The Christmas Wishing Well

Gary Robert Muschla

 

Chapter 1

Jenna Mason drove her blue Ford hatchback along Main Street in Carrston Lake. Shops decorated for Christmas and shoppers wearing thick coats and carrying bags with gifts were proof that the holiday season had arrived, even though a week remained before Thanksgiving. Normally, Jenna would start feeling the warm glow of the Christmas spirit as soon as the days shortened and chilly winds brought the cold weather, but not this year.

She pulled into a parking space before a row of small stores and offices. Shutting the engine off, she turned to Audrey Jordon in the seat beside her. In her early sixties, her short hair streaked with silver, Audrey was twice Jenna’s age but among her closest friends in town.

“Are you sure you want to do this today?” Jenna asked.

Audrey inhaled deeply as if to steady herself. “It’s time I got Bob’s personal things from the office. I still can’t believe he’s gone.” She squeezed Jenna’s hand. “You’ve been such a help through this.”

“I wish I could do more,” Jenna said. Since coming to Carrston Lake about six years ago, she’d been Bob Jordon’s secretary for his one-man law practice, and like everyone else who knew him, she mourned his sudden passing. “Ready?”

Audrey nodded.

“Let’s go,” Jenna said. Getting out of the car, a chill shook her and she drew the collar of her coat up against the wind. A little taller than average, Jenna was slender and had blue eyes and an oval face framed by blonde hair that fell in loose ripples to below her shoulders.

They walked to a building with a stone facade, Jenna unlocked the door, and they stepped inside a two-room office. The front room, which contained Jenna’s wooden desk and a few chairs for waiting clients, was cluttered from the efforts of closing the practice. Stacks of folders stuffed with legal papers lined the walls and several cardboard boxes filled with folders had been set near the door. Other boxes, some partially filled and some empty, were piled around the room, leaving narrow pathways.

“I’ve been sorting the folders and packing them,” Jenna said, taking off her coat and hanging it on a rack by the door. “As many times as I asked Bob to let me organize the old files and put them in storage, he’d only laugh and say if I did he’d never be able to find anything.”

“That was Bob,” Audrey said, hanging her coat next to Jenna’s. “Right after we were married, we bought this building…that was nearly forty years ago…and I don’t think he ever threw anything out because he might need it someday. You don’t know how many times I suggested he let you use your experience as a decorator to redo the office.”

Jenna smiled. “Whenever I brought the subject up, he’d tell me he’d think about it.”

Before moving to Carrston Lake, Jenna had worked for an interior decorator and hoped to start her own business here. But demand for her services was weak in the unhurried, small town in upstate New York, and she felt fortunate when she found work with Bob after his former secretary retired.

“I’ve managed to place most of his open cases with other lawyers,” Jenna said. “There are some, though, that nobody’s willing to take on because the cases are almost done or Bob was doing the work as a favor. And then there’s Margaret Carrston’s case. Nobody wants that one.”

“I’ve been thinking about somebody who may be willing to help,” Audrey said.

“Who?”

“Dan Reynolds.”

“Reynolds?” said Jenna, recalling a name that Bob had once mentioned. “Wasn’t his mother Bob’s secretary at one time?”

Audrey nodded. “That was before you moved here. When Dan was a baby, his father was killed in an accident at work. His mother never remarried. Anyways, we got to know Dan really well as he grew up, and when he decided to go to law school, Bob promised him a job. But Dan’s mother passed away while he was still in school, and after he graduated, he moved to New York City and took a position with a big firm. He never came back to Carrston Lake. He called off and on for a while, but I haven’t heard from him for a few years now.”

“So why do you think he’d help?” Jenna said.

“Dan always had a good heart,” said Audrey. “If he’s anything like the boy I remember, he’ll help.”

Jenna followed Audrey to the back room that contained Bob’s desk, a conference table, and several chairs. Picking her way around boxes, Audrey got to the desk and began searching through Bob’s old rotary card file.

“Now let me see,” Audrey said. “Would Bob have him filed under D or R?”

“If he liked Dan,” Jenna said, “try D.

* * * *

Dan Reynolds was speaking on the phone as he sat at his desk in his office, the wide window behind him offering a dazzling view of the New York City skyline.

“I’ll need those financial records as soon as possible,” he said. His brown eyes brightened at the reply. “Thanks…”

As he put the handset down into its cradle, he looked up to see Carl Leonard, the managing partner of Ellison, Martino, and Leonard, breeze into the room. Dan rose to greet his boss.

“Good morning, Carl,” he said, stepping around his desk, his gray suit accenting his tall, solid frame.

“It’s a good one only if you have good news on that merger,” said Carl. He was a thin man with dark hair who was known for his energy and drive.

“It’s a good morning then,” said Dan, “because we’re making progress. I expect the report on the financials next week.” Their law firm was representing the larger of two companies in merger negotiations.

“Excellent!” said Carl. “If we make this happen, we’ll cement our relationship with a major client and up our profile.”

Dan nodded. At times, he wondered if Carl’s single quest in life was to build their law firm into the biggest practice on Wall Street before the end of the day.

“Remember, Dan,” he said, “the payoff won’t be just for the firm…you’re the point man on this. You’re looking at a possible partnership.”

Again, Dan nodded. He couldn’t forget since Carl had been reminding him for the past six months.

“I want this deal closed before the end of the year,” Carl said.

“I see that happening.”

“Make sure it does.” Carl turned and left as briskly as he’d come.

As Dan was about to go back to his work, Leah Ellison knocked on his open door.

