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, Glory to God in the highest -"
"See, now you've ruined it."
" . . . and peace and goodwill toward all people."
“Oh, that’s wrong too,” she added breezily. "'Et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis.' Technically, it's 'peace to all people of goodwill.'"
"But that completely changes the meaning!" Marcus exclaimed, genuinely incredulous, his voice just a little too loud. "What the fuck!"
Abby froze in her seat, whirling around to glare at him with panic in her eyes as he, realizing what he'd done, froze too; they remained still and silent, staring at each other, until it became clear that the noisy, boisterous piano intro to “Sussex Carol” had mercifully drowned him out.
“We’re in the Lord’s house,” Abby reminded him primly, “you can’t say ‘fuck.’"
Relief that he had not, in fact, accidentally ruined the church Christmas pageant by swearing too loudly, overtook Marcus completely and Abby's reproof was the last straw, causing him to dissolve into silent, helpless laughter, doubled over in his chair. It didn't take long for Abby to join him, hand clamped over her mouth to repress the sound. They laughed and laughed and laughed until tears streamed down their faces.
"Jesus, I'm so sorry," Marcus whispered finally. “How dead would I be if a baby sheep had heard that?”
“Really, really dead,” Abby retorted. “You know the one with bright red hair is the pastor’s kid, right?”
“Is he? Shit!”
“Stop doing that!”
This set them both off again. Unable to suppress her fresh fit of giggles, Abby impulsively buried her face in Marcus' warm, flannel-clad shoulder to muffle the sound. He seemed startled by this sudden contact, tensing up for a moment as soon as she touched him before eventually softening again. She felt his arm move ever so slightly, as though he were perhaps considering wrapping it around her but then thought better of it.
Eventually, the hilarity began to subside, and Abby found herself noticing other things. The sound of his heart, beating steadily. The scents of coffee and pine and something with a tinge of rosemary, maybe his laundry soap or maybe his aftershave. The rich, clear contralto of the Christmas Angel, belting out the third verse of "Sussex Carol."
“‘All out of darkness, we have light,’” Marcus murmured. “That was your favorite line, you said.”
“Good memory,” said Abby, smiling into his shoulder. But the words took them both back to the same moment - that night at the kitchen table, laughing and joking and decorating Christmas cookies - and after that it was impossible to keep Diana Sydney from intruding into their thoughts, casting a discordant note into the unexpectedly harmonious moment. Some of the sparkle went out of her eyes, and she slowly sat back up again, pulling away from Marcus ever so slightly, putting some distance between them.
“Congratulations, by the way,” she added, trying desperately to keep her quiet voice from sounding too hollow. “I didn’t get a chance to say it before.”
This was not entirely accurate. She had, in fact, had dozens of chances since the astonishing announcement had taken place, but Diana had been present for all of them, suddenly glued to her fiance’s arm now that the date was finally set. And Abby, for reasons she preferred not to interrogate, did not trust her own composure with the other woman looking at her. So she had kept busy every day assisting Clarke, which effectively removed her from Marcus and Diana’s orbit and saved her having to say anything she did not mean.
But she tried, as hard as she could, to mean it now.
She wanted to mean it, really she did. It felt so petty and cold of her, on Christmas Eve of all days, to be thinking sour thoughts toward a couple about to marry, and none of the reasons for her ill feeling were things she wanted to examine particularly closely. But she was surprised at the somber look on Marcus’ face when he turned to her, brown eyes dark and sad.
“Do you think I should marry her?” he asked unexpectedly.
Abby had no response to this. She could scarcely comprehend the fact that he was asking the question. For a long moment, she just stared at him, eyes wide and stunned, until the sound of movement onstage recollected her to the present, and she turned abruptly back toward the wings, panicked that this suddenly important moment was about to be interrupted forever by a stampede of children. (But no, all was well, this was simply the sound of the Wise Men entering from the back to begin "We Three Kings," they still had a few minutes left for Abby to get to the bottom of this.)
"Marcus," she finally said, looking him in the eye. "I cannot possibly help you make a decision like that."
"Actually," he said in a low voice, "you might be the only one who can."
"I don't know what that means."
"It means what it sounds like, Abby," he said impatiently. "Think. Can you give me a reason why I shouldn't marry Diana Sydney?"
She was so baffled by his tone that she didn't quite know how to respond. It was as though there were a clear right and wrong answer here, which she should definitely know, and he was waiting to see whether she was intelligent enough to choose correctly.
But how the hell was she supposed to help him here, with so little information to go on?
Was he unhappy, experiencing doubts he wanted validated by a neutral outside observer? Or did he want those doubts assuaged by a friend who also knew something about marriage herself, and might be able to reassure him? Was he testing her, somehow? Poking at her long-maintained dislike of Diana to see if it trumped their newly-repaired, still-tentative friendship?
Or, oh God, was this about their past? About Marcus and Abby and Callie and Jake?
Was he trying, in some sneaky, secretive way, to determine how angry Abby still was at him, by offering her the chance to hurt him the same way he had hurt her - namely, do something to cause drama at the wedding - to see if she would take the bait?
The thought of this made her immediately want to be furious at him - how dare he assume they were the same in this - but the minute she looked up and met his eyes again all her anger evaporated.
No, that wasn't him. He could never be so cruel. He just looked tired, and sad, and ever so slightly lost.
"I think if she makes you happy," Abby finally said, "then that's the only thing that matters."
Marcus was silent for a long moment, then nodded and looked away. She could tell, somehow, that this had not been the right answer, but she wasn't sure what else there was to say. That was as kind and honest as she could be at the same time.
Sorry, Kane, she thought wearily, as the piano began to ring out "Joy to the World" for the pageant's grand finale. I have fifty kids to manage tonight, I can’t do your relationship problems too.
But she never got the chance to find out what the right answer was. Rising from her seat, she made her way to the front of the wings to direct the children through their curtain call. After they finished their bows, she turned to look for Marcus again, but he was already gone.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the curtains, way at the back of the ballroom behind rows and rows of folding chairs, Clarke was seated in front of the light and sound board, waiting for the pageant to end and the audience to disperse so she and her volunteers could turn over the room for the Christmas Ball. Everything was running right on schedule, but she was taking no chances.
“Admiring your handiwork?” came a crisp voice from over her shoulder, and she turned to see Diana Sydney enter through the rear door to stand beside her, clad in a jewel-green sequined gown that shimmered in the ballroom’s golden light like the scales of a dragon. She was sipping elegantly from a glass of champagne (presumably swiped from the bar in the hallway and which no one was supposed to be drinking yet) but did not look at all celebratory.
“Sorry?” said Clarke, not sure how to respond to this. There was something barbed and poisonous in Diana’s polite voice that she did not like.
“The tree, the pageant, the ball,” said Diana, gesturing lazily at the room. “You and the Blakes deserve much of the credit for making this happen.”
“We helped,” said Clarke carefully, “but Marcus did it, really.”
“That he did,” the older woman agreed coolly, and Clarke followed her gaze through the crowded rows of seats, where she was clearly scanning for a sight of him. “You’ve certainly kept him very busy. All of . . . this -” (with a dismissive handwave) “has taken up so much of his time he’s scarcely had a thought to spare for the most important part of the night.”
“The wedding,” Clarke guessed flatly.
“Well, they’re off duty as soon as the pageant is over, so I’m sure you’ll be able to find them soon,” she said absently, busying herself with her clipboard.
“’Them?’” Diana repeated, just the faintest shade of apprehension in her voice, and Clarke instantly realized her mistake. Diana had unerringly leapt to the correct conclusion, and decidedly did not approve.
“He’s backstage,” said Clarke reluctantly. “He went back there before the show to see if Mom needed any help.”
“And where did he go after that?”
“Nowhere. He stayed for the rest of the show.”
“No,” said Clarke, a little irritably, “with like fifty kids.”
Diana raised an eyebrow, looking from Clarke to the stage and back again, her silent thoughts as clear as if she’d said them out loud:
All fifty kids were currently onstage, so Marcus was certainly alone with Abby now.
Clarke half-expected the older woman to march up the center aisle, shove her way through the angel chorus and the baby sheep, storm backstage, and drag her husband-to-be away from Mom by the hair; so she was more than a little astonished when Diana sat down in the folding chair beside her, crossing her legs elegantly and continuing to sip at her champagne without another word.
That Diana was jealous admitted no doubt, and Clarke had wondered more than once whether there truly was something here to be jealous of (hadn’t she, after all, assumed Marcus was taking her for a walk that day to confess his feelings for her mother and get Clarke’s blessing?); but the big announcement had changed all of that. Kane was so very clearly the kind of man who would never be unfaithful, never go back on his word, never break a promise to anyone, that once it had been made clear that this wedding was really happening, she’d convinced herself that perhaps she’d imagined the whole thing.
But something in Diana’s demeanor made her wonder.
“They’ve certainly been . . . spending quite a bit of time together lately,” the older woman finally observed, a pointed, even prodding, note in her voice which put Clarke on her guard. “I must confess I’m a bit surprised.”
“Well, it’s Christmas Eve,” said Clarke carefully. “There’s been a lot to do.”
“Marcus and I have been together for two years, and he’s never given a damn about Christmas before now.”
Clarke wasn’t sure why she suddenly felt so protective of Marcus, but Diana’s high-handed demeanor irritated her. “Yeah, but that’s understandable, don’t you think?” she protested. “I mean, because of Callie.”
The blow landed more forcefully than she’d thought, causing Diana to turn her gleaming blonde head and regard the girl directly for the very first time, eyes piercing and cold. “What do you mean, because of . . . her ?” she demanded, grating on Clarke yet further with her refusal to even speak the name of Kane’s dead wife out loud.
“Because Christmas was her favorite,” Clarke explained, annoyance slowly expanding into anger. Impossible, that a woman who wanted to spend the rest of her life with this man should not know this. “That’s why he couldn’t quite face it after she died. The star at the top of the tree in the library, Callie made that. The inn’s holiday menu was hers, the Christmas Ball was hers, everything that made the place feel festive had Callie’s fingerprints all over it. So it just got easier to sort of put it away, which makes sense when you think about it. It probably felt wrong to him - feeling merry and joyful about anything, after she was dead.” Diana met this explanation with frosty silence, and if she’d been in a kinder mood Clarke might have had some empathy for the woman (surely she must realize what it said about their relationship that two years with her had failed to draw him back out of himself the way three weeks with the Griffins had done) but this whole exchange felt so fishy that she couldn’t quite stop herself from twisting the knife. “He never told you all this?” she asked innocently, and just for a moment - a heartbeat pause so brief she might have imagined it - she could see Diana’s impeccably-crafted surface fracture to reveal the white-hot rage simmering beneath.
But it evaporated as quickly as it came, replaced by a cheery, engaging candor which set off tiny alarm bells in the back of Clarke’s head.
“Yes, of course he did, darling,” she said to Clarke, elaborately casual and plainly lying. “Anyway, the most important thing is how nice it is to see the two of them getting along again. Given their . . . history, of course.”
It was a trap. Clarke knew it instantly. And not even a particularly well-concealed one. The tactful way she said the word “history” and left the rest hanging caused a bubble of anxiety to rise up in the pit of Clarke’s stomach.
Diana had given neither Griffin any reason to trust or like her, and whatever she said, whether truth or falsehood, was surely intended only to cause trouble.
Because there was something there, Clarke had not been imagining it, that dark and elusive shadow hanging over Marcus which he himself had refused to explain. There had always been more to this story than she knew, and no one else would or could tell her what it was. But if Diana could . . .
It was a trap.
Of course it was a trap.
But still, in the end, she could not stop herself.
“I already know about the wedding,” she said. “Mom told me.” But the thin, frail hope that this might deflate Diana - that “Marcus got drunk and missed his toast” might be the entirety of her Big Reveal - was instantly shattered. The older woman’s expression remained unchanged. She still had the upper hand.
“Did she,” said Diana coolly. “What did she say?”
“He had too much to drink and made a scene in the parking lot,” said Clarke. “Missed his toast, got into a fight, Dad was really upset. So they didn’t talk to him again after that. But that’s all in the past, isn’t it? I mean, he doesn’t drink like that now. And Mom wouldn’t hold a grudge for twenty years over one night of bad behavior, especially if the person has really changed. I think that’s what this is,” she said, gesturing at the pine-bedecked ballroom sparkling with holiday cheer, the children’s chorus onstage yelling “and HEEEEEEEAVEN, and heaven and nature sing!” at the top of their tiny lungs. “I think he just wants her to know that he’s changed.”
Diana arched one perfect eyebrow in elegant astonishment. “One night of bad behavior?” she repeated dubiously. “My God, that’s a far more generous read than I would have given. I like to think of myself as a fair-minded woman, but if my husband’s best friend tried to stop my wedding, I can’t imagine that I would -”
“Wait,” interrupted Clarke. “What do you mean, stop the wedding?”
“But darling, you said you knew,” said Diana kindly, brow furrowed in great puzzlement. “Have we got our wires crossed somewhere?”
“He wasn’t trying to ruin anything,” Clarke insisted, though as the words tumbled out she realized she had absolutely no assurance that they were true. “He just got drunk and stupid and made a scene. After the wedding had already happened. At the reception. That's it.”
“Is that what your mother told you?”
“Well, then either she lied to you, darling, or Jake lied to her. Because that was the second fight. Not the first.”
Despite the waves of hissing warmth emanating from the elderly radiator behind her, Clarke felt her blood run suddenly cold in her veins, waiting for Diana to say more. But the woman seemed to change her mind, waving the whole thing off with a nonchalant gesture. “Of course you’re right,” she said to the girl breezily. “It’s in the past, he’s a different man now, and obviously death changes things. Besides,” she added, patting Clarke’s shoulder, “if he’d gotten his way in the first place, you wouldn’t even be here, so obviously everything worked out just as it should.”
“Diana,” said Clarke forcefully, gritting out each word in pronounced frustration. “What. Are. You. Talking. About.”
“Well, I hardly think there’s any purpose in dredging all this up again, since, as you say, he and your mother have obviously resolved it between the two of them and found a way to be friends again. But it’s true, unfortunately. Marcus only went to the wedding in the first place to tell Jake to call it off. Apparently he begged your father not to go through with it. Several times.”
“No,” said Clarke, shaking her head wildly. “No, this can’t be true. He wasn’t like that. He wasn’t trying to hurt them. He was just drunk.”
“You’re an adult, Clarke,” said Diana crisply. “You’re quite old enough to know the difference between accidentally saying something because you were drunk, and deliberately getting drunk to give yourself the courage to say something.”
And suddenly, there it was, the missing piece. The horribly plausible explanation, for everything. The depth of Marcus' self-recrimination and guilt, of Mom’s resentment and resignation, of the distance Dad had kept them all away from this place for so long.
But then, he had been so kind . . . he had spoken to her with such affection for her father, he had offered her a job, he had as good as given the whole farm to her. How could this possibly be true?
It couldn’t. It couldn’t.
But it might.
“Anyway,” Diana went on, “that was the cause of the first fight. No one told your mother about it, of course, they didn’t want to ruin her day just before the wedding, but there was quite a scene between Jake and Marcus in the room where they were all getting dressed. Thelonious told me about it. He managed to get Marcus to pull himself together enough to get through the ceremony, but when it came time for the reception he was nowhere to be found. Finally the boys found him falling-down drunk in the parking lot. They asked him to come back inside and give his toast, and he finally admitted he’d never even written one.”
“It seems he was unable to think of anything nice to say to the happy couple,” said Diana, voice heavy with completely unconvincing fake sorrow. “Went rather the opposite route, in fact. He told Jake that marrying your mother would be a mistake, that they didn’t belong together, and that the whole thing should have ended years ago. That’s when they almost came to blows outside the church, and of course the rest you know.”
“I don’t believe you,” she whispered, shaking her head, the bright sting of tears in her eyes. “I don’t believe you. He would never. He would never. I know they fought, but he couldn’t have hated her that much."
Diana opened her hands in a gesture of entreaty, asking Clarke to understand, to empathize. “Now, we were all young,” she reminded her, “and obviously everyone’s grown up since then. But your father was the most popular boy in town, not to mention Marcus’ best friend since childhood, and there was more than a little resentment on many sides when Abby swept him off to the big city. And then of course, that terrible car accident . . .”
Clarke could hardly breathe.
“Oh, no, sweetheart, you misunderstand,” said Diana, patting her shoulder again, “I don’t mean to say I’ve ever heard anyone blame your mother for that, it certainly wasn’t her fault. She wasn’t even in the car, as I understand it. And tragedies like that do happen, of course. Though, they don’t happen in Arkadia, not really, so obviously if he hadn’t moved to Boston with your mother he’d still be alive, but who could predict a thing like that? Marcus certainly didn’t; but I wonder if he had, perhaps, at the very least a kind of sense that Jake wouldn’t be returning. Your mother has always had big dreams, which is admirable, and she’s certainly accomplished a great deal in her life, but if we’re being entirely frank with each other, she did always think herself too good for a place like Arkadia, and you can hardly blame Arkadia for resenting that a bit. Marcus especially. He wasn’t given the opportunity to go off and spread his wings like Abby did, you know, since he didn’t come from money and his parents needed him to work. Perhaps,” she added helpfully, “it wasn’t as personal as it seems. Maybe it wasn’t so much that Marcus hated your mother specifically, as much as he hated what she represented - sweeping in to take away his best friend and denigrate the town his family devoted their life to. But I’m sure you can imagine why it all feels a bit rich, after he’s paid his dues for twenty-five years while she was off in the big city, that now, suddenly, when he finally has the opportunity to get a fresh start and put the past behind him, it’s Abby Griffin who doesn’t want him to take it.”
Somewhere in the middle of this horrible, devastating speech, the final song ended and the audience rose to their feet in applause, as children began to spill out from the stage every which way - back into the wings to change their costumes, out into the rows of folding chairs to hug their parents. The room was chaos all around, and Clarke's volunteers were lined up at the side of the room, ready to begin the task of breaking down the stage to turn the impromptu theatre back into a ballroom. But Clarke did not move, or speak.
She sat frozen for a long, long time, trapped inside a bubble which nothing could penetrate, like the glass of a snow globe. Silent and cold and empty. All of this was too much to take in. She could not look at Diana. She could not move. She was not sure yet whether she wanted to cry or throw up or slap Marcus Kane in the face. Her mind had room for no other thought except one, echoing over and over like the clanging of a brass bell:
We have to get out of here.
We have to get out of here.
We have to get out of here.
Mom could not possibly have known any of this. Dad must have kept it from her all those years, and sworn Thelonious to secrecy too. She wondered if he had ever told Wells, if Wells also had lied to protect them. She wondered who else knew.
At that moment, she hated Marcus Kane like she’d never hated anyone in her life. She hated him because she had only just now realized, listening to Diana’s casually horrifying tale, how much she’d begun to love him.
Marcus had given them a library and a tree and a Christmas Ball. He had made Mom laugh. He had built a family here that Clarke wanted with all her heart and soul to be part of, and just four days ago he had reached out his hand to her and said the word “partners,” and the aching, empty, father-shaped space inside her heart had finally begun, ever so slightly, to heal over. She had wanted it so badly - the job, the family, his trust. She had wanted to belong, to feel like this place could be hers. And she had believed him when he looked her in the eye and told her he wanted them to do this together.
Except that now she knew the truth: that if Marcus Kane had gotten what he wanted, Clarke Griffin wouldn’t exist.
Abby would have gone off to the big city by herself, and Jake would have stayed behind in Arkadia, and he would never have died, and they would both have married other people, and there would be no Clarke. All because Marcus did not want to share Jake with someone else, because Marcus did not want anyone else getting the chance to break free of this place if he couldn’t, because Marcus did not believe Mom was worthy of being married to someone like Dad.
She wasn’t sure who she was more angry at - at Marcus, or at herself for trusting him. Because Mom had warned her, Mom had known exactly what kind of man he was, and she’d tried to open Clarke’s eyes before she ever even met him. She’d said he didn’t like her. She’d said he wasn’t a nice person. She’d said she didn’t want to see him.
And Clarke should have listened, she knew that now. She just hadn't wanted to believe it. She wanted to believe that the people who knew him now - Indra, Charmaine, the Blakes - saw something her mother didn’t. She wanted to believe it was possible for people to change.
But none of it was real - not the library, not the tree, not the Christmas ornaments, not the job offer, not the ball - because Marcus had not told them any of this himself, Marcus was still keeping secrets from them, and the fact that Diana had plainly revealed this only to cause trouble did not change the fact that Diana was the only one who had bothered to tell Clarke the truth.
Marcus had not thought Mom was good enough for Dad, which meant he would have been happier if Clarke was never born, and the rosy picture she hadn’t realized she’d been forming in her mind shattered into a thousand pieces.
“Anyway,” said Diana, interrupting her reverie, “best leave the past in the past. Now I’ve got to go hunt down my fiance, and you have all these tables and chairs and things to move around. I’m so glad we’ll be doing the wedding here, instead of at the church, you know; it seems kinder on your mother. So many dreadful memories around that place. But it’s just lovely in here, Clarke. The perfect backdrop. I really do have to thank you.” And with one final, patronizing pat on the shoulder, she sailed off through the crowd and vanished.
Chapter 11: December 24th, Part II: The Christmas Ball
Clarke had not been entirely sure whether her mother would even be attending the Christmas Ball until she actually appeared, wearing a red satin gown Clarke had never actually seen off the hanger. Abby had driven over to the house this morning, both to check on the progress of the roof and to dig a box labeled “FORMALWEAR” out of the adjacent garage. Clarke had been surprised, and offered her several outs, but all had been calmly declined.
“You don’t have to go tonight, Mom.”
“Why would I not want to go?”
“What about the wedding?"
“Everyone is going to the wedding. Why would I want to be the only person who doesn’t go to the wedding?”
“Won’t it be weird?”
“Why should it?”
And so on and so on, forever, answering every question with another question, perfectly composed, until Clarke had given up. But she needn't have worried, as it turned out; when Abby Griffin finally entered the ballroom, she arrived with her armor firmly in place.
She looked, if not happy, at least serene, and Clarke did not think she would ever forgive Marcus Kane for what he was about to make her do, because it was abundantly clear from her mother’s composure that Diana Sydney had not found her yet.
