Love under the northern lights at Christmas? Is there anything more romantic?
It’s the second holiday season alone for 60-year-old widow Gina Maxwell. Though her grown kids are insisting she sell the too-big-for-one family home and her friends are telling her that 18 months after her husband’s death, it’s time to start dating, Gina isn’t sure she’s ready for any of that. That is, until Blake Dunnell saves her from being hit by a bus while she’s Christmas shopping in San Francisco. This sexy silver fox is unattached, gorgeous, and mysterious—the perfect combination to jumpstart her dormant love life.
When Blake invites her on a Christmas trip to see the northern lights in Norway—and she tells him she can’t wait to go—pandemonium breaks out all around her. Her kids want to know how she could desert them at Christmas and accuse her of forgetting all about their father. Her best friends tell her she’s crazy to go away with a man she barely knows. But something in Blake’s eyes tells her that if she doesn’t take this trip with him, she’ll regret it forever.
Will this be the holiday of a lifetime? Or a disaster in the making?
Take a trip Under the Northern Lights and let yourself be dazzled in this later in life, second chance holiday romance.
All books in the Once Again series are stand-alone stories. No cliffhangers!
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Under the Northern Lights
© 2021 Jennifer Skully
Was she still grieving? Maybe. After the first month, Gina had stopped grieving when she discovered the mess Frank had left of the finances. Maybe dealing with all that was why his loss hit her the hardest after nine months had passed, once she’d figured everything out and felt she was finally in control. Though she still occasionally received a letter asking about this or that, and she’d have to dig again. Now, after eighteen months since Frank died, the guilt over how angry she’d been with him hit her at night, when she was falling asleep. Or early in the morning when she first woke up.
But she wouldn’t let it spoil Thanksgiving.
She removed her apron and clapped her hands. “Dinner’s ready.” She looked at her son Ryan. “Do you want to carve the turkey?”
Carving had always been Frank’s job. He’d been a man’s man, kitchen duties being a woman’s work. But carving the turkey was man’s work, probably because of the knife. She’d set the turkey in Frank’s place. She’d always sat at the end closest to the kitchen. No one had taken Frank’s seat. There was just the turkey and the carving knife.
She threw her apron in the kitchen as everyone took their seats around the table, with platters of candied yams, roast potatoes, sausage stuffing, a bowl cauliflower, and Heather’s bean casserole. Ryan’s wife always brought bean casserole.
Gina had used the good china and silverware and cloth napkins. She’d once asked Emily if she wanted the china, and her oldest daughter had answered, “Mom, people just aren’t that formal anymore.”
The world had moved on. When Gina was a little girl, people flew on planes in their Sunday best, and the most cherished wedding gift was a place setting of good china. Now, dressing up meant not wearing jeans and a T-shirt. The last time her kids had worn dresses or a suit was their father’s funeral.
“Everything is delicious.” Elijah was her youngest daughter Shannon’s new boyfriend. Everyone nodded agreement.
Except Noah. Emily’s five-year-old spat out a mouthful of bean casserole. “Ick,” he said. “Green beans squeak on my teeth. I hate them.”
There was a moment of silence, as they each decided what the best reaction should be, to reprimand him, to make him get down from the table, or to laugh at his antics.
Frank would have laughed.
“Just like your Grandpa,” Gina said. “He always said he could feel the beans squeaking on his teeth.” Noah was old enough to remember Frank, though Meghan and Abigail couldn’t.
Heather, who’d gone rigid at the insult to her bean casserole, finally smiled. “You don’t have to eat them, honey, if you don’t want to.” Then she chucked her daughter Abigail under the chin. “Abigail loves beans and she’ll eat them for you.”
As if those were the magic words, Noah scooped up another forkful of beans, luckily not the ones he’d just spat out, and ate them with a smile plastered on his face. He wouldn’t be outdone by his little cousin.
Emily took his plate. “I’ll get rid of the beans you spat out,” she said, her voice terse. But her husband Travis jumped up and did it for her.
After that small fracas, they all talked and laughed and told stories. “Do you remember the time…” and, “Remember when…” and, “Let me tell you about…” They were stories they’d all heard before, except Elijah, being the new boyfriend on the block.
Gina didn’t look at the Frank’s place at the other end of the table. He was gone, she missed him, but she still had a life. She just had to figure out what to do with it.
After clearing away all the plates and platters, Gina and Emily carried in their desserts. “Who wants pecan pie and who wants pumpkin?”
