And my first story is told…

No coverage, not even one bar, the battery was dead anyway. It was still daytime, but there was an overcast and the sky had a perfectly even dullness, so there was no way to tell what time of day it was, much less which direction was north or south or anything else for that matter. A two-lane blacktop road snaked up into the distance and disappeared into some trees, or a forest if you wanted to get technical about it. It also snaked down toward some lumpy hills and disappeared there as well. What sounded like a two-stroke chainsaw could be heard in the distance, but it was impossible to tell whether it was up in the forest or down in the lumpy hills. This had been happening more often lately. Two different ways to go, with a dead battery and no bars, and nobody left to blame.

Theoretically up would seem the right way to go, but they questioned or more accurately argued about what there could possibly be to find in the forest. Her argument won because Nick figured she was correct about there being more trees and darkness but he was not 100% sure either way looked promising. It was typical of their life lately as they seemed to disagree about everything; always two diverse paths literally and figuratively. Even being here at the crossroads was a result of arguing about how he had put the clean clothes away. Of course she said he had done it because he never listened and he said it was how she had explained to do it. Just petty arguments seeming so important in the moments. This one led them to making one wrong turn, blaming each other, and now they couldn’t agree on the direction to take to get back to civilization in her words. They most definitely needed to ask directions to find their way back and who would they ask in the forest, a little birdie?

Rayleigh and Nicholas are not just a young couple unmeant for each other. Their love was real and they are best friends, but life is full of experiences both good and hard. Their life is no exception. At thirty-something with two children, a home, an ill parent they care for, a four month layoff, a new job, and oops! a pregnancy you could say it’s full! With all this going on they are both tired and scared while trying to remain strong and unaffected. This trip was supposed to be a long weekend to rebalance, rekindle, and refresh themselves and in turn their relationship. So far the trip was only becoming more of the same.

Following suit, they drove down into the lumpy hills in silence for about 4 miles hearing the sound of the chainsaw growing louder, but still at a distance from the road. As they both tried to pinpoint the direction of the sound, they came upon a driveway with a sign for H & H Garden & Landscape Center. The drive was lined with smaller lighted Christmas trees and nutcracker soldiers leading to a building with the most beautiful pots of poinsettias on staggering size pillars at the door in front of what looked like old gas light posts. It was actually a very warm inviting feeling driving up to the door. Both Rayleigh and Nick smiled despite themselves and had the same thought about only needing falling snow to complete the post card perfect scene.

They were still smiling in silence as a woman they guessed to be about ten to fifteen years their senior came out the door smiling back as she greeted them getting out of their car. She introduced herself as Helen, one of the owners. She told them to go in and look around while she took the coffee she was carrying to her husband who was cutting lumber for the Winter Festival stage. With that she disappeared around the corner of the building. Rayleigh and Nick looked at each other and walked inside. It was an amazing place all ready for the Christmas holiday and winter gardeners. Tables held planters already filled with beautiful arrangements, flats of small plants ready for crafting winter displays, and simple, beautiful decorations strategically placed enticing of the unwary shopper. They were still mesmerized as the jingle bells over the door announced Helen’s return. She offered them assistance as she ushered them to a cordoned area in the center of the room. The area was setup with a coffee buffet including hot chocolate fixings, cookies, and small stools. It was decorated with tall candles, lighted deer, and, of course, candy canes. Beautiful, but in the same easy natural way as finding themselves making hot chocolate.

As they sipped their marshmallow topped hot chocolate, Nick explained they had gotten lost and their need for directions back to the highway. At this moment, Helen’s husband, Henry, came in telling his wife how they are all ready to begin hauling the lumber to the square when he noticed she had customers. He apologized for bursting in and asked if they were in town for the festival. Helen explained their dilemma to her husband who offered to write down the directions while boasting of the upcoming events in town. Rayleigh responded in kindness explaining how it would be fun if they didn’t have reservations already.

Once Henry wrote down the directions making sure they understood his scribblings, he poured another coffee, grabbed a cookie, wished them well, and exited to pull the truck around to his wood pile. Rayleigh looked at Nick as he walked over picking up a small hand-carved wooden ornament of two deer with three tiny stars above their heads and took it to the counter. Afterward he handed it to Rayleigh who smiled because she had silently admired it on their walk-thru. It fondly reminded her it was typical Nicholas fashion to be tuned in to her thoughts when things were balanced in their relationship. They thanked Helen, wished her Happy holidays , and unwittingly held hands on their way back to their El Dorado.

