The White Christmas Inn
AS THE INN APPEARED on the crest at the end of the snowy drive, nestled in the folds of the gently rolling Vermont foothills, Molly Winslow actually laughed aloud.
Her anticipation had been building ever since she’d turned off the main road. She’d soon spotted the hand-painted wooden sign, almost as big as her car, which featured a Victorian-style painting of the inn itself, done up in holiday glory. The gables were festooned with swags of pine, the windows blazing with warm light, and the drive crowded with guests around a lit fir twice as tall as the inn. There was even a horse and carriage, for good measure.
Molly had picked the inn, out of all the charming establishments vying for holiday traffic on the various travel sites, because of details like this. The reviews for Evergreen Inn had been excellent, but what she had really fallen in love with were the pictures: a single magenta button rose laid beside pats of butter hand-pressed into the shape of chickens or daisies, the incredible hand-pieced velvet crazy quilts featured in every single room, the collection of antique blue glassware that sparkled like sapphire in the pictures of the airy kitchen.
Molly even knew from her deep Internet dive of Evergreen Inn that the sign that led guests from the main road changed seasonally: in fall, a different painting featured Vermont’s
spectacular show of autumn color, and in spring, the sign was suffused with pink and white apple blossoms.
Whoever had appointed the details of Evergreen Inn, Molly had decided, was an artist. As a kind of artist herself, Molly was drawn to it all. Her whole job was building brand-new worlds out of nothing but a handful of images and words.
But as an artist, she was also aware of the distance that sometimes lay between an artist’s grand visions and what they were really able to create, between what they promised and what they could actually deliver.
And this wasn’t just a hypothetical piece of wisdom for her these days. The deadline she was under for her next book had been keeping her up at night now for weeks. And during all of those long nights, not a single hint of inspiration had sparked in her mind amidst the giant crowd of worries.
That was part of how she had managed to convince herself that the Christmas trip to Vermont wasn’t a frivolous luxury, but a legitimate business expense. It was a chance to leave the worries back home in Brooklyn and get a much-needed change of scenery to coax some inspiration out of hiding before the anxieties caught up with her.
But although some part of her longed to be swept away into another world, she still had enough hard-nosed Brooklynite in her to hold a certain air of skepticism as she wound her way up the long drive. Not very many things, she’d found, actually lived up to her imagination. And even when they didn’t—well, a lot of times, it was still a good story.
Which was why, after several bumpy minutes on the winding private lane, when the inn finally became visible beyond a stand of snow-dusted trees, she burst into laughter.
The place wasn’t just as lovely as she’d imagined it.
It was better.
She’d thought that the giant fir in the drive was probably just an artist’s invention, but there it was, twinkling with lights. Not only was the green roof of the inn trimmed with pine, but the evergreen swags were dotted with red velvet ribbons and trimmed with what looked to be silvered grapevine. A rocking horse stood guard on the wide porch, lacquered bright red, with a buffalo plaid blanket under his kid-sized saddle.
As soon as Molly pulled up into the circle drive around the base of the fir and opened her car door, she picked up an incredible blend of aromas: the clean spice of pine, a faint hint of smoke from the giant fireplace she knew was waiting inside, and a strong scent of cinnamon, which no doubt was wafting out of one of the ramshackle complex’s several chimneys.
Not only that, but the light snow that had been falling during the early part of her drive had really started to stick once she reached the country roads of Vermont, coming down in big, fluffy flakes. They dusted the green roof, the bare branches of the oaks, and the pine needles, and fell silently around Molly as she pulled her bag out of the back and crunched through the snow to the front door, feeling as if she’d just awoken in a snow globe.
In fact, she thought dreamily, maybe that could be a story: a little girl who suddenly finds herself in a snow globe world . . .
But as Molly stepped through the front door, her thoughts were once again interrupted by the beauty of the real world.
She stood in a roomy, welcoming entryway, set off from the main building by a garland of juniper, whose waxy blue and pink berries were in turn set off by sprays of wild roses. A hurricane lantern with a real flame glowed on a small table just inside the door, beside a small pewter dish filled with tempting golden candies labeled Rosemary Caramel in elegant script.
Straight ahead, she could see fire leaping in the fireplace that dominated the large lounge, filled with overstuffed furniture and velvet and faux-fur pillows. It was decorated to the hilt for Christmas, with a tall Christmas tree covered with vintage-style tinsel in one corner, and a large nativity that appeared to have been hand-carved in the other. All around the ceiling, Christmas lights twinkled among the branches of the same pine, juniper, and red-rose swags that graced the entryway.
