Love at Christmas Inn: Collection 2 by by Tanya Stowe, Marianne Evans, Mary Manners, and Delia Latham
Mary Manners, Delia Latham, Tanya Stowe, Marianne Evans
Nestled into five beautiful acres just outside Hope Creek, Tennessee, Christmas Inn is an unforgettable place known for its joyful atmosphere and festive setting. Holiday decorations adorn each room. Trees glittering with ribbons and ornaments, gorgeous wreaths, velvet stockings and pine-scented candles brighten visitors’ stay at this vacation spot dedicated to Christmas all year, every year. The resort offers all the usual enticements plus one unique amenity…love. The little white chapel behind the inn, built by the Christmas family in the 1890s, boasts bell tower bells that toll when couples fall in love.
Every year people come to the inn looking for their Christmas spirit. Sometimes they find love too. Will the bells ring again this year?
Targeted Age Group:: All audiences
Heat/Violence Level: Heat Level 1 – G Rated Clean Read
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
I love Christmas and all of the love surrounding the holiday. What better way to share the love than to write a collection of sweet Christmas stories!
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
My friends and I enjoy the magic of Christmas, and we each developed characters that embody the Christmas spirit…and love.
“WE’RE HERE, MISS…CHRISTMAS INN.”
The taxi driver’s voice drew Hope Mallory from a catnap. She lifted her head from the lumpy travel pillow, stretching kinks from her neck as she opened her sleepy eyes. Her breath caught at the sight of the sprawling, majestic structure before her, bathed in the soft glow of a veiled moon.
“Oh my, it’s glorious…breathtaking.” Grand turrets rose three stories high, flanking an expanse of brick and glass that shimmered like magical starlight against a vast midnight sky. A candelabra winked from each window, as if welcoming her home from a long, arduous journey. On the rooftop sat a pair of ethereal angels, their trumpets formed of mesmerizing, golden lights. The grounds along the entranceway seemed to dance against the slightest whisper of snow.
For a moment, Hope forgot the heartbreak that had driven her here as a completely unexpected, bright flash of happiness zinged from the tips of her toes to the crown of her head, and then straight through to her heart.
A moment of pure, uplifting joy.
And then, just as quickly as it came, the feeling passed and the now-familiar cloak of melancholy settled over her once again. She sighed and scrubbed sleep from her eyes as the distant echo of Gran’s voice nudged at her.
“Life’s too short to dwell on things we cannot change, Hope. Improve what you can, and let go of the rest. Don’t live angry.”
Don’t live angry. Advice that was much easier to give than receive, yet it had become Hope’s mantra over the past four months, ever since her life-long dream of Olympic pair skating gold had been heartlessly crushed and pureed, never to be pieced back together again. All her hard work, the countless hours and hours of sacrifice, were dispelled with a single slash of pen along paper.
Gone forever, thanks to the incorrigible Riley Tate and his quest for fame and fortune, no matter the cost to others. His name rolled like bitter medicine from her lips.
“Did you say something, Ma’am?” asked the cabbie, a kindly forty-something man with a quick smile and a gentle voice.
Hope bristled. Ma’am…the word made her feel old. And she was old—at least by the rigid standards of the figure skating world. Twenty-six years plus a handful of months. Positively ancient. Might as well be a hundred-and-two. Which, at the moment, she felt every bit of—every last moment of a century’s worth of living and heartache all rolled together into a soupy, exhausted mess.
Hope sat up straight in the seat and ran a hand over her right cheek, feeling sleep-wrinkles from where her face had rested heavily against the travel pillow while she’d dozed. How lovely. She scrubbed at the skin, not caring the action would remove the last vestiges of make-up she’d carefully applied that morning before she set out to journey here—nearly twenty hours ago.
“I’m glad we arrived safely,” she finally responded, because she could not think of anything else to say. Her mind was a tempest of hazy fog following endless delays out of Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, due to an unexpected blizzard that decided to roar into the city. What was meant to be a quick, non-stop flight had turned into a day-long journey. She was bone-tired. “You’re a good driver.”
“Why, thank you. Piloting a taxi’s not rocket science, but I do my best.” His eyes twinkled in the rear-view mirror as he navigated the taxicab along a wide, sweeping driveway toward the Inn’s entrance and then shifted the car into Park. “I love making the drive out this way to Hope Creek, especially after dark when the grounds around Christmas Inn are all lit up so festively. Just looking at the joyful landscape makes a heart happy.”
“I…I suppose.” Yet, Hope felt anything but happy. She worried about a million and two things—mainly that her room reservation might have been given away, though the kind and gracious inn manager named Ari promised to hold it for her despite the late hour. “Have you ever stayed here at Christmas Inn?”
“I wish I could say yes to that.” He shook his lightly-grizzled head. “But I’ve not been so lucky to have found the time. One day, perhaps. The place has this unique sort of feel. It’s almost…magical. And now, with the latest renovations…”
“What sort of renovations?”
“Oh, you’ll see soon enough. I’ve heard they’re amazing. And, given your skating history, you’re sure to love them.”
“Excuse me? But, how did you know…?” Shock coursed through Hope.
“That you’re a skating star?”
“That I was a skating star.” She frowned. “My dreams…they’re little more than history these days.”
“Yeah. I saw the article.”
“I’m sorry about your skating partner.”
“Warren was more than my partner. He was—and still is—my friend.”
“Sure he is. I suppose when you spend that much time with a person, you either grow to love them or…” He shook his head. “Forget the alternative. It’s the Christmas season…a time of forgiveness, hope, and miracles. Anyway, dreams never really die. They might change over time, but they remain every bit what you make them.”
“That’s a hard pill to swallow—no pun intended—when someone else holds the reins.”
