Read Lakeshore Chronicles [10] Candlelight Christmas Online

Authors: Susan Wiggs

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Lakeshore Chronicles [10] Candlelight Christmas

BOOK: Lakeshore Chronicles [10] Candlelight Christmas
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#1
NEW YORK TIMES
BESTSELLING AUTHOR SUSAN WIGGS INVITES YOU TO AN UNFORGETTABLE CHRISTMAS IN THE CATSKILLS

 

A single father who yearns to be a family man, Logan O’Donnell is determined to create the perfect Christmas for his son, Charlie. The entire O’Donnell clan arrives to spend the holidays in Avalon, a postcard-pretty town on the shores of Willow Lake, a place for the family to reconnect and rediscover the special gifts of the season.

 

One of the guests is a newcomer to Willow Lake—Darcy Fitzgerald. Sharp-witted, independent and intent on guarding her heart, she’s the last person Logan can see himself falling for. And Darcy is convinced that a relationship is the last thing she needs this Christmas.

 

Yet between the snowy silence of the winter woods, and toasty moments by a crackling fire, their two lonely hearts collide. The magic of the season brings them each a gift neither ever expected—a love to last a lifetime.

 

Also by Susan Wiggs

 

Contemporary Romances

HOME BEFORE DARK
THE OCEAN BETWEEN US
SUMMER BY THE SEA
TABLE FOR FIVE
LAKESIDE COTTAGE
JUST BREATHE
THE GOODBYE QUILT

 

The Lakeshore Chronicles

SUMMER AT WILLOW LAKE
THE WINTER LODGE
DOCKSIDE
SNOWFALL AT WILLOW LAKE
FIRESIDE
LAKESHORE CHRISTMAS
THE SUMMER HIDEAWAY
MARRYING DAISY BELLAMY
RETURN TO WILLOW LAKE

 

The Bella Vista Chronicles

THE APPLE ORCHARD

 

Historical Romances

THE LIGHTKEEPER
THE DRIFTER

 

The Tudor Rose Trilogy

AT THE KING’S COMMAND
THE MAIDEN’S HAND
AT THE QUEEN’S SUMMONS

 

Chicago Fire Trilogy

THE HOSTAGE
THE MISTRESS
THE FIREBRAND

 

Calhoun Chronicles

THE CHARM SCHOOL
THE HORSEMASTER’S DAUGHTER
HALFWAY TO HEAVEN
ENCHANTED AFTERNOON
A SUMMER AFFAIR

 

SUSAN
WIGGS

 

The Lakeshore Chronicles

 

Candlelight Christmas

 

For Carter.
May the spark of your imagination take you wherever you wish to go.

 

Part 1

 

Christmas Pickles

 

T
he origin of the Christmas pickle is steeped in mystery. It seems no one knows the real truth. The hand-blown glass pickle ornaments from Lauscha in Germany can date back as far as 1847, and are treasured by families everywhere. The first child to spy the ornament on the tree Christmas morning gets an extra gift from Santa, and the first adult enjoys good luck all the year through. It’s probably just a marketing hook, but who doesn’t like presents and good luck?

The pickle prize inspired this recipe for jars of colorful pickles. Since these are no-process pickles, they are a) easy and b) perishable.

Much like a woman’s heart.

No-Process Pickles

 

1 cup water
1 cup white vinegar
2 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon sugar
Handful of fresh dill
Whole peppercorns and peeled garlic cloves
Kirby cucumbers (or regular cucumbers, cut into quarters lengthwise)
Red radishes, sliced thin

Fill clear glass jars with the pickles and radishes, creating a nice color palette of red and green. Add the herbs and spices. Combine the water, vinegar, sugar and salt in a jar with a lid, and shake to dissolve. Pour over pickles in the jars. Seal and refrigerate. These will be ready the next morning and can last up to a month—after that, please discard for safety’s sake. The longer the cucumbers pickle, the softer they will get, and if you don’t grasp
that
metaphor, I can’t help you. Anyway, if you like things fresh and crisp, don’t wait too long to eat these.

[Source: Original; adapted from Ohio State University Extension guidelines, 2009]

Prologue

 

Christmas Past

 

T
here were worse things than spending Christmas with your ex-husband, thought Darcy Fitzgerald as she pulled up in front of the house.

A root canal without novocaine, for example. That was probably worse. A crash landing in a small aircraft, perhaps. Reading
Silas Marner
in ninth grade. Frostbite, a crocodile attack, eating a bad oyster. Head lice.

She enumerated the many ways things could be worse, all the while bracing herself for the hours to come. The car tires churned up last night’s melting snow as she jockeyed her Volkswagen into the small space.

She’d dressed with special care, determined for Huntley to see that he’d lost something special. Deep down, she knew the notion was ridiculous; Huntley Collins had not truly seen her in a very long time.