Helen followed them out as she headed toward the pickup making sure the boys were there to help Henry load up. She felt the confusion as Nick sat behind the wheel trying to start their vehicle which seemed to be uncooperative. Helen glanced in Henry’s direction seeing the boys and turned back toward the couple in the car. She could not help but feel the overwhelming feelings as she approached the vehicle. Nick threw his hands up and she knew the car was not starting.

She told them they should go back inside in the warmth until she could have Henry see if he could figure it out. They followed her to the door where she turned to head out back to the guys. Helen explained the couple’s new dilemma and Henry said he would check before he headed to the square. Helen returned to the garden center, told Nick, and went about some daily chores. Rayleigh and Nick took a left toward a bench sitting amongst a winter snowman display talking about the luck they were having or lack of.

It was about 15 minutes later when Henry walked in and asked Nick if he wanted to have a look at his beast. Nick got up and followed him outside. As Helen passed by, Rayleigh told her how sorry they were for the inconveniences. Helen smiled and the women started talking as Helen made lists . The women each learned their lives were basically similar…..2 children, beautiful homes, jobs they loved. The major difference was the fact that Helen and Henry could be their parents. In the manly version of conversation outside, they learned they each had an affinity for older vehicles and the shared sentiment of having one passed down. A well rounded conversation on two fronts.

The men returned inside after they had listened, tapped a few things, and were sure the alternator and battery were good. On the way inside Henry offered to call Joey, the town mechanic, to see what he thought. As it was the only option from where he stood, Nick agreed and thanked him before informing the women. Henry then informed the group Joey would be up in about 2 hours after he finished up a job. In an attempt to distract the couple Helen suggested they go into town and grab a bite. With nothing else to do all four got into Helen’s Jeep and went to town.

On the way there was only one turn off before they arrived into town. It was something like small town USA you saw on the movies Rayleigh liked. One market, bank, antique shop, ice cream shop, all looking like small mom and pop places. Then as they went up another rolling hill the street was lined on both sides by small specialty shops giving way to the town’s garage and fire station flanking both sides of the street just before the road forked around the town square. Right before the fork a small quaint restaurant was situated across from the town square. Helen parked and they all got out. They walked across the parking lot up to a porch with some small tables adorned with evergreens and flameless candles to one side and a couple of rockers to the other. The entrance had a Christmas wreath, and was flanked by picture windows with candles glowing in the dullness of the day illuminating the name Izzy’s just above them.

Once inside it was cozy, warm, and seemed to breathe a tangible life into the spirit of the holidays. It was not something easy to explain, but felt deep within. Rayleigh knew Nicholas was feeling the same by the look of awe as she put her arm in his and the foursome picked a table swathed in the same décor as outside except the tables in here had linen table cloths. As soon as they seated themselves, a younger waitress brought glasses of water with a bowl of lemons. As she set them down she said hello to their benefactors and turned to introduce herself to Rayleigh and Nick. Unconscious of his relaxed state of mind Nick introduced himself while referring to Rayleigh as Lei Lei, a name he affectionately called her. The waitress, Andy, smiled and rattled off the lunch specials waiting for them to choose. Once they ordered they sat back for a few minutes taking in the relaxed atmosphere.

Henry picked up his phone calling the boys to let them know he’d be over shortly to help with the constructing. Then he turned his attention back to the others at the table asking the couple where they were headed. The conversation was easy and relaxed as they explained they were heading through West Virginia to Delaware. Rayleigh chimed in describing how their best friends were relocated to West Virginia and this was the first holiday their families would not celebrate together. Nick concluded by saying his family had property in Delaware because his grandparents loved it there and how they believed it would be a peaceful place to decompress from life’s stressors. Then the couples bantered back and forth getting to know things about each other as they finished their lunches.

Joey came over and met them as they were leaving Izzy’s. He told them he saw them pull in as he was working on a car. He extended his hand to Nick and Rayleigh as Henry introduced them. Helen relayed what had transpired and Henry filled in the diagnostics he and Nick had done prior to calling him. Joey agreed to meet them at H&H as Henry said his goodbyes before crossing the street to go back to work.

