A Beautiful Day Once by Tracy Joy Jones

A Beautiful Day Once (a novella) – Chapter 2

A Note from Tracy:

Thanks so much for joining me for another installment of A Beautiful Day Once. Through the magic of Google Earth, I had such a fun time walking the streets of Woodstock and exploring the Cherry Tree Inn. If you’d like a reservation at the Inn over Groundhog’s Day, let me warn you, they do it by a lottery system. A few thousand people request reservations each year, so they have a cut-off date, and then they draw names from those who entered to see who will get to stay at the Inn. Can you imagine winning that lucky ticket? So fun.

However, I’m not sure if the lottery system still applies during a blizzard. For my story’s sake, it doesn’t. Also, I need to note that the locations in my story are real in Woodstock, Illinois, but none of the people represented in my story are real people. You will not meet Trudy or any of the other characters if you happen to visit. But don’t let that stop you.

And if you’re new to the story, click on these links to catch up on what you’ve missed so far:

Happy Reading!

Chapter 2

A grin as wide as the Chicago river stretched across Eden’s face as she exited onto US-14 W toward Woodstock, Illinois. If not for the promise she’d made to Isla and Abby, Eden would have taken this road as soon as she could drive. But when she suggested it to her friends, Isla flatly refused.

“No! Eden, we can’t. If we go now, you’ll lose the magic of us all going together for your birthday. We’ll lose the magic of your wish.” Isla’s pleading blue eyes were so wide in her heart-shaped face, they reminded Eden of the sparkly-eyed beanie babies Isla collected when she was ten. Her friend’s bed and bookshelves had resembled a many-eyed, magical creature from the deep, lurking in frozen cuteness. Maybe Isla had spent too long under their influence.

“But Isla, it’s only two hours away. All this time, I thought we were going to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, and instead they filmed it just down the road. What if it’s not there in ten years? How can we be this close and not go?”

Isla rolled her eyes. “Of course, it’ll be there. It’s a tourist attraction. They probably make a ton of money off Groundhog’s Day. Please, Eden. If we go now, we won’t go back when we turn twenty-four. It won’t be special. Right, Abby?”

Abby put down her pencil and raised her reading glasses to the top of her head. “I think we should go. Get it over with. Why wait?” Abby’s voice was firm as if she’d already made up her mind.

A ripple of shock went through Eden at being presented with a clear yes. Suddenly, she was torn. She felt exhilaration at the thought of actually going, and at the same time, sadness as if she was losing something. Did she really want to “get it over with”? Would it be precious if they went now? Would they still go in ten years as they’d promised?

She caught a glint of mischief in Abby’s eyes, daring Eden to give in and choose the utilitarian path. After all, it was Eden’s romantic idea to go when they were twenty-four. It was much more practical to go now and not assume they’d be friends in the distant future. But that was Abby, not Eden.

Eden needed romance. She needed to hope that things would get better. She needed to look forward to being independent and doing something fabulous with her life, like curating a museum or doing her own art shows. She needed color and vibrancy ahead of her.

It all came down to what she wanted more. She could go now and check off a bucket-list item at only sixteen-years-old. Or she could wait and go on her twenty-fourth birthday, and live the next ten years with an adventure ahead of her. Ten years with a memory, or ten years with hope…

“Fine.” Eden stretched the word as if in martyred resignation, and rolled her eyes for full effect. “You guys win. But if I can’t go now, we all have to promise not to go until we go together. Deal?”

Abby smirked and shrugged. “Deal.”

Eden narrowed her eyes at her friend, realizing she’d been played. Abby knew her too well. But Eden couldn’t maintain her glare and had to laugh.

“You won’t be sorry.” Isla hugged her tightly.

And she wasn’t. From that moment, it didn’t just feel like Eden’s dream. It belonged to all three of them.

Having the trip in front of them gave them a point of connection over the years. As it turned out, they’d desperately needed it. After high school graduation, Abby had gone off to university in New York. Isla left on what she called a “break year” to discover herself. And Eden won the lottery for a full scholarship to the School of Art Institute in Chicago. For the first time in her life, she was glad of her mom’s “disability” and an income level way below the poverty line. But it also meant that instead of living in the dorms, experiencing college life, and escaping home the way she’d always longed to, she lived in their tiny apartment, attended school, and took care of her mom.

