This sweet holiday story was so much fun to write! Gina makes her first appearance in Sweet Illusions as Ben’s sister, but from the first time we meet her at crab cookout on the beach, I always suspected there was more to her story.
I loved teasing out her romance with Noel…the artistic drifter with the heart of gold. *dreamy sigh* I hope you enjoy it!
by Jeanette Lewis (All rights reserved)
Gina pulled into the familiar driveway in Cinnamon Hills, South Carolina, and killed the engine. Janice Millstead, her former mother-in-law, always went all-out for holidays. The two-story Victorian-style house was fully decorated for Thanksgiving, with pumpkins lining the porch and a garland of curly willow and autumn leaves woven through the gingerbread detailing. Gina knew that tomorrow, Janice would begin swapping out the autumn decorations for Christmas, and the entire house would sparkle like a piece of glass in the sand.
Janice was one thing Gina missed about her marriage. She’d been close to her former mother-in-law, but in the nine months since the divorce, Janice had made it clear that her loyalty was with her son, Lee, and not a cast-off daughter-in-law.
Lee and the boys, to be fair. Janice and Reid Millstead doted on their grandsons, and who was Gina to deny them the opportunity? Especially when the visitation schedule had been ordered by the court. Lee got Thanksgiving this year. She got Christmas.
Gina plucked her phone from the center console of her car and pulled up Lee’s number. She typed out a quick text.
An ache pounded in her chest. Thanksgiving was yet another bullet point in a long series of firsts this year, and she’d dreaded each one. She and Lee had divorced last February, deliberately timing it so the boys would have almost a year to adjust to their new situation before they faced the holidays. It seemed like a decade since she’d signed the divorce papers, and back then, it’d been easy to believe this time would never come. But it had, and each day in the calendar took her away from the comfortable life she’d known with Lee and onward toward a boatload of milestones she’d never wanted to reach.
First night moving back in with her parents in Indigo Bay. First time using her maiden name again. First birthday alone. First time at a parent/teacher conference as a single mom. And now, first Thanksgiving alone.
Well, not alone. She’d been with her family. But her boys were with Lee, so she might as well have been alone. The sting of missing them had been constant, a hovering sadness that hung low like the fog on a misty morning. But that was the deal. At least she could look forward to Christmas.
Her phone buzzed, and she picked it up. It was Lee.
They’ll be out in a minute.
Gina sent a simple thumbs-up emoji back. She leaned into the headrest and closed her eyes. In her long experience with Lee, “a minute” could mean two minutes or two hours. He’d keep them inside until he was ready to let them go and not a moment before.
That was how it had always been. They played by Lee’s rules. Even the divorce had been his idea. Funny how you needed two people to agree to a marriage, but only one to decide on a divorce. But then, you couldn’t force someone to stay married when they clearly wanted out. How could that be fair?
Gina’s attention drifted in the wash of the lights coming from Janice’s autumn décor. Orange and gold wound with warm white lights and gold-wired bows tied among the leaves, vivid against the ashy gray of the curly willow. Last year, she’d helped her mother-in-law hang this same garland along this same porch the day after Halloween. The sight was weirdly normal, like the past year hadn’t brought so much turmoil and sorrow.
It felt like everything from that life should have been destroyed with the divorce. But life went on, even though it seemed to have left her behind.
The front door finally flew open, and her boys barreled out. Gina pulled her attention back and watched as they exchanged hugs with Lee and then Janice on the porch. Jordan was eight now and showing signs of entering a growth spurt. Arthur, at age five, was still chubby cheeked, with wide blue eyes that were at once full of childlike innocence and dashed with pain someone so young should not endure. The boys were holding bags of something, most likely treats from Grandma’s pantry. Janice loved to spoil her grandchildren, just like she’d spoiled her children. Maybe that was part of the problem with Lee.
Gina’s smile was genuine as the boys threw open the doors of the car and climbed in, one on each side. Arthur’s cowlick was back with a vengeance. No matter how much water or gel she used on it, the hair refused to be tamed, and Arthur finished every day looking like he’d just tumbled out of bed.
“How was it?” she asked.
“Great!” Jordan blurted. “I ate almost an entire pumpkin pie by myself. And Grandma gave me these.” He held up a plastic bag full of homemade rolls.
Gina’s mouth watered. Her own mother was a terrific cook, but no one could match Janice’s homemade dinner rolls. How many times had she sat at a family dinner in this house and eaten the same rolls drenched in butter? A pang hit her heart. She was not welcome there anymore, and she knew it.
