MY KIND OF CHRISTMAS
A Virgin River Novel #20
November 2012 (10-23-12)
$7.99 U.S. & $9.99 CAN.
MY KIND OF CHRISTMAS
Angela LaCroix pulled up to Jack’s Bar on the day after Thanksgiving and parked right next to her aunt Brie’s car. She gave a double toot of her horn before she jumped out and dashed up the steps and into the bar. There they were, waiting for her — Jack, Mel and Brie. Her smile was so big she thought her face might crack.
“You made it,” Jack said. He rushed around the bar and picked her up in his embrace. Then he put her on her feet and said, “I thought you might be bound, gagged and held prisoner in Sacramento.”
“It didn’t get physical,” she said with a laugh. “However, I think my mother isn’t speaking to any of you.”
“That’s a relief,” Jack said. “Then she won’t be calling five times a day.”
“Come here, kitten,” Brie said, edging Jack out of the way to hug Angie. Then Mel jumped off her stool and joined the hug. “It’s so good to have you here,” Brie said. “Your mom will come around.”
“Fat chance,” Jack said. “I don’t know anyone who can hold a grudge longer than Donna.”
“I hope I didn’t cause a rift in the whole family,” Angie said.
Jack walked back around behind the bar. “Sheridans,” he grumbled. “We hang together pretty well in tough times, but we’ve been known to have a lot of differences of opinion. Bottom line is, you’re welcome here any time. You always have a place at my house.”
“And mine,” Brie said.
Angie chewed her lower lip for a moment. “Okay, here’s the thing. I appreciate it, I do, and I plan to spend a lot of time with you, but I was wondering, hoping, that you wouldn’t mind letting me use that little cabin in the woods.” She took a breath. “I need some space. Honest to God.”
Silence hung in the air. “Is that a fact,” Jack finally said.
Angie took a stool and her two aunts automatically framed her on their own stools. “That is a fact. Space.... and it was a long drive. I wouldn’t mind a beer. And maybe take-out.”
Jack served up a beer, very slowly. “There’s no TV out there,” he said.
“Good. But there’s internet connection, right?”
“It’s slow, Ange,” Mel pointed out. “Not as slow as dial-up was, but it’s finicky. The internet connection in our guesthouse is much—”
“I think it’s an outstanding idea,” Brie said, smiling at Angie. “Try it out. If it gets a little too quiet, I have a guest room and Mel has the guesthouse.”
“Hey, when you’re running away from home, you should at least have your choice of accommodations.”
“I’m not really running away from... Okay, that’s what I’m doing. Thanks. Seriously, thanks.”
Mel laughed. “It’s not exactly an original idea. Brie and I both landed here because we were running away from stuff. I’m going to go get Preacher and Paige. They’ve been so anxious to see you. And I’ll call your folks to tell them you made it here safely.”
“You had no trouble driving?” Jack asked.
“I like driving, but my dad insisted we swap cars. I have his SUV and he has my little Honda,” she said. “But I wasn’t nervous. Maybe because I don’t remember the accident.”
There was one thing Angie did remember — almost dying. Seeing her grandmother on the other side. Seeing herself lying in an emergency room covered with blood. The only person she told was her neurosurgeon, Dr. Temple, because she wanted to know if she was crazy. He had said, “I hear that sometimes, about deceased loved ones helping with the crossover.”
“Is it real?” she had asked him.
“I don’t know,” he had answered.
She hadn’t told anyone else in the family.
Angie had been the passenger in a car one of her classmates had been driving on a cold, drizzly, slick March evening. A car on the opposing interstate lane had lost control, crossed the median and hit two oncoming cars. It could’ve been a flat tire or avoiding another car, but there was no villain; no alcohol or drugs to blame; it was an accident. That driver had been killed, everyone else injured, Angie the worst. Her classmate, Shelly, had multiple broken bones but was fully recovered now except for an ankle she said got strangely cold — she blamed the plates, screws and pins.
