A Cloud Mountain Christmas – Robin Lee Hatcher

Maddie Scott’s heart stopped in mid-beat: SUPER BOWL MVP CRAIG HOUSTON WEDS ACTRESS SHARI WARD. COUPLE’S FIRST CHILD EXPECTED IN FEBRUARY. “Miss? Are you ready?” She looked toward the convenience store clerk, trying to ignore the humming in her ears. The girl frowned. “Are you ready to pay for those things?” “Yes.” Maddie grabbed the magazine and dropped it, a bag of chips, and a soda onto the counter. “I’m ready.” The clerk looked at the magazine cover. “That guy’s a hottie, huh?” Please be quiet. Biting her tongue, Maddie pulled a twenty-dollar bill from her wallet and held it toward the girl, hoping that would hurry her along. It worked. Two minutes later, Maddie pushed through the glass swinging door of the convenience store and hurried toward her rental car. She unlocked the driver side door of the black SUV with the remote, longing to get inside, away from anyone’s view. As soon as the car door was open, she tossed her purchases onto the passenger seat, then slid behind the wheel. It shouldn’t matter.

It didn’t matter. Craig Houston hadn’t been a part of her life for over four years. Their five-year marriage had crumbled beneath the weight of his bad habits and extramarital affairs. Her love for him was killed slowly but surely long before the signatures were dry on the divorce papers that had ended both her marriage and her dreams for the future. “I don’t want kids, Maddie. I’m not cut out to be a dad.” Tears pooled in her eyes as the memory echoed in her mind. The truth was, Craig hadn’t wanted kids with her. He looked happy enough on the cover of that magazine with his pregnant bride. She wiped away the tears with the back of her hand. Silly to get upset over this. It wasn’t as if she didn’t know Craig and that actress were an item. She’d have to be a nun in a French Alps monastery to be unaware. Their faces had been plastered in various magazines, week after week, the handsome NFL jock and the gorgeous Hollywood star. It was the injustice of it all that stuck in Maddie’s craw.

Here she was, four years after the divorce, swimming in a sea of debt—the debt Craig left her, no less—and her exhusband was living the high life. She drew a deep breath. “God, don’t let me give in to self-pity. I know that what Craig does and who he marries has nothing to do with me. Help me to quit looking back. Help me to trust You with my future.” She turned the key in the ignition and backed the SUV out of its parking place. By force of will, Maddie turned her thoughts to the reason for her trip into the snowy Idaho mountains. If she did her job, the resulting commission could wipe out her debt. Wouldn’t that make this her best Christmas in years? The two-lane highway wove its way through the foothills, climbing steadily into the majestic mountains. Frequent switchbacks and blind corners kept her speed from topping forty miles per hour, and the white snowscape made her eyes tired, despite her sunglasses. After nine years in Southern California, she was more used to sand and surf than this winter wonderland. Today was Maddie’s first time on this particular stretch of road. Although she grew up in Idaho and had skied on occasion, her idea of the perfect winter holiday was a comfortable chair near a blazing fire, a mug of hot tea in one hand and a good book in the other. Cloud Mountain, her destination, had a year-round population of about six hundred and fifty.

Decades ago, it had been a popular ski area, but today it was mostly forgotten, overshadowed as it was by its more famous Idaho cousins such as Sun Valley, McCall, and Tamarack. Why would anyone invest money in a lodge that—according to all reports—had fallen into serious disrepair, a lodge located on a mountain most skiers didn’t know existed? Without a wealthy conglomerate behind them, who could hope to compete against the better-known resorts? She had to wonder about Anthony Anderson, the new owner of Cloud Mountain Lodge. Was he reckless or simply not bright? Well, at least she was getting a long weekend out of the trip. And tucked away in the mountains of Idaho, she needn’t worry about running into Craig and his new bride on the streets of LA. * * * Tony Anderson took several steps backward and stared at the Christmas tree in the corner of the lobby. Colored lights twinkled, reflecting off tinsel, garland, and ornaments. Empty boxes, wrapped like gifts, peeked from beneath the lower limbs of the fragrant pine tree. “What do you think, Audrey?” “It’s a work of art. Prettiest I’ve seen in this place in years.” “Good enough to make the guests feel festive for the holidays anyway.” He glanced at his watch. “Speaking of guests, is the room ready for Mr. Fairchild’s representative?” “It’s ready. Got the new sheets and comforter on the bed and fresh towels in the bathroom. Don’t you worry.

She’ll get the royal treatment while she’s here.” “I can always count on you.” Tony thanked the Lord frequently for Audrey Tremaine. The woman was a godsend, no doubt about it. She had worked at the lodge for forty-two years, starting as a maid when she was twenty-years-old. Although she now wore the title of head housekeeper, she did more than keep the place clean and tidy. She pretty much ran it, from manning the front desk to ordering supplies to hiring part time help to making their guests feel at home. Of course, until they had more guests, he supposed it wasn’t all that hard for Audrey to manage the lodge. But if the manuscript brought the price some thought it would, he wouldn’t have to worry about money. The renovations of Cloud Mountain Lodge wouldn’t take years to complete. He wouldn’t have to do the majority of the work himself. The lodge could be bigger and better than his original plans. He had plenty of ideas. What he lacked to make them come true was cold hard cash. “How about the rooms for the Sullivan family reunion?” He picked up the empty boxes that had held the Christmas decorations.

“We’re on schedule. All you need is to get that paper hung in the green room.” “I was planning to do that later today.” He headed down the hall toward the back door. Audrey called after him, “Hurry back. Cookie made cornbread and a pot of chili for lunch. It’s ready when you are.” “Sounds good. Be right back.” Cold air bit him the instant he stepped outside. He hunched his shoulders as he strode down the steps and along the shoveled walkway to the shed. After tossing the empty boxes inside, he glanced toward the new metal building that housed a workshop, his Jeep, and the used-but-new-to-him snowcat. All things considered, a great deal had been accomplished since last May when he took possession of the lodge. It felt good, watching it come together. Every day he thanked God for allowing him to live his dream.

He turned and strode back to the lodge, thankful for the warmth that greeted him. “How was the drive, Miss Scott?” he heard Audrey say. “Were the roads clear?” A woman replied, “Yes, they were dry almost the whole way. Thank goodness. I haven’t driven in snow for too many years.” Sounded like David Fairchild’s representative had arrived. Tony drew a deep breath while checking to make certain the tails of his flannel shirt were tucked into the waistband of his Levi’s. “Your will be done, Lord,” he whispered, then walked toward the lobby, pausing when he reached the doorway. Audrey stood behind the counter while the woman signed the check-in form. Three designer bags—well-worn but high quality—and a black leather briefcase sat on the hardwood floor near their guest’s feet. She wore straight-legged jeans, snow boots, and a white, down-filled parka. The coat looked new, not surprising since the woman was from LA. Audrey handed a key card to the guest. As she did so, she saw Tony and smiled. “Here he is now.

Miss Scott, this is Mr. Anderson, the man who found the manuscript.” Before the woman turned completely around, before Tony saw more than a glimpse of her profile, he recognized her. Maddie Scott. Her straight black hair was longer. She looked a little thinner. But it was Maddie.


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Updated: 24 November 2021 — 02:13

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