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THE MYSTERY OF CHRISTMAS INN, COLORADO
BY DONNA SCHLACHTER
Can Matthew find a reason to go on living, and can Edith find someone who wants her for herself, before their Christmas Inn refuge is closed and they are forced to continue their search elsewhere, alone?
THE MYSTERY OF CHRISTMAS INN, COLORADO
BY DONNA SCHLACHTER
December 24, 1921
Matthew White shoved his chilled hands deep into the pockets of his greatcoat. The horses pulling the sleigh he rode in to the entryway of the Christmas Inn exhaled huge plumes of steam, which drifted off on the chill breeze. The vanishing vapor caused a familiar tug at his heartstrings—one he’d felt every Christmas Eve for the past thirty-nine years.
Thirty-nine anniversaries spent here with Sarah, his bride.
But today, the grey clouds blocked the sun, and his mood matched the weather.
Today was the first Christmas Eve since losing Sarah.
Each time he thought of her homegoing, envy rose in his chest, a searing pain and swelling of gladness at the same time. Knowing where she now resided made his loss easier, but the emptiness never went away. She’d passed away last January, a cold, dreary day, much like today.
He sat bundled in the sleigh beneath layers of fur blankets as the driver dismounted. Matthew considered whether he should simply turn around and go home. Perhaps he needed to spend Christmas Eve somewhere else this year.
A young boy dressed in a smart uniform appeared at his side. Hand on the door latch, the lad met Matthew’s gaze. No point in trying to avoid the inevitable loneliness. Didn’t matter where he spent the day—he’d still feel the same.
Matthew nodded and the boy opened the door. Matthew stepped onto the slushy ground. Christmas in the Rockies meant unpredictable weather, ranging from Indian summer to polar freeze.
He tugged his beaver cap tighter against the chill wind. “I have one suitcase and a small trunk.”
The lad nodded. “Yes, sir. I’ll bring your bags to your room.”
Matthew strode to the front doors, where the brass and glass reflected the flickering gaslight from the sconces on the outside wall of the hotel. Inside the lobby, a large Norwegian fir decorated the high-ceilinged room. From every branch dangled a nearly impossible collection of decorations. Large, hand-blown glass bulbs, icicles made of sparkling glass, chains of beads encircling the boughs, and tiny flickering candles transformed the tree into a veritable king of trees. Sarah loved the tree. Each time the entered the lobby, she would point out a different decoration.
Every year, the tree looked the same. Just as the lobby looked the same, festooned with garlands of live pine and spruce boughs. Matthew closed his eyes and sighed then turned toward the check-in desk to the right of the large, open fireplace. The entire area still looked the same as always, bedecked in red and green plaid ribbons, candy canes hanging from popcorn garlands.
Even the pert young clerk behind the desk looked the same, smartly attired in the black skirt, white blouse, and black string tie that were the inn’s trademark. Matthew crossed the lobby and stood in front of her. A quick glance at her nametag confirmed she was the same person from years previous. Three, perhaps four. He remembered his wife commenting on the girl’s earrings last year, shaped like small packages wrapped in foil.
He snuck a quick peek at her ears. Yes, the same. He allowed a half-smile. “Nice earrings, Clare.”
The girl returned his smile and patted the dangling boxes. “Thank you. I get a lot of compliments on them.” She squinted at him. “Mr. White, correct?” She looked beyond him. “Are you by yourself?”
How he hated those words. Seemed like everywhere he went, he met someone who knew him and Sarah as a couple but didn’t know of her passing. Sometimes he felt like a mere appendage of his wife.
Would people ask after him if she had lived and he had died?
He met her gaze. “She passed away recently.”
A look passed over her face, a look with which he was well familiar. Pity, sorrow.
He waited for the inevitable inane response of how sorry they were.
“Then you won’t want your regular room, I expect?”
He looked up, pleased that she hadn’t said what he expected. Somehow that would spoil the specialness of this place. “A bit late to change in midstream, don’t you think?”
She laughed at his comment, a soft tinkle, like one of the bells on the tree brushed by a breeze from an open door. A pleasant sound, soothing to his senses. Sarah had a laugh much like that. And then she sobered, as though his grief was hers to share and she felt guilty about her pleasure in his words.
He’d experienced many of those same moments in the past months. Longing to break out of his black shell, but afraid of what others would say.
Of what Sarah would say. If she could.
His joy at hearing her response brightened his spirits. And for the first time in almost a year, he was almost glad to be alive. Almost.
He signed the registry card she slid across the smooth wooden surface then passed the card to her. “I would prefer our—my regular room.” Pulling his billfold from his inside suit jacket pocket, he counted out several bills. “Will this be enough for the week?”
“Yes, sir. The rates didn’t go up this year.” She gathered the money and counted them before returning one to him. “But there is a slight change in plans this year, Mr. White.”
A single ten-dollar bill remained on the counter, taunting him. A feeling akin to the static electricity from a too-close lightning strike coursed through him. “Change?”
“Yes, sir. You see, we’ve had to change everyone’s reservations to check out on New Year’s Eve instead of New Year’s Day.”
“Check out early?”
Something large and heavy filled his chest, and for a moment, he wondered if he’d be able to draw another breath. Perspiration gathered in the center of his back.
This was not the time to make changes.
He swallowed past the lump in his throat. “Why?”
