Marge Cuthbert, affectionately called Mrs. Claus by everyone who worked for me, had been a Christmas staple in my life for as long as I could remember. As she stood under the retirement banner at the office, I felt a growing sense of unease expand in my gut. She’d worked for my father before me, was originally hired by my grandfather before him, and rumor had it, she had a whirlwind affair with my grandfather forty years ago when she was a doe-eyed twenty-year-old stepping into the corporate world of Christmas-tree farming.
Yep. Christmas trees. That’s my brand. Well, the Waylon family brand, anyway.
It wasn’t the most glamorous business. Lots of sap and pine needles and scratched-up hands. And it could be a pain dealing with demanding Christmas Karens who were looking for that perfect tree for their glitz and glamor holiday event. If Walmart is scary during the holidays, try walking a mile in my shoes when every uptight socialite, politician, celebrity, and corporate CEO is looking for the perfect tree for their event. You can’t custom order a live tree. Can’t request bark color, pine needle length, or level of scent strength—some people have tried.
Marge had always been excellent with dealing with that specific breed of clientele. Me? Well, I was a bit rough around the edges, according to those who knew me best. Demanding and bossy didn’t go over well with me. Without Marge, I worried I’d lose half of my clientele before the new year. What would my father and grandfather before him say if I torpedoed all the success they’d built over the last eighty years?
The shame would be unbearable and extremely public.
Cami Rollins appeared at my side and nudged me in the ribs. “Gonna miss her, huh?”
I nearly jumped out of my skin. “Announce yourself before you sneak up on people, Rollins.”
Cami, barely five feet herself, craned her head back to peer up at me. I towered over her, measuring at six foot five. “Did I scare you?”
“You’re the size of a badger. No, you didn’t scare me. Just surprised me, is all.” I stared down the length of my nose at her as her lips curled in a devilish little smile. “Go bother someone else.”
The waitress rolled her big brown eyes toward her curly hairline. She had a wild head of hair that was usually held back in a hairnet when I saw her at the diner. She didn’t work for me, but she was a regular in Marge’s life and had been pouring her coffee at the diner for almost five years. On top of that, Marge’s best friend was Cami’s mother, and they were thick as thieves.
“She’s worried about you, you know,” Cami said.
“Marge worries about everyone.”
“You in particular.”
I swirled my glass of red wine and watched Marge receive hugs and farewells from people who had to leave the retirement party early. “She has no reason to worry about me. I’ll be fine. It will be a strange season without her, but this was inevitable.”
“She thinks you’re going to hole yourself up in your big house and get lost staring into a snow globe pining after your past.”
I scrutinized the petite young woman. “Don’t you have other people you can annoy at this party?”
“Why would I want to do that when bothering you is so satisfying?”
Grumbling about her invasive and unwanted opinions, I moved off, shifting through the crowd, easily navigating my way through because I was nearly a whole head taller than everyone there. Waylon men were big. Each and every one of us. Well, everyone except for my Uncle Wallace, who’d barely made it to five foot eight and had been the brunt of many jokes at all family events while I was growing up.
My father’s favorite joke had been about picking Wallace up by his collar and hanging him on the door hook in their shared bedroom when they were on the cusp of becoming teens. As a kid I’d believed it was true, but now I saw it was just a ruse to get Wallace’s blood boiling.
It worked damn near every time.
Wallace was envious of our heights, broad frames, big hands, and powerful builds. I suspected we’d descended from lumberjacks, perhaps from Alaska or the great plains, somewhere where physical strength and the ability to perform brutal labor meant the difference between life and death. Marge often joked that we were living proof of Darwinism. That, I doubted. We had a few heads in our family full of sawdust and the odd loose screw. All families did.
We were just freaks, and it was a good thing, too, because Christmas-tree farming was not as glamorous as everything that came after they were uprooted. Ornaments and lights gave the illusion that the work was not brutal, but us Waylon men knew differently.
For example, this year we were having a real problem with coyotes on the farm that had taken to sleeping under the low hanging boughs of some of the trees. I’d surprised a handful before, and having them come out of their sleep snarling and snapping was never a fun way to start a morning.
While my employees gathered around Marge and listened to her tell wistful old stories about Christmases past, I stood off to the side, not wanting to kill the mood. Having the boss around always made people a little stiff. It changed the atmosphere.
Marge deserved a proper send-off. But over the passing half hour, she caught me hiding, gave me a knowing little smile that promised she would come find me later, and made good on said promise close to nine in the evening when all the employees with children had gone home and those who wanted to take advantage of the open bar were throwing back martinis and vodka sodas.
