Welcome To Winterville by Carrie Elks
Welcome to Winterville
Where Every Day is Like Christmas
Holly Winter pressed the brake pedal of her rental car and took a deep breath, staring at the writing in front of her. The sign was faded, as though somebody had forgotten to paint it this year, and there was a thick wedge of snow laying across the top like a sleeping cat. In the distance, she could see the twinkling lights of the town as it nestled around the mountain.
Opening the window, the cold air rushed around her face. The air in the Allegheny Mountains was so different to the atmosphere she’d become used to in Chicago. It wasn’t just that it was thinner – thanks to the elevation of the town, but because it smelled sweeter.
Or as near to home as she’d ever been.
There wasn’t another car on the road. She hadn’t passed one for the last hour since she’d begun her slow ascent from the interstate. No SUVs full of families, excited to spend the weekend at America’s Favorite Holiday Town. No buses full of day-trippers, traveling to soak up the festivities at the Jingle Bell Theater. Instead, there was silence and the rumble of her engine, deadened by the layer of thick snow.
She pressed her foot down on the gas and the Jeep’s tires gripped the roads – thankfully clear of snow despite the lack of travelers. That would be thanks to Charlie Shaw, who ran the Cold Start Garage in the center of town. For the past forty years he’d taken his snow plow out whenever Winterville had a hint of snowfall.
It was the first time Holly’d been back to town since her grandma’s passing earlier that year. It wasn’t just that she’d been busy at work – though Lord knew that was true – but she’d found herself finding stupid excuses not to come.
Winterville without her grandma was hard to imagine. Her grandma had been the heart of the town. She’d been the one who built it, after all.
Her phone started ringing through the car’s speakers, and she hit the accept button, braking sharply as a white snowshoe hare bounded across the road. “Dammit!” she called out, and a low chuckle echoed back at her.
“North.” As her eldest cousin, North was the leader of their generation of Winters. “I nearly hit a damn hare.”
“You’ve made it into the mountains then.” His voice was warm and low.
“I just passed the town sign.”
“You’re close.” He sounded pleased. “Are you heading straight to the Inn?” The Winterville Inn was the heart and soul of the small town. It had been built and owned by their grandma for more than fifty years. Growing up, it had been like a magnet for the Winter cousins. Holly had spent many holidays there with North and his brothers – Kris and Gabe – and her girl cousins – Everley and Alaska. A smile pulled at her lips as she remembered their epic snow fights.
“Yeah, I’m beat. I’m going to check in and veg out for a while. Are you at the farm?”
North owned the Christmas Tree Farm at the other end of town. Along with his co-owner, Amber, he lived in a sprawling set of lodges alongside the farm. Some of the buildings belonged to his brothers – though right now they were living elsewhere.
“Yeah. It’s been crazy this week. But you, Everley, and Alaska should come over for lunch on Sunday. Gabe has promised to cook, which I’m hoping won’t put you off.” He chuckled, and it made her smile. Gabe was known for burning water. She kept her fingers crossed that he’d keep it simple.
“Lunch on Sunday sounds good.” She nodded. She passed the Jingle Bell Theater, where her grandma had starred every year, pulling in fans from far and wide for her Holiday Shows.
Now it looked empty and alone. Holly pulled her eyes away and concentrated on the road ahead.
“We can work on our plans then.”
Their plans to stop the town from being sold.
Not that Winterville was strictly a town. It was an unincorporated settlement, according to the legal description. The land had been bought by their grandma, the famous singer and actress Candy Winter, after she’d taken the world by surprise when she’d retired at the peak of her fame, and brought her family back to the wild mountains where she’d grown up.
“Our plans?” Holly echoed, knowing exactly what he meant. And she hoped to God he did have a plan, because she’d come up with nothing. Their parents – her mom and two uncles – had inherited the town and wanted nothing to do with it. They were set on selling it to the highest bidder.
It was the reason she was here, after all. Driving a rental car from the nearest airport – three hours drive away, thank you very much – to a West Virginian town tucked into the side of the mountains.
North had this crazy idea that they could work together to stop their parents from cashing in on their inheritance. Even though the six cousins didn’t have anywhere near enough money to counter the offer they’d been made.
Their grandma had been a force of nature. A woman in charge of her own destiny at a time when it was unheard of. And she’d had a vision for this land she’d bought – a vision that included building a town, brick by brick. Giving homes to the people she’d grown up with, along with jobs to replace the ones they’d lost years ago when the last local mine had closed down.
