“Just slapped another coat of paint on the reindeer cutouts but I think we’ll have to completely replace them next year. They’re looking a little shoddy. Had to reattach three different antlers and one red nose.” Cody Winters flicked the bristles of the wet paintbrush against his thigh, then
jammed it into his back pocket. “What next?”
Deacon’s eyes focused on his younger brother and then down at the clipboard in his hands. There were roughly a thousand jobs to complete and just under two days to do them. Even Santa and his magical
elves couldn’t crank out this list in time.
He grunted. “Are the parking cones out yet?”
“Yep. Did that this morning.”
“And the outhouses?”
“Ordered those, too. They’ll be dropped off tomorrow afternoon.”
Opening up the tree farm to the public was no small feat. It took hours of planning and preparation, along with flexibility and ingenuity when something would inevitably go wrong. He wanted to say they’d
become a well-oiled machine over the years, but that was a stretch. More like a clunky, sputtering engine that did its best to make things work.
“What about the tree funnels?”
Cody slapped a palm squarely between Deacon’s shoulder blades that shoved him forward a bit with the movement. “Already hauled all five of those out of the storage barn. And the netting will be here
Friday. We’ll be rocking and rolling and ready to open things up come Saturday morning.”
Deacon wasn’t so sure about that, but he liked his brother’s confidence.
“Sorry you had to do all of that on your own,” Deacon apologized. “I really thought our farmhand would
be here by now.”
“I am! I’m right here!”
At the sound of the high pitched voice, the two men whirled around. There, just under their farm
entrance sign, was a woman scurrying across the gravel in wobbly heels that were good for nothing but twisting ankles.
“I’m so sorry. I set out on the road later than I’d planned. Got caught in traffic coming over the hill.”
She came to a stop right in front of the bewildered Winters men and shoved a hand into the empty space.
Deacon exchanged a look with his brother. “You’re the farm hand?”
“Yup.” She took hold of his gloved hand when he hesitantly offered it and gave an overly enthusiastic shake. “Here to be of service and to learn all things tree farm related.”
“Just to get things straight, you were hired on by Marla Winters to help us around the farm for the holiday season?”
The woman thumbed her chin as though really pondering the question, then dropped her hands and shrugged. “Yes. I think that was her name but I’m not one-hundred percent sure. I’d have to look back at
“Yuletide Tree Farm?”
“Right.” She nodded in slow motion, like maybe Deacon was the one having a difficult time understanding things. “Yuletide Tree Farm. The very one.”
Slapping his shoulder again before jogging backward and giving his older brother a salute, Cody said,
“I’ll leave you to sort this one out, brother.”
Just like Cody to leave Deacon high and dry when it came to dealing with employees. Cody was great managing tasks and to-do’s, less great with managing people. Not that Deacon was any better. Their
father had been the people-person in the family, a trait he’d failed to pass down to his sons. Kate dug out her phone from within her purse and looked up at Deacon with a wide, innocent gaze that
bore a glimmer of hope Deacon couldn’t pinpoint. “Before we get started, I was hoping to interview you.
Nothing fancy. Just a quick little Q&A.”
Deacon all but choked, a laugh getting wedged dead-center in his throat. “You want to interview me?
I’m pretty sure my mother took care of the interviewing process when she lined things up for you to work here.”
A small line creased the space between Kate’s eyebrows. “I’m sorry, but I think there’s been some sort of misunderstanding.”
That was evident. “Yes. I agree.”
“Your mother didn’t tell you who I am?”
This was getting ridiculous. “Listen. Kate, is it?”
She nodded excitedly. “Yes. Kate. Kate Carmichael.”
“Okay, Kate Carmichael. As far as I’m concerned, the interviewing process already occurred. If my mother thought you’d be fit to work the farm with us this season, then so be it. I don’t quite see it, what
with the stilettos and designer handbag, but that’s none of my concern. So long as you’ve got a pair of boots in your luggage and some grit stowed away in that small frame of yours, you’ll get on just fine.”
“So she didn’t tell you who I am.”
“No, but you already have. Kate Carmichael. We’ve been over this a couple times now.”
The woman looked up at Deacon, laughter alight in blue eyes so intense he had to blink just so he didn’t stare. They were the exact color of the deepest part of his beloved Lake Tahoe. “And that doesn’t
sound the slightest bit familiar to you at all?”
Deacon pulled his hat from his head and raked a hand through matted hair that was in need of a good trim. “Is it supposed to?”
“On the Job with Kate Carmichael?”
He shook his head, his expression as blank as fresh snowfall.
“Listen, Kate. I’ve got a whole heap of things to do and playing this ‘guess my identity’ game isn’t on the list. Head on up to the barn loft and get yourself situated and when you’re ready to work—and dressed
appropriately for it—come back down.”
“Okay.” She vacillated. “Sure. But I’d still really like to interview you first if you’ll just give me five minutes.”
Deacon’s hands shot into the air. “I don’t understand why you insist on interviewing me! I’m the boss here. I do the interviewing. Now please, go get ready.”
“This news segment is going to be really boring if it’s just me talking into the camera.”
“What on earth are you talking about?”