Which meant it would fall to Clarke to relay the horrible information herself.
“Have you seen Marcus?” Abby asked, as she approached, with something in her eyes that seemed almost hopeful. “We were talking backstage, during the pageant, and we got interrupted -"
“Forget about that for a second, Mom, I have to tell you something -”
“ . . . and it seemed like it might be important, but then he disappeared, and I haven’t seen him, and it feels like maybe I should talk to him about it before the wedding -”
“Mom, listen, I really need to talk to you -”
“ - but I haven’t been able to find him anywhere, and -”
“Mom, stop,” Clarke interrupted her, so loudly that the volunteers nearby at the refreshments table looked up. Abby stopped mid-sentence, words dying on her lips, an expression of sheer alarm dawning slowly in her eyes. “It’s about Marcus. There’s something I have to tell you. But we can’t do it here.”
“Clarke, you’re scaring me,” said Abby in a low voice. “What is it?”
“Diana told me what really happened at the wedding,” said Clarke, tears springing to her eyes, taking her mother’s hand and leading her down the hall to the library. “And I don’t think we should stay here anymore.”
“I want to go back to Boston,” she choked out, ushering Abby into the empty library and closing the door behind them. “And after this, you will too.”
“Okay, I think that’s just about it,” said Charmaine cheerfully, closing the door to her beat-up Volkswagen bus and tossing a ring of keys back to Bellamy. “Thanks for loaning me your back.”
Bellamy, who had just spent the past forty minutes loading impossibly heavy metal catering trays out the back door of the diner and into the van so the lodge’s pregnant chef wouldn’t have to lift them, winced slightly as he lifted his arm to catch the keys. “No problem.”
“You sure you don’t mind walking back?”
Bellamy dismissed this with a wave. “Please. It’s fine. There was no way to fit everything in there without folding down the seats.”
“Ten minutes sitting on the floor holding a pan of meatballs vs. half an hour walking in the snow?”
“It’s barely snowing,” Bellamy pointed out. “Plus it will save me getting drafted by Clarke for some job that requires a suit.”
“Trust me. You take the car, get the food up to the kitchen, Octavia’s waiting to help you unload. I’ll see you soon. Really, it’s fine.”
“You’re a good kid, Blake,” she said affectionately, ruffling his shaggy black curls before climbing into the driver’s seat. “Just put the carts back and hit the lights before you lock up. I promised Gina we’d make sure we got everything all closed up for her.”
“No problem,” said Bellamy, “I’m right behind you.”
This, however, was technically a lie.
Bellamy had every intention of putting the borrowed catering carts back, turning off the kitchen lights, double-checking the locks on the back entrance, and all the other things they had promised the owners in exchange for three cases of wine and an entire van full of free food. But he had gone to high school with Gina (she had worked at her parents’ diner even then, weekends and summers and sometimes late nights after soccer practice), and he happened to know that she made the best coffee in the entire town of Arkadia - something it was unwise to mention in front of Charmaine, who took a well-deserved pride in her own. And he happened to know that she always made a fresh pot before closing, for the staff, and kept it in a vacuum-sealed carafe behind the counter, and that if he was very lucky she might have forgotten to dump it out, as she often did, which would mean there was enough left in there for him to fill a nice hot to-go cup for his slow, leisurely, just-long-enough-for-Clarke-to-find-another-bartender stroll back up to the lodge.
All of them would wonder, later, how their lives might have turned out differently if Bellamy had not done the three things he did next.
One, he passed through the kitchen into the diner, and turned on the lights.
Two, he walked behind the counter.
Three, he found the carafe and pulled it out to pour himself a cup of coffee.
That was when he heard the knock at the front door.
All alone, on a dark night, suddenly scared he was about to get busted by Gina’s dad, Bellamy was startled into spilling the carafe's still-scalding contents all over his hands, the counter, and the floor, causing him to yelp, and reach out for the white cotton towel on the back counter to tidy up both himself and the mess.
Bellamy waved irritably at the decidedly not-from-around-here-looking figure with the man bun and trendy suit lurking on the sidewalk outside the diner. “We’re closed!” he yelled through the glass.
The man held up what was clearly a very dead iPhone. “I just need to use the pay phone!” he yelled back, gesturing toward the decrepit antique just inside the front door. “Five minutes!”
Bellamy hesitated for a moment, trying to decide whether he was more likely to get in trouble if he admitted that he didn’t actually work here - making him the intruder, technically, and what if this guy knew Gina’s parents? - or whether he should just let the suit in for five minutes while he mopped up his own coffee mess and then shove him out the door as soon as he was off the phone.
He opted for the latter, grudgingly opening the front door to let him in before returning to the counter, but he made his irritability know. "Pay phone, in this day and age?" he inquired dubiously, looking at the intruder skeptically. “You don’t have a phone charger?”
“Not on me,” said the man, digging through a very expensive-looking wallet to search for change. “Left it at the office. And I’m in kind of a hurry. And everything in this damned one-horse town closes at seven o’clock, apparently. I’ve been up and down the whole damn street trying to find anything open. You’re the first human being I’ve seen.”
“Everyone’s up at Eden Tree Farm for the Christmas Ball."
The man chuckled a little at this, with an expression on his face Bellamy didn’t quite like for some reason, though he couldn’t put his finger on it. “Yeah,” he agreed, plugging his quarters into the pay phone. “It’s likely to be . . . a pretty memorable night.”
“What does that -” Bellamy began, but the man, now on the phone, waved him into silence.
Irritably, Bellamy mopped up the rest of the coffee spill, poured himself a steaming hot to-go cup, and made his way back to the kitchen to toss the towel into the bin and steal a splash of cream from the refrigerator.
He lingered a little longer than he had to, hoping the man would hurry up and leave without once more forcing Bellamy into the position of actively pretending that he worked here. But his luck did not hold; when he returned to the counter, the man was still talking, which meant Bellamy now had to commit to the role and find something to pretend to do until he finished. He settled for filling the napkin holders, something which needed to be done anyway and felt at least a little bit like compensation for his coffee theft.
Now, Bellamy, it must be reminded, was not Octavia. Octavia would have made no bones about unapologetic, deliberate eavesdropping, and everything the impolite stranger said would have shortly been repeated to any interested party. But Bellamy truly, sincerely, was not trying to listen in. He wasn't a snoop, for one thing, and for another he didn't particularly care. So everything he heard, he really only heard by mistake.
He finished up all the napkin dispensers along the counter, and the straws for good measure, but the man was still talking (he'd fed more change in, an irritating sign); so, in search of something else to pretend to be doing, Bellamy decided to do the napkins on all the tables as well.
One table sat directly beside the pay phone, though behind the man's back, and this table happened to have a particularly stubborn napkin dispenser, which didn't want to pop open with one click to refill like the others did. This was the only reason Bellamy stood there long enough to hear the thing that he heard.
“ . . . handle the paperwork tomorrow,” the man was saying. “The contract’s still kicking around his office somewhere, she said. Only one of them has to sign it for the sale to be legal.” A long pause, then a grim laugh. “Hey, man, we ain’t marriage counselors, okay? If he’s pissed, that’s her problem. All we need is the signature.” Another pause. “I’m not sure. Send Mom up there, just in case. Diana’s more scared of Mom than she is of me.”
Bellamy was so startled he fumbled the napkin holder, causing the man to turn and look at him, eyes narrowed suspiciously.
“I gotta go,” the man said quietly into the phone, without taking his eyes off the younger man now busily stuffing napkins into the metal holder and pretending to be oblivious. “I’ll call again when I find a goddamn charger. Just get Mom up there, fast. The window’s closing.” Then he hung up, dark eyes focused intently on Bellamy. “You look familiar,” he said, a hint of menace in his voice. “Do I know you?”
“Don’t think so,” said Bellamy, heart pounding, trying to sound nonchalant but falling a little short.
“You work here?”
“Uhhhhhh . . . yep.”
“Since . . . high school?”
“I’ve only ever seen the girl waitress and the old guy.”
“I work the late night shift,” Bellamy lied desperately, silently begging the man to accept this as a satisfactory answer and leave.
Finally, he did, after a patronizing thanks for the use of the pay phone, and a ten dollar tip, which Bellamy left in the jar. He continued casually filling napkin dispensers until, out of the corner of his eye, he saw the man cross the street, get into a flashy sports car and drive away. Only then did he spring into action, pulling his cell phone out of his pocket and punching Octavia’s name on speed dial.
“What’s up, this is O, you know how to leave a message. Though I really hope you don’t, because voicemail is for old people. Text me. Bye.”
He tried Clarke next.
“Hello, you’ve reached Clarke Griffin. I can’t come to the phone right now, possibly because my mother has relocated us to a tiny rural hamlet with no cell reception. As soon as technology makes it possible, I will call you back.”
Shit. Shit. Shit.
He tried Lincoln next - no answer - followed by Charmaine, then Indra, then gritted his teeth and even attempted to call Marcus . . . though he was not at all sure, yet, what he would say to him.
But Marcus didn’t answer either.
Desperately, he began scrolling through his contacts to find someone, anyone, who might be at the inn and could find his sister.
The ninth try was a charm.
“Bellamy!” exclaimed a very definitely high Jasper Jordan. “My buddy! My pal! My best friend!”
“Hey!” an indignant (and also definitely high) Monty Green piped up in the background. “Not cool, man!”
“Jasper, listen -”
“No, you listen!” exclaimed Jasper, then immediately followed it up with, “whoa, sorry man, that came out super aggressive. I’ve just always wanted to say that to someone.”
“Jasper, this is an emergency. I need to find either Clarke Griffin or my sister, and they’re not answering their phones.”
“Clarke’s in the library with her mom, and they’re having, like . . . a moment,” said Jasper, somewhat cryptically. “Hang on, let me put you on speaker. Monty heard more. Monty, Bellamy wants to know what happened with Clarke’s mom.”
“No, Jasper, that’s not what I -”
“Hey, Bellamy!” exclaimed Monty. “Oh, man, it was wild. Well, I mean, it sounded wild. I mean I don’t actually know what happened.”
“Monty, I really need -”
“All I know is that the blonde lady everyone hates, I forget her name -”
“Yeah, Kane’s girlfriend. She said some shit to Mrs. Griffin -"
“No, she said some shit to Clarke about Mrs. Griffin -"
“Oh, right, yeah, because Clarke was all, ‘Mom, I have to talk to you,’ and then they went off somewhere.”
“Exactly. And if Mrs. Griffin already knew then Clarke wouldn’t have to tell her.”
“Right. That would be stupid.”
“What did Diana say to Clarke?” Bellamy asked, teeth gritted, attempting to locate his patience.
“Oh, we don’t know. Something about Kane, that’s all I heard.”
“Something about Kane?” Oh God, this was getting worse and worse. “Okay. So you said you don’t know where Clarke and Abby went. Do you know where my sister is?”
“She and Lincoln were in the kitchen helping Charmaine unload the food, but I don’t know if they’re still there.”
“Okay, well, can you walk over there and check, please?”
“Bellamy,” said Monty earnestly, “for you, man, we would walk to, like . . . Jasper, what’s someplace far away?”
“The moon. Baltimore. Nicaragua. Lots of places are far away, dude, I need more information than that.”
This was excruciating. “Are you at the kitchen yet?”
“Almost! Oh, I hear voices. There’s people in there. Oh! Dude! I hear Octavia!”
“It’s a Christmas miracle!” sang Jasper.
“Octavia! Octavia! Bellamy’s on the phone!”
“Why the hell did he call you dummies?”
“Because yours went straight to voicemail!” he shouted through the speaker. “O, seriously, this is an emergency.”
“What happened?” she teased. “Did you get super cold walking back from the diner and now you want a lift?”
“It’s about Kane and Diana,” said Bellamy flatly, and even through the speakerphone he could hear his sister’s sharp intake of breath.
“Hang on,” she said. “Stay where you are. I’m coming.”
Abby did not say anything for a long, long time.
“Was I right to tell you?” Clarke asked anxiously, reaching out to grab her hand.
“Of course,” murmured her mother dully, but her eyes were distant and unfocused and she didn’t seem to see anything. Clarke squeezed her hand again, once, twice, but no response.
She had looked like this after Dad died, Clarke remembered. Blank and broken, like this. Like a piece of her had just disappeared altogether.
I will never forgive him, she thought. Not ever, not for the rest of my life. Not for the things he’d said and done all those years ago, before she was even born, and not for forcing Clarke to watch all the life drain out of her mother, bit by bit, as the awful story unfolded.
“Mom, are you okay?”
“I’m fine, baby,” she said, in that same hollow, absent tone. “I promise.”
“We can’t stay here. We have to go back to Boston. I can’t ever look at him again.”
“We’ll deal with all of that tomorrow.”
“Mom, I’m so -”
The door flew open just then, interrupting Clarke mid-sentence.
“Oh, thank Christ,” sighed Octavia, her whole body collapsing in relief. “I’ve been looking for you everywhere. We’re having an emergency out here.”
“Well, we’re kind of having an emergency in here,” said Clarke irritably, nodding towards her mother and turning away.
“Clarke,” said Octavia in a meaningful voice. “I promise. You will want to hear this.”
“I’m busy, O.”
“Check your phone,” said the other girl, then waited as Clarke fished through the pockets of her velvet dress to pull it out.
Clarke furrowed her brow. “Why do I have six missed calls from you and four from Bellamy?”
“Go,” said Abby tonelessly. “I’m fine, honey. It’s okay.”
“Mom, I don’t want to -”
“Go,” her mother repeated. “I need a minute alone to think, anyway. It’s all right. Go with Octavia. Fix whatever the emergency is. You have a long night tonight. And maybe,” she added, thinking desolately of all the boxes in the garage which would have to be loaded back into a moving van, on Christmas of all days, “a very long day tomorrow. Go take care of this. You’ll feel better if you fix something. You always do.”
“I love you,” said Clarke, a little helplessly, as Octavia pulled her out the door.
“I love you too, honey. Really. I’m okay.”
Then she watched the door close behind the two girls, leaving her alone again.
More alone than she had felt in all her life.
Stupid, to feel so betrayed over this. Hadn’t it been obvious, all along? Hadn’t she somehow known? Jake’s fractured narrative had never quite held together, but she’d been too distressed to poke at it any harder. And then afterwards, once they were gone, once they’d made a new home in Boston, all that ugliness and sadness had felt so far away. They’d had a clean break, a chance to forget, and they had. She had.
How ironic to owe this favor to Diana Sydney, of all people. She’d meant to hurt them, and had plainly succeeded, but she’d also answered a question that had been haunting Abby for over two decades.
After all this time, finally, she had her answer.
Someday, she was sure, that clarity would be healing; but now, it just made her feel oddly hollow. Like instead of replacing uncertainty with concrete knowledge, instead of giving her something, Diana’s revelations had taken something very dear to her away.
The library was suddenly intolerable - the fire too hot, the commotion outside the door too noisy and merry, the tree in the corner too fraught with memories she now wanted to push down as far as she could - so she slipped out to intermingle with the crowds gathering for the party, and disappeared upstairs.
Every guest staying at the inn was already in the ballroom, so the moment she put the main floor behind her, the chaos died down to a dull muffled roar. But even that was too much noise for her. The thought of returning to her room felt claustrophobic, but the cozy nooks along the hallway and landings were too exposed.
Suddenly, she realized there was only one place in the whole world she wanted to go - only one place she was sure she could be alone.
Seizing a thin plaid flannel throw blanket from its perch draped across the back of an armchair on the landing, she made her way down the hall to the back staircase which led, both to Marcus Kane’s private residence - now the absolute last place she would ever go - and to a second, smaller staircase, with a heavy wooden door at the top.
She climbed the steps, pushed open the door, and stepped out onto the roof of Eden Tree Lodge.
They’d come up here to smoke pot once, her and Marcus and Callie and Jake. After homecoming; or was it prom? It stung, to remember it - how giddy they’d been, how much they’d laughed - but what did it matter, now? There wasn’t a square inch of this place that didn’t break her heart, and at least up here it was quiet.
The veranda wrapped around the whole top floor of the inn, with low, heavy log benches carved into the corners with the loveliest views. Abby wondered, if she made her way around to the opposite side of the roof from the staircase, if she could see all the way down to the town.
It was silent up here, both too cold and too hidden away for any wandering guests. She pulled the blanket around her bare shoulders, wishing she’d picked something warmer than strapless red satin for the occasion. Her plain black velvet dress with the matching jacket would have served just fine. If she had worn that one, not only would she be less cold now, but she would not have to look back with such embarrassment at how hard she had tried to make herself look festive, celebratory, happy. She had not quite been able to give Diana Sydney the satisfaction of showing up to her wedding in a plain black dress. So she had put on the red satin, and a pair of real diamond earrings, and smoky silver eyeshadow with a faint hint of shimmer, and she had worn her hair down - something she rarely did - in a loose tangle of thick, soft curls, and as she had caught sight of herself in the mirror on her way out the door she had thought to herself, yes, this will do.
But all of it turned out not to matter, and now, of course, she was freezing.
It was worth it, though, for just a moment’s peace. The library would not have stayed a refuge for long, not once the party really kicked off and guests began to spread all over the main floor. Besides, the heat and noise inside, the powerful aromas of pine and spice and perfume, had threatened to become a little too stifling for her, and she needed her mind clear to think.
Around the corner, beneath the first of the two giant chimneys, Abby found herself standing directly over the glass doors of the ballroom, where Lincoln was at the piano and a jazzy “Silver Bells” was already in full swing. The chimney had shielded this corner from the heavy drifts of snow, leaving a clear path up to the railing. She leaned over it for a few moments to watch a smattering of dancers wander in and out periodically for a breath of fresh air, the raucous, joyful din of the Christmas Ball rising as the door opened and muffling into a low, distant murmur when it closed. But even this was too much noise for her, so she continued on.
To her right, the veranda wrapped around to the north, and soon the voices and even the piano faded away. Keeping to the inner walls, below the overhang, where the ground and the benches were free of snow, she made her way slowly toward the bench she remembered from all those years ago, the one which looked straight down the hill, where she could watch the twinkling lights of the town.
But as she rounded the corner, she realized she’d been beaten to it - by the absolute last person she wanted to see.
He had come from the other direction - turning left instead of right at the top of the stairs - the telltale footprints leading back around the corner towards the front of the building. Only chance had caused her to turn one way instead of the other, missing the signs of another human presence, and she debated whether or not it was possible to flee without being seen before deciding that, on the whole, she would rather stay and fight than run away.
“I came up here because the entire lodge is crawling with people I’ve known my entire life, and I don’t want to risk bursting into tears in front of them,” she began, rather unceremoniously, startling Marcus into rising from the low bench and whirling around. “What’s your excuse?”
“About the same,” he replied, a little cautiously, sensing the waves of heightened emotion emanating from her and unsure of his ground. “Who made you cry?”
“Nobody yet,” she said curtly, “but your wife-to-be sure gave it a real solid effort. I’m sure if she’d managed to corner me herself, instead of making my kid do the dirty work, she’d have been more effective.”
This was plainly not the answer Marcus was expecting, and he drew closer to her, bafflement and concern etched across his face. “Diana?” he repeated. “What did she do?”
“In the long run, I think she did me a favor,” said Abby tartly. “But I haven’t decided yet.”
Marcus looked puzzled, but didn’t say anything, like he was waiting to follow her lead, and the contrast struck her with a force so sharp it was painful. How could they even be the same person, this gentle, thoughtful man whose company she had come to enjoy so much, and the destructive force he had so clearly once been?
“Do you even love her?” she asked suddenly. “I’ve never heard you say it.”
He went suddenly still, and looked down at the snow-dusted planks beneath his feet. “I think that question is of a somewhat personal nature.”
“Oh, I think we’re well past that, Marcus.”
“I care for her very much.”
“That’s not what I asked.”
“Abby,” he began carefully. “When we were backstage, I asked you if -”
She ignored this. “And you’re still going to go through with it, aren’t you?” she demanded. “You don’t love her. You know it, I know it, for God’s sake, of course she knows it. Everyone around you knows it. But you’re still going to marry her. Even though you’ve never really said yes, but you’ve also never really said no, and you keep asking everyone else what you should do -”
“What do you think I should do?”
“Oh, the hell with it,” said Abby wearily. “Marry her, for all I care. Marry another woman you don’t love.”
Marcus looked up at her sharply, and took a step toward her, eyes full of emotion. “That’s not fair,” he said heatedly. “I loved Callie. You know I did. Was it some grand, epic romance? No. Were we happy? Yes. We don’t all get what you and Jake had, Abby. We don’t all get the big Hollywood love story. Not every marriage is the same.”
“Fine,” she said, conceding the point. It wasn’t Callie she wanted to argue about anyway. In fact, she could not suppress the knowledge that Callie would hate this. Callie would be furious at both of them for fighting with each other on Christmas Eve. Callie would have known what to say to make all of this right again.
But Callie was gone. Jake was gone. Where there had once been four, there were only two.
“I just don’t understand why you’re doing this,” she went on, exasperation sharpening her voice.
“Why did you leave Boston?” he countered unexpectedly.
Abby stared at him. “What does that have to do with anything?”
“You left because of the memories,” he finished for her, without waiting for her to answer. “Because Jake’s ghost was there. Well, not all of us can outrun ours like you can, Abby. All my ghosts live in this house. They’re with me every day.”
And you don’t think mine are?” she demanded. “Did you forget about Clarke? You don’t think every single time I look into my daughter’s eyes, I see the one ghost I can’t outrun?”
Marcus shook his head. “It’s not the same.”
“Because Clarke is a person,” he said, scrubbing his hand over his face in frustration. “You have someone. You’ll always have someone. And your ghosts are her ghosts too. You have a person you can share them with, Abby. That’s a gift. I wish I had that. I never will. I’m alone with mine.”
His face was nakedly expressive, raw with sadness, and the war inside her between anger and compassion made it impossible to do more than drop with a heavy sigh onto the bench where he had just been sitting, pulling her blanket more tightly around her, staring out into the dark night.
“You’re such a coward, Marcus,” she said wearily, as he moved around the other side of the bench to sit beside her.
“You don’t have to tell me that,” he said. “I already know.”
For a long, long time - neither of them knew quite how long - they just sat, still and silent, wrapped in their own thoughts, staring out at the snow-white moon hovering over the tops of the black trees.
