Christmas in Brighton
Love in Brighton Village, Book 2
Getting lost isn’t the best way to start an assignment… But sometimes you need to get lost to find where you belong.
Travel writer Meredith Mills has one goal—capture New England Christmas charm in a series of blogs to help save her mother’s boutique travel agency. If her mother can’t get more bookings, Meredith fears another shuttered business and another move. And what Meredith longs for more than anything is roots and a normal life.
Spending the holidays stuck in the glittering decorations, twinkling lights and festive activities in the middle on nowhere in New Hampshire isn’t part of her agenda.
Neither is falling for the laidback pop-up Christmas village’s designer assigned as her guide by the town. She’s used to following a plan and ticking off boxes. But her carefully laid out agenda keeps getting derailed. Especially when the chemistry between them lights up like a Christmas tree.
Then a nor’easter blows through, leaving her stranded in snow while, in Boston, her mother is falling apart. They’re the one constant in each other’s lives. Meredith can’t abandon her. To get the help her mother needs, Meredith must spill their long-kept secret.
Will that spell the end of the magic or the start of a new itinerary for her life?
“Brimming with holiday spirit and a quirky yet relatable cast of characters, Christmas in Brighton will melt your heart and deliver joy.”–Lorrie Thomson, award-winning author of A Measure of Happiness, What’s Left Behind, and Equilibrium
Everything was too neat, too clean when I walked into Dream Destinations, my mother’s boutique travel agency near Davis Square. Every surface gleamed as if Mama had been up all night rubbing, scouring, polishing. The nap on the area rug was just so—as if she’d taken a rake and made neat, even rows. The money plant on her desk was well-watered and perky. The room smelled of orange oil and rich coffee. Nothing to straighten. Was this the start of mania?
She’d done so well. Five years since the last implosion of our lives. I thought we’d finally found the right doctor, finally got the right mix of meds, finally got her moods under control.
I thought I finally had the chance to shift into thinking about my own future.
But if she was skating on the edge of mania, I couldn’t abandon her the way my father had all those years ago.
“Meredith!” Mama poured a giant mug of coffee, voice too loud, too bright.
She’d had me young, and we were often mistaken for sisters. Her soft-brown hair, pale blue eyes, perfect rosy skin and even features gave her an ethereal look. Her small build and slim proportions gave the impression of a fragile china doll that ought to be carefully protected behind glass. An illusion that hid her inner rollercoaster.
I, on the other hand, tended to look like a teddy bear about to lose its stuffing.
”Just the person I wanted to see.” Her smile was too big and her eyes too wide for this early in the morning.
“You asked me to come in.” A phone call that had shocked me out of a deep sleep at the crack of dawn. I’d hoped to sleep in, take the day off to pack for my trip. I looked forward to getting on that plane, going to sleep and waking up in Bali where I planned to lie on a white-sand beach and let the turquoise sea tickle my toes.
The sinking in my stomach seeped into my legs, turning them heavier with every minute. Her illness wasn’t her fault; it was genetic. And this, I thought, looking around the too-neat office, wasn’t a good sign. “You made it sound like an emergency.”
She pushed the mug of coffee toward me. Yawning, I shed my bag, hat and gloves on the chair in front of her desk to accept the coffee. Black, like she liked it. I preferred tea. But I needed caffeine, so I stepped toward the coffee station to add cream, holding my breath.
“No, no, not an emergency.” She sorted through files on her desk. A wild stir of energy rippled through the air.
“Mama? Are you taking your meds?”
“Of course!” She tutted as if her forgetting wasn’t a constant battle. As if, once she got in a middle mood, she wasn’t looking for reasons to shed the chemicals that made that middle mood possible.
I made a point of looking around the office. “You tend to clean before—”
“A gift.” Her expression went dreamy. “From Paolo. He saw me vacuuming before hours last week, and he thought I should use my time and energy on the business, not on cleaning.” Her head swiveled on her neck, admiring her gleaming office. “Wasn’t that thoughtful of him?”
