A few weeks ago, a forest fire climbed down the mountains and ravaged the small, tourist town of Gatlinburg, Tennessee. At this writing the death toll is at 14, and thousands of buildings and homes have been destroyed. While the devastation is great, it has been encouraging to see the hearts of neighbors from near and far gathering around to care for those who have lost everything.
Last year, my little novella, A (kinda) Country Christmas, released, set in that same small town. My husband and I had visited there last summer, something we do every year or two since it is only a few hours from home.
So I thought I’d share an excerpt for this post— in honor of the amazing, strong, resilient people of Gatlinburg, Tennessee.
If you want a way to help from afar, Dolly Parton’s Dollywood Foundation has set up the My People’s Fund, promising to fund $1,000 a month for up to six months for the staggering number of people who have lost their homes in the fire.
Without further adu, Chapter 1 of A (kinda) Country Christmas:
“Tis the season to be Jolly!” Sadie Jenkins belted out the Christmas tune, not caring that the notes were a little off-key or that her teenage daughter was on the opposite side of the store, covering her ears and grimacing. In fact, just to add a dash of fun, she upped the decibel a bit as she continued. “Fa-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la. Don we now our—”
“I’m gonna don my coat and leave if you don’t stop, Mom.”
Sadie laughed while she hung what seemed like the thousandth—and definitely last—ornament on the ten foot tree that stood in the center of Bethlehem’s Boutique, the family-owned Christmas store just off the parkway in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. “Stop being such a party pooper, Maribelle. I’m just trying to spread a little Christmas cheer. Besides, the shop opens in about thirty minutes anyway, so your ears will be safe then.”
“And what does that say about your parenting skills that you care more about your customers than your own daughter?”
She took a deep breath and exhaled, begging God for patience in dealing with her daughter. When Mari was born, Sadie had thought if she could just get past the crying-all-night stage, the rest of it would be a breeze.
Then during the terrible twos-threes-and-fours, she swore that if only they could get past the temper tantrums, all would be well in the world of parenting.
But that morphed into the high-pitched screeches and wails that only a little girl could perfect, followed closely on its heels by puberty and raging hormonal changes that almost drove a momma to drink something harder than sweet tea.
She’d been warned of all those stages though.
What no one had ever mentioned was the torture that was her only daughter at eighteen.
Gone were the childish screams of “That’s not fair” or “I hate you” or “You don’t love me” and in their place was a pompous young lady who was way too smart for her own good, who criticized her mother’s every move, who made her mission in life to do every single thing her mother did not want her to do out of pure spite.
Sadie should have been prepared. Truth be told, she had it coming, considering she was only thirty-four and had conceived sweet Maribelle during one of those teenage rebellious moments herself.
Biting back a reply that would only make things worse, she stepped back to survey the tree. “What do you think, Mari? Is it too much?”
Maribelle maneuvered around the various Christmas displays to stand beside her mother. She shrugged. “It’s fine.”
“Just fine?” The center tree was the focal point of the shop and Sadie’s pride and joy. Fine was not an option.
Her daughter shrugged. “I like a little color. I told you that two months ago when you asked my opinion on the concept. Remember? When you ignored me and did what you wanted anyway like always?”
Sadie frowned. If anyone was guilty of doing whatever they wanted these days, it was Mari.
Taking a step back, she eyed the tree with a critical eye. It was a little plain, but in a modern, sophisticated way. The fake evergreen, its green needles lightly frosted, twinkled with the silver, white and clear glass ornaments, with doves and white sprigs of flowers tying the look together. The silver glass star at the top was like the shimmering icing on the cake.
She was going for elegant, southern chic, but Mari had told her in no uncertain terms that the idea was dumb. Red plus green equaled Christmas.
But the rest of the store screamed red and green and country Christmas, so shouldn’t the centerpiece of the displays stand out as different and eye catching? “Well, I like it.”
“And as we all know, that’s all that counts.” Mari mumbled the flippant reply as she grabbed her ear buds from the counter and headed into the backroom.
Sadie rested her hands on her hips and took deep breaths.
It was the Saturday morning after Thanksgiving. The day she earmarked to begin celebrating Christmas. The season tended to get muddled with the rest of the year since her store did Christmas year-round in one of the Smoky Mountain’s most famous tourist towns. Nothing was going to rain on her parade today. She would sing hokey Christmas carols at the top of her lungs, regardless of accuracy, until the shop opened, then zip it and let her iPod entertain the customers.