Hands shot up and there were choruses of pumpkin or pecan.
Gina took a small piece of pumpkin along with the pecan pie to make Emily feel good about the dessert she’d brought. Pumpkin pie really wasn’t that bad.
With dinner almost done and coffee served, Gina broached the subject. “I wonder if you could look at the toilet in the back bathroom before you leave, Ryan?”
“What’s wrong with it now?” he asked after swallowing a mouthful of pecan pie.
“It’s leaking. I turned it off.”
“You could have called a plumber, Mom.”
“I know. But since you were coming today, I thought you might look at it for me.”
He huffed. “I really don’t know much about toilets, Mom.”
He did, actually. Frank had always made Ryan help with home repairs. The house was big and old, and something had always needed fixing. She had a handyman that came in, but surely Ryan could figure out a leaking toilet.
“I can take look at it, Mrs. Maxwell.” Elijah said.
Everyone looked at him, even Shannon, and Gina could see what they were all thinking. Schmoozer. Brownnoser. This was his first time here. He was an interloper. Was he trying to show them all up?
“That’s fine,” Ryan said. “I’ll take a look.”
He shoved another forkful of pecan pie into his mouth, his lips grim as he chewed. Until he swallowed and said, “You know, I’ve been thinking about it. This house is way too big for you, Mom, with problems that always need fixing. And you don’t need five bedrooms.”
And Gina thought she would need them if the family decided to stay for a weekend sometime. Which they usually didn’t.
“Don’t you think it’s time you sold it and got something smaller, like a condo that’s easier to take care of?”
There’d been hints before, phrases like, “This is a lot for you to take care of now that Dad’s gone.” But no one said the word sell outright.
“If I moved to a condo, I wouldn’t have anywhere for you to stay when you come over. This is where you grew up. And there’s the pool. The kids love the pool in the summer. And the barbecues.” They’d always had backyard barbecues when Frank was alive.
“But Mom,” Ryan went on. “Do you know how much this house is worth?”
She felt an involuntary stiffening of her spine. “Yes, I know.”
It was worth millions. She and Frank could never have afforded this house if he hadn’t inherited it from his parents, not even back in the nineties.
“You know, Mom,” Emily said, “We’ve got that huge granny suite over the garage. It’s even got two bedrooms. And you could see the kids whenever you wanted.”
“I thought you were going to rent that out when the remodel is done.”
“We haven’t completely decided that. Especially if you want it,” Emily said.
And if Gina took the apartment, she could look after the kids whenever Emily needed her to. In the last six months, since they’d moved, Emily had the habit of dropping off the kids whenever she needed a little time to herself or there was a remodel crisis that needed handling. Gina loved her grandkids, she just wasn’t sure she wanted to be that close, the go-to babysitter any time Emily wanted.
“If you got rid of the house,” Shannon added, “you’d have enough money to take care of yourself for the rest of your life.”
Yes, but where would Shannon stay if she lost her job and couldn’t pay her rent?
Gina bit off the words, thinking about the ulterior motives her children might have for wanting her to sell this house.
There was the time Ryan wanted to borrow money for the down payment on his current home. It was bigger than he could afford, even if it was in Sacramento, where housing prices weren’t quite as high as the Bay Area. He was still making monthly payments to her, and sometimes he had to skip.
The hint of something was rising up in her. She couldn’t put a name to it. Maybe she was afraid to, because this was her family, her kids, and she didn’t want to think bad things. All she said was, “I’ll think about that later. Who wants to play Skip-Bo?”
They spent the evening playing Skip-Bo, an old card game her mother had loved. And Gina in turn had taught all the kids to love it, making it into a family tradition on holidays.
While the children played with Legos, the rest of them joined in cutthroat games of Skip-Bo where it was next to impossible to win without ganging up on each other.
Then finally, the evening was over, and she was waving them all goodbye. Hugs, kisses, a very big hug for Elijah who’d actually fixed the toilet. Maybe he could fix her youngest daughter too.
It was dark outside and the house was empty, and the kitchen look like a cyclone had hit.
She could have asked them all to stay and help with the cleanup. But there was something calming about standing in her kitchen, her hands in soapy water, with dish after dish disappearing into the maw of the dishwasher.
She thought about what the kids had said. The house was far too big for just one person.
But Gina loved the garden. She loved the sunroom. She loved the pool and the backyard barbecues. She loved the memories.
She wasn’t ready to let all those things go yet. And she wasn’t about to let her kids force her into it.