Christmas at Apple Lake
I wanted to create a character that had lived too long under someone else’s control and finally comes to realize she’d lived in her husband’s shadow. Now she’s ready to break the mold, but finds her children are unwavering in their persistence to continue where their father left off before his death. They’d learned control too young and all too well.
Coldwater Creek, Georgia 2006
Christmas Eve, Gage Landers stacked the girl’s Christmas presents and began to wrap. She envisioned the girl’s excitement the next morning, their sweet faces aglow with anticipation of secrets underneath the paper wrappings. Presents strewn under the lighted tree, the girls squealing and thrilled at the thoughts of waiting for Christmas morning surprises. Life was as good as it was going to get.
Gage and her husband, Ken had argued over money—again. In an outburst of rage, Ken had stormed out of the house without a word, slammed the door behind him, and roared off in his souped-up Chevy. He’d been drinking and his car had rammed a telephone pole. Ken had died in a freak accident along with the woman he’d cheated on Gage with.
That was the last time she’d seen her husband alive.
Twenty-nine had been way too young for her husband, Ken to die. If only she’d known, she’d have taken steps to improve their declining marriage. In addition, she’d have developed more independence.
Now, her girls blamed her for their father’s death. They’d thrown his death in her face, that if they hadn’t argued, he’d still be alive and at home where he belonged.
Gage knows that isn’t true.
She believes in a higher being. She believes we are on this earth for a reason and it’s the same in death. We leave this world when our time here has ended, not before.
Gage fights to help her girls understand death and how to deal with their grief, but as in real life, working through grief is a long process. Gage realizes it’s hard to absorb death, much less accepting why, especially when the girls oppose her on every level.
No one ever said happiness was forever. Gage knew all about forever. It wasn’t.
Her life was upside down now and righting it was up to her. No one could do it for her. But how was she going to go about it? Certainly her girls had their own idea of how she would get back on track. No, maybe that was an understatement. They'd wanted her to become a shadow of them, just as she’d been a shadow of their father. To live the way they wanted her to exist. Well…that wasn’t going to happen. She’d had enough control.
A shadow of what she’d known would keep her from being what she wanted to be. What she knew she could be. What she wanted was to overcome her situation without being under someone else’s thumb, even her girls. Maybe, especially her girls. As much as she loved them, and as much as they loved her, relying on them wasn’t fair to either of her girls, whether they realized it or not. And, they didn’t. At least now.
Gage prayed both girls would come to appreciate she’d have to make her own way.
Ken hadn’t wanted her to work after they’d married, and since they both wanted children right away, Gage hadn’t argued, but felt blessed to have a husband take care of her and the children that blessed their home.
Now, being taken care of had blown up in her face. She wasn’t prepared, but life wouldn’t be put off.
Ken had been the decision maker for the biggest part of their marriage. She’d had enough of control during her marriage. Control she hadn’t wanted or needed, but she’d allowed her husband to feed on her insecurities, steal her identity and her free will.
Ken hadn’t been physically abusive he just liked things to go smoothly and his way. Gage’s decision to go along had been a terrible mistake. Still the marriage had been mostly good and she’d learned to adjust. Now adjustments from the past and into the future would be a test. A test she was ready to meet head-on once she realized control was a form of abuse.
Gage tossed in the king sized bed, finally flipped back the sheet and stared up at the ceiling. Her mind’s eye followed the swirls embedded in paint, paint she and Ken had applied together. For ten years she’d shared the bed with Ken and now that he was gone, she had a second chance at making things right for her girls.
Ken had had no knack for finances. But, it wasn’t entirely his fault the house was mortgaged to the hilt, and the credit cards maxed out. The medical bills had stacked up and now it was up to Gage to do something about them. But what? She had no job, nor any skills other than organizing the house as one would a business over the years.
Not only had Ken manipulated her life, but he’d continued to betray her, their children and their marriage vows. Ken had put another woman before his family. How had she missed the signs, the clues? A cool calmness carried what little sanity she had left.
Gage wanted more for her children. More for herself. More than to simply exist.
So, the time had come to get up off her duff and do something about being head over heels in debt, to find a way to do what she had to do.
Christmas was two weeks away and Christmas was all about her girls, love and forgiveness.
Three months later.
Three months after Ken’s death, her home at Coldwater Creek had burned to the ground.
Gage used every ounce of courage within her to climb from the devastation that had battered her the past three months. She’d had no intention of living in the home her grandparent’s had willed to her, but the move to Apple Lake was imminent.
