The original drafts, Holidays, Inc. and Hope for the Holidays featured three main character points of view. During edits, I decided to cut the third character perspective to simplify the narrative.
In Holidays, Inc. Jill offers additional insight into her brother’s return and Dani’s renovation.
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If her fool brother could get out of his own way, he might not wreck the best thing to happen to them—and this town—in the last century.
Sitting at her usual booth in the back corner of the Come Again Diner, Jill Howell pushed her glasses up her nose and brushed her bangs with her fingers. The gesture was a tick from a lifetime with the same haircut. The look suited her just fine. She always shied away from makeover friends who wanted to curl her hair, put her in a dress, and force lipstick on her. She liked herself, her life, and the town as they were, thank you very much. Until Dani strolled into town, no one ever asked.
Now Paul’s back at the worst possible moment.
She reached for her iced tea and drained the glass. The kick of sugar and lemon reenergized her.
The bell over the front door jingled.
Half fearing her brother was about to thunder over and storm down on her like the rain cloud he’d turned into, she jerked up her head.
Rob waved and his smile stretched from ear to ear.
Standing a couple inches over six feet, Rob Carroll had always been the tallest guy in town. As a nearly six foot tall woman, next to Rob she could stand up straight and not stand out. Growing up, Rob was recruited to play every sport. Over the years, he excelled at physical activity and morphed from a skinny kid to a solid wall of muscle. Nearing thirty, he didn’t have an inch of excess on his strong frame. With his smooth, baldhead and big cheeky grin, he was hard to miss.
Jill wanted to turn and glimpse whose attention he wanted. When he approached her booth in a few quick strides, she sucked in a sharp breath and her mind blanked. No matter how long she’d known him, or how strictly platonic their friendship, her heart skipped a beat at his nearness. She might have outgrown the awkward adolescent hiding in her brother’s shadow, but she’d never given up her crush on Rob. The star athlete and the most charming guy in their grade, he’d always been a big deal to her. After he chose to stay in their falling apart town, he lost some star quality in others’ opinions. His decision, to take over his parents’ hardware store after college, elevated him further in Jill’s mind.
High enough to be safely out of reach. “Hi, Rob.” Her voice cracked. She cleared her throat. “How are you?”
He slid across the booth opposite. “I’m fine. I’m checking up on you. How’s it going with your brother?”
Of course, he wanted to check up on what was happening with Paul. Rob was nothing if not solicitous and kind. No wonder she’d projected feelings onto him he’d clearly never reciprocate. She couldn’t help herself. “I don’t know. I’m trying to get him to help out at the theater. He’s resistant.”
A waitress dropped off a tall glass of water.
He sipped the cool drink.
Jill tried, and failed, not to catalogue his every tiny gesture. She’d seen Rob at his best and, very seldom, his worst and still, she couldn’t shake the flutters in her stomach in his company. One day she’d like to wake up and have moved on from Rob. “I’m just frustrated.” Jill shook her bangs out of her eyes. “He isn’t being fair. He wasn’t around to help make the hard choices. I don’t deserve his scorn for my decisions.”
“Don’t let him make you second guess anything.” He stretched his hand over the invisible center boundary line dividing the table.
If she inched her fingers forward, he might take her hand. Her skin tingled from the phantom touch. She took in a deep breath and drew her hands to her lap. When she could trust her heart to stop leaping into her throat at even the hint of a touch between them, maybe, she’d hold his hand. She’d been battling against her ridiculous one-sided crush for as long as she could remember. She’d keep up the fight.
“Your brother has never done well with rules or expectations.” Rob rubbed a hand over his head and crossed his arms on the table. “Even his own. He probably came back expecting something different and when faced with the reality, he’s lashing out.”
“Don’t I know it.” She broke from his gaze to study the water rings on the table.
He chuckled and shook their little booth.
She grinned despite her intention to be in a sour mood because of Paul.
“How can I help? And don’t say you don’t know.” Rob rested his forearms on the table and leaned forward.
She nibbled her bottom lip and rested her chin in her hand. The trouble was, she really didn’t. As the theater got up and running, Dani and Jill were operating with a small staff. They had enough work to keep them at the building twenty-four hours a day. Dani insisted they couldn’t stay overnight and remain sane. Jill didn’t want to fail Dani or New Hope. The theater had to work.
Rob rubbed his chin. “How about if you text me the supply list, and I’ll drop off the order within the hour?”
