Mistletoe Season by Michelle Major
“MOREBERRIES. And can you fluff the pine boughs a bit more, sweetheart?”
Gabe turned on the ladder and looked down into his grandmother’s innocent hazel eyes. Eyes the same color as Gabe’s and his mother’s, although it had been years since he’d seen his mom in person. Poppy hadn’t even come to Magnolia when Iris had the stroke, although Gabe had wired her money from where he was stationed in the Middle East to cover the plane ticket. Enough for a first-class seat and plenty of extra to cover miscellaneous travel expenses. He’d thought the idea of flying first-class from New Mexico, where his mom had lived for the past fifteen years, might be enough of an incentive to get her to make the trip.
She’d taken the money and then refused to answer his calls or respond to emails or texts. He could only imagine where his cash had gone. More upsetting than that was the fact that his grandmother had been alone with no family at her side until Gabe managed to get back. Of course, she had lots of friends in the Magnolia community, but it wasn’t the same.
Gran had taken care of him when he’d needed her most, and he hated that he hadn’t been able to do the same for her.
“I’m not much of a fluffer,” he told her, although he dutifully tried to arrange the wired pine strands in a more artful way.
“You’re my best helper,” Gran answered from the wheelchair she needed most days when she left her room. “You carried all those planters and baskets for the Carter wedding last weekend. They had more wisteria than any one event could ever need. I never thought you’d be able to haul them, but you did. My strong boy.”
A sharp pain pierced Gabe’s heart. He didn’t remember the event in particular, but until his return to Magnolia after being discharged from the army, he hadn’t worked in his grandma’s shop since he’d been fifteen. “I think the Carters got married a while back, Gran,” he said casually.
Her doctor had told him the confusion was normal. According to the medical team, it was still too early to know whether his grandma was suffering from full-on dementia or if she’d regain her lucidity as her body healed.
A mild stroke had complicated the recovery from her hip replacement. Her speech was still slightly slurred, and it took her longer to process the thoughts she wanted to say and speak them out loud. Her right hand lay close to her body, fingers curled in on themselves despite weekly physical therapy sessions. The doc assured him that she was making progress, and for the most part, she kept her sunny attitude despite the physical limitations that now plagued her.
Gabe wanted to move her back home, but she insisted she was settled in the nursing care facility on the outskirts of town. The building was a renovated former elementary school, with three wings coming off the main common area. He knew that they were each marked by the level of care residents needed.
His grandmother was in the middle unit, which meant she had full-time nurses available to her but still was considered mobile with some freedoms. It was also the wing that was designated for Alzheimer’s patients, which broke Gabe’s heart even as the doctor wouldn’t commit to that diagnosis quite yet.
“I don’t remember it specifically,” he told her, stepping off the ladder and taking her hand. At her request, he’d brought a few boxes of greenery and bows to decorate her wing’s community area. “But if you were in charge of the flowers, I’m sure they were amazing.”
She studied him for a long moment. “A while?”
He rubbed his thumb against the paper-thin skin near the base of her thumb. “I bet you’ve lost count of the number of weddings you’ve provided flowers for,” he told her.
“The shop used to be a lot busier,” she said, her gaze suddenly unfocused and tinged with sorrow. “Nobody calls anymore.”
“I’ve updated the website,” he told her with a gentle smile. “And linked the store to a few national florist databases. We’re getting more business again. When you come back, there will be plenty to keep you busy.”
She laughed softly but didn’t contradict him. At some level, they both knew she wouldn’t be returning to the store, but Gabe didn’t want to admit it. Not out loud. Who was Iris Carlyle without a flower in her hand? Certainly not the woman who’d made his life better during the summers he spent with her.
“I got the Christmas cactus in your bathroom at the house to bloom,” he told her. “I’ll bring it tomorrow when I come for the wreath-decorating class.”
“A good boy,” she told him, lifting her functioning hand to pat his cheek when he bent toward her. “Where is Poppy?”
Gabe tried not to wince at the mention of his mom. “Still in New Mexico. She likes the desert, you know.”
“Running wild, no doubt.” Gran tsked as Gabe straightened. “That girl can’t stay out of trouble. She’s like a loose seed with the wind carrying her in any direction. The principal called me last week to say...” She paused, shook her head, brows furrowed. “Not last week. A while ago. Years now.”