Angie had a couple of serious fractures for which surgery had been required, she lost a spleen, there was a collapsed lung and she had a titanium rod in a femur, but the big issue was the head injury — there had been an impressive laceration on the back of her head and while there was no open fracture, her brain began to swell and the neurosurgeon implanted a shunt to drain the edema. She had some memory loss which had slowly come back, except, thankfully, not the details of the accident. She had been in a coma for three days and then had to fight her way back to the world through a post anesthetic and pain med haze. They had wondered for weeks if this bright, driven young medical student would have any mental handicaps.
She did not.
She was forever changed, however.
This was where she and her mother had their impasse. Her parents were educators, professors, and the parents of three very smart daughters. To say they monitored their education and pushed them along trajectories they thought were in line with their desires and skills would be an understatement. And Angie had been happy to meet their expectations — she was proud of her academic accomplishments. She often felt it was the singular thing she could be proud of — she wasn’t athletic, musical or pretty. The only place she had real confidence was in her intellectual achievement.
She was fully recovered from her accident and could have gone back to school in September, but she chose not to. Her father, sitting cautiously on the fence, thought a brief break was within reason but her mother disagreed and wanted her back on that horse.
Angie wasn’t sure any more. Of anything. For one thing, she was done having her parents, mostly her mother, decide things like this for her. Angie grew a backbone and said, “I might not want to continue medical school! I might want to make macramé flower pot holders for the rest of my life! Or grow herbs! Or hitchhike across Europe! But whatever it is, it’s going to be up to me!” Donna accused her of undergoing a personality change because of her head injury and Angie suggested she’d finally found her personality and it was remarkably like Donna’s.
No one else in the family thought she was different excepting the fact she had grown wonderfully stubborn. And having Jack, Mel and Brie on her side didn’t thrill Donna.
Angie didn’t go back to medical school, though the dean did tell her she would still have a place with them if she didn’t wait too long. She didn’t discuss it with her parents or her Virgin River cheering section. She’d had a close-up of how unpredictable and tenuous life could be. One minute you’re buzzing along the freeway, singing with the radio, the next you’re looking down on yourself, watching as medical staff frantically worked to save your life and you see your dead grandmother across a chasm of light.
Once she realized she had barely survived, every day dawned brighter, the air drawn into her lungs more precious, the beat of her heart weighing heavy in colossal importance. She was filled with a sense of gratitude and became contemplative, viewing the smallest detail of living with huge significance. Things she took for granted before had grown in magnitude. There was no detail she was willing to miss; she stopped to have long conversations with grocery store bag boys, corner flower peddlers, librarians, booksellers and school crossing guards.
She also looked back at her short life and had some regrets — specifically dedicating so much time to study that she had few friends. Many study partners, but only a few friends. She’d said no to far too many parties and dances for the sake of grades. For God’s sake she was twenty-three and had had two boyfriends! Both pretty inadequate. Was life all about books? Didn’t well rounded adults know how to play? While her few girlfriends were dating, traveling, exploring, getting engaged, what was Angie doing? Making Mama proud.
Yet the family stories about her mother and aunts....apparently they hadn’t sacrificed a social life, though they were all over-achievers. One story had Uncle Jack being chastised when Grandma found packages of condoms floating in the washer water, but they weren’t his —they were Donna’s.
Angie would give just about anything to have that much of a life. Right now she was feeling very fortunate on one hand and on the other, robbed. She was going to fix that if she could.
“And did everyone have a great Thanksgiving?” she asked Jack and Brie.
“I might never eat again,” Brie said. “How about you?”
“We were all at Grandpa’s and it was good, except for a little melodrama about me leaving for a month. Between the aunts, uncles and cousins there seems to be quite a diversity of opinion on how I should live my life.”
“I imagine. And what did Sam say?” Brie asked of her father.
“Grandpa thought it was an excellent idea to come up here for a little while and reminded us all that you did that, Brie.”
“And you know what? He was very supportive and encouraging at the time, even though he was at least as worried about me as your parents are about you. He had guessed I was in love. Your grandpa is a pretty modern, savvy guy.”