“That would be really great.” She reached for her empty iced tea glass.
Shirley, the owner of the diner, approached the table.
With her shoulder hugging crunchy perm, Shirley looked like she’d come from casting for an eighties drama. Only on closer inspection did the deepening wrinkles give away her age. An institution in town, Shirley had a full staff of eager to work waitresses. Her appearance at the table meant she wanted to glean gossip, or she had some to share.
Jill shifted on the bench seat and set down her glass.
Balancing two pitchers, Shirley refilled Jill’s tea and Rob’s water.
Jill frowned at the older woman.
“Hi, Rob. Hi, Miss Jilly. Sweetie, is your brother back for good?” Shirley asked.
She didn’t miss a beat, jumping into the gossip pond with a cannonball. “I’m not sure, maybe.” Jill offered a noncommittal shrug.
“Huh. ‘n so? Well darn, I was hoping we were starting to lure people back. Seems we keep pushing people away,” Shirley said.
“Anyone we know?” Rob raised an eyebrow.
Jill wanted to mouth the words thank you but restrained herself. She’d never been comfortable spilling other people’s news or prying in their lives. She liked Shirley and appreciated the woman’s fundamental role in town as a matchmaker of sorts. Shirley connected people with information and opportunities. Still, Jill never made peace with the gossipy side of small-town life. She’d hate to know what her neighbors said about her and her family.
“The Higginbotham’s.” Shirley sighed and set her pitchers on the table. “They want to sell and move to Florida to get out of winter.” She patted her curls into place and retrieved her pitchers.
Jill sat straighter.
The Higginbotham’s owned the only lodging for fifty miles. Their painstakingly maintained roadside motel was a time capsule to the sixties. She hadn’t been by their place since the night Rob and Paul had gone to teach their son, Larry, a lesson about spreading rumors. She’d been desperate to stop the two of them from intervening and causing even more drama. The thrill of Rob’s surge of protectiveness towards her, however, never faded.
Rob studied her and widened his green eyes slightly. “Interesting, Shirley. I hope they can find a local buyer.”
“Me too.” Shirley nodded. “Alright you two, I’ll get Ted to flip a couple of burgers for you. But don’t take all day, I have plenty of other paying customers to serve.” She continued down the row of booths. Occasionally, she stopped to chat with other patrons and top off drinks.
Jill sipped her iced tea and waited until Shirley retreated to the cash register beside the front door. When she dared to meet Rob’s gaze, his expression was far too pleased for her comfort.
“Are you going to do it?” He arched an eyebrow.
For a time in high school, she’d tutored Rob. Neither one of them wanted the knowledge to be public, he told her he didn’t want to have to field questions from her brother. She felt the same. Ever since she caught Paul reading her diary the summer before sophomore year, she knew at least one other person was aware of her secret crush on Rob. She hated Paul for snooping until she realized he would never breathe a word. His discovery became a sort of open secret between them. Neither ever acknowledged what Paul knew, but every mention of Rob earned her a studied look from her brother. She gave up on journaling. Her secrets remained hidden away in her mind, shared with no one—not even a pen—anymore.
Except for one confidence, she had shared with Rob.
“I can’t believe you remember.” She fluffed her bangs. “We were like twelve last time I mentioned wanting to own a bed and breakfast.”
He crossed his arms on the table and leaned close. “Actually sixteen. And I remember a lot.”
She reached for her iced tea, her fingers slipping off the glass. Tightening her hold, she raised the drink and sipped the cool beverage, the chilly liquid cooling her too hot skin. If she was smart, she’d stop imagining anything other than friendship in Rob’s words. My feelings have nothing to do with reality. “I don’t know, Rob.”
“Maybe the motel is not quite the bed and breakfast you talked about years ago, but it is fully operational. You should look into it.”
Lowering the glass to the table, she gulped. He reached out and his hands enclosed hers. She jumped and met his gaze, captive to his intense green eyes.
“This is an opportunity, Jill.” His voice was low and steady. “Don’t overlook it, we both know how rare those are in this town.”
He slipped his hands.
She exhaled but couldn’t shake free from his words. He was right. To say the opportunity wouldn’t come again was a supreme understatement. The fact that the guy she imagined in her future liked the idea was mere coincidence. She’d never believed much in fate. Her life moved far too slow for destiny’s guiding hand. She only had one chance. Was she brave enough for the challenge?