Series: Seasons of Sugar Creek #1
Published by: Jelly Bean Press, Co
Release Date: 11/30/2022
Contributors: Heather Tullis
I’m only home for the holidays, but this hot, single dad could make me want to stay.
I’m the personal assistant to one of Hollywood’s elite, but I grew up on a Christmas tree farm. Now, after two Christmases away, I’ve decided to surprise everyone by coming home for the holidays. Great idea, right? Of course, right. Except for a couple of problems. Which are not really problems, because I’m Makenzie Vandenberg, and my job is solving problems.
Problem #1: They sold the Christmas tree farm.
Kind of a big one, but somehow my family failed to mention this little detail.
Problem #2: They’re selling it to my old crush.
Guys are jerks. And crushes don’t change that. Cameron was the first one to teach me this, after years of friendship he stomped all over my heart and started dating my mortal enemy. But we’re both adults now. I’ve moved on . . . sort of.
Problem #3: He’s been married and divorced since then and maybe he’s not the same jerk he used to be.
From the moment I arrive in Sugar Creek I can feel him changing my mind, reminding me why we were friends to begin with. Now, my emotions have gone as melty and sticky as his daughter's candy cane kisses.
Which has created the final issue . . .
Problem #4: This single dad could break my heart . . . again.
I was so sure Cameron was in my past. I’d tucked him away with memories of childhood and the smell of pine tree adventures. No matter how much I want to be with him, staying isn’t an option. I've got a job and a life outside of Christmas tree farms. Now, I have a few short weeks to decide if I’m willing to sacrifice everything for a chance at love.
Also in this series:
A LIGHT SNOW FELL, JOINING THE THIN LAYER ALREADY ON the pavement as Mackenzie maneuvered her rental car up and down the hills leading to her hometown. It had been years since she’d driven in snow—at least three since she had been home for the holidays. She passed the wooden sign announcing that she was entering the city of Sugar Creek, Vermont, population 30,406. She slowed the car at the lovely, old covered bridge as hundreds of childhood memories rushed into her mind.
She drove through town, noticing a few of the street light decorations had been updated since her last Christmas here, and took the road past the train depot out to her family home, located on the Sweet Pines Christmas Tree Farm.
Mackenzie wondered again if she should have told her parents she was coming instead of springing it on them. Perhaps, but she couldn’t wait to see the look of surprise in her mom’s eyes.
Anticipation thrummed through her as she turned left onto her family farm, driving past the large space that had been cleared with a wooden railing separating the parking area from the pre-cut tree sales area. The snow fell lightly on the car as she pulled around to the family parking spaces near the kitchen door at the back of the house. She grinned as she saw a figure hauling Christmas-colored totes from the back of the farm’s blue pickup truck—no doubt the lights for the annual sledding party the next Saturday. It took only a second for her to realize the figure was too tall and lanky to be her father, but all she could see were his legs and the top of a baseball cap until he set the totes on a table.
Definitely not her dad. The man was probably mid to late thirties, dark haired with a scruff of beard growth. Wow, he was hot! It took several seconds for her to realize she knew him because she had not expected to see him here.
No way. No. Way.
Cameron Navarro was the most clueless idiot she’d ever had the displeasure to know—and she worked in Hollywood, so she knew her idiots. Surely her dad didn’t hire him. Wasn’t he some hot-shot engineer now? Why would he be working on a farm after working so hard in college to escape his family farm? Not that she’d kept tabs on him or anything, but their parents were close, so she heard things sometimes—whether she wanted to or not.
A smile spread across that sickeningly handsome face when she slid into an empty parking spot not twenty feet from where he was working. By the time she opened the door, he was already coming around to the driver's side of her rental car.
“Hey, Mac. Haven’t seen you in a few years.”
He was the only person who had called her that. Once upon a time she had actually liked it. She automatically responded with her nickname for him before she could stop herself, “Cam.” When she stepped out onto the snow, Mackenzie was grateful she still had a pair of winter boots left from high school. She did her best to look unsurprised and unaffected by his presence. She took in a lungful of the beautiful Vermont air and smelled the pine fragrance that had always meant home to her.
“I didn’t know you were coming home,” Cameron said as he walked over.
She almost made a snide comment about her parents keeping a lot of secrets—for example, his presence—but since even her parents had no idea she was coming home, and it would be easy enough for him to find that out, it wasn’t worth the effort. “Spur of the moment decision.”
“I’m sure your parents will be glad to have you here for Thanksgiving. Your mom is inside. Your dad is out doing tree stuff.” He waved toward the rows of trees that stood like a vast arm across the land, some inter-planted with the honeyberries and lingonberries that provided summer and fall harvests.