Once they returned to H&H, Helen went inside with Rayleigh as Nick went out to catch up with Joey. Once Nick appeared with the keys, Joey tried to start the vehicle a couple of times listening to determine what sounds he could hear. He heard a clicking, but no engine noise. He got out of the car and went to his truck to get his battery tester, and diagnostic scanner. Meanwhile Helen told Rayleigh to make herself comfortable and let her know if she needed anything, telling her she would be around the shop if she needed her. Rayleigh only needed one thing right now which was a place to charge her phone so she could check on the home front. Helen pointed toward the bench they had sat at before, but also said there was another outlet in the coffee buffet if she would rather sit there. After being sure her guest was comfortable, Helen returned to her duties leaving Rayleigh alone.

Rayleigh plugged in her phone and wandered among the plants and Christmas displays. It warmed her as she began to feel the holiday spirit creep into her. She thought about each of their children as she looked at the ornaments hung on the trees throughout the shop. All were either painted, carved, or ceramic with a delicate man-made quality. Just then she spied one of a little ballerina swirled up in ribbon from the big present with star covered wrapping she was dancing on. It reminded her of her daughter Lexi and how much she loved dancing and Christmas. As she wandered back in the direction of the bench, she found a painted ball depicting a little boy in front of a Christmas tree playing with his trucks with a happy puppy joining in. It reminded her of the Christmas when they first adopted their dog, Maverick, and how he adored their son Austin. As she carried them back to the bench she couldn’t help thinking how this run of bad luck seemed strangely right.

She laid the ornaments softly on her jacket and was about to sit down when something caught her eye. It was a display of angels carved and simply embellished. One stuck out and she went over to it. It was a man and woman holding a baby swaddled in a blanket… but it was not just any blanket though, it had been painted blue with teddy bears. The exact same as Nick’s baby blanket his mother had saved. Weirdly the blanket was the only embellished section. Then Rayleigh gasped as she noticed next to it was another with a pink blanket with teddy bears like Nick’s sister’s. She was still standing there awestruck as the jingle bells made her jump.

Nick and Joey walked in chatting animatedly about old cars. They smiled at Rayleigh as she turned around with a gray color still in her cheeks. Nick came over asking her if she was okay and she just said something about looking at ornaments and being reminded of something. Then she changed the subject by questioning about the car. At that instant, Nick’s face got serious as he explained Joey was going to tow the car to his garage to test the starter which he believed was the problem. Joey quickly reassured her he should know within the hour. Rayleigh looked at Nick with a concerned puzzled look wondering what they were going to do now. They both knew this delay would upend their plans and they would have to adjust them by having less time at Alex and Carly’s. It was all disappointing and disheartening for them both.

Joey offered to take them into town so they could walk around a bit or relax in town. He even mentioned Manning’s had the best ice cream for miles especially the ‘date night’ milkshakes. Neither Nick or Rayleigh wanted to intrude any longer on Helen and Henry so the accepted the offer. As they gathered their belongings and started off to find Helen customers came in. Helen appeared from a backroom to greet them. She directed the customers to a room off the back of the shop explaining she would be there in a few minutes after they had a chance to look around. The customers nodded and left as Helen turned to the somber looking group. It was Joey who spoke first explaining he had to take the car to the garage and had offered Nick and Rayleigh a ride into town. Then Nick and Rayleigh thanked her and told her how grateful they were. Helen told them to enjoy the town and to stop by the square to let Henry know what was decided about the car. She said she would call him to tell him what was going on and waved as she turned to go find her customers.

The other three got in Joey’s truck and headed into town with the El Dorado in tow. The ride was quiet until Joey asked them if they wanted to be dropped of at the garage or somewhere else in town. Neither had really thought that far ahead but said the garage was fine. Once at the garage Joey said he would call if they liked when he was finished. Nick nodded, gave him the number, and they headed in the direction of the restaurant while Joey unhooked the car. They both made their way to the porch of Izzy’s and just plopped into rockers not really sure what to do. Rayleigh remember she had charged the phone a bit knowing they had to make calls. They really had no definite answers yet, but figured checking on the kids should be first. Besides she wanted to update Nick’s sister, Madeleine, Maddie as they called her. This whole experience so far was pleasant but eerie, so she thought someone should know where they were. The thought made her turn to Nick who understood the question without her saying a word as he got up to go in and find Andy to ask her where they were. Even he realized they hadn’t been very attentive especially given their situation.

