Forever Christmas, page 1
© 2014 by Robert Tate Miller
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Cover Design: Connie Gabbert
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Publisher’s Note: This novel is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. All characters are fictional, and any similarity to people living or dead is purely coincidental.
ISBN 978-1-4016-9064-9 (eBook)
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Miller, Robert Tate.
Forever Christmas / Robert Tate Miller.
ISBN 978-1-4016-9063-2 (hardback)
1. Married people--Fiction. 2. Wives--Death--Fiction. 3. Bereavement--Fiction. 4. Angels--Fiction. I. Title.
14 15 16 17 18 19 RRD 6 5 4 3 2 1
For Chloe June—the greatest gift of my life.
READING GROUP GUIDE
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Most kids love Christmas. But for me, it was always a big disappointment.
I can still see myself in my pajamas, sitting beneath the Christmas tree, frantically tearing away Santa Claus wrapping paper. I had to get into that next box for my first peek at the newest and greatest gizmo or gadget, the gift I swore up and down would make me eternally happy.
And if the present I longed for wasn’t inside the box, I’d feel let down. Maybe even pout a little. If I did get what I wanted, I usually ended up playing with it for a few days, then losing interest and shoving it into the back of my closet.
Soon my hopes and dreams would shift to the next big thing, the one that looked oh so cool in the commercials. Yet somehow that too always fell short of my expectations.
No matter how many Christmas gifts I received, I was never satisfied. I kept looking, peering around the back of the tree, hoping to find a package that I’d missed. One more present with my name on the tag.
As years went by, this endless cycle of acquisition and dissatisfaction became a recurring theme in my life. The more I had, the less I appreciated. Life itself became a second-rate toy thrust to the back of the closet, gathering dust.
Ingratitude became my defining characteristic.
Then along came a snowstorm . . . and a Christmas that changed everything.
Andrew was late again. As Beth meandered through rows of pine trees at Ray’s Christmas Tree Lot, she resisted the urge to call her consistently late husband. What good would it do? He’d just apologize as usual, pluck an excuse from the catalog of excuses he kept tucked away in his coat pocket. “Pick out a tree,” he’d say. “And I’m sure I’ll love it.”
Beth sighed, glanced at the time on her iPhone. Two minutes later than the last time she checked.
Ray, the lot owner, tugged at the collar of his plaid shirt as he approached. “So what’ll it be, miss?”
“I’ll take that one,” Beth said. She pointed to a scraggly, glorified twig that looked a bit like Charlie Brown’s pathetic tree in A Charlie Brown Christmas.
“Really?” Ray stared at her. “He’s a scrawny little orphan.” Apparently he’d forgotten all the lessons he learned in Salesmanship 101.
“I like underdogs,” Beth said. “How much?”
Ray scratched his chin. “Let’s see, for a nice lady like you, I can let him go for thirty-five.”
“Twenty-five,” Beth countered. “And you throw in a stand.”
Ray pondered her offer for a beat, then caved. “Deal.”
Beth was covered in pine needles by the time she dragged the little tree three blocks from the tree lot at 86th and Park to the Carnegie Hill apartment she shared with her husband. She’d managed to lose a branch or two along the way and wondered if this miserable little pine wouldn’t be better off left at the curb for the trash collector.
She paused on the sidewalk and looked up at her apartment window. Dark. Well, at least Andrew hadn’t come home and forgotten about her. She rested the tree by the entry door and checked her phone in case she’d missed a text. Nothing.
“Beth, there you are!”
Beth turned to see her husband, Andrew, jogging across the street, his leather carrying case slung over his shoulder, Bluetooth welded to his head.
“There you are!” Beth made no attempt to disguise her annoyance. Andrew held up his index finger, his signal for “I’m on the phone.” Beth folded her arms and glared at him as he finished up a business call.
“Al, just call Kimberly, and she’ll make the travel arrangements. Okay, gotta run.” Andrew clicked off his phone. “Alistair Whitman,” he said. He planted a hurried kiss on Beth’s cheek. But if he thought dropping the name of his most famous literary client would get him out of his wife’s doghouse, he had another thing coming.
“Andrew, where were you? I waited at the tree lot for almost an hour.”
“Honey, I’m so sorry. The end of the year is crunch time for a literary agent. All my deals are closing. I’m swamped.”
“How much effort does it take to send a simple text?” Beth said.
“Beth, I know. I have no excuse.” Andrew appraised the tree. “Wow. That’s our tree?”
Beth glared at him. “Don’t you dare, Andrew Farmer. You forfeited the right to be critical.”
Andrew smiled and picked up the tree. “I know the perfect spot for it.” Beth opened the apartment building entry door, and Andrew plunged through, cracking a branch on the way in.
“Andrew! Careful! Don’t hurt him.”