“Your mom used to send us Christmas cards,” she said suddenly, out of nowhere, startling them both, and Marcus turned toward her sharply, face stricken. “Every year. Like nothing had changed. Wanting so badly to repair the bridge you burned. I saved every one of them. Full of stories about the inn and the town, asking how Clarke was doing, tucking Santa stickers into the envelope for her. And I could never bring myself to write her back. I wanted to. Every year, I wanted to. But I couldn’t.”
He looked away from her, blinking back tears, grief etched raw across his face. “I didn’t know,” he said, in a heavy, flat voice. “I didn’t know she did that.”
“Every once in awhile I think I’m done being angry with you,” she said, almost absently, still staring out at the trees, “and then I remember all the things like that. All the accumulated losses. Callie, too. Callie, who used to be my best friend, who came over after school to study for spelling tests and play Barbies, Callie who I’d known since I was three years old. But it just got too hard. You made everything so hard, Marcus. Callie was your wife, and even she couldn’t explain why you’d done what you did. Your mom couldn’t either. There was always just this . . . this big, dark, empty space in the center of every conversation, this black hole no one could escape, and after awhile we all just drifted away.”
“And how many times did you call Callie, after you moved to Boston?” Marcus countered, the unexpected direct attack throwing Abby off-balance. “Did you ever thank my mother for the cards? Did you ever write one back? Did you ever give this town another thought once it faded out of your rearview mirror? No. You went off to the big city to have the life you wanted, because Arkadia and everyone in it were too dull and small for you. Including Callie. And my mother. And me.”
Abby was too shocked and furious at these words to pay any heed to the tiny voice in the back of her head whispering that there was more than a little truth to this, when seen from his angle. In a different mood, without the Diana factor, she might have been willing to hear him out.
But not tonight.
“God, you are unbelievable,” she exploded. “You haven’t changed at all. You’re turning this around on me, like the reason everything fell apart was that I wanted to go to med school? Like if I’d stayed here in Arkadia, we’d all somehow have figured out a way to patch things up and be friends again? You know, the irony is, there was a time when I might have been dumb enough to believe that. Because I wasn’t supposed to know, was I, that you didn’t just make a scene at my wedding. I wasn’t supposed to know that you didn’t want there to be a wedding at all.”
Marcus’ face went absolutely white at this. His hand gripped the edge of the bench as though he physically needed to steady himself, and it gave her a tiny spark of bitter satisfaction to know he was now just as furious with Diana as she was with him.
Good. It helped to know they were both miserable.
“I’m so tired of other people deciding what I do and don’t deserve to know,” she said, “and I’d like to be angry at Diana for, among other things, pulling my daughter into this, but maybe I ought to be grateful. I had no idea how you really felt about me, and I never would have if you had gotten your way, you and Jake and Thelonious just lying to me forever. I would have gone on thinking we were friends. So, I don’t know. Maybe she saved me while there was still time for me to keep you from ruining my life again.”
This stung, and he was too angry to try and hide it. His cheeks, already flushed from the cold, reddened even further, and he folded his arms more tightly across his chest, retreating deeper into himself, jaw clenched.
“I’ve never pretended,” he began tightly, “that I don’t know I screwed up. Or that what I did was okay. It was awful. I’ve never denied that.”
“My God, you’re bad at apologizing.”
“I apologized to Jake.”
“How is that the same?”
“He was supposed to tell you, I thought - we both thought - it might be easier coming from him than from me, and then you could decide for yourself whether you wanted to see me again before you left.”
“You put that on him?” Abby demanded. “You thought he would just, what, breeze back into the reception, and find his crying wife, and relay whatever drunken, maudlin, passive-aggressive apology you spat at him while you were emitting whiskey fumes right in his face?”
“Not that apology,” Marcus said impatiently, shaking his head, “I meant the one the next day.”
Abby felt an almost palpable record scratch at this. Everything stopped for a moment as her head snapped up and she stared at him, taking in the first piece of genuinely new information he had relayed since the beginning of the conversation.
“The next day?” she repeated blankly. “Marcus, what the hell are you talking about?”
Now it was Marcus’ turn to stare in astonishment, as though she’d imparted something equally earth-shattering back to him. He swallowed hard, some extraordinary emotion working across his face. “He never . . . he never told you about that?”
“Well, obviously not,” she retorted, and the anger swelling up inside her chest expanded to encompass a new target. Oh, Jake. What the hell were you thinking?
This would hardly have been the first or last time that his clumsy good intentions and overzealous desire to protect Abby had led her husband to keep things from her - even though, as she had continually reminded him, it backfired every time. She always eventually found out, and her frustration at being kept in the dark was always so much worse than whatever comparatively minor worry he’d attempted to shield her from.
And he had done it again, here.
But this was not a minor thing.
Only now did it begin to dawn on Abby that, concealed somewhere at the heart of a story she thought she had known for twenty-five years, there was a vital piece of missing information - something important, something Jake had known but refused to say.
The blanket slipped from her shoulders, but she was too angry to notice. Marcus, however, did, and moved in close to her, gripping the warm flannel firmly and wrapping it tightly around her bare skin. She saw, without letting herself see, that he carefully did not look down at the swell of her bodice, and that his cheeks were flushed from something more than cold, and that even after his hands released the blanket he did not entirely pull away. There was something in this sudden proximity that disoriented her, left her dizzy, and she found herself rising from the bench and taking a few steps away from him, to clear her head.
Behind her, she could feel him watching.
“I thought you knew,” he whispered hoarsely. “I thought he must have told you, but then . . . when you left anyway, without saying goodbye, I thought -”
The peculiar raw emotion in his voice took a backseat, for the moment, to the injustice of what he was saying to her, and she pulled back abruptly. “You expected a goodbye?” she demanded incredulously, whirling around to stare at him. “After showing up drunk, missing your toast, and getting into a fight with my husband in the parking lot at the wedding reception, you’re pissed because you think I was rude to you?”
“No, Abby, I only meant -”
“And you know what’s worse than all of that?” she pressed on recklessly. “Worse than the wedding being ruined? Learning what you really think of me. I know how it was when we were kids, it was always you and Jake, me and Callie, there was never really a you and me, not in the same way, but I was still so sure - I’d always been so sure - that there was something. That you were my friend.” Her voice broke, and she hated herself for it, shaking it off and biting back the sting of tears.
“I was,” he said urgently. “I am.”
“No, you weren’t. You never were. It’s all so obvious, in hindsight. You hated me then, and you hate me now.”
The kaleidoscope of emotions playing across Marcus Kane’s face crystallized immediately into one sharp, cold dagger of pure anger, eyes blazing at her with a kind of white-hot intensity, and he rose from the bench to move toward her like a force beyond his own body propelled him. He was so close she could feel the temperature around her rise ever so slightly, from the heat radiating off his body, so close she could feel his breath on her, warm and heavy and whiskey-scented, thawing the frosty chill on her skin.
“Don’t you dare,” he hissed at her furiously, “put words in my mouth.”
“They told me, Marcus!” she shot back. “Between Jake and Thelonious and Diana, you don’t think I have a pretty clear picture by now? You think I can’t put two and two together? Just admit it and let’s call this what it is. You can’t stand me. You thought Jake could do better. You’ve latched onto Clarke because she’s his daughter and now you think you can make things right with him through her, circumventing me altogether, so you don’t have to fix the thing you actually broke. Because you haven’t changed. You still think I’m smug and superior, and you think I took Jake away from Arkadia - away from you - because I thought I was too good for this place. You’ve always thought those things. Diana said so. So if that’s what you came over to tell Jake the day after the wedding, then I’m not surprised he never told me.”
“It wasn’t,” said Marcus heatedly. “That’s not what I said.”
“I notice you’re not denying that it’s what you thought.”
“What did Jake actually tell you, Abby?” he demanded, stepping in closer to her. “Not what Thelonious said after the fact. Not what Diana told Clarke, for whatever reasons of her own she might have. Not what you filled in later, from assumptions. That day. The day of the wedding. What do you remember?”
Abby paused for a moment, thrown slightly off-kilter by the question, and surprised herself by taking it seriously, thinking back over the events of the day to see if she could find anything new in them.
“He didn’t tell me anything about the first fight,” she said finally, “if that’s what you’re asking. I didn’t even know anything was wrong until the reception. I could tell you were drunk, even during the ceremony, and you seemed . . . sad, I think; but I didn’t realize it was anything to do with me. Not until after. Jake didn’t tell me very much, he was too upset, but there’s one thing I never forgot.”
“What was that?”
“You told him you would give up everything you had, everything that mattered to you - your family, Callie, the farm, your livelihood, all of it - for the power to go back and stop this wedding from happening.” She swallowed hard. “I thought it was just talk, I thought you were just being drunk and stupid and mean,” she whispered. “I didn’t know you meant it.”
His averted gaze and echoing silence brutally extinguished the tiny flicker of hope in Abby’s heart that this new Marcus - this warmer, softened version of him, this quiet and thoughtful man she was beginning to think might be worth trusting, even liking - might somehow have been able to offer her an explanation for the one unexplained mystery of her entire life. Surely this Marcus, the one who gave Abby a library and Clarke a Christmas Ball, would never have said that.
Surely, this was a mistake.
But he wasn’t denying it. He’d forced her to say it out loud, just so he could confirm that it was all true.
“Fine,” she snapped, tears stinging her eyes. “So, what? You hate me so much that you couldn’t resist the pleasure of forcing me to relive it? Like I haven’t been doing that to myself for the past twenty-five years?”
“You’re doing it again!” he exclaimed, voice hot with fury, taking another step closer to her. “Jesus, you don’t listen, you’re just projecting things you think you remember, you’ve already written the story in your head but I’m trying to tell you -”
“I can’t do this right now, Marcus,” she cut him off wearily, moving away from him to leave the way she’d come. “It’s late, I’m freezing, I’m so tired, and I still have enough self-respect to stop myself from making a scene to try and ruin your wedding the way you ruined mine. You win, okay? If it’s this important to you to rattle off all the reasons why I’m a terrible person who probably made Jake a terrible wife, just like you always predicted I would, I’m sure Diana will enjoy hearing all of it later on your wedding night.”
She turned to make her way back around the veranda, but he was faster than she was, and less cautious about keeping his feet clear of the snow. He cut her off in three long strides as she rounded the corner towards the chimney and seized the folds of her blanket in his hands again, something urgent and desperate on his face. She was trapped, now, between himself and the smooth, round log walls of the lodge’s exterior which she could feel pressing into her back, cold seeping into her bones through the thin red satin of her gown.
She shivered, but there was more to it than only the cold.
“You were always supposed to be the smart one,” he hissed in frustration.
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
“It means think, Abby!” he snapped. “You know I don’t hate you. I never did. Not then, and not now. I couldn’t. You know that’s not what it was. You always knew that answer never felt right. That’s not what Jake told you, because it’s not what I said.”
“Then what -” she began, but her voice died out when he moved another step in towards her, so close she could feel the shock of his body meeting hers. His thigh against her thigh. His hands brushing her waist.
“He told you the truth about one part, at least,” he confessed. “I would have given up everything. I did say that. I meant it. But you got it all wrong, Abby. All these years, you thought it was because I hated you."
“It was. It had to have been.”
“Are you sure?” he murmured roughly, his breath hot against her skin. “Are you sure you can’t think of a single other reason why I wouldn't want you to be Jake Griffin's wife?”
The moment those words landed in her ears, time stopped.
The whole world went silent, from the stars over their heads to the low call of tree owls to the sound of their own breathing. Everything was frozen and still. Except for Abby’s mind, which was spinning wildly.
He cannot possibly mean what it sounds like he means, a sane, clear voice in her head cautioned her. This cannot possibly be true.
She looked up at him, then, and that was a mistake, because once his warm, sad brown eyes had met her own, she found she couldn’t look away.
“Tell me what you said to Jake, the day after the wedding,” she breathed, heart pounding. “Tell me what you said to him, that you wouldn’t say to me.”
The ghost of a smile tugged at one corner of his full pink lips – lips she’d never noticed before in her life, but now suddenly could not stop thinking about – but it never reached his eyes.
“Abby,” he reproached her gently. “You already know.”
“Pretend I don’t,” she whispered recklessly, “and say it anyway.”
He shook his head. “It’s all too complicated now,” he said wearily. “Too much time has passed. Too many losses. I can’t.” He stepped back from her then, reluctant, heavy with something that looked like grief, the lonely Marcus she’d first met when she walked through the walls of the inn, weighted by burdens and cares. “I should have just let you go on thinking what you thought before,” he muttered, as he turned to go. “Maybe it was better that way.”
“Marcus, wait,” she exclaimed, reaching out impulsively for his hand, and then all the air was shocked out of her lungs as the simple touch seemed to somehow flip a switch inside him. He whirled around, backing her up against the icy round curves of the lodge’s log-built walls, the weight of his powerful body warm against hers, and gripped her hand in his own as the other one lifted to cradle her cheek.
Oh, she thought, as the pieces clicked into place. This. This was here all along, and I never knew.
She watched it happen in slow motion, heart reverberating in her chest like a drum. He leaned in towards her. He closed his eyes. He parted his lips. He bent his head to meet hers.
Please, Abby thought, surprised at herself, at the waves of yearning and need emanating from her body and drawing him in, her hands gripping frantically at the lapels of his wool coat. Oh, please. Please. Kiss me.
And in another fraction of a fraction of a second he would have, but for a sound that sliced through the moment and severed the connection between them as brutally as a shard of broken glass.
“Marcus! Honey, are you up here?” chirped the sharp, irritated voice of Diana Sydney, perfectly audible even all the way on the other side of the roof.
Bodies pressed together in the shadow of the chimney, Marcus and Abby both went suddenly still.
“I asked you before,” she murmured, in a low voice, “if you knew what you wanted. Do you know yet?”
Marcus closed his eyes and let his forehead rest, just for a moment, against hers, his hand still warm against her cheek. “I’ve always known,” he said softly. “But I could never have it.”
“What if you could?”
“It’s too late,” he said again. “It’s not your fault. It was too late before you ever came back to Arkadia.”
“Marcus,” she whispered, heart pounding, reaching out for him as he slowly pulled away. “Marcus, no. Please.”
“I have to talk to her, Abby.”
“What are you going to say?”
“I don’t know.”
“Are you still going to marry her?”
Marcus looked away. “I gave her a ring,” he said. “I made a promise.”
“Marcus, you can’t marry someone else if you . . . if there’s . . . I mean . . . if she’s not the person you really want.”
“I can,” he said sadly. “I did it once before.”
“Marcus, please don’t do this.”
“I don’t deserve you,” he said in a dull, heavy voice. “What I did was unforgivable. Everything that’s broken between us, everything that was broken between me and Jake, between you and Callie, between you and everyone else in this town . . . I broke it, Abby. Me. I did that. Everything that went wrong in your life, I’m the reason. Even losing Jake.”
“Marcus, don’t you dare -"
“Because if you hadn’t hated me so much, you might have come home earlier, and then he would never -”
“Stop it. Marcus, please don’t do this.”
“In my whole life,” he said softly, lifting one hand to brush a stray curl back from her face, “I have never wanted anything the way I want to kiss you right now. You’re the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”
“Goodbye, Abby,” he said, and finally pulled away from her, making his way back around the veranda to where his soon-to-be wife was waiting.
“What were you doing up here all by yourself?” Abby heard Diana say as their voices faded away, and then she was alone again in the cold silence.
For a long, long time, she just stood there, between the chimney and the wall, like a shadow, like a ghost. She stared down the hill, through the gaps between the black trees, to the little hollow in the valley where the lights of Arkadia were just visible. Here, a lamppost twinkling candy cane red-and-white striped, there a house bedecked with icicles. Behind them, amber light spilling out of the belfry, the warm glow of the church.
The church where Jake was buried.
Five minutes later - after slipping down the back stairs, pulling one of Bellamy’s coats off the rack in the mud room and kicking off her satin pumps to step into a pair of Indra’s snow boots - she was out the door.
Chapter 12: December 24th, Part III: The Plot
10:40 PM: EIGHTY MINUTES TO THE WEDDING
“For the tenth time, slow down!” exclaimed Clarke, burying her face in her hands, taut with exasperation, as the pair of bickering dark-haired siblings in front of her continued to interrupt each other. Both Blakes were so stubborn, and were speaking so loudly and rapidly, that they rendered one another completely unintelligible, and Clarke had only been able to catch snippets of the story. “Octavia, I love you, shut up for a second. Let him tell it. You weren’t there.”
"Yeah, you weren't there!"
“You shut up too,” Clarke admonished him sternly. “She’s trying to help. Everyone just . . . . take a deep breath, okay? Go back to the phone call, Bellamy, and tell me exactly what you heard.”
“The guy said he’s working with Diana,” Octavia cut in immediately, causing her brother to whirl on her with a furious expression.
“Octavia!” Clarke snapped, “what did I just say?”
Grumpily, Octavia retreated back into sulky silence, while Bellamy attempted to regain his train of thought, and Clarke rubbed her suddenly-aching temples, desperately willing away the stress headache she really, really did not have time for right now.
“One more time,” she sighed. “O, I will duct-tape your mouth shut. Bellamy, start again. And if there’s anything like whiskey in that minibar, one of you hand it over. I was already at the end of my tether before you dragged me in here.”
Octavia glowered darkly, but she bit her tongue, and tossed a mini bottle of Jameson across the room, which Clarke caught neatly and downed in one bitter swallow.
They had been at this for what felt like forever, and she still didn’t feel any closer to the truth. It had taken the Blakes much longer than expected, after returning to the inn, to successfully shake off Jasper and Monty, who had been beside themselves with excitement to help solve a mystery, but were both far too stoned to be of any use whatsoever. Eventually, their debate over which of them should be Shaggy and which should be Scooby-Doo - and their hysterical giggling after they decided that Bellamy was Velma - grew so intense that they forgot why they’d actually started it in the first place, allowing Octavia (who Jasper and Monty had agreed was Fred) and her brother to slip away and go find Clarke.
But if dodging a pair of enthusiastic but completely unhelpful stoners was the first hurdle, she was the second. It had never occurred to either sibling that Clarke might be reluctant to help, and they were as shocked at her sudden change of heart (“I don’t want to talk about Marcus Kane or look at Marcus Kane or think about Marcus Kane ever again, I have no interest in saving him from anything, they’re both rotten people and I hope they make each other miserable for the rest of their lives”) as they were protective of the man they considered both boss and friend. And only an obstacle as immovable as a furious Clarke Griffin could possibly distract them from the urgent business at hand, so before they could tell her their story, they first had to get her story.
It took less time, and went more smoothly, since there was only one of her with no sibling to interrupt, but her anger made them both uncomfortable and sad. “She must have been lying,” suggested Octavia, and “Marcus would never,” insisted Bellamy, but Clarke was neither appeased nor convinced. Diana’s words had been ugly, and cruel, and deliberate, but in her heart she knew that they were also true.
Eventually, however, discussion of Diana’s many terrible qualities circled Bellamy back around to the reason they’d come looking for Clarke in the first place, and as expected, the promise of a possible chance to destroy the woman had proven successful. Clarke was not particularly interested right now in doing Marcus Kane any favors, but she was more than happy to help catch Diana in the middle of doing something shady and then throwing it in her future husband’s face.
Besides, she wasn’t about to let Bellamy and Octavia hatch a scheme without her. (As a child, she had been both Daphne and Velma for different Halloweens.)
They had dragged her upstairs to her bedroom, the only place they could think of where no volunteers or catering staff would barge in to interrupt, and where there was the least chance of running into Kane or Diana. Bellamy was a little worried about Abby - both Griffins had keys to each other’s rooms, and he was comfortable neither with lying to Clarke’s mom, nor confessing to all the uncomfortably personal things about her life and her past and her wedding, and maybe even her heart, that all of them now knew. But no, Clarke promised, she was safe in the library, she was all right for now, so at least for a little while, they were free to talk.
(She did not tell Bellamy and Octavia she would be spending the rest of Christmas Eve packing. She did not tell them this was their last night together. She wanted to stay as long as she could inside this anger and frustration, because the anger kept her from feeling sad, and if she thought too hard about never seeing the Blakes again, she was not sure she would be able to get back in that moving truck tomorrow without bursting into tears.)
So here they were, sequestered in Clarke’s room, tiny bottles from the minibar now appearing in everyone’s hands. Clarke, still in her event coordinator finery - a midnight blue velvet cocktail dress with a glittery silver cardigan - was curled up in the armchair by the fire, barefoot, legs tucked neatly beneath her skirts. Bellamy had taken the desk chair by the window, where he sat leaning forward, all long limbs and sharp angles and intense focus, elbows resting on his knees. Octavia, predictably, was too restless to sit still, pacing irritably around the perimeter of the huge four-poster bed.
Bellamy had, as requested, gone back to the beginning. “He didn’t specifically say he was working with Diana,” he corrected his sister. “And he didn’t actually give a last name, so there is still some chance maybe it’s a different person. But I definitely heard the name Diana. I’m sure of that. That’s what caught my attention.”
“Let’s start by assuming it’s her,” said Clarke reasonably, “since if it’s not, none of this matters anyway. What else did you hear? Specific words, if you can.”
Octavia paced some more, vibrating out of her skin with frustration, as Bellamy took a long pause to go back over the conversation in his head. "He was definitely talking about selling something,” he finally said. “Something going up for sale, or a sale going through. And he needed a signature."
“‘The window is closing,’” Octavia reminded her brother briskly. “That’s what you said he said. You told me in the car."
“Right. ‘The window is closing.’”
"Okay, so whatever this sale is, it has a deadline," said Clarke. "That helps. Diana is in real estate, it may be one of the deals she's working on now. Last time we were forced to have dinner with her she was going on and on about some local chain of supermarkets, but honestly I wasn't really listening. She has a website, though, do you want me to check?"
Bellamy shook his head. "The whole thing felt so . . . cloak-and-dagger," he said, leaning back in his seat and running a hand through his messy curls. "I have a hard time believing he was talking about something so public it would be on Arkadia Realty's website."
"People buy and sell property through shell companies all the time," suggested Octavia, who watched a lot of lawyer shows, "so you don't always know who you're doing a deal with."
"Which means it would really help if we could figure out who this guy was. Bell, did he say anything at all that might help us narrow it down?"
