Love in Brighton Village, Book 1
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She’s duty bound to a family dream. With a slew of struggles and surprises, can she make this holiday season one to remember?
Claire Chandler’s passion has just been put on hold. After her parents unexpectedly pass away, she turns down a coveted wildlife photography grant to move back to New Hampshire and run their inn. But when a face from the past whose vacation she ruined as a kid shows up as a guest, she vows to turn the grumpy author’s stay into a fun-filled festive retreat.
Struggling to keep up with everyone’s never-ending demands, Claire does her best to help her prickly adversary reclaim his muse. But as she juggles a challenging cookie contest, an ex-boyfriend’s sudden arrival, and a powerful nor’easter cutting the power, she fears all they’ll unwrap is disappointment.
Will the overwhelmed host survive a snowstorm of stress and restore the Yuletide cheer?
“Christmas by Candlelight is poignant, uplifting, and a delight for the senses!”–Lorrie Thomson, award-winning author of A Measure of Happiness, What’s Left Behind, and Equilibrium
I held my breath as I pushed open the door to the third-story storage area at the Candlelight Inn. Henry, my adopted mutt—a dog so ugly with his mismatched parts in all shades of brown that he was cute—nosed through the opening, sniffing at all the new musty scents. I pulled on the chain to turn on the single bulb hanging from the rafter and my eyes watered all over again at the sight of the dozens of plastic containers with their color-coded covers.
So many memories were stored in this attic.
Come help me, chère Claire, Dad’s voice boomed across time. I could almost see him hunched over because of the low ceiling, with his plaid flannel shirt, Carhartt pants and work boots, waving me over to help sort through the boxes of lights. What do you think? Do we need more?
Ten-year-old Claire had laughed and shouted an emphatic, Yes! More! When it came to lights, the family motto was: the more the better.
I ran a hand over the dusty red covers of the plastic bins, thinking for the hundredth time that I couldn’t do this, I couldn’t do Christmas without Mom or Dad, even though I’d promised Mom I would keep up all the inn’s traditions, that I’d keep running the inn the way they had all of my life.
Henry chose that moment to lift a hind leg at a column of boxes. “No!” I shouted as I lunged toward him. “Don’t you dare!”
At my raised voice, Henry rolled over onto his back, paws up in an I-give gesture, shivering loud enough to make his teeth clack.
”Oh, Henry!” I sat cross-legged next to him on the old attic floor, lifted all twenty-five pounds of him onto my lap, and patted his curly chest with slow, smooth strokes. “It’s okay. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to yell.”
Three months into our relationship and we were still getting to know each other. But I was the adult here, and he was a dog with issues—something I’d known when I took him home from the shelter on that awful day.
I had to get out of my head, or I’d ruin the guests’ magical Christmas. And the inn was fully booked all the way through New Year’s weekend with repeat customers expecting a certain atmosphere and experience. I just had to get through a month of putting on a cheerful face before I could let my guard down. Before I had to decide if I could give up my legacy—the inn.
“I don’t know how they did it, Henry.” Ears still sunk down, the dog licked the back of my hand. “Mom and Dad made running an inn look so easy.” Henry scrambled into a sitting position and tentatively swiped his tongue at my cheek. “I feel like I’m drowning.” He made a low, gurgling-like noise in his throat as if he were trying to speak, then butted his head under my hand. “You’re right. We’ll just take it one day at a time.” I scratched behind one ear. “Mom and Dad always started decorating the day after Thanksgiving. We’re late, but…
”Tradition,” I told Henry. “That’s what’s going to get me through this. Want to help me get these boxes down before today’s guests arrive?”
Henry hopped off my lap and woofed. He danced, short legs tripping over big paws, around my feet so I could barely move forward. I laughed. “You have to let me get to the boxes, you silly mutt.”
Henry sneezed, then followed a scent trail off to one side of the attic.
I peered at the stacked containers, containers I’d avoided sorting through for Thanksgiving, depending instead on pumpkins and gourds I’d found at the farmers’ market to decorate for that holiday. I’d skipped Halloween altogether.
Faking it wouldn’t work for Christmas.
”We’re looking for the outside lights. We’ll start there and work our way in. I’m picking up the wreaths from the nursery on Saturday. Ack, that’s tomorrow. And if I get five minutes to breathe, I’ll take you out to get some greenery in the woods to make garlands for the mantle and the front desk. We need trees, too. At least three. What do you say?” Henry’s woof sounded muted. ”Where are you?”
He popped around a box in the back, nose and ears covered in cobwebs. “You look quite the sight. Come here.”
He trotted over, nails clicking on the plywood floor. I brushed away the cobwebs from his sweet face, then kissed the top of his head. “You’re a good dog. I wouldn’t have made it through these last few months without you.”
I went back to my search. I found three big containers marked “Outdoor” and placed them near the attic door. I remembered making a fort out of the boxes and getting in Dad’s way the same way Henry was getting in mine. There should be at least a couple more.
I moved blue- and green-covered containers out of the way, looking for the red covers. I unearthed my mother’s reindeer collection, Aunt Emma’s Santa collection and the nutcracker battalion that stood guard in the library. Henry backed away at the sight of the foot-long blue soldier with the bared teeth and spooky eyes.
”I agree,” I said, putting the nutcracker back in the box. “They used to scare me, too.” I’d tiptoe into the library, pick a book super fast, then run back out before one of them could get to me.