“Thanks.” She wrangled her two large suitcases out of the back seat, and started dragging them toward the house. The gravel and new snow did not make an ideal rolling surface.
“Whoa, how long are you planning to stay? A year?” he asked.
“Not quite.” Mackenzie wanted her parents to be the first to learn about her plans.
“Need a hand?” Cameron asked.
“I’ve got them. Thanks.” Of course, as soon as the words were out of her mouth, one of the suitcases got caught up on a larger rock, and she had to tug, causing her feet to slide a couple inches in the snow and nearly landing her on her butt before she got her balance back.
“You always were stubborn,” Cameron said as he picked up the larger suitcase and hauled it onto the back stairs as if it weighed only a few pounds. It had been very near the max weight allowed at the airport.
“It’s part of my charm,” Mackenzie ground out, trying not to snap at him. She could tell herself that it was the long flight, the endless drive, and hunger, but she knew better. He had annoyed her beyond words since they were teenagers, even without trying. They had made a game of annoying each other all through high school despite the fact that they had been friends for years before that.
Cameron grinned. “Right, your charm is overwhelming.” He reached out and grabbed the second suitcase that she had been about to pull up the two stairs, depositing it near the first one. “Good to see you again.”
“I’m sure it is.” Just because he had big farmer’s biceps, and she had wimpy computer nerd biceps didn’t mean he had to be smug.
“I’m sure I’ll see you around.” He headed back to the totes he’d been carrying.
Mackenzie maneuvered her suitcases inside, making a mental note to avoid him as much as possible. It even smelled like home—the scent of something baking in the oven, the cinnamon in it wafting toward her. Her mom loved classical music, and Debussy streamed from the sound system that piped all over the main floor. Though the farm already wore its holiday finery—tree sales had kicked off the previous weekend, as per usual—Christmas decor inside the house wouldn’t be set up until after Thanksgiving dinner, continuing for several days. It would be their busiest Christmas-tree-selling weekend of the year.
“Honey, could you come help me with this?” Her mom’s voice came from the other side of the island.
Mackenzie came around the cabinets, grinning. “I sure can. What do you need?”
Pat Vandenberg looked up from the island cupboard she had been peeking into. She sucked in a breath of surprise. “Mackenzie! I swear, I never expected! You came!” She gave up on trying to form sentences as they crossed to each other, hugging tightly.
“You didn’t tell us you were coming. How long have you known?” Pat asked.
Mackenzie squeezed her tight, desperately glad to be home. “About a day.”
“How long can you stay?” Pat asked, pulling back far enough to see her face. “You look exhausted.
“I am, and I’m staying until the end of December. Missy and her new boyfriend are vacationing in Europe with his family, and can you believe they didn’t want me tagging along?” Mackenzie joked. “She said I could work remotely until New Year’s Eve.”
“I’m so glad she let you could come home,” Patricia said. “We have over a month with you! That’s wonderful. Tell me everything.”
“You needed a hand with something?” Mackenzie gestured to the cabinet door that was still open.
“Oh, yes. Your dad put away my stand mixer after I finished with it this morning, but he didn’t think about how much more baking I have to do this afternoon.”
“Let me get it.” Mackenzie pulled the stand mixer out of its spot in a lower cabinet. It was heavier than she remembered. “I don’t know why you haven’t put a drawer in here to make accessing this easier.”
“Oh, well, I’m so used to it now,” Pat said with a wave of her hand, “and I don’t use it that often anymore. It’s just that Thanksgiving is in two days, and we have all those pie orders, plus the rolls and other Thanksgiving food.”
“I know, and a thousand other things to do,” Mackenzie agreed. She was looking forward to helping her mom make dozens of her famous lingonberry pies—something dozens of locals pre-ordered for Thanksgiving. “Let me take my stuff upstairs and I’ll be right back to help.” She grabbed her luggage and thought of her laptop bag out in the car. She would grab that later. When Cameron wasn’t standing close enough to tease her about how much she had packed. Five weeks at home required more than one suitcase, especially since she had so many Christmas gifts to bring with her.
She was almost to her bedroom door when her mom called up the stairs, “I forgot to tell you, you’ll have to use Holly’s old room.”
Mackenzie came to a stop at her old bedroom, which was bursting with more than a dozen bins and boxes—some with a thrift store’s name scrawled on the side in black marker, others marked “Keep Storage.” “I see.” Except it was odd that her mom would be digging through personal items at their busiest time of year. How long had the room looked like this? She had been home for a visit that summer.
