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Winter at Cedarwood Lodge by Rebecca Raisin (1)

Staring up at the imposing structure with its weathered façade, I had a terrible premonition that I’d made a mistake. A huge one. But, I reasoned, clawing back rising panic, I had always wanted to buy the hundred-year-old abandoned lodge. It had been put up for sale recently, and I’d jumped at the chance. The old place had good sturdy bones; it was solid, despite the desertion of its caretakers eons ago.

Even though I’d always dreamed about owning Cedarwood Lodge I hadn’t expected for it to happen so soon. But it had, and I’d fallen madly in love with the place as it stood, shutters broken, doors in need of paint, ivy creeping through broken panes of glass, and cascading roses growing wild and free around the porch balustrades. Here was a place untouched for decades and I had a chance to bring it back to its former glory.

The September sky shifted from foggy wisps of gray to country blue as dawn arrived in the small New Hampshire town of Evergreen. A sputtering car swung into the long, winding driveway and I turned to watch my oldest friend, Micah, leap from his battered hatchback.

We’d been best friends since childhood and, though we’d drifted apart as adults, he was the first person I called when I bought Cedarwood Lodge – I offered him the job of maintenance manager, which he’d accepted with a ‘Hell, yeah.’

“You look exactly the same, Micah,” I said, reaching up for a hug. “You haven’t aged a bit.” He’d filled out, no longer the lanky teenager I’d left behind, but aside from that he was the same old Micah with the same affable smile.

“It’s the daily hikes up the bluff. That thin mountain air does wonders for my skin.” He waggled his eyebrows. “We’ve got a lot of catching up to do. I almost fell over when you called. Lucky for you I was between jobs…”

“Lucky for me, all right.”

I couldn’t believe it’d been so long – when was the last time we had properly caught up? Five years ago, six? Time had ticked by so fast while I’d been away.

“You’re different,” he said, gesturing to my outfit and my usual flyaway curls restrained with a clip. “A little more polished.”

I grinned. “Denim cut-offs and messy hair didn’t quite cut it in Manhattan.”

“What? Crazy city folk.” He clucked his tongue.

“Right?” I joked. “How’s Veronica?” I expected him to gush about his long-term girlfriend. Instead, his lips turned down for the briefest second, before he masked it with a smile.

“Veronica? There’s a blast from the past. I haven’t seen her for two and a bit years now. She was like you, Clio, left town and didn’t look back.”

Surprise knocked me sideways that she’d left town, left Micah.

“Sorry, Micah. I thought…” Way to go, Clio!

He touched my shoulder, giving me time to wrench the metaphorical foot from my mouth. “It’s OK.” He let out a half-laugh. “One day she just decided this place was too small for her big dreams. This town, it isn’t for everyone.”

An awkward silence hung between us. What kind of friend had I been to him? If I’d known I would have come home for a visit to comfort him, make sure he was OK, like he would have done for me. Shame colored my cheeks, because I realized if he had called me I probably would have played the too busy card.

I knew Micah inside out – or at least I had at one point in my life – and I sensed he was downplaying the split. But I could see by the set of his jaw that the conversation was over. A part of me deflated – if they couldn’t make it, what hope did any of us have? They’d been the perfect couple.

I tried desperately to think of a subject that would get us back on an even keel. “Look at that view, Micah. Tell me I’m not imagining it – this place is magical, right?”

“Magic to its very core.” He flashed a grin, reminding me of the playful guy he’d been in high school. The one who transcended cliques and was friends with everyone. “And soon you’ll have the banging of hammers and the whine of drills to contend with, so soak up the serenity while you can.”

Work was set to start today – with plumbers, electricians, glaziers and carpenters arriving. Once they’d completed their jobs, painters would come in to pretty the place up. A project manager called Kai would be here soon to oversee it all while I concentrated on building the business and event side of things. Micah would float between us all and make sure things ran smoothly.