While pulling the bag of gifts from the trunk, she stepped into the ankle-deep grimy slush. As it flooded her favorite kitten-heel suede shoes, the bone-freezing ice took her breath away. She reared back, slipping on the crusty ice, and landed butt-first in a dirty snowbank. The bag of parcels broke open, and her festively wrapped packages littered the ground.

“Awesome,” she muttered, pulling herself up and trying to brush the filth off her skirt.

Perhaps the most hellish part of the day was the knowledge that she had agreed to this travesty. Huntley had convinced her to get through the holidays together so they wouldn’t ruin things for everyone else.

The Fitzgeralds and the Collinses had been best friends and neighbors for decades. The two Collins boys and the five Fitzgerald girls had grown up together, playing hide-and-seek on summer nights, surfing at Cupsogue Beach, pulling pranks on one another, sneaking beer from the fridge for liquid courage before a school dance, telling each other secrets...and lies. Huntley’s older brother was married to Darcy’s older sister. The families’ fortunes were meant to be entwined forever.

Unfortunately, Huntley’s notion of forever spanned approximately five years. Darcy had found out about his affair—with his ex-wife, just to make things even worse—before Thanksgiving. Yet she had come today out of regard for her stepkids, Amy and Orion, though she expected little from the sullen, resentful teenagers.

She’d been part of their lives for five years, and she had selected their gifts with care. In a weak moment, she’d bought a little something for Huntley, so he’d have something under the tree from his kids, who were too self-absorbed and, at the moment, confused, to shop for him.

She found the smallest of the scattered packages in the ditch—the yodeling plastic pickle. There was a tradition that the first to find the pickle on the tree would get a special surprise. She moved the switch on the back of the pickle. It made a brief gurgling sound and then died.

“Surprise,” she muttered, and trudged grimly up the stairs to the front door.

Part 2

 

J
ust because you’re a single dad is no excuse for feeding your kid junk food. At some point you have to suck it up and learn to cook like a man.

Massive Spaghetti Feed

 

Never underestimate the power of the fantastic bowl of spaghetti.

 

1 15-ounce can of San Marzano tomatoes, crushed
1 stick of butter
1 onion about the size of your fist, cut up
Parmesan cheese
1 pound of spaghetti, cooked al dente

Simmer the first three ingredients together for 45 minutes, and then blend with an immersion blender or food processor. Pour over hot spaghetti and pass the parm.

[Source: San Marzano tomato label]

Chapter One

 

Summer’s End

 

L
ogan O’Donnell stood on a platform one hundred feet in the air, preparing to shove his ten-year-old son off the edge. A light breeze shimmered through the canopy of trees, scattering leaves on the forest floor far below. A zip line cable, slender as a thread in a spider’s web, hung between the tree platforms, waiting. Below, Meerskill Falls crashed down a rocky gorge.

“There’s no way I’m going off this.” Logan’s son, Charlie, drew his shoulders up until they practically touched the edge of his helmet.

“Come on,” Logan said. “You told me you’d do it. The other kids had a ball. They’re all waiting for you on the other side, and I heard a rumor about a bag of Cheetos being passed around.”

“I changed my mind.” Charlie set his jaw in a way that was all too familiar to Logan. “No way. No W-A-Y-F.”

Logan knew the shtick, but he went along with it. “There’s no
F
in way, dude.”

“That’s right. There’s no effin’ way I’m going off this thing.”

“Aw, Charlie. It’s almost like flying. You like to fly, right?” Of course he did. Charlie’s stepfather was a pilot, after all. Logan crushed the thought. There were few things more depressing than thinking about the fact that your kid had a stepfather, even if the stepfather was an okay guy. Fortunately for Charlie, he’d ended up with a good one. But it was still depressing.

Charlie spent every summer with Logan. During the school year, he lived with his mom and stepfather in Oklahoma, a million miles away from Logan’s home in upstate New York. It sucked, living that far from his kid. Being without Charlie was like missing a limb.

When he did have his son with him, Logan tried to make the most of their time together. He planned the entire season around Charlie, and that included working as a volunteer counselor at Camp Kioga, helping out with the summer program for local kids and inner-city kids on scholarship. The zip line over Meerskill Falls was a new installation, and had already become everyone’s favorite feature. Nearly everyone.

“Hey, it’s the last day of camp. Your last chance to try the zip line.”

Charlie dragged in a shaky breath. He eyed the harness, made of stout webbing and metal buckles. “It looked really fun until I started thinking about actually doing it.”

“Remember how you used to be scared to jump off the dock into Willow Lake? And then you did it and it was awesome.”

“Hel-
lo
. The landing was a lot different,” Charlie pointed out.