To her right, she recognized the collection of tables in the inn’s stylish dining room. Each of the tables was set with a pine-and-poinsettia floral arrangement, and a vintage light-up Santa stood in one window, his nose and cheeks bright red, as if he’d come in from the cold just before her.
But somehow she didn’t notice the woman behind the front desk, to her left, until she heard a small, lively voice call out from behind her.
“You must be Molly.”
Molly spun around to find a petite, cheery older woman smiling back at her. Maybe, Molly reflected, she hadn’t noticed her because she looked exactly like Mrs. Santa Claus, or at least the perfect grandmother from an old-time Christmas card: just another perfect detail in a place that seemed to be full of them, with her white hair pulled back in a bun, her cat’s-eye glasses, and her neat blue-and-green plaid shirt.
“That’s right,” Molly said, walking up to the front desk, which was a rich reddish cedar counter, varnished to a high shine.
It wasn’t until she set her bag down that she thought to wonder how the woman had known her name.
“I’m Iris,” the woman said.
“Molly,” Molly said instinctively, then grimaced.
But Iris was already on to other things. As she clicked
through the computer screen in front of her, she narrated her actions with a flourish. “Molly Winslow . . . checking in December twenty-third . . .”
She laid a substantial brass key on the counter between them.
“You’re in the Robin’s Nest,” Iris said, nodding at the staircase that disappeared beyond a half wall to her left. “So you’ll have the whole top floor. Just keep going up until you run out of stairs.”
“Oh, and it’s the Christmas holiday, so all your meals are included in the cost of the room,” said Iris. “So make sure to eat your money’s worth. And that’s it!”
“Okay,” Molly said again, hardly able to believe check-in could be so easy. Did they just pass out keys to anyone who walked in the door in Vermont? They didn’t even check her ID. “I’m all set, then?”
“All set,” Iris said with a satisfied air. Then she looked up. “I’ll just need to know the name of whoever will be meeting you here so I know where to send them.”
“Oh,” Molly said, trying to keep her voice light. “It’s just me.”
Iris didn’t actually say, Alone? At Christmas? But the incredulity on her face got the point across.
“I’m actually looking forward to the peace and quiet,” Molly said. “I’m going to be finishing a book while I’m here.”
“A book?” Iris said. The interest in her eyes was quickly chased by confusion. “But your reservation’s only for . . .”
“A few days,” Molly finished for her. “I know it’s not long enough to write a whole novel. I write children’s books.”
“Oh!” Iris said, delighted. “I’ve written a children’s book!”
Molly tried to keep her shoulders from visibly slumping. At least seventy-five percent of people gave this same response. And then they looked at her as if they couldn’t tell why she should
make a living doing something that had only taken them an afternoon, or at most a weekend.
And maybe they are right, she thought. Right now, she was having fewer ideas than any of them.
“It’s about my grandson, Luke,” Iris went on. “When he was a baby, he thought that apple pies grew on apple pie trees. So the story happens in an apple pie orchard, but then—”
“Sounds great!” Molly scooped up the key from the counter and mustered what she hoped was her most brilliant smile. “Thanks so much for your help,” she said, backing toward the stairs. “I can’t wait to see the room.”
“Luke’s around here somewhere,” Iris said. “If you want, I can send him up with the luggage.”
But Molly was already thunking her roller bag up the stairs. “I’m good,” she called down. “I’ve got it. I’m fine. Thank you!”
Two flights later, a third half flight led from a small landing to a door. A felted wreath with woolen leaves and the carefully formed figures of tiny birds announced Robin’s Nest.
Inside, the room was just as described: a wide, airy attic suite, its ceiling punctuated by a series of skylights, with a high four-poster bed covered in the jewel tones of a velvet crazy quilt, several cozy couches, and a separate room with a large, grandfatherly desk, complete with captain’s chair and a pair of daybeds. Like the rooms below, this one was full of Christmassy touches. A candle beside the bed, wrapped with red velvet ribbon, gave off a buttery cinnamon scent that blended with the fresh pine of the juniper and rose swag that hung over the headboard of the bed. And on one of the tables sat a beautiful set of hand-hammered tin figurines: Santa with all his reindeer, who were connected one to another by strings of delicate red thread.