“I’ve been using your room to sort out a few things when I have extra time. It’s amazing how much we’ve accumulated over the decades.”
“I’m sure it is. And I didn’t exactly give you notice that I was coming home,” Mackenzie added in disappointment. Not that she had a right to be upset about what they did with her old bedroom. Her mom was right—living on the opposite side of the country meant she only made it home once or twice a year. She had met her family in New York City for nearly a week the previous spring, and had flown her parents out to California for a tour of Hollywood and a couple of days at amusement parks, but she had only been home twice since her last Christmas here.
Pat explained, “Holly’s room has clean sheets on the bed. I changed them after your Uncle Rob visited last month.”
“It’s fine.” But it didn’t feel fine as Mackenzie rolled her bags to the next room. She had been looking forward to everything being the same as always, but already Cameron Navarro was here and her room wasn’t available. She shook it off, deciding to make the most of it. If she helped her mom with the boxes, maybe she could move into her room the next week. “I am a grown woman who can deal with minor disappointments,” she muttered to herself as she tucked the luggage in the corner by the dresser. This room didn’t have her usual view of the farm, with its big expanse of Christmas trees, but it was a little bigger than hers with nice morning light.
Mackenzie flicked back the curtains and looked down at where Cameron was stringing Edison lights around the large fire pit they would use on the sledding night. That was different, too. They used to have large-bulbed, colored Christmas lights strung around the seating area. She wondered when they had changed to the new style. She wondered how he had ended up as a farm hand in his thirties. Why did she care anyway? They had been fierce competitors on the high school bowling team all four years, and he’d won the title in the end. It should have been hers. Would have been if Gina hadn’t screwed around with her ball. Gina had cost her more than a trophy.
But that was in the past and she wouldn’t let it ruin her holiday season at home.
Maybe it was stupid to hold a grudge after so long, but Mackenzie wasn’t done with it. And look at where they were now—Cameron was a farm hand, and she was a personal assistant to one of the hottest stars in the business. She knew all the movers and shakers. She had been to the Emmy Awards and Golden Globes. She had met hundreds of major stars, been backstage at The Tonight Show and Saturday Night Live.
And none of that really mattered—it was all surface, just her job. It had plenty of perks, but it also had plenty of drawbacks. Missy was a good boss, but dealing with wardrobe, directors, producers, studio execs, household issues, and still finding some kind of life balance was harder than she had ever expected.
Harder than either of them had expected, honestly. Missy struggled to find balance between her public persona and her real self, which was probably how she’d ended up dating Ryan, the co-star from the movie she had recently finished shooting. Mackenzie didn’t like him at all. He was nice enough to her, but she’d seen his snobby side more than once when he dealt with other people who were just doing their jobs.
But for now, aside from a few hours of work a day to deal with Missy’s business, she was going to have a long break to do what she wanted. To recenter herself. And hopefully, to figure out how to find better work/life balance going forward.
Cameron had nothing to do with any of that, though. He was her past, and maybe a small part of her present, definitely not her future.
Mackenzie let the curtain fall back into place. She had six weeks to find answers—and to make a lot of Christmas cookies and Thanksgiving pies with her mom. She heard the mixer start up and grinned. The holiday season was underway.
CAMERON SWUNG BY THE BABYSITTER’S HOUSE ON HIS way home from work that evening to pick up Phyl. He hadn’t spoken with Mackenzie again that afternoon and was still trying to process seeing her again after so long. Her parents said she hadn’t been home for the holidays for years, so he hadn’t expected to see her anytime soon.
When they had been kids, they were friends, running around his family farm, or hers, bowling on kiddie teams, or bowling with their families. Their fathers had been tight since childhood, and he and Mackenzie followed suit. Somewhere along the way, that all changed. She pushed him away when their bowling competitions went from friendly family games to being on the high school’s team. Though he tried several times to figure out why she’d grown so distant, she never explained what was wrong.
Knowing he wouldn’t find answers that night, Cameron dismissed those questions from his mind as he knocked on the sitter’s front door.
Phyl opened it, her bright blue eyes and brown curls glowing with happiness. “Dad, you’re here!”
“I did think about leaving you here all night, but then I realized Whiskers would get lonely without you.” He scooped her up and set her on his hip as he went inside. The scents of meat, tomato sauce, and spices permeated the air, indicating spaghetti or maybe lasagna were on the family’s menu.
Phyl shot him a knowing look. “You wouldn’t leave me here all night.”