“That’s right.” Gabe forced a smile. “Mom has been gone for a while. She’s got her own priorities, but I’m here. For as long as you need me.”
“You always had a way with the plants,” Gran told him, and it felt like the greatest compliment he could have received. “Not everyone does.”
She lifted a gnarled hand to point to the pine boughs and ribboned greenery he’d hung in haphazard swaths around the perimeter of the common lounge. “But your artistic eye needs a bit of work.”
He turned and grimaced. He’d done his best. After all, how hard could it be to decorate one simple square room, especially when Gran had rows of boxes of holiday supplies both in the shop’s storeroom and the old house’s basement? But as he looked at his handiwork, he realized the decorations were uneven and drooping, not to mention he’d completely missed one entire wall.
“That’s why I need you,” he told her honestly.
Her tired eyes filled with tears that she quickly blinked away when voices heralded people heading toward them.
“Wow, this is a different look for Christmas,” Sharla, the Shady Acres activities director, said with a laugh as she walked into the room.
“It’s a work in progress,” Gabe answered. “Gran is going to help me fix it. She’s the—”
He broke off as Angi Guilardi and her mother walked into the room.
“Hello, Iris,” the older woman said, giving his grandmother a wide smile. “It’s so nice to see you.”
Gran darted a panicked glance toward Gabe.
“You remember Bianca,” Gabe told his grandma with a slight nod. “She owns the Italian restaurant a couple of doors down from your shop.”
“With Vinnie,” Gran said, then looked toward Bianca. “He brings me a meatball sub every Friday for lunch. I love meatballs.”
“Gran, Vinnie passed away earlier this year.”
“Oh.” Gran covered her mouth with her hand. “I’m so sorry.”
Bianca bent to give her a gentle hug. “You were at the funeral, Iris. My Vincent loved how much you loved his meatballs.”
“I really did,” Gran said. “Do you live here, too?” she asked Bianca, who brushed a wisp of hair from his grandmother’s forehead.
“No. My daughter, Angela, and I are here to teach a cooking class for some of the residents. Maybe you’d like to join us?”
“They took away my kitchen.” Iris shrugged. “I like to bake my own bread, and I can’t now.” Her chin trembled.
“I’ll bring you some bread from Sunnyside Bakery,” Gabe offered. “Not as good as yours, but I’ll make sure it’s warm. Right now, we should get you back to your room, Gran.” He looked over his shoulder at the jumble of unused ribbons and plastic ornaments still spread across the tables. “I’ll clean up for today, and we’ll finish decorating tomorrow.”
Iris squeezed shut her eyes like she was in pain and nodded.
“I’ll wheel her back,” Sharla offered, “and get her settled. You can put away your things and then say goodbye.”
No, that wouldn’t work at all. Gabe could not be left with Angi and her mother and their sympathetic, pitying gazes. But the director had already taken the handles of Gran’s wheelchair, talking softly to her as she pushed it forward.
“She’s lucky to have you,” Bianca said, placing her soft hand on Gabe’s arm, just like a good mother would do. Something his mom hadn’t ever done as far as he could remember.
“I’m the lucky one.” He swallowed back the emotion that lodged in his throat. “She’s still confused after the stroke,” he explained. “The doctor says she’ll be back to her normal self eventually.”
The doctor hadn’t said anything of the sort, and he had a feeling both Guilardi women knew it. He refused to look at Angi. It had been bad enough to see pity in her gaze back when he was the misfit wimp during those summer months spent in Magnolia. He’d grown out of that kid, and no way was he going back there now.
“Iris is a treasure in this town,” Bianca told him with another squeeze of his arm. “You should stop by the restaurant for a meal. You know my daughter, yes? You and Angela played together when you were younger. She had a little more meat on her back then, but—”
Now he did look at Angi. Her olive complexion had gone bright pink in the cheeks as she glared at her mother. “I remember her,” he nearly whispered.
“She liked to sneak food from the kitchen as if we wouldn’t notice.” Bianca gave a knowing laugh. “She could have taken anything she wanted. Her father, rest his soul, would have done anything to make his sweet cannoli happy.”
“Enough with the cannoli nickname. Ma, please.”
An unexpected chuckle burst from Gabe, earning a narrow-eyed glare from Angi. He couldn’t help it. The only time she spoke like she was a member of some Italian mob movie cast was when something or someone got under her skin. Gabe wanted to get under her skin.
