Mistletoe Season by Michelle Major



ANGI GUILARDILETherself out of Il Rigatone, the restaurant her family had owned in Magnolia, North Carolina, for the past thirty years, and locked the door behind her. It was nearly eleven at night, and a brisk December wind whipped down Main Street. Although she should be wearing more than a white button-down, now stained with smatterings of red sauce, Angi welcomed the gust of air. At least it blew away the smell of sausage and tomato paste that clung to her like a barnacle.

Scents that seemed to be infused into her at this point, bringing back memories of years of a childhood spent in and out of the restaurant. It had been a long day, so she needed a shower and a glass of wine in equal measure.

She started toward her car, parked around the corner, but the sound of a door slamming nearby caught her attention. Downtown Magnolia rolled up the sidewalks early on a weeknight, so she didn’t expect anyone else to be out and about. She arched a brow at the woman approaching.

“Are you stalking me?”

Emma Cantrell gave an impatient snort as she moved closer. “That’s what it feels like, but it wouldn’t be necessary if you’d return my calls or answer messages.”

Angi turned to fully face her business partner—now former partner. “I’ve been busy,” she said, trying to make her tone dismissive. Instead, the words reeked of desperation.

“How’s your mom?” Emma asked gently, her annoyance with Angi temporarily put aside because, clearly, Emma was a good person. Too good for Angi to be ignoring her the way she had.

“Equally weak and ornery.” Angi dropped the oversize set of keys into her purse with a jangle. “The doctor says two more weeks, and then she can slowly begin to resume her normal activities.”

“Like running Il Rigatone?”

“We don’t know yet if she’ll ever return at the same capacity.” Angi bit down on the inside of her cheek until she tasted blood. “It doesn’t matter because I’m running it now.”

“But only temporarily,” Emma insisted. Or suggested, like saying the words out loud would make them true.

Oh, how Angi wanted them to be true.

She gave a small shake of her head. No more time for fanciful thoughts or big dreams about making her life her own. Unable to meet Emma’s sympathetic gaze, she looked across the street to the storefronts decorated in festive holiday cheer.

Colorful twinkle lights danced in the darkened window of the hardware store, and she could make out the shadow of garland wound through the sign for the dance studio. Boughs of greenery with bright red bows hung from every light post on either side of the street. Magnolia had gone all out on the holiday cheer this year.

Too bad Angi didn’t feel much of the holiday spirit. Sure, she’d gone through the motions of assembling the fake Christmas tree that had graced the corner of the restaurant’s small waiting area each December for as long as she could remember.

During a lull in customers yesterday, she and one of the waitresses had pulled out the totes of decorations from the storeroom, but nothing managed to conjure up the magic of the season. Not for her.

“I’m sorry I let you down,” she told Emma, thankful her voice remained steady. “I’ve got calls in to a couple caterers in the area to see if they can—”

“I don’t want another caterer.” Emma stepped forward. “You’re it, Ang.”

“I can’t...” She swallowed when a lump of sorrow lodged in her throat. “I should never have deserted my mom in the first place. If she hadn’t been working so much and upset about me as well, maybe the heart attack wouldn’t have happened.”

“Sweetie, you aren’t to blame for that.”

“She almost died,” Angi insisted, needing to make it clear. “Less than a year after my father. She collapsed in the restaurant’s storeroom, and I wasn’t here.”

“You were at the inn.”

“Having a grand old time, not a care in the world. My mom was fighting for her life, surrounded by employees until the EMTs got there, and I wasn’t with her. When she needed me the most—”

“Stop.” Emma held up a hand. “I remember that day, Angi. It was the McAlvey wedding, complete with the bride’s niece and her tiny Irish dancer friends pounding away on the parquet floor we assembled in the backyard. You made food for over a hundred guests. Plus lunch baskets for the Thompson reunion and their picnic at the beach. Five of the six online reviews that came from those two events mention the food being a highlight. You care a lot, so don’t pretend otherwise. Not with me.”

Emma still didn’t get it.