To uproot the girls, pull up stakes and move to the North Georgia mountains.
To begin again.
Nine years later—2015, Apple Lake, Georgia
Gage held her breath. The Moore residence was a significant and the most profitable sale she’d ever made and she didn’t want to botch it now. This sale would protect her future.
She flipped open her appointment book and skimmed down today’s page. “Could we meet this afternoon, or would you like a second view of the house first? Or maybe walk the land again? If there’s anything else you want to go over, you only need to ask.”
Mrs. Devon hadn’t balked at the asking price of the monster of a house. One with a private lake, boat docks, tennis court, pool and other amenities. The house had it all. Houses in the North section of Apple Lake weren’t cheap, and this one was no exception.
Mrs. Devon’s soft Southern drawl broke into Gage’s thoughts.
“There is one thing.”
“Name it, Mrs. Devon. I’ll be happy to accommodate you anyway possible.” Mrs. Devon was out of Atlanta: the Devon’s of Buckhead. Gage waited with bated breath to hear her request.
“I’d like the entire driveway paved with asphalt. It’s beginning to wash in several places, plus I have allergies and can’t deal with all that gravel and dust.”
Uh-oh. Gage knew her luck was too good to be true. A paved drive would cost a bundle. Thank God she hadn’t asked for heated asphalt. That was encouraging.
“You realize that’s approximately a half mile from the road to behind the house. Right?”
Mrs. Devon’s soft sigh was barely audible. “Of course I do. I’d liked to have moved in before Christmas, but with the weather, they may not be able to finish the driveway. If—Mr. Moore and I can reach an agreement.”
“Yes, that’s true. It may be touch and go with getting it finished in time. They’d only have two weeks before Christmas and construction depends on the weather.” Gage took a deep breath and considered the seller’s response to Mrs. Devon’s stipulation.
Maybe he’d approve it and maybe he wouldn’t.
She so didn’t want to lose this sale.
“I’ll speak with Mr. Moore as soon as we finish up here and get back with you. With any luck at all, he’ll agree with your wishes.”
Gage called Mr. Moore immediately after hanging up with Mrs. Devon. He picked up on the third ring and listened intently while Gage explained Mrs. Devon’s additional condition to the sale. He was quiet momentarily and probably not too happy with the request. “The extra expense will take a chunk out of the original selling price.”
Gage understood his point, which was valid. “The advantage here is if you want a quick sale, then perhaps you’ll seriously consider her wish. Make the woman happy. I’m guessing that’s why she’s willing to pay the asking price.”
Mr. Moore chuckled. “I’m getting on in years. You know I’ll be eighty-seven come April? There aren’t too many things in life left I want or need. Money isn’t one of them.”
“Let me wish you an early Happy Birthday. You look healthy and in terrific shape for your age. You’ve been blessed. I hope I’m as lucky as you as the years go by.” Gage pulled out a pen and reached for her appointment book. “What day is your birthday?”
“April, 15. Tax day.” His hearty laughter filled her ears. “Thank you my dear. I also wish good health and wealth to you. Since I have no living children and there isn’t anyone else I want to will the house and property to, I may consider her offer for the new driveway.” He laughed. “I never liked the gravel either, but it reminds me of my father’s farm, so I left it alone.”
“I can understand that. Sometimes memories are best left alone.” Her memory of Ken wasn’t the same as Mr. Moore’s family memory, but still best left in the past.
“If I decide to throw in a new asphalt driveway, I won’t consider dropping the asking price, should Mrs. Devon have a change of heart. I’ll do a bit of research, get some bids and get back with you. With Christmas around the corner, we never know what the companies have planned for the holidays. Some close, because of holidays and some close because of weather. We’ll see when I decide which way to go with the sale.”
“Very well. She hasn’t mentioned a lower price. Think it over. You can call me back when you’re ready. I’ll wait to call her until I hear back from you for confirmation,” Gage said, then hung up the phone and jotted down Mr. Moore’s birthday before she forgot it. She wanted to send him a card and maybe have him over for dinner or take him to his special restaurant.
Making time to get her Real Estate license had been hard on the girls and on her both physically and mentally, but she’d persisted and now it was paying off.
When she wasn’t chasing down a Real Estate client, she liked to stay busy in her garden or other chores after the garden played out. If this sale went through, she would invest in a greenhouse, maybe two, and expand her line of products.