Immediately, Molly hoisted her bag onto the luggage stand at
the foot of the bed and began to unpack, hanging clothes in the large wooden wardrobe, which had been hand-painted with a pair of peacocks, and setting a stack of books and her computer on the desk.
The last thing she pulled out of the bag was her mother’s giant sky-blue cashmere scarf. Molly had seen it on her mother at least a thousand times, especially in the last days of her life, when no matter what they did, they couldn’t seem to make the room warm enough for her. Her heart leapt at the sight of it now, even as it tugged over the fact that this would be her first Christmas without her mother.
The two of them had created all sorts of their own traditions after her father died, when Molly was a child. She’d just never considered what she’d do after her mother was gone.
Probably because she’d always figured she would have a family of her own by that time.
Her thoughts were interrupted by footsteps on the stairs, followed by what sounded like a scuffling at her door.
“Hello?” she called.
“Hey!” a friendly voice responded. “It’s Jeanne from downstairs! I just brought you up a few things.”
But when Molly opened the door, what bounded through was a gigantic Bernese mountain dog, with his cream and caramel markings, and silky black coat.
It did a quick survey of the room, sniffing the air like a true hound, but then shambled up to Molly, bumping its head against her shins in an ecstasy of delighted wiggles.
“Cassandra!” the woman behind her scolded, struggling to tuck the strands of red hair that had escaped from her ponytail behind her ears as she toted a large wicker-and-wood basket over her arm. “Cassie! Down. Sit!”
The giant dog sat obediently, but then seemed to collapse into the hand-braided carpet, rolling over on her back in a further fit of wiggles.
Molly knelt down to rub Cassie’s furry belly. “It’s okay,” she said. “I love dogs.”
“We won’t keep you long,” Jeanne said. She set the covered basket down on a small table beside the door. “These are just a few afternoon treats. There’s cinnamon corn bread, a grilled Vermont cheddar sandwich, and a thermos of hot cider,” she said with a smile. And then quickly added, “Although if you prefer hot chocolate, I can run some of that right up.”
Molly stood, to the chagrin of Cassie, who couldn’t seem to imagine any other activity that could be more rewarding to Molly than rubbing her belly.
“Cider sounds amazing,” Molly said. “This whole place is amazing. Everything. From the sign when you turn in, to the garland in the hallway . . .”
“Well,” Jeanne said, beaming from the praise, “that’s for the wedding. Even we don’t usually do fresh roses in winter. Although I did get to make that garland myself.”
“Wedding?” Molly repeated.
Jeanne nodded. “A Christmas wedding,” she said. “The family’s wonderful,” she added. “They’ve been coming here for years. Ever since we opened.”
Molly noticed a shadow cross Jeanne’s face, but she was distracted from it by the twist in her own heart.
Was she really pricked by the fact there was a wedding going on at the inn? she thought.
But perhaps she was. A wedding meant guests and groomsmen and parties, all reminders of the fact she was spending this Christmas alone.
To shake the thought from her head, she popped open the wooden lid of the wicker basket. Inside, faint steam still rose from the cinnamon corn bread, nestled beside a grilled cheese carefully wrapped in wax paper. And to the side, where they wouldn’t melt too fast, were two pats of butter in the shape of Christmas trees.
“This is wonderful,” Molly said. “Thank you so much.”
“You’re very welcome,” Jeanne said. “Cassie.”
With what seemed to be great effort, the giant dog lurched up from the floor, then descended the stairs with surprising agility at a meaningful glance from Jeanne.
“We’re just downstairs,” Jeanne said. “If you need anything else. Like to be licked to death by a giant fur rug, for instance.”
Molly laughed as Jeanne closed the door behind her.
But in the empty room, she felt a lingering twinge of loneliness.
To ward it off, she pulled the cinnamon corn bread from the basket, broke it in two pieces, and placed one of the wafer-thin pats of butter between them.
Then she padded over to the bed, climbed up on it, and wrapped the scarf around herself, gazing down at the beautiful patterns of the crazy quilt as she waited a few moments for the butter to melt.
Her mother, Molly thought, would be delighted to see her now. She’d love the inn, and everything about the room, and the fact that somebody was still getting some use out of her favorite scarf. She was following her family tradition, Molly thought, of making new traditions.
The first bite of the corn bread was perfect: buttery and warm and rich, with just the right hint of spice.
What, Molly asked herself, could be better than this?