“He mentioned his mom,” Bellamy remembered suddenly. “He’s in business with his mom. Or . . . . Diana’s in business with his mom. Or the mom’s the one selling something. Something about moms.”
“Something about moms?” exclaimed his sister. “That’s all you have?”
“Well, excuse me for not being an FBI agent -”
“You wouldn’t have to be an FBI agent if you'd let me go with Charmaine in the first place while you stayed here to unload and set up the trays, like it said on the staff assignments spreadsheet -”
“Don’t start with me again, I already got ten rounds of this in the car -”
“ . . . but nooooooooo, you had to go hide from Clarke in case she made you do a job where you had to put a tie on, which is the only reason we’re in this mess to begin with, because I’m a better spy than you. If it had been me in the diner, we'd have put all the pieces together by now."
"If it had been you in the diner, we would have absolutely nothing," said her brother sternly, "because you aren't an idiot, O, and I raised you to be smart enough not to open a locked door to a man you don’t know when you’re alone late at night in an empty building."
This, of course, was hard to deny.
Octavia did not give him the satisfaction of conceding, but was forced, deep within her heart, to grudgingly admit that he might have a point. She roasted him without ceasing for his overprotectiveness, but it was true that she could not really see herself having let the man in unless Charmaine was still within shouting distance. Only Bellamy was dumb and brave and male enough to have unlocked that door, which meant she couldn't really be that mad at him.
(Though she could still be envious that he'd gotten all the fun of eavesdropping when he was clearly so bad at it.)
"Anyway," said Clarke pointedly, dragging the siblings back on topic. "If we assume this guy, and/or his mother, are somehow working with Diana, then they'd have to be in real estate too, right?"
“There are only two people at Arkadia Realty besides Diana, and they’re both really old men,” said Bellamy. “Whoever this guy was, I’d never seen him before.”
"He wouldn't have to be in real estate to be working with Diana," Octavia pointed out. "He could be the client. All kinds of people buy buildings. He could be anyone, from anywhere. He could be a restauranteur from Denver. He could be a golf club owner from Florida. And if he's a client, it'll be nearly impossible to find him.”
“And we can’t just go wandering around downstairs among two hundred guests asking every woman over fifty if she has a son who wears suits with a man bun,” Bellamy added.
Octavia flopped down dramatically onto the bed. “See, that you remember,” she complained.
“It was a vivid detail. We don’t get a lot of man buns in Arkadia. But I don’t think he can be from Florida or Denver or wherever, O, because he said something about leaving his charger at the office.”
“What?” Octavia exclaimed, sitting back up again. “Well, why didn’t you say that before?”
“Because I only just remembered.”
“Okay, this is good,” said Clarke, interjecting hastily before the Blakes began bickering again. “Let’s reason this out. We know he's not from here, or Bellamy would have recognized him. And wherever he works, it's far enough from here that it was faster to walk up and down Main Street looking for a pay phone than to drive back and get his phone charger. But it's close enough that he can't actually be an out-of-towner, or else he'd be staying here at the inn; there aren't any other hotels in town. No, he was driving through downtown Arkadia, and his phone died, and he had to make a call. At nine o’clock at night, too. That's important. It was something that couldn't wait until the 26th, which is the next business day. It was something that had to happen tonight." She pulled out her phone and began tapping away.
"What are you doing?"
"How is that gonna help?"
"I want to see if I can figure out who this guy is."
"What, you're just gonna search 'Arkadia, land sales, man buns?'" asked Octavia doubtfully.
“No,” said Clarke, without looking up, “I tried ‘Vermont’ + ‘real estate’ + ‘and son.’ And I think I found him.” She held out her phone to Bellamy. “Was this the guy?”
“Holy crap,” Bellamy exclaimed, grabbing the phone from her hands and zooming in on the photograph of an elegant, silver-haired woman in a crisp white suit posed coolly behind a glass boardroom table, the man from the diner seated at her right hand. "Yeah, that's him, all right."
"Let me see," demanded Octavia, peering over her brother's shoulder and tapping on the screen. "Frost and Sons, commercial real estate. They're in Azgeda, that's like an hour and a half from here. Good work, Clarke."
"So now we know what the mom looks like, too," said Bellamy. "And that she'll be here tonight. Or she's here already. That's something, at least. We could follow her around and see if she says anything important to Diana. But we still don't know what they want."
"At a guess," said Octavia, who was still scrolling, "I think they want to hire Diana. Their website is listing job openings for an office manager in Los Angeles."
"They must be opening up an office there," her brother suggested. "Maybe that's why she's been so pushy to get Kane to move there, specifically. Because she had a job lined up."
"But why wouldn't she just say that? He would have been happy for her. Hell, she probably could have gotten him out there sooner if she'd told him she had an offer she couldn't say no to."
"Because she couldn't tell him what she had to do to get the job," Clarke said suddenly, rising from her seat, realization dawning in her eyes. Bellamy and Octavia stared at her. "I don't think she had a job offer. I think she had an audition. And I bet I know exactly what it was."
Everything was right there in front of her, suddenly. She thought about the inexplicably hasty Christmas wedding, and Diana’s resentment of her mother, and Marcus singing “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” and Vera borrowing money to fix the roof without telling anyone, and the very first conversation she had ever had with Bellamy and Octavia, and piece by piece began to click into place.
It all made sense. But could it possibly be true?
Could Diana really, truly be that heartless? Whatever waited for her in Los Angeles, was it worth pulling the trigger on what must have been her absolute last resort - the plan that would destroy any affection Kane might have for her, forever?
Clarke ought to feel smug, at this, she thought. He’d ruined her own parents’ wedding, hadn’t he, with his own selfishness? So this was karma, coming back to bite him in the ass. Blowing his chance with the woman he cared about - the woman he must care about still, or he wouldn’t be so miserable - only to lose the woman he was settling for, in an absolutely shattering act of betrayal.
She should walk away, right now, and let it happen.
She should send the Blakes away, and pack her bags, and go back to Boston tomorrow, and leave Marcus Kane to his sorry fate.
She looked over at Bellamy, seated at the desk, and her eye was caught by the clean, elegant lines of the carved wooden clock on the wall behind him, framing his head like a mahogany halo, and she suddenly, inexplicably, found herself thinking of Callie Cartwig.
Callie, who had loved this place, and from whom everything good within these walls had flowed. Callie, who had turned Eden Tree Lodge into a landmark, whose spirit had wakened and revived something in the whole town.
Callie, who had died first, and left Marcus hollow, like all the soul had been drained out of him.
Callie, the one and only person in this whole twenty-five-year-old tragedy who had not done a single thing wrong.
Come on, Clarke, whispered a stubborn voice in her head. What would Callie Cartwig do?
“Bellamy,” she finally said, voice low and urgent. “Think, as hard as you can. Is there any chance he said anything - anything at all - about a contract?"
Bellamy’s head snapped up. “Oh,” he said, realizing. “Yeah, actually. He did. That was what he needed the signature for. And then the other person said something, and he laughed and made a joke that they didn't have to worry about it because they weren't marriage counselors, so it wasn’t their problem, or something.”
“Let me guess,” said Clarke. “He only needed one signature for the contract.”
Bellamy stared. “Yeah,” he said, astonished. “That’s exactly what he said.”
“Wait, how the hell do you know that?” Octavia demanded. “Do you know what it is?”
“I know exactly what it is,” said Clarke grimly, rising from her chair and slipping her shoes back on. “Marcus told me himself.”
“Told you what?”
“Come on,” she said, ignoring Octavia’s interruption for the moment. “If this is about what I think it’s about, Diana might not have the contract in her hands yet, which means we have to find it before she does. Bellamy, you’re going to have to break into his apartment. Octavia, you take the office. We’re looking for any papers you can find that belonged to Vera Kane.”
“To Vera?” Bellamy repeated blankly. “What does this have to do with her?”
“Once before,” Clarke explained, “someone tried to steal this place right out from under her. They failed, because Marcus caught them in time. But if I'm right, tonight they're going to try it again. And they've hired Diana Sydney to help them do it."
“Vera drafted an addendum to the deed to the inn,” said Clarke. “It granted half ownership to Callie, in case Marcus died first. Vera signed it, but Marcus and Callie didn’t. And right now the whole fate of Eden Tree Farm is resting on a really sweet old lady with very little business savvy who thought the best of everyone, and whether or not it ever occurred to her that her son might get married again.”
Octavia got there first, staring at Clarke with her mouth gaping open.
“No,” she whispered. “Clarke, no, it can’t . . . that couldn’t possibly be legally binding, can it?”
“It was binding enough to stop the sale the first time,” she said. “So there’s every chance it’s binding enough this time to force the sale through.”
“What are you talking about?” Bellamy demanded.
“I’m talking,” said Clarke, “about that second blank signature line on Vera Kane’s deed, and whether it said ‘Callie Cartwig’ . . . or ‘Wife of Marcus Kane.’”
It hung there between them for a moment, as they stood staring at each other, the bustle of the Christmas Ball filtering up from below, muffled by the thick carpets underneath their feet.
“I might be wrong,” Clarke finally said.
Bellamy shook his head firmly. “I think we all know you’re not.”
“So we have to find that piece of paper,” said Octavia. “Or Kane is absolutely, permanently, irrevocably screwed, and so are all the rest of us.”
“Yep,” said Clarke. “Which is why I have to do the one thing I absolutely, positively, promised my mother I wouldn’t do.” Ignoring the siblings’ puzzled looks, she pushed past Octavia to the minibar, took out another bottle of Jameson, polished it off in one gulp, then opened the door. “Okay,” she ordered them. “Bellamy, apartment. Octavia, office.”
“And you?” Octavia asked. “What are you going to do?”
"I can't believe, given the night I've already had, that I'm about to say this," Clarke answered her grimly. "But I have to go ruin a wedding."
11:10 PM: FIFTY MINUTES TO THE WEDDING
The moment he stepped from the heightened unreality of that moonlit rooftop and returned to the solid, prosaic normalcy of the hallways he had walked all his life, Marcus began to experience a very peculiar sensation.
It felt to him, somehow, as though he were waking up from a dream, but in reverse . . . as though all the mundane, workaday routines of his life, the things he had held onto for years as irrevocable truths, had suddenly been revealed as works of elaborate fantasy. The frozen pipes and budget spreadsheets, the claustrophobic smallness of what he had come to see as his life, none of that was real.
Nothing was real except that small, pale figure in red satin, standing in the shadows and the snow, staring at him with unsettling directness until his most deeply-buried truth finally burst forth into the life, as grief and anger and desire collided within him so forcefully that he no longer knew which was which.
Inside the lodge, things were calm and tidy and he knew exactly who he was. There was a life in front of him, if he chose to say yes to it, where he would never have to doubt anything again. Diana was sure enough for the both of them. They would stay here, and he would go back to the beginning and repeat his whole life again - married to a woman he cared for very much, who would help him keep the inn running. He would be Vera Kane’s diligent, steady, practical son, the man who never asked for anything for himself . . . except for once, when it had backfired so horribly that he lost everything in the world that mattered.
He paused for a moment on the stairs, listening to the heavy thud of the wooden door swinging closed behind him.
Outside the lodge - back there, on that moonlit, snow-covered roof - nothing was calm and tidy, and he had no idea who he was. He had very nearly kissed Abby Griffin, an act which had shocked him so badly that he had felt, at first, only relief to be interrupted by Diana, dragged back into a life which had little joy but was, at least, familiar. She was still out there, alone, and he did not have the faintest idea what she wanted or what she was thinking.
Diana meant order and stability, a straight clear road he could see down all the way to the end. Rows and rows of evergreen trees marching in perfect symmetry down a sloping white hill.
Abby was a forest, tangled and unyielding, where he could not see further ahead down the path than his own feet, and he had no idea what was waiting at the end of it.
Yet somehow, against all probability, he knew it was the straight, clear, easy road that wasn’t real. Diana was the dream from which he was finally waking, rising up out of the darkness of sleep and shedding layer upon layer upon layer of illusion until he finally opened his eyes, and looked around him, and saw clearly.
Callie used to read to Vera on winter nights from her favorite play, W.H. Auden’s For the Time Being, an odd postwar retelling - in rhyming verse - of the birth of Jesus. They’d even done a staged reading of it once, in the ballroom, with actors borrowed from all the churches in town. (She’d threatened, laughingly, to make Marcus play Joseph again, but he refused. Unlike in the children’s pageant, this Joseph had lines.)
He paused, there, on the landing, watching Diana’s slender form briskly descending the staircase, for the moment not noticing that he had not followed her, and he heard Callie’s bright, clear voice in the back of his mind, reading to Vera that bit from the prologue which had always been her favorite part of the play, where the narrator explains to the audience how Christ’s birth into the human world suddenly interrupted the whole of human existence, dividing all of history forever into a Before and an After.
“Just how, just when It succeeded, we shall never know;
We can only say that now It is there and that nothing
We learned before It was there is now of the slightest use,
For nothing like It has happened before. It’s as if
We had left our house for five minutes to mail a letter,
And during that time the living room had changed places
With the room behind the mirror over the fireplace.”
In his whole life, nothing had ever made more sense to him.
He admired Diana for a long moment - the elegant sweep of her blonde hair, the sharp angles of her shoulders and back - but she suddenly looked so odd in this place, so unnatural, so very clearly - now that he was looking at her properly - the thing that was not quite real. Her impeccably-manicured scarlet nails tap-tap-tapping against the warm, honey-gold finish of the pine banister worn smooth as glass by so many years of human hands. The serpentine glimmer of green sequins on her dress, refracting the dim light of ancient brass lamps. The lethal spike of those silver heels, designed to click elegantly across hardwood and marble floors, unnaturally muffled by the soft, faded, comfortable hallway carpets, rich with earthy browns and reds.
Looking at Diana inside his family’s inn was like seeing that sparkling Tiffany engagement ring hanging on a Christmas tree. Lovely to look at, and it would catch the light beautifully, but no question that someone had left it in the wrong place.
But hadn’t that been the appeal, of course, in the beginning? That she didn’t belong, which meant she was not tethered here? Diana had no roots in Arcadia, no foundation. The fact that she was from here made no difference. It seemed to live lightly on her, in a way that Marcus envied; what would it be like to feel that at any moment, you could just pick up and go? There had been a time when he ached for it, the thought of escaping to the other side of the country with a person leaving so little behind her in this town that she would probably never mention it again.
That was who Diana was. And Marcus had convinced himself that, in time, he could be that person too, and he had said it to himself so many times that he thought one day he might even believe it.
But all of that was a lie.
Diana was a dazzling emerald-cut diamond on a solid gold band, and Marcus was an unprepossessing circle of iron ornamented with nothing but the weight of his family’s history, and on the one hand, none of this was really about the wedding rings, but on the other hand, it was entirely about the wedding rings, because how could they look one another in the eye and place on the other’s hand a symbol of their relationship which screamed out so loudly that these two people did not belong together?
What in God’s name had he been thinking?
He hadn’t been, and that was the problem.
That had been his problem with women all his life.
He had tried very hard with Callie. He had wanted so badly to be a good man for her. And they had built, through hard work and brutal honesty and years of therapy and many tears, a kind of happiness he had hardly dared to imagine he deserved. But still, he had hurt her, he had been careless with her, he had taken her for granted, he had made her feel unwanted, he had destroyed her most cherished friendship, and the misery of that never truly went away.
And he had hurt Abby, too. He had hurt her on her wedding day, and he had done it again tonight, and the rest of his whole life would not be enough to atone for all the things in her life that he had broken with that ugly, selfish, thoughtless act.
“Marcus?” he heard Diana say impatiently, finally pausing halfway down the stairs and realizing he was not behind her. “Hurry up, darling, the minister is here, and we really ought to do the paperwork bit first.”
And now, he thought grimly, as he followed her, he was about to hurt someone else.
But this time, at least, he could do it with the knowledge that it was right. One honest, painful conversation, to prevent a lifetime of unhappiness. He’d been too cowardly to do this so many times before, in the past, but he was ready to be brave now. There was no glory in it - he would not win Abby this way, he did not deserve to be rewarded for this - but it had to be done anyway, for no other reason than that he was suddenly so desperately, miserably tired of the man he had been.
“Jesus fucking Christ, man, do something!” he heard Bellamy Blake’s voice in his mind, and then Abby’s - “What do you want, Marcus?”
Everyone had known but him. Everyone had seen what he, now, waking up from this dream, could now see. There was no one to blame but himself.
“Diana, stop,” he said firmly, reaching out to take her hand as they neared his office, so preoccupied that he did not notice the door left ajar, or the shadowy figure of Octavia Blake diving swiftly beneath his desk. “Come in, sit down for a minute. We need to talk.”
Chapter 13: December 24th, Part IV: The Wedding
The search of Marcus Kane’s apartment was brief, fruitless, and depressing.
It was all a question, really, of psychology, Bellamy thought. If this piece of paper had been deeply important to Kane, then of course he would be most likely to keep it up here, in his private sanctum, where staff and visitors never went, but Diana did, so she would surely have been likely to spot it lying around. But if it was something Kane had deemed completely unimportant - something he had given no thought to since the day his mother showed it to him - then it was far more likely that Octavia would turn it up, shoved into the back of a drawer somewhere.
The problem, of course, was that the less it mattered to Kane, the greater the odds he had no memory whatsoever of what it said, meaning he would have no idea how much trouble he was in.
Bellamy made a swift but thorough search of the kitchen and living area - nothing - and Kane’s neat-as-a-pin bedroom - also nothing, except that Bellamy was unsurprised to learn that his boss was the kind of incomprehensible person who actually made his own bed every day.
His phone buzzed, and he pulled it out of his pocket. Clarke was demanding an update.
BELLAMY <nothing yet>
BELLAMY <not much to see>
CLARKE <he’s lived in the same apartment his whole life>
CLARKE <everything he owns is up there>
BELLAMY <yeah, but that’s the problem>
BELLAMY <he doesn’t own very much>
It wasn’t until he typed the words out and hit send that it occurred to him to question, for the first time, how actually very strange it was that Marcus Kane’s family home was so impersonal, when he had never lived anywhere else.
Bellamy and Octavia had two dead parents, no money, and an apartment so tiny they’d each had to choose between either a double bed or a desk, since the bedrooms did not have room for both. (Bellamy slept with his feet hanging over the edge, so he had someplace to study. Octavia slept in comfort, and did her homework lying on the floor.) Neither of them were particularly sentimental, and they didn’t like frivolous clutter or hoarding. But still, every inch of the place was crammed full of their lives. Notes and birthday cards stuck to the fridge, with the collection of magnets Jasper bought them one Christmas that said “fuck” in seventy-two different languages. Framed photos on every flat surface - Bellamy in his cap and gown, shaking the dean’s hand and receiving his diploma; Octavia blowing out sixteen candles on a three-tiered birthday cake her brother had made himself. There were sweaters tossed casually over the backs of chairs, a teetering wall of books with no clear organizational system, a cupboard full of mismatched mugs that said things like “WORLD’S GREATEST GRANDPA” (Octavia’s gift to Bellamy) and “DON’T TALK TO ME” (Bellamy’s gift to Octavia). There were half-dead plants they kept meaning to water but didn’t, an old telescope Bellamy had bought for twelve dollars at a thrift store when he was in high school which they kept on the teeny tiny balcony barely large enough for a chair, a framed poster for Lincoln’s band from the first time Octavia ever saw him play. It wasn’t much, but it was their own, and from the minute you stepped across the threshold you’d know it.
But as Bellamy made his way through Kane’s rooms, opening drawers he had no business opening and closets he had no business peering into, he realized that if he had not known the man personally, he would have no idea what kind of person lived here. It felt almost deliberate; there were pale rectangles on walls where photos must have once hung, but no longer did, and a trunk at the foot of Kane’s bed which held some belongings of Vera’s (though no papers, unfortunately), but appeared to be generally kept locked.
It was when he entered the second bedroom, and found it full of cardboard boxes, that he got his answer
With a flicker of apprehension - this was an invasion of privacy Bellamy could not begin to justify, if he were caught red-handed in here - he opened first one box, then another, and felt his heart turn heavy and tight in his chest.
They were full of his wife’s clothes.
Marcus had been unable to continue sharing half a closet with Callie’s things, so he had packed them away, but he had also been unable to part with them, so he had simply boxed them up and put them in here and closed the door to this room.
Bellamy had begun by wondering about the contract in terms of its importance, but realized he had been approaching the whole question the wrong way round to begin with. Marcus Kane’s life was not divided into things that mattered and things that didn’t matter. The line of demarcation seemed, instead, to be a question of what he could bear to have near him, or not.
This was why the library had sat cold and empty all those years. This was why the tree ornaments lived down the hall in the storage closet and Marcus never touched them. This was the appeal of throwing in the towel and moving with Diana Sydney to L.A.
This was why he couldn’t stand Christmas.
But if he had a family again - if Abby could forgive him, if there was any possibility of love still there at all - then the Griffins would move in here, surely, and this would be Clarke’s room, and Abby would help him go through all the boxes - take them somewhere to donate, maybe, so all Callie’s nice things could make someone else happy - and they wouldn’t be here, like a black hole of grief hidden behind a wooden door, torturing him every time he passed by. Clarke and Abby would make his apartment a happy place again, like they did with the library, like they had done with the whole inn, the whole town, really, and Marcus would no longer be so miserably, desperately lonely that he wanted to run away.
So this plan had to work.
It just had to.
His phone buzzed again - Clarke, still impatient for news - and he fired off a quick reply.
BELLAMY <not here>
BELLAMY < i looked everywhere>
BELLAMY < coming back down to help O search the office>
BELLAMY <on my way>
He’d been careful, as he searched, to hide his tracks behind him, feeling guilty at this unexpectedly naked glimpse into the raw pain at the center of his friend’s life, and acutely aware that he’d discovered it uninvited. These had not been things Kane wanted him to know, which made it a kind of betrayal that Bellamy was here; and while, perhaps, if things went as planned, there would be an opportunity to confess it all later, once Kane was grateful to them for his rescue, it would spell doom for all of them if any traces of Bellamy’s snooping were discovered before then. So he lingered for one last moment, double-checking that he’d replaced everything as it should be, before quietly closing the living room door behind him and making his way down the small flight of stairs which connected the apartment to the rest of the lodge.