Paolo, the latest in a long line of short-lived “friends.” Another reason to worry. Once the chemical course of new relationships wore off, Mama got itchy feet. Then the dominoes fell fast in a predictable pattern. Dump the boyfriend. Mania. Sell the business. Leave as fast as possible. No plan, no destination. Just waiting for the low to catch up and tell us where we’d land.
Because we were the one constant in each other’s lives, I followed and picked up all the dropped pieces, caught her when she fell, helped to build her back up.
I was tired. Really, really tired. I didn’t have the energy to try to put her together one more time after a deep dive into depression. I didn’t want to help Mama reinvent herself again. I wanted friends. I wanted roots. I wanted a life of my own.
I sat on the edge of a chair, muscles tightening fiber by fiber in anticipation of the chaos that would surely follow. “So why are you here so early?”
”Oh, the cleaning crew needed me to open the door for their first visit. Since I didn’t need to spruce up the office this morning, I’ve gotten so much done. I put up your latest article on holiday travel preparations on the website and linked it to all of our social media.”
Having my mother speak in geek still seemed weird when, just a few years ago, she’d barely known how to answer email. Now she was more comfortable posting the goings-on of the agency online than I was—website, Facebook, Instagram, even YouTube.
”How much coffee have you had?” I was still trying to figure out where we were on the manic scale.
She kept arranging and rearranging the one pile of files on her desk. “Only my usual one mug. Decaf.”
The there’s-nothing-wrong mindset was part of the disease, too. I rolled back the calendar in my mind, searching the days for signs I might have missed, announcing the slow simmer of her rising mood.
Five years in one place. A record. She had to have itchy feet.
This time, I’d managed to move into my own apartment—granted in the same building as my mother so I could keep an eye on her. I’d even managed to have the semblance of a career, to find and lose a boyfriend, and make a real friend. I’d met Crystal at a tea sampling at MEM, a tea shop around the corner from where I lived. Then discovered we lived in the same building. She had a view of Davis Square while mine faced the Dumpsters. We both enjoyed tea and romantic comedies, and both worked as freelance writers. We exchanged books. We talked. We laughed.
Normal, all normal. Having some normal was really, really nice.
What would it be like to have had a normal mother growing up? One that stayed home and baked cookies. One that asked about your day and listened to the answer? One that was on your side when the world seemed against you?
“Are you thinking of selling?” I tried to suck the words back in. Why tip an already rocking boat?
“No, no. Well, maybe.” She looked up at me, eyes wide and worried. “I don’t want to, I really like it here, but I may not have a choice.”
”Why not?” Stay calm. Keep her calm. One of us has to stay sane.
“Paolo asked me to spend Christmas with him.”
What did that have to do with her business? What did she mean? That she was going to accept? That she was canceling our yearly tradition of a marathon of Christmas movies, hot chocolate and sugar cookies? Or that was she about to break up with him and burn both our worlds into ashes?
Spending Christmas with Paolo was a break in her routine and breaks in routine, even positive ones, caused stress. Stress wasn’t good. Stress was dangerous.
Yet, for some reason, Christmas was a good time of the year for Mama. Maybe the bright lights, the colors, the sounds of joy buoyed her mood. She went all out to turn her apartment into a Christmas wonderland, no matter the state of our finances. Christmas was usually safe, which was one of the reasons I’d looked forward to the trip to Bali.
Please, I thought, let it be Christmas alone. I’d just extend my trip to Bali. Sandy beaches, turquoise seas and a fruity umbrella drink sounded pretty good when it was freezing in Boston.
”I said yes.” She waited, lips sucked in, breath held for my reaction.
“That’s nice, Mama. Paolo is a good man.” He made her laugh. He treated her like a princess. He’d also lasted longer than anyone in memory. The lives of businesses usually averaged two years. “Friends” tended have a best-before expiration date of less than six months. She’d met Paolo at a business networking event early last spring. Almost nine months. Also a record. “How does Sherry feel about that?”