“Hi Dan, can I come in?” she said, not waiting for an answer. She walked forward, stretched up, and kissed him lightly on the cheek.

“I’m surprised to see you,” Dan said.

“Can you forgive me for not making an appointment?” She smiled. “Being the daughter of one of the founding partners of this firm has its advantages.” With her flowing auburn hair, eyes that turned from green to brown in changing light, and a body that many models would envy, Leah was as beautiful as she was charming.

“You’re forgiven,” Dan said.

“Good,” she said. “I was on my way downtown. I’m starting my Christmas shopping early, and since I was passing by the office, I decided to stop in. So, have you made plans for Thanksgiving?”

“No,” Dan said, not liking where this was going. “I’m planning to have a day off.”

“How boring.” Leah smiled, opened her purse, and handed him a card. “Here’s an invitation for the Thanksgiving dinner party my family’s having.”

Dan glanced at the invitation and suppressed a frown. “A formal invitation…hand-delivered no less.”

Leah looked at him with a playful pout. “I took a chance you had no plans, and it was a good excuse to see you.”

Dan smiled. He often wondered why she would show the slightest interest in him, but the greater question was why he wasn’t interested in her.

“Leah, I appreciate you thinking of me, and I appreciate the invitation—” he said.

“Then you’ll come.”

The ring of his cell phone rescued him from a talk he preferred not to have. Lifting the phone from his jacket pocket, and seeing the name of the caller, he looked at Leah.

“I have to take this,” he said. “It’s Audrey Jordon, an old friend from Carrston Lake.”

“Isn’t that where you grew up?” said Leah.

Dan nodded and answered. “Hello…Audrey, it’s good to hear your voice. It’s been a long time. How are you and Bob?”

As he listened to Audrey, a heaviness came upon him. “I’m sorry. Is there anything I can do?” When she asked him about finishing Bob’s remaining cases, he didn’t hesitate. “I’ll drive up Monday…see you then.”

He slipped the phone back into his pocket and looked at Leah.

“Bob Jordon, her husband, died,” he said.

“Did you know him well?”

“Yeah…I did.”

“Sorry,” Leah said. “What does Audrey want you to do?”

“She needs help with closing down Bob’s law practice.” Thinking of all that entailed, he let out a deep breath. This wasn’t going to be easy.

“Carl won’t be happy with you taking time off, especially now. I can speak to my father.”

“No,” Dan said. “I have plenty of vacation days I can use. Carl will have to understand. I shouldn’t be upstate long, and I can keep up with work from there. I’ll put time in at night…I’ll be fine.”

“I know you will,” Leah said. “Well…I have to go.” Her soft kiss graced his cheek. “I really would like you to come for Thanksgiving. Call me.”

“I will,” said Dan.

After she was gone, Dan turned to the window and looked out at the skyline. He couldn’t recall when he’d last been to Carrston Lake.

* * * *

With the late afternoon sun streaming in through the front window of the office, Jenna stood over her desk, organizing a pile of folders, while Audrey sorted through old law journals by the bookshelf. They’d been working since arriving in the morning.

“I’d like to think we’re making progress,” Audrey said.

“We are,” said Jenna, sliding a folder in between two others.

Hearing the front door open, Jenna looked up as Margaret Carrston came in. A petite woman, her hair having long gone gray, Margaret had never married but was considered to be the honorary grandmother of everyone in Carrston Lake.

“Hello, ladies,” Margaret said. “I was picking up some lights at the hardware store for the Christmas Village and noticed the office was open. I wanted to say hello.”

“Glad you stopped by,” said Audrey. “I wish we could offer you something, but…” She gestured around the cluttered room where they barely had space to stand.

“Thanks…I don’t need anything,” Margaret said.

“How are the preparations for this year’s Christmas Village coming?” said Jenna.

From Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day, Margaret hosted a Christmas Village on land she owned along the lake at the edge of town.

“Work’s coming along,” said Margaret, “but there’s always so much to do.”

“I’ll be there to help next week,” Audrey said.

Margaret’s face softened. “I understand if you don’t help this time.”

“Helping will be good for me,” said Audrey. “It’s Christmas.”

“I’ll be there, too,” said Jenna. “I look forward to setting up the village every year.”

“I appreciate both of you pitching in,” said Margaret, a small smile lifting the corners of her mouth. But then the smile slipped away. “I don’t know what’s going to happen to the village next year if I’m forced to sell the property. I got another letter from the bank about foreclosure. I may have to take that offer from Barrett Harmmont.”

“His offer is too low, Margaret,” said Jenna. “He’s taking advantage of you.”

“I know,” Margaret said. “My family has run the Christmas Village for four generations. And now…” She shook her head.

“You don’t have to accept that offer yet,” said Audrey. “Remember Dan Reynolds?”

“A polite boy,” said Margaret. “Didn’t he become a lawyer and move to the city?”

“Yes, he did,” Audrey said. “I called him and he agreed to come and finish Bob’s cases. He might be able to help.”

“I hope so,” said Margaret. With a sudden twinkle, she smiled at Jenna. “I recall that Dan is a handsome young man about your age. Now, supposing he’s not taken…and since you haven’t found any man in Carrston Lake to your liking yet…”

“Oh, Margaret, stop,” said Jenna lightly, heat rushing to her cheeks. “I’m only being particular. Besides, I have Kayla, and my time’s taken up raising her.”

“You’re doing an outstanding job with that little girl,” said Audrey.

“Thanks, Audrey,” Jenna said. “I try.” She straightened her shoulders. “As you ladies chat, I should get back to work.”

She retreated to the other room where more files remained to be organized.