From USA TODAY bestselling author Sheila Roberts comes a multi-generational Christmas road trip story filled with humor and heart, set against the snowy mountains of Washington state.
The Road to Christmas
by Sheila Roberts
Publication Date: September 20, 2022
Michelle and Max Turnbull are not planning on a happy holiday. Their marriage is in shambles and the D word has entered their vocabulary. But now their youngest daughter, Julia, wants everyone to come to her new house in Idaho for Christmas, and she’s got the guest room all ready for Mom and Dad. Oh, joy.
Their other two daughters are driving up from California. Audrey from L.A., picking up Shyla in San Francisco and hoping to meet a sexy rancher for Audrey along the way. What they don’t plan on is getting stranded on a ranch when the car breaks down.
The ones with the shortest drive are Grandma and Grandpa Turnbull (Hazel and Warren). They only have to come from Medford, Oregon. It’s still a bit of a trek and Hazel doesn’t like the idea of driving all that way in snow, but Warren knows they’ll have no problem. They have a reliable car for driving in the snow—and snow tires and chains if they need them. They’ll be fine.
Surprises are in store for all three groups of intrepid travelers as they set out on three different road trips and three different adventures, all leading to one memorable Christmas.
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MICHELLE TURNBULL WOULD HAVE TWO turkeys in her house for Thanksgiving. One would be on the table, the other would be sitting at it.
“I can’t believe he’s still there,” said Ginny, her longtime clerk at the Hallmark store she managed. “You two are splitting, so why not rip the bandage off and be done with it?”
Rip the bandage off. There was an interesting metaphor. That implied that a wound was healing. The wound that was her marriage wasn’t healing, it was fatal.
She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and went to unlock the door. “Because I don’t want to ruin the holidays for the girls.”
“You think they aren’t going to figure out what’s going on with you two sleeping in separate bedrooms? Don’t be naive.”
Ginny may have been her subordinate, but that didn’t stop her from acting like Michelle’s mother. A ten-year age difference and a long friendship probably contributed to that. And with her mother gone, she doubly appreciated Ginny’s friendship and concern.
Michelle turned the sign on the door to Open. “I’ll tell them he snores.”
“All of a sudden, out of the blue?”
“Sleep apnea. He’s gained some weight.”
Ginny gave a snort. “Not that much. Max may have an inch hanging over the belt line but he’s still in pretty good shape.”
“You don’t have to be overweight to have sleep apnea.”
“I guess,” Ginny said dubiously. “But, Michelle, you guys have been having problems on and off for the last five years. Your girls have to know this is coming so I doubt your sleep-apnea excuse is going to fool anyone.”
Probably not. Much as she and Max had tried to keep their troubles from their daughters, bits of bitterness and reproach had leaked out over time in the form of sarcasm and a lack of what Shyla would have referred to as PDA. Michelle couldn’t remember the last time they’d held hands or kissed in front of any of their daughters. In fact, it was hard to remember the last time they’d kissed. Period.
“You have my permission to kick him to the curb as of yesterday,” Ginny went on. “If you really want your holidays to be happy, get him gone.”
“Oh, yeah, that would make for happy holidays,” Michelle said. “Audrey and Shyla would love coming home to find their father moved out just in time for Thanksgiving dinner and their grandparents absent.”
“If you’re getting divorced, that’s what they’ll find next year,” Ginny pointed out.
“But at least they’ll have a year to adjust,” Michelle said. “And this is Julia’s first Christmas in her new home and with a baby. I don’t want to take the shine away from that.”
The coming year would put enough stress on them all. She certainly wasn’t going to kick it all off on Thanksgiving. That wouldn’t make for happy holidays.
Happy holidays. Who was she kidding? The upcoming holidays weren’t going to be happy no matter what.
“Well, I see your point,” said Ginny. “But good luck pulling off the old sleep-apnea deception.”
Their first customer of the day came in, and that ended all talk of Michelle’s marriage miseries. Which was fine with her. Focusing on her miserable relationship didn’t exactly put a smile on her face, and wearing a perpetual frown was no way to greet shoppers.
After work, she stopped at the grocery store and picked up the last of what she needed for Thanksgiving: the whipped cream for the fruit salad and to top the pumpkin and pecan pies, the extra eggnog for Shyla, her eggnog addict, Dove dark chocolates for Audrey, and Constant Comment tea, which was Hazel’s favorite.
Hazel. World’s best mother-in-law. When Michelle and Max divorced he’d take Hazel and Warren, her second parents, with him. The thought made it hard to force a smile for the checkout clerk. She stepped out of line. She needed one more thing.