He tapped her nose with his index finger. “You’re right. I wouldn’t do that because you are my funny Phyl.” He emphasized the F sound, which made her roll her eyes.
“Well, your funny Phyl had a pretty good day,” Nancy said.
Cameron smiled at the redhead who had been two years ahead of him in school and now had six- and four-year-old sons. “Glad to hear it. You guys heading out tomorrow?”
“Yeah, we’ll be back Sunday night.” She looked worn out from the long day.
He pulled the check for that week’s babysitting from his pocket. “Have a good time.”
“Thanks, we will.” She slid the check into her back pocket without even looking at it.
Cameron set Phyl down. “Go get your boots on, munchkin. And clean up whatever you were playing with. We’re making cookies tonight if there’s time.”
“Cookies!” Phyl hurried off to the corner where she had apparently been playing with the miniature kitchen setup near the front window. She loved to cook.
“You heading to Burlington to see your folks?” Nancy asked.
“Not this time.” Cameron tucked his hands in his back pockets. “They decided to fly to Phoenix to spend Thanksgiving with Brock. He can’t break away from work long enough to come out here this winter. His surgical residency is crazy, and Dad said it would be a nice break from the snow.”
Nancy chuckled. “I bet. We’ve definitely been getting our share of it.”
The silence between them was starting to stretch into awkward when Phyl rushed back. “Done!”
Cameron looked at the kitchen set up. The dishes and fake food were piled haphazardly in their container on a nearby shelf, but it looked like they all made it inside. Good enough. “You must really want to make cookies. That was fast.” He snagged her coat from one of the pegs on the wall.
“Like the wind?” she asked.
“At least as good as a summer breeze,” he said.
“No, like a blizzard wind!” she insisted as she shrugged into the coat.
“Hmm, maybe like an incoming rainstorm,” Cameron teased.
Phyl sat on the floor to pull on her boots. “Dad!”
“I’m calling it like I see it.” This was a recurring joke between them, as she tried to get him to admit she was super fast at something.
When her boots were on, he scooped under her arms to help her stand and grabbed the pink sparkled backpack she carried almost everywhere. It held an extra set of clothes in case she got soaked playing in the snow, emergency medications in a small lock box, and a book or two for quiet time. Checking inside to ensure nothing important had been left behind, he slung it over his own shoulder. “Thanks, Nancy. See you next week. Have a good Thanksgiving.”
“See you!” Phyl chimed in as she turned the round doorknob with both hands.
“Bye. Drive safe. Happy Thanksgiving!” Nancy called as they exited.
Cameron lifted Phyl into the back seat of his truck.
“Can we do peanut butter cookies with chocolate chips? They’re my favorite,” Phyl asked as he buckled her in.
“I know. And yes, we can make them.” They were his favorite too, so it was no hardship.
On the drive home, Phyl told him about playing with Nancy’s youngest son, Kenneth, who attended the same preschool class three mornings a week. They had played in the snow, watched shows, and played what sounded like a dozen or more rousing games of Go Fish considering the number of stories it had generated.
After they unloaded their winter gear in their tiny two-bedroom apartment, and given Whiskers her deserved helping of petting, Cameron and Phyl headed for the kitchen.
“Pizza?” Phyl asked.
“Leftover taco meat. Do you want it with chips, with tortillas, or on a salad?” he asked.
Phyl’s mouth pursed and shifted from side to side as she considered. “Chips.”
Cameron nodded. “Chips it is. Right after you eat a salad.”
“Ah, Dad!” she complained.
“Or you can have taco salad.”
“Taco salad, I guess. Plus chips.” She turned on the tablet he kept in the kitchen and called up Christmas music.
“Done.” Cameron pulled the leftover spiced hamburger from the fridge and set the microwave to heat it at half power. He grabbed an apple and orange from the fruit basket and the apple slicer. He prepped the taco salads, apple slices, and some orange segments, plating everything up while she twirled in the empty space meant for a kitchen table.
Cameron hadn’t bothered to replace the one his ex had kept in the divorce. The apartment he’d moved into had an island with a small eat-in bar, so he’d bought bar stools instead. He’d worry about a real table after their next move.
“Set the dishes,” he said as he cleared away the apple core and orange peels.
Phyl danced over, like the ballerina she was at heart. “Cookies after?”
“If there’s time.”
She huffed. “You always say that.”
“Sometimes you dawdle, and then there’s no time.” He poured the milk and slid the taller of the two bar stools away from the bar for her. When she had finished setting the dishes at their places, he snagged her around the waist and lifted her onto her seat.
“What did you do today, Daddy?” she asked after a few bites.