Maybe God had known how much she’d need this trip as a tiny pinprick of light at the end of the tunnel. The three friends never again connected the way they did in junior high and high school. As adults, they lived separate lives, permeated by lunch dates, birthday visits, and occasional phone calls. Yet having a fixed star in their future had kept them in contact. It kept Eden referring to Abby and Isla as her best friends long after it stopped being true. It still felt true—because of this trip.

The only thing missing now, was having her friends with her in the car. Eden still had the uncomfortable feeling she was breaking a promise in going to Woodstock without them, but she didn’t know what else to do. She’d tried four different hotels before finally finding an available room at the Best Western. The man on the phone informed her she was a “very lucky girl” and that she should be grateful because the entire city was booked. But Eden didn’t feel lucky or grateful. She’d seen pictures of the hotel online. There had to be another option, any other option. She hadn’t spent ten years looking forward to staying at the Best Western. Surely there would be other blizzard cancellations, but the two places she really wanted to stay, the Town Square Inn and the Cherry Street Bed and Breakfast, weren’t answering their phones. She wasn’t sure if that was due to a high volume of calls with cancellations or reservations. She hoped it was the former.

It was Abby who insisted Eden go ahead of them and try to find another place to stay. “I’m sorry, Eden. I’m not staying at the Best Western. I’ve traveled too much to risk another round of bed bugs. There’ll be something. You just need to go in person and kick down some doors.”

Eden hated to admit it, but if they wanted a better place to stay, it seemed like the only solution. Yet even with her friend’s blessing, Eden couldn’t help feeling like she was breaking the pact. They were supposed to go together.

She glanced at her dashboard clock—2:34pm. Abby’s flight landed in two hours. The thought gave her a small measure of comfort. Neither of them had directly spoken to Isla. Wilder had intercepted Abby’s call as well, agreeing to the plan on his sister’s behalf. It was all so strange. Eden couldn’t wait to get to the bottom of that mystery tonight.

One more turn, one more stretch of frozen road, and she was taking the exit for Woodstock. For a fraction of a section, she wondered where to go first. She wanted to see everything—but not without her friends. If there was even a remote chance that the Cherry Tree Inn Bed and Breakfast was available, she had to start there.

Unable to contain herself a moment longer, she started her “Groundhog’s Day Birthday Weekend Extravaganza” Playlist with Sonny and Cher. She could practically hear Isla squealing with glee—or at least the Isla she’d known when she was fourteen. Even Abby would have to smile at this. Every song from the movie and a few of their favorites from high school would take them all on a trip down memory lane.

Especially if they got to stay at THE bed and breakfast.

Her GPS chirped, and she turned onto one snowy street after another before hearing, “Your destination is on your right.”

Eden’s jaw dropped as if she’d happened upon the Mona Lisa. She quickly slipped the car into park but left the engine running. The frigid air would chill her vehicle without the heater, and for a moment, she simply wanted to enjoy the view.

The triple story Victorian mansion seemed frozen in a movie still, forever unchanging. Snow blanketed the garden and buried the white picket fence that ran the length of its perimeter. The mansion had probably stood unchanged for a hundred years and might go on the same way for a hundred more. A large wrap-around porch welcomed visitors at every side, and a turreted gable on the front of the house gave the old mansion an air of grandeur. Blue-gray trim edged the abundance of windows and flowed like a carpet down the front stairs. The cool modern, color contrasted beautifully with the white siding and snow. The Cherry Tree Inn Bed and Breakfast was a stately old girl, and Eden would have loved her even if she hadn’t dreamed of her for ten years.

Who had lived here once upon a time? Who was this house before it became Groundhog’s Day? Did it host a family? It seemed more likely to have belonged to a wealthy, old widow with gardeners and maids and no one to fill its rooms. Maybe that’s why the house had chosen to become a bed and breakfast in its second life. Now new guests constantly visited, new faces appreciated its age and comforts. In the hands of careful managers, the mansion had all the love it needed to see it into the next century.

Eden couldn’t help herself. Hope rose like a bubble that she hardly dared voice. What if there had been a cancellation? What if they could stay here for just one night? It seemed too good to be true. But sitting in her car admiring the view wasn’t going to get her anywhere.