He was about to push open the hallway door when he froze in his tracks. Someone was coming.
Bellamy flattened himself against the wall, praying that whoever was passing by would not notice that the door was open a crack. There were no guest rooms in this part of the hall - they were all on the other side of the stairs - so he had not anticipated the risk of being caught on his way back out. But as the footsteps grew closer, he realized they were coming from the wrong direction.
Not a guest leaving their room, but someone coming down from the roof.
And not just someone, he realized, as he held his breath and watched a flash of emerald green pass by the gap where the door stood ajar.
And Kane was with her.
Bellamy waited, burning with impatience, as he watched Diana trot briskly along the hall and down the stairs, but Kane did not follow her. He stood for a long, long moment at the top of the staircase, watching Diana walk away, and there was such aching sadness in his dark eyes that Bellamy felt a hundred emotions all at once - guilt, for being a crappy friend and never really seeing how much Kane was holding inside; anger, at the cold and callous thing this woman was about to do to someone who had been trying so hard not to hurt her that he’d ended up hurting himself; and the faintest flicker of something that might, just maybe, be hope.
Because Marcus Kane was not looking at Diana Sydney with an expression of love, or desire, or even of resignation. He was not looking at her the way you look at someone you’re about to marry. He was looking at her the way you look at someone whose heart you’re about to break.
Which meant maybe, just maybe, there was a chance that everything would be okay.
But still. They needed to find that contract.
Where Octavia had gone wrong, she realized as she searched through Kane’s file cabinet, was in assuming that Eden Tree Lodge was organized, administratively, using any one cohesive system. It had been abundantly clear that Callie was the efficient managerial brain - Octavia could pick out her handwriting, neat and square and perfectly filling the white label of each file folder, markedly distinct from the spidery cursive which was so clearly Vera’s, or the bold sharp strokes she recognized as Kane’s - and the file drawers up until the year of her death were so impeccably organized it took only minutes to sort through them.
Everything after Callie’s death, however, was a mess.
Octavia had not actually known that things were this bad. Everyone’s paychecks arrived on time, and nothing dire had ever happened like the power being shut off or anything, and when they turned in their receipts they were reimbursed promptly, and all in all from the outside the office looked tidy enough. So she had always just assumed Marcus had everything under control. More accurately, she supposed, if she was being quite honest, it had never occurred to her that things might not be under control. Because it was Marcus, for God’s sake, Marcus the uptight and stubborn, Marcus the steady and resolute, Marcus who never seemed fazed by anything, never asked for anything, never once expressed the desire for help. But it was abundantly clear, she realized, staring down in despair at the three file drawers stuffed full of unsorted documents, that he was drowning, that he had not been able to bring himself to do anything about this, that somehow even organizing customer invoices into color-coded file folders the way Callie had always done it was so overwhelming to him that he had simply shoved everything in a drawer and forgotten about it.
Octavia felt a stab of guilt in her chest. For the first time, she saw everything as Marcus must see it - for the first time, she caught a glimpse of the vast ocean of emotional chaos that lived inside even something as mundane as an office filing system, fraught as it was with ghosts and memories - and she understood why Diana Sydney and Los Angeles and the possibility of escape had seemed so appealing to him.
She had never understood it before, because she could not imagine herself, in his position, wanting to leave this place behind. But then, she had not quite known until this moment how much he had been protecting her from.
The inn was in financial trouble, and Marcus had been bailing it out. He had been sacrificing everything. It was clear, in fact, that he was barely taking a salary. He made less per year than either Indra or Diyoza did. He had not wanted to be stuck with this place all alone, but he was, and he was keeping it afloat for everyone else but himself, to keep them employed and happy while he himself was miserable. No wonder he’d been tempted to simply walk away.
But then something had changed. The Griffins had come, and he’d woken back up again, and he’d taken on Clarke as a partner, and things were turning around. Clarke could fix this. Octavia was sure of it. If only they could stop Diana’s plan, and save the inn, and find a way to make things right again between Marcus and Abby so the Griffins would stay, everything would be all right. Clarke was as stubborn as Kane, and she was smart as shit, and even though she had her own ghosts, none of them lived in this building, which meant she could be the breath of fresh air Marcus needed.
Because he could not go on like this. Not anymore.
Her phone buzzed in her pocket, and she pulled it out of her pocket. Another check-in from an increasingly fidgety Clarke.
OCTAVIA <nothing yet>
OCTAVIA <it’s a real depressing mess down here tbh>
OCTAVIA <like nothing is organized at all>
CLARKE <so it COULD be in there>
OCTAVIA <i’m sure it is>
OCTAVIA < i just need more time>
CLARKE <it’s already 11:20>
OCTAVIA <yeah, my phone has a clock too>
OCTAVIA <i’m doing the best i can here>
CLARKE <k i’m going to try and stall if i can>
CLARKE < but i can’t find any of them>
CLARKE < no one’s seen mom or diana or kane>
OCTAVIA <wait hang on hang on>
OCTAVIA <clarke clarke clarke>
OCTAVIA <i found it>
OCTAVIA <I FOUND IT>
CLARKE <wait for real>
CLARKE <for real???????>
CLARKE <the addendum to the lease with the signature lines on it?>
CLARKE <is it signed?>
CLARKE <are we too late??>
OCTAVIA <shit shit shit>
But Octavia had set her phone down on the desk, staring in horror at the final page of Vera Kane’s lease addendum, ignoring the flurry of messages from first Clarke, then Clarke and Bellamy, buzzing one after the other after the other.
Vera had done this on her own, without wanting to bother her son, but she didn’t have any kind of legal expertise, and she probably hadn’t wanted to bother Thelonious Jaha with it - whether because it seemed minor, or whether because she thought he’d make her consult Marcus on it, and Marcus would have discarded the whole thing. No, she had done this herself, and brought it to him and Callie to sign, but she had wanted it to be proper and correct, she had wanted to make sure she did this right, so Callie was taken care of.
So she had done what so many other people do, and simply downloaded a form from the internet.
Octavia was no lawyer, but she could tell this was all boilerplate language, full of blank spaces where Vera had handwritten things in herself - dates, addresses, her initials - and it occurred to Octavia how insane it all was that the inn’s fate hinged on the fact that Vera clearly had no idea how to edit a PDF. She’d just printed it out, and written things on it, and because she’d signed it herself and all the handwriting matched, it was clear enough that Jaha could defend it in court.
Because all Jaha had been trying to prove, that first time, was Vera Kane’s intent.
But if Marcus Kane said “I do” to Diana Sydney, and Diana Sydney got her hands on this document, they were well and truly fucked, because Clarke’s fears about the other two blank spaces on the last page were right.
One said “PRIMARY SIGNATORY (inheritor).”
The other said “SECONDARY SIGNATORY (inheritor’s spouse).”
So distracted was she by the swirl of thoughts in her head that she did not see any of Clarke’s increasingly frenzied demands for more information, or her brother’s repeated warnings that Kane and Diana were coming down the stairs and would pass by the wide-open office door on their way to the ballroom, which is why she did not realize what kind of danger she was in until she heard the swift click-clack of stilettos on hardwood, and realized she had no way out.
If she bolted now, she would run right into them. If they walked past, they would see the door ajar, and Octavia standing there with the contract in her hands.
There was no time.
She grabbed the contract, turned off her phone, and dove under the desk just as Kane’s voice sounded in the hallway.
“What is there to talk about, darling?” said Diana, her light tone revealing a core of steel, which made Marcus wince a little.
So she was not, after all, going to make this easy on him.
Well, that was no more than he deserved. Best to just get on with it.
“I’d rather not do this in the hallway, Diana,” he said tightly. “Come inside.”
“We have to be in the ballroom in ten minutes,” she replied evenly. “Don’t be silly. There’s nothing we have to discuss that can’t wait until after the wedding.”
Marcus stared at her blankly for a long moment, utterly dumbstruck by her words, and for the first time a sensation of something like apprehension skittered up and down his spine.
Something here wasn’t right.
“Diana,” he said, pulling open the office door. “None of this can wait until after the wedding. The wedding is the whole point.”
“Darling, I really don’t -”
“We haven’t had one single real conversation about this wedding, Diana,” he said finally, silencing her. “Or about our marriage. About what our life together would be like. And that’s on me, too, that I didn’t do this sooner, I could feel you pulling this along with all your might and I’ve been letting you. We’ve both been trying to avoid this conversation for far too long. You’ve been ducking my calls or trying to distract me or change the subject, and I’ve been . . . well, I’ve been a lot of things. Weak-willed, indecisive. Afraid to make a hard choice. Afraid to be brave. But I just don’t think we can put off saying these things out loud any longer.”
Diana looked at Marcus, his hand on the doorknob, about to open the door into his inner sanctum, the place where he felt comfortable and safe and would always have the upper hand, and once he was inside it, once he was alone with her, she knew exactly what he would say.
But the threat of a public spectacle was a powerful motivator for a man as introverted as Marcus Kane, and desperation made Diana perhaps more stubborn than wise.
“There will be plenty of time for all of that later,” she said, taking his hand firmly in her own, and half-leading, half-dragging him down the hallway toward the bustling ballroom.
Marcus, annoyed, and with his sense of alarm ever increasing, tugged his hand away, but since it did not stop her in her tracks, he was obligated to follow.
“No,” he said. “We need to talk about this now.”
Diana opted to deal with this new, stubborn insistence in his tone by simply ignoring it, sailing through the vast double doorway and into the ballroom, which was teeming with people.
Clarke’s plans had gone off without a hitch. At just shy of thirty minutes to midnight, the Christmas Ball was in full swing, and with the promise of a midnight wedding, the energy in the room was festive chaos. The late-night feast, which Charmaine and Bellamy had driven into town to pick up, was laid out on the buffet tables, and as Lincoln played a jazzy “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” Marcus could see almost every single person he had ever known in his whole life, either carving themselves a slice of cranberry-glazed pork tenderloin, or dancing with gleeful abandon, or seated at one of the many tables around the dance floor, sipping champagne and enjoying the merriment.
And he was about to ruin all of it.
This is hell, thought Marcus dimly, as he followed Diana, who was currently making a beeline for the table in the corner where the county judge (Diana had seen no need for a church wedding) stood beside a small table with what appeared to be a pair of marriage certificates on it.
I am in hell.
He caught up with her halfway between the dessert station and the champagne bar, reaching out to seize her hand and stop her in her tracks. It must have looked odd. He didn’t care.
“Diana,” he hissed, in as discreet a whisper as he could muster. “Stop this. There’s not going to be a wedding.”
A brief, almost imperceptible tug-of-war followed this, as he attempted to pull her away from the crowd, to the more sparsely-populated area against the wall, and she held firm, the dance floor just a few feet behind her, the crowd swirling around them.
“If we don’t do it tonight,” she said, a little desperately, “we’ll never do it,” and suddenly he saw real fear in her eyes, and it was the first thing she had said to him all night which sounded completely sincere.
“I know,” he said quietly, softening. “I’m sorry. But I can’t -”
“Anyway, this is silly,” she interrupted him, and just like that, the wall of ice came crashing back down again. She gave his hand another tug, as if to pull him back toward her. “You’re being absurd, Marcus. I can’t imagine where this is coming from. We were perfectly happy before . . . . all of this, and we will be again.”
She did not specify all of what, but she did not need to.
He wondered if Abby was still sitting up there, alone on the roof, staring out into the quiet night sky.
The thought of her strengthened his resolve, and he temporarily won the tug-of-war, pulling Diana just ever so slightly away from the dance floor and towards the wall, becoming painfully aware of the fact that people were beginning to stare.
“I care about you very much, Diana,” he began gently, trying very hard to be patient, trying to be kind. “But I think we both know it’s better for both of us to be on our own than to be married to someone we aren’t truly in love with. In the long run, this isn’t going to make either of us happy.”
“Don’t be silly,” said Diana firmly, seizing his hands again with a fiercely tenacious grip, holding tight even as he struggled to tactfully extricate himself. “Marcus, people can learn to love each other. I always knew this wasn’t some silly Hollywood love story. I went into this with my eyes open, and so did you. We both knew what this was. I knew what I was saying yes to, when you asked me.”
“Diana,” Marcus cut her off, exasperated. “I never actually asked you.”
This was where everything went wrong.
It was one of those moments where a series of coincidences all crash into each other at once. Lincoln had just finished the song, but lingered a few extra show-off-y notes longer, creating a heartbeat of silence before the applause. Conversation from the crowd around them just happened to hit one of those natural lulls that occur at large parties from time to time. And Marcus, weary and impatient with nerves beginning to fray, had retorted just a little bit more loudly than he meant.
All these factors, taken together, combined to create one of those particular acoustical nightmares where the one remark you hoped wouldn’t be overheard suddenly lands explosively in the middle of a silence, and it’s impossible to pretend that everyone didn’t hear it.
Diana recovered first, and Marcus watched with a kind of dispassionate astonishment as her lifelong genius for theatrics switched itself back on. A discreet step or two towards the wall, and suddenly she had opened up her angle of sight, allowing her to perform to the room without appearing to be doing so. It was quite subtly done. He was almost impressed. She began with a breezy, nonchalant laugh, inviting the crowd to join her in mocking what a very ridiculous notion this all was, but it landed with a discordant note - just a little too loud, just a little too shrill.
“Don’t be silly, of course you did, darling!” she exclaimed. “You took out that dusty old box with those quaint little iron wedding rings of your parents and you told me they’d been in the family for years, what was that if it wasn’t a proposal? Who brings up the subject of wedding rings if they aren’t intending to ask a person to marry them? Really, Marcus, whatever kind of joke you’re playing, our wedding day is hardly the right time for it.”
The piano had long since fallen silent (Traitor, Marcus thought irritably at Lincoln, who had now turned fully around on his piano bench and was watching the scene unfold with great interest), as casual party chit-chat turned into nudging and elbowing and meaningful whispers, all eyes beginning to swivel in their direction. Marcus was desperately miserable, and Diana knew it, and she was smiling at him graciously, offering him an exit if he would only take it. Play it off as a joke, and let’s go get married, and this will all be over.
The Marcus Kane of a year ago - even of a few weeks ago - might have let her have her way. That was the Marcus still living in a fog of inertia where nothing really mattered, where an additional motivation to leave this town and never come back might have held some genuine appeal.
But the Marcus Kane who had finally, finally, for the first time in his life, looked Abby Griffin straight in the eye and been real with her could not go back to that dreary gray half-existence ever again, that life where every choice was simply the path of least resistance.
If people wanted to listen, let them. All they would hear from him would be the truth.
“It isn’t a joke, Diana.”
“Of course it is, darling,” she said smoothly, expression barely changing at all. “Otherwise, why on earth would you go along with months of wedding planning without saying anything?”
“Because I was scared,” he said frankly, and this silenced her. She had not expected bluntness, or real truth, and it appeared to unbalance her slightly. The power was no longer quite so much in her corner, and she looked anxious and annoyed as he went on. “Because I’d lost everyone I ever loved, and the thought of being alone in this place until I died was terrifying to me, and when you were around I wasn’t so afraid. And that’s a terrible, selfish reason to be in a relationship. It was brutally unfair of me, and I suppose I justified it to myself because we never really had any kind of definite plans. One day there was no ring on your finger, and the next day there was one, but it didn’t really change anything. Moving to California was a distant kind of fantasy, and the wedding too, it all just seemed so vague and insubstantial and pleasant to think about, but none of it was real.”
Whatever comment Diana might have made to this extraordinary speech, she never got the chance.
“None of it was real,” agreed Clarke Griffin’s voice from over his shoulder. “That’s the truest thing I think I’ve ever heard you say.”
Chapter 14: December 24th, Part V: The Truth
THIRTY MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT
Marcus turned to see Clarke Griffin standing behind him, her face stone-cold and expressionless. A visibly upset Octavia stood beside her, and a moment later, Bellamy elbowed his way through the crowd to join them, both Blakes catching their breath a little, as though they'd run here.
Clarke, however, was cool and unruffled, arms folded across her chest, and she looked so like both her parents that Marcus could hardly bear, just now, at this moment, to look at her directly. He said her name, and took a step toward her, reaching out to put his hand on her shoulder before hastily retracting it, suddenly uncertain whether he had the right.
He had done a lot of things in his life which had hurt a lot of people, and there were amends to make in many directions. But one of them was this girl, right here. This girl to whom he had made a promise, this girl he had hoped so desperately could be his fresh start . . . as though such a thing were possible while there were still pieces of the whole, ugly, dark truth he was holding back from her. He hadn't told Clarke everything, because he'd been afraid she would hate him for it; but then she found out anyway, and it might turn out that he'd been right. The consequences of his own indecision, cowardice and inability to admit the truth to himself might well turn out to extend farther than he’d ever imagined, he realized as he looked into her father’s bright blue eyes and struggled to decipher what was written there. If he lost not only Abby, but Clarke too - which would be like losing Jake all over again - he would have no one to blame but himself.
Marcus was dimly aware that the music had stopped, that there was an entire ballroom hanging on their every word, and that this was closer to causing an embarrassing public scene than he had come in over twenty years, since the last time he and these people - Diana, the Jahas, the Sinclairs - had been at a wedding together. But right now, there was no one in the whole world except himself and Clarke Griffin, whose lovely young face he couldn't read, but which had somehow expanded in significance to make her the only person in the whole room who mattered now.
If Clarke had given up on him, he was worth giving up on. But if he could atone in a way she would accept . . . if there was a chance, just a chance, that she might not outright hate him forever . . .
It was too much to hope, of course, that she would want to stay. Too much to hope that she'd ever consider keeping the bargain she'd made, to be partners with someone who had held so many things back from her. No, he'd ruined that. But if she didn't hate him, that would be enough.
Because God knows her mother probably did.
As though she could somehow see, on his face, that he was thinking about Abby - Jesus, was he really so obvious? How humiliating - Diana took a proprietary step toward Marcus, gripping his forearm like a steel vise and glowering at the three young people facing them, with a particularly cold stare directed at Clarke. “If you’ve come on some petty revenge errand from your mother,” she said icily, “you’re too late, darling. You are not going to ruin this wedding.”
Clarke raised an eyebrow at Diana, looking almost amused. “Nope,” she agreed, “it doesn't look like I am. Apparently Marcus beat me to it.”
It was hard to tell whether the last straw for Diana was watching Clarke refuse to be intimidated by her, or - perhaps more likely - the gasps and whispers and muffled laughter from the crowds now openly watching the soap opera unfolding before them, and probably thinking it was much better entertainment than the wedding would have been. But either way, something inside Diana absolutely snapped, and the politely composed smile masking her features dropped away, revealing a sneer that was very nearly feral in its rage.
“Listen to me, you miserable, insufferable, interfering child,” she hissed, taking a menacing step towards Clarke. The girl didn't flinch, but both Blakes drew in a little closer at her side. "You have no idea how long I have waited, how hard I have worked, or what I have sacrificed to make this happen, and I am not going to let another Griffin bitch -”
“That’s enough!” roared Kane, yanking his arm out of Diana’s grip and pulling away from her, so fiercely that both she and the crowd around him took a nervous step back. He could feel his whole body simmering with a fury he only just now realized had been building for a long, long time.
How dare she.
How dare she.
That one word unleashed an avalanche of emotion inside him, and he could no longer contain it. He'd spent years pushing everything down - every minor infraction, every cutting word, every casual dismissal of things that were important to him, every attempt he ever made to fumblingly express something raw or vulnerable or real only to realize she hadn't been listening at all. The way she wouldn't say Callie's name. The way she'd laughed at his parents' wedding rings and hated sleeping in his apartment.
What the hell had he been thinking?
Was this, truly, how deep he'd sunk into depression and grief? Was this the measure of how lost he'd been, how lonely, how cut off from everything that made life worth living, that the escape Diana offered him - the chance to turn the page and start over as someone new - seemed worth everything he would have been giving up to get it? Had he truly convinced himself he could simply stop being Marcus Kane, son of Vera Kane, owner of Eden Tree Farm, native child of this town where his roots grew as deep beneath this snow-covered soil as the tallest of all the trees surrounding him? How had he let things get this far?
He didn't realize, until he saw a flash of real hurt pierce through the anger on Diana's face, that he'd shifted away from her, placing his own body like a protective wall between herself and Clarke. It was clear that Diana saw this as a betrayal; he'd chosen the Griffins' side over hers.
Well, he hadn't wanted there to be any sides here in the first place, but since she'd put him in this position, she had no one to blame but herself.
"That," he said to her, attempting to control his still-boiling fury enough to actually speak coherently to her, "was a singularly unkind and unfair thing for you to say. Even if there were any kind of justification for your dislike of Abby - which there isn’t, and has never been - Clarke has done nothing to you. She has every right to be furious at me, to hate me if she chooses, and so does Abby, but that is between myself and them. It has nothing to do with you. And I am not so naive, Diana - or, perhaps, I was, but I am not anymore - to give you the benefit of the doubt and assume that your ongoing mistreatment of the Griffins was in any way on my behalf. You resent them for your own reasons, some of which exist almost entirely in your own mind.”
"Oh really," Diana shot back. "You think this is all in my head? That I'm making it up? You’re really going to stand here, in front of all these people, and deny that the only reason you’re calling off this wedding is because you think you still have a chance with Abby?”
“I have no chance with Abby,” said Marcus evenly, suddenly very grateful that Clarke was standing behind him where he did not have to look her in the eye while he said this. “I never did. I recognize that. That isn’t what any of this is about. I’m not leaving you for another woman, Diana. If Abby Griffin was a threat to our marriage, it’s only because she was the first person who told me that I was allowed to ask myself what I actually wanted, instead of letting everyone else just tell me. So I did that. And I realized that I didn’t want the life you were trying to pull me into, that I would rather stay here alone than go to Los Angeles with you. I didn't want to run away from who I was anymore. I didn't choose another woman over you. I chose this place. My family. My history. My home. The possibility of what Eden Tree Farm could be, if I could let my own baggage go and learn to believe in it again. Those were the only two choices on the table, Diana. There was no third option, regardless of what you may think. You wanted to drive a wedge between me and the Griffins, and you did a very thorough job, but that’s as much my fault as yours. I may resent you for saying what you said to Clarke, and I may believe you did so for cruel and petty reasons, but the fact is that you only had that weapon available to use against them because I was too cowardly just to tell Abby the truth all those years ago myself. I am not blameless here, and much of this has very little to do with you. But it also has less to do with Abby Griffin than you are trying to convince yourself it does. I am not trying to win her, Diana, I am not trying to earn her forgiveness or her . . . affection. This was never a competition between you, hard though you’ve tried to make it one." He sighed wearily, running a hand through his hair, and suddenly felt very, very tired. "So you haven’t lost, if that makes you feel better," he said, knowing it was unlikely to make a difference. "You can think of it as a draw. I’m not marrying either of you.”