“An entire pumpkin pie?” she asked, pushing away the sadness. Her therapist had told her to focus on the positive, and she was gradually getting better at steering her thoughts in an optimistic direction—at least around the boys. “Impressive,” she told Jordan. “Are we talking slice after slice, or did you just belly up to the entire pie and go for it?”
He giggled. “Slice after slice. But next time I’ll ask Grandma to make me one of my own. I’ll bet I could eat it all.”
“Next time” would be Thanksgiving with Gina, probably at her parents’ house in Indigo Bay, but she wasn’t about to burst his bubble. “I’m sure Grandma would be happy to make your own special pie,” she told her son. “Both buckled?”
She twisted in her seat to check the road and their seat belts, then looked back to the house. Her throat went tight. Lee still stood on the porch, lifting one hand in farewell.
“Wave to your dad,” Gina instructed.
Lee was wearing a pair of khakis she’d bought him at the mall in Charleston and hemmed by hand. Lee had short legs, so she’d always had to hem his pants. She’d tried to act like it was no big deal, but he was sensitive about his height. Gina never wore heels around him, since that would make her taller than he was. Even on their wedding day, she’d worn flats.
Paired with the khakis, Lee wore a red plaid button-up and a tie the boys had given him for Father’s Day last year. That could be a good sign. If he was still wearing the clothes from their marriage, maybe he wasn’t entirely ready to move on. Maybe he was having second thoughts—remembering how good they’d been together. They’d been happy once; maybe they could be again. It was the idea she’d been secretly clinging to since the divorce.
She forced a smile and waved quickly at her ex-husband, then backed out of the driveway. Lee returned the wave halfheartedly, but it was enough to lift Gina’s spirits. She wouldn’t push. Lee never reacted well to pressure. He’d have to come back around on his own, and in the meantime, she would do her best to be patient.
The boys chattered about the day, filling her head with memories of other Thanksgivings as she made the series of the slow turns to take them out of the neighborhood and to the highway. It was a two-hour drive from Cinnamon Hills to Indigo Bay on a normal day, but with Thanksgiving traffic, Gina expected it would take much longer.
“Can we listen to Christmas carols?” Arthur asked from his seat directly behind her.
“Sure.” Gina jabbed at the buttons on the radio, searching through the stations.
“It’s too early for Christmas carols,” Jordan moaned loudly. He sprawled across his side of the car, straining his seat belt to its limits. “Besides, they’re lame. Let’s listen to something good, like OneRepublic.”
“Christmas carols are good,” Gina said evenly. She pressed a few more buttons and finally found a station. “Frosty the Snowman” burst from the speakers.
“No!” Jordan let out a frustrated howl. “This is so dumb.”
“I like it,” Arthur shot back.
“It’s a baby song,” Jordan insisted.
“Stop it, both of you,” Gina ordered, turning the radio down. “You just got in the car and you’re already fighting.”
“But Mom, he likes stupid stuff,” Jordan said.
“Do not,” Arthur said. “You’re a bully.”
“Stop!” Gina took the next turn a little faster than normal, and the boys went quiet. At least she had their attention. “We’ll do a Christmas carol and then a OneRepublic song. Deal?”
“Why does he always get his way just because he’s the baby?” Jordan mumbled.
“No more complaining,” Gina said. “Tell me something good about today.”
“Dad has a girlfriend,” Arthur said after a moment of silence.
Gina gasped, the air rushing into her lungs so fast it hurt. Her eyes pinned Arthur’s in the rearview mirror. “What did you say?”
“Dad has a girlfriend.”
“How do you know that?”
“She was there today,” Jordan said, with all the carelessness of a young child who doesn’t consider parents could have feelings. “She’s nice.”
Gina felt her cheeks flush with heat. “He brought her to Thanksgiving dinner?”
“Yeah,” Arthur said casually, as if those words didn’t have the power to cut straight through to Gina’s heart. “Her name is Kim. She’s pretty.”
“Mom, look out!” Jordan screamed.
Gina whipped her attention back to the road, but it was too late. A man had appeared out of nowhere, stumbling from between two parked cars. Gina stomped on the brakes, and there was a squeal of the tires and then a muffled thump as the bumper of the car struck the man’s legs. She met his shocked gaze through the windshield for a split second; then he was gone, crumpling to the asphalt in front of the car.
Sweet Noel is available as an ebook or in paperback.