Miracle at Holly Hill Inn by Maddie James

 

One

December 22, Present Day


Even the trees sparkle.

Ariana Angelo pushed open her car door and stepped out onto the snow-covered pavement. In awe, she scanned her surroundings to take in the quaint New England Main Street lined with Victorian shopfronts—each one decorated to storybook perfection with greenery and red bows, a hefty portion of tinsel and holly, and of course, snow.

The snow was real. None of that fake stuff like back home.

Closing the car door, she moved toward the sidewalk, twirling once, maybe twice, still perusing the most precious Christmas village scene she’d ever before encountered—and that was saying a lot. Christmas was her business, her world—and this town just might be Christmas perfection. She was so glad she’d come.

Stifling the urge to lift her face to the sky and catch a drifting fluffy snowflake on her tongue, she sighed with happiness, eager to explore.

Down the street sat the gazebo. She recognized it from pictures she’d seen of the town. It, too, was draped in greenery and ribbons, looking somewhat like a confection sitting atop some sort of pretty Christmas cake—at least one she might bake. It appeared the gazebo was situated within the town square. Beside it was a statue sporting a red scarf billowing in the brisk breeze. Stepping onto the snow-swept sidewalk, she kept an eye on the structure and wandered a few steps in that direction.

There.

Off to the side of the gazebo stood the town square Christmas tree, proudly displaying gold and silver baubles, ornaments of all colors, and more ribbons—all peeking through fresh snow. The annual Dickens Christmas tree lighting was earlier in the season, and she was sorry she’d missed it—but there was no denying the tree’s magnificence.

And, oh? Is that a carousel?

Her insides twittered with glee, bubbling up so rapidly she could barely contain it. She might have let out a quick little giggle.

Pausing her stroll, she spied a colorful sign hanging in the shop window to her right. Her eye traveled over the shopfront—Leslie’s Bakes & More—and her tummy rumbled. Another cup of coffee soon, and perhaps a pastry, would be nice.

Her gaze landed on the red and green sign. Holiday Lighting Event at Holly Hill Inn, Thursday Evening, December 23rd. With a quick look at the calendar on her digital watch, she smiled. Yes. Today was Wednesday, so the lighting event at the inn was tomorrow—on the eve of Christmas Eve, or Christmas Eve Eve, as she liked to say. Why not stretch out the holiday as long as possible?

Smiling, and immensely happy she’d braved the snowstorm—even against her family’s warnings—she felt silly with holiday cheer. The weather had been dicey the day before, delaying her trip into historic Dickens. While she didn’t mind getting stuck an extra night at the small New England B&B she’d booked about sixty miles down the road, she was glad the storm had let up enough so she could get to Dickens.

And bonus! Because of a cancelation and a matter of happenstance, she had secured a reservation for three nights at the popular Holly Hill Inn, although she was in no hurry to get there. Too much to explore first in the village. Besides, she couldn’t check in until late afternoon—so she had most of the daylight hours left to discover the magic of Dickens at Christmastime.

Dickens just might be the small-town Christmas village of her dreams. She couldn’t wait to get pictures and write about it. Her blog readers were going to be so excited.

Reaching into her bag, she pulled out her camera, adjusted the lens, and began walking. As if by magic, the town suddenly teemed with shoppers, milling in and out of the shops, chatting on the sidewalks, and calling out holiday greetings.

Shopping for last-minute gifts before this storm hits again, she guessed.

Ariana smiled, dizzy with Christmas excitement and filled with the holiday spirit. She snapped pictures, chatted with the townsfolk, and gleefully made her way up Main Street, around the square, and down the other side.

Her heart was happy.

It was Christmas and she was finally in Dickens.

Nothing could spoil her mood. Absolutely nothing.

Matt Mathews pulledthe bottom of his sweater sleeve over the heel of his palm and rubbed out the smudges his breath made on the old windowpane. Peering out into the street—perusing the local shoppers and visiting tourists—he sighed. His breath, once again, fogged the glass, so he took one more swipe at it and then turned away.

How many more days until Christmas was over? Too many.

Heading back to his cubby-hole refuge behind the old wooden countertop desk, tucked into the back of the hardware store, he traveled the center aisle between time-worn, nearly ceiling-high, wooden shelves which housed everything from plumbing and electrical supplies to household cleaners and associated paraphernalia, some small appliances like electric can openers and hand-held mixers, and tools. Lots of tools.

And where there were tools, there were also items that went along with tools—like fence wire, and tape measures, and replacement doorknobs, and cabinet pulls, and such.

Instead of shelves in those areas, there were small wooden drawers—carefully catalogued by his Great Uncle Herb years ago—where one could select nails or screws or bolts or washers, or an assortment of those and other items that a carpenter, or perhaps a crafty person might need.

Yes. Dickens Hardware held all that and more. His family had always strived to provide the town with what they needed, so variety was the mainstay.

What one wouldn’t find at Dickens Hardware, however—a store that had been in his family for over a hundred years—was anything to do with Christmas. No tinsel. No trees. No ornaments, holly, wrapping paper, wreaths, or mistletoe.

Ever.

Well, that wasn’t entirely true. His parents had stocked quite a bit of holiday cheer and such in the past. They loved the holiday. But Matt? No. He’d done away with all that years ago.

Christmas was not his thing. It was not his busy season. People weren’t shopping for hammers or toilet plungers in December. They were out for holly and wreaths. And truth be known, he’d probably be better off next year to close the store the entire month of December and go someplace warm for a while—some place where the entire town didn’t revel in the idea of the holiday or focus eleven months of the year getting ready for it.

Yes. That is a good idea. Some place warm.

Matt settled himself on the stool behind the counter, crossed his arms over his chest, and peered out over the store. At some point soon, he should think about walking down the street to grab some lunch—but did he really want to brave the crowd?