"That would only be true," said Clarke from behind him, in a quiet but determined voice which caused Marcus to turn around and look at her in puzzlement, “if the main reason Diana wanted to be married to you by midnight on Christmas Eve was because she loved you. Or even just to score points against my mother. But there’s a third reason, Kane, and it’s something you don’t know about. Something very important."
This sent a murmur through the crowd, and as Clarke held out her hand for Octavia to hand her a folded piece of paper, Marcus caught a glimpse of Diana out of the corner of her eye, and was astonished to realize that she suddenly looked . . . afraid.
"Diana," he said sternly, giving her one final chance. "Would you like to tell me what's going on?"
"Darling, if I had any idea," she trilled weakly, fooling no one, and Marcus felt his heart sink. Something was very wrong here, and Diana knew it, but even when given an opportunity to finally just look him in the eye and come clean once and for all, she could not bring herself to do it.
“Mr. Jaha!” Clarke called into the crowd, waving at her old friend’s father, who looked up at her in total astonishment. The bickering trio in the middle of the room were so focused on each other that they hardly seemed aware even of the Blakes, let alone anyone else in the room, so Thelonious was more surprised than anyone to have attention suddenly drawn to himself. “Can you come here for a moment?”
Jaha obliged, albeit rather warily, and moved through the crowd - which parted for him like the Red Sea, anxious to find out where this was going - until he had reached the girl's side.
Diana watched him approach with narrowed, suspicious eyes. “What do you want with him?” she demanded, in a scathing tone, and a distant part of Marcus was almost impressed at how thoroughly she'd decided to go down burning all her bridges. The Jaha family had lived in Arkadia as long as the Kanes had, and were nearly as well-respected. Thelonious could be prickly, but no points would be scored on Diana's behalf by treating him with such condescension.
"I want to ask him a question," said Clarke. "Marcus, you'll want to hear the answer to this too."
"I can hardly see how anything I have to say might affect the . . . personal matter," Jaha muttered uncomfortably, "which seems to be taking place here. And I don't wish to interfere. But if you have something to ask me, go ahead."
“Years and years ago," said Clarke, "Vera Kane ended up in some financial trouble with a company that attempted to con her out of this property. Marcus told me you were the attorney who helped the family resolve it. That's true, isn't it?" she asked, turning to look at him.
“Yes,” said Marcus, puzzled, “but I don’t understand -”
“What was the name of the company, Mr. Jaha?” Clarke asked. “Do you happen to remember?”
“Mount Weather Holdings,” said Jaha immediately. “Why?”
Clarke stared directly at Diana. “Mount Weather Holdings,” she repeated again. “Does that name mean anything to you, Diana? It should.”
It meant little to Marcus, except the distant memory of sitting in Jaha's office and going through a stack of paperwork; but it clearly meant a great deal more than that to Diana, who recoiled, absolutely stricken, with the wild eyes of an animal caught in a trap. But what possible reason she could have for such panicked distress eluded him completely. He had barely known her then; how could this peculiar, obscure legal battle of his mother's have anything to do with Diana?
And how in God's name was Clarke involved in all this?
A minor commotion broke out behind him just then, causing Clarke to turn around, as though looking for someone in the crowd. With an effortless authority he found himself both amused by and faintly envious of, she dispatched the Blakes with a single look, and they disappeared into the wall of bodies between Kane and the ballroom door. Then she turned back to Marcus, and continued her explanation.
“Mount Weather Holdings has been trying to get their hands on Eden Tree Farm for decades,” she said. “You told me so yourself. Except you assumed that they only tried once, and then gave up. But that’s not what happened. They probably tried making a direct offer to your mother first, and she said no. Then they tried arranging it so a minor series of repairs would leave her in massive debt to them, so they could try to make a play to force her to default on a loan and get control that way. And they kept hassling you until you finally found that contract you told me about, the one your mother drew up to protect Callie if you died first.”
“Yes, but - forgive me, Clarke, but this has nothing to do with what's happening right now. It's years in the past."
"Yes it does, and no it isn't," Clarke said. “It’s the reason all of us are standing here right now."
Marcus was prevented from asking more by the entirely unexpected return of the Blakes, who were now half-dragging an extremely reluctant pair of total strangers with them, causing his confusion to increase exponentially.
Or perhaps . . . maybe not total strangers.
The man was a bit younger than Marcus, perhaps in his thirties, with long sandy brown hair tied back in a bun, and an air of Big City Asshole. The woman was older, closer to his mother's age, with the impeccable sleekness that indicates lifelong wealth. He was sure he didn't know them - they weren't from here, and he could not for the life of him place their names - but there was something dimly familiar about them both.
"Do I . . . know you?" he asked, puzzled. "I think you've been here before. You've stayed at the inn."
"I'm sure they have," said Clarke. "Did they tell you they were friends of Diana?"
"I think . . . maybe?"
"Were they unusually interested in getting a tour? Checking out the whole property? Looking around in every single room?"
"That's hardly a crime," Diana interrupted, a little desperately. "Really, Clarke, how melodramatic you're being."
Clarke ignored her. "I don’t think Mount Weather Holdings ever gave up on getting this land, Marcus," she said to him. "One of the first things Bellamy and Octavia told me was that the farm was the only thing standing between the county and a new freeway. Your property line comes right up to the city limits. If they razed the whole thing to the ground - or even kept the inn standing, and commercialized it, sold it to become a Hilton or something, and developed all the land around it where the trees used to be . . ." She turned her gaze for the first time on the two strangers. "Well, then," she said, "some real estate company - and any investor backing them; say, Mount Weather Holdings - could make an absolutely unfathomable amount of money. This town would become a city in no time flat, and they'd be holding onto all the most desirable property. You could fit a lot of strip malls and condo towers onto this Christmas tree farm, you know." She held out the piece of paper he'd watched her take a moment ago from Octavia. "And the only thing stopping them,” she said, “is that Vera Kane made sure there were only two people in the whole world with the legal right to sell off a single square inch of Eden Tree Farm.”
Marcus took the paper from her with a tight knot of sadness clenching at his heart. "I know," he said heavily. "Callie and me."
Clarke shook her head. “No,” she corrected. “You and your wife.”
Marcus looked at her for a long time. There was something in her voice - a kind of "please pay attention to me" frustration, like a teacher dealing with a recalcitrant student, begging him to get the right answer. She was trying so hard to tell him something, but it mattered to her, somehow, that he figure it out himself. But he didn't know. A cursory glance at the paper in his hand revealed that it was exactly what she'd indicated it would be, his mother's addendum to the inn's deed. But he already knew what this was, he'd seen it before, it contained no hidden secrets from him.
So then why, he suddenly thought, rewinding back to the beginning of this excruciating moment in his life, had the Blakes come racing into the ballroom to give it to Clarke, like they were afraid some disaster would strike if they missed their chance?
“Jesus Christ,” said the man Bellamy was currently restraining, with an air of world-weary exhaustion, cutting into Marcus' thoughts. “This is all getting way too goddamned dramatic. I told you, Diana. I told you just to deal with this directly. You could have prevented us even needing to use the contract if you’d been willing to just have one honest conversation.”
Marcus looked at Clarke and the Blakes. "Okay," he said. "Who's going to tell me what the hell is going on? And who is this guy?"
“This is Roan Frost, and his mother Nia,” Clarke answered. “They’re real estate agents, about to open a huge new satellite firm in Los Angeles. With a very cushy new job for Diana Sydney, if she helped them close their biggest sale by midnight tonight."
Marcus stared at her blankly, utterly confounded by her words . . . yet in the back of his mind, he felt something like the whirring of clockwork, as though all the missing pieces were finally beginning to click together. Clarke saw, and nodded at him encouragingly - the teacher with the struggling student, again - and stepped in closer to him to draw his attention back to the contract, pointing to the two blank signature lines at the bottom.
"She never imagined anything would happen to Callie," the girl said. "So she didn't account for the possibility that you might ever marry again. She was just trying to keep her family and her home safe. It would never have occurred to her that the people she was trying to protect you from would figure out exactly how to exploit this, and turn it against you."
Marcus looked down at the paper for a long, long time, reading the familiar words, reliving all those conversations - with his mom, with his wife, with his lawyer - struggling to see what Clarke saw. But it was just a piece of paper to him. Vera had wanted to make sure Callie was protected, so she'd put Callie's name on the deed, and then -
No, she hadn't.
Marcus felt his stomach drop like he was falling off a cliff, and the whole thing became suddenly, horribly, miserably clear.
Line one:“PRIMARY SIGNATORY (inheritor).”
Line two: “SECONDARY SIGNATORY (inheritor’s spouse).”
It did not say "Callie Cartwig" anywhere.
Marcus looked at Clarke.
Clarke looked at Marcus.
“It only requires one signature,” he whispered in horror.
“It only requires one signature,” Clarke agreed. “And it doesn’t actually have to be yours.”
This, then, was why the Blakes had been in such a hurry. They didn't know about Abby, or the roof, or the almost-kiss, or the fact that he'd already made his decision by the time he came down the stairs. They must have thought Marcus and Diana were minutes away from signing their marriage license, and that the whole thing would be over if they didn't stop it.
Marcus was a man of many regrets; but not least among them, he suddenly realized, was how alone he'd felt for all those years, how isolated and sad, when all along Bellamy and Octavia Blake had been standing right there.
He had always had a family here. He'd never been alone, not really. He just hadn't let anyone else in. And Diana had been appealing because she'd told him he didn't have to. He could simply cut the cord, and walk away.
But even before the Griffins came back and changed his life forever, there had always been people in this town - in this place - who loved him. Who had loved Callie and his parents. People who had left casseroles on his doorstep after the funerals when he was too exhausted to remember to eat. People who proudly boasted that they'd bought their very first Christmas tree here when they were young, and now they came every year with their grandchildren. People who remembered Christmas Balls from decades ago, whose family traditions were inextricably bound up not just with this building, but with the family who lived in it. People who dropped everything - just like Clarke had told him they would - to offer their time, their resources, their money, their support, to make this place happy again.
People who remembered what Eden Tree Farm used to be, and would have helped it become that again a long, long time ago, if Marcus Kane had let them.
Only Diana Sydney had wanted him to believe it was fruitless. She had sat beside him, and patted his hand, and repeated back to him all the darkest and most self-loathing whispers from the cruelest back corners of his mind - that he was not enough to make this place into anything special ever again, that no one here would really miss either him or the inn if they were gone, that his roots were shallow, frail little things, easily uprooted and planted somewhere else, anywhere else, it could not really make a difference. And she'd said them kindly, she'd said them with affection, and he'd had no idea that she was crushing his hopes so deliberately because it was a necessary step to achieving her own. But he'd believed her. And until the Griffins arrived, there had been no one there to replace that voice with a different one he would actually hear.
He turned to look at her then - really look at her, at this woman he'd come so frighteningly close to losing everything for - and he wondered if he had ever really seen her truly at all.
“I won’t bother asking you,” he said, in a quiet, mild tone which everyone around him found infinitely more terrifying than if he had simply shouted, “whether or not this is true."
"Would it matter if I denied it?" Diana retorted. "You'd believe your precious Griffins over me no matter what."
"You aren't denying it," he pointed out. "It's written all over your face." And indeed, her ordinarily composed features were contorted and flushed with seething indignation. If she was still trying to play this off, somehow, she was doing a dreadful job of it. "But it's also," he went on, "the only explanation which makes sense of all the things that didn't fit. It never made sense to me, why you were so persistent even when I was . . . more indifferent. Why you seemed to want me so badly, when we had so little in common, and there was nothing you really valued about my life. Why you resented everything that's happened over the past month - the tree in the library, the pageant, the Christmas Ball. I realized I wanted to bring this place back to life again; but you didn't. You wanted it to die a failure, because that would make it an easier sell."
“Marcus, you hated this place!” Diana snapped at him. “You were miserable for decades. You were alone. You had no one. You were bleeding money and pouring your own savings into keeping this dead weight floating. And none of that is my fault. Where was Clarke Griffin when you had to sell your good car? Where were the Blakes? Did they ever notice that sometimes they were the only ones getting a paycheck, while you had nothing left for yourself? I didn’t force you to start thinking about leaving. I didn’t force you to say yes when I suggested that there were other ways to live. You wanted an escape, and I offered you one. This could have worked out perfectly for both of us, Marcus. I did love you. We could have been happy.”
Marcus looked at her somberly. "There's some truth to that," he said. "And it might make a difference. Except for one thing."
"And what's that?"
"When I tried to break it off with you three days ago," he said, "when I told you I'd changed my mind and I couldn't go to Los Angeles with you - I told you I wanted to stay, and you said to me, 'Then I'll stay too.' You said we would be partners. That I wouldn't need Clarke, because I'd have you. 'Marry me, and we'll figure out all the rest later,' you said." He looked from her to Roan and Nia, still standing behind him. "But they're still here," he said. "Presumably to make sure this plan didn't fail. You looked me in the eye, and said you would stay in Arkadia if that's what I wanted, and that the only thing that mattered was my happiness. But you knew about that contract. You knew where it was. You knew what it meant, and how you could use it."
"How soon after the ink was dry on our marriage license," Marcus asked, "would you have sold my family home out from under me and gone to Los Angeles anyway?"
"Pretty soon," said the guy with the man bun, who couldn't seem to help himself, "since the deal had to be closed by the end of the year."
"Shut up, Roan," murmured his mother. "This is already embarrassing enough."
Marcus turned back to Diana. "You lied to me," he said quietly. "You looked me in the eye, and you told me you would stay, and you lied to me."
"Oh, please," snapped Diana irritably. "Like I'm the only one. You’ve been lying to yourself and to me and to everyone else from the moment Abby Griffin walked back into this town.”
Marcus’ jaw clenched and unclenched at this. His expression did not change, but his eyes grew colder and darker as he stared her down.
“I have told you,” he said curtly, “over and over and over again, that nothing between you and I has anything to do with . . . with anything that might have been, in another lifetime, with anyone else. I understand that it makes you feel better to frame this as a rejection which is fundamentally about Abby, because that gives you permission to deny that it is actually fundamentally about you and me. But none of that matters now. Abby, as you can see, is not here.”
And then suddenly, once the words were said, he realized how significant they actually were.
Because Abby wasn't there.
The ballroom was full, but that didn't matter. Marcus could sense her presence, when she was near. He always seemed to look up just at the moment she entered a room, like iron to a magnet. He looked around the crowd, searching for flashes of a red ballgown, but when he did not find her he was hardly surprised. But as his eyes met Clarke's, and he saw the same confusion on her face - as she registered his - their bafflement turned to outright alarm.
If Clarke did not know where Abby was - and if Marcus did not know where Abby was -
Then where was Abby?
Impossible, that she would still be on the roof, in the snow, in thin silk shoes and with no protection against the weather except a blanket. She would freeze to death. But where else would she go? If she'd been anywhere on the main floor - the library, the dining room - the commotion going on in the ballroom would have been more than audible. She'd have followed the sound of shouting, if nothing else.
The only other plausible notion was that she had gone back to her room. But there was a clock in there, she would know exactly what time it was, and that the wedding was about to begin. Was she avoiding it, for some reason? Was she unwilling, unable, to watch Marcus Kane marry someone else? Did that mean she -
But no, that was a line of thought he could not pursue.
He looked back at Clarke, whose worry had taken on a new note, something in her expression which looked almost, perhaps, like . . . guilt?
Oh no, oh no, oh no, he thought, heart hammering wildly.
Diana had told the whole gruesome story to Clarke - with embellishments of her own - and Clarke had relayed it to Abby, and Abby had confronted Marcus, and even though he had revealed enough of the truth to her that she could no longer be in any possible doubt of his feelings . . . still, in the end, he had walked away from her, choosing to follow Diana instead.
Abby, he realized, with his heart in his throat, might very well be already gone.
He had to find her, right now.
“She doesn’t need to be here, to ruin my life all over again,” Diana sneered at Clarke. “Saint Abby, floating above it all, keeping her hands clean. The perfect angel. In this town's eyes, she can do no wrong. But she has no qualms about sending this blonde brat -” (Clarke was forced to physically restrain both Blakes at this) - “to do her dirty work.”
“My mother,” said Clarke, “doesn’t even know I’m here. She doesn’t know about the contract, or any of the rest of this. I told her what you said, and she was devastated, and neither of us wanted to be here a minute longer than we had to. I only stayed because I didn’t want you to destroy this place, or destroy Kane’s life. He isn’t a perfect man, but I still believe he’s a good one, and he didn’t deserve any of this.” She took a step closer to Diana, their eyes locked on each other, and the whole room went still and silent, holding its collective breath as they watched Clarke Griffin steel herself to deliver her final blow.
“My mom's not like you," she said quietly. "She wouldn’t be crowing over your defeat, if she knew. She would just be really, really sad. Sad that someone would take advantage of Vera Kane like this. Sad that Marcus is only in this position because Callie died. Sad that you can’t see the beauty of this place, or how much it matters to people. Sad that the only way to save Marcus from himself was for history to repeat itself in reverse, and have a Griffin try to stop his wedding.” She shook her head. “She’s nothing like you, Diana,” she said. “She would have been your friend, if you’d let her. And you can stand there all you want and tell yourself that she only came back to town to steal your fiance from you, but you should know that from the day we’ve arrived, she’s been doing everything she possibly could - she’s been tying herself in knots, making herself miserable - to avoid doing exactly that. To keep from hurting Marcus, even by accident, the way Marcus did to her. She’s a good person, and she would never, ever, ever have done what you did. Not for anything in the world.”
She looked at Bellamy and Octavia. “Let them go,” she said. “Mr. Frost, Mrs. Frost, you should get out of here. No one is signing anything tonight. Diana, if I were you, I’d disappear pretty quickly too. None of you are welcome here anymore.”
Diana laughed. “Who are you,” she demanded, "to tell me where I am or am not welcome? That’s for Marcus to say, and no one else.”
Behind them, Thelonious Jaha cleared his throat. "I didn't like to interrupt," he said. "But Marcus is . . . well, gone."
This was startling on several levels, both because everyone had forgotten he was still standing there, and because Clarke and Diana had been focused so intently on each other that they hadn't even seen the man leave.
"Well, where the hell did he go?" demanded Octavia. Thelonious pointed to the ballroom door, which caused Diana to roll her eyes.
“If it isn’t obvious to the rest of you all,” said Diana coolly, “he’s obviously gone running after his precious Abby, before he loses her forever.”
"Say one more word about my mother," Clarke muttered in barely suppressed fury, but Bellamy stilled her with a hand on her arm.
"Go," he said. "Forget about Diana. We'll take care of everything here. Go find your mom, before it's too late."
"Go," agreed Octavia. "If Kane isn't happy, then all of this was for nothing. Diana was right about one thing. We didn't have his back when he needed us most. But we can fix it now. We can fix everything. But only if you run."
TEN MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT
They collided in the hallway.
Clarke, after undertaking a cursory search of the library and other public rooms, was sprinting up the stairs from the first floor, while Marcus, racing down from the fourth, rounded the corner without pausing to look where he was going, and practically tripped over her on his way to Abby's door.
"What the hell happened to you?" the girl demanded. "We all looked around and you were gone."
"I went to the roof," he said, "to look for your mother. It was the last place I saw her, before . . . all of this."
Clarke looked at him. "You saw her before the wedding?"
"I think," said Marcus, with a grim trace of gallows humor, "it is, at this point, a stretch to call it a wedding. But yes. I did."
"And that's why," she began, but cut herself off. "Never mind," she said, standing back from the door, gesturing impatiently towards it. "Go ahead. She's the one you need to have this conversation with, not me."
Marcus knocked, heart in his throat, but there was no answer. Not even a sound from the other side of the door.
"Abby?" he said hesitantly. "It's Marcus. Can we talk?"
"Mom? Are you in there? We really need to talk to you. Open the door."
But after waiting what seemed an interminable stretch of time without so much as a breath or a rustle from the other side of the door, Clarke began to feel panic rising in her chest. "I have the other key," she said, rummaging frantically through her evening bag before pulling it out and sliding it into the lock with trembling hands.
They pushed open the door together.
But Abby was not there.
Something here was wrong, and there was a puzzle to solve, so Clarke wasted no time. With the knowledge borne of sharing a house for two decades, she did a swift and expert loop of her mother’s bedroom, bathroom and closet. Abby had not begun to pack, so that was something; in fact, the room looked nearly untouched from the last time Clarke saw it, before the ball. "Her purse is still here," she called over her shoulder to Marcus, digging through it. "And the car keys are in it. So wherever she went, she walked there. That’s good news. She can’t have gone far. And she didn't change her clothes, I don't think. Nothing looks like it's missing, and the garment bag for her red dress is still empty. So I guess at least she'll be easy to spot," she offered, to lighten the mood, but turned around when she was met with nothing but silence to realize that Marcus had not been listening to a word she said.
He had begun his search at Abby's desk, and gotten no further than the brass wastebasket beside it, whose contents - a heap of crumpled notepaper with Eden Tree Lodge letterhead - he had dumped out onto the bed and was now examining one by one.
Clarke made her way over to join him, taking a seat at the foot of the bed beside him and picking up each scrap of paper as he set them down.