“Yes,” she said quietly. She was close to Sam Sheridan and had often wished, over the past nine months, that she could tell him she had seen Grandma. And she looked wonderful. But first of all, she wasn’t sure she hadn’t been dreaming or hallucinating and second, Grandma had been gone such a long time. She didn’t want to stir up grief in her grandpa.
Preacher had a look of stun and awe on his face as he came from the kitchen, stripping off his apron and tossing it over the bar before grabbing Angie up in his big arms and spinning her right off her stool. “Aw, girl, girl, girl,” he said, hugging her tight. Then he held her away and looked her over. “You are beautiful!” And then he had to let go of her to wipe his eyes.
“Preach,” she said, laughing.
Paige slipped around her husband, giving Angie a warm hug. “I’m so glad you’re here,” she said softly.
“Your big scary husband is crying.”
“I know,” she said. “He’s such a dichotomy. The last person you want to meet in a dark alley, but he’s so tender hearted. He cries at Disney movies and Hallmark commercials.”
“Yesterday I cried over football,” he said. “It was pathetic all day. I’m just so damn glad to see you, Ange. Your uncle Jack was a mess while you were in the hospital, he was so worried.”
“And as you can see, all is well,” she said.
“Mel says you want a take-out. I’ll make you anything you want — you just tell me what.”
“I’ll have whatever’s on the menu and a bottle of wine. Do you have any Sauvignon Blanc?”
“Are you sure you’re allowed alcohol?” Jack asked.
“Yes,” she said with a laugh. “Hence the beer. I promise not to get wasted. But gee, some of Preacher’s dinner, a glass of wine, a fire, a book, peace and quiet... Oh Jack, there are logs out there, right?”
“You’re all set,” he said. “Do you know how to light the fire?”
She rolled her eyes. “Preacher, do you suppose I could do a little graze through your kitchen? Grab some staples — a few eggs, some milk, bread, that sort of thing? In case I wake up starving?”
“Absolutely,” he said.
Although it was soft and low, Angie heard someone clear his throat. There, at the end of the bar in the corner was a lone man in an army green, down-padded jacket, dark hair, an empty beer glass and some money in his hand.
Jack turned to him, took his money and said, “Thanks, bud. See you around.”
“Have a nice reunion,” the man said. And he moved to leave.
He was so tall, that was what she noticed first. As tall as her uncle Jack. And his dark hair had some red in it. Dark auburn. She’d never seen that combination before, unless it was on a woman and came out of a bottle. Usually red shades came with blond or light brown hair. The stubble on his cheeks was redder.
As he walked toward the door, they met eyes and Angie felt her cheeks grow warm — caught staring. He had the greenest eyes she’d ever seen. Had to be contacts. He gave her a half smile; only one side of his mouth lifted.
Then he turned and exited.
“Wow,” she said. “Whew. Who’s the hottie?”
Brie laughed and said, “I think our girl is indeed fully recovered.”
Jack let go a little growl. “He’s not the one for you,” he said.
Angie looked around at all the smiling faces — Brie, Paige, Preacher.... “Gee, did I ask if he was right for me? It’s not even my birthday.”
Preacher chortled loudly, another thing the big cook seldom did. “Patrick Riordan,” he told her. “Here sitting out a little leave. He’s Navy. I think he got hurt or something.”
“Nah, he didn’t get hurt,” Jack clarified. “Luke said there was an accident during his last deployment and he decided to take a little leave or something. Riordans, good people, but that one’s got troubles right now. You might want to give him a wide berth. I don’t know all the details, but it sounds like combat issues...”
“Yeah, we wouldn’t want to get mixed up with anyone with combat issues,” Preacher joked. And Jack glared at him. Preacher put a big hand on her shoulder and said, “He’s been kind of quiet and grumpy. If you got to know him a little? I bet he wouldn’t cheer you up that much.”
That made Angie laugh. “Well how about that — we both had accidents. What’s for dinner, Preach?”
“Big surprise, turkey soup. It’ll keep you very healthy. I boiled two carcasses all day. Home made noodles — the best. Even though it’s not raining, I baked bread.”
Her mouth began to water. “I’m in.”