“I put up lights for the sledding party,” he said, knowing she was excited to participate. “I cut a couple trees for a business, checked the pond to see if the ice is thick enough for the Zamboni—not quite yet—and worked on business stuff. You know what happened, though? Something you’ll never guess.”
“What?” She stabbed into her salad, lifting it to shove way more lettuce into her mouth than could handle at one time.
“Mrs. Vandenberg’s daughter came home.”
She chewed for several seconds and then spoke around the food in her mouth. “The doctor or the office lady?”
Cameron considered reminding her not to talk with her mouth full, but realized that would make dinner take twice as long and decided to skip it this time. “Neither. It’s Mackenzie. She’s the one who works for the movie star.”
“I don’t know her.” Phyl poked at more of her dinner, supremely unimpressed by Mackenzie’s job.
“I know, but you’ll get to meet her now. She’s staying until after Christmas.”
That caught Phyl’s attention. “For Thanksgiving too?”
“Does she like to do snowball fights?” She turned, focusing on him instead of her food.
Cameron remembered one in particular when they were around twelve and smiled. “She used to. I guess we’ll see if she still does or not.”
“Mrs. Vandenberg said she would let me help make pies tomorrow,” Phyl said. “Lingberry, and honeyberry and maybe pumpkin too for Thanksgiving.”
“I know. And we’re making cookies tonight. It’s like a week of baking fun. If you finish eating in time,” he reminded her of the food on the plate in front of her.
“Oh yeah!” Phyl giggled and got back to eating. She was generally a good eater—when she didn’t get too distracted by other things.
The phone rang and Cameron glanced at the readout. Ellen, his ex. Since she rarely called solely to speak to their daughter, he wondered if she was trying to change visitation. Again. “Hello?”
“Cameron, glad you answered.” For a change was implied by her tone of voice.
“You got me. What do you need?”
“I have to go out of town this weekend for work. I won’t be able to take Anna for the weekend. We’re leaving tomorrow,” she said, as if she was saying she couldn’t pick up the dry cleaning.
He bristled at the fact that Ellen still refused to use his daughter’s preferred name. While he was always glad not to have to send Phyl away, she would be sad not to see her mom, who found reasons not to use her scheduled visitation far too often. Cameron wondered what he would do with Phyl as this would be an especially busy weekend at work, and he didn’t have anyone else to watch her. It was a good thing the Vandenberg’s never seemed to mind having her around, but he worried about her safety while he was cutting trees. She would definitely get tired of traipsing around the farm with people who were picking out their trees before they got halfway through the first day. “Would you like me to pass her the phone so you can tell her?”
“I really don’t have time to deal with it now. You can tell her. I’ll call on Thanksgiving, of course. Ciao.” She hung up.
Cameron seethed. Of course, she left him to deal with this. “Goodbye to you too,” he muttered.
“Who was that?” Phyl asked.
Determined not to say the very uncomplimentary things that were rolling through his mind, Cameron set down the phone. “Your mom. She only had a minute, so she couldn’t talk tonight. She said she had a business trip come up this weekend, so you get to stay with me and go to the city tree lighting.”
Phyl poked at some lettuce with her fork, thinking about that. “She doesn’t want to see me?”
“Of course, she wants to see you,” he lied, wishing it were the truth. “She loves you. It’s just that she has things to do for work.”
“You have work, but you still want to see me.” The fork rested in her hand on the countertop, limp with rejection.
Cameron slid back his stool and pulled her onto his lap. “But my job is much more Phyl friendly. Besides, I always want to see you. It makes me so happy that I get to keep you all weekend instead of having to be here alone while you’re with your mom.”
Phyl sat sideways on his lap and set her head on his shoulder. “She’s no fun, anyway.” Her frown said this comment was sour grapes, even though Ellen often dumped Phyl on her parents, spending only a few hours per weekend with her on the rare occasions when she followed through on visitation.
Cameron suspected Ellen only took Phyl when her parents demanded time with their granddaughter. It broke his heart every time she came back and said she’d barely seen her mom. “Am I fun?”
“Sometimes.” Her lips curled at the corner. “When we get to have pizza and watch My Little Pony.”
“Well, since we have extra time this week, we should definitely watch My Little Pony. And maybe we can fit some pizza into our schedule between the Thanksgiving leftovers.”
“K.” But Phyl stayed in the circle of his arms for nearly a minute before sitting up straight. “Can we make cookies now?”
Cameron eyed her still half-full plate. “Take three more bites of taco salad and finish your fruit, and then we’ll pull out the cookie ingredients.” He returned her to her stool.