But first, priority concerns were a new roof for the house and repairs to the cottage. Not to mention plumbing repairs, replace the washer and dryer, which were both on their last leg. There were many other repairs and replacements that needed doing but they’d have to wait until another sale came through. She was thankful for the Moore/Devon pending sale and prayed it would go through without a hitch.
Gage had committed to memory all the details her grandmother had taught her regarding canning safety, which was a good thing, because canning, had been her lifeline the past few years. As the apples at the farm had come in fast and abundant, she’d used that knowledge and every extra dollar she could spare, to can Apple Sauce.
She’d enlisted a carpenter from town to build another huge double pantry to hold all of the jars she hadn’t given away and now she needed a building to hold her products.
Eventually she’d developed a line of apple sauce to sell to specialty stores in town. She’d extended the products from Apple Sauce, to Chow-Chow, Fuji apples, dried and fresh, as well as vegetables from her own garden for the past several years. If this sale went through, she’d bump up her marketing strategies and extend deliveries to surrounding towns.
As her contributions of apples and vegetables to The Children’s Center in town continued to grow, so did her sales. She was proud that she was able to return her blessing to the children. Twice a month she volunteered on Sunday afternoons to teach the children how to paint and then she helped serve dinner. It never failed that no matter how tired she was she’d left the center with a smile on her face and warmth in her heart.
Giving back felt good and right. Christmas was going to be entertaining with the children again this year and she looked forward to being with them. They were insistent at sticking to their schedule on their Christmas play and she’d like for her girls to attend this year. To see how determined and courageous the children were, without a real family around.
A lump formed in Gage’s throat thinking of Mr. Moore, who had no family either. She pulled out her phone and rang Mr. Moore. “I know I said I’d wait for your call, but I have a question.”
“Sure, Gage. What’s going on?”
“Nothing really. I have some canned Apple Sauce and hot or mild Chow-Chow. I wondered if you’d like some.”
“You know, both of those sound delicious. I appreciate the thought. Either hot or mild on the Chow-Chow will be great.”
“Wonderful, I’ll bring both. I’ll drop them off tomorrow at the signing, if that works out, if not I’ll bring them to your house.”
“Okay, young lady. I look forward to seeing you.”
Since there was a chill in the air today, she’d dressed in sweats and a warm top, and then ran a brush through her blonde hair and pulled it back in a ponytail. She snagged Radar’s, her buff/white Cocker Spaniel, leash, then set off for the park a half mile away.
For fifteen minutes Radar dragged Gage along the trail until she veered onto another track and headed around the bend toward Apple Lake. Gage ran until she was satisfied Radar would lay quietly so she could rest and think about dinner plans for the girls.
With both girls now away at college, they were so busy with their own lives they barely remembered to call once a week. It would be like old times if they’d spend Christmas with her this year since they’d spent the last three in Coldwater Creek with friends, but she wouldn’t push. On the other hand maybe she would urge them. It would be nice to have them for the holidays again. Maybe she would set her wishes in motion, and hopefully the girls would agree.
She couldn’t bear the thoughts of Mr. Moore spending the holidays alone, and considered asking him if he might join them and enjoy Christmas with a family this year. Her spirits lifted at the thoughts of Christmas with the girls. A family Christmas just may be possible this year.
Gage looped Radar’s leash over the back of a wooden bench and watched while runners came and went. They seemed so free from care, so together. Gage had finally learned to relax and treasure each day, whatever life offered.
Gage wrapped her hands around her knees on the chilly, but beautiful mid-December day in the park, the leaves blowing across the winding walking trail. I’ll Be Home For Christmas played in the background from the coffee house around the bend. She leaned her head back and took in a breath of the cool, lazy breeze that blew across the lake, which was motionless, except for a ripple here and there.
The past six years had been hard on the girls and herself. The last three were much better, financially and emotionally. Some issues never changed though.
The girls still denied that their father had had an affair even when she’d confessed, that months before, he’d had an affair with the same woman who’d died in the car with him. She hadn’t wanted the girls to discover Ken’s cheating, but they’d overheard her on the phone one day. They wouldn’t listen to reason and had resented her ever since.
“My father couldn’t possibly have cheated on you,” Keri had said, and Lynn had agreed.
“We won’t speak of this again, girls. You can believe what you choose, but the truth will never go away.” Gage had long given up explaining their father had stormed out of the house on his own. He alone had made the choice to spend time with another woman, and not his family. One day she hoped they’d be old enough to understand.
