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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Christmas in Vermont

A Novel

Anita Hughes

St. Martin's Griffin



Eight Days Before New Year’s EveNew York

EMMA STROLLED THROUGH THE EAST Village and admired the lampposts wrapped in red bows and the shop windows littered with fake snow and tinsel. Most of her friends fled New York City during Christmas, but Emma adored Manhattan during the holidays. Fifth Avenue flooded in lights was so romantic, and she could stare at the cashmere sweaters in the windows of Barney’s for hours.

A small part of her knew she was trying to make herself feel better because right this minute her ex-boyfriend, Scott, was walking through the arrivals lounge in Maui and letting one of those pretty Hawaiian women place a lei around his neck. It didn’t help that they’d only broken up five days ago; she should have been beside him, deciding whether to watch the sunset at the beach or drink banana daiquiris in the hotel bar.

Instead, she would watch the ball drop at Times Square, and go with her best friend, Bronwyn, and her two young girls to see the Nutcracker. It wouldn’t have been fair to wait to break up with Scott until after they’d returned from Hawaii, no matter how tempting the feasts of roasted pig and moonlight boat rides had sounded in the brochure.

She looked at the scrap of paper in her hand and checked the sign above the storefront. A bell tinkled when she opened the door, and she found herself in a small shop. There was a plastic Christmas tree and a tray with stale-looking Christmas cookies.

“Merry Christmas,” a male voice said. “Can I help you?”

Emma looked up and noticed a man in his early sixties, wearing a rumpled shirt and round glasses.

“I didn’t think anyone would be open this close to Christmas, but I saw your ad online. I’d like to sell this bracelet.” She took a case out of her purse and snapped it open. Inside was a gold bracelet with an emerald clasp.

“I like being open this late; people often need last-minute presents. That’s a beautiful piece.” He glanced from the bracelet to Emma’s Burberry coat and leather boots. “It’s none of my business, but you don’t look like you need the money, and I can’t afford to give you nearly what it’s worth. Most of my customers are behind on their rent or maxed out on their credit cards and just want me to take an item off their hands.”

The man looked so kind, a bit like the basset hound she’d had as a child, and she had a sudden urge to tell him everything: how Scott had given it to her a week before Christmas because it matched the green dress she was wearing to his company’s Christmas party, and how she’d felt so bad accepting it when she was certain their relationship was over. She’d thought it would be mean to make him attend the party alone, but she’d known it was a bad idea as soon as they arrived. Other guests kept clapping Scott on the back and saying he hadn’t exaggerated, Emma was beautiful and they were a perfect couple.

“It is gorgeous,” Emma agreed, turning it over. “My boyfriend gave it to me for Christmas. You see, it’s engraved, so I can’t return it.”

To Emma, the light of my life,” the man read out loud. He whistled. “Don’t tell me he cheated on you. I told my son, if he ever cheats on his girlfriend, I’ll put him across my knee like my father did when I was a child. All these dating apps make young people think there’s something better out there, but when you find the person you love, you should stick to them like toffee on a candy apple. My wife and I were married for thirty-two years before she died.”

“Scott would never cheat on me.” Emma shook her head.

“Why else would you sell a bracelet from Harry Winston?” he inquired, waving at the box.

“I broke up with him,” she said, wondering why she was telling a complete stranger. Bronwyn would say it was because Emma felt slightly guilty, and she’d be right. For the last ten years, she hadn’t been able to make a relationship last more than a year. At almost exactly 365 days, she broke up with the guy; or, every so often, he broke up with her. How many New Year’s Eves had she spent sitting in front of her television with a bowl of popcorn, wishing things had been different, while knowing she couldn’t have done anything else?

“Let me guess,” he said, peering at Emma’s salon-cut hair. “You’re in your early thirties and you’re both professionals. You started stopping by Tiffany’s after work just to look, and he’s spending more nights out with the boys. The last straw was when your best friend got engaged and your boyfriend claimed he had a business trip and couldn’t make the wedding.”

“Just the reverse. I think Scott was going to ask me to marry him, and I had to stop him,” she said, wondering again why she wanted this stranger to understand. “I couldn’t marry him. I wasn’t in love with him.”

“Well, that’s different.” He examined the bracelet. “Marriage is nothing without love; it’s better to end it now.”