Maybe he’d just close the store early and go home. He could always open a can of soup. “Merry Christmas to me.”

Ariana impatiently peekedaround the line in front of her at Leslie’s Bakes & More, trying to get a glimpse at the counter to see what kind of cookies were hiding in front of a gentleman standing there waiting for his sandwich. She tapped her foot, inspecting the quaint interior of the business. Patience was not her strong suit, so waiting in line for anything was always a challenge. In the meantime, she’d simply busy herself by perusing the Christmas decorations and the people, the confections and pastries, and the deli menu in the small bakery-slash-sandwich shop.

Which was not a bad idea, she surmised, to combine the two types of establishments. The bakery could cater to the breakfast crowd with pastries and coffee earlier in the day, then later, sandwiches and cookies for the lunch crowd. And pie.

Oh, there was pie. She stretched her neck and took a tiny step to her right to ogle the pie case around the corner from the counter.

Leaning more to her right, she watched the gentleman hiding the cookies step away—were those Snickerdoodles?—and the line moved forward.

She took a half-step to the right, then another—but someone darted in front of her, taking her spot in line.

Standing there for a moment, a little befuddled to be perfectly honest, she made the best of it.

“Excuse me.” She tapped the man’s shoulder. “I’m sure you didn’t realize you cut in front of me. I’ve been standing here for a while. But if you are in a hurry, I’m happy to let you go first. Besides, it’s Christmas.” She smiled.

He turned and looked at her, mumbled something under his breath, and didn’t smile back. “You weren’t in line.”

“Oh, but I was. Am.” Her feet planted, she peered back, not about to move.

He stared back at her with his knit cap pulled down low over his forehead, a shock of brown hair poking out, and his arms crossed tightly over his coat at his chest. “I, also, have been standing in line. You, it appeared, had stepped away and were gawking.”

Gawking?“I beg your pardon?”

“Gawking,” he replied. “You know, gallerwaggling about. Listlessly wandering. You didn’t appear to be standing in line. I thought you were, basically, aimlessly perusing.”

Ariana squinted, quickly studying the man. He wasn’t an old man. He was, perhaps, a couple of years older than her—but his grumpiness gave off an illusion of being much older—and crotchety. Such a shame. He actually had pleasant features—high cheekbones, a firm chin, and a scruffy five o’clock shadow that was maybe two days overdue.

She stood a little straighter and set her shoulders. Forget about the sexy five o’clock shadow, Ariana. “For the record, I do not gallerwag. Nor do I listlessly wander or aimlessly peruse. I’ll have you know that should I ever peruse or wander, I do so with intent. And as to gallerwag? You made that up. It’s not a word. Perhaps you meant lollygag.”

“No. I meant what I said. Look it up.” He turned into the line, showing her his back.

Not to be dismissed, Ariana poked him on the shoulder again with her forefinger. “I actually don’t carry a dictionary with me. Besides, words are my business and that is not one.”

He shrugged. “Got your phone? Google it.” He gave her a backward glance.

“I most certainly will.” Reaching for her purse and her phone, she paused, then looked at the back of his head. “Later. You are intentionally distracting me.”

He half-turned. “You were already distracted.”

Sidling up next to him, she made eye contact. Just for the record, she noted to herself, they were deep brown and…well, right now, they were sort of probing hers. “I’ll have you know I was not distracted. I’m an observer. A writer. I examine things. You came from nowhere and simply cut in line in front of me.”

“Not exactly correct.” He took a step forward with the moving line. “I’ve been standing behind you for a few minutes. You stepped out of line, so….”

“I most certainly did not step out of line.” She countered his step and took another one ahead of him.

“Are you cutting in front of me?”

“Just reclaiming my place in line.”

“Oh, no. I’m next.”

In exasperation, Ariana clenched her fists and glared at him. “My God. What a Scrooge.” She thought she heard someone off to the side snicker. Glancing that way, she realized they’d become the center of attention.

Great.

He made direct eye contact again with her, leaned in a bit, and then said loudly and clearly, “Bah. Humbug.”

“Next.” The young man behind the counter called out.

Swiftly turning, Ariana blurted, “Medium black coffee and three of those cookies.” She pointed to the Snickerdoodles.

“The usual, Tom,” the man said simultaneously.

Tom eyed them both.

Ariana refused to look at the man standing next to her. The usual? A local. Suddenly, her impression of the town was slightly soured, but she would not let that sway her.

“Coming right up,” Tom said. He turned to the man. “Matt, please try not to run off the paying customers.”

“Far be it from me…” the man called Matt said.

She stared at him. He looked down at her.

Ariana broke eye contact and looked ahead, waiting for her coffee and cookies. After several long seconds of drumming her fingertips on the counter, she sighed when he set a cup of coffee and a white bag of cookies in front of her.

“Four dollars and ninety-eight cents, ma’am.”

She opened her wallet.

“Put it on mine, Tom,” the man next to her said.

Immediately, she protested. “Oh, no. I’ll get it. But thank you.”

“My pleasure.” He nodded to Tom.

“I mean, I’ll take care of my bill.”

He peered down. “Welcome to Dickens. I hope you enjoyed your stay. Be careful on your way out of town.”

Ariana gathered her coffee and cookies, then looked back up at the guy. “Well, thank you, but I’m not leaving. In fact, I just got here and am planning to stay for a few days. I appreciate the warm welcome.” The saccharin sweet smile she tossed him almost made her nauseous. But no matter, she decided right then and there, she would not let this single, unhappy incident spoil her mood—or her impression of Dickens.

“Merry Christmas,” she said, turning to leave.

He grunted something.

Ariana paused, her gaze straight ahead, and headed out of the shop.