“You’re going to love it. Trust me on this.” Logan patted the top of Charlie’s helmet. “Look at all the safety features on this thing. The harness, the clips, the secondary ropes. There’s not one thing that can go wrong.”

“Yo, Charlie,” shouted a kid on the opposite platform. “Go for it!”

The encouragement came from André, Charlie’s best friend. The two had been inseparable all summer long, and if anyone could talk Charlie into something, it was André. He was one of the city kids in the program. He lived in a low-income project in the Bronx, and for André, it had been a summer of firsts—his first train trip, his first visit upstate to Ulster County, where Camp Kioga nestled on the north shore of Willow Lake. His first time to sleep in a cabin, see wildlife up close, swim and paddle in a pristine lake...and tell ghost stories around a campfire with his buddies. Logan liked the fact that at camp, all the kids were equal, no matter what their background.

“I kind of want to do it,” Charlie said.

“Up to you, buddy. You saw how it’s done. You just stand on the edge and take one step forward.”

Charlie fell silent. He stared at the waterfall cascading down the rocky gorge. The fine spray from the rushing cataract cooled the air.

“Hey, buddy,” Logan said, wondering about his son’s faraway expression. “What’s on your mind?”

“I miss Blake,” he said, his voice barely audible over the rush of the falls. “When I go back to Mom’s, Blake won’t be there anymore.”

Logan’s heart went out to the kid. Blake had been Charlie’s beloved dog, a little brown terrier who had lived to a ripe old age. At the start of summer, she’d passed away. Apparently Charlie was dreading his return to his mom’s dogless house.

“I don’t blame you,” Logan said, “but you were lucky to have Blake as your best friend for a long time.”

Charlie stared at the planks of the platform. “Yeah.” He didn’t sound convinced.

“It sucks, losing a dog,” Logan admitted. “No way around it. That’s why we’re not getting one. Hurts too bad when you have to say goodbye.”

“Yeah,” Charlie said again. “But I still like having a dog.”

“Tell me something nice about Blake,” Logan said.

“I never needed an alarm to get up for school in the morning. She’d just come into my room and burrow under the covers, like a rabbit, and she’d squirm until I got up.” He smiled, just a little. “She got old and quiet and gentle. And then she couldn’t jump up on the bed anymore, so I had to lift her.”

“I bet you were really gentle with her.”

He nodded. After another silence, he said, “Dad?”

“Yeah, bud?”

“I kinda want another dog.”

Aw, jeez.
Logan patted him on the shoulder. “You can talk to your mom about it tomorrow, when you see her.”
Yeah,
he thought.
Let Charlie’s mom deal with the mess and inconvenience of a dog.

“Okay,” said Charlie. “But, Dad?”

“Yeah, buddy?”

“Kids were telling ghost stories in the cabin last night,” he said, picking at a thread in the webbing of his harness.

“You’re at summer camp. Kids are supposed to tell ghost stories.”

“André told the one about these people who committed suicide by jumping off a cliff above the falls.”

“I’ve heard that story. Goes way back to the 1920s.”

“Yeah, well, the ghosts are still around.”

“They won’t mess with the zip line.”

“How do you know?”

Logan pointed to the group of kids and counselors on the distant platform. “They all got across, no problem. You saw them.” The other campers appeared to be having the time of their lives, eating Cheetos and acting like Tarzan.

“Show me again, Dad,” said Charlie. “I want to see you do it.”

“Sure, buddy.” Logan clipped Charlie to the safety cable and himself to the pulleys. “You’re gonna love it.” With a grin, he stepped off the platform into thin air, giving Charlie the thumbs-up sign with his free hand.

His son stood on the platform, his arms folded, his face screwed into an expression of skepticism. Logan tipped himself upside down, a crazy perspective for watching the waterfall below, crashing against the rocks. How could any kid not like this?

When Logan was young, he would have loved having a dad who would take him zip-lining, a dad who knew the difference between fun and frivolity, a dad who encouraged rather than demanded.

He landed with an exaggerated flourish on the opposite platform. Paige Albertson, cocounselor of the group, pointed at Charlie. “Aren’t you forgetting something?”

“Oh yeah, my only son. Oops.”

“Why is he staying over there?” asked Rufus, one of the kids.

“I bet he’s scared,” said another kid.

Logan ignored them. On the opposite platform, Charlie looked very small and alone. Vulnerable.

“Everything all right?” Paige put her hand on Logan’s arm.

Paige had a crush on him. Logan knew this. He even wished he felt the same way, because she was great. She was a kindergarten teacher during the school year and a Camp Kioga volunteer during the summer. She had the all-American cheerleader looks, the bubbly, uncomplicated personality that most guys couldn’t resist. She was exactly the kind of girl his parents would want for him—pretty, stable, from a good family.

Could be that was the reason he wasn’t feeling it for her.