And she’d named it Winterville.
As she followed the bend, the Winterville Inn loomed ahead of her. It felt bittersweet, seeing the tall sprawling building and knowing that Candy wouldn’t be waiting for her inside, her blonde hair swept up into her signature beehive, her eyes dancing because she adored her grandchildren.
Running the town had always been a family affair. Along with North and his brothers, and Everley and Alaska, Holly had worked here at Winterville every vacation as a teenager.
They would serve breakfasts at the restaurants and clean cabins, before they moved to manning the reception and, in the case of Holly’s more talented cousins, starred in the annual Christmas shows that Candy would hold at the Jingle Bell Theater.
Pulling into the graveled driveway, she looked up at the Inn ahead of her. It had started snowing again. Thick, heavy flakes danced down from the dark gray sky and landed on the windshield.
Parking in the lot at the side of the Inn – almost empty, despite the season – Holly climbed down from her SUV and grabbed her purse, her feet crunching in the snow as she followed the path to the front door. Before she got into the lobby she could smell the sweet smokey aroma of the inglenook fireplace, and hear low piped Christmas music echoing through the speakers.
Despite the lack of guests, the lobby was still beautifully decorated. Garlands of holly and ivy were strung on every surface, fairy lights wrapped around them, twinkling in time to the music. Giant gold and red ornaments hung from the ceiling, and life sized wooden nutcracker soldiers stood sentinel at each doorway, holding drums or spears, their moustaches quirked up into permanent smiles.
But the focal point was the huge tree standing proud at the center of the lobby. The green boughs were weighed down with gold decorations and glittering tinsel.
“You made it!” A human tornado launched itself at her. Holly laughed as Everley almost tackled her to the ground. “You should have told me you were getting close. I’ve been annoying Alaska all day wondering when you’d get here.”
“Sorry.” Holly hugged her tight. “I’m here now though.”
“Yes you are. And you’re a sight for sore eyes.” Everley dragged her over to the reception desk, where Alaska was typing into the computer. Their youngest cousin’s eyes lit up when she saw them approaching.
“Holly!” She grinned, reaching over the counter to hug her. “How was your trip?”
“Not too bad. There was a bit of turbulence when we got closer, but nothing I couldn’t handle.”
“Ugh. I hate flying.” Alaska wrinkled her nose.
“We know.” Everley shot her an amused look. “That’s why you never leave Winterville.” As the elder of the sisters, Everley was always teasing Alaska. She took it good humoredly.
“I can’t help it. I love it here.” Alaska shrugged, still smiling at them both. “And now that you’re both here with me, it’s even better.” She looked down at her computer, then back at Holly. “I’ve put you on the fourth floor. Are you sure you don’t want to stay with me?”
“The Inn is fine.” Holly was looking forward to staying here. “Anyway, at least I’m not in the cabins.” When they were teenagers, they’d always stayed in the staff cabins at the bottom of the hill. They’d been simple affairs – one room with two beds, plus a primitive bathroom. Though there was a basic heater, the best heat came from a fire they had to build themselves each night.
And yet they were so happy there. Back then, they’d been teenagers playing at being adults. She’d felt so grown up having a cabin to herself, while Everley and Alaska shared one a few cabins down. North, Kris, and Gabe had lived a few cabins away from that.
She’d had her first drink in those cabins – Gabe had let her sneak some whiskey from his hip flask.
“No cabins for you,” Alaska said, smiling. “Not even if they were inhabitable, which they aren’t. Those things were condemned years ago. You’ve got a pretty room that overlooks the town, with hot and cold water and a mattress to die for.” She looked pleased with herself. “A Great Night Mattress. All our rooms have them now. I negotiated the discount myself.”
“It sounds perfect. I’m going to dump my bags in there and take a shower if that’s okay. Are you guys going to North’s on Sunday?”
“Of course,” Everley said, looking amused. “He just called and invited us. And you know that when North calls…”
“We come running,” Alaska finished her sentence for her.
Holly grinned. “Yep. Some things never change.”
“I’m so glad you’re here,” Everley said, hugging her again. “For the first time, I feel like we might be able to save this place.”
“Exactly.” Alaska nodded. “You and North will know what to do. You guys always did have the best ideas.”
Holly’s stomach twinged, because they were both staring at her with hope in their eyes. “Of course we’re going to save it,” she said, almost believing her own words. “We have to. For Candy’s sake.”