“Who’d have thought I’d end up back here, the proud and slightly nervous owner of Cedarwood Lodge?” I scrunched up my nose, my earlier doubts creeping back in. What had I done? I planned parties, not renovations! I hired places for events, I didn’t buy them! Sometimes my audacity at buying Cedarwood Lodge scared me silly. It was such a huge gamble.

With a smile Micah said softly, “Never in a million years would I have thought you’d come back from the bright lights of the big city. Seems once people get a taste for it, Evergreen pales into insignificance. But I’m so glad you did. Remember when we were kids and hung out here? Even back then you talked about the parties you’d host, colors you’d paint the place. Ten years old and you predicted Cedarwood would be yours, and you were right.”

The memories brought out a rash of goose bumps.

Cedarwood had been our own private playground. We had run breathless through the overgrown grounds, peeked into dusty windows and imagined the scenes that might have taken place there before it was abandoned.

The lodge had been closed ever since we could remember, and though stories had been whispered around town about the previous owners, we’d been too young to understand.

“It feels good to be home,” I said, meaning it. At that moment Manhattan seemed light years away. “I didn’t realize how much I missed you until I saw your goofy face.”

“Oh, that hurt, that hurt a lot. Goofy? Don’t think that just because you’ve come back all New York-ified that I’ve forgotten the girl with the uneven pigtails and mouth full of metal? The one who wore leg warmers as a fashion statement!” He raised a brow, challenging me.

I stifled a laugh. He was right. I had been a fashion don’t when I was a teenager, but things quickly changed when I met Amory – my best friend in New York – who showed me how to dress to impress.

Would I regress, being back home? Go back to sweats and trainers? In my tailored suits and perilously high heels, I felt as though I had slipped on a different persona.

In the so-called ‘city that never sleeps’ it had been crucial to be assertive, ambitious, and one step ahead of the game. It had taken me years to build up my client list and I’d worked so damn hard for it. Maybe the old adage was true: you can take the girl out of Evergreen but you can’t take Evergreen out of the girl, because here I was, home again.

I shielded my eyes from the rising sun. In the distance the mountain range was a riot of autumnal color: reds, ochres, dusty orange, and saffron yellow – the leaves on the hardwood trees clinging on for one more day.

“I hope I don’t mess things up, Micah. This is my last chance. So many things could go wrong,” I said seriously. I could lose everything. The place could remain silent, might never be filled with the tapping of high-heel shoes, the popping of champagne corks and peals of laughter. I couldn’t go back to Manhattan; that door was firmly closed. “What if, after all the work is done, no one hires the place?”

“Hey…” he said, gently rubbing my arm. “That’s not the Clio I know. Where’s the girl who left town screeching about setting the world ablaze?” He gave me a playful shove. “Where’s she gone?”

Up until a few months ago I’d been brimming with confidence, sure of my place in the world. But then I’d messed up – been too honest with a bride, misunderstanding her nerves for something else entirely. It had shaken me up, and made me question myself and my ambitions. Maybe I’d just been lucky before, but that bride kicked my legs out from under me, and I hadn’t quite managed to get back up yet.

“She’s. Right. Here.” I rallied, pasting on a smile.

“Is that supposed to be a smile or a grimace?”

I flashed a sillier grin, reverting back to my teenage self and finding it refreshing. “God, it’s good to see you, Micah.” He was the one person I could be myself with. There was no point pretending because he knew the real me.

“Evergreen was never quite the same without you.”

During our teenage years we’d spent weekends dreaming of a life outside of here. I guess we’d always thought the grass was greener elsewhere and, for a small-town girl, it was. It was so damn green it glowed, and I wished things had turned out differently there. At least I had Cedarwood as a consolation prize.

Micah grinned. “Hey…” He checked his watch. “Where’s your mom? I thought she’d be here.”

I shrugged. “I have no idea. When I rang again she made some flimsy excuse. I honestly thought she’d be bursting to see the inside of the lodge after all these years. But I guess she’ll get here when she gets here.”