His spoiled thirty-three-year-old daughter didn’t take well to anyone who monopolized her father’s attention. Even though she held a good-paying job, she played victim to the hilt, and her father played his part as dutiful rescuer. Mama didn’t need an enabler; she needed someone to keep her on the straight and narrow middle mood between the depths of depression and the flights of mania. Would Paolo want that job? Did he even know Pamela Mills came with a whole circus train full of mental illness baggage? Or was he still caught up in the dazzling brightness of her successful businesswoman persona?
Mama chipped at the pearl-pink nail polish with one thumbnail. “Sherry threatened to boycott Christmas.”
Before I could comment about her not needing that kind of stress, Mama added, “You’re invited, too.”
Like I needed to play Switzerland in this World War III. “I was thinking of staying in Bali longer.”
”Oh.” She frowned, blinked. “Didn’t I tell you? I had to cancel Bali.”
“Why?” No, no, no! I need this vacation! I’ve earned it!
“Business has been really slow lately, Merry. I couldn’t justify the expense.” She riffled through the once-neat pile turned back to its natural state of disarray on her desk. She could organize her clients’ dream vacations down to the minute, but her own desk—and life—tended toward havoc.
”Here it is.” She grabbed a blue file folder from the middle of a pile. “I’m sending you to Brighton.”
”Oh, England. I haven’t been in a few years.” Brighton was a cute seaside town with its piers, royal pavilion and food tours. More fun in summer, but it could prove interesting at Christmas. Still, a letdown from the sun, sand and surf I’d so looked forward to. But I could work with that.
Mama cleared her throat, breaking me out of my reverie. She reached for her reading glasses perched on top of her head. “Brighton, New Hampshire.” She spoke fast, leaving no space for me to interrupt. “They have a Pop-Up Christmas Village at some estate. Here it is, Candlewick Estate. It’s supposed to be pure magic, and that’s right up your alley.”
”They hold the annual Festival of Lights there on December twenty-first, a Cookie Tour—I was able to finagle you a ticket—on the Saturday before Christmas, and the lighting of some sort of legendary Christmas Star on Christmas Eve.”
“What I want you to do is send me something every day about Brighton, the Christmas Village, the restaurants, the inns, the boutiques, the local activities, etcetera, and I’ll post the content daily online. I want a family focus on this one. Make it look fun. Entice people to want to go there. I’ll need photos, especially. After the tree lighting, you can come home and—”
She lifted her glasses and let the paper drift to her desk. “Since the pandemic, people want to stay closer to home. Brighton is near enough to reach in a couple of hours, yet it’s far enough out of the way to appear like another world. I need to find New England destinations that are as unique as Dream Destinations, and I need to show people their magic. You’re so good at that.”
Desperation crimped her forehead. I’d known about the influx of cancellations during the pandemic, but I thought that lately bookings had gone back up. How bad had business gotten? “Why didn’t you say anything?”
“I didn’t want to worry you. Especially after Torrance.” The on-again, off-again boyfriend who finally decided I wasn’t worth bothering with. He’d never even asked me to stay; just made the decision—by text—for both of us. Months ago. I was over him before I even deleted his text. I didn’t need the complication of a relationship. Not when Mama still needed so much of me.
The reason for the change in itinerary didn’t matter; the results were the same. Mama had to start turning a profit. That meant getting people to sign up for her packages. That meant I needed to find a way to make Brighton sound like a piece of Christmas heaven.
Searching for Christmas magic was better than picking up pieces. She wanted to stay in Boston, too. We’d somehow make it work.
”Okay.” With a resigned sigh, I said goodbye to white sand, warm sun and turquoise sea. I didn’t want to go to New Hampshire. I didn’t want to freeze my butt off at an outdoor Christmas Village in the middle of nowhere. I didn’t want to slog through snow to find something that might tickle a traveler’s fancy. But for Mama, to keep her in the middle mood, I would. “I’ll go to this Brighton Pop-Up Village. I’ll find you some magic.”
Would you like to try the Brighton Celebration Tea made by herbalist Missi Blake of Be Well Planted especially for the Love in Brighton Village series? Find it here: Brighton Celebration Tea
Get the recipe for Meredith’s Chocolate Thumprints.
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