Nick found her as soon as he entered, walked over, and asked her what town this was. She giggled and told him they were in a town near Greenbrier state forest called Briarwoods. He felt silly at how unaware they had been while arguing and since arriving, but he had to be sure they had crossed out of Virginia. Again she giggled as she nodded. He thanked her and went back out to Rayleigh. She was talking to Maddie as she looked up as he repeated what Andy had told him. He could hear the rise in his sister’s voice but could only imagine the conversation. He sat next to Rayleigh and waited for their children to come on the phone. The were excited to talk to their parents and let them know they were having a lot of fun too. After a few minutes the phone passed back to Aunt Maddie who made them promise to call as soon as the car was fixed. They thanked her and promised before hanging up. Then they called their friends to update them. The conversation began with all the necessary information they needed to share and ended with the easy bantering between long time friends.

At the end of the call Nick questioned her about what she wanted to do to fill up an hour. Rayleigh thought they should do something where they could both charge their phones. Nick remembered then he had put his in the glove box when it had died, so they only had hers unless they went over to get his. Rayleigh made a face expressing her frustration with him and the car. She did not want to interrupt the mechanic risking any further delays. Her frustration fell onto Nick which he read loud and clear without any words between them. They left heading down the hill they had just driven up. She suggested going to the ice cream shop because she was not hungry after having eaten not too long ago. Nick agreed, but did not say anything else. He had no idea what was wrong with Lei Lei. She had moments when nothing satisfied her anymore. He realized they had been lackadaisical, but knew he could not change the circumstances. His attitude was to make the best of it because they were away, they were together, and who knew what they might experience on their ‘little detour’.

He was walking and thinking on their way down the hill past the shops when Rayleigh stopped. She seemed to be looking at the pretty Christmas decorations which he had not noticed in his current mood. He quickly took in all the Christmas trimmings when he spotted the art store. He knew it was what caught her attention. She was a graphic artist by trade who had not done anything but work in her studio since the children were born. He knew she missed just being artistic for the fun of expressing herself. He gambled on the sentiment she was currently having and asked if she wanted to go in and look. She answered him with a wanting in her tone yet the words denied her desire as she thought they should probably get the phone charged. So they continued to Manning’s in hope of charging her phone some more.

Manning’s was a typical ice cream parlor when they walked in. There was only a tree decorated for Christmas in the corner. Comically appropriate, it was decorated with tractor, truck, and farm animal ornaments as if they had bought out Tractor Supply’s inventory. They made their way past the tables and chairs to the counter to pick out an ice cream flavor. Once they had decided they asked about a plug to charge their phone and were directed to a table in the front corner by the tree. Once she plugged in the phone they sat down to enjoy their cones of chocolate marshmallow for Nick and butter pecan for Rayleigh. Neither said a word, but noticed the older man behind the counter watching them. It made Rayleigh move her chair a little closer to Nick right before the man asked where they were from and if they were here for the festival this weekend. They both shook their heads while he continued to talk. He introduced himself as Fred Manning inquiring more about what brought them there and for how long. They only explained they had made a wrong turn and would be leaving shortly. He chuckled as he told them his children graciously let him work the ice cream shop to make him feel needed. This eased some of the tension making conversation a little lighter. Finally Rayleigh answered explaining they were only there until the mechanic fixed their car. He responded by telling them how lucky they were to be amongst good people instead of being on the side of the road or in a deserted rest area. The couple didn’t respond as they began to understand how much worse their situation could be when her phone rang. Fred returned to working after telling them to enjoy their ice cream and their detour.

Joey said hello and asked where they were. She told him and he said he would be there in a few minutes. She turned to Nick looking puzzled and a little scared. Nick told her maybe he was bringing the car to them or more likely he was being courteous by going over the cost before starting the work. Within a few moments Joey walked in and sat down. He got right to business explaining how the starter had gone bad, was not a stock part so it had to be ordered, and it would not be there before Monday morning. After learning he had tried calling a man up the road who has some old cars he had restored to see if he had one without having any luck, Nick gave him the okay to order it as if they had a choice. Joey went outside to make his calls; including one to Helen to let her know they would probably need some help both in finding a place and getting there. He returned to confirm he placed the order and to let them know he also called Helen. Joey then excused himself so the couple could have some time to discuss their situation. Once Joey left, the couple just sat there trying to absorb their run of bad luck. It was Rayleigh who spoke first deciding they needed to make arrangements before calling and upsetting anyone. Nick agreed as Fred explained they had choices. The bed and breakfast, which he assured was best, was down the road or they could follow the road further around where they would find a couple of ‘big town’ motels on the strip. Then he made a comment about how sometimes getting lost isn’t really getting lost at all before leaving them to figure things out.

