Excerpt from Christmas at Whisper Beach

Chapter One

Vanessa Moran pressed her hands into the small of her back and stretched. Five huge boxes were left to unpack and it was already after three. She dragged another box into the storeroom and reached for the utility knife.

Someone knocked on the front door. “Yo, Van, are you in there?”

“Back here, Suze,” Van called back.

The front door closed, footsteps sounded across the wooden floors and Suze Turner appeared in the doorway to the storeroom. She shrugged out of a fire engine red cargo coat and tossed it on the floor. Her hat and gloves followed the coat, leaving her tall, large-boned figure clad in harem pants and a “Nevertheless, She Persisteth” sweat shirt.

Van held up her utility knife. “You know, when they let you intellectual types out of their ivy-covered towers you never know what to expect. ‘Yo?’ Really? Is that what a PhD. in English gets you?”

“I’m practicing my vernacular. And stop waving that weapon around. I came to help.”

Van frowned. “Really?”

“Really. Chaucer was getting me down and it’s too early to declare happy hour, so I came to see what’s up.”

“Drag that box in here and I’ll tell you.”

Suze looked behind her and hoisted the box. “Heck, what’s in here?”

“Either pine cleaner or wood floor oil.”

“Hmm,” Suze said and took the utility knife. “I have to say, the old homestead is looking better than I ever thought it could.”

“It does. Thanks for convincing me to use it for headquarters instead of renting that over priced, chic hole in the wall on Main Street.”

“See, us intellectual types are good for the occasional pragmatic morsel.” Suze lugged two large containers out of the box.

“Second shelf on the far right.”

“You mean where all the other ones just like these are?” Suze put the bottles next to the others and reached for two more.

“Sorry, I’m in micromanage mode and I didn’t have a victim until you came in.”

“Thank heaven for ivory towers, imaginary people, and the past.” Suze lifted out two more bottles.

Van laughed. Suze never ceased to amaze her. They’d been best friends since they’d both had summer jobs working at Dorie Lister’s Blue Crab restaurant down on the boardwalk. Van, still in high school, worked out of necessity. Suze, already in college, was willing to wash dishes, waitress, scrub floors—anything to avoid commuting to the city for an internship in the financial district.

When Van’s future unraveled, Suze had literally saved Van’s life. They’d lost touch until the past summer when they both returned to Whisper Beach for a funeral. It was meant to be a several hour trip, it had turned into something much longer for both of them.

Van was still doing manual labor but now for her own business. Suze was on sabbatical from Princeton, working on a paper entitled “Misogyny in the Works of Chaucer.”

Give Van manual labor any day.

A few minutes later, the cleaning supplies were shelved, the boxes were broken down and Van and Suze were sitting in the newly painted kitchen waiting for the kettle to boil.

Suze got down two newly purchased mugs from the refaced cabinets. “You know it’s amazing how much you’ve accomplished in a few short months.”

“Between my Whisper Beach peeps and the crew from Manhattan it was a piece of cake. Now I just have to hire an office manager, a receptionist, and cleaning and maintenance staff.”

At first Van had been skeptical. She’d planned to expand Elite Lifestyle Managers—Organization for Families on the Go—from Manhattan to Boston or Philly. But her life had taken an unexpected detour and so had her business. Now her first branch office would soon be opening in Whisper Beach.

“You have time,” Suze said.

“At least I decided to wait until after Christmas to open.”

Suze grinned. “Capitalize on all those New Year’s resolutions.”

“Exactly,” Van agreed.

The kettle whistled and Van poured water into the mugs. “I’ve only got generic tea. I was waiting for the new fridge to arrive before I stocked the kitchen, then I just got too busy and forgot. I do have milk and sugar.”

“And nary a biscuit in sight,” Suze intoned.

“Nope, but Joe’s mom insisted I have this so I don’t succumb to hunger while I work.” Van took out a plate covered in foil and placed it on the table.

Suze pulled off the foil. “Mom Enthorpe’s date nut bread. I’m in heaven.”

“She said I was too skinny.”

“It’s just your metabolism. Now me on the other hand . . .” Suze’s sentence trailed off as she cut into the date nut bread. She pushed the plate toward Van. “I shouldn’t be eating this.” She took a bit. “Hmmmm. This would be even better with cream cheese.”

“Sorry.”

“So how are you doing living at the farm?” Suze shuddered. “With Joe’s parents.”

“Actually It’s kind of great. They’re wonderful and we live at the back of the house. They made up a little suite of rooms for us, a bedroom, sitting room and our own bath.”

“Nice, still can’t believe you moved out of Dorie’s. Is this going to be permanent?”

Van cut herself a slab of bread. “I don’t know. Yes. Maybe.”

“Oh goodie, more vacillation on a same old theme. You know, you worry more about stuff that hasn’t happened than anybody I know. If it doesn’t work out you do what thousands of other divorcees do . . .” Suze grinned. “You start all over again.”

Van rolled her eyes. “That isn’t Chaucer.”

“Jerome Kern. Very smart man.”

“I couldn’t marry Joe knowing that I might bring him unhappiness.”

“Pick yourself up, brush your . . .” Suze sang under her breath. “Just because you can’t have kids doesn’t mean you both can’t be happy.”

“I know. I just don’t trust that it will turn out that way.”