“Okay.” She took the required bites with less enjoyment than before, but she ate enough to ensure she wouldn’t be filling up mostly on cookies tonight, and that would have to be good enough.
Even though it had been more than a year since the divorce finalized, Cameron still couldn’t understand how his marriage had gone from what he’d thought was good, to nonexistent. More than anything, he would never understand how Ellen had suddenly decided she didn’t care about being a mom when they had both anticipated their daughter’s birth with joy. He couldn’t help feeling that it was all somehow his fault and wondered what he could have done to make things work.
The music changed to a bright tune that had Phyl singing along, and Cameron focused back on the present. Right now, he had cookies to bake. Heaven help them both.
MACKENZIE DIDN’T HAVE TO WAIT LONG TO SEE HER siblings. Holly, who recently finished her residency and set up her practice as a pediatrician, showed up slightly before six that night with a bagged salad kit.
“Where is she?” Holly called out almost the second she stepped through the door.
Mackenzie had seen her parking from the dining-room window and straightened from where she was placing silverware beside the plates on the table. “I’m in here.”
Holly walked in, her hair perfectly coiffed despite what must have been a long day of dealing with sniffling kids. She pulled Mackenzie into a tight hug. “I almost didn’t believe Mom when she called. You’re actually staying through Christmas?”
“Yes, ma’am. I decided I’ve had enough of the bright lights and hypocrisy of LA. Or at least that I need a break.” She gave Holly another quick squeeze and stepped back to look her over. “You look fabulous. How is it that you always look so amazing after a full day of work? How many kids puked or spit up on you today?”
“I’ve always looked fabulous, and I had a whole day with no kids puking on me. It was a good day.” Holly grinned. “I don’t know how you survived without snow sculptures the past two years.”
“Longer than two years. I couldn’t come home early enough for the contest for years before that. I’m going to get my fill this year.” Mackenzie had actually tried making a small snow sculpture one year when she was in high school, but it was much harder than she had expected. She had decided after that to put her efforts into enjoying other people’s creations.
“There’s no excuse for missing that many Christmas seasons,” Holly said.
“I agree,” Brooklyn said as she entered the room. She grabbed both sisters in a big hug and they squeezed in together like they had when they were little.
Though pained by the criticism, which Mackenzie had heard too much of since the first missed Christmas, she was glad to be surrounded by her sisters again.
“All my girls are together again.” Mom entered the room and added another set of arms to the group hug. “Where’s your brother, and why isn’t he here yet?”
“Running behind, as usual,” Brooklyn muttered.
Mackenzie grinned. She had needed this more than she’d realized.
She and Missy had been college roommates. Mackenzie had been hired very part time to help Missy with her social media after Missy was accepted onto a reality show competition their sophomore year. That had grown to full time over the next two years as Missy jumped into the spotlight in a large secondary movie role and then a leading role. Ten years later, Mackenzie did more than manage PR—she was the point person for anything related to Missy’s home, appointments, and household staff. She managed the social media, and the website, newsletters, and public appearances. Though she had traveled with Missy on a lot of trips, Mackenzie rarely stayed on location for more than a couple of weeks at a time, traveling back and forth to handle any in-person tasks that needed attention.
Mackenzie hoped she could manage everything from here this year. Now she was home, she wanted to enjoy every minute of the holiday season.
“You’ll probably get sick of us all being together in the next month,” Brooklyn said.
“Never,” Pat declared. “Unless you start fighting like teens again, and then I reserve the right to send you to your rooms.”
“We have our own places, Mom,” Holly reminded her.
“Yes, I know. No one wanted to move back home.” She gave them all the stink eye.
“You’re loving the freedom of no kids,” Brooklyn said. “Especially now that Cameron works here so you can actually get a real vacation now and then.”
Pat didn’t respond, turning back to the kitchen. “Come help me get dinner on the table. Tell me what’s going on in your lives. You’re all so busy!” She ushered them into the kitchen ahead of her.
“It’s not Thanksgiving yet,” Holly said when she saw the variety of dishes her mom had been working on.
Pat waved that away. “No, but we don’t all get together very often, so I added extra to the meal. It’s a celebration. Besides, your brother still eats like a horse.”
“Ah, the fatted calf—does that make me the prodigal daughter?” Mackenzie asked.
“Well, you have been living it up in the land of meth,” Holly said.
“Living it up. Right.” Mackenzie grabbed a spatula from the porcelain container on the counter and scraped the gravy into the gravy boat. “I must be the most boring party animal on the planet. I’d rather a quiet night at home than a big industry party any day. Except that time Missy took me to the launch of Don’t Look Back. That was pretty great.”