Gage sighed and prayed this evening’s dinner would be peaceful. The girls still hadn’t given her their Christmas list. Christmas was two weeks away and that gave her little time if there were any gifts that required hunting down. She sighed. There was at least one for each of the girls that she ordered online or ran all over town to find. Plus she still had to put up a tree, deal with Mr. Moore and Mrs. Devon’s contract, and The Children’s Center.
Radar paced back and forth, then came that pitiful little whine Gage was familiar with. Radar had had enough inactivity. “Aww…you hungry girl?”
Radar jumped up, and put her paws on Gage’s lap and yelped.
“Okay then. Let’s get you home so you can tear into your food.”
When Gage grabbed the retractable leash and swung around, she bumped her knee against the bench and then stumbled onto the track and into a runner.
“Ouch,” Gage cried out. “Sorry.” She hobbled back to the seat and checked out her knee.
She was such a klutz. The man she’d bumped into stood over her, holding back a beautiful Chocolate Lab with one hand and a paperback book in the other.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“I think I’ll live. It’s a simple surface scratch, the skin’s mostly intact.” She dabbed at her knee with the towel tucked in her belt loop. “Once I get back home, I’ll take care of it with a bandage and anti-biotic cream.”
Despite the sting of the injury, her mind was on the handsome hunk standing in front of her. True the Chocolate Lab was a perfect specimen, but not as much as his owner who stared back intensely. She couldn’t take her eyes off the man beside the dog. Oh wow. Don’t I look fetching this morning? No make-up and the worst clothes I have.
Hard as it was, she forced herself to take a deep breath and snap out of ogling the good-looking man.
“Good.” A concerned look crossed his face. “I shouldn’t have been reading while walking, otherwise I’d have seen you. It’s too busy on the trail. Would you like me to take a look at it?”
“Thanks, but no. I’m afraid it’s entirely my fault. I wasn’t watching what I was doing either.”
Radar danced around and tangled the leash around her legs. Gage bent and unwound the leash. When she did, Radar sat back on her hind legs and whined again.
The man’s lab sat quietly and cocked her head at Radar, as if to say, “What’s your problem, little one?”
“Matt Street.” He reached out a hand and gave Gage a firm handshake and a dazzling smile.
She liked a man with a strong handshake. Most of the time, it proved he was honest. “Gage Landon. And this,” she pointed to her dog. “Is Radar.”
Matt cocked an eyebrow. “Strange name for such a feminine little beauty. Sounds like a name a guy would use,” he said, and grinned.
“She honed in on every little thing when I got her. So I named her Radar.”
Matt patted his lab’s head. “This is my Prissy. She’s a great gal.” He grinned and stooped to pet Radar and introduce her to Prissy. “There, you see? They’re friends already. You two will get along fine.”
You two will get along fine. Did that mean he expected they’d see each other again? Matt was the first man since Ken’s death she’d had even an inkling of interest in and had resulted in a strange sensation inside her heart. Not to mention the chill bumps running over her arms. She’d steered clear of men the past nine years, she simply hadn’t wanted to deal with the emotions relationships presented.
While Matt petted Radar, Gage gazed down on his head. There was nothing more charming than a full head of salt and pepper hair on a great looking guy. She’d always thought it was so distinguished. Well, most of the time anyway, but definitely in Matt’s case.
“I guess we’d best be getting back. Radar’s pretty hungry. I didn’t feed her before we left.” She grinned. “Me too. Hungry that is, and I could stand a cup of coffee right about now.”
Matt stood and rubbed a shoulder. “Coffee sounds good, I haven’t had any this morning either.” Matt settled a stare on her.
“Maybe we could feed our dogs early tomorrow and pick up coffee at Joe’s Shack after our run. What do you say?”
“I’m not sure.” They’d just met. She knew nothing about this man. Gage gawked at him until she embarrassed herself. “I’ll grab coffee at home. Thanks though. Nice meeting you, Matt.”
She pulled on Radar’s leash. “Let’s go, girl.”
Matt smiled, waved and then headed in the opposite direction. He turned back around and called to Gage. “I usually run about this time every day. It would be good to see you again. Think about coffee tomorrow. Okay?”
Gage couldn’t keep the smile off her face. “Maybe. I’ll see,” she said. “Take care of that shoulder.”
Why in the world had she said that? She wasn’t his mother. She could smack herself sometimes.
“Sure thing,” Matt called over his shoulder. “And you take care of that knee.