“It’s cute.” Bianca pinched her daughter’s cheek. “She’s cute, eh?”
Cutewas a wholly inadequate word to describe Angi, but Gabe nodded because what else could he do?
“Also single,” the woman added with a cunning glint in her eyes.
Gabe chose not to respond to that information.
Angi rolled her eyes. “Come on, Mom. We’ve got to get set up.”
“It was good to see you,” Bianca told Gabe. “You’re a good boy. Also handsome.”
Now it was Gabe’s turn to blush, but Bianca wasn’t finished.
“Come for a meal, and you can take my Angela out sometime. She has a date with Artie Caferno on Friday, but she’s free another—”
“Mom, I don’t have a date on Friday.”
Bianca winked at Gabe. “I haven’t told her about it yet, but she does. He’s a couple of years younger, but Angela is as gorgeous as any girl out there. I talked to Artie’s mom yesterday to confirm the details.”
“I had a heart attack,” Angi’s mother continued, her gaze focused on Gabe. “It helps me feel better—less stressed—to think of my beautiful girl settled. It’s not too much to ask, right?”
Gabe blinked but was saved from answering as Angi grabbed her mother’s arm and pulled her toward the door that led to the kitchen and dining area, muttering the entire way about appropriate boundaries.
“See you soon,” Bianca called over her shoulder.
Gabe waved, then couldn’t help but shout, “Have fun on Friday.”
Angi lifted her hand like she was waving, but it turned into a one-fingered salute, which made Gabe laugh even harder.
ANGIDIDN’TREALIZEhow difficult it would be to avoid Gabe Carlyle until she set out to try. After the humiliating interaction with her mother at the nursing care facility, the last thing she wanted was to see his inevitably smug smile or have him ask about her unwanted plans for Friday night.
She still couldn’t believe her mother had arranged a date without Angi’s consent. But when Angi had demanded that Bianca call Julia Caferno and cancel, her mother had pressed a hand to her chest. It had been subtle, and maybe she was faking, but Angi wasn’t going to take the chance.
That was the number-one reason she didn’t want to see or talk to Gabe, followed closely by the knowledge that he wasn’t only the surly, angry man he appeared to her. It had been easy enough to write him off when that’s what she’d thought. But the way he’d talked to his grandmother and the sadness that had filled his gaze at her obvious confusion added a facet to his personality that made Angi more than a little uncomfortable.
It made her remember the sweet and gentle boy she’d known during those long-ago summers. The boy who’d looked at her with an adoration she’d never before experienced, who hadn’t cared that she was chubby or her hair was too black and her eyebrows too thick compared to a gaggle of blond-haired, blue-eyed Southern belles that seemed to inhabit the town. There had even been a runner-up for the Miss Junior North Carolina title in Angi’s class. Angi had been different from every girl she knew. It hadn’t mattered for her older brothers. They were athletic and swarthy. She was just an odd duck.
But not to Gabe. They’d been secret friends for three summers and then things had changed. Angi had changed, at least outwardly. She’d grown several inches and managed to curb her sweet tooth. One of her brother Marco’s girlfriends had shown her how to use styling products to tame her frizzy black hair and taught her how to pluck her brows. Angi had gone from ugly duckling to swan over the course of a few months. The popular girls—queen bees by anyone’s standards—had finally accepted her.
And she’d been a jerk of the worst sort to her summer friend.
He’d had the last laugh though when he’d revealed her desperation to be part of the in clique and had inadvertently managed to convince her not-so-true friends that Angi was just a hanger-on. It had taken her years to live down the reputation of a try-hard within the ruthless social circles of a small-town high school, and she had never quite regained her footing. She still wasn’t sure where she fit in.
She’d thought they were even, wanted to believe it. Needed to convince herself that she hadn’t really hurt him back then, and he’d just been another callous boy, careless with the heart she tried so hard to protect.
But the pain she’d seen on his face when he looked at his grandmother had been almost visceral, and it had taken all her will not to reach out and try to comfort him the way her mother had done.
It also didn’t help that for the past few afternoons, her son had sneaked away from the restaurant to spend time with Gabe at the flower shop.
Andrew was a wily one, and he’d left sweet notes to her, even though she’d told him not to go. Threatened him with losing his video game privileges and dessert for a week. Nothing seemed to deter him, and Angi was too busy to keep her eye on him constantly. Plus, it would make her look like a paranoid fool if she resorted to keeping Andrew under lock and key. After the first visit, Drew had assured her that Gabe had changed his mind and didn’t mind the company.