“Rub it in. You’ve probably met Mark Sanders too,” Brooklyn said.
“Probably.” He was so full of himself that once had been more than enough. Unfortunately, since he’d co-stared with Missy, Mackenzie suffered through dozens of interactions with him.
The back door opened, and their dad came in. “Look who’s here.” He stopped as Todd entered behind him. “And all my girls together. Does my heart good to have everyone in the same room for a change.” He shared a look with Pat, though Mackenzie didn’t think her mom looked as happy as he did. That was odd; she hadn’t noticed that earlier. Was something wrong? Was her mom mad at Todd for something?
Todd set down two containers of Wilcox ice cream and pulled her into a hug. “Hey, sis, you do remember the way home, after all.”
“I have a great memory, but a busy schedule. How goes the house flipping?” Mackenzie asked.
“Not bad. Nearly finished with this one and looking forward to the next one. How many script writers did you flick off in the past week?”
“Too many to count.” Mackenzie wished she were exaggerating. Missy was constantly being bombarded by writers and producers who wanted her to look at their scripts—and that didn’t count the ones her agent sorted through. Some people tried to do the end run around the agent, but Mackenzie managed to redirect most of them before they got to Missy.
She could see the Wilcox label on the tubs of ice cream, but wasn’t close enough to read the rest. “What kind did you bring?”
“Salted caramel brownie, of course. You don’t come home often.” He shrugged.
“You’re the best!” Mackenzie had missed her salted caramel brownie ice cream.
“Come on, let’s get this on the table,” Pat said before turning to her husband. “You go clean up.”
Everyone did as instructed.
After the main meal was over and they were enjoying the ice cream, Robert cleared his throat. “Well, there’s something we’ve been meaning to talk to you all about. We were going to do it over video call this weekend, but since we’re all together now…”
“What is it?” Mackenzie asked after watching her parents exchange a look, much like the unhappy one when the men had entered earlier.
“Cameron isn’t just here to help your dad. He’s buying the farm from us.” Pat paused while her children responded with gasps or questions before continuing, “My mom’s health isn’t great anymore, and well, honestly, ours isn’t fantastic either. We decided we should move to Burlington where we can get better services. I know the hospital here is good,” she said when Holly opened her mouth to say something, “But when we went to the doctor last summer, they said your father has some heart issues. He doesn’t need surgery at this point but was warned that the strenuous work the farm requires could become a problem.”
“So, you’re selling the farm without even telling us?” Mackenzie felt like she’d been struck by a falling piano.
“Cameron’s been working on financing for a while now,” her dad explained. “He only got the official approval yesterday. The contracts will be ready to sign early next week, and he’ll close right after the new year.”
“He knew you wanted to sell because you told his dad. You didn’t tell us, but you told him.” Mackenzie slumped in her chair, the half-eaten ice cream chilling her left hand. Then she realized why the boxes were stacked in her old bedroom. “You’re selling him the house, too. Great-grandpa Vandenberg built this house.” Each breath felt like she was pushing a load of bricks; it was a struggle to get enough air.
“I understand that you’re all surprised by this, but we haven’t signed anything yet. Does one of you want to take over the farm?” Robert asked his kids.
Mackenzie thought of the long days and hard work. She hadn’t minded it so much—enjoying the fresh air year-round, babying the trees, and selling them in December. She enjoyed seeing people’s joy when they bought a jar of the lingonberry jam she and her mom had made in the kitchen. But running it alone? No thanks. It was more than she could easily manage, especially when you added in the sidelines of the berry bushes and the pies and jams her mom made to sell. Maintaining the ice rink on a shallow pond on the south end of the farm and putting on the sledding event every year added to that. It was way too much for one person to handle. Definitely more than she was ready to sign up for. A look at her siblings, who all had full-time jobs they loved, and she knew she wasn’t the only one.
Robert nodded after studying everyone’s faces. “That’s what we thought. You all seem pretty happy with the futures you’ve chosen. We hate to sell the farm, but it’s time.”
“How could Cam afford to buy it? And why would he want to—he’s an engineer, isn’t he?” Mackenzie asked. His parents had been forced to sell their farm about five years earlier. It was that or face bankruptcy, an all-too common dilemma for small farms. Cameron couldn’t have gotten much, if any, money from the sale, since whatever had been left after paying debts would be needed to support his parents through retirement.
Robert explained, “He designed some doohicky that a tech company bought the patent to a couple years ago. I don’t know the particulars, but it was enough for him to work out the financing with the bank.”