Mari was just in a funk today. She’d get over it. Just like all the other seasons had passed by with neither of them worse for wear, this one would too.
Except—next year, Mari would be off to college. She should have gone this year, but Sadie had convinced her waiting a year to go to college would be wise. She could save up money and not go as deeply in debt.
So come next year, Sadie would be left—here. Alone.
Flicking away the depressing thought, she started in on an even louder opera version of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” hoping the words would drown out all the anxiety that was so present these days.
She sang and flitted through the room, fixing wayward decorations, adjusting wreaths, and making sure all lights were shining brightly.
She’d just started a second go around of, “Oh Christmas Tree” when she heard a tapping on the window.
Whipping around to the storefront, she almost dropped the angel ornament in her hand.
Peering into the store was a man.
A drop-dead gorgeous man dressed in a fancy looking black coat and a stocking cap pulled over his head. A short, trimmed beard completed the look.
He was hot as Mari would say. Well, Sadie too, but she tried to frown on the use of the word, because that’s what good mothers do, right? It’s what hers had done.
But in her head, she applied the word liberally, especially to the man who was squinting through the frosted door decoration and turning to leave.
Her pulse galloped at Polar Express speed. Leave? Running to the door, she turned back the deadbolt. She tried to calm her voice as she called to the figure retreating down the sidewalk. “Sorry, we’re just now—opening.” That sounded normal, right? No heavy breathing from having just run across a store full of very expensive breakables….
The man turned and smiled, revealing a wide jaw and the cutest dimple she’d ever seen. “No problem. I was just out for a walk this morning to kill some time. I can come back later.”
“Nonsense. I was just fixin’ to flip the sign to open.” To prove her point, she reached beside the door and turned the two-sided chalkboard sign around so the curly Open faced the street. “See?”
His mouth curved into a smile. “Well, thank you—” he paused and glanced down to her apron where her name was embroidered, then quickly back to her eyes. “—Sadie. I think I’ll come and take a look then.”
Sugarplums danced in her stomach as she stepped aside to allow him in. When he passed and his back was to her, she pressed a hand to the red apron and tugged, making sure it was smooth, then ran her fingers through her blond hair, praying her bangs were behaving today.
“Nice shop you have here.”
She turned and smiled when she saw him in front of the center tree, holding one of the clear, glass bulbs. “Thank you. Our family is a bit fanatical about Christmas you’d say, so it’s in my blood. My parents opened the store almost nineteen years ago now, but I run it now along with my daughter.” Why was she blabbering on about such nonsense? He didn’t care two licks about the ownership of the hand-me-down store.
He replaced the ornament. “You’re a native to the area, then?”
“Oh goodness no. My family moved here when I was sixteen.” No need to mention that her parents were moving her away from her deadbeat, drug-addicted eighteen-year-old boyfriend after they found out she was pregnant with his baby. “We’re actually from Southern Indiana originally. My uncle willed this lot to my dad years ago, so given their insane love of Christmas, they thought it’d be fun to start a little touristy shop here. And the rest, as they say, is history.” And needed to stay that way.
“That would explain your accent, then. A little southern—but not quite.”
“I still reckon and declare every once in a while. What about you? Do I detect a little New York there?” It was hard to pinpoint. Really, the man hardly had an accent at all.
“Probably. I grew up there, but I do a lot of traveling for business, so you never know what crazy accent I might pick up on. I actually spent the last few months in Beijing.”
“Wow. That’s—that must have been an interesting experience.” A world traveler. So different than her own humble existence that was comprised of living in two touristy cities her whole life, with occasional trips to the Atlantic coast for vacations. Whoopty-do.
“It’s pretty cool, I admit. But it can get old after a while, too.”
He had no idea what old after a while meant. Talk to her after he’d been surrounded by Christmas for thirty-four years. Not that she didn’t love Christmas. She did. It just—yeah. She was tempted to open a fireworks store someday, just to throw in a little variety. “So where do you call home?”
“I don’t. My company’s headquarters is in New York, but I’m rarely there, so just do a temporary rent when I’m in town. I do have a vacation house on the coast in South Carolina, so I guess that’s home.”
Vacation house? Coast? Swoon.