“You also never thought you’d come back to Whisper beach. Much less actually using the house you grew up. As I recall you were waffling between selling it and burning it to the ground. And now voila, you’ve transformed it into a dyn-o-mite, upscale, cutting-edge business office.”

“Dana helped.”

“Dana? What did I miss while I was hunkered over my laptop?”

“She made me burn sage in all the corners and doorways.”

“Ah, to ward off evil spirits. Well, it worked. I don’t feel anything but good times ahead.”

Suze reached over to squeeze Van’s wrist. “Seriously, the past is done. Only people like me dwell on it, and I get paid to do it. Look to your future, girl, and take the plunge.”

Suze was right, except one part of Van’s past had changed her future forever.

“Or we can talk about my future.”

Van frowned. “Is something up?”

“Another dead horse. We need to beat. I think I’ll have another little sliver.” She reached for the plate. “Dorie’s feeding me like I was the prodigal daughter. Every time my mother sees me, she reminds me that her annual holiday—please-marry-my-daughter—party is coming up and she certainly hopes I’ll be able to fit in my new holiday dress. Which by the way, I haven’t bought yet.”

“Oh,” Van said. ”I thought maybe it was Chaucer that was getting you down.”

“Nah, Medieval misogyny is a walk in the park compared to my mother’s cocktail parties. I’d rather publish and perish than face her without a date.”

“What happened to Jerry? He’s always been willing to go with you.”

“Alas he has to work. Being a cop at Christmas is not for the feint-hearted. Besides I’m beginning to feel a little guilty about always taking advantage of his altruistic spirit.”

“You guys have a fight or something?” Van asked.

“Not at all. But we’re just friends. That’s all it’s ever been. We make each other laugh. But there’s no future there. I’m going back to Princeton when my sabbatical is up.

“Besides, outside of laughing, we have nothing in common. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a great friend, but he’s a beer and football kind of guy which I totally get, only I’m a white wine spritzer and British drama kind of girl.”

“And ne'er the twain, huh?”

“Hey you used to yell at me for saying that.”

Van shrugged. “Just saying.”

“Anyway,” Suze continued. “I’m afraid hanging with me is—and I use the phrase loosely— ‘cramping his style.’ I’ve noticed he’s been hanging around Dana lately.”

“Dana Mulvanney?”

“Do you know any others?”

“No. One is enough.”

“True, but while you’ve been busy reconnecting with Joe, starting a new business and overhauling the Enthorpe winery, Dana has been attacking her new life with a vengeance and turning the restaurant around. I swear she’s a born again, efficient, business type, who doesn’t take shit and doesn’t even give it out too much anymore. You’ve been crazy busy lately. You wouldn’t recognize her.”

“I’ve been meaning to come over but it’s just been so hectic between the office, the vineyard, and commuting to the city every few days . . . Not to mention trying to build some kind of relationship with Joe while living with his parents.”

“Yeah I could see where that last part might be challenging for a long time loner, like you.”

Van made a face at her. “Tell her I promise to come over right after the holidays. You’re all still coming to the party?”

“With bells on. If I survive the madre.”

“So who are you going to take? Do you want me to ask Joe?”

“Thanks, but I would never put him through that. Plus it would never fool my mother. Maybe I’ll just tough it out this year. Who knows? Maybe I’ll meet the accountant-dentist-financial advisor-podiatrist of my dreams there.”

“Well, you don’t have to have a date for the Enthorpe’s party.”

“Excellent. Still planning to hold it in the vineyard’s new gift shop?”

“Absolutely. It’s perfect. Once we gutted it and pulled down all the ‘improvements’ and stop-gap fixes that had been made over the years, it was all original stone and rustic wood. I couldn’t ask for a better ambiance if I’d paid for it.” Van sighed. “Still a lot of work to do.”

“I have no doubt that it will be finished, organized, and looking like a million bucks. You’re a multi-tasking wonder. Just try to have a little fun while you’re at it.”

“I intend to.”

Suze her chair back. “Well, I’d better get back to Geoffrey C. Poor man. He lived in the fourteenth century. How was he to know that one day there would be feminist academics picking his Canterbury Tales apart?”

Van accompanied Suze to get her coat, waited while she bundled up and walked her to the door.

“You’d better pack it in soon,” Suze said. It’s beginning to look a lot like snow clouds up there.”

Van laughed. “I’ve never been around you at Christmas before.”

“If I could carry a tune, you’d be amazed. But no kidding. Go home.”

“I’m closing up in a few minutes. We’re decorating the Christmas tree tonight.” Van felt a familiar stab of panic.

“First family tree?” Suze sighed, then grinned. “Enjoy every minute of it, that’s an order.”

“You’re so smart,” Van quipped. Suze might have her head in the literary clouds, but she was the most insightful person she knew. At least into what made Van click. “It’s all so, I don’t know. Hallmark-y.”

“And you’re afraid the warm fuzzy bubble will burst?”

“No, well, maybe just a little. I don’t know.”

Suze laughed loud enough to shake the snow from the clouds. A couple of tiny flakes floated past them. “You’ll be fine, but maybe you better brush up your “Jingle Bells,” all the way home.”

Van watched Suze drive away in her old VW bug—an odd couple of big person and little car. But they seemed perfect together and, according to Suze, the old car gave her a certain cache on the Princeton campus.

Van she stepped back inside and closed the door. With Suze gone, without her laugh and personality that filled the corners, the old house seemed too quiet. And memoires she managed to ignore all day, began to flit in the shadows.

 

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