Pat picked up where he left off, “He’d had his fill of cities, and decided to come home to Sugar Creek. Your dad mentioned to the Navarros that he might have to sell the farm because of his heart and Cameron showed up on our doorstep some weeks later.”
“And now he’s a permanent fixture,” Brooklyn said. “That explains why you always have him for Sunday dinner.”
“He’s always run around here, same as you all did on their family farm,” Pat said. “You get along well enough with him, right? And Phyl.”
“Of course, we don’t mind having him around,” Holly said. “And Phyl is sweet.”
“Phyl?” Mackenzie asked. Wasn’t that name a little old fashioned? It made her imagine a small boy in a suit and tie.
“Phyl is his four-year-old. Cameron has full custody,” Pat said.
“Hmmm.” That didn’t lessen Mackenzie’s resentment about him getting the farm, but at least he was no dead-beat dad.
“So the boxes in my room, that’s you getting rid of things for the move,” Mackenzie said.
“We’ve been deciding what to take with us, what to offer to all of you, and what to get rid of,” Pat admitted. “It’s a lot.”
Mackenzie could only imagine how overwhelming that would have to be. “Then this is the last Christmas here in Sugar Creek, in this home, because it will be Cameron’s in January.” The thought made her stomach clench.
“Yes, though we’re renting it back from him until we can get into our new place a couple of weeks later,” Robert said.
“What are you going to do without the farm?” Mackenzie asked, as if pointing out the obvious would make them change their minds. How many years had she missed Christmas here, desperately wished to be here, in this room, instead of LA during the most special time of year? “You’ll go crazy without a thousand projects.”
“I’ll find a hobby,” he said firmly. “Maybe I’ll finally fix up that old ’69 VIP your grandma left with me. I know my way around a socket set.”
“Burlington’s not so far,” Brooklyn said. She had been unusually quiet, and didn’t appear entirely convinced about the shortness of the distance.
“You’ve always enjoyed hosting parties. Maybe we can come down for a family dinner at your place from time to time,” Pat suggested.
Mackenzie looked at her brother and realized Todd hadn’t said much of anything. He wasn’t the most talkative person she’d ever met, but this was quiet, even for him. He seemed less upset than the rest of them, making her suspicious. “Todd. Did you know about the sale?”
“Why would I know?” he asked. His eyebrow twitched the way it always did when he was being less than truthful.
She gave him the stink eye, narrowing her gaze and pursing her lips in the way that had always gotten him to tell the truth when they had been kids, despite the fact that he was nearly two years older than she was.
It didn’t take him long to break. “Fine, yes, I’ve known for a while. Cam told me when I asked if he was going back to engineering anytime soon. He said to keep it quiet until Mom and Dad announced it. So I did.”
“Sometimes I hate your ability to keep secrets,” Holly said.
“And how many times did you appreciate it?” Todd asked.
“Enough,” Holly admitted, more than a little grudgingly. “I just hate that we’re losing everything.” She looked on the verge of tears, and Holly rarely cried.
“Well,” Brooklyn said after a moment. “As long as you’re doing the right thing for you. We’re all grown adults, after all. Independent.” She swallowed. “We’re really going to miss having you right here in Sugar Creek, but this will be a great new adventure, won’t it? And Cameron seems to like the traditions you’ve established, so the farm will be in good hands.” Her voice broke.
“We think so,” Pat said.
“Well, then,” Mackenzie said with far more composure than she felt. It was time to follow Brooklyn’s lead—she always had been the most level-headed of the siblings. “If this is the last big hurrah with all of us in town, we should take advantage of it. Enjoy as much as possible. “
“Snow sculpture contests, gingerbread houses, and scavenger hunts it is,” Holly said. “I don’t know how free my schedule will be—the flu is going around again. I’m supposed to be off on evenings and weekends, but when I have sick patients in the hospital things change quickly.”
“The kids come first, because that’s your job,” Mackenzie agreed. “But family comes always.”
“Hear, hear. Everybody in?” Todd held out a hand in the air above the table.
Mackenzie slapped the back of his with her palm, adding her acceptance. “I am.”
“Me too.” Holly piled hers on top.
“That makes four,” Brooklyn said.
Pat grinned as she and Robert each added a hand to the stack. “Let the insanity commence!” she said.
“With a marathon pie baking event tomorrow?” Mackenzie asked, looking at her mom.
“Sold thirty-five this year,” Pat said. “It’ll be a busy day.”
“Good thing I came home, then,” Mackenzie said, vowing to herself to be the support they needed for the next month. Even if it killed her.
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