“Marcus - you left too quickly for me to”
“Marcus - you idiot. You’re making a huge mistake, no matter what you”
“Marcus - I had so many things I wanted to say to you, but at this point, maybe none of it matters. We’ll be out of your hair by tomorrow. Clarke and I are going back to Boston. I hope you and Diana”
“Marcus - Clarke and I are leaving tomorrow. Your hospitality has been apprec”
“Marcus - it seems this town isn’t for us after all. Boston is calling. We’ll be driving back on Christmas Day. If I don’t get the chance to see you again before I go, please know that I”
“Marcus - Do you wish we’d never come here? Sometimes I’m not sure if I do or not. I’m sorry if we”
“Marcus - didn’t want to be a buzzkill so I ducked out of the wedding. Long day, and I have a nasty headache. Hope you’re both very happy together. If I don’t get to see you before we drive back to Boston, you should know there are no hard feelings about”
“Marcus - when we were on the roof, I didn’t get the chance to say”
He stared at that last one for such a long time that when Clarke placed a gentle hand on his arm, he looked up at her with a start as though he'd genuinely forgotten she was there.
"You have to find her, Marcus."
He gestured helplessly to the sea of crumpled papers strewn across the quilt. "I don’t know which of these is the truth,” he said. “I don’t know which of these is the thing she was really trying to say.”
"Did you actually find a note anywhere?" Clarke asked.
"Then none of them are what she was really trying to say," said the girl reasonably. "She didn't finish any of them, and she threw them all in the trash. That means none of them were right. You aren’t going to get any answers from a little scrap of paper. You’re going to have to be adults about this, and actually talk to each other.”
Marcus said nothing. They sat there, side by side, staring out the window at the falling snow, for a long, long time.
“I’m still angry at you,” Clarke finally said, carefully not looking at him.
Marcus nodded. “That’s more than fair.”
“I just keep thinking about that conversation with Diana. When she told me that if you’d had your way, I would never have been born. If you’d kept my parents from getting married, then I wouldn’t exist.”
“And then you would never have come into my life, and changed it forever,” he said quietly. “Do you have any idea, Clarke, how grateful I am for that? Twenty-five years of unhappiness was a small price to pay to make sure the world still got to have a Clarke Griffin. My God, I’ve never been so relieved to have failed at anything.” He turned and regarded her soberly. “Were you afraid,” he asked, “that the part I regretted was failing to separate your parents from each other?” Clarke looked away again, suddenly guilty, but he wasn’t reproaching her. “I don’t blame you for thinking so little of me,” he admitted, with a weary sigh. “Lord knows I’ve given you reason enough. But I swear to you, Clarke - I didn't spend two decades hating myself because I couldn't stop the wedding.”
“You hated yourself,” said Clarke softly, finally realizing, “because you tried to stop the wedding in the first place.”
He nodded. “I was selfish, and wrong, and cruel," he said. "By any measure, it's the single worst thing I've ever done. And the fact that I didn’t, in the end, destroy the marriage of two people who loved each other that much - two people who belonged together - is the only comfort I have to hold onto.”
"Diana wanted me to believe you did it because you just didn't like Mom," Clarke murmured. "I think because she wanted Mom to believe that."
"She did believe it," said Marcus, in a low, unhappy voice. "I tried to explain to her, when we were on the roof, I wanted so badly for her to know -"
"That it was actually the opposite," Clarke finished for him. "Wasn't it."
Marcus nodded. "Very much so," he said. "And no one was more surprised by it than me."
And at this, the picture became suddenly clear. She saw it all, in her mind, the whole messy, tragic, awful disaster of it. Four best friends, two men in love with the same woman, everyone trying so hard to figure out the right thing to do that they couldn’t help blundering and making it worse. Dad not telling Mom the truth. Marcus bottling everything up until it exploded. Callie quietly taking her cues from Marcus and letting herself drift away from the Griffins too. And Mom, all these years, holding onto the wrong end of the stick, seeing only resentment and selfishness and drunken asshole misbehavior, instead of the volcanic eruption of first love from someone who thought it had already passed him by and was completely unprepared for it when it happened.
No one had had bad intentions, but they’d all broken each other’s hearts anyway, and now Callie and Jake were gone, so they could not make any of this right.
It was easy to look at Marcus Kane now, somber and bearded and approaching fifty, and reproach him for his categorically awful behavior at the wedding; but it took on a somewhat different tone when she realized he would only have been a few years older than Bellamy was now. And it was easy, quite frankly, to imagine either Blake doing something hotheaded in a moment of passion and then bitterly regretting it later.
Or even herself, she thought a little guiltily; because hadn’t she been about to do the same thing?
If she had dragged her mother back to Boston in a rage without giving Marcus a fair hearing, without learning his side of the story, she would be doing exactly what her father had done.
Clarke adored her dad, and she had been young enough when he died for an aura of hero worship to permanently surround him in her memory. But he had been gone long enough that it was still possible for her to remember that Jake Griffin was a human being, that it was not disloyal of her to say that there were times he had made mistakes.
And this had been a mistake.
Mom deserved to know the reason why Marcus had acted the way he did. It didn’t excuse or justify anything, but it explained it, and she could still have left without being haunted forever by wondering how everything had gone so wrong. Because it had shaped her in some ways Clarke suspected her mother did not realize. Abby had few friends in Boston. She did not warm to people easily, and she was swift to push them away if they crossed her. Raven had managed to stick only by virtue of her own sheer tenacity. Privately, Clarke had always wondered why it was that her mother, the kindest and most ferociously loving person in all the world, focused that warmth and love on such a tiny circle of people, with most of it going to her daughter and her patients.
Now she knew why.
Because one day Marcus Kane was one of Mom's oldest friends, and the next he was a drunk, disheveled asshole willing to get beat up in a church parking lot to try and stop her wedding, and all the messy emotional context of how a person goes from Point A to Point B had been denied her, because Dad had broken a promise to Marcus - implicit, maybe, but still - that he would tell Mom the truth and let her make the decision.
Maybe it had been there always, she thought suddenly. This bright golden light shining around them, and they had been the only two people in the world who didn’t see it. Maybe Callie had always known, which is why she was so sad, and Diana had always known, which is why she was so jealous, and Vera had always known, which is why she was so kind. And maybe Dad had always known, which is why he didn’t give Mom the chance to see it for herself. Maybe it had been kindly meant, to save her distress the day after their wedding; maybe he’d always intended to sit her down one day and say, “listen, I should have told you this but I didn’t know how,” but he just kept putting it off and putting it off the way you do when you think you have nothing but time, and then he’d died before he had the chance. So everyone who knew the truth of that day was dead now, except for Marcus, who believed he’d been given a clear and definitive rejection when Mom left without saying goodbye, and who loved her enough that he would have stayed on the other side of that line the rest of his life.
“I so wanted to hate you,” she said finally, and he sighed heavily, reaching out and letting his hand rest over hers atop Vera Kane’s embroidered quilt.
“I wouldn’t blame you,” he said. “But I’m glad you don’t. Because I love you, Clarke. Very, very much.”
Clarke did not say anything for a long time, but turned her hand over, letting her palm meet his, letting his fingers wrap around hers, until she was holding his hand in her own.
“I don’t know if I should tell her you said that,” she finally said, a little wryly. “She might not like that you said it to me before you said it to her.”
Marcus chuckled at this, a fraction of a smile cracking through the dull, heavy expression on his face. “She’ll understand,” he said. “She knows I’m . . . a little out of practice.”
Clarke squeezed his hand. “I can’t say it back to you until she does,” she reminded him gently. “I can’t be the one who makes this decision for our family. I go where she goes, Marcus. You and I can’t fix this ourselves, behind her back. You can’t make this right through me.”
“I would never do that to you,” he said solemnly. “I would never put you in that position. I did it once before, to your father, and it wasn’t right. I said it to him because I was afraid to say it to her. This time, I said it to you because I wanted . . .” he paused for a moment. “I wanted to remind myself that I know what love feels like,” he finally said. “I wanted to say it to someone, and feel sure.”
“Well, I’m glad I was here for you to practice on, and not Bellamy.”
He laughed again at this, a real laugh. “I love him too,” he said. “I love both of them. I love all of them. Maybe I’ve never said it enough.”
“Have you said it to anybody,” Clarke asked him, “since Callie and your mother died?”
And then, suddenly, there it was.
“I know where she is,” he said, rising abruptly from the bed. “I know exactly where to find her. But I have to go alone. Do you trust me?”
Clarke stared at him, brow furrowed in surprise and confusion, but finally nodded. “I trust you," she told him. "But how do you know where she went?”
Marcus smiled at her, but there was no joy in it. He looked so tired suddenly, she thought; tired, and ten years older, and very, very sad.
“Because she needs advice right now,” he said. “And all the people she wants to talk to are in the same place.”
Chapter 15: December 25th (midnight)
Even empty, and closed for repairs - its parishioners relocated to the Lutheran church across town for the Midnight Mass which was just now starting - Saint Agatha’s was a comforting place. The hanging amber glass lamps in the sanctuary, which never went out, lit the stained glass windows from within, and the twinkling white Christmas lights strung along the roof and in the trees cast a sparkling glow on the rough-hewn stone.
Abby had been back here exactly three times since the day of her wedding, each occasion corresponding to one of the carved headstones in the churchyard. Two of them sat side-by-side, in the overgrown corner beneath an ancient Fraser fir where the Kane family had been lain to rest since the inn was first built so many generations ago. Marcus had buried them next to each other, only a few years apart; matching black slabs, etched with matching white crosses. The tree was visible from where she stood, and if she squinted, she thought she could make out the graves themselves, frosted with snow under the shadow of the pines.
She could not see the third from here, though she did not need to; she knew exactly what it looked like, and where it lay. On the opposite side of the churchyard, small and square and neat, etched with a line from W.H. Auden’s poem “Funeral Blues”:
“He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest.”
They'd bonded over it in freshman English class, all four of them, she suddenly remembered - the fact that they'd all liked Auden. It made them feel cool and European and interesting, to sit in the diner and drink black coffee and talk about poetry and imagine the world outside the boundaries of this tiny town which was once everything they knew. Back in the days when everything had been simple.
She'd forgotten about that, until just now, and somehow it ripped everything back open again. Even here, even in the words she'd chosen for Jake's gravestone - Marcus was in everything.
She had thought he was a troublesome thread she could just snip away, by moving to Boston; but she could not remove him without herself unraveling, because he was woven into the fabric of her whole life.
A living ghost, instead of a dead one; but still, there was nowhere she could run to be free of him.
She'd fled the merriment at the lodge as quickly as she could, stopping in her room only long enough to attempt to scrawl a note to Marcus (unsuccessful, since she could not think of a single thing to say to him that would fit on a piece of hotel stationery) and then attempt to change her clothes (also unsuccessful; she was deeply vexed to realize she could not actually unzip herself out of this dress without Clarke). But the risk of being spotted, of a well-meaning Marcus coming to knock on her door, of her daughter returning early and seeing her cry - or worse, of being cornered and dragged back to the ballroom to stand there and watch that grotesque farce of a wedding - was so dire that she finally just decided to take her chances in what she was wearing. It's not like she would ever be able to bear putting on this dress again, after this. So she'd escaped down the back staircase into the staff-only wing, narrowly dodging being spotted by Diyoza's kitchen staff, and cut through the mud room which led to the back door, where she traded her satin slippers for a pair of Indra's rubber boots, and grabbed the warmest-looking coat off the work crew rack.
She'd assumed it was Bellamy's, and Bellamy seemed to like her, so she'd gambled on being forgiven by both him and Indra if they happened to go looking for their gear and found it missing. But she'd scarcely made it off the property and down to the main road before she realized, with a sharp pang of grief, that this was not Bellamy's coat. As a frosty breeze swirled through the air, she pulled the coat more tightly around her, and its wool collar brushed against her cheek, sending up a faint whiff of spicy pine-and-leather scent.
She’d breathed in that same scent on the roof as he brushed a stray lock of hair back from her cheek, and bent his head to kiss her, and changed everything. Now here it was again. She had left Eden Tree Lodge behind her, its lights hardly visible in the distance through the thicket of trees, as she made her way down the road; but he was still following her, even now.
Nowhere in this town, it seemed, was free of ghosts.
She thought about the house with the caved-in roof which would be finished by the weekend, and felt a knot of sorrow in her stomach at the realization that she would never see the inside of it. She would never live in that house, she knew that now. She could not stay in this town. It was not home anymore.
Time to move on.
They would be on the road before Marcus even noticed she was gone. Back to Boston. Raven would take them in for a few days, until they found somewhere else to stay. Raven would help them arrange for movers to come back to Arkadia for the rest of their boxes. Raven would order pizza and make margaritas and salvage what was left of Christmas and help drive the memories of the past twenty-four days away, and then this whole chapter of Abby's life would be over.
It was a relief to be alone, so she could finally let herself cry.
She had been so stupid. She’d been stupid right from the start, and she’d dragged her daughter down with her. She should have known better.
People don’t change, whispered a dark, bitter voice inside her head as she wrapped Marcus Kane’s wool coat around her bare shoulders, icy tears streaking her cheeks. They only get better at pretending.
There was a pair of stone benches outside the entrance to the church, shielded somewhat from the wind and snow by gnarled, overgrown trees, and Abby took a seat on one of them. To her left, she could crane her neck and see the corner of the churchyard where she’d buried Jake; to her right, a winding drive leading to the parking lot where the fight had happened on her wedding day.
Stupid, stupid, stupid.
It served him right, she thought, that he’d hitched his wagon to Diana Sydney for the rest of his life. He deserved her. It was transparently obvious that they had no real affection for each other, but he’d made his choice. She would like to be the kind of person who could stand there in that ballroom with a perfectly serene face, watching them say their forced, rehearsed vows, and smile politely without letting any of the cracks show. She would like to be tough enough to resist giving Diana the satisfaction of victory, to shake his hand and kiss her cheek and congratulate them both, and walk away with her head held high.
But she didn’t feel tough, not now. She felt small and cold and sad and desperately lonely.
Selfish, she thought. That’s what he was. He’d been selfish that day, twenty-five years ago, when he arrived drunk and bent on destruction, and he’d been selfish tonight when he cracked open the walls Abby Griffin had built around her heart and then walked away to marry another woman. Was it some kind of revenge, she wondered? Causing her the same kind of pain he believed she’d caused him?
But this was different. Her feelings were different. Whatever stupid teenage crush he might have harbored years ago which drove him to lash out with jealousy, it wasn’t like that for Abby. It was something deeper, something real, something that felt like the possibility of hope and joy and family dangled in front of her and then snatched away again with no warning. She’d missed all the signs, she’d been blinded by irrelevant, deceptive things. How much softer he looked with a beard and rumpled, shaggy hair, instead of the cold, angular face she remembered. How it felt to see Clarke look at him every once in awhile the way she’d looked at Jake, an expression Abby had thought she’d never see again. How it felt to watch him slowly thaw and unfold, like a frozen rosebud blossoming, until he’d become someone who smiled in her presence, and it felt like a broken piece of the past had been put right again.
But none of it was real.
Marcus Kane had not missed his toast at their wedding because he was a self-destructive dumbass who lost track of time after too much whiskey. He had skipped it on purpose - had, in fact, not even written one - because he did not want Jake to marry Abby and could not bring himself to say one kind thing about their relationship or offer one good wish for their life together. That was pure selfishness, however he justified it to himself now, however he might claim he had once felt, however close he had come to kissing her on the veranda.
She’d been willing to forgive him for drunk stupidity - she’d been willing to give him a second chance and leave that in the past - but the malice of this new version of the story, the casual cruelty of it, had undone everything. She’d been wrong about him from the start. She had not really known him at all.
On a whim, she rose from the icy bench and made her way over the stone path, edged in snowdrifts, that wound through the churchyard until she came to a halt - not in front of her husband’s tombstone, or her best friend’s, but that of the one person in the world whose counsel she suddenly wanted most. The one person she desperately wished were standing before her now.
“Hi, Vera,” she said to the glassy black granite surface, stooping down to run her fingertips lightly over the etched white letters of the woman’s name. “Thank you for the Christmas cards.”
And then the fraying cord holding all of Abby Griffin together snapped entirely, and she could not stop the tears from flowing.
For a long time, she just cried and cried and cried. For Jake, for Callie, for Vera, for all the things each of them should have said years ago and didn’t. For the years she didn’t come home to visit the people she cared about. For the community Clarke could have grown up with, but never met until now. For Marcus, and all the years he’d spent alone with no one but ghosts to keep him company.
“I think I love him,” she whispered to Vera, the words tumbling out in a choked sob, startling even herself. “But he lied to me. And he broke my heart. And he chose someone else. And now I don’t know what to do.”
But Vera Kane was silent; there was no sound except the whistling wind in the branches of the trees overhead.
“I wanted Clarke to belong here, the way I once did,” she went on, with a strange urgency, as though someone was listening who needed to understand. “I wanted her to know her home. Our home. But I can’t stay here anymore. This town might be just barely big enough to avoid seeing someone you hate, but it’s not nearly big enough to avoid seeing someone you love." She hugged the coat around her tighter, hating her own weakness for the fact that even now, the warmth of his scent gave her as much comfort as it did pain. "I'm in love with him," she said again, more sure of it this time, because it felt, after all, like something Vera Kane would have understood. Saying it to Callie, saying it to Jake, even saying it to Clarke - no, the words still had too much gravity attached to them, too much grief. But Vera was safe. Vera was kind. Vera was somewhere looking down on her, with empathy and understanding in her eyes, and it was a peculiar sensation but Abby could almost feel her, suddenly, as though she were no longer alone. As though Vera was really with her, listening.
"I don’t want to keep running from ghosts, Vera," said Abby helplessly, "but I don’t know how to live with this one. I thought . . . just for a moment, I thought there was a chance. But he picked her. Just like she always said he would. None of it was real. I didn’t change anything.”
“You changed everything,” murmured a low voice from behind her, causing her heart to stop beating, and when she turned around, there he was.
It was not Vera Kane, she suddenly realized, whose presence she had suddenly felt so close by.
It was her son.
He hadn’t changed his clothes either, or even stopped for a coat, so he stood there in his rumpled tuxedo, snowflakes dusting his chocolate-brown hair and disappearing against the salt-and-pepper flecks of silver which glowed in the moonlight. He was not a young man anymore, and he did not look it; he stood there and faced her across the gulf of every one of their shared forty-eight years.
"I've been looking for you," he said.
Abby looked away. "I didn't think anyone would notice I was gone."
"I did. And so did Clarke. We were worried about you."
"Clarke hates you right now."
"She did, for awhile," Marcus conceded. "But then she let me explain. Will you?"
"You already did," Abby said brusquely. "It didn't help."
"I heard you," he said softly. "I heard what you said. And I won't ask you to stay, if you can't bear it here. If you can't be in this town while I'm in it. If you have to go, I won't stop you. If you want to stay, then I'll go. Tell me what you need from me to be happy, Abby, and I'll give it to you. You can have anything. But you have to know that I didn't choose her. I didn't marry Diana. I couldn't."
Abby's heart stopped. "You didn't?" she repeated, in a small, hesitant voice, and Marcus shook his head, taking a step closer to her.
"I take full responsibility, for letting this go on as long as it did," he said seriously. "I wasn't being fair to her any more than I was to myself, or to you. I shouldn't have waited so long to give any thought to how I really felt. What I really wanted. As soon as we came back inside, I tried to get her alone, to break it to her gently, to spare her any public embarrassment. That . . . ended up not being possible. You should know," he added, "that apart from the desire to make you jealous and drive you and Clarke away, the main reason she wanted to marry me tonight was to get her hands on the inn, so she could sell it."
Abby's eyes widened, stunned. "Sell it without you?"
He nodded. "It's a long, complicated story," he said, "and actually your daughter knows more about it than I do. She and the Blakes were the ones who found out. And they all came charging into the ballroom at top speed to try and stop a wedding, which they had no idea I'd already decided to stop myself. But it seems all along Diana had a buyer lined up, and when I decided to stay, she got desperate. She was willing to sell the place out from under me, and face the consequences, rather than lose the deal."
"So you're really not selling," she said. "You want to stay."
“I thought I didn't," he confessed. "I thought I wanted to escape from this place. I thought it would be easier to skip town, and leave the ghosts behind. But that isn’t how it works. You know that. I know that. We just have to make peace with them. They’ll follow us wherever we go.”
He took another step closer to her, and held up a hand to prevent her from saying anything more. “Please,” he said. “Hear me out. Let me say what I came here to say, and then whatever happens next is up to you.”
“Marcus, there’s nothing you can say that fixes any of this,” she said helplessly. “Whether you’re married to Diana Sydney or not.”
“You asked me,” he said in a low voice, “what I said to Jake the day after your wedding. I think you deserve to know. I said it to him, and I said it to Callie, and now it's time to say it to you."
“Callie?” she repeated blankly. “What does Callie have to do with it?”
“Callie has everything to do with it,” he told her. “Callie is the reason I stayed away.”
He moved another step closer to her, bringing him into the red-and-gold light glowing from within the church, refracted through frost-covered stained glass windows. His face was half in shadow as he looked down at her, eyes warm and serious.
“I didn’t know it when we got married,” he began softly. “You have to believe me. I would never have done that to her. I just thought things were the way they were between us because every marriage is different. We were always fond of each other, but there was nothing wild and electric about it, and that seemed perfectly fine. We both assumed we simply weren’t . . . built that way. Until the night before your wedding, at the rehearsal dinner.”
“Marcus, what -”
“You kissed me,” he said, voice rough and raw. “You came over to the table where the groomsmen were sitting, and you shook their hands and thanked them, and then you took my hand and pulled me to my feet and kissed my cheek, and suddenly my whole world shattered. I didn’t know I felt that way about you, Abby. I didn’t know I could feel that way about anyone. I didn’t know why I couldn’t make myself feel that way about my own wife. But suddenly, I couldn’t un-know it anymore. That was when I first realized I was in love with you.”
Abby felt all the air collapse out of her lungs and had to remind herself how to breathe before she could summon the strength to speak again. “Marcus,” she began, but she had no idea how to go on.
“I was in love with you,” he repeated, stepping even closer to her, so near she could reach out and take his hand if she were brave enough, which she wasn’t. “I loved you as much as I hated myself. I didn't want to feel like that, I wanted to rip that love out of my chest and give it to my own wife, instead of to someone else's, to someone who could never accept it. I had never been in love before, and I handled it badly in every possible way. I left the rehearsal dinner and went across the street to a bar, and drank until I couldn’t stand up. Callie had to come get me at three in the morning. She knew something had happened, but didn’t know what. I could hardly look at her. She was the best and kindest person I ever knew, and I’d married her until death do us part, and suddenly I’d been hit by a bolt of lightning. I was in love with her best friend, who was about to marry my best friend, and there was no way out of this that didn’t ruin everyone’s lives. It made me feel like a monster, just to be in the same room with her. It felt like such a betrayal.” He looked down at his wife’s tombstone, almost as though he was looking at Callie herself, and took a long moment to collect himself before he went on. “What happened on the day of the wedding, you already know,” he said heavily. “Eventually, Thelonious shoved me into a cab and sent me home, and when Callie returned from the reception she was crying. The minute she walked into the room, I told her everything.”
