A Winter Promise – Chapter One

Only a few short weeks until I release the third book in my Archer Cove Series, A Winter Promise. Here is the complete first chapter. Enjoy!

 

Anna Tumblesby inhaled deeply and tugged at the furry white hem of her dress. Downstairs in the lobby of the Archer Cove Inn, a camera crew was setting up in front of the roaring fire. Fair Isle stockings were hung across the stone fireplace with care, and fresh garland was strung through the banister leading to the second floor, held in place by red velvet bows. Downstairs, her sister Charis was probably enjoying a cup of peppermint tea. But upstairs in room 202, Anna was freaking the heck out.

In her thirty-six years on the planet — not including any past lives — Anna had come to recognize two truths. The first: natural toothpaste made with baking soda and essential oils did not clean her teeth. The second: the holidays? Not her thing.

She couldn’t quite put her finger on why. It was all nice enough, what with the lights and the brightly colored gifts. The food was great, certainly. Anna could get behind a plate of Christmas cookies and a tumbler of eggnog, and that’s where she found herself at most festive events. But she’d never managed to feel the outpouring of excitement that she was expected to feel at that time of year. To her, the holidays were just another list of social events and obligations. Fortunately, she was pretty good at faking it.

“Hello, I’m Anna Tumblesby, and I think the holidays are magical.” Anna smiled brightly at her reflection, paused, and then glanced over her shoulder. “Too cheesy?”

“Uh, a bit.” Anna’s youngest sister, Flossie, was lying flat on her back on the four-poster bed, her gray-stockinged feet resting on the top of the headboard. “You sound like you’re hosting a Christmas spectacular or something. You know, with tap-dancing elves and candy canes with jazz hands.” She was staring straight at the ceiling, but she fluttered her hands to demonstrate. “Don’t tell Charis I said that. She’ll get ideas.”

Their sister Charis was the one who love love loved the holidays. Always had. As a child, she was cast in the Archer Cove Thanksgiving Parade as Little Miss Christmas for four years straight, where she got to sit in Santa’s sleigh and throw candy to onlookers. Those days she was on to bigger and better things, like planning the Archer Cove Holiday Festival. After years of nagging, she’d finally managed to rope Anna in as her festival co-chair, a role Anna had regretted accepting every day since.

“In fairness to me,” Anna said, “I am hosting a Christmas spectacular. Sort of. An interfaith Christmas spectacular.” She tugged her silver hoop earring free of her hair and made a mental note not to repeat the words “interfaith Christmas” for the cameras. It was the kind of statement that would make her look foolish, and win a long sigh from Sandy Thane, the prune-mouthed chair of the Chamber of Commerce.

Blame it on the winter doldrums, or the anxiety of facing another holiday season alone in the great, old inn. Anna needed to be busy — always had. In the three years since she’d first come to own the inn, Anna had become accustomed to its rhythms. She was busiest beginning in the late spring and continuing through early fall. There was a slowdown until the leaves changed and business burst again, and then an interminable stretch of quiet. She barely knew what to do with herself when only a few rooms were filled.

That year, Anna had finally decided that instead of sitting around the inn gathering cobwebs, she would assist Charis with planning the holiday festivities. A town-wide cookie swap. Caroling down Main Street. A Jingle Bell Dance at the community center. Basically, the same old festivities that had been planned for as long as Anna could remember. Sandy had appointed Anna co-chair of the Festival Planning Committee, but had promptly vetoed all of her new ideas. “Ice skating? What if it’s too warm? And the sheer liability.” She shook her head disapprovingly. “I’m afraid we can’t risk it.”

In the midst of planning, Charis had secured a local news segment and appointed Anna the official spokesperson for the event. “You’re so much better at these things than I am, Anna,” she’d said, tilting her head slightly to deliver the compliment. “The cameras love you, and who knows? Maybe you’ll drum up some business for the inn.”

The only problem was…her. Anna was a behind-the-scenes kind of gal. When she got nervous, she jumbled her words and everything came out all wrong. It all went back to her first stage appearance in the second grade Thanksgiving play. For some reason, blonde, blue-eyed Anna had been cast as a Native American, and she had one line: “I brought the maize.” When the time came for her to walk onstage, Anna promptly peed her pants and ran in the other direction.

She watched Flossie in the mirror. “We’re being profiled on Connecticut Sunrise. I have to come up with something to say.” Preferably something brilliant and memorable.

“Have fun with it.” Flossie reached up to grab her toes. “Why don’t you keep it simple and just say, ‘Hi, I’m Anna. Welcome to The Holly Jolly Bullpen.'”