Okay. She needed to stop. She was a grown woman, trying to parent a teenager, and most certainly not in the market for a guy who was a nomad. There couldn’t be a more opposite man for her. Mari needed her, and she’d promised herself years ago that she’d focus all of her time and energy on her little girl and not be taken in by a bad boy again.
Besides, a man’s bank account balance shouldn’t mean a thing to her. Regardless of the fact that she had no clue how she was going to pay for Mari’s college next year. They’d figure it out. They always did.
As if on cue, Mari appeared at Sadie’s side. “You opened the store already, Mom? We don’t open for another—”
Planting an elbow in her daughter’s side, she smiled. “Did you finish in the backroom, dear?”
“Finish what? I was just—”
The girl could not take a hint. “The back shelf of ornaments needs straightening up next, then.”
Mari glanced at the customer, who was examining the tree, obviously pretending not to listen, then back to Sadie. “Oh. I get it. Flirting again, Mom? Nice.”
Sadie’s mouth dropped.
The customer coughed.
And Mari smiled, twirled around, her long, blond hair flicking Sadie in the face, and headed to the back of the store.
Nate Meyers replaced the glass angel he’d been pretending to be interested in back onto the tree and turned to watch the younger version of Sadie stalk away, her wavy blond hair bouncing behind her.
He hadn’t really gotten a flirting vibe off the girl’s mom, and he was usually a pretty good judge of that. But at least she’d helped clarify his curiosity about her mother’s marital status.
He definitely wasn’t in the market though, despite his meddling sister who insisted he should be.
No woman would want to be tied to a guy who wasn’t even in one place long enough to have a home.
No sane woman anyway.
Glancing back at the shopkeeper, he instantly felt pity. Her cheeks were painted with a red blush as she stared after her daughter, her mouth parted in shock. “That’s your daughter, I presume?”
Her head jerked back to him as if she’d just remembered his existence. “Um, yes. I—”
“I would have guessed you were sisters. You don’t look old enough to be her mom.”
She glanced around and started to rearrange a porcelain nativity scene that had been fine how it was. “I was pretty young when I had her.”
Reaching out, he squeezed her shoulder. “Listen. Don’t worry about what she said.”
Glancing at his hand, she frowned and looked up at him. “Excuse me?”
Snatching his hand back, he wished he could kick himself. The old Nate was at it again. The womanizer who used smooth words and expertly placed touches to woo a woman—most times ending up in his bed.
Even though that was the farthest thing from his mind right now, old habits died hard.
He hadn’t been that guy for over five years.
There had just been something about the hurt in Sadie’s face that made him want to fix it, but she was definitely not the type of woman who was okay with even innocent contact with a strange man.
“I’m sorry. I just meant, don’t worry about it. I’m used to that kind of thing.”
She turned full to him, fists propped to her trim but nicely curved hips, her blue eyes blazing with fury. “For your information, I was not flirting with you.”
“I never said—” His words replayed in his mind. Man. He’d sounded like an egotistical jerk. “I’m sorry. I just meant—”
“Oh, I think I know what you meant.” She stepped toward him, a shepherd clutched in her hand. He instinctively stepped back. “You poor, rich man have women falling all over you day in and day out and so of course I don’t need to worry about falling for your sexy physique and wildly handsome face because you are used to females not being able to control themselves in your presence. Well newsflash, mister. I was not flirting with you, and what you saw there was my crazy daughter who is going through some insane teenage crisis where she wants to mortify her mother at every turn. Since you obviously can’t understand that and feel the need to feed your ego at my expense, I suggest you and your pride turn around and leave, and don’t let the door slam you in the back on the way out. You know what? On second thought, go ahead. Your pride could use a few bruises.”
“I—” He was usually quick on the draw with responses, his job demanded that of him. But right now, he had no words. Part of him was flattered that she thought he had a “sexy physique and wildly handsome face” but just the fact that he felt that way proved her point. “You’re right. I’ll leave. Have a nice day.”
He turned toward the door but his foot caught and his balance shifted. Reaching out a hand, he grabbed the first thing he touched, but a moment too late, he realized his mistake as the prickly branch gave way, and he went crashing to the ground. The sound of glass shattering echoed through the store, followed by a hush.
He opened his eyes. Beneath him was the large Christmas tree that had once stood in the middle of the shop, most of its ornaments in ruins.
And above him was a fire-breathing dragon dressed in a red apron with Sadie embroidered on the front.