She hurried back to the candy aisle and picked up more dark chocolate, this time for her personal stash.
Hazel and Warren were the first to arrive, coming in the day before Thanksgiving, Hazel bringing pecan pie and the makings for her famous Kahlua yams.
“Hello, darling,” Hazel said, greeting her with a hug. “You look lovely as always. I do wish I had your slender figure,” she added as they stepped inside.
“You look fine just the way you are,” Michelle assured her.
“I swear, the older I get the harder the pounds cling to my hips,” Hazel said.
“You look fine, hon,” said Warren as he gave Michelle one of his big bear hugs. “She’s still as pretty as the day I met her,” he told Michelle.
“Yes, all twenty new wrinkles and five new pounds. On top of the others,” Hazel said with a shake of her head.
“Who notices pounds when they’re looking at your smile?” Michelle said to her. “Here, let me take your coats.”
Hazel set down the shopping bag full of goodies and shrugged out of her coat with the help of her husband. “Where’s our boy?”
Who knew? Who cared?
“Out running errands,” she said. “I’ll text him that you’re here. First, let’s get you settled.”
“I’m ready for that,” Hazel said. “The drive from Oregon gets longer every time.”
“It’s not that far,” Warren said and followed her up the stairs.
Half an hour later Max had returned, and he and his father were in the living room, the sports channel keeping them company, and the two women were in the kitchen, enjoying a cup of tea. The yams were ready and stored in the fridge, and the pecan pie was in its container, resting on the counter next to the pumpkin pie Michelle had taken out of the oven. A large pot of vegetable soup was bubbling on the stove, and French bread was warming. It would be a light evening meal to save everyone’s tummy room for the next day’s feast.
“I’m looking forward to seeing the girls,” Hazel said.
“So am I,” said Michelle.
She hated that all her girls had moved so far away. Not that she minded hopping a plane to see either Audrey or Shyla. It wasn’t a long flight from SeaTac International to either San Francisco International or LAX, but it also wasn’t the same as having them living nearby. Julia wasn’t as easily accessible, which made her absence harder to take. She’d been the final baby bird to leave the nest, and dealing with her departure had been a challenge. Perhaps because she was the last. Perhaps because it seemed she grew up and left all in one quick motherly blink: college, the boyfriend, the pregnancy, marriage, then moving. It had been painful to let go of her baby. And even more so with that baby taking the first grandchild with her.
Maybe in some ways, though, it wasn’t a bad thing that her daughters were living in different states because they hadn’t been around to see the final deterioration of their parents’ marriage.
Michelle hoped they still wouldn’t see it. She consulted her phone. It was almost time for Audrey’s flight to land. Shyla’s was getting in not long after.
“Audrey’s going to text when they’re here,” she said.
“It will be lovely to all be together again,” said Hazel. “Family is so important.”
Was that some sort of message, a subtle judgment? “How about some more tea?” Michelle suggested. And more chocolate for me.
Another fifteen minutes and the text came in with Max and Warren on their way to pick up the girls, and forty minutes after that they were coming through the door, Shyla’s laugh echoing all the way out to the kitchen. “We’re here!” she called.
“Let the fun begin,” said Hazel, and the two women exchanged smiles and left the kitchen.
They got to the front hall in time to see Max heading up the stairs with the girls’ suitcases and Warren relieving them of their coats.
“Hi, Mom,” said Audrey and hurried to hug her mother.
Shyla was right behind her.
“Welcome home,” Michelle said to her girls, hugging first one, then the other. “It’s so good to have you home.”
“It’s not like we’ve been in a foreign country,” Shyla teased.
“You may as well be,” Michelle said. “And before you remind me how much we text and talk on the phone, it’s much better having you here in person where I can hug you.”
“Hugs are good,” Audrey agreed.
“We brought you chocolate,” Shyla said, handing over a gift bag.
Michelle knew what it was even before she looked inside. Yep, Ghirardelli straight from San Francisco.
“I know you can get it anywhere, but this is right from the source,” said Shyla.
More important, it was right from the heart.
“And you don’t have to share,” Audrey said. “We brought Dad some, too.”
Sharing with Dad. There was little enough she and Max shared anymore. “That was sweet of you.”
“We figured you might need it,” Audrey said.
Was she referring to Michelle’s troubled relationship with their father? No, couldn’t be.
“After last Thanksgiving,” Shyla added.
Michelle breathed a sigh of relief. Of course, they were talking about the power outage, which had ruined both the turkey and the pie she’d had in the oven.
