Christmas at Fireside Cabins by Jenny Hale

Prologue

“Sorry I’m late,” Lila Evans said to her three best friends, as she dropped into a chair around the table at their favorite coffee shop. Her purse and red-and-green Christmas shopping bags full of gifts landed on the floor with a thud beside her. She unwound her scarf, shaking the snow off of it, still breathless from rushing.

A solo guitar player strummed holiday tunes on a small holly-rimmed stage in the corner, singing into a microphone, his raspy voice coming through the miniature amplifier by his feet while busy shoppers grabbed coffees on their way to various festive destinations around the city. Live acoustic music was one of the perks of going to a coffee shop on Music Row in Nashville.

“My manager insisted that we all stay later on our shifts to help him keep the restaurant open longer during the Christmas season.” Lila tucked the runaway strands of damp hair behind her ear, the newly falling snow having had its way with it. The rest of her chocolate-brown locks were pinned up in a messy bun, just like every day she waitressed. “He didn’t tell me we were staying past our usual hours until I’d gotten there this morning.” She fluttered her fingers in the air. “But I’m here now,” she said with a grin. “And I’ve got something to show everyone.” Lila reached down into her purse, grabbing her iPad and setting it on the table in preparation for what she had to share with the girls.

“When are you going to quit that job?” her friend Edie James asked, clearly noticing Lila’s exhaustion despite her attempts to hide it.

Edie knew all too well that Lila could be doing better things with her time than dealing with her disaster of a manager. But their conversation was interrupted when the barista called Edie’s name.

“I got you a peppermint latte with extra whipped cream. I’d already figured when you hadn’t arrived yet that you’d need to treat yourself,” she said to Lila, getting up to retrieve the two oversized white mugs sitting next to an arrangement of berries and pinecones on the coffee bar beside their table.

Edie was the grounded one of the group, who kept them all under a strong reality check. She worked for a high-profile PR firm downtown, and she was constantly getting called in to work off-hours or on weekends for some big client, yet no matter where they decided to meet she was always punctual, arriving to their group meetings at the precise minute they were supposed to be there and leaving no earlier than exactly one hour later. She had a heart the size of Texas and she’d do anything for them.

“Thanks,” Lila said as Edie handed her a steaming mug. “I don’t know when I’m gonna quit.” She shook her head. “The truth is that I don’t have any better options, really. I could waitress for someone else, but I’m sure I’d face headaches over something anywhere I worked, and the tips are really good.”

She’d worked at the steakhouse the entire three years she’d known this group of women surrounding her now, and she’d considered quitting at least once a day the whole time. She’d fallen into waitressing when she’d taken the first job she could get that paid decently, and she’d been stuck there ever since. She often wondered if she’d somehow missed the cosmic signs for what she was supposed to do with her life. Growing up, she’d imagined working with disadvantaged kids full time or doing something with people that would make a difference, but she just hadn’t ever found her place.

“I hear you.” Edie set her own coffee down and crossed the flaps of her cardigan, wrapping it tightly around herself, as if it would keep out the winter chill that danced into the shop every time the door opened.

Lila took a sip of her latte, the nutty smooth flavor of the chocolate and the pop of peppermint instantly lifting her up to a state of festivity. “How about you, Edie? How’s the big pitch going?”

Edie had been given the largest account her firm had ever received. If she could get this one in the bag, she was looking at a major promotion. She hadn’t divulged exactly what the promotion entailed, but she’d used the words “life-changing.”

“We’re really close,” she said. “The client is considering us and one other.” Edie pointed to the iPad. “Did you say you found us something?” she asked, sitting down and wrapping her fingers around her mug.

“Maybe,” Lila replied, “but first, I want to hear how everyone’s doing?”

“My tyrant of an agent finally did something great. He just got me a TV network contract and I’ll be styling the actors on a few of their shows,” Lila’s friend Charlotte Meade, professional hairstylist to the stars, said, all smiles. Then her full, glossy lips dropped to a frown. “But I’m a little worried about styling Nikki Mars—you know that actress who dates the lead singer of the Misfit Junkies? She’s got that unruly mop of hair.” She made a face and ran her almond-shaped manicured nails past her boutique hoop earrings, through her golden locks.

“You’ll be great,” Edie told her. She reached across the table and patted her arm.

Suddenly, as if it occurred to all three women at once, their gaze turned to Piper Watson, the bubbliest of them all, who’d been uncharacteristically quiet.

Lila grinned just looking at Piper, as she sat about to burst with excitement.

“I brought y’all something.” Piper picked up the tattered patchwork bag that in its own cool way would be considered vintage rather than old, and lumped it on the table. She stood to dig around inside it, pushing up the sleeves of her oversized cardigan, which she’d layered with an old T-shirt for some rock band that Lila had never heard of. Her tiny waiflike arms moved a mile a minute in her enthusiasm.

Piper’s earthy, eclectic lifestyle kept them all on their toes. A soap-maker by trade, she could always be found at the local fairs and flea markets peddling the wares for her company, Scented Spirit. Her company motto was Skincare to protect and perfect the carrier of your soul. She had such an infectious personality that she made an incredible living because anyone walking by would stop to listen to her, and she pulled them right in with her irresistible charm. She could sniff out a skeptical shopper in a second, and using her personable nature, she’d have them walking away with bags of her soaps. She could relate to anyone, and she held a wealth of information, her interests spanning everything from pop culture to holistic living.