Donning the heavy coat she’d shed at mile thirty, she pulled a pair of soft fur-lined mittens from the coat’s pockets, then wrapped a brightly woven scarf around her neck and mouth. As her last act of committing to the cold, she killed the Jetta’s engine, braced herself, and forced her door to open against the fury of the gathering wind. It took her forty steps to reach the front door. The perfect amount. She laughed to herself that it might be a sign and rang the doorbell, starting her counting game all over again, this time before the cold became unbearable.

She could hear someone calling long before the door opened. “Coming! Coming!”

The woman who opened was definitely not the sweet little old lady from Groundhog’s Day.

“I told you to come in! Come in. Don’t just stand there, it’s freezing, and I don’t have a jacket. Honestly.”

She bustled away without another word.

Eden stepped into the entry and closed the door behind her. She stood there mystified as to whether to follow or wait.

A second later, the woman’s disembodied voice drifted from beyond the gorgeous entry hall. “I’m back here! Come on through.”

Eden stamped her feet on the oversized rug before pulling off her snow boots and stacking them beside a row of similar black boots drying in a long plastic grated tray. She’d hate to track muddy snow anywhere in the beautiful old building. The oak floors beyond the rug shone as if just polished. The wooden banister leading to the upper floors did the same. Eden had often been told that everything looks smaller in real life than it does on TV, and that was true here as well. The entry had always seemed enormous in the movie, but in reality, it was little more than a boot stacking station and an entry port to a variety of room. Still, she was actually here. Bill Murray had walked down that staircase. He’d used that powder room. He’d watched Jeopardy in that living room.

Eden padded past two vicious, full-sized, stone lions who stood guard at the entry fireplace. The cheery fire beckoned her, and she paused for another moment to revel in the warmth. This whole place would be the perfect place to hibernate during a blizzard.

“Are you still out there?” The woman’s voice called again from the living room.

“I’m here. Sorry, I’m coming.”

She skirted the double-sided fireplace and entered the room that lay beyond it. The grandeur of the stately old house shone in full effect in this room. A massive chandelier hung from the plastered ceiling, with dark leather seating groups scattered tastefully throughout the space. It was a room for curling up with a good book and a mug of hot chocolate. It was a room for a late night game of scrabble, and whispering secrets by the fire.

An elderly couple played chess in one corner, and the woman from the entry hall sat with her back to Eden at a small desk. It had been a long time since Eden had seen anyone so desperately in need of a makeover. The woman’s eyebrows might never have seen tweezers in her life. Her hair was an uncomfortably natural shade of steel gray, especially when juxtaposed next to the features of her face. Everything about her hair, face, and body said she might be in her late fifties, but her blue eyes and the wrinkle-free skin belonged in a much younger woman. Eden was shocked to realize that she might even have been pretty if she wanted to be.

The woman swiveled suddenly in her chair, giving Eden the once over before motioning to a seat beside the desk.

“So, I’m guessing you’re Mrs. Baxter checking in?” She sat with pen poised, waiting only for Eden to confirm her identity.

“What? Uh, no. I’m sorry, I’m not.”

“Ms. Craine?”

“No, sorry.”

“Well, then who are you?”

“I’m Eden Parrish. I wondered if I could ask you…”

The shrill ring of a landline phone cut her off. The woman held up a finger to Eden and lifted the receiver to answer.

“Cherry Tree Inn Bed and Breakfast. This is Trudy speaking. How can I help you?”

The woman’s voice was only a smidgen friendlier on the phone, but Eden couldn’t help feeling a small prickle of irritation. Where had the woman been all morning when Eden had called and called with no answer? Why had this caller done what she couldn’t? She quietly took a seat in the carved wooden chair beside the desk to wait.

“Uh, huh. Well, mister, today’s your lucky day. Just had a cancellation. Yup. Arriving today. Great. I have a room sitting ready.”

Eden’s heart began to race. They had available rooms. Elation shot through her system like adrenaline. It was too good to be true.

“Can I get your name? Oh, that’s a good name. And will it just be you or will your wife be joining you?”