The next row of boxes was labeled “Ornaments.” Mom had decorated the inn’s trees in red and gold balls and stars, but our personal tree held a mish-mash of colors and shapes. Each ornament had a special meaning. I opened a box marked “Claire.” Tissue paper nestled all the ornaments I’d made over the years from the thumbprint reindeer to the Popsicle-stick star and the class-photo snowflake. Every Christmas morning, I’d find a new ornament in my stocking celebrating some significant event from that year.
I lifted a ballerina wearing a pink tutu out from tissue paper. “My career as a dancer lasted all of one school year when I was six.”
Henry tried to grab the tissue with his teeth, got a piece and chewed it like gum.
Next, I unearthed a dolphin ornament. “I got this when I was eight and learned to swim without looking as if I were going to drown with every stroke.”
Henry pulled on the ornament string, and I had to pry his muzzle open to get it loose.
“A camera ornament from when I was twelve.” The same year my parents had given me a real Canon SLR camera; my best gift ever. I knew how much they’d had to scrimp to get it for me, which made it even dearer.
I played keep-away with Henry’s curious snout.
“This suitcase is from the year I left for college.” I rolled it back into its tissue before Henry could investigate.
“This is one of my favorites.” A red cardinal ornament from three years ago, when one of my photos of a singing cardinal had won a regional competition. I ran a finger down the bird’s head and Henry took that as an invitation to do the same with his tongue.
As I put away the bird, my eyes filled with tears. I pressed the heels of my hands into my forehead to stop them. They fell anyway. I wiped at them with the back of a hand. It seemed as if I was always on the verge of tears these days. Henry nudged his head against my calf and looked up at me. “I’m fine. There are just a lot of memories here, you know.”
I snapped the cover back on. I’d deal with those once the trees were up. One day at a time. One tradition at a time. The phone in my jeans pocket tinkled with soft chimes—something my friend Zoe had suggested would be more calming for my nerves than the default buzz. Setting regular alarms had proved the only way to stay on schedule. “Right. We have two hours before the guests start arriving at three-thirty. Let’s see how many lights we can get up during that time.”
I carried a box to the stairs. Henry scrambled ahead, then stopped and turned back without warning, throwing me off balance. The box slipped from my grasp and bumped down the stairs to the landing. Henry cowered against the wall, rear end on one stair, front half on another, head disappearing between shoulder blades, expecting another scolding. I wanted to strangle whoever had mistreated this animal.
“It’s okay.” I smiled at him and crouched to pat his wiry head. “You’re fine. Accidents happen. Especially when you have two left paws. Trust me, I know whereof I speak. The reason the ballet thing didn’t work out? You got it. Two left feet.”
As I started down the stairs to retrieve the box, an image popped into my mind of Dad staring up at me from the landing, inviting me to slide down the banister. I’ll catch you, chère Claire.
And he had. Every single time.
I slanted Henry a look. “Think I can still do it?”
Henry cocked his head to one side.
I balanced on the banister and let the denim of my jeans slide on the smooth walnut handrail while I waved my arms up high. Henry barked, trundling down the steps to keep up with me. I nearly trampled him again, jumping off before crash landing against the wall.
Laughing, I righted the light box and carried it to the kitchen where Aunt Emma slid a cookie sheet of scones into the oven. Already the scent of sugar, cinnamon and butter filled the kitchen. I considered this the best room in the house with its sunshine apricot color, windows that greeted the morning sun, and of course, the sweet scents of Aunt Emma’s baking.
“Can I stack the light boxes in here so they’re not in the way?” I asked.
Aunt Emma looked up and smiled, but I could tell from the redness of her eyes, magnified by her glasses that she, too, struggled with the emptiness left by my parents’ passing. This time of the year had been my mother’s favorite and she’d infected all of us with her unbounded Christmas spirit.
”Hey, sweet girl,” Emma said, setting a timer for the scones. “Of course you can.”
She dusted her floured hands on the bib of the ample chest of her Mrs. Claus apron. “Shall I put on some tea?”
Knitting, tea and baked goods were Aunt Emma’s answer to everything.
“Let me get the rest of the boxes down first.” She would want to talk about Mom, and I didn’t want to. Not when the wound was still so fresh. Especially because her twin sister’s death was my fault. If I hadn’t turned down Porter’s proposal… If I hadn’t called Mom bawling… If she and Dad hadn’t come to my rescue…
I pressed a hand to my heart, felt it tamp hard against my palm, an ache that refused to dampen.
Stop it, Claire! Logically, I knew that I couldn’t change anything, that I didn’t make the accident happen. I just wish I could go back in time and make different decisions.
I brought down the three boxes of lights and the family of light-up snowmen Dad had gotten such a kick from. Then flopped onto a kitchen chair, exhausted from an already too-long day that had started before sunrise. Henry curled up by the warm stove, tail forming a wispy blanket over his front paws.
“I don’t know how Mom and Dad did this for so long. I feel like I’m in permanent boot camp.” Three months into my unexpected turn at innkeeping and every muscle in my body still ached like the first week.
Aunt Emma smiled as she filled the teakettle at the sink. “It’s what they loved. You’ll get used to it.”
Would I, though? When every day felt like a never-ending chore? Could I find the joy they’d had in serving guests?
They’d made a good team—Mom, Dad and Aunt Emma. Emma did the cooking and food ordering. Mom had taken care of the guests and cleaning. Dad had maintained the grounds and the upkeep on the house. They had loved what they did. Building the inn and its reputation for hospitality was their dream come true.
The problem was it wasn’t mine.
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