Join award-winning author Melody Carlson for a Christmas story that will warm your heart and have you dreaming of your own enchanted seaside holiday.
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|Publisher:||Baker Publishing Group|
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About the Author
Melody Carlson is the award-winning author of over 200 books with sales of more than 7 million, including many bestselling Christmas novellas, young adult titles, and contemporary romances. She received a Romantic Times Career Achievement Award in the inspirational market for her many books, including Finding Alice. She and her husband live in central Oregon. Learn more at www.melodycarlson.com.
Read an Excerpt
WENDY HARPER never considered herself a deceitful person. In fact, she was so scrupulously honest that it sometimes got her in trouble. Yet as she drove her jam-packed Subaru wagon over the Maine state line, she felt a gnawing sense of guilt. Maybe it was deceit by omission, but she knew it was wrong to let Jackson draw his own conclusions about their trip. Even if it was a convenient deception, she needed to convey the truth to her son. Without squelching his spirit — and hopefully before they reached their destination.
Wendy turned on the wipers, praying there wasn't snow in the drops pelting her windshield. It was late November, and although Ohio had been unseasonably warm when they'd left home, she knew that weather could change in an instant on the eastern seaboard. She glanced over to see that Jackson had drifted off. He might be a preadolescent, but he always appeared younger and more vulnerable while sleeping. Of course, his sweet innocence only added to her mother lode of guilt. She resisted the urge to adjust his oversized glasses, currently resting cockeyed on his straight freckled nose, or to remove his bright blue earbuds. Best to let sleeping boys lie.
Wendy knew her twelve-year-old was on the cusp of manhood. He was already as tall as her, and his voice had recently grown a bit deeper and cracked occasionally. Her best friend, Claire, claimed it was because Jackson was trying too hard to grow up and take his father's place. "He confided something to me last summer when he was helping me with yard work," Claire had disclosed just days ago. "He said Edward told him he'd have to become the man of the house ... you know, after ..."
Wendy had been both surprised and dismayed to hear this. It was hard to believe her husband would say such a thing to a child. What a heavy load to lay on a nine-year-old. Yet it did explain Jackson's change of interests these past couple of years — giving up soccer and lacrosse, spending more time at home. She loved that he was reading more but hated seeing him turn into a young hermit.
Jackson had even begged Wendy for home school, claiming he could keep up with his studies online. Worried about social isolation and lack of supervision, Wendy had promised to make this decision after Christmas. He'd protested, but a phone call from her grandfather's attorney provided the perfect distraction. Although Poppa had passed away last summer, Wendy had never expected him to leave her his beach cottage in Maine. When Jackson heard the news, he acted like they'd won the lottery! Even though she was touched by Poppa's generosity, her only goal was to get the property sold ASAP.
"We gotta go there!" Jackson had declared. At first she balked, knowing they couldn't afford the round-trip airfare or the time a drive from Ohio to Maine and back would require. But Jackson kept pushing until she finally gave in. Taking a few days off work during Thanksgiving week sounded doable — and that way she could personally meet the Realtor, list the house, and hopefully sell the cottage quickly. That money would help her and Jackson immensely.
The decision to drive to Maine was like a tonic for Jackson. A whole new boy, he'd even quit complaining about school. Of course, she eventually discovered that was because he'd been telling everyone that they were permanently relocating to Seaside, Maine. Despite her telling him to pack only enough for two weeks, he'd shoved everything he could fit into every crevice of her old Subaru. But his erroneous assumption had been so transformative that she'd simply kept her mouth shut. She just couldn't bear to rain on his happy parade. Oh, she attempted to dissuade him a few times. She'd warned him that the beach cottage was just a summer place that would be freezing cold in winter. But Jackson, ever the online researcher, insisted they could weatherize it themselves.
"And I can chop firewood and fix things," he'd offered. Every obstacle she tossed his way was soundly batted back with stubborn youthful optimism. Even when she described the house as a tiny, run-down shack — probably dilapidated, rodent infested, and rotting — he totally dismissed her concerns. And as she'd stuffed the last box into the back of the Subaru, she'd noticed Edward's old toolbox wedged in a corner.
Wendy glanced at her rearview mirror to see the stacked boxes and bags filling the back of her car. Unsure of what they'd find in the neglected cabin, she'd packed everything but the kitchen sink. And since her boss had generously granted her additional vacation time, they would be in Seaside for a while. Almost until Christmas.
Of course, her packing and preparations had simply bolstered Jackson's confidence that they were "gone for good." And with each passing mile, his excitement and optimism had grown. While it made him a congenial traveling companion, it made her increasingly uneasy. She really needed to get him to understand their real purpose.
In his enthusiasm, Jackson had gone online, researching all he could find about Seaside and the Maine coast. Now he was convinced that he would learn to fish and sail ... and to surf next summer. The more he'd shared his hopeful dreams the harder it became to disclose the whole truth. She hinted when she got the chance, but how could she admit that the real purpose of this trip was to spend a few weeks fixing up the beach cottage — then sell it? It would crush him.