My first day back in Evergreen I had driven straight to Mom’s place to surprise her with the news about buying Cedarwood Lodge. It had been almost impossible to keep it secret but I’d wanted to tell her face to face and had guilelessly expected shrieks of joy. Instead she paled to a ghostly white, as if I had told her something shocking. We’d never been super-close, but still, I’d expected a smile, a word of encouragement, a hug that said welcome home.

Up until last winter Mom had owned an inn in the center of Evergreen, so I’d also been hoping for a bit of guidance. In my heart of hearts I hoped buying the lodge would bring us closer together, but I guessed hoping didn’t make it so.

Micah smiled but it didn’t reach his eyes. “She’s probably just tying things up so she can concentrate properly once she gets here.” He pulled me into one of his breath-stealing bear hugs to comfort me, because we both knew it was more than that.

“Yeah,” I said. Mom was retired now, so it wasn’t as if she had anything keeping her busy per se. Maybe she just needed to get used to the idea that her taking-the-world-by-storm daughter was back home… without actually having taken the world by storm. Was she disappointed in me? It was hard to tell.

“First things first,” Micah said, dragging me back to reality. “Let’s check out your bedroom and see if I can make it a little more comfortable like you asked.”

Stepping into the warmth of the lodge, I snuck a glance over my shoulder to watch Micah’s reaction, and sure enough he was wide-eyed, just like I’d been at seeing the place for the first time. Faded sunlight caught the crystals in the chandeliers and cast prisms of color around the room. I breathed in the scent of long-forgotten memories before leading Micah up the spiral stairs to the suite that was to be my home for the foreseeable future.

I swung open the heavy oak door. The suite needed a little TLC, though the stone fireplace and view to the mountains made up for it.

“Right,” he said, surveying the scene. “This shouldn’t take too long; just needs a few nips and tucks and a lick of paint here and there.”

I smiled at Micah’s assurances that it wasn’t a big job, as I was eager to make the suite my own, and snuggle in bed with the mountains a stunning backdrop to my dreams. In the basement I’d found an antique bed with an elaborate bedhead, which I’d repainted champagne-white. Dragging it upstairs had been a feat, but one I managed with only a few scrapes and bruises. Once the room had a facelift with paint, some luxurious bedding, and new décor, it would feel more like me, more like home.

He opened the creaky bathroom door, exposing the old claw-foot tub and a marble vanity – the perfect room to relax in with a book and a rose-scented bubble bath after a long day.

“I can fix the broken tiles, and redo the grout.”

I nodded eagerly. While the lodge was ancient, the bathrooms were still functional, and would only need some modern accoutrements to get them up to code. Some proper exhaust fans, and new lighting, maybe heat lights for winter… my list kept on growing. “Great!”

I grabbed Micah’s arm, eager to show him the view from the landing at the top of the stairs and ask his advice on what to do with the space. The mountain range was visible from every window on the east side of the lodge and I wanted people to be able to soak it up in comfort. The reflection of the trees shimmered on the surface of the lake, and it was easy to lose an hour staring outside at such elemental beauty – it was spellbinding.

Our tour was interrupted by the rumble of engines roaring along the main road.

“Can you hear that?” I asked, dropping his arm and dashing closer to the window to get a glimpse of them arriving.

“That, my friend, is the sound of progress. Time to get your overalls on, Clio!” He gave my high heels a pointed look and was rewarded with an eye-roll. “Let’s meet them out front!”

We flew down the stairs and on to the porch to watch the procession arrive. Cars and trucks turned into the driveway in convoy. Some were loaded with supplies, others were bare except for hard-hatted drivers with determined expressions.

Anticipation sizzled through me. It was really happening! This beautiful, timeworn lodge was about to be transformed back into its glorious self.

My old life was behind me. Here – in the town where I grew up, in the abandoned lodge I’d played by as a child – people would fall in love, they’d marry, they’d have families, and then they’d return to Cedarwood and celebrate once more…

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