Angi found it hard to believe, but the next afternoon, her clever son had come home with a note written in a scrawling, masculine hand.
Your kid is fine with me.
Unless you’ve got a problem.
One that you care to discuss.
If you aren’t too busy with Artie.
“See, Mom,” Andrew had said proudly. “I’m welcome. I help him. Gabe needs a lot of help. Who’s Artie?”
“No one,” she murmured as she racked her brain to figure out why her son was so drawn to Gabe. Andrew had never shown much interest in plants or flowers, anything outdoors for that matter. But when she pressed her boy for answers, he went vague and evasive.
“It’s not as boring as the restaurant, and it doesn’t smell like spaghetti sauce.”
A point she couldn’t argue.
Between running the restaurant, working on menus for upcoming events at the inn, taking care of her mom and the new set of responsibilities she’d taken on with the holiday festival, the truth was Angi should be offering to pay Gabe babysitting money for keeping her son occupied.
Maybe it was guilt or the uneasy sense that she owed him something that led her to enter the flower shop just before noon on Friday. Il Rigatone was crowded with the usual lunch regulars, so it wasn’t a big deal for her to sneak away for a few minutes, much like her son did after school.
“Be with you in a minute,” the deep, familiar voice called out, and Angi had a few seconds to absorb the changes to the shop since her previous visit.
Instead of the dingy and dismal shelves filled with decaying flowers, the space had been transformed into something almost cheery. It was sparse and in need of some big-time design help, but the shop was clean.
“Can I help... It’s you.”
She whirled to find Gabe staring at her from where he stood in the doorway to the back room.
“Hey.” She gestured around the store’s interior, nearly knocking over a potted plant from one shelf in her fit of nervous energy. Get a grip, she commanded herself.
There was something about the weight of his unreadable gaze on her that made butterflies take flight across her middle.
“It looks great in here,” she said on a rush of breath. “Way better. I mean, more like a shop where someone would like to...well...shop. Or at least they’d want to buy the flowers instead of sending their old ones here to die. You know what I mean. Do you know what I mean?”
“That was a lot of words,” he said slowly. “A few of them even sounded like a compliment. Andrew can take most of the credit. The kid works his butt off for me. He’s also got ideas about ordering more merchandise.”
“He does?” Angi didn’t bother to hide her surprise.
“He’s been talking to some girl in his class whose aunt owns a gift shop down along the Outer Banks. She’s giving him the scoop, and he’s relaying it along to me.”
“I thought you didn’t want him here.”
“Told you, I changed my mind.”
“Because it bothers me?”
“Not exactly, but that’s a side benefit.” He took a step closer to her, rubbing a hand over his stubbled jaw.
She would not react to that sound. A shiver passed through her anyway.
“Is that why you’re here? To command me to stay away from your kid? Because he’s the one who sought me out, not the other way around.”
“Yeah, I just can’t figure out why,” Angi murmured more to herself than to Gabe. “I brought you lunch.” She held out the white paper bag. “It’s a meatball sub. The Friday special.”
He took it from her and peeked inside. “Like your dad used to bring to Gran.”
“I’m sorry she’s struggling,” Angi said.
Gabe shook his head, his gaze shuttering. “I don’t want to talk about my grandmother.”
“Okay, but if you ever need—”
She took a step back, the ferocity of his tone whip-sharp.
“Thanks for the sandwich,” he said, his voice gentler. “Normally, I forget to pack anything and end up with popcorn from the hardware store.”
“We’re two doors down,” she reminded him. “Lunch is served every day.”
“I doubt you want me there.”
She didn’t contradict him, even though at the moment she couldn’t decide what she wanted from Gabe Carlyle. “Really, though. Why do you think Andrew keeps coming over here?” She ran a finger along a polished wood shelf that held an assortment of colorful vases. Had the display been one of her son’s ideas? “Is he that bored at the restaurant? Should I force him into an after-school program?”
“And give the little jerks at his school another opportunity to kick his ass? I don’t think so.”
Angi felt her mouth drop open. Blood roared into her head and her heart ached. “No. We took care of the bullying. His teachers are watching out for him, and he said it’s fine. He’s fine.”
“Sweetheart, take it from someone who was just like Andrew as a kid. That boy is anything but fine.”