The Road Not Taken

The Road Not Taken
Serendipity, Indiana – Book Six 
Francie and husband Brad are spending Christmas in Serendipity, but it’s no vacation. There are marital problems, career decisions, and a major change on the horizon for the Standish family Christmas tree farm. 

Can Francie find a way through all this, to a happy ending for anyone?
~*~
 
The Road Not Taken
Serendipity, Indiana–Book Six
 
By
 
USA Today Bestselling Author
Magdalena Scott
 Copyright ©2016
 
Chapter One
Brad turned the car into the lane of the Christmas tree farm, and some of the stress built up during the long drive from Florida to Indiana fell away.
 
Home.
No matter how long I lived away from here, the peaceful feeling always settled over me when I returned to Serendipity.
From the placid scene of the hilly farm covered with evergreens and a thin skiff of snow, I dragged my eyes back to my husband. “Thank you again for making the trip, Brad. I know it’s not your favorite place to spend the holidays.”
He nodded, his eyes on the gravel lane. “You’re welcome, again, Francie. Where else am I going to spend Christmas than with my son and wife?”
That sounded simple, but he and I both knew better. Our marriage was in trouble. I wasn’t sure how or when it had begun to deteriorate, but I feared this was our last Christmas together, unless something drastic happened to turn things around.
Heading up the driveway, we passed my sister Carla’s house on the right. On the left was the small acreage my parents gave me when I turned twenty-one. Unlike Carla and our brothers Jim and David, I had never built my dream home here. Had never lived the life as an adult that looked so idyllic—residing on a Christmas tree farm, selling trees and working in the Christmas shop during the holidays.
It was hard work much of the year, but because we worked together and our family was close-knit, the effort was always worthwhile. Time spent with customers in the Christmas shop was the easy part—more like play than work to me, with the CDs providing holiday music, families shopping together… Okay, sometimes that part was stressful to endure, depending on how well the kids and adults behaved.
After Dad died, every facet of the farm business changed. At first, my brother Jim had tried to shoulder all of Dad’s responsibilities, but he eventually had to hire help so he could keep his law practice going. Mom, who had always been in charge of the Christmas shop, helped Jim in overseeing the farm’s operations. She also ran the relatively new sideline—the tiny cabin B&B. I leaned my forehead on the cool glass of the passenger side window, feeling anew our family’s loss.
Brad parked the Prius in front of the house I’d grown up in, as close to the edge of the gravel pad as possible, since the parking area is also used by customers who come to cut their own trees and peruse the shop.
Mom appeared on the front porch, her dog Daisy at her side. Daisy had been Dad’s, but after his death, she became Mom’s near constant companion. I tore out of the car and ran up onto the porch, and Mom enveloped me in a hug.
“Sweetheart, I’m so glad you’re here.” She held me, rubbing my back as if I were a small child. I had to steel myself to keep from crying. At last I found my voice and pulled back a little.
“It’s great to be here, Mom. Thanks for putting up with our last-minute decision.”
Brad walked up the wooden porch steps and set down the first load of luggage. He moved toward Mom and I took a step away. He hugged her briefly and kissed her cheek. “What Francie said, Lillian. I’m embarrassed that we called you so late to see if you have room.”
“Have room? My goodness, of course I have room for my baby daughter and favorite son-in-law.”
The thought flashed into my head to wonder if she would call Jared Barnett favorite son-in-lawonce he and Carla got married. By that time, it was possible Brad and I would be divorced. My breath caught, anticipating the conversation we would need to have with Joseph, and with my family. Like the proverbial elephant in the room, the breakdown of our relationship in the last few years had been something neither of us wanted to talk about—even keeping it between the two people who might be able to repair the situation. In all the hours of our drive north, we had studiously avoided discussing anything personal. During my stints at driving, there was no conversation at all. Brad was too focused on his phone or laptop to talk.
Mom’s cheerful voice broke into my depressing reverie. “If I had known ahead of time that you were coming, I wouldn’t have begun the renovations upstairs. You don’t mind staying in one of the cabins, do you?”
Brad’s jaw dropped, and I can only assume mine did too. He recovered more quickly though. “No room at the inn, as they say.” He turned to me, one eyebrow cocked. “We can be flexible, can’t we, Francie?”
“Um. Sure. Sure, that’s not a problem.” I hadn’t spent much time in any of the cabins that were part of the farm’s bed and breakfast business, but from what I remembered, they were truly tiny. Was there enough space for two people who used to be intimate life partners but no longer were?