“Oh, you still hold the reins, my dear. You just have to believe that.” He peered into the rearview mirror and offered her a merry little wink. “Besides, you’re at Christmas Inn now, where magical things are known to happen.”
“Not to me. I’m jinxed.”
“Only in your own mind.” His belly-laugh might have rivaled Santa’s. “Think positive, and you might be surprised at the outcome. You’re fortunate to spend time here, Miss Mallory.”
“Thanks, but I don’t feel fortunate.” Instead, she felt…banished. Gran and Gramps had gifted her with an early Christmas present—a week’s stay at Christmas Inn during the height of the holiday season, when the breeze blew crisp and cool, everything felt clean and new, and the grounds were at their finest. Most people, like the jovial cabbie, would be over the moon to vacation here. She just felt cheated.
Don’t live angry, Hope.
“Um…” The cabbie shifted in the seat to face her. “I hate to ask, but since we’re on the subject of skating—”
“Of course. That’s what this is all about, isn’t it? A little detour…a change of course.”
“It’s more than a little detour.”
“The only way up and over a mountain is one step—or, in skating lingo, one stroke—at a time,” the cabbie continued. “Anyway, like I said, I hate to ask, but my daughter would never forgive me if I didn’t. You see, she’s a figure skater, too, and she’s been following you since she scooted along on her first pair of skates. Your posters from the World Championship are tacked up all over her room. She wants to go to the Olympics one day, just like you.”
“But I’m not going to the Olymp—”
“Maybe not this time, but you’ve already been.”
“Four years ago. I was awarded only eighth place. A disappointment.”
“On the contrary. Many would say that’s a great achievement.”
“This was going to be my year. Warren’s year. Our year to win it all. And then Riley Tate…”
There was no point in getting into it. The kindly man just wouldn’t understand.
“Tough break. But my daughter’s dreams are why I took a second job driving this taxi to Timbuktu and back. The extra cash…it pays for her lessons.” He pulled his cap down low over his forehead. “Would you…um…mind signing an autograph for her?”
Hope sat, stunned. The last thing she wanted to do was sign a silly autograph for someone she didn’t even know. Regardless, who would want one from a washed-up wannabe? The laughingstock of Illinois.
“Her name is Carissa,” the cabbie prompted, chuckling softly. “She’s eleven going on twenty-two.”
Guilt pricked at Hope. The cabbie had been so kind, and his daughter was so young…a child with her whole life ahead of her. Hope remembered those days before the pursuit of endless goals took over and skating became more mechanical than fun. Soon, the harsh reality of the world had set in. She longed for a time when just the scent of freshly-manicured ice made her emotions soar and she believed anything was possible.
Hope took the pen and slip of paper the jovial cabbie handed her. Though her heart was heavy with the weight of disappointment and crushed dreams, she scribbled a quick, encouraging note for the child. She followed up with a flourish of signature. After all, who was she to crush a young girl’s dreams just because hers had been slaughtered?
“Here you go.” She returned the pen to the cabbie, along with the note.
“Thanks a million.” The twinkle in his eyes could have rivaled St. Nick’s. “Carissa’s sure to be over the moon for this. I appreciate you taking the time, especially at this late hour, when I’m sure all you’d like to do is collapse in the comfort of your guest room.”
His words brought her worry back to the forefront. She swallowed hard, risking a furtive look toward the inn. Hopefully, they were really still holding her room, though night was quickly shifting to morning.
“You’re welcome. If I can do anything for Carissa…”
Her voice trailed off. What could she possibly do now to aid a young girl with big dreams? She was washed up, a has-been. Her credibility was damaged beyond repair. No one would ever believe she didn’t know about Warren’s habit…his need for the opioids that ruled his life—their lives. Not since Riley Tate’s unflattering news article hit the stands four months ago. And to think she had trusted him.
“I’ll just get your bags for you,” said the cabbie as he folded the note and tucked it safely into his wallet. “Then you can be on your way.”
On my way to where? After this week runs its course, what’s in store for me? Where do I go from here?
Hope shoved the worry aside as she gathered her travel pillow and purse. The need to hurry sifted through the weariness in her limbs. She popped open the rear passenger door, letting in a rush of frosty air. She shivered into her coat as headlights from an oncoming SUV washed over the drive, momentarily blinding her as they pierced the darkness.
Who on earth was also arriving at this late hour? Had they been on one of the connecting flights delayed by the Chicago storm? Or perhaps they’d driven in from somewhere far away, and were weary from fighting the elements.
At least I’m not alone in my tardiness…
For a moment Hope forgot her troubles as empathy flooded through. Whoever was in the other car must be as exhausted as she. They’d best both get inside and claim their rooms before midnight turned to morning.
“Here you go, Miss Mallory.” The cabbie drew Hope from her thoughts as he placed her large rolling suitcase on the pavement at the curb. “That ought to do it. Thanks again for the autograph for Carissa. Have a nice stay here at the inn. I have a feeling it’s going to be special beyond your wildest imagination.”
With a wink, he tipped his hat and turned away. Before she could hand him the generous tip she had clutched in her fist, he was back in the car and heading toward the highway, leaving her alone at the curb.
Panic suddenly flooded her. She let go of the suitcase and it tumbled over onto the pavement with a thud as she turned to hail the cab back to fetch her. She should return to the airport—head back home and end this craziness. But it was no use. She was greeted by twinkling taillights as it turned the corner and scurried away into the darkness.
She was as good as stranded.
The doors of the SUV popped open and merry voices spilled into the night. One, rich as red velvet cake, rang vaguely familiar and she craned her ear for a moment, trying to place it.
She shivered violently as a wind gust snaked beneath the collar of her coat, chilling her to the core. Without another thought to her fellow late-arriving guests, she rushed toward the warmth of inn’s entrance to claim her room.
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