Yes, that’s how they had been secretly referring to the inn. It was Holly Jolly headquarters for the officially named “Festival in the Cove.” But “Holly Jolly Bullpen” was used as a joke between her and Flossie. No one else would understand. “I can’t say that,” Anna replied. “It would undermine the dignity of the piece.”

That got her little sister’s attention. Flossie rolled to one side without bothering to lift her head. “Did you say ‘dignity’? You’re wearing an elf suit.”

Anna’s hands flew to the green crushed velvet of her dress. The hem fell halfway down her thighs and was tinged with white faux fur. Her waist was cinched with a wide black leather belt with an enormous gold buckle. Charis had selected it and assured her that it was perfect for the news segment. “It’s not an elf suit,” Anna replied. “Just because it’s festive…”

Plus, would an elf suit reveal her cleavage so flatteringly? No, it would not. Would an elf suit make her legs look so good when paired with black ankle boots? Case closed. This was a fun, holiday-themed dress. She could easily wear it to any cocktail party. “Maybe it’s a little ironic,” Anna ventured.

“Yeah, it’s an elf suit. Ironically, you’re wearing it as a dress.” Flossie sat up on the bed, tousled her long, strawberry-blonde hair, and yawned. “How long is this going to take, anyway? I want to take a nap.” It was eight o’clock in the morning.

There was a knock at the door. “Yes?” Anna called.

“Miss Tumblesby? We have your mic.”

“Come in.”

The door opened and a small, wiry woman with close-cropped brown hair rushed in. “This will just take a minute,” she said, and paused. “Do you mind if I unzip your dress a little?”

“No, go ahead.” Anna pulled her long blonde curls to one shoulder and glanced at Flossie in the mirror. “You don’t have to be here. If you’re tired.”

Flossie raised her shoulders halfheartedly. “It’s fun. I’ll be morally supportive. And there’s nowhere I’d rather be today than in the Holly Jolly Bullpen.” The sisters exchanged a smile in the mirror.

Once the microphone was fitted, they were ready. Show’s about to begin, Anna thought. There was no turning back. No peeing herself. It was time to bring the maize.

Anna’s limbs trembled as she walked down the stairs. Members of the town had come out to view the taping, and a few clapped when they saw her. Flossie giggled beside her. “Oooh, you’re going to be famous.”

“Anna! Oh my. You look amazing!”

Anna turned to see Charis’s little sparrow-like figure bobbing excitedly. She may have been in her thirties, but Charis was still Little Miss Christmas. Exhibit one: her candy cane earrings. Anna forced a broad but shaky smile. “Hey. Thanks. You don’t think I look like an elf?”

“Oh my goodness, no! You look adorable, and your aura is brilliant blue! Oh, and I brought some children with me,” Charis said, gripping Anna’s wrist between her warm fingers. “I hope you don’t mind.”

She’d brought…children? Oddly, it didn’t surprise Anna. “No, of course not. The more the merrier.”

“They’re orphans,” Charis whispered. (Of course they were.) “Children from the state-run home, poor darlings. The foster care system… I can’t even talk about it. They could use a little Christmas cheer. We all could.” She tilted her head and nodded solemnly. “I rented a bus. They’re all so excited. There are a few counselors, too. To keep them away from sharp objects. And also because one of the little girls starts fires, bless her heart.”

Anna sucked a breath as Charis’s voice finally came to a halt. “Great,” she exhaled. “Well, keep them away from the fireplace, I guess. And the kitchen.”

“Oh, don’t you worry.” She leaned in closer, and Anna smelled cinnamon on her breath. “You just go on up there and make us proud! We’ll all be watching.”

No pressure there.

Anna’s attention turned to Devon Gail, the journalist who would be interviewing her. Devon had her arms outstretched and was waiting while someone from wardrobe pinned her gray jacket in place for a more tailored look Anna admired her dark skin and bright smile with a pang. Devon was gorgeous. Beside her, she was going to look about as attractive as forgotten leftovers.

“Anna,” Devon beamed warmly, lowering her arms to clasp Anna’s hands. “What a beautiful inn. So pretty and quaint. I’m really looking forward to our chat.”

“Me too,” Anna said, lying just a little bit.

Devon touched a finger lightly to her short, chic curls and ran a gaze down Anna’s figure. “I love that dress. It’s precious.”

But something in her tone made Anna feel self-conscious. She’d opted for holiday festive. Devon had not. Anna adjusted the fabric around the belt. “Thank you.”