Mom sighed with relief. “Oh, good. I’m so glad you don’t mind. Do you want to see what’s going on with the rooms upstairs?”
We abandoned our bags and followed Mom through the living room and up the stairs to the bedroom Carla and I used to share. Mom opened the door.
Most of the wallpaper had been scraped off, but stubborn layers of old paper remained in patches here and there.
The woodwork had been scraped too. Paint chips in a variety of colors littered the floor. The posters and other teenage memorabilia were long gone, no doubt. Most of all, the twin beds were missing.
“Oh. My. Word.” I couldn’t help it, and lucky for all of us, I hadn’t let loose with something more colorful.
Mom put an arm around my shoulders. “It’s just a start, you know. When we’re done here, the room will be fit for royalty. You’ll love it.” She squeezed me and let go, stepping further into the room.
I staggered after her.
Mom looked thrilled with the renovation, and I didn’t dare say what I was really thinking. “Wow. This is a surprise. I guess I was picturing new curtains, maybe some paint.”
Brad remained in the hallway, taking in the devastation of the room where he and I always stayed when visiting.
“Whoa. It’s major, Lillian.”
She hurried on, unaware of our shock. “It was time, I’d say. I had lots of help deciding which way to go, as you can imagine. Carla, and Jared’s daughter Katie, both had ideas about everything. Katie’s very creative. She’s promised to help me with the sewing, since Carla is so busy at her dress shop. Katie is learning to machine embroider too. She’s trying out her new skill on the coverlet and matching curtains. But, you know, at fourteen, she has lots going on at school and extracurricular events.”
“That’s nice,” I muttered.
Her face fell, and not wanting to hurt her feelings, I pasted a smile on mine. Something was different with Mom today, but I wasn’t sure what.
“Don’t get me wrong. I’m sure it’ll be nice. I’m just surprised.”
“There didn’t seem to be any reason to leave it as a museum to you and Carla when you’ve had your own homes all these years. That’s why I sent you the boxes of things from the closet, remember? I found a few other items in the attic too. They should fit into your trunk for the return trip. Carla took the beds to put in the room that will be Katie’s whenever Jared and Carla finally tie the knot. You remember I asked if you wanted any of the furniture, right, Francie?” Her voice was filled with concern about my reaction to the room.
“Yes. Yes, I remember, and that’s totally fine. And—let me think—you’re going to rent this room out as part of the
B&B?”
“Well, that’s a possibility. Jim and David are against the idea. Those boys are overprotective of me, and insist the B&B guests only belong in the tiny cabins. I think if it were up to them, I wouldn’t serve breakfast during tree season at all.”
“Why’s that, Lillian?” Brad was leaning against the doorframe, handsome and casual—not flipping out as I felt myself doing.
Mom scraped with her thumbnail at a piece of wallpaper that refused to budge. “Because there isn’t a way to serve them in the Christmas shop during tree season, and I host breakfast in my dining room instead. I figure it gets the good china out of the cabinet one month each year. Really, it’s easier to have them in the dining room than to carry everything to the shop building across the parking area. But Jim and David don’t understand that part.”
“What’s their room like?” I blurted out.
“Their room? Oh, the boys’ old room. Come and see.” We followed her across the hall. The bedroom David and Jim had shared was always a boys-only territory which historically housed a variety of creepy pets, concert posters, and their sports trophies.
We strolled through the large bedroom, noting a variety of stuffed Santa figures, Nativity sets, and a big plastic Rudolph suspended from the ceiling smiling down at us.
Brad chuckled, shaking his head. “Wow. Salute to Christmas, huh?”
Mom nodded. “Pretty much. Can anyone guess who worked with me on the plan for this room?”
Our son Joseph appeared from the hall, strode to each of us in turn and administered bone-crushing hugs. “Hey, guys. What do you think of my room? Grandma said since I’m the one who stays here the most, I could decide what it looks like.”
Evidently, our recent college grad was more of a Christmas junkie than either of us realized.
“It’s… It’s very Christmassy.” That was all I had. What it was, in my opinion, was overdone to a massive degree. “How much of this glows in the dark?”
Joseph bounded over onto the messily pulled-together bed. “Not that much. And I sleep with my eyes closed anyway. Only thing I miss from the way it used to be is the bunk beds, but Matthew has those now, which is awesome.”
Mom crooked her finger. “Let’s go downstairs and I’ll get you something to eat. Do you need a nap before dinner?” She was leading the way down the steps, not watching the reaction from Brad or me.
Thank goodness.