Clare’s eyes filled, and she worked her bottom lip. She pulled a handkerchief from the sleeve of her blouse and dabbed at her eyes. “Sorry, I hate having to tell people this. They’re going to close the inn on New Year’s Eve, and tear it down in the new year. The railroad didn’t come through Valleyview, and the owner said he’s tired of losing money.”
Matthew understood. The trip each year had become tedious as promises to build a branch line to the town never materialized, and the rental of a sleigh for the last twelve miles of the journey had grown more expensive. But still, tear down his Christmas Inn? No, they couldn’t.
He couldn’t spend his last Christmas on earth knowing that the site of such sweet memories would be no more. “Are you certain?”
She nodded, and a single tear slid down her cheek, marring her otherwise perfect complexion.
The lump in his throat threatened to choke him, and he couldn’t have forced any words past if it he wanted to. Not that he had any words to say.
The last piece of sanity in his life was about to die.
Just like everything else in his life recently.
CHRISTMAS UNDER THE STARS
BY DONNA SCHLACHTER
Edie Meredith and Tom Aitken head for California to start their new separate lives while suspicious ‘accidents’ plague their journey. Is someone trying to keep them from reaching their destination? Or will misunderstanding and circumstances keep them apart?
CHRISTMAS UNDER THE STARS
BY DONNA SCHLACHTER
Oregon Trail, Utah Territory
The snow swirled in clouds so low all visibility was obscured, and Edie Meredith didn’t think she could take one more step. Her right hand gripped the tailgate of the Conestoga wagon. She wasn’t sure whether fear kept her latched to the rough wood or if her fingers were frozen in place.
With her free hand, she pulled her head covering tighter around her neck and crossed the thin material over her face, leaving only her eyes peering out at the blanket of white surrounding the wagon train. Muffled noises met her ears, which ached from the unrelenting cold and bitter winds whistling off the mountains surrounding their trail. The crack of whips urged the oxen on, and judging by the creaking of wheels and the shouts of the men, the desire to be somewhere warm and dry wasn’t limited to her.
Humid breath froze almost instantly, creating an icy ridge on the cloth binding her mouth and nose, making breathing difficult. Edie used her free hand to crack the misshapen icicles stuck to her scarf, sending them tumbling to the crusted path.
Cold air snatched the end of her shawl from its place near her throat, and the handspun fabric unwound from around her face and ears. Numbness crept into her cheeks, and Edie recalled the pathetic creature she’d seen begging outside the fort store three days ago: his ears and the tip of his nose blackened from frostbite, huge sores threatening to eat away his face. And the strangest sight of all: he was clad in only his long underwear. When she asked, her brother told her folks sometimes went crazy when they froze to death. Thinking they were too warm, they tossed their clothes aside.
Another blast of cold air blinded her with blowing snow for a moment, and she paused to brush the particles from her eyes so she could see again.
In that instant, the shadow of the wagon passed, leaving her in a world without sight or sound.
When she opened her eyes, finally clear of the stinging snow, she could neither see nor hear the other wagons or occupants of the wagon train. She looked for the wagon ruts, but the blowing snow filled in the trail so quickly she couldn’t be certain what was a rut and what was a drift. Sounds echoed off the stone walls of the canyon, creating a labyrinth of sounds so confusing, she didn’t know which way to turn.
Edie peeled her scarf away from her face and blinked against the onslaught of snow. Drawing a numbing breath, she called out. “Help! Can anybody hear me?”
She took a tentative step, peering at the ground, but the snow was filling in the tracks quickly. She stumbled and landed on her hands and knees, sending a jolt through her body. Her hands slipped out from under her, and she fell face down into the snow, the tiny ice pellets feeling like a thousand razors on her chin and cheeks.
She sat up and brushed snow from her face and chest, then stood. She was wet and cold, and already could feel the bruises forming on her knees. She listened for a moment, trying to discern the direction of the train, but the howling wind blotted out any other sounds.
She was lost. She was alone.
Edie shivered so hard her teeth ached and her head felt like a firecracker ready to explode. In spite of the cold, her hands and feet felt warm, and she peeled off layers of clothing. First, her threadbare gloves, then the shawl around her face and head. She ran stiff fingers through her hair. Not golden like Mama’s, not quite the dark brown of her father. Somewhere in between.
She cast a glance toward the sky. Of course, that’s why she was so warm. The sun beat down on her mercilessly, filling her world with its warm, golden glow. Cramped fingers unbuttoned her coat, and she looked down at the ridiculous boots on her feet. Why ever was she wearing knee-high button-up boots in this heat?
She shoved a hand into her coat pocket and felt for her shoe-latch. She’d need that to unfasten all of those tedious little buttons on those funny boots.
Edie sank to the ground, warm from the sun, and marveled at the soft green grass surrounding her. She wished her brother Mark was here to see this field full of wildflowers. Perhaps after she had a short nap, she’d run and tell him of her good fortune.
Just a short rest. That’s all she needed. She hummed a lullaby from her childhood and closed her eyes.
If she didn’t find the wagon train soon, she wouldn’t last more than an hour.
Donna lives in Denver with husband Patrick, her first-line editor and biggest fan. She writes historical suspense under her own name, and contemporary suspense under her alter ego of Leeann Betts. Donna is also a ghostwriter and editor of fiction and non-fiction, and judges in a number of writing contests. Donna loves history and research, and travels extensively for both. Donna is proud to be represented by Terrie Wolf of AKA Literary Management.
Links to Donna’s website, blog, books, etc.
Amazon (The Mystery of Christmas Inn, Colorado):
Amazon (Christmas Under The Stars):
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