“Oh, so it’s a him, eh?” Andrew tried to tease Beth into a better mood as he fought his way up the narrow stairwell. “I thought trees were supposed to be female.”
“You didn’t think any such thing.”
Andrew was halfway up the stairwell when Lulu, the yippy beast in 4B, bolted from the landing down the steps and through his legs, nearly toppling him over the railing.
Andrew called out as he regained his balance. “Beth! That little mutt Whatshisname’s out again!”
“It’s Lulu,” Beth said. She scooped the little dog up in her arms. “She’s not a mutt. She’s a West Highland terrier. And it’s Whats her name.”
An old lady’s voice hollered down from the second level, “Luluuuu!”
Mrs. Applebee stepped out of her apartment and smiled when she saw Beth cradling her Lulu. “Oh, thank you, Beth. What would I do without you?” Beth lifted the squirming dog into the woman’s arms. “Would you like to come in for some hot cocoa and Christmas cookies?” Mrs. Applebee said.
“I’d love to, Mrs. A, but Andrew and I are just about to trim our tree.” Mrs. Applebee considered Andrew as if noticing him—and the tree—for the first time.
“Oh, your husband’s home. Miracles never cease. Well, some other time then. Bye now, and merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas,” Beth said. Mrs. Applebee shot Andrew a disapproving look and vanished inside her apartment.
“That woman hates me,” Andrew said.
“She thinks you don’t deserve me,” Beth said. “She might be right.”
Andrew positioned the little tree in the corner by the window. “At least he doesn’t take up much space.”
Beth looked over and smiled. “A little more centered, please.”
Andrew shifted the tree six inches to the left. “There. Perfect,” Beth said. “How does grilled cheese and tomato soup sound?”
“Fine,” Andrew said.
“You know, it’s supposed to snow Christmas Eve,” Beth said. “I’d love a white Christmas.”
“Yeah,” Andrew said.
“I have a wonderful idea!” Beth said. “After we decorate the tree, let’s light a fire and watch the movie.”
“What movie?” Andrew said. He plucked a pine needle from his neck.
“Well, White Christmas, of course.” Beth sang a few bars of one of the songs from the musical:
If you’re worried and you can’t sleep,
Just count your blessings instead of sheep,
And you’ll fall asleep
Counting your blessings.
Her voice was sweet and perfectly pitched, and Andrew couldn’t help but smile. He always loved to hear Beth sing. Then a guilty knot tightened in his gut. She wasn’t going to like what he was about to say.
“You know, that sounds great,” Andrew said. “But you think we could take a rain check? Or rather a snow check. Huh? See what I did with the whole snow theme?” Andrew chuckled at his lame attempt at humor. Beth wasn’t smiling. “You’re right. Not funny,” he said.
“What is it, Andrew? Another business dinner? Because I thought we were going to spend Christmas together.”
“Beth, we are. It’s not Christmas . . . yet. It’s December 22. We have three more days until Christmas.”
Beth glared at him and then gave him her back. Andrew knew this wasn’t a good sign. Anger was bad, the cold shoulder far worse.
He stopped messing with the tree and walked over to the kitchen counter where she was dumping soup into a pan. Might as well just throw all the cards on the table.
“I have to go to Chicago for a couple days,” he said. “But don’t worry, I’ll be back in plenty of time for Christmas.”
Beth paused for a moment to let the news sink in. She then resumed stirring the soup and refused to meet his eye.
“When?” she said.
Andrew knew that disappointed voice all too well.
Half an hour later, Andrew stood on the sidewalk next to an idling yellow cab. As the driver hurled his roller bag into the trunk, Andrew looked up at his apartment window. He could see Beth by the tree, tossing on strands of popcorn. “Look at me,” he whispered.
He was sure she felt his eyes on her, but she wouldn’t turn his way.
“Bud, if you got a six-thirty flight, we’d better hustle,” the driver said. Andrew took one last look at Beth and climbed into the backseat of the cab.
When Andrew arrived at first-class seat 3B on his flight to Chicago, he found a twentysomething beauty occupying 3A. She flashed him a sexy smile as he stashed his carry-on bag in the overhead compartment. It was bad enough leaving his wife on Christmas weekend, but if Beth knew his assistant, Kimberly, was along on this junket, he’d have hell to pay.
When Andrew hired Columbia graduate Kimberly Garner the previous summer, he had no idea it would spell trouble for his marriage. He was impressed with Kimberly from the moment he met her. She was sharp, funny, and ambitious, and he sensed she would soon be moving up the agency ladder. However, when he introduced her to Beth at a company party, he picked up an immediate friction between them. Kimberly poured on the charm in an attempt to win over her boss’s spouse, but Beth was reserved, not her usual friendly self.