Chapter 2

Mom set out a plate of homemade cookies, poured milk into glasses for me and Joseph, and made a fresh pot of coffee for Brad. She continued to chatter about her redecorating project while she bustled around. “The main expense is the mattress sets. Reba and I haunted antique auctions for a few weeks and bought the furniture for almost nothing. It’s such a shame how little interest there is in high quality pieces like the ones I bought.”
Reba Markland and Mom have been friends since The Year One. They threw us kids and Reba’s kids together for holidays or any other potential event. I’m sure—almost—that the two of them didn’t push my brother David into a romance with Reba’s granddaughter Emily. But if they did, we’d forgive them. David and Emily have a happy marriage and are expecting their first child. Another grandchild for Mom, and Reba’s first great-grand.
“How’s Emily?” I asked around a chocolate chip cookie. “Will she be here today?”
“Emily’s doing well. Just five months to go. And everyone but Carla will be here this evening.” Mom consulted her watch. “In a couple of hours, in fact. We’ve had a busy season so far. You can imagine, Francie, how much traffic there was on the evening we got that speck of snow that’s still trying to hold on.”
I laughed and glanced at Brad to see how bored he was with the discussion. “I’m sure it was a southern Indiana madhouse. The idea of chopping down the family Christmas tree during a snowstorm, or even a light snow flurry, is a big deal to everybody but us.”
“It sure is a big deal,” Joseph said, smiling from me to Brad and back again. “This farm is holiday cheer central. After a year of bad news from everywhere, people need good, old-fashioned traditions. Places like this are reassuring just because we’re friendly, family owned, and low tech. Maybe they get some hope for the future by connecting to the past during the Christmas season.”
“You might be getting a little carried away, son,” Brad said, winking. “Been dipping into the eggnog?”
“No, I’m serious. We’ve had a lot of customers this year who have never cut their own tree before. It’s a huge deal for them to drive here, bring the kids, tromp all over the farm until the big spotlight seems to beam on their perfect tree. Then they hack it down. There’s gonna be a lot of work cleaning up jagged stumps next spring.” He shook his head. “Like I said, we’ve seen a lot of customers who’ve never cut a tree before, or even held a saw.”
“There’s always a lot of cleanup.” I remembered going out with Dad to do such things. It was just part of growing up on the farm.
Mom walked over to a pegboard near the backdoor and returned with a key. “This is for cabin five. It overlooks the lake—such a lovely spot. You won’t have trouble finding it, will you?”
I held out my hand, and she dropped the key into it. “Guess not, unless you moved the lake.”
Brad pushed his chair back and stood. “Well then. Shall we take our bags back to the car and drive up to our home-away-from-home?”
Mom grinned up at him.
Joseph got up and shrugged into his coat. “See you guys later at the Christmas shop.”
As soon as Brad started the Prius, I sent a text to Carla asking if she had room for us in her house. I found it irritating Brad was being pleasant when in the presence of Mom and Joseph about this change in plan. I waited for the snide comments I knew he was all too eager to vent. It’s not as if my husband and I wanted to be jammed up together in a miniature cabin for two weeks.
****
Almost as soon as I sent the text, Carla called me.
“Hey, welcome home, Francie! You know I’d love to have you guys stay with me, but no-can-do this year. I’ve got sewing projects from the shop stashed everywhere, plus I have some rooms in the process of redecoration for Katie and Miles. My hours are horrible, so even if I had space, no one would get a decent night’s sleep staying with me. I thought Mom said she had some cabins available.”
“Yes, she does. We’re headed up to one right now. I just thought, you know, it might give us more time to chat if we stayed with you. But no problem, Carla. I’ll stop in at the shop to see you. Is that the best way to be sure of an audience with the great and powerful dress designer?”
“Ha. Don’t make fun of me. I swear this Christmas season is busier than ever. The whole year has been busier than ever. If not for some excellent help and a fiancée who knows how to give great neck rubs, I’d be hospitalized by now.”
“Well, I’m glad you’ve got good people on your side, Carla. I’ll be in to see you as soon as I can.” I closed the connection and dropped my phone back in my purse.
Brad was maneuvering the gravel track toward the lake. “I take it her answer was no.”
“That’s the short version.”
We rounded the last corner and the cabin came into view. Brad pulled up next to it and shut off the engine. “Unless you have another plan, we might just as well take our bags in here and get settled.”
The door unlocked easily, and we entered from the miniature front porch that sported two red-painted rocking chairs. I dropped my tote bag onto one of the two easy chairs next to a small electric wall unit that looked too teensy to heat even an abode for Barbie. A baby cedar tree wrapped in fairy lights sat in a pot on the windowsill.
For newlyweds, maybe it was ideal. For Brad and me, not so much. Although we still shared a bed at home, it was a king size with plenty of space to not touch each other. Sometimes Brad’s snoring, or my tossing and turning, resulted in one of us spending the night in the guest room. How long would it be until one of us moved to the guest room permanently…until the word divorce was mentioned? It felt inevitable.
I looked around and almost wished we had stayed home. “Oh man. Can you believe people pay money to spend time in these doll houses?”
Following me under the mistletoe we were both ignoring, Brad walked through the living room in two strides and put a hand on the ladder. It rolled easily from one side of the room to the other, making built-in cabinetry, bookshelves, and the walkway to the back of the space more accessible. He climbed up two or three rungs and peeked at the loft area. “Didn’t you say Emily spent some time in one of these before she married David?”
“Yes, she did. But she’s only one person.”
I was in no hurry to see what was supposed to be a bedroom. I eyed the two chairs. If there’d been three, I might have managed to remove the seat cushions and create a little bed for myself, as backup in case the upstairs was too…cozy. I tried a cushion, but it was fastened tight. Resigned, I poked around the kitchen.
The mini fridge was empty, as expected, but a variety of teabags resided in a handmade basket on the countertop. I put the kettle on and fussed with the tea things until the water boiled. “Jared stayed in one of the cabins with Miles and Katie a couple of years ago too. I’m sure we can make this work. It’s just not ideal.”
Actually, I wasn’t sure at all that we could co-exist here without our problems flaring out of control. But maybe that’s what we needed. For a long time we had lived under the same roof, behaving as near strangers. Here, that wouldn’t be an option. Either we worked out our problems, or one of us would leave.
~*~
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Learn more about the rest of the Serendipity series on my Serendipity page, here.