They proceeded to called Helen to ask for her advice while apologizing again for being such a bother. Helen was cheerful in response as she offered to show them their options after she closed up the shop. Rayleigh explained they would walk back toward the restaurant so they could gather their belongings from their car when she arrived. With that set up they paid, grabbed their things, and headed out back up the hill past the shops. This time however, they entered the art shop to look around. They both needed to clear their heads and relax to be able to think more clearly about this mess. Nick found a beautiful set of watercolors, some new brushes, and canvas he knew Lei Lei would love to get lost with in her studio, so he purchased them while she was wandering the aisles. She caught up with him with a beginner art set she knew Lexi would enjoy. Since Christmas was approaching quick and they were stuck in this little town she decided she would try to get in the spirit by buying a few little gifts while there. Obviously, Nick had decided the same she thought, as she noticed the bag in his hands. They left continuing up the hill noticing what other shops lined the street on their way toward the restaurant.

Once Helen showed up, they loaded their things into her vehicle and she drove to the left of the town square right past the inn toward the strip as the locals called it. She showed them the two motels then explained she would circle back to the inn so they had an idea of distances and available commodities. She came to the inn and explained they had a botanical garden on the backside of the property. The couple decided to go look around the inn as motels were pretty much the same. When they walked inside it was like coming home even though they were nowhere near home. After discussing it, both Nick and Rayleigh decided they would stay here. They both thought being at the inn might salvage some part of the vacation they had started out to have. They checked in and Helen told them she had an old vehicle they could borrow to get around town if they wanted. Once they were checked in she left promising to talk to them in the morning.

Rayleigh and Nick settled in only to discover they were feeling exhausted. They called everyone to give them the new details, apologize for the cancellations and inconveniences before saying good night to their children. Afterward they just laid on the bed comfortably discussing, venting, and planning. Rayleigh remembered to tell Nick about the ornaments with the blankets and he told her that Joey had vacationed near his grandfather’s as a child. Then they both commented about Fred’s off-handed comment as the day’s troubles seemed to slip away as they fell asleep in mid thought. Surprising themselves they slept soundly until eight the next morning. Once awake they looked around noticing the suite was decorated for the holidays including a pencil tree with glass ball ornaments glittering from the colored twinkling lights. Neither of them could believe they hadn’t noticed it or the gas lighted fireplace last night.

They admired the cozy room as they continued to get ready quickly becoming hungry from the smells wafting up the stairs and into the room. They tried to discuss plans for the next few days while they were stuck waiting on the starter. The conversation between them bounced from happy tones to accusatory as they silently attempted to deal with all that had happened in their life lately. Neither one of them really believed the situation was the other one’s fault, but it was easier than thinking they may be taking the other for granted. In the awkwardness they retreated back to silence as they headed downstairs to discover the smells responsible for their hunger pangs.

They made a coffee, grabbed a homemade muffin, and found a seat next to a window overlooking the gardens. Nick started the conversation by apologizing for their ruined vacation. He thought he should have taken Rayleigh’s SUV and maybe they would be waking up in their friend’s home this morning. Rayleigh had thought the same, but had also liked the idea of taking the El Dorado back to Delaware like the old days. They both had a need for some nostalgic thinking wishing it would bring back the old sparks in their relationship… Like stepping back would conjure up life as it had been. Finally they slowly began expressing these long kept secrets tucked away in each of their hearts.

As they began to touch the tip of the iceberg of emotions within themselves, Helen interrupted with her promised phone call. She explained she had to gather things for the festival and wait on her youngest son, Dominic, to arrive to manage the Christmas tree sales before she could come by. She would bring his old Ford for them to use and if they weren’t at the inn, she would leave the keys at the desk. The couple was very appreciative thinking they might wander the gardens until she came by. First they decided to have a French toast platter with another coffee before heading outside. Their conversation covered Christmas shopping, the strange feelings this town caused, and revealing some of their own feelings as they wandered the gardens. They were finally relaxing and enjoying each other when a woman about the same age came up the path from the other direction. The woman introduced herself as Madison, the owner of Home Fires Inn. She inquired genuinely how their stay and breakfast were so far. They smiled while confirming their satisfaction and introduced themselves. Madison thought she remembered their names from a conversation with Helen and asked if they were friends of her mother-in-law’s. They stood on the path a few more minutes talking about little trivial formalities regarding their connections to Helen and Henry before continuing on in their respective directions. Nick and Rayleigh held hands and continued a sincere conversation as they walked until they found themselves back at the Inn.