“The piece I’m doing about your tree farm for Channel 14 News. It’s going to be a real snooze if I can’t get some decent footage and insider info from the guy actually running the place.”
Like a crossing guard, Deacon lifted a halting hand. “Hold on.” He pinched his eyes shut for the measure of a breath before reopening them but his jaw remained clenched, even when he spoke. “I need
to go conduct an interview of my own real quick.”
“Yeah?” Kate’s tone lifted. “Who with?”
His mouth turned downward when he answered in an irritated, cross voice, “My mother.”
“WHAT WOULD MAKE YOU THINK ANY PART OF THIS WAS A GOOD IDEA?” Marla didn’t lift her eyes from the wreath in front of her. She’d made over a dozen already and placed
them in various nooks and crannies within the small, on-site store they operated during the holidays.
There were glittering ornaments bearing their farm name hung on a recently harvested tree standing proud in the corner. Denim, button-up shirts and trucker hats with their logo filled a chipped, red
bookcase on the far wall. Instrumental holiday music played softly over the speakers and Marla hummed along with the well-known tunes, her voice sweet, melodic, and as comforting as an heirloom quilt. Next
week, they’d get a delivery of candles from their favorite maker and that would catapult the shop to an entirely new level of holiday cheer. The sights, the sounds, and the smells of Christmas would fill their
farm store completely to the brim.
Deacon loved this little space, but right now he couldn’t afford any distraction from his mission. He needed answers. Pronto.
“Mom,” Deacon repeated, his patience worn paper thin. “Seriously, what is going on here?”
Tucking a fresh evergreen sprig into the chicken wire frame, Marla held up the wreath and smile approvingly at her workmanship. “This is my best one yet. Still not as good as Grandma Kay’s, but I think
she’d be proud. Don’t you?”
“Huh?” Deacon yanked his hat from his head and speared his fingers through his hair. “Yes. Sure. It
looks great.” He shoved the hat back on and took a step closer. “Mom, I really need answers. Who is this Kate Carmichael and why is she here?”
“Oh! So you’ve met Kate?” Marla’s lips spread into a grin that was two parts devilry, one part innocence.
“Yes, I met Kate.”
“And what did you think?” Walking away while she spoke, Marla gathered the finished wreath and placed it onto an empty wall hook, right next to a painted wooden sign that read Farm Fresh Christmas
“Based on the way she was dressed and how unprepared she seemed for a day on the farm, I’d say she’s about the least qualified hand you’ve hired yet. And that’s saying a lot, Mom. Mack Hudson was a
“I liked Mack.” Marla smiled wistfully as she adjusted the big red bow on the wreath. “He had some focus issues, I’ll give you that. But he was a good kid. Nice family.”
“Sure. Fine. He was fine. But really, Mom, why this Kate woman?” Moving to the register and instructing her son to follow with a small beckoning wave, Marla opened the drawer. She removed a handful of papers from beneath the till, gave them a troubled glance, and then
slid them across the counter toward Deacon.
“What’s this?” He gathered the sheets and flipped through them hastily.
“Our numbers from the last five years.”
“I know our numbers, Mom.” He dropped the pile and pushed them back. “I do our books.”
“Then you’d know that our income was down the last two years running.” She removed her wire reading glasses from her nose and tucked them into her shirt pocket before crossing her arms over her
chest as though bracing herself to deliver the news. “And you’d also know that eighty-percent of our sales are from customers residing within a twenty-mile radius of the farm.”
“Yes. I know that.”
“So don’t you think it’s time to broaden our reach?”
It probably was, but they’d been getting on just fine. And if Deacon were being honest, he didn’t have the skills required—nor the interest necessary—to dump any time or money into a big-scale marketing
plan. He knew how to grow, harvest, sell, and deliver trees. He didn’t know the first thing about promotion.
“It probably wouldn’t be a bad idea to expand our reach a little,” he ultimately conceded.
“I’m glad you agree. That’s why I picked Kate. It’s a win-win all around.”
Deacon shook his head. “I’m still not understanding—”
“On the Job with Kate Carmichael has a viewership of over twenty-thousand people. You know I’m no good at math, but I did a little calculating and if just five-percent of those viewers headed up the hill to
buy their trees from us, that would amount to a thousand new customers. We’ve certainly got the inventory. We just need the publicity,” Marla explained, like this was something she’d spent a long time
pondering. “And Kate’s comes for free.”
Deacon blew out a long, slow sigh. “Not entirely free. It’ll cost us—in the form of more work placed on my shoulders during an already hectic time.”
“Why are you so quick to write this woman off? For all we know, she could be an incredibly hard worker. In fact, I’d put money on it. This is what she does, you know. Job training to learn new skills so she
can report back on her television show. She’s a bit of a renaissance woman, if you ask me.”
“That’s just it, Mom. I didn’t ask you. Not to hire this woman and certainly not to have our farm filmed and under a microscope when what we really need to do is focus on our trees and our customers.”
“Give her a chance, Deacon,” Marla pleaded, covering her son’s hands with her own. He ignored the wink his mother tacked on when she added, “Kate Carmichael just might surprise you.”