The girls had loved it, settling in to play cards by candlelight. Michelle had been frustrated. And far from happy with her husband who’d said, “Chill, Chelle. It’s no big deal.”
It had been to her, but she’d eventually adjusted, lit the candles on the table and served peanut butter and jelly sandwiches along with olives and pickles and the fruit salad she’d made, along with the pie Hazel had brought. Hazel had declared the meal a success.
Max had said nothing encouraging. Of course.
“Oh, and this.” Shyla dug in the bag she was still carrying and pulled out a jar of peanut butter. “Just in case we have to eat peanut butter sandwiches again.”
Hazel chuckled. “You girls think of everything.”
“Yes, we do,” Audrey said, and from her capacious purse pulled out a box of crackers. “In case we run out of bread.”
“Now we’re set,” said Michelle and smiled. It was the first genuine smile she’d worn since the last time she’d been with the girls. It felt good.
“Oh, and I have something special for you, Gram,” Shyla said to Hazel. “It’s in my suitcase. Come on upstairs.”
Michelle started. She didn’t need Hazel seeing where the girls were staying and wondering why they were stuffed in the sewing room and not the other guest room. “Why don’t you bring it down here?” Michelle suggested.
“I should stir my stumps,” Hazel said and followed her granddaughter up the stairs.
Audrey fell in behind, and Michelle trailed after, her stomach starting to squirm. Suddenly she wasn’t so sure about that excuse she’d invented for changing her husband’s sleeping arrangements. But the excuse was going to have to do because she didn’t have time to think of anything better.
They passed the first bedroom at the top of the stairs, which had once been Audrey’s and had been serving as a guest room ever since she’d graduated from college and got her first apartment. It was where Warren and Hazel slept when they came to visit. Then came the second room, which had been Julia’s but was serving as Max’s new bedroom. The door was shut, hiding the evidence. Shyla reached for the doorknob.
“Not that room,” Michelle said quickly. “I have you girls together,” she said, leading to Shyla’s old room, which was serving as the sewing room. It still had a pullout bed in it for overflow sleeping when Michelle’s brother’s family came to stay. Bracing herself, she opened it, revealing the girls’ luggage sitting on the floor.
Audrey looked at Michelle, her brows pulled together. “We’re in the sewing room?”
“You girls don’t mind sharing a room, right?” Michelle said lightly.
“What happened to Julia’s old room?” Shyla asked.
“We’re not using that room for now,” Michelle hedged.
“More storage?” Shyla moved back down the hall and opened the door. “What the…”
“Your father’s sleeping there,” Michelle said. Hazel looked at her in surprise, igniting a fire in her cheeks.
“Dad?” Audrey repeated.
“He snores,” said Michelle. “Sleep apnea.”
“Sleep apnea,” Hazel repeated, trying out a foreign and unwanted word.
“Has he done a sleep test?” Audrey asked.
“Not yet,” said Michelle. She kept her gaze averted from her daughter’s eyes.
“Gosh, Mom, that’s a serious sleep disorder.”
“How come you didn’t tell us?” Shyla wanted to know.
“Is he getting a CPAP machine?” Audrey sounded ready to panic.
“Don’t worry. Everything’s under control,” Michelle lied. Audrey looked ready to keep probing so Michelle hustled to change the subject. “Shyla, what did your bring Gram?”
“Wait till you see it. It’s so cute,” Shyla said, hurrying to unzip her suitcase. “I found it in a thrift shop.”
“Still shopping smart. I’m proud of you,” Hazel said.
“I learned from the best—you and Mom.” She pulled out a little green stuffed felt cactus inserted in a miniature terra-cotta pot and surrounded by beach glass. “It’s a pin cushion,” she said as she presented it.
“That is darling,” said Hazel.
From where she stood by the doorway, Michelle let out a breath, then took another. Like a good magician performing sleight of hand, she had diverted attention to something else and pulled off her trick. Now you see trouble, now you don’t.
How long could she keep up the act?
Excerpted from The Road to Christmas by Sheila Roberts.
Copyright © 2022 by Sheila Roberts.
Published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.
Sheila Roberts lives on a lake in Washington State, where most of her novels are set. Her books have been published in several languages. On Strike for Christmas, was made into a movie for the Lifetime Movie Network and her novel, The Nine Lives of Christmas, was made into a movie for Hallmark. You can visit Sheila on Twitter and Facebook or at her website (http://www.sheilasplace.com).
Author Website: https://www.sheilasplace.com/