“I should have cared more about my mom. The way she did when I needed her. She looked so pale, Em.” Angi crossed her arms over her middle, squeezing tight. “I kept waiting for her eyes to pop open so she could start ordering me around or give me some kind of guilt trip, but she was still in the hospital bed with the monitors beeping and the smell of antiseptic permeating everything. She needs me now, and I can’t let her down.”

“What about letting yourself down? What about your happiness?”

Angi sniffed. “Doesn’t matter.”

“It should.”

“I’m sorry,” Angi said again.

She’d met Emma in the spring when the other woman bought an old mansion in town with a plan to turn it into a boutique inn. Emma had had her share of setbacks, but Angi admired her dedication to her dream. She also knew that leaving behind her old life had cost Emma her relationship with her mother.

Angi’s mom had been outspoken in the way only Italian mothers can manage when Angi walked away from the restaurant to partner with Emma on the inn. But Angi assumed that her mom would get over her disappointment. That they’d find a way to bridge the emotional distance between them. She loved her mom, even if Bianca Guilardi could be overbearing and autocratic. The willful matriarch had good intentions.

But they never got the chance to mend their fences because, a month earlier, Bianca had suffered a massive heart attack that led to double bypass surgery. In an instant, all of Angi’s plans changed.

She’d moved from her cozy apartment back to her childhood home, along with her ten-year-old son, Andrew, in order to care for her mom. She’d also stepped in at the restaurant, and in doing so, she’d left Emma in a pinch.

For that, she felt sick to her stomach with regret.

“If you can’t find someone to take care of the holiday events, I’ll still manage it,” she offered now, absently thinking about ways to clone herself.

“You can’t do both.”

“I will.”

Emma sighed. “My intention for tonight wasn’t to guilt you into more work.”

“Come on, I’m a master of guilt.”

“I know.” Emma gave her a pointed look. “That’s why I don’t want to add to it. I thought we were friends—business partners, as well. But you cutting me off as a friend is what hurts.”

Cue the remorse, Angi thought. She didn’t need anyone to lay it on her. She could do that very well for herself.

“It seems like all I’m doing lately is disappointing people. You and my mom.” She hitched a finger at the restaurant. “The staff who can tell I don’t want to be there. Andrew.”

“Wait. What’s going on with Andrew? I know you’re an amazing mother. That kid thinks the sun rises and sets on his mommy.”

Angi’s throat tightened again at the thought of her sweet, awkward, lanky string bean of a boy. He was everything to her, and now he was struggling and she didn’t know how to make it stop.

“He’s being bullied at school,” she confided. As difficult as it was to talk about, she appreciated the flash of supportive fury in Emma’s dark eyes.

“Give me the kid’s name.” Her buttoned-up friend spoke as if she were some kind of avenging angel.

“I don’t have it. Andrew won’t say anything, and his classmates are keeping quiet, as well. But he came home with a split lip and scrapes on his hands. I talked to the teacher and met with her and the principal. They said all the right things, but kids can be such jerks. Maybe if we lived in a bigger town or someplace where differences were more accepted, it would be easier for him to find his way. I hated growing up in Magnolia, and now I’m doing the same thing to him.”

Her nails dug into the fleshy part of her palms, and she welcomed the pain. At least it distracted her from the telltale scratchy eyes that foretold a bout of tears. She wasn’t going to break down in the middle of the sidewalk, even if it was deserted.

“How is it possible to hate it here?” Emma shook her head. “It’s idyllic.”

“Not for the Italian cannoli princess,” Angi muttered.

“Is that like a Midwestern Corn Queen at the state fair?”

“Not exactly. Never mind. My point is that I’m screwing up in every aspect of life. I’m sorry I ghosted you, Em. We are friends, but I didn’t want to admit that I was ditching the inn. You gave me the new start I wanted, and I can’t keep up my end of the bargain.” She let out a humorless laugh. “Here comes the guilt again.”

“I didn’t give you anything. You earned your place in our partnership, which I refuse to believe is over. At least until your mom fully recovers and we see what happens next. I’ll find someone to help with the nitty-gritty food prep and serving, but I’m going to take you up on your offer to manage things for the holidays. As long as it’s not too much. We can reassess in the new year.” She enveloped Angi in a gentle hug and couldn’t have known how much it helped. “Either way, the friendship stands.”