A man approached them and explained what was going to happen. They had already taken a number of shots of the property and the town, and they’d done preliminary interviews to get the background. “Anna, Devon’s going to ask you some questions about the festival,” he explained. “It’s going to be real low-key.”

“We’ll keep it conversational,” Devon added. “Nothing to be nervous about. This is a feel-good piece.”

Anna’s mouth had gone dry, so she nodded and said, “Uh huh.”

The crew had set two director chairs in front of the fireplace. Anna waited for Devon to take her seat before climbing into her chair. As she waited for the cue to begin, Anna took a deep breath and tried to relax. This was going to be fantastic publicity for the inn. A local television segment! She could be fully booked before the day was up. As someone adjusted the lights, she reminded herself to smile and enjoy. But then she felt the weight of everything that was resting on the interview: an inn filled with guests at the holidays. Could she be so lucky?

And suddenly, Devon had started. She smiled easily at the camera and leaned forward engagingly. “What do you think of when you think of the perfect holiday season? Ice skating and marshmallows? Sleigh bells in the snow? We’re here in the idyllic town of Archer Cove, Connecticut, where one innkeeper is on a mission to create warm winter memories for the townspeople.”

Anna’s spine went rigid as Devon spun toward her. Relax, she told herself. Remember to breathe. Devon’s smile was warm as sunshine as she said, “Anna, you’ve created the loveliest winter festival. Can you tell us a little bit about it?”

Shoot, her mouth was bone dry, and she could hear her own tongue unsticking itself as she attempted to answer. “The holidays…are a magical time,” she began, a little breathlessly. “I’ve always loved the idea of families gathering together, and the contrast of snow and warmth. I wanted to create a winter like you’d see in a painting — er, a postcard.”

“And of course this brings in visitors, too,” Devon added. “That must be good for business.”

Anna started at the implication. “Y-yes, but it’s not just about that. If people from out of town come to the inn to enjoy the festivities, that’s a bonus.”

She licked her lips with a dry tongue, desperate to explain herself. This wasn’t about money, she was sure of it. This was about staying busy, being active. Being surrounded by people and not left with her own thoughts. But that wasn’t the kind of thing one confessed to a journalist in front of television cameras. Hello, I’m Anna Tumblesby, and I’m desperately lonely.

She opted for a change of subject. “We have a whole schedule of activities lined up. I’m terribly excited about the cookie swap. There will be an award for the best cookie, of course –”

Anna’s words trailed as the corner of her eye caught a flash of movement. A man had just entered the inn and was walking down the makeshift side aisle of the viewing audience. He paused just on the edge of the shadows, but Anna saw him clearly enough, and froze.

She was barely aware of a stretch of silence, and then Devon cleared her throat. “So there will be a cookie contest, then?” she prompted. “That sounds like a lot of fun! How does that work, exactly?”

But Anna’s attention was still on the man who’d just entered. “Yes,” she began slowly, allowing her eye to move from Devon to the visitor. “There will be marshmallows.”

Shoot. Was that really him? Did he actually have the unmitigated gall? Anna’s mind unraveled as Devon shuffled some papers in her lap and gave a dry laugh. “I understand you and your sister have a special term for the inn during this festive time. Do you want to share what that is?”

They’d done a pre-interview with Flossie? She’d never mentioned that. “Oh.” Anna forced a burst of laughter. “We call it the Holly Jolly Bull Penis. It’s just a private joke.”

With a swift whoosh, the air left the room. Devon’s eyes widened, and she looked back down at her lap. Anna glanced out over the faces in the audience and the realization slowly hit. “Sorry,” she murmured, teasing the fur trim on her dress again. “Did I say — ? Bullpen. Holly Jolly Bullpen. Because, um, it’s about a baseball reference? And just, you know, warm up. Warming up. There’s the fireplace.”

Well, there she went, headfirst off the cliff. It was a long, slow fall from here. Anna clenched her eyes shut and gripped her dress. “Um, would you mind if I…could I get a glass of drink? Not a drink. Alcohol, I mean.” She exhaled. “Just water. My mouth is dry.”

Devon blinked and her smile tightened. “We’re live.”

“Oh.” Anna’s cheeks burned. “Right. I forgot about that.”

“It happens to the best of us.” The reporter crossed one slender leg over the other and leaned closer to Anna. “You know, you must love the holidays to invest so much of yourself in this festival. Can you tell me about your favorite holiday tradition?”

“I don’t…know.”

Anna stared at the camera lens. Wires were coiled like snakes around the floor — what if someone tripped? Would she be sued for that? And Devon wanted to know what she loved so much about the holidays, and why wouldn’t Anna’s mouth work? Blast.

Beside her, Devon laughed good-naturedly and shuffled her papers again. “So, it could be anything. Like a favorite food, or a toy you received –”

“The holidays are kind of a hard time for me,” Anna said quietly. Her voice sounded strained and thin to her ears. “I didn’t plan this festival because I wanted money. I planned it because I don’t want to be alone. Because if I’m busy, then I can forget.”

She was staring at her fists as she spoke, clenching and unclenching them on her lap. As she finished speaking, she brought her gaze up to meet Devon’s, and she saw that she’d said the wrong thing. Again. “I’m sorry, Devon,” Anna muttered. “I don’t do well with perky small talk. I just said ‘bull penis’ in front of the orphans. And on live television.” There was a burst of giggles in the audience, but Anna continued. “Look, it’s going to be a nice festival. We kick off in two weeks with hot chocolate and cookies at the inn. Everyone’s welcome. Maybe you love the holidays, or maybe you find them sad and stressful and they remind you of the passage of time and make you want to lose your feelings in a container of that orange popcorn that people like to send around this time of year. You know what I mean? That cheese popcorn that’s covered with orange dust. It comes in the tin. Either way, you’re welcome to attend the festival. We’d love to have you.”

She paused, and her ears were filled with only the sound of her own thundering heart and a crackle as a log slipped in the fireplace. That camera was still pointed at her. Anna pressed her lips together and turned to Devon. “Anyway, the cookie making competition isn’t limited to cookies. I hope participants will feel free to make brownies and other things, too. Oh, and the Jingle Bell Dance requires a sign up! But it’s posted online on our website.” She smiled. “If you’re coming from out of town, there’s plenty of time.”

She folded her hands in her lap to signal that the interview had ended — and on a decent note, all things considered. Devon’s lovely face had gone blank and her jaw slack, but she recovered after a beat and glanced at the producer. “Well, a few minutes early. But we’re okay, right, Tom?”

Anna didn’t wait for the answer before rising and shuffling off the set toward the man who had entered. Behind her she heard Devon say, “I guess we’ll all just take a break?”

Let them all scramble. Anna didn’t care. The segment was mostly ruined, though maybe they’d give her a chance to do a quick follow-up, assuming she could manage to pull herself together in the next few minutes. But composure seemed less and less likely as she approached the man at the side of the room and his features came into focus. That thick, dark-blond hair. Those sharply blue eyes, intense and gentle at the same time. He had a beard, but she’d still recognize him anywhere. Her heart arrested. “Ben.”

He was clearly waiting for her, but he hadn’t yet made himself comfortable. He was still wearing a black winter jacket zipped all the way up to meet a black scarf. As if just realizing he was indoors beside a fire, Ben tugged at the zipper of his coat. “Hey, Anna.” Casual, as if she should have been expecting him. “How’s it going?”

She swallowed and took him in, still in disbelief. Finally she managed to say, “What are you doing here?”

He smiled and his gaze softened. “I heard about the festival. It’s been a long time.” He looked behind her. “I hope I didn’t interrupt.”

Too late for all of that, Anna thought. She reached out and grasped his sleeve. “Come with me.”

He obliged, stumbling after her as she wound them around the lengths of cords and random people, through the lobby and down the hall, back into the kitchen. Goodness, the kitchen was a mess! There were eggshells left on the white-and-gray granite island, and the stainless-steel appliances were covered in gummy fingerprints. Anna’s thoughts immediately flew to Marian, the assistant she’d hired just three weeks ago. Big mistake, but she’d deal with that later. Right now, there were larger quiche to bake. Even so, as she released her grip on Ben’s sleeve and spun on her heel to face him, the first words out of her mouth were “I’m sorry for the mess.”

It made him laugh quietly without dispelling any of the awkwardness between them. “I don’t care about that.”

She inhaled and then headed to the cabinet beside the sink to retrieve a glass. “You shouldn’t be here. You…how long has it been? Six months? Longer? You need to leave. Please.” She turned on the sink and filled the glass with water. “Whatever you want, we can talk about it later. On the phone.” Through our lawyers.

His coat was fully unzipped, but his scarf was still wound around his neck. He stuffed his hands into the pockets of his jeans. “I’m staying here. I drove all the way from the city.”

What the what now? A trickle of water dribbled down Anna’s chin. She reached for the red gingham towel balled beside the sink and wiped her face. Gah! She pulled it back. There were raw eggs on it. Damn it.

She flung the towel to the side. “I’m afraid we’re all booked up. No room at the inn this Christmas.” She smiled weakly at her own joke. “Too bad. There’s a nice place over in Spencer –”

“I have a reservation,” Ben said as he gathered the broken eggshells on the counter and dropped them into the trashcan.

“Oh, that’s probably a mistake,” she said quickly. “I have a new assistant, and she’s not familiar with…computers. Or cleaning.” Or the unwritten “Do-Not-Book” list. “This is sort of embarrassing for me, really. You’re welcome to stay for brunch. On the house, of course. Because of the inconvenience.”

But Ben wasn’t buying it. “I have a reservation, Anna. A real one. I’m staying at the Holly Jolly Bullpen.” He grinned. “That’s a cute name, by the way. And I’m fixing the roof on one of the guest houses — didn’t you know that? You hired me.”

She most certainly had not hired Ben to fix the roof on the guest house. She hadn’t hired anyone. In fact, she’d delegated that task to Flossie… Anna’s blood pooled. That sneak!

Her hands flew to her hips and found the thick leather belt. “This is holly jolly bullshit, is what it is!”

She was in no way equipped to deal with this. Not standing in a messy kitchen, wearing…yes. An elf suit. She was dressed in an elf suit and she might as well just admit it. Though the neckline made her breasts look great. Still, Anna was not about to hash it out with Ben right then. “Tell me the truth: why are you here?”

He paused to face her, his broad shoulders slumping just slightly under her withering glare. “You’re my wife. Why shouldn’t I be here with you? It’s the holidays.”

So he still remembered they were married? Funny how memory could slip in and out so conveniently. “Mail that to months ago, Ben. I’m dressed like one of Santa’s helpers, and there’s a television crew in the lobby. Devon Gail apparently needs me to explain what a cookie competition is. This doesn’t seem to be the time.”

She ran her palms over her face. A wave of defeat washed over her, or perhaps it was the feeling of thick, greasy pancake makeup and dried egg. “Fine. You’re staying here? Then we should sit down later. Because all I want for Christmas is a divorce.”

Good, she thought as she turned on her heel. That would show him not to play games with her. What was he thinking, just showing up like that, sending her brain skittering in the middle of an important interview? Anna held her head up high as she headed out of the kitchen and through the swinging door. She stopped. Flossie was standing there, eyes wide. “What?” Anna said.

Flossie twirled her finger. “Turn around.”

Anna did as told. Her heart plunged as she felt Flossie’s fingers on her back and realized what she was doing. “Oh my God,” she whispered.

“Yeah, that’s right,” Flossie mumbled. “Your mic was on.”

Anna’s throat tightened. If her mic was on, then her words had just been broadcast through the speakers in the lobby. “Thanks,” she said meekly. There was a brief pause. “What did I say?”

“Oh, let’s see.” Flossie pulled up her hand and counted on her fingers. “Holly jolly bullshit, Marian can’t clean or work a computer, Devon needs you to explain cookie competitions…” She frowned. “Did I get everything? Oh wait! You want a divorce for Christmas.” She tilted her head and looked at Anna. “Do you want to slip out the back? I can run damage control. I’ll just tell everyone you’re on drugs.”

Anna winced. “I don’t think that would help, actually.” She sucked a breath. “No. I’ll go in there.”

And so she trudged, one heavy step at a time, chin up and heart pounding, back into the lobby. When she stepped through the doorway, she forced a bright smile and slid her clammy hands down her ridiculous dress. “Sorry, everyone,” she chirped. “So sorry about all that. Just a touch of domestic…bliss.”

All movement in the room halted, and people avoided her eyes. Someone in the back coughed. Anna pressed her hands together. “I have some cookies in the breakfast room if anyone’s interested? And I’ll brew some fresh coffee. Or tea. You can have tea instead.”

She was looking at Devon, who was scratching at the back of her neck with one slender index finger and staring at a spot on the floor. “Thanks, Anna,” she said. “We have a long drive.”

“Then you’ll need something for the road,” Anna said cheerily, and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. “Listen, I’m terrible at interviews, but I’m really good at hospitality. Bring Tom and the crew. And — Oh! Charis?” she called out over her shoulder. “I have plenty of hot chocolate for the kids. With whipped cream and marshmallows.”

There, that oughta fix things. Joy to the world and deck the halls. Fa-la-la-la-friggin’-la.

 

Scaled

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