What Emma didn’t say was that she was afraid she couldn’t love someone deeply, and that she’d never get married at all. She wanted someone to share things with, and a kitchen like Bronwyn’s that overflowed with lunchboxes and the stray pair of mittens that never made it to the mudroom. And she wanted that giddy sensation of not being able to wait to see that person at the end of the day—the thought that just looking at him was like being bathed in sunshine. And what was Christmas without someone to roast marshmallows by the fire and open presents with?

“I can give you two hundred dollars.” He put the bracelet down and looked at Emma.

“That’s fine. I’m going to donate the money to the Salvation Army. It’s my favorite Christmas charity,” she said, nodding. “I offered to give it back, but he refused.”

The man went to the cash register, and Emma glanced at the jewelry cases. Suddenly she saw a familiar-looking watch. It couldn’t be! She looked more closely and was sure it was the watch she’d given Fletcher before they graduated from college eleven years ago. It had been expensive, but she hadn’t been able to resist the leather band and white face with roman numerals.

It was just before Fletcher had left to work at the Old Vic in London, and Emma moved to New York to be an assistant copywriter at Ogilvy & Mather. She’d spent two weeks watching Mad Men, even though Madison Avenue in the 1960s was nothing like advertising agencies today. It was all so glamorous and exciting: light-years away from Colby College, snuggled in Maine, or her hometown of Madison, Wisconsin.

How had the watch ended up in a secondhand jewelry store in Manhattan?

“Excuse me?” She had to know if it was Fletcher’s watch. “Could I see that watch, please?”

The man took it out of the case and laid it on a strip of velvet. Emma turned it over and read: TO FLETCHER, YOU HAVE MY HEART. EMMA

“It would be a nice gift for a father,” the man suggested.

“How much is it?” she asked before she could stop herself. There was no reason in the world she wanted the watch; she and Fletcher had lost touch years ago. Had he been living in New York? She had deliberately not followed his career, but she was positive he was a famous director. He’d been the most talented student in the drama department.

“I’ll tell you what,” the man was saying. “Why don’t we call it an even trade?”

“Yes, thank you.” Emma slipped the watch into her purse. “Merry Christmas and happy New Year.”

“Merry Christmas.” The man smiled at Emma. “And I hope you find love. I treasured every Christmas I spent with my wife, Louise.”

* * *

Emma entered Bronwyn’s apartment building and nodded at Owen, the doorman. Bronwyn’s doorman was another thing that Emma couldn’t help but envy about Bronwyn’s life. Owen was the kind of doorman who would perform a quick magic show for Bronwyn’s daughters, Sarah and Liv, and give their cocker spaniel a biscuit.

It was hard not to be a little envious of Bronwyn, even though Emma loved her own job as a senior copywriter and was happy in her Upper West Side one-bedroom apartment. Bronwyn’s life had all the pieces filled in, while Emma’s life felt more like the puzzles scattered over her playroom floor.

Emma and Bronwyn had first met at a Christmas party a year after Emma moved to New York. Bronwyn was only twenty-four, but she was already engaged to Carlton, a junior analyst at Morgan Stanley, and the owner of dreamy blue eyes and broad shoulders like Tom Brady. Emma had just broken up with her current boyfriend and was puzzled how Bronwyn could be engaged so young. Bronwyn pointed from her respectable diamond ring to Carlton’s warm smile and said that there was no reason to wait if she knew Carlton was the one.

Bronwyn had been right. Carlton supported her career as a dermatologist, and loved taking the girls out on weekends so Bronwyn could sit in a bath and read. Bronwyn learned everything about the New England Patriots, and they both loved cooking and volunteering in the local food kitchen.

Emma rang the doorbell and waited for Bronwyn to answer.

“There you are.” Bronwyn appeared at the door in sweatpants and a beige sweater. “I refused to get dressed because that would mean I might leave the house, and I’m still digesting our holiday lunch. Carlton wanted to try the baked ham and pecan pie with hazelnut-flavored whipped cream before he got on the plane.”

“I don’t know where you put it,” Emma said, following Bronwyn into the playroom. “You’re as thin as the day we met.”

“These are the sweatpants I bought after Liv was born.” Bronwyn chuckled. “I gained forty pounds, and she came out weighing six pounds, five ounces. The rest of the weight lingered in these sweatpants for months.”

Emma stepped on something sharp and picked it up. It was a My Little Pony with a blond mane.