“Okay.” Angi couldn’t help but agree. She wasn’t ready to let go of her dream, even though she knew she had to. She dashed a hand over her cheeks. “Do you believe in Christmas miracles?”

“Not really.”

“Me neither,” Angi agreed with a wry smile. “But I sure could use one.”

ANGIHALFEXPECTED her miracle to materialize after the conversation with Emma. She’d gone home feeling lighter than she had in weeks, like there might be a glimmer of hope that she could control her own destiny after her mother recovered. The next morning dashed that hope like a late-season snowfall on a delicate spring bloom.

“Mom, I don’t need a date. I don’t have time for a date.”

Bianca sat at the kitchen table, tapping one finger on the polished oak top as she glanced between her daughter and the laptop open in front of her.

“There’s always time for love,” she insisted, like she was imparting some deep wisdom.

“I have a date with the drop-off line at school,” Angi countered, then glanced at the clock on the wall. “Drew, come on,” she called as she glanced above her. “You need to eat breakfast so we can go, buddy.”

“Don’t call him that.” Her mother tsked. “Such a ridiculous name.”

Angi gritted her teeth. “It’s not ridiculous.”

“He looks like an Anthony,” her mother said.

Where was the bottle of headache medicine when Angi needed it? She’d been having the debate about her son’s name since the day of his birth. Bianca adored her grandson, but she couldn’t understand why he didn’t have a traditional Italian name, something to honor an older relative or dead ancestor. Angi had tried—for years—to explain to her mother that she liked the name Andrew and wanted her child to choose how much he wanted to embrace his heritage, not have his identity defined by a name. Luckily, Bianca never voiced her disappointment in front of Drew, but it was an ongoing, and useless, debate with Angi.

“Now, Andrew,” Angi shouted, then turned her attention to her mom. “I’m meeting with Aldo Caferno to discuss our monthly order before we open, and then I’ll be back to take you to the doctor after lunch. He’s charging way too much for their meats.”

“He’s a good boy,” her mom said. “We’ve been doing business with the family for years, so I’m sure they are giving us a fair price. How old is Aldo now?”

“He’s married old.” Angi dumped her coffee into a travel mug, cursing when it sloshed over the rim.

“His younger brother, Artie, is still single. Too much caffeine makes you jittery,” her mother said. “We can talk about potential dates when you get back.”

“No men.” Angi said the words like a plea.

“I’m a man,” Andrew pointed out as he came into the kitchen. He wore a striped sweatshirt and baggy jeans that she knew were hitched in at the waist by the growth buttons sewn into the fabric. His backpack looked like it might be heavy enough to make him topple over, but Angi knew her son was stronger than he appeared.

“My best little man.” Angi made to ruffle his hair as he walked toward the table, but he ducked out of reach.

“I’m not that little.”

Her heart stuttered at the sound of defiance in his tone. “Getting bigger every day,” she agreed.

“Give your nonna a kiss.” Bianca opened her arms wide, shooting Angi an accusatory glance over Andrew’s shoulder. “My strong Italian prince.”

Next, Angi could just imagine her mother blaming Andrew’s social issues on the name she’d given him.

She wondered if it was actually possible to grind her teeth to dust.

As Andrew ate his breakfast, Angi finished emptying the dishwasher, started a load of laundry and then kissed her mother’s forehead, the scent of Shalimar taking her back to more innocent times. “What do you think about a hair appointment next week?” She finger combed her mom’s curls. “Fresh highlights and a trim.”

“That would be lovely,” Bianca said, tucking a lock of hair behind her ear. “But I don’t want to be too much trouble. I know you have better things to do than be burdened taking care of me.”

Angi’s cheeks hurt with the effort to remain smiling. “You’re not a burden.”

Before her mom could heap more passive-aggressive guilt onto the already overflowing pile, Angi herded her son out the door.

She tried to bring up the situation at school as they drove, but Drew kept steering the conversation back to his ever-growing Christmas list. His small hands gripped the straps of his camo-patterned backpack so tightly his knuckles turned white.

