Christmas is the worst time of the year to find yourself alone. Chris Moss, owner of a tree farm, knows this down to his bones as he makes his way through his first holiday season after losing his wife to cancer. When Wade Hart, an annual customer at the farm, visits, they find common ground: Wade lost his own longtime lover to a parting of ways and is lonely too. The constant, gentle companionship provides fertile soil for an attraction neither expects, but nurturing a new relationship is a tough proposition. With the encouragement of family and friends, Chris and Wade may yet find that a second love later in life can be just as fulfilling as the first.
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Excerpt from Heart of the Pines.
Jets of steamy breath shot from Wade’s nostrils as he struggled to drag the enormous Christmas tree across the loose Michigan snow. The bells on Chris’s Santa hat jingled merrily as he hurried out to help his friend pull the tree up the final hillock to the barn.
“Here, let me give you a hand.” Stepping along the slowing tree, Chris wrapped a glove-covered hand around a branch and lent his strength to the effort.
Wade nodded and smiled. “Thanks, it’s a little much by myself.”
“No problem, happy to help. Looks like you got a beaut,” said Chris.
Wade pulled off his knit hat and wiped the perspiration from his head. “It’s a good one. I think I’ve covered your whole farm, several times, to find the perfect tree.”
They pulled the tree into the work area and hoisted it onto the sawbuck. “Want me to trim it up for you?”
“Sure. One less thing I’ll have to do.” Wade laid the handsaw he’d used on the table behind them, then tugged his thick cap on while Chris made a few quick cuts with the chainsaw to ready the tree for his stand. The roar of the saw faded, and Chris struggled for a few minutes as he tried to push the tree into the netting. As he began his second attempt, Wade woke from his stupor and grabbed the other side of the tree.
“Sorry, I’m a little spacey today,” said Wade.
With his help, Chris slid the tree into the tube of netting, getting it ready for Wade’s SUV. “No problem. It’s a huge tree. I hope Jeff will be around to help you unload.”
Wade folded his arms over his chest, a pained look on his face. “Jeff moved out. Last week. I thought makin’ our annual trip to your farm for a tree would keep me from thinkin’ about it.” Wade turned his head and let out a shuddering sigh. “I guess it’s not ‘our’ trip anymore.”
Chris gave Wade’s shoulder a squeeze. “Sorry to hear that. You guys always seemed happy together. Jeff was always cutting up and flirting with Mary.” I haven’t forgotten you attended her funeral.
“It happens. I guess we lasted longer than a lot of couples. Ten years isn’t bad.” Wade’s fingers ran over one of the fir boughs edging the barn windows. “It was good in the beginning, like newlyweds. Jeff loved our loft in Chicago. But ever since we moved to Traverse City, the relationship had slowly gone downhill. Our business downtown was an attempt to find something to keep Jeff happy.”
The pain in Wade’s eyes sparked a wave of bitter nostalgia for Chris. He missed Mary so desperately some days. She always was the caretaker of the family, even when they got the diagnosis of stage-four cancer; she still took care of everyone else until it was impossible for her to keep doing it. He turned to the barn behind them, pulled off the Santa hat, and held it tight in his hands as the frigid air gusted through his short white hair.
The farm was always beautiful this time of year, the ground covered with crystalline flakes in a white carpet that extended to the steps of the house, which he kept carefully swept. He hadn’t changed anything since Mary died. It had been more difficult in the summer when the beds that hugged the foundation of their house were ablaze with flowers Mary had planted and nursed through the years. The winter covering had been a blessed relief, but his heart still ached at the lack of holiday decorations. Mary had loved the season, and given half a chance, she covered everything within striking distance with lights. Without her, the trimmings just hadn’t mattered.
He shook himself and focused on finishing with Wade’s tree. He tied the bottom of the netting and turned to Wade. “There you go. All bundled and ready to put in that great foyer you have.”
“Not so grand this year. It’s kind of tough to get into the spirit of the season.”
Chris gave Wade a sympathetic smile. “It could be worse….”
Realization hit Wade. “Oh my God! I can’t believe I’ve been such an ass. This is your first Christmas alone. I’m so sorry, Chris. I feel awful.”
“It’s not your fault. It’s been almost a year since her funeral. It’s ancient history to most people.” Although it seems like yesterday to me. I can still feel her soft hand in mine as we picnicked on one of Lake Michigan’s sugar sand beaches on our first date, playing in the chilly crystal clear water. Even then, she’d taken care of everything and had the perfect lunch basket packed.
“Yeah, but Mary always said Christmas was her favorite time of the year.”
“It was, and I haven’t felt like doing much. It’s a lot more work to take care of the farm alone too. But the income for the whole year happens in the next month or so. Doesn’t leave me with many choices.” Chris smiled at Wade. “Bad thing about a Christmas tree farm, firs just aren’t that tasty.”
Wade gave a nod, and then his eyes lit up. “Hey, what if I do it? I’ve helped Mary put up the decorations before. It’ll keep me busy, and Santa’s Tree Farm needs to look more festive than either of us feels.”
Chris couldn’t help but smile at the sudden enthusiasm. “If you’d like, that would be great. I just can’t face the stuff. Too many memories.”
“Southern boy to the rescue! I got this covered.” Wade clapped his hand on Chris’s bicep and squeezed it. Chris found a comfort from the contact that surprised him. Mary’s touch had always had that unique ability to soothe him. Some nights its absence had left him curled around her pillow with tears streaming down his face.
Chris fished a ring of keys from his pocket, flipped through them, and held one out for Wade. “This unlocks the storage padlock. Anything you want to do would be great. I have a few customers wandering around looking for trees. I better go check on them.”
Chris raced through the light snowfall while Wade started for the storage building.