“He’s balking,” said Logan. “And he feels really bad about it. I thought he’d love zip-lining.”

“It’s not for everybody,” Paige pointed out. “And remember, if he doesn’t go for it, the world won’t come to an end.”

“Good point.” Logan saluted her and jumped off, crossing back to the platform on the other side, where Charlie waited. The zipping sound of the pulley and cable sang in his ears. Damn, this never got old.

“Just like Spider-Man,” he said as he came in for a landing. “I swear, it’s the coolest thing ever.”

Charlie shuffled across the wooden planks of the platform. Logan reached for the clips to attach him to the pulley. “That’s gonna be one small step for Charlie,” he intoned, “one giant leap for—”

“Dad, hang on a second,” Charlie said, shrinking back. “I changed my mind again.”

Logan studied his son’s posture: the hunched shoulders, the knees that were literally shaking. “Seriously?”

“Unhook me.” Beneath the helmet, Charlie’s face was pale, his green eyes haunted and wide.

“It’s okay to change your mind,” Logan said, “but I don’t want you to have any regrets. Remember, we talked about regrets.”

“When you have a chance to do something and then you don’t do it and later on you wish you had,” Charlie muttered.

Which pretty much summed up Logan’s assessment of his marriage. “Yep,” he said. “At the farewell dinner tonight, are you going to wish you’d done the zip line?”

Logan unhitched himself. Charlie studied the cables and pulleys with a look of yearning on his face. Okay, Logan admitted to himself, it bugged him that Charlie had conquered the jump off the dock with his mom, but Logan couldn’t get him to push past his fear of the zip line. He had a flashing urge to grab the kid, strap him in and shove him off the platform, just to get him past his hesitation.

Then he remembered his own pushy father:
get in there and fight. Don’t be a chickenshit
. Al O’Donnell had been a blustering, bossy, demanding dad. Logan had grown up resenting the hell out of him in a tense relationship that even now was full of turmoil.

The moment Charlie was born, Logan had made a vow. He would never be that dad.

“All right, buddy,” he said, forcing cheerfulness into his tone. “Maybe another time. Let’s climb down together.”

* * *

 

The final dinner of summer at Camp Kioga was served banquet-style in the massive dining hall of the main pavilion. There was a spaghetti feed with all the trimmings—garlic bread, a salad bar, watermelon, ice cream. Awards would be given, songs sung, jokes told, tributes offered and farewells spoken.

The families of the campers were invited to the event. Parents arrived, eager to reunite with their kids and hear about their summer.

A sense of tradition hung like the painted paddles and colorful woven blankets on the walls. The old Catskills camp had been in operation since the 1920s. People as far back as Logan’s grandparents remembered with nostalgia the childhood summers they’d spent in the draughty timber-and-stone cabins, swimming in the clear, cold waters of Willow Lake, boating in the summer sun each day, sitting around the campfire and telling stories at night. In a hundred years, the traditions had scarcely changed.

But the kids had. Back in the era of the Great Camps, places like Camp Kioga had been a playground for the ultrawealthy—Vanderbilts, Asters, Roosevelts. These days, the campers were a more diverse bunch. This summer’s group included kids of Hollywood power brokers and Manhattan tycoons, recording artists and star athletes, alongside kids from the projects of the inner city and downriver industrial towns.

The organizers of the city kids program, Sonnet and Zach Alger, pulled out all the stops for the end of summer party. In addition to the banquet, there would be a performance by Jezebel, a hip-hop artist who had starred in a hit reality TV series. The show had been filmed at Camp Kioga, chronicling the efforts of the outspoken star to work with youngsters in the program.

Tonight, the only cameras present belonged to proud parents and grandparents.

Charlie was practically bouncing up and down with excitement, because he knew he was getting a swimming award. André was next to him as they took their seats at their assigned banquet table.

Paige, who stood nearby, handing out table assignments, leaned over and said, “Those two are such a great pair. I bet they’re going to miss each other now that summer’s over.”

“Yeah, it’d be nice if they could stay in touch. Tricky, though, with André in the city and Charlie off to an air force base in Oklahoma.”

“Must be hard for you, too.”

“I can’t even tell you. But...we deal. I’ll see him at Thanksgiving, and he’s mine—all mine—for Christmas.”

At the moment, Christmas seemed light-years away. Logan wondered how the hell he’d keep himself busy after Charlie left. He had his work, a thriving insurance business he’d founded in the nearby town of Avalon. If he was being honest with himself, he was bored stiff with the work, even though he liked helping friends and neighbors and made a good living at it.

Initially, the whole point of setting up a business in Avalon had been to enable him to live close to Charlie. Now that Charlie’s mom had remarried and moved away, Logan was starting to think about making a change. A big change.

BOOK: Lakeshore Chronicles [10] Candlelight Christmas
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