“Oh, Jesus,” Abby whispered, tears welling up in her eyes. “What did she say?”
“She told me to do the right thing,” he said heavily. “She told me to tell the truth, because it was kinder than letting you think that I hated you, and then once everyone knew everything, we could all decide where we would go from there. So the next morning I drove to your house, and Jake opened the door, and I told him everything too.”
“Why didn’t I know about this?” she demanded. “Why did everyone know this except for me?”
Marcus held his hands open in a gesture of surrender. “I thought you did,” he said frankly. “I assumed Jake would tell you. I thought it might be gentler, coming from him. That it might save you the embarrassment of having to decide, right there, in the moment, with me in front of you, how to respond. I suppose I hoped that in a few days, after the dust had settled, that you might come to the inn, or at least call, and then I could apologize, and we could all be uncomfortable together for awhile, and then try to work out how to be friends again. But then you left for Boston, without a word. Without even saying goodbye. And I knew, then, that you'd made your decision. That it was over, and that I had ruined everything."
"Oh God, Marcus," she murmured, feeling an ache of grief so deep in her bones that she felt rooted to the spot, as cold and immovable as one of the marble statues behind her. The weight of the sadness they had each been carrying for twenty-five years was too much to bear; but this was the first time she'd truly realized that Marcus had broken his own heart too. He'd hurt a lot of people, but he'd hurt himself more than anyone else.
"I expected Callie to leave, after that," he went on. "God knows it felt like a fair punishment. But we talked, and cried, and went to counseling, and talked some more, and in the end she decided to stay. And we were happy together, in the end. We cobbled the pieces back together, and made it work. She loved this place, and she loved my mother, and she loved bringing joy to people, and we loved each other, and we made it work. But then I lost Jake, before I could make it right with him. And then my mother, and finally Callie. One after the other after the other, until I had been so alone for so long that Diana’s visions of leaving it all behind seemed like they might not be such a terrible idea. I think I would have gone through with it. I was so close to saying yes. But then,” he said, swallowing hard, “you came back. And you brought Clarke with you.” He looked down at her, eyes bright with tears, closing the last of the distance between them with one more step. “You came back, and it was like an old scar ripped open. I’d thought my feelings were gone, I thought I’d put it all behind me, but I hadn’t. It was all still there. And I was furious at you, for waiting until I’d finally begun to move on and then swooping back in to turn my life inside-out again - without ever acknowledging this vast, momentous thing that I'd believed all along you knew. I was so ready to hate you, Abby. For the first few days, I think I did. But then suddenly there was this girl, this blonde-haired, stubborn, laughing girl, bossing my staff around and making Christmas ornaments out of scrap paper and looking up at me with Jake Griffin’s eyes, and I thought - what if? What if there was a way to make things right, through her, since she was the only piece of Jake we all had left? I think I knew I loved Clarke before I even realized that I still loved you,” he confessed, the ghost of a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth and cracking her heart wide open. “I had forgotten what it felt like to have anything that felt like a family.”
Tears streamed down her cheeks, bright-cold in the frosty wind, but she scarcely noticed, eyes fixed on his as he reached out to brush a snow-frosted lock of hair away from her cheek. “That’s what I wanted to say,” he murmured. “That’s all of it. No more secrets. If you still want to go back to Boston, I won’t stand in your way. I’ll stay out of your lives forever. But I couldn’t let you walk away again without saying it.” His fingertips brushed her cheek for a moment, with infinite longing, before he finally drew his hand away and stepped back. “You're even more beautiful to me tonight than you were twenty-five years ago," he said softly. "If this is the last time I ever see you, I'll always remember you like this. The snow and the starlight and your red dress. Wearing my grandfather's jacket, and talking to my mother."
For a long, long time, neither of them said anything. Marcus had no more words left; he had poured them all out to her, and his heart was too full to form any more just yet. Abby, still sifting through them, full of wonder and astonishment and sorrow and guilt and hope and despair and a hundred other emotions she could scarcely even name, did not know where to begin. So they stood there, facing each other, across twenty-five years of heartbreak and a few inches of snowy ground, listening to the wind in the trees and the pounding of their own hearts.
When Abby finally did speak, her first words were not what he expected at all.
"You're shivering," she said.
"You came looking for me without a coat."
"I didn't have time to go back upstairs. And my favorite one was missing."
Abby slipped her arms out of the heavy wool sleeves and shrugged out of the coat, standing up on her toes to drape it over his shoulders.
"Don't be ridiculous," he said. "I have a dinner jacket. Your dress is strapless. You’ll freeze.”
“No I won’t,” she murmured, “not if you hold me.”
Marcus swallowed hard. "Abby," he whispered uncertainly, a peculiar tremor in his voice. "Are you - is this -"
Abby didn't answer, but stepped in close and buried her face in his chest, feeling the rhythm of his heart hammering beneath her cheek as he wrapped his arms around her, pulling her inside the cocoon of his coat and letting the warmth of her small body seep into his.
“It smells like you,” he whispered, leaning down to rest his head against her soft hair. “So much it hurts."
“I thought the exact same thing,” she said.
They stood there for a long time, cold wind swirling around them, the only warm thing in the whole world, until the snow began to thicken, dropping softly on the stone roof of the church and the granite surfaces of the tombstones and obelisks.
"There are so many things to say," she whispered. "I just . . . I don't know if I can say them yet."
"We could at least go back to the inn," he suggested. "You'd be warmer. And Clarke will be worried sick."
Abby shook her head. "I'm not ready to face other people again," she said. "You were right, Marcus. About learning to live with all the ghosts beside us. We can't run away from them anymore. They're a part of who we are."
Marcus took the coat back off, and draped it around her shoulders again, then took her hand. "One more," he said, leading her down the path. "Come with me."
They took the long way, in no hurry, meandering through the churchyard, watching the soft clouds of white float down from the black sky, making the angels and crosses around them glitter with the sanctuary's refracted light. It was not a sad or gloomy place, like this, Abby thought as they walked. It held the lives, the stories, of a whole town, but those stories lived in other places too. Vera Kane and Callie Cartwig were more than those two flat black slabs under the pines; they were the hundreds of laughing, joyful men and women and children drinking eggnog and singing carols in the ballroom of Eden Tree Lodge. A human life was more than its ending. The people they had been still mattered, and they had left so much more than gravestones behind them.
Marcus stopped walking exactly where she had somehow known he would, and held her hand tightly in his as they both gazed down together at the unprepossessing slab of granite - thick with snow, which he knelt down to brush away - where “JACOB SAMUEL GRIFFIN” was etched in black letters.
The Kanes were buried in the older half of the cemetery, as befitted one of the parish's founding families. But over here, the graves were newer, the plots smaller. There had been no room for an upright headstone for Jake Griffin, only a humble flat one; but as Marcus swept the snow away, Abby was astonished to see, all the way around the neat little rectangle, hardy little shoots of green peeking out of the mounds of white surrounding it, one or two already sprouting cheerful crocus blossoms of violet and blue.
"I haven't been back here since the funeral," said Abby. "I wonder who planted the flowers, while I was gone."
"I did," said Marcus, startling her into turning to look up at him. “I wanted him to always have flowers. Partly selfish, I’ll admit,” he confessed with a faint chuckle, “because it made me feel less silly to have something to do with my hands when I came here to talk to him. But I also thought - in case you ever came back someday, I thought it might be nice for you to see something beautiful.”
Abby was silenced by this. No words were possible. She could feel something vast and heavy cracking open deep inside her chest, at the thought of Marcus Kane on his hands and knees at Jake’s graveside, talking to him as though he were still right here, hands buried deep in the soil, planting crocus bulbs in the hope that Abby might someday come home to see them.
They had fought with each other and resented each other and blamed each other and judged each other, but still, underneath it all, there was this -
That he had loved her for twenty-five years.
That he had never stopped loving Callie or Jake either, that he had made himself the caretaker of their resting place, that his heart had room for all of them inside it.
That all her grief, all her loss, all her sorrow, all the suffering she believed she was bearing alone, was halved in weight, because Marcus' strong shoulders were capable of carrying it with her.
He had never picked up the phone, or written her a letter, or driven to Boston. He had never crossed the line he thought she'd drawn. But he loved her enough anyway to plant flowers with his own hands, so if she ever saw them, she would know that Jake had not been alone while she was gone.
That was the real Marcus Kane. Not the man he'd been on the worst day of his life - the man she'd spent twenty-five years trying to forget - and not the man silently drowning in his own depression and grief so that the only solution appeared to be running away. The real Marcus Kane was the man who spent years in counseling to repair his marriage, who poured everything he had into keeping this inn alive because it meant so much to his mother, who looked at Clarke and saw his best friend smiling back at him out of those blue eyes, and who had come back to life again with the hope that perhaps healing was still possible. And he had not done it to win her, he had not done it to make Abby love him back, he had not even realized his feelings were still there.
He had simply wanted to make a wrong thing right again.
There was something in the crocuses, more than anything else that had happened on this long, exhausting, overwhelming, emotional night, which threatened to shatter her once and for all, and eventually she found she could not look at them anymore. She was ready to leave the ghosts where they were, and go back to the land of the living. Jake would follow her, of course, and so would Callie, and so would Vera, but that was all right with her now.
They had made their peace.
So she took Marcus by the hand, and led him wordlessly away from Jake's grave, down the churchyard path, passing in and out of the red-gold light of the stained glass windows overhead until they reached the parking lot, where his battered old pickup sat waiting, the keys still in the ignition.
Marcus took a step toward it, then hesitated, turning back to Abby. His dark eyes were shining with something that looked like both grief and hope together.
"Clarke told me you wanted to leave," he said. "I'll drive you back to Boston tonight, if that's what you want. If that's what will make you happy. Or anywhere else you want to go. You know how I feel, Abby. You know what I want. What I've always wanted. But the choice is up to you. If you can't stay here, I'll understand."
Abby looked up at him, meeting his dark eyes with her own. "I want to go home."
Marcus looked at her helplessly. "I don't know where that is," he said.
She smiled at this, gently, hesitantly, the thing between them still too fragile for real laughter or joy. They were still too close to the ghosts, after all.
“Yes, you do,” she told him, reaching up to rest her fingertips against his cheek, stroking the dark gray-brown of his beard, dusted with white by the years and the snow. "You knew before I did. Everyone else knew but me."
His lips parted at this, inhaling a sharp, startled breath, and a spark lit up the heavy sadness behind his eyes. "Abby," he murmured. "Abby, I -"
"It's wherever you are, Marcus," she said. "You're my home. For the rest of my life."
Then she stepped into his arms, and laid her cheek against his chest, and felt his arms fold around her, breathing him in, and they stood there for a long, long time, letting the tears flow out of them until the cold winter wind turned them to frost on their skin, until all the weight of the past twenty-five years of grief had been released. It would stay here, in the churchyard, with all the other ghosts, so they could finally leave it behind them.
It was time, they both knew, to start over.
* * * * *
The dreamlike atmosphere of this peculiar bubble of love and loss and grief and snow and starlight did not last forever, and eventually - despite the warm chest rising and falling beneath her cheek, and the wool coat around her shoulders, Abby realized she was too cold to stand outside much longer. Marcus started the car, to run the heater for a few moments before they got in, and hunted around in the glove box for an ice scraper to clear the new-fallen snow off the windshield, both of which were rather difficult tasks to do in a romantic or heroic way. So Abby shivered and stamped her feet and paced around until the car was ready, and then Marcus took her hand and bundled her, along with her acres of red satin skirt, into the passenger seat, where the gown which had looked so elegant in the ballroom - and so desperately tragic, he'd thought, in the snow, between the black graves and the white ground - now puffed up around her knees in a decidedly undignified manner.
"I feel like I'm chauffeuring a giant cupcake," said Marcus, as the truck pulled out of the parking lot, a remark which - after the violent emotional whiplash of the past few hours - struck Abby as so hysterically funny that she collapsed against his shoulder in helpless giggles, which did not subside for a very long time. Marcus looked down at her with an affectionate smile, as the headlights of the truck swept across the empty, snowy road. It felt like a lifetime ago that she'd walked this way alone.
"You've never done that before," he said. "I like it."
"What? Laughed at a dorky joke because I was tired?”
“Ouch. No. I meant - you've never put your head on my shoulder like that.”
"Is this okay?"
"It's better than okay," he said softly. "I don't ever want you to stop."
Abby smiled, and snuggled in closer, his wool coat warm on her bare skin. “You can drive with one hand,” she suggested, lifting his right arm and wrapping it around her body, letting him enfold her in his warmth. He kept his left hand on the wheel, but agreeably pulled her closer with the other one, and let his fingertips play idly with the loose tangle of her hair.
“This is very cozy, and very unsafe,” he pointed out. “Aren’t you some kind of doctor?”
“Not until January 2nd.”
“Oh. That’s fine then.”
“Besides, you know the way from here to the farm in your sleep.”
He nodded, looking straight ahead of him, down the open, snow-frosted country highway. “That I do,” he agreed. “Been driving the same roads all my life.”
“I like that about you,” she murmured. “That this town is a part of who you are.”
“It’s a part of who you are too,” he reminded her. “And it sure is happy you’re back.”
“For good,” she said firmly. He squeezed her shoulder, and smiled.
They were quiet for a few moments, watching the snowy road go slowly by as they wound their way out of the town proper and through the forest of young fir trees sloping down the hill. Next year Bellamy and his crew would chop them down and haul them to the lot, where Octavia and Indra, and probably Clarke, would send them on their way to their new owners, to make the homes of Arkadia bright and merry again.
Next year Marcus would bring all of Callie and Vera’s decorations down from the attic and put trees all over the inn, and there would be feasting and singing and snow and joy.
Next year everything would be different.
“It’s so unfair,” she murmured suddenly, causing Marcus to look down at her curiously. “It’s so unfair, that we lost so much time.”
Marcus turned his eyes back to the road, swallowing hard. “You don’t just mean the past few weeks, do you?”
“All those years,” she whispered. “I stayed away because I thought you hated me. And you stayed away because you loved me. We lost so much time being angry at each other, when if we’d just been a little less stubborn and told each other the truth -”
He shook his head. “I don’t know that it could have been different,” he said in a low voice. “Maybe this was how it always had to be. Callie and I did make each other happy. She was what Mother and I needed. She was what made the place work. And we loved each other. It wasn’t a fairytale romance, maybe, but it was real. And you . . . You and Jake went to Boston and had a daughter and made extraordinary lives for yourselves. You could never have become the person you wanted to become if you’d stayed in a sleepy little town with one sleepy little hospital. You had to stretch your wings and soar. And you did that. If I’d gotten what I wanted twenty-five years ago, Abby, if I’d reached you that day at the church - if I’d told you the truth then, if I’d asked and you said yes - it wouldn’t have worked. We could never have been happy together, with a relationship that began that way. It would have been such a betrayal of Jake and Callie. It would have broken their hearts. And besides,” he added, “then there would be no Clarke. And I don’t want to live in that world, do you?”
“No,” she said emphatically, as Marcus pulled his truck into the gravel drive leading to the back door of the inn. “I don’t.”
The night air was icy on her skin as he opened the door and helped her and her waterfall of red satin skirts down from the truck. Inside, every window was blazing with warmth and light; they could hear the sound of laughing voices and clinking glasses and the indefatigable Lincoln, still at the piano. Off in the distance, they could see guests still spilling in and out of the veranda doors; but here, away from the main entrance, it was still quiet, and dark, and private, and as cold as they were, they both felt curiously reluctant to go inside just yet, and let this extraordinary moment end.
“You’re right,” she said. “It wouldn’t have worked then. I wasn’t in love with that Marcus.” She reached her hand up to cradle his cheek, brushing her fingertips against the soft scruff of his beard, the streaks of gray and white which marked the passage of time that had led them here. “But I’m never letting this one go.”
He closed his eyes, ducking his head and leaning into her touch, and it cracked her heart open a little to think of how long it had been since someone had showed him tenderness. He had been alone, without his mother, without his wife, for so long. “Come here, love,” she whispered, and took him into her arms, and stroked his hair as he buried his head in her shoulder and let her hold him. “I’m not letting you go,” she said again. “Not ever.”
He wrapped his arms around her waist, and they stood there like that, heedless of the snow, Abby's fingers carding through his thick, soft locks as he pressed her small body tightly against his own.
Then something shifted - his head, resting on her shoulder, turned just slightly, and she felt the warmth of his breath sweep across her bare throat, and she shivered from something that was only partially the cold.
Marcus felt it too.
"Abby," he whispered, so close she could feel his lips moving against her skin.
"Marcus," she whispered back. "Please."
"I was waiting for the right moment," he said, lifting his head to cradle her face in his warm, strong hands. “It didn’t feel right in the churchyard. I wanted it to be perfect.”
"I don't need it to be perfect," she said. "I just need it to be now. I haven't stopped thinking about it since you left me on the roof."
"I haven't stopped thinking about it since the first time I saw you in a dress again."
She smiled at this. "The night of the caroling, when you sang to me," she said. "In front of Clarke's tree."
"I was trying to say it then," said Marcus, "but I couldn't -"
A snowball pelted down from above, landing on Marcus' shoes and startling them apart. They looked up to see Octavia standing at an open window on the second floor, Clarke craning her own head out another window a few feet down.
“Kiss her, you dumbass!” Octavia yelled, already preparing another snowball from the heaps of white collecting on the windowsill.
“You have terrible aim,” said Clarke.
“That is where I was aiming!”
“For the ground? Congratulations, that took a lot of skill.”
“I wasn’t going to pelt them in the face, I’m not a monster.”
“Marcus, can you pick up the pace?” yelled Clarke. “My Mom is freezing. She’s a very tiny person and she’s going to die of hypothermia before you ever get a chance to pop the question so can you like, do what you need to do and then get her inside?”
Abby looked at Marcus, eyebrow raised in amusement. "Well," she said. "We may have missed our window for the perfect romantic moment."
Marcus grinned at her. "I don't know," he said. "Somehow, this feels like exactly how this was supposed to happen."
Another splat!, this time catching the hem of Abby's skirt. “Can you guys just hurry up and kiss?” shouted Octavia. "We've been super busy since you two left, we had a whole cute plan with a toast and everything, but my bra is killing me and I just want to do the champagne thing so I can put on my fucking pajamas."
"I told you," Clarke snapped at her, "you can wear your stupid pajamas for the champagne thing!"
"I don't want to be the only one in my pajamas! You know Bell is going to take a billion pictures!"
“Can everyone stop shouting?” shouted Bellamy, popping his head out of the kitchen window below them. “There are still guests here, and you all sound completely fucking insane."
"They haven't even kissed yet!"
"Gee, I wonder if it's because you're throwing snowballs at them!"
"I give up," announced Clarke, "I'm going downstairs. Mom, we're all in the kitchen whenever you guys are done making out or whatever."
"Eeeww, don't talk about your mom and Kane that way," said Bellamy, shuddering, and ducking back inside, as though about to join Clarke.
"Bellamy, wait!" Octavia shouted down, from the window above him, and Marcus and Abby watched in fascination as she waited for the exact moment when he stuck his head out again, craning his neck to look up at her . . . and then, with impeccable precision, she dropped her final snowball straight onto his face.
“Ohhhhhhh, you are dead,” he spluttered furiously, shaking the snow out of his tousled curls before slamming the window shut, and within seconds a stampede of footsteps could be heard on the stairs.
"I imagine the three of them will be occupied for some time," said Abby dryly. "So we should take advantage of the peace and quiet while we have it."
"It's funny," said Marcus. "I rather thought I ought to ask your daughter's permission first. Just to make sure she'd forgiven me."
“Seems like she has.”
“I’d say so, yes.”
“Though I’m not sure what either of us did to Octavia.”
“Don’t take it personally, she’ll throw a snowball at anyone. I guess that just means you’re family now.”
“You told me that was what this place needed,” she reminded him, reaching up to caress his face with both hands, and pull it down close to hers. “That it only worked when it had a family to run it. You had one all along, Marcus. You built a new family, after you lost your own. Bellamy and Octavia and Indra and Charmaine and everyone else.”
“And now you too,” he said, half a question in it, and she nodded.
“And now us too,” she said, smiling, and then finally - after waiting for twenty-five years - he kissed her.
The kiss split Abby wide open from head to toe, like a seam had been ripped down the center of her chest and her entire heart and soul and self poured out of it. His mouth was warm and soft and his arms were solid and strong around her and he tasted like cinnamon and ginger and his skin smelled like pine trees and snow, and Abby knew right then and there that all those boxes were never going to see the inside of Vincent Vie’s rental house, because they belonged at Eden Tree Farm, and so did she.
“This Christmas is certainly shaping up to end better than it started,” Abby laughed, a little breathlessly, when Marcus finally lifted his head and pulled away.
He smiled down at her, eyes warm and alive and shining with joy. “Best of my whole life,” he said.
“I wonder how we’ll top it next year. This is a pretty high bar."
Marcus took her hand, pulling open the back door, and smiling down at her as they stepped into warmth and light and joy and the smell of pine trees and the sound of laughter, following the sounds of arguing Blakes down the hall toward the kitchen. He thought about the black velvet box in his mother's cedar chest, and how three nights ago he had walked into his bedroom to see Abby holding it, tears in her eyes.
Abby thought the iron wedding rings were beautiful. Abby did not mind that they were simple - even plain - because they had a story. Abby would say yes, if he held out his mother's ring to her, and then she would become part of the story of this place too. A second chapter, twenty-five years after the first, because they were living proof that there was no such thing as too late.
Marcus leaned down to press one final kiss against her mouth, before pushing open the kitchen door where their family was waiting for them.
“Don't worry," he said, and squeezed her hand, letting his fingertip brush over the back of her knuckle, which a year from now would not be bare anymore. "Next Christmas will be even better. I promise."