“One for you,” she said in a singsong voice, dropping a little piece of holiday-colored fabric tied with a string of twine in front of Edie. “One for you.” She handed one to Charlotte. “And one for you.” She gave a little happy squeal and bounced back into her seat. “Open them!”

Lila unwound the string and set it aside, the scrap of fabric becoming slack, revealing a small jar of lotion. She turned hers around toward the center of the table so everyone could see. “Mine says Midnight.” Lila opened the jar and smiled. “Lavender,” she said, her favorite scent dancing into the air under her nose. “How lovely, Piper.”

“Oh, I have Rockstar,” Charlotte piped up, opening the lid and taking in the scent of it. “It smells like coconut. I love it.” She dipped her finger into the shimmery cream and spread it over the back of her hand. “It sparkles.” Her eyebrows bounced up and down. “Thank you.”

“I made them last night,” Piper said, beaming, her pointy, delicate features alight. “It’s my new all-natural lotion line. I’m planning to pass some around after my yoga class tomorrow and also at the farmer’s market this weekend. I’ve made around two hundred samples so far.”

“Such the entrepreneur,” Edie told her as she held hers up. “I’m so proud of you.”

Piper reached over and gave Edie a hug.

Once Piper let go of her, Edie showed hers to the table. “Mine is aptly named Focus.”

“What does Focus smell like?” Charlotte wanted to know, still rubbing Rockstar cream on her hands and wriggling her fingers to show off its shimmer.

Edie unscrewed the lid and wafted the scent toward her. “Mint.” She blew a kiss to Piper and thanked her.

They all ooed, making Piper bounce elatedly in her seat.

Once they’d all settled down, Edie turned to Lila. “Okay, I can’t stand it anymore. Dish. Where are we going?”

Lila had known Charlotte, Piper, and Edie since she’d moved to Nashville three years ago—they’d found themselves in the same apartment complex. Lila’s mother had died tragically in a car crash just after Lila’s birth and her father had passed away of cancer when she was twenty, so these women were the closest thing to family she had. Wanting to live the dream so badly, she’d chased a guy to Nashville, hoping to start a family of her own one day, and when the relationship hadn’t worked out, her three friends had convinced her to stay in the city. That same year, the four women, all single, formed a group to support each other, and that’s exactly what they’d done.

For the last three years, during the holidays—when being single was the hardest—they spent a week together in December, filling their time with laughter, and strengthening their friendship by traveling to new places and visiting other towns and cities. Christmas was their favorite time of year. But for Lila, it was a bit more than that. Every day that went by was one day further away from the last time she’d given her dad a hug, and if she let herself think about it, she’d crumble. Just once, she would’ve loved to sit in a circle with her family, cherishing their time together and making the most of every moment, but she hadn’t gotten to do that. So instead she valued the trips she made with her girlfriends. Having never really settled anywhere, those trips felt like home.

But this year, she was starting to worry about how many more trips they would get to take together. As luck would have it, Lila’s lease was up right before the Christmas holiday and she had just weeks to decide if she wanted to stay or not. And with her friends also moving on with their lives, it was only a matter of time before they all went their separate ways and her little family, as she liked to think of them, would disappear.

“Okay,” Lila said. “Now, Edie, I know you’ve started dating someone, and Piper, you’ve got so much going on right now with house hunting in Colorado… and Charlotte, I’m sure your schedule is going to be full with your new network deal—”

“Just show us already!” Piper said, sending her little air kisses.

Lila had been feeling down because it seemed as though an era was coming to an end—no more traveling, no more constant support from her close friends. Everyone else seemed to be progressing in life, but she was treading water, stuck in her current situation with no plans for anything else. Her heart ached with loneliness at the thought. So she’d called them all to the coffee shop today for an emergency meeting. She had an idea—one last celebration.

“We can take a trip in early December instead of right at Christmas like we usually do, since everyone’s going to be so busy during the holiday. I say we pack up a tree and our gifts, and get rooms in cabins in the country about a two-hour drive from here. It’s a sort of ‘staycation.’” She brought her iPad screen to life and turned it around. “Look at this gorgeous retreat tucked away in the Tennessee hills.”

She began scrolling through the photos of the main cabin, with double stone chimneys and a wide front porch framed by log railings and rocking chairs. The smaller cabins for rent sat nestled in the snowy hills, and the local market looked like it had been snapped right out of a movie set.

“It’s called Fireside Cabins. It’s family owned and the whole place is filled with the history of local battles and early settlers. There are hiking trails and farms down the road offering horse rides, loads of shops on Main Street, a Christmas fair… and there’s even a coffee shop in town,” Lila said, biting her lip through an enormous smile while the other ladies looked on in interest.

“I knew you’d find us something!” Charlotte said, bending down to reach into a small shopping bag she’d kept beside her chair. “I was so confident that I made these. I’m in!” She tossed each of them a T-shirt with Girls’ Week emblazoned on the front in sparkly red-and-green script.

“Count me in.” Edie ran her fingers over the lettering of the T-shirt.

“Definitely,” Piper said.

“I’m glad you all approve—I knew you’d like it! I already booked it, putting it in all of our names—since the site said we could cancel at anytime. You should get a text with the confirmation in a few days.” Lila picked up her coffee and took a sip. Then from behind her mug, she said, “Let’s make this the best Christmas vacation ever.” And she knew they would. She could feel the Christmas spirit already.