Whatever the man said on the other end of the phone had clearly been the right answer. Trudy’s voice lowered and softened as she talked, and she twirled the phone cord the way Isla used to do with her hair when talking to a boyfriend. It was uncomfortable to watch.

“Well, we’ll look forward to taking care of you, Mr. James. Can I just get a credit card to reserve the room?”

Isla’s brain had stopped. Mr. James. She’d said, Mr. James. As in Wilder James. Her breathing shallowed, and now she was the one twirling a lock of honey gold hair around her finger. He must be really coming then. She’d wondered with what he’d said, but she hadn’t really believed it. Why was he coming on their girls only vacation? Maybe he was coming because of whatever was happening with Isla. Had he always been so overprotective?

The lady finished the next part of the conversation quickly, hanging up the phone with a happy little sigh.

“Mmmm, mmmm. He sounds delicious.” Trudy finished writing something in her ledger and then suddenly seemed to remember Eden. She even smiled.

“Okay, sorry about that. It’s been crazy around here. Lisa is down with flu, so I’m filling in, but I’m just her second-cousin so be warned—if I don’t have the answers, I make them up. Oh, I’m doing this all backward. I’m Trudy, and you are?”

Eden had already introduced herself, but she did so again and this time shook the woman’s hand.

“And what can I do for you, Eden?”

Eden took a deep breath. This was the moment. “I was wondering if you have any availability for tonight. I thought with the blizzard coming in, you might have had some cancelations.”

Trudy raised one intensely tweezed eyebrow, and then her face grimaced dramatically.

“Oh, honey. I just gave our last room to that nice man. You just missed it.”

She just…

She just missed it? What?!?

“But I was already here,” she managed to splutter.

“Well, you were, and you weren’t. Weren’t you? You took forever in the entry hall. Drives you crazy when that happens, doesn’t it? But this is a good lesson for you.”

Eden could feel her jaw hanging open, her face twisting uncomfortably with frustration and a twinge of injustice fueled anger.

“But I was sitting here when he called. Shouldn’t that count for something?”

“Hmmm. Well, I’ll just have to make a judgment call. As I said, I’m the only one here this afternoon, and as I see it, Mr. James was the first one to get to the point.” Trudy shrugged. “Sorry. Try again in a few weeks. I’m sure Lisa will be able to get you in.”

“But it’s Groundhog’s Day this weekend.”

Trudy nodded and smiled. “Exactly. He’s lucky he got a room.”

Oh, the infuriating woman. She didn’t make any sense at all. If Eden hadn’t come this close to her dream, she would have just been a little disappointed and moved on. But sitting here, knowing she’d almost had a room here for the night felt like torture.

“Could you tell me the name of the guy you just gave my room to?”

“Oh, no way. I’ve got dibs on that one. You can always tell by a man’s voice, don’t you think? Anyway, I’m pretty sure there’s some kind of policy against that, and if there isn’t, there probably should be.”

Trudy shrugged as if it was the rules and she didn’t make them up—which she obviously did.

And was this bizarre lady actually claiming “dibs” on the guy she’d spoken to for less than two minutes? It was worse than Jr. High school. If it was Wilder James on the other end of the phone, he’d probably have a good laugh at the whole thing. Then again, if it was Wilder, maybe there was still a chance. Would he be willing to stay at the Best Western so that the girls could stay in luxury?

Eden tried to imagine Wilder hanging his Tom Ford suit in the tiny cubicle at the Best Western, his handsome face jaundiced in the horrible yellow light. Nope, she couldn’t imagine him staying there, but maybe he was a better man than her imagination gave him credit for.

And then there was always his sister. For as long as Eden remembered, Isla had always been able to get Wilder to do anything she wanted. Eden suspected Abby was bribing him, yet years later, Isla had accidentally revealed that the truth was closer to blackmail.

What secrets was Wilder James hiding? Isla would never share, not even with her best friends. And what was the real reason for his trip to Woodstock, Illinois? Back in the entry hall, Eden slipped on her boots and bundled her scarf around her neck in preparation for the cold. The one thing she was sure of was that Wilder James wasn’t about to steal her dream room in her dream bed and breakfast in her dream vacation locale, and not give her a few answers in return.

Thank you so much for reading with me! Keep reading with Chapter 3. And make sure to sign up for my newsletter to read the full book coming soon!

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