HOPE AT CHRISTMAS EXCERPT
Sydney Ragsdale pulled her car along the curb in front of the elementary school and faced her daughter with a go-get-em-kiddo smile. “Have a wonderful day, RayAnne.”
“It’s school, Mom.”
The eye-rolling was new, starting once they’d moved here last week, and Sydney hoped it would leave as quickly as it had arrived. As aggravating as that was, her daughter’s heavy sigh tugged at her heart. The divorce had been hard on them both.
Sydney’s grandparents had left her the old Hopewell farmhouse when they passed away. It was a place full of happy memories, and with the move, it felt like a life raft in a rocky sea. A fresh start for her and RayAnne.
Unfortunately, to her daughter, the idea of moving from Atlanta to tiny Hopewell, North Carolina, in November after the school year had already started had been worse than the divorce itself.
The move had been a necessary step in Sydney’s self-preservation. It wasn’t easy rebuilding your life when you’d been married for most of it. She’d prayed that moving to Hopewell might turn into a great mother-daughter adventure for them, but so far that hadn’t been the case.
Managing a ten-year-old with an attitude was turning out to be harder than finding a decent job. She’d almost given up hope of finding a job at all when the call came from Peabody’s a whole three months after her interview. It had been a long shot to begin with, but it was near the old farmhouse so she’d given it her best effort. The job offer was a blessing indeed, however, the timing couldn’t have been worse. School had already started, and the holidays were already upon them.
Sydney watched her daughter schlep up the walkway to Hopewell Elementary School. Back in Atlanta RayAnne had been so happy that she’d practically skipped from the car to class.
Her gut twisting, Sydney wished her marriage to Jon hadn’t fallen apart and the three of them were still one big, happy family. But then that had been a big lie. Tears puddled against the frame of Sydney’s sunglasses, and she was too darned tired to even sweep them away. She sucked in a long slow breath to keep her composure.
Was moving to Hopewell a mistake?
Had it been a necessary step to regain her independence, or was it just a disguise for running away?
A car honked behind her. She waved an apology as she pulled forward in the drop-off lane.
As she pulled out of the parking lot, her mind clicked through happy mother-and-daughter moments she’d pictured in this quiet little town. Laughs. Love. Lasting memories.
She eased out onto the street and glanced in her rearview mirror, barely recognizing herself in the reflection. Fluffing her bangs, she tugged the rubber band from her hair to release the messy bun. “Why am I letting Jon get to me like this?” she said aloud. She stared at herself. The answer was simple. Divorce hurts. She was broken. Wounded. His infidelity had torn her in a way she wasn’t sure would ever heal. And some days this was the best she could do.
She drove up to the next block and swerved into the parking lot of the Piggly Wiggly, declaring, “I’m better than this.” She shut down the car and shuffled through the console for a piece of paper and a pen.
“This has to stop.” So did talking to herself, but right now that was about all she had. Tomorrow. She’d stop talking to herself tomorrow.
Rather than go back to the house and feel sorry for herself, she’d make a plan. It’s what she’d always done to make sure she and Jon met his goals. Why was she treating her life any differently?
She tapped the pen against the steering wheel, then leaned forward and started writing.
Step One: Get a job. Check.
Step Two: Get out of Dodge. Fine. So I made it out of Atlanta. Check!
It never hurt to start a plan with a few easy, achievable, or already done tasks to get things rolling. It’s why she usually had “make the bed” at the top of her chore list.
Step Three: Get involved locally to meet some people.
Step Four: Regain my confidence.
Step Five: Get into the holiday spirit.
And the Finale: Get this divorce from Jon finalized and behind me, and never put all my eggs in one man’s basket again.
After months of Jon still controlling her through their purse strings even though they had separated, the generous job offer from Peabody’s had enabled her to move to Hopewell and stand on her own two feet. Free of Jon’s hold.
Uprooting RayAnne had been such a hard decision, but she needed to set an example for her daughter, to show her that even when dealt a cruddy hand in life, one can respond with grace, strength, and independence.
Determined to make this a day that would change her path, she made the short drive to Main Street and parked.
She got out of the car and breathed in the fresh air. It was quiet as she walked down Main Street. The retail area was only two short blocks unless you counted the mansion that sat across the way. Well, it hadn’t been a residence for as far back as she could remember. Back then it had been a bookstore called The Book Bea. Her very favorite place in town when she was a little girl.
She smiled at a memory of The Book Bea. For the longest time, she’d thought the word “bee” had been misspelled on the sign in front of the bookstore. It wasn’t until she’d told her grandmother she wanted to help fix the sign that she’d learned that it was a play on words. The bookstore had been named after its owner, Bea Marion.
Sydney looked both ways, which was barely necessary with the light traffic, then crossed the street.
The thick wooden sign had been sandblasted, similar to those signs on fancy beach houses on the Outer Banks. The background of the perfect oval was bright cobalt blue, just the way she remembered it. The shop name, the Book Bea, stood out in 3D next to a stack of colorful books with little yellow and black bumblebees circling above them, looking as cheerful today as it had twenty years ago.
She took a picture of the sign with her phone. An open sign hung in the window of the front door.
It’s still here!
She tucked her phone back into her purse as she walked between the perfectly shaped box hedges that flanked the sidewalk leading to The Book Bea’s front door, giving it a dignified air. Winter was beginning to fade the landscape, but the grass on the other side was still thick and green, making her want to kick off her clogs and walk barefoot through it on the unseasonably warm day.
She was tempted to buy a paperback and lie in the grass and read the day away, only she needed to be frugal until her job started after the first of the year. Couldn’t hurt to browse, though.
Fond memories of trips with her grandparents to the bookstore rushed back. Hours spent scouring the shelves, getting lost in those stories, and trying to make a decision on which book to buy had been both agonizing and exciting.
She climbed the stairs to the huge old turn-of-the-century house. The wide front porch was painted a playful basil green against the glossy white wooden railing, giving it a soft southern air. Rockers in various colors popped like wildflowers swaying in a gentle breeze, making it hard to believe Christmas was just around the corner.
She’d so hoped that she’d be able to share a white Christmas with RayAnne this year. It would have been her daughter’s first, but it didn’t look too likely. Sydney left her snow dreams behind as she pushed open the screen door and was met with a blast of cool air conditioning as she walked inside.
Her footsteps echoed against the age-old wooden floors as she headed for the bookshelves. She’d found comfort here as a young girl. Books had always rescued her, and she’d never stopped trusting a good book to bring her joy, erase her fears, and give her strength. That same excitement swirled inside her. The place even still smelled of warm cookies. Like nothing had changed.