It broke her heart to see him hurting and not be able to help. Memories of her own struggles fitting in assailed her, and not for the first time she contemplated whether she could add homeschooling to her list of to-dos.

“I’m fine, Mom,” he said as he opened the door, flashing a gap-toothed grin.

When had she become Mom instead of Mommy?

The hits kept on coming.

One of the few benefits to being pulled in a thousand different directions each day was that she didn’t have much time to ruminate over all the ways she wasn’t measuring up. She made it through the meeting with Aldo, refusing to allow him to mansplain supply costs to her and getting him to agree to a ten percent reduction in their monthly bill.

She greeted the regulars, along with a few new faces, who came in for lunch. The town of Magnolia had seen a recent resurgence in popularity after years of decline, and Il Rigatone should be reaping the benefits of the area’s renewed popularity.

Unfortunately, visitors didn’t seem to appreciate the old-school charm of the place, which hadn’t been updated in decades. Angi knew online reviews for the restaurant were a mixed bag, some praising the classic dishes they served and others bemoaning the lack of innovation with the menu items.

Her mother’s appointment was routine, so by the time she got back to the restaurant in the late afternoon, Angi felt somewhat calmer. Right now, checking in on her son topped the priority list, so she went looking for his dark head.

“Where’s Andrew?” she asked Dominic Marcelli, Il Rigatone’s longtime head cook. The elementary school was only a few blocks from downtown, so Drew walked to the restaurant after dismissal and did his homework or played video games in the back office until she could drive him home.

Angi had spent her childhood much the same way, although her son did a lot less pilfering of food from the storeroom and refrigerators than Angi had as a kid.

“Haven’t seen him,” Dom told her, not glancing up from his online poker game.

“His backpack is in the office,” she said, trying not to let panic take hold. She knew he’d arrived safely from school, although normally Angi was waiting with a snack and a hug. Andrew knew not to go exploring around town without checking in with her first. Didn’t he?

Neither of the waitresses on shift had noticed him, and it killed her that her son could be so overlooked by the people around him. Or that she hadn’t been available when he’d arrived. What if something else had happened at school to upset him? What if he was hiding?

Calm down, she ordered herself. She wasn’t going to do either of them any good by panicking. Magnolia was a safe town. People knew Andrew. They knew Angi and her mom. The freezer at home was stuffed to the brim with get-well casseroles, most of which her mom wouldn’t touch because she was so particular about food. Plus, most of them didn’t fit the new heart-healthy eating guidelines the doctor had given her.

“I’m going to walk the block,” she told Annie and Lana, the two waitresses working the afternoon shift. “Maybe he went for candy at the hardware store or to check out Christmas trees.” She’d promised him that this year they could get a real tree from the lot in the town square, and he had specific plans for what he wanted. “Please text me if he comes back.”

“Will do. You and your brothers ran wild through the town at Andrew’s age. I’m sure he’s just following in your footsteps,” Lana added, then went to wait on the one occupied table in her station.

A terrifying thought.

Lily Wainright, who ran the hardware store her family owned for generations, reported that Andrew had been in fifteen minutes earlier for a box of sour gummies. The knowledge calmed Angi somewhat. She couldn’t imagine giving him a cell phone in fifth grade, but she sure would like one of those tracking apps made for parents.

After scanning both sides of the street with no sight of him, she made a lap through the square and then headed back toward the restaurant. A bright spot of orange on the ground caught her eye. A telltale gummy worm discarded just next to the coir welcome mat outside the In Bloom flower shop. Oh, no. What would her son want in a flower shop? Especially one now owned by a surly, cantankerous hulk of a man.

She glanced at the shop’s picture window and saw a small head bobbing around displays of multicolored roses. As anxiety drained out of her, it was immediately replaced by irritation. Both at her son and the flower shop’s owner.

Angi’d had a crap-tastic day, and an unavoidable confrontation with Gabe Carlyle would be the icing on the doo-doo cake of her life.

She pushed her way into the store anyway, ready to fling a bit of doo-doo around in Gabe’s direction. Maybe that would help her mood. It certainly couldn’t hurt.