They went to their room to freshen up and dig through their little treasures making mental notes of what other things they may want to buy while there. They laid out the ornaments and art set as Rayleigh questioned where Nick’s package was. He smiled mischievously eluding to Santa’s secrets at this time of year then questioned whether she had purchased the angels. She shook her head while she carefully wrapped the other ornaments and carefully placed them in her suitcase alongside the art set. Both were lost in reverie as the ringing phone made them jump. Nick grabbed it to answer it as they wondered who it could be forgetting momentarily Helen was coming by. He hung up and they headed downstairs to meet her. Helen handed them keys as she led them to the parking lot to show them the car. She told them to enjoy themselves making the most of their spontaneous vacation and she would see them later. She mentioned there was a lot of work to do to get ready for the festival that evening and they could meet for dinner, but it would have to be a late one. It was Rayleigh who said they’d be happy to help if they needed it because they only planned on checking out the shops which they could do tomorrow afternoon. Nick nodded enthusiastically in agreement as Helen happily accepted the offer as long as they didn’t mind working on vacation. With that, Nick got in the truck with Henry who was heading to the square while Rayleigh drove back to the garden center with Helen in the Taurus. Everyone was excited and fully caught up in the holiday spirit as they began working to finish up the decorations and concession setups.

Helen and Rayleigh decided to use both vehicles to haul plants to the square so they could make less trips in the end. They were impressed by how many of the concessions were already setup on their second trip. They figured even they would only have to load the jeep for the next one. As soon as they setup this load of poinsettias, Helen checked to be sure all the Christmas tree lights worked; especially the big one in front of the square. Rayleigh gave a wave and smile to Nick as they turned to leave for the last load. He acknowledged her with their private ‘I love you’ sign before going back to work. The women headed back chatting a little about everything from the decorations to their families. Helen explained to her how Madison turned her parents house into the Inn after they were killed in a car accident when she was nineteen and then married her oldest son, Donovan. He was the one who cared for their greenhouses and the botanical gardens at the Inn. Rayleigh loved the story and how they had both done something to honor both their parents while combining their passions. As they talked they were loading the last few plants when Rayleigh starting feeling off. She headed to the bathroom, but wasn’t back after what Helen thought was too long of a time.

Helen found Rayleigh sitting on the bathroom floor crying with pain and clutching her abdomen. She tried to understand what had happened, but it seemed Rayleigh wasn’t really sure beyond the excruciating pain in the lower middle of her abdomen. Helen helped her up and into the jeep explaining they were going to the hospital. Rayleigh was frightened and realized she forgot her phone on the bathroom sink. She began to panic realizing she could not get hold of Nick. Her mind started whirling making the pain worse. She couldn’t stop herself from panicking being in a strange place without Nick. Helen continued to try calming her as she maneuvered the winding roads on Forest Drive while trying to get hold of Henry to let him know to bring Nick to the hospital and explain she would call back once she had Rayleigh inside.

As Helen took Rayleigh inside, Henry was racing toward the stage where Nick was helping hang lights. Rayleigh was checking in as Henry was explaining to Nick the little he knew. As Nick began to panic Henry told him he would bring the truck around and took off running. Nick whirled around as if to get his bearings and figure out where he was. As he turned taking a leap toward the stairs, he felt himself go airborne then crash to the stage with a resounding thud. The pain in his wrist made him sick to his stomach and the other men working came running as Henry pulled up. Henry’s son, Donovan, helped him to his feet asking if he was alright. Nick said he was fine and headed to Henry’s truck with Donovan in tow. Donovan explained to his father what happened before letting them leave and then the men disappeared around the side of the square.