She sat down across from me at one of the high tables in the restaurant we’d rented out. The place was one of Marge’s favorites, and I took her here every year on Christmas Eve to thank her for all her work over the Christmas season. As my Christmas tree designer, she played a major role in keeping me in business. Waylon Tree Farm sold trees to upscale clients, not Joe Blow on the side of the road. We provided the tree for Rockefeller Center every year, along with other special events all over the United States. Every year, we tried to acquire new clients as well as rebook previous ones. Marge’s consistent work ensured that happened. Christmas was all about traditions. People liked to know what to expect, and Marge delivered.
She eyed me over the rim of her coffee, dark blue eyes twinkling. “You’ve been keeping to the shadows tonight, North. How predictably like you.”
“I want to let everyone have fun. This is the last company event before the Christmas season kicks off. You know how crazy it can get.”
Marge drummed her fingernails on the side of her ceramic mug. They were painted a sparkly light blue. In a week or two, I suspected they’d be replaced with something festive, and she’d bust out her Christmas broaches, earrings, sweater vests, and handbags. Yes, Marge even had Christmas handbags.
“They all like you, you know. You don’t have to hide.”
“I’m not hiding,” I said.
She arched a silver eyebrow. “Cami said you were brooding earlier.”
“Cami says a lot of things. She should learn how to mind her own business. I’m paying for her drinks this evening after all, and she doesn’t even work for me.”
Marge chuckled. Her laugh was nostalgic for me. As a boy, I’d often sought the sound out whenever she came into the big house on the property. Little did I know it had been to spend time with my grandfather. But even after he passed away, she’d popped over frequently, checking in to make sure my father had home-cooked meals at least three nights a week and good reliable company. She was like a mother to him and a grandmother to me.
Irreplaceable at home and at work.
Marge put her hand on mine. Her skin was warm and wrinkled, and a gold ring with a ruby glinted on her middle finger. She’d worn it for as long as I could remember. “Just because I’m retiring doesn’t mean you’re not going to see me anymore.”
“Obviously. You’d miss me too much.”
She patted my hand and leaned back, amusement curling her lips. “Precisely. I’ll still be around, even if you need me for work-related things. I won’t leave you hanging. Speaking of which.” She paused to sip her coffee and set it back down. “What’s the plan for my replacement? The Christmas season is a week away. Have you hired someone and just not found the time to tell me?”
Hiring a replacement for Marge had felt like one task too many on my plate. “I’m going to design the trees myself this year.”
She blinked. “North.”
“How in the heavens will you manage that?”
“Have faith, Marge. I’m a Jack of all trades.”
“You’re busy enough as it is. You need help. If you hadn’t procrastinated for the last two months,” she added under her breath, “I could have helped you train the new designer.”
I waved off her concern. “I’ll figure it out. I always do.”
She sighed, clicked her tongue, and shook her head. “No, you won’t. You’ll drown in your work, shut yourself in your house, and let Christmas pass you by without taking a single moment for yourself. Let me help you. I’ll find someone to replace me—as a thank you. And a gift.” She held up a warning finger when I opened my mouth to retort. “I won’t hear it, North. I’ve made up my mind. Let an old woman do you a favor. You’ve done me hundreds since you took over for your father.”
When Marge set her mind to something, there was no arguing with her. We were cut from the same cloth in that regard, and she might have been the only person who could go toe to toe with me and emerge from the debate victorious.
This felt like a fight I would not win, so I conceded with a nod. “Thank you.”
“That’s the spirit,” she gushed before sitting bolt upright in her seat with a gasp and pointing past me.
I looked over my shoulder. “What?”
With speed that did not match her petite portly frame, Marge burst from her seat and went to the restaurant window, practically pressing her nose to the glass like a starry-eyed child seeing her first snowfall. I moved up beside her, glass of wine in hand, and regarded the flurries as the sky let them loose on the city street outside.
“It’s a blessing,” Marge whispered. “Can you feel it?”
“The Christmas spirit.”
No. “Sure, Marge.”
She gave a little shudder of her shoulders, as if she were standing out on the street in the snow and caught a chill. “I think when I go home, I might have to break out my sweater vests. It’s that time.”
Chuckling, I draped an arm over her shoulders. “I’ll drive you and help you pull them out. Are they still in your storage locker?”
She patted my stomach. “You’re a good man, North. That would be wonderful.”
The flurries thickened into earnest snowflakes outside and a young couple burst out of a basement entry apartment across the street. He was in a T-shirt and jeans, and she wore pajamas, but neither of them seemed to care about all the eyes on them as they turned their faces to the sky, laughed like they were children, and enjoyed the first snowfall of the year.
For a moment, I caught myself smiling at their wonder.