“She’s very pretty,” Beth said on the cab ride home that night. “And she has an eye for you.” Andrew laughed, told her she was wrong, that Kimberly looked on him as a mentor. But Beth wasn’t convinced. From then on, if she had to speak to Kimberly on the phone, Beth was short and to the point. When Kimberly’s name came up, she would noticeably tense up.
“Beth, I have lots of assistants. Kimberly’s one of many. And she has a boyfriend.”
In reality, Kimberly had broken off with the guy she’d been dating a few weeks after coming to work for Andrew’s agency. A fact he neglected to mention.
Even though he went out of his way to diminish Kimberly’s role in his work life, she remained a touchy subject. And the truth was, Beth’s suspicions were warranted. It quickly became obvious that Andrew’s beautiful protégé had designs on him. He’d be a fool not to notice the way Kimberly looked at him, how she playfully fine-tuned his hair or adjusted his tie when he was about to head into a meeting. Her flirtations stroked his male ego, but in order to assuage his guilt, Andrew convinced himself it was nothing more than a harmless office crush.
Still, he sensed the day of reckoning was coming, and sooner rather than later. How would he react, he wondered, if Kimberly decided to act on her infatuation?
And that was all the more reason to keep Kimberly’s presence on the Chicago trip on the down low. What your wife doesn’t know can’t get you into trouble.
“Hey, handsome,” Kimberly said. “Thought you were going to miss the flight.” She took a sip of her cocktail and let her glossed lips linger on the rim of the glass.
Andrew closed the overhead compartment and slipped into the seat beside her. “Almost did. Midtown Tunnel’s a parking lot.”
Kimberly had already ordered him a Scotch on the rocks and was reading the galley of the novel belonging to the young Chicago writer they were hoping to sign. She thumbed through the pages of the manuscript.
“A bit derivative,” she said.
“We’re agents,” Andrew said. “Our job isn’t to smell it but sell it.”
“First we have to sign her,” Kimberly said.
“It’s in the bag,” Andrew said. “That’s why I make the big bucks.”
Back at the apartment, Beth kept occupied with cookie baking, gift wrapping, and last-minute Christmas card writing. She promised herself she’d keep her cool. But when she burned a batch of snowman sugar cookies, she angrily dumped the tray in the garbage can and dropped the pan in the sink with a loud clang.
Why would Andrew leave her like this at the start of the holiday weekend? She felt like calling him and telling him off once and for all.
What had happened to him? To them?
Her eyes drifted to an old, familiar snapshot photo stuck by a fruit-shaped magnet to the refrigerator door. Andrew and Beth posing with Andrew’s mother, Emma, at Christmastime, when they were in their early teens. Emma had her arms around them, and though she was smiling, there was sorrow in her eyes.
Growing up together in tiny River Falls, Pennsylvania, Andy Farmer and Beth McCarthy were practically inseparable. They met on a sweltering summer day in a lukewarm kiddie pool in Beth’s backyard. Andy was four, Beth three. He was a sweet, sensitive little boy who seemed grown up beyond his years. He wore little sweater vests and bow ties and looked like
When she reflected back on those early days, Beth could see that young Andrew was forced to be the man around the house long before he was ready. His salesman father, Henry, was on the road most of the time, and the rare times he was home, he preferred to lounge in his easy chair and “catch up on his TV.”
Beth could almost hear the ominous words: “Son, I need to speak with you about something.”
Andrew had told her every detail about that moment, details that were burned into his memory. Twelve-year-old Andy was sitting at the little oak desk in his room finishing up his math homework when his mother came in to break the news. It was the third of October, and a cool autumn breeze blew through his open window. As the years went by, Andrew would think back to that moment and marvel at how many minute details he could remember. He could even remember how many times his neighbor’s dog barked: six.
“It’s about your father,” Emma Farmer said.
“What about Dad?” His heart was beating fast. He knew this wasn’t going to be good. “Is he okay?”
“He’s left us,” Emma said. “He’s found someone else. Another woman.”
That someone else turned out to be a young waitress he’d met on one of his sales trips. Not long after the conversation in Andrew’s room, Emma slipped into a deep depression. And try as young Andy might to cheer her up, she never came out of it.
Two years after her husband left her for good, Emma Farmer fell ill one afternoon and died three days later. Andrew was holding one of his mom’s hands when she passed; Beth was holding the other.
Andrew didn’t even bother to try to contact his dad to give him the news of his wife’s passing. He waited until after his mother’s funeral and then sent Henry a terse note: Mom’s dead. Just thought you should know. From that day forward, Andrew wanted nothing more to do with his father.
In the weeks following his mother’s death, Andrew tried his best to push Beth away, but she refused to let him. Late one night, in a fit of rage, he called and told her he wanted to meet her by the bandstand in Town Square. Even though it was well past her curfew, Beth could tell her friend was deeply troubled, so she slipped past her sleeping parents and headed for the rendezvous.