Before Henry could completely stop the truck, Nick jumped out and raced through the emergency doors in search of Rayleigh. He saw Helen coming out of the back and she began to explain they took Rayleigh for an ultrasound, advising him the nurse would come get him as soon as she was done, and explained what little she knew before noticing him holding his swollen wrist. Henry caught up with them in time to catch her explanation and then filled her in on Nick’s accident. Helen promptly escorted him to the check-in desk all the while he argued. He was escorted back while he continued to argue he was okay and only wanted to see his wife. The nurse promised she would bring him to his wife as soon as her test was done, but in the meantime he needed to be checked. He sat on the bed in the room pouting like a young boy while she wrote down his rendition of events and symptoms as the doctor entered.

He was examined and set up to have an x-ray done, but refused to go anywhere until he could check on his wife. The nurse exited to gather information on Rayleigh and came back in a few minutes later to take Nick to Rayleigh. When they entered her room he noticed she looked a little green, but she immediately stilled his fears with her sheepish smile. The nurse explained to them both the ultrasound showed nothing worrisome, but the doctor was going to run a few routine blood tests. She also told them it was time for Nick’s x-ray as Rayleigh looked confused and worried. He passed it off telling her he tripped and may have sprained his wrist when he fell hurrying to get to her. Both of them now alone having tests and their only thoughts being of the other. Once Rayleigh’s blood tests were done she requested to wait in Nick’s room. The nurse saw no problem with it, so she escorted her around the corner and down the hall to an empty room where she sat in a chair impatiently waiting until Nick returned.

Nick was finally brought in after what Rayleigh thought was an interminable amount of time. She had had blood work and results before he came back. She understood perfectly when she saw him and tears stung her eyes as she looked at him. He had a cast on his wrist which meant the accident was worse than he let on. Only he didn’t want to talk about his obvious injury, he was more concerned about his wife. He looked at her with a questioning look and she just gave him an impish girly smile before telling him she was okay and so was the baby! He stood completely motionless until a smile broke across his face and he walked over to awkwardly hug Lei Lei. All he could think was how lucky they had been in the middle of all their bad luck. Child number three on a spontaneous vacation springing from a detour which put them in the safest place they could have been amidst a run of bad luck. He felt tears sting his eyes as he realized it all and felt his love for Rayleigh overwhelm him. She thought similar thoughts and decided the angel ornament was the first gift she was buying tomorrow. Everything about this whole town seemed to be silent whispers sent to them on angels wings to remind them of the little things which all together created the greatness in their lives. She said as much to Nick before the doctor came in to consult with each of them.

Nick received instructions which included a follow up when he returned home and Rayleigh was told she had just over done after being distressed. They both left surprised when they saw Helen and Henry still in the waiting room walking toward them as the exited the emergency rooms. They were upset they both had a calamity while helping them, but both couples were ecstatic over the pregnancy now that both Mother and child were okay. They all left in the same vehicles they had arrived in and headed into town. They saw the lights from the square before they actually saw them as they approached town. In separate cars Nick and Rayleigh were in awe of the town square. It was amazingly beautiful… a beacon and tribute celebrating their understanding of how sometimes getting lost was a blessing! In that moment, they individually understood Fred Manning’s statement.

Everyone pulled into an overflowing restaurant parking lot. People were milling all around as Helen asked if they were hungry or if they would rather go back to Home Fires. Rayleigh and Nicholas were standing arm in arm dazed by the sight and could not have rested if they went back, so they all went for dinner. The dinner was enhanced by laughter, excitement, and gratitude as Henry explained everything the festival had to offer. Rayleigh questioned if Nick was really up to hanging out, but he seemed to be feeling no pain right then. He assumed it was dulled by all the excitement in their life and the festival. Whatever it was he knew all he wanted to do was experience this with Lei Lei. She was just as excited as long as he would tell her when he needed to go. Once he promised the four new friends headed out to enjoy an evening of festivities.

When they finally went back to the Inn, Nick and Rayleigh were satiated and relaxed beyond any expectations they had had for this trip. Once they found a way to prop Nick’s wrist comfortably on pillows, they snuggled together and slept soundly dreaming of babies, angels, and their families. Both of them knew they had to call their family and friends tomorrow, but for tonight they just wanted to enjoy the peaceful togetherness they had rediscovered.