“Tell me again why Carlton had to go to Philadelphia, and why you and the girls didn’t go with him?” Emma asked, taking off her coat.

“Carlton’s mother slipped in her kitchen when she was slicing carrots and ended up in the hospital with a broken leg,” Bronwyn explained. “She begged him to fly home for Christmas, but Carlton put his foot down about us tagging along. We didn’t think the girls should spend Christmas eating hospital cafeteria turkey and brown goop passing for gravy. I’ll miss Carlton, but I don’t feel too bad for him. He’s going skiing in the Adirondacks with his fraternity brothers and we’ll be stuck at home.” Bronwyn flopped onto the sofa. “We’re going to take bubble baths and watch Disney movies and try on our Christmas clothes. I still don’t understand why you’re subjecting yourself to sludge and leftover brussels sprouts when you could be in Hawaii, having your shoulders rubbed with coconut milk.”

“I couldn’t go to Hawaii when I already broke up with Scott, even if I paid for my ticket,” Emma replied. “And I like New York after Christmas; it’s wintery and festive at the same time.”

“You’ll think differently when the heat goes out in your apartment, or you try to get an Uber at rush hour.” Bronwyn shook her head. “If I wasn’t on call, I would have persuaded Carlton to go somewhere where you drink margaritas at lunchtime.” She looked at Emma, curious. “I still don’t know why you broke up with Scott. He was sweet and had a successful career and was in love with you.” She smiled. “I bet Carlton that he would break the curse.”

“You did not bet on my relationship!” Emma laughed in spite of herself.

“Of course I did.” Bronwyn nodded. “Every year you break up with the guy right after our open house. I couldn’t even bring myself to ask Scott about his promotion at Salesforce; I knew we wouldn’t be seeing him again.”

“You make it sound as if I wanted to break up with him,” Emma said, her voice faltering. “I’d give anything for it to have worked out.”

“Then why do you break up with every guy after a year?” Bronwyn wanted to know. “It doesn’t make sense.”

Every year Emma and Bronwyn had this conversation, and Emma found it so hard to put her reasons into words. Often she didn’t know herself, except for a gut feeling that the relationship wasn’t working.

“I’m thirty-three. If we’re not going to spend the rest of our lives together, it’s kinder to get out now,” Emma offered.

“You sound like the vet when we had to put down our cat, Whistles,” Bronwyn answered. “If you think the guy is right in the beginning, what goes wrong?”

Emma was about to answer when a cocker spaniel bounded onto the sofa. Emma’s purse fell to the floor and its contents spilled out.

“The only problem with Carlton being away is Trixie expects me to walk her all the time.” Bronwyn patted the dog. “I told her we’ll go out after the girls and I make cinnamon cookies, but she’s not interested in baking.” Bronwyn glanced down and pointed at the jewelry case. “What’s that?”

Emma had almost forgotten about the watch. She snapped open the case and rubbed the watch’s white face.

“The strangest thing happened. I took the bracelet that Scott gave me to a secondhand jeweler in the East Village,” she began, feeling guilty all over again. “This was inside one of the cases.”

“You bought a man’s watch when you just broke up with your boyfriend?” Bronwyn asked quizzically.

“It’s not any watch,” Emma said, handing it to Bronwyn. “It’s the watch I gave Fletcher before we graduated.”

“The only guy you ever regretted breaking up with? The guy who left for London to become an assistant director? You mooned around eating cookies and drinking weak tea for weeks.”

“I didn’t moon around,” Emma corrected her. “I got a summer cold after graduation, and tea and cookies was all I could manage. And it was a mutual decision to break up. We were both starting careers on different continents; it would have been silly to stay together.”

To Fletcher, you have my heart,” Bronwyn read, and looked up excitedly. “Finding this watch isn’t strange at all—it’s synchronicity.”

“What do you mean?” Emma asked.

“I took an undergraduate psych class on synchronicity at NYU,” Bronwyn answered. “It means a meaningful coincidence that plays an important role in our lives,” she finished triumphantly. “You were meant to find this watch.”

“It was crazy finding it there, out of all the jewelry stores in the city,” Emma said, nodding. “But that’s what a coincidence is.”

“Synchronicity is different. You have to act on it, or you lose the possibility of the greatest occurrence in your life. Synchronicity at Christmas is even more special; it’s the season of miracles.”

Copyright © 2019 by Anita Hughes