Wendy didn't know the real value of Poppa's beach cottage, but even if it was a dilapidated wreck, which was possible, she felt certain the beachside location would be enough to wipe out the medical bills that insurance didn't cover and provide a small safety net for her and Jackson. If she was lucky it might even pay off their student loans and seed a small college fund for Jackson. She was probably overly optimistic, but no matter what, it would help.
She never discussed finances with Jackson, but Edward's battle with cancer had left her deep in debt. Even after selling their home, which had little equity, and moving to an "affordable" apartment, she'd been unable to climb out. Edward hadn't worked long enough before getting sick to have much in social security benefits. Certainly not enough to support them. So inheriting Poppa's sea cottage felt like a gift from God — just what they needed to get back on their feet. She was determined, no matter how much Jackson loved it and protested, the cottage must be sold.
Jackson suddenly sat up, giving her a start. "Are we there yet?" He chuckled at his own gaffe. "Sorry, Mom — you warned me not to say that again."
"Well, as it turns out, we passed the Maine state line around noon and —"
Jackson let out a happy whoop. "You should've woken me up. How much longer till Seaside?"
"I really hope to get there before dark. Why don't you check the GPS and tell me our ETA." She knew how Jackson liked acronyms.
Within seconds, he reported that they would arrive at their destination in three hours and seven minutes. "According to my calculations, that will be about 3:54," he declared. "Unless we stop."
"Well, I do need a pit stop and we need gas. I don't think Seaside even has a gas station," she told him.
"And I'm kinda hungry."
"We'll grab a quick bite and eat it in the car to save time."
"Sunset is supposed to be at 4:09," he told her. "That's because Maine is so far north. The shortened daylight time might take some getting used to, but I heard the long summer days make up for it. Do you know that the astronomical twilight lasts until almost eleven o'clock in late June? That'll be so cool."
"I don't know what an astronomical twilight is, but I do remember very late summer evenings." She grimaced to think of how he'd never get to experience that.
"Did you go to Seaside every summer as a kid?" he asked with interest.
"Every summer I can remember. Well, until I was seventeen.
I had a job that summer — and then it was college and the distractions that came with it."
"Like getting married?" he teased.
"Right. After graduation, Dad and I moved to Cincinnati for his work. And not long after that, you came along, and, well, life just got busier and busier." She remembered how she used to long for Seaside, like clockwork, every summer — even more so when it got hot and humid in Ohio.
"So you haven't been back in almost twenty years? That's like a whole 'nother lifetime, Mom."
"Seems like it to me too. But even so, I can remember every bit of it like yesterday."
"Tell me more about it, Mom. You haven't really given me that many details."
She considered how to paint this picture without making it too rosy — or being disingenuous. "Well, the ocean is beautiful. That obviously won't have changed. And you'll see it soon enough."
"What about our house, Mom? And don't tell me it's falling down."
"The house ..." She imagined the picturesque cottage with its weathered cedar shingles and white painted trim. "Well, I do recall the toilet had to be flushed twice ... and the musty smell of the back porch and how the front porch sagged a little."
"Tell me something good, Mom."
"Let's see ... the living room had this massive rock fireplace. I think my great-grandfather built it. The stonework was really pretty ... although the fire would smoke up the house on a windy day." She sighed. "But the truth is I loved that smell. It would seep into my clothes, kind of like being around a campfire. And then there was my little dormer bedroom. It was tiny, but I loved it. My window looked out over the sea." She smiled at Jackson. "In fact, you can use that room if you like." Although she wasn't eager to take occupancy of her grandparents' downstairs bedroom, it would be the "grown-up" thing to do.
"Awesome!" He nodded. "Tell me more about our house."
"My next-favorite room was probably the kitchen. It had a big old gas stove and a linoleum floor that squeaked when you walked. There were buttery yellow cabinets and blueand- white checked curtains on the windows. And Gammi used to make the best clam chowder — from clams that we dug ourselves. I hope I can find her recipe."
"How old were you when your grandma died?" "I was in college," she said sadly.
"And then your parents died right after that?" His voice was laced with longing and she felt bad for the way her son had been deprived of extended family. Edward's parents had their own busy lives down in Fort Lauderdale, and hers had been killed in the car wreck.
"It was a few years later — you weren't even one when my parents died."
"But you must've been close to your grandpa? I mean, since he left you his beach house."
"I never thought that we were close, exactly. Poppa was a pretty stern man. At least I thought so when I was little. He always seemed very serious and set in his ways. But he did love to go fishing — and sometimes he took me with him." She hadn't even told Jackson about Poppa's boat, but she doubted it was still around. "I do know that Poppa loved me. And he really loved Gammi. I never doubted that. But I spent most of my time with Gammi. She was always willing to go down to the beach with me, or ride bikes into town. And on a rainy day, she could always come up with something fun to do — card games, puzzles, baking. She was a very good artist and taught me a lot about painting."
"Maybe that's why you're such a good artist, Mom."
"Well, that's an overstatement ... but maybe someday I'll have time to take it up again."
"So it was just you and your grandparents there — for the whole summer every summer?"
"Sometimes Aunt Kay and Uncle Rob and my cousin, Larry, would come. But they never stayed long." She chuckled.
"But that was fine with me since Larry and I never really got along too well."
"I don't know ... I guess he wasn't interested in outdoor things."
"Not interested?" Jackson frowned.
"He never wanted to do anything. He didn't want to go fishing or clamming or shell gathering. I couldn't even get him to build a sandcastle with me."
"Sounds pretty boring."
"Yeah. I always felt relieved when they went home."
"What about your parents? Did they ever go to Seaside with you?" He sounded intent on fitting all the puzzle pieces of this fragmented family together.
"Not much. They both had their work and their lives in the city. My mom would show up sometimes on a weekend, you know, since Gammi and Poppa were her parents. But I always got the impression she was just putting in her time.
She didn't like being there. She'd complain about the wind or the dampness or how sand was in everything. Plus my mom didn't like seafood at all. And Poppa loved fishing almost better than anything. That's about all we ate. Probably one reason I love all kinds of seafood now."
"Well, your grandpa must've loved you a lot, Mom, to leave his cottage to you like he did."
"I think he knew how much I enjoyed being there. He left his other house, in upstate New York, to my cousin, Larry. And since there were only two grandkids, I suppose it seemed fair to leave the cottage to me." She felt a different wave of guilt now, wishing she'd taken Jackson to Seaside sooner ... while his great-grandfather was still living. Although she'd faithfully sent cards and letters and photos to Poppa, she'd never been able to make the trip back there. Certainly she'd had plenty of good excuses — work and life demands and then Edward's illness. But now it was too late.
"What was your most favorite thing about summers in Seaside?"
"My most favorite thing?" She considered this. "With so many wonderful memories, it's hard to say. I loved just being at the cottage with Gammi. I also enjoyed getting ice cream in town ... and fishing with Poppa ... but my most favorite thing was probably the beach itself. Seaside has a good shell-collecting beach. I loved going out early in the morning, searching for treasures."
"Yeah, I read about the beach. It sounds cool."
"And my grandparents were fabulous beachcombers. The cottage was full of all sorts of shells and sea glass and whatever they'd drag home after a storm."
"Do you think they're still there? The shells and stuff?"
"Oh, I don't know ... I hope so." Seeing the rain had stopped, she turned off the wipers. "I'd always hoped to find a sand dollar on that beach." She noticed signage for the town up ahead and turned on her signal to exit. "But I never found a single one. Gammi and Poppa only had three sand dollars. They kept them up on the mantel. Hopefully, they're still there."
As Wendy pulled into the gas station and convenience market, she felt a small rush of excitement. Maybe this was what Jackson felt — the eager anticipation for what lay ahead.
As they emerged from the car, she got a whiff of what smelled like pungent sea air — or maybe it was her imagination. But in the same instant, she felt the child inside her waking up, demanding to know: Are we there yet? Was it really possible that her beloved Seaside was only a few hours away?
Fortified with chicken tenders, potato skins, and drinks, Wendy and Jackson hurried back to the car just as the sky opened up and let loose another deluge of cold, pounding rain. As Wendy started the engine, turning the wipers on full blast, her earlier enthusiasm waned considerably. Her plan to disclose the truth to Jackson before their arrival loomed above her — just like the dark clouds overhead.
"This is the best day ever," Jackson declared as he dipped a piece of chicken in the barbecue sauce. "I haven't felt this good since ... well, you know."
She did know. So maybe it was okay to live in a delusion — even if only for a short while. Didn't she and Jackson deserve a small measure of happiness? Even if it was only temporary ... or delusional? Jackson deserved a break from his middle-school tormenters — and no one could deny that Wendy was overdue for a vacation. Even her boss acted eager for her to go. "Just be back by December 23rd," he'd reminded her on Friday. "I've planned an important full-day staff conference — a meeting of the minds and a bit of a holiday party. I want you there too."
That gave them a little more than three weeks — plenty of time to fix up the cottage and place it on the market. Hopefully it wouldn't even take that long. The bigger question was, how long would it take for Jackson to realize how small and isolated Seaside truly was ... and how dead and boring it could get when winter set in? A generous dose of disillusionment might be just the ticket to get him to change his mind about becoming a permanent resident there. She could only pray.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Christmas by the Sea"
Copyright © 2018 Carlson Management, Inc..
Excerpted by permission of Baker Publishing Group.
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