The sun rose the next morning, but the couple did not rise until ten. They lazily stretched and laid in the bed enjoying the quiet that would be over soon. It was a sunny Sunday morning smelling of fresh cooked breakfast and coffee. They were contemplating getting ready to go enjoy the Inn’s breakfast when the phone rang. This time Rayleigh answered it, hung up, reached for her robe, went to the bathroom and unlocked their door as Nick curiously admired his wife. A few seconds later a waiter rolled a cart in set with a generous sampling of breakfast foods. Nick sat up in bed as Rayleigh explained it was a complimentary service from the Inn’s owner Madison. Over breakfast Rayleigh explained the connection between the Inn, it’s owner, and her husband to Helen and Henry. As the conversation continued they even expanded on the previous day’s conversation in the garden. This time however, there were no accusatory tones just an eagerness to understand each other’s feelings.

After breakfast they lounged around before getting up to get ready to begin their day. Rayleigh wanted to go by the shops if they were open, but was worried it would be too much for Nick although he was ready to go before her. He convinced her he would be fine and promised once again to let her know if he needed to come back. Before they left they called Maddie and talked to the children. Next they called Carly and Alex. Although they did not want to tell Maddie or Bryan about the baby yet they did tell their friends who were happy for them. Their friends had to admit even though it was not the planned vacation it seemed to be just what they needed. Once their calls were done they headed downstairs eager for their adventure through Briarwoods.

Lei Lei drove the Taurus into town to the ice cream shop to park. They figured they could walk up the hill to the shops and possibly get ice cream when they came back for the car. The first shop had sweatshirts in the window with a picture of the town square Christmas tree all lit up and Santa in his sleigh flying over… a perfect souvenir for the children so the gifts they would buy remained Christmas presents. Once inside Rayleigh found t-shirts with the phrase ‘friends are angels we have on earth’ with a cute design which she bought for Helen and Henry as a token of gratitude. Nick teased her as he was picturing Henry in one, but agreed the words said it all. They continued from one store to another finding the perfect gifts as they went along. Even finding the small hand carved train set for Austin who wanted his own train like Pa Pa’s for under the Christmas tree. They agreed it had been a great afternoon as they headed back down the hill.

They went into the ice cream shop looking specifically for Fred who was all questions as they walked in. They explained the details from yesterday as he offered them a complimentary flying saucer; which in this shop was a round ice cream sandwich. Before leaving Rayleigh stated although he confused them the other day, they finally understood his comment– “sometimes getting lost isn’t really getting lost at all “. He smiled and was glad they had come to figure it out so quickly although maybe not so easily. They all laughed, then said their goodbyes before heading to H&H hoping the shop was open.

Sadly it wasn’t open so they decided to take the other road, Forest road, back to Home Fires. As they pulled into the lot they realized both paths led here! They took the new treasures upstairs, folding the shirts into bags Rayleigh had picked up, and putting the rest on the dresser in their bags. Nick was feeling a little pain so they decided to snuggle on the bed for a little bit before deciding on where to have dinner. They drifted off still amazed how accidentally finding this place became exactly what they had needed. Nicholas’ phone ringing woke them from their restful nap making him nervous when he read Maddie’s name across his phone. He quickly answered with an anxious tone wondering what was wrong. His sister’s voice was excited as she said they needed to call someone to share the news she just received. Nick instinctively put her on speaker as she shared the news she was pregnant. At the news Nick and Rayleigh announced they were pregnant too. When they hung up Rayleigh commented about the angel ornaments being a sign like everything they were encountering on their impromptu vacation.

They spent the rest of the day and evening walking the gardens and eating right there at the Inn until they went to bed that night. The next morning they woke early and prepared to go to H&H to pick up the last few gifts. After making their purchase they gave their new friends the presents they bought them with an attached note they had written last night. It thanked them for everything and told them how they hoped to remain in touch. It made Helen misty and Henry was even touched by the thoughtfulness. Helen knew then they would enjoy what she had planned.

Helen had already decided she would leave the shop in her manager’s capable hands today so they could hang out with them before they left to return home. They all left heading into town to check on the El Dorado and were surprised when they saw all of Helen and Henry’s family and friends waiting at the restaurant for them. Even Joey finally came to join them before handing over the keys to the El Dorado. It was a warm send off as they had lunch with their new friends… it was a wonderful way to end a beautiful vacation they had not planned but needed.

They made their way through the crowd, and back to the El Dorado. And as they approached it, a crow flew directly over their heads and landed on the hood and then looked at them. They stood some distance away and watched the crow watching them. Another crow flew directly overhead and landed beside it. The first crow squawked and then both flew away. They watched the crows disappear, looked at each other, and then got in the El Dorado